Monday, November 29, 2010

Rivals but not enemies

With Army-Navy coming up this weekend, it triggered some memories in my head of covering the great games 2005-2006.

This is from Dec. 7, 2006

Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds, that upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.”
— Gen. Douglas MacArthur

As the combined glee clubs from the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy sang the national anthem and the Navy F/A-18 Hornets flew over Lincoln Financial Field in a four-jet diamond formation on Saturday followed by four UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, I couldn’t help but feel goose bumps form up and down my arms.

In no other game does the national anthem have such meaning, as the opponents on the playing field and in the stands will soon be teammates on the battlefield.

In no other rivalry is there such admiration from the players and fans for the other team.

In no other rivalry do the opposing teams stand on the field after the game and salute the other team’s fans as the school song is played.

I’ve been to a lot of football games, and nothing compares to the atmosphere surrounding Army-Navy.

These young men know the hardship their rivals have to go through, being Soldiers or Sailors, athletes and students. The knowledge that most of the seniors, upon graduation, will be heading overseas together to fight a faceless enemy forces each and every player and fan to respect one another.

From the fans, there are no negative cheers; you never hear anyone yell, “Navy sucks!” It’s just “Go Army, Beat Navy!” What other rivalry can say that?

At no other rival game does the president of the United States make a regular appearance; the stands at Ohio State-Michigan or Florida State-Miami aren’t filled with former presidents, members of cabinet, and war heroes, either.

Sure, the actual football meaning of the game has changed greatly since the 1950s when Army-Navy was often a national-championship caliber game. But it’s also been since that long ago that the military academies have been able to get NFL-level recruits.

Like any rivalry, the players look forward to this game more than any other — a win can cap off a great season, or turn around a sub-par season. But it is more than bragging rights for a season — it’s bragging rights for life.

Football aside, Army-Navy is the purest game in all of sports. Rivals, but not enemies, the men of the Army and Navy teams know that their future lies on a different field.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

From a veteran on Veterans Day: Thank you

This is a column from one of our 3rd Infantry Division Soldiers, stationed at Kelley Hill at Fort Benning, Ga. It is running in the paper I am editor of, The Frontline, the newspaper of the 3rd Infantry Division. It is one of the most touching commentaries I have ever read - I dare you not to tear up.

Thank you, Sgt. Hutto, for helping up remember Sgt. Blake Stephens, and all of our veterans. We are forever and completely indebted to each and every one of you.

From a veteran on Veterans Day: Thank you
Commentary by Sgt. Ben Hutto

3rd HBCT, Public Affairs

FORT BENNING, Ga. — He seemed to love everything about being a Soldier — he kept his weapon in immaculate condition; he talked about room clearing procedures with the same zeal he talked about dirt bikes (his other passion); when he went outside the wire as part of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team’s security detachment, his vehicle was always out front.

The guy loved what he did and that sentiment came through in every task he performed. His platoon leader at the time, Capt. Steve Hemmann, once recalled a conversation in which Sgt. Stephens passionately explained that defending your country was one of the greatest honors which could be bestowed upon anyone.

He went on to say when someone dies for their country he didn’t think it was a shame. In his mind, sacrificing your life for your country was the ultimate expression of patriotism. In his mind, giving your life for your country wasn’t a tragedy; it was an honor.

While I wasn’t present for that conversation, I was in the convoy a month later when Sgt. Blake Stephens lost his life in a roadside bomb attack.

At his memorial, countless tears were shed. The brigade commander took the podium and promoted then-Spc. Stephens to sergeant. His fellow Soldiers said a prayer for his parents and wife. It was a sad moment for us all, but in that sadness Capt. Hemmann recalled those words and I knew Sgt. Blake Stephens died doing what he loved. He died the way he lived — out front and unafraid.

As Veterans Day comes and goes, we pay tribute to men and women like Sgt. Stephens. Today’s generation of veterans volunteered in a time of war. In the Army, signing up almost guarantees you will go overseas to a dangerous place. Yet even with this knowledge hundreds of men and women like him still volunteer and still leave their friends and Families to go defend them and our way of life.

By stepping foot in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan, Soldiers put themselves at risk; even the ones with the "safe" jobs.

Despite all of this, the Army continues to meet its retention goals. In fact, it has exceeded them the last three years. This tells me that Sgt. Blake Stephens wasn’t the only Soldier that loved his job and treasured serving his country.

