This is the 67th draft for Pro Football Hall of Fame personnel evaluator Gil Brandt, which means he’s worked all but 19 NFL drafts. When you get to be 89, you’ve seen a lot of things.
“This one ranks first, in terms of how unusual it is,” Brandt said Saturday. “The opt-outs kind of remind me when we used to draft guys, then lose them for a year or two in the military. Very seldom did they come back the players they were. The same principal is involved here.”
Never has there been a draft when the top three offensive linemen, all likely to be picked in the top 20, come in after a year off from football. Never has there been a draft when one of the top corners, Caleb Farley, will be drafted having not played a football game in the previous 512 days. And never has there been a draft when a quarterback likely to be drafted in the top 10, Trey Lance, has played one football game in 15 months. This is why a few teams have deferred some picks to the future. Miami has two first-round picks in 2022 and ’23, Philly could have three ones next year, and the Jets have an extra one and two next year. “I love getting picks next year,” Brandt said. “This year, a pick you’d get in the fourth round might be the quality of a sixth-round pick next year.”
With round one looming (Lord, this thing takes forever to get here, does it not?), we’ll be draft-heavy this week. Plus, these bold-face names/topics: U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio), the 32nd pick in the 2007 draft; Julian Edelman; Sam Darnold; Hope Trautwein; Crazy numbers on tap; New Rules; Replay fix might be in trouble; Christian McCaffrey; Gambling; Adam Schefter; Marshawn Lynch; Anthony Fauci; Vaxxing.
Anthony Gonzalez will soon introduce major legislation affecting college athletes all over the country—and we’ll break the news here. As interesting as that news is, my conversation with him yielded something that’s encouraging about our country at a time when there might not be a lot to be encouraged about.
“I love this job,” Gonzalez told me from his Washington office Friday. “I love this job more than my NFL job, frankly. . . . We’re going to keep doing it as long as the voters will have us.”
“Wait,” I said. “You like this job better than running go routes for Peyton Manning?”
“Yeah, actually,” Gonzalez said. “That job had some amazing perks too! This is just a personal thing. I used to think I was motivated by money. It turns out it’s impact that’s more important for me. I got to wake up every day for five years thinking about how to win Super Bowls. And that’s awesome. It’s as cool as anything you can do, especially fresh out of college. The only thing I have found professionally that is better than that, or that I get more excited about, is having the opportunity every single day to wake up thinking about how to make our country better, how to make my community better, how to make us stronger, how to make us more resistant to threats, domestic or foreign, and just make sure that the gift of America that we all inherit, that when I pass it on to my kids, that it’s in better shape than it was when it came to me.”
Mock Draft alert! My one and only one is out next Monday. I am not confident, but that’s nothing new.
For now, what I know, and hear, about the draft, 10 days out:
3. SAN FRANCISCO. Today’s the last day of substance in fact-finding for the Niners, with GM John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan expected in Fargo at North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance’s second workout. The leader in the clubhouse is still Alabama’s Mac Jones, but that’s all Jones is. Credit to Lynch and Shanahan for keeping a tight lid on their preference. I keep coming back to Jones’ accuracy (his 77.4-percent season in 2020 is the most accurate in major-college history) and his touch downfield, with the best accuracy of the top five quarterbacks on passes thrown 20 yards or more downfield.
I think Shanahan will value accuracy and presence over athleticism and prefer Jones, but that’s not inside info—just my gut feeling.
4. ATLANTA. Pivot point of the draft. Falcons are doing a great job of disguising their intentions and, per Tom Pelissero of NFL Network, will have three reps at the Lance workout today.
What I’m hearing: Owner Arthur Blank is fascinated by the quarterbacks atop the draft, thinking the franchise might not be in such an advantageous position to take one for years. But Blank will not force a decision—of that I am sure. He hired GM Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith and won’t big-foot them on their first big call. Smith likes the quarterbacks too, but also likes Matt Ryan, who will play at 36 this fall and likely has four or five solid years left. Fontenot may—and I emphasized may, because I’ve heard varying things here—prefer to trade out of the pick for a ransom, if one is there. But Smith and Fontenot are also value shoppers too. The value here is to take the best non-quarterback in the draft, tight end Kyle Pitts.
5. CINCINNATI. How the Bengals don’t take Oregon tackle Penei Sewell is beyond me, especially because this draft is filthy-rich in receivers—as with every recent draft. But I also hear the drumbeat is loud for Ja’Marr Chase, who made such beautiful music with Joe Burrow in 2019 at LSU (average game: 127 receiving yards, 21.2 yards per catch). Clearly, I’d vote for the Joe Burrow Preservation Plan, and start this draft tackle at 5, guard at 38. Burrow’s good enough, if he has time, to win with Tee Higgins, Tyler Boyd and a lesser third option (Rondale Moore?).
6. MIAMI. The football world is sure GM Chris Grier wants to come out of round one with a major weapon (Pitts or Chase, perhaps). Grier’s an aggressive man, but I doubt he’d use part of his stash of picks (overall picks 6, 18, 36, 50 this year) to move up to four to get the weapon of Miami’s dreams. He knows he can stay at six and get one of the four electric pass-catchers in the draft. Grier’s maneuvering over the past two years has left him in the power position to do what he and coach Brian Flores really want to do—no question about that. My gut is they stay at six and get the BAW—best available weapon.
8. CAROLINA. The Panthers are in an intriguing spot. Smart money says one of the five quarterbacks will still be on the board at eight, so new Panthers GM Scott Fitterer could be in the luxurious position of having three options: Picking the quarterback and giving him a comfy redshirt year behind Sam Darnold, or trading to a team desperate for, say, Justin Fields here, or taking a very solid player to continue the Carolina rebuild.
One thing I do know (and not just because Matt Rhule just spent a learning day with Jimmy Johnson, who always had a trove of picks to work with) is Carolina wants to come out of this draft with more picks than the seven it currently holds. The average team has 8.1 picks in an NFL draft, including Compensatory Picks. Over the last eight drafts, Carolina has averaged 6.3 picks per year. Knowing Rhule and Fitterer, that’s got to burn them. Particularly after trading three picks for Darnold, look for them to work to gain more April 29-May 1.
9. DENVER. Maybe one of those future picks for Carolina could come from Denver. Connecting dots here: What if new GM and Vikings transplant George Paton (in the room when Teddy Bridgewater was Minnesota’s first-round pick in 2014) passes on a quarterback in, say, the first three rounds and Bridgewater needs a home? Maybe Paton wouldn’t mind putting some veteran heat on Drew Lock. This was not my idea, but I think it makes a lot of sense, particularly if Carolina softens the cap blow by helping with the cash owed Bridgewater.
10. DALLAS. Another trade-up spot for a QB-seeking team if one’s still available. Said one NFC coach: “I can’t see how the Cowboys pass up [Northwestern tackle] Rashawn Slater if he’s there. That offensive line is declining fast.”
15. NEW ENGLAND. Bill Belichick has run or been a chief honcho in 25 drafts—four in Cleveland, 21 in New England. Never has he picked a quarterback in the first round. Once has he picked a quarterback in the second round (Jimmy Garoppolo, 2014). Never has he picked a quarterback in the top 60 of a draft. So you might look at all that history and eliminate the Pats from moving up to 10 or nine or eight to pick a passer. I wouldn’t eliminate that chance, because Belichick is proving this year that there’s no book on roster-building for him, particularly in the post-Brady era. Now, I doubt the Pats will trade next year’s first-round pick, the likely cost to move up into QB-acquisition position, but nothing’s certain with the Patriots now.
