A History of the N Word that isn’t Black and White

 

This pioneer's life deserves a closer look

This pioneer’s life deserves a closer look

Next week, we’ll learn whether the Fritz Pollard Alliance’s proposal to ban the N word in the NFL passed. The rule, which would cost teams 15 yards per violation, will be taken under further review by NFL owners at their annual meeting in Florida starting Monday.

The name “Fritz Pollard” has been leveraged by a non-profit organization to push for a change that Fritz Pollard himself might have not supported.But there’s some evidence Pollard, who in the 1920s became the first black NFL quarterback and coach (as well as the first black to play in the Rose Bowl), was O.K. with the word when it was used in non-hateful ways or in artistic endeavors. This runs counter to the beliefs of current leaders of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, who believe the word should be banned regardless where and how it’s used in the NFL work place. “We want this word to be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room,” chairman John Wooten told CBS Sports.  “Secretaries, PR people, whoever, we want it eliminated completely and want it policed everywhere.”

Harry Carson, another Fritz Pollard Alliance leader, told SI.com that those who use the n-word as a sign of solidarity have “have no sense of history.” He added: “I find it very disheartening that in our society today we’re having a debate about the n-words being used as a term of endearment.”

Carson isn’t altogether accurate here. That’s why a closer look at the world in which Fritz Pollard lived is merited.

Nearly a century ago, a black Yale student used the N word in way that evokes how it’s used among many blacks today. The student, William Ashby, attended a Brown game at Yale to watch the much hyped Fritz Pollard play for the visiting Brown team. As the game got underway, Pollard – as usual – was pelted with racist taunts by the home side’s white fans. N words rained down on him. Opponents tried to maim him. But also, like usual, Pollard started dominating – and then a curious thing happened during one of his punt returns, according to Pollard’s biography. While Pollard ran, Yale students yelled “Catch that nigger. Kill that nigger” while Ashby – who was sitting with other African-Americans on the Brown side –  jumped up and yelled “Run, nigger, run. Go, Fritz, go.”

This appears to be evidence – which I will bear out – that the word was not always used in a derogatory way at the beginning of the 20th century. It appears blacks sometimes used the word in a positive way among themselves, as happens now. I don’t have direct evidence of Pollard using the N word himself but have found a few facts that make it less likely he was troubled by blacks who used it. In 1933, he played a significant role in a movie as controversial in large segments of black culture then as Wooten’s proposal is now. The movie was “Emperor Jones,” a story about an ambitious Pullman porter based on a Eugene O’Neill play. It starred former NFL player Paul Robeson, a college friend of Pollard’s whom he served as a personal assistant and trainer. Pollard played a bit part on screen as a pianist.

The movie was controversial among many whites because it starred a black man. But it was divisive among many writers in black newspaper circles because it made extensive use of the N word, quoting verbatim from the O’Neill play. Black columnists encouraged readers to boycott the movie. If Pollard despised the casual use of the N word in entertainment, as Wooten does, I don’t think Pollard would have been involved with the project.

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The University of Arkansas Professor who Created a Sports Dystopia

roller ball

More than 40 years ago, around the time public outcry was peaking about brutality in football, a University of Arkansas English professor attended a basketball game at Barnhill Arena*. There, with the Razorbacks trailing, a fight broke out. It was, apparently, quite a vicious squabble, so much so it inspired the Hogs to roar back for a win.

It also inspired the professor, William Harrison, to wonder just how violent sports in the future may become. He was moved to pen “a little experimental story.”

That story, “Roller Ball Murder,” published in Esquire and inspired the screenplays for two movies. The story centers on a highly popular futuristic sport involving balls and big, strong men flying at each other at increasingly high velocities. Rules are changed to make the game more violent and drive up ratings. The result: higher rates of in-game injuries, and frequent death. Crowd noise for the first movie, released in 1975, was actually recorded during a live game at Barnhill Arena.

The NFL, of course, is currently changing its rules to make the game ostensibly more safe in light of the concussion debate. Yet while it focuses on concussions, the rate of musculoskeletal injuries keeps rising as players get bigger, stronger and faster.
William Harrison passed away last year, but his vision of a dark sports future should not be forgotten. He raised an important question in the 1970s that is just as perinent now: Where are American sports – in particular, football – headed? If its players keep getting bigger and faster, it cannot help but get more dangerous – no matter how much fancy equipment is stuffed into their lockers.
This is a topic I explore in my piece below for the Daily Beast:

Long before studies of former NFL players’ brain tissue shook America’s football-industrial complex to its stem, the sport had undergone other crises involving player safety. In the 1970s, no microscope was needed to see neck and spine injuries among players of all levels were escalating fast. One main culprit was the hard-shell helmet that had essentially become a spearing weapon. Too many coaches were teaching players a head-first form of tackling that left a path of mangled bodies in its wake, sending insurance premiums through the roof.Rollerball, a movie about a dystopian society fixated with an ultra-violent sport, became an international hit in 1975 and triggered more debate on brutality in sports within the general public. A former Penn State University president became so worried about the direction football was headed he made a plea in the form of a prediction to Joe Paterno, the former Nittany Lions head coach. “Joe, if football doesn’t do something about the injuries, soccer will be our national sport in 10 years.”

