The NFL is hotter than ever as the season hits mid-October. Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Tom Brady led last second drives. Antonio Brown made a game winning catch while Todd Gurley had three touchdowns. J.J. Watt found his second home in the offensive backfield. And Vontaze Burfict tried to injure someone. AGAIN. The dirtiest player in the sport tried to take off Brown’s head. AGAIN. And #55 earns a nice stay in Beav’s Penalty Box. The Cincinnati Bengals linebacker has been suspended six games over his career for illegal hits. His most famous dirty hit was on Brown in a 2015 playoff game. Never mind that Burfict was just coming back from a four-game ban for PEDs. He will do this to some other player. SOON. AGAIN.
Burfict has gone after players knees (I saw him do this three or four times in a game against the Patriots in 2016) and heads (Brown for one) numerous times. When he KO-ed Brown Sunday, he pointed at Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and said “You’re Next,” per numerous Pittsburgh players. Smith-Schuster famously ended Burfict’s 2017 season with a vicious crack back block which was allowed until enforcement of recent rule changes emphasizing unprotected players. In English, if a player cannot see you or is turned away, DON’T hit him. Even Vontaze Burfict.
The NFL likes to talk about player safety. Listen, ANYONE who plays football accepts reasonable risk. Clean, hard play can lead to injuries, never mind tactics that cheap shot artists like Vontaze bring to the table. With recent lawsuits by retired stars and studies about CTE and concussions, the NFL is trying to take steps to both protect players and minimize legal fault. This is all good and nice but somewhat of a dog-and-pony show. The entire NFL management structure—from the league office to individual teams—shares blame for the health and welfare of the players. They can take an important step to assure this by banning Vontaze Burfict before he strikes. AGAIN.
The NFL has policies on everything from on the field discipline—ranging from uniforms to penalties in game action—to drugs (both performance-enhancing and recreational) and off-field legal matters. Most of these rules are part of the NFL collective bargaining agreement negotiated between the owners and players and are designed to protect the short- and long-term welfare of the athlete. I would tend to think banning a guy who does nothing but try to injure members of the players union (a.k.a. the players of the NFL) would be a good idea. Vontaze is sorry though. You want to bet he does this soon? AGAIN?
Banning Burfict is a win-win for the NFL. First, they are doing the right thing for both the players and the sport. Last year’s serious neck injury to Steelers’ linebacker Ryan Shazier on National TV still affects folks. The two teams in that contest? The Steelers and Bengals. In that same game, both teams exchanged multiple cheap shots led by Smith-Schuster’s retaliation on Vontaze. This turned off a lot of fans and the NFL is very image-conscious. From Ray Rice to Tom Brady, the league has had nothing but legal missteps in the past five years. They can correct this by sending Burfict away for good before he strikes. AGAIN.
Being a New York Mets fan is not easy. They play in the largest media market in the country and are always second fiddle to the Bronx Bombers. This is the reality they face. They are the Chicago White Sox, New York Jets, Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets. Bridesmaids, never the bride. To be the star on a team that deals with this harsh reality takes a special type of player and person. Since 2004, The face of the Mets has been third baseman David Wright. Due to a long list of injuries, the Mets’ captain played his last game Saturday. It was fitting that the fans who saw this guy break his body for them gave him an incredible send off.
Wright was the rare home-grown major-league star. He grew up in Virginia but frequented Tidewater Tides games (NY’s old Triple A team) and was a huge Mets fan. They drafted him out of high school and he rose through the ranks. He came up in the 2004 midseason and teamed up with shortstop Jose Reyes to give the team two huge developed all stars. The team had a strong run for four seasons and won the division in 2006 before Yadier Molina and the St. Louis Cardinals broke out hearts in Game seven. Final day losses doomed good Mets teams in 2007 and 2008. And not much was left around #5.
The transition began and the team detoriated around Wright. But he was the face of the team. Good and bad. At his locker. In the community. On the field. His status within the game also grew and he was the leader of back to back Team USA squads in the World Baseball classic. But David injured his back on defense in 2012 and it set off a chain of events that led us to this weekend. Incredibly, the Captain played with a broken bone in his back for almost a month. Why? Because that was his job.
David Wright was mac and cheese to Mets fans. He was comfort food. No matter how bad the meal was burned or the take out cold, you had mac and cheese. It was there. Everyday. Like David Wright. When his team blew seasons in game 162. When his closer was beating up his father-in-law in the team lounge. When Reyes got paid and left in free agency. When a young fan asked him to hit a home run from the front row versus the Yankees. HE DID. Wright was a great player on a bad team and that is not easy to do. I often talk to his brother-in-law about this—he’s a pitcher on the Michigan baseball team. It is hard to watch your team with no hope. Imagine being the leader of that? #Hard
Wright faced his own decision after the 2013 season and signed a long-term deal. Why? Because he believed in the plan of general manager Sandy Alderson and manager Terry Collins. Piece by piece, the players started to come together. The arms. The bats. The talent. And the Mets blew up in the second half of the 2015 season. And a late season return by the captain was a big turning point. The National League pennant came in a sweep and the World Championship was there. And the gritty, hardened Kansas City Royals ended the dream in Citi Field. 15-20 minutes after the defeat, the entire New York roster came out to thank the fans. Guess whose idea this was? The Captain.
After the Mets lost the series to the Royals, I was not right for more than a week. I watched the postgame show on SNY (The Mets channel) and that ended at 3:00 a.m. I was devastated. Why? I knew Our Captain—David Wright—was a ticking time bomb. He had been diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a serious back condition. I too was very familiar with this condition. Why? I also suffer from stenosis. You deal with unpredictable pain and day to day uncertainty. It is as much a mental injury as physical. And pro sports are hard enough healthy. And now my Captain was… a shell.
The expected happened quickly. In the second month of the 2016 season, Wright was done. First a shoulder and then the back. 2017. More of the same. When the team entered the 2018 campaign, many fans wanted him to retire so the team could spring for free agents and a replacement. David tried to rehab, and it was not meant to be. Mets ownership and management decided to give him this weekend and the salute he deserves. It was the right thing to do, for a guy who always did the right thing.
We have all seen the David stories. How he greeted the team late night in 2015 with cookies in FULL UNIFORM in Philadelphia upon his return from injury. BTW... his first at-bat was cool. How Kevin Burkhart, who covered the team for SNY from 2007-14, recalls Wright never saying no to an interview EVER, with one exception. And the very next day, he apologized for saying no. (His reason for saying no was because he was being treated for his injury.) SMH. His affection for beloved longtime team media relations employee Shannon Forde was well known. When she died after a long battle with cancer in 2016, the Captain stepped up big time. He was clearly the voice, heart and soul of the team.
This was a tough, tough draw for both David and the Mets. I am 46 and drew comparisons with ex-Yankees star captain Don Mattingly. Like Wright, his early career was on good teams and then the bottom fell out. The team went into a long rebuilding period and when the Joe Torre dynasty was forming, Donnie Baseball’s back gave out. The team won multiple titles without a franchise icon. It was a cruel irony and not lost on me. This current Mets team is also close enough to win and win for a long time. But their Captain’s time is up. And that is the cruel irony of sports and life. Sometimes the good guy doesn’t win. A great team guy was given a proper sendoff by its fans, franchise and town. Thank you, David Wright. #OurCaptain