Category Archives: NFL

Farewell Peyton Manning

With the news that the Colts most likely will release quarterback Peyton Manning, an Indianapolis era is over. Manning was the one who led the moribund franchise into a perennial Super Bowl contender. He’s the one that led the Colts to the world title. He’s the one who helped convince the NFL to place Super Bowl XLVI in Lucas Oil Stadium. Hell, Manning is one of the main reasons Lucas Oil Stadium was erected in the first place.

So, it’ll be a sad day when the Colts say goodbye to one of the top players in NFL history.

And it’s a sad day for the reporters who covered him, as Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz put it on Twitter. “It was a joy and a privilege to watch and cover Peyton Manning. Always a class act, went out of his way to accommodate us. … One example: After nite games, PM would talk to us right away, usually in full pads, knowing we were on deadline and in a rush. Appreciated.”

I know what Kravitz means, because it was Manning 14 years ago who saved me from what could have been one of the most embarrassing moments of my young career.

Read the rest of my CBSSports.com column here.

Advertisements

Concussions: does anybody care?

INDIANAPOLIS — When the PR guy came by my table in the Super Bowl media room the other day to announce that a press conference discussing concussions and a new way to help decrease them in youth football players would begin in 45 minutes, I was hesitant to go.

I hadn’t eaten lunch yet, and I knew this kind of presser would take at least 45 minutes (at best). Then, I’d have to transcribe the tape and write a post and it was Friday of a long Super Bowl week and I was tired, and, well honestly, it seemed like kind of a hassle.

But the issue of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy fascinates me, and so I went to hear the new ideas espoused by former Harvard football player/WWE pro wrestler Chris Nowinski, Colts center Jeff Saturday and former NFL linebacker Isaac Kacyvenski. And I was glad I went, because I wrote this piece — what I consider to be the most important story I penned all week.

But I still don’t feel like there’s much interest in stories like this. Why? Because there were about six or seven reporters in the room for the presser. Do you know how much press is here this week? Thousands and thousands from all around the world. The fact only six or seven thought this concussions announcement was newsworthy represents the public’s interest in this matter. Players, I think, don’t care much about this issue, and neither do the fans.

When I walked in the small conference room on the first floor of the JW Marriott about two minutes before the start time, the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke — who penned a fantastic column — told me that when he showed up and nobody else was around, he thought he might be the only journalist to cover the event. No, eventually, I walked in and so did the Boston Globe and the Associated Press and the Toronto Sun and USA Today.

There might have been a few others. After Nowinski made his opening statement, here’s what I asked (and I think this might be the biggest problem with the concussion discussion): It seems that not many people care about this issue; are you fighting a perception battle to get people to care?

“The awareness of the last five years has exploded, but it’s certainly not where it needs to be,” he said.

The question I have: will it ever?

Walking down memory lane with Jasper Brinkley

Watching a little NFC conference championship game, and I’m listening to Joe Buck and Troy Aikman discuss rookie middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, who’s played so well in place of the injured E.J. Henderson. I covered Brinkley – and his twin brother, the awesomely-named Casper – when they played at Thomson (Ga.) High School and I worked at the Augusta Chronicle.

I couldn’t remember how much I actually had written about the Brinkley’s. Thomson has been a powerful program for the last few decades, but it’s also one of the outlying schools in the Chronicle’s coverage area. We gave the school pretty good coverage and we attended many of the football games on Friday nights, but Thomson wasn’t one of our top priorities either.

So I googled “Josh Katzowitz” and “Jasper Brinkley” to see what would pop up and if I ever wrote anything significant about him. Before that, though,, I found this feature from last week about Brinkley in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The moral of the story: don’t make fun of Casper and Jasper.

The lede:

The kids in Thomson, Ga., used to give Jasper Brinkley and his twin brother, Casper, a hard time. They’d poke fun at them because, well, they were named Jasper and Casper.

“Oh yeah, all the time,” Brinkley said. “All the way through middle school.”

Then they stopped.

“We hit our growth spurt in high school,” Brinkley noted.

