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Where Does Fred Taylor Fit In The PFHOF?

Where Does Fred Taylor Fit In The PFHOF?

Fred TaylorWhen I asked Hall of Famer Troy Polamalu what it was like to stand on the other side of the line from Fred Taylor, he paused and said, “I think he’s the best running back I ever faced.”

When I noted that was a big statement, he didn’t waver. “I think he was always the best player on the field. He always performed the best against the best competition.”

Derrick Brooks had a similar response.

“I think Fred Taylor is the best back I ever played against, both in the pros and in college,” Brooks said. “He wasn’t just a problem, he was an issue. We even named a play after him on our defense, ‘Belly, Fred Taylor Iso’ because we couldn’t figure out how to stop it. He was what I call a three prong back: a rare combo of powerful through the line, quick feet in the hole and speed to run away from anybody.”

I saw every play of Fred Taylor’s career, live, over the eleven years he played in Jacksonville. I didn’t think that was a big deal until I started researching his numbers and talking to people and realized, not a lot of people saw Fred play.

He didn’t have a Peyton Manning or a John Elway as his quarterback. He had Mark Brunell and David Garrard. Byron Leftwich and Jay Fiedler. He didn’t play in NY or, LA or Chicago or for a glamour franchise like Dallas, San Francisco or Miami.

At 6-1 and 228 Fred ran a 4.29 at his Pro Day at Florida, Averaging just under 17 carries per game, Taylor is the 17th leading rusher in NFL history. Every other eligible running back in front of him is in the Hall.

So is 16th somehow the cutoff? It would be hard to imagine not putting Taylor in the conversation for the Hall when we talk about qualifications being “best players from their era.”

From 1998-2010, Taylor was the third leading rusher in the NFL, behind LaDainian Tomlinson and only about 550 yards behind Edgerrin James, despite nearly 500 fewer carries than James.

To illustrate how oftentimes Taylor played in a vacuum, in his rookie year, Taylor had 1,644 yards from scrimmage, and tied for the league lead with 17 TD’s. Randy Moss had 1,313 yds and 17 TD’s. They both made the All-Rookie Team that year. And when it came time to name the Rookie of the year, Moss won with 94% of the vote. Fred and Peyton Manning split the other 6%. Why was that? No doubt Moss was a great player, a Hall of Famer and perhaps deserved being Rookie of the year. But 94% of the vote? Even though Taylor had better numbers? Moss had a big game on Thanksgiving Day, catching 3 TD’s against the Cowboys in front of a national television audience. Taylor played in Jacksonville that Sunday at one o’clock. Nobody saw it.

In 2000 Fred led the NFL, averaging 107.6 yards per game.

In that same season he had nine consecutive 100-yard games. That’s 4th All-time.

His 4.6 yards per carry is third behind only Jim Brown and Barry Sanders among those in the Hall of Fame.

Taylor’s yards per carry actually went up as the team leaned on him for offense. From 4.6 in 2002, rising to 5.4 per carry in 2007.

During Taylor’s career, only two offensive lineman blocking for him ever went to the Pro Bowl: Tony Boselli, in the first three years of Fred’s career. And Leon Searcy, once, in ’99, Leon’s last year in the league.

Taylor also had 13 carries of 50 or more yards, and had ten carries of sixty or more. Only Barry Sanders among Hall of Famers had more. And add a 90-yard TD run in the playoffs against Miami. That’s still the longest post-season rushing touchdown in NFL history.

When I talked with Marcus Allen he said, “Fred was special. He had that combination of speed and power and great feet. Jump cuts in the hole, running over guys if he needed to, Back then, we played in a phone booth, against real sized linebackers. I can’t imagine the numbers he’d put up in today’s game. Fred had it all. If he played in a different market than Jacksonville, with his numbers, I don’t think we’d even be having this discussion.”

By the way, Marcus Allen had 500 more attempts and yet gained only 550 more yards

The criticism about Fred Taylor is he made one Pro Bowl and one All Pro team. So who was on those teams? LaDainian Tomlinson was on five of those teams. Other years it would be guys who flamed brightly for a few years, and then dropped off: Chris Johnson, Larry Johnson, Ricky Williams, Shaun Alexander, Willie Parker. Fred had sustained excellence over those ten years of his career but never had the exposure.

“Sleepless nights!” is what Ray Lewis said when I asked him his impression of Fred as a finalist for the Hall. “When we played them, I’d either have to take an Ambien and go to bed early or know I’d be up watching film of him all night.”

“I think a Hall of Famer is somebody who changed the way you thought about how to play that game,” Lewis added. “Fred did that. Big enough to run into linebackers in old school football and stay in the game. He never tapped out. I’d have him down and he’d give me that silly little smile he has and say, ‘I’ll be right back.’

In the early 2000’s noted journalist and essayist Ralph Wiley asked Jim Brown “Who do you really like among today’s running backs?” Without hesitation, Brown replied, “Fred Taylor. Don’t know nothing about Fred Taylor do you? Fred Taylor is the package, Fred Taylor is the man.”

A pretty strong endorsement from the player many consider the best ever to play.

Valor Bare Knuckle: Something New

Valor Bare Knuckle: Something New

It didn’t take UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock long to figure out what he wanted to do when his fighting days were over.

“I probably fought longer than I should have but I just loved it,” Shamrock explained. “I just couldn’t get through the training any longer. I had to step away but I wanted to stay involved in something I helped build.”

If it seems Shamrock has done every kind of combat sport, it’s because he has. From professional wrestling to the mixed martial arts of UFC and everything in between , Shamrock has been at the top of each stop in his career. So when his days as the main event ended, he decided to create the main event as a promoter.

“While I was fighting and right after, I listened to what the fans wanted,” he said. “I listened to what the media said and to what I wanted and we found it.”

Enter Valor Bare Knuckle fighting, a combat sport that looks familiar but is something totally different.

“Fans always said, ‘Stand up’ when we were on the mat in UFC, so we did that,” Shamrock said as he laid out the difference in the rules of Valor Bare Knuckle. “I wanted to make it fan friendly, so we took down the ropes and the cages to make it a better visual experience.”

And, as Shamrock sees it, a side benefit is fighters can’t just grab and clutch when they’re in trouble and lean on the ropes. They’ll have to fight their way out.

“It’s faster,” Shamrock explained with a quick confidence that comes from actually having been in the ring. “We’re doing something to change the game a bit. The NFL changed the rules to get more scoring in the game. Baseball brought in a clock to speed it up. We’re changing this sport to make it faster with footwork and striking as the emphasis.”

At first glance, Valor Bare Knuckle sounds barbaric, like a street fight. Having been a part of a fledgling UFC, Shamrock equates the start of Bare Knuckle to that. As fans became more educated about UFC, they saw the technical prowess it takes to get to the top of the game. He thinks the same about Bare Knuckle.

“Boxing is dying because of the clinching and scoring they use. Guys get in and get out and can win without ever getting touched. We’ve eliminated that,” he explained. “They put gloves on to protect the hands not the head. We’ve eliminated that to put emphasis on footwork and striking. And we got rid of the ropes so fighters have to fight.”

Shamrock insists that when fans see the technique required to land blows and defend yourself at the same time, they’ll appreciate the sport even more.

“People looked at UFC like it was barbaric,” he recalled. “Then they got educated. People don’t understand the technical part of bare knuckle yet. We’re hoping to educate the fans. If you land a punch you get rewarded for it.”

Testing this new combat sport brought some surprises, even to a veteran like Shamrock who competed across all disciplines.

“The fighters loved it and it was unbelievable how fast it was. It all comes from my experience,” he added. “I think all fighters are attracted to this. Guys who are more counter punchers and interested in just scoring points might not be interested. But true, real, tough fighters, guys who love fighting, they love it.”

For their first fight card, Valor Bare Knuckle brought in some recognized names to catch fans’ attention. VBK 2 at UNF Saturday night will be a little different.

“This bill is building our own stars,” Shamrock said of the expectations of their second card with twelve fights scheduled. “It’s only our second and part of a long term deal. We have three more already on the books. We’re building our brand. We’ll build at our pace and let people see it, and get educated about it. They’re going to love it.”

Mayor Curry on Board With Sports

It was over forty years ago when Mayor Jake Godbold decided that Jacksonville’s image needed burnishing and the local citizenry needed their spirits lifted. He chose sports as a vehicle to promote city pride and invited Baltimore Colts’ owner Robert Irsay to town for the now-famous “Colt Fever.” Godbold was unfairly dubbed “Mayor Jock” because he was right: Sports can lift the spirit of a town and a professional sports team helps put a city on the map. His dream was realized in 1993 with the NFL awarding a franchise to Jacksonville and the city has flourished ever since.

Along with getting rid of tolls and the stench from the paper mills (once dubbed “The Smell of Money”) sports has been an integral part of North Florida’s growth from less than 500,000 people in 1980 to more than 1 ½ million residents.

Current Mayor Lenny Curry, now starting his second term, sees sports as a big driver for economic growth and creating a positive quality of life in North Florida

“The economic piece is important, these events drive bed tax, sales tax, they’re huge economic engines,” Curry said this week.

