Thursday, February 21, 2019

Atlanta 2019; Brooklyn 1947

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


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Another NFL season has ended.  March Madness is over a month away.  The NHL playoffs seem a far off oasis. The NBA hasn’t reached its All-Star break.  Pitchers and catchers have made travel reservations, but none have yet reported to spring training.

Oh baby it’s cold outside…and for sports fans the post-Super Bowl psychological swoon is biting hard.  If only B.B. King or Muddy Waters had of put sports fans’ blues to song. 

Perhaps it’s best they didn’t.  An anthem would validate the unbecoming sympathy grab and distract from what the uncluttered sports calendar is: an invitation to reflect.

And with that…February thoughts from Atlanta, post-Super Bowl LIII... 

The first thing that comes to mind is African American History Month.  And the first name?  Jackie Robinson: the most important player in MLB history and arguably the most important athlete ever.  Robinson would have turned 100 years old on January 31.  In April 1947, he courageously took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first African American to play in the major leagues. 

The racist vitriol that Robinson endured – verbal assaults, hate mail and death threats - is shameful.  But he kept playing – with uncompromising dignity and exceptional skill.  Opinions changed and other African American players soon followed – Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks, to name a few.  Eventually (a word too often used to describe the pace of social progress), the Supreme Court found school segregation to be unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 ended segregation in public places and made discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin unlawful.  Robinson isn’t the lone impetus behind this progress, but he gave us a strong nudge toward a better America in Brooklyn in 1947.          

I thought about Robinson, and the influence one exceptional person can have, when contemplating the latest Pro Football Hall of Fame class and the Super Bowl participants.  As something of a Hall of Fame induction speech junkie, I’m fascinated by this one common component: a coach, teacher, parent, guardian or spouse, without whose influence said player may not have played a down in the NFL. 

Two stories that stick with me have local connections.  During his induction speech, former Kansas City Chief defensive back and Washington coach Emmitt Thomas talked about his mother’s death when he was eight and credited his grandfather with being the reason he made it – in life and football.  The other is former ‘Skins offensive lineman Russ Grimm.  While attending the University of Pittsburgh, Grimm, then a linebacker, was “encouraged” by head coach Jackie Sherrill to move to offensive line after several players graduated.  Grimm didn’t initially like it, but stayed the course and became the very best player on the most famous offensive line in NFL history – The Hogs.

As for the Super Bowl participants, there are two profound “if my career hadn’t intersected with this person” stories.  Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are both future first ballot Hall of Famers.  Could one have been successful without the other?  Sure, but together they are the greatest coach and quarterback ever. 

The Rams may have something similar brewing.  Three years ago, under then head coach Jeff Fisher, rookie QB Jared Goff was 0-7 as a starter and posted a putrid 63.8 quarterback rating.  He was the next great quarterback bust.  In two seasons under current head coach Sean McVay, Goff’s quarterback rating has been over 100 and he’s been to two consecutive Pro Bowls.     

We all have our extraordinary people, the ones we would lavish with accolades and credit during our own “Hall of Fame induction speeches”.  We also have the opportunity to be that extraordinary person, the one that enables something grand, for others (and to receive credit in their “Hall of Fame speeches”).  That hardly makes us worthy of a Jackie Robinson comparison, a man who influenced a nation and millions of people, but maybe by positively impacting one life and one person and making the world just a little bit better in the most modest way, we keep his spirit alive.

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