Metrics Schmetrics

When I was fourteen years old, my father took me to a night game at Ebbetts Field, the old ball park of my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. All I remember is the tickets cost $1.25 and the Dodgers lost to the Cincinnati Reds, 5-2, on a home run off reliever Hugh Casey.

Relievers took losses much harder back in the day. Three years later, Hugh Casey committed suicide. He faded from the baseball psyche soon thereafter. Metrics not having made their insidious intrusion into sports at that time, Hugh died not knowing he twice led the National League in saves.

Ever since the statistical patron saint of professional baseball, Bill James, found out, with the help of an old Commodore 8000 computer, that there was literally no end to the way statistics could be applied to baseball performance, fans have gone nuts trying to find out more and more.

Time was, a player was judged on his batting average, home runs and runs batted in. That was all we knew. That was all we had to know.

Take that home run that Cincinnati player hit in 1948. My memory tells me it was a pitch high inside that he got all of, sending it into the left field seats with two men on to beat Hugh. If that game had been played last night, we would have seen through the little white box superimposed on the television screen whether or not it was even in the strike zone. Back then a batter had to swing at any pitch between the knees and the shoulders as long as it appeared on or within the black outlining home plate. Sounds easy, huh?

That is so hard to do that batters who fail 70% of the time make the Hall of Fame.

Not that I am against that outline on the screen. Two nerds from Franklin and Marshall College analyzed hundreds of thousands of MLB pitches thrown and found that 14% of the time the strike call made was wrong. So there’s that.

Back to that Reds home run when Harry Truman was president…..if that pitch had been thrown last night, we would have been told the speed of the pitch, the angle of flight, the distance hit, the time it took to hit the seats, the seat number it hit, the last ten players to have homered into that same seat, and here’s the weirdest stat of all: not only the measured actual speed of the pitch as it reached the plate but, get this, the “perceived” speed of the pitch to the batter’s eye. Don’t ask.

I can see happening, shortly, through facial recognition software at the gate as your ticket is being swiped by the ticket taker, the name and photo of the home run-catching fan sitting in that seat flashed all over the huge electronic scoreboard for everyone at the park or within six time zones to see.

Next week we’ll talk about eliminating the shifting of infielders. That’ll be a lot of fun!

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The Greatest Team Ever

(Special Edition)

The Green Bay Packers under Lombardi, the 1950’s Yankees under Stengel, the Red Auerbach led Celtics of the ’60’s, the 49ers of the 1980’s…..

Hornung sweeping right behind Thurston and Kramer to win the first two Super Bowls for Green Bay, the epitome of team work that wreaked havoc on the NFL and set the standard for selfless team play for all the teams that followed.

DiMaggio, Berra, Skowron, Mantle won five straight World Series dressed in pin stripes because that was the business-like aura they commanded in running roughshod over everybody with precision team play.

Russell, Cousy, Sharman, Havlicek, Jones (two of them) won eleven NBA titles because every single player knew his job and did it well, starting with a rebound by Russell that more often than not ended up in a lay up by Cousy, so perfectly positioned were all five players playing as a team.

Bill Walsh revolutionized the game with his West Coast Offense of the ’80s and took home four Lombardi Trophies because of it. Joe Montana was the perfect quarterback for Walsh. Cool as hell, he got the very most out of the short passing game that made San Francisco play so well as a team

This is a sports column and I want to pay homage to the greatest team effort I’ve ever seen — the rescue of the 12 boys of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach who were a paragon of team play in assisting and abetting the greatest coaching effort ever seen. Hyperbole? No, miracle is more appropriate.

From the minute the effort was underway until the glorious moment the entire team and its leader exited the cave, leadership and team play was the order of the day, setting an example for the hundreds of millions of people hoping against hope for success that team effort, led by intelligent leaders planning, revising, listening–all the while struggling against a devastating torrent of rain chasing their every move outward–would finally carry the day.

The images of medical teams jumping off helicopters, to be immediately replaced by another crew getting on to return hurriedly to the cave gave me shivers.

The boys themselves, cold and hungry and scared, hanging together, listening to their 25 year-old coach, a guy who gave his own meager ration of food to his players, the divers from all over the world slithering through small openings to bring oxygen to the boys, all of them acting in perfect unison, a team if there ever was one, to win this game of life.

Coaches at any level would do well to show their players the video footage of this fantastic team endeavor. There never has been a better team effort from any team I have ever seen.

Winston Must Go

In nearly every type of job where performance is measurable, e.g., sales, attorney, negotiator, politician, waiter or actor, nearly everybody would be fired who fails three straight times. If you add social transgressions to those performance failures, they are usually thrown out with yesterday’s newspapers or twitter comments.

In sports, somebody of nearly equal ability will replace the loser. The Bucs quarterback, Jameis Winston, has a career won-loss record of 18-27 through his first three years and has yet to lead his team into the playoffs, despite a more than respectable supporting cast. A review of his passing statistics reveals the major portion of his passing yardage has come in the second half of losing games where opponents have played prevent defenses trading off passing gains against the winding down of the clock.

Add the need of his school to pay nearly a million dollars to settle a rape accusation, and his admission of guilt to groping a female Uber driver, plus other juvenile transgressions, including theft and screaming obscenities in a crowded dining hall, the owners of the Bucs should have already shown him the door.

How many chances do you give somebody to redeem himself? The NFL has gotten itself into a situation where viewership has dwindled, attendance at games has lessened, and fans, especially women, are leaving in droves. Sure, some reaction has been negative due to the concussion issue, but ever since Ray Rice did his horrible thing in that elevator, owners’ eyes have looked everywhere but at the real problem. Bullies.

Winston is gone for three games for groping the Uber driver, Ryan Fitzpatrick will replace him and probably do just as well, if his past performances are any indication. The guy the Bucs should have taken three years ago when they picked Winston, Marcus Mariota, will probably lead the Tennessee Titans back into the playoffs with far less talent around him than the Bucs have put together for Winston. The single most important measurement of a quarterback is getting his team into the post season. Mariota has done it and Winston hasn’t.

And it isn’t as if Bucs management didn’t see it coming. In the Rose Bowl following their senior seasons, Mariota’s Oregon team clobbered Florida State and Winston, 59-20, sending a very embarrassing message to the ACC and putting Oregon into the final four in that initial college playoff scenario. So bad was it for Winston that after throwing a backward pass (fumble) that was recovered and run in for a touchdown by Oregon, his own coach, Jimbo Fisher, tired of hearing his excuses, had to tell him to shut up and go sit on the bench.

In spite of that imbroglio, the Bucs drafted him ahead of Mariota. In the opening NFL game of 2015, fate would have the Tennessee Titans visiting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Winston versus Mariota. The Titans blasted the Bucs, 42-14, Mariota completing 13 of 15 passes for four touchdowns.

Therefore, the first two times these quarterbacks met, Mariota won by a combined score of 101-34.

Winston will sit out the first three games this year while Mariota prepares the Titans for a second run at the playoffs.

The Bucs should have drafted another quarterback two months ago. Better yet, three years ago.

Parental Misguided Behavior

The other night, I caught on the evening news the sight of a dozen adults fighting at a girls’ softball game. Punching and kicking each other, it looked like tag team wrestling gone viral. Cursing and pulling hair, it was a disgrace. And it was not unusual. All too often parents have been seen interfering with what should be an evening of sportsmanship and fun turn into chaos.

What drives this behavior? It must be parents pushing their kids to excel at all costs, opponents and umpires be damned. It can’t simply be territorial rights to championships.

I submit what drives and energizes this behavior is money, the same issue that now drives all of sports.

Two factors, the exorbitant cost of college, and the sinful sums of money paid to professional athletes, causes parents to drive their kids to be the best, regardless of sportsmanship and fair play.

LeBron James, signing a four-year contract guaranteeing him $154,000,000, or $475,000 per game to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, only adds to the problem.

Parents in Florida shop their kids around to the schools with the better athletic programs in the hope of their being noticed more by college coaches. The State Legislature went even further by passing a rule that allows any student anywhere in the state to attend any other school, statewide, as long as he/she can provide their own transportation. In effect, a student athlete could attend twelve different schools during a four year period, playing at least three different sports.

The irony is this abhorrent behavior is more exhibited in the stands than on the fields. When kids are left alone, play is still pretty much what it had always been, competitive activity between competitive participants.

Far too many parents (a) think their child is good enough to get an athletic scholarship to college, negating the huge cost of having to pay it themselves. Then there are those who think (b) their child will become a pro and make millions.

Below is the summary of an extensive study done by ScholarshipStats.Com.

Odds of a US High School Athlete Playing in College:

What are the chances of a high school athlete making the transition to the college level?  We compared the  number of athletes participating in varsity sports at US high schools  during the 2016-17 school year to the number of college student athletes. Overall a little over 7% of high school athletes (about 1 in 14) went on to play a varsity sport in college and less than 2% of high school athletes (1 in 54) went on to play at  NCAA Division I schools. The largest percentage of both male and female college athletes competed at  NCAA Division III schools.

It is clear to see that the chances of getting an athletic scholarship are very small. Better that parents stress academics over athletics. A recent study showed a college degree is worth $1,000,000 more in earnings in a lifetime. With only 58 percent of football players and 47 percent of basketball players getting a degree, parents should stress academics over athletics.

As for that parental “swingin’ softball soirée,” those parents are advised that only 1 in 62 high school girls will play NCAA Div. 1-A softball, the only division where athletic scholarships are available.

On another note, Happy Fourth of July!

15 Minutes of Shame

(Ed. Note: I’ve touched on this subject before but I feel it needs re-visiting.)

Artist Andy Warhol, the creator of “pop art,” coined the phrase, “fifteen minutes of fame”, predicting that those not truly worthy of notice would still become celebrated by the presence of increased media opportunities, well before the Internet and social networking sites ever appeared.

What has that to do with football?

I love football. I have played and coached it on sandlots and in stadiums, on concrete streets and manicured fields for seventy-five years, without ever losing interest.

Admittedly, I cannot cure the concussion problems, although something must be done. Nor, have I earned the right to dictate to players whether they should kneel or not.

But from Labor Day to the Super Bowl, you’ll not find a devotee of the game greater than I. The lessons learned, and friendships made, have lasted a lifetime.

I must rail, however, at what I’ll call “Fifteen Minutes of Shame.” An homage, perhaps, to Warhol, but apt in its description of a ceremony in high schools all over America on national signing day when 17-year-olds tell a less than breathless world where they will be playing college football.

On an auditorium stage, surrounded by family and friends,  a teenager will make public the school he has chosen. He will join a group of 1,625 other seniors from around the country who have been fortunate enough to receive offers from Power 5 schools.

Only 58% of those seniors, however, will ever earn college degrees.

Yet, on that stage, they will be lionized as future stars. Worse yet, it is customary for them to have caps of various schools that recruited them to be placed on the table in front of them to heighten the suspense of what their choice will be.

Behind them will be schoolmates, educators, coaches and parents. The recipient will then foolishly pick up a hat as if that is his choice, then shake his head ‘no’ and laughingly discard the hat as the group around him laughs.

In the audience will be coaches of those schools in contention.

These are men who have labored at their craft for many years, developing men out of such boys, men who have given boys like them a great chance at a better life by guiding them athletically and academically towards a degree, the attainment of which, according to a recent Georgetown University study, would mean $1,000,000 more to them in their working lives, if only they would earn one.

Yet, almost half will never get that piece of paper. It could be theirs for free, but they’ll spurn it.

I feel pain for those coaches who are snubbed at this faux celebration. They should have received a polite “no, thank you,” rather than the ignominy of watching these young boys making fools of themselves.

The University of Minnesota team from six decades ago will gather at Homecoming this year in Minneapolis to remember our teammates who have passed on, and celebrate the fact that every starting member of our 1958 Golden Gopher team earned a degree leading to a productive and fulfilling life.

Go, Gophers!

A Day in the Sun

Sports, perhaps more than any other endeavor, provides opportunities for gratification and recognition for longer periods of time.

Images of Michael Jordan taking that game winning shot, Arnold Palmer sinking that forty-foot putt to win a Grand Slam event, Bill Mazeroski clearing the left-field wall with a home run to win a World Series linger on and on as iconic images.

Other less noticed accomplishments remain with the doer perhaps even longer. Through the efforts of a bevy of bountiful receivers making remarkable receptions, and guys providing great pocket protection, this reporter broke the University of Minnesota school record for single game passing yardage against the University of Washington in 1958, in the process throwing for over 200 yards, a mark many quarterbacks today reach by halftime. But back in those days of three-yards and a cloud-of-dust football, 200 yards wasn’t too shabby. In an act of shameless self-promotion granted to senior citizens, he has transferred a copy of that game film onto his I-Pad for other interested (or not) octogenarians to view.

Earl Mossor had his day in the sun in the pivotal baseball year of 1951 when he was brought up to the Brooklyn Dodgers for his “cup of coffee” in the big leagues. That season ended with “the shot heard round the world,” a Bobby Thomson home run to win the pennant for the New York Giants. When Earl was called up that season, he did something no one else ever did. Before being sent down again to the minor leagues, he batted 1.000 after getting a single in his only at-bat. In addition, in a relief opportunity, he struck out perhaps the greatest hitter of all time, Stan “The Man” Musial, on a three-two-pitch with the bases loaded and two outs to record a save.

Alas, Earl’s “Day In The Sun” ended on a cloudy note. Brought into a game with the Dodgers leading the Giants by a run, he failed to hold the lead, giving up three runs in relief and taking the loss.

In a strange twist of fate, the Dodgers blew a thirteen-and a-half-game August lead that year, ending the regular season tied with the hated Giants, forcing a best two-of-three playoff and the infamous Thomson home run. Had Earl held that early season save opportunity, there never would have been a need for a playoff and Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca would never have had to pitch to Thomson and live with the result for the rest of his life.

A night in the net turned out to be Scott Foster’s day in the sun when the 36-year-old accountant and father of two put on his goaltender gear to help his beloved Chicago Black Hawks. A new NHL rule states that the home team must have a reserve on hand in case both goalies on a team go out on injuries. That’s exactly what happened back in March when both Black Hawk goalies went down and Foster had to man the goal with 14:01 left. A member of two local Chicago recreation leagues, Foster stopped all seven Winnipeg shots down the stretch to preserve Chicago’s 6-2 victory.

The next night he was back with his regular team, playing at Chicago’s “Johnny’s Ice House West” for the league championship, a dream neatly tucked away in his goalie’s glove forever.

The Triple Crown

The Triple Crowns in baseball and horse racing were left unclaimed for forty-five and thirty-seven years, respectively, until 2012 and 2015.

The baseball achievement goes to the batter who led in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in for the season. The racing diadem goes to the winner of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont.

Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox in 1967 and Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers in 2012 won the Triple Crowns in baseball.

Affirmed won the racing Triple Crown in 1978, and American Pharoah won it in 2015.

Only two players have won the baseball award twice, Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams. Only seventeen in total have ever won it.

In 99 years of horse racing, only twelve horses have won the Triple Crown. Between Affirmed and American Pharoah, thirteen horses won the Derby and the Preakness but lost the Belmont. Justify will race in the Belmont on June 8th having already won the Derby and the Preakness. Ergo, we may have another Triple Crown winner in racing this year.

There are good reasons for both droughts to have occurred.

