Friday, September 30, 2011

An unforgettable night

It was the night of Wednesday, September 28, 2011. It was an important night, at least in my eyes. That night, the Tampa Bay Rays were playing the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field. It was the final game of the regular season for both teams. But it was far more important for the Rays as its result would determine the team’s future. If they won and Boston lost, the Rays would claim the American League wild card and a postseason berth. If they lost and Boston won, their season was over. A similar result in their game and Boston’s game meant a one-game playoff the following day to determine the wild card winner since the two teams had the same record.

Just a few innings into the game, the Rays trailed by what seemed like an insurmountable lead. It was 7-0 after Rays starter David Price struggled to one of the worst outings of his career. Meantime, the Red Sox had grabbed a 3-2 lead in Baltimore and were in the middle of a rain delay.

For some reason, I kept the Rays game on TV in the background. At the very least, I wanted to see how their season would end, thinking this would be the final day of it. At that point, I was glad I had turned down a friend’s offer to go since it was getting worse and worse.

Then something started happening in the eighth inning. The Rays started putting men on base. They started scoring some runs – just a few – to make the scoreboard operator do something. But when Evan Longoria stepped up to the plate and belted a pitch to left field, I knew the Rays were not done. You could just feel something special after listening to TV broadcaster Dewayne Staats call the three-run homer, which made it 7-6. Tampa Bay was a run away from tying the game after only collecting a pair of hits in the first seven innings.

Then came the ninth inning. Dan Johnson, who had struggled just to stay in the majors all season long, was at the plate for the Rays with two outs and no one on base. He was a strike away from ending what appeared to be an amazing comeback if he had swung and missed the next pitch. But he didn’t. He made solid contact and hit a ball that barely got over the right field wall to tie the game at seven. How in the world was this happening?

Fast-forward to extra innings when the Rays were batting in the 12th inning. The game was still knotted at seven. In Baltimore, the Orioles were threatening to tie the game against Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon. Before I could flip over to ESPN from Sun Sports, the O’s had tied it at three. Then, somehow, some way, Robert Andino drove in the winning run with former Rays leftfielder Carl Crawford diving to make a play but coming up short.

Since Baltimore had taken care of business and knocked off the Red Sox, the Rays were on the verge of history. In mere minutes after the other game had ended, Evan Longoria launched a pitch to left field and, somehow, some way, it left the yard and landed in the blue outfield seats, sending the Rays to an improbable comeback in their game and a trip to the playoffs that nobody could have ever imagined. If only I had been there.

I may be young, but I can’t imagine ever witnessing such dramatics in sports for the rest of my life. I also got to share the moment with my brother on the phone. He had called me no more than 30 seconds before Longoria’s game-winning blast to find out if I was watching. Fortunately I was. He had taken a nap when it was 7-0 and later awakened to see a tied ballgame. We both screamed and laughed when it was all said and done, finding it hard to believe what we had seen occur. A team with one of the lowest payrolls was in the playoffs. A team with one of the highest was not.

Timing is everything in life, and it was totally proven on this night.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Athletes with Character

Finding character in current and former athletes and coaches can oftentimes be a tough task. With the frequent news of athletes getting arrested for a variety of crimes, it has to make you wonder why Americans support certain players with long rap sheets.

That is why it is a pleasure to highlight some former athletes and coaches with character. The recent passing of Tampa Bay Bucs Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon prompted this blog post. Selmon was a rare figure in his sport. Not only is he still the lone Buccaneer in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he is also perhaps one of the most respected, genuine men to ever wear a helmet and shoulder pads.

It is difficult to find other athletes who can be compared to Selmon, However, there are a few other current and former football icons with Florida connections who come to mind – Tim Tebow, Tony Dungy, and Derrick Brooks.


One of the most fascinating figures in college football history is Tim Tebow. Love him or hate him, the University of Florida graduate has an international following – and is only 24 years old. His commitment to Christianity shined brightly during his prolific college career. He even had a scripture written in the eye-black on his face. For many years, he and his family have also been involved in missionary work around the world. He is currently the third-string quarterback for the Denver Broncos. If Tebow can find a way to succeed in the NFL, he could revolutionize the image of future athletes because of how unique he is as a human being.


Tony Dungy may be the most soft-spoken individual to play and coach football. But he was extremely successful at it, leading the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl championship to finish off the 2006 season. While coaching the Tampa Bay Bucs from 1996-2001, Dungy established himself as a leader in the community and dedicated himself to numerous charitable efforts. n August 2007, former President George W. Bush appointed Dungy as a member of the President's Council on Service and Civic Participation. He is now an analyst on NBC’s NFL coverage and the author of “Quiet Strength: The Principles, Practices, & Priorities of a Winning Life.”


A future Hall of Famer, Derrick Brooks spent 14 seasons as a top linebacker feared by many players in the NFL, playing his entire career with the Buccaneers. Brooks continues to be involved in charity work in the Tampa Bay area and oversees many of his own charities (see Brooks was a recipient of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2000 and the “Whizzer” White NFL Man of the Year Award in 2003. He and Selmon seem to share more in common than most because of the positions they played along with their on-field talent and off-the-field demeanor. When it comes to being a person of character, Brooks is already following in Selmon’s footsteps.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Bull-ish Effort

The University of South Florida football team won perhaps the biggest game in school history by beating Notre Dame this past weekend. Skip Holtz returned to his roots in South Bend, Ind. where both he and his father, Lou, coached to capture a tremendous victory for the Bulls and for Holtz personally.

Although the game received much more media coverage due to two lengthy weather delays, two major sports stories also unfolded at Notre Dame Stadium – how good USF’s defense looked and how inept the Fighting Irish looked overall.

The Bulls have always been known for their play on the defensive side of the ball. Ever since the team vaulted to No. 2 in the nation back in 2007, the Bulls have had some of the toughest, hard-working players on the field taking on a variety of offensive attacks. USF defensive coordinator Mark Snyder should receive major kudos for their effort last Saturday as the defense essentially won the game for the Bulls. They recorded five total turnovers including a 96-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by Kayvon Webster. USF also had three interceptions, two of which were in the endzone to halt two potential scoring drives by Notre Dame.

On the other side of the field, the Irish looked completely out of sync in a home game they were predicted to win by at least 10 points. Clearly, head coach Brian Kelly has his work cut out for him in his second year with a tough schedule on tap. Pulling starting quarterback Dane Crist for backup Tommy Rees at halftime appeared to be a smart move as Rees completed 24 of 34 passes for 296 yards and two TD’s. But it also shows the uncertainty ahead in South Bend, thanks in large part to USF’s defensive effort.

Don’t let the stormy weather rain on the significance of this win for USF. Any team that can beat Notre Dame at home is special because of how hard it is to do. The rich tradition of the program makes every Irish football game a major event in the Hoosier State, and rightfully so. Just look at the history of the program. However, for a few hours – or more like six – the USF Bulls enjoyed the national spotlight on NBC and also took another step in becoming a team that all college football fans will recognize one day.