November 20, 2017

Jags Show Heart in the Carolina Lowcountry

October 23, 2015
Ridgeland, South Carolina
Friday Night Football in the Carolina Lowcountry

Desjon Fraser’s 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown typified the heart the Ridgeland-Hardeeville Jaguars showed against the visiting Barnwell Warhorses. The Jags lost, 46-12, in the eighth game of a disappointing 2-8 season. However, the Jaguars, who play in the lower southeast corner of South Carolina, gave their all against the Warhorses. They knew it was a war, and they didn’t lay down.

Fraser’s touchdown made the score 20-6 with 1:37 left in the first half.

“Nothing special,” Fraser said after the game. “I had good blocking.”

Actually, the play was very special. It was the first time the Jags scored at home all season.

Because of severe weather across the state in early October, the Jags had played only two home games all season. They were shut out in both.

One of those shutouts was a 35-0 loss to Woodland that prompted head coach Jahmaal Nelson to say, “We’ve got too many guys on the fence.”

Against the Barnwell Warhorses, in the Jags’ third home game of the season, they often didn’t execute well. However, the Jags were a team that wanted to play.

“They fought hard,” Coach Nelson said of his players. “I love each and every one of them.”

In the second quarter, the Jaguars defense stopped a Barnwell threat on the Ridgeland-Hardeeville 15.

Three plays later, on third-and-9 from the 16, Jabari Williams connected with Frank Fields for 17 yards–only to see it called back on a penalty.

The play that didn’t count ignited the crowd. On third-and-19 from the 6–with the Ridgeland-Hardeeville band leading the crowd in a huge cheer–Williams hit Darius Solomon for 26 yards and a first down.

The drive ended in a punt, but later in the quarter, Fraser set off the fireworks.

With the Jags down 20-0, Fraser took a kickoff on his own 15, ran past one Warhorse after another, shifted gears at midfield, and turned on the afterburners for an 85-yard touchdown.

Just before halftime, with the score 20-6, Shameik Giles sacked Warhorse quarterback Pete Elmore.

The Jaguars hoped to carry that momentum into the second half, but the Warhorses continued scoring touchdowns.

The fans kept cheering for another score, and in the final minutes of the game, the Jags delivered.

Jataree Williams returned a kickoff 17 yards to the Ridgeland-Hardeeville 45. Four plays later, on fourth-and-2, Fraser ran right for 7 yards and a first down.

Fueled by Fraser to the left and Fraser to the right, the Jags marched down the field. With the ball on the Barnwell 10, Jabari Williams scrambled 6 yards to the 4.

After a Barnwell penalty put the ball on the 2, Freddie Aiken took it up the middle for a touchdown.

“We didn’t give up,” Fields said. Richard Jones said, “We played with heart.”

Jones, who plays defensive end, finished with seven tackles–three of them solo–and two quarterback hurries. Coach Nelson praised the emotional role Jones played on the team. Jones had experienced a family tragedy, but Coach Nelson said, “He did a great job encouraging his teammates.”

Kevin Smith: From the Twilight Zone to the End Zone

I thought I was watching The Twilight Zone. However, it couldn’t have been that landmark science fiction TV show. It wasn’t 1963, and it wasn’t in black-and-white. The video took place in November 2011, and it was in Detroit Lions blue-and-silver.

He’s running with a screen from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, and he’s got that sweet, smooth way of shifting around while still moving straight for the end zone. I’m thinking, “Who is that?” He’s wearing #30, and as he crosses the goal line, I see “Smith” on the back of his jersey. Now I’m thinking, “Whoa!!…is that really him????”

Yes, it was him. No, it wasn’t The Twilight Zone, but what a script.

I have yet to watch a game this year. On the day the lockout ended, I gave up fantasy football. I also made a commitment to not even watch football. My fantasy football team, based in Columbia, South Carolina, is called the Columbia Overdrive. “Overdrive” describes my approach to the things I love. I ran on football overdrive for years, and the gear’s busted. Nobody who knew me could believe it. “I’m shocked,” said John Richardson, owner of the Georgia Scorpions, the Overdrive’s opponent in the 2009 championship game. Richardson was decked out in his security guard uniform. “I don’t wanna go to work.”

