Week of June 23, 2017

Hail to the chief.

Former NFL Offensive Lineman Comes Out, Opens Up

How’s this for an opening line:

“Ryan O’Callaghan’s plan was always to play football then, when his career was over, kill himself.”

O’Callaghan, or ROC as I used to call him for short, was the mammoth, starting left tackle for the best Cal football team I ever saw. Ryan was 6’7, 360 pounds, and absolutely mauled defensive lineman as he protected quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and plowed lanes for JJ Arrington to rush for 2,000 yards, and Marshawn Lynch to rush for 600 more. ROC went on to have a nice career in the NFL. So why did he plan to kill himself after football?

Because he is gay.

Growing up in a conservative area light years away from nearby San Francisco, his own views of gay people had been shaped by those off-color comments and the rare image on television showing a gay man he couldn’t relate to. He knew that the people in his world would never accept him being gay, and he could never truly accept it either.

O’Callaghan decided early on that he would hide behind football. The sport would be his “beard,” and the jersey on his back would throw off the scent and keep his secret hidden for over a dozen years on a journey that saw him playing college ball at the University of California and in the NFL with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs.

So he dove into football and made a pact with himself: As long as he put on those pads, he was good to go. Once football was over, he’d take a gun to his head and end it all. That was the deal, and he would hold himself to it.

Damn if that isn’t one of the saddest thing in the world. A 15-year old kid deciding years in advance to kill himself once he no longer had football to hide his sexuality. Sadly, O’Callaghan lived with this plan for years, and as his NFL career wound down, things got bad. He withdrew from friends and family, became addicted to painkillers, amassed guns, and had even written a suicide note. Luckily, David Price, an attentive trainer with the Kansas City Chiefs, noticed O’Callaghan did not seem like himself and encouraged him to go see Susan Wilson, a psychologist, to deal with his addiction to painkillers. In Wilson, O’Callaghan found the courage to admit who he was to his family and friends. When he did, he found a reaction he did not anticipate: acceptance. The first person he told was Chiefs GM Scott Pioli:

“I’ve got something else I’ve got to tell you,” O’Callaghan said. At this point he was fighting back tears. Pioli’s mind raced, wondering if his player had harmed or killed someone.

“I’m gay,” O’Callaghan said.

His private announcement was met with immediate support from the GM. Then:

“So what’s the problem you wanted to talk me about?” Pioli asked.

O’Callaghan is now out in his personal life, and came out publicly this week in the hopes of making a difference:

He sees the sharing of his story as, in part, an opportunity to bring more purpose to his life. He hopes it will open the door to communicating with other struggling LGBT people, to help them find community before they take the desperately destructive steps he once considered.

“As long as there are people killing themselves because they are gay, there is a reason for people like me to share my story and try to help.”

Good for you, Ryan. And, if you are LGBTQ and considering suicide, The Trevor Project is there to help. You can visit their Web site or call their hotline at 1-866-488-7386. -TOB

Source: Former Patriots and Chiefs Tackle Ryan O’Callaghan Comes Out as Gay”, Cyd Zeigler, Out Sports (06/20/2017)

PAL: Heavy story with an ending that reinforces my faith in people. As TOB shared above, Pioli said the exact right thing at the crossroads for O’Callaghan.

To read about the topic of suicide not as a emotional moment of panic, but rather as a long-term plan was illuminating to me as well. While the latter makes far more sense than the former, I feel like a lot of stories – fiction or non-fiction – covering the theme of suicide focus on the moment. It’s not a moment. For O’Callaghan it was a constant.

Excellent story that is well worth your time.

In Defense of the Sweet Science

I like boxing, unlike most people. Phil, for example, does not like boxing. That’s fine. I don’t go way out of my way for it. I maybe get one pay-per-view fight every couple years, and even then only if I can convince a few friends to come by and split the cost. But I do like it. I like watching boxing. I like boxing analysis on TV. I like thinking about boxing. I like reading about boxing. Boxing has inspired some of the greatest sports journalism/media ever produced. Books like The Professional by W.C. Heinz, or movies like When We Were Kings, Rocky, Raging Bull, and so many more. There’s something about the sport – two people in a ring, testing their strength, intelligence, endurance, and will, with nowhere to hide. (Conversely, I don’t enjoy MMA. There’s something cartoonish about it to me).

