Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fran Tarkenton

85 scholarship players are allowed on a college football team. No more than 25 new scholarships kids can be brought in every year. When more scholarship players sign than there are scholarships available, many coaches, such as Alabama's Nick Saban and Ole Miss' Houston Nut, will pull scholarships from upperclassmen in order to nab the incoming stars, forcing the veteran players to take a "greyshirt"or a medical scholarship. With a greyshirt, players postpone the use of their scholarship to play football at a later time, but they have to pay their own tuition during the greyshirt period. A medical scholarship allows players to keep their financial aid, but forbids them from playing football again. In basketball, coaches view the Big Ten as the cleanest conference. In regards to pulling football scholarships, I think the Big Ten ranks pretty high on the 'cleanliness' scale as well.

Anybody who has read more than one post of mine will have figured out by now that I'm a Michigan State fan. As a fan, I know all about Arthur Ray Jr.'s story, but for readers who don't closely follow all things Michigan State related, I'd like to tell you about it and how it relates to the apparently unrelated information in the first paragraph. Arthur was already the star offensive lineman at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, IL, his freshmen year. By senior year, he had nine different scholarship offers to chose from before he settled on Michigan State in January, 2007. Prior to his signing, he'd noticed a bump on his right leg, but shrugged it off as a football injury. The bump continued to grow larger until one day, after he signed with MSU, it became so painful that he couldn't climb the stairs at school. Doctors began testing the bump, which they initially believed to be hematoma, or internal bleeding. The day before the Michigan State spring football game, it was revealed that the bump was not hematoma but was actually a cancerous tumor. Arthur was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer that about 300 people of the 900 diagnosed each year succumb to annually. The doctor told him, "Throw the football out the window. The most you'll do is run around with your grandkids." 

A few days later, a second opinion assured him that he would play football again. The first doctor's diagnosis was about 3 inches off. That is to say, if the cancer had been about 3 inches higher on Arthur's leg, by his knee instead of by his shin, he would have needed knee replacement surgery and then his dreams of playing football would be through. All he needed, though, was chemotherapy, nine surgeries, and 25 months using crutches to walk.

In July, 2007, Arthur underwent a 14-hour long surgery to remove the tumor. Rods, screws, and a plate were inserted into his leg to keep the bone in place. The surgery went well and Arthur seemed to be recovering until the doctors found a bone infection. He had another surgery in March, 2008, and this time, his tibia was removed for cleaning and replaced with a cement spacer for 8 weeks until he could have yet another surgery to reinsert the clean bone. This was far from his last surgery - that would be in December 2009, almost three years after his initial diagnosis.

How does any of this relate to the opening paragraph? Well, Arthur didn't come to school in fall 2007, but since he arrived in 2008, Michigan State has kept him on scholarship. While he was on crutches. When there was a still a chance that he might need his leg amputated. In January, 2011, over a year since his last surgery, MSU asked the NCAA to allow him to play again. On April 7, he put on his number 73 jersey and practiced for the first time in his collegiate career. It's unknown what will happen at this point - he might redshirt the 2011 season, play as a 5th years senior in 2012, and apply for a 6th year in 2013. He's determined to play this season. No matter what happens, though, his story has been pretty fantastic and pretty inspirational. 

Something to watch if you have lots of time on your hands (and something to read if you have even more time): this series of videos and this book. Louie Zamperini was an Olympic runner in the 1936 Olympics; obviously, Jessie Owens won that year, but Zamperini (at age 19) ran the last lap in 56 seconds; when Hitler met him, all he said was, "The boy with the fast finish." This was, of course, before Louie became a soldier in WWII, survived a plane crash, 47 days lost at sea, and two years as a POW in Japan. It's a pretty awesome story.

Today's honorary player is #10 Fran Tarkenton, the quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings from 1961-1967 and 1972-1978 (playing a few years with the New York Giants in between there). He holds the Vikings career passing yards record with 33,098 and the Vikings career passing touchdowns record with 239. Although he was the NFL MVP in 1975 (as well as the offensive player of the year) and went to 9 Pro Bowls (amongst other accomplishments), he never won a Super Bowl.

