In his last interview—and that is a stretch, really, because the “interview” was 23 courageous and arduous words long, and it lasted well over an hour—Bart Starr tried to accomplish his goal just as hard as he tried to burrow in for the biggest touchdown in the history of the Green Bay Packers in the Ice Bowl. Two strokes, a heart attack and a brain-scrambling disease called aphasia can make uttering 23 words like climbing Kilimanjaro. I know. I witnessed it, late last August in Starr’s office south of Birmingham, Ala.
The effort that day said so much about Starr the man. I had come to Birmingham to convey the level of the relationship between Rodgers, 34, and Starr, 84. Though they were a half-century apart in age, they had a bond. When Rodgers took over the Packer QB job in 2008, Starr wrote Rodgers a letter, and Starr kept writing him. Encouraging things. “It meant so much, coming from a man who had been in my shoes with this team,” Rodgers told me a few days later. “I was a big football fan, and big Packer fan. Here was Bart Starr, writing to me. It always meant a lot to me, because I knew I had the support of one of the greatest players of all time.”
Bart Starr died Sunday morning at 85. He was a great player, a Hall of Fame player, quarterbacking the Packers to the NFL championship in 1961, 1962 and 1965, and the larger Super Bowl championship in the 1966 and 1967 seasons. Pretty good for the 200th pick in the NFL draft in 1956, exactly 44 years before Tom Brady was the 199th pick in the draft.
You know what I really wanted to ask Starr that afternoon in Birmingham? You completed 14 of 24 throws in minus-46 wind chill in the Ice Bowl, against that great Dallas defense, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and a rating over 110. How? How’d you do it? But it wasn’t the place or the time; the memory bank just wasn’t there. But I did want him to know how good he was if no one reminded him about it much anymore—his 104.8 career rating in NFL playoff games has never been surpassed in the last half century by the greatest of the quarterback greats. But he didn’t care.
What he cared about that day was doing something nice for his friend. These 23 words were his Bob Lilly, his big foe.
I, and an NBC crew, had come to Birmingham, and would proceed to Green Bay a few days later to speak to Rodgers, for an NBC story on the warm relationship between the great Green Bay quarterback of the sixties and the great Green Bay quarterback of modern day. Starr and his personal assistant, Leigh Ann Nelson, had written a short note for this story. Starr would tell of his relationship with Rodgers. Nelson knew the message had to be short, because Starr simply didn’t have the ability to say much, at any volume, because of the strokes.
When Starr walked in, steadied by Nelson, he sat down on a couch and I told him how much I appreciated him making this effort.
He stared at me, opened his mouth. “Glad,” he said, and then it took a few seconds, “for Aaron.”
This was for Aaron. Anything for Aaron. Bart and Cherry Starr, his wife of 64 years, loved Aaron Rodgers.
Then Nelson and Starr began to practice the lines he would say. This is what she and he agreed that he would try to say:
You are a strong leader
Cherry and I are admiring you
Because you are one of the finest men we have ever met.
Say that right now. How long does it take? I just said it. It took eight seconds.
Starr, after 15 or so tries, just couldn’t do it.
At the 45-minute mark of our session with Starr and Nelson, she said: “Let’s take a break.” The room got silent. Five, 10 minutes. No one said a word. Starr looked at Nelson. She rubbed his wrists. Then we took a walk around the office. She was so kind. He just wanted to get this right, and he didn’t know how. As Nelson took one hand and I took the other and we walked, I said to him (I still don’t know why; I guess just to be nice), “You know what I always admired about you? Your autograph. Your autograph was perfect. Today you can’t read anyone’s autograph. Why’d you always do your autograph so perfect?”
For the first time on this day, his eyes bore a hole through mine.
“Why … would you want to do it … any other way? … That’s … the only way I know.”
We want back to his desk. He sat down. An hour now. We wanted 23 words, and maybe it was just too cruel, just too much to ask.
I felt like aphasia was the enemy, and Bart Starr would not let it win.
“You are a strong leader,” Starr said into the camera. And a few minutes later:
“Cherry and I are admiring you …”
The patient Nelson practiced, and practiced more. I swear I was thinking: What was harder to conquer—the Dallas defense in 1967, or these 23 words?
“One more line, Bart,’’ Leigh Ann Nelson said. “You can do this. I know you can do this.”
“Because you are one of the finest men we have ever … MET.”
He did it. He won.
The TV equipment got broken down, and there was 30 minutes of busy-ness in the room, and I had to tell Bart Starr what a great thing I thought he’d just done. It was awesome. I put my hand on his shoulder, at his desk, and said thanks.
“Good,’’ he whispered with a huge smile, “… for Aaron. Good for Aaron.”
Today, we appreciate and remember one of the great quarterbacks of a bygone era, a five-time world champion, a man who must not be forgotten when the roll is called for the all-time great quarterbacks, a man who executed what the great and dictatorial Lombardi needed to have executed for most of a decade. I say we should remember just as well the grace and determination and humanity of Bart Starr.
On this Memorial Day, best wishes and hearty thanks to those who have served and sacrificed. And thanks to a member of the Idaho Army National Guard, recently deployed to Afghanistan as a Blackhawk helicopter crew chief, ferrying the wounded out of harm’s way. Remember Daryn Colledge, the nine-year NFL guard? Started for the Packers at left guard in their Super Bowl 45 win over Pittsburgh? Colledge, an Alaskan who played college football at Boise State, told the U.S. Army’s website he enlisted “to help and support the city and state that supported me through my days in college … I would have not been able to pay for college on my own and the chance to give back and serve that same community means the world to me.”
We salute you, Army Spc. Colledge.
In Oakland on draft weekend, I conversed with Jon Gruden about his players, his team, his job, his passion, and this meandering Oakland Raiders season, which includes (reportedly) a preseason game in Manitoba, a regular-season game in Europe, and 48 straight days without a game in Oakland.
There was a lot to talk about.
