Patriots kicker Quinn Nordin is more than just a specialist

Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


Originally posted to www.985thesportshub.com on June 14, 2021.

By Bob Socci

Shayne Graham understands what it takes to kick one’s way into the NFL and stay there. He did it for 15 seasons, with 10 different teams. 

Graham also remembers what’s it like to perform literally in the shadow of Bill Belichick. He did that midway through 2010.

So when asked about Quinn Nordin, the rookie kicker seeking to earn Belichick’s trust and beat out two NFL veterans, Graham knows of what he speaks. And to him, it starts with absorbing an information overload.

“There are so many details he’s going to learn that he never (imagined) he needed to know,” says Graham, who expects Nordin to be tried and tested as never before.

The same way Graham was in his half season spelling an injured Stephen Gostkowski. Like the moment his mettle was measured on the practice field, with Belichick lurking just a few steps behind.

Eleven years later, Graham still pictures Belichick’s dark silhouette, as the shadow of the coach’s head bobs back and forth, extending to holder Zoltan Mesko. He also hears Belichick’s tone, angling to get under his skin.

“Is…this…bothering…you…Graham?” 

“Is…this…bothering…you…Graham?” 

“Is…this…bothering…you…Graham?” 

Graham slowly repeats the line into his cell phone, momentarily abandoning the drawl of his native Southwestern Virginia in favor of a droll imitation of Belichick. He is speaking from the University of Florida, where Shayne now coaches and has just entertained a high school recruit visiting from Indiana.

That kid, accompanied by his mom, Valeri, was A.J. Vinatieri. Their timing is practically perfect. Because Graham’s shadow story concludes with a caveat relevant to the greatest kicker of all-time, A.J.’s dad, Adam, and the greatest coach of all-time.

Give in to the goading, under the glare of Belichick’s gaze, and the words only grow harsher. 

The elder Vinatieri didn’t. And by dealing with daily doses of Belichick — and before him, Bill Parcells —  Graham believes, developed the thick skin and resiliency needed to seal victory in ‘Snow Bowls’ and Super Bowls.

Shayne Graham (AP photo)

For his sake, Graham was also good enough to get the kinder, gentler side of Bill most of the time. Converting kicks in practices, then games, he finished 14-for-14 on field goals as a Patriot. Though not, as he notes, without a little uneasiness. 

Imagine if a then 32-year old on his eighth NFL stop can be made uncomfortable, what it must be like today for a 22-year old taking his first swings at a roster spot.

On Thursday, in his first local press availability, Nordin was loath to say, giving short replies long on cliches. He said 16 words about what’s stood out most in his first Foxborough experience.

“Being able to learn from everyone in the building,” Nordin answered. “I think that’s the most important thing.”  

The lone insight he allowed had to do with the difference between a college football and NFL K-ball (like everything else, it’s bigger in the pro’s). Otherwise, Nordin spoke of listening and learning, grinding and improving. Naturally, one day at a time.

Which to his credit, showed that Nordin’s already mastered an essential detail of being a Patriots’ rookie. Let the coaches speak to your performance. And leave most of what’s really going through your mind unsaid.

But what Nordin hasn’t left to the imagination is the strength of his right leg, which was obvious to all in this spring’s first two practices open to reporters. From 50 yards away, Nordin turned heads with towering kicks driven between and (well) beyond the uprights, including a special narrow goalpost. 

Back in January, he drove the ball similarly in front of Graham at the Gators’ indoor facility.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy hit the ball with that much authority,” Graham said. “I don’t know that I’ve seen a guy hit the ball that high and drive it as far he does. 

“When you hear the ball off his foot and see it in flight, it’s impressive.”

Graham took in such sound and sight when Nordin and his longtime kicking coach Brandon Kornblue made the 4 1/2-hour drive to Gainesville from Naples, Fla., where they trained at the “Kornblue Kicking” complex. First glance made a lasting impression on Graham.

“One thing I’ll say, before you even see him kick,” Graham recalls, “(Nordin) looks like an athlete.”

And he is. 

As young as age 13, according to the Detroit Free Press, Nordin was fielding college scholarship offers in lacrosse — a fact likely not lost on Belichick, whose love of the sport is as well established as his appreciation of kickers who can’t be pigeonholed only as football ‘specialists.’

Namely Vinatieri. Remember him running down Herschel Walker at Dallas in 1996? And Stephen Gostkowski. How about him, an ex-college baseball player, sliding into the fray to help create an on-sides recovery vs. Cleveland in 2013? 

Tough and athletic, they lifted in the weight room and ran gassers alongside teammates. Football kickers. Football players.

“That’s Quinn’s mentality,” Kornblue says. “He’s not afraid of mixing it up and (make) contact. His senior year of high school he broke his collarbone from going in and not trying to get the ball, but trying to be a wedge-buster on an on-sides kick.”

Kornblue says that attitude reflects off-field aspects of Nordin’s approach.

“He’s willing to do whatever it takes to be the best and to give himself the best opportunity to perform at the highest level. If it’s in his control in terms of the nutrition, the training, all those kind of things, recovery, there’s nobody who works harder than Quinn does.”

Including, as Kornblue discovered several years into their relationship, the schedule Nordin keeps to go a few extra miles before he kicks. 

They’ve been working together since Nordin was a middle-schooler in Rockford, Mich. One a former Wolverine, the other a future Wolverine.

In Kornblue’s case, he walked on at Michigan and waited four years, mostly behind several NFL prospects, including Jay Feely, to finally take a single shot at glory at the end of the afternoon of Nov. 6, 1999. 

Leading Northwestern, 34-3, with 33 seconds to go, coach Lloyd Carr dispatched Kornblue for a 26-yard field goal attempt. Attendance in Ann Arbor’s ‘Big House’ was 110,794. His holder was classmate Tom Brady. The kick was good.

A half dozen years of teaching math and playing arena football later, Kornblue opened his school for football specialists in 2007. The following summer, he started running Michigan’s kicking camp. 

Nordin became a regular student. Eventually, midway through his high school career, he was invited to stay with Kornblue and his family for a few days of training in South Florida. 

On night one, Quinn went to bed before the Kornblues’ 3-year old, so he could wake up with time to run on his own before an early-morning kicking session. 

“‘Okay, what’s this guy trying to prove?’” Kornblue said, recently recalling his initial skepticism during a Zoom call. “‘He’s going to go out and be tired from this run, he’s going to come back and not kick well.’ Well, it was either that day or the next day, (Quinn) hits a 65-yard field goal off the ground. He was only a sophomore in high school.”

Video of the kick circulated on the web. College recruiters noticed. Months later, Nordin announced he would attend Penn State. He did it with another video. It also got widely noticed.

Produced by a high school buddy and incorporating a family friend’s private jet, the visuals for Nordin’s verbal commitment increased attention — and scrutiny — paid to one of the nation’s top scholastic kickers. Six months later, he was back in the recruiting spotlight.

Nordin grew uncertain about his choice and reopened the door for recruiters. On the first day of home visitations in 2016, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh showed up and wound up spending the night at Nordin’s house. The next day, Harbaugh drove Quinn to Ann Arbor for his official on-campus visit. 

After subsequent tours of other campuses, Nordin stayed in state. The day he signed his letter of intent, wearing a classic Polo Oxford and flanked by family, a gray-and-white “Kornblue Kicking” t-shirt hung on the wall behind them.

Brandon Kornblue (left) and Quinn Nordin at Michigan Stadium. (Korbluekicking.com photo)

Kornblue remained close. 

He saw Nordin enter U-M at 17 and redshirt behind an older scholarship kicker; blast his way into the box score with a 55-yard field goal vs. Florida in his college debut; score as many as 17 points in a single game; and drill a career-long 57-yarder against Alabama in the 2020 Citrus Bowl. 

He also saw Nordin fall ill and lose his starter’s role as a sophomore; struggle through a junior season delayed, then shortened by COVID and impacted by an opt-out by long snapper Cameron Cheeseman, a 2021 Washington draft pick; before missing his final three career field goal tries in a win requiring overtime at Rutgers.

Through it all, Kornblue watched how Nordin handled it all.

“It was not by any means a clear, ideal college career for (Quinn). He had a lot of ups and downs throughout,” says Kornblue, who resumed work with Nordin almost immediately after the 2020 season ended. “I think he’s also matured a lot over the years. You come into college as a 17-, 18-year old, you’ve still got some growing up and learning to do. 

“I’ve seen it just especially over the four months he (was) down here in Florida. I’ve just seen a difference in him in growth off the field and how he conducts himself.”

