Archive for Writing
Michael Sam, Jason Collins paving the way for a better workplace, world
by Scott Fujita; February 25, 2014
Who cares? What’s the big deal? Why are we even talking about this stuff?
These are a few of the questions that have been asked in the wake of Michael Sam’s historic, groundbreaking announcement. Or as Jason Collins prepared to take a historic, groundbreaking first step onto the basketball court as an openly gay man.
And yes, these are groundbreaking moments.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to talk about all this. Common sense would dictate that all would be universally accepted and treated equal, and that everyone could walk boldly in a world free of discrimination. We’re not in that world, yet. Unfortunately, sense still isn’t all too common.
But do you know what Michael’s and Jason’s courageous first steps have accomplished?
They have brought us one step closer to a day when stories like this will no longer be newsworthy.
What Michael and Jason have done also brings us one step closer to finally dispelling the notion that our locker rooms are bastions of homophobia. They’re not. In spite of what many outsiders may think, players in the NFL and NBA are a lot more accepting than they get credit for.
Years ago, when I was first getting to know writer Cyd Zeigler at Outsports, I felt he had the (mis)perception that football players would be incapable of accepting an openly gay teammate. I told him about some of my experiences and about many of the conversations I’d had with teammates over the years. Then I challenged him to start asking questions. And he did.
I’m glad my suspicions were confirmed and Cyd was able to report that the countless players he spoke with were overwhelmingly supportive of the notion of having a gay teammate. I credit Cyd with helping advance this conversation and giving so many players a voice that was otherwise unheard. I’ve always felt that if and when a player decided to come out, he would be accepted with open arms — no matter the locker room — without hesitation. And I’m more certain now than ever.
All of this has also brought us one step closer to players being more mindful of the language they use.
Many players will be forced to confront the language that’s always been such a common part of their vernacular. They will have to actually consider for the first time how they may be hurting the man in the next locker. I know for certain that most men who use hurtful words like “faggot” and childish phrases like “no homo” aren’t necessarily homophobic, and they don’t particularly hate gay people. They’ve just never had an experience or an encounter that forced them to grow up. Well, now’s the time to grow up.
In pro sports, we probably all suffer from a slight case of Peter Pan syndrome. If you’re never forced or expected to grow up, then why would you? But when it comes to our profession of choice, our demands and expectations are quite simple: Is the man next to me doing everything he can to help us win? That’s it.
And for years the idea of a gay teammate was just that — an idea. I think that even the digressives always assumed there were perhaps a few closeted gay athletes on perhaps a few football or basketball teams, but now it’s real. It’s no longer speculative. So for all the inappropriate words or phrases that some players would have of course never said around someone who was actually gay, there are now men in their locker rooms or competing against them on game day who are actually gay. I’m confident players will respond appropriately — with respect. And there’s no need to provide disproportionate coverage to the few on the margins who may be struggling to evolve. They’ll come around.
Michael and Jason have helped bring the NFL and NBA one step closer to clearly defining the locker room for what it is — a workplace.
Those of us who have spent a lot of time in a locker room have been at some point guilty of saying or doing things that would have likely gotten us fired in a traditional workplace environment. And the same thing goes for coaches who, when it comes to inappropriate language, are often some of the worst offenders. As much as the NFL locker room may sometimes seem like a fraternity, it’s not. And while that environment is one of the things many of us actually miss when we leave the game, we all need to embrace the long overdue changes that are sure to come.
This is where men like commissioners Roger Goodell (NFL) and Adam Silver (NBA), and the NFLPA and NBAPA — all of whom have been on the right side of this conversation — have an opportunity to shine. And it really won’t take a whole lot, other than clearly and publicly defining what is appropriate and acceptable at the workplace, and what is not.
Imagine the message it would send if Goodell looked directly into the TV set, speaking intently to his players and to all who are watching, and clearly and emphatically articulated that the word “faggot” will no longer be acceptable language in the workplace. And what if players began to echo Goodell’s sentiment in the locker room, or out in the community, or when they visit schools and speak to children on their days off? That would be a whole lot more powerful than a revised pamphlet on workplace conduct. That would be a game-changer.
This is where I think the Miami Dolphins saga has provided so many teaching moments. I’m not necessarily one to advocate for public ridicule or fines or suspensions for men who behave inappropriately. In many respects, I think that can be counterproductive. In my experience, there’s a much more diplomatic and effective way to educate and change behavior. Sometimes, all it takes is a conversation. So let’s start having those conversations. Let’s make sure players know there’s a Human Resources department upstairs with actual people who have actual names who actually want to help. And while these things may seem like trivial, common-sense concepts, they’ll actually help guys transition away from Neverland and into the real world. If we clearly define the workplace, players will be better prepared for their next career, which is always just around the corner.
I think the journeys of Michael and Jason have brought us one step closer to showing that devout Christians in NFL and NBA clubhouses aren’t going to be overly judgmental menaces looking to ostracize a gay teammate.
Many outsiders assume there will be some Christian crusade with pitchforks raised and torches ablaze aimed at making life miserable for an openly gay player. But I just don’t see that happening. I’ve spoken to dozens of Christian teammates over the years, and without exception, not one said they wouldn’t be able to accept a gay teammate in the locker room if and when one decided to be open about his sexuality. I think many of these men, some of whom are dear friends of mine, have at times been unfairly characterized. Sure, I’ve had my share of debates with them on a host of issues, but I know where they stand on this one.
Hopefully this helps bring all the “unnamed” general managers and scouts one step closer to discovering what a negative distraction really is.
I’ve always felt that if a team decided to pass on players like Michael or Jason because of their sexual orientation, it wouldn’t be about homophobia or a general aversion to homosexuals. It would be because of the perceived distraction that having a gay player might bring. But here’s what I would say to the unnamed: If you can’t handle distractions, then you don’t belong in this business. And for the record, being gay is not a negative distraction. In the short term, you may have to answer a few questions you’ve never had to answer before, but you’ll get through it. Jason Collins played in a basketball game last night. As an openly gay man. And the world didn’t come crashing down. Imagine that.
All the other things that regularly come across your desk — player gets charged with a DUI, fails a drug test, gets in a bar fight, etc. — those are negative distractions. And if I’m evaluating players for my roster, those are the red flags I view under a microscope. They don’t automatically cause me to question a player’s character, because anyone can make a mistake. But they make me question his decision-making and whether he can be trusted when he’s out of the building. One’s sexual orientation couldn’t be less relevant to my evaluation of a player. I’m confident the vast majority of club decision-makers agree. Here’s to hoping the “unnamed” begin to figure it out.
Michael and Jason have brought hundreds of men one step closer to having a gay friend for perhaps the first time in their lives.
And what all these men will quickly realize is that this person is really no different from them. He’s not going to make a pass at you. The “gay” in him is not contagious, and it won’t wash off in the team shower. In many respects, they’ll see that this new teammate ultimately shares many of their same dreams and aspirations and that his sexuality is in fact one of the least defining things about him.
And hopefully we’re one step closer to recognizing the difference between tolerance and acceptance.
We “tolerate” mosquitoes. But we should accept people. What you’re about to see are hundreds of men across two sports not merely tolerating a gay player because he’s a peer in their league, but actually accepting him because he’s their friend.
We’ve also gotten one step closer to all players feeling more included at team/family functions.
For 11 years I walked proudly with my wife into team Christmas parties. In doing so, I wasn’t shoving my sexual orientation down anyone’s throat. I was simply sharing the love of my life with my teammates and coaches. Soon players like Michael and Jason will feel comfortable to do the same with theirs, free of concern that there might be an uncomfortable stare or a snicker from the corner of the room. Their loved ones will sit in the family and friends section on game day instead of hiding in some far corner of the stadium or watching from home. They’ll be able to share an embrace with their partner as they exit the locker room immediately after a tough loss, rather than waiting until they get back to the car. In short, their significant other will finally have a seat at the table with my significant other.
And by taking this brave first step, Michael and Jason have brought LGBT advocacy work around sports one small step closer to no longer being needed.
