Three lightly regarded wide receivers entered the NFL within 24 months of each other a few years back: Antonio Brown (sixth round, 2010), Doug Baldwin (undrafted, 2011) and Jermaine Kearse (undrafted, 2012). Careers diverged, but all had some very big moments in the past decade. Maybe the biggest divergence, as it turns out, was with headwear. Baldwin became an investor in, and Kearse a major advocate of, Vicis, a Seattle startup helmet-manufacturer that is helping revolutionize helmet safety in a time of head-trauma crisis for the NFL. On the other side is Brown, who filed a grievance against the NFL on Friday to be the only one of 2,016 active and practice-squad players to be able to wear an old and relatively unsafe helmet on the field in 2019.
It’s crazy. In fighting to wear an obsolete helmet—more than 10 years old, in a time when helmet technology shifts annually—Brown is like the motorist going to court to fight the seat-belt law. Last fall, researching a podcast on the state of the NFL helmet, I spoke with 14 players, including Baldwin and Kearse.
Said Baldwin: “If you have a helmet out there that is proven to be safer in a number of different ways, why wouldn’t you wear that helmet? In the grand scheme of things, I want to make sure I have all the marbles that I was born with to experience life and to enjoy life with my family and with my future children.”
Said Kearse: “You see and hear a lot of articles and a lot of talk about CTE these days, and you know the effects of concussions. My change [to the Vicis helmet] … a little bit of my decision was, How can I protect myself further down the road when football is not a part of my life? Is looking cool out there on the field or wearing a helmet from back in college because it’s comfortable worth it?”
I hope someone shows those two paragraphs to Antonio Brown today.
More on the Brown story to come, and on:
- The state of the Steeler team he left.
- Why, after I took a tour of the Saints’ new Taj Mahal facility, I could see Sean Payton being a New Orleans lifer.
- What ticks off the best receiver alive, Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins.
- A pretty cool Ed Werder reunion story.
- Michael Thomas gee-whizzing about his buddy LeBron James.
- My emotional trip to the most underrated national park in America.
- What in the world is Lumi Gold Rush, and why does one team swear by it.
- Happy trails, Sonny Jurgensen.
Regarding the Mike Silver/Adam Schefter-reported stories Friday about the melodrama surrounding the Oakland receiver—or, I should say, the receiver employed by Oakland who is not currently playing for Oakland—the overriding thought I have is a simple one. The NFL and the NFLPA have teamed up to research helmet safety and helmet technology through exhaustive, independent studies since 2016. All players were told in 2017 they’d have to wear new helmets—league and union-approved—by 2018, with a one-year grandfather period pushing the absolute deadline to don correct helmets to 2019. I did a podcast about the helmet in May, and over the previous seven months talked to 14 players about the helmet issue. Several of the players weren’t crazy about making the change, including 49ers tackle Joe Staley, who’d worn the same model of helmet for 15 years (though it had been updated at least once) and admitted to me he would not have changed unless forced.
“It’s something that needs to be done,” Staley told me last fall, “and I think I’m a perfect case study of why it needs to be done. I wouldn’t have changed my helmet unless they made these rules changes.”
For Brown to be fighting this is just crazy. According to Schefter, Brown had a two-hour grievance hearing Friday with an independent arbitrator, arguing that he should be able to wear a helmet he has been wearing for more than 10 years. (That, in itself, makes the helmet illegal; the NFL mandates that helmets worn for at least 10 years be replaced, regardless of their condition.)
There isn’t much the league and players union agree on without reservation, but the current helmet protocol, the outgrowth of a $60-million investment by NFL owners in 2016 to improve helmet technology and reduce head trauma in players, is one of those things. If Brown wins, he would be the lone player out of 2,016 active and practice-squad players in the NFL this season who would be wearing a helmet—the Schutt Air Advantage, in his case—not approved for use by NFL and NFLPA testers. And this helmet is so old that it’s not even been tested by the league and the union. I’m told unquestionably it would fail any test for helmet safety, as would virtually any helmet not made in the last four or five years.
A few other thoughts on this nutty story:
• Brown has to grow up, or he’s got to get some help. Someone in his life, if anyone has a scintilla of influence over him (and that is in doubt), needs to say to him: The Raiders could void your contract for this behavior, and you’d be out $30.1 million in guaranteed money, and what team would pay you even a fraction of that after? You walked out on the Steelers and then turned into a child on the Raiders and boycotted them too—in the span of nine months!
• The Steelers have to be the happiest team in the league right now. They don’t have a great player, but they do have a sane, undivided training camp.
• Jon Gruden has to defend Brown, which he did Saturday night after the Raiders’ preseason win over the Rams. But anyone who knows Gruden knows he’s got to be frustrated over his best offensive weapon being disabled because of the freaky frostbite injury and fuming at Brown being AWOL because the NFL is trying to make football safer for him.
• To be a fly on GM Mike Mayock’s wall. He’s a football purist, and his first season piloting a storied franchise might be sent over a cliff by the weirdest controversy in years that has incredibly little to do with real football.
• Mike Silver’s 20-tweet thread detailing the Brown story Friday was exquisite. Best football thread I’ve seen, full of rich detail and information about the dysfunctional Brown/Raiders/helmet thing. What was great about Silver’s long social screed: It was essentially an 800-word news story, broken in real time on Twitter instead of being broken on NFL.com with a Twitter link to the story. Whatever the reason for doing it that way (NFL.com I’m sure now regrets the loss of traffic on a heavily read story), I found it easy to digest just by scrolling up on my phone. Silver had the helmet stuff solid, and this piece of information that can’t go on in team meetings: “Brown, according to witnesses, typically glances at the screens of several tablets and his smart phone during meetings, distracting himself by engaging in activities which include perusing his bank accounts and ‘liking’ photos on Instagram.” Social media is still the Wild West, but Silver showed you can break news with a story broken into 20 easy bites.
• “Hard Knocks” is either going to show a slice of this Brown story this week, with some real video and team reaction, or it’s Pravda. And I know Ken Rodgers of NFL Films, the curator of this show. He will want to show the real story, very much.
I’ve been around a lot of crazy stories in the NFL in my 35 years covering the league. But the last nine months in the life of Antonio Brown is right up there.
