Friday, December 28, 2012

UCLA Long Ways Off From Elite Level

This is a game in which nothing is generally guaranteed, a game where a team can dominate so well all season, and then derail in a meaningful game during bowl season. In a season where UCLA pushed and shoved around everybody in the Pac-12, the Bruins had this amazing ability to make strides for an unimaginable season, a relentless run that eventually made them relevant — more relevant than crosstown rivals USC, mind you.

Thursday night’s game was a blowout no one ever imagined. Baylor pummeled UCLA 49-26 in a Holiday Bowl that was expected to be a mesmerizing event. Almost exactly a month removed from their mammoth upset against USC, the Bruins worked themselves into BCS conversations. Promises were conceivable, dreams were nearly fulfilled and winning turned into a reality. This all happened before the Bruins turned stale and unraveled on national television, in front of a national audience and disappointed UCLA fans, who were looking for answers throughout a game that left many scratching their heads in absolute shock.

“We’ve got a long ways to go,” coach Jim Mora said. “But we’re on the right path. … The team that we want to be is a national champion and tonight showed us just how far we have to go, but we’re determined to get there. We’re heading in the right direction, but we’re a long ways off.”

Bruins fans, many of which were disenchanted and lost for words, witnessed UCLA’s worst game all season. The Bruins were trounced by Baylor in the Holiday Bowl in a neutral site that felt like a homecoming with seas of blue and gold in the stands from a large UCLA turnout. The game was played in San Diego, California, where this particular bowl game is held every season, but the site of the event didn’t matter, well, at least not to Baylor.

It was one of those nights where the Bruins were flat and phlegmatic which surprisingly resulted in a no-show, lacking alertness and competitiveness we weren't accustomed to all season. It took one loss, an agonizing lapse to realize that UCLA isn’t ready to play for a national title. With a surreal ending to the Bruins season Thursday night, UCLA still needs a lot of work to be patted on the back and a national title hopeful in the upcoming years. Now that UCLA has Mora, who has proven himself the ideal coach to lead the program, the Bruins can emerge from a time when they lacked a mental capacity and couldn’t recruit the best in the country to build a national power that could dominate college football.

Let’s hear it for the Bruins … when they’ve come so far to dispel fears and inferiority, and finally can stand up to Oregon, USC, Arizona State and everybody else in Pac-12 country. Unfortunately, though, UCLA fell sound asleep on the worst night. Not even drinking and glass of milk or reading a bedtime story about “The Story of the Three Bears” would have been enough to keep these Bruins wide awake. The bottom line is that the kids never came out to play, and saw a journey of sheer dominance abruptly come to an end. At long last, they weren’t ready and encountered stronger and hungrier Bears.

It’s sad and somewhat humiliating to see what’s happened to UCLA in just one game — just as it’s lamentable to see the rebirth of a football program slip at the worst time. And aside from the Mora era, which began this season and changed the culture overnight at UCLA, nobody has been more fantastic than tailback Johnathan Franklin and quarterback Brett Hundley, who became UCLA’s first black leading passer since Jackie Robinson threw for 444 yards as a running back in 1940. It’s too bad a horrible night, a painful night — needless to say — erased a splendid season. It’s too bad an appalling night smeared the Bruins’ hopes of winning a bowl game to conclude what was a storybook season, and what was supposed to be a close, tight game they would win.

Mora, however, kept the team together and handed the ball to a 19-year-old quarterback, realizing that Hundley was already a strong leader with a sense of humility as he developed into one of college football’s top quarterbacks. He led the Bruins through Pac-12 conference play, but unfortunately losses to Stanford in the regular-season finale and the Pac-12 championship game followed by the Holiday demolition — made it clear that UCLA is not strong or fast enough to play for a BCS title, not just yet. Maybe one day the Bruins will be complete, but not at the moment, losing to a much faster and stronger team and annihilated in every facet of the game.

Entering this game, Baylor was ranked 119th on defense, and somehow, someway the Bears pressured and harassed Hundley. He was taking snaps on a frigid night in Southern California, he was trying to scramble outside the pocket and stay mobile, as he was pressured the entire game by a pesky Baylor defense that couldn’t stop anyone all season. And then, just like that, Hundley was knocked to the ground for a sack and loss of yards. This wasn’t the first time UCLA was dismal and found themselves in a hole this season — the last time it happened was against the Cal Golden Bears.

Last month, however, much of the discussion was around UCLA, considering that the season was successful after making a loud statement on a season in which the Bruins won nine games, beat USC and played for the Pac-12 championship. At one point, down 35-7 against Baylor, UCLA fans and players still believed there was plenty of time to compile points on the scoreboard for an epic comeback, but Baylor’s running game couldn’t be stopped. The public is no longer buying into the UCLA hype, followed by an unexpected blowout that sent the Bruins back to reality. Never mind that they fought hard to the end against Stanford. Never mind, although it was a huge win over a Big Ten school, that they beat Nebraska for an impressive victory. Never mind that they put together a comeback in the final minutes to win on the road at Arizona State.

