Leland Stein III

Archive for the ‘sports column’ Category

THE ROLE OF ATHLETES AND ACTIVISM HAS A STORIED HISTORY

In sports column on June 30, 2018 at 5:19 pm

 

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Iconic Black Economic Union summit (sitting l to r), Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Standing (not in order) attorney Carl Stokes, Curtis McClinton, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Jim Shorter (Redskins), Walter Beach, and John Wooten.

By Leland Stein III

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Leland Stein III

As a kid growing up – outside my family – some of the first role models I drew inspiration from were athletes.

First, there was Joe Louis, whom my father trained along side of at Detroit’s renown Brewster Recreation Center. Then there was NFL Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Gale Sayers and my friend, Lem Barney. Next, tearing up the track was two-time Olympic Gold medalist and Northwestern High’s Henry “Gray Ghost” Carr.

I know I’m not alone in this declaration. Generally, after Mom and Dad, most youth look up to the people they see and hear both in newspapers, music or on television.

Throughout the Unites States long history, there have been musicians, politicians, television personalities, actors and athletes who have used their national platforms, some understood the vehicle they have and found ways to lend their collective voices to perceived injustices in America’s society.

So, when a Fox news anchor proclaimed that LeBron James and Kevin Durant should keep their political commentary to themselves and just “shut up and dribble and stick to sports,” calling their comments “ignorant,” I just cringed!! 

Just like President Trump, this Fox news reporter was serving her own agenda, while completely whitewashing The First Amendment which guarantees the right of freedom of speech, the right of peaceable assembly, and the freedom of the press.

Trump and that Fox reporter, both have no learned understanding of history and of the things that have truly “Made America Great.”

The worlds of sports and politics are invariably intertwined in a multifaceted, complex and convoluted mixed that is in the words of jazz legend Miles Davis, a “Bitches Brew.”

On one hand, sports are entertainment, and an escape from the doldrums that permeate peoples’ everyday existence. Yet on the other hand, sports entertainment presents itself as a much too serious endeavor for too many. Politics, unquestionably, is the vehicle that generates laws and govern our everyday movements through humanity.

Still, sports are an undeniable vehicle that galvanizes entire communities, towns and even countries into a collective discourse that move many into civic, regional and national pride.

Long before America admitted, recognized or documented that its segregation policies and laws, both unwritten and written, were racist … sports took center stage.

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Jack Johnson and wife.

When Jack Johnson won the World Heavyweight boxing title in the very early 1900’s, most African Americans could not live, work, marry or compete in sports activities with their white American brethren.  So, the politics of that day passed a law that would not let him travel with his white wife over state lines. It caused him to leave the country for eight years and when he returned he was put in jail.

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Joe Louis knocked-out Max Schmeling and Hitler’s Aryan Supremacy with one punch.

In 1936 and 1938 two men changed many perceptions and some perceived prejudices – albeit not the educational, political or the economic plight of most African Americans. They were Jesse Owens and Joe Louis. Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, as Germany was on the eve of World War II.  Owens on the track debunked Hitler’s Aryan Supremacy rhetoric, making him a national icon and world figure.

Later in 1938, Louis knocked out Germany legend, Max Schmeling, moving him past just a boxer to a true American hero. Whether either of them wanted it, they became political figures that represented an entire race. Many of our white brethren in America embrace Louis and Owens – white and black, rich and poor.

Yet the politics pouring out of Washington still did not change the segregation and racist agendas of the courts or police or military.

After Louis’ and Owens’ break through, Jackie Robinson furthered the cause of the African American in the United States as he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 – a significant moment in race relations that Louis and Owens helped forged.

Like bacon and eggs, socks and shoes, grits and butter… sports and politics, like it or not, have always walked hand in hand.

So, I think it is safe to postulate that Barack Obama becoming the country’s 44th and first African-American president was cleared in part by athletes whose courage, heart, determination and talent helped the country move through the slow, violent, tedious and painful process of desegregation.

Hall of Fame slugger, Hank Aaron, who experienced first-hand the ugliness of racism as he chased Babe Ruth’s hollowed homerun record, told a reporter that he was just overwhelmed when Obama won. “Every time I see him on television I just smile because he represents me,” he said. “No matter how I look at it, he’s me. For the first time you can see this country becoming the kind of country that we all are very proud of.”

Aaron and other Black athletes broke barriers and changed the political climate before the Civil Rights Movement commenced. In fact, Aaron was among the early influx of black players to follow Robinson, breaking into the majors in 1954, a month before the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that opened the way for school integration.

Then in the 1960’s, men like Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood and even Spencer Haywood, challenged America’s First Amendment and segregated policies and used their celebrity to force the political climate to become more inclusive.

In particular, gold medalist sprinters, Tommie Smith, along with bronze medalist John Carlos, raised black-gloved fist at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City to protest the racism and segregation overwhelming too many in the United States.

The controversial salute during the national anthem by Smith and Carlos came six months after King’s assassination. Predictably both athletes were denigrated and disparaged by white America for their actions.

“People wanted to label me a militant,” Smith, told me in an interview. “The fact of the matter is what we did was a Project for Human Rights. We needed to bring attention to the negative condition of too many in the States.”

The world’s biggest gathering of nations, the Olympics has and will always live with the politics of humanity. Sometimes it has been very good like China using the 2008 Beijing Games as a coming out party to the world showcasing its rich history, culture and creativity.

On the other hand, it has also been used to further political agendas like the Palestinians taking the Israeli athletes in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. All the hostages were killed. Then the United State boycotted the Russian Games in 1980 and Russia did likewise, boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Sports and politics go hand in hand, much to the chagrin of many; however, they will always be wedded.

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Kevin Durant and LeBron James celebrated 2012 USA Basketball Gold Medal.

James seems understand and embrace his platform saying: “When I was growing up, there were like three jobs that you looked to for inspiration. It was the president of the United States, it was whoever was the best in sports, and then it was like the greatest musician at the time. At this time right now, with the president, it’s at a bad time. We cannot change what comes out of that man’s mouth, but we can continue to alert the people that watch us, that listen to us, that this is not the way.”

Added Durant: “What’s going on in our country, it’s all about leadership. We need to empower people, we need to encourage people, and that’s what builds a great team. And I feel like our team, as a country, is not run by a great coach.”

Other athletes understand their political opportunities like the:

The St. Louis Rams “Hands Up” to raise their arms in awareness of the events in Ferguson, MO.

