Monday, March 31, 2014

Because There's Never Enough Bitching About The Weather

I awoke to the sound of ice chips hitting the window early this morning. No big deal, I thought. It will change back into the rain that soaked us all weekend. Well, it's not stopping. The fat, wet flakes continue swirling around. Spring is nowhere in sight.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Inspiration on the Basketball Court

Just about the time my co-blogger was introducing me to The Dexateens' "Caption," I was placing the finishing touches on a story about the Lincoln College of New England basketball program in Connecticut.

What's the connection? Embracing the hard work necessary to create something you believe in and not being afraid of the journey. LCNE head coach Preston Beverly is building a program that welcomes players committed to the grind who are accountable and dedicated to expecting more.

They don't have a home gym, and they don't have a lot of the amenities that other junior college programs enjoy. It doesn't matter. Every day, there is work to do. There's no time for complaining or excuses or distractions, and there's no value in them anyway. I respect that attitude, and it's why I wrote the story.

Beverly's approach embodies the toughness and courage necessary to achieve. It's not always glamorous. It's certainly never easy. But it's worthwhile. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hallowed Grounds: Thoughts on Historic Muzzy Field and More

I'm never one to rush the seasons. Winter has its place, even when it's long and cold. But, it's difficult not to talk a little baseball right now. Plans are progressing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Muzzy Field in Bristol, Conn., which hosted its first official game on July 8, 1914. Muzzy Field is the only ballpark in the world still in use that has hosted both Babe Ruth and Vince Lombardi as players. The list of giants in sports who have played there is stunning for a municipal ballpark tucked away in the west end of small city.

Barnstorming teams from Cuba and religious communes in Michigan played there. Nearly three dozen Hall of Fame athletes. Several professional baseball and football franchises. The Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Boston Braves and others. Ruth played one of his final games in a Red Sox uniform at Muzzy Field in September 1919, and he became the first person to clear Muzzy's walls with a home run back when the baseballs were deader. It was quite a feat.

The day I went to the library to research the Ruth story, I uncovered more and more amazing stories and reached a point that I needed to document this early history in a book. Most people in the area know about the days when Muzzy Field was home to the Double A Bristol Red Sox of the Eastern League. But I'm always excited when Connecticut natives tell me they never heard the older stories of sports legends playing in Bristol because then I can start rattling off all the amazing moments as they pop in my head.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Disarming Roger Staubach: The Blue Raiders, Pensacola Navy and a magnificent moment in Middle Tennessee program history

I intended to post this just before the Armed Forces Bowl between Middle Tennessee and Navy, but I forgot about it in the midst of the Christmas season. The last time the Blue Raiders played a Navy-affiliated team before Monday’s 24-6 loss to the Midshipmen was back in the 1960s when they often matched up against the Pensacola Navy Goshawks, which fielded teams of former college players serving in the military. In 1967, the Blue Raiders played Pensacola Navy in Florida when the quarterback was Roger Staubach. Here’s the story of that game based on player interviews I conducted several years ago and newspaper reports of the time.
As season openers go, members of the 1967 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders football team already knew it was a big game—especially when it involved a rare commercial flight on Eastern Air Lines. And certainly because Roger Staubach, future Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame quarterback, led the opposition.

In the twilight of the most victorious decade in the program’s history, near the end of the illustrious career of head coach Charles “Bubber” Murphy, the Blue Raiders were scheduled to play the Pensacola Naval Air Station Goshawks, a fun-loving team with players from some of the largest football universities in the country. Games against military bases were not new to Middle Tennessee, which ran roughshod over Sewart Air Force Base of nearby Smyrna and Millington Navy in six games from 1949 to 1954.

Pensacola Navy was a regular on the schedule during the 1960s, but the ’67 Goshawks were different. The presence of Staubach, the 1963 Heisman Trophy winner during his junior season at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., created a unique buzz for the first game of the season.

Staubach had played little football since his last year at Navy. His four-year tour of duty began in 1965 and sent him to Vietnam in 1966 where he stayed in shape by running on the beaches of Dunang and Chu Lai.

