Tag Archives: football

“Why I’m rooting for the 49ers,” or “The Shot Heard Round My Backyard”

John Harbaugh is the coach of the Baltimore Ravens.  His younger brother Jim is the coach of the San Francisco 49ers

John Harbaugh is the coach of the Baltimore Ravens. His younger brother Jim is the coach of the San Francisco 49ers

Jim Harbaugh is the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers.  This Sunday Jim is leading his team into the Superbowl, and on the opposing sidelines will be his oldest rival, his big brother John.  Jim and John Harbaugh have justifiably received a lot of attention these last two weeks.  The Harbaugh brothers have reached the pinnacle of the football world.  On Sunday they will share the biggest stage in the world.  Not too long ago, they shared a bedroom.

Jim and John Harbaugh were born 15 months apart.  They were fierce competitors growing up.  Gifted with more natural talent, Jim went farther as an athlete.  He was one game away from playing in the Superbowl as the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts.  Yet here they are, meeting as head coaches at the top of their career.

There are other famous pairs of siblings in the sports world.  Peyton and Eli Manning, and Serena and Venus Williams are two pairs that have made some headlines.  In most of these matchups, I tend to root for the younger sibling.  I root for the little brother because I know how that feels.

My brother got pretty good at the Figure Four Leg Lock.

This not my brother and me, but anyone that thinks wresting is fake has never been trapped in a figure four leg lock. This happens to be Ric Flair on the right, playing my brother, and I believe Steve Austin on the left, playing me.

My brother and I were born almost six years apart, so we weren’t exactly rivals.  My younger years were spent in perpetual servitude and resentment.  Yet at the same time, my older brother was always there.  He was someone for me to look up to and emulate.  He showed me how to swing a bat and a golf club.  He taught me how to put together a hot wheels racing tournament with my cars.  He taught me how to build lego cars, card houses, and do card tricks. He was even willing to demonstrate on me how to do a D.D.T, a Figure-four Leg Lock (pictured), and a Camel Clutch.  In time, he became my best friend, and we stood next to each other at each of our weddings.  There was no thought to asking anyone else to be there for me in that moment.

My big brother was always there.  Sometimes he made me angry enough to cry or scream or attack with a ferocity I didn’t know I had.  One time he tickled me until I puked.   Most of the time he was teaching me something.  And he taught me so much, the important stuff and trivial stuff.  He taught me about girls and sarcasm and sports, and life.  He taught me to like chocolate and peanut butter ice cream, and the Macho Man, and Seinfeld.  My big brother is the smartest person I know, and there are few people with whom I laugh more.  He still teaches me stuff.  I still look up to him, even though he stopped being my “big brother” by the time I was about 15 years old.

That’s why I usually cheer for Eli and Serena, and why I’ll probably be cheering for Jim (although he is kind of a lunatic, and I think I’d rather play for John).  I know a little of what Jim will feel when he looks across the field and sees John: pure love, admiration, and respect; and a desire to beat him that is pure and burns white-hot.

I didn’t beat my brother much growing up.  He was bigger than me, stronger than me, faster than me, and smarter than me.  It wasn’t until I was about 15 or 16 when some of those things started to change.  My brother and I had some epic basketball games over the years.  Some were Nerf games, where he had to play on his knees and there were no holds barred.  Some were on our back patio, where the flowers were out of bounds, the crack was the three-point line, and you had to take the ball back to the grill.

The summer after I graduated high school was our last summer together.  That fall, he started his second year of medical school,  and I went off to college.  We played a lot of basketball games that summer.  One-on-one, to 30, winner’s outs, win by two.  There were a series of intense games.  I discovered I had a distinct advantage inside.  He was still quicker than me and a better all-around athlete.  All were close, but he won them all.  He had a winning streak that dated back to the early 1980s.  It was the kind of streak that the Harlem Globetrotters could envy.  Finally, The Streak ended.  It was an intense game.  We were well into the 30s, going back and forth.

Michael Jordan’s last shot with the Bulls is one of those plays that is ingrained into the collective memory of thousands of basketball fans.  I can still see it as vividly today as I did when he hit it to beat the Jazz for his sixth World Championship.  Jordan’s shot, and that memory, have the distinct advantage of having been shown over and over for years.

The Shot was not recorded.  The only spectator was my Mom watching from the kitchen window.  Yet it was ingrained into my mind as clearly as any of my sports memories.  I have watched my teams win World Championships.  I jumped out of my skin as the Illini came back against Arizona.  I wept openly when the Paul Konerko clutched the last out of the 2005 World Series, and I still get goosebumps when I recall the Phillies beating the Devil Rays.

