Trevor Lawrence - Jacksonville Jaguars

To Rate A Quarterback

When the Jaguars took Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick in the NFL Draft last April, he became the twenty-first quarterback taken with the top pick in the last three decades. Two of those twenty-one, Peyton Manning and Troy Aikman, are in the Hall of Fame. Only one other, Eli Manning has won a Super Bowl. Among the eighteen remaining, only two, Cam Newton and Drew Bledsoe ever got their team to the title game.

For some, the jury is still out as Lawrence will become the eighth active quarterback in the league who was a number one pick. Quarterbacks have been the top pick the last four years and six of the last seven. That position is always over-valued in the draft, but clearly the expectations are high. When a team spends the number one pick on that position, they hope it changes the fortunes of their franchise.

“Wins and losses in the long run the first year don’t matter,” said Hall of Fame personnel evaluator Bill Polian. A six-time NFL executive of the year, Polian this week said what you look for in that first year for your franchise quarterback is “progress.”

“Peyton still laughs about his rookie year,” Polian said of the 3-13 finish for the Colts in 1998. “He still holds the record for interceptions by a rookie (28).”

While every throw, every step, every play this week by Lawrence has been dissected and charted by fans and the media, Polian says it’s a broader view that will let you know if your quarterback is going to make it or not.

“Players improve week to week, not really day to day,” the Hall of Famer said of the evaluation process. “At the end of the week ‘is he progressing’ will be the question the coaches are asking each other. That’s important in camp and in the preseason games. It’s not necessarily what the fans see. It’s how he’s managing the game, the command of the huddle, the command of the offense. And then being able to put it into practice when the lights go on.”

Quarterbacks who have played in the league say the same thing: there will be ups and downs for a rookie because it’s a different game. Faster, more complex, and for the first time, you see defensive players better than any you’ve played against.

“Trevor will have great practices and games and bad practices and games,” said Matt Robinson, a ninth-round pick for the New York Jets out of Georgia. “You need to get past the bad ones to have more great ones.”

And how you get past those bad days and on to the good ones is completely different in pro football according to Steve Pisarkiewicz, a first round pick by the Cardinals after a college career at Missouri.

“It’s a different game,” ‘Sark’ said about the transition to the pro game. “You spend the whole preseason doing the installs and learning the playbook. You might practice a play four times in one practice in college. In pro football they don’t have that kind of time, especially not now with the practice restrictions. They’ll practice a play once in the pros and talk about it in the film room. That’s where you have to adjust.”

Getting support from the coaching staff and your teammates is important for a rookie quarterback to develop. Some get it and some don’t. David Carr was so beat up after his rookie year he was never the same.

“That’s so important,” Polian stressed regarding supporting a rookie quarterback. “Late in Peyton’s rookie year we were in Baltimore in a tight game late. We have the ball and Peyton has an audible route to Marvin and he’s open in the end zone. And either Marvin ran the wrong route or Peyton threw the wrong route, but it didn’t work, and we lost. I told them after (Head Coach) Jim Mora talked to them and said, ‘this will never happen again. I’ve seen you guys’ work. Don’t worry, this won’t happen again. And it didn’t.”

Having played at the highest level and competed for championships during his college career at Clemson, Trevor Lawrence comes into the pro game one step ahead of most rookie quarterbacks making the transition to the next level. But there are things he’ll have to learn.

“Your pre-snap reads are everything,” Pisarkiewicz explained. “You don’t know that as a rookie. In college, you don’t see how teams disguise their coverages like they do in the pros. They tighten up the seams for throws in the pro game.”

Nobody doubts Lawrence’s physical skills. Polian says he trusts Clemson Head Coach Dabo Sweeney ‘100%’ when it comes to evaluating his players and “He thinks he’s something,” Polian added.

Robinson thinks it’s a little deeper than that when a rookie quarterback sticks his head into the huddle for the first time when the lights are on. If the other ten guys on the field know he knows more about the offense than they do, they’ll trust him.

“The team will follow how Trevor treats the players around him, how much he’s willing to work, and how much respect he gains from his teammates. Robinson said. “If they’re willing to fight for him, he can be the difference between six wins and nine wins as soon as this season.”

