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NFL C.A.S.E. of the Mondays: Week 6

October 17, 2011

Cooler: Devin Hester, who continues to cement his status at the greatest return man in league history, and the single dumbest decision any placekicker or punter can ever make. Hester caught a 48-yard touchdown before his career-best 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the Bears’ 39-10 win. Hester now has 16 combined kick and punt returns in his six years in the league.

Hester is so cool because he’s so unique. There’s no other weapon like him, that can change a game in 15 seconds or so. His teammates on special teams take so much pride in helping him take it to the house:

‘‘When he’s back there and the music comes on and he’s on that big screen, I even get goosebumps — I’m about to block for the best kick returer who’s every played the game,’’ said Dom DeCicco, who helped block for Hester’s touchdown. ‘‘It makes you want to do your job that much more.”…

Bears wide receiver Sam Hurd said he could tell Hester was going to break something.

‘‘Because right before we got out there, he smiles and has that look like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s eat. To the house,’’’ Hurd said. ‘‘That means every play can go to the house and I’m going to do my best to [make it happen]. He’s phenomenal.’’

On that note, from now on, whenever I’m having friends over for dinner, I shall say, “Let’s go. Let’s eat. To the house!”

Animal: Tom Brady on the final drive of the Patriots’ 20-16 win over the Cowboys. I sat at work watching the drive start at the 20, with a weird combination of nerves and hope. I couldn’t remember the last time New England was in a situation like this, the kind of situation Brady built his legend on. As he picked apart Dallas’ defense, eight or nine or ten yards at a time, I started to get giddy. It’s happening! Then I brought myself back to Earth, remembering the offense already had four turnovers.

Then, as he found Aaron Hernandez with great throw in the back of the end zone, I made some weird hand gestures, grinned, and gently high-fived the fellow Pats fan next to me. We’re not allowed to cheer at work, you see. I do a little happy dance, and get back to work. Just another day at the office, for me and for Tom.

Stinkbomb: The Minnesota Vikings. I was reading the game recap, and saw one team allowed five sacks, and assumed it was the Bears, because, well, they’re the Bears. But it was Minnesota who allowed Donovan McNabb to get slammed and eventually benched for rookie Christian Ponder (Cutler was only sacked once).

Adrian Peterson ran for only 39 yards against a Bears defense that ranks 28th in the league against the run (and 29th overall). Ponder didn’t lead the offense to any points either.

Eloquence: From 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who got a little fired up and paid for it after the his team handed the Lions their first loss:

“I don’t think I’m that emotional,” Harbaugh tried to claim before realizing that sentiment was ridiculous and laughing at himself. “I am very emotional about the outcome and the way our players played. I’m really proud of that. Hopefully you can understand.

“When you’re with a group of guys, you’re on a team, you’re trying to do something special and to see your guys go out and perform that way, yeah, you do get emotional.

“I’m not going to apologize for that. If that offends you or anybody else, then so be it.”

Harbaugh definitely isn’t in Palo Alto anymore. Lions coach Jim Schwartz took umbrage with Harbaugh jumping around and untucking his shirt, and his very, very firm post-game handshake. Schwartz is known for getting fired up, so seeing him get in Harbaugh’s face is kind of funny to me. It’s obviously very different on the losing end. Personally, I hope the sassiness continues.


My First Time…At A Silent Auction

October 14, 2011

This will be the first in a series of posts in which I describe the first time I do something. Actually, when I think of it that way, this is the 2nd one of the those posts. Here’s the first…my first horseback riding lesson.

I am an old soul. I enjoy long walks, grocery shopping and driving around probably more than I should. I’m really good at enjoying simple things.

My old soul-ness makes it very easy for me to get along with people like my mom’s friends. She grew up in Connecticut, and many of her friends from grade school still live in the area. They were among the first ones to congratulate me on my job at ESPN almost a year ago, and they were absolutely the first ones to help me out when I first moved here. A place to crash, a ride to the airport…anything I needed, they were amazing from the start.

