Archive for sports
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.
Mike Babcock looks like a hockey coach. He couldn’t be anything else.
He played the game, as all coaches have, and his face tells the story—etched with scars, looking like corduroy. There are crevices from cheek to chin deeper than Ayn Rand.
The jaw is set, the eyes steely behind the bench. Why do all hockey coaches look like they’re on a stakeout?
Babcock talks with a nervous tick, like he’s in a hurry, his voice drenched in Canada. Just hearing him speak, you know his life has been filled with 5:00 a.m. practices, mucking it up in the corners and he might have been born toting an equipment bag.
Babcock is in his ninth year coaching the Red Wings and perhaps no season has been more grinding than this one.
He’s coaching kids, and he probably thought he was done with that when he left juniors for the professional ranks over a decade ago.
He has a captain with a trick back who isn’t playing. He has been saddled with underachieving veterans. He has a world class puck magician who missed almost every game after the Olympic break.
His goaltender took more than half the season to find his mojo. Players have been dropping like flies due to injury all year. He’s been relying more on AHL players than NHLers.
But Babcock got the Red Wings into the playoffs for the 23rd consecutive year as a franchise, continuing the streak started by Bryan Murray in 1991 and continued by Scotty Bowman and Dave Lewis. In the process, Babcock last month passed Jack Adams for most coaching wins in franchise history.
Yet he probably won’t win coach of the year honors, which is an award ironically named after Adams.
There is more irony here, of the bitter variety, because those who vote on coach of the year are typically enamored with those who make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what.
Babcock may not have started with you-know-what, but he made chicken salad out of some oddball ingredients, and it’s a storyline the voters ought to eat up.
But because Babcock has won everywhere he’s coached—juniors, the NHL, the Olympics—and with some terrific talent, even a stressful, turbulent year such as the 2013-14 season probably won’t be enough to give a deserving guy his due.
It’s twisted logic, and it happens in all team sports.
The talented teams must win despite the coach, because the coaches of those talented teams rarely are recognized as being the best at their craft in any given year.
So coach of the year became reserved for the turnaround story or the winning against all odds situations.
The Red Wings coach succeeded in both of the aforementioned examples—a turnaround and winning against all odds.
In late-November, a certain bottom feeding blogger suggested that the Red Wings were old, decrepit and that their best years had passed. He pounded away on his keyboard, railing against what the Red Wings had become—rudder-less, a step behind and an also-ran.
That bottom feeding blogger was I.
The words scream out from the computer monitor as I read them from my Red Wings blog, the Winged Wheeler. As I have opined before, it is a fact that bloggers don’t write with invisible ink, as much as they would like to.
The Red Wings continued to wobble through the holidays, but began finding themselves in January. It wasn’t a coincidence that the resurgence started when the kids from Grand Rapids started getting ice time and contributing.
The Olympics break seemed to be unwelcome, because the Red Wings were playing some good hockey, finally. Goalie Jimmy Howard replaced the doppelganger that was pretending to be him earlier in the season.
Yet when the Olympics ended, and the NHL resumed its schedule, Babcock’s bunch hadn’t cooled off. They made a charge toward the playoffs, as one of those seeds that barely get in—the kind of team the Red Wings were used to playing against in the playoffs as opposed to actually being.
So that was your turnaround.
You want some winning against all odds stuff?
How about making the push to the playoffs with a motley crew of young, mid-season call-ups; a player who, because of injuries was asked to be a leader while playing his first year in Detroit after 17 seasons elsewhere; and with no captain and no world-class sidekick, among others, all lost to various bumps, bruises and pulls?
All this, and I would bet you that the voters won’t make Mike Babcock the Jack Adams Award winner.
Babcock, with apologies to the song, has looked at love from both sides now. And still, somehow…
When Babcock arrived in Detroit in 2005, he was just two years removed from leading the marginally talented Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Red Wings were anything but marginally talented.
Babcock’s appearance in the 2003 Cup Finals with Anaheim was stunning. In Detroit, it was expected to happen every spring.
So that was one side.
The other side is happening right now, guiding a banged up team whose roster is liberally sprinkled with kids—a team that has to scratch and claw every night. A team with speed—and Babcock has never really coached a lot of speed in Detroit. You don’t have to be fast when the other team never has the puck.
