Wrestling With Thanfulness

This past weekend was the NCAA Division 1 Wrestling Championships in Pittsburgh, PA. I suffered some real FOMO watching. I wrestled eleven years and love the sport. This tournament is quite possibly the greatest event in the sport. Here it was, across my state. I’m also quite a fan of Pittsburgh, and it’s rivers and bridges. More importantly though, they have Primanti Brothers. I love me some Primanti Brothers. You can see why in the picture above.

After the tournament was over, I saw a former teammate’s post on Facebook, talking about his trip to the tournament. This guy was a lot more accomplished wrestler than I was, winning a state championship and three conference championships in college. He talked about how hard it was for him to go to nationals in Pittsburgh though- the place his career ended, one match short of being an All-American. He talked about how he spent years thinking his entire career was a failure. Then he talked about getting over all of that, realizing how successful he was, and recognizing all the good he took from his athletic career. It was a really cool, inspiring post to read in the mess of politics and personal drama that usually inhabits Facebook.

Obviously that post made me think a lot about my sports career, and what I took from it into real life. As I said above, I wrestled eleven years, but I also ran indoor and outdoor track, as well as cross-country in high school, winning seven varsity letters along the way. I played baseball for eight years, stopping at the junior legion level to focus on my other sports (we weren’t a very good team, and to be honest, that discouraged me. I dabbled in football in elementary school and soccer in middle school too. I enjoyed playing sports as a kid, and did a lot of it. I’d like to think it had a positive influence on me.

My sports career didn’t really end ideally though. By the time I reached high school, I played sports because it’s what I did. I got more anxiety out of it than enjoyment. This isn’t a story of over-zealous parents here, while they did push me, I probably could have quit if I wanted. It’s mostly a story of me- how I got stuck doing the things I did less out of pleasure, and more because I had wrapped up so much of my identity in being a good athlete. As I became less excited to play, my performance dipped, and frankly I know now that it changed a lot about who I am. Eventually I spent a lot of my senior year fighting injuries, and my running career ended when I was diagnosed with mono my freshman year of college, before I ever ran a race. I not only quit sports, but I basically quit physical activity. I stopped working out altogether for about seven years, gained a solid 100 pounds, and didn’t take care of myself. That finally stopped in 2009, when a 25 year old me realized I was out of breath from walking up the steps to my office. I finally got a gym membership and lost 30 pounds in the first year. I plateaued there until I started eating healthier and cut back my beer and pizza intake back in 2016. I’ve lost 45 pounds since then and feel much better.

We live in a “winners and losers” culture, and that often overshadows the real value in competing in sports. We take our lessons in the form of trophies and medals, and not as much in the form of what we learn. Nobody gives a shit now whether I won or lost that match back when I was in tenth grade- not my family, nor my friends, not my community, and really not me. Sometimes, especially when we’re competing, we don’t take time to realize the actual important lessons we learned along the way.

So what are some of the lessons I learned from sports that have translated into life? Here’s a few of them:

  • As long as you don’t back up, most referees won’t warn you for stalling. In wrestling, when you don’t do very much to try and score, you can be called for stalling. If you get two stallings, you give up a point. Sometimes you could avoid the referees ire by just staying present in the middle of the mat, and not backing up. Life isn’t a whole lot different. If the people around you think you’re backing up, and you’re not presenting a plan to upgrade, they’ll think you’re not going anywhere. Pushing forward just a bit, or even just remaining present and steadfast where you are, goes a long way to keeping the people in your life happy. People will leave you alone to your business if they think you’re not regressing.
  • Always have a plan, stick to it, and execute. My junior year of high school I ran the mile pretty well. Not well enough to be a state champion or anything, but good enough to score points for the team in most races. Why? I just ran my race. I’d get out with the better runners the first lap, hang in right behind them the second and third lap, then pass everyone I could on the last lap. Sometimes some moron would run way out front that wasn’t supposed to, but I never let that bother me. My job was to hang close enough to score points, and make sure I at least got a third. I knew how to do that. Life isn’t a lot different. You make a plan, you execute, you hope you’re good enough at it to succeed. You can’t get caught up in what others are doing, or panicking that you didn’t prepare well enough. When it’s time, you just execute your plans and try to do them well enough.
  • Small things matter, even tenths of a pound. There is nothing more unforgiving than a scale with your weight, or a stop watch with your time, or the inches a baseball lands foul by. Sports are just like that. By the time you reach high school, the difference isn’t so much physical ability, and that’s even more true at higher levels. The differences are minor, and normally seem to favor the better prepared, more motivated athlete. Sometimes you will miss weight very close, or lose a race by a hundredth of a second, or just miss a home run by feet. That’s not accidental. That usually can be traced to the preparation you put in. The extra lifts you got in during the off-season weren’t “no big deal.” That carries over in life. You know the saying “bad things come in groups?” They do- to people not doing the things they need to be doing at that time.
  • You can’t control what the other guy does. This one is major to me. We live in a society where everyone wants to game the system for a small advantage, and disadvantage their competition. My experience is that doesn’t work very often. The other person is going to do what they do. Nothing you do to get a cheap advantage is going to make you better than a superior competitor, other than to make yourself better. Don’t worry so much about them.

