Faces

That face? The one with the bright red ball on its nose? The one causing those children’s faces to beam for the first time in probably a long time?

That, somehow, is a face of depression.

We all have a scene we initially associate with Robin Williams. Mine is the video above.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more troubled or saddened by a celebrity’s death than when I was sitting at a computer last night and saw the news about Williams pop up on my Twitter timeline. It wasn’t like one man dying to me; it was a myriad of faces who I’ve come to love that seemingly had disappeared. But that’s misguided, because those faces last forever, especially the ones he so brilliantly portrayed.

The real face, the one that matters, is the one we no longer have here with us. Another took that one over. And that’s what troubles me.

I can’t say I’ve ever battled depression. Sure, I’ve been down a time or two. We all have. But to say I’ve consistently dealt with unhappiness in my own life would be a flat-out lie. I have friends, such as the remarkable Megan Armstrong (@meganKarmstrong on Twitter), who have seen darkness I hope to never encounter. The people like Megan, who have come out of that darkness to own it and be a champion for fighting it, are some of the most admirable individuals I can imagine.

Williams, unfortunately, could not come out of that dark place. And when I sit down to ponder that, I realize how much this disease can do. It frightens me.

How many of you did he pull out of some awful times with a simple joke? Or how about one of those trademarked manic freakouts he defined as a performer? Or maybe even a song with plastic dinosaurs as his group?

Maybe it wasn’t even a laugh that was the hand that yanked you out. Maybe it was just the dramatic, slow tug at every heartstring.

I could go on. I tweeted yesterday about multiple incidents I associate with this phenomenal artist, even when he was using a lobster above a pot as his canvas, saying, “I am not a crook. I am not a crook.” But this will never end if I continue. It won’t ease my discomfort that a man full of so much energy and passion for his art would end it all on his own. I shudder at the demons it takes to overpower that amount of sparks.

The only way I do know how any of this could be prevented is pretty simple. If you are at all depressed, hurt, or battling this monumental challenge of sadness too often, talk to someone. Get help. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. Contact me if you want. I may talk your ear off on sports, but I promise, I can be occasionally funny. I can try to help.

Laughter is something sacred to give and share in this world, one of the only cures that doesn’t take a scientific or medicinal form. Williams was like a tree of life for laughter, with each different role branching off into another person’s life to plant another hilarious seed. That will only continue to grow as more and more generations discover his genius. And yes, he was a true genius.

Pure, unfiltered joy filled the room that night. If only the man himself knew how much of that he provided so often. If only he saw all of the faces he lit up in his lifetime.

Rest in peace, Robin Williams. I keep hearing heaven has a beautiful course.

Felix

This had to be it. This had to be the year.

I usually don’t put much into all-star games. They seemed to mean so much more in the past than the showboating glamor contests we see today. But it’s hard to deny how cool it is to see one of your guys be a main attraction for such an event. There are some stars who most fans don’t get to see enough of.

This is why I’m more excited for tomorrow’s MLB All-Star Game than I’ve ever been before. And while I’m particularly ecstatic to watch the effortlessly fantastic Robinson Cano, hat-tilting Fernando Rodney, and finally see the homegrown kid Kyle Seager on this stage, there’s something else I’m looking forward to more:

Felix Hernandez, the heart, soul, and face of the Seattle Mariners will take his rightful spot as the starter for the American League for the first time in his career.

My mom texted me saying the infatuation us Seattle fans have with Felix is a little much. But I don’t really think people understand what the King represents to us as a fan base.

For starters, you’ll notice I’m not going to refer once to Felix Hernandez as Hernandez. That’s a writing sin technically, as you’re usually supposed to only refer to someone by their last name after you’ve already stated their full name. But no Seattle fan would ever call him Hernandez or his full name. With the humble and honestly chill vibe he gives off, he’s just Felix to us. (We don’t mind you acknolwedging the royalty by putting King in front though.)

Why is that? It’s simple, really. After you read profiles like the New York Times’ Greg Bishop and the Seattle Times’ Ryan Divish wrote about Felix, you gain an idea of the kind of guy Felix is. He embraces being the face of the Mariners, a franchise that has for too long been among the laughingstocks of baseball. He’s endeared himself to fans by taking pride and responsibility in that. He has believed and currently believes the laughs from around the baseball world will come to an end. And for some of what he’s had to deal with in his career, you’d really have to figure out why.

