Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cardia Jackson: Home Is Where the Heart Is

Wrote this feature on ULM linebacker Cardia Jackson in 2009 for a magazine promoting Sun Belt Conference football. Apparently there wasn't much of a market for a Sun Belt football magazine and I was never paid for it -- guess I can do with it what I please now. Although I'd known Cardia since his high school days, I discovered a lot about him during this interview. Fast forward a couple of years and Jackson was on the Green Bay Packers roster when they won the Super Bowl, earning him a ring and a trip to the White House. He went back to training camp with the team in 2011.







The child was not even a year old, and already the rough-and-tumble game had his attention.
There on the porch, under his mother’s loving watch, Cardia Jackson kept his own eyes focused on the older children in the yard as they played. Sometimes his instincts would kick in, and before his mother knew it, young Cardia would blast through the screen in an effort to join the boys with the football.
“He kept the screen punched out,” said Carlette Boldes, whose son is now a dominant senior linebacker at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. “When he was a child, not even one, he’d see the big boys playing ball in the yard. We had a screened-in porch and he’d act like he was running after the ball. He always wanted to be with the big boys.”
Two decades later, Jackson’s priorities are the same. Mom and football are his passions.


“He was always a special child, a curious baby,” Boldes said. “I knew he would be something special. What, I didn’t know. But his grandmother always said he’d be a football player.”

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The college experience usually takes a young person away from home, out of a comfortable nest and prepares them for an independent life.
To some extent, Jackson is following that vital arc of growth and maturation. Since finishing a decorated prep career at Wossman High School, he has continued his development as a football player at the university in his hometown of Monroe, La.
Jackson collected a whopping 127 tackles as a junior – the highest total at ULM since NFL safety Chris Harris made the same number in 2002 -- and ranked eighth nationally with 10.6 stops per game. A first-team All-Sun Belt Conference pick, Jackson added two interceptions, four sacks and eight tackles for losses during the campaign. He enjoyed monster individual games with 17 tackles (14 solo) at Tulane and 18 at Ole Miss.
“Cardia is a leader in the locker room and the weight room,” ULM linebacker Theo Smith III said. “He gets us hyped up before a game, and keeps us focused.”
“He kept us laughing,” said Demetrice Hopkins a longtime friend and high school teammate at Wossman. “But he gets serious too. He’s an all-around guy and a complete leader, on and off the field.”
Yet unlike your average student-athlete, Jackson still lives at home with his mother and younger sister. The product of a single-parent upbringing, Jackson made the decision to sign with nearby ULM four years ago to be near his mom. Her health problems, primarily diabetes, weighed heavily on his mind.
“My mother was strong at that time, but I knew that everything wasn’t going right,” Jackson said. “You can tell.”
At Wossman, Jackson was twice named all-state and finished as his school’s career leading tackler. The local newspaper honored Jackson after his senior campaign as the top defensive player in northeastern Louisiana. Schools like LSU and Auburn showed recruiting interest then, and he originally gave a verbal commitment to Louisiana Tech, which is just 30 minutes away in Ruston. But for a young man without a car and his priorities in order, even that was too far away.
“That’s what really made me change my mind,” Jackson said. “I thought about my little sister as the only other person at the house. I’m the father figure at the house. With me not having transportation from Louisiana Tech, if something happened, I didn’t know how I would get home. I made the choice to go to ULM, which is really right up the street. I could basically run there if I had to.”
His first two years at ULM, Jackson lived on campus. Now he’s back under the same roof, sleeping most nights in the same room that he lived in growing up.
“He stuck with them,” said Hopkins, who has known Jackson since sixth grade. “He could have gone anywhere, but he chose to be close to his family. That’s all he has.
“He stepped up and took responsibility. He became a man early. He had that before he got to college. The bond they’ve got is strong. He didn’t want to break that.”
Jackson admits he couldn’t concentrate on his responsibilities if he was depending on someone else to oversee his mother.
“Anytime you’re dealing with diabetes and all that, it’s pretty serious,” he said. “You could lose your life over that.”

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At home, with family, Jackson is a gentle caregiver. He offers counsel to his sister and helps his mother take her medication.
“I’m there for her,” Jackson said. “My sister is the only other one there, a teen-ager, at 13. She doesn’t know what to do. I have to help her with her medicine, shoot insulin in her arm.”
Said Boldes: “He helps me with his sister and picks up my prescriptions. He makes sure I take my medication.”
On the football field, he’s a rugged beast who punishes the opposition. The game is his outlet.
“He’s a playmaker,” his teammate Smith said. “I think that’s what sets him apart from your average linebacker and will give him a chance to play at the next level.”
At Wossman, he once made 26 tackles in a single game. He wasn’t far off that pace last year when he had 17 tackles – 14 solo – at Tulane and another 18 at Ole Miss.
“It’s like this,” Jackson said. “I take all my problems that I have at home and take it out on the field and leave it on the field. Once I get off the field, I try to let the situation motivate me to keep going. It weighs on me sometimes. But I try to look at everything bad in my life and think that everything happens for a reason.”
Hopkins recognized early on how Jackson channeled his emotions into football.
“He takes out his frustrations on the field,” Hopkins said. “It helps him and motivates him to keep going. He’s kept a strong mind. He’s consistent, and that hasn’t changed.”

