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.


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?




Arian Foster Retires With Little Fanfare -But Did It His Way

One of the most outspoken proponents of paying college athletes to play sports has retired from the National Football League.

In an unconvential move,  30 year-old Miami Dolphins running back Arian Foster announced his retirement in the middle of the 2016 – 2017 season.

But Foster is anything but a conventional NFL player. In fact, I would dare say Foster pushes the boundaries of what defines an athlete.

Foster grew up in New Mexico as a Muslim but was raised by his father to question everything. A way of life which led him to be an atheist – a belief that isn’t talked about much in NFL standards or for that matter even openly endorsed by stars in the league.
Outside of Foster how many NFL players have you heard of say they are atheist?

In a 2015 ESPN The Magazine article detailing Foster’s life and career, Todd Stifel, the head of Openly Secular, a group trying to end discrimination against secular people, said “he is the first active professional athlete, let alone star, to ever stand up in support of gaining respect for secular Americans.”

He’s called “a devil worshipper,” “different,” and even “wrong.” The new criticism is that “he was raised Muslim.”

Like that makes any difference.

Instead of celebrating Foster as a human or an individual – people throw stones at him for what makes him different.

Foster wondered if there is a God why does he let you lose and help me win? Why does he care about football why people are dying? In college he didn’t want to be a part of the University of Tennessee team-building exercise of going to church because he did not believe. He wasn’t let out of it because no one understood where he was coming from nor did they take the time to learn.

It’s different for him because he’s understanding what it’s like to be a someone who believes in science rather than religion. A world where he is judged based solely on the label “atheist.”

That label doesn’t go any further than his set of beliefs – at his core he’s still a human. We still should respect that he’s a human just like us.  We all have our own set of values and thoughts.

Why can’t he believe the way he does? Is it any different than a non-football player?

My favorite thing he says is something we all should aspire to, “The more empathy you have toward people and their belief system, the more productive the relationship will be. I get it. I understand why people believe.”

I may not always like what you have to say but I can respect that you feel that way. I can be open to your feelings and beliefs.

Foster challenged things in many of the same ways that Colin Kaepernick is at this very moment. Although Kaepernick is taking more heat for his much more outward yet non-violent protest.

What I found so appealing about Foster was when he talked about how he would look around while he was on the field and question how there could be so many people there to see them playing a game. It was just a game to him.  Or when he would be in a team meeting and he would feel out of place because he can’t admit to any of the coaches that missing an assignment doesn’t really matter. Does it? Not when there’s homelessness and poverty?

I remember reading the interview with Foster and thinking that he questioned many of the same things I did.

How could one be “helped” to celebrate while the other was “let” to lose?

This makes no sense.

How could a game be more important than people dying around the world?

This makes no sense.

Foster’s questions resonate within me as they are questions that I’ve asked for quite a while. In fact, I’ve been asking questions for as long as I can remember because I wanted to know as much as I could. But at some point no one could answer some of those questions.

Much like Foster that’s made me different but unlike Foster not as outspoken. Until I learned that it was okay to be me – not a label – I was uncomfortable in my skin. Maybe Foster’s questioning came from being uneasy in his own self too. Being different isn’t easy. Feeling like everything “normal” shouldn’t just be accepted is difficult when you start asking questions.

Trying to play sports and asking “why am I focusing so hard while all this happening around me,” is even more difficult. It’s very rare for athletes in their prime to come out with a statement such as this. However it’s a brutally honest statement for a deep thinker such as Foster.

As Foster retires, most football fans will tell you he won’t be in the Hall of Fame, he never won a title and was slowed by injuries. However, I can tell you he’s walking away from the game, the game isn’t walking away from him. He’s doing what he wants to do and not what someone else wants him to do. He’s questioned and asked to the point that he found the answer. His answer is in himself and now it’s time to find something new.

It’s a brave person that can question themselves and find peace while walking away from such a life. However, it takes a lot of courage to ask when we know we won’t like the answer.