We started with his new favorite running back, Alabama rookie Josh Jacobs, and veered into Antonio Brown territory, and went into how-much-did-he-really-love Kyler Murray territory. It was a rollicking 33 minutes. The highlights:
King: Amazing how little Josh Jacobs was used at Alabama. He ran it 20 times or more just once in his college career.
Gruden: I know! It’s incredible. He really got discovered late in the season when he got a chance to play. The way he played without the ball against Clemson is what really caught our eye. He can return kicks. We really wanted him. He’s exactly what I have been looking for. He’s got the ability to catch it. He can run it inside, outside. He’s not afraid to pick up the blitz. He loves to. There’s a lot of untapped football in there that no one’s seen yet. We felt he was one of the top players in the draft, honestly.
King: Ever get serious at all about moving up to get Kyler Murray at number one, or moving up to get anyone?
Gruden: We all loved Murray. That doesn’t mean we were gonna take him. How do you not love his performance, his playing style, what he accomplished? I had a blast with him [when the Raiders worked him out pre-draft in Dallas]. We didn’t think about going up to number one. We did look at [Nick] Bosa, [Quinnen] Williams, but not going to one. We did our homework on the quarterbacks. You gotta know who’s coming into the league at that position. There was a lot of speculation that we were gonna take a quarterback. I kept watching a guy on NFL Network saying we’re going up to get Murray. Then he says we’re going up to get Haskins. Then he says we’re going up to get Lock. We’re trading Carr. I don’t understand it.
King: How’s it been to be around Antonio Brown?
Gruden: I just love guys like that. He’s like … he just wants it. Reminds me of, you throw a dog the ball, he just goes and gets it. He keeps going, and going, and going, and going. He just won’t stop. Antonio’s energy is contagious. Getting him here was interesting. I remember my wife and I in a car in Las Vegas, early March. Mark Davis had me and Mike [Mayock] go there for a fund-raising event. Mike’s wife Mandy came and my wife Cindy came. And we’re driving around, and I get a call from [Pittsburgh VP and cap guy] Omar Khan. He’s like, ‘Hey what about a second-round pick for Antonio Brown?’ Free-agency’s about to start and I’m thinking, ‘Man, all these slot receivers are going for $10 million. Some of these players are going for $15 million. Why don’t we just give him the second? Get Antonio Brown!’ I call Mike and I said, ‘Why don’t we just give the Steelers the second and get this guy?’ Mike says, ‘That’s a little rich still. Let me talk to [Steelers GM] Kevin Colbert.’ Now he talks to Kevin Colbert and he says, ‘I think we can get him for a three and a five.’ I said, ‘Get the hell outta here!’
King: Amazing. That happened fast.
Gruden: Mike goes, ‘Now you gotta call Antonio Brown and see if he’ll play for us.’ So my wife and I were up in the Red Rock Mountains, just outside of Vegas. Just looking around, waiting for the event to start that night. There’s bad cell phone service. I’m like, ‘I can’t even get ahold of this guy!’ So we’re driving down to some sports bar parking lot, I’m calling Antonio Brown, and he says he’d love to play for us. Now Mike has to get on the phone with Colbert to work out the contract. We’re at this nice event, I got my wife … They got beautiful makeup on, beautiful dresses on. But me and Mike are over there at the event, working on a trade for Antonio Brown. ‘What’s the deal, man? We getting him?’ It was great though.
King: Pretty huge facelift for this team this offseason.
Gruden: Last year was tough. It was gut-wrenching honestly. It was a necessary year. People have their opinions but we added some draft picks. We feel like we added some free agents and got two more first-round picks next year. Hopefully we have a competitive, fun training camp and get a lot better before the season. Because we got a tough schedule, man. We got a hell of a schedule.
King: What’d you say when you saw the schedule that had you not playing in Oakland for 48 days?
Gruden: I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. One of the games is in London, and we fly from, wherever, after a game to get there.
Gruden: Right. Indy. I just hope we don’t get messed up missing our families. And we still gotta decide where we’re playing one of our home preseason games. We’re only allowed to have one home preseason game. Might go to Canada for a preseason game.
The Raiders reportedly will play the Packers in Winnipeg in week three of the preseason.
King: You guys are like mongrels, just looking for a home.
Gruden: We are. Like an old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll band. We don’t play anywhere!
Gruden: We just gotta put on some good shows. We gotta play well no matter where we play, no matter how many weeks we’re on the road. Doesn’t matter. Guys just have to be ready to go, anywhere.
King: Parcells always used to say, “I want guys who don’t care if the game’s in the Paramus Mall parking lot.”
Gruden: Exactly. I remember I was here the first time, I swore we had about 25 guys that if I called them up and told them, we’d play out there in that parking lot for nothing. I bet I could call Steve Wisniewski and Rich Gannon and they’d do it. I think this Clelin Ferrell would too. He’d play for nothing. I really think this [safety Johnathan] Abram guy, he’d play out there on the asphalt. Want to play a doubleheader? He’d play it. You gotta have guys that love football instead of loving some of the things that come with it now. Forty-eight days in a row on the road, I can hear the bitching. We’re the sports bitchers now. We don’t have a cafeteria here so the food gets brought in. You hear some guys, they first get here, ‘Are we ever gonna get new food? Are we gonna get a new weight room? Are we gonna get more supplements?’ You know? Doesn’t matter. It’s a great place, man. Great opportunity. Gets tiring though.
King: Still glad you came?
Gruden: Yeah. I am glad. I love it, man. I do. I really do. I have no regrets doing it. It’s a lot of work. I knew it was gonna be a lot of work coming in here. But starting to see progress. Starting to feel momentum. I can… I sit at a quarterback meeting with [Derek] Carr and [Mike] Glennon, and we had Landry Jones and Nate Peterman. You just feel a different vibe. Antonio Brown sticks his head in there and then Vontaze Burfict talking trash at us down the hall. Here comes Lamarcus Joyner walking up the hall and you see your second-year tackle, Kolton Miller. He’s 20 pounds heavier. And you look, is that Brandon Parker, our rookie right tackle? God, he looks better. Maurice Hurst looks like he’s growing up a little bit. You start to feel like there’s some roots that are starting to grow here. We’ve had so much turnover here. So many different coaches. So many different coordinators. So many different players. You just hope we can get some roots and start growing up a little bit.
