College Basketball Greats of the Past: Steve Wojciechowski

The second entry in an ongoing series. 

 

“Wojo is hurt.”

Wojo needed to be hurt there. Because in order for Wojo to stand up and clap and show Inspirational Leadership, he first needed to be twisted up like a pipe cleaner by Jamaal Magloire. It’s the only way this meant anything.

I doubt Steve Wojciechowski invented this brand of college basketball player, but he certainly helped its popularity. Aaron Craft is fives times more famous than he ought to be, and he should send Steve Wojciechowski a iTunes gift card to thank him for it.

It wasn’t that Wojo was a bad player … Actually, yes it was. Steve Wojciechowski was a bad player. He shot 39 percent from the floor. He averaged 6.7 points and 4.6 assists as a senior. He was the point guard of the worst Duke team of the Mike Krzyzewski era, the 1994-95 group that lost 18 games and went 2-14 in ACC play.

But here was the thing: Krzyzewski got sick that year, and had to sit out most of the season. This was actually good for Steve Wojciechowski’s legacy in the same way it was good for him that Jamaal Magloire tried to rip off his arm. Because in the midst of all that adversity, Wojciechowski’s floor-slapping and floorburn collecting turned him into a mascot. He was this plucky, never-say-die freshman who wasn’t very big and wasn’t much of a player but Played The Game The Right Way. Ordinarily, Duke’s failures would have been blamed on the Blue Devils’ lack of an ACC-caliber point guard — and Duke would have failed that year regardless — but Krzyzewski’s absence washed all that away. It allowed Duke to be an underdog, and nobody played the underdog better than Steve Wojciechowski.

It allowed him to become Wojo.

And we need Wojo for college basketball to seem important. The players in the NBA are way, way better. The level of basketball played in the NBA is superior to the college game to a degree that is comical. Everybody intuitively knows this, even if they don’t like the NBA.  What is important, then, for college basketball fans, is a sense of connection with the players. It’s a feeling that Wojo and I chose the same school and went to the same classes and drank at the same bars and, most importantly, Wojo cares as much as I do and we are in this together. 

Therefore, it is helpful if it seems like your team’s success is largely the result of how much it cares about your school and, by extension, you. When Wojo slaps the floor, he’s not doing it for any practical reason, he’s doing it to communicate to you, the fan, that he is in this foxhole with you, and you will stand and cheer the floor-slapper because, dammit, he might not be able to beat anybody off the dribble but at least you know that makes him as sad as it makes you.

And so we salute you, Steve Wojciechowski, for teaching us that college basketball players aren’t all that good, which is kind of the point.

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College Basketball Greats of the Past: T.J. Pugh

Today I begin a blog series which I’m calling “College Basketball Greats of the Past.” Its purpose is not to celebrate those still-famous players that nobody could ever forget like Paul Pierce or J.J. Redick. It’s to celebrate those players that might be forgotten, players whose contributions at the time might have seemed historically insignificant. In other words, the players that make college basketball’s world go ’round.

He’s Dr. T.J. Pugh now, I think. But at the time he was just “Puuuuuuuuuuugh.” He was one of those guys who made it sound like he was getting booed by his own fans, but not in the way that happened to J.R. Giddens.

T.J. Pugh was not a particularly good player. But he wasn’t bad, either. He was about as nondescript as a basketball player can be. He was 6-foot-8, 240 pounds, which is the most average possible size for a collegiate power forward. He was from Omaha, Nebraska, which is the most average city in the Midwest. His senior year, he averaged 4.9 points and 4.7 rebounds. He shot just under 50 percent from the field and just under 60 percent from the free-throw line. He blocked half a shot per game.

He was adequate.

This being the late 90s, he wore a baggy t-shirt under his uniform. He was not muscular, but you wouldn’t describe him as “lithe” either. I don’t think athletic training was the same then as it is now. T.J. Pugh looked kind of like he’d been spotted shuffling his feet along some broken Omaha sidewalk on the way to a Little Ceasar’s when Roy Williams drove by and asked him if he’d ever played basketball.

I don’t know how stridently Pugh had been recruited. Recruiting information is pretty scarce if you’re going back before about 2003. I’m sure Creighton offered. Probably Nebraska too. There certainly was never a sense of, “Oh man, did you hear about this kid from Omaha KU got?”

