As the Bo Jackson’s Hip “mission statement” and each subsequent post here at the site hopefully impart, I like to write about the way sports and life intertwine. Sometimes this connection is direct and undeniable. As we watch athletes live their lives and interpret their motivations, see real-world events collide with the sporting life, or witness the humanity of competition, it’s easy for sports to strike a chord. Sometimes the connection is a bit more indirect. Sometimes it is about the self-applicability of a sports story and the life lessons it can teach, as in the case of Bo, who eventually inspired the name of this blog when his hip injury removed the veil of innocence from my young, bright eyes. I saw how quickly things can change for the worse, and how fragile life can be. The lesson was easily applied and I have never forgotten it. Right now, that lesson is also running hand in hand with my personal life, and another, more recent sports story, so let’s explore, shall we?

The trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers happens to coincide with the collapse of a romantic relationship for me, and both bring up ideas about loyalty, honor, faith in something, and the sometimes icy coolness of reality. I won’t get into too many details concerning my now former old lady, but in the words of Big Daddy Kane, “I look at the toilet bowl and wonder what's up/cause I know damn well that she don't piss with the seat up.” 

What happens during a break up (especially the ones foisted upon you) is that you are placed in a situation that leaves you open to analogy and kinship in other spheres. As I hope Bo’s story illustrates, sports, like any form of art, is rife with just such opportunities. We seek out meaning and understanding in a variety of outlets, from books and film to music and other mediums. In my case, it’s usually athletic competition. It never surprises me either, because sports are what I know best and I've watched them evolve for so long that their advice on the human condition has flowed naturally out of games, seasons, athletes and careers.

Dwight’s saga reminds us of how the tenuous relationship between player and owner seems to consistently ignore the fan, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t fascinated by it. At this point, it has played out in seemingly every way, good or bad, and it is never uninteresting. From Wayne Gretzky’s departure from Edmonton, Joe Montana’s exile from San Francisco, Babe Ruth’s curse-causing move from Boston to New York, or LeBron James' figurative bitch-slap to the face of the city of Cleveland, a player changing uniforms is the basis of many enthralling sports stories. 

In the case of Howard and his departure from Orlando, Dwight left the Magic when they needed him most, and did so in the most surreal, self-serving, and ultimately destructive way possible. I wrote about this very fact a couple of posts back, when it looked like the Magic might turn to of all people, Shaquille O’Neal, to right the ship. The Magic tried time and again over the years to surround Howard with the level of talent that could bring him a championship and what did he do? He wiggled out of Orlando the easy way and acted as childishly as possible, making a fool of himself and his franchise. 

For some perspective, let’s get back to LeBron James for a moment, whom Mr. Howard, more than LBJ’s recent NBA Championship with the Miami Heat or gold medal with the United States Olympic Team, has made look like a favorite son again. The fans and media lambasted James for the way he left Cleveland, but in light of Howard’s behavior,  many now regard James’ decision to leave with a quiet admiration. “The Dwight-mare” has officially replaced “The Decision” as the NBA’s worst free agency/trade rumor debacle. And remember, James left via free agency, at the end of his contract, his right to do so inarguable, and made a calculated decision to end his relationship with Cleveland. The fans there are still bitter, but the media has softened on James. The way he left is still derided, television special and firework presentation and all of that, but his reason no longer is: he wanted a change.

One cannot condemn James for falling out of love with his hometown and deciding to move on, but Dwight Howard does not deserve that kind of consideration. What he did was whine, cry, demand a trade, take it back, demand a trade again, and then force his way out of town, leaving Orlando with nothing but a lineup of NBA roster-fillers and a hand full of future draft picks in return. He told Orlando, in essence, “I want out”, but he did it in a way that was personally easy and professionally cowardly. He did not honor his contract, he did not honor the fans of Orlando, and he comes out of all of this as petulant, selfish, and indiscriminate. Did I mention that he’s headed to my favorite team, the LA Lakers?

I’ve never felt so torn about such good news. I know that while we secured the best center in the league and perhaps, if he should find it in his clearly large heart to grace us with a new contract, the centerpiece of our franchise for the next half-decade, we also got a player that has never shown any fondness for fairness, proclivity for passion, or lust for loyalty. We get a physical specimen with the personality of a rich girl demanding more out of her Sweet Sixteen party. He, like so many athletes in the modern NBA and the sports world at large, has no interest in deferring gratification and building something special. He would rather moan, complain, get his coach and general manager fired, and leave his current employers and fan base holding a bag of air. 

I mentioned earlier that I turn to sports for life lessons and perspective often, but that such insight can also be found in other forms of art, like music. I’m no exception on that front either, and who better to turn to than the best rapper alive? I mention to friends and colleagues often that Jay-Z means so much to me personally because thanks to a career that spans 11 (12, if you’ve been watching The Throne) albums, he has lyrically explored nearly every aspect of life on earth, and thanks to his genius as a rapper, provided fantastic insight into many of the highs and lows of existence. I always say that I can fit one of his lines around anything that life throws at me, and two in particular keep coming back to me in my current situation, one in which I’m dealing with an emotional loss and watching Dwight Howard shift to his new digs in LA:


Are you listening Dwight? Because I sure as hell am. That wealth that Jay’s referring to isn’t just money or fame, it’s success, achievement, satisfaction, self-fulfillment et al. I want you to take a good long look at the three things he puts before “wealth”. As far as the second line, it makes me wary of anything that comes out of Dwight Howard’s mouth right now. He got what he wanted, out of Orlando, and while he tells us that this will imbue him with an unselfish desire to win a championship based not on personal, but mutual goals that the Lakers will set, all I can think of is the guy who bolted out of Orlando with a trail of lost jobs, disenfranchised fans, and a depleted organization twisting in his wake. 

James and Howard, while now on opposite ends of the “how-to-fuck-your-team-over” spectrum, do still share an unfortunate motivation: winning now. This phrase, “win now”, is something that is relatively new to sports, but in our present day, is near-ubiquitous when discussion arises regarding athletes, fan-bases, franchises, and even the four major sports themselves. As Brooks Hatlen might say, “the world went and got itself in a big goddamn hurry.” No one–owners, players, or fans–seems capable of building something real, holding on to a shared camaraderie, and pushing towards a goal, regardless of whether or not it is achieved. 

Michael Jordan’s six championships taught a lot of young athletes some terrible lessons about success and what it means. It doesn’t mean you have to be like Mike and fill your fingers with rings in order to be successful, and even Mike stuck with Chicago, let them build, and then flourished. Today’s athletes only see his success, and not the process that got him there, and think that they are entitled to instant gratification. How’s making millions of dollars coming out of high school or your freshman year in college for instant gratification? Don’t you think that you can learn something about yourself and the value of hard work by taking the time to earn the achievement of your goals, and not circumvent that necessary hard work in any way that seems fit?

If I sound bitter, I’m at a bitter spot right now. Hell, the country is at a bitter spot right now. The last thing we want to hear living check to check and slowly salting away the money for a better tomorrow is how yet another entitled player or greedy owner took a shortcut to success at the price of what the Jigga Man already laid out: honesty, loyalty, and friendship. Again, sports has much to teach us as fans about life, but Dwight Howard’s story reminds me how much athletes themselves have to learn about life from their fans. It’s a two-way street, and fans understand struggle, adversity, and dedication to one’s own self-worth just as much as athletes do, if not more. 

