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Aug
28

“Whose Class” Action

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Labor Day was always my least favorite holiday. I’m sure I was hardly alone.

Of course, I’m talking about when I was a kid, and so just about every other kid likely joined me in that sentiment.

Labor Day meant the unofficial end to summer, though the calendar says that the season runs until September 21. No matter. The calendar didn’t give us kids that long; classes in Livonia, where I grew up, always commenced the day after Labor Day.

It was a final three-day weekend before the baseball mitts and swimming suits were to go back into mothballs, in favor of notebooks, pencils and rulers.

There was one day of excitement, however, in the weeks leading up to the first day of school, and that was the day the class lists would be posted in the school window by the front door. This was for grade school, not beyond.

I’m not sure how we found out that the lists were posted. Probably some sort of loosely designated sentry or Paul Revere type would spread the word. This was some 20-plus years before the Internet became all the rage.

The way it worked was simple. Printed 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets of paper were taped to the window, face out. The sheets were generally situated by grade. On the top of each sheet was the teacher’s name and the grade he/she taught. The students’ names were listed below. And all the kids—didn’t matter where they lived, they all managed to gather—would frantically search for their names, not knowing until that very moment which teacher they had and which of their friends were in the same class.

It was some pretty intense stuff.

After you located your name, the next step was to search for your friends’ and also your enemies’. Soon there would be a cacophony of sighs of relief mixed with howls of disappointment.

Maybe you got the teacher you wanted, but your best friends were in another classroom. Or, vice-versa.

Regardless, when you got the word that the class lists were ready for consumption, you couldn’t hop onto your bicycle fast enough.

I recently had a drink with an old grade school and middle school pal. We compared teachers that we had in grades 1-6 and not once were we in the same class. I thought that was pretty amazing.

That “what class are you in?” excitement ended when we all shuffled off to middle school, where you didn’t have just one teacher.

It was fun while it lasted, though.

As for Labor Day, I enjoy it now. It means a three-day weekend, which as an adult you treasure.

No matter what kind of class you have.

Categories : education, Enotes
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He was a moon-faced behemoth of a defensive tackle out of Clemson, with a grin as wide as his generously-sized rear end. And he soon became a pawn between his head coach and his defensive coordinator.

They called William Perry “The Refrigerator” and not long after the Chicago Bears picked him in the first round (22nd overall) of the 1985 NFL Draft, the wisdom of his selection was bandied about between head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan.

The coach and the DC didn’t get along, and since Perry was Ditka’s pick, naturally Ryan was against it.

Ryan reacted by refusing to play Perry on the Bears’ talented defensive line. Ditka responded by using Perry as an oversized fullback in short yardage situations.

All this drama played out during the Bears’ 15-1 season, which culminated in a blowout of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

About mid-season, Ryan relented once he realized how talented Perry was, despite his extreme girth (Fridge weighed over 375 pounds).

Perry still carried the football on occasion and even caught a pass, but he was a defensive tackle by trade—and he proved to be a pretty good one.

Perry might have been great, but continuous battles with the scale torpedoed him and limited his career to good status.

Perry played 10 years in the NFL but he could have been so much more.

Fast forward to 2014. Another talented defensive tackle is finding that fast food and doughnuts are proving to be more challenging than offensive guards.

But it could be that it’s not just calories that are bedeviling Nick Fairley.

Fairley, the Lions’ DT who was the team’s first round pick in 2011, was supposed to be, by now, forming a ridiculous tandem with Ndamukong Suh on the defensive interior front for Detroit.

The two slabs of beef were supposed to make it damn near impossible for opponents to run against the Lions between the tackles. And as a bonus, the pass rush from the inside was to be terrifying.

After Fairley’s first three years in the league, the expectations have far exceeded reality.

Suh, for the most part, has (ahem) carried his weight.

Fairley has turned out to be one of the Lions’ most enigmatic players in memory, and considering the perplexing sorts who have worn the Honolulu Blue and Silver, that’s saying a lot.

It’s easy to look at Fairley’s spotty production and blame it on his weight. After all, the next time the Lions are flagged for too many men on the field on defense, two of them might be Fairley.

But as William Perry proved, you can play at a high level even when the scales are begging you to get off.

The trouble with Nick Fairley isn’t just what goes on between his hips. It’s what happens between his ears.

The Lions have tried to challenge Fairley to get better. So far the results have been sketchy at best.

They declined the option on the fifth year of his rookie contract, making this season a make-or-break year of sorts for Fairley.

The Lions demoted Fairley this training camp to second string.

Things have gotten so desperate that even Suh, not exactly known as a player who exhibits model behavior himself off the field, tried to motivate Fairley recently by declaring the Auburn grad more talented than Suh, a three-time Pro Bowler.

Nothing has really worked.

Fairley sank on the depth chart because he deserved it—not just as a way to light a fire under his big butt.

MLive.com reported that Fairley has isolated himself from teammates and his practice efforts leave a lot to be desired.

“I don’t know where his head’s at. I wish I knew,” d-line cohort C.J. Mosley was quoted by NFL.com last week.

“If I knew, man, I’d grab his head and bring it back to where it’s supposed to be. I just don’t know.”

I once wrote that Shaun Rogers, aka “Big Baby,” another supremely talented defensive tackle who played for the Lions in the mid-to-late 2000s, could have owned Detroit.

Rogers was big but he played big. He was an unmovable force at times and when he rambled some 50-plus yards for a touchdown after a fumble recovery against Denver in 2007, the Ford Field crowd roared. The score was a punctuation mark to a 44-7 Lions victory—and a 6-2 record.

But after that game, Rogers didn’t want to talk to the media. He didn’t seize his moment, which I found odd and disturbing.

Maybe Rogers knew something that we didn’t, because after that win, the Lions lost 24 of their next 25 games.

