Leland Stein III

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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
Group pic best of all

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

Williams sisters continue to make tennis history!

In sports column on January 27, 2017 at 2:31 am
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By Leland Stein III
Serena has proven to to a G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time) in the international tennis world. However, her sister, Venus, her G.O.A.T. adversary, unfortunately since 2011 has battled with Sjögren’s syndrome. It is a debilitating autoimmune disease that causes super-extreme fatigue and can result in organ and muscle damage.
Most thought that Venus would retired because of it, especially because at the time, she was thought of as an older player. With seven Grand Slam singles titles to her name and 12 doubles titles won with Serena, she had already acknowledged herself as a noteworthy tennis star.
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Yet . . . here we are sports fans with a 2017 Australian Open final that will feature sisters Venus (36-years-old) and Serena (35) Williams.
This will be the first encounter of the two sisters in a Gland Slam final since 2009. Venus has not won a Grand Slam title since 2008.
The journey to this point in Venus’ life has been radical. It took heart, guts, commitment and intrinsic will that only a super-special world-class athlete processes.
Win or lose, no one loses in the Saturday match in this Australian Open match. If Venus wins it will be historic in her comeback to greatness and a heartwarming win over adversity, and, if Serena wins it will put her past Steffi Graf with 23 Grand Slam titles in the open-era. Officially anointing her as the women’s tennis G.O.A.T.
How blessed I feel as my time winds down as a journalist. Having covered the Williams sisters since they were young teens just thinking about being pros. I have been there for all their trials and tribulations, including the racist rants vehemently hurled at them during the 2001 Indian Wells Masters tournament in California. It happened after Venus withdrew from her semifinal match with her sister Serena.
Their Dad, Richard, knew the competitive spirit of Serena, and did not want them battling each other early in their tennis progression. He asked the tournaments to put them in separate brackets in non Grand Slam tournaments. Indian Wells refused, so Richard flipped the game.
As a result of all the negatives in Indian Wells the sisters boycotted the event for 14 years. I was sitting right behind their farther, Richard, when the barbs were unleashed. I heard them, it was real. Many of my media colleagues questions if it really happened . . . it did!!!
I was there covering the sisters over four different Olympic Games as both players won four gold medals at those Summer Games, one each in singles and three in doubles – all won together – the most of any tennis players. As a duo, they have also completed the Career WTA Golden Slam (Wimbledon, Australian Open, US Open and French Open) in doubles together, twice.
The sisters told the press in Australia that both of them making the Finals at this point in their careers was the pinnacle of their tennis journeys.
Indeed I can feel the love their Dad, in particular, implanted in two of the most competitive players on the WTA Tour. Yet the love and real understanding of family first, grew roots and has lasted for the over 20 years they have had to hurt each other on the national stage. It is real what they have!!!!
With America being as divided as it ever has amid the Trump presidential win, the Williams sisters has given all of us a reason to smile, hope, dream, wonder, believe in rejuvenation and intrinsic motivation.
No matter what happens Saturday, a Williams will be victorious!!!!!
Leland Stein III can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and Twitter at LelandSteinIII

Has priecemealed Lions overachieved in 2016?

In sports column on January 2, 2017 at 11:01 pm

 

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Matthew Stafford hopes to point Lions to playoff win Sunday. Dan Graschuck photo.

By Leland Stein III

DETROIT – To my observation, this has been a noteworthy job Lions coach Jim Caldwell has implemented or jerry-rigged to turn this hodgepodge collage of athletes into a NFL playoff team.

After starting the season 1-3, many gloated and exclaimed, “See, I told you this team was garbage!!!”

Then out of nowhere, Caldwell cajoled, prodded, provoked and stirred this team to overcome injuries to its best players (Darius Slay, Travis Swanson, DeAndre Levy, Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick and Ezekiel Ansah). His task was made even tougher because of an acknowledged thin roster, which new General Manager, Bob Quinn, by the way has done an excellent job of building some depth; however, the task is nowhere near completed.

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Leland Stein III.

Before taking my seat in the Lions press area at Ford Field, and contemplating the two game losing streak Detroit was carrying as a burden, my gut told me this would be a very hard game for the home team to capture.

Unfortunately, my internal pre-game prognostication came true as the undermanned Lions could not muster up enough defense or offense to outlast their seemingly never-ending antagonist the Green Bay Packers and super evasive quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.

He is one of the best I have ever seen at eluding a pass rush. The way Rodgers slides and glides up in the pocket, to the right of the pocket, to the left of the pocket, while always looking downfield before scooting, many times untouched, for a valuable first down . . . is simply uncanny.

