Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Breaking Barriers: The Unsung Heroes of Integration in Pro Sports

Jim Crow South in the 20th Century
     Black History Month is nearing its end, and we will take this time to remember those that fought for the rights that minorities have today. Henry David Thoreau once said, "Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it." So when segregation began, and Jim Crow Laws separated whites from black, people fought very hard against it. Many failed, very few were successful. In the world of sports, everyone knows that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, but most people have never heard of the athletes that broke the barriers in other sports. In the NFL, there was Kenny Washington. In the NHL, there was Willie O'Ree. In the NBA, there was Earl Lloyd. Each of these men went through a historic rise to the top during a trying time for African Americans, and should forever be remembered for the hard work and dedication they put towards achieving their dream.

Kenny Washington's Football Card

     African-American participation in sports continues to grow, and football is a prime example. Kenny Washington was one of the pioneers of this movement, as he was the first black man to ever sign an NFL contract. Time Magazine once said, "He was considered by West Coast fans the most brilliant player in the U.S." Upong graduation from college, however, he was blocked from signing with an NFL team and decided to go to war. After World War II ended, in 1945, he decided to continue pursuing his goal to play in the NFL, and was signed by the Los Angeles Rams in the spring of 1946. His stint in the NFL lasted merely 3 years, but changed the demographics of the game forever.

 O'Ree with the Bruins (Notice the lack of helmet)

    Willie O'Ree overcame the odds to become the first black player in the NHL in 1958. His journey came with extra hurdles, as two years before his debut a hit from a wild puck had left him 95 percent blind in his right eye. After a brief stint with the Boston Bruins, he spent most of his career in the minor leagues, where he was inducted into the San Diego Hall of Champions for his exceptional play on the ice.

 Earl Lloyd Basketball Card

     Of all the guys highlighted, Earl Lloyd definitely had the best professional career. Unlike the others, Lloyd had no significant acts to deter him by the heads of the game, but he carried himself professionally nontheless. An NBA champion in 1955, he finished his 9 year career with an average of 8 points and 6 rebounds per game. The Hall of Famer retired from the NBA in 1960 with over 4,000 points and 3,000 rebounds.

1992 US Olympic Dream Team

     Professional sports would not be the same today if minorities had not been allowed to integrate the leagues. The NFL and NBA especially are sports where blacks are now the majority. All-time greats like Jim Brown, Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, and Wilt Chamberlain are just a few that dominated the game are just a few that dominated sports in their respective eras because of the paths paved by their counterparts in the '40s and '50s. Although there is still much work to be done to prevent racial injustice and prejudice, the world is undoubtedly in a new era, and on the verge of true equality.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pressure Is What Makes Us Succeed

     Talent. There are those that are born with it, and those that are born without it. In sports, it is evident at a very early age who has it and who does not. Although some believe that it is a bit premature to pressure young children to strive for athletic success, it is that pressure that separates the all-time greats from the wanna-be’s.

     On an average recreational sports team, depending on the sport, there are 2 or 3 players that are a cut above the others, 80 percent of the team will be average, and the rest are usually waving at their parents when they should be paying attention. Of the few elite players, one will be pushed and succeed, one will not work hard enough, and one will be pushed and fail. Why? People are born with a specific set of traits that may or may not pave the road to greatness.

     In the history of sports, there is a great example of each of these types of people. Up first: LeBron “King” James. 3 time Ohio Mr. Basketball. Sports Illustrated cover boy as a high school junior. First overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. 8 time NBA All-Star. 2 time NBA MVP. 0-2 career record in the NBA Finals. LeBron is possibly the most physically gifted athlete to ever tie his shoes, but he has lived in shame for 5 years, because he comes up small in the biggest moments. His inability to be clutch on basketball’s biggest stage is what separates him from the greatest players of all time.

     The next guy is somebody every Redskins fan is familiar with: “Fat” Albert Haynesworth. At 6’6 325 pounds, he has the ability to be an unstoppable force in the NFL. In 2009, he signed a $100 million contract with the Redskins and immediately stopped working hard. Because he no longer had the pressure to earn a better contract, he no longer had the fire to work his hardest, and his play on the field declined immensely. Haynesworth has now been cut by a second team in the past year, and could be on his way out the league permanently.

     The last guy: “Elite” Eli Manning, Quarterback of the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. His father was an NFL Quarterback, his brother is a 4-time NFL MVP and 1-time Super bowl MVP, and Eli was always just the other Manning. The pressure he felt to succeed must have been incredible, even unbearable for a normal human, but Eli used it to his benefit. 4 years ago, he silenced half of his critics by winning the Super bowl. 2 weeks ago, he silenced the other half by becoming one of five Quarterbacks in NFL History with 2 Super bowl MVPs.

     I will admit that some parents do put too much pressure on their children to succeed. Many of these parents regret the mistakes they made at a young age and wish to push their kids in the right direction. If they truly believe in the idea that any person can be anything they want to be, my question is: Why not pressure them?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Hero from Harvard

Jeremy Lin, Starting Point Guard for the New York Knicks

Football is over, and there is a new sensation captivating the minds of the American public: Jeremy Lin. This Harvard grad is unique, because he is the first American player in the NBA of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, and he is quickly becoming a polarizing force in the NBA.

Lin grew up in California, where he led Palo Alto High School to a state title in 2006. Harvard was one of only two Division-1 Schools in the nation that guaranteed Lin a spot on their basketball team. By the time Lin was a sophomore, he was already on the All-Ivy League 2nd team. In his junior year, he broke out onto the scene in a big way by ranking in the top 10 of the Ivy League in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, blocks, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, and 3 point percentage. Needless to say, he was a consensus All-Conference selection that year. In his final year with the Crimson he was a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award (Best Point Guard) and led Harvard to its winningest season of all time.

Despite his prolific college career, Jeremy was undrafted in the 2010 NBA draft. Although nobody drafted him, he was chosen for the Dallas Mavericks summer league roster, where he earned contract offers from 3 NBA teams. Lin decided to sign with his home team, the Golden State Warriors, where he stayed for a year, but was cut via the amnesty clause at the conclusion of the 2011 NBA lockout.

Lin celebrating in a win over the Utah Jazz

The New York Knicks picked up Lin in late December and assigned him to the D-League a couple weeks later. Three days after joining the Ernie BayHawks, Lin had a triple double with 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 assists. Three days later, the Knicks called him back up to the big leagues. This past Saturday, Lin scored 25 points along with 7 assists against Deron Williams' New Jersey Nets. In his first NBA start, this Monday, Lin followed up his previous performance with a 28 point, 8 assist showing against the Utah Jazz. Yesterday, he built on those two performances with a 23 points, 10 assists, and this monster dunk after crossing over 2010 #1 Overall pick John Wall. (Funny how things come full circle, right?)

Lin will face a real challenge when the Knicks play host to the legendary Los Angeles Lakers tomorrow. Although this is not the Lakers team of years past, the psychological ramifications are huge: If he comes up big, he will be here to stay; If he falls flat, expect nothing more than mediocrity.

Prediction: Knicks - 101 Lakers - 91. Jeremy Lin is looking for another game with 20 or more points, as Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony will be absent once again. Black Mamba beware, LINSANITY is on the rise.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Eli Manning: Elite Quarterback

Eli Manning holding the Super Bowl XLVI MVP Trophy

How do you define elite in reference to a quarterback in the National Football League? There are 5 quarterbacks in NFL History that have thrown for more than 4900 passing yards in a season: Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Dan Marino, Matthew Stafford, and Eli Manning. There are only 5 players in NFL history that have won multiple Superbowl MVP awards: Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Tom Brady, and Eli Manning. There are only three Manning QBs that have played in the NFL: Archie, Peyton, and Eli. Of those three, Eli Manning is the only one to win multiple Super Bowl titles. THAT is Eli-te.

People, me included, have knocked Eli Manning for a number of reasons throughout his career: not consistent enough, not as good as his brother, not accurate enough, looks dopey, but in the end, he will have the last laugh, as both of his ring fingers will be sporting some heavy hardware. Consistency is overrated. Peyton's career is full of failures. And looks mean nothing when it comes to being a successful quarterback.  Manning may not have some of the subjective qualities that experts use to judge quarterbacks, but his tangible success is now and forever undeniable.

