Que Sarah, Sarah

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Love It or Hate It - Elisha Edition


By Sarah Spain
Love of Sports Correspondent

He started off his NFL career by giving a figurative middle-finger to the organization that drafted him.

He’s been given a big-deal contract and tons of time to develop in part due to the promise suggested by his famous last name.

He’s pouted his way through countless stretches of inconsistent play, shrugging and grimacing with every inaccurate pass or fumbled ball.

His seemingly nonexistent leadership skills and goofy disposition stand in stark contrast to those of a prototypical NFL QB.

His own GM dubbed him “skittish,” and he’s regularly booed by his home fans. At the end of the regular season, his 73.9 QB rating was 25th in the league, he was tied for the league lead in interceptions and his 56.1% pass percentage was better than just three other qualifying quarterbacks — Cleo Lemon, Rex Grossman and Kellen Clemens.

And yet — love it or hate it — Eli Manning is going to the Super Bowl.

As a Bears fan, I’m in no position to proclaim a quarterback undeserving of a Super Bowl trip. Last year, I openly supported Grossman while haters everywhere deemed him unworthy. Of course, like most Chicagoans, I secretly wished we had a Hall of Fame signal-caller like Peyton Manning on our side.

This year’s Super Bowl features an equally unlikely duo: Tom Brady, the Homecoming King; and Eli, the Captain of the chess team.

Fortunately, for Giants fans, the Super Bowl isn’t a popularity contest, nor is it a beauty pageant. So, while the Jesse Palmers and Brady Quinns of the world watch from the booth or the sidelines, Eli will be one of two starting quarterbacks in Super Bowl XLII.

Fans of a good underdog story can appreciate the Giants’ unlikely drive to Glendale. The team started the 2007 season mired in controversy.

Was Michael Strahan’s lengthy preseason holdout going to affect his play? Was Eli ever going to live up to his paycheck or his perceived destiny as a franchise QB? Could the team recover from the loss of leading rusher Tiki Barber – not to mention the addition of his off-the-field barbs?

Not only did the team match last year’s 8-8 record — and subsequent wild card berth — they bested it, going 10-6 and defeating three division winners on their way to the desert.

New York used a record 10 straight road wins to earn their spot on the big stage, the last of which involved unseating the sentimental favorites, the Brett Favre-led Packers. Two Sundays from now, Eli will be in the biggest road game of his life, trying to tackle an even greater legend — the 18-0 Patriots.

They’re two-touchdown underdogs to New England, but Eli can’t be bothered with predictions. After all, early this season most people didn’t think his team would even make the playoffs. But now that all is said and done, Eli’s going to the Super Bowl.

Love it or hate it? You decide.

Monday, January 07, 2008

American Gladiators...Reeeemix


By Sarah Spain
Love of Sports Correspondent

I vividly remember watching the original "American Gladiators" as a teen, hoping one day I would be able to don the blue or red contender spandex and tear it up in Powerball.

I never had the chance. The popular show that pits everyday people against modern day Goliaths was canceled in 1996, but its fan base remained strong.

In March of 2007, ESPN Classic began airing reruns of the show, giving a whole new generation of fans a peek at the muscles, hairspray and unitards that made it such a hit. Around the same time, before news of the show's return had been announced, a group of friends and I all went to a costume party dressed as our favorite gladiator of the '90s.

When commercials for the new, technologically-advanced version of Gladiators began airing, I wasn't surprised to learn that friends and co-workers alike shared my nostalgia and enthusiasm for the show.

I awaited the latest incarnation with even more anticipation after learning a former college teammate of mine would be one of the new pack of recreational superheros. Jamie Reed, a pole vaulter at Cornell while I was a heptathlete, has parlayed her strength and athleticism into a new career as "Fury."

Reed was always an extremely muscular woman, but she's taken her fitness to a whole new level since graduation, competing as a professional bodybuilder and posing in fitness magazines. I don't know how well she'd fare in the pole vault these days, but after seeing her on the show I certainly wouldn't challenge her to an arm wrestle, that's for sure. Fury's just one of many new faces on the show, which, despite a futuristic facelift, retains much of what made the original so popular.

With more cameras and new state-of-the-art games — not to mention fire and water obstacles — the show's stepped firmly into 2008 without forsaking its roots. The same principles of competition and pageantry were evident on opening night, as fire fighters, life coaches and skateboard enthusiasts battled each other and the gladiators for supremacy.

Laila Ali and Hulk Hogan were adequate in their handling of the show's hosting duties, while the gladiators themselves lived up to the legends of their predecessors. The original pretty boy, Malibu, is succeeded by Titan, who looks like a (just slightly) humanized version of the dad from "The Incredibles" mixed with Gary from "Team America". If you believe his cheekbones are natural then you probably think the female gladiators are just naturally well-endowed, too.

