The Many Sides of Arkansas Sports Legend Marcus Monk: An Exclusive

It’s a weekday morning in early September. Why is Razorback legend Marcus Monk driving to a place in southwest Arkansas that translates to “skull crusher”?

No, the 28-year-old Monk isn’t trying to resurrect his football career by challenging All-Pro NFL defensive end J.J. Watt to a “Hunger Games”-style wrestling match. Nor is he heading to Cossatot River High School to raft the equally dangerous whitewaters nearby that inspired the French to call it “cassé-tête.”

Instead Monk, Arkansas’ all-time leader in touchdown catches, is traveling Interstate 49 to help with a camp his former high school basketball coach organized. The coach, Kevin Kyzer, coached Monk more than a decade ago at East Poinsett County High School in Lepanto, Ark. Monk was one of the most decorated athletes the area has ever produced, a top-100 prep basketball player heading into a senior year in which he averaged 20.8 points, 16.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 3.8 blocks and 2.5 steals a game while leading EPC to a 35-1 record along with its first Class AAA state title.

Monk lives in Fayetteville, where he starred for the Hogs as a wide receiver 2004-07, but firmly believes he owes time and support to the people he knew growing up in northeast Arkansas. Most every year since he graduated college, he’s organized benefit games or camps to help raise funds for school supplies for elementary schools in Poinsett County. “Education is really important. It can change lives,” says Monk, an EPC valedictorian. “I do it to try to show my appreciation and try to give back.”

This mindset – whether applying to community, team or family – isn’t new. In 2004, he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “The first thing I’m going to do if I go pro in either football or basketball is to make sure my mother and Malik [his 6-year-old brother] are taken care of. I’m going to pay her back for all she’s done for me and give this town someone to be proud of.”

Since 2012, all three Monks have moved from northeast to northwest Arkansas for better job and education opportunities.  Whether they will remain there two years from now is something millions of college basketball fans around the nation want to know.

                                                                                      ***

Heading into summer of 2007, the storybook ending seemed so close: The millions of dollars, the endorsement deals, the wonderful new home mom always deserved. Monk been been a dual sport athlete as a freshman, playing spare minutes in basketball but announcing himself as a star in football. He had a junior season for the ages, helping Arkansas soar to 7-1 conference mark and the SEC title game while tallying 50 catches, 962 yards and a school-record 11 touchdowns. At 6-6, and 220 pounds, Monk was plenty physically imposing. Mix in his uncanny field awareness, high IQ and soft hands, and he had the makings of a top NFL prospect.

Then, during an August practice, Monk suffered a knee injury that required two surgeries and knocked him out of the first seven games. He returned to finish his senior season, but was never the same on the football field. The Chicago Bears drafted Monk in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL Draft, but he didn’t make the team. Stints with the New York Giants and Carolina Panthers also didn’t pan out. “I did get cut from the game I love, but I knew that I had my education and I could pretty much do whatever I wanted to as long as I put my mind to it,” he says. “I’ve always known that you can’t play forever. One advantage I did have was I stayed on top of my schoolwork.”

Indeed, Monk graduated college with a business degree in three and a half years. He came back in the late 2008 to take graduate courses in real estate and finance, and to give basketball another shot – this time primarily to keep in shape for NFL tryouts. Nearly four years after he’d last played, Monk rejoined the Hog basketball program. While taking graduate courses in real estate and finance, Monk averaged 4.5 points and 3.1 rebounds in the 2008-09 season. He helped the Razorbacks knock off No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 7 Texas at home.

Behind the scenes, he was a valuable leader for a young squad that included six freshmen and was at one point down to 10 scholarship players. “He brought that kind of calm, cool and collected mindset and attitude and you could tell he was the most mature one out there,” recalls Nick Mason, one of the six freshmen. “He was talking to guys in the locker room, making sure everybody had their grades straight – or whatever problems they had. I can remember him talking to guys – especially the freshmen – about girls, if they were having girl problems.”

