SEATTLE -- Today we have a little bit on the labor-thawing NFL front, as well as the annual Father's Day book list (with an offbeat sports bio I cannot recommend highly enough), a tribute to one of the giants of the sportswriting business you may not know, how one team's prepping for the resumption of football (let us pray), some encouraging news about helmet technology, and a death in the 49er family that means half of one of the great backfields in history is gone.
First, a tremendous moment Saturday night in the U2 show at Qwest Field, 10 songs in. Great atmosphere for a concert; imagine looking up a half-hour into the show, 9:35 p.m., and seeing a sky not yet dark, with the late sunset, and 60,000 or so singing along with
"Imagine a man looking down on us from 200 miles up,'' said Bono, the leader of U2. "Looking down at our beautiful, crowded planet. What would he say to us? What's on your mind, commander Kelly?''
"Hello, Seattle,'' said Kelly, the crowd going wild. This was something he obviously taped before landing back on earth last Wednesday. "I'm looking forward to coming home. Tell my wife I love her very much. She knows.''
I've seen my share of cool concert moments -- beginning with Billie Jean King walking onstage in Foxboro on the Bicentennial to sing
The GM of the Seahawks, John Schneider, was in the house celebrating his 40th birthday with his brother, Bill, and wife Traci and friends, and they thought the same thing. "Blown away,'' Schneider said. "I love seeing people use their stage to do great works like that. It gave us chills.''
My hope is that both sides return to their secret lair and continue the bargaining that was begun last week in Chicago. It's a great idea. It's also an idea that needs to stay underground. There's a reason a gag order is a good idea sometimes. It prevents angry people from spoiling a chance at real momentum. There was no need, for instance, for the league's attorney, Paul Clement, to say Friday after the hearing in St. Louis that continued negotiations mean the union's decertification is a sham.
"How does that build any kind of trust?'' asked a players association spokesman. "Their lawyers risks crippling the process with remarks like that.''
Whether Clement speaks the truth is one matter; the point is, when the two sides are getting somewhere, why lob a grenade?
When I got on the Pro Football Hall of Fame voting committee nearly two decades ago, he was one of the first in the room to come up to me -- not I to him -- and say, "You'll be great at this. You've got a conscience. If there's anything I can do to help, you've got my number.'' McEwen had the power of a Will McDonough, only local. People in Tampa, and NFL people everywhere, will miss him.
Two interesting things: An app for the iPhone and Android phones has been introduced to help non-medical people monitor head injuries when a medical professional isn't present (the Concussion Recognition and Response app, $3.99). "It allows people on the scene to witness what may be a head injury and walk them through a cursory exam of the athlete,'' said one of the app's developers, assistant professor Jason Mihalik of UNC.
Meanwhile, a Virginia Tech professor who has studied the efficacy of all helmets said he thinks the proper helmets and continued NFL vigilance of helmet-to-helmet hits could result in a 50-percent decrease in severe head injuries. "You can make a dramatic reduction in head injuries,'' Dr. Stefan Duma told me. "There's no doubt in my mind. If players wear the proper helmets, it would reduce the risk of concussions by a half.''
There's the rub, though -- forcing NFL players used to wearing a comfortable helmet to wear one with the most advanced technology. "We should look more aggressively at switching older helmets for the newer ones,'' Duma said. "It's pretty hard to defend not doing it. Let's face it: These players aren't driving Ford Pintos anymore. They shouldn't be wearing old helmets.''
Finally, we agree on something, me and the 415 players who voted for NFL Network's top 100 players: Brian Urlacher is the 49th-best player in football. We've had our share of disagreements as they've counted down from 100 to 41 so far (50 through 41 aired last night on NFL Network), and this week is no exception.
How is Ben Roethlisberger the 41st-best player in football, unless his peers docked him some for his off-field misdeeds? He's won two Super Bowls, he's 29, has a big arm and ... well, there's no justification for having him 41st, in my opinion. But the lists go on. I may have Mike Wallace higher than you'd figure. The same goes for Justin Smith, who has been reborn in San Francisco after being mostly invisible in Cincinnati. Watch out for Wallace. With so much speed (Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown) in Pittsburgh's four-wide formations, you can bet Wallace is going to see less safety help over the next couple of years when Roethlisberger throws deep.