“But for me, sports is part of my ‘One City, One Jacksonville’ effort in the next four years,” he added. .

Curry’s not naïve about the deep divisions on either side of different roads and rivers in Jacksonville. He calls ‘One City, One Jacksonville’ “a fragile idea” that needs to be cultivated.

“We have a lot of work to do be one city as a people,” he explained. “But where we’ve come together is around a crisis like the hurricanes or around sports. Regardless of background or where you live, we all get together behind sports in town.”

On that he’s right.

A high school baseball and football player who was also on the weightlifting squad, Curry has run “The Gate” nearly 20 times and most mornings can be found in the Y before heading to City Hall.

He was eight years old when Colt Fever happened, “But I remember the USFL,” he said with a laugh. He famously watches the NFL Network’s morning show religiously and that network is regularly on one of the TV’s in his office.

He coached his son’s peewee football team before he went to middle school this year. Sports, fitness and recreation are not just a political platform: They’re a part of his life. And he wants it to be a part of yours as well.

“We put $150 million in the budget for infrastructure,” he noted. “And a lot of that is for sports and recreation.”

Curry would like to see bike trails expanded and more parks as part of everyday life in Jacksonville.

“When I coached my son, we practiced on city fields,” he explained.

The Mayor was there last Tuesday night when the city hosted the annual Florida/FSU baseball game at Bragan Field and helped celebrate Mike Martin’s 79th and final game in Jacksonville.

“FSU’s (football) is coming back here in late August, Georgia/Florida brings in $30 million to economy each year,” he said. “Anything where the numbers work, anytime we can do anything around sports an entertainment. It comes back to people being together.”

There’s a sense of urgency in Curry’s voice, knowing he only has four more years as Mayor to get things done. With sports, he’s focused on “leveraging” what’s already here and bringing in new events with broad-based appeal.

“We feel a sense of urgency,” he said. “You’ll see some pretty aggressive stuff. My first year in office we got Daily’s place done right away.”

Curry says his office is “aligned” with the Jaguars and owner Shad Khan. He’s been instrumental in acquiring the funding to take down the Hart Bridge ramps near the stadium to help facilitate Khan’s vision of the Shipyards and the Lot J entertainment complex.

“Shad’s relationships as an international businessman bring a lot to the table,” Curry explained. “And he loves Jacksonville.”

As Mayor, Curry is on board with Khan’s desire to bring the NFL Draft to Jacksonville and Daily’s Place. He went to the draft last year in Dallas and was asked to spend some time with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“So we’re on their radar,” he explained.

One bonus for Curry’s time in office is his relationship with the PGA Tour and The Players Championship.

“They heavily supported my re-election,” Curry said of the PGA Tour and Commissioner Jay Monahan. “I know it’s in St. Johns County but I think of it as a ‘City of Jacksonville’ event. The city and The Players have had a better relationship in the last four years. All I see from them is an intention to be unified and branded.”

As with any term-limited politician, Curry’s first four years were part feeling-out process, part accomplishments. In his next four years, he hopes to take steps toward downtown to make it presentable residents and visitors alike. Khan’s plans for the area around the stadium and a Four Seasons Hotel on the river are part of that vision.

“We have opportunities to leverage what we have,” he said of the future. “There’s so much we can expand on”

“The first four years have been a turnaround,” he explained. “We’ve solved the pension, we’re financially stable. We have the financial wherewithal to do things around sports. So stay tuned.”

An Encounter with President George H.W. Bush

Sitting in the men’s locker room in the early ‘90’s at Marsh Landing Country Club, there was a steady stream of guys coming through as usual or a weekday afternoon. I knew most of them and we exchanged the normal pleasantries as they passed through. It’s not unusual to see guys in all levels of dress, suits coming from work, casual clothes headed to lunch, golf togs for the course and even gym clothes with the fitness center nearby.

As I said, I knew most of the guys and having been on television in Jacksonville for more than a decade at the time, most of the guys knew me and greeted me by name (back when people watched TV!) So it wasn’t strange to me each time the locker room door opened for the person entering to look up and say, “Hi Sam!” It also wasn’t strange for the locker room to be empty, mid-day, mid-week, so I was the only person sitting there.

I looked up each time the door opened and said hi, changing my shoes, looking at the newspaper as I was getting ready to go hit some balls.

When the door opened for the umpteenth time I instinctively looked up ready to say hi, but much to my surprise the man coming through the door was the President of the United States, George H.W. Bush.

Just as instinctively, I stood up as he walked across the locker room, alone, and headed straight for me. In retrospect, it was somewhat surreal, since you always see the President with an entourage, that it was just the two of us standing there.

“Hi, I’m George Bush,” the President said as he stood next to me and extended his hand.
“Yes sir Mr. President, I’m Sam Kouvaris,” I said receiving his firm handshake.

“Am I in your way,” he said, glancing toward the lockers in front of us.

“No sir,” I said as I looked a the nameplate above my locker that had been replaced with one that said, “President George Bush.”

He sat down and motioned for me to do the same as he began to untie his shoes. Conservatively dressed in a blue Ban-Lon shirt, blue slacks and white basketball socks, he was getting ready to go to lunch in the main dining room at Marsh Landing.

“Did you play fast?” I asked, knowing a little bit about his penchant for getting through 18 holes quickly.

“Fast? We played in an hour twenty eight,” he said with a big smile. “Played through about five groups, even had time to walk over and shake hands with some guys on what, 13? Aren’t they building a house there?”

“Yes sir,” I answered with a laugh. “How’d you play?”

His answer was perfect. A blend of “guy talk” and humility.

“Actually pretty good, for me,” he said with a wry smile, a raised eyebrow and a mock look over his shoulder to see if anybody else was listening.

As he stood up, he reached in his locker and pulled a navy blue sport coat on, ready to head out the door.

“I’ve got to go this lunch with my host in the dining room,” he said as we walked toward the door, still just the two of us in the locker room. “I’d invite you, love for you to come, but it’s not my thing, you know?” he said in the most gracious way.

“Not a problem Mr. President I absolutely understand,” I said.

The locker room door opened behind us and the famed author Dan Jenkins walked through. Jenkins had invited the President to play golf that day and was a member at Marsh Landing.

“Sam, did you meet my friend George,” Dan said shaking hands with both of us and purposefully saying it backwards.

“I have,” I said with a laugh.

“He’s a fine young man,” the President said, motioning to me as he shook Dan’s hand.

The President noticed that I was looking at his shoulder with a mix of anxiousness and restraint.

“What,” he said, looking down at his shoulder.

“Fix your collar Mr. President?” I asked. As he had put the sport coat on, the collar rolled under as it often does.

He laughed and motioned that it was OK, so I reached over, and unrolled the collar and patted it down.

“Thanks,” he said as we shook hands again.

“I didn’t want to reach out and do that earlier Mr. President for fear one of those guys would come out of a locker after me,” I said.

He looked around, conspiratorially, and said, “You know, they would!” with a huge laugh. And off he and Jenkins went to lunch.

I found out later that the flow of guys through the locker room were members of the President’s Secret Service detail, sweeping the room. The President has his own traveling detail and the local agents augment his security wherever he goes. Maybe Dan Jenkins had set it up, but the local guys knew me and let me stay in the locker room, knowing the President was headed there momentarily. I appreciate that.

Recently I was speaking at a charity golf event at Timiquana when one of the players came up to me and said “You were hanging out with my friend George Bush at Marsh Landing a while back weren’t you?”

“That’s one of the favorite moments of my career and my favorite stories,” I answered.

“He came out to lunch and said, ‘I met this Sam Kouvaris in the locker room. Who is that guy? Everybody knows him,’ and I told him you were on TV and we had a pretty good chuckle. You made an impression.”

I hope it was a good one. I know that encounter had a big impact on me, seeing how one of the most famous and powerful people on the planet could have a common touch.

CAVU, fair winds and following seas Mr. President.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Armada Get 1st Win 2-1 vs. Miami FC

It took nearly an extra week but USA Soccer Hall of Famer Tony Meola has his first win as the head coach of the Jacksonville Armada. In their home opener, the Armada defeated the expansion Miami FC 2-1 at the Baseball Grounds on Friday night.

Earlier in the week, Meola said the Armada needed a fast start. They got that in the 20th minute with Junior Sandoval beating the Miami keeper in the upper 90 to take a 1-nil lead. Six minutes later, Miami tied it on a header from close range and it was 1-1..

Just 10 minutes later a low shot by Pascal Millien from distance didn’t have much on it but keeper Daniel Vega couldn’t control it for a 2-1 Armada lead. The two teams played a scoreless second half.

“We were at home and that was the idea. Nothing short of 3 points. It wasn’t the prettiest but they’re not all pretty,” Meola said on the field after the victory. “We did what we needed to to get the win tonight,”

Taking 17 shots, the Armada didn’t have a problem firing from outside the box, taking 12 long shots in the process. Miami FC took 13 shots but only 5 were on target.

Scoring the first goal of the game, Sandoval said afterwards he called it all week. “We got the win we were looking for, especially at home,” the Armada midfielder said. In his first start he told his teammates all week they were going to win the game and he was going to score a goal. “My teammates knew it, I told them all week.”

