The Glory Days Are Gone

December 8, 2017

The Game Day experience at New Era just ain’t what it used to be 

by John Furgele (The Reasonable 228)

ORCHARD PARK, NY—The Buffalo Bills have been in the NFL since the 1970 season.  This is their 48th season of NFL play and for the most part, they have been a sub-par operation.

In the 1970s, they made the playoffs, once, in 1974 when they had O.J. Simpson and finished 9-5.  They lost to eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh 32-14 in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, but all in all, a good year.

They were 9-5 in 1973; that season was highlighted by Simpson rushing for 2,000 yards.  In 1975, they were 8-6.  The rest of the decade—woeful.

In the 1980s, they made the playoffs four times—1980, 81, 88 and 89.  All four of their teams were good ones—the first two quarterbacked by Joe Ferguson, the last two by Jim Kelly.  Combined, those teams went 2-4 in the playoffs.  The ’88 team lost in the AFC Championship to Cincinnati.

The 1990s were the salad days for the Fighting Buffaloes.  Most fans know what happened.  They made the playoffs from 1990-1993; 1995-1996; and 1998-1999.  They won numerous division titles and four AFC championships, but alas, never won that big game at the end of the season.

In 30 years of NFL play (I am leaving the AFL days out), the Bills have made the playoffs 13 times and participated—and lost—four Super Bowls.

Since 1999, they have not sniffed playoff action and when this season concludes, it will mark the 18th consecutive season without a playoff appearance.

I bring this up because I grew up in the Buffalo suburbs and lived in the Rochester area through 1999.  I went to my first Bills’ game in 1975 and saw Buffalo beat New England 45-31.  I went to games in the 1980s and many games during the halcyon days of the 1990s.  Obviously, those were fantastic times to be a Buffalo Bills fan.  They won and moreover, you expected them to win.  These were also the days before massive new stadiums were built, so ticket prices were affordable and there was a good mix or people in the stands.

On Sunday, I was in the stands as the Bills bowed to the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots 23-3.  The game was close for a while with New England holding just a 9-3 halftime lead before it got ugly.

I was amazed by what I saw at the stadium.  Now, it must be noted that since 1998, I have only attended three games—1998 when Doug Flutie quarterbacked the Bills against Vinny Testaverde and the Jets, 2013 when the Bills hosted the Chiefs and Sunday. To expect things to be the same would be silly.

Ticket prices are higher, so there were not many families at the game. I was there with my 14-year old daughter, but father-child was a rare sight.  What you see now is young 20 somethings with disposable incomes and 45-year old men with disposable incomes.  The 20 years olds don’t worry about mortgage payments; they spend all their dollars on booze, food and entertainment.  The 45-year old is there with his wife/girlfriend or friend and not with his three kids.  In addition to the higher prices, the vulgarity that exists at a football game remains at a high level.  The f word is prevalent as is crotch grabbing, gay references and much more.  Of course, that has always been part of the football experience.  Gates open at 9 am for a game that starts at 1 pm, so there is plenty of time to get drunk before kickoff.  In fact, many people sitting next to me were glazed over before that 1 pm kickoff.  They came for the game, but they really came to partake in the pregame ritual that is called tailgating.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the fans felt that they were part of the game.  Many felt that they could influence the outcome by being loud, screaming, jiggling their car keys, and chanting during the games.

Sadly, this isn’t the case anymore.  The game today reminded me of the 1977 and 1978 Bills, teams that went a combined 8-22.  The fans go to the game, they tailgate (and drink too much) and then the come inside, sit on their hands and after the third quarter head to the exits to beat the traffic.  They want the Bills to win, but they don’t will the Bills to win. In the 1990s, the fans came and expected a win.  They knew there would be moments of anguish, but in the end, they knew that they could rock the house and propel the Bills to another win.  The team was that good and the fans were cock and confident.

The Patriots of today remind of those 1990s Bills’ teams.  Even when it was just 6-3, a Patriots fan never expected Buffalo to take over the game.  Some call that cockiness, I call it cold-blooded confidence.  All one had to do was watch last year’s Super Bowl to know that the New England Patriots are never out of a football game.

The young people at the game don’t know greatness as their beloved Bills have not reached the playoffs since 1999.  The older people—those that remember the 1990s—cling to the season tickets, but might be tiring of the experience.  When you’re 22, it’s about getting up early, drinking, eating and tailgating.  If you imbibe too much, just call in sick on Monday, or if you’re lucky, it’s your day off

When you’re 52, it’s tougher to “get up,” for the excitement.  The tailgating is fun, but not as fun and at this age, you want to see the team do better.  In fact, you would trade the tailgate for a cold sub and victory.  The young person doesn’t really care and because the team has been so bad, doesn’t know anybody. At the same time, you’re afraid to give up your seasons because—what if they get good again?

The Bills are also in danger of never getting the young WNYer to come on board.  Young people like winning teams.  If you’re nine and living in Lancaster, why not be a Patriots fan? A Steelers fan?  Why support the Bills when they keep losing time after time. If the Bills could make the playoffs, that nine-year old never gets a chance to jump ship and pick that out-of-town team.

I drove by the stadium on Monday as I prepared to head east and back to Albany.  It looked desolate, drab and devoid of life.  A day ago, there were 68,000 plus there, full of hope thinking the Bills would win and place themselves squarely in the playoff picture.  That didn’t happen, and if they can’t beat the lowly 3-9 Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, the drought will extend to 18 years.

For me, three games over 17 years.  I can close my eyes and remember that Bills-Jets game when Testaverde and the Jets outdueled Flutie and the Bills.  That was a big game; it gave the Jets the inside track in the AFC East.  They would win the division that year and advance to the AFC Championship, where they would fall in Denver to Elway and the Broncos.  The Bills finished 10-6, grabbed the Wild Card where they would lose at Miami to the Dolphins by a 24-17 score.

The 2013 game versus the Chiefs is nothing but a blur. The Bills were forced to start to Jeff Tuel at QB and they made too many mistakes and lost to Kansas City.  The game was dull and so, too was the crowd.

On Sunday, the Pats did to the Bills what they always do to the Bills—they blasted them.  As sad as it was, the loss didn’t linger because it was expected.  That may be sad, but that’s where the Buffalo Bills are today.

I was glad I was there, but it might be a while before I’m back again.

