On Friday afternoon, Bay Area native Jack Del Rio cautiously mentioned that he has NBA Finals tickets for Game 5 of Warriors-Cavaliers. Of course, at that point in time, with the Warriors still undefeated in the NBA playoffs and fresh off a convincing Game 1 win (they’re now up 2-0 after Sunday night’s Game 2 victory), the obvious response was: If there even is a Game 5…
Del Rio wasn’t having that. “I’m not getting ahead of things,” he said firmly. He was talking about the Warriors, but he could have been talking about his own team.
In the annual offseason riddle—which AFC team can challenge the Patriots?—the Raiders are an overwhelmingly popular pick this year. They were for much of last season, too, until the moment quarterback Derek Carr fractured his right fibula on Christmas Eve. They have an explosive offense that can keep pace with anyone; the reigning Defensive Player of The Year, Khalil Mack; and the offseason addition of Marshawn Lynch, a physical presence that diversifies their offense.
For the first time in a decade and a half, the Raiders are entering the season as a contender. That’s why, while filling in for vacationing boss Peter King during this quiet early-summer week in the NFL, I thought we’d start out in Oakland with one of the hottest teams of the moment. But Del Rio is, yes, not getting ahead of things.
Case in point: On Friday, the day of their sixth OTA practice this spring, the Raiders head coach spent time talking to the team about what a winning mindset is. Invest time in your relationships; don’t take anything for granted; the habits you create now will allow you to play well when the season comes.
“We have so much to do and so far to go and so much work ahead of us,” Del Rio says, “that we can’t really worry about anything like expectations or how good we can be or thoughts about where we are going to play.”
That’s the other thing making this season unique for the Raiders. The future Las Vegas Raiders will continue to play in the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum as Bay Area lame ducks for at least two years—though season tickets for 2017 nonetheless sold out, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last week. Their new home in Vegas is scheduled to open in 2020, and where they’ll play in 2019 is anyone’s guess (they only have stadium lease options in Oakland for 2017 and 2018). Del Rio says he’s addressed the pending move with his veterans exactly once, at the start of the offseason program. And he’ll address it once more, for the rookies. After that, he says, there’s nothing else to talk about.
“It’s really easy for me,” Del Rio says. “I grew up about 10, 12 miles from here, so it’s not hard for me to stand up in front of the team and say: These are my people, these are my family and friends, and I’m telling you what I need. We are going to give our very best to where we are, and that’s where we are here and now, and not worry about things in the future.”
“You are talking about three years from now,” he continues. “It really serves no purpose to talk about something that’s going to happen in three years when you are talking about an NFL team. That’s the message, and every time I get asked about it, it’s the same message. We are here, and we are going to focus on the here and now. We are all about returning ourselves to greatness and committing to the things that need to happen to make that happen.”
Del Rio took the Raiders job in 2015 asking owner Mark Davis for upgrades to everything, from the roster to the facilities. That’s continuing, even if the team won’t be in these facilities for that much longer. On this year’s to-do list, Del Rio says, are adding a rehab pool to help players with their recovery as well as an on-site kitchen (unlike most teams, all the food at the Raiders’ facility is currently brought in from outside). “Those are a few of the things I’m working on right now,” he says, “to let our guys know we are going to continue to invest in them here and now, and do great things while we are here.”
The goal for Del Rio’s first season in Oakland was to teach the team to compete for a full 60 minutes. In his second season, the Raiders took a big step forward in navigating the late-game situations necessary to win games in the NFL. (Carr led seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in 2016.) The challenge for this season is to build on the success of last year’s 12-4 regular season and a return to the playoffs after a 13-year drought.
But as fun as that ride was for the Raiders, everything stopped the second Carr fell to the turf and mouthed the words, “It’s broken.” Asked at the combine if there is a takeaway from how last season ended—the Raiders didn’t win another game after losing Carr—Del Rio quipped, “Yeah, don’t lose your quarterback.” One-liners aside, the idea of building a team that’s stronger all-around has been the focus this spring.