I love what I do. Like any job, it has its ups and downs. I’ve missed a lot of things being a Soldier, but I’ve always gone to bed at night with pride in what my unit accomplished and the part I played in it.

I hold my head a little higher when my son tells strangers that his dad is a Soldier. I feel a little overwhelmed when my wife talks about what I do with pride. I get embarrassed when people I haven’t talked to in years ask me about my deployments and tell me how they don’t see how I did the things I did.
I don’t feel like a superhero. I don’t feel special, but people sometimes treat me like I am both. To be honest, it feels great and humbling at the same time.

On Veterans Day, the country will tell me and my fellow service men and women "thank you." I will appreciate it. I always do. Missing the holidays, the weddings, the funerals and all of those special moments that Families go through is hard, but it is made easier knowing that people recognize that sacrifice and will thank me for taking it on.

Sergeant Stephens was right. It is an honor to serve your country. It does give you a sense of pride that can’t be explained to anyone that hasn’t done it. While many of you will thank me for my service, I just want to thank my country for the opportunity to serve it. It has enriched my life more than most could ever know.

Whatever happens in the coming years, no one will be able to take away the experiences I have gained. I may never get to meet men and women like Sgt. Blake Stephens when I get out of the Army, but my enlistment did give me that honor.

I won’t always be a Soldier, but I always have the honor of being called a veteran. It is an honor that I will always cherish.
– Sergeant Blake Stephens was the type of guy you wanted to go on patrol with.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Pick one league

I love to play fantasy football, that’s been well-established, and I’m certainly not the only one. However, I, unlike many other fantasy football junkies, have made the conscious decision to play in only one league.

There are many reasons for this, the last being time commitment. I’ve done the multiple-league thing, and it just got confusing and each week I was having multiple ethical dilemmas (no one needs that). It’s like filling out more than one NCAA bracket – it just isn’t right. You need to pick your one team and cheer for them.

The biggest reason I don’t play on more than one team is because of what my friend Steve was going through on Sunday. He has Adrian Peterson on his team in one league, and was playing against him in another league. So, do you cheer for him to do well, or to tank? In either case, one of your teams suffers. During the game he was torn – when Peterson scored, he jumped up in celebration, then remembered that he was also playing against him, and slumped down in his seat. I couldn’t help laughing at his visible internal struggle. He said he hoped Peterson would get “between 10-12 points, that way it helps me a bit when he’s on my team, and doesn’t hurt me too much in the other league.”

Peterson ended up with 26 points.

Fantasy has done a lot of good things for the NFL and its fans – people who play fantasy are now much more invested in the games they may have previously seen as throw-aways, and they are more likely to watch more games than they would have before fantasy sports hit the mainstream.

On the flip side, fantasy football (or baseball, hockey, etc.) has created a constant internal struggle in fans. Say you’re from Indiana and you’re a Peyton Manning fan – he’s the signal caller for your hometown team, so you always cheer for him to have a big game. But then, what happens when your fantasy team is playing against the team who has Manning as their quarterback? Fans like to say that – no matter what – they cheer for their team to win. But in that particular instance, you start thinking, “Well, if the Colts can win and Manning just plays mediocre, then it’s even better.” No fan should be torn like that.

But let’s add more to the situation. You’re that Indy native. Manning is your hometown team’s quarterback, and he’s also your starter in Fantasy League A. Oh, but in Fantasy League B, your quarterback is Matt Shaub and you’re playing against Peyton Manning. Now what? You need Manning to get points in the real game, and in Fantasy League A because your top running back and wide receiver are on by. But, if he gets too many points, then Fantasy League B will suffer, since there is now way that Shaub is going to match Manning in points this season.

Don’t you want to avoid that? Pick one fantasy league to throw yourself into. Sure, your chances of winning the league diminish when you only play in one league, but the thrill of victory will also be that much sweeter.

As for filling out multiple NCAA brackets – don’t be that guy. When you fill out more than one, not only do you forget who you picked in what pool, but it makes you the lame guy who doesn’t think he can accurately pick games, and has to rely on luck and odds. Yeah, you might win one of the seven pools you’re in, but considering how much money you had to front (assuming you were betting, which of course you aren’t since it’s not legal outside of Vegas), you really didn’t win much at all. And all you really did was lose your sport-fan cred.

Pick one team, pick one bracket, and stick with it. Stand behind your picks and lower the chance you have to cheer against your home team players. And when it comes down to it – always pick your real-life team over fantasy.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

No longer America's pastime

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a team wins the World Series and no one watches, does it matter?