Hundley was, well, stifled and couldn’t do much on offense — versatile or not, mobile or not. The night for Hundley wasn’t too kind, but he passed for 329 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers, which was pretty good considering that he was pressured and bullied worse than a harmless kid at a school bathroom. And unbelievably, he couldn’t avoid sacks and hard hits that sent him to the ground, he couldn’t make plays while under duress.

Time after time in this game, his torpid offensive line didn’t shield him, he was running for his life and rushing his passes that were mostly incomplete. As for his duel-threat partner, Franklin -- who wasn’t nearly the brawny running back he was against USC -- he had just 34 yards on 14 carries. What was clear was this offensive line let down UCLA, but that’s what can happen when two offensive linemen are bothered by injuries in the first half. From there, the night was over for the Bruins. There isn’t any other way to put it, and pain and simple, the Bruins disappeared when so much was at stake and when they could have certainly had bragging rights over USC.

Mostly though, in this game alone, the Bruins were stopped on third downs and were forced to punt, which raised Baylor’s momentum. So when the Bruins punted five times, it usually resulted in a Baylor touchdown, from the speed of Glasco Martin or Lache Seastrunk. It wasn’t long, since UCLA couldn’t disrupt anyone on the Baylor offense, before Baylor scored on three consecutive touchdowns and, just like that, the Bruins were out of the game. There was plenty for Baylor to be proud about, such was Baylor quarterback Nick Florence, who passed for more than 4,000 yards before he obliterated them. After all of this, it’s more obvious now that UCLA missed safety Tevin McDonald, who was suspended for the bowl game because of undisclosed violations.

As it turns out, Baylor had a well-constructed game plan and executed it brilliantly against UCLA, in which Mora never had a strategy or game plan of his own to protect Hundley. It was a gut-wrenching end to what was a good season, and there is no doubt the Bruins will rank in the Top 25 with hopes they can emerge into BCS elites.

They were all so close, but not close enough.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

When Nash Stays Healthy, Lakers Are Tough

Staples Center was packed Tuesday afternoon, a sellout capacity crowd in attendance to watch their beloved Lakers encounter the red hot Knicks -- who were by far LA's toughest opponent this season. One of the surest things is that the Los Angeles Lakers can in fact beat a top-notched team, as fans can suddenly stop panicking and remain every bit optimistic about a storied franchise.

And while Mike D'Antoni's Lakers were, well, lethargic, disengaged and soft, to one's understanding, D'Antoni used flimsy excuses. And maybe he was right. With the return of Steve Nash, the Lakers have improved -- faster and more potent with him on the floor as their trusty point guard. The Lakers, who have been looking for solutions and ways to dismiss woes and mediocrity, cannot win a 17th NBA title without Nash.

It's just seemingly implausible, and Nash has been called on to salvage the Lakers season before matters become worse. The Lakers, when Nash is on the floor, are more efficient and everybody knows their role it seems. For as long as we've known D'Antoni, he's needed this guy by his side, he's counted on Nash and he has run and executed his offense brilliantly. With Nash, D'Antoni has a .734 career win percentage in games. Without him, he has a .387 win percentage.

OK, it's only one tough opponent they played against when it comes to teams over .500. OK, Kobe Bryant had an efficient 34 point on 14-for-24 shooting effort against the Knicks. OK, fine, Pau Gasol finally played with heart and toughness, dishing out six assists and swooping down to the rim finishing with an empathic submarine-dunk in the final seconds for the game-clinching point. OK, Metta World Peace scored 20 points on 6-of-11 shooting off the bench, while involved in a heavyweight-wrestling match with Carmelo Anthony.

But with Nash back running the offense, the Lakers are still hopeful they can bring home a championship. After the Lakers beat the Knicks 100-94 on Christmas Day for their fifth straight win, it was heard loud and clear, it gave fans something to smile and cheer about. Entering this game, the Lakers lost three consecutive times on Dec. 25, making it anything but jolly for Bryant. Thank goodness for Nash. This time around, Mr. Grinch didn't steal Christmas from the Lakers. This time around, it was holiday redemption and the Lakers avenged their loss against the Knicks, cooling down the hottest team in the league.

For Nash, the holiday season is about giving, averaging 20 assists in his first two games since the comeback. By all rights, the Lakers should still be a heavy playoff favorite, after making a loud statement. It's now time for fans to breathe a sigh of relief, now time to feel good about something, realizing this team is built with talent and a bevy of stars who can make a playoff run based on experience and athleticism.

