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NFL PLAYOFFS

CFP CHAMPIONSHIP

HOW YOUR TEAM CAN WIN (AND WHY THE PATRIOTS WILL)

ALABAMA. CLEMSON. BRING ON THE REMATCH

BY GREG A. BEDARD P. 24

BY ANDY STAPLES P. 34

SI . C OM JANUARY 9, 2017 @ SINOW

Why

AND WHAT THAT SAYS ABOUT THE STEELERS' QB—AND ABOUT YOU

ROETHLISBERGER

Is the NFL’s Most Polarizing Player BY S.L. PRICE P. 20


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Depar t men en t s

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2017 | VOLUME 126 | NO. 1

SI Digital Dig igitital al Leading Off Inbox Scorecard

18 Faces in The Crowd 64 Point After Not sure whom to root for in the NFL playoffs? Consult this handy flowchart By Jack Dickey

Features NFL

CHAMPIONSHIP PREVIEW

NBA

COLLEGE BASKETBALL

TRUE CRIME

20 Ben Roethlisberger

34 Bama vs. Clemson

48 Kansas’s Backcourt

54 Joseph Randle

The Steelers’ QB has evolved as a player. Has he changed as a person?

A year later, it’s the same two teams. And it should be awesome

40 Giannis Antetokounmpo

By S.L. Price

By Andy Staples

The Bucks’ point guard is the tallest—and most intriguing—in history

With two stellar playmakers, the Jayhawks have the ingredients for a championship

How the Cowboys running back took a quick, strange tumble out of football and into jail

• Playoff Preview: 12 teams, 12 paths to victory • SI’s predictions

• Tigers’ D-line

By Lee Jenkins

By Luke Winn

By Dan Greene

FISH TO FRY LeGarrette Blount (29) and the Patriots charred the Dolphins 35–14 on Sunday in a matchup of playoff-bound teams. Photograph Photog Pho Ph ttograp raph hb byy Mik Mike eE Ehrm Ehrmann hrmann h ann Getty Images

SI HAS REGIONAL COVERS THIS WEEK: George Gojkovich/ Getty Images (Roethlisberger); Leon Halip/USA Today Sports (Antetokounmpo)


SI.COM FOR JAN. 9, 2017

In the Cards

SPORTS SP SPOR POR ORTS TS IILLUSTRATED TS LLUS LL USTR US TRAT TR ATED AT ED

Digital Bonus Rocket Launch from New coach Mike D’Antoni has turned James Harden and the Rockets into the NBA’s biggest comeback story At this point a year ago, in its frustrating 2015–16 season, Houston was a disappointing 16–18. Now? It’s one of the best teams in the league, at 26–9, just 31⁄2 games out of first place in the Western Conference, and Harden (far left) is an MVP contender. What changed? By Rob Mahoney Elsewhere on the site, Lee Jenkins has the inside scoop on Miami Heat shooting coach Rob Fodor. To read this and other stories from The Crossover, go to SI.com/crossover

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O T T O G REU L E J R /G E T T Y IM AG E S (RUSSEL L WIL S O N); T H E A R O N W. H EN D ERS O N /G E T T Y IM AG E S (CO O K); TO M LY N N (R O D G ERS); ERI C K W. R A S CO (EL I M A N NIN G); R O C K Y WID N ER / N BA E /G E T T Y IM AG E S (D ’A N T O NI)

The NFL playoff picture is set, and SI.com’s experts are breaking down every wild-card matchup. How will the Giants’ opportunistic secondary match up against red-hot Aaron Rodgers? How deeply have the Seahawks changed since contending for the Super Bowl three years ago? And what does history say about the chances o of success for backup QBs Matt M Moore, Tom Savage and Connor Cook? C Chris Burke has a comprehensive p preview covering all that and more at S SI.com/nfl. And to watch SI’s playoff pr preview show Countdown to Houston, i partnership with Fox Sports—which in wiill culminate in three live shows from rad dio row during Super Bowl week witth commentary from SI and Fox analysts, guests and NFL players— an ana h ad hea a to SI.com/sb51.


Get ready to feel more on than off with Emergen-C Immune PlusŽ. Supercharged with zinc, vitamin D and more vitamin C than 10 oranges^ to help support your immune system.* Why not feel this good every day? Emerge and see see. ŠAlacer 2015 ^Based on using the USDA.gov nutrient database value for a large, raw orange. *These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.


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@sportsillustrated

Flying Tiger, Hidden Buckeyes QOne of the most anticipated games on this year’s bowl slate, the Fiesta Bowl turned out to be a colossal dud in the desert: Running back Wayne Gallman (9) and Clemson rolled over Ohio State 31–0 on New Year’s Eve. Gallman rumbled for 85 yards and a touchdown, and Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson passed for 259 yards at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., where Clemson lost to Alabama in the national-title game a year ago. The Tigers’ win in the national semifinal set the stage for a rematch with the Crimson Tide in the national championship game (page 34). PHOTOGRAPH BY

JOHN W. MCDONOUGH


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Breakouts And Busts Q’Tis the season of redemption . . . and flopping Heisman winners. In the Music City Bowl, after a season that fell short of expectations, Tennessee lit up the Nebraska defense, thanks to a career-high six receptions from Jauan Jennings (15), on the way to a 38–24 win. Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson (lower left) was shut down by the LSU D in Louisville’s 29–9 loss in the Citrus Bowl. And in the Orange Bowl, Florida State’s Nyqwan Murray (80) caught the clinching TD pass in a 33–32 win over Michigan, a sweet ending to a disappointing season. PHOTOGRAPHS BY (CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) : MARK HUMPHREY/ AP; MIKE EHRMANN / GETTY IMAGES; JOHN RAOUX /AP


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Bo Knows QThe one bright spot in a sputtering Alabama offense, Crimson Tide running back Bo Scarbrough exploded for 180 yards on 19 carries in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 31, including an 18-yard first-quarter touchdown (left) against a hapless Washington defense. The sophomore running back from Tuscaloosa earned Peach Bowl MVP honors, and with a 24–7 romp over the Huskies at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, the Tide punched their ticket to the championship game on Jan. 9. PHOTOGRAPH BY

KEVIN D. LILES


NB X FOR DEC. 19,, 20 20166

I have jjust sobbedd myy wayy through g Lee Jenkins’s ’ article aabout LeBron James. s I hhave never seen Northeeast Ohio so galvanized g d, j y and pproudd joyful of what the Cavss a accomplished. p Aftter y years of beingg thee butt j of jokes, we can finally p ons. be called champio Gary Richardson, Cantonn, Ohio

Dennis Kerrigan, North Barrington, Ill.

Regarding Will Leitch’s essay on fans’ impatience for championships (SCORECARD), I think we should remember that without the agony of defeat, there can be no thrill in victory. To say all is futile if there is no championship is to rob all the joy from each season. Lorraine Urfer, Hayward, Calif.

IF YOU DO NOT WANT THE SWIMSUIT ISSUE The annual SI Swimsuit Issue will be published in February. If you’re a subscriber and would prefer not to receive it, call our customer service center tollfree at 1-866-228-1175. If you choose not to get the SI Swimsuit Issue, SI will extend your subscription. Contact

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

As a Superior Court judge and law professor who both upholds and teaches the First Amendment, I applaud your selection of LeBron James as Sportsperson of the Year. And I all but burst with pride and felt great reverence over your inclusion of patriots like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem AbdulJabbar (The Activist Minds) and Doug Baldwin ( . . . And Now What?). Mark T. Gould North Haven, Conn.

I’ve been reading SI since 1958, and one of the main reasons I’ve been so loyal is that it has consistently featured articles about important social issues as they intersect with the world of sports—e.g., your series on the exploitation of black athletes in ’68, stories on athletes and domestic violence, Jason Collins’s coming out in 2013. Thanks for keeping up this great tradition. Glenna Matthews Laguna Beach, Calif.

Letters E-mail SI at letters@SI.timeinc.com or fax SI at 212-467-2417. Letters should include the writer’s full name, address and home telephone number and may be edited for clarity and space. Customer Service and Subscriptions For 24/7 service, go to SI.com/customerservice. Call 1-800-528-5000 or write to SI at P.O. Box 62120 Tampa, FL 33662. To purchase reprints of SI covers, go to SIcovers.com. Advertising For ad rates, an editorial calendar or a media kit, email SI at SIpubqueries@timeinc.com.

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E ZR A SH AW/G E T T Y IM AG E S (JA M E S); R O B ER T B E C K (COV ER); MI C H A EL Z AGA RIS /S A N F R A N C IS CO 49 ERS /G E T T Y IM AG E S (K A EPERNI C K); TA S OS K AT O P O D IS /A F P/G E T T Y IM AG E S (C U BS)

Awarding James over the Cubs was a snub of epic proportions. The team’s engaging personalities, enthralling manager, loyal fan base and thrilling comeback in Game 7 of the World Series all combined for the most compelling sports story of 2016.

I found your use of the word courage in describing Colin Kaepernick very disappointing (EDITORS’ LETTER ). I believe the soldiers who fight for our country are the ones who show courage. Kaepernick’s actions are a slap in the face of all who provide him the very freedom he has used to dishonor the national anthem. Jeff Kampwerth, Aviston, Ill.

COVER


PROMOTION

FOR MORE SI EVENTS AND PROMOTIONS FOLLOW @SI_OVERTIME

On December 12, Sports Illustrated recognized the athletes who contributed to a historic year in sports at the annual Sportsperson of the Year Gala at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY. Lebron James was presented the title award by entertainment mogul Jay Z in a surprise appearance. The Muhammad Ali Legacy Award was presented by the late champion’s wife, Lonnie, and former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning to three Hall of Famers - legendary basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, all-time NFL great Jim Brown and five-time NBA Most Valuable Player Bill Russell.

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Other honorees included SportsKids of the Year, Tai, Rainn and Brooke Sheppard, three sisters from Brooklyn who each qualified for the Junior Olympics in track; Michael Phelps was named the Greatest Olympian of All Time, presented by fellow Olympians gymnast Aly Raisman, track & field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee and swimmer Tom Dolan; and baseball slugger David Ortiz presented Cleveland Indians infielder Francisco Lindor with the Rising Star of the Year Award. Kendrick Lamar gave an incredible musical performance and comedian J.B. Smoove was the emcee for the night in front of an audience of more than 500 guests and VIPs.

1. ALL HONOREES AND PRESENTERS GATHER FOR A PHOTO FOLLOWING THE EVENT. BACK ROW (LEFT TO RIGHT): TIME INC. PRESIDENT & CEO RICH BATTISTA, JAY Z, JIM BROWN, LEBRON JAMES, JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE, DAVID ORTIZ, PEYTON MANNING, MICHAEL PHELPS, TOM DOLAN, SI EDITOR-IN-CHIEF CHRIS STONE. FRONT ROW (LEFT TO RIGHT): RAINN SHEPPARD, ALY RAISMAN, TAI SHEPPARD, BROOKE SHEPPARD, FRANCISCO LINDOR AND J.B. SMOOVE

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2. KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR ACCEPTING THE MUHAMMAD ALI LEGACY AWARD, ALONG WITH FELLOW HONOREE JIM BROWN AND PRESENTER LONNIE ALI. 3. PEYTON MANNING PRESENTING THE MUHAMMAD ALI LEGACY AWARD TO HONOREES KAREEN ABDUL-JABBAR, JIM BROWN AND BILL RUSSELL. 4. EMCEE FOR THE EVENING, J.B. SMOOVE, ARRIVES AT THE EVENT

6. JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE, TOM DOLAN AND ALY RAISMAN PRESENTING THE GREATEST OLYMPIAN OF ALL TIME AWARD.

