Sunday, April 22, 2012

Abdandoned, Undrafted Night Train a True Underdog Tale

The fact that no one wanted the football player from Scottsbluff Junior College—that’s in Nebraska, by the way—and thus never drafted him turned out to be par for the young man’s course.

No one wanted Richard Lane, from the moment he was born. Literally.

Twenty-five years before showing up at the Los Angeles Rams’ training camp, looking for a job because the one he had at an aircraft factory was unfulfilling, baby Richard was taken in as an abandoned infant in Austin, TX.

True story.

The woman was named Ella Lane, and she raised Richard as her very own.

Richard Lane grew up with an athlete’s body: gangly arms and a long torso. No one wanted him at a four-year university, so he played a year for Scottsbluff JuCo.

The theme of no one wanting Richard Lane was a running one.

Lane was a defender and a receiver for Scottsbluff, but football didn’t really grip him. So it was off to the Army for four years, serving in that brief peacetime between WWII and the Korean War.

Lane got a job at an aircraft factory during the Korean conflict. That didn’t really grab him, either.

With his resume thin on experience in anything else, Lane decided to give football another shot.

So he shows up as a walk-on at the Rams camp in 1952, and the coaches look at him and think he’s got a receiver’s body: tall and lanky with those long arms.

The Rams were the NFL’s glamour team back then. They scored on the field and off it. The quarterback, Bob Waterfield, was married to knockout actress Jane Russell.

Lane even took a receiver’s number, 81, in anticipation of joining the Rams’ talented pass-catching corps.

It was the number he wore into Hall of Fame status—as a defensive back.

Richard Lane didn’t impress so much as a receiver, but he took to practicing with the defense, and it was realized that those long arms and that size could be just as useful in defending passes as in catching them.

The Rams had a receiver, Tom Fears, and he liked playing a popular song of the day on his phonograph (that’s right): “Night Train,” a jazzy number by Jimmy Forest.

The Rams players levied the nickname “Night Train” on Richard Lane because of the ferocity with which he tackled. Richard didn’t care for it at first, but the moniker grew on him.

It grew on him partially because one of his vicious tackles was described in print in the L.A. papers as “Dick ‘Night Train’ Lane derails Charlie ‘Choo Choo’ Justice.”

Just like that, Richard became “Dick” and “Night Train” in one fell swoop.

Night Train’s whistle didn’t alert ball-carriers nearly soon enough before they were leveled by a favorite Lane defensive method: the now-illegal clothesline tackle.

It became Lane’s signature move. He rarely made a tackle below the jaw line.

They even had a name for it: The Night Train Necktie.

Lane could tackle, yes, but in 1952, in his rookie season—the walk-on made the team as a DB with flying colors—Night Train set a league record for interceptions, with 14.

It was a 12-game season in 1952. And today, some 60 years later, with the NFL playing a 16-game season since 1978, Lane’s single-season interception record still stands. It hasn’t really been threatened in years, in fact.

Lane was traded by the Rams to the Chicago Cardinals in 1954. He played six seasons for the Cards before being dealt to Detroit. By that time—1960—Night Train was the unquestioned premier cornerback in football.

Lane played the secondary but tackled like a middle linebacker. He was feared for what he could do with the football in the air and with it tucked under a receiver’s arm.

Night Train made All-NFL in his first four seasons with the Lions. He had a tight end’s size and the countenance of a bear awakened early from hibernation.

After Lane retired from the Lions in 1965 at age 38, the defensive back position became less about brawn and more about elegance and style. Rules changed. The clothesline tackle was out, for example. Being physical with receivers didn’t earn respect, only penalty flags.

The position became dominated by players like another Lion, Lem Barney, and Mel Renfro of Dallas and Herb Adderley of the Packers—smaller finesse guys with catlike quickness.

And they wore numbers in the 20s, not 81.

And they were all drafted. And presumably not abandoned shortly after birth.

It’s not talked about a whole lot, but I wonder if Night Train Lane’s 14 interceptions in 1952 will be eclipsed someday. Today’s players have four more regular-season games to work with than Lane had, yet they still can’t touch his record.