And in this way, T.J. Pugh represented everything Kansas basketball has been since at the latest 1989. You hear TV analysts say all the time that KU is just loaded up with McDonald’s All-Americans, but that has almost never been true over the last 20 years. Kansas usually has one or two, and that’s it. Sometimes more, but that’s rare. Whether the coach was Williams or Bill Self, this has been the case.

So there is always room for a T.J. Pugh not just on the roster, but in the rotation. It’s become a real legacy by now. Pugh passed the torch to Bret Ballard, who passed it to Christian Moody, who passed it to Brady Morningstar.

These are players to whom nothing was given, and from whom nothing was expected.

But here is what happens: A couple of years go by, and NBA player or two comes through the program, and suddenly you find yourself in a position where you have enough great players — shot-makers, drivers, etc. — but what you could really use out there is a guy who knows where to go and how to set a good screen and how to reverse the ball to the third side and will slide his feet on defense and doesn’t think he was born to be the hero.

And that’s when you take out C.J. Giles and put in Christian Moody, or you start Brady Morningstar instead of Josh Selby.

That was T.J. Pugh. As a senior, he was better than Lester Earl and (probably) drove a much crappier car. Was he great?

Well, not by your standard definition.

 

The Tully Corcoran Dunk Corollary

What I am about to write might sound obvious to the point of being idiotic. I won’t blame you if that’s how you feel about it, because I have to admit that sometimes when I articulate the Tully Corcoran Dunk Corollary in my head, I feel the same thing.

But I believe this is one of those rare ideas that is both (1) totally obvious and (2) completely obscure, and I hope that by the time I am done, you will agree with me.

So here it is:

I need to start by telling you the context in which the Dunk Corollary was conceived. It was the 2008-09 basketball season, and I was covering Kansas. This was the year after the Jayhawks had won the national championship, and I’m sure you’ll recall that the KU team that won it all did a lot of dunking. I would say that right up until Mario Chalmers made that shot, dunking was that team’s most definitive characteristic. The power forward was Darrell Arthur, who never got excited about talking about anything, unless you asked him about dunking. Then, man, it was on. He loved it. At some point I think Brady McCollough even called his mom, who told Brady how excited Darrell had been the day he got his first dunk.

But KU also started Darnell Jackson on the block, and he could really dunk too. He dunked hard, and he would beat his chest after his dunks. Off the bench came a Russian with some kind of alloy where his body fat should have been named Sasha Kaun, whose best skill was post defense, but whose passion was dunking on fools.  Deep on the bench was 6-foot-11 Cole Aldrich, who sounded like an ewok when he dunked.

There were a lot of alley oops and a lot of tip dunks in 2008. This was KU’s Sweet 16 game:

That was an exceptional game as far as dunking went, but that was that team. Those guys did that sort of thing all the time, and their ability to finish plays with dunks just seemed to solve so many problems.

So the next year all those guys were gone, and in their place was a team that played decidedly below the rim. Instead of Arthur and Jackson, it was twins Marcus and Markieff Morris. One of them once said he didn’t like dunking because it took up too much energy. It was harder for that team to score around the rim. It ended up relying very much on its perimeter game, and that worked, because that team’s point guard was Sherron Collins, and he had a great year. That team won the Big 12 championship, but that team made scoring look … harder. It took more work. You couldn’t just toss the ball up in the air to anyone. Missed shots that might have been dunked home the year before got grabbed, hauled in, brought to the ground, gathered, and taken up again.

Now, the Twins would become much better athletes over the next two years, and they were more versatile offensive players than Jackson and Arthur. KU just became a different kind of team.

But in November of that 2008-09 season, I sat there during a game and thought, “You know, one of the problems with this team is that it doesn’t have anybody that can dunk.”

You need guys who can dunk, because dunking is hard, which makes things easy.

When I say “can dunk,” I don’t mean, “Can run out there in an empty gym, take a running start, and put down a dunk.” Almost everybody on every college basketball team can do that.

I am talking about guys who can make a play by dunking. Guys who can find themselves in the midst of a play that is in doubt, and then remove all that doubt by dunking.

There is a play that illustrates this perfectly. I’m sure any KU fan will remember it. It happened during KU’s game against Purdue in the NCAA Tournament this year. It was an ugly, struggle of a game. Kansas was down the whole time. There had been no flow. It seemed every KU shot had been hotly contested. Purdue had played phenomenally on defense.