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7. RAPPER KENDRICK LAMAR AND DEREK ALI PROVIDING THE MUSICAL ENTERTAINMENT FOR THE EVENING. 8. MICHAEL PHELPS HITS THE RED CARPET WITH HIS WIFE NICOLE JOHNSON AND FORMER NFL LINEBACKER RAY LEWIS 9. SISTERS RAINN, TAI AND BROOKE SHEPPARD ACCEPTING THE SPORTSKIDS OF THE YEAR AWARD. 10. DAVID ORTIZ, MLB COMMISSIONER ROB MANFRED AND FRANCISCO LINDOR POSE ON THE RED CARPET.

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PHOTOGR APHS BY SHANE L AVANCHER AND MICHELLE OCAMPO

5. SPORTSPERSON OF THE YEAR LEBRON JAMES JOKING AROUND WITH PRESENTER JAY Z.


Emergency Plan

NHL

Extra Mustard

Crossfit Champ

Edge

Faces in the Crowd

The Case for

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Clarity

Edited by JIM GORANT + TED KEITH

The ’Boys Are Back The NFL season got off to a rough start, but to the delight of the honchos in New York, America’s Team rode to the rescue just in time BY JACK DICKEY ers were knocking around reigning MVP Cam Newton; and the league’s most talkedabout player, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, was blamed for everything wrong with the sport despite residing on the bench for nearly every single snap of San Francisco’s first five games. W hat a d i f ference t wo months makes. Despite that Deflategate suspension, Brady is a leading candidate for MVP. Ratings have rebounded. And, best of all for a league craving positive story lines, the Cowboys overcame Romo’s absence and will enter the playoffs as not just America’s favorite team but maybe its best one too. For the league and its partners, spring came in November with all the familiar crocuses and daffodils. Just think how pastoral these playoffs could be! Call Nov. 13 the equinox. Dallas had started the season 7–1, with wins at Washington

12 / SPORTS ILLUSTRATED / JANUARY 9, 2017

and Green Bay and an overtime defeat of Philadelphia at home. But the Cowboys were still anchored by rookies at quarterback (Dak Prescott) and running back (Ezekiel Elliott), without the sort of victory that dominates a whole week’s TV chatter. That day they were in Pittsburgh to face one of their oldest rivals. Steelers qua r terback Ben Roethlisberger (page 20) led a 75-yard touchdown drive for a 30–29 lead with 42 seconds left. Prescott led his team to the outer edge of field goal range with 15 seconds remaining. Then came the season’s defining handoff—Prescott to Elliott, with the Cowboys’ superlat ive of fensive line blocking for nothing more than a halfback dive. Elliott sprinted 32 yards through Pittsburgh’s remaining defenders for a game-winning touchdown, and Dallas’s status as America’s Team was once again unimpeachable.

It was 1979 when an NFL Films producer tossed that phrase into John Facenda’s voice-over script for the previous season’s highlights tape. The ’78 Cowboys, defending champions, had made it to a then NFL-record fifth Super Bowl, and though they lost to the Steelers, Dallas’s prospects still seemed brighter than those of any other team. Sportswriters and announcers took the term and ran with it. Perhaps the appellation stuck because it wasn’t such an overstatement. A 1979

TO M PEN NIN G TO N /GE T T Y IM AG E S

Phenologically speaking, each NFL season begins in summer and ends in winter. But opening week in 2016 could not have seemed a fecund moment to the muckety-mucks on Park or Madison Avenues. Pey ton Manning had retired, so the defending champion Broncos trotted out a second-year seventh-rounder at quarterback, Trevor Siemian. The league’s biggest star, Tom Brady, had been banished from New England’s first four games, due process having postponed the commissioner’s May ’15 disciplinary caprice for a year. (Who even remembered what all that had been about?) The most famous player on the league’s most popular team— Da l la s qu a r terbac k Tony Romo—was also sidelined, as he was recovering from a preseason back injury. T hings didn’t get much better in the first few weeks of t he sea son. Tele v ision ratings were down; defend-


J O E R O B B I N S /G E T T Y I M AG E S (B US H); DAV I D B ER D I N G / I CO N S P O R T S W I R E / G E T T Y I M AG E S (B L U E JAC K E T S)

Washington Post story reported that the Cowboys that year accounted for 29% of all teams’ merchandise sales (Pittsburgh was No. 2 at 8%), and Dallas Cowboys Weekly was the secondlargest weekly sports publication in America (behind, ahem, this one). In the 15 Harris Polls since 1998 asking fans to pick their favorite NFL team, Dallas has been voted No. 1 10 times, including in the most recently released edition, in 2015. That’s some feat, because until this year the youngest generat ion of footba ll

fans knew the Cowboys as nothing other t han a stupendously wealthy franchise (Forbes ranks them No. 1 in sports at $4 billion) with a preposterously big stadium. After winning three Super Bowls in four seasons in the mid-1990s, Dallas followed up with 19 seasons, starting in 1997, in which it won all of two playoff games. The Cowboys’ .500 winning percentage from ’97 through 2015 ranked 16th in the sport, worse than the Jets and barely better than the Chargers. America’s

Team? No, no, thaat h d to had be the peerless P Patriots, on-the-nose symb l m bolism be damned. Or m b maybe the Seahawks, wh who have risen through he h the league with outspoken stars playing a loud game. Or the storied Packers, working on a string of eight straight playoff appearances. Which world economy ranks No. 16 in GDP? Hmm . . . how does “Indonesia’s Team” sound? This year, however, the Cowboys have been as potent as they are popular, leading the NFL in rushing yards and TV ratings, attendance and merchandise sales too. Nostalgia pumps through the sports world, and fans fall hardest for stories, like Dallas’s dominance, that remind them of the ones they heard when they were young. The NFL likes those stories too, since casual fans can more easily understand the Cowboys than, say, the Panthers, as the NFL’s center of gravity. A lot of ink is spent chronicling the existential threats facing pro football, like head injuries and cord-cut t ing cable subscribers. Much of the doomsday-prognosticating could turn out one day to be true. But in 2017, the Cowboys enter the playoffs as the NFC’s No. 1 seed. They have done it with a pair of Pro Bowl rookies, yes, but al h elite l e also with run blocking h ldg—how oldfashioned. Aree we ever speeding forw d as ward fast as we think nk we are? America’s ’s Team, indeed. ±

3 Rushing yards, on 12 carries, this season for Buffalo’s Reggie Bush, making him the first non-QB player in 55 years to finish in the red on 10 or more carries.

1 Time that Top 10–ranked Duke and North Carolina teams have each lost by double digits to unranked teams on the same day. Last Saturday the No. 5 Blue Devils fell 89–75 at Virginia Tech, and the No. 9 Tar Heels lost 79–63 at Georgia Tech.

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Winning streaks for the Blue Jackets and the Wild, respectively, before the teams faced off last Saturday. It was the first time in any of the four major pr pro sports that both teams entered a regular-season m matchup with at lleas st a 12-game winning g streak, said the Elias s Sports Bureau. Columbu Columbus won 4–2.

JANUARY 9, 2017 / SPORTS ILLUSTRATED /

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SCORECARD NHL

Goal Oriented Alves, 37, went from looking after the team’s equipment to donning it in an NHL game.

Pipe Dream Emergency goalie Jorge Alves gets in WHEN THE opportunity of a lifetime knocked, Jorge Alves was already walking away. Less than eight seconds remained in the Hurricanes’ 3–1 loss to Tampa Bay on New Year’s Eve, so Alves, 37, left the visiting bench to start his postgame duties as Carolina’s equipment manager. He was halfway down the tunnel when coach Bill Peters called him back. Having also dressed that night as the team’s emergency backup goalie, Alves was about to create one of the last great sports moments of 2016 by entering an NHL game. It was a moment made possible only because Canes backup Eddie Lack fell ill the afternoon before the 7 p.m. EST start in Tampa and none of the team’s

minor league affiliates were close enough to provide a reinforcement in time. So Alves hastily signed a contract on a smartphone (salary: $500 and the gameworn jersey), gave a pregame speech thanking his new teammates and led them out for warmups, wearing number 40 and a mask he had painted himself. Alves owes his chance in part to a rule that went into effect during the 1965 playoffs that mandated that teams dress reserve goalies. While a retired goalie turned assistant coach will occasionally don

Rebounders FORMER JAGUARS and Giants coach Tom Coughlin was connected to the Jacksonville and Buffalo vacancies last week, inspiring much handwringing about the NFL’s tendency to recycle coaches. Coughlin’s reemergence days after the Bills ended Rex Ryan’s second run as a top dog seemed to reinforce the notion, but does it really hold up? An evaluation of the big four pro sports indicates otherwise.

14 / SPORTS ILLUSTRATED /

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CURRENT COACHING RETREADS

MLB 16/30

NBA 15/30

NFL 12/32

NHL 21/30

NEW RECYCLED C C

MIK E C A RL S O N /A P (A LV E S); B RI A N BA H R /G E T T Y IM AG E S (CO U G H L IN)

Who leads the leagues in coaching caroms?

pads and sit on the bench, such pinch-hitters are almost never called upon to take the ice. None who did had a journey quite like Alves’s. The son of Portuguese immigrants, he spent four years in the Marines before playing club hockey at N.C. State. He joined the Hurricanes’ equipment staff as a part-timer in 2003–04 and went on to play for five minor league teams. Alves became a beloved full-time staffer for Carolina in ’12–13 who also practices regularly with the team. With starter

Cam Ward in his usual place between the posts on Saturday, Alves dashed back to the dressing room to sharpen skates and retape sticks. After the game, as Hurricanes players boarded the bus to the airport, Alves—who didn’t face any shots—was already headed there in the equipment truck, to begin loading the plane. His 7.6 seconds of fame weren’t entirely over, either. With Lack still sick, Alves dressed for practice on Jan. 2. Afterward, he told reporters of his cameo, “Everybody dreams about it. I [was] always thinking about it: What would I do? How would I react? And then, when it did happen, I went blank.” As Alves spoke, a team trainer waited to serve him Gatorade and snacks. They do that for players in the NHL. —Alex Prewitt


SCORECARD

Lifting Off Falling for CrossFit

16 / SPORTS ILLUSTRATED / JANUARY 9, 2017

Presented by Mat Fraser’s weightlifting past taught him three of CrossFit’s foundational moves.

Squat Toes pointed slightly out, lead with the butt, keep the back straight and let your knees follow your toes. Thighs parallel to the floor.

Deadlift Start with back straight and shins touching the bar. Drive up through your heels until your hips are open and your chest points up.

Shoulder press Start with elbows in front of bar, head back. Push straight up, bringing head forward and fully extending arms.