One more thing from Kearse: “The NFL changed the rules to prevent more head injuries and more head contact. But at the end of the day it’s a full-contact sport and guys are kind of making quick decisions, and you want to be able to have a product that’s going to be able to protect you. I think the NFL wants this league to last. They’re going to have to continue to keep digging deeper to improve. It’s an uncontrolled environment where things can happen and for me personally, I want to have the best protecting me out there.”
Someone’s got to get to Brown, and fast.
Peace in Our Time
LATROBE, Pa. — So I got here two days too soon. I arrived in camp last Wednesday, just before the Antonio Brown explosion out in Oakland. I doubt they’d have piled on their alumni receiver, because it’s not the Steeler Way, but it’d have been fun to try to get the vets here to say something. Imagine what they were thinking over the weekend: Man, we’re so glad we don’t have the Antonio drama anymore.
I’ve come to this training camp most years since 1984. It’s amazing how little has changed. Chuck Noll was in the middle of his 23-year run then, and reporters could actually visit players in their dorm room at St. Vincent College. (I knocked on Mike Webster’s door that year and spent a pleasant 30 minutes with him.) Then Bill Cowher, starting in 1992; once, because of a soggy main field, unwilling to cancel practice that day, Cowher had a practice on the little-used upper field bordering a corn field. I thought it would be cool to see Jerome Bettis and Levon Kirkland walk out to practice Field of Dreams-style, through the cornstalks. And now, Mike Tomlin runs the show, and he did the other day what he’s always done—hooted and hollered at the one-on-one drills, offensive line versus defensive line. Tomlin’s been a prototype Steelers coach, because he loves traditional football and traditional football practices. And traditional winning.
The Steelers have been here every summer since 1966. This practice was the first one in a while that I did not see the brown-robed monks out at practice, mingling with the Rooneys. Joe Greene never had training camp anywhere else. Nor has JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Last year felt like mayhem from the start, with the Le’Veon Bell holdout marring the start and the Brown no-show in Week 17 marring the finish. Something had to give. That something was letting Bell walk, and the trade of Brown to Oakland. I think the Steelers are better off without both. James Conner (5.4 yards per touch in 2018) was a suitable but not perfect sub for Bell, and Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster, the amiable and totally non-controversial wideout, give Ben Roethlisberger the kind of team-first weapons Tomlin loves. I found it interesting that Roethlisberger has been talking up Ryan Switzer, the well-traveled (for 24) wideout/returner as a potential big weapon on an Edelman scale. At the afternoon practice, there was Switzer as a sidecar to Roethlisberger running a wheel route out of the backfield, as well as in both slot and wide formations. So we’ll see about the former Cowboy and Raider. The Steelers need young James Washington or veteran Donte Moncrief to produce too. Also: Vance McDonald, who has a Gronk-type stiff arm and isn’t afraid to use it (50 catches, 12.2 yards per catch last year), should see expanded importance at tight end.
I’m bullish on the Steelers and the cheerful/optimistic Roethlisberger—who, camp observes say, has been genuinely happy this summer—having a prolific season again. Did you know he led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards last year—774 more than Tom Brady, 1,137 more than Drew Brees? It’s understandable that he will miss the great Brown, but I also am told he is supremely motivated to prove he can be just as great without Brown than he was with him.
Pittsburgh’s got an interesting season ahead, in many ways. The schedule, for one. Six 2018 playoff teams in the first nine games, including the opening Sunday night in Foxboro. But only one 2018 playoff team in the last seven weeks. Much of that late-season fortunate scheduling depends on the Browns, because Pittsburgh plays Cleveland on Nov. 14 and Dec. 1.
I met Tomlin after practice, and he was his noncommittal self. On his contract extension, which if he coaches it out will make him a 15-year coach, just as Cowher was: “I love the job. I love the challenges it presents. The variables are ever-changing. It’s continually stimulating. In terms of longevity, I don’t think a lot about longevity. I just like to feel the urgency of now. You do that enough, and you win enough, and you get longevity. Longevity has never been my focus. I just want to be a really good football team here in 2019.”
And on the post-Brown-mayhem Steeler era: “The adversity of the journey really creates some of the opportunities you’re talking about … The winning, the losing, the challenges of the journey, is where the test will be. I feel really comfortable with this group, but time will tell with that story.”
In many ways, Tomlin is the 2019 Noll, the purely vanilla public speaker but down-in-the-trenches motivator of a good team. He’s the kind of coach who won’t be fully appreciated till he’s gone, maybe because he doesn’t promote himself or curry favor in the media. Years as Steelers head coach: 12. Losing seasons: zero.
Who knows how long he’ll last. Tomlin is only 47. But the best thing I heard here? He doesn’t care about how long he does this. He only cares about the Steelers being great in 2019.
Sean Payton at Home Sweet Home?
METAIRIE, La. — Not long after the sun rose over New Orleans one training-camp morning, Sean Payton was a realtor showing off the best property in his luxe inventory. His inventory: the massively refurbished Saints training facility. There’s the ice box in the end zone, a remade long trailer where 20 or so players at a time can get refreshed in 32-degree chill to escape the 98-degree heat-index temps outside. There’s the $3-million team meeting room with Saints-logoed plush chairs and a $600,000 video screen in front of the room, the screen Payton debuted at the start of camp with an electrifying snakes-chasing-iguanas BBC video. There’s the revamped indoor facility with the gigantic mural of the Saints’ all-time team taking up one wall. There’s the plush locker room than isn’t quite LSU-pullout-beds-nice, but extremely cushy, with an important feature for the muggy Louisiana summers and autumns: fans and individuals dehumidifiers at each locker. There’s the sleeping room, where eight coaches can bunk up for the night or for an afternoon nap, complete with privacy curtains and all the power outlets they’d need. There’s the trainers’ room that has every creature comfort of the richy-rich new places in Dallas and Minnesota. GM Mickey Loomis and Payton put in the asks because they wanted to have a place the equal of any team in the league, and the late Tom Benson (first) and now owner Gayle Benson have written the checks. They get it. And now the Saints, orphans of Katrina 14 years ago, have a jewel that quite frankly is stunning to see.