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Jackson’s father Billy Cage had a short career playing football at ULM back in the day but he wasn’t around during Jackson’s formative years. Since entering college, Jackson said that he has developed a man-to-man relationship with Cage.
“It all starts at the household,” Jackson said. “My mother was a single parent, and some guys in the neighborhood don’t have a father figure to look up to – not even a bigger uncle or cousin to tell them right from wrong. All they have is their mother there. They’re males, so maybe she feels like she just has to let them go and see what’s happening in life on their own. That’s not the way it goes. That’s why they choose the path they do. They don’t have that father figure.”
Jackson chose to handle that role for his family.
“He’s real muscular and manly around the house,” Boldes said. “It doesn’t surprise me that he’s such a good leader in football. He’s a person who takes charge at home too.”
Jackson has a short list of people in his life who served as role models and mentors.
Growing up, he saw both sides of the coin. There were Wossman products like Pat Williams and Bradie James, who have parlayed their ability into careers in the NFL. Too many others squandered their gifts.
“The person who keeps me going is my mother,” Jackson said. “There are people around the neighborhood, some of the older guys who had the opportunity to play college ball and messed up and did something stupid. They keep me going too. Anytime I see them, hanging around the little corner store, they motivate me to keep going and pushing. You can’t let the struggle bring you down.”
Jackson averted tragedy in the summer leading into his freshman season at ULM. In the wrong place at the wrong time, Jackson was shot in the leg while out one night with friends. Miraculously, he suffered only a flesh wound and entered the program on schedule.
“I worry about him at school and on the field too,” Boldes said. “I’m concerned about him getting hurt. But he always tells me it will be OK.”
Even today, Jackson knows there are familiar faces that he must keep at arm’s length. They don’t always share his passion to succeed in life.
“I stay in a rough part of the neighborhood on the Southside,” Jackson said. “There are plenty of guys that I went to school with, played ball with, who are still in the neighborhood. They don’t want to do anything else but hang around the neighborhood. I visit with them. I communicate with them. But at the same time, I have to separate from them. When they want to go do something sometimes, I have to say no. With what I have at stake, I have to separate myself from the guys and be smart about my situation.”
Jackson wants to carry on the legacy of his hometown role models – James and Williams. He too wants to provide a positive influence on the youngsters from his community.
“I had a couple of guys ahead of me that I could look up to and follow their foot paths,” Jackson said. “I had Bradie James and Pat Williams. I looked up to those guys. They still come back to Monroe. I still holler at Pat Williams every now and then and he tells me what I have to do and what I have to continue to do to make it to the next level.
“I feel like if those two guys can do it, coming from the same area that I did, why can’t I? But you have to get your books first, then football second.”
This is the legacy that he’s carrying on too.
“I was at the rec playing basketball talking to some guys,” Jackson said. “I talked to them about their life and the direction that they’re going. I was telling them, ‘Everybody knows that you’re not scared. Everybody knows that you’re not a punk. But you’ve got to be smart about what you’re going through. You’ve got to walk away from it.’ If somebody pulls out a gun, do you want to fight them? Just walk away. ”

