Thursday, February 2, 2012

Looking for the Unexpected in Super Sunday

With a handful of exceptions, I don’t believe in G.O.A.Ts.

Except for boxing, I don’t believe in the idea that one match or game completely defines a legacy.

In all sports, I don’t believe in the thought that a single play is the difference between winning and losing.

Yet, all of that seems to counter the one phenomenon that helps make the Super Bowl the pinnacle of single-day sporting events in the world; the ‘unsung hero’.

Football is considered the ultimate team sport, but for the millions of viewers who only watch the NFL’s championship game after avoiding all others in the last five months, you’re forgiven if you only know about a handful of players. However, the true narrative of football is created from the mix of the "must see" and the “who in the world is that?” As prognosticators and pop culture vultures keep the glaring spotlight on the established stars, it’s important also consider the obscure, the unknown and the unexpected players that could shine in Super Bowl XLVI.

From the Giants side, at this point, there are so many names that have entered the national conscious that to call anyone unsung would be reaching. Eli. Cruz. Nicks. Bradshaw. Jacobs. Osi. Tuck. JPP. Even Lawrence Tynes is a known commodity as his foot officially punched Super Bowl tickets twice in four years.

The most likely of the ‘unexpected’ may come from their defense as it has and always will go as far as their interior linemen play. Sure, the Giants are the only team in the NFL that can rotate five starting caliber defensive ends – Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul, the unsung Dave Tollefson and converted linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. However, to a man, each will tell you that nothing happens without players in the middle. In fact, New York rotates their interior players as well, albeit without much fanfare.

New York Giants' Chris Canty (via Detroit Free Press)

Chris Canty and Bronx-born Rocky Bernard – both who joined the Giants as free agents after the 2009 season – join second-year tackle Linval Joseph in applying pressure on the inside by taking on the center and offensive guards. Because New York employs a 4-3 defense, interior tackles don’t get the attention as they do in a 3-4 setup. There’s a reason why you know of Haloti Ngata, Ndamakong Suh and New England’s own mastodon, Vince Wilfork; they move rather large men backwards equally as well, if not better than they perform their primary job of taking up space.

These guys aren’t sack artists and they excel mostly at slowing opposing rushing offenses – or at least forcing running backs to run on the outside for more room. What they are, however, are players that gave the Patriots’ offensive line fits back in November. If the defense performs to expectations en route to a win, those higher profile ends like Tuck and Umenyiora will immediately credit their teammates on the inside. As they should.

On the flip side, the entire team outside of Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and the aforementioned Wilfork seem to be anonymous to non-Patriots fans. It’s the M.O. of New England; throw a bunch of guys out there and let Bill Belichick sort them out. And that’s the best way to describe how this franchise has reached its fifth Super Bowl in ten years.

Understanding that, is it possible that the unexpected performance come from The Law Firm?

BenJarvus Green-Ellis of New England (via Yahoo! Sports)

It may sound absurd to consider BenJarvus Green-Ellis as some sort of a sleeper, though he’s not exactly incapable of running the ball. The major story with him is well-earned; no fumbles in his four-year career, though to be fair, he’s not asked to be the Patriots’ bellwether. After all, New England doesn’t demand much from its running game – a contrast from their opponents who needed Eli Manning’s arm to compensate for a lack of punch by its league-worst rushing offense.

Despite the lack of lead back carries, the Patriots have never lost a game where The Law Firm is called upon for at least sixteen carries (14-0 since his rookie season).  He has actually performed admirably well against solid-to-strong defensive teams (and Indianapolis); Buffalo, Miami, Pittsburgh and the Jets.

Because Belichick is full of surprises, it wouldn’t be a shock if his team runs the ball a bit more than normal, especially to the outside in open space where Giants defenders have had trouble keeping up. Plus, considering how busy the Giants’ linebackers and safeties will be with Brady’s receiving options, there may be more opportunities for Green-Ellis, even if it’s to methodically move the chains.

Maybe Green-Ellis makes like Timmy Smith and stuns the world with a Super Bowl rushing record. Maybe one of those Giants defensive tackles channel their inner Leon Lett, only this time, actually scoring. That’s what makes the Super Bowl so compelling; for all the moments of brilliance by the game’s greatest, they are complimented, if not surpassed by someone who we didn’t see coming.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Remembering When I Met Joe

It seems as if this site has only been updated in recent months due to somber moments; sullen, but expected anniversaries or unexpected and harrowing tragedy. It’s not the sole intent, but in a crazy world that surrounds this Scribe outside of The Exchange, the words haven’t flowed with consistent streams of thought. Sadly, this is another moment.

RIP Smokin' Joe

Obituaries had been written well in advance It’s an unfortunate task in media to be charged with; summarize the life of a significant public figure with inconspicuous beginnings, career defining moments and the complexities that provided ‘the stuff in between’. The stuff being the life away from the lights, sound bites and footage. What is being reflected upon through these five-ten minute bios is something that gives commentary to the archives; though they can never completely capture who the person was. They’re removed from the person just as all of us truly were. We admired from afar.

Simultaneously, those who dotted every ‘I’ and crossed every ‘t’ along the way as this individual set upon his life course are reaching back to the days they witnessed his best and worst moments in public view. These writers, analysts and hosts will bring us closer to what they heard, read and seen directly from the man himself; even those words and actions that may have never meant to have seen the light of day. The words will be poignant, they’ll be honest and they’ll do their best to bring back the raw emotions of those famous nights so that the people who lived through them can feel them all over again.

When you sit down and think about it, few people in sports have this kind of effect. A head-nod respect from those who rooted against him while championing another. A child-like recollection of his fiercest battles from the biggest admirers. An encyclopedia’s worth of anecdotes from the media that covered him. Whether it’s passing time talking or the realization that athletes will leave this world like the rest of us, this rare effect hits across generations because these figures managed to reach out beyond the borders of their sport and make even the least interested person remember their names.

We remember Smokin’ Joe Frazier for all sorts of reasons, but the three that stand out are an enduring rivalry, a devastating left hook and a demeanor that belies some of the violence he partook in.

A trilogy of fights with Muhammad Ali made him famous outside of boxing’s most fervent fans, for better or worse. To have faced racial indignities, even from Ali’s taunts and proclamations, without publicly displaying a tinge of anger or fear spoke much to Frazier’s spirit in and out of the ring.

To have slugged his way to the top of the mountain of his profession, yet doing so while not having the so-called prerequisites to be a champion - too small, lack of defense, less of a tactician - spoke to a work ethic and relentless desire to write his own chapter in the history books.

If you met him at any point away from the ring itself, you’d have a hard time thinking that Frazier was one of the greatest to have ever committed legalized violence. Even if the Ali trilogy embittered him - and let’s be for real, imagine if you were the focus of such vile trash talk - he still managed to bring about warmth in the room. You knew there would be stories, there would be photos and for the fortunate few, there might have been some singing. He was an at-peace-with-himself, happy to be there kind of showman, decades after being the stalking boogeyman in the minds of his opponents.

I understand how people of my generation and younger may have little reverence for boxing; mainly because of the unrelenting comparisons to mixed martial arts and the accepted crooked business that accompanies the sport. However, another culprit is something that we lack the courage to admit at times; no one wants to teach us who these men (and women, lest not forget) were. As the years fade, it seems as if very few of us were blessed to have had people provide those lessons. In my case, my parents were (dad)/are (mom) old enough to tell their families and friends about seeing the legends from Sugar Ray Robinson to Mike Tyson in person, not just on closed-circuit television. They kept me curious about the athletes that set the stage for thousands of kids to try to emulate them years alter.

In many ways, being born and raised in Philadelphia meant that boxing was part of your DNA; whether as a fighter or a fan. Considering my parents’ knowledge and recollection of the greats, the famed trilogy unearthed reflections that countered the romanticized versions from sports’ leading voices. Mainstream history is written by the winners, but when you dig deeper, you find that not every black boxing fan sided with Ali in those battles. And as the remembrances roll in today, you discover that Frazier was a imposing figure in his own right; his success was just as much why the trilogy has the status bestowed upon it as Ali’s.

With my parents’ stories, I was reminded that some wanted to fight for the heavyweight crown, a payday, a better life... civil rights... with a quiet determination, a soul-piercing stare and a lunch pail in hand. Frazier embodied that in such a contrasting way that it’s almost forgotten because he lost the second and third fights. Because George Foreman dominated him in their title fight. Because Howard Cosell essentially birthed a catchphrase.

Meeting Joe Frazier in 2008 was and still remains the most unnerving, but amazing moment of my sports media career. It was the Kelly Pavlik-Bernard Hopkins bout in Atlantic City and Smokin’ Joe came to the press lounge at Boardwalk Hall. I appeared calm, but like a duck, you couldn’t see underneath the surface where its feet flap like mad. Someone I’ve heard, read and watched archived fights of for years was just feet away from me. My parents were essentially in the same room as him, thinking about it.

A fellow writer, who had covered boxing for years, coaxed me to get out of my seat to shake his hand, but I felt like I was bothering him. I did, sheepishly, still thinking he still has some power in that left hook if I made the slightest (unintentional) error. If my memory serves me correctly, he said “You’re name’s Jason? How ya doing, young man?”

Closer to the main event, the same writer and I walked out towards the ring, steps behind Frazier, his confidants and some amazed fans. We helped a few people take pictures with him; it was sports tourism at its unexpected finest. The writer asked if I wanted to get a photo with him. The nerves didn’t go away as I was just happy with the memory (or still fearful of those aged, but huge hands of stone). Joe waved me on, put his arm around me and flashed a smile.

The photo remains, the credential of the fight stored away and the shirt I wore was eventually washed (thought about sealing it and never wearing it again). Yet, more indelible was the memory of that night; watching media members sitting around him like it was story time in kindergarten, fans in awe of knowing a legend was in the building.

I think of that now, wondering how many other people he met over the years are trying to remember the details of their moments. They were brief for so many of us that were fortunate to have the memories, but they are the ones we hold on to so strongly because we were just that lucky.

What else is there to say, really?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

When We Had to Move Forward

As we converse about where were we when the attacks happened, we’ve also reflecting back to find out what have we discovered in these 3,652 days since.

It’s an exercise I’ve performed countless times in recent days; deciding if talking about it was worthwhile to give readers that connection to 9/11. Those of us who witnessed it will never forget it. And though truthfully, everyone but New York City forgot about February 26th, 1993, what happened ten years ago today in NY, in the DMV area, in western Pennsylvania will be seared into our minds forever.

It’s unquestionably difficult to stomach all these remembrances, especially for those who watched from afar and witnessed other senseless tragedies in the last decade. Yet, because extremists on all sides of this war put truly innocent people in harm’s way for the world to see, we are here today to think back.

This field will never be forgotten.
There continues to be countless misfortunes in our daily existence that don’t need excitable words like ‘terrorism’, ‘extremist ideologue’ and ‘Michele Bachmann’. Turn on the news or check out your bookmarks and we’re reminded of the struggle to co-exist peacefully in the same neighborhood or workplace. Think about something equally, if not more devastating than 9/11; how ‘Katrina’ comes to mind as we are forced to HOPE that the federal government can respond in a timely manner to a natural disaster. Consider how frayed we have become because of The Great Recession That Isn’t Over, No Matter How Economists Define a Recession. Consider anything that reminds you about when you mourned the loss of someone or something that set a purpose in your life.

However, though we’re being somewhat forced to reflect on this day, we remember it because outside of New York – where it’s happened before – Americans never believed that an outside threat would successfully strike us again. The United States of America has never, ever, ever been innocent, despite the contrast some media members offer to their audience. Yet, it also hadn’t been this vulnerable since the Civil War created a geographical and cultural crevasse within the nation. Something else that it had never been; and not ever since, was so momentarily connected than it had been for those subsequent months after the attacks.
The thing about these ten years since is that as a society, we’ve become far more fractured than connected, despite the flattening of the world through our current technologies. The vitriol that has been spewed from all sides of the political spectrum has managed to create a larger and more apathetic middle that is raising a middle finger to the dissention. Many of you certainly agree with that, but in some ways, we unconsciously participate in the rage. The best of us keep such moments as mere blips or accidents, but too many embrace such venom – story manipulation, ‘truth-telling’, snark and sarcasm, shock humor – as an identity. 9/11 may not be THE culprit, but it was unquestionably the accelerant to this new ‘normal’ where we don’t know how to talk to each other without cynicism or outright hate in our hearts.

It’s easy to opine about "what we've learned" in these ten years since, but the truth is that outside of learning how to hate in more nuanced ways than ever, we’re still figuring it all out. After all, though society is a collective of individuals practicing accepted (and expected) behaviors for one another, we’re still individuals trying to navigate our own lives with as little pain as possible.

via the Pentagon Memorial

I can tell you about where I was when the attacks took place, but the only thing that can truly resonate in telling that story was the helplessness felt. Having already lost a parent three months prior – dad helped develop the modern Battery Park City that was born from the construction of the Twin Towers in the 60s and 70s – there was an incomprehensible emotion as several family members were either next door to the Towers or in the vicinity. Yet, there are many who have told their harrowing tales to give gravity to this day beyond what this college sophomore (at the time) away from home felt so long before.
What I can tell you is that every one of us had a role in moving forward. It wasn’t moving on or healing as society at large has become increasingly angry in the years since. We all had to take a step back and think about one another, if only for a moment.

The roles of the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NCAA have been reflected to the point of ad nauseum, but they were important as only sports can provide such frequent large scale public gatherings. Eventually when the NBA, NHL and other sporting organizations around North America got going, we were able to prove that even with frayed nerves, most of us can go out and try to live as close to the old normal as possible.

via NYT
I didn’t come home Columbus Day weekend. This was sophomore year at Babson College; a place I’ve come to love over the years, but one I was hoping to leave at the time. It was hard enough being up there, seemingly mourning alone while family and friends were missing ‘Bobby’ together back home. Yet, what eventually brought me back to the Boroughs about two weeks after that holiday weekend was the birth of one of my nephews. He was the first boy in the family since yours truly and just about everyone close to us had the chance to see him except for me.
He was just about a month old when I finally got on that bus from Newton, MA to the Port Authority. It may have very well been the case that none of us on that Greyhound had been back to the metropolitan area since the attacks, but I certainly hadn’t. With all that silent, but simmering anxiety within the bus, it was hard to imagine what the City itself felt like.

Getting off the bus was surreal in so many ways. Rush hour was slower than the “New York minute” all of us natives grew up on, but it was still a New York rush hour. People weren’t bursting through the doors with that ‘get there yesterday’ attitude they normally carried, but rather, they were forging ahead with each step or swing of a briefcase.

In the subsequent visits between Thanksgiving 2001 and March 2002, I never loved my City more. Not in that stereotypically arrogant and hackneyed way that makes others ‘hate’ us, but in that earnest way that only natives recognize. With all of the geographic, socioeconomic and generational divisions within these Five Boroughs, people truly did look out for one another for a while. Though the outpouring of support and respect from all over the world was appreciated, the recurring theme from within was “but we LIVE here”. Though millions of us here couldn’t fathom what the victims’ families had to endure, we still felt as if a piece of us was taken away. [Certainly all of you in the DMV and western Pennsylvania felt the same way.]
It was strangely comforting, even though the air was thick and full of loss.

That weekend told me that with or without anyone’s help – even significant federal help as 1993 taught us – the millions of people who make the City work were resilient beyond measure. That weekend told me that my family, weighed down from the loss of our patriarch and the attacks on the Towers he had a hand in building, were somehow going to be okay.
That weekend told me that it was safe to come home.

via NYT

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Divide Between Analysis and Understanding

As America gets reacquainted with the NFL, there are plenty of people having live fantasy drafts over a few beers, rummaging stores for grills in order to tailgate and praying that their preachers speed up Sunday services for the next five months.

We already know what has made the NFL king of American entertainment over the last decade-plus; a few seasons of parity, a more passer-friendly style of play (though not exactly better) and the heavy dependence on the game for live viewing by partner TV networks. The latter, which provides the league revenue streams and advertising beyond comprehension, has been the bread and butter for the NFL since the 1960s under the stewardship of the late commissioner, Pete Rozelle.

With talk about the league pitching an additional eight-game Thursday night package to networks and some scheduling additions made by current league partners, there’s more to consume for the pigskin fan than ever before. 

However, one grossly overlooked aspect of this larger landscape for the NFL is that whether they care to admit so or not, there are still millions of fans that are not as savvy about every nuance of the game of football. [Honestly, the same goes for us media folks.]

Think of how many times Monday Night Football color commentators Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden give the breakdown of a play and the terminology they use will go over your head. Even for those who know that there are multiple names and variations of the same football plays, it’s not easy to keep up with what ‘Jaws’, ‘Chucky’ or any commentator that played or coached will spit out.

With the bandwidth for programming that networks like ESPN and even the league’s own network possess, there’s plenty of room for a show that can actually explain what in the hell these commentators and analysts are talking about. Who needs another hour of highlight reels or fantasy football uber-analysis when there can be a program or two that will demonstrate what a dig route is or why there’s a need to have different personnel for defensive schemes.

Courtesy of Fort Hayes State Univ.

For those who have known and loved football for years, a show like this can be a way of refining, if not outright testing, your knowledge of the game. Sure, you might have a Master’s in Madden Football and you probably like to debate at the water cooler, but there’s a good chance that you may have thought the Wildcat formation was invented four years ago (single-wing, anyone?). 

Fans who have been introduced to the game in recent years would get a better sense of what makes the superstars so respected and popular. Many came on board because they kept hearing about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and numerous fantasy football references throughout pop culture. Yet, save for those hackneyed company lines about their greatness – they’re winners, what would their teams be like without them, etc. – there is a lack of understanding what it took for those players to become future first-ballot Hall of Famers. Why? Because explaining the craft is too long for advertising copy.

That guy looks MAD familiar!

Last year while live tweeting a Monday Night Football broadcast, I suggested that the league’s broadcasting partners should actually try teaching the game a bit. I received a few replies, stating that it wouldn’t be a good idea because it’s not the responsibility of said partners – ESPN, FOX, CBS and NBC – to explain anything, at least during the game.

Yet, this isn’t about the guys in the booth explaining each intricate detail as if this is “Football for Dummies”. While it’s not impossible, it would ignore the primary purpose to their jobs; to speak on the game as it happens to a rabid audience.

However, when you look through ESPNews’ programming slate and see nothing but “Highlight Express” or wonder if the over-the-air networks are really serving us with those ginormous pregame shows, it’s not unfathomable to see that there’s room to take a step back and educate people on the game with more than telestrators and corporate-sponsored studio ‘fields’.

The first day that we are 'Back to Football', we can use something new, can't we?

Maybe this program is a once-a-week in-season affair a la Showtime’s (formerly HBO's) Inside the NFL or those weekly fantasy sports shows on your local sports network. Throughout the season, the hosts – experienced television former NFL players and coaches – can use game and/or practice footage combined with live demonstrations from a local semi-pro or high school team to illustrate their points. How cool would it be to see the contrast between how an offensive line works for a pocket passer and a mobile quarterback? The hair-splitting differences between the brilliance of running backs Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson? The real reasons why some teams play a 3-4 defense and a 4-3?

It may sound like one of those instructional tapes that you might buy for middle school-aged kids playing Pop Warner football. Yet, every season, people ask this Scribe how can they best learn the game in order to keep up with television analysis that continually goes over their heads. If this kind of program is crafted properly, it can be more than ‘suggested reading’ from the syllabus. It can be a great hors d'oeuvre before the football feast us pigskin gluttons scarf down every weekend.

Say What?!?!: In writing this post, an old one came to mind. Though younger generations have only come to know John Madden as the guy whose name graces the popular video game, he was once upon a time a great coach and the forefather to the sport’s color commentary. Whether some like it or not, with his retirement from the booth after the 2008 season, his approach to explaining the game to fans (though seemingly ineffective as the years went on) is sorely lacking these days.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Curtis Granderson Had a Point

As the NFL's labor battle reaches its hopeful end, you may have missed an interesting story out the baseball world on Tuesday. Curtis Granderson, the New York Yankees centerfielder, spoke with the Star-Telegram about the rarely mentioned quandary of baseball's loss of black fans. The story was then discussed on The PostGame (Yahoo! Sports).

Like clockwork at the start of the season, you hear about the dwindling number of actual players (previously discussed here) despite the new faces on the scene. However, you don't hear much about the ticket buyers and you hear even less about television viewership; an equally important metric in terms of the league's finances. So while it was not a tidal wave of a story, it's one that is worth discussing, especially as the game's popularity continues to be eroded.

This post was actually written as an article for the New York Beacon as part of the paper's Yankees coverage. However, since you have likely not read it (HA!), here it is for the masses. Of course, others at larger outlets have shared their thoughts as well (here and here), but you may find a far different point of view HERE.

Note: Some may have found the idea that there was such a joke a bit distasteful, as comments on TPG alluded to. I'll leave that to you, but is there not something to its premise? Let's talk.

Granderson Asked “Where are the Black Fans?”
By Jason Clinkscales
Recently, an article for the Star-Telegram (Dallas/Fort Worth) featured a discussion with Yankees centerfielder Curtis Granderson. The outfielder talked about a small game he and some teammates play where they try to count the number of African-American fans sitting in the stands at ballparks around Major League Baseball. While it may have been done jokingly at first, he noted that as it went on, the game posed a serious question: where are the black fans?
Granderson, who is having a stellar season in his second season with the Yanks, has been lauded for multiple efforts to bring blacks back to the game on and off the field. However, he does attribute some of the lack of dark faces in the crowd to the lack of that one guy to emulate. When talking about who people wanted to be, he told the paper that “you have a group of players that are playing right now who could say Ken Griffey Jr., but he's no longer in the game, and there hasn't been anybody to replace him.”
The truth is, however, that he’s right. There aren’t many black fans at ballparks these days, but honestly, there aren’t numerous fans anywhere, regardless of skin color. To list the number of reasons will be exhausting, yet, there are only two that truly stand out.
For starters, the economy is still in awful shape. Over the last three years, fans have scaled back on attending live games and opted for the television instead. Despite teams providing ticket deals, what keeps fans away are the concessions, parking, merchandise and more often than not, the presence of highly drunk fools at games. Yet, that bothers anyone.
What is overlooked something quite simple; there’s a pure lack of interest. For years, media and baseball insiders have pointed to the popularity of football and basketball as the culprits of the dearth of black players in the game and fans in the seats. They see the money players are paid and the increased prominence in communities across the land. However, that’s too convenient as baseball players earn more money and for fans, there are more opportunities to attend a baseball game than any other sport.  Besides, no sport has a monopoly on young, emerging talents; even one woven into to black history as baseball is.
There are far more sports and entertainment interests that take up the head space of black sports fans, especially younger ones. They might be huge fans of on-the-clock sports like football and basketball, but there are swaths of black kids that spend their time skateboarding or dancing as opposed to shagging fly balls. Going to a game has little to no appeal to them.
Granderson is certainly on to something, though this can be couched into the discussion of the lack of black players in the game itself. However, within the complex web of reasons for the void on the field and in the seats, there’s still a rather simple explanation. They rather do something else.