The King’s throne in Seattle is one that’s been made up of broken bats, and not just those of his opponents. Over the past five years, here’s where Felix has ranked in Run Support Average per start out of pitchers who pitched a minimum of 220 innings, via ESPN: 50th (2009), 89th (2010), 74th (2011), 83rd (2012), 55th (2013). In his career, he’s had 32 starts where he’s pitched at least seven innings while giving up one earned run or less without getting a decision (28 no decisions, 4 losses). This season has been better for him, currently ranking 12th in Run Support Average and getting an exact average of five runs per start, but there have still been six starts this year where he’s pitched seven innings or more while giving up three runs or less that resulted in a no decision or loss. I like to categorize those under Felix Facepalms.

We’ve also never had the pleasure of watching him pitch in the postseason, or even much meaningful baseball. The Mariners haven’t been in the playoffs since 2001 and have only finished with two records over .500 since 2004. Felix started pitching in the bigs in 2005, so he’s been on TWO teams that finished with winning records, FIVE that have lost at least 90 games, and two other 80+ loss seasons as well.

Yet he’s still pitching in Seattle, even after the bundles of trade rumors over the years that had him going to the Yankees at some point. And right now, he’s leading a Seattle team that is currently holding the second wild card spot while he is pitching the best baseball of his career.

You read that right. This Felix is better than 2010 Cy Young Felix. He currently holds career lows in ERA (2.12), FIP (2.04), WHIP (0.901), and BB/9 (1.6) while holding a career high in K/9 (9.6). He has now pitched for seven innings or more while allowing two or less runs for 11 straight starts, the most since Gaylord Perry in 1974. That ERA of his I mentioned is the lowest in Mariners history before the All-Star break, breaking Randy Johnson’s record of 2.20 back in 1997. According to FanGraphs, he’s the leader in WAR amongst pitchers at 5.2, a full win above second place Jon Lester. He’s the clear favorite in the American League to win this year’s Cy Young and if this continues, nobody will gripe about his damn record (currently 11-2).

But this isn’t really the point. Nobody doubts that Felix is really, really good. It’s what he’s representing when he takes the mound tomorrow night.

For ten seasons, he has been the main glimmer of hope for Seattle baseball. You got by during these tormenting seasons by waking up one day, lamenting the Mariners, but then cheering yourself up by saying, “Hey, Felix pitches today!” And you’d either be treated to a masterful pitching performance that ended with a deserved win or one that’s far too often resulted in an undeserving loss that’s just another game in another lowly Seattle season.

Not this year though. This year, there’s legitimate hope. There is actual good baseball being played and meaningful baseball to be had in the second half of the season. For us, having Felix start for the first time for the American League in the 2014 All-Star Game (where Seattle has four representatives, most since 2003) is a symbol of the new Mariners. The playoff-contending Mariners. 

The last time a Mariner pitcher started in this event was back in 1997, when The Big Unit was helping Seattle gain its second ever playoff berth. Felix won’t be sending any warning shots over the heads of batters like Johnson did with Larry Walker, but maybe there’s a different message to be sent.

We’ve seen Felix pitch in the dark shadows of meaninglessness. But now, we get to see what kind of dastardly, changeup-wielding royal monster emerges from those shadows into the bright lights of pennant and wildcard races.

And that royal Seattle monster, our guy, our beloved Felix, gets unleashed tomorrow night in Minnesota for the baseball world to see.

Home

And you thought Tolkien’s Return of the King was good.

There’s no elves or wizards and this isn’t Middle Earth, but it kind of feels like a fantasy. The most recognizable and powerful athlete in the country willfully chose to leave the tropical enticement of Miami for….Cleveland.

Yes, Cleveland. That city that’s too often been the butt of so many jokes. That city you thought only produced Drew Carey. That city that’s been victim to The Drive, The Shot, and The Decision. On the surface, who would ever choose to spend the rest of their career in Cleveland?

That’s where LeBron James is different. It’s not about the surface.

For James, Northeast Ohio is home. I won’t even try to phrase what James thinks of the area because he already eloquently did it himself with his NBA shape-shifting essay in Sports Illustrated. Deep down within, no matter what glamor he might have experienced in Miami, James knew Ohio was in his heart.

So now he’s back, with a cavalier decision to be a Cavalier again. As for what we’re supposed to make of it, I’ve got a few ideas.