And I think that’s a good thing. In my opinion, it’s groups like “You Can Play” under the leadership of Patrick Burke and Wade Davis; “Athlete Ally” at the direction of Hudson Taylor; the “Trevor Project”; and the “GLSEN Sports Project,” among many others, that have made these groundbreaking moments possible. They have been absolute champions in promoting a sports culture that is free of homophobia and discrimination. They have helped set the template for inclusivity in our locker rooms and on our playing fields. And they have been invaluable resources for so many who were either struggling or who just needed to know they had support. And trust me, these groups would like nothing more than for their work to one day become obsolete because it was no longer needed.
And most importantly, Michael and Jason have gotten us one giant step closer to reducing the suicide rate of gay teens.
That’s not an exaggeration. Michael and Jason are actually helping save lives. There are countless gay teens living, and struggling, in the closet. Maybe they’re playing a team sport and they feel ostracized and unwelcome because of the hurtful language their friends and teammates use so regularly. Or perhaps they’re afraid to play a sport because they don’t think they’ll fit in. Oftentimes this leaves them feeling lost, confused, scared and alone. And in far too many cases, they begin to experience suicidal thoughts.
But now, some of these kids can look to men like Michael and Jason and say, “You know what? I’m not alone. There are others like me.” That’s one huge part of the national narrative that I think is missing right now.
Five years ago my wife and I attended a GLAAD function in Los Angeles. We met a young lady who pulled us aside to describe a tragedy that had recently occurred in her life. Her teenage brother had committed suicide after coming out to a very unsuspecting and unsupportive father. She explained to me that her dad was a big-time football fan, a “man’s man” of sorts, but that after hearing me (a football player he cheered for) speak on the issue of equality, he began to rethink his views. She then challenged me to continue to speak out on behalf of her lost brother, because the “only way to change the heart and mind of someone like her father was for him to hear that people he admires would embrace someone like his son.”
Now just imagine what will happen when men like her father hear the story of Michael Sam and Jason Collins, and he watches as their teammates embrace them like they do any other teammate. That will change hearts and minds. And ultimately, it will help save lives.
And finally, I think we’re one step closer to moving past the questions about whether pro sports are “ready” for this, or whether this is the “right” time.
For many of us, our goal has never been to actively encourage closeted gay athletes to come out to the world. I’m not a closeted gay athlete, so I can’t pretend to know what that feels like. How am I supposed to tell someone else what they should share about their personal life? Instead, the goal has always been to foster the most inclusive atmosphere as possible so that if and when a player decides to come out, he would know he has support.
This was the right time for Michael and Jason, and both were ready now. And that’s all that matters. Now it’s our responsibility to support them and let them do the only thing they want to do.
Full story at: http://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/michael-sam-jason-collins-paving-the-way-for-a-better-workplace-world-022414?cmpid=tsmtw:fscom:foxsports
Fujita: Vikings make splendid call tabbing Zimmer as coach
By: Scott Fujita; January 16, 2014
Any NFL club who had a head coaching vacancy at the end of the 2013 season and didn’t at least bring in Mike Zimmer for an interview failed its players and fans. That’s how good this coach is.
That’s not a slight against newly appointed head coaches like Jim Caldwell or Ken Whisenhunt or Bill O’Brien, each of whom I’ve heard great things about from some of their former players. But if you’re a club who makes the usual claim that an “exhaustive, comprehensive search is being conducted to find the right man to lead this organization to a Super Bowl,” and that search doesn’t include even a cursory look at Zimmer, then you’re either not focused exclusively on winning, or you just haven’t been paying attention.
So congratulations to the Minnesota Vikings. I consider their hiring of Mike Zimmer an ode to meritocracy.
For years, I’ve been a regular hype man for Zimmer when the head coaching carousel begins each off-season. And each year there are a handful of armchair quarterbacks who choose to debate me as I sing his praises: “Obviously he can’t be that good if no one ever hired him” or “He must be a horrible interview.” There may be some truth to the latter, depending on your definition of horrible.
The truth about Zimmer is that when he steps into an interview, I can’t imagine him going out of his way to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. That’s not his style.
Zimmer is one of the least ostentatious people in the business, and he’s not going to tell club brass solely what they want to hear.
I don’t see him instructing his agent to drum up interest around the league by leaking reports that multiple teams are bidding for his services.
He won’t use big words in press conferences or come across as overly polished. And you’re unlikely to find him kissing babies at fan appreciation day.
He uses colorful language, and he looks you in the eye and tells you exactly what he thinks.
Some might describe his brash, brutally honest demeanor as “horrible” and off-putting to club decision-makers. Others may even call him an a–hole. But I consider his style refreshing.
Zimmer’s track record speaks for itself, and he should be judged exclusively on his merits. Since he first became an NFL defensive coordinator in 2000, his units have consistently ranked near the top of league. Upon his arrival in Cincinnati in 2008, the Bengals defense improved from 27th in the league the previous year to 12th in his first season, and finished as a top-10 defense in four of his next five seasons as their defensive coordinator. The Bengals have made the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, and Zimmer’s defense is the primary reason.
OK, so he’s a good defensive coach. But how does that make him head coaching material?
Here’s the short answer: He knows football, he’s adaptable and resilient, he’s unapologetically confident in his decision-making, and most importantly, he commands the respect of the men he leads.
Let me explain.
Every coach should “know” football. That’s part of the job description. But certain coaches have a knack for the feel of the game and have a mastery of game situations. I would consider Zimmer one of those coaches.
When he was my defensive coordinator and position coach with the Dallas Cowboys in 2005, I remember watching game film with him one afternoon in his office. I can’t remember who the upcoming opponent was, but I remember sitting there quietly listening to him talk through calls as each play ran on the projector screen.
I felt like I had a front-row seat to his game-day thought process, as he was essentially thinking out loud. And it wasn’t the defensive calls he was making that I found overly impressive. Anyone who “knows” football can run through a call sheet and match it up with the corresponding game situation. But what I found uncanny was his ability to correctly and specifically predict what each offensive play would be, one after another.
After about 25-30 plays of him making offensive predictions with roughly 90 percent accuracy, I called “bull-s–t” and told him he had either watched this tape a dozen times already or that he was simply reading the offensive plays from his monitor.
So he offered to switch seats with me. I sat in his chair in front of the monitor and pulled up the archives to search for a film of that week’s opponent that wasn’t part of the regular six-to-eight-game breakdown that most teams evaluate each week during the season. I randomly selected a game from early the previous season, hit play, and watched him work his magic. After watching a series or two to get a feel for the game, he started reciting the ensuing offensive plays again, one after another.
Finally, I told him he was showing off. His response: “Nope. I’ve just got these bleepers down.” And that he did. I began to think of Zim as a defensive coordinator with an offensive coordinator’s mind. Like I said — this guyknows football.
Generally, I try not to get too caught up in judging team defensive performance by overall defensive ranking. I just don’t think that’s a very holistic measure of good (or bad) defense, or of the coordinator in charge. What I like to look at is a unit’s performance in specific game situations, because that generally tells you how well-coached a team is. I also like to evaluate how well the team can adapt and respond to factors beyond its control. Again, another measure of the caliber of coaching.
Here’s what Zimmer’s track record suggests: His defenses have long been one of the league’s best at stopping the bleeding in “sudden change” situations (when the defense is forced to take the field immediately after its offense commits a turnover). His units have also found a way to persevere, and even thrive, after a rash of injuries to key defensive players — especially during this past season. And he can get the most out of his players, regardless of the scheme he employs.
Zimmer is traditionally known for running a “4-3” defensive scheme, but under head coach Bill Parcells in Dallas, he was asked to run a “3-4” when he had primarily “4-3” personnel. And his unit still finished among the league’s top 10 in total defense. What does that tell you? He can get guys to perform regardless of scheme, and he’s an adaptable coach with enough flexibility philosophically to tailor schemes to suit the specific talents of his players.
In my opinion, one of the defining characteristics of a good football coach is his ability to be confident and decisive. Zimmer fits that bill, on multiple fronts. How many times have you seen his players standing on the field waiting for a call from the sideline? It just doesn’t happen. He knows what he wants to do, and he lets his players know what he wants to do, without hesitation. That allows his guys to play confident and fast, and more often than not, that’s half the battle as a defensive player.
