When Gold Could Tarnish

By Michael LeCompte

Playoff hype is in full swing this week as Tom Brady, the NFL’s current “Golden Boy,” and the Patriots gear up for another postseason run. Outside of New England another Brady playoff march is utterly uninteresting, though, and leaves most fans wondering what if?

What if the NFL had been able to make Brady’s four game suspension stick? Would the Patriots still be primed for the playoffs?

Once upon a time, before multi-million dollar contracts, billion dollar television deals, lawyers, agents, and an all-powerful player’s union, the NFL could and did hold its players-even superstars accountable.

In the NFL of the 1960’s Paul Hornung was the “Golden Boy.” The Brady of his day Hornung, who played halfback and kicker in the pros, had the blonde hair, movie star looks and superior athletic skill. He remains the only player in NFL history to win the Heisman (1956 at Notre Dame), be the first pick in the draft, be named league MVP, win a Super Bowl (SB I with Green Bay), and be elected to the Hall of Fame.

In his prime Hornung seemed to have it all, yet like Brady today he wanted or for some reason needed more and found himself in trouble with the league concerning his actions and the sanctity of football.

In 1963 NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Hornung, along with Alex Karras of the Lions, indefinitely for betting on NFL games.

Hornung called his actions “a mistake” and after some hard lobbying on his behalf by his coach Vince Lombardi, was reinstated to the NFL after serving a one year suspension on the condition that he stay out of Las Vegas and no longer attend the Kentucky Derby every year.

Eventually Hornung’s legal issue was forgotten, overshadowed by one of the greatest careers in football history. Now 79, Hornung says of his betting on football, “I broke the rules and had to accept my punishment.” His legacy remains largely untarnished because he admitted his transgressions, paid the price then moved on.

That is the main difference between the “Golden Boy” of yesteryear and Brady. With the aid of lawyers, his union, and the courts he managed to move on without ever admitting anything. If Brady had simply stated what every fan already knows-that he cheated, and remorsefully served his suspension all would have been forgiven. However, Brady denied everything and his team hasn’t missed a beat.

The playoffs are here, where games become epics, instant classics in which mere men are transformed into gridiron gods right on our TV screens. It’s enough to make fans yearn for a simpler time when the game of football was played for fun and even gold could tarnish.

The Evolution of Russell Wilson

By Michael LeCompte

“I will keep evolving. I will not allow one play or one game to define my career.”

When Russell Wilson tweeted out the above statement after the tragic ending of the Super Bowl last February it sounded good. He’s the consummate pro, what else could he say, right?

Now he is showing us, though. The old adage that “actions speak louder than words” is often true and Wilson’s actions over the past four weeks have been nothing short of deafening.

For the season Wilson is completing 68.5% of his passes. Over Seattle’s current four game winning streak he has thrown 16 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. His passes are on time and on target, he is putting the ball on his receivers over the middle and applying the perfect touch on deep passes.

The knock on Wilson since he entered the league has been that he is too small, a scrambler, nothing more than a game manager at best. A Super Bowl ring has not silenced the critics, but the season he is putting together, how his play is maturing, should at least make them think before speaking or writing negatively now.

Wilson has always had the ability to scramble away from pressure and scamper for big plays, however, his evolution into an elite passing quarterback has coincided with a natural decrease in his rushing numbers. So far this season he has carried the ball 86 times for 450 yards and a touchdown (still very respectable numbers for a quarterback, but not what we have seen over the past few season).

Teams try to contain Wilson in the pocket and prevent him from running, but now he is exhibiting the ability to beat opponents with his arm. He is efficiently picking defenses apart, similar to the way Brady and Rodgers have for years.

Wilson’s evolution as a passer is even more evident when viewed in comparison to Colin Kaepernik, his main division rival over the last few years. Like Wilson, Kaepernik was a guy with a strong arm, but who was considered more of a running threat. Their rivalry was expected to replace Brady vs. Manning and dominate the NFL for the next decade, however, only one of the two has evolved as a quarterback.

While Kaepernik could still probably outrun any other quarterback in the league he never quite developed into the passer he should have. Haunted by poor mechanics, bad passes, and now injury, he seems to have played himself out of San Francisco.

