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SPORTSTALK

For local diehard fans of women’s soccer, this week's U.S. vs. Scotland exhibition match is an unprecedented opportunity to see the American team — stars both old and new. With 29 players on the American roster, it's hard to tell exactly how long any given player will be on the field; the smart money is on a rotation of talent.

Returning to the pitch for the American side, after more than a year-long layoff: defender Ali Krieger. Krieger, a 28-year-old alumna of the Penn State Nittany Lions, tore knee ligaments in an Olympic qualifier match against the Dominican Republic last year. She'd spent the better part of the last five years overseas playing in Germany, but has decided to spend the next stretch of her career Stateside. A big driver of that decision, as you would expect, is her involvement with the U.S. National Team.

“They really kept me motivated to want to get back, but also my younger fans and actually just my fans in general,” Krieger told NWSL News. “They were amazing throughout my entire process of rehab, and I couldn’t thank them enough. But little did they know they inspired me so much to want to get back. I received letters from all across the world saying how much I inspired them to want to be better and be good players. You know, you don’t realize that until someone writes you, so having the support of the fans, the National Team and U.S. Soccer was unreal. I was so thankful and grateful for them.”

There are many athletes on many levels who derive strength from their fanbases. This seems especially true with female athletes, perhaps due to the barriers that have kept women’s sports from being considered equal to men’s, barriers rooted in patriarchal constructions that extend well beyond the metaphorical arena of sport.

In men’s sports, there's often the tacit understanding that the athlete is an antihero. Think Jack Tatum, crippling people in the ’70s as an Oakland Raider. Think of Charles Barkley, who famously …   More

SPORTSTALK

The first weekend of February brings the most important sporting event to town since the Super Bowl. Davis Cup tennis is a series of matches between some of the best men’s players the United States and Brazil have to offer. For fans of world-class tennis, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Davis Cup matches are played in a best-of-five series over three days. The first-round match on Feb. 1 features two singles matches, in which Brazil’s No. 1 player will play the second-best American, and vice-versa. Feb. 2 features a doubles match between the two pairs. And Feb. 3? The 1s, then the 2s, square off in singles play. Watching this on TV doesn’t really do justice to the spectacle and the athletic accomplishment. As the saying goes, you just have to be there to appreciate it. Fortunately, 13,000 fans will be able to watch at Veterans Memorial Arena.

If you're a fan of great tennis or international competition, don’t just sit there. If you just watch it on the Tennis Channel, you'll regret your failure to act. Guaranteed.

For one thing, everyone who's anyone in the history of this great sport has competed. The most acclaimed American competitor: John McEnroe, who owns or shares 20 Davis Cup records. Rene Lacoste, whose shirts have filled my closet since the Ronald Reagan era, is just one of the many players who forged his reputation in international team play. Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, Arthur Ashe — three more names even non-fans of the sport know — likewise distinguished themselves in Davis play.

Another great tennis player with Davis Cup experience lives closer to home. Ponte Vedra Beach resident MaliVai Washington competed in 1997 for the U.S. team when they last played Brazil, teaming with Jim Courier for a 4-1 win. Washington described visiting Brazil to play that formidable squad in front of a boisterous home crowd.

“Brazilians are very passionate about their football and their tennis,” said Washington, who founded the …   More

SPORTSTALK

Growing up, I never had illusions about the substance use of professional athletes. Then again, my favorite sports team was the 1980s New York Mets, and my favorite athletes were in the rings of the National Wrestling Alliance. Spending as much time as I did watching amped-up athletes ranging from Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry to Ric Flair and Road Warrior Hawk, it was hard to be surprised when evidence of their substance use came out. And, despite the Just Say No agitprop, I never really felt much like condemning them for their choices.

This was not a majoritarian viewpoint in the media of the ’80s, when sports columns and commentaries often came with a heavy glaze of empty moralism. Most of us who were teenage males in the ’80s remember, for example, when Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose. The flipside to all of the hysteria spoon-fed to the middle class from the corporate media, however, was a logical deduction: specifically, that drug use was a matter of free will. Despite the athlete-as-hero mythology used to sell sports memorabilia, the fact was that these were and are driven men who did what they wanted and had the money to do so.

Cocaine hasn’t disappeared from sports, as the preponderance of sinus conditions on every NBA telecast indicates. Over the years, though, we've seen drugs (especially performance enhancers) employed for purposes as professional as they are recreational. And scandals galore to match.

Consider Lance Armstrong’s recent protracted tumble from grace (ironic, given how doped-up the competitive cycling circuit has always been), or the ritualized savaging of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for boosting their power numbers with performance enhancers. And then, as recently as Super Bowl week, the staunchly denied allegations that Ray Lewis of the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens used deer antler spray in an effort to prolong his valuable career for one more campaign.