What do you look for if you’re not there in every meeting, every film session and every offensive and quarterback meeting? As they like to say in the NFL, is the arrow pointing up?

“I’ll look for calm mechanics,” Pisarkiewicz said. “Footwork, composure. In the NFL he’ll have to operate from the pocket a lot. I’ll look for his poise in the pocket.”

“There’s no magic right now for Trevor,” Robinson added. “He’s a great player. He’s had great success. At this level, it’s about how he understands the game plan. What they’re doing in the first quarter to set things up for the fourth quarter. What the offensive coordinator is trying to do and how it changes week to week, that’s where the magic will happen.”

All things point to Lawrence being under center in the Jaguars first game against Houston. Other quarterbacks, like Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, sat for at least their rookie year. Polian said that’s always beneficial, but in the case of a generational player like Lawrence, similar to Manning, the combination of his physical talent and his emotional makeup almost demands you put him in the game.

“For the first time in your life you’re going to get slings and arrows and you’re going to play against guys who are as good as you,” he explained. “When you’re in college, you’re better than everybody. He has to have played a lot of football and played in a program that has similar concepts to the pro game. I’ll tell you this, It’s not for everybody.”

If Polian was writing a scouting report on Lawrence, he said it would go something like this:

“Big arm, great athlete with great poise. Very football savvy. His football IQ is high. He’s a leader who played at the highest level. There’s nothing that would lead you to believe that he couldn’t succeed.”

And he added, “I don’t know what his emotional IQ is, but I know the Jaguars do. If you’re going to be great in the NFL, you’ve got to make the sacrifices. Unless you’re fully engaged, you’re not going to make it. The league is too tough.”

And this year might not provide the answers. Charting quarterbacks in practice might be a good hobby, but as we’ve seen with previous Jaguars quarterbacks, when the lights go on inside the stadium, that can be something totally different.

At the end of the season is progress being made? Is the arrow pointing up?

“Is your quarterback getting more efficient? Are you seeing growth?” Polian concluded. “You look at the careers of all of the greats, the arrow is up at the end of the first year they play. And that’s when they make the biggest jump, after the first year.”

And some of it you can only see happen when it counts.

” As the quarterback, if you empower those other guys on offense, they’ll get the job done,” Robinson explained. “It only happens when the quarterback is on the field in the heat of the moment.”

Trevor Lawrence

Where Do The Wins Come From?

By the middle of this week, all thirty-two NFL teams will be in training camp. Hope springs eternal in the league this time of year. Fans are pouring over the schedule, looking at the starting lineups, the injuries, the rookies added, and the veterans traded to come up with idea about what their team could be in 2021.

For Jaguars fans, it’s a difficult prediction because of all the new faces wearing teal and black. While most teams turn over about forty percent of their roster every year, the Jaguars number will be much higher than that.

Toss in a new head coach and a new system, and while the Jaguars have better personnel on paper than in the past, who knows what kind of actual team they’ll be come?

A couple of weeks ago in Las Vegas, a friend asked me to put $200 on the “over” for Jaguars wins this season. The oddsmakers have that number at six and a half.

“I’ll take $200 on number 128,” I told the clerk behind the cage in the sportsbook at The Wynn, giving her the line number of the Jaguars over win total on the board.

“One twenty-eight?” she asked as if she’d never heard anybody make that bet before.

“Yes, Jacksonville over,” I said with a laugh, acknowledging her question.

“OK!” she said with a rue smile, shaking her head as she printed the ticket.

At the time you had to bet $105 to win a hundred if you thought the Jaguars would win more than six games. You had to plunk down $140 to win a hundred if you thought the “under” would come through.

“Oh, we’ll win at least seven games,” my friend “Foul Ball” told me without the slightest bit of hyperbole last week. “We could win ten,” he added.

“Where do the wins come from?” I asked, echoing the question my friend “The Ghost” always asks.

“We’ll beat the Texans twice,” he explained. “And split with Indy and the Titans, so that’s four right there. Plus, we play the Bengals and the Lions, and we’ll beat the Dolphins in London so that’s seven. At least.”

