Alex Podlogar

Thinking outside the pressbox

June 12, 2009

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Williams is model of perfection

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February 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Above The Fold

I am Alex Podlogar, the sports editor for The Sanford Herald in Sanford, N.C. I have been a sports editor for two North Carolina newspapers with circulations around 10,000-12,000 for 11 years and have been recognized eight times by the N.C. Press Association eight times for my work. The honors include nods for sports columns, sports feature writing, spot sports news reporting and tab design. My experience covers all things prep sports, but also includes two U.S. Opens in Pinehurst as well as the U.S. Women’s Open. I keep a newspaper-affiliated blog and host the county’s sports talk radio show, The PODcast.

You can find my resume among the links at left as well as several past clips that have appeared in The Sanford Herald. Please feel free to contact me at apodlogar@charter.net.

February 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Cubs fan going crazy

Published in The Sanford Herald on July 27, 2008

By ALEX PODLOGAR

Sports Column

They’re never on time. Never. How does this happen? How? How come you never get called back to see the doctor at the time of your appointment? If you have the first appointment of the day, do you get called back late then?

Come to think of it, I’ve never had the first appointment of the day in anything that requires an appointment. Not a doctor, not a dentist, not even a mechanic. Do “first appointments” even exist?

These are some of the questions that go through your head as you sit here, leafing through months-old Sports Illustrateds.

Oh look, there’s the one with Kosuke Fukudome on the cover. That was early May.

Ah, May. The Chicago Cubs were in first place, despite Alfonso Soriano getting off to a horrendous start. Then he caught fire, and the Cubs held on to first place. Then he got hurt. Then the All-Star break came and went. Then the Milwaukee Brewers stopped losing. The St. Louis Cardinals kept winning. Then the 5-game lead disappeared. Then the panic. The kicking things. The sleepness nights. Then the wife’s phone call to the pyschol…

“Mr. … um, Poad-logger? Uh, Alex? Hi. Did I get that right?”

“Close enough.”

“The doctor will see you now.”

“OK.”

Leather couch? Check. Legal pad? Check. Tweed sweater? Check.

Just like in the movies.

May as well hit the couch. I’d be more comfortable in the chair, but there’s a couch, and well, aren’t you supposed to be on the couch?

Waiting.

Waiting.

Wringing hands.

Sheets and Sabathia. Sabathia and Sheets. Braun. Pujols. Hart. Ludwick, Hardy, Wainright…

OK, calm down. Nobody plays until 8 tonight.

Deep breath.

Door opening. Wire-rim reading glasses? Check.

“So, Mr. … um, Poad-loj-er. Uh, Alex. Hi there. How’d I do?”

“Pod-lo-gar. Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, I’m Dr. Kendall. Your wife called to set up the appointment. Glad you could make it.”

“Kendall, huh? Like the catcher.”

“Excuse me?”

“The Brewers’ catcher, Jason Kendall.”

“Um, yes. OK. Well, that’s kind of why we’re here, isn’t it?”

“Because Jason Kendall bats ninth, behind the pitcher? Or because the Cardinals do the same thing? You want to break that down?”

“Do you?”

“Already have. Several times.”

“How does that make you feel?”

“Like the sample size isn’t large enough to determine whether it’s really a good idea or not yet.”

“Well, uh, OK. So, have you always liked baseball?”

“Love it.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s the best of all sports. At least it is to me. I like the nuances.”

“Tell me about that.”

“Well, you know, the simple stuff. There’s no clock. The defense possesses the ball. Why 2-1 is a good count to hit-and-run. When to bunt. When not to bunt. The hanging slider. Everything.”

“And why the Cubs?”

“WGN. Harry Caray. My family got cable when I was 8. I’d come home from school, and there they were, on TV already. Or in the summer, all the day games. They started at 2. The Cubs were always on, and I loved baseball. Harry was funny even to an 8-year-old. They had Ryne Sandberg. And they were good. Won the division that year and could’ve been in the World Series. Until Leon Durham happened.”

“They’re good now too, right?”

