Thursday, August 21, 2008

RIP Gene Upshaw (1945-2008)

No player in National Football League history had as much impact on both offense and defense as Gene Upshaw; on offense, as the Hall of Fame left guard for the powerful Oakland Raiders of the 1970s ... then in defense, since 1983, of the best interests of the members of the NFL Players Association.

Upshaw died early Thursday morning at the age of 63. He succumbed to pancreatic cancer, which he reportedly didn't even know he had until Sunday. As someone who lost a grandfather to pancreatic cancer in 1993 and visited with him during the bed-ridden last two weeks of his life, I find it unfathomable that anyone could get to within days of death from this disease without knowing something was seriously amiss.

Anyway, Upshaw's legacy is mixed. Few will find any fault with his playing career - 11 Pro Bowls in 16 years - though former Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson came the closest to besmirching Upshaw when he eulogized that Upshaw "never got called for holding."

But Upshaw's second career, as the players' union head, drew more criticism. In recent years, retired "old timers" had become distinctly more vocal about what they perceived as a lack of empathy from Upshaw in the struggle that many former players have had with medical bills and health care. Former Buffalo Bills guard Joe DeLamielleure may have been the loudest, alleging that Upshaw said he "doesn't represent former players."

Upshaw's tenure endured other rough patches, particularly when the owners broke the union - decertified it - in 1987. The players had struck, canceling one week of the season, and ultimately worked without a collective bargaining agreement until 1989. (Makes one wonder what would've happened if the USFL had been able to hold out until this time and capitalize on its rival league's best players suddenly without teams.)

But in the end, NFL players are making infinitely more money than they were in Upshaw's day. To Upshaw's credit, though, according to numerous testimonials given by a litany of former teammates - particularly on Sirius NFL Radio all day Thursday - always stressed benefits over salary.

Upshaw tributes
CBS Sportsline

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Listening to Barack Obama twist and contort around the straightforward questions put to him (parts one, two, three, four, five) at the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., last Saturday night by Pastor Rick Warren, I'm starting to think debate should be an Olympic sport.

It certainly can't be any dumber than some of them that have been included.

This is probably as good a time as any to define what is and isn't a sport. While this may sound like a deep intellectual exercise, I think I've developed a pretty good handle on it over the years, as someone who's covered a number of different sports and athletic endeavors.

First, there is the differentiation between "athlete" and "sport." Cheerleading; absolutely they're athletes, but don't call it a sport ... Bowling; absolutely a sport, not exactly athletes.
The two camps are not mutually inclusive; not all cheerleaders are athletes, not all bowlers aren't.
Simply put, anything that REQUIRES a judge, every time the event is held, to let us know who won is NOT a sport. A sport is an event in which two or more contestants (or teams) vie for a common prize which only one can win. Further, a sport is something for which training (or simply practicing) can enhance one's performance. And I suppose the real difference between a "sport" and a "pastime" like stone-skipping or rock-paper-scissors is the widespread base of fans or competitors. Unfortunately that can include silly sports that adults should be embarrassed to compete in, but they're sports nonetheless.

So, below is the list of this year's Olympic events being held in Beijing.

Aquatics - swimming events that require a judge are not sports, though these folks are outstanding athletes.
-Diving (8)
-Swimming (34)
-Synchronized swimming (2) - the Spanish ladies got in trouble for wanting to wear battery-powered flashing suits ... still want to argue that this is a sport?
-Water polo (2)

Archery (4)

Athletics (47) - track and field

Badminton (5)

Baseball (1) - sickens me to think this is going away in, I think, 2012

Basketball (2)

Boxing (11) - actually the trickiets one for me because it does involve judges, which has resulted in substantial screwing over the years (see Roy Jones Jr. in Seoul 1988), but the judging involves primarily the number of punches landed, which is virtually indisputable ... and the possibility of a knockout, as a normal course of the event, is always a very real possibility (if not a likelihood in amateur boxing)

Canoeing (16) - if this is anything like the kayaking, based on navigating gates; no style points involved here

Cycling (18)

Equestrian (6)

Fencing (10)

Field hockey (2) - just as an aside, this sport strikes me as the hockey equivalent to ice fishing; can't wait for the lakes to thaw to fish, can't wait for them to freeze to play hockey ... a silly sport that men shouldn't play, but a sport nonetheless

Football (2) - SOCCER!!!