Counseling as much as coaching, Kornblue employs practices learned from the work of Dr. Bob Rotella, sports psychologist to stars like LeBron James and Rory McIroy. In Nordin, Kornblue recognized there was plenty of distance in the driver. But the swing needed control, by the mind more than the leg.

“Yes, there were some technical things that I corrected with Quinn and adjusted, but a lot of it was just getting (him) comfortable again and getting that confidence back,” Kornblue explains. “Having him really just be on his own schedule of however his body was feeling and what was working the best to kind of get him into a groove again. 

“Just those little, tiny things make a big difference when you’re talking about a guy of that level. It’s not big, monumental changes of technique.”

The little things included shorter kicks.

“In the past I think (Quinn) would get in the habit of trying to impress too much or hit the ball too hard just trying to hit his monster kick,” Nordin explains.“Very rarely would we back it up (for) long-range kicks. It was just short range, building that confidence and routine of just hitting that same ball every time.

“By the time he hit his Pro Day, he was hitting a groove that was kind of the Quinn that he and I know he can be.”

Kornblue scripted the late-March Pro Day, where the lone NFL special teams coordinator in attendance was New England’s Cam Achord. 

“When you go watch him, you can see the leg speed and the leg power that he generates,” Achord told reporters earlier this month.

“Quinn felt really comfortable with Cam and Joe Houston, the (Patriots) assistant there,” Kornblue says. “They were really showing the most interest from day one and kind of stayed on him in terms of showing that interest. It just was the right fit.”

Still, 14-year vet Nick Folk, who nailed 40-of-45 field goals in 23 games for the Pats in 2019-20, had just re-signed with the team a day earlier. Also under contract, Roberto Aguayo, a second-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2016, was a practice squad pickup in December.

Nevertheless, nearly a week after only one kicker — Florida’s Evan McPherson — was drafted, Nordin  agreed to join New England. Asked why on Thursday, he mentioned the “opportunity to learn and get better” under “wonderful coaches.”

Currently, Nordin is the lone undrafted rookie on the Patriots, who’ve had at least one college free agent on their Opening Day roster for 17 straight seasons. 

Thus far, at least in media-accessible OTA’s, Nordin has outshined Aguayo. But he’s yet to kick alongside Folk, who after skipping the spring’s voluntary phase should be present on Monday at mandatory mini-camp.

Ninety days until the season kicks off, Nordin remains a long shot. Nonetheless, by processing the finer points from Kornblue and his new kicking coaches, he’s shown that he can make it from a long way out.  

“I think Quinn’s made a lot (of progress), Belichick said recently, noting Nordin’s improvement under Houston and Achord. “Joe and Cam have spent a lot of time with him going all the way back to rookie minicamp and in terms of working with his technique and his kicking mechanics, and he’s definitely made some changes, I’d say, for the better. 

“And so, we’ll see where all that goes. But he’s doing well and as I said, he’s continuing to improve, so we’ll see where that takes us here.”

“It’s going to be exciting to see, because anybody who has ever seen him kick, they walk away kind of google eyed because he’s at a whole other level of talent and potential,” says Kornblue. “And he’s still getting better, and he knows that.”

Graham stresses the need for the young kicker to keep holding himself accountable. And when Belichick does the same, don’t take it the wrong way.

“You can’t take anything personal,” he says. “The last kick ends (and) the next kick begins the moment the ball leaves your foot. You have to do whatever gets you to your process.”

Particularly when the process allows you to strike the ball as mightily as Quinn Nordin.

“If he does it consistently,” Graham says. “He’ll keep turning heads.”

As a postscript, Quinn Nordin continued to kick well alongside Nick Folk during the Patriots Minicamp, June 14-16. A day after Minicamp concluded, Roberto Aguayo was released by the team.

Our red-hot Chili Pepper

Meet the newest member of our family, Chili Pepper.

By Bob Socci

A month has passed since I wrote about the loss of our venerable cat, Leo, prompting many to reach out with comforting thoughts and pet stories of their own. 

Hearing from others who’ve experienced the rewards of relationships with the animals we love and the hurt of having to say ‘goodbye’ to them was deeply touching.

Some, I thanked individually. Some, I now thank collectively. 

All, I owe at least that much and more, including best wishes to you and yours and an update on me and mine. 

Before our kids’ tears had dried the night Leo was put down, they began asking if we could adopt again.  

“A kitten,” our 10-year old specified. 

He thought of Leo as his one, true friend. And in his mind, rescuing a kitty, rather than an older cat, would give him a better chance of forging a similar bond.

My wife, Monique, and I agreed. She started a search on-line and soon enough we were all sorting through profiles and pictures at www.petfinder.com.

The process didn’t take long. By the following week, we were filing applications, listing references and even filming a video to prove ourselves capable of providing a loving and caring home. 

We made sure to feature cameos by Obi the dog and Little Kitty. With their help, we made a convincing case. We quickly learned that our two pets were about to become big brother and sister to a third.

Like Obi, an Alabaman rescued at the outset of the pandemic, our new cat would arrive out of the South. Fittingly, hailing from good ole Rocky Top Tennessee, he was – is – an orange tabby.

He’d been saved by the Whiskers Fund animal rescue service in Soddy Daisy, Tenn., a town just north of Chattanooga. It was operated by a couple of close friends who previously worked in veterinary clinics before changing careers.

One now works as a flight attendant. When not flying on the clock, she flies standby, delivering cats and dogs to foster and adopting families. 

Talk about, ‘No days off!’

Obi and Chili, our rescue pup and kitty, have totally bonded.

In the early morning of Monday, May 10, she drove more than 130 miles to Atlanta and checked into Hartsfield-Jackson airport with a kitty carrier and bag of supplies. 

Expecting a late-afternoon touchdown in Boston, I planned to swing by Logan to meet her after my appointment to see an orthopedist in the city. I had a noon consult following a recent knee injury.

My visit was quicker than anticipated, so I went for a walk and some lunch to eat up some time. 

But just as I stepped into a Beacon Hill pizzeria, my phone buzzed. Flights out of Atlanta were oversold more than usual, so our new kitty and his guardian angel couldn’t get on the first plane. 

Or the second. Or, as I’d see in subsequent texts, the third or the fourth.

Obviously, plans changed. I went home and headed to our neighborhood elementary school to get the kids. They left the house that day thinking they’d return to a new kitten. Instead, they were told we wouldn’t see the kitty, at the earliest, until late that night.

Thankfully, they took Dad’s explanation in stride on the walk home, where snacks, a virtual Taekwondo class and Minecraft occupied their attention. Meanwhile, I kept receiving updates from Atlanta.

Options narrowed. Either the cat was coming on the last flight out, landing around 10 p.m., or sometime – fingers crossed – in the a.m. Luckily, an 8 o’clock notification brought good news. 

Kitty and caretaker were aboard a plane bound for Boston. But first, they’d be slightly delayed.

Keeping tabs on the flight’s status, I left for Logan a little after 10 and pulled up to the curb outside Terminal A on the ‘Departures’ level. A few other cars were already parked in front of me. 

With a classic rock station playing from satellite radio, I waited and watched for someone I’d never seen before to show up with our new pet, while also keeping an eye out for authorities who might tell me to take my car out of park and beat it. 

The wait continued, long enough to hear a second song from both Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. Sitting in the darkness, shifting my eyes between the terminal exits and my rear and sideview mirrors, seemed like a stakeout. Well, at least, what I’d seen of so many in the movies. 

Finally, passengers rolling their luggage emerged from the airport. After all but a couple of cars pulled away, a woman toting a padded carrier smilingly approached my vehicle.

Relieved, we shared a laugh over the long adventure of a day, then carefully transferred the kitty to my car.

After reviewing a checklist covering vaccinations, general care and nutrition, I drove away, leaving the indefatigable good samaritan behind waiting on a ride to Allston to deliver two other cats.

Ten minutes or so later, I pulled into our driveway. Kitty and I were greeted at the door. Although our 9-year old couldn’t stay awake, our son was still up, at his mom’s side.

For him, as well as our daughter the following dawn, it was love at first sight.

When Obi is away at doggy daycare, Chili keeps me company in my home office.

Weeks later, as Monique wrote about on her own blog, that love lingers. The kitten is very much at home in our house and now goes by the name, Chili Pepper. 

And, as Monique mentions, a number of other monikers.

While none of my sports-inspired suggestions — such as, given the cat’s coloring, Rusty (Staub) or, based on his Volunteer-State background, Ernie (Grunfeld) — met approval, it’s just as well.

For one thing, as well as the former University of Tennessee star of “The Ernie and Bernie (King) Show” fame could pass and shoot, Chili’s quickness is more akin to Allen Iverson off the crossover; vertical more on the scale of Spud Webb; and appetite about the size of Shaquille O’Neal.