It's come to my attention that America doesn't read anymore. I know I certainly fall within that category. For that reason, I'm expanding the book recommendations of the past few Father's Days to a beefier list with longer explanations why I recommend them. My hope is you don't get Dad a tie, or another golf app for his iPhone. Get him a book. Let's get some reading done. Here goes:
This is the best piece of nonfiction I've read in a while. (Sorry; the Stieg Larsson trilogy is still the best in any genre.)
Many of you have heard of Fischer but don't know his story. At 13, and into his later teens, he was winning international matches against chessmasters the world over. I was 15 when a strange mega-event happened -- a chess championship between the two best in the world at the time, Fisher from Brooklyn and Boris Spassky from the Soviet Union. The attention it got was incredible. Richard Nixon talked about it often, Henry Kissinger called Fischer. Magazine covers. For chess.
But Fischer was the kind of guy you couldn't make a fair deal with. Because if you offered it, in his mind, you were screwing him and getting the better of the deal. Consider the arrangements for the championship, held in Iceland. It would offer the biggest purse in chess history -- $78,125 to the winner, $46,875 to the loser. Amazing. The winner would make in a month almost what the best baseball player in America, Johnny Bench, made in a full season. (Bench made $80,000 in 1972.)
But that wasn't enough for Fischer. The deal for the match was made, and then Fischer said he wanted 30 percent of the gate as well. The wrangling brought the match to the brink of cancellation, until a British millionaire said he'd give Fischer an additional $125,000 to play the match. He agreed. But he still couldn't accept the deal and live by the sportsmanship terms of the international chess community. To protest that he still wasn't getting what he felt was fair, Fischer didn't attend the pre-match draw. And even though he knew the match would be televised, he found the cameras intrusive and went on strike during the competition until all cameras were removed.
Weird man. Very weird.
Yet like so many young and great athletes, his brilliance made everyone kowtow to him, and Brady's excruciating detail reels you in from the first page to the last. Fischer turned down $5 million to play the next Russian champ, Anatoly Karpov, in Zaire after the Ali-Foreman fight there ... because it was less, he said, than Muhammad Ali got.
Brady takes us down the long, ruinous path of Fischer, to Skid Row in Los Angeles, to his hatred of Jews, to his hatred of America. An incredible story. After the Twin Towers were destroyed on Sept. 11, Fischer told a radio interviewer, "This is a wonderful day. [Expletive] the United States. Cry, you crybabies! Now your time is coming.''
I wouldn't exactly call
Most riveting to me was how Axelrod had to be slapped in the face a few times to understand his priorities were badly misplaced. We've all been there. We've all had to make choices about family and work. I've regretted some of my choices; we all have. Not that working a 60-hour week isn't important in many weeks of your life. But Axelrod got on the treadmill of work and never got off until it was very nearly too late.
What Axelrod does best in the book is to get slapped around, exposing a side no one would want to show. Like the time CBS institution Bob Schieffer was getting set to retire, and there appeared to be an opening on
In the prime of your career, you're told the prime of your career ain't good enough. But the home run Axelrod hits is in these 11 words deep into the book, and deep into his career, about coming to the realization that he was killing his own family: "I was lucky. Before I did any irreparable harm, I failed.''
Good read, and some very good lessons.
A note about football books. There are a couple of them I recommend very highly. Both have been out since late 2010. Please read
Layden extols the virtues of Don Coryell as perhaps the most influential coach in pro football history, because it's he who was most influential in installing the downfield passing game we see everywhere today. And I hear Layden when he says, "Coaches and athletes like talking about their jobs more than their lives, and we probably don't ask them enough about their jobs and too much about their lives.'' When you ask about their jobs, you're liable to get 45 minutes with Bill Belichick discussing the Single Wing offense.
