Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Ryder Cup 2002

There seemed to be a collective yawn coming from our side of the Atlantic after Europe wrested the Ryder Cup from the Americans on Sunday. Yes, it was exciting, and some people tuned in live in the morning to catch all of the action, but there sure wasn’t the fervor that’s existed around the cup since the mid-’80’s. Maybe it’s the fact that it was postponed a year, perhaps it’s because we were just trying to be good sportsmen, but that feeling that it was important wasn’t there.

We’re rooting for our guys, we want them to play well, but we just don’t want it as bad as the Europeans. And that’s reflected in our players as well. All are well off, multi-millionaires playing for their country once a year, arriving in their private jets, toting along family members, caddies, assorted outfits and all of the latest technology people can give them. Even the desire to win is there, and there in bunches, but it’s just not as important as it is to the Europeans.

Winning or losing the Ryder Cup can define a player’s or a coach’s career in European golf. Sam Torrance will now always be known as the genius captain who sent out his big guns first and swayed the momentum in favor of his team. (Conversely, I suppose, Curtis Strange will always be known as the foolhardy captain who left his best players, Mickelson and Woods, essentially on the bench.)

Just about all of the guys on the European side make their living playing golf in America. And none, save for Colin Montgomerie, have much bad to say about being over here. There’s not that snotty Faldo attitude to dislike, or the swagger of a Ballesteros to fume at. What’s not to like about Darren Clarke? Who is Nicholas Fasth? So it seems the popularity of the Ryder Cup has reached it’s zenith and come back to earth. If the popularity of the competition was actually based on one side’s dislike for the other, then the whole premise that Samuel Ryder put his name on the cup for was lost.

The players put together these matches originally, with Ryder adding the cup after two competitions. It was a gentlemanly way to square off, head-to-head using home course advantage on either side of the Atlantic. The Brits vs. the Americans, with all of Europe only being invited in the late ’70’s. The matches were scheduled every two years because of the travel originally involved. (Now both teams make the transatlantic trip via the Concorde. Three hours, three and a half, tops.)

America’s best player, Tiger Woods, half-jokingly said last week that he’d rather win the World Golf championship event than the Ryder Cup. “I can think of a million reasons (the amount of the winners check) I’d rather win here,” Tiger said. And in this era of golf’s Tiger mania, if Tiger says it’s not important, than it most not be that important. Now, if all of the sudden Tiger jumps up and says “The Ryder Cup is the most important thing in the world to me,” then it’ll jump back up in stature. And we know that’s not going to happen.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Bob Hayes

When Bob Hayes became ill last year, I went to see him in the hospital at Shands Jacksonville, slipping in the back door and wandering up to his room. He did not look well, perhaps a simplistic statement about somebody who is in the hospital, but he looked sick. He called me by name as I walked into the doorway and motioned me to a chair next to the bed. “I’m tired,” the man once known as ‘The World’s Fastest Man,’ said in a low voice.

We talked a little bit about football, watched some television and just passed the time. It was just the two of us, and as I left, Hayes said, “I need some prayers.”

Hayes had a conflicted life, the highest highs and the lowest lows. The only man to win an Olympic Gold Medal and a Super Bowl ring, Hayes was never able to capitalize on his success, having succumbed to the fast lifestyle available to someone of his notoriety in the 60’s and 70’s. He continued to battle life’s temptations until he became ill last year.

From the streets of Jacksonville to a high school without a track, Hayes took his speed to FAMU and to US Track and Field. The Dallas Cowboys saw raw talent there, and helped transform Hayes into an unmatched weapon in professional football. He changed the way defenses played the game. They invented the zone defense trying to keep Hayes from running wild every Sunday. He still holds several Cowboys records. He was inducted into the Cowboys’ Ring of Honor last year. So why, I’m often asked, isn’t Bob Hayes in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

When he was eligible as a modern day player, Hayes was denied selection because of his off-field problems. The social conscience of the time wouldn’t allow the selection committee to consider Hayes for the Hall. Paul Hornung wasn’t selected until his final year of eligibility, no doubt because of his suspension for gambling. That reasoning for the lack of consideration is no longer valid. The Committee selected Lawrence Taylor for induction with many well-documented off-field transgressions (I voted no on Taylor) saying they were not allowed to be considered according to the selection by laws.

Some committee members at the time were biased against Hayes, a track man in a football world. And some considered his alleged lack of willingness to perform in the NFL Championship Game, the “Ice Bowl” in Green Bay, enough of an indictment to keep him out of the Hall. Whatever the reason, or reasons, Hayes was not selected during his eligibility as a modern day player. He would only be eligible as a senior candidate at this point.