After a poor start this season Seattle is probably not a Super Bowl caliber team, but they are now legitimate playoff contenders, thanks largely to the evolution of Russell Wilson. No longer just a scrambler or merely a game manager, he is an elite quarterback who has proven himself capable of taking over a game and carrying his team to victory.

“I will keep evolving.”

If Russell Wilson’s words continue to ring true the rest of the NFL should beware.

“Creed” A Knockout

By Michael LeCompte

Sports movies are a long-standing, comfortable genre. Moviegoers and sports fans alike never seem to tire of tales of individuals and teams triumphing against the odds. Hollywood is more than happy to oblige trotting out a yearly string of sports dramas to vie for our emotional and economic capital.

Creed, the latest installment of the Rocky saga (actually it’s more of a spinoff) is a legitimate cinematic contender. The best sports films are always more about life in general than athletics in particular (think the original Rocky), and this is where Creed excels.

Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of Apollo was a troubled youth who was ultimately taken in by Apollo’s widow. Son of the former Heavyweight Champion, growing up on the streets, to living in luxury and being an educated young man, Adonis is a compelling and conflicted character. He is alternately running from his past and trying to make a name for himself with his own fists.

Adonis tracks down an aged Rocky and convinces him to be his manager. By training the young fighter Rocky teaches him about life inside and outside the ring and in the process Adonis renews Rocky’s fighting spirit, enabling him to confront the new obstacles in his life.

Michael B. Jordan plays a very credible boxer as Adonis and the fight sequences are excellent. Story wise much of Creed borrows from the original Rocky, however, the film does stand on its own merits. Besides, we all love our formulaic, underdog sports movies, remember?

Creed is a cinematic knockout well worth seeing this Holiday season.

Lou Molinet

By Michael LeCompte

Every October the NFL celebrates Hispanic Heritage month. While spotlighting recent players and coaches, such as Tony Gonzalez and Ron Rivera the league did not have much history to hold up until recently, though. In 2000 a proud granddaughter donated the original player contract of Lou Molinet, the first Hispanic professional football player, to the Hall of Fame.

Ignacio “Lou” Molinet (1904-1976) was born in Cuba to Spanish parents. The Molinet’s eventually came to America and Lou attended Cornell University as a young man. Although he was a basketball and football star in college Lou dropped out of school and returned to Cuba after his sophomore year when his parents died unexpectedly.

Despite his brief collegiate athletic career Molinet nonetheless managed to impress a member of the Frankford Athletic Association of Philadelphia with his gridiron prowess and the club offered him a contract in 1927.

Molinet earned $50 per week for practicing and an additional $50 for every game he played. (Although a far cry from the current NFL minimum salary of $435,000, this was good money at the time-just two years prior to the Great Depression)

Football in the 1920’s was almost unrecognizable compared to the game we all love today. In that bygone era players routinely held multiple positions on the team. Molinet, at 5’11” and 195 pounds played fullback, halfback, and quarterback.

During the Frankford Yellow Jackets 1927 campaign Molinet rushed for 75 yards, passed for 35 more and scored a touchdown. (Very modest numbers by today’s standards, but they must be considered in the context of the game at that time)

After his one season of professional football Molinet enjoyed a career with the Kodak corporation. He lived a life, had a family, and was largely forgotten as an athlete, until his family brought his brief football career to the attention of the NFL.

Now, the game he loved can truly honor Lou Molinet, while celebrating those who have followed in his footsteps.

Tom Fears

By Michael LeCompte

This is part of an ongoing series in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15) celebrating some of the Hispanic and Hispanic-American athletes and coaches who have contributed to the games we love.

Thomas Jesse Fears was born in Guadalajara, Mexico on December 3rd, 1922. He moved to Los Angeles at the age of six and worked as an usher at football games as a child and soon fell in love with the game, resulting in a Hall of Fame playing and coaching career that spanned decades.

From 1948-1956 he starred at split-end for his hometown Los Angeles Rams. In 1949 the NFL was still a young league and Fears broke the record for most catches in a season with 77. That mark stood for just a year until Fears himself increased it by grabbing 84 passes in 1950.