As we learned from the un-Belichickian spending spree in free agency, Belichick will do what is best for his franchise in a given year. Now, if they don’t pick a passer in round one, Florida’s Kyle Trask at 46 or 96 (their picks in rounds two and three) wouldn’t surprise me.
Scattering some other observations:
• “DeVonta Smith is one of the best football players I’ve ever seen,” said one GM. “I know he scares teams with his size [170 pounds], but his hands and his presence and how smart he plays . . . I think he’ll have an incredible career.”
• “If I could pick one player in this draft who’s got the best chance to go to the Hall of Fame, it’s Penei Sewell,” one coach told me. “He’s my left tackle from day one.”
• Asked another coach about Gil Brandt’s most-unusual-draft-ever statement, and this coach said: “I agree wholeheartedly. And I agree about how worried he is about the opt-outs. This year’s unprecedented. I’m worried about all the things we don’t know. We don’t really know the prospects, personally or medically, the way we should.”
• Kyle Trask could go anywhere from the bottom of the first round to the fourth. He’s an incredible story. Never started a game in high school, playing behind current Miami QB D’Eriq King. Got scholarshipped out of a Florida football camp to play for the Gators—and told me he would have gone to McNeese State otherwise. Redshirted in ’16, broken foot in ’17, broken foot in ’18. Threw 68 TDs and 15 picks in his last two seasons, and nearly passed Florida to a stunning upset of Alabama in the SEC title game last December.
Big and a bit plodding, but Trask’s QB tutor, John Beck, told me after his workouts in California this winter: “He threw with pro accuracy the entire time. Very consistent thrower, and really can drive the ball.”
Trask told me that his college experience has taught him the “why” of decision-making. “I think that, plus my work on accuracy, consistency and timing has me ready for the next level.” I asked if he had any preference of how high he’s drafted, or by which team. “I am not concerned at all with the number I’m picked,” he said. “I’m just concerned with going to the right team for me. I’m not afraid of competition.” Good answer.
• Sam Darnold worked out with his new franchise back, Christian McCaffrey, in southern California last week. My gut feeling? Darnold is hoping for the best tackle available at eight. He’s already got the weaponry, including McCaffrey and wideouts D.J. Moore and Robbie Anderson, to be good enough on offense. “You could see the communication and chemistry being built already,” said Jordan Palmer, the offseason QB coach for Darnold. “They’re on the same page about a lot of things already. For Sam, that’s 20-plus snaps every game where the quarterback doesn’t have to manufacture a play.”
• The problem with Baltimore tackle Orlando Brown, who wants to be traded to a team who would play him at left tackle, may not be Baltimore agreeing on a fair trade. Although Brown has offered to play this season on the last year of his rookie deal ($3.38 million), he would soon need a new deal, and figuring that out in a time of such cap uncertainty could be a problem.
• The five players in this draft Gil Brandt loves:
1. Jaelan Phillips, pass-rusher, Miami. “He’s the guy everybody will be talking about two years from now. A bit of medical risk due to concussions, but to me he has the biggest upside in the draft. You hit on him, you’ve hit a home run with the bases loaded.”
2. Elijah Moore, wide receiver, Mississippi. “Really fast. A 4.35 guy who could be a lot like A.J. Brown out of Ole Miss a couple of years ago. Not the same body type, but I think Moore will be better in the NFL than he was in college.”
3. Kyle Pitts, tight end, Florida. “Best I’ve seen since Kellen Winslow out of Missouri. Such a fluid guy. The size and speed will be a huge matchup problem in the NFL.”
4. Penei Sewell, tackle, Oregon. “Reminds me of Jonathan Ogden.”
5. Michael Carter, running back, North Carolina. “Love this guy. He shared the job at UNC, but 6.6 yards per carry in his career. I think he’ll lead all rookie running backs in yards in the league next year.”
• Asked Zach Wilson’s QB coach, John Beck, about Wilson’s fit in the Jets’ offense. “I think it’s a perfect fit. In that offense, there’s Kyle [Shanahan], there’s [Packers coach] Matt LaFleur, there’s [Jets OC] Mike LaFleur, there’s [Rams coach] Sean McVay, and they all recognize what works best in that offense. If I could have hand-picked from the offenses I know well, which one would have fit Zach best, it would absolutely be that one. He brings such a skill set to get out on the edges, to be used in the keeper game, the play-pass game, he can drive balls in very small space off unique platforms as he’s moving.
“From my understanding, the interviews are going really well with teams. The Jets are getting to know Zach as best as they possibly can, outside of being able to do a private workout.”
And about his fit outside of Utah for the first time in his life? Beck: “We’ve talked about that, the culture shock and how different it is. It’s just the reality of the United States. He’s been to New York, as like a tourist. There will be a culture shock, being so far from home. He’s a family kid, grew up in Draper, Utah, went to BYU, very tight with his siblings and his parents, first time he’s away, but it’s a great life experience. He’ll be good with it.”
Regarding the spate of teams whose players do not plan to attend the voluntary offseason workouts, five thoughts.
1) The workouts have morphed from “voluntary” to “you must not like football much if you skip them” over the years, so I am all for players who say they’re not showing up. The players, though, must understand possible consequences. If some in your position group show up and you don’t, and if they’re ahead of you come training camp, that’s the cost of not going.
2) I would bet that some players on teams that issued statements saying players won’t be attending the voluntary workouts will actually attend them—and we won’t know it. There’s no benefit for teams to announce which players are attending and which are not.
3) For the players saying they’re staying away over fears of COVID-19 exposure, come on. If players work out at home gyms away from strangers, of course it’s safer. But it is folly to think that players who work out at a public gym, for instance, will be safer than working out at a team facility with COVID safety precautions in place. And here’s an idea if you’re concerned about COVID: get vaccinated.
4) Players who work out in team facilities are covered if they’re injured while doing so. Players injured while working out on their own are not covered, and teams could choose to not pay them. Do players know that?
5) I like the union flexing its muscles and making sure players know they don’t have to go to these workouts. At the same time, every player should make his own decision, particularly a player who has a contract clause paying him for attending X percent of offseason workouts. The union says it will support players with such clauses, which is the right thing to do.
This will be bad for first-year coaches, and for some second-year coaches (Mike McCarthy for one) making staff changes, and for teams with a personnel makeover (New England for one). But teams will figure it out. They always do. Last year, Cleveland had a new coaching staff, a bunch of new players and new schemes and went 11-5 and won a playoff game. Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl despite Tom Brady not huddling with his new offense till a month before the first game of the season. I feel pretty sure coaches are smart enough to make all systems work if players report to camp 47 days before the first game of the season.
A few more notes:
• The league, I hear, is leaning toward relaxing COVID safety restrictions in-house if Tier 1 and 2 employees on a given team (those who come into contact with players most days) reach 85 percent vaccination rate and players on that given team also reach 85 percent vax rate.