Dwight Howard shows us the definition of the easy way out, and he shows us how to cheat better than any baseball slugger on performance enhancing drugs or lover stepping out. He did not just cheat his contract, or the NBA collective bargaining agreement, or the organization that nurtured him, or the fans and citizens of Orlando. Most importantly, he cheated himself. Trouble is, like so many of our modern athletes, he has been rewarded for his bad behavior, stepping into a team with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and the also new-to-LA Steve Nash. If life was fair, the Magic would have dealt Howard to the Toronto Raptors or the Sacramento Kings and let him see just how good he had it in Orlando. But that is the definition of wishful thinking, and the ultimate lesson of the interplay between sports and life is that as fair as we want both to be, they simply never are. 



With the completion of its draft of the best college athletes in the country, the NBA's time to shine is officially finished until the beginning of the 2012-2013 season. It's time to wrap up the 2011-2012 season in a neat little bow, and this can only be done with a good long look at the NBA Finals, in which LeBron James and the Miami Heat dispatched of Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in convincing fashion. James won his first NBA championship, which is likely not his last, and the Heat completed the first stage of a mission of dominance they began when James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami.

If you read this blog, or the sports news in general, you know that many opinions on young Mr. James have a way of vacillating to a staggering degree. While I like to think that my own opinion of James has not been susceptible to the level of up and down, life and death, failure or flourish rhetoric that has swirled around him since he entered the league 9 years ago, his team's victory in this year's NBA Finals is a truly important step for James himself, and the NBA as a whole.

As I've said before, James is the best player in the league, and therefore expected to succeed. The plain truth is that he just hadn't done so up until this season. Sure, he has won individual awards (that's three MVP's and counting) and this was his third trip to the NBA Finals, but without a championship ring on his finger, his incredible talents and phenomenal statistical output would have been footnotes on the story of his continual disappointment. Well, that is over now in some ways, but in others it is not. James is a fascinating figure and has made the Heat a fascinating team, which won't end with this year's success in the Finals. Sorry Josh Levin.

Still, it was one small step for James kind, removing a monkey of King Kong-like proportions off his tattooed back. If you had any doubt about the kind of relief that James felt at the end of game 5, you could just watch him bouncing along the sidelines with that mile-wide grin on his face, or soak in the look of sheer elation that washed over his countenance when handed the glistening Larry O'Brien trophy. James needed this ring and he knew it. Hell, we all knew it, but it was amazing to see just how excited and giddy he was at the end of the day. 

One thing I got wrong about James was that I didn't think he could play happy and win. I thought a killer instinct could not be developed while hindered by a joie de vivre, which James has professed all year, but it is a point confirmed with the Heat's Finals victory. He said that he returned to the basics, returned to his love of the game, and returned to being the player he was for his whole life, something that was not part of his make-up in last year's Finals loss to the Mavericks. But what really wasn't there was the level of play that he brought in this year's playoffs and the Finals in particular. With what (to put it lightly) was a slightly hobbled supporting cast (Wade nursing a knee, Bosh an abdominal strain, and Mike Miller needing a back-e-outta-me), James averaged 30/9/5 for the post-season. Damn son.

And those teammates, while a bit gimpy, are a big reason James and the Heat carried the day in the Finals. James' "talents" are one thing, but they fell short on their own in Cleveland. When they are accompanied by excellent shooting and dominant defense, you get exactly what the Heat were this year, and you boat-race a very talented Thunder team out of the the Finals in fine style. Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Norris Cole, Udonis Haslem--not to mention Wade and Bosh--outshone last year's Heat the way that this year's version of James obliterated the reluctant closer we saw a year ago against the Mavericks.

While he looked apprehensive and willing to acquiesce to Wade last year, he looked determined and completely comfortable with the fact that he is the best player on the court, whenever he is on a court, this year. He dove at the rim and bullied his way to the free throw line, he hit timely jumpers (but didn't live outside the way he did last year), he reminded everyone that he has freakish defensive skills (guarding seemingly anyone he was asked to), and he threw laser passes to teammates on the perimeter when the Thunder and other teams tried to double down and cut him off.

Now that the requisite James discussion is (almost) complete, the most exciting thing to come out of this year's Finals could be something that had not been anticipated before this post-season run. While it is entirely possible that the Heat will only grow stronger and continue to demolish opponents for the coming decade, it is more likely that the NBA is on the precipice of the kind of rivalry that saw it reborn in the 1980s. That decade had Larry Bird's Celtics and Magic Johnson's Lakers, and this decade might see LeBron James' Heat and Kevin Durant's Thunder become the preeminent rivalry in all of sports. Although they may have to wait a little while for their own Broadway show...

I don't doubt the Heat, but the likelihood that this is the last we saw of Durant and the Thunder, or that they will not continue to get better as they congeal as a team, grow up as young men, and add new pieces, is slim and none. I'm absolutely over the moon at the thought of these two teams being the centerpiece of the league because I love professional basketball, and it would reach new heights if this is the case in the near and somewhat more distant future. I love the Lakers, and I don't count them out, but they, the San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics, et al have a juggernaut in each conference to deal with in the coming years.

Instead of LeBron's prediction of "not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5..." rings for Miami, the league might see a punching match between its two best players that becomes the Association's version of Ali/Frazier. This could be the beginning of LeBron's Jordan-like run towards a fistfull of rings, I just hope it's not. I want to see great players be great, and while that includes James, it also includes Durant. The two may be separated in age a little more than Bird and Johnson, who were already college rivals when they entered the league together in the '79-'80 season, but they share a similar level of ability, and a mirrored competitive drive that will have them going at each other in the Finals over and over if we should all be so lucky.

So either way the next 5 to 10 years play out, I think the NBA and its fans are in for another golden era of competition and intrigue. If the Heat turn into the Bulls of the 1990's and rip off 6 rings in 8 years, that would sure be fun to watch, but if they find themselves in a grudge match with the Thunder, that would be all the better. James shut enough people up with his first ring that his path to glory no longer rests on the aforementioned number of rings he predicted in the Heat's preseason extravaganza a year ago. I think most will forget that debacle, along with "The Decision", as the Heat continue to raise their temperature and the young guns in OKC continue their already impressive rise to meet the championship challenge that now resides in South Beach.



Recently, it was reported that the Orlando Magic were interested in interviewing retired center and former franchise centerpiece Shaquille O’Neal for their newly vacant general manager position. When I first read a headline indicating as much on several of the sports news websites that I frequent, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. For starters, thanks to Dwight Howard, the Magic are an incredible mess. D just couldn’t seem to make up his mind whether or not he wanted to re-sign with the team or pursue free agency during the course of this season, and when I say that he couldn’t quite make up his mind what I really mean is that he was a negotiating schizophrenic. He changed his mind like a teenage girl picking out a prom dress and even twice in the same day towards the end of the regular season. Finally, at long last, he signed a one year option to put off free agency until after the 2012-2013 season.

What this did was put a drop kick into the beehive that the Magic have become. A one year deal did nothing to quell suspicions that he still wants out of Orlando, gave the Magic front office no indication that they could re-sign their big man, and put his coach and teammates into the kind of awkward situation that makes French kissing your sister seem natural. That situation culminated when the Magic fired that aforementioned head coach, Stan Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith, but that wasn’t before a reporter’s question about whether Howard had asked for Van Gundy’s firing led to one of the most uncomfortable interviews in the history of sports near the end of the shortened 2011-2012 season. Check it here, and try not to squirm. 