Tonight, one of them had her company’s big fundraiser, a silent auction and beer/wine tasting. I had never been to an auction of any kind before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. She had told me about some of the fantastic things that I could bid on–spa packages, gift cards, a Trader Joe’s gift bag (!!!). I met up with two of mom’s other friends at their house, and headed to the fundraiser

The wine (delicious, BTW) certainly helped, but the four of us talked and laughed A LOT. It was fun browsing all of the items, putting down your bid with the minuscule possibility it could be yours be evening’s end. I bid on a Kindle with a cover ::swoon::, the Trader Joe’s gift bag ::nomnomnom::, a Keurig coffee maker ::weeeee::, and a group of gift cards to a bunch of restaurants in Hartford ::nomnomnom again::. As luck would have it, I ended up winning the restaurant gift cards, $70 worth and I paid $50. Holla!

My mom’s friends talked about how much they enjoyed the wine, especially the reds. They discussed the quality of this year’s food compared to last year’s auction. They asked earnestly about how they’re all doing. It is so easy for me to talk to them, sometimes easier than talking to people my own age. Maybe it’s because they know my mom so well, they know more about me than I give them credit for. But I swear, I have so much fun with them, these wise women who are like sisters to one another. Every problem, every triumph, they know EVERYTHING.

I have certain friends I know I’ll be like this with 30 years from now. I just hope to be as helpful, hilarious and welcoming.

Who or what do you hope to be like 30 years from now? What’s one thing you’d pay absolutely ANYTHING for at an auction?

Six Reasons I Don’t Blame Theo Epstein

October 13, 2011

1. It’s Chicago. Come on. Next to my home city of Boston, Chicago is my favorite. To me, it oozes modern style, success, culture, and chic. I love Boston for its history, old-school charm and attitude, but there is just something so fresh and exciting about the Windy City. Probably because I didn’t grow up there, but still. Theo should fit right in in one of those fancy condos on the river.

2. They put tomatoes, peppers and onions on their hot dogs. Self-explanatory. Fenway Frank, you’re good, but you’re no Chicago Dog.

3. He has a chance to cement his legacy. After winning two World Series as GM of the Red Sox, Theo (we’re on a first-name basis, in case you didn’t know) can basically drop the hammer as one of the greatest GMs ever if he can bring a title to the Cubs. He gets another rabid fan base to sing his praises, and–the best part–he probably gets free drinks for life.

4. It was time to move on. It seemed to me he just wasn’t as passionate about his job as he used to be. The fire burned brightest after the titles in 2004 and 2007. Last winter, after making two monster moves, his attitude seemed to be more “Look at us! Look at how good we’re going to be! Look! Look! LOOK!”. The moves themselves didn’t really pan out in 2011-Adrian Gonzalez was an All-Star, but Carl Crawford never looked comfortable, and is probably grounding out to 2nd base as I write this. A struggling team in a big market is a unique challenge to take on, and he can leave behind some of his mistakes. It’s probably not fair to the owners and fans, but it’s the best for him.

5. His employees sucked when it mattered. I won’t rehash the Red Sox September collapse. It happened. Then some anonymous sources talked about why it happened. Theo and the organization deserved better.

6. Sometimes a change of scenery is the best option. Having grown up in the Boston area, Theo’s job was a childhood dream realized at the tender age of 28. But things are different now…he’s a married father, and the foundation he started with is lightyears away from the team’s current makeup.

What Epstein needed was something Boston could no longer provide: the challenge of the build, not to mention a life that afforded more sanity and room to breathe.

I am thankful for Theo, and what he brought to the Red Sox: an intelligent, reasoned (for the most part) approach to building a successful baseball team, and two World Series titles. I hope Chicago wins under his leadership, because every fan deserves to feel what it feels like for your team to be the best. I have a feeling they will.

Lessons Learned from Jay Cutler

October 11, 2011

For those who didn’t catch Monday Night Football, the Detroit Lions beat the Chicago Bears 24-13, in impressive fashion. Megatron, last week’s Dude of the Week, scored twice. Coincidence? I think not.

The loss overshadowed a great performance by Bears QB Jay Cutler. Cutler, who has been questioned repeatedly for his toughness, attitude, and ability to win big games, passed for 249 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions. Those numbers alone are very good.

But what makes them really good, are what Cutler had to face to put up those numbers. His offensive line struggled to protect the entire night. He was sacked only three times, but he was pressured consistently, having to throw on the run, and even throwing with his left hand twice. His receivers didn’t help either, with a number of drops that killed Bears drives.

Cutler was able to succeed individually, without much protection from his teammates. He had to fight on his own repeatedly, and the team still lost. He needs help. He needs more protection.

