It creeps up on me every year: last Wednesday was Walter Payton’s birthday, and that’s something I like to celebrate.
He would have been 58.
Walter was cut down far too early of a rare autoimmune liver disease known as primary sclerosing cholangitis, which may have led to his cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer). But it’s his birth, rather than his death, that I like to remember. Somehow, I will always recall Payton as a man in his prime, exuberantly full of life.
He was not the first great running back I ever saw. I’ve been watching football for over five decades now, and I’ve seen a lot of the great backs, including watching Gale Sayers at Wrigley Field when I was still small.
Back then, football was just discovering the power of television to capture viewers with new angles and shots. They were starting to follow the players who controlled the path of the ball, finding new perspectives to show the big hits and big plays, so running backs got an increasing amount of airtime. I watched so many great ones - Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Eric Dickerson. More recently, I’ve gotten to enjoy the power and skill of Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, LaDainian Tomlinson and countless others. Payton was perhaps the best of them all, and for far more reasons than just his running skills. They called him ‘Sweetness’, and he was every bit of that.
Coming into the home stretch for the 2011 NFL Draft, Denver fans are still facing considerable uncertainty on the fate of the #2 pick. The lack of a CBA means that trades cannot involve players already under contract (in theory) to the teams involved. It also means that we can’t know if there will be a rookie cap that would make the pick more enticing, since the money would be less than the astronomical guarantees that the top draftees obtain. Last, you usually see a team that really needs a certain position - OT and QB are the two most common, but WR and sometimes RB have come into play - trading up. This year’s QBs are a mixed lot - probably not the strongest of QB classes means that less teams are ready to mortgage their additional picks in order to get X player.
That doesn’t mean that such a trade is impossible - in the NFL, it only takes a single covetous team to make that upward move. But they have so many unusual factors that I’ve consistently avoided factoring trades into my draft pick discussions. There are four players who are of interest to the Broncos, and two of them play the position that Denver is weakest in - defensive tackles Nick Fairley of Auburn and Marcell Dareus of Alabama. The other two are phenom cornerback from LSU Patrick Peterson and all-everything linebacker Von Miller out of Texas A&M. Today, it’s Fairley who merits a long look.
Marcell Dareus was born into a large family of seven children with an American-born mother and a Haitian immigrant father. He was the sixth child of the seven; six boys and a single girl (a girl who probably had a little trouble dating in high school with all those large, protective young men around). There was a lot that Marcell never really had to learn, he said - his siblings and his mother were his teachers, and the family took care of him. His father passed away when Marcell was only six, though, and his mother was left alone to raise a house full of children. Times became hard. Food could get scarce. Marcell noticed it - you don’t miss it when your belly is empty too much - but his family tried to insulate the younger ones against the worst of it.
There was a palpable joy in the family when his mother remarried - having a breadwinner helped with many things, and food not the least of them . But the celebration was cut short a few years back, when she nearly died of congestive heart failure, and was subsequently confined to a wheelchair. Marcell saw things as they were, and it broke his own big heart. He’d always been a happy-go-lucky kind of kid, with his mother having a big effect on him and all those brothers watching out for him, but this was something that he couldn’t just smile his way through. He struggled with other things - Scott Livingston, an assistant football coach at Huffington High, where Dareus spent his senior year (he’d started at Hayes HS in Avondale, and then when Hayes closed, Marcell moved to East Lake, and Huffington HS), had been looking out for the big kid, but Scott was killed in an auto accident that winter.
The two men couldn’t be more different:
Vincent Thomas Lombardi had come to the NY Giants as an assistant in 1953 and rapidly moved up to running their offense. He was a man of tremendous passion: he saw no contradiction in his deep devotion to his Catholic faith and the profanity-laced tirades that he quickly became famous for as he rose to the offensive coordinator position for the Giants, before becoming the head coach of the venerable Green Bay Packers. He became the ideal coach for his era, motivating like no one else in the game, molding a team that was as physical as it was fearless into winning five NFL championships. His .738 winning percentage remains the third best of all-time. Mercurial, vastly intelligent and intensely innovative as a coach, many of Lombardi’s developments for the NFL game remain standard aspects of it almost six decades later. It defines the concept of a legacy.
