Front Row: Who Has Brees' Back?
Edited by Larry Harris
Why, It’s Towson’s ‘Bush’
Any man on the street who has even a nodding acquaintance with the National Football League knows the name Drew Brees.
The veteran quarterback of the New Orleans Saints obviously is a strong contender for most valuable player honors in the NFL this year. He is putting up sensational numbers for the second season in a row, figures that would be regarded as nearly impossible in an earlier era.
Brees is averaging 295 yards passing per game, with 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions through 12 contests. Even with his penchant for long, downfield throws, Brees' completion rate is at 69 percent and his average yards per pass is an eye-bulging 9.02. He has been sacked 15 times.
Such amazing stats must mean an All-Pro offensive line is protecting the 30-year-old product of Purdue now in his ninth NFL season, right? Wrong!
Somebody could win a lot of money if he knows the name of the Saints' left offensive tackle, the man charged with protecting Brees' blind side from the slavering, maniacal gentlemen who are designated pass rushers. There are few who could answer: "Jermon Bushrod, Towson University."
Bushrod, a fourth-round choice in the 2007 draft who, before this year, had appeared in a grand total of three NFL games in his previous two seasons. When Saints veteran Jamaal Brown went down in the preseason, the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Bushrod was suddenly thrust into prominence and now he is as responsible as anyone on the team for Brees’ staying upright and the Saints' being unbeaten.
"Oh, I remember him well," said Gordy Combs, the former Towson coach who led the Tigers for 19 years and recruited Bushrod out of King George (Va.) High School. "You can imagine how proud I am of him every time the Saints are on TV and I get a chance to see what he has become."
Combs, now serving as an assistant at Division III Johns Hopkins, had a lot to do with molding the giant youngster who wasn't on the radar for major schools. "We called him 'Bush' back then," said Combs, "but I understand he goes by 'Chunk' now."
Combs first heard about Bushrod from a friend so he took a trip over to the Potomac River area, where King George is located. "I saw him in a phys ed class, playing basketball," Combs said. "He was big and strong and moved with some grace. He has great feet, huge shoulders.
"He broke an ankle as a freshman, but he finished with 38 straight starts. He was a captain for us and it was great to have him walk out on the field for the coin toss. He was an intimidating figure.
"Also, he graduated in 4 1/2 years at Towson, something else that makes me very proud."
After some dicey moments as he battled to replace Brown in the preseason, Bushrod’s finest hours to date came early in November. On consecutive Sundays, he went up against Atlanta’s John Abraham and Carolina’s Julius Peppers, two of the nastiest, cleverest, strongest pass rushers in the NFL. Two-game total: two quarterback hurries, no sacks.
Bushrod was quick to credit his coaches with giving him help with chip blocks and double teams.
“We knew the situation we were getting ourselves into,” he told the Times-Picayune. “We’re playing game-changing defensive ends, and I don’t care who you are, I don’t think one person can successfully block Abraham or Peppers or (Philadelphia’s) Trent Cole. You’ve got to have a good coaching scheme and good offensive balance and a quarterback that gets the ball out. The staff put me in a position to have a little bit of success.”
Modesty may become Bushrod, but he is also getting the job done with hustle. For instance, in the Dec. 6 shocker the Saints won over Washington in overtime, the big tackle hustled down on the last play of regulation and smeared the Redskins’ Fred Smoot, who was attempting to return a short field goal.
“He’s the fourth guy from Towson who has been drafted into the NFL,” said Combs. “Two of them (Sean Landeta and Dave Meggett) have Super Bowl rings with the Giants and the other (Tony Vincent) was on the San Diego team that lost in the Super Bowl. So if history has anything to do with it, ‘Bush’ is headed for the big game.”
New Orleans, home of Marie Laveau’s voodoo, Juju, Gris-gris and Anne Rice’s vampires, has bought into the Saints’ magic big time and superstition runs rampant. New Orleans newspapers recently asked fans to list their favorite magic spells and the results were hilarious.
One responder at a bar said the Saints only scored when he went to the bathroom, so other customers locked him in the john until the Redskins game was over.
Another said he mixes a “stiff vodka-and-cranberry, one for each quarter. It has been working for 12 weeks now but, dang, I feel like crap at work!”
Shriver’s Event Brings Out Stars
Tennis legends as well as rising stars converged at 1st Mariner Arena Dec. 9 to compete in Pam Shriver’s 24th Annual Baltimore Community Foundation Tennis Challenge.
|Baltimore-native and Tennis Hall of Famer Pam Shriver’s annual tennis event has raised more than $4 million for local charities. (Eric Stocklin/BCF Tennis Challenge)
Over the last two decades, the BCF Tennis Challenge has become Baltimore’s premier charity event, raising and distributing more than $4 million to area charities since its inception in 1986 through Shriver’s partnership with the BCF. The BCF, the third largest grant maker in Maryland, comprises more than 500 charitable funds.
Shriver, a Baltimore native, said she never played professionally in her hometown, a main reason she created the event and has held it here every year.
“I always wanted to have a tennis charity event,” Shriver said. “The combination of tennis and raising money for charity has been my inspiration for it, and I’ve always wanted my two worlds -- Baltimore and tennis -- to merge together.”
