Tag:Football
Posted on: April 1, 2009 1:06 am
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Secluded Scout Who Found Ryan, Pujols Dead at 86

You probably don't know the story of Edgar Willard, not unless you knew the man. He did not want you to know him; he did not want you to know his story. Sure, people tried. What a funny word, tried. Could you really have tried when the odds of success going in were zero?

Yet, I knew Edgar Willard, lived next door to him for eight years. Shot hoops in the backyard and when I missed, the ball would roll into his yard. He'd pick it up and toss it back. Not a word.

One day I asked him why he kept silent, why he had no visitors, why he was so aloof, and he told me. He told me everything.

He told me how in high school he was the homecoming king, the class president, the fancy of every young schoolgirl. He told me how he threw two perfect games his senior year, striking out a sophomore pinch-hitter by the name of Ted Kluszewski to end one of them. Of course, it was only years later that he found out he had struck out one of the most feared power-hitters of the 1950s, when Kluszewski himself said in an interview that Willard had the best curveball he ever faced.

He told me how he was the best football player in the state of Illinois, the best halfback to run down the gridiron since Red Grange a decade prior. He told me how he would have gone to the University in Champagne had his mother not found a wartime job in a factory in central New Jersey. He could not enter the second World War due to 20-100 eyesight, something that miraculously did not hinder him on the playing field.

He enrolled at Plainfield Teachers' College in 1941, but an ankle injury in the first game pushed him out of the lineup. Unfortunately for him, he would never play again. Another freshman, Johnny Chung, rushed for over 400 yards the next two games, earning the starting spot. He dropped out of college after the semester to try to make it in professional baseball.

But the injury continued to haunt him.

While he still had all the physical abilities, he started to lose it mentally. He felt detached, alone. As the war dragged on, he wished he could be serving his country. He began to drink heavily.

“He had all the mental anxieties of a soldier without any of the experience,” said Boo Ferriss, a minor league teammate of Willard before his 1945 call-up by the Boston Red Sox. “He drank, cursed, moaned, heck, I think at some point he even shot himself in his non-pitching hand to create a battle wound.”

On June 16, 1946, pitching for the Roanoke Red Sox, Willard threw a no-hitter against the Asheville Tourists, the class B affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Three days later, he gave up a minor league-record 15 consecutive hits to start the game. It would be his last appearance in organized baseball.

(As an interesting side-note, the man called up to replace him was Earl Grayson, a career minor-league pitcher who in 1952 struck out Willie Mays in Mays's last at-bat before being called up to the Major Leagues for good.)

However, he left his mark on the game.

He had an eye for talent unmatched by anyone else. Anyone. It was almost uncanny. Despite never serving as the scout for any team or coaching any team, he would find people.

He discovered Nolan Ryan as an eighth grader and contacted a friend in the New York Mets' front office.

“I told him this kid is the real deal,” Willard told me with a tear in his eye. “He's almost unhittable.”

Little did Willard know just how correct he was.

His time helping the Mets did not end with Ryan.

In 1983, he convinced the Mets to draft a little-known Buddhist boy by the name of Sidd Finch. While Finch retired before pitching in the big leagues, he created a splash during spring training in 1985 with a fastball that shattered all previous records. Spiritual obligations made baseball a second priority for the young Finch, who had been a 43rd-round selection.

And his success was not just with pitchers.

Willard met Albert Pujols when he was just a child in the Dominican Republic in 1991.

“He took a liking to me that no one had ever shown before,” Pujols said during the 2004 World Series in an interview with the Boston Globe. “He could not speak a word of Spanish, but he found someone who did and made sure to stay in contact with me.”

When Pujols moved to New York City with his family in 1996, it was Willard who found work for Pujols's family. He saw New York as a bad place for Pujols and found them an apartment in Independence, Mo. Willard made sure the now-teenaged Pujols was enrolled in high school. Finally, he tried to make sure Pujols was drafted into baseball.