All combined with boundless energy, an insatiable curiosity and a steadfast refusal to accept no! for an answer, especially when determined to join us for dinner — on the dining table.

Monique cites the medical benefits of owning animals. Like lower blood pressure and less anxiety.

Me, I think this little bouncy blend of orange and white stripes puts such scientific theory to test at times.

Good thing my knee checked out okay at the doctor’s. In case I have to find my stress relief in exercise.

Our kids asked for a kitten.

We all got what they wanted.

A wonderful life

Cat people? Dog people? In our family, including Leo (left) and Obi, we’re both.

 

Even the smallest feline is a masterpiece of nature.” – Leo(nardo) da Vinci

By Bob Socci

Throughout our first dozen years of marriage, I drew a pretty big distinction between my wife and me.

“I’m a dog person,” I clarified, whenever the subject of pets came up in conversation with other couples.  “Monique is the cat person.”

Truth is, I wasn’t being honest with them. Or myself. 

This I’ve realized, more and more in recent days, since bringing our elderly cat Leo, a part of our lives as long as I’ve lived in the Boston area, to the vet’s three times in less than a week.

When Mo and I moved here in 2008, still months away from our wedding day and a couple of years away from the birth of our first child, we were eager to start a family. 

At the time our apartment building was feline-friendly. But unfortunately, canines were unwelcome. So when Mo eventually stopped by the Quincy Animal Shelter, she stuck to the cats’ section only. 

That’s where she found Leo wearing a gray-and-white tuxedo of smooth, soft shorthair. Mo was told that Leo had been brought there by some teenagers. They’d been outside a convenience store when a car pulled into the parking lot and a stranger randomly handed them a cat before driving away. Thankfully, they thought enough to take Leo to the shelter.

Whatever life he’d led to that point and however unsettling his experience had been, Leo was remarkably chill. Instantly, he and Mo bonded.

Before leaving, she asked about another kitten being caged separately nearby. It was an enormous and fluffy, black-and-white Maine Coon. Shelter staff cautioned her that this one failed to get along with others. Well, except for the little guy several years his elder; Leo.

Instead of one rescue, we ended up with two. 

Raffy immediately became our constant source of alternating angst and comic relief, as a clumsy bundle of rambunctiousness. Leo was his dainty complement, still playful but always with aplomb; a Bud Abbott to Raf’s Lou Costello.     

For me, having gone from stages of childhood through adolescence living with Sandy the Collie, Jed the Doberman-Shepherd mix and Chelsea the Shorthaired Pointer, my new roommates took getting used to. 

Camping out on my desk as I tried to work, often resting their heads on my keyboard. Planting themselves between my coffee and me, right in the middle of the Sunday sports section. Chasing one another in the dark of night, converting our two-bedroom apartment into the Calgary Stampede.

That was the relatively easy stuff to deal with. Then there were the incidents I barely got over.

Like the time Raf somehow knocked a framed poster of Miles Davis off the wall, crashing it to the floor amid shards of broken glass. And the times — emphasis on the plural — both cats ignored the scratching posts we bought and instead dug their claws into our leather furniture. Years later, albeit under slip covers, those scars remain.

But so too do amazing memories. Especially of the kitties and our kids.

In July 2009 we moved into our first house. Less than a year later, we welcomed our baby boy. Eighteen months after his birth, a sister was born.

In each case, I was charged with the advance work before mother and child came home, grabbing a swaddle cloth from the hospital and allowing Leo and Raffy to sniff it, so they’d know the scent of our new addition.

Kids and cats became inseparable. Today as I look back, every photo or video seems to feature either one or both cats and either of one or both kids from those formative years when our house became our home. 

While little Leo remained his savvy, steady self, big Raf exerted his mischievous influence. As if it were yesterday, I still laugh at the look of guilty pleasure on el gato grande and our little boy when I found them rummaging through some bedroom clothing bins. Both sitting atop piles of socks and underwear on the floor.

Raffy (left) was such a big presence and, sometimes, naughty influence in our kids’ lives.

Sadly, within a few more years, Raffy’s huge heart gave out. We lost him while rushing him on a Sunday morning to the animal hospital in Weymouth. As much as the kids hurt, having Leo to hold and hug helped to ease their pain. 

Before long, Mo revisited the QAS and adopted another kitten. With the kids unable to agree on a name, we simply called her, ‘Little Kitty.’ Unfortunately, she would need time to overcome her skittishness from a prior life as a stray on the street. Little Kitty didn’t quite yet know how to give back the affection she was getting.

Therefore, the kids grew more strongly and deeply attached to Leo. Particularly our son. Especially upon moving into a new home in the summer of 2019. 

By then our eldest learned of his diagnosis on the autism spectrum, while struggling daily to socialize with peers. Occasional bullying episodes in school and summer camp only added to his stress. Always and unfailingly, he found comfort in Leo by his side. 

Really, both kids did as they tried to adapt to our new surroundings. They started sleeping together in our guest room. And every night, our bunny-like Leo nestled between them to make it three’s company.

Months later, COVID-19 came along. Schooling switched on-line, we rarely left home and the relationship between children and pets became more important than ever. 

That’s when and why Mo and I decided to add a pandemic pup to the family. Our search eventually led us to Hartford to pick up an adorable rescue from Alabama. The kids named him, Obi; short for Obi Wan Kenobi. 

Meanwhile, our Yoda-like Leo, a sage 16-year old, was slowing down considerably. The grace in his gait was gone. He climbed stairs more slowly and seemed to rest more regularly. 

Not surprisingly, Leo rarely had the energy or desire to engage our playful pup. Still, he managed to out alpha the younger, bigger, stronger mix of Husky and a handful of other breeds that turned up in Obi’s ‘doggy DNA’ test. Leo quickly commandeered the dog’s crate and accompanying bed, announcing himself king of the KONG©.

Leo, taking over the dog’s bed, asserting and Obi respecting seniority.

And as long as he got his cream in the morning and wet food in the afternoon, Leo was content. At night, he was happiest when cuddling — sometimes even burrowing under the comforter — with his buddy, our boy.

Our daughter was always around to fill any gaps in affection. She took over daily cat feeding duties, clung to Leo while reading a favorite book and stroked his fur as he crouched atop a bedroom radiator cover.  

Leo never lacked love. Giving it, or receiving it.  

But increasingly of late, he lacked his once hearty appetite. 

About two weeks ago, just as a fully-vaccinated Monique and the kids left home during school vacation to visit relatives in Guatemala, Leo’s condition changed considerably. 

His thirst was unquenchable, no matter how long he licked water from a bowl, sink or bathtub. His weight dropped drastically, as he repeatedly rejected any morsel of tuna or other Temptation.

Up until then, Mo, the doctor in our house, handled calls to the vet. Now it was on me. I got Leo an appointment and drove him to the VCA Quincy. They kept him for the day to run tests and I picked him up around 8 p.m. 

The next afternoon, the doctor called. Leo was in kidney failure. His prognosis was dire.

With few options to weigh, I worried mainly about keeping Leo alive long enough for Mo and the kids to return, but not at the expense of him suffering. The vet suggested administering fluids subcutaneously for a few days and gauging Leo’s response.

I returned to the VCA, where very caring nurses demonstrated the treatment Leo would need at home. 

“Pinch the fur with your thumb and index finger to create a ‘little tent’ in which to insert the needle,” they said. “Open the flow of saline solution and give him 100 milliliters at a time. Twice daily. Twelve hours apart.” 

With that, they handed me a full IV bag and a bag full of needles.  

The next afternoon, there were some small signs of encouragement. Leo seemed to be moving better. He even took a few bites of food. It was Thursday and Mo and the kids were due back late Saturday. I was confident they’d get to see him. But understood it might be long enough only to say goodbye. 

After they returned, everyone doted on Leo all day Sunday; looking, praying for signs of progress. By nightfall, our only choice was pretty obvious to Mo and me. We had to do what was best for Leo.

On Monday morning, I called the vet’s office at 9 a.m., sharp. We set an appointment for 3:40 in the afternoon. The vet would evaluate Leo at least one more time and let us know where we could go from there. 

When the time came, the kids loaded into my car. I placed Leo in his carrier on the seat between them. Our son asked if he could take Leo out, and hold him during the ride.

“Of course,” I said, swallowing my short reply. 

Upon arrival, an assistant met us at the car to bring Leo inside for his exam. Minutes later, the vet called with news of a worst fear realized. He kindly and compassionately talked me through the process to soon follow. 