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Getting CFP Right Not an Exact Science

December 6, 2017

When you have five conferences and Notre Dame vying for four spots, it gets tricky

by John Furgele (The Studious 228)

In the end, I think the CFP committee got it right.  They picked Alabama over Ohio State, but had they picked Ohio State over Alabama, I would have also said that the committee got it right.  Each year, there are at least five candidates for four sports and each year, one fan base will be happy and the other, not so much.  That said, we are placing way too much emphasis on the CFP and it is hurting college football.  No longer is 9-3 or even 10-2 an accepted record.  If you keep missing the CFP, eventually, the coach gets run of town.  Is that healthy for the sport?  This was one of the reasons the college presidents were reluctant to change the old bowl system.  They were okay with the writers and coaches voting for champions because it was subjective and really didn’t mean that much.  If I was 11-1 and you were 11-1 but we didn’t play each other, who really was better?

For the second straight year, we learned that winning a conference championship game doesn’t mean anything.  Last year, Penn State won the Big Ten title game; this year Ohio State did the same, but both teams were left out.  Alabama lost its final regular season contest, sat home on championship Saturday and made the playoff.  Ohio State can’t bellyache because they did the same thing Alabama did last year.

In fairness, the committee’s job is to pick what they think are the four best teams.  They have never made playing and winning the conference championship game a requirement.  Wisconsin was undefeated all year yet was never ranked first in any poll.  The writers, coaches and the CFP committee never felt that Wisconsin was the best team.  Had they finished 13-0, they would have made the CFP, but still wouldn’t have captured the number one seed/ranking.

When the CFP is announced, most call for an expansion of the tournament.  Some want 6, others 8, some 12 and others 16, but the truth of the matter is that this hasn’t been discussed at all by the college presidents and athletic directors.  Expansion is not coming any time soon, and because that’s the case, the best thing to do is tweak the current system so everybody knows what they need to do.  Right now, the CFP is turning into the cartel that the BCS was—the same teams are making it each and every year.  We have seen Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Alabama in this thing each and every year.  The tournament needs to be more inclusive or risk a serious ratings decline.  The world will eventually get sick of Alabama; especially if they think the committee is “putting them in,” to get TV ratings and the like.

What should be done, and how should it be done?  Here are my suggestions.

-Games are against FCS teams should not be allowed.  Alabama went 11-1; in their nonconference they played Florida State, Fresno State, Colorado State and FCS Mercer.  Ohio State played Oklahoma, Army and UNLV.  If Alabama played say, Central Florida, would they be 11-1 or 10-2?  Let Bowling Green play Mercer and let Alabama play Bowling Green.

-All conferences should play the same number of conference games.  Look at the above scenario—Ohio State played nine Big Ten games and three nonconference games while Alabama played eight (SEC games) and four (nonconference games).  The SEC wants 8 so teams can play at least 7 if not 8 home games; the Big Ten knows that in some years, Ohio State will have to play 5 conference road games.  Some conferences simply do not want that.

-Teams should have to play at least two Power 5 schools in their nonconference slate.  I think 8 conference games is probably the best avenue, so this would make teams play two Power 5 and two Group 5 schools each year.  Ohio State could schedule Bowling Green, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Oklahoma State, while Alabama could play Clemson, Michigan State, Boise State and UAB.  That would be cool, wouldn’t it?

-Eliminate divisions in conferences.  They’re artificial and don’t assure that the two best teams will play in the conference title game.  There are no divisions in college basketball; why should they have them in college football.  The Big 12 got this one right.  They played the conference games and took the two best teams.  Last year, Penn State would have played Ohio State for the Big Ten title and if Penn State had won, they would have made the tournament.

-Eliminating the conference championship games would be the best thing to do, but the SEC would never do that because their game is cherished by the fans and makes the conference millions and millions of dollars.  If all Power 5 schools schedule fairer, these conference championship games will truly serve as playoff games.  Winning the title game can help get you in; losing should eliminate you.  There was a possibility that 12-0 Alabama could have lost to 11-1 Georgia in Atlanta and both teams could have received berths in the CFP.  That’s the situation that needs to be avoided.  You could have the 9-3 team beat the 11-1 team in a conference title game, but that doesn’t mean the now 10-3 team is getting in, but the 11-2 would be out.  What happens is the 10-2 team beats the 12-0 team?

There will always be problems.  A few years ago, the Big Ten said no more games against FCS schools.  But, they reversed course and now say that in years when you have five conference road games, you can schedule an FCS school.  As soon as that announcement was made, Purdue went ahead and scheduled game against Indiana State of the FCS.

Let’s assume there were no conference championship games—-here is what things would have looked like.  These are the records of the teams with two losses or less before they played the conference title games were played.

Wisconsin           12-0

Georgia               11-1

Oklahoma           11-1

Clemson              11-1

USC                     10-2

Alabama              11-1

Ohio State           10-2

Auburn                10-2

Miami                  10-1 (game canceled because of Irma).

UCF                     11-0 (game canceled because of Irma).

Penn State           10-2

Memphis             10-1

Under this scenario, I would think that Wisconsin, Clemson, Oklahoma and Georgia would have been given berths in the CFP.  The Big Ten conference title game hurt the conference because the two-loss team beat the undefeated team and that resulted in the Big Ten getting shut out come CFP time.  But, the conferences got greedy; they want the game and the revenue that goes with it, but there is a risk-reward scenario.  Ask Kansas State and Oklahoma, two teams that lost potential berths in the old BCS title game when they lost to teams with multiple losses in the Big 12 title game.

College football is funny; USC lost at 9-3 Notre Dame 49-19, while Ohio State was blitzed in Iowa City by 7-5 Iowa 55-24, yet USC was never considered for a CFP bid while Ohio State was the first one out.  Ohio State also lost at home 31-16 to Oklahoma while USC’s second loss was on the road to 9-3 Washington State, 30-27.  It is fitting that these two teams will square up against one another in the Cotton Bowl.  But, it’s curious why Ohio State was given much more CFP consideration that the Trojans.

There may never be a “correct” way to figure out a perfect system.  The four that they selected are the four that I would have selected, but cases can be made for USC, Ohio State and yes, UCF.  In the end, the cartel will call the shots and for now, the number will remain at four.  Even if all FBS teams played two Power 5 schools and two Group 5 schools, we all know playing Vanderbilt is not the same as playing TCU, so the bellyaching will never go away.

The conference championship games are likely staying, so let’s do what we can do.  Drop games against the FCS and have the Ohio States replace UNLV with Pittsburgh.  Sure, they can play UNLV, but they have to play Pittsburgh and one other Power 5 school, too.  Let’s also have all Power 5 schools agree on eight or nine conference games.  This levels the field—each P5 school plays at least two games against fellow P5 schools and then two versus G5 schools.