All of that is easy to say, and certainly plausible. A 1-15 team improving to seven wins might not be unprecedented, but it certainly would be unusual. When the Browns went 0-16, they drafted Baker Mayfield with the number one pick and went 6-7 in games he started his rookie year. A significant turnaround that gave Browns’ fans hope and proved to be a building block for making Cleveland a contender.

Checking with my reporter colleagues in other NFL towns, they’re not impressed with what has happened in Jacksonville, at least not yet.

“The Cowboys were an established team, they had gone to the playoffs in the ‘90’s,” one scribe told me. “They brought in a super successful college coach in Jimmy Johnson and used the number one pick on Troy Aikman and they went 1-15. They eventually won three Super Bowls and they’re both in the Hall of Fame but it’s an adjustment. It’s a different game.”

“For the first time in a long time Urban Meyer will step on the field and not ‘out-talent’ the opponent,” another scribe noted. “Even with the changes they’ve made this year to the roster, at best in their first year, he’ll have a team that’s equal in talent to the guys on the other sideline. Nobody’s worried about the Jaguars except maybe the Texans. At least not this year.”

In the last decade, teams who finished last in their division one year and won it the next has happened ten times. The Jaguars are one of those teams, going 3-13 in 2016 and flipping that to 10-6 the following year, winning their first AFC South title during a run to the AFC Championship game

Two of the biggest turnarounds have happened in the Jaguars division. The Indianapolis Colts went from 3-13 in Peyton Manning’s rookie year to 13-3 the following season. And the year Manning was hurt, the Colts used their first overall pick on Andrew Luck and went from 2-14 to 11-5 with Luck as their starting quarterback.

Changing the quarterback is one of the common threads for teams with big turnarounds. The Cowboys put Dak Prescott in the lineup when Tony Romo was hurt and went from 4-12 to 13-3 between 2015 and 2016. The Chiefs changed their coach and their quarterback between 2012 and 2013 and went from 2-14 to 11-5 with Andy Reid and Alex Smith.

Winning with a rookie quarterback is the exception and not the rule in the NFL. But it is possible. Prescott is one example. Winning thirteen games in his rookie year ties him with Ben Roethlisberger for the most wins by a rookie quarterback. Luck won eleven times as a rookie. In the last twenty years Russell Wilson, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan did the same. Lamar Jackson won ten games as a rookie in 2018 for Baltimore and Kyle Orton won ten for Chicago in 2005. Jaguars’ fans no doubt would take the nine wins Robert Griffin III, Andy Dalton and Chase Daniel all posted in their rookie campaigns.

Where do the wins come from? Looking at the schedule they need to come early in the year for the Jaguars. While Jaguars fans have W’s and L’s next to this season’s opponents, there’s not one fan base, maybe outside of Houston, that looks at the schedule and sees the Jaguars and doesn’t say, “Ok, that’s a win.”

“If you break the season down into quarters, you hope they go 2-2 in the first four games,” the “Ghost” said, dissecting the schedule with his regular analytical way.

“In that second quarter, they probably have an advantage over the Dolphins playing in London and in the third quarter between the Colts, Niners, Falcons and Rams you hope to get two wins there,” he added.

According to Ghost’s calculations, getting to six or seven wins comes down to the final five games against Tennessee, the Texans, Jets, Patriots and Colts.

“Optimistically you come up with seven,” he concluded. “I think they play better from the middle of the year on. What happens when they face some kind of adversity? Urban Meyer hasn’t faced that in the pro game. I’m hoping they’re just competitive and entertaining in every game, that’s all.”

“If I’m going to bet, I’ll bet the under. That way if I’m disappointed by the season at least I win some money. I think it’s the under, but I hate to root that way.”

With the Texans in disarray and rebuilding, the Jaguars are about a three-point favorite in their opener at Houston. That’s different since the Jaguars were not favored in a single game during last year’s 1-15 season. From there, the Jaguars have two home games against Denver and Arizona where they’re already underdogs in both. From a preseason perspective, it’s hard to see where the they would be favored the rest of the season outside of a trip on a Thursday night to Cincinnati, playing the Dolphins in London or perhaps when the Texans visit here.