“It’s easier said than done,” Del Rio says. “But when Tom Brady was out for the first four games last year, New England still won three of those games. So, they did a pretty solid job of carrying on. That’s a great example of a team executing that.”
The addition of Lynch certainly adds an extra dimension on offense to balance out the Raiders’ explosive passing game. But Del Rio, the former NFL linebacker who worked his way up through the coaching ranks on the defensive side, takes most personally the performance of the defense. The Raiders have one of the NFL’s most exciting young defenders in Mack, but they ranked in the bottom half of the league in points allowed and gave up the seventh-most yards per game last season. The breakdowns in the secondary were impossible to miss, as the Raiders gave up 61 pass plays of 20 yards or greater, more than any other team in the league.
Del Rio was blunt about what the biggest change from 2017 needs to be: “We need to get our defensive play up to the level our offense is operating.” To that end, the Raiders added former Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano as an assistant head coach, and used six of their nine draft picks on defense. Del Rio also said they “tightened up” their system, to guard against some of the simple communication breakdowns that happened last season on the field and help the players better understand the “why” of what they are doing.
Del Rio is making sure his team isn’t looking too far into the future, but he also isn’t looking too far the past. The injury Carr sustained last season was, as far as NFL injuries go, a relatively simple one. The bone is healed, and Carr was ready to be a full participant in the team’s offseason program a few months later. But what about the psychological side? Does the sudden end to the Raiders’ Super Bowl aspirations last season, and the disappointment that followed, still linger?
“No,” Del Rio said decisively. “I don’t think about it a lot.”
His mind wandered back to Christmas Eve once this spring, when NFL officials visited the Raiders facility as part of their annual rounds to go over rules and calls from the previous season. One of the plays Del Rio disputed was the intentional grounding call against the Colts one series before Carr was injured, a flag Ed Hochuli’s crew threw on a passing play when Seth Roberts ran the wrong route and Carr’s pass hit the turf in the end zone where the young receiver was supposed to have been. The play could have been a TD if completed, but after the penalty the Raiders were pushed out of field-goal range, and Carr returned on the next possession to find himself in a long-yardage situation … and well, you know how the rest of the story goes.
“That’s the only thing that brought me back to even thinking about it,” Del Rio says of the officials’ meeting. “Last year is behind us, we learn the lessons from last year, and we’re looking forward to being stronger this year.”
In the meantime, he’ll take a seat at Oracle Arena, if there is that Game 5. He’s a lifelong Warriors fan not afraid to, um, mix it up on Twitter as a true loyalist. He’s also a Bay Area kid watching the local team enjoy the kind of success he’d like to deliver with his own team. The clock is ticking, but in the NFL, when is it not?
“The Warriors play with great energy; they come out and they have fun; they express themselves,” Del Rio says. “They share the ball with each other as well as any team in basketball, and we want to share and be a team that’s willing to sacrifice and do whatever it takes as a team. I’d like to think there are some similarities there. But obviously, they are doing it at the highest level in their league.”
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A Growing Giant
Friday night, in Pomona, N.Y., was quite the Giant scene. At a minor league ballpark, a few dozen of the biggest stars from the Giants’ Super Bowl 42 and 46 teams—guys like Brandon Jacobs, Plaxico Burress, Antonio Pierce—gathered for a softball game against a roster of current Giants players. The Landon Collins Celebrity Softball Game drew around 3,000 fans and raised $30,000 for the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund, the beloved charity of the former Giants head coach that helps families of childhood cancer patients. (Kudos to well-known Giants super fan Joe “License Plate Guy” Ruback, who did a fantastic job organizing the event).
Even QB Eli Manning took one at-bat—a ground ball to second base off pitcher Rich Seubert!—which to me said something pretty significant: Collins already has major pull in the locker room. More than 30 current Giants players spent a Friday night in June at an event headlined by a third-year player, including the 36-year-old franchise quarterback and a busload of rookies. “They respect me enough to come out here,” Collins said, “and I love them because they’ve been really good to me.”