With the win the Armada pull to 1-1 and gain three points in the standings. Next Saturday the team faces the Strikers in Ft. Lauderdale. On Wednesday May 4th they’ll be home vs. FC Edmonton at 6:30.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Gerald R. Ford 38th President

I was watching the State funeral for President Gerald Ford and was surprised at how much his short presidency has influenced the US today. Ford was a dealmaker with his biggest aspiration being to one day be the Speaker of the House. Difficult to do for a Republican during a Democrat dominated era in congressional politics. Interestingly enough, his even-handedness made him the singular choice among Democrats and Republicans to replace Spiro Agnew as Vice-President.

His ascendancy to the Presidency seemed to be providential. The right man at the right time. “Cometh the hour, cometh the man” is how the saying goes. It’s hard to explain to somebody how big of a deal all of this was but I remember all of what happened in American politics during that era.

Every day brought a new revelation regarding the Nixon administration and even though partisan politics played a role, there was enough going on to shake any American to the core.

Ford brought a steady hand and was an honorable, decent guy. He pardoned Nixon and set out some guidelines for those who refused to serve in Vietnam to return to the US without penalty. Both of those decisions were meant to be part of the “healing” process in America and they worked.

What they also did was cost Ford the Presidency in 1976.

Jimmy Carter defeated him with the thrust of the campaign being Ford’s pardon of Nixon and his statement during a debate that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” That was a clear reference to the thought process of the people living in those countries but it was portrayed by the media as a President who’s out of touch and not quick enough on his feet. Either way, Ford was denied another four years and Jimmy Carter served as a one-term President.

I was in college while Ford was in office and as a Radio, TV and Film major was invited on a private tour of the White House media wing with a couple of fellow students in 1975. At the last minute, the President left the White House for an appearance at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. His original schedule had him not attending, but he changed his mind. Anyway, our host at the White House felt bad for us because the media wing was completely empty with the White House Press Corp scurrying out the door to follow President Ford. So our host gave us a “back lot” tour of the West Wing, which was very cool.

We got to stick out head in the Cabinet Room and I noticed that each of the big winged back chairs (the ones you see when they let the media in there for the first five minutes) had brass plates on the back with each Cabinet member’s name engraved on them. There was a velvet rope in front of the Oval Office but we got to stand there for a couple of minutes and look inside.

The President’s chair was turned to the side with a pen left on a tablet on the desk as if he had just walked out. I was impressed that it was actually “oval” and it had a beautiful carpet that matched the engraving in the ceiling.

I had forgotten what an influence Ford had on me as a young college student. I was plenty against the war, pro-change and some might call radical but Ford’s decency, his willingness to find middle ground and his ability to put the big picture in front of any personal gain showed me what leadership is about.

In retrospect, even his harshest critics have admitted that the Nixon pardon was the right thing to do to allow the country to move forward. Sometimes it takes a generation to distill history into the proper context. History will always judge Ford as the right man at the right time.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

World Cup Aftermath

It’s not going to change anybody’s mind about soccer. If you hated it going in, you still hate it. If you tolerated it, maybe you saw the pros and cons of it, and came away feeling about the same. And if you’re a fan, you thought it was part what’s good about the game and part what’s wrong about the game.

Italy won on penalty kicks, taking their fourth World Cup and playing to their strengths. I thought the referee did a pretty good job after the first five minutes, letting the play on the field get physical enough but not out of hand. If there’s one thing people who don’t like the game can point to it’s the acting that goes on after every play with contact. They don’t necessarily flop as much in England or in Germany, but most of the rest of Europe and all of South America have the flop as part of the culture of the game.

And Americans hate that.

Until the game is allowed to be “played” on the pitch instead of “acted” out there, it’ll always be a passing fancy among fans. Too subjective.

Every time Marcelo Balboa said “he really sold that one” it made me cringe, thinking “is selling the contact to the ref really a part of the competition?” Sure, players flop in the NBA, but with three officials on the court, a guy who’s acting soon gets a reputation and play goes on.

The ref in the World Cup final got the game under control and let just enough physical play dictate the flow of the game. The penalty in the box called against Italy was totally a phantom call, “sold” by the French and converted by Zinedine Zidane. The Italian goal on the corner kick was textbook and allowed the Italians to go back into their defensive posture, exactly what they did to get to the final.

France played the more aggressive game in the second half, and was nearly rewarded by a beautiful header by Zidane, but a spectacular save by the Italian goalkeeper kept the score tied. That’s when things started to go sideways for both teams, especially the French.

It was apparent that, barring something-strange happening, the outcome was going to penalty kicks. Totti was out of the game for Italy, replaced for a sub, even though he is one of their best free kickers. Theirry Henry came out of the game after regulation, one of the free kickers the French could have used. Then Zidane head butted Marco Materazzi for something he said about his sister and was red carded out of the game, denying the French of another of their best free-kickers.

Nobody wants to see a game determined by penalty kicks, but that’s all they’ve got right now, and the Italians finally won one, having gone 0-3 in World Cup play in games decided by pk’s.

When Zidane head butted Materazzi, I was amazed and still think it might be the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in big time sports. This is truly the world’s biggest stage. 1.5 Billion people were watching or about one of every six people on the planet. And many of those don’t know anything about the game or about Zidane’s career, which means that their only memory of Zidane will be as “the head butt guy.”

But that’s OK as well.

I’ve heard more “cooler talk” about the World Cup this week than at any other time thanks to Zidane’s actions. He apologized to the kids who might have been watching, but said “I would have rather taking a fist to the jaw than heard what was said about my family.” I don’t know, trash talk is a part of all sports these days, and Zidane should have had some retorts of his own. Or just let it go away.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

World Cup Disappointment

It was appointment television for me. I could have recorded it, but instead I wanted to see it live. The U.S. National team had high expectations going into the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

Then they actually played a game that counted.

The opener against the Czech Republic was about everything that American’s hate in a sporting event. No scoring by the home team, getting hammered by the opponent and showing very little fight in the process.

Landon Donovan?

DeMarcus Beasley?

Where were those “stars” of American soccer when their country needed them?

I heard all kinds of reasons for why the Czechs won 3-0. The Americans were flat, the Czechs were more ready. They were bigger and tougher. Baloney. What, did we not know we were going to play on June 12th? (It’s about the only time a writer or broadcaster can use the word “we”.)

Anyway, I found myself in front of the television at noon anticipating our breakout game against the Czech Republic on the big stage.

And then nothing.

I was yelling at the television right at the sixth minute when the Czechs took a 1-0 lead on what looked like a non-hustle play by the American defense. They lost track of the Czech forward, and nobody contested the cross closely enough. Having followed professional soccer since the early ‘80’s when I was the voice of the NASL’s Jacksonville Team Men, it was tough to watch this game in comparison to the others I’ve seen the Americans play, even when they were just a bunch of college kids it seemed like there was more effort involved.

It feels like people in the States want to care about soccer on the world stage. The MLS has a mild following, but with some of the top American players on English and European teams, there’s some talent on the US squad. It just didn’t show up today against the Czechs.

It was right there in front of them, facing a highly ranked national team (the Czechs are ranked #2 in the world, the US fifth) on national television at noon on the east coast. How could the team be flat? How could they not have energy? This is what the American sporting interest wants from a team wearing the red, white and blue: effort and energy. Yes we want to win, but even when it was curling in Torino during the Winter Games, all we wanted was effort and energy. Look like you’re trying. Instead, on the big stage, the “stars” laid an egg in the worst possible manner. With high expectations come crashing lows, and that’s where the US is right now.

Our team disappointed us, made us look bad and validated everybody’s thoughts about soccer in the US, especially those outside of the country. We were awful and lost in Europe, again. In fact, our national team has never won in Europe. I know our top athletes aren’t choosing soccer. What would it be like if Dwayne Wade was our striker? Or Tim Duncan our goalkeeper? Or if we had Derek Jeter at midfield and Ray Lewis as our sweeper? It would be a very different story, but right now, it is what it is.

And it’s not good.

Maybe they’ll prove us different against Italy on Saturday but after watching their game this afternoon, Ghana is no pushover either.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Dick Stratton: 1927-2005

Long time Jacksonville television personality and social pioneer Dick Stratton died on Sunday 11/06/05 after a lengthy illness. He Was 78. Sam remembers his long-time friend and mentor below.

Dick Stratton: 1927-2005 Jacksonville’s First “Star”

Dick Stratton There’s a plaque on the wall in the press box of the stadium that reads:

“Dick’s career spanned thirty-five years as a television and radio sports pioneer and personality in Jacksonville. An innovator of the college football coach’s Sunday highlights show, he started the concept with Florida Head Coach Ray Graves (1969-1979). Stratton also stepped away from sports, hosting the first daytime talk show on television. He was Chairman of the Greater Jacksonville Open and President of the Gator Bowl in the same year, 1972. His unselfish dedication extended well beyond sports and made Jacksonville a better place to live.”