It’s the kind of jewel, and this is the kind of team, that I believe could make Payton a Saints lifer. Could, I mean. This is his 14th season in Louisiana (13, if you subtract the year he was suspended over Bountygate), and all along we’ve assumed one day Jerry Jones would come calling with a rich trade offer and silly money, and the Saints would let Payton walk. He’d be an attractive free-agent coach—he’s won 126 games in 13 years, and his offense has the kind of John Nash “Beautiful Mind” cutting-edge feel that owners love. And maybe one day Jones or someone entices him. But the way Payton showed off this place for us, with such pride and excitement, I started to think he could grow old here, and be very happy.
Payton, before showing it off to me and NBC crewmates Annie Koeblitz and Nicole Granito early one camp morning, paused in the end zone of the practice field to consider all of it—the field and the adjacent team offices.
“In 2005,” he said, “during Katrina, our building was taken over by FEMA. The Apache helicopters you saw in the rescue missions took off and landed right on this football field. Across the street, over at the [Triple-A] baseball stadium, was the makeshift morgue. When we got here in ’06, there were tarps on the walls [inside], and you just knew a fresh coat of paint wasn’t going to be all that was needed. Now, wait till you see. It’s completely different.”
The ice box is fairly amazing. It’s 32 degrees, and if the digital thermometer had said 22, I wouldn’t have doubted it. “If [the late Minnesota tackle] Korey Stringer had had this, maybe he’d be alive today,” Payton said. On the walls, in majestic Saints gold lettering, are the kind of inspiration football sayings you see around football places. Here, they’re everywhere, covering the walls.
It’s not the will to win that matters.
Everyone has that.
It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.
We sit down in the team meeting room, which slopes up to the back so that everyone can see the speaker and video screen, and Payton cues up the BBC Planet Earth video of hatchling iguanas being born out of the earth, and the stunning chase scenes of snakes going after the hatchlings. That’ll get your heart beating. That was Payton’s idea. “I didn’t want the first video to be some NFL instructional video,” he said. This had another intention.
“Moral of the story?” Payton said. “You better hit the ground running here.”
I asked Payton, in his office later: “Explain how the stuff you’ve done in the building translates to what you guys do on the field.”
“I think what happens on the field is a byproduct of all the things that take place prior to the game—how we teach, how we practice, how we draft, how we put together a coaching staff. The facilities and the equipment sometimes is … affirmation that we’re committed to being real good. We’re committed to excellence. We talk all the time with our players about details and I think it’s important that they feel this commitment to the little things as well.”
“When I look at transient teams,” I said, “they don’t do long-term projects. You and Mickey have been here 14 years. How much does continuity help the build?”
“It helps the vision, because the vision stays a little bit more consistent,” Payton replied. “They often say when you build your new house and you’re trying to figure out where you want your walkways to be, don’t build them. Leave the grass alone and then see where it’s beginning to wear. Then put the walkways in that way.
“I think our game’s changed a lot and I think we’ve changed very quickly with it. How we teach a player today is a little different. The players are still coachable. I would say the player we identify with today who we feel like makes a good New Orleans Saint is the same player in ’06. That hasn’t changed. The facility, it’s much like our computers. You might think you’ve got a recent one, and then in a very short period of time you’re like, [it’s obsolete]. It’s a little bit like those new Teslas. it’s fascinating.”
Payton likes fascinating things. Loomis likes enabling fascinating things. Gayle Benson is okay with paying for fascinating things. The Saints, buffeted by nature and a rocky division, are not going away. That could well mean Payton won’t go away either.
GREEN BAY, Wis. — That’s what it is around here. The Relationship. Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur, vet quarterback and rookie coach. Everyone inside and outside the Packers building is taking their temperature. Walking on the sidelines at practice the other day, a fan stopped me and asked, “How’s the relationship between Matt and Aaron? What’re you hearing?”
The other day, I asked LaFleur what it was like being Aaron Rodgers’ boss. He laughed uncomfortably. I think he cringed.
“Ha! I don’t, to be honest with you, really look at it like that,” LaFleur said, sitting on a bench in the shade at the Packers practice field. “From a play-caller’s mentality, I’ve always viewed that relationship as more of a partnership, because he plays the toughest position in all of sports, and you want to always be sure he’s comfortable with all that’s going on. I know if he’s confident with what’s going on, the 10 guys in the huddle are going to be comfortable with what’s going on.”
Said Rodgers: “I tell him all the time, ‘You’re the boss.’ He usually retorts with the same, ‘No, it’s a partnership.’ “
It’s got to be odd for LaFleur, who wants to play more of a tempo offense than Rodgers is used to, to come into Green Bay and tell one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, in his 15th NFL season, Let’s do it this way. You can’t ask a guy who’s spoken Mandarin at the highest level to speak French at the highest level nine months later and forget the Mandarin. You can’t ask Rodgers to forget what he’s learned. You’ve got to work with him to add the new stuff and give him some freedom beyond that.
There was a play in the Pack’s Family Night Scrimmage inside Lambeau Field nine days ago that could hold a clue to how the two men will work together. LaFleur called an inside run to the left. When Rodgers got to the line, he saw that the inside run to the left would get crushed. So he changed the play: outside run to the right. Problem was, LaFleur and the offensive coaches hadn’t installed either the verbiage or the technique for the audible. Somehow—Rodgers wouldn’t say exactly how—Rodgers communicated to his offense that the inside run to the left was off and the outside run to the right was on. He called out a number signifying the play. Boom. It gained yards. LaFleur, amazed, wondered how he communicated something that hadn’t been installed yet to his team, but he figured he just used last year’s signals. The coach was fine with it.
“If you can find a way to communicate it without getting a delay-of-game, you just do it,” Rodgers said. “Nothing too complicated. That’s football.”
Rodgers is trying to adjust to a system that’s the first major change for him in his pro career. Talking to him after practice, he sounds like he’s ready for it. “A lot of it is different,” he said. “The NFL is a copycat league and there’s a lot of similar concepts. But it’s definitely different than the last 11 years and we’ve been doing. It’s fun. It’s stuff you’ve seen the Rams do and Atlanta do and San Fran. We all watch football. We’re all fans. We watch and think, That play’s pretty cool.‘ Now you’re sitting in an install meeting and you’re like, ‘Hey, that was that play from this game. That’s the one from the LA.-Minnesota game that we saw.’ Definitely a lot more studying. I don’t know this like the back of my hand like I did the last offense yet, but I’m getting there.”
