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Have you ever had that feeling when you show up somewhere, and something is off?  You know something isn’t quite right, but you can’t put your finger on it?  That eerie, sour sense of mystery likely flooded the air circulating through the Dallas Cowboys facility soon after the players arrived early Saturday morning, just hours after the death of one of their teammates.

It was an early wake-up for the Dallas Cowboys as meetings began at the training facility at 7:30am Saturday, with the team plane scheduled to take off for Cincinnati a few hours later, a source close to the team told PepperOnSports.   Once the players separated into groups, it became clear that two guys were missing from their respective meetings, third-year nose tackle Josh Brent, and rookie linebacker, Jerry Brown.  The players began talking amongst themselves, but were told only that there had been an “unfortunate accident,”  and no details were provided by team personnel, according to the source. 

It wasn’t until the team had boarded the charter plane in the afternoon that the players received the bad news from head coach Jason Garrett.  Jerry Brown was killed in a drunk driving accident, and Josh Brent - who was driving when his car flipped at 2:21am after hitting a curb at high speeds - had been arrested for DUI and manslaughter. 

Brent and Brown were on their way home from Privae nightclub in Dallas, where a dozen Cowboys players had spent the evening partying with comedian Shawn Wayans, according to a source close to the team.  The Privae website advertises free entry with an RSVP every Friday and promotes an evening with celebrity guest host Shawn Wayans for December 7.  Most bars and clubs in Dallas close at 2am.  

Not that there is ever a good time to learn that one coworker is dead and another is being blamed for it, but right before a two-and-a-half hour flight, without the comfort of friends or family outside of the office seems like a tough way to receive the news.   When asked about the mood of the players during the flight, the source replied, “silence on the plane.”  That was perhaps the longest flight of those mens’ lives.

(Update: “The team couldn’t immediately reveal the details because Brown’s next-of-kin had not been notified,” according to USA Today)

This takes us back eight days ago, in the wake of Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher, who murdered his girlfriend Kassandra Perkins, before killing himself at Arrowhead Stadium in front of KC’s general manager and head coach.  As of last Friday, there was no precedent in dealing with the murder/suicide carried out by n active NFL player, much less with the suicide happening in front of team personnel at the stadium.

Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the first time an active NFL player has died in a car accident during the season.  Atlanta Falcons players Ralph Norwood and Brad Beckman were killed in separate car accidents less than a month apart during the 1989 season.

The Chiefs operated under a microscope last week, every decision and movement dissected by the media.  One can only imagine the level of interest and examination facing the Cowboys, a team whose 6-6 record - now seemingly inconsequential in comparison - is the subject of daily debate on both the local and national level.   It should be interesting to watch the ensuing behavior of frequently scrutinized Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in the wake of this tragedy. 

Hopefully the appropriate mental health support will be offered to players and team personnel for the remainder of the season.  One can only imagine the emotional weight the Cowboys will carry with them on to the field Sunday against the Bengals.  

LSU’s Claiborne Gets The Call Of A Lifetime

This is why we love sports.

Not only was the American football-loving public shocked when the Dallas Cowboys catapulted themselves eight spots up in the NFL draft (via trade), but the young man whom team owner Jerry Jones selected with the No. 6 overall pick was taken by surprise to the point of near-silence.

Morris Claiborne, the nation’s top-ranked cornerback out of LSU never even thought about the possibility of playing for the Cowboys, his family’s favorite team.  Why would he, as Claiborne expected to be drafted early in the first round while Dallas was nearly halfway down in the draft order with the  No. 14 pick overall. 

So when Claiborne answered his phone and realized Jerry Jones was unexpectedly on the line, (click on the video above to hear their conversation),  the 22-year-old Louisiana native was absolutely stunned. 

"I looked back at my family, and they were like, ‘Who is it?’ " Claiborne told the press at Radio City Music Hall. "And I was like, ‘The Cowboys.’ Just to see the look on their face, it’s just melted me."

The voice of his new bosses melted Claiborne too, as you can hear the Jim Thorpe Award winner break down in tears while trying to digest the moment he had likely dreamed about since childhood. 

Between twitter and the media leaking information about picks before they happen, this is quite a remarkable conversation as we rarely get to see true, raw emotion at the draft these days.  Congrats to Mr. Claiborne and to the Cowboys as well, who seem to have gambled on one grateful and hard-working young man. 

 

Several NFL teams experienced the joy of the holiday season on Saturday, but for some, Christmas Eve was quite unkind.  