Fortunately for the Lakers, who were quiescent and lifeless without Nash, the time couldn't be better for his return, with the Knicks arriving for a holiday matinee and a rematch after annihilating L.A. at Madison Square Garden two weeks ago. Nash welcomed swarms of reporters, he stood there by his locker, waiting patiently to be interrogated and responded softly. In the age of NBA guards and anybody with ball-handling skills to run the floor and distribute the ball, the Lakers have been missing a critical piece on offense. If the Lakers desire winning a championship in June, then Nash must be a key component, and indeed he fits in D'Antoni's system.

Nash, by the way, directed D'Antoni's up-tempo offense for four seasons with the Phoenix Suns, and so with his familiarity and ability to facilitate and get up and down the floor, he's definitely the Lakers' way out of trouble. The Lakers, once embarrassed and frustrated, has to certainly feel more confident and glad he's back in the starting five. These Lakers, remember, were struggling and falling to substandard opponents, drawing criticism and doubts from fans. These Lakers, remember, are led by Kobe Bryant, who is well past his prime and has taken way too many shots, not realizing age has finally caught up with him.

It wasn't working without Nash, and now that he's back, the Lakers have a legitimate shot. It can't be ignored when Nash is on the floor distributing the ball, making his teammates better, setting up open looks and creating in transition. It can't be ignored when Nash is delivering passes inside the paint, playing like an ageless point guard and orchestrating a system and new offense created by someone who is identified as an offensive guru.

There is no better way to look at it, but realistically Nash is maybe the most important player on the Lakers, and it really was evident once sidelined 24 games because of his fractured left leg. Not surprisingly, the Lakers are 2-0 with Nash in the lineup, one of the most creative and finest playmakers in the game. For those who have watched Nash for years, he puts everything in perspective and keeps everyone compose, and because of it, the offense flows and feeds on his energy and ability to create in transition. I know, I know, Nash made it possible for the Lakers, controlling the final minutes of the Christmas Day masterpiece, on a day Bryant surpassed Oscar Robertson to become the all-time scoring leader in Christmas Day games.

The matchup of the leagues top two scorers was more of the focus at the beginning, with Bryant and Anthony putting on a show, making thrilling shots and dropping 34 points each. After Bryant and Anthony were done with a thrilling shot-making contest, under six minutes left to play in the fourth, it quickly became Nash's team. As time dwindled down, Nash assisted and or scored on 12 of the Lakers' last 15 points. It was dramatic closing minutes, with Bryant hitting a jump shot and with Dwight Howard enticing the crowd following a dunk. Late in the game, Nash made a few jumpers that were critical and then Gasol was awarded free throws on a pass from Nash.

Since he's come back, the Lakers are the team to beat, from what it seems. Turns out, Nash is the perfect Christmas gift.

There is legitimacy on this Lakers team, and since everybody is touching the ball with Nash back, they are more cohesive and are playing smarter and faster.

There are championship aspirations, after all.

It came on Christmas Day, an ultimate Xmas gift.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Adrian Peterson Worthy of MVP? All Day

Man, he’s fast.


At the moment all eyes are on Adrian Peterson, the NFL’s most dynamic running back. Against his opponents on the ground, Peterson bursts through the seam and races down the field, then drives into the end zone. The beauty of the Vikings’ resurgence in the Twin Cities, a town where fans haven’t had much to be excited about, is because of Peterson’s phenomenal season. The Vikings have an idea on what the future beholds, with an indomitable running back, which is amassing superhuman numbers.

Funny thing is, however, some would argue that he’s not worthy of MVP, when he continues his assault on the single-season rushing record. Funny thing is, it’s debatable as to whether he should be named NFL’s Most Valuable Player. It should be obvious that he’s deserving of an honorable award, especially when he’s making a case that he’s arguably the best running back in the league when he’s healthy and not inactive on the sideline. In most respects, he’s the only running back to threaten and come close to Eric Dickerson’s 2,105 yards. At this point, mind you, Peterson is optimistic he can break Dickerson’s record on Sunday, with one game remaining on the schedule.

I cannot see Peterson, proving to be the finest rusher since Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith, being devoid of MVP talk. Just like that, faster than he can race for a touchdown, he’s finally revealed he’s an elite running back and even an MVP candidate, and indeed he should win the award, without much argument. There’s enough evidence to see that he’s playing like an MVP, with the Vikings in a fight for a wild-card spot as they can mathematically still make the playoffs, amid a season when Peterson is respectfully dominating in every rushing category as he cannot be denied but only contained. The strategy of handing the ball off to Peterson in a sequence of plays, since he’s racked up some ridiculous numbers, is a boon to the Vikings impressive season.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that the NFL is a pass-happy league, with the likes of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — the greatest NFL quarterbacks of the modern era. There’s no doubt Brady and Manning are top candidates, and to say they both aren’t favorites to win MVP, is just irresponsible and imprudent. No disrespect to Brady and Manning, but to be fair, Peterson is the greatest rusher of the modern era and deserves consideration.