This won’t solve anything because there are six conferences (Notre Dame counts as the Notre Dame Conference) vying for four slots.  If the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12 and Notre Dame all finished at say, 11-1, two deserving schools will not make the cut.  They will get to play in a great bowl game like Ohio State and USC are doing this year, but in today’s age, that is considered disappointing.  That’s a shame, of course, and something that college officials didn’t want to create, but when they took the CFP money, they sold out.  Nothing wrong with trying to make money, but there are always some drawbacks to chasing it.

 

The Toronto Argonauts: The Most Resilient Team in North America

November 28, 2017

They may not get the royal treatment, but they’re good at winning Grey Cup titles

by John Furgele (The Canadian 228?)

They’ve been bankrupt.  They’ve been ownerless. They don’t have tons of  fans and pretty much every year, they rank last in attendance.  They were booted out of the Rogers Centre and truth be told were never welcomed there by the Toronto Blue Jays and their ownership.  There are many in Greater Toronto that think they left town.  They didn’t have a coach or general manager until March.  They didn’t have many players either.  They have had regular season NFL games staged there while their season was still in session.

They are the Toronto Argonauts—the 2017 Grey Cup champions, and out of all of them, this probably ranks as the most surprising of their 17 titles.  They were 4-7 but rallied to finish 9-9, good enough to get them the East division title and the division final at home; a game where they squeaked by the crossover Saskatchewan Roughriders.  In the Grey Cup, they were outplayed and outgained by the Calgary Stampeders, a team that finished the season 13-4-1.  But, they were not outgunned.  They fired three bullets and all of them worked.  They got a 100 yard touchdown pass from in the first half; a half where they gained 123 total yards. Despite this, they only trailed at the half 17-8.

The second bullet was the scoop and the 109-yard touchdown scamper that tied the score at 24.  Calgary’s gun was loaded and ready to shoot the Argos out of TD Place Stadium.  But, the Argos gun was not only loaded, it fired salvos.  When you’re the underdog, you have to be opportunistic and when you get the chance to land the haymaker, you have to do so.  The Argos trailed the whole game, 6-0, 14-6, 14-8, 17-8, 17-16, 24-16, but once they drew even, they acted like the more confident team.  They got the ball back at 24-all and drove the field for what would turn out to be the game-winning field goal.  But, they still had one bullet left and that was Matt Black’s interception in the end zone with 12 seconds left.  If he doesn’t make that play, the game likely heads to overtime, but opportunistic teams make those plays and that’s what the Argonauts did.

No team has won the Grey Cup more times than the Boatmen, but no team has been as underappreciated as the Boatmen.  In the old days, the city had the Maple Leafs and them, so people cared more; they accepted the Argos even though it was a second class football league.  In 1977, the Blue Jays began and their existence bit into the Argo fan base.  They still did okay—winning the Grey Cup in 1983 before the Jays really got good.  They won another in 1991, but by then, the Jays were rolling and in 1992 and 1993, they would bring the World Series title north.

The Argos wouldn’t go away.  The Raptors came to town in the fall of 1995, but the Argos, buoyed by the arrival of Doug Flutie would win back-to-back titles in 1996 and 1997.  Despite the Cup wins, they still suffered from fragile ownership, a building much too big for them, and most importantly, fan apathy.  Just when things looked the bleakest, they captured another title in 2004, this time led by 41-year old quarterback Damon Allen.

In 2005, Toronto FC came to town, and further eroded the Argonaut fan base.  Toronto now had four professional sports teams playing in the highest level of their sport in North America.  Major League Soccer is not the Premier League or the Bundesliga, but in North America, there is no level of soccer higher.  Even so, the Argos were now competing in a deep pool and even though the CFL is exciting, unique and full of flavor, Greater TO was not buying it.

They persevered and in 2012, they won the 100th Grey Cup at home, in the Rogers Centre before a packed house.  I mentioned opportunistic previously, didn’t I?

As magical as winning the 100th Grey Cup was, it didn’t create that spark.  Soon, the Argos were homeless.  They tried to build a new stadium, but that plan failed. When Larry Tannebaum purchased them, the decision was made to have the Argos bunk with the “Reds.”  BMO Field is better than Rogers Centre, but it was built for soccer first. Like the Rogers Centre, the Argos would be the tenant.

The Toronto Argonauts appear to be survivors.  There are other CFL teams that win and win more, but they don’t win Grey Cups like the Argos do.  Hamilton, a city that really cares about CFL football hasn’t won one since 1999.  Winnipeg, a city that really cares about football, hasn’t won since 1990.  Saskatchewan, a province that really cares about football, has only won four times—1966, 1989, 2007 and 2013.  Since 1983, the Argos have won seven Grey Cups.

They are a curious study to be sure.  They win enough, but it’s the way they win that makes it curious.  If you were born in 1975, you are now 42 years old. In your lifetime, you’ve seen the Argos win in 1983 when you were eight; 1991 when you were 16; 1996 and 1997 when you were 21 and 22.  Seven years later, in 2004, as a 29 year old, they won again, then eight years later, your 37-year old self saw another and then on Sunday, at age 42, you saw the Argos win that seventh Grey Cup title.

Let’s think about this.  The Argos do not dominate and they’re not a dynasty, but they do a good job of spreading their titles out.  In 1983, they broke a 31-year drought when they beat the BC Lions in Vancouver in a thriller, 18-17.  They got to another title game in 1987, but lost in the final minute, 38-36, to the Edmonton Eskimos.  But, since then, they haven’t lost another Grey Cup game.  In 34 years (1983-2017), Toronto has won seven titles, an average of one every five years.  What sports fan wouldn’t sign for that?

The Argos are funny because they follow a pattern.  They win and then they go dormant for a while.  They won in 1983, then took eight years off, but re-emerged in 1991.  After hibernating from 1992-1995, Flutie rescued the team and perhaps the franchise with those back-to-back titles.  Per custom, the Argos took a six-year nap and then won again in 2004.  That was followed by another nap (2005-2011) before winning one at home in 2012.  Five years later, in 2017, they are champions again.

On paper, they certainly do enough to keep the Toronto fan interested.  They aren’t the Buffalo Bills, a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1999—17 seasons.  They aren’t the Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that hasn’t even reached the Stanley Cup since 1967, the year they last won it.  The Toronto Blue Jays won in 1993, but then, didn’t reach the playoffs until the 2015 season, a 22-year drought.  They are still waiting for the Raptors to make an NBA final and there is hope that Toronto FC can win the MLS Cup this year (they are in the Eastern Conference finals at the time of this writing).

We know it’s easier to make the playoffs in the CFL because there are only nine teams in the entire league, but it remains hard to win titles and win them at Toronto’s 7-1 rate in the championship game.  The Argos may be unloved, but they are not undeterred.