Monk also developed respect for then-Razorback head coach John Pelphrey that developed into friendship. He said Pelphrey has been “a mentor,” checking in with him while he was playing professional basketball in Germany in 2010-2012. They remained friends when Monk briefly moved back to northeast Arkansas, and started helping train his friend, former Razorback and NBA player Ronnie Brewer, Jr. John Pelphrey is now a University of Florida assistant coach. When he calls now, it’s to check up on Monk as well as his younger brother Malik.

The Monks near their northeast Arkansas home.

The Monks near their northeast Arkansas home. Courtesy Marcus Monk

Malik Monk, a 16-year old junior at Bentonville High School, is one of the nation’s most highly recruited basketball players. Almost every major program, including Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina and Indiana, has offered him a scholarship. Pelphrey, who met Malik when he was a boy tagging behind Marcus Monk at Bud Walton Arena, now recruits him.

The bigger star Malik becomes, the more Marcus is known as Malik’s older brother as opposed to Marcus’ younger brother. This kind of perception change doesn’t disorient Marcus in the least. In his eyes, his role is crystal clear: Help protect Malik’s time, ensure he maintains his grades, allow him to be as much of a kid as possible. This means it’s often Marcus, or his mother, who take calls from college coaches and media on behalf of Malik.

While Marcus is a Razorback in so many ways, he doesn’t intend to sway Malik toward his own alma mater. The Monks monksare weighing which programs best suited to provide Malik both with the start of a good college education as well as what Malik hopes is a one-year preparation for a successful NBA career. Marcus is able to provide Malik – along with Malik’s summer league teammates – with advice borne of his own experience of being a highly recruited student-athlete. “I get a chance to spend time with my brother, but I also have 12 other guys that I’m responsible for and I’m a big brother to them as well.”

Last basketball season, Marcus helped mentor some of the current Razorback basketball players. He was finishing a Master’s of Business Administration degree at the University of Arkansas and volunteer assisted with the team, helping in various ways such as cutting film and devising scouting reports. The experience was valuable for any possible future college coaching. It also allowed him to spend more time with his cousin, Rashad “Ky” Madden, also a Lepanto, Ark. native.

Madden, a senior guard, is the team’s leading scorer and its most experienced player. Between Malik and Marcus in age, he is essentially like a middle brother. All three frequently talk with each other. “That’s like my little brother,” Marcus says of Madden. “I love him. I’ve been knowing him a long, long time. We’re from the same place, the same neighborhood … It’s more personal between me and Ky.”

Just as Malik prepares for a transition into the world of college basketball, and Ky prepares for a potential pro basketball career, Marcus too finds himself at a crossroads. In May, he graduated with an MBA and stays connected to his classmates for potential job leads. He spent much of this summer on the road with Malik and his summer travel team, and in September was working on the launch of his brother’s Web site. He says he doesn’t yet know if he will stay in northwest Arkansas for the next year or two, although he does want to be around Malik as he finishes high school.

Some see Marcus settling into a full-time job in northwest Arkansas as a sign that Malik would be a Razorback. Marcus says just as he and Malik haven’t yet settled on an eventual college destination, nor has he decided what career path he’ll venture down next.

“I’m in a transition stage,” he says. Whether a job in training, coaching, business or something else, “if something appears that is hard for me to turn down, then I definitely have to consider it.” But, he adds, “as far as priorities, my family is first come.”

Marcus Monk is no longer the spectacular receiver who seemingly could catch anything thrown his way. Instead, these days, Marcus Monk the giver pursues something much higher.

The above article originally published in the October/November issue of 2njoy magazine.
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LeBron James Enters Savior 2.0 Era

Like Dr. J, Bird, Magic and Jordan before him, there is a timeless quality to LeBron James’ game. Future stars will be bigger, stronger and quicker, but we won’t again see his specific combo of skills, flow and panache.

There is also a timelessness in his life story, a tale of hardship, perseverance and camaraderie which seems to stay fresh no matter how many times it’s retold. With every twist of his career, each rendition gains an extra layer of meaning. The latest example, a 30-minute TV show, premiered Sunday night on Disney X D. It highlights the joyous reception James received from his hometown community of Akron, Ohio as he enters a Savior 2.0 Era leading the nearby Cavaliers from conference bottom dwellers to championship contender.