I know that’s how Dick thought of himself. Tidy, neat, simple accomplishments. I know because he wrote those words in 2004 when I told him we needed a bio to put on the plaque. “That’s enough,” he told me. “The rest is just stuff.” But we know he was much more than ordinary, or simple. In fact, Dick was extraordinary. Full of energy, always upbeat, glad to see you with a firm handshake and a booming voice that let everybody know that you, and he were in the room.

He was, through his many parts, what we all aspire to be. He was good. He was kind. He was gentle. He was generous. He was loyal. He made you feel better about yourself.

As a professional he brought his best, and expected the same of you. As a friend he was unfailingly on your side. Cajoling, prodding, expecting you to be as good as you could be.

He always was larger than life. A celebrity in a time when it meant something to be a celebrity. In fact, you could call him Jacksonville’s first celebrity. And he took that seriously. Always a gentleman, neatly turned out with his hair and clothes classicly stylish. He could tell a story, and loved to be the storyteller.

When I first started in Jacksonville I was fortunate that Dick took a shine to me. He litteraly took me under his wing and introduced me around town. We spent hours together as he filled me in on who was who and how they got there. He regailed me with stories about Van Fletcher’s Green Derby, and the comings and goings and the shennanigans at the Roosevelt Hotel. He talked about the early days of sports broadcasting when he would hold up a still picture two days after the fact and consider it a “news flash.”

He talked often of his days as the host of the “Midday” show and his time with Virginia Atter-Keys. “Boy can she sing, she’s a songbird,” he would always add when talking about Virginia. His relationship with Virginia was typical of Dick. It didn’t end when he walked out of the door of the television station. It didn’t even end when their show went off the air. It stayed. If you were Dick’s friend, you were his friend for life.

Sometimes when we think of Dick, we think of him as the host, as the facilitator of other people’s notions. But Dick was full of ideas. He had ideas in his head constantly, roaming around like a composer has tunes trying to get out. We were fortunate that Dick had a canvas for his ideas, a way to express himself that always made those around him and the place he lived, better.

Being on television and being “a star” Dick was in demand. Always asked to host a luncheon or MC a dinner, having Dick Stratton at your get together made it an “event.” I never heard him say “no” to any request, big or small except for two reasons: His mother and His church. Dick was available as long as he didn’t have a commitment to his Mother, who he took care of and loved deeply. And he was committed to his church. He had strong faith, and often when we’d talk in recent times I’d ask him what was he doing and he’d usually say, “Reading the Bible. Job, pretty inspiring.”

I always found it facinating that a man who’d life was tied to the clock in television and who’s calendar was filled with commiitments to the minute, not days, read about patience and it’s virtues when looking for guidance.

Dick’s long time foil, Rex Edmonson, was, in many ways his counterpart in the print media. Rex years ago told me that he thought his career was complete one day at a luncheon where they honored him for his contributions. Rex was asked to the podium where he said, “I’ve reached just about all of my goals, I was introduced by the Mayor to Dawtry Towers and nodded to in public by Dick Stratton.” I told Dick that story a few years back and he said, “Rex said that? That crusty so and so.” And he paused for a few seconds and added. “That Rex, he’s a really good friend of mine. ”

Among his two most tangible achievments were when he was President of the Gator Bowl and Chairman of the GJO, the two crown jewel events of the time in town, both in the same year. Dick had a life-long committment to both events, reminding me early in my career how important they were to the city and the people who lived here. For many years after his presidency of the Gator Bowl he stayed close to the game, organizing the thousands of high school musicians who would fill the field at halftime. “You outta put that on TV,” he’d say to me, “That’s where the real action is.”

He reminded me that he helped put together the framework for the GJO sitting at the lunch counter at Silver’s Drug Store at the beach with John Tucker and other friends. John confirmed that to me once, saying “We had a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of energy and could probably put some money together but we were amatuers. Dick brought it all together and put a professional face on it. He made it happen.”

As we know, much of the culture of Jacksonville is woven around the sporting events we attend. Dick formed and molded the culture of the town around the events he was involved in. They were sporting contests, but Dick saw them as much more. They were events, celebrations. Thousands of people who have moved to North Florida in the last 20 years might not know who Dick Stratton is, but if they attend any event around here, Dick Stratton’s fingerprints are on it.

Many can say, “I’m better for having known him.” A few of us can say “I am able to be who I am because of him.”

Dick litterly invented the job of sportscaster. There was no template, no guideline, he figured it out as he went along. He started the coaches show with Florida Coach Ray Graves. Shot the film, brought it back to Channel 4 and slept on the couch in the lobby while it was being processed. Stayed up all night splicing the plays together for the live broadcast of the highlights the next day.

He was never prouder then when he would tell me “We never had a broken splice. Ever. Not once in all the shows we did.”

He and Graves would then travel back to Gainesville for the second showing of the show, locally in the Gators home town. He was funny, witty, with the perfect blend of bravado and kindnes to those who knew him. I do have this lasting image of how he could turn on the charm as his back would straighten while he smoothed out his tie and buttoned his coat.

Dick was proud of his friends and proud of the people he knew. A picture hung on his wall for the last 40 years, where ever he lived of Jack Dempsey, Joe DiMaggio and Dick. I asked about it and he nonchalantly told me, “Oh, we did a telethon together once.” It seemd huge to me, but I finally realized that in Jacksonville, with Dempsey, Dimaggio and Stratton smiling together, Dick was the celebrity in the picture.

I thought he was pulling my leg as a young reporter when he told me about his friendship with so many of the famous and influential people of the time. Until I saw Gary Player at the Masters in the early ’80’s and he immediately asked me how “Randy” was doing. Dick was especially pleased that Player had a “pet” nickname for him.

I’d call him up with a question and he’d say, “Call John Tucker and ask him or I’ll just call George Olsen and get the answer.” My head would spin. The calls would be made and the job would get done.

I’d hear this alot when I answered the phone, “It’s your Uncle Dick,” the voice on the other end would say whenever he was on the line. He’d call and critique my performance regularly, “You did good,” he’d add, mocking the language he so carefully crafted everyday. Then he’d add, “Don’t ever wear that tie again, it doesn’t look right.”

In the last five years, he ended our conversations the same way each time:
“I love ya Sam”
he’d always make sure I heard before he hung up.

Don’t worry Dick, we loved you too.

RIP: Dick Stratton: 1927-2005

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Weaver’s Take?

Make no mistake about it: despite all of the talk, positive and negative about Jacksonville hosting the Super Bowl, there are only 32 opinions that count, those of the NFL owners. They vote on where to put the game, they decide what kind of business deal it needs to be and they decide if a city can handle it. Not the sportwriters, not the broadcasters and not the fans. It’s the owners.

So at least one of them, Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver is confident the game will return. “I had a conversation with Commissioner Tagliabue in my suite mid-way during the game. He was very pleased with the execution of the Super Bowl activities, the events. Clearly Jim Steeg and the NFL events people did a superb job. So, as I said, with few exceptions we have very little that we would differently. I can tell you, I can find very few things to find any fault with.”

Weaver is convinced the Super Bowl will have a long time residual effect on the city. The Jaguars owner has been a big proponent of downtown Jacksonville for a while, and it has been rumored that he’s tried to broker a deal to bring another luxury hotel to the Northbank. He knows downtown needs another hotel.

“Clearly we do. As you look at the RFPs on the Southside Generating Plant, one of the things that struck me as I walked through the NFL Experience and looked at that site, I’m just thinking ‘Wow, some CEO is going to walk through here and say what a great site.’ It’s so big so it could be multi-used, hotel, condos, office. It’s a 44-acre site there. I think there is still room on our southbank and the shipyard property that we could have a small 150-, 250-room luxury hotel. All of those things are going take place over the next ten years. I’m confident of that.”

So I asked him if that was a project he’d be willing to take on.

“I clearly have a big vision for our downtown and I think the exposure that we’re getting, that we got this past week, is going to allow us, and shame on us if we don’t have a big enough vision and a strategy to go out and make sure those kind of things happen because the key to our downtown is our riverfront on the north and south bank and how well we develop that over the next several years.”

Nice answer. Not exactly answering the question, not saying yes and not saying no.

(how confident are you that Jacksonville will be awarded another Super Bowl?)

“I think that we do have an opportunity to get another Super Bowl. As I explained last week in a press conference, the NFL is using it more as a business model today, but I would think 2011, 2012 would be a realistic time to think that we might get in a rotation to host another Super Bowl.”

(can you base that on comments you received from Commissioner Tagliabue and other owners or is that your optimism?)

“I think it’s pure optimism on my part, but I certainly think my optimism is based on what all the owners said to me. It was a majority that were here sometime during the latter part of the week and they were all very complimentary on the execution of Super Bowl here in Jacksonville.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

What Do You Like?

Make no mistake about it: despite all of the talk, positive and negative about Jacksonville hosting the Super Bowl, there are only 32 opinions that count, those of the NFL owners. They vote on where to put the game, they decide what kind of business deal it needs to be and they deside if a city can handle it. Not the sportwriters, not the broadcasters and not the fans. It’s the owners.

So at least one of them, Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver is confident the game will return. “I had a conversation with Commissioner Tagliabue in my suite mid-way during the game. He was very pleased with the execution of the Super Bowl activities, the events. Clearly Jim Steeg and the NFL events people did a superb job. So, as I said, with few exceptions we have very little that we would differently. I can tell you, I can find very few things to find any fault with.”