And experienced handicapper, my friend “Wooly” has the rare ability to be a super fan but never bets with his heart. He has different hopes for the Jaguars in 2021.

“When I looked at the schedule it just says to me 5-12,” he said somewhat disappointedly. “But I think the losses will be more exciting. You have to learn how to win in that league. The only way to do that is to not be out of the game by halftime. If they lose some of the games in the fourth quarter, that’ll give them an idea about how they could win those games.”

Breaking down the schedule, Wooly admitted it got tougher as the year went on, especially having to play the NFC West. All four teams in that division could be playoff contenders.

“You hope they have some last possession games, and they have some excitement in the fourth quarter,” he added. “Even if they lose, it could give them some optimism. I’m hoping their progress outmatches their record.”

And there’s one other thing Wooly would like to see change if the games are competitive. Right now, nobody’s afraid to come to Jacksonville.

“Outside of 2017, they’ve been a dull team for over ten years,” he explained. “If they provide some kind of entertaining football, playing in Jacksonville will again be a tough place to play for visitors to come here and try to win.”

Wood Bat Baseball in Town

Wood Bat Baseball in Town

There’s a familiarity when you walk onto a baseball field. You don’t even need to open your eyes to know where you are. The smell of cut grass, the feel of dirt under your cleats and the energy of a dugout the comes from baseballs and gloves in their own random, organized spaces.

The familiar sound of a baseball being hit by a bat would easily confirm your belief that you couldn’t be anywhere else but on the diamond. That sound in the last three decades became a hard “ping” of aluminum or a “thwack” of ceramic against a horsehide covered sphere.

If you wanted to hear the “crack” of the bat, so mythologized through the history of the game, the Baseball Grounds was the only house of refuge.

This summer, Atlantic Coast High School and J.P. Small ballpark added that “crack” of the bat to the ambient sound of a game being played there thanks to the new Coastal Collegiate Baseball League.

The brainchild of Chris Lein, who quickly called his friend Fran Delaney, the Coastal Collegiate Baseball League is giving college players a chance to hone their skills and hopefully, take the next step in a wood bat summer league.

“We’re the fifth wooden bat summer league in Florida,” said Lein who has more than forty years in pro baseball as a player, coach and scout. “My son played in one of the South Florida leagues the past two summers. And I wondered why there wasn’t anything up here.”

“It’s all about development,” Delaney, who has more than twenty years’ experience as an umpire, explained. “We have guys from Junior College or smaller colleges, these players are looking for that next step. This league can help those guys out.”

Both of these “baseball lifers” have full-time jobs. Lein as a financial advisor and Delaney as a “Customer Success Manager” for a software company. They’d been kicking around the idea of creating a wooden bat league in town for a couple of years. And despite the constrains of the pandemic, they got serious about it last fall.

“Sometimes I wonder why I picked up his call,” Delaney said with a laugh of his involvement thanks to Lein. Lein is officially the Commissioner of the league while Delaney is serving as the Vice President of Operations. In reality, both have handled everything from securing the fields, buying uniforms and lining the basepaths.

Lein contacted more than 1,400 schools with baseball programs around the country, letting them know there would be wooden bat, competitive, developmental baseball in Jacksonville this summer.

“Fran and I decided it’s not a fly by night thing,” explained Lein. “This area needs this ball. A lot of coaches already had their players set up to play somewhere. So, we started from scratch.

The local colleges couldn’t provide their fields this year because summer Covid issues. Coach Aaron Bass of Atlantic Coast said they could play all of their games there. But the city was very cooperative with JP Small, and they gave the CCBL a grant because they’re bringing guys from out of state.

Fifteen different states are represented among the four teams in the league. Half of the players are from junior college but there’s a sprinkling of Division One, Two, Three and NAIA players as well.

Going into his senior year at La Sierra University in Riverside, California, corner infielder Alex Ogletree is playing in the Coastal League in Jacksonville for a variety of reasons. Growing up in a military family, Ogletree was recruited to La Sierra while his parents were stationed in Italy. His parents are currently living in St. Johns County, but it was the baseball that ultimately brought him here.

