A Bigger Collapse Than Comeback

A Bigger Collapse Than Comeback

( photo credit: courier-tribune.com )
This past Sunday, the Braves became the latest Atlanta sports team to blow a big lead.  The Braves blowing a 3-1 series lead in the NLCS to the Dodgers was bad, but it is still not as inconceivable as the Falcons meltdown back on February 5, 2017.  As we all know by now, the Falcons blew a 28-3 third quarter lead in Super Bowl LI to the New England Patriots.  Give New England tremendous credit for scoring the game’s last 31 points, but Super Bowl LI was a game the Patriots never should have had a chance to come back in.
Instead of recapping the entire game, let’s just fast forward to the Falcons’ chances to seal the Super Bowl.  After New England scored a touchdown late in the third quarter to make it 28-9, Atlanta recovered the onside kick.  Starting on the Patriots’ 41-yard line, the Falcons not only failed to pick up a first down, but also knocked themselves out of field goal range thanks to a Jake Matthews holding penalty.  But Atlanta was still in good shape.  The Falcons punted the ball back to the Patriots to start the fourth quarter leading by 19.  
New England proceeded to move the ball down the hash marks field to get a field goal.  The Patriots made it a two-score game at 28-12, but they took 5:03 off the clock in the process.  New England was a dink and dunk offense who had trouble with Atlanta’s pass rush, thus they needed long drives to score.  The Patriots’ previous 75-yard touchdown drive took 6:19 off the clock.   
So, with 9:44 left, the Falcons got the ball back up 16.  Likely at this point in the game, Atlanta only loses if they turn the ball over.  Lo and behold, that is exactly what the Falcons did.  Give credit where credit is due, Atlanta was smart to run the ball on first and second down, but the third down play-call was and still is beyond unacceptable.  
On 3rd & 1 from his own 36-yard line, Matt Ryan for some reason dropped back to pass.  Even if Ryan throws an incompletion, Atlanta could have punted and pinned the Patriots deep down 16 with a little over eight minutes remaining.  An incompletion or completion never came as Ryan was stripped by Dont’a Hightower.
( photo credit: usatoday.com )
Why did Atlanta pass in the first place and not run it?  They had both Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who the last time I checked, are both very capable at converting a 3rd & 1.  A first down in that spot probably ices the game assuming Atlanta chews more clock. Even if New England stuffs the run on 3rd & 1, the clock continues to wind as Atlanta punts.   Instead, New England now had a short field and the Falcons’ defense began to tire.
Against a tiring pass rush, Tom Brady took his team into the endzone with 5:50 left.  For the first time all night, Brady had hit his rhythm.  Thankfully for Atlanta, they were still up 28-20 and getting the ball back.
What happened on this drive will haunt the city of Atlanta for years upon years.  On 2nd & 8 from the Patriots’ 49-yard line, Ryan found Julio Jones for a remarkable 27-yard tiptoe catch on the sideline.  With an eight-point lead, Atlanta had a 1st & 10 from the Patriots’ 22-yard line with 4:40 remaining. Jones’ sensational catch should have iced the game. 
If you are Dan Quinn, you need to understand the importance of melting the clock and most imperatively coming away with at least a field goal.  Brady has gotten hot, my defense is tired, and I need to make this a two-score game.  This all should have gone through Quinn’s mind but probably did not. Let’s not forget about offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense, who was moving quickly and not killing clock.
Instead, the Falcons only ran it once.  On second down after a -1-yard run, Ryan again inexplicably dropped back to pass.  The good news, he did not get stripped.  The bad news, he took a -12-yard sack.  Atlanta was still in field goal range on the New England 35-yard line, but a 40-yard field goal was now 53 yards.  Not great, but not the end of the world.  On third down, everything seemed to go as planned.  Ryan completed a 9-yard pass to Mohamed Sanu to shorten the field goal attempt.  Once again, Jake Matthews took a killer holding penalty to negate the gain.  After an incompletion on 3rd & 33, Atlanta was forced to punt it back to Brady with only an eight-point lead.    
( photo credit: usatoday.com )
The play calling by the Falcons in these five plays borders insanity and are rightfully called the five downs to forget.  I can forgive them for the fumble, but when you have a chance to seal a Super Bowl against Tom Brady, you need to get it done.  The Falcons, by losing 23 yards in four plays, gave the Patriots yet another chance to come back they never should have had.  I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to come away with a field goal here.  Brady was in rhythm to the point where he was not going to be stopped.  Quinn needed to understand that his defense, who had been on the field for 76 plays at that point, was gassed and had nothing left in the tank.  They were not going to stop Brady again. Conversely, Shanahan’s offense had only run 42 plays at this juncture.    
All Atlanta had to do was run the ball straight ahead three straight times.  What are the benefits of this?  You kill the clock, force New England to call timeouts, and oh yeah, you go up two scores assuming Matt Bryant makes the field goal.  Even if the Patriots call all three timeouts, the Falcons still would have been up 31-20 with about 4:20 left.
The ensuing touchdown the Patriots scored to tie the game would not have mattered had Atlanta been competent and ran the ball to stay in field goal range.  Unless New England recovered the onside kick, the Atlanta Falcons would have won Super Bowl LI 31-28.
Instead, the game went into overtime and you knew if the Patriots got the ball first Brady was going to put it in the endzone. Sure enough, New England won the coin toss and got the ball to start the first overtime in Super Bowl history. Against the gassed Atlanta defense, Brady took his team right down the field for the win 34-28 as James White scored the winning touchdown on a two-yard run.
( photo credit: twincities.com )
It is never going to go away.  The stigma of 28-3 will never escape the Falcons and the city of Atlanta unless the franchise wins a Super Bowl.  Matt Ryan, Dan Quinn, and Kyle Shanahan will forever have this stain on their careers.  A stain that could have been easily avoided by Atlanta running the ball to kill the clock, therefore also killing New England’s chances of completing an impossible comeback.    
Mariano Rivera’s Life-Saving Blown Save