First, any talk accusing James of taking the easy way out in his career to just gain titles can now be silenced. There was nothing wrong with his choice to go to Miami and form a team that would go on to appear in four straight NBA Finals, winning two of them back-to-back. With the amount of pressure on his gargantuan shoulders to even just get one ring, James made the smartest basketball decision he could make by joining the Heat.

His move to Cleveland certainly presents a more challenging scenario than his move to Miami did. There’s a lot of potential and promise with him, Kyrie Irving, and Andrew Wiggins on the roster (maybe even Kevin Love if they can deal for him). But there’s still a good deal of uncertainty. David Blatt, who seems to be well revered in the basketball world for his international work, has never coached an NBA game. It may take some time for him to establish a system and get his players to buy into it to contend for a title.

James will also be expected to mold Irving and Wiggins to try and get them as close as they can be to their maximum potential. That will take time, patience, and willingness to work from the two young guys. If the trio can gel quickly, and get the right role players to contribute, Cleveland certainly has as good as a shot as anybody to conquer a lackluster Eastern Conference.

Secondly, James has fully grown up since he was last a Cavalier. We’ve all been Witnesses to his maturation as a player and man. You can credit his four-year stint with Miami for that, starting with the loss to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. In that season, The King tried to be more of a Tyrant. He took on a more villainous approach and persona, unrelentingly chasing that elusive ring he so desperately coveted. But it didn’t end as planned, and everyone took their turns laughing at The Big Three for not winning the title in their first year together.

Those laughs didn’t last long. The next two years saw James go back to enjoying basketball again. He shined in a position less system under Erik Spoelstra, fully putting his combination of a brilliant basketball brain and beastly physical stature on display en route to two championships and Finals MVP’s. The three-peat couldn’t happen, as the Spurs picked apart the Heat in the most impressive Finals performance in recent memory. But James did all he could in those Finals (ignoring cramp jokes) and really didn’t get much help.

This brings us to who he is now, and what my final point is. When I read his Sports Illustrated essay, I came away with a notion: you will never, ever, see an athlete give so much insight into how they came to make a choice. He left no questions unanswered and simply just wanted to return to the place he’s always belonged. The revelation confirmed something to me that I’ve come to learn over his career.

When I have a child, I’ll probably tell them Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time. By then, LeBron’s resume will be even better than it is now, and the child may ask me about him in comparison to His Airness, like many who currently compare the two. And I’ll respond simply by saying on the court, MJ holds the advantage.

But off of it? It’s no contest. LeBron James has shown more honesty, maturation, and overall likability than Michael Jordan did in his entire bloodthirsty basketball career. He threw a grudge to the side by meeting and coming to terms with Dan Gilbert, who ripped James with that awful letter a few years back. Michael Jordan couldn’t even get over being cut in high school or lashing out at doubters in his Hall of Fame speech. James has a basketball perspective and knowledge of those around him that I don’t think is matched by anyone in NBA history, Jordan included. To me, that’s as impressive and noteworthy as anything he’s ever done on the court.

So rejoice, Cleveland. The King has returned to his rightful throne to try and deliver your first professional sports title since 1964. Take pride in knowing the Prodigal Son wants to be the one who ended the drought.

And outside of Cleveland, all around the country, take pride in knowing that no matter where you go, what you do, or how much you accomplish, one thing will always be a part of you.

Home.            

Three Man Rush

You know when you looked at that Thanksgiving spread yesterday, you had some favorites already in mind. 

Be real, if you had to narrow down all that grub to three choices, you could easily do it. I’d take my mom’s cheesy potatoes, mushrooms, and some honey ham. Yeah, I said ham over turkey. Sue me.

Every week, my co-hosts and I at The Big Three look at the NFL schedule the same way. We could talk about all of them for any length of time, but there’s a few we really really want to break down. With no show this week, I figured I’d share three games that oughta fill your appetite as well as what momma provided on the holiday. 

Arizona at Philadelphia

I’m so tempted to make another Thanksgiving reference with a battle of birds here, but I’ll refrain. This is the most intriguing game of the weekend to me, simply because of one thing: we want to know which of these teams is legitimate. 

The Eagles came into this season with plenty of hype behind Chip Kelly’s lightning fast regime, and it seems like they’re hitting a stride. Michael Vick no longer holds the keys to the offense anymore, and frankly, that’s been a welcome change in the city of brotherly love. Nick Foles doesn’t look to be a fluke. 