And what have the reports been in the immediate aftermath of his hiring? That Norv Turner, Mike Mularkey and Scott Linehan are potential candidates to fill the Vikings offensive coordinator position. He has a plan, and he’s being decisive about it. Clearly, he’s looking at other guys like him who have earned their stripes and have a track record that can be easily evaluated.
The most important measuring stick for any coach is his ability to command the attention and respect of the men he leads. We commonly hear about “players’ coaches” and we debate whether such a coach is good or bad for players. I honestly don’t even know what a players’ coach is and in the past few days, I’ve read reports that describe Zimmer as such. Well if being a players’ coach means that the players have a long leash, and that the coach “takes care of his guys” and is quick to throw them a bone, then I don’t know if I’d describe Zim that way.
I think the more important questions about whether someone is a players’ coach should be this: Do his guys want to play for him? When he stands in front of the room, do they respect him and respond to him? Is he able to reach his players? From personal experience, I can answer yes to each of those questions as it relates to Mike Zimmer.
Football acumen and X’s and O’s are great. But when it comes down to it, a coach has to be able to command the respect of his players. And players can see right through a coach that just isn’t ready. I don’t know if it’s possible to judge who deserves to be a head coach and who doesn’t. And I’m certainly not opposed to teams bringing in new blood and bucking the idea of hiring a throwback coach.
Heck, Andy Reid started the trend by being hired from Packers position coach to Eagles head coach. Many people balked at the move at the time and suggested he didn’t deserve that opportunity, and look what he’s accomplished since.
But in an industry that should be merit-based, but where a player’s status has become increasingly driven by his draft position or where he went to school, or a coach getting hired is often shaped by a brother-in-law mentality or by who his drinking buddies are, or a club’s upper management is constructed in an almost incestuous agent-orchestrated package-deal, it’s refreshing to see Mike Zimmer become the head coach of the Vikings. He’s ready, and he’s deserving.
And he’s got the merits to prove it.
Getting behind childhood cancer fight
Updated Sep 28, 2013 5:57 PM ET
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
I was not aware of this until just last year.
I also wasn’t aware of the fact that close to 0 percent of pharmaceutical company research dollars are spent on childhood cancer research as compared to over 60 percent on adult cancers.
Or that only two drugs have been developed for pediatric cancers in the past 20 years.
Or that approximately 13,500 children are diagnosed annually with cancer. Or that over two-thirds of survivors will suffer long-term effects.
Or that another 40 percent suffer from severe illnesses or die from illnesses such as secondary cancer, and that by the time the survivor reaches 45, more that 90 percent will have a chronic health problem. The incidence of invasive childhood cancers is up 29 percent in the past 20 years.
I also didn’t realize how much childhood cancer differs from adult cancers.
Children’s bodies are in developmental stages and cancer treatments substantially affect that development. Many cognitive and physical abilities are altered for life. Radiation to a child’s brain can significantly damage cognitive function, limiting the ability to read, do basic math, tell time or even talk. Physical and cognitive disabilities may prevent childhood cancer survivors from fully participating in school, social activities and eventually work, causing depression and feelings of isolation.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us know of someone who has been at least marginally affected by childhood cancer, while some of us are intimately connected through friends and family.
So why don’t we know more about many of the challenges facing this disease?
Because unfortunately, childhood cancer isn’t considered a “large enough” market to take seriously.
The first step to finding a solution to a problem like this, is to identify the problem. In my opinion, the problem here is clear. Collectively, we’re just not doing enough.
But luckily, there are some brave young fighters who intend to something about that.
Meet Dakota Bennett
Shortly after I joined the Cleveland Browns in 2010, I received a call from a local restaurant called Sushi Rock. They heard about a regular TV segment we did in New Orleans with local sports anchor Fletcher Mackel, where we’d bring in teammates each week to create custom sushi rolls, and a portion of proceeds from the sale of each roll would benefit an organization that provides care and support for children living with cancer and their families.
Customers could walk into Rock-n-Sake New Orleans on a given night and order the “Bleu-Brees Roll” or the “Marques Roll-ston” or “Vilma’s Viciously Delicious Roll.” Good meal. Good cause. Players and fans alike loved it.
We decided to launch a similar campaign in Cleveland to benefit children in Northeast Ohio who were battling cancer. For our opening show, we held a sushi rolling contest at the restaurant where we matched the kids up against some of my teammates, including Ben Watson, Ray Ventrone and Tony Pashos.
That was the day I met Dakota Bennett, a 15-year-old star distance runner in a battle for his life.
When the contest began, it became clear that Dakota was a natural leader. He encouraged his young teammates, organized the line-up, and even barked trash-talk at his gargantuan Browns opponents. At one point he shouted: “Why don’t you guys move that fast in your football games?!” He was in my teammates’ heads, and I loved it.
Dakota had brain cancer. And Dakota never stopped smiling.
That was the beginning of our friendship.
Dakota is now 3 1/2 years cancer free, and there’s no call I look forward to more than his, every six months, telling me his cancer scans have come back clean.
But Dakota hasn’t let the “end” of his cancer be the end of his battle with the disease. In fact, I would argue that his fight has just begun. Now he’s on a mission to help other kids like himself.
In the last few years, Dakota hit the public-speaking tour to share his story and has organized fund-raising campaigns.
Dakota graduated from high school this year and is now enrolled at a school where’s he studying to become a homicide detective. He loves forensics. I guess you could say he’s a natural problem solver.
We spoke on the phone this week, and he was busy working away in a crime scene lab. He’s also the school president and writes regular blogs on campus. None of this surprises me — he’s an absolute go-getter.
Meet Karlie Plas
At the sushi-rolling competition in 2010, I met a young lady named Karlie Plas. She was quiet and sweet, but fiercely competitive.
I learned that day that Karlie had been diagnosed in early 2007 with stage IV Aveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma – a type of cancer in the muscles attached to the bones – shortly after she had found a bump on her inner thigh.
Karlie was given a 10 percent chance of survival.
The cancer spread rapidly throughout her body, with bone lesions in her skull, both femurs, her pelvic area and ribs. She endured a seven-hour surgery to remove the main tumor from her upper thigh, which was the size of a child-sized football. She had 54 weeks of intense chemotherapy along with 11 weeks of radiation in her first year of treatment. Her first remission was only four months long.
In the six years since, her cancer has continued to spread and the tumors have continued to grow. She has had 20 different kinds of chemotherapy drugs and five rounds of radiation during her treatments. She battles with short- and long-term memory problems, neuropathy in her hands and feet, has difficulty with balance and walking, menopause, permanent hair loss and no left breast.
Every glimmer of hope seems to be met with another dose of bad news.
Karlie’s mom, Kellie: “Cancer has been in our lives for over six years but it will not consume us. She is the strongest, most positive person I know and I am lucky to call her my daughter.”
Karlie is living with cancer, and she never stops smiling.
In 2012, Karlie was crowned the Queen of her Senior Prom. To say she was glowing with joy and excitement that night would be an understatement. She has become one of my favorite “follows” on Twitter. Her perspective and positivity is inspiring.
During the 2010 holiday season, we participated in a program initiated by the Cleveland Browns through which players and their families would buy gifts for families in need. By chance, we were paired with Karlie’s family.
As my wife and I were reviewing their wish list, we saw that Karlie wanted a music CD of a group called The Band Perry. I had never heard of them, so we did a quick search to have a listen.
That’s when I heard the song “If I Die Young.” And that’s when things became real.
I don’t know if it’s because the band’s lead singer is a young blonde woman, and perhaps that made me envision Karlie singing those lyrics. Or if it’s because I have three daughters of my own and it’s painful to imagine them experiencing something similar. Maybe both. But when I hear this song, it rips my heart open.
There’s a boy here in town, says he’ll love me forever Who would have thought forever could be severed by The sharp knife of a short life
There are so many of us that want to help people like Karlie, and we just don’t know how. It can be maddening sometimes.
Doctors recently informed her that they discovered three or four new tumors, and she has begun another round of radiation treatment.
Karlie will be 20 years old next month. That means she has been battling cancer through her entire teen years.
Shortly before I began training camp in 2012, I received a message from Dakota while sitting in my condo in Westlake, Ohio. He wanted to schedule a “lunch meeting” with me to outline an idea he’d been working on.
Imagine that — a 16-year-old kid calling a business-style meeting with a professional football player. Like I said, he’s a go-getter.
