By Bill Campbell
Unless I become miraculously inspired, which isn’t likely, there seem to be only two institutions worth writing about up front this week: Penn State and the Eagles. Let’s begin at Mount Nittany.
It’s amazing how so many different headlines can be so dramatically focused this week on the same area of achievement: Penn State winning its last game and changing what could have been a sorry season into an unforgettable one. Who would have predicted that the Lions football team would go 8 and 4 in this season of initial discontent? After losing its first two games, what were the expectations for the rest of the year? Remember when that sophomore, Sam Ficken, missed four field goals in the second game against Virginia? Who could have imagined that he would go on to make 12 of 13 in the last 7 games, including 3 for 3 in the last one against Wisconsin that sent the seniors home smiling? Will we ever forget seeing every Lions’ helmet bear the number “42” on it last Saturday? That was in salute to the injured senior Mike Mauti, who couldn’t play due to his third serious knee injury, the guy whose fellow Lions had described him as the “perfect team mate”. After this remarkable game and season, the headlines were just as memorable. One read, “Bad Start Turns into Good Finish”. Another hailed, “Blue and Whites Go Out in Style”. And there was the one that understated it all, stating, “Difficult Season Ends with a Win”. My favorite was the one acknowledging that this ending was not out of Hollywood but was, perhaps, “Out of Disney”. Because that’s the way the finale of this Penn State season felt to those of us who had followed it.
The Nittany Lions won on a 37-yard field goal by Sam Ficken in its first possession of overtime. Neither team made a first down in OT but the Lions got the ball first and gained 6 yards. Ficken kicked his third field goal of the game and his tenth in a row overall. Then Wisconsin took possession and quarterback, Curt Phillip, was sacked by Penn State defensive end, Stephen Morris. Wisconsin’s Kyle French’s 44 yard field goal attempt just missed to the left of the upright and Beaver Stadium exploded as 93, 505 fans hailed the Lions, Coach Bill O’Brien and a fitting close to this singular season. The Happy has returned to the Valley.
On the other hand, Eagles’ fans have had little or nothing to cheer about these days. In fact, I found the induction of Troy Vincent into the Eagles Hall of Fame last weekend a lot more interesting than watching the Birds lose their seventh straight. Most of all, I was really impressed by many of the things that the former Eagle had to say.
In his remarks to the press, it was clear that Vincent has been paying close attention to the current team and doesn’t like what he sees. He was in no hurry to fire the coach. Rather, he indicated that he has noticed player behaviors and read player quotes that he doesn’t approve of and he said so. As a player, Troy Vincent took pride in his leadership and he lays the current plight of the Eagles at the players’ feet rather than at the coaches’. Vincent said that he’s heard many comments about someone losing his touch but, at the end of the day, he thinks the game is about accountability “up and down the roster”. He doesn’t expect Coach Andy Reid to be fired until after the season and he thinks that, in the meantime, there is enough talent here to put a representative, competitive and challenging team on the field – but it’s up to the players. Vincent pulled no punches when it came to focusing on their apparent shortcomings, lack of pride and commitment to the game. It’s hard to disagree with him.
Troy Vincent was a member of an Eagles team much like the current one. It was Ray Rhodes’ last year. The team finished 3-13. Vincent had been a key player in Rhodes’ early years but in that last painful season everyone knew that there was going to be a major change. But, he seemed to say, you keep playing and doing your best. “Who the next coach will be is out of a player’s control,” he said to the press last week. “You take it as a responsibility to discuss it with your team mates, and embrace the new guy whoever he is.” These days, it’s called everybody getting on he same page. We see very little of that on this team, in this sorry season.
There were a few glimmers of daylight during the Eagles-Panthers Game – like the 65 yard run by rookie, Bryce Brown and a slightly improved performance by quarterback, Nick Foles. After the first two Panthers’ scores, we saw a somewhat better defensive job except in the secondary and a slight reduction in the use of the wide nine formation. Alex Henery kicked his 19th consecutive field goal and Jeremy Maclin had a better night. But when it was over, both teams were 3 and 8 and this discouraging season rolls on. There was some booing, a lot of signs letting Jeff Lurie know the fans are putting this on him now, and more than a few empty seats. Apathy reigns supreme.
While football filled most of the headlines, I have to note that a bit of inspiration can be found in the 76ers and the Andrew Bynum story. Not because Bynum has suddenly found his knees. Rather it’s because the Sixers have decided to stop discussing the time line in effect since acquiring Bynum from the Lakers and discovering his major knee problems and to play the news on his reactivation straight. Now we hear they’ve scratched that deadline and have left his return to play up to him. When Bynum is pain free and able to practice and play, that will be a big moment. But the Sixers say it won’t happen one day sooner than when the center says he’s ready.
Until now, dates for Bynum’s participation have fluctuated between mid-December and mid-January. Sixers’ General Manager, Tony DiLeo, said last week, “I don’t know when he’ll be back. No person on earth can give the proper answer except Andrew. The bottom line is that he is out indefinitely.” Prior to DiLeo’s announcement, the last word had been that Bynum would undergo MRI’s on both knees close to Christmas and that a decision could possibly be made on him then. Apparently, now the team has decided to tell the truth to the media and fans, re-strategize, leave it up to Bynum and hope for the best. In that recent statement, DiLeo also said, “His condition now and what it was at the time of the trade deadline is completely different.” But he also anticipated that Bynum will play here in the future, saying, “We hope he will be back soon but we do have plans for the future if he does not return. We hope that this will be a short term thing and we are continuing to hope his play here will be with us long term.”