In baseball, the existing criteria is outmoded and outdated due to changes in the way the game is played. MLB should consider the category of OPS (on base + slugging), a sabermetric statistic, as a substitute for batting average in that it quantifies the ability of a player both to get on base and to hit for power. A recent addition to the computerized approach to the game, it has gained prominence and acceptance by fans as a more accurate evaluation of a batter’s prowess. Had the statistic been in effect in Babe Ruth’s time, it would have earned The Bambino five Triple Crowns, so good was he.

In horse racing, the three races are different distances, ranging from one and a quarter mile in the Derby to one and three/sixteenths of a mile in the Preakness to one and a half miles at Belmont. It is the extra distance at Belmont that has taken the measure of those thirteen horses who won the first two legs. They simply lacked the stamina to go the distance.

Of special note is a nod to the greatest horse ever, Secretariat, who in 1973 won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and then took the Belmont by a margin of thirty-one lengths, going away.

The winner of the racing Triple Crown is truly the best three-year-old horse, magnificently trained, pure bred, and courageous, a champion in every sense of the word. Many owners have realized the futility of trying to win all three races and have kept their horses out of of one or two of the races.

In some cases, a more rested horse winning the Belmont has denied a Triple Crown to a horse entered in all three races. That is unfair.

But hail to the twelve champions who have run, and won, all three.

Student Athletes, Part 2

Last week Coach’s Corner took a look at whether student athletes in college should be paid, a subject under discussion by the NCAA. The basic premise of the proposal to pay basketball and football players is that the revenue generated in those sports is primarily through the efforts of the participants and yet there is no remuneration to them for their efforts. It is a clouded argument because the players on scholarship are indeed reimbursed through receiving a free education with room and board and books and with no attendant student loans to be repaid after they graduate.

Several readers commented on the issue. Of special interest was the proposal to limit the number of athletic scholarships to incoming freshmen in the fall equal to the number of those who graduated the previous spring. Rules state that a school can provide 25 football scholarships per year but can have no more than 85 on scholarship at any given time. A major problem schools have is that far too many players on scholarship never graduate. Only 58% of football players get a degree. That is shameful. If coaches were limited by the above suggested rule, you would see far greater effort in both awarding four year scholarships to more worthy recipients and a far greater effort to tutor those who fall behind, enabling them to keep pace and graduate.

The NCAA, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, has also ruled that athletes cannot work during the school year. Their thinking is that influential alumni and boosters would provide no-show jobs to preferred players. I think that ban is ill-advised. Carefully run and monitored, why shouldn’t student /athletes be allowed to work to make a few bucks in the spare time they have? The argument made that they don’t have any time left after practice, games, meetings and school is bogus.

Every senior member of the 1958 starting football team at the University of Minnesota graduated on time. Each of us had held a part time job, benefitting greatly from our college educational and sports experiences, leading to productive and rewarding lives in our communities.

There is so much money in college athletics these days those responsible don’t know what to do with it. Multi-million dollar a year coaching salaries are ridiculous. Some readers suggested using some of that money to foster years five and six onto the original four year free ride to allow those who might have fallen behind to catch up and finally graduate.

High school players and colleges make a deal in which the player commits to the school to be a student/athlete for four years and the school commits to reciprocating with a degree and the opportunity to grow as a person that college provides. But too often a player will look for greener pastures and transfer when the competition for playing time gets tougher. Too often a school will rescind the scholarship. Both are wrong. It is just as important for the player to honor the deal as it is the school.

In addition to granting players scholarships (taking six years as proposed above, if necessary) take a goodly amount of the profits generated by those 80,000 game day fans and benefit the academic needs of the school, the original point of the institution in the first place.

Student Athletes

There is a movement afoot to provide a stipend, legalese for “pay,” to student athletes in college, in addition to their tuition, books, and lodging. The rationale for this is driven by the large crowds in football stadiums and basketball arenas throughout the country where the 128 Division 1-A teams play. In essence the question is, “since all this revenue is being created, why aren’t those responsible getting a financial piece of it?”

That logic is true in the NFL and both the NBA and the WNBA. Athletes playing at that level are paid commensurate with their talent, as it should be.

In college, athletes on athletic scholarships are given an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of athletic involvement while pursuing a degree, the attainment of which will mean additional income averaging a million dollars more during their working lifetimes through such attainment.

During this four year process of athletics and learning, they also receive free tuition, books and living accommodations, and often, meals in season. They will have no student loans due upon graduation as compared to the $100,000 regular students are saddled with. They are duly rewarded for playing.

The argument for paying student/athletes is the misguided notion that with as much revenue as their actions in stadiums and arenas are providing, why shouldn’t they get some of that financial action? I suggest indeed they already are with their scholarships and attendant benefits.

A major problem is that far too many student/athletes do not take full advantage of the opportunities afforded them. Only 58% of football players and 47% of basketball players graduate. That is disgraceful.

I suggest that some of that money generated by revenue at games should be apportioned to the school’s athletic departments for closely monitored academic training curriculums aimed at increasing those atrocious graduation rates.

Another misguided notion athletes have is thinking their professional playing days will benefit them greatly with the added income a pro career provides.

However, less than 3% of college athletes will play professionally. Of all the senior football players in high school, only 2% will receive scholarships. Doing the math, those numbers show that .999935% of all boys playing high school football will never make a nickel playing in the NFL.

On the other hand, an education is forever.

The 128 Division 1-A Football programs have an aggregate coaching salary structure that adds up to nearly half a billion bucks a year. Even a small diversion of that money towards fully educating and graduating athletes would go a long way towards lifting those graduation rates upwards.

As far as asking the regular student body to ante up through increased student fees, that seems misguided as well, seeing they are already donating to the athletic programs, whether they go to the games or not.

Paying players invites a whole host of problems such as agents on campus representing potential clients in college getting more money than other players.

More on this issue in future Coach’s Corners.

Age Isn’t What It Was…

When LeBron James took an inbound pass with eight seconds left in a tie game, everybody knew it was he who was going to attempt the game winning shot. The Toronto Raptors would either live for overtime or go down three games to none, a deficit that has never been overcome 129 straight times in NBA post season play.

James had totally dominated in the first two games of the series, picking up support from non-productive teammates in game three to go up by 17 early in the fourth quarter. He had done his part with 36 points. With eight seconds left, Toronto had valiantly held off defeat, hitting a three  to tie.

A clock began ticking in LeBron’s head. With five seconds left, he was at mid-court, dribbling and sizing up his opponent. At 3.2, he made his move, darting up the left side, releasing a body twisting, one-handed jump shot with the clock showing 1.4 seconds left. Off the glass and then into the net as 0.0 showed on the clock beyond the basket. Game, set, and very likely, match!

Match indeed, as the Cavs buried the Raptors in game four by 35

The announcer said that James has spent in the low seven figures for equipment in his home to stay in shape using the best trainers he can get. That effort might account for the fact that when he was at the apogee of his game winning shot, upon release, his feet were even with his opponent’s chest.

Playing against LeBron simply isn’t fair.

James is only thirty-three but he is in his 15th season of NBA play. Never having gone to college, he’ll likely have six or seven more seasons left before retiring. His workout regimens augment that goal. Tennis stars Rafael Nadal (31) and Roger Federer (36) are still playing their best tennis. It never before was that way. Athletes past thirty were considered on the downward slope. Better nutrition, training regimens and year round attention to better health has changed that paradigm. The benefit to fans is to see quality performances extended.

The only Major League Baseball player to have just his first name on the back of his uniform is Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners. A great player in Japan, he never got to MLB until he was twenty-seven. His statistics guarantee him first year voting into the Hall of Fame. He has over 3,000 hits and was successful 82% of the time stealing bases. The first position player from Japan, he blazed the trail for many of his countrymen to follow. In one stretch, he stole forty-five bases in a row, a MLB record. In his third season, he had 262 hits, breaking a record set by George Sisler eighty-four years before. Modest to a fault, he invited Sisler’s daughter to attend the game in which he was likely to break the record. He later visited the gravesite of George Sisler to show his respect. He has just retired at the age of forty-five.

Hats off to you, Ichiro. You have been a class act.

Joe DiMaggio

“Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you….” lamented the lyrical duo of Simon and Garfunkel during the tumultuous 1960s. Seeking a mantra to combat the riots in the cities and a war that would kill 58,000 young Americans, they harkened back to a more peaceful time when one man embodied all that was good in the United States.

And we loved the song because we loved the man.

Many say Joe was the greatest ball player who ever lived. Red Sox fans would counter that Ted Williams owned that coveted moniker. But Joe’s Yankees won all the World Series and the Red Sox won none during their respective baseball years.

When Joe was sold to the New York Yankees in 1935, the last season Babe Ruth played baseball, he replaced Ruth as the leader of the Yankees and won the World Series the first four years he played from 1936 through 1939.

The most admired American in 1941 (FDR came in second) Joe hit in 56 straight games, a record that will never be broken. His streak stopped when a Cleveland third-baseman went deep behind third twice to throw Joe out at first by a step. Undaunted, the Yankee Clipper went on to hit safely in 16 of the next 17 games. Had he beaten out just one of those groundouts, he would have had a 72 game hitting streak.

Noted band leader Les Brown recorded a patriotic song during the Second World War, commenting, “Joe, Joe DiMaggio, we want you on our side.” It sold big.

A very introverted man, he never was showy but rather was the quintessential team player, even encouraging his center field successor, Mickey Mantle, on the fine art of playing center field in the varied configured outfields throughout the league.

An extremely proud man, he never forgave Yankee manager Casey Stengel for interrupting a game, late in Joe’s career, to have him ignominiously return to the dugout after the inning had started, to better solidify the outfield. Joe had owned the cavernous extremities of Yankee Stadium for years, always positioning himself gracefully to make the catch, all the while daring runners to tag up. They seldom tried.

He and Stengel hardly spoke after that embarrassing incident, although Stengel later described Joe thusly… “Joe DiMaggio makes all other baseball players look like plumbers.”

After his retirement, the iconic DiMaggio became a spokesperson for both the Bowery Savings Bank and Mister Coffee for many years, keeping him continually in the public eye.

He married movie star Marilyn Monroe who sadly took her own life at just 36 years. Joe became more reclusive after that, appearing less often at Old Timer games.

An incredible hitter over his entire career, statistics show that at any Yankee game, Joe was two-and-a-half times more likely to get a double, triple or home run, than he was to strike out.

That’s how legendary “Jolting’ Joe DiMaggio” was.

Philo T. Farnsworth

Once upon a time, there was a man named Philo T. Farnsworth.

And then all hell broke loose.

When guarding an opposing player in a high school basketball game sixty-five years ago in a gymnasium, antiquated even then, I made my opponent go baseline when driving in for a layup because that’s where the radiators hung out from the wall.

On cold winter nights after the school janitor had stoked the coal burners in the basement to fever pitch, my one hand defensively edging my opponent into the red hot radiator was enough to send him screaming out to what we now call the three-point arc, never to try a lay up again. You did what you had to do to win.

We once played a high school football game on a field that had not a single blade of grass. Worse even yet, the school groundskeeper spread small chunks of coal cinders from the nearby railroad tracks to offset the dust blowing around on windy days. Nearly every carry was towards the sideline because you could run out of bounds before being tackled, lest you acquire cinder burns that lasted for weeks.

Philo, the man who invented television, had already warmed up his first cathode ray tube two decades earlier. Little did he know his invention would replace tiny high school gyms and football fields with massive multi-million dollar sports emporiums throughout the world.

The first televised college football game took place in 1939 between Fordham University and Waynesburg. Within a year, both pro football and college basketball had their first televised games take place.

After that, it was off to the races as America just couldn’t get enough of televised games after years of nothing but radio broadcasts, visions of such action generated solely in their minds’ eyes.

The University of Minnesota is in the process of upgrading its athletic facilities to compete more favorably with other Big Ten schools in the arms (and legs) race to attract the best athletes available. The multi-million dollar investment in Athletes Village is something Philo T. Farnsworth could never have imagined when he was a 16-year-old student in high school in rural Utah who had just won a contest with his idea of transmitting images electronically.

Television is now king in sports, which has turned out to be both good and bad. So much money is generated through advertising and alumni contributions to schools that administrators and legislators sometimes tend to overlook or miss transgressions by students or coaches harmful to the schools they represent.

There are literally billions of dollars involved in coaching salaries, naming rights to stadiums, vendors vying for bigger shares of the uniform and apparel marketplace, let alone gambling.

It never would’ve happened without Philo T. Farnsworth tinkering with his tubes. I can think of no single action, save religion, that has focused so many people for so long and so involved, than television and sports.

More on this in later Coach’s Corners.

Babe Ruth Lives…

There is a new baseball sensation playing for the Los Angeles Angels. His name is Shohei Ohtani and he is the latest in a long line of Japanese players to make it to Major League Baseball.

One hundred years ago, baseball changed forever when Boston traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for $125,000, creating the “Curse of The Bambino” which lasted for eighty-six years, denying Boston a World Series title until 2004, while New York with Ruth went on to be the premier sports franchise of the 20th Century.

At the time, Ruth was the best pitcher in the game, winning ninety-five games for the Red Sox in the previous five years. He was also the game’s best hitter, on the cusp of his record setting career of hitting 714 home runs. After leaving the Red Sox, the Babe seldom pitched again, earning just five victories in fifteen years.

Today there is a new Babe Ruth, and he plays in California. But this new incarnation of Ruth both hits and pitches on a regular basis. Ohtani rests on days before and after pitching. Other days, he is the DH, never playing in the field.

The Red Sox bid for his services but the Angels made a better offer. It’s ironic that a century later, the Red Sox would lose out on the second Babe Ruth. Both teams currently lead their divisions and could play for the American League pennant. But that’s down the road. There is a full season ahead of us.

How is Ohtani doing so far? Very well. At the start of this week, his team is currently 13-3, leading the AL West. He is hitting .367 with three home runs, 11 RBI’s, a bases clearing triple, and scoring the winning run on a sacrifice fly in another Angels win. In pitching, he is 2-0, has a 2.08 ERA, 18 strikeouts, including retiring 27 straight batters over a two-game span.

Sixteen games do not a season make, but everyone is watching, make no mistake.

The Angels fans are so happy, the public address announcer has to ask them to stop yelling during Ohtani’s at-bats.

There is a strange financial angle to this story as well. The Angels outbid three other teams for Ohtani and had to pay his former Japanese team $20,000,000 to get him. According to MLB rules, he can only make the league minimum of $545,000 for the next three seasons until he reaches the age of 25. Two years after that, he’ll be eligible for free agency.

Ohtani is the latest in a long line of Japanese-American baseball players who made the transition to playing in the United States. Players like certain Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, and nine time All-Star Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees, led the way for a continuing string of players who crossed the Pacific to play.

And MLB has been better because of it.

Ed. Note: Ohtani lasted two innings last night against the Red Sox before leaving due to a blister on his pitching hand. It is unclear when he’ll be able to either pitch or DH, the Angels announced.

The Case of the Kissing Guards

Oftentimes in football, offensive guards, the players on either side of the center, are called upon to block to their outside rather than directly to their front.

The block, called pulling, involves a sense of balance with body and head movements designed to fool an opponent while allowing the guard to surreptitiously crouch and move down behind the line of scrimmage, not unlike a WW II soldier moving with similar stealth behind a German hedgerow in the fabled “Battle Of The Bulge.”