Foles, according to Pro Football Focus, has a higher overall grade as a quarterback than Tom Brady, Cam Newton, and Carson Palmer to name a few. Granted, he’s had fewer starts on the year as a whole, but the guy is simply balling out. He’s thrown 16 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and is completing 64% of his passes while averaging about 10 yards per attempt. Slice that up anyway you want, but it’s pretty impressive.

He’ll have his work cut out for him though, as he’s facing one of the most impressive defensive units in the league. The Cardinals’ defense is fully stocked in the playmaking department, starting up front with Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett. Campbell is finally starting to be recognized for his stellar play, and is riding a hot streak for pressuring the quarterback. Over the last three games, 13 of his overall 29 QB hurries have occurred.

But go to the next level and it doesn’t get any easier for Foles. A mixture of youth and age holds down the fort for Arizona inside, as Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby have proved to be quite the duo, particularly in pass coverage. Washington is simply one of the better coverage linebackers in the game. He’s forced quarterbacks into the fourth worst QB rating when throwing his direction, while nabbing two interceptions. Not to be outdone by much, Dansby has forced them into the seventh worst QB rating when throwing his way, while leading 3-4 inside linebackers with 7 passes defended. 

I’ve gone all this way and haven’t even talked about my two favorite players on this unit: Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Both are ballhawking freaks filled with limitless athletic ability, and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has taken full advantage. Mathieu leads all cornerbacks with 8 QB hurries and 60 tackles, becoming one of the largest steals of this past year’s draft. Patrick Peterson hasn’t let up too many completions, allowing quarterbacks to only complete about 51% of passes thrown towards him. But he has given up 6 touchdowns. I expect him and DeSean Jackson to have quite the battle. 

PREDICTION: I think this is a great statement opportunity for Arizona. Going on the road to shut down this offense is a tall task, but I think they’re fully up for it. Philadelphia’s defense has played better as of late, but Carson Palmer should be able to find enough holes in the secondary to give the Cards a win to push them to 8-4. Foles and Shady McCoy struggle a little bit against a straight up scary defensive unit. 24-14 Arizona. 

Denver at Kansas City

I think I can already hear Arrowhead rocking. Quite simply, this is the biggest game of the season for the Chiefs. It’s an opportunity to snap a two-game skid, and get the division lead. The lead is up for grabs for Denver too, but this is still bigger for Kansas City due to one thing they think they’re not getting enough of: respect. 

What’s been the issue with the Chiefs these past two games? Take a look at their 3rd down efficiency. They’ve gone 7-22 on 3rd down, amounting to a 32% conversion rate. That’s not allowing the offense to extend drives and give a great defense enough rest against two great quarterbacks: Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning. Now that they’re facing Manning again, this stat will be key again, as the best defense against the legend is keeping him off the field as much as possible. 

You also can’t start slow if you’re the Chiefs. They were down 10-0 by the end of the first quarter in Denver, and had to battle back to make it 17-10 at halftime. That was resilient until they let Denver get another two-score lead in the third quarter. This team is not built to play catchup, especially with a team as offensively dangerous as the Broncos. 

It’ll also be interesting to see if Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are fully effective after being injured last week. If these guys aren’t their usual menacing selves, it’s not good news for the Kansas City pass rush. They’ve combined for 20 of the team’s 37 sacks, as well as 5 of the team’s 9 forced fumbles. Needless to say, they’re the gamechangers on this defense. They need to bring it to bother Manning. 

Denver isn’t riding into Arrowhead very happily though. They battled New England in arguably the best game of the season last week, only to lose thanks to Wes Welker’s inability to call off Tony Carter on a punt in overtime. So expect the Broncos to be fully ready to take out some rage after such a disappointing loss.

The brunt of that rage may come from one of the best defensive players in football, Von Miller. Miller started off the New England game furiously, immediately making his presence known with a strip-sack of Tom Brady. But Kansas City actually did a great job of keeping him quiet in the first matchup. I’d look for Miller to possibly line up over Eric Fisher more often this time around, as Fisher gave one of the worst performances of the year for a right tackle in the first game, according to Pro Football Focus. That wouldn’t be the best matchup for Fisher to rebound. 

The Broncos will certainly want to try and take advantage of the Chiefs’ defense through the air. The pass defense has been less than stellar for Kansas City these past few weeks, culminating in being carved up by Philip Rivers last week. Manning will particularly look to pick on Marcus Cooper again, as he completed 13 passes for 128 yards against him two weeks ago. Rivers also took advantage of him last week, so Cooper will want to revert to his form before these last two weeks.