By 1951 Fears was an established star in the NFL and after a protracted contract dispute during which he threatened to walk away from the game and run a liquor distributorship he signed for the then-unprecedented sum of $13,000. Over the next few seasons he played up to his contract. In the 1952 NFL Championship game he led the Rams to victory over the Browns by hauling in the game-winning 73 yard touchdown pass.

When his playing career ended Fears headed to the sidelines as a coach. He was an assistant under Vince Lombardi on the legendary Green Bay Packer teams of the ’60’s and was named Head Coach of the expansion New Orleans Saints in 1967.

As expansion franchises usually do, the Saints struggled early in their existence and Fears was fired after compiling a 13-34-2 record.

After serving as a technical advisor for the film North Dallas Forty Fears claimed he was blacklisted by the NFL and not given the coaching opportunities he deserved. His last coaching position was with Los Angeles’s franchise in the short-lived USFL.

In 1994 Fears was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He passed away in 2000 at the age of 78.

From the field to the sideline, to Hollywood and the Hall of Fame (Fears was enshrined in 1970), Tom Fears left his mark on the game of football.

“Panama” Al Brown

By Michael LeCompte

This is part of an ongoing series in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept 15-Oct 15) celebrating some of the Hispanic and Hispanic-American athletes and coaches who have contributed to the games we love.

Alfonso Teofilo Brown was born in Panama in 1902 and fell in love with the sport of boxing when he saw two American soldiers fighting. He turned pro in 1922 and adopted the nickname “Panama” Al Brown while on a fighting tour across the United States.

At just under six feet Brown was tall for a bantamweight and used his long reach to successfully jab away at his opponents while keeping them at bay. In 1926 he fought the first of his many bouts in Paris. 1920’s France was more welcoming to a fighter of color than America and Brown made his home there for years. While living in Paris he became an accomplished tap dancer.

On June 18, 1929 Brown defeated Gregorio Vidal in a 15 round decision to become boxing’s first Hispanic World Champion.
Throughout the 1930’s Brown successfully defended his title eleven times. When WWII broke out in Europe he moved to Harlem. His professional career long since over by the mid 1940’s he nonetheless remained in the ring, earning $1 a round as a sparring partner for up-and-coming fighters.

After contracting tuberculosis Brown died broke, physically and financially, at the age of forty-nine in 1951.

“Panama” Al Brown compiled a 123-18-10 career record in the ring, but his legacy reaches beyond the ropes and has spanned several generations to inspire other Hispanic boxers, such as Oscar De La Hoya and John Ruiz, the first Latino Heavyweight Champion.

Luis Castro

By Michael LeCompte

This is part of an ongoing series in honor of Hispanic Heritage month (September 15-October 15) celebrating some of the Hispanic and Hispanic-American athletes and coaches who have contributed to the games we love.

On opening day of the 2015 Major League Baseball season 29.3% of all players were Latino and baseball’s Hispanic heritage now stretches back generations.

In the late nineteenth century semi-professional and barnstorming teams often brought international talent to America, usually from Mexico or Cuba, for summer tours. Luis Castro, the first Latin-American born player to play Major League Baseball, though, has unfortunately been all but forgotten as his life has become shrouded in controversy.

Born in Medellin Colombia in 1876 Castro attended Manhattan College in New York and played second base on the baseball team. In his first and only big-league season he appeared in 42 games for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1902. He hit a modest .245 with 1 home run and 15 RBI’s before disappearing into history.
Theories concerning Castro’s background have swirled over the years, including speculation that he was an anonymous Latin-American dictator’s son granted asylum in the United States because of his baseball prowess. For a time it was also thought that he was actually the son of an American diplomat stationed in Colombia, thus making him an American, rather than a Latin-American.

Recent research by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and supported by passenger logs and census records shows that Castro was indeed born in Colombia and came to New York with his father at the age of 8 in 1885.

Not much is known about Castro’s post-baseball life. His name frequently appears on New York City welfare records until his death in 1941 at the age of 64. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Queens.

Luis Castro, the first Latin-American born player in Major League Baseball. A man whose 42 game stint in the bigs ultimately helped turn America’s pastime into the global game that it is today by opening the door for the thousands of Latin-Americans who have made it onto baseball diamonds across the United States.

Lee Trevino

By Michael LeCompte

This is part of an ongoing series in honor of Hispanic Heritage month (September 15-October 15) celebrating some of the Hispanic and Hispanic-American athletes and coaches who have contributed to the games we love.