“Well, they’ve been good for the first two-thirds of the season. Now they seem like they’re falling apart. All of a sudden they can’t hit. Ramirez and Fukudome look lost. D-Lee can’t hit on the road. Soto may have hit the rookie wall. They’re pitching fine, but Woody’s got a lingering blister. Soriano just came back, and when he’s hot, he’s great. But he can strike out four times a night, too. And center field has been something of a mess. And don’t get me started on Bob Howry.”

“But they are still in first place.”

“For now.”

“What makes you think they won’t hold on?”

“Are you kidding?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, have you heard of the Chicago Cubs? Does Steve Bartman ring a bell? Although Bartman gets a raw deal. Why Alex Gonzalez doesn’t get more heat for blowing a double-play ball right after that, I’ll never know. But there’s more. How about Will Clark hitting about .680 against us in the 1989 NLCS? The billy goat? The black cat? 1969? 1908? They haven’t won a World Series in 100 freaking years!

“And you think that has something to do with the 2008 team?”

“You know what? I don’t. I really don’t. Curses are stupid. But this team is flawed. Especially when Jason Marquis takes the hill.”

“You think the season’s going to end badly?”

“In a word, yes.”

“I don’t understand. Why?”

“Because it always does. I can’t explain it, but it always does. And usually in the most crushing fashion imaginable. Like last year, when we got swept in the first round. I mean, it’s been 100 years.”

“So why bother?”

“Huh?”

“Why bother following the Cubs? Why not choose another team, like the Red Sox?”

“Choose another team? Choose another team?! Doc, I think this session is over.”

“We have 15 more minutes. Hang on.”

“Hang on? No offense sir, but you can’t just go around picking teams here and there because they happen to be good.”

“Wouldn’t that make you happier?”

“To be a bandwagon-jumper? No thanks, Doc. There’s nothing worse.”

“Maybe you don’t want to be happy.”

“What are getting at?”

“Aren’t the Cubs known as the ‘Lovable Losers’? And you, like so many others, have stuck with them through thick and thin. Mostly thin, right?”

“Gee, thanks, Doc.”

“Listen to me. If the Cubs were to win a championship, how would you feel?”

“Like buying everything that had ‘Cubs’ and ‘World Champions’ on it.”

“Would you? Or would you lose something? Something like your identity as a fan. Maybe Cubs fans revel in their collective misery. It’s your trademark. It defines you as a fan. You feel like you’re sports’ — all of sports’ — best fans because you never turn away from your team, no matter how many times they break your heart.”

“Um, Doc, I think you and I need to trade places. Maybe you should lie down here for a while.”

“Think about it Mr. … uh, Alex.”

“You really think I’d feel like I lost something, other than my access to the credit card, if the Cubs won it all? That I’d feel worse if the Cubs won the World Series?”

“You wouldn’t have anything left to complain about.”

“And that’s a bad thing? Really, I’m paying for this?”

“Food for thought, Alex.”

“I think my time is up. Thanks, Doc, this really helped. I’ll make sure not to schedule another appointment on my way out.”

“Think about it.”

“OK, answer me one question, Doc. When things are going badly for the Cubs, would a fan who desperately wants them to win turn away from the game on TV? Turn off the online gamecast? Be so angry that he wants to kick something? Fail to sleep at night knowing another game was lost in the standings? Thinks changing his watch might break the losing streak?”

“That was five questions, Alex. And I think we have a lot to discuss. I’ll see you next week.”

“Would Thursday work? I have my first anger-management seminar on Wednesday. My boss thinks I need that for some reason. He should talk. He’s a Pirates fan.”

February 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cavaliers stun Trojans in first round

Published in The Sanford Herald on November 10, 2008

By ALEX PODLOGAR

Sports Coverage

FOUR OAKS — One small step in a tournament, one giant leap for a program.

The Southern Lee Cavaliers just keep making history.

In only their second year and in the state playoffs for the second time, the Cavaliers did the unthinkable — they knocked off No. 2 seed South Johnston, advancing to the second round of the NCHSAA State 3-A Football Tournament after clipping the Cape Fear Valley Conference champion Trojans 24-21 on Friday night.