Zap, who went on to pose for Playboy after her stint as an original gladiator, meets her match in Crush, an MMA fighter with a Posh Spice bob and a face that could make you forget that she could, quite literally, crush you. Wolf, who marks the beginning and end of his competitions with a howl, is a beefed up version of the Raiders' Rob Ryan. A Samoan former college football player, a simply but appropriately named "Hellga" and a former model for COLT (look it up) are a few of the other behemoths set to take on this season's contestants.

The new Gladiators is appealing for the same reasons today as it was in the early '90's. Everyone loves to see a David and Goliath story, especially thirty-somethings who take pride in their own "weekend warrior" workout habits. However, just as strong as the viewer's desire to see the underdog win is their desire to see that cocky everyday Joe from the local gym meet pain and suffering at the hands of a giant.

In the very first event of the new season, a mother-of-three hurt her knee being tackled in Powerball and then, while trying to fight through the pain, further injured herself in an oft-replayed fall that looked as though she'd been horse-collared from behind by an invisible foe. In a twist of fate that highlighted the show's idea that anyone can rise above his or her age, size or occupation, two of the night's four winners were diminutive, wiry Asian contestents who appeared undersized and outmatched when the games began.

Accountants and clerical workers everywhere will stand up straighter tomorrow. As the weeks go on, the show promises more injuries, unlikely victors and, of course, the requisite gladiator histrionics and dramatics.

I suppose now is my chance to fulfill my teenage dream of Gladiators glory. I just don't know if I can pull off that spandex anymore!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Playoff Picks, get ’em while they’re hot...


Here's how I think you should place your bets...you can thank me later with hugs and money. Click here to see the picks of the other Sports Bank writers... http://www.thesportsbank.net/nflplayoffs.html

AFC Wild Card Round Jan. 5th-6th

-Jacksonville Jaguars @ Pittsburgh Steelers Sat. 8PM NBC

*Before Sunday's loss to the Texans (which featured mostly back-ups) the Jags had won three straight, including a 29-22 victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field. They've got confidence, swagger and hype on their side. However, if the grounds crew at Heinz can turn the field into the quagmire it was for the Monday Night game with Miami, the Jags run game could get stuck in the mud. If the weather is decent, the Jaguars will live up to the hype. The two-headed monster of Taylor and Jones-Drew will beat Big Ben and co. by 6.

-Tennessee Titans @ San Diego Chargers. Sun 4:30 CBS

*The Chargers are stronger than the Titans in every phase of the game and, without a "blame Marty" excuse to fall back on, they'll finally sack up and get a playoff win. Vince Young left last Sunday's game with a flat tire and Albert Haynesworth is still not 100%. Now that San Diego's accepted the (correct) all-LT, all-the-time approach, they're back to their winning ways. Philip Rivers will do just enough, Darren Sproles and Antonio Cromartie will make some big-time highlight reel plays, and the Chargers will cruise to a 13 point victory.

NFC Wild Card Round Jan 5th-6th

-Washington Redskins @ Seattle Seahawks. Sat. 4:30 NBC

*The Redskins are riding a 4-game win streak, but they just don't have the talent to win this one. The Seahawks have flown under the radar all season, playing a soft schedule and providing few "did you see that?" moments. Neither of these teams has a chance to win the NFC, but Hasselbeck and his receivers have used consistency to get 10 wins, while the Redskins have needed a bit of luck to make it this far. Seahawks will put enough points on the board to win this one by 10.

-New York Giants @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sun. 1pm FOX

*The Giants' risky decision to play their starters against the Patriots turned out to be a good one. They didn't get the win but I think Elisha Manning's balls may have finally dropped—he actually looked like a man in charge of his team on Saturday. While I won't be surprised if Manning falls apart in the playoffs, the Giants giant D will give their QB some room for error. Jeff Garcia will take a beating and the Giants' run game will propel them to a 3 point win. The good news for Garcia? This is who will be comforting him after the loss.