For more athlete training profiles and tips, go to SI.com/trainingwith

C R OSSFI T, IN C . (F R A SER); M A R T IN L A K SM A N (IL LUS T R AT I O N S)

PHYSICAL activity came naturally to Mat Fraser. His parents, Don and Candace, finished 14th at the 1976 Olympics as the Canadian pairs figure skating team, and they encouraged their younger son’s athletic side. By the time he was 14, Mat had decided to make Olympic glory a family affair. So on the day he graduated from high school in 2008 he drove from his home in Colchester, Vt., to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado

Springs, Colo., with hopes of making the 2012 U.S. weightlifting team. A year and a half later, a month before the 2009 junior world championships in Romania, Fraser did a clean while training and heard a snap in his back. He was in pain but felt it was too late to withdraw, so he went to Romania, downed “a couple of bottles of ibuprofen” and groaned his way to 15th—in a field of 16. Upon his return to the States an X-ray revealed two breaks in his L5 vertebra. His doctor recommended spinal fusion, but the procedure meant that Fraser’s athletic future would be limited to light jogging. He searched for an alternative and came upon Robert Bray, a neurosurgeon

experimenting with a procedure that involved rebreaking the spine and inserting a protein sponge to stimulate bone growth and aid healing. If Fraser could get himself to California, Bray would do the surgery for free—but the most he could offer was a 50/50 chance of recovery. That was enough. Fraser had the operation on Christmas Eve 2009 and resumed training four months later. A year after the surgery he placed third at the 2010 American Open. But something was missing: Fraser had lost his love for the sport. He went home to study engineering at Vermont, where he wandered into Champlain Valley CrossFit and tried a workout that generally involves interval training made up of exercises focusing on strength and cardiovascular output. That day he paced the group in kettlebell swings but was shocked to see a man in his 50s blow by during the 400-meter run that followed. He was hooked. In 2013 he started training for real, working on everything from strength to agility to endurance. After finishing second at the CrossFit Games in 2014 and ’15, the 5' 7", 190-pound Fraser, 26, won in 2016 with one of the most dominating performances in the history of the sport. Along the way he rediscovered his passion. “With CrossFit it’s different all the time,” he says. “It’s fun.” He may never be an Olympian, but he’s back. —Stephanie Apstein


SCORECARD Emma Baker UPDATE

Back at the Starting Line Q In 2010, David Sills was a 13-year-old, seventhgrade quarterback prodigy when he became one of Lane Kiffin’s most notable commits at USC. But Kiffin was fired five games into his fourth season, in ’13, and Sills instead enrolled at West Virginia, where he was promptly moved to receiver. After his freshman year Sills transferred to El Camino (Calif.) junior college to play QB, and he threw for 1,636 yards and 15 touchdowns in 10 games this season. Now Sills is transferring back to Morgantown, and Kiffin, who spent the last three years as Alabama’s OC, takes over at Florida Atlantic. They are once again head coach and QB, but separately and a long way from Southern —J.F. California.

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Temecula, Calif.

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Football

Emma, a junior at Rancho Christian High, made a 30-yard field goal and converted all five extra point attempts in the Eagles’ 38–13 win over Amador High for the Division 6-AA championship. She became the first girl to score a point in a California title game and finished the season 8 for 10 on field goals, with a long of 41 yards. Mike Vecchione

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Saugus, Mass.

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Ice Hockey

Vecchione, a senior forward at Union, had a goal and an assist in a 7–3 win over Vermont, running his totals to 18 goals and 19 assists in 19 games. At week’s end he led the nation in goals and points and was tied for fifth in assists. Last season Vecchione reached 100 points in his 96th career game, the fastest D-I pace in school history. Haley Warner

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Fayetteville, Ark.

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Volleyball

Haley, a 6' 2" junior rightside hitter at Fayetteville High, had a team-high 27 kills in a 3–1 victory over Har-Ber High in the Class 7A championship game, clinching the Bulldogs’ second straight title. Warner, who has committed to Florida, was named the tournament’s MVP and finished the season with 1,420 career kills, a school record.

Edited by JEREMY FUCHS

Dominik Fragala

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Aldie, Va.

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Basketball

Dominik, a 5' 11" senior guard at John Champe High, scored 63 points, hitting 28 of 30 free throws in a 100–95 double-OT victory over Freedom High. The next week Fragala scored 52 points, including the tying and winning foul shots, in a 102–101 win against Briar Woods High. Through Sunday he was averaging 35.6 points.

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Stockholm, Sweden

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Swimming

Wahlström, a senior at Division II Nova Southeastern in Fort Lauderdale, set school records in the 500-meter freestyle (4:47.05), 200 free (1:46.43) and 100 backstroke (55.33) at the Spartan Invitational in Clearwater, Fla. She also helped to break relay marks as anchor in the 400 free (3:23.89) and 400 medley (3:43.79).

Blake Jackson

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Houston

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Football

Jackson, a senior quarterback at Mary Hardin–Baylor in Belton, Texas, threw for 171 yards and rushed for 119 yards and a score in a 10–7 victory over Wisconsin-Oshkosh for the Division III championship. For the season, Jackson passed for 3,282 yards and 35 touchdowns, and ran for 904 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Nominate Now j 18 / SPORTS ILLUSTRATED / JANUARY 9, 2017

To submit a candidate for Faces in the Crowd, go to SI.com/faces For more on outstanding amateur athletes, follow @SI_Faces on Twitter.

K E V IN F REN C H / I CO N SP O R T S W IRE /A P (SIL L S); A SH L E Y B EE PH O T O G R A PH Y (BA K ER); T REN T H ERRM A N N / C A RLY N S T U D I OS (V E CC HI O N E); R O D DA P H O T O G R A PH Y (WA RN ER); J O E B REINI G (F R AGA L A); N S U AT H L E T I C CO M M U NI C AT I O N S /GA RY C U RRERI (WA H L S T R Ö M); DAV ID M O RRIS / U M H B SP O R T S IN F O RM AT I O N (JAC K S O N)

Emma Wahlström


SCORECARD

The Case for . . .

Clarity

K E V IN R EE C E /A P

BY CHRIS JOHNSON

WHEN THE COLLEGE Football Playoff replaced the Bowl Championship Series in advance of the 2014 season, no feature of the new system inspired more optimism than the selection committee. Gone was the opaque composite of human polls and computer algorithms that kept media members and fans in the dark until the BCS selection show in December. In its place would be a 12-member group composed of sitting athletic directors, former coaches and other well-informed college football observers that could look beyond data and provide more transparency. But as the playoff nears the conclusion of its third season, it’s clear the committee is not the magic elixir many envisioned. The committee has drawn criticism for, among other things, its addition of members with no playing experience and its consideration of obscure elements like body clocks and game control in its weekly rankings. But the biggest source of frustration is its inability to clearly distinguish between two important criteria: best and most deserving. The committee purports to use the former as its guiding principle, but it often seems as if the latter is more influential. The committee chair (Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt this year, Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long the previous two years), who must

answer questions about the rankings after they’re revealed each week, often references factors such as Top 25 wins, strength of schedule and head-to-head results to justify the order in which teams are ranked—indicating a focus on résumé. Yet on other occasions the chairmen have pointed to characteristics of team performance, such as offensive or defensive quality, which is more about who’s better, regardless of record. The lack of consistency creates confusion and invites allegations that the committee unduly punishes losses or unjustly awards other squads who pass the so-called eye test. Consider USC. The Trojans lost three of their first four games, then with freshman Sam Darnold settling in as

The Trojans, with Sam Darnold settling in at QB, ripped off an eightgame win streak, playing like one of the top four teams.

their starting quarterback, they ripped off an eight-game win streak, including a 26–13 victory at No. 4 Washington on Nov. 12. The committee slotted USC at No. 9 in its final rankings, even though it likely would be favored in a head-tohead matchup against some of the teams ranked above it, including the Huskies. The Trojans may have three losses, but by the end of the season they were playing like one of the top four teams in the country. Or consider Iowa, which started 12–0 in 2015 thanks to a soft schedule. Even with that perfect record the Hawkeyes ranked 47th and 33rd according to metrics maintained by Football Outsiders and ESPN, respectively, but the committee put them fourth. The résumé seemed to outweigh their actual ability, a point that was reinforced after Iowa dropped its final two games, including a 45–16 beatdown by Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Ranking college football teams is hard. Schedule strengths vary, Thursday- and Friday-night games curtail recovery time for some while bye weeks create extra rest for others. And 18-to-22-year-old males are inconsistent. The ranking process is never going to be perfect, but it should be defensible based on a plain, consistent set of criteria. That isn’t the case with the selection committee right now. To be clear, the committee is still an upgrade over the clunky BCS formula, but sometimes it feels as if their explanations breed more confusion than clarity. That will remain frustrating unless the group draws a clearer distinction between best and most deserving. ±

JANUARY 9, 2017 / SPORTS ILLUSTRATED /

19


What We Think About When We Think About

NFL BY S.L. PRICE Photograph by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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SPORTS ILLUSTRATED JANUARY 9, 2017

AS HIS STEELERS STORM INTO THE POSTSEASON, IT’S EASY TO SEE HOW BEN ROETHLISBERGER HAS EVOLVED AS A PLAYER. BUT HIS GROWTH AS A PERSON? THAT’S HARDLY AS CLEAR. CHILLY RELATIONS WITH HIS HOMETOWN MAY PROVIDE CLUES TO THE QUARTERBACK’S DEEPER FEELINGS—AND GIVE FANS UNDECIDED ABOUT SUPPORTING HIM EVEN MORE TO PONDER


Ben ROETHLISBERGER HAS BEEN good for nearly seven years now— good here being descriptive of public behavior, not morality, the way it’s applied to a heedful child or a docile dog. By all appearances the Steelers’ quarterback has acted like a cordial, civilized adult off the field, while on it he has proved to be one of the singular talents in NFL history. Whether that combination signals maturity—much less true redemption—is anyone’s guess. Such uncertainty, as the NFL playoffs begin, will lead to the usual Big Ben sidestep by TV commentators. This is Roethlisberger’s ninth foray into the postseason, so much will be made of his three Super Bowl appearances, the way his grit so perfectly matches old-school football and the franchise’s image. The two rape accusations—one levied in civil court after an alleged attack at a Lake Tahoe hotel in 2008 and settled in ’12, the other allegedly committed in ’10 and dropped a month later after Georgia prosecutors declined to press charges—will barely be mentioned, if at all. Beyond the telecasts, though, the chatter gets more contentious. Steelers partisans who don Big Ben’s jersey embrace a heavy brand of fandom. With the retirements of Ray Lewis and Kobe Bryant, the 34-year-old Roethlisberger is American sports’ most prominent polarizer, his number 7 as provocative as a question mark. And sooner or later, the ask does come. “He said, ‘Why you got that jersey on? You know what Ben did? You’re a woman and you’re wearing it?’ ” says Pittsburgh fan Lefifia Moore, 41, about a confrontation she once had with a man outside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. “And I said, ‘Were you there? Do you have proof? How do you know she’s not lying?’ ” In fact, once Steelers safety Troy Polamalu retired, in 2015, Roethlisberger became Moore’s favorite player. Why? “His performance,” she says. “Stuff happened. I can’t say he did, and I’m not going to say he didn’t. Personally, I don’t believe it; it’s her word against his. I like what he does on the field. When we’re in a crunch and I need a play, I can count on Ben to make it happen.” She laughs. “And he doesn’t go down,” she says. “It’s a struggle to ow get him down.”

a physician’s assistant of deep Christian values from nearby New Castle, Pa., after first talking to her two brothers and asking her dad for permission. They have three children, and Big Ben does seem to dote. When his now-four-year-old son, Benjamin, wove through a scrum of reporters in the locker room to tug on Dad’s pant leg after this season’s home opener, Roethlisberger’s facade melted. “How’d you sneak up on me, huh?” he said, voice softening and rising, eyes wide, lifting the boy up high. “Did you see my interview?” Indeed, if Roethlisberger has declined—as he did with SI—all requests in recent years to reflect on his walk from self-centered boor and alleged predator to family man, revered team leader and future Hall of Famer, he is hardly a ghost. He has made good on a vow to cooperate more with local media, even receiving an award for his accessibility. He appears

A D RI A N K R AUS /A P

S

INCE THE summer of 2010 no women have come forward to accuse Roethlisberger of sexual assault, unwanted advances or so much as an off-color comment. There have been no reports of run-ins with police, not even a speeding ticket, and his name no longer serves as a synonym for noxious entitlement on the Pittsburgh bar scene. He has been married since ’11 to Ashley Harlan,