For a program that seems on the verge of breaking a school record each time it steps onto the field, Southern Lee won its first playoff game in school history and sent the biggest shock wave through the entire state of North Carolina, becoming the highest seed to win in the first round in any of the eight tournaments.

“I’m so proud of the guys,” said Cavaliers star running back Raymond Brown, who rushed for 100 yards on 17 carries. “We’ve worked so hard, practiced so hard. We knew we were ready. I’m just speechless. This is just an incredible feeling.”

The Cavaliers (7-5) never trailed, taking a 7-0 lead on James Butler’s 9-yard run with 10:57 remaining in the second quarter to take that same lead into the half.

The scoring picked up mightily in the second half, and after a wild opening minute of the third quarter that featured three turnovers, both teams settled in and traded scores.

Southern Lee led by 10 points twice, setting another school record with the first field goal in the program’s history, a 23-yarder by Cameron Reed, who didn’t even begin the season as the placekicker.

As the final seconds ticked down, South Johnston (10-2) unable to do a thing about them, most of the Cavaliers raised their hands to the air in triumph. The visiting sideline emptied as the clock showed zeros, the team rushing to the middle of the field to celebrate in a stadium in  which they lost 40-14 a year ago to a team that beat them 29-25 in Sanford on Oct. 5.

“These kids are amazing. And they’ve done amazing things all year,” said Cavaliers coach Bryan Lee. “And one of the most amazing things they did was that they came to practice this week, and it didn’t matter to them that they were a No. 15 seed. It didn’t matter that most of them were just second-year varsity football players and it didn’t matter that they had to go on the road to face the No. 2 seed.

“I’m just elated, but it hasn’t really sunk in yet. We did it. That team over there was our conference’s champ, and they’re putting their equipment up for the year. I don’t mean any disrespect by that, but it’s incredible to think that we made that happen.”

South Johnston coach Joe Salas, who said following the Trojans’ win in Sanford that Southern Lee would be dangerous in the first round, was unavailable for comment.

Jeremy McLeod, after playing lockdown defense on star wide receiver Dee Walden in the first half, returned to the offense in the second half and rushed eight times for 89 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown run that gave the Cavaliers a 14-0 lead with 4:20 remaining in the third quarter.

South Johnston answered quickly with an 18-yard run by Tony Davis to cut the margin to seven 30 seconds before the end of the third period, but Southern Lee’s Joey Cherry pounced on an onside kick to give the Cavaliers possession near midfield.

Southern Lee managed to move the ball inside the 5-yard line, but on fourth-and-1, Lee sent out the kicking unit for only the second field goal attempt of the season.

Reed made the decision a good one, splitting the uprights for a 17-7 with 6 minutes to go.

“Our special teams have taken a beating all year long,” Lee said. “But we got every onside kick, we made every extra point and Cameron’s field goal was the difference in the game.”

But South Johnston wasn’t done.

The Trojans scored in two plays and needed only 30 seconds, getting an 8-yard touchdown run from Josh Snead to make it 17-14. That brought South Johnston closer to the Cavaliers than they had been in the entire game with 5:25 left.

Again, the Cavaliers snapped up the onside kick try, this time it was Demetrius McIver hauling it in. Then it was McLeod’s turn again. The shifty back who was the team’s leading rusher as a freshman during its junior varsity season three years ago went 30 yards on one play and then scored from 5 yards out to give Southern Lee another 10-point edge, 24-14, with 3:05 to go.

“I was fresh in the second half,” McLeod said. “Raymond told me I had to step up, and I stepped up.”

South Johnston answered once more, getting a fortuitous pass interference penalty on fourth down to keep the drive alive before Pat Dunigan hooked up with Walden for a 25-yard touchdown.

Still ahead by three, Princeton Tabon caught the third onside kick try, and after a first down, the Cavaliers could begin dreaming about the second round.

“There are a lot of teams sitting at home now and we’re in the second round,” Lee said. “Anybody who still has doubts, shouldn’t. But we’d like to plant our flag here and keep on going. That’s our plan.”