Regardless, Shaun Rogers played big but only when the spirit moved him, which wasn’t nearly often enough to achieve greatness.

Refrigerator Perry survived 10 NFL seasons and while he probably didn’t realize his potential, his effort was never questioned—especially at the buffet.

Nick Fairley is four years into a pro football career that has been pocked with head scratching, eye rolling and frustrated sighs—from fans, teammates and coaches alike.

So far, no one has been able to push the right buttons.

This may be it for Fairley—his last stab at the NFL in anything more than benchwarming capacity.  There’s a new coach, who seems to be more than willing to give Fairley the benefit of the doubt and who has almost gone out of his way to toss no. 98 a bone of praise that is quite possibly undeserving. Fairley, it seems, has a clean slate with Jim Caldwell.

But will it be enough?

Fairley showed up to camp weighing in at 305 pounds, but last week it was reported that the scales actually were tipping past 315.

“My eating habits have got in the way in the past two weeks,” Fairley told reporters as he tried to explain his pedestrian performances in practice and in the first two preseason games.

I don’t think the Lions should be worried about Fairley’s eating habits.

They should be worried about his thinking habits.

The scales that measure those are on the football field—if Fairley can ever get on it.

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Aug
17

Holland’s Extension Deserved, But There Is Work to Do

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It was April 2007 and the Red Wings were approaching an anniversary of sorts. And the occasion was even lost on the owner.

A bunch of us media types were summoned to Joe Louis Arena on the eve of that year’s playoff run. The reason for the herding was to unveil the new Gordie Howe statue in one of the concourses.

As the tarp was pulled off the bronze replica of Howe in action, I spotted owner Mike Ilitch, standing off to the side, all by his lonesome.

Some brief remarks were made about the new Howe piece, and when the ceremony was over I sidled up to the man his employees affectionately call Mr. I.

You know you’re coming up on an anniversary,” I said.

Ilitch seemed unaware.

It’s been 25 years with the same management group just about,” I said.

His mouth curled into a grin and he chuckled.

Yeah, I guess you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that.”

I said a quarter century was a long time, and Ilitch agreed.

In the summer of 1982, shortly after purchasing the Red Wings from the Norris family, Ilitch made his first-ever hockey hire.

The announcement made little fanfare.

Ilitch introduced a pudgy, squeaky-voiced hockey man named Jimmy Devellano as his new general manager. All we knew about Devellano was that he had been a hockey rink rat who had something to do with the New York Islanders’ three consecutive (at the time) Stanley Cups.

Devellano made a promise at his first press conference.

As long as Jimmy Devellano is the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, we will NOT trade a draft choice.”

Devellano made good on his promise.

So it was in April 2007 that Devellano, 25 years after being poached from the Islanders, was still employed as a Red Wings executive—a fact lost on the man who hired him until I brought it up.

Devellano is still with the Red Wings, and the lineage from Jimmy D isn’t exactly chopped liver.

It was Devellano—who’d risen to the rank of Vice President—who brought in Scotty Bowman as coach in 1993, and it was Devellano who encouraged Ilitch to add GM to Scotty’s title one year later.

Bowman, of course, is a Hockey Hall of Famer and was one already, essentially, when the Red Wings came calling.

In 1997, when Bowman abdicated GM duties after winning the Stanley Cup, Devellano pressed for the promotion of scouting director Ken Holland to general manager.

Seventeen years later, Holland is still GM and will be for the next four years, at least.

Last week, the Red Wings announced that Ilitch had given Holland a contract extension that goes through the 2017-18 season. That would push Holland past the 20-year mark as Red Wings GM.

But it’s not like Holland hasn’t lost any luster.

The Red Wings haven’t been past the second round of the playoffs since 2009, when they lost in the Cup Finals to Pittsburgh. The natives are getting a little restless. And a lot of their vitriol has been directed at the man who is in charge of putting the roster together—Ken Holland.

The recent high round draft choices have been sporadic in their success. Holland has whiffed on the higher profile free agents for the past three years—not that free agency is a sure ticket to the brass ring, but there you are. There haven’t really been any major trades of any import for several years. And the playoff runs have been ending in late-April or early-May, which isn’t very Red Wings-like.

Yet the Red Wings keep making the playoffs, which in of itself is impressive considering the rash of injuries and underachievement of veterans, both of which have forced Grand Rapids Griffins to become Detroit Red Wings ahead of schedule.

Like it or not, Holland has the full support of the Ilitch family as he tries to return the Red Wings to elite status.

Sometimes change for change’s sake is a good thing in professional sports, which is the ultimate “What have you done for me lately?” business. Though it’s often done in panic or from overreaction, change by itself can reverse a franchise’s fortunes.

It says here that it has yet to be proven that a changing of the guard at Joe Louis Arena—whether at GM or at coach, where Mike Babcock has still yet to sign a contract extension—would put the Red Wings in a better stead than where they are now.

Holland took over on the heels of a Stanley Cup in 1997, which very few GMs get a chance to do. His critics will tell you that because of the team’s already elite status and the deep wallet of Ilitch, lots of hockey men could have been successful under those circumstances.

Fair enough.

But the Red Wings haven’t bottomed out, a fate which has befallen innumerable professional sports franchises, including iconic ones like the Celtics and Lakers in basketball and the Cowboys and Raiders in football.

The Red Wings keep making the playoffs and lo and behold, the Griffins-turned-Red Wings were a huge part of making the post-season last spring.

Those were mostly players that Holland and his crack staff of scouts found, beating the frozen bushes for talent.

It’s not time for an interruption to the long executive lineage that Jimmy Devellano started in 1982. Holland has earned the chance to get the Red Wings back into the Stanley Cup conversation in something more than a passing way.