Weaver is convinced the Super Bowl will have a long time residual effect on the city. The Jaguars owner has been a big proponent of downtown Jacksonville for a while, and it has been rumored that he’s tried to broker a deal to bring another luxury hotel to the Northbank. He knows downtown needs another hotel.

“Clearly we do. As you look at the RFPs on the Southside Generating Plant, one of the things that struck me as I walked through the NFL Experience and looked at that site, I’m just thinking ‘Wow, some CEO is going to walk through here and say what a great site.’ It’s so big so it could be multi-used, hotel, condos, office. It’s a 44-acre site there. I think there is still room on our southbank and the shipyard property that we could have a small 150-, 250-room luxury hotel. All of those things are going take place over the next ten years. I’m confident of that.”

So I asked him if that was a project he’d be willing to take on.

“I clearly have a big vision for our downtown and I think the exposure that we’re getting, that we got this past week, is going to allow us, and shame on us if we don’t have a big enough vision and a strategy to go out and make sure those kind of things happen because the key to our downtown is our riverfront on the north and south bank and how well we develop that over the next several years.”

Nice answer. Not exactly answering the question, not saying yes and not saying no.

(how confident are you that Jacksonville will be awarded another Super Bowl?)

“I think that we do have an opportunity to get another Super Bowl. As I explained last week in a press conference, the NFL is using it more as a business model today, but I would think 2011, 2012 would be a realistic time to think that we might get in a rotation to host another Super Bowl.”

(can you base that on comments you received from Commissioner Tagliabue and other owners or is that your optimism?)

“I think it’s pure optimism on my part, but I certainly think my optimism is based on what all the owners said to me. It was a majority that were here sometime during the latter part of the week and they were all very complimentary on the execution of Super Bowl here in Jacksonville.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

The Saga Continues

It is just amazing how the Super Bowl venue is getting nearly as much press as the game itself! One of the reasons is fear of the unknown, the other is that it is a totally new concept for the big game. If you haven’t been to a bunch of Super Bowls, you don’t know that the pre-game festivities are spread all over the host city and the surrounding area. In Miami you travel from Palm Beach to the Keys to cover the game. In Houston, the only time you went to the stadium was for the game. Everything else was 30 miles away. Atlanta had a concentration of events in the downtown area, but you had to head out to Buckhead and points north for any entertainment. Tampa created an entertainment zone, but you had to get there. And in San Diego, the pre-game events were spread all over Southern California.

Jacksonville’s Super Bowl is packed into a two-mile radius around the Stadium. The cruise ships, the main hotels and the entertainment zone are all rolled into one. Once visitors get to their rooms, they won’t have to get in a car again. Food, drinks, concerts and other entertainment will all be right along the river, mainly on Bay St. which will be closed to vehicular traffic beginning on Thursday. The NFL experience is a water taxi ride away across the river. If it works, the NFL will begin to ask other cities to move everything closer so that it’s a real three day celebration of the league.

Former Times-Union writer and current cbs.sportsline columnist weighs in on Jacksonville as a host Super Bowl city.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Super Update

I really didn’t think I was that tough on Tony Kornheiser. After his scathing column ripping Jacksonville as a host city for the Super Bowl, we called him up and asked if he’d like to explain himself on the six o’clock news. At first he declined, and then agreed to appear via telephone. We read a couple of quotes from the column, introduced him, and asked him a pretty simple question:

“When was the last time you were in Jacksonville?” Little did I know that question would set off a firestorm of commentary and controversy locally and in some case, across the country. Come to find out, Tony’s never actually been to Jacksonville. He’s been through it and “I usually stop for the free orange juice,” was the full extent of his experience.

(By the way, where’s that? I’ve never seen a free orange juice stand on 95, but maybe I’ve just missed it.)

I’m not sure why, but the whole thing started to go downhill from there, with Kornheiser making fun of my Maryland roots and calling on his “we kid because we love” get out of jail free line. I actually was just looking for his motivation for writing the column. Does he do this every year the week before the Super Bowl? Did he rip Houston, Miami, Tampa, Atlanta, San Diego and others just to get a rise out of the population? I never really got an answer and I’m still trying to figure it out. On his radio show the next day in D.C. he called me a “pompous, blowhard, gasbag,” not exactly addressing the question. I did find out that not only has he never been here, he’s not coming for the game either!

Maybe there’s something about Jacksonville that just grates on people. They went nuts in Charlotte in ’93 when the NFL awarded a franchise to Jacksonville alongside “the Queen city.” “Don’t worry Charlotte, you’re not Jacksonville,” one columnist opined in the morning paper (of course he’s still right, they have a long way to go.)

Jacksonville has talked a big game for the last twenty years, and then backed it up with action. A rebuilt downtown sports complex now has an NFL Franchise, a Dodgers affiliate and the NCAA Tournament as tenants. The ACC football and baseball championships will be played in town. And, of course, the Super Bowl rolls through on February 6th. The Players Championship and the Bausch and Lomb tennis championships have been in town since the ‘70’s.

The sports credentials are easy to find. In fact, the culture of the city is woven through the sports calendar. Around the golf, tennis, boating, cycling and other 12-month outdoor sports people participate in, they find time to support the things that come to town. And for some reason that really gets under some people’s skin. Jacksonville has never claimed to be Miami, Tampa, Orlando, Atlanta, D.C. or any other city it’s not.

In fact, Jacksonville has never wanted to be any of those.

The people here are comfortable with who they are and where they’re going, and maybe that’s the thing that bothers so many people. It’s not the greatest place for clubs, restaurants, nightlife and shopping. But as far as lifestyle, the people who live here like it.

The “dis” fest will continue, except for Mike Bianchi from the Orlando Sentinel. A former Jacksonville columnist, his take is below:

Super tally: Orlando dallies; Jacksonville does
  Published January 28, 2005

This is a very bad time to be a sports columnist in Orlando.

I feel like I’m standing outside the big columnist party, nose pressed against the glass, watching the other scribes laughing and joking and having a blast at Jacksonville’s expense.

“How did Jacksonville get the Super Bowl?” lampooned Tony Kornheiser, a columnist for the Washington Post and co-host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, earlier this week. “What, Tuscaloosa was booked? . . . Who in Jacksonville has a photo of Paul Tagliabue with a goat?”

Kornheiser claims Jacksonville does not have the sophistication to host a Super Bowl, which seems sort of odd coming from a guy who wears a turban on TV and yells a lot.

But, hey, Kornheiser can ridicule Jacksonville with impunity for one very good reason: He doesn’t write in Orlando.

In Orlando, we don’t put down Jacksonville; we look up to Jacksonville. We don’t disparage our northern neighbors; we envy them. We don’t call Jacksonville names; we just call Jacksonville, “Daddy.”

Here’s all you need to know: As Jacksonville gets ready for its Super Bowl next weekend, guess what big sports happening will be in Orlando this weekend? It’s called “The Super Bowl of Motorsports,” but actually it’s just a glorified name for a tractor pull. Jacksonville gets the real Super Bowl; we get the Monster Truck Super Bowl.

Wooo-Weee, Merle, did you see that ol’ boy flip his F-250 with the posi-traction rear end? He’s so dumb he couldn’t find his behind with both hands and a coon dog.

“The Monster Trucks are extremely popular here,” confirmed Allen Johnson, director of the Orlando Centroplex. “We’re expecting about 60,000 at the Citrus Bowl.”

Need we say more?

This is why the rip-Jacksonville reindeer games will proceed without any notable input from this Orlando columnist. Let the writers from New York and Boston take shots at Jacksonville if they must, but not me. I used to live in Jacksonville; I know how hard that city worked and how much money it spent to become a sports town.

Would Orlando be a better spot for the Super Bowl? Of course, it would. We have a zillion hotels, an internationally renowned airport and infinitely more entertainment options. But Jacksonville has something more important: Vision.

Ignore the insults, Jacksonville. Be proud of where you came from and what you’ve become. Stand tall. You are a Super city, no matter what the knuckleheads say or write.

Jacksonville shouldn’t be laughed at by the nation’s media, it should be lauded. Jacksonville is what all sports writers say they love: The ultimate underdog story. It’s the Rocky and Rudy of sports cities. It is the little town that could. And did.

Orlando dreams; Jacksonville does.

Orlando wanted an NFL team at one time; Jacksonville went out and got one.

Orlando wants a new downtown arena; Jacksonville just built one.

Orlando wants a minor-league baseball park downtown; you should see the one Jacksonville just built.

Orlando put in a half-hearted bid to get the Atlantic Coast Conference football championship; Jacksonville put in a serious bid and got the game.

“Jacksonville makes Tampa look like Paris!” Kornheiser wrote.

Unfortunately, as a sports town, Jacksonville makes Orlando look like Peoria.

Heck, we can’t even make fun of Jacksonville’s reputed love affair with Waffle House and Hooters. According to the Waffle House customer service hotline, Orlando and Jacksonville each has seven Waffle Houses. And are you ready for this? According to the Hooters Web site, Jacksonville has just four Hooters locations; Orlando has six.

