Thursday, August 30, 2012

Emerald Isle

Emerald Isle
Excerpt from: Odyssey, Chapter VII
By Aaron M. Smith

Notre Dame vs. Navy, Dublin, Ireland
Marc Edwards squeezed into his undersized airline seat and tried to get as comfortable as a 240-pound fullback could be on a jetliner. It was a Tuesday and the Irish settled in for an all-night flight to the Emerald Isle. At roughly 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the Notre Dame jet emerged from the clouded cover and touched down in Dublin.
In an attempt to stave off jet lag, the Irish had a full day of tourism scheduled after their arrival. After a quick lunch at Sussex Restaurant, the team made its way to Croke (pronounced: crow) Park, the stadium in which the Irish and Middies would do battle.
The stadium didn’t look like the round bowls of Notre Dame Stadium and the Big House in Ann Arbor. It was more of a block-C structure with higher sections of bleachers on the sides and shorter sections on either end zone. The field was larger than an American football gridiron; there was plenty of green space surrounding the football field outline. The pitch was traditionally used by soccer, hurling, and Gaelic football teams, which use larger fields. The Notre Dame vs. Navy tilt would be the first American football game played at Croke Park.
Following the quick visit to the stadium, the team gathered on a bus and traveled the serpentine roads through the Irish countryside.
Through the bus windows, a velvet green tapestry wrapped itself around cliffs and mounds while small white cottages speckled the vast landscape. Ribbons of pavement swerved left then right and up and over and down and around leading eventually to somewhere. Chimneys puffed white smoke into the air while cold empty castles sat lifelessly where souls once gathered hundreds of years in the past.
“It was incredible,” Marc said. “I had never seen anything like it.”
Between football practices and team dinners, the players traveled the streets of Dublin and sat on the ivory stone steps at Trinity College where scribes such as Samuel Becket and Oscar Wilde once scribbled their thoughts onto paper.
Before the team had traveled overseas, a man from Ireland joined the squad for a luncheon. One of his bits of advice was against the law of Lou Holtz.
“When you guys get over there,” the man said, “you’ve got to try the Guinness.”
Holtz had a team rule that no one – regardless of age – could drink a drop of alcohol during the football season. But Guinness is an Irish treasure and the team would be in Ireland. The team tried to convince their coach to look the other way on this particular transgression.
Holtz was not happy.
“OK,” the coach said reluctantly. “You can have one Guinness while you’re over there if you are 21. And that’s final.”
Marc was a little unclear on Holtz’s new rule.
“Now, does that mean one keg?” he asked rhetorically to his friends. “Does that mean one bottomless pint at a local pub?
“I guess it was up to our interpretation of what ‘one’ meant,” Marc said. “After the game, we’d definitely have that one Guinness.”
But before the team could make merry in the waning hours of Saturday night, it had business to take care of under the gray skies of Saturday afternoon.
In the Dublin newspapers that morning, the editors printed the rules of American football so that those attending the game would have some idea of what was happening. This type of football was rarely seen this far from the States. Some fans in attendance, though, knew exactly what to expect.
A small group from Norwood, Ohio, made the trip to Europe to see their native son play across the pond. Matt Ventura, one of Marc’s teammates at Norwood High School, was among those who ventured east.
“We flew into London and spent a little time there,” he said. “And then a few of us went to Dublin to see the game. It was incredible; what a culture change.”
Ventura found himself explaining American football to those around him in the bleachers of Croke Park. He anxiously awaited the start of the game so he could see his friend trample all over the Irish gridiron.
The game was listed as a home contest for Navy, but the Fighting Irish clearly felt at home on the Irish sod.
To beat the water-based service academy, Notre Dame kept the attack on the ground. Ten minutes into the contest, Marc blasted into the end zone from five yards away to score the game’s first points.
To the Norwood contingent, Marc’s touchdown was something special.
“That was amazing,” Ventura said. “After he scored that first touchdown, they put his picture up on the big screen. It’s pretty cool to see one of your best friends from high school up on the big screen in Ireland. That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.”
Ventura would have plenty more chances to see his friend on the big screen.
A touchdown reception by Pete Chryplewicz and a 33-yard scamper for another score by Autry Denson sandwiched a Navy score in the second quarter and the Irish led 21-7 at the break.
Marc Edwards on his way to another touchdown. (Getty Images)
Notre Dame’s lead would expand to 28-7 early in the third quarter when Renaldo Wynn returned a fumble recovery 24 yards to pay dirt. But the pesky Middies kept coming back, keeping the game within reach. Two Navy touchdowns in the third quarter and another touchdown by Denson kept the margin at 14 (35-21) going into the fourth quarter.
Holtz wasn’t enjoying his trip. In his mind, the game should have been far out of hand in favor of his Irish. He took out his frustrations on the same offensive lineman he booted to the ground in training camp before Marc’s freshman season. It made Holtz furious when an offensive lineman would lean forward on running plays and lean back on passing plays, therefore advertising to the defense the intention of the Irish offense.
When the lineman came to the sideline after a stalled drive, Holtz went ballistic. He grabbed the lineman’s facemask while spit and screams spewed from his mouth. At one point during the tirade, Holtz slammed his face into the lineman’s facemask. The coach shattered his glasses and bloodied his own mouth in getting his point across.
“He head-butted the guy,” Marc said. “You don’t head butt a guy who’s got a helmet on. He’s screaming like crazy and it looks like his face just exploded. I guess he needed to just get that off his chest.”
The fourth quarter had been Marc’s time before that season, and on a cool day on a slice of green in the North Atlantic, it would be again.
Marc blasted into the end zone twice more in the fourth quarter to push the Irish’s lead to 47-21. His backup, Jamie Spencer, pounded into the end zone for Notre Dame’s final touchdown late in the game before Navy tacked on a meaningless touchdown.
Marc finished the 54-27 victory with 47 yards rushing and three touchdowns as Notre Dame amassed 303 yards on the ground and six rushing touchdowns. That was the Notre Dame way and the Irish crowd witnessed a clinic in old-school American football.
After the game, Ventura and the other Norwood faithful made their way toward the field. They wanted to greet their friend before leaving the stadium.
“I didn’t even know a Norwood contingent was there,” Marc said. “That was awesome and it was great to see them after the game.”
Marc signed a jersey they had brought with them, which they brought home to hang on the wall of a Norwood tavern.
“This whole trip to Ireland was one of my best experiences from my Notre Dame days,” Marc said.
It wasn’t over just yet.
The Irish plane bound for Chicago wasn’t due to leave until Sunday afternoon and Saturday night was still young. Temple Bar and the nightlife of Dublin, like a Siren, beckoned the Irish players. One thing stood in their way, however: curfew.
The assistant coach in charge of bed checks was willing to be a little lax in his responsibilities that night. He understood the special circumstances surrounding this last night on foreign soil. He knew some of his players may never travel outside of the United States again.
“Gentlemen, listen up,” he quietly told the team. “I am coming for bed check. I’m going to check once and then that’s it. I’m not coming back around. Just be there when I check. You understand what I’m saying?”
Oh, they understood.
“We closed down all the pubs that night,” Marc said. “We had an absolutely great time hanging with the locals and hanging with each other. And we had a great time enjoying that one Guinness coach let us have.”
To no one’s surprise, that one Guinness lasted deep into the night.
“Hey, we never saw the bottom of the pint,” Marc said. “They kept filling it up.”
The sojourn in Ireland was over and the players squeezed into their airplane seats for the long ride back to reality.
Up next for Notre Dame was a trip to Boston College for its annual holy war.
Marc did not know it would be the last time he would suit up and fight alongside his Notre Dame teammates.
To purchase Odyssey: From Blue Collar, Ohio to Super Bowl Champion, visit the following on-line retailers.
Barnes and Noble