Change can be a good thing, but there is also something to be said for stability, familiarity and loyalty, which have been cornerstones of the Red Wings’ success since 1991, when they started their playoff streak that continues today.

Holland has work to do, however. The contract extension is nice, but that’s done. It’s sleeve rolling up time now.

There’s nothing that logically says he is not up to the task.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Aug
12

Tears of a Class Clown

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“I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room cry
the tears of a clown.”

I don’t generally like to start blog posts or columns with quotes or song lyrics. I have often looked at that sort of thing as a cheap, hackneyed stunt.
But the first thing I thought of upon hearing the news of Robin Williams’ death by suicide was the iconic song by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “Tears of a Clown.”
So I thought it would be appropriate to lead this post with a portion of Smokey’s lyrics, because how can you read them and not think of Williams and the many comedians before him who made their living making us laugh while at the same time battling inner demons?
Williams, 63, apparently hanged himself at his California home, sometime between 10:30 p.m. Sunday night and 10:30 a.m. Monday morning.
His manager said Williams was battling “severe depression” lately.
It is fascinating to me, how many tormented “funny men” have graced the stages of comedy clubs, Broadway houses and television specials practically from the time the first brave soul decided to stand in front of a crowd and crack jokes.
There must be some corollary between the thrill of getting laughs on stage and being shy, lacking of self-esteem and, frankly, sad.
Williams, of course, was more than a comedian. He started out playing an alien on a TV sitcom and turned out to be a whale of a dramatic actor who had a knack for playing lovable, vulnerable characters with a big heart.
He was also likely the most manic guest in TV talk show history.
A Williams appearance on Carson or Leno should have required the viewer to be asked to buckle up and put the tray in the upright position.
It was a six-minute exercise in non-stop tidbits, impersonations and story telling, and Williams never sat still during any of it. In fact, he usually wasn’t sitting at all.
He made me nervous, truth be told, as a talk show guest but the crowd (and the host) always ate up Williams’ shtick.
Williams, again like so many fellow comedians, got lost in substance abuse, which likely didn’t do his depression symptoms any good.
He returned to TV full-time last fall in “The Crazy Ones,” playing a quirky ad agency man who works with his daughter. The series was Williams’ first foray on the small screen as a lead character since his days on “Mork and Mindy” from 1978-82.
But the new series couldn’t come close to shaking Williams out of the deep and irreversible funk of depression that would ultimately prompt him to take his own life.

I suspect that comedians and actors who cause moviegoers and viewers to feel a wide range of emotions are often feeling wide ranges of emotions themselves. Their roller coaster sometimes makes one too many bumps and they fly out of the car.

Williams may have been lonely but he wasn’t alone. He was a family man—a husband and a father three times over. His friends and colleagues described him—especially in the wake of his death—as kind, compassionate and with a huge heart.
So here we are—the man who dedicated himself to lifting the spirits of others, unable to lift his own.
When someone takes their own life, those who don’t know the pain figure that there must have been a viable alternative.
But here’s the punch line—the suicide victim instead thinks that the viable alternative that we espouse is a death sentence of sorts, anyway. So why keep going?
Billy Crystal, longtime friend and co-host of “Comic Relief” with Williams and Whoopi Goldberg for 20 years, had maybe the most appropriate tweet after learning of the news.
“No words.”
Fitting, because Robin Williams didn’t need too many to make us laugh or cry.
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Twenty years ago, Scott Mitchell was the NFL’s biggest winner. Two decades later, he’s trying to be the Biggest Loser.

Lions fans no doubt snickered upon the news this week that former quarterback Mitchell was going to be among the contestants on NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” which is a competition show—in this case, to see who can lose the most weight.

And Mitchell has a lot to lose.

Mitchell, it was announced, checks in these days at 366 pounds. He is now as big as the behemoths assigned to protect him on the offensive line back in the day.

It’s fitting that Mitchell has a lot to lose, because never did an NFL quarterback gain as much as Mitchell did from someone else’s Achilles heel injury.

I have often wondered if Mitchell sends Dan Marino a Christmas card every year. Or maybe a check would be more appropriate.

In 1994, Mitchell was a free agent. He parlayed an injury to Marino’s Achilles in 1993 into big bucks with the Lions.

I remember watching the game where Miami’s Marino went down. It was in Cleveland. The play was innocuous. Marino, who was never much of a scrambler, got some happy feet in the pocket during a pass rush and in a freak way, landed funny on his Achilles.

He heard that dreadful “pop” sound and went down like a sack of doorknobs.

The date was October 10, 1993.

Mitchell was 25 years old at the time, a fourth round draft pick in 1990 out of Utah. In his first three seasons as a Dolphin, Mitchell threw eight NFL passes, completing two.

Now he was called upon to replace the greatest QB in Dolphins history and one of the best to ever play the position in NFL history.

The Dolphins had a bye week after Marino’s injury, which put him out for the rest of the season. In a panic, the Dolphins signed 39 year-old Steve DeBerg as insurance.

But DeBerg didn’t know the Dolphins’ offense. Mitchell did. Three seasons plus five games holding a clipboard teaches you something, I suppose.

Mitchell won his first start, a 41-27 win over the dreadful (at the time) Indianapolis Colts. Mitchell completed 12 of 19 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown.

The next week, Mitchell was much better, against a much better opponent.

Going up against the Kansas City Chiefs and Joe Montana, Mitchell went 22-for-33 for 344 yards and three touchdowns. The Dolphins won, 30-10 to improve to 6-1 on the season.

Then, a loss to the New York Jets. Mitchell was 23/44 for 297 yards with a TD and an interception. A dose of reality struck.

The following week, Mitchell was bad before an injury put him out of the game. Miami coach Don Shula turned to DeBerg as the Dolphins season was teetering.