Lion’s defensive back, Nevin Lawson told me in the post-game locker room: “Man we were man-upping, but Rodgers ability to keep plays alive and scramble made it difficult to keep contact with their receivers. That is not an excuse, because we are paid to do that no matter the situation.”

The win was especially gut-wrenching for long suffering Lions’ faithful who would have witness its team corral its first division title in 23 years. Instead, the 31-24 loss gave Green Bay (10-7) a home playoff game versus the New York Giants.

Meanwhile the 9-7 Lions, thanks to a New York Giants win over Washington, get a wildcard and will have to travel to the Great Northwest and contest the Seattle Seahawks.

Caldwell said in his press conference: “It’s a new season. We are not going to talk about Green Bay anymore, it’s over, it’s a new season. We’re talking about Seattle, very tough team to play out there. We’ve got to get ready to go. You can’t linger on this stuff.”

He continued: “All I can tell you is, number one, it’s very difficult to get into the playoffs. Number two, there’s only 12 teams working tomorrow morning and we’re one of those 12. If you’re in, you’ve got a chance.”

What bothered me somewhat was I heard some guys saying the Lions inability to win any of its last three games was an epic collapse. What?

Anyone who feels that way about this 2016 version really does not know anything about football. Any retort like that smacks at this reality TV generation of demean, humiliate, degrade, or lower the efforts of others.

At the beginning of this narrative I asked the question: “Has the Lions overachieved?”

Well, any real analysis of the 2016 Lions’ personnel, coupled with the injuries, one would have to say, unquestionably, this team has overachieved!!!

Every talking head around gladly proclaimed before the start of the 2016 season that this Lions team did not have the personnel to compete at a high level with most putting the team’s chances between 7-9 to 5-11.

Caldwell did a masterful job, as he did in 2015, of righting the ship and molding a bunch of no name role players into a cohesive unit that was more gritty than talented. How else can I explain the Lions winning 8 of 9 games after that horrible 1-3 start?

My analysis concerning why Detroit has made the NFL Playoffs starts with the Lions coaches, then Stafford and finally the players buying into Caldwell’s urgings and overachieving. The last three Lions’ games clearly show that the Giants, Cowboys and Packers have some pieces that the Lions cannot match! Especially at running back, with Abdullah, then Riddick and rookie Dewayne Washington all going down.

Zack Zenner has done an admirable job the last two games, but his inability to get to the edge or cut up then slide outside is not good enough for a run at Super Bowl glory. There is no doubt the offense would be more versatile with a healthy Abdullah or Riddick giving Stafford a speed receiver out the backfield that can pressure the edges.

The fact of the matter is Quinn needs to add linebackers, a stretch receiver and a speedy running back for this team to take the next step.

In spite of the disappointing three losses to end the season, this team has played over it head and present talent level. It has a game Sunday versus the Seahawks, but it will take a perfect game from Stafford to pull off the upset. The defense has been surprisingly stellar all season, but over the last three games against prime time opponents the patchwork linebacking core has been exposed by Ezekiel Elliott and Rodgers.

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

What if Ali’s voice had been in full vocal harmony?

In sports column on June 6, 2016 at 3:06 am

By Leland Stein III

(Some excerpts are from my column published in the Los Angeles Sentinel Newspaper – December 30, 1999 – and were written from the Boxing Hall of Fame event in Canastota, NY and are included in this narrative.)

“When a man does something or possesses something that is complementary to his character, it is virtually impossible for him too hide this thing [or] keep it to himself,” George Jackson “Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters.”

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Heavyweight World Champions Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali, with writer Leland Stein at Boxing Hall of Fame in N.Y.

 

 

The African-American experience over the past century in the United States has been one of pioneering first; and an awakening of the ability and power that is present in each of us when extended an opportunity.

On the eve of one of my personal inspirations, and even greater I should note, was this man’s impact on the world’s community, and now Muhammad Ali has transition to the heavens.

Having refused induction into the U.S. military on April 28, 1967, in the violent and tumultuous 60’s, Ali sacrificed almost four years of his short sporting time on the national stage (an athlete’s window of competition is very, very short).

After the U.S. Supreme Court finally overturned his conviction, not because he said lamented (his lawyers said it was nicer in court) “Those Vietnamese never called me n***er, I ain’t got anything against those Brown people,” but because he stood firmly on his religious convictions.

What modern athlete around the world would sacrifice almost four years of his or hers prime for a belief? No one I would interject!!!!!

“If!” Is there a more opened-ended word in the English language? The word “if” challenges history and all of us. The word if makes the wander in all of us dream about what could have been (and maybe what should have been).

What if John F. or Bobby Kennedy were still alive today? What if Martin Luther King had not been assassinated and was walking around spreading his gospel?