When they win the Grey Cup, the journalists write the obligatory “Can this victory win the fans over.”  The answer is probably not and maybe that’s the right formula for the Boatmen.  Maybe they’re better off flying under the radar because at least on the field, this formula seems to be working.  They averaged 14,000 and change this year, last in the league.  When the team needed the fans, over 24,400 showed up for the Eastern Final.  For Toronto citizens, the CFL is there when they need it, and apparently, the Argos go unnoticed for several years, make a Grey Cup game, gain the fans’ attention, win it and then poof, the fans go away.  Five to eight years later, the pattern repeats—the team gets hot, gets fan attention and wins another chalice.

How much longer can this go on?  Are the Argos underappreciated by Greater TO?  Are they overlooked?  Are they respected?  Are they forgotten?  Are they forlorn?  Are they angry?  Has their self-esteem suffered irreparable harm?  Are the Argos indifferent?  Are they depressed or are they comfortable in their own skin?

The one thing I like about the Argos (and I am referring to the Argos as a person) is that they don’t seem to care.  They go about their business.  They would like more fans to come to the games–is 20,000 per asking too much–but they don’t complain when you don’t show up.  When you do, they appreciate the support and they hope that you will get hooked and come back for more.  But, the Argos never beg.  That is just not their style.  They keep coming, they keep trying.  They struggle at times, but they rise up and bag that title every five to eight years.  They are a resilient group aren’t they?

And, for the 17th time, they are Grey Cup champions.

 

For Buffalo Sports, It’s Real Bad

November 20, 2017

The Sabres and Bills keep flailing

by John Furgele (The Measured 228)

How can this be possible?  The Buffalo Bills have been members of the NFL since 1970.  The Buffalo Sabres joined the NHL in 1970.  I don’t need to do that math, but that’s a lot of seasons.  There’s one common thread:  neither the Bills nor the Sabres have won an NFL or NHL title.  There are those who will point to the Bills back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and 1965, but I’m letting those go as they were won back when there were two football leagues and the consensus was that the Bills played in the weaker of the two.

How can it be?  How can one city with two professional sports teams be so title-starved?  Sure, you can point to other cities, but the Buffalo sports teams are not only bad, they’re really bad.  Both are owned by Terry Pegula and both continue to struggle.  One would think that by dumb luck one of these teams would have bagged a title by now.

The Sabres are an absolute train wreck.  Through 20 games, they’re  5-15 for 14 points.  They are boring to watch, they show very little skill and as a result, very little life.  They tanked—deliberately held back—so they could be in position to draft either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel.  Eichel is a very good player, but McDavid is special.  Naturally, the Sabres ended up with Eichel.  The Sabres do everything wrong.  When they score, they get shoddy goaltending and when they get good goaltending, they don’t score.  They seem to lack professional pride.  On Friday, they lost 3-1 in a half-empty arena in Detroit.  The next night, at home, they lost to Carolina, a team that with the win, improved to 8-10.

Many think the Sabres are two or three years away from contending.  Who really believes that?  They will have to likely blow this team up and start anew and are probably five to eight years away from being good, provided they can actually draft, find and develop players.  The Sabres made the playoffs for years in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but making the playoffs was never that hard.  There were years when 16 of 21 teams qualified.  When the Sabres played in the old Adams Division, four of the five teams made the playoffs—usually it was 80 games to eliminate the Hartford Whalers.  Those teams never made deep runs despite having talented players.  Since 1970, the Sabres have played in the Stanley Cup Finals twice—1975 and 1999.  That says very little.

The Bills might be worse off, although on paper, it says otherwise.  They are 5-5 and that .500 record has them tied with Baltimore for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC with the Baltimore Ravens.  But, this is a team that has to play New England twice and has lost three straight after starting 5-2.  In the past two games, they have surrendered 101 points!  That’s hard to do in the dink and dunk NFL that loves field goal battles.

I have watched a lot of football but I don’t ever remember a 5-4 team that was holding down a playoff spot benching their starting quarterback for a rookie that was drafted in the 5th round.  We all know Tyrod Taylor is not the answer long-term for the Bills, but the move to Nathan Peterman was more than a head-scratcher.  Now, coach Sean McDermott fears losing his team.  The players said all the right things when Taylor was benched, but deep down, there couldn’t have been a player on the team that wasn’t stunned by what transpired.  Now, he has to go back to Taylor for this Sunday’s game at Kansas City and who knows which Taylor will show up?  Will it be the, “I’m out to prove you made a mistake,” Taylor or the “They don’t care about me, why should I care,” Taylor.  In one word—ugh!

The Bills had one glorious run from 1988-1999.  In that span, they played in five AFC Championship Games, winning four.  They played in four Super Bowls, and as we all know, lost them all.  They made the playoffs in 9 of those 12 years.  Not bad.

Since 1999, they have been drier than Las Vegas on a July night, not only dry, but inept.  The NFL builds itself on parity, yet the Bills can’t even sneak into the playoffs.  A broken clock is right twice a day, but the Bills clock is missing its big hand.  In the meantime, the fans suffer.  Every city claims they have the best fans, but Bills fans (and Sabres fans) are loyal.  When the Bills are on TV, ratings hover in the 40s.  When the Sabres played in the 1999 Stanley Cup, billboards were full of good wishes and most vehicles had something Sabres attached to it.  They have passion and they are desperate to see their teams win.

I have never believed that fans or cities deserve a championship; that’s just not how things go in the real world, but it is hard to fathom just how bad the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills are.  They are owned by billionaire Pegula, who is finding out that running sports teams might be harder than running a fracking company.  Once viewed as the savior, there is now egg on his face.  Successful businesspeople aren’t used to losing. Most have won all their life and when they buy a sports team, their ego tells them that they will leave their mark and prove that what they did in the real world will carry over to the sports world, but more often than not, it doesn’t happen.

Buffalo fans can say that they don’t care, but they do.  They’ll keep watching, they’ll keep listening and they’ll keep reading.  Professional sports have always been the outlet for the people of Buffalo and Western New York.  It gets them through the short falls and the long winters.  They aren’t going anywhere, but sadly, it appears that they will continue to suffer.

 

 

These Two Are Like Clockwork

November 16, 2017

Quicksilvercandy A and Pannochio just keep churning, burning and winning.  

by John Furgele (Is there a better 228?)

They will never run in the Meadowlands Pace. They will never run in the Gerrity Memorial or any “big”race for that matter.  But, run they do.  Not only do they run, but they win, too.  We’re talking about two stalwarts of what I refer to as modern day harness racing.  Bettors love them and I’m sure those who attend and follow the respective tracks love them too.