DeBerg went 2-2 as the starter before he relinquished the job back to Mitchell, who was now healed.

The Dolphins’ 7-2 start spiraled into a 9-7 finish, which put them out of the playoffs.

But it was Mitchell’s personal performance in relief of Marino that made him a hot commodity as the 1994 free agent season beckoned, despite the team’s decline toward the end of the season.

His numbers as Marino’s replacement weren’t gaudy but they weren’t bad, either: 133/233 (57.1); 1,773 yards; 12 TD; 8 interceptions. His record was 3-4.

It wasn’t Johnny Unitas stuff, but the Lions, as usual, were desperate for a quarterback.

They had tried a triumvirate of Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer and Andre Ware in 1993, and even though the team went 10-6 and made the playoffs, that three-headed monster wasn’t going to be the answer at the game’s most important position.

So the Lions gave Mitchell’s agent a ring in early 1994.

If Mitchell was good enough for Shula to make do with, then who were the Lions to question?

Mitchell signed a fat contract with Detroit. The Lions finally found their quarterback!

There was a lot to like about Scott Mitchell in 1994. He was 6-foot-6. He was agile. He had learned the position at the feet of Marino and Shula, two Hall of Famers. And he had been pressed into action in 1993 and while the results weren’t overwhelming, nor were they atrocious.

Mitchell struggled to start the 1994 season before he went down with an injury about halfway through the season. The injury was well-timed, because the fans were well on their way to dismembering Mitchell on sports talk radio and around the water cooler—and at the Silverdome.

He completed less than 50 percent of his passes, which in the era of rules designed to punish defensive backs, was shockingly bad.

Veteran Dave Krieg took over for Mitchell and led the Lions to the playoffs. But Krieg split as a free agent after the season.

Mitchell, healed, set records for the Lions in 1995 in completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns. The Lions made the playoffs for the third year in a row, with three different starting quarterbacks, which is just like them.

But under the postseason spotlight in Philadelphia, Mitchell laid one of the biggest eggs of any quarterback in league playoff history.

Mitchell was 13/29 with a TD and four interceptions—all in the first half, after which the Eagles led the Lions, 38-7. One of the four picks was returned for a touchdown.

Two years later, the Lions made the playoffs again and Mitchell pulled another infamous postseason stunt.

In Tampa, running a sneak play, the players all got up from the turf accept for one: Scott Mitchell.

Mitchell was down and he stayed down for several minutes. It was a stinking sneak play but Mitchell acted like he had been shot.

He was carted off the field on a stretcher.  The Lions lost.

Whatever doubts Lions fans—and teammates—had about Mitchell’s durability and, frankly, courage, were confirmed on the field at Tampa in that playoff game.

Two games into the 1998 season, after throwing a pick-six in overtime at home against Cincinnati, Mitchell was demoted to being rookie Charlie Batch’s backup.

Three years later, Mitchell was out of the league.

He coached some high school football at his alma mater (2008-2012) before resigning to spend more time at his software business.

Now he’s 366 pounds and wants to be the Biggest Loser.

Mitchell turned his good fortune due to Marino’s injury into two bad (for the Lions) contracts—his original one signed in 1994 and an extension a couple years later. Marino’s popped Achilles made Scott Mitchell millions.

According to Mitchell’s bio on “The Biggest Loser” website, the former QB suffers from sleep apnea and high blood pressure. He blames poor diet choices and a busy lifestyle for the startling weight gain.

Mitchell’s era at quarterback is one of many dark spots in Lions history. But his father died earlier this year from obesity-related issues and if there’s anytime to root for Scott Mitchell to lose, it’s now.

The irony is that, 20 years ago, when he came to Detroit, Mitchell had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Categories : Detroit Lions, football
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If they wanted to put a punter into the Pro Football Hall of Fame long before now, I have one for you.

Of course, they didn’t call Sammy Baugh “Slingin’ Sammy” because of his foot.

Baugh isn’t famously known as “Bootin’ Sammy.” I get it.

But Baugh, the Washington Redskins Hall of Fame quarterback/defensive back (he intercepted 31 passes) from 1937-51, did triple duty from 1939-47, functioning as the team’s punter as well. And his numbers booting the ball for the Skins are eye-popping.

Baugh’s career punting average was 45.1 yards per kick, and Sammy wasn’t kicking the harder, lighter, more tightly-sewn pigskin that is used in the more modern era. The footballs Baugh punted were sort of like kicking sacks of flour.

In 1940, Baugh punted 35 times to the tune of a 51.4 yard average.

In Baugh’s day, “hang time” referred to public executions. But the grainy film footage that still exists shows Baugh’s kicks weren’t just long, they were high and majestic.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted its 2014 class over the weekend, and one of the new members is Ray Guy.

You could hear the snickers from Maine to California when the Oakland Raiders made Guy, from Southern Mississippi, their first round pick (23rd overall) in the 1973 draft.

To that point, no NFL team had selected a pure punter in the first round. In fact, punters weren’t picked in the second, third, or fourth rounds all that much, either.

There were a few reasons for this.

One, Guy came along at a time when NFL rosters began to expand, giving teams the luxury of having foot specialists of sorts on board. In the days of the 40-man roster, anyone who could rear a leg back and boot a ball doubled as punter. Quarterbacks punted. Linebackers punted. Defensive backs punted (as Lem Barney did for the Lions in his first two years in the league, and as Yale Lary did before Barney). Placekickers punted.

Two, the strategy of playing for field position was a foreign concept before Ray Guy started booming footballs into the sky.

Three, the concept of hang time was also mostly disregarded until teams saw that when Guy punted, the Raiders coverage team arrived at the same time as the ball did into the return man’s hands.

Guy’s leg, when fully extended after a boot, turned his body into the letter “E” with the top and bottom missing.