Night Train died over 10 years ago, in January 2002. After his playing days, he became a champion of Detroit’s inner city kids, working especially closely with the Police Athletic League. With PAL, he tried to give drugs and gang life the Night Train Necktie.

Richard Lane comes to mind as we move closer to another NFL Draft.

The undrafted player is, at the very best, only the 225th-best college football player in the country, theoretically. Thirty-two teams, seven rounds, and that makes 224 drafted kids.

But when you consider how many young men play college football—including all the NCAA Divisions and the junior colleges—being no. 224 ain’t bad.

But it still isn’t likely to equal winning a job in the pros.

As for the undrafted players?

Vegas wouldn’t touch their odds.

Richard Lane probably wasn’t calculating odds or consulting polling experts when he showed up at Rams camp in 1952 as an undrafted, unfulfilled aircraft factory worker.

He just wanted to try football again.

Assessing the skills of college players in 1952 didn’t involve nearly the due diligence we see these days. But could even today’s NFL personnel gurus miss out on a Night Train Lane, with all their bells and whistles of preparation and surveillance?

Undrafted free agents flood NFL training camps every summer. Few make their respective teams. Even fewer become stars.

Richard Lane’s life before pro football was something ripped from a dime store novel.

Abandoned as an infant. Played one year of football for a junior college. Took four years off from the sport to serve in the Army. Arrived uninvited to the day’s most glamorous pro team’s camp. Tried out at receiver but was moved to cornerback. Set a new record for interceptions in one season, as a rookie. Became a Hall of Famer and was named the best defensive back of all time for the NFL’s first 50 seasons.

Wonder what Vegas would have given those odds.

Will there be another Night Train Lane, left unchosen at this year’s draft?

Well, there hasn’t been one in 60 years, so why should the streak end now?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Coaches Izzo, Petrino On Opposite Sides of Moral Spectrum

Two college coaches stood at their respective podiums recently. I don’t need a program listing to tell me which is taller.

The images couldn’t have been starker in comparison.

First, there was Bobby Petrino, the morally bankrupt coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks football program, looking every bit the pathetic fool that he is, addressing the media with his scratched, cut-up face and wearing a neck brace.

Had Petrino been in that condition because a group of Alabama or Auburn fans set upon him and beaten him to smithereens, then that’s a different kind of pathetic.

Instead, Petrino was the kind of pathetic that makes you feel embarrassed for him and even more so for his family, particularly his humiliated wife.

Petrino was, as it turns out, spewing lies as he spoke of the motorcycle accident that (fittingly) occurred on April Fool’s Day.

Petrino was lying to the press, to the university, to his boss, to the police, to Arkansas football fans and—again, worse—to his family when he said that he was alone on his bike when he careened off a highway.

Thankfully, Petrino said, a Good Samaritan in the form of a 25-year-old woman named Jessica Dorrell happened along and offered a ride to the hospital.

It didn’t take very long for that version of what actually transpired to be folded, spindled and mutilated.

Petrino was actually in the company of Dorrell—she was his passenger—when Bobby wiped out. And she wasn’t a hitchhiker.

Turns out Dorrell, an Arkansas football staffer, had been carrying on with Petrino, 26 years her senior, in the form of what Petrino finally admitted was an “inappropriate” relationship. Basically, she was his mistress.

Anyone surprised that Petrino’s tale unraveled faster than a cheap wool sweater maybe played football—or rode a motorcycle—without a helmet.

Let’s wind the clocks back to the fall of 2007, shall we?

Petrino was in his first year as coach of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, having been hired away from the University of Louisville by owner Arthur Blank. The Falcons had played 13 games and were having a rough go of it under the rookie pro coach with a 3-10 record.

One day in December, the Falcons players arrived to their lockers to find a brief, typed out letter in their respective stalls. It contained all of four sentences.

It was a notice, put out by Petrino, informing his players that he had quit the Falcons and was about to take the job at Arkansas.

Signed, Bobby.

It was a dash into the night, one coach’s impersonation of the Baltimore Colts skipping out to Indianapolis back in 1984.