AFC Divisional Round Jan 12-13th

*Jaguars run game can't keep up with Patriots air attack. Brady reaches an as-yet-unparalleled level of hotness rocking a new pageboy cap in his post game interviews. Patriots 38, Jaguars 23

*Fetushead Manning leads his pack of ponies past the honorable LT and his Superchargers. After the game San Diego fans will be left wondering how a guy that wears "mom jeans" can be so athletic. Tony Dungy dedicates the win and his game paycheck to a variety of anti-gay charities. What a class act. Ponies 32, Chargers 17

NFC Divisional Round Jan 12-13th

*After a week of sushi dinners and movie theatre hand-holding with Jessica Simpson, Romo hits the field feeling like a new man. The Giants defense stops the run but doesn't have an answer for TO. Elisha Manning throws 3 picks, proving for the 500th time this season that he is, in fact, Stoppable. The irony isn't lost on Citizen Watches; they dump him and sign Donovan McNabb as their new spokesman. Oops. In the 3rd quarter someone kindly informs Jessica that the Cowboys' colors are blue and silver, NOT pink, and that women who wear pink jerseys should be taken out back and shot. She quickly changes into a blue sequined 9 bustier and wills her man to victory with a wink and a shake. Cowboys make it three in a row against the Giants, 30-21.

*The Packers dominate the Seahawks in a classic Favre 4-touchdown performance. Hasselbeck breaks down in the 4th quarter, throwing picks as he frantically tries to get his team back in it. Cheeseheads everywhere groan collectively when Favre pulls up lame trying to carry Donald Driver AND Greg Jennings on either shoulder, but after some ice the old man is good as new. Unfortunately for America, Packer fans skip work and school Monday to celebrate at Old Country Buffet, thereby worsening the country's growing obesity problem (not to mention Wisconsin's struggle with illiteracy). Packers 37, Seahawks 13

AFC Title Game Jan 20th

*Mom Jeans Manning looks old and tired next to Beautiful Brady. Randy Moss runs the Indy defense all over the field making Wes Welker the open man all day. Addai will get his carries and yards but the Pats D will get some big red zone stops and force Indy to settle for field goals. Bill Belichick will crack a genuine smile in the game's closing minutes and somewhere a pig will grow his wings. Meanwhile, Tony Dungy catches a glimpse of a towel-clad Brady after the loss and suddenly re-thinks his stance on gay marriage. Brady, in an effort to "pretty up" the team for the media-saturated Super Bowl trip, buys his coach a brand new sweatshirt with full-length sleeves and gives Moss his very own pageboy cap. Neither of the garments makes the trip to Arizona. Pats 30, Colts 27

NFC Title Game Jan 20th

*Packers by 9. The media can't get enough of this one. In the week before the game Romo uses the word "neat" 162 times in interviews and TO guarantees at least three "excessive celebration" penalties…er, touchdowns. Tony Kornheiser's Favre slurp-fest causes fans to wonder if the Packers QB can play well with a balding journalist wrapped around one leg. The game doesn't disappoint. In an attempt to live up to his much-hyped, legendary status, Favre throws actual gold footballs using a prostethic arm made of diamonds. Romo is up for the challenge but in the end the mentor wants it more than the student. Fudge Packers send Romo packing—most likely on a romantic getaway with Jessica Simpson…and her father.


*Patriots beat the Packers 37-21. Mercury Morris and the rest of the bragadocious, delusional ass-hats on the '72 Dolphins find themselves with an unopened magnum of Dom and a sudden feeling that their lives no longer have worth. Brady solidifies his status as the most envied man in America, Favre begins his annual retirement dance and Bostonians alienate every other human on the planet with their excessive boasting and conspicuous misuse of consonants. "Wicked! Supuh Bowl champs! Weah so much bettuh dan you, you have no idear." The Chicago Bears and the whole of Chicago take note of the Patriots historic run and put in on their "to do" calendars for 2008.

Bearing Down for the Off-Season


After 6 long months, the wait was finally over. I woke up the morning of Sunday, September 9th thinking one thing: "Football is back!" In a few short hours the Bears would open up their 2007 season against the Chargers. I was in San Diego that day, cheering them on in their opener, even in the closing minutes when the game had already been lost. This Sunday I was there to support my team again, this time in their season finale at Soldier Field. Once again, I cheered them on for the entirety of the game, even though the season had already been lost. I've always been the kind of fan who defends his or her teams through thick and thin—a trait any Cubs fan with an interest in sanity must acquire. So, rather than bemoaning this season's disappointments, I'm choosing to remember the happiness and excitement the Bears brought me every week, win or lose, right down to the last one; in some ways, particularly the last one.

After tailgating for a few hours, my friend Ryan and I started the mile and half trek to the game. We were running a bit late to meet my other friends, as we'd quite enjoyed the beer and grub at the big Bears bus we'd found. As we power-walked through the mass migration toward the stadium, the sun came out, and I tried to strip off a few superfluous layers. My head halfway out of a sweatshirt, I managed to punt an pot of chili lurking about, marinating my entire right foot. I still maintain that the chili dove in front of me in a desperate effort to get into the game, but without solid visual evidence there's no way to know. Despite the meat-foot (and my friend's powerful urge to stop and turn a darkened corner into a makeshift restroom), we made it to the stadium just in time. A friend of mine that I hadn't seen in years, but who caught up with me after last year's Super Bowl blitz, had offered us three of his season seats for the game. As it turned out, we were right on the 50 yard line, with the most clear, perfect view of the game imaginable. His family had selected the seats with great care…but more on that later.

