A Cubs Fan Finally Gets His Championship Ring – And I’m Fine With It!

The Chicago Cubs are giving Steve Bartman a World Series ring this week for all the hell he's been through since that ill fated night in Wrigley Field 14 years ago. Bartman has led a sheltered and very secluded life after the death threats he received in the wake of the Cubs 2003 National League Championship Series loss. Cubs fans hit the radio waves to express discontent for the man they believed caused the team to never reach their destiny. A man who had to be escorted from the stadium after reaching for a foul ball.

Among many sports fans a debate has raged about whether the Cubs are breaking an unwritten rule of professional athletics by handing out a ring. Questions like Bartman didn't play with the team so why give him a ring? Or does doing this cheapen the accomplishment of the 2016 champs? What if the other clubs decided to just hand out rings to whomever? Should Bartman even accept the gesture in the first place?

For all the questions, the answers aren't as clear as one might think. No one can truly say but Bartman whether he should take the offer from the club. He is the one who has had to separate himself from the team he loved so dearly. Can you imagine your team winning after 107 years and not being able to be at the game to celebrate? Much less having the ability to show your face in public all because people thought you were the reason a team lost?

Teams can do whatever they want with their rings. If New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft can give one of his Super Bowl rings to Russian president Vladimir Putin how can we criticize a team giving one to a fan? A ring from a championship is merely a symbol of a win, something that most players simply lock up and put away in a safe only to come out at special events. A championship win by players builds bonds and families within a locker room that no piece of jewelry or banner can match. How is it any different than any other memorabilia that is sold after the playoffs? In fact, players sell them all the time.

I'm not sure if there is a team that doesn't do what it wants when it comes to victories. In 2016, the Denver Broncos took the Lombardi Trophy to a late fan's funeral. The 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers gave rings to janitors and food vendors. Why is everyone getting so excited about the Cubs? Give Bartman some peace finally, he's been through hell.

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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.

Uncle Mike Vick’s Cabin 

I recently saw a shirt that says : 

We march, y’all mad, We sit down, y’all mad, We speak up, y’all mad, We die, y’all silent.

Let those words sink in for a bit before you pass judgement on what they are saying.  

I’m not going to wade into the political world but this shirt reminded me of Colin Kaepernick and what he’s been going through with NFL free agency.  Whether you agree with him or not his actions have caused people to talk, something that is necessary in this country.

Unfortunately there are people like Mike Vick who went on FS1’s “Speak For Yourself,” and said that the reason why Kaepernick doesn’t have a job is because he is still sporting an afro.  Really Mike?  Vick went on to say it’s really not about his hair but about his last two years of play.  If he cuts his hair and goes back to the NFL with hat on hand and keeps on line, Vick thinks all will be forgiven.  Much like after he was forgiven for his dog fighting charges.  Vick reminded us all “it’s not about selling out.”

I’m not sure I buy that.  While it may not be that Kaepernick is getting black balled from getting a job in the NFL because of his beliefs, he’s causing questions to be asked of the culture and mentality of those that are in charge of signing players.  He’s reaffirmed my opinion that football is about money and the image of what is on the field.  Look at some of the white players who have long hair and long beards, why is that okay?  Is what Vick saying that Kaepernick’s hair cut reminds fans of the 70s and Black Power activists?  Mike Vick reminds me of a dog killer.  There are players in the NFL with weapons charges.  There are players in the NFL who have beat and abused domestic partners.  There have been players in the NFL that have killed others and still been able to come back.  You are going to tell me someone should cut their hair Mike?  Give me a break.  All Kaepernick did these past two years is express his right to protest.  He didn’t break a law and he didn’t break an NFL rule.  He can grow an afro and he can kneel for the anthem.  However you can’t kill or beat a human much less defenseless animals.

I have a real problems with the fact that it’s okay with guys like Rex Ryan to attend and even announce guys like Donald Trump at political rallies without their teams saying a word.  Meanwhile Kaepernick doesn’t say a word on the field but keeps to himself.  Each man expressed his right to protest or display his view only one of them has been chastised for it – I wonder why?

A League Full Of Losers

In the NFL, 31 teams go home at the end of the season as losers.  If you think about it that’s 97 percent of the league that doesn’t accomplish the ultimate goal every single year.  It doesn’t matter if your favorite team won their division if they didn’t win the Super Bowl, they still came up short.

As previously stated in earlier blogs, football is a business and owners do whatever it takes to make their product earn.  Unfortunately there are times when the monster eats itself or some teams just don’t have the structure in place internally.  Many times what’s seen on the field reflects that lack of planning by General Managers or Owners but at the end of the year when the results are in, the coach takes the fall.  

The coach may not be able to win with the lack of depth they were given or maybe the GM didn’t give them players that fit their system.  Too bad, the coach is the one to go.  Think about all the different parts of a football team and the number of players that have to do their job.  If one player doesn’t perform their assignment the whole chain will snap.  Many times the players don’t realize that the average career of an NFL player is less than 4 years.  Players see guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning that have longevity in a rough and tumble league.  However, because of the violent collisions injuries are common and career threatening.  

When these players drop their end of the rope, coaches have to scramble to find someone else to pick it up.  It’s what many refer to as a “next man up” mentality.  The problem is there are guys who aren’t able to deal with the pressure or the pace and they too fall.  Even though most players in the NFL are close to the same skill set in most areas, it’s the mental aspect that makes guys great.  It’s up to coaches to push men to find that.

But what happens when guys tune that out?  Or what happens when some guys don’t have the ability to push through that final wall?  Scouting players isn’t a science, as is evident by the many busts in the NFL draft.  These players can become what is known as “coach killers” contributing to the average length of a coaching career being less than 5 years.  Think about that player who was drafted and fizzled out within his first 4 years in the league even though the first year coach relied so heavy on him.  Now the coach might have one more year to prove himself, but more than likely that coach is already out the door.

When we watch football very few of us think of those guys that walk up and down the sidelines.  Not just the main guys like Bill Belichick or Mike Tomlin.  There are those men behind them, the ones that give their all to coach the wide receivers or the defensive backs that rarely have their names in the paper or the news.  When a defense plays lights out it’s normally the defensive coordinator who gets the credit even though that defensive backs coach gave up his free time and his life to be there researching and preparing too.  When the coach gets fired guess who is going to go too?  All those coaches.  Maybe some of them will never get another job in football even though they were great at what they did.  The problem is no one knew them except for that coach and now he can’t find another job.  But the players who let go of the rope, they might get another shot.  That General Manager who didn’t bring in enough players that were good enough to cover for injuries?  You can bet he’s still there.  

I understand that coaches watch film and prepare a game plan.  They call the plays and try to put the players in the right position to win however sometimes it isn’t the coach’s fault that a team loses.  Sometimes there truly are bad teams based upon the roster they’ve been given. Sure it’s up to them to make the best of hands they are dealt but I think many times fans, executives and the media expect way too much of coaches instead of realizing that players have to be held accountable too.  Coaches aren’t miracle workers, they are human and can only do so much- it’s time to stop blaming them for everything and start praising them.

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.

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.