The numbers don’t lie. For Peterson, for those who are unaware, his 1,812 yards is a league’s best — standing on the NFL Mountaintop. By far, he’s stringing together one of the most individual campaigns, and simultaneously is on pursuit to shatter a record no running back has ever broken. This season alone, Peterson has 1,313 yards in the past eight games and rushed for 150 yards or more in six games, one shy of tying NFL record in that category.

Just recently, he became the fourth player in NFL history to rush for at least 8,500 yards and 75 touchdowns over the first six seasons of an NFL career, with currently 8,564 yards and 75 touchdowns to fall in the company of Dickerson (9,915 yards and 75 touchdowns), LaDainian Tomlinson (9,176 yards and 100 touchdowns), and Smith (8,956 yards and 96 touchdowns).

It’s just the truth, no matter what people say about Peterson, refusing to acknowledge that what he’s mastered this season is beyond incredible. With his nifty footwork, his quickness and explosiveness, his firmness and ability to make defenders hesitate and make it hard to read the play, he is on the threshold of validating his place among NFL running backs. Roughly on his way to attain eminence, Peterson is looking to become the seventh tailback to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.

This, more than anything else, is the best season of his exceptional career. It’s a time when he can be placed on Mount Rushmore of running backs. The most exceptional running back is easily the most superlative performer in 2012, and has climbed the mountaintop in the National Football League. If you don’t think AD is highly commendable, you are clueless and blinded by the reality of Peterson’s dominance. There’s a great chance he will win the award — the Most Valuable Player award. Peterson, should the Vikings (8-6) make it to the playoffs, would likely earn MVP honors.

Yet he plays on an inferior team with a struggling quarterback in Christian Ponder. The Vikings also featured receiver Percy Harvin, who sustained an injury. But Peterson, meanwhile, has made defenses fret as he poses a threat. In all, judging by the standings, the Vikings can miss the postseason, and Peterson’s spectacular season would go to waste if Minnesota misses out on all the fun as individual achievements don’t matter as much as team deeds. Now it just comes down to him executing and having another 200-plus-yard effort, coming off a 212-yard performance in a 36-22 victory over the St. Louis Rams.

If that happens, needing 294 yards in his final two games to surpass Dickerson, he could set a new record as an NFL back. In a quarterback-driven league, rarely does a running back fit the description. The odds, as usual, strongly favor Manning and Brady in the age when quarterbacks are often recognized. There have been 37 quarterbacks selected, with a combined record of 470-102-4 (.819).

The world’s biggest curiosity is Peterson, no matter what history says, no matter if the league’s most valuable player has rarely not led his team to the playoffs. There’s not enough promise to confirm he’s the winner, while leading the Vikings through a storybook season. And here’s guessing Manning is favored to prevail, playing for the hottest team in the league and turning the 11-3 Denver Broncos into Super Bowl hopefuls. The downside is, Peterson’s team isn’t nearly as flawless, let alone playoff bound.

Whether or not anyone thinks he merits the honors, which usually doesn’t happen for a running back, Peterson gets my vote. This is generally not a running backs league, known for satisfying quarterbacks and forgetting about every other player on the field. It would be a great accomplishment for Peterson. In recent memory, 55 winners have won an MVP in 55 years — only two of them were on teams that didn’t make it to the postseason.

It’s worth pointing out only four running backs have won MVP while playing for a wild-card team. Sanders’ name sounds familiar and Walter Payton’s as well, two winning backs who made it happen on 9-7 teams. The last we’ve seen a running back win MVP was when Tomlinson earned it on the account of fulgurous numbers. That year, he rushed for 1,815 yards and NFL-record 31 touchdowns, 28 on the ground.

All day, he’s the man of show business, a priceless specimen who overcame medical issues, after tearing his ACL and MCL less than a year ago. All day, he’s been tearing it up in the National Football League. Chances are he still won’t win MVP, although Peterson is the most astonishing athletes in the game today, bouncing back from injuries to likely also be NFL’s comeback kid. If he doesn’t win the award, it would be an insult to Peterson, when he’s convinced us that he’s not only the fastest man directing the greatest show on turf but also the man with otherworldly talent. So at this point, Peterson’s campaign is far more amazing to be ignored.

He’s amazed us with runs and created a compelling story every time he took a handoff this season and couldn’t be stopped. Now the most appreciated player in the game by far, Peterson is carrying out the unthinkable and certainly has been far more amazing than anyone else all season, with his size, a rare combination of speed and stamina. This year, it became apparent that Peterson has stated his case after putting in the hours and working diligently to recover from his health issues, rehabilitating with physical therapists and performing painstaking exercises to rejuvenate energy and motion.