On a successful play, the guard then surprises an unsuspecting defensive player with a crushing block, the purpose of which is to spring a ball carrier loose for a goodly gain.

Sometimes both guards will pull on the same play, but always in the same direction.

But, as the great British poet, Robert Burns, tells us, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Never more true than when one guard pulls the wrong way and ends up, face guard to face guard, with his counterpart, both of them frozen behind the center, a mistake killing the play dead in its tracks.

The incidence of guards pulling incorrectly and meeting  behind the center happens more often than one might suspect, hence the descriptive label, “Kissing Guards.”

Guards are reminded incessantly to listen carefully to the play in the huddle to determine which way they should pull. But crowd noise, inattention, pretty cheerleaders or one of a dozen other distractions, might cause a guard to miss the quarterback’s instructions.

In a game, the only players who know ‘that’ it happened are the two guards (one innocent, one guilty) who ‘made’ it happen.

In the pre-video days of the 1950s, we wouldn’t see the film of the game until the following day. The coaches would have already seen the guards ‘kissing’ on the film, anticipating peals of laughter when we’d gather.

When it showed up on the game film, it looked like a scene out of a Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton “Honeymooners” skit, two guards face to face, each pointing to the other as the guilty one.

The guards on our team were Dave Burkholder (67) and Bob Rasmussen (61), two guys straight out of central casting, akin to leathered bookends on a library shelf.

Two nicer guys you’d never meet, each standing 6-foot-1, weighing 235 pounds, every ounce muscle. Childhood buddies, they were products of De La Salle High School in Minneapolis who built themselves up by lifting weights and being extremely coachable.

The day after we beat Illinois, we watched the film, the guilty guard dreading the image of his earnest effort gone terribly wrong.

As the film rolled, we all had a big laugh when Murray Warmath, our coach, stopped the film and asked our two “Kissing Guards” to come down forth to be recognized, none laughing more than Bob and Dave themselves.

We lost Dave much too early but Bob and I always have a laugh at reunions discussing that play.

Loopy Lefties

Why is it that life’s lefties are often mistreated and put upon? Take my sister Kathleen, for instance. At the dinner table, she had to sit on the end seat lest she bump the arm of any other family member, all of whom were right- handed. In addition to the ignominy of seating oblivion, she was closest to the kitchen and therefore responsible for replenishing the milk, butter, and bread supplies. She also falls into the Loopy Lefties category in that she wanted to play the piano in the worst way, and she most certainly did!

Then there was Gloria Benzinger from up the street. In trying to learn penmanship utilizing the Palmer Method, beaten into us by the Good Sisters of The Hurtful Wooden Rulers, she had to do backwards what 90% of us did forwards. She had her left hand twisted so much it made her resemble a fiddler crab whenever she was writing.

Sports are no different. The great Yankee pitcher Lefty Gomez convinced management to allow him to use the nickname “Goofy,” more in line with his persona, but also to compete with the reigning nut job of the era, Dizzy Dean. Goofy Gomez held up World Series games often to watch planes fly over Yankee Stadium. He also invented a revolving bowl for tired goldfish.

Bill Lee, a.k.a. The Spaceman, was a southpaw pitcher for the Red Sox and holder of the team record for wins by a lefty at 94. Seemingly a small amount, until one realizes Boston plays in Fenway Park with its close-in Green Monster in left field, enticing to so many right-handed batters and therefore seldom challenged by left-handed throwers. An early user of recreational drugs, Lee claimed smoking marijuana lessened the effect of bus fumes when he jogged to Fenway Park. When asked about his views on mandatory drug testing, he said, “I’ve tried just about all of them, but I wouldn’t want to make them mandatory.” In 1988, Lee was the presidential candidate of the Rhinoceros Party, running on one single issue. He wanted to bulldoze the Rocky Mountains so Alberta, Canada, could have a few extra minutes of sunlight. He lost.

So strong are negative feelings about left-handers, in 1996, “Left-Handers Day” was launched to raise awareness of the frustrations port siders face daily. MLB moved to have only lefties play on that date but shelved it when nobody could locate a left handed catcher’s mitt.

Probably the greatest lefty of all is Bill Russell, the former center and coach of the Boston Celtics, who won 11 championships in 13 tries. He was also the funniest. Answering a reporter’s racially charged question as to the number of blacks he would have on the floor at one time, he cackled his famous laugh and said, “At home, two. On the road, three. And if we’re losing, five.” There has never been a greater person, or winner, in American sports than Bill Russell.

Sister Jean Saves College Hoops

The greatest sports saga of recent years continues. Sister Jean, the tireless 98-year old Loyola of Chicago cheerleading nun, has her Ramblers from the Missouri Valley Conference headed to basketball’s Final Four in San Antonio this coming weekend. The beloved Sister Jean  has enthralled viewers and nearly singlehandedly resurrected the college game from a number of recent scandals to create the most endearing sports story in memory. Sporting her very own Sister Jean sneakers and Loyola letterman’s jacket, she has endured interview after grueling interview to cheer her team on. They have done their part, winning three nail biting games by the grand total of four points before blowing Kansas State out to get to the Final Four. You rock, Sister Jean!

When Malik Newman of Kansas hit a three-pointer in overtime for Kansas to put the game out of reach for Duke, the announcer reached back for a Seinfeld line and chortled, “Hello, Newman,” perhaps somewhat less vile than Jerry so often did in greeting his postman neighbor. Fitting, in that disliked Greyson Allen, a scurrilously dirty player from Duke, had missed a last second shot in regulation which would have given Duke the win for their 13th trip to the Final Four. But it was not to be as Newman scored all of the Jayhawks 13 points in OT to secure the win.

Michigan edged Florida State by four and Villanova sailed to its fourth straight double-digit tournament win by overpowering Texas Tech. The Seminoles had great talent but it was the cunning coaching of Michigan’s John Beilein down the stretch, cannily inserting his personal four foul sated, 6’11” German center, Moritz Wagner, (pronounced Vagner, like the composer Richard, rather than Wagner, like the actor Robert.) Go figure. To paraphrase Frasier Crane, “Just what we needed down the thrilling stretch, another language!”

The Villanova Wildcats look almost unbeatable and draw Kansas in the Semi-Final on Saturday. All the announcers and pundits are picking ‘Nova to claw the Jay Hawks. But be careful. Of all the teams I’ve seen, none plays as well together as Kansas. Totally unselfish, they constantly find the open man for close, in the paint, points. They were very patient in dissecting the Duke zone, running the clock down before shooting, keeping the score down and the ball out of the hands of the talented one-and-done Duke diaper dandies.

A word about the huge upset of overall number one seed Virginia by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In the thirty-three years since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, there have been 136 match ups of 1 vs 16. Never has a number one seed lost any of those games. Virginia’s style of slow play prevented their playing catch-up when UMBC shot the lights out, going 26 for 48 from the field, including 12 of 24 three-pointers to win by twenty points. The Cavaliers have much less to be cavalier about for the next year.

Speeding Up Sports

Minor League baseball is instituting a new rule to speed up the game and I think it is an idea whose time has come, traditionalists notwithstanding. When a game goes into extra innings, the first batter up to start each half-inning will be on second base. The logic is simple. When the first batter in an inning reaches first base, odds say he’ll score 38% of the time. When he starts the inning on second base, the odds are 57% he’ll score. It will certainly speed up by ending the game sooner. Nothing says boring better than a fifteen-inning baseball game.

I have gone to MLB games where greater excitement came from friendly bets amongst friends as to whether or not the new ball that the umpire rolls out to the pitching mound to start each half-inning would end up on the dirt of the mound or on the grass of the infield.

Further intensive wagering concerned how many total pitches would be thrown in the next inning.

Eliminating overtime periods after just five minutes of three-on-three play, while adding a best-of-three shoot out tie-breaking finale, did wonders for speeding up NHL hockey. Those ideas and limiting fighting turned hockey into arguably the most friendly spectator sport of all.

NASCAR simply let technology improve its speed. In 1947, Indy 500 winner Maury Rose averaged 116 mph. Last year’s champ averaged 263 mph. Judging by the crowds at Daytona, the fans love watching what a lot of people find exceedingly boring. If I want to watch speeding cars, standing beside an Interstate suffices for me.

Football and basketball have pretty much solved the speed of game problems with the introduction of the 40 and 24 second clocks, respectively. And high school sports have wisely introduced running clocks when a team has built an insurmountable 35 point lead.

College football should follow the lead of the NFL and cut the amount of time in the locker room at the half from 20 minutes to 12. Players hate half-time spent in the locker room listening to coaches yell. They just want to get on the field and play.

I have no idea how to speed up curling. Maybe it’s better we just avoid this wacky sport until it surfaces at the Olympics every four years. Some sports are better left totally ignored. Boxing and caged fighting spring to mind.

Maybe you didn’t know: In the NHL, it is mandatory that the home team have available an extra goalie in case one team loses both of its goalies to injury. He sits somewhere in the stands waiting for the first injury and then races to that team’s locker room to suit up. He can be a college or club goalie or simply a recreational player. The Rangers have given their sub goalie a team jersey with the name McBackup on it. He has yet to see action and probably won’t. Only two backups ever have.

Roy Peter Clark & The Green Bay Power Sweep

I attended a writing seminar recently, trying to make up for lost time spent in a University of Minnesota classroom sixty years ago where a writing instructor attempted to fill my mind with knowledge of similes, metaphors, and other literary devices.

I take full responsibility for my lack of attention back then. As a quarterback, I was more interested in blocking schemes and blitzing linebackers than I was in run-on sentences or correct uses of the pluperfect subjunctive.

Back in those days, I recall viewing legendary coach Vince Lombardi at a chalkboard drawing up the Green Bay Power Sweep, the penultimate play that made the Packers winners of the first two Super Bowls, and every other championship game they ever played. All his players’ eyes were riveted on him at his chalkboard.

Lombardi’s method of correctly running the play by double teaming at the point of attack, kicking out the defensive end, and “running to daylight,” was drilled into the Packers until they knew the rules as well as they knew the lyrics of the latest Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra recording.

I am trying to make up for time lost because I want to be a better writer, the best I can be. I think I might have found my own Vince Lombardi.

At the Tampa Oxford Exchange seminar, author Roy Peter Clark unwittingly played Vince in trying to get all present better at writing, using a piano rather than chalk and a blackboard. A showman as well as a writing teacher of national renown, he played requests from the audience.

Both informative as well as entertaining, he used the piano (often he’ll substitute an accordion) to interpret how words and notes in a ballad combine through the use of a musical bridge to make a phrase in a song, or a sentence in a book, better, just as Lombardi’s pushing and prodding with his chalk clarified direction and action for his masterpiece.

His most influential book, “Writing Tools,” is full of tips to make fledgling writers better informed. For instance, Tip # 29 references “Foreshadowing powerful conclusions.” When Mr. Clark ended his playing of “McNamara’s Band,” the piano’s cacophonous chorus matched, in my mind note for note, Lombardi’s intensity in nearly crushing his blackboard with that piece of chalk in that video detailing his Power Sweep.

Another of his tools, # 7, “Fear not the long sentence,” emboldens me to recount in story form what I consider to be the greatest play in football history:

“In the Packer Power Sweep, guards Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston pulled right to kick out and then lead upfield through the hole created by the double team block of the tackle and end, while fullback Jim Taylor securely nailed the nose guard directly over the center, Paul Hornung, all the while, carrying the ball, moving right, following the action, waiting to turn upfield, and then running to daylight.”

It was the most interesting ninety minutes I’ve ever spent in a classroom. The hundred people there would all agree, based upon their applause at the end.

As an example of how he could lead a group to learn, I had heard how the power went out once in a darkened venue while he was lecturing 2,000 Tampa school teachers, and he got them to sing-along in the dark to his playing of their requests until power was restored.

Lombardi, a former high school chemistry teacher, would’ve loved that.

Hockey is Big in Tampa

A few weeks ago, my grandson and I were getting set to watch an NFL game when he mentioned there was a Tampa Bay Lightning hockey game on that night. An avid hockey fan, he follows the Bolts much more than I do. I remain a devoted pigskin purist, but it’s easy to see why hockey has taken off here in Tampa.

We experimented with our remote control and discovered because of the speed of hockey versus the slower pace of football, it was possible to switch channels, watch both games, almost in their entirety, simultaneously.

Hockey is three speedy twenty minute periods. Players charge madly on and off the ice while play continues. Each team is allotted one time out per game. Commercial breaks occur mostly between periods. There is simply no time for players primping, preening and posing.

Hockey is the only sport where all the players were literally born to play it. Most are gifted early with a hockey stick, are well coached in junior and minor leagues and college, and when the NHL calls, know more about their game than other professional athletes.

Football, on the other hand, is long and sometimes boring. A recent report from the Wall Street Journal noted that in a typical NFL game of 3 hours and 11 minutes, 56% of the time is taken up with annoying commercials, times out, play reviews, instant replay, players standing around, views of sideline and press box coaches, commentators blabbing on camera, huddles, and players incessantly celebrating touchdowns and every first down for post game viewing by even more talking heads. The study also found that only eleven minutes of a game is pure action, each play averaging a scant four seconds to complete.

In a fan-friendly Bolts hockey game, the ice becomes an integral part of the show. From before game excitement with players’ pictures flashed on both the ice and the Jumbotrons hanging above, to the Zamboni machines driven by families helping to clear the ice between periods, to the donation of $50,000 to a worthy community project by owner Jeff Vinik at every game, it is by far the best show in town, outpacing the Rays and the Bucs in excitement.

Our experience of switching with the remote paid off. I doubt we missed a dozen plays of football while seeing 90% of the hockey game. And the announcers in hockey seem much better, all as knowledgeable of hockey as Tony Romo is of football.

Plays developing in hockey feature twelve total skaters in well practiced variations of choreographed maneuvers. It is a much more exciting team spectacle than football.

A perfect example is scoring. Groups of players cluster around the goal, some protecting their goalie while opponents try to rattle him by blocking his vision of the puck flying towards him.

And when that light goes on to signify a home team goal, bedlam breaks out from rink to rafters through three fan-full levels of blue clad cheering Amalie Arena faithful!

Go, Bolts!

(Over the next six months, until football begins anew, Coach’s Corner will appear less frequently. Thank you. Coach Jim Reese.)

Super Duper Super Bowl

May I get a bit techie here, please? The center on a football team is like a quarterback. He is responsible for blocking assignments, leaning over the ball, barking out colors or numbers to best combat the charging efforts of the defense.

He is responsible for making a perfect snap whether the quarterback is under center or eight yards deep. After he has done all those chores, he then drops back to form the front of the pocket to protect his quarterback if a pass has been called.

On many snaps, center Jason Kelce of the Eagles blocked not one but two rushers heading straight toward his quarterback. On off-tackle runs, he blocked the man over him and ran to the point of attack to do more damage there. Kelce was superb all game and must be recognized.

So close was the game, only once did something go wrong. With 2:21 left, for the first time all day, a rusher sacked a quarterback. It caused a fumble, leading to a field goal and an eight-point late Philadelphia lead.

That left arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, New England’s Tom Brady, the quintessential fourth-quarter come back-guy, to do it again.