Gymnastics (18) - perhaps the most sensitive bunch related to this topic, it's important to draw this distinction; easily the best all-around athletes in the world, but don't tell me that an event predicated on how the participants wear their hair and uniform is a sport

Handball (2)

Judo (14) - similar to boxing, but without the likelihood of knockouts ... to me, they should take the pads off and go MMA-style

Modern pentathlon (2) - running, equestrian, swimming, fencing, shooting

Rowing (14)

Sailing (11)

Shooting (15)

Softball (1)

Table tennis (4) - certainly a sport, but a makeover may not be a bad idea

Taekwondo (8) - see Judo and Boxing

Tennis (4)

Triathlon (2)

Volleyball (4)

Weightlifting (15) - similar to boxing, judges exist solely to determine WHETHER a lift has been made, not HOW WELL it's been done

Wrestling (18) - in pure athleticism, second only to gymnasts

Monday, August 11, 2008

Hats off to Aaron Rodgers in debut

Green Bay's James Jones loses his helmet on a 30-yard touchdown reception against Cincinnati safety Marvin White in the first half Monday in Green Bay.

It's a good thing I didn't play the Brett Favre Drinking Game, or I wouldn't have made it out of the first quarter.

If I'd taken a shot every time Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser and Ron Jaworski uttered Favre's name, it wouldn't have been long before I would've been tanked like George Jones on an international flight.

The Packers opened their preseason with a Monday Night Football date at home against the Cincinnati Bengals. It was the first time since 1993 that someone other than Favre took the opening snap, as Aaron Rodgers shed the red jersey for some live action.

All in all, he looked pretty good. He went 9-of-15 for 117 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT; at least one of those incompletions was a bobble by Donald Driver that should've been caught (and, failing that, probably should've been picked), and the INT was not Rodgers' fault, as it was bobbled into the air by Chris Francies. So while it counts in the stat book, it's irrelevant in terms of Rodgers' development.

Most importantly, Rodgers displayed much of the elusiveness and discipline - such as throwing the ball away rather than forcing something - that he showed flashes of at Dallas last November.

I'm not worried about Rodgers - my primary concern for him is regarding his health - I was more curious to see Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn.

If Brohm's stomach was churning with his first NFL action ... well, then he played like he felt (8-17, INT). He looked lost the whole time he was out there. His INT came on a play where he locked onto his receiver, though the receiver did get hit from behind. It's Brohm's first NFL action, and Papa John's Cardinal Stadium only held about 42,000 fans, so I'll cut him some slack.

But Flynn, on the other hand, was impressive. The former LSU QB appeared decisive, finishing 12-of-21 and guiding the Packers to a late touchdown to pull the team to within 20-17. (Kregg Lumpkin may have played his way off the roster, as the backup RB fumbled in Packer territory while Flynn was driving the team toward a potential game-tying FG.)

The best moment of the game came during Rodgers' stint, when he hit James Jones at the 15 on a 30-yard TD; Jones took a wicked hit and lost his helmet. I believe it was the first Lambeau Leap by a hatless player.

Regarding the Favre saga, Tirico had the observation of the night; that the Packers' front office made a move toward getting its team back.

How true that is, and I would argue that it's taken until now for the team to recover from the Ray Rhodes era (OK, year).

1999 was the team's first season after the departure of Mike Holmgren. Rhodes was renowned as a "players coach," which in his case meant hands-off and letting them run the asylum. This was the beginning of Favre's presumed "ownership" of the team, I believe.

After Rhodes was fired and Mike Sherman hired in his place, then subsequently made GM by the departing Ron Wolf, it makes perfect sense to me that Sherman would've had too much on his plate to interfere with Favre's leadership role.

So when Ted Thompson took over as GM in 2005, his personality wouldn't allow for a player to hold as much sway over a team as Favre's did. It was evident through episodes such as Favre's tantrum regarding Thompson's refusal/failure to bring in Randy Moss in 2007, and his no-nonsense approach to handling Favre's retirement this year, that Thompson felt it would be HIS team, or at least NOT a player's team.

So far, Thompson has made some fine draft picks and the team - the youngest in the league - appears loaded for ... err, "bear" for some time to come.

Bring on the season!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Scorpions rock Ft. McCoy

Scorpions line up for my picture during 'Countdown'. From left are ... Polish guy whose name I'll never be able to remember or pronounce, Rudolf Schenker, Matthias Jabs and Klaus Meine.

Another half-decade, another Scorpions concert down.
After traveling to Green Bay to see these German 'ambassadors of rock' in 2004 - I first saw them April 7, 1991 at the Brown County Arena - a couple of buddies and I journeyed to Fort McCoy, just outside of Sparta, for the Scorps' 2008 visit, which was in support of their Humanity: Hour 1 album released last year.
I even came away with a guitar pick from the Wisconsin-native guitarist (didn't catch his name) for Alice Cooper, who preceded the Scorpions (and followed opening act Hip Kitty). So I'll probably find some small cheapy frame for my ticket stub and guitar pick (which has Alice's picture on it).

