One definition for flummery is “complete nonsense,” which today happens to be full of.
Draymond Green Learns of All-star status…From his mom
The Golden State Warriors’ forward received some exciting news this morning during an interview with the local Oakland news station: He’s officially an NBA all-star. Green started answering a question only to be interrupted by a recognizable (and booming) voice. His mom appeared on-air and informed him of the news. So far this season, Green has averaged career-highs in points (14.5), rebounds (9.4) and assists (7.2) per game. He’ll join teammates Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in Toronto for All-Star festivities in February, giving Golden State three all-stars for the first time in 40 years.
Super Bowl Grounds crew painted the wrong logo
The Levi Stadium grounds crew is getting ready for the Super Bowl. Kind of...
CINCINNATI — Walking into St. Xavier High School, you are greeted by Pope Francis. If any reminder is needed of the expectations at this private Jesuit school on the north side of the city, nothing does the trick quite like a framed photo of the leader of the Catholic Church.
Farther inside are a display case presenting mission trips for students; an art gallery; a bulletin board posting the students accepted into the 18 AP classes next school year (the offerings include Chinese, Spanish literature and 2-D design). If you’re standing in the hallway between periods, expect to hear a chorus of “excuse me, ma’am” and “pardon me, sir” as the student body of 1,600 boys, clad in the dress code of khakis and polo shirts, head to their next classroom in another part of the sprawling 110-acre campus.
Anyone who has gone to school here is considered part of the “Long Blue Line,” an alumni network that extends to the clergy, the military, academia, Wall Street—as well as an alumnus from the class of 2009 who will be one of the most feared men on the field in Super Bowl 50: Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly.
“Luke was a nice boy,” says St. Xavier football coach Steve Specht, “until he crossed that line. He could flip that switch like no one I ever coached. He could literally take on a new persona on the field. It’s an interesting case study.”
Cam Newton may have cornered the national market on the Superman identity, but here at St. Xavier they refer to Kuechly as Clark Kent. There’s an uncanny resemblance, with Kuechly’s tuft of dark hair and the wire-rimmed glasses he wears off the field, and the fact that he is polite, clean-cut and mild-mannered—until he puts on his football uniform.
The MMQB’s Road to Super Bowl 50 spent a morning at Kuechly’s alma mater, seeking the origin of the heat-seeking missile style of play that has made him the point for the Panthers’ intimidating defense.
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St. Xavier, the largest all-boys Jesuit prep school in the country, has a five-figure annual tuition cost and a full-time communications and marketing director. Becky Schulte is her name, and since the Panthers won Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, which included Kuechly’s second pick-six in as many weeks, her phone has been ringing non-stop. CBS visited on Tuesday, The MMQB on Wednesday—and Super Bowl 50 is still 11 days away.
“When you meet Luke,” Specht says, “you’re never going to guess, that guy is a vicious linebacker.”
Not that Schulte has to twist anyone’s arm to get them to talk about Kuechly. They all get in line: Specht. Tim McDonald, his linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. Jim Telles, Kuechly’s morality-social justice teacher. They chuckle at the dichotomy between Kuechly’s prep-school persona and the relentless competitor who makes his living fighting through blocks, lowering his shoulder and snapping his hips to drive back ball-carriers.
Telles came into the classroom with the college recommendation letter he had written for Kuechly. As a part of the morality-social justice class, Kuechly spent a year volunteering once a week at a school with mentally and physically disabled kids—counting with them, coloring, wheeling them down the hallway to the gymnasium. In the letter, he wrote about how he watched Kuechly working with the kids gently and with great empathy. “In closing I would like to say that as a person, as a maturing young man, Luke Kuechly is respectful, polite, hardworking, intelligent, and honest—a young man of integrity,” Telles wrote.
Gentleness, politeness—not the first attributes associated with a hard-hitting linebacker whose job depends upon not letting an opposing player run past him. Before the NFC Championship Game, McDonald paused his TV to take a screen shot of Kuechly during the national anthem. From the way Kuechly was swaying back and forth to release his energy, and that look in his eyes, his old coach could tell he’d already made that action-hero transformation.
