Last Chance U Part Deux: Buddy Stephens Revisited

When the first season of Netflix's football series "Last Chance U" ended we saw the JUCO program of Eastern Mississippi exiting the Mississippi state playoffs after getting into a brawl. Coach Buddy Stephens was berating his players as "thugs," much to the dismay of many of them.

The new season of the series promised more football and more drama. What I didn't count on was Stephens announcing that he was embarrassed watching the first season of the show and that he was going to be nicer to his players. Call me skeptical but I didn't buy it at the time and as the show went on, I was right.

The first couple of games he preached change, positivity and how he was a new man. His use of swear words in practice led to him having to drop down to crank out push-ups in front of the team. I was more stunned than impressed, he almost seemed to be embarrassing himself in front of the team.

As the wins mounted, so too did the immense pressure lofted onto Stephens' shoulders. Injuries hit star running back Isiah Wright. The defense struggled to stop anyone who ran right at them. When Coach would attempt to talk to a player it felt as if he was begging that person to say anything at all. One word and Stephens would snap.

I lost count the number of times he kicked Wright out of practice. As the defense struggled to find an identity he berated the Defensive Coordinator for not doing enough. When the refs asked Stephens to back up from the sidelines he freaked out on them.

"Don't touch me. I don't touch you." Stephens screamed at them. So much for the kinder, gentler coach.

Near the end of the season as the team played for the Mississippi state championship Stephens sent his offensive coordinator up to the press box. The same offensive coordinator that had been there for years. I thought that Stephens wanted to turn over a new leaf, but no.

Even though the team won the game and the state championship, Stephens had damaged his team in the process.

Team mother Brittany Wagner left Eastern Mississippi to form her own company to help students.

Offensive coordinator Marcus Wood stepped down from his duties after his interactions on the sidelines of that championship game.

Quarterbacks coach Clint Trickett left the program to work at Florida Atlantic University.

Defensive coordinator Ed Holly left to coach high school football in Florida.

Who else?

To paraphrase Isiah Wright, he said "I can tell when someone cares for me and when they want something from me." The former running back of Eastern Mississippi couldn't have been more painfully clear about the situation in Scooba, MS. It also becomes obvious less than halfway through the season that the head coach's driving factor is to win football games.

The series visits former players and examines their current situation. My favorite is Ronald Ollie who looked happy to have left Eastern Mississippi for Nicholls State. Even former quarterback John Franklin III smiles for the camera while explaining his situation as a backup quarterback at Auburn University. Their lives are drastic comparisons to what the athletes are experiencing back at the junior college.

Eastern Mississippi's defense shows a disconnect because of the malaise that starts at the top. The offense runs well only because former offensive coordinator Wood cares about his kids and sheltered them from Stephens' negativity.

By the end of the season even he can't keep away the drama and is swallowed up by it. I believe Stephens' lack of self control is ultimately going to be his downfall. Even if he wins football games, his lack of compassion guarantees he will never grow as a person. I feel bad that he never gets to understand the kids the way Wagner and Wood did but one day he'll realize that humanity is more important than wins.

Time To Pay The Players

With the NHL playoffs upon us (and the Maple Leafs hopefully being in them), I’ve been playing NHL ’17 on Xbox One to deal with the fever.  As a gamer and sports fan, the greatest addition to games is the “Be A Player” mode where I created myself as a young center in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

My virtual self suits up for the Sherbrooke Phoenix, because my favorite hockey player of all-time, Jocelyn Thibault is the General Manager.

Anyway, as the season progresses your general game play is “graded” based upon certain categories and of course your skills develop based upon the grade.  The end goal being that you get a call that you’ve been drafted into the big show to play for the grand prize – the Stanley Cup.

Along the way you are given the chance to fight if you are challenged (or you will be pushed into fighting if you deliver a brutal hit on a defenseless opponent), the opportunity for more ice time if you are passing and scoring well, a disappointing paragraph on a menu from the coach if you don’t defend and other chances to make an impact.