Nobody was foolish enough to mess around with Jap and Cap – their family nicknames – after that.

Good stuff. But then I found this story that I had written for the Feb. 6, 2003 edition of the Augusta Chronicle. And I groaned. Before I clicked on the link, I knew exactly what the story was – even though I haven’t thought about it in nearly seven years.

Since I was the paper’s main prep writer and since Feb. 5, 2003 was National Signing Day – where all the local prep stars ink their names on letters of intent for colleges big and small – I had to write the annual “This is what happened on Signing Day” story. Basically, it was me driving to a high school (or maybe, if I was really, really lucky, two or three high schools) where multiple players, in a press conference setting with TV cameras filming away, were filling out their letter of intent paperwork and putting on their collegiate hats and smiling big for the cameras and drinking the punch and eating the cookies that were brought into the library for the big event.

It was usually a pretty boring day. And usually a pretty boring story to write.

So, on this day, I decided to spice up it up a bit. This is the lede I wrote – which I say to this day is pretty decent.

By Josh Katzowitz/Staff Writer

Perhaps the festivities for National Signing Day were symbolized best by Thomson offensive lineman Brian Brinson.

In the school media center Wednesday morning, Brinson wore a light-blue short-sleeve dress shirt with a tie. It was half-untucked and didn’t quite go with his dark-blue slacks and brown Timberland sneakers.

He basically looked like the ultimate high school student, who doesn’t worry about fashion – or, for that matter, matching.

The best part of his outfit was the big goofy grin on his face. That was why Brinson – who with teammates Montrell Neal and Jasper Brinkley signed with Georgia Military College – looked like a million bucks.

I thought nothing of my story until the next morning where I caught heat from some readers. They said I had insulted Brinson; they said I had embarrassed him. They said I should think about how my words will affect others before I put them on the page. I hadn’t thought about that lede as insulting or embarrassing. After all, I pointed out, I said he looked like a million bucks. I wasn’t trying to insult him. I was trying to make a contrasting statement that would make an interesting and readable lede (I still maintain that I succeeded in that aspect).

I reread the story a few minutes ago, and I didn’t think it was too bad. But I can see the readers’ point. I probably had insulted him (by calling him sloppy and mismatched), and I probably had embarrassed him (by calling him goofy). It taught me a nice lesson, especially when dealing with and writing about high school students. To this day, I really try to think about what the words emanating from my laptop will mean to the person I’m writing about. Believe me, I thought about that a ton when writing the Rick Minter chapters for Bearcats Rising.

But I hate the fact that this kid probably can’t look at this story (if his parents, in fact, clipped it and put it into a scrapbook, though I can imagine why they, instead, would have burned every copy of the newspaper they could find) without remembering how he felt Feb. 6, 2003.

So, wherever you are, Brian Brinson: I’m sorry. I hope the embarrassment I might have caused has faded away. Hopefully, you can laugh about it today. Hopefully, you won’t send Jasper and Casper to find me.

The wedding crasher

So, Julie and I were in Puerto Rico last week, and on the last day we were there, there was a wedding on the bench of the hotel we were staying. We were at the pool, and we heard this loud music coming from the beach, so I went to check it out. Apparently, a guy named Leon and a girl named Charity were getting married. I stayed, in my bathing suit and T-shirt, and watched the ceremony (hey, I’m a romantic like that). At the end of his vows, Leon, with the mic, exclaimed, “Damn, girl, you look off the chain!” This apparently is whose wedding I crashed.

The last time we saw Chris Henry

RIO GRANDE, Puerto Rico – It was the week after he broke his arm and a couple days after the Bengals placed him on Injured Reserve. We spotted Chris Henry, arm in a cast, in the locker room, and about four of us reporters walked over to his corner locker to see how things were going.

We asked fairly innocuous questions – did you know the arm was broken immediately; how frustrating is this injury when it comes at a time like this; do you want to be back in a Bengals uniform next year? Like usual, Henry was soft-spoken and pleasant. He wasn’t a great talker – you might have to combine two or three answers together to get a three-line quote for the story – but he was usually agreeable. For a pro athlete, much of the time, that’s all for which you can hope.