So we meet at a place called B-Spot, one of my favorite burger joints in town. Dakota came prepared with notes, ideas, bullet points — he was on a mission. The gist? He wanted me to help him create a national Childhood Cancer Awareness campaign in the NFL, much like the Breast Cancer Awareness campaign we see every Sunday in October in NFL stadiums.
The color signifying Childhood Cancer Awareness Month is gold. Dakota’s vision was to see gold towels, shirts, billboards and the like, in the same way we see the color pink highlight our fields during Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
My mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor, so I’ve always had a deep appreciation for the NFL stepping up in this area. Lives have been saved because of it, for the mere fact that this campaign creates early-detection awareness at a level that’s unprecedented.
So this got me thinking: Dakota’s right. Why can’t something like this happen to support children living with cancer? There are clear areas of need, and it’s important for more folks to understand where our efforts have fallen short. More can be done.
It’s probably better to just let Dakota explain:
“I want to see this campaign happen because I want to bring a stop to cancer’s crusade. My mission ever since I was diagnosed with cancer was to make a difference — it doesn’t matter the size. All that matter is that I made one. Children are our future and some kids, including myself, had no one to look up to when I was fighting. Kids need support when going through a life changing journey — kids look up to superstars like NFL players. If we could get support from them, together we can end childhood cancer forever. Enough is enough.”
Just a kid? I don’t know about that. This sounds like a man on a mission.
One year after that “business meeting” with Dakota, we hear from Karlie’s family. She, too, wants to see a similar campaign in football. Karlie and Dakota weren’t conspiring here either. These are two independent requests from two “kids” who recognize the need for help — one who needs help and the other who needs to help.
Enough is enough, right? We were given our marching orders. Time for some action.
We began reaching out to teams on a club-by-club basis to gauge their interest in participating in some capacity. The response? Overwhelmingly positive.
The Browns and Saints were immediately on board and wanted to know what they could do to help spread the word. The Jaguars, Vikings, 49ers, Raiders, Chiefs and Rams — all in. We discovered that there are countless other teams with existing Childhood Cancer Awareness Month activities, like the Eagles, Colts and Seahawks.
Nearly every team has responded with their support and has some kind of initiative in place. And Tom Coughlin of the Giants is a staunch supporter of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and even wears a gold pin on game days.
This weekend you’ll see young patients and their families sitting in the bleachers and standing on the field during pre-game, wearing gold and supporting their favorite teams.
Then I thought to myself: I work at FOX Sports now. Might as well see if they want to participate. Again, all in. Talent on their weekend broadcast teams will be highlighting the campaign during their on-air coverage, wearing gold pins in honor of the children who so bravely fight this disease.
All of this support has been so encouraging. The conversation has already been started around the league. Everyone wants to help. And collectively, we can help.
So, hopefully, one of these days you’ll turn on your TV to watch your favorite team, and you’ll see gold towels on the playing field, coaches wearing gold pins, and players who have shaved their heads in support of children with cancer. And when that happens, remember how that movement got started.
It started with two kids, Dakota and Karlie, who had an idea.
They just needed a little help.
Inside the art of the Browns’ deal
Updated Sep 20, 2013 1:53 PM ET
Like most people, I was shocked to hear the Browns had traded Trent Richardson, the third overall pick of the 2012 draft, to the Indianapolis Colts. I didn’t think much could surprise me in this league anymore, but you just don’t see trades like this happen these days. Especially with such a marquee, so-called franchise player like this, only two games into his second season.
But it happened. And the reaction in Cleveland, and everywhere really, was swift and one of confusion.
Why would they do this?
What kind of message does this send to the fan base? Is this just another example of what appears to be a perpetual commitment to rebuilding in the city of Cleveland?
What does this say to the other players in the locker room, who, even though no one seems to give them a shot, are still playing for something? They have games to win, contracts to chase, pride to maintain.
Wasn’t this player the future of the program?
Are they throwing in the towel already?
Not so fast.
When I heard statements from Browns’ camp saying Richardson just didn’t “fit in” with their offense, I knew there was something bigger going on there. How does a guy like that not fit into any offense?
Physically, he’s about as gifted as it gets at the running back position. Some may question his vision and big-play ability, but I’ve seen this guy operate. He’s a specimen. For years, Norv Turner’s fingerprint as an offensive play-caller has been to run the ball effectively and take shots down the field. He’s one of the best play-callers in the game, in my opinion. Offensively, Richardson is a perfect fit.
Maybe he’s just not a fit with what the Browns are trying to accomplish organizationally.
It seems strange to say a fresh start is needed for someone who’s beginning his career, but that might be the case here. Guys get drafted all the time to places they just don’t want to be.
I can’t speculate about what’s in any one person’s head, but when a player enters the league wearing headphones incessantly, shows up late for treatments, and makes little effort to engage with his teammates, he can quickly develop a reputation for being insular and high-maintenance.
It can be perceived that he isn’t happy and that he’s not making an effort to buy in. I’ve seen this happen countless times, especially in today’s head down, keep-things-to-yourself culture.
Generally, you hope the player grows out of that coming into his second season, especially when there’s been a complete regime change and everyone is expected to prove themselves all over again. Some players buy in, and some don’t. Buy-in, even if it’s just perceived, goes a long way. You have to be willing to show you want to be part of the team.
I have no idea what took place during Thursday morning’s team meeting in Berea, the first since the trade was announced the previous afternoon. But my sense tells me a message was sent, loud and clear, even if nothing was spoken: No one is guaranteed a spot on this team. No one is bigger than the team. If you don’t buy in, you don’t belong on this team.
Both teams won on this deal. The Colts got an incredibly skilled back to complement one of the best young quarterbacks in the game. And they have a coach in Chuck Pagano who has a fantastic reputation for reaching his players and getting the absolute best out of each and every man in his locker room. Their future was already bright, but their team just got better now.
The Browns will be able to stockpile some high draft choices, which is one of the best ways to rebuild a team and establish long-term stability, especially in light of today’s extremely salary cap-friendly rookie contracts. Their team may have gotten a little worse in the immediate short-term, but their future just got a whole lot brighter.
As a player and fan in Cleveland, I’d be incredibly frustrated with what seems like a forever rebuild. But this time – and I know this may sound crazy – I think there’s reason for optimism. Allow me to repeat what I’ve heard so many times out of Cleveland: Just wait ‘til next year.
And I hate saying that for all the guys who deserve to win now.
Philly has a sustainability problem
Count me as one of the many who was really looking forward to seeing Philadelphia’s new-look, high-speed offense. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It shows flashes of utter dominance. And I don’t think it’s sustainable.
The number of plays this offense hopes to get off and the rate at which it hopes to do so is going to wear down this offensive line over time. It’s much easier to work at that pace with a bunch of 19- and 20-year-olds. But beat-up grown men with bad backs and aching knees, many of whom have kids and don’t even catch a break when they get home from work? Not quite the same.
And defenses will quickly become less shocked by the pace of this outfit. It will actually get much easier for a defense to trade punches with Philadelphia’s offense because they have the luxury of constantly swapping their defensive line in and out of the game. So when you match up a tired, worn-down offensive line with a fresh pass rush, you’re left with a quarterback who can oftentimes be completely exposed.
I’m not calling this the end of an experiment just yet. But I expect to see things slow down considerably. That, or we can expect to see a different quarterback. And I hope I’m wrong, because I love watching Michael Vick in this offense.
Kudos to Matt Birk
I agree with Matt Birk’s decision to overturn the one-game suspension of Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson. When Art Shell was removed this past off-season from his position as one of the two players’ appeals hearing officers, Birk was jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA to replace him. Birk is a smart man, is well-respected by his peers, and he played the game. Recently.
Too often we see discipline imposed for on-field infractions from people who have either never played the game, or have not played for a long time. The game has changed dramatically, and no one understands the growing pains of such change more than today’s players.
It’s time the league begin to take more seriously some of the other, obviously more intentional hits that happen. It’s near impossible to make the expected/required adjustments when making a tackle at full speed.
To me, while many of these hits are violent and perhaps against the rules, it’s impossible to measure intent in most cases. But clearly there’s an intent when a player dives at the side or the backs of another player’s knees who’s in a compromised position. It’s also something that’s still coached and encouraged across the league.