Midway through your draft-able season, you may get the call to the CHL top prospects game as my player did.  I was assigned to the white team and I drew the top line against the red team.  Somewhere during the first period after a stoppage in play, I began to look at the “Be A Player” mode differently.

One of my linemates must have disliked someone on the other team and a fight broke out.  Hey – old hockey joke huh?  All I could think about was 17 year olds fighting in front of NHL scouts to show that they should be drafted.  I have never been or seen the real CHL top prospects game but I know that as a teenager you want to be in the NHL and you’ll do whatever it takes to get there.

But these aren’t just any teenagers.  These kids are being paid a stipend and they cannot accept a scholarship to an American school because of it.  Think about that for a moment.  This is a double edged blade.

It’s wonderful that they are getting paid for bringing in revenue for their club but at the same time it comes with a consequence.  They must now realize they can’t go to the States and play college hockey.  Most realize their options are better in the CHL, however should that not pan out, there has to be some consideration for the future too.

This past week I saw former Houston Texans running back Arian Foster talk about the NCAA and how he can’t even watch college football anymore.  The NCAA system is broken.  In March, billions in revenue are generated for the NCAA by advertisers in what is known as “March Madness.”  The basketball players for the schools do not see any of that money but some of the coaches at these schools are paid millions to do one thing: teach x’s and o’s.

Then there is college football.  The college bowl system is the same way and some coaches are the highest paid state employees.  They also get athletic gear contracts and some coaches even have radio shows.  Meanwhile, athletes on scholarship can’t participate in work study or accept the same things that normal students could.

In fact, Foster has spoken in the past about asking his former coach at the University of Tennessee Phillip Fulmer to bring him something to eat because the dining hall was closed and he had no money.  This was against the NCAA rules but Foster came from a family that was poor – if it wasn’t for the scholarship he wouldn’t have had the funds to go to college.

We hear the stories of athletes going from college or high school to the NFL or the NBA and blowing it all.  They end up being broke but why can’t they get a stipend in college to help them understand how to manage it?  Getting that money in the CHL helps the young players know that when it is gone, it is gone and no one is going to give you anything.

The NCAA is no longer an amateur league and it’s not going to go back to being one.  With advertisers involved and athletic companies sponsoring everything there’s no way to believe that money doesn’t run college sports.  It’s long past time to let the kids who help print the cash for the “amateur” system get their piece of the pie – or else we need to take the money out of the system.

Understanding The Numbness Of Alabama’s Loss

There’s a lot we can learn from losses – whether they are in the sporting world or in life.

Sometimes we believe that things can get no better.  Whether it is our new car or a trip to see our favorite team we think that everything is wonderful.  We ride around in our car and enjoy the smell of the new seats, the thrill and the experience.  Or even when we go to the game we soak up the sights and the sounds.  

I imagine when the University of Alabama lost to Clemson in the National Championship game they thought the rug had been pulled out from under them.  That new car with the thrill and experience hit a tree. After a season of wins, the final game produced what would be a devastating and disappointing loss.  How could anyone possibly deal with it?

Like Alabama, we must learn to deal with the losses in our life.  Though our defeats probably won’t be televised they will hurt none the less.  I think no matter what level of loss, it all affects us differently.  The pain and the depression all take their toll.

I know that whatever came out of Alabama’s loss the players will be stronger in the long run.  Maybe in the hours and days after the game they struggled to find a silver lining- something I’m sure we all can relate to.  After we experience our own devastation it takes time for us to recover.  The amount of time depends on the severity.  

I am no expert in loss and I can’t tell you how to get through the struggle of life.  I know we all have things to go through because just as Sheryl Crow sang, “no one said it would be easy, but no said it’d be this hard.”  

If time heals as they say, it’s only because we forget how much we hurt.  We forget how alone we can feel in that hurt.  How selfish we feel about our hurt.  The idea of sharing our pain sounds easy until we start to open up and then we close down those gates and store those feelings for another day.  I only know the things that hurt me when I was younger don’t now – because I don’t remember what or why they hurt.  I don’t remember the situations and the feelings.  Maybe if I could go back and relive time I would understand.  But who would want to go back and relive pain?

