The Galloping Ghost: A Well Done Biography of Harold “Red” Grange

GrangeThis is a very well done biography of Harold “Red” Grange, a seminal figure in the history of professional football. He literally burst onto the scene has a halfback at the University of Illinois and is considered one of the greatest college football players of all time. The highlight of his college career was scoring four touchdowns in one quarter against Michigan in 1924, which made his name nearly a household word. By the time his college career was over his name recognition in the United States was, for that era, like a Michael Jordan. His college career spanned from 1923 to 1925 and in those days it was the sportswriters and newspapers that were preeminent in conveying the sights and sounds of sports, which was not without a bit of hyperbole. Sportswriters like Grantland Rice did much to make Grange into a larger than life figure, and another sportswriter dubbed him “The Galloping Ghost.”

Grange is likely in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as much for what he did to bring recognition to pro football as he is for what he did on the field. In the 1920’s college football was very popular and seen as an honorable and “amateur” endeavor. Pro football was seen as grimy, violent, and filled with ne’er do wells and ruffians. Many did not want Grange to sully his name and reputation by playing professional football. But with what might be the first real football agent, C.C. Pyle and Chicago Bears owner George Halas, Grange signed a hefty contract to play with the Chicago Bears in 1925.

Grange brought immediate legitimacy to pro football and was a major draw at the gate. One of the most ridiculous although lucrative activities was a 19 game barnstorming tour in 67 days. That is on average a game every 3.5 days! Playing such a violent and physically demanding game on a schedule like that borders on insanity but Halas and C.C. Pyle were thinking about the gate receipts not the health of the players.

After a contract dispute C.C. Pyle and Grange formed their own league and Grange’s team was the New York Yankees. That lasted all of one year. And unfortunately in 1927 Grange suffered a serious knee injury, and of course back then sports medicine was crude. From the accounts in the book it may have even been an ACL tear but after sitting out a year Grange went back to the Bears and played through the 1934 season. But he doesn’t appear to be the same player as he was before and often played only a few downs in games just to appease crowds who came to see him play.

Grange’s was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its inaugural class in 1963.

After his career Grange did a variety of jobs including speaking engagements and sports broadcasting.

There are two very interesting aspects of this biography that the author does a good job of exploring.

One is the impact that Grange’s name recognition and image had on the reputation of pro football. It was very significant. The author reminds us just how famous Grange was in the 1920’s because of his football exploits. He was able to parlay that into a lot of endorsements as well. He was one of the most widely recognized sports figures of his era.

Another is C.C. Pyle. He clearly was a bit of a con man but played the role of Grange’s agent well and seems to have treated Grange fairly in their business dealings. It would appear that he is the first player agent in pro football but I am entirely sure of that. At the very least he was the first prominent one.

Overall this was a well done and very interesting biography of an iconic figure in professional football.

The Galloping Ghost: Red Grange, an American Football Legend

 

The 1985 Chicago Bears from a Fan’s Perspective

untitledThis is a book written about the 1985 Chicago Bears from a fan’s perspective.  The fans of the Chicago Bears in their 40s today have a dearth of positive experiences to hang their hat on.  They have mostly been in the cold purgatory of failure and embarrassment.  Thus the 1985 Chicago Bears is not only deeply nostalgic for their faithful fans, but the only positive highlight of the Super Bowl era Bears.

I found the fan’s perspective and the author relaying his chance to actually attend the Super Bowl and his reminisces about being a hard luck Bear’s fan a very engaging aspect of the book.  He does a great job of showing what it was like to be a young “adult” in 1985 and experience the excitement of being able to see his favorite team in the Super Bowl.  At the time this eager young cub thinks every football season will be just like “this one” with the Bears winning and competing for championships. Then years later that bitter realization that it was all just a brief fling followed by signs of promise but failure, then slippage into perpetual hibernation.

Cohen does a fantastic job of telling the story of the 1985 Bears from the player’s perspectives too.  The hatred between Mike Ditka and Buddy Ryan, the 46 defense and its goal of taking out the “head” or quarterback, the defiant Jim McMahon, and the rotund and entertaining William “The Refrigerator Perry, and let’s not forget that dreadful Super Bowl shuffle.  Then on a sadder note, Walter Payton’s anger over not scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl is addressed too.