There’s an intent there that’s easy to recognize & measure. And perhaps it’s time that is eliminated from our game.
For a hit like Goldson’s last week against the Saints, which was clearly against the rules as written, it’s impossible to measure intent on that particular play — no matter how passionate you feel about it. And I’m guessing that’s how Birk evaluated his first high-profile case. A penalty and fine? Sure. But a suspension that will hurt the whole team? Not warranted.
This is a game of physics and violence played at a high-speed. It’s not easy for any player to adjust his trajectory angle in a split second, against a moving target. Most guys lower their heads, if even just a little bit, at the moment of impact. It’s an instinct that in my opinion is nearly impossible to coach out of a player.
And here’s a little secret that most of us meathead footballers don’t want you to know: Almost all of us close our eyes just before the point of contact.
For those of you who disagree with me on this, try this little exercise. Go outside with a friend/kid/spouse/coworker. If you have a helmet available, wear it. Stand about 15-20 yards away from your partner, then run full speed in their direction as they throw a ball directly at your face. Any kind of ball. Then see what your reaction is. Head down? Eyes closed?
I’m not in any way arguing that we should let defensive players roam the deep middle of the field unchecked. Those days are over. But we all need to have a realistic understanding about the laws of physics, about instinctive behavior, and about what the job requirements are for a defensive player. For the most part, guys today are aware of the rules and want to take care of each other. That’s a good thing. But they still have a job to do.
Full story at: http://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/trent-richardson-trade-is-not-what-it-seems-browns-fans-092013
Would I Let My Son Play Football?
By SCOTT FUJITA; Published: September 17, 2013
In 1987, shortly after I turned 8, I began to lobby my parents for a chance to play tackle football. My father was the coach of a high school freshman team, so in a way, I had been raised around the game.
Because of my age, my parents had reservations, but they agreed to attend an open house with the men who would be coaching the Pop Warner team. Afterward, my parents still weren’t convinced. What persuaded them? According to my father, I walked to the car, in tears, head down, mumbling about how I’d “never get to play football.”
Two months later, I was experiencing drills like “bull in the ring,” in which a player is surrounded by teammates who repeatedly rush at him. Cracking skulls, as they used to say.
It was tackle football. And I loved it.
For much of my playing career, most parents with young children who played football were most interested in my workout regimen and what supplements I was taking. Those conversations have shifted significantly in the last few years. Now the most common question, by far, is, “Would you let your son play football?”
My response was usually a resounding “No.”
Right around the time those questions started, I developed a deep love-hate relationship with the game. I loved playing on Sundays. I loved the paychecks. I loved the guys in the locker room. But I hated what football was doing to so many people around me, and I hated what it was probably doing to me.
There seemed to be red flags everywhere, and even if I couldn’t state with certainty that the game caused each and every ailment that so many of my friends were experiencing, the evidence was mounting quickly.
I found myself receiving e-mail after e-mail from people presumably motivated by keyword searches for “football, concussion, trauma, disease.” Every new study drawing a correlation between head injuries and postcareer brain disease would find its way to my in-box, almost daily. Combine that with phone calls from former teammates who were struggling and the headlines of yet another fallen former player, and I began to hate the game.
But was this merely an emotional reaction and not necessarily an accurate reflection of an otherwise incredible football journey that spanned decades? Perhaps.
First of all, I don’t even have a son, so it was probably a bit ridiculous for me to speculate. I realize there are girls who play football, but my daughters don’t have any interest, and I have no idea how I would respond to an 8-year-old boy begging me to play this game.
Second, football gave me so much. How can I bash a game that produced so many friendships, paid for part of my education and helped me become comfortable financially?
And third, football is safer than it has ever been, right?
I honestly have no idea how to answer that question. Sure, training camp is easier than it used to be, and everyone is smarter about limiting in-practice contact. But once the games start, football is football. And nothing is ever going to change that unless you drastically change the game. I’m no expert in physics, but there’s no doubt N.F.L. players are bigger, faster and stronger than they’ve ever been. As a result, there is more velocity at the point of contact than there has ever been. I hate to say it, but no “Heads Up” campaign or the threat of a penalty or a fine will reduce football’s inherent violence. The latest dark reminder came Monday, when a 16-year-old high school player from Brocton, N.Y., died after a helmet-to-helmet hit in a game Friday night.
Certainly there are lessons to be learned from playing football, about toughness, battling through adversity, and teamwork. But I don’t think football is the only way to teach those. I have numerous friends who never played football but who have battled through failed bar exams, medical residencies and struggling businesses, and who are just as successful as I am. In truth, they are probably a lot more well adjusted, well balanced and better positioned to navigate life’s speed bumps than I’ll ever be. Maybe they never had to push through pain and mask injuries the way I have, but is that really a virtue?
Still, now that I’m retired from football, I know now more than ever that I absolutely loved playing the game. And now I actually get paid to talk about football on television. Imagine the hypocrisy. Here I am questioning whether children should be playing the game at all, and I’m basically selling the game to children watching at home. There’s certainly some internal conflict with that.
And just because football worked out well for me, that doesn’t mean it will work out well for everyone. The odds are just too daunting.
So maybe the more appropriate question is, If I could do it all over again, would I? The answer: Absolutely. Without hesitation.
I recently asked my parents the same question, separately: “Knowing what you know now, would you have said yes after that meeting over 25 years ago?”
My mother, without hesitation: “No, it’s just not worth the risk. We’ve loved being on this journey with you and it’s brought us so much joy, but I’d rather see you live a long and healthy life.”
My father, the former football coach, after a long hesitation: “Yes, but I wouldn’t let you start so soon.”
He added, “Football isn’t for everyone, Scott.”
He’s right. It’s not for everyone. But it was definitely for me. And it is definitely for a lot of other people, too. So, just because I am torn about the game, it’s not my responsibility to make other parents’ decisions for them. But I do feel an obligation to inform them.
I’m a former player now, and concerned parents continue to ask me, “Scott, would you let your son play football?”
And how do I respond?
“I’m just glad I have three daughters and will never have that conversation.”
Full story available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/18/sports/football/would-i-let-my-son-play-football.html?_r=0
A version of this article appears in print on September 18, 2013, on page B11 of the New York edition with the headline: Would I Let My Son Play Football?.
How the NFL became a passing league
It’s a passing league, but balance still wins.
Gone are the days of the hard-nosed, old-school head coaches and offensive play-callers who preached toughness and 3 yards and a cloud of dust. If you don’t believe it, just look at the numbers in Week 1 of the NFL regular season.
This past weekend, NFL teams threw for a combined 8,143 passing yards, the highest total in NFL history. Not Week 1 history. League history.
Also recorded were the highest number of receiving touchdowns. Again, the most in league history.
1. Rules limiting downfield contact and “re-routes” past 5 yards certainly make it easier for receivers to stretch the field and get in and out of their breaks untouched.
2. Because of the emphasis on protecting defenseless players, quarterbacks are now more protected than ever. This makes them more comfortable in the pocket. Also, some QBs are more willing to sit tight and take a pass-rusher’s best shot, knowing there’s an increased likelihood of a flag being thrown.
3. Offensive linemen — and this is obviously a biased former defensive player talking here — are holding more than ever, which, of course, gives the QB more time in the pocket. In fact, there are many offensive line coaches who actively encourage their players to hold for extended periods of time. It’s all risk vs. reward, as they see it. There’s offensive holding on virtually every play, but do you think the officials will throw a flag every play? Of course not. A lot of coaches hedge their bets on that. They know a call might get made four or five times in a game, but the other 55 or 60 times? Give the QB all the time he needs to sit comfortably and find a target, knowing that the odds are always on your side for a no-call.
4. There’s been a significant rise in ridiculously athletic tight ends in recent years. Every linebacker and safety can thank Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates — experiments gone extremely well — for that. This gives pass-happy coordinators and QBs a big body to throw to in more risk-free passing zones, such as the middle of the field or deep in the back of the end zone. Plus, it seems like there’s another crop of former basketball players or track stars lining up and abusing guys like me every year (I don’t even know for certain if any of them are actual track stars, but it sure seems that way). Tight ends like this are practically career-enders for linebackers of a certain age and body type. Trust me.