His St. Xavier coaches got to know it well during Kuechly’s years playing for them. His junior season, the fall of 2007, Specht thought his defense was missing a piece. He’s a defensive-minded coach, so he always puts the best athletes on that side of the ball, and the way he and his coaches pick linebackers is by tabbing the guys who would always be around the ball if they were just playing sandlot football. That was Luke Kuechly. They put the former tight end at weak-side linebacker, and he would end up making plays on the strong side, too, the same way that he pinballs sideline to sideline in the NFL today.
After each game, McDonald has a years-old tradition of giving out a “Ballhawk Trophy”—an old copper basketball trophy that’s shaped like an eagle hawk—to the linebacker who made the most impact plays. “Luke won it, like, 14 of the 15 games that year,” McDonald says. St. Xavier finished a perfect 15-0 that season, including winning the Ohio state championship against Mentor, a high school near Cleveland.
In the state final, Mentor quarterback Bart Tanski, who had been named Ohio’s Mr. Football a few days earlier, was running a zone-read up the sideline when Kuechly snaked his hand in and ripped the ball out of his grasp. To Kuechly’s chagrin, one of his senior teammates was awarded the Ballhawk Trophy instead that week. After watching the NFC Championship Game, and seeing that second consecutive pick-six, McDonald texted Kuechly: I guess you are the true ballhawk.
The following season, Kuechly’s senior year, St. Xavier opened with a win against New Jersey’s Don Bosco Prep, the top-ranked team in the nation. Now playing from a position called “the adjustor,” a hybrid safety/linebacker who stands in the middle of the field and tracks everybody down, Kuechly recorded 26 tackles that day (coincidentally, the same number he had in a 2013 game to set an NFL record). The season slid, though, after injuries to their starting quarterback and running back. A loss in the regular-season finale cost St. Xavier a playoff berth. Long after the game ended, Specht found Kuechly on a pitch-black field, sobbing so hard his shoulders were shaking. Not because of one game, but because it meant the end of his St. Xavier career.
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There’s a standing rule in the Kuechly household: All three of their sons’ interests and achievements are treated the same. So before Henry, the youngest of the Kuechly boys and a senior at St. Xavier, could agree to a media request, he had to ask his parents. They granted him permission, but Henry put one condition on the interview: He had to be done by 9:15 a.m., not a minute later, because he did not want to be late for a meeting with his math teacher.
The oldest of the Kuechly boys, John, was a senior reserve offensive lineman on that ’07 state championship team. He’s an officer in the Army Reserve and is working at the family-owned business, J&N Auto Electric, while completing his MBA at Xavier University. Henry, seven years younger than Luke, never played tackle football. In first grade he learned he had an ear condition, enlarged vestibular aqueduct, that carries a risk of him going deaf if he gets hit too hard in the head. Instead, he’s a forward on St. Xavier’s basketball team and is planning to major in pre-medicine when he goes to college this fall.
The Kuechlys emphasize politeness and manners in their household. Every fall since Luke graduated, his dad, Tom, brings Specht a bag full of hundreds of DVDs for the current players to burn their high school highlights for colleges, a thank you for all the discs Specht made for Luke. (Specht so appreciated the gesture, he didn’t have the heart to tell Tom when the highlights switched to digital.) But boys will be boys, and Henry knows first-hand how his big brother could flip the switch when it came time for competition. And everything is a competition between three brothers.
They used to play a game in the upstairs hallway of their house, where they’d hide in a bedroom, and when another one walked past, they’d jump out and tackle them into the sliding closet doors on the other side of the wall. (“Those always got broken,” Henry says matter-of-factly.) So what does he think now about the fact that his big brother is one of the most feared linebackers in the game?
“I mean, I see where they are coming from,” Henry says, a grin starting to peek out, “because one time he tackled me and gave me a partially cracked rib at my grandma’s house.”
“I kind of deserved it because I was egging him on,” Henry continues. “He was sitting in a rocking chair, and I was sitting on the ground, saying, ‘You won’t hit me,’ and then he just sprang out of the chair and tackled me. I felt the consequences. It wasn’t, like, a serious cracked rib, but it still hurt.”