None of these moments are as important to me as the time I drove to my left toward the baseline, backed in a little, then pivoted to face the hoop, and took a little jumper leaning away from the basket from about five feet, just in front of the rock garden in the corner, and I beat my big brother.  It was, at the time, the greatest moment of my life.

Covered in sweat, drained, and tired, I simply pumped my fist.  We went inside.  Mom asked us, “Who won?”  I don’t think either of us answered with words.  We didn’t have to.

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Dear high school football player,

 

 

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Bears 1st Rounders

ImageJerry Angelo was fired today as the Bears General Manager. You can read all about it on other sources, like ESPN, or the Chicago Tribune, so I won’t go over the details.  I do however, think it was a good move.  I also am glad that they kept Lovie Smith.

His departure got me wondering about the most highly publicized choice that a general manager makes every year – the number one draft pick.  Here are Jerry Angelo’s top draft choices each year:

2002 – Mark Colombo.  A complete bust with the Bears.  After three injury-plagued years he played one game in 2005 before being released.  Since then he has had a respectable career with the Cowboys and now the Dolphins.

2003 – Rex Grossman.  Sexy Rexy defined inconsistency during his Bears tenure.  It seemed like every game was a toss-up whether you’d get “Good Rex” or “Bad Rex.”  In his only full season as a starter, the Bears went to the Super Bowl, but he had more turnovers than touchdowns.

2004 – Tommie Harris.  After three seasons, Harris looked like he could be the dominant defensive lineman in the game.  After Pro Bowl seasons in 2006 and 2007, he kind of disappeared.  In 2011 he bounced from the Colts to the Chargers.

2005 – Cedric Benson.  Angelo decided to keep Benson over Thomas Jones after the Superbowl season of 2006.  He responded with 674 yards rushing in 11 games.  He’s had a decent career with the Bengals.

2006 – No pick

2007 – Greg Olsen.  It seemed like every preseason people said that Greg Olsen was going to have a break out year.  His best year was 2009 with 612 yards receiving and 8 touchdowns. Now he’s a Panther.

2008 – Chris Williams.  Williams is an offensive lineman who had back problems coming out of college and has had back issues as a pro.  He was moved from tackle to guard, and in 2011 he injured his wrist and went on IR.

2009, 2010 – no pick, trade for Jay Cutler

2011 – Gabe Carimi. The lineman from Wisconsin could barely stay on the field this year and ended the season on IR.

Not exactly a great track record.  Exactly 0 of these players finished on the Bears depth chart in 2011.  Three O-lineman with injury problems, an inconsistent QB, a flash in the pan D-lineman, a head case running back and an above average pass-catching tight end that can’t block.  It’s not exactly the stuff championships are made of.

In the same time period the Green Bay Packers first round draft choices have included some busts (i.e. Justin Harrell and Ahmad Carroll).  They have also included a couple of Pro-Bowlers in Javon Walker and Nick Barnett, two solid linebackers in AJ Hawk and Clay Matthews, two good (though currently injured) O-linemen in Bryan Buluga (NFL All-Rookie Team last year) and Derrick Sherrod (actually a little too early to tell if he’s good or not).  And then there was that Aaron Rogers guy.

The Steelers’ drafting in that span included Troy Polamalu (’03), Ben Roethlisberger (’04), Heath Miller (’05), Santonio Holmes (’06), Lawrence Timmons (’07), Rashard Mendenhall (’08), and Maurkice Pouncey (’10).  All of those guys contributed significantly to one or two Superbowl championships.

There was a time of course, when the Bears did draft well.  Check out the Bears’ first round drafts from 1979-1985.  This is what championships are made of:

1979 – Dan Hampton and Al Harris.

1980 – Otis Wilson

1981 – Keith Van Horne

1982 – Jim McMahon

1983 – Willie Gault and Jim Covert

1984 – Wilber Marshall

1985 – William Perry

Hampton is the only Hall of Famer, but Al Harris was the only player that was not a major contributor to the Bears’ last Superbowl championship.

It seems clear that, while there are certainly other factors, the success of a team is hinged largely on the ability to nail that first round pick.  The Packers and Steelers have been doing it a lot lately, and they are two dominant teams in the NFL.  The Bears used to do it on a regular basis and built a perennial power.  Angelo was unable to do it, and today he was fired.

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The Team Photo

A childhood friend of mine, and self-professed “geek” and football fan created this picture.  She has a funny blog called Geekaroni, which is now the featured site (I’m hoping to make the butter beer cookies soon).  This has got to be the greatest collection of playmakers since the ’00 Rams.  To read about the full team, go to my blog called Fantasy Draft.

