Editor's note: New NFL columnist Michael Silver makes his debut with a preview of "Morning Rush," which will appear every Monday during the season.
The franchise quarterback just had suffered the most crushing defeat of his career, and he needed to get away from it all. So the peeved passer headed to the backwoods of Mississippi, where he cleared his head by killing a defenseless animal.
In January 2003, a couple of days after the Indianapolis Colts' 41-0 playoff annihilation by the New York Jets, Manning went to a 12,000-acre spread in central Mississippi owned by a family friend and got his mind right. As he told me later that year, "You're out there hunting for deer and ducks, just you and your gun. It's peaceful and totally quiet, no cell phones or anything like that. It's a good detox, the type of thing that gets your batteries recharged."
In other words: Bad news, Bambi.
This is not meant to be a shot at Manning, one of the sports world's good guys and, in fairness, one of the many NFL players who enjoys such recreational pursuits. There are plenty of reasons his behavior should not be compared to the alleged doings of the Train Wreck That Is Michael Vick, beginning with the fact that it was legal.
Some also would argue that it is more humane to put a bullet through an unsuspecting deer than to end the life of a canine in any of the hideous ways that the exiled Atlanta Falcons quarterback and his co-defendants are accused – though I'm not necessarily sure the eight-point buck with the 18-inch spread that Manning had mounted on the wall of his Indy home would see it that way.
The larger point is that, as much as we're tempted to react to the federal indictment of Vick as though it contained the most heinous accusations against a football player since O.J. Simpson's, there's a whole lot of hypocrisy here.
For one thing, animals are put to death on a continuous basis, as I was just telling one of my fellow pet-lovers at a neighborhood barbecue while wiping away the hamburger grease that had dripped onto my suede Pumas.
It also must be noted – and I am not defending the sick behavior of anyone whom a jury decides has committed an offense such as electrocuting a pit bull – that there are NFL players who've been charged with having committed deplorable crimes against actual human beings. Some of them even have been convicted, yet most of us manage to let it go when they do good things for the home team or emerge as value picks in the fantasy draft.
During my recent training camp travels, I stood in the St. Louis Rams' practice bubble watching 10th-year defensive end Leonard Little hone his impressive pass-rushing skills. The workout, which had been moved inside because of concerns about the hellacious heat, was closed to the public, but I didn't see any picketers outside.
To jog your memory, Little was the player who in 1998 drove home after celebrating his birthday, ran a red light in downtown St. Louis and caused a collision that killed another motorist, 47-year-old Susan Gutweiler. A breath test measured his blood-alcohol level at 0.19 percent, nearly twice the legal limit, and he eventually pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and spent 90 days in jail. When he returned to the Rams after an eight-game NFL suspension, Mothers Against Drunk Driving protested outside a Rams game, but few people outside St. Louis seemed to notice, and Little went on to become one of the league's premier pass rushers.
It's a horrible story, but it might have contained at least a slightly redemptive touch had Little assuaged his guilt by urging others never to make the same mistake. He could have become a vocal and visible spokesman for consuming alcohol responsibly. He could have used his platform as a star athlete to try to save the lives of future drunk-driving victims.
Instead, Little drank and drove again. In 2004, Little was arrested for driving while intoxicated after being pulled over in Ladue, Mo., for speeding at 3:44 a.m. The arresting officer's affidavit stated that Little had "bloodshot, watery eyes and emitted an odor of alcohol;" that he had "attempted and failed three sobriety tests;" and that the player had "admitted to drinking alcoholic beverages."
Little, charged with a felony for driving while intoxicated as a persistent offender, later was acquitted after his lawyer convinced a jury that the arresting officer hadn't followed proper procedures in conducting the field-sobriety tests. Though another officer testified that he had administered a breath-alcohol test at the scene which showed that Little's blood-alcohol content was nearly double the legal limit of .08 percent, the test was inadmissible under Missouri law because of the unreliability of portable equipment. (After arriving at the police station, Little had refused to take a second breath-alcohol test.)
In other words, Little triumphed in court thanks to the legal equivalent of the Tuck Rule – only with a far more subdued reaction by the offended party (in this case, anyone with a brain and/or a conscience) than that displayed by Raider Nation.
I always thought that MADD, which tried to draw attention to the case, was a robust, publicity-savvy advocacy group. But, apparently, PETA is the big leagues, and MADD is rookie ball. Then again, everyone, from the anti-war movement to the salty pseudoscientists trying to convince us that global warming is a hoax, is a lightweight compared to PETA.