Lowlights
Tony Romo gave Dallas Cowboys fans a scare after exiting the game with a bruised throwing hand in the first quarter and leaving some dude I’ve never heard of (aka Stephen McGee) to quarterback the team against the Philadelphia Eagles.  Despite suffering a 20-7 loss to Philly, the ‘Boys still lead the NFC East but will need a win over the Giants in week 17 to keep it that way.  X-rays of Romo’s right hand came back negative which is a good sign, although he was unable to grip the ball or take snaps on the sideline following the injury.  After the loss, Romo told reporters that he would be just fine hinting that he will indeed play against the Giants in the regular season finale.  Hell, if the guy could play with broken ribs, we can assume he’s tough enough to give it a go a week from now.

Despite a 33-26 win over the Washington Redskins, the Minnesota Vikings also received a huge lump of coal this Christmas.  The Vikings four-time Pro Bowl running back  Adrian Peterson suffered a torn ACL during a rushing play in the third quarter where he planted his foot, then got hit by a defender pushing his knee in the opposite direction.  Adding injury to injury, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder went down on the very next play after a helmet-to-helmet hit resulted in “concussion-like symptoms” for the rookie.  Peterson is looking at a nine-month recovery process jeopardizing his availability for the beginning of next season.  No word on whether or not Ponder will return for Minnesota’s meaningless regular season finale against the Bears, although backup Joe Webb looked great finishing out the game in week 16.

Highlights & Playoff Picture

AFC
As for the games themselves, lets start with the obvious Christmas choice, the Denver Tebows…errrr … Broncos.  Although the Broncos got smoked by the Bills (40-14), yes, those Bills, from Buffalo (no, Tebow did not earn his wings with a late-game comeback or anything of the sort), Denver still leads the AFC West and can seal the deal with a victory over the Chiefs in week 17.  Here’s where it gets interesting though:  The Broncos will host the Chiefs, quarterbacked by one Kyle Orton who was ousted by Denver in October to make way for Tim Tebow as the starter.  Plus, it looks like the Chiefs really like interim head coach Romeo Crennel and will fight hard and play to win in hopes of helping him get him the permanent gig. 

Should the Broncos lose to KC and the Raiders beat the Chargers in week 17, Oakland will win the division.   Even if Denver wins the division for the first time since 2005, Oakland could get in as as a wildcard which means that TWO teams from this heinous division will make the postseason.  Hard to believe, but true. 

The AFC North will also be decided in week 17 but it’s not quite that simple.  Both the Steelers and Ravens have clinched a playoff spot, but a #2 seed/first-round bye is still up for grabs.  Pittsburgh, without Ben Roethlisberger shut out the Rams 27-0 in week 16 and will hope for a similar performance against the Browns on Sunday to catapult them out of the wildcard spot (#5 seed) in which they currently sit.   Baltimore leads the division at the moment and can claim the #2 seed with a win over the Bengals on Sunday, but Cincinnati will give it their best as beating the Ravens guarantees the Bengals a playoff berth.  Should the Bengals lose to the Ravens, they can squeeze into the playoffs with either a Jets and Raiders loss OR the Raiders winning the AFC West and a Jets loss to the Dolphins.

The T.J. Yates-led Texans have clinched the AFC South and will host the Tennessee Titans in Houston in week 17.  Interestingly enough, should the Titans beat the Texans Sunday, they will reach the playoffs as a wildcard team and play the Texans again in Houston during Wildcard Weekend. 

The AFC East-leading Patriots are kicking butt, despite allowing the Dolphins to actually think they were a good football team for the first half of their week 16 matchup.  In the end, Tom Brady and the New England offense ripped Miami to shreds as the Pats are just one win away from home field advantage throughout the playoffs until the Super Bowl itself.  Should they beat the Bills at home on Sunday, we might be in store for several weeks worth of smug news conferences from Bill Belichick.  Cue Bart Scott… CANT WAIT! 

Speaking of Bart Scott, it’s time for the Jets to put up or shut up as their postseason hopes are on the line in week 17.  It’s hard to have faith in the Jets after watching them get worked by the Giants, despite Rex Ryan going balls out from the get-go in sending only Plaxico Burress to represent the Jets captains at midfield before the coin toss in week 16.  How awkward was it watching Plex shake hands with his former Giants teammates?   The super quick and icy exchange between Burress and Eli Manning was cringe-worthy, wasn’t it?  After getting out of prison, Burress publicly expressed his disappointment with Manning for not visiting him in the clink and it looks like he still holds a grudge.   Back to the playoffs now, I for one would love nothing more than to watch the always entertaining Sexy Rexy and his Jets trash talk their way through the playoffs for a third straight season, but for my dreams to become a reality, New York will have to beat Miami Sunday, plus the Bengals, Raiders and Titans must lose OR the Raiders win the West while the Titans lose in Houston.  Good luck Sanchize! 