“Confident it’ll work well?” I asked.
If it does, this is going to be one fun offense to watch. Imagine Rodgers, already one of the smartest quarterbacks ever to play, playing at a faster pace, snapping the ball at 18 or 16 on the play clock four or five plays in a row. Think of how that could discombobulate the defense. The Relationship is going to be a good chemistry experiment for the 2019 Packers.
Three Things I Think
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Three quick thoughts:
1. I think my everlasting memory of this trip will be watching J.J. Watt steam in from Aaron Rodgers’ left side on a live pass-rush drill (well, full-speed, but no hitting the quarterback in a camp practice) in the Texans-Packers joint practices. He jousted with left tackle David Bakhtiari, dipped to the outside, got half a step on the left tackle, and sprinted at Rodgers. Watt meant it. As did Rodgers, who sprinted up the right side and evaded Watt. First time Watt ever stepped foot in Wisconsin to play pro football (though a practice), and he got emotional about it, and it meant a lot to him. Two Hall of Fame players going at it on a Monday morning in northeast Wisconsin. Loved it.
2. I think the Texans need to trade for Washington left tackle Trent Williams, who is unhappy in Washington and threatening to not play this year. Houston’s time is now. Watt turns 30 this year. So much of this team is in its prime. They could get three or four more years out of Williams, who turns 31 next Monday, and he’d strengthen the only true weak point of this team.
3. I think I marvel at DeAndre Hopkins and found it compelling to just watch him practice in Green Bay. He even dropped a pass over the middle. Consider that last year he became the first receiver since drop stats were kept—at least 13 years—to catch at least 110 balls without a drop. “Why do you think people don’t really know that?” he asked me after practice, a bit annoyed. I don’t know, but I do know Hopkins is the best wideout in football by almost any measure. “There are games, like against Philly last year, when he gets his jersey ripped off,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “Teams are so physical with him. What makes him special is so many plays are contested. People are draped on him, and he comes down with it.” With wideout injuries last year, Houston saw a weird three-man coverage at times on Hopkins, “cut coverage,” O’Brien called it, with a linebacker undercutting him near the line of scrimmage before he would get out in the open field and face two cover guys. I asked Hopkins how he worked on his hands as a kid. Jerry Rice tossed and caught bricks with his dad, a mason. Hopkins: “This is something I haven’t told many people, because it’s embarrassing,” he said. “We always used to catch flies with our hands. I was the only one who could catch ‘em. One-handed, two-handed. I actually studied flies. I’d watch ‘em. How do you catch flies? They fly up. If I can catch that, I can catch anything.”
“Coach Drake was honestly my favorite coach that I’ve ever had in this game, he taught me so much about football and especially about how to go about life. I wish I could see you one more time.”
—Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, in a social-media post after the sudden death of his receivers coach, Darryl Drake, announced by the team Sunday morning.
“There is still a degree of pain that he is not comfortable with. Obviously, we are not comfortable putting him out there.”
—Indianapolis coach Frank Reich, on Friday, on the strained calf muscle keeping Andrew Luck out of training-camp practices. Luck is likely to be held out of practice this week.
Opening day is 27 days away, and the Colts play the Chargers, a team with a strong pass-rush.
“I’d rather have zero than four [preseason games]. Preferably I’d like two—one to evaluate the people trying to make the team and then one to knock the rust off.”
—Niners coach Kyle Shanahan, on the number of preseason games he would prefer.
Thirty-one coaches will love that.
“We don’t need thoughts and prayers out of Washington. What we need, we need strength and some resolve that we haven’t seen yet.”
—Joe Biden, presidential hopeful, on the lack of action on gun control out of our political leaders.
“Someone has to let him know you can’t play both sides of this. If you’re going to associate yourself with bad people, then people are going to know about it.”
—Miami wide receiver Kenny Stills, on Dolphins owner Stephen Ross holding a fundraiser for Donald Trump. Ross is the founder of RISE, a group that seeks to eliminate racial discrimination.
Michael Thomas • New Orleans wide receiver • Photographed in Metairie, La.
After signing a five-year, $100-million contract extension, Michael Thomas was showered with congratulations on social media from the likes of Urban Meyer, James Harden and D’Angelo Russell. On a trip to Saints camp, we asked him to read some of the congratulatory tweets. He started with one from LeBron James.
“ ‘Congrats lil bro!! Well deserved. Keep going and settle for nothing than greatness.’
“LeBron James, he’s the best basketball player in the NBA right now. He’s a legend. He’s a big Ohio State Buckeye supporter. He’s supported me since college. Just to stay on my path since college and still make a guy like that proud outside Ohio State is a blessing.
“When I saw it, I was for sure thrown off. Can’t even lie to you. It’s LeBron James. He’s probably filming ‘Space Jam’ or something when I signed my deal. Or he’s probably putting some shots up. He’s a real businessman, and to take some time and give me what I consider a pat on the back, just gimme some great advice, you have to take that and run with it.
“All these people are very successful, very detailed people. Look at the names. Those are people I consider mentors. When you do the easy stuff, the stuff you’re supposed to do, they don’t really pat you on the back. It’s next level. Those are all leaders. I came from a strict family. We set high standards. My grandmother raised six kids on her own. That is real strength.”
Ben Roethlisberger had 1,137 more passing yards than Drew Brees last year.
Interesting. Brees arrived in New Orleans in 2006. In the next 12 seasons, Roethlisberger had never thrown for more yards than Brees. And last year, he routed Brees, throwing for 71 yards per game more.
There is an asterisk there. In 2014, Roethlisberger and Brees tied for the NFL lead with 4,952 passing yards. Still … never throwing for more yards than Brees as a Saint and then demolishing him last year—that’s an odd one.
Monday, 6:55 a.m. KI Convention Center, Green Bay; Houston Texans breakfast room:
Player after player, coach after coach, pick up two-ounce yellow bottles, the size of a prescription bottle, with orange caps. They open the caps and chug the shot of liquid.
Lumi Gold Rush is the product, instant energy the reason, a strong and wake-you-right-up taste combining turmeric, lemon, ginger, pear and cayenne.
All organic too. The Texans use it, a club official told me, as an energy supplement and anti-inflammatory (turmeric is the big thing there) to support join health and muscle recovery.
