Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Fred Taylor, Back Again!

Since he was at Belle Glade in high school, Fred Taylor has always dreamed of playing in the Super Bowl. But last year was the first time he ever went. “I went in support of Plax”(Plaxico Burress of the Giants), Fred revealed on Tuesdays. “Sat there through the whole game, it was the toughest thing I’ve ever done.”

Taylor had been invited before “after my rookie year, to see the Titans. I couldn’t do it. I thought about scalping the tickets but I gave them back.”

It wasn’t an un-emotional time at the game for Fred either. “I had a tear in my eye a couple of times. They say you can’t really know what it’s like to play in the game and that’s exactly right. Until you make your first catch, or your first run and see those flashbulbs going off, you can’t really know.”

It’s something he wants as part of his career: a trip to the big game. “Desperate?” Fred asked when the question was posed about his emotions regarding getting to the game. “I don’t think desperate is the right word. Hungry maybe. I’m hungry to experience that.”

Taylor has been through just about all of the ups and downs a NFL Player can endure. He’s had near misses for the Super Bowl, droughts of no playoff appearances, serious and nagging injuries but he’s kept his spirits up. Admittedly changed since getting married and becoming a father, Taylor knows his life is charmed.

“I’m still a young kid. I play a kid’s game. You have to go out there and have fun. I’m just a bit more mature. I try to have that young man’s mindset at times. I know how to crossover. I know how to flip that switch. I’m a pro. That is the one thing you can say about me. I know when to say yes and when to say no. I’m not going to kiss any butt, but I am going to try and make the right decision because it benefits more than me. I have a family to take care of.”

He refuses to think of a career without a Super Bowl ring and doesn’t miss a chance to look at a championship ring when he sees one. “I saw Joe Theismann’s last night. That’s plenty of motivation.”

Thanks to last year’s run the Jaguars and Taylor know they’re no longer a “dark horse.” They’ll be the favorite most of the year and teams they beat last season will gear up for them. Fred hopes that he can show enough leadership to get guys focused on this year and not last.

“Hopefully all of us can get on the same page and realize that last year was last year. We are going to be targeted by a lot of teams, a lot of teams that we beat last year. They are going to come after us. It’s no secret. I think at this point we are further ahead than we were last year offensively. Defensively, Coach (Gregg) Williams, he does so many different things as far as disguising and putting pressure on opposing offenses. I really do like our chances. I think we can put some good things together.”

I asked Fred if this team just needs a mental adjustment or a little luck to get where they want to be.

“You have to believe. I believe in our team first of all whether it’s a backup guy…it doesn’t matter who’s in there. Going into each game if you have your slated starters in there your confidence is extra high. You have to have faith in the guys behind those starters as well. I believe we can compete with any team in this league. You shouldn’t think any other way or otherwise you are in the wrong business.”

As a veteran player, Taylor knows his time is short in the league. It’s pretty unbelievable he’s played this long as a running back to begin with. He’s taking better care of himself and has the enthusiasm that’s needed to compete in the league.

“Certain things that I have to do, I will buckle down and try and get the job done. Things that I can have fun and mess around with, I take advantage and do it when I can. I get enough mess with the young guys on the team. Somebody called me A.C. Green the other day. It’s a lot of fun. Last year I had so much fun, the most fun I had had in my whole career. This year I expect to be the same way. I pray that we get two games further than we made last year. From there, the sky’s the limit.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Don Shula Still Coaching

The last time I saw Don Shula was at the Super Bowl here in Jacksonville. Dan Marino was eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame and as a shoo-in; Shula was in town to lend support.

I was standing in a group of four reporters talking to the winningest head coach in the history of the league when the guy standing next to me started to ask Shula a question in a foreign language. I didn’t recognize it immediately but knew it was something Eastern European. When Shula nodded his head and started to answer, in the foreign language, he stopped and smiled at the reporter next to me, the beat guy from Miami and said, “You didn’t know I speak Hungarian did you? You don’t know everything about me,” he continued with a laugh.

I’ve been around Shula a lot in his career and he’s always been very direct, fairly measured and straight forward dealing with the media. Tolerant is probably the best word. But this exchange showed me a little something different, a bit of relaxation and enjoyment.

I saw the same Don Shula this week here in town as he opened his 25th steakhouse that bears his name. “How are you,” the coach said as he offered a handshake in a side banquet room. “Hi Coach, Sam Kouvaris,” I said, re-introducing myself. “Of course Sam,” Shula responded strengthening his grip on my hand.

Shula meets thousands of people so I didn’t expect him to know me by name, so it’s always nice when somebody gives you that smile of recognition, even if they have no idea what your name is.

As is the case in these situations, Shula’s PR help was nearby and my producer/photographer, Kevin Talley was right there as well. But in an instant I looked around and noticed that it was just the coach and me. The PR guy left and Kevin headed to the car to get something. That’s when I could tell Shula was a changed person since his coaching days. He asked me how I’d been, if I’d been busy what I thought the Jaguars might be up to. His conversation was easy and relaxed, and seemed genuine.

I got a chance to tell Shula the “Hungarian” story, and he laughed. Told him about growing up in Baltimore and how my Dad was a big fan. Asked him about a couple of things early in his career as a player and as a coach and had a chance to tell him that I was a big fan as a kid.