And still, somehow, the Red Wings are back in the playoffs—and leading the Boston Bruins, 1-0, in their first round series.
I marveled at Scotty Bowman, because Scotty won in different decades, his teams playing different styles, and in multiple cities. He started coaching in the 1960s and stopped in the 2000s, winning nine Stanley Cups along the way.
Babcock isn’t Bowman, but this year proved that the Red Wings are being coached by someone who doesn’t have to have every chip fall his way in order to win.
Jack Adams Award or not, this is Mike Babcock’s finest hour in coaching.
Earlier in the week, Babcock spoke of his team’s chances in the playoffs against the big, bad Bruins.
“I like us,” Babcock said in conclusion.
He ought to. His team is being coached by Mike Babcock, after all.
They say defense wins championships, but last I checked, nobody won the Stanley Cup by tossing shutouts every game. You still have to have pucksters who can bury a goal now and again.
Or in Gustav Nyquist’s case, again and again and again.
Nyquist is a typical Red Wings forward: skilled, Swedish and unearthed. Somehow 120 players were selected ahead of Nyquist, who went to the Red Wings as the 121st choice in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
The 24-year-old Nyquist is yet another find of Red Wings’ European Scouting Director Hakan Andersson, a former fishing tour guide who clearly still knows how to catch them.
The Red Wings’ roster is filled with guys whose NHL success belies where they were selected in their respective drafts.
Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen, to name just three, are stars who you would think were first round picks. After all, what scout worth his travelogue could have missed on these guys, eh?
But Zetterberg, the Red Wings’ Swedish captain, was a seventh round selection in 1999. The Russian Datsyuk was taken in the sixth round in 1998. And Franzen, another Swede, was a third round pick in 2004.
Now here comes Nyquist, who’s popping in goals like the opposing goalies are pylons, drafted by the Red Wings only after 120 players—six teams’ worth of nightly skaters—ahead of him were snatched up.
The Red Wings don’t draft players, they pan for them.
The name of the game is to score more than the opposition, and by that standard, Nyquist is the quintessential NHL player, because pretty much every puck he shoots these days finds the back of the net.
Nyquist didn’t join the Red Wings until November 21, from Grand Rapids of the AHL. In his first game this season, he scored twice. It seemed like a harbinger, because of Nyquist’s heroics in the 2013 playoffs, which included a game-winner in overtime in Anaheim in the first round.
But after that two-goal debut in November, Nyquist’s scoring stick fell asleep, and on January 18, he had just five goals.
In 29 games since January 18, Nyquist has 23 goals.
That’s Crosby and Ovechkin-ish.
With Zetterberg and Datsyuk felled by injuries for much of the 2014 portion of the season schedule, it’s been Nyquist to the rescue. When he scores a goal, the Red Wings are 16-6.
It seems as if every Nyquist goal has some sort of importance attached to it. He’s either giving the Red Wings the lead, tying the game, or winning the game.
Nyquist is a Bruce Martyn kind of player: He shoots, he scoooooores!
The brilliance of Nyquist is that he scores from everywhere on the ice, and from any position—skating, falling, sliding, what have you. All that’s left is for him to beat a goalie from the third row of the stands—and that might be coming.
If you miss a Red Wings game on any given night, you might want to just flip on ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” because one of Nyquist’s goals is likely going to end up there as an evening highlight of the most pretty.
So much have Nyquist’s exploits in 2014 been talked about around the league, that some NHL observers have suggested that Nyquist should garner some Hart Trophy (MVP) consideration. Now, that’s likely Sidney Crosby’s award to lose, but to even be mentioned is something else, given Nyquist’s paltry five goals in mid-January.
Part of Nyquist’s hockey genius lies in his speed. Even Franzen, Mr. Streaky himself, marvels at his fellow Swede.
“He’s faster with the puck than without it, and that’s pretty uncommon,” Franzen told the Detroit Free Press after Friday night’s 3-2 win over Buffalo—a game in which Nyquist, strangely enough, didn’t score.
But this goal scoring stuff isn’t unique to Nyquist’s NHL career. Everywhere he’s played, he’s been a goalie’s nightmare.
Nyquist has been beating goaltenders like mules since he was 16 years old and scoring nine goals in just 14 games playing for the Malmo Redhawks in a Swedish under-18 league.
After being drafted by the Red Wings, Nyquist went to the University of Maine and in three seasons he scored 50 goals in 113 games.