• Finally, regarding new rules for the season. The league had a Zoom call for owners, GMs and coaches to explain the new rules proposals last Wednesday, and teams will vote this Wednesday (April 21) on rules that I’ve been telling you about in recent columns. What I’m hearing entering Wednesday:
a. I thought the expansion of duties to the upstairs Replay Assistant was sure to pass before last Wednesday’s briefing, but now I’m not so sure. The presentation left some on the videoconference confused about the powers of the Replay Assistant and the involvement of the New York command center. One coach told me he didn’t think it would pass, while one league official said it’ll be close.
b. The Kansas City proposal to liberalize the numbers each position group can wear should pass easily. “Some of the crankiness about things like that needs to go away,” one club official said.
c. The Buffalo proposal to not allow interviews for head-coaching and GM jobs till after the championship games, with no hires for those positions till after the Super Bowl, probably will not pass. “Everyone agrees the system is flawed and needs fixing—we can’t have pandemonium on coaching staffs in the playoffs,” said one club executive. “We just don’t have agreement on exactly what’s the most sensible way.” The Bills’ plan is perfectly sensible. I’d love to see Roger Goodell push hard for that one.
d. Overtime likely will not change. “Spot and choose” (one team proposing that OT’s first possession start on, say, its 15-yard line, with the opponent choosing whether to play offense or defense) is too revolutionary for a staid league to accept after a month or so of consideration.
e. Fourth-and-15 instead of the onside kick looks doomed. (This would give a team, after scoring, a chance to convert an offensive fourth-and-15 play in order to continue a drive.) Teams are too worried about ticky-tack defensive pass interference calls giving life to a desperation play.
Anthony Gonzalez played receiver for Ohio State from 2004-06, and he got to understand the inequity of athletes who help make millions for big schools and having no ability to monetize that. Now a second-term Republican Congressman from Ohio’s 16th district, Gonzalez is going to try to do something about it. He’ll soon introduce legislation allowing college athletes to capitalize on their name, image and likeness. Today, college athletes cannot work at sports camp or give private lessons or sign autographs in exchange for money. As Gonzalez says, it’s like telling a math scholar that he/she can’t make money on the side by tutoring students.
There’s a time crunch here: California has enacted a name, image and likeness law, and other states are working to do the same; theoretically, universities in states with NIL laws could have a major recruiting edge over states without them. Gonzalez seeks to set one uniform national standard.
“It’s an incredible life-changing experience to play college sports,” Gonzalez said. “I wouldn’t be sitting in this seat if I didn’t play at Ohio State. There are so many great, positive things about college athletics, not just football, but all the sports. Having said that, there’s an obvious inequity in my view between what the college athlete is allowed to do with their own name, image and likeness, and what everybody else in society is able to do. . . . I think the legislation that myself and Emanuel Cleaver [D-Mo.], who’s my partner on the Democratic side, are going to introduce, likely next week, will expand the name, image and likeness right to all college athletes and have one universal standard across the country and then build some guard rails, because there are some things you want to make sure don’t happen. Like, people buying recruits for example.”
Gonzalez hopes to get legislation passed by late this year or early 2022. In the grand scheme of things, he knows it’s not the most front-of-mind in this country, but with several states moving to create a law similar to California’s, the imbalance in college athletics could be big, and soon.
He said he’s not in favor of paying college athletes. “I think it would destroy college sports,” he said. This bill, he thinks, would not just benefit the college quarterback and stars on the basketball team.
“Some folks who are great college players who could make a good bit of money on name, image and likeness may not go to the pros,” Gonzalez said. “Their game may not translate to the NFL or to the NBA. This is an opportunity for them to make a little bit of money . . . just to pay their bills, which when you’re in college, you can barely manage to do that. And to do it in a way that’s legal and appropriate. I do believe it’ll apply to all college athletes. So, if people think almost exclusively about football and basketball, I do think if you look at the social media followings of some of our female athletes, I think you’re going see them able to take advantage of it for sure. My wife was a college swimmer. She went to Stanford so she lived in Palo Alto, which is a very expensive city. And the name, image and likeness laws today wouldn’t allow for something like teaching swim class or hosting a swim camp to make a few extra bucks to live in Palo Alto. With our bill, everybody can do something like that.”
I wondered if Gonzalez has talked to coaches, and whether they’re against introducing the concept of some players making money and some not on college teams. “I’ve been talking to coaches throughout this process,” he said, “as well as players and administrators and conferences—and the NCAA. Initially, the coaches were pretty skeptical … There was a lot of concern about, ‘Well, how am I going to deal with this if my quarterback is making this much money but my right guard isn’t? How do we manage that?’ I think they’ve come around to it for a whole host of reasons. My response to that is always, ‘Well, that’s kind of how it works in the NFL and the locker rooms are actually very good.’ You just figure it out.”
It’s a sound idea. I’d love to get reader feedback about it—email@example.com—and I’ll use some of your thoughts next Monday.
Julian Edelman retired the other day after 620 NFL catches and one Super Bowl MVP. His road from converted Mid-American Conference quarterback (he never played anything else) to invaluable Patriots receiver fascinates me. So to commemorate his unlikely career, I thought I’d tell you how it happened. Two years ago, after he won the MVP in the Super Bowl win over the Rams, Edelman gave me some time at his home in California. When I asked about his hopes and dreams after his career as a Kent State option quarterback ended, he said, “I remember everything about that time like it was yesterday.”
The roots of Edelman, in his words:
In my 2008 college season, our last game was in Buffalo. They were the Mid-American Conference champs, and we ended up with a great road win. After the game my coach told me, “British Columbia wants to buy your negotiation rights. They want to see if you can play quarterback in the Canadian league.” Now, the CFL was cool—I loved Doug Flutie. I had a 7 Chargers jersey when I was in high school. But ultimately it came down to a gut decision where I didn’t grow up as a kid wanting to play in the CFL. I grew up wanting to play in the NFL.
I hired my representation, Yee & Dubin sports, and Don Yee—Tom’s agent—told me, “I think you can play in the league.” Once I heard that from a legitimate guy, Tom Brady’s agent, that was it—I was going for it.
It was a tricky year because I had these big numbers, running and throwing in college. This was the year after the big Wildcat gimmick. I was a quarterback, and I didn’t lift weights. I go to this facility over in Euclid, Ohio, and I start working and lifting and training, and about two weeks in, Charlie Frye was there. Charlie was on his way to playing for the Raiders that season. I was just in awe, catching balls from an NFL quarterback.
Charlie started teaching me little things like technique on out-routes and depths on this, depths on that. He had buddies of his who played in the league and they’d coach me up here and there and I just watched them do it and learned that way. That’s when I started getting confidence that I could play because we’d throw 55 routes every day. I’d go all out on these workouts. This was life or death to me at this point. Once I got in that mode it was like three months of just insane discipline. Charlie even threw at my Pro Day. I ended up lighting up the drills, the three-cone drills and all those things. And Charlie had me coached up with a lot of receiver things, so I did well there too.
But no one knew exactly what I was. I started getting all these workouts from teams. The Steelers wanted to see me backpedal—they wanted to see if I could play safety. Cleveland came in and worked me out at a couple of positions. The Patriots came in, and [running backs coach] Ivan Fears had me do running back drills—like, could I be a third-down back? He put me on the board to see if I knew protections. I’m on the board, really making things up, kind of like an idiot. When that was over, I’m like, “The Patriots definitely don’t want me.” Then a week later Scotty O’Brien, the special-teams coach for the Patriots, comes in and tests me catching punts and kickoffs. So a bunch of other teams came and worked me out, a lot of them as a receiver. Then I took some visits to different organizations. I went to Chicago with [general manager] Jerry Angelo and he said, “We’re probably not going to draft you. We’ll try to pick you up as a free agent.” Then Miami brought me in. That was intriguing to me to see Miami for the first time. They had the Wildcat going and so I was over there, big-eyed and bushy-tailed over that. I met with the 49ers a bunch.
