Feinstein: "I Couldn't Shake Vision Of Smith's Injury"

Sports can be tough to watch – for many reasons

John Feinstein
November 20, 2018 - 6:05 pm

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This past weekend was a jumble of emotions for me.

It started with my 8-year-old daughter’s piano recital on Friday night. She hit it out of the park.

While the other 14 kids were playing, I kept sneaking glances at my phone. Only recently have I figured out how to occasionally track scores there, and Army was playing Sacred Heart in the opening game of a three-day basketball tournament in Providence.

As part of the research for my next book, I’d spent a very cool day with Jimmy Allen’s team at Duke the previous Sunday and had gotten a text from Jimmy the night before showing his players pushing a bus up a hill in the snow in Connecticut. A trip that should have taken three to four hours ended up taking more than seven. Not the best way to start a weekend in which you’re going to play three games in three days.

The score swung back and forth as I checked the phone, then looked up to applaud as each kid finished. I paused when it was Jane’s turn to give her my full attention. She was brilliant. There were six kids left. I went back to the phone.

Finally, just prior to the final kid beginning what felt like an endless sonata, the final score flashed: Sacred Heart-79, Army-78.

“Damn,” I muttered, drawing looks from other parents and a glare from my wife.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Army just lost by one,” I said, as if that would explain everything.

I gave up pretending to be objective about sports—or my children—years ago. NO ONE is objective. We all have biases for different reasons. Those of us who cover games for a living have to be aware of our biases and try as best we can to not let them affect our judgments.

I have nothing against Sacred Heart. But I openly root for Army (and Navy) in basketball just as I root for them in football.

Which brings me to Saturday. I spent the day at Towson, working on a Washington Post column on Tom Flacco, younger brother of the Ravens, Joe. Tom is Towson’s starting quarterback having found a home there as a red-shirt junior after stops at Western Michigan and Rutgers.

My job was made considerably easier by my relationship with Joe, who was one of the five quarterbacks I worked closely with on my recently released book, “Quarterback.”

I spoke to Joe about his brother on Friday and asked him to text Tom to tell him I was a good guy (yes, I said, lie if need be) and he should give me a few minutes after the game—win or lose. To quote my close friend and mentor, the late, great Ken Denlinger: ‘You take your paragraphs where you find them."

Especially on deadline. If Joe telling Tom I was okay would help, then so be it. “He must really like you,” Tom said to me after he’d been both smart and patient (like his big brother) talking to me after the game, a disappointing 38-17 loss to James Madison. “He said I should give you all the time you need.”

I didn’t need that much time. I was on deadline. Still, it was nice to hear that Joe liked me, especially after all the hours we’d spent together.

During the early part of the game, I was distracted. Army was playing Colgate (football) and I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy game. Colgate was 9-0 and had given up 29 points all SEASON.

Yes, it was against FCS teams, but that’s still pretty impressive. I had done my three weekly Army radio network hits before kickoff: tailgate show; pre-game show; halftime and felt pretty good about Army leading 14-0.

But then Colgate returned a fumble for a touchdown to make it 14-7. I began to get nervous. Army answered with a touchdown but Colgate matched it: 21-14 with under 10 minutes to go.

I decided to focus on Towson and Flacco. Even though JMU appeared to clearly be the superior team, Flacco was impressive: he’s very mobile, has good speed and a better arm than I think he’s been given credit for. Because he’s under-sized (6-feet) he may get overlooked by a lot of NFL scouts a year from now.

“Scouts tend to like tall quarterbacks,” Joe—who is 6-6 and also came out of an FCS school— had said to me. “That helped me. But there are plenty of guys who are considered, ‘too small,’ who turn out to be pretty good.”

Drew Brees and Russell Wilson, both under 6-feet, come to mind. They’re pretty good.

When I next checked the Army score, they had all but killed the clock and scored to go up 28-14. That was the final. I breathed a sigh of relief. Not long after, though, the basketball team again lost close—this time to U-Mass-Lowell.