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why the negativity?

Why the Negativity?
Aaron M. Smith

Dusty Baker gets blasted despite managing first-place team.
The Cincinnati Reds are in first place for only the second time in about a dozen years this late in the season. Recently, before a four-game slide, the Reds had the best record in all of Major League Baseball. They had won 22-of-25 games, most of which without injured Joey Votto, the best player in the National League. The last time the Reds went on a run like this, Grover Cleveland was in office.

Yet throughout this amazing run and especially now after losing four straight, the negativity voiced by this team's fans on talk radio and social media has gotten out of control. You can't turn on AM 700 WLW without hearing fans from all over the tri-state area blasting the Reds for an inability to hit, an ineffectiveness on the mound, and a general lack of knowledge from manager Dusty Baker and general manager Walt Jocketty. On Twitter, a flood of tweets from twits constantly blast Baker's lineup, his handling of pitchers, and even his use of that blasted toothpick. The critiques and complaints come in such high volume, you would think we're dealing with the Astros and their 40-games under .500 record.

We're not, though. We're dealing with a first place team. A team that is 21 games over .500 and that leads the surging Pirates by 2 1/2 games. We're dealing with a team that, prior to Dusty Baker's arrival, had sniffed the playoffs just once since sweeping the World Series in 1990. You would think fans would be grateful for what Baker has brought to the Queen City. Sadly, he's received a barrage of criticism.

Joey Votto
One complaint about Dusty Baker that I always hear: "He kills pitchers arms and works them to death." Fact: The Reds have used only five starting pitchers this year. Only the Marlins can say they've done the same. How would you like to be San Diego? They've used 13 different starting pitchers and, surprise, they're in second-to-last place in the NL West with a .434 winning percentage. Who's in last place in the division? The Rockies. They've used 11 different starting pitchers. Seems like Baker has taken good care of his pitcher's arms and, as a result, has managed a first-place team. Let's give that repetitive critique a rest for a while.

Another complaint that he always gets: "What's with that lineup? Dusty's lineups suck." Fact: The Reds went on a 15-3 stretch without Joey Votto. They won several without Votto and Brandon Phillips in the lineup. Why is that? Because every player on that bench has had playing time and every starter has received enough rest to keep him fresh. The Reds have veterans like Ryan Ludwick, Scott Rolen, Miguel Cairo, and Wilson Valdez. They're going to need rest. They cannot start every day or they won't be available or productive during the stretch run. Bench players like Valdez and Cairo and Chris Heisey all have seen significant time in meaningful games this year. Rookie Todd Frazier now has experience playing three different positions -- which comes in handy when you have an aging third basemen and an MVP first basemen on the disabled list. These bench players are not afraid of game time because they have seen it and played in it. The veterans are contributing greatly in the second half of the season because they haven't been played to death. That credit goes to Baker. The lineup bashing needs to stop.

I've mentioned some of these things to people and I hear all this "It's my right to criticize the team," or "I'm a fan, I pay money to see them play. I have a right to criticize them." I guess you do. You can have your freedom of speech. But why the negativity? I cannot understand why you would call yourself a fan and then spend all your energy dumping on the manager, who has them in first place? "They are in first place despite Dusty," I've heard. "They should be 10 games ahead of the Pirates," is another one. To them I say, -- well, I just throw up my hands. There is no logic to being so negative, especially for a first-place team. As assistant director of media relations Jamie Ramsey pointed out on Twitter, "Wait, what are they complaining about?" Said 24 other MLB teams' fans." Exactly. Enjoy the run people. It could be far worse. It's been a decade since the Reds have been relevant (pre-Dusty Baker).Why not enjoy this team. They're a great team with a great group of players. Put down your critic's hat and enjoy this.