Miami Heat wearing “hoodies” to protest the shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin, who was on his way home to watch his beloved Heat.

Billie Jean King’s stance for “equality” for women in tennis. Prize money for women’s tennis increased because of her advocacy.

And then there was Colin Kaepernick who took a knee during “The Star Spangled Banner.” He launched a protest that sent aftershocks everywhere.

The fact of the matter is sports and politics are married, and, after a lull, some of today’s athletes seems to grasp the enormous cultural and economic influence they possess, and it is heartening that some have started to understand how to leverage that status for something more than selling sneakers.

Leland Stein III can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and twitter @LelandSteinIII

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Shields overcomes knockdown, outlast Gabriels

In sports column on June 24, 2018 at 3:01 am

 

 

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Claressa Shields gets left hook on Hanna Gabriels. Bob Ryder – photo

 

By Leland Stein III

 

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Leland Stein III

 

DETROIT – I have covered over 100 championship boxing matches and every other sporting event too, but there is something about a sweet science title contest that is simply electric.

Flint, Michigan’s Claressa “T-Rex” Shields (6-0, 2 KOs), a two-time Olympic Gold Medalist (2012 and 2016) and now unified women’s super-middleweight champion versus Costa Rica’s Hanna Gabriels (18-2-1, 11 KOs), who despite the loss is still unified women’s junior middleweight champion, together they not only illustrated how far women’s boxing has come, but more importantly, they put together an action-packed fight that was indeed worthy of a national event presented by Showtime Boxing.

At Detroit’s historic Masonic Temple one boxing’s more famous combatants, 23-year-old Shields, undeniably had the estimated 3,000 in a frenzy throughout as fisticuff enthusiast stood from the third round to the final bell as “T-Rex” craved out an exciting unanimous decision.

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Shields hits canvas for first time. Bob Ryder – photo

The victory gave Shields the IBF and WBA middleweight world championships.

Having glided through an exceptional amateur career and her first five professional fights, Shields found herself in uncharted waters. First, she gets knockdown in the first round (her first time touching the canvas), getting hit more than in any fight she has engaged in, and, getting head butted numerous times with one opening up a large cut on her left cheekbone.

Still she found or elevated that special intrinsic something that all champions possess, heart and swag, and, she needed it all.

“Once I went down,” Shields recalled in the post-fight press conference, “I took a deep breath and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m about to whip this girl a*s.’ I just remember thinking let’s use the jab, be smart, move your head and tire her out.

“What I proved to myself was I can get put on my a*s, get up and come back and win. This was my night and I had to show the world I’m the greatest of all-time. I showed who I am. Now, I’m really dangerous because you can even put me down, and I’ll still come back to win.”

Indeed, she came back to win. Shields represents more than just boxing, as everyone knows about the horrible decisions made in the Flint water crisis that hurt so many. Also, the city has become a victim of the economic and manufacturing changes that happens to cities that rely too heavily on any one industry, and, the subsequent poverty that follows.

“I know I am one of the most popular people to come from Flint,” Shields deadpanned, “so, I represent my city, my community and the U.S.A. I know a lot of people are expecting great things from me, but no one expects more from me than I do from myself!”

Shields is a female Sugar Ray Leonard, in terms of her hand speed. She always unleashes punches in combinations and flurries that puts unrelenting pressure on her opponents. She came at Gabriels, 35, in tsunami like waves of smites that just overwhelmed her opponent.

She commanded the exchanges after the first round, but got a stern test from Gabriels, a former welterweight world titlist, in her toughest fight yet. According to CompuBox statistics, Shields landed 162 of 506 punches (32 percent) and Gabriels landed 133 of 510 (26 percent). Shields averaged 66.5 punches thrown per 2-minute round and landed 46.6% of her power shots. She out landed her opponents by more than 3-1 in power shots.

“I was a little surprised at her speed,” Gabriels said in the post-fight press conference. “She has a lot of heart, but so do I. I left my heart in that ring. I trained to go the distance but my heart betrayed me, because after that first knockdown, I was looking for another one. I wanted to show everyone I had a warrior’s heart. I didn’t feel I had an advantage after the knockdown. I felt I had to work round after round to even have a possibility to win.”

Said Shields: “[Gabriels] a good fighter. She has skills and just the way she carries herself. She’s very calm and her facial expressions never change. I think she’s tough, but not as tough as I am. I know I’m the better fighter.”

The victory over Gabriels set up a fall showdown for the undisputed women’s middleweight world championship with fellow two-belt titleholder German fighter Christina Hammer. Hammer routed Tori Nelson to retain her belts in the co-feature.

Shortly after the decision, Team Shields and Team Hammer began the hype for the mega fight, as an ugly scrum broke out after the fight.

“I’m just tired of Hammer disrespecting me all the time,” Shields said. “She comes into the ring after all my fights, stealing my shine, talks trash, and then she goes in there and looks like s— against Nelson. I’m sick of it. But I let her know I’m more than ready for a fight against her. She wanted me to lose tonight, but I wanted her to win because I want to fight her. We have to unify now.”

Said Hammer: “I’m really looking forward to fighting Claressa. She will try and fight me on the inside, but my footwork, and my reach, will be the difference. The fight with Claressa will be a game-changer. It will be the biggest women’s fight ever.”

In the opening bout of the Showtime-televised tripleheader, light heavyweight Umar Salamov (22-1, 16 KOs), 24, of Russia, knocked out Brian Howard (13-2, 10 KOs), 38, of Atlanta, in the ninth round. Salamov was ahead on all three scorecards when he dropped Howard for the count with two right hands at 53 seconds.

Leland Stein III can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and twitter @LelandSteinIII

NFL & Trump: What has happened to the First Amendment Rights?

In sports column on May 27, 2018 at 12:47 am

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By Leland Stein III

DETROIT – It all seems so simple to me! One of the non-negotiable tents of our United States Constitution is the First Amendment right of free speech.

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Why don’t the Second Amendment rights advocates cajole for the First as passionately? Just wondering. After all, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are the bedrock of America’s uniqueness.

The First Amendment is a part of the Bill of Rights and the amendment which disables an entity or individual from practicing or enforcing a religious viewpoint which infringes on the freedom of speech, the right of peaceable assemble, the freedom of the press, or which prohibits the petitioning for a governmental evaluation of grievances.

With the urgings and admonishing’s of President Donald Trump, the National Football League recently proclaimed that players on teams that kneel for the national anthem, their teams would be discipline by instituting fines.