Closer to home, yet another …   More

SPORTSTALK

We are living in what the fortune cookies call interesting times. North Korea is running nuclear tests, the Pope just “resigned” (presumably with Papal Infallibility intact) and gas prices are surging. Despite the maelstrom of geopolitical uncertainty, we still have our traditions — the things that make us American, as they go in the 21st century. One of those is roaring to Jacksonville yet again: the Advance Auto Parts Monster Jam.

This isn’t for everyone. There's no need for a corporate suite at Monster Jam. It's highly unlikely that super-agent Drew Rosenhaus and other sports celebrities will attend. There won’t be many stretch limos out front. The monster circuit isn’t about that.

It’s about torque. It’s about big trucks with big tires and big names, crushing or totaling anything in their paths, bringing to life in vehicular-metaphorical fashion the aspirations of both little kids and grown men with Napoleon complexes.

It’s about power. As monster truck driver Scott Buetow told the Chicago Sun-Times, “Monster trucks are about 10 to 11 feet tall and weigh about 10,000 pounds. And there’s about 1,500 horsepower under the hood.”

And all of us need something, somewhere that convinces us, in some capacity, of the individual’s ability to triumph over adversity and absurdity. If we spend our days taking orders, as most of us do, don’t we, on some level, need to see narrative payback, a sort of illustration of the principle of eternal recurrence? And while the monster truck narrative isn’t for everyone — indeed, most folks in my social set shun monster trucks and the Monster Jam — it definitely resonates with its target audiences: kids, parents and the young at heart. Luckily for promoters, there are a lot of numbers in these groups.

Virtually everyone who's a fan of the sport — and, yes, it is a sport — has a favorite monster truck or …   More

SPORTSTALK

Have you ever wanted to sing the national anthem at a Suns' game? You will have an opportunity to demonstrate your chops. Below, the missive from the Suns on the subject:

"With the regular season only a few weeks away, the Jacksonville Suns will hold an open casting call for National Anthem performers at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville on Saturday, March 16th, from 1:00 P.M. until 4:00 P.M. The Suns have seventy dates to fill with National Anthem performers. Auditions will be held on the field and singers will be asked to perform the song in a traditional fashion and in its entirety. Instrumentalists will be given more flexibility with their rendition. Vocal groups are also encouraged to perform."

The team also needs batboys.

"Applicants for batboys for the 2013 season must be at the Baseball Grounds by 1:00pm sharp on Saturday, March 16th. Potential batboys must be 14 years of age or older, be accompanied by his parent/guardian and must bring a copy of his most recent report card and a copy of his baseball playing schedule, if available, to apply."

These are great opportunities for singers looking for exposure and for high school aged ballplayers looking for a connection to one of the most respected organizations in the minor league system. Check them out!   More

SPORTSTALK

One of the notable things about Tim Tebow's occasional forays into preaching and Christian ministry is that the scrutiny on him seems to increase with each passing occurrence — even as his career on the gridiron seems in doubt. His recent decision to speak at a Dallas church, only to rescind it, hints at him being at a crossroads. 

 

The spurned Dallas Minister, a Robert Jeffress, has taken heat for the kind of comments that we expect to hear in certain churches — fusillades against same-sex marriage and other issues that are betes noires to the fundamentalist community. Unfortunately for Tebow, Jeffress is ready and willing to engage the quarterback for his reversed decision:

 

"I am grateful for men of God like these who are willing to stand up and act like men rather than wimping out when it gets a little controversial and an inconvenient thing to stand for the truth … God bless men like that."

 

This is a fight that Tebow — with his careful, anodyne public image always at the forefront — simply cannot win. He can't engage in a discussion of these issues; he has far too much to lose, no matter where he comes down. If he agrees with the preacher and like-minded folks, that will be how he is defined in the mainstream media, which still remembers his Super Bowl ad years ago. Disagree, and he launches himself into a role his endless campaign of self-promotion cannot handle. He can't discuss this issue, no matter how he comes down on it, without ticking somebody off. And therein lies the problem with his recurrent desire to witness his faith while working in the sports-entertainment industry.

 

The problem isn't that Tebow is a wimp, but that he is a cipher. He stands for what people want him to stand for, espousing a Christianity much closer to Joel Osteen than C.S. Lewis. That is his prerogative. But when one decides to accept these speaking gigs, rejecting the invitation once media …   More

SPORTSTALK

In the last few years, we have seen a cavalcade of pro-ready talent emerge from University of Florida’s football program. Players like tight-end Aaron Hernandez and wide-receiver Percy Harvin, just to name two, look like they’ll be Pro Bowl candidates for years to come. Perhaps Tim Tebow, despite his often-discussed flaws, has another opportunity ahead of him.

Arguably, the most talented recent ex-Gator skill player, though, is running-back Chris Rainey. For all of his talent, however, character issues have never fully gone away — and they’re center stage again.

On Jan. 10, Rainey — who just concluded an up-and-down rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers — was in Gainesville, which has been a place of highs and lows for the speedy scatback for a few years. Rainey made news for a fight with a girlfriend a couple of years ago, during which he texted her a series of irate messages, culminating with a not-so-veiled threat: “Time to die.”