Do you think Alabama wants to go back to feel what the end of the National Championship felt like?  I don’t know about you but anymore it’s getting harder and harder to remember the good and the bad.  Wounds can be so fresh and bring such intensity but yet make us so numb.  Only time will tell how long the numbness lasts.  

When Football Comes To Town

I’ve turned the sporting world on its head in 2016.  After years of watching football each year I’ve slowly watched less and less to the point I viewed maybe three games in 2016 catching one from start to finish.  The old me would take in a full game at least once a week.  I can’t help but raise some questions.

The questions I have with the sport are philosophical, mental and economical but they are all things that I wrestle with.  I never played, something that at one time I wished I had but as time goes on I’m pretty thankful that I chickened out when the football coach told me I would make a pretty good linebacker.  I think he was drunk when the 140-pound-me was sitting in the lunch room of my high school as he told me I could play.

Yes I’d be awesome as a sled dummy.  Please just run me over.  This was before the days of Will Smith’s “Concussion” and the recognition by the medical community. As well as the family of retired players that blows to the head can cause serious long term damage.  The NFL however, sees dollar signs instead of stop signs and wants whatever cash deliveries it can get – health be damned!

Damned if I’m convinced that they even care about the players feelings either.  One week a player can wear pink shoes to support a worthy cause but the next week their cleats memorialize a respected fallen journalist and that’s a 15K fine.  Nah.  It shouldn’t work that way. Meanwhile guys are jumping into huge vats with the Salvation Army logo on them and that is okay.  Guys are beating their girlfriends and wives, guys are driving drunk, guys are walking around with illegal loaded weapons, guys are doing drugs and making complete asses of themselves.  But we don’t suppose a wide receiver should pay tribute to a man who tried his best to fight leukemia, a disease that we still don’t have a cure for – even though we throw so much money at wars.  Can someone please explain why we can’t cure diseases?

We would still rather fine individuals for protesting or memorializing those who tried to make people’s lives better.  It’s become a circus run by a ring master who is propped up in a bigtop of low to middle class individuals.  The more that these individuals watch, buy and attend these games the more this drama will continue.  The more that these players will get screwed.

In a 2016 Wall Street Journal article, a study showed that the average NFL career is 2 and a half years.  Imagine the punishment these players have taken their WHOLE lives.  Now think about the fact that if these guys come into the league as rookies, they aren’t making millions and millions, and if they get hurt they have to come to a settlement with the team. Can you imagine you’ve spent your entire life training and doing everything to work this job.  What if that is the only skill you have?  What if this job scrambled your brain because of all the hits you took?  The NFL doesn’t care because you weren’t there long enough to matter.  The NFL doesn’t care because it accept the CTE findings.

The January 2017 edition of GQ includes a story about a former Iowa high school football player, Zac Easter, who gave his life for football.  He grew up in a football family, his father was a small college coach, and his two brothers played the game.  He wasn’t the most talented kid but he would never stop moving like that bunny in the battery commercial. Many times he said he got his bell run but he just got right back up – this was before the CTE diagnosis and the focus on pulling kids out when there was even a hint of a concussion.  Through his high school career he had three confirmed concussions before the team doctor forced him to quit his senior season.  Who knows how many he had during practice or when he simply fought the diagnosis because he wanted to go back in and play defense as the star linebacker.

After graduation he struggled with headaches, memory loss and depression.  Zac was convinced he had CTE after reading about it and kept a journal detailing the pain that he experienced.  He also left a semi-last will explaining that he wanted his brain to be left for science so it could be studied to see if he truly had CTE.  He wanted his family to share his story as a warning of what concussions can do.  The power of the first hand account can be haunting but especially so in Zac’s case.