The Patriots never brought me in. Never called.
So, in the draft, it’s the sixth round, and all of a sudden, a bunch of teams start calling. “Hey, we’re not going to draft you but we’ll give you 20 grand to come be a priority free agent.” We had probably four, five teams calling. Don Yee says, “You know, I think the best fit for you would be the Packers. If you don’t get drafted, we’ll go to the Packers.” He felt that this would be the best role for me. And then he also says, right before he hangs up, “New England did trade for another seventh-rounder. I wouldn’t be surprised but I don’t know.”
Seventh round. All of a sudden I got a call from a 508 area code [Massachusetts]. I believe it was Bill Belichick’s assistant, Berj Najerian. “Hey Julian. I’m with New England. We’re gonna draft you. Here’s Coach Belichick.”
I’m sitting there like I don’t know what to do. Bill Belichick! He gets on the phone and says, “Hey, Julian? Well, uh, you’re a hell of a football player. We don’t know what you’re gonna play but we’ll see you at Rookie Camp.” I’m like, “All right coach! I’ll see you!”
My first experience with Tom Brady . . . We go in early for a rookie camp. I remember Tom walked in and I got my big ol’ four-inch binder. He goes, “Hey, I’m Tom.” I almost dropped my book. I’m like holy smokes, that’s Tom Brady. I’m a Bay Area kid, I was a big fan. He goes, “Hey Julian.” He knew my name, too. I’m trying to study calculus with basic math knowledge. That’s what you’re going through and then Tom Brady walks in the door and so it was funny but it was a very welcoming hello.
That first year was tough. I mean, it wasn’t just Tom. We had Randy Moss in the room. We had Wes Welker. We had Joey Galloway. We had Sam Aikens who was a special teams guru and a really good receiver. They traded for a guy, Greg Lewis. You’re sitting here in this room with nine other guys, playing the numbers game. How many do they keep? Not 10!
You’re not used to the speed of the game. You’re not used to a lot of things. But you have to act like you belong. Because if you don’t, they’re going to replace you. I learned about what was important there. I think they grade people differently, honestly. They don’t want distractions. They want guys that are versatile. They want mentally tough football players. I learned that from the guys above me—Kevin Faulk, Tom, Wes Welker. I think it was the perfect team for me, because I was a fit for the kind of person they wanted, and I learned how to be a player. In the NFL, if you’re not mentally ready for a dog fight, you’ve lost. And I was ready for a dog fight, every week.
From those humble beginnings as the 232nd pick of the 2009 draft to the Super Bowl MVP less than 10 years later, it’s hard to imagine that the offensive coordinator of the Patriots, Josh McDaniels, would say to Edelman before Super Bowl LIII: “You’re gonna have to play well for us to win.” Edelman, in the 2018 postseason, had one of the best playoff runs ever for a receiver: three games, 35 targets from Brady, 26 catches, 388 yards—including 10 for 141 against the stingy Rams in the 13-3 Super Bowl win.
You always gotta believe in yourself and if you can ignore noise and genuinely find out what you have to work on, and work hard . . . Working hard at something, just working hard, is not going to do it. You need to find out through a coach, through self-scout, through anything in your life that you want to be good at. You need to find out someone who’s either been there, done that, or someone that can help you to learn that and work hard at those things specifically at tasks and skills that you need. That’ll give you your best shot to succeed and ultimately you gotta believe in yourself.
Of course it’s human nature to always have some sort of doubt, to hear the naysayers, but if you genuinely try to block those things out, and work extremely hard under conditions where people are doing other things and sacrificing time. If you really want to be good at something that you have a talent at and you work hard, I mean, there’s no reason why you can’t. I’m living proof.
There are lots of great athletic achievements every day, every week, every year. I will put University of North Texas softball pitcher Hope Trautwein’s performance eight days ago against any achievement in recent sporting times. You may have heard what Trautwein, a right-hander with a 66-mph rising fastball, did on the afternoon of April 11 in Pine Bluff, Ark., against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Trautwein pitched a perfect game: 21 batters up, 21 down. All 21 outs were strikeouts. No batter hit a fair ball. That’s the first time in NCAA softball history that every out in a perfect game was a strikeout. So: a perfect perfect game.
Strikes: 66. Balls: 11. Three-ball counts: 0.
We are all products of our environment. Mine is the dad of a wonderful daughter and ex-softball pitcher in Montclair, N.J., Mary Beth King. (Now Mary Beth Burek, happily married in Seattle.) Starting at age 9 or 10, Mary Beth began pitching lessons in an indoor softball center in Fairfield, N.J., with Seton Hall’s head softball coach, Ray Vander May. I was the catcher. The balls were all over the place for two or three years, but Mary Beth could hum that pill. When she wasn’t hitting people or walking them, she was striking a lot of them out. A couple of years into her pitching experiment, she struck out 15 of 18 outs in a tournament in central New Jersey. And as she progressed, into middle school and then into high school, through a broken elbow and bouts of wildness, she battled through and found herself winning games against some of the best pitchers in New Jersey. Because she was one tough SOB. She’d hit a batter in high school and not be sympathetic, but rather angry because the girl was crowding the plate. She plowed through a 14-inning county-tournament win against our arch-rivals, tripling and scoring the winning run in the bottom of the 14th because, after 190 pitches, she had nothing left for the 15th. Anyway, it was a fun to be able to sit on the big paint bucket and catch her during lessons for years and then to see what happened when she devoted herself to something in a very competitive environment.
All of that is why the Hope Trautwein game hit me the way it did. Mary Beth struck out 15 and 17 in different high school games. But 21 in seven innings? Striking out 21 out of 21 hitters? No way.
Trautwein threw one ball in the first inning, five in the fourth, two in the sixth and three in the seventh. In the second, third and fifth innings, she retired every batter strike-strike-strike.
“It didn’t seem all that incredible as it was happening,” Trautwein told me. “But seeing the impact that it’s had, all the attention it’s gotten . . . I feel like if I’d been watching a game where every out’s a strikeout, I’d be thinking, ‘That is insane.’ “
It’s insane, Hope.
She told me her dad caught her, too. She was a dancer early on, till age 10, when she broke her collarbone and quit dancing. She was bigger than her peers, and so when she started pitching, at 10 or 11, she felt she had a built-in advantage. “When I first started,” she said, “my dad wouldn’t let me stop till I threw 30 into the glove. Then it became 35, then 40, then 50. I just had the natural athletic ability, and I threw it harder than the other girls. When I played little league, I either struck you out or I hit you. When I hit a girl, I’d cry.”
And then . . . “In my high school career, and in travel ball, I always played up. I skipped 14 and 16, played 18-and-under early. I was going to go to junior college after high school, but my JC coach moved on, and I had to find another school.”
The University of North Texas. She majored in business, graduated last December, and now is on an MBA course. Then the road trip to Pine Bluff, Ark.
“First time through the lineup, I think I threw nine, nine, and nine pitches. I think, right? I think I get to the fourth inning and I haven’t even thrown a ball yet.”
No. One ball in the first inning. Then none till the fourth. First hitter 2-2, swing and miss. Second hitter 1-2, called strike three. Third hitter 1-2, foul, foul, ball, swing and miss.