When he returned stateside in 1967, Staubach had standing orders to report to the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va., something Pensacola head coach Bob Moss learned when he contacted Staubach about playing for the Goshawks.

“I went to the admiral (John J. Lynch) who was in charge of football and told him about Staubach,” said Moss, a lieutenant commander who played college football with NFL Hall of Famer Sam Huff at West Virginia in the 1950s.“I told him, ‘I don’t think that’s right to have a Navy officer playing for the Marines.’ He agreed and got his orders changed.”

Staubach arrived late to camp that August. Unlike his teammates who were pilots-in-training, the 25-year old quarterback was in the Supply Corps. His first game since his college days came against the Blue Raiders.

‘Staubach…was the big draw’

On the morning of September 16, Murphy and his club boarded a four-engine turboprop plane in Nashville operated by Eastern Air Lines. For many members of the team, it was their first flight and first opportunity to make an impression in a forum larger than the Ohio Valley Conference.

“We were excited to death because we were playing in a small-college league, and that gave us a chance to play against somebody that had national renown,” said George Claxton, an end for the Blue Raiders. “You want to see how you do against great competition.”

Murphy had drilled his charges in the preseason Tennessee heat until they were hardened, disciplined and in great shape.

When they arrived in Pensacola after a couple of stops along the way, a Navy bus transported them to the base where they spent the day touring the facilities and observing military duties the flight training program members had to complete before they were released to play football.

Because of weight restrictions on pilots, football players at Pensacola Navy rarely weighed more than 210 pounds, Moss said, which created matchup problems with the always-heavier opposition. For that reason, the Goshawks offense, devised by the team’s three coaches who conducted practices in between military duties, relied heavily on the pass.

Night fell with heat and thick Florida humidity, Blue Raider players recalled, and 9,000 Goshawk supporters from the base and the surrounding town paid the $1 admission and jammed into the metal bleachers of 6,000-seat Kane Stadium in the middle of the base. Large, lively crowds were common at Goshawk games and the Daily News Journal reported that cold six-packs of beer sold exceptionally well at the concession stand that night.

“They wanted to see Staubach,” Moss said. “He was the big draw wherever we played.”

Middle Tennessee’s players didn’t know what to expect from Pensacola, but defensive back Mike Matheny believed the Blue Raiders had an edge. Middle had the size advantage; Staubach was three years removed from his last real game action; and the Blue Raiders coaching staff had done their homework.

“We knew he was going to spot throw a lot, but we didn’t think they had the receivers,” Matheny said. “We played a monster man defense with a weak side and strong side safety. I was dropping back in the (passing) lanes.”

Middle Tennessee struck first when freshman tailback Taylor Edwards, subbing for Gene Carney who was injured on the first carry of the game, scored on a 27-yard run in the first quarter before Staubach led the Goshawks on an equalizing drive in the second. Fullback Tom Longsworth, a Miami of Ohio graduate, barreled in from two yards out and the teams went into halftime tied at 7.

Staubach inflicted more damage with his legs than his arm, scrambling for 61 yards in the first half.

But the Blue Raiders’ massive defensive line started wearing down the undersized Goshawks. Tackles Frank Victory and Bobby Langford, who were listed at 245 and 250 pounds, teamed with Claxton and fellow end Charlie Daniel to collapse on Staubach and swing the game’s momentum.

“He could move around back in the pocket, and it seemed like he could dodge anyone,” Victory said. “We got used to his movements and what he did. I think we were sandwiching him pretty good. I got to give him a pretty good lick.”

On the first four plays of the second half, the quartet smothered Staubach for losses of 52 yards and continued stuffing the run.

“With Staubach, you would think you’d have him penned in and he was such a great athlete, he could avoid you,” said end Charlie Daniel. “I remember being involved in a sack. I can remember more times I took a swipe at him and he wasn’t there.”

Meanwhile, Matheny was stepping into Staubach’s passing lanes and further disrupting the Goshawk offense. The 5-foot-9, 175-pound defensive back intercepted three passes from the legend-in-waiting.