When Zac couldn’t take it anymore he took his own life – something that his family doesn’t understand.  His father drinks to ease the pain, refusing to take counseling and his mother wants to find something to help others.  But what is there?  Ban football?  Not going to happen.  Make kids wait to play?  Kids will not wait to play.  New equipment? This hasn’t stopped anything.  We’ve seen players evolve over the years to become bigger and stronger and faster.  Each year players try to get an edge over the other.  There is a fine line that unfortunately I think we’ve crossed over and I don’t think we’ll get back.

Some would argue that they are adults and they know the risks, but the players start as children and by the time CTE sets in they may as well be children again.  It’s an extremely difficult decision to wrestle with.  But I don’t believe I can do it anymore. There are way too many people who spend their lives with mental problems because of this game that never get help.  We don’t know how to help them.  Is it worth it?  It’s up to us to decide.  Wise men once said “Cash rules everything around me.”  As I grow older I can’t help see this never stops being the case.

Numb To The Reality Of College Football – Go P U!

Pink Floyd’s 1979 hit “Comfortably Numb” contains the lyrics

“When I was a child I had a fever
My hands felt just like two balloons
Now I’ve got that feeling once again
I can’t explain you would not understand
This is not how I am
I have become comfortably numb”

I’m not a Pink Floyd fan per se, but every time I hear that song I think of my experiences with sickness.  Every time my temperature spikes I get the same dream and I wake up knowing that I am ill.  I can’t explain the dream, I can’t explain the feeling but I just know that I am not feeling well.  When I hear this song on the radio or on Muzak somewhere I know instantly what Roger Waters and company are getting at.

In many ways this malaise appears in all aspects of life.  We can’t escape the reality that nothing is truly what it seems.  Individually, our experiences may be different but we feel the same.

I believe we’ve come a long way as a society and as humanity but there’s so much more that needs to be done.  I’ve tried to document my sports world.  My background of growing up in a SEC football driven world led me to believe that nothing was bigger than Saturday. Praying to the touchdown gods and the first down saints was what fueled my weeks.  The offseason was a place where you looked in the mirror and asked questions about the team’s focus.  Was it the coach?  Was it the institution?  Was it the players?  Why can’t they win every year?  What is wrong with them?

The answers were not always clear.  Even now I struggle with one question in particular. When it comes to sports there’s one huge question I ask.  If everyone’s ultimate goal is to win a championship, does that mean every losing team’s season is a waste?  Did every other player on every losing team waste their time, energy, sweat and blood for that year because they didn’t win?  We could say that some may never win because they play on a less talented team than others?  Are there a multitude of other reasons?

For all those kids who went to a school like Vanderbilt, just an example, and played a season of college football, did they waste their years of sports?

Some would say that these kids were given the opportunity to continue to play.  Maybe players are stepping on the field for more than just the chance to win.  Maybe they just want the scholarship to get an education.  If they move to the pro level do they just desire that pay check?  Maybe they just want to get some stats.

I guess it’s all up to us what we do things for.  Whether it’s why we go to work or why we do things on a daily basis.  We get in a pattern – a habit – of doing things and we can’t shake our way out of it.  It becomes too simple.  It’s too easy to keep doing the same thing, flipping on football on Saturday because we always did it but we don’t know why we did it.

Or maybe we did it because Saturday was our day to go out and get tanked with the crowd? Hang out with those alumni we went to school with and remember the glory days from times long past.  Think about the years when there were no daily demands and the living was easy.  When we were numb to the outside world.  Maybe even dare I say it comfortably numb to everything.  Our little world revolved around that campus.  Go P U!

Getting older after we left college we never shook that feeling that we should return on game day to keep that old tradition alive.  Again – creatures of habit.  Some of these we never want to think about or break.  Bring the kids to the tailgate and see the drunk alumni grill meat before the game.  Go inside a million dollar plus stadium funded by pledges we can’t afford but because we love the school “so much” we’ll give our last penny.  Inside our coach, signed by some athletic company for millions, drives young men up and down the field for the glory of the school.  Those 18-22 year olds never see a dime for all the cash they bring into the institution even though they can’t afford to go out after the game or even sometimes get a bite to eat.  Because they are on an athletic scholarship they can’t get a job – so don’t even go there.  So much cash floating around the athletic programs to be gobbled up by the school in donations, endorsements, television and bowls but don’t buy the kids a meal if they can’t afford one.  What have we become?