There is no doubt in my mind that if the Kennedys or King were still alive each would be having a positive impact on people and the issues we face today. Have there ever been or are there any sports figures that can impact people and move social agendas like Ali?

What if Ali had been in full vocal harmony and able to create and recite those amazing poems of his? Or even better, captivate an audience with an energized speech about current events?

 

 

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Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bobby Mitchell and Willie Davis among others supporting Ali and his stance against the War.

At the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, just outside of Syracuse, I was blessed to have the pleasure of having Ali’s company and witnessing his interaction with people.

What I observed was his legend had found resurgence (and until his death it continued to do so).

For a man who retired in 1981, his legend reawakened with a vengeance that never waned after he lit the Olympic cauldron after taking the torch from Janet Evans in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

With shaking hands from Parkinson disease, as I sat in the media tribune seating, flanked by a writer from Africa and one from Poland on the other side, we all wondered who would light the Olympic Torch.

I personally had teary eyes that were not tears of sorrow for his present condition, but were tears that represented to me and millions around the world – peace and justice, relentless effort and a magnificent commitment to a belief. The writers next to me must have felt like I did, because they had teary eyes too.

“Ali was a man who fought for what was right and for us,” wrote President Barack Obama. “He stood with King and (Nelson) Mandela; stood up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t.”

Former president Bill Clinton wrote: “Hillary and I are saddened by the passing of Muhammad Ali. From the day he claimed the Olympic Gold medal in 1960, boxing fans across the world knew they were seeing a blend of beauty of grace, speed and strength that may never be matched again.”

Former president George Bush wrote, who also awarded Ali the highest honor in civilian America in 2005, the President’s Medal of Freedom: “Ali was an iconic and historic figure who thrilled, entertained, influenced, and inspired millions. Americans will always be proud to call him one of our own.”

Although boxers have fond a magical place in American society (e.g. all the movies made about the sweet science), because they are generally men that have chosen – many times they have no other options – to risk it all and put in the agonizing work and sweat and pain for a chance at glory, they have an ability to charm us all.

But Ali, 74, had long since moved himself from being just a charming boxer to being arguably the most popular athlete in the world.

“The Greatest” list of accomplishments are endless. Refusing military induction after his status was mysteriously changed, the Supreme Court ruling in his favor, getting stripped of his heavyweight title and regaining it, changing the pay scale of all athletes, being a high-profile athlete that changed his name in the volatile 60’s, having a personal relationship with Malcolm X, his work with the United Nations, his working as an acting U.S Ambassador to Africa, and unofficial ambassador to the world community.

As I wrote from N.Y Hall of Fame event, reflecting back to the Atlanta Games and the now his passing, I will always remember the moving emotion I felt during the Opening Ceremonies when it became apparent that Ali would light the 1996 Olympic Torch.

As Parkinson disease overtook his body, reducing him from the “Mouth that roared” to the “Mouth that now whispered,” he initially secluded himself. But when he came out front before the world and showed himself, he became an inspiration to millions of disabled people around the world.

Imagine being the world’s greatest athlete and voice, and then suddenly you are unable to vocalize your ideas!!!

For me it took the shaking hands at the 1996 Games that made the reality of Ali’s condition come to life. I could only imagine the Ali I knew from the 1960 Games in Rome where he won the Olympic Gold medal and won or regained the heavyweight title three times in threatening and daunting situations.

As his life journey is remembered it has become clear to all that Ali’s special journey has made him one of the most recognizable figures in the world.

Sure it was his style, magnificent boxing proficiencies, his oratory competences, brash manner, his poetry, admittedly good looks and his intrinsic motivation.

“Ali is one-of-a-kind,” his personal photographer for over 40-years, Howard Bingham, told me. “Everyone loves and admires him. He always had that aura about him that could shut down streets no matter what country we were in.”

Ali embraced the Muslin religion right after he won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston in 1967. His name change and refusal to fight in the Vietnam War helped make him a world figure in name and deeds, although that was not his initial reasoning.

Ali’s timing in life was not unlike Joe Louis and Jesse Owens. Both endured blatant and cruel racism in the 30 & 40’s, but their athletic prowess was able to help galvanize this segregated nation like nothing before them.

Lewis and his dismantling of German champion Max Schmelling and Owens’ worldly four Gold medal efforts at the 1936 Games in Berlin, Germany elevated the Black athlete into the American consciousness as more than a minstrel sideshow.

Ali’s timing in this world was not unlike Owens’ and Lewis’, all were great athletes; however, the world and U.S. stages were in serious conflict.