Baseball has long been considered “America’s Pastime,” but with viewership on a rather steady decline for the past 15 or so years, since the strike of 1994-95, that name has become more and more of a formality.

Many people say that they’re sick of the teams with the money winning every year – the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, etc. But this year, the Texas Rangers, with one of the lowest payrolls in MLB (27th of 30), made the World Series, and people didn’t watch. The San Francisco Giants won the Series for the first time in 56 years, and no one outside of the Bay area cares.

So, fans don’t like when the Yankees or Red Sox win, but they also don’t watch when the low-payroll teams are playing. How can baseball win?

Sadly for the league, we are in a time where people are getting sick of highly-paid athletes with the “me, me me,” mentality that is omnipresent in baseball (and basketball, which has also taken a viewership hit in the past few years) – which is why football is flourishing. It is by far the sport that depends most on the “team.” In baseball, A-Rod could go 0-for-5 and they Yankees could still win by 10. In football, if Drew Brees throws for only 60-percent completion with four interceptions like he did in Week 7 against the Cleveland Browns, the Saints are going to have a hard time winning.

Sure, certain NFL positions are the “glory” positions and get more attention, none more so that the quarterback, but any football player will tell you that the lineman are just as important – how can Peyton Manning complete 75-percent of his passes without his line keeping away those would-be sackers? And Adrian Peterson would have a hard time making a 15-yard run down the middle without the line making that hole for him.

But really, the ratings tell the story of the sport.

The day after the Super Bowl, that’s all anyone is talking about. Tuesday when I walked into my office, one of our Soldiers actually said “I didn’t even know the World Series started.”

That would never – never – happen the day after the Super Bowl. Whether you’re a football fan or not, everyone knows that the Super Bowl is going on.

On Oct. 18, baseball at its finest went against the NFL. Game 3 of the American League Championship Series between the Rangers and Yankees, featured some of the biggest draws in baseball – Cliff Lee, Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Josh Hamilton and Vlad Guerrero – and was held in baseball’s biggest market, New York; the game drew just over 8 million viewers. That same night, Monday Night Football featured two of the NFL’s smaller-market teams – the Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars. According to the Nielsen Ratings, that game drew the lowest number of Monday Night Football viewers this season – 9.5 million. You can’t argue with numbers.

My point is that the time of baseball being the glamour sport is long-gone. In part it might have to do with the commitment of baseball – 162 games per year vs. 16 in football. It’s a lot easier to get really pumped up once a week to watch your team than to watch every single night. No matter who is playing, all football fans, and even casual and non-fans, watch the Super Bowl. Clearly, the same can’t be said for the World Series.

Sadly, I’ve fallen into the “I don’t care unless it’s my team playing in the World Series” mentality. I didn’t watch a single minute of the World Series – and I consider myself a huge sports fan.

If people like me aren’t watching, what does that say about MLB? It says that only those directly invested in the game are watching any more, and that means trouble for Bud Selig and Major League Baseball.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

I will not let you down

I will NOT let you down.

On Sept. 2, Georgia State University played their first football game. After more than two years of preparation leading up to this historic season, 30,237 fans watched as the Panthers defeated the Shorter College Hawks, 41-7.

The program’s first-ever game capped a preparation period that began in April 2008, when it was first announced that the school would field a football team. In June of that year, it was announced that the coach would be none other than the legendary Bill Curry, the Atlanta native and former head coach at Georgia Tech, Alabama and Kentucky.

The coach was an NFL center, playing in three Super Bowls and two Pro Bowls and was part of three championship teams.

The construction of the team was chronicled by ESPN, in a series called "Building a Program." From choosing their coach, signing their first recruit, through the days leading up to their inaugural game, cameras captured the precision with which Curry built a team from the ground-up.

In his first pre-game with the Panthers, Curry gave one of the most chilling, adrenaline-inducing speeches I have ever heard.

He made his players repeat after him: "I will not let you down. I will NOT let you down."

As I listened to an audio recording of Curry’s speech, I felt the hairs stand on my arms. If you can find audio of it, please listen. What he was saying to his players, was just this: this game, this team, is bigger than just you.

Each of the men on the Georgia State football team has prepared for this game for his entire lives – to step out onto the NCAA stage in front of thousands of fans is something each of them dreamed about since he first picked up a football. But Curry made sure that none of them forgot that this game was not just for them individually, but for their brother on each side of them.