We are so numb to the notion that athletics is so pure that we don’t want to accept the notion that it’s all driven by the mighty dollar.  Good old P U wants to win a championship so they can get exposure and bring more money in to build an even bigger stadium.  If P U could get their stadium sponsored they’d bring in every company they could to slap their logo on the side.  “Welcome to Connecxto Stadium and P U Field.”  It’s not pretty but it pays for all the scholarships P U will say.  Sure it does.  The players can’t have a meal when they are hungry but the alumni giving hundreds of thousands are sitting high up in Connecxto Stadium in a furnished suite watching them beat each other’s brains in for P U glory.  I guess it’s all worth it.

Then again I think we’re all numb to the system.  We know that markets and money are involved in the world around us.  People don’t do things out of the goodness of their hearts – it’s what they can get out of that action.  Unfortunately I’m one of those people who would like to think that people do things for the greater good, but I guess I’ve become numb to the world.  I’ve become numb to the reality that greed takes many forms and one of them is human.  I’m certainly not comfortable with it.

Keion Carpenter Gave Everything Until The End

Former Virginia Tech and NFL Defensive Back Keion Carpenter passed away on December 29, 2016 hours after slipping and hitting his head.  No, he wasn’t doing anything bad – he was simply playing with his son, Kyle.  The 39-year-old Carpenter fell into a coma before passing away 4 days after Christmas, leaving his wife and four children to pick up the pieces of a life taken way too soon.

As someone who followed Virginia Tech football, I remember Carpenter very well.  He was one of my favorite Hokies ever.  It saddens me to see him go because I am reminded of the things that I treasured him for – the interceptions and the tackles.  I think of his play on the field and the victories he was able to contribute to.

I’m also saddened because instead of my memories of VT football or the NFL, I should be thinking about the person.  The man who ran a non-profit organization, called the Carpenter House, to strengthen the lives of those that didn’t have the advantages that many others did. Carpenter wanted to give hope, he wanted to bring change and most importantly he wanted to do something to help a community that didn’t have a lot of people stepping up to assist it.

I’m upset because Carpenter was only 39 and should have been given more time to help the community of Baltimore he loved so much.  Even though he lived in Atlanta he was always spending time in the place where he grew up.  I can’t imagine how much more he could have given back if there were 20 more years of Keion Carpenter.  How many more children’s lives could he have touched?

Will everyone outside of his community remember him for being a football player?  Five years down the road will anyone outside of the community even remember the good work that he has done for the unfortunate?  It haunts me to think about the legacies of the people who do good.  Unfortunately we tend to remember the evil rather than the good. We remember the names of people like Hitler and Stalin but we don’t remember the names of the children who were killed in the Sandy Hook shooting – even though we should never ever forget their names.

As someone who went to Virginia Tech I can never forget the name of Seung-Hui Cho and the image of dual pistols pointed at the camera.  However, I also see the 32 Hokie stones in front of Burruss, something that I had to visit to truly pay my respect to those taken far too soon.  I’m not moved to a truly emotional level by a lot of things, but those 32 stones left me asking questions that I’ll never have answers for.

Those individuals that died that day I never knew but in a way I felt a kinship with them because I had experienced some things that they did.  I knew places that they went, I saw things that they did and I probably took the same classes they did.  Hell I ate and lived at the same places they did.  In a lot of ways it felt personal and the memorial hit home more than a news article or a web video.

Keion Carpenter’s death does the same thing.  A member of Hokie nation who tried to be a good human being – giving back to those who were less fortunate.  He wasn’t taken by a mass shooting, an out of control individual or a random act of violence.  He died from a “freak accident.”  Does that make it even tougher to take?  I don’t know.

I’ve heard that death is the one thing that is certain in life.  You live you die.  It’s the circle of life like in The Lion King.   It’s certainly not fair.  But fair is that place you go in the summer and ride the tilt-a-whirl or whatever it is called.  Nothing it seems is fair and Carpenter’s death seems to back that up.