STOYSTOWN, Pa. — Imagine you’re on an airplane, on your way from Newark to San Francisco for a business trip, or, in the case of two lovebirds on United Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, on the way to a vacation in Napa Valley. In the span of 25 minutes, you go from daydreaming about what you’ll do on the ground in San Francisco, to realizing your plane has been hijacked, to knowing that the plane will be used as a weapon against an American landmark, to being sure you will die, to planning an attack on the hijackers so they can’t ram the plane into an American institution.
And then doing it. And then somehow making the inverted plane dive at 534 mph into the very rural earth 65 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and 125 miles northwest of the target: the U.S. Capitol in Washington.
All of that happened, start to finish, in less time than it takes to watch a “Seinfeld” rerun. Lives ended, families changed forever, people in a tiny rural Pennsylvania town being pressed into duty to help with cleanup at the site. But a legacy of courage, a legacy to remind future generations what heroism is about, is what’s left on this beautiful, placid reclaimed strip mine, where the sound of birds is all you can hear, unless you listen to the superintendent of one of our newest national parks, Steve Clark, give his emotional tour. Since 9/11, we’ve done a good job remembering the 2,977 who died in three sites at the hands of terrorists using American airplanes that day. But I never hear much about the Flight 93 National Memorial 20 minutes off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. One of the benefits of driving around the eastern half of the country on the annual training camp trip is you can detour to hidden, important historical gems like this one.
You see a long stone path that represents the final flight path of Flight 93, and then you see a boulder when plane met earth, with 40 individual marble panels representing the 33 passengers, five flight attendants and two pilots who died that day. Clark’s re-telling of the tale that day—with passengers on airphones (you used to be able to make phone calls from airplanes, with credit-card-activated phones able to dial family and friends at 35,000 feet)—brought us back to the morning 18 years ago. The airphones … that’s how some of the passengers found out what was going on that morning, with three flights having been weaponized to fly into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington.
On this peaceful, chilly morning, Clark said to me: “When they realized that third plane [hit the Pentagon], the passengers realized they’re not going back to an airport. It was a suicide mission. Common, everyday people devised a plan. They came together. They literally said, We have to do something.
A former rugby player named Todd Beamer gets much of the credit for devising the plan to storm the cockpit—and deservedly so. And it was his voice heard on one of those airphones saying, “Let’s roll!” that has been remembered by so many from that day.
“Ultimately,” Clark said, looking out at the bucolic meadow below, “at 9:57, Todd Beamer says, ‘Let’s roll!’ But it wasn’t just Todd Beamer. It was all of them—the young, the old, male, female, who came together to say, Not here, not now. We’re gonna try to do something to take back the airplane.
“So 2,977 people lost their life [in three sites] that day. That is tragic. No question. Think how many more lives would have been lost …”
If the passengers sat in their seats and accepted their fate and did nothing, would that plane have slammed into the Capitol? Or the Mall? Or some place teeming with people that day?
If you’re going to die, and you know it, what would you have done? I’d like to think I’d pull a Todd Beamer, but who knows? Who knows how any of us would react in that moment.
“They definitely saved countless lives,” Clark said. “In today’s world, Flight 93 is a reminder that in the face of absolute abject fear, do the right thing. Step up to do the right thing.”
The park’s volunteer coordinator, Katie Cordek, took us to see the 93-foot tower at the front of the park. She said there will be 40 wind chimes, representing the lost voices of the 40 victims. “We’ve been planting trees,’’ she said, “and in the last eight years, we’ve planted over 130,000 seedlings, and we’re going to be moving toward our goal of planting 150,000 trees. We’re turning this once very scarred landscape, as our country was that day, into a living memorial that will inspire with hope and the courage that these people had on Sept. 11.”
I walked away spent, emotional … and so grateful. Grateful for the heroes on board that day, grateful that the National Park Service has done such a dignified and fitting memorial to those heroes. Please visit this place.
Three days after Flight 93 crashed, outside the Somerset County (Pa.) Courthouse, there was a vigil to honor those who were lost. A couple of buses showed up unexpectedly, two buses of Pittsburgh Steelers taking the 90-minute ride toplay their respects. Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, Bill Cowher, multiple Rooney family members. Art Rooney II, now the Steelers president, and current GM Kevin Colbert, were there that night in Somerset County.
“It was a cool fall evening, a beautiful evening, 50 degrees, clear sky, almost a Hollywood-type lighting on the courthouse,” Colbert told me the other day at Steelers camp. “After the vigil, some of the victims’ family members got on the bus to thank Mr. Rooney, to thank Jerome and Coach Cowher. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
What’s your best habit, Cleveland defensive back Damarious Randall?
“Have the inner personality to always be positive, always see the bright side of things, even in the real, real dark situations, on the field and off. We can be in an awful storm and I’ll be in the locker room, all excited to play the game. Or a bad situation in the game, real bad, and I will ease guys’ minds. It’s gonna be okay.”
And your worst?
“Eating fast food too much. [Fast-food chicken restaurant] Raising Cane’s. I’m five minutes away from it. Chicken tenders and fries, I crush those, three to four times a week. Then I gotta work out so hard to make up for it.”
After the death of Banks eight days ago, everywhere I went, people were hurt.
Monday: I met Bill O’Brien at 6 a.m. in Green Bay, where the Texas were practicing with the Packers. “That is just awful about Don Banks,” he said. “Class guy. I read so much of what he did.”
Tuesday: At Browns’ camp, GM John Dorsey pointed to a golf cart he uses to get around camp, and to do interviews: “I just sat there with Don the other day, probably for a half-hour. He was so happy. He was just getting back into it, right? I could tell how happy he was. Had a little pep in his step. Man, he was a good interviewer. Knew exactly what to ask to get good stories out of you. This one hurts.”
Thursday: The Giants hold a moment of silence in the press box for Don before Jets-Giants. The Eagles leave a seat for Don in the press box.
Friday: A text from Colts GM Chris Ballard, saying he’s praying for me and the family.
Still surreal a week later. Thanks to everyone for their messages of support and love for Donnie Brasco in the past week.