While Hitler was running rampant in Europe proclaiming Aryan Supremacy, and in spite of the suffocating racism and degradation of Blacks in America, Lewis and Owens became somewhat folk heroes after nationally debunking Hitler’s supremacy prognostications.

Ali made a similar transition through the American consciousness. While on an almost four-year forced exile from the ring, he became a folk hero to many on the college speaking circuit. His messages and rants about racism and the War ranged true with many and his popularity exploded to another level. Sure his extroverted personality, helped take him to another level that even Lewis and Owens could not reach.

Ali was scorned and ridiculed as he proclaimed himself “The People’s Champion” and “The Greatest,” but eventually he had the U.S. and the world in full vocal harmony with him.

The perfect choice of Ali as the torch lighter completed a wondrous 180-degree turnaround in how Americans and even Ali thought about things.

Let’s look back at the fact Ali tossed his Gold medal into the river upon his return to the U.S. following his Olympic title effort and his subsequent denial of inclusion into a hometown restaurant in Louisville.

As Don King happily proclaims, “Only in America”, three decades later Ali stood atop the Atlanta Olympic Stadium with the whole world watching and lit the ultimate symbol of peace through sports – the Olympic Flame.

I have been blessed as a writer to have been in Ali’s personal company at his home in L.A., at the Atlanta Games, at the Boxing Hall of Fame in NY and at the ESPYS in LA. He even relayed to me in NY that he reads the LA Sentinel and have perused my efforts, after which I almost fainted.

The Boxing Hall of Fame brought us all together in celebration of the inclusions of Don King, Sugar Ray Leonard, Jose Torres and at the time the late Luis Rodriguez; no matter, Ali stole the spotlight from the inductees, without trying. Although Larry Holmes, Michael Dokes, Frankie Liles, Felix Trinidad, Frank Randall, Tony Tubbs and Michael Moorer, just to name a few champions, all were in attendance and left their egos at home and it ended up being a love feast for Ali.

With Parkinson working on his speech at the Hall of Fame, he still stole the spotlight without even trying. He could not “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” but he retained that special presence that only a few people in the world have ever possessed.

As I look back on that moment in NY, and observing how people responded to him, only begs the question: “Would the world have been better if ‘The Greatest’ was in ‘full vocal harmony?’ ”

Unfortunately, we will never get the chance to find out, because the disease grounded his voice and finally took him away from us.

How strange life is when people like Ali, King, Malcolm and Mahatma Gandhi leave us so early or in tough and extreme situations.

Ali in particular, transcended sports, race, and national boundaries like no other athlete ever. Wouldn’t Ali have been out front in the national discourse about race, poverty, war and humanity? Yes!!! Of course he would be vocalizing his message on center stage to all who would listen and even to those that would not.

Although the “Voice that Roared” was mainly silent in recent years, his voice was still being heard. The world was made a better place just having him around to listen to, write about and reminisce about.

Reach Leland Stein at lelstein3@aol.com, Twitter@ LelandSteinIII

In Bryant’s final All-Star game NBA rolls out red carpet

In sports column on February 17, 2016 at 3:55 am

Westbrook wins MVP, but Bryant’s legacy is also an MVP

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Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry and others celebrate the West’s win. Gary Montgomery photo

By Leland Stein III

TORONTO – Did I just witness a NBA Ballet experience?

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Kobe Bryant and his two daughters.

From these humble eyes I would offer there never were more demonstrations of athletic movements akin to ballet than at the NBA All-Star Weekend in Toronto, Canada – the first All-Star event played outside the United States.

With professional athletes’ rapid and swift action in NBA basketball, the violence and physicality of NFL football and the hand-eye-coordination of MLB baseball players, the smooth athleticism of a professional athlete’s body in action gets lost on fans without replay, because the action happens too briskly.

Leland Stein III

The annual NBA All-Star Game and its super stars, celebrity filled contingent along with 19,800, descended on Air Canada Centre in Downtown Toronto and were not dissatisfied as Western Conference outran the Eastern Conference in a record breaking score of 196 to 173.

The teams combined for a record 369 points. The previous All-Star Game record was 321 points in 2015.

After all the running and gunning, even Paul George’s 41 points – one shy of Wilt Chamberlain’s All-Star Game record set in 1962 – and an All-Star Game record nine three-pointers, could not keep the explosive Russell Westbrook from being named All-Star MVP for the second year in a row after he tossed in 31 points (including seven three-pointers), grabbed eight rebounds, with five assists and five steals.

No matter, the day still belonged to the Lakers’ retiring Kobe Bryant.