Then it was time to turn pro, and in two seasons in Grand Rapids, Nyquist deposited 45 goals past AHL goalies.
Nyquist first endeared himself to Red Wings fans when he won Game 2 of the Anaheim series last spring in overtime, a huge tally that tied that series, 1-1. The Red Wings went on to win the series in seven games.
But so prolific is Nyquist this season, that his shooting percentage (goals divided by shots on goal), is 19.9%, which is more than twice the league average. The Red Wings as a team have a shooting percentage of 8.8%.
That means, basically, that Nyquist scores a goal for every five shots he takes. That’s some deadly stuff.
Apparently not content with scoring goals in every way imaginable, Nyquist himself is thinking of different ways to score.
“You look at Pav (Datsyuk) and Z (Zetterberg), they have two guys hanging on their backs and they’re still so strong on the puck,” Nyquist told the Free Press. “That’s something I can learn from.”
I’m sure opposing goalies are just thrilled to hear that. The guy who has 23 goals in his past 28 games wants to start scoring with guys hanging on his back.
Come to think of it, that’s pretty much the only way you can stop Nyquist from scoring in 2014—so far.
So the next time you see two defenders draped over a player, and all you can see of that player is the puck leaving his stick and eluding the goalie, you’ll know who that player is.
No. 14 in red and white.
The most consistently successful franchise in pro sports today is located in a city where they beseech you to remember the Alamo—not to mention George Gervin, Larry Kenon and Artis Gilmore.
It’s in a town where there isn’t any other major pro sports team. It’s the Green Bay of the NBA.
The San Antonio Spurs started playing seriously for the NBA championship in the late-1990s, and they haven’t stopped since.
Other NBA franchises, some steeped in history, have been made over—sometimes several times—in the past 20 years.
The Boston Celtics, who in the 1960s were as reliable every spring as the first robin and who won several more titles in the ‘70s and ‘80s, fell on hard times in the late-1990s, early-2000s before regrouping and becoming champions again in 2008.
The Los Angeles Lakers, by the mid-1990s, had become impostors wearing purple, like a bunch of department store Barneys. Then Phil Jackson arrived from Chicago and got the Lakers wearing championship belts again.
The Chicago Bulls sank like a stone after Michael Jordan “retired”, their six championships in the 1990s becoming distant memories almost overnight.
The Detroit Pistons…well, you get the idea.
But the Spurs? They’ve never dipped, really, since center David Robinson finally joined them in 1989 after serving two years in the Naval Academy following his drafting in 1987.
The Spurs’ won/lost records over the past 20 years have been as consistent as a working clock.
The Spurs win 50+ games every year, make the playoffs, and they’re typically one of the last few teams standing in June. Four times since 1999, they’ve been the only team standing.
Their coach, Gregg Popovich, has a career winning percentage of near .700 in over 1400 games. Popovich could win 50 games every season in his sleep.
The blossoming of the Spurs under Popovich came in 1996.
The Spurs had Robinson but hadn’t been able to put the right parts around him. Much of that was on Popovich, who became the team’s GM in 1994.
You have to be lucky to be good, and that was certainly true of the Spurs in 1996. The team got off to a 3-15 start, and Popovich fired coach Bob Hill and replaced him with…Gregg Popovich. I know—it doesn’t sound lucky so far. Give me a moment.
Popovich had been an assistant with the Spurs under Larry Brown for a few years starting in the late-1980s and he figured, what the heck—I’ll coach the team myself.
Robinson broke his foot during that 3-15 start of 1996 and missed all but six games of the ’96-97 season. Other key Spurs players missed significant time with injuries, and it all ended with a 20-62 record.
Popovich didn’t fire himself as coach. He kept wearing the dual hats of coach and GM.
Here’s where the good luck kicked in.
Because of all the injuries, not the least of which was suffered by future Hall of Famer Robinson, the Spurs ended up with the no. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft and drafted a big man from Wake Forest named Tim Duncan.
Duncan’s insertion into the lineup and Robinson’s return from injury put the Spurs back in familiar territory with 56 wins in 1997-98.
One year later, with the Spurs’ version of the Twin Towers manning the paint, the Spurs won their first NBA title in 1999, beating the New York Knicks in five games.