Guy punted, and the football would stay in the air forever. You could watch Guy catch the snap, and you could then go to the bathroom, and come out in time to see the return.

Around the time Guy entered the league, another term started cropping up. It was called the “coffin corner,” and it referred to punts that would be buried deep in the opponents’ zone, out of bounds, usually inside the ten yard line.

Guy was a master of the coffin corner kick as well.

But it was the hang time, those often five-plus seconds that the football was in the air, that made Guy a consistent Pro Bowl and All-Pro punter.

Guy punted. That’s all he did. He didn’t place kick. He didn’t hold. He wasn’t the Raiders’ backup quarterback.

But Guy was a weapon for the Raiders, and leave it to maverick owner Al Davis to envision how valuable a leg like Guy’s could be to his team’s well-being.

Guy changed field position to the Raiders’ advantage on a consistent basis. His punting wasn’t just long and high, it was precise and strategic. Guy was like the champion golfer who could back spin an approach shot onto the green from 175 yards out of the rough, over trees and in front of the bunkers, and have it land six feet from the pin.

With Guy as their punter, the Raiders weren’t playing football on a gridiron like the other teams; they were playing on a battlefield and Guy’s kicks were like grenades landing in the opponents’ soft underbelly.

But despite Guy’s success, no other NFL team could pull the trigger on drafting a punter in the first round.

But again, here’s where Guy’s influence comes into play.

Thanks to Guy, the Godfather of Punting, the game of football from head to, um, toe, began grooming punting specialists, starting at the high school level. The result was that the lot of pure punters increased exponentially, so there wasn’t as much urgency to grab a punter in the early rounds of the draft.

At the 1973 draft, Raiders owner Davis had a decision to make.

Guy was available, but so was a brute of a guard out of Michigan State named Joe DeLamielleure. And though the Raiders prided themselves on many things, a stellar offensive line was high on the list.

DeLamielleure would go on to a Hall of Fame career, but even he acknowledged that Davis made the right choice in selecting Guy over the guard from MSU.

“Mr. Davis, you are a smart man,” DeLamielleure said he told Davis in 1976 at the Pro Bowl in New Orleans. “I’ve never seen a right guard win a game, but I’ve seen Ray Guy win them. You made the right choice.”

When news broke early this year that Guy would be part of the Hall’s Class of 2014, a couple members of his football fraternity got an idea.

Former NFL punters Greg Coleman and Bryan Barker burned up the phone lines, inviting as many fellow punters as they could to induction weekend at Canton, Ohio.

The result was a gathering of 18 punters whose careers spanned nearly five decades.

“He put us on the map,” Coleman said of Guy. “There weren’t too many punters who had a five-second hang time in the league.”

Because of Guy, the TV networks started superimposing hang times on the screen on Sundays. Punters started being graded on how many seconds the football was in the air and where the ball landed, in addition to sheer length of kick.

It’s not bluster to say that Ray Guy, in his way, changed the game of football.

Fittingly, he has three Super Bowl rings for his work, to boot (sorry).

It was Guy’s first pro coach, John Madden, who perhaps summed it up best, from the Raiders perspective. He spoke of Guy before the enshrinement on Saturday.

“When we got Ray Guy, fourth down wasn’t as bad as it used to be.”

Categories : football, Out of Bounds
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The National Football League’s roots in the 1920s were planted in sleepy burgs across the Midwest. It was a small town league, offering the curious something to follow until the next baseball season.

The franchises were located in such dazzling metropolises as Canton, OH; Racine, WI; Akron, OH; and Rock Island, IL. The locations were fitting, when you consider that the league itself was founded in an automobile showroom in Canton, on August 20, 1920.

In 1921, the Akron franchise (the Pros) was one of several which had one of its players double up as the coach.

Fritz Pollard, who stood 5’9″ and who was listed as weighing all of 165 pounds, coached the Pros. Mainly a running back, Pollard’s tremendous speed and elusiveness as a player caused legendary sportswriter Walter Camp to remark that Pollard was “one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.”

Pollard coached Akron in 1921—the league was known as the American Professional Football Association (APFA) back then—to an impressive 8-3-1 record, all while maintaining his roster spot as a running back, scoring seven touchdowns on the season.

But Fritz Pollard wasn’t just any coach in the APFA—he was the only African-American one in the league.

Pollard lasted just one season as a coach, and in 1926 he was dismissed as a player as well, when the NFL (name changed in 1922) booted Pollard and the other eight black players at the time out of the league, permanently.

Pollard wasn’t just a footnote in pro football history. After being kicked out of the NFL, Pollard organized all-black barnstorming teams, playing under names such as the Harlem Brown Bombers. This barnstorming continued into the 1930s.

The NFL didn’t go the black head coaching route again until 68 years after Pollard coached the Akron Pros, when Art Shell became coach of the Los Angeles Raiders in 1989.

While Fritz Pollard should be lauded for his stature as a league pioneer, it would be disingenuous to say that he paved the way for Shell to coach the Raiders. Nearly seven decades kind of dilutes Pollard’s participation toward Shell’s hiring.

But Shell, who played for the Raiders to the tune of a Hall of Fame career as an offensive tackle, is rightly recognized as the modern game’s first black head coach, and thus was indeed a trail blazer of sorts for those  of color who followed him on the sidelines over the past 25 years.

The Lions’ Jim Caldwell is one who should give a nod of appreciation to Shell—and, maybe more so, to late Raiders managing general partner Al Davis, who hired Shell after firing Mike Shanahan.

It took the Lions a little bit longer than some franchises—but quicker than others—to hire an African-American head coach. Caldwell became the first on January 15, 2014.