Exhibit A is Quicksilvercandy A.  Last Saturday, she raced at Batavia Downs.  She usually hangs out at Buffalo Raceway during the winter and then heads east on the “I-90,” taking Exit 48 to Batavia Downs where she takes up residence from July-December.

Of course, she does more than just hang out.  For the most part, she runs the weekly open paces at both Buffalo and Batavia that have purses ranging from $8,000 to $10,000, but on Saturday, “The Downs” put together a special night of racing for claimers.  The Quick one was one of six entered in the $20,000 claiming championship series.  She took the lead, then let stable mate Kaitlyn Rae take over as they set fractions of 27.3, 57.1 and 1:27.1.  She then made her move to win going away in 1:57.0.  The time is never going to blow anyone away, but does it really matter?  Why is the race being singled out?  Because the win was her 20th, this season—that’s right 20 wins in 2017 and the year is not over yet.  No horse in the USA has won more this year than Quicksilvercandy A.

Those wins have only earned her a little more than $106,000 this year, which some horses can make in one start, but that takes nothing away from her.  Every week, she gets the work done and when the car moves away, she is all business

Perhaps even more remarkable is that the 12-year old mare “only” has 61 career wins.  Think about that.  For ten years, she won 41 races, an average of four per year, which is not terrible by any stretch.  But, like a fine wine, she is aging gracefully, with 20 wins as a 12-year old.  One would think that she would be back at it in 2018, staring in January at Buffalo Raceway.  And, why not 2019 before mandatory retirement age kicks in?  It’s not easy to keep a horse healthy, happy and more importantly eager and motivated to run and keep running.  Clearly, the aptly named Quicksilvercandy A is four-for-four here.

Exhibit B is the legendary Panocchio.  For starters he has the dream existence; a life that I, and most, would envy.  He spends his winters resting, training and racing at Pompano Park in Florida and then heads north to Saratoga for his summer season.  To say he trains might be understated.  He is legendary for his lack thereof, often doing training miles in 2:20 or even 2:30.  But, racing is a different story for the 7-year old gelding. When the pace car speeds off, Panocchio takes his game to a different level.  On Sunday, November 12, he won the $11,000 open pace in 1:51.4 and he did it by starting in the 9-hole on the 5/8 mile Pompano track.

There’s the old saying, “horses for courses,” and that fits Panocchio to a tee. He runs well at Saratoga, but he is the king of Pompano Park.  Of his 57 career wins, 35 have come there.  His career record is 57 wins, 27 seconds and 12 thirds in 136 career starts, an astonishing 71 percent in the money.  Like Quicksilvercandy, he isn’t reliable, he’s more so.

Some may argue that these horses should venture out and take on better horses in better races at different tracks, but why?  This is what harness racing is all about, the grinders, the workers and the horses that like to go to the post and run as often as they can.  And, why tinker with what’s working.  The “Quick One,” is 12 years old, the last thing anybody should do is alter her routine.  At 12, she could balk and decide she no longer wants a part of the race and training action, and at that advanced age, she has earned the right to be cranky, ornery and everything else in between.  Simply, there is no reason to mess with her success.

Panocchio, on the other hand, seems to like his north-south routine, especially the southern part.  I was able to see him win this summer at Saratoga and his races follow the same pattern.  He gets out, engages and tries to win.  That is something not every horse does.  Some lollygag, some are content just being in a race, while others don’t have the courage to go for it and try to win.  Drivers know this too; they know when to push the horse and they know when to try to collect an envelope with a third, fourth or fifth place finish.

People get in the game for a variety of reasons.  Some want to win the biggest races like the Hambo, the Jug, the North America Cup and the Breeders Crown.  Others just want to be part of the lucrative sire stakes programs in each state.  But, most want to own a horse that runs and a horse that they can see run.  Those horses run in all kinds of races—the opens, the preferred handicaps, the non-winners of $7,500 over their last five.  These are the horses that keep the sport alive and give back as well.  When bettors see these horses entered, it affects how and what they wager week in and week out.

We hear of horse shortages and tracks requesting fewer days to run, and this is why horses like Panocchio and Quciksilvercandy A are very important to the sport.  These horses bring a level of consistency and excellence to their respective tracks.  When I look at entries for both Batavia Downs and Pompano, when I see “open” I’m looking for Quicksilvercandy and Panocchio and truth be told, dozens of other horses, too.  I know who they are and I know when they run and I want to follow their races.

When we hear of tracks running fewer days, it hurts the industry in many ways because it could take away from horses like Panocchio, Quicksilvercandy A and hundreds of others.  Every track has horses like this; there’s Twisted Pretzel at Saratoga and Steve Said, who this week, will make his 41st start of 2017 at Monticello (he has 12 wins).  The big races are nice; they draw the crowds and help drive handle, but the sport should always pay homage to true warriors like Panocchio and Quicksilvercandy A.

 

 

Live From Monticello Raceway

October 24, 2017

by John Furgele (The On The Scene 228)

There is an aura about attending a sporting event in person.  People like to say that they saw this game live, or they were there when Bucky Dent hit the 3-run homer in the 1978 AL East tiebreaker.  When you tell somebody you were live, it elicits a reaction and in part, feeds our ego.

“You saw Frank Sinatra live,” or “You were there when Reggie Jackson hit three homers in the 1977 World Series?  When the attendee hears that, they take pride in the questions that follow, which range from “how was the atmosphere,” to “how loud was it,” and so on and so forth.  The attendee beams and that is why people want to be there live to see these events.

Most agree that being live and in person is a great thing, but today, modern conveniences have made it easier to stay inside.  Why pay $50 to park when you can watch the football game on TV? Why pay $300 for a ticket when you can see things better on your 70-inch wide HDTV?

Harness racing has fallen victim to this.  Why drive to the track when you can watch the races and wager on them from your device?  Many facilities concern themselves with getting their signal out to as many outlets as they can, hoping to get more wagering.  Today, it’s wiser to invest in a HD broadcast signal then improving the clubhouse because “nobody goes anymore.” That’s what Yonkers Raceway did.  There isn’t a prettier picture (The Meadowlands is good, too) on a computer or phone than Old Hilltop.  They spent nearly a million dollars making their TV signal pretty.  The grandstand looks a little ragged as does the clubhouse, but since live crowds are sparse, why bother with fixing the in-house amenities?