Popovich shed the GM label in 2002 to concentrate on coaching, which was like Frank Sinatra quitting acting to focus on singing.
It worked, though, as the Spurs won their second championship in 2003, overcoming the New Jersey Nets in six games. It was Robinson’s swan song as a player.
David Robinson retired, but the Spurs kept winning, which is their—and Popovich’s—genius. Players have come and gone, including Hall of Famers, yet the Spurs have never bottomed out.
The Miami Heat won the championship in 2006, and two years later, despite having Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal, and a Hall of Fame coach in Pat Riley, Miami won 15 games.
Of course, the Heat rebuilt themselves in a hurry, but they had to occupy the outhouse before getting back to the penthouse.
The Spurs don’t do that collapse-before-you-can-get-better thing.
Another NBA crown was won in 2005, and again in 2007. The Spurs’ key trio then, as it is now, was Duncan, point guard Tony Parker and shooting guard Manu Ginobili. The latter two are fine players, but probably not Hall of Famers.
That’s another thing. The Spurs rosters haven’t been filled with iconic names, like the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons and Bulls’ championship teams have been.
The Spurs win about 70 percent of the time under Popovich, but there have been no Bird, McHale, Parish or Kareem, Magic, Worthy-like combinations that Popovich has coached.
The Spurs draft well, trade cunningly and they have Popovich, 65 years old, a two-time Coach of the Year winner (2003, 2012) and four-time world champion.
The Spurs have been relevant for 15 years in a league where literally no other team of the NBA’s 30 franchises can say that.
OK, that’s the NBA, but what about other sports, you might ask.
Let’s look at other sports.
In baseball, even the mighty New York Yankees haven’t won as many World Series as the Spurs have won NBA championships since 1999. The Yanks have won three WS (1999, 2000, 2009) to the Spurs’ four NBA crowns.
In hockey, the Detroit Red Wings, perhaps the Spurs’ stiffest competition when it comes to consistent excellence in pro sports, have won two Stanley Cups (2002, 2008) since 1999.
In football, the New England Patriots have won three Super Bowls (2001, 2003, 2004) during the Spurs’ reign of terror.
Yet the Spurs are rarely mentioned when it comes to which franchises are the best in pro sports today.
Well, now they are, right here.
The beat goes on this season. At this writing, Popovich and the Spurs are 56-16. Another 60-win season, which would be Popovich’s fourth, beckons.
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili aren’t getting any younger, but it doesn’t appear that it will matter going forward, as Popovich has a deft ability of adding key players from the draft or free agency that is unmatched by any basketball man in the NBA—including execs like Pat Riley.
Popovich won with David Robinson and he won without David Robinson. It’s likely that in the near future he’ll win without Tim Duncan, who is going to turn 38 during the playoffs in April.
On second thought, forget the Alamo. Remember Gregg Popovich, the best coach in pro sports who has been hiding in plain sight for 15 years.
He was wearing a smart leather jacket, hair still damp from a post-practice shower. It was one of the last team workouts before the playoffs began. Spring hockey, the best kind of hockey, was on the horizon.
But first, there was the matter of a nod to history.
Nicklas Lidstrom and I stood as spectators in the Joe Louis Arena concourse, as the Red Wings were about to unveil the new sculpture of Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe. The date was April 10, 2007.
We were scrunched together, players and media alike, awaiting the drapery to be pulled from the white bronze piece of artwork that depicted Howe in follow through after a shot.
Lidstrom, unassuming in his version of street clothes, kept his eye on me, even though I was slightly behind him and to his right. He appeared to not want to lose sight of me.
Moments earlier, in the Red Wings’ dressing room, I had asked Lidstrom for a few words. I was writing for a local sports magazine at the time, and my assignment was to get a feel for the team’s mindset as the playoffs beckoned.
Lidstrom, ever the gentleman, apologized, but with a rider.
“I can’t do it now, but right after the ceremony,” he told me.
We all were herded upstairs, near the Gordie Howe Entrance. The way Lidstrom kept looking at me, I got the feeling that he was more concerned about our chat than I was.
Not long after the unveiling, Lidstrom approached me and the brief interview began, as he promised.
He didn’t know me from Adam, although I’m sure he’d seen me in the locker room before—and would see me again.
But the point is, Nick Lidstrom made good on his word, even to an ink-stained wretch.