Bryant played in his 15th All-Star Game, which tied him with Tim Duncan for second most all time. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has the record with 18. Bryant extended his own record by starting an All-Star Game for the 15th time and he also recorded one steal (his 38th) to break a first-place tie with Michael Jordan (37) for most steals in the games’ history.

LeBron James finished with 13 points and Bryant 10 points to become the all-time scoring leader in the Game’s history. James has 291 points and Bryant has 290.

“I do not care about being the scoring leader,” James said. “It was just bittersweet being out on the floor with him, knowing the matches between us are coming to an end. But when you get that opportunity versus a great man, you just have fun with it.”

James continued: “I know it’s been overwhelming for him over this year, but our fans across the world and here in the States and here in Toronto have been paying so much respect. It’s all well deserved. I’m happy that I’ve been along for a small piece of the ride of his journey. We’re very good friends, and I’ve been watching his journey for 20 years. When I don’t see him out there in Charlotte, I think that’s when it will sink in that it is over.”

Bryant a five-time NBA Finals champion, a two time Olympic Gold medalist, an 18-time Western Conference All-Star, a four-time All-Star Game MVP, NBA league’s MVP in 2008 and a two-time Finals MVP had the international gathering in Toronto calling his name.

After the team introductions, Magic Johnson came out to specially anoint/announce Kobe. He joyfully exclaimed the noteworthy history Bryant has put down and right after he gave the mike to him and the fans broke into a continuous Koooooobe Bryyyyyyyant chant. That was just the start of the lovefest. A tribute video featuring Bryant’s highlights, his voice and interviews with many of today’s players followed right after.

In the post-game press conference Bryant talked about his interaction with the legends of the game and today’s players. “I think it’s the stories of when I and they first came into the league,” he recalled, “and when we were matching up against each other, and just kind of the little things like an elbow here or a steal here, and then wanting to earn the legends respect at an early age and later the young ones wanting to earn my respect.

“When I heard those kinds of stories that made me feels real good. Because over the years you’re competing against each other. Those aren’t stories you’re ever going to share with somebody that you’re competing against. But at this stage, it felt absolutely wonderful to hear these things.”

Bryant brought his wife and kids to the game and he was elated to share the moments with them.

“My kids were sitting right behind the bench,” Bryant happily exclaimed, “so I was talking to them virtually the whole game. They’ve enjoyed this as much as I have, coming to these arenas. You know, they’ve seen me throughout the years get up at 4:00 in the morning and work out and train and come home and work out again. So it’s awesome, as a father, for them to be able to see all the hard work and how it pays off.”

We asked Bryant about Allen Iverson and Shaq O’Neal being announced as finalists for the Hall of Fame.

“Shaq obviously on a more personal level, having played together for so many years and winning three championships, right, and all that he’s meant to the game, and meant to me personally. And AI as a competitor, he drove me to be as obsessive, more obsessive about the game, because I had to figure out how to solve that problem, you know? And I told him — I saw him here this weekend. I said, ‘You don’t realize how much you pushed me.’ And I don’t think people nowadays realize how great he was as a player and how big of a problem he was for defenses.”

When asked if he talked to NBA legends Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson during the weekend, Bryant noted that he did not feel the role of caretaker after Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas retired, but he did want to represent the league and himself.

“For sure there was a lot of concern voiced from the elder statesmen, including Magic,” Bryant recalled, “about what kind of caretakers AI and I were going to be for the game. Oscar and I have spoken throughout the years sporadically. Russell and I have talked more often, and he’s given me a lot of great advice on leadership and competitiveness and things of that sort.

“But as far as the league, when we first came in, it’s always the younger generation that comes in and it’s just like the elder statesmen says this younger generation has no idea what they’re doing. They’re going to absolutely kill the game. The game, when we played, was pure and all this kind of stuff. Hey, man, that’s always the case. When we came in, we were just young kids that wanted to play, and AI was aggressive. It was a newer generation, newer culture, but I think when David Stern changed the dress code somewhere in between that, that helped, I think. But, yeah, I think the game is in a beautiful place now.”

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich the winning West coach said: “It’s kind of bittersweet. You remember all the struggles against him and all the competitiveness and you respect him so much for bringing it night after night after night. You know, a lot of players don’t understand that responsibility to be able to do that at that level, and he does it fiercely for all these years. So to see him now, it’s like the passing of a generation and he’s been such an iconic figure for so long, and he passes it on to that other group of young guys that you saw out there tonight. So I’m just thrilled that I was able to be here and see that.”