And finally the book does a fine job of getting the reminisces of many of the Bears’ players years removed from their glory season.  From quarterback Jim McMahon, Mike Ditka, Gary Fencik, and Steve McMichael, among others, we understand how deeply important that one glorious season was to their legacy.  And then to be acknowledged as the greatest defense of all-time just put icing on the cake.

While I am not a Chicago Bears fan I did enjoy the book.   It is a must read for Bears fans and a fun read for football fans, especially those who remember Super Bowl XX.

 
Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football

NFL 2012 Week 7: Patriots Look Average, But So Does Everyone Else

One of the more intriguing aspects of this NFL season is just how parity has clearly taken hold early in the season. In the AFC there were only two teams with winning records going into Week 7, the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens. And after Houston was trounced by Green Bay talk of Houston being the best team in the NFL waned a bit. Houston really bounced back by running over the Ravens, a team that has looked vulnerable in most of their wins and now of lost MLB Ray Lewis and CB Ladarius Webb for the season.

Meanwhile the darlings of the NFC at the start of the season, the San Francisco 49’ers and Green Bay Packers have both had slow starts, especially the Packers who sported a 2-3 record after five games. And the only undefeated team, the Atlanta Falcons have really pulled a few games out at the last moment. Meanwhile the Giants at 5-2 might look beatable but they seem to always come on strong late in the season.

It is still a wide open race in both conferences.

GAMES I WATCHED

New England Patriots over New York Jets, 29-26 OT

Immediately after this game was over, one that the Patriots nearly gave away, I felt it was a demoralizing win. This game just proved the Patritots are an average team, right down in the pack with all the rest. And they are. Instead of making the one or two plays that win close games they make the two mistakes that give them away. This is nearly what happened in this game when the Jets tied the game at 23-23, the Devon McCourtny fumbled the kickoff that gave the Jets a chip shot field goal for the go ahead score. At least the defense kept them out of the end zone. Then Brady did what he does best – drive the field for a tying score with less than two minutes to play, then did it again in overtime.

Granted I keep hearing that had Stephen Hunter caught a few balls the Jets would have won. But Brandon Lloyd, who frankly has been a big disappotment so far, dropped at least three long balls he should have had. For some reason he insists on making even easy catches acrobatic and as a result drops the ones that he should catch. We have no receivers that can really steatch the field. In fact, we really have no true number one receiver outside the slot with Wes Welker. This is a big problem with both tigh ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski ailing.

I have to give the MVP of this game to lineback Rob Ninkovich who made the play that sealed the deal at the end with his forced fumble on Mark Sanchez.

MVP: Rob Ninkovich, LB

San Franciso 49’ers over Seattle Seahawks, 13-6

This game was a slugfest between the two most rugged, physical defenses in the league. If defense and a little luck on offense leads to championships, then either of these teams have a decent shot at it. The 49’ers have a better overall quarterback (despite Russell Wilson’s recent late game heroics) and Frank Gore played a fantastic game.

Frankly coming into this season I thought we’d see a Frank Gore on the decline. Instead, he is playing as well as I have ever seen him play. If he can keep this up then the 49’ers have a shot. They, however, lack a good outside receiver which will hurt them down the road (as do the Seahawks).

MVP: Frank Gore, RB

Houston Texans over Baltimore Ravens, 43-13

Wow, the Texans really bounced back from the embarrassment at Seattle and dished out their own punishment on the Baltimore Ravens. With the Ravens depleted on defense and Haloti Ngata a bit dinged up they just couldn’t stop the Texans offense. And the Ravens offense is just wildly inconsistent. I can’t quite put my finger on the problem with the Ravens offense as the certainly have the talent. They don’t use Ray Rice enough though, and Flacco just doesn’t seem to be able to get the job done when it counts.

While I think the Ravens are still likely a playoff team come the end of the season, they certainly do look inconsistent and out of sync. And with their defense missing two key players, it’s going to put even more pressure on the offense to perform.