“Guys here mature more quickly when it comes to baseball,” Ogletree said of the game here versus California. “Guys really know the game, know the nuance of the game earlier. In this league, the competition is phenomenal.”

Delaney’s career as an umpire has given him a close-up view of just how good baseball is in Florida and specifically in Jacksonville.

“The game here is faster. Guys here can play the game. They understand the game. That’s great for the players because it’s the coaches who have taught that. It’s impressive.”

The original thought was to have six teams in the local league. Pitchers are hard to come by though, so rather than water down the competition, they’ve started with four teams playing nearly forty games in eight weeks.

It’s $1,250 to join the league. Players pay for about four-fifths of their hotel on Baymeadows with the league picking up the rest.

“The goal is to have both sides of the balance sheet read zero,” Lein explained. “Uniforms, college umpires, college flat-seam baseballs from Rawlings and good fields. We wanted some legitimacy immediately.”

They’ve also gotten about twenty restaurants on the southside to offer discounts to the players. So, for about $2,000, players can get plenty of at-bats, pitchers can get some innings, and one more thing.

“First off, we don’t want anybody get hurt,” Delaney explained. “And we want guys to work on what they’re working on. But we also want them to enjoy themselves. Enjoy Jacksonville, go to St. Augustine, go to the beach.”

The next generation of major league players will have grown up rarely taking a swing with a wooden bat. This gives current players with a professional dream a chance to make that transition.

Former Major League pitcher John Wasdin is one of seven “ambassadors” the league is using to help teach that transition.

“Hitters need to really learn how to hit again, and pitchers have to re-learn how to pitch with a wooden bat,” the former first round pick out of Florida State said. “There’s a learning curve on how to pitch and how to hit with wood. The goal is to play at the next level so we’re looking for development.”

Wasdin’s time as a player and coach in professional baseball in Major League Baseball and in Japan showed him that command of the strike zone is the key to success on the mound. That’s what he’s trying to help with here. A hitter standing at the plate with a wooden bat is a very different challenge. Pitchers need to pitch inside.

“Typically, as a pitcher we’re looking for command of the strike zone,” Wasdin explained. “With an aluminum bat you can get a hit on an inside pitch but with the wood bat, we’re looking to see if guys can have command over the plate Inside and outside. A pitching coach wants a guy who can pitch, not just throw it a hundred and walk the world.”

Kyle Houts is an assistant coach at Iowa Lakes Community College and is spending his summer here in Jacksonville coaching one of the teams in the Coastal Collegiate league. He says the league has been good, especially for the first year. And he expects the best form of advertising, word of mouth, will only make it better.

“The players are getting extra reps that are necessary, especially from the pitching side,” he explained. “Guys are getting reps they didn’t get during the season.”

Working on his skills as a hitter with the wood bat is only one of the things Ogletree is trying to accomplish this summer. He’s working on his mental game.

“Mentally going into my senior year, I really want to be an example for younger guys coming in,” he said. “I wanted to mature emotionally. I’m trying to stay true to that. I’ve learned some things about myself and myself as a player. I’m not trying to ride the emotional rollercoaster.”

Playing in Florida is a draw for the league. About a third of the players are from the Jacksonville area and the rest, players and coaches, have come in from elsewhere.

“Jacksonville is a great baseball town, great baseball minds, great facilities,” Wasdin added.

“Living here is great and easier,” Ogletree agreed, comparing this league to others he’s played in during the summer. “The amenities are better. Gas is cheaper. The league is accessible across the board.”

“Jacksonville is an attraction for sure, Delaney agreed. “We’re not South Florida and we’re not Orlando. I’ve seen a lot of games around the state, this is one of the places that has the best overall team baseball.”

Lein plans to add a sales director to the staff for next year after building the league’s resume this season.

“We’d like to have six teams, add more pitching and add more fields,” he added. “We hope to be at Episcopal and we’ll talk to Bishop Kenny and the local colleges. That’s prime Jacksonville real estate, We’d like to talk with the Baseball Grounds about playing there. This thing is going to go.”

“I learned that’s there’s a lot of baseball talent in this country!” Delaney said of the first year. “We just wanted this to happen and to hear people say they couldn’t be enjoying it more is so gratifying. We want Jacksonville to be identified with this. We want guys to want to come play here. We want some of our local guys who go off to play out of town, we want them to come back and bring some teammates with them.”

