The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
When you hear players and coaches say it takes individuals to make a team, you probably think they are talking about the various personalities who man critical playing positions. But those who are fortunate enough to be around a professional sports franchise know that many anonymous individuals help make up the team. Like Glennon “Silky” Powell, the Saints long-time assistant equipment manager who died last week a few days before his 72nd birthday.
A fixture in the Saints' locker room for 38 years, until his retirement in 2012, Powell was as much a part of the Saints’ franchise as the fleur-de-lis on the helmets. To describe the role of an equipment manager in pro sports is not easy. Let’s just say it’s like a coal shoveler in the engine room of a luxurious ocean-going vessel. It sounds glamorous until squalls hit and the temperature rises. And the temperature in a football locker room rises and falls depending on the previous week’s game, mood swings of players and coaches and seemingly innocuous tasks as players’ ticket orders.
But with each wave of new players, always younger than those before, equipment managers and team trainers assume a mantle of respect. They are the adults in the room, playing different roles ranging from disciplinarian to father confessor and even friend. Friends of Silky Powell are grieving this week, but each one is handling it with stories and memories that reflected the joy that the ever-smiling Silky brought to the locker room. Archie Manning told me of a time when he was rehabbing from bicep surgery and Silky was drafted by trainer Dean Kleinschmidt to play catch with the quarterback. “I started with five-yard throws to Silk and he would throw it back,” Manning said. “By the time I had built up to 20 yards, Silk developed bicep tendinitis in his arm.”
Sometimes, tasks that appeared to be simple required prior knowledge and experience. Powell and Simmons were responsible for collecting ticket orders from players the week of a home game. When a prominent player’s order was turned in as “2-2-2-2,” they knew the order was for four pairs, strategically placed in different sections of the Superdome. But when a part-timer was assigned to take the order before one game, he read “2-2-2-2” as eight tickets together in the same row and submitted it to the ticket office. Minutes before the game, the angry player confronted the equipment guys, claiming his order had been screwed up, and his life was in danger. Silky and Dan would have known that the player’s “2-2-2-2” order was for two tickets each for four girl friends, each to sit in different sections.
Powell was a son of the Irish Channel, and an athlete himself in his younger days at Redemptorist High School. One childhood friend told me about Silky’s skill as a baseball player, saying “you may not believe it, but I’ve never seen such a beautiful hook slide into second base as Silky’s.” Silky also was known to hold his own in pickup basketball games around the old practice facility off David Drive. If Silky had an enemy, it was his weight that seemed to rise and recede like a storm tide. Once, when Silky’s girth approached alarming proportions, President and General Manager Jim Finks offered him $1,000 if he would lose 100 pounds. Silky made an effort, but after a while he thanked Finks and told him he’d rather continue living large.
Glennon Powell was given the nickname “Silky” by family members who likened him to a prominent racehorse named Silky Sullivan. The thoroughbred’s reputation was as one that started slowly but finished near or at the front of most of his races, just like Silky’s place in the hearts of those who knew him.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, October 20, at the L.A. Muhleisen Funeral Home, 2607 Williams Boulevard, in Kenner.
On Monday night, if the football gods are cooperative, Saints’ QB Drew Brees will pass Peyton Manning and become the all-time passing yards leader in NFL history. The Monday Night Football crew, as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame, are primed and ready with all the in-game stoppages, mini-tributes and historical balloons they can drop on America to celebrate a major milestone in league history. But it's likely that none of those balloons will tell the story of the man who drafted Brees out of Purdue and gave him the platform to complete his first passing yards on his way to the NFL record.
John Butler, general manager of the San Diego Chargers in 2001, carefully constructed the scenario that brought Brees into the NFL. I write with some knowledge of this because I worked with Butler for two years in Buffalo after I left the Saints in 1996, and we talked about how Brees became a Charger. Butler was a larger than life guy, a burly, tough brawler from the streets of Chicago who loved football but did not take academics seriously in high school. College was out of the question, so in 1964 Butler began a four-year hitch with the Marines and was soon shipped to Vietnam. He grew up over there, surviving combat while learning discipline and determining that the direction for the rest of his life was football.
By 2001, we had both left Buffalo, having tired of our shared task of trying to manage erratic owner Ralph Wilson. By then, I was contracts negotiator in Chicago and Butler was in his first year as GM of the Chargers. When we spoke after the 2001 NFL Draft, Butler was giddy over his first draft in San Diego in which his first two picks would become Hall of Famers. The Chargers had the No. 1 overall pick that year and needed a quarterback after the previous administration had jettisoned the ill-fated Ryan Leaf the previous year.