Five balls in the last three innings. Two foul balls on bunt attempts. Arkansas-Pine Bluff trying anything to reach base. Fruitless.
“It’s overwhelming,” Trautwein said. “It is incredible to see all the girls I have admired in softball over the years retweeting me and commenting on me, it’s such a blessing. I am just thrilled that it all happened.”
“So when you finish school,” I asked, “what are your plans?”
“I have no idea,” Trautwein said. “I want to share my passion of softball, I know that. But I want to enjoy the time I have left in the game. I have plenty of time to figure everything else out.”
Perfect. Enjoy the game. You’ve got plenty of time for real life, Hope Trautwein.
“We’ve known for years that this is a voluntary workout where a lot of coaches put their finger on the scale, and while they call it voluntary, they expect players to show up. I think that what you’re seeing now is for the first time, players exercising their voice, or one of the first times people exercising their voice to say no. And frankly it’s probably one of the few times that coaches have ever heard players say no. And for some players it’s probably the first time they’ve said no to their coach. But this is a negotiated, bargained for, voluntary offseason workout.”
—NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, on the union’s push to keep players out of voluntary workouts this spring.
“Being quarterback for Jacksonville will feel like less than what it’s felt like being the face of college football for three years.”
That’s a really interesting point. Not sure I agree, because Lawrence had so much help at stacked Clemson than he’ll ever have with the Jaguars. But after the initial craze of being the first pick in the draft, Palmer may be right. Think of Joe Burrow last year in Cincinnati. He blended into the scenery after a while on a bad team.
“I’ve always said, ‘I’ll go till the wheels come off.’ And they finally have fallen off.”
—Wide receiver Julian Edelman, announcing his retirement from football last week at age 34.
“What is a disgusting act?”
—Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk with an item from Andrew Marchand of the New York Post that Joe Buck will be a guest host of “Jeopardy!” this year.
Joe Buck, for those not familiar with the comment, once admonished Randy Moss on national television for simulating hiney-wipage on a Lambeau Field goalpost.
Last week, I told you how it seemed quarterbacks were consistently getting pushed up draft boards this year, and in recent years, compared to a generation ago. I went back to 1980, and separated the last 41 drafts into two periods: 1980 to 2000, and 2001 to 2020. In each year, I recorded when the first quarterback was picked, then figured the average draft position in each of the two eras, ’80 through 2000, and ’01 through ’20.
What I found was even more stark than I’d thought.
Average draft slot of first quarterback picked in drafts from 1980-2000: 13.9.
Average draft slot of first quarterback picked in drafts from 2001-2020: 2.1.
• In the last 20 drafts, the first QB was picked with pick number 1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 3, 1, 3, 1, 1, 1, 1, 16 (EJ Manuel, Buffalo, 2013), 3, 1, 1, 2, 1, 1 and 1.
• The first pick was a quarterback seven times between 1980-2000.
• The first pick was a quarterback 15 times between 2001-2020.
I expect the NFL’s radical number change—very likely to be voted into law Wednesday—to push players across the league to change numbers to weird ones. One team could have to deal with it soon. Inside the Rams, it’s thought that two big stars want the same single-digit number. Robert Woods and Jalen Ramsey each want to wear “2.” Seniority would give the nod to Woods, who is older, has been in the league longer, and has been a Ram longer. We shall see.
When Caleb Farley, the Virginia Tech cornerback, went to Indianapolis for his medical recheck, he was at one point ushered to a luxury bus. He stood still for about five minutes while 200 cameras inside the bus situated 360 degrees around him took images of his body.
It was for Farley’s profile in the Madden game.
“That’s beyond my pay grade,” Farley said. “I had no idea what was going on. But it’ll be cool to see me in Madden.”
Last Tuesday, for the first time in 18 months, I sat in a ballpark having a beer (Beernerdness: Bushwick Pilsner, Braven Brewing Company, Newport, R.I., formerly of Brooklyn, a bolder-than-usual pilsner with a strong bite—heartily approve) and watching baseball live. With my friend Tim Rohan, we watched the Mets sweep a seven-inning twinbill over the Phils. Strange to have a fifth-inning stretch. Stranger to have two of them.
So good to be back. We sat in the outfield, the first time I’d done so at Citi Field. That’s because seats are now sold in pods of two or four, and the only two-seat pods available were in the outfield. Seats, deep in left-center field, were great on a pristine spring day, with the huge lawn spread out in front of us, and with the 7,611 in-house spread well apart. Our nearest neighbors were seven seats away in our row, and two rows and four seats to our right in front of us. Most of the seats were zip-tied off.
As happy as I was to be there, there was a sadness about the sparse crowd and all the closed concession stands, a feeling of mid-September playing-out-the-string at a game with two losing squads. I’m sure the players feel it too. Better than last year to be sure, but still weird to see Bryce Harper step to the plate with a backdrop as if it were 80 minutes before a game. As you can see by the scorecard, the nerdy part of my brain got a good workout with my new Eephus League “Halfliner” scorebook. It’s thin and compact, and I’ll take it for some test-drives this year as an alternative to my trusty Bob Carpenter Scorebook, which I’ve used for maybe 15 years. Nothing against the Carpenter, but the Halfliner is easier to carry.
With QBs virtually locked in at the top three picks, the NFL Draft really starts at No. 4 with the #Falcons, who will have their full allotment of three personnel at Trey Lance’s second pro day Monday at North Dakota State, per source. 🤔
— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) April 17, 2021
Pelissero covers the NFL for NFL Network.
Zach Wilson looks like the actor who would play Zach Wilson in a Disney movie about Zach Wilson pic.twitter.com/kEW4ZNDlTo
— NFL Memes (@NFL_Memes) April 13, 2021
Villanova QB Daniel Smith might have just thrown the wildest TD pass of all time.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) April 17, 2021
Yates, the ESPN football analyst, tweeting video of a touchdown pass from the Villanova-Delaware game Saturday.
Not a sports tweet, but an important one:
Endless proud of my sister and her strength, never giving up to see justice be done, even when it means reliving the worst night of her life over and over. https://t.co/8eaJ7mvPhl
— Brooke Pryor (@bepryor) April 11, 2021
Brooke Pryor covers the Steelers for ESPN.com. Her sister was the victim of sexual assault while a student at Brevard (N.C.) College. Good for Brooke Pryor to point this out.
Worldwide COVID-19 death toll tops a staggering 3 million
Many countries still await the vaccine. America is fortunate. Please do your part encourage everyone you know to get vaccinated. 🇺🇸 https://t.co/hKuH62fvk0
— Clay Jenkins (@JudgeClayJ) April 17, 2021
Clay Jenkins is the top elected official in Dallas.
Define “denude.” From @Bostonsocks on Twitter: “So, if the Patriots do what they often do and sit in the mid-1st rd, or trade down and make a pick from a tier of prospects with a 50% chance of success, that is not “denuding” their draft, but trading one or more top picks for an ELITE prospect, IS denuding a draft?”
Hello Bostonsocks. The definition of “denude” is to strip something—to make bare. The Patriots, as of today, have first and second-round picks plus a third-round supplemental pick this year, and first, second and third-round picks next year. Peter Schrager proposed giving up four of those existing picks for one, the fourth overall. If that happens, New England would be left with two picks in the top 90 selections of the next two drafts. One would be used for a quarterback, and the other (a two next year) for I don’t know what. That, sir, is denuding two drafts. If you’re all-in on the quarterback, that’s great, but you’re still stripping two drafts bare to get him.