King: Burfict and Antonio had quite a history. Burfict knocked Brown cold in a playoff game. They hated each other. How about now?
Gruden: They’re good. We played Family Feud one day in our team meeting. We had three guys on one team, three guys on the other. Our version of Family Feud. Silver team and a Black team. The Silver team was Antonio Brown, Vontaze Burfict and I think we had Isaiah Crowell on the team. [2018 teams: Brown, Pittsburgh … Burfict, Cincinnati … Crowell, New York Jets.] You gotta try to get these guys to know each other. This is the only time that you can really do that. April, May, June. It’s almost like church. Everybody stand up. Shake a hand, introduce yourself to your teammates. Otherwise, Peter never gets to know Jon and Jon never meets Joe …
King: What happened in Family Feud? How was it?
Gruden: It was a helluva game. One of the questions was, ‘Who were the 1,100-yard rushers in the NFL last year?’ They nailed that pretty good, but they had a hard time with [Chris] Carson of Seattle. Another question: ‘Who do the Raiders play on the other side of the Mississippi?’ Last one was top designer brands clothing or jewelry. These guys were guessing Nike, Wrangler. They don’t know s— about fashion. But they did great. Got some laughs. These days, you gotta think outside the box.
Kudos are in order for Dick Ebersol, the longtime NBC Sports executive who, along with Denver owner Pat Bowlen, invented the Sunday night football package that now has been the king of prime-time TV for eight years running. (“Sunday Night Football” has been the highest-rated TV show in the country every year since 2011.) It has to be emotional for Ebersol to be getting the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award—which recognizes exceptional contributions to radio and TV in pro football—in Canton on enshrinement weekend in August. Because he’ll be taking his spot in Canton while Bowlen is inducted to the Hall of Fame for his long and meritorious career as the owner of the Broncos and one of the most influential owners in the league. Ebersol called the honor “especially meaningful to be recognized in the same year that my friend Pat Bowlen earns his rightful place in Canton.”
Ebersol hired me in 2006 for the Football Night in America pregame show, so I’m hardly a dispassionate observer to this, but in my 29 years in the sports media business, I’ve never worked for a person who had his fingerprints all over every aspect of the team he put in place than Ebersol—from the researchers to the stories on the pregame show to the game telecast to lobbying for the best package of games with the league to making everyone (and I mean everyone) feel they’re valued and an important piece of the overall product.
Quick story, leaving out some of the details: The Sunday night football telecasts were the first to be able to be flexed, meaning teams could be moved on and off them depending on the relative attractiveness of the matchups. One year early on, a coach who was scheduled to have a 1 p.m. game on Sunday on the road heard rumors his game would be flexed into the Sunday night game, which meant his team would land back home around 4 a.m. Monday and would impair his team’s future preparation. This coach asked me if I could relay a message to Dick Ebersol. Sure, I said. He didn’t want his team flexed, and if it was, he might do something the network wouldn’t like. I told Ebersol. He chuckled. And he assured me that it didn’t matter what some coach thought, or what threat some coach made. The league had final say on what game would be played on Sunday night; Ebersol could put in his opinion, which he always did, but the league made the final call. And the best matchup would win.
One more note about the harmony of Ebersol and Bowlen going in together: Bowlen wanted NBC to get the package, I’ve always thought, because he knew Ebersol could deliver Al Michaels and John Madden in the booth in 2006, and Bob Costas and Cris Collinsworth in the studio. It took some wrangling on a lot of levels to make that foursome the key to the NBC talent pool, but Ebersol made it happen.
I think moving the best prime-time game of the week from Monday to Sunday probably will be what people remember about Ebersol and the NFL. But I have always thought the most important thing for TV fans was flex scheduling. In 2005, when the negotiations were taking place, the NFL had been plagued by a bevy of late-season Monday night games with at least one team with a poor record. Ebersol was insistent that NBC and the league have the ability to be able to change the game that looked like stinkers to more competitive or more attractive affairs. In fact, if the NFL hadn’t embraced the flex-schedule concept (and why wouldn’t it, because it would certainly mean better average ratings for the prime-time package), I don’t think NBC would have bid aggressively for Sunday nights.
Scores of examples, but I’ll use one from 2018. Niners lost Jimmy Garoppolo to injury in Week 3, sit at 1-4 after five weeks, and in Week 7 were slated to play the Rams on Sunday night. Great-looking prime-time game in April—Shanahan versus McVay, Goff versus Garoppolo. No more. The league flexed out of Rams-Niners (which turned into a 39-10 rout) and into Cincinnati-Kansas City; at the time of the flex, the Bengals were 4-1 and Chiefs 5-0. But this was more of a Patrick Mahomes flex, and Mahomes did not disappoint. Coming off a 43-40 loss to the Patriots, Mahomes threw for 358 yards and four touchdowns and torched the Bengals. The game was not competitive. But the league got to put its new megastar in prime time for the third time in four weeks. Though the ratings were meh, they’d have been significantly worse if the league had to use the Niners here. The flex was basically Crap Game Insurance through the guts of the NFL season. The other networks didn’t like it much, because it meant they could lose a great game to NBC on Sunday night. But it was Crap Game Insurance, and it has served the league well since 2006.
Some football people, some not. The graduation speeches, and snippets from them, that caught my eyes and ears this month:
“I once had a teacher who told me my dream of one day playing in the NFL was unrealistic. Well, hello. The path to your dreams often never goes the way you imagine it will. When I dreamed about coming to Wisconsin I dreamed about getting a scholarship coming out of high school. I dreamed about starting early on in my career and going and winning Rose Bowls. And that’s my message to you. Even at this point in your life, you may not have imagined how your college career would go. But here you are, accomplishing one of your dreams. It will be difficult, it will not look the way you want it to look, but in the end, if you stay focused, if you stay true, if you have the passion for your dream, you will get there.”