If we, or I in particular, learn anything from Carpenter’s death it’s that we should never stop giving back.  Those people who have less than us aren’t always going to have a helping hand.  Who knows how many Keion Carpenters are out there because we don’t hear about the good people in the world unless they are in our communities.  Sadly, we need to change that.  We need to prop up the good people rather than praise the bad.  Help those that are unable to get out of a bad situation.  Everyone deserves a helping hand. If Keion Carpenter should be remembered for anything it’s not for football but for being a loving, caring human being that gave back to others and wanted to make a better world. Let’s make sure that we continue his dream and give everyone life while we can.

Why Is Joe Mixon Any Different Than Ray Rice?

I’m not sure why these things continue to go on every day in the sports world but star athletes are getting away with as much as possible.

Case in point, University of Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon.  Mr. Mixon has been suspended for the game against Iowa State on November 3, 2016 because he ripped up his parking ticket in front of the public safety officer who had written it.

There are a multitude of problems around Mixon that extend from 2016 back to 2014.

Mixon’s attorney, Blake Johnson, is quoted in the The Oklahoman as saying “He tore the ticket up in front of the parking attendant, and threw it on the ground.”

Not only did he either park illegally but he littered by dropping pieces of the ticket on the ground.  Plus there is a witness to both offenses.

Mr. Johnson goes on to say, “We are very confident that Joe did nothing criminal.”

Well let’s back up a moment here partner.

In 2014, Mixon was suspended for punching a fellow student and breaking multiple bones in their face.  Mixon knocked Amelia Molitor off her feet with one punch shattering her jaw, cheek, sinus and orbital bone.  That’s right, the fellow student is female.

The incident was caught on a restaurant surveillance tape where the two had been with friends.  Mixon had been celebrating his 18th birthday when words were exchanged escalating into Molitor pushing Mixon away.  Mixon lunged at Molitor and she slaped his neck leading to the punch.

As soon as he landed it, her head hit the table she was sitting at and then she fell to the ground. Mixon made for the exit leaving Molitor struggling to come to.  Mixon is not seen on camera again and after a while she is able to sit up in a chair.

On top of all of this, the President, athletic director and football coach of the University all saw this footage in the District Attorney’s office just three weeks after the event occured. Their solution was to suspend the player from the team for the season rather than outright dismissal.

The DA decides that Mixon should be charged with acts resulting in gross injury, a misdemeanor.  A misdemeanor?

Mixon entered an Alford plea to the charge which meant he had to serve 100 hours of community service, a one-year deffered sentence, a year of probation and some counseling.

Mmkay.

Even though he was suspended he still attended team functions – hell that seems right.  I imagine she was doing every day normal activities with all those broken bones.

But what is interesting about the whole thing is that there was an Oklahoma law that prohibited reporters from obtaining copies of the video to broadcast on TV or post online. Mixon took the deal just days before a new law was set to come in affect changing this which would have meant his video would have gone mainsteam.

In fact, after the plea was reached with the defendant and the prosecutor the tape went back to the restaurant where the tape was destroyed.  No one but those who were there will ever see the violent act that Mixon committed.

My question is, what would he have had to do to get kicked out all together?  Kill her?

If you draw the comparisson to another football player’s domestic violence incident caught on camera (Ray Rice) – what is the difference?

My guess is that Rice brought so much toxic attention to the NFL that no team wanted to go near him and he could be replaced by many other running backs similar to him.  His video was on every website and television station.  You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing or hearing his name.

Mixon on the other hand is younger, a five-star recruit, Oklahoma kept this video contained and could keep him away for a year to minimize the damage to their program.

All that being said – domestic violence is domestic violence.  What Mixon did is no different than what Ray Rice did and neither individual should be on the field.  Mixon ripped up a parking ticket in a fit of rage so what will stop him from showing that anger in the future?  What will stop him from hurting someone when he does?  The fear of another misdemeanor?