(Roman Harper, the veteran Panthers safety who suffered a dislodged cornea after Kuechly accidentally collided with him on a tackle attempt last Sunday, can relate.)
“When I think of Ray Lewis, I think he’s one of the best linebackers ever,” Henry says. “But when I think of Luke, I just think he’s my older brother, playing a game.”
With that, it was 9:15, and Henry was off to that meeting with his math teacher, walking down the same hallways plastered with Jesuit teachings (“strive for the magis”) that his brother did seven years ago. Back then, Luke was a gangly kid, a Catholic player from Ohio whom Specht couldn’t convince Notre Dame or Ohio State to recruit. He ended up at Boston College, where he was a two-time consensus All-America and the 2011 winner of the Butkus, Lombardi and Nagurski awards. That Clark Kent look can be deceiving.
“When you meet Luke,” Specht says, “you’re never going to guess, that guy is a vicious linebacker.” Now, of course, his cover has been blown.
The U.S. national team is nearly three weeks into a January camp that appears to be the most low-key gathering of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure. Time, plus four points from a pair of November World Cup qualifiers, have eased a significant portion of the pressure that built up through a frustrating summer and fall.
The games that matter are two months away, and Klinsmann’s decision to split the camp between senior players and members of the U-23 team aiming to qualify for this summer’s Olympics removes a bit of tactical intrigue. Some partnerships or chemistry may take root out at StubHub Center, but for the most part, this month is about personal form and development. It’s about helping players through the long MLS offseason (most will go around four months without competitive games) and giving them a jump-start on the year ahead.
It’s been relatively quiet so far. Most of the recent news has concerned players who left early (Matt Miazga), arrived late (Jordan Morris) or weren’t invited at all (Benny Feilhaber). Some, like Clint Dempsey, were given the option of skipping camp altogether—an approach that might have created external controversy or internal consternation in years past. And Klinsmann has eased his foot off the gas pedal, giving his players far more freedom than usual.
He told ESPN that locals like Gyasi Zardes and Jermaine Jones have the option to stay at home while out-of-towners can bring in their families or opt for a different hotel.
"They already have the schedule for the month, but we just confirm it day by day," Klinsmann said. "The rest is, 'You are your own boss. You're driving it. If you want more treatment here, stay longer here. If you want to run out and do something else, it's fine. It's your camp. It's for you.' I think that helped a lot. It keeps camp really, really light and positive.”
Camp will conclude with home friendlies against an Iceland squad playing without many of the stars who helped seal European Championship qualification (Sunday, 3:45 p.m. ET; ESPN2, UniMas) and Canada (Feb. 5, 10:15 p.m. ET; FS1, UniMas). Klinsmann always prefers a positive result, but the nature of his roster, which now features nine U-23 players, means he also may prioritize fielding partnerships or combinations of players he’ll want to use when the games matter in late March.
For example, it may make sense to pair U-23 forwards Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter up top. They may be a few years away from starting together for the senior team, but the challenge presented by Colombia in the upcoming home-and-home Olympic qualifying playoff is more pressing than winning a low-profile friendly.
Advancing to Rio is important, but Klinsmann ultimately will be judged by the success or failure of the senior squad. A pair of World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala in late March and then the Copa América Centenario in June will indicate whether 2015 was a hiccup or the start of a more troubling trend. And there are several men now training out in Southern California whose 2016 form will play a significant role in determining that course. For them, the pressure and opportunity is a bit greater.
Here’s a look at three such players:
Defender Matt Besler
January camp was a bit more demanding one year ago, and Klinsmann’s public complaints about the offseason fitness of several unnamed players received return fire from Besler and his Sporting Kansas City coach, Peter Vermes. Besler, a World Cup starter, wasn’t in Klinsmann’s first 11 for another eight months.