Petrino didn’t have the guts—hell, the common courtesy—to speak to his football team in person. And this after he promised owner Blank that despite the rumors to the contrary, Bobby wasn’t about to abscond to Arkansas.

Shortly after giving Blank that assurance, Bobby banged out his four-sentence letter, made photocopies and hopped onto a plane for Arkansas.

His players, after finding out that their coach had the integrity of a marked deck of cards, flew into a rage. They let Petrino have it, to the media. The Falcons’ season was spiraling out of control and the coach had fled.

Petrino sacked his team with a blindside hit, but he had the temerity to sing the Razorbacks fight song mere hours after his photocopies cooled.

Blank was seething, like the Falcons players. The man who Blank showed confidence in by giving him his first pro coaching job turned out to be a gutless liar and a phony.

So I wasn’t surprised at all when details of Petrino’s lies and the subsequent facts about the voluminous number of text messages and cell phone calls that pocked his relationship with Dorrell, were made public.

Not at all.

The second coach to take the podium this week was MSU basketball wizard Tom Izzo.

Izzo was the antithesis of Petrino: He was dressed casually, but looking very professional, and serious as a heart attack, as he talked to the press about senior player Derrick Nix’s arrest on suspicion of DUI, which occurred April 3 and resulted in Izzo kicking Nix off the team, albeit temporarily, as it turned out.

It was temporary because after Nix pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, Izzo rescinded the suspension. But that’s far from the end of the story.

Nix spoke before his coach and sobbed as he apologized to those who he disappointed and let down. Tears rolled down his very sincere face.

Then Izzo spoke.

The coach said that it was still too early to determine Nix’s ultimate fate as a Spartan hoopster. Izzo said he had met with his coaching staff—and presumably Athletic Director Mark Hollis and university President Lou Anna K. Simon—and kicked Nix’s future around, so to speak.

What kind of challenges does Nix face now, both academically and as a person? Does the kid have it within him to recover from this and be a productive member of society, let alone of the basketball team?

Those were the kinds of questions, Izzo said, that he discussed with his inner circle.

And, last but not least, what kind of further discipline will Izzo mete out?

“There is gonna be issues that I’m gonna have to determine yet,” said Izzo to the media on Thursday, “depending what he does this summer, depending on how he acts.”

And through it all, one couldn’t look at Tom Izzo, standing mere feet away from the repenting Nix, and not see a coach in total, complete control of his program—and with the integrity and credibility that goes with that.

Compare that to the image of the fool Petrino, looking like Wile E. Coyote after another go-round with the Roadrunner. How can Petrino ever guide young men again?

It’s been a rough year for the institution of the college coach—pro coaches, too, for that matter.

It’s been a year of shrinking leaders and emperors wearing no clothes.

But watching Tom Izzo discuss Derrick Nix, in front of Derrick Nix, was a silver lining to a cloud.

At least somewhere, there’s a college coach who won’t embarrass his school, his AD, his president, his players or his alumni supporters. Ever.

So take some heart in that.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

NHL Playoffs' Justice Not Always Fair

I’m not sure where the April showers are so far, but it is the fourth month of the year, and this is Detroit, so whether the rains come or not, the hockey fan is about to venture into “that time of the year.”

It’s a time of mysterious injuries of the upper and lower body; a time of a game every other night, each the most important the Red Wings will have played thus far.

It’s a time of guys trying to get off the schneid; a time of “puck luck” and a word that rhymes with it. It’s a time of struggling power plays and stealing home ice. It’s a time of ricochets and “lively boards” and a time to panic.

It’s a time when goalies “would like to have that one back” unless they’re “standing on their head.”

It’s a time when skaters are being “Johnny on the spot” and speedy, pesky guys who are great on the “PK.”

It’s a time when you can’t let anyone come into “your building” and shove you around and a time to play a “good road game.”

It’s trailing in a series, 3-1, and declaring that you’re just taking everything “one game, one period, one shift at a time.”

It’s playoff hockey time in Detroit, where every fan wakes up the morning of Game 1 of the first round and sees that a panic button has been installed on their TV remote, ready for the run.