There’s no doubt that he’s in good position to win. But don’t be surprised to see two-time winner Brady or four-time winner Manning win it again. We can only imagine what will happen — worthy of MVP status — now that Peterson is closing in on a record and could potentially carry the Vikings to the postseason. The MVP is an individual award, after all, not a team award.

My vote, however, goes to Peterson. All day.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Most Pro Athletes Are Given Free Pass, Like Josh Brent, For Example

On the day the Dallas Cowboys paid tribute to the fallen Jerry Brown with a No. 53 decal on the back of helmets and held a moment of silence before the game, Josh Brent was invited to join the team on the sideline Sunday as if he's done nothing wrong.

There's a side of me that just didn't feel right about him being present. There's a side of me that feels this was wrong, though Brown's mother forgives Brent, a third-year defensive tackle, who selfishly took the life of a man who was not just a teammate but a friend. There's a side of me that makes me frown and shake my head in shame after seeing him on the sideline when he was responsible for the alcohol-related, one-car accident that killed Brown. In other words, Brent should not have been on the sideline for the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. He was spending time locked up, but walked out of jail in Irving, Texas, barefooted after his release on $500,000 bond.

There's no way, just no way in hell.

Rather than honoring the fallen linebacker with Brent on the sideline as an awkward tribute and allowing him to even step foot onto the premises, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones should have mandated that he stay away from the team until further notice, until the healing process shrivel or until Brent's verdict. It's time to stop supporting those who commit crimes. And just because Brown's mother doesn't want Brent prosecuted after he was charged with intoxication manslaughter for her son's death, it's not what she or anybody else wants. It's what's right. Right is right. Wrong is wrong.

Brent, whose blood-alcohol level measured at 0.18 reportedly, was more than double the legal limit in Texas. So while the Cowboys are willing to stand by someone who perpetrated this senseless act, Brent could still face a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted. He's the epitome of athletes and celebrities getting away with crimes, a glaring image of what's seen so often in today's world. Money and fame defeats the court of law. Money and fame protects celebrities. Money and fame don't bring justice, but more problems within itself. At this point, it's not about ethics and moral values.

There are, for those who are unaware of our troubled society and how a biased justice system functions nowadays, no hidden agendas for famous people in the sports or entertainment industry. So of course, as a public figure and not an ordinary citizen, Brent can show his face in public and could potentially even avoid a prison sentence because of the name on the back of his jersey and because he plays for America's team. The most gruesome case was when Michael Vick bankrolled a dogfighting ring, and as a nation forgot that he viciously murdered defenseless, immaculate animals, Vick amazingly was exonerated and given the starting quarterback job in Philly, when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sensed he had already paid his debts to society.

Jamal Lewis, after pleading guilty in federal court for drug trafficking, quickly made his return to drive down the field for the Baltimore Ravens. Years ago, Rafael Furcal, found guilty of his second DUI offense, returned hours later and belted a game-winning homer in Game 2 for the Atlanta Braves. It was O.J. Simpson who was found not guilty of double-murder charges, with the help of the most expensive attorney in the late Johnny Cochran. Jayson Williams, who pled guilty to assault for fatally shooting a hired limousine driver, was freed after serving eight months in jail at Rikers.

Millions of people around the world were around when NFL wide receiver Donte' Stallworth was behind the wheel drunk and tragically struck and killed 59-year-old Mario Reyes on a Miami street. It amazed me that he won over the disgraceful justice system, and only had to serve 24 days of his 30-day jail sentence.

The matter of domestic violence is fairly common today and could be tough to control, but when Chad Johnson head-butts his ex-wife, he must serve time to pay the price for his foolish behavior. When Adam "Pacman" Jones face two felony charges alleging he set off a nightclub skirmish that escalated into a shooting and left a man paralyzed, he must spend time behind bars and stare at four walls to pay the consequences for his senseless actions, quite like a typical human being would in the wake of unlawful activity.

A forgiving country, America is known to be. But sometimes it's too forgiving to be quite frank. With all the reluctance this nation has in punishing pro athletes, putting a foot down so it won't happen the next time around, some players from every league don't take their lives seriously and think they can abuse their fame at one's own discretion. Fame is powerful, which can be rather hard to handle if celebrities aren't used to recognition and publicity.

There are no boundaries for pro athletes, at least not in courtrooms where they are granted a free pass, even though they are culpable. That's not likely to change any time soon, sadly, and athletes continuously get away with misdeeds as if they are ever so perfect and mistake-free.

It's morally wrong and it sends a bad message to our troubled society, to our children and our unborn athletes. It's not only a slap in the face to those who are seeking justice, but also a slap in the face to those who have been in trouble with the law and had to serve a longer sentence for something minor or even just as bad as a disturbed pro athlete. Folks, in our prejudice society, grasp a sense that non-celebrities aren't treated equally when it comes to dealing with ethics and ghastly crimes. The point is that the actions are just as repulsive and horrifying as would be with normal people committing the same criminal offenses.