MVP: Connor Barwin, LB

Pittsburgh Steelers over Cincinnati Bengals, 24-17

I really, really, really expected more out of the Bengals this year. But as with so many teams in the AFC, they define the word “average.” Pittsburgh had a nice, solid running game with third stringer Jonathan Dwyer and held the ball 15 more minutes than the Bengals and that really was the story of the game. Shaun Suisham’s three 40 plus yard field goals sealed the deal.

MVP: Shaun Suisham, K

Chicago Bears over Detroit Lions, 13-7

Charles Tillman shut down Charles “Megatron” Johnson and the defense harassed Lions QB Matthew Stafford into some bad throws (Stafford just is way overrated frankly). And Urlacher might be hurt but he is a smart football player who really made some fine plays in the middle of the field, along with fellow linebacker Lance Briggs. The Bears defense lives.

And Bears QB Jay Cutler barely survived the body slam takedown by Ndamukong Suh. I do think Dirty Suh is a dirty player but this was a legal hit. Cutler showed a lot of moxie getting back in the game after have his ribs practically shattered.

MVP: Charles Tillman, CB

PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Offensive Player: Chris Johnson, RB, Tennessee Titans
Defensive Player: Charles Tillman, CB, Chicago Bears
Offensive Lineman: Mike Iupati, G, San Francisco 49’ers
Special Teams: Dan Bailey, K, Dallas Cowboys
Rookie of the Week: Dont’a Hightower, LB, New England Patriots

Bittersweet: The Life of Walter Payton

Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman
Gotham Books, 2011
ISBN-10: 159240653X

Jeff Pearlman has written a real biography of Walter Payton.  This is not some glam filled, highlight reel of the best of Walter Payton.  It’s a real biography that tells about the real bitter sweet life of Walter Payton.

Payton grew up poor in a racially segregated Colombia, Mississippi.  While Payton never experienced firsthand violence growing up, it was a segregated community with all the racial prejudice against blacks that implies.  African Americans were treated as inferior and lived in a specific section of town.  His father was a hard worker and decent man but an alcoholic who didn’t seem to have a great deal of influence in Payton’s life.  But his mother was a hard worker who was the family disciplinarian and real glue that held them together.  This segregated community and overt racism of his childhood is probably what gave Payton a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life, out to prove that he was inferior to nobody.

As schools were integrated and Payton went on to play high school football, he of course became the darling of the town, as great athletes often are, and was one of the most sought after football prospects.  He ended up, through some shenanigans by the coach, heading to Jackson State in Mississippi near his hometown for his college football career.

There he had a career that landed him as the fourth overall pick in the 1975 National Football League draft by the Chicago Bears, where he had a Hall of Fame career, setting the then NFL record for rushing yards (16,726 yards).  He won a Super Bowl ring when the Chicago Bears won Super XX over the New England Patriots.

This isn’t a biography, however, only about Payton’s nearly unmatched professional football career.  It’s about the man who lived it.  And there we find the darker side of Walter Payton.

Walter lived a happy but sheltered childhood and his sheltered life at Jackson State probably did not prepare him to live in the real world, especially the one outside of football.  There he met his future wife Connie who eventually moved to Chicago with him.

What was Payton’s real personality like?  Fun loving; happy go lucky, and a prankster.  Kind hearted to strangers, children, and those who were in need.  He was quite a compassionate human being.  But he was also childish, jealous, petulant, and someone who always wanted to have things his way.

What do we find out about Walter Payton in this biography?

First, while he was great teammate and superb player he was also a bit petulant when things didn’t go his way.  He wanted the ball and to be the superstar, but also had a quiet way of going about it.  In one of the more telling moments, he hid in a broom closet after the Bears won Super Bowl XX because he didn’t score a touchdown.  What should have been one of the happiest moments in his life turned out to be one of the most bittersweet as he cried in anger and refused to come out to talk to the press after the Super Bowl win, without some cajoling.  Coach Mike Ditka says it is one of his biggest regrets that he didn’t make sure Walter got the ball for a score in the blowout win.

Second, during his playing career Payton abused the painkiller Darvon, often popping them like candy.  He continued to abuse painkillers after his playing career, possibly as self-medication for depression.  Darvon is very hard on the liver and while Pearlman does not draw a direct line to his drug abuse and the live disease that ultimately killed him, he certainly implies it.