Back row (L-R) LG Donkey Kong, WR The Flash, RG E. Honda, LT Grape Ape, TE Goro. Front Row: WR Wile E. Coyote, FB Kool-Aid Man, WR Sonic, QB Superman, C Violet Parr, RB Walter Payton. Seated: Coach Professor Xavier. Not pictured: RT The Iron Giant, Bench: He-Man and Uncle Rico.

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Fantasy Draft

This is the time of year when people across the country are planning their fantasy football draft.  Fantasy Football is the place where geekiness and sports intersect, but I’m cranking up the geek factor with this fantasy draft.  I’m taking the term “Fantasy Draft” to a new level.  I borrowed this idea from a show on Fox Sports Radio.  I liked their idea for fullback, but didn’t hear the rest of the show.  Two rules for drafting this fantasy team:
1. All fictional characters
2. No one is allowed to bring weapons/tools/special outfits.
3. Flying is not allowed – even if it is a natural ability of the character.

Quarterback: The number one draft pick has to be Superman, right? You can see in this photo gallery how he can punt.  I can only assume he can throw pretty well too. (One of the radio guys suggested Uncle Rico, because he could throw a pigskin a quarter mile).

Okay, so maybe two rules are broken by picking Sweetness, but can you think of a better super hero?

Running Back: Walter Payton.

Backup Running Back: He-Man

Fullback: Kool-Aid Man.  Have you seen the way this guy opens holes?  He would be great in the power running game and on goal line.  Probably wouldn’t be very good at catching passes.

Wide Receivers: The Flash and Sonic the Hedgehog on the outside.  Wile E. Coyote in the slot.  The Flash definitely has the speed on the outside to open the field.  Not really sure if he has the hands, but he’s worth the risk.  Sonic might be a little under-sized, but he can carry a bunch of rings at a time, so he can probably catch.  The Coyote has speed – not road runner speed, but he’s still fast.  Plus, he clearly has a better chance of catching a football than a road runner.  Plus, he can clearly take a pounding, so he’ll have no fear going across the middle.  And finally, football fields have no cliffs, so I’m expecting 80 catches from this guy.

Tight End: Goro, the main bad guy from Mortal Kombat.  He has a great physique, and is athletic enough to be a martial arts expert.  And even though he only has three fingers on each hand, he has four hands, giving him two more fingers than the average tight end.

Offensive Line: Grape Ape at left tackle.  We’ll give Grape Ape a simian buddy and put Donkey Kong at left guard.  Violet Parr at center (she would be great at pass blocking).  I’ll put the 6-2, 304 pound, and extremely athletic E Honda from Streetfighter II at right guard.  The Iron Giant at right tackle.

Off. Coordinator: Professor Xavier. He would always be one step ahead of the defense.

Defensive Tackles: The Hulk and The Thing.  It is possible that Hulk could get out of control.  If he started to get too many penalties, he could be pulled for Optimus Prime.

Defensive Ends: Wolverine and Steve Austin (this one, not this one).  Wolverine would have to be careful.  Impaling left tackles would be considered a fifteen yard penalty.

Linebackers: Panthro on the strong side.  Tygra on the weak side and Lion-O in the middle.  That’s right – a Thundercats linebacker corps.  They’ve got (dare I say) cat-like quickness, strength, agility, and toughness.  Not having the Sword of Omens limits Lion-O, but he’ll be all right.  Cheetarah can come in as a Nickelback on passing situations.   For years there have been rumors about a Thundercats movie.  I hope they are more than rumors.

Strong safety: Sideswipe  (the Transformer) has speed, strength and a little bit of cockiness.  If he transformed into the sports car, it might be a tell for the safety blitz, but I wouldn’t want to pick him up.

Free Safety: Mr Fantastic. Can you imagine how valuable he would be in pass defense. It would be almost impossible to get over the top of him.

Cornerbacks: Spiderman would be an interception machine and Silver Surfer.  The Surfer is sort second-class in terms of popularity, but apparantly he’s kind of a bad-ass.

Defensive Coordinator: Darth Vader.  There will be no holes in his defense – not even a small hole the size of a wamprat.

Kicker: Anton Lubchenko, before this happened to him.

So there you have it – the truly great Fantasy Football Team.  By the way, if these guys played the ’85 Bears, the score would be Bears 46, Fantasy Team 10.  Do you have any substitutions to suggest?

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Sports schadenfreude

Schadenfreude: Taking pleasure from the suffering of another.