Last Saturday, Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev fought a rematch of their controversial November fight. In the first fight, Kovalev knocked Ward down early, the first time Ward had been knocked down in his professional career. But Ward got up, and pressed on. Kovalev grew tired, and Ward began to make a comeback. If you’re unclear how boxing is scored, it’s sorta simple and sorta stupid. Each boxer starts a round with 10 possible points. If the judge thinks, in his subjective opinion, that you won the round, you keep your 10 points. If the judge thinks, in his subjective opinion, that you lost the round, you lose a point and get 9. If you get knocked down, you lose another point. If you REALLY get destroyed but don’t get knocked down, you might also lose a point, but that’s pretty rare. You can also lose points for penalties.

You might already see the problem here, and it is what gave rise to the controversy in Ward/Kovalev. Kovalev knocked Ward down in the second, giving him a two point advantage. In the other 11 rounds, the judges gave 7 to Ward and 4 to Kovalev. Ward won by one point on all three judges’ cards. But Kovalev’s 5 total rounds won were not close. He was the clear victor in those rounds. In most of Ward’s other rounds, the margin was razor thin, and a coin could have been tossed to determine the winner. Other judges may have given as many as 9 rounds to Kovalev, but instead he lost. If boxing compiled scores the way other sports do, Kovalev would have won in a landslide. Imagine a basketball game where Team A wins three quarters by 1 point each, and Team B wins the remaining quarter by 30, and Team A is declared the winner because they won more quarters. That game would be stupid. Ah, boxing.

Kovalev and others cried foul. A few days later, I re-watched the fight and scored it myself. I had Kovalev by a point. MAYBE a draw.  I couldn’t get Ward the win, as much as I wanted to. Andre Ward is one of My Guys, you see. He was born here in San Francisco and learned to box in a gym in Oakland. He won the 2004 Olympic Gold Medal, and a few months later I had the pleasure of meeting him at the 2005 San Francisco Golden Gloves. I was working the event for KNBR. Ward was super polite, a little shy. Not what you’d expect from someone who would go on to be one of the best fighters in the world. I’ve followed his career since, and even went to see him fight at the Shark Tank during law school. My roommate and I shelled out for seats up close. If you’ve never seen top level boxing up close, you should. The impact of the punches is incredible.

Back to Saturday. I elected not to get the fight on PPV. I’m saving those dollars for the GGG/Canelo fight in September. But I was following reports on Twitter, and was shocked to read Ward had won by TKO. WHAT!? Kovalev’s nickname is Krusher, and he’s a hell of a puncher. Ward is a complete boxer, but he doesn’t have knockout power; or perhaps he is too disciplined to unleash it, not wanting to leave himself open to a counter. Whatever the reason, Ward has fought 32 times in his career, and only 16 ended in knockout, including just 2 of his last 11.

I’m still awaiting the HBO replay of the fight, but in the 8th round, Ward struck Kovalev with a series of body shots. Kovalev complained of a low blow, the third time he had so complained. Ward seized the opportunity and crushed the Krusher, pounding him with body shots as Kovalev slumped against the ropes, forcing the referee to stop the fight. Ward does not have a reputation as a dirty fighter, and as I said he’s one of My Guys, so I don’t think he hit Kovalev low (I reiterate: I haven’t seen the fight).

As I said at the outset, I like reading about boxing, and so I scoured the internet for the best writing on this fight, and found it from Gawker-turned-Deadspin writer Hamilton Nolan. The funniest part was Nolan’s telling of the pre-fight hoopla:

It felt like the buildup to the finale of an ‘80s action movie, like we might all put on pastel suits and cruise down the strip in convertibles with Don Johnson after the fight. Kovalev even got his own personalized rap video of 1980s quality played overhead before he entered. It featured a young Russian rapper playing the fighter, coming up hard, fighting for survival—and then, at the end, Kovalev himself, grown and successful, makes an appearance, coming home to his wife and baby and presenting them with a check that reads “ONE MILLION DOLLARS.”

