Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Keep It Real

I don’t know what happened in the Sean Taylor murder and perhaps we’ll never know, but it’s not just a random burglary and shooting. Taylor had his scrapes with the law and at one point was charged with brandishing a weapon during some alleged gang activity.

A week before the killing, there was a break in at his house and a knife was left on his bed. The murderer cut the phone lines to his house before they broke in, knocked down a locked bedroom door and fired two shots at Taylor, one fatal, hitting him in the leg.

Taylor’s girlfriend and his daughter weren’t involved, although both were there. Taylor grabbed a machete he kept by his bed, anticipating trouble. That, of course, didn’t help at all.

Police are pretty tight lipped but information will come out about what happened and how the shooter circumvented the security system and gained access to the house. Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post said that Taylor never “rejected a violent lifestyle,” and that appears to be true.

Many professional athletes come from neighborhoods riddled with violence, poor neighborhoods trouble seemingly at every turn. Some reject that, and others embrace it. Still others would like to get away from that life, only to be constantly lured back by the call of “keeping it real.”

I understand loyalty to the people who raised you and to the people who you grew up with, but it’s very difficult to comprehend athletes “keeping it real” when it’s illegal and puts their career and even lives at risk.

There’s a good article in Sports Illustrated about Michael Vick and his “friends” who all were part of his “Bad Newz” enterprise. The authors of the article theorize that most black athletes from poor neighborhoods are ill equipped to deal with the fame and money that comes their way as top-flight professional athletes. They don’t trust new people and consequently rely on their friends from “the neighborhood” to get things done, even if they’re not qualified.

Baron Davis, according to SI is a good example of somebody who still empowers his old neighborhood with educational initiatives and small business loans without succumbing to the entourage that Michael Vick and others carry around.

“I believe in helping the systems,” Davis said, “Not the individuals.”

The NFL tries to help rookies feel comfortable during their transition into professional sports with lectures and seminars about what you might call “life in the fast lane.” But after their rookie year it’s up to the team to continue those lessons and programs.

I have noticed that in NFL locker rooms there are posters about accountability, relationship abuse, firearms, gambling and off-field behavior. Whether any of the players takes the time to read them is anybody’s guess.

But the league is starting to understand that if there’s an issue that can be directly related to ticket sales and reputation it’s off-field behavior. “I don’t relate to the culture at the games anymore,” one Jaguars season ticket holder told me recently. “The players don’t seem to have any interest in relating to the fans and it turns me off.”

I know exactly what he was talking about but told him he’s got to be willing to move in the player’s direction and vise-versa. “You’re never going to be black or young again,” I explained, but the league is mainly a young, black man’s game.

The problem is the ticket buying public is mainly white and either middle aged or old. So the two sides are going to have to find some “middle ground,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell has instituted a personal conduct policy that is the first step in bringing the players in line with what could be called normal behavior.

Did you hear Joe Gibbs say he didn’t know that Taylor was in Miami? It’s no surprise because with the amount of money the players have at their disposal, leaving Sunday after the game and returning for practice Wednesday morning doesn’t mean just going home and cutting the grass. Chartered jets headed to Miami Beach or Vegas are a regular occurrence for a “getaway.”

So it’s a big issue and one that’s not going away.
The only way to fix it is to work on it.

From both sides.


Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Change For The Better

When I first heard of Fred Taylor, he was a prized recruit coming out of South Florida to the University of Florida. He really was just a kid. Raised by his grandmother in a house with dirt floors in a tough neighborhood, he was about as wide-eyed and impressionable as any freshman in college history. Not college football history, college history.

“I couldn’t breathe,” Fred told me after his first game at Florida Field. “Running out of that tunnel, I couldn’t believe how many people were there. I couldn’t catch my breath. I’ve never seen that many people in my whole life.”

We have a good laugh about that occasionally. Fred’s able to laugh at some of those things now. That wasn’t always the case. While at Florida he got himself into trouble a couple of times. Nothing really major, if I remember correctly. But I do remember that Steve Spurrier looked him in the eye one day and said, “You’ll be out of here the next time,” and Fred paid attention and straightened up.

He was a hot commodity coming out of college. A strong and fast tailback who had moves and power. At over six feet and 230lbs. many teams coveted Taylor. Tom Coughlin originally wanted Curtis Ennis out of Penn State but when he traded Rob Johnson to Buffalo for their first pick, the ninth overall, Taylor was the obvious selection.

“Hey Sam,” Fred said at his initial press conference as a rookie, flashing a smile that revealed several gold teeth. We did several interviews that year that I sent to other stations in the state and to a couple of the networks. He was a hot topic. But his grandmother didn’t like the way he looked with those gold teeth. I saw him in training camp the following year without the teeth and mentioned how he looked good. “My grandmother didn’t like those teeth,” Taylor admitted somewhat embarrassingly. “So I changed them out. No big deal.”