Lisa Simpson taught me this word many years ago. She used it to describe how Homer was feeling when Ned Flanders’ Leftorium was going out of business. It is not a noble feeling.  It mostly stems from jealousy, which is never pretty.  In sports, schadenfreude is pretty common.  In recognition of the Heat’s recent loss, which has to be one of the top sports schadenfreude moments in history, I have compiled a list of other great moments.

10 and 9. Anytime Duke or the Dallas Cowboys lose.  No real reason, I just can’t stand Duke or the Dallas Cowboys
8. Maybe Free Throws should move up on your list.  In an interview on Pardon the Interruption, Coach John Calipari was asked about the importance of free throws.  He responded, in his ever glib manner, “If I made a list of 100 things I use to evaluate a player, free throws wouldn’t be on it.”  A few days later his star player Derrick Rose was at the free throw line with national championship on the line.  A couple of missed free throws later, Kansas beat Coach Cal’s Memphis Tigers and cut down the nets.  A few years later, the Final Four banner in Memphis was taken down.  In light of recent scandals, I’ve actually gained respect for Coach Cal.  At least he isn’t out there writing books about moral values and spirituality.  With him, you know what you get – a few temporary banners to hang in your gym.

7. The Patron Saint of the Sweater Vest resigns.  Under normal circumstances, I don’t take pleasure in someone losing their job.  As unemployment in this country remains over 9%, it seems particularly insensitive to laugh when someone new is added to the list.  But when the guy in question has written a book called The Winners’ Manual for the Game of Life, and he resigns in the midst of a growing cheating scandal that suggests systemic corruption, I can’t help but enjoy his downfall.  I’m not sure if there is a chapter in Jim Tressel’s book about maintaining a culture of lies and intentionally turning a blind eye as his spoiled athletes cheat the system.  I haven’t read it, and don’t plan to.  I think what’s worse are reports from Buckeye fans that are defending this guy.  They are blaming Terelle Pryor for “bringing down” their god.  Pryor certainly isn’t blameless, and he might have been the catalyst for getting him caught, but being mad at him for exposing Tressel is like getting mad at Toto for revealing the Wizard.  That whole good-guy image was just smoke and mirrors.

6. Timeout!  The Fab Five was one of the most polarizing teams in college basketball history.  Love them or hate them, they helped define an era of basketball.  Count me in the group of people that couldn’t stand ‘em.  Looking back now, I can see that much of the vitriol aimed at Michigan was about class and race, but I don’t think that was why I didn’t like them.  I just don’t like Michigan.  So when the Wolverines and North Carolina were playing for a national championship in 1993, I was pulling for the Tar Heels. North Carolina was up 73-71 with 19 seconds left in the game when Chris Weber snagged a rebound.  He awkwardly took the ball up the court, and then got caught in a trap along the sideline.  Fearful of giving up the ball, and unable to find an open man, Weber called a timeout.

Usually that would be considered a good move.  The only problem was that Michigan didn’t have any more timeouts.  With 11 second remaining, a technical foul was called against the Flub Five.  Two free throws plus the ball meant that Carolina won 77-71.

The Fab Five produced two Final Fours, but neither banner hangs in the Crisler Arena anymore.   In 2002, a widespread cash for play scandal was revealed.  There were indictments, forfeited games, and for all those that couldn’t stand the Fab Five, a lot of schadendreude.

5. The Rich Rodriguez Era. When I was in High School I was visiting my brother at the University of Illinois. One of his fraternity brothers taught me a filthy version of “Hail to the Victors.” I didn’t even understand what all the words meant, but I knew one thing: Michigan sucks. Unfortunately, this was more wishful thinking than actually describing the quality of Michigan’s football teams. They (along with Ohio State) have dominated the Big Ten. They’ve won 42 conference titles, and been to 20 Rose Bowls. Seriously, Michigan is the worst. Even their colors are pretentious – It’s Yellow!

After hiring Rich Rodriguez from West Virginia, there were lawsuits, players quitting, an NCAA investigation and mediocrity on the field.  I watched it all with glee.  In three seasons with Rich Rod at the helm, the Wolverines went 15-22 and won only six Big Ten games.  He was fired last year after a 7-6 season and a loss in the Gator Bowl.

5a. The Charlie Weis Era.  For pretty much all the same reasons.  Some think that College Football is better when Notre Dame and Michigan are good.  I’m not one of them.  I hate it when they play each other, I honestly cannot decide which team I want to lose more. The Brian Kelly era hasn’t exactly been stellar either – I still cannot believe he wasn’t punished more severely for his irresponsible actions surrounding the death of Declan Sullivan.