On Monday, October 16, I ventured down from Glenmont, NY to Monticello Raceway, a drive of exactly 125 miles, making for a 250 mile round trip.  It was Monday and like many racetracks, it was…….nearly empty.  The simulcast room had more people than those outside watching, but I wanted to see what the place looked like in person.  In fact, when you tell people you’re driving 125 miles to watch harness racing (when you could watch at home), they kind of look at you.

There is something about being there live.  Because the crowd was small, you could get up close to the horses, the drivers and if they were there, the connections.  It was quiet and when a bettor got angry when his horse didn’t hit the board, you could hear it.  It’s like listening to baseball game in April when it’s 40 degrees outside.  There was always that one guy right below the broadcast booth bemoaning every wrong move made by the home team.  That’s what it can sound like on a Monday afternoon at Monticello or anywhere for that matter.

Monticello does have an enclosed clubhouse, but it is no longer open.  For those who wanted to watch the races you had to stand or sit in a carport-like facility that had stadium style seats.  It was to the right of the finish line but the view of the track was decent.  On this Monday, it was 45 degrees and with wind, felt colder.  I can only imagine how cold it is when it’s 20 degrees in mid-December.

I was snapping photos on my digital camera when Gerri Schwarz, the track photographer invited me into to the winner’s circle to get some better shots.  It was very nice of her and the two of us enjoyed each other’s company as we talked about what we liked, loved, and disliked about harness racing.  Soon, racing director Shawn Wiles came over to introduce himself.  I had emailed him a few times, so I don’t think I was a total stranger when I told him my name.  I was able to get some insights from him pertaining to the future of the track.  The owners of Monticello Raceway secured a license to build a full-scale casino six miles away.  There was some talk of moving the track there, but for now, the track will stay where it’s at and so, too will the racino.  The horseman and the casino just signed a seven-year agreement keeping racing and alive and well at Monticello—at least for seven more years.  When racino licenses were first granted, the stipulation was that they had to sponsor horse and harness racing.  New York has racinos at six of its seven harness tracks and one at Finger Lakes, which conducts thoroughbred racing.  The ninth license is at Tioga Downs which recently went from a racino to a full-blown casino, meaning they now have table games.

The best part of the day was being able to talk to the winning connections.  Most were very excited to see their horse win a New York Sire Stakes race.  Each Sire Stake had a purse of $50,000, meaning the owners spilt $25,000 a variety of ways.  Fractional ownership is growing in popularity in harness racing and Marc Treffi told me that Cruising in Style earned enough on this day to pay for the rest of the horses that he has stakes in.

Fractional ownership allows more people to get in the game.  Shares vary; some can start at 1 percent and go all the way to 20 percent or even more.  Many own 2.5 percent of a horse, meaning if a horse is purchased for $40,000, a 2.5 percent share costs $1,000.  This also means that you, as a fractional owner are responsible for 2.5 percent of everything—the training bills, the medical bills, the stall rent, etc.  On this day, a 2.5 percent ownership share would get you $1,250 in earnings, which is usually more than enough to offset those above mentioned monthly training costs.

As long as your horse stays healthy, there is chance to make a few bucks.  The great thing about Standardbreds is that they race often, sometimes once a week, but if they get injured and are on the shelf, they’re not earning money for the owners.

You could see the excitement in the eyes of these owners.  They were more than eager to tell me where the next race will be and if they were going to try to get there to see it live.  That’s where the digital and technology age have helped.  Now, it doesn’t really matter where the horse races; if you can’t get there, you can watch the race live on your device or later on a replay.  Treffi was hoping to see Cruising In Style race at Hoosier Park on the Breeders Crown undercard.  Imagine that!  The biggest day of the harness racing year and you’re a part of the action.

Sure, I could have stayed home and watched these races unfold on my laptop, but there is still something to being there live.  Being live means mingling, talking and seeing the horses up close and personal, something that even the best of HD TVs don’t allow.  All in all, a terrific day at Monticello Raceway and if being live is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

 

 

International Trot Complete, Breeders Crown Looms

October 16, 2017

by John Furgele (The Sole 228)

The 39th edition of the Yonkers International Trot is in the books and for those who witnessed it live, it was breathtaking; a sublime performance by the Italian, Twister Bi, who cruised home in 2:22.1, a world record for trotters on a half-mile track.  Marion Marauder was a game second and wily veteran Oasis Bi was third.

As we know, in harness racing we have pacers and trotters.  Personally, I prefer the pacers–they run faster and break less often–but at the highest level, trotting may be best.  The Hambletonian and Yonkers International are examples of this.  The trotting gait is more pronounced, and let’s be honest, prettier and classier than the pacing gait and when horses like Twister Bi are trotting like he was on Saturday, it is something to see. In short, trotting at the highest level may be more compelling than pacing at the highest level.  So, even though I think I prefer pacers, I loved what I saw Saturday in the International Trot. I guess it’s like asking a father of two daughters which one he loves more.

It was big day for New York sired horses as Yonkers played host to the “New York Day of Champions,” as eight races were contested at the Hilltop Oval, with each race carrying a $225,000 purse.  Today, Monticello hosts the “Consolation Finals.”  There will be eight races, but the purses are a little more modest as each carry $50,000.  This is the culmination of the New York Sire Stakes seasons which began in May.

The Breeders Crown is lurking on the harness racing calendar.  The event moves to Hoosier Park in Anderson, IN for 2017 and the park has done its best to promote and hype two super days of racing.  Hoosier Park is the model for tracks that have casinos.  Unlike many, there is emphasis on both the casino games and harness racing.  In short, the casino owners both like and care about harness racing. As a result, the Indiana breeding program continues to get better and better. I still marvel when I see commercials for “racinos” and the racing is never mentioned.  I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.  I know that for every person watching harness racing there are three or four in the casino parlor, but it’s okay to sell the hamburgers AND the french fries isn’t it?

The Crown is scheduled for Friday, October 27 and Saturday, October 28, beginning at 6 pm ET.  While I certainly understand the evening post-time, I often wonder if the Breeders Crown would think about an afternoon program?  Would running in the afternoon help or hurt.  We all know that harness racing has always been the nighttime sport to complement daytime thoroughbred racing, but I wonder what the effect would be with a Friday evening/Saturday afternoon card?

The 12 races should be exciting like they always are.  The one division that is really wide open is Aged Pacing Male.  It seems like every race sees a different winner.  We saw that again at Yonkers on Saturday when All Bets Off won the Rooney Memorial Pace.  But let’s be careful before we make him the favorite for the Crown as history suggests another pacer will rise up when the gate moves away on the 28th.  Last year, we didn’t see this because the older pacing division was dominated by Always B Miki and Wiggle It Jiggleit.  As great as those two were, I’m now wondering if their greatness was due in part because of the inconsistency of the other pacers.

