By Mark Bell
I suppose it’s fair to compare the National Football League experience to a fairy tale in the sense that every so often fantastic things happen. Thankfully they come along once upon a time, so savor the moments.
As all of you reading this surely know, the NFL kicked off its 2012 season with Hall of Fame weekend just passed, and the most amazing thing was that a University of Kentucky football player was an inductee: the uniquely talented Dermontti Dawson.
The second most amazing thing about the weekend was who was selected to the hall: two offensive linemen (Dawson included), two defensive linemen, one tough running back, and not a style maven in the bunch – just good, hard-nosed football players.
For a culture obsessed with celebrity and name recognition, nobody but true football aficionados knew who these men were. No wonder pro football’s grand opening of a weekend flew by and nobody much noted it.
Of course there was one or two pretty good things going on in London, and a robot car landing on Mars, and another nut case with a gun, and the fact the NFL Network was handling broadcast duties so next to nobody watched any of the football stuff.
Other than thinking how George Blanda’s now got some company in Canton, Dawson’s accomplishment reminded me of how tough it is to win football games at UK. I’ve seen far too many of those Prilosec moments to easily swallow the same fan excuses of how it’s this or that coach’s fault, or it’s the tough conference we’re in, or it’s that Kentucky just doesn’t produce enough high quality players, or the school’s administrators don’t take the game seriously like basketball, and other forms of the waah, waah, woe-is-me-isms.
Not that any of those “reasons” are in fact wrong, it’s just that they don’t matter. We all know what matters. This is a game. Winning is what matters. This is a part of life and success matters. It’s certainly not the only thing that matters, but Kentucky could produce hundreds of four-star players from our many high schools, spend even more money on every gadget and gizmo guaranteed to ramp up performance, and get a monomaniacal egotist like Bobby Petrino to coach and even allow him to pistol-whip players into winning shape, if that’s all we wanted.
I think Kentucky fans expect something more. Unlike the athletic contest of basketball, football is a battlefield. There’s a certain amount of honor involved and required. Teams fight not just to win, but to stand for something and to stand together as something. In the meantime we bear up. Maybe the reported collapse of season ticket sales for Commonwealth Stadium this year will actually mean something. It’s the one thing fans haven’t really tried yet. Time will tell.
But Dawson is an example of the type of player who was that something more we still search for, and look where it took him. His career began as one of those fairly tale sports clichés, where the coach walking the high school halls spies the big kid coming his way and says, “Where have you been all my life!?”
Dawson’s skills as an offensive lineman were considerable in college, but at the professional level he took off like a rocket, largely because he had a big motor. In football, that’s in your feet. He took the center because he could move his feet better than anybody on the interior line ever did.
So the Pittsburgh Steelers, who know a thing or two about football talent, devised schemes to pull him and block on the edge. That hadn’t been done since the single wing and nobody in the Super Bowl era had ever seen a pulling center.
Dawson was also as strong and tough as they came and, even though he played most of his career on synthetic turf, he earned the nickname “Dirt” because that’s where he put his opponents. That’s the kind of teammate everyone needs. That’s how winning teams get built. Every player must know his job and do it.
But in all the recognition of a great player given his just due, we note the one point of fairy tales that always breaks our hearts. They aren’t true. True love stories have sad endings, not happy ones.
Would Dawson have traded this weekend for one championship in his stellar career? He got close, but never grabbed a big ring. UK was mostly a 50-50 team during his playing days. Even the often mighty Steelers had only second-tier success during his decade on the field, playing in one Super Bowl – the first one they lost.
As for the current NFL, another season looms as we slog our way through the preseason over the next month. Watch for exciting plays by undrafted free agents struggling for a roster spot, and look for starters to shy away from anything resembling real football action.
Be patient, worthless predictions from your ever fearless prognosticator are warming on the back burner. I’m sure when served up they’ll be as palatable as plain oatmeal on Brussels sprouts and as nutritious as Cool Whip on lard.
If I was you, I’d order out.