It’s a fun time to be on Twitter and to listen to talk radio to parse the thoughts of the suicidal as the Red Wings fight through a series, and I’m reminded of a line from Steely Dan’s song, “Black Friday,” which is about the financial ruin of stockbrokers.

“I’m gonna stand out by the door; gonna watch the grey men as they dive from the 14th floor.”

There’s nothing quite like a long playoff run in Detroit, the legions of which have so smarmily given the city the moniker of “Hockeytown.”

It’s springtime hockey, which is significantly different than fall and winter hockey.

As the temps increase, so does the pressure. The checking turns tighter than a cheapskate’s wallet.

The other three major team sports’ postseasons don’t have the element of luck, chance and quirkiness that playoff hockey is rife with.

Last year, during the ALCS, the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera hit a shot down the third-base line in the sixth inning of Game 5 that struck the bag and shot over the head of Texas 3B Adrian Beltre. The fortuitous hit drove in the go-ahead run and started a four-run rally that swayed the game in the Tigers’ favor.

But playoff baseball isn’t filled with bad hops and caroms and the feeling of kismet that playoff hockey provides.

Nor does basketball or football; those sports’ matches are overwhelmingly decided by talent, scheme and execution.

Hockey is the fickle finger of fate of sports. It’s blood, toil and sweat—and broken noses, jaws and teeth—but so often the final score is as fair as a crooked judge.

In basketball, if you outplay, out-rebound and outshoot your opponent, you win by 25 points. In baseball, if you bash the ball, pitch the ball and catch the ball, they’ll call it a laugher. In football, if you outclass the enemy, you’ll cover the spread and then some.

Playoff hockey will have none of that kind of justice.

The shots-on-goal counter can read a two-to-one ratio. The playing surface can look tilted in a 45-degree direction. The outplayed, outshot team can look like it’s wearing skates made of lead.

Yet the scoreboard won’t indicate any of that.

Playoff hockey isn’t interested in following formula or offering up the usual cast of characters as heroes. It’s sometimes not enough to lead in every category one can think of, because in the only one that matters—the final score—you just might find yourself on the losing end.

A successful playoff run in hockey lasts about two months, has more ups and downs than a teeter-totter during recess and plays with the emotions of fans like a cat with a ball of yarn.

Brendan Shanahan is a three-time Stanley-Cup-winner and a playoff hockey war horse. He came to Detroit in a trade in 1996, anxious to win a championship. He got it, eight months later. Then he got two more, wearing the Winged Wheel on his chest as if it had been branded there.

A couple Aprils ago, I sat across from Shanahan while he was in town prepping for a Fox Sports special involving two local high school hockey teams renewing a bitter rivalry.

He clued me in on how a hockey player looks at a playoff run.

“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”

Shanahan was just over a year removed from retirement when we spoke and he already was pining for participating in playoff hockey.

“I miss playing for the Stanley Cup,” he told me, plainly.

Yet playoff hockey isn’t just the Shanahans of the world, who played in 184 postseason games and scored 60 springtime goals.

It’s also a quiet, shy kid playing with a bottle of water, sitting at a table with his name on a placard during a media meet-and-greet, looking like he was feeling foolish by his mere presence at such a gathering.

Darren Helm, just a couple days removed from scoring the overtime goal that sent the Red Wings into the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, was another of those accidental heroes that the playoffs are so famous for conjuring up.

I was roaming the big media/players room the NHL set up at the Renaissance Center in advance of the Red Wings-Penguins final when I caught Helm playing with his water bottle. He was so young the bottle might as well have had a nipple on it.

Yet he was the hero of the moment—except no one was talking to him.

Too many other stars to grab sound bites from, I guess.

I chatted Helm up for a bit and strained to hear him. He had just scored the biggest goal of the Red Wings' season but had the countenance of a boy meeting his girlfriend’s father for the first time.

Brendan Shanahan and Darren Helm—two playoff heroes, two ends of a spectrum.

But this is springtime hockey, so they’re also one and the same.