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Photo Courtesy: Pro Football Focus

PREDICTION: I know the Chiefs really need this one, but I don’t like their two biggest playmakers on defense coming into this game off of injuries. It’s even worse when you haven’t been your usual self defending the pass. I like Manning and the boys to make it a season sweep. 31-20, Denver. 

New Orleans at Seattle

Wait, what? This game is on Monday Night Football? WE HAVE OUR 2ND MEANINGFUL MONDAY NIGHT GAME IN THREE WEEKS. WAKE UP HANK WILLIAMS JR. 

In all seriousness, this is a showdown. Seattle holds the best record in the NFC at 10-1, with the Saints one game behind at 9-2. In terms of playoff implications, it’s meaningful for homefield advantage. The Superdome and CenturyLink Field are two of the most raucous environments in football. No visitor wants to make a trip to either venue come playoff time. Both of these teams also have division mates waiting for an opening to snatch in San Francisco and Carolina. 

Seattle’s offense is reliant on being able to shift into Beast Mode. Marshawn Lynch has rushed for 925 yards this season while averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He’s busted 6 runs for longer than 20 yards, and scored 9 touchdowns. Simply put, the dude has been getting his Skittles. 

So can New Orleans stop that? The Saints are middle of the pack when it comes to rushing yards allowed per game, coming in 15th with about 112 yards allowed. On the ends, Cameron Jordan has been solid against the run, grading out as the 18th best 3-4 defensive end in that department. Akiem Hicks has actually been better, grading out as the 9th best. But inside on the line is where an issue may arise. John Jenkins, the nose tackle, only grades out as the 42nd best run stopping tackle. 

Staying inside, David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton both grade negatively against the run for inside linebackers. This doesn’t seem to bode well against Lynch, who is one of the most physical running backs in the game. It’s relevant to say the Seahawks’ guards have not performed well as run blockers, but that hasn’t seemed to slow down Lynch. Look for him to go up the gut to challenge the Saints’ interior run defense. 

When the Saints have lost this season, they’ve been gashed by guys like Chris Ivory and Stevan Ridley, bruising backs in their own right. They need to step up the physicality here if they want to win this one. 

Offensively for New Orleans, I’d normally suspect Drew Brees to have his work cut out for him against the Legion of Boom. But that Legion doesn’t have as much bang for this matchup. Brandon Browner will miss out, as well as Walter Thurmond. Both of those guys grade positively in pass coverage, while only allowing 2 touchdowns on the year. That leaves Richard Sherman with a lot of work to do against one of the top five quarterbacks in the league.

The biggest weapon for Brees is obviously Jimmy Graham, but Seattle has only allowed 2 touchdowns to tight ends this season. He’s simply been beating any type of coverage thrown at him, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Seahawks try to slow him down. Kam Chancellor is certainly a big enough body and good enough safety to keep up with Graham, and I’d expect Seattle to try and match him up with the playmaking tight end. I’d be surprised to see them throw a corner on him with their second and third best corners out. 

The number one guy to watch on defense for New Orleans? The aforementioned Cameron Jordan. He’s been an absolute beast this season as a 3-4 defensive end, registering 9 sacks, 10 QB hits, and 36 QB hurries. The Seahawks’ tackles have been abysmal in terms of pass blocking this season, as all of them have graded negatively. They definitely miss Russell Okung, but they’re lucky to have an elusive QB like Russell Wilson. He’ll have to keep his eyes and feet ready for the challenge Jordan presents if he wants a shot at winning this game.

Jordan also plays a majority of his snaps at the right defensive end position, which is particularly relevant for Wilson. While being able to throw the ball well in any direction, the former 3rd round pick has been most effective throwing passes to his left for passes 10-19 yards or 20+ yards long. 

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Photo Courtesy: Pro Football Focus

Jordan will be rushing from Wilson’s left, so he could be a disruption if the quarterback looks this way often.  

PREDICTION: I don’t like a defense that’s not at full strength for a guy like Drew Brees. If the Seattle secondary was at full strength, I’d possibly feel differently. The Seahawks’ pass rush, while unrelenting, faces one of the better pass-protecting units in the league in New Orleans. This will be close, with Lynch getting his yards and Wilson making big plays. But ultimately, Brees takes advantage of the missing Seahawks. 28-24, New Orleans. 

All Eyes on Franklin

Sometimes, the hardest role is being the act to follow.