New York, N.Y.
May 20, 2019
“Own all your memories and experiences, even if they were traumatic. The world is broken because we’re broken. There are too many of us who want to forget … I can remember what it’s like being a child who was hungry. I can remember what it means to be in trauma. I can remember poverty. I can remember what it means to be a child who dreams and sees no physical manifestation of it. I can remember it because I lived it. I was there. That has been my biggest gift. You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself …
“You can either leave something for people, or you can leave something in people.”
May 19, 2019
“You want a lesson in impressive workplace leadership? When our great backup quarterback, Nick Foles, went into the huddle with two minutes left in the game to start a drive that we needed to win the Super Bowl, you know what he said? Not, ‘Let’s go do this.’ But simply, ‘I love you guys.’ I love you. Maybe it sounds hokey, but what could be more freeing of the best you have inside you than knowing you’re loved regardless of what happens?
“ … In the big data, A.I. world you’re graduating into I can’t emphasize enough how the qualities that make us uniquely human are more essential than ever. That means emotional intelligence, empathy and appreciation for the people not only in your own family, but those you choose to be with in every facet of your life and work.
“We use data analytics as much as any professional sports team—and I’d be the first to tell you that crunching the numbers can tell us a lot about performance. But in the end, you have to make a judgment about human character that no algorithm can really capture. When we decided to hire Doug Pedersen as our new coach, we got plenty of criticism for what seemed like a completely unconventional choice based on his career experience at that point. But what I saw in Doug was someone not just with expertise about football strategy and tactics, but a unique level of empathy for players as individuals, and real insight about how people work together as a team. That kind of leadership and the success it generates isn’t about sports. It’s about trust. When it comes to solving problems, study after study shows that the most effective organizations aren’t built on individual genius, but on diverse groups who trust and respect one another … So what’s it take to be one of those trusting problem-solvers who can truly hear one another? I’ve found that to embrace what makes us fully alive to ourselves and those around us calls on you to keep the child in you as you grow, with an enduring sense of wonder and curiosity. Buddhism calls it ‘beginner’s mind.’ There’s nothing childish about keeping that child-like perspective regardless of how old you are.”
May 23, 2019
“Our country is not in a good place. We are divided. We’re angry. You can help change that. You can make a difference by bringing back civility, decency, compassion, empathy, class, honesty, respect for others and truth. You have to want it. If I could give you one piece of advice that has served me well, it is to find out what it is that you want to do and spend the rest of your life getting better at it. Take pride in what you do. Become the person you dream of being, the one who, with a little luck, can make a difference in the world.”
Former executive with New England, Kansas City and Atlanta
Central Connecticut State University
May 18, 2019
“When I was 7 years old, my third-grade teacher, Elisa Cooper, was the first black school teacher in our district in Washingtonville, N.Y. People were rough on her—people were mean-spirited and they were racist, mostly the adults. However, Miss Cooper’s grace in the face of overt racism and racism behind her back was extraordinary. At 7, I watched a woman treat me and my classmates with nothing but love and grace. Not all the adults were racist and hateful, but as Martin Luther King said: ‘The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.’ I saw Miss Cooper—who is now Mrs. Jackson—last fall for lunch one afternoon in Washington. She still owns a standard of love and grace that I strive for.
“Another side piece of advice: Stay in touch with or seek out those educators who loved you and taught you. They deserve to know that they made a difference. She taught me something about grace and forgiveness when I didn’t even know what the words meant. She modeled it daily to the children she taught. Bryan Stephenson spoke these words in his book ‘Just Mercy’ in 2014: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I think if somebody tells a lie, they’re not just a liar. I think if somebody takes something that doesn’t belong to them, they’re not just a thief.” Elisa Cooper knew that in 1973 and she taught it to a young boy that has tried to see the world like her. She understood that good people could do bad things and mean things. She knew that people were broken …
“Be a servant. Be resilient. Be loving and graceful.”
Supreme Court Justice
New York, N.Y.
May 17, 2019
“Education has a more important value than money. It is deeply important to our growth as people and as a community. I am often asked if I ever imagined as a child being on the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States. ‘No,’ I say, ‘When I was a child, my family was poor. No lawyer or judges lived in my neighborhood. I knew nothing about the Supreme Court.’ You cannot dream of becoming something you do not know about. You have to learn to dream big. Education exposes you to what the world has to offer, to the possibilities open to you.”
May 25, 2019
Krasinski told of taking a chance and auditioning for a Providence sketch comedy troupe, Out of Bounds, after graduating from Brown in 2001.
“When I graduated, I was terrified because all these people came up to me and said, ‘The future belongs to you.’ Whoa! What? I am currently searching for an apartment and trying to keep the number of roommates in the single digits. Literally nothing belongs to me. I went in for the audition, and my entire life changed. Nope, not because I got in, not because I started acting. It was through that group that I found my way into this community. It was through that group that I met my people. And all of a sudden, I was surrounded by the most inspiring peers. I mean, every single one of them seemed way smarter than me, way cooler than me, way more interesting.
“Find more of your people. Lean all the way in. Take chances. Fail big and take chances again. Listen to music. Remember to believe in something. Fall in love as many times as it takes. And remember, before you do something special, just do something.”
The Science Guy
May 24, 2019
“When it comes to changing the world, don’t be scared. Don’t freak out. When you have to perform doing anything, you might be nervous. That fear can stop you cold. Don’t let it. As we say in the theater and on television, ‘Take that fear and turn it into excitement.’ You’re Goucher graduates, for crying out loud! You can do it. Take a chance! It’s what everyone here wants you to do. In every challenge you face, turn your fear into excitement and change the world.
“Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don’t. Everyone! Farmers know things about plants that most of us, even botanists, never will. Bricklayers have an intimate knowledge of what it takes to lay bricks. Respect that knowledge and learn from others. It will bring out the best in them and it will bring out the best in you.
“Just get started. Just get started.”