You have to feel for Van Gundy, shake your head at Howard, and blame the Magic front office for what went down this year. So in order to clean up after they cleaned house, the Magic brass decide to pursue Shaquille O’Neal for their GM position. Okay, so, you’re talking about Shaq right? The same Shaquille O’Neal that left your team in the lurch more than a decade ago and signed with the LA Lakers in free agency, the same man that while one of the most dominant big men in the history of the game, is also one of its most ridiculous characters. The same Shaq who, trying to chase a fifth championship in the latter part of his career picked Phoenix, Cleveland, and Boston to do so. That’s Phoenix, Cleveland, and Boston, none of which even reached the NBA Finals, let alone won a championship with Shaq on their roster. This is the guy you want constructing a team for you?

We’re talking about a dood that starred in ‘Kazaam’, traded rhymes with Fu-Schnickens, called himself “Diesel”, “The Big Aristotle”, and “The Big Shaqtus” in that order, all after, once again for the purpose of clarity, he left Orlando by choice for the bright lights of Los Angeles. In order to bring some clarity and resolve to an organization that is in dire need of direction, the Magic chose to reach out to a guy that once asked former teammate Kobe Bryant how “his ass tastes” in a freestyle rap at a crowded night club. This is the guy that’s going to keep Dwight Howard around and be the face of your franchise off the court? 

I can’t tell you how little sense this makes. If invading Iraq after we were attacked by a terrorist cell based out of Afghanistan post-911 made sense, then yeah, I guess it makes sense. If the richest country in the world refusing to give health care to everyone that lives here makes sense, then yeah, this makes sense. If Jim Belushi and George Lopez continuing to find work in Hollywood makes sense, then yes, this makes sense. If the fact that you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway makes sense, then yes, this makes sense. If--ah, y’all know.

And thank god for logic winning out, because it was announced a week ago Thursday that O’Neal will in fact not pursue the Magic GM job and will not grant the team an interview. The fact that O’Neal was the one who had to make the right decision in this demented courtship is truly astounding, and the Magic might as well keep their crazy caps on and buy Dwight Howard a plane ticket, because even his contractually bipolar ass ain’t sticking around for these kinds of shenanigans. The Magic are a grease fire and even Shaq knows that. 

The Orlando faithful need to get a grip, move on, and hope that yet again they will get the number one pick in the NBA draft and have a shot at rebuilding the franchise. Two of those number one picks, O’Neal and Howard, are making their life even more chaotic right now, but like so many who have spurned luck’s fortunate shimmer, they will probably have their ass polished one more time down the road. I just thank god Shaquille freaking O’Neal won’t be the one deciding who that number one pick is.



Having an opinion on anything, especially sports, means that sometimes you have to allow that opinion to shift. It also means that sometimes, you were perhaps more right than you thought you were. I find myself smack dab in the middle of these two seemingly opposing circumstances when it comes to two stories that are floating around the world of sports right now. I have previously expounded upon the career of LeBron James and the violent nature of the game of football in previous posts, and since those two topics are back in the spotlight right now, I thought I would take a two-headed approach to a bit of Bo Jackson’s Hip revisionist history.

Not long ago, I wrote a post about how uncomfortable I am with being a football fan. I wrote about how my love of the game is clouded by the sheer destruction it can bring to those who play it, both in the short and long term. In that initial post, I talked about how the media firestorm surrounding head injuries was the impetus behind why I decided to vent on the violence of football, but that what truly unnerved me was the purely visceral feeling I continue to experience simply watching the game. That just taking in the action week after week during the football season had started to make me queasy. About how much of a mental strain it can be to take so much joy away from the game while at the same time knowing deep down that all of the collisions, limb twisting, and brutality of football are not good for those who play the game, and at the end of the day, for the viewer too.

Well, I was right. And I was wrong. I still have all of the feelings that I expressed in that post, but have now integrated all of the head injury hoopla into my general feeling of unease. That’s because earlier this month, one of the most competitive and perhaps greatest linebackers the game has ever seen took his own life. Junior Seau’s suicide should not be called shocking in any way shape or form. Seau was previously involved in a car accident that sent his auto sailing off a cliff in Southern California, and while he insisted that it was just that, an accident, many speculated that it was an attempt on his own life. And with all of the information that continues to leak out of the story concerning Seau’s depressive mind state over the recent past and some erratic behavior over that same time frame, it is clear to this writer and many others that the number of blows Junior took to the head had to have had an affect on his mental stability and mood. 

This is accentuated by the manner in which Seau committed suicide. He shot himself in the chest, which already seems like an unusual path to the eternal on first glance, but upon further examination is another chilling reminder of the kind of continued controversy the NFL must deal with in regards to head injuries and their long term psychological and physical effects. Seau shot himself in the chest, preserving his head and the brain inside of it. The similarity to the way that Seau chose to take his own life and the way another former NFL player, Dave Duerson did so just last year is eerie and telling. Duerson’s suicide note, which is featured in the picture above, makes it clear that he knew where the demons haunting him originated. He pleads with friends, family, and the medical profession in that suicide note to study his brain postmortem, the only way to determine if he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that more and more is the telltale sign of a life and personality permanently affected by a career in professional football. He was.

Duerson’s blatant message from the great beyond was that despite what he may have thought earlier in his life, he knew at the time of his passing that football and the impacts his brain was exposed to week after week, year after year, were the reason he had reached suicidal levels of despair. It becomes that much easier for us to make the connection between his death and Seau’s because of the manner of their suicides and the increasing level of scrutiny and research the NFL is devoting to head injuries (at the behest of an increasingly concerned public and sports media). I was right, football is brutal, but I was wrong, head injuries should now become the focus of not only the press, the league, and physicians, but more importantly, players and fans like me. 

As I said, this post is meant to be a reexamination of opinion on two fronts, and the second, while not a matter of life and death, could be a matter of career life and death for LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet earth. I wrote a post last June after James’ Miami Heat fell to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals examining what the hell was wrong, and what the hell was right with James and the Heat, and as with my musings on violence in football I feel that I got a lot of things right. But in the year since, I was also wrong about many aspects of James’ career arc at the same time. I said last June that LeBron needed to ditch the likable, nice-guy persona he built as an insouciant youngster in Cleveland, where he was a teammate’s dream and a bundle of energy and excitement on the court. I thought that the way he and the Heat played in the 2011 Finals--reluctant, ill at ease, unnecessarily unnerved--was a manifestation of James’ unwillingness to embrace his new role as sporting villain and his inability to develop a killer edge.

I thought that if James could pair his inarguable talent and athletic acumen with the killer instinct that resides in so many of the greatest players in any sport, he would be unstoppable. I thought that if he didn’t do this, he was destined to be known as the ultimate front-runner in the world of sports, which does not usually a legend make. But then he put on an MVP performance this regular season that showed just how amazing a basketball talent he is. There isn’t a player in the league that filled out the stat sheet like James did this year, and I thought that maybe I was wrong. Maybe he could remain true to his playful self and succeed at the same time, and I found this especially true considering the Heat were 15-1 while James’ near equal in talent, Dwyane Wade, was sidelined with injury.