Stephen Curry interjected: “The entire night was very memorable, for sure, with Kobe’s entrance during the starting lineups and the tribute video, Magic Johnson giving a speech about him and his legacy to some highlight moments. Then the curtain call at the end that you knew it was coming, but you didn’t know what part of the game and the feel that the crowd was going to give, and it was amazing. Kind of got goose bumps out there. Kobe means something to everybody individually as a basketball fan and including us, as players. So you kind of have a lot of different thoughts about what he means to the game and how he inspired others and me growing up. I’ll remember that for sure.”

It may have been Bryant’s farewell, but the NBA ballet went on. In particular, I talked to NBA Hall of Famer and Slam Dunk judge, George “Ice Man” Gervin about the slam dunk contest results. I kind of thought that Aaron Gordon’s dunks were enough to at least earn him a tie if not the win in the most talked about contest since Dominique Wilkins vs. Spud Webb.

“I have to admit that Gordon put it down,” Gervin told me, “but he had a number of misses before his great dunks. Zach LaVine nailed his on the first try. We had to give it to him based on that.”

In all it was a special weekend for me and I was elated that Bryant, a person I have known since he first came into the league was feted, but being in Canada made it even more special.

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

 

Denver’s defense gets defensive against Carolina

In sports column, Uncategorized on February 8, 2016 at 7:59 pm

Newton storms out of press conference.

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Cam Newton felt the heat from Denver’s defense. Gary Montgomery – photo

 

By Leland Stein III

SANTA CLARA, Ca – Coming into Levi Stadium for Super Bowl 50 two giant photos grabbed my attention. Displayed enormously were giant photos of quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Cam Newton.

Their massive photos only reaffirmed what I already knew, and that is, the NFL is a quarterbacks’ league. It is safe tme at USA basketballo say signal callers are the most important players on the field, and, generally teams that win consistently have one thing in common: an elite quarterback.

Well, Super Bowl 50 indeed had elite quarterbacks; however, this contest showcased elite defenses as the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos each fielded what many note were the two best defensive squads in the league.

The first half of the game both defensives just dominated. In fact, Denver scored its only touchdown after a monster hit and strip by Super Bowl MVP, Von Miller, that was recovered in the end zone by defensive end Malik Jackson giving the Broncos a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.

How bad did the offenses featuring the quarterback of the future (Newton) and a future Hall of Famer (Manning) play?

Denver, the winning team, made infamous Super Bowl history gaining 194 yards on offense, the fewest by a winning team ever. That number was 50 yards less than the record the Baltimore Ravens set in 2001. Even worse is the fact Manning’s team was 1 for 13 on third downs.

Let’s look at Newton, who produced one of the best statistical regular seasons in the history of the league. He completed just 18 of 41 passes for 265 yards. He fumbled twice, was intercepted once and was sacked six times. Together the teams combined to set a Super Bowl record for most collective sacks: 12.

The Broncos tied the Super Bowl record by recording seven sacks. It was officially set by the Bears in Super Bowl XX (1985 season) but the Steelers are also credited with seven sacks in Super Bowl X (1975 season) before sacks became an official statistic in 1982.

Manning, who at 39 was the oldest quarterback to start a Super Bowl, said the game reflected the Broncos’ resilience.

“This game was like this season in that it tested our toughness,” Manning said. “It tested our unselfishness. It’s only fitting it turned out this way.”

After the game reporters cajoled Manning to take a position on his possible retirement, but he did not bite on that line of questioning concerning if this was indeed his last game.

Much to the consternation of many reporters and me, Newton came into the post-game press conference in a serious funk and did not engage the mass of reporters. He gave one-word answers and after a few questions walked out the interview session.

If I was Newton’s public relations person, I would have coached him to just come in and give respect to Manning, the Broncos, the Super Bowl itself and just lighten the mood with a funny quip.

With their victory in Super Bowl 50, the Broncos are the ninth franchise to win as many as three Super Bowl championships.  This was the eighth Super Bowl appearance for the Broncos, matching the record also shared by the Patriots, Steelers and Cowboys.

Ironically Miller, who was the second overall selection in the 2011 draft after Newton, became the 10th defensive player in Super Bowl history to be selected as the Super Bowl MVP by tossing Newton on the turf with a purpose. Miller had 2.5 sacks, 6 total tackles, 2 forced fumbles, 2 hurries and a pass defended.

The other three linebackers to be chosen Super Bowl MVP are Chuck Howley of the Cowboys (Super Bowl V), Ray Lewis of the Ravens (Super Bowl XXXV) and Malcolm Smith of the Seahawks (Super Bowl XLVIII).

“He (Miller) was absolutely tremendous,” said Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak. “Our defense was just special, and they have been all year long. Miller is a hell of a player, but he has become a great pro, great man and a big leader on this football team. So, (I am) just very proud of everybody, but (I am) especially proud of him.”