The 2001 draft was heavy with higher-rated wide receivers and defensive players, and, outside of Michael Vick, the best quarterback options were Quincy Carter of Georgia, Marques Tuiasosopo of Washington and Brees of Purdue. Instead of using the No. 1 overall pick, Butler decided to parlay its value to fill more than one major hole. He knew Atlanta also was in the market for a quarterback and coveted Vick, so Butler swapped his No. 1 pick for Atlanta’s No. 5 pick plus a third-rounder in 2001 and a second-rounder in 2002. When the draft got to the No. 5 slot, Butler wisely chose RB LaDanian Tomlinson of TCU, the top running back in the draft. Then the games began.
Butler was impressed with Brees from his interviews and the fact that he had played four years in college and displayed uncanny maturity and decision-making ability. But would he get the opportunity to draft him? Butler was afraid that Brees would not get past Miami at No. 26 or Oakland at No. 28, and he tried to use his multiple picks to trade back into the first round. Those attempts failed, but when both teams drafted defensive backs, Butler was home free. With San Diego’s own No. 1 pick in the second round, he chose Brees. “I really didn’t think he was going to be there,” Butler said. “I knew he had first-round talent.”
That first season, Brees only played in one game, backing up QB Doug Flutie in a 5-11 season. The script flipped in 2002, as Brees became the starter and led the Chargers to a respectable 8-8 record. But during that season John Butler got sick. Always a heavy smoker, Butler developed lymphoma and died in April, 2003, at age 56, never seeing the fruits of his greatest draft. Brees struggled the following season, starting 11 games, but he was benched for five games behind Flutie. New GM A.J. Smith, Butler’s assistant with the Bills and Chargers, was not sold on Brees. During the 2004 draft, Smith made the memorable draft day swap of Eli Manning for Philip Rivers.
But an interesting thing happened that season. The Chargers went 12-4 and made the playoffs. Tomlinson rushed for 1,335 yards and 17 touchdowns and Brees threw 27 touchdown passes against seven interceptions and made his first Pro Bowl. Butler’s plan was vindicated. Brees would play for the Chargers one more season, before Rivers became the starter and Brees’ story would find a happy ending in New Orleans.
I went out and played 18 holes Monday morning, and I played just like the pros. Honest! If you watched any of the USA’s embarrassing loss to Europe in the Ryder Cup over the weekend you get an idea of how I played. I’d never put my fragile game close to their level, but if you watched any of the matches, you'd think their game had descended to my level.
The best players in the world hit drives into the thick rough, and so did I. I splayed iron shots at weird angles, and so did they. Jordan Spieth, a recent No. 1 player in the world, could not buy a putt inside six feet, and neither could I. Brooks Koepka, winner of two majors this year, missed a two-footer, and so did I. After one foul shot, Justin Thomas rolled his eyes and looked at the heavens for cosmic relief, and so did I. Several times.
I even hit one into the water today, just like Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson did Saturday when Europe held an 8-4 lead going into the Saturday foursomes.What’s even more remarkable is that on the same hole, European Sergio Garcia also hit his drive into the water, and mate Alex Noren was dry but muffed a chip shot. The pros all took triple bogey on the hole, while I “saved” about five double-bogeys but never went triple!
In the post-mortem, most analysts said the American players were not well-suited to the tight, precise course at Golf Le National. American golf is so influenced by club and ball manufacturers who stress distance and power, and the courses are built to accommodate long hitters. European courses require less power and meticulous ball-striking, which the European team performed superbly at Golf Le National. Phil Mickelson is a Hall of Famer, but right now he ranks 192 in the world in driving accuracy, a stat that he confirmed several times. Phil even tried to achieve accuracy with a long iron off one tee, and he dunked it into a nearby lagoon. But Phil wasn’t the only American to hit wayward tee shots, and it did not take long for the European players to realize that par was their friend.
USA Coach Jim Furyk was handed some of the blame for his pairings in the critical doubles matches. For example, in four-balls, where the player with the lowest score gets the point for his team, Furyk sent out the exact same lineup on Saturday morning that had blown a match Friday morning. He matched Tiger Woods and Patrick Reed, who on Friday took a 2-up lead on Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood then went without a birdie in their last eight holes. They lost 3 and 1. On Saturday, Furyk sent them out again and the pair combined for only three birdies on their way to a 4 and 3 loss. A Golf Digest columnist was more brutal, saying that European captain Thomas Bjorn was playing chess while Furyk was playing checkers.