5. One thing that doesn’t get mentioned enough is how the deep dig area has virtually become a free-completion zone in recent years. Why? Because safeties’ hands are tied. I’m not making an argument for or against rules protecting defenseless receivers here; I’m just making an observation. There was a time when one of the primary responsibilities of the safety was to prevent the ball from being completed at 15-20 yards over the middle of the field. The way he did that was by separating the intended receiver from the ball. How did he do that, if he couldn’t get there before the ball arrived? By delivering a crushing blow as the ball arrived. As we all know, it’s become a lot harder for him to do that without losing a significant amount of money. Naturally, offensive play-callers and QBs know this. So why wouldn’t they put the ball up high, 20 yards down the middle of the field? That’s an easy throw and catch to make, and it’s a huge chunk of yardage that keeps the chains moving.
6. Teams can’t effectively work on the run game in practice and in training camp like they used to because of the limitations on in-practice contact. That might make coaches a bit more reluctant to run the ball on Sundays.
A combination of all these factors, among others, have led to the NFL becoming predominantly a passing league.
But if I’m an offensive coordinator, I’m going all in on the run. For the same reason offensive coaches are reluctant to run the ball due to a lack of efficient run game reps in practice, they need to recognize that run defenses are at an even greater disadvantage for that same reason. Linebackers and defensive linemen almost never get good, full-speed run fits like we did in the old days (and “old days” now stretches back only a few years). Without those reps, it’s become way more difficult defensively to fit the run in games.
So in the same way that the numbers this past weekend show record-breaking pass tendencies around the NFL, the numbers also suggest that a run/pass balance wins. Losing teams last weekend ran the ball on 37 percent of their offensive snaps, while winning teams ran the ball 45 percent of the time. But before you simply dismiss those numbers by saying that the losing teams had to pass with more frequency to stay in the game, recognize that 12 of those games were decided by seven points or less, which is tied for the most in any week in NFL history. Parity is at an all-time high, and the team that can still effectively run the ball, or is at least willing to commit to the run, has a huge advantage. There’s nothing more demoralizing to a defense than an offense that can beat you both ways.
I know this is a passing league, but ultimately, balance still wins.
Look higher than Suh
Blame the Detroit Lions coaches for the on-field antics of Ndamukong Suh. After hearing Suh’s statement regarding his questionable block against the Vikings, I was left thinking one thing: He sounds like Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, almost verbatim. I don’t know Suh personally, but I’ve actually heard he’s a pretty solid, likeable guy. But everyone is just working with what they’ve seen on film, and there’s obviously a certain pattern of behavior here. It’s one that’s accepted in that organization. The coaching staff should have gotten this handled a long time ago. This is a team that has had 116 personal foul penalties called against them since Jim Schwartz was hired in 2009, most in the NFL. Player health and safety aside, common sense would dictate that you wouldn’t want to hurt your own team by getting penalized at such a high rate. But unfortunately, sense doesn’t seem too common in Detroit. Which is a shame, because guys like Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush are exciting players to watch, and they do things the right way. But a cavalier approach to discipline from the top will continue to hold this team back.
Looking nice in KC
I have a feeling something good is brewing in Kansas City, and it’s not just beer and barbecue in the Arrowhead parking lot — which I loved as a Chief, by the way. I’ve felt for quite some time that Andy Reid and Alex Smith are a perfect match. We’re going to see efficient, productive numbers from Smith as this team progresses. He won’t need to post Peyton Manning or Drew Brees numbers. Just be efficient. Reid knows that things got a little too pass-happy in Philadelphia, so we’ll see his offense in Kansas City be a lot more balanced. That means a heavy dose of Jamaal Charles. Which is scary. Planning my trip to KC now for a rack of pregame baby backs, and maybe a beer or two (or three).
Little love for Johnny?
A few weeks ago I wanted someone to smack Johnny Manziel. I was turned off by his perceived sense of entitlement and a pattern of what appeared to be selfish behavior. I questioned whether teams at the next level would want to waste their time with this kid, because an entitled attitude never fares well in an NFL locker room. But there’s something about this guy that intrigues me. He’s a gamer, and he has a thing called moxie. Despite every negative headline about him in recent months and the attention he’s been getting for all the wrong reasons, he seems unshakable. That’s something that can’t be coached. That’s why, despite all the perceived baggage, I’m kind of a fan. And I can’t believe I’m saying that.
They Were Right: I Miss the Game
By SCOTT FUJITA; Published: September 9, 2013
During my career, it seemed like every retired player who visited one of my football teams said some variation of the same thing:
“Never take it for granted. What I wouldn’t give to suit up and hear the crowd roar just one more time.”
For some reason, I never thought I would be that guy.
I just assumed that when I walked away, that would be it. No turning back. On to bigger and better things. I had a brash sort of arrogance about it.
I retired after last season, but this preseason the mere glimpse of training camp images on television caused my back and knees to start to ache. Why would I want to go through that again?
Still, any time I made a flippant comment to a former coach or player about not missing playing football, they would say:
“Wait until that first Sunday of the regular season when you’re just watching. And trust me, you will be watching.”
Sunday was that day.
And I hate to say it, but they were right.
I was in New Orleans to watch the Saints take on the Atlanta Falcons. Many in New Orleans were calling this the most anticipated home opener since the Saints returned to the Superdome for “Monday Night Football” in 2006, after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Sunday was also essentially the first time in 25 years that I would not be on a football team for the opening game of the season.
I woke up unsure of what emotions might come over me during the day, but open to whatever the experience might bring. And there were a lot of things that I just didn’t expect.
This was my first time entering a football stadium as a fan with a ticket, and I felt lost, in more ways than one. This is a place I once considered “home” and I couldn’t even figure out which door to enter or how to get to where I needed to go. For years, I knew exactly where to find my parking space, how to get to my locker and where the field was. Now, that comfort level was gone.
I finally asked security if they could point me in the direction of the home team’s locker room. I thought that once I found a familiar place, I could figure out the rest.
But even when I found my way to the locker room, I actually felt more out of place.
Lost and found at the same time, I guess.
I passed by the locker room where I used to dress and, almost out of habit, I felt compelled to enter. From the hallway I could even smell the locker room. It was so oddly familiar.
There was a chill in the stadium, as there can be before the fans fill it up, and it actually gave me the shivers, as it had so many times before. It was as if my body was returning to its normal game day biology, and I knew that once bodies filled up the stands, I would warm up in response.
When I approached the field to watch pregame warm-ups, I entered through the same tunnel, exchanged pleasantries with the same security guard and heard the welcoming cheers of the same early arriving fans as I had countless times during my playing days.
I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but I instinctively began to bounce gently on the balls of my feet. I shook out my arms and legs, one limb at a time. Preparing for action, with no action to come.
Then I noticed myself digging the top of my shoe deep into the turf, almost ritualistically, as I stepped across the white line from the sideline to the playing field. I imagine I’ve done this unconsciously every time I’ve taken the field, since I was 8 years old.
When the players were introduced to the crowd, I couldn’t help but feel so intimately connected to the moment but so utterly detached from what was about to take place. I also didn’t realize until Sunday how much I had taken the national anthem for granted all these years. It felt like the proverbial nightmare before the first game, when you know where you’re supposed to be, but just can’t seem to get there.
When I saw the Saints’ defense gather at the 30-yard line before running out onto the field to begin a new season, I experienced an unexpected urge to move in that direction, while also feeling such a disconnect between what my life was and what it is now.
And I never imagined I would have been nearly moved to tears the first time I heard the crowd roar.
It’s easy to tell people I’m not a football guy. I say it all the time. Football doesn’t define me. It’s actually a very small part of who I am.
But it’s inside me. I imagine it is the same for anyone who has played this game for a long time. And as much I attempt to deny that reality, Sunday I realized something that I didn’t think was possible: I miss it.
I know I can never play football again. I accept that the game has passed me by. Physically, I’m a shadow of my former self.
And I don’t know if that makes it easier or worse.
Lost and found at the same time.