Protesting football players were extended the option of remaining in their locker rooms until the anthem is over.

The owners instituted the new rules after players joined former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick in kneeling on the sidelines throughout last season to protest police brutality.

President Trump promptly chimed in and unleashed this anti First Amendment tirade: “Any players who kneel during the national anthem should not live in this country.”

Wow!!

What has happened to the “right of peaceable assemble” as outlined in our First Amendment? It is beyond amazing that our president is advocating for muzzling Americans, who happen to have compelling opinions that differ from Trump’s myopic views of American life.

He simply refuses to recognize or appreciate the expansive diversity that live in the United States and the varying challenges that differing cultures face and endure.

It is shameful, dishonorable and reprehensible that the President and many of his minions continue to bastardize the players’ narrative concerning their peaceful attempt to draw attention to police brutality and a historically racist justice system.

There is a reason from the time one is old enough to read in the Black community, the phrase, “Just Us” is the acknowledged acronym for “Justice.”

Even NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, wondered aloud how the on-field protests created the false perception among fans that NFL players who participated in the protests were unpatriotic, hated military or law enforcement.

However, there are many that think the NFL’s action was simply aimed at their bottom line. Many projections claim the NFL rakes in $10 billion or more a year and doesn’t pay any taxes, and, is only worried about profits and image.

Trump played to his right-wing base during a rally in Alabama last September when he called NFL players who kneeled “sons of bitches.” He also encouraged fans to boycott the games when the protests occurred.

The NFL is 77 percent black. Is that just happenstance that many have taken arms against the players exercising their First Amendment rights?

One fact I know for sure is that the players protesting never had any intention of hating on the military, law enforcement or being unpatriotic. How easily Trump changed the discourse and how and why too many Americans have latched onto his negative invention, is simply disheartening.

I have interviewed many NFL players and have covered the league for over 30-years and many, many of the players have family members in the military and in law enforcement. Their plea for help and fairness was simply just that, nothing else.

Ironically, as the NFL unveiled its new rules, the same day Milwaukee Police released a video of police officers tasing and wrestling to ground Sterling Brown, Milwaukee Bucks rookie guard, in January following a very minor parking violation in a Walgreens parking lot.

The Milwaukee Bucks organization called what happened to Brown at the hands of police “shameful and inexcusable.” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and the city’s police chief Alfonso Morales have apologized to Brown.

Fact is this is a sad actuality for minority communities throughout America.

As far back as The Boston Tea Party in 1773, when protesters gathered in Boston Harbor to reject the latest shipment of tea from the East India Company, protest has been at the root of America’s development. The Colonist were speaking out against the Tea Act, that gave a British government-controlled company an effective monopoly. The colonists stormed the ships as they pulled into the harbor and chucked some 46 tons of tea overboard.

The real issue at hand, of course, was the colonists’ lack of representation in the British Parliament. That night, their cries reverberated near and far, and helped spur a movement that would see the states gain their independence from Mother England in just a few years’’ time.

Since that call to action in 1773 the United States has a very long history of peaceful and violent protest against perceived wrongdoings.

Henry David Thoreau, the Harvard-educated 19th-century philosopher and poet, remains a major symbol of peaceful resistance because of his 1849 work, “Civil Disobedience.” On account of his opposition to slavery, Thoreau refused to pay taxes, an act that briefly landed him in jail.

The Flint, Mich. sit-ins happened in 1936 at the Fisher Body Plant as United Auto Workers tried to organize their massive work force. Within two weeks, about 135,000 men were striking in 35 cities across the nation. The movement solidified one of North America’s largest unions.

How can I forget Rosa Parks declaring enough is enough? Even though African Americans constituted some 70% of total bus ridership in Montgomery, Ala., people of color were forced to sit in the back of the bus. She refused to give her seat to a white man and was arrested inciting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It took an entire year of protest, arrest, and violence acted on the boycotters before the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision that made segregated seating unconstitutional. Parks was known thereafter as the “mother of the civil-rights movement.”

How can Trump and others forget the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led First Amendment March on Washington to demand equal rights for African Americans and poor, where over 200,000 people gathered in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. There King delivered one of the greatest speeches ever, “I Have a Dream” and it awakened and galvanized a nation to action. The protest led to the successful passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

And my Mom and wife surely rejoice the 19th Amendment, which formally granted women the right to vote. The women’s-suffrage movement/protest dates as far back as the Revolutionary War, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Ida B Wells and Alice Paul, spearheaded the strong push for equal voting rights. In 1920 — 41 years after it had originally been drafted — Congress ratified an amendment that said: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

How about track athletes Tommie Smith (first place) and John Carlos (third place) using their wins in Mexico City’s 1968 Olympic Games to show their opposition to the continued oppression of blacks in the U.S. They stood in black socks to represent black poverty; Carlos wore beads to symbolize black lynchings; together they raised their black-gloved fists in a cry for black unity.

What about the Vietnam War, where thousands of Americans sporting flowers over guns protested a perceived unjust war and gave their lives (re. Kent State massacre) and efforts to end that costly conflict.

My question to Trump is, “Should suffrage leaders Stanton, Anthony, Wells and Paul; Martin Luther King Jr.; the flower children (now CEO’s); Ms. Parks; Smith or Carlos; all the UAW workers; Thoreau and/or the colonists been kicked out the country? Were they all “sons of bitches” as Trump proclaimed about the predominately African-American NFL players who protested.

I know Trump is pandering to his base; however, it saddens me that more Americans than I could believe leaped on the negative bandwagon. Considering the history of the USA and its protest that have enacted positive change in this country, why did the NFL players deliberation cause so much divisiveness?

From the American Revolution through the civil rights era history, Irish, Italians, African Americans, Protestants, Catholics, Hispanics etc. al. have rallied around the First Amendment rights to do as King said “cash a check” against the U.S. Constitution that guarantees all the right of free speech, life and liberty for all.

Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, called the president’s remarks “disgusting” and said that while he doesn’t like the league’s new policy, he understands it.

“We’ve got freedom of speech, right? Freedom to protest? Just because somebody disagrees or has an issue with something that’s going on in this country, that doesn’t mean that they should pack up and leave,” Marshall told reporters in response to Trump’s comments.

That is not all, Trump also said the about the protesters, “Total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.”

Our President really does not understand America’s true “heritage” of protest and has completely forgotten freedom of expression is right there in the First Amendment. And our brave soldiers didn’t fight and die so that everyone would stand during the national anthem. They fought so people could have the right to decide whether or not they want to stand. That’s the genuine and fundamental point of the First Amendment.