Sports and The Star-Spangled Banner

Sports and The Star-Spangled Banner

As we celebrate the 244th anniversary of our Nation’s independence today, we’ll hear a lot of patriotic songs. It might be the only day we hear John Phillip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” We’ll sing along with Katherine Lee Bates’ and Samuel Ward’s “America the Beautiful.” And many of the celebrations will begin with our National Anthem, Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Originally written as a poem by Key as he observed the U.S. Flag still waving over Fort McHenry at dawn after the Battle of Baltimore in September of 1814, the words weren’t set to music until later that year.

And it was a long time before the Anthem was tied to any sporting events.

The Star-Spangled Banner was first played at a sporting event on May 15, 1862, at a baseball game. It was played, sporadically at sporting events through the rest of the 1800’s and early into the next century. It gained some traction during World War I and even more during the run up to World War II as patriotic displays surged.

President Woodrow Wilson made “The Star-Spangled Banner” the National Anthem by executive order in 1916 but it wasn’t until 1931 that it became the country’s official anthem by congressional resolution. Post-World War II, it became common place to have The Anthem to be played before every sporting event.

Whether you stand at attention with your hand over your heart or exercise your right to free speech while The Anthem is played, there’s no question it’s become a part of American sports that’s not going away.

You might have noticed they’ve added “And gentlemen please remove your hats” when they ask everybody to stand for The National Anthem. Many team owners were dismayed that wasn’t happening and realized that guys weren’t being taught that at home nor in school, so they’ve added that as a reminder.

One night at a banquet I theorized that I might have heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” more than anybody else based on the number of sporting events I attended through the years as part of my career.

“I’d have to challenge you on that,” my friend and former owner of the Jacksonville Suns Peter Bragan, Jr. said from across the room.

We both laughed and the conversation turned to how many times we’d heard The Anthem.

I’m sure facility and field workers, JSO officers and probably security guards here in town have heard The Anthem more than anybody. They’re at every event at every venue, so Mary, the very kind elevator operator I see everywhere, probably hears the anthem nearly three hundred times a year.

Bragan theorized he heard The National Anthem about a hundred times a year during his thirty-one years as the owner of the Suns. Between seventy home games, listening to auditions for singers, going on the road with the team, a trip to major league parks, football games and other sporting events, ‘Pedro’ developed a routine around The Anthem.

“As the owner of the team I’d always know when it was going to happen,” he explained. “Usually, I was just at the bench in the stands. It was usually a pause and analyze what was going on in the stadium.”

During his four-year college baseball career, Bragan said he had a different thought process.

“As a player, for some reason, it always caught me by surprise. I’d do a quick turn to face the flag and take my hat off. As a player I did think about the founding of our nation, and the flag flying over the ramparts, George Washington crossing the Delaware and things like that.”

Pedro did ask me to sing The Anthem one night before a Suns game. Knowing that I occasionally front some of the ‘Big Bands’ in town, He put me on the schedule in mid-summer. It’s a bit disconcerting because in a space that large, there’s a half a beat between when the sound comes out of your mouth and when it comes through the PA system. You must concentrate on singing and not listening, that’s for sure.

How many times have you heard “The Star-Spangled Banner?” We used to have a chance to hear it every day when television stations signed on or off the air. The first and last thing on the air was the playing of our National Anthem. But stations no longer sign off, now on twenty-four hours.

While I thought hearing The Anthem about a hundred and fifty times a year during my career was a lot, my friend Rick Wilkins chuckled when I mentioned that number.

“At least two hundred times a year,” Wilkins said, recalling his eleven-year Major League Baseball career. “Between the regular season and spring training, plus the other events I’d go to with my kids, maybe more.”

With that as a regular part of the game, it has to become a part of any professional athlete’s routine. They put their uniform on, they warm-up and they’re ready to play. But then there’s this two-minute pause before play begins.

“When I played for Bud Grant, we practiced how we were going to line up for The Anthem,” said Greg Coleman, who spent ten of his twelve years in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings. “At attention, feet at a 45-degree angle, helmet under your right arm on standing the sideline.”