WITH THE RETIREMENTS OF RAY LEWIS ROETHLISBERGER IS AMERICAN SPO POLARIZER, HIS NUMBER 7 AS PRO


7 Roethlisberger

AND KOBE BRYANT, THE 34-YEAR-OLD RTS’ MOST PROMINENT VOCATIVE AS A QUESTION MARK. for weekly state-of-Ben chats and answers questions, win or lose, after every game. That he does all this genially, if tersely (“I need to be better”), allows for the impression that Roethlisberger is a stand-up guy. But there’s often a palpable sense that he endures far more than he enjoys these back-and-forths, measuring even the most benign queries for hidden traps. “Ben knows what’s going on, even if he acts like he doesn’t; he fully knows, and better than just about anybody I’ve seen,” says Ryan Hawk, who spent two seasons battling Roethlisberger for the starting job at Miami (Ohio) University. “He’s very aware—but likes to portray that he’s not—and very smart.” In other words Roethlisberger is, like most quarterbacks, a chess player, a competitive beast, a control freak. His job, of course, depends on keeping opponents off-balance, and he knows the value of a

well-aimed purpose pitch. In fact, nearly seven years ago Roethlisberger fired one brushback, in the face of all logic and geography, and he has renewed its chippy message every year since. The message consists of two words: Cory RawSNOW-WIN son. But to understand the fury behind them, you SITUATION Roethlisberger threw must know that after Georgia district attorney Fred three picks in a Bright announced on April 12, 2010, that he would blizzard against the not pursue rape charges against Roethlisberger, Bills—his worst day in eight years—but the the then 28-year-old QB seemed to concede every Steelers stayed hot. denunciation—short of the accusation itself—leveled at him. Roethlisberger did not fight the NFL’s sixgame suspension, or the mandated counseling that later reduced it to four. He didn’t blame the thousands of Steelers fans who wanted him traded, or owner Art Rooney II, steward of the upright family legacy, who mulled the idea very seriously. “The Rooneys are really principled people, and I think they wanted to be sure of Ben,” says Roethlisberger’s agent, Ryan Tollner. “They were worried about their brand and what they’ve built.” Roethlisberger apologized publicly for the “disappointment and negative attention” caused by his infamously entitled antics; said he was “committed to improving and showing everyone my true values”; and cut short friends who tried to blame outside forces for his troubles. “Don’t make excuses for me,” he’d say. Roethlisberger went on ESPN just before his 2010 return, admitting that he had for years thought himself “invincible . . . untouchable and better than other people.” In the ensuing years he even made peace with critics like Steelers legend Terry Bradshaw, who said on national TV that Roethlisberger “disrespected women” and that the franchise should have “dumped” him. In short, Roethlisberger seemed fully humbled, reformed even, except for one strangely enduring animus. When he was 10, his family moved from the small town of Bluffton, Ohio, to nearby Findlay, a prosperous city of 36,800 in the state’s northwest wing. He became a three-sport star there and set state records in his one electrifying season starting at QB for Findlay High. Through college at Miami and his first six years as a pro, Roethlisberger visited Findlay often, hosted a charity basketball game there, proudly called it home. But after the Milledgeville, Ga., rape allegation surfaced in the spring of 2010, that all changed. Unflattering comments from Findlay residents about Roethlisberger as a young man appeared in national publications, “When Ben got in trouble,” says former Findlay High athletic director Jerry Snodgrass, “Findlay, in general, sold him down the river.” The young QB was outraged. “A lot of stuff that was said is just blatant lies, which is ridiculous from people you played with and think are your friends,” Roethlisberger told the Findlay newspaper, The Courier. “You’d think people would be proud of you. Instead, I think there is a lot of jealousy.” In response, when it came time to list his birthplace in the Steelers’ 2010 media guide, Roethlisberger had the location changed from Findlay to Corey Rawson. The problem: “Corey Rawson” doesn’t exist. Roethlisberger was actually born in Lima, and before fifth grade he lived near—but not in—the two tiny villages of Mount Cory and Rawson. He attended the JANUARY 9, 2017 / SPORTS ILLUSTRATED /

23


7

THE ROAD TO SUPER BOWL LI

Roethlisberger

AFC

A

T 27, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey is seven years younger than his quarterback. That won’t matter. “I say all the time: The moment he walks away, I’m walking right behind him,” Pouncey says. “You get so used to playing with that type, man, and I don’t know if I’m ready to walk into a huddle with another quarterback. I don’t think I’ll ever be.” Pouncey won an NCAA championship at Florida snapping to Tim Tebow, who commanded legendary respect from teammates and opponents. But not, for Pouncey, as much as Roethlisberger. “Ben has something most people don’t,” Pouncey says. “He doesn’t have to say much. If he just looks at you, even in the game. . . . Say, for example, I have a low snap. I’d rather Ben say something than give me that look. But he’s not going to call us out in the media. He’ll come to us personally: ‘Pounce, that snap was low there. . . . ’ “Some people might think different, but I think he’s the greatest guy in the world. The best leader. The best quarterback. If Ben told me to go swing on a guy? I’d run right over and do it.” Then again, Pouncey joined the Steelers as a rookie in 2010, the dividing line in Roethlisberger’s career, the season in which he had little choice but to grow up and reach out. In 2004 he set a rookie record with 13 straight victories; the next year he became the youngest signal-caller ever to win a Super Bowl. But this precocity had a downside. Even if you concede the challenges facing a 22-year-old leading an already successful team of veterans, Roethlisberger did himself no favors. “A lot of success came really quickly for him; it was hard for him to manage that and be one of the guys,” says former running back Jerome Bettis, who played with Roethlisberger in 2004 and ’05. “He had to insulate himself to a degree because of the scrutiny he was under. There were some incidents where he wasn’t the best teammate.” Steelers tradition, for instance, has it that a rookie brings breakfast for his position group on Saturdays. Roethlisberger, after he became

24 / SPORTS ILLUSTRATED /

Greg A. Bedard imagines every team’s path to postseason glory

PLAYOFF PREVIEW

Cory-Rawson school through fourth grade, but nobody there calls that a place of residence; it’s no wonder that Roethlisberger misspelled it the first time and a few months later slipped up and referred to himself on ESPN as “the kid that grew up in Findlay.” Roethlisberger has otherwise maintained a biliously hard line on the matter. (He’s also dropped the erroneous e in Cory.) Despite outcries from Ohioans that his listed hometown is no more real than Bikini Bottom, he persisted; the 2016 media guide still lists Roethlisberger’s birthplace as Cory Rawson. It is, in its way, a deftly wielded needle: easily ignored by Pittsburgh fans and NFL pundits, even as its point pokes away at one small, sensitive dot on the Ohio map. Never mind that such digs keep fresh a past that Roethlisberger is loath to discuss, and fray his image as a chastened soul. Or that the remarks made by Findlayites largely lined up with his retrospective self-description of an arrogant ass. It’s almost as if Roethlisberger keeps “Cory Rawson” as his one place to vent all the emotions loosed by the rape charges and the resultant criticism, the ones that don’t figure to fade no matter how long he leads his team onto the field, week w thousands cheering, wearing his name. after week, with

JANUARY 9, 2017

SMITH


1 SEED › PATRIOTS FIRST-ROUND BYE

NO.

Bill Belichick’s teams have won seven of eight home playoff games dating back to the 2011 season, and once again the Pats have h home ho me field ffie ie locked up. What could k heir journey more treacherous, make ma ke tthe he Gillette? Drawing the Chiefs or even ev en a att G S llers s in the later rounds. The game Stee St eele rs lan a plan pl aga gainst either would be to make th tthem em o on ne-dimensional by limiting tth ngerous runners (K.C.’s Tyreek thei eirr da dan n H sburgh’s Le’Veon Bell) and Hillll,, Pi Hi Pitt tts s k keep ke epin ing g a safety over the top of their ss catchers (Travis Kelce, best be st p pas as A Anto An toni nio o Brown). Both teams can be will set up big plays run ru n on on,, which w iin To T mB Brady’s passing. . . . With a Tom c cons co nser ervvative pass rush, the Pats have d ff culty against mobile QBs, so diff di ffic ic the th Falcons or the Giants would be preferred Super Bowl foes. The Cowboys would cause the most issues, but facing a rookie QB, and against an average Dallas D, tthe Pats would be favored.

G R A N T H A LV ERS O N /G E T T Y IM AG E S

NO. 2 SEED › CHIEFS FIRST-ROUND BYE

Kansas City would love to s M am mi upset Pittsburgh—but odds see se e Mi Miam a hat the Steelers, who thrashed are ar e th that K City 43–14 at Pittsburgh in Kans Ka nsas as C W k4 Week We ek 4,, are coming to Arrowhead. Of c se, this is a very different cou ours rs Ch ffs tte eam, especially on offense, Chie iefs e iin w h ch h matchup nightmares Tyreek whi hich H ll and dT Travis Kelce have become Hill Hi he en the th engi gine instead of spare parts. B t QB A Alex Smith has to attack a But Bu d ocrre Steelers defense instead medi me dioc managing the game. The off jjus ustt m f ’ D will also have to stop RB Chie Ch iefs fs’ L ’Veo ’Veon Le’V Le n Bell because Steelers QB Ben R ethl hlis sberger used play action off of Roet Ro hlis B ll tto hred the Chiefs’ secondary. . . . Bell Be o sh A ains Agai Ag nstt the Patriots, Smith must be ore aggressive and play the even ev en m mo o game ga me o off his life, and the D will have to fuse conf co nfus e Tom Brady with different preand an d po post sttsnap looks. . . . If the Chiefs b att the Steelers and Patriots in can ca n be beat sion, any Super Bowl matchup succ su cces ess s ld l ok easy in comparison. woul wo uld d lo

NO.

3 SEED › STEELERS

VS. DOLPHINS (JAN. 8, 1:05PM)

If Pittsburgh can just keep Dolphins RB Jay Ajayi from coming close to duplicating his 204yard performance in Miami’s 30–15 Week 6 win, the Steelers will cruise into the divisional round with QB Ben Roethlisberger's picking apart Miami’s depleted secondary. But Pittsburgh can be run on, so a win is no given. . . . . A road game in K.C. will be more difficult than their 43–14 home win over the Chiefs in Week 4, but Pittsburgh will roll if it rides Le’Veon Bell, uses play action to open up the K.C. secondary and forces Alex Smith to throw underneath. . . . The Steelers lost to the Pats in Week 7, but they didn’t have Roethlisberger and New England focused on stopping Bell. They would have no such luck in the AFC Championship Game, and Pittsburgh can keep pace offensively. There are, though, serious questions about whether the Steelers, who allowed LeGarrette Blount to go off for 127 yards, can slow the Pats.

6 SEED › DOLPHINS STEELERS (JAN. 8, 1:05 PM)

NO. VS.

Houston received a late Christmas gift when the Chiefs and the Raiders switched playoff positions to deliver the limping Raiders to the Texans at the site of Super Bowl LI. The Texans are favored over Oakland; a win would give coach Bill O’Brien his first playoff victory, in his third season. But if the Texans don’t figure out a way to block Oakland’s superb hybrid edge rusher Khalil Mack, they won’t be advancing. RT Chris Clark can’t do it by himself, and even with help he’ll have a tough time. . . . The Texans’ game plan is the same against any team: Play their usual great defense, control the ball and clock with RB Lamar Miller and have their quarterback (either Tom Savage, who was concussed in Week 17, or Brock Osweiler) play turnover-free football with the occasional big play to dangerous WRs DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller. That formula will keep the Texans in a lot of games, even with the best teams.