I don't care that you are the next million-dollar man. I don't care that you have megabucks to get you out of trouble. I don't care that you are this well-known doctor, attorney, celebrity or a magic chef with your own cooking TV show on Food Network.

The latest tragedy should be enough to wake up America, but apparently it's not enough to alarm a shameful, impaired civilization. The social structure of America is in so much disarray, and the recent incident that involves Brent, who faces a charge of intoxication manslaughter, is a clear illustration that the legal system is unrighteous, prejudice and disingenuous in a sense.

If you do the crime, you must do the time.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Johnny ‘Football’ To Johnny Heisman: Manziel Wins Heisman Trophy

He’s Johnny Heisman now. There is a lot to like about Johnny Manziel, and our universe has been infatuated with everything he’s done in his breakthrough season. His last name rhymes with iconic actor Denzel Washington, he was a backup quarterback and a YouTube sensation at one point.

It finally was a moment when Manziel arrived at Texas A&M, where he made a statement and cemented his Heisman status with a signature win over Alabama that swept over the nation, as it created enough buzz in college football. From there on out, he was mentioned in Heisman conversations, credited for leading the Aggies to an unthinkable victory. Unnoticed as a redshirt freshman, as people in Aggieland mispronounced his last name, Manziel ultimately revealed that he’s the finest quarterback in the nation.

The quarterback position is, without question, the toughest position of this more popular sport, which benefited in Manziel’s favor. But not to take anything away from Manziel, he was definitely well deserving of the prestigious award and had been presumed the frontrunner since the highlighted win over Alabama. It’s not all that difficult for the country to realize that he’s compiled Heisman-like numbers, it’s not all that difficult for the nation to discern that he’s the catalyst for lifting an accomplished program out of mediocrity.

The stiff-armed trophy, rightfully so, went to Manziel, a high-school hero, a household name at Texas A&M. The Heisman winner of 2012 must be a role model to a slew of kids in Texas, as well, after a high school student in Kerrville was sent home a few weeks ago for a haircut of the freshman phenom, and Manziel’s “Johnny Football” nickname with the Texas A&M logo shaved into scalp.

When Manziel was named the winner of the 78th Heisman trophy, on a historic night for college football, his mouth was agape, he was stunned and he was grinning. A night of emotion and jubilance illustrated that he’s indeed the nation’s top quarterback, and by winning an honorable prize that a bevy of players never had an opportunity to win or take the stage, he rose to national limelight. After his humble speech, he raised the trophy and kissed it, he refused to let it go. He cradled the trophy, smiling and speaking eloquently, as his father, Paul, was in tears.

A few days removed from his 20th birthday, Manziel spent Saturday night in New York and celebrated proudly with his family. What’s most important to Manziel, however, is winning games, but as gifted and sound as he was this season, he was worthy of individual accolades as well. He’s proven to the world that he’s the best athlete in college football and he’s marveled by many, specifically to those at College Station, where folks gave him the generic nickname Johnny “Football,” which he’s grown attached to over a period of time. But he is exactly what college sports should embody, and is what the game needs amid an age of greed and financial robbery that has sabotaged the significance of college athletics.

He grew up in Texas, hurling passes to his father, working hard each day to emerge into a high school star and an eventual star quarterback at a university, where he’s transcended to greatness as a freshman sensation. The hard work and imitation of idol Doug Flutie has paid off, a clear understanding to the effort he’s put in to reach a pinnacle in his lustrous career. The story of the season is Manziel, and ever since Texas A&M upset No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 10, he’s been the candidate for Heisman, captivating voters’ eyes following a victory that determined the welfare of his candidacy.

The national chatter came when he pleaded his case for the award, becoming a primary factor for the Aggies’ impressive season, in a year when it might have been the toughest decision. Heisman winners are commonplace at the quarterback position, so it’s not surprising that he won the trophy. It’s not the first time we’ve been embroiled in Heisman controversy, and certainly not the first time a quarterback has been bestowed the award. If we’ve seen Carson Palmer hoist the stiff-armed prize, Matt Leinart raise the bronze statuette, Tim Tebow lift the piece of hardware, Sam Bradford hold up the trophy, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III take indelible pictures while holding football’s most monumental award, we now can see Manziel with the trophy as well.

He’s the kind of guy everybody wants on their team and in their conference, and Manziel represents the ethics of the SEC, a conference with arguably the top players in the country. And realistically, after throwing for 24 touchdowns and running for 19, he was the most outstanding player in the nation, regardless of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o finishing the season ranked second in the country with seven interceptions, and regardless of him leading the unbeaten Irish in tackles (103), passes broken up (11) and fumble recoveries (2). My guy all along, because he was most important to Notre Dame’s monstrous defensive front, was no one other than Te’o.