The show, the first in a series named “Becoming” about the lives of popular athletes, spotlights the neighborhoods in which LeBron grew up and his alma mater of St. Vincent – St. Mary High School. Much of the material will be familiar to LeBron fans – the hard-knock beginnings in a single-parent home, early dominance on the AAU circuit and finding lifelong friends there who would form the nucleus of one of the greatest prep basketball dynasties ever.

While the themes are familiar, it appears this is the first time some of the footage shown from James’ elementary and middle school days has been made public. It helps the video was co-produced by ESPN Films and James’ own Springhill Production Company, which has an office in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. “Becoming” is meant to appeal to younger viewers, but this show’s sharp production quality and rare footage make it worth any NBA fans’ while.

While this episode – which premieres on ESPN November 7 – is the latest LeBron bio, there have been a handful of accounts which involved direct access to James and his inner circle.

Each one offers something new – fragments of anecdotal gold not found in the others that are worth recalling as James and the Cavaliers start the 2014-15 season as the feel-good story of the year. Here are some of the most interesting:

Book: The Rise of a Star: LeBron James

Author: David Lee Morgan, Jr.

Publication Date: 2003

###

One reason James became so good, so fast, was that a former Division I head coach pushed him early on. Keith Dambrot, former coach at Central Michigan, was James’ high school head coach during his freshman and sophomore years.

Less known is that a woman coached James during his freshman season. Amy Sherry, a two-time MAC Player of the Year from Kent State, was one of two paid assistant coaches on Dambrot’s staff. It has taken 15 years, but the NBA is now following suit. In August, the San Antonio Spurs hired Becky Hammon as the league’s first full-time female assistant coach.

###

It seemed everyone wanted a piece of LeBron his senior year. He got calls seeking his presence from the likes of The Late Show with David Letterman, The Tonight Show , Good Morning America and Live with Regis & Kelly. A packed schedule meant LeBron often had to say “no.”

Comedian Martin Lawrence sought more than just a guest spot, according to Morgan, Jr., then an Akron Beacon Journal reporter. Lawrence’s production company called about a movie Universal Studios would finance. Although LeBron hadn’t yet announced he was skipping college, Lawrence’s movie would star him as a baller going directly into the NBA from high school. “Even LeBron laughed about this one.”

###

Pre-NBA LeBron was a beast of historic proportions in both high school and the summer circuits. Among his most impressive feats came after his sophomore season, when he dominated two age groups at Pittsburgh’s prestigious Five-Star Camp.

He excelled in his own age group and the one for rising seniors, playing in both leagues’ All-Star games. “No one has ever played in both before LeBron, no one has done it since, and I doubt if anyone will ever do it again,” said Howard Garfinkel, the camp’s longtime director.

Until that point, Garfinkel had seen about 125 players from his league eventually make the NBA. James was in the mix for best prep player he’d ever seen, but another No. 23 edged him out. “I’m not going to say he’s the best, because I saw Calvin Murphy score 34 points in an All-Star game one night, then have to travel to Allentown, where he scored 62 points in 29 minutes the next night in a major All-Star game. On the next level, you have Wilt Chamberlain and Connie Hawkins.”

Murphy, a 5’9” dynamo who would go on to star for the Houston Rockets in the 1970s, became the first Hall of Famer to wear No. 23 throughout his career.

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Razorbacks’ Latest Baseball Signees Nationally Ranked No. 2

Little Rock native Blake Wiggins bypassed the MLB for a shot to make history with the Hogs. He's off to a good start.

Little Rock native Blake Wiggins bypassed the MLB for a shot to make history with the Hogs. He’s off to a good start.

Chances are the University of Arkansas baseball team’s most recent recruiting class is better than your most recent recruiting class.

Want proof? The class, which consists of 20 players (14 true freshmen and six junior college transfers) has now been nationally ranked at No. 2 by Perfect Game, No. 4 by Baseball America and No. 16 by Collegiate Baseball.

“We held our class together maybe the best since I’ve been here,” head coach Dave Van Horn told the UA Sports Information department. “We have a lot of talent coming in and plenty of returners who can help them gain some experience and they can push each other a little bit.”