I have more chances to read than I used to. From Tyler, of Welland, Ontario: “You routinely include links to two or three really interesting pieces from a wide variety of sources, and these are often a bit obscure. Many of them have nothing to do with football, but are still fascinating. How do you come across these? Are you a voracious reader of dozens of different websites and publications? Do you have a daily reading routine that takes you through a list of materials? Are they somehow curated for you? I really enjoy reading many of these when I finish your column, but of course this only happens once a week, so I’d love to figure out your method to keep myself entertained during those six other days.”
Thanks a lot, Tyler. I live in Brooklyn, and my wife and I get the New York Times delivered daily, and when I walk the dog in the morning, I’ll often pick up one of the other New York papers. I subscribe digitally to the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Louisville Courier-Journal, Anchorage Daily News, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, The Athletic, The Defector, and other sports sites—Boston Sports Journal, Raiders Snake Pit, Go Long with Tyler Dunne. Why the papers in Louisville, Anchorage and Baltimore? We wanted to support them when they won Pulitzer Prizes. At home, we get the New Yorker and Time by mail.
With most of the papers, I scan the front pages many days just to see what’s new in those towns, and sometimes delve deeper into the papers, most often the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. Every week, I scan a favorite site for longer stories, The Sunday Long Read, curated by Jacob Feldman and Don Van Natta. Good site. I watch the PBS NewsHour most nights, the NBC Nightly News most nights, and on Fridays I try to catch the CBS News so I can see Steve Hartman’s pieces there. Nothing too scientific. I follow some people on Twitter, very unscientifically, who I think write some interesting things and I go on Twitter once a day and speed through my feed to see if there’s anything I want to read. That’s about it.
When I was running my site, The MMQB, a few years ago, I didn’t have the time to read the variety of stuff I read now because of the 24/7 nature of the job. Now I get to do more leisure reading, which I love to do.
On Josh Allen and vaccinations. From Matt Notaberardino: “I felt I needed to reach out and push back against what you reported [Buffalo QB] Josh Allen said . . . on if receiving the COVID vaccine is the right thing for him. I’m a Data Analyst, I have a masters in Mathematics, and I am the father of two young girls. For herd immunity to protect my daughters, roughly 80 to 90 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated. My daughters cannot be vaccinated because it has not been proven safe for them yet. When people are choosing not to receive the vaccine they are not just making a personal decision. They are putting my girls at risk, putting the immunocompromised at risk, putting cancer patients at risk, and putting any other individuals who cannot medically receive the vaccine at risk. The 10 to 20 percent of the population that is not vaccinated should be reserved for those who medically cannot receive one. When people like Josh Allen speak out normalizing vaccine hesitancy they are lengthening the pandemic and putting millions of people who already struggle to protect themselves further into risk.”
Thanks for the email, Matt. I agree. Plus, there’s the simple question, “Why refuse the vaccine?” Imagine if there’d been the same reticence by tens of millions to get the polio vaccine, the measles vaccine and others. Now, the only time you hear about a flareup of measles is in a community where a good portion of the parents refuse to get their children vaccinated. At some point, we have to realize as a society that we are far better off following the scientists than following those who invent reasons why the vaccinations are dangerous. I understand the Johnson & Johnson vaccine might be dangerous because seven women (as I write this) have come down with blood clots after being immunized. It’s good to pause that vaccine and concentrate on the others now. But what you say I fervently agree with: It’s far more dangerous as a society to not take the vaccine than to take it.
1. I think it is a mark of how long I have lived and how long I have covered football that I can now say I have lived to see the day that the NFL has “official sports betting partners.” I think back to the ancient days, way back to 2012, when Roger Goodell testified against a proposed sports gambling bill in the state of New Jersey. Goodell said: “If gambling is permitted freely on sporting events, normal incidents of the game such as bad snaps, dropped passes, turnovers, penalties, and play calling inevitably will fuel speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving or game fixing.” He also said the legalization of sports betting could shift allegiances of fans from their favorite team “toward an interest first and foremost in winning a bet.” I think back to 2015, when the NFL canceled a fantasy football convention in Las Vegas that had been organized by Tony Romo. The event would have brought together a slew of fantasy fans and 100 NFL players at a Vegas event center contiguous to a casino. As Alex Marvez reported at the time, the NFL stopped the event because it would be held in Vegas near a casino. “Players and NFL personnel may not participate in promotional activities or other appearances at or in connection with events that are held at or sponsored by casinos,” an NFL spokesman told Marvez.
2. I think since holding its collective nose at the mere thought of gambling in the same time zone as an NFL franchise, the NFL has:
• Put a franchise in Las Vegas.
• Scheduled the draft in Vegas in 2020, and rescheduled the draft for Vegas in 2022 when the coronavirus made the 2020 draft virtual.
• Allowed, beginning in 2018, teams to have “casino partners.”
• Allowed MGM Resorts to be the official gaming partner of the Raiders, and allowed Aristocrat Technologies—manufacturer of gaming machines and digital social casino games—to be an official partner of the Raiders.
• Allowed franchises in states where sports betting is legal to place “betting lounges” in stadiums.
• Embraced gambling as a significant revenue stream. “We’re going to find ways we can engage fans through legalized sports betting,” commissioner Roger Goodell said last month.
• Announced (last Thursday) the league’s first sportsbook partnerships with Caesars, DraftKings and FanDuel, allowing them to integrate betting content into league properties.
Moral of the story: Gambling is wicked and horrible and could lead to eternal damnation . . . until we can make a billion over five years on it.
3. I think of all the events of this offseason, we may look back at this announcement—the NFL linking up with Caesars, DraftKings and FanDuel, for what could be worth up to $1 billion over five years—as the biggest event of them all. Think of the implications. Think of betting lines being used in graphics on screens during games, to encourage TV viewers to put down a bet on the game they’re watching. Think of the media impact. As Ben Strauss of the Washington Post wrote recently, what would stop one of the gambling companies from hiring a scoopmeister like Adam Schefter when his ESPN contract expires to break news to the gambling public? It’s hard to imagine ESPN letting Schefter go, but what if a gambling firm offers him three times what he’s making at ESPN? That’s just part of the impact of these companies, who could begin to cover the NFL the way huge media companies do now.
4. I think as long as the young girl injured when hit by the car that the impaired Britt Reid was driving struggles with normal life functions, it’s going to be very tough, and rightfully so, to keep Reid from a prison sentence for the accident. Reid was charged with driving while intoxicated when he hit two cars on the side of a Missouri highway near the Chiefs’ training facility and offices. A 5-year-old girl, Ariel Young, suffered a severe brain injury. The county prosecutor in the case, Jean Peters Baker, said she would “vigorously pursue” justice for the victims in the case, as well she should. Concerning, too, for the team and for the NFL would be if Britt Reid, the son of the Chiefs’ head coach, was found to have been drinking on team premises.
5. I think the Browns’ signing of Jadeveon Clowney was interesting for a couple reasons. One, as he pointed out, he’ll have the benefit of playing opposite an edge-rushing force, Myles Garrett. But Clowney did play on the same defensive front with J.J. Watt in Houston, and still never had a double-digit-sack season. Two: Playing with the Browns probably gives him the best chance to be a great player. “I’m looking forward to proving I can still dominate,” he said. Problem is, he has been a dominant force at times, just not consistently. Clowney has three sacks in 21 games since leaving Houston. We all know sacks are not the only indication of pass-rush greatness, but his career has been more sizzle than steak.
