Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Former Big League Umpire Pallone All Too Familiar With Jason Collins's Secret Life

As a straight male, I don't even pretend to know what someone like Jason Collins must have been going through, living a secret life as a gay man while an active player in the NBA.

This isn't like grief. It's not a few quiet moments at a funeral home, when someone goes up to a relative of the deceased and offers some trite comments of "Hey, I've been there," just because that person has also experienced the death of a loved one. Those feelings aren't totally congruent, either, by the way.

No one who is straight can purport to place themselves in Collins's Nikes.

Collins, the longtime (and still active) NBA center who came out as gay in this week's edition of Sports Illustrated, has mainly gotten support (at least publicly) for his self outing. Lord knows the missives he's received privately likely aren't all warm and fuzzy. Again, never been there. Maybe Hank Aaron could comment; the letters of vitriol sent to Hank as he pursued Babe Ruth's all-time home run record remain a black eye on our society.

It didn't take me long, once I heard of Collins's outing, for me to reach out to someone who I know has an inkling of Collins's feelings---both before and after the announcement.

I am proud to consider Dave Pallone a friend. Dave remains the only big league umpire to have been identified as gay. Only, Pallone didn't have the option of announcing his lifestyle on his own terms. He was outed---viciously, when his name was bantied about in a sex ring, of which he had no part, by the way.

Try that on for size.

Via email, I asked Pallone (left), who umpired in the National League from 1979 to 1988, about Collins and what it might mean for athletes in the future to out themselves. Not only is Pallone an openly gay man, he's also a public and motivational speaker whose message largely involves encouraging folks to be happy with who they are, among other positive thoughts.

"My coming out was different than Jason's," Pallone wrote me. "I was outed, so I didn't have the chance to do it on my own. But the relief I had was tremendous. It was like a 2000 pound weight on my shoulders finally falling off."

Pallone went one step further.

"For me (being outed) was nothing less than psychological rape."

I asked Pallone if he felt that Collins's coming out would lead to others doing so, not unlike a domino effect.

"There is no question that more athletes will now follow. It's like a kid and his friends at a lake. Everyone waits for someone to jump in and when he does and they see he's OK, they jump in with him."

I wondered if Pallone saw today's sociological landscape as being more fertile for society to accept gay professional athletes without a whole lot of angst. His reply was, thankfully, upbeat.

"Things are much different (now) than they were in the 1980s and 1990s," Pallone wrote. "Athletes are much more versed in social issues now and sexual orientation is always being talked about. 'Gay' is now NOT an evil word."

Pallone led a secret, double life throughout his umpiring career, which began in the late-1970s in the minor leagues. When I first met him, I remember he telling me of making up stories of sexual encounters he supposedly had with women, whenever his umpiring colleagues would ask him how his weekend was.

To use a baseball metaphor, it was a life constantly lived facing an 0-2 count.

So Pallone knows what Collins has been going through as an NBA player---constantly afraid of being "found out," unable to publicly be who he really was.

"(Collins's) life, as mine, had to be hard," Pallone wrote. "Think that at (age) 34 he now finally can be true to himself."

I asked Pallone if he had anything else to add. He did.

"This is just not an LGBT story, but it's an American story. This is a huge deal, and for me it's humbling to know I helped in some small way to make this day happen."

You can check out more of Dave Pallone and his life story, along with his positive messages about life, at DavePallone.com.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Lions First Round Gamble Has "All or Nothing" Feel

Ziggy Ansah has one thing in common with his new NFL team post-Matt Millen. Neither started playing football until 2010.

Ansah’s is a tale that, in the past 48 hours, has been re-told more than a bedtime story.

Ansah, the defensive end from BYU who the Lions selected with the fifth overall pick in the NFL Draft on Thursday night, is the kid you’ve been hearing about who has only played organized football for three years.

He failed at basketball so turned his 6’5, 271-pound body to the gridiron.

Now, this is a decision that is typically made while in public school, not in college—and not with the idea of playing in the NFL. And definitely not with the idea of being drafted after just four names have been called.

Ever since Lawrence Taylor did to the outside linebacker position in football what Bobby Orr did to the defenseman position in hockey—that is, transform it forever—NFL teams have been looking for those pass rushing specialists flying at quarterbacks from the left and the right.

Nowadays, it’s not good enough to just have linebackers doing what Taylor did so famously for so many years. Defensive coaches want the ends on the line to be athletic monsters who can stuff an off tackle run, drop back into pass coverage if necessary, and of course rush the passer.