That was James Franklin’s first problem. Before he became the starting quarterback at Missouri for his sophomore season, the Tigers had just witnessed their three greatest quarterbacks in history: Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert. One is Missouri’s career total yard record holder, another had Mizzou on the cusp of BCS berths, and the other became the number one overall pick in the NFL Draft.

When Franklin stepped in, the expectations for a quarterback at the University of Missouri were higher than ever. And he was ready to meet them.

In 2011, Franklin threw for 2.865 yards and 21 touchdowns while completing 63% of his passes. He rumbled his way to 981 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns. To put the rushing in perspective, the 15 touchdowns were three short of Brad Smith’s single season school record of 18. Smith also never threw for more than 17 touchdowns in a season in his collegiate career.

Franklin led that team to an 8-5 record and an Insight Bowl blowout of North Carolina. While the numbers certainly backed him up, Missouri’s next move would bring the doubters again: could he hang in the SEC?

After all, this wasn’t the offensive bonanza of the Big 12 anymore. It wasn’t the infamous “old man football” that former Tiger Sheldon Richardson proclaimed. This was SEC football, where hits crash and roars bellow throughout stadiums. And Missouri was too damn finesse to handle anything like that.

We all know what type of season ensued. Mizzou, battered by injuries, limped to a 5-7 record. Franklin became the face of this failure of a first year in the premier conference in college football.

But while Franklin’s face was occupied, his body was being battered. He missed three games that season while trying to will his way through others. That effort, while certainly courageous, affected him on the field and ultimately led to the lowest point of his college career.

After sitting out part or all of the two games before, Franklin started against the Florida Gators on November 3, 2012 in Gainesville. Mizzou entered the Swamp in pursuit of their first marquee conference win over a 7th ranked Florida team. The Tigers outgained and outpossessed the Gators, but lost 14-7 due to their quarterback throwing a career high four interceptions.

Let the bashing begin.

Mizzou fans let out their anguish with Franklin, particularly on Twitter. This was a shot to prove something, and their quarterback single-handedly blew that chance. For the rest of the season, it became a popular topic to question if he should remain the starter for Missouri while he’s here.

But the criticism of his play wasn’t enough. Word had gotten out that Franklin, a devout Christian, refused to take any sort of pain medication due to his faith. Fans began to question his toughness and how much he really wanted to be out on the field. While the season ended and Franklin recovered, expectations certainly weren’t high coming into the 2013 campaign.

That changed pretty quickly, and James Franklin had a large part in that transformation. Through the first five games, he threw for 1,407 yards and 13 touchdowns, while rushing for 278 yards and 2 touchdowns. With those numbers, some were saying how the senior could possibly garner some Heisman consideration. He was playing at his highest level going into one of the biggest games in program history: a meeting with the Georgia Bulldogs, the team who painfully introduced Mizzou to the SEC a year earlier, between the hedges.

After three quarters, the Tigers had a lead in hand. Georgia was making their push, and as he scrambled out of the pocket, Franklin got knocked out of the game. Missouri would get the momentous victory, but after an offseason full of recovery, it was time for Franklin to recover again.

This time around though, the replacement was catching some eyes. Redshirt freshman Maty Mauk took the reins of the offense, and unleashed some big play ability. While inefficient, Mauk showed some of the talent that made him a four star recruit, as Mizzou went 3-1 in its next four games.

And here we are now. The only way this team can get a shot at the SEC title is to win its next two games. There’s no room for error anymore, and whoever is at the helm needs to be ready to step up.

That’s where Tiger fans have had some disagreement. Some think Mauk should be starting today, even though Franklin has been medically cleared and ruled good to go. Nevermind the senior’s stellar play from earlier in the season; this team was still winning with Mauk.

The decision was made, and today, Franklin returns to his starting spot. While it’s obvious these two games will help define what this season means for this team, there’s an element that hasn’t been discussed: Franklin’s legacy at Mizzou.

Everyone always remembers how you finished. After everything he’s gone through with criticism and injuries, he now has the chance to go out with a potential conference title, something Smith, Daniel, and Gabbert couldn’t accomplish. He’ll step into a raucous stadium in Oxford tonight, and then square off against the most electrifying player in college football, Johnny Manziel, for his final home game. Oh, then he’d probably have to play this team called Alabama for the SEC crown.