But then, just as we were wrapping up an interview that was probably 2 or 3 minutes long, one reporter asked something like this, “Eh, Chris, some people would say that since you’re not going to be around the team on a day-to-day basis, you might fall back into your old ways. What do you think?”*

*Since I’m off the mainland and can’t check notes or tape recordings, this was how I recollect the exchange. It’s not word for word, but the tone of the question is accurate.

This was an interesting query. Henry, as you probably know, was not a poster child for good deeds since the Bengals drafted him in 2005. He had been arrested multiple times, suspended by the NFL multiple times. He once was arrested on gun charges while he was wearing his own Bengals jersey. He had been accused of providing alcohol to minors. He was ticketed for a DUI. A local judge called him a “one-man crime wave.”

He was obviously a troubled soul.

But when the Bengals released him in April of 2008, casting him into unemployment, he apparently began to change. Mike Brown, the Bengals owner who thinks of himself as a redeemer, brought him back to the Bengals squad in August of 2008, over the objections of coach Marvin Lewis, and during the 2009 training camp, Henry seemed poised to play a big role in Cincinnati’s offense. He caught a touchdown pass in all four preseason games, and as the fourth receiver on the squad, he thought he could make a major impact.

The impact was less than major – he recorded a pedestrian 12 catches for 236 yards and two TDs – but his off-the-field transformation was remarkable. That was the word, anyway. He was staying out of trouble, and he was planning to marry his fiancée, make himself into a family man. But then, he broke his arm, and he found himself finished for the season.

The reporter’s question – some people are saying you might screw up again – caught Henry off guard.

“Who’s saying that?” he asked.

“Eh, uh, I guess I am,” the reporter said.

I don’t remember the answer Henry gave, but it was something along the lines of, “Don’t worry about me. I’ve changed. I’ll be just fine.”

That exchange from last month was the first thing I thought about when I saw online that Henry had fallen off the back of a pick-up truck during a domestic argument and was in bad shape. Then I thought: if he hadn’t suffered his broken arm, Henry would still be with the Bengals. He wouldn’t have been in Charlotte arguing with his fiancée. He wouldn’t have jumped onto the back of a pickup truck shirtless and the cast still on his healing arm. He wouldn’t have reportedly threatened suicide. He wouldn’t have fallen off. He wouldn’t have died.

Coach Marvin Lewis called Henry a “beacon of hope.” I’m not sure I agree with those exact words. But here’s what I believe – Henry finally realized he had to make changes and that he was trying to turn his life around. Trying really hard. He was trying to be the best father and the best domestic partner he could be. He made a bad decision during an argument with a loved one, and it cost him his life. The way he died doesn’t make him a bad man. The year leading up to his death showed who he truly was trying to become.

Sadly, we’ll never know the end result. And that’s a shame. He could have really had something to say.

A new thought on concussions

A few weeks ago, I was handed an assignment by the Associated Press. The news organization wanted to write a story regarding concussions in the NFL and how players in the league thought about them and if they thought they were protected. The AP editors wanted five players from each team to take part in a five-question survey (no anonymous names; everybody had to be on the record) that dealt with their personal experiences with concussions.

Here is the AP story that ran, and it tells of some fascinating results.

This is one of the responses to the story by the NFL Players Association. And this is the story the NY Times ran today regarding how the league will now use independent neurologists while treating players with brain injuries.

It was extremely interesting to hear the answers these players gave me on what has become such an important issue. I actually thought I’d have a tougher time convincing players to submit to an interview, but only one man turned me down. The other five I approached were gracious and thoughtful. Since none of the five were quoted in the AP story (with the sorta exception of LB Rey Maualuga’s sorta quote about speaking gibberish in the huddle), I thought it’d be cool to run those interviews so you could see what the Bengals players had to say about the issue.

Here were the questions I asked:

1. Have you ever sustained a concussion that forced you to miss playing time? If yes, how many and at what level?

2. Do you worry about getting a concussion or not? If so, do you worry about it as much – or more? – than other injuries?