6. I think, to honor Boomer Esiason turning 60 (two days ago), I present three little factoids about the fairly underappreciated career of the 1988 NFL MVP:
• In his MVP season, in starts against Chuck Noll, Tom Landry, Joe Gibbs, Marv Levy and Chuck Knox, Esiason’s Bengals went 7-0.
• He threw for 522 yards in a 1996 game (as a Cardinal) at Washington, and had three 400-yard games for the Bengals: 490 at the Rams, 425 against the Jets, 409 against the Steelers. This is a quarter-century or more ago, when 400-yard games were rare.
• The last pass of his career, against second-year linebacker Ray Lewis and the Ravens, was a 77-yard TD pass to Darnay Scott, the winning play in a 16-14 Cincinnati victory.
7. I think it’s interesting but not off-putting, Trevor Lawrence’s quotes about the importance of playing football in his life, expressed in the Football Story of the Week: Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated profiling Lawrence in advance of the draft. I don’t know Lawrence, but I feel like Rosenberg captured a lot of the real person who will be very large on our radar over the next two weeks. Writes Rosenberg:
“His father says, “He’s not award-driven. He’s not, ‘I want to win a Super Bowl at all costs.’ ” Trevor’s coach at Cartersville High, Joey King, says, “There is no doubt about it: With who he is as a person, he could walk away from it tomorrow and be fine.” Others who know Lawrence well agree. This would make for an unusual Nike campaign: Who Needs This, Anyway? It is probably not what a lot of NFL fans want to hear. Lawrence knows his words will get twisted and used against him. He doesn’t seem too worried about it.”
Lawrence, by all accounts, has two things: a love of football, and perspective. Writes Rosenberg:
Trevor Lawrence is out to prove absolutely nothing. This will either be the reason he makes the Hall of Fame, or the reason he doesn’t.
Last summer Lawrence took two stands that were not necessarily in his self-interest. When COVID-19 threatened to shut down college football Lawrence led the movement to play—even though, as a national champion favored to be the NFL’s top pick, he had the least to gain of anyone. He also publicly supported Black Lives Matter and attended a rally on Clemson’s campus—because, he says, he listened to people who have had a different life experience from his and recognized the value in what they said.
“People give me a lot more credit than I deserve,” Lawrence says. “Obviously, I’m not, like, an activist. I don’t want to be a pawn for anything. I don’t want people to use me for whatever their agenda is. I really want to just care about people.”
The sports world is teeming with people who use religion out of convenience. Lawrence vows never to sign an eight-figure contract and call it “God’s plan.” That is narcissism cloaked in religion. He will also enjoy the sport because he has always enjoyed the sport, not to prove his worth to some TV pundit. Lawrence will be the Christian he wants to be and the football player he wants to be. He will decide what he is getting out of his Sundays.
8. I think too many times in sports we mistake perspective for passivity. And Lawrence got enough shade for his comments in the Rosenberg story to Tweet out on Saturday: “I am internally motivated – I love football as much or more than anyone. It is a HUGE priority in my life, obviously. I am driven to be the best I can be, and to maximize my potential. And to WIN.” And: “I don’t need football to make me feel worthy as a person.”
It seems as if people are misreading my sentiment.
I am internally motivated – I love football as much or more than anyone. It is a HUGE priority in my life, obviously. I am driven to be the best I can be, and to maximize my potential. And to WIN. (1/3)
— Trevor Lawrence (@Trevorlawrencee) April 17, 2021
9. I think I can hear it now—how does this differ with what Cam Newton said 10 years ago? A lot, I think. Newton said he hoped to be not only a football player, but also an entertainer and an icon. Lawrence, by his own words, wants to be great at football and Christianity, and he won’t let his worth be defined by how good a football player he is. Now, a scout or coach might be concerned that Lawrence could walk away from football tomorrow and live a happy life. I do think that could be concerning—and if I were Urban Meyer I’d want to hear the explanation of what exactly Lawrence means. If a player says he wants to be a football player and an entertainer and an icon, that would be more concerning to me. What, exactly, are your priorities? It could be (and probably was the case) that the Panthers asked Newton about the words before he was drafted first overall 10 years ago. As it turned out, Newton was a worker bee during his Carolina career, and the icon stuff was a non-factor. What Newton said 10 years ago and what Lawrence said this offseason are both pieces of the puzzle that teams should use for fact-finding. Maybe they yield issues that give a team cause for concern, maybe not.
10. I think these are my other thoughts of the week:
a. Steph Curry is amazing.
b. Some of his shots, like the desperation swish in Boston on Saturday night? I mean, how does something like that happen, again and again and again? He is a maker of miracles.
STEPH CURRY IS RIDICULOUS 🤯
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 18, 2021
c. Podcast of the Week: “Crushed,” written and hosted by Joan Niesen for Religion of Sports and PRX. I’m three episodes into the seven-ep series, and loving it. “Crushed” begins with America’s obsession into the McGwire/Sosa home run race in 1998—when Niesen, 10 years old and baseball-mad and living in St. Louis, hung on every McGwire at-bat.
d. Idolatry (Niesen, in her excitement on the night McGwire breaks Roger Maris’ record, chips her tooth on a hobby horse she was riding) morphs into skepticism (the AP reporter who begin the unraveling of the steroid part of the story, Steve Wilstein, is a key actor in the pod) and a sport teetering on a major correction (two fringe players try to climb the ladder by using steroids, mirroring what was happening all over the sport). Highly recommended.
e. The most powerful bit in the first three episodes is the testimony of a roster-marginalia pitcher for the Twins named Dan Naulty. He gets traded to the Yankees before the ’99 season, as his life is spiraling out of control due to steroid, amphetamine and alcohol use, and he’s amazingly candid about it all. Now a minister in Michigan, Naulty sometimes sounds like he’s in a confessional, begging for forgiveness.
f. At the start of the third episode, Niesen says: “Hey everybody. It’s Joan. I just want to give you a heads-up before we start this episode. The stories you’re about to hear get pretty serious . . . talking about drug use and self-harm.” In mid-episode is this exchange between Naulty, who had quit steroids by this time but was scarred by them, and Niesen:
Naulty: There was a direct correlation between using the drugs and velocity. I was nowhere near the guy I once was before.
Niesen: The Yankees won the World Series that October. Naulty didn’t pitch in the postseason, but he’d still get a ring. And the night they clinched, he celebrated just as hard as the team’s biggest stars, staying out till sunrise with friends.
Naulty: About 7 o’clock in the morning, we get back in the limousine to go home. I told the limousine driver to please stop so I could get in the front seat with him. I just started talking to him about life, and is there more to life than this? We just won the World Series, and the streets aren’t paved gold, and I’m not riding on a cloud. I feel just as miserable now as I did before. And so we got to the George Washington Bridge and I told him to stop. You take them home, and I’m gonna jump. I said I’m done.
Niesen: Naulty didn’t go through with it. Traffic saved him. It was rush hour. The driver couldn’t have stopped if he wanted to.