4. The Exception to the Rule: Corey Wooten’s first career sack. When I started thinking about this list I thought to myself, “No injuries.” I have never taken joy out of someone getting injured while playing sports. Then I remembered the exception. I’m not sure if anyone in sports history has ever done so much to lose respect and appreciation without doing anything illegal as Bret Favre. As a Packer, I hated the guy because he beat my Bears so much, but I always respected him. I respected his play, his joy, and his toughness. He seemed like the kind of guy that would be fun to play with and against. Then the retirement carousel began. It was all so narcissistic. Every August for three – or was it four – years, the Favre Watch would start. Would he retire? Would he call a press conference? Who would he play for? It all got so tiresome as he held one franchise after another hostage.

He ended his career with the Packers by throwing an interception in the NFC Championship. He should have ended his career with the Viking the same way. Instead, he came back for another year in 2011. This is how it ended, maybe.

3. One word: “Bartman.” The Cubs may be the lovable losers for everyone else in the country, but to  White Sox fans, only one of those terms applies. In 2003, the Cubs were five outs from going to their first World Series since 1945. They were up 3-0 over the Marlins in the top of the eighth inning of game 6 and held a 3-2 series advantage. Mark Pryor was rolling, and Cubs fans everywhere believed that the temperature in hell had reached the mid-40s. I was watching the game in my living room, sitting on my chair. A Lifelong Phillies and Sox fan, I was actually half-heartedly pulling for the Cubs.Chicago baseball had been so bad for so long, I was ready for a World Series in Chicago.

Then Luis Castillo hit what seemed like a meaningless foul ball. Leftfielder Moises Alou was under it, but against the wall. A Cubs fan, wearing a Cubs hat, ear phones, and a green turtleneck  under a black sweatshirt did what any other fan would have done in the same situation. He tried to catch a foul ball. In the process, he knocked it away from Alou. Instead of being the second out of the inning, Castillo walked. Before the inning was over, eight Marlins crossed the plate. The Cubs lost 8-3. After the inning, I laughed and told my wife, “That is so Cub-like.” In game 7, the Cubs had their ace Kerry Wood on the mound with a 5-3 lead after four innings. Bartman had nothing to do with them losing that game 9-6.

In the aftermath, the ball has been destroyed, Steve Bartman was forced into a semi-exilic state. Bartman will forever be remembered in Chicago. Some will remember him with pain and anguish. Others, like me, will remember him with a light chuckle and a dash of schadenfreude.

2. The Yankees lose.  Ttttthhhhhheeeeeeee Yankees. Lose!

Yankee-hating is a long-standing tradition in America, and for good reason. Steinbrenner, Jackson, Martin, Cashman, Jeter, A-Rod, and a legion of annoyingly arrogant New Yorkers created the original Evil Empire. The majority of the 80s can be added to this list as the Yankees floundered, much to the joy of most long-time baseball fans. In the mid-90s though, the golden era of Yankee-hating ended. In 2004, the Yankees had won 5 of the last 6 league pennants. The Yankees had beaten the Red Sox in seven games the year before. The Yankees owned the Red Sox. The Yankees were THE dominant force in baseball. After getting trounced 19-8 in game 3 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, it looked like another horrible end for the Red Sox. Thus began the greatest collapse in the history of baseball. There was a rare Rivera blown-save, a bloody sock, a bunch of “idiots” with long hair, and David Ortiz hitting what seemed like a dozen home runs, including a two-run walk-off bomb in the bottom of the 12th in game 4

Looking back, Schilling has become more and more annoying, Ortiz and Ramirez have both been implicated in the steroid-era, and the ultimate “idiot” Johnny Damon joined the Dark Side. The Red Sox have their own brand of annoyingly arrogant fans – a sort of Mini-Me to the Yankees Dr. Evil. But at the time, for Yankees haters everywhere, the 2004 ALCS was prime schadenfreude material.

1. LeBron James and the Heat lose to the Dallas Mavericks.

I used to like Lebron. When he was a rookie, I picked him a little early in a fantasy draft. Other managers ridiculed me, telling me he was “all hype.” I believed the hype, and his all-around excellence helped my team win the league championship. He has since developed into what appears to be an unstoppable force. When the Bulls were struggling through the Del Negro mediocrity, the Cavs were my second favorite team. Even after The Decision, I didn’t join in the venomous attacks on Lebron. I figured, he took less money to play with friends and go after a championship – that’s not all that bad. I was afraid a lot of the venom was more racially motivated than people admitted. But the guy just wore on me, and here’s a quick list of why: 1. The team just seemed to whine all season, and never understood why they weren’t liked. They painted a big target on themselves, and then wondered why people were taking shots. 2. “The Chosen One” is inked on his back (chosen for what?) 3. The pre-season self-predicted Seven-Peat (or was it eight?) 4. The early celebration in game two. It was just a pattern of self-promotion and premature celebration. So when they basically quit playing with about 60 seconds left in Game 6, I was in full schadenfreude-mode.