Many Lions fans, if they had their druthers in January, envisioned Ken Whisenhunt as the one who would open training camp on Monday in Allen Park. Whisenhunt, who is white, was seen as the Lions’ first choice after firing Jim Schwartz.

But Whisenhunt spurned the Lions and never got on the private plane that was famously waiting for him in San Diego, ready to jet the Chargers’ offensive coordinator across the country where he would, presumably, get a contract offer in Detroit.

I am not, for a moment, suggesting that the popularity of Whisenhunt over Caldwell, in the fans’ eyes, had anything to do with race. For whatever reason, Whisenhunt’s resume excited the Lions fan base more than did Caldwell’s.

Frankly, the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach kind of slipped my mind until it was brought to the fore on Saturday, when the coach was honored by the Detroit Historical Society’s Black Historic Sites Committee for the distinction.

The celebration of Caldwell’s status was nice, but it was low-key and it should have been. For despite the fact that Caldwell is the Lions’ first black head coach, thankfully those of Caldwell’s ilk aren’t a novelty anymore in the NFL.

Not that the league couldn’t do a little better in that regard, as Caldwell pointed out on Saturday, but in his usual classy way.

“It’s (black head coaches) come a long way because of the fact that I think now there might have been 47 (African-American coaches) that have gotten that opportunity (in NCAA Division I football), if I’m not mistaken,” Caldwell told the Detroit Free Press.

“And in the National Football League there’s 17, I think, that have gotten that opportunity, even some of those that have been interim. So there’s been quite a few guys.

“I think it’s changed quite a bit in my lifetime. You can see some progress in that area, but certainly a long way to go.”

The Lions are the only team in the NFL with a black head coach and a black general manager, something that has happened just once prior in league history. That, too, should be celebrated, but not without some concern.

The NFL has always been a little slow on the uptake when it comes to minorities holding positions of power and influence, though progress is indeed being made.

But I don’t believe the fans in Detroit care if the football coach is white, black, blue or purple. The Lions haven’t won a league championship in 57 years. To give that perspective, remember when the Red Wings finally ended their Stanley Cup drought in 1997? That was a mere 42 years between Cups at the time.

Caldwell was not quite three years old when the Lions beat the Cleveland Browns to capture the 1957 NFL championship.

Now he is set to open his first training camp as the first black head coach in Lions history—and the team still hasn’t won it all since ’57.

Jim Caldwell was properly honored on Saturday night, but that distinction should lose its luster pronto. The Lions were hardly on the cusp in this regard, as Caldwell followed Shell in Oakland by a quarter century.

Since Shell in 1989, the Lions have gone through eight head coaches before hiring Caldwell (including interim coaches). Three of those guys were assistants who’d never been a head coach in the NFL prior to Detroit—hired when there were eminently more qualified black men available at the time.

But that’s all ancient history now, right?

Caldwell’s being black won’t shield him from criticism when the Lions falter, and it won’t help give him accolades when times are good.

He will be judged solely on his win/loss record.

I think even Fritz Pollard would agree with that notion.

Jul
20

Tall, Dark and Oklahoman

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James Garner was once asked if he’d ever do a nude scene on camera.

“I don’t do horror movies,” he said.

Rim shot.

Garner, who died on Saturday at age 86, was a Hollywood leading man but a humble Oklahoman at heart.

“I got into the business to put a roof over my head,” he once said. “I wasn’t looking for star status. I just wanted to keep working.”

And work he did, especially in the 1960s, when Garner was often teamed with the biggest female names in movies, such as Doris Day (Rock Hudson is more famously connected with Day, but Garner did his fair share with her as well), Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and Kim Novak.

The film boom for Garner was set up by his work in TV’s Maverick, in which he starred from 1957-60, playing old Western card shark and ladies man Bret Maverick. The show went toe-to-toe on Sunday nights with The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show, more than holding its own.

If you were a casting director and could mail order a leading man, Garner would arrive at your office.

He was tall, dark and handsome, and possessed a self-effacing style bereft of cockiness. His Oklahoma lilt, which he never tried to disguise, added to the down home feel that just about all of his characters had.

Garner, left, with Jack Kelly as Bret and Bart Maverick

Garner, for a brief time, even dabbled in auto racing, an interest that was piqued when he co-starred in 1966′s Grand Prix. Garner thus joined Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as actors/racers.

But mention James Garner, and even today the first thing likely to spill from peoples’ lips is The Rockford Files, NBC’s series that ran from 1974-80. Loosely based on Garner’s Bret Maverick, brought into modern times, the private investigator Jim Rockford character landed Garner an Emmy Award in 1977.

Some old-timers like yours truly will also recall Garner in a popular series of Polaroid TV commercials in the late-1970s, early-1980s, sharing the screen with Mariette Hartley. The chemistry between the two was so genuine that many viewers thought the pair was married in real life, even though the commercials never really suggested that they were playing a wedded couple.

Garner left The Rockford Files in 1980, not because of poor ratings or disenchantment with the show, but because of the physical toll. Garner, who was an athlete in high school (football and basketball), insisted on doing his own stunts, and the result was significant damage to his knees and back.

In his later years, Garner really used his tall Oklahoman stature to his advantage, often playing rugged, wise cowboys and fatherly and grandfatherly figures. His characters would occasionally fall in love as well.

Speaking of falling in love, Garner did that well, too—and fast. He married Lois Clarke in 1956—just two weeks after they met. He remained married to her until his death.

Despite his own stable marriage, Garner once offered that “Marriage is like the Army. Everyone complains. But you’d be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist.”

And to show how much Bret Maverick resonated in Garner’s hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, the city unveiled a 10-foot tall bronze statue of the actor as Maverick in 2006, with Garner present for the ceremony.

Garner once explained his acting theory, such as it was.

“I’m a Spencer Tracy-type actor. His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn’t [or] looks for the easy way out. I don’t think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote.”