Hall of Famer John McEnroe and veteran Lindsay Davenport joined Shriver, Mike and Bob Bryan, Olga Poutchkova and up-and-coming stars John Isner and Melanie Oudin, who both made deep runs in the 2009 U.S. Open.
“It’s the first time we’ve had four -- either current or past -- No. 1 [players],” Shriver said of the participants. “It’s the current, future and past greats of U.S. tennis coming together in one place and I’m really excited about it.”
Isner in his U.S. Open debut this past year defeated 26th-seeded Jarkko Nieminen and Rik De Voest before falling to top-seeded Roger Federer in four sets.
Oudin also surprised the sports world at the 2009 U.S. Open by defeating three former No. 1 players, including an upset of No. 1 Maria Sharapova in the fourth round, before falling to ninth-seeded Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals.
The top-ranked duo of twin brothers Bob and Mike Bryan also entertained the crowd. The Bryan brothers have won a total 56 championships, including victories at the French Open, U.S. Open, Australian Open and Wimbledon.
“We are thrilled that the hottest players on the tour all made playing in Baltimore part of their year-end plans,” Shriver said.
Orioles Brad Bergesen and Jeremy Guthrie and Ravens Paul Kruger and Matt Katula all participated in a celebrity-pro doubles match.
Afterward, Shriver said she is looking to the future, especially next year.
“Our next event after this one will be our 25th,” Shriver said. “I think this is the longest consecutive tennis charity event around. It’s a labor of love and it’s pretty special.
“Tennis in general has had a pretty good philanthropic side and the sport encourages that of its players. We all try to help each other in different years and it’s been quite successful up to this point.”
Monroe Trade Didn’t Cause Bullets’ Move
It was more than a touch ironic when NBA Hall of Famer Earl Monroe was one of the most emotional of those paying tribute at the memorial service for Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin last week. To this day, many diehard fans in the area insist the parting of the ways between those two was the beginning of the end for pro basketball in Baltimore, paving the way for the Bullets’ move, first to Landover and eventually into the District of Columbia.
That, however, was not the case. While Pollin undoubtedly regretted Monroe's trade to the Knicks (early in the 1971-72 season) many times over the next decade, the move of the franchise, which came after the 1972-73 season, was already in the works.
It didn’t become public knowledge until almost a year after the Bullets’ appearance in the 1971 NBA finals, when they lost in four games to the Lew Alcindor-Oscar Robertson led Milwaukee Bucks, but the decision had been made to abandon the already-antiquated Civic Center, which had opened barely a decade earlier.
It is not generally known, but Pollin’s initial idea was to locate the team in Columbia, with plans for an arena just west of I-95, almost in the middle of the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Had that plan worked, the Bullets and not the Orioles would have become the area’s first regional franchise. But by the time the plans reached the stage where a decision had to be made, and after a lot of behind-the-scenes research, it was determined a team in Columbia might be divorced by both cities -- still considered a Baltimore entity by those in D.C., while looked at as a team more interested in Washington in these parts. In making the move to the Capital Centre in Landover, the Bullets still tried to convey the notion of a regional team, but it never took around here.
Ultimately, Monroe won an NBA title with the Knicks and the Bullets made three more trips to the NBA Finals, winning once in 1978 -- leaving both sides to wonder what might have been. Years later, Monroe admitted that while his wallet benefitted from the move, his heart would have been more at home in Baltimore. “And I think we would have won a few more, had I stayed,” he said.
Instead, to his credit, Monroe sacrificed his own game to blend with Walt Frazier and the rest of the Knicks’ cast. Meanwhile, the Bullets remained highly competitive and reasonably successful, but their battles with the Knicks (the greatest show on hardwood in the 1970s) were never quite the same as they had been when Monroe was on the other side.
Which is why a lot of people were left wondering what might have been. Unfortunately, whatever might have been wouldn’t have included Baltimore -- but it might have induced a few more fans to accept the regional concept, something neither we nor Earl Monroe will ever know.
Is There Anything Szczur Can’t Do?
It started out as a simple process. When the folks who choose the all-star football teams in the Colonial Athletic Association sat down for the annual selection party, outstanding Villanova junior Matt Szczur figured to be a lock for one of the receiving spots.
That was done and the group moved on to decide the most valuable offensive player. Well, maybe Szczur, who was also a running back, a kick returner and even at times a quarterback for the Wildcats, fit that bill, too.
Okay, taking a step further, who might be the Division 1-AA Conference special teams player of the year? How about Matt Szczur, someone suggested.
And that is how young Szczur, hardly a football giant at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, scored the trifecta of all-star selection. Along with Clemson’s C.J. Spiller, Szczur was the only player in college football at any level to tally touchdowns as a receiver, rusher, passer and kick returner. In 11 regular season games carried 86 times for 562 yards and seven touchdowns, to go with 45 receptions for 534 yards and four scores. He also ran back 26 kickoffs for 719 yards and a touchdown, and completed all three of his passes for 21 yards and two scores. Plus, he made eight tackles on kickoffs.