So there it is – my all time Top Ten Sports Schadenfreude moments.  I’m not proud of any of it.  Takeing joy from the suffering of others isn’t exactly “Love your neighbor” kind of stuff.  But this is sports, and part of what makes sports are fun is that it’s a fantasy world.  It’s a world where I cheer for the good guys and everyone else is bad.  It’s a world where I care deeply about the results of adults playing kid games.  It’s a world where I can forget about war and poverty and justice and just enjoy great athletes, great drama, and great joy and great suffering – especially if its the Yankees, Wolverines, Cowboys or Favre doing the suffering.

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What’s Guenther’s legacy?

So the news today in Illini Nation is that Ron Guenther has retired.  After 19 years of service as the  athletic director at the University of Illinois, he will step down on June 30.  As a huge Illini fan, I have mixed feelings.  I think Guenther has run a pretty good program.  They have had spots of success in many sports, and there has no been no major controversies surrounding their coaches. There was the Jamar Smith incident, but that seemed to be more of an isolated case than a part of a program-wide problem.

My first reaction to Guenther is that he ran a clean department that had excellence in non-revenue sports.  Under his watch the Illini became the only school outside of Florida, California and Texas to win an Men’s Tennis national championship.  I think that is pretty cool.  There also seemed to be a steady flow of national champions in track and field, wrestling and gymnastics.  The volleyball and soccer programs seem strong as well.  Most ignore these achievements, but I think it is a source of pride that Illini athletics seems to be pretty well-rounded.

Under his tenure Memorial Stadium underwent major renovations.  The entire football experience has been improved (although the ILL-INI chant is not as cool with the new alignment of the students).   Before the economy went belly-up, there were plans to renovate the Assembly Hall, and the practice facilities – which play a major part in recruitment – have also been improved.

On the field three seasons stand out: the 2001 Sugar Bowl football team, the 2005 Final Four basketball team and the 2008 Rose Bowl football team.  All three provided great memories and lasting records, but ended up falling short of championships.  And in the end, I feel like that is going to be the most enduring feeling over Guenther’s tenure – coming up short.

The football and men’s basketball programs have been frustrating to follow over the last 19 years.  They show signs of improvement and glimmers of excellence, only to slip back into maddening mediocrity.  Bruce Weber and Ron Zook seem like decent guys, and I appreciate their character, but I think the University of Illinois deserves better than decent.  It should be possible to have both character and championships.  While the athletic department seems to have character, the Illini don’t have enough championships.  Is it too much to want both? 

Maybe in the current climate of college athletics it is too much to ask for.  I’m glad the Illini didn’t run out and hire Tom Caliparri or Kelvin Sampson.  But it would be nice to hire a college basketball coach that knows how to beat a zone defense.  It would be nice to have football coaches that help players get better over four years instead of recruiting high school all-stars that never reach their potential.

There are some Illini fans that are celebrating today.  I’m not one of them.  I believe that Ron Guenther is a decent guy and ran a decent program.  I just think the Illini deserve better.

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Why I love football

People have a lot of bad ideas about what it means to be a man in this world.  We have a lot of ill-conceived notions of manliness that are wrapped up in self-aggrandizing notions of honor and toughness.  Little of what our culture tells us about being a man has any worth at all.

Being a man is not about who you can beat up.  It is not about how many women you can score.  It is not about how much alcohol you can handle.  Being a man is not about how much money you make, or how many toys you can buy.  It is not about the car you drive, the TV you watch, or the phone you carry.

Being a man (or woman, for that matter) is about a lot of things, but to me it is mostly about this: “How do you respond to adversity?”

When things aren’t going well, how do you respond?  We all experience adversity.  My adversity might not be on the same scale as others, but we all experience tough times.  We all have lonely nights when the dawn seems so very distant.  We all have relationships that need to be mended, and work that has been left undone.

The story of the Bible is full of people facing adversity.  It starts with two people left with a tough choice – follow God’s will, or do what we want and eat that fruit?  It tells the story of a family facing doom at every turn and at every generation.  It tells of a people under persecution and slavery.  It tells of a kingdom under attack, and kings under pressure.  It tells us of God’s Son, arrested, mocked, betrayed and crucified.

At every turn, the Bible is a story of people facing adversity.  How is it handled?  How do people respond?  Some fail.  Some eat the fruit.  Some pass their wife off as their sister so as not to endanger themselves.  Some worship idols.  Some run off, but get chased down by fish.  Some  take the easy way out.