3. Have you ever hidden or downplayed the effects of a concussion?

4. Have you followed the recent developments in the news about concussions and dementia among NFL players, including the recent congressional hearing on the topic? (If so, what are your thoughts?)

5. Do you think the game is significantly safer now than in the past, particularly with regard to the risk of concussions? Or do you think it’s about the same now as it has been? Or is it less safe?

And here were the answers:

Frostee Rucker, Defensive end

1. Yes, I had a concussion last preseason, but I didn’t miss a game. It was a minor thing. I got a little dizzy, and that’s about it.

2. No, I really don’t. There are so many other things to worry about. It’s the game of football, and the thing I worry about is making sure I’m in the right spots.

3. No, I can’t say that I have. We’re all aware of it in the locker room, but we know our training staff will take care of it if that ever come up.

4. Yeah, I have. It’s very interesting. You asked me if I’ve hidden things, but some people do hide things. That’s why certain precautions have to be taken. You have to know your business and with life in the NFL, on and off the field. It’s good for everyone to be aware of what’s going on.

5. It’s about the same. We’re still playing a brutal game. Let’s not sugarcoat that at all. Our staff does a good job making sure we have enough air in our helmets and they’re making sure they’re working on safety each game. We do a good job here. I can’t speak for everybody else, but we do a good job here.

Rey Maualuga, rookie linebacker

1. No, you mean did a concussion made me miss this game or the next game? I’ve had concussions in games, and I wouldn’t know how I got it. I wouldn’t know the play I got it in, but I’d be in there talking gibberish to the other linebackers. Other than that, I never missed any other time. I’ve had four or five in college. I won’t remember anything, but I’ll still be in the game. Or I’ll go out there and talk to the doctor and say, ‘I had a little ding.’ Monday, I’ll do a computer test, and it’d be the same as it was when I did it in camp.

2. It’s something, especially if you play defense, that lingers in the back of your head all the time. We like to be the ones giving the concussions, but sometimes, things happen. The worst thing that could happen would be getting my knees blown out. I worry about that more than I would worry about a concussion.

3. I’ve had one and not told anybody about it. but they’d pretty much know because of the questions I’ll be asking. If I’m supposed to go somewhere and I don’t, they’ll tell me to go and I’ll yell at them, ‘No, you go.’

4. No.

5. I don’t think there’s any difference. Football is football. Football is a contact sport, and everybody is going to be hitting. There has been some safety rules – I don’t know about concussions – as far as the horse-collar tackling and rules on the quarterback and things like that.

Clark Harris, long-snapper

1. No.

2. No, you can’t worry about stuff like that. Maybe sometimes if you get hit in the head, you sit up on the field and worry about it a little bit. But other than that, you can’t worry about getting injured.

3. No.

4. Yeah, it’s hard not to notice the news about how all of that can lead to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. It’s something I’ve been following a little bit.

5. Well, I get a new helmet every year, and with all the new technology that comes out, I don’t see how it wouldn’t be safer. I look at the old films with guys playing the old-school style with just the two bars going across their face. I think, with these new helmets, it’s got to be safer.

Andrew Whitworth, offensive tackle

1. No

2. Yeah, I do. But moreso, I worry about guys who don’t understand what a concussion is. I’m more worried about sustaining a head injury that I don’t realize is a concussion. I really don’t know how guys know for sure. But in this game, the realistic part of it is, especially being a linemen, head injuries and feeling pain with a headache is just natural. That’s more my concern. Not knowing if it’s a concussion.

3. No

4. A lot of guys are more conscious about it. They realize that this is something that can affect them later on. It’s something not a lot of guys understand. On this team, you’ve got Ben (Utecht). Not a lot of guys understood what all went into that and what they can expect down the road. I think we’ve learned a little bit from having a guy on our team that went through that.

5. I think it’s the same. You’ve got guys who are playing for their livelihood and for their families. To say that guys aren’t playing through some kind of concussion … guys play through pain every single week – headaches and all that. You just don’t know if guys are entering the field with headaches or head injuries where, if they take the right hit, it could be severe. You just don’t know.

