9:45 a.m., Wednesday (Chiefs camp, River Falls, Wisc.): You're not going to believe this. It's midway through Kansas City's first of two daily practices and Matt Cassel, Tom Brady's longtime understudy now on his own in the heartland, fades back to pass. Quarterbacks in training camp are not supposed to be hit in camp, but in this pass drill, with Cassel setting up in the pocket, safety Bernard Pollard comes on a blitz.
You remember Pollard. He's the guy who tumbled/dove into Brady's planted left leg on an identical rush last September, collapsing the knee, shredding Brady's ACL and knocking him out for the season. Now, on a sun-baked field miles from anywhere in western Wisconsin, here came Pollard at the man who replaced Brady and who, ironically, became Pollard's teammate after New England traded Cassel to Kansas City in February.
What makes the play even more amazing is that Brady got hit last year when a back missed a block on the onrushing Pollard. And as I'm watching, I can't believe what I see: Again, a back (I didn't catch his number) throws an ĦOle!block, and precisely the same thing that happened a year ago happens now: Pollard thought he was going to be blocked by a running back last year against New England, got low to take on the block, wasn't blocked, and fell into Brady. Now, he thought he was going to be blocked by a running back, got low, wasn't blocked, and stumbled and tried to avoid hitting Cassel, yelling at the last moment, "Move!" It was too late. He fell hard and rolled into Cassel's left leg.
Pollard was able to put on the brakes enough so that he only tapped Cassel's left leg. Cassel flexed it a couple of times and was fine. A couple of his offensive mates hustled in to defend him against Pollard. Words were exchanged, but that was it. No harm, no foul.
"Pretty weird," a smiling Cassel told me an hour later. "Yeah, I realized it."
I caught Pollard after lunch on campus. His eyes got wide when I asked him about the play. "I got to the sidelines after that play," Pollard said, "and I realized what happened, and I thought, -- OH MY GOD! It's like a replay.''
As I said, Cassel was fine, and held no grudge against Pollard. That's football. But it's such happenstance. How history would have been changed if Pollard tapped Brady's knee the way he tapped Cassel's. If it had happened like that, what would have happened to Cassel? Would he still be the permanent backup to Brady? Or would Cassel, whose contract expired at the end of last year, have been picked off by new Chiefs GM Scott Pioli, who was behind Cassel's drafting in the seventh round five years ago by the Patriots? My money's on the Chiefs taking him off New England's hands -- money being the key word. He parlayed his opportunity with the Patriots last year into a six-year, $63-million contract in Kansas City.
What might Cassel have gotten had he never played? Well, a parallel player to Cassel a year ago at this time -- a totally unproven backup with a little marketability -- was Brian St. Pierre, the third-stringer on Arizona who re-signed with the Cardinals this offseason: For one year and $1 million.
So, Pollard's hit was a $62-million whack, give or take a million, for Cassel. On this morning, double jeopardy almost struck. Football is a funny game.
11:45 a.m., Thursday (Minnesota Vikings camp, Mankato, Minn.): I came here expecting to see the fastest man in the NFL, Percy Harvin, ripping up Vikings camp. And I did see an incredibly gifted player, Harvin, getting coached very hard because the Vikings want him ready to play a big role on opening day 2009, not opening day 2010. But after seeing Adrian Peterson sprint around left end on an early-practice reverse like he'd just taken the baton in the Olympic 400-meter relay, I didn't know who was faster. Especially on the fast track of the Metrodome, I have no idea how teams are going to defend the Vikings when Peterson and Harvin are on the field together.
"Yesterday,"' Peterson told me with a laugh after practice, "I went up to Percy after practice when he was doing an interview with some press guys. I stood in the back and said, "My Harvin, Mr. Harvin, who do you think is faster, you or Adrian Peterson?''
This is what I wrote in my postcard from Minnesota training camp about a play I saw Harvin make: Harvin, split wide right outside the numbers, versus cornerback Marcus Walker, playing inches across the line from him, planning to get a bump on Harvin in the five-yard bump zone to knock him off his route. Harvin juked almost imperceptibly left-right-left at the snap of the ball. Walker lunged at him but only got a piece of him as Harvin got outside Walker's left shoulder at the line. NFL corners, and highlight producers in TV stations across the country, are going to see a lot of this. Harvin is so quick off the line, then so fast, that if you give him a half-step and don't have a safety over the top for double-coverage help, the Vikings are going to throw a lot of deep touchdowns to this man. On this play, Walker never caught up, and the deep throw nestled cleanly in Harvin's arms. Touchdown.
I expect Harvin to have the opportunity to be the Offensive Rookie of the Year. He's too talented, and he has Peterson to take the pressure off him. And vice versa.