So now you know why I’m going to leave the roasting of Jacksonville to other columnists. I have more important things to write about. Now if you’ll excuse me.

Hey, Merle, did you see that wheelie?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Rippin’ Jacksonville

Last year I was at the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame selection meeting the Saturday before the Super Bowl when’s Len Pasquarelli offered “I might skip next year’s Super Bowl. I hate Jacksonville.” Furman Bisher, the long time Atlanta writer waved him off, saying he was way off base. But Pasquarelli persisted and I finally told him that I agreed with him, he shouldn’t come to the game because “that means one less uninformed hack meandering in the city.”

I’ve said all along they’d be ripping us, mainly because they don’t know what they’re talking about, but add Tony Kornheiser to the list of “uninformed hacks” about to make their way to town. Here’s his column of Wednesday the 26th.

Sam’s response to this article is below it.

What’s That Smell? Jacksonville
  By Tony Kornheiser
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; Page D01

Right after Chad Lewis caught that touchdown pass with about four minutes to go, the touchdown that cemented the victory and ensured the Philadelphia Eagles would be in the Super Bowl, some guy in the stands joyfully held up a sign that said, “We’re Going To Jacksonville.”

And I thought: What on earth is second prize? You have to build there?

How did Jacksonville get the Super Bowl? What, Tuscaloosa was booked?

If going to Jacksonville for a week is the reward New England and Philadelphia get for being the best teams in the NFL this year, Peyton Manning ought to be happy he didn’t get there. Imagine how Manning would have felt, having to play all year in Indianapolis, and then landing in Jacksonville? Which gods would he have offended to get that killer quinella?

The NFL must see itself as handing out some sort of charity when it awards the Super Bowl to any place other than New Orleans, Miami and Southern California. Because, believe me, nobody wants the game to be anywhere but there. So when the NFL insists on putting it in outposts like Detroit, Houston or Minneapolis, people ask, “Are you guys nuts?” But when you pick Jacksonville, people are agape and say, “Who in Jacksonville has a photo of Tagliabue with a goat?”

At least these other places are big cities, with some history and a longtime affiliation with the NFL, as opposed to Jacksonville, which has now been in the league for about 15 minutes. Detroit is where American cars are made, and where Motown music originated. Minneapolis-St. Paul is the home of 3M and General Mills. Houston is the home of NASA, and, thanks to Enron, the gold standard in white-collar corporate crime. Jacksonville is what? (I’m just taking a shot here, Tony, a dump? No. Cut that out. It’s a ‘Ville! The only good ‘Ville is a Coupe de Ville.)

Have you ever been to Tampa? It’s heaven, if you like Waffle Houses.

Jacksonville makes Tampa look like Paris!

Jacksonville has this one great thing, the TPC course with the island green on No. 17. (Which is actually in Ponte Vedra.) And the rest of it can be described with this phrase, “Welcome to Hooters.”

People in Jacksonville will be very upset with this piece. They will say it’s a cheap shot by an effete Northerner who didn’t want to be the 28th person on his own paper to write about how great and smart and handsome Tom Brady is. (Which is true, but come on, we kid because we love.) They will yell and scream that their city is hardly a backwater — it’s the 14th largest city by population in the country! Yes, and that’s because it’s the largest city by area by far. It’s an octopus. It’s 840 square miles! It takes in almost all of northeast Florida. If Jacksonville annexes all of southern Georgia, it could maybe crack the population top 10.

The NFL will tell you Jacksonville is a warm-weather site because it’s in Florida. But Jacksonville is barely in Florida. It gets cold in Jacksonville. Yesterday morning, the low was 31 degrees. That’s below freezing, boys and girls. That’s cold enough that you need to keep the space heater turned on in the double-wide. And Jacksonville is 20 miles from the beach. Jacksonville is one of the smallest and most remote stops in the NFL. Green Bay is smaller and more remote. But Green Bay has Lombardi, Starr, Favre and the frozen tundra. Jacksonville has a Dairy Queen.

Jacksonville may be in Florida technically. But this isn’t South Beach, gang. It isn’t the home of Gloria Estefan, Enrique Iglesias and Luther Campbell. Jacksonville is where Pat Boone was born (sometime around the Martin Van Buren presidency), and where the Southern hair band .38 Special got together. Somehow it doesn’t sound like hip-hop. It’s more like I-Hop.

My friend Tony Reali, “Stat Boy” on the “PTI” show, flew to Jacksonville a few months ago to emcee some dopey trivia contest. And when he walked off the plane, he got a whiff of something that almost brought him to his knees — it was Jacksonville — and he made the not uncommon observation, “This place smells.”

“I am from Staten Island, and I have lived in New Jersey,” Reali explained. “I know bad smells. This was right below Secaucus.”

Not as bad as Staten Island?

“Nothing approaches Staten Island,” Reali said with conviction.

The next day, while appearing on a national radio show with Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald, Reali announced, “Jacksonville stinks,” and asked Le Batard if it smelled that bad in Miami.

My friend Mike Freeman, who used to work here at The Post and now writes a column in Jacksonville, heard the show and went wild. He called Reali “Stat Jerk” and “Stat Punk,” and chided him for slandering fair Jacksonville (named for Andrew Jackson, who, by the way, never actually set foot in it — he was probably waiting on the beach). In his column Freeman said Reali’s salvo was probably the first of many that would be fired at Jacksonville now that it was getting ready to host the Super Bowl.

Get used to it, brothers and sisters, Freeman wrote, this is what they’re all going to do.

Brady, table for five. Brady, table for five. Welcome to Applebee’s. Eatin’ good. In the neighborhood.


What we’ve been trying to to is confirm Kornheiser’s last visit to Jacksonville, because it’s pretty obvious, he’s never been here. I’ve never seen him any way. What do you expect from a guy who takes cues, willingly, from a guy called “stat boy?” He and other’s like him who are taking their shots are so full of self importance it’s actually amusing. Or maybe just sad. Because they’re afraid, afraid of what we are becoming. A force and a player on the national scene, leaving them behind.

Call it “sunshine envy.” I know, I lived in DC and this time of year sunshine is as rare as a sellout at a Wizards game. Picking is easy. Kornheiser went for every hackneyed stereotype ever thought up about the South, Jacksonville and anything else this side of the mason dixon line.

My Mom always told me you can find nice places in every city, and we know that about our town. You have to let it reveal itself to you, you can’t just shoehorn yourself in here. So perhaps he’ll be right at home here because he’ll be miserable, something he’s obviously familiar with.

Look, we don’t have to apologize or defend ourselves. We know who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. So come to town, do your job and go home. Back to your beltway traffic back to your bickering politicians and back to as you called them your “effete northerner” friends.

Or better yet.

Stay home.

That’ll be one less uninformed hack wandering around our town. And besides Tony, how can you write an entire column about Jacksonville and not once mention Skynyrd?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Super Preps

Just drive around town, and it’s evident, something’s coming to Jacksonville. You could imagine a big convention is in town. Or it’s some kind of massive city spruce up project, lines on the streets, potholes fixed and shrubs planted. But the world is coming to visit for a week and the place has to look good.

And it does.

The Super Bowl has an impact on a city in many ways, some obvious and some subtle. Sure, a couple of hundred thousand people will be in town for three or four days, spending money and rendering opinions about everything from the river to the weather to who’s actually going to win the game. It’s a complete NFL run production. They have the town dialed in: from parties to the participating teams’ hotels, the league has a handle on just about every detail you can think of.

They’ve got an entire entertainment area set up downtown for the locals and the visitors to mingle. They’re transforming burnt out warehouses into bars and gathering areas. The Commissioner’s party is at Cecil Commerce Center. The Media party is at the 17th hole at TPC. Playboy is at River City Brewing and Maxim is having the party everybody wants to go to.

And it’s all happening in our back yard.

People keep asking me “Are we ready?” The answer is yes, and if anything isn’t ready, fear not. The NFL will fix it. They have unlimited resourses and they’ll paint it or rebuild it or pave it or put some sod over it in order to make it right.

The Super Bowl Host Committee has been way ahead of the game, gathering money and people to make the game feel at home in a new venue. It’s a new concept for the NFL. The Super Bowl is a big celebration that envelopes an entire region. This year, the league is hosting the whole thing within a two mile area. They usually don’t do that. In Miami it’s spread out over three counties. In New Orleans, people are all over the place. In Jacksonville, once you get to town, you won’t need a car. Everything will be within walking distance or a shuttle will take you there.

The logistics of the Super Bowl are amazing. The league has teams of people just in charge of making sure people are transported around the host city without a hitch. Lanes are blocked off just to accommodate the shuttle buses. So prepare to be enveloped by the game and the things that surround it.

And prepare to embrace it.

It could be the only time it’s ever here.

So we can think it’s either a big pain or a big party. It won’t take twice as long to get around, it’ll probably take four times as long.

Media from around the world will be here, and many of they writers and broadcasters will rip us. Rip us as people, as hosts and as a city. But that’s OK. Last year the Los Angeles Times NFL beat writer filed a story from Houston with the dateline “Yahooville.” I laughed when I read that thinking that Houston is the 4th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. and he thinks it’s Yahooville? What’s he going to think about Jacksonville?