I learned a lot of things from sports that didn’t win me trophies. They probably were more valuable.

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Why Tom Brady Won’t Be Visiting the White House in 2018

A few years ago, after the Patriots won the Super Bowl over the Seahawks, Tom Brady turned down the opportunity to visit the White House, at the invitation of Barack Obama. That’s his right, so no one can blame him for that. He went when Donald Trump invited him in 2017. I don’t think he’ll get the opportunity to make that decision in 2018.

Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback of his time, and maybe of all-time. His Patriots opened as one of the larger favorites in Super Bowl history, giving 5.5 points to the Eagles. The Eagles will play in this Super Bowl without the best quarterback in football this year, Carson Wentz, as well as without future Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman Jason Peters, electric return man Darren Sproles, and star linebacker Jordan Hicks, among others. If you’re lazy, you’ll assume the outcome from that. How in the world did this team get here?

Well, that’s the point, and that’s been the point, going back to when I told you to not count the Eagles out, after Wentz went down. The Eagles lost several Pro-Bowl level players and still went 13-3 in the regular season. They still beat the Atlanta Falcons, the reigning NFC Champions. They still beat the Minnesota Vikings, who possibly had the best defense in football this season. Here they are, in the Super Bowl. What’s that tell you about this roster? What can you make of a team that is 15-3 and in the Super Bowl, with all of those injuries? That’s a pretty good squad, right?

Here’s some facts about this game:

  • From the start of the second quarter in the Giants game (Week 15), the Eagles defense has surrendered five touchdowns. That’s 5 TD’s in 19 quarters.
  • Jay Ajayi and LaGarrette Blount, behind an offensive line with two All-Pro first teamers, present one of the most dominant rushing attacks in the league.
  • New England’s defense has greatly improved since week one. It still gave up twenty points to Blake Bortles.

What’s all of this mean? Brady is certainly better than Foles, and Gronk is some sort of other-worldly creature, but if you stop there, you’re missing the point. The defense Brady and Gronk will face is one of the very best in the NFL this season, and the offense the Eagles will put out on the field probably has about the same number of question marks as the defense they are facing. Both teams have kickers who can steal points from far away at the end of a half. Both teams are reasonably well coached too.

The hottest unit on either team going into this game is the Eagles defense. They will carry that through the Super Bowl. I don’t think they’ll shut down Brady like they did Case Keenum, but I do think they’ll remain on a roll. Will their offense give them enough points to win? After watching what they did to the Vikings, my answer is yes.

A Stall in the Process? Or Growing Pains?

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When the Sixers finally sealed up their win on Christmas Day over the Knicks, I was relieved. Kristaps is nice, but the Knicks are hot garbage that is going nowhere near a title any time soon, and yet they sat ahead of the Sixers in the standings going into this game. Sure, the standings mean nothing at this point in the season, and won’t for another month or so, but the Knicks stink. Their fans never just lay down and accept the futility that is their franchise, so if the Sixers had lost, it would have been bad. Fortunately, they didn’t though, and it wasn’t all that close. A less than 100% Joel Embiid proved to anyone wondering that he’s the dominant big man in the division moving forward.