The Jayhawks were down by three with just about a minute left, and KU got a little bit of a break going off a rebound. Not a great break, though. It was really a 2-on-2 break, but Tyshawn Taylor, the point guard, got behind Purdue by just a step. And Elijah Johnson put the ball in the air.

The ability to finish that play with a dunk made all the difference. Taylor could dunk it, Johnson knew Taylor could dunk it, and dunking it was the only play Purdue wouldn’t have been able to guard in that moment.

The play was in doubt, but the dunk removed the doubt.

And if you can do that, you’ve got something. If Taylor hadn’t been a dunker, there’s a good chance Kansas loses that game, which was in the second round. Instead, Taylor sealed the game with another dunk, and KU went all the way to the national championship game, where it lost to the dunkiest team in college basketball.

So what I’m saying is, it’s really helpful if your players can dunk. And that seems obvious doesn’t it? Or does it?

The secret reason basketball is not popular in the south

Today is the beginning of college basketball season, but it does not feel like it to me. By this I don’t mean that my own personal psyche is not quite prepared for the sport to begin, or that I have lost ties with the sport emotionally. I mean that I just stepped outside to walk my dog, and now I’m sweating. By noon, I will have turned on the air conditioner.

And I wonder if this isn’t secretly the reason basketball is not popular in the south.

As you know, I live on the Gulf Coast, as a great many “southerners”* do. Relative to the weather I grew up with in Kansas, it still feels like it should be the nonconference portion of football season. It’s still, you know, muggy out there. It feels like summer is still kind of hanging around. If I were to drop the exact weather I am experiencing on Kansas right now, some people would reflexively pull the boat out of storage.

*I put that in quotes because I don’t consider myself a southerner, and even though I am technically a Texan now, the term “The South” is kind of ambiguous when it comes to the state of Texas. For purposes of discussing weather, however, Houston is TOTALLY southern. So that’s what I’ll be meaning when I use this terminology throughout this post. 

I know that, on me, this has a discombobulating effect. In part this is because it is still somewhat unfamiliar. It still feels strange that I could, without total discomfort, jump in a pool on the same day big guys jump center for the first time. But I wonder if this has something to do with the southern sports psyche altogether.

Basketball, of course, was invented by a Canadian who was living in Massachusetts and later taught in Kansas. The whole point of it was to be something that could be played indoors during the winter. And it really became part of the DNA in places where that was important. Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, etc.

I don’t mean to oversimplify this. There are hundreds of other factors that influence where certain sports become popular. Football was huge in Nebraska, basketball in Kansas. The early years of both college football and college basketball were dominated by teams in the upper midwest and northeast. I am not trying to explain American sports culture by using barometric pressure, although I’m sure there’s a sabermetrician out there who will be happy to try.

I am really just saying that in the midwest, in Kansas, you can feel basketball season coming. You can feel it with your skin.  And this adds to the anticipation of it. There is something about walking in from the dark and the gray and the cold — shoulders bunched together, face tucked down into your chest to get away from the sharp wind — and into a hot gym, where you scoot your feet across a mat to knock off the snow and it smells like popcorn and a brass band is blowing “Carry On Wayward Son” with full lungs and pattering hearts and tiny girls in short skirts are being thrown into the air and your eyes take a minute to adjust to all the light.

At the risk of coming off as maudlin, I write that it feels a little bit like coming home for Christmas. Well, that’s how coming home for Christmas feels in the Midwest anyway.

It doesn’t feel like that on the Gulf Coast. Here, it still feels like football season is just getting started. And it will feel that way until football season is over. On the Gulf Coast, the winters are not something to escape. It’s where birds hang out in November.

So basketball doesn’t seem as necessary here. But it is still in my DNA.

How we may very well explain Brett Favre to our grandkids

Oh man, well, hahaha, Brett Favre was this guy they used to call “The Ol’ Gunslinger,’ hahahahaha, because (snort) he’d just rifle it in there no matter what. He could throw it (snort) like a thousand miles an hour, and he didn’t care if there were defenders in the way. It seemed, hahahaha, like he thought he could break off a cornerback’s hands with his passes.

Oh yeah, he threw an insane number of interceptions. I’m pretty sure the most of anybody ever. You could always tell when he was getting ready to throw one too. You’d be sitting there going, “Here it comes. The Ol’ Gunslinger’s feeling pretty heroic,’ and, boom, intercepted.

Yes, it was incredibly hilarious.