Third, Walter Payton struggled badly with loneliness and being out of the spotlight once his playing days were over.  He reportedly contemplated suicide, maybe on more than one occasion, and suffered from depression.

Fourth, Payton was a philanderer and liked women.  He clearly had fell out of love with his wife Connie and didn’t really live with her for most of his post-football life.  In fact, he fathered a child with another woman and had another long-term relationship with a flight attendant.

This lead to another bittersweet moment in Walter Payton’s life.  Against his wishes his girlfriend showed up at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, unbeknownst to his estranged wife Connie.  In public, Payton, and probably more so Connie, put on the façade of the happy couple.  Payton was angry that his girlfriend showed up and she was literally just a few rows back from his wife and children during his induction speech.

So once again, what should have been one of the happiest moments in Walter Payton’s life instead turned into a nerve wracking, bittersweet experience.

A fifth aspect of Walter Payton that is apparent, even if Pearlman doesn’t say this directly, is he was probably a manic depressive.  If the behaviors exhibited in the biography are accurate, one moment he is manic and happy go lucky, being out public, and trying to make a living on his up and down again business interests.  And at other times he is darkly depressed, not wanting to be out in public, and even contemplating suicide.

Pearlman also points out all of Walter Payton’s good traits.  Even though he trusted very few people, he cared about people and went out of his way to make people around him feel good and he was very charitable to those in need.  He was also a great teammate who led by example on the field and was real locker room leader, even when the Bears had dreadfully inadequate talent around him.  The persona that surrounded Payton as a caring, hardworking, class act was a real part of Walter Payton too.

Jeff Pearlman has been unfairly castigated by many of Walter Payton friends, family, and fans for this biography because he dares tell the real story of Walter Payton.  Mike Ditka said he wanted to spit on him and has no respect for him.  Others claim the biography is not truthful and essentially fiction.  And Connie Payton and his children also claim the biography is mostly untrue.

I think the veracity of this book is hard to question for one very simple reason.  Nearly all of Pearlman’s sources are identified by name.  Only two sources are not – his longtime girlfriend who showed up at his Hall of Fame induction and the woman with whom he has a child (which he never acknowledged).  Otherwise, former agents, players, long-time personal assistant, family members, coaches, and other acquaintances who Pearlman interviewed are all there, speaking through the author.  I have yet to see any of these people come out and refute what they said to Pearlman.  I know that the truth might be painful for many, but Pearlman has done a service to the memory of Walter Payton.

Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton

2010 NFL Football Season: Week 11 Observations

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

Top Ten Teams

Philadelphia Eagles. While not as dominating a performance as last week against the Redskins, the Eagles won a division game against a tough opponent and shut down Giants’ running back Ahmad Bradshaw.

Atlanta Falcons. I don’t know what the Falcons strength of schedule looks like but it can’t be great. But they keep rolling along with a solid offense and defense.

New York Jets. The Jets’ come from behind wins week after week are pretty amazing. If the Patriots and Jets both win on Thanksgiving the Monday Night match up the following week will be the biggest game of the year so far.

New England Patriots. The Patriots constantly giving up big leads week after week is a real concern for Patriots fan. While the offense seems to have found a rhythm, the defense hasn’t matched up. This could ultimately be their downfall.

Baltimore Ravens. Not much to say about the Ravens game this week against a depleted and woeful Carolina Panthers unit.

Pittsburgh Steelers. After getting convincingly beaten by the Patriots last week the Steelers made a real statement in blowing out the Oakland Raiders.

Green Bay Packers. The shellacking of Minnesota this week must have been sweet for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

New Orleans Saints. It will be interesting to see if the Saints can regain their dominant form they showed last year. They seem to be on a bit of a roll now.

San Diego Chargers. San Diego is starting to look like the Super Bowl contender they were supposed to be. This is a very dangerous team in a weak division.

Indianapolis Colts. The Colts dropped a little this week after losing to the Patriots but only because the Chargers played so well.

The New York Giants dropped off the top ten list this week after losing a home game to the Eagles.

Trent Dilfer

Along with Tom Jackson, Trent Dilfer joins my all time least favorite announcers/analysts list. This guy is complete idiot and does not belong on television. The first week of the season he was the announcer for the San Diego Chargers versus Kansas City Chiefs game. I taped the game and watched it the next day and started right at the kickoff so I wasn’t even sure who the announcer was, I just thought he was an idiot. He kept going on and on and on and on ad nauseum about how great San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers is. I thought, gee is this guy married to Rivers?