I hate comparing sports to the military, but when I hear a speech like this, I can’t help but thinking of our Soldiers serving our nation overseas – our men and women who bravely lay their lives on the line for the brothers and sisters in arms.

Before each mission, they too must repeat to themselves, "I will not let you down."

Whenever a Soldier acts in some form of heroism, each always has the same reason, "I did it for my brother… I wouldn’t – I couldn’t – let him down."

Now, football is military to the lowest degree – it is also a battle, but one in which lives are not lost. But the battlefield mentality of sports is undeniable. Each game is like each mission – give it all you have, finish, and be done with it. Leave everything you have on the field. Just as our Soldiers do in Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever the mission takes them.

And above all else, they remember their brother next to them – they will not let him down.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fantasy Football tips

As somewhat of a fantasy football guru, I am used to being asked by friends for help with their draft.

Mind you, as a female myself, most of my friends are females, and most do not know much about sports, let alone how fantasy sports work. So it has fallen upon me, as, in most cases, their only female friend who knows much about football or fantasy sports, to help guide them through their first fantasy football draft.

On Monday, my dear friend Sara, who is an attorney in New Orleans, sought my advice. She is playing in a league with co-workers, and wants to at least appear to know what she is doing.

So, I will share my advice with you all as I did with her.

First, find out what kind of league you are in – most are a "standard scoring league," but occasionally a commissioner will want to mix it up and make theirs a "points-per-reception league." A PPR league raises the values of wide receivers (and running backs who catch the ball out of the backfield, a la Reggie Bush) because each reception they get results in a point for your team. Running backs are still the most point-friendly, but the gap in value between RBs and WRs is narrowed. For example, receivers who catch 10 balls a game become highly valued. It is worth noting that quarterbacks do not get a similar bump for throwing the pass, only the person that catches the pass gets the point.

Second, do your research – read fantasy guides, make sure you are up on depth charts and injury reports, and, of course, look at draft kits. These kits, made by ESPN, Yahoo!, etc., are made up of "cheat sheets" that give their top-300 overall rankings, rankings by position, and depth charts. All are necessary for your fantasy draft. Make sure you bring all of these to your draft with a pencil to cross out players as they are chosen. If you are doing an in-person draft, you don’t want to be "that guy" who drafts someone who’s already been taken; if you are doing an online draft that won’t be a problem, as players are taken off as they are drafted and you can’t choose them, but it will also help you to keep track of the best available players by position.

Third - your first pick has to be the best available player. Most likely that will be a RB, but if you get a late first-round pick (7 or later), you may want to take the #1 QB or WR. Especially if you are in a PPR league, taking Andre Johnson (Houston), Randy Moss (New England) or Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona) in the late first round would be a good choice. I would not take any QB besides Drew Brees (New Orleans) in the first round.

Once you have made your first pick, things start to get tricky. Your draft is dependent on who other people pick, and how you are able to keep track – this is where the cheat sheets and pencil come in handy. Personally, I like to choose one RB, WR and QB before I double up on any other position. If your first three rounds get you one of each of those positions, you will likely have a stud in each position, instead of having, say, three good RB and a garbage QB.

Don't take a tight end until the 4th round at the earliest, and then only if one of the top-3 guys is available. The only TE that I would take before round 6 is Dallas Clark (Ind.), Vernon Davis (San Fran) or Antonio Gates (San Diego). When you are thinking about taking a TE, try to get one who doesn’t have a bye until week 9 or 10 (Davis and Gates), then you only need to draft one TE. You can grab someone off the waivers later in the season to take their place in the bye week.

Now, the cheat sheets also come in very handy with bye weeks. Each NFL team has a bye week during the season – the week when they don't have a game. Make sure that your top two at any position do not have the same bye week, because then that week you will have a very hard time making up those points.

The later rounds are when it gets fun for me – I like to take risks after I’ve already chosen 2 WR, 2 RB 1 QB and 1 TE. Take a rookie who could have a break out year. Maybe they won’t pan out, but they were late-round picks so they are worth the risk. I took CJ Spiller, the first-year RB in Buffalo from Clemson, in the eighth round, and Golden Tate (WR, Seattle) in the twelfth round.

Another late round tip: take a risk on a second-stringer, especially if he’s backing up someone who tends to get hurt.

