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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

Joe Este is an NFL MVP before he even makes a team

by J.W. Miller on 05/14/18

You might have missed this news item, but on Sunday the Tennessee Titans signed undrafted defensive back Joe Este of  the University of Tennessee-Martin. Este, 23, was the only one of 20 rookie free agents who spent the weekend trying out for the Titans and hoping for an NFL contract. At first, the news seems like hundreds of other seemingly insignificant tidbits buried in 6-point agate type that announce team transactions and player movement in the major sports. But when you hear Joe Este’s story, you will see that he is far more than just another lightly regarded prospect with major league aspirations. In fact, if you’re familiar with such feel-good sporting tales as Rudy, Rocky and Invincible, you will recognize that Joe Este’s story would fit right into the “underdog makes good” genre. 

Ron Higgins of the Times-Picayune has chronicled Este’s unlikely journey that began at Bonnabel High School in Kenner where Este, a 5-11, 200-pound defensive back, performed well enough to get noticed by college recruiters. But before signing day in February 2013, Este learned he was an academic non-qualifier under the NCAA minimum standards and was not eligible for a scholarship. Este walked on at Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College, began to take his grades seriously and played well enough to earn a scholarship to UT-Martin in 2016. 

Este performed well enough at UT-Martin, starting 22 of 23 games, recording 129 tackles, 11½ for loss, 18 pass breakups and four interceptions. But it was those two years off the field that is the crux of this story and defines just who Joe Este is. 

His family life had been what Higgins charitably called "tumultuous." His mother, Candrice, was taking care of her two grandsons, aged 6 and 7, after her daughter, Este’s half-sister, disappeared. But shortly after Este settled in at UT-Martin, his mother called and said she was ill and could no longer take care of the boys. Este went to head coach Jason Simpson, informing him that he couldn’t stay at Martin because he had to go home and help take care of his nephews. Simpson settled him down, told him not to give up and began to discuss options with Este. 

The coach knew that Martin’s small-town environment would be ideal for the boys if they moved up and lived with Este, and he believed the community would embrace them. Simpson took the problem to the NCAA, which agreed to increase the amount of Este’s scholarship because he now had dependents to support. Este filed papers to gain temporary custody, but when he returned to New Orleans, his half-sister had reappeared and took the boys away. For six weeks, Este stayed in New Orleans and searched for Zackary and Christopher, whom he found in Tylertown, Mississippi, living with his half-sister’s father. Este convinced him that the boys were better off with him, and in late July, just before the start of pre-season practice, Este and his nephews moved into their new Tennessee home. 

Three years out of high school, Joe Este was a college student-athlete and the single parent of two rambunctious boys. But the discipline he had learned in football came in handy when applied to his new responsibilities: Wake up at 5, get ready and make breakfast; get the boys up and get them dressed and ready for school. Drive them to school at 6:45, return home and get himself ready for class at 8. At 2:30, join the school car line with other parents, pick up the boys and drive them to UT-Martin’s football building where Coach Simpson allowed the boys to attend Este’s defensive backs meeting or play with the children of other coaches. Practice began at 3:45 and when it concluded at 7, Este dressed and took the boys to his apartment where he fixed dinner. At 8 p.m., Este helped the boys with their homework, and at 9, he put them to bed. For three more hours, Este studied and then at midnight, lights out. The next day: ready, rinse, repeat. 

When conflicts arose, Simpson’s wife or one of Este’s other guardian angels in the town would step in and help. It wasn’t long before members of the community began stopping by the football building and offering to help Este and the boys however they could. Things went well during the season as the team finished 7-5 and the young single father learned how to stretch his Pell Grant check to pay rent, bills, groceries and school supplies. 

Then Este’s mother Candrice dropped another bomb early in 2017, calling to say she had been homeless for two years, living much of the time in her truck in a casino parking lot. Food and personal hygiene were options, she had suffered a mild stroke and heart attack and other members of her family had turned their backs. She admitted she was contemplating suicide. Again, Joe Este wanted to throw in the towel and come home, but he didn’t. He bought his mother a bus ticket, and that is how Este’s family and his responsibilities expanded once again. Candrice had found stability with Joe and the boys. She embraced the role of grand-mother, attending the boys’ baseball games and watching her son become a man. 

After Este’s senior season at UT-Martin, the family moved back to Kenner, and he began an intense training program that began at 5:30 a.m. when he rose and headed for the first of two workouts six days a week. And on Sunday, it paid off when he was signed by the Titans after showing leadership skills on the field as well as running a 4.38 40-yard dash. As Higgins wrote on March 3,  “In every step of Este’s fight to rise above the odds of a hardscrabble childhood, family naysayers and alleged friends told him “you can’t” and “you won’t.” Este’s responses: “I can” and “I will.” 