Kubiak gave praises to his entire defense, noting that they “very disciplined as far as our rush goes,” and he was extremely pleased at his team’s “effort in chasing Newton down, stopping the run, getting the turnovers, that’s the reason we’re standing here tonight.”

Manning also becomes the first quarterback to start and win Super Bowls for two different teams.  He also won Super Bowl XLI (2006 season) for the Indianapolis Colts.  He is the third quarterback to start for two teams, joining Kurt Warner (Rams, Cardinals) and Craig Morton (Cowboys, Broncos).

With the win, Manning became the first NFL quarterback with 200 career wins (186 regular season and 14 postseason).  He had been tied with Brett Favre, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2016, with 199.

Panther’s coach Ron Rivera recalled how Denver got toasted by Seattle a couple years ago in the Super Bowl and he liken that experience to what his team went through. “We have to learn from this disappointment and continue to grow as a team,” he said, “and we have to go to work to take ourselves to that next level.”

Only time will tell if Rivera and Newton will be a one hit wonder or they will indeed keep it coming. My guess is they have a lot of work to do.

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

NFL Hall of Fame: Jerome “The Bus” Bettis, makes history 

In sports column on September 24, 2015 at 1:23 am

Bettis is first Detroit PSL athlete inducted in NFL Hall of Fame

By Leland Stein III

Jerome Bettis and Leland Stein III in Canton, Ohio for Bettis HoF enshrinement. - Hassan Kareem photo

Jerome Bettis and Leland Stein III in Canton, Ohio for Bettis HoF enshrinement. – Hassan Kareem photo

Canton, Ohio — First and only!!! I know that is not a complete sentence, but for this narrative it is perfect grammar!!

Jerome “The Bus” Bettis’ noteworthy inclusion in the hollowed NFL Hall of Fame was not only a national story with his name now etched with the greatest to ever play the game; more importantly, he is now the only Detroit Public School League (PSL) athlete so honored.

Bettis with his NFL Hall of Fame bust and Yellow jacket. - Hassan Kareem photo

Bettis with his NFL Hall of Fame bust and Yellow jacket. – Hassan Kareem photo

“Wow, it is hard to believe that throughout its long and talent rich history the PSL has never had a player selected to the NFL Hall of Fame,’ Bettis said with an air of wonderment. “There have been so many great players that went to my high school (Mackenzie) before me, with me and after me, that who would ever expect that I would be the first?

“It is even harder to believe this is all happening, because through most of my early life I did not even play football until I got to high school.”

Bettis now joins Michigan’s other four Hall of Famers, Flint’s Paul Krause, Bay City’s Bill Hewitt and fellow Detroiters George Allen and Joe DeLamielleure. Although Allen and DeLamielleure were both born in Detroit they did not play in the city. Therefore, Bettis has the official tag of the only Hall of Famer who was born, raised and played high school football in Detroit.

Joining Bettis in the 2015 Pro Football Hall of Fame were the late Junior Seau, Charles Haley, Tim Brown, Will Shields, Bill Polian, Ron Wolf, and Mick Tingelhoff. All eight were officially inducted recently in Canton, Ohio.

A 46-person selection committee annually gather the day-before-the-Super Bowl to discuss and debate the merits of the finalists, before selecting this newest class of enshrinees. The selection process can take hours, and agreement on this Class took nearly nine hours.

Bettis, 42, was selected by the Los Angeles Rams as the 10th overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft and promptly won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Two of his eight 1,000-yard rushing seasons came during his three-year tenure with the Rams – fortunately for me I was writing for a medium in L.A. at the time Bettis was toting the pigskin for all three of his years with the Rams.

Bettis joined the Steelers in 1996 where he quickly became a fan favorite, earning the nickname “The Bus.” He currently ranks sixth on the NFL’s all-time career rushing yardage list (13,662). He retired in 2006 after he and the Steelers won Super Bowl XL in his native Detroit, Mich.. The six-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro was a Hall of Fame finalist since 2011.

“The wait was heart wrenching each year,” he emotionally exclaimed, “not knowing if I was in or out. But in the end the wait was well worth it.”

Bettis, who redefined big, quick running backs during his career with the Rams and Steelers, was the final speaker at the Hall of Fame proceedings in front of some 20,000 Steelers fans who briefly turned Canton, Ohio, into Steelers Country.

“We’re in Canton, Ohio . . . but this is ‘STEELERS COUNTRY’,” Bettis bellowed during his speech.

He also thanked his quarterback, “Big” Ben Roethlisberger, for making that playoff-saving tackle against the Colts following Bettis’ fourth-quarter fumble in the 2006 AFC Divisional game. The Bus joked that he still might not be in the Hall of Fame if not for Big Ben.