And with each step, the Cavaliers will be making history.

February 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Panthers too much for upset-minded Cavaliers

Published in The Sanford Herald on March 2, 2008

By ALEX PODLOGAR

Sports Coverage

GREENSBORO — Akeem Richmond tried.

The two-time All-State performer kept running off screens, kept running down loose balls and falling out of bounds, kept pleading with his teammates to stay in the game, to stay with him. He kept rising up for shots, usually with hands in his face, and kept trying to knock them down and give his Southern Lee Cavaliers a chance.

He barreled through the lane, slicing between two defenders, using a hard dribble to create a sliver of extra space and then softly laid a shot high off the glass, drawing contact and the whistle. The next trip down the floor, he rose from behind the arc, waiting that slim split-second longer until his defender started his gravitational slip downward to release the feathery shot, which was good as soon as it left his hand.

And then he did it again. The same way. The same hope when it left his hands, the same roar from the visiting faithful when it fell through.

And yes, he would do it again. Again. Catch. Rise. Wait. Release. Hope. Swish.

Tied.

Tied at 51 with 1:12 to go in the third quarter, the Southern Lee Cavaliers were on the road in a gym that had witnessed its team win eight straight sectional championships. The Cavaliers’ star had just scored his team’s last 12 points and mighty Dudley, winners of two of the last three state championships, was on the ropes in its own building.

And then a freshman took over.

A freshman.

Richmond had 21 points in the second half alone, keeping his Cavaliers in the game almost by himself to score a game-high 30.

It wasn’t enough.

Dudley won its ninth straight sectional title, advancing to the eastern regional semifinals behind 21 points and 17 rebounds from super frosh P.J. Harriston in an 80-67 victory on Friday night.

“It was a heckuva ballgame,” said Dudley coach David Price. “Two teams that made the regionals last year, and it’s a shame that one of us had to go home.”

The Panthers (27-2) led throughout the game, using a huge size advantage in the paint to control the boards and push back every Cavaliers’ charge, even Richmond’s. Dudley held a commanding 53-29 edge on the glass, running up a 12-point lead early in the second quarter before taking a 36-30 edge at the half.

The Cavaliers (26-4), who lost to Dudley 76-60 in Greensboro on Dec. 20, mounted several mini comebacks, none more impressive though than the one engineered by Richmond and his team’s suffocating defense, the same defense that sparked nine points in 22 seconds in a critical run the night before.

“The kid played a heckuva game,” Cavaliers coach Chris Cherry said of Richmond’s performance. “He did it on the biggest stage. He played like a superstar tonight.”

But no response was more emphatic or demoralizing to the Cavaliers than the one orchestrated by the 6-foot-6 Harriston. With Richmond on fire and Southern Lee believing it could pull off the impossible, Harriston brought the Dudley faithful to its feet.

In the third quarter’s final 72 seconds after Richmond had tied it at 51, Harriston scored on an offensive put-back, had a steal at midcourt that he took the rest of the way for a dazzling layup while being fouled, and kept an offensive possession alive with another board that was kicked out to Marcus Heath, who buried his fourth 3-pointer of the game to cap a brilliant 8-0 spurt that handed the Panthers a 59-51 lead entering the final period.

“That was the critical point in the game,” Cherry said. “(Harriston) kept a couple of possessions alive with two, three rebounds at a time, and then we threw it away and they hit that big 3. But that’s what good teams do. They take advantage of things like that, and that’s what Dudley did.”

A layup by Brandon Pennix to open the fourth quarter stretched the Dudley lead to 10, and though the Cavaliers continued to make gutsy efforts to get back into the game — Richmond added nine points in the fourth quarter after his binge in the third — Southern Lee never got closer than five points the rest of the way.

“The game was really tough,” Richmond said. “All in all, I thought we played well. But we knew we needed to play perfectly to beat them, and we didn’t do that. But we gave all we had. I’m proud of our team.”

Dudley, which fell to Kinston in the regional finals a year ago, will play Northern Vance, which beat Rocky Mount 77-74 on Friday night, next week in Greenville.