Mail call. Send your comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
On Don Banks. From Michael Babcock, of Oakland: “Although I never met him, I do have a Don Banks story. After a playoff game, there was a mistaken reference in one of his ‘Snap Judgments’ columns. It was a game where the eventual winner was a late surprise and his reference had the wrong quarterback as the winning quarterback. I sent a private message via Twitter to Mr. Banks. As I recall, it was a pretty smarmy communication, a bit sarcastic. I was surprised when he replied. He sent me a very nice response thanking me for the correction, that it was in part of the column that had been written during the game and the correction got overlooked. Man, did I feel small. We tend to respond to emotions with like emotions; so we respond to anger with anger or sarcasm with sarcasm. It’s somewhat rare to see what Mr. Banks apparently was: a kind individual who responds to the best in another person. I will miss his ‘Snap Judgments’ and his other writing. He was a kind, decent man and the world is a somewhat poorer place for his absence.”
Perfect email, Michael. Thanks for it.
On Don II. From Emily Schumacher: “My heart is heavy for you and the Banks family. You, Don, and Dr. Z helped make me into the educated football fan I am today. In the late nineties all of you were go-to reading each week. I was so shocked to open your column with the sad news of Don’s passing. Thank you for showing us how much spring was in his step and how the Las Vegas gig was bringing him back. It’s probably fitting that his last breath was in Canton though it was much too soon. Thank you for being a conscience and constant voice in what has been a terrible weekend in this country for so many reasons. I’m sure the last day or so have not been easy. I hope you find time to celebrate Don in your own way.”
I’m okay, Emily, and thanks for asking. I so worry about Don’s family. His wife, Alissa, is very strong, and his boys, Matt and Micah, are amazing. But when the emotion of the moment turns to real life, and we all return to everyday lives, that’s when I hope Alissa, Micah, Matt and everyone in Don’s family orbit can find the strength to go on and take pieces of him with them. It’s interesting. The other day, I interviewed Terry Francona in Cleveland—about advice he might have for Freddie Kitchens, and about what the rebirth of the Browns feels like in Cleveland. So you may know Don and I were pretty big followers of the Red Sox; we debated every petty little thing about the team. In the last two or three years, I would enrage Don because I couldn’t get too ticked off at anything Sox-related that was negative. He treated some May losses like October losses, and I wasn’t there. Anyway … I got some good gossip from Francona, just fun inside-Sox stuff. I honestly thought at first, Gotta call Don and tell him this. So those are the moments when it hits me.
This will be the least of the Hall of Fame’s issues in 2020, but it’s worth noting. From Mike Gilles: “You mention annually the length of the Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony and speeches, and the challenges that presents. I can’t imagine how you must feel about the prospect of 20 potential enshrinees next year. Or do you think that may be rendered moot if many of them would be posthumous inductees from football’s golden age?”
Mike, I’m not sure how the Hall is going to handle it, but it is long, long, long past time for the Hall of Fame to rein in the speeches. It’s absurd to ask people in Canton to stay in their seats till midnight for this program. It’s a matter of the Hall being disciplined enough to have a rule about speech length and stick to it, and if people go over, they’ve got to start hearing music as happens at the Oscars. Or something like that. As far as the other issues in 2020, I hope the Hall listens to the voices of the voters who are very concerned about the so-called “one-time change” in the hallowed rules for enshrinement that ask us to voted for the majority of the class in a bloc. Not a good idea.
On the First Amendment. From Peter Varhol: “Thank you for sharing the story of Amie Just’s First Amendment tattoo. In the United States, the Fourth Estate toils largely without appreciation and often under hostility to bring an additional level of checks and balances on our political system. While those of the press aren’t perfect, they are the oil that makes the machinery of politics run without breaking down. We should offer the highest level of gratitude and thanks that this courageous group of people works on behalf of our government and people to bring transparency, enabling the people to decide if our representatives do the right things. It is highly likely that our government, ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,’ would not have otherwise survived to the current day.”
Wonderful email, Peter. Really important thoughts.
1. I think there’s been a cool reunion at ESPN: Ed Werder, one of the best TV journalists in the business who was laid off by the network in their massive layoffs in 2017, has been re-hired as a Dallas bureau reporter effective immediately. You may see him tonight, live on “SportsCenter,” reporting from Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, Calif. So yes, Werder can go home again—even to the place that whacked him three years ago. It’s believed that he’s the first employee laid off in 2017 to be rehired to full-time position since. The difference, most likely: Werder and his peers were let go in the John Skipper regime, and Werder was able to build a bridge to return with the new boss at ESPN, Jimmy Pitaro.
“When you were somewhere for 20 years, and you have allies in the building, and you never lost your love of the place, and you have dialog with a lot of people there over time, I hoped there would be an opportunity to return,” Werder told me over the weekend.
I asked Werder what it says that he was rehired—about him and about ESPN. “It says they’re emphasizing good journalism. I really feel relieved that we’ve reached a deal, and it’s final, and now it’s just the excitement of doing the job that I know I can do—and justifying the expectations that I have created for myself. I intend to.” Werder may cover more sports than football, and teams other than the Cowboys, the organization he regularly broke news on during his years there. He often rankled owner Jerry Jones with his reporting. “My contact list is strongest in the NFL, and my love is covering the NFL,” said Werder, 59. “But I’ve covered other sports, and I know I can.”
2. I think the most notable thing I saw in any preseason game happened in the Tampa Bay-Pittsburgh game. Last week, I told how coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich were all over Jameis Winston to take what the defense gives him, to stop trying to be a hero, to embrace the checkdown. So Winston threw six passes in Pittsburgh. One, a deep shot down the right side to Breshad Perriman, was overthrown. Incomplete. The other five balls were complete … and they traveled a total of nine yards in the air beyond the line of scrimmage. So let’s see if that continues. Arians doesn’t want to neuter Winston. He simply wants him to stop making some of the dumb mistakes he made (mostly from over-aggressiveness) in his first four Tampa Bay seasons.
3. I think this was the coolest story of the week that I saw on the camp trail: You may have seen that J.J. Watt, native of Wisconsin, was back in the state, practicing or playing in his homeland for the first time when the Texans scrimmaged the Packers in Green Bay on Monday. You may have seen the cute video of Watt choosing a kid from the crowd of youngsters proffering bikes to players to ride to practice from their locker room, which is a Packer camp tradition. Among the 125 to 150 kids, Watt chose one at random. Turns out the kid, unbeknownst to Watt, had just been diagnosed with Type I Diabetes and it was a tough time for the family. Then Watt got on the bike. He snapped the seat off. He rode it anyway, talking to the kid as he wheeled. When he was finished, he told Texans VP of Communications Amy Palcic to get the mom’s information so he could send her money to get a new bike. No, no, no, she said, you definitely don’t need to do that—this has been a life highlight for us. Palcic got the mom’s Venmo information and Venmoed her $150. The dad wrote Palcic to thank her and Watt, saying it was a particularly good day in light of the recent health problems of the boy. Just a nice moment.