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While Jackson is a known commodity to the ULM football family, he’s still something of a mystery to first-year defensive coordinator Troy Reffett.
Since joining the ULM staff from New Mexico, Reffett hasn’t seen Jackson on the field. A shoulder injury kept the star linebacker sidelined during spring drills, leaving his new coach waiting for a first-hand look.
Still, the tape doesn’t lie. Reffett expects a lot from Jackson as a potential playmaker in his 3-3-5 defensive scheme.
“I think he has a chance to be a great fit,” Reffett said. “I’ve watched him on film last year and he’s a big, physical player who runs well and has a good feel for it. Playing inside linebacker is inside linebacker. With what we plan on doing, it will give him an opportunity to make a lot of plays and do things to help this football team.”
Coaching changes have been part college experience for Jackson. Although head coach Charlie Weatherbie has been there for the duration, Jackson has played for four defensive coordinators and four linebacker coaches.
“It’s been kind of good for me in a way,” he said. “All of my linebacker coaches had different styles. You learn more, from the old guy to the new guy. Basically, you’ve just got to make plays. That’s what it all comes down to.”
During skull sessions with his 6-foot-2, 240-pound bruiser, Reffett found Jackson refreshingly knowledgeable about the game.
“He’s studious,” Reffett said. “He went through every meeting in spring ball. He was out at every single practice standing close to me. He had his script with him all during every practice. There are times, during the course of practice that he’s back in the back, actually on air going through the play. I think he understands what we’re trying to do. He can articulate and communicate the scheme and the calls and what he’s supposed to do within those. It’s just a matter of him actually physically going out there and doing it now. That’s where you hope that senior with his experience and ability, it will just flow naturally for him. It’s not uncommon during spring ball to limit the reps of some of your best players anyway. He didn’t get any. But we think he’ll get adjusted quickly and fit right in.”
With a college career unfinished, Jackson isn’t particularly reflective. ULM finished 4-8 in 2008 and hasn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1993.
His highlights are more personal, as he thinks back to teammates and memorable victories.
“I played with Kevin Payne, who is with the Bears right now,” Jackson said. “I’ll never forget the first game as a freshman, the first game he ever saw me play in. He said, ‘Man, continue to do what you’re doing and you’ll make it.’ He saw the drive that I have and the emotions, my feelings for the game. I’ll never forget it.”
Payne, who worked out with Jackson over the summer, recalled the promise he saw in the linebacker four years ago when they were college teammates.
“I knew when I first met Cardia as a freshman that he was special,” said Payne, who is entering his third year in the NFL this season with the Bears. “You couldn’t tell he was a freshman. He fit in well with the team.”
As a sophomore in 2007, Jackson was part of ULM’s milestone 21-14 victory at Alabama. The Warhawks finished that season 6-6, their best record since moving up to Division I-A in 1994.
“It was a big win,” Jackson said. “That was a good feeling after the game, to beat an SEC school. We went in as the underdogs. It was big for me. The coach was Nick Saban, who was LSU. I was recruited by his coaching staff and we had to prove a point.”
The off season has been one of change for ULM football. Weatherbie is in the final year of his contract and a number of assistants left the program. With so many new faces on the coaching staff, Jackson acknowledges both uncertainty and hope that he can finish his college tour on a positive note.
“I believe the defense now will add up my stats,” Jackson said. "We have more blitzes. With everybody roaming around, you never know who is coming. It’s going to benefit me. It’s going to be real fun. Everybody is up and moving around. You’re not being still, waiting on the offense to attack you. You attack the offense.”

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Like the kid on the porch, Jackson kept his eye on the ball.
Coming up through the ranks at Wossman, Jackson aspired to become a great college football player, and he has remained on that path. All-conference honors and recognition followed the local acclaim he enjoyed as a prep star.
“It’s a feeling that you can’t explain when you’re out there on the field,” Jackson said. “When you it on, nobody can make you turn it off.”
When his senior year concludes, Jackson wants to play professionally.
“He’s a great athlete,” Payne said. “As he tries to go to the next level, he’s got all the potential and skills that scouts are looking for. I worked out with him in Monroe this summer, and he’s got great hips and feet. He looks like a prototype to play in the NFL. The best thing for him to do is stay focused and do the things that got him to where he is now.”
For Jackson, that source is motivation is the woman who now shares his dreams.
“I am very proud of him,” Boldes said. “I’m exceptionally proud that he went to ULM to stay close to home. It helped me a lot. I dream of him playing in the NFL too.”

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Paul's Prickly People Of Sports





Reporting sports in Louisiana is a rewarding endeavor. The state has always produced and attracted a lengthy list of the legends for our games. But not every encounter on the Bayou State sports beat goes smoothly. Frankly, some people you run across can be testy. Over a 20-year period, I can recall several memorable interviews or interactions that didn't go smoothly. Not every athlete listed here has Louisiana ties but did cross my path in a state of wrath.



--I'm from Richland Parish and live close to Rayville, which spawned the football career of Roosevelt Potts. While he's not a big name nationally, Potts was well known in northeastern Louisiana as a high school and college fullback. After starring at ULM, he went on to play pro ball in the NFL -- most notably with the Colts. While writing a fantasy football column sometime in the mid-1990s, I opined that drafting Potts might be tempting for homers but probably not a wise choice since he was losing carries to a young runner named Marshall Faulk. Coincidentally, I attempted to interview Potts in person within a day or two of the column's publication. I guess he'd seen it and recognized me because he was pissed. "I ain't talking to you," Potts said. "You the one that wrote that mess about me." At first I thought he was joking. He wasn't. He walked away grumbling and that was the end of it. So much for the hometown connection.









--Deion Sanders didn't disappoint during a stopover in Monroe, La. while promoting a rap album in 1994. This was during his heyday as a self-centered two-sport athlete, so naturally I wanted to talk sports with him. He wasn't having it though, insisting that this tour was about his music and nothing else. Except he wouldn't talk about his music either in an empty nightclub that afternoon. At least that's what one member of he entourage told me as he sat by himself at a table about 10 feet away. I did see his bodyguard approach a kid, the club owner's son who appeared to want nothing more than an autograph and a handshake. "Deion," the heavy said, "would like you to get him a pizza." Don't know if Deion got his pizza or not but that was all I could take. I left, returning to hear his act a few hours later. I could understand then why he declined to talk about his music. It stunk.