The seniors committee meets every August to go through the list of former players, coaches and contributors who might have “slipped through the cracks.” Former Coach George Allen is the latest person to be inducted under these criteria. So, if the seniors committee did not select Hayes last month, he can be considered again in August of 2003. His death will have no bearing on his consideration. The committee has shown no sentimentality in the past.

The dynamic of the full selection committee has also changed dramatically in the last five years as well. It’s more focused on performance of a player than ever before. The average age, through retirement, expansion and franchise relocation, has gotten younger. If Hayes were brought before this committee in the future, his chances for induction would be greater than before. One of the comments in favor of Lynn Swann two years ago cited a mental highlight reel of the NFL in the 70’s and early 80’s that couldn’t run without Swann in it. The same can be said for Hayes in a earlier era.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

John Unitas

Growing up in Baltimore in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s you were a Colts fan. There wasn’t a lot of choice in the matter. Everybody followed the Colts. Even if you moved to Baltimore from out of town, you might have kept your allegiance to some other team, but you did it quietly. On the outside, you were a Colts fan.

I didn’t know any other football teams really. The Redskins and Eagles were teams we beat all the time. The Browns were occasionally good. The Giants had been in decline, and the Packers were the team we hated the most. We talked about the Colts; our parents, teachers, friends and even our priests talk about the Colts. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they were among the best teams in the league at that time, and had some of the best players to ever play the game wearing the blue and white.

And they had Johnny Unitas.

There were the Colts, the guys who played on Sunday and wore the Colts uniforms, and then there was Unitas, the guy who, in our minds invented football. If football players are larger than life, Unitas was some kind of sports deity. Being cut by the Steelers and acquired by the Colts through a sixty-cent phone call, Unitas was perfect for Baltimore. Maybe it’s because it’s a port town, and maybe because it’s always been working class and full of immigrants and ethnic neighborhoods, Baltimore has always seemed to be full of people who tried harder. It’s always had that second-city identity, and Unitas was embraced as one of us. He wasn’t the biggest or fastest, but he usually was the smartest guy on the field. In an era where the quarterback called the plays, Unitas had a knack for always calling the right one.

In 1998, the NFL had a 40th anniversary celebration at the Super Bowl of the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Colts and the New York Giants known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” All of the big names from that game were there. Except Unitas. He said he had a previous engagement, but actually he was angry with the NFL and their medical benefits coverage for players of his era. Still, he was the topic of conversation among Lenny Moore, Art Donovan, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and the others. “Unitas just picked us apart,” Huff said when asked about the Colts’ drives at the end of regulation and in overtime. “He was the best,” the Hall of Fame linebacker added.

In a crowded room of reporters I asked if they were anticipating the match up again in 1959 title game. “Nah,” Huff dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand, “they still had Unitas and we didn’t. He was the difference. We knew it would be the same.”

Unitas defined what a quarterback was supposed to be: talented without being showy, smart without being a know-it-all and confident without being cocky. He wasn’t just in the game; he was part of the game. He knew where everybody was supposed to be on the field at all times. All 21 other players. Some of his teammates, and many of his competitors thought Unitas to be too cocky. He scoffed at that idea saying, “Conceit is when you’re bragging. Confidence is when you know you can get the job done. And you let those other guys in the huddle know they can get the job done too. Without them, I’m nothing.”

He was probably right about the 1970 Super Bowl where Don Shula (then the Colts Head Coach) put him in too late to do anything. The Jets, 16-7, upset the Colts, the first win for the AFL. Asked if he would have made a difference if he had started Unitas offhandedly said, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.”

In the shifting American culture of the late 50’s through the early 70’s, Unitas was “old school” before anybody heard of “old school.” The sloped shoulders, the single bar helmet and the trademark black high tops. Running around in my front yard we were always, Tarkenton, Jurgensen or even Dr. Frank Ryan. Nobody was Unitas. He was too revered. It never was even a question. We were not worthy. Nobody wore 19. That was Johnny U’s number. Period. You just didn’t wear 19. Sure, when you were playing catch you could emulate that two handed, shoulder-shifting, seven-step drop with a perfect over-the-top delivery, but never in the street game. You’d be ridiculed. “What? You trying to be Unitas or something?”

Intensely private, Unitas stayed out of the spotlight after his retirement, even when he went back to work out of football after some failed investments. He worked with a friend of my father in the import/export business for a while. It was hard to believe that you could call a business and they’d put you through to Johnny U. “Unitas,” is how he answered the phone when my Dad put in a call after some prodding from his friend. “Uh, uh, uh,” were the first three things my Dad said until Unitas interrupted him and said in a calm and very friendly manner, “I get this a lot. Just relax and tell me how I can help you.” Once composed, my Dad and John Unitas had a pleasant, short conversation.