The other big question is which race does Hannelore Hanover run in at the Breeders Crown.  She could run against the girls in the $250,000 filly trot, or should go against the boys in the $500,000 open trot.  The owner of HH, Jerry Silva, says the decision will be made by trainer Ron Burke.  Most think it’s an easy $125,000 if she runs Friday night against the gals, but here’s hoping she takes on the boys.  Anytime the gal takes on the boys, the intrigue meter spikes up considerably.

Finally, the Sunday feature at Saratoga Harness was the $18,000 Open Trot.  Consolidator got out and cut the fractions only to get caught near the wire by Up the Alley, who prevailed in a nice 1:55.2  The gelding is the 5-year old son on Muscle Mass.

You Can Climb The Telephone Pole, But If They Catch You, You Done

September 27, 2017

We don’t mind cheaters as long as they don’t lie, too

by John Furgele (The 228 That Plays It Straight)

When I was in high school in the 1980s, it was quite easy to steal cable TV. There were de-scramblers available that allowed you to receive HBO, The Movie Channel, and yes, The Playboy Channel without paying for them.

A second way to steal it was to actually climb the telephone pole and move some things around.   That’s what one of my friend’s father did.   He climbed the pole and was moving things around, and was doing it in broad daylight. When the cops approached, they asked what he was doing, and, in complete honesty, he said with hands in the air, “You got me, I am trying to get free cable TV.” He knew what he was doing, he got caught and  did what nobody does anymore– he admitted it.   I’m not sure if he was fined, or charged with anything, but I continued to see him, so I know he didn’t go to jail. I think, by admitting what he was doing, he got a pass and probably provided the cops with a good laugh and story to tell.

We all know that college athletics are as crooked as the day is long. There is some corruption that we actually accept; if a player gets to use a car for free, do we really care? But, today, the corruption is endless, and what makes it worse, is the lack of contrition by those caught.  Nobody admits to climbing the telephone pole these days.

When 52 Baylor players were accused of sexual assault, the school did everything in its power to cover it up to keep the players eligible. We all know that Art Briles was complicit in the cover up, yet he denied he knew anything. Briles’ lack of honesty is what did him in and a reason why he couldn’t stay on for more than four hours as a coach for the Hamilton Tiger Cats.

A few years ago, Louisville basketball hired some strippers to entertain and have sex with would-be recruits. Head coach Rick Pitino, known to be one who controls everything about his basketball program, claimed to know nothing. He denied and denied and kept his job. Now, he is about to fired in a nation-wide corruption scam and once again, he will claim to know nothing of the alleged wrongdoing.

We all know this is about money. The money is so out of hand it is beyond ridiculous; to the point where schools feel if they don’t cheat, they won’t win. How much longer can it go on before people who work hard to make a living tune out completely? We’re seeing it with the NFL; people want to watch football, not see guys kneeling, or even worse, hear and see the media talk about it incessantly. We saw this with the Oscars and Emmys, too. People may hate the current president, but they are sick of the daily bashing that goes with it. Most of us want to sit in front of the TV and not to have to think too much about what we’re seeing. That’s the supposed joy of TV—a few hours to escape before trotting off to bed and repeating the grind the next day.

Why couldn’t Briles admit that he turned away from what was going on at Baylor? He has enough money, and yes, he would lose millions by not coaching, but why not take the blows that are coming? Be the guy who climbed the telephone pole. You got caught, admit it and move forward.   Briles couldn’t do it, choosing to lawyer up so he could someday, get another coaching job and the money that goes with it.

Pitino failed the honesty test—twice. He knew about the strippers because he talks to his assistant coaches every single day. Yet, there he was lying, saying he was blindsided by the allegations.

Now, Pitino is out and he will lie to us again. He will use words like shock, disappointment, devastated, and so on, but nobody will believe him. This is a guy who cheated on his wife in a piano bar, and though there are various reasons why spouses cheat, it certainly stains his image. If he could do that—in a bar—of course he could secretly see that strippers have sex with potential recruits and that shoe companies pay a recruit to come to the University of Louisville. The only person surprised—-him!

We live in a world of dishonest people. Politicians, O.J. Simpson, Joe Paterno, priests, doctors, lawyers, teachers, bricklayers, truck drivers and so on and so forth. But, the thing that puzzles me about college coaches is that most are being paid millions to coach; moreover, they have huge buyouts—Pitino’s is reportedly $44 million. These people make more in one year than the truck driver makes in a lifetime. The money is guaranteed, so why cheat?

But, if cheating is what you want to do, fine, go ahead and do it. But, don’t tell me—tell us—that you’re not cheating. When you get caught, don’t be afraid to admit it. It’s okay to say that I wanted to win a championship for this school, and because of it, I broke some rules. For that, I am sorry and I hope that in time, you can forgive me.

The fans—and as a whole, we’re not very bright—will forgive you. When the stripper scandal broke, most Louisville fans were afraid that the 2013 NCAA basketball title was going to be taken away, or better, stripped. They would have been alright with being banned from the postseason for a few years so as long as the banner stays. Even Pitino was scared about that; he wants to be the two-time national champion coach, not the coach who saw his title—-stripped!

We don’t hate cheaters; what we hate is those who cheat, get caught red-handed and lie. Cheaters—yes—liars—no.

Sadly, that’s how it goes in the billion dollar industry that is athletics.  There needs to be a complete overhaul of college athletics but as long as there are 110,000 seat stadiums and boosters, it isn’t going to happen.  But, we’re to blame.  Many admire the Ivy League football model–10 games, no postseason–but we don’t watch their games.  In fact, you can’t find their games on TV and even in places like New Haven, CT and Ithaca, NY, very few attend them. To be blunt, we are hypocrites.

On paper,  the Ivy is great, but it’s the green paper that will always carry the day.  Briles and Pitino got caught; Sean Miller may get caught. You know climbing the pole is illegal, but, you do it anyway.  But when you get caught, admit it, get down and move on.

Pole climbing and cheating will continue and climbers will keep getting caught.  The only question—who’s next?

 

 

Top Flight Angel Says Toiling In Obscurity Is What We Do Best

September 14, 2017

He would have told the press that, but they weren’t there

by John Furgele (The Trusted 228)

Imagine the Preakness winner coming to Finger Lakes Racetrack to run in a $100,000 Grade III stakes race in the middle of their three-year old campaign?  It’s more than improbable, in fact, it’s impossible.  But on Wednesday, September 13, 2017 that’s kind of what you saw at Batavia as the winner of the $500,000 Yonkers Trot showed up to race at 71-year old Batavia Downs.