To further my appetite for crow, Sports Illustrated did a cover story on James in the final week of April that had me completely convinced of the error of my ways. James professed a basketball rebirth, where he stopped thinking so much about his play and returned to an unabashed excitement for the court and enjoyment level that he hadn’t felt since coming to the Heat. His attitude was back to where he wanted it to be, and his play was simultaneously flourishing in South Beach. I thought that I was dead wrong and that James could be a sports world exception, a Brett Favre of the hardwood who never hid his childlike enthusiasm and still succeeded. But what I forgot was that the SI cover story, and the story of James’ alleged personal reclamation of his attitude, were based on a regular season performance. I forgot that we were not, unfortunately, talking about the playoffs. Shout out to the homie Jim Mora. 

Thus far in the playoffs, James seems up to his old tricks. And while I was ready to take back all the doubts I had about his ability to play nice and play well, he is already reminding me of why I thought what I thought. For all of the enjoyment that LBJ claims he has regained, it is not evident on the court, where he still looks listless. Nor is the solution offered up by yours truly, a killer instinct. If James would truly like to win more like Brett Favre than Tiger Woods, or to stay on the court, more like Michael Jordan, he needs to do just that. The most important part of that sentiment being the word “WIN”. Against the Indiana Pacers in game two, James again missed key free throws in the closing moments, and was joined by Wade in having a severe case of the charity stripe yips. With the game on the line and a last shot that could have tied the game, the action didn’t even run through James and the Heat settled on a shot by Mario Chalmers. Chalmers is a fine basketball player, but in order to be what he wants to be, it must be James taking that final shot, or at the very least James passing out of a double team to an open Chalmers or Wade. 

So again, I was right, then wrong, and now I feel right again about LeBron and his ability to win. I know, we’re only in the second round of the playoffs and the Miami Heat are without the third part of their multi-million dollar trifecta Chris Bosh due to injury, but that will be no excuse if once again the Heat come up short. I tweeted earlier this regular season that it amazes me that with the amount of talent, scoring ability, and defensive tenacity that the Heat possess, they consistently look beatable, night after night. That has to change and change quickly if they hope to escape the Eastern Conference Playoffs, where despite a manly 40 point 18 rebound performance from James in game 4, they are struggling with the Indiana Pacers in round two. James needs a lot more of those nights, especially when the pressure is on, and more help from Wade if the Heat want to make a run to the Finals and an NBA Championship. 

It may take a decade, maybe even two before I finally know how right or wrong I am about the devastation that emanates from football and the legacy of LeBron James, but until then I am floating somewhere in the ether on both counts. Right or wrong, I will be as interested as you as to how things eventually play out.



Though its culmination is still a few days away, I can already say that the 2012 iteration of the NCAA Division I Mens Basketball Tournament is the most memorable in my years of watching the Madness that comes with March. This year's tournament hasn't had quite the same level of exciting moments and cinderella stories as many of those in the distant or recent past, but I personally have never had such an immediate connection to college basketball's championship tournament or the kind of of vivid experiences and encounters with the action that will no doubt make this year's Big Dance stick in my memory like no other before it. For me, this year's road to the Final Four was indeed the one less traveled by.

Before the tournament field was even decided upon, I had already been given a glimpse into what was to come, starting with a trip to New Orleans and the hoopla surrounding this year's SEC conference tournament. I hitched a free ride with two friends to the Crescent City, where we met up with another pal and set down temporary residence in a quaint apartment in the city's Marigny district. It provided a home base from which we experienced the tournament's exciting and surprisingly Blue atmosphere. Two of the three friends I spent my weekend in New Orleans with are dyed-in-the-wool Kentucky fans, and they made the pilgrimage to Nola without tickets for any of the games, but just to be present in the city where their team was making its run through the conference tournament. They were not alone.

If this picture doesn't do justice to the number of Kentucky fans that infiltrated the city for the weekend, let me try to add to the 1,000 words that the photo hopefully imparts. As depicted, Bourbon Street was filled to the gills with the Kentucky faithful for the entire weekend. I was absolutely floored by the sheer number of fans that came down to watch and support their team. One reason being is that the trip from Kentucky to New Orleans is not exactly a short one (I believe we made our trip in just over ten hours by car, and that was with an extra hour shaved off of our time thanks to a shift in time zones). The other is that the UK fans were there for a conference tournament. With Kentucky already in control of a number one seed in the national tournament, it amazed me that so many fans turned out just to cheer their team on during their conference's tourney. Also, as a die-hard Ohio State fan, I thought my team traveled well. No affront to any of my fellow Buckeye faithful, but Wildcat fans can do more than give us a run for our money when it comes to traveling in support of their school. They flooded that city (ouch, still too soon?) and made me think that some sort of famine had induced a Lexington diaspora to New Orleans, which is still reeling from a storm-induced exodus of its own.

To add to the excitement that was clearly evident among my comrades and the rest of the Kentucky fans that were crawling all over the city, the French Quarter bar we selected to view the Wildcats' first game at was filled with Kentucky fans of a truly select breed: the extended family of the team's star center Anthony Davis. Grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunt, twin sister--just about everyone except the dynamic freshman's mother and father, who were attending the game at the New Orleans Arena--were right there alongside of us, cheering on their relative with the ungodly wingspan and the rest of his talented teammates towards a conference championship. My Kentucky-fan friends were over the moon, and I was similarly excited to be around the Davis clan, who were warm and energetic throughout the game (and the following day's game as well). They came from Davis' hometown of Chicago and also Mobile, Alabama, where some of them have put down stakes, and called their shot-swatting kinsman "Fat Man", a nickname he apparently earned as a particularly hefty infant.

It was amazing to see the games through their eyes (which were not, before you ask, framed by unibrows) and be surrounded by Kentucky fans that were both long-time supporters and genealogically invested in the outcome of the games. In the end, Kentucky came up short in the conference championship game to Vanderbilt, but that did little to detract from what for me was a memorable (though somewhat hazy) weekend in New Orleans. I was allowed a second trip to a city that I am truly falling more and more in love with the more I get to experience it, and a unique window into a side of basketball fandom that I hadn't really appreciated up until this point. But my four days in New Orleans were only a warm-up to my tournament experience, which truly got going a few days later back home in Louisville.

That's because unlike the New Orleans trip, a friend and I had already secured tickets to the games being played at the KFC Yum! Center on both Thursday and Saturday. That gave us four games from the round of 64 on Thursday and two more in the second round for Saturday. I was in high spirits on my bus ride downtown to see the games, and was happier still when I got to my seat, which though high up in the unusually cool air of the Yum! Center, was still a fantastic viewpoint to see the games. And to be perfectly honest, like some of the bigger stars I've seen at large arenas in the world of music, I was thrilled just to be there, no matter how good the action on the court ended up being. Well, it ended up being great and the whole day, while exhausting to a certain degree (especially considering the lack of alcoholic libations available for sale), was sublime. I spent the day surrounded by the tournament atmosphere, which was again dominated by fans of the Kentucky Wildcats.

All of the teams represented showed up, but as in the case of New Orleans, none of them showed up like the UK faithful. They poured into the arena's lobby chanting and shouting and didn't stop when they reached their seats, as their boys in blue promptly mowed over instate competition Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers seemed for a brief window of time in the first half to have a chance at staying even with the best college basketball team in the country, but that soon gave way to a dominating performance from Terrence Jones and more Wildcat alley-oops than a week's worth of LA Clippers games. I was again astonished at the vivacity of the Kentucky crowd, which cheered their team's dismantling of a No. 16 seed like it was a game against their real instate rival and the host for the action, the Louisville Cardinals. Which brings us to why this year's version of March Madness just got borderline psychotic...