So here’s the thing though- the Sixers have been really, really rotten in December. They’re 10th in the conference right now, which is frankly terrible- it’s neither in the playoffs or high in the lottery. They’re 15-18, which is not good. Markelle Fultz has missed significant time hurt this season, which is something I thought we were done with in Philadelphia this season. Their sitting of Joel Embiid is at best frustrating, and at worst overly careful. There’s issues here. Many of them sit at the feet of Brett Brown. My chief three beefs with the team right now:

  1. The offense doesn’t utilize this team’s best strengths. Look, I get it, the three pointer is fun, and it works well in Golden State, but it is not this team’s best offense. Joel Embiid can get to the rim at will, even if he does have the ability to shoot from outside. Almost no one can stop Ben Simmons from getting to the rim, and he should always attack it, even if he’s kicking the ball out. Dario Saric has good shooting nights sometimes, but he is at his best around the basket. These guys are all big, they can all score at the rim, and they all should score at the rim. It’s not Brown’s fault that Redick and RoCo have been streaky, but it is his fault that he’s not using his talent their best way.
  2. I don’t like the rotations right now. I’d really like to see less of Amir Johnson, and more of Richaun Holmes. I think I’d like to see Bayless and McConnell fall further back in the rotation, though I think it’s a reality of life that they will play a lot until Fultz is back. As long as Fultz is getting his minutes after he returns, I’ll live with that one. I’m getting tired of both Johnson getting the bulk of the bench minutes as a big, and the fact that we’re not seeing more Richaun Holmes. Holmes is a legitimately nice talent, and I want to see him on the court more. In fact, I want to see any young guy with talent getting the bulk of the opportunities this season, because I had no expectation of the Sixers winning an NBA Championship in 2018. This team can play with anyone, but that doesn’t mean I expect them to win anything yet.
  3. I did expect this group to be better defensively than they are.

So yeah, I’m a bit peeved at Brown’s handling of this team in the earlier going, and want to see some changes, but I’m not really all that bent out of shape about it. Sure, I’m not all that psyched with this team losing games to Sacramento, Chicago, Phoenix, or the Lakers, all teams I expect them to beat, or getting blown off the court by Toronto, a team I expect them to compete with, but it’s December. Basketball season starts at Christmas, in reality. At the end of the day, I pegged them for a sixth or seventh seed type team in this conference, and they should still be able to get there. The season is young.

This team is really young too, and it’s worth noting that this season is largely a learning season. Their struggles closing out games may be ugly to watch, but they are a part of becoming a professional team. Many of these players are now reaching career highs in games played in a basketball season (yes, after 33 games). If Brown is playing his veterans more early in the season to pace out the young guys for the long haul, I’ll live with some losses. If Joel Embiid is sitting a bunch of December games because the goal is to get 60-65 games out of his this season, I don’t like it, but I’ll live with it. I want to see this team finishing the season with Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, and Saric all on the court playing starter minutes, taking the team to the playoffs. That’s what this season is really about, not how I feel in December. We should remember that this group’s core is all around 21 years of age, and in their first or second real NBA season. They’re not supposed to be a finished product, yet.

I’d like to see this trip out West get them back on track. They have some momentum out of the win over the Knicks, and now they get to play Portland, Denver, and Phoenix on the trip, three teams that are maybe not rotten, but all are beatable. A 2-1 trip would be quite nice heading into a much harder home-stand against the Spurs, Pistons, Celtics, and Raptors. This would be a very good time for this team to right the ship and bit and get on a little run.

As An Eagles Fan, I Keep Asking- Could This Happen?

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I’m not going to lie- I pegged the Eagles for somewhere between seven and ten wins before the season. The AFC West was supposed to be loaded. Carson Wentz was only in year two of his development from North Dakota State to NFL Franchise QB. Road games at Carolina, Seattle, and Kansas City were mortal locks for defeat. Two trips to Los Angeles? Impossible. The defense wasn’t going to be very good, Doug Peterson’s offense still worried me, and the team went 7-9 the last two years. I wasn’t a believer.

The thing here is, I’m not often a believer in the Eagles. I was a kid watching Buddy Ryan’s feared defenses get let down in the playoffs, and when Reggie White was allowed to leave Philadelphia over money. I was a young adult when they lost the NFC Title Games to St. Louis, Tampa, and Carolina. I was in college when they lost the Super Bowl to Tom Brady. I was 25 when they lost the NFC Title Game to an Arizona team they had beaten during the season. I can honestly say at least three times I expected (yes, expected) my Eagles to win the Super Bowl. They never did. They never have, period. When they got gimmicky and brought in Chip Kelly, I immediately called fraud on that clown. He proceeded to wreck the team. Over my 34 years, the Eagles have given me every reason to doubt them.

The thing is, if you’re actually objective, there’s no reason to trust a franchise who last won an NFL Championship when my father was three years old (1960). Like most Eagles fans, I’ve so badly wanted to believe they’d win, but they usually end up disappointing us- in fact, they always seem to. It’s part of being a Philadelphia fan- you learn to deal with heartbreak and disappointment with the best of them.