The Re-Evaluation Of A Sports Fan

Imagine being a sports fan all your life – knowing who is playing on Saturday and Sunday. Knowing who is in the playoffs and knowing the rosters of every team.
Being a Virginia Tech Hokies football fan I talked about interviewing the legendary Coach Frank Beamer. I sat behind the bench of a Tech game when they played Rutgers and I saw the players up close. I was there during Marcus Vick’s (yes, the brother of one Mike Vick) rookie year when he threw 2 interceptions and was benched for playing like crap. I remember seeing him and questioning how someone like that could be so highly rated over his brother. He sure didn’t look great that day.
Little did we know all the things that he would be known for – the stomp, running from the cops, the weed and the underage drinking with girls. It turned into one of the worst examples of Coach Beamer believing in a player in his tenure at Virginia Tech. I almost believe it soured him for the rest of his career from then on out. He certainly never appeared to be the same Coach after that.
Since Coach has retired and I’ve gotten older, I don’t follow Tech football or many other sports for that matter like I used to. I do try to play hockey and ref soccer but that’s about as deep as I get. Maybe it’s the philosopher in me or the psychologist that does too much questioning. I’ve ruined it. I’m starting to wonder if I’ve even ruined playing these sports just by questioning.
Walking away from the games has made Saturday and Sunday different. I can remember fall Virginia days with the windows open, the leaves falling, watching football with a blanket on. It didn’t matter what games were being broadcast I was watching them. Now, you’ll be lucky to catch me watching football for an extended period of time. I don’t know the roster of Tech and all I know is that Coach Beamer shows up on the sidelines to talk to the players but not instruct them.
The opportunity came up to go to Syracuse to see the Hokies play a Saturday game – one that I always said I would take if I ever had the chance. I declined.
“It’s too much, I don’t know the players anymore and Beamer isn’t there.”
It’s just not the same for me. It’s a struggle and a painful one at that. Something that was the biggest part of my childhood is gone. Through the questioning of concussions, wondering about the mindset of athletes and the examination of profits in sports I’ve lost that love for the game. I do truly wonder if I think too much about things.
I find myself not enjoying skating or soccer as much anymore. I question my ability to skate. Why? Why should I? It feels like a cycle or a circle. Here I go again.
“I can only do so much,” I tell myself, “but I don’t do enough.”
My body gives out and I can’t push it like I used to. I know there are guys older than me playing but why not me? Am I just not built the right way? I question my genetic makeup.
“Maybe I wasn’t built for skating.”
I’m arguing with people when it comes to soccer – i’m too strict with the rules.
“Why,” I ask myself, “does it have to be this way?”
Should I really be forcing everything in soccer to be by the book? Do I have to look for all the details to be just right?
I know that I can’t step down from my position as a coach and ref. I can’t quit on the volunteer organization simply because I feel like I am not doing the job properly. Can I?
Ah self doubt you creep in again.
Self doubt my old friend.
Where would I be if I didn’t doubt myself?
Before I step on the field I’m confident but between the games I am ready to call it quits. I think back to each decision and each play wondering if I missed something. I know I had to have.
“No one is perfect,” I tell myself.
Did I call one game too leniant? Did I call one too strict? Why? Was I tired?
It breaks me to think about these things in between games. I want to hand in my whistle because I’m sure I’m letting someone down. I can’t be a good ref and doubt myself can I? Isn’t that the reason why I gave up on sports? Because I doubted the nature of it? I doubted everything about it. How pure it was supposed to be. Now I’m doubting how good a job I’m doing as a ref. How can I help a kid learn a game if I question what it is I’m seeing?
All these questions. Isn’t it supposed to be easier? Aren’t I supposed to be good at this? For all the talk I’ve made out of knowing the game, I should boast about my ability. But that’s not me. I spend more time questioning my ability than praising it.

The same person who can build a wall can tear it down. I can just as easily call a good game as I can a terrible one. How do you keep the human element from creeping in when you are supposed to be a robot? An emotionless machine that calls fouls. That can be a challenge as I tend to my feelings on my sleeve. Sometimes I think that’s the best place for them. The more I think about it there’s not enough room there for all of them.

Hard Knocks and Hard Hits – Walking the Fine Line

Over the summer the city of Los Angeles welcomed back a football team and maybe even a piece of their identity.  Along with the usual cast of superhuman men, knowledgeable coaches and trainers, staff and everything that comes with an NFL team came a camera crew.  Not just any camera crew but the crew of HBO’s award winning series Hard Knocks.

In case you’ve missed Hard Knocks over the years, you’ve missed meeting players and staff who have shown what’s like inside the training rooms and huddles of pro teams who allowed access to some of the inner sanctums to millions of fans worldwide.  I was late to the party as I started watching Hard Knocks in the 2013 campaign when they returned to the Cincinnati Bengals to see what I felt was a pretty bland series.  It was not the fault of the show itself, just maybe the cast of characters never drew me in and I never felt a connection.

When the series moved south to the ATL in 2014, I was taken by coach Mike Smith’s down home demeanor and his genuine concern for the players.  Watching his interaction in his office between player and coach there seemed to be a sense of feeling that the coach wanted his players to succeed on their terms not just his.  Some coaches want to scream and dig their heels in the dirt as if to say “Here I am get in line behind me.”  Not Smith, his message was “I want you to do your best and I want to be there to encourage you.”  Smith and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff created a culture of family – something that welcomed the rookies and vets alike.  I found it one of my favorite out of the three I had seen.