But the best part was the close:

After it was all over, two members of Andre Ward’s team put several championship belts back in their protective metal suitcases. Andre Ward won those belts with sheer brilliance. He paid for them with decades of pain and single-minded toil. He has overcome every obstacle on the obstacle laundry list. He is friendly; he is a family man; he is humble; he is gracious; he is wise; he is a legitimate world-conquering champion with all of the stuff necessary to be plastered upon a Wheaties box. All of us, whether athletes or not, would do well to emulate his persistence and dedication to his craft, which has allowed him to reach the very top of a very competitive field without sacrificing his own dignity.

Sometimes you just have to hit people in the nuts to get there.

Boxing, you see, is life. -TOB

Source: Krushing the Krusher’s Nuts”, Hamilton Nolan, Deadspin (06/20/2017)

PAL: I may not be a huge boxing fan, but as any American kid who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I do love a good boxing story, especially ones involving Soviet/Russian antagonists getting their comeuppance.

Aside from the points TOB calls out above, I thought it was interesting how Nolan describes what makes Ward great. Because he doesn’t have great hand speed, and because he lacks knockout power, Ward must read the fight as he partakes in it. He has to figure out the rhythm of the fight, then change it:

In the highest level of the sport of boxing you see many fighters who are great natural athletes, with fearsome power and incredible hand speed and nonstop endurance. Scary people. What you see far less are people like Andre Ward: complete fighters. Ward’s speed is unremarkable, as is his power. What he does better than almost anyone is to make the right choices. Always. A fight can be seen as an endless series of crossroads, each moment presenting the fighter a huge array of choices about what to do—jab? Hook? Right? Rest? Move, pause, advance, retreat, block, weave, slip, breathe? Ward, like a handful of other truly complete fighters, is able to construct this series of choices in a more skillful way. So his victories build slowly, then explode into domination from sedate beginnings. The hallmark of complete fighters like this is that they get noticeably better as the fight goes on. They read, and then they destroy. 


Kovalev, on the other hand, only destroys. Not a big reader. His freaky power has left holes in his game. He’s never been forced to construct a very tight defense, nor to work on his inside fighting, because nobody ever wants to get close to him in the first place. And those were the very holes that Andre Ward walked through. Ward would bend forward and let Kovalev’s jabs and right hands whoosh over his head, then he would step in, at which point Kovalev’s power would be fully smothered, rendering him a much less dangerous man than he is with another foot of separation. Then Ward would hit him, and step back. 

Another thing that Ward is able to do is to break free of the subtle and unspoken timing pattern that governs mortal boxers. Boxing matches have a rhythm of move and countermove. Fighters tend to fall into a rhythm that is discernible only if you stop and focus very hard on detecting it. Since it is hard to stop and focus in the middle of a fist fight, most boxers allow this rhythm to simply fade into the background. But very great fighters like Ward are able to spot it, and then break it. He would jab outside of the rhythm, and continually spear Kovalev in the face. Eventually this caused Kovalev to start waiting to punch, and Ward would then fill that gap by punching himself, which broke the rhythm further. Ward does not throw punches at a high rate, but he throws them unpredictably, and in spurts that are not easily identified in advance. A fighter with no rhythm is impossible to predict, which can be fatal for someone trying to construct a defense. Kovalev suffered from this dynamic.

TOB’s right – I’m not the biggest boxing fan – but I do love great writing, and the 3 paragraphs above highlight several elements of boxing I’d never considered in a way I can understand and appreciate.

Joe Maddon Not as Hip As Previously Imagined

Last week, Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo was thrown out trying to score, and in the process barreled over Padres catcher Austin Hedges, injuring him. Replays showed Hedges gave Rizzo a clear path to the plate.

Rizzo chose to do this anyways.

Instead of admitting Rizzo, who seems like a loveable dumb doofus, had made a mistake, Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who is supposed to be the hip modern manager of every hipster baseball fan’s dreams, defended Rizzo’s play, and continues to do so. Then Maddon blamed Buster Posey.

“I’m really confused by why (catchers getting maimed) gained so much attention, except for the fact that Buster Posey got hurt a couple years ago. If it was a third-string catcher for the Atlanta Braves who got hurt three years ago, this wouldn’t even be in existence.