Here’s the irony in Garner’s words: he may have been acting and “putting himself aside,” but to watch him on screen was to have the feeling that James Garner was just being James Garner.

He could have done much worse. And so could have we.

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Red Wings coach Mike Babcock has won a Stanley Cup, lost two others in the Finals in seven games, has won two Olympic Gold Medals and a World Juniors Championship. His Red Wings teams have never missed the playoffs in the nine years he’s coached in Hockeytown.

So who can blame him for puffing out his chest a little bit?

After the Red Wings struck out in free agency when all the high profile guys got signed by other teams on or around July 1, hockey fans in Detroit demanded to know why.

What free agent worth his salt rejects the Red Wings?

How can you say no to the winged wheel? How can you look at the tradition, the Cups won, the refusal to miss the playoffs since 1990 and say, “Naah, that’s OK. I’m good.”

According to the Wings fans in Detroit, Hockeytown—as they like to call their city—is the NHL’s Valhalla.

You’d think that once a new signee’s plane lands on the tarmac at Metro Airport, the first thing he does when his feet hit the ground is kneel and kiss Mike Ilitch’s pinky ring.

Clearly, that’s not the case anymore, in this day of salary caps and that thorny word, parity.

So the Red Wings whiffed on the big names that hit the market at the top of the month—guys like Dan Boyle, Radim Vrbata, Mike Cammalleri, Mark Fayne et al—and Hockeytown was all aflutter.

The cross-eyes focused on Babcock.

He’s too tough. No one wants to play for him who is coming from elsewhere. It is Babcock and Babcock alone who is causing the major free agents to say “Thanks but no thanks.”

It’s all hogwash but finally the coach himself had enough.

“They way I look at it here, if you don’t want to be coached, don’t come here.”

The words are Babcock’s, and they were spoken on the radio earlier in the week.

Those words, and others Babcock said while talking to “Ryan and Rico” onDetroit Sports 105.1, paint an image of a man who’s heard the bluster and decided to tell his side of the story.

“If you want to be pushed to be the best that you can be, that’s what we do here. You know what? The proof is in the pudding,” Babcock said.

Then this.

“If (the Wings) are concerned about (free agents not liking him), then I should coach somewhere else.”

Give ‘em hell, Mike.

Babcock is not the reason free agents nixed Detroit when the market opened on July 1.

Why wouldn’t a guy want to play for a proven winner?

It recalls a line about the legendary Scotty Bowman, spoken by one of his players on the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s.

“For 364 days of the year you can’t stand him, and on the 365th, you hoist the Stanley Cup.”

I’ll go one step further than Babcock.

If a player is saying no to the Red Wings because he doesn’t want to be pushed, then that’s not the player for the Red Wings.

There were many underlying factors affecting the decisions of this summer’s free agent class. Some had ties to the organizations with which they signed. Some were attracted to the bright lights and big city.

It’s a new game these days, anyway.

In the halcyon days, before salary caps, successful NHL teams more readily used free agency to build their core. Homegrown kids and trades were used to complement.

Today the league’s model is more like the one that’s been used by the NFL since that grand old football league started in the 1920s; i.e. use the draft to build a core and free agency to complement.

The most recent Stanley Cup winners—Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston—all have rosters liberally sprinkled with homegrown players. They are teams that have been largely built through the draft. Free agents have been signed, but not as the main focus.

The Red Wings are moving along with the times.

Partly out of necessity due to injuries and underperformance from veterans, the kids from Grand Rapids stepped up last season and are threatening to form a new core of Red Wings hockey.

Signing big name free agents should no longer be the preferable way of staying in Cup contention. The Red Wings are doing it the right way—the way that’s been proven to work by the Blackhawks, Kings and Bruins.

Sometimes the best free agent signings are the ones you don’t make.

Two summers ago, Hockeytown was in a depression over the Red Wings’ failure to secure the services of free agent center Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who were considered the best catches of the Class of 2012.

Both signed with the Minnesota Wild, and their addition was supposed to vault the Wild into the conversation as a serious Cup contender.

In the two seasons since adding Parise and Suter, the Wild have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Just like the Red Wings.

The draft is the way to go in the NHL. Frankly, the Red Wings have known that all along. They have been experts at finding superstars buried in the lower rounds.

But those draft choices weren’t the focal points. The big splash was made in free agency back in the day. Anything the Red Wings got from drafted players was a bonus. That, or the youngsters were used as bargaining chips at the trade deadline.

Another thing: are the Red Wings one high profile free agent away from winning the Stanley Cup? Unless that guy is a proven, sniper-like scorer—and there weren’t any of those on the market this summer—then the answer is a resounding no.

The Dan Cleary signing aside, the team seems to be transitioning smoothly from a veteran-laden group to a younger, faster, more energized squad.

Mike Babcock is the least of the Red Wings’ worries.

The coach is signed only through next season, but he keeps telling us not to read anything into that. And he has another message for those who suggest that he runs too tight of a ship for free agents’ liking.

“We just have the hard meetings. We get it out front. Does it piss people off once in a while? Absolutely. But it also leads to behavioral changes and getting things better. So you know what, I’m not apologizing for that stuff at all. I like to be treated honest.”

The Red Wings’ chances to win the Stanley Cup are no better and no worse after Free Agent Frenzy, 2014. And Mike Babcock is not the reason free agents signed elsewhere.

Honest.

 

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It’s an old line, written by an ink-stained wretch sometime in the early-1960s, when the Yankees were continuing to dominate Major League Baseball.

“When the New York Yankees go out to dinner together, they sit at 25 different tables,” the line went.

The implication was clear. Togetherness and camaraderie, those feel-good words, were overblown.

