Dan Murphy: Football’s ‘Feel-Good’ Preseason

Sports media search for stories in football's pre-season. ( Farm Journal )

As the 2018 NFL preseason gets underway, reporters are once again angling for “human interest” stories and up-close-and-personal profiles to supplement the less-than satisfying coverage of exhibition games where the scores don’t matter and the majority of participants won’t be around on Sept. 1, when all 32 teams have to pare their rosters to just 53 players.

That means fans get fed lots of stories like these:

  • The heart-tugging tale of Cowboys’ first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch — a football player who has never attended an NFL game! Oh, the humanity! Seems Vander Esch grew up in Riggins, Idaho, an 11-hour drive away from the nearest NFL stadium in Seattle, and he never got to go to a game. Not sure how he survived adolescence, but I’m guessing the story provides exhaustive details.
  • The backstory of former NFL GM Bobby Beathard’s unique walk-on music at his Hall of Fame ceremony this summer, thanks to a country song, cleverly titled “Hall of Fame,” written by his son Casey and performed by his grandson Tucker. And if that’s not fascinating enough, the article also noted that Tucker’s brother, C.J., the 49ers back-up quarterback, said his grandfather was “one of my biggest role models.” Who could have guessed?
  • The first NFL season where New York Giants fans will be able to place a (legal) wager on the outcome of the game right from their seats inside Meadowlands stadium, thanks to the fantasy sports company DraftKings, which created an app that allows New Jersey residents to place bets on their smartphones. Unfortunately from the perspective of journalistic rigor, the NFL did not respond to reporters’ requests for further comments about this breakthrough in betting.

Another article in this soft, fuzzy genre is an ESPN.com piece titled, “Dreaming of a burger: Two Rams’ quest to go meat-free.” The story details the dietary journeys of wide receivers Brandin Cooks and Cooper Kupp, who, according to the story, “are trying to eliminate as much meat as possible from their diet(s).”

“For the most part, I am vegan,” Cooks said. “Definitely no egg or dairy for me, just because my body, it has a sensitivity to that.”

That restriction, however, created the challenge of getting enough protein for Cooks to maintain his weight during the league’s grueling regular season, the article noted.

So what does the 5’10” 189-pound Cooks eat instead of red meat? How about gluten- and egg-free pasta with marinara sauce, quinoa, brown rice and beans, sometimes with pieces of grilled chicken, along with kale and spinach. Plus, lots and lots of vegan protein shakes.

I’ll venture that those choices probably work well for Cooks, but it doesn’t sound all that practical for those of us who aren’t millionaire athletes.

As for Kupp, he explained that “he grew perplexed” last year during his rookie season, as sportswriters continually questioned him from about “hitting the rookie wall.”

“That never happened,” the article explained, because he “implemented a diet in which fish is the only animal-based protein.”

According to Rams’ dietician Joey Blake, “The omega 3 fatty acid in fish was key in Kupp’s ability to recover after enduring the physicality of games.”

A Terrible Fish Story
So far, the pescatarian diet seems to be working for Kupp, but I can’t help but remember another West Coast athlete who famously abandoned red meat for a fish-based diet: Bill Walton.

Walton, a two-time NCAA champion, three-time College Player of the year and leader of the 1977 NBA champion Portland Trailblazers, was described in a 1990 profile in The Seattle Times as “maybe the best center to play the game,“ a multi-talented player who could “thread passes through crowds, had hands that were magnets for rebounds and a shooting touch that was as soft as snow. He could run the court like a deer. And he played the game with passion and intellect.”

All that intellect led Walton to abandon red meat soon after he turned pro, instead substituting salmon as the centerpiece of his diet. However, almost immediately after that championship season 41 years ago, Walton began a run of nearly a decade in which he suffered from continuous stress fractures in his feet, enduring by his count some 30 surgeries, culminating in an ankle fusion procedure that ended his basketball playing.

Not just his NBA career — all basketball, since after that surgery, Walton can no longer flex his ankle.

Now, Big Bill isn’t the only 7-footer whose career was derailed by orthopedic problems. Ironically, 10 years after drafting Walton, the Blazers passed on Michael Jordan and instead chose University of Kentucky center Sam Bowie in the 1984 NBA draft. Successive leg and foot injuries limited Bowie to only 63 games in his four years with Portland.

Jordan … well, we know how his career developed.

Now, I’m not suggesting that dumping red meat in favor of fish was solely responsible for Walton’s career-ending injuries.

But for a guy whose passion for avoiding meat was exceeded only by his infatuation with the Grateful Dead, it sure seems like more than a coincidence that as soon as Walton abandoned the athletes’ traditional training table, the Basketball Gods saw fit to turn his metatarsals into Swiss cheese.

Another food that Cooks and Kupp have decided to avoid.

At their own peril, I’m just sayin’.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.