I told my friend Catherine, who I attended the games with, that as a UK fan she had to have seen the lower portion of the Wildcats' bracket, which if everything shook out right could mean a meeting with Louisville in the Final Four. Our discussion was more along the lines of "how about that", "wouldn't that be something", and "this city would go apeshit". Well how about the fact that it actually is something, and this city is going apeshit. It is not only the unlikely run that Louisville has made through the tournament so far that makes the Final Four match-up between the two teams fascinating, but clearly their storied rivalry, their coaches' not-so-under-the-radar feelings of animus toward one another, and the rabidity of each school's respective fan-bases. Jim Rome, a national sports radio host, television personality, and in this writer's mind the best interviewer in his field tweeted shortly after the match-up became a reality on Sunday:

"Kentucky fan and Louisville fan together on Bourbon St.?! Think that's very combustible? Head on a swivel."

JR was referring to the fact that like the SEC tourney, the Final Four will take place this weekend in New Orleans, but I have to say that I don't think even Bourbon Street will compare to what this city is going to be like come Saturday evening. Here in Louisville we definitely have our fair share of parties, with the Kentucky Derby being the shining example of the kind of debauchery the River City is capable of, but I don't think that any Derby weekend is going to be able to compare with what's coming when the Cards and Cats meet up with a chance to play in the championship game. I'm not alone in this opinion, and if you've been around any sort of public sphere here in Louisville since the match-up solidified last weekend, you know that I'm right. "The Game" is a topic of conversation everywhere from sports bars to coffee shops to supermarkets, and I'm as giddy as a school kid that I get to be here for what has to be one of the most contentious Final Four match-ups in the history of the NCAA tournament.

I always come back to a Rick Pitino quote that I'm not sure I read or heard during a radio interview when I think of the UK/U of L rivalry. I'm paraphrasing, but the basic idea coach imparted was that while he was with Kentucky, there wasn't a Louisville fan to be found in Lexington, but when he took the job at U of L, he realized that Louisville is split nearly 50/50 when it comes to fans of the Cards and Cats. That makes for an electric environment here in Louisville every time the two teams meet, but it has nothing on the atomic level of energy that is going to be pouring out of every nook and cranny of this town come Saturday afternoon.

Jesus, I'm getting so wrapped up in Blue and Red that I almost forgot that my team is playing in the Final Four's other game against the Kansas Jayhawks. How about I say good luck to both of the Kentucky teams involved in this Saturday's action, and hope that they get to play my Buckeyes on Monday night in Nola. I'm not really invested in the outcome of the instate battle that's about to go down in the Big Easy, but certainly can't wait to watch it all unfold and see how many of the buildings near the U of L campus remain standing if the Cards are able to gut out a victory. As Romey tweeted, keep your head on a swivel if you're on Bourbon St., and do the same if you happen to be shakily making your way down 3rd Street here in the Ville on Saturday.



Since its earliest days, baseball has been a sport where the credo is “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.” Now while this used to be a good-natured game of let’s see what I can get away with on the field, where pitchers tried to do whatever they could to the ball to make it dive away from a bat and hitters themselves had their own unique ploys for reaching base that may have escaped the watchful eye of the umpire, all of that changed with the steroid era. As pitchers and hitters alike tried to gain a competitive edge through the use of performance enhancing drugs, the record books were forever tainted by numbers that were not only ill-gotten, but downright impossible without the help of everything from anabolic steroids to human growth hormone to synthetic testosterone. Baseball has finally tried to clean up its act over the last few years, and some of its most prominent stars will forever be linked to the use of PEDs. This includes its all-time home run king, Barry Bonds, one of its greatest pitchers, Roger Clemens, and a host of other stars including Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Raphael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriguez, just to name a few.

With the findings of the Mitchell Report and baseball’s new steroid testing apparatus, the game has finally made an earnest, though not nearly earnest enough, attempt to track down PED abusers. Long suspensions await anyone who is caught using PEDs and random drug screenings have become a part of every player’s life, whether it is during the season or in their months each year away from the game. For me, baseball’s steroid era has been tough. That’s because it incriminated so many of the stars that I watched as a young man and because it means that no matter what, the guys that I grew up watching in amazement will never be given the same level of adulation and praise that players from the past receive. Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson et al. will always be lionized in ways that modern players will never see and it pains me that many of the players of what I consider my generation that actually were clean (Ken Griffey Jr. being the prime example) will always be lumped in with the guys who cheated. For every Junior Griffey, there are tens if not twenties if not hundreds of Jose Cansecoes, and because of that fact, I am unabashedly disappointed. 

It is why I think that long suspensions and random testing are necessary for baseball’s future, and why no matter who they might catch in the act of cheating, the public must know about it, plain and simple. It is with this notion in mind that I have been poring over the details swirling around the positive drug test of reigning National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Braun. Braun is a lean, athletic slugger for the Milwaukee Brewers, who doesn’t seem to have the physique or the personality to be involved with performance enhancers. However, a few months back, after he narrowly beat out the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp for the MVP award, ESPN reported that Braun’s urine was found to contain absurdly high levels of synthetic testosterone after a sample was collected from him following a playoff game on October 1. Under baseball’s drug-testing policy, that means a 50-game suspension. When the results of Braun’s urine analysis were leaked to ESPN (see what I did there?), he had just been given his league’s MVP award and as a result gave the sport as a whole a black eye that it doesn’t need now or ever again. It’s the kind of revelation that makes me sick to my stomach, but it’s got nothing on what happened next...

Immediately after Braun tested positive and the suspension was levied, rumors started to swirl about what was really going on. There was talk that there was a logical, albeit embarrassing reason that Braun's urine contained such high levels of testosterone and he appealed the suspension with the help of baseball’s players’ association. For many fans, especially those that call Milwaukee home, Braun was given the benefit of the doubt. This is America after all, right? You’re innocent until proven guilty in the good ol’ U.S. of A, right?

Wrong. Braun wasn’t found guilty in a court of law, he was drug-tested by his employer and he failed that test. He was suspended from work under their drug policy and while he is allowed an appeal, for other fans, myself included, whether or not he won that appeal was not going to change a goddamn thing. No player in any major sport has ever won an appeal when it comes to a positive drug test and for me, even if Braun were able to somehow prove mitigating circumstances were behind it all, it wouldn’t matter. He tested positive, plain and simple. Any subsequent tests or the profession of his innocence or support from former or current players in any sport wasn’t going to change my mind. Braun is a PED user as far as I’m concerned. He’s on my list of cheaters, and there is no getting off of that list, no matter what some arbitration panel decides months after the fact.

Well as it turns out, Braun did win his appeal last week. Because the urine sample that he gave wasn’t shipped directly to the testing laboratory but instead sat in a collector’s home for two days, he was exonerated via arbitration by a 2-1 vote. His suspension was lifted, and he claimed that the truth won out. Well I ain’t buying it, not for one second. The lifting of his suspension was carried out due to a technicality that means nothing to me, and should have meant nothing to the panel that decided to uphold his appeal. Just because that little cup of urine sat in some guy’s house instead of a FedEx facility for two days doesn’t mean that the test wasn’t accurate, positive, and proved that Braun is a cheater. I’m not sure how exactly he thinks that he really won here, because I will never look at his ability on the field or his numbers the same way, and I know I’m not alone. Yeah, you get to play those 50 games that the league tried to take away from you Ryan, but you’ll play them and the rest of the games in your career under a cloud of suspicion and with a trepidation attached to your achievements that you will never, ever escape.