The side door of the building opened and the kids and I walked inside a small exam room. The vet then gently lifted Leo onto a table, which was covered by a New York Yankees blanket, of all things. I tried to crack a light-hearted line about it, if only to momentarily delay a dad’s heaviest duty — consoling his children as they confront the heartache of lasting loss. 

The next two minutes will stay with the kids and me. Suffice to say, it was hard. 

It’s only gotten harder. And it’s been hardest on our son. 

As we’ve talked the past couple of days, I’ve discussed my own similar loss as a teenager, when my dog Jed had to be put down.

In sorrow, I stress, we can also find joy. The thought of losing Jed still makes me sad decades later. But the years’ worth of memories of my life with Jed always makes me happy. 

Someday soon, as far off as it seems right now, we will all feel that way about Leo. 

We gave him a wonderful life, and he gave us the same.

How Julian Edelman helped change a Foxborough narrative, forever.

Photo credit: Keith Nordstrom

The following originally appeared on http://www.985thesportshub.com on April 14, 2021.

By Bob Socci

Late Monday afternoon, as word of Julian Edelman’s release and subsequent retirement announcement launched an unending string of tributes and ongoing debate about Hall of Fame worthiness into the Twitter sphere, I put my iPhone down and started scrolling through the timeline of the past eight years.

Why eight, and not the dozen since the Patriots drafted Edelman in 2009? 

Personally, that’s how long I was privileged to describe (well, try to describe) his play on radio. More importantly, it’s a period that begins at a pivotal juncture, when Julian drastically altered his individual narrative and served to silence prevailing talking points about his team.

Think about where he, the team and we all were a week into the 2013 season, as questions about the Pats were amplified and criticisms sharpened over airwaves and in print.

Wes Welker, whose acrimonious exit from Foxborough had become daily fodder for local sports talk callers and hosts alike, was coming off nine catches and two touchdowns in his Denver debut. Meanwhile, Danny Amendola, signed as Welker’s presumed replacement to a five-year, $31 million deal, despite an injury-plagued past, was hurt again, having torn a groin muscle in Buffalo.

Eight weeks in, the backlash over one free agent’s departure and another’s arrival became even more embittered. Welker’s nine touchdowns in the Broncos’ record-setting offense had already tied a career-high. At the same time, Amendola’s 2013 games missed equaled his games played.

“It’s been a total failure,” one prominent radio voice declared, his words echoed by many others. Including his co-host, who proclaimed, “The Patriots are getting their asses kicked on this one.”

Concurrent with the Welker-Amendola storyline was another widely-expressed opinion, locally and nationally. Losses in consecutive postseasons to Baltimore (twice), the Jets and Giants led many in football’s chattering class to refer to — insult — the Pats as a “finesse team.” 

For many, that label still stuck well into 2013.  

Which is when it became clear that Edelman was beginning a mid-career breakthrough that would help prove such suggestions libelous and eventually render the Welker lament moot.

Until then, Edelman had gone from ex-college quarterback picked in the 7th round to instant dynamo on special teams to promising Welker understudy on offense.  A feel-good journey, sure. A “hell of a story,” not yet.

Edelman had entered that April a free agent, after his 2012 campaign was cut short by a broken foot, only to re-sign with the Patriots on a one-year deal. At a maximum value of slightly more than $1 million, their agreement featured a split-salary clause to insulate the team in case of further injury. After all, Julian had missed 16 of 64 regular-season games to date. 

The Patriots got more than their money’s worth. As they would usually get from a guy who gave them everything he could give.

In 2013, Edelman caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards. His six TD’s included two in New England’s largest regular-season comeback ever, a Sunday-night victory over Welker’s Broncos. 

Following another unrequited flirtation with free agency in 2014, he again re-upped with the Pats. What continued was one of the greatest six-season stretches by a receiver in Patriots history. What followed was one of the greatest postseason runs by a receiver in NFL history.

The latter alone, leaving him behind only Jerry Rice in playoff receptions and receiving yards — need one say more? — is why Edelman merits consideration for Canton. Never mind the naysayers who quickly dismiss the notion. Especially those who wrongly see Edelman as a slot-receiving hybrid of Welker-Amendola or only pass prompt judgement off statistics and accolades.

As Edelman’s biographer Tom E. Curran says, you can’t tell the history of the NFL without Edelman. A big reason why is the starring role Julian played in the second decade of football’s greatest dynasty.

“One of the great success stories in our franchise’s history,” is how Robert Kraft characterized Edelman on Monday. If a presenter is ever allowed to make Edelman’s case to the Hall’s electors, evidentiary exhibits A & B should be the full testimonials from Kraft and Bill Belichick. 

In Belichick’s statement, he described Edelman as “the quintessential throwback player. He could, and did, do everything – catch, run, throw, block, return, cover and tackle – all with an edge and attitude that would not allow him to fail under any circumstance. Julian Edelman is the ultimate competitor and it was a privilege to coach him.”

Everything, indeed.

Edelman covered kicks. He returned punts, averaging 11.2 yards and totaling four scores. He completed passes — 7-of-8 overall, two for TD’s.  

The first is forever etched into memory from the 2014 AFC Divisional playoffs. That was his strike to Amendola, a 51-yard dagger against big, bad Baltimore in a comeback win that revealed the Pats’ true heart and shredded some of the silliness about them being “soft.” 

Edelman even blitzed passers and covered receivers.

When the secondary was shorthanded late in 2011, Belichick gave him a defensive directive. Edelman eventually split snaps in the AFC Championship win over the Ravens — 27 on offense and 27 on defense. Two weeks later, in Super Bowl XLVI, he was again aligned in the defensive backfield.

In the years to come, starting mostly in 2013, it’s what Edelman did to defensive backs that left his most indelible marks. On his stat line, sure. On the game’s grandest stage, absolutely.

Sticking to Edelman, when healthy, was a near impossible ask. See him step, stop and spin free for the game-winning score against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. Or watch him probe and exploit the openings in the Rams’ defense en route to his 10-catch, 141-yard exception to an otherwise offensive struggle in Super Bowl LIII.

If somehow you could stay with him, out-competing Julian was an entirely different matter. The world got to witness that truth in Super Bowl LI, during a split-second battle royale over a tipped ball between Edelman and three Falcons. 

Uncanny reaction. Incredible concentration. Undeniable want-to. Combine them all and you come up with ‘The Catch,’ one of the most iconic plays in football history.

But as vividly as I see it unfold again right now, as I type — the ball plummeting off the right leg of Robert Alford and right arm of Ricardo Allen before Edelman squeezes it tight — so many other highlights flash by.

Stopping, starting, darting left, then dashing right, breaking ankles in the process, on a punt return. Catching a throw across the middle in front of oncoming defenders and instantly ducking to fold himself into the turf. 

And of course, gritting his way through a painful fourth quarter of the Kansas City game two years ago on a weakening knee that would ultimately become one of “the wheels (to) fall off.” Or grimacing his way past reporters after an earlier playoff meeting with the Chiefs, while heading for an x-ray on the foot he’d broken back in Week 10 of 2015. 

Finesse, my ass. 

Broken feet. Broken ribs. Broken knee. But never a broken spirit. 

Edelman’s competitiveness, like his fearlessness and toughness, have often been mentioned in his teammates’ social media messages the past few days. Some, such as Kraft and Tom Brady, cited Edelman’s personal growth.

It’s a subject that arose during a conversation with Matthew Slater a couple of training camps ago.  We were discussing a moment captured by NFL Films in the celebratory aftermath of Super Bowl LIII.

Slater and Edelman had wrapped their arms around one another. In mid hug, Slater learns of Edelman’s Most Valuable Player honors and tightens his grip before becoming more emotional. 

From 3 Games to Glory VI

A private moment made public, to me, it symbolizes something more significant than success in sport. 

One Black, the other White. One abstains from social media, the other is all over it. And while one is devoutly Christian, the other is Jewish; having increasingly and publicly embraced his faith and heritage. In recent years, Julian’s served as a source of pride, strength and enlightenment after the horrific mass shootings at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and repulsive anti-Semitic speech by other pro athletes. 

“Love is a tenet of my faith, of Julian’s faith, of a lot of people on this team and how we try to live our lives,” Slater told me in August, 2019. “In love you can find common ground. Certainly we have differences, but that love and respect for one another brings us together. 

“I love that guy like a brother. We’ve been through a lot together. They call us the odd couple, but for whatever reason it works.”

Sadly, Slater and Edelman won’t get to experience one more season as teammates. Julian’s knee no longer works well enough. 

And unfortunately, football is too unforgiving to — like other sports — allow for farewell tours. 