NFC

As for the NFC, the Packers took care of the Bears in Green Bay (thanks Jordy Nelson for almost eviscerating my lead going into my fantasy championship on Monday night) on Christmas, securing the top seed/bye week and eliminating Chicago from playoff contention.  Green Bay’s offense rolled and heck, even the defense, which is one of the worst in the league, showed up for this one.  And how ‘bout Aaron Rodgers carrying the ball and splitting the defense, causing a Bear-on-Bear collision between Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher?  When you force two of the NFL’s best linebackers to look like they’re acting out a slapstick scene from the  Three Stooges, you’re the man. 

The Lions are playoff bound for the first time since 1999 having clinched a wildcard spot (either the #5 or #6 seed depending on the Falcons) after exposing a fraudulent, never-to-be-trusted Chargers team with a convincing 38-10 victory in Detroit. 

Meanwhile the 49ers and Saints are both fighting for that elusive #2 seed/bye behind the #1 Packers.  If the Falcons beat the Saints in New Orleans on Monday night and log a win over the lifeless Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Atlanta in week 17, the birds will win the NFC South and San Francisco will watch Wildcard Weekend from home as the #2 seed with the Saints in as a wildcard team.  The Saints can clinch the NFC South with one win or one Falcons loss (Atlanta would then be in as a wildcard team)  but can only secure the #2 seed with a 49ers loss (among a few other factors).  I wouldn’t count on a 49ers loss as Jim Harbaugh’s team is playing the horrendous St. Louis Rams to close out the regular season.  Sorry Rams fans.  All three of you. 

At this point, the real excitement in this conference lies in the week 17 NFC East matchup between two mediocre teams in the Cowboys and Giants in Jersey.  Winner takes all, loser goes home.  The Giants looked good against the cross-town rival Jets in week 16, but the same cannot be said for the Cowboys after losing Tony Romo to injury in the first quarter against the Eagles.  With running back Felix Jones dealing with a bum hamstring, the regular season finale will be especially tough for the ‘Boys, even if Romo plays injured (to some degree).  The East winner will occupy the #4 seed. 

Not much can be said for the Colts, Jaguars, or Rams, but there is room for a few non-playoff honorable mentions. 

Honorable Mentions

The first one goes to the Seattle Seahawks who had few expectations from anyone outside of the organization to start the season, yet managed to come away with some good wins behind Tarvaris Jackson and a skittle-snacking, ghost-riding Marshawn Lynch.  The running back alone made his team worth watching as Lynch had some of the best runs of the season in all of the NFL.

The Arizona Cardinals also made things interesting as backup QB John Skelton made somewhat of a name for himself going 4-2 as a starter. 

And finally, the last but certainly not least honorable mention goes to one Killa Cam Newton.   I have to admit, I was a non-believer in Newton, who I thought would prove to be a 1-year-wonder and a possible draft bust.  But Cam converted me, not only with Panthers wins, but with his performances in certain losses as well. With Carolina’s 46-16 beat down of the Bucs in week 16, Newton surpassed Peyton Manning’s rookie passing record, raising the bar as he now has 3,893 yards through the air.  Newton is responsible for 34 Panthers touchdowns this season, 20 passing and 14 rushing, the latter number, more than any quarterback in NFL history.  We can’t ignore Newton’s 16 interceptions and 5 fumbles, but we can cut the rookie some slack as the young man is smart, composed and already viewed as a leader by young players and veterans alike in his locker room. 

While the most important matchups are probably the Giants/Cowboys and the AFC North games (Big Ben could use the rest of a first-round bye while the Ravens would appreciate home-field advantage for once), I am looking forward to watching Cam and the Panthers one last time in week 17 as they take on my guy Drew Brees and the playoff-bound Saints. 

   

Opposite journeys down the Yellow Brick road led both the Lions and Tigers to victory on Sunday giving fans in Detroit something to cheer about.

In football it was staging a ferocious comeback and in baseball, it was fiercely protecting a delicate lead. 

The Lions victory came indoors under the bright lights of the world’s largest video screen in Arlington, Texas while the Tigers conquest came under dark, rain-drenched skies in the Bronx, New York.

Two road victories gleefully received both 620 miles and 1,200 miles away back home in Detroit.

This was a copycat performance of sorts for the Lions, who have overcome a double digit, second half deficit on the road for the second straight week, this time, erasing a 24-point, 27-3 Cowboys third quarter lead. 

The Lions defense preyed on a somewhat enigmatic Tony Romo, intercepting the Dallas QB twice in three passes.  Friend of Romo and former Cowboy Bobby Carpenter returned the first pick 35 yards for the touchdown, and Chris Houston followed suit on the Cowboys’ next possession, with a 56-yard interception returned for another touchdown. 

Detroit’s defensive surge seemed to wake up the offense as Calvin Johnson scored two TD’s (tying Cris Carter’s record of four consecutive games of scoring two touchdowns), not to mention a 51-yard Jason Hanson field goal.  Like last week in Minneapolis, the Lions dug themselves a hole, pulled themselves up and pushed themselves to the brink to get a win.  The Lions caused the Cowboys’ worst collapse in franchise history. 