Jordan Palmer, third-string quarterback

1. Yes, I got knocked out my sophomore year in college out of a game. I tried to run the ball, got dazed a little bit and sat out the rest of the game. I was fine to play the next week.

2. I’ve played three preseason games now and I’ve been hit plenty of times. I haven’t really thought about it. If I played more, I don’t think I would think about it much.

3. I think when you get dazed a little bit, you never think you have one. That’s when the doctors come over and say that you do. I think that’s part of it. But I’ve never lied and said, ‘No, no, I didn’t have one last week” when I actually did.

4. I haven’t followed it much.

5. I think it’s the same. In the NFL, I have state of the art cleats and shoulder pads and stuff. But I wear the exact same helmet I wore in Pop Warner. Now, there are other helmets available to me. It’s not the NFL or the Bengals fault, but I wear the same Riddell, filled-up-with-air deal that I wore when I was a kid. It hasn’t changed that much. But then I see Andre Caldwell, who looks like he’s wearing a lacrosse helmet.

So yeah, players are concerned and many of them lie about sustaining concussions. But they know the consequences are real, and if the NFL isn’t concerned when a guy like Rey Maualuga has suffered five of them and has admitted to hiding it in the past from coaches, that’s a real problem. Hopefully, one that will continue to be addressed.

The bravery of a man

A day after Cincinnati beat Baltimore to move to the top of the AFC North Division, a day after showering defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer with hugs and support, the Bengals opened their hearts and talked about family. And about love. And about courage. Hardly anybody talked about football.

Mostly, us reporters asked – and the players talked – about Vikki Zimmer, Mike Zimmer’s 50-year-old wife who died suddenly Thursday. She was a woman who made them cookies on the Mondays after they won a game. She was the mother figure who made newcomer Roy Williams so much more comfortable in his first days in Dallas. She was the one who loved the players and the one who soaked in the gratitude they held for her.

A sampling of the comments from today:

“If you ever did anything nice for her, she wanted to, right away in turn, do something nice for you, which a lot of people don’t do,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “She wanted to always reciprocate right away. I think that’s what we’ll all remember about her.”

“(When I first got here), I remember coach Zim caught me and said, ‘My wife really wants to meet you. She said you’re her new favorite player,'” defensive tackle Domata Peko said. “She was a sweetheart. Every Monday after a win, we’d come in to watch the film, and she’d make us cookies and snacks. She loved the team so much.”

“She was family,” Williams said. “She was like a mother figure to me. She was always sending me notes, making sure I was OK. She will be missed. I really feel like she was the rock of that family, holding them together. I’m not saying they’re going to fall apart now, but she was the bright spot in Zim’s life.”

That last point is tremendous. She was the bright spot in his life, the mother of his children, the one who made the brownies with the marshmallow frosting that Williams would have to sneak after Zimmer left the room. She died on Thursday. He coached on Sunday. How did he do it? How did he summon the strength to call defensive plays? How did he keep his emotions in check on the sideline? How did he not break down in tears?

When the Bengals discovered the death, they let Zimmer decide his next step, his next path. “I don’t want to be a distraction,” he told Lewis. The Bengals coach assured his friend that he wouldn’t, that he could fly to Baltimore with the team, or later Saturday, or Sunday, or not at all. But a distraction? No. His players love him too much to cast him in that light.

The CBS cameras managed to catch Zimmer a few times on the sideline Sundsay, speaking words into his headset. Vikki, I’m sure, was somewhere in his mind that was trying to process the football game taking place in front of him. At the end of the game, with the Bengals win assured, the cameras zoomed in on him again. He was eaten alive by his team’s hugs, by players saying they had won the game for him and for his family.

“He needed us,” defensive end Jonathan Fanene said. “But we needed him too.”

Then, in the locker room after the game, Lewis awarded him the team ball. For courage, for the inspiration he gave to his players, for the performance of his unit. For, most of all, being braver than most anybody could hope to be.

I still don’t know how he did it.