Full story at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/10/sports/football/they-were-right-i-miss-the-game.html?_r=0
FOX Sports Exclusive
Not hard to be a Saint in this city
Updated Sep 6, 2013 1:17 PM ET
Like a lot people, I spent a few minutes that afternoon staring at a TV set from a comfortable, air-conditioned living room somewhere, thinking to myself: “Thank God I’m not one of those people.” Then I changed the channel, and went about my day.
It was August 28, 2005, and Hurricane Katrina had just begun to ravage the city of New Orleans.
In March 2006, I was preparing to become an unrestricted free agent for the first time in my career. My head coach with the Cowboys, Bill Parcells, reached out a day or two before I hit the market. He said he really wanted to keep me in Dallas, but it had to be at the right price.
All the typical business talk you’d expect, and I appreciated his honesty. So I was honest with him. I said that it’s human nature to want to know what else is out there, and that the threat of a pulled offer wouldn’t keep me from exploring. That was the end of my brief stint with the Cowboys. I’m forever grateful to Bill for getting me out of a bad situation in Kansas City, but it was time to move on.
When we began lining up visits for the opening days of free agency, setting a priority in scheduling was a challenge. Should we go to Philadelphia first, a regular contender? How about a return to California for a chance to play with the Raiders? Jacksonville?
“You know what, I think I want to go to New Orleans first.”
Just seven months after watching, and essentially ignoring, what I had seen taking place in New Orleans, my wife and I were on our way to visit a team and a city with nothing but question marks.
I didn’t really get any looks coming out of high school, so I never went on one of those fancy recruiting visits where they take you to some top-end steakhouse and tell you how great you are. I’m sure my mom thought I was pretty awesome. Everyone else? Not so much.
So for me, an NFL free agency visit was a big deal. I wore a collared shirt and everything. I even packed a Rayon mach-neck! Someone suggested I wear that shirt because it made my arms look bigger and that would surely impress the coaches. Ridiculous, right? Not nearly as ridiculous as me taking their advice.
When we arrived at the airport, new defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs picked us up. It wasn’t hard to spot him. The airport was virtually empty.
No one was coming to New Orleans.
Even Gary, who is one of the best men I know, had an uneasy, less-than-confident look about him. I imagine he was thinking one of two things, maybe both.
We’ve got no shot at getting this guy.
Why in the hell did I take this job?
We jumped in the car with Gary and began our drive down Airline Dr. in Metairie. Clearly, he only knew where three things were — the airport, the Saints facility, and his house. How was he supposed to sell this place to us?
Flattened homes everywhere. Where houses once stood, there were remnants of foundations that had been wiped clean by the storm surge. Watermarks 14-feet up on the highway overpasses. Vacated buildings. Not a street sign in sight.
Sort of an eery, post-apocalyptic landscape. A wasteland, in so many ways.
And if you were hungry, there were few options. Church’s and Popeye’s chicken were open until 6 p.m. every night, I was told. But that was about it.
The Saints’ training facility had just been converted from a FEMA and National Guard staging location.
This is what Superdome spokesman Bill Curl said at the time about the possibility of a Saints home game that coming September:
“Not totally conclusive, but within the realm of possibility. It probably won’t be absolutely complete, but we could be able to safely and comfortably accommodate a capacity crowd. There could be some unfinished painting …”
Not the most ringing endorsement I’ve ever heard.
That night my wife and I spent hours pouring over the decision, weighing our options. A voice in my head kept telling me to board that flight the next day and get the hell out of town. Surely we can’t come here? Our family probably wouldn’t even come visit?
The following morning we returned to the Saints’ practice facility for a follow-up visit before our scheduled trips to Jacksonville and Oakland. Greg Bensel, the team’s media relations director, was our driver. He gave us his own nickel tour and took us off the beaten path a bit.
I thought what I had seen the previous day was bad, but this was different. This made what happened seven months earlier seem real to me, for the first time.
This was the first time I noticed the X-codes. I had no idea what they meant, but they were everywhere.
I asked Greg what these X’s meant. He didn’t know exactly what each quadrant signified, but he said the bottom one displayed whether there were any bodies found in each home.
Top quadrant: Time and date the rescue team left structure
Left quadrant: Rescue team identifier
Right quadrant: Hazards present
Bottom quadrant: Number of live and dead victims found in the structure
This haunted me. X’s on almost almost every house, in every neighborhood. Block, after block, after block.
This had become a pretty dismal free agency visit. Every warning sign and red flag imaginable was suddenly staring us right in the face. Someone would have to be crazy to go to that place, right?
Hazards were ever-present, and this place needed to be rescued. Maybe the Saints were up to the task? Would that be overstating the importance of football?
It was literally minutes before our scheduled departure. Our driver was in the parking lot, engine running. With the image of those X’s forever imprinted in my mind, I looked at my wife and said:
“This is where we belong.”
We canceled the rest of my free agency visits and I became a New Orleans Saint that instant.
“Why would you choose to leave America’s Team for that place?”
“Just be careful with those people. Desperate people do desperate things.”
Those are just a few of the things said to me in the days after the agreement was announced.
That place. Those people.
Unless you’ve been to that place and spent some time with those people, then you just wouldn’t get it.
My wife and I were given a chance to be part of something that was much bigger than just football. In this business, it’s rare to be able to do something that’s beyond X’s and O’s and wins and losses, and is about more than just money. Sure, the team could have been terrible. That was probably the expectation from just about everyone. But sometimes you’ve just got to follow your gut.
A few months later, as the paint was still drying on the once ravaged Superdome rooftop, we were treated to this moment, which helped catapult the rebirth of an entire region.
Bigger than just football? No doubt about it.
Scott Fujita (@sfujita55)
Watch below for the best 90 seconds in the history of ever.
See y’all in the Dome on Sunday!
Full column at: http://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/scott-fujita-on-decision-to-sign-with-new-orleans-saints-after-hurricane-katrina-090513
Mixed Feelings Over N.F.L. Concussion Settlement
By: SCOTT FUJITA; Published: September 2, 2013
I expected a settlement to come at some point. What I didn’t expect was to feel so oddly conflicted about it.
Last Thursday, the N.F.L. and the more than 4,500 plaintiffs involved in a consolidated concussion lawsuit agreed to settle their differences and, pending the approval of a judge, were prepared to put the dispute behind them. Good news, right? Certainly a win for everyone involved? I’m not so sure.
In my last few years as an active player, between lockout negotiations and the so-called bounty scandal involving the New Orleans Saints, I received an unexpected, accelerated education in the basic mechanics of settlement discussions. I’m by no means an expert, but I learned that there really aren’t many surprises. Show each side the perceived holes in its argument, provide an ample threat that invokes a dash of fear, then dangle a carrot that each party finds hard to resist.
What we saw Thursday was no different. There was the possibility of an expedited discovery process, closed-door arbitration and the exclusion of a chunk of former players. And I’m guessing there were not-so-subtle reminders that causation — proving a plaintiff’s current health problems were directly caused by a head injury sustained while playing in the N.F.L. — is a heavy burden to meet in a court of law.
Pair all of that with the chance to close the door on a public-relations nightmare and an opportunity to ease the suffering of so many former players and their families sooner rather than later, and you’ve got a deal.
I wasn’t a part of the lawsuit. I was approached about it, as I’m sure every player who retired in recent months had been. But I could not, in good conscience, participate and risk watering down a potential award for so many people who are legitimately suffering. There are numerous former players experiencing a wide range of brain-related health issues. Right now, I’m not really one of them.
I imagine most N.F.L. clubs jumped at the opportunity to settle for roughly $1.5 million a year for the next 20 years. It’s fairly easy to cover that expense. Just pay 15 players $100,000 less each year in salary. Or raise in-stadium beer prices a few bucks. Problem solved.
No apologies made. No skeletons revealed. Back to business as usual.
A very worthwhile investment.
But is this not an issue of public safety, especially when it comes to children? Did the plaintiffs not deserve to discover exactly what was known by the N.F.L. about head injuries, and when? What about the public?
In recent years, there has been so much energy exhausted attempting to vilify players for delivering the big hits they have been forever encouraged to dish out. They were asked to change the way they had been taught to play the game, almost overnight, and most are trying to adapt. In the N.F.L.’s defense, players must adapt. But now former players will not even get to ask questions of someone like Dr. Elliot Pellman, the longtime chairman of the league’s research committee on concussions.