The Sports Nerd

Sunday, April 17, 2011

J. J. Watt

College basketball is done. The NBA playoffs have begun. Spring football has started. The NFL is in a lockout. The Master's are over. Baseball season is underway. For most sports fans, these athletics take priority over high school cross country. Yet today I saw a special on ESPN on the San Francisco University High School girl's cross country team. And it was probably the most interesting bit of sports news I saw all morning. In case you didn't get to see it, I'll fill you in.

Since 1995, Jim Tracy has been the coach of boys and girls cross country at UHS. During that time, the teams have combined for 27 conference titles and 21 North Coast Section titles. The girls have won state 4 of the last 9 years and entering the 2010 season with 7 school championships, were tied for most in California history. Trouble began five years ago, when a muscle in his thumb stopped functioning. Two years later, when he was fifty-seven, during one of his daily 10-mile runs, he found that he was unable to lift one of his feet off the ground. In 2009, he finally went to a doctor. At age 60, he was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), better known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Lou Gehrig's disease is a fatalistic disease that affects the neurons in the brain and the spinal cord. As it progresses, voluntary movement disintegrates. In random order, Jim Tracy is slowly losing control of all of his muscles.

At the start of the 2010 season, tears were shed when his team learned of his disease, and a decision was made. The girls decided that now, more than any other season, they had to win. "Do it for Jim" became their motto. Their determination was put to a test at the championship meet in Fresno last November.

The race was something special for each girl, and it showed. Sophomore Lizzy Teerlink ran the fastest race of her life by more than a minute and finished 36 out of 116. Senior Adrian Kerester, who had never run in a state final before, finished 25th. At the 100 yard mark, sophomore Jennie Callan fell and landed in last place. She passed more than 150 runners and finished 16th. Junior Bridget Blum, who had never led in a race before, led the entire pack for more than half the race and finish 3rd. When she crossed the finish line, though, instead of being excited, Coach Tracy was concerned. His captain and star runner, junior Holland Reynolds, hadn't finished yet. If she hadn't finished, Tracy assumed that something had gone very wrong.

At the 2.5 mile mark in a 3.1 mile race, Holland Reynolds was in 2nd place. Then the dehydration kicked in. Breathing became difficult and she slowed down, allowing other runners to pass her. As she approached the final stretch of the race, Reynolds was bent over, running at almost a ninety degree angle as she struggled to finish. With about 10 feet left, she collapsed. No one could help her - the official standing over her told her that if anyone assisted her at that moment, she would be disqualified. She had to walk or crawl to the finish line herself. And she did. Agonizingly slowly, Holland Reynolds crawled the remainder of the way to cross the finish line, where she was immediately picked up and transferred to an ambulance to be treated for dehydration. She finished in 37th place.

The way a cross country team places in a race is determined by the combined finishes of the top five runners. For UHS, this included Holland Reynolds. An hour after the race ended, Reynolds was given the news: by crawling across the finish line, she secured a victory for her team and an 8th state championship for her coach.

This isn't the first time that something like this has happened, of course. The most memorable incident that comes to mind is Derek Redmond in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, whose father helped him cross the finish line. It's pretty inspirational, nonetheless. There's a program to support Jim Tracy and learn more about ALS here.

Today's blog is in honor of J. J. Watt. While most mock drafts project Tyron Smith from USC to be selected 9th to the Dallas Cowboys, one version (by Brian Baldinger) has chosen Wisconsin's J. J. Watt. One article actually refers to Watt as the best defensive lineman in the draft because of his great instincts, long arms (34"), and impressive speed for a 290-lb guy. During NFL workouts, he placed first in the vertical jump and three-cone drill for defensive linemen. He's also been described as one of the "cleaner" prospects in the draft. He's kind of a jack of all trades and will play well in a 3-4 defense or a 4-3 defense, making him a very versatile draft pick.

The Sports Nerd