5 SEED › RAIDERS TEXANS (JAN. 7, 4:35 PM)

NO.

NO.

AT

AT

Miami got the short end of the AFC West Week 17 flip-flop when it drew the Steelers instead of the Texans. The Dolphins’ defensive line could have wreaked havoc on Houston’s average offensive line, but Pittsburgh is a much stiffer challenge. The Dolphins beat up both Le’Veon Bell (53 yards) and Ben Roethlisberger (57.1 rating) in a 30–15 home victory over the Steelers in Week 6, but Miami had top safeties Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus; both are out for the season with injuries. Still, the Dolphins are paying DTs Ndamukong Suh and Jordan Phillips, and DEs Cameron Wake and Mario Williams a lot of money, and now is the time for them to get a return on their investment. Add in another big day from Jay Ajayi and an efficient game from QB Matt Moore throwing to his speedy weapons, and the Dolphins have the potential to upset anyone.

4 SEED › TEXANS RAIDERS (JAN. 7, 4:35 PM)

Losing QB Derek Carr was a huge blow, no doubt. But Oakland can make things easier on backup QBs Matt McGloin and Connor Cook by being a run-first team behind its vaunted offensive line. The twoheaded monster of RBs Latavius Murray and Jalen Richard can carry the offense and give McGloin more time and space to complete passes. It won’t be easy against any team, even the Texans in the wild-card round, but if the Raiders can grab a lead in the fourth quarter, there aren’t many teams better at closing out on defense, with outside rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin pinning their ears back and rushing the passer. As long as the secondary can limit big plays—a big if—Oakland can go toe-to-toe with any team. The Raiders didn’t get to 12–4 just because of Carr; they have a talented, complete team, capable of a run deep into the playoffs.


7

C

the starter and star, failed to do so. “And small things like that become a big issue,” Bettis says. For several years Roethlisberger was conspicuously passed over when the team selected its captains. Before retiring, Bettis told Roethlisberger that, as the quarterback, he had to start giving more of himself to the public and to every segment of the team in order to achieve true leadership. The message didn’t take. In the summer of 2006, after ignoring coach Bill Cowher’s insistence that he wear a helmet, Roethlisberger nearly died in a motorcycle crash in downtown Pittsburgh, breaking his jaw and nose and numerous teeth. During the ’06 season, the Pittsburgh locker room thrummed with dissatisfaction over Big Ben’s responsiveness and lastin-first-out work ethic. Linebacker Joey Porter even called Roethlisberger out in a team meeting for treating everyone like his supporting cast. It wasn't until the spring of 2008, after he signed an eightyear, $102 million contract, that the nickel finally dropped. One March night Roethlisberger sat veteran backup Charlie Batch down at a Quaker Steak & Lube, bought drinks and asked, “How can I be a better teammate?” Batch spent the next three hours talking about taking linemen out for meals, presenting thoughtful gifts, stopping by defensive players’ lockers at the end of practice—all variations on the same theme: Show ’em you care. That autumn Roethlisberger was named a team captain for the first time. The Steelers went 12–4 and beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII after the QB deftly managed a 78-yard final drive capped by a six-yard laser to wide receiver Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left. When he and Batch hugged afterward, Roethlisberger said, “So this is what you were talking about, huh?” As an NFL quarterback and leader, if not as a man, his evolution was all but complete. Like Pouncey, wideout Antonio Brown found himself confronting a different Roethlisberger after being drafted by Pittsburgh in 2010: one who sought out teammates, and now with a lesson to teach. “He always is challenging me about responsibility, doing things the right way,” Brown says. “He taught me a lot. He was suspended four games [for the Milledgeville incident], and when he got back he told me, ‘No matter what happens with you in this league, when you become a star, always keep your head and stay d level-grounded. Keep the right people around you.’ ”

A OFF AYOF AY F PREVIEW EVIE EV IEW W

Roethlisberger

P

HYSICALLY, THERE have been few long-tenured quarterbacks like Roethlisberger. At 6' 5" and 240 pounds he possesses neither Tom Brady’s litheness nor his hero John Elway’s speed, yet he ranges in a way the similarly built Peyton Manning never did. Roethlisberger’s lightfooted knack for extending plays, his ability to unload the ball from all angles and his startling accuracy on deep throws reveal the all-district point guard operating within. Deep down, he is a baller. Every performance, that is, contains both beauty and beast, refined technique and backyard mayhem, sometimes within seconds of each other. In one third-quarter sequence against the Bengals in Week 2, Roethlisberger followed up a near interception by, first, on third-and-

26 /

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED / JANUARY 9, 2017

BECKHAM


1 SEED › COWBOYS FIRST-ROUND BYE

NO.

After being handed two h off tthe heiir regular-season losses by th ants, the Cowboys would tthe eG Gia Gi a b be jjus ustt fine not seeing Big Blue in th layoffs. Dallas has trouble tthe e pl pla a sust su stai aining offense against that tto h Giants defense. The Cowboys toug ugh b he Packers 30–16 at Lambeau beat be at tth h FFi ld and after shredding the Green Fiel eld, d, a B Bayy D for Ba f 191 rushing yards, would a agai ag ain n llook to dominate on the ground. S Seat Se attl tlle can’t contain Dallas’s running game ga me,, nor can it manufacture one tto m ke the pass a viable weapon. mak ak T at the Patriots in the Super To b bea ea B Bowl Bo wl,l, tthe Cowboys would have to he ground game to keep Tom own ow n th B dy off the field and would need Brad Br ady a pe formance for the ages from perf rfo o iit ffensive line against N.E.’s key its s of off f d f nd ders. In order to become the defe de fend ffi ookie QB to win a Super Bowl, firs rstt ro D kP Prescott would need to find Dak Da Dez Bryant on big plays against WR W De P Patr Pa trio io ts star CB Malcolm Butler. A tall order—but not impossible. tall o ord rd

G RE G O RY SH A M US /G E T T Y IM AG E S

NO. 2 SEED › FALCONS FIRST-ROUND BYE

No matter what team Atlanta draws for its first playoff game in four years, it’s going to face a QB with at least one Super Bowl ring: Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers or Eli Manning. That’s not optimal against a defense that ranks in the bottom third in points and yards allowed. . . . The Seahawks are the preferred opponent with free safety Earl Thomas out, making Seattle susceptible to the big plays Atlanta is capable of from the Matt Ryan–Julio Jones combo. . . . Giants wins over the Packers and Cowboys would give Atlanta homefield advantage, and the chance to face Manning—the worst NFC QB in the playoffs—without the aid of a good line or running game. The Giants’ defense is great, but Atlanta’s top-scoring offense is better. . . . The Falcons are the rare team that can outscore the Pats in a Super Bowl, thanks to multiple weapons that can exploit an average New England defense.

NO. VS.

3 SEED › SEAHAWKS LIONS (JAN. 7, 8:15 PM)

Given the state of Seattle’s depleted offensive line (it’s by far the weakest unit in the postseason) and the slippage of the defense since the injury to free safety Earl Thomas, the Seahawks could lose to anyone, even to the Lions at home. To make another Super Bowl run, QB Russell Wilson must be otherworldly with his arm and his feet, and the veteran leaders on defense (Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor) will have to produce big plays to give the offense short fields. Still, the onus is on Thomas’s replacement, Steven Terrell, to rapidly improve. . . . If those things happen, the Seahawks could conceivably run the table: The defenders are so good that they can make any opposing quarterback, from Matthew Stafford to Aaron Rodgers, struggle. . . . Seattle isn’t the same physically, but it still has the heart of a champion, and that’s dangerous this time of year.

NO.

6 SEED › LIONS

AT SEAHAWKS (JAN. 7, 8:15 PM)

The idea of Detroit's going into Seattle and emerging with a victory is not far-fetched. The Lions’ D is far from dominant, but the Seahawks are so battered on the offensive line that it’s tough for them to pull away from anyone if teams keep QB Russell Wilson in the pocket and force Seattle to score on prolonged drives. And the pairing of QB Matthew Stafford and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter can execute a game plan that takes advantage of the weak links on the Seahawks’ defense (CBs Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead, FS Steven Terrell). . . . The Lions can beat Seattle with that blueprint, but Detroit’s advancing beyond the first round is nearly impossible. With the big mismatch between the Dallas line and the Lions’ front seven, the Cowboys beat Detroit 42–21 in Week 16, a sign that the Lions can’t keep up with the best.

NO.

4 SEED › PACKERS

VS. GIANTS (JAN. 8, 4:40 PM)

Winners of six straight, the Packers—with QB Aaron Rodgers’s ability to break the back of any defense—have the potential to keep rolling through the postseason the way they did in 2011, when they won the Super Bowl as a sixth seed. . . . Green Bay’s first opponent could be its toughest. The Giants’ defense can end Rodgers’s season because it can get pressure with four rushers, cover well and keep him inside the pocket. But Green Bay’s O-line can match New York’s front, and WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery would keep the Giants guessing. It’s imperative that OLBs Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Nick Perry generate pressure on Eli Manning. . . . The more favorable divisional round matchup for the Packers would be Atlanta. Rodgers can outscore Matt Ryan in a matchup of MVP candidates. The Dallas ground game, however, would overpower Green Bay’s D.

5 SEED › GIANTS PACKERS (JAN. 8, 4:40 PM)

NO. AT

The Giants’ defense, in average points allowed (17.8), is better than their Super Bowl winners’ after the 2007 and ’11 seasons. That, and star WR Odell Beckham Jr., give them a chance in any matchup, from the Packers in the wild-card round to the Patriots in the Super Bowl. But the offense, the baby of first-year head coach Ben McAdoo, has been putrid, ranking 25th in yards per game (330.7) and 26th in points per game (19.4). New York can’t advance with the ’16 Eli Manning. He needs to be twotime Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning for it to win at Lambeau Field and pull off upsets over the likes of the Cowboys, Falcons and Patriots. They also need LT Ereck Flowers to go from turnstile to brick wall in terms of protection and must find some semblance of a running game to keep defenses honest. It’s possible for the Giants to recapture their old magic, but it’s not as likely this time around.


