Saturday, August 13, 2005

What I Learned at Media Day

I recently had the opportunity to attend football Media Day at the University of Maryland. You can get the quotes elsewhere, but I want to share with you what I saw and heard beyond what was on the press release.

I’ve been to this type of media gathering before. Like any situation where there are a lot of people with cameras, notepads, and recorders, regardless of whether it is in sports or not, people are usually careful with what they say.

That is especially true in college sports, where the players don’t want to say something embarrassing and the coaches try to avoid revealing much information at all. Here as well as in any other interview opportunity, sometimes the pertinent information is not conveyed by what someone says. The way a player or coach looks while he is talking or perhaps something he does NOT say can be critically important.

I learned this when I covered Maryland basketball during the 2003-04 season. After one of their early games, I spoke with point guard John Gilchrist in the locker room. When I asked him was he starting to feel that the Terps were "his" team, I was expecting some affirmation of that tempered with modesty.

What I got from Gilchrist, then early into his sophomore season, was him practically recoiling from me. He shook his head and adamantly told me how everybody was important on the team and he wasn’t rising up above anyone. That isn’t a bad way for a player to answer that type of question, unless he is needed to establish himself as a leader on the team.

I thought at the time that something was wrong, and that showed later in the season as Gilchrist and the Terps struggled, and became much worse during the 2004-05 season. I thought it, but I didn’t write it. From that experience, I figured out that my observations, even if they were unique, were valid. I needed to trust them and, when appropriate, write about them.

That’s how I approached the Terps’ football media day. Rather than seeing warning signs of trouble, however, I came away impressed with how the coaches and team are approaching the season.

A humble and focused Head Coach Ralph Friedgen began the event with some brief opening comments then fielded questions from the media. He told the press how motivated his staff and players were to bounce back from last year’s disappointing 5-6 record. He told his coaches "We’ve got to do the best coaching job of our lives this year."

Friedgen, to his credit, admitted mistakes that he and the staff felt they made last year. He addressed the corrective action taken, such as going back and starting over putting his system and team together. This was a step he had taken in previous seasons but, with a veteran team returning last year, was not done to the normal level of detail.

The hunger and determination that were missing from the 2004 Terps appeared to be recharged as they began preparations for 2005. Veteran players like receiver Jo Jo Walker, someone Friedgen pointed out as a team leader, talked to me about how much harder the team worked in the off season. When I asked him how much a losing record last year bothered him, Walker became quiet for a moment and looked like he wanted to hit something (not me, fortunately).

I met Keon Lattimore, a sophomore running back better known as Ray Lewis’ half-brother. He was easy to find because of the strong resemblance between them. Where Walker brings the frustration of falling short last year, Lattimore has the enthusiasm of new opportunities ahead of him. He will be one of the primary ball carriers this year, especially with veteran Josh Allen out for the year due to a knee injury he suffered in the final game in 2004.

Lattimore was practically giddy about having the chance to play at M&T Bank Stadium, the home of his brother’s Baltimore Ravens, in the season opener against Navy. If he can keep that level of excitement throughout the season, he may be known as more than the brother of a famous player.

I talked to all three primary quarterback candidates, and they all impressed me as mature young men who were more concerned about the team’s success than their individual numbers and playing time.

Last year’s starter, Joel Statham, understood he had a steep hill to climb to regain the #1 spot after all the critical mistakes he made on the field last year. He took responsibility for them, but did not seem to dwell on 2004 (good idea in his case). I could see his hunger for another opportunity in 2005 and his determination to be ready for it.

The current top quarterback is Sam Hollenbach. He started last season #4 on the depth chart but finished it as the starter, leading the Terps to a 13-7 win over Wake Forest in the season finale. His primary accomplishment in that game was not screwing up, and he realizes more will be expected of him to retain the starting job. He was taking all of the newfound attention in stride. Hopefully he will have the same approach when there are 280-pound defensive linemen chasing him down and wanting to hurt him.

The player I was really taken aback by was Jordan Steffy. He played as a true freshman last year after coming in to the program as a highly touted recruit. The door opened for him when Statham struggled, but it then swung back and knocked him down and out when he suffered a serious knee injury at Virginia Tech.

The team’s medical staff is unsure how quickly Steffy will be ready to play, but he appears to be handling that with a great deal of maturity. This is the kind of situation where young players can fall into a downward spiral, going from high school hero to injury rehab within a short period of time. Steffy has avoided that with the help of a supportive family and, even more importantly, his faith in God.

You’ll find out reading my work that I have a special spot in my heart for people who openly profess their faith and then live by it. For what it’s worth, Jordan Steffy made that list when I talked to him. He told me how he realizes God has a plan for his life and that the injury problems he has run into (he also had surgery on his throwing arm which should be healed) will not derail that plan. Rather than worry about the uncertain situation he finds himself in, he told me, he will focus on working hard and trusting in the Lord.

While my brief discussion with Steffy was the highlight of my day, I came away from College Park very impressed with that football team. They have some serious personnel issues to deal with on the field (quarterback, young offensive and defensive lines, untested running backs) but they seem to have things off the field heading in the right direction.


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