Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Opportunity’s Unexpected Knock

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com)

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

“One of the jobs of a coach is ‘Let’s worry about today’…down the road, I think we’re going to be a very good team.”

Ohio State University head football coach Urban Meyer spoke those words during an interview on ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike In The Morning” show…on August 20, 2014.  It sounded like a bunch of coach speak, obligatory and desperate dribble offered to placate restless fans and to reassure a roster of young men facing a season in peril.  The thing is, only blind homers or those too young to know any better believe it.  Whether Meyer did or not matters little now; he’s officially a prophet, a football psychic. 

A season-ending shoulder injury to Braxton Miller, Ohio State’s all-everything starting quarterback prompted that August interview with Meyer.  Miller had led the Buckeyes to an Orange Bowl victory the prior season and was considered a serious candidate for the Heisman Trophy in what would be his senior year.  That was until an innocuous pass during non-contact drills shredded his surgically repaired right shoulder.  With four new starters on the offensive line and lacking the prior season’s leading rushing and wide receiver – consequences of graduations – Ohio State seemed particularly ill prepared to absorb the loss of its best player.  But the cosmic allocation of poor fortune never considers its victim’s circumstances.  Ohio State would just have to deal with the unfortunate and likely fatal extraction of Miller from its lineup. 

True to his word (as if he had a choice), Meyer penciled in backup QB J.T. Barrett, a redshirt freshman.  True to the reality of the situation, the Buckeyes struggled early, losing their second game by two touchdowns to a mediocre Virginia Tech team.  Surely that was it.  Season over.  Ah, but back to Meyer’s words: “…down the road I think we’re going to be a good team.”  The loss to Virginia Tech proved to be their last; Miller’s injury, however, wasn’t their last brush with adversity.   

As is well known now, Barrett broke his ankle in the season finale against Michigan, necessitating the introduction of Cardale Jones, the third string quarterback, to the nation in the middle of a potential championship run.  Jones led the Buckeyes to a 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin the conference championship game, a 42-35 victory over top-ranked Alabama in the national semifinal and a 42-20 defeat of Oregon in the national championship game.

Of course he did.  Of course some unknown kid, buried deep on the depth chart in August and thrust into a stressful, seemingly no-win situation, stepped onto the sport’s biggest stage, played out of his mind and rescued Ohio State’s fairytale ending from misfortune’s zealous clutches.

I’m trying to think of a comp (real estate term) – a comparable player.  I got nothing…all blanks.  In all my years of watching sports I cannot recall anyone being given such an improbable opportunity and seizing it so completely.  Jones started the season with little expectation of seeing a snap.  Instead he took the most important snaps of the season with no advanced warning and after being on ice (i.e. holding a clipboard) for months.  He had no learning curve, no chance to fail or to grow into the role.  It was “here, Cardale, it’s yours.  Good luck.  Everyone’s counting on you…the entire season is on the line.”

Jones stepped in, played with a veteran’s poise and delivered the national championship.  You can’t do that without consistent focus and preparation – and uncommon amounts of both for a 20-something college student who had thrown all of two passes prior to this season.  Talent isn’t enough, not on that stage and not against the teams Jones and the Buckeyes faced. 

The thin line between success and failure – in life and in sports – is often as simple as being prepared to capitalize on opportunities…and Jones is the latest supporting evidence.  In a sports world that’s quick to move on – to the next event, player or season – that is what I’ll remember most about Cardale Jones, the third quarterback who remained ready and able to be his team’s savior and make a prophet out of his coach.

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