We’re celebrating Thanksgiving with a pot-luck family gathering at JT’s Pizza, which is closed for the day. That means we get to watch football on JT’s bank of TVs.

It’s not a bad way to celebrate the classic American holiday. My Dad, my Uncle Tony, and my Aunt Bebe would have loved this. Mom and Grandma Webner, on the other hand, would have hated it.

Wednesday Afternoon Football

Yesterday — which was a Wednesday, in case you’ve lost track of the days of the week — an NFL football game was played. The game kicked off at about 3:40 in the afternoon, and it was technically an NBC “Sunday Night Football” game that was broadcast with all of the “SNF” logos and announcers.

More solid evidence of the craziness of 2020: a “Sunday Night Football” game played on a Wednesday afternoon.

But it gets better. The game had been rescheduled multiple times due to COVID testing and the NFL’s oft-cited coronavirus “protocols.” (“Protocols” is a pretty deft word choice by the NFL, isn’t it? It makes the rules they’ve come up sound very scientific and technical and officially sanctioned.) And the Ravens ended up playing with a bunch of guys who apparently just joined the team this week. It was reminiscent of the NFL strike year, where your team fielded a bunch of previously unknown players wearing the familiar uniforms. Not surprisingly, it was a pretty sloppy game that the Steelers won.

The NFL is getting increasingly weird as the pandemic drags on. There are no non-cardboard fans in the stands, crowd noise is piped in, and you might just be watching a game where one team has to use a running back or wide receiver as a quarterback because all of the quarterbacks have violated the “protocols.” There’s no certainty about whether games will be played as scheduled, or when they might be rescheduled.

In short, we’ve reached the point where the NFL is kind of like a Las Vegas casino: time and calendar days have no real meaning, and anything might be happening at any moment of the day or night. The NFL’s old mantra about how anything could happen on “any given Sunday” is out the window. From here on out, rescheduled games, featuring unknown players, could be played on any day of the week, and at any hour, in a mad rush to get the season completed. You’ll just have to check your local listings and ESPN app to try to stay on top of things.

Is the quality of the football up to what you would want? Who knows? But you have to step back and admire the weirdness of it all.

Patriots And Parity

We’re only a few days away from the Super Bowl, and I haven’t heard anyone talking about the game.  I had lunch a few days ago with four male friends, and literally not one word was spoken about Super Bowl LI.  Donald Trump and his antics were discussed ad nauseum, but football didn’t come up once.

NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England PatriotsIt’s not just because of Trump, of course.  It’s also because nobody is particularly excited about this Super Bowl match-up.  This has to be the least buzzworthy Super Bowl since — well, maybe ever.  Who cares about the Atlanta Falcons, and how many times can a person watch the New England Patriots, anyway?

But let’s pause for a moment to at least give a nod to the Patriots, their grumpy and rumpled head coach Bill Belichick, and their quarterback, Tom Brady.  Since Belichick has become the Patriots’ top dog in 2000, they’ve made the NFL playoffs in all but three years.  They haven’t missed the playoffs since the 2008 season.  And, even more impressive, the Patriots, Belichick, and Brady have made it to six Super Bowls during that run, winning four of them.  That’s why it seems like the Patriots are in every Super Bowl as a matter of federal law.

What’s remarkable about all of this is that the NFL is specifically designed to crush any possibility of the kind of dynasty the Patriots have become.  The NFL seeks parity above all else.  Regular-season schedules are set up so the strong play the strong and the weak play the weak, with the league hoping that everybody ends up with an 8-8 record and fans who are hoping for a playoff spot up until the very last game of the season.  And, of course, after every year players who have done well who have become free agents can go to other teams, and assistant coaches can be hired to be head coaches elsewhere, and the playing and coaching talent gets redistributed.

The Patriots, however, refuse to participate in the NFL’s regime of enforced mediocrity.  They lose players and coaches, but under Belichick and Brady they always fill the holes and just keep rolling along.  In a world where everything conspires against them — thereby feeding Belichick’s innate sense of paranoia — the Patriots somehow rise above and just keep winning.  Their run is as remarkable, in a positive way, as the Browns’ record of consistent and crushing futility is on the negative side.

So we’ve got to tip our cap to the New Englanders.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to actually watch them, again, in this Super Bowl.

