It is one of the key annecdotes in the discussion of the historic collapse of the 1969 Chicago Cubs. In first place most of the season, and up by nine-and-a-half games on the Mets in late August, the Cubs proceeded to lose 17 of 25 and hand the division title to the surging Mets. On September ninth of that year, with the Cubs playing the Mets at Shea Stadium, a black cat walked behind the on-deck circle where Cubs captain Ron Santo was standing. A photo of Santo eyeing the cat appeared on the cover of "Sports Illustrated", and remains an iconic image. Even if you're not superstitious, it's hard not to believe the black cat may have one more thing that spooked the Cubs in their collapse.
Last Friday, I couldn't help but think of that image as the Redskin version of the black cat appeared at training camp in Ashburn. The cat has a name - Heath Shuler - the biggest bust in Redskins history and one of the biggest busts in NFL history. Heath was making his first appearance at Redskins Park since he was unloaded to Mike Ditka's Saints in 1997, three seasons after the Redskins spent the third pick of the draft on the former University of Tennessee star. I shuddered when hearing that Shuler had spoken to Robert Griffin III, less than a week before the rookie's preseason debut. It can't be good karma.
Ironically, Griffin's first preseason game will come exactly 18 years and one day after Shuler's debut on the same exact field. The good news is, Griffin will be far more prepared than "Baby Heath."
Shuler's career was behind the eight ball from the beginning. Learning the offense (which ultimately proved to be his undoing) was delayed due to a holdout that kept him out of training camp for two weeks. He finally signed a $19 million deal and practiced for the first time on August third. Only five days later, Shuler was thrown in to the first preseason game, which happened to be in Buffalo (same place the Redskins play on Thursday night). Predictably, it was ugly. Shuler was 4 for 10 for 47 yards, with an interception. First-year coach Norv Turner, who had pushed for the drafting of Shuler, thinking he might be the next Troy Aikman, was left to put lipstick on the pig. His postgame comment:
"I'm surprised we were able to get the ball snapped with him. Heath had four practices. What he did today - assimlate the play calls, the formations, who is going where, look at the coverage, make the throws - is phenominal."
Phenominal? That may have been the only time that word was used in describing anything that happened in Shuler's pro career. His first career start was against the defending champion Cowboys. The result was predictable. Dallas won 34-7. Two weeks later, Shuler threw five interceptions in an overtime loss to the winless Cardinals at RFK Stadium and was sent back to the bench. Seventh-round pick Gus Frerotte started the following week at Indianapolis and earned NFC player of the week honors by leading a blowout of the Colts 41-27. Gus immediately became the fan favorite and Heath became the villian for the holdout and poor play.
Though they would split time over the rest of the season and the following season, Gus would earn the job outright in the '96 preseason. Heath played only one play that season. He was booed as he entered the game for the banged-up Gus and was booed as he walked off the field after a botched handoff to Michael Westbrook. He never played again in a Redskin uniform and was out of the league a year later after suffering a foot injury while floundering in New Orleans.
I have confidence that RGIII is not destined to travel Shuler road. But even though I don't consider myself superstitious, the sight of Shuler did give me pause.
Will Weighs In
Throughout his career, famed columnist George F. Will has made his love of baseball quite clear. He's written books about the grand old game, worshipping at the altar of Tony Larussa. Will has also made quite clear his disdain for football saying, "It combines two of the worst features of American life - violence punctuated by committee meetings, which football calls huddles."
Not surprisingly, in light of the concussion lawsuits and recent research regarding what the violence of the game does to brains of men who play it, Will has taken football to task with a column that opens with this paragraph:
"Are you ready for some football? First, however, are you ready for some autopsies?"
Will goes on to discuss the recent suicides of former NFL players Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson and Junior Seau. The brains of all three have been or are being tested for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), progressive damage to the brain. He also points out that players keep getting bigger. He says the 1966 undefeated Alabama team had linemen that averaged 194 pounds. And in the pros, there were only three players who weighed more than 300 pounds in 1980, while today there are 352 with 31 of the 32 teams having offensive lines that average more than 300.
Will then wonders if we can continue to delight in a game that causes degenerative brain disease. He writes:
"For all its occasional elegance football is basically violence for, among other purposes, inflicting intimidating pain." Adding it up, Will writes, "accumlating evidence about new understandings of the human body - the brain, especially, but not exclusively - compel the conclusion that football is a mistake because the body is not built to absorb, and cannot be adequately modified by training or protected to by equipment to absorb, the game's kinetic energies."
His final point, Theodore Roosevelt forced rule changes in football after 18 people died playing the game in 1905. And writes, "Today, however, the problem is not the rules; it is the fiction that football can be fixed and still resemble the game fans relish."
Will doesn't love football like many of us do. He's a columnist, who is paid to make a point with evidence to support his position. But even with that in mind, Will does give you reason to least wonder where America's most popular game is heading.