The thing is: We don’t live in a color-blind society. Slavery sits at the beginning ancestries of America. The goal of racial egalitarianism remains a goal, not an accomplishment. To fantasize otherwise is to willfully blind one’s self to hundreds of years of history.

Somehow, we all have to get back to listening to each other and accepting our differences – somehow.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII

 

Michigan outlasted by Villanova in National Title Game

In sports column on April 13, 2018 at 12:12 am

 

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Villanova enjoys third National Title. AP Photo

Noteworthy run to Finals by UM halted firmly by Wildcats.

By Leland Stein III

 

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Leland Stein and HoF Coach John Thompson

 

SAN ANTONIO, Tx. – With underdog University of Michigan playing a sharp-shooting, balanced Villanova team, and, every prognosticator predicting a blowout Wildcats victory, the Wolverines jumped out on top of the favorite before 68,831 in the championship game of the 2018 Final Four at the Alamodome.

In a tournament of UMBC and of Buffalo, of Florida State and of Nevada, of upsets and outright jolts, of Loyola Chicago and Loyola Chicago and Sister Jean, Villanova had whisked through Radford, Alabama, West Virginia, Texas Tech and Kansas by 26, 23, 12, 12, 16 and 17 points.

 

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Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo’s 35-points earned him MOP of the Final Four. AP Photo

 

The Wildcats’ dominate run did not stop in the title game as they toasted Michigan 79-62, producing a 17-point victory, and, in the process evaded any of the last-minute hysterics that capped their previous title in 2016 over North Carolina.

“When we got to the 2009 Final Four and we lost the first game,” said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, “I thought that was my shot, I was fine. Then, when we won the title and I thought alright, I’m happy and now I just want to make sure the guys graduate and the team stays competitive. This (second title) is out of my comprehension.”

In the post-game press conference someone asked Coach Wright if he now considered his team among the elite. “We don’t really judge ourselves on being called elite. We judge ourselves on how the guys do in school, how they grow as men and how we play night in and night out. But, when the media calls you a blueblood, we’re not turning it down. We’ll take it.”

After the first five minutes, Michigan looked they were ready to give Blueblood Villanova a skirmish, holding a surprising 11-6 lead following a Moritz Wagner layin at the 15:09 mark.

The Wolverines held on and earned a 21-16 advantage after 10 minutes of play in the first half, but it was all a mirage, a delusion or figment of the imaginations of the thousands of Michigan faithful that were full of hope and joy as they traversed the San Antonio Riverwalk garbed in blue and gold, and shouting, “Go, Blue!”

With six minutes left in the first half Villanova took a 23-21 lead and never looked back. The Wildcats gathered steam and built a 37-28 lead at halftime.

“We got off to a decent start at the beginning of the game; however,” U-M head coach John Beilein said after the game, “we were not able to sustain it. That is a very good team we played and we needed to have had one of our better games to beat them.”

After Michigan’s Charles Matthews basket got the Wolverines within 12 points at 56-44 with nine minutes remaining in the game. The Wolverines’ fans got excited and extremely loud.

However, backup guard and eventual Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Donte DiVincenzo, drained two consecutive threes and just like that the score ballooned to 62-44 and Villanova went on to route Michigan.

With somewhere near 20,000 Wolverines yelling and screaming most believed that the dream of being National Champions appeared real or possible but in fact it was just another smoke screen.

Said DiVincenzo after tossing in 31 points, “It is indescribable to explain that we went through so much in practice and in conference play this year and to get on a run through college basketball’s greatest event is beyond words. This team was determined to get it done.”

Villanova was indeed determined as evident by its dominate run through the tournament.

The 80th edition of the tournament began with 68-teams, and, the nature of the single-elimination tournament to determine the men’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I college basketball national champion makes it compelling to say the least.

I root for the underdogs each year, and this was a great year to be a proponent for the small fry.

For the first time in tournament history in the first round, UMBC became the only 16-seed to defeat a 1-seed in the men’s tournament by defeating Virginia 74–54. Also, for the first time not one of the four top seeded teams in a single region (the South) advanced to the Sweet 16. Putting the icing on the underdog’s 2018 Final Four cake, No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago scratched out win after win on its way to becoming the Cinderella in San Antonio.

Michigan, after besting the “Cinderella Team” of the tournament, and, carrying the nation’s longest current winning streak of 14 games, felt it was embolden or destined to maybe win its second NCAA title. The Wolverines just could not put together an awesome shooting night, and DiVincenzo and his teammates did.

“Basketball is a hit or miss game,” UM guard Matthews deadpanned. “Today our shots weren’t falling. It is what it is.”

After coming so close, Matthews tried as hard as he could to keep things in perspective, saying “the high and low is the same thing; we lost! The high is getting here. The low is being here in the losing locker room, but I’m proud of this group of guys.  I couldn’t be more appreciative to be here.”

Added Michigan senior forward, Duncan Robinson: “We missed a lot of good shots that I feel like we usually make, so it was tough to have it on this stage and this game. Credit to them they are a really good team. We didn’t make shots we had all year. But it is basketball.”

Villanova finished 36-4 and improved to 3-1 all-time in the National Championship game, with previous victories in 1985 over Georgetown and 2016 over North Carolina. The Wildcats become only the eighth school to win three NCAA National Championships. The other teams with at least three titles include: UCLA (11), Kentucky (8), North Carolina (6), Duke (5), Indiana (5), UConn (4) and Kansas (3).

Meanwhile, Michigan finished 33-8, setting a school record with 33 wins.  The loss dropped the Wolverines to 1-6 in the National Championship games with its losses coming in 2018, 2013, 1993, 1992, 1976 and 1965.

Heading the All-Tournament team were four Villanova players; MOP DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Eric Paschall, and UM senior Wagner, Michigan.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII

“Fantastic Four” continues Watkins Awards legacy of noteworthy scholar athletes

In sports column on March 18, 2018 at 12:10 am

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Eagles demand first Super Bowl title

In sports column on February 14, 2018 at 12:21 am

 

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Tom Brady tries to avoid a Bradon Graham sack. – Gary Montgomery photo

By Leland Stein III

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Leland Stein

MINNEAPOLIS, Mn. – No matter that the weather outside was hovering around zero, the over 67,612 fans in US Bank Stadium, and, the millions of television watchers world-wide were on fire as the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots got set to engage in American gridiron football action.