The Donald’s Red Card

As the polls continue to indicate that Donald Trump is staying at the top of the Republican field heading into the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the news media and his fellow Republican candidates are taking an even closer look at his biography and personal history.

trump-in-military-schoolBut how do you trip up the Trumpster?  After all, we know he’s a “reality” TV star, his enterprises have had a number of very public bankruptcies, his political positions have flipped and flopped, and he’s been through messy divorces.  We know from his countless public personalities that he’s a blowhard, a mean-spirited and thoughtless cad, an egomaniac, and a know-nothing.  So, how do you trip the guy up?  If stuff that other candidates would desperately want to bury is already well known to the public, and the supporters of Trump just don’t seem to care, where do you turn your opposition research to try to find those explosive negative nuggets to use in your next attack ad and hopefully turn the tide?

Here’s the answer: soccer.  That’s right, soccer.  When Trump went to the New York Military Academy, he actually played soccer.  But it’s even worse than that: according to his yearbook bio, he played varsity soccer in 1963, the year after he played varsity football.  Sure, he’s wrapping himself in the American flag now — even to the point of playing Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. at the start of his rallies — but when push came to shove at the NYMA, he quit the game that celebrates America’s core values of toughness and discipline and changed over to a European sport where players routinely fake injuries to get an advantage.  Sorry, buddy — that’s not the American Way!

Seriously, Mr. Trump?  In the bloom of youth, you quit football to play soccer?  Along with all of Trump’s other flaws, that crucial decision, standing alone, should disqualify him for the Oval Office.

The End Of Football (As We Know It)

Russell has a pretty good eye for a trend.  Recently he was heard to boldly predict that — notwithstanding record ratings and fantasy football websites and huge sales of t-shirts, team jerseys, and hats — the NFL is on the down slope and, ultimately, doomed.

Why?  Injuries, of course.  The players are simply too big, too strong, and moving too fast.  The result is countless players sidelined with concussions, destroyed shoulders, buckled knees, and other year-ending and career-ending injuries — and in the case of concussions, potential future health consequences that are dire, indeed.  Already there is discussion about changing the rules of the game — specifically, to get rid of kickoffs, where players run into each other at full ramming speed — to try to lessen the injury toll.

Russell predicts a ripple effect.  Parents will decide that their kids shouldn’t play football because it’s just too dangerous.  High schools and middle schools will stop offering football because of liability concerns, just as many high schools have forsworn traditional track and field events like the pole vault, the javelin, and the discus because of liability risks.  It will be tougher for colleges to give up football, because it is both a moneymaker and a huge spur to alumni pride and endowment fund donations, but after some horrible injuries and crushing lawsuits take their toll, colleges, too, will begin to drop the game.  And then . . . who will feed the NFL pipeline?  Samoans?  Russians?  Australians?  Kids from poor families who see football as their only chance to get out of a situation of extreme poverty?

And it’s starting already.  CBS News reported today that, in the past five years, the number of kids playing football in high school has dropped by 25,000.  With a few more big-money concussion lawsuits, and a few more high profile injuries and even deaths, the number of schools dropping football will only increase.

I think Russell’s right on this.  I really enjoy watching football, but you simply can’t ignore the fact that, in seemingly every professional game, players are carted off the field or are being given concussion examinations.  The injury impact on college ball isn’t quite as bad, but with the ever-greater emphasis on strength and conditioning and increasing speed more devastating hits, and more resulting injuries, are inevitable.  So what do you do?  Prevent super-big, super-fast guys from playing?  Blame the protective gear that can be weaponized — like plastic helmets — and go back to the leatherhead days?

If you like football, the reality might be:  enjoy it while it lasts.

Xs And Os

There are football fans . . . and then there are football fans.

The casual fans watch the games, read the news coverage, and even pay attention to things like recruiting and spring practice.  The really serious fans do all of that, of course, but do much, much more.  They memorize three-deep depth charts for each position.  They go to high school games to watch kids who have given verbal commitments to their teams.  And, they get heavily into the Xs and Os — the diagrams of plays and that special language that only football coaches, players, and stone-cold football fans can speak.

Over the years, I’ve tried to get into the Xs and Os.  I tried again after Ohio State’s improbable run to the National Championship two months ago.  But I just don’t get it.