I'm not mad at MADD; I'm simply pointing out that Little – and, for that matter, plenty of other NFL players whose behavior has been unconscionable – is allowed to ply his trade without getting shouted down by the masses.
Meanwhile, Vick, a man with no prior criminal record who has not yet been tried or convicted, is the NFL's version of TB on a plane. Falcons owner Arthur Blank was ready to suspend his franchise quarterback before commissioner Roger Goodell intervened and banished Vick from training camp, with no resistance from the NFL Players Association, which is supposed to represent Vick's interests. Now Goodell is preparing to shelve Vick for the entire 2007 season. The fallen star may never play another NFL down.
The biggest reason this is happening so quickly, prematurely and intensely is because of us. We're the angry mob shouting for justice, albeit via Internet chat rooms and sports-talk radio; ultimately, we're the ones empowering Goodell to act, with PETA doing the bulk of the legwork.
The allegations against Vick and the resulting outcry are tarnishing the brand, and Goodell, the owners who employ him and the companies which supply the league's ad revenues are highly aware of the stakes. Meanwhile, in terms of public reproach, other players are getting away with … well, crimes like involuntary manslaughter.
This is not meant to be flippant or to suggest a value judgment in any way, but it could be argued that right now, an NFL player would be less stressed about going on trial for domestic abuse than he would for dogfighting.
I can't predict whether another NFL player will follow Vick into court, but I can tell you that he's not the only one caught up in the animal-fighting culture. One of the league's best role models, New Orleans Saints running back Deuce McAllister, concedes that the problem is more widespread than some outsiders may believe. "If you look at the big picture, cockfighting just got banned in Louisiana," he said last Thursday. "That helps put all of this in perspective."
When I asked McAllister, a native of tiny Lena, Miss., if he ever had been invited to a dogfight, he laughed and said, "Come on, I'm from the country."
Now think about this: There is a player on an NFL roster with an image of two dogs fighting tattooed on his lower back. If PETA figures out who he is, this could add new meaning to the term "bad ink."
For what it's worth, the player in question is from the South, but his name is not Michael Vick.
If that disappoints you, take heart: It's not Peyton Manning, either.
STORY OF MY LIFE
This is the point at which "Morning Rush" temporarily flees from controversy and attempts to inject a little levity – bringing us straight to Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, a man now known to his teammates as the Human Torpedo.
One of the NFL's most underappreciated defensive playmakers, Fujita is even more of a weapon in the wild world of waterslide racing, a skill that carried New Orleans' defense to victory over the offense, special teams and coaches in a training-camp competition initiated last year by then-rookie coach Sean Payton. By going further than anyone else on the final straightaway of a featured slide at a water park near the team's Jackson, Miss., camp last summer, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Fujita extended curfew by an hour for himself and his fellow defenders.
This year, after being talked up by Payton as the man to beat, Fujita took his game to another level. Having figured out that the main impediment at ride's end was the half-foot of water in the trough slowing them down, the defensive players devised a strategy in which they would descend in rapid-fire fashion – before the trough could be refilled. Defensive tackle Rodney Leisle, all 315 pounds of him, was followed by 290-pound defensive end Charles Grant, who zoomed to the very end of the slide just before the Human Torpedo arrived.
Fujita, a Caucasian who was adopted into a family with a Japanese-American father and identifies strongly with his dad's heritage, went into full kamikaze mode as his stunned teammates and coaches gasped. "He slammed into Grant and literally went flying off the side of the slide," Payton recalls. "That was when he banged his head."
"I went right through a wood two-by-four, slid on my bare back across a concrete patio for about six feet and then put my foot through a wooden fence," Fujita said Saturday while enjoying a sushi lunch (what else?) near the team's training headquarters in Metairie, La. "I was a bloody mess, and nobody said anything for about 20 seconds. Then I got up and raised my arms above my head and screamed, 'Yeah, defense wins!' and everyone went nuts."
Though Fujita smiled at the recollection, the ending wasn't a completely happy one: He had a walking cast on his right foot and a cane under the table as he related the tale, which left him sidelined for at least a couple of weeks with plantar fasciitis. (He missed the Saints' preseason game Friday against the Bills and probably will be held out of at least one more, though he expects to be 100 percent by the start of the regular season.)
And though his coach certainly can't be mad at him – it's safe to say Payton's waterslide derby soon will go the way of the goal post in the middle of the end zone – Fujita had an even more daunting critic to appease: His lovely wife, Jaclyn, who is pregnant with twin girls and resisted the compulsion to go into early labor when the Human Torpedo told her of the incident via telephone. "As soon as she heard the word 'waterslide,' she called me a jackass," Fujita said. "She thinks I have control over stuff like that."