I didn’t drop football. I’ve had a blast covering high school football in the Carolina Low Country and Savannah, Georgia. I’m thoroughly enjoying working on a number of projects on pro football history. I basically know what’s going on in the NFL. People update me here and there, and yes, I do occasionally watch highlights on the internet. I was checking my e-mail on the morning of Monday, November 21, 2011, when Providence intervened with that blue-and-silver video.

I am now writing my second post on Leatherheads of the Gridiron, and it is a most unexpected post. The subtitles of this article are the titles of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, Season 4 (Winter-Spring 1963). That was the season of one-hour episodes, a format I think is great. I had never seen The Twilight Zone until Mom gave me Season 4 last Christmas. It has become one of my five favorite shows of all time.

And I have to say, the Detroit Lions have one fine running back.

No Time Like the Past

The Detroit Lions don’t want to go back to 2008. That was the year they went 0-16. Other teams in NFL history have gone an entire season without a win. The most recent examples are the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-14) and the 1982 Baltimore Colts (0-8-1). The 2008 Lions, however, were the first to go 0-16. I’ll tell you what, though. In the third round of the 2008 NFL draft, the Lions found a gem of a running back.

I liked Kevin Smith a lot. I scouted him in ’08 for my fantasy team. There was an excellent class of rookie running backs that year. The Oakland Raiders’ Darren McFadden was the top-rated rookie RB in the fantasy football magazines. Rookies usually aren’t drafted high in fantasy drafts, but many magazines projected McFadden as a Top 30 pick. The Carolina Panthers’ Jonathan Stewart was generally considered the second-best rookie running back, followed by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Rashard Mendenhall.

Kevin Smith was rated fourth or fifth by quite a few publications. Smith stood at 6′ 1″ and weighed 217. He had a stellar career at the University of Central Florida, running for 4,864 yards in three seasons. In 2007 alone, he ran for 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns. He was a consensus First-Team All-American, and his 2007 rushing total fell 62 yards short of the college football single-season record set by Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders in 1988. On top of his accomplishments in college, the running back position in Detroit was wide open, and Smith was expected to get the Lions’ share of the carries.

I liked him. In preseason 2008, as I prepared for my second season of fantasy football, I watched the film. I liked K-Smith’s vision, and I liked his ability to change direction. He wasn’t a blazer, but he had a nice way of shifting into second gear. I liked Kevin Smith, and I took him with the #86 pick in the 2008 Bitter Rivals fantasy football draft.

I thought about making K-Smith a starter for the Overdrive, but two factors doomed that notion. One factor was Washington Redskins running back Clinton Portis. Portis was my favorite player on my favorite team, and the #6 pick in the draft was reserved for him. The other factor arose as I watched another running back on preseason film. A Tennessee Titans rookie named Chris Johnson outran the St. Louis Rams.

My jaw dropped.

I said, “That man’s lightning!!” I knew I’d be taking him as my other starting RB. I knew I’d be taking him early. I raised eyebrows at the draft when I took Chris “Lightning” Johnson with the #26 pick in the draft. It was the best fantasy football decision I ever made.

As for Kevin Smith, he soon had a problem far worse than not starting for the Columbia Overdrive. Smith rightfully won the starting job for the Lions. Little did anybody know that this team would make the wrong kind of history.

In the season opener against the Atlanta Falcons, Smith ran for a touchdown–after the Lions trailed in the first quarter, 21-0. The final score was a respectable 34-21, but the tone was set. This was a Lions team with a fairly competent offense, especially with Smith and super-talented wide receiver Calvin Johnson. What I remember most about the 2008 Lions, however, is that never have I seen a team fall behind so quickly in so many games like those Lions did.

In the meantime, Smith sat on the bench for the Overdrive. My policy is that I play my starters regardless of what the matchup is. That meant week in and week out, my starting running backs were Clinton Portis and Chris “Lightning” Johnson.