Consider this article from the website Eleven Warriors, one of many good websites for Ohio State fans.  It’s about a great topic — how the flexibility of Ohio State’s approach to the running game helped produce the National Championship run.  But once the Xs and Os start flowing, I just can’t follow along.  Consider this sentence from the article:  “Meyer generally uses a bash tag with inside zone.”  Or this one:  “In the first half, the Buckeyes used a form of split zone — a wham block.”

I recognize that those are words from the English language.  I recognize that they have some clear meaning.  Nevertheless, my puny lawyerly brain just can’t grasp it.

For years, football players were depicted as brawny, barely literate apes, strong but hopelessly stupid.  I’m not sure that was ever true, but it certainly is true no longer.  I tip my cap to anyone who not only can understand the Xs and Os, but who can remember them and execute them, too.  And I do the same to any football fans who can follow along.

Browns, Bean Dip, And Beer

IMG_5422Normally if I’m going to drink an alcoholic beverage, I prefer wine, but it just doesn’t go with NFL football — particularly when the Browns are moments away from playing their most important game in years.  So this afternoon it’s cold Yuengling lager, a hearty, grossly unhealthy, and soon-to-be piping hot bean dip that also features hamburger, pork, sour cream, lots of shredded cheese, and salsa, and some nacho chips.

Go Browns!  Beat the Bungles!

Wussifying Football

In the first quarter of today’s Ohio State-Iowa game, an Iowa receiver caught a pass on a crossing pattern and got drilled in the chest by Buckeye defensive back Bradley Roby.  The Iowa receiver, to his credit, held on to the ball.

The officials dropped a flag.  They ended up calling a “targeting” penalty on Roby for what certainly looked to me like a clean, if hard, hit, and then ejected Roby from the game.  The explanation for the penalty is that a receiver who catches the ball is “defenseless” and shouldn’t be drilled.

Huh?  This is, or was, football.  The game is all about hard hits.  I’m not in favor of headhunting, or spearing someone who is on the ground, or clothes-lining a receiver in the neck, but Roby’s hit was a classic football hit — shoulder to chest, trying to jar the ball loose.  The fact that Roby was not only penalized, but in fact ejected from the game, for such a hit tells me that the game is changing, and not for the better.

At last week’s Browns’ game we saw a similar call.  As the Lions were driving for a score to try to put the game away, a Browns player hit the Lions QB in the chest just as the ball was released.  The pass was incomplete, but the Browns were called for an unnecessary roughness penalty, and the game was over.

I’m sure these rules changes are being made, at least in part, in order to protect players and to avoid the concussions that have plagued football at every level.  I also suspect, however, that the motivation, at least in part, is to favor the offense.  In the Ohio State game today, one Iowa running back typically put his head down and used his helmet to try to batter the would-be tacklers.  It’s a time-honored football technique — but why should the offensive player be able to lead with his head when a defensive player can’t?

We may be heading toward a day when every football game is a 52-49 affair and offenses move up and down the field to the delight of offensive-minded fans.  If that happens, it’s too bad — because it’s not really football.  I’m hoping that the officials in charge of devising new penalties avoid wussifying football to the point where the sport isn’t really recognizable any more.

Betting On The Browns

The last time the Cleveland Browns were legitimate contenders for the Super Bowl, UJ and I had season tickets.

IMG_3708We sat in the upper deck of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium during the late ’80s and early ’90s.  We watched as the Denver Broncos and John Elway — may he rot forever in hell — broke our hearts with The Drive, and the next year we watched the great team that eventually fell, again, to Denver thanks to The Fumble.  (It’s all part of the immense burden of failure lugged around by Cleveland sports fans, most recently recounted by this piece in the New York Times.)  It was fun going to the games and great to watch good football, but eventually we gave up our tickets as the Browns jacked up prices and other obligations intervened.

But now Russell will be returning to the Midwest.  He loves the Browns, and from the Cranbrook campus in the suburban Detroit area he’ll be within a reasonable drive from Cleveland.  So, we talked about it during Russell’s Mother’s Day visit, and we decided to pull the trigger.  Once again, I’ll be a season ticket holder, taking in the NFL in all its spectacle and wretched excess with Russell as we watch from our seats in Section 536 of Cleveland Browns Stadium.