Keep an eye on Joe Este in his quest to make the Titans' roster. It might be the best story to come out of the NFL all year. 

Justify is up, but poor Pelicans are down!

by J.W. Miller on 05/07/18

As you read in this space during our last visit, Justify justified my belief that he is the valedictorian of the current class of 3-year-old colts. Of course, anybody can pick the favorite of a race, right? Well, that’s what one of my oldest friends chided after Justify’s victory. But to take the lazy man’s approach would be a disservice to you folks who are kind enough to read my ramblings.

Anybody who did the research would have seen the same point that stuck out with me, and I quote: “What has impressed me is that in each of his past three races his Beyer speed rating exceeded 100, which is like an NBA rookie scoring 50 points three games in a row.” That is American Pharoah territory, and the man who trained both, Bob Baffert, made the comment last week that Justify is the best horse he has taken into the Derby. ‘Nuff said! 

Meanwhile, New Orleans sporting fans are returning to normal this morning. “Normal” around here is the state of absolute grace for their beloved Saints while giving a begrudging pat on the head to the upstart Pelicans. The basketball division of the Benson sports empire teased the locals on Friday, turning the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors into a bad version of the local CYO team in a Pels’ walkover. Alas, both teams returned to form Sunday. The Pelicans could not find the basket from beyond the three-point arc (4 of 26?) while Kevin Durant showed why he might be the best player on the planet not named Lebron. 

The Warriors take a 3-1 lead in their Western Division semi-final series back to the left coast, while Pelicans fans are turning their two-way Benson empire jerseys inside-out to display the Saints black and gold. You’ll be hearing a lot of football news this week as the team holds its rookie mini-camp and Who Dats get their first up-close look at the new saviors on our small planet. But before then, let’s give the local pro hoopsters their due. 

The Pelicans’ sweep of Portland gave the local franchise a much-needed lift out of the gloom of owner Tom Benson’s death. Even if the Warriors follow the expected script and win the series, this has been a season that the Pels can use as a springboard into the upper levels of the league. Golden State and Houston will be around for a while, but could be challenged with some prudent off-season maneuvering. The core three of Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Nikola Mirotic have a short task list for management, the first of which I believe is reaching an accommodation with DeMarcus Cousins. 

Big Cuz was having another All-star season when he tore an Achilles tendon in January. A maximum contract would have been a no-brainer for the 27-year-old center before the injury, but likely not now. Although the healing rates for Achilles surgery are high, it is still difficult for athletes to fully recover their explosive power, which is a huge issue for basketball players. Kobe Bryant and Patrick Ewing tore their Achilles tendons and returned to play, but they were never quite the same players they were before the injury. Cousins does have one thing going for him as he is younger than the aforementioned, which could help his recovery. A financial accommodation should be in there somewhere.

The other task for Pelicans’ management is to bring back point guard Rajon Rondo, whose presence calmed an often helter-skelter offense as well as contributing double-digit assists and occasionally points and rebounds. Another year or two of running his own team in New Orleans could be a stepping stone to his expressed goal of a head coaching job. It also could help the Pels take the next step in their evolution. 

The Kentucky Derby brings me home for a while!

by J.W. Miller on 05/02/18

I was hoping to write a column anointing the Pelicans as this year’s NBA Playoff surprise, but the Warriors have strongly suggested I write about something else. So while we are waiting and hoping for a Pelicans’ rally at the Smoothie King Center this weekend, let’s talk Kentucky Derby. 

This is always a tough time of year for a sports-loving Kentucky native to be away from the Heartland, so I try to take advantage of it. I have already mixed a sufficient quantity of mint juleps which the Lovely Miss Jean and I will sip from our silver julep cups. We will wear our finest Derby Day headwear, and I will shed a tear when the strains of My Old Kentucky Home signals the parade of starters. Another julep, please, to put me in a racing mood! 

This year’s 144th Run for the Roses has some New Orleans interest in Lone Sailor, owned by Tom Benson’s GMB Stable and trained by New Orleans based Tom Amoss. Despite the interest, I think Lone Sailor is strictly a loyalty bet at 50-1 odds. He did not show much foot in his first seven races, and his best outing was second to Noble Indy in the Louisiana Derby. A silver lining is that his Louisiana performance suggests Lone Sailor likes the distance he will run at Churchill Downs. He covered the mile-and-an-eighth with ease at the Fair Grounds, which should bode well for the mile-and-a-quarter Derby distance. Reports from Churchill Downs say he is training brilliantly, and his No. 8 post position is favorable. But a finish close to the money would take a perfect ride by jockey James Graham. 