Mariano Rivera’s Life-Saving Blown Save

Photo credit: MLB Vault

The New York Yankees had one of baseball’s greatest dynasties from 1996-2003, where they made six World Series appearances and captured four titles. In 2001, the Yankees led game seven 2-1 and were three outs away from defeating the Arizona Diamondbacks to claim a fourth straight title. Future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera proceeded to blow the save and cost New York the championship. As gut-wrenching as that loss was, what if I told you that Rivera’s World Series losing blown save saved a Yankee’s life?

Enrique Wilson’s name might not jump off the page to you, but the utility infielder was of great importance to the Yankees during his stint in New York from 2001-2004. Primarily a bench player, Wilson often found his way into the lineup specifically against one pitcher, Red Sox’s ace Pedro Martinez. Wilson was Martinez’s kryptonite; he batted .364 against the Boston right-hander in 35 career plate appearances.

So what happened back in 2001 with Wilson, the World Series, and Rivera’s blown save? As I mentioned, the Yankees were oh so close to defeating the Diamondbacks for their 27th title. Had the Yankees won, there obviously would have been a World Series parade down the Canyon of Heroes in the following days. A native of the Dominican Republic, Wilson scheduled a flight back to his home country for after the parade. Since Rivera blew the save, Wilson simply changed his flight to one a few days earlier. Not a big deal, right?

Photo credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

As it turns out, the flight Wilson would have boarded had the Yankees won never made it to the Dominican Republic. American Airlines Flight 587 crashed into the Queens neighborhood of Belle Harbor shortly after takeoff. All 260 people on board the plane passed away from the crash, along with five more people on the ground.

“I am glad we lost the World Series, because it means that I still have a friend.” said Rivera after learning about the incident. In the 32 postseason series Rivera played in, he allowed only 13 runs, 11 of those earned. The Yankees’ closer was truly untouchable in the playoffs. For his career, Rivera was 8-1 with a microscopic ERA of 0.70. He could not have hand-picked a better time to have an off day on the mound.

Mariano Rivera is baseball’s all-time saves leader with 652, but his biggest save of all saved a life, not a baseball game.

An Underdog’s Climb to the Top

An Underdog’s Climb to the Top

(photo credit: packers.com )

Diyral Briggs was an underdog before he ever set foot on an NFL football field. The Bowling Green linebacker went undrafted in 2009 in a linebacker class that featured pro bowlers Brian Orakpo, Brian Cushing, and Clay Matthews. Early on in his career, Briggs learned a successful stint in the NFL is earned, not given.