For obvious reasons, this shocked many who heard about it — even though the recipient of the texts declined to press charges, and the charges were pled down to “misdemeanor stalking.” Rainey was suspended for five games, a penalty that didn’t help his draft status, which went from a likely first-round selection to a fifth-round pick for the Steelers.

The former track star’s ability was never an issue. His judgment? Another matter, but the risk was worth it for the Steelers, who can always use more running backs, considering the nature of their offense, especially when the cold wind whips through Pittsburgh as autumn turns to winter.

Rainey’s speed advantage was not quite as obvious on the pro level as it had been in the SEC, so he accomplished little on the field this season: 100 rushing yards with two touchdowns. For some players, that’s a quarter; for Rainey, it was a season. Despite this underachievement, there wasn’t any reason to think Pittsburgh would let him go after signing him …   More

SPORTSTALK

It's the biggest achievement yet in local roller derby: The Jacksonville RollerGirls all-star team, the New Jax City Rollers, qualified for the 2013 Women's Flat Track Derby Association Division One Playoffs in Richmond, Va., Sept. 13-15 as the No. 30 seed. Teams from around the world will compete. And the New Jax team will be there, thanks to its hard work and dedication. And those fans who can't make the trip to Richmond can still view the action on WFTDA.tv.

Keri "Fancy Schmancy" Lewis, fresh off a tournament in Tampa, fielded some questions by email.

The first question that bears reflection: Is roller derby "feminist"? Her answer might surprise you.

"I don't think roller derby is a feminist enterprise. It takes a village to run a roller derby league. Flat-track roller derby was founded in Austin, Texas, in 2003. It was started as a female-only sport, but there were men that played an integral part of the league function, ranging from coaches, staff, referees, bout announcers, photographers, videographers, volunteers to fans. Derby leagues become a big family."

Supporting her contention that roller derby is of equal importance to both genders, Lewis mentioned that the local men's team — the Magic City Misfits — is the fourth-ranked team in the United States.

Even with all that love, it's difficult for athletes, who must hold down day jobs, to find time to practice and compete.

"It is a challenge getting a practice and bouting venue that accommodates our league's needs," Lewis said. "Can we get enough practice time at reasonable hours for the skaters? Finding bout venues that are affordable and give us the opportunity to put on a good bout for paying patrons [is a challenge]. We also struggle making it affordable for skaters to compete on our traveling team, especially the all-star team. New Jax travels at least five times a year to out-of-state bouts, and getting the money and time off work to compete can be taxing on …   More

SPORTSTALK

Episcopal School of Jacksonville’s football team has had some good seasons, but 2012 was not one of them. The team went 3-6, including a 1-4 mark at home that was deceptive, given the win was against a school called Duval Charter in the season opener. They lost by more than 30 points to all other opponents, including perennial powerhouses Providence and Bolles.

On the road, things weren’t much better. They were smoked by Ponte Vedra and the Bishop Kenny Crusaders, who were clearly exacting revenge for Henry VIII spurning the Roman Catholic Church to form the Church of England centuries back. There were wins in there, sure, but something had to change. That change happened in a big way when the school hired Mark Brunell to coach the football team in early January.

Episcopal is, in many ways, a throwback — they have a dress code, as well as inquisitive and bright students. And Brunell has always been a throwback. Even during the Jaguars’ glory days, Brunell and his clique on the team were noted to put faith first, in a way that seemed to be at odds with the NFL’s myriad bad boys like Ray Lewis, Rae Carruth and so many others who received notoriety for activities and scandals off the field.

That never happened to Brunell or those close to him during the Coughlin era. The worst thing one could say about Brunell was that he sometimes had a hard time scoring in the red zone. We saw what happened to the Jaguars when Magic Mark was made to disappear by rookie head coach Jack Del Rio, who was eager to put his stamp on the franchise with Byron Leftwich. As soon as Brunell was injured, he was out of the lineup — and out of town not too long after. The Jaguars, meanwhile, developed a reputation of “character risk,” with players routinely being popped for drug and gun offenses.

Brunell moved on (moved up, some say) to play quite a few more years. He took the Redskins to the playoffs, then backed up Drew Brees in New Orleans and Mark Sanchez with the …   More

SPORTSTALK

For whatever reason, David Garrard's comeback has not taken off. Despite the dearth of quality quarterbacking in the league, the former Jaguar Pro Bowler hasn't elicited a lot of interest in the league. Enter the quarterback-starved Jets, who worked him out this week.

All we know about the Jets' QB situation is in the linked article: Tebow will be released. That said, it seems like it might behoove the Jaguars to give Garrard at least a courtesy tryout. The Jags haven't gone out of their way to let former quarterbacks return, but at the veteran minimum salary, what is the harm of having a proven hand at the position to backup/challenge Gabbert? This would free up the team to draft a quality tackle in the No. 2 position instead of reaching for a quarterback without having the line to keep him healthy.   More

 
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