Naulty: I was just crashing and burning. If the World Series and all the money and the New York Yankees isn’t going to fix my life, then nothing is gonna fix my life . . . Baseball was my god. It drove every decision I made. You do anything at all costs to experience your dream. Of course, I wasn’t experiencing my dream. I was experiencing hell.
g. This pod shows how powerful the medium is. Niesen the reporter (she worked at SI before Gotham Chopra hired her at Religion of Sport) found two ballplayers who detailed their walk on the wild side of steroids, and it becomes a powerful vehicle, making you question everything about what you saw in the rise of baseball in the late nineties. Like, how many players were juicing? Twenty percent? Sixty? Who knows? It’s not McGwire and Sosa who make this podcast. It’s a guy like Dan Naulty, and a reporter like Steve Wilstein, and Niesen, so easy to identify with as the host. Just so interesting. Congrats to Chopra for realizing the power of the medium and enabling some good reporters (other stories are in the works at Religion of Sport) to tell the stories.
h. Political Story of the Week: Matt Flegenheimer of the New York Times on the white-knuckle survival ride of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Wrote Flegenheimer of the governor, whose career is in extreme danger:
It is no accident that Cuomo has not faced a competitive re-election to date, scaring off any rival who might be strong enough to truly test him.
But some who have tried did notice something curious. Rebecca Katz, a top adviser to the actress Cynthia Nixon’s 2018 progressive primary challenge to Cuomo, told me that people who had previously worked with the governor often relayed, discreetly, that they were with Nixon. And that Cuomo must never know. “We may not have won,” Katz said, “but I feel confident that we won the majority of votes from people who knew Andrew Cuomo personally.”
i. Vax Story of the Week: Jessica Roy of the Los Angeles Times on everything you need to know about your COVID-19 vaccination card.
j. Hint: Don’t laminate your card. Roy writes:
“Staples and Office Depot are offering free lamination for vaccine cards, but don’t take them up on it. The heat from the laminating machine can damage the ink. Also, you may need to get a COVID vaccine booster in the future, the county public health department noted, so it’s probably best to leave it unlaminated. A better way to protect it: a clear plastic sleeve, like a badge ID holder. You might have an old one on a lanyard from a conference kicking around somewhere.”
k. Baseball Story of the Week: James Fegan of The Athletic on White Sox pitcher Carlos Rodon’s 8-0 no-hit win over Cleveland (the first complete game of his career), and the rutted road he took to the greatest game of his life. It was almost a perfecto, but as Fegan wrote:
Truthfully, Rodón probably had a nastier slider in his five-inning season debut in Seattle. He peppered Cleveland hitters with change-ups (26 in all), which [pitching coach Ethan] Katz had predicted would be the real development in the wake of his improved four-seam command. The backfoot spinner that clipped Roberto Pérez’s right toe to end Rodón’s perfect game bid with one out in the ninth reflected some issues finishing the wipeout version of his slider all night. And as the umpire ruling confirmed that perfection was lost, Rodón turned to his dugout and grinned.
“You hear that ‘clunk’ and I was like, ‘Motherf—–,’” Rodón said. “What you can do is laugh about it. It wasn’t meant to be.”
. . . He seemed to be coasting the first turn through the order, but when he smelled the finish line and reached back for more, for the first time in a long time, it was there. Rodón’s 110th pitch of the night sizzled in at 98.8 mph, the fastest offering he had thrown in four years.
l. Amazing. The last pitch of the game, the last pitch of a no-hitter, the 110th pitch of the night, his fastest pitch in four years.
m. Travel Story of the Week: Natalie B. Compton of the Washington Post on the strangest Instagram account of recent times, Passenger Shaming, and the flight attendant who created it, Shawn Kathleen. Said Kathleen:
“Don’t be that [jerk] on the plane who sits food in front of them for three hours so they look like they’re eating to not wear their mask. That’s ridiculous.”
n. Song of the Week: “You Baby,” by the Turtles. It’s only 55 years old. Plus, it’s got one of the weirdest live versions of a sixties rock song.
o. The end of “This is a Robbery” (I wrote last week about this Netflix doc on the $500-million heist from the Gardner Museum) leaves you satisfied that the doc answered as many questions it could, and sometimes all the questions you ask about a great mystery simply lead to more questions. Like: Is the art in the hands of some mobster in Philadelphia? Maine? Hartford? Ireland? It’s been 31 years a mystery, and I just hope it gets solved before I leave the earth. I’m just curious.
p. Story of the Week: Andrea Patterson of the Wall Street Journal, with a tremendous story about young students in the pandemic, titled Loneliness, Anxiety and Loss: the Covid Pandemic’s Terrible Toll on Kids.
q. Patterson’s piece, about how kids across the country are coping (not well) with school during a time of virtual learning, is most touching when it focuses on a middle-schooler from Miami named Victoria Vial:
When Victoria Vial’s Miami middle school shut down last spring and her classes went online, it felt like the beginning of an adventure. “I was in my pajamas, sitting in my comfy chair,” the 13-year-old recalled. “I was texting my friends during class.”
Then she received her academic progress report. An A and B student before the pandemic, she was failing three classes. The academic slide left her mother, Carola Mengolini, in tears. She insisted her daughter create to-do lists and moved the girl’s workspace into the guest bedroom to pull up her grades.
Over the summer, Victoria’s tennis and theater camps were canceled. Her family postponed a planned trip to Argentina to visit her extended family. She formed a pandemic pod with five close friends, but the girls bickered. Subcliques formed, and Victoria and her best friend found themselves excluded. The pod fell apart.
The return of in-person schooling last fall brought some relief, but with some of her classmates still at home, teachers had to shift their attention between in-person kids and those online, leaving students feeling disorganized and behind.
As the months piled up, she found it hard to stay motivated to do her schoolwork. Her grades have started falling again. “Every day is the exact same,” she says. “You kind of feel like, what’s the point?”
r. Reporting matters. This is some great reporting by Andrea Patterson.
s. I don’t suppose we can do better than thoughts and prayers, can we?
t. Finally, I asked Rep. Anthony Gonzalez about mass shootings when we spoke on Friday, just hours after the slaughter of eight people in Indianapolis. “I worry it’s becoming like wallpaper because nothing’s ever done about it,” I said to him. The Indianapolis shooting is a perfect example. In March 2020, police removed a gun from Brandon Hole’s possession, and recently he was able to purchase two semi-automatic weapons even though his mother felt he shouldn’t have a gun in his mental state. For God’s sake, how was this man allowed to buy two guns? Gonzalez on mass shootings:
“I actually share that view. They happen way too often and you’re right—it’s like we’ve become numb in so many ways. To me, we have the second amendment. The second amendment’s very clear when you read it, in my view anyway. The goal needs to be, and I think policy should be built around making sure that those who have guns are the right kind of people, essentially. One thing that I’m in favor of that some aren’t, necessarily, you have to build in due process in all these sorts of things. What is commonly referred to as like a “red flag” law for example. If somebody is very, very threatening or threatening to kill somebody, or shows the signs that they’re going to commit one of these atrocities, and it’s very predictable – I shouldn’t say very predictable but there’s a pathology there that usually shows up online – that there needs to be a mechanism, again, respecting due process and all these sorts of things, that would allow for law enforcement to go in and make sure that that person doesn’t have access to firearms when they’re in that state. There’s a handful of proposals like that but none that have come to the House floor that we’ve been able to vote on.”
u. Full conversation with Gonzalez on The Peter King Podcast dropping this week.
The scourge of gambling!
A pox on us! (Till we can
make a buck on it.)