Anytime a game ends with the last play being a fifty-yard Hail Mary, it has been one hell of a game.

That’s how Super Bowl 52 will be remembered, a dozen superb athletes reaching for the stars to complete or stop a touchdown. In 1984, another New Englander, Doug Flutie of Boston College, gained immortality in beating the U. of Miami on such a play.

This time the glory went to the Philadelphia Eagles, playing with a back-up quarterback, Nick Foles, who nobody thought would be able to win against Belichick and Brady.

New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has done a great job for the Pats for many years. He’ll be rewarded by being named head coach of the Detroit Lions. He’ll carry with him the memory of one play he would gladly defend again.

As the first half ended, it was fourth-and one for the Eagles. They chose to go for the touchdown rather than take the easy three points with a chip shot field goal.

They lined up with quarterback Foles just outside his right tackle and a running back eight yards behind center. It was a play Foles had run in high school and his coach allowed it to go into the game’s playbook. Fearful someone might see it at practice during the week, the Eagles practiced it in the secrecy of the hotel’s ball room.

The defensive guy covering the receiver to Foles’s right had to follow that receiver crossing left. Foles then snuck out into the empty area to make the catch. Patricia’s face immediately showed his bewilderment at the empty end zone area.

That was the single most important play the Eagles ran all game, giving them the win in the greatest Super Bowl ever.

And, it was illegal. The rules require at least seven offensive men must be on the line of scrimmage on the snap of the ball. Clearly the right end, set out wide, is at least two yards behind the line of scrimmage on the snap.

 

 

This close to the goal line the advantage clearly goes to the player with the most room to maneuver going into the end zone, in this case being the Philadelphia right end, being three yards from his defender.

By looking at the side judge just before the snap to receive agreement that he is properly placed, the Eagles player puts tremendous pressure on the referee to not respond either verbally or by nodding his head, fearful if he does so, it will alter the movement of the receiver and cause a penalty.

This nod of agreement from the referee as to proper player placement is not part of the rules but rather a gentlemen’s agreement between player and ref that has grown over time.

The Eagles exploited this exchange so the referee dare not tell the receiver he was illegally placed and should move two yards closer to the line of scrimmage for fear the ball would be snapped while the player was moving forward causing an illegal motion penalty.

The ref was had.

He was clearly wrong in intimating that the Eagles player was properly positioned when he was clearly not.

The play was run and the receiver sped across the line, cutting left with the disadvantaged defender far behind him.

It is not the responsibility of the side judge to tell a player whether he is lined up correctly or not. It is the player’s job to place himself correctly. The ref was caught between a rock and a hard place. I think you’ll see a rules change regarding this situation next year.

Every scoring play is reviewed but not every action during the play is reviewable. A punch might be thrown but not seen during the play but clearly seen during the review. A penalty cannot be assessed because the punching incident was deemed not reviewable.

Bad policy. An infraction occurred. Penalize it upon review. Had this been the case, the touchdown pass to Foles would have been negated because there were not seven men on the line of scrimmage, and who knows what might have happened after that?

Super Bowl Thoughts

Why would anybody pay today’s asking price of $4,500 for a seat to this year’s Super Bowl? I’ll take a back seat to none in my level of interest in football, which has supplanted baseball as America’s national pastime.

There are other choices. I could choose home lazy boy comfort with attendant kitchen facilities but a few feet away, toilets readily available with no waiting, never having to stand next to a group of total strangers becoming noticeably agitated at having chosen the wrong line.

Don’t think you’ll be amongst like minded compatriots, cheering in unison with fellow supporters. 80% of the seats go to deep pocketed corporate interests, writing off the costs by claiming they are growing the economy in entertaining fellow well-to-do jet setters. Look hard to find the season long Patriot and Eagle fans clustered at the game. They’ll be in blue or green.

Another alternative is a local watering hole serving up wings and what-not, twenty 65″ televisions at the ready, servers poised to meet your every need, and a Super Bowl lottery rewarding a local charity, with the opportunity to drive yourself or grab a Uber and be comfortably in your seat by kickoff.

Half-times are better spent by chatting quietly about the game with friends and considerably less time spent ogling over-the-top extravaganzas aimed at the 18-49 demographic, of which I gladly disclaimed membership decades ago.

Give me Paul McCartney or the recently retired Neil Diamond, somehow one last time, or Billy Joel, these three collectively twice the age of the NFL itself, and I’d watch every minute of the show.

Half time is thirty minutes long, twice that of regular season games. Players disdain locker rooms and being yelled at by coaches. Teams, especially those receiving second-half kickoffs, want to get on the field to get going. Instead they wait around while Vegas-type acts cavort like colts cornered in a corral, exiting only when the requisite fireworks smoke blurs the vision of whatever the hell they were doing in the first place, including wardrobe malfunctions.

Tony Romo should always do the Super Bowl. He is John Madden incarnate. If they combined, it would make the at-the-game stadium experience even less attractive. The informed, articulate, funny duo informing the home viewing audience provides a welcome diversion from the tiresome player and team demonstrations on the field below.

When watching the game, notice the workmen like efforts of the offensive lines. By clearing holes with powerful straight ahead blocking and astute positioning to protect their passers, they are the key to victory. The Eagles must stop the very effective Patriot screen passes.

In the Conference Championship game, the Jaguars had ninety-eight penalty yards to the Patriots’ ten. That’s ten penalty calls to one. In the entire regular season, the Jags averaged only one penalty more per game than the Pats. It is good the Super Bowl is being played at a neutral location.

Conference Playoff Games

As much as the previous week’s NFL Divisional Championship games were more in the mold of Lombardi era splendor with game-ending miracle passes and courageous goal line stands, Sunday’s Conference Championship contests looked at times like hard fought games pitting the semi-pro Pottstown Firebirds against the Charlotte Chargers.

After Minnesota’s loss to the Eagles, their sixth consecutive championship game loss, I recalled their four Super Bowl losses in a bygone era when legendary coach Bud Grant became famous for refusing to dress warmly to ward off the freezing outdoor January Minnesota winters.

After losing tight end Rob Gronkowski, a.k.a. “The Ford F-350” to a concussion related injury, Tom Brady found a way to win by passing brilliantly to Danny Amendola for two fourth quarter scores that turned the tide. The second of those scores was an act of terpsichorean artistry worthy of Fred Astaire as Amendola needed to reach as far as he could to snag a Brady bullet headed out the back of the end zone while dragging his back foot down with barely an inch to spare.

The Jacksonville Jaguars looked great for the first three quarters against the Patriots. Quarterback Blake Bortles outplayed Brady, hitting consistently on third door passes to control the clock, going into the fourth quarter with a ten-point lead. At the 13:30 mark, the game turned when the Jaguars recovered a fumble after stripping the receiver of a completed pass, returning the ball to mid-field. That’s when they could have put New England away. But a Jaguar three-and-out ensued and the game changed in the Pat’s favor. Brady completed his patented fourth-quarter-comeback, bringing what appeared to be a churlish smile to Bill Belichik’s face.

Two curious coaching decisions arose, one in each game. New England scored with a minute to go in the first half to pull within 14-10 of Jacksonville. The Jaguars had all three time outs remaining, first-and-ten at their own twenty-five, when they decided to take three knees to end the half. Manning, Brady, Rodgers, Favre, et. al., would have fired away to get into field goal range.

Halfway through the third quarter, the Vikings drove the length of the field to fourth and goal, inside the five, down, 31-7, admittedly a tough hill to climb. But they would need a three eventually to have any chance to catch the Eagles, so why not take it there? The fourth down pass was incomplete, for all intents and purposes ending the game, and what had been a terrific Vikings season.

The Philly faithful will travel to Minneapolis for the Super Bowl a week from Sunday, undoubtedly outfitted in those dog masks they’ve worn during these playoffs boasting of their underdog status. Even though the Vegas oddsmakers have made New England a touchdown favorite, don’t be surprised if you see a lot of Eagle fans smiling when they take them off at game’s end.

The Greatest Weekend Ever

The NFL finally did itself proud. After a six-month miasma of malaise, mistakes and mishaps, it had a divisional playoff for the ages. The old guard, Ryan, Brady, Brees, and Ben, challenged the new, Bortles, Keenum, Mariota and Foles, and the results were magnificent.

No game could match the Minnesota Vikings nipping the New Orleans Saints at the gun on a 61-yard miracle throw during which the only player who might’ve stopped it made a decision to not attempt a tackle for fear of interference being called. Because games cannot end on a defensive penalty, had one been called, such penalty would’ve allowed the Vikings to line up and kick a chip shot field goal for the win. The Saints player was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. I’ll cut him some slack on that one.

Nobody could’ve asked for more than the Steelers’ Ben Roethelsberger gave in trying to atone for an early season loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in which he was picked off five times. In another “the last team to have the ball wins,” Ben threw for an unbelievable 468 yards and five touchdowns in a 45-42 thriller. But, inexplicably in a game where the Steelers were playing catch-up all game after falling behind 21-0, when two fourth-and-one situations in Jaguar territory screamed for the 6’5″, 250 pound Ben to quarterback sneak, he did not. (Ben is 18 for 19 successful on fourth down sneaks in his career.) Those two failed moments will gnaw in the craw of the Steeler faithful for a very long time.

In wind-whipped Philadelphia, the Eagles’ Jake Elliott kicked three field goals, none more important than the last-second, first-half, fifty-three yarder that brought Philadelphia within one going into the locker room. Nothing gives a team more momentum than scoring just before the half. Quarterback Nick Foles, a fighter if ever there’s been one, kept Philly alive with two superb long second-half drives, one with the wind and one against it. Atlanta, with Matt Ryan finding Julio Jones time and again, stayed close. In the final minute, the Falcons had the ball at the Eagles nine, first-and-goal, down 15-1. After moving to the two on fourth down, Ryan called a rollout right, looking for the tall and lithe Jones against a defender six-inches shorter. Jones slipped making a sideline cut in the end zone and fell down. The defender, as is his right once the receiver falls down. held him down for a second as Jones desperately tried to rise for the catch. Failing to regain his full balance, Jones was unable to grab Ryan’s pass as it flew through his open arms. After blowing a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons are going to spend another off-season in deep soul searching.

After giving up an early score to the Tennessee Titans, New England dispatched them with their general error free football, en route to an impressive 35-14 win and must be considered a prohibitive favorite against the Jaguars.

But, then again after last week, anything can happen.

Wildcard Weekend

Kids playing defense learn in junior high school to bat down long fourth down passes so your offense takes the ball back at the previous line of scrimmage. A Carolina defensive back forgot that dictum in the Panthers’ wild card game with the Saints and caused his team to lose. New Orleans had fourth and two at their own forty-eight when they inexplicably chose to go for it with two minutes left, leading by 31-26. Their dynamic rushing duo of Kamara and Ingram had been held in check all game. Drew Brees tried a false count that didn’t work and then rolled out to complete a pass for a first down and the win, Carolina being out of timeouts. The defensive back 20 yards downfield picked it off and ran out of bounds at his own 32. Newton then brings his team all the way to the Saints 18-yard line when the drive runs out of steam and dies. That 20 yards lost  by the Panther blunder made all the difference in the world.

Marcus Mariota threw a touchdown pass to himself in leading the Titans to a win over the Chiefs. As strange and flukey as that pass was, what really endeared him to his teammates was a block he threw downfield after handing off to the ball carrier and leading the way around left end. You never see ten guys mob a quarterback for throwing a block. It’s clear Mariota is the true leader of that team. That block got the first down near the game’s end and sent poor Kansas City to its sixth straight postseason defeat.

If Brady isn’t the NFL MVP, Todd Gurley is. But this past weekend, Atlanta did a tune on Gurley, holding him in check as the Falcons beat the LA Rams, 26-13, to advance. Matt Ryan did a good job staying late in the pocket, completing one key pass after another. It doesn’t hurt Ryan that he has the fabulous (what other word fits?) Julio Jones on the receiving end of his throws. Jones is to Atlanta what Calvin Johnson was to the Lions a few years ago. After blowing that 28-3 lead to New England in last year’s Super Bowl, the Falcons were determined not to repeat it. A last second field goal by LA at the half cut the margin to 13-10 but the Falcons responded with a back breaking nine-minute drive to start the second half to put the game away.

In what can only be described as an ugly football game, Jacksonville beat Buffalo,10-3, to advance to play the Steelers. No NFL playoff game should showcase a quarterback rushing for more yards than he gets passing. Blake Bortles did, completing only 12 of 24 passes for 87 yards, but time and again breaking out of the pocket to rack up 88 yards rushing. Go, Jags!

Next Up:

Saints at Vikings. New Orleans must get its ground game going. Drew Brees can not throw for 400 yards again. Or can he?

Titans vs. NE. Brady, Gronkowski, and Belichik. Do the math. Mariota will have to morph into  George Gipp to win.

Falcons vs. Eagles. Without Carson Wentz, I like Ryan’s experience to avoid the ugly specter of failing two years in a row.

Jaguars vs. Steelers. Tough one for Jags. Steelers got screwed on top seed by that goofy Jesse James robbery against the Patriots two weeks ago. Ben has been there, done that.

Newbie QB’s

Aaron Lipkin, Guest Blogger

There are many things, had I predicted them at the end of 2016, you’d have called me mad.

The Jacksonville Jaguars are a very real force to be reckoned with. No, really!

The Saints are in the playoffs, thanks to the best running back duo in 40 years and a suffocating defense.

The team everybody was scared of at the end of this season (49ers) was a team that started 1-10, the only win coming against the 1-8 Giants.

But nothing would have seemed less likely than the three top seeds in the NFC this year being led into the playoffs by three QB’s who all played for the 2016 (4-12) Los Angeles Rams.

Note: Nick Foles filling in for Carson Wentz is not the reason the Eagles finished first so I am not going to discuss him now.

My two primary subjects are quarterbacks Case Keenum and Jared Goff.

The 2016 Rams had easily the worst passing game in the league, a dual effort by Keenum and Goff.  Pro Football Reference has a stat named “Expected points contributed by passing offense.” The average was plus 86 points and only 5 teams had a negative score. The Rams had a -102.  Neither Goff nor Keenum threw more touchdown passes than interceptions.

Fast forward to this year and the 12-4 Vikings and the 11-4 Rams. In a year when pass defenses have improved and passing as a whole is much tougher (11 teams have negative passing scores this year), Keenum and Goff have lit up the league. Their teams sit at 5th (123 points) and 8th (117 points) respectively. The Vikings defense has proven to be once in a decade good and the Rams’ Todd Gurley is hands down All-Pro and my personal argument for league MVP.

First we’ll look at the QB that stayed in LA. Jared Goff threw 5 touchdowns and 7 interceptions last year. He threw 7 interceptions again this year, but also threw 28 touchdown passes as well.

How did this happen? Some of it was rookie growing pains. The more compelling answer is the single biggest change to the Rams this year, the exchange of coach Jeff “7-9” Fisher for the obvious ‘Coach of The Year,’ Sean McVay.

Case Keenum is a different case. This year he threw for 12 more touchdowns and 4 less interceptions than last year but Case is no rookie. This is his 6th year in the league.

He escaped Fisher but can’t thank McVay. It could be Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who also gave Sam Bradford the best year of his career last year, but there are many factors that come from switching teams.

There is no sure way to know the cause of these improvements, but it’s clearly best not to give up on your QB.