Ziggy Ansah may be able to do all these things, or he may be able to do none of them. He’ll be a jack of all trades or a master of none. There doesn’t seem to be any gray area here. The kid will either get it at the pro level, or he won’t.

And don’t say the p-word—project—around Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.

“We wouldn’t take a project at that pick,” Schwartz told the curious media Thursday. “We drafted him to be on the field for us.”

The coach better be right, because Ansah has a first name that could fit Schwartz like a glove if this goes wrong.

Before the drafting of Ansah, Ziggy was a word—a Detroit word—used to describe the firing of a coach.
And it was originated by a Lions coach, as a matter of fact.

It was Joe Schmidt, Hall of Fame linebacker turned Lions head coach, who used “ziggy” when he resigned in a huff after the 1972 season, tired of the power struggle with GM Russ Thomas.

The word caught on, and giving the coach the ziggy has been used around these parts ever since.

Schwartz, along with GM Marty Mayhew, is banking on a kid who played as much football as me, through 2009, to not only replace DE Cliff Avril (free agent who jumped to Seattle) but to be better than Avril.

Frankly, there are some who think Ansah, a big block of clay, with the right molding can be one of the greatest Lions pass rushers of all time.

Or, he’ll be a bust.

That’s pretty much the consensus among football people when it comes to Ansah’s future in the NFL. He’ll either be great or he’ll be out of the game in a couple of years.

First, Ansah, from Ghana, doesn’t look like anyone capable of squashing an ant, let alone a quarterback.

When the ESPN cameras flashed Ansah’s face for the first time after being drafted, I thought, “My goodness, the Lions have drafted Urkel on steroids.”

There Ansah was, with those big horn-rimmed glasses that didn’t even look like they had lenses in the frames. He looked as mild mannered as Clark Kent. You’d have thought he was being drafted into the Army, not the NFL.

But apparently Ansah has an insatiable appetite for quarterbacks, which is what defensive coordinators love. The coaches want their pass rushers to run QBs down like a cheetah with its prey. You can thank Lawrence Taylor for that.

So how can the Lions expect a kid from Ghana with no football on his resume before 2010, to be worthy of the fifth overall draft pick?

This is where you’re allowed to roll your eyes and say, “Only the Lions.”

Schwartz and Mayhew are betting against the house with this one. All the chips are going on 47, which was Ansah’s number at BYU.

Boom or bust.

Now, this isn’t to say that no one had Ansah rated this high in the days leading to the draft. The Lions didn’t just find Ziggy like Jed Clampett found “Texas Tea.”

Ansah’s stock rose throughout the 2012 season, and the Lions coaching staff ended up guiding the West in the Senior Bowl, so they got a chance to see Ansah, up close and personal, for about a week.

It must have been a whirlwind courtship, because sitting there for the taking along with Ansah was Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, and if the Lions need anything, it’s help in the secondary, which hasn’t been good for about 20 years.

The talking heads on ESPN, once it was the Lions’ turn to pick, theorized with all their wisdom and savvy that Milliner would go to Detroit.

“I think you gotta go Dee Milliner here if you’re the Lions,” Jon Gruden said with his trademark, smiling scowl.

Mel Kiper Jr., supposed draft guru, concurred.

Milliner to the Lions!

Naturally, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell strode to the podium along with former Lions great Barry Sanders, and Barry spoke Ansah’s name into the microphone.

The mock drafters mocked once again!

Of course, there are no sure bets in the NFL Draft. The greats of today often become the busts of tomorrow. And the ignored and overlooked can turn into Hall of Famers.

It’s the ultimate crapshoot.

The whole idea of the draft is volatile enough. You hardly need to add to its propensity for being tenuous.

Yet that’s what the Lions have done, by picking hugely talented but terribly raw DE Ziggy Ansah, number five off the board. This kid could become the best pass rusher to wear Honolulu Blue since Bubba Baker.

Or he may flat out stink.

Boom or bust. Star or dud. Genius or folly.

Pretty much describes the NFL Draft as a whole, I’d say.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Summerall's Low Key Announcing Style a Rarity and a Joy

If it wasn't for the good grooming habits of his roommate, Pat Summerall might never have made a living speaking subtly into a microphone, calling sporting events.

Summerall himself told the story, in a TV special back in the 1990s---a documentary about the history of sports on television.

