What's in a name? These days it's the poetic beauty of the NFL
Having robbed baseball of its audience, lunch money and mojo, the NFL has taken something far more subtle but every bit as valuable in recent years: baseball's status as our foremost repository of unbelievable names. For more than a century, baseball rosters read like the Venusian White Pages -- Razor Shines, Rusty Kuntz and Creepy Crespi; Sterling Hitchcock, Champ Summers and Van Lingle Mungo -- while football lit only the occasional rocket of Alge Crumpler or Hannibal Navies.
And while it's true that current Chargers linebacker Travis LaBoy is not now, and will never be, former Expos' third baseman Coco LaBoy, the ratio has recently reversed: Baseball now throws out only the odd superlative name (pitcher Grant Balfour) while the NFL is so awash with mellifluous handles that it recently turned away Stylez G. White, Macho Harris, Peanut Joseph and the insuperable Selvish Capers.
All were cut this fall, as was Houston linebacker Steven Friday, who will never lock horns with Jeff Saturday on a Sunday, ending my dream of a three-day weekend within a single play from scrimmage.
It's not fantasy football or shifting demographics that make the NFL the undisputed champ -- Champ Bailey? -- of our national psyche. It is the magnificent names issuing from our TV sets every Sunday, when we live in eternal hope that Pats d-back Antwaun Molden will have to cover Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin.
Football names are an incantation. Gronkowski, Gradkowski, Gostkowski. Maualuga, Kiwanuka, Vakapuna. Da'Quan, D'Qwell, D'Brickashaw -- like the conjugation of some Latin football verb.
I have never seen the names of brothers Jordan and Jonathan Babineaux -- of the Titans and Falcons respectively -- rendered in plural in print. I imagine they are, collectively, the Babineauxes, a construction that evokes, in my mind, Porky Pig singing "Let's Rub Noses, Like the Babineauxes."
But then the best football names put a picture in your head. Frostee Rucker is an ice cream truck at a playground. I see him and hear calliope music over the percussive bouncing of basketballs. Colt McCoy is a pearl-handled pistol. The law firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis advertises on late-night TV. (I can picture its brass-nameplate logo, and 800-number, backed by a wall of law books.)
Olindo Mare is the seafood special in a fancy restaurant, served up on a silver tray by the impeccable Pierre Garcon. The name of that restaurant is Vladimir Ducasse. Why hasn't the Jets lineman opened a Russo-Franco eatery, a borscht-and-Bordeaux joint, near UN headquarters on First Avenue?
While Nnamdi Asomugha and Ndamukong Suh are household names, renowned for their play, we forget that those same names are full of music. Brodrick Bunkley, Mewelde Moore, Bubba Bartlett, DeMarcus Van Dyke and Deuce Lutui all sing, as does Elvis Dumervil, for reasons having nothing to do with Elvis Presley. It is not possible to hear the name of Broncos linebacker Derek Domino without also hearing -- at the same time, and for obvious reasons -- Eric Clapton's guitar riff from "Layla."
Names can command respect by themselves. Take Prince Amukamara, or Mister Alexander. Captain Munnerlyn was named captain at birth, by his grandmother, long before he made it to the Carolina Panthers, where his name could some day become his job description. "It fits my personality," he once said, "because I feel like a leader." This is the phenomenon known as nominative determinism, in which your name becomes your destiny, as was the case with Cardinal Sin (archbishop of Manila) and Les Plack (San Francisco dentist) and Sue Yoo (New York attorney).
It is possible, on the principles of nominative determinism, that the Titans cut Riar Geer this summer when the tight end could not follow orders to get his rear in gear. But I will concede it is unlikely.
Has there been a more fitting name in sports than Scott Fujita, a linebacker whose surname conjures the scale that measures a tornado's intensity? It would delight me if quarterback Hunter Cantwell lined up behind center Rex Hadnot, as their names are sheepish answers to an angry coach's film-session questions: "Who here can play well?" ("Hunter Cantwell") and "Who here had a good game?" ("Rex Hadnot").
All these names are stuck in my head, like a song on the radio. They will be all season. This Sunday after church (Barry Church of the Cowboys), knees racked from kneeling (Neil Rackers), I'll bear witness (Bear Pascoe) to the awesome alliteration of Adrian Awasom, and the rest of the epic poem that is the NFL with the sound up and the picture off.
Speaking of which, the shortest poem ever written is "Amara Kamara." He was, alas, cut by the Chiefs in training camp.