Not all are instant successes like Houston’s Deshaun Watson. It took Detroit’s Matthew Stafford a decade to become the highest paid quarterback in history.

Cleveland Dilemma (This might’ve happened)

You are the 0-15 Cleveland Browns playing the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are assured of a playoff spot. Nobody wants you to win, not even yourselves.

Somehow, magically, or perhaps helped along by the Steelers sitting their starters to avoid injuries, you find yourself down by two late with the ball on the Steelers ten-yard line. A chip shot field goal for the win.

The team has taken a time out to ponder the possibilities.

Last year you had drafted a quarterback out of Notre Dame, unprepared for the NFL. Hence his winless record. He has a quarterback’s rating of 59.4, 60th of all the league’s quarterbacks.

There is doubt he’ll get better.

If you lose, you’re guaranteed the first pick in the draft. The Heisman winner is quarterback Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma. His credentials are impeccable. He started as a walk-on in college and ended up an All-American.

He will surely be the first pick in the draft. That in itself is not the guarantee of success in the NFL. Indeed one need only go back and realize what a disaster a first round pick named Johnny Manziel was for these same Browns, both on and off the field, just a few short years ago.

Mayfield is no altar boy, either, having made obscene gestures at opposing fans, and once was arrested for drunkenness and fleeing police.

Manziel’s transgressions off the field and his ineffectiveness on it are so strongly ingrained in the psyche of the Browns faithful that they fear a repeat performance with Mayfield.

Winning the meaningless last game of an all losing season is not really an option to their fans who have seen their team win just one of its last 31 games. It would be an insult to them to win and miss getting the best college player available at a position where he is desperately needed. Their fans would have every right to revolt.

Playing not to win is not new to the NFL. Often in the past, teams assured of making the play-offs have rested their starters for the last game or two to avoid injuries.

Which is more egregious, purposely missing a short field goal, thus getting top pick, or is it denying your fans the best performance you have? I feel sure the fans would root for a loss.

The Cleveland coach has already been told he will be back next year. Would you as coach kick the field goal, forego Mayfield, and look for another Carson Wentz or Jared Goff hidden somewhere in the draft to be your next quarterback?

Or would you go wide right on purpose? If so, how different is that from sitting your best players to avoid pre-playoff injuries?

Keep in mind that the only other team to go winless, the 2008 Detroit Lions, drafted first and chose Matthew Stafford of Georgia, who has gone on to be the highest paid quarterback in NFL history.

So there’s that!

Football Facts

During WW II, the NFL allowed teams to merge to save on the cost of travel. In 1943, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia got together to form the Steagles. They did pretty well, finishing 5-4-1.

The following year the Steelers joined with the Chicago Cardinals, calling the team the Car-Pitts. They lost every game in the one year they were together, earning the unenviable epithet, “The Carpets,” because everybody walked all over them.

Only once has a team scored just four points in a game in the history of professional football. On November 23rd, 1923, the Chicago Cardinals lost to the Racine Legion, 10-4. The odds of that happening again have grown to 24,832 to 1.

The average length of an NFL game is 3 hours, 10 minutes, and 34 seconds, during which time only 11 minutes of actual action takes place.

Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann:

John Ralston, former Denver Broncos coach: “I finally gave up coaching for health reasons. The fans were sick of me and I was tired of them.”

Wish List:  Tom Coughlin will return to the Giants as General Manager and Bill Cowher will come out of retirement to be the head coach.

The Baltimore Ravens are named after the poet Edgar Allan Poe, who lived in Baltimore. The three Raven Mascots are named, appropriately enough, Edgar, Allan, and Poe.

The ‘G’ on the side of the Green Bay Packers’ helmet stands not for Green Bay but rather for “Greatness.”

Deion Sanders is the only person to score a touchdown in the NFL and hit a home run in MLB in the same week. He is also the only person to have played in both the World Series and the Super Bowl.

About 56% of an NFL game on television is devoted to replays.

NFL teams have an average value of one billion dollars. MLB teams are valued at half that amount.

The only scoreless game in the NFL was in 1943 when the Lions and the Giants battled to a scoreless tie.

The huddle was invented by Paul Hubbard, a legally deaf quarterback at Gallaudet University, a college for deaf students, so his teammates could understand his signals better.

Approximately 80% of Super Bowl tickets go to corporate sponsors.

During halftime of the Super Bowl, there are approximately 90 million toilet flushes. That is equivalent to 3.5 minutes of water flowing over Niagara Falls.

The Tampa Bay Bucs lost their first 26 games. Near the end of that streak, a reporter asked coach John McKay what he thought of his team’s execution. The affable McKay responded, “I am in favor of it.”

Sports Illustrated notes that two years after NFL players retire, approximately 78% of them are bankrupt.

Football Coach Lou Holtz: “Don’t tell your problems to other people. Eighty per cent of them don’t care and the other 20% are glad you have them.”

What I Like (And Don’t Like) About Football

I do like Chris Simms broadcasting college games. His father Phil may have been a better quarterback but the son beats him on the airwaves.

I do like Navy and Notre Dame standing together after a tough game, respecting each other’s Alma Mater.

I don’t like a fool of a person, listed as an assistant strength coordinator at Northwestern, behaving like a fool on the sideline in a t-shirt during a wet cold driving rain, jumping up and down simply to draw television camera coverage.

I don’t like some sleazy Miami supporter on the sideline hanging a gold chain around the neck of a defender who intercepted a pass as if it were some ancient Roman tribute during the Crusades.

I do like the idea of Aaron Rodgers getting back on the field to still make a difference this season.

I don’t like the idea of Jimbo Fisher saying his leaving FSU for Texas A & M was a “no- brainer” after the Seminoles groomed him to replace the legendary Bobby Bowden, leaving a great program in place for him. This season, however,  the ‘Noles had  to play a make-up game with cupcake Louisiana-Monroe just to get six wins to be bowl eligible for a game Fisher won’t even coach. That’s loyalty. (Not!) I am pleased though to see Willie Taggart taking over the coaching reins in Tallahassee.

I do like the Giants for firing the coach and general manager for their handling of the Eli Manning situation. It is some solace for Giant fans to know that management realized the chaos surrounding the team was caused by the head coach and dumped him.

I don’t like seeing Heisman winner Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma going the Johnny Manziel route in taunting opposing fans with obscene gestures. Play the game, son, play the game.

I do like the job Jimmy Garappolo did for the 49’ers in leading them to wins in his first two starts. The longtime understudy to Tom Brady deserved his day in the sun and he made the most of it. I think he’ll be a long time starter in the NFL.

I do like that Scott Frost, coach of UCF, is going back to his alma mater, Nebraska, to attempt to revive the Cornhusker program to its former greatness. At the University of Central Florida, in two years, he went from a winless team to an undefeated season. He will make the Big Ten even stronger. His welcomed calm sideline demeanor is reminiscent of former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, a member of the college HOF.

I do like to see a hard fought, clean game played by Army and Navy, watching Army win for the second year in a row after a fourteen game Middie winning streak was ended a year earlier. They play the game the old fashioned way, without any displays of self congratulatory chest thumping. The heavy snow provided a pleasant pastiche of long ago clashes of Staubach, Blanchard and Davis, et. al. A great ending to the regular college 2017 season.

Hut One, Hut Two….

Nissan Commercial

May I take a brief moment to inform you of perhaps the most boorish commercial I have ever seen.

I suspect there are many of you who have recently seen the Nissan commercial showing Heisman Trophy winners engaging in a food fight in the Heisman House, supposedly the meeting place for winners of the prestigious award, but actually a location from which more Nissan automobiles could be sold.

These men represent the best of college football over the years, rewarded for their outstanding performances as the best player in the nation for each year since 1935. Each of them competed all their careers against others nearly as good to win the award.

Byron White became a Supreme Court Justice. Bruce Smith was nominated for sainthood. General Pete Dawkins was a Rhodes Scholar.

Not all winners were as successful. O. J. Simpson’s troubles are well-documented.  But by and large, they have remained good citizens. What in the name of Knute Rockne caused them to participate in a food fight right out of “Animal House,” if not for the money?

Humiliating themselves and besmirching all that the Heisman has stood for, they should be ashamed. I understand humor. This was in no way funny. Men standing on a dinner table throwing food at each other succeeded in a John Belushi movie because he was playing who he was, a character we all knew from SNL.

These were grown men, supposedly educated, representing an elite group in a nationally recognized sport. Debased was what it was.

I am often puzzled at some commercials and their messages. People better versed than I in the public’s tastes make decisions based on extensive research. But I cannot fathom for a moment how this degradation of a fine institution such as the Heisman Award will sell Nissan automobiles. Quite to the contrary, most football fans I know would now hesitate to buy their cars based on this crude and sophomoric satire.

Previous commercials had these men placed within the collegial confines of their club poking fun at one another over miscues made during their careers. Self deprecating in nature, they were humorous in a good natured way.

But this one portrayed these grown men as buffoons, looking foolish, churlish and clueless as bedlam broke out at the dinner table, creating havoc with spaghetti and puddings flying towards each other to howls of laughter.

One wonders what the oldest living member of the club, ninety-two-year-old 1947 winner, quarterback Johnny Lujack, a paragon of class both at his alma mater, Notre Dame, and throughout a very successful broadcasting and business career, would have to say on the issue.

Hey, here’s a novel idea. Why not have these wise marketing suits do a commercial showing Heisman winners out in the neighborhoods and towns they came from, teaching young boys and girls how to throw spirals so that those kids might one day emulate these heroes on school gridirons.

I am Nobody’s Demographic

To the Network Suits, I stopped being a demographic when I moved up and out of the 18-49 group thirty-four years ago. I no longer count in the ratings. But there’s a whole bunch of us who have something to say and they’d do well to listen to us.

First of all, NETFLIX, Hulu, Amazon, Acorn and PBS are cleaning your clock in original entertainment. You still have the NFL but unless you straighten out that mess, you’re liable to lose that as well.

Maybe it is time for Commissioner Roger Goodell to move on. He has done a hell of a lot to grow the business and he has indeed been blindsided by factors outside his control, but why is it taking so long to pay the nearly one-billion in concussion pay to all those old NFL vets suffering from CTE, of whom only 10% have seen any money. And believe me I am not on Cowboys blowhard owner Jerry Jones side angling for his scalp. I need both sets of fingers to count the last time Dallas made the Super Bowl.

As a viewer, I thought end zone celebrations were not allowed but they are sneaking back in with stupid man bridges being built and players leap-frogging over each other and other foursomes doing dances that would make the Nicholas Brothers jump step in their graves. And the next receiver who signals a first down should be penalized ten yards so it becomes 1st & 20.

When was the last time you saw a quarterback acting goofy celebrating a play? They know their role is to plan and perform. The skill position guys think a ten yard gain is showtime on Broadway. Get those buffoons to stop that.

Another thing, Suits, stop trying to sell something on half the screen during injury time outs and upstairs reviews. We get it. Cars need to be sold but, come on, man!

Red Zone, streaming, highlight shows, talking heads talking over each other….all those venues are taking away from Sunday and MNF.  Enough is enough.

It is the game that is important. Not all the hoopla surrounding it. There is so much to like about professional football. At 1:00 and 4:00 every Sunday afternoon for five months, it has America’s attention like no other sport.

There have been some surprises this year to be sure. The Eagles and Vikings are running away in their divisions. The Giants and Bucs tanking is a surprise as is the emergence of the Rams in Los Angeles.

Drew Brees might bring a division crown to New Orleans in the tough NFC South while the Patriots remain the Patriots now that Kansas City seems to have tanked. And Pittsburgh will likely get in with a division title.

The stretch run will be interesting with Seattle and the Titans and Jaguars scrambling for a few more wins.

My picks for the Super Bowl are the Eagles and the Patriots with the championship returning to the city of brotherly love for the first time in 57 years.

Hut One, Hut Two…

Throwing Spirals — A Metaphor for Life

The other day I was getting out of my car when I noticed a boy carrying a football, lagging about thirty-feet behind his father.

When I got out of the car, I told the boy to throw me the ball. His father nodded it was okay to do so. The ball was too big but he threw it to me. It wobbled the ten-yard journey, non-spiraling, end over end.

I called the boy over and told him he should learn how to throw a spiral if he wanted to play football.

Maybe it would guide his life as it did mine, I thought to myself.

When I was fifteen, I was an end on my high school team. One day someone asked me to throw a ball back to a group that was practicing receiving passes. Nobody had ever seen me throw before, only catch. I returned the ball to the group, a twenty-yard spiral that never went higher than six feet off the ground. The coach stopped practice and said, “You’re my quarterback!”

I had an older brother who was a good player in high school and I had learned from him.

Throwing spirals soon became a metaphor for my life.

Nothing in life has brought me so much success as my ability to throw a spiral. High school honors, college scholarships, good jobs, leadership positions, lasting friends, and lots of great memories.

Sometimes those spirals missed their mark. So what? I kept throwing. Some times in school, courses were too hard. I kept going. Sometimes efforts failed but I kept throwing spirals.

I learned in relationships, business, athletics, dealings with problems, and managing people, you should never stop throwing spirals that are straight and true. You’ll have a high completion average the more you stress the fundamentals. Recognize the target, screen out the obstacles, keep your eye on the prize, and throw a perfect spiral that is right on target.

Sometimes you’ll get picked off. Learn from your mistakes. Never mislead your receivers. Know their strengths and weaknesses and help them succeed by providing soft spirals to them in stride.

And then congratulate them for being successful.

It is no different in all we do. Every position I’ve held was because I had thrown spirals in games and was expected to do the same in my work. That’s how I had a very successful career at IBM, and why my fellow residents elected me to be their mayor.

I determined that everything I learned from my parents to Coach Murray Warmath, was right. I used those principles to become not only a better leader, but a better follower, if that was to be my role.

From the day I threw that first spiral, I’ve never stopped trying to do my best.

I hope that kid is waiting out in the street to play catch with me, getting ready to throw spirals.

It is in that spirit that I am so very grateful this Thanksgiving and I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season.

Hut One, Hut Two….

 

Watson and Wilson and Wentz (Oh, My!)

When Dorothy warned of the carnage that “lions and tigers and bears, oh, my” could cause in “The Wizard of Oz,” she might well have been describing three modern NFL quarterbacks, so frightful are they are in inflicting damage on unsuspecting opponents.

Three guys who have paved that yellow brick road to mid-season success and established themselves as the quarterbacks to watch down the second half stretch and beyond are Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, Deshaun Watson (before he got hurt) of the Houston Texans, and Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles. They are this next decade’s Brady, Favre and Manning.

The elder member of this elite list of leaders is Wilson with one Super Bowl win in his locker already and a second one all but his except for a boneheaded play called by an assistant coach disdaining handing the ball to “The Beast,” Marshawn Lynch, three times from the half-yard line for the win instead of stupidly ordering a game ending interception, giving the Super Bowl victory to New England two years ago, arguably the dumbest call in football history.

Coming out of Clemson, Deshaun Watson has proven himself to be a player of rare talent once given the chance to quarterback the Houston Texans. After great first-half action, he has been sidelined with an ACL injury sustained during practice, shelving him for the season. But he will heal and return next year and continue his assault on opponents.