Similarly, you'll get educated, though not lectured to, by
"I think Rex has expanded the scope of the 46 in ways his father could not have envisioned. Rex will take a linebacker from one side of the field and move him to cover a wide receiver and rotated his down linemen in unconventional ways, with coverage concepts I've never seen before. Rex is vigorously responding to the many new looks he sees from offenses, figuring that he needs to be aggressive in order to stay ahead. In that respect, he's a chip off the old block. Mike Singletary has noticed the resemblance, saying, 'It's obvious Rex is carrying on his father's legacy. He's so much like Buddy, it's frightening.' ''
As Jaworski concludes, Buddy Ryan, and now his son, so well understood how the game was headed toward an aerial showcase. Buddy was ahead of everyone in creating schemes to stay ahead of the smart offensive guys.
I haven't read
And a few notes about baseball books. I'm a big fan of those too. I really liked
The Rays valued defense more than most teams. They began talking with Evan Longoria about a half-a-lifetime contract when he was still in the minor leagues, and what resulted was a nine-year deal worth up to $48 million, which today looks like an incredible bargain. Could it have backfired? Certainly, if Longoria stunk the place up. But if the Rays did nothing, Longoria surely would be gone when he could first test free agency.
Very smart book, and well set up with history about how incompetent the franchise was for years. I'm not smart enough to see how it translates to other businesses, but there have to be some allegories about how Alamo competes with Hertz, etc.
Some of Foer's journey into memory is a bit too academic. Most readers will want to get to the techniques -- the how-to part -- which is ultimately too brief. Most interesting was Foer's discussion of overcoming plateaus in learning what separates amateurs from professionals and good athletes from elite athletes. He says people plateau at a level of competence and don't go beyond that unless they're willing to do the tedious work to improve the things they don't do well. He writes of his father, an average golfer who loves the game but never improves ... because he doesn't work at the weak points of his game over and over.
The author tells us early on that he routinely forgets where his car keys are or why he opened the refrigerator door, and describes his memory as "average at best." Foer asks one international champion to teach him to be a memory athlete, and Foer makes it to the U.S. Championship. I won't spoil the outcome for you. But be forewarned: Memory training, especially competitive training, is tedious, exhausting work and it could very well be humiliating too.
Dodd was a history professor called on by President Roosevelt, after others turned him down, to be the German Ambassador. Dodd was surprised by the harsh militarism and covert brutality he encountered in Berlin when he and his family arrived in 1933 and believed that Hitler would likely not survive as Chancellor for very long. He was restrained in his criticism of the Nazi regime by a State Department in Washington more concerned with Germany's ability to repay American banks its enormous debt than with Hitler's anti-Semitic campaign.
The book shows the disconcerting ability of humans to look away from evils displayed right before their eyes. And it is ultimately about a man who draws on moral courage in the face of all those in denial about Hitler around him. "In the end," Larson writes, "Dodd proved to be exactly what Roosevelt had wanted, a lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness."
I'd intended to get to Albert Brooks' new book,
"I always felt like you really do a better job with less time than more time because when you have less time you focus immediately on what's of the utmost importance. Whereas when you have a lot of time to deliberate as to what to do, a lot of times you kind of get off on little tangents.''
Parcells on his coaching future, by the way: "It's a young man's game. It's for someone else now.''
"There are thousands of people who were impacted by this great man and we'll all carry pieces of him for years to come.''
Ditto ... and I wasn't particularly close to him. But I saw it on every trip to Tampa over the years.
"If I had known in the late seventies it was okay to pig out on human flesh, I would have eaten Guy LaFleur.''
Sad to hear of the passing of Hall of Fame running back John Henry Johnson of the 49ers, Lions and Steelers on Friday, jut six weeks after the death of his friend and former San Francisco teammate Joe "The Jet'' Perry. It's not often that two Hall of Famers come from the same backfield. But what about four? The 49ers, from 1954 to 1956, had quarterback Y.A. Tittle and three backs -- Johnson, Perry and Hugh McElhenny -- all playing in tandem. Amazingly, the Niners in those seasons were a composite 16-18-2.