7 Roethlisberger

PLAYOFF PICKS

GREG A. BEDARD

one, fending off 325-pound tackle Domata Peko with his left hand and, while being yanked to the ground, shoveling the ball to tight end Xavier Grimble for a six-yard gain; then lofting a 53-yard rainbow so perfectly placed that it hit the streaking Sammie Coates in the face mask; and, finally, threading a nine-yard touchdown pass between three defenders to tight end Jesse James in the end zone. The score, of course, was appreciated, but defensive teammates particularly loved the Peko tussle. Not that it was a surprise. Before joining Pittsburgh in 2014, linebacker Arthur Moats lined up against Roethlisberger for four years with Buffalo. “The biggest thing,” Moats says, “was you’d hit him, and the first guy would never bring him down. You’d hit him, fall off. Ben’s like, ‘It’s just one of y’all? Good luck.’ Threehundred-pound grown men, he’s just throwing them off—and then he throws a bomb for 50 yards? That’s what separates him.” With just one playoff victory over the last five years, Roethlisberger certainly hasn’t won like Brady (who has?), but his numbers—29 TD passes in this, his 13th season, during which he missed a week following left-knee surgery and sat out the final game after the team’s playoff spot was secure—rank among the greats. Roethlisberger is 10th in passing yards (46,814), ninth in touchdowns (301), eighth in passer rating (94.1) and seventh in game-winning drives (39). Only Bradshaw’s four Super Bowl rings keep him a cut above in the Pittsburgh hierarchy; they can start casting Roethlisberger’s bust in Canton now. “He’s always had great vision and feel, a great arm, but the manner in which he’s getting the ball out, and fast, 90% of the time—he’s making really good decisions,” says Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “It shows growth.” Says Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who served as Pittsburgh’s OC from 2007 to ’11, “People are finally realizing what I knew for a long time: that he’s been the most underrated quarterback in the NFL going back six, seven years.” This season—with running back Le’Veon Bell suspended for the first three games and receiver Martavis Bryant banned for all 16 for violations of the NFL's substance abuse policy; with a rash of injuries and a defense still finding itself—the Steelers proved wildly uneven. Roethlisberger gave varying responses. First, after a three-game losing streak left Pittsburgh 4–4, he tried calm. “Follow me,” Roethlisberger said. “Guys that’ve been here know: No time, no reason, to panic. Just watch me.” He then passed for 408 yards and three TDs against red-hot Dallas, pulling off a 75-yard scoring drive that had Pittsburgh up 30–29 with less than a minute to play. But the defense couldn’t hold; the Steelers sank to 4–5. Maybe it was time to panic. “We are undisciplined and not accountable,” Roethlisberger snapped afterward. “Is it players? Is it coaches? I don’t know, but we need to get there quick.” Since then Pittsburgh has won seven straight. Much of that has been due to Bell’s steady excellence, particularly in a December snowstorm at Buffalo, where Roethlisberger turned in a threeinterception stinker for his ugliest performance

in eight years. But part of it has been because Roethlisberger knows how to rise to the moment. Take that masterly fourth quarter—14 of 17 for 164 yards and two TDs—in the division-clinching, 31–27 comeback win over the Ravens on Christmas Day as a sign. The last urgent push of his career has begun. “He has taken on more responsibility now than he ever did,” says Rooney, “whether it’s talking to an individual player or taking the group after practice and going over things one more time just to make sure everybody’s got it. He’s doing what a great quarterback needs to do. “Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes guys lose their way. A lot of things out there can get in a al athlete’s way. As we all know.” professional

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LIFF HITE first realized that Roethlisberger’s dance with fame could be dicey in October 1999. It was the senior QB’s first season starting for Hite’s Findlay High varsity team and, piloting a no-huddle, four-wide offense that was rare for Ohio schoolboys then, the 17-year-old rampaged across the state’s sportscape. Roethlisberger fired six touchdown passes in his first game, was offered a scholarship to Miami the next day and maintained a pace that would eventually yield 4,041 yards and 54 passing TDs. (He ran seven more in himself.) Reporters swarmed; suddenly the kid

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was special. Schoolmates were watching and talking about him constantly. Some teammates resented it. One afternoon that fall, before practice, Roethlisberger walked into the football office and said, “I’m tired of this. I’m not doing it anymore.” Hite, who’s now an Ohio state senator, thought the boy was joking. But when practice started, Ben still hadn’t shown; Hite sent someone to fetch him. Roethlisberger eventually walked on the field, threw a few desultory balls and stopped. He’d always FACING UP After admitting he liked basketball better, anyway. Hite sat needed to change, him down, saw his eyes fill with tears. Roethlisberger has “He was fed up with all the attention,” made more of an effort with fans. Hite says. “He was really upset. I think he had a moment.” Rattled, Hite told Roethlisberger that divorced when he was two; he was eight, and said to have been shoothis teammates needed him; the coach gave him just ing baskets, when his mother, Ida, died in a car crash on her way to enough time to think and say a prayer. “And after pick him up. The boy grew close to his stepmother, Brenda, but even those 10 minutes he came back and he was Ben now Roethlisberger points to the sky each time he scores. He has the again,” Hite says. “He’s been Ben ever since.” Chinese character for mother tattooed over his heart. Hite is speaking, here, about Roethlisberger the In high school, the churchgoing Roethlisberger was not known to competitor, always a bit savvier and calmer than his drink or date much; with adults, especially, he was jokey—“just like peers. That made sense: His dad, Ken, had earned Will Ferrell,” Hite says—but not disrespectful. By his sophomore year, a football scholarship to play quarterback at GeorRoethlisberger was lighting up jayvee defenses and recognized by some gia Tech before blowing out a knee. Ben’s parents of Findlay’s football staff as the school’s best QB. Hite notoriously—to future critics, anyway—started his own son, Ryan, over Roethlisberger in Ben’s junior year; he moved to receiver without complaint. “I don’t think his dad agreed with my decision,” Hite says, “but he never, ever questioned me, either.” By the end of his redshirt freshman season Roethlisberger had broken every Miami single-season passing CHAMPIONSHIP record and put NFL scouts on high alert. The resultant buzz also triggered the hometown radar, sensitive for KANSAS CITY CHIEFS any big-timing or perceived “change” in personality. at When Roethlisberger returned to mostly white, conserNEW ENGLAND vative Findlay, with its surrounding corn and soybean PATRIOTS fields—and a black population of just 1.4%—some people clucked at his seemingly new affinity for hip-hop culSUPER BOWL ture. Part of that was small-mindedness, if not bigotry. NEW ENGLAND “Ben’s black now,” one old classmate told her mother PATRIOTS 24 after seeing him during a visit home. “He was wearing, vs DALLAS like, ‘black’ clothes.” COWBOYS 20 Part of it was amusement at perceived “airs”, street or otherwise. “Oh, my God—the bling,” Cliff Hite says. “He had that big chain, he was talking differently; he would ATLANTA come home and everybody would go, What . . . is . . . this?” FALCONS at Of course, plenty of young white people love rap music DALLAS NEW ENGLAND and urban style, even in Findlay. Whether Roethlisberger COWBOYS PATRIOTS heard the scoffing and became disenchanted is unclear,

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7 Roethlisberger but by the time the Steelers chose him with the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, a decided chill had set in between star and hometown; some old teammates found him growing more arrogant, distant. Roethlisberger still had a handful of trusted close friends, still called his old mentors “Coach.” But now he traveled with an entourage, expected restaurants to comp his meals and drinks. His goofy humor had gained an edge. In 2005, after Roethlisberger’s game-saving shoestring tackle against the Colts became one of the key moments of Pittsburgh’s run to a fifth Lombardi Trophy, Hite quipped to a reporter that, yes, he’d taught the kid how to tackle. When Ben returned to Findlay soon after, Hite told him he’d made the whole town proud. “And he said, ‘Well, I guess I owe it all to you, huh?’ ” Hite recalls. “He wasn’t joking, I don’t think. He was acting like he was being a jerk about it, but I don’t know if he actually was or not. Ben is an actor.” By then, a 50-foot Nike banner featuring Roethlisberger and the words this is findlay dominated downtown. Tony’s Restaurant & Pub featured a $7 Big Ben burger; a local radio station was broadcasting Steelers games; two bars had become Steelers havens—all of this in the heart of Browns country. At 24, Roethlisberger was a celebrity, and shrewd enough to be wary of it. Once, on his way to visit his grandmother in nearby Lima, he stopped by to see his old hoops coach and AD at home in Findlay. Snodgrass was thrilled. “I was kind of in awe of this fame-and-fortune thing,” Snodgrass says. “At the time, we all lived it: Ohmygosh! Ben’s in town!” After their visit, as he walked Roethlisberger out the door, Snodgrass found himself gushing. “Ben, it’s unbelievable the power you have,” he said. “That you could stop at a gas station and just make some kid’s life—the power you have to do good. . . .” be Roethlisberger cut him short. “Or to do bad,” he said.

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LISON HALL has been the executive director of Pittsburgh Action Against Rape since Roethlisberger’s rookie year. This September she was standing in an all but empty South Side bar when another woman walked in wearing a black T-shirt with Roethlisberger’s name written in pink on the back and a number 7 below it. “I’d like to go and ask, like, What are you thinking?” Hall says. But if she confronted every female in the quarterback’s jersey worn in Pittsburgh—where his is the second most popular, behind Brown’s— there would be time for little else. Still, Hall is most tempted when sighting one worn by a little girl. “Like, Really?,” she says. “You can’t rally for another player?” Hall has her own answer. Autumn Sundays are still dedicated to watching the Steelers in her family’s Squirrel Hill home. Alison’s daughter, Alissa, was a high school junior the year Big Ben won 13 straight and broke local hero Dan Marino’s rookie passing marks; she asked for his jersey that Christmas and wore it constantly. He was only six years older and thus, in teenage-crush calculus, obtainable. “Oh,” Alissa would say, “I’m going to marry Ben.” Then she went off to college, and by the time she started coming home and hitting the South Side with friends, Roethlisberger’s reputation had started to take a beating: rude, self-centered and a bad tipper to boot. Still, Alissa wore his jersey for games. “Then,” she says, “when the accusations started, it got complicated.”

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The first allegation, in a 2009 court filing by 31-year-old Andrea McNulty, claimed that in July ’08, Roethlisberger asked the Harrah’s Lake Tahoe executive casino host to come to his room to fix an unbroken TV, blocked her exit and raped her; she asked for more than $440,000 in damages. Roethlisberger countersued, calling the sex consensual, and the terms of a ’12 settlement have never been disclosed. (McNulty’s lawyer did not return calls from SI.)

“I WAS IN AWE OF THIS FAME-AND“AT THE TIME, WE ALL LIVED IT: OH The second accusation came after a night of heavy drinking by all involved parties in Milledgeville and alleged that Roethlisberger raped a 20-year-old girl while they were alone in a club bathroom. In one of his few public statements on the matter, Roethlisberger told ESPN in 2010, “I never, never have and never will, ever, harm a female in the way I was accused of doing. I can promise you that.” (Through her attorney, the woman declined to speak to SI.) That case soon fell apart due to a lack of physical evidence, a reportedly biased stance by Milledgeville law enforcement against the alleged victim in the immediate aftermath, and the decision by the accuser not to press charges. “They made it very clear—her lawyer, her father, her—that they did not want the case prosecuted,” says Bright, who spent 21 years as a Georgia DA before retiring in 2015. “But even without that, we didn’t have a case. And we knew it pretty much from the beginning.” Still, though Roethlisberger was never charged in either instance, the court of public opinion had heard plenty of ugly evidence. Bright’s admonishment of Roethlisberger at a press conference—“Grow up”—set the tone for his return to public life. Renown, the narrative went, had eaten young Roethlisberger alive: He wasn’t bad so much as wildly immature, with core values still salvageable through family and faith. His stepmom, Brenda, had sensed a storm gathering for some time. She and Ken had been widely admired in Findlay for their understated support of Ben’s career: no big trophy case in their home; equal time showered on the feats of their daughter, Carlee, who played basketball and volleyball at Oklahoma. Well before the couple moved to Pittsburgh in mid-2009, Brenda worried to at least one friend,


FORTUNE THING,” SAYS SNODGRASS. MYGOSH! BEN’S IN TOWN!”

press conferences and talks about how becoming a father altered his perspective. Many believe him. “A lot of people quit on Ben, I know,” said Colleen Haney, in her number 7 jersey at this season’s home opener. “Friends of mine did. But I don’t hear the negativity anymore since he got married and had kids. Everybody thinks he’s settled down.” Others, though, will never buy into Big Ben again. Alissa has arguments with friends about why they shouldn’t back Roethlisberger. But even her own husband, a strong supporter of her mother’s rapecrisis work, recently told Alissa he wouldn’t think twice about wearing his number 7. “What’s your problem? How can you?” Alissa asked him. But she knows. Call it hero tolerance. “When the Steelers are doing well, you kind of forget about it,” says Alissa. “But if Ben had been one of my friends or just someone associated with one of my friends, I would say to people, ‘Don’t talk to him. He’s creepy.’ “Do you ever really forgive someone for that kind of behavior? Probably not. But Ben makes it very easy to forget. If the Steelers had lost that first Super Bowl and didn’t go back to another? He probably wouldn’t be here. Or people would be calling for o him to be gone.”