Thomas Wade Landry was the polar opposite of Lombardi, which was fitting since he had become the defensive coordinator of the Giants at about the same time Lombardi took over the offense. Landry had trained as an industrial engineer at the University of Texas and flew bombers as a co-pilot in World War II. He flew a total of 30 missions during the war and even survived a crash landing in Belgium when his plane ran out of fuel. He was a player-coach with New York from 1955-57 before becoming a full-time coach the following year. His methodical, step-by-step process of innovation was a stark contrast to Lombardi’s impassioned approach, although Lombardi’s innovation was no less than Landry’s. Landry was also a self-professed born-again fundamentalist Protestant, and in person he was reserved to the point that people often found him ‘cold’. He demanded that the front office give him players who were ‘good Christians’ and family men.
It’s one of the most inspiring stories in this year’s draft: He was born Sandon Mark Herzlich, Jr., on September 1, 1987, to Sandon and Barbara Herzlich, and became known as Mark. He also has a younger brother, Bradley. They’re a close-knit family, a factor that played a role in his recovery from being diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in 2009, a cancer that attacks bones, and which took away part of his left femur, the bone in the thigh, which has been replaced by a 12-inch titanium rod. Mark moved back to be nearer to them in that time.
Herzlich has won a multitude of awards for the way that he handled his disease, and the way that he created outreach opportunities to convince other sufferers that they could beat their cancers, recover and have any life that appealed to them. He won the Rudy Award in 2010 - an honor that’s given to a college football player each year who shows exemplary character, courage, contribution and commitment. It was presented to Herzlich's father at the American Football Coaches Association convention in Dallas. It was only one of many. He was also given the ACC’s Brian Piccolo Award for the most courageous player during his senior year.
He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke, and he doesn’t do any drugs. Whether folks love Marvin Austin or hate him, his fall from grace last year is a man-sized lesson that should be told as a warning to college athletes everywhere: When the NCAA tells you that not a nickel can come to a player from an agent, they’re serious. And, remember that once you tweet it, you can’t take it back.
Austin was suspended for his entire final season at the University of North Carolina where he had been a highly touted defensive tackle. There were (and still are) allegations that Austin, among other players, took money in transportation costs from an agent in order to attend one of the agent’s parties, and he may have taken money for other things, including an expensive watch. The school (loosely) suggested that there might have been some academic issues as well, but then another, perhaps even deeper problem surfaced...
Much of what has been written regarding the Broncos' draft outlook has focused heavily on the issue of which player the team takes at number two, or whether they trade down and try to pick up an extra choice or two. That’s an important decision, no question. Denver’s offensive and defensive lines need help, and free agency may not happen in anything like its usual manner, so deciding whether there’s a player at #2 that’s worth the pick or whether going for more picks is a better option ranks right up there with the call on 4th and goal with 3 seconds left on the clock - you can’t afford to get this one wrong. On that issue, I found myself recalling a poster that was common when I was in college, and it probably stayed around. It only said,
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil: for I am the meanest SOB in the valley
Aside from the change to its modern name in 1922, the biggest change in the NFL's history to this point in our story was created out of a foundering attempt to buy a baseball or a football franchise. A quiet, genteel progeny of a Texas-sized family fortune listened to a man named Branch Rickey - the same Branch Rickey who invented baseball’s farm system, became president of and managed the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson, and who would in 1967 be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rickey was trying to put together a third baseball associations to compete with the National and American Leagues, and his concept was the Continental Baseball League. He wanted backers, men who could buy franchises but who had been shut out of the first two leagues.
With the merger of the AAFC teams into the NFL, the league was poised to change the way that people viewed the game culturally and literally. The 1950s saw a wide variety of changes to the NFL game that would have repercussions that still reverberate today, and none was bigger than the movement of the games to the newly developed technology, the television. As NFL legend Tex Schramm, who would coordinate the merger of the AFL and NFL, would note, “The Fifties were the decade in which everyone became a watcher instead of a doer.” Television ownership rocketed from around 172,000 in 1949 to over 25 million in 1954. The effects on the game of football were beyond imagining.
Many questions still swirl around the eye of the NFL's labor storm - through the rooms where the formal negotiations between the NFL owners, usually just called ‘the league’, and the NFLPA. As tends to be the case in modern labor negotiations, the questions at hand are about money - how much is there really, where does it come from, and how will it be divided? Also as usual, these are not simple queries.
The questions of the CBA and the rights of owners and union are extraordinarily complex, and to understand why much of it is the way it is, you have to examine the league's history. The NFL lobbied hard throughout the 1940s and 1950s to be granted an antitrust exemption from the US government. In exchange for obtaining that exemption (an exemption which creates large amounts of money for them and protects them against various legal entanglements), they agreed to various qualifiers which now empower the players' union. The league would like to see that change. The players, and so far the courts, are far less interested in that outcome.