The craziest part of Braun’s reversal of fortune for me is that he never said that the test was inaccurate or tampered with. All he and his lawyers argued is that the collector who took his sample passed two FedEx facilities, both of which were closed for business on the Saturday night in question, and took Braun’s sample home with him. The only difference in outcome that occurred because Braun’s sample didn’t get dropped off at a FedEx office was that instead of sitting in a box on a loading dock until Monday morning, it sat in some guy’s basement. This did nothing concerning the sample’s viability and amounts to the sort of technicality that makes prosecuting attorneys toss and turn for months on end in criminal court. But again, this isn’t a court of law we’re talking about. We’re talking about a company’s drug-testing policy, and when it comes to that, the collector acted in accordance with the letter of the rules. So not only did the collector act properly and his actions have nothing to do with the high level of testosterone found in Braun’s urine, but Braun never questioned the validity of the test in the first place. He was granted his athletic freedom on a technicality that I’m still not convinced was valid, but it was a technicality nonetheless. 

What that means for me, as I said before, is that Ryan Braun is a cheater. Not only that, but he is a cheater who gamed the system and will face no punishment after he obviously broke the rules and had something pumping through his veins other than tobacco juice and Wheaties when he put up the numbers that led the Brewers to a playoff birth and himself to an MVP award. There are players who have tested positive and admitted to their crimes, like Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez, those who are clearly guilty and maintain their innocence like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens (don’t get me started on the Rocket), and now a new category of cheaters like Ryan Braun, who are guilty but get off on a technicality that maintains their eligibility to play. In that three-tier cheaters’ gallery, I’m not sure who I like least. Clemens has been so adamant in his innocence in the face of guilt that he was called before a grand jury for lying to congress, but I might actually have to give his hard-headed and asinine insistence more respect than that of Braun, who basically said, “yep, I tested positive, but I’m going to play anyways.” The fact that he has the gall to say that the truth set him free is a whole ‘nother level of “you gotta be kidding me” and I am simply appalled that folks in the media and fellow athletes have stood by this guy considering the facts and innuendo that continue to slowly leak out of this story.

The Braun saga reached nauseating levels last Friday, when after his suspension was lifted, he held a press conference at the Brewers' spring training facility. Framed in sunlight and showing off his all-American good looks, Braun shakily started to explain himself at first, then with growing confidence, proceeded to blame others for his plight and maintain a blustery confidence in his innocence. I have had metaphorical and literal fingers wagged in my face (ahem, Raphael Palmeiro) as a television viewer by players in similar situations, who I not only didn’t believe, but were later found to be guilty of using PEDs. Braun levied attacks at the collector of his sample, Dino Lauenzi Jr., and said "I honestly don't know what happened to it [his sample] for that 44-hour period. There are a lot of different things that could have possibly happened. There are a lot of things that we heard about the collection process, the collector and some other people involved in the process that have been concerning to us. But as I've dealt with the situation, I know what it's like to be wrongly accused of something, so for me to wrongly accuse somebody wouldn't help."

Well how about you wrongly accusing the collector of mishandling your sample, and accusing Major League Baseball of not doing their due diligence during the process of its testing? Sounds to me like the pot is calling the kettle a dark, ebon shade of black here, but Mr. Braun was not finished. He continued, "This is my livelihood. This is my integrity. This is my character. This is everything I have ever worked for in my life being called into question. We need to make sure we get it right. If you're going to be in a position where you're 100 percent guilty until innocent, you can't mess up." Well guess what Ryan? The collector didn’t make you have three times the normal level of testosterone in your urine, and he certainly didn’t make it the synthetic variety. While Braun was well spoken and seemed to aver his innocence with aplomb, I don’t buy it for one second. As the Associated Press reported during the follow-up to Braun’s statements, Major League Baseball isn’t buying it either. MLB executive vice president Rob Manfred told the AP, "Our program is not 'fatally flawed’. Changes will be made promptly to clarify the instructions provided to collectors regarding when samples should be delivered to FedEx based on the arbitrator's decision. Neither Mr. Braun nor the MLBPA contended in the grievance that his sample had been tampered with or produced any evidence of tampering."

And that last sentence of Mr. Manfred’s quote is really what all of this is about at the end of the day. Braun is not contending that the sample was tampered with, and if you read collector Dino Laurenzi Jr.’s statement in response to the attacks that Braun threw at him, there is no reason to believe that is the case anyway. Laurenzi did exactly what he was supposed to do, and along with Major League Baseball, is now being vilified by Braun and his attorneys for doing everything that they were supposed to do. For all of the theatricality of Braun’s statement to the press and his maintenance of his innocence, the question that still remains (and the one that should be put to Braun post haste) is this: “Why was synthetic testosterone found in your urine?” That’s all that this huge media blowout and constant game of back and forth between Braun, the League, and Laurenzi Jr. boils down to. If you’re so sure that the truth has set you free Ryan, why was this substance in your body? Until that question is answered by Braun, I will never look on him as anything but yet another in the long line of cheaters that professional sports continues to add to. The problem is, Braun knows the answer to that question, we know the answer to that question, and baseball knows the answer to that question. I just want to hear it from Braun, plain and simple.



The Super Bowl, by nature, is never just another football game. From it's hyperbolic moniker to its grandiose affectations to the nonstop media attention, the game is without doubt the premiere event in American sports. While its position as the most talked about and attention-grabbing game of every sporting year is inarguable, there have certainly been better games than others, more intriguing match-ups than others, and juicier story lines than others. The last time that the Giants and the Patriots played in the Super Bowl in 2007 was one of those years when the hype machine was put into overdrive and the stories surrounding the game were clear-cut. The Patriots were trying to complete a perfect season, something that no one besides the 1972 Miami Dolphins have ever done and the first of the era of the 16-game schedule. They were big-time favorites (12 points) over the Giants, who had snuck into the game as an NFC Wildcard. But the Giants slew the Goliath from Foxboro and took home the title in dramatic fashion. This year's rematch of that legendary Super Bowl game was similar in many ways, and brought its own batch of dramatic and melodramatic subplots, beyond the unavoidable allure of a remake of that classic 2007 game.

Going into this year's Super Bowl, the most fascinating aspect of the game was the “what-if” scenario attached to each of the respective quarterbacks involved. For Tom Brady, if the Patriots were able to find a way to win, he could legitimately claim that he is the greatest quarterback who ever strapped on a helmet. While he has consistently nudged his nose into the room where this conversation was happening, a win in Super Bowl XLVI would cement his résumé and put him next to Joe Montana and John Elway in the three way race that I believe exists for the title of greatest QB of all time (sorry, but I’m just not old enough and don’t have the kind of perspective to go pre-Super Bowl era or really have a grasp of the talent level in the early years of the game). Montana is one of only two quarterbacks with four championship rings and Elway has two rings, but an amazing 5 Super Bowl appearances (which Brady matched this year) to go along with both quarterbacks' sterling reputations as go-to-guys in the closing moments of the game.