A firm believer in hard work and giving others a chance, Briggs was given his opportunity by the San Francisco 49ers later that year. The 49ers signed Briggs as an undrafted free agent to serve as a backup. Briggs had his first NFL contract, but was still a longshot to make the 53-man roster as a free agent. “I kept a page in my locker that said, “You’re not gonna make it.” But I made the first cut, then the second cut, that I made that 53 to make the squad, and it was a dream come true.”

(photo credit: SFgate.com )

The rookie linebacker’s stint with the 49ers was brief, only appearing in five games from 2009-2010, but Briggs picked up important values during his time in San Francisco.
“It was when I was in San Francisco that I learned the importance of hard work and grit. Playing with guys like Justin Smith and Takeo Spikes was a tremendous honor and I realized the value of believing in myself.” said Briggs, who carries those values with him today.
After being released by the 49ers in September 2010, Briggs was signed by the Denver Broncos later that month. With NFL experience under his belt, Briggs was looking to aid the Broncos’ last-ranked defense. “When I went to Denver, I busted my butt to be a starter, but ended up getting paid to be on the practice squad.” Briggs cracked the active roster for only one game in the Mile-High City and was released in October.
Without a team for the second time in the young season, Briggs came to another important realization. “I needed to figure out how I could be more valuable to a team and find my role.”
Before Briggs could find his value to a team, a team needed to see value in Briggs. One day after being cut by Denver, the Green Bay Packers came calling for Briggs’ services and claimed him off waivers. The young linebacker did not find it hard to fit in with coach Mike McCarthy’s squad.

(photo credit: Krause Photography )

“Everybody had the opportunity to step up. Nobody was bigger than anyone else. We were in it together as a family.” That motto rang true late in the season. Heading into Week 16 against the 9-5 Giants, the 8-6 Packers needed a win to save their season. Before the game, Briggs recalls defensive coordinator Dom Capers delivering a powerful message. “If we want this team to sniff the playoffs, we have to win this game. But we know if we win this game, every game from here on out is a playoff game.”
Green Bay took Capers’ rallying cry to heart and came together and clobbered New York 45-17 while forcing six Giants turnovers. Little did the Packers know at the time that this was the start of a historic run.
The Packers became road warriors taking down the Eagles, Falcons, and Bears all on the road in root to Super Bowl XLV versus the Steelers. Experiencing a Super Bowl appearance was a lot for the 25-year old Briggs to take in. “It was a true honor. Being around so many hall of famers at one time was breathtaking and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Despite being a six seed 10-6 team, the Packers headed into Super Sunday as three-point favorites over the two seed 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers. Prior to the biggest game of their lives, cornerback Charles Woodson and Mike McCarthy gave inspiring messages. “We win with one mind, one heart, and one goal!” said Woodson. The cornerback’s ideology went along well with McCarthy’s rallying cry to leave it out there on the field.
With the Packers leading 21-3 right before halftime, it was Woodson himself who literally left it out there on the field. Woodson laid out to tip away a deep sideline pass intended for Mike Wallace. Woodson landed on his shoulder and broke his collarbone. He was done for the night, which was a big blow to Green Bay. “He really was our anchor, motor, and the true veteran leader on our defense.” said Briggs.

(photo credit: Heisman.com )

The NFL’s second ranked defense did not let Woodson’s injury stop them or discourage their nobody is bigger than anyone else attitude. Unified under one heart, one mind, and one goal, the Packers were 30 minutes away from football immortality. Green Bay was able to fend off the Steelers’ attempts to tie or take the lead. Pittsburgh got as close as 28-25 in the fourth quarter, but the Packers responded with a Mason Crosby field goal to go back up by six. 31-25 Packers, 2:07 on the clock. The defense had to make one final stop.
Briggs and his racing mind may not have been on the field for the final drive, but as Ben Roethlisberger’s 4th & 5 pass went off Mike Wallace’s hands, Briggs’ mind went from racing to hardly moving at all. “Everything was in slow motion. I started thinking about my mom and dad and all I’d been through to get to that point. I’ve been an underdog my whole life and it’s something I’ll remember forever.” The undrafted free had reached the top of the NFL mountain. Just goes to show that no goal is unreachable as long as you believe in yourself.