“He called every team, he called every executive, everyone,” Pujols said.

It took 402 picks for anyone to listen.

He found Tommy John for the Cleveland Indians and Don Sutton for the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the same time, he warned the Atlanta Braves against selecting Todd Van Poppel during the 1990 MLB Draft. Bobby Cox does not want the help forgotten.

“There were a lot of factors that went into selecting Chipper Jones that year, but [Willard's] analysis probably swayed the most,” Cox said. “He said Van Poppel could be good, but Chipper was a sure thing. He said we'd be dumb not to select him.”

But Willard did not want the recognition; it was not him. He just loved baseball and loved being alone. If he saw talent, he wanted the talent to be recognized. But he never wanted anyone to recognize him.

For years, Willard would refuse to talk to the media. When Pujols's story broke, there were a rush of people to my neighborhood. They all wanted a word with him. Instead, Willard called the cops.

He told me how he never married. Sure, he courted women, including one girl whom he lived with for 15 years, but he never married. His life was his life, his time his. He could never grasp the ability to share it. Maybe it was the injury in college; God knows he wasn't a hermit before that. Maybe it was his sobering-yet-drunken experiences in the low rungs of professional baseball. Who knows?

His only escape into reality was baseball. His only connection to the world was baseball. Nobody ever called him unless he called them first, and he never called anyone unless he had found a superstar. But when he called, teams listened.

I write this not because I want to break Willard's confidence; God knows I could have done that at any point over the past five years. But I could never do that. He told me his story because he knew I would not tell it.

But Edgar Willard died last week in his home. He was 86. His body was found last night upright in a chair. He was wearing an autographed Albert Pujols jersey.

It's fitting that the story has gone under the table, but it needs to be told. Sometimes, the unknown recluse needs to be outed. Sometimes his accomplishments need to be brought back to life, if only for one fleeting article.

So Rest In Peace, Edgar Willard. Your contributions to the game live on even as your connection is forgotten. Just as you always wanted it.

 

Posted on: September 5, 2008 7:45 pm
 

Laveranues Coles is Still a Hero

This is not topical. Not at all. It is not breaking news; heck, it barely was three years ago. It should have been, but things like this never are. We don't think of NFL stars as people.

About three years ago, Laveranues Coles, a Pro Bowl receiver, then as now a New York Jet, admitted that he had been raped, not sexually abused as he tried to portrait it, but raped by his step-father when he was a pre-teenage boy. Raped.

One of the most talented and prolific wide receivers of his era, raped. Not once, as if the number of times matters, but continually.

After the Jets defeated Miami in their week two game in 2005, Coles publicly admitted that a man his mother was dating and would latter marry started raping him. For three years, Coles lived through the hell of being raped. For more than a decade, he lived through the hell of feeling unclean and unwanted because of it, eating away at his mind every day when he woke up.

Even as he caught more than 80 passes for 1204 yards and six touchdowns on the way to the Pro Bowl one season.

If this had happened to me, I don't think I could have gotten out of bed in the morning. I don't think I could have gone to school and put a fake smile on my face. I'm just not that strong.

Do you think you are?

Instead, we are lucky enough to be able to sugar-coat things like this when we see them and push them aside. We don't want to address the problem; we don't want to think about it.

We want to believe Coles is the exception; we want to think he's the only one who will suffer through this.

And we are right when we think he is the exception: he is one of the few who is willing to admit what happened to him.

According to data compiled by stopitnow.com, 88 percent of all cases involving “sexual abuse” of children is never reported. Ever. Eight-in-every-nine-cases. Coles is the exception.

But that's the only place where he is.

About 20 percent of girls will be sexually abused in some way as a child and between five and 10 percent of boys. Many of these cases are not as severe as Coles, but some are. Additionally, 70 to 90 percent of these children will be victimized by someone they know.

They will be victimized by an aunt or uncle, mother or father, brother or sister, cousin, anyone. Maybe the parent of a friend. Most likely, no one will ever find out.