We were front and center, about five rows back from the barrier, drained a few pitchers, saw a few fights break out around us ... all in all, a pretty good time.
Alice Cooper came out on stage in his trademark bloodstained tailed tuxedo with a cane he promptly tossed into the crowd a few feet from us. One my buddies was one of about five guys to get at least one hand on it. He got a good solid grip on it and gave it a good rip ... and got only the small plastic cap off the end of it while the rest of it disappeared into the humanity. Oh well, it's a piece of Alice Cooper memorabilia of which few of us can boast.
The guitar pick came flying toward me and bounced around a few sets of hands before dropping toward the ground. I looked down and glimpsed it in the bottom of a folded chair we'd brought, shot for it and gripped the heck out of it. I'd seen what those animals did to people who left drumsticks and other bulky items unguarded; no one was getting my pick.

The Scorpions always have been a bit of an escapist, guilty pleasure for me. While I consider myself a big fan, I'll be the first to admit they're about as paint-by-numbers as a major act can be; their performances playing out like some sort of Rock & Roll High School project and their lyrics conveying all the originality of a sophomore lyric-writing assignment in the English-as-a-second-language department.
So one needs to be willing to suspend some disbelief to be a Scorpions fan. But a fan I am, and rock they did. Even got to snap some pictures with my new camera phone (which I would post here if I could figure out how to send them to myself).

Saturday, August 09, 2008

RIP, Bernie Mac (1957-2008)

Bernie Mac is dead at the age of 50.
The former standup comedian and more recent star of 'The Bernie Mac Show' and 'Mr. 3000' apparently died of complications from pneumonia.
I liked Bernie a lot. His standup was sufficiently filthy, and he seemed to have rounded himself into a more complete actor with some of his work, which included the 'Ocean's Eleven' franchise. My affection for 'Mr. 3000' comes from the fact that he played a Milwaukee Brewer, and that much of the movie was filmed in Milwaukee.

Actor and comedian Bernie Mac dies at age 50
By F.N. D'ALESSIO Associated Press Writer
CHICAGO (AP) -- Bernie Mac, the actor and comedian who teamed up in the casino heist caper "Ocean's Eleven" and gained a prestigious Peabody Award for his sitcom "The Bernie Mac Show," died Saturday at age 50.
"Actor/comedian Bernie Mac passed away this morning from complications due to pneumonia in a Chicago area hospital," his publicist, Danica Smith, said in a statement from Los Angeles.
She said no other details were available and asked that his family's privacy be respected.
The comedian suffered from sarcoidosis, an inflammatory lung disease that produces tiny lumps of cells in the body's organs, but had said the condition went into remission in 2005. He recently was hospitalized and treated for pneumonia, which his publicist said was not related to the disease.
Recently, Mac's brand of comedy caught him flack when he was heckled during a surprise appearance at a July fundraiser for Democratic presidential candidate and fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama.
Toward the end of a 10-minute standup routine, Mac joked about menopause, sexual infidelity and promiscuity, and used occasional crude language. The performance earned him a rebuke from Obama's campaign.
But despite controversy or difficulties, in his words, Mac was always a performer.
"Wherever I am, I have to play," he said in 2002. "I have to put on a good show."
Mac worked his way to Hollywood success from an impoverished upbringing on Chicago's South Side. He began doing standup as a child, and his film career started with a small role as a club doorman in the Damon Wayans comedy "Mo' Money" in 1992. In 1996, he appeared in the Spike Lee drama "Get on the Bus."
He was one of "The Original Kings of Comedy" in the 2000 documentary of that title that brought a new generation of black standup comedy stars to a wider audience.
Mac went on to star in the hugely popular "Ocean's Eleven" franchise with Brad Pitt and George Clooney.
His turn with Ashton Kutcher in 2005's "Guess Who" topped the box office. It was a comedy remake of the classic Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn drama "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" - with Mac as the black dad who's shocked that his daughter is marrying a white man.
Mac also had starring roles in "Bad Santa," "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" and "Transformers."
In the late 1990s, he had a recurring role in "Moesha," the UPN network comedy starring pop star Brandy.
The comedian drew critical and popular acclaim with his Fox television series "The Bernie Mac Show," which aired more than 100 episodes from 2001 to 2006.
The series about a man's adventures raising his sister's three children, won a Peabody Award in 2002. At the time, judges wrote they chose the sitcom for transcending "race and class while lifting viewers with laughter, compassion - and cool."
The show garnered Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for Mac.
"But television handcuffs you, man," he said in a 2001 Associated Press interview. "Now everyone telling me what I CAN'T do, what I CAN say, what I SHOULD do, and asking, `Are blacks gonna be mad at you? Are whites gonna accept you?'"
He also was nominated for a Grammy award for best comedy album in 2001 along with his "The Original Kings of Comedy" co-stars, Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley and Cedric The Entertainer.
In 2007, Mac told David Letterman on CBS' "Late Show" that he planned to retire soon.
"I'm going to still do my producing, my films, but I want to enjoy my life a little bit," Mac told Letterman. "I missed a lot of things, you know. I was a street performer for two years. I went into clubs in 1977."
Mac was born Bernard Jeffrey McCullough on Oct. 5, 1957, in Chicago. He grew up on the city's South Side, living with his mother and grandparents. His grandfather was the deacon of a Baptist church.
In his 2004 memoir, "Maybe You Never Cry Again," Mac wrote about having a poor childhood - eating bologna for dinner - and a strict, no-nonsense upbringing.
"I came from a place where there wasn't a lot of joy," Mac told the AP in 2001. "I decided to try to make other people laugh when there wasn't a lot of things to laugh about."
Mac's mother died of cancer when he was 16. In his book, Mac said she was a support for him and told him he would surprise everyone when he grew up.
"Woman believed in me," he wrote. "She believed in me long before I believed."