“I owe you big time,” Bettis said smiling.

If Bettis would have never joined the NFL Hall of Fame, he could at least revel in the fact he has a hall of fame nickname. “The Bus” can hold up to other football greats like: Night Train, Sweetness, The Juice, Hacksaw, Pepper, The Snake, Hammer, Megatron, The Refrigerator, Prime Time, and Crazy Legs.

In baseball we have had Say Hey, The Babe, A-Rod, Hammering Hank, The Big Hurt, Iron Horse and Joltin’ Joe. Basketball has had monikers like The Stilt, Pistol, King James, Magic, Iceman, Cornbread, Clyde, Air, Pearl and Dr. J.

Sure nicknames are colorful and gave each a certain aura, but the most important thing “The Bus” had in common with most of the above mentioned sports icons, is that he was more than just a nickname, he is a superior athlete as evident by his selection to the NFL Hall of Fame.

“I was sitting in my office and this polite young man came in and said he wants to play football,” Bettis’ Mackenzie High coach Bob Dozier recalled. “After he left I said, ‘Wow!!’ He looked like a young Superman and he’s an honor student. His sophomore year I put him at middle guard and he was so physical and tough off the ball. The thing I like most about him was when his skills became evident, he remained patient. We had Walter Smith and he was getting it done.”

By his senior year at Mackenzie High, Bettis had gained notoriety as a feature running back and linebacker. When it was time to select a college he chose Lou Holtz and Notre Dame.

Holt was at the ceremony and Bettis told an engaging story about their time together at Notre Dame.

Recalled former Mackenzie star linebacker Pepper Johnson, who went on to earn two Super Bowls rings with the New York Giants and three more as a coach with the New England Patriots: “I had heard Mackenzie had a running back that was special. Then I go to Reggie Mackenzie’s Camp and I’m coaching the linebackers and there was Jerome. I wanted him to stay at linebacker, because he could have been a great one. He might have had a different nickname, maybe Ali because he would have knocked people out. I guess it all worked out with all he has accomplished on the other side of the ball.”

Dozier said Holtz first told Bettis that he wanted to use him on offense, but he had to lose weight. “But after he ran a 4.5, Holtz said, ‘He’s fine like he is,’ ” Dozier recalled.

Interjected former Mackenzie teammate Gilbert Brown, who won a Super Bowl ring with Green Bay (1997): “When I first saw JB at Mackenzie he was kind of shy. But when he got out on the field there was ferociousness to him. I had the pleasure of blocking for him. Everyone in the PSL knew where we were going to run the ball. If I lined up right or left JB would be coming right over my side. It was amazing to see a back with his power and speed.

Detroit Lions Hall of Fame scat back, Barry Sanders told me: “When I think of JB I think of a great competitor you would love to do battle with. He was not a guy defenses wanted to see. He was a wrecking ball, powerful, but agile. I enjoyed watching JB play and the way he carried himself.”

Almost everyone in unison exclaim that Bettis is a superior athlete, but an even better person. Bettis told me that he comes from a loving and caring family, and, his mother (Gladys) and father (Johnnie) were special people that molded him.

“It was great to have two parents there because you get the nurturing from your mother and you get the sternness from your father,” Bettis told a local paper. “With him there, he was my role model. He was a guy that I looked at and saw how you did things, how to be a man. I think there were a lot of benefits to having mom and dad in the household, and it felt normal.”

Along with his Mom and Dad, he has a sister and brother (Kimberly and John). His family’s bond has always been a big part of who Bettis has been and will continue to become.

Concurred former U-M star Thomas Seabron, who is now a Financial Advisor: “To a large extent JB’s success is a direct result of him having a strong family environment. That’s why he understands the need for the human touch.”

Added Mackenzie teammate Walter Smith, a former captain at U-M: “In high school JB’s best resource was his father. I did not have that at home. Just talking to him and sharing advice he got from his dad made me a better person. When I got injured at Michigan, I remembered what JB told me in high school, ‘don’t worry about what you don’t have, and maximize what you do have.’ Although I was not as quick, his words got me through.”

At the end of a rough and tumble NFL career, Bettis received his biggest blessing. He and the Steelers descended on his hometown to contest Seattle in Super Bowl XL, and, they won.

“I played in two Super Bowls, but he played in the one that was in our home,” exclaimed Brown. “I told him he had to be the luckiest cat in the world to play in and win a ring in his own backyard.”

Said Bettis: “It has always been my goal to win a championship, but to do it in my hometown was a dream come true. Then running out on Ford Field at the Super Bowl, it was all a kid from Detroit could imagine.”

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