Fair or unfair, this stretch will likely determine how Franklin is remembered in Columbia, MO. He has full weaponry around him, a great offensive line protecting him, and a chip from the Rock M on his shoulder. The opportunity awaits, and at the end of it, what will he be? The act that followed?

Or the act that changed it all?

My Sunday

Woodgrain. That’s what the air smelled like.

You ever noticed that when you walk into a home you’ve never been to, there’s a distinct smell that encapsulates your experience? My house always nails me with a cleanly, fresh scent. My grandmother’s struck me with a cozy, warm aroma that comforted my nostrils with a swift entrance. This place hit me with a ski-lodge feel, and I gravitated to it.

See, this was a special Sunday for me. My brother just arrived back home on Saturday to spend one of his two weeks off for the entire year with his family (the perils of a doctoral student’s schedule). It had been a while since I had seen him, and with how close we’ve been throughout my life, long absences from each other is something we don’t like much. The Greever Boys were back together again.

That night, my mom received a text from the aforementioned family friends. Rick and his partner Joe wanted to take us all out to a seafood lunch, since the two boys are back home together. But Rick called us something I’ve never heard him call us before: his family. Him and Joe wanted to take their family out.

We arrived to Riptide’s, a local favorite of ours for seafood. Rick and Joe are regulars, so much so that the staff knows exactly what cocktails and food they order. And when you go out with Rick and Joe, let me assure you there will be three guaranteed results: cocktails, laughs, and decadent cuisine.

So we all sat down and caught up. Joe automatically asks me about the ESPN dream, and I jokingly told him they were hiring me tomorrow. He goes to Cory, and per usual with my brother, Cory takes the reins of doctoral tales filled with scientific terminology that I’ll never understand. We’re deep into conversation, and a waitress comes over to us.

Her name is Mallory, she graduated a year before I did from Matoaca High School. I ask her how things are going, and she proceeds to recount the horrible load she has from taking a packed four week anatomy and physiology course. She tells me that she already knows everything I’m up to, because my mom has told her before, Cory too for that matter. The entire county of Chesterfield knows my brother and I’s education, interests, and hobbies. My mom gets word around. Mallory told me, “She’s very proud of her boys.”

We gave our good lucks, and she went back to work. I had just finished an entire sampler of beautiful seafood. I still had the smallest bite of saltwater pinching my taste buds from succulent oysters and clams. The East Coast baby. It doesn’t get better.

We departed the restaurant and went back to Rick and Joe’s house. They always love to get Cory and I going to talking about our respective passions. We go on and on about what we love about journalism (me) and exercise science (him), what drives us to pursue these compelling, yet intellectually different fields. Cory explains to Joe how to treat different issues pertaining to his arthritis. I explain to Joe how there’s a live delay when correspondents are coming in from different locations. The boys were back at it.

Then, Rick revealed to us that him and Joe will be officially married sometime in October in Maryland. It’s not legal in Virginia, so they have to go up there to do it. I told Rick how disappointed I am that I won’t be able to make it back for it (or the lavish party I’m sure will follow) due to school. And as they discussed the wedding, I fell deep into thought about their upcoming marriage.

I look at the love these two men share. I look at the home they’ve created for themselves. I look at the overwhelming affection they have always treated our family with. And I looked at that text message in my mind again: family. Two members of our extended family can’t simply confirm their commitment to their love in the state of Virginia. I can’t understand the reasoning behind why they can’t be wed. It’s pure, admirable love. It’s the kind of love you dream about attaining, the stuff that ends corny movies, the old couple who will never let go of each other.

But I was snapped back to attention by Rick commending me on my attention to detail. When we had walked into the house, I was immediately drawn to a gorgeous chandelier hanging above our heads as we entered. Normally, I don’t pay them any mind, since they always seem to be the same. This one was different though.

The diamonds were encased into a ball-like structure. I want to say it looked like a disco ball, but that’s a little tacky for my taste. It was like a disco orb that commanded your attention. Rick told me it reminded him of my dad, and how he always observe things. I’ve been paid some compliments, but whenever I’m compared to my father, nothing makes me happier.

That triggered more family talk, as we looked back at how Cory used to come in my crib and play with me, or when I’d come up to my crib when he got up to leave for school. All of this really brought me to a moment on this beautiful day: I’m lucky.

I’m lucky to be a Greever. I’m lucky to have a caring, loving mother who has done anything and everything to help me achieve anything. I’m lucky to have a hard-working, hilarious father who set the right example for me. I’m lucky to have not only a brother, but a best friend like Cory. And I’m lucky to have two uncles who will finally get to confirm their love, even if it has to be done in another state.

