While watching Rod Smith say goodbye on Thursday, the retiring receiver's eyes tearing up behind designer shades and his gravelly voice crackling with emotion, why did I keep having this fantasy about John Elway striding up to the microphone and calling out another Broncos wideout while doing his best Lloyd Bentsen?
Brandon, I played with Rod Smith. I threw to Rod Smith. Rod Smith was a friend of mine. Brandon, you're no Rod Smith.
Brandon would be Brandon Marshall, the talented and trouble-prone pass-catcher who is facing a possible suspension at the start of his third NFL season.
Realistically, it doesn't take a legend of Elway's stature to call out Marshall, who is coming off a breakout year in which he caught 102 passes for 1,325 yards. Jay Cutler, the Broncos' current quarterback, has been handling that responsibility himself over the past few months.
Typically nonconfrontational, Cutler has made a point of speaking out about Marshall's repeated missteps, most recently telling Denver television station KUSA, "Once or twice – you could live with that. You say people make mistakes, but I mean it's been three, four, five times. … I just hope he gets his act together, 'cause it'd be a shame for him to waste all that talent."
If Cutler's criticism didn't get Marshall's attention, there's a pretty good chance his 2½-hour meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last week did the trick. According to The Denver Post, Goodell is considering a suspension for Marshall, whose legal troubles over the past 16 months have included an arrest in March of '07 for domestic violence and false imprisonment (the charges were later dropped), a DUI arrest seven months later (he's scheduled to go to trial in September) and an arrest this past March for misdemeanor battery (formal charges have not yet been filed).
Later in March, Marshall suffered severe injuries to his right arm, including a severed artery, after a mishap at an Orlando resort. Marshall's initial story was that he slipped on a McDonald's bag and "went hand-first into an entertainment system and, in trying to bridge myself, I went through the TV." He later admitted that the incident, which required surgery and caused him to miss three months of offseason workouts, was caused by a wrestling match with his brother.
In June, as if to demonstrate his boredom, Marshall was ticketed for making an illegal lane change and for driving without either a license or proof of insurance.
At his meeting with Goodell, who showed last year with Pacman Jones that he is willing to suspend players who have repeated run-ins with the law regardless of whether they've been found guilty of a crime, Marshall was accompanied by his attorney, Harvey Steinberg – and by Smith, who hopefully decided against the sunglasses-indoors look for that occasion.
Assuming Smith's presence wasn't just for show, that it's a sign he's serious about mentoring his young ex-teammate, Marshall should get down on his knees and thank the Broncos' all-time leading receiver. For though they seem as dissimilar as a designer suit and baggy jeans, the 38-year-old Smith and the 24-year-old Marshall share more common ground than you might realize.
Eight years ago, Smith pleaded guilty to verbal harassment stemming from disagreements with a former girlfriend. He was sentenced to anger-management counseling sessions, and two years later he appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to talk about the insights he had gained from the experience.
I don't know Smith well enough to gauge how much that regrettable incident impacted his future behavior. But I've talked to him enough over the years to understand that, if nothing else, the brush with the law scared him into assessing the damage it could do to the career he cherished.
At the time of his arrest, Smith already was a great player, a two-time Super Bowl champion and a locker-room leader. Still, as important as he was to the franchise, he never felt totally comfortable. That's partly because he is one of those driven personalities who, even in success, tricks himself into thinking he's one dropped ball away from obscurity. And it's also a function of where he came from and how hard he had to fight to achieve NFL stardom.
Smith didn't even get invited to the NFL scouting combine after a standout career at Missouri Southern, where he fought back from a horrific knee injury that could have sidelined him for good. He signed with the Broncos as an undrafted free agent in May 1994 and spent that season on Denver's practice squad, finally getting his chance to play the following year. In the third game of '95, the Broncos were tied at 31 with the Washington Redskins on the final play of regulation. Elway scrambled, pulled up and unleashed one of his ridiculously potent spirals, and Smith leaped over future Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green for the game-winning catch.
It was the first reception of Smith's career; he finished with 849, far more than any undrafted player in NFL history. Through it all he carried a wrinkled, $1 food stamp in his wallet to remind him of all he'd overcome.
The great thing about Smith wasn't just that he kept his achievements in perspective. It was that you could see the appreciation in his play. The way he threw his body into the fray, blocked downfield and fought for every yard exuded a love for the game which transcended his individual accomplishments – and carried over to his teammates.
It's the same contagious intangible that Michael Irvin brought to the Cowboys, that Troy Brown brought to the Patriots and that Hines Ward still brings to the Steelers. We expect it from defensive maniacs such as Ronnie Lott, Junior Seau or Ray Lewis, but when it comes from a wide receiver – province of football's most selfish divas – the impact is deep and comprehensive.
Is Marshall that type of player? I've watched him do some freakishly impressive things in his young career, but I haven't yet seen him put his heart into his craft the way Smith did on a regular basis. But maybe he's got it in him: Like Smith, Marshall has no reason to feel entitled. He played college football at Central Florida and was a fourth-round draft pick in 2006, catching 20 passes while starting just one game as a rookie.