From an impoverished childhood in Texas Lee Trevino reached the peak of professional golf. Born in Dallas in 1939 and raised by his mother and grandfather Trevino began working in the cotton fields at 5 years old and dropped out of school at 14 to work full-time to support his family.

When he realized he could make $30 a week as a caddy Trevino left the farm fields for the greens. After an Uncle gave him a set of beat-up clubs he began hitting three hundred balls every day after work for practice.

In 1956 at the age of 17 Trevino joined the Marines and served as a machine-gunner for four years. Upon his discharge in 1960 he became a club pro in El Paso, supplementing his income by betting on himself in unsanctioned head-to-head golf matches against other club members.

Trevino turned pro in 1967 and amassed 29 PGA tournament wins, including 6 majors, throughout his career.

At the 1975 Western Open in Chicago he was struck by lightning, resulting in chronic back problems that would plague him for the rest of his career.

Trevino never employed a swing coach at any time during his career, claiming he never met one he couldn’t beat on the links. He was a self-taught player with a style all his own. Although he had a wide-open stance and never drove the ball with power he was extremely accurate with his shots.

In a less politically correct time Trevino was affectionately dubbed “The Merry Mex” and “Supermex” by his fellow PGA golfers. He was always approachable to the fans and was often humorous on the links, livening up the rather staid sport of golf. During a playoff at the 1971 U.S. Open he tossed a rubber snake at Jack Nicklaus before going on to beat him by three strokes. Fans also probably remember Trevino covering a tattoo bearing the name of his first wife with a large Band-Aid during televised tournament play. (He has since had the tattoo removed)

From the cotton fields of Texas to the World Golf Hall of Fame, where he was enshrined in 1981 Lee Trevino set the course for minorities in what before him had predominantly been the “white gentlemen’s game.”

One Yard Away

By Michael LeCompte

As the NFL season gets under way Seattle’s loyal fan base is still dealing with the pain of being left one yard away from back-to-back championships. Perhaps forever will still be too soon for diehard fans to discuss the game’s tragic ending. Maybe it is a special pain that can only be assuaged through a third consecutive Super Bowl appearance, but the last play of the Super Bowl (the play itself, not the call) offers a valuable, if painful lesson the Seahawks should take to heart.

However many times we watch the replay Super Bowl XLIX never gets any closer than 26 seconds, 3 downs, 1 timeout, and 1 yard away.

All season long, in every inane sports interview we hear athletes speak of execution, of how the game’s just a matter of execution. Well, Seattle’s last-second Super Bowl woes can be chalked up to a lack of execution, both offensively and defensively.

Defensively Seattle failed to execute in the fourth quarter, directly leading to the offense’s need to execute a play from the New England one yard line.

The vaunted “Legion of Boom” surrendered 14 points in the fourth quarter, a feat few outside the Patriot’s locker room would’ve thought possible. Tom Brady cut Seattle to pieces all game long and despite forcing two turnovers the Seahawks couldn’t come up with a stop when they really needed it.

Seattle also failed to execute offensively in the second half of the Super Bowl missing several opportunities to pad the 10 point lead they took into the fourth quarter.

Which brings us to that final, fateful pass. The decision to pass was actually a sound one (New England had its goal line defense in to stop the run so why not throw it?). The problem with that last pass was one of…execution. The failure to correctly execute that slant route is why Super Bowl XLIX will eternally be one yard away from Seattle.

Shocked fans have spent all off-season numbly viewing the disastrous replay innumerable times, unable to look away, constantly wondering: what if? I have viewed it 60 times myself (focusing on one of the three key players: Wilson, Lockette, and Butler each time) and fault can be found with all three.

Some of the fault is Ricardo Lockette’s. He should have ran a crisper route and fought for the ball harder at the point of contact with Butler.

Some of the fault rests on Malcolm Butler. He made an amazing play on the biggest of stages, coming from 5 yards deep in the end zone when the ball leaves Wilson’s hand to make the play at the goal line. Butler’s interception was the kind of play we are so used to seeing Seattle’s secondary make.

We all love Russell Wilson, however, the majority of the blame for the interception lies on his right arm.