Just two years ago, the Giants drafted Collins, trading up to select the Alabama safety after he slid out of the first round. Some teams felt he didn’t have the coverage skills to match up with NFL receivers, and Collins arrived in East Rutherford, N.J., determined to shed that pesky box safety reputation. His rookie season was a bumpy one, and among the areas in which he struggled was exactly the one teams feared—pass coverage. But Collins became one of the success stories of the 2016 season, when both he and the Giants defense executed a remarkable turnaround. Collins was something of a case study for how much good coaching—in this case from defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and safeties coach David Merritt—and a player’s good attitude matter.
“Coming from Alabama, being the player that I was there, I wanted to be top-notch. (My rookie season) kind of aggravated me, but the only thing I had to do was just figure it out,” Collins says. “Coach Spags and Coach Merritt taught me everything, every clue and every detail, to learn my gaps and assignments, and I gained trust in my play and trust in my recall. In doing so, I am where I am now.”
At 23, Collins has earned the respect of both veteran teammates like Manning, and younger teammates like cornerback Eli Apple, who hopes to make the same kind of jump in his second season that Collins did. Collins, who racked up 125 tackles and five interceptions, has a number of personal and team goals this season. He only revealed one of them Friday night, but it’s a big one.
“Defensive Player of the Year,” he said. “I feel like I was robbed (last year), and I’m going to get it this year.”
“Look at the stats,” he added. “The stats proved their point. My play proved its point. And I made game-changing plays. I made a difference.”
The Giants are counting on the same in 2017.
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Where Maclin Might Land
This is the time of year in the NFL when, if a player makes news, it’s likely because something has gone wrong. (Performance in OTAs is never really that newsworthy, as much as we’d like it to be.) That was the case over the weekend with three players expected to be major contributors for their teams in 2017:
1) WR Jeremy Maclin, cut by the Chiefs on Friday night.
2) Ravens TE Dennis Pitta, who, according to NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo, dislocated his hip for the third time in his career during an OTA practice Friday, a potentially career-ending injury.
3) Saints DT Nick Fairley, who FOX Sports and NFL Network reported has been absent from OTAs after medical tests on a heart condition that could jeopardize his career.
If you were surprised by the Maclin release, you weren’t the only one. Chiefs QB Alex Smith was “shocked,” he told the Kansas City Star. It was just two years ago that Maclin signed a five-year, $55 million contract to join his former coach, Andy Reid, in Kansas City. He had a 1,000-yard season in 2015, but missed time with a groin injury in 2016 and posted a career-low 536 yards. The Chiefs evidently are looking to move on to their younger receivers, like Tyreek Hill and Chris Conley, but the timing was odd for a few reasons. The Chiefs save $10 million in salary cap space cutting Maclin after June 1, but they could have gotten the same savings by cutting him earlier and simply designating him a post-June 1 cut. Secondly, the Chiefs aren’t a rebuilding team—they have made the postseason two years in a row, and believe they can contend now—so cutting your No. 1 receiver, and leaving your 33-year-old QB with a fourth-year pro as his most veteran receiver, is unexpected.
Where could Maclin end up? Certainly teams like the Browns and the 49ers have a big need at the position and the cap space, but I’m not sure a rebuilding club is the best fit for a 29-year-old receiver. Teams looking for another piece to make a playoff push are more likely to pay his price tag in the short term. The Ravens make a lot of sense—they lost Steve Smith (retirement), Kamar Aiken (free agency) and now Pitta (injury), and Maclin began his career playing under Baltimore offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg—but they only have $2.1 million in cap space right now. Other possible fits: Buffalo, Carolina, Tennessee and New Orleans.
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Good For GALvanize and Falcons
A couple years ago, I walked into an NFL locker room after a rookie mini-camp practice. I was among a group of reporters, mostly men but a few other women. As we looked around for the players we needed to speak with, one of the draft picks said to another: “Women are allowed in the locker room?” It wasn’t meant to be disrespectful—this player, like many other rookies, had simply come from a college program where the locker room wasn’t open to the media, and he hadn’t interacted with many female reporters in general. It’s in that context that I want to share a neat initiative taking place with two NFL teams this spring.