“They were in my hands and my arms before I knew it, he had such a quick release,” said Matheny, who finished the 1967 campaign with six interceptions. “Another hit me in the numbers, but I dropped it. I thought OVC quarterbacks were quick, but he was four or five times faster than any other quarterback I’d seen. He just seemed to be a cut above.”

The man who became known as Captain Comeback during his days with the Dallas Cowboys didn’t have the surrounding weapons to recover. Matheny approached Staubach after the game, but the quarterback said little.

For the Blue Raiders, Taylor Edwards ate up 60 yards on 10 carries before being knocked out of the game in the third quarter, and then Larry “The Bull” Matthews took over and scored twice on short runs while Rodney Hayes blocked a punt that guard Mike Cowan recovered in the end zone.

When the third quarter ended, Middle Tennessee owned a 28-7 lead that it never relinquished.

Stifled most of the night, Staubach finished 16-of-45 for 137 yards and three interceptions. He also accounted for 18 of the Goshawks’ 19 total rushing yards. 

Daily News Journal sports reporter Lee Sadler described the Blue Raiders’ defensive surge as“something to behold.” He added, “It was part of a Murphy strategy shift which sent the tackles straight in after the passer rather than floating outside slightly and around the blockers.”

Moss, Pensacola’s head coach, recalled the game 40 years later. 

“I remember that game because Middle Tennessee thoroughly kicked our asses,” he said. “We were beaten at the line. It was mainly their pass rush that overpowered us. After the game, we won the party. Our motto is,‘We might not have won many games, but we never lost a party.’”

Blue Raiders head coach Bubber Murphy told the local Murfreesboro newspaper that he had witnessed “the best opening game that I can ever remember.” His quote appeared under a headline that remains a striking banner: “Raiders Embarrass Staubach, Navy.”

“After we beat them, we thought we could beat anybody in the country,” Claxton said. “That was certainly a big moment for a bunch of small-college guys.”

The victory took a heavy toll physically on the Blue Raiders. Five offensive players were lost to injury against an undersized, hard-hitting Goshawk defense made up of military men from places like Illinois, Navy and Baylor.

Middle Tennessee dropped five of its next six games. The skid threatened to send Murphy to his first losing season in the 21 years he had coached at the school. But the Blue Raiders reeled off three consecutive conference victories against Western Kentucky, East Tennessee and Tennessee Tech to finish 5-5.

“To me, that [winning streak] was the highlight of the season at the time" rather than beating Staubach, said Claxton. 

Staubach suffered some injuries that kept him from finishing the game against the Blue Raiders, Moss remembers, and also kept him out of the next few Goshawk contests.

Pensacola Navy, with a schedule that included small colleges in Louisiana and Ohio along with games against Mexico Tech and rival Quantico, completed its season with a 6-4 mark; Staubach completed 102-of-207 passes for 1,218 yards and 11 touchdowns, according to sports historian Col. John Gunn.

Staubach comes to Murfreesboro

Staubach played one more season with the Goshawks before moving into the NFL. In 1968, he led his team into Murfreesboro for a return engagement.

On September 21, the Goshawks flew to Tennessee with an enhanced starting lineup. Not only did Staubach, who also served as an assistant coach that year, enjoy the surrounding offensive talent of four players who would be drafted or offered tryouts in the NFL, but he also returned Gettysburg College receiver Tom McCracken (62 catches, 1,186 yards and 8 TDs in 1967-68), who Gunn called Staubach’s favorite target in Pensacola.

The ’68 Pensacola Navy team rolled up the yards and points.

In his second shot at the Blue Raiders, Staubach completed 19 of 26 passes for 345 yards and two long touchdown passes: 61 yards to McCracken in the first quarter and 36 yards to Ken Poates of Virginia Tech in the third quarter.

Though he did throw one interception, he picked apart a less experienced secondary on the way to a 12-7 win at Horace Jones Field. Daily News Journal sports writer Lee Sadler believed Staubach was more focused in the final year of his Naval stint.

“(T)he ex-Naval Academy All-American is looking forward to coming out and joining the ranks of the National Football (L)eague as a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys,” he wrote in his game report. “Actually, Stauback (sic) was a completely different player in 1968 than in 1967. He seemed to be playing harder and making a more serious effort to make an impression on somebody…probably the Dallas Cowboy coaching staff.”