“It was all precipitated by one play that happened several years ago that to me was just bad technique on the part of the catcher, so that’s where I get really flustered by this conversation, because to me it should not even exist.”

As Grant Brisbee points out, though, this is entirely wrong. First, the rule didn’t change because of Buster Posey:

The winter after Posey was injured, here was a headline:

 Buster Posey’s injury can’t persuade Joe Torre to consider rule changes to safeguard catchers

 In the article, we’re treated with the news that not only were the rules going to remain the same, but that Torre declined to bring the matter to the rules committee. It wasn’t that baseball deliberated about a new rule and then declined. It wasn’t even brought up. Total nonstarter.

Then the 2012 season came and went, and Posey won the MVP. His career wasn’t ruined. The urgency wasn’t the same. The momentum for a rule change had stalled.

In the 2013 American League Championship Series, though, Alex Avila was blown up at home plate and removed from the game. Here was a headline after that play:

Avila’s collision a signal for change

Avila’s dad was an assistant GM for the Tigers, and while there’s no indication that made a difference with the new rule, it certainly didn’t hurt to have someone in a front office realize just how silly and self-defeating the old ways were.

More important than the paternal connection, though, was the stage. It was the ALCS, with two teams trying to get to the World Series after roughly 200 games (exhibition included) of struggle. Both teams clawed, scraped, and shivved to get where they were. Both of them were so incredibly close.

And then one of those teams had to face the idea that they would be without their catcher, their field general, because of a silly, reckless, codified play that made no sense in the context of the sport. To traverse the slippery mountain pass of a baseball season, only to lose a player because someone pushed the football button in the middle of a freak play, was unconscionable.

Posey’s injury had a great deal to do with the eventual rule, for sure. But it was just a brick in a larger wall. Eventually people realized it was absurd to keep running into that wall, head first. The setting of Avila’s injury crystallized an argument that was already clear, and it was a fresh data point to discuss that offseason.

Second, the rule change was GOOD. The home plate collision was dangerous and unnecessary, and was the singular act of violence allowed in the sport. When outfielders collide trying to catch a fly ball, we gasp in horror and hope they are ok. No one wants to see this:

So why would we want to see this?

The worst part of Maddon’s rant is that he implies Posey’s injury was his own fault, criticizing Posey’s so-called “bad technique”. That’s horseshit. As Craig Calcaterra points out, “Posey did not break his leg because of ‘bad technique.’ He broke it because Scott Cousins intentionally slammed into him while trying to score.”

It was a dumb play, and Rizzo should apologize. As Brisbee says, “…just because something is the way it used to be, doesn’t make it better. It’s a shame that manager who’s supposed to be so forward-thinking can’t dig himself out of the past.” -TOB

Source: Joe Maddon is Wrong About Home-Plate Collisions”, Grant Brisbee, SB Nation (06/21/2017)

PAL: Here’s the deal – some ballplayers grow up playing a version of the game that doesn’t allow collisions at home plate. You get thrown out of a youth game if you run over the catcher. It doesn’t matter if he’s in your way or not. We all watched videos of home plate collisions. Hell, I dreamed of running over a catcher to win a game as a kid. You want to be a ‘tough guy’ and make the gritty play, and I really think a lot of players are looking for that opportunity once they start playing professional ball. Rizzo wants to plow the catcher so bad that he chooses that instead of a hook slide that just might allow him to score.

Another thing: Obviously Maddon didn’t like the rule change from its inception and started constructing the narrative over years. Here was his opportunity to keep it real. The only problem is he’s wrong.

Video of the Week

PAL Song of the Week: Fleetwood Mac – “The Chain”

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“My son already ate [Lonzo’s] ass up twice. [LaVar] can say what he wants to say. I just tell him to go back and watch the film. That’s it. All that yap, yap, yapping, I don’t even got to respond to that. We played them twice. Twice his son got outplayed. I always tell my son, let your game speak for it. You ain’t got to talk. You ain’t got to fuss.”

-Aaron Fox, father of new Sacramento King De’Aaron Fox

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