--Never much of a Marshall Faulk fan and that didn't change while watching him work the room at his own Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame induction a couple of summers back. This was more of an observation than personal interaction, but is certainly noteworthy. Traditionally after the ceremony in Natchitoches ends, you'll see inductees approached for photos or autographs. Even though he was being celebrated that night, Faulk wasn't interested in being a good sport. In fact, I saw him turn down an request from a fellow Hall of Famer. "He ain't signing nothing else," someone with him said while shielding Faulk. A class act, indeed.


The next few weren't so much hostile as momentarily tense. ...


--I think Charles Barkley was kidding when he threatened to kill me at a Dallas Mavericks game. I was there interviewing Phoenix Suns players and coaches for a Scotty Robertson feature. Robertson was a longtime NBA assistant with Louisiana ties. Anyway, I wanted to include Barkley's take. I found him in the locker room shaving his head. When I asked him if he had time for an interview before the game, he said, "Are you crazy? You don't talk to me when I'm shaving my head." I backed out and found someone tamer to talk to. I think it was point guard Kevin Johnson, who was reading the bible by his locker. Barkley did make himself available after the game and was great, so all was forgiven.



--I'd like to think Rod Carew is a nice guy but he seemed a little harsh when he ordered me away from the batting cage in Houston. I was there to see the Major League debut of pitcher Ben Sheets. Carew, then batting coach for the Brewers, was working with Sheets in the cage. I wanted a photo of Sheets taking his cuts on the day before his first start. Carew snarled that I needed to back up. Maybe he was just on edge trying to get something out of Sheets, who was eventually an All-Star but never did much damage at the plate.




--ULM center Wojciech Myrda was mild-mannered and quiet during most of his career. A transfer student from Poland, Myrda played locally at Ouachita Parish High School in Monroe, La., before signing with the college program in the same town. He enjoyed a distinguished career and established the NCAA record for blocked shots. Offensively though, he was never that aggressive and had a maddening habit of blowing finesse layups instead of dunking the ball. I wrote as much in a column that published on the same day that Myrda's team had a home game with Lamar. I didn't really rip him but I did write that he would probably never be much of an offensive threat and fans should enjoy him for what he was -- a one-dimensional defensive player. That night Myrda played with a passion that I had rarely seen. He attacked the basket and scored 27 points in a monster all-around game. Before relenting to a post-game interview, he reached in his pocket and pulled out the column clipped from the newspaper. He glared (down) at me and slowly wadded it into a ball before shortly answering a few questions. I suggested to Myrda that he hang it in his locker if that's what it took for him to dominate like he had. His college coach Mike Vining asked for another column just like it before the next game. To his credit, Myrda didn't hold a grudge.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

This is a story I wrote in 2006 as former Monroe (La.) Monarch outfielder Willard Brown was about to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Louisiana native was an interesting character by most accounts -- and one hell of a slugger.

Descriptions of late Negro League slugger Willard “Home Run” Brown create the image of a man who might fit right in with today’s high-maintenance athletes.
Brown, a Shreveport native who played for the Monroe Monarchs in the mid 1930s, would sometimes loaf when the crowds were light. He looked lackadaisical and nonchalant in the field and had a high opinion of his ability.
“Willard Brown knew he was a star,” esteemed author and Negro League baseball historian Phil Dixon said. “He had a quirky attitude. I interviewed Willard many times and Willard loved baseball.
“He was so graceful, he didn’t look like he was running hard but he was running fast. He was known for not sliding, but he told me he had a broken ankle one time playing with one of those southern teams. He told me he didn’t slide because he was afraid of hurting himself again.”
Despite his approach to the game, Brown produced Hall of Fame credentials. One of 39 candidates being considered for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame by a special selection committee this week (Summer, 2006), Brown had a lifetime .351 batting average.
Brown, who died in 1996, was also a player of social significance too. He broke into the major leagues in July 1947, a few months after Jackie Robinson. Brown was the first black man to hit a home run in the American League
“Willard Brown is a Hall of Famer, no doubt about it,” Dixon said. “Willard doesn’t get all his credit that he deserves.”
Part of Brown’s lack of recognition is his reputation. But according to a number of sources, he was a power hitter on par with Hall of Fame catcher Josh Gibson.
“He was underrated,” former Negro League and Chicago White Sox pitcher Connie Johnson told me in 2003, before his own death. “He could play ball but he just didn’t hustle.”
Dixon has conducted exhaustive research on Negro League statistics and believes Brown hit more than 500 home runs. Further, Dixon believes Brown actually hit more home runs than Gibson, whose feats have probably been exaggerated over time.
“He played a lot longer (than Gibson) and he was steady,” Dixon said.
Another late Negro League pitcher, Wilmer Fields, had tremendous respect for Brown.
“I tried to get a few fastballs by him and it doesn’t look like I succeeded much,” Fields said in a 2003 interview with me. “He could hit the ball.”
Fields, who was president of the NLBPA before his death, also advocated Brown’s Hall of Fame credentials.
“Brown should have been in before a lot of the rest of them,” Fields said. “He could hit the ball. I used to pitch to him and Josh Gibson was my catcher. He could hit with more power, but Brown was more well-rounded as a hitter.”
And yes, Fields confirmed Brown’s “reputation too. He once told an author that Brown would read Reader’s Digest in center field.
“That was his trouble,” Fields said. “He could run – but he was lazy.”
Author John Holway, who has written a number of books on the subject of Negro League baseball, also has significant background knowledge of Brown. An interview with Holway appears in Holway’s book, “Blackball Stars.”
“He had a Gibsonian year in 1946, when his homers extrapolated to about 100 per 550 at bats,” Holway told me in an e-mail two years ago. “His teammates say he was a hell of a player, but he didn’t put out until a big Sunday doubleheader; he loafed when the crowds were small.”