All eyes to the AFC East

All of a sudden, this is shaping up to be an oustanding season for AFC East fans.
Chad Pennington, the QB displaced by Brett Favre's arrival with the New York Jets, has signed a two-year contract with the Miami Dolphins. So, to recap ...
g Jets coach Eric Mangini and New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick don't like each other, Belichick feeling like Mangini betrayed him by leaving the Patriots organization, a feeling undoubtedly compounded by Mangini's turning in Belichik for "Spygate" early last season.
g Now, Favre is the new sheriff in town and will face off against the Pats' Tom Brady - the only player to edge Favre for league MVP honors last season - and Brady's new favorite target, Randy Moss - who Favre desperately wanted Green Bay to pick up early in 2007.
g Pennington, who was unceremoniously - and unapologetically - dumped by the Jets once they had Favre in camp, will now QB the Dolphins, who happen to have as their new Vice President of Football Operations one Bill Parcells, who had a messy "divorce" of his own from Belichick.
g Finally, the Buffalo Bills ... well, they don't really have a stake in the Jets vs. Pats vs. Dolphins triumvirate. But they are undergoing some changes this year as they'll be playing at least one home game in Toronto (likely in preparation for the team's permanent departure from Buffalo upon the death of founder/owner Ralph Wilson). Yeah, once ol' man Ralph shuffles off this mortal coil, I'm guessing the NFL will finally actualize its wet dream of NFL football in Los Angeles ... a market that couldn't support the Rams and Raiders and that couldn't care less about getting a team of its own.

Anyway, the East Coast media - ESPN chief among them - will have a football field day this year.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

New Jersey for Favre

And on the seventh day (of August), everyone rested.
The Green Bay Packers officially ended the Brett Favre era by completing a trade to the New York Jets late last night. Favre went to New York in exchange for a conditional draft pick, which we're hearing could range from a first-rounder (if the Jets make the Super Bowl) to a third (if he takes 50 percent of the snaps). It likely will be a second-rounder, which will come if Favre takes 70 percent of the snaps and the Jets make the playoffs.
And with that, the screwing of Aaron Rodgers is complete. Favre has succeeded in turning a significant portion of Packerland against A-Rodg, or at least stubbornly in Favre's favor. It reminds me of what Jim Rome talks about all the time regarding L.A. post-Shaq/Kobe. While Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal won three NBA championships together, the second-largest TV market in the country was not big enough to accommodate their egos, and the Lakers traded O'Neal to the Miami Heat two years ago. Since, L.A. has been split between factions that blame Bryant for their inability to get along, and those who blame O'Neal. According to online polls, it seems a stunning number of Packer fans are still on Favre's side through this whole mess.
Here's why they're wrong:
Favre has put us through this song and dance for at least the past three offseasons; "will he retire or won't he?" He put his own indecisiveness ahead of the team's well-being, as his indecision carried through free agency and the draft each time. If he'd decided to retire in May or so, the team would've been F'd if it had passed on any significant QBs through free agency or the draft.
So this year, it seems Packer management got down to brass tacks with Favre and demanded that he make a decision. He retired. The team proceeded accordingly through free agency and the draft, and he - almost predictably - began to rethink his decision in June. Even then, he only floated feelers about the possibility of returning; he didn't definitively come out and say he wanted to come back. Then all through July he hinted around a return, even appearing on an interview with Appleton native Greta Van Susteren to talk about how unfairly the Packers had treated him.
Really Brett? You were one of the highest-paid QBs in the league, let alone in Packer history. Why don't you ask Javon Walker how unfair the team was to YOU? You started games when you were too injured, or going through too ineffective a period, to be worthy of such an honor. Why don't you ask Don Majkowski how unfair the franchise was to YOU? And when the team drafted Rodgers and you subsequently publicly refused to mentor him, how again was that unfair to YOU?
Favre has always kept Packerland at arm's reach; outside of football-related activities, he only appeared once in the offseason, that for his charity softball game.
And given his performance in two of his last three bad-weather games - at the Bears and at home against the Giants - he played like he'd just gotten off the bus from Kiln, Miss.