I'M HOT 'CAUSE I'M FLY …
• Payton, the reigning NFL coach of the year and currently the world's shrewdest offensive play-caller, unveiled another measure of his greatness Friday night in the Superdome: With the Saints trailing the Buffalo Bills 13-10 and facing a fourth-and-seven from the Buffalo 29-yard line with 1:10 remaining, Payton blew off the tying field goal attempt – sparing everyone the unconscionable preseason overtime period that likely would have followed – and went for it. Even after a false start made it fourth-and-12, Payton still kept his kicker on the sidelines, and the ensuing incompletion blessedly settled things then and there. (By contrast, I'll never forget the dismay on both sidelines at Aloha Stadium when Tom Coughlin, coaching the AFC squad in the 1997 Pro Bowl, called for the tying PAT after a touchdown with 44 seconds remaining brought his team to within a point of the NFC. After I echoed some NFC players' gripes by grousing, "How can you not go for two?" receiver Cris Carter, apparently the only man looking forward to a fifth quarter of Pro Bowl excitement, shook his head and scoffed, "That's why you're standing back there and I'm over here." Eventually, we made up.)
• Three other standouts at the Superdome: Drew Brees, whose arm (scarily) appears as though it might be stronger than in '06, when he was coming off shoulder surgery; Reggie Bush, who looks like he spent about 12 seconds lounging this offseason before resuming where he left off last January; and the gray-haired guy in the front row with the T-shirt reading "Screw Fallujah: Save New Orleans."
• Drew Bledsoe, who lost his starting job to Tony Romo last October and elected not to return for a 15th season, isn't having many second thoughts about retirement. Mindful that an inevitable quarterback injury might lead to an offer to return from some desperate NFL team, Bledsoe says he has no intention of changing his current existence: chilling at homesteads in Montana and eastern Oregon with wife Maura and their four children. "There has not been a day since I hung up my cleats where I woke up and said, 'What am I going to do today?' " Bledsoe says. "It's been 'go time,' all the time." As a means of underscoring his happiness, Bledsoe has been using the wonders of 21st century technology to document his post-football existence for various ex-teammates from his Patriots, Bills and Cowboys days. "I've been sending the guys cell-phone photos, beginning with the first day of training camp," he says. "The first was of my feet in a lake with a beer in my hand. There was a picture from a golf course, one from the boat when I was water skiing and one when I was riding my motorcycle."
… YOU AIN'T 'CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Ah, what a glorious week for those Tennessee Titans, one of the '06 season's most delicious surprises and now, less than four weeks before the start of the '07 campaign, drama central: Going to court to try to keep suspended cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones from making a quick buck on the pro-wrestling circuit before agreeing to a classically cheesy compromise (It's hard to defend Jones, ever, but it did seem odd that a guy who is suspended without pay wouldn't be allowed to seek gainful employment because of language in a contract that essentially is in abeyance.) … continuing to put up with lackadaisical halfback LenDale White, he of the shoelace belts that won't pinch his tummy when he sits … and benching golden-child quarterback Vince Young for the first preseason game because he reportedly spent the night before the game at home without permission. My favorite Titans/Titanic moment? This quote from one of Young's teammates implying that coach Jeff Fisher wouldn't have chosen the same form of discipline had the game mattered: "I don't know if he would be sitting out in the regular season, to be honest. Those games are a little more important." Why thank you, Albert Haynesworth. You have a lot of credibility when it comes to sitting out important games.
• Last September, when veteran linebacker Steve Foley suffered a severe leg injury after being shot by an off-duty police officer amid shady circumstances, I chastised the San Diego Chargers for planning to withhold the $1.65 million Foley was due in '06. A team official protested that my criticism was premature – the franchise, he said, still was studying all options. Nearly a year later, with Foley now officially finished as a football player, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the team will try to recover nearly $4 million in bonuses. I stand corrected. But I continue to believe in karma.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND: 1) How the person who pitched "Who's Now" at that ESPN production meeting didn't get laughed out of the room; 2) Why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won't just leave Jake Plummer alone already.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.: I'm a peaceful man, but when I think about those idiot fans in Montenegro who made monkey chants at U.S. midfielder DaMarcus Beasley and another Glasgow Rangers teammate during a European Champions league qualifying match last week, I start fantasizing about tactical air drops of medical waste and battery acid. Or maybe the best course of action is simply to send Pacman and his entourage as special U.S. envoys.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK: "In Montana. Watching the water tankers touch down on our lake and take off to dump water on the forest fires. Not something you see every day."
– Bledsoe, in yet another slice of life after football.