Klinsmann’s reliance on Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks at the Gold Cup proved to be the manager’s biggest misstep of 2015, and Besler’s strong season in MLS paved the way for a return. He started the Confederations Cup playoff loss to Mexico in October and then the ensuing qualifiers. Now, the 28-year-old is back in camp and in position to get a head start on establishing himself as an anchor in a unit that’s seen far too much upheaval in recent months.
Geoff Cameron is nursing an ankle injury back with Stoke City, Omar Gonzalez (who hasn’t played for the U.S. in nearly five months) has started well with Pachuca while Brooks, Alvarado, Miazga, Michael Orozco and others knock on the door.
Where Besler may have been fatigued or even defiant one year ago, he now seems eager to assume a leadership role.
“You come in for your first January camp and there’s a lot of focus around yourself,” he told U.S. Soccer. “One you’ve been around for a few years, I think there’s different responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is helping others. This is a great opportunity to be a leader in this camp—me specifically. There’s a ton of young defenders here. [I’m going to] just try to help get everybody on the same page as quickly as possible and help them have an enjoyable experience.”
Getting everyone on the same page is what good center backs do, and in this January camp Besler now has the opportunity to make a different sort of lasting impression on Klinsmann.
Midfielder Darlington Nagbe
The national team’s lack of a bona fide midfield playmaker has had a significant domino effect. It’s forced an enormous amount onto Michael Bradley’s plate, isolated Jozy Altidore and left the Americans struggling to hold the ball, dictate terms or play the proactive, attacking soccer Klinsmann advocated.
Nagbe’s much-discussed shift inside during the Portland Timbers’ stretch run has thrust him into that conversation.
The 25-year-old, who was born in Liberia and moved to Ohio when he was 11, is quick, creative and deft on the dribble. His impact was obvious as the Timbers surged toward their first league championship and resulted in his first two caps in November. If he gets comfortable in a central role for the U.S., it would allow Bradley to focus on organization and tempo or to return to his original position as a defensive midfielder.
Either way, Nagbe’s potential emergence would add an element the Americans have been missing while helping to define roles more clearly throughout the rest of the side.
It also would require a significant shift in tactics and chemistry in a short period of time. If Klinsmann is going to try it in the qualifiers or Copa América, there needs to be hints that it’s working during the upcoming friendlies.
“I think Darlington, especially in the attacking third, can really make a difference because he's calm on the ball. He has great vision. He sees runs of players, and he knows how to connect all the way around. [He’s] very complete in what he's doing,” the coach told reporters.
Forward Jozy Altidore
The past two years have been a tough stretch for Altidore, who’s not young anymore. At 26, he’s closing in on 100 caps (89) and now is embarking on his 10th year as a senior international. It’s no longer about potential for the Toronto FC striker. It’s about performance.
And Altidore seems to know it. After enduring injury-plagued years that saw him miss most of the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Gold Cup and included a brutal stretch at Sunderland and a season of transition at TFC, he was eager to get started this winter. So he arrived in California a week early to commence training.
“I just wanted to come in and start moving a little bit early…getting ready for the year thinking about all the competitions coming up, the MLS season and some fine games that you circle on the calendar,” Altidore told U.S. Soccer. “The last couple of years have been rough, so I just want to stay healthy, stay fit and try to help my team the best that I can.”
He managed six goals in 13 U.S. appearances last year, including a pair in the November qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and scored 13 times in 26 MLS appearances for Toronto. He’s looking for more this year. Dempsey hopes to stick around long enough to play in the Copa América and break Landon Donovan’s scoring record (Deuce is nine goals behind), while Morris, Bobby Wood and others remain prospects.
The mantle of ‘go-to’ finisher is Altidore’s to seize.
“He has big goals,” Klinsmann said. “He’s dreaming about the next World Cup. He’s dreaming about the Copa América. .He’s dreaming about winning the MLS Cup with Toronto. He wants to put his stamp on the national team program. And so over the years in his maturing process. He’s gathered all that information from the other older players, and now he becomes one of those as well. So he now wants to make sure that he makes the right decisions. So we see a Jozy now coming in prepared. He’s eager to take advantage of every training session, not wasting a minute on the field, preparing himself the best way possible for the next day.”