Pennix added 12 points and 13 boards for the Panthers while Heath added 19 points and eight rebounds. Ricky Smith chipped in 12 points and seven rebounds.

Aaron Mellette had eight points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots for the Cavaliers while Darrell Alston shook off foul trouble to add 11 points in one of his finest all-around performances of the season.

“The kids laid it all on the line,” Cherry said. “We were neck-and-neck with them for 27, 28 minutes.”

Ultimately, it was the Cavaliers who would rise up, hope for a moment, and then fall back.

February 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Parent: son a victim of crime

Published in The Sanford Herald on January 12, 2009

By ALEX PODLOGAR

Sports Coverage

SANFORD — Thomas Shoop, the father of Southern Lee junior football player Blade Shoop, plans to address the Lee County Board of Education at its meeting tonight about what he says was a crime committed against his son on the school’s campus.

Shoop also alleges verbal abuse and bullying on the part of first-year coach Bill Maczko.

Thomas Shoop contends that on Nov. 13, 2008, unknown persons entered the school’s varsity locker room and cut locks off of lockers and vandalized and stole student property, including Blade’s. Citing a U.S. Department of Education policy that states one cannot willfully or maliciously destroy, damage, deface, or otherwise injure real or personal property without the consent of the owner, Shoop says that his son and others who had their lockers cut and left open are victims of a crime.

According to Lee County Schools Public Information Officer Sharon Spence, Southern Lee football players were given a deadline to turn in football-related equipment back to the school. Spence says that after repeated announcements for the return of the equipment, those students who had failed to do so had their lockers opened in order to search for the football-related items.

Spence says though that Blade Shoop, who is a current member of the wrestling team, had his locker opened mistakenly and that Lee County Schools has reimbursed the Shoops and admits a mistake was made.

“The staff has admitted that it made a mistake,” Spence said. “We apologized. We reimbursed the family and admit that a mistake was made because the student was on the wrestling team.”

Lee County Schools has a policy regarding the search of a student’s personal property and maintains that a search can be conducted “whenever a school authority has reasonable grounds for suspecting that the search will turn up evidence that the student has violated or is violating a law or school rule.”

But Thomas Shoop says that the incident was not reported to the Southern Lee administration and that Principal Rob Dietrich only became aware of it after Shoop had requested a meeting with the principal by sending an invoice demanding payment for vandalized or stolen articles. Shoop says he learned of the incident after having been told of it by his son.

Shoop, who says he has been paid in full the $153.50 he requested in his invoice, believes his son may have been singled out because of concerns he and others have brought to the Southern Lee administration over the treatment of players by Maczko.

Near the end of the 2008 football season, Shoop says he and other parents of Cavaliers football players discussed putting together a petition to give to the school’s administration detailing their concerns of verbal abuse and bullying by Maczko. Shoop says he drafted the petition but did not circulate it. He says he doesn’t know how many signatures are on the petition, but claims they fill up “two pages worth.”

The petition, in a copy obtained by The Herald, states that the signed “are extremely concerned about the teaching, coaching and negative leadership of the current head football coach, Bill Maczko. There is ample reason to question Coach Maczko’s temperament, behavior, conduct and judgment. His tirades, screaming and belittling high-school level student-athletes have not gone unnoticed by parents and supporters, and are unacceptable. In spite of obvious warning signs of a major problem, it is somewhat troubling that Southern Lee High School has failed to confront Coach Maczko’s aberrant and destructive behavior.”

“It really got abusive,” Thomas Shoop said of Maczko. “There was profanity, name-calling — I mean, it was really a bullying, intimidating situation.”

Spence says that no bullying has been reported to the board.

“We have not heard anything to the level of bullying,” she said.

Shoop says that within “days” of turning the petition in to Dietrich, the incident with the lockers occurred, and believes that if Blade Shoop was singled out because of his father’s involvement with the petition, that a Lee County Schools policy against retaliation by an employee following the report of a violation of federal, state or local law, regulation or public policy then was violated.