This didn’t happen, of course.

It is Manning, not Messi, Sherman, not Suarez, who dominate the headlines before Sunday’s massively anticipated Super Bowl. Denver’s greatest passing offense of all time is on a collision course with Seattle and its most fearsome pass defense in recent history. This here is tectonic heat, a contrast hitting at the heart of why we love sport in the first place. The NFL has most of me in its grasp for this one.

And yet, there is unease. Questions of whether the game’s brutality has gone too far persist. In terms of quantity and severity, there are signs we are on the cusp of the most violent Super Bowl yet.

The violence and danger of football extends far past professional stadiums.

Start with the increasing size, strength, and speed of players at almost all positions that has contributed to a rise in overall injuries over the last decade—from 2,623 in 2004 to 3,126 in 2012. Kam Chancellor, Seattle’s all-league safety, stands 6’3”, 232 pounds—specs that in the 1950s could have belonged to a defensive tackle. Nobody mixes mass, acceleration, and aggression quite like Chancellor, who appears to have the perfect mindset for somebody paid to do stuff like this:

“When I go out there, all of these hard hits and laying dudes out, that’s just my passion for the game,” he told the Seattle Times. “That’s just showing how much I love this game.”

Read the rest of the column here.

*I haven’t been able to find an original interview source in which Harrison cites Barnhill as the site of the basketball game, but I have found secondary sources like this. Plus, it just makes sense. Very few English and creative writing professors bother to follow a team on the road.


Alvin Bailey, Ross Rasner, Tarvaris Jackson, Sean McGrath, Ty Powell & the Super Bowl

Ex Hog and Bronco Ross Rasner sure knows how to get after it.

Ex Hog and Bronco Ross Rasner sure knows how to get after it. Via Instagram

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McDonald (upper left) with other 2004 all-metro players such as Darren McFadden (#5) (via Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Heading into this Sunday’s Super Bowl, there appears to be three players with Arkansas ties on the rosters of the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. The one who will likely play the biggest role in the game itself is Clinton McDaniel, a Jacksonville native/pass rusher extraordinaire who specializes in collapsing the pocket on third downs. Learn more about him in my Sporting Life Arkansas profile here.

Offensive lineman Alvin Bailey also looks to get some burn in the big game. The former Razorback left school early last spring, went undrafted, but has carved out a nice niche for himself in Seattle. He threw a key block in the NFC Championship game to spring running back Marshawn Lynch for a 40-yard touchdown run. Those points proved to be the winning margin in a game which finished 23-17.

“I’m having the time of a lifetime,” Bailey told The Oklahoman’s Berry Tramel.

He’s made no starts. But Bailey played about a dozen snaps in the NFC Championship Game as an extra lineman. And he cleared out 49er safety Donte Whitner, allowing Lynch to score and put the Seahawks in control.

Bailey said leaving Arkansas wasn’t just a good decision, “it was a great decision.”

“I thought I was going to get drafted. Things didn’t work out that way. But I made it to the Seahawks, we’re in the Super Bowl now. I don’t regret anything.”

Btw, here’s a nice KARK interview with Bailey’s gargantuan uncle, who’s livin’ large in Little Rock and is the main reason Bailey chose to attend Arkansas in the first place.

Tarvaris Jackson

Jackson hardly looked like a future pro during his two seasons as Razorback quarterback in 2002 and 2003. He had plenty “physical tools,” sure, but so does every other QB who starts at least one game in the SEC. What he lacked was the maturity to put it all together, and the patience to see it through in Fayetteville. Ten years after he transferred to Alabama State, he becomes the most unlikely former Razorback quarterback to be on a Super Bowl roster only a couple years after becoming the most unlikely ex Hog to throw for 3,000 yards in the NFL.

To me, it doesn’t matter that he likely won’t play a snap. Or that in the last week he has inspired such headlines as “Tarvaris Jackson’s Super Bowl Preparation is Sad and Boring.” But laugh not. Appreciate how amazing it is he’s almost been in the League for a full decade at QB, given how uninspiring his UA days were. It would be like time traveling to the NFL circa 2022 only to find Brandon Mitchell there as a savvy backup QB to Rafe Peavey in the Cowboy’s long-awaited return to the Super Bowl.

The Left Overs

None of the following guys with Arkansas college ties are on the rosters for Denver or Seattle. But don’t discount the part they played earlier in the season sharpening their teammates for the long haul.