4. I think you can overpay for a player in trade, and that player can still be a valuable piece for the acquiring team. That’s exactly the case with Houston paying a fourth-round pick that can easily rise to a third for backup Cleveland running back Duke Johnson. He’s versatile and productive. In the last two years, he’s run it 121 times for a 4.6-yard average, and caught 122 balls for a 9.3-yard average. Those are terrific numbers in what’s been a mediocre offense. But it’s also a big price. Bill O’Brien might need to trade for a tackle this summer, and so next year’s draft just might be denuded.
5. I think the best thing a contending team could do to strengthen its roster before Labor Day—other than the aforementioned proposed Trent Williams acquisition by the Texans from Washington—was done by Minnesota GM Rick Spielman on Sunday. Spielman outbid the Bears and Jets and at least one other interested team by sending a fifth-round pick to Baltimore for an intriguing kicker/punter named Kaare Vedvik, one of the most interesting stories in any camp. Vedvik, in Baltimore’s preseason opener, kicked four field goals, including a 55-yarder, and he had 58 and 53-yard punts in the game too. No showcased player in the NFL had a more significant week one of the exhibition season than Vedvik, a soccer player from Norway who learned the game later in life and kicked and punted at Marshall before catching the eye of the Ravens. Great move by the Vikings. A fifth-round pick for a reliable kicker/punter (if he turns out to be that) is a small price to pay for any playoff contender.
6. I think Bears GM Ryan Pace—still looking for an effective kicker after the playoff debacle of Cody Parkey—will regret not paying the piper for Vedvik. He won’t regret it today, but unless his kicker derby results in a keeper coming out of training camp, I’m pretty sure he’ll kick himself the first time the Bears’ kicker misses wide right from 36 yards. And it will happen. (Unless, of course, he misses wide left.)
7. I think I had this opinion as I left Eagles’ camp: Nate Sudfeld is one of the 10 most important players on a very strong roster. So that was a very bad thing that happened in the preseason opener, Sudfeld breaking his left wrist and being lost for part of the regular season. Now the Eagles will have to hope Cody Kessler, who was imported as insurance/third-QB purposes only, can hold the fort till Sudfeld gets back. Luckily for them, Sudfeld should be back by late September. For those who think it’s silly that a backup quarterback is one of the 10 most important people on the roster, just remember the last two mid-Decembers, when Carson Wentz was lost for the season. The backup quarterback has been vital two straight years for Philadelphia. Maybe the backup quarterback won’t matter to the Eagles this year, but you can’t count on that.
8. I think the NFL is a lesser place without Sonny Jurgensen in it. “I’ve decided to hang up my headphones and my clipboard,” Jurgensen said in a recorded message on the Washington radio broadcast Thursday night. “It’s been a great 55 years in Washington.” I had to look it up. Fifty-five years? Indeed. He played the final 11 years of a Hall of Fame quarterback career in Washington (1964-74), stayed in the area, then was the third man in the team’s radio booth from 1981 to 2018, often chewing a cigar during games and in the post-game locker room. Simply a swell guy, and absolutely not a homer. I had great admiration for him. And if you didn’t know Jurgensen as a quarterback, or never saw highlights, maybe all you need to know is this quote from Vince Lombardi, who coached Bart Starr in his prime and coached Jurgensen for one year (1969) before he died: “Jurgensen is a great quarterback. He is the best I have seen.”
9. I think that was a heck of a blow suffered by the Steelers on Sunday—the sudden death of receivers coach Darryl Drake at 62. No cause was given by the team. Drake was the last position coach for Antonio Brown as a Steeler, and the early success of JuJu Smith-Schuster can be credited in part to the inluence of Drake. “Darryl had such an impact on the players he coached and everyone he worked with throughout his entire career,” Pittsburgh president Art Rooney II said in a team statement. That’s an important position, obviously, this season for the Steelers, and Drake will be missed in many ways.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Story of the Week: by Gina Kolata of the New York Times, “Surgeons labored to save the wounded in El Paso mass shooting.” It’s a gem, particularly in the detail of what these bullets do to the shooting victims, and how we’ll all forget this by tomorrow.
b. Understanding what these shooting do, and then ignoring them after they happen, is what we do so well as a country. That ignorance is so incredibly un-American.
c. “What has to change? We have to do something. Why aren’t we?”
d. A few people have asked me in recent days, in effect, Okay, genius. What would you do? How would you fix the gun issue?
e. I don’t know. I really don’t. But the key is, we have to have the will to fix it first. The first reaction to all of these massacres can’t be, “Well, nothing we can do. Everyone has the right to own any gun, with any killing capacity.” No. The first reaction needs to be what the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, did—making it illegal to own the kind of killing machine used to shoot up mosques there, killing 51 people. Who’s running this country? The NRA or our elected officials?
About a week after the Giants drafted him sixth overall, quarterback Daniel Jones and his two sisters went out for ice cream in Charlotte, N.C., their hometown. While scooping Jones’s cookie dough, the man behind the counter glanced at a television showing highlights of another prominent Duke athlete, the basketball star Zion Williamson. The man remarked that he hoped the Knicks would draft Williamson.
Intrigued, Jones asked whether the man rooted for other New York sports teams, too — like, say, the Giants.
“Don’t even get me started on this draft pick,” he said. “Daniel Jones at six? Are you kidding me?”