We know that, until the first day of training camp, Bynum had been expected to participate. But the story about his knee issues began to unfold when camp opened and he didn’t appear. The reports have gotten worse since then. Two weeks ago, we learned that he had injuries in both his knees and that he had aggravated them while bowling. Now we don’t know when he will start, if ever. The 76ers say they had four independent doctors examine Bynum before getting involved in trading for him. It’s really incredible, the situation they find themselves in now. Bynum is in the last year of his contract with the Lakers, which the Sixers picked up, and he’ll collect $16.4 million before becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer. With all this going on, the team recently reached a contract extension with guard Jrue Holiday, who’s been averaging 18 points and 8 assists per game so far in this young season. They’re going to need him.
There’s much concern and conversation in sports these days about concussions. Recognizing and treating these serious head injuries could very well cause drastic changes in how our games are played in the future. They are particularly prominent in football. The NFL is a defendant in federal district court in Philadelphia where multiple suits brought by 2,300 retired players across the country, alleging that the league ignored the risks of such injuries and their long-term effects for decades, have been unified into one. The outcome of that litigation surely will impact the game in the future.
Since the 2011 season, certified trainers paid by the NFL and approved by the Players Association have scrutinized players to uncover evidence of head injuries.
Two weeks ago, 3 established quarterbacks – Michael Vick, Jay Cutler and Alex Smith – were sidelined on the same Sunday with concussion symptoms and other sports are falling under the same level of review with each passing day. Baseball has come under review as well as basketball, where the unforgiving hardwood floors always have been a concern. Of course, injuries incurred while playing hockey – the consummate contact sport – have earned much scrutiny in the U.S., Canada and, now, even in Europe. Forty-two states including Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware have passed versions of the Zackery Lystedt Law, named for a middle school football player who was permanently disabled after suffering a concussion in 2006 and being put back into a game. The legislation mandates that young athletes who exhibit concussion symptoms must be immediately sidelined and thoroughly examined before being permitted to play.
Due to the new monitoring requirements, the Eagles played the Carolina Panthers on Monday night without their two best offensive players. Both QB Michael Vick and running back, Le Sean McCoy, were out with concussion symptoms. This scenario has been repeated around the league every week. Additional rule changes, some of major consequence, are likely in the offing. While the safety and well-being of the players is paramount, we may be approaching a time when it will be difficult to recognize our long-standing sports. The type of hits and tackles that will be considered acceptable will decrease and trainers will pull players off the field more often than not. Maybe this will change the pace and feel of our pro sports, maybe not. But the players who’ve suffered permanent disabilities due to unrecognized or untreated concussions have paid a significant price. I guess we’re going to learn some things from them.
Let’s close with a little inspiration.
Jack Taylor is a 5’10” basketball player at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. He made almost every TV and radio sports show in the country last week when he scored an NCAA record point total of 138 against Faith Baptist Bible College in just 36 minutes. If only because I broadcast the game in March of 1962 when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in the NBA, I had to jot down a few notes about Taylor’s incredible performance. Shattering records in the NCAA or NBA like that doesn’t happen every day
Even the current NBA star LeBron James found Taylor’s accomplishment to be unbelievable. Commenting on the 138 pointer, James said that he has seen tapes of almost all the highest scoring games in basketball history – including Kobe Bryant’s 81 pointer and others. But, he said, “There are two games I would like to see: Wilt when he scored 100 and this kid in Iowa.” I hope that someone taped Jack Taylor’s game at Grinnell for posterity. LeBron said his highest total in a game was 56, which he scored against Toronto in 2005. He doesn’t remember racking up more than that, even when he was in high school. So Taylor should enjoy the star’s praise. Unfortunately, neither James nor Taylor will ever get to see Wilt’s 100 point game. We only had a radio broadcast that night from Hershey, PA, and a listener’s audio tape of the last few minutes of that game is stored now in the NBA Hall of Fame. There is no video – just some irreplaceable memories.
As for Jack Taylor, he blew the NCAA record books apart last Tuesday night. He took 71 three-point shots alone, made 52 of 108 overall, plus 7 free throws on 10 attempts as Grinnell won the game 179 to 104. Can you imagine anyone taking 108 shots in 36 minutes in a college game? It’s hard to wrap your head around. All of this causes me to recall a guy named Bevo Francis, who set the NCAA scoring record at 113 in 1954. And there was Frank Selvy, the only other player to reach triple figures, scoring 100 points for Division I Furman in 1954. I have to give a nod to Villanova’s Paul Arizin, who had the fifth highest total, 85, in 1949. But Jack Taylor is now a name in the record books too.
After the game, Taylor said that he had started off shooting cold but, once he got going, “It felt like anything I threw up was going in.” And in they went. A recent transfer to Grinnell, Jack Taylor was named Midwest Conference player of the week after his singular performance last Tuesday. I think they’re going to keep him.