“I presented (the petition) to Mr. Dietrich as a courtesy copy, kind of a read-ahead, and what transpired next was actually an escalation of abuse teetering on whistle-blower reprisal and, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education, a violent crime against my child,” Thomas Shoop said.

Shoop says that he does not know who cut the locks, but knows the locker room incident was witnessed by a varsity player. Shoop did not name the player.

Dietrich and Southern Lee Athletic Director Cletis Gore did not comment on Shoop’s allegations that a crime occurred or concerns about abuse and directed questions to the school system’s central office.

Maczko also had no comment on either the locks being cut or the charges of verbal abuse. He also directed all questions to the central office.

Thomas Shoop says that he intends to address the board because a violent act occurred against his son on school property.

“The facts are that the Lee County board has a policy that defines bullying, that the State Board of Education mandates that teachers adhere to a Code of Ethics and that the vandalism that occurred on the 13th is identified by the U.S. Department of Education as a violent crime,” Shoop said. “And I’m just going to leave it in the board’s hands to do what they will.”

“You have to believe that one of two things occurred: either anyone can walk around Southern Lee High School with bolt-cutters unchallenged, or school employees have unrestricted access to bolt-cutters,“ Shoop added. “One scenario is not any better than the other. But the logical conclusion is why is Southern Lee High School tolerating this kind of vandalism, bullying and violence and unethical behavior? And why has it gone unreported? The failure to report a crime is a crime.”

Spence says that Thomas Shoop will be given an opportunity to speak to the board and is on tonight’s agenda to make his presentation.

“The board and staff will be listening on Tuesday,” she said.

February 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Birds of a Feather

Published in The Sanford Herald on February 1, 2009

By ALEX PODLOGAR

Sports Column

They get together every year now.

Before 2007, that didn’t happen. After all, the morning after the team he owns, the Arizona Cardinals, punched its ticket for the franchise’s first Super Bowl, notoriously frugal owner Bill Bidwill drank day-old coffee — grounds that were made 24 hours earlier, and rewarmed twice.

But he said he drank it smiling, so there’s that.

Since Bill’s boy Michael took over football operations, though, former Cardinals, be they of the Chicago variety, who last won the franchise a championship in 1947, or the St. Louis form, who shared a name and a city for nearly three decades with the more popular — and certainly more prolific — baseball team, are treated like the heroes dads of the X-Generationers wistfully believe they are.

Steve Jones is one of those guys. One of these birds of a feather.

And so when he was invited in the fall to fly out to Phoenix for a weekend bash of Old Timers, he jumped at the opportunity. Put up in a swanky hotel, Jones rubbed shoulders with the men who opened holes for him, a unit that once included the still-mountainous, thoughly slightly softened blocks of granite like Hall of Famer Dan Dierdorf and three-time Pro Bowler Conrad Dobler, considered by lore as the one of the game’s dirtiest players.

On that Sunday, they went to a game at the palatial University of Phoenix Stadium. Astroturf, the stuff that doesn’t look like grass but does indeed feel like rock, the knee-grinding mistake that blanketed the concrete and served as the playing field for many of them, was nowhere to be found.

And there, before him, Jones could see it.

That same logo, on that same helmet.

That same red jersey, though maybe a slightly different — let’s call it cleaner; brighter, definitely — shade of crimson.

And those white lines, charting the gridiron. White lines that were the same as the ones he played on and in between in Sanford. In Durham. In Buffalo backing up O.J. Simpson for a year.

In St. Louis.

Steve Jones may be Lee County’s most decorated athlete. Some may say NASCAR champion Herb Thomas, and they could make an argument. But Jones’ case would hold water. He led Paul Gay’s Sanford Central teams to three state championships from 1966-to-1968. His high school record as the standout running back? 42-2-1. From there, Jones ran roughshod over the ACC at Duke, setting a school record with 2,951 yards rushing, a mark that stood for 31 years until Chris Douglas finally came along and broke it in 2003. Duke honored Jones by enshrining him in the University’s Hall of Fame in 1992.

“He could have been a college star as a linebacker, could have played there in the pros,” Gay said when Jones was inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 2006. “He was a great athlete, a hard worker and one of the most knowledgeable players I ever coached.”