The troubled Harvin, obviously, got investigated thoroughly before he was drafted out of the University of Florida in April. When Brad Childress went to Gainesville the week before the draft to meet Harvin and spend a day with him, he said he wanted Harvin to pick him up and drive him around. "I wanted to be in his car, and I wanted to smell the car,'' Childress said. You know, for the pot smell. And he asked Harvin if he was aware that because of his marijuana experiences in college and for testing positive for pot at the Scouting Combine, he'd enter the NFL already in the NFL's substance-abuse program. "You'll be eligible to be tested up to 10 times a month,'' Childress warned.
The honeymoon is on. "Urban Meyer told me the young man is going to be a pleasure to coach, and he has a high football IQ,'' said veteran wide receivers coach George Stewart. "And so far, it's true.''
1:45 p.m. Friday (Hall of Fame preliminaries, Canton, Ohio): I'm in town for one of the greatest honors of my life. Heck, the greatest professional honor -- the McCann Award, which is presented annually by the Hall of Fame to a writer for long and distinguished reporting on the game. I've got 15 family members and friends here with me, and well, we need something to do today. So the tireless Pete Fierle of the Hall's staff has set up a behind-the-scenes tour of the Hall for us with one of the Hall's archivists, Jason Aikens.
It's Nirvana. I held Johnny Unitas' 1956 contract in my hands (he made $7,000 for the Colts before he was somebody, and his handwriting was exquisite). Hanging from one of the shelves is Pat Tillman's garment bag (Samsonite, I believe). Aikens opens up one drawer and pulls out a game program from 1946, from Paul Brown's first professional game -- the Cleveland Browns against the Miami Seahawks, an All-America Football Conference game. Leather helmets. Jim Thorpe's Carlisle Indians sweater. A large piece of the Super Steelers seventies AstroTurf from Three Rivers Stadium (hard, bristly, and I can't believe they played on that stuff). I could spend a week down here. I hope to, someday.
6:45 p.m., Friday (Canton): The commissioner of the NFL should be on injured-reserve. He's not sure how it happened, but while climbing Mount Rainier to raise money for the United Way a month ago, Roger Goodell dislocated a rib. It might have happened just from the intense breathing because of the scarcity of oxygen that high above sea level. I doubt the activity of the weekend is helping. Goodell was here this morning to chat up past and current Hall of Famers, then flew to Philadelphia for the memorial service of the late Jim Johnson, then flew back. On Saturday he'll fly to Detroit to help the Lions pump up a scrimmage at Ford Field, then fly back for the induction ceremonies. So you wanted the active life of a commissioner, huh?
8:30 p.m., Friday (Canton): Did you know that when you look out at a crowd of 4,000 people you really can't see much of anything? Something about the lights in your eyes. Anyway, the folks at the Hall told me three minutes for my speech at first, then asked if I could do it in two. Of course, I took more than six.
I knew I was in trouble when I wanted to make a point about what a cool night this was, seeing 82 Hall of Famers march in, and so I began by saying, "Before I get to my remarks ...'' Anyway, the point I really wanted to make was what an easy job I've had over the years, because I've loved every minute of the last 25 years covering the league, and I wanted to get across what the game means to so many people. "Do you guys, you Hall of Famers, have any idea just how important you are?'' I said. (It feels strange quoting myself.) "Last year, I went on a USO trip to Afghanistan, and found myself late one night with a platoon of Army Ranger snipers. One of them told me: "We got dropped late one Sunday in a region about three miles from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Prime Taliban territory. We get on the ground, and the first thing we do after setting up camp is call back on our satellite phone and ask, 'What's the Cowboys-Giants score?' True story. The guy told me: 'When the season's over, a day feels like a month without the NFL around here.' ''
"Good message,'' Goodell said when I walked back to my seat.
Too long. King, edit thyself. What is this, Monday Morning Quarterback?
7:30 p.m., Saturday (Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies): "It feels like a Buffalo home game!'' Chris Berman says to the crowd in Fawcett Stadium. Saw the following jerseys in the crowd: KELLY, TASKER, THOMAS, TALLEY, HULL, NORWOOD (now there's a real fan), REED, BENNETT, PIKE. Mark Pike? Remember him? Poor man's Steve Tasker.
The best thing I hear all night: Berman saying Ralph Wilson never voted for one single franchise transfer in his 40 years as an NFL owner. Beautiful. Reminds me of a conversation I had with Wilson last year. "I will not move this team,'' he said. "I cannot move this team. What would the people of Buffalo do without the Bills?''
In your lifetime, sir, we're not going to find out.
I've often said this is a trip real football fans have to make at least once, even if you don't get the thrill of nosing around the archives . I'm not all ga-ga over the speeches. It's everything else -- running into Forrest Gregg downtown, seeing Warren Moon and John Madden nosing around the Hall, seeing all the intense fans, and learning about the roots of the game.
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