Others find victory.  Some wrestle with the angel, and come out with a limp, but come out nonetheless.  Some wander in the desert, but persist and reach the Promised Land.  Some stand up to the giant, with nothing but God on their side and a sling in their hand.  Some preach the truth even when it is not popular.

And one found the final victory.  One found the lost, set the captive free and gave sight to the blind.  One healed the sick and fed the hungry.  One regarded honor as foolishness, and pride as folly.  One had the love in his heart to lay down his life for us all.  One cast aside the power of God to take his place on a cross.  And one rose again.

Being a man is about a lot of things, but God has taught me that it is really about one thing: responding to adversity.

And that is why I love football.  It is a game.  It is a foolish, violent game.  Yet it is a test.  Every time I put on the helmet, I know I will face adversity.  Sometimes that adversity comes in the form of a 300 pound lineman staring me in the face, itching to cast me aside and crush my teammate.

Sometimes the adversity is exhaustion.  Sometimes it is heat.  Sometimes it is a sore ankle.  Sometimes it is a lopsided score.  Sometimes it is in-team disputes.  But it is always adversity.  It is always a physical, mental and emotional struggle.  And everytime I get to answer  the ultimate question: “How will I respond to adversity?”

I don’t win every contest.  I don’t make every block.  I don’t always like the answer I get to my question, but I keep trying.  I pick myself up, look adversity square in the eye, and ask myself again, “How am I going to respond?”

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Pastor Dawg: My prayer

The Twin City Dawgs walk by Chenoa United Methodist Church during the Chenoa Fourth of July parade

We’re halfway through the season, and I thought I’d take some time to reflect on my adventure as a semi-professional football player.  It has been frustrating, exhilirating, sobering, and rewarding.  So far I’ve played in three games (one was an exhibition).  In two of them I was the starting right tackle.  Our team record is 3-2.  We started 1-2.  We have five games left, and still have a shot at the playoffs if we keep winning.

I’ve been frustrated by my body and my schedule.  I’ve missed three games.  I missed one for a wedding I officiated.  I missed another on the weekend I was ordained (Yes, it’s officially Rev. Dawg now).  I missed a third because of an injury.  The whole season I’ve gone from one annoying ailment to another.  Right now  I feel relatively good, and I’m looking forward to five straight games without a bye starting on July 10.

I want to share a little about what goes on in my mind on a Saturday as a game approaches.

One of my favorite parts of the day is arriving at the field.  There are guys getting ready around the team bus.  I am greeted with hand shakes, fives, fist-bumps, and nods.  I am with my teammates, getting ready for a game, and I feel good.  There is a special relationship between teammates before a football game.  I think this feeling, above all else, is what I was wanting to find again when I started on this preposterous adventure.  I take my time as I prepare my pads – putting them in the right place, adjusting straps, and taping parts.  Eventually I walk down to our bench.

I walk out onto the field.  I feel the sun on my face.  I look at the field, the clean white stripes.  I look out at the sea of green corn fields.  I look up at the watertower.  I look over at our opponents getting ready in much the same way we are.  I find a place to sit, a little seperate from the rest of the team.  I pray, usually something like this:

“Thank you God for all that you have given me. Thank you for my wife and daughter.  Thank you for the incredible blessings in my life.  Thank you for my church and my home, and for the chance to serve you.  Thank you for the ability to play this game.  Thank you for my teammates, for the relationships that I have built.  Thank you for allowing me to pray and to play with them.

“I know God, that it is a violent game.  I know Jesus said that the meek that will inherit the earth, and that meekness is seldom valued on a football field.  Yet meekness is about putting the glory of others in front of my own.  That is, after all, the job of an offensive lineman, right? And so I feel in my heart that you have sent me to this field.  I believe you have called me to play for your glory.

“I ask that you bless this field.  Send your Holy Spirit to guide me, my teammates and my opponents.  Let us play this remarkable game with dignity and respect.  Keep us free from injury, and allow us to go home from this place with heads held high.

“Again, I thank you God for this chance.  There is no way I could be here without you.  Use me today, as you do everyday, for your will.  Let me be your instrument of grace so that someone may know the love of Jesus Christ, even on a football field.

“I thank you above all for your Son Jesus Christ.  I thank you, the source of life, life abundant, and life everlasting.  I pray these things in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.”

After I pray, we usually stretch as a team and do some warmups.  One of the first things I do is find my wife and daughter.  I almost always tear up  when I see them – its a wave of emotions I cannot really describe.