Jamie Ramsey
Ramsey has also had enough of the negativity, and with good reason. People have blasted Ramsey on Twitter for, get this, being too supportive of his team. That's ridiculous. One twit wrote: "eternal optimist, you would have stayed on the titanic as it was sinking." To which Ramsey replied: "I don't give up on my team." And why should he? And why should anyone? I just don't understand. After firing off an onslaught of illogical critiques of the Reds, some Cincinnati fans decided to go after Ramsey personally with a vitriolic hate that has no place in society. It's really unconscionable how people can act like this ... they can act like this behind the veil of social media. There is no accountability. Ramsey, after sending off an ill-advised direct message to one of the worst offenders, shut down his account after the offender re-tweeted his threatening message. Should Ramsey have sent the message saying how he would have enjoyed kicking his a$$ in front of his six followers? No. And he knows that and acknowledged as much. But do I blame him? Absolutely not.

Ramsey is one of the Reds' most boisterous and ardent supporters. What he has done around Cincinnati to support the Reds, their players, and their organization has been fantastic. He is optimistic. He talks anxious fans down from the ledge after losing streaks. And he rightfully defends the team when a flood of negativity swarms his Twitter feed and Reds blog. I'm happy to report that his Twitter account is active again. I hope that this time, Ramsey simply blocks followers that are full of hate and negativity. I hope he doesn't bother with RTing these negative whiners in an attempt to defend the team. These people will find other outlets to spew their vitriol. Let's keep Ramsey's feed for those who actually support the team.

Long gone are the days of "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Now, it seems, people like to shoot off their mouths to get a reaction, to get RTd, to make themselves feel as if they know better. Yes, it's your right to act like a 10-year-old. But why? What's the point? This is a good team -- a first-place team. It's not like the Reds have been mired in a lackluster drudge of a season. It's been a heck of a year, and this Reds fan plans to enjoy this ride clear through October. And if they don't make it until October, this team will be back again next year for another run a title. And regularly being in a championship chase is really all you can ask for as a fan.

Trust me. I'm also a Browns fan.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Spare me the loyalty speech

Spare me the loyalty speech
By Aaron M. Smith
Don't blame Albert Pujols for heading to Anaheim

A young reporter at a small community newspaper sits at his desk, taking calls from little league baseball coaches, and writes the names of the ten "Stars of the Game." He better include little Johnny, too, even though he hasn't had a hit all season. His parents may call. The writer has been doing this for two years now, sometimes writing features on flower gardens in the community or covering Grand Opening ceremonies of local sports apparel businesses or new coffee shops.

The phone rings again. This time it's an editor at a large metropolitan newspaper. They have received the reporter's resume and would like to interview him for a job as sports editor. He accepts their invitation, goes to the interview, and wows the editors with his writing samples and energy for the job. The editors offer the job to the reporter on the spot. He accepts. He puts in his two-week notice and leaves the community paper for a higher paying, higher circulated newspaper. Everyone understands and congratulates him for this great opportunity.

No one, however, questions his loyalty. No one writes into the paper and hopes this reporter fails at his next job. No one calls in to curse him out and no one threatens this reporter's life.

It's ridiculous to think this would happen in any profession ... medicine, the law, or corporate. So why is it OK and justified in the sports world?

Today, Albert Pujols signed a 10-year contract worth around $250 million with the California Los Angeles Angels of Southern California More Specifically Anaheim. Immediately, comments rushed into sports websites calling Pujols a traitor. People said he wasn't loyal to the Cardinals and "turned his back on us." Never mind the last decade Pujols gave to the city. Pujols is arguably the best player to ever play the game. He gave a decade to the Cardinals, leading them to two World Series titles. St. Louis was a contender in most years he was there. Not good enough? Please. Not loyal? Enough already.

The Cardinals didn't want to pay Pujols that kind of money for 10 years when it's obvious what happens to even the best of players from age 30-40. He's already given the Cardinals the best of his career. Cardinals fans should be thrilled. They don't have to mortgage their team's future for what Pujols gave the team in the past. That's baseball. Pujols saw that he could make more money in a bigger market and took the opportunity. Good for him. Who wouldn't take that? I bet all the people screaming "he ain't loyal!" would take that in a heart beat.

Pujols isn't the only professional sports player that hears that criticism when he or she leaves the city that drafted them. LeBron James can't step foot in Cleveland without his life on the line. Now, before I go any further, how LeBron handled his free agency with the whole "The Decision" debacle on ESPN was ridiculous. He should be criticized for that. However, he should not be ridiculed for leaving Cleveland. Loyalty has nothing to do with it. He saw a better opportunity with Miami and took it. Whether you agree or not has nothing to do with it. People leave jobs and careers all the time without ridicule. Why can't professional athletes?

How about coaches? When Brian Kelly left the Cincinnati Bearcats to coach Notre Dame, people were in hysterics here in Cincinnati. They held up signs at games with "Kelly who?" or "Good Riddance." Why? Because he took his dream job at Notre Dame for a mountain of cash more than what Cincinnati could pay him? How could he? C'mon people. Fire your criticism off somewhere else. Before Kelly was coach at Cincinnati, the Bearcats had no history of winning. None. And now they are on the map. Fans should have thanked Kelly for that. But instead, there are people around here who hope Notre Dame loses more than they hope Cincinnati wins. That's just nuts.

So basically, what I am saying is, spare me the loyalty speech. These athletes and coaches have every right to leave his current situation for better opportunities. I don't need to hear that LeBron owes Cleveland or that Albert should have stayed in St. Louis or that Brian Kelly didn't earn the right to leave for greener pastures. So keep that to yourself. Unless of course, you pass up every promotion or better job opportunity that comes your way because you want to be loyal to Sid, the guy who gave you your first job mowing his grass and cleaning out his garage. When that happens, you can complain all you want.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Making Sense of this Penn State Mess

Making Sense of this Penn State Mess
By Aaron M. Smith

This past Saturday, I read the grand jury report about the Penn State mess involving Jerry Sandusky et. al. I haven't been the same since and I can't even imagine how the last decade has gone for the young boys most directly affected. It has sickened me and has made me question the current state of our society. It has made me loathe the college football machine, the greed, the power that has seemingly -- and unfortunately -- taken a seat at the top of our collective priorities. There is too much to talk about with this horrific and outrageous story, but I wanted to bring up a couple of questions that I can't seemingly wrap my brain around.