For Eli Manning, a Giants win in Super Bowl XLVI would add considerable fuel to a fire that up until this season has only been the size of a match head: who is the better Manning brother at the quarterback position? This didn’t used to be the kind of thing that was debated with any seriousness, because the older Manning was for so long clearly either the best or second best quarterback in all of football. He and Eli both had a ring, but Peyton had an unmatched statistical pedigree. But with Peyton in jeopardy of never playing another down in the NFL after off-season neck surgery, a Giants victory would give Eli his second ring by age 31 and it would become a legitimate argument that Eli’s rings trump Peyton’s numbers. Not to mention the fact that Eli would have knocked off Tom Brady to get both of his rings, who is supposed to be older brother’s arch rival. Not only that, but he already ruined Brady’s perfect season, which would have given him a point on his résumé that no other quarterback outside of Bob Griese can lay claim to. That's almost like winning one-and-a-half Super Bowls if you ask me.

Well, as it turned out, the Giants beat the Patriots 21-17 on Sunday night in a classic football game that had just as much drama, competitiveness and legendary plays that their first meeting in the 2007 Super Bowl had. Once again, Manning and the Giants made a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to go ahead late, and once again Brady was unable to respond in kind, suffering his second Super Bowl loss to the Giants in five years and raising heretofore unthinkable questions about his remaining skill as a quarterback and ability to rise to the occasion in the game’s most important moments. The fact that these two quarterbacks and these two teams have played such spectacular football in the Super Bowl is a delight for fans and a boon for the NFL’s caché in the world of American sports, but the way that Brady and Eli Manning have started to reach into the story of each other’s careers is some truly fascinating stuff.

Lately, the two quarterbacks’ respective fates have been dramatically intertwined and are reaching almost dialectically opposing circumstances. Whereas Manning’s hail mary throw from midfield somehow finds a receiver’s hands in the divisional round against the Green Bay Packers, Brady’s is left falling to the turf before the outstretched arms of the banged-up Rob Gronkowski in this year’s Super Bowl. Where Brady’s perfectly thrown deep ball to Randy Moss near the end of the 2007 Super Bowl is tipped away at the last second, Manning’s is cradled perfectly by Mario Manningham, allowing him to stamp both feet to the ground like a library attendant marking a due date, right in the face of hoody-clad head coach Bill Belichick no less. Where Brady’s desperation chuck with D-Line pressure bearing down upon him is called for intentional grounding and results in a safety on his team’s first play from scrimmage in this year’s Super Bowl, Manning’s twirling, near-sack chuck into the middle of the field in the game winning drive of the 2007 Super Bowl somehow finds the arms of David Tyree, where he is forever left holding it against his helmet in the football field of memory.

So while Manning will continue to live out the winning scenario of that previous paragraph, what is next for Touchdown Tom? Well, the future is probably more murky than he would like to admit. Despite all of the attention being paid to Wes Welker’s drop near the four minute mark that had it resulted in a catch, would likely have also resulted in a win, Tom Brady is going to bear the brunt of the criticism for his team’s loss in this year’s Super Bowl. Just ask his wife, who snapped back at some drunken Giants fans with a retort that Tom isn’t probably very keen on and one that he knows doesn’t justify his late-career playoff and Super Bowl stumbles. I think Brady is starting to realize that while he may always have the historic upper hand on Eli’s brother Peyton, the younger Manning has now cost him two chances at football immortality. That fourth Super Bowl ring is on Brady’s mind like it was forged in the heart of Mount Doom, and Eli prevented him from achieving it in the most dramatic of fashion in 2007, as the culmination of a perfect season, and now again in 2012, where his superior play kept Tom Brady from that precious number four once again. Sure Brady is one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, but right now, he is not the greatest, and there is no doubt in this writer’s mind that the man with millions of dollars, a super model wife and an already hall-of-fame-worthy career wants that GOAT title more than anything he has achieved up until this point.

And perhaps all of this leads us to what might be a turn of the tide in the NFL. It is possible that Manning and the Giants’ victory in Super Bowl XLVI is the beginning of the end of an era for two quarterbacks and the clearly manifest start of one for another two. It used to be that the conversation about the best quarterback in the NFL started with P. Manning and ended with Brady, but it now seems that it starts with E. Manning and ends with Aaron Rodgers (you can decide where the NFL’s other clearly elite quarterback, Drew Brees shakes out, though he seems to be straddling both eras as of right now). Peyton is dealing with a neck injury that could all but ruin the rest of his career, and Brady has now lost the last two Super Bowls he’s played in. Meanwhile, Eli Manning is now two for two in Super Bowl appearances, leading two Giants teams that were not only unlikely to go deep into the playoffs, but a laughable Super Bowl pick at the start of the regular season and the playoffs in both of the 21st century seasons that they ended up winning it all. And for all of Peyton's numbers and adulation how many signature moments does he have as a a quarterback? Eli now has two, with his throws to Tyree over the middle and Manningham down the sideline, and not only are they memorable for him personally, but they are sure to become two of the most replayed in the history of the sport's biggest game, the Super Bowl. In addition, Aaron Rodgers set a new standard for what is possible at the quarterback position in this year’s regular season, and already grabbed his first ring in last year’s Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, which ties him with Peyton Manning's lone championship and leaves him still one behind yet another current NFL starter, the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger.

So while the younger Manning may not look the part quite as much as Brady or even older brother Peyton as Twitter so snarkily illustrates, and Rodgers got bounced by Eli's Giants in this year’s divisional round, the two quarterbacks have officially stepped forward to join Drew Brees and Big Ben in the debate about who's the best at the QB position in the NFL. None of these relatively younger quarterbacks seems in danger of slowing down at any point in the near future, and they have begun to kick up dust in the face of Brady and Peyton Manning, who were not only considered the two best quarterbacks in the NFL for a solid decade, but dominated the conversation on the position so fully that their recent lapse in productivity doesn’t just seem anomalous, it seems sacrilege. Personally, I’m not willing to write Brady off just yet, especially because the ragtag bunch of Patriots he just led to the Super Bowl only affirms his and head coach Bill Belichick's talent once again, but Manning’s neck injury is continually worrisome and it looks like amazingly, his days with the Indianapolis Colts are all but over.

Sometimes it can take weeks, months, even years to understand the impact of a single game, especially a Super Bowl, but this year's game has certainly started some debates about the elite players at the quarterback position in the NFL. A reporter asked Eli at the beginning of this season if he thought he was in Brady's class as far as quarterbacking went, and he got criticized and laughed at for saying he thought that yes, he definitely is. Well no one is laughing now and it seems that discussion will now begin as to who is the better Manning, and it will have to continue as to who is the best quarterback of all time. Sometimes the outcome of a game begs more questions than it ends up answering. This year's Super Bowl definitely feels like one of those classic debate-launchers. It might be that the only certain thing to come out of the Giants' victory and the Patriots defeat is a new level of uncertainty. The power struggle at the game's most important position is officially the most competitive it has been in more than 10 years and if it leads to more Super Bowls like the one we just witnessed on Sunday, please let the battle begin.



This weekend's conference championship games in the NFL were a wonderful thing to watch. Both games saw back and forth, competitive football that came down to crucial plays at the end of the game. With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, there isn't much more a football fan can hope for than overtime in one game and a last-second, game-deciding field goal kick in the other. The down-to-the-wire nature of the games in the AFC and NFC set up two dramatic plays that ended up deciding the outcome of both contests, and while that shows you just how fun and enthralling sports can be as a form of entertainment, the end of both games also accentuated what is another perennial part of athletic competition: heartbreaking moments created by huge mistakes on big plays.