Anyway, the accomplishments of Johnson and Perry got me thinking about how fleeting statistical marks have been in NFL history. Let's draw a line of demarcation in 1966 and call that the midpoint of NFL history, for purposes of this argument. That was the NFL's 47th season; 2011 will be the 45th season since then. Johnson's last pro football season was 1966, with Houston. (Even though the Oilers were an American Football League team, AFL stats were incorporated into the NFL when the two leagues merged in 1970.) When Johnson retired after the '66 season, he was the fourth-leading rusher in pro football history. How times have changed in statland since. The top five rushers in history after 47 years, and where they rank on the all-time list of rushers today:
1. The game and length of season have changed drastically. In the three years this backfield was intact in San Francisco, the season was 12 games long. Now it's 16. It might be 18 someday soon.
2. There were 12 teams in pro football in 1955. Now there are 32, and for much of the '70s through '90s, most teams believed in the running back-as-workhorse. Not so in the '50s. Johnson played 13 years. He carried 200 times just three times in those 13 seasons.
3. Eight backs carried at least 10 times for the Niners in 1955. San Francisco had 408 rushes. Perry was the only back with more than 100 (he had 156). So huge stat lines were pretty foreign in those days with the Niners ... and with quite a few other teams who spread the running load.
Woman at Starbucks in downtown Seattle, across from the big Westin, gave me the real meaning of multi-tasking Saturday. She cradled her cell phone to her right ear with a scrunched-up right shoulder, engaging in an animated conversation. At the same time, she cradled her iPad in her left hand, using her left thumb to access icons and letters on the screen.
Well, you say ... why wasn't she using her right hand to either hold the phone to her ear or type on the wafer of a computer screen? Because she was holding the coffee she'd just picked up from the barista at the counter in the right hand.
And she was walking. As she got to the front door of the place to leave, no one was walking in or walking out, so no one could get the door for her. She'd have to do this on her own. Deftly, she turned and backed into the door, pushing it open with her rump, and then walked up the street, never breaking stride. At the corner, when she stopped for the DON'T WALK sign (they are serious about not jaywalking in Seattle), she managed to get a sip of coffee.
Checking email, talking on the phone, walking briskly, drinking coffee, simultaneously. Wonder what she does in her spare time.
"Losing I believe.''
a. You forget how far from everything Seattle is until you spend most of a day getting here. How did those people on wagon trains do it?
b. Way to go,
d. Spain 4, U.S. 0. Now that wasn't very friendly.
e. Vancouver up 2-zip in the Stanley Cup Finals. Can't see the Bruins winning four out of five unless Tim Thomas stands it on his head.
f. Adrian Gonzalez can't be hotter at the plate or cooler in his approach.
g. Good to see Peter Gammons get exercised about the umpires. Too imperious. Best thing that happened to umps is Jim Joyce being shown as human instead of pompous after blowing the perfect game with the bad call at first a year ago.
h. The home court means nothing in Heat-Mavs.
i. Dirk Nowitzki's no Larry Bird, but he can play in his league any day.
j. Coffeenerdness: It's not rushed, which is part of the positive experience at Fonte' Micro Coffee Roaster on First Avenue in Seattle, a mile downtown from the ballparks. And if you get a latte with an extra shot of espresso, as I did over the weekend, be prepared for the hair on your neck to stand up. Excellent latte, as strong a drink as I've had in a while.
k. Beernerdness: Two memorable ones from a quick, surprisingly sunny and warm weekend in Seattle: Pyramid Hefeweizen (with a lemon), a smooth and delicious wheat beer that's always one of my favorites on a trip to the Northwest; and Maritime Pacific Islander Pale Ale, a citrusy draft at Safeco the other night.
l. I don't know why more teams don't do what the Mariners and Seahawks do, which is essentially make the ballpark a brewpub with all kinds of local brews. I know these teams get a lot of money from the big breweries to feature the standards, but Safeco's got to have 20 varieties of beer. Heavenly for a beer guy.