Sunday, December 11, 2016

Lamar Jackson: 2016 Heisman Trophy Winner

NEW YORK -- Louisville came ready to promote quarterback Lamar Jackson at ACC media day in July, with a slew of notepads emblazoned with his name and picture placed right next to the school's football guide.

The move was bold and rarer still considering Jackson was about to begin his true sophomore season and had seven career starts. But coach Bobby Petrino felt so strongly about his young quarterback that he gave the go-ahead to begin promoting Jackson.

Among the 28 players gathered, Jackson was the only sophomore. But he never betrayed his age. He smiled but said little, a player known more for his highlights than his sound bites. Still, it is hard to imagine that anybody in Louisville could have envisioned what was about to unfold.

Week 1. Charlotte. Jackson scored on a 36-yard touchdown run on the opening drive. Then he delivered another score and another. Eight touchdowns -- including six passing -- and 405 total yards later, one name resonated across the country: Lamar Jackson.

What a whirlwind season for Louisville's Lamar Jackson, who led the Heisman Trophy race for almost the entire season. Mark Zerof/USA TODAY Sports
After that game, Jackson tried to exit the stadium but couldn't because fans swarmed him for autographs. A Louisville official noticed and told those assembled that Jackson needed to get going for treatment, whisking him away.

He asked Jackson how long he'd been standing there signing. "Twenty minutes," Jackson said. He would have kept on signing had nobody intervened, but Louisville realized after one week that it had a phenomenon on its hands.

His legend only grew after an otherworldly performance against Syracuse, in which he had 610 yards and five touchdowns and his signature Heisman moment: the Lamar Leap that has been immortalized by a photo of him in midair with his legs outstretched.

At the following home game against Florida State, Jackson made the Seminoles look woefully unprepared for his skills in the run game. He again piled up the yards and touchdowns. His 47-yard run through the middle of the Florida State defense ended with a spin off two defenders at the goal line for his last score of the game.

It was an almost incomprehensible site: an under-the-radar prospect from Florida making four- and five-star defenders -- many from his home state -- look completely and totally lost.

When Lamar Jackson started football at 8 years old, his mother knew he had a gift. She did everything from making him run drills on the beach to putting on pads herself to ensure he was the best.

Knowing a throng of fans would be waiting for Jackson after the game, Louisville officials had him jump into a car. One fan with two helmets begged for Jackson to sign them. Jackson politely declined. When the car started to pull away, the man put one helmet on, carried the other in his arms and ran after the car, screaming for it to stop. Louisville decided in early October that autographs would be off-limits.

Jackson remained nonplussed as the hype started to build. More people started to recognize him on campus, at the mall and in restaurants. He politely smiled but quickly learned it would be best to stay in his room and play video games in the few free moments he had.

He didn't turn on the television to watch his own highlights or hear what analysts thought about him.

"I tried not to pay attention to it, just tried to go out there and win games," Jackson said. "If you fall off, anything can happen. Just got to keep grinding."

There is a reason for that. Jackson grew up with a mom who emphasized character, humbleness, work ethic and drive. He didn't go to parties growing up; he rarely went out anywhere unless his mom approved.

She wanted him to stay focused on living up to the potential she saw in him from an early age. They worked out six days a week, often multiple times a day. He would complain often; she did not care. She coached him and trained him, and she raised him, alternating roles with ease. When anybody asks Jackson how he reached this point, the only answer he gives is: "my mom."

As Jackson dominated each opponent he faced, the question became: How best to stop him? One reporter asked Syracuse coach Dino Babers a few weeks after the teams played, and he responded with blunt honesty: "Based off of our performance, I don't have the right to give an opinion on that."

Florida State could not stop him, either, and neither could Clemson. Although the Cardinals lost to the Tigers, Jackson cemented his name atop Heisman lists with his 457-yard, three-touchdown performance against the reigning ACC champions.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe laid out the perfect game plan in late October, deciding it would be best to limit Jackson's possessions. The plan nearly worked. Duke was the first team to hold Jackson to fewer than three touchdowns, but afterward, Cutcliffe could not stop raving about the quarterback he had just seen. He wondered aloud, "How'd he get out of Florida?"