I didn’t feel that way about this year’s team though, at least not until December 10th. Carson Wentz made me, and many others, truly believe this could be it. He’s that good. He’s an MVP type of QB. He really has the talent. So, of course he got hurt. Of course. His ACL had to tear as the team was winning the NFC East, and their 11th game of the season. This is the essence of being an Eagles fan. You want to believe so bad, and when the deck finally seems stacked our way, the rug gets pulled out from underneath you. Wentz got hurt, then somehow it was the defense that went shaky. Then the defense looked great this week, and the offense went shaky. I’ve never seen a less confident fanbase for a 13-2 team.

So, here’s the thing. I actually am pretty happy with the season they’ve had. They’ve defied my expectations and beliefs about them. I’m bought in on the coach/front office regime, the quarterback, and the roster they’ve assembled. I think this team is actually, legitimately good. Would I predict them to win the NFC, or the Super Bowl, right now? No. Do they have a shot? Yes, they have a real shot to win it all. I think they absolutely would have won the Super Bowl if Carson Wentz hadn’t got hurt. I think they still have a chance now. Why?

  • They have home field advantage in the NFC Playoffs. If you’re home, you at least have a chance. Philadelphia is a tough place to play in January, and who among the other current NFC Playoff teams is a legitimate outdoor, cold weather team? Minnesota, New Orleans, and Atlanta play in domes. Los Angeles and Carolina play in nice weather cities. Even beyond the noise, there is a real advantage here.
  • The road is shorter. Thanks to the bye in the Wild Card round, the Eagles only have to win two games to win the NFC, not three. Beating two good teams is a lot easier than beating three, even if it’s still hard.
  • Nick Foles replacing Carson Wentz really isn’t their biggest issue. Okay, so Nick Foles didn’t look great Monday night, but he looked good in LA and New York the two previous weeks. He’s had some playing time this season, he’s not totally cold. He’s  been an NFL starter, and even started in the playoffs. I’m far more worried about mistakes in the secondary and the loss of Jason Peters doing the Eagles in than Nick Foles. Foles isn’t Wentz, and I never bought into him even in his “27 to 2” season a few years back, but he’s good enough to win an NFL football game. He’s done what he needed to for the first two weeks as starter.
  • They keep overcoming major injuries. Jason Peters, Jordan Hicks, Darren Sproles, Caleb Sturgis, and of course, Carson Wentz have all suffered season-ending injuries.. Ronald Darby and Zack Ertz missed time. The Eagles are 13-2. Again, that’s 13-2, not 10-5 or some other very good, but not dominant record. This is a very good football team, a team that seems to find ways to win, regardless of the issues.
  • If not them, who else? No, really, who else? I guess if I were a betting man on the hot hand in the NFC, I’d probably take Carolina, who will have to play in the Wild Card round regardless of what happens next week, and who the Eagles did beat at their place earlier this year (granted, with Wentz). Minnesota has a great defense, but do you really think Keenum gets them all the way? Drew Brees is a football God, but do the Saints scare you in the cold like they do in the Dome? Are you bought into the Rams yet? Is Atlanta what they were last year? Are the Patriots or the Steelers the best version of those franchises that you’ve seen in recent memory? Any of the teams I mentioned, and even a Jacksonville or Kansas City, could possibly beat the Eagles in the post-season. The Eagles may not even win a game. But really though, which team is out of their league?
  • If they get there… Look, if the Eagles can win two NFC Playoff home games and win the NFC, they’re in the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is unique in American professional sports in that it’s a one-and-done game. It’s hard to get lucky and win four out of seven games in the World Series, or the NBA Finals, or the Stanley Cup Finals- you have to at least be competitive to get lucky in those championships. The Super Bowl is one football game. You have to outplay the opponent one time. That can happen- any given Sunday.

I don’t want to get your hopes too far up- the Eagles aren’t the favorites to win the Super Bowl anymore. They’re at best a “pick ’em” in the NFC, where no one is way out ahead right now. They could lose in the divisional round. If that happens, it’ll be sad, but something we’ve all seen before. I’ll still have faith in the future of the team, provided that they are smart and let Carson Wentz heal 100%- not rush him back to play Opening Day in 2018. With the way this team defied my expectations, my hopes are now sky high for a next decade of Carson being among the NFL’s elite. With a defense that showed amazing progress in a year’s time, a running back situation that was productive, and receivers that make plays, I have high hopes moving forward. I’m just not done hoping for big things to come- this year.