“No young man should be in the position he’s in, where you go to Las Vegas and you get a suite and gambling money and women. Nobody tells him no.” PAST PERFECT After his stellar career Of course, any rationalizing by family as a high school QB, or team or fans had its limits: Nobody Roethlisberger happily should have had to tell Roethlisberger called Findlay home—until he felt some in the town N THE first Monday night of the 2016 no. Other young men have become rich turned on him. season, a cluster of eight men and women and famous without being accused of garbed in black-and-gold gathered at rudeness, let alone rape. So in the days Legends Steakhouse & Sports Bar on following Bright’s decision to drop the South Main Street in Findlay to watch the Steelers crush the Redskins. case, the Steelers informed their players they were It used to be a larger, more raucous group, back when the games were now operating under a zero-tolerance policy. Tollner broadcast on local radio, but they still can muster some noise. “Big met with a few crisis-management types. “There is Ben’s still got it!” a man bellowed when Roethlisberger lofted his first kind of a blueprint for rehabilitating a celebrity’s touchdown pass. Whooping ensued. image,” he says. “I ran through that with Ben, and The lack of recent Super Bowl appearances has something to do he said, ‘No. I don’t want to do any of it. I want to with the group’s dwindling numbers, and there’s the quarterback’s be who I am and live my life and earn people’s trust strained relations with the place. Not that anyone here wants to dwell every day with the way I carry myself, not by trying on it. “She’s Ben’s biggest fan,” former mayor Tony Iriti said, pointing to convince anyone to like me.’ ” to Jody O’Brien, the director of the county board of elections. “She’d Still, Roethlisberger got his message across. He be rooting for him even if he killed somebody.” talked on TV about how Ken, having heard Ben admit O’Brien looked up from her plate, half-choking, and laughed. “Probhow far he’d strayed, cried and said, “I’m glad to ably,” she said. have my son back.” He presented himself as forever Surrounding them were the display cases and plaques that compose changed. “I used to tell my dad and my agent and the immaculate new home of the Hancock County Sports Hall of my closest friends, ‘If I can win a Super Bowl or two Fame, whose most accomplished inductees in its 32-year history are or three, nobody can say anything to me. I can do probably deaf baseball player William (Dummy) Hoy and NFL punter anything I want,’ ” Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh John Kidd. Which means that, by any measure, the face flickering on Post-Gazette in 2011. “That’s just stupid. I know that the massive TV on the back wall is the most famous one the town now. . . . I realize that I can use the platform I’ll have has ever produced. for something good.” O’Brien, a member of the Hall board, has nominated Roethlisberger Since 2007, Roethlisberger has dispersed grants for each year since his first Super Bowl win. She filmed every one of his dogs and equipment to the canine units at police and high school games for the Findlay coaching staff and never saw a hint fire departments; the gifts total more than $1.5 milof the entitlement Roethlisberger would later become infamous for. lion. He drops more references to God and faith into

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7 Rothlisberger “He was just a very nice person,” she says, “very appreciative of anything you ever did for him.” But, back in 2006, the fact that Roethlisberger’s career was still active made admission to the local Hall problematic. Then his legal problems made waiting seem even wiser. Then some former teammates and coaches said nasty things to a few newspapers, and Roethlisberger laid down his Cory Rawson marker. Findlay residents recoiled. “I don’t know why Ben would do that,” O’Brien says. “That was difficult for a lot of people to understand.” “It was kind of a slap in the face,” says Josh Huston, a kicker who played with Roethlisberger at Findlay High before going on to Ohio State and the NFL. “It made people angry and turned-off. He grew up the majority of his life in Findlay, playing Findlay sports. There was a lot of hurt.” Every so often, there have been stories about Roethlisberger going so far as to claim he never actually lived in Findlay proper. That makes Iriti chuckle. When Ken and Brenda moved to Pittsburgh, they sold the Findlay house that Ben grew up in to Iriti for $160,000. “I’ve had people tell me I ought to put up a sign: welcome to cory rawson,” Iriti says. Roet hlisberger st ill has close friends in Findlay, but the relationship between hometown and hero remains BACK TO BUSINESS For the ninth time Big Ben tense. Hite, for one, believes that Ben leads Pittsburgh into the was annoyed by his comments to SI playoffs, burnishing his in 2010: “Ben’s got to decide where Hall of Fame credentials. he wants to go and who he wants to be. I put my money on him getting it right.” But hasn’t Roethlisberger since proved his old coach correct? “How bad the bad was? You don’t get suspended for nothing,” Hite says. “But he's not only overcome that, he’s gotten his second wind, and I think he’s better than he’s ever been, maybe, on and off the field. He seems to be the Ben we sent off to Miami again.” In October, during the week Roethlisberger sat out with his knee injury, he did return to Findlay High for a football game. Only a select few knew he was in town; his second cousin was playing QB for the opposing team. But there came no announcement of his presence over the P.A., no lineup of fans eager to say hello. Roethlisberger found a quiet place in the stands alongside Ken, Brenda, Snodgrass and a few other couples. The fact that he sat on the visitors’ side was sharply noted, five days later, in an editorial in The Courier.

“DO YOU EVER FORGIVE SOMEONE FOR THAT KIND OF BEHAVIOR? PROBABLY NOT,” SAYS ALISSA. “BUT BEN MAKES IT EASY TO FORGET.”

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“It was good to have Ben back in Findlay, nonetheless,” The Courier allowed before rehashing the Cory Rawson problem and asking for “a reconciliation between Roethlisberger and the community. . . . It’s time to celebrate his football accomplishments and what he means to Findlay, Mount Cory and Rawson, and even Lima. What do you think, Ben? All of your hometowns are ready for a reunion. Are you?” What the piece didn’t mention is that, quietly, the Hancock Hall of Fame had finally voted in September to induct Ben—and his sister—into its 2017 class. Tollner confirms that Roethlisberger will attend. So, barring any mishap, on April 22 in Findlay the two sides will shake hands or hug, relax at some massive banquet, and Roethlisberger will stand and smile and say some friendly words. Then the room will ring with applause, shouts, and some will try hard not to wonder: Should I be cheering now? Has Big Ben come back for real? ±


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BY ANDY STAPLES


BIG SCORE Scarbrough broke five tackles on an 18-yard first-quarter touchdown run that set the tone for Alabama’s 24–7 Peach Bowl win. Photograph Photog tograp raph h by by Streeter Lecka Getty Images

BO SCARBROUGH took the ball from Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, chose his gap and punched the gas. Almost immediately the sophomore running back realized he’d made a huge mistake. Washington defensive linemen Greg Gaines and Vita Vea, 650 combined pounds of ballcarrierannihilating beef, had plugged the hole on the left side of the line of scrimmage. If Scarbrough could avoid those behemoths, sophomore safety and designated thumper Jojo McIntosh was screaming toward him from the secondary. It seemed inevitable that second-and-nine from the Bama 32-yard line early in the Peach Bowl’s fourth quarter would give way to third-and-nine and yet another punt. Scarbrough stands 6' 2". His teammates chuckle at his listed weight of 228 pounds, considering it absurdly low. A human being his size should not be able to do what Scarbrough did next. As the 318-pound Gaines and the 209pound McIntosh hit him, Scarbrough showed off his balance and agility as he slid left, shedding Gaines’s arm and wrestling his right leg from McIntosh’s grasp. Then he ran through the rest of the Huskies’ secondary on a winding path to the end zone 68 yards away. Just before Scarbrough crossed the goal line for the touchdown that sealed unbeaten Alabama’s 24–7 win last Saturday, he looked over his right shoulder and smiled. The grin and pose looked eerily similar to those Usain Bolt displayed in Rio in August when he realized how thoroughly he’d blown away the 100-meter field in the Olympic semifinals. Scarbrough wasn’t thinking about Bolt when he grinned. Until that moment, he says, his mind was blank. Then he looked back. “I saw my whole team running down the field,” Scarbrough says. “I caught the chills, because I could see they had my back and they believed in me that I could get the job done.” The Tide will play Clemson in the College Football Championship on Monday for their fifth national title in eight years, and most of that success has come courtesy of a ruthless efficiency that has earned them a reputation as grim and

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robotic. Yet the two most iconic images for Bama since the 2014 inception of the playoff have been smiles. Scarbrough’s came after the best play on a maddening day for the Tide offense. The first came from coach Nick Saban—the curmudgeon-in-chief—on a maddening night for the Alabama defense last January in Glendale, Ariz. With last season’s national championship tied early in the fourth quarter and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson picking apart the Tide’s usually impenetrable D, Saban called an onside kick. After Adam Griffith’s short rainbow landed in the hands of teammate Marlon Humphrey, Saban turned and offered the slyest of grins. (Translation: You may have been surprised, but I knew that was going to work.) Bama never truly stopped Watson that night, but the onside kick kept the ball away from him for one possession—just enough to clinch a 45–40 win and the fourth national title of the Saban era in Tuscaloosa. Back in Glendale last Saturday, Watson offered further proof that University of Phoenix Stadium is his personal playground. The junior threw for 259 yards and was out of the game with more than eight minutes remaining in a 31–0 rout of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. ESPN executives would have preferred an Alabama–Ohio State national title game for their ratings. The rest of the country wants to watch the Tide and the Tigers play four more quarters because it was so much fun the first time. After punching a ticket to Tampa, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney once again finds himself facing his alma mater on the sport’s biggest stage. While considering the rematch, Swinney paraphrased noted 20th century philosopher–retired pro wrestler Richard Morgan Fliehr, aka Ric Flair. “That’s the way it ought to be,” Swinney said. “Again, Alabama has been the standard. There’s really no argument to that. So sooner or later if you’re going to be the best, you’ve got to beat them.” To quote Flair further: WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! Strap in for another classic. The question surrounding the Tigers all season has been, Can they play at their peak when it matters? Could the team that messed around in a 30–24 win over Troy, that needed overtime to beat N.C. State and that gagged away a game against Pittsburgh flip a switch and take maximum advantage of its size, strength and speed? Saturday provided the answer: Yes. So the squad that matches up best with the Crimson Tide will get another crack at them with a title on the line. EANWHILE, ALABAMA’S offensive performance in the Peach Bowl cast a tiny shadow of doubt on the Tide’s invincibility. When the playoff field was set, it looked like Bama and the three dwarves. Now, even though the Tide opened as seven-point favorites, Clemson feels bigger. How will Hurts, a true freshman, handle getting chased by defensive ends Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell, not to mention by 6' 5", 342-pound fellow true freshman tackle Dexter Lawrence? Against the

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LINE OF FIRE By Brian Hamilton

HEN CLEMSON last played Alabama for the national championship, a little more than 50 weeks ago, Clelin Ferrell strapped on his pads, slid on his number 99 jersey and stood ready to contribute. He also knew there was no chance that would happen. Ferrell, a defensive end, had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee before his senior year at Benedictine College Prep in Richmond and spent most of his first fall in college regaining strength in his leg. The Tigers’ depth on the defensive line allowed the team to give Ferrell all the time he needed to fully recover. Ferrell took a redshirt year but felt it was important to be geared up during the title game. “I wanted to get as close to the moment as I could,” the 6' 5", 265-pounder says. Last Saturday, Ferrell was part of the moment. His team ransacked Ohio State 31–0 in the Fiesta Bowl to earn a second straight berth in the national championship game. Afterward he stood among dancing teammates, cradling the game’s defensive MVP trophy, which he won with three tackles or loss. His performance highlighted the strength of the Clemson program: It is great to have a twotime Heisman Trophy finalist—Deshaun Watson—at quarterback, but it’s even greater to have a front four that can lose NFL-caliber talent year after year and start two freshmen and a sophomore in a playoff semifinal and still dominate the opposition. Seven of the Tigers’ 11 tackles for loss against the Buckeyes were credited to that monstrous front, which features a trio of athletic 300-pounders and Ferrell. This particular group is an extension of a unit that