The Eagles and Patriots both felt the heat of the moment too, as the two teams combined for a shocking 673 yards in the first half, the second highest total in Super Bowl history.

Oh the crazy/awesome offensive heat did not stop in the second half either, as both teams combined for 1,151 yards – the most in any modern NFL game.

The exhilarating and breathtaking contest was hot throughout – if one loves offense – as Philly indeed did just enough to outlast 40-year-old G.O.A.T Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to become NFL champions for the first time since 1960. The 41-33 victory was one for the ages.

Overzealous Philadelphia fans lost their minds back home as their owner lifted the Lombardi Trophy signifying that the Philadelphia Eagles really had did the darn thing in its third Super Bowl appearance.

“I am so excited for our locker room,” Eagles second-year coach Doug Pederson exclaimed, “and Mr. (Jeffrey) Luri he gave me the opportunity to coach this team. A lot of people counted us out, but the locker room believed, believed in each other, believed in me and together we found a way to get it done.”

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Ron Gronkowski corrals touchdown over Ronald Darby – Gary Montgomery photo

Pederson did not approach this game with his tail between his legs and he went for the win at all times. In particular Mr. Guts and Glory with 38 seconds remaining in the first half (Patriots had just scored and brought the score to a respectable 15-12), and the Philadelphia Eagles facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, he went for a trick play – the “Philly Special.”

With a little bit more the one minute left running back Corey Clement pitched to tight end Trey Burton who flipped the ball to quarterback Nick Foles that engineered an important 22-12 halftime lead.

“Our coach has got some guts, huh?” Burton unleashed. “He’s got some big ones.”

When the Eagles needed a yard for a touchdown – when most coaches might have trusted their offensive line to just push their way forward – Pederson called a play on which his quarterback would ideally be the last of four people to touch the ball. It was a play the Eagles had practiced a total of six times.

“You never know what he’s thinking,” Burton said. “Here we are. Philly’s never won a Super Bowl. We’re fourth-and-1 on the goal line and he calls a trick-play pass to the quarterback? Come on, man.”

The play worked and Pederson did it again on fourth-and-one from Philly’s own 45 yard line with 5:39 left in the game. Again it worked as the Eagles keep the ball and eventually scored on the game winning touchdown on a 11-yard pass to tight end Zach Ertz that was sent to the replay official for review, but eventually was acknowledges as a score and it was a game changer as Philadelphia took a 38-33 margin they never relinquished.

It worked, of course. Pretty much everything Pederson and his Eagles did Sunday night work which is the reason why it’s no longer true that Philadelphia has never won a Super Bowl.

“You don’t just roll in with any old game plan and expect Foles to win a 41-33 shootout with Brady,” Pederson noted. “You don’t play it safe and expect to out-coach Belichick.”

Pederson continued: “I trust my players, I trust my coaches and I trust my instincts. I trust everything I’m doing, and I wanted to maintain that aggressiveness. In games like this, against a great opponent, you have to make those tough decisions that will keep yourself or the team aggressive.”

Coach may indeed have trusted his players; however, the Eagles made the clutch plays as they did just enough to coral the Patriots in a very tight game.

Fact is Foles guided the drive of a lifetime as Ertz made a bobbling touchdown catch that had to survive replay review, and then an exhausted defense came up with two defensive stands in the final moments.

That game-clinching defensive stance was initiated with a Brandon Graham strip-sack against Brady with Derek Barnett recovering, setting up rookie Jake Elliot’s 46-yard field goal for an 8-point lead.

Graham, “We knew we were playing Brady and those coaches in the biggest game. I knew I had a one-on-one with the guard. We had been doing something that had been working, but I acted like I was pulling, then I snatched the ball right off Brady’s arm and it changed the game.”

The breathtaking effort of the game was that quarterback Foles had been something of a journeyman in his six pro seasons, but he was spectacular in four career playoff games. He finished 28 of 43 for 373 yards and three TDs in the title game

The 40-year-old Brady finished 28 of 48 and picked apart the Eagles until the final two series.

Graham and his squad held Brady in check to win in the final minutes.

Said Malcom Jenkins: “We knew that in the two minute situation that most likely they were going pass the ball so in the two minute situation our d-line could finally cut it loose. The whole game they had us on our heels, but we did what we needed to coral that awesome team.”

Journeyman Foles taking the place of Carson Wentz, did the impossible, guiding the Eagles to the title, earning Super Bowl MVP.

“I am speechless,” exclaimed Foles, “All glory to God first and foremost. To be here with confetti flying and the greatest group of men, such a great city to play for and I am proud to be a Philadelphia Eagle.”

Brady got his team to midfield, but his desperation pass fell to the ground in the end zone.

“For us,” Graham exclaimed, “it was all about one stop we had to make. We went out here and made that one stop.”

The underdog Eagles (16-3), earned its first Super Bowl title after going 7-9 last season.

“If there’s a word (it’s) called everything,” Eagles owner Lurie said. “That’s what it means to Eagles fans everywhere. And for Eagles fans everywhere, this is for them.”

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII

 

 

North Carolina gets Deliverance and a title

In sports column on April 10, 2017 at 2:45 am
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North Carolina celebrates its methodical victory over Gonzaga.

By Leland Stein III

GLENDALE, Az. – This was my 21st Final Four and I have to interject that this collection of college basketball teams assembled together in Phoenix were extremely unique.

In the 2017 Big Dance there were three rookies and one veteran. This Phoenix congregation of three teams – Gonzaga, South Carolina and Oregon – had one Final Four appearance among them. Oregon proudly claimed that lone one, which unproudly happened 78 years ago in the very first NCAA title game – when the NIT was a much more prestigious tournament.

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Leland Stein III

It all started in November with 351 teams, and now, five months later it was down to three Final Four rookies and one vet. Make no mistake about it however, as all four of these teams were deserving of being one of the Final Four contestants for the national title. Each team here implemented, followed unique, and in some cases unlikely, paths to Phoenix. But all four teams had a singular moment that cemented its Final Four status.

Finally, March Madness aficionados were left with two, after Gonzaga outlasted a scrappy South Carolina squad, and, North Carolina had squeezed by Oregon.

In the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship game before 76,168 we were left with one traditional powerhouse, North Carolina, and, Gonzaga in its 20th NCAA tournament appearance reaching its first Final Four in program history.

The three rookies getting to the final game weekend was an awesome story, but 2017 was not to be the year of Cinderella. With methodical precision the North Carolina Tar Heels (33-7) did just enough to win the national title overcoming Gonzaga 71-65.