On Graduate Assistant Mike McQueary
USA Today photo of McQueary and Paterno
Mike McQueary then a 28-year old MAN, walked into the locker room and heard what he said sounded like sexual actions coming from the shower. He walked into the shower and saw Jerry Sundusky raping a defenseless boy who, McQueary said, looked to be about 10 years old. McQueary walked out of the locker room distraught and called his father. His father and he then went to Joe Paterno's house the following morning to talk about what he saw.

Let me stop right there for a moment. McQueary witnessed a vile criminal act and didn't think to call the police? How is that possible? Secondly, McQueary, a big man and former football player, left the 10-year old boy to fend for himself. He left the locker room without trying to save the child or find out who he was and how he could help. That is the most dispicable thing in this. He walked out on this kid without helping him. He let this child alone with Sandusky after witnessing Sandusky raping him. There is absolutely no excuse for that. None! This is a quote from McQueary's father:

"He's a good kid and tough kid. He did what he was supposed to do, and all of this has been very hard on him. Everything from this and about this (case) has been difficult for him, but he's a strong person and will be OK."

Wrong. On so many levels. First, he wasn't a kid. He was a 28-year old man. Let's be clear on that. He was a 28-year old man who knows the difference between right or wrong. Secondly, he did not do what he was supposed to do. He saw a horrendous crime being committed against a young boy and did nothing to stop it nor did he call the police to report what he saw. He did NOT do what he should have done. And to the father, neither did you. How can you hear that account from your son and not call the authorities? Not only did your son not do what was right, neither did you.

Then there are reports that Sandusky has been a part of the football program for the last decade, often working with players and running a youth football program. I simply do not understand how McQueary could see Sandusky commit such a vile act and then see him working with young boys and not do anything about it. It says a lot about what kind of person McQueary is. And judging by the act of his father, it's easy to see where he got it.

On Joe Paterno
Joe Paterno is the Godfather of college football. At Penn State, he is simply a god. He ran the program and for all intents and purposes, the entire university. He was the equivalent of a CEO for a Fortune 500 company (Penn State makes a $50 million profit each football season). Someone comes to him and tells him that his assistant coach was doing something "of a sexual nature" to a young child. Whether he understood that it was a full-on rape or not, he has an obligation to get the police involved immediately. Take the football out of this. A CEO knows an employee of his has sexually assaulted a child in his office building and then does nothing is usually arrested and charged with some sort of obstruction of justice. That hasn't happened. JoePa is a legend. He's a football coach. He didn't get the police involved at all. And there is no defense for that. All Paterno had to do was make a phone call after hearing about Victim 2. And because he didn't, there are now 20 victims with horrific tales about Sandusky.

I'm tired of hearing about Paterno the Legend. His football accomplishments pale in comparison to the unbelievable lack of humanity in this situation. How you could know what happened and let that man on your campus and in your locker room and a part of your university is beyond me. How you could know Sandusky was raping a child and then see him running his youth camp is disgusting. Paterno, you had an obligation to this child, and you failed miserably. I feel no sympathy for you -- only for the 18 (at least) boys that became victims after you failed to stop Sandusky in his tracks.

On the state of our society
I've heard so many times in the past four days, "As a father of two, I'm outraged ..." or "Being a parent, this sickens me."

How about "As a human being ..."

Why do you only understand how horrendous this crime was if you have children of your own? People are saying that the media is making Joe Paterno a scapegoat. Seriously? Read the grand jury report and I'm sure you'll have another perspective on the matter.

Last night when Penn State officially fired Joe Paterno, students from the university rioted and screamed "We want Joe!" They overturned media vans and set things on fire.

Where was this outrage for the victims?

On college football
College football has gotten too big. There is so much power and money and greed and the people in charge have lost all perspective. It has become "Protect the Program" first and everything else a distance second. Unfortunately, because of this greed, this dedication to the program, sexually abused and assaulted children finished a distant second. Let me say that again. It was the Penn State football program first ... then the kids. Sickening.

When a university puts its football team above all else, this happens. In my opinion, if Penn State feels this strongly about its football program, so strongly that abused children where never even tried to be identified and helped, then maybe it shouldn't even have a football program. Seriously. If a football program is too important to even reach out to help sexually abused children, there should be no football program.

On Jerry Sandusky
I can't even think about what to write about this monster. He is a despicable excuse for a human being. He is the true monster. He is the villain. He is the person who ruined the Penn State name. He is the person that ruined the lives of so many.

But we as a society also failed miserably here. What kind of world do we live in where something like this could happen? People are rioting in favor of a coach instead of picketing and demanding justice for children. This is a horrific failure on our part.

As a human being, I'm appalled by all of this. By Sandusky. By Paterno. By McQueary. By the school president. By the rioters on campus. No one involved has any dignity left. And no on-field accomplishments or budget reports should make anyone think otherwise.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

An Open Letter to the Cleveland Browns

An Open Letter to the Cleveland Browns
By Aaron M. Smith

Dear Cleveland Browns,

Back when Browns football meant something.
Twenty-three years ago, I stood in the pouring snow in raucous Cleveland Municipal Stadium, a wide-eyed nine-year-old, as the Cleveland Browns overcame a seemingly insurmountable deficit to stun the Houston Oilers and clinch a spot in the playoffs on the last game of the 1988 campaign. The Browns were without starting quarterback Bernie Kosar. They were without backup quarterback Mike Pagel. They were without third string quarterback Gary Danielson. They were without starting fullback Kevin Mack. Yet the backups fought with a passion for the game that I can't honestly say I've seen since, well, Art Modell decided to move the team to Baltimore following the 1995 season.

That was 16 years ago. And that is sad.