I try to take it all in as much as I can.  I savor every moment.  I enjoy the sweat dripping off my brow.  I enjoy taping my hands to get ready for battle. I enjoy looking into the eyes of my teammates knowing that we are in this together. I enjoy looking out at the crowd that is gathered, knowing they have come to watch us play our game.  I enjoy hearing guys whoop and holler.  I am usually quiet, yet inside my stomach is turning, my blood is pumping.  I am simmering, ready to boil over.

It is time for football.  It is the greatest game I have ever played, and I know that there are thousands of men wishing they could be doing what I am about to do.  I thank God again for the chance to be doing something I love.  I am ready.  Kick-off.

If you want to read about the earlier parts of my journey, you can read my previous posts called “Putting on the pads,” “Pastor Dawg,” and “Glory Days.” You follow the Twin City Dawgs by CLICKING HERE.

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Pastor Dawg: putting on the pads

Since January, I have embarked on an amazing and terrifying journey. I am 32 years old, last played football as a freshman in college, and am trying to make the Twin City Dawgs, a semi-professional football team that plays their home games in Chenoa.  To read more about his journey, you can read about my Glory Days, and about my first experience as Pastor Dawg.

I stand on the line. One man is next to me. He is my ally. There is another man behind us. He carries a ball, and wants to carry it for as long as possible. We are offense. Two men stand across from us. Another man stands behind them. Their job is to stop the man with the ball.

As I take my stance, there is little time to think. Little time to process what is about to happen. It is so incredibly simple. I am to launch myself at the man across from me. We are going to collide. Hard. There is about two seconds between when I put my hand down and when the whistle blows. I’m not even sure who stands across from me. He is big. I need to fire off, be quick. Explode. I haven’t done this in eleven years. I visualize quickly what I want to happen: We collide, I punch with both arms upward into his pads, using them as a lever. I am lower, and use that as an advantage to push him backwards. The man with the ball behind me goes by us untouched.

That’s not what happens. The whistle blows, I launch myself at him, but he steps a little to the side. I graze him as he skirts around me and tackles the man with the ball. Not exactly what I was hoping for.

It is someone else’s turn. I’m a little dismayed, but not defeated. It is my turn again, and quickly. I step into the line again. “Don’t make the same mistake,” I think. Fire off, but under control. Don’t lunge. He has to come to me too. The whistle blows. We collide. This time the collision is square. I stand him up. I try to drive him back, but he’s not going anywhere, so I try to wall him off to the outside. The man with the ball sees the direction I am turning my man, and he adjusts accordingly. He runs by untouched.

I win this one. I want to let out a whoop. I am too winded. It’s going to be my turn again in about 45 seconds.

My experience as a Twin City Dawg went to a new level yesterday. Tuesday was the first day with pads, but I had a stomach virus since Sunday night, and spent the previous 48 hours before practice in close proximity to a bathroom. Thursday night was my first practice withpads. It felt good. Really good. I got beat up, bruised, and scraped, but as I drove home I felt amazing. I filled in as a right tackle a lot, and got a lot of reps. My problem was I was a little too cautious. Cautious is a bad thing to be on a football field. Standing still is dangerous. Once when I wasn’t sure where to go I stood a little bit, and a running back ran into me pretty hard.

The other aspect of me playing football – the evangelical part – is also going well. It has opened doors to new relationships in places I would not have expected it. Like I said at the outset, I am not going around preaching to anyone. All I want to do while on the football team is build relationships. The guys know that I am a pastor. Most of them are starting to call me “Preacher.” In time, if someone asks me to pray – I’ll be happy to do so. If someone asks me about my church, I am happy to tell them. If someone asks me a question about faith, I’d be willing to listen. I hope all of my teammates would agree that I have not pushed myself as a “pastor” on anyone.

At a recent Christian youth retreat though, where the fact that I was a pastor was a given, the fact that I am playing football helped. I don’t want to get into the specifics of how it happened, but me playing football created common ground with some of the guys. We talked about football for awhile, which then lead to more serious questions. It lead to very helpful spiritual and practical discussion

When I started this, I had a few goals in mind, and all of them are looking good.
1. Don’t get hurt. So far, so good. I’ve been using our ice packs a lot more, but I’m still good.
2. Have some fun playing football. There is nothing better.
3. Get in better shape. I have lost some weight, and gained some strength.
4. Build relationships that may or may not lead to spiritual exchanges. Already started in surprising places.
5. Inspire others. Not sure, but I haven’t really told a lot of people yet either.

Twin City Dawgs Roster (Notice that I have the number of my favorite TE of all-time, prize for the one that guesses who it is)

Twin City Dawgs Schedule

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