And that really makes sense.

Think of your most embarrassing moment. Whatever it is. Could you go up to a random stranger and tell them about it? Of course not. At the very least, I know I could not.

Somehow, Coles did. And his “embarrassing moment” is something so much more surreal than anything I could make up.

No, let me rewrite that.

His "embarrassing moment" is something so much more real than anything I could ever dream up.

"I just want to help kids because I think it happens to more people in this world than actually allow ourselves to believe,” said Coles in 2005. “Coming up, I always felt like I was the only one that ever happened to. Then, when I started going to different sessions, they let me know that it happens to a lot more people."

That still is, three years later, the greatest quote I have ever heard out of a professional athlete.

Do I like Coles as a player? Would I be happy if my team traded for him? No, I would not.

But there is not a person in the National Football League, there is not a person in professional sports that I respect more than I do Coles. Not one.

There might never be.

The fact that he had the courage just to pull through this is remarkable.

The fact that he was man enough to seek counseling despite being a jock is just mind-boggling.

The fact that he would come forward and tell the world in hopes that it would help other kids suffering through the same hell he once did is heroic.

And we need to think of Laveranues Coles as such, as a hero. Every day.

In a sports media world that is dominated by and continually obsessed with the Jeremy Shockey's and Terrell Owens's, we need true heroes.

We can have our fake ones, the guys who on any given day lead our favorite teams to unprecedented heights, the ones we would emulate as children. Those we can dehumanize and idolize as if they are gods.

Laveranues Coles is a real hero; he is the type of man that everyone should emulate to be. He is the type of person we need to wake up each morning and wish we could be as talented as.

Not necessarily on the football field, but mentally and courageously.

He is a true hero because after what he has gone through, he is more human than any of us hopefully will ever have the burden of being.

That is why I am reminding you of this story.

I hate the New York Jets; I always will. But I also will never scream louder, jump higher, smile realer than whenever Coles scores a touchdown.

I might not want to, but the internal love I have for this man is that rooted in me.

There is no data as to how many people have sought help because of Coles, but I am sure it is plenty. Even if it is one, then Coles has earned his moniker.

Not “Trouble” like he once went by. No, that one doesn't fit anymore.

“Hero.”

At least that's what I will always call him.
Posted on: June 13, 2008 3:10 pm
 

My First Entry

If you are going to spend time reading my work, then I believe that it is important that you know who I am. This is most likely the last time I write about myself, but I feel that it is an important introduction to my column.

I am a sports fan. I enjoy the competition, not just against other people but against yourself. Sports is, as Yogi Berra said, “90 percent half mental.” If you don't win over your mind, you cannot beat anyone else.

I am a sports fan. I relish in the satisfaction I get when my team wins, everytime my team wins. But it is a two-edged sword. When the University of Florida loses in football, I go crazy. I cannot watch a game with anything but socks near me because I will throw whatever I have at the television when something goes wrong.

I am a sports fan. I'll watch any sport once. Curling? Put it on. Badminton? Why not? Sure, I have preferences, but I'm not going to say no to a sport just because of its reputation. Every society has its games and each one is thrilling, I just don't have the time to learn each one. But I will give it a shot.

Finally, I am a sports fan. Nothing is more entertaining to me than the history of each sport. The records, the coaches, the players, the television contracts, everything deserves its story. Nothing is more beautiful than opening a book or going to baseball-reference.com and just soaking in the past. I know much more about baseball in 1960 than I do today, even though I wasn't born until 1988, and that is the way I want it to be.

Of course, as I said, I do have favorites. My life revolves around college football. With the exclusion of the sullen months from the middle of January until the middle of August, college football is all that is on my mind. Even on Sunday, when the NFL is playing, I'm working on my poll for bcsfanpoll.com or doing homework, the NFL existing as background noise. It should be noted that I haven't played organized football since first grade, although I did lead my team in tackles that year.

The rest of the year, I have four sports to carry me.