I am now 32 years old and have just finished watching one of the most lackluster performances by the Browns since they returned to the field in 1999 as an expansion team (and that is saying something). This team may play in Cleveland and don the brown and orange of the original franchise, but they have lacked the soul of the Cleveland Browns and the heart of Paul Brown and Jim Brown since they returned to the league.

Hillis making his statement.
For more than a decade, I have watched the Browns field weak rosters with guys who were more interested in payday than game day. The most recent player is Peyton Hillis. Last season he arrived in Cleveland via trade with a chip on his shoulder the size of Shaker Heights. He worked his butt off, plowing over defenders, and earning respect as a blue-collar bruiser that so represented the heart and soul of Cleveland. But that one year got into his head. He know thinks he is bigger than game. He showed up in less than stellar shape. He has not taken care of his injuries. He left the team to get married in mid-week. He let his agent talk him into sitting out with strep throat in order to make a statement about getting a monster contract extension. Meanwhile Tony Romo -- you can say what you want about him -- was suiting up and playing for the Cowboys with two cracked ribs and a punctured lung. That's heart. What Hillis has shown is selfishness and greed.

Since 1999 the Browns have had guys named Palmer and Butch and Romeo and Man-Genius and Shurmer running the team. Every other year the Browns get a new quarterback and then a new offensive system and then a new head coach and then another system and so on and so forth. It's not hard to see why this team has been the most offensively challenged team in the last decade. The Browns have had new general managers and new philosophies and nothing has worked. Nothing. Some 12 seasons after the Browns came back, I still see confusion from the players, blank looks from head coaches, and absentee owners and general managers. Nothing has changed. This endless cycle of ineptitude is embarrassing.

The scouting program in this franchise has got to be one of the worst in the league. How can the Browns have top-10 picks year in and year out and still put one of the weakest rosters on the field? This current team has so little talent, I doubt it could compete with the best in college football. Seriously. Josh Cribbs was a good find and is THE soul of this team. Too bad there is only a handful of players like him on the entire Browns roster. I just don't understand how after a decade of getting the top choice of the best players in college football, the Browns have an obvious lack of talent compared to other NFL teams. Detroit has finally figured out how to draft well. The Bengals seem to know that they're doing these days. These were two inept franchises that figured it out. The Browns are still wallowing in their own ineptitude. 

Yet with all of this dysfunction, the Cleveland Browns have no problem charging insane money for PSLs and season tickets. Single game tickets are ridiculously pricey as well. You can't take a family to see the team play -- not that anyone would want to these days -- because it would cost a month's salary for most just to get in the gates. Not to mention, the seats would have to be a mile away because the corporations and businesses and millionaires get the good seats.

I grew up the biggest of Cleveland Browns fans. I was inspired by Bernie Kosar and Hanford Dixon and Big Daddy Hairston. I loved Clay Matthews and Frank Minnifield and Kevin Mack. But the players that put on the uniform these days don't even come close to the guys that once represented this once-proud franchise. Not being a good player is one thing, but the lack of passion that I've witnessed, the lack of intelligence on the field for the last decade is inexcusable. Football is their chosen profession, yet being stuck in this quagmire of mediocrity seems to be just fine to those in charge of this organization. In any other profession, this level of failure would not be tolerated.

Have some pride in what you do. Understand that you represent not just that franchise that once was, but that you represent a city that has defended your ineptitude the entire way. It's time to start paying back the fans for years of sold out stadiums and around-the-world fan clubs. It's time to give the fans something to cheer about again. Sooner or later, the Browns won't just  have lost games to worry about. They'll have to worry about lost fans. And I would think that would mean something to those in charge.

There is no ultimatum here. I'm not threatening never to go to a game again. I'm not saying I'm not a Browns fan, because in all seriously, I don't think that would really mean anything to the franchise. Just know that one of your biggest fans can't even watch you play on Sundays anymore. I would hope that would mean something, anything to such a fledgeling franchise.

Aaron M. Smith
Browns fan since 1985

And to show I'm not alone, here is a link to someone who feels about the same:


Friday, October 28, 2011

A Grand Series

A Grand Series
By Aaron M. Smith

"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. ... And summer is gone.
-- Bart Giamatti

Moments after Boston's Carlton Fisk smacked his epic homerun that just did stay fair, Cincinnati's Pete Rose turned to his manager Sparky Anderson.

"Wow," he said with a smile. "What a game."

Sparky, naturally, was too distraught to soak in the majesty of the scintillating game, but Rose understood that although the Reds let one get away, they still had another chance.

"Don't worry, Spark," Rose said. "We'll get Game Seven."

And Cincinnati did. But ask 100 baseball fans who won the 1975 World Series, I bet half will say Boston, citing Fisk's dramatic walk-off home run.

Fast forward to October 27, 2011. Game Six of the World Series. It was one of the most incredible, unforgettable finishes in World Series history. And that is no hyperbole. The Texas Rangers, looking for its first World Series title, were one strike away from a series win ... twice. In back-to-back innings. Leading 7-5 in the 9th inning with two outs, David Freese drilled a triple with two runners on to tie it. After the Rangers went ahead 9-7 on a mammoth 2-run homer by Josh Hamilton, they seemingly had their long-awaited title. But yet again, the Cardinals scored two runs in the 10th to send it to the 11th inning. The Rangers had nothing left.

And in the bottom of the 11th, Freese led off the inning with a 3-2 blast to center that was as epic as Fisk's. As incredible as Kirby Puckett's Game 6 bomb that had Jack Buck screaming, "And we'll see you tomorrow night!" As Freese's homer cleared the fence, Jack's son Joe Buck, calling the game on FOX, echoed his father's closing ... "And we'll see you tomorrow night!"


This series is nearly a mirror of the '75 series. If the Rangers win, people outside of Texas will most likely remember the series for Freese's heroics. And why not? It was unforgettable. If the Cardinals win, it could go down as one of the all-time best World Series. This series has had it all from great pitching, clutch hitting, brilliant strategy, incredible goofs (bullpen phone-gate).  All of this, including the gaffes, have made this one entertaining finale to the baseball season.