The Oakland A’s of the early-1970s were a mustache-wearing, raucous group that disliked their owner slightly more than they disliked each other. Yet they managed to win three straight World Series.

During the “Bronx Zoo” Yankees years, circa 1977-78, one of the zoo’s animals said that losing streaks weren’t necessarily a bad thing, because “the more we lose, the more (owner George) Steinbrenner flies around the country to watch us play. And the more he flies, the greater chance that his plane will crash.”

The Yankees won the World Series in both ’77 and ’78—with a group that battled the owner and the manager, Billy Martin, with the same ferocity with which they battled the Orioles and the Red Sox and the Royals.

There are two C-words that are mightily overblown in the world of sports: camaraderie and chemistry.

The former is at least somewhat easy to define. The latter, not so much.

But neither word has as much to do with winning as the users of the words like to think.

Chemistry is the worst word in sports.

It is undefinable, overused and is trumped by the king of all words, which is TALENT.

Give me talent over goodwill any day of the week.

Long ago, we should have added the L-word to the list of offensive utterances in pro sports.

Leadership.

It’s another word that is hard to define, overused and is most certainly trumped by talent, which is the Godfather of words in the sports lexicon.

Nice guys don’t necessarily finish last, but their niceness alone won’t win any brass rings, either.

This isn’t to say that talented groups don’t need leaders, because they do. But not every talented guy can be a “leader,” however you choose to define that.

The Lions’ Ndamukong Suh seems to find himself swimming in the 24-hour news cycle, often not by his own choosing.

Suh, the fifth-year defensive tackle, is immeasurably talented, gifted and strong. He can be a game changer at a position that can change games.

So why can’t we just let him play football?

There seems to be an obsession in Detroit with making Suh a “leader”—that obtuse, undefinable noun that nonetheless makes sports fans and analysts salivate.

Why do a team’s best players all have to exhibit model behavior and all be chiefs?

You need to have some pretty damn good Indians to win, as well.

Let’s talk about some of the so-called “leaders” in Detroit sports history.

There was the Red Wings’ Steve Yzerman, who was the strong, silent type. I maintain that one of the most brilliant moves ever made by any coach/manager in Detroit was when Jacques Demers bestowed the team’s captaincy on Yzerman, who was a 21-year-old entering just his fourth NHL season.

Demers was crazy like a fox when he put the “C” on Yzerman’s jersey.

At the time (1986), Yzerman was the captain of a fledgling team coming off a 57-loss season. Nearly 20 years later, the Red Wings had won three Stanley Cups and were constantly in the mix for more titles when Yzerman hung up his skates as one of the most-respected captains in league history.

Yzerman played hurt, he played hard and his teammates followed suit, yet Stevie did so without raising his voice much above a whisper.

Yzerman was perhaps the quintessential captain of anyone who pulled on a uniform in the Motor City.

Isiah Thomas, pound-for-pound the toughest player in NBA history, led the Pistons by example while also functioning as a de facto coach on the floor.

Thomas’ performance in the 1988 NBA Finals, when he played the last 72 minutes of that series on one leg, will never be forgotten in Detroit, nor should it.

The Pistons lost that series, but rebounded to capture the next two NBA championships with Thomas’ on-court presence leading the way.

I will give you Yzerman and Thomas as the two greatest, measurable leaders in Detroit sports history.

I will even give you Bobby Layne of the Lions, who was the unquestioned Chief of the Lions in the championship days of the 1950s. Bobby led on the field and he led in the saloons. His teammates followed him in both environs.

Now, back to Suh.

The Lions, and their fans, should toss away this misrepresentation of Suh as a so-called leader, forthwith.

They should leave him alone and let him play football, for crying out loud.

So Suh doesn’t show up to voluntary camps. He is absent at teammates’ charity events. He prefers to be left alone and work out on his own.

He is the Garbo of the Lions. He is enigmatic, like DiMaggio of the old Yankees and Jeter of today’s.

He can also be one of the most dominant players in the NFL. He has the potential to be the best football lineman in Detroit. Ever.

But it says here that we may never see how close Suh can come to reaching his ridiculously high ceiling if the yoke of leadership and being an extrovert continues to be placed on him.

Suh didn’t enter the NFL with a reputation of being a leader in college, if you recall.

He was known for tossing blockers around like rag dolls and for busting heads. That, presumably, is why the Lions drafted him second overall in the 2010 NFL Draft.

This is the perfect time to leave Suh alone and let him play football.

The Lions have a new coach, Jim Caldwell. This, naturally, ushers in new systems on both sides of the ball. There are new assistants and new philosophies and new playbooks.

There ought to be a new approach when it comes to engaging Ndamukong Suh, as well.

He doesn’t have to be well-liked by teammates, contrary to popular belief. He doesn’t have to show up at voluntary camps. He doesn’t have to walk around with a smile on his big face.

Suh isn’t Steve Yzerman, and he sure as hell isn’t Isiah Thomas.

But that’s OK.

One of the greatest of all the Lions, running back Barry Sanders, was an Indian. He didn’t have a Chief’s bone in his elusive body. You didn’t hear what Barry said on Wednesday—you heard what he did on Sunday.

Yet I don’t recall anyone in the Lions organization, or within his adoring fan base, trying to make Barry Sanders a leader. He was accepted for what he was—the best runner in the NFL who made our jaws drop every week.

Why can’t we accept Ndamukong Suh for what he is—which is a beast of a defensive lineman who can change games in the blink of an eye?

Why does he need to be a leader, if it’s not in his DNA?

If you want to dog Suh because he doesn’t attend voluntary camps and he prefers to be introverted, fine.

I happen to believe that you win football games with talented, dominating players—whether they get along with each other or not.

The Lions should strip Suh of his captaincy, but not to be punitive—to be realistic.

Square pegs never did do very well with round holes.

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