In 2015, the Houston Texans opened training camp with their number one draft pick of 2014, Jadeveon Clowney, returning from injury and the film crew there to document the process.  Between Clowney and fellow defensive player J.J. Watt you’d think there would be no shortage of footage of that side of the ball.  However, the Texans struggled mightily in finding a quarterback between the talented-but-raw Ryan Mallett and journeyman Brian Hoyer.  Mallett did himself no favors and the quarterback battle whether made for television or real seemed to come down to who could less mistakes.  Sadly I was more interested in J.J. Watt’s training camp routines and Charles James’ sock game.

Going into the 2016 season, HBO announced they would follow the Rams to Los Angeles and I rejoiced.  Not because I’m a Rams fan but because some Bills fans had hoped that they would follow the Bills.  Egads!  Little did I realize, in 2011 Hard Knocks had followed the wind bag known as Rex Ryan and the Jets around in training camp.  That would have been terrible.  I can barely keep it together when I hear Rex Ryan and Bills in the same sentence.  Is there some conspiracy there?  I keep telling myself I went through four straight Super Bowls with this team.  Each was worse and worse.  I went through that Music City garbage – and that was a forward pass too!  They hired the damn coach I hate the most on my birthday, then they hired his damn brother on the day after my birthday the following year.  Now I’m holding out for him to be fired.  The only thing I can see being worse is they’ll fire him this year and replace him with Jim Harbaugh.

I’m going to go find Anthony Anderson and we’ll burn that mother down.

I have to move on and fast.

Speaking of fast – Austin Hill.  Come on Jeff Fisher, really?  Maybe it’s the dad in me but really?  I didn’t see him play in preseason and I didn’t see him away from the field but I only saw what was on the show but man that was brutal.  The cut of him?  You couldn’t give him a practice spot or something?  He’s got talent and he’s a little small but he’s got something there.

The resemblance between defensive lineman Ian Seau and his uncle Junior is haunting.  It’s incredible.  Ian is quick but he gets pushed around leading the Rams to cut him.  Everyone keeps repeating this is a business.  This is a business.  Coach Fisher talked about the lead up to cut down day and how he couldn’t keep everyone.  Someone had to go and it was going to be the end of someone’s dream.  That’s the reality of this thing.  Smash.  Hulk smash.  As much of a good guy as he seems he’s also a realist.

I thought about what he said about the end of a dream. I watch how these guys just fight and fight for these spots while men like number one draft pick Jared Goff can stand there and watch them march off to their doom.  These “fringe” players work their asses off while the future of the franchise players show “potential” so they don’t have to worry about their spot.  It’s not fair.  Sure fair is where you go to ride the rides and eat cotton candy.  However does it make it any easier, hell no.  As that “fringe” player, how are you supposed to take that?  What are you supposed to do?  Some people would say pick yourself up and move on but for some of these guys this is everything they’ve dreamed of and worked their entire lives for.

I look at myself.  I’m lucky in a way – I knew from the start I would never play in the NHL and I would never play hockey.  But looking at basketball.  From the beginning I wanted to play further than the YMCA and I never even got to high school basketball.  I never had a coach tell me I was not good enough but I knew I was not good enough from playing against other players my age that I would not be able to compete on a level big enough to make it to high school basketball.  How do you tell yourself at such a young age that you can never do the one thing you want to do?  I don’t know how I did it.  I just did.  Now I just want to be able to contribute as a hockey player.  I just want to be able to get on the ice and help my team.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to do that.  That’s a struggle as well and I’m feeling that feeling again.  It’s hard to describe but I just want to be able to help the team succeed but without being able to do anything productive I’m not pulling my fair share of the rope.

One of the players kept, defensive lineman William Hill said he didn’t believe in dinosaurs in one episode but he believes in mermaids.  He said he can’t believe in something that man hasn’t seen.  I’m just curious as to when someone last saw a mermaid?  Does anyone have any mermaid skeletons in any museums anywhere?

I found myself laughing when out of nowhere Jeff Fisher’s son Brandon, the defensive backs coach, screamed NAF!  Non-Athletic Fuck.  I guess you had to see it in context.  Once it caught on, it spread like wildfire.

Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator, can coordinate like a champ.  Okay – that’s a terrible description but damn he’s good.  This is the same Williams who was involved in all that “Bountygate” crap.  He survived all that.  You know he can coach.