“And vote. You have to vote. Voting is how we influence policy makers. It’s how we make big changes. It’s how we get things done. If you don’t want to vote, would you please just shut up … so the rest of us can get on with changing things for the better.”
“This whole 100 years of pro football thing got me to thinking. There is nobody more knowledgeable about the 100 years of pro football than Joe Horrigan. It is not even close. I don’t know how you replace that brain. You can’t replace that brain. I don’t know what we’ll do without Joe Horrigan. You have young people, smart people, people who know how to look things up on computers, but there’s a difference between reading about something and knowing the people and knowing the eras. Joe is the one who knows football, and the people, more than anyone we have today. I just hope we can find a way to pass that on.”
—John Madden, on the retirement of Pro Football Hall of Fame executive director/archivist/historian Joe Horrigan, who had his retirement dinner Thursday night in Canton. Fittingly, on “Joe Horrigan Day” in the city of Canton.
“There would be language that would say that play is just not subject to a challenge.”
—Competition Committee chair Rich McKay, on the league exempting the Hail Mary from pass plays that coaches can challenge to see if interference occurred.
“We really don’t want our games to end on review,” McKay said.
“There is an appetite from the coaches, and the membership, as well as the Competition Committee, to explore some form of the proposal [to mandate both teams get at least one overtime possession] for postseason play.”
—NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent.
That slipped very much under the radar at the NFL’s one–day meeting last week.
“I love it. The training staff, I’m not sure where they got it from, but it’s titanium or something like that. It’s real lightweight. Once I’m out there moving around and stuff, I don’t even feel it. Shoutout to the training staff for that.”
—49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, on his lightweight knee brace, in his first week back practicing hard on his surgically repaired knee, almost eight months to the day after his Sept. 23, 2018 injury in Kansas City.
—Jets coach Adam Gase on the possibility of the Jets trading newly acquired running back Le’Veon Bell in 2019.
“Better to let sleeping jerseys lie.”
—Rochester Democrat and Chronicle columnist Leo Roth, on the Bills giving out jersey number 32 (O.J. Simpson’s old number) for the first time since 1977, when Simpson last played for the team. Running back Sinorise Perry wore number 32 at offseason practice last week.
Interesting. Very interesting.
Sammy Watkins evidently hears what’s said about him out in the Twittersphere and any other football spheres that talk football. His record after five years in the NFL shows that two teams (Buffalo, in the 2014 draft; Kansas City, in free agency in 2018) have significantly overpaid for him. The Bills traded two first-round picks and a fourth-round pick to take him fourth overall in 2014, and then the Chiefs paid $16 million a year for him in 2018. Once he’s caught more than 60 passes in a season; never has he had 10 or more touchdowns in a season.
So last week Watkins tweeted:
Foot issues have plagued the speedy Watkins going back to his second season. He’s never been right for any of the three seasons since.
Sammy Watkins, average production per season in the last three years
Offensive plays: 538
It was strange to see and hear, in the wake of Tyreek Hill’s questionable status for the 2019 season, that there was very little reliance on Watkins by the Chiefs to fill the void that could be left if Hill misses significant time. So it’s good to see Watkins’ determination to finally fulfill the great expectations that trailed him out of Clemson in 2014 and that he’s never been able to live up to.
Yankees this year when Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Judge, or both, play: 10-10.
Yankees this year when Stanton and Judge are both out: 24-8.
Gleyber Torres of the Yankees has 10 home runs against Baltimore this season (by Memorial Day, mind you).
The following players have fewer than 10 home runs this season: Bryce Harper, J.D. Martinez, Manny Machado, Nelson Cruz, Mookie Betts.
I was in the greatest movie in the history of Hollywood, the remake of “The Longest Yard.” I co-starred with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock.
Well, I did say three sentences in the movie.
I am still getting royalty checks for my marquee role. Last week, a Foreign Royalty Statement came in the mail, accompanied by a check for $11.38. It included fees paid me for home viewing, cable transmissions and video rentals of “The Longest Yard” outside of the United States. The following countries have contributed these amounts to the retirement fund of the King family, courtesy of my work alongside Rock and Sandler:
Denmark: 27 cents.
Germany: 23 cents.
Spain: 88 cents, and a second disbursement for 2 cents.
Switzerland: 92 cents.
“No taxes have been withheld from this payment,” the Foreign Royalty Statement said. “Please consult your tax professional with respect to tax consequences.”
How does one pay taxes on a royalty payment of $0.02?
I drove from New York to Canton, Ohio, last week, with a family stop for two days in Pittsburgh. Much of the drive from Chambersburg, Pa., to Canton was on U.S. 30. (Missed the exit for the Pennsylvania Turnpike in Carlisle, and when I discovered where we were, I thought it would be fun to see a part of the region I don’t think I’ve ever seen, the very south of Pennsylvania.) It was so interesting that when I finished the drive to Canton a couple of days later, I went back on U.S. 30 toward Ohio … and had the surprise of a three-mile trip through the microscopic tip of West Virginia. A few of the things I saw:
• Electronic slot machines at a gas station just west of Chambersburg. I had no idea you could gamble in gas stations in Pennsylvania.
• This sign west of Chambersburg at a business selling home energy systems: “Solar System For Sale.” I wondered which one. Mars, perhaps?
• A road sign near Breezewood, Pa., after driving past a heavy construction zone that apparently included drilling through rock: “LEAVING BORING AREA.” Come on. It’s not that bad.
• A slew of signs for the Flight 93 National Memorial, driving past Shanksville, Pa. I vow to stop there when I’ve got some time—I’ve driven within a few miles a few times. This is the national memorial to United Flight 93 and the heroism of those aboard who, instead of allowing hijackers to divert the plane and fly it into the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, rushed the cockpit and caused the plane to nosedive into rural Shanksville. All 40 passengers and crew died.
• A big Confederate flag on a tall flagpole in West Virginia.
• The hometown of Lou Holtz: East Liverpool, Ohio, just over the Ohio River from West Virginia.