But wait, that’s not all. Going into the annual showdown with Delaware that clinched the CAA Southern Division for Villanova, Szczur was likely going to be a scratch, not because he was injured, but because he had volunteered to join coach Andy Talley’s national bone marrow donation program. When it turned out he was a match for a 1-year-old girl with leukemia, Szczur prepared to miss the big game because harvesting the necessary cells is a five-day ordeal.
However, shortly before the procedure was scheduled, doctors determined the transplant could wait until early January and Szczur could go ahead with his team into the Football Championship Subdivision (1-AA) playoffs. On Dec. 11 Villanova rode Szczur’s 62-yard touchdown run to a thrilling 14-13 semifinal victory over William & Mary and headed for the championship game against Montana in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Dec. 18. That win pushed the Wildcats’ season record to 13-1.
"You can do everything in sports, and everything in academics, but doing this is something incredible, you know," Szczur told the Philadelphia Daily News. "There really is no choice. … There was no doubt in my mind.
"One of my best friends had cancer when she was born. I know I'd do anything for her. She's in remission now. … I thought about her when I got the call. She was the first one to know. I texted her."
But wait, that’s not all. Szczur is eager to get the donation done because the Cape May, N.J., native will advance to other challenges in the spring. Last year he was Villanova’s leading hitter on the baseball team with a .346 average and the Dodgers have already chosen him once in the annual diamond draft.
And what position does Szczur play in the spring? Well, just as in football, he does a little of everything. Last year he showed up at third base, center field and catcher for the 'Cats. Leaping tall buildings in a single bound may be next.
Linganore’s Conner Wins Ravens Award
In the 13th year of the community-involved program, the Ravens presented Rick Conner of Lignanore with the High School Coach of the Year award during the Ravens-Lions game Dec. 13 at M&T Bank Stadium. Conner was chosen from a list of 10 eligible candidates voted per week throughout the first 10 weeks of the season.
Conner completed his eighth year at Linganore in 2009. Previously, he was the defensive coordinator at Urbana High School, as the Hawks won four state championships from 1998-2001. Conner also helped Lignanore capture its fourth state crown in 2003 and can now add 2009 to the list.
The Lancers (14-0), whose only loss in the past two years was the 2008 4A final against Sherwood, put on a no-holds-barred defensive show against Huntingtown (13-1) in poor weather conditions to take home the 3A state championship crown with a 31-14 win.
Linganore defeated Damascus 33-20 in the region semifinals; Quince Orchard 19-0 in the region final, and Hereford 41-9 in the state semifinals to reach the much-anticipated matchup with the Hurricanes Dec. 5 at M&T Bank Stadium.
Conner’s shining moment this season was the success of senior backs Zach Zwinak and Kevin Meyers, both of whom have committed to Penn State. The two combined for 230 of the team’s 247 yards as well as four of the five touchdowns in the championship game.
Conner joins an elite class of coaches who have won the award, including Augie Waibel of Poly (1997), Dominic Damico of McDonogh (2000), Gene Brown of South Carroll (2003), Dante Jones of Edmondson Westside (2006), Lawrence Smith of Dunbar (2007) and Tony Shermeyer of Century. He will receive a $2,000 donation to Lignanore’s football program and an award certificate signed by Ravens coach John Harbaugh and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Ravens High School Coach of the Week Recipients
Week 1 Corey Johnson Patterson
Week 2 James McCormick North Caroline
Week 3 Kyle Schmitt Atholton
Week 4 Lawrence Smith Dunbar
Week 5 Donald Davis Calvert Hall
Week 6 Mark Junker Chesapeake
Week 7 Rick Conner Linganore
Week 8 Brian Van Deusen River Hill
Week 9 Jeff Herrick Broadneck
Week 10 Bill Waibel Joppatowne
FROM THE CHEAP SEATS
• What A Strange World: It is frightening to think the Tiger Woods saga has already been given more media space than the Normandy Invasion, has been analyzed by more “experts” than the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and has been talked about far more than the Indonesian tsunami that killed 230,000 people. Books, a movie and a reality show are certain to follow.
• For Oldtimers Only: In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, there were two superb do-wop singing groups that had special reference to Baltimore today. Sonny Til was the popular lead singer for the Orioles; Jimmy Ricks was the thunderous bass for the Ravens.
• Lines To Love: After the New Orleans Saints totally destroyed New England last month, Bob Marshall of the Times-Picayune came up with a new nickname for tight-lipped Patriots coach Bill Belichick. He called him “Mute Rockne.”
• Missed Anniversary: It sneaked past most folks, but the day after Thanksgiving marked the 25th year since Doug Flutie fired the most famous Hail Mary pass in football history to give Boston College a victory over Miami.
• The High Life: It costs $46 to park at a Chicago Bears game. To see Jay Cutler? Wow! Not even in Texas.
• Appreciation: A holiday tip of the eggnog to the Bengals’ Chad Ochocinco, whose enjoyable pokes at the NFL’s buttoned-up authorities bring some levity to a sport that has grown far too serious. Thankfully, his pass-catching ability earns him enough to pay the fines.
Issue 144: December 2009