Wilson’s problems on the last play are evident as soon as he takes the snap. When Lockette first breaks to the inside he’s open. If Wilson hits him immediately he walks into the end zone. Wilson took a two-step drop before throwing, though, and by then Lockette was less open.

However, the play still could have been a touchdown if Wilson hits his receiver in the chest, sticking the ball between the 8 and 3. Instead he led Lockette way too far…straight into Super Bowl infamy.

If Wilson had just caught the snap and fired with no drop-back (like he did on his touchdown to Mathews right before the end of the first half) Seattle would be opening up a title defense.

Wilson’s fault for the interception goes beyond his pass and back to the play call itself, though, however sound it may be in hindsight. Wilson’s a competitive guy. He desires to be the best and win multiple championships. Which is exactly why, in that situation, with the Super Bowl on the line, he’s got to be better.

At the one yard line he’s got to revert back to the playground and say “I’m the best and we’re winning the Super Bowl.” Then he’s got to either call his own number in the huddle or audible to “Beast Mode” at the line. Defying his coach’s call wouldn’t have mattered if blue and green confetti were falling.

By all accounts Wilson is a good man and a great teammate. He believes he can win and usually does. However, he lacks that hard, fiery edge where he not only wants to win, but refuses to lose. With that edge of iron will he keeps the ball and bulls into the end zone or wins a foot race to the pylon.

Wilson’s been so good and accomplished so much that it’s easy to forget that he’s only 26. He threw a bad pass, it happens. At this stage of his career perhaps he’s not quite comfortable taking control and directly challenging his coaches. He’ll get there.

In July Wilson signed a new $87 million contract (although he’d probably trade all the zeroes on that new paycheck for one more play from the one in the Super Bowl). The key moving forward now is to stay hungry and every indication is that he will, tweeting after the Super Bowl that “at 26 years old I won’t allow 1 play or 1 moment to define my career,” and “I will keep evolving.”

As the pain lingers a new season begins. Forget “I’m In” or “Always Compete,” Seattle’s new mantra should be “ONE YARD AWAY.” They should slap it on posters and signs, little rubber bracelets and T-shirts. They should say it throughout the season. ONE YARD AWAY should always be before their eyes and on their minds.

The painful, but valuable lesson of Super Bowl XLIX should motivate Seattle to not only get back to the promised land of the big game, but to leave no doubt next time. To never be left ONE YARD AWAY again.

Bo Knows RG3

By Michael LeCompte

Last week the Washington Redskins announced that Kirk Cousins would be the quarterback for the 2015 season rather than Robert Griffin III. RG3’s first three years in the NFL have been marred by injuries and the latest setback-a pre-season concussion, followed by his demotion to backup-could signal the end of his time in Washington.

Perhaps RG3 can hang on with the Redskins or maybe he resurrects his once-promising career elsewhere, either way, though, his career (thus far) bears a remarkably tragic resemblance to another former superstar.

Before Michael Jordan began annually winning Championships in the early ’90’s in Chicago, becoming the ultimate pitchman along the way, one Bo Jackson was the most marketable athlete around. The “Bo Knows” advertising campaign was brilliant and as a running back for the Raiders he briefly dominated the league from 1987-1990, before injuries cut his career short.

Like RG3, Bo (real name Vincent) had the nickname and personality that led to many endorsement deals. Both men were explosive playmakers on the football field. Bo could run through guys, while RG3 can run around and past defenders.

Unfortunately, though, neither Bo nor RG3 could stay healthy. A degenerative hip injury ended Bo’s NFL career after only four seasons and now RG3’s career has been de-railed after three seasons.

Even the physique’s of Bo and RG3 are similar. Bo stood 6-1 and weighed 227 pounds, while RG3 stands 6-2 and 220 pounds.

The career statistics for these two game-changing players are also hauntingly similar.

Bo Jackson’s NFL career consisted of 38 games (so far RG3 has played 37)
Bo carried 515 times for 2,782 yards and 16 TD’s. (so far RG3 has completed 679 passes for 40 TD’s and 23 INT’s)

RG3’s career may not be over just yet, but because of the unrealized potential, the opportunities lost to injury, it has taken on a tragic trajectory, one that we’ve all seen before, and unfortunately it’s one that “Bo Knows” all too well.