Monday, January 5, 2015

Washington’s All-Star Giver

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Years ago a colleague convinced me that sports curses were real.  His trek to Southern Maryland began on a different continent – Africa, his place of birth – and included a long stay in New York City where he became an avid Yankees fan (unfortunate but understandable).  His story was fascinating, particularly as compared to my journey to the land of blue crabs and stuffed ham – a tale that starts and ends with a hearty “born here.”

The improbable intersection of our lives occurred in 2003, a time when the Yankees were perennial contenders and the Boston Red Sox, their sworn enemy, hadn’t won a World Series since 1918, the year they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees and spawned the “Curse of the Bambino.” 

As fate and a good story would have it, the Yanks and Sox played for the American League pennant in 2003.  The teams split the first six games, but my buddy’s confidence never wavered.  “Ronnie, listen, the Red Sox can’t win…they are cursed”, he would say.  Sure enough, in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 7, an unlikely hero – Aaron Boone – hit a series-clinching home run for the Yanks.  

It was the final chapter of Ruth’s alleged curse – the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 - but it opened my mind to the possibility of dark forces enveloping a team or, in the case of D.C. sports, an entire region.  D.C. is cursed.  The evidence - the Nationals’ recent playoff failures, the spring collapses of the Capitals and the ‘Skins’ two-decade-long organizational death spiral - is overwhelming.  I’m spooked.  When optimistic forces – think Robert Griffin III, Stephen Strasburg and Alex Ovechkin – attempt to clear the gloom, I avoid acknowledgement for fear of provoking the gods and accelerating the return of hopeless suffering.  It sounds nuts - unless you’re a fan too.

But I’m going to risk it to talk about John Wall. 

Wall, 24, was drafted first overall by the Wizards – another lovable D.C. loser - in 2010.  He was athletically gifted but lacked a consistent jump shot and often played out-of-control.  Four years later, there isn’t another point guard in the NBA I’d rather have. 

During a period (their early 20s) when Ovechkin was in playboy mode and toured D.C. in exotic sports cars and Griffin was selling athletic shoes and sandwiches and pushing his brand, Wall has, to his immense credit, quietly worked on his game far removed from the headlines and intoxicating distractions.  He’s the rare elite talent with a blue-collar work ethic.  He is a no frills gym rat and the consummate teammate.  For a town mired in Griffin-drama, Wall is the antidote. 

Wall’s dedication and throwback approach is paying dividends.  Through last Saturday, the Wizards are 19-6, second in the Eastern Conference, and Wall is fueling their ascension.  The kid has grown into a bona fide star with an all-around game.  Wall can score the basketball and play lock-down defense.  But what I love most is his unselfishness on the offensive end.  He currently ranks second in the league with 10.8 assists per game.  With Wall, every possession is the season of giving.

But Wall’s play didn’t convince me to acknowledge his greatness; Miyah Telemaque-Nelson did.  Wall - again with no fanfare or grandstanding - befriended Miyah, a pediatric cancer patient last year and facilitated a meeting between her and Nicki Minaj.  He wrote her name on his shoes before every game.  It’s the sort of story that slips through the newsreel these days and, frankly, one I had missed until the heart-wrenching end. 

Miyah died on 8 December.  She was six.  Six.  Later that night, an emotionally drained Wall wept during a post-game interview.  The All-Star athlete exposed an All-Star heart.  It was a side and a depth of Wall I had never seen.  Yet despite Wall’s overwhelming loss, I couldn’t help but think of the joy he had given to a little girl whose time on Earth was far too short.  It was an off-the-court assist of sorts…and his greatest to date.  Giving > Receiving: John Wall the point guard…and the person…gets it.

Before 2012, There Was 1998

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Not so long ago – April 2012, to be exact - quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III lit up the NFL Draft as the first and second overall picks of Indianapolis and Washington, respectively.  Luck’s star had been on the NFL’s radar for some time and his all football, low profile demeanor seemed a perfect backfill for Peyton Manning.  Griffin, meanwhile, took college football by storm in 2011.  He won the Heisman Trophy and through the draft process displayed an electric confluence of athletic skills that was part Michael Vick, part Aaron Rodgers.  Luck and Griffin were different players and personalities, but their collective talents earmarked them as destiny’s darlings.  Pro Bowls were a lock.  Super Bowls were a distinct possibility.  And a decade-plus of jaw-dropping moments was a virtual certainty.

The brochure was half right.  Luck is a star and, barring injury, is on an arc to the Hall of Fame.  Griffin…yeah.  The gory details are well known and the dumpster fire continues to burn.  Griffin’s precipitous fall from grace would have been implausible two years ago when he won the 2012 NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year award – but it shouldn’t have been.  Highly touted college quarterbacks flop in the NFL all the time and their collapse is often swift and complete.  So while the details are unique to this situation, the fact that Luck has boomed and Griffin has busted is routine.  In fact, the widening divergence between their careers isn’t even close to the greatest chasm of the last twenty years, much less league history.  

Before Luck and Griffin in 2012, there were the top two selections in the 1998 NFL Draft: quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf.  Manning, the NFL’s all-time leader in touchdown passes and one of the league’s classiest players, is concluding his seventeenth season and is poised for another Super Bowl run.  Leaf, his one-time peer and talent equivalent, was just released…from prison. 

Emotional immaturity, injuries and poor play ended Leaf’s career in 2002 at the age of 26.  After the NFL, he earned his degree from Washington State and eventually returned to football as a college coach.  It appeared to be a commendable soft landing from a disastrous NFL tour.  However, prescription drug addiction soon shattered his post-NFL life.  Since 2009, he has been indicted multiple times on various burglary and drug possession charges in the states of Montana and Texas.  He is now out on parole and the next negative headline seems an unfortunate certainty. 

Excuses shouldn’t be made for Leaf.  His story is a human infomercial for the consequences of poor decisions.  He was a complete boob during his NFL tenure - spoiled, arrogant and disrespectful.  If Manning is the poster boy for the link between hard work and dedication to craft and success, then Leaf is the counterpoint, the warning label and the disclaimer. 

The bright lights and visceral criticism of the NFL’s fishbowl revealed fissures in Leaf’s psychological makeup but his biography is now less about a failed quarterback and more about a life in the balance.  He isn’t just a football punch line anymore.  He’s nothing to laugh at or dismiss.  His problems are undoubtedly real, beyond his control and, in a society struggling with the proliferation of prescription drugs and the addictive properties of painkillers, not uncommon. 

The band Hole’s song “Celebrity Skin”, a raw account of fame’s perils, contains the following lyrics: “Oh look at my face; my name is might have been; my name is never was; my name’s forgotten.”  Ryan Leaf is an NFL “might have been” and “never was” but he isn’t forgotten.  He is a famous and sadly recurring example of the destructive powers of addiction and the fragility of success.  He is also a challenge, in this holiday season, to be more sensitive to human struggles and appreciative of our personal successes.  While navigating life, every person strives to emulate Peyton Manning and seeks to avoid troubles like Ryan Leaf’s.  The truth is, a little bit of both quarterbacks – the excellence of Manning and the flaws of Leaf – resides within each of us.  Be well.