(The ninth episode of the serial “Quiet Guy in the Sports Bar” looks at the University of Miami football scandal with a forward-thinking point-of-view.)
They Pass You By
Dr. Mason Bricker, professor, English literature, Charleston (W.Va.) College
Sunday noon, August 21, 2011
They pass you by, baby. That’s why the NCAA should not institute the “death penalty” on the University of Miami football program.
They pass you by. The days and the years. Paraphrasing Bruce Springsteen, “in the wink of an eye.”
The days and the years.
And the seasons. And the games. Teammates together, drop the hammer. Kickoff. First hit. First tackle. First downs. Punt. Drives, drives stalled, turnovers, takeaways, field goals kicked, monster hit, pancake block, long ball, touchdown. Key goal line stop. Punt. Touchdown. Punt. Touchdown. Long drives, big gainers, run, hard hit. Puking. Victory formation.
Another game. Yet another. And another. Wins. Losses. Pride. Desire. Champions. Heartache. Redemption, for anything that is everything.
Another season. And another and another, you’ll do it all again until the four years are up and over.
It’s gone, like smoke.
Thirty six years ago I spent one season as a backup on the kickoff team for the West Virginia University Mountaineers. Granted, you can’t get much more buried on the depth chart than a kickoff backup.
I earned my chances, however.
For the final three games of the season I garnered a spot as a kickoff regular. The special teams coaches finally realized I was 4.5 forty fast and would sacrifice my body for the tackle.
My first mad dash down the field proved I was The Hitter they wanted. Although small at 5’ 11” 185 lbs, I didn’t care what happened to my musculoskeletal frame. My attitude paid off. I got the tackle, a hard shot to the return man’s gut, forcing a fumble that was recovered by the gunner.
Six more sprints downfield were followed by hits that felt like an automobile accident.
Then, it was over.
They pass you by in the wink of an eye.
There will be too, too many innocent bystanders, namely current players who did not even know Hurricane Nevin existed, whose college football dreams will drown in the swirl and the swell of a 2011 season in Coral Gables cancelled.
It doesn’t end there with silent Saturdays and the eerie hollowness of an empty SunLife Stadium. The University of Miami, year in and year out, led by luminaries such as Ray Lewis and Michael Irvin – you have to admit, they indeed played football the way it was meant to be played – has always fed the National Football League with outstanding players.
Each Miami game on the gridiron has become an audition for NFL scouts. Under the “death penalty,” there are no Miami games, darkening the future for the Hurricane football player, forcing him to wait it out or take his chances at another school.
I can hear shrewd NFL general managers (and aren’t they all) taking a million here and a million there off the draftees’ tables under the guise of “Well, you’re good, but West Virginia just doesn’t deliver the quality of football as you would have found at the University of Miami. Sorry.”
Count Miami head coach Al Golden among the suffering guiltless. Without a doubt, Golden should have been informed that something was up before he had a chance to sign by none less than Donna Shalala, the president of The U.
Forget how Al Golden has to work beyond accusations of headhunters’ bounties and convince sixty players to focus on Maryland in College Park in two weeks. How can coach Golden and members of his staff sit in Mom’s and Dad’s living room and promise they will take care of their son and give him a valuable opportunity to play for one of the finest college football programs in the past fifty years? After all this? You cannot be serious.
Truth is, despite the salacious tales of parties, booze, strippers and hookers purchased by one rouge, charming, cunning schemer with mansions, yachts, boundless nimiety, and a bottomless wallet, and do not hesitate to show that photo of Nevin Shapiro and Donna Shalala at the bowling alley as president Shalala stood there gawking at a $50,000 check Shapiro had just handed her, in spite of all of that, University of Miami football does put world-class athletes and the greatest teams on the field, playing for championships, and winning a few.
Okay, NCAA, dock the Hurricanes a couple dozen athletic scholarships, send them home for bowl season, and don’t let them share in Atlantic Coast Conference television revenue, but let the kids play ball. No matter how badly the university was duped, from the president on down to the director of public relations in the Athletic Department, let ‘em do what they do best. Let them play ball.
“I read your blog this afternoon, Dr. Bricker,” says Mary, a past student and the member of the Two Dozen and One sports garden waitstaff assigned to take care of us. “It was good, and you’re right. They just can’t take the game away from the players who didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I hope reason prevails,” I say to Mary as she places the tall Widmer draft on the coffee table in front of sofa on which Gus and I are sitting. Mary gives Gus his Bud Light, Wally his Miller High-Life bottle, and GQ, “The Quiet Guy” who lately has been anything but, receives a glass of Nautilus wine, a New Zealand pinot noir.
Gus raises his glass. “To reason,” he says.
“Yeah, buddy!” Wally says.
“Mason,” Wally says directly into my eyes, “I hated Miami in the eighties. I hated Vinny Testeverde and the camo pants they wore to the Fiesta Bowl. I was happy to see another team I hate, Penn State, whip up on the Hurricanes there.”
“I loved that Alabama game for the title,” says Gus, “and especially Teague, that ‘Bama corner who took the ball away from the Miami punt returner who was headed for six, just took it away from him, and Alabama won the national title from them. I hated Miami then.”
“Then, and I was living in California," says GQ, "and the ‘Canes were in the Big East, and West Virginia upset them big, and it got tough on Miami, and then Ohio State took them to two OTs and got a championship from them.”
“Did you hate them then?” Wally asks GQ.
“Despised them,” GQ says. Wally, Gus, and GQ stood for fists.
“Did you ever like Miami?” I ask. “Did anyone ever like Miami?”
“Good riddance to Miami when they conference-hopped,” says Gus. “Hated them.”
“So, an entire Big East conference hates Miami,” I say. “Makes sense. Who likes Miami?”
“Donna Shalala.” An uproarious laugh followed that. Everyone in the Two Dozen looked our way. No problem. They should be used to us by now.
“Anyone else?” I ask.
“The commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference,” says Gus.
“That would be John Swofford,” says GQ.
“John Swofford and his bad haircut,” I say. Gus laughs so hard he almost falls from the sofa.
“Bad hair day for the Atlantic ‘Toast’ Conference, man!” Gus yells.
“Trophy wife,” GQ says. “That’s what Miami was to the ACC in 2004.”
“Apt description, GQ,” I say.
“Yeah. Trophy wife gets drunk, sits on the college boy’s lap, and spends all the money on him,” says Gus.
“Trust me,” says GQ. “That’s not good.”
Gus and Wally shoot a hard glance at GQ. “Sorry, dude,” says Wally.
“That’s okay,” GQ says. “But, you know? Too many people read the allegations and, before finishing the second paragraph, screamed ‘Death penalty! Off with their heads!’ That’s because they hate Miami, just as we were talking about, and their initial reactions were to extract flesh in a punitive fashion.”
We pause, and pause again. “I see what you’re getting to,” I finally say.
“Yeah,” Gus says. “We hate Miami, but deep down, we respect them because they can really play the game. And, that’s what counts.”
“Yep, gentlemen, they do put it all on the line on the gridiron,” I say.
“So, let’s be gentlemen, bury the hatchet, and wish Miami well,” Gus says.
“To Miami!” Wally says. “Let them play ball!”
It’s odd, but we apparently mean it. The four of us raise our glasses.
“To excellence in sport!” I say. We drink.
“To the Miami Hurricanes coaches and players!” Gus says. “May the college football guardian angels rest on their shoulder pads!”
“They’re going to need it,” Wally says. “Yeah, buddy.”