Baseball can be beautiful. And even with five errors and a handful of wild pitches, last night's game was beautiful. Being a Cincinnati Reds fan, I have a certain dislike for the Cardinals. But how you can not respect the way they fought to the end in Game Six? It was incredible. Inspiring. Unbelievable. You name it. I cannot wait for tonight's Game Seven. The two greatest words in sports. Game Seven.

With no pitchers left with any stamina, the pressure of an elimination game, and temperatures dipping into the low 40s, tonight promises to be a thrilling free-for-all for the World Series title.

You can't ask for anything more than that.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Super Bowl

The Super Bowl
Excerpt from Odyssey -- Chapter IX
By Aaron M. Smith

The Super Bowl

Cheryl Carey walked through the doors of the Super Dome. She strolled in its underbelly and then could see a swath of green through an open stairwell. She walked through the stairwell and the inside of the dome opened up to reveal a stunning setting for football’s grandest moment. The green carpet sparkled like an emerald island while fans began to pack the tens-of-thousands of multi-colored seats in preparation for the night’s main event. She could hardly believe her nephew would be playing on that field in just a few hours.
Like she did in a Wal-Mart near South Bend while looking for bed sheets some years ago, Cheryl broke down in tears.
“Nothing seemed to faze me back then, but I remember walking into that stadium,” she said. “I just began to cry. It was unbelievable to be there, knowing Marc was going to be playing. He had accomplished his goal. He worked so hard and he was getting his reward.”
Darsi was equally emotional. Her daughters watched from home with her mother and she stared out over the dome with her brother and her father. Tears didn’t fall from her eyes, but her stomach was in knots.
“It was amazing,” she said. “Never in your life do you expect to be at a Super Bowl, let alone being there to watch your significant other. I was nervous for him. Very, very nervous.”
Marc’s mother-in-law Joyce would have been there with Darsi and Darrel, but the fear of jinxing the Patriots kept her at home with her granddaughters, recovering from an operation.
In May of that year, Joyce had been going through health concerns that ultimately would require surgery. Her doctor wanted to operate in August. Joyce refused to have the operation because Darsi, Marc, and their girls would be staying with the Millers at their new house all summer. She didn’t want to be preparing for and recovering from an operation while the house was filled with family. She instead took shots every month to hold off the operation until January when, she assumed, New England’s season would be over.
“Who knew at that time that the Patriots were going to do anything,” Joyce said laughing. “No one predicted them to go to the Super Bowl.”
As the Patriots made their run at the end of the season, it became apparent that something special was happening. Darrel wanted Joyce to postpone the surgery until after the Super Bowl, just in case, but Joyce was uneasy with rescheduling.
“I told him, ‘No, this is how it is supposed to happen. I’m not going to jinx the Patriots by rescheduling,’” Joyce said.
So Joyce had the operation prior to the AFC Championship game and rested at home with her grandchildren. She had help from her mother and a family friend as they all piled in front of the television to watch Marc play in the Super Bowl. They, too, were on pins and needles.
Marc, on the other hand, wasn’t nervous. He was more anxious to end the waiting.
His week started immediately following the victory over the Steelers.
“We got back from Pittsburgh Sunday night at 7 p.m. or so, had a quick minute to celebrate, and then next morning at 8 a.m., we’re packed and ready to go to New Orleans,” he said.
Monday night in New Orleans was the only night the coaching staff gave to the Patriots free of curfew. Some took advantage of it; others relaxed with family, made phone calls to friends back home, or just quietly imagined what Sunday would be like. Marc went out with “the boys” that night and soaked in all that The Big Easy had to offer.
Tuesday morning was spent answering legitimate questions about the upcoming Super Bowl as well as personal questions, irrelevant questions, and questions simply asked in order to get a chuckle – and a highlight on SportsCenter. Media Day is a spectacle where all players and coaches are required to be present and at the ready for large news publications as well as youth reporters from various children programming outlets. Basically, it’s a circus.
The rest of the week was spent behind locked doors watching hours of film or running through the game plan on the practice field. Curfew was enforced each night as the teams tried to eliminate any distractions – there certainly were many temptations in The Big Easy.
Marc woke up on Sunday morning and it was hard for him to truly realize that later that day, he would be suiting up to start in a Super Bowl. More than 800 miles away in Norwood, Marc’s family and friends woke up in preparation for Super Bowl parties. Some were nervous; all were excited.
Matt Ventura, Marc’s teammate in high school, said he spent most of Super Sunday in awe of his friend.
“I got DIRECTV because of Marc,” Ventura said. “I got it so that I could watch every NFL game he played in, no matter what team he was playing for. To be getting ready to watch your friend play in the Super Bowl is awesome. We were just in disbelief all day.”
J.D. Myers, Marc’s little brother from the Big Brother Foundation in South Bend, was also gearing up for a big Super Bowl party. He had posters, football cards, and other Marc Edwards memorabilia all over his room waiting for the kickoff that seemingly never came.
“It was a great day,” Myers said. “Marc meant so much to me; we became great friends. He was more than just a mentor in the Big Brother program. He made such a huge impact on me and my family. He could have easily quit hanging out with me once he was drafted (into the NFL), but he kept in touch throughout. I couldn’t believe I would be watching my friend play in the Super Bowl.”
When the players arrived for a full day of preparation and waiting and even more waiting, the Patriots got the bulletin board material they didn’t necessarily need, but would certainly find interesting.
Coach Weis strolled into the locker room casually and had something to show the players as they unwound before getting dressed for the game.
“This is what the Rams think of you,” Weis said as he passed around a sheet of paper he had printed from the St. Louis web site.
The printed piece of paper was an order form for St. Louis Rams Super Bowl Champions hats and t-shirts already on sale to fans.