It pays off to be vulnerable sometimes. You’re authentic, open and transparent. It can also force you to scramble, improvise and make the best out of a bad situation.

But in football and in other areas, you need people in your corner. You need people to do their job and support you in the face of danger, whether that be Ndamakong Suh, or something more threatening (although Suh is pretty damn threatening).

Who’s in your corner, protecting you? How are they making sure you succeed? Are you in your own corner?

NFL’s C.A.S.E. of the Mondays: Week 5

October 10, 2011

Welcome to the first edition of the NFL’s C.A.S.E of the Mondays!

From the rest of the season, I’ll break down Sunday’s action in four steps, by identifying a Cooler (what I thought was the coolest play/moment), an Animal (the best performer of the week), a Stinkbomb (could be a play, player, person or team), and a moment of Eloquence (my favorite quote from a player or writer after the games).

COOLER: This week’s Cooler goes to the Oakland Raiders, who beat the Houston Texans after the death of their owner, Al Davis, less than 48 hours earlier. Head coach Hue Jackson openly sobbed after the victory. I’m not a Raiders fan, but it’s so special to witness something bigger than football. It puts everything into perspective for the players…they honored the man who brought them together, and held a moment of silence in the locker room afterwards. Well done, Raiders.

ANIMAL: Aaron Rodgers, the fearless leader of the Green Bay Packers (and the MEGatrons), is this week’s Animal. Rodgers completed passes to 12 different players, racked up 396 yards and brought the Pack back from 14 points down to beat the Falcons 25-14. Rodgers is creepin’ Jersey-Shore-Ronnie style on Brady territory as far as QBs I love to watch…his technique is flawless, his teammates love him, and he always says the right things but with just the right amount of bad ass. Whoa-oh, I want some more

(Editorial note: the term “animal” is one of my favorite ways to describe an athlete’s performance. My preference for it grew in high school track and field practice, during which, while coming down the home stretch, teammates would yell, “You’re an ANIMAL!” It’s a devastatingly effective motivational phrase.)

STINKBOMB: It would be way too easy to give the Stinkbomb to the Eagles, losing 31-24 in Buffalo to drop to 1-4. They stunk, but to me, the Giants, their NFC East rivals who beat them two weeks ago, are the worst of the week. If you allow Tavaris Jackson to keep his team close, then get beaten by Charlie Whitehurst and a red zone pick-six when your team is driving for the go-ahead score with less than two minutes left, you got issues.

Question: who is the best team in the NFC East? Try thinking about that for 30 seconds without your brain exploding. They should rename the division the NFC WTF, because I have no idea.

Aside: a reporter friend of mine from college spent the day with a 91-year-old Giants fan who won a contest to get his picture on the game ticket, and watch the coin toss on the field. Good stuff.

ELOQUENCE: From Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel, on the Broncos and quarterback Tim Tebow:

Look, Tebow isn’t as great or as terrible as either side says. His reality is as a somewhere-in-the-middle-work-in-progress. He’s been both lifted up to icon status and torn down on the television analysis shows.

Through it all he’s remained an indomitable personality. The intensity of the criticism would’ve crushed many. You can’t break Tebow though; he’s relentless. Relentlessly driven, relentlessly confident, relentlessly positive, relentlessly relentless. He never stops … working, smiling, lifting, studying, believing.

Personally, I love Tebow as a person, and think he sets a great example for doing all the things Wetzel put above. As a football player, I think he can be successful. As a quarterback, I’m not sure. That’s up for the Broncos to decide.

Dude of the Week: Megatron (not the Transformer)

October 7, 2011

So I’ve spent the last 4+ NFL seasons religiously following Wes Welker, a 5’9″, pesky, quick and lethal wide receiver. He plays his tail off. He is a joy to watch and an example for every undersized, underestimated athlete out there.

But there’s another dude I’m digging this week, and have dug the entire season. He is pretty much the opposite of everything I love about the dude described above. He is every bit of 6’5″, freakishly fast in every way, and indefensible. He has been christened with the nickname I am now kicking myself for not taking as a Twitter handle.

His name is Calvin Johnson, aka Megatron, and he’s my Dude of the Week. Here’s why.