Other horses have caught my eye, including - no surprise here! - Justify, the early 3-1 favorite. Trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, Justify did not race as a 2-year-old, prompting the experts to weigh his raw talent with his lack of a strong foundation of experience. What has impressed me is that in each of his past three races his Beyer speed rating exceeded 100, which is like an NBA rookie scoring 50 points three games in a row. Justify showed me a combination of speed and stamina at the Santa Anita Derby when he sprinted to an early lead, held off a top-of-the-stretch challenge by fellow Derby horse Bolt D’Oro and blew him away in the stretch. 

An intriguing challenger and No. 2 favorite at 5-1 is Mendelssohn, breaking from the No. 14 post position. Trained by famed Irish trainer Aidan O’Brien and ridden by Ryan Moore, Mendelssohn is not as well known as some contenders, having raced mostly overseas. His most impressive outing was a Secretariat-like 18-length victory at the UAE Derby in Dubai. His reputation is high cruising speed, success on a dirt track and stamina. The No. 3 betting pick, Magnum Moon at 8-1, also is receiving some late attention and not only because he is one of trainer Todd Pletcher's four entries. Magnum Moon is undefeated in his last four races. 

If you are looking for longer odds, you might take a peek at Good Magic, the champion 2-year-old, trained by Chad Brown and ridden by Jose Ortiz. A son of Curlin, Good Magic won the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile last fall and won the recent Blue Grass Stakes easily over a modest field. Other horses might catch your eye, but here is what I think will happen: 


And they’re off! Justify breaks cleanly and uses his impressive speed to take and hold the lead around the far turn. A few lengths back is Mendelssohn, who has the speed to press the pace. Lone Sailor saves ground on the inside as the group hits the far turn, but Combatant and Instilled Regard start to lag behind the field. In the backstretch, Pletcher’s Audible, under jockey Javier Castellano, weaves through the pack and is firmly in third place until his stablemate, Vino Rosso, under John Velazquez, gains ground on the rail and slips past him. 

In the final furlong, it becomes a two-horse race. Smith goes to the whip, and Justify responds as Mendelssohn can’t make up the three lost lengths. Crossing the finish line in 2:02 2/5 is Justify, the Kentucky-bred owned by WinStar Farm of Versailles, KY. Baffert’s fifth Kentucky Derby winner also breaks the “Curse of Apollo,” as he becomes the first Kentucky Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 who did not race as a 2-year-old. 

And, puhleeze, pass me another julep!

Saints traded up for a difference-maker

by J.W. Miller on 04/27/18

Bravo to the Saints for identifying the man they wanted in the 2018 NFL Draft and then leaping over all prevailing opinions and perceived obstacles to get him. After the Saints traded up from No. 27 to the No. 14 slot held by Green Bay, it clearly revealed one thing: GM Mickey Loomis and Coach Sean Payton had identified a difference-maker, a player whose presence might push them over the top. But who would it be? 

To anyone familiar with the Saints’ needs, it was obvious. The position was pass rusher and one prospect was still available and within reach. I immediately turned to the Lovely Miss Jean and said “Marcus Davenport!” But the intrepid band of experts on ESPN was so enmeshed in a quarterback-centric narrative that they immediately suspected the Saints had traded up to select Louisville QB Lamar Jackson. Mel Kiper Jr., Kirk Herbstreit and Louis Riddick all justified their collective opinion for a variety of reasons, all logical. Payton once commented on Jackson’s unique gifts as a combination passer-runner. Another noted that it was time the Saints thought about the successor to Drew Brees, who will reach the lofty age of 40 during the 2018 playoffs. Still another gushed about the historic opportunity the NFL had of drafting five quarterbacks in the first round since 1983. 

And all were wrong when the Saints selected Davenport. The UT San Antonio product was the highest rated pure edge rusher in the draft and ranked just behind North Carolina State DE Bradley Chubb - who went to Denver at No. 5 - in overall ability as a pass rusher and run stopper. And, with All Pro Cameron Jordan coming off his best year at the other end of the defensive line, the Saints now have what could become their best pass-rush tandem since Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson of the Dome Patrol Era. 

Just as important to NFL personnel geeks, the selection is consistent with an old NFL scouting axiom that “blue players make blue plays.” Blue meaning the color-code for the very best players. Successful teams consist primarily of “red” players who are solid starters, a few “yellow” players or starters who teams would like to replace with an upgrade. But teams try to add more “blue” players, the ones who make the plays that win games. Obviously, the Saints believe Davenport is a “blue” player and paid the price to snag him. 