Four players in the class were selected in the 2014 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft and put their pro careers on hold to attend the University of Arkansas and become Razorbacks. Outfielder Luke Bonfield (Skillman, N.J.) was selected in the 21st round by the New York Mets, first baseman and right-handed pitcher Keaton McKinney (Ankeny, Iowa) was taken in the 28th round by the New York Mets, infielder and catcher Blake Wiggins (Little Rock, Ark.) was a 36th round selection by the Philadelphia Phillies and Nathan Rodriguez (Yorda Linda, Calif.) was taken in the 39th round by the Colorado Rockies.

In addition to the drafted newcomers, Arkansas welcomes outfielder Jack Benninghoff (Overland Park, Kan.), infielder Matt Campbell (Chesapeake, Va.), right-handed pitcher Cannon Chadwick (Paris, Texas), left-handed pitcher Ryan Fant (Texarkana, Texas), infielder Cullen Gassaway (Bedford, Texas), infielder Keith Grieshaber (St. Louis, Mo.), right-handed pitcher Mark Hammel (Cypress, Texas), infielder Max Hogan (Belton, Texas), infielder Rick Nomura (Waipahu, Hawaii), left-handed pitcher Kyle Pate (Fayetteville, Ark.), right-handed pitcher Jonah Patten (Indianapolis, Ind.), catcher Tucker Pennell (Georgetown, Texas), left-handed pitcher Sean Reardon (Smithville, Mo.), infielder Kevin Silky (Dublin, Calif.), outfielder Darien Simms (Spring, Texas) and catcher/first baseman Chad Spanberger (Granite City, Ill.).

The Razorbacks are one of just seven teams in the country to advance to each of the last 13 NCAA Tournaments as they look to make it 14 straight during the 2015 season. Arkansas has appeared in seven College World Series, five Super Regionals and 27 NCAA Tournaments in program history.

Arkansas opens the season at home on Feb. 13 against North Dakota, one of 35 games at Baum Stadium during the 2015 season. The Razorbacks will play 22 games against 2014 NCAA Tournament teams, including eight opponents that appeared in NCAA Regional finals in 2014, three that played in NCAA Super Regionals and two that advanced to the College World Series.

The above is a modified press release from the UA.


Bo Pelini on ESPN and SEC: “I don’t think that kind of relationship is good for college football”

Evin Demirel:

Nebraska’s head coach was asked about the strength of the SEC West, which has an unprecedented four teams in the Top 5 this week. “It’s hard to say because you just don’t see, unfortunately, in this day and age, a lot of crossovers,” he said. “So you don’t get a lot to make that decision on, to be able to compare and contrast.”

Apparently, Pelini forgot the four games below – all from this season. The SEC West is 4-0 against teams from the Big 10, ACC, Big 12 and Pac 12. Two of the vanquished have proven to be especially good – Big 12 leading Kansas State (which beat Oklahoma) and West Virginia (which beat Baylor) squads.

Alabama 33 West Virginia 23

LSU 28 Wisconsin 24

Arkansas 49 Texas Tech 28

Auburn 20 Kansas State 14

Originally posted on The Big Lead:

Image (1) Bo-Pelini-Nebraska.jpg for post 241347

ESPN is the major media outlet covering college football. With the SEC Network, ESPN has a clear vested interest in the SEC being perceived as the superior conference. Bo Pelini, coach of a 5-1 team outside the SEC, is not a fan of that partnership.

From his press conference.

“I don’t think that kind of relationship is good for college football. That’s just my opinion. Anytime you have a relationship with somebody, you have a partnership, you are supposed to be neutral. It’s pretty hard to stay neutral in that situation.”

To be fair, ESPN also has a clear financial interest in the ACC, the Big 12, the Pac 12 and the Big Ten being perceived as awesome (or at least notable) too. The WWL has regular season deals with those conferences, not to mention the playoff and miscellaneous bowl games to promote.

We’ll see what happens should the…

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Matt Stinchcomb: Arkansas’ 2014 Offense is a Gridiron “Valhalla”

References to Norse mythology’s Great Hall of the Slain, Residence of the Supreme God Odin, do not every day percolate the chatter of the Sports Talk with Bo Mattingly afternoon radio show based in Northwest Arkansas.