“This is what they think of you,” Weis repeated.
“Weis was always good with motivational stuff like that,” Marc said. “The Rams just felt the same way everyone else did about that game. Everyone thought they were going to blow us out.”
Including Las Vegas.
The odds-makers placed St. Louis as 14-point favorites – the largest margin for a favored team in Super Bowl history. No one gave the Patriots a chance to stay close to the Greatest Show on Turf – on the Astroturf of The Louisiana Super Dome. Earlier in the season in New England, the Rams upended the Patriots, 24-17, on Monday Night Football.
Like Marc, most of the Patriots’ entire roster had never experienced a Super Bowl before, other than watching from their home televisions. Belichick and Weis had both been to a Super Bowl as assistant coaches under Bill Parcels with the New York Giants. They tried to help everyone keep their nerves on ice during the pre-game waiting.
“Charlie and Bill had been there before and they kept telling us that we had to maintain our emotion all day and not get too excited too early,” Marc said. “It’s a hurry-up-and-wait situation. You have to have patience during the day. They preach that all day long. It was a lot of rest.”
When it was time to emerge from the tunnel amid a sea of flashbulbs, pyrotechnics, and frothing fans, the Patriots gathered together and watched as the Rams’ offense was introduced one-by-one.
Then it was New England’s turn.
“Choosing to be introduced as a team, the AFC Champion New England Patriots,” announced Pat Summerall over the dome’s loudspeaker.
Instead of individuals dancing their way down a tunnel of players, the Patriots emerged, arm-in-arm, as a team. It was the first time a team was introduced as one unit – fitting for a team without a real superstar.
“We were announced as a team, which I thought was cool,” Marc said. “You saw the stuff like (Baltimore’s) Ray Lewis doing his dance the year before. That made me want to puke. It was disgusting.
“This team had adopted a philosophy that it was team first as opposed to me first,” Marc continued. “That’s the reason we did go out as a team. St. Louis was introduced and they did their dances around the Lombardi (trophy) blow-up balloon. We just came out with our hard hats and lunch buckets ready to go to work.”
The dome was splashed with red, white, and blue banners and posters. The Super Bowl XXXVI logo had been changed from a New Orleans-themed print to an American-flag inspired picture of the contiguous United States to honor those who lost their lives in the September 11 tragedy. There was a patriotic feel to the pre-game ceremonies, too; former presidents read excerpts from Abraham Lincoln speeches, ex-NFL players read parts of the Declaration of Independence, and Mariah Carey, accompanied by the Boston Pops Orchestra, performed a rousing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.
St. Louis may have been the heavy favorites, but these Patriots certainly seemed to have most of the world behind them.
With President George W. Bush and former Navy and Dallas great Roger Staubach – also from the Cincinnati area (Silverton) – nearly the entire Patriots team joined their captains at midfield for the coin flip.
With the crowd rising in anticipation and folks back home excitedly settling into their seats, Marc looked around at the flashbulbs and could hardly believe where he was standing.
“You’ve really got to stay on an even keel all day long,” he said. “It’s the hardest thing to do because it’s the biggest game you’ve ever played in.”
But once the ball was kicked off, it was just football again. The Rams took the ball first and the Patriots immediately went to work on their defensive game plan.
The Patriots’ philosophy was to take All-Pro running back Marshall Faulk out of the game. Whichever way Faulk went, the Patriots had a player hit him or tackle him to the ground. When he was standing still, someone from New England punished him. When he was in the play, the Patriots pounded him. If Faulk wasn’t even looking, the Patriots defense knocked him to the turf. Every time Faulk touched the ball, he was pummeled.
The Rams managed to score first, but the Patriots kept them out of the end zone. With 5:05 left in the first quarter, Jeff Wilkins capped a 10-play, 48-yard drive with a 50-yard field goal to give his squad an early 3-0 advantage.
The Patriots’ offense was playing a conservative, time-eating, field-position game. They understood they couldn’t defeat the Rams in a high-scoring flurry of points; they just could not keep up with their speed. The best offense was keeping St. Louis’s offense on the sideline. It was an offense perfect for Marc. He carried the ball a few times and caught the ball out of the backfield a few times, but spent the majority of the game blasting linebackers to open up holes for Antawn Smith.
New England’s defense got the Patriots on the board first, giving them a thrilling early lead. With 8:49 remaining in the second quarter, Ty Law intercepted a Kurt Warner pass intended for Dane Looker and returned the ball 47 yards for the touchdown. It was a shocking turn of events and the Patriots owned a 7-3 lead.
“We get that pick-six and then we’re thinking, ‘Hey, we’re in this thing,’” Marc said. “The ice was broken and we started doing our thing.”
The Patriots’ defense came through again with less than two minutes remaining in the first half. Warner completed a pass to receiver Ricky Proehl at the Patriots 40-yard line, but New England defensive back Antwan Harris forced a fumble while tackling him. Defensive back Terrell Buckley recovered and gave Tom Brady a chance at a two-minute drill of his own. Brady’s ankle was well-enough for him to play and Belichick had no problem naming him the starter instead of Drew Bledsoe.
Brady and the offense responded with their best drive of the contest. With 31 seconds to play, Brady dropped back to pass and lofted a beautiful throw to David Patten who came down with the ball in the back of the end zone. An incredible catch gave the Patriots a shocking 14-3 lead that they took into the half-time locker room. It was the first time the Rams trailed by more than eight points the entire season.
Marc and the Patriots were 30 minutes from being crowned world champions.
“We were cautiously optimistic in the locker room,” Marc said. “We were excited, some of us were yelling. We were excited, fired up, but we still knew who we were playing. We knew this could still be a blowout.”
The Patriots received the kickoff in the third quarter and continued to play conservatively. After all, they did possess an 11-point lead. Late in the third quarter, the defense came through yet again. Otis Smith intercepted Warner and returned the ball 30 yards to the St. Louis 33-yard line. The offensive drive stalled, but Vinatieri tacked on three points with a 37-yard field goal that extended the Patriots advantage to 17-3. They would take that lead into the final quarter.