No, absolutely not. That was the weird thing. Favre was probably the most popular player of his generation. People loved this guy. And he was totally deified by the sports media of the day. You have to understand that in the 1990s people still looked at athletes as heroes. At least some of them. You had Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods was still young, Favre. People used to see these guys as something superior to normal humans, or at least as admirable.

You have to remember, there was no such thing as a sports blog in 1996.

Well, it’s weird, but I almost think people liked Favre because of the interceptions. People seemed to consider it endearing that there was an NFL quarterback who was the equivalent of your idiot “hold my beer and watch this” friend. It was very easy to imagine that very thing happening on the Packers’ sideline. Favre shotgunning a Keystone Light and going “Check this out. I’m about to throw a 60-yard laser across the field off my back foot,” and some teammate going, “I’m not so sure this is such a good idea, Brett,” and Brett going, “Oh don’t be such a Nancy, it’s going to be awesome.” I think people really took to that. Plus, he was impossible to knock out of a game. One time he played with a broken thumb on his passing hand. Can you imagine that? There were all kinds of stories like that. He set a record for consecutive starts.

Well, I don’t think anybody ever suspected he was using steroids, but he did become addicted to prescription painkillers at the height of his career. We were all shocked at the time, but in retrospect that had to be one of the most obvious athlete addictions of all time. I mean, like I said, there was no injury that could keep this guy out of a game.

Uh, it was pretty much all the media, but in particular was this meathead of a color commentator named John Madden.

Well, no, he wasn’t a video game creator. When that game first came out, they decided to name it after a color commentator for some reason.

Madden was known for being extremely easy to please as a broadcaster. He would get so fired up any time a player got dirt stuck in his facemask. To John Madden, that was evidence that the player was playing exceptionally hard or playing (air quotes) smashmouth football (air quotes), whatever that means. And he’d make the most obvious comments. He’s say stuff like (in Madden voice), “If the ball crosses the plane of the goal, that’s gonna be a touchdown” and everyone would be like, “Thanks, John.” He explained football in a way that any idiot — literally any idiot — could grasp what was happening.

Anyway, Madden loved Favre so much, because Favre was the kind of guy who’d end up with dirt stuck in his facemask a lot, and he’d do this reckless, childlike stuff. He threw a behind-the-back pass once. … Actually, that might have been Jake Plummer. I can’t really remember, but it’s beside the point. Whether or not Favre ever did throw a behind-the-back pass, throwing a behind-the-back pass was totally a Favre sort of thing to do. You can take it to the bank that if it was Plummer and not Favre who did that, Plummer did it because he was 100 percent inspired by Brett Favre.

No, generally speaking, people hated Jake Plummer.

Anyway, announcers loved to say that Favre was “like a big ol’ kid out there,” and it was clear that Favre was always the guy having the most fun. Every now and then they’d put a mic on him and he’d spend the whole game making jokes with defensive linemen and things like that.

He was from this small town in Mississippi, and I really do think that helped his popularity. He had this great southern accent and he’d do commercials for Wrangler jeans. I mean, you look at some of his contemporaries … Tom Brady was practically a movie star. Drew Brees always came off like he was running for Senate. Joe Montana was the ultimate “calm, cool, collected” guy. Dan Marino had this great tan and played in Miami. Peyton Manning was kind of a successful dork. I think people saw Favre as sort of an antithetical figure to all that. He was all these things quarterbacks were not supposed to be. He had this unique way of seeming like a regular dude and a mythical creature at the same time.

Yeah, this girl who worked for the Jets said he sent her photos of his penis. Nobody ever really figured out of that was true or not, but most people seemed to believe it. There was quite a bit of cynicism about the whole thing because of who his accuser was.

Her name was Jen Sterger, and she basically became famous overnight. She showed up to a Florida State football game in a bikini top, got picked up by the cameras and became this sensation. It was totally ridiculous. She ended up working for Sports Illustrated because of that. I mean, she wasn’t out there writing 5,000-word takeouts, but still. Sports Illustrated.

(Sigh). Sports Illustrated was a magazine. For about 50 years it was The Place To Work for anybody in sports journalism.

No, they printed it on glossy paper and delivered it to your house every week.

Well sure, the information was several days old by the time you got it, but that really wasn’t a big deal at the time. I mean, I found out the Kansas City Chiefs had acquired Joe Montana by seeing it on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Oh nevermind.