Instead of a pregame ceremony replete with a rocking chair and framed jersey, it’s a failed physical, an update to the transaction wire and announcement that one has played — not will play — his final game.

On Monday, we learned Edelman’s last game was last Oct. 25 against his boyhood favorites, the 49ers. His was a one-catch performance in a 33-6 loss.

Thinking back to an afternoon that seemed to offer little for Pats’ fans to savor, I picked my phone back up to search the camera roll. It’s habit — ritual, actually — for me to take a pregame walk, taking pictures along my route.

On this day, I strolled along the concourse and stopped at the Veteran’s Day memorial in the last row of the North end zone seats to capture a shot of the view. Six championship banners — three of which Edelman helped earn — help form the backdrop.

In between them and the foreground I stand on is a tiny, somewhat blurry figure, right where he usually is hours before kickoff in a mostly vacant stadium. 

He wears a blue ball cap and red, hooded sweatshirt, its sleeves cut off at the elbows. A white towel hangs from the right side of the waistband to his gray sweatpants. 

And, of course, he has his red gloves on.  The red gloves that are every bit his trademark as the yellow Kent State t-shirt he dons for practices and overgrown beard he wears most Januarys.  

Julian Edelman stands still in the photo. But I can picture him. One after another. Both hands, then one hand. Catching pass after pass, as part of a precise routine he’s repeated umpteen times.

This is this kind of example, no doubt, Kraft has in mind when he says, “No one was more committed to his craft and honing his skills than Jules.” And one of many reasons Edelman engineered a “professional trajectory” and enjoyed “longevity” that Belichick classifies as “historic.”

That his ascendance occurred after Welker left the team as it’s all-time leader in receptions and before Amendola became known as “Playoff Danny,” makes Edelman more than an all-time great Patriot.

It makes him an all-important Patriot.

He, as much as anyone in the past eight years, helped change how others view and talk about football in Foxborough, forever.

A time for both words and actions

By Bob Socci


The two brothers look out from the boxes on the computer screen; Devin at a family home in New Jersey and Jason at his house near Foxborough. 

We are a minute or two away from spending the better part of the next hour with an internet audience of Patriots season ticket members.  There is time to congratulate the McCourty twins on their Muhammed Ali Sports Humanitarian Award nomination.  Though not nearly enough to recite all of their tireless work on behalf of others to earn such recognition.  

Raising money and awareness to combat disease.  Showing up regularly to an inclusive sports program for children with special needs.  Paying for computers to keep underprivileged kids connected to schools amid a pandemic.  Lobbying to increase educational resources in underfunded areas.  And as part of the Players Coalition, speaking out for criminal justice reform. 

They are about to engage virtually in a mostly light-hearted back-and-forth on this Thursday afternoon.   But before we begin, I am struck by a troubling reality: so much — too much — of what Ali sought to affect a lifetime ago remains unchanged.  

More than simply being considered for an award in honor of the champ, Devin and Jason are waging much of the same fight in the struggle for social justice.

So is Lt. Col. Robert Green, USMC (ret), who fought for our country during multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

Beforehand, he was a defensive back at the Naval Academy, graduating in the Class of 1997.  Afterward, he returned to Annapolis as an assistant coach.  

Green, who goes by R.B., is a man of courage and character.  You know so because he, himself, never has to say so.  What you see and hear from him often are an easy smile and infectious laugh.  

But now, in the nation Green has defended as an African-American son of Atlanta, this is no time for laughter.  He takes to social media and sends a five-Tweet thread from his heart into this follower’s soul.  

Green’s words are powerful.  I read and re-read them, scrolling up and down my Saturday timeline.  I will return to them on Sunday.  And again on Monday.

But first it is Friday.   

I am running on the Neponset River Greenway and a small rainbow-colored ball is rolling toward me.  Close behind it, a tiny girl toddles alongside her mother.  She points to me, just as I stop and pause the podcast playing from my iPhone.

“Ball,” she says.  

I smile a smile she can’t see behind the mask I’m wearing.  Yet, her mother still senses it and returns the smile.  I reach down and gently nudge the ball back to the little girl before restarting my run.  

No more than a couple of steps forward, I’m pulled back by the peripheral reappearance of the ball.  She has rolled it again in my direction.  Only I didn’t realize it in time, so now the rainbow-colored ball has gone past me.  

Again I stop.  And once more there is a momentary connection between mother and me.  This time with laughter.  Mom kindly signals that she will get the ball and waves me on.  We wish each other well and go our separate ways.

For the rest of my run, the podcast plays.  But I’m not really listening.  My thoughts are on that little girl. 

They still are today.  

I picture her and my own daughter at the same stage.  Both adorable; alike in many ways.  But different as black and white; as they will be seen and judged in this life where looks really do matter.    

Until the someday those of us who know how wrong that is make things right.

The McCourtys and Green are doing their part.  Devin and Jason have turned their NFL profiles into platforms to correct inequities inherent from classrooms to courtrooms.  Green is molding young leaders who will — as he did — defend a nation founded on the premise that we are each endowed with certain unalienable rights; while striving to see that such promise is finally fulfilled.

It’s not special treatment they seek.  It’s equal treatment.

Regarding my part, I know more needs to be said and done.  

But what more should I say?  What more can I do?  While I will never know what it’s like to be a person of color, I have always known that I can never speak for people of color.  

I decide to start by borrowing the words of another white man making his living in the football world.  He is Colts head coach Frank Reich. 

“Racism is vile, deplorable, detestable.  There’s no form of it that is acceptable and in no way can it be justified,” he says, adding to an official team statement.  “Our black community has bore the brunt of this injustice for far too long.”

I will continue my search for answers, so long as we all have reason to ask why there is no justice for all.   

Now I must leave for a local vigil, where I will stand in silence for three minutes and pray for our country.  That her wounds will be healed.

And that little boys and girls everywhere can chase — and actually catch — rainbows in an America as it was originally advertised.  

Where all men and women aren’t just created equal; they’re treated that way.

Dante Scarnecchia walked away on his own terms

The following was originally posted to “Socci’s Notebook” on http://www.985thesportshub.com.  During his 3 1/2 decades with the Patriots, Dante Scarnecchia proved to be more than one of “the very best assistant coaches ever.”  He showed that one could coach a physically demanding position in a violent game with an uncompromising toughness, all while remaining unfailingly humble and kind.   
 

 

By Bob Socci

Shortly after returning from his first retirement to resume a three-decades-long career coaching in New England, Dante Scarnecchia sat in the television studio beneath the East stands of Gillette Stadium.

Hardly one to ever seek any special attention, much less before a camera lens, Scarnecchia agreed to discuss why he stepped aside two years earlier and what led him to rejoin Bill Belichick’s staff full-time in the spring of 2016.

What’s resonated ever since, however, is something he said about the period in-between, when Scarnecchia did his once-and-again boss a solid by scouting offensive line prospects for the NFL Draft.  Sharing his philosophy from that experience, Dante kept it as uncomplicated as the plain, gray t-shirt he was wearing.

“To me the bottom line is, ‘Is this a guy you’d really like to be around, a guy you’d really like to coach?’” Scarnecchia explained midway through the conversation, which is still available at Patriots.com. “I think one of the great things you can offer to someone who asks for your opinion of a player’s ability is, ‘I really like this guy. I really like this player and I like what he brings to the table and I’d like to see him on the team.’ Or not.

“I think that’s the way you have to approach it. And I think that pretty much nails it down.”

As simple as that from the straightforward Scarnecchia, who paired a proverbial hammer with his coach’s whistle and always seemed to strike the nail on the head. On practice fields. In meeting rooms. During interactions with others.

On Tuesday we learned that Scarnecchia can now put those tools of his trade away. He is retiring little more than two weeks before his 72nd birthday and following 36 seasons in the NFL.

All but two of those were devoted to the Patriots, under five head coaches and on five Super Bowl-winning staffs.  And for most of them, the diminutive Scarnecchia stood tallest among giants, as one of the game’s best offensive line coaches.

Here at home, the team’s press release announcing Scarnecchia’s retirement included statements by Belichick and owner Robert Kraft. Belichick regarded him “among the very best assistant coaches ever,” while Kraft recognized “his contributions to our team and to the game of football [as] unprecedented over the last four decades.” Meanwhile, numerous Patriots paid their own tributes across social media.

Outside of New England, Scarnecchia earned equal measures of respect. I know so, because I’ve heard so.

Seven years ago before becoming part of the Pats’ radio broadcasts, I reached out to one of the wisest football men I’ve ever met, former Packers general manager Ron Wolf. I’d known him from my previous stint at the Naval Academy and valued his advice.