On Thursday We Leave for Home

On Thursday morning K-Smith answered the phone. It was Overdrive owner Matt Haddad. “Portis is on bye,” Matt said. “You’re starting.” It was Week 10 of the 2008 season, and Thursday Night Football was beginning. The Columbia Overdrive hosted the Boston Rampage in the first game of a rivalry that would become one of the best rivalries in The Bitter Rivals Fantasy Football League. Owned by Lucas Brewer, the Rampage were starting to build a reputation as a team with a dangerous passing attack. The Cleveland Browns were at home against the Denver Broncos for Thursday Night Football. Browns tight end Kellen Winslow started for the Overdrive, and Broncos wide receiver Brandon Marshall took the field for the Rampage.

In front of a crowd of screaming South Carolinians, the game took on the intensity of a playoff match. Winslow caught 10 passes for 111 yards and 2 touchdowns to score 31 points for the Overdrive. Marshall struck back with 6 catches, 89 yards, 1 touchdown, and 20 points for the Rampage. On Sunday, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne scored 23 for the Overdrive, but Chris “Lightning” Johnson played his worst game of the season. The Chicago Bears’ defense bottled the lightning for 8 yards rushing–and 3 points for the Overdrive.

Columbia needed Kevin Smith to do something good. The Lions played the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Jags quarterback David Garrard scored 20 for the Rampage. Smith responded by running for 96 yards and a touchdown, plus catching one pass for 27 yards. His efforts gave the Overdrive 18 points.

K-Smith did most of his damage in the fourth quarter. He ran for a 1-yard touchdown with 6:02 remaining, a play that got the Overdrive 6 points. An onside kick ensued, and Calvin Johnson recovered for the Lions. Detroit didn’t score on that final drive, but Smith scored 3 more points for the Overdrive. On third-and-1 at the 50, Smith ran 32 yards to the Jacksonville 18. Every one of K-Smith’s points was necessary. The Overdrive won, 104-101.

Sadly, the loss to Jacksonville left the Lions at 0-9. NFL.com remarked, “They might have what it takes to be the NFL’s first 0-16 team.” Finish 0-16 they did. Smith was one of the bright spots with 976 yards rushing, 4.1 yards per carry, and 8 touchdowns. He also caught 39 passes for 286 yards.

2009 brought a new season to conquer: I won the Championship. The Columbia Overdrive defeated the Boston Rampage in the playoffs and the Georgia Scorpions in the title game. Clinton Portis and Chris “Lightning” Johnson were again my signature players. “Playing for Matt is the highlight of my career,” Portis said in an exclusive interview with The Imaginary Newspaper.

Kellen Winslow and Reggie Wayne were also on my ’09 championship team, but Kevin Smith wasn’t. I really wanted K-Smith as my top backup. Rashon Johnson and the West Rasheed Crusaders had other ideas. They drafted him to be a starter.

Smith didn’t have as strong of a season in ’09. He did well in the receiving department, with 41 catches for 415 yards and 1 touchdown. However, his rushing numbers regressed: 747 yards, 3.4 yards per carry, and 4 touchdowns. Late in the season, which saw the Lions finish 2-14, Smith tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

In 2010, for a Lions team that finished 6-10, Smith played in six games before losing his season to a thumb injury. Playing second-string, he ran for 133 yards and 3.5 yards per carry while catching 11 passes for 123 yards. He didn’t score a touchdown. On March 3, 2011, eight days before the lockout, the Lions let Smith go.

He’s Alive

Yes, the commentators confirmed in the blue-and-silver video, that was the one and only Kevin Smith. Smith’s 28-yard touchdown catch-and-run came when the Lions were down, 10-0, at home to the Carolina Panthers. For the first time since December 2009, K-Smith reached the end zone. Against the Panthers, he would do it three times.

The Panthers led 24-7 at one point, but the Lions put some roar into their offense. The final score was Detroit 49, Carolina 35. Smith ran 16 times for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns. He also caught 4 passes for 61 yards and 1 touchdown. That was the greatest game of his career. The Lions’ record now stood at 7-4, their best mark at that point since 2000.