The victory for the Tar Heels was sweet redemption, after they lost in 2016 on a last second shot from eventual champion Villanova.

“I put it (redemption) on the locker room up on the board,” coach Roy Williams exclaimed in the post-game euphoric interview. “They wanted redemption and my guys bought into it. They played tough, although neither team played their best, but both were competitive and battling through it all.”

Added Tar Heels center Kennedy Meeks: “It hurt badly last year losing, so we dedicated ourselves to ensuring we produced a better result than last year. I told the fellas that we could get back and get a better result and we fought through all the fouls and adversity to get it done.”

Unfortunately each team did not only have to battle each other, the referees interjected themselves into the fray and turned the game into a stop-and-start ugly contest.

The referees called 27 fouls in the second half, completely shattering the flow of the game and sent North Carolina’s

Meeks, Gonzaga’s 7-footers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, and, a horde of others to the bench in foul trouble.

The game “featured” 52 free throws. Both teams were in the bonus with 13 minutes left. Somehow, Collins was the only player to foul out.

“It sucks that I fouled out this important game,” Collins said. “Look I am going to put it on me. I had been having some foul issues all year, but I thought I had worked hard to get my defensive effort under control. The referees did not see it that way I guess.”

I will never understand why or how the NCAA allows the referees to dominate a national title game like they did. No one came to the game to see them blow whistles and run over to the scorer’s table to give a number of the supposed fouler.

No matter, Williams got his third championship, putting him one ahead of his mentor, Dean Smith, and now behind only John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp.

“When I think of Coach Smith, there’s no question,” Williams interjected with sincere enthusiasm. “I don’t think I should be mentioned in the same sentence with him. But we got three because I’ve got these guys with me and that’s all I care about right now – my guys.”

Added Joel Berry II, the 2017 NCAA Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player: “Sure it feels great to get Coach his third title. With all the ups and downs this win was awesome. It was a complete 180 degrees from last year that feeling of losing. I cannot describe how excited it is to be on the other end of this. Coach told us to remember how we all felt last year so we went out and gave it our all.”

In spite of the loss, Gonzaga has a lot to feel good about. It had made 20 tournament appearances and finally reached the Final Four for the first time — becoming the first West Coast Conference team to advance that far since San Francisco made its third straight trip in 1957. The Zags closed out their season with a lofty 37-2 record.

Also, Phoenix became the first far west city to host a Final Four since Seattle in 1995. That was a memorable one for me as I was there to watch the UCLA Bruins claimed their 11th national basketball championship.

In the end Zags coach Mark Few handled the referees with more class than I ever could. Taking the high road, calling the refs “three of the best officials in the entire country,” and insisting they did a fine job. Political correctness at its finest and probably the right call, because what else could he do? Nothing!!!!!

After all, his Bulldogs a small school in the equally small West Coast Conference, tried to keep the big picture in mind. Twenty years ago, this sort of run looked virtually impossible. With less than 2 minutes left, they had the lead in the national title game, but on this day in the desert Cinderella could not crash into the champion’s realm.

“We broke the glass ceiling everyone said we couldn’t break,” junior forward Johnathan Williams said. “We had a great season and gave ourselves a chance to win it all, but we just came up a little short.”

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and Twitter @LelandSteinIII

Awe-inspiring collection of Scholars/Athletes inducted into Watkins Family

In sports column on March 25, 2017 at 9:19 pm
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The 2017 Watkins “Elite Six” (l to r) Donovan Peoples-Jones (University of Michigan), Isaiah Pryor (The Ohio State University), Rakavius Chambers (Duke University), Conner Wedington (Stanford University), Justin Foster Clemson University), and Ryan Johnson (Stanford University). – John Paige – Photo

By Leland Stein III

WASHINGTON DC – At the pronounced Renaissance Hotel in the District of Columbia, the National Alliance of African American Athletes (The Alliance) recently hosted it 26th consecutive Franklin D. Watkins Memorial Award for America’s premier scholar/athletes.

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Leland Stein III

The “Elite Six” Watkins Class of 2017, are otherwise being announced and proclaimed as the “Seismic Six”!

The literary definition of seismic is: “subject to, or caused by an earthquake; or relating to an earth vibration caused by something else (as an explosion or the impact of a meteorite).

By all accounts the “Seismic Six” –Watkins 2017 Class – indeed are capable of individual explosions with the influence of a meteorite. Centered on each of these young men’s character and verbal declarations over the Watkins Weekend in Washington DC, they have each left many with the expectation that they will implement noteworthy or have a strong and widespread “seismic” impact on their communities.

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Everrette Pearsall and 2017 Watkins Man of the Year, Jelani Jenkins, he is former Miami Dolphins linebacker, a current Raider and a member of the Watkins Class of 2009. – John Paige photo

The “Seismic Six” scholar/athletes selected by the national Watkins Award selection committee are indeed gifted enough to make their mark long after their playing days are in their rear view mirrors.

These All-American Scholar/Athletes had so much on their plates that it would have been understandable if each had not completed or attempted the exhaustive Watkins application process. Yet each did navigated the process, emitted official transcripts, documented their athletic competence, produced comprehensive essays, supplied at least three letters of recommendation, demonstrated community and school service, and, the result of their efforts and accomplishments were that they were feted in a black-tie Heisman like affair in Washington DC.

The Watkins Award is a modus operandi for recognizing extraordinarily talented African-American male athletes who, by their example, help promote high academic standards and steadfastness to community service. But most importantly, destroy the perceived stereotype that African-American males are just athletes, who do not value education.

The National Alliance conveyed the so-called “Seismic Six” to Washington DC, to be vetted and made aware there are other high school scholar/athletes like themselves, and, help them understand they do not have to completely succumb to the intense pressures of football only, but each can merge their academic dreams with their sports efforts. The “Six” also were introduce to a fraternity of pass Watkins scholars, who just so happen to also have been All-American athletes.

Everette Pearsall, Executive Director of The Alliance exclaimed: “This year’s 2017 Watkins Award features an incredible collection of fine student athletes. Each of these young men is well equipped for success academically. We have continued to recognize and honor the premier African American Scholar/Athletes in the United States.”

The 2017 “Elite Six” are:

Rakavius Chambers, from Auburn, Alabama is headed Duke University. RC is a National Honor Society scholar, National Science Honor Society scholar and a Theta math honor society member. He was named an offensive line All-American while maintaining a 4.3 GPA at Opelika High School.

