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One Time, at Football Camp

by Mark Synder

I imagine it almost impossible to hear or read the word professional without it conjuring a mental image. For some, that image is black and white and represents the difference between being paid or not being paid to perform ones craft. For others the image is nebulous and hard to describe because it is painted in broad strokes under the influence of ethics and mortality. The last group, the one I really want to dive in to here, would likely say that being a professional can no more be represented by a stick figure drawn by Picasso himself than it can Websters dictionary. That such a word requires the the integration of spirit and letter simultaneously manifested in action. As a card carrying member of the last group I can not hear the word professional and not think football. Come to think of it, I can not hear a lot of things and not think football, but that is beside the point.

The growing problem with my personal definition of professional,in particular how it relate to football, is that it is dated. I still think Rocky Bliar, Franco Harris, Lyn Swan, Jack Lambert, Joe Montana, Roger Craig and most of all, Mike Singletary. Only a few names on that list would be considered gifted athletes among their peers. But all of them, singularly and collectively, are the word professional. They are men that I can easily see carrying one of those banged up black steel lunch boxes to work every day. Sitting on the tailgate of their truck,eating bologna sandwiches and whistling at girls. Can you see it?

So then, if I were to ask you to pause for a moment and name for me the first professional running back that comes to mind, who would you say? I’ll wait (insert Jeopardy music here). Would his list of accomplishments and career stats look something like this? Leading rusher and most touch downs in his high schools history. In college, he ended his career with eight conference and fifteen team records including all-time leading rusher, conference and school records for single season rushing and single season all-purpose offense. Conference record for 200 yard games and fourth all time in the conference for rushing. Consensus first-team All-American.

Then came the NFL.

In twelve years our mystery running back has been to the pro bowl, voted all pro twice, been conference rushing champion, a member of the 10,000 yard club, has averaged 4.0 yards per carry and tallied 68 touchdowns while playing for five different teams. Read that last part again, “five different teams'”.

So about the running back I ask you to think of; how many years in the NFL? How was he in high school and college? What awards does he hold?  Did his mom work the graveyard shift in a coal mine just so he and his six siblings could eat?  Do you care about the road the road he traveled to get to the NFL or does the depth of your interest stop at his position on the depth chart?

I will not chastise you for not knowing because I believe the majority of fans wouldn’t. It is not, in my opinion, disinterest, a lack of information or any other stereotype that gets applied to folks who do not have a deep interest in the history of the sport and its’ players. Rather, I believe it is that success in the NFL has become about what have you done lately. No one cares about the perennial back that grinds out 4 yards per carry over the past decade because there is not a fantasy stat for that. More disturbing is that a player did not even have to do anything to make bigger money than the wily old veteran I have been using in my example. Just hire a good agent, leave college in your JR year, and prepare to make millions.

It was not until recently that the NFL and NFLPA tried to right this ship a bit with limiting rookie salaries. This was a huge step in recognizing the men that have proved they can not only play, but succeed at the highest level of football. So what then does this say of our back who has been passed around to five different teams in twelve years? You might think that my “mystery running back” has had decreased production in recent years resulting in him becoming the hot potato. Wrong, his production has actually steadily increased over the years.  Maybe you think he had problems off the field, nope. Wanted too much money and held out. Nope and nope.

As far as I can tell this running back committed no crime except lacking the flash that would normally accompany being selected 5th overall in the draft. In other words,for whatever the reason, he failed to produce as expected and as such fell in to relative obscurity .He is the anti Larry Johnson if you will. A guy with all the talent in the world who came in and took the league by the short curly’s.  That is until he imploded under his own ego. By way of comparison, our mystery running back is still going. And at the time of writing this article, may have just became the starting running back on his team. God’s truth, this story of hard work triumphing over flash and popularity holds a special place in my heart.

I remember my first year of organized football in junior high school. I was not the popular kid, but I was six foot tall and could run a 4.7 forty. The coaches unanimously placed me as first team starting TE over a much more popular, and far more handsome, kid named Shane. Just after the coach pulled me in to the first team huddle, I was taunted by my own team mates who desperately wanted their friend to start.  Right then and there the coach did something really unexpected. He took the starting QB,  the other TE Shane and me and put us in the pit. We played for 15 minutes taking turns blocking for the QB and trying to tackle the QB. Good fun really. Anywho, on my very first attempt I was around Shane before he was even out of his stance and hit the QB so hard that he lost a shoe, his helmet and the air in his lungs. And then we lined up and I hit him again, and again, and again. We then switched positions and on the very first play I drove Shane backward faster than the QB was running forward. Toward the end, the QB actually started running at Shane to help him.

The next day we played a scrimmage and guess who the first TE was picked, Shane. The coach flat went off. I cried behind my helmet. What the hell did I have to do? I got picked by the second string QB (who later ended up going to officers candidate school in the Marines Corps with me) and he saw it immediately that I was upset. He was a year younger, but had leadership beyond his years.  He pulled me aside and said, look both you and I know who is the better blocker, receiver and QB out here and we are going to kill them today. George was right, I had 4 touchdowns and 9 receptions that day and we did, in fact “kill them”.

It was a huge deal for me to see my name on the depth chart as a starter. Cool because I got to pick my number first, so I took the number I knew Shane wanted, and I got to run out with the rest of the team at the pep rally. Or at least I thought it would be cool. You see, as I ran out on to the gym floor I got booed by Shane and his friends which seemed to number in to the hundreds. Unbelievable. What the heck. I was the first one to practice, the last to leave. It was junior high and I was already watching film. I stayed late to work with the receiver coaches every Friday because I wanted to prove I belonged there. And no one cared because I was not who they thought the starter should have been.

Perhaps this is where I got my attitude that being flashy and good at just the right time wins the love of the masses.  It is not unreasonable nor unlikely to believe that this experience shaped me at my very foundation. But if it was just me, and not the perception of the majority, both I and Thomas Jones of the Chiefs would have been a lot more appreciated.

You can talk about the changing roll of the NFL running back, it is a valid argument. Just recently a friend of mine said the run is now just a tool to set up the pass. I took this to mean that there will never be another John Riggins, Emmit Smith and Barry Sanders who carried the ball twenty times a game. Perhaps I should stop looking so negatively on this and respect the players that are able to make the absolute most out of the ten touches they get a game. Stop thinking of them as flashes in the pan, and respect them as lighting in a bottle just waiting to be uncorked.  I should just be okay with the fact that running backs do not need to be as their predecessors once were, they just need to be as good as they were once every game. Have that one big moment at just the right time and they win the money, the girl and car.

Those of us firmly planted in the last group are left wanting, bitter and feeling old. We become like our fathers and grand fathers when we watch football starting every other sentence with “when I was young”. We are left watching games filled with players that we do not know. There are first down backs, third down specialists and red zone backs. But wait, now the red zone is not the twenty yard line any more it is the thirty and you will more than likely see a pass. The “new” NFL. Good God.

It hardly takes a minute of me watching a game to start hearing the the voice of Howard in my head. The images on my HDTV fade behind the images of the ghosts of games gone by, Men that played the game for the game because there was no money. Men that gave their jerseys to little kids for a bottle of coke. Real men. Real professionals.

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