Can’t we just be proud of Lebron James?

Can we all just be proud of Lebron James? For Pete’s sake.

He’s practically perfect. He plays spectacular basketball, unlike anybody else plays it. He plays unselfishly. He enjoys his teammates’ success. He plays the best defense.Then when it’s time for somebody to drop the hammer, he’s like Paul Bunyan ringing the bell at that sledge hammer game at the State Fair. He doesn’t get in trouble. He pretty much keeps his mouth shut. He actually seems like a reasonably nice guy. He has been in the NBA for almost nine years, has been one of the most spot-lit players in it the entire time, has been Everybody’s Villain for about three years and yet he has said the wrong thing, what, twice?

He goes to London and leads our country to a gold medal win and with the world watching represents everything good about basketball, about sports, about Americans. After it is over, he posts that photo of himself holding the stars and stripes like a cape and he types “love my country.”

What do you want from this guy?

Cleveland? What do you have to say? You’re still mad he’s not on your team anymore? Go cry me another Great Lake. You know why Lebron isn’t on your team anymore? Because your team stinks. It stunk to high heaven the entire time you had Lebron. You had the best player in a generation on your team and you failed — completely — to benefit from that. You had him playing with Mo Williams and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. And you’re mad he left? You’re surprised? You’re hurt? You should have been burning all the other jerseys, not Lebron James ones.

By the way, do you remember when Lebron actually did sign a contract extension with the Cavaliers? He did. It was in 2006. You had your chance.

Matter of fact, let’s not hear anymore whining out of Cleveland until one of your professional sports teams gets it together. Just one.

And the rest of you. What’s your big problem? You didn’t like when he said “take my talents?” That phrasing bothered you? You didn’t like how the players got to decide where they were going to play?

Are you against free agency?

What, you wanted Lebron to “do it the hard way?” You didn’t think Michael Jordan would have left Chicago to play with, say, Shaquille O’Neal? Well what’s that got to do with it?

WHAT DOES MICHAEL JORDAN HAVE TO DO WITH IT?

You believe Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time and you will always believe that no matter what and you’re terrified that someone might seriously challenge that notion and Lebron is the greatest existing threat. Is that it? That’s it, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Boy, the next six or eight years are going to be rough for you.

Because Lebron is going to win more NBA championships, and he’s going to win another gold medal for your country and he is going to be the best player in the world for at least five more years.

And you’re going to have to deal with that.

Or you could embrace it. You could enjoy it. You could be proud that your country produced the best player in the world, and that he represents you beautifully on the world stage. You could appreciate the opportunity to watch a player unlike any we’ve ever seen in the sport.

Or you can just be mad all the time.

A response to Michelle Beadle’s response to the griping about NBC

I kept off Twitter most of the day yesterday, because I didn’t want the results of the tape-delayed Olympic women’s gymnastics competition to be spoiled for me. I avoided sports Web sites, too.

By the time the broadcast had begun, the results had been spoiled for me in the following ways:

  • A post on Facebook.
  • A Google search for “Olympic gymnastics TV listings” that turned up a headline that read “U.S. gymnastics good as gold.”
  • A tweet, sent directly to me in response to my own tweet asking when the gymnastics was  on, saying, “You mean the one where the U.S. won gold?”

At some point yesterday, Michelle Beadle, who works for NBC now, sent the following tweet:

The amount of whining about tweeting results has become utterly comical. It’s quite simple. Stay off sites giving information. Ex: Twitter

With all due respect, Michelle, it’s not simple. It’s actually quite complicated. I can see how this is easy for you to say, since you’re in freaking London. But what you’re asking the rest of us to do, essentially, is to stay off the Internet for two weeks. I couldn’t even search for the TV listings without having the results spoiled for me TWICE. Let me reiterate: GOOGLE was not a safe place to be. Google.

You’re asking me to change everything about the way I receive information for two weeks or stop complaining. That’s comical.

There is a good defense for NBC’s tape delays, but “just stay off the Internet” isn’t it. You know what it is? I’ll tell you.

“Our ratings are at an all-time high.”

Boom. Done. The end.

I have no comeback to that. NBC is in the business of attracting eyeballs to its programming, and it is doing that better than ever before. Sucks for me that this is working, but I can’t reasonably expect NBC to fix something that isn’t broken. My only response would be an appeal to empathy. Won’t you think of the Internet peasants?

