Monday, April 29, 2019

Run to Glory?

Posted By on Mon, Apr 29, 2019 at 9:36 AM

American football is a strangely named sport. The ball is rarely kicked and such plays only make highlight shows when they prove decisive in a game. If you paid any attention at all to the doomed Alliance of American Football, you'll know there are efforts to remove the kickoff from the game entirely. In a sport where cranial injuries are part of the story, helmeted heads colliding on kickoffs are especially vulnerable.
click to enlarge Darrell Henderson - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Darrell Henderson

Then you have the running back. You know, the guy who makes a living by carrying the football, his feet taking him through gaps (however larger or small), toward the end zone, six points, and a glory dance. There was a time, not that long ago, when running backs shaped the way teams were built. Between 1977 and 1986, teams chose a running back with the first pick in the NFL draft five times. Alas, not one of those five players took the team that drafted him to the Super Bowl and only one (Earl Campbell) now has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Last fall, the University of Memphis suited up an All-America running back, and the fastest player I've seen in a Tiger uniform. But Darrell Henderson had to wait until the third round when the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams selected him with the 70th pick in the draft. Ironically, Henderson will apprentice under one of the NFL's few star running backs, two-time All-Pro Todd Gurley.

Another speed-demon who took some reps at running back for Memphis, Tony Pollard, waited even longer. The Dallas Cowboys selected the incomparable kick returner late in the fourth round on Saturday, with the 128th pick. Like Henderson, Pollard will join a team with a certifiable star at tailback, two-time rushing champ Zeke Elliott. The Cowboys also have one of the best offensive lines in football, with three All-Pros opening gaps for ball-carriers. Both Henderson and Pollard would seem to be in comfortable situations to begin their pro careers.

What are we to make of standout college ball-carriers getting the playground-nerd treatment on draft day? It's an aerial game. Nine NFL players rushed for 1,000 yards in the 2018 season while 21 receivers caught passes for at least 1,000. If teams aren't drafting the next Manning or Brady, they're looking for men to stop the league's star passers. Ten of the first 20 picks in this year's draft were defensive linemen, with a premium on a new descriptor: edge rusher. (As in, player responsible solely for taking down the quarterback.) Three linemen from the same unit (national champion Clemson) were among the first 17 picks. These are the men Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard will be dodging on Sundays for years to come.

• Can fans become the star attraction on game day? This seems to be reality for Memphis 901 FC, our new franchise in the USL Championship. The Bluff City Mafia has been loud and, somehow, proud, despite the local side providing little to chant about over its first four home games: three losses, a draw, and a grand total of one goal (thank you, Elliot Collier). Passion counts, though, and tends to be rewarded in the long run. So keep singing, ye BCM. Sunnier days ahead.



• On April 19th in St. Louis — two days after being promoted from the Memphis Redbirds — outfielder Lane Thomas became the 10th Cardinal to hit a home run in his first major-league at-bat. No other club in baseball has seen as many players make the ultimate intro. Remarkably, seven of those ten players went yard immediately after a promotion from Memphis, all over the last two decades. (The Cardinals have been playing in the National League since 1892.) In case you've forgotten the names of the other six (and three of them are pitchers): Keith McDonald (2000), Chris Richard (2000), Gene Stechschulte (2001), Adam Wainwright (2006), Mark Worrell (2008), and Paul DeJong (2017).

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