Actually, Pellman had no real background in neurology, which is not a great starting point, and he once claimed to have a medical degree from Stony Brook when, in fact, he attended medical school in Guadalajara, Mexico.
His performance dealing with the issue in the N.F.L. has been less than stellar. Indeed, it is troubling that Pellman continues to be even tangentially connected to the league. (He refers to himself as an adviser to the league on the Web site for his private practice.)
Kevin Mawae, a former president of the players union and a man I deeply respect, said he never had any interest in joining the suit, but he did want some answers. “Information is power,” he said, and because the league will not have to give up that information in court, they “retain that power.”
What will become of concussion management? Do we continue to exercise caution with players who may have sustained a traumatic brain injury? Or, because there is no more looming litigation, are we right back to where things were before Congress held hearings in 2009: get the guy back on the field as soon as possible, at any cost? Let’s hope not.
Still, some perspective is called for. I’m thrilled for Kevin Turner, a former player and a plaintiff who is battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as A.L.S. or Lou Gehrig’s disease. I lost my uncle to A.L.S., and one of my dearest friends and former teammates, Steve Gleason, received a diagnosis of A.L.S. in January 2011. I’ve seen how brutal and debilitating this disease is. I have followed Turner’s story closely, and he inspires me.
The proposed settlement agreement will potentially relieve a tremendous financial and medical burden for Turner. And this will happen now, instead of 5, 10, maybe 15 years from now, when he may no longer be with us. The settlement is a huge win for the former players like Turner and their families. We must not lose sight of that. It’s easy to tell someone to hold out for more when it’s not your livelihood at risk.
These deals are complicated and multilayered, and they affect everybody differently. It’s easy to feel conflicted. And it’s not always easy to declare a winner or a loser.
In late July 2010, an agreement was reached in principle to end the N.F.L. lockout. The union’s player representatives were asked to present the deal to their teams and take a vote on whether to ratify the agreement. I was not entirely thrilled with the deal at the time. When I raised questions, I imagine some felt that I was trying to prevent the lockout from ending, but I just wanted to make sure it was the right deal, and I wanted to be diligent about the ratification process.
When I called a meeting with my Cleveland Browns teammates to outline the main points of the agreement, I wasn’t comfortable with the idea of simply “selling” the deal. I wanted them to make an informed decision. I gave them what I considered the good, the bad and the ugly. When I finished, one of my younger teammates said: “Scott, you’ve been there through everything and we trust your opinion. What would you recommend we do? Accept the deal or not?”
As I looked at the group of men in front of me, one of the youngest teams in the league, I was not sure what to say. These guys just wanted to begin their careers and play ball. Would it have been irresponsible of me to deny them that right?
So I responded, “If you guys would like to get to work and start making money, then I recommend you take the deal.”
They voted unanimously to approve.
Emotional infancy defines NFL cut day
Over the next few days there are going to be a bunch of awkward semi bro-hugs in NFL locker rooms. And in some cases, no hug at all. In others, maybe a hand-shake. But more often than not, there will be an absolute failure to acknowledge a (former) teammate’s existence.
After weeks spent in the scorching sun on football fields across the country, the last weekend in August is cold. It’s generally impersonal. And it generally sucks, in more ways than one.
There’s no training for NFL roster cutdown day.
It’s like we forget how to interact and engage, how to provide comforting words, or how to take the bond that was supposedly created through months of training together and apply it to an actual moment that would seemingly benefit from genuine connectivity. We become emotional infants.
I’ve been pretty fortunate in that I’ve never been cut before. But as a former college walk-on, I always felt that slight uneasiness that somehow the rug would be pulled out from beneath me. So in a very small way, I guess I could empathize a bit with those who were called upstairs to “see coach.”
And in my last two seasons, I honestly felt like Randy Moss’s grand reaper might be coming down to grab me, too. He never did. And so, I carried on with 52 others in all our splendid, emotional infancy.
Picture this scene: All the guys are hanging out in the locker room, the day after the final preseason game. About 10-15 of them probably know they’ll be unemployed later that day. Another 10-15 have legitimate concerns about their place on the roster. Then you have another handful of guys who don’t have a worry in the world, but are in for a big surprise. Everyone goes out of the their way to appear casually unconcerned, confident, and even jovial. Many feel like they’re about to vomit, but of course they refuse to show any outward signs of anxiety. But trust me, the anxiety is palpable.
Then some young guy walks in, probably an intern in the personnel department, who no player has really even seen before. Sometimes we’d give the intern a hard time, as if this isn’t already the most awkward, emotionally troubling thing he’s ever been through.
We’d bust his chops a bit: “How can you look yourself in the mirror? That’s messed up, bro, crushing a dude’s dreams like this.” Everyone in the locker room, including the intern, would laugh uncomfortably. Perhaps it would make us feel better if we could somehow make this poor bastard feel worse about himself. Socially inept, I guess?
Then this guy begins his approach. Suddenly the room falls silent and heads drop. I guess the thinking is that if he doesn’t see your face, then he won’t yank you upstairs. If only it could be so easy. Then he taps the player on the shoulder, asks him to grab his playbook, and they begin to exit the locker room. No one else looks up, but guys begin to whisper amongst themselves: “Aww, that’s f—ed up. Damn, they got that guy?”
Yes, sometimes it’s that impersonal. Because sometimes, you may not even know that guy’s name.
I remember being a rookie, and a lot of the vets wouldn’t get to know their young teammates. Why? Because they didn’t want to invest any time in developing a relationship with someone who probably wouldn’t actually be their teammate.
And as I got older, I’m embarrassed to say that I probably did the same thing. There’s so much roster turnover year after year that names and faces become sort of a blur. So you take the easy way out — you avoid building new relationships with the guys who probably don’t have a shot. And that probably spares you from having to counsel this young man when someone tells him he’s not good enough. Emotional infancy.
When the player returns to the locker room after his meeting with coach, most everyone acts like they don’t know what just happened. Guys sort of keep their heads down and avoid eye contact. And as the player begins to pack up his things, he might confess to a few of his buddies that he just got cut, as if they weren’t perfectly aware.
Now begins a series of awkward physical exchanges.
Should you go shake the guy’s hand? Does he even want you to shake his hand?
Does he resent you because he thinks he deserves your spot? Or are you just thankful you’re not him right now?
If he approaches you for a good-bye bro-hug, do you go full embrace or just do the tough-guy handshake half-hug thing?
Do you tell him everything is going to be alright? That he’ll surely land with one of the other 31 teams? In a lot of cases, that would be a lie. But do you say it anyway to make them feel better, and make yourself feel less awkward?
Or do you just keep your head down, back half-turned, and avoid the whole thing altogether? More often than not, that’s what happens. And then you never see that guy again.
This is a cold day in the business of football. I’ve seen guys throw chairs at the wall and I’ve heard them sobbing and puking in the bathroom stall. I’ve watched players threaten athletic trainers who they blamed for not getting them healthy fast enough or for forcing them onto the field when they weren’t physically ready. I’ve heard guys motherf— their coaches for taking food off their family’s table. I’ve seen guys flat-out refuse to leave the building and eventually get escorted off the premises.
And I always hear these tales about the player who handled his release “like a pro”? I don’t even know what that means. Imagine doing something your whole life, trained in nothing else, and then being told this is the end of the road for you. What’s a “pro” response to being told you’re not good enough? I don’t know.
What I do know is this: There’s no warm and fuzzy way to get an NFL roster down to 53 players. It’s a cutthroat business. Maybe there’s no way to make the experience better for the player who’s just been cut.
But now that I’m on the outside looking in, I see the fault in the way I did things. The business of football isn’t going to change, but I think it’s the players who can help soften the blow.
Learn the name of your teammate. Listen to his story. He may not have a chance in hell to make the club, and you probably both know it.
But the common denominator between you and him is your love for the game. If there’s nothing else, let that be your connection point. You were him at some point, too. Your path may have been smoother, but like him, you just wanted to be on the team.
Don’t be an emotional infant, don’t be socially inept, and don’t make it even more awkward by avoiding eye contact. Go full bro-hug.
I wish I would have.
Full article and video at: http://msn.foxsports.com/nfl/story/scott-fujita-emotional-infancy-defines-roster-cutdown-day-082913