They’re going to have another ceremony tonight at the Joe, and this time Lidstrom won’t be merely a spectator. This time, the nod to history is a nod in his direction.
Number 5 gets hoisted to the rafters tonight, taking its rightful place next to 1, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 19 as retired Red Wings jersey numbers.
1. Terry Sawchuk, the best goalie ever and the most dour. Perhaps, at the same time, the best at what he did and the most unhappy while doing it.
7. Ted Lindsay, who had the most appropriate nickname for his on-ice persona and the most inappropriate for when he was off it—Terrible Ted. Never has the NHL seen someone who so lived up to his moniker as a player and so lived down to it as a person.
9. Gordie Howe, who is still one of the few hockey players any man on the street can actually name. The bumpkin from Saskatchewan who made good.
10. Alex Delvecchio, who played the game with quiet grace. Fats wasn’t spectacular, but somehow he always ended up with 25 goals and a bushel of assists every year.
12. Sid Abel, who centered the Production Line between Howe and Lindsay. Old Bootnose, who served the Wings so well as a coach, GM and TV commentator in addition to his years as a Hall of Fame center.
19. Steve Yzerman, who immediately comes to mind in Detroit when anyone says “The Captain.” Never has the Red Wings franchise employed a player who played with more grit and heart than Stevie Y.
Lidstrom joins these greats tonight, his jersey settling in nicely way up high. It won’t be out of place.
If Sawchuk was the brick wall, and Lindsay was the pest, and Howe was the complete player, and Delvecchio was the smooth playmaker, and Abel was the fulcrum, and Yzerman was the heart and soul, then Nick Lidstrom was the Red Wings’ calm.
The plaque of Ty Cobb outside Tiger Stadium called him ”a Genius in Spikes.”
Lidstrom’s should say “a Guardian on Skates.”
Lidstrom, for 20 years, was the Red Wings’ sentry, a hockey beefeater who played the game without expression or emotion. He logged his 25-30 minutes a night, poke checking and angling opponents into submission. He didn’t lay a body check on anyone in his life. Lidstrom was the game’s Lt. Columbo, who didn’t need a gun to solve crimes.
Tonight it will be official: Nick Lidstrom will take his rightful place among the Red Wings’ all-time greats. No one shall wear no. 5 in the Winged Wheel ever again.
As with the other retired sweaters in the rafters, why bother?
In the mostly inglorious history of Thanksgiving football in Detroit, the Lions have dragged themselves onto the field with a variety of emotions.
They’ve been prohibitive underdogs, the Turkey Day game their only appearance on national TV, where they’ve been the Washington Generals to their opponent’s Harlem Globetrotters.
They’ve come in as hopeful spoilers, trying to be the scrappy group of rejects that ruins their more formidable opponent’s playoff run.
They’ve run onto the field with false bravado, perhaps even with a winning record, determined to show the nation why they deserve respect.
They’ve laid eggs, played the game of their lives and suffered stinging and sometimes cruel defeats.
They may as well play these games on February 2, because there’s a Groundhog Day aspect to Thanksgiving Day football in Detroit.
Every fourth Thursday of November, Lions fans wake up, wash and stuff their bird, jam it into the oven, flick on the parade on the tube (or traipse downtown to see it in person), and can’t wait until 12:30 p.m. to arrive. As if last year didn’t happen.
This is because a myth has been propagated for decades: that the Lions always turn in a fine performance on Thanksgiving Day.
The facts don’t bear that out, and recent results are finally starting to hack away at that Redwood of a myth.
The Lions, in the past 11 years, have won one Thanksgiving Day game, and that came way back in 2003.
Just call them the Myth-Busters.
But of all the emotions the Lions have carried with them onto the gridiron on Thanksgiving, only once have they strapped on their helmets with sheer, unadulterated rage.
It happened 50 years ago to the day of this year’s holiday game.
November 22, 1962.
The Lions played the Green Bay Packers that day, and never before or since did they take the field with such a chip on their shoulder, regardless of the date, regardless of the situation.
The Lions’ crankiness could be traced to their first meeting with the Pack in ‘62, about a month or so prior, in Green Bay.
In the rain, on a muddy field, the Lions let one slip away—literally.
Nursing a 7-6 lead and with the football near midfield in the closing minutes, the Lions had the undefeated Packers on the ropes. Perhaps one more first down, just one more, would salt the game away in the gloom of Green Bay. The date was October 7.