(photo credit: packers.fandom.com )

Since his playing days ended, Briggs has begun passing that message along to children with autism. Briggs began working one on one with autistic children ages four to five in a group home and immediately realized it is his new calling in life. So much so that the Super Bowl champion linebacker is currently looking to open his own school for children with autism.
“I really want to focus on motor and social skills with the kids. And it all starts with them feeling a sense of accomplishment. The smallest feeling of accomplishment means the world to these kids.” said Briggs, who feels keeping the kids active helps with their discipline as well.
Like so many other current and former professional athletes, Briggs is using his platform for positive change for so many young kids. It is no secret that athletes giving back to the community makes a huge difference in people’s eyes. In this challenging time for society, Briggs sees an appropriate action all people, especially athletes, can take. “We need more love in the world and I feel all athletes can promote positive change just by using their strong platform.”

(photo credit: MLive.com )

In order to make a positive impact, three values stand above the rest for Briggs. “It all starts with faith, hard work, and respect, it’s what I teach my kids. Carrying yourself in that manner shows and really makes a difference.”
Diyral Briggs, who became a Super Bowl champion because of hard work and belief in himself, has now become a champion off the field by teaching children with autism to do just the same.
The American League’s Jackie Robinson

The American League’s Jackie Robinson

We all know the name Jackie Robinson, but do you know who arrived in the big leagues shortly after him? He would be Larry Doby, Major League Baseball’s second African American player.

Like Robinson, Doby’s contract was bought from the Negro Leagues’ Newark Eagles. Doby played under the alias “Larry Walker” in the Negro Leagues because he was still in high school when he debuted. Cleveland Indians’ owner Bill Veeck wanted to integrate baseball in 1942 but was denied by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis. It wasn’t until Happy Chandler took over that Robinson and Doby were signed.

The Indians bought Doby from the Eagles for $15,000, making him the first African American player in the American League. Veeck saw Doby as someone who could control his emotions on the field while being a feared bat in Cleveland’s lineup.

Veeck’s strategy after signing Doby was quite interesting. Instead of bringing Doby up through Cleveland’s minor league system, Veeck let Doby keep playing in Newark until the time was right. The end goal was for Doby to one day show up on the field with his Indians teammates with little warning.

Doby made his debut for the Indians on July 5, 1947 against the White Sox in Chicago, less than three months after Robinson debuted. Not in the starting lineup, Doby debuted as a pinch hitter and struck out. It was what happened before the game that was more notable.

Many of Doby’s teammates did not give him a warm welcome. “I walked down that line, stuck out my hand, and very few hands came back in return. Most of the ones that did were cold-fish handshakes, along with a look that said, ‘You don’t belong here,” Doby recalled.

It was not until second baseman Joe Gordon offered to play catch with Doby during warmups that Doby was finally treated like a member of the team. Wouldn’t you know it, Gordon and Doby ended up becoming very close friends.

Doby was primarily a second baseman and shortstop, positions occupied by Gordon and player-manager Lou Boudreau. As a result, Doby wound up at first base for his first career start on July 6 without a first baseman’s mitt. Multiple teammates denied Doby’s request to borrow a glove, including regular first baseman Eddie Robinson. Robinson only gave Doby his glove after being convinced by Indians personnel.

As for the game, 31,566 were in attendance at Comiskey Park with roughly 30% of the crowd black. For perspective, Comiskey Park averaged 11,315 fans per game in 1947. He was booed and mistreated, but Doby went 1-4 with an RBI as the Indians took down the White Sox 5-1.

With Gordon and Boudreau patrolling the middle infield, it was Doby’s only start of the season. Doby would get no more than two plate appearances in any game the rest of the season while occasionally coming in midgame to replace Gordon or Boudreau.

Aside from baseball, Doby was often booed and faced many challenges like Jackie Robinson. “You didn’t hear much about what I was going through because the media didn’t want to repeat the same story.” Doby said. Except it was not the same story entirely. Playing in the American League, Doby integrated all the American League parks Robinson did not play in. Robinson only played at an American League field during the World Series.

Along with racial slurs and death threats, Doby was also treated harshly on the field. The worst incident Doby recalled was while sliding into second base, the opposing shortstop spat tobacco juice on him. Despite the grief, Doby handled himself with class and dignity.

“I couldn’t react to prejudicial situations from a physical standpoint. My reaction was to hit the ball as far as I could.” Doby did exactly that in 1948, hitting .301 with 14 homers and 66 RBI as he became Cleveland’s starting center fielder. The Indians finished as the top team in baseball with a 97-58 record en route to a World Series matchup with the Boston Braves.