You might be familiar with Laura Okmin, the veteran reporter who currently is a sideline and feature reporter for the NFL on FOX. Six years ago, she began a program called GALvanize, a series of bootcamps and workshops to teach aspiring female broadcasters the tools and skills needed to pursue a career in sports journalism. When she started in the business some 25 years ago, there was no support system like this in place for young women navigating a male-dominated business—so she created one.
Tapping into her connections around the league, she’s held camps at the NFL offices and team headquarters, giving dozens of young female reporters, mostly college-age, the experience of interviewing head coaches, general managers, players and execs. It was after one of those camps last year, at Falcons headquarters, when she and Falcons head coach Dan Quinn hatched a new idea.
Two weeks ago, the Falcons held a player development program for their rookie class at Lake Lanier outside Atlanta. They were joined there by two dozen aspiring female reporters from Okmin’s GALvanize program. The reporters and players spent an afternoon together doing interactive media training, learning from each other how to develop trust and ask and answer questions. Each reporter paired up one on one with a player, learned his story over lunch and interviewed him in front of the group. After each interview, the rookies wrote down one new thing they learned about their new teammate.
“Coach Quinn liked the idea of the young reporters helping the rookies, and vice versa,” Okmin says. “At a time when there has never been a worse relationship with media and fill in blank—athletes, politicians, etc.—we wanted to teach them empathy and how hard it is to do each others’ jobs.”
It’s a good fit with the culture Quinn has tried to bring to Atlanta, creating opportunities for his players to get to know each other better (their team creed last year was “brotherhood”) and develop professionally not just on the field. One thing that stood out after Atlanta’s heartbreaking Super Bowl LI loss was the players’ graciousness and class in defeat. That’s not something you want to be well-practiced at, obviously, in the NFL—but it speaks to the environment Quinn has worked hard to build in Atlanta, and continues to work on with this year’s rookies.
“Dealing with media is not their favorite part of the job, but I’d rather have some awareness for that and get them comfortable doing it,” Quinn says. “If you polled the room, do you want to talk to the media today, 90 percent would choose no, we would not like to do that. But this is a part of the job, it’s a part of what we do, and let’s go after that part in a positive way, too. The switch to becoming a pro is a big adjustment, both for women trying to do this job and for the players coming out of college.”
This week, Okmin will take another group of reporters to Jacksonville for a similar camp with the Jaguars rookies at their team headquarters. It’s a training ground that makes a lot of sense for two sets of rookies trying to break into tough businesses.
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Quotes of the Week
“I’ve never played against a more literal psychopath in my life.”
—Lions guard T.J. Lang, on Barstool Sports’ Pardon My Take podcast, about facing Ndamukong Suh. Lang later clarified that he meant it as a compliment to Suh. At that position, in the down-‘n’-dirty trenches, that’s a definite compliment.
“We’re on to 2017.”
—Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to the Atlanta media after an OTA practice last week, taking a cue from the team they lost to in Super Bowl 51.
“That was my decision, and I love it. I wouldn’t change it. If I knew that I was going to get hurt and wasn’t going to be a top-five pick again, I would have literally played in that game because of my teammates and how much Notre Dame means to me.”
—Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, on the Doomsday podcast with Matt Mosley and Ed Werder, revisiting the fateful decision to play in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State that changed the course of his NFL career.
“It just goes to show that racism will always be a part of the world, a part of America. Hate in America, especially for African-Americans, is living every day. Even though it’s concealed most of the time, people hide their faces, and will say things about you. When they see you, they smile in your face. It’s alive every single day.”
—Cavaliers forward LeBron James, opening his NBA Finals news conference with a personal response to the racist graffiti painted outside his Los Angeles home.
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Stat of the Week
We’re past the halfway point of the current CBA, and the agreement has proven over time to work pretty well for both sides. Much of the focus has been on rising player salaries as the salary cap has risen about $47 million since the start of the agreement in 2011, but just as important is the benefits package negotiated between the league and the players’ union. Players become eligible for the pension plan only after playing three seasons, but the payouts are very good for players who make it past that threshold. Here’s a breakdown of the estimated annual post-retirement income for an active player who began his career in 2016.