We should have known something about the Irsays when they allowed Unitas to finish his career with San Diego. Unitas did go over 40,000 yards passing in a Chargers uniform, the first quarterback to do so. And he taught Dan Fouts how to be a quarterback.

He wanted his stats deleted from the Colts record book once they moved to Indianapolis. If they weren’t from Baltimore, they couldn’t possibly be the Colts. (I’ve always been somewhat chagrined that there was no loud cry for a new team in Baltimore when Irsay moved the Mayflower vans out under the cover of darkness in 1984. When Modell moved the Browns, you’d have thought a national crime was committed, but when the Colts were stolen, there wasn’t a peep outside of Baltimore.)

So it always seemed strange to me when Unitas adopted the Ravens when they moved to town. But there he was, standing on the sidelines during most home games, just lending his aura, his connection to tradition, to the newest immigrants in Baltimore.

I saw John Unitas last year at the Jaguars/Ravens game. Waiting for an elevator, the doors opened, and standing there in a khaki windbreaker and a young p.r. intern at his side was Johnny U. I stood there for a second, and when we made eye contact it gave me that “are you getting on” look. I really didn’t want to bother him, but somehow I did want him to know what a positive influence he’d been on my life. So I just said, “Hi,” and mentioned that I grew up in Baltimore and had been a Colts fan in his playing days. “Yeah, those were great times,” he said, as I’m sure he’d said a million times before. But he said it with that trademark self-deprecating smile as the doors opened and we walked toward the field.

I thought about that two-handed, shoulder shifting, seven step drop with the perfect overhand delivery as he stepped onto the field.

“What? You trying to be Unitas or something,” I heard my boyhood friends shouting in my memory.


Shouldn’t we all?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Wolfson Park

I let a girl take advantage of me at Wolfson Park once. Actually, she pretty much did whatever she wanted, and I just stood there, without any say in the matter. After about 3 minutes, she was finished with me, kind of chuckled, and sent me away. She had struck me out. That’s right, a girl struck me out. Not just any girl actually. As a pitcher for the “Silver Bullets” a traveling promotional all-girls baseball team, this pitcher spent some time in baseball’s minor leagues before retiring. But she struck me out along the way. Twice.

At Wolfson Park.

That was just one of the memories that floated by this weekend for me during the final regular season games at the 47 year old baseball stadium. There’s been a lot of baseball played there, and some softball too. Since the Bragans took over ownership of the minor league franchise in Jacksonville, they’ve made Wolfson Park a friendly place. Not just for minor league games, but for all kinds of ball playing. There have been celebrity softball games, home run hitting contests, Senior Men’s baseball match ups and the games with the “Silver Bullets.” I hit off Bob Feller at Wolfson Park. And two of the three fights I’ve been in in my adult life were right in Wofson’s dugouts.

But the best thing about the ballpark is it was just that, a ballpark. You knew baseball was played there. You could feel it; you could smell it when you walked through the front door. That musty, well-worn, rosin bag, glove oil, popcorn, hot dog, hamburgers-on-the-grill smell that only a ballpark can create.

And it was friendly. Between the early “Hey boy!” calls from Peter Bragan Sr. as he greeted fans who stopped by his seat on the way to theirs, to the earnest “Thanks for comin'” from Peter Jr. (Pedro) as he shook hands by the stadium’s exit, there was a lot of fun to be had at the ball park. My kids learned about professional sports there. Unlike the football stadium where the action seems sterile and removed, at Wolfson Park it was right in your lap. The on deck circle was an arms length away and foul balls were on you in a hurry.

Wolfson Park used to be known as a pitchers park. With a brick outfield wall a mile away, fly balls were gobbled up easily and the wind kept everything in play. But once Pedro put up “Bragan’s Blue Monster” the double-decked, sign-filled, outfield wall inside the bricks, it became a hitter’s paradise. It also made it more fun for the fans. Not just because the wall created all sorts of caroms and knocked enough of the wind down to let balls fly out of there, but it also moved the entire field back 15 feet, leaving a measly 45 feet between home plate and the back fence. Sitting in the front row gave you the feel of being in the batters box. Once, while sitting up front, I was caught on tape eating a salad at a game. A salad! I encouraged Pedro to add salads to the menu a few years ago for “something lighter” I think were the words I used. Boy did I catch grief for that!

Although many future stars and even Hall of Famers have played at Wolfson Park, it’s not a magical place. It more friendly than anything, and the Bragan’s have made it a priority to keep it a friendly, family place. From the candy on Mr. Bragan’s desk to the untold memorabilia in Pedro’s office, there’s not a spot you’d feel unwelcome in at Wolfson Park. And because of that, we’ll remember Wolfson Park.