But come on. It is not ridiculous to complain about having sporting events spoiled. The best thing about watching sports is being in the moment with them, and if you’re the kind of person who uses the Internet in 2012 — AND I’M GUESSING YOU ARE — you stand a really good chance of losing that.

And you’d think it was ridiculous, too, if it were happening to you.

The glory is in the pain

I am going to tell you about the most physically damaging play of my football career, because we are starting to understand just how damaging football plays can really be, and it seems like a bigger deal in retrospect than it seemed at the time. But also because the most damaging play of my football career was also the most gratifying play of my football career.

This was the fall of 2000, my senior year, and I played on a bad Kansas Class A high school football team. We played eight-man football, and we went 2-7 that year. I weighed 165 pounds, and as I recall I was the fourth-largest player on our team. Our best offensive lineman, a hot-blooded Dutchman* named David VanderHamm, might have been 150 in his pads.

*“I’m not Dutch!” he used to say.

One of our games was in Oklahoma City against a school called Christian Heritage Academy, which was a lot like our school — private and Protestant — only a little bigger and with a much, much better football team. The rumor was that nine of the seniors on that team were going to be playing in college. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know the quarterback was about 6-foot-3, maybe 210, and the first time the running back came busting into my gap, he might as well have been Ricky Williams. On one play, he scored a touchdown by — I swear — diving from the 5-yard-line. Their fullback was — and again, I swear I am not making this up — a white kid who was constantly screaming and had one eye that looked at you and another that looked somewhere else.

Anyway, we ended up losing 42-21, and in the fourth quarter I was still in at linebacker, but CHA had put in its second-team offense, which probably would have beaten us, too. By this time, I was frustrated. I had spent all day not quite getting to the quarterback, not quite catching the running back, getting my clock cleaned by this banshee they had playing fullback. And they put in that second-team running back, and he looked like he weighed about the same as me, and I wanted to knock off his shoulder pads.

Well, they ran a sweep away from my side, which was perfect for that. Nobody on the line picked me up, which meant I had about 15 yards to pick up speed as I pursued the play. And I was running fast. As fast as I could. A lot of sweeps end up getting strung out and they end with the running back going out of bounds or getting tackled on the sideline. I didn’t want that. I ached for this kid to cut back, and I aimed my speeding body right where it looked like the cutback lane would be.

He planted his left foot and cut. And right when he did, I met him with as much speed and force as my body was capable of generating. CRACK! Like bat meeting ball. On the coaches film you can hear that crack, and you can hear a few people in the crowd ooh a little.

For a moment, probably about a second, I couldn’t see. My upper body wouldn’t move. I don’t mean to say I was momentarily paralyzed, because I wasn’t. I could feel everything, and it all hurt. My neck, my shoulders and especially my head. I squinted my eyes hard, like when you get a brain freeze from guzzling a slushee, and all I wanted to do was pop right up and enjoy the glory of the best hit of my life, to show that I wasn’t hurt, that this is just What I Do. Ain’t no thang. But I just … could not do it. Physically. I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say I needed a moment, down there in the grass, on my back, to put my being back together.

When I got up with the help of a teammate, I saw that the JV running back was still down, and there were tears pooling on the edges of his squinted eyes.

He left the game.

I stayed in.

It was a small victory, but it was a victory. That’s how I felt. Linebacker met running back, and linebacker won. I am sure this sounds dumb, because that was almost 12 years ago, but I have replayed that moment in my head a hundred times. Man, it felt good. So visceral. So explosive. So manly. It still does. I never experienced anything else in sports quite like it. I’ve hit home runs, and I’ve struck out people with the winning run on third base, and thrown touchdown passes, and sunk big free throws and dunked on my friends (on a nine-foot rim) and those things all feel great.

But not quite the same.

I have never knocked anybody out with a punch, but I imagine it must be something like that. It was so physical, so raw, so mano a mano. Who is tougher? That was the question, and the answer is always “the guy who’s still out there.”

That was one of my last football games. I didn’t play in college, so I am probably not at risk for the after effects of head trauma we keep hearing so much about with NFL players. Oh, I “got my bell rung” plenty. One time it felt like my left arm was on fire. One time I came back to the huddle and had a hard time remembering how to call a play. But we’re talking about maybe 20 bell ringings in my whole life. Maybe not even that many.