• If he takes his benefits starting at age 55: $127,008 (4 credited seasons), $297,204 (7 credited seasons), $441,168 (10 credited seasons)
• If he takes his benefits starting at age 65: $329,016 (4 credited seasons), $769,236 (7 credited seasons), $1,141,764 (10 credited seasons)
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Factoid That May Interest Only Me
Last week, I wrote about the quest for a better helmet—and the NFL’s investing $60 million toward a better overall helmet within three years and position-specific helmets within five years. I got a number of responses on Twitter suggesting that nothing more can be done to stop the brain from sloshing inside the skull. But research into the so-called invisible injury has presented a more nuanced picture than one long-held theory that concussions result simply from the brain sloshing around and bruising and swelling as it strikes the rough inside surface of the skull.
“When most people think of slosh or rattle, they think, ‘Well, I get hit in one direction, and the brain shifts forward and bunches up on the front of the skull,’” says Jeff Crandall, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Applied Biomechanics and chair of the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Engineering Subcommittee. “There is definitely some motion, but there is not a slosh or rattle the way you think about it. What actually happens is, if you rotate the skull, the brain will in a delayed way move with it and change shape. Based on the geometry and structures of the brain, it will change shape differentially, and those regional deformations cause the injury.”
Trying to mitigate those rotational forces, that cause the twisting and straining of the nerve cells and their connectors, the axons, is the primary focus of new helmet technology.
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Tweets of the Week
Emphasis on “federal government” from the Canadian PM.
As the boss learned to say, #squadgoals
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Ms. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note
The last major trip I took was a road trip with my parents, through the scenic terrain of Ohio and Indiana to visit relatives in Illinois. My mother, champion that she is, drove the entire way, with one requirement: We had to depart their home in State College, Pa., no later than 6 a.m. We fell behind right out of the gate when my dad decided to toast his bagel at 5:59 a.m., delaying us by several minutes. Nonetheless, we made excellent time driving to Danville, Ill., my dad’s hometown, according to a route charted out using a 2000 Rand McNally road atlas, and then later up to Chicago, where my mom is from. We visited with one grandma, two aunts, two uncles, three cousins and a collection of Vrentas relatives who fall into the second cousin/once-removed category.
A road trip with parents is much different at age 32, and as we retraced the steps of their childhoods, it was a reminder that I am—or want to be—a lot more like my parents than a younger me would have admitted. My mom and Aunt Harriet traded stories about their camping trips to Northern Wisconsin with the Polish scouts, when they regularly outsmarted the boys’ camp in capture the flag. And we stopped by Danville High School, where my dad spent Friday nights sitting in a third-floor classroom overlooking the football field during home games, charting each play for the football coaching staff. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. On the way home, at a rest stop in Ohio, I located the ideal Father’s Day gift: A 2017 “Deluxe” Road Atlas. Time for an upgrade, eh?
* * *
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think the best way to summarize Odell Beckham Jr.’s absence from the Giants’ voluntary OTAs is how one member of the organization put it to me on Friday: “We would love to have him here, but he doesn’t need to be here. He’s doing great.” Coaches always like their guys in the building, but plenty of players train on their own in the offseason. I don’t sense any tension there at all.
2. I think it’s smart of Derek Carr—on and off the field—to put a deadline on contract negotiations by saying he won’t engage in any talks once camp begins. You know what’s also smart? Del Rio not touching the topic with a 10-foot pole, avoiding getting caught in an awkward spot between his boss (Mark Davis) and his quarterback. When I asked Del Rio’s opinion of Carr’s self-imposed deadline, he took a wiiiide sidestep. “What I like the best about it is I don’t have to concern myself with contract stuff for our players,” he said. “That’s between Reggie and his agent. When I am talking with Derek, it is about football, or occasionally family and how he is scheduling his time. I don’t get into that area with him, and I don’t intend to. That stuff will all get handled at the appropriate time.”
3. I think Pete Carroll put on a clinic for how head coaches should address controversies when he was asked about Seth Wickersham’s thorough ESPN story detailing the rifts in the Seahawks locker room following the Super Bowl 49 loss. Carroll didn’t deny any aspect of the reporting. He didn’t attack the reporter. He simply called it “an old story that was revisited,” and expressed confidence in where the team is now.
