November 24, 2009

Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 30. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.The invoice demanded a $439 refund. It was mailed by a smart aleck fan who didn't know who he was dealing with. From the other side of his computer keyboard, he was jabbing at the chest of Chip Kelly, the first-year coach at Oregon.

Everything was going badly for Kelly. His flux-capacitor offense was running on flat tires and an empty tank throughout its 19-8 season-opening loss at Boise State in September. His star running back, LeGarrette Blount, was on national TV for throwing a blind-side punch at a mouthy Boise State opponent. Waiting in line were Purdue, Utah and California with the horrifying promise of an 0-4 start to Kelly's career.

They all were about to find out who they were dealing with.

"What is your address?'" Kelly emailed back to the smart aleck, who a few days later received a personal check signed by Charles Kelly (Four Hundred Thirty Nine & 00/100).

Blount? He was suspended for the season by Kelly in a move that other coaches would not have made. Two months later Blount was invited back to the team after meeting Kelly's standards of remorse and attendance at classes and practices, though he has yet to earn his way back into a game.

The running game? He jerry-rigged the offense to season-saving wins over Purdue and Utah, followed by blowouts of highly-ranked Cal and Southern Cal that put Kelly -- a heretofore nobody -- in the driver's seat to the Rose Bowl. In truth he'd behaved as if he was always strapped in there, with a Diet Coke in the cupholder and the Dropkick Murphys thumping out the speakers.

Winning or losing, rich or poor, he was the same coach he had always been. The Oregon fan who angrily demanded his money back thought he was being smart when he sent Kelly the invoice for his travel expenses to the Boise State game. Never try to outsmart a smart aleck. That Four Hundred Thirty Nine & 00/100 means as little to Kelly now as it did when he was skint. When he was moving from job to job, from Columbia to New Hampshire to Johns Hopkins and back to UNH, where he strode the Division 1-AA mud as an assistant coach for 13 years, he went by a simple rule: "If it doesn't fit in the car, it doesn't come with you." Behind him he left apartments abandoned with beds, couches and dining tables as he worked his way up.

When his old college roommate Mark Linehan or fellow New Englander Mike (Zip) Zamarchi visit Oregon for a game, they stay at the house of their (now famous) old friend, drinking beers in the high-ceilinged living room while The Chipper is sleeping on the other side of the wall. Each summer Kelly and Zamarchi run the Chip & Zip tournament at the Outlook Golf Course in South Berwick, Maine, in support of the Special Olympics. And each Thursday this season Kelly has maintained the Oregon tradition of inviting Seth Ford, a young friend who has Down Syndrome, to address the team without restriction, even if his speeches meander on for 10 minutes or more. Ford also chose the all-black ensemble worn by Kelly's team for a recent win against Arizona State.

The lesson of converting a bad first week into a terrific season has a lot to do with indulging your inner smart aleck, spreading the field and going for two whenever possible. In the big picture, Four Hundred Thirty Nine & 00/100 means little compared to the priorities of winning football games and having friends, the lifelong aims to which Kelly applies identical enthusiasm.

Which makes Chip Kelly my Sportsman Of The Year.

The check is in the mail.

Agree with this selection? Give us your Sportsman here.

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