Then the Lions made their slip-up.
The Lions defense mauled the Packers that day, limiting the defending NFL champs to two measly field goals all afternoon. And that defense was on the sideline, watching its offensive counterparts about to commit football harakiri.
Football 101 says that in the situation the Lions found themselves in—a lead late in the game, with the football—the course of action is to keep the ball as grounded as a wayward teenager.
In that moment, only a loon would call a play requiring quarterback Milt Plum to fade back and dare a forward pass. Only a stark, raving madman would suggest anything other than a nice, safe running play—especially in the unsure footing that day.
As the Lions defense looked on helplessly and in horror, Plum shot a pass toward the sideline, where intended receiver Terry Barr slipped in the mud. Plum’s throw was easily picked off by cornerback Herb Adderley, who galloped downfield, deep into Lions territory.
Moments later, Paul Hornung booted a field goal in the waning seconds and the Packers shocked the Lions, 9-7.
The Lions trudged off the field, losers of a game they had in their hip pockets, that is until someone—it wasn’t initially known who it was—foolishly called for a pass. Even if the Lions hadn’t made that first down on the ground, they could have punted and pinned the Packers deep, with not much time remaining.
That loss divided the team, maybe for years—certainly for the rest of that season. In the locker room afterward, it was demanded of Plum which birdbrain called for that pass. Plum didn’t give the inquisitor—it may have been Alex Karras or Joe Schmidt—a satisfactory answer.
Karras’ helmet flew past Plum’s head and smacked against the wall, hurled by its enraged owner.
Defense vs. offense.
The Lions played on after the game in Green Bay, dropping a tough one to the New York Giants a couple of weeks later. The Packers kept winning, and they were still unbeaten when they squared off against the Lions on Thanksgiving.
Green Bay was 10-0; the Lions were 8-2, though both teams knew that the records should have been an identical 9-1 for each side.
Raging with anger, the Lions defense tossed the Packers offensive line around like rag dolls in their relentless pursuit of quarterback Bart Starr. Karras, Schmidt and the rest of the defense played the game of their lives that Thanksgiving, sacking Starr 11 times (the stat was unofficial back then) in front of a national TV audience.
The Lions roared to a 26-0 lead and won, 26-14. The champion Packers didn’t have a prayer.
In the end, though, it didn’t matter. The Packers finished the season 13-1; the Lions, 11-3. No Wild Cards back then. The Lions finished in second place; the Packers returned to the championship game and beat the Giants for the second year in a row.
Had the Lions not let that game in Green Bay slip away, both teams would have finished 12-2 and met in a divisional playoff contest.
And never in the past 50 years have the Lions played any Thanksgiving Day game with the fury they displayed against the Packers on November 22, 1962.
Disrespected? Yes. Dismissed? Yes. Hopeful? Yes. Enraged? Not for a half-century.
But they sure have caused such rage, haven’t they?
The world according to LeRoy Neiman could be captured very efficiently.
The painting artist Neiman, famous for his bushy handlebar mustache and his ability to create art on the fly, died Wednesday in New York at age 91.
Neiman painted people in action; Neiman’s art was what the world would look like if a still camera could snap impressionism.
There was no such thing as a Neiman “still life.” He painted people doing something—playing poker, boxing each other, engaging on the gridiron. And he did it rapidly.
It wasn’t unusual for the TV networks to commission Neiman, especially during Super Bowls, to produce “on the spot” works—the prior action as Neiman saw it. Then the cameras would show Neiman at work, producing yet another work of color, ambience and activity.
Neiman painted life like a photographer shot it, but with the editorializing that the painter gets to do, that the photographer can’t. Neiman’s works had the ability to capture the human condition with brush strokes instead of a lens.
Neiman, foreground, and Muhammad Ali, background, as the artist saw him
You could even call Neiman a journalist, for that’s how vividly he was able to tell a story with his paints.
Sportswriter Nick Seitz, in a story at CNN.com, said Neiman had “the journalistic talent, as well as the artistic ability, to convey
the essence of a game or contestant with great impact, from the Kentucky Derby to Wilt Chamberlain, from the America’s Cup to Muhammad
Ali, from the Super Bowl to Bobby Hull.”
You can thank Hugh Hefner, of all people, for hooking Neiman up with the world.