So I’m going to put on my most hospitable face and enjoy the week.

I’m still going to live here when they all leave, and I already know what a great place this is. If they want to discover that, great. If not, that’s fine too.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

World Cup 2002 Recap

With the US out of the World Cup, my interest is still there, but certainly not at the pitch it was. The contrasting style of play between countries makes any international match up with something on the line fascinating, but without the Americans involved, I’ll be a casual observer.

The US team’s drive into the quarterfinals might have signaled the arrival of this country on the international soccer stage. The MLS should get some credit for that, giving our best players a chance to compete on a regular basis instead of waiting around for the national team to be formed and go off and play some “friendlies.” The top talent is distributed all around the world, playing in the English Premier league and in places like Spain and Germany. In fact, America’s best player, Claudio Reyna, is considering not playing for the US when the World Cup rolls around the next time. Too much traveling, to tough on his family are they main reasons. Reyna is an English Premier Division player who basically commutes to the US national team games.

Even though they lost to the Germans 1-0, the US perhaps played the best game ever in international competition by a team representing this country. And they played like Americans. They didn’t try to emulate the English, or the South Americans, or some kind of European style of play. They created their own style, and American style of play. Aggressive, passionate, and not intimidated, the US didn’t back down to the Germans, and used their speed and experience to stay in the game.

The German goal was superb, just what you’d expect: a header from a 6’3” guy flying through the box. That’s what the Germans are known for, and they executed it. Most observers think the Americans actually outplayed Germany, but that’s what makes the Germans a world power. Even when they’re not at their best, they can still win. The US will be known as a counter attacking team with speed, a reflection of the talent being groomed in this country and refined abroad and in the MLS. And that’s good. Out top athletes are still not choosing soccer, but those who are, are able to compete on the international stage. As one expert put it, “If the Americans decide they’re going to be good in this sport, there’s nothing the rest of the world can do about it.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

US Soccer World Cup 2002

I’m not too worried about whether the United States wins or loses in the World Cup. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled that we (about the only time anybody in sports can use the word “we” is when referring to their own national team) beat Portugal. Nobody thought the US had a chance against the 5th ranked team in the world and easily the best team in the group. I was thrilled, and would like to see us get through to the next round. But the World Cup for the US isn’t about winning, it’s about being on a world stage where sport is the focus. And it’s a sport we’re still novices at.

We compete globally in a few things, mostly individual sports. Lance Armstrong rules the world of cycling. Tiger Woods is the best golfer on the planet. People pay to see Michael Johnson run. They play baseball and basketball around the world but we invented baseball and basketball, exported them, and beat everybody. Even as a kid I thought it was funny that we called it the “World Series” but didn’t play anybody from Japan or Latin America. But soccer is the world’s sport, played everywhere because in essence, all you need is a ball. And if you don’t have a ball, something you can kick will do.

I was on a beach in Central America once where about 40 kids were playing soccer, 20 to a side. The goals were two reeds stuck in the sand, the ball an unidentifiable sphere. Could have been a soccer ball. Could have been a basketball or volleyball. Who knows? But the playing of the game was the thing. Shorts no shoes, no shirts and a ball. Everybody was enthralled.

Soccer has never grabbed the sporting attention of America. Despite the predictions that the last 1 1/2 generations would spawn the next Pele in America, it hasn’t happened. Those 6 and 7 year olds on the soccer fields 20 years ago didn’t become big soccer fans. Perhaps the game doesn’t have enough scoring, isn’t physical enough, or one of twenty reasons it isn’t popular in America. But that doesn’t matter. It is popular everywhere else. It’s known as “the beautiful game.”

Watching it at the highest level, the skills of the players are fantastic. And to watch players wearing our country’s colors compete is great. Just getting to the World Cup is a feat for the US. Consider this: if Michael Jordan grows up in America, he has several sports to choose from. He picks basketball, and becomes the best player ever. If Michael Jordan grows up just about anywhere else, he’s a soccer player. Any great athlete in any other country first has to decide between soccer and every other sport. And most choose soccer.

Imagine if the best athletes in this country chose soccer over other sports. Cal Ripken, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan in midfield, Deion and Barry Sanders as strikers. Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Herschel Walker controlling our turf. With somebody quick, fast and great hands like Kevin Garnett in goal. How good would we be then? But there are other options here in America, other options that have two things going for them: more money and most girls don’t think soccer is cool. I know you’re laughing about that right now. But when was the last time you heard about a glamorous couple in the US made up of a supermodel and a soccer player? Everywhere else, that’s the norm.

David Beckham, England’s premier player, is married to Posh Spice. They’re the glam couple of the UK. Here, the soccer players are considered the nerds, the guys who couldn’t make the football team. Not true, but that’s the perception. And the money. We were all aghast over A-Rod’s $25 million a year with the Rangers. That’s about the going rate for soccer players around the world.

Argentina used two substitutes in today’s match with England whose combined salaries are $88 million! Here in the US, there’s also a chasm between the soccer fans and the non-fans. Both share the blame. The fans, especially the ones who have been with the game a long time, look down their noses at the non-fans like they’re the unwashed masses. Heathens. Mongrels. They don’t try to bring anybody new to the game. If fact, their noses are so far up in the air, they don’t see anybody else. And the non-fans are just as bad. They constantly deride the game as a non-sport. A sport for sissies.

Hey, just relax both of you. If they can race NASCAR at Indy, a little soccer here isn’t going to hurt anybody.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Ali’s Return

In this month of TV ratings or “sweeps” with all of the choices on television, I was surfing the channels the other night and stopped on a PBS documentary about Muhammad Ali. Yet another contest that Ali wins hands down. The champ vs. any made-for-TV movie.

This documentary focused on Ali’s ring record and his part of social reform in the U.S. in the ‘60’s. Although his current struggle against Parkinson’s syndrome still keeps him in the limelight, Ali is part of America’s past. Our sporting past and what we are today.

I started wondering what current athlete might be able to approach the impact, out of his sport, that Ali had on American culture. I’m aware it was a different time, but regrettably, the answer is nobody. And worse, nobody seems to be even trying. Ali, and many athletes of his era knew the kind of impact they could have on society, what kind of role model they might be, and the influence they had on young people. Is any of that happening today?

In very few instances.

Most fans are disenfranchised from professional athletes. The money gap starts the division, but the lack of the common touch widens the gulf. I had breakfast with Ali once. Just the two of us and one other guy in a deserted restaurant in Charleston, S.C. At the time, he was arguably the most famous person on the planet, but you wouldn’t have known it by our conversation. In fact, you wouldn’t have even known he was a boxer or an athlete listening to him talk. Is there anybody out there now you can say that about? I’m still thinking about that.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

XIX Winter Olympics

I was watching the Closing Ceremonies the other night from the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games, trying to figure out why I like the games so much. The XIX Winter Games had special appeal because they were held in the United States. It was a chance to wave the flag and host people from all over the world, from countries that are our allies, and from countries that hate us. It was seventeen days when we saw competition at it’s highest level. Yes, there is a payoff for Olympic Gold, Silver or Bronze, but only if you actually win a medal. And winning a medal takes an all-out performance. Nobody gets paid in advance.

The Olympic culture of competition only allows for each athlete giving his or her best. Anything less gets you beat, leaves you off the podium, and out of the potential payoff. We don’t always see that in the highest profile competitions we see everyday in professional sports.

There’s no such thing as “tanking” in the Olympics. This is the one chance every four years to get the job done, so nobody mails it in. That’s why the highs are so high, and the lows are devastating. But through it all, the athletes were as amazing outside of the competition as they were in it. They were humble in victory and gracious in defeat. They cried when the flag was raised and the National Anthem played. They took their hats off in honor of other countries’ anthems and reveled in each other’s success.

I guess that’s why I like the games so much; they’re real.

Jacques Rogge will be the man who saves the Olympic movement. The current President of the International Olympic Committee, a former Olympian himself, understands many things his predecessor didn’t have a clue about. Rogge is media savvy and handles himself like a polished politician. He understands how the U.S. fits in to the Olympic movement. Americans will always be a big presence in both the Winter and Summer Games, and the USOC hopes to win the bid for the 2012 games, possibly in New York City.

Rogge doesn’t dismiss the US as a splinter under his finger, but rather embraces American wealth as an aspect that can promote the games. At the same time, he hopes to move the Games around the world, to South America and Africa incorporating new venues into the regular rotation between Europe, Asia and North America.

The IOC President has to know how the games affect the athletes as well as the economies of the host cities. Rogge has his finger in both pots. “Light the fire within,” was the theme of the Salt Lake Games but Rogge’s comments at the opening ceremonies perhaps summed up the Games’ spirit. “When you finish first you are the winner,” Rogge said, “but to understand the principles of fair play and competition makes you a champion.” Rogge later repeated that statement when he was asked to comment on the doping allegations in cross-country skiing.