The game itself was, like last week, a classic Bears effort. Brian Urlacher started things right where he left off last week, intercepting Drew Brees on the Saints' first offensive drive. Chicago couldn't capitalize on the excellent field position with a touchdown, but a Robbie Gould field goal put the Bears on the board first, nonetheless. After another good defensive stop, Chicago used a combination of Adrian Peterson runs and Bernard Berrian catches to advance the length of the field. Captain Neckbeard found Mark Bradley down the middle for the score and Bears fans everywhere wondered where this kind of play had been a month ago. It's hard not to be frustrated by the success the team had in its last two games, but the positive side is that the Bears proved their love for the fans, the city and themselves by showing up and playing with pride. Hopefully, the team can use this last-season push to motivate them during the off-season and next year.

Early in the 2nd, Brees put together a nice drive and found the Saints' second-year stud Marques Colston in the end zone for six. Undaunted, the Bears answered back, this time with a play fans haven't seen all season. The regularly conservative Ron Turner has gotten much more adventurous late in the season when wins are admirable, but meaningless. On 1st and goal from the New Orleans 9, Turner called a halfback option that Chicago ran to perfection. AP evaded a tackle, found space and hit a wide open Berrian in the end zone, showing off an arm that LT would be proud of. Perhaps reveling in the novelty of Peterson's toss, Chicago's defense let up again, conceding another touchdown to Colston. Late in the 2nd quarter, on the second possession of the Bears' drive, Orton found Devin Hester streaking up the sideline for a 55-yard touchdown, the longest of Orton's career. At the half, the Bears were up 24-17 against a New Orleans team fighting for a playoff berth—a superb effort, but fans needed a lot more cushion than that to feel safe.

During the halftime break we went down to the Bears friends and family area for a bit, where I told Lance Briggs' sister I would "fight him" if he didn't come back next year. I then erroneously guessed that one of Israel Idonije's brothers was related to AP (even he admitted that most people think he's Peterson's brother). Everyone in the family area wore the jersey numbers of their respective kin or friend so I told sis Briggs and the brothers Idonije that I was clearly wearing my 34 jersey because I'm Walter Payton's sister. They didn't buy it, but "mini AP" kindly referred to me as "Payton's sis" later, all the same. As we hustled back to our seats we heard the crowd erupt in a roar and immediately knew we'd missed something good. Back at our seats we just caught the replay of Hester's 6th kick return this season—a mark that breaks the record he set last year. We were sad to have missed it live but there were more Hester hi-jinks soon to come. Late in the 3rd, to the surprise (shock? awe?) of the stadium, Hester got the ball and stepped back to throw. Could he possibly add a passing touchdown to his already ridiiiiiculous game stats? No. Hester was sacked for a big loss on the play but if he receives more practice time on offense, few would blink an eye if he was listed as our starting QB by next season.

Down 31-17 in the 4th, it seemed inevitable that the Saints, for a second straight year, would see their season end at Soldier Field. Midway through the quarter my friend explained that our current seats were hand-selected by his father and his father's best friend since childhood: Mike McCaskey. Yes, the Mike McCaskey. Armed with this new knowledge, I followed him upstairs to the McCaskey's box—the Owner's Box—and watched the rest of the 4th quarter while talking shop with the big boss. He was incredibly nice and, upon hearing of my e-bay adventure, promptly took down my name so he could look for it on Google and YouTube. So, as the Bears season came to an end, I found myself standing next to the man with all the answers. Who can the team afford to re-sign and will they? What position is your draft priority? When are you bringing back the Honey Bears? Why won't Orton shave his neckbeard? Of course, I didn't ask him any of these. I thought I'd lay the foundation of a friendship and save the grill session for just a bit down the road, once I've successfully snagged a job covering the Bears. A girl can dream, can't she?

After the game we went back down to the locker room area where I got to meet a couple more of my favorite Bears, including Robbie Gould and Bernard Berrian. There were a lot more players hanging around than during the previous week, when many rushed off for Christmas flights and family time. Spirits were high despite the sobering reality of the team's season coming to an end prematurely. 2008 was just a day away, and the ushering in of new beginnings seemed to foster hope for everyone. Bears fans will have to pray that the promise and heart shown in the season's final two games will return the team to glory in '08. But for now, we'll have to wait…7 months this time.