1. Ross Rasner – Ras-Nasty sure could deliver a hit in his Hog days in 2009-2012, whether on special teams, as linebacker or safety. He wasn’t the most technically sound decleater we’ve ever seen on the Hill, so it wasn’t a surprise when he went unpicked in the 2013 Draft. Still, there was some cause for optimism when Denver signed Rasner as a free agent last spring and brought him to camp. Even if rookie stuff like this was happening:

khyyz_rasner_670089

Unfortunately, in the end, the burden of beating out veteran safeties like Quentin Jammer and Mike Adams for a final roster spot was too much to bear. Rasner was cut on August 31, 2013. He hasn’t yet resigned with another team, but if you think this is a man feeling down on his luck, these swag-tastic Instagram updates will have you thinking otherwise:

ras nasty

2. Sean McGrath

The 6-5, 247-pound McGrath is one of the most physically imposing college players to come out of Clark County, Ark. since Cowboys great Cliff Harris. While Harris played for Ouachita Baptist University, McGrath played in 2010 and 2011 for Henderson State after transferring from Eastern Illinois.

The Illinois native found the culture change tough at first, as he shared with ESPNW:

After two seasons as an EIU Panther, McGrath was dismissed for a violation of team rules… He got some help finding his next step from his assistant coach at EIU, Jeff Hoover, who would die in a car accident just a few months later.

“I was fortunate,” McGrath said of getting a second chance. “The late Jeff Hoover hooked me up with Coach [Scott] Maxfield down at Henderson State U, and bada-bing, bada-boom, I’m in the Bible Belt. Arkadelphia, Arkansas.”

Sounds made up, but it’s a real place. There were, of course, a few growing pains for McGrath, who adjusted to the South while sitting out the 2009 season.

“It’s a different place,” he said. “When I first got down there I didn’t know what a dry county was. Needless to say we had to get that changed. Political process went into effect and, you know. Let’s just say it was wet when we left.”

By 2010 the students of Henderson State were getting their buzz on and McGrath was back on track, catching 55 passes for 565 yards and four touchdowns. He was injured for much of his senior year and went undrafted, but he refused to give up on his dream to go pro.

Last year, McGrath played as a tight end on Seattle’s practice squad for four months before finally being called up. McGrath played well and improved over the offseason. By last spring, he’d worked his way into being the Seahawks’ second-string tight end , and sent some Seattle sports opinionators into a caffeinated craze along the way. One blogger even imagined McGrath’s role in the waning minutes of a (then) hypothetical Super Bowl:

Wilson snaps the ball.  Broncos linebacker Von Miller reads the run coming his way, and attacks the line. Oddly, he finds himself moving backwards despite his legs churning forwards. Seahawks tight end Sean McGrath is walking him back off the line. It starts slowly, but McGrath gains momentum and has completely overpowered Miller by this point. Miller is a full five yards beyond the line of scrimmage when McGrath assassinates his dignity.  [emphasis mine]  He is no longer moving backwards because McGrath has planted him on his back.

McGrath was cut by Seattle on August 31, but soon picked up Kansas City. He ended up starting nine games for the Chiefs, tallying 26 receptions for 302 yards and 2 touchdowns. And he would never, ever, think of assassinating the dignity of a good locker room interview:

Keep this man away from the “Discovery Channel”!

3. Ty Powell

Seattle head coach Pete Carroll loves his linebacker/safeties fast, physical, big and snarling. That’s why he chose the 6’2″, 248-pound Powell in the seventh round, with the 231 overall pick, in the 2013 Draft. Powell had been plenty impressive at Harding University, where he was ranked the 17th best outside linebacker in the nation (inc. Division I) after a 2012 season that included 12 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks and four blocked kicks [This, btw, may be a single season Arkansas college football record. Perhaps Hog Dan Skipper will break it...]

Powell says in the below video he believed he could have gone as high as the third or fourth round, so when he dropped to seventh he was left with a bit of a “chip on my shoulder”:

If Powell had a chip on his shoulder then, you know he had a veritable tortilla shell on the shoulder after being waived by the Seahawks this past September. Buffalo snapped the linebacker up the following month, though, and Powell finished with nine tackles in the the last four games of the season.

P.S. Kicker Eddie Carmona, who nailed a 62-yd FG at Harding, signed w/ Oakland in 2011, 2012

P.S. Kicker Eddie Carmona, who nailed a 62-yd FG at Harding, signed w/ Oakland in 2011, 2012


Ranking Peyton Manning & Tom Brady Vs All-Time Best QBs

BradyManning

At this moment, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are near-unanimous Top 10 quarterbacks in NFL history. Some will knock Brady for winning Super Bowls only on teams which operated during New England’s “Spygate” era. That may be so, but since the season that scandal broke – 2007 – Brady has still led his team to two Super Bowls and put up historic numbers. Likewise, Manning has been criticized for only winning one of two Super Bowls despite surpassing Dan Marino as the best regular season quarterback in NFL history. Still, Big Peyt led his team to ONE Super Bowl title – which counts for something. Not as much as two, but he deserves a spot in the Top 10 alongside the likes of Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway and, yes, Drew Brees.