Staubach led the Goshawks to a 7-2 final record, including a 31-7 win over Quantico; their only losses came against McNeese State and Northeast Louisiana. In the process, he completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,542 yards and 20 TDs in an offense that averaged 28 points per game.

The Blue Raiders, who finished 2-8 in Murphy’s final season, held the Goshawks to their lowest point total of the 1968 campaign. 

“There are good quarterbacks in the Ohio Valley Conference, but none with the quality, talent and experience of Roger Stauback (sic),” Sadler wrote in the September 23 edition. “And there are probably few if any teams on the Blue Raider schedule who can frustrate a secondary like Stauback (sic)shook up the Blue Raider defenders…”

The teams played once more, a 26-20 Goshawk home win in ‘69, before Pensacola Navy dropped its football program after the 1970 season, and the games largely disappeared into the footnotes of Blue Raider history.

For players of the time, the significance of gaining the upper-hand against Staubach in 1967 wouldn’t be realized until he had won two Super Bowl rings and emerged as an icon in professional football.

“I don’t think any of us knew what it meant to play against a man of that caliber,” Matheny said. “We were playing for school spirit and identification.”

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Stuffed Head

The mucus in my head pools like the suddenly melted snow on this warm, wet December day. I press my sinuses to feel the infected gunk congeal under my touch, and then slowly spread out again. The chalky gray sky reflects my energy level, and the drabness weighs down this day and hushes it into stillness. My teeth ache from congestion when I bend down or clench my jaw even slightly. 

Admitting or succumbing to sickness is against my beliefs, but I am now forced to move slower. I am stoned on Nyquil and Sudafed, yet restless in my home confinement. I fight my body’s inclination to do nothing because the passing minutes are lost opportunity to do something. To create. To produce. To shake out of this haze. 

I sit at my dining room table during lunchtime, lacking any appetite for food, and stare outside at the brown, gray and faded green boredom. My thoughts have no adhesive; they float briefly and die quietly in my medicinal buzz. I want to rush outdoors, but even the relative warmth blows too cool against my weak body and I shiver and cower. 

Christmas carols aren’t playing today in the house, and I no longer can smell the cinnamon and spice candles. This is the same mental funk that entraps me in early spring when New England snow recedes to muck, and sunlight is a memory. 

Patches of dirty snow cake the corners of the empty backyard, and the dead autumn leaves remain glued to the grass with mud. It is a sickly day oppressed by fatigue. I inhale sharply to clear my head. I can breathe momentarily, yet a ripple of pain passes through my brain. One half of my nasal cavity refuses to allow any air to pass through it, and I can feel the slow-drip of mucus to the other side when I try to sleep. 

I despise sleeping during the day. It is wasteful and leads to late-afternoon grogginess when you awake in the dying light with lethargy you can’t eliminate. I hate myself for napping. I feel lazy and listless. You will not get back this time! Stop planning things in your head timidly and force yourself to work through this! Get out of your pajamas, for God’s sake.  

My loving wife encourages rest. There is room in the day and it is necessary, she says. Yet I feel nothing but a crush of monotony at the thought, a constant leaking away of time like the water in the toilet that I should get up and fix. 

A whisper of rain falls on the window sill in a soft beat. It’s nature’s way of telling me to listen to my wife. I cannot slow myself completely, because I refuse to be agitated in the Sunday gloom later for allowing myself to rest. My mouth turns dry under the raw, chapped skin of my nose, and I swallow into a scratchy, dull burn. 

The effort to rebel against my sickness leaves me exhausted. My neck and shoulders ache, and I feel the faint flush of fever in my ear. Maybe I will doze off for a few minutes. But at least I created something today.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bowlin' Predictions

2013 College Football Bowls

1983. College Football's cupboard had a grand total of sixteen bowls.  30 scatter the cabinet now. Too many?  Yes. The NCAA.  It's all about intercollegiate athletics and the student athlete excelling in the classroom and on the athletic field. The extra bowls have nothing to do with corporate sponsorship or TV revenue. A late night text from my co-blawger requesting a bowl by bowl analysis. Here ya go Douglas.