Mute

No, no, no. Kevin Smith didn’t keep silent. The blue-and-silver video showed him giving hugs to his offensive lineman. Then he knelt down at the bench and gave thanks to the Almighty. K-Smith later said, “The chance to be in the NFL, the chance that God blessed me with another opportunity, is what I’m thankful for.”

That game took place on November 20th, thirteen days after the Lions re-signed him. Afterward, he was asked what he did during his eight months out of football. “Wake up at 7 o’clock in the morning, train until 12, go home and play with my son,” Smith said. He worked out at a sports facility in Aventura, just outside his hometown of Miami. His greatest encourager was his mother.

On Thanksgiving Day, four days after the Panthers game, Smith and the Lions took the field against the undefeated, defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Smith ran well in the early going, gaining 36 yards on 7 carries while catching 3 passes for 21 yards. Then he hurt his ankle in the second quarter. At that time, the Lions were down, 7-0. Smith didn’t return. The Packers dominated the second half and won the game, 27-15.

Smith will hopefully be back on the field soon. “It wasn’t that bad,” Smith said of the injury. The X-ray came back negative, and Smith was diagnosed with a mild sprain. He might see action on December 4th at New Orleans. The Lions have gone from 0-16 to a team competing for the playoffs. I believe the story of Kevin Smith is to be continued.

Tires, Tail Pipes, and American Football

It was 1985. Down in the stock room at Sears Automotive, the boy in the black shirt and blue jeans assessed the situation. It was more fun than anything he had studied in four years of high school. Lost in a concrete jungle of tires, mufflers, and tail pipes, he still had the radio and his football magazines.

On this early summer Saturday morning, the phone rang. It was Mr. Robertson: “What are you doing here this early?”

“I was scheduled for this morning, Mr. Robertson. From 9 to 4.”

“I’ve got you down for closing.”

“Uh…no sir. Sammy scheduled me from 9 to 4. Jim comes in at 4.”

There was a silence. Then came Robertson’s voice: “If Jim doesn’t show, you’re staying.” And click. 

If he had to stay, then he had to stay. The boy was equipped and ready. He had the radio, the Beatles, Jeff Beck, and his football magazines.

Throughout the course of the day, he agonized over who would be NFL champs. He knew the Chicago Bears were going to be good. He also knew they were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell. Super Bowl Champions? He had to go with the St. Louis Cardinals.

 

Summer 1985: State of the Bears

He continued to ponder the issue throughout that summer: Who’s going to be the NFL Champion? The Cardinals or the Bears?

He knew the Bears were going to be good, but all was not well in the Windy City. Buddy Ryan was calling first round defensive tackle William “The Refrigerator” Perry “a wasted draft pick.” On the offensive side of the ball, Jim McMahon was returning from a lacerated kidney that ended his season the previous November. The stocker had some uncertainty about McMahon’s ability to play at full speed. 

Above all, the Bears were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell.

Bell was their All-Pro strong safety, and in his fifth season, he was sure to be entering his prime. Al Harris was one of Buddy Ryan’s holdovers from the pre-Mike Ditka days. He was a reliable linebacker and defensive end, playing wherever he was needed. Harris proved to be handy on special teams as well. He once scored a touchdown on a fake field goal.

Granted, Harris had a replacement. His spot would go to Wilber Marshall, the previous year’s number one draft pick and rated by some as the top linebacker in the ‘84 draft. Bell’s absence, however, was sure to be felt. His spot at strong safety was being taken over by an unknown named Dave Duerson.  Even Marshall was no sure thing, at least not yet. He missed much of his rookie training camp in ‘84, and as a result, didn’t see much action during the season.

 

Summer 1985: State of the Cardinals

The Cardinals, on the other hand, made the stock boy nervous. Roy Green scared the daylights out of him. There was considerable debate over who was the best wide receiver in football. He rated his beloved Redskin receivers as the best: Art Monk, followed by Charlie Brown. He put Roy Green right there with them. 