It was Hefner who hired Neiman to produce a series of paintings called “Man at His Leisure” for Playboy magazine. Neiman did it, for 15 years, beginning in the 1950s. The world took notice of the way Neiman would so succinctly and efficiently capture the essence of such iconic events as the Grand Prix in Monaco and the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
Neiman was as colorful as his paintings. The handlebar ‘stache was just the tip of his iceberg.
To hear the artist tell it, the creation of Neiman was every bit as important as the creation of his art.
“I guess I created LeRoy Neiman,” he once said, according to the biography on his website. “Nobody else told me how to do it. Well, I’m a believer in the theory that the artist is as important as his work.”
As big as LeRoy Neiman was, however, his work is still bigger. And, obviously, it will live forever, unlike the mortal artist who created it.
Ding, dong the warlock is dead.
One down, how many to go?
The demise of Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel is a blow struck—a blow struck for honesty, decency, ethics, and playing the straight and narrow. That much is true.
But if you think now that Tressel is gone—having resigned in shame from OSU—we have eradicated cheating in college sports, well, I just hope you’re not that naive.
Tressel wasn’t the only cheater, and he won’t be the last to be caught. You’re also naive if you think that the other cheaters are now scared straight. As nice of a thought as that is, it’s just not realistic.
College sports are just pro sports without the players salaries. And without the integrity, steroids be damned.
Tressel had himself an amazing 10-year run in Columbus, and now we suspect that at least part of that success was due to his being able to play the system like Perlman with the violin.
Now we see quarterback Terrelle Pryor driving around in cars that would make a multi-millionaire pro athlete blush.
Who knows how many ineligible athletes the Buckeyes played with over Tressel’s decade of Big Ten dominance? Who knows how many were on the take? This isn’t over with, by a long shot—the discovery of grisly stories of largesse and hubris flowing from Columbus.
It may turn out that Tressel was operating a football factory in the Third World sense—full of corruption and disregard of labor laws. Only, this was no sweat shop. OSU’s football players were taken care of, it seems.
Combining Tressel’s decade at OSU with the revelation of what happened with Pryor and other players last year begs the question, “Do you HAVE to cheat to win big in college sports?”
It’s tempting to say, yes, you do.
It’s also tempting—and I’ve been one of these to say so—to strongly suggest that athletes get compensated while making their institutions lots of money. Those opposed say that it’s not just athletes who make the dough—the best and brightest students do, too, via research grants and other forms of money that are bestowed based on academics.
And those eggheads don’t make a dime, either.
And what about the free room and board and training facilities and medical care the college athlete receives? Isn’t that “compensation,” too?
Well, yes, it is.
But it’s not enough. My opinion.
Let’s please be real. Let’s stop pretending that college athletes—of the money programs like football and basketball—are just some kids passing through town for a few years who should be thankful for the opportunity, while the institutions rake in piles of cash using their likeness on TV, in magazine ads and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the athletes risk injury, just as the pros do, and work every bit as hard at their craft as the eggheads do at theirs, if not more so—physically, at least.
The athletes should be paid, plain and simple. And with a compensation system comes a wonderful opportunity to establish new rules and regulations that are easier to monitor and harder to look the other way from.
Don’t buy the argument that paying athletes is “throwing money” at a problem that money can’t solve. Don’t buy the notion that with salaries comes more greed and corruption.
Do NFL teams have to cheat to get personnel? NO—because they have an equitable compensation system.
As far as how MUCH to pay college athletes, that’s part of the regulations that would arise with the advent of such a system.
Sure, there’d still be some cheating initially, as less-than-ethical schools decide to test the system. But if the NCAA does it right, and tweaks it as necessary, they should be able to create a good enough filter to catch the scum.
I know that the mere thought of paying college athletes draws the ire of many and strikes at the core of what lots of people believe college athletics to be.
But tell me, how is that idealistic, doesn’t-really-exist-anymore model of college athletics working out for you nowadays?
Jim Tressel is just a symptom. Getting rid of him has solved nothing, other than making the Big Ten winnable again in football for 10 other schools.
The following is a guest column from Sterling Heights Stevenson High School sophomore Ryan Wietchy, a young man I got to know a few years ago during a freelance assignment. His columns will appear here periodically. I think he makes a very strong case.