4. I think rifts between offense and defense are pernicious in the NFL—but almost exclusively when it’s the defense out-performing the offense. When’s the last time you’ve heard of a conflict between a prolific offense and an underperforming defense? That’s been the case in New Orleans for, oh, the last decade, but other than coordinators getting fired, you never hear reports of locker-room malice.
5. I think it is possible the combine is moved to Los Angeles at some point down the road—but certainly not in 2018, as one report suggested this week. First of all, the NFL has a contract to host the event in Indianapolis at least through 2019. And the new stadium won’t open in L.A. until 2020. After that point, could it happen? Yes, though that’s purely speculative. Indianapolis is a well-oiled machine for the combine, with the logistics easy and convenient. For the NFL to consider moving the event, the next site would need to be just as turnkey with things like hotels and access to hospitals. But the open bidding process for the draft has proven that nothing is sacrosanct. At one point in time, no one would have ever considered moving the draft out of Radio City Music Hall in New York—and now, it’s hard to imagine it ever going back.
6. I think I’ll join the media chorus in saying that Dallas is a leading contender to be the host for the 2018 draft. Philadelphia raised the bar for the event with its open-air venue that drew close to 100,000 visitors on the first night alone. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, of course, is known for upping the stakes on pretty much everything, and would be able to do that by splitting the event between AT&T Stadium in Arlington and the team’s new headquarters in Frisco, Texas. Don’t rule out a return to Philly, though. A total of 22 cities bid to host the event (including Canton), setting up exactly the kind of competition that the NFL wants to spur facility upgrades and continued expansion of the event. Expect a decision to be made later this summer.
7. I think this was a cool idea in Miami, spurred by head coach Adam Gase: The Dolphins have invited eight different teams—including high school, girls flag and youth—to their facility to watch OTA practices from the sidelines this spring. Among the schools they targeted were ones with low participation or flag programs. The Dolphins posted some fun clips on social media of their veterans interacting with the younger players. Here’s Kiko Alonso (en Espanol!) and Michael Thomas advising some of the high schoolers.
8. I think this is a fantastic tidbit from Kalyn Kahler’s Talking Football with Michael Vick: Vick’s daughter Jada, a sixth-grader, is the high school varsity quarterback for the all-girls flag football team. Said Vick, “out of about four or five other quarterbacks, who were all freshmen through seniors, she won the job, so it says a lot about what a Vick can do.”
9. I think congratulations are in order for former NFL cornerback Chris Carr, who graduated from the George Washington University Law School just three years after retiring from football. (We wrote about his transition out of the game in 2014.) Carr will work in immigration and criminal defense law for the Zeman and Petterson law firm in Virginia starting in September, and he’s going to take the California bar exam with the goal of opening his own law firm out there within the next few years. “Getting a law degree from George Washington gives me a sense of pride,” Carr said in a text message over the weekend. “It took a lot of hard work and focus to accomplish this goal (e.g., getting good grades in undergrad while playing football, and enduring the law school work load).”
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
b. In what feels like an increasingly post-fact society, happy to see this recognition for my brilliant sister, Cathy, one of those people who has made a career out of finding out new facts that will help our world.
c. I was trying to find a smart link between the urgency of the fight against climate change and sports. This was the best I could do.
d. A better idea would be to simply link to this video of climate change happening, a section of ice the size of the tip of Manhattan calving from a glacier in Greenland.
f. If you missed it, check out the footage of the One Love Manchester benefit concert Sunday. It was a beautiful display of unity and strength less than two weeks after the terrorist attack at Ariana Grande’s concert venue in Manchester killed 22 fans, and less than a day after another deadly attack in London.
g. The only drink-nerdness I can offer this week is my discovery of the new Polar seltzer drinks. I drank an entire six-pack of the watermelon lemonade (zero calories!) while writing this.
h. Happy Birthday, PK. You don’t look a day over 60.
* * *
The Adieu Haiku
NFL in June
All bigger, faster, stronger!
Is it Week 1 yet?
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