Summerall was nearing the end of his career as a New York Giants placekicker. His roommate was quarterback Charlie Conerly, who was also in the twilight of his playing days. One day, while Conerly was in the shower, the phone rang.

"It was a TV producer," Summerall recalled. "He wanted to speak to Charlie about auditioning for a sports announcing job after Charlie's career was finished."

Summerall told the producer that Conerly was indisposed. After a pause, the producer asked Summerall if he was available that afternoon.

Thankfully for us, the listening audience, Summerall took the producer up on the offer.

In a business where it seems as if sports announcers are being paid by the decibel and by word count, Pat Summerall offered a quiet calm. Where some of his colleagues sounded as if they were describing the Hindenburg explosion, Summerall kept his wits about him. He proved that louder wasn't always better; that loquaciousness didn't always equal wisdom.

Summerall, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 82, announced pro football with the efficiency of concentrated cleaner. He was a man of fewer words than most of his brethren, but he painted no less vivid of a picture. Summerall knew that his medium, television, was visual---so why paint over the images with needless blather? The folks at home could see what was happening.

So a 40-yard touchdown pass from Roger Staubach to Drew Pearson would go like this.

"Second and ten. (ball is snapped) Staubach......back to pass.....(the play develops; we see Staubach dropping back; the Redskins pass rush converges)...firing.....(there goes the football, in a perfect spiral)...Pearson.....(we see Pearson catch the football in the end zone).........TOUCHDOWN, Cowboys."


Summerall lent his baritone sound to other sports, too---notably golf. He was CBS' lead man at the Masters for years.

Then they teamed Summerall with John Madden, starting with the 1982 Super Bowl at the Silverdome---and Pat had even less incentive to speak.

Madden was the perfect foil to Summerall's low-key style. Where Summerall was staid and dignified, Madden was loud and obnoxious. To Summerall's efficiency with words, Madden offered diarrhea of the mouth.

But they made a great team, quickly becoming CBS's (and evenutally Fox's) lead NFL announcing team. If your team drew Summerall and Madden behind the microphone, it was a proud moment.

Before Madden, Summerall was joined at the hip by another former player, Tom Brookshier, who had once been a standout defensive back for the Eagles. But a serious leg injury ended Brookshier's career, dumping him into announcing in his early-30s.

Brookshier, aka "Brooky", was another good Summerall foil. Brooky was witty, Brooky was clever. Brooky knew football. Their partnership began on the old NFL Films show, "This Week in Pro Football," on which they began pairing in the late-1960s. It carried over onto Sundays as CBS's No. 1 team in the 1970s.

Brooky is gone, too---he passed away in 2010.

Summerall's biggest challenge wasn't behind the microphone, it was under the bottle. He was a recovering alcoholic, and there were some not so pretty times. He became sober in the early-1990s, and stayed that way, though he did eventually need a liver transplant in 2004.

I had the good fortune of speaking with Summerall---and his old Giants teammate turned announcer, Frank Gifford---via phone in December 2008 as the NFL celebrated the 50th anniversary of the legendary championship game between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. I had asked about the rivalry between the Giants offense and the defense---which sometimes scored more points than the offense, along with snarling and taunting them.

"Yeah, they didn't like us," Summerall conceded to me about the Giants defenders. "The Giants became one of the first teams to introduce the defense on the PA system instead of the offense before games."

I enjoyed listening to Pat Summerall announce pro football. He didn't muddy the air with unneeded words. He let the pictures tell most of the story. A lot better than the loudmouth boobs of today, who want to inject themselves into the moment---screaming at us as if we are unable to comprehend what we are watching.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hockeytown's Bridge Jumpers Will Never Give Howard His Due

The prevailing opinion among hockey fans in Detroit is that the Red Wings goalie doesn’t win games, he merely loses them. He won’t win you a playoff series, but he sure will foul one up for you.

The goalie in the Winged Wheel is like the closer in the Old English D—he’s guilty until proven innocent. Then when he goes back out there, he has to prove his innocence all over again.

There have been more thankless jobs. The gallows executioner and the tax man come to mind. After that, I’m not so sure.

It happens every night after a Red Wings loss. Turn on talk radio and listen to the therapist of the night—also known as the host—talk the city from jumping off the Ambassador Bridge.

There might be a beef or two about the forwards not back checking or the scorers not scoring or the defensemen coughing the puck up. But those calls are just the opening act.

It all comes back to the goalie.