1. He has the most touchdown catches in the NFL since 2008 with 37. Larry Fitzgerald has 33, in case you were wondering.

2. His eight touchdown catches through the first four games are the most in NFL history.

3. He is faster, jumps higher, is stronger, and bad-assier than just about everyone else on the field.

4. He’s YOUNEEK.

5. He makes a man’s game look like child’s play. It’s not even fair. You double team him? Pfft, good luck with that. You triple team him? You’re still going to lose. The Cowboys learned the hard way on Sunday.

6. The Megatron thing. If this actually happens before each game, then every other nickname for every NFL player must be retired.  Nothing is more fitting or oozes more cool than Megatron.

Both guys are uniquely talented and utilize their skills better than anyone. If Johnson is Megatron–demolishing everyone and everything with athleticism–then Wes Welker is, well, uh…a Labrador Retriever. You throw it, he catches/fetches, and runs back to the huddle. Repeatedly, reliably, relentlessly.

I refuse to feel guilty for crushing on Megatron. He brings another dimension to the position that has not been seen, and it should be appreciated. Welker brings sheer determination, toughness and fight…the fact that he’s successful statistically and in helping his team, despite his size, says it all.

So Megatron, transform. Labrador, go fetch. I love it both ways.

PS: For an awesome, in-depth examination of these two players, check out the New York Times piece that I found 3/4 of the way through writing this. I almost stopped, but then continued so I could mention the Labrador Retriever thing. Yes, I had to get a dog reference in. Get used to it, dear reader. Get used to it.

I’m on a horse.

October 2, 2011

I signed up for three horseback riding lessons over the summer, and had my first lesson Wednesday. I’d only been on a horse once in my life, and I loved every minute of it. Although somewhat painful, the experience forced me to take in everything as it bounced by, including that oh-so-pungeant scent. Studies show it stings the nostrils more effectively than Sex Panther, so make of that what you will.

I arrived at the farm a little behind schedule, but the farm’s owner’s teenage son is waiting for me. He then leads me up to the paddocks to meet Scout, my noble steed for the afternoon.

Scout is smallish, mostly brown with white markings. He’s clearly enjoying the fall weather and is a little hesitant to follow us to the riding area. We grab the saddle, martingale, bridle and 126 other items I can’t remember the names of before heading to the main building.

Before I saddle up, Scout needs a proper brushing. I didn’t realize until today why horses need to be brushed so often…to remove dirt and excess hair that could clump together and cause sores that could cause really bad health problems.Scout gets a thorough rubdown before the saddle goes on, in a fashion that I can only compare to securing sails on a sailboat. Leather, buckles, straps and clips galore.

About a half hour after I initially meet him, Scout and I REALLY get to know each other. I listen to the trainer as she discusses how to make him stop and go. I am sitting up straight as an arrow, the balls of my feet digging into the stirrups and my calves flexed. This is not as uncomfortable as it sounds. I find it empowering, my thumbs on tops of the reins, looking directly forward (you’re instructed to look in the direction you want to go…the horse can sense the shift in body weight with a turn of your head. They’re pretty smaht).

Once Scout walks around a bit, and I figure out how hard to kick him to make him go, the trainer begins to explain the trot, and how to post. When a horse trots, the rider is supposed to post, i.e. with the horse’s every bounce, the rider stands up in the stirrups, then sits back down in a rhythmic fashion. I begin to count Scout’s footsteps, 1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2, and get into a groove. Updownupdownupdownupdown. It feels like riding an incredibly large bicycle over a bunch of speed bumps.

This is when things get awesome. Before Scout trotted, the trainer asked if I had been an athlete, since I looked very natural on the horse and had an athletic build. This is the first time in my life I have ever been referred to as athletic. Once Scout started to trot and I fell into rhythm pretty quickly, she said I looked excellent, and she mentioned to another experienced rider how smooth I looked.

“You look like a ballerina! Did you ever do ballet?”

What in the world, I’ve found my calling.

Once the lesson is done, I get off (a lot harder than it sounds) and lead Scout to a stall to get brushed down and remove the 129 items from his back. I walk him back to his home stall, one hand under his chin and the other on the reins. He seems to trust my gentle lead. His eyes are big and kind.

He gets back in his stall and immediately goes for the food, a horse after my own heart. I’m back in the saddle next week, maybe back on Scout, maybe on another horse. All I know is I can’t wait.

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