But enough about the American performance. Let’s look at the bright side that the Ryder Cup always seems to provide. If you are fortunate enough to attend a Ryder Cup, as I did in 2008 at Valhalla, you will discover that this is one of the truly great sporting events for fans in the world. You will not only see the best players in the world and (normally) great competition, you are constantly entertained by the costumed rooters from Ireland, Scotland, Spain, England, Italy and any other country that had a player represented. Other than their ubiquitous “Ole, ole-ole-ole” soccer cheer that rings across the fairways, they serenade their best players when their group passes by.
In France, the best song I heard was sung by the Italian team cheering on their star, Francesco Molinari with a rewritten Dean Martin hit: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, MOLINARI!” You can hate the golf, but you have to love the Ryder Cup.
I was on the road last week, peddling the two books that you see at the right side of your screen to audiences in Evansville, Indiana, and Georgetown, Kentucky. And since I brought it up, Christmas is coming and the fans on your list just might be appreciative of some good sports education. As regular readers know, Where the Water Kept Rising is the story of our struggle trying to help the University of New Orleans and its athletic program survive in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. My current book, Integrated: the Lincoln Institute, Basketball and a Vanished Tradition, uses basketball as a lens through which to view the little-known story of how one state’s response to desegregation affected the strong tradition of African American high school basketball.
Both are available at Amazon.com or you can click on the prompts on this page.
Traveling to the heartland also gave me an opportunity to visit with family and look in on my favorite college team. Thankfully, Kentucky’s football team is showing signs that this could be a special year. The Wildcats turned some heads when they went into Gainesville two weeks ago and defeated Florida for the first time since I moved to New Orleans 31 years ago. There’s not enough notches on your belt to tighten it that far, but at least that starvation streak is over. But could they beat No. 14 Mississippi State? The Bulldogs boasted a 50-point scoring average behind QB Nick Fitzgerald, the type of pass-run virtuoso who traditionally gives Kentucky fits. And the defense might be better than that, boasting a handful of potential NFL draft choices.
But a strange thing happened after I drank some spiked Kool-Aid while tailgating with family members. The Kentucky defense totally shut down Fitzgerald, while RB Benny Snell ran over, around and through the defensive doggy door. Snell gained 165 yards on the ground while scoring four touchdowns in a 28-7 beatdown of the Sparkleville hounds. Snell reminds me of Mark Ingram, both in size and in the fact that it takes a village to get him down. On defense, edge rusher Josh Allen, who will go high in the first-round next spring, had the State offensive line so rattled that he sparked five illegal procedure penalties for three different linemen who were assigned to block him.
There’s a long way to go in an SEC season, but the upset Saturday night was a game for the ages in Lexington. Better yet, it gives Big Blue Nation something to do while waiting for Midnight Madness next month.
Driving home, the Lovely Miss Jean and I picked up the Saints-Falcons game on Sirius-XM around Birmingham and nearly ran off the road a couple of times listening to that shootout. What can you say about the Saints except they have a Hall of Fame quarterback trying to outscore a Hall of Infamy secondary? Drew Brees is incredible and will always give the Saints a chance to win, but I fear those upcoming games when the Saints face teams that can limit Brees while tossing raindrops into the end zone on offense. For example, Baltimore has the fifth-best pass defense and the second-best pass offense in the NFL. Likewise, the Rams have the No. 1 pass defense and the No. 3 passing offense in the league. Even the Redskins, who come to town week after next, have the No. 2 team defense and the No. 6 pass defense in the league and cagey Alex Smith leading the offense. Those teams could pose special problems unless the defense improves drastically next week at the Giants.
And I close with a review of new Saints play-by-play man Zach Strief. I am sure that for the former offensive tackle, it must be like his rookie season as a seventh-round draft choice. Trying to follow a legend like Jim Henderson is tough enough, and to come in without experience and deliver a Hondo-like performance should not be expected by any Who Dat radiohead. But after listening for three hours to Strief and his broadcast blocker, Deuce McAllister, I give him a solid C+.