This is my family on the last day of June. We eat, drink, laugh, and talk about our dreams. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. To channel my inner Maximus (Gladiator, favorite movie of mine) here:

I’m the son of Steven Jackson Greever and Lisa Anne Greever, the grandson of Ruby (bless her soul) and Howard Greever, as well as Nicholas and Hilda Maiuro (bless their souls).  I’m the younger brother of Cory Jackson Greever. And no matter what I ever accomplish to honor all of these loving people, there’s nothing I will be more damn proud of than to bear the name of my family.

I smelled that grain on the way out the door again. It’s stowed in my library of senses on a special shelf: home.

Marshall in March

Every year, March rolls around and we immediately search for a sweetheart. We look for the Steph Curry’s, the Jimmer Fredette’s, the Kemba Walker’s. We soak up the surprise runs of teams like Butler, VCU, and Northern Iowa. We search for the scintillatingly sensational sentiment of a feel good story.

While that is all good and heart-warming, I present the yang to your feel-good yin: Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson.

The manipulative Marshall minces no words when it comes to his game. He’s the sharpshooter at the gym that you can’t stand. He could pull up from any spot on the court, with any man in his face, and still find a way to drain it. When you think your wound is big enough from the swish of the nylon, he pours a heap of salt on it with a taunt.

Obviously, opposing fans don’t take much of a liking to these antics. And normally, when they attack a player on the court, that player just tries to respond strictly with his play.

With Henderson, you got another thing coming.

As we saw at Auburn earlier in the year, and in the SEC tournament games against Missouri and Florida, Henderson will not hesitate to get right up into the front row of opposing fans and let them know about his success.

He flashes the crest of his school to every angry eye. His eyes widen as his sharp voice bellows obscenities of pride and resentment, while he mocks your school’s infamous chant. This is all fun to him, as much of a dismay as that may be to you.

I’m one of those who doesn’t take well to his methods. I cannot stand seeing him succeed on a court, especially after he led a comeback to knock out my Missouri Tigers.

You may try to convince yourself he’s better off the court, like this is only an in-game persona.

Again. You’re wrong.

As I walked back to the media room at Bridgestone Arena during the latter half of the Florida-Alabama semifinal in the SEC Tournament, I had to stop due to Ole Miss walking by to their locker room. I paused and looked for Nashville’s newest nemesis.

Henderson strolled by with a smirk on his face, wearing his white Dr. Dre Beats, rolling his head around to the vibe of his tunes. It reminded me of watching a cobra slither around right before he strikes. He knows he’s the bad guy; and he loves it.

Naturally, I told myself the bad guy was going to burn out to a feel-good story. Ole Miss was about to take on the hometown Vanderbilt Commodores, who were making their own surprise run in this conference tournament. More desperate than Ole Miss, Vandy needed to win this tournament to get an NCAA bid.

When the Commodores were up by double digits, and had their home crowd enjoying Henderson’s struggling jumper, I was feeling confident he might not succeed. But like everyone else, when I doubted the villain, he came back and bit me.

Henderson rained jumpers from every body position imaginable, as he and the Rebels stormed back to comfortably win. After one long ball, he stuck his hand to his head, making a three-point shark, as he laughed down the court.

From that point on, I accepted a couple truths. First, there was no way Ole Miss was losing this momentum to Florida. Second, I may hate this guy more than any basketball player in recent memory. But lastly, and most importantly:

Henderson will only add more chaos to what will be an already chaotic tournament.

When you watch the Rebels, the cameras will be all over him. If they’re struggling, the first thing you’ll say is, “Man, I want to see that little punk Henderson’s face.” When they’re hot, you’ll say, “Don’t let me see his damn smirk.”

You’ll anxiously await his post-game comments, if his coach even lets him talk to reporters. You’ll try to gather up as much anti-Henderson ammunition as possible. You might even easily count him out if he ever looks down.

But I caution you: never doubt this kid.

His team was as bubblicious as any other team in the country entering conference tournament week. They faced double-digit deficits multiple times during that week, yet still found a way to take a title and automatic bid home.

So while we all desperately want Otto Porter, Trey Burke, or any star to be our hero, we conveniently forget the most compelling part of our best stories:

Every fairy tale needs a villain. In Marshall Henderson, you may have your best one yet.