• The little town in Ohio where Larry Csonka has a farm and I believe lives part of the year. Lisbon, Ohio. I just missed one of the highlights of the year in Lisbon: the Dulci-More Festival, featuring the Appalachian dulcimer and other old-time musical instruments.
I’ve often thought how good it is to get off the interstates and see Americana America.
Mail call. I’ll be away for a few weeks, and guest columnists will be filling this space until my return on July 15. So I won’t be answering any of your questions till I return. So this week, I’ll give you a few more pieces of correspondence than usual.
But first, I’d like to add two suggestions about how to improve the game. My fault for not including them last week, and my apologies to Daniel Jeremiah and Dan Orlovsky, two smart young football analysts.
Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network: Modernize scouting
The NFL is the most lucrative sports league in the country, and yet the way scouts measure prospects is right out of the sixties. Scouts still use a $5-dollar tape measure they bought at Walmart for height, hand, wing-span and other measurements of players when they visit campuses. This baffles me. The scouting world should incorporate the technology that currently exists. Every year we see disparity between the measurements at the Senior Bowl and the Scouting Combine. This is easily correctable. We should be using body scans to get precise measurements at those events. Also, most colleges are using GPS devices in shoulder pads to gather incredible amounts of data. If we can agree to share that information it would be transformational in the evaluation process. Instead of “estimating” the play speed of a prospect, we would possess his top-end MPH, acceleration and deceleration numbers.
Dan Orlovsky, ESPN: Overhaul officiating
One recommendation I’d have would be the total washing and rebuilding of the officiating, a top-to-bottom upheaval and reassessment. A few ideas: There would be a mandated retirement age for officials. I would float it somewhere around 55 … The officials would be full-time NFL employees … There would be teams/crews that worked together year round … There would be annual physical tests for ALL, ANNUALLY. And these tests would focus on reactionary healthy/reflex health and cardiovascular health, with an emphasis on vision … There would be year round team building and skill development events for the crews … The expectations would be higher. There would still be mistakes, but the NFL would finally begin to equip what is the third-most impactful entity to the result of a game.
Now for your email:
Hooray, Chris Long. From Mike, of Philadelphia: “Just wanted to say we’re lucky Chris Long the player and Chris Long the person were a part of the Eagles for two years. I loved reading about who he is and who he tried to be on and off the field. The 2017 Eagles will be remembered by everyone around here as a group of guys that formed more than just a football team. Thanks, Chris.”
Excellent point. As Long said last week, the Eagles proved a professional sports team could focus on its business as well as be a bright light in the community.
Football doesn’t need fixing. From commenter 90ragtop, at NBC Sports: “Here’s another idea instead: Let’s stop ‘fixing’ the NFL.”
Got a few of these, but they were wordier than this. Thanks for the economy of syllables.
Keep overtime the way it is. From Betty G.: “The two games cited most often when changing the OT rules are the Patriots-Falcons and Patriots-Chiefs. [The Falcons] blew a 25-point lead in the Super Bowl, while [Kansas City] blew home field and failed to use a timeout or make any adjustments. This would not be an issue if different teams won.”
Respectfully disagree. I believe it’s a matter of fairness. Why is it that 2 percent of the time that the team winning the toss to start overtime chooses to kick off?
Eric Winston’s proposal was good, but Conor has a suggestion. From Conor D.: “I thought Eric’s proposal on seeding playoffs by record was intriguing. In my opinion, I think you’d need to add an extra caveat in there, though. It might seem more technical and less smooth than just seeding by record, but I think you need to have strength of schedule as a consideration if you’re going to seed by record. Now, of course if someone is 11-5 and a wild-card team, they definitely played at least two tough games against their division winner, but what about the rest of their games? What if the other two teams in their division were 5-11 or worse? What if they played one or two weak divisions for their AFC/NFC full division slates? What if they finished last the season before so they’re playing all the last place teams in their conference? Now what if there is a 9-7 division winner that played in a really tough division?”
Hadn’t thought of that, Conor. It’s interesting. I guess I think it would be quite a rarity for a team that finished 12-4 to be worse than an 8-8 or 9-7 team. But it’s possible. And certainly possible that using strength of schedule, a 9-7 team could be statistically better than a 10-6 team.
On Donovan McNabb. From Chazz S.: “Donovan McNabb states he should be in the Hall of Fame. As a member of the selection committee, please make a case for or against his selection. I think he is in the hall of great, but not worthy of the Hall of Fame.”
At first blush, Chazz, I’d agree. One of the problems we have as a Hall of Fame selection committee is comparing players using statistics only. McNabb began his NFL career 10 years after Troy Aikman—who was the flashpoint for McNabb because McNabb said he has better numbers than Aikman—but their careers did intersect for two seasons, 1999 and 2000. I value numbers. But so many good quarterbacks have good numbers, and after a while, you’ve got to figure out what else is important in deciding a player’s Hall of Fame candidacy. McNabb was a decent playoff quarterback (9-7, including 0-1 in the Super Bowl). Aikman was a very good one (11-5, 3-0 in Super Bowls), and he was especially good in Dallas’ Super Bowl years. In the five seasons from 1992 to 1996, Aikman was 11-2 in the playoffs, registering a rating over better than 100 in nine of those 13 games in the postseason. With all of the mega-numbers quarterbacks from the last 20 years coming up for Hall of Fame consideration in the next 10 or so years (Brees, Manning, Manning, Brady, Roethlisberger, Rivers, Ryan, Rodgers), McNabb’s case will have formidable competition.
Taking issue with Chris Nowinski wanting to eliminate tackle football till high school. From Danny: “All well and good. But according to a Children’s Hospital Boston study: ‘Research suggests that female soccer players are second only to male football players in the number of concussions that they develop each year.’ Are we eliminating all girls youth soccer until high school as well?”
Certainly not. But perhaps heading the ball pre-high school, or wearing the type of headgear that some soccer authorities are experimenting with now, could alleviate some of those concussions.