THE MONROE MONARCHS DAYS
Brown spent most of his career playing for the legendary Kansas City Monarchs. But his introduction to professional baseball came in Monroe with the local Monarchs.
“My first contract was in 1934 with Monroe, Louisiana” Brown told Holway in an interview published in the book Blackball Stars. “I was a shortstop and a pitcher then.”
Brown had Monroe teammates like young pitcher Hilton Smith, who was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2001. Hitters like Ted Mayweather were also on the roster.
Although Monroe Monarchs players had a great setup at Casino Park and were treated well by team owner Fred Stovall, Brown bolted when the higher-profile Kansas City Monarchs offered him a better deal. Kansas City offered him him a $250 bonus with a monthly salary of $125, plus a dollar a day for meal money. Monroe was considered a minor Negro League team in those days.
“In 1935, the (Kansas City) Monarchs got me,” Brown told Holway. “J.L. Wilkinson owned the Monarchs and there was a great guy. A wonderful man, a wonderful an. He always got the best ball players. He got five of us from the Monroe Monarchs.”

MAKING HIS NAME
The Web site thediamondangle.com and others like it often refer to Brown as the greatest home run hitter not in the Hall of Fame.
According to thediamondangle.com, Brown “was black baseball's premier home run hitter in the western-based Negro American League. He led the NAL in dingers seven times, 1937, '38, '41, '42, '43, '47 and '48. Only Josh Gibson won more home run titles with nine crowns. Although known primarily for his power, Brown won three batting titles with outstanding averages of 371 in 1937, .356 in 1938 and .333 in 1941.”
Brown was known a hitter who could smash any pitch with his 30 inch, 40 ounce bat..
“He could hit the ball off the ground,” late pitcher Connie Johnson said.
“His hometown park was against him,” Holways said, “or he'd have been better.”

A CUP OF COFFEE
In July 1947, the St. Louis Browns were floundering through another season of major league baseball. In hopes of improving their fortunes, the Browns purchased the contracts of Hank Thompson and Willard Brown from the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs. Thompson and Brown became the first black teammates in the major leagues.
Brown, 36 at the time, lasted 21 games with the St. Louis Browns and was released after batting .179. He became the first black American Leaguer to hit a home run during his short stay with the last-place team.
Brown returned to the Negro League and batted .374 with 18 homers in 1948 and .317 in 1949. Brown also displayed his talents in Puerto Rico and in the Texas Leagues after it was integrated.
In Puerto Rico, he was known as “Ese Hombre” – The Man. He hit a record 27 home runs there in 115 at bats according to Holway. He was a successful minor league player in the Texas League from 1953 through 1956.
“He tore up the Texas League after integration,” Holway said. “Monte Irvin and Larry Doby played against him in the 1946 World Series. … Brown is also huge in Puerto Rico, where he holds the home run record, way ahead of second-place Reggie Jackson.”
According to thediamondangle.com, Brown’s career can be summed up by a 1943 editorial from Rollo Wilson in the Philadelphila Tribune: "After watching him for three years, I am ready to concede that Willard Brown of the Monarchs is one of the really great outfielders of the times and that he ranks with the best. In addition to being a long-ball hitter, he ranges far and fast afield and has a better than average throwing arm. I have seen no one except Babe Ruth hit a longer home run in Shibe Park than the smash Brown delivered there the other evening."

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Stan Humphries

The young quarterback tossed footballs through tires in his backyard and dreamed of being an NFL star.

This wasn’t a far-fetched notion for Shreveport native Stan Humphries. In northern Louisiana, the parade to pro football at the position had already started.

“They were all around at the time,” Humphries said. “Terry Bradshaw, Joe Ferguson, David Woodley were from that time in northern Louisiana. Right down the road, there was Bert Jones, James “Shack” Harris and Doug Williams. It was a period in time when there were a lot of quarterbacks coming out."

Humphries carried on that tradition. A star at Southwood, he led the former Northeast Louisiana University to the I-AA national title in 1987. He spent 10 seasons in the NFL, notably leading his San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl.