My second love is tennis. I was never very good at tennis, although I did make my middle school team in eighth grade, but that didn't stop me from becoming attached to the sport.

It really shouldn't be surprising that I adopted Wayne Arthurs as my hero. He was an underachieving lefty who struggled to overcome himself until he was already in his mid-30s, well past his tennis prime. When he finally gained the confidence, it was too late, but not too late to provide some of the most thrilling comebacks I have ever seen.

His heart defined sports. His energy, going out there every match and leaving his entire soul on the court drove me in my endeavors. When he retired last year, I cried, even though I knew for months that it was coming.

Next is golf. I love to watch golf. I know that that sounds strange, but I enjoy it unlike much else. I don't only watch the major tournaments; I watch weekend coverage of just about every PGA stop until college football rolls along. I love the stories, Robert Gamez winning for the first time in 15 years, Jose Maria Olazabal coming back from a knee injury to win the Masters Tournament, David Duval fighting on despite his free-fall from number one in the world to outside the top 500. No mainstream sport is more of a mental battle than golf, with the possible exception of tennis.

Look at Woody Austin in the 2007 PGA Championship. Or Bob May in the same event in 2000? Neither had any business going shot-for-shot with Tiger Woods, but on each respective Sunday each player believed that he was the best. Tiger struggled to prevail each time.

My fourth love is horse racing. The thrill of equines running is unbeatable. Even if I don't have money on a race, I love the site and the excitement.

Finally, I should discuss the one sport that I played in high school.

I was a wrestler, although I was never that good. By my senior year, I was competitive with the best kids in my county, the best wrestling county in the state. But competitive is about as far as I can go.

While wrestling appears to be an individual sport, it wasn't to me. I always knew what the team score was and what I needed to do to secure a win for my side. My senior year, we went 17-1, losing our one match 32-28. Six times that year I won a match that if I lost, my team would have lost. Most of those times, I was wrestling an inferior opponent. There is one exception.

To say I hated Commack would be an understatement. I was 0-3 lifetime against Commack, getting pinned all three times. I hadn't wrestled the school since my sophomore year (we were put in a different league for my Junior year), but I did wrestle it twice my freshman year on junior varsity.

My opponent had just beaten the fourth-ranked person at my weight in the county, although it is likely that that person had been overrated. The entire week, all I thought about was the match. Not once did the notion of defeat ever enter my mind. My team on the other hand started in a funk and we were down 6-3, having just lost the previous match in overtime.

Entering the third and final period, I trailed 4-2, a normal position for me entering the final period. I had taken him down for two points in the first period but he quickly reversed me, gaining the two right back. He chose neutral in the second period and took me down, giving him the lead. Knowing that he would most likely take me down if I escaped, I spent the rest of the period trying to reverse him to even the match. No luck.

But there I was, third period. My team needed me to win. I did not even look to my coach before I chose bottom. I talked to him after the match and he said he would have suggested neutral considering I failed to get out in either of the first two periods. I knew I would get out in the third.

Halfway through the two-minute period, I caught my opponent riding high and turned him to his back. I held him there for a five-count, meaning I would get two points for a reversal and three for near-fall. He fought off his back, but I turned him again, gaining three more points in the process. The final score was 10-4. My team came back and won 28-24. If I lost, we would have lost 27-25.

I told you this story because that is me. I don't take kindly to people who don't go out there and leave it all on the field. I like the little man, even if he's a tall, overpowering lefty like Wayne Arthurs. I like Zach Thomas and Alge Crumpler, Julio Franco and Pete Rose, Tim Duncan and Tyler Hansbrough, Tiger Woods and Kenny Perry. I like anyone who is willing to leave his or her body of work on the sporting surface, even if he or she comes up short.

I don't root for the underdog just because there is an underdog; I root for the underdog if the underdog gives me a reason to root for him.

Wayne Arthurs might have come out flat sometimes, but he still gave his entire self to the match. That's why I rooted for him. I would like to think I gave the same of myself.
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com