NFL training camp was in full swing on Monday, July 18, but yet, the lockout was still in full effect. Had the union recertified without our knowledge? Did the owners cave?
Not exactly. For one night, at the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the LA Sports and Entertainment Commission (LASEC) put on their ninth annual "NFL101 All-Access Event" where kids and grown-ups alike could learn from the pros who oversaw an accuracy challenge, a distance challenge, straight sprints like in a combine, and a field goal challenge.
Some greats of the game, both past and present, came out to lend their expertise including coach Marvin Lewis, Kurt Warner and coach Jeff Fisher (who was only a few weeks removed from his trek up Mount Kilimanjaro), along with other former and current players.
Most reporters worked the players such as former USC Trojan and current Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews for answers on when the lockout is going to end ("I know as much as you do"); what have you been doing to keep in shape? ("Training with some teammates on our own"); are you anxious to get back on the field? ("You bet your sweet bippy, we are.") Okay, he did not actually say that last quote, but you get the picture. He was getting the same questions he's been getting all summer.
I, on the other hand, focused on the tough questions. Yo, Matthews! ... How's your hair? Is it staying in shape?
"Hair's great," Matthews said. "It's ready to get back after it. Y'know, the Midwest winters doesn't do wonders for it unlike this California sun."
Isn't there just a little, tiny part of him that has considered an extended lockout so that he can claim to be a Super Bowl champ that much longer? "Earlier on, jokingly of course, my teammates and I were saying if we miss this whole season, I guess that means we're champions for two years now."
Of course, my methods were unorthodox, and that also invites the potential for controversy. For instance, I may have contributed to a violation of the lockout rules that prevent a player and coach for having contact. Does that include through an intermediary, such as myself?
I contacted @ochocinco on Twitter -– he is prone to trash-talking on the site (I believe that makes it twash-talking, or perhaps trash-tweeting) –- and I told him that I was at an event with his coach and if there was a message he wanted me to relay. He immediately tweeted back, "Tell him I am going to whoop his *** soon."
"Coach," I said to Coach Lewis, "I have a message from Ochocinco. Do you have any idea what he said?"
"He said, 'Tell Coach Lew I said hi'?" the Bengals head coach guessed with a shrug.
When I told him the line, he took a moment and then started laughing so hard, he needed me for balance. "Ask Chad if he's ever been in a fight."
Andrea Kremer, the emcee for the panel that evening, passed by and I asked for a little feedback on my interviewing technique from one of the best. Hey, Andrea, how am I doing?
"How are you doing?" she asked quizzically and then walked past, seemingly at a more sprightly pace to "create separation," as they in the football sect say.
I realized my error. Essentially, I phrased it so she believed I was asking her to gauge how my health and state of being was. She's a sports reporter, not a psychic.
See, that's why she's on the top.
I did, however, make strides to join her elite status by getting an exclusive interview –- Big Red, the Arizona Cardinals mascot! Although he is not a bird of many words, what he lacks in syllables, he makes up for with gestures.
The aviary creature is very confident of the Cardinals chances in the NFC West this year, and though he's not sure who the new quarterback will be, he feels he would be up to the task if the job fell on him. He's a fiery bird who is just itching for football.
The Cardinals cheerleaders were similarly confident and felt this was their team's chance to take the NFC West, if not the whole shebang.
A couple of booths away sat their rivals, the 49ers cheerleaders. I tried to stoke the fire between them, but apparently, there is no animosity there. They are all friends, part of the Sisterhood of the Divine Pom Pom Club. Though when it came down to making bold statements, the girls from San Francisco were not prone to such braggadocios behavior, preferring instead to focus on the team's history and an imminent return to
Super Bowl greatness.
Speaking of Super Bowls, former Super Bowl champion and Raiders legendary defensive end Greg Townsend talked with me about it. Behind him were displayed the Raiders three Super Bowl trophies. As a rookie from Texas Christian, he helped them win their most recent one. "I was real lucky to spend my time in good football weather, with real grass," he said.