“Get to know the offensive line coach there,” suggested Wolf, who, like Scarnecchia, speaks in no uncertain terms. “He’s as good as there is.”

And several weeks ago on The Gridiron and Beyond, I asked Paul Alexander, who mentored NFL offensive lines for a quarter-century, about his coaching contemporary.

Alexander alluded to the Patriots’ history of often drafting linemen in mid-to-later rounds and relative frugality regarding free agents. All while retaining worth as a perennial playoff team.

“They value that position as something that can be coached, something that can be developed,” Alexander noted. “You can’t do that unless you have an outstanding offensive line coach. And they do. They know that [Dante] can take what’s given to him and make it work. To me, of all the great things you can say about him, that’s the greatest.”

Scarnecchia did it with the ex-college wrestler, who developed into a rock-solid guard and two-time champion. With the left tackle whose punch exceeded his reach, whose arms were seen short for the position yet fit perfectly into the sleeves of a Patriots Hall of Fame jacket. And with the most recent Super Bowl winner, whose center went undrafted, whose right guard was schooled in the triple-option, and whose left tackle was essentially written off by his previous team.

Provided one was smart, tough and athletic; determined to work hard; and willing to be coached hard; Dante could make it work.

A student of military history whose foray into college coaching coincided with his time as a Marine Corps reservist in the early 1970s, he commanded attention and respect on the field. And demanded excellence.

In his biography, My Life On The Line, ex-Patriots lineman Ryan O’Callaghan told of his rookie indoctrination in 2006. Right out of Cal, he had to overcome a huge learning curve to contest for a starting job in place of injured Nick Kaczur.

“Scar was the offensive line coach for the Patriots when I got there,” O’Callaghan explained. “He’d helped keep Tom Brady upright through their Super Bowl runs, and he’d have the gig for a hundred years if he could keep that going.”

Scarnecchia got O’Callaghan going fast enough and far enough to start the season opener vs. Buffalo. On game day, the teacher summoned the pupil for a one-on-one meeting. It included film review and a parting word to the wise.

“‘If you get No. 12 hurt,’ he said to me in the moments before the game,” O’Callaghan remembered, “‘It’s your ass.’”

But as much as Scarnecchia unyieldingly demanded from his players, he gave what he got.

They were conditioned to play fast at the game’s highest level. Yet nobody was in better shape than their coach. Watching training camps through the years, it was common to see Scarnecchia out front of the offense when running penalty laps; charging from his 60’s into his 70’s.

It was no different with other aspects of their professional and personal being. Scarnecchia expected total commitment from them. In return, they received the same from him.

It’s something O’Callaghan conveys as well in the book he co-authored with Cyd Zeigler, detailing his struggles associated with leading a closeted life as a gay man in the NFL.

“He genuinely cared about his players. He was interested in us as people, in our personal lives, and in what made us tick,” O’Callaghan writes. “He had a house on Narragansett on the coast of Rhode Island, and he’d invite linemen there just to spend time with him and his wife and build a deeper relationship.

“I actually felt a sense of loss by not being able to share who I really was with Scar. Looking back at it now, I probably could have.”

If there’s anywhere anyone should feel free to be their true selves, it’s around someone like him — his own man.

Truth is, as I wrote on Twitter Tuesday night, there can’t be a better example in football of someone who combines toughness with kindness.

In an age of blathering bluster, Dante Scarnecchia coached one of the most physically intense positions in a violent sport without an ounce of false bravado. He’s always carried himself humbly, treating others — including those of us outside the team’s inner circle — with dignity and respect.

Surely, he’ll be missed after bringing so much to the table.

The kind of guy we’ve all been lucky to have around — a renaissance man; a gentleman; a husband, father and grandfather — can now dedicate more of himself to other interests and more important loves than football.

Wish him the best. He’s earned it.

Anticipating the unknown

As the 2019 season wound down and speculation about Tom Brady’s future ramped up, I spent a lot of time wondering how a team broadcaster should appropriately address the uncertainty surrounding one of the game’s greatest stars.

By Bob Socci

There’s an unwritten rule that sometimes goes unheeded when the doors to the Patriots locker room are opened to media interlopers like me.  When a reporter appears engaged in a one-on-one interview, it’s incumbent on others to stand clear and wait their turn.

Time, however, is short — 45 minutes a session in season — and available players can be few.  Particularly after a loss or on the eve of a holiday.

What’s there to say that either hasn’t been said or, frankly, can be said?  Who can blame the family guys for skipping Q-and-A’s for an early exit after practice on, say, Dec. 24?

So, left standing with camera, mic or recorder and in need of sound bites, many may be left with little choice but to turn a private conversation into a group discussion.  Before you know it, scribe and subject are at the center of a crowd.

I’ve been there; an inquirer encircled.  And done that; myself a space invader.  More than I can recall or care to admit.

Then there are rare times when even a respectful distance isn’t enough to avoid overhearing a reporter and player trade questions for answers.  Though their words may go unrepeated, it still feels like a breach of etiquette.  If nothing else, a colleague has unwittingly lost the exclusive he or she was seeking.

Tom after his run into “Brady’s Corner” before the AFC Wild Card playoff vs. Tennessee.

Personally, one such instance occurred in the final days of 2019.  Locker room space was limited by a midweek swell of media.  And while my back was turned to an exchange between a veteran on the beat and a young Patriots starter, I was still within earshot of what was being said just a few steps away.

The player explained how the weekly stressful mix of expectations, his own excitement and the physical risk inherent in the NFL made sleeping difficult.

His words piqued my curiosity.  What struck a chord were the words of the reporter, totally identifying with restless nights before game days.

Laying awake late into Saturdays thinking about Sundays was something they shared.

That’s when I tuned them out, stood there and thought to myself.

“And here I thought I was the only one!”

In my case, it was really one question I kept awakening to over the course of a couple of weeks; on the eve of the regular season finale and in the overnight hours preceding the Wild Card playoff.

Seven years earlier, I’d been hired to call games for the Patriots and entrusted with responsibilities that included chronicling milestones for one of the greatest players in NFL history.

Remember, that was when there were three Lombardi Trophies showcased inside Gillette Stadium.  Outside New England, conventional thought put Peyton’s place on par with TB12 and considered Joe Cool and his four titles to still be the bar setter.

But then, to cap my second season behind the mic Tom Brady led the Pats from 10 down against the Legion of Boom, enabling Malcolm Butler to burst onto the national scene and clinch Super Bowl XLIX.  Brady had tied Montana with a fourth championship.

Two years later, Brady and the Patriots completed an even more improbable comeback, reaching overtime after trailing Atlanta, 28-3.  James White’s game-ending touchdown in Super Bowl LI resulted in No. 5.

Five-hundred yards the following February weren’t enough to make it six, which had to wait another year.  Repeatedly converting on 3rd-and-10 at Kansas City propelled the Pats to Super Bowl LIII, where a perfect pass to Rob Gronkowski set up Sony Michel for the game’s one and only touchdown.

Six titles.  Unprecedented.

To go along with all the individual milestones, including in my play-by-play experience the 400th and 500th regular-season touchdown passes of a career winding toward the end of its 20th season at the close of 2019.

And doing so, as we’ve all heard and read almost ad nauseam, with the 42-year-old quarterback — by now beyond reasonable doubt the all-time best — playing the final days of his expiring contract.

So I wondered the same question as everyone else.

“Will this be Tom Brady’s last game as a Patriot?”

And I wrestled with a follow-up uniquely my own.

“How, as the so-called voice of the team, do I handle that possibility?”

Coming up with an appropriate response to the second was made especially difficult because nobody — not even Tom — knew the answer to the first.  We still don’t.  All we really know today is that retirement seems less likely than a return to New England.

Now it should be noted that I’ve learned to rest easier during the last seven seasons, suppressing the excitement and nervousness preceding each big game better the next time than the last time.  Sleep came more quickly before Super Bowl LIII, for example, then XLIX.  Of course, Benadryl and a cup of herbal tea — yes, Bigelow for me — have had something to do with it.

Also, as my career has evolved and I’ve expressed in numerous conversations, experience has made me less reliant on scripted remarks and mostly disinterested in signature calls.

Thirteen years later, I still regret the words I’d conceived the night before Navy ended its seemingly interminable quest to finally beat Notre Dame again.  For whatever reasons in November 2007, I had an inkling the Midshipmen stood a great chance of defeating the Fighting Irish; something that hadn’t been done since 1963.

Stirring in the night inside my Michigan City, Ind. hotel room, I wrote and re-wrote words in my mind like “futility” and “frustration,” adding alliteration to what I imagined a fitting punctuation to a possible outcome.  I may have even, at one point in the wee small hours, reached for the Holiday Inn pen and pad on the night stand to jot it all down.