The stocker considered John Stallworth the best receiver on those great Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the ‘70’s. He also liked the San Diego Chargers’ speedy Wes Chandler, who was a 1,000 yard receiver in 1982 while playing only eight games. He was a big fan of the man Chandler replaced on the Chargers: the Green Bay Packers’ John Jefferson, an acrobatic receiver whose career had inexplicably nosedived. There was also, of course, the Packers’ James Lofton, who had both size and vertical speed.

The stocker’s thoughts returned to Roy Green. Green scared him. Every year, he terrorized the Redskins. Every year, the Redskins had to face him–twice. Neil Lomax-to-Roy Green was a lethal combination. A combo that was surely headed for the Hall of Fame.

He considered the other weapons on that Big Red offense. Ottis Anderson was a power running back with the speed to go the distance from anywhere on the field. Pat Tilley was a fine possession receiver. Stump Mitchell was an exciting return man who provided an extra threat out of the backfield. 

The Cardinals had the best offense in football, and they scared the stocker. Yes, the Bears had a better defense–but they were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell. On top of that, Buddy Ryan called William “The Refrigerator” Perry a wasted draft pick. There was dissension in the ranks, and the stocker couldn’t pick Chicago.

 

Flashback: December 16, 1984

Sitting in the stock room at Sears Automotive, the boy remembered the last game of the 1984 regular season at RFK Stadium against the Cardinals. He was there. On that overcast December afternoon, the NFC East crown was at stake. The Redskins took a 13-0 lead on two touchdown passes from Joe Theismann to future Hall of Fame wide receiver Art Monk. Theismann also connected with the 6’3’’ receiver for his 100th catch of the season. Art Monk caught 100 passes in an era when players didn’t catch 100 passes.

The Cardinals woke up when cornerback Wayne Smith intercepted a Theismann pass and ran it back to the 1-yard line. On the next play, Lomax scored on a quarterback keeper. The Redskins countered with a 5-yard touchdown run by future Hall of Fame running back John Riggins. At the half, the Redskins led, 23-7.

The Cardinals flew back with a vengeance. Lomax-to-Roy Green struck not once, but twice. The first touchdown went for 75 yards, and the second one went for 18. The Redskins had enough offense left to produce two Mark Moseley field goals. 

On the last play of the game, the ‘Skins were up, 29-27. The Cardinals’ Neil O’Donohue lined up to attempt a desperation field goal: 53 yards away and the clock ticking downward, with no way to stop. The kick was up, up, and…not up enough.   

The Redskins won, 29-27, and walked away with the division title. The stocker walked out of the stadium with 55,000 other elated fans with hopes of a third straight Super Bowl.  

The Cardinals had nowhere to walk but home.

 

September 1985: The D.C. Football Fiasco

Six months later in the heart of the summer, in a mausoleum of tires, mufflers, and tail pipes, the stock boy believed. The stock boy believed the Cardinals were ready to soar. They scared him–and the Bears were missing Al Harris and Todd Bell.

In September, with the stocker now in college, the 1985 season began. His beloved Redskins were a team to be laughed at early in the season. On September 9th, on Monday Night in Dallas, they were slaughtered, 44-14.

They returned home on September 15th and won a 16-13 squeaker against Houston. The ‘Skins’ performance was so unimpressive that the Oilers deserved to win. In the upper deck, the stock boy and his father stood and yelled for their Mack truck of a running back: “Go Riggo!!!” The people around them cheered, and a man sitting behind the father and son said, “Go somebody.”

After the game, the dad drove through D.C. as the stock boy shouted out the window. He yelled to some people in their front yard, “Red-Skins!!” One guy yelled back, “Deadskins!” The father and son laughed, because the man was right.

On September 22nd, the Redskins faced the Philadelphia Eagles. The offense was more lifeless than ever, and the Eagles won, 19-6. In that game, the Eagles seemed to have found their quarterback of the future. A second-round rookie named Randall Cunningham raised some eyebrows. 

On September 29th, the ‘Skins went to Chicago. In 1937, their first trip to the Windy City resulted in the Redskins’ first World Championship. The stock boy’s grandfather took the train to Chicago to see Sammy Baugh and the ‘Skins beat the Bears, 28-21, for the NFL Championship. Now, in their 32nd meeting, the Skins were carrying a 1-2 record and something to prove.