Along with allowing fans the chance to play like the pros and learn from the pros, the whole evening was part of an effort to bring football to Los Angeles, primarily a team, but also a Super Bowl. Greg is eager to get the league to reconsider its rule that says only cities with franchises can host the Super Bowl. "That's the reason why we're here today, to promote that football theme, to bring the Super Bowl here in the winter. We're hoping this weather and this event will change the minds of the powers that be."
Until that day, he spends his time working out with his son, who just got a scholarship to play the sport at USC. The retired player is planning to "make a few calls, maybe look on the Internet for some jobs" back in football, coaching the next great defensive lineman, perhaps for an LA franchise.
Suppose LA does get a team, an existing team, like say, the San Diego Chargers, what would current Chargers Pro Bowl linebacker Shaun Phillips think about that? "I like a lot of things about LA. It's a fun city, a lot of my friends live here; I've actually been living here in the off-season the past few years. I would really miss San Diego. Their fans are amazing. I'm sure they'll still come up, but the city of San Diego would be hard to leave. It's such a beautiful place, but if we had to leave, I would welcome a move to LA."
Shaun was surprisingly very polite. I expected a little aggression seeing as how his job is to rip the head off of the quarterback (but to do so without launching oneself, of course). "If you'd have said, 'Hi,' when we were on the field field, I would have tackled you. But this is not business, this is fun."
Meanwhile, throughout the field, kids and parents took the accuracy challenge and the distance challenge coached by Fisher and Lewis.
I could not go through the entire event without showing off my prowess. Maybe there were scouts there too, watching for the next great player. This was my moment.
I headed over to the field goal challenge where former Los Angeles Rams star placekicker Mike Lansford was coaching us rookie free agents.
One of less than a handful of barefoot kickers in the history of the NFL, Mike apparently held his job with the Rams for eight years by accident. He was a shoed kicker after being drafted out of Washington by the Giants ... and cut, then picked up by the 49ers ... and cut ... then the Raiders ... and cut.
After developing a blister on his foot, he decided to try it barefoot like New England's Tony Franklin. The rest is history. "It dropped my foot down so it was like I was hitting a sand wedge instead of a driver," Lansford said. "It was a lower hit on the ball; also a faster kick."
And it was a plus that he got to kick in LA while Tony Franklin booted them in New England. But as he says, "It's better to make the kick and not blame the weather ... "
So as I lined up the kick, I looked to the man who, as he put it, is "the all-time leading scorer for a team that doesn't exist anymore" for advice. Three step drop? Slight bend in the knee of the plant foot? Body tilted forward at a 45 degree angle? What should I do?
"Take off your shoe and kick the ball."
Oh. Sounded easy enough. I took off my shoe and set up three steps away, not knowing with which foot I should begin my approach.
Twenty yards out, for the win. (Fortunately, Phillips and Townsend were nowhere near me at the time to defend.) There's the snap. (Actually, the ball was just resting on a tee.) The kick is up, and it is ... (It took much longer than you'd imagine.) GOOOOOOOD!"
The team ran on the field. And by "team," I mean Mike, who came over and gave me a high five, his prized pupil. Then he gave me the best advice I've gotten in my life:
"Take two weeks off and then retire."
I didn't want to ruin it. However, I got to thinking, maybe this barefoot thing is what I was doing wrong all along. Maybe I will have a future in the game. In fact, Mike explained to me that the kicker is the most important player on a football team. "The game cannot start without the kicker," he said. "I'm in charge." He's played with the ball on the tee before, adjusted it for what seemed to be forever, just to prove that point.
Of course, "no one wants to talk to you before the kick, but afterwards, everyone wants to be your best friend."
I believe he probably had a lot of friends. Known for his accuracy, he was 15 of 15 on game-winning kicks. So in that respect, we both had a 1.000 percentage on pressure-packed boots.
LASEC could very well end up bringing the sport back to Los Angeles and once there, they may have found their field goal kicker. We gotta get this lockout over with so that I can get a tryout with some team. It won't be Los Angeles this year, but perhaps soon enough.