Doug response: I'm a little late granting my own request, but here we go. 
Dec. 21, New Mexico Bowl: Colorado State (7-6) vs. Washington State (6-6), 2 p.m. EST on ESPN

Mike Leach decides to throw the ball on every down and the game lasts for six hours. ESPN pulls the plug to show a 30 for 30 special on the Professional Bowlers Association and its 89 Hall of Fame members.  A field goal by Colorado State in the sixth overtime provides a victory 83-82.

Let’s start things with a bowl that prompts very little response from me. Wazzu has sucked for a long time. Mike Leach is a lawyer/football coach, and I appreciate that combination. He’s doing some stuff. Take the Cougars.
Dec. 21, Royal Purple Las Vegas: Fresno State (11-1) vs. USC (9-4), 3:30 p.m. EST on ABC

Purple may represent royalty. Neither Fresno nor USC can claim that this year. Fresno puts the Kiffin/Orgeron era out of its misery.

This is a fine game on the first day of bowl season. Fresno State was one loss from a possible BCS berth. USC rose from the dead after Lane Kiffin was fired and Ed Orgeron allowed players to eat cookies again.
Dec. 21, Famous Idaho Potato: San Diego State (7-5) vs. Buffalo (8-4), 5:30 p.m. EST on ESPN

Should be renamed the IBM's You Make the Call Bowl.

You’re always guaranteed a bowl game with no intrigue within the first two days. Here it is. Call this the Blue Balls Bowl. Not because there’s any exciting lead-up and you’ll be left hanging, but because there’s blue turf, the Buffalo Bulls are all blue and the few who dare travel to this game likely will freeze their nuts off. San Diego State.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Lazy Sportswriters Take the Easy Way Out

You can go compare the stats for yourself. I’m not delving into some spreadsheet-based debate. Here’s what I do know when it comes to the National League race for Most Valuable Player. There is no way in hell or anywhere else that Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt is a more valuable player than St. Louis’ Yadier Molina. Absolutely no way.

I’m not debating Andrew McCutchen’s winning the MVP award. That doesn’t bother me as much as Molina finishing behind Goldschmidt. Does it matter who finishes second for NL MVP in 2013? Not at all. But there is a life lesson here, not just baseball.  
Sportswriters emphasized Goldschmidt’s trackable numbers. Here are some direct quotes I copied from USA Today. Based on principle, I refuse to type this myself: In a year without a dominant offensive player, McCutchen joined Goldschmidt and Washington's Jayson Werth as the only NL players to finish among the Top 7 in batting, on-base and slugging…Goldschmidt led the NL in homers, RBI, slugging and OPS…”
Great. So, did Goldschmidt’s performance help Arizona finish 81-81 and out of the playoffs instead of finishing, say, 74-88 and out of the playoffs? I’m certain there’s a stat that would show us.
Balance this with Molina. I’ll argue that Molina’s defensive value as the finest catcher in the game PLUS his noteworthy offensive numbers far outweigh Goldschmidt’s overall contributions. What’s not as easily measurable is Molina’s value to the Cardinals’ pitching staff. Injuries knocked out several front-line starters and relievers this year in St. Louis before the season even really started. Young, unproven guys were summoned from the minor leagues to perform in high-leverage situations. Just by reading quotes from pitchers throughout the season in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the average fan starts to understand Molina’s all-around value.
The Cards’ pitchers hit a rough patch this summer when Molina was on the shelf for a couple of weeks with a knee injury, and the team went into a funk. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Molina’s offense, defense and handling of the pitching staff throughout the season are primary reasons (again) why the Cardinals enjoyed another successful year and another trip to the World Series. And it’s not like Molina hits like Bill Bergen. (You gotta allow me to flash a little bit of baseball geekiness.) Molina’s offensive production is significant and comparable to McCutchen’s and Goldschmidt’s in a lot of ways.
But heaven forbid voters consider the nuances of the game, the contributions that never make the box score or never get publicized because they’re not highlight-reel material. They lazily bought into the flashy packaging of surface-level stats and disregarded the substance that requires critical thought.