But for every modern player that enters fans’ conversations a near-lock Top 10er, someone from the olden days has to be knocked down a notch. This is a topic I explore in a piece for the Daily Beast:

The question of whether either quarterback has a legit claim to being the all-time best remains, though. The answer may seem clearer after the game, but will again muddle in the coming years as time erodes fans’ perceptions. Most of today’s NFL fans would agree Brady and Manning deserve to be ranked somewhere in the league’s all-time Top 10 quarterbacks. But Brady and Manning could not have already ascended into that pantheon unless older all-time greats like Otto Graham, Bart Starr and Sammy Baugh were knocked down a few notches.

Baugh, who starred for the Redskins in the 1940s, is the only player to lead the NFL in passing, punting, and intercepting in the same season. That’s pretty awesome, but unfortunately for Baugh’s reputation, he’s ancient history to most NFL fans. Nobody mentions his name anymore “because nobody’s seen him,” Joe Montana said in 2012. “It’s always about what’s happening now.”

It’s difficult to imagine, but to some future generation Manning’s career tally of 491 touchdowns and 219 interceptions will look as unimpressive as Baugh’s 187 TDs/203 INTs career total looks to us now. There will be quarterbacks faster, stronger and quicker than their predecessors who will in the coming decades earn teammates’ loyalties, shatter today’s records, win at least three Super Bowls and surpass Manning and Brady on most fans’ Top 10 lists. The young, explosive dual-threat stars squaring off in the NFC Championship Game—Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson—remind us Manning and Brady’s time at the top of their profession is limited.

For proof of how fluid all-time rankings in sports can be, and how current generation-centric most of us are, look at the below list compiled by Roland Lazenby for his book “100 Greatest Quarterbacks.” Most people would still have Montana, Bradshaw, Unitas, and maybe Staubach and Marino in their list, but you won’t see the others very often. Not since John Elway, Brett Favre and Steve Young have broke onto the scene.

Circa 1988

Book Circa 1988


Top 10 Greatest One-Season Turnarounds in Sports History

Few turnarounds in sports history surpass what Gus Malzahn and his team pulled off.

Few turnarounds in sports history surpass what Gus Malzahn and his team pulled off.

When Auburn barely fell 34-31 to Florida State on Monday night in a showdown for the national title, it didn’t just lose a game. It lost a shot at securing status as the greatest one-season turnaround in major American team sports history. Auburn was within three points of completing a U-turn which, in terms of winning percentage and postseason results, had never before been seen on this scale.

That said, these Tigers still went from 3-9 to 12-2 and a No. 2 ranking. That in itself is still historic and ranks at the top of all-time turnarounds in major college football. But, when it comes to all-time bounce backs, a few examples in pro basketball and football still take the cake.  The St. Louis Rams, for instance, overcame 300-1 odds heading into the 1999 season to win the 2000 Super Bowl. In fact, looking at the official odds at the start of the season has provided fodder for some of the best “comebacks” and “turnarounds” recorded in recent time. One may click here for more on NFL betting this postseason and ask themselves if anything indicates a franchise turnaround.

Unquestionably, those ’99 Rams and these ’13 Tigers are  all-timers. Here are eight more:

10. Hawaii (college football)

1998: 0-12 (12.4 points per game / 35.2 points against per game)

1999: 9-4   (28.5 points per game / 26.8 points against per game)

Like at Auburn, an offensive guru turned the Rainbow Warrior program around.

When June Jones arrived as Hawaii’s head coach, he faced a team which was suffering through an 18-game losing streak and could not pass the ball to the Pacific Ocean. Within a fall, he had the offense humming and led Hawaii to the Oahu Bowl, where it beat Oregon State 23-17.

“He actually came in and gave us a system,” former Hawaii quarterback Dan Robinson told the Montgomery Advisor.  “We started the exact same players as the season before when we went 0-12. He gave us a system and taught us how to believe in that system. The season before, every week, we’d run a different offense.”

9. Kansas City Wizards (pro soccer)

1999: 8-24 (24 goals scored total / 53 goals scored against total)

2000: 16-9*-7 (47 goals scored total / 29 goals scored against total)

In 1999, the team had a talented roster – including two-time World Cup starters Tony Meola and Alexi Lalas – but could not put it together. Of course, it’s never a good sign when a defender (Lalas) is your third-leading scorer for a season. Putting points on the board was not a problem for KC the following season, thanks to the vastly improved play of midfielder Chris Henderson and his Danish friend and MLS newcomer Miklos Molnar. What’s now Sporting Kansas City won its first MLS Supporters’ Shield, beating the Chicago Fire 1-0.

*Eight draws, along with 16 wins and seven losses. This was the first season MLS games were allowed to finish in ties.