By the time I got home, Navy had broken its torturous seven-game losing steak with a win over Tulsa. You might ask if I felt badly about my alma mater, Duke, losing to Clemson that night.

No. For one thing, I knew Duke had no chance. For another, I just don’t care much about Duke football. I admire the job David Cutcliffe has done making the program respectable but don’t know him or anyone connected to the team. That’s where my biases usually come into play: with players, coaches and teams I know personally. That’s why when Duke plays Army or Navy in football, I hope for an Army or Navy win.

Sundays aren’t nearly as nerve-wracking for me as Saturdays. I DO like to see the Ravens do well, dating to 2004 when I spent a season with the team to write my book, “Next Man Up.”

For years though, my favorite team has been whomever is playing Washington. I think Dan Snyder is the worst person in sports and that takes in a lot of ground—even if you only consider team owners.

But that changed this season when Washington acquired Alex Smith. Alex was another one of the quarterbacks who worked with me on the book last season, and he happens to be as good a guy as I’ve met in sports.

So, here was my conundrum when Alex was traded to Washington: a guy I would normally ardently root for was now working for someone I ardently root against. When Alex and I had lunch after he came to town, I told him the truth: “I hope you throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns every week,” I said. “And you guys lose 45-42.”

I figured that was a reasonable compromise.

Alex laughed. “I know you don’t like Dan Snyder,” he said. “I have to tell you, he’s been really good to me since I got here.”

I decided not to tell him what I was thinking at that moment: “Of course he’s been good to you, you’re the most important person in his life right now!”

Washington went 6-3 to start the season and went into Sunday leading the NFC East by two games. Naturally, there were fans whining about Alex because he wasn’t putting up superhuman numbers—it helps to have great receivers the way he did in Kansas City last year—even though he was doing what needed to be done to win, which, last time I checked, was the object of the game.

Normally, I don’t watch Snyder’s team play much on a given Sunday. If I’m not at a game, I’m usually with my family during the early part of the afternoon.

But I’d stayed home to catch up on some work and when I finished, I turned on the TV. The only game available was Washington-Houston. I don’t care enough about the NFL to invest in a Sunday ticket package.

Within five minutes of my turning the game on, Alex was sacked and you could tell his body had twisted in an odd way. Then they showed the replay and it was far worse than that: it was Joe Theismann, 33 years to the day after his gruesome injury.

I got up and walked out of the room on the ensuing replays and then watched Alex carted off. You could tell how bad it was from the pain in his face and from the reactions of the players on both teams.

I didn’t have the stomach to watch any more football that day. I just didn’t care. Couldn’t care. I knew, even before it was confirmed, that this was a life-changing injury.

I switched over to watch golf. In a twist, two players who I like immensely won tournaments on Sunday: Charles Howell III, one of the truly funny, decent guys on the PGA Tour, won for the first time in 11 years. I was delighted for him. Overseas, Danny Willett, the 2016 Masters champion, won for the first tie since then.

I had worked extensively with Willett while researching, “The First Major,” and found him smart, funny and charming. When he had an awful Ryder Cup—in part because of a clever column his brother wrote two days before the matches started parodying the U.S. players and fans—I worried he might not want to talk about the week while I was wrapping up my research.

He never backed away; never ducked a question He’s a good man. I’m glad he’s won again.

As happy as I was for Howell and Willett, I couldn’t shake the vision of Smith’s injury or thoughts about what the future might hold for him.

Of course most of the postgame talk was about whether Colt McCoy could step in and help the team win on Thanksgiving Day in Dallas.

I couldn't care less. Dan Snyder against Jerry Jones? Seriously? I’ll either be watching college basketball, The Godfather, or Miracle on 34th Street.

Happy Thanksgiving.

John Feinstein’s new book, “Quarterback,--Inside the Most Important Position in the National Football League,” was published last week. His latest work of fiction, “The Prodigy,”—about a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters, came out last month. His website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com