Excellent counterpoint on tackling. From Mark I., of Marysville, Wash.: “There are two opposing views on youth tackle football: yours, that it should be banned; and that of the millions of parents and coaches that encourage and teach kids to play football the right way, while their bodies are less powerful and less likely to cause concussions. To my knowledge (and it’s something I’ve looked into quite a bit) no studies have been done to show which approach is/will be more effective at reducing the potential for CTE and other cognitive issues for former players. Lacking such a study, the anecdotal evidence I’ve seen indicates that kids who start playing tackle in high school are dangerous. My son has played tackle football for 6 years now, and looking forward to joining the varsity team as a sophomore. He has become an effective tackler, and to my knowledge has never caused an injury making a tackle. Full disclosure: My son has had two concussions playing football. One was during a game against a team that was so poorly coached (that old-school style of coaching that encourages kids to purposely hurt their opponents) that our coaches forfeited the game to protect our players. The other concussion? During a flag football game. We all want kids to be safe and healthy. We should be calling for good scientific studies to determine the best way to do these things. You may be right that the best way to protect kids and adults is to ban youth tackle football, and if so, if that can be supported by more than a feeling, I’ll advocate with you. But for now, my anecdotal evidence tells me that teaching kids to play properly from a young age is the better way to save football.”
What a smart email, Mark. Thanks so much for sending it. You make some good and compelling points. It sounds like your son has been well-coached and well-drilled in the art of form tackling. I do not have sons. I never researched this; I write from a position of what seems to be common sense—if kids are not running around with helmets, they’ll be less inclined to lower their heads and hit another player and expose a developing brain to damage. I have to admit the biggest proponent of this, and the person who swayed me that no tackling till high school is probably best for young children, is Drew Brees. This is what he told me on my podcast in 2016:
“I played flag football in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. I didn’t play tackle football till ninth grade … I think that the game is so much more fun and you learn so much more about just the fundamentals of throwing, catching, running, concepts and defense through flag football. I think that there aren’t enough coaches to coach proper technique with pads on with kids in elementary school. That’s just the truth and I think kids would have more fun playing flag football. In flag football everybody has a chance to run the ball, catch the ball, throw the ball, and that’s not the case in tackle football. You’re either a lineman or a skill guy. Whereas in flag football it’s a free-for-all. Everybody has that opportunity. I just think it’s a great way to teach the game in a very safe way that certainly parents feel comfortable about, and it still engages the kids and still gets them excited about it to where at some point they transition to pads. I think you will bring a lot more people to the sport by starting them off with flag football to that point – because you get them to fall in love with the sport, and then you gradually evolved to the physical nature of the game.”
But I have to admit, Mark: Your email has really made me think. Thank you.
1. I think I hope you take some time later this week to listen to a podcast I’ve been working on for some time. “The Peter King Podcast” that drops Wednesday is about advances made to the football helmet, and how new technology and a new Seattle-based company, Vicis, are giving the NFL the best chance to reduce head trauma of any recent improvements to equipment—and spurring other helmet companies to get better faster. Listen on Cadence 13, or on iTunes. I learned a lot, and I hope you will too.
2. I think Nick Bosa added to the suspicions that he’ll have a hard time staying healthy when he suffered a grade-one hamstring strain in the Niners’ OTA practice last Tuesday. Bosa, the second pick in the draft, had two of his last four football seasons end prematurely with ACL and core-muscle injuries, respectively. Now he may not practice till training camp. Pass-rusher is an explosive-movement position. Not good at all that the hamstring gets hurt right away.
3. I think Tampa Bay “parting ways” with Gerald McCoy now means that, arguably, that three of the best four or five defensive players on the unit from last year (McCoy, Jason Pierre-Paul, Kwon Alexander) are gone—McCoy to a new team, Alexander to the 49ers in free agency, and Pierre-Paul out with a back injury possibly for the season. It just puts more pressure on the offense, and on under-the-microscope quarterback Jameis Winston, to be markedly better under Bruce Arians and Byron Leftwich this fall. And I mean very markedly.
4. I think Ndamukong Suh, at one year and $9.25 million, instead of McCoy at $13 million, says to me McCoy wanted out (which he did; he wants to play for a winner) and the Bucs didn’t fight him because the team didn’t want to extend a 31-year-old tackle entering his 10th year, at a time when he’s coming off a good but not McCoy-like season.
5. I think I don’t quite get Baker Mayfield continuing his feud with talk-show guru Colin Cowherd. Mayfield said on Instagram the other day he’s selling anti-Cowherd T-shirts for $30. What’s next? Anti-Hue shirts? Cowherd has been critical of Mayfield the person, going too far too often, and it’s rankled Mayfield quite a bit. The problem is, the T-shirt sales make Mayfield seem like he’s got rabbit ears. And that he’s petty. Mayfield’s really good, and he’s got a chance to be the prince of the city in Cleveland. With greatness comes people taking potshots in a 24/7 football world. It makes zero sense to me for Mayfield to be saying, in effect, Colin Cowherd got under my skin. I’ll show him.
6. I think it looks more and more like something that could have been pure gold for the NFL, something that an imaginative and opportunistic league would have jumped on, will be a swinging strike. A missed chance. The Pro Football Hall of Fame was pushing hard for a regular-season game in Canton on Sept. 17, 2020—a Thursday night. The Hall wanted the Bears, one of the two remaining franchises from the 14-team league that was invented in 1920 in Canton, to play on the 100th anniversary day, Sept. 17, of the formation of the league. (The Decatur Staleys, with player-coach George Halas, became the Chicago Bears by 1922.) I’m told it’s not happening. Obviously playing in front of 25,000 in Canton instead of 61,500 at Soldier Field is going to kill the gate for the game, and I’m sure the Bears don’t want to lose a home game and don’t want to get on an airplane to play a “home” game. For a league that likes pomp, a real game in Canton would have been gold. With so many historical angles, that’s a huge chance missed.