“Where you from in Baltimore,” the coach asked as a BS check I’m sure. “Woodlawn,” I answered. “You know that Super Bowl loss cost me the job in Baltimore,” Shula volunteered referring to Super Bowl III and the famous loss to the Jets and Joe Namath. “But then I ended up in Miami and that seemed to work out OK,” he said with a quick laugh.

We did the actual interview and Shula continued to be quick with the laughs and the jokes, the hand gestures and the one-liners. “Porterhouse,” he responded, “Medium well,” when asked what he usually ordered at his own restaurant.

He has a stock answer for the standard quarterback question he’s always asked: Unitas, Griese or Marino. “I was fortunate to coach John Unitas and he’s the best I ever saw at running a game and getting the best out of everybody around him.

Griese was a great field general. Liked to set things up. I once sent in a play-action pass on the goal line. Quarterbacks loved that because it means a touchdown pass. Griese changed it and gave it to Csonka for the TD. I asked him about it as he came off and he said, ‘It was open.’

Marino was the opposite. Dan hated to run the ball. Defensive coaches around the league would have thanked me if I made him run the ball all the time. He had that great arm and that quick release and could fit the ball into so many small spaces”.

Shula was especially forthcoming about just about everything. “You know I had Csonka, Mercury Morris and Jim Kiick and I used those guys in the right situations that they could be successful in. It was the first of the substitutions but it worked.“ He’s proud of what he’s accomplished, and rightfully so.

“Coaching is about putting people in the right situation where they can be successful. Whether it was Griese or Marino, I always tried to give them the best chance to win.” With a record 347 wins, it worked. Instead of trying to impose his “system” on his players or his teams.

At 77 years old he looks great and is still sharp. “I do a lot of cruising with my wife Mary Anne,” he explained when I asked him about his current lifestyle. “How’s Nutrisystem,” I asked since he’s become a pitchman for the weight loss company. “It works,” but I’ve been on a couple of cruises since then and maybe put a few pounds back on but it works.”

I was really happy for Shula. He still wants to be relevant but wants to enjoy life and the body of work he’s left behind. I thanked him for his time and has been my practice, I also thanked him for the positive impact he had on my life as a kid growing up in Baltimore.

“You know that Jets loss cost me that job in Baltimore,” Shula said again.
“Well coach, it seemed to work out,” I said with a laugh.

And it still is.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Federer & Nadal: Tennis’ Past & Future?

Maybe it’s become a niche sport. Outside of the Grand Slam tournaments does anybody pay attention to tennis anymore?

It seems not.

John McEnroe even thanked Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for what they did for tennis playing their epic, 5-set Wimbledon final on Sunday.

But did it matter?

I certainly hope so.

Despite the numerous disparaging remarks regarding the game of tennis itself, the match was an athletic achievement that is nearly unmatched. Just two weeks ago, fans were lauding Tiger Woods’ effort in the US Open playoff and ratcheted that up another notch when news of his knee problems broke. That was a stunning individual achievement up against adversity and pain. Yes, there was an opponent, but the real opponent for Tiger was the golf course, not Rocco.

In the Wimbledon final, both players had to play offense and defense. They had to endure delays, highs and lows to their own play and they had to weather streaky play by their opponent.

“Maybe the best match I’ve ever seen,” former Wimbledon champ Tony Trabert told me on the phone Sunday night.

“They hit shots that were just unbelievable. Match point against him and Federer just fires one down the line, six inches inside the sideline and six inches inside the baseline. Incredible! Great confidence and execution.”

Trabert won three legs of the Grand Slam and served as the top tennis analyst for CBS and in Australia for more than 30 years. He’s seen a lot of tennis. So to say it’s one of the best ever, that’s something.

When the game went to the “Open Era” in 1968, it changed the competitions, allowing everybody to play. Before that, only “amateurs” were allowed in the big tournaments. McEnroe alluded to that when he talked about his conversation with Bjorn Borg earlier in the day Sunday.

“There’s much more emphasis on the Grand Slam tournament now,” the former Wimbledon champ said. “How many would Rod Laver have won if he had been able to play in all of them? Now it’s open and everybody’s interested.”

The game changed again when steel and wooden rackets were put away in favor of carbon and other materials. The ball was faster and the game became very power-oriented. So much so that finesse was taken out of tennis and replaced with a bunch of bangers. There were some exceptions, Pete Sampras being one, but mostly everybody moved to the baseline and just fired away. That’s because the technology was better than the players.

I think tennis players are underrated when it comes to their athletic ability and specifically their fitness but as athletes they lagged behind the technology that their equipment exhibited. It allowed average, one-dimensional players to be competitive.

In the wooden racket era, top athletes dominated. Trabert, Pancho Gonzalez, Arthur Ashe all used their athletic ability to create and win.

And that’s where tennis is back to.

Federer and Nadal were able to play such a thrilling, close match because for the first time their athletic ability has caught up to the technology. Maybe Nadal even more than Federer, but both certainly qualify. They’re both great tennis players but perhaps they’re even better athletes.

Ivan Lendl probably qualifies as one great athlete who was playing tennis in the last twenty years. Maybe Mal Washington, Patrick Rafter and certainly Boris Becker.

McEnroe would probably admit that he was a tennis player first and an athlete second, at least until later in his career.

But this is a new level for tennis.

Much like in golf where great athletes will choose the sport because of the money making potential as professionals, same thing with tennis.

Federer, and now Nadal are just the beginning.