I don’t think the Browns will be very good this year, but you never know . . . and sometimes you just have to put your money where your mouth is.  This season, we’re betting on the Browns.

The Perfect Tailgate Food

This morning in America, as the first rays of dawn sweep across the vast and fruited plain, countless college football fans are preparing to tailgate.  Tomorrow, with the NFL season beginning in earnest, professional football fans will engage in the same careful pre-game preparation.  I am here to advise them all that the perfect tailgate food is the Scotch Egg.

Bear with me on this.  A Scotch Egg, for those who have not sampled this awesome culinary masterpiece, consists of a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage, coated in bread crumbs, and deep fried.  Properly prepared, a Scotch Egg looks to the lucky consumer like a ball of meat.  You squirt some mustard on it, take a bite, and your mouth is filled with a hearty, perfectly proportioned mixture of egg, sausage, bread crumbs, and mustard.  It’s like a ball of pure breakfast.  You eat one, and you are properly fortified for the game.  You eat two, and you could sit through the coldest conditions at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and still be warmed to your core.

The real beauty of a Scotch Egg at a tailgate is its portability.  Because — unlike a sandwich, or ribs, or most of the more high-falutin’ tailgate fare — it only requires one hand to consume, it leaves the other hand completely free to hold a frosty adult beverage and lift it repeatedly to your thirsty lips.  Consumption of Scotch Eggs therefore bears a direct cause-and-effect relationship to overall tailgate enjoyment and mounting game readiness.  And the Scotch Egg is environmentally friendly.  It doesn’t require a baggie, or a toothpick, or anything else that would end up as discarded tailgate debris.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the perfect tailgate food — the Scotch Egg.

Worst Trophy Ever

College football features lots of weird trophies that are steeped in tradition, like old oaken buckets and wooden turtles and long axes, among others.  It would be hard to say which of the many trophies is the weirdest or the worst — until now.

A few days ago the Iowa Corn Growers Association unveiled the Cy-Hawk Trophy that will be given to the winner of the annual game between the Iowa State Cyclones and the Iowa Hawkeyes.  (Cyclones and Hawkeyes = Cy-Hawk.  Pretty creative, eh?)  The trophy features a farmer kneeling next to a basket of corn, presenting an ear to a young boy wearing a baseball cap while a woman holding a young child looks on.  What it has to do with sports generally, or football specifically, is anybody’s guess.  The CEO of Iowa Corn says, however, that the trophy represents “the people and characteristics that are uniquely Iowan.”

Perhaps — that is, if Iowans are slow-witted corn cultists.  The farmer seems to be amazed that corn has sprung from the ground and is ready to perform some kind of ritual to celebrate its arrival.  The kid in the baseball cap, the girl, and their Mom, on the other hand, presumably have lived on the farm long enough to have seen an ear of corn before and don’t find it to be a particularly awesome object, no matter what weird old Dad might believe.  Seriously, what kind of bizarre life must these people lead if they are regularly kneeling around the family corn basket?  How many people in Iowa even have a corn basket, anyway?  And what’s with the trophy name?  “Cy-Hawk” sounds like something somebody with a phlegm problem might do to clear their clogged airways.

If you were a football player, would you even want to win this trophy?  Would anyone stand up and make an impassioned Knute Rockne-type speech about the need to win back the treasured Cy-Hawk?  And if your team did prevail, would your school want to prominently display it anywhere that it could be seen by, say, potential recruits who don’t happen to worship the Mighty Corn God?

The Horror Of Vuvuzelas

I was out doing some errands on Saturday and listened to part of the World Cup game between the U.S. and England on the radio.  The broadcast seemed to feature the worst sound quality in the world — until I realized that people were intentionally making the infernal buzzing noise using a horn called a vuvuzela.  The noise made even listening to a radio broadcast intolerable; God knows how horrible it must have been listening to the piercing drone live in the stadium!  Now newspapers are running stories in which World Cup athletes and fans are calling for the horns to be banned.

I found myself wondering what would happen if sports fans brought vuvuzelas to, say, a Cleveland Browns-Pittsburgh Steelers game.  I think it wouldn’t take long before the fans in question were headed to the nearest infirmary for an emergency vuvuzela-removal procedure.  World Cup fans must be pretty tolerant to put up with such a racket; I can’t imagine American football fans doing so.