But not every day does Matt Stinchcomb, a former All-American tackle at Georgia who analyzes college football for the SEC Network, chime in with Bo about the way Arkansas’ offense is grounded in its historically massive offensive line.

“That offense is like Valhalla,” Stinchcomb told Bo earlier this week. “When we all get off this mortal coil, anybody who was ever unathletic enough to have [had to play] offensive line, that’s what we would spend eternity doing – is just running double-team blocks and just cramming tailbacks down a defense’s throat. It’s an incredibly explosive offense.”

Stichcomb was speaking to Bo about Saturday afternoon’s Georgia-Arkansas game in Little Rock. “Arkansas, I’m convinced, is a very good team and may better than any team in the SEC East. That’s what I think we’ll find out this Saturday.”


Razorbacks’ 2015 Schedule Portends Death of Little Rock Tradition

Sign of the End Times

Sign of the End Times

“This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but with a whimper.”

- T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

 

Yesterday, Arkansas released its 2015 schedule. Also released: Any enduring hope among Razorback fans that Little Rock and its no-longer-grand-enough War Memorial Stadium will remain a second home.

The process of ushering the doddering old man out the door has been ongoing for about 15 years now, ever since Fayetteville’s Reynolds Razorback Stadium expanded to 72,000 from 51,000 seats – meaning Hogs leave significant money on the table every time it plays a home game away from its home campus at the 55,000-seat War Memorial Stadium instead.

Games at War Memorial have dropped from three or four a year, to two a year – and starting this season through 2018 – one a year. This Saturday’s game in Little Rock against No. 10 Georgia, the SEC East frontrunner, is a marquee matchup with enough significance to somewhat soften the blow for some War Memorial traditionalists. It should be a sellout.

Not so with next year’s Little Rock game against the University of Toledo, a Mid-American Conference program that has lost all three games it has ever played against SEC competition. This game, which marks the first time since 1947 (vs. North Texas) Arkansas hasn’t played a conference home game in Little Rock, is the latest sign Razorback leaders are phasing out the home-away-from-home tradition altogether.  Given the opponent isn’t even in a Power 5 conference, “how many people will pony up $55 or more per person just to see Arkansas vs Toledo?,” Arkansas Fight’s Doc Harper asked.  “I can envision more people than usual staying on the golf course.”

Some fans may feel remorse Little Rock’s once central place in the Razorbacks’ schedule has been knocked down so many rungs, but they shouldn’t forget the main motives behind this demotion – “brand building” and revenue generation – are the same reasons Little Rock was used as a second home in the first place. In the early 1930s, Arkansas leaders knew if their program was ever going to become nationally competitive it needed to have more support from its entire state, to stop losing the likes of Ken Kavanaugh (Little Rock High grad) to LSU and Don Hutson (Pine Bluff High) and Paul Bryant (Fordyce High) to Alabama. So Arkansas leaders, like leaders at Alabama, Mississippi State and Oregon State, decided to take their team away from its rural campus and parade it in a bigger, in-state city in front of more media and fans.

Oregon did the same by traveling from Eugene to Portland. Washington State traveled from Pullman to Spokane, while Ole Miss traveled to Jackson and Auburn traveled to Birmingham. Each of the programs pulled out of these metro areas at different times but one overriding reason is the same as in Arkansas’ case – the campus’ stadium simply outgrew the metro area’s stadium.

Across the U.S., examples of home away from home traditions are legion.

This especially came to the fore in the late 1980s as Auburn jockeyed to stop playing Iron Bowl games in Birmingham, as I wrote in the New York Times last  November: “Auburn leaders increasingly supported moving the game from the 75,000-seat Legion Field to the university’s expanded Jordan-Hare Stadium, which could hold 85,000. Housel [a former Auburn athletic director] said it got to the point that even Auburn fans living in Birmingham were so ready to drive the 120 miles to campus, they would ‘refuse to buy tickets to the Auburn-Alabama game if it was in Birmingham.’”

Every team, as you see in the chart below, has dropped its dual home arrangement in the last 50 years. And programs like Oregon, Virginia Tech, Alabama and Auburn have gone on to contend for or win national championships since the drop. Yes, War Memorialists, it’s true: Arkansas has become unique in the sense that it appears to be the only program still hanging on to this practice.