“You’d hang out in the backyard and pretend you were one of those on a Sunday afternoon,” Humphries said. “Having a chance to be one of those guys – now to have a chance to have your name beside them – it’s unbelievable.”

Because he grew up surrounded by a quarterback legacy, Humphries said he’s never really wondered why north Louisiana has been so fertile. It was simply a way of life.

Even his quarterbacks coach in college, former Neville star Bob Lane, had played professional football in the USFL.

“I was lucky enough to go college in Monroe where they opened it up,” Humphries said. “They threw the ball. That’s why I was able to step into the next level.”

The role models weren’t just names on bubblegum cards for Humphries either.

“Joe Ferguson’s parents lived around the corner from my parents,” Humphries said. “He had come into town one summer to work out. I got invited to go work out with him one day – it was unbelievable.”

Still in high school, Humphries found himself playing pitch-and-catch with NFL players like Ferguson, Pat Tilley, MikeBarber, Larry Anderson and Roger Carr.

“All these unbelievable professional football players of this time,” Humphries said, “and I was out there throwing the football with them.”

Humphries created his own legacy, one of toughness and success. The Chargers won more than 60 percent of the games he started in a six-year stretch. He was capable of producing big numbers, but Humphries didn’t care about statistics.

Victories were his prime concern.

“It’s all about, to me, winning football games,” Humphries said. “It wasn’t about commercials and Pro Bowls. It was about winning football games – fighting with your buddies.”

Friday, May 7, 2010

Cult Heroes: Thomas Morstead and Chris Reis

Missing from the 2010 offseason for the New Orleans Saints?


Well, actually being off. And honestly, why would you WANT to flip the switch after you win a Super Bowl -- particularly in a success-starved NFL region like the one New Orleans services.


Certainly, it's not unusual to see the megastars like MVP Drew Brees and Jeremy Shockey making high-profile appearances all the way up until training camp eve.


But witness the trickle-down effect too for the game's flashpoint cult heroes. Likeable guys like Thomas Morstead and Chris Reis, who came up on the business ends of the pivotal onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XVI, have taken the title to the people with a personal touch.

There's Morstead, shocking the world with the prescribed Holy Roller toward the unsuspecting Colts. There's Reis, the long-haired special teams ace, scrambling in the bottom of the pile and coming up with the ball. A few months ago, they were relatively anonymous role players.

Now these willing ambassadors are part of Saints lore.


"It's kind of an overnight sensation," Reis says on an April night while signing freebie autographs at Jaimie's Sports Cards of Louisiana in Monroe. "I went from a nobody to now; people recognize me. Because of my hair, they're making me on the street. It's humbling to be part of something so big, so great and so great for the city. It's been a blessing. Hopefully we can continue our winning ways."


It ain’t easy for a punter to show up on the highlight DVD. Yet who (dat) among us will ever forget the sight of Morstead jumping and signaling that Reis had recovered his onside offering.


"For me personally, my whole rookie season was special," Morstead says during a pause at the same Monroe event. "From getting drafted to positive moments where I helped influence the game, it was really a neat feeling for me."

Morstead's aunt and uncle, along with five cousins, actually live in Monroe. When visiting their home, he sometimes booms 60-yard punts down the street to the amazement of locals.

Keeping his leg under wraps back home in Texas, he blends in pretty well. Back in the Bayou State, it's another story. "It's crazy," Morstead says. "Whenever I come back ANYWHERE in Louisiana, everybody's still so high about it. It's been pretty cool. I was out in Monroe last night, and people were buying me drinks. It's pretty crazy."

At least Morstead was a recent draft pick with modest name recognition. Reis reminds you of Steve Gleason, another long-haired special teams demon from a few years back. Listed as a safety on the roster, the Georgia Tech product was originally signed by the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2006. In 2007, he was toiling in NFL Europe for the Cologne Centurions.

Typically, only the diehards get this deep into roster recognition, but Super Bowls and super-charged moments change that. These days, folks line up to meet ‘em when given the chance.


"It's wonderful," Reis says. "You have fans coming up to you and saying 'Thank you.' These fans aren't looking for anything from us. They're just thankful that we were able to do something so great. We won, but it felt like we won for the city. To be able to give back to the fans is just awesome."


Says Morstead: "People are always trying to get stuff signed or take pictures. It doesn't get old. To me it doesn't. I think it's cool. These fans have been living and dying with this team. Well, they've dying for a long time. Living with them now, it's cool to be a part of it."


They get it. Morstead isn't too far removed from lean years of his own at SMU.


"I went 1-11 my junior year and 1-11 my senior year in college," Morstead says. "To go from that, -- to winning the Super Bowl?"


Believe me, we understand.

And thanks.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

USFL'S demise helped Saints arrive

This is a piece that I originally wrote in 2003 as part of a package remembering the birth of the USFL in the 1980s. This is one of the most rewarding projects I ever worked on, as I visited with former Saints legends like the late Sam Mills, Bobby Hebert and Jim Mora and gathered their memories about the defunct football league.