Even after blowing up in his second season, Marshall should understand how fleeting success can be, especially given Goodell's commitment to cracking down on player-conduct issues. Cutler's comments should cause him alarm, and I truly hope Broncos coach Mike Shanahan is sending a similar message behind the scenes.
Earlier this month, Shanahan made a point of publicly supporting Marshall, claiming the receiver's volatile relationship with ex-girlfriend Rasheeda Watley was the cause of most of his troubles.
"He's had problems with one person over and over again," Shanahan told the Post, "and hopefully he's smart enough to stay away from her."
That kind of excuse-making won't serve Marshall well in the long run. If he hopes to have a career half as impressive as Smith's, he needs to decide how important football is to him and alter his behavior accordingly, and he needs to do it very quickly.
He also should try heeding the words of Elway, who yesterday told the Post, "The one thing that guys have to realize is that it is not a right to play in the NFL, it is a privilege. Brandon is obviously young. Hopefully, he learns from it and realizes the situation he is in and the expectations the Broncos have of him, and that those types of things have to stop, and he has to concentrate on what goes on on the field."
Best of all, Marshall can start by concentrating on the man with the gravelly voice and the designer shades – and paying very close attention.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
The next time Brett Favre calls Vikings coach Brad Childress, it will be from a pay phone. … When Detroit Shock assistant coach Rick Mahorn was questioned by WNBA president Donna Orender as to why he pushed L.A. Sparks star Lisa Leslie to the floor during Tuesday's brawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills, he decided against answering, "She asked for it," … The outraged Lions fans who marched behind those "Fire Millen" signs a couple of years back will refrain from launching a similar demonstration protesting the deployment of seventh-round draft pick Caleb Campbell – or the war in Iraq.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. Greg Norman didn't choke this time (because he's, you know, 53 years old).
2. Frustrated that the Packers seem to be ignoring his urgings to take Favre back as their starting quarterback, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called for the impeachment of Ted Thompson.
3. I'd be much more interested in the IRL if, by gum, that Danica Patrick would learn to control her temper.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
That was cool how New England Revolution general manager Craig Tornberg confronted a passenger who had emerged from an airplane restroom in the buff and persuaded the guy to cover up again. But up in the cockpit, I wonder what Captain Oveur was thinking.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Abby Wambach, the fallen star of the U.S. women's soccer team, who will miss the Olympics after breaking two bones in her lower left leg last week. Two days before Wambach went down in that final pre-Olympic tuneup against Brazil, I interviewed her in a San Diego hotel lobby and came away convinced that she is as dynamic and impressive off the field as she is on it. The clear focal point of the U.S. attack under former coach Greg Ryan, Wambach was forced to adjust to a different role after Pia Sundhage was hired to replace him last November – a change she completely and unselfishly embraced. "Pia and I had a great conversation after (Olympic) qualifying," Wambach said. "She was wondering what would be the best way of communicating with me. I said, 'Just be up front and honest with me, 'cause I can read through (expletive).' Then she gave me some very simple leadership advice: 'Don't try to change and control people, because you can't. Give what you can give.' I can't tell you how much stress that has taken off me." Sundhage's team will miss Wambach's firepower and fiery guidance in Beijing, but they'll still feel her presence, and she'll come back even stronger than before – which was pretty damned strong.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
not my fault you're slow
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Nineteen years ago, I headed up to the hot, dusty campus of Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif., for my first NFL training camp. I had just gotten a job covering the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers for a really lame newspaper in Sacramento that, were it still to exist, would owe me money, and I spent the next five weeks in wide-eyed wonderment as the competition kicked my ass. It was awesome. And now, to the tune of Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69," I reminisce:
I got my first NFL gig
Drove out from D.C. double-time
Stopped in Chi-town, saw MJ put the Knicks down
Then came the summer of '89
Me and the other rookies
Bro-ed out with Chet Brooks and we tried real hard
J.B. blew up, and Dickie went Hollywood
I shoulda known those guys were stars
But when I look back now
Gettin' beat on the beat still makes me shiver
Yet if I had the choice
I'd go right back and bend on over
Those were the best spankings of my life
There was constant complainin'
In the press room to and fro
Spent my afternoons on the high dive
And that's when I met Joe
Linin' up tequila shots
I thought my buzz would last forever
Downed it with his throwin' hand
I knew that it would get no better
Those were the best drinks of my life
Back in the summer of '89
Man we were doin' time
We were young and reckless
We missed a few deadlines
I guess nothing' can last forever, forever, no …
Wearin' my stupid Huck Finn hat
And Jamie Williams with his natty hair
Goofin' off with Bono and Kevin Sweeney
Now his kid's a Golden Bear
Hustlin' in my Birkenstocks
McKyer seemed to talk forever
Haley with the evil eye
Transcribin' was a bleak endeavor
Those were the best quotes of my life
Back in the summer of '89
Me and the newbies in '89
Stalkin' George Seifert in '89