It was Doby who once again hit the ball as far as he could. In Game 4 with the Indians leading the series 2-1, Doby became the first African American player to homer in a World Series game. His 420-foot blast off Braves’ Johnny Sain turned out to be the game winner in Cleveland’s 2-1 victory to grab a 3-1 series lead.

The Indians would go on to capture the title in six games, as Doby also became the first African American player to win a World Series.

Doby only progressed in 1949 by starting a run of seven straight All-Star appearances. In 1949, Doby was part of the quartet that became baseball’s first African American All-Stars. The quartet included Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella.

During the prime of his career from 1949-1955, Doby averaged 27 home runs and 95 RBI with a .286 average. His best offensive years during that stretch were ‘52 and ‘54, where he led the majors in home runs with 32 each year. Doby also led the league in RBI in ‘54 with 126. Doby never won a Gold Glove but was named baseball’s top center fielder in 1950 by Sporting News over players like Joe DiMaggio and Duke Snider.

After his playing days, Doby looked to get into coaching. Once again, Doby was the second man. With the Indians in search of a new manager, Doby was looking to become the first African American manager in the history of the Major Leagues. This time, it was Frank Robinson. The Indians hired Robinson in 1975 while Doby was hired by the White Sox in 1978.

Doby does not have a day where everyone in baseball wears his number 14, or have his number retired across the league, but Doby had the utmost respect for Jackie Robinson. Even though Jackie gets all the credit, Doby never took a jab at him.

He is the forgotten pioneer of baseball. Doby is not given nearly enough credit for doing the same courageous act Robinson did. Doby really was the Robin to Jackie’s Batman in fighting racial inequality in baseball.
Remembering Shea Stadium’s Blackout

Remembering Shea Stadium’s Blackout

Photo credit: Vice.com

There were many dark days for the 1977 Mets, who finished 64-98, with perhaps the darkest day coming on July 13. On a Wednesday evening at Shea against the Cubs, the ballpark and New York City blacked out.

After multiple lightning strikes in the area, Shea blacked out in the bottom of the sixth with Chicago leading 2-1. Mets’ leadoff man Lenny Randle was at the plate when the lights went out, “I thought it was my last day on Earth. I thought God was calling.” Randle recalled.

A native of Compton, California, Randle was used to playing ball in the dark. As the lights went out, Randle swung at the pitch out of instinct and started running after making contact. Running towards second as if the game was still happening, Randle was tackled by Cubs infielders Manny Trillo and Ivan de Jesus.

As the power was going out, Ralph Kiner and Lindsey Nelson were on the radio call for the Mets.

With the game on halt, the Mets were not going to let the 14,626 fans in attendance go bored or hungry. Vendors started handing out free hot dogs, sodas, and ice cream because they would have spoiled in the freezer without power.

Fans had no reason to leave because the subways were not working, and it was obviously dark. Players entertained fans by putting on a light show. What lights could the players possibly have though? Their car headlights!

Mets players went to the players’ parking lot and drove their cars in through the bullpen gate. They just had to be careful of one thing in the bullpen – bullpen coach Joe Pignatano’s tomato garden! Why would a bullpen coach have a tomato garden? In 1969, Pignatano found a wild tomato plant in the bullpen and took care of it the rest of the season. After the Mets won the World Series that season, Pignatano decided to keep the plant around because he saw it as the Mets’ good luck charm.

Photo credit: Ballpark Digest

After avoiding Pignatano’s precious plant, the Mets drove their cars onto the field and dimly lit the infield. The entertainment did not stop there though.

Infielders Doug Flynn, Bobby Valentine, John Stearns, and the aforementioned Lenny Randle took fake infield practice. Without a ball, the infielders entertained fans by pretending to make diving stops and turning stylish double plays with a little extra panache.

Before the fans figured out their respective ways home, Mets players stuck around to sign autographs for the Shea faithful. That is what baseball is truly all about.

As for the power outage, it was restored 25 hours later, but the game was not resumed until September 16. After tying the game in the bottom of the seventh, Jerry Koosman, who originally started the game back in July, gave up two runs in the eighth and took the loss as the Mets went down 5-2.

But see, stories like this are what makes baseball so great. While New York City was blacked out with looting, arson, and violence going on all over the place, 14,626 were at Shea Stadium watching Mets players put on light shows and flashy infield performances all while eating free food.