The Rams needed to respond with the high-powered offense that got them to the biggest stage in football. Warner finally began playing like an MVP. St. Louis drove the length of the field, but it faced a fourth-and-goal from the Patriots three-yard line. Warner took the snap and attempted to score, but he was drilled by Roman Phifer. The quarterback fumbled and New England’s Tebucky Jones scooped up the ball and sprinted 97 yards for what appeared to be the game-clinching score.
“We’re all thinking that the game’s over,” Marc said. “Then we see that yellow flag. Willie McGinest gets flagged for basically tackling Marshall Faulk and not allowing him to be a receiver. What had helped us all game hurt us on that play.”
With new life, Warner ran the ball in for a touchdown to cut the Patriots’ lead to 17-10 with 6:47 to play.
With 1:51 remaining in the game, following stalled drives by both teams, the Rams had one final chance to tie the game.
“We’re thinking that our defense has been a stud all game,” Marc said. “We’re thinking that we’re a couple of minutes from being Super Bowl champions.”
But “The Greatest Show on Turf” was ready to take flight.
Warner fired an 18-yard pass to Az-Zahir Hakim.
First down.
Warner drilled an 11-yard completion to Yo Murphy.
First down.
Warner completed a 26-yard touchdown pass to Proehl.
In just 21 seconds, the Rams had gone 55 yards in three plays to tie the Super Bowl at 17-17.
With 1:30 to play in the game, the Patriots had an opportunity to win, but did not have a timeout to burn.
Up in the FOX television booth, color commentator John Madden said that the Patriots should play for overtime because trying to drive down the field would be too risky.
On the New England sideline, however, the thought process was drastically different.
“If we go into overtime, we lose the game,” Marc said. “Plain and simple.”
He said that Weis and Belichick didn’t really give the decision to try and win a second thought.
“Settling for overtime may have been floated out there, but it was squashed immediately,” Marc said. “Maybe, if Brady doesn’t get things going early in the drive, we settle for overtime. But I don’t think there was even a question of whether or not to go for the win right then.”
Brady opened the drive with three completions to running back J.R. Redmond, which moved the ball to their 41-yard line with 33 seconds left. After an incomplete pass, Brady completed a 23-yard pass to wide receiver Troy Brown, and followed it up with a six-yard completion to tight end Jermaine Wiggins to advance to the Rams' 30-yard line.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Marc said. “My heart’s pounding. I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap, we’re in business!’ After struggling to move the ball all game, we were doing everything we had to do. If one of those guys doesn’t get out of bounds, we go to overtime. Everything happened the way it needed to for us to have a chance at a game-winning kick.”
With seven ticks on the clock, Brady spiked the ball, setting up a 48-yard field goal attempt.
Vinatieri had kicked two field goals in blinding snow and wind, but could he handle the weight of a world championship resting on one kick?
“I did not think there was any way he would miss it,” Marc said. “It’s 48 yards, indoors. There’s no way he could miss it after what he did two weeks ago. I’m not holding hands with anybody. I’m standing there watching.”
The snap went back and Vinatieri approached the ball. His leg fired forward and struck the ball perfectly. The seconds ticked away on the clock as the ball sailed through the air.
Vinatieri knew first. He knew the Patriots were world champions before anyone else in the building did as he jumped high in the air pumping his fists.
“As soon as it left his foot, I said ‘It’s good!’” Marc said. “I took off down the field, confetti is shooting out, and I find myself running by the goal line. ‘Why the hell am I down here?’ I ran back out to the middle of the field and just started yelling. I didn’t know how to celebrate. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. It was so surreal.”
Sitting in his chair watching his former teammate and friend, Ken Carter was overwhelmed by the moment.
“I cried like a baby,” Carter said. “I mean, I’m sitting there watching and all the sparkles and confetti are falling on him. I call him up right then and I leave him a message on his phone. I said, ‘I’m looking at you on TV; I’m proud of you. I wish I could be there, but I’m there in spirit.’ I was so proud of what he accomplished. I knew where he came from and to see him standing there with the Lombardi Trophy, I couldn’t have been happier. It’s one of my best memories.”
For Marc, he had reached the pinnacle. From Blue Collar, Ohio to Super Bowl Champion. The confetti fell all around him like snow on a cold Norwood night as Brady answered interview questions and teammates cried, laughed, and shook their heads in utter disbelief.
That night, after going out with his wife and family, Marc lay in bed and kept repeating the same sentence out loud.
“We just won the Super Bowl,” Marc said.
“We just won the Super Bowl.”
Darsi turned to her husband.
“Yeah, you did,” she said. “You’ve said that about 20 times. But can we talk about it in the morning? I need my sleep.”
“Just hearing yourself say it,” Marc said, “just ‘wow.’ This is something I dreamed about but never thought it would happen. I tried to talk myself into believing this actually happened.”
Marc wouldn’t need to talk himself into believing he was a champion. It was written on every newspaper for days. Marc even found his own smiling face on the cover of The Sporting News as he lifted the Lombardi Trophy high over his head. The highlights were on every news and sports channel on television. The Patriots were the most unlikely Super Bowl champions in the history of the game. Some called the win the biggest upset in sports history.
“Some people say that we were the worst team to ever win a Super Bowl,” Marc said. “But to go through what we did, to go through the injury to Drew, 9/11, starting the year 1-3, the snow game, beating the Steelers in Pittsburgh, and then beating the Rams on artificial turf, how could you say that? We were exactly what a good team was supposed to be.”
            Critics will always say what they want, believe what they want, but Marc and the 2001 Patriots will always have that coveted ring to prove any critic otherwise.
To purchase Odyssey: From Blue Collar, Ohio to Super Bowl Champion, visit the following on-line retailers.
Barnes and Noble