Simple, really. Jackson emerged on the high school scene late, after transferring to Boynton Beach High. Then-coach Rick Swain called up a former player of his, then-Louisville assistant Lamar Thomas, and told him he needed to see Jackson. Thomas was sold. He went to Petrino. But Petrino didn't think he needed another quarterback on his roster.

Thomas tried again, deciding his best course of action was to convince Petrino that Jackson was a passer -- not just a running quarterback. Thomas had Swain rearrange Jackson's high school tape to start with the passing highlights. Petrino was finally convinced, and he sold Jackson and his mom on the opportunity to play right away under a coach noted for his ability to develop quarterbacks.

And so the under-the-radar Jackson went off to Louisville, determined to play and start as a true freshman. He did, though he did not fully assert himself as the quarterback of the future until the end of the 2015-16 season. His three-touchdown performance in a comeback win over Kentucky showed that he was ready to take charge. After that game, Petrino sat Jackson down and explained what he needed to do to prepare for the upcoming bowl game against Texas A&M.

They had four weeks. That meant studying as much tape as he could. That meant taking detailed notes about what he saw. That meant evaluating his own tape, breaking down all the good plays and all the bad plays. That meant working more on his mechanics during practice, starting with his footwork.

Jackson, in a never-ending quest for perfection, listened and learned. He dedicated himself to that bowl game, and when he took the field against the Aggies, he was virtually unrecognizable. Jackson ran here, and he threw the ball over there, a sudden conundrum for the A&M defense that it never quite solved.

When the game ended, Jackson had set Music City Bowl records for rushing (226 yards) and total offense (453), and he had his name linked with Vince Young and Johnny Manziel as the only quarterbacks to go for 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing in a bowl game.

Those who watched the game keenly understood that Jackson was on the verge of a season few had ever seen. In the Louisville spring game, he threw for 519 yards, and expectations for him and the team started growing. Now you see why Louisville decided to promote Jackson so hard, even with 2015 Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson returning to the ACC.

The season did not unfold perfectly for Jackson, though. With a No. 5 ranking and outside hopes for the College Football Playoff, Louisville traveled to play Houston in mid-November. The team and Jackson had their worst performances of the season. The Louisville offensive line could do nothing to slow Houston, and Jackson had nowhere to go. He ended with season lows in rushing (33) and total yards (244) and tied a season low for touchdowns (1).

The collective thought going into the Kentucky game the next week was that Jackson and the Cards would make up for their poor performance against a rival they had recently dominated. But Kentucky stayed with Louisville every step of the way. Jackson had more than 400 yards but fumbled late in the game deep in Kentucky territory. Louisville lost, and Jackson's Heisman lead didn't seem as certain.

But ultimately, his complete body of work prevailed: an ACC-record 51 total touchdowns, the only player in FBS history with 30 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing touchdowns in a season, the only player in FBS history to go for more than 3,300 yards passing and 1,500 yards rushing in a season.

As one ACC head coach mused recently, "He's the best in the country. And it's not even close."

Name   1st 2nd 3rd Total
1. Lamar Jackson  526 251 64 2144
2. Deshaun Watson 269 302 113 1524
3. Baker Mayfield 26 72 139 361
4. Dede Westbrook 7 49 90 209
5. Jabrill Peppers 11 45 85 208 

Seattle Sounders: 2016 MLS Cup Champions

TORONTO — It was a night of almost unbearable tension, the Sounders virtually willing themselves to stay alive in the MLS Cup final, to give themselves a chance, somehow, some way, when they teetered all night on the brink of disaster.

“Agony,’’ Seattle owner Adrian Hanauer would say later with a laugh, describing the mood for 120 minutes-plus of soccer — and the “plus” was where the ultimate glory came for the Sounders. Agony might be the right word.

The Sounders survived a flurry of scoring opportunities by Toronto FC, which has been an offensive juggernaut in the postseason but couldn’t slip one past heroic Sounders goalie Stefan Frei.

They survived an anxiety-packed extra period that featured a save for the ages by Frei on a tantalizing shot by Jozy Altidore, a scoring machine for weeks. The ball was headed for the corner of the net, headed for a death blow to the Sounders’ gritty comeback season, until Frei made a superhuman leap and barely tipped it away.