So many great players have come through this game and left without ever winning a Super Bowl: Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Jim Kelly, Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts and many more. Critics say that winning a Super Bowl requires an entire team's effort, which is correct, but the importance of the Quarterback cannot be discounted. Over the past 25 years, only 1 winning quarterback (Doug Williams) has ever been a non-pro bowler, and he threw for 4 touchdowns in Super Bowl XXII. In both of Eli's appearances, he has led late game drives to seal take the lead and seal the game for his team.

Over the course of a 16 game regular season, Eli Manning will never be the most impressive player out there. With guys like Rodgers, Brees, Stafford, Vick and Newton threading the needle, he won't look like a top 5 Quarterback in his conference for most of the season. He just isn't that type of player. However, at the end of the game, when the lights are on and everybody is on there feet, he is always great. In fact, I would say he's super. There is only one game that ultimately counts, and Eli has won it twice.  However you define it, Elisha Nelson "Eli" Manning is an ELITE quarterback in the National Football League.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Players

  Tom Brady and Eli Manning

      It's finally here. The biggest game of the year, and the most-watched television program annually. The hoopla has already started with Media Day on Tuesday and radio row set up right outside of Lucas Oil Stadium. Its the '08 rematch. Patriots vs Giants. Brady vs Eli. Two teams are meeting once again in the super bowl, but in reality, this match-up is all about the quarterbacks. Although these two guys could not have taken more different paths to greatness, it is now known that they are both among the all-time greats in the game.

Eli with the Chargers on Draft Day

     First up: Eli Manning. Born the son of a former NFL Star, Eli grew up with things handed to him. Full Scholarship to his father's Alma Mater. Number One Overall Pick in the NFL Draft. That wasn't even good enough for the spoiled Manning, so he refused to play for the team that selected him, the Chargers, and was traded to the Giants. However, once he came to the NFL, reality set in. Things weren't as easy as they were in high school in college. He was a man now, and had to experience criticism from half of New York City and beyond. After all of the hype and praise, he just wasn't measuring up to the bar Peyton Manning set before him. In the 2007-08 season, all of that changed. He took a wild card team on the road and won three weeks in a row, and proceeded to defeat the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Now that they are back in the Big Game, people are speculating that he might even be better than his untouchable brother Peyton.

Brady at the NFL Combine

     Tom Brady grew up in a middle-class family as a 49ers fan. He played for the great Michigan Wolverines, but had an unremarkable career. Sat on the bench for two years, and struggled to hold a starting job over the highly touted Drew Henson in his junior and senior seasons. When the NFL Draft came around, Brady had to wait a little longer than Eli to hear his name. About 24 hours longer. He was the 33rd pick of the 6th round, the 199th pick overall by the New England Patriots. Legend has it that when he was introduced to owner Bob Kraft, he said, "I will be the best decision you ever made in your life." In short, he was exactly right. After a year as the 4th string QB, he worked his way up to second string behind Drew Bledsoe. In week 2 of the 2001 season, Bledsoe suffered a devastating injury and Brady was thrust into the starting lineup. That year, he led the Patriots to the AFC Championship against Oakland, a game in which the defining moment of his career occurred. The Tuck Rule Game. A controversial fumble was ruled an incomplete pass, the Patriots won the game, Super Bowl XXXVI, and the rest, as they say, is history. Two more Superbowl victories, a super bowl loss and Two league MVPs later, Brady is arguably the greatest quarterback of all time.

     Superbowl XLVI is one that will be remembered for a long time. The New England Patriots are the team of the century, with 5 Superbowl Appearances in 11 years. The New York Giants have given hope to the passionate fans of New York. Their Defensive Ends are going to be coming hard off the edge and hard up the middle. Their running backs are going to be going up the gut and around the outside. However, there is something special about this New England team. They put an end to Tebow Time, defeated Wacko Flacco, and this Sunday they will put an end to the book of Eli. Since Super Bowls never really go as planned, I am predicting this one to be a low scoring affair. Patriots Win, 17-13.

Summary: Brady + Gronk + Welker > Eli + Nicks + Cruz.