“Jimmy Howard? I wouldn’t let him play goalie for my kid’s Pee Wee team!”

“We’ll never win the Stanley Cup with this guy Howard in net!”

“What has Jimmy Howard ever won?”

“Howard can’t get it done in the playoffs!”

The Red Wings might have lost, 2-1, but it’s still Howard’s fault, somehow.

The wolves were out again this week, as news came to light that the Red Wings are about to outfit Howard with a six-year, $31.8 million contract. It should be signed any day now, after some final details are hammered out.

The therapists on talk radio, namely Bob Wojnowski and Jamie Samuelsen, had a bunch of apoplectics on their hands Thursday evening when the topic of discussion turned to Howard and his soon-to-be new contract.

The bridge jumpers were aghast. They didn’t like the length of the deal. They thought GM Ken Holland was “overpaying” for one of his own. They didn’t like the money, as if they were each being shaken down for a share of the payout.

Mainly, they didn’t like the idea of Jimmy Howard playing goalie for the Red Wings for the next six years.

Naturally, the bridge jumpers didn’t offer any alternatives. They paid their fee—being put on hold—so all they wanted was their say, i.e., to bitch.

Jimmy Howard, the bridge jumpers said, hasn’t proven himself worthy of such a lavish deal. He can’t win in the playoffs, they said. He doesn’t make the “big” save when you need him to make it.

One caller even said, “Whenever I see a guy coming in on Howard on a breakaway, I automatically count it as a goal.”

It’s amazing how much hockey these folks purport to see, watching it with blinders on.

The $5.3 (roughly) million that Howard is set to get per year is about on par with what goalies in the upper echelon in the NHL are being paid these days. It’s neither an extravagant contract, nor is Howard getting jobbed by the Red Wings.

In other words, if the Red Wings chose to look outside the organ-eye-zay-shun for a veteran goalie, they’d pay about the same amount of Mike Ilitch’s pizza dough as they’re prepared to give Howard.

I don’t know what NHL games the bridge jumpers have been watching this season, because it sure doesn’t appear that they’ve been watching the Red Wings.

If they had, they’d see that on many a night—too many a night, really—Jimmy Howard has been the best player on the ice for the Red Wings. Sometimes the best for both teams.

These aren’t the salad days of the mid-to-late 1990s and well into the 2000s, when the Red Wings could score four goals without breaking a sweat. The roster today isn’t exactly bursting with World Class players.

Too often the Red Wings struggle to score. Their power play didn’t score a goal on the road this season until almost 40 chances had gone into the books.

Howard, really, has been forced too often to be every bit as good as Dominik Hasek, Terry Sawchuk and Roger Crozier all rolled into one. With his team’s “offense,” Howard has the margin for error of a heart surgeon.

It’s appropriate that the Red Wings wear blood red at home, because that’s what the fans thirst for, if Howard doesn’t blank the opposition or limit them to one goal, tops.

The Cup-winning Red Wings teams didn’t need a Hall of Famer in goal, though they had one in Hasek. Their potent offense would overwhelm the other team. There were a lot of nights when you would need to score five goals to beat the Red Wings.

Thursday night was a case in point.

The Red Wings etched out a 2-1 lead early in the third period over the San Jose Sharks. As usual, it was like pulling teeth to score.

The Sharks tied the game, which went into overtime. Neither team scored in the extra five minutes, so off they went to one of those lovely shootouts that decide games nowadays.

Pavel Datsyuk started the shootout with a nifty goal. The Sharks scored on their turn. Then the Red Wings failed, but so did the Sharks. The Red Wings failed a second time.

That left the final shot up to the Sharks. A goal and the game would be over. Another save by Howard, and the shootout would drone on.

Patrick Marleau skated in on Howard and made a little deke and a deft stick handling move, and the puck was between Howard’s pads. Game over.

Howard skated off the ice and slammed his big goalie paddle against the glass in frustration, his margin for error again virtually non-existent.

Frankly, I don’t know what the bridge jumping hockey fans in Detroit want from Jimmy Howard. The team that skates in front of him isn’t anywhere near the team that skated in front of Osgood, Vernon, Hasek or even Manny Legace.

Howard has to be the Red Wings’ best player on most nights. And many times, he has been. The six-year contract the team is about to give him is reflective of that.

The Red Wings are now set in goal. They can start working on getting guys who can put the puck in the net. 

Wouldn’t that be nice?