BACK IN THE USFL: No Mora excuses for Saints

USFL alumni like Coach Jim Mora, Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson and Bobby Hebert led the Saints to their first playoffs in 1987.The death of the United States Football League in the mid-1980s breathed new life into the New Orleans Saints.


When the spring football league went belly up after the 1985 season, an unprecedented wave of players and coaches flooded the market. By plucking the right free agents from the pool and hiring the USFL's most successful coach in Jim Mora, the NFL's Saints in 1987 were able to reach the playoffs for the first time in their woeful history.

"We did great," Mora gushed 18 years later, as he remembered his early years in New Orleans. "Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, Chuck Commiskey, Antonio Gibson, Mel Gray, Bobby Hebert - my coaching staff who came with me from the Stars. We did good."In addition to players, Mora stocked his first Saints staff with former Stars coaches, such as Dom Capers, Jim Skipper, Carl Smith, Steve Sidwell, Vic Fangio, Joe Marciano and John Pease."We got a lot of coaches and players," Mills said. "There were a host of guys who were able to come over and contribute right away. It was a lot of fun."

MORA THE MINER
Sure, the NFL had deeper rosters than the USFL. But Mora knew that some of the star players he'd seen in the upstart league could compete with anyone.
"The USFL was better than people gave it credit for," Mora said. "There were a lot of terrific players in that league that went on and became really good players in the NFL."

The USFL was filled with golden nuggets of talent, and Mora proved to be an able prospector.

"They boosted the Saints. They propelled the Saints," said former USFL wide receiver Charles Smith, now head football coach at Wossman. "

All of a sudden, you get Jim Mora from the USFL and he comes in and brings success. He learned how to build a team from Carl Peterson. Jim Mora saw how you can develop a team. He saw these guys he coached against and knew they could play."As he built the Saints, Mora's wish list, for the most part, was fulfilled.

"We did pretty good from the USFL," Mora said. "I didn't want to bring in a bunch of USFL players because the current players would say, `Oh man, here's the USFL coach bringing in all these guys.'"I wanted to be sure we brought in good players who would fit in and the current players would respect."

Three years in USFL from 1983-85 helped Mora devise his blueprint for success while compiling a 41-12-1 overall record and a 7-1 postseason mark. A battle plan featuring rugged defense and ball control on offense helped his Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars win two of the USFL's three championships. When the league folded, the Saints hired Mora to change their fortunes.
"I knew that he would have success," said Mills, who played linebacker for Mora's Stars. "I saw him build a team in the USFL, and we had a darn good football team there."Mora said the Saints were on the verge of something when he arrived."When I went in there (New Orleans) in 1986, there was a really good nucleus of players there that Bum Phillips had acquired," Mora said. "Then we had a good draft with Dalton Hilliard, Rueben Mayes, Pat Swilling, all in the same draft. It would have been hard to screw that up."

SPRINGING INTO ACTION



Mora had one player that he had to bring with him from the USFL. But late Saints general manager and president Jim Finks needed convincing when Mora started talking up Mills.
"When I started talking about Sam, I'm talking about a 5-9 and a quarter linebacker, and Jim Finks wasn't real fired up about it," Mora said. "I had to convince him that Sam could play."

Slammin' Sam was accustomed to proving himself. The Toronto Argonauts and the Cleveland Browns cut him before he crashed pro ball with three years as an All-USFL star. He rewarded Mora's loyalty by earning five NFL Pro Bowl berths, including his first in 1987.
"I believed that he would get it done," Mills said. "I was just glad to be a part of it."

A chief USFL foil was already dressed in black and gold when Mora took the helm. Quarterback Bobby Hebert threw for 3,568 yards and 27 touchdowns while leading the Michigan Panthers to the first USFL championship in 1983, a 24-22 win over Mora's Stars. Hebert passed for 314 yards and three scores while earning MVP of that first title game.

"The fans (in Detroit) supported us more than the Lions because we brought them their first championship since 1958," Hebert said "Out of 28 NFL teams, we would have been 10 to 14. We definitely would have been in the top 14."

Mora's Baltimore Stars returned the favor in 1985 by topping Hebert's Oakland Invaders 28-24, in what was the USFL's final contest. Hebert threw for 3,811 yards and 30 touchdowns in his last USFL season before signing with the Saints.A Louisiana native who played college football at Northwestern State, Hebert proved himself worthy for the NFL with his USFL apprenticeship.

After playing sparingly under Bum Phillips in 1986 with New Orleans, he completed 164-of-294 attempts for 2,119 yards and 15 touchdowns in 1987 to lead the Saints to their first postseason.

"The Superdome was rocking from 1987 to 1992," Hebert said. "There wasn't a better place to play. It's a shame we couldn't finish the deal. There couldn't be a better city to win the Super Bowl in. it would be like Mardi Gras the whole offseason."