For the Ravens, who lost to the New England Patriots on a last-second field goal miss by their kicker Billy Cundiff that would have tied the game and sent it into overtime, the sting is particularly sharp. What you will hear from coaches and players on both sides after a game like this is that one play doesn't decide a game, but what fans and the general sporting public know is that a bromide like that is not an adequate salve to heal the kind of gaping wound that Ravens' players, coaches, and fans now have bleeding across their hearts. Cundiff missed the kind of big field goal he has been making all year on the Ravens run to the AFC Championship Game, a 32 yarder that most of his positional peers would agree is the kind of short-distance kick you want to be faced with (if you must be faced with one that ties/decides the game in its final moments).

But Cundiff pulled the kick left (or right if you're watching from home), and the Ravens didn't get a chance to play an extra period that could have earned them a trip to Indianapolis to play in the Super Bowl. Now there is a long list of kickers who have made similar mistakes, from Scott Norwood's miss in the Super Bowl XXV to Boise State's Kyle Brotzman's multiple big-game misses, to Ray Finkle's fictitious though equally memorable "laces out" moment, there are more kickers ruing the day they decided to quit the soccer team and play football than there are Adam Vinatieries. Now Cundiff joins that club of unfortunate place kickers and has to deal with the fact that his stellar season and consistent poise at the end of many a game will now be footnotes on a resumé with only one real headline: Missed game-tying field goal against Patriots, cost team chance to play in Super Bowl.

Across the country in San Francisco, where the 49ers played the New York Giants in the NFC Championship, a similar late-game miscue cost a team a trip to the Super Bowl. The 49ers fill-in punt returner Kyle Williams (who stepped in for an ailing Ted Ginn Jr.) fumbled the football on a run back in overtime, giving the Giants the ball in field goal range. The Giants pushed the ball a bit farther down the field before Lawrence Tynes split the uprights and gave New York the win and made Kyle Williams a Bay-Area-sized goat. Again, you'll hear from coaches and players that one play doesn't decide a game, but the fumble was Williams' second misstep on a punt return that day, and like Cundiff, he did the one thing he couldn't afford to do in his situation: he cost his team a chance to win the football game.

The two players' similar plights are a fascinating storyline folllowing the conference championships, and they are an example of something I think that everyone above ground can relate to: making a mistake when a mistake could not be afforded. I always like to say that this blog is a place where sports and life intertwine, and with that in mind I can't help but look at the human aspect of the story of Cundiff and Williams. Say what you want about the fact that they're just playing a game and that it isn't the end of the world and blah blah blah, but the simple truth is that this was the biggest moment of both of their professional careers, with millions of people staring at them on televisions across the country, and they shit the bed, plain and simple. If you're a 49ers or Ravens fan I'm sorry for your losses, but if you're a human being, you have to feel for these guys.

Think about it. I think there is a moment in everyone's life where you're sitting there, pressure on, telling yourself that no matter what, under no circumstance can you "insert appropriate action". And then you do it. And you can't believe you just did it. And it feels like the world just spun off its axis and you're in the middle of a Dali masterpiece because life just got so surreal. The sounds and faces around you are muffled and blurred, you are completely inside your own head where the phrase that keeps careening from one side of your skull to the next is: "this is not happening, this is not happening." For both of these players, it was happening, it did happen. Now all they can do is wallow in that failure, face it, accept it, and attempt to move on.

We can search for analogous circumstances for this kind of a mistake, and to stay with the world of sports for a moment, maybe you're a young girl or an international superstar who forgets the words to the National Anthem, or an over-excited soccer star who drops the championship trophy under the wheels of a bus. Or for more real-world examples, maybe you're a bride who falls on her face on the way to the altar or a waitress who drops a bottle of $200 wine on the way to a table full of particularly well-to-do customers or a classically trained cellist who misses a note in their Juilliard audition. There are a million high pressure situations where the one thing you cannot do is the one thing you end up doing. It might ruin the moment, crush your pride, or leave you with an unbearable level of embarrassment, but at the end of the day there's that old adage that you can always lean upon: everyone makes mistakes. Sure, they don't always come in an important, life-changing moment, but they are always there to be made and as human beings, it is simply despicable to attack your fellow man for your own homo sapien borne lack of perfection.

It's why I commend both Cundiff and Williams for the amount of composure they have maintained in the face of their errors and for the amount of ownership they have taken for said mistakes. It is also why the reaction on social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook and the overreaction of the sports media to their gaffes is absolutely galling to me. Yes, these men failed miserably at the task they are paid a very large some of money to perform, but when fans and the media react the way that they have over the days since Sunday's games it makes me embarrassed to be a human being. Just check out a few of the tweets sent out following the two games:


I'm pretty sure some despicable Ravens fans would like to see Billy Cundiff kick the bucket. Unfortunately for them, he'd probably miss.


The Harbaugh bros will do a live reading of their new book "Billy Cundiff, Kyle Williams and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day"

@Shady_McCoy (that's Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, a fellow NFL player mind you...):

I think it's safe to say that Kyle Williams & Billy Cundiff will be taking their talents to the unemployment line. #NOTSC @NOTSportscenter

And those are among the more benign of the tweets sent out. Among the more egregious are death threats to both players and their families from Ravens and 49ers fans and similarly horrible jokes and barbs thrown in their direction. There is an element to gallows humor that as a bit of a prick myself I am willing to allow and the environment on Twitter of snap judgment and the levying of instant admonishment that is expected if not excusable, but threatening a person's life because your team lost a football game is among the most petty and downright deplorable things any sports fan can do. At that point, I believe that your fandom has officially transformed into psychosis and a look in the mirror, not the glossy panel of your smart phone as you thumb out a tweet or Facebook post, is what is truly called for.

While fans or other players may in the end be exonerated by their ignorance, the sporting cognoscenti that type out stories and columns for respected newspapers and websites cannot be given the same amount of leeway. Yes, they are paid to give their opinion and to inspire debate, but there is no reason for Cundiff or Williams to draw comparisons to Bill Buckner or to face the immense barrage of attacks against their skill as players, let alone their worth as human beings (shout out to Stefan Fatsis for the links to those articles). Cundiff and Williams will probably never play the game they love or live their lives in quite the same way following this weekend's games, and instead of vilifying them or piling on, I think that a certain level of compassion and commiseration is in order. These were their "Mr. Destiny" moments, and they both came up short, left to live on wondering what might have been if they had come through in the clutch instead of coming up short.

I guess what I'm trying to say at the end of the day is that while we can all relate to mistakes and failure of one kind or another, no matter how apt a real-world analogy for what happened to these two men may be, it will never quite capture the feeling that must still be permeating their flesh. While we all know our human foibles all too well, there is no comparison for a fan or member of the media or general public to draw on that can possibly allow us to empathize properly. It is why I believe that all we can do in this situation is try. Try to understand what it is like to miss out on a trip to the Super Bowl in front of millions of people and let everyone on your team down when they were counting on you the most. We have to try to give these two men the kind of support we would desire if we were in their shoes, not tear them down and send them death threats and throw any more gasoline on the fire of disappointment they are both now warming their hands by. 

I say we move on fast and look on toward the Giants and Pats Super Bowl rematch, because it should be a doozy. Check back to the Hip for a Super Bowl recap soon after the game goes into the books.