There were a number of big stories in this morning’s Washington Post. The Washington Wizards, who appear to be at least a playoff team once again, lost to the nemesis, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in Cleveland. The Washington Capitals are preparing to deal with life for at least a little while without Alexander Ovechkin. To put that in perspective that’s like me trying to live without a computer for an extended period of time.
There was also a story—the lead in the sports section naturally—about the fact that Dan Snyder had broken his ‘policy,’ of not speaking to the media during the season (at least on the record) to speak briefly at a Redskins charity event about the god-awful team he and henchman Vinny Cerrato put together.
Snyder said he felt terrible for the fans and was sorry things had gone so poorly. That’s progress—a little tiny first step—but he never said the words, “I screwed up.” That would represent actual progress. My guess is someone told him if he wanted to avoid a possible fullscale boycott in two weeks or, worse, some serious unrest in the stands, he better say SOMETHING. So he did his ‘I feel sorry for the fans,’ bit—Joe Gibbs would have been proud—and went back into seclusion.
None of those stories, however, really caught my eye. After all, the Wizards are supposed to be better with Gilbert Arenas finally healthy and with some smart offseason moves by Ernie Grunfeld and one doesn’t need to know the shape of a hockey puck to know that Ovechkin on the bench for any extended period of time is trouble for the Caps no matter how many times the other guys talk about, ‘stepping up.’ And Snyder speaking? Yeah, that’s a surprise but if you read carefully he said just about nothing.
Here’s the story that got my attention: The Seattle Seahawks released Edgerrin James. It was one paragraph, mentioning he had rushed for 125 yards on 46 carries this season (under three yards per rush) and 12,246 yards in his career. That’s a lot of running and a lot pounding.
James is only 31-years-old. Think about that: he’s two years YOUNGER than Tiger Woods, who is just coming into his prime as a golfer. There is no job in sports that spits you out and beats you up like being an NFL running back. My most vivid memories from the year I spent watching from the sidelines (2004) while researching my book on The Baltimore Ravens were the hits Jamal Lewis—who announced last week he’d retire at the end of the season—took week-after-week as he charged ahead with the football. I honestly wasn’t sure who to feel worse for: Lewis, who is about 6-1 and 230 pounds or the guys trying to stop him.
During one game, Lewis carried six straight times on a possession. He came to the sidelines during a TV timeout and took off his helmet. I was standing right there and I just said, ‘you okay?’
He smiled. “I’m like novocaine,” he said. “I’m the needle that keeps digging in deeper and deeper until they scream for mercy.”
I might have thought he’d be screaming for mercy but he was just fine. The timeout over, he put his helmet back on and ran over two defenders on the next play.
But there’s more to it than just the pain players go through. There is now all sorts of documentation about the injuries players suffer during their football careers and you can bet there’s plenty more to come especially with new union chief DeMaurice Smith insisting that both the league and the union have swept the problem under the rug for years.
Whenever I read an item like the one on James or look at transactions and see a note on someone being waived or cut, I think back to that year with the Ravens. I go back as far as their mini-camps when all the undrafted free agents showed up, each one of them honestly believing they were going to play in the NFL at some point.
Brian Billick called guys who couldn’t play ‘slap-dicks,’ when the coaches would meet to discuss cuts. He wasn’t being cruel, he just didn’t want the meetings to go on for hours and hours as they easily could. “The guy is a slappie,” he would say. “I wouldn’t even recommend he stick around for NFL Europe. He needs to get a job.”
Back then NFL Europe was still out there as a developmental league for the NFL. It was the lifeline for a lot of players who didn’t want to give up the dream. Billick would often tell players when he cut them that they should consider staying in shape in the fall and catching on with an NFL Europe team in the spring. That’s no longer there. Most guys go home and wait—hope—for the phone to ring.
There was one player on the Ravens that year who had been, if I remember correctly, a third round draft pick. He was a rare Ozzie Newsome mistake. The team had kept him on the practice squad hoping he’d get better but he hadn’t. They finally concluded he was a slappie.
As Billick did with every player he cut he asked him if he had his college degree. The player looked at Billick as if he was crazy. “No I don’t coach, what’s that matter?”
Billick, who was a slappy himself in a couple of training camps after graduating from Brigham Young, was always very good in these situations.
“It matters for a lot of reasons,” he said. “Mostly it matters because, and I could certainly be proven wrong, I just don’t think you’re going to play football at this level. I think you need to think about another route. Sometimes you have to move on from the dream.”
“No,” the player said emphatically. “I’m NOT moving on from the dream. I know I can play.”
He stood up to go. He was the only player cut that morning who didn’t’ shake hands with Billick on the way out. I’ve never seen his name on an NFL roster since then.
James is no slappy, that’s for sure. He may very well end up in the Hall of Fame someday. But I have no doubt he’s hurting today. The mother of his four children died in the spring from cancer and now, after being a star all his life, he was called in yesterday and told it was time to move on from the dream.
I don’t care who you are, how old you are, how accomplished you are, that hurts. There is always a moment—or even a long period—of denial. That’s why great players like James end up being journeyman towards the end, searching for some kind of happy ending that isn’t likely to come.
I’ve never met Edgerrin James. But I feel for him this morning.
Entirely different subject: With no baseball last night and almost no hockey (Islanders have won four in a row folks) I did what I often do: watched “The West Wing,” on DVD. I still think it is the best written show in TV history, especially the first four years when Aaron Sorkin was writing it. Last night I watched the first two episodes of season two: ‘In The Shadow of Two Gunmen.’ I’ve probably seen those episodes ten times and I STILL can’t get enough of them. They’re brilliantly written and acted.
Anyway, I was just wondering: If you could have ONE TV show on DVD to watch in quiet moments what show would it be? And, on that show, what episode is the one that makes your hair stand on end (like the start of season two of ‘West Wing,’ for me) or makes you laugh every single time you watch it. (For me that would probably the ‘Festivus,’ episode of Seinfeld).