8. New England Patriots (pro football)

2000: 5-11 (17.2 points per game / 21.1 points against per game)

2001: 11-5  (23.2  points per game / 17.0 points against per game)

It’s hard to imagine the Patriots slogging through a losing season under Bill Belichick. That’s because it hasn’t happened since 2000, when he start reorganizing everything in his first season as head coach in Foxboro. He certainly laid a good foundation, which was unexpectedly helped in the second game of the following season when the Patriots were blessed by the “fortune” of having their 29-year-old franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, go down with a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000, stepped in to replace him and proceeded to lead New England to an 11-3 record as starter. With the help of three clutch Adam Vinatieri field goals, the Patriots won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.

Read the rest of this entry »


Ken Hatfield on Stanford, Recruiting Texas and Bill Parcells’ Secret Sauce

ken hatfield

Hatfield coached the Hogs 1984-1989. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

I just got off the phone with Ken Hatfield, the most winning Razorback football coach by percentage, for a High Profile feature I’m writing on David Bazzel for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I couldn’t help but also ask Hatfield some side questions about college football’s biggest game last week and the current state of the Hogs. Specifically, I was curious as to what he thought of grind-it-out Stanford’s recent domination over Oregon and how that could play into the Razorbacks’ future.

“To be a champion, you’ve got to do one of two things to be successful,” Hatfield said. “You got to do things better than anyone else or you got to do things different than anyone else … like in the days that Texas ran the wishbone. The teams trying to stop it had a hard time trying to stop it on their own practice field, so one year every team in the Southwest conference ran their own version of the wishbone. They had to do it so they could figure out how to stop [the wishbone] and then they still couldn’t stop it because Texas had better players and executed it better.”

So, the other SWC teams went another direction. “That’s when you had Hayden Fry and some other people come in with a single wide receiver and do different other things.” Stanford has been able to capitalize on its enduring reputation for ball-control offenses, Hatfield said. “They have been able to recruit people that style of offense from around the nation because Stanford has such a national draw, and a lot of the things that they were doing, nobody else was recruiting those players for.”

Bill Parcells once told Hatfield the winning formula was similar in the NFL: “You’ve got to take the ball over when there’s four minutes left in the game. You’ve got to run the clock out when the other team knows you’re going to run every play … that other team is paying $30 million for that quarterback for that two-minute offense and the only way you’re going to defeat him is by keeping him on the bench. So to win you’ve got to be able to run the football when the other team is ganging up on the line of scrimmage and knows you’re going to do it. If it works for the NFL, it ought to work good college teams too.”

OK, bear with me: I’m now putting on my referring-to-myself-in-third-person socks:

Demirel: Do you think to a certain extent Stanford’s success against a powerful hurry up offense provides a blueprint for Arkansas success going forward in the SEC?

Hatfield: “The only difference you have is that you got a couple teams in the SEC that are already doing the Stanford thing … then you get back to trying to do something better than them.” For Bielema and his staff, the biggest priority is signing the right players – especially on the lines, he added.

Demirel: Do you think that Arkansas will be able to do better at recruiting when LSU, Alabama and now Texas A&M are closer to the hot spots where so many of these recruits live?

Hatfield: “Certainly, it’s a real big challenge … I would think one of the great assets we have right now is to really to go back in and recruit Texas extremely hard, the way we did. Because, for about 18 years there, nobody in Texas cared about the SEC because it wasn’t in the paper, they never covered it. But now, with A&M coming into the league and the great success they’ve had in two years, every paper in Texas everyday mentions the SEC. Every newspaper. So I think you get a chance of knowing the SEC is important in Texas and and we’re so close to it, where you could get a lot of players where their families could come and see it.”

Demirel: But A&M’s success makes that tougher, as does Baylor’s recent success as well.

Hatfield: “Oh, there’s no doubt about it … while Baylor’s good there, there’s no doubt about it, there’s still some mystique about playing in the SEC. And if you’re a Texas player who’s going to play in the SEC against the great competition you’re going to have, you’ve either got to go to A&M or go to Arkansas. LSU’s going to get all their players from Louisiana – a few from Alabama, a few from Texas – but they’re gonna get them from there. But for a great Texas player who wants to play in the SEC and still wants to be close to home, you’ve got A&M and Arkansas.”

Demirel: It’ll be interesting to see if Arkansas ramps it up there. Also, although Arkansas has tried to develop recruiting in Florida before, it seems like Bielema and some of his assistants are hitting it extremely hard. It’ll be interesting to see if they can make Florida more of a recruiting base than ever have before.

Hatfield: “… You’ve always got to figure out in recruiting what’s your advantage. The one thing I believed we had for a long time which was great in Arkansas was the ability to bring kids in here in redshirt them – let them grow up, and enjoy the beauty of the state and the beauty of the fans, maybe get to be a year or two older than other people too. Almost all of the players we had were redshirted.”

“I mean, you had Steve Atwater and number one [round] draft pick, you had Wayne Martin, a [round] one draft pick, you had Quinn Grovey, one of the greatest quarterbacks we ever had. All of them were redshirted. None of them played as [true] freshmen and they were all great talents. Those extra years here really made a difference both in helping them get a degree and also in their physical development. So I wouldn’t give up on that formula either. Do something different Arkansas, maybe that other people aren’t doing. You just got to do whatever you believe in and I think that Beliema will do whatever he believes in.”