Justin Foster, out of Shelby, North Carolina is headed to Clemson University. This young man is a member of the Career & Technical honor society and was named a U.S. Army All-American. At Crest High School he fashioned a 4.2 GPA.

Ryan Johnson, uplifted in Axis, Alabama and has endorsed Stanford University. This young man is an honor student and was an Under Armour All-American, yet still hoisted a 3.9 GPA while attending St. Paul’s Episcopal High.

Donovan Peoples-Jones, matured in Detroit, Michigan has agreed to attend the University of Michigan. DPJ is a perennial honor student, named Player of the Year in Michigan and was a US Army and Under Armour All-American. He produced a 4.0 GPA while attending Cass Technical High.

Isaiah Pryor, raised in Atlanta, Georgia, has agreed to attend The Ohio State University. IP is a member of the National Honor Society and was recognized by the President’s Education Awards Program. He was selected as an Under Armour All-American. Attending IGM Academy High he finished with a 3.9 GPA.

Conner Wedington, out of Sumner Washington, selected Stanford University. He is a four-year member of the honor roll and Washington Core Leadership Group. Most importantly, he manufactured a 3.8 GPA as a student at Sumner High.

The 2017 edition of the Watkins collective christened the “Seismic Six” is exceptional in every sense of the word. All are All-Americans that will continue to dispel the lingering notion that most African-American male student/athletes are not concerned with education, only the playing fields. They all combine scholarship, athleticism, community awareness and volunteerism to form at their young age the character of developing men that are primed to explode into society as more than just athletes.

Also feted as Watkins Man of the Year was former Miami and recently signed Raiders’ linebacker and a member of the Watkins Class of 2009, Jelani Jenkins, who graduated from Florida University.

The Watkins Award has been presented annually to African American scholar-athletes since 1992. Previous Watkins Finalist include Heisman Trophy Winner Jameis Winston of Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle and a recently admitted Harvard medical student; Justin Blalock, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons; Gerald McCoy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Arrelious Benn formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars; Ted Ginn Jr of the Carolina Panthers; Lorenzo Alexander of the Buffalo Bills; Marcedes Lewis of Jacksonville Jaguars; Darnell Dinkins, formerly of the New Orleans Saints; LaVar Arrington, formerly of the Washington Redskins; Joseph Barksdale of the San Diego Chargers; Eric Reid Jr. of the San Francisco 49er’s; Mohamed Massaquoi formerly of the Cleveland Browns; Grant Irons and Ronald Curry formerly of the Oakland Raiders just to name a few.

The National Alliance of African American Athletes was founded in 1989.  The mission of The Alliance is to empower African American males through athletics, education and public programs.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and at Twitter @LelandSteinIII

 

Ilitch leaves a noteworthy footprint in Detroit beyond sports

In sports column on February 13, 2017 at 12:57 am
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Mike Ilitch hoist the American League pennant trophy as his Tigers head to the World Series. Dan Graschuck – photo

By Leland Stein III

Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Michael Ilitch recently passed at age 87. He may be gone physically from us, but his legacy and works will keep him in sports lore.

In 2011 ESPN the Magazine released its annual “Best in Sports” rankings and when it came to pro franchise owners, Ilitch was ranked #1. The rankings were reportedly based on honesty, commitment to the community and loyalty to core players.

As I think of great owners in sports, two men quickly come to mind. When I was snotty-noised journalist trying to come up in L.A., surprisingly to me Al Davis (Oakland & Los Angeles Raiders) and Dr. Jerry Buss (Los Angeles Lakers) became my personal advocates and helped me gain traction in the industry, by ensuring I got inclusion, as I was transitioning from engineering to a journalism career.

Any talk of great owners in sports should yield George Halas, Chicago Bears (1920-1983); Ted Turner, Atlanta Braves (1976-2007); George Steinbrenner, New York Yankees (1973-2010); Walter O’Malley, Brooklyn/L.A. Dodgers (1944-1979); Robert Kraft, New England Patriots (1994-present); Pittsburgh Steelers owners Art Rooney and son (1933-present), Dan, who took over in 2003 and was the linchpin for the “Rooney Rule, and finally my guys Buss and Davis.

All these men were winners and understood continuity, their athletes and each sieged the moment in front them.

To Ilitch’s credit he tried to siege the moment in front of him during his ownership, not sparing anything, including money, to put both his Tigers and Red Wings in positions to win.

But what puts him up in the top rung of owners is his commitment to the community and the actions he took to make Detroit a better city.

A few years back I wrote a column beseeching, cajoling Detroit’s movers and shakers to seek to make the Motor City a national sports entertainment district.

In my 29-years as a journalist, one of the most amazing transformations I have seen is the cities of San Antonio and Indianapolis. Both were little towns with nothing going on in their downtown, each had minimal restaurants, hotels and entertainments venues.

However both San Antonio and Indianapolis built basketball and football venues and all the hotels and entertainment facilities soon followed.

I think Ilitch saw what I saw in those two smaller cities that were both seeking to define themselves. Each city recognized and acknowledged the walkable sports entertainment future direction and took massive steps to regenerate themselves in that genre.

Building basketball, football and baseball facilities in downtown have worked for both San Antonio and Indianapolis and each city have seen their downtown explode.

Unfortunately Ilitch did not live to see his Little Caesars Arena open. But he can take refuge in the fact that unlike San Antonio and Indianapolis, Motown has all four professional sports franchises, and, they are in walking distance from each other.

Ilitch in his plans for the Detroit District has committed to not only a new basketball and hockey arena, but the redevelopment plans include a posh hotel, medical center, retail shops and residential housing.

“It’s always been my dream to once again see a vibrant downtown Detroit,” said Ilitch in an early interview. “From the time we bought the Fox Theatre, I could envision a downtown where the streets were bustling and people were energized. It’s been a slow process at times, but we’re getting there now and a lot of great people are coming together to make it happen. It’s going to happen and I want to keep us moving toward that vision.”

Indeed Ilitch believed that a sports and walkable entertainment district would collectively help Detroit’s renovation and place the city in rotation for hosting the mega-sporting events like the Final Four, Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Weekend and many other sports and entertainment events.

Maybe, just maybe the addition of Little Caesars Arena could be the linchpin that will even further thrust Detroit into the sports entertainment rotation of major sporting events.

The Motor City is the only cold weather city to host two Super Bowls, and, it has also recently been host to the Final Four and Major League Baseball All-Star Game. With the new arena the NBA and NHL All-Star Games are sure to make their way here.