The following afternoon, the Mids led in the third overtime.  They needed only a stop on a two-point conversion try to prevail.  There was a dubious pass interference call on an incompletion.  Neither the game nor the series skid were quite over.  Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis opted to keep the next play on the ground.

As it developed, I called it how I saw it.

Tight end motions right to left.  (Quarterback Evan) Sharpley pulls away, hands it to Travis Thomas.

Runs it right side.  He’ll be stopped!  And so will a 43-game losing streak for Navy against Notre Dame! 

I should have left it at that, and shut up.  Already I was struggling to be heard.

But no.  With nary a beat to collect my breath, I rambled on.

After four decades plus of futility and frustration, of lopsided losses and narrow defeats for the Midshipmen, all are forgotten…

(Blah, blah, blah…how do I transition back to impromptu now that I recited the written remarks?  And who is still listening at this point, when I can barely hear myself?)

Years later, those words lost in that moment sounded in my memory whenever I was asked about my Super Bowl preparation.

“No,” I replied when others wanted to know if I knew what I’d say in the event of a Patriots win.  “The best calls are born from the emotion of the moment.”

Okay, a bit cheesy.  Still, I think, pretty good words to broadcast by.

Of course, in my case, it was impossible to foretell Malcom Butler’s interception or White’s overtime score culminating the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.  That said, I do wish I’d stopped talking sooner on Butler’s pick.  I still cringe at my sing-singing “with 20 seconds to go…” which I bellowed while being bear-hugged by our jubilant producer, Marc Cappello.

Sometimes ideas and phrases reemerge — hopefully, at the right time — after being stored in the subconscious.  Like last February, when I ended up saluting the Patriots dynasty while paying tribute to the great Gil Santos.

During my stay in Atlanta, I’d seen recaps of the Patriots’ past Super Bowl victories and heard many of Gil’s iconic calls.  Among them his exclamation at the end of Super Bowl XXXIX: “Yes, it’s a dynasty!”  On game day my walk to Mercedes-Benz Stadium brought me past a fence lined with large photos of the previous 52 Super Bowl championship rings.  The three earned by the Pats of the early 2000s prompted me to stop and snap a photo.

Later, when a missed field goal try in a two-score game set up a Brady kneel-down in the final seconds, I needed something to say.  Glancing at my notes and with the Patriots about to capture a third title in five years, I heard Gil’s voice again.  Then I used my own.

In the early 2000s they won three of four.  Now they have won three of the last five.  Yes, it’s still a dynasty!

Commemorating previous rings earned along the way to Super Bowl LIII.

Feedback I’ve since received has been mostly positive.  Probably, in part at least, because I was clear and concise.  Largely, no doubt, because of the connection my words created to the dawn of the dynasty and its late Hall of Fame voice.

But how to handle this case of a common denominator linking all six championships possibly playing for the final time as a Patriot; it was the thought that kept me up at night.

Flashbacks of unforgettable throws witnessed in my seven seasons replayed in my mind’s eye.  Kenbrell Thompkins against the Saints.  Brandon LaFell versus the Ravens.  Third-and-10, from the nine, down eight in Super Bowl LI.  Sixteen yards to Chris Hogan.  The subsequent throw to Danny Amendola for 14 on the second play of overtime.  All those 3rd-and-10’s at Kansas City.  And one last time to Gronk; over two Rams and in front of a third, for 29 yards in LIII.

Stats and milestones started streaming through my mind until I thankfully put thoughts of those to bed.  I’d need a month of broadcasts to cover them all.  Besides, what else was there to cite beyond the mention of the six championships?

An essay of sorts started to formulate as well.   I considered Brady’s regional reach, growing from the kid in a backward ball cap celebrating in New Orleans into the dad holding his daughter in one arm and raising the Lombardi Trophy with the other in Atlanta.

Certainly the situation had to be addressed, but without overstatement and independent of the daily talk-show narratives.  Neither time nor priorities providing play-by-play allow it.  Once it kicks off the game writes the story you’re supposed to tell.

Ultimately, I settled on a simple strategy for Week 17.  I would broach the topic with Scott Zolak during our open and move on.  I figured that we’d revisit Brady’s future late in the game, which would likely by then be under the Pats’ control.

We went on the air, I turned to Zo and we began by discussing the playoff ramifications of the day’s outcome.  A win would result in a bye the following week.  A loss, hard as it was to imagine, would mean a Wild Card date the next Saturday or Sunday.

Only then was it time to touch on Tom.

Today is his 285th career regular-season game as a Patriot (and) his 141st regular-season home game here at Gillette Stadium.

We also know, given the state of his contract and his age and the uncertainty regarding 2020, this could be his last.

So much for my best-laid plan.  As fate and Fitzmagic would have it, we never really had time to delve deeper into the subject.

The game remained undecided until very last play.  Ryan Fitzpatrick’s go-ahead touchdown pass left Brady just 24 seconds with which to attempt a 60th four-quarter comeback.  But when his last completion to Julian Edelman unraveled into a succession of laterals and a case of ‘fumblitis’ netting just one yard, time had expired.

The lede — let alone the intended walk-off — was buried by the shocking outcome.  Brady talk, as we would say it, had to wait.

Then I acted against my own advice.  Not only did I pen a broadcast open on paper — something I’ve done infrequently in recent years in an effort to keep things conversational — I made a few notes with the end of game in mind.

I never got to the latter.

Regarding the former, I spoke to more than the Brady topic.  After all, he had plenty of company in the class of would-be free agents.

The Patriots find themselves where frankly none of us thought they’d be, hosting the Tennessee Titans on Wild Card Weekend.  

And confronting the conventional thought that collectively they’re playing to both extend this season and sustain their dynasty amid uncertainty about the future, individually, of men who’ve long made up the heart, soul and face of this franchise, on and off the field.

From Devin McCourty to Matthew Slater to the 42-year-old quarterback taking the field tonight for his 41st career playoff game.

After Zo shared his perspective, we were drawn in a different direction.  The earlier AFC Wild Card contest was in overtime, giving us extra time to fill.  We welcomed in host Marc Bertrand and recounted Houston-Buffalo almost as much as we previewed New England-Tennessee.

Talk of Tom was tabled.

When our game eventually kicked off, two primary story lines developed around the Pats’ main vulnerabilities that revealed themselves throughout the season’s second half.  An otherwise very good defense that struggled to stop talented runners like Nick Chubb and Joe Mixon couldn’t contain Derrick Henry.  And an offense that too often floundered in the red zone again proved inefficient.

The turning point occurred late in the first half.  New England’s 1st-and-goal at the Titans’ 1-yard line led to a field goal for a 13-7 lead.  Tennessee then traveled 75 yards — all on Henry’s legs, by way of five runs and a 22-yard screen reception — in less than two minutes en route to a 14-13 edge.

It remained that way well into the final minute of the fourth quarter.  The quarterback stood in his end zone, with the ball 99 yards from the opposite goal line.

We don’t know if these are the final 15 seconds in the Patriots career of Tom Brady…

Nor do we know if the pass that followed, a deflected interception returned by Logan Ryan for a touchdown, will be Brady’s last throw as a Patriot.  After teammates were unable to turn the ensuing kick into the Cal-Stanford band play — minus the trombone player — he never returned to the field.

With time to say goodbye — to our audience, if not the quarterback — Zo and I had to exit the booth fairly quickly for postgame press conferences.  And give way to the postgame show.  There were a few words specifically about Brady.  But none that I’d prepared; either on paper or in my mind.

From the outset of this opportunity to call games involving an all-time great, I’ve tried not to take it for granted.  At the same time, I’ve failed to fully appreciate it.  Mainly because I grew up picturing Hall of Famers in black-and-white highlights running across the outfield of the Polo Grounds or captured in grainy film filling the air with their steamy breath on the frozen turf of Lambeau Field.

But now men I’ve watched in living color as a grown-up are taking up residence in Cooperstown and destined for Canton.

Some of whom I’ve had the privilege of trying to describe on radio.  None better at his craft than the quarterback.

To date, I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer to my questions.  Hopefully I’ll get another year or two to work on a fitting on-air farewell, with Tom’s last game as a Patriot yet to come.

It’s entirely possible he ends up elsewhere.  If that’s the case, I’ll be grateful for the games I got to call.  Even as I think about words I left unspoken.

Either way, we won’t know it for awhile.  

In the meantime, I don’t intend to lose any sleep over it.