Exclusive Q&A: All-SEC Travis Swanson, Coaches Bret Bielema & Sam Pittman

Future first rounder? (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Future first rounder? (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

I wrote a feature article for SYNC this week about Arkansas center Travis Swanson, who has developed into one of the SEC’s best offensive linemen and is the centerpiece (in nearly every metaphorical or literal way imaginable) of Bret Bielema’s offense.

I wasn’t able to fit a few interesting tidbits into the story, so I throw them out now:

How Swanson Can Improve

By the way Bielema raves about Swanson, you’d think the guy was already the nation’s best college center of the last few years. “I’d be very, very surprised” if he doesn’t lead the SEC in pancake blocks this season, Bielema told me, despite the fact Swanson’s career highlights so far don’t exactly scream “Shawn Andrews 2.0″

Yes, T-Swan is good. Very good, in fact. But he’s not yet a Rimington Award winner and he hasn’t yet made a first team All-American.

The fifth-year senior can still stand to improve some.

How?

His offensive line coach, Sam Pittman, said Swanson has already learned to play with with explosiveness and “pop” since winter (it helps he’s put on 10 pounds of muscle while shedding body fat).

“Now it’s more about shoulder leverage, hand placement – on a tight nose – things of that nature that we’re working on,” Pittman said.

The leverage issue is something other NFL Draft analysts have also mentioned.  “When he tries to generate push he tends to lean too much and it made him easy to shed for guys like Kirby Ennis of A&M and Isaac Gross of Ole Miss,” writes Tom Melton. “There were times that Swanson really seemed to struggle with speed and quickness in the run game, and that was particularly evident against Ole Miss when Isaac Gross regularly beat him despite being listed as a 6’1”, 255 pound true freshman defensive tackle.”

Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com adds: “He understands blocking angles and generally seals off opponents from the action effectively in the running game but can be beaten inside by quickness and too often drops his head on contact when blocking on the move, leading to experienced defenders occasionally swimming over the top to break free.”

Swanson wasn’t particularly explosive in the run game last year. If he drastically improves there – which Bielema obviously believes it will – there’s no reason to think he couldn’t break into the second or even lower first round.

NFL analyst Chris Mortensen spoke to two NFL scouts he knows and told me that at this point Swanson projects as a second or third round guy. Bielema told me: “That ranking doesn’t even come close, in my opinion, to what his actual ability his, They [scouts] haven’t seen what we’re gonna do with him yet,” he said. “We’re gonna do some center pulls. We gonna do some stuff where people are gonna say ‘Wow. This guy has really got something.’”

Good days are comin' again, many believe. (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Good days are coming again, Hog players believe. (Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Sorry, Mike Anderson

Bielema said one reason Swanson projects as first team All-SEC this season is that he has outstanding footwork. “His feet never leave the framework of his body. Travis is probably 6-5, but he plays like a guy who’s 5-10.  His feet stay under his body. As people get longer, they tend to play with longer strides so it’s the players who grow taller and yet don’t over stride that become successful.”

“[Former Wisconsin player] J.J. Watt, defensive end, he’s a 2nd year player and the best defensive player in the NFL, he’s 6-6 but his feet never play out of his box,” Bielema said. “That allows you to play under control,”

I mentioned to Bielema that the opposite situation plays out in basketball, where it’s typically better for players to “get wide” and use a long reach.

This literally got Bielema out of his seat and – with somewhat surprising alacrity – into a defensive basketball position.

“Basketball coaches are the worst freaking thing to ever happen to football coaches,” he said as he got into a crouch, arms spread wide. “Because their breakdown means this. How many football players you ever seen like that? If your ass is behind your heels, you’ll never play football. But in basketball, your ass is to be behind your heels all the time. That’s the breakdown position.”

“But in basketball you can’t run anybody over. In football, you have to be able to withstand pressure and fight.”

I Want To Pancake Block the Petrinos 

If you’re like me, you dig stats. Not just the normal boilerplate stuff, but the more advanced stuff.  More = good.

Not so under the Bobby and Paul Petrino regime. The former Arkansas Razorback coaches didn’t disclose stats for offensive linemen. If like me you want to know how Swanson’s pancake blocks and grading percentage improved from year to year, tough luck – the Petrino-era coaches didn’t pass these numbers on to the rest of us.

I’ve been told the new staff will keep better track of these numbers and will share some of them with the public. They should. Especially since a few of them have built reputations as developers of future star NFL linemen.

Swanson As Sensei

Travis arrived on the Fayetteville campus in 2009, the same year that Arkansas’ last great center – Jonathan Luigs – left. Swanson said he didn’t have the benefit of an experienced center to show him the ropes during his redshirt freshman and freshman years.