The Bears had eight NFL Championships between 1921 and 1963. Now, after a twenty-two year famine and a taste of the playoffs again in ‘84, the city was hungry. The Bears were off to a 3-0 start and coming off a dramatic come from behind win over the Vikings.

The ‘Skins marched up the field on their first two possessions for a John Riggins touchdown and a Mark Moseley field goal. They were looking like the Redskins of old, the Redskins of 1981 to 1983, a Redskins team that for one stretch won 36 of 42 games–one of those wins being Super Bowl XVII. 

With the ‘Skins having gone up, 10-0, Jeff Hayes kicked off. The Bears’ world-class speedster Willie Gault received the kick and sprinted 99 yards for the touchdown. The crowd erupted, and so did the team they cheered for. The Bears scored one touchdown after another. At the half, Chicago led, 31-10. In the third quarter, quarterback Jim McMahon scored on a 33-yard touchdown pass from future Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton.

On defense, Wilber Marshall, Steve McMichael, Tyrone Keys, and future Hall of Famer Richard Dent each sacked Joe Theismann. The day was one of those occasions when The Hogs, the Redskins’ famed offensive line, fell short of excellence. The Bears also intercepted Theismann twice, with Ken Taylor and “L.A. Mike” Richardson doing the honors.   

The most noteworthy play wasn’t a touchdown, a sack, or a turnover. Jeff Hayes, the Redskins’ kickoff specialist and punter, was injured on the Gault runback. He was hurt so severely that he wouldn’t play again that season. His immediate replacement was the QB. Theismann punted once, and it became perhaps the most celebrated punt in NFL history. Theismann’s punt traveled one yard.  

Final Score: Bears 45, Redskins 10.

That game sent a message to the football-watching nation: The Monsters of the Midway were on the prowl, even without Al Harris and Todd Bell. As for the Redskins, it was looking like 2-14. To make matters worse, the St. Louis Cardinals were coming to town.   

 

‘Twas the Night of October 7th

The stock boy’s Super Bowl pick was looking good so far. The Cardinals were 3-1, and were second in the league in scoring with 124 points. The Bears were 4-0 and first in scoring with 136, but the stocker wasn’t ready to concede just yet. 

The Cards were coming to town, and the consensus was as unanimous as could be: the ‘Skins were in trouble.  Surely, the Cardinals would raise their record to 4-1 and score some points in the process. Since it was Monday Night Football, the Big Red Birds would be embarrassing the Redskins before an entire nation. 

The stock boy had a paper due the next day, but that wasn’t about to stop him from going. It would be his first Monday Night game in person. He and his father expected the worst, but they still looked forward to being there–something only a diehard can understand. 

On that night of October 7th, the Redskins surprised a nation. They came to play football. Joe Theismann ran for a touchdown in the first quarter, and he later threw touchdowns to rookie wide receiver Gary Clark and veteran tight end Clint Didier. Clark’s touchdown was his first in the NFL. Roy Green caught 4 passes for 65 yards. It was a solid effort, but on this night, the Cardinals needed more.

John Riggins and George Rogers rushed for 100 yards each, and the Redskins dominated from start to finish. The stocker told his roommate the next day: “It was incredible.” 

Final score: Redskins 27, Cardinals 10.

 

1985: The Aftermath

The Redskins turned what looked like a two-win season into a pretty good campaign. They finished 10-6. The Redskins proved to be a turning point for both the Bears and the Cardinals. With their 45-10 demolition of the ‘Skins on September 29th, the Bears established themselves as a team to be feared. The rest of the league had a reason to be afraid. The Bears went on to have one of the greatest seasons in football history.          

After being stunned by the Redskins on October 7th, the Cardinals never recovered. They won just two games the rest of the season.

The Bears went 18-1 and won the Super Bowl–without Al Harris and Todd Bell. The Cardinals finished 5-11.

 

Author’s note: Yes, I was the stock boy. Yes, my Grandfather Haddad took the train to Chicago in 1937 to watch the Redskins beat the Bears for the NFL Championship.