Shortly after Dallas ended up on the wrong side of a 34-30 victory, becoming the latest victims of a Lions comeback, the Tigers took aim at the Yankees, looking to even the AL Division Series.  Unlike their football counterparts, the boys of summer started off hot, with Miguel Cabrera hitting a two-run home run off Freddy Garcia in the top of the first inning.  The Tigers defense wasn’t too shabby either, as starter Max Scherzer impressed, pitching a no-hitter through six innings. 

Detroit led 5-1 heading into the bottom of the ninth when the home team decided to rally.  Nick Swisher hit a solo homer off of Jose Valverde followed by an Andruw Jones sacrifice fly, scoring Jorge Posada, cutting the Tigers lead to 5-3.

With two men on base, the winning run, Robinson Cano of all people, came to the plate.  In the Yankees game one win, Cano hit a grand slam and drove in six runs.  Cano hit a solo home run in the eighth inning, putting New York on the board in game two.  Now here he was, the potential winning run, staring Valverde in the eyes through the pouring rain.  The pitcher kept his composure and the hero of game one grounded out to end game two.  With the win, the Tigers snapped the Yankees’ seven-game ALDS winning streak spanning three consecutive post seasons. 

This is the Tigers’ first playoff appearance since 2006, when they dropped game one to the Yankees before winning the next three games to take the series.  They swept the A’s in the ALCS, advancing to the World Series where the Tigers lost to the Cardinals in five games.  Their last world series title came in 1984. 

The Lions are 4-0 for the first time since 1980.  Jimmy Carter was president at the time.  The Lions last playoff appearance came in 1999, and they last won the NFL Championship in 1957.  It’s been a long time coming for the Lions in many respects. 

1934 was the last time the Lions were 4-0 and the Tigers made the playoffs in the same year. 

Although a trip to the World Series is still a ways away for the Tigers, and the playoffs even further down the road for the Lions, Detroit’s fans should appreciate Sunday’s success and enjoy the journey.

Redemption is a prevailing theme in sports which draws many of us in beyond the X’s and O’s.  On a small scale, Tony Romo’s week 2 performance comes to mind, leading the Cowboys to a win while playing with a punctured lung and broken ribs, leaving a dreadful season-opener in the rear view mirror.  A bigger picture example is Michael Vick going from the prison yard to the playoffs and a massive payday.

As for recent cases of sports salvation , Mike Danton takes the cake in my opinion.  

 

Remember this guy?  He was playing for the St. Louis Blues back in 2004 when he was arrested and convicted of murder-for-hire, allegedly enlisting someone to kill his youth hockey coach/agent.  The plot was never carried out, but Danton was caught and pleaded guilty to the charges.  

Danton has one hell of a life story, with his case making international news and being the subject of movies, documentaries and television specials. 

More than seven years after the fact, Danton is back in the news.  Not for trying to take a life, but for helping save one. 

Here’s the short version of the story.  After serving more than five years in prison, Danton is back on the ice in a professional league for the first time (since his NHL career ended in 2004), playing for IFK-Ore in Sweden, who signed him in July of this year.

During a game last week, a teammate of Danton’s, Marcus Bengtsson took a hit that knocked him down and sent the 21-year-old into convulsions on the ice.  Bengtsson’s eyes rolled back, his face turned pale white and blood bubbled in his mouth.  Can you imagine? 

That’s when Danton, who had first aid training in prison, came to the rescue.  He put his fingers in Bengtsson’s mouth and moved his tongue, which was partially blocking his airway. Danton and other teammates rolled Bengtsson on his side, and shortly after, the convulsions stopped and he regained consciousness. Bengtsson was diagnosed with a mild concussion. 

In the full story on NPR.org (read it here… http://www.npr.org/2011/09/25/140758779/for-hockey-player-prison-saves-two-lives ) , Danton, 30, says he saw seizures and convulsions in prison with drug-addicted inmates.  He told NPR, “I’ve dealt with so much turmoil that in situations of adversity and stress I just deal with it very well.”

I recommend reading the entire article for more details of what happened on the ice that day as well as the murder-for-hire plot for which he was imprisoned.  It’s fascinating stuff.

At this point, I actually believe that Danton is a changed man.  Aside from helping a teammate in trouble, it seems like he is taking the necessary steps to live a normal life.  After getting out of prison, Danton enrolled in college and carried a near 3.9 GPA while also playing hockey.  Seriously?  That’s impressive for any student, much less a person with Danton’s background. 

Danton has only been out of prison for a couple of years, so he still has a long road ahead in terms of keeping on the straight and narrow.  I think he’s off to a great start though and I’m excited to see how the rest of his redemption story will unfold.