Mills and Vaughan Johnson formed half of the heralded linebacker unit known as the "Dome Patrol." Johnson was a USFL terror with the Jacksonville Bulls before his NFL reincarnation.

"I knew of Vaughan," Mills said, "but I didn't know that he was such a good athlete and such a good football player. I learned a lot of things from watching Vaughan. I learned a lot in man coverage watching Vaughan. I figured if a guy 250-something pounds could cover that good, there must be something I can learn."

Mills wasn't the only former Stars player to follow Mora. Commiskey started at offensive guard, and Gibson played safety for Mora in both leagues.

"They were both on our team in Philadelphia," Mora said. "They weren't great players, but they were good enough to come in and make us better with the Saints."
Running back Buford Jordan introduced himself to New Orleans football fans in 1984, when he ran for 1,276 yards with the USFL's Breakers. Jordan made the jump to the NFL, where he was a backup with the Saints. Gray was a splendid return man in New Orleans who ranked sixth in kickoff returns and seventh in punt return yardage in 1987. He went on to play in three Pro Bowls with the Detroit Lions.

FINALLY - A WINNER

Mora's melding of the two leagues proved fruitful in his second season. The Saints finished 12-3 in 1987, earning their first playoff berth in team history.New Orleans split its first two games before a players strike forced NFL teams to use replacement players. The Saints went 2-1 in replacement games, then suffered a 24-22 loss to the 49ers in the first game after the strike.

Mora erupted afterward with his famous "Could've, would've, should've" speech that challenged his Saints to rise up against the top teams.

"Could've, would've, should've is the difference in what I'm talking about," Mora said that day. "The good teams don't say could've. They get it done."

After losing to the 49ers, the Saints peeled off nine straight wins. After 20 years of futility, they clinched their first playoff berth with a 44-34 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Overall, the Saints ranked third in rushing and fourth in total defense while posting their first winning season.

"It was huge," Mill said. "When we first stepped in the city, we heard `Aints' and we heard about the paper bags. I remember my first game against Atlanta, we got blown out."But we knew we could be successful. When it happened, it happened in a big way. The whole state of Louisiana was so excited about their football team and a team they could be proud of. It was a team they could chant good things about."

Though the Minnesota Vikings thrashed the Saints 44-10 in the 1987 wild-card game, things had changed. New Orleans enjoyed seven straight non-losing seasons under Mora and went to the playoffs four times in his 10® years. Mora's 93-74 record in New Orleans established him as the franchise's winningest coach.

"Coach Mora came in and made the New Orleans Saints a legitimate team," said Louisiana native Gary Barbaro, a star safety with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs and the USFL's New Jersey Generals. "He made them someone to contend with."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Steve "Dr. Death" Williams

The wrestler Steve "Dr. Death" Williams died of throat cancer on Dec. 30, 2009. He was 49.
Primarily through his affiliation with Mid-South Wrestling, Williams was a familiar figure to Louisiana folks who followed the sport in the 1980s.

In 2007, I had the chance to meet Williams on a promotional stop in West Monroe. He was a fun interview and a nice guy -- despite his bruiser reputation.

Throat cancer left his voice raspy but strong. When he talked wrestling days of old, his eyes twinkled.

“Ask any well-named wrester about Dr. Death,” said Williams, who lived in the Shreveport area for about 25 years. “I was the toughest man in the business. I don’t think anybody could match up.”

During its heyday, Mid-South Wrestling drew legions of local fans to the Monroe Civic Center to see stars like Williams, Ernie Ladd and Ted DiBiase.

“People will never forget those guys,” Williams said. “We’re the ones who paved the way for these kids today. We went everywhere in our cars, slept in our cars and ate cans of tuna fish. We had to scrape.”

Diagnosed with cancer three years before our meeting, Williams at that time believed he was winning the greatest fight of his life.

“I didn’t work for two years,” Williams said. “Matter of fact, I died three times because of the situation. God spared my life.”

Williams chronicled his life and battle with cancer in a book – “How Dr. Death became Dr. Life.” He said he used his celebrity to share his testimony at churches and talk to cancer patients.

“I am so blessed,” Williams said. “I fought a tough opponent. That cancer was a tough situation.”
Then 47, Williams was still training wrestlers and helping develop the sport that made him an international figure. On the day of his appearance at an independent wrestling event, Williams went into the ring and thrashed an upstart -- to the delight of the small crowd.

“I think a lot of people are just happy to see that I’m alive,” Williams said. “I wanted to finish off 25 years with wrestling and retire. This is my 25th year. A lot of people have been asking me to come back out and entertain. Right now, I’m enjoying life.”

Williams, whose weight dropped from 290 to 206, had returned to the gym daily for two hours. The former Oklahma football and college wrestling star was closer to his playing weight of 275 when we visited.

“I feel great,” said Williams. “I tell people that I used to do it my way like old blue eyes – Frank Sinatra. I did it my way so many years. I was a Christian, but I kept backsliding. When I had cancer, I gave my life over to Christ.”