Before we wonder why, let it be known that Top Flight Angel was participating in the lucrative New York Sire Stakes for three-year old trotters.  Wednesday’s race had a purse of $60,200, so this wasn’t your normal $10,000 open or conditioned trot.  The Sire Stakes is a series, a buildup, contested throughout the year with each race offering good purses until the big money October 14 final at Yonkers Raceway. As a New York bred, Top Flight Angel is trying to cash in.

The Trotting Triple Crown consists of the Hambletonian, Yonkers Trot and Kentucky Futurity, and last year, Marion Marauder captured all three affairs.  With Perfect Spirit prevailing in a controversial Hambletonian and then skipping the Yonkers Trot, the chance for back-to-back crowns went away faster than hot dogs at a July 4 picnic.

Be that as it may, the fans at Batavia Downs were treated to a little bit of harness racing royalty, as Top Flight Angel was made the 4/5 favorite in a solid field of seven colts and geldings. The son of Archangel did not disappoint, cutting fractions of 29, 29.2, 28 and 28.1 en route to a 1:54.3 on the half mile track, which oh-by-the-way tied the track record that was held by his father.  Finishing second was Guardian Angel As who was sired by—you guessed it—Archangel.

In thoroughbred racing, if a Triple Crown race winner was heading to the local track, there’d be some local coverage of it, but unless you’re a harness racing diehard, you’d have a better chance of getting hit by a bus than reading about “TFA’s” invasion of the little track in Genesee County.

This is the world we live in of course.  Life is not always just or fair.  But, we could be in for a sort of sports crossroads.  Opening week in the NFL saw low ratings, boring games with lots of dead time.  Baseball does well regionally, but no longer captivates nationally.

One thing that is on the uptick in America is events.  We will rally around the big events like the Super Bowl and the Kentucky Derby.  When American Pharoah runs for glory, we’ll watch the Belmont.  If there’s a Game 7 in the baseball, basketball and even hockey, the casual fan will tune in. Why can’t harness racing, with plenty of big, lucrative races each year, put forth an effort to get some exposure?

It would have been nice if the media in Buffalo and Rochester pumped up the appearance of a Triple Crown race winner in its backyard, but local coverage was nowhere to be found.  The sports pages used to be about the games and the personalities that played them, but now, it’s more about drama and psychoanalysis.  On Wednesday, a Triple Crown race winner came to town, no posse in tow.

After the race, a few gathered in the Winner’s Circle to fete Top Flight Angel.  He was asked if he was disappointed at the lack of attention by the media.  The colt responded in typical fashion.

“I race for the fans who are here and those that follow at home,” the colt said.  “I wish more people were interested because we put on a good show and many are missing it.”

The colt is right, people are missing a good show, but it’s up to those in the sport to let people know what’s happening.  Thoroughbred racing is not as popular as it once was, but they do a good job of pumping up their big events. It’s time for harness racing—both nationally and locally—to do the same.

 

Let’s Not Dismiss Ed Cunnigham’s Actions

September 1, 2017

Cunningham’s resignation over safety concerns should be a wake-up call

by John Furgele (The Compassionate 228)

Ed Cunningham had a nice job, not a cushy job, but a nice job.  He was a college football broadcaster for ESPN.  Each week, he traveled to a school to call a game with Mike Patrick, his regular partner. But, something was eating away at Cunningham, and late Wednesday, it ate through him to the point where he quit doing something he has loved for decades.

Most of us would give up much to cover sports and make the good money that goes with it.  But the job is far from easy.  There is the travel, the time away from family and friends and lots and lots of prep work.  It looks easy, but is far from it.  Cunningham played at the University of Washington, helping the Huskies win a share of the national title in 1991.  He also played five seasons in the NFL and since, has been around football on a regular basis, mostly as a broadcaster and talker.

Like many, Cunningham was concerned about the massiveness of football.  The players are bigger, faster and stronger than they have ever been and because of it, injuries and attrition are a huge part of the game.  Head trauma has come to the forefront in recent years.  Yes, players have always suffered from head injuries, concussions, knees, you name it.  Football is not only a violent game; it’s a dangerous game.  If you’re old enough, you remember the gruesome injury suffered by Joe Theismann in 1985 on Monday Night Football.  If you recall, even the toughest of tough guys, Lawrence Taylor, was screaming at the gruesomeness of Theismann’s leg.  There was Willis MaGahee getting his knee bent backwards in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl and Marcus Lattimore’s brutal knee injury at South Carolina that prevented him from ever playing in the NFL.

Today, head injuries are getting lots of attention.  It’s not so much the concussions, it’s the repeated trauma that players suffer during the course of the careers.  There are only so many shots to the head some players can take.  The movie “Concussion,” showed that the effect it takes comes long after the careers end.  There was Andre Waters, who was in so much pain that he took his own life.  There was Dave Duerson, who was in so much pain, that he, too, took his own life; careful enough to shoot himself in the chest so his brain could be donated to science.  Hall of Famer Junior Seau also suffered, his life also ending by suicide.

I often wonder if people feel guilty when watching football.  In the past, I’m sure the number was minimal, but given the recent evidence that we have heard, seen and read, has the number increased?  Cunningham is certainly not the only one who feels this way, and his standing up and admitting the guilt should be commended.  Personally, I don’t know what to think.  I love watching football, especially college football, and my hope is that all the players finish their careers and walk away on their own terms.  It’s easier said than done. When I see Julian Edelman shred his ACL by just planting his foot, it makes me cringe.  When I see Vontaze Burfict drive his helmet into another player’s helmet, I cringe again.  Part of me wonders why players can’t just tackle with their arms and not their heads, but football is a reaction game.  You can try to legislate it, but because there is vicious contact on every play, there will be injuries—bad ones.

Cunningham decided that he couldn’t take it anymore, choosing to step away. It can’t be easy for him because unlike most of us, he played the game and excelled at it; it’s in his blood. Deep down, he loves the game and that 1991 Washington Huskies team that went 12-0 has to bring a smile to his face every day of his life.

As good as things can be, everybody has a breaking point.  For Cunningham, seeing players “targeted,” “concussed,” and seriously injured began eating away at his soul to the point where he had to walk away.  His decision should send some shockwaves to those who run both college and pro football.  No longer should these issues be ignored and even though it is virtually impossible to take collisions out of the game, the dialog on how to improve the game and make it safer must continue.

Football should reach out to Ed Cunningham and offer him a job as a safety consultant to see if he and a Blue Ribbon panel can make the game a little safer, a little less violent.  If this can happen, Ed Cunningham would be validated, his actions commended and a higher purpose served.