Good Guy of the Week
Hines Ward, WR, Pittsburgh. For the third year in a row, the Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation is hosting a group of bi-racial South Korean children (there are 11 this year, between 6 and 14) in Pittsburgh. The goal is to build confidence, self-esteem and a strong work ethic in the children, who are often looked down upon by some in their homeland who value racial purity.
Ward has found five families in Pittsburgh who play host to the kids for a week, and he eats dinner with them, takes them to a Steelers' game and shows them the sights, like the Carnegie Science Center. Ward is the child of a black American serviceman and a Korean woman, and he moved to Georgia as a young child. His current effort stems from a visit he made to Korea as a hero after he was named the Super Bowl MVP three years ago, and a visit he made to a group home for bi-racial children without parents in their lives.
"They were kids left behind, either by servicemen or moms who couldn't take the prejudice they felt in the society," said Ward. "My mom was an outcast because she went outside her race to have a child. That's one of the reasons she moved. When I was there [after the Super Bowl], everyone praised me for my accomplishments, but they shunned the kids. So I wanted to do something to let bi-racial kids know they can have positive lives.''
The great thing about this year's visit, Ward said, is he'll be able to give the kids one more example of bi-racial success -- the president-elect of the United States, who was born to an African-American father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. "Some of these kids feel they have no purpose in life,'' Ward said. "I'm not trying to be Martin Luther King. I'm just trying to tell them they can have great lives, and it's important to get to the kids at an early age. The dropout rate for bi-racial kids in Korea is really high. I just let them know, 'I'm different. It's OK to be different.' ''
That's a little bit of a different view for a guy who's public enemy No. 1 in towns like Baltimore and Cincinnati.
The Way We Were
London Fletcher vs. Sam Mills. Normally, I like to go back in time a little bit, and I was going to compare Fletcher to Nick Buoniconti, the only sub-6-foot linebacker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But after talking to the undersized Fletcher the other day, I changed my mind because one of his idols -- and a man he has modeled his game after -- is the late Mills, who, other than the 5-11 Buoniconti, is probably the best sub-6-foot linebacker (5-9, 229) in NFL history. Mills, a three-time all-pro selection, made the Pro Bowl four times in a 12-year career. He died of intestinal cancer in 2005.
Like Mills, Fletcher is diminutive -- 5-10, 244 pounds. Like Mills, he went to a small college -- John Carroll, while Mills went to Montclair (N.J.) State. Like Mills, Fletcher was not drafted. And like Mills did, Fletcher tackles like a freight train.
This is Fletcher's 11th season. The NFL has been keeping tackles as an official stat since 2001, and, including this in-progress season, Fletcher has led his team (St. Louis, Buffalo and now Washington) in tackles seven times in eight years.
So much of their careers parallel each other, including the part where everyone told them they'd never make it. Mills had to be one of the best players in the old United States Football League to even get into an NFL camp. And when Fletcher broke into the starting lineup as a little-engine-that-could middle-linebacker for the struggling Rams in 1999, he remembers reading in one preseason publication, "If he's still starting by Halloween, we'll buy you a car.'' That kind of slight has motivated him ever since. "That year,'' Fletcher said, "I led the team in tackles, and we won the Super Bowl.''
Mills never won a Super Bowl, but he did almost annually lead his defense in tackles. Like Mills, Fletcher is a coach-on-the-field type who doesn't preen much.
Mills retired following the 1997 season. Fletcher made the Rams the following season as a special-teams player. Early in his career, Fletcher met Mills. "When I was in high school and college,'' he said, "I used to watch Sam. He was who I looked up to -- a [middle] linebacker like me, and short in stature. When I met him, he gave me some great advice. It might not seem that great, but to me it was. He said, 'Play with great technique. Always work on your fundamentals.' ''
Mills point was simple: At the size we are, we're going to have to look for every edge -- and one of the big edges we can have is to be technically perfect in tackling and fending off blocks.
But unlike Mills, Fletcher has never made the Pro Bowl. Even though Pro Bowl nods have become increasingly insignificant because of fan voting helping make it more of a popularity contest and because so few players really want to play in the game, Fletcher burns to make one. "It's mind-boggling to me, really,'' he said. "Look at the tape. Look at my impact on the game. The guys who make it are good players, and I'm not saying I'm better than all of them. But I wish people would watch the games, watch the tape.''
The Redskins improved from 23rd in team defense in 2006 to eighth last year, which was Fletcher's first year with the team. And defensive coordinator Greg Blache said the improvement was almost exclusively due to Fletcher's playmaking and presence. Jim Mora used to say the same thing about Mills' playmaking and presence, that he was the most integral player on the defense.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
And you football players think you're tough?
An Associated Press dispatch out of Prescott, Ariz., reported that a jogger outside of Prescott was bitten on the foot by a rabid fox. As the AP reported: "The woman said she grabbed the fox by the neck but that it bit her arm. The woman wanted the animal tested for rabies, so she ran a mile to her car with the fox still biting her arm, then pried the animal off and tossed it into her trunk and drove to the Prescott hospital. The sheriff's office said the fox later bit an animal-control officer. He and the woman are both receiving rabies vaccinations.''
Assuming the woman is still breathing, Mike Tomlin wants to sign her to play safety. Immediately. She's tougher than Troy Polamalu.
Enjoyable/Aggravating Travel Note of the Week
Driving to LaGuardia Airport in Queens the other day (a rarity for me, but when it costs $228 round-trip from LaGuardia to Akron-Canton and $868 from Newark to Cleveland, you take one for the team), I noticed the cab in front of me hit a bump on the expressway from the Triboro Bridge, about a mile east of the airport. Then the cab's four tires left the pavement and landed hard on the other side of the bump. I slowed up suddenly, but it was too late. BAM! This was no bump. It was, I'd estimate, an eight-inch rise in the pavement, across the entire three lanes of traffic. Someone had paved the road (or was in the process of paving the road), stopped at this point across the roadway and didn't put up any warning, so every car was slamming into this eight-inch rise. For the first time in my history of driving, the Starbucks cup in the cupholder flew into the air -- luckily it was empty -- and fell to the floor of the passenger side.
You might want to get a road crew out there, Mayor Bloomberg. Check for axles, bumpers and shredded tires, and perhaps a body or two.
Stat of the Week
Kurt Warner, set to quarterback Arizona against San Francisco tonight, just might tie a hallowed Brett Favre record this year. Favre, of course, is the NFL's only three-time Most Valuable Player; Warner, Jim Brown, Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, John Unitas and Steve Young have won the award twice. Warner is playing the game the way he hasn't played since his Greatest Show on Turf days, as these numbers show. Comparing the most prolific five-game stretch in each of Warner's MVP seasons to the five-game run he's on now:
Look at that completion percentage now. Remember how Mike Martz had Warner throwing the ball around in St. Louis? Ken Whisenhunt is calling for more throws -- and Warner is significantly more accurate.