7. I think I thought of a few things when I saw the news that Adam “Pacman” Jones retired. One: He had some big picks. He intercepted Ben Roethlisberger three times, Russell Wilson and Eli Manning twice, Tom Brady once. Two: He was the unwitting subject of a hilarious interview in Dallas Cowboys training camp in August 2008 (he was trying to rekindle his wayward career in Dallas; that lasted nine games), between a FOX Sports en Espanol reporter and wide receiver Terrell Owens. The reporter was interested in knowing if the Cowboys were going to call Jones, in his first camp with the team, by his first name or his nickname. Here is how the interview went:
Fox Sports en Espanol: “You call Pacman Pacman?”
Owens: “What’s that?”
Fox Sports en Espanol: “Pacman.”
Fox Sports en Espanol: “Adam.”
Owens: “What about it?”
Fox Sports en Espanol: “I thought he didn’t like to be called Pacman anymore. You said Pacman. Pacman Jones.”
Owens: “What about it?”
Fox Sports en Espanol: “I thought he didn’t want to be called Pacman anymore.”
Owens: “Did somebody call him Pacman?”
Fox Sports en Espanol: “You did, man.”
Owens, resignedly:“Dude, I don’t care.”
Fox Sports en Espanol: “Okay.”
In the history of Misunderstood and Bizarre Interviews, that one would win an Emmy.
8. I think my favorite story of the week comes from KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. Seems that Antonio Brown left town, and the home he is trying to sell, without making arrangements to have the lawn mowed. Well, in the spring, it rains, and the sun comes out, and the grass grows, and it’s May 27, and if the grass hasn’t been moved, you’ve got a hay field on hour hands. Brown’s former next-door neighbor asked Brown to cut the grass. Brown’s response, also on Twitter, began with this: “Can you be a Good Samaritan and do me a solid cut my grass” Only is America, on Twitter. Still waiting to see if the neighbor did him the solid or Brown did what people with lots of money do in cases like this: hire someone to do it.
9. I think the Patriots had better hope Ben Watson gives them a heck of a lot of production in the final 12 weeks of the season, after the presumptive New England starting tight end revealed Sunday he would be lost for the first four weeks of the season due to a positive PED test.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Football Story of the Week: Jayson Jenks of The Athletic, on Doug Baldwin the changed man as he reaches the end of his career.
b. Baldwin the consistent overachiever: “When there’s not chaos, I don’t know how to handle that.” So perfect. So Baldwin. When Seattle GM John Schneider made the mega-trade for Percy Harvin a few years ago, it both pissed off Baldwin and supremely motivated him: “I looked at him as an object to conquer.”
c. Jenks got inside the real Baldwin, which is very hard to do. Kudos to him.
d. Story of the Week: A lesson of Sandy Hook: Err on the side of victims, by Elizabeth Williamson of the New York Times.
e. “The American people have an incredible charitable impulse. But nobody knows exactly what to do when the money comes in.”
g. Think of this: Joe Bujdos, in three of his four years at Indiana (Pa.) High School, played cross country and golf in the fall, swimming and indoor track in the winter, and tennis and outdoor track in the spring.
h. Bujdos to White: “You’re only in high school once, so make the most of it.” Brilliant.
i. Real Estate Story of the Week (but strongly recommended if you’re not a property type): How San Francisco broke America’s heart, by Karen Heller of the Washington Post.
j. Really good writing by Heller about what has happened with all the Silicon Valley wealth changing the very fabric of a great city. “In a time of scarce consensus, everyone agrees that something has rotted in San Francisco. Conservatives have long loathed it as the axis of liberal politics and political correctness, but now progressives are carping, too. They mourn it for what has been lost, a city that long welcomed everyone and has been altered by an earthquake of wealth. Real estate is the nation’s costliest. Listings read like typos, a median $1.6 million for a single-family home and $3,700 monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment. ‘This is unregulated capitalism, unbridled capitalism, capitalism run amok. There are no guardrails,’ says Salesforce founder and chairman Marc Benioff, a fourth-generation San Franciscan who in a TV interview branded his city ‘a train wreck.’ You no longer leave your heart in San Francisco. The city breaks it.”
l. Thing I did not know about my 29-year-old nephew Luke Ranalli, who had two White Russians at dinner Wednesday: He has seen “The Big Lebowski” 50 times.
m. Congrats to the Raptors. Losing two to start a series, then winning four in a row to end it … quite a feat. I am no hoops guy, but I would love to have Kawhi Leonard signed to my team for a very long team. Leonard will be 28 and Kevin Durant 31 at the start of next season. Is it such a lock that you’d rather face the future with Durant over Leonard?
n. RIP, Gerry Fraley, one of the best baseball writers in America. He covered the Rangers for the Dallas Morning News, but he wrote about all baseball topics and was respected by the hard-core baseball people MLB-wide. Said Joe Maddon: “He always had a well thought-out question. He 24/7’d the game, constantly thinking about different items, whether statistics or matchup or the lineup. He worked from pure intentions .. just a really good reporter, loved baseball & was a good friend.”
o. Crazy stat of the week: With five more strikeouts, Justin Verlander will tie Cy Young on the all-time list.
p. Beernerdness: Had an excellent Belgian Wheat Beer the other day in Pittsburgh—East End Witte from the East End Brewing Company (Pittsburgh). I am a pushover for a light spring beer like the Witte, and this was worth a half-hour of my time: smooth, more of a hint of clove than most Witte or Hefeweizen. Different and nice.
q. I love the birthday tool on Pro Football Reference. Today, two birthdays for former players seem just right. Jackie Slater is 65, and Danny Wuerffel 45. Just what you’d have figured, correct? But on Tuesday, Rex Kern turns 70 and David Shula 60. Whoa! Where’d the time go?
r. Of course, if Jim Thorpe were still alive, he’d turn 132 Tuesday. That seems about right.
s. You’ll like the guest columnists coming in the next few Mondays. Please come back and see interesting people with valuable things to say, starting with Fred Gaudelli on June 3.
t. I always give some Father‘s Day book reviews—you know, so you don’t have to buy your dad/uncle/husband a tie. You’ll still get those, but please follow me on Twitter. On Friday, June 5, I’ll drop a thread with a few recommended books.
Hey Joe Horrigan!
Ace football historian.