I didn’t think anything of it at the time but I should have known that a pattern was developing. Off the field, Fred was getting a reputation as a very “sociable” player part of a group of young players not afraid to have a good time. He made news when his agent, Tank Black, made off with $5 million of Fred’s signing bonus and Taylor admitted he wasn’t paying much attention. Reportedly, Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver made it right and gave Fred a little fatherly advice.

When Taylor stepped out of line off the field, Head Coach Tom Coughlin also gave him some advice. “Keep this up,” Coughlin told Fred, “and you’ll be out of the league soon.”

“I admit I wasn’t taking care of myself. My nutrition, not getting enough rest and just wasn’t acting right. But I’ve changed that and I’m on the right path.” That was Fred just a few days ago, admitting that he’s had several revelations in his career.

“I also got married, had kids and that really changed my life.” He’s right about that. Taylor is close to his family and closer to his faith. “God is a good God,” Taylor said during the End Zone on Monday night. “He didn’t lose faith in me and neither did my teammates.”

You might have noticed that Taylor now wears a captains “C” on his jersey in games. “That’s an honor I bestowed on him a couple of weeks ago,” Head Coach Jack Del Rio said explaining his change in philosophy. “He’s earned it. He’s done things here on the field and in the organization that has shown he’s a leader.” Del Rio usually likes to name his captains game to game, but Taylor is an exception.

“I’m doing the same things as before. I’m not a rah-rah guy but I’m willing to show my teammates how to do things right,” he said when I asked him about the “C” after the win over San Diego. That’s a statement I never thought I’d hear from Fred.

“I didn’t think I’d still be in the league,” Taylor told me when I asked him if he thought he’d gain 10,000 yards in his career.

Taylor’s gone from a mumbler in interviews to an eloquent spokesman for himself and his teammates. He’s unbelievably popular, a testament to his likeability that seems to come through. I was disappointed when he didn’t stick around for 10 minutes to sign autographs but other than that he’s turned into quite a solid guy.

I’ve seen enough guys go the other way, from easy-going to unlikable. It’s nice to see somebody go in the other direction. Especially somebody who’s as easy to like as Fred.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Personal Responsibility

I guess you could write this column every day. Athlete does something stupid, gets caught, pays a penalty, claims he didn’t realize it was a mistake, apologizes and moves on. I guess that’s accepted in today’s world and even expected. But I think fans have had just about enough. I know they have here in Jacksonville.

Marcus Stroud isn’t a rookie and isn’t a stupid guy either, but his use of a substance that contained a banned element is stupid because that doesn’t have to happen.

“The resources are there,” Rashean Mathis told me last week. “Anything you have that you want to take, you can ask the doctors or the trainer or you can get something from them.”

What did Marcus take? Who knows! He’s not saying except to give it the tired, “Must have been something tainted in the supplement,” answer. So he lets down his teammates and everybody in the organization and won’t play for the next four weeks. That’s Tennessee and Indianapolis, both division games and San Diego and Buffalo, both conference games.

He’s out ¼ of his salary because of the suspension and will have the specter of cheating over his career for as long as it lasts. Maybe he was taking something for his ankle. Maybe he was trying to put on/lose weight. Whatever it was, it’s a stupid decision when it comes to being a professional athlete and the fans aren’t taking it so well.

People ask me every day, “Why, aren’t they smarter than that?” So what’s the answer? I’d like to say they are, but their actions seem to prove the contrary.

Justin Durant and Richard Collier were both arrested last Friday night after leaving a nightclub near Bay meadows and Rte. 1. Alcohol was involved in both cases begging the question, “Why not just get a ride home?” I’m sure anybody who’s been charged with DUI has said that to themselves, but you’d figure with the resources at the player’s disposal as far as money or free rides, it should make that decision easier.

I remember being 22 and bulletproof and invisible and I’ve driven plenty of times when I shouldn’t have been behind the wheel, but at the time I didn’t have the resources in front of me that the players do. Nor the standing in the community or the support of a bunch of teammates. I often wonder why Brittany Spears doesn’t have a driver either!

Anyway, the Jaguars are playing with the emotions of the fans with their off-field actions and how they got beat by New Orleans. The rumors about the number of players at that nightclub in Baymeadows have spread around town and chip away at the credibility of the team and the players.

People really want to believe in professional athletes who represent their town, but they’re now to the point where bad behavior is kind of expected. Expected but not tolerated. The league and the Jaguars realize this and have taken the first steps to trying to fix that.

Wayne Weaver said he was “disgusted” with the players’ lack of discipline and knowing Wayne, he won’t put up with it. But who are the team “enforcers” on the Jaguars? Which guys in the locker room are the ones the other players are accountable to?

Jack Del Rio and James Harris have gotten rid of the middle year veteran players, perhaps because of money and the salary cap but it seems that those players are the ones who set the tone. Look at New England. The Patriots have a bunch of guys who don’t put up with anything and even said so when Randy Moss was on the horizon. That’s where the personal responsibility and accountability come into play. I don’t think it’s a goose that can lay golden eggs forever.

If the league and the Jaguars don’t get a firm handle on it, they’ll be fewer people watching on television and in person no matter how many blackouts there are.