But is that something to be proud of?

It’s better to be proud of winning at a high level, a la Oregon, Auburn and Alabama. But clinging to War Memorial hasn’t recently helped Arkansas get to this level. Its function was served in helping lift Arkansas to the nationally elite level it enjoyed in much of the 1960s through 1980s. It will not serve in getting Arkansas to the level Jeff Long, Bret Bielema et al expect it to reach in the later 2010s and 2020s.

In the 1930s and 40s, the smartest rural programs traveled 30, 50, 100, 150 miles to the in-state stadia that would give their teams the most bang for their buck in terms of exposure and revenue. In today’s world, where cable television and the Internet make distance far less of an obstacle for fans to follow their teams, the smartest programs realize that “neutral site” games in the obscenely talent-rich metro areas of Texas often provide the best return.

This is an update of an earlier Sports Seer post. Read the original here

Other Schools with Multiple Home Stadia

Oregon
Home Campus: Eugene
Home Away From Home: Portland
Years Played There: On and off until 1924, then every year through 1966.
Last Game: 1970
Distance Between Homes: 105 miles

Big Win: 21-0 over a UCLA team that would finish 8-2 on Oct. 5, 1957.
Sample Decade: 1952-62: Record of 11-11*

*Includes rivalry games w/ Oregon State


Oregon State
Home Campus: Corvallis

Home Away From Home: Portland
Years Played There: On and off until 1941, then every year through 1973. (w/ exception of two WWII years in which team wasn’t fielded)
Last Game: 1986
Distance Between Homes: 74 miles

Big Win: Oct. 16, 1971- 24-18 over an Arizona State team which would finish 11-1.
Sample Decade: 1963-73: Record of 11-4


Washington State
Home Campus: Pullman

#1 Home Away From Home: Spokane*
Years Played There: 1950-1983
Last Game: 1983
Distance Between Homes: 66 miles

*In 1970, WSU’s home stadium burned due to suspected arson (possibly involving a perpetrator from the rival University of Idaho only eight miles away). As a result, WSU played all its home games in Spokane in 1970 and 1971.

Big Win: Sept. 23, 1978 – 51-26 over an Arizona State team which would finish 51-26.
Sample Decade: 1973-83: Record of 8-12

#2 Home Away From Home: Seattle (the Seattle Seahawks’ stadium, Centurylink Field)
Years Played non-UW opponents there: 2002 through 2008; 2011; 2012-14*
Last Game: Ongoing
Distance Between Homes: 252

Big Win: August 31, 2002 – 31-7 over Nevada to set the tone for a 10-3 season that ended in the Rose Bowl.
Record since 2002 at what’s now Centurylink Field: 6-4

*N.B. the campus of this program’s rival – the University of Washington – is in Seattle. So WSU often plays WU there. Washington State had also played three home games in Seattle against out-of-state powerhouses (USC, Ohio State) in the 1970s. It lost them all.


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Trailblazing San Antonio Likely Home for NBA’s First Foreign-Born Head Coach

Evin Demirel:

The Spurs have already inked major American pro sports’ first full-time female assistant coach in Becky Hammon. Could San Antonio one day make another new assistant, Ettore Messina, the NBA’s first non U.S/Canada-born head coach? Gregg Popovich is 65 years old and as much as he loves the game he eventually must  shimmy off stage.

Originally posted on NBA.com | Hang Time Blog with Sekou Smith:

messina

Could Ettore Messina (left) be the Spurs’ next coach when Gregg Popovich retires? (NBAE via Getty Images)

Ettore Messina had taken a sip from the NBA cup before when he was a consultant on Mike Brown’s staff with the Lakers for the 2011-12 season.

This time is like opening wide, throwing back his head and drinking it all in.

“The Spurs,” he said with a grin. “It is a familiar taste.”

A comfortable fit, like a designer Italian suit.

The team with nine international players from seven different countries now adds another bit of overseas flair to the mix with an assistant coach with a worldly resume.

The 55-year-old Italian has won four titles in his home country, four Russian League titles, four Euroleague championships and was named one of the 50 greatest contributors to the Euroleague.

“He’s a smart guy, a helluva good coach and a very interesting man,”…

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