“You just try,’’ Frei said of the moment that will be enshrined in the annals of Sounders — and MLS — history. “You try and see. Sometime you surprise yourself to what balls you can actually get.”

And the Sounders survived a round of penalty kicks that was the ultimate in that aforementioned agony, perhaps a goofy way to determine a championship but undeniably a riveting one.

And then finally, when Justin Morrow’s penalty kick went off the cross bar, and Roman Torres’ went past Toronto FC goalie Clint Irwin, the tension and angst and yes, agony, gave way to glorious release.

Then, you had the familiar trappings of ultimate success, predictable to anyone who has watched a title celebration but no less emotional when you see it play out in front of you. The Sounders, who didn’t attempt a single shot on goal in regulation or overtime, are the champions of MLS, and they sang and danced and sprayed champagne in a giddy release made even more cathartic by the bumpy road that led them to the first title in franchise history.

Hanauer said that if someone had told him at midseason, when coach Sigi Schmid had been fired and the Sounders were mired near the bottom of the standings, that this of all years would be the year to hoist the cup … well, “I probably would not have believed them,’’ he admitted.

“This was a rough year, but it just shows that in this league, anything can happen. You can make a midseason run and peak at the right time. What I’m most proud of, and Sigi talked about it in the past as well, is consistency. We put ourselves in position to win it eight years in a row, and this was our year.”

It capped an amazing turnaround under Schmid’s replacement, Brian Schmetzer. The original Sounders coach, Alan Hinton, stood outside the locker room after the match, beaming with paternal pride, and told anyone who would listen, “I hereby anoint Brian Schmetzer king of Seattle!”

If so, then Frei is the crown prince after an MVP performance three years to the day after he was traded to the Sounders from, wait for it, Toronto FC. But after the match, Frei was initially concerned with something as simple as getting warm after enduring the brunt of a brutally cold night, unable to run around like his teammates.

“To be honest, after the game was done, I was so cold,” he said. “It was nice because it kept reminding me it was not a dream.”

Throughout the night, it was intensity writ large, as the Sounders became increasingly cognizant that they could not crack Toronto’s defensive wall. So it became about relentless, desperate defense, throwing their bodies at the task with reckless abandon.

The Sounders, in fact, went the entire first half without a shot, and in essence finished the second half the same way, though they were credited with three on the sheet, none on goal, none offering any semblance of a scoring threat.

Toronto, on the other hand, was in a nearly constant state of attack, only to have Frei thwart chance after chance, seven in all — none more heroic than the one that will be shown for as long as soccer is played in Seattle.

Don’t tell Frei he was the hero, though. He didn’t want to hear that, at a time when he was hearing it a lot.

“I don’t look at it that way,’’ he said. “I did what I’m here to do. I made saves. That’s it. We all worked our butts off today, under difficult conditions which made it maybe not the prettiest game, but we fought hard. We wanted to give it our best, and we did. It took everybody.

“I was happy to make it (the save), but a lot more was needed for us to make it to the playoffs, make it all the way to this game, and then come out with the victory. Everyone was magnificent and had their good moments that accumulated to this success.”

Despite the frigid conditions, with the lake effect off Lake Ontario in full force at BMO Field, the game sizzled with energy from the beginning as bodies crashed into each other and flew through the air. It would be easy to ridicule a scoreless tie in a championship game, but the delicious pressure that permeated the second half, and beyond, made it a spellbinding experience, lack of scoring be damned.

But the Sounders had to score sometime, and Brad Evans, Andreas Ivanschitz, Joevin Jones and Nicolas Lodeiro all put the ball in the net in the penalty-kick phase, leaving the two teams tied at 4-all after five rounds. In sudden death, the Sounders were suddenly given that chance they had been pushing for all night, willing themselves toward. The title was dancing in front of them when Morrow’s shot went astray.

It was up to Torres, and he put it past Irwin to set off a wild celebration on the field.

“We were just joking, because yesterday in practice, (Torres) had a PK and missed it. I saved it,” Frei said. “He was pretty cool about it tonight, pretty calm. I was just praying to the soccer gods, and they answered.”