Goodbye, Brett. And thanks to the unceremonious way to smeared your legacy on your way out the door ... good riddance.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

For Packers, it's all about family

Just one day until Packers Family Night, which means one thing for sure; given the way things have played out with Brett Favre, they may want to change the name to Dysfunctional Family Night. Divorcees get in free!

Yeah, it's been tough watching this worm turn. To summarize:

Favre tearfully retired on March 6. The Packers moved ahead accordingly through free agency and the draft (picking up QBs Brian Brohm and Matt Flynn on draft day). Then Favre decided sometime in June he might want to play again. By July, that inclination turned stronger and Favre decided that yes he indeed wanted to play.
Problem is, the Packers have moved on, citing the need to see what they have in Aaron Rodgers in order to determine what to do with him as this is his contract year. Rodgers has looked good in spot duty but obviously has never started a game, and actually has had a tough time staying healthy when he has played. (He broke his foot relieving Favre in their 35-0 trouncing at home against the Patriots in 2006, and then even after a much-touted showing against Dallas last November, summarily pulled a hamstring in practice a few days later.)
Many fans, and sports-talking heads, however, are Favre loyalists who insist the veteran is the team's best chance at reaching the Super Bowl.

There are two games to which I point that tell me the Packers and GM Ted Thompson have made the right decision; the Packers' last game at the Bears and the NFC Championship game against the Giants. In both games, the weather was very cold and conditions were generally pretty crappy. In both games, Favre looked like he didn't want to be there, and his play reflected that. In the Bear game, he went 17-of-32 for 153 and two picks, one of which Brian Urlacher returned 85 yards for a score in the 35-7 loss. In the NFC title game, he went 19-of-35 for 236 yards and 2 TDs but also had 2 INTs, one of which famously ended the Packers' threat in overtime and led directly to Lawrence Tynes' game-winning field goal in the 23-20 loss.

Aside from the raw numbers, particularly against the Giants, Favre was practically sprinting back to the Hot Seat between series, stuffing handwarmers into his face mask like he'd discovered some new kind of snack. Meanwhile, his counterpart, Eli Manning, who also hails from the balmier climes of Gulf region, BTW, didn't fair much better statistically. But he DID stand pretty resolutely next to his bare-faced coach on the opposite sideline. So what kind of message does this send to one's team, when its leader goes 3-and-out and then instead of poring over snapshots of defenses, huddles under a parka until it's time to underperform again.

These two games tell me this; that Favre may truly want to play. Right now. But what happens if the Packers tear up their plans in order to accommodate his whims, and then when the weather starts to turn in December, Favre suddenly remembers why he retired in the first place? What happens if they go 8-4 into December and then lose 3 of their last 4 and miss the playoffs? Or if they do make the playoffs and either lose their first game or go 1-1? Basically, anything short of what Favre and his acolytes are promising, a full-steam run at the Super Bowl?

I'll tell you what happens; we'll find ourselves in the exact same spot as this year. And God forbid Favre would have a Pro Bowl-caliber year, which would only "prove" he can still play. Meanwhile, we'd lose Rodgers to free agency. Granted, that might not mean anything ... we simply don't know.

But the team is young enough, and solvent enough - about $30 million under the salary cap, second best in the NFL - that it can afford to take the chance that one of its three young QBs can be the guy to front this franchise for the next 10 years.

Now if we can just get Rodgers out of that No. 12 and back into the 8 he wore at Cal.