Every time I see him on television he makes me sick with his stupidity. I turn the channel when I see him now. He was an awful quarterback too.

Brad Childress is Gone, Brett Favre Should Be Next

As soon as I saw that Brad Childress was finally fired from the Minnesota Vikings and Leslie Frazier named the interim head coach, I thought if Frazier really wants to take control of this team he has to release Brett Favre and see what Tarvaris Jackson can do as quarterback. Favre is as much of the problem with that team as Childress was and it will not be resolved until they show him the door. Favre has played horribly this year and clearly is the person who really that runs the team.

GAMES I WATCHED

New England Patriots over Indianapolis Colts, 31-28

After building up a nice 31-14 lead the New England Patriots defense gave up two really quick scores to the Colts in the fourth quarter, and nearly gave up a tying field goal or winning touchdown near the end of the game. This was heart attack city for Patriots fans and a cause for great concern. The defense is clearly still a work in progress but that progress better be a bit quicker as we reach the end of the regular season. The offense is not going to be able to put up 31 points on every team. And if we get behind it seems like the game could be over.

I am a glass half empty kind of fan after years and years of woeful Patriots teams in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, and I complained about the offense not doing more in the second half after a few bad series. But I was reminded that Peyton Manning threw three interceptions and the game loser, so I will just have to take that.

Danny Woodhead’s 36 yard touchdown run in the third quarter with little Wes Welker blocking downfield was a thing of beauty.

MVP: Danny Woodhead, RB

Chicago Bears over Miami Dolphins, 16-0

With third string quarterback Tyler Thigpen starting for the Dolphins off a short week I thought they were in big trouble, and they were. Add to that some injuries on the Dolphins’ offensive line and they were in even bigger trouble. The Dolphins offense just never could get it going and they were giving up a lot of yards on kick returns to Devin Hester that set up Chicago for an early lead that they never relinquished.

I think Thigpen is a decent quarterback and with a regular practice schedule and some protection can win some games for the Dolphins.

MVP: Devin Hester, KR/WR

Baltimore Ravens over Carolina Panthers, 37-13

This game went pretty much as expected with the Ravens dominating the undermanned Carolina Panthers on both sides of the ball. Nothing against Brain St. Pierre but when you sign a perennial backup and third stringer off the street to be your starter you are in big trouble. That goes doubly true if you are facing a ball hawking Ravens defense.

MVP: Ray Rice, RB

Philadelphia Eagles over New York Giants, 27-17

Despite being only a game up on the New York Giants in the NFC East, the Eagles staked their claim to the division title with a win over the New York Giants. While it wasn’t the otherworldly performance of a week ago against the Washington Redskins, the Eagles played good enough, especially on defense, to pull out a tough win. More impressive is the defense is playing better than it has all year long.

While the Giants are a bit banged up they are a strange team to watch week in and week out. Some weeks they look great and other weeks they look awful, even in some of their wins. You never know what Giants’ team is going to show up.

MVP: Jeremy Maclin, WR

San Diego Chargers over Denver Broncos, 35-14

Has a sleeping giant awoken from its slumber? After three straight wins and basically handing a game to the New England Patriots, the Chargers, even at 5-5, are poised to take the AFC West title if they keep winning. They have some tough matchups ahead but I am not a big believer in the Kansas City Chiefs or Oakland Raiders and the Denver Broncos are almost out of it.

This was a very dominating performance in all phases of the game by the Chargers. And while Philip Rivers was brilliant and really is having an MVP type season, backup running back Mike Tolbert set the tone early in the game with tough runs.

MVP: Mike Tolbert, RB

PLAYERS OF THE WEEK

Offensive Player: Steve Johnson, WR, Buffalo Bills
Defensive Player: Julius Peppers, DE, Chicago Bears
Offensive Lineman: Sebastian Vollmer, T, New England Patriots
Special Teams: Devin Hester, KR/WR, Chicago Bears
Rookie of the Week: Gerald McCoy, DT, Tampa Bay