It’s not old school to think playing within the rules is OK. I’ve never seen two games played with more grit and passion than the two final games of the hockey tournament where the Americans were involved. The US/Russia game and the US/Canada game involved three teams of big-time professional hockey players with nothing on the line but national pride. Have you ever seen guys play harder? Every minute was like the last seconds of a tied overtime in game seven in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s what fans are looking for, that’s what people will buy tickets to see. If the NHL can capture that, they’ll explode much like the NBA and the NFL have in the last twenty years. If the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NFL don’t pay attention to it, the public will look elsewhere.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Olympic Broadcasts

We’re a couple of days into the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake. The opening ceremonies were a beautiful international celebration, reflective of the history of the American West, and at the same time respectful of what’s going on in the United States right now. The competition has been tight with some medals won or lost by hundredths or even thousandths of a second. But the broadcasts have been horrible!

When NBC did an end run on the rest of the networks and locked up the Olympics until further notice, they gave themselves carte blanche over the creativity of the broadcast of the games. They’ll do it the way they want, without worrying about whether they’ll get the games back or not.

Almost every broadcast is basically taped highlights shown as “plausibly live” with the ups and downs of the competitions condensed into 12 minutes that are edited together like a sitcom. A highlight here, a highlight there, and then the climax. Give me something live and if it’s on tape, just tell me.

And the announcers! Who are these whiny, thin voiced shills? Save for Bob Costas and a couple of other recognizable faces, where did they get these people? NBC has a full stable of professional broadcasters, how about using them.

I like seeing Jim McKay and Costas is his usually prepared self. But who picked out Bob’s wardrobe? I understand the no-tie thing, but how about something that matches every once in a while.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Coaching Carousel

It’s been a week since Steve Spurrier resigned at Florida and the domino effect is still taking place. Ron Zook has replaced Spurrier, but the rest of the jobs that were real possibilities last week are still possibilities. The Vikings have a coach, the Chargers still do not. The front-runner for Steve’s services is Carolina. He has connections to the state, sees it as a big challenge and his friend Ken Heroc, a former personnel guy from Atlanta would sign on as GM of the Panthers.

Washington seems to be out of the picture. The Redskins are supposed to name Bobby Beathard as their General Manager this week. That would push Marty Schottenheimer out of the picture and Beathard would hand pick his head coach.

The Glazers want Bill Parcells as their head coach in Tampa Bay. If the Bucs lose this weekend in Philadelphia, look for Tony Dungy to be fired and Parcells to take over the underachieving Bucs.

Spurrier said yesterday that he’s already talked with one NFL team and has two more meetings set up. Is one of those with Jacksonville? And if not, why not? There’s not a single person who has talked to me this week about Spurrier who hasn’t wondered about the possibility of him coaching the Jaguars. It seems like such a no-brainer, but Wayne Weaver has been acting as if he’s oblivious to all of the talk.

Tom Coughlin was the right guy at the right time to build the Jaguars and with the talk of a contract extension; Weaver seems to think Coughlin is also the guy for the future. He must know something the rest of us don’t. Spurrier would create a new excitement for a new era of Jaguars football. He’d win games and sell tickets. And if Spurrier’s looking for a challenge, the Jaguars are certainly going to be that. It all makes too much sense. If there’s a change, we’ll have the latest on the Internet when you log on to

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

Cult of Personality?

Daytona ­ I was scared this past week.
I’m not usually somebody who’s afraid but I had plenty of fear last week when I heard two words: Geoffrey Bodine. Covering Speedweeks at Daytona I spent time with Geoffrey Bodine on both Tuesday and Thursday. He was gracious with his time, thoughtful with his answers and friendly not only to me, but also to everybody who walked by. Signing autographs, Bodine had a quick smile along with a studied countenance when dealing with the public. I saw Bodine after the Twin 125 race on Thursday. He knew his new team didn’t have enough car to get into the race on Sunday. Yet, he stood with his crew and his car during the post-race inspection giving encouragement, suggestions and answering questions from the media as a past champion of the Daytona 500.

On Friday when I heard of the crash at the track during the truck race I asked, “who’s involved.” That’s when I heard the words that scared me: “Geoffrey Bodine.” Now why should I have that feeling of fear in my stomach just because a guy I interviewed a couple of times last week was in a wreck doing what he’s paid to do? I don’t know the answer, but I was afraid. Afraid something terrible had happened to a driver I was secretly rooting for to do well, if only because of his panache in the garage area. I’ve talked with Geoffrey Bodine plenty of times during my 22 years of covering NASCAR. I know he wasn’t a NASCAR insider, and I also know he doesn’t know me from Adam. I also know I took another step in my education about the passion fans have for NASCAR.

A few years ago I was covering an autograph appearance by Harry Gant at a local mall. Neil Bonnett had been killed that day at Daytona and we were doing a follow-up story. The line was long to get Gant’s autograph, and a woman in line asked me what I was doing there. “I’m here to ask Harry about Neil Bonnett.” I replied. “Why, what’s going on with Neil?” she asked. Realizing she didn’t know, I whispered to her, “Neil was killed today in a wreck in Daytona.” With that, the woman trembled, fell to her knees and began sobbing uncontrollably. Her husband helped her off to the side and consoled her, and I apologized profusely to anyone who would listen. Perhaps Bonnett was a relative or a close friend. “It’s not your fault,” the husband calmly told me. “Neil’s been her favorite driver since he started,” he explained. That incident was another part of my continuing education.

Why is it fans of NASCAR become so attached to the drivers? Because they’re what fans identify with. Everybody at a race has an allegiance to Ford, Chevy or Pontiac. And they support the sponsors above their competitors. But it’s the drivers that make the sport. If Cal Ripken was traded, I’d be interested in seeing what he did on his new team, but I’d still be an Orioles fan. It’s not that way in NASCAR. When a driver changes cars (teams) he takes his fans with him. Nobody’s a fan of a car! Fans like a driver’s styles, his personality, his way of handling the car on the track. And they dislike other drivers with the same passion. Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon polarize NASCAR fans more than any other drivers. “Anybody but Earnhardt,” and “Anybody but Gordon” are familiar rallying cries at tracks.

It’s the driver that counts. His name is emblazoned on hats and t-shirts, across the back windows of pick-up trucks and the windshield of cars. Fans dress like, talk like, and walk like their favorite driver. You don’t think Earnhardt drives a black car by accident do you? It’s a signal to his fans. We’re the intimidators, fear us! Jeff Gordon calls his team the Rainbow Warriors and the fans follow suit.

I don’t buy the non-fan theory about people only going to races to see the wrecks. Good driving, solid work in the garage and strategy on the track all make the competition exciting. Wrecks are spectacular, and even more so when followed by the words “how did he survive that!” Nobody sits and waits for a wreck, but they also don’t want to see a parade around the track either. Action is what made the sport and that’s what will keep its popularity growing. I’m glad Geoffrey Bodine wasn’t seriously hurt.
I won’t be afraid.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris -

A Real Fantasy

Orlando: — My arm hurts. My back aches. My shoulder is killing me. And I feel great.

Atlanta Braves fantasy camp last weekend in Orlando was just that, a fantasy, and a good one at that. With my friends Lex and Terry, Dream Weeks coordinator Norm Amster invited us to the Braves camp at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex.

Check in Wednesday night, a skill session and assessment on Thursday morning, a game in the afternoon, doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday, and a chance to play in the big stadium, home of the Braves in spring training on Sunday.

It’s a fantasy.

Get up every morning, go to the ballpark, sit at your locker, dress like a major leaguer, and go play baseball.


That’s it, nothing more but taking ground balls, working on your stance in the tunnels, in front of the mirror, playing catch and thinking, what if.

Our team was managed by former major leaguer Darrell Evans, who has a very pragmatic approach to hitting. See the ball, hit the ball. Use your top hand. Don’t over think it. Drive the ball at the guys who don’t field very well. Not up the middle where all the good fielders are, but around the corners on the infield and the outfield as well.

About half of our team had never played baseball before! Honest. And they played like it. But not one disparaging word was said about it. Plenty of effort, lots of hustle, and more fun than most anybody on the team has had in 20, (OK 30) years. The camp is about guys who used to play, and are looking for a chance to immerse themselves in it once again.

It’s also about 82 year-old Joe Phillips who was attending his first camp just to “see what was going on.”

It’s about Patty Canakaris, who played a little softball in her youth, but never had played baseball before. On the last day, in her last at bat, she singled down the right field line. The ball was promptly retrieved, and Patty has it as a life-long souvenir.

It’s about Joe Medlin and his brother, inseparable for the 5 days, playing on the same team, eating lunch together, and acting like brothers.

It’s about Bobby Conner, who said while he was playing he felt young again, but immediately after, just felt old.

Fantasy camps have been around since the early 80’s, starting with the Dodgers, and have spread through out the majors to nearly every team. Why is it baseball as a sport is able to pull this off? Nobody is flocking to football, basketball or hockey camps. They have their die-hards, but nothing like baseball. It gets in your blood and won’t go away.

Most guys played some kind of baseball when they were young. It’s a game that normal-sized people can play. And everybody has a memory, maybe just one of something they did on the field that made them a baseball player. Most are at camp trying to recapture that.

The smell of the leather, the feel of the grass, the sound of the wooden crack of the bat. Even when your arm hurts. And your back aches, and your shoulder is killing you.