As for defense and kickers, do not, under any circumstance, draft one before round 9 – and even then, only take a defense that is top – two in the league. For example, taking the Jets or Vikings defense in the ninth or tenth round will pay off. All kickers are pretty close, so don’t really need to pick one up until the last 2-3 rounds – just grab a kicker in an offense that might have trouble finishing drives - which means a lot of points for you. Again, a kicker with a late-week bye is a bonus.

Make sure you are aware of players who are not active, who have been placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list (which means they are out at least the first six weeks of the season), or who have been suspended or released by their team. In other words, don’t be that guy who drafts Ben Roethlisberger (QB, Pittsburgh, suspended first six games of the season) in the fourth round, or Sidney Rice (WR, Minnesota, placed on the PUP list Wednesday) at all.

Finally, a few of my personal tips:
• Don’t take Steven Jackson (RB, St. Louis) in the first round – I’ve been fooled by him twice before. In fact, I didn’t even take him in the second round out of spite.
• Don’t be fooled by Clinton Portis’ (RB, Washington) rank – he will undoubtedly get hurt. Speaking of, Larry Johnson (RB, Washington) is now the #2 RB on the Redskins – I got him in the 15th round, which I think was a great pickup because Portis is bound to get hurt and LJ will get a lot more carries when he does. If he’s available in your draft in one of the last two rounds, he could be worth a gamble.
• Avoid a Houston RB before round 7 – Steve Slaton is nursing a neck injury, and even though Adrien Foster looks to have a breakout year, the Texans have three very good backs on the team, so they will all split carries and none with have huge numbers.

Good luck to all!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Orange isn’t a good color to be disappointed in

All I could think was "at least I’m not out in public in this bright orange shirt."

You’re probably thinking, "huh?"

Let me start from the beginning.

Early Sunday afternoon I dug through my drawers looking for something that is quite impossible to misplace – a bright orange Netherlands soccer jersey. In just a few hours, Spain and my adopted European nation, The Netherlands, were to meet in the World Cup finals.

Due to the fact that I have a one-year-old and a non-soccer appreciating husband, I watched the game in my jersey and matching orange hat at home.

You might be wondering, "what's the deal with the orange?" The colors of the Dutch flag are red, white and blue – no orange to be seen. So what's the Netherlands' relationship, make that borderline obsession, with the color orange?

The answer lies in Dutch history. Orange is the color of the Dutch Royal Family. The lineage of the current dynasty – the House of Oranje-Nassau — dates back to Willem van Oranje, or William of Orange, who organized the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, which after the Eighty Years’ War led to an independent Dutch state. Thus, the Dutch have adopted orange as their national color, and refer to The Netherlands national soccer team as "oranje."

Back to the present. The World Cup final, a bore to many, had me on the edge of my seat the entire time.

The beauty of Spain’s game is unmistakable to those who know soccer; in fact, they play what is generally considered "Dutch-style soccer."

This 2010 Dutch team, however, does not play the same artistry-filled game as their Dutch World Cup Final predecessors in 1974 and 1978. This team plays structured, defensive and disciplined soccer – exactly the opposite of the aesthetically-pleasing Dutch "total football."
This squad is more of a "wear you down, force you out of your game" kind of team, and it worked for them for most of the tournament. They were like those pesky gnats that attack me outside of my house – all over their opponents, sometimes with numerous fouls, until the other team is forced to play a game they aren’t used to playing, and one that is less successful. It worked for them, as they entered the World Cup final undefeated in the tournament and in all of their World
Cup qualifying games, as well.

But the Spaniards have been ranked number one in the world numerous times in the past three years; they are the reigning European Champions, and seven of their starting 11 start together on their club team, Barcelona, which won the UEFA Champions League – the world club title – in 2009.

Spain shockingly lost their first game of the World Cup, 1-0 to Switzerland, but went on to win their remaining games, while allowing only one more goal scored on them the remainder of the tournament.

Suffice to say, my Dutchmen had quite an undertaking if they hoped to win their first World Cup title.

After the first 45 minutes it was scoreless; after the full 90 minutes of regulation it was scoreless; after the first 15-minute overtime it was scoreless; but then, in the 116th minute, Andres Iniesta broke through to score the winning, and only, goal of the game.

Spain was World Cup champions.

I was downtrodden; utterly deflated. Sitting in my living room in my bright orange jersey and hat, I was like the millions of other Dutch fans, all dressed in our "oranje," dejected yet again.