He does the basics well. You always know the down and distance and time remaining. But in critical moments I believe Strief tries too hard to paint a picture which sometimes shrouds the news at hand. As an example, a touchdown call sounded something like this: “Ryan goes back, he has plenty of time, he throws one into the back of the end zone. P.J. Williams is defending. Calvin Ridley is inside the pylon. The touchdown puts the Falcons up ….” Here’s how I think he should call the play: “Ryan goes back, he has plenty of time, he throws one into the back of the end zone. Touchdown! Calvin Ridley. P.J. Williams was defending but …”
Another minor nit was the spin-move touchdown by Brees that had Strief's voice hitting little-girl octaves, but he wasn't the only Saints fan in the stadium squealing. Like the mistakes made by a rookie tackle, broadcasting mistakes are fixable with experience. From humble beginnings, Strief became a solid run stopper and Brees bodyguard, and the guess here is he will do the same in the broadcast booth, given time and good coaching.
How many times have you made a casual statement about your favorite team’s chances, and somebody responds “Put your money where your mouth is!” That’s usually enough to wither your conviction like an ice-water shower. The last time somebody said that to me was in late March, always a dangerous time for Kentucky basketball fans, and I wound up treating my golfing pal Dave and his wife Rita to dinner. Did I mention that Dave is a Kansas State grad and had proprietary information about the game? He must have for his Wildcats to beat my Wildcats, but, hey, it was a good meal and the Lovely Miss Jean enjoyed it.
But now, such bravado has been monetized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that allows individual states to take bets on sporting events. And one of the first states to go all in is our little community on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Mississippi had a leg up on the competition with its long history of gambling - legalized and otherwise - that began as an economic stimulant during the Great Depression. In more recent years, plush casinos have thrived along the Redneck Riviera, and they had long prepared for the opportunity to offer sports gambling.
So, naturally, it was incumbent upon me, as point man for sporting deplorables, to investigate this newfound outlet for stupidity while helping the local economy. I took the opportunity two weeks ago when Charles Connor, Layne and I celebrated another anniversary of the Lovely Miss Jean’s 29th birthday. A casino in Biloxi houses one of our favorite steak restaurants, and the casino next door had one of the first sports books to open in the state.
So, after a wonderful dinner we wandered over to the Beau Rivage and sought out its sports book. This is strictly under "research," you understand? We were ushered into a large 245-seat room with tables and chairs and two-dozen large-screen televisions that carried various live sporting events and a huge tote board that listed odds. The clientele looked a little more intense than the one-armed bandit crowd. Several were marking tout sheets and others watched games, the winners clearly distinguished by their cheshire cat grins while the losers were chewing on their cocktail glasses, not realizing that the ice had melted.
Just outside the room was a bank of computer terminals manned by smiling young men and women who were present to explain to us novice Jimmy the Greeks how it all worked before they were happy to take our money. My son was more interested in the craps tables because he fully expected to see the ghost of Roger Moore in his white tuxedo jacket tossing a few winners to the croupier’s call of faites vox jeux. Of course, I was more interested in how many different ways I could invest in Mississippi’s economy.
Consulting a rack of various printed sheets, I learned that I could place different bets on a single live or upcoming event or a “future” bet on a particular team’s season. The over-under on Kentucky football victories was 5.5, which seems low until you realize that the guys who set those numbers are named Guido and sit around picking their nails with a stiletto. Like Dave the K-State guy, they usually have inside information. But I made the trip for another reason and that was to put my money where my mouth is.
As readers of this erstwhile epistle well know, I follow three teams, one in each of the major sports. I am a somewhat educated Saints fan, having spent ten years on the Benson payroll. I am a devoted Red Sox fan ever since my father introduced me to the skill and ability of Ted Williams. And, I am a rabid and often maniacal Kentucky basketball fan. All three deserve my support, so I walked haltingly to the first available betting window and opened my wallet.
I had taken similar action many times at the racetrack, where I would throw down a few bucks on a horse with a good pedigree, shiny silks or a jockey whose name I could pronounce. More often than not, betting for me was like hitting a golf ball into a lake and deciding I could have lessened my frustration by simply throwing the ball into the water. But these bets had some cred to them.
The Saints, before their two lackluster opening matches, were picked by Sports Illustrated as the best bet in the NFL at 15-1 odds. The Red Sox have the best record in baseball and could set a record for victories in a season, which makes their 12-1 odds to win the World Series a no-brainer. And my beloved Wildcats are once again loaded with freshman talent but also have some upperclassmen this year to provide necessary experience. They are at or near the top of everybody’s NCAA Final Four list, which explains their relatively modest 4-1 odds.
So I did it. I plucked from my wallet three Benjamins and laid one on each team to win it all. If I had waited until today, I might have taken the Saints' bet and laid it all on Kentucky football to win six games. But even that night, I walked away with the haunting feeling that my son, who won $31 by channeling James Bond at the craps table, was the night’s big winner.