There are a lot of discussions going on about these issues now, and I don’t have the answers. But I think about that play whenever I see some linebacker or defensive back crush somebody at full speed. There are other ways to make a tackle. Safer ways. More effective ways. Ways that won’t get you penalized.

And you hear a lot of people wonder why guys still hit that way, knowing everything they know, knowing how it’s going to feel in the next moment or the next day or the next phase of life. But the answer is simple.

Because it hurts so good.

 

Decent guy Peyton Manning does a decent thing

Peyton Manning has done an altogether decent thing and even though I am naturally biased when it comes to this particular issue, I think I have a perspective that can hopefully be illuminating.

Here’s what I’m talking about: Manning called a beat writer at the Indianapolis Star to say thanks and goodbye. I just now read that story, and as I type these words, I am still in a state of shock recovery. Not because it was Manning; he has always seemed like a decent guy. And not because the athlete felt he had a relationship with a reporter; that’s common, too.

But it’s because either I’ve never covered someone who liked me enough to do something like that, or because Peyton Manning is one of the nicest guys to become an athlete in the modern age.

I can’t say with certainty such an act is unheard of, but I’ve never heard of it happening. This is mostly because of the complicated nature of the relationship between reporters and their subjects. We are taught not to trust them, and they are taught not to trust us, and there are good reasons for both.

There is a common tension between athletes and sportswriters that goes something like this:

Athlete: “Why do you guys have to be so negative all the time?”

Reporter: “Athlete, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say 90 percent of what I write is overwhelmingly positive.”

Both of them are usually right.

Let’s say a reporter is talking to a veteran point guard about his team’s season. The team is winning, although it is winning in part because this veteran point guard has accepted a reduced role while a younger star has taken control of the team.

The reporter’s budget line looks something like this: Joe Dingleberry, once the Toledo Sphincters’ great hope, is finally on the precipice of an elusive championship. It just took a reduced role to get there. 

Now, this certainly will be a story that makes some perhaps uncomfortable implicit observations — Dingleberry could not get it done. — but the eventual takeaway will be that Dingleberry is a good guy who made a personal sacrifice for the good of the team.

Yet in order to report that story, the reporter is going to have to ask Dingleberry some pointed questions about his role, how he felt about conceding it to a younger star, if he has any regrets about the years before, and so on. That’s the conflict that makes the story interesting.

But to Dingleberry, there is a decent chance he is going to feel like the reporter is merely trying to bait him into saying something inflammatory. He also might feel insulted by some of the questions and begin feeling defensive. This depends on myriad factors, including everything from the physical setting of the interview to the tone of the reporter’s voice to whatever pre-existing relationship the two of them have.

But, generally speaking, it is in the reporter’s interest to get the player to speak humanly and interestingly, and it is in the player’s interest to do the opposite of that.

So in the end, the reporter writes the story and can honestly say it painted the athlete in a positive light, and the athlete can honestly say, “Yeah, but you were poking me the whole time.”

So it’s complicated. We aren’t adversaries, but we aren’t on the same team, either. There is a good bit of confusion about that among the general public. People often assume sports writers are fans of the teams they cover. And I suppose, in most cases, we are more happy to cover a winning team than a losing one. But when it comes right down to it, our identity is not attached to the team the way it is for a fan. To us, this isn’t recreation or entertainment (even though it is often entertaining); it’s work. My former boss Kurt had the best way of putting it.

“I root for me,” he said.

And yet Peyton Manning called a Colts beat writer to say thanks. For what, it’s not entirely clear. It sounded general, like, Thanks for all the work over the years. It was recognition that those two men had gone to work (sort of) with each other every day for many years and that Manning respected Phillip Wilson’s work and their relationship.

That doesn’t mean much on a practical level. Manning can’t give Phillip Wilson a raise. And a journalist is always going to be a little bashful about receiving praise from one of his subjects, because he wouldn’t want it to indicate his coverage hadn’t been objective.

But it sure was nice of him.

A visual tour of the beautiful crumbling Astrodome

Yesterday the Astrodome opened its doors to some local media, who had to sign liability waivers before we walked in. Place is unsafe, they say. What I found was a place that, like a lot of things in Houston, was born in a very specific period, right as we were going to the moon and going to Vietnam, after the first oil boom but before the second, right as the Baby Boomers were hitting adulthood.

The Astrodome was finished 18 years before I was born, so I don’t know what it looked like then, but I got a strong impression not much has changed.