The World Cup, And Other Yawners

The 2010 World Cup is here.  All over the globe, humans of every race, religion, and creed will watch the unfolding competition in South Africa with the keenest attention, hoping that their favorite can prevail and bring home the most coveted honor in international sport.

So why don’t I give a flying fig?  Obviously, I would like the Americans to do well; I’m as mindlessly nationalistic as any red-blooded American when it comes to competition between the Stars and Stripes and other countries.  But really, the World Cup barely registers on the Webner House interest meter.

Why is this so?  Mainly, it is because soccer is a relentlessly boring spectator sport.  Who wants to watch a bunch of earnest lads sprinting up and down a long field kicking a ball without seemingly accomplishing anything?  Baseball is boring too, of course, but soccer manages to combine the boredom with painfully embarrassing touches.  The players wear shorts and knee socks, for example.  When a goal is actually scored the player takes off his shirt, runs aimlessly, and then falls to his knees like a goal has never happened before.  Even more appalling is that all world-class soccer players practice faking injuries. It is humiliating to even watch these fine athletes squirming on the field like over-tired children, shrieking and blubbering and holding their knee or ankle or head and acting like their limbs are so brittle that a slight bump caused crippling disfigurement.  In Europe or South America cultures might celebrate a guy who is a good injury-faker and can draw an unwarranted penalty; in America we would rather emulate the athlete with the toughness to play through real pain or overcome an actual injury.

So, good luck to the U.S. and the other countries vying for the Cup.  The world will be watching, but don’t expect me to join in.

Why I Can’t Enjoy The Super Bowl

It’s because the Cleveland Browns have never made it.  And it seems like every year the field of futility — that is, the teams that have never made it — gets smaller and smaller.  This year, the New Orleans Saints get off the schneid, and the Browns are left behind again.

I remember the first Super Bowl.  I lived in Akron and was 10 years old, for God’s sake!  The Beacon Journal had special story about the game and Len Dawson and Mike Garrett, the Kansas City Chiefs star players.  At that time, people wondered whether the Super Bowl would even be played again — much less that it would become an enormous media event that would draw huge TV audiences and generate massive ad revenue.

Every year, when the Super Bowl rolls around and the Browns aren’t in it, the sharp-edged Roman numerals are like a knife to the ribs.  I think of how the Browns lost to the Vikings and the Colts in back-to-back NFL championship games in the late ’60s, of how Brian Sipe threw the Red Right 88 interception on a cold day at Municipal Stadium, and particularly of how John Elway and the Broncos gouged the heart out of the Cleveland faithful in the back-to-back championship games that will forever be recalled simply as The Drive and The Fumble.

I hope the Colts win today, because I have good friends who are Colts fans.  Mostly, though, I hope that next year the Browns will somehow, some way, make it to the Super Bowl, and the shame and ignominy of the franchise’s (virtually) singular failure will end.

Long Overdue

Neal Colzie

Neal Colzie

The Ohio State University Men’s Varsity O Alumni Association recently announced that Neal Colzie will finally be inducted into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame.  I’m amazed that Colzie, a legendary defensive back and kick returner, wasn’t named to the Hall of Fame years ago.

Colzie was one of the most memorable players on the great Ohio State football teams of the early 1970s.  He was fast, a powerful hitter and sure tackler, had great hands, and was a shifty, elusive runner who was tough to catch and bring down on a kick return or after an interception.  He made many big plays on a team filled with big-time players.  More important to me, as an impressionable teenager at the time, he clearly was one of the coolest guys on the team.  He looked cool, walked cool, acted cool, dressed cool, and — and this was not easy to do — was even cool when he appeared on The Woody Hayes Show.  Anyone who ever watched that show remembers the awkward staging and pregnant pauses as Coach Hayes brought on some fidgeting players and “interviewed” them.  Woody would ask them some softball questions about the game and then try to coax the right answers from some enormous, ill-at-ease, tongue-tied offensive lineman.  I remember Colzie having a bemused expression whenever he was on the show, as if he was enjoying the spectacle as much as anybody else.

I searched high and low for a better photo of Neal Colzie than the picture at left, but was unsuccessful.  He deserves a better picture, and he deserves to be included in the OSU Athletic Hall of Fame.