By Ryan Wietchy
Contrary to what many people may believe, not every talented high school athlete will become the next LeBron James-type prodigy. In today’s talent-seeking sports society, many kids are already focusing on their future sports careers as early as middle school, committing to their future college coaches as if everything will come their way without having to work for anything they earn. Go on YouTube to find a five-year-old’s amazing dribbling skills and elementary students already committed to playing football at USC.
What most of these up-and-coming athletes don’t realize is that sports may provide a living for some people, but not most. Society is becoming more focused on whether or not a kid can complete a pass on the football field rather than completing a sentence in the classroom.
The term “student-athlete” often takes a different meaning than it should, often with the “athlete” coming first. For “star” athletes, academics often become a mere hindrance to their athletic career. Showing up to class is just a chore that needs to be done before the actual important part of their day, which is staying after school for practice.
According to the NCAA website, only .03 percent of high school boys basketball players will be drafted into the NBA. And for those planning to be the next Tom Brady, only .08 percent of high school football players will make it to the NFL.
Any person with basic math skills knows that the chances of making it big are as likely as finding a needle in a haystack. Down the line, that leaves a cluster of people who thought they were destined for glory, but now have a frail education with only the question of “What if?” lingering in their heads. Our district’s academic eligibility standards does not help this either. The Utica Community Schools Code of Conduct for Student Athletes states that “a student athlete must meet the Michigan High School Athletic Association minimum requirement of passing four classes at all times.”
This is way too lenient as many players barely scrape by getting D’s and F’s and still are able to play. The UCS Board of Education needs to change their policy to something that will put academics as the forefront of their priorities and make the standards more rigorous.
Not all student-athletes don’t care about their grades. Many of them put in long hours of hard work both on the field and in the classroom. But there are a handful of athletes that are brain-washed, growing up thinking that they will make it big, when in fact, they may not get as far as their dreams. There has to be something to fall back on if their careers don’t pan out or they get injured.
The whole point of sports is to provide an outlet after school that teaches teamwork, responsibility and dedication. It should not be the only thing that matters throughout someone’s high school experience. Because when the glory fades and the Friday night lights dim, a points-per-game average, not a grade-point average, will be the only thing they have left to their name.
Raise your hand if you’d heard of Fennville, Michigan prior to last weekend.
That’s what I thought.
We didn’t know Wes Leonard, certainly, but we didn’t even hear about his hometown, either.
Now Fennville is stamped onto our brains, and Wes Leonard is in our hearts.
We didn’t know Wes Leonard personally, but we know who he is.
He’s that great kid you’d like your daughter to marry. He’s the athlete who turns the fans on and pleases his coaches. He’s that good-looking boy who is morphing into a man and doing so with little drama or maintenance.
You know him. I know him. Perhaps you’re even lucky enough to know him personally, or, bonus, be his dad or uncle or brother or friend.
You didn’t have to know Wes Leonard personally to know who he was, or how tragic his story is.
Leonard is the 16-year old boy who collapsed and died moments after hitting the game-winning layup for Fennville High School, giving his team a perfect 20-0 record.
Fennville is the Michigan town along Lake Michigan where everyone knows everyone. You know that place, too.
Wes Leonard being hoisted by his teammates, moments before tragedy struck Friday night
Leonard died from an enlarged heart, which I always found horribly ironic, if you think about it.
It’s among the scariest of conditions, because it’s the heart and it is usually undetected until it strikes fatally. It waylays you and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.
There’s really not more to add to this awful story that you haven’t already read, but it strikes me, whenever something like this happens, how it doesn’t matter that it’s happening to a stranger.
That’s because when something of this magnitude happens to someone so young, we relate it to our own situation, our own loved ones and friends.
Wes Leonard is merely a name. You can substitute, in his place, any number of young men or women in your life, past or present. Besides, we were all 16 years old once, so there’s that common thread, too.
Wes Leonard’s enlarged heart didn’t give any medical folks or Wes himself a fair chance. By all accounts, Wes was afforded prompt attention and yes, there was a defibrillator in the house and it was used.
He was gone, for all intents and purposes, from the moment his body hit the basketball floor. A floor on which, minutes earlier, he had triumphed.
Sure, it’s messed up. And you didn’t have to know Wes Leonard personally to understand that.
That’s because we really do know Wes Leonard. Just look around you.