Admittedly an emotional player, Coleman, recently inducted into the Black College Football Hall of Fame said he would take that time as a player to refocus.

“It was the last solace of peace and a chance to calm yourself before the storm,” the Raines High grad explained.

Now part of the Vikings television broadcast team, Coleman, an ordained and licensed minister, delivers a “Pregame Preach” on TV right before kickoff. He has about 30-seconds after the Anthem to organize his thoughts for the spontaneous ‘sermon.’

And now, during The Anthem?

“You still have those times to reflect,” he said. “It takes you from a wide range of emotions. As a man of color, it forces you to think about how far we’ve come, but also about how far we have to go.”

Wilkins explained that in the Majors they don’t stand on the foul lines other than Opening Day and in the Playoffs. But the players were required to be on the field for The Anthem if they were on the active roster.

“I’d use that time to calm myself down,” Wilkins said of those two pregame minutes. “I would quiet everything down; eliminate external distractions and I would do that by focusing on The Anthem. It’s the calm before the storm.”

With his baseball career behind him, Wilkins admitted his thoughts during The Anthem have changed.

“I think more externally now,” he said wistfully. I think about my grandfather who flew in WWII. I think about my teenage kids who are ready to go into the world, stuff like that.”

Before September 11, 2001, you pretty much only heard The National Anthem before a sporting event if you were there live. Television always used those two minutes to go to a commercial break.

As the play-by-play announcer, I’d hear the producer say in my headset, “OK, pitch to break, they’re about to do The Anthem.”

There were many times I’d be doing a live report for the news, and they’d come to me while The Anthem was playing. I thought it would be disrespectful to talk during The Anthem so there would be a lot of yelling in my ear, “You’re live!” by producers back in the booth. Not sorry for that.

Seeing The Anthem on TV was reserved for the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals, the World Series or before games in the Stanley Cup Finals (where they’d also sing ‘O Canada’). Whitney Houston’s rendition at the 1991 Super Bowl and Marvin Gaye’s during the 1983 NBA All-Star Game are most memorable.

In fact, it wasn’t until after September 11th and officially mandated by the league in 2009 that NFL players were on the field for The Anthem. Before that, they did some final preparations in the locker room.

You’d think if you were in the service, you’d hear The National Anthem a lot. But that’s not the case

“We hear Reveille and Taps every day,” Captain Pat Rainey, USN Retired, explained. “When you’re in the Navy you hear The Anthem maybe forty times a year.”

It’s been interesting watching the Euro 2020 matches where the playing of the two national anthems is as much a part of the match as the opening kickoff. The fervor that the fans in the stands and the players on the field sing their anthems with is impressive.

You hear that here at home occasionally, but the playing of The Anthem perhaps has become so routine that some of the luster has been diminished.

But not for everybody.

During my limited athletic career, I’d use The Anthem as a time to focus in on what I was going to do in the game to execute the things I practiced. In my career as a reporter, that changed. I stand at attention, hand over my heart, thinking about how special it is that we live in this country, and we get to go to sporting events and have the freedoms we have, thanks to the sacrifice of so many. I thank my grandfather for coming here. And as I’ve gotten older, I usually shed a tear.

Which, much to my surprise, according to most of the people I talked with this week, isn’t unusual.

“As a service member the words in the national anthem mean so much,” said Rainey, who saw combat, flew with the Blue Angels and was Commander of Air Group Three (CAG3) during his twenty-six-year career in the Navy. “If you think about service to your country and the people who have given so much to make us what we are, it’s hard not to get emotional. Happens to me every time. Ask my wife.”

When Key penned the words to The Star-Spangled Banner he was being held on a British ship in the harbor because he knew of their plan to attack. So, the last line he wrote, looking for the Flag “By the dawn’s early light,” is a question:

“O say does that star-spangled banner still wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

“When I was in uniform and they’d play The Anthem, I’d think of that line,” Rainey explained. “One of my shipmates once pointed that out as a question and asked: ‘Are you putting forth your best effort to make this come true.’ That’s pretty powerful to me.”

Happy Fourth of July!