It could be we simply felt for him, a man who overcame so much adversity with faith and a spiritual background. Te’o helped direct the Irish to the BCS national title game on Jan. 7, while playing with a heavy heart due to the loss of his grandmother and girlfriend to illnesses on the same day. But by the same token, we saw one of the most dramatic seasons, including a mammoth upset that centered Manziel, which makes perfect sense as to why he won the Heisman by a landslide. Even though some felt Te’o would take the stiff-armed trophy home easily, Manziel was anointed and appreciated all over the college football world.

We know it’s true because he has been by virtue a team leader for a Texas A&M program that has returned to prominence, and he piloted the year’s biggest, massive upset, maybe one of the best in ages. Granted, he’s on pace to become the game’s most dangerous dual-threat quarterback ever, throwing for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns while rushing for 1,181 yards and 19 touchdowns. The numbers speak volumes, he’s a humble kid, very mature for his age, very charismatic and conducts himself as a well-behaved man who is passionate and finesse. He’s versatile, knowledgeable and fun to watch, bringing excitement and intensity to the game, with fans all over alarmed and hypnotized by the star of football these days.

The truth is, he had the best chance of winning the Heisman than Te’o and Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein. One can argue that Manziel was good enough to win and lock up the Heisman when the Aggies defeated the Crimson Tide. The truth is, college football is an offensive-driven sport, and with a dual-threat repertoire, it was a no-brainer that he was worthy of stepping onto the stage to accept an award for such success this season. In his role as quarterback, he was consistently spectacular and unstoppable. Dominating in the SEC, where every football program rules and builds a legitimate powerhouse to likely contend for a national title, was primarily another reason he prevailed on the biggest night of his life.

When he showed he could stand his ground against SEC competition, with magnificent numbers he tallied, Manziel right then and there proved to everyone that he was the nation’s frontrunner for the Heisman. Its no wonder the last-minute talk surrounded Manziel. Impressing everyone largely at Texas A&M, a school that has its hopes high for football each season, was Manziel’s keys to the trophy. As a freshman, with the presence of A&M coach Kevin Sumlin who is all about philosophies and tremendous effort, Manziel excelled with a new coach, a new system.

There’s plenty of potential, plenty of promise for Manziel. Nobody saw it coming. It’s not every day we witness a freshman master greatness, especially when he’s still adjusting to a new system, especially when he’s making the transition from high school to college. But something different transpired in football this year. These days, great athletes grow fast and emerge over night, just like Johnny, becoming the first freshman and fifth player ever to record a 3,000-yard passing and 1,000-yard rushing season.

More impressively, Manziel amassed 4,600 of the Aggies’ 6,628 yards of total offense — to be more specific 69.4 percent. He’s had more of a stronger impact on the game than Te’o. There’s no doubt in our minds that he is the paradigm of the modern-era, versatile quarterback. He can run, he can throw, he’s mobile and fearless, a typical quarterback in today’s game. All season long, he was durable and potent in Sumlin’s high-octane offense. All season long, he was a surefire Heisman winner, when nobody ever came close to snatching it away. He was not, however, perfect early in the season, and like everybody else he struggled against Florida and LSU elite defenses, which were understandable when the Gators led the nation in pass efficiency defense and when the Tigers ranked in the Top 10.

That still wasn’t stopping Manziel from becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman, not when he manhandled and steamrolled No. 1 ‘Bama for 345 yards of offense and threw two touchdowns with no interceptions, in what was the best game of his football career. For the record, he received 474 first-place votes, 153 more than Te’o. As for the Notre Dame senior, he finished runner up.

Johnny Football was remarkable. He was at the top of my Heisman Trophy ballot. If he weren’t the best story of college football this season, then I don’t know what was the feel-good story.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

College Hoops Lost So Much In Rick Majerus

We've lost the heart and soul of college hoops. We've also lost a basketball legend. There's no doubt Rick Majerus stood for everything college sports signifies. If grandparents were to reminisce with their grandchildren about a selfless and generous person, or talk about wisdom in sports, the man who comes to mind is the late Majerus.

Parents didn't mind welcoming Majerus into their homes and didn't have an issue sending their kids off to Utah. When he died Saturday of heart failure, America reflected on the strongest and kindest coach to teach kids, to shape their lives, to prepare them for the real world, and lastly, inspire children. Nobody adored basketball more than Rick, and no other coach has ever taught or disciplined young players like Rick. Everybody loves a winner, and wherever Rick coached in his wondrous career, he definitely was a winner and had an influence on kids’ lives.

Amazing, isn't it, how Majerus has left the face of the earth?