Without hesitating, Jones replied: “Yeah, man, that’s crazy. Can’t believe they did that.”
g. I don’t credit Shpigel just because it’s a funny story. Shpigel picked the perfect opening to his story about Jones because it says everything about him, and the situation. From all accounts, Jones is self-deprecating to a fault and, like Eli Manning, doesn’t let the slings and arrows pierce his mental armor. And everyone, even friendly ice-cream scoopers, thinks the Giants blew it drafting Jones so high. So the choice of that anecdote to top a story about Jones was the perfect choice by a smart writer.
h. Story of the Week II: by Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times, on one of the best journalist-involved stories I’ve read—concerning the reunification of twins who never thought they’d be reunited.
i. Be proud, Barbara Demick. That is some great work. Stolen babies, rural China, uncooperative families … Demick persisted and worked and made something great happen.
j. “I am grateful to you. I can see that you raised her very well.”
k. Football Story of the Week: by Bob Kravitz of The Athletic, on Deon Cain’s rise from homelessness to being an important piece for the Colts at wide receiver. Kravitz, who is a gem, on a guy who is very easy to root for.
l. The Athletic is killing it. Big fan.
m. I love the Yankees-White Sox in Dyersville, Iowa, for a real game next August. Fantastic idea, playing a game at the Field of Dreams.
n. For Simone Biles to still not trust USA Gymnastics says so much about that organization. How can so much time have passed since the greatest athlete in the last summer games was traumatized by the Larry Nassar scandal, and how can USA Gymnastics have let its brightest star still be driven to tears by its inaction? There should be no higher priority for the federation than to devote every resource to be sure Biles and her peers feel safe in their training and their treatment.
o. So Thursday morning, after returning to Brooklyn late Wednesday night from two weeks on the training camp tour, I had to drive a rental car a mile from my apartment to the local Hertz location. (I have not owned a car since 2015.) I was talking on my cell phone when I saw the lights of a police car in my rear-view mirror. I pulled over. About to do a radio hit with Dan Patrick, I waited for the officer, and waited, and started the interview, and then had to hang up abruptly when the cop came to the door. He ticketed me, wrote it up, and handed it to me with instructions about what I should do if I wanted to appeal the violation. “No, I am guilty as sin,” I said. I took the ticket and drove away. In a couple of hours, Yahoo and FOX Sports had the story on the front page of their sites. I found it excessive, ridiculously so, but that’s life. Understand that it was not the ticket that I thought was wrong or excessive. It was the coverage of it, which was absurd. To be clear: I respect the law, I respect this law, I respect the fact that so many people have been injured or killed by distracted driving, and I was in the wrong here. I should have been ticketed, and I learned my lesson—I will not have my phone to my ear in the driver’s seat from this day forward.
p. It is official, as I discovered sitting in Dulles Airport and listening to an oldies station on Muzak, or whatever the awful service was: “Sometimes When We Touch” by Dan Hill is the worst song in the history of music.
q. Don’t even argue with me on that. It is unquestionable.
r. Coffeenerdness: I implore you, TownePlace Suites and SpringHill Suites: Please at least try with your coffee in the morning. It’s dreadful, the kind of coffee-flavored water travelers drink mindlessly because they have no other option.
s. Beernerdness: On the way into Cleveland on Tuesday, as the driving portion of the training camp tour wound down, we stopped at Sibling Revelry Brewery on the west side of the city for a quick tasting and tour. (A tasting at 8:45 a.m. … Now that’s what I call a start to a great day.) I liked the IPA, and I liked a very strange brew I was doubting—a lavender-infused witbier. And I really liked the “Red” American Red Ale, with a light feel but a bold hoppy taste. I’d drink four of these on a sunny summer afternoon watching the Francona men. And my thanks to Sibling for hosting our crew so early in the day, which was our only option. Great folks there.
t. RIP Joseph White, the longtime AP sports writer from Washington. Class guy and giving human being.
u. Now for this week’s newspapers, from Cleveland to Pittsburgh to Latrobe to New York and finally, unexpectedly, Sunday’s Washington Post, on a surprise layover. Support the press, folks.
The flying portion of the tour commenced Sunday with a debacle. This debacle:
5 a.m. Ride from Brooklyn to JFK Airport.
6:25 a.m. Board American flight to Phoenix. Depart at about 6:55.
8:05 a.m. “DING DING DING DING DING DING DING DING” in the aircraft, I imagine somewhere over western Pennsylvania. Scurrying among flight attendants. Pilot, calmly, says we’ve lost computer systems on board and we’ll have to turn back and land at Dulles Airport in Virginia, near Washington.
8:33 a.m. On approach, pilot says don’t mind all those fine engines and ambulances we’ll see; all is well. Kevin Bacon-like.
8:38 a.m. All actually is well. Pilot lands the plane the old-fashioned way, by his wits.
NBC videographer Kaitlin Urka and I wait, a lot. No chance to make the 11 a.m.-noon media period with the Cardinals, so we cancel. We book a 1:20 p.m. connection to San Francisco via Detroit, because we’re due at the Raiders on Monday.
1:10 p.m. “We’re delayed,” says the woman at the gate. “We do not have a crew.” That seems essential for a flying machine.
2:15 p.m. We depart Dulles for Detroit. We miss the connection by 10 minutes. We re-book on a 5:40 p.m. flight to SFO, and I watch Matt Barnes blow a 4-3 lead on the TV in the bar. Angels 5, Red Sox 4, 10 innings. Another cab, barkeep.
5:10 p.m. We board. I hear vague talk about the catering being delayed. Pilot says catering will delay the flight.
6:25 p.m. We push back from the gate, 12 hours exactly from when I boarded at JFK. I could have driven from Brooklyn to the Detroit airport and had a nice lunch along the way in the time it’s taken to resume this trip.
8:22 p.m. PT. Land in San Francisco. “There’s a plane occupying our gate,” the pilot says. We sit on the tarmac for 22 minutes.
10:35 p.m. PT. Go to bed. So you wanted the active life of a reporter.
Here’s how the rest of it shapes up:
Today: Raiders (Napa, Calif.). It’ll be interesting to see if the air is scented with Antonio Brown napalm.
Tuesday: 49ers (Santa Clara, Calif.). As Jimmy goes, so go the Niners.
Wednesday: Rams (Thousand Oaks, Calif.). Is there a Super Bowl hangover? I doubt it.
Thursday: Seahawks (Renton, Wash.). Seattle strikes me as a big-time laying-in-the-weeds team.
Friday: Chargers (Costa Mesa, Calif.). Joint practice with the Saints for one of the NFL’s more compelling teams.
Saturday: Cardinals. (Glendale, Ariz.). Better luck on this visit.
retired. What a football life.
Arm like a cannon.