He credits other offensive lineman – DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez -as well as Ryan Mallett with showing him to be vocal and assertive as a leader. Nowadays, he’s eager to pass on his knowledge and serve as a mentor to younger O-linemen on this year’s team:  “I’m gonna try to help the younger guys understand because when I was younger I didn’t really have that.”

Swanson got thrown to the wolves early. He made his first SEC start on the road against a strong Georgia team and as a freshman eventually secured the starting job of a team that made the Sugar Bowl.

The interior defensive linemen Swanson deals with are some of the best in the nation. I asked him who have been the toughest to block  in his career and most of them come from early in his career: Auburn’s Nick Fairley, Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward, Mississippi State’s Pernell McPhee, LSU’s Marcell Dareus and Drake Nevis.

Family Style

Since moving to Fayetteville from his Houston-area  home, Swanson has gone full circle with his housemates.

In 2009, he room with Bryan Boehner.

Last year, Swanson lived  with teammates Brey Cook and Luke Charpentier in a big house. This year, just like in Texas, he’s living with his younger brother – a UA freshman.

swanson and holder

For more about Swanson’s life, including his biggest off-field news of the year, check out this SYNC article. 


Who’s the Best Fullback in Arkansas Razorback History?

Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Mark Pierce in better days. Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

muscles campbell

Watch out, railroad spikes. This guy comin’ through.

Traditionally, one of the strongest  positions for the Arkansas Razorbacks has been at fullback.  That changed with the advent of Bobby Petrino’s spread passing offense, which de-emphasized the  fullback’s role, but we see its reemergence in the Bret Bielema era.

Today’s torchbearer is  senior Kiero Small, a 5’10″, 238-pound bowling ball of a bruiser whose health this season will play a crucial role in whether Arkansas can effectively move the ball against the likes of Alabama and LSU.

Who, though, is the best fullback in program history?

I deal with one such candidate in a recent  Sporting Life Arkansas article about Mark Pierce. Pierce had all the tangibles you’d want in a fullback and at 6 feet tall and 248 pounds (with a 4.5 40 yard dash), he certainly knew how to use them.  Heading into his junior season, he was considered the nation’s best fullback by the Sporting News. Unfortunately, Pierce didn’t develop the intangibles, though, and the results were absolutely tragic.

Here are other top candidates:

1. Leon “Muscles” Campbell (6’0″, 199 pounds)

Campbell was a four-year letterman at Arkansas, rushing for 1,335 yards on 295 carries from 1946-49. The fullback-linebacker held the one-game rushing record of 236 yards until 1973.

He may have the coolest nickname origin story in Arkansas history.  It’s found in his obituary: Campbell’s teammate Clyde Scott said when Campbell arrived at Arkansas, he walked into Scott’s room with a railroad spike and a towel. He wrapped the towel around the spike and pulled, bending the iron rod.  (Man did kids sure figure out ways to entertain themselves before Playstation 3!)

Soon thereafter, Campbell became known as “Muscles.”

Campbell played for Baltimore, Chicago and Pittsburgh in a six-year NFL career. He scored his only professional touchdown on a 1952 kickoff return.  His best year as a pro was in 1953, when he had 659 yards rushing, receiving and on kick returns.  He worked for Reynolds Metals Co. in Bauxite for 30 years.

Campbell died at age 75 of malignant mesothelioma on September 2, 2002.

2. Henry Moore

Moore was consensus all-SWC in 1954 and 1955 and led the Hogs in rushing during their 1954 SWC championship season.  He was selected as the 19th overall pick in the 1956 NFL Draft and played two seasons  as a pro. He won an NFL title his rookie season with the New York Giants.

3. Preston Carpenter (6-2, 190 pounds)

A highly versatile player, who wore “blocking back” as only one of his varied hats. Also a devastating linebacker for Hogs in 1953 and 1954 who was all-SWC as halfback in 1955. Led Cleveland Browns in rushing in 1956 and receiving in 1958, and was a Pro Bowl selection as tight end for Pittsburgh in 1962.

Funny story, as told to me by amateur Razorbacks historian Jim Rasco: Carpenter and his brother, Lew, both played for the Browns in the mid 1950s. Cleveland acquired some rookie running back named Jim Brown before the 1957 season, and at the start of that season, Brown sat down with the Carpenter brothers and made sure to let them know that he deserved the ball and that he expected them to block well for him.

They obliged; the rest is history.

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Darren McFadden, Michael Dyer Help Young, Black Males Through Police-Affiliated Program

Sports stardom isn't in the cards for everyone. But graduating school and staying out of jail can be.

Sports stardom isn’t in the cards for everyone. But graduating school and staying out of jail can be.

Two of central Arkansas’ greatest prep running backs have also played parts in boosting a mentoring program for young, African-American males.

The national Our Kids Program is spearheaded by black officers in various cities’ police departments. It’s specifically aimed at ameliorating a socio-economic “epidemic” which program leaders say afflicts black communities around the nation.