I don’t know how my Minnesota Gophers whiffed on Carson Wentz. An outstanding high school prospect, he stayed home at nearby North Dakota State and had a great college career. He may well be the best of the three at 6’5″ and 235 pounds. Staying healthy, he could be the bellwether quarterback for years to come for the Eagles ruling the tough NFL Eastern Division.

On average, the same trio is just slightly behind Brady, Brees and Rodgers in total quarterback ratings at 104.5 to 101.9. But they are younger by far and much more agile. They are, in addition, 61-19 in that key measurement of quarterback success, number of touchdown passes to interceptions. By comparison, Brees, Brady and Rodgers are 45-9.

The newbies have thrown  89 completions of 20 plus yards compared to 84 for the veterans. Those are the plays needed to sustain touchdown drives and the attendant killing of the clock. They are vital to a team’s success.

“If ever oh ever a wiz there was,” sang Dorothy, “it’s because of the wonderful things he does.”

If ever the NFL needed wizards, it is right now with all the controversies swirling around America’s favorite game. These three guys are going to be the quarterbacks determining the league’s success or failure.

My money is on their finding their fortunes in the future by leading their teams down those yellow brick roads to conference and Super Bowl championships in re-establishing the prestige and glory that once was the NFL.

Adam Vinatieri Lives On

Adam Vinatieri, who will be 45 next month, is still going strong. Last year, he made over 87% of his field goals, and didn’t miss an extra point, in his 21st NFL season.

He’s third all-time in points scored, third all-time in field goals made, and one of the greatest to ever play at his position.

A four sport star at South Dakota State, he first played professional football for the Amsterdam Admirals in Europe in 1995. A year later, he was signed as an un-drafted free agent by the New England Patriots

But for 18 inches, he might have been relegated to the margins of professional football for all time instead of being a sure bet for the NFL Hall of Fame.

Here’s what happened.

In the first three games of the 1996 season, his first with New England, he performed very poorly. In week one, he missed three out of four field goal attempts in a loss to Buffalo. Pats coach Bill Parcells began to lose confidence in him. First year kickers underperforming generally are out the door pronto. The position is so important a coach must always have a short list of other guys to go to.

In the second game, Vinatieri missed not only another field goal but an extra point as well. After three weeks, he was kicking field goals at a success rate of only 42%. In week four, the Pats played the Jacksonville Jaguars and he missed another extra point but did connect on three thirty-yard chip shot field goals. At half time, the television commentators discussed who Parcells would bring in to replace the failing Vinatieri

And then one of those strange occurrences of life intervened.

Earlier, the Jags had completed a Hail Mary effort for a touchdown at the half and now with time left for just one play and the score tied at 25-25, from the 50-yard line, quarterback Mark Brunell fired another Hail Mary for the win. The ball was caught on the half-yard line and downed there, eighteen inches shy of the score and a Jacksonville victory.

The game went into overtime and Adam kicked the winning field goal. No way any coach fires a kicker who has just made a clutch kick to win.

For the final 12 games of the 1996 season, Vinatieri would miss just two field goals in helping the Patriots get to the Super Bowl and would then go on to establish himself as one of the greatest kickers in football history.

After nearly cutting Vinatieri after four games, Parcells stated after his kicker caught return man Herschel Walker returning a kickoff, “I just don’t have a kicker. I have a football player!”

Now 21 years later, Adam Vinatieri is still kicking. This year in week 5, he hit 4-4 on field goals, including a 51-yarder in OT to beat the 49ers.

Football is a game of inches. So, sometimes, is life.

The Huddle

What Lieutenant Bill Carpenter started sixty years ago as Army’s “Lonely End” has come full circle. Most teams don’t huddle at all now. And I think from a player’s point of view, that is not good.

In 1958, Army coach Earl “Red” Blaik had Carpenter line up far away from the huddle to receive hand and/or foot signals from the quarterback telling him the play. It was a gimmick, pure and simple, although not as gimmicky as coach Tom Nugent of Maryland recruiting a gymnast to go in motion doing somersaults across the field to distract the defense.

Carpenter’s move befuddled the opponent. Nugent’s created laughter.

Carpenter went on to a distinguished military career, winning the Distinguished Service Cross by saving his company in Vietnam in directing air strikes on his own position. The gymnast has been lost forever to the forgotten files of football follies.

Teams now seldom huddle, the thought being more plays can be run, which is a fallacy in itself in that quantity alone does not equate to success. Careful scouting, planning and execution does.

The huddle was home to eleven guys, the location clearly defined by the center always hustling to set it up seven yards behind the line of scrimmage.

The huddle was to football what the Reagan family Sunday dinner is to “Blue Bloods.”

Hand held high, the snapper’s signal to gather began the plan to direct, understand and execute.

The quarterback would stand off to the side to allow the players to whisper about their blocking assignments while he figured the best play to call, based on down, distance, field position, and time remaining.

When the quarterback stepped into the huddle, everybody listened to him issuing the play and snap count. Further information such as distance to a first down might follow. A moment of eye contact with a determined running back might portend an audible at the line of scrimmage.

“Break” would send everybody out of the cocoon of the huddle to the ball and the play, united in one cause, perfection.

Without a huddle, that moment of team camaraderie, fifty times a game, is missing. Oftentimes the quarterback would tell the running back the importance of gaining that extra couple of yards for a first down, or the receiver the role the clock might play in staying inbounds.

Without a huddle, a Byzantine system of back up quarterbacks waggling arms, or a mock up of photos of movie stars or animals on the sideline denoting the play to be run after consultation with offensive coordinators upstairs—-all during the :30 allowed before a delay of game penalty is called— leaves too much room for error just to get more plays run.

Then again, if your name is Peyton Manning, all you need do is line up your team and utter “Omaha”—which was totally bogus—but somehow had the mystical ability to totally control what the defense would do. Nobody has ever figured out how….

Hut One, Hut Two….

The Vagaries of Referees

33,000 Eagles fans have signed a petition to not allow veteran NFL official Pete Morelli to work any more Eagles games. Pete seems to hate Philadelphia as much as comedian W. C. Fields did.

“NFL Referee Pete Morelli has a clear and statistically obvious bias against the Philadelphia Eagles,” the petition reads. “Over the last four games that he has officiated that the Eagles were playing in, the Eagles were flagged a total of 40 times for 396 yards, while the Eagles opponent in those games were flagged a mere 8 times for 74 yards. This is unacceptable and puts the Philadelphia Eagles at a disadvantage. Preventing Morelli from refereeing Eagles games will result in a more trustworthy and honest NFL. This will benefit the entire league and keep all claims of conspiracy to a normal level.”

Morelli, 65, is in his 21st season with the NFL and his 15th as a referee. For some reason, it appears he is seriously pissed at the Eagles. Pack it in, Pete! The Referee’s Retirement Home beckons. Although, truth be known, Eagle fans are no walk in the park, either. One Christmas, they even booed Santa Claus.

In the 21st Century, home teams in the NFL have won 56.5% of the games played, largely because total penalties called in every year but two have favored the home team.

There is an old adage in football that the team making the fewest mistakes wins. Penalties are assessed for mistakes such as holding or offsides or pass interference. They are judgement calls made by fallible men such as Pete Morelli.

Odds makers give the home team a three-point built in advantage not because, as they say,  teams traveling will experience hardships getting to the game. They don’t really, seeing they fly first class, eat in top restaurants and stay at the best hotels.

What the odds makers know is that the penalty numbers favor home teams because refs are human and react to home crowds screaming for penalties to be called, especially deep defensive pass interference calls. Those third down calls made deep in the secondary sustain stalled drives and often turn games around. How often have we seen a Dez Bryant or an Odell Beckham or a LeSean Jackson yell foul as the ball extends just beyond their reach in an act of supplication to a referee who then reacts to screaming home crowds by making the interference call.

Officials do the best they can, the occasional outlier like Morelli being the rare exception to the rule. But in non-reviewable instances of penalties such as the pass interference calls, they are too easily influenced by home crowds because fans know those calls are game changers. Those calls are not reviewable. The referee up in the booth should be consulted on those calls after utilizing instant replay to determine if a penalty has indeed occurred.

Oh, for the simpler halcyon days of referee Red Cashion who, after untangling a mountain of men, penalized a player sneaking in one last punch, explaining to the crowd while waving his clenched fist, “He was giving him the business down there.”

Hut one, Hut two…

What’s Next for Football?

What is the future of football? Very often these days, that question is being asked.

The monster entertainment known as the NFL is a multi billion dollar endeavor that thrills millions for half the calendar year. A companion piece, college football, has hundreds of teams playing before millions more in person or on television. There are over 14,000 high schools in America, 80% of which have varsity and junior varsity teams playing ten to twelve games each. One million boys play high school football every year. Another 100,000 play in college. 1,696 play in the NFL.

The sport has become America’s national past time, leaving baseball far behind.

An alarming statistic, though, is that 3.5% fewer boys are playing high school football in the United States than 5 years ago. Forty-one states have seen a drop in participation over those five years.

The sport is threatened as never before. The inability of the NFL to deal with issues like kneeling during the anthem, or punishing domestic violence abuse, or ridiculous end zone celebrations or dealing with concussions has lessened the viewer ratings on television.

Everybody knows the problems. But what are the solutions?

The competition to reach college and the NFL is so great that men, especially linemen, will do anything to become heavier and wider and faster to get to those million dollar pay days. They are driven by strength and conditioning coaches uncaring or oblivious to the dangers to their players and their opponents that CTE will very likely ruin their future lives. Linemen are 25% heavier than a generation ago. They give and get more powerful hits every year.

They are simply too big. They did not get that way naturally—they did it on purpose. A suggestion: Limit linemen to a top weight of 230 pounds. Speed will replace girth and the result will be a more effective running game with half the men on the field having been reduced to normal weight from their gargantuan status now. Fewer concussions, the cause of CTE, will ensue.

Flag football should be the sport from Pop Warner up through middle school and only in high school would regular football be played. It is easier to teach and play for youngsters, it is much safer than tackle at those ages, it is learning a team sport early on in a child’s educational cycle, and it is much less expensive for parents. Those kids who excel at flag football can then choose to move on to the high school tackle teams.

Constant attention must be paid to the proper method of coaching tackling at the high school level and beyond, combined with helmet technology evolving into the safest helmet imaginable–leather again perhaps–at all levels.

Anyone who has ever covered punts or kickoffs has felt the crack back block—especially on reverse returns—of an opponent striking you at full speed just as you were to get your hands on the returner. You sense at the very last nano-second before contact that you are going to get hit the hardest ever, while you are totally defenseless. Many concussions ensue from these collisions.

To lessen the number of kickoff return injuries, I have advocated for awarding a point for a kickoff through the goal posts (Power Kick) after a score as an offensive alternative to lessen the number of kick off-returns. A failed Power Kick would place the ball at the thirty-five yard line instead of the twenty-five.

Perhaps also on punts, a point could be awarded for punting out of bounds inside an opponent’s five-yard line, a return perhaps to the coffin corner kick so popular years ago.

There is an area ten yards to twenty yards downfield between the hash marks where receivers running crossing routes are particularly vulnerable to direct hits by defensive backs or linebackers. Referees need to more strictly penalize helmet to helmet hits in this area.

Other suggestions are welcomed.

Hut one, Hut two…

Going to an NFL Game

I went to my first NFL game when Harry Truman was president. I recently went to my final one.

It is surely not the greatest generation’s NFL anymore. The game seemed almost an afterthought to the afternoon.

Between the dancing girls and the huge screens updating Fantasy Football scores, or cell phones in everybody’s hands, to interminable time-outs for television commercials, to a screaming Jumbotron urging the crowd to yell their collective heads off, or kiss the person next to them, the screen not showing action on the field until a nano-second before a snap, one of vintage age wears down quickly.

When last I went to a game here, I sat in a luxurious club seat, delivered thereto by elevator, attended to by courteous servers, oblivious to the outside elements, the closest thing to my man cave at home.

It felt good to be the king.

The Buccaneers versus the Giants. There is a very eerie dynamic present when the visiting team is from up North, Florida being the playground for so many fans from there. Some Bucs season ticket holders sell their tickets at twice their price for a few games to those visitors and therefore get to see the remaining five home games for free. This year, the Jets and Patriots will also visit so equal amounts of home and away fans will continue.

It is a dynamic present when the Yankees and Red Sox come to play the Rays as well.

I had never been in a stadium where cheers rang out on every play because there really was no home team as evidenced by equal seas of blue and red.

The weather was horrible, scorchingly hot up until game time and then immediately thereafter, a thunderstorm made the field all but invisible for fifteen minutes.

All those ingredients could have produced a calamitous afternoon, but did not. Relations between conflicting fans sitting together produced no incidents or arguments.

The attitude of the attendants from parking to entering to ushering to police couldn’t have been better. Everybody had fun.

Considering the weather, the game was well played, the Bucs continuing to keep the Giants winless when their kicker finally made a field goal at the gun after having missed three previously.

The Giants, after numerous injuries to wide receivers, have serious problems. After 14 seasons, it is time to begin grooming someone to take over for Eli Manning in a year or two. It’s been a great run for him and the question will always remain as to who was better, he or Peyton.

It was interesting to note the sellout crowd was the first since the Giants were in town in November of 2015. Two factors contribute to that. First, the Bucs are a much improved team and secondly, that Northern weather really drives fans down here to the Sunshine State.

I will leave game attendance to others as I return to in-home viewing from my Lazy Boy with attendant zero noise.

Four Weeks of Eligibility

When I played quarterback for the Minnesota Gophers in the 1950s, we had to play both offense and defense. After WW II, unlimited substitution was allowed as many more veterans returned to college, but for a limited time thereafter it was done away with, and we all had to play sixty minutes.

The NCAA realized the hardship this put on players so it determined that if you were hurt and missed a game you would get a one-time extension on your eligibility, two weeks for every game you missed.

(NCAA Rule 17A: Section 207: Deferred Eligibility 1958)

Hear me out: Since I broke my hand in practice during my senior year and missed two games, I now find myself with four weeks of eligibility remaining. The only caveat is the extension expires after fifty-nine years. Tick-Tock.

My legs, which Sports Illustrated pointed out in 1958 made me “not much of a running threat” have atrophied to the point that rolling out the garbage cans weekly feels like a quarterback sneak on third-and-one gone terribly wrong.

Playing safety is out as well seeing I needed so much help covering deep routes on those long ago autumn days of football.

But my arm is a different story. I can still, at 83, throw twenty-yard strikes matching a Koufax fastball, with just enough spinning spiral to reach the back of the end zone in a blur.

In 1956, when we won at Michigan Stadium in one of the greatest comebacks in Gopher football history, there were five-thousand fans cheering our arrival back at the Minneapolis airport. It was a thrill when I had been put into that game late, sternly instructed to adhere to the Hippocratic Oath of physicians and mop-up quarterbacks, i.e., “Do no harm!”

Two years later, in 1958, in one of the most spirited Little Brown Jug battles in that wonderful Minnesota-Michigan rivalry, I had the opportunity to bring the Jug back to Minneapolis again–all I needed to do was complete a late-game two-point conversion to go up by 21-20 to grab the win. Alas, my pass tipped off the hands of my receiver deep in the end zone and we lost, only a few sad fans greeting us at the airport upon our return.

I have three weeks to prepare to go back to Michigan Stadium once again to claim my own field of dreams.