It wasn’t the first time Loomis and Payton have traded up for a player they believe can make a huge difference to their offensive or defensive schemes. The most notable recent successes were WR Brandin Cooks, whom they acquired by trading up from No. 27 to No. 20 in 2014, and RB Alvin Kamara last year, whom they acquired at No. 67 in the third round by giving San Francisco their 2018 second-round pick. 

The Kamara deal is illustrative in considering whether trading away a first-rounder or other future higher round is an obstacle, either actual or perceptual. Unless you’re in an NBA front office, giving up a future first-round pick may be considered too much of a price. But consider that some thought the same thing last year when the Saints gave up a future No. 2 for a No. 3 today. That argument balloon began leaking air after Kamara’s offensive rookie of year season, but it popped when the final 2018 draft order revealed that the traded second-round pick was No. 59, only eight slots ahead of last year's third rounder. That is no difference at all. 

Just for fun, let’s look at would have happened if the Saints had not made the trade and waited it out patiently. When the No. 27 slot was on the clock - Seattle had obtained the pick from Green Bay -  these players were still on the board: defensive lineman Taven Bryan of Florida; tight ends Dallas Goedert of South Dakota and Mike Gesicki of Penn State; cornerback Mike Hughes of UCF and, oh yes, QB Lamar Jackson, who was selected by Baltimore as the No. 32 and last pick in the first round. 

The Saints would have selected a good player but not equal to the talent they received. As it turned out, Mel Kiper and crew got their fifth quarterback in the first round, and the Saints got their difference-maker. 

“Best available” could mean draft surprise by Saints

by J.W. Miller on 04/23/18

I will admit that I am no different from you when it comes to an opinion on who the Saints should draft when the 2018 NFL Draft kicks off on Thursday night. All things being equal, I would pick a pass rusher or a tight end. Options will be available at both positions when the Saints are on the clock at No. 27 in the first round. However, the players still available at those positions might not necessarily be the best overall player left on the board. 

There is inevitably a run on one or two positions that often leaves a ruby shining at another position. For example, if teams see a need for offensive linemen and five or six are drafted early, that might leave a linebacker or a wide receiver on the board who is rated higher as a better long-term prospect. Teams can get lucky when higher rated players fall into their lap. That is why you will hear several times on draft night that a team will either draft for need or will take the “best available” player, regardless of position. The latter is how the better teams approach the draft. 

With injuries, free agency and other factors, teams can’t have enough depth, even at a position that appears secure. Last year, the Saints were extremely fortunate when their need and the best available player happened to coincide when cornerback Marshon Lattimore was still on the board at No. 11. The pick was more than validated by Lattimore’s play that earned him defensive rookie of the year. That was the Saints’ good fortune. So how about this year? Will the Saints get lucky again and have the best player available at a position of need? Or Not?

I went through an exercise to see just what might happen if every team picking before No. 27 chose the “best available” player. I took the draft rankings of five organizations or individuals that posted their top 50 or 100 draft prospects and looked at who they have at No. 27 or the vicinity. The results are interesting and somewhat surprising. 

Coincidentally, two of the selectors had Alabama WR Calvin Ridley as the 27th ranked player, although he is predicted to go much higher in most mock drafts. I am sure the Saints would not mind if Ridley fell down the board to them since wide receiver is a position of modest need, but that is not likely. Another player ranked at 27 was South Dakota TE Dallas Goedert who would be a logical selection for the Saints. Some experts believe the team can find an adequate tight end beyond the first round, as they did with Jimmy Graham in the third round. 

Another predictor had Georgia RB Sony Michel at 27. I doubt the Saints would take a running back that high, especially with Mark Ingram and last year’s offensive rookie of the year, Alvin Kamara, coming off fantastic seasons. But the next two players are at a position of need - defensive tackle – in Michigan’s Maurice Hurst and Florida’s Taven Bryan. Hmmm!

My fifth predictor’s 27th-ranked player was a true surprise; Wyoming QB Josh Allen, who is also rumored to the first overall player selected, by the Cleveland Browns. I doubt Allen will still be there at 27, but it poses an interesting question for the Saints. Would they draft a quarterback if the right guy fell to them? I believe they would, but it would have to be a player like Lattimore, whose grade last year far outkicked the Saints’ slot. 

Of course, this was just an exercise and not an attempt to match team needs with a dwindling draft board, which still leaves my prediction. I think the Saints will again try to match ranking with need. The two positions of need that should have players rated sufficiently high enough for the Saints are defensive line and tight end. My pick: Florida tackle Taven Bryan in the first round followed by a trade-up into the second round to pick a tight end. Bryan is an elite 3-down run defender and an accomplished pass rusher who would fit right into Coach Sean Payton’s expressed need for another defensive stopper. 

That’s my pick. So who do you like?

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