Majerus, 64 years young, recently left Saint Louis University, where he coached for the last five seasons, for health issues. His death happened so soon, although there's no such thing as premature death, although he had been fighting heart problems for quite some time. Majerus was unhealthy, his health was always an issue with a history of weight and heart problems, his leg also wasn't ever the same since cutting it in a collision with players a year ago, when he nearly had to have it amputated.

For so long, he's had a myriad of heart bypasses, he's walked slowly and struggled to breathe, as it became very problematic. Flashing back to the good times, and ignoring a bevy of health issues, Majerus prominently cements a legacy forever, one nobody can ever erase. It's a real shame he's deceased, but Majerus' death is not surprising when he wasn't feeling well, when he had been suffering quietly and couldn't any longer coach at Saint Louis, where he had recent success last March.

For a long time, he desperately desired to return to the Final Four -- he was always dedicated and attached to a game he truly savored more than anyone else in college hoops. Majerus, a fiery teacher of the game, has studied, coached and led some of the game's most successful college programs for 25 seasons. From Ball State to Marquette to Utah to Saint Louis, he was an incredible 517-216, winning more than 70 percent of his games with 12 NCAA appearances.

We'll eventually move on and succumb to reality, but for the time being, we'll mourn the death of the most jovial college basketball coach. As with all deaths, comes memories and things we hardly ever forget about a particular person, and so nobody will ever fail to mention that Majerus led Utah to the 1998 NCAA final when the Utes lost to Kentucky. More than anything, Majerus had only one losing season in 25 years with four schools, and three of his players at Utah were NBA draft picks. After the 98 Utes team advanced to the national title, Keith Van Horn was selected as the No. 2 overall pick.

Relatively speaking, Van Horn, Michael Doleac and Alex Jensen, among former Utah stars, paid visits to Majerus' home and spoke with their former coach. That's right, after having an influence and touching so many lives, he was a likable man, and someone who many looked up to as a father figure and someone who wanted to see his players succeed. The last we've seen Majerus was back in March, following a win over Memphis and a loss to Michigan State. From what I recall, Majerus broke down in the midst of a postgame press conference in the aftermath of an emotional loss in the NCAA tournament.

The last we've seen Majerus he was also in good spirits, always smiling and giving his heart to people. But his heart had finally stopped given, when he lived a complete and prosperous life. For all of his great runs and success at four different schools, he's taken 12 teams to the NCAA tournament with two 30-win seasons and 15 20-win seasons. The climax of Majerus' career took place at Utah, where he built a foundation with the landscape of stars and parity, and as a result of it, he complied a record of 323-95 from 1989 to 2004.

Majerus, ladies and gentlemen, was one helluva coach. He's got a Hall of Fame resume, he's created a legacy that cannot ever be touched, and now he's an angel flying high in the heavens. It's only kind to speak nicely and respectfully of Majerus, with all he's done to the landscape of college basketball, with all he's done to help change lives and teach kids. Majerus was a character of college basketball, an all-time custodian everywhere he coached, in every locker room he stood in and to everyone's heart he touched and brought to life with his hilarious, animated and intellectual basketball mind.

This time, unfortunately, he couldn't overcome his health problems and needed a heart transplant, but had trouble receiving one because of his age. There were times when Majerus joked about his weight and his diet as if he was one of those fat kids from the old movie Heavyweights. Not once did his weight or Ben Stiller bother him. It should come as no surprise that Majerus spent much of the summer at a Los Angeles hospital due to his ailing heart. Not long ago, Saint Louis University announced he'd be stepping down because of his health, and then recently released another statement that he wouldn't be returning to coach the Billikens at any point.

Which brings me to why he was so emotional when Saint Louis was eliminated from the tournament. He realized that time was running short on his career, that his health issues were going to unexpectedly end his accomplished career. The ultimate feeling is that he knew when nobody else knew. So amazingly, though, he was fighting off the pain and still enthusiastic enough to hang in there as long as possible.

With a shot as Saint Louis head coach, Majerus took the Billikens to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. The temptation of too much food would always take over after the game, for a guy who lived in his hotel room and for a guy who normally ordered a postgame pizza. It wasn't just a one-time thing, but a ritual to pig out on food and watch film of the next opponent. He was a funny character, a man who was savvy when it came to knowing the top restaurants in nearly every city, and knew what every menu had to offer. There weren't too many nights when he didn't go out for dinner at one of the finest joints in town. The man had an obsession for food and hotel vending machines, with candy bars to sneak out of his room for a midnight snack.

Clearly a demanding coach, Majerus was always up for the challenge and expected much from his players and assistant coaches. And as his condition worsened, he saw and spoke to a lot of his kids, who came to visit the ailing coach. And now Majerus is an angel above.

As an angel, he can speak and touch another angel's heart now. There wasn't ever a need for a heart transplant.