But Jones kept running — on offense. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the fifth round of the 1973 draft, the 129th player selected. He was traded to St. Louis, though, and later waived to Buffalo, just in time to see Simpson’s rewriting of the record books with the historic 2,003-yard season.

Jones joined the Cardinals a year later. And get this — the Cardinals were good.

Yes, the Cardinals. The team that has now lost 674 regular season games, or, as ghastly as it may seem to point out, 105 more than the Detroit Lions. The team that, should it beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and win Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday, would double the 88-year-old franchise’s previous number of playoff wins in a single postseason.

Jones didn’t tote the rock much in ’74, but he rushed 54 times for 275 yards and two touchdowns in ’75 when the Cards and coach Don Coryell won the NFC East with an 11-3 record. That put Jones and Dierdorf and quarterback Jim Hart in elite Cardinals company — Cardinals players with a playoff resume. Sure, St. Louis lost to the Rams 35-23 in the divisional round, but Jones scored a touchdown on a 3-yard scamper.

It was the last Cardinals’ postseason touchdown for seven years.

Jones was even better in 1976, rushing for a career-high 451 yards and eight touchdowns as the Cards missed the playoffs, but finished 10-4 and second in the division. Two years later, however, even after rushing for 392 yards in 1978 as the Cards spiraled into mediocrity, Jones was out of football because of a neck injury. He played in 63 games, covered 1,204 yards of NFL real estate running the football, and 629 yards of it after catching the ball. He hit paydirt — the end zone — 17 times.

The Cardinals played on without Jones, who would remain in the St. Louis area and work later for Anheuser-Busch. They would make the playoffs just twice more, winning only once, and trail only baseball’s lovable losers, the Chicago Cubs, in the most dreaded of all professional statistics — years since its last championship. Even a move to sun-drenched Arizona in 1988 couldn’t put a shine on the Cards, whose title-drought clock is ticking at 61 years.

But here they are now, these Cardinals. Armed with smart draft picks, a ring-wearing veteran quarterback and a no-nonsense and skilled coach, the Birds clinched the NFC West division title two-thirds of the way through the season. And then they clipped a wing, limping into the playoffs having lost four of their last six games.

But, out of nowhere it seemed, the team rose like a… well, like a phoenix. Three improbable playoff wins later, the Cards are, for a change, on the doorstep of history, not the doormat of it.

And Jones, from his perch in the St. Louis area, retired from football and from work, is still watching.

“I am so glad to see them make the Super Bowl, especially after they played so poorly at the end of the season,” Jones said by telephone from his home. “To come back like they did, and the long, long layoff from any playoff appearance, to make their first Super Bowl, I’m happy for the franchise and for the players.”

The franchise. It began in Chicago, lesser appreciated than the crosstown Bears, but loved by the Mob. A franchise that once fired a coach by changing the locks on his office at halftime of a game.

The players. They make millions now, many of them do. Some of them celebrate first downs. Have groups of hangers-on some call posses. One might even scream at his offensive coordinator as the team wins the NFC Championship, angry that he wasn’t on the field for the game-winning drive that clinched the Super Bowl berth.

Very different than in Jones’ day.

But very similar, too.

That logo.

That helmet.

That jersey.

That franchise.

“It’s like I heard Dan Dierdorf and Jim Hart talking,” Jones said, “we never thought we’d ever hear ‘Cardinals’ and ‘Super Bowl’ in the same sentence.”

He’ll watch the big game with a few family and friends, the 57-year-old grandfather of two will. He likes to hear the announcers, follow the action and keep from being distracted from the exploits on the screen by the crush of a crowded party.

Here in Sanford, you don’t have to dig deep into the soil, even under the most manicured of football fields, like the one in the stadium that bears Coach Gay’s name, to find clay.

And like that clay, with a few short strokes, there underneath the mild manner, the softly spoken words, even the grounded anticipation of the world’s greatest sporting spectacle, in Steve Jones, still to this day, even with them some 1,500 miles west of his home, you will find the Cardinals.

His Cardinals.

February 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment