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