 

This Week’s Podcast: Devin McCourty

On this week’s 98.5 The Sports Hub podcast, The Gridiron and Beyond, you’ll hear from Patriots safety Devin McCourty.

I spoke to McCourty last Tuesday, a few hours after Rob Gronkowski’s public introspection on a New York City stage explaining his decision to retire from football.  With the joy Gronkowski usually got from the game he loves was sapped by the emotional and physical price paid to play it, he stepped aside.

Not unlike Andrew Luck, who a few days earlier shockingly did the same; wading through a late-Saturday night shower of boos to reach a podium in Indianapolis and open up about his self-described cycle of injury, pain and rehab.

Amid an already heightened awareness of mental health issues around the sport, their words add important context to the conversation.

As the pads come off, whether for good (like Gronk and Luck) or simply between game days, the public is getting to see players as people whose jersey numbers shouldn’t be confused for their identities.  And whose worth won’t be determined by their fantasy-football value.

McCourty Twins

Often mythologized as — borrowing McCourty’s analogy — “gladiators,” he and his NFL peers are sons, siblings, fathers and husbands.  They are community members and citizens who, in many cases, are concerned enough to increasingly put themselves out front in support of deeply personal and widely public causes.

Few in New England have worn those many hats as well as McCourty, who enters his tenth season as an eight-time captain, four-time Pro Bowler and three-time Super Bowl champion.

Also, as the father of two, McCourty is a past recipient of the Patriots’ Ron Burton Community Service Award and nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.

Since 2013, he and his twin brother and teammate Jason have partnered with the Embrace Kids Foundation to “Tackle Sickle Cell,” fighting a disease that’s profoundly impacted their family.

More recently, McCourty’s become a leading member of the NFL Players Coalition; devoting time and voice to issues relating to criminal justice and educational reform from Queens, N.Y. to Boston’s Beacon Hill.

In this episode of The Gridiron and Beyond, Devin offers:

  • A contemporary’s perspective on Luck’s retirement and Gronk’s sentiments, and why it’s important for peers to understand that the game doesn’t “complete” them.
  • An explanation of his evolving roles outside the sport — including his inspiration — and how he balances them while performing his demanding on-field job.
  • The obvious way he and Jason can actually surpass the success they shared in their first season together as Patriots and Super Bowl champs.
  • And the only way their entire defense can meet super-sized expectations for the coming campaign.

Click on the link below to listen via www.985thesportshub.com:

The Gridiron and Beyond: Devin McCourty (Ep. 34)

 

 

 

        

 

Autism Awareness

By Bob Socci

Invariably, the question would come up.  Whatever the wording, its meaning was the same.

“Is he going to follow in Dad’s footsteps,” friends and family wondered, “and be a broadcaster?”

Being a first-time father gifted a newborn son — especially given what I do — I understood that it was only natural for them to ask.  At the same time, my reply became second nature.

“Let’s hope not,” I’d say, smiling.  “I’d like him to take after his mom.”

So went the Q-and-A for about 18 months.  That’s when our son — by then a big brother to a baby sister — stopped talking.  

Our pediatrician, recognizing other developmental delays, suggested an evaluation at Boston Children’s Hospital.  Our boy, my wife and I were told, might be autistic.

Immediately, I was in denial, researching autism symptoms and keeping an accounting of all the boxes our son didn’t check.  I was also — to use another “A” word — angry.  Mostly with myself, fearing that my repeated wish was coming true.  Indeed, my child would never do what I do with the spoken word.  His voice had been taken away.

Sure enough, the team at Children’s confirmed what our good doctor suspected.  Our boy, about to turn 2, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

The signs by then — such as lack of eye contact and extra sensitivity to bright lights, loud sounds and even the subtlest of smells — were clear.  Much like my wife’s thinking.

If he doesn’t go to Harvard, she half-joked, he’ll go to MIT. 

Little did we know.  

Six years of early intervention, floor-time therapy and ceaseless support from remarkably and selflessly dedicated educators in a very supportive school district later, our son is a flourishing third-grader.  He reads voraciously; writes his own stories regularly; takes piano and guitar lessons; and though by no means an athlete (this apple didn’t fall far), has recently started tae kwon do.  

He’s also a little engineer.  And today, it’s much more challenging to get him to stop talking than start.  Especially about his favorite subject: LEGOs.  Days begin and end with them; from boxed sets to — increasingly — his own creations utilizing gears, axels, springs, levers and a limitless imagination fed by a photographic memory.  He has an uncanny ability to re-create what he browses in stores, catalogs and videos.  

Teachers who use LEGO Technic and robotics as part of their STEM curriculum consider him their class guru.  One even asked him to be her assistant instructing younger kids in an after-school program.  Nothing has done more to boost his self-esteem.  Or help establish a true connection to other kids. 

But unfortunately, outside of that comfort zone built with LEGO blocks, our son struggles to socialize.  Seeing and hearing in his own way, unable to recognize certain important cues and nuances, challenge his relationships with peers.  Which become further complicated by episodes of overstimulation, obsessive-compulsiveness and perseveration.    

Making friends isn’t easy for most of us.  It’s especially difficult for him.  And that’s the hardest part for me.  Still, aside from trials every other parent confronts, it’s really the only hard part of being my son’s dad.

There’s a saying, ‘When you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum.’  

I wouldn’t want our one any other way.  He’s unfailingly polite; unwilling to bend let alone break rules; and far funnier than his old man.  What I once denied foolishly, I now embrace proudly.  Even if he, like most boys his age, hates to be hugged.

Our son is classified as ‘high-functioning’ autistic, a term I frankly detest because of what it implies about others on the spectrum.  You could be in his company and have no idea he’s a kid in need of an official diagnosis.

Until last night, he had no idea either.  

Before then, the right time and right way to tell him and his sister about his autism had never occurred to us.  But as we sat around the dinner table, on the eve of World Autism Awareness Day, the subject arose.  

Their school — our school — was encouraging all of its students to wear blue this morning.  Naturally, the kids had their own questions for Mom and Dad.  All of which, essentially, boiled down to this: what is autism?  

Listening to our explanations, our son followed-up.  

“Do I have autism?”

“Yes,” we replied, gently yet straight-forwardly.

Pushing himself away from he dinner table, he yelled out his own denial, ran into our living room and dropped onto our couch.  Through tears, he told us that he didn’t want to face the kids at school the next day.  Or the day after that.

But within a few moments, he calmed down and wanted to know more.  We did our best educate and, equally, encourage.  

I described a teenaged friend with autism who can surely follow in my footsteps — and go much farther — as a writer and broadcaster.  My wife explained how our differences can make us better; noting in his case an extraordinary ability to make the amazing LEGO designs he alone imagines come to life.  Reassured, he returned to the table, finished his dinner and homework, and headed upstairs for bedtime. 

Today I woke up earlier than usual.  As my son slept, I readied for a new round of questions and steeled myself for a potential struggle.  I might have to convince him that it was okay to return to his classmates.

But after he got out of bed, other than asking for help to find blue pants to go with his blue shirt, nothing was said about last night.  Not even the ‘A’ word.

An hour later, I drove the kids to their wonderfully kind and inclusive school and dropped them off curbside.  We told each other we love each other.  They got out and, side-by-side, walked inside.

World Autism Day was just like any other day.  The way it should be. 

 

      

About last weekend, thanks so much!

By Bob Socci

So much for putting the phone down.   

Reaction to what I wrote about last weekend was personally overwhelming.  There were calls, text messages, Twitter replies and Facebook comments.  

Almost all were well-wishes, some were stories of similar if not worse experiences and a couple, unsurprisingly, were critiques of my a.m. reading.  For the record regarding the latter, I appreciate Karen and Kevin and their Herald colleagues too.  I just do it while at the office computer rather than having their words delivered to the front door.

Hard as I tried, I know I failed to answer all individually.  Therefore, I’m writing this to thank you collectively.  

I read a lot about me, but I really loved reading about you.  Regarding more than a few, I look forward to learning more in the future.  

The seriousness of any health scare — especially for family — isn’t lost on me.  But after my worst weekend since Navy was beaten by Army and the Patriots by a Miami miracle, I’m doing great.  I can joke about our brief scare at home.  To most, life’s struggles are never a laughing matter.

One needn’t go far nor look long to sharpen perspective.  Saturday morning I did it just by clicking on a link to a story by ESPN’s Mike Reiss about someone else who truly loves the Pats with all his heart.  

Then I decided to go for a jog, my first since Monday’s stress test at MGH.  Before leaving, I texted to tell my wife, who was running errands.

“Wish me well!” I typed.

Her response?

“Don’t slip.”  

With that, and a chuckle, I set out for the road.  One step at a time.