Then there is head coach Jeff Fisher.  Jeff Fisher is like former Atlanta Falcons and current Tampa Buccaneers defensive coordinator Mike Smith in that he is very down to Earth and genuinely interested in the player.  However, when the series starts he cuts starting quarterback Nick Foles over the phone.  It seems very odd and cold until you start to realize that the team just moved to Los Angeles and drafted ex-California Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff with the first pick in the NFL draft.  Foles was sure to know that the cut was coming.  Fisher for his part doesn’t just cut Foles, he engages with the player before cutting him.  He even goes so far as to ask him about his summer and gives him a ringing endorsement as well as a promise to endorse him to any teams that should call about him.  You don’t hear that every day.

There are times during the show where you see Fisher speak to players and you wonder how it’s going to turn out.  One player gets terminated because he violated a camp rule and brought a female to his room – “that’s 7 and 9 shit.”  Hilarious.  Don’t break Fisher’s rules.  But if you trust Fisher he’ll make you a better player.  Even if you probably should have been cut.

Defensive back Lamarcus Joyner walks off the field during one sequence of plays because he’s not included with the first team in the reps.  He tells defense secondary coach Dennard Wilson in no uncertain terms that fuck it the Rams can have their money back that he’s done.  Nice.  Those fringe players would no doubt be cut –  I get it.  However the next time Lamarcus is supposed to be on the field he’s not there.  Director of Player Engagement La’roi Glover (damnit I’m getting old I remember when all these guys were actually playing) tells coach Fisher that no one can find Joyner and Glover is going to find him.  Glover returns with Joyner in street clothes to the practice field.  A meeting is set with coach Fisher where Joyner tells the coach that he’s done with the Rams because he needs to know whether he’s starting or not.  It’s not about the money the Rams can have their money but don’t waste his time or their time.  He can bag groceries or he can go to another team.  Odd.  He just doesn’t know if he has it left.

I’m left completely confused.  I get that he can make plays.  But either he wants to be out there or he doesn’t.  There’s guys like Austin Hill out there looking for one roster spot and this guy doesn’t get reps with the first team so he wants to go bag groceries?  Alright fair.  So what does coach say?  He tells him about Steve McNair getting knocked out a game and going to the hospital.  In the hospital he told coach that he was done.  He was going to be the number 2 quarterback and he didn’t have it in him anymore to be “the guy.”  So the next game there’s less a minute left and the team is down with the ball back and McNair leads them down the field to win the game.

Apparently that was all it took to convince Joyner that not only was it in him but that coach was behind him.  You know it doesn’t seem fair.  I know the fair is blah blah blah.  Maybe Joyner has some level of talent above Hill.  Maybe I’m a little more biased to Hill and it’s Fisher’s job to see football.  That’s why he’s been there.  I’m seeing the outside in.   Maybe Joyner should have been cut?  No?

It’s things like that and the issue of Tre Mason that leave me questioning football.  Oh Tre Mason.  The running back that wasn’t brought up in the series?  He’s on the reserve list for the Rams because over the off-season he had some run-ins with police.  Some very odd run-ins having to do with ATVs and police chases and according to his mother he was not “acting right.”  He’s listed on the reserve list because he “did not report” and the Rams say he hasn’t been in contact with coaches or teammates but the problem seems to go deeper.  His mother believes that Mason is suffering from issues stemming from contact to the head during his days in football and possibly CTE complications.  She equates his mental state to that of a middle-schooler and doesn’t believe he should ever play football again.

There’s a fine line that we as football fans have to walk.  It’s a line we must walk from high school to college to the pros.  For all of us that love to see a good hit, we have to realize that these are not robots hitting each other but two humans with brains sloshing around in their skulls.  If Mason was hit hard enough during his developmental years those events of trauma could have slowly built up over time and cause his progression to the man that even his family doesn’t recognize.  Brain injuries in football are real no matter how much professional football wants to cover it up.

No matter how much they want to dispute things like Concussion, no matter how much they want to dispute scientific fact, no matter how they don’t want you to think about it and hand over you money – this is real life.  We are really paying people to hit each other just like we do in boxing, MMA and other sports (yes hockey).  Just like in football we need to be very careful about concussions.  The brain is what keeps us going and keeps us from regressing or even dying.  Once we take too many blows to the head our body can slow down or turn into a child-like form.  To many, this is what Mason is beginning to sound like.  It’s unfortunate because he is only 23 years old.  I can’t imagine what he will have to go through for the rest of his life.  I can’t imagine what life must look like to him right now either.  The rest of must struggle to walk the fine line.