Ilitch’s commitment to Detroit is noteworthy. Not only has it been sports, but he showed where his heart is attached when he and his wife, Marian, took a chance on the historic but neglected Fox Theatre when they purchased it in 1987. They restored the 5,000-seat theatre built in 1928 to its original splendor.

It did not stop there as the Ilitches commissioned an extraordinary renovation of the adjacent 10-story Fox office building in 1989, relocating its suburban offices staff, and established a world headquarters for their Pizza Company and Olympia Entertainment, Inc. in the transformed office building.

Since then, the theatre district has seen a rebirth marked by the opening of other restored theatres and new restaurants, and the building of two side-by-side stadiums for the Detroit Tigers and Lions.

In all the Ilitches own Little Caesar Pizza, Olympia Entertainment, Olympia Development, Champion Foods, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, Little Caesars Pizza Kit Fundraising Program and the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers, as well as, the Motor City Casino.

Mike Ilitch may have transitioned to the afterlife, but his life’s works here in Detroit will live on and on and on and on.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and Twitter @LelandSteinIII

Patriots shock the world with amazing comeback

In sports column on February 6, 2017 at 1:51 pm

Super Bowl LI saw the first overtime game in its 51 year history.

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Tom Brady orchestrates classic victory. – Gary Montgomery photo

By Leland Stein III

HOUSTON – Not only I, but the 70,807 in NRG Stadium, as well as, millions world-wide watching the televised broadcast, were left in shock as the New England Patriots fought back from a 25-point deficit after a surprisingly inferior and feeble performance over the first three quarters of Super Bowl LI.

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Leland Stein III

Then, out of nowhere the Patriots regrouped, just as I had placed them in the football graveyard, amazingly and shockingly they came to life and produced an astonishing 34-28 overtime victory over the shell-shocked Atlanta Falcons.

In the first Super Bowl to go into overtime, one of the most important breaks happen when the red-hot Patriots won the coin toss and promptly drove 75 yards in eight plays giving the Patriots their fifth Lombardi Trophy. Running back James White scored the winning touchdown and the celebration was on.

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Dont’a Hightower’s (54) strip of Matt Ryan fueled Pats fourth quarter rally. – Gary Montgomery photo

The win officially makes Tom Brady the most decorated quarterback in modern football history, having surpassed his own idol Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw who each had four Super Bowl wins.

Said Brady in the post-game press conference when asked if this title was sweeter than the previous ones because of how they won it: “Every title is special. Two years ago it came down to Malcom (Butler) making the play to beat Seattle and this year down 25 points, I could see why it was hard for anyone to imagine us winning.

“The one positive was we went into halftime down, but we had the ball for 20 minutes. As the game goes on, that gets tough on a defense. In the Super Bowl, everyone is expending a lot of energy and once we got it rolling there in the second half it was tough to slow us down.”

Brady continued: “There was a lot at stake tonight. We played our tails off all season to get to this point and it’s hard to win games in the NFL. To beat this team after getting down 28-3, it was just a lot of mental toughness by our team and we’re going to remember this for the rest of our lives.”

Coming into NRG Stadium for the big game, I predicted an offensive scoring fest between Atlanta and New England.

So much for my prognostications, in the first quarter both teams produced goose eggs giving all the appearance that defense was going to rule the day.

After the 0-0 first quarter, from the start of the second quarter to halftime the Falcons produced a scoring barrage.

Collectively the teams finished one and two with the least turnovers in the NFL this season. However, it took a LaGarrette Blount fumble that halted a New England drive, and, ignited the stagnate Falcons’ offense as it came alive and drove 67 yards for the game’s first score at the start of the second quarter.

The Falcons ended the first half up 21-3 after three touchdowns, including one from cornerback Robert Alford that came from quarterback Brady’s only pick-six interception of his postseason career.

Having covered all seven of the Super Bowls coach Bill Belichick and Brady have participated in this one just left me completely fibergastic.

Why?

Well, I have never seen this team play so poorly in a big game. No, I amend that statement. Maybe it was the Falcons that made Brady and the Patriots look like they did not even belong on the same field with them.

Atlanta did everything right for three quarters using the same formula that looked similar to the teams that have knocked New England out and issued them some painful playoff defeats: No running game to help settle things down, an offensive line that was having trouble holding up against the Falcons’ very quick pass rushers, and, too many mistakes.

The defense had its struggles, too, laboring to strike the balance of being stout enough against the run in their nickel package (six players in the box), but not vulnerable in the secondary against the high powered pass Falcon’s passing game.

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, just named the NFL 2016 MVP, played like it for three quarters. In fact, a precision strike to star receiver, Julio Jones for 27-yards down to the Patriots 22 with a little over 4 minutes left in the game could have sealed the game.

“I felt like we were in good position after that great catch by Jones,” lamented Ryan. “I felt like we put ourselves in a good position to come away with points on that drive after his catch. It didn’t end up working out, which was disappointing. There’s nothing you can really say. This was a tough loss. Obviously very disappointed, very close to getting done what we wanted to get done, but it’s hard to find words tonight.”

Ryan continues a crazy trend that for the last 16 years, since 2000, no NFL MVP has won the Super Bowl.

After a magnificent season, Ryan might be remembered most for the game he lost. The loss for the Falcons marked the biggest collapse in Super Bowl history and is sure to leave an empty feeling in the stomach of Ryan and his teammates the entire off-season.

The gritty Falcons should use this disappointment to fuel their fire going into the 2017 regular season.

The lost surely put a damper on what was a spirited effort for Atlanta sparked by a young defense that made plays early and often. Rookie linebacker Deion Jones set the tone early with a strip and forced fumble that was recovered by cornerback Robert Alford. Then Alford read Brady as he was pressured by Dwight Freeney, picked off the pass and returned it 82 yards for a touchdown at 21-0 lead.

Dan Quinn, in his second season as the Falcons head coach after winning a Super Bowl as defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks, lamented the team’s inability to get a stop when they needed one during the Patriot’s late rally.

“I think for sure we ran out of gas some,” Quinn said. “The Patriots executed terrifically. When they got hot, it was hard for us to deal with.”

That said, Quinn was proud of the way his team battled together in their quest for their first NFL title in the 51st season for the Falcons.

“I am proud of the fight that these guys have.”  he said. “The brotherhood that this group has built, it’s as strong as I’ve seen.”

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com or Twitter @LelandSteinIII