As profiled in this Sync week’s issue, Little Rock has an affiliate program in which teens at four public schools weekly gather for mentoring sessions with police and volunteer adult males. The program’s director makes no bones about requiring everyone directly involved with the program to be African-American:

As [Donald] Northcross sees it, the problems facing many black communities in this nation add up to a full-blown epidemic.

Compared to every other race and gender group, black males are more likely to skip class, not turn in homework, drop out of high school, get arrested for drug use and serve years in prison. Indeed, according to the national O.K. Program, one in three black males will be imprisoned at some point in their lives. Lengthy jail sentences leave yet more single-parent households behind, setting the stage for the entire vicious cycle to entrap younger generations.

How to break free?

Design black male-oriented solutions for what are clearly black male-oriented problems. “I think there needs to be programs that are geared toward specific communities,” Northcross says. “We have a serious problem. We’re not very interested in how it looks — political correctness and things like that.”

Last fall, former Auburn running back Michael Dyer appeared as a guest keynote speaker during a mentoring session. Dyer, a former national championship game MVP, spoke about challenges he had to overcome during a hardknock childhood in Little Rock. Dyer’s still trying to overcome challenges: the 22-year-old spent the last school year at nearby Arkansas Baptist College after tumultuous departures from Auburn and Arkansas State.

Visit syncweekly.com for more on Dyer and D-Mac.


Peyton Manning on Ray Lewis’ Crushing Blows & Bret Bielema

The four-time NFL MVP reminisced on his high school days during his talk in Little Rock.

The four-time NFL MVP reminisced on his high school days during his talk in Little Rock.

Pop music has the Grammys. Cinema has the Oscars. Literature’s got the Pulitzer. And now, in the world of local high school sports: the All Arkansas Preps Awards.

More than 1,000 people attended the inaugural awards ceremony on Saturday night in Little Rock that honored top male and female athletes and coaches in eight sports, as chosen by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Awards were also given for academic achievement, community service and perseverance through sickness or injury.

 The banquet’s signature event was an appearance by four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning. The Denver Broncos quarterback gave a keynote speech and fielded questions from emcee Keith Jackson, a color commentator for Razorbacks football who runs the Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids program in his native Little Rock.

 Manning, who’s entering his 15th NFL season, encouraged the 300 student-athletes in the Statehouse Convention Center ballroom to work hard and not see their upcoming college years as only a stepping stone but to “enjoy the experience, enjoy the journey.”

Manning retraced much of his own journey as the second son of Hall of Fame quarterback Archie Manning growing up in Lousiana to Super Bowl MVP with the Indianapolis Colts.  Peyton, who never lost to Arkansas during his University of Tennessee career, sprinkled Razorback-related anecdotes throughout the 45-minute Q & A with Jackson.

Below are edited excerpts:

Q: What are some of your memorable moments playing against the Razorbacks 1994-1997?

A: … I remember my senior year here in Little Rock. I always enjoy talking to my dad about the great old college stadiums … He got to play Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl, but he never got to play at War Memorial … The the thing I remember about that game, we put a trick play in that week. We put in the ol’ pitch to the running back, throw it to the quarterback, right, and I remember we ran it in practice all week just about perfect. I schooled ‘em  every time. I had been dreaming all week about catching a touchdown – I’d never done that before.

 And sure enough, during the game we got a perfect look … and I pitch it to [running back] Jamal Lewis and he throws it back to me – a perfect pass – and I caught it and I got two yards. Their defense was a lot faster than our scout team’s.

Q: Talk some about Broncos rookie running back Montee Ball, who played for Bret Bielema.

A: Montee Ball was a four-year running back at Wisconsin. He led the NCAA in touchdowns, so we’re excited to have him on the Broncos. We had a little team function the other day and I was asking him about Coach Bielema and he was saying how [instrumental] he was for him and his career, and how lucky he was to play for him. He just thought the world of him, so I could tell [Bielema] is gonna make a great transition to Arkansas.

Q: What do you treasure most about the South?

A: I think Southern hospitality. My parents are from Mississippi, I grew up in New Orleans … Just the people, I really enjoy getting back to New Orleans, getting back to Tennessee. I’ve been here to Little Rock a number of times. Everybody’s been so nice to me here. The Arkansas secondary was always so nice to me.

Q: We normally see you so serious, but there’s a funny side to you. You had a chance to host Saturday Night Live.

A: … The one that people always talk about is the United Way skit, where I’m throwing the football at the kids. A lot of people have asked “Peyton, please tell me you weren’t really hurting those kids.” And I promise you folks, that was a Nerf football … and all these kids, they were all child actors which is a kind of disturbing field in its own way. And all the parents were there the entire time when we were doing that skit and the director said ‘You gotta hit them in the face, you gotta do it.’ And I had to have a little talk with myself before I could do it.

  But I felt a little more comfortable when I heard one of the parents yelling at the director ‘I want him to hit my kid in the face!’”

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