THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS
The two best Scrabble players in the NFL are Jason Avant, wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles and Barrett Jones, offensive lineman for the St. Louis Rams.
Barrett was almost never a football player at all; he was more into the violin. He’d been playing it since early childhood and even made some money performing at weddings. He also got into Scrabble in eighth grade, and once finished 15th in his age group at the National Scrabble Championships in Boston.
“I’ve played some really big words,” Jones said in an interview with Fox Sports. “Ones worth over 150 points.”
At age thirteen, he hurt his hand in football practice so badly he couldn’t practice violin. He’d started playing at age three and practiced an hour a day every day for a decade. His parents and instructors thought he’d grow up to be a professional violin player, not an offensive lineman. Being unable to play his favorite instrument anymore broke his heart, but while his injured hand couldn’t perform the delicate gesticulations of a violinist, it was not a hindrance in the blunt-force job of offensive lineman. Today, Barrett credits that injury as the point where football took over his life.
Barrett was as also as big a star in the classroom as he became on the gridiron, and no physical impairment would ever change this. While playing multiple positions on the offensive line for a National Championship-winning football team at the University of Alabama, Barrett graduated in three years with a 4.0 and a degree in Accounting.
“I really am a nerd,” Barrett told Sports Illustrated. “I love accounting.”
Football’s other big Scrabble nerd, Jason Avant, is lucky to still be playing either game. Growing up in the Altgeld Gardens Projects on the South Side of Chicago, Jason was a drug dealer into his teens and had about as dangerous a young life as that situation implies.
“I was in places where I had 15 guys running after my car with bats, weapons and all this stuff,” Jason told the Associated Press.
High school had football, but even for a talented athlete and good student like Jason, it was no safe harbor. ”There were dead bodies, metal detectors, drugs in lockers, all that type of stuff,” Jason said. “A teacher got killed and her body was found in a dumpster all cut up. A guy I played basketball with got shot.’”
Jason credits his conversion to Christianity at age twenty as saving his life. “The Lord began to replay all the times my house was shot up when I was selling drugs. The bullet hole right where my grandmother sits and she wasn’t in the chair. All the times the bullets just missed me or the shooters didn’t see me.”
While in college at the University of Michigan, he discovered a tranquil pastime in his favorite board game. “It makes you think and it keeps your mind active,” Jason says. “It also helps me communicate with all the words I’ve learned from playing.”
Back in 2007, his second year in the league, Jason Avant played Scrabble with Eagles public relations director Derek Boyko and Philadelphia Daily News sports writer Dana O’Neil, and their plan to test his skills left them humbled. “We were too intimidated,” O’Neil wrote. “Brought to our knees by Avant’s gamesmanship and knowledge of words that aren’t supposed to be words.” The final score: Avant 275, Boyko 158, O’Neil 142.
Both of the NFL’s top Scrabble players are also generous, understated men. Unlike many of rags-to-riches players, Jason eschews any overt displays of wealth; instead, he builds his public image through doing social work at his church, volunteering with at-risk youth, and playing piano, an instrument he’s been learning since 2008.
Barrett also has a charitable heart, spending his college spring breaks in Haiti, volunteering at refugee camps in Port-au-Prince. He’s also gone back to school to get a Master’s degree in his beloved field of accounting, so when he’s not crouched in an offensive line with a bunch of fat guys, trying to keep a quarterback from being sacked or opening up lanes for runners, he’s preparing for his life after football.
“You’ve got to be nice to nerds,” Barrett says. “They could be your boss someday. Remember that.”
THE LOTTERY IN BABYLON
The bye week teams in Week Five are Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Washington, four clubs that have spent most of September leaving their fans in a litter box of grimness every Sunday. This week, if you’re just a fan, you can do something more constructive with your life, like make a Bundt cake, attend the Hot Dish taco party fundraiser at 826LA Echo Park, or go out to brunch without staring at your phone the whole time and looking like an ass-pony.
If you play fantasy football, however, you do not get the week off from the likelihood of a crushing disappointment. By now you’ve scoured your league’s waiver wire for unwanted players to replace these mostly disappointing ones. If you haven’t yet, you’re in luck; this is one week where you can find the football equivalent of tuxedo pants at Goodwill that are your size and match your jacket.
MINNESOTA: If you’ve been starting any Viking on your team besides Adrian Peterson, I do not feel sorry for you; you deserve to lose to your friends until you wise up. Starting a Viking other than Peterson is like going to Peter Luger Steakhouse and asking for a tuna salad sandwich.
Suggestions: There is no replacing the top running back in football, fantasy or otherwise. If you disagree, pick up Jason Snelling. He plays the Jets on Monday night, and at least you’d have someone playing in that damn Monday game.
PITTSBURGH: “The winter drove them mad,” Pittsburgh-bred Michael Chabon writes in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. “It drove every man mad who had ever lived through it; there was only ever the question of degree. The sun disappeared, and you could not leave the tunnels, and everything and everyone you loved was ten thousand miles away.”
Suggestions: Chabon was talking about Antarctica, but he may also be talking about the 2013 Steelers season, in terms of how their fans perceive it. It’s their first 0-4 start in decades, and after so much obtusely great talent and raw good fortune, the failure of this team is like falling asleep in a car driven by dad, and waking up in handcuffs on the floor of a VFW in Uniontown.