A tour:

The seats are quite comfortable for a building built in the 60s, but they're all cracked. Sitting in the Astrodome feels and smells like sitting in an old car that's been sitting in a dusty garage for many years.

The seats are quite comfortable for a building built in the 60s, but they're all cracked. Sitting in the Astrodome feels and smells like sitting in an old car that's been sitting in a dusty garage for many years.

The windows still let the light in. Soon after the dome was built, baseball players complained it was hard to find the ball against those windows, so there is a film over them now.

The windows still let the light in. Soon after the dome was built, baseball players complained it was hard to find the ball against those windows, so there is a film over them now.

Can't remember where this was, exactly. But I assume it to be an original 1965 sign.

Can't remember where this was, exactly. But I assume it to be an original 1965 sign.

Don't think these work anymore, but all these signs have little lights around them that light up like a marquee.

Don't think these work anymore, but all these signs have little lights around them that light up like a marquee.

When we say the Astrodome is crumbling, we mean that literally. Chunks of the building are falling off. It has been deemed unsafe for occupation.

When we say the Astrodome is crumbling, we mean that literally. Chunks of the building are falling off. It has been deemed unsafe for occupation.

Astroturf, you may know, was named for the Astrodome, and this is one of the last places on earth you can still find it.

Astroturf, you may know, was named for the Astrodome, and this is one of the last places on earth you can still find it.

This is the door to a dark room. You know, where they develop film on site. Remember film?

This is the door to a dark room. You know, where they develop film on site. Remember film? One older member of the media said he and somebody else used to come back here for a seventh-inning toke. I couldn't tell if he was 100 percent serious, but this was the 60s and 70s we're talking about.

The press box was actually not that dissimilar from the press box at Minute Maid Park. Older TVs. Otherwise, a press box is a press box is a press box. Except for the one at TCU. Man, that thing is garbage.

The press box was actually not that dissimilar from the press box at Minute Maid Park. Older TVs. Otherwise, a press box is a press box is a press box. Except for the one at TCU. Man, that thing is garbage.

"Welcome to The Show," it says.

"Welcome to The Show," it says.

Just one example of how so many things in the dome are stuck in a very specific period.

Just one example of how so many things in the dome are stuck in a very specific period.

I didn't ask, but those looked like they probably still worked.

I didn't ask, but those looked like they probably still worked.

Carter vs. Permian. Written on the walls in one of the locker rooms. I actually got chills when I first saw this, then realized that 1988 game was played in Austin. This was done for the Friday Night Lights movie in 2004. Nonetheless, it's pretty cool that's still there.

Carter vs. Permian. Written on the walls in one of the locker rooms. I actually got chills when I first saw this, then realized that 1988 game was played in Austin. This was done for the Friday Night Lights movie in 2004. Nonetheless, it's pretty cool that's still there.

There are limitations to my camera phone. Those signs say "Home of the Houston Oilers" and "Home of the Houston Astros."

There are limitations to my camera phone. Those signs say "Home of the Houston Oilers" and "Home of the Houston Astros."

A broken, discarded chair sitting in the tunnel that leads from the locker room to the field. Seemed poignant.

A broken, discarded chair sitting in the tunnel that leads from the locker room to the field. Seemed poignant. By the looks of the label, this was from the Don Draper era.

Funny thing is, there were a lot of copycat stadiums after the Astrodome went up in 1965. SkyDome, Three Rivers, Riverfront, etc. When they started tearing them all down in the late 90s, early 2000s, everybody said they were cookie cutter stadiums. But look at this place. Unmistakable for any other.

Funny thing is, there were a lot of copycat stadiums after the Astrodome went up in 1965. SkyDome, Three Rivers, Riverfront, etc. When they started tearing them all down in the late 90s, early 2000s, everybody said they were cookie cutter stadiums. But look at this place. Unmistakable for any other.

There I am, standing on about the 20-yard line. I can't imagine playing football on that turf. There's nothing to it.

There I am, standing on about the 20-yard line. I can't imagine playing football on that turf. There's nothing to it.

These are the lockers in the Oilers locker room. I was told quarterbacks and running backs would have been in this row. Earl Campbell, Warren Moon. Don't they look ... dumpy?

These are the lockers in the Oilers locker room. I was told quarterbacks and running backs would have been in this row. Earl Campbell, Warren Moon. Don't they look ... dumpy?