I am working on my foot work to pick up blitzing linebackers or evade the backside rush should my blind side tackle miss his block. I’ll leave my cane in the locker room.

All I need is a small window of opportunity to achieve the goal I thought lost those many years ago.

So imbued am I with this redemptive opportunity, I have moved my cataract operation up by two weeks to be at my optical best, nailing that open receiver this time in that fabled football gridiron galaxy, far, far, away.

Hut one, Hut two.

Pity Poor Linemen

At the beginning of the 20th Century, officials in New York had to find a way for the exploding population of that metropolis to navigate its streets filled as they were with excrement from conveyances pulled by horses, pre-automobile.

The solution was subways and sewers, underground tunnels dug through rock and sand, block upon block, built by sand hogs as they were called. These men labored long days in dangerous conditions, many dying from the bends, an illness caused by ingesting heavy dust for long periods beneath the earth.

But the subways and sewers got built and the city grew cleaner. The sand hogs were forgotten and Wall Street types prospered.

And in the process, the streets and fields of Gotham were rid of above ground excrement, for the most part. There remain the New York Jets, of course, but men are working on that.

Stretch if you will to compare those two types of men to today’s NFL strata. The sand hogs have become the linemen and the Wall Street suits have become the owners.

Linemen labor unnoticed, save the occasional glance up at the Jumbotron after one has been found guilty of holding, seen mouthing to the nearest huddled teammate, “That call was bullshit!”

All the men wearing 50s, 60s, and 70s make half the money other numbers make, and in the process receive over one-hundred blows to the head every Sunday afternoon, dozens more than what any other team member feels.

Beginning to see the sand hog/Wall Street comparison?

For his efforts, a lineman is six to seven times more likely to suffer from CTE later in life, a debilitating illness of depression, anxiety and delusion, in some cases leading to suicide.

If the game of football were invented today, knowing what we now know through scientific study on concussions, there would be no 350 pound men playing the game. They would have to find another job. I understand San Francisco is considering subways.

But, football being what it is, let’s recognize those denizens of defense, those bastards of ball control, those masters of mayhem on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Although, truth be known, so many of them are bearded, I think they themselves may be ashamed to be seen.

To be sure, there are many fine linemen in the NFL. Some of them even have college degrees.

Twenty-five years ago, no NFL lineman weighed 300 pounds. Today 390 do. Get a grip on yourselves, guys. You’re gonna die young, fat and sad.

Get out while you can. Some of your fellow players have already made that call. Don’t have life throw a flag on you. The game, and you, will be better for your absence. Nobody ever watches you play anyway. You are the sand hogs who built the game of football but you’ve become expendable.

Those hedge funders simply can’t afford you. That billion dollar payout to old NFL veterans was a one time deal. Find another line of work, men.

The Mystifying Offense

Oftentimes, lo these many years removed from college, I search You Tube for old football films, some even in color, of those long ago halcyon days of autumnal splendor.

I have gone back as far as 1937 watching Jackie Robinson returning punts for UCLA. I’ve never seen a more smooth-striding broken field runner, seemingly saving those pigeon-toed sprints exhibited stealing bases in Brooklyn for his later journey to Cooperstown.

Having run the Split-T offense in college at Minnesota, I find especially entertaining the skill with which Coach Bud Wilkinson steamrolled all opponents en route to 47 straight wins in the 1950s at Oklahoma with that offense.

The T Formation, the Veer, the Pistol, the Shotgun, the Single Wing, the Double Wing, the Power “I”, the Pro Set, and Wildcat formations all experienced a modicum of success before being replaced by something else, just because something else might prove better. The greener grass syndrome at work!

During the 1920s and 1930s, the Single Wing offense perfected by Notre Dame and Tennessee ruled football, featuring power running with just a dash of trickery to keep defenses honest.

But then along came two guys from Michigan who combined the power of the single wing with the sleight of hand of the T formation to bedazzle and befuddle opponents. Coaches Forrest Evashevski at Iowa and Davey Nelson at Delaware ran the “Wing T” to perfection. I had the misfortune to play against Iowa and I can attest to how difficult it was to figure out what the hell happened on the snap of the ball.

Back then, players had to go both ways so I played quarterback and safety.

Offense was much easier than defense, I hasten to add.

On the snap, a safety is taught to take a step backwards, the thinking being never let anybody get behind you. But the tricky ball handling by the quarterback in the Iowa Wing T was so quick, if you took your eyes off that action, a ball carrier would come out of nowhere so fast you’d end up saving touchdowns by making game saving tackles way downfield.

Then just as you gained confidence in stopping the run, a fake into the line would freeze you in place for a nano second while a streaking receiver would run by you like a freight train passing a bum.

In one such instance that freight train was future NFL star Jim Gibbons while I painfully played the part of the bum trying to jump on board.

In another instance, All-American Rich Kreitling of Illinois resembled more the sleek 20th Century Limited racing from Chicago to New York while I got stuck somewhere around Cleveland vainly chasing him.

Twenty-five years later, I was working at IBM when I met a fellow employee who had played at Colgate. I asked if he had ever played safety against Delaware’s Wing T. His immediate answer was, “Yes, and I had nightmares every time they snapped the friggin’ ball!”

Nice tradition at the University of Iowa. On campus and rising high above Nile Kinnick Stadium is the Iowa Children’s Hospital. At the end of the first quarter all the fans rise as one and cheer the children brought to the hospital’s upper windows, waving their arms in unison, saluting the efforts of all the kids to get well.

That is college football at its very best.

Football and Boxing

With stadiums filled to capacity every weekend, it is hard to imagine football will end up like boxing, shown only on pay-tv to diehard fans who delight in violence, watching combatants uncaring about their own futures.

High schools are finding it increasingly more difficult to field teams because of parents not letting kids participate for fear of injuries, primarily concussions. Statistics show that participation in football is dropping every year in middle school, high school and Pop Warner leagues.

Years ago, boxing was a sport for the masses, drawing crowds of 70,000 or more at major league ballparks. Friday night fights televised from a packed Madison Square Garden furnished fisticuffs for years. Local Golden Glove tournaments created neighborhood heroes.

And then Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought and everything changed as they nearly killed each other with the ferocity of their blows. Mike Tyson scared everybody. Ali, especially, aging and addled, turned many off to boxing.

As the masses abandoned boxing’s brutality, many could still not get enough of the violence. The answer was pay television at exorbitant prices brought into homes or bars.

Fight fans laid out a half-a-billion bucks to watch Mayweather and McGregor fight recently for the heavyweight title. Those who wanted violence got what they paid for, a technical knockout, McGregor still standing, but unable to defend himself. Mayweather got $100 million and McGregor received a third of that.

The decline in participation for young boys playing football because of the fear of injuries closely parallels the loss of interest in boxing because of violence.

But is it reasonable to think given the huge popularity of football that it will become as limited as boxing has in appealing to just those gridiron fans who prefer violence to skill?

The 1,696 men who play in the NFL do so for the millions of dollars it will bring them despite the fact that debilitating depression, in some cases leading to suicide, awaits many of them, especially interior linemen, from the thousands of hits their heads will endure during their careers. That is their choice.

Some men have already left secure positions on teams stating their concerns about health issues down the road. Indeed, an announcer and former NFL player, Ed Cunningham of ESPN, has resigned stating he can no longer be associated with the game because of its inherent dangers.

But for many, the financial reward, as it is in boxing, is too great a temptation. And the fans still demand the game.

This resembles, does it not, the history of boxing? It was the horrific violence of Ali, Foreman, and others that turned many fans away from boxing.

Is there a singular act that may do the same to football, driving viewers towards pay television for the ever narrowing group of fans who will always prefer violence over skill?

In the Washington Post, noted columnist George Will recently pointed out:

“Football’s kinetic energy – a function of the masses and velocities of the hurtling bodies – has increased dramatically in 50 years.

On Alabama’s undefeated 1966 team, only 21 percent of the players weighed more than 200 pounds. The heaviest weighed 223; the linemen averaged 194.

Of the 114 members of Alabama’s 2016 squad, just 25 weighed less than 200 and 20 weighed more than 300.

In 1980, only three NFL players weighed 300 or more pounds. Last season, 390 weighed 300 pounds or more, and six topped 350.”

Bodies hitting ever bigger bodies.

It is up to all of us who love the game to save the game.

Parents must remain vigilant in allowing their children to play only under coaches who truly know the game and teach it correctly, especially tackling.

The NFL and NCAA and all state high school associations must more carefully adjust contact rules and provide better equipment, especially helmets to combat CTE, the result of concussions.

If we collectively negate the undue violence, we can more thoroughly enjoy what has truly become America’s “National Pastime.” Let us all work toward that goal.

Life Turns on Moments

A fourteen year-old boy doesn’t want to play on his high school junior varsity basketball team because he got a job as an usher in the town movie theater. The coach offers the uniform to the team’s manager, a boy who had never played the game. That boy goes on to play in the NBA.

Another young man is listed on the third-team as a back-up quarterback at a major university who eventually drinks a bowl of hot chicken noodle soup on his way to the NFL Hall of Fame.

Life turns on moments.

When the jayvee coach gave the uniform to the team manager, the boy was as much enthused as he was unprepared. He did not know you couldn’t dribble with two hands simultaneously. He was big so he became the back up center, firmly planting his pivot foot in such a way that a derrick could not have moved it. On a change of possession, he would beat everybody back down the floor on defense, forming a barrier of 6’4″, 190 pounds of determination.

The first shot he took went above the backboard and clanged into the iron stanchions above.

A popular kid, he did not let the laughter of well-meaning classmates bother him. They elected him class president. He practiced incessantly until two in the morning, shooting baskets by himself behind the town fire house. He would then ride his bike home where he had to get up early every day to collect the eggs from all the chickens in the coops behind the house, the family business. He became the leading scorer in Long Island high school basketball history. He received scholarship offers.

On to Hofstra for All-American status and the NBA, after which he became an iconic school administrator.

He once convinced a deranged student who had killed a teacher to hand his gun over to him to avoid further bloodshed. Staring down the barrel of the weapon, he approached the boy in a stairwell and calmly took the weapon away from him. My teammate Billy Thieben is as much a hero to me now as he was seventy-years ago.

Life turns on moments. 

When Joe Montana arrived at Notre Dame as another of the great quarterbacks from Western Pennsylvania, he was third-string. His moment came in the Cotton Bowl game in 1979 when he led a great comeback against Houston. Fighting off hypothermia on a cold windy day, he spent half-time drinking hot chicken noodle soup in the locker room.

Returning to action, he overcame a 34-12 Houston lead to win 35-34 as time expired.

The Montana legend reached its zenith in 1982 against Dallas when his last second touchdown pass (forever known simply as “The Catch”) overcame a 27-21 Cowboy lead sending the 49ers to the Super Bowl. ESPN’s Larry Schwartz called it the greatest comeback ever.

In 2006, Sports Illustrated voted him the greatest clutch quarterback in football history.

Life turns on moments.

Dick “Night Train” Lane

In 1963, Dick “Night Train” Lane was a standout in the secondary of the Detroit Lions.

That year, author George Plimpton become a member of the team during pre-season training to see what it would be like for an ordinary man to become a professional football player. His exploits, such as they were, were chronicled in “The Paper Lion,” a runaway best seller. Lane was a major personality in the book.

Lane was a killer defensive back, one of the best to ever play the game. Tough, smart and aggressive, he was a receiver’s nightmare in an era where, unlike today, the rules favored the defense.

Lane’s life was story book. He was dubbed “Night Train” because of his aversion to flying, taking trains to away games rather than fly with the team.

Discarded in a dumpster at three months of age by his parents, a prostitute and a pimp, he made the NFL Hall of Fame, setting a still standing interception record as an un-drafted rookie sixty-five years ago.

He also ran the Detroit Police Athletic League for the last two decades of his life.

Along the way, he became blues singer Dinah Washington’s sixth husband, and her business manager as well. It was her death in 1963 and her subsequent funeral that caused Lane to miss the final game of that season.

Picking on his replacement that day, Mike Ditka’s late touchdown reception made the difference as the Chicago Bears beat the Lions in a game that gave the NFL Western Division title to the Bears.

A strong minded individual, Lane stretched the rules. His hard tackles above the shoulders led to banning the practice from the game.

For years, the Lions held pre-season training at the Cranbrook School, an elite educational complex in Michigan. Mitt Romney and  Heisman winner Pete Dawkins are among its list of graduates. The Lions management had a long standing relationship with the school but it was put to the test in 1963.

The headmaster had set aside parking for the Detroit players to not interfere with school activities. One individual, however, broke the rules by parking wherever he wanted.

The school asked coach George Wilson to find the culprit. At a team meeting, Wilson asked who it was that had “a late model Cadillac convertible with a pink body and a yellow top, wire rimmed wheels, a six-foot antenna rising off the trunk, and squirrel tails flaring off both rear fenders.”

Nary a hand rose as Wilson scanned the group. He repeated the description a second time as players’ eyes slowly began to turn towards the back of the room where Lane was slouching further down in his seat. They all knew it was Lane’s car.

Just as Wilson was about to repeat the description a third time, Lane raised his hand, asking in his iconic, slow West Texas drawl, “Coach Wilson, is that car a two-door or a four-door?”

Nobody laughed harder than Wilson.

A Tragic Football Death

A 5′-6″, 136 pound high school football player was killed while participating in a “team building” Navy SEALs drill of carrying a heavy log with other teammates.

The log slipped and struck the boy in the head, causing his death.

This is another example of conflating the game of football with a war mentality. Carrying a group log as a means of building teamwork was ridiculous in its concept and devastating in its result.

The SEALs use that drill because it may help them save lives. They need that ability to help our country in a very real way. That is not the same as learning to play a high school football game.

This high school is in my home town on Long Island, New York which creates even more sorrow for me because it hits so close to home.

It is difficult enough to teach boys how to tackle and block to avoid injuries, and time spent on frivolous activity such as a log lift would be much better spent in carefully watched exercises promoting safety.

The mindset as it relates to football, especially in the era of CTE, must concentrate more on the cerebral than the physical. Teach proper techniques over and over so reaction to an opponent’s movements results in a carefully trained response that is both effective and safe.

The game of football is really not difficult. It is simply a matter of guarding your territory and denying your opponent an advantage through proper preparation and effective implementation.

In a zone pass defense, deep defenders must give receivers room to navigate and then athletically snare the pass away.

Linemen know on the snap of the ball who they are to block. The location of defenders triggers the memory of the blockers to tell them what areas they must get to in protecting the passer or opening holes for the runner.

Defenses have similar rules to follow based upon the scouting analysis of the opponent. Everything that prepares a player to act or react is based on knowledge that coaches impart to them.

Nothing builds team work like a team winning. It has nothing to do with lifting logs, or humiliating blocking drills, or vocally berating a young boy because he missed an assignment, or worse yet, wasn’t “tough enough.”

A young boy’s life is lost. That is tragic beyond belief. I feel so sorry for his parents and his family. To have had it happen as it did defies reason beyond logic and must be a lesson to all connected to the sport to very carefully review every aspect of the game of football as it relates to safety.

The responsibility of player safety is up to anyone who enjoys the game, be he or she a fan, a parent, a player, a coach, an administrator, an athletic director, a reporter, a booster, indeed anybody who looks forward to football and autumn, two things this young boy will never see again.

CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy)

Football will occupy the psyche of this country from late August to the Super Bowl. It has become America’s National Pastime.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association detailed the results of 111 former NFL players examined after death, showing that 110 of them suffered from CTE, caused by sustained physical jolts. It should be noted that players studied were not a random sample but those who had shown symptoms of CTE later in their lives, and their families had given permission for the study.

On average, 130 times per NFL game, a snap is made and physical activity–hitting, blocking, running, catching, trapping, tackling, holding, grabbing, slapping, pushing, etc.–takes place. Over a 16 game schedule, all the above occurs more than 2,000 times. In an average NFL career of four years, plus high school and college, that number balloons to nearly 25,000.

The NFL has set aside nearly a billion dollars to compensate players who are suffering from CTE as a result of these physical activities over and over again. The malady cannot be detected until after death. Symptoms later in life are depression, dementia, confusion, paranoia, and suicide.

As might be expected, different positions should expect different rates of acquiring the condition.

Linemen, both offensive and defensive, are six times more likely than quarterbacks to contract CTE because linemen, both offense and defense, make up half the number of players on the field on every snap, and they are the only ones guaranteed to get hit over a hundred times a game.

Defensive backs are three times more likely to contract CTE than the wide receivers they are covering.

Linebackers are nearly twice as safe as running backs. That makes sense because ball carriers have to bruise through defensive linemen before they even reach linebackers, who, a good percentage of the time, drop back into pass coverage.

It is fine to compensate those former players who now suffer from CTE or will in the future. It is equally important that all connected to the game get on board with current scientific evidence and support changes to make the game safer at all levels. Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones does not believe constant blows to the head cause CTE.

I will be discussing new ideas for player safety as they emerge. For starters, since linemen are recipients of most of the hits, why not equip them with larger and more padded helmets and eliminate the helmet slap at every level from Pop Warner to the NFL.

I have suggested a new scoring device which will add excitement to the game while ensuring greater player safety on kick off returns with my “Power Kick” idea.

Parents would be wise to consider flag football for their children before allowing them to play tackle football. Those million dollar NFL pay days will come to very few young boys trying out the sport for the first time.

It is imperative as fans, parents, coaches and officials that we do all we can to ensure the safety of those playing and the guarded continuance of the game we love.

More of these ideas will come in future Coach’s Corners.

NFL Payroll

In a few weeks, we will all become absorbed in another NFL season of euphoria, despair, exultation, and despondency, according to how well our favorite team fares. Towards that end, the general managers had better judge their talent intelligently because they will pay their twenty-two starters a huge amount of money. What follows is an analysis of each position and what the top player earns per game.

Quarterbacks are the marque attraction and earn $1.562 million per game. The QB’s job is to complete 66% of his passes and set the offensive pace of the game. He must eschew turnovers but when they happen, walk to the bench and renew himself and his team.

Running backs make half of what quarterbacks do, earning $757,500. His report card must show he averaged five yards a carry, pass protected flawlessly when called upon, and caught most passes thrown his way.

Fullbacks make half of running back bucks at $328,000 because they are less skilled than running backs at breaking tackles and catching passes. Their value increases greatly the closer they get to the goal line so they can barrel their way in for touchdowns. There are a lot of fullbacks at home watching to see if the guy they want to replace gets hurt. It’s a tough business.

A tight end makes $625,000 for a Sunday afternoon of work. His performance plan will direct him to ferociously double team on an unsuspecting defensive tackle or fake that and occasionally slip out unnoticed to catch a short pass for a first down.

The two offensive guards and the center will clear the way for the inside running game, the guards from time to time pulling to kick out a defensive end to clear the way for a running back. The center must ensure a perfect snap every time lest the quarterback, God bless him, should get stepped on. The tackles will make three quarters of a million bucks each for their labors while the center must do with just $646,000 in pay.

On the defensive side of the ball, the ends and tackles will each make a shade over $1,000,000 for their day’s work. They must endure the constant pounding of their opponents on the offensive line making a lot less than they do and who resent them every minute for it. Linebackers, more agile than linemen, also out-earn them–by $200,000, their justification being they are there to not only defend against passes but also to cover up missed tackles by the linemen.

There are four guys playing in the secondary. They are called cornerbacks and safeties. The two cornerbacks are responsible for stopping the run and, more importantly, covering deep when the play is a run away from them. They’ll each make a million bucks every Sunday. The other two deep defensive players, the strong safety and the free safety are supposed to stop the short passing game and help stop the run. Those two safeties will average $800,000 for the day.

The safeties and cornerbacks who cover the wide receivers make about the same amount of money as the receivers and oftentimes whoever wins this battle wins the game.

Those responsible for the kicking game, i.e., the kicker, and the punter, will each stop by the bursar’s window on the way out and pocket a quarter of a million bucks each.

It is easy to see why young men aspire to play in the NFL. The rewards are huge. We’ll talk about the inherent dangers next week.

Sports Bits ‘N Pieces

On July 15th, 1941, Joe DiMaggio hit in his 56th straight game. The next night, Indians third baseman Ken Keltner robbed him of two hits by snaring hard hit balls deep behind third, nipping the Yankee Clipper at first base both times, by a half-step, ending the streak. The Heinz Company had announced they would reward Joe with a $10,000 bonus had he gotten to the company’s branded number, “57.” In today’s dollars, that bonus would equate to $171,220. The next night, Joe began a sixteen game hitting streak. I’ll bet Heinz gave their marketing people a nice bonus for guessing right. (Contributed by Dave Reese)

Southpaw Don Liddle was brought in to pitch to just one batter, Cleveland’s Vic Wertz, in the 1954 World Series. One on, one out, the Giants ahead in the eighth inning. Liddle delivered his first pitch and Wertz creamed it, sending the ball to the deepest center field in baseball, 455 feet away at the Polo Grounds. Willie Mays was off at the crack of the bat to make what everyone agrees was the greatest catch in baseball history, racing as fast as he could, catching the ball over his head like a wide receiver way up the sideline. Only one foot from the center field wall, he twisted and rifled a throw to the cut-off man, holding the runner on base. Liddle, as planned, waited on the mound for the next reliever, Marv Grissom, holding back laughter as he handed him the ball, saying, “Okay, I got my man, now go get your’s!” The lead held and the Giants swept Cleveland in four games.

In the 1989 Super Bowl, quarterback Joe Montana huddled his 49ers team against the Cincinnati Bengals with 3:04 left in a last ditch effort to take them 92 yards for a touchdown and the win. Cool Joe, in the huddle under his own goalposts, spotted John Candy in the first row of spectators beyond the end zone. He stopped calling the play, saying to his teammates, “Hey guys, check it out, John Candy’s over there in the first row.” Guard Randy Cross would say later, “Montana has to be the coolest guy ever to play the game of football.” The Notre Dame grad then calmly directed his team down the field, completing 7 of 8 passes, the final one for 10 yards and a touchdown and the win to John Taylor with 0:10 left. Joe Montana was a truly magnificent football player.

In 1954, Stan Musial became the only player to hit five home runs in one day, two of them off knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm, a veteran of the D-Day Normandy invasion, the first relief pitcher to make the Hall of Fame, and the only pitcher in the history of MLB to hit a homer in his very first at bat. Fifty-six years later at a Class A minor league game in Dunedin, Florida, I saw seventy-two-year old pitching coach Wilhelm in uniform, very drawn and wan, sitting down the right-field line in the visitor’s bullpen, smoking a cigarette. He couldn’t have weighed 150 pounds. I felt very sorry for this heroic legend of the game. Twenty-one-years in MLB, he missed the big pay days that came to many unworthy of carrying his glove.

Notre Dame vs. Southern Cal Football

The 20th Century Limited pulled out of elegant Grand Central Station in New York as my brother Dave and I headed overnight to South Bend, Indiana, to see Notre Dame play Southern Cal in 1983.

Factoid: The ride left me with new found knowledge that most rural cemeteries are placed hard by railroad tracks, I guess the thought being the land is cheap and the sound of the train’s wheels and whistles will hardly wake the dearly departed.

In upstate New York, a conductor came through our car’s door, closing it and shouting, seemingly in iambic pentameter attuned to the rhythmic sound of the train’s wheels, “Schenectady, Schenectady, next stop, Schenectady!” No sooner had he exited the car than another conductor entered where the first one had appeared but a moment before, echoing the same mantra, word for word.

My brother turned to me and said, “Boy, these guys have one hell of a union!”

The Trojans, on probation for recruiting violations, had beaten the Irish five straight times and Irish coach Gerry Faust decided wearing green jerseys might snap the losing streak.

It did, with Notre Dame prevailing, 27-6, in such a lopsided win that my brother turned to me in the fourth quarter, saying, “One must surmise that if these Southern Cal players are the best they could get by cheating, they clearly don’t cheat very well, either.”

The game paled in comparison to the pep rally the night before, a tradition unparalleled at any school in the country. The convocation center was filled to the brim with cheering students, alumni and fans. I had wanted to go to a Notre Dame rally since I was a ten-year old kid listening to Notre Dame games and pretending I was the Fighting Irish quarterback in the sandlot game following.

The brothers Shea, students at the time, could have had no idea the song they wrote in 1908 beginning with “Cheer, Cheer, for Old Notre Dame” would set the standard for college fight songs forever. The band must’ve played the Notre Dame fight song ten times that night, with what sounded like a hundred trumpets, before the arrival of the team into the building “shook down the thunder from the skies.”

Players entreated the crowd to cheer as loudly the next day and the team would surely win.

It’s held that a young assistant coach at Navy implored his head coach to allow him to attend the pep rally on the night before the Midshipmen were to play the Irish because he had heard so much about it as a kid, as did I, growing up in the Northeast. He promised he’d stop by just for a moment to see what this rally fuss was all about.

He returned two hours later to his team’s hotel to find the Navy coaching staff going over final preparations for the game the next day.

The coach asked him how he enjoyed the pep rally.

Without hesitation, he answered, “I hope they beat you bastards!”

The One-Two Punch

Certainly I was no stranger to the term one-two punch by the summer of 1958.

I had read of Ruth and Gehrig batting third and clean up, respectively, during the Yankee dynasty of the 1930s.

I had witnessed the “Touchdown Twins,” Blanchard and Davis of Army, totally dominate college football in the 1940s.

Gil Hodges and Duke Snider would lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to five pennants and a World Series win during the 1950s.

And only recently had Bill Russell joined Bob Cousy on the Boston Celtics to begin changing basketball forever.

May I set the stage, though, to the greatest one-two punch I’ve ever witnessed?

It took place not on a gridiron or a diamond or a court or a boxing ring. The locale was our family run summer resort on Fire Island, New York, just off Long Island.

The few spectators who witnessed this sporting spectacular had no idea what they were about to see.

The impresario of this Madison Square Garden wannabe was my dad, a gruff fifty-five year old veteran of growing up tough in Depression-era Brooklyn. Hardened through tough times by a snappy wit, a keen eye, and an athlete’s moves, he ran the Leja Beach Casino with an iron fist curled up inside a velvet glove, seeing to both the care of the cash register and the well being of all our family members who ran its restaurant, motel, bar and general store.

Patrons would from time to time cause consternation through errant speech or action, in its vilest form causing dismissal from the island on the next boat, never to be allowed back again onto its hallowed sands.

Sometimes, though, sterner action was needed.

My older brother–a former Marine and All New York City high school running back–and I were tending bar one afternoon when a tough looking guy came through the swinging doors separating the dining room from the bar.

 

Picture Lee Marvin coming through said doors. Immediately following Marvin was my father making the baseball safe sign, in bar sign language meaning, “no more for this guy.”

Apparently he had used vile language to a teen-age cousin working at our snack bar and she had reported him to my father.

My brother told the guy as he approached the bar that he’d been cut off. The guy immediately turned to go after my father who was now about three feet behind him. Dad instinctively jumped into John Wayne mode and literally lifted the unsuspecting Marvin three feet in the air with a fake right and then a left upper-cut, the likes of which this reporter has never seen since.

By this time, quarterback that I was, I had sent my All-City running back brother over the bar to pursue the miscreant Marvin, now up, and according to the NFL rules of the time, allowed to keep running until downed for certain.

Better for him had he taken a knee.

He beat my brother to the screen door leading to the boardwalk and freedom, or so he thought. After about a ten-yard chase, my brother caught up with him and with a gigantic leap came down with his fist to the escapee’s back, creating within him an “oomph” loss of breath sound heard back on the mainland seven miles across the Great South Bay.

The Lee Marvin look-a-like was immediately mainland bound on the police boat while my brother and I went back to serving ice-cold Budweiser for .25 cents each.

Dad went back to his previous perch on the back porch to re-unite with his ever present cigar.

You didn’t want to mess around at the Casino.

Not if you wanted to hang around at the Casino.

Further Football Factoids

What was Division 1-A college football is now called “The Power Five” and is made up of 65 teams from the PAC-12, Big 12, Big 10, ACC, SEC, plus Notre Dame.

What was once Division 1-AA is now called “The Group of Five” and is made up of 63 schools from the following conferences: American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West Conference and the Sun Belt Conference.

The chances of a “Group of 5” school making the college playoffs is next to nil. Maybe the same as Rex Ryan being named head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. A “Group of 5” school would have to run the table and then hope they had a win or two against a “Power Five” school as well.

The road to the top for the “Group of 5” is further hampered in that the “Power 5” schools like to prepare for the run to the title by playing a couple of “Group of 5” teams early in the season, commonly called “Cupcake Games” by other, more mean-spirited, members of the media.

A few years ago, “Group of 5” teams were 0-35 against ranked “Power 5” teams.

Why do “Group of 5” teams even play “Power 5” teams? Money, pure and simple.

Last year Idaho was guaranteed a million bucks to play Florida in Gainesville. When their plane landed, it sat out a horrendous two-hour Florida late summer storm in the terminal. The game was canceled, Idaho got their $1,000,000 check, re-boarded their plane and went home, healthy, wealthy, and wise. Healthy because they avoided losing 50-0, wealthy because of the check, and wise because they saved the expense of having to wash their uniforms that week.

Minnesota has hired a former “Group of 5” coach to lead the Gophers. P.J. Fleck went from 1-11 to 13-1 in four years at Western Michigan in the Mid-American Conference, narrowly missed beating Wisconsin, Minnesota’s neighboring Big 10 rival, in a bowl game last year. He was the natural choice of a guy with the right credentials to move from “Group of 5” to “Power 5”. But even a 12-0 record wasn’t enough to get his team into the Top Four playoff picture. There is talk about moving from 4 to 8 teams in the College Football Playoffs. I think that’s inevitable but probably a few years away.

Top Goofy College Nicknames

  1. UC Santa Cruz-The Banana Slugs
  2. U. Of Idaho-The Vandals
  3. Webster U.-The Gorlocks
  4. Campbell University-The Fighting Camels
  5. Coe College-The Kohawks
  6. New Mexico Mining-The Pygmies
  7. NC School of The Arts-The Fighting Pickles
  8. Puerto Rico University-The Tarzan and Janes
  9. Shiner College-The Flaming Smelts

Hang tight. We are only 56 days away from the Oregon State Beavers kicking off the season at Colorado State. Ten days later the Patriots host the Chiefs to get us back into NFL land for another six glorious months!