TAMPA BAY: Doug Martin was a consensus Top-4 pick a mere month ago. He is now on pace for 400 carries and seemingly 402 yards. His quarterback, Josh Freeman, has gone from boy wonder to bench player to voluntarily submitting himself to the NFL’s drug program. Their starting wide receivers, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, are playing through injuries. I don’t know who their tight end is – no one does.
Suggestions: Justin Blackmon just had his suspension lifted, and since the Jaguars are only ever playing from behind, it means Jacksonville’s quarterbacks will now be hurling the ball into the air in the general direction of their teammates. Blackmon has a better chance of catching those moon-shots than most. Pick him up and there will be many weeks where he will outscore Jackson or Williams in garbage time alone but it won’t count because you had him on your bench.
Suggestions: Replacing RG3’s production won’t be difficult, considering that Alex Smith, Jake Locker, and Sam Bradford have, to date, exceeded it. Brian Hoyer (playing at home against the Bills) looks like the kind of one-night stand that you might accidentally spend the whole next day with – going to the Farmer’s Market and cute shit like that.
HIS END AND HIS BEGINNING
San Diego Chargers running back Danny Woodhead scored two touchdowns last week in San Diego’s victory over the Dallas Cowboys. To anyone who has known Danny his entire life, this kind of feat is not a surprise.
Growing up in North Platte, Nebraska, Danny finished high school as the state’s all-time leading Class A running back. Normally, this kind of distinction attracts attention from Division I football programs across the country, and the home state colleges would step forward with a jarring array of inducements. Instead, the top rusher in Nebraska state high school history received no Division I scholarship offers at all.
Imagine for a moment being the best in your state at your state’s most popular sport, and not just being recognized as the best, but knowing it, and having records to prove it. Then imagine being told by people at the next level that they’re not interested, that you should do something different, or perhaps give up your favorite sport altogether.
The University of Nebraska did make Danny an offer – as a walk-on, to try out for the job of punt returner. Bob Zohner, his high school coach, remembers his conversation with Danny that day.
“They said, you can’t be a running back because you’re too small, you can’t be a receiver because you’re not tall enough,” Zohner told ESPN. “Danny says to me, why would I want to go someplace where all they tell me is things I can’t do?”
The one school that offered him a scholarship was nearby Chadron State College in Division II. It was not a place to get noticed playing football; Chadron State had put exactly one player in the NFL, ever. Danny would have to work very hard to get noticed. All he did was run for more yards than anyone in college football history.
Even so, he didn’t receive an invite to the NFL Combine, a weeklong battery of tests where college players essentially audition for NFL teams. This meant that Danny had to work out on his own for any pro scouts who would take the time to go to a rural college in northwest Nebraska. To non-football fans, this is the equivalent of going on a blind date with someone who lives 150 miles away, or who lives in Venice when you live in Echo Park. Plus, what else is there to do when you’re visiting northwest Nebraska? There’s karaoke night at Wrecker’s Roadhouse or getting blown over by the wind, which to many is a toss-up.
The scouts that made the trip saw him run a 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds and perform a vertical jump of 38 inches, measurements that would’ve have put him among the top running backs at the Combine.
Still, he was ignored. The weekend of the NFL Draft, 252 names were called instead of Danny’s, including 23 other running backs (12 of whom are now out of the league). The first team to express interest in signing him as a free agent was the New York Jets, but after two years with them, it was clear that they weren’t giving him much of a chance to display his talent and released him in September of 2010. It may not have seemed like it, but this was exactly what Danny needed.
“The adversity has served him well,” Annette Woodhead, Danny’s mom, told ESPN. “The adversity in his life is part of his journey … maybe he wouldn’t want to do it all over again, but maybe he would.”
The rival New England Patriots picked Danny up immediately, and after a week, put him on the field. He became a sensation, just like he had been at every other level—Chris Berman called him “a New England folk hero”—and he finished the year with six touchdowns and close to a thousand total yards rushing and receiving.
New England coach Bill Belichick may have thought Danny’s height actually served as an advantage. Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe credited Danny’s success to the fact that, “They have a hard time seeing him behind the line.”
Even with his NFL success, Danny’s size helped make him equally difficult to identify in public. Out of his uniform, he looks nothing like a professional football player, and proved this in 2011 when dressed as a Modell’s employee and tried to sell his jersey to customers at the New England sporting goods store. Almost no one recognized him.
“Too little?” Danny asked the guy. “That’s too bad. Salt in the wound.”
After scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl in 2012, and signing a multi-million dollar free agent contract with San Diego in 2013, Danny has become more of a household name. He’s also certainly proven himself to the world as a football player, but to him, living well doesn’t mean revenge. “I don’t really do the ‘I told you so’ deal,” he told KETV News in Nebraska. “If they want to look at my stats, they can.”
For now, he’s loving life in Southern California with his wife and daughter, and will try to keep make a living at this game that almost everyone said he was too small to play. “Until the door’s completely shut,” he told ESPN, “I’m not gonna stop.”