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has boosted Clemson into the national elite. Through recruiting and development, the Tigers have consistently reloaded their D-line without a drop in expectations or results. Clemson has had five defensive linemen taken in the last two NFL drafts, which has led to a steady beat of questions asking how the Tigers will replace the losses. “The guys hear that,” defensive ends coach Marion Hobby said with a smile in the locker room on Saturday. “They take pride in saying, What am I, chopped liver?” Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd were the stud ends on the Clemson team that lost to Alabama last January. As Ferrell watched them, he recalls, “I said to myself, Man, these two guys are probably going to go to the NFL, I have a chance to come in and help the team next year because we definitely want to get back to this.” (Lawson was a first-round pick of the Bills, and Dodd went to the Titans in the second round.) Ferrell was not the only one to recognize his time had come. Freshman Christian Wilkins, a top-30 recruit, was already an impact player. And watching from campus that night was defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, an 18-year-old, 342-pound midyear enrollee from

Wake Forest (N.C.) High and the country’s No. 2 prospect. All-ACC defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, a senior to be, would return, but Clemson’s youth on the line would determine the team’s future. “We’re young, but we’re ready,” the 6' 4", 310-pound Wilkins says. “We know no one is going to stop us.” Wilkins leads Clemson with 13 tackles for loss. Lawrence earned ACC defensive rookie of the year honors. And Ferrell recorded multiple tackles for loss against Louisville and Florida State and in the ACC title game against Virginia Tech. The plan to bludgeon Ohio State’s vaunted offensive line was simple. “Pretty basic and vanilla,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables says of his approach. “Our guys just won. We really preached, you have to win one-on-one when you get to this stage.” How dominant were the Tigers up front? After the game Ohio State’s All-America center Pat Elflein sought out Lawrence to deliver a message: “You’re a LEAP YEAR monster,” he told him. After missing the playoff with As impressive as the defensive an injury last line was, Clemson would not year, Ferrell be heading to a rematch with made Barrett Alabama without Watson, the and Ohio State dazzling quarterback who feel the pain in accounted for 316 total yards Glendale. and three touchdowns against the Buckeyes. Between the junior’s rocket-fueled throws and his sideline-to-sideline 33-yard scramble that had him laughing when he watched the replay, Watson reminded everyone what he can do against even a top-tier defense. “This year we want to flip the script and be the team to sit on the stage at the end,” he said. But a defensive front that can match Alabama’s size and athleticism and stifle mobile quarterbacks will be just as valuable. With 90 seconds left in the Fiesta Bowl blowout, Hobby stood arm in arm with his players on the sideline as a Clemson staffer snapped a photo for posterity: It was a moment to savor. ±

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ALABAMA VS. CLEMSON

Huskies, Hurts completed 7 of 14 passes for just 57 yards. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin said that was by design, because Washington led the nation in takeaways, with 33. Indeed, Alabama’s +3 turnover margin—including senior linebacker Ryan Anderson’s 26-yard interception return for a touchdown before halftime—was the difference. But the Tide will need more from Hurts to beat the Tigers. Kiffin will not coach in the championship game, moving on to take over as the head man at FAU, but his replacement, Steve Sarkisian, has served as an offensive analyst on Alabama’s staff since September. Sarkisian hasn’t been coaching at practice or in games, but he has been involved in game-planning, and he knows the offense and the personnel. Alabama can scheme plenty of short and intermediate throws to its receivers, sophomore Calvin Ridley, junior ArDarius Stewart and senior tight end O.J. Howard that can be low risk/high yield. But Hurts has to have the confidence to toss it to them on run-pass options. “He’s got to make the easy plays,” Kiffin said after the win over Washington. “We’re not asking him to win the game by himself—to throw the ball 50 times. There are a few easy plays that he’s got to make for us to win the next one.” Clemson’s defense dominated the Buckeyes and junior quarterback J.T. Barrett, an excellent runner who struggled at times this season to throw downfield accurately. That description should seem scarily familiar to the Tide. Barrett

THE TIDE HELD THE HUSKIES, WHO ENTERED SATURDAY AVERAGING 44.5 POINTS, TO SEVEN. ALABAMA’S DEFENSE HAS BEEN SO DOMINANT THAT THE EXTRAORDINARY HAS BECOME BORING.

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K E V IN D. L IL E S (GA SK IN); K E V IN C . COX /G E T T Y IM AG E S (A N D ERS O N)

gained a miserable 3.8 yards per pass attempt against the Tigers, but that isn’t much worse than the 4.1 Hurts averaged against the Huskies. The difference is that the Buckeyes don’t have anyone like Scarbrough, who looked like the 2.0 version of 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry on Saturday while rushing for 180 yards, a school bowl record. Late last season the Tide leaned heavily on the 6' 3", 242-pound Henry to either jump-start the offense or help run out the clock. He averaged 36.5 carries in Alabama’s final four games. Scarbrough’s 19 carries on Saturday were a career high. While Alabama teammates compared Henry to a cyborg—if he got hurt at all, it didn’t seem to bother him—Scarbrough, who grew up in Tuscaloosa, struggled with

injuries in high school and was limited late this season by a right-knee injury suffered against LSU on Nov. 5. Scarbrough also had to earn back Saban’s trust after fumbling late in the fourth quarter of a 48–43 win at Ole Miss on Sept. 17. He seems to have done that, and it might not hurt that he sounds more like Saban with each passing interview. “It’s not hard at all,” Scarbrough says of earning a bigger role. “Once you do everything right—even the little things you don’t think matter. That’s the Process.” Scarbrough’s emergence gives Alabama an offensive x-factor to complement the most dynamic defense of the Saban era. The Tide held the Huskies, who entered Saturday averaging 44.5 points and 7.1 yards per play, to seven points and 2.9 yards. Alabama’s defense has been so dominant that the extraordinary has become boring. Late in the second quarter senior linebacker Reuben Foster looked at Washington’s formation and ordered Anderson to peel back off the line of scrimmage and float toward the left sideline in coverage. Washington’s sophomore right tackle,


K E V IN D. L IL E S (H U R T S); J O H N W. M C D O N O U G H (WAT S O N)

Kaleb McGary, who had only seen Anderson coming off the edge as a pass rusher, followed Anderson outside. That left a gaping hole through which Foster blitzed, bearing down on sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, who threw earlier than junior tailback Lavon Coleman expected. Anderson caught the ball, dumped Coleman to the turf, and took off for the end zone, becoming the ninth Alabama defender to score this season. Senior defensive end Jonathan Allen—who has scored twice—gleefully welcomed his teammate to the “touchdown club” on Twitter. Why should this scare Clemson coaches? During the first half of the Fiesta Bowl, Watson threw his 16th and 17th picks this season. Bama defenders have returned six of their 16 interceptions for touchdowns, and they have averaged 24.9 yards a return. A poor throw against the Tide could result in a crippling momentum swing. STOP Still, Swinney seems confident that these Tigers might be better MOTION Anderson (22) equipped to win a national title than delivered Bama’s last year’s. “I’ve grinded my butt off sixth pick-six, on some teams because of the makewhile Myles up of the team—guys that were just Gaskin (9) & Co. exhausting to manage every day,” managed just Swinney says. “But when you have a 44 rush yards against the Tide. team like this . . . . ” Then he names nearly every major contributor on offense and defense. Heck, he even names punter Andy Teasdall. “These guys are so committed,” he says. “It’s made my job incredibly easy.” Part of the reason? The Tigers came back from Arizona last January aching to get another shot at a championship. They had come so tantalizingly close, and they knew they could improve. “My very first meeting with these guys,” Swinney says, “it was like, Let’s go. We’re ready to freaking get to work—yesterday.” The dynamic will change for the Tigers in Tampa. After reaching the final game last season, they knew their opponents would be gunning for them this year. Their motto has been “embrace the target,” but they’ll be the underdogs against Alabama, just as they were in Glendale last year. The popular narrative will pit the fun-loving Swinney and his good-time Tigers against Saban’s army of gridiron killbots, but the truth, is these teams aren’t that different. Clemson senior middle linebacker Ben Boulware carries a cracked iPhone that displays this message: Control the input not the output. If Saban hasn’t already preached that in a team meeting, he will eventually. Saban’s beloved Process teaches his players to ignore the big picture and focus on the details, but on Monday both the Tide and the Tigers will stare directly at the big picture and try not to blink. An entire season of college football has brought us back to where the last one left off. If Round 2 is anything like Round 1, that should make for a joyous start to the new year. ±

ANONYMOUS OPPONENTS’ TAKE How To Beat . . .

ALABAMA

You can’t sit back and run one scheme continuously. Sometimes you’re going to need to protect with five guys, free release the receivers and get the ball out quick. Then, all of a su sudden, you’ve got to block with seven or eight guys. Likewise, you’ve got to change up your run schemes so the looks are a little bit different. And remember, in the run game, four yards is a positive play. You also have to spread their defense out—the width of the field is tough to cover, even for Alabama. Plays with multiple options help too. A team that telegraphs its intentions against the Tide will get stuffed. Jalen Hurts brings an ability to run and pass that Bama hasn’t had. Hurts isn’t a pinpoint-accurate NFL thrower, but he has tremendous composure. Make them drop back and throw. That’s the way you have to get after them. Hurts threw nine interceptions this season, and during the regular season he completed only a third of his passes when pressured.

How To Beat . . .

CLEMSON

If you can get pressure with four people, you can play all the different defenses you want. If you blitz them, you’re taking a chance, because Deshaun Watson can run. You have to have a plan pla for keeping him in the pocket. It’s either a four-man rush or a five-man rush with zone. And Watson gets rid of the ball fast, so if you try to pressure, usually you don’t get there. They’ve got three great receivers and a warrior at running back, Wayne Gallman. So if you lighten the box, he’s going to kill you. You can’t put a linebacker on tight end Jordan Leggett. You have to almost play with a fifth defensive back. Their defense is high risk. They bring pressure; they run through gaps. If you give them multiple looks, a little bit of motion here and there to get them off-balance, you can run the ball on them. You can get the ball outside, especially if you have a running quarterback, which Bama does. A mobile QB can make them think, and you can catch them out of position and get some big plays.

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GREEK ’S SQUAD In his third season Antetokounmpo leads the Bucks in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks and steals.

ON THE worst nights, when the fadeaways are short and the pocket passes are late, Giannis Antetokounmpo skips the showers. He storms out of the Bradley Center in full uniform, from home locker room to player parking lot, and hops into the black Explorer the local Ford dealer lent him. He turns right on North 4th Street in downtown Milwaukee, steers toward the Hoan Bridge and continues six miles south to the Catholic seminary in St. Francis, where the priests pray and the Bucks train and The Freak dispenses his rage. Alone, Antetokounmpo reenacts the game he just played, every shot he clanked and every read he missed. Sometimes, he leaves by 1 a.m. Other times, he stays until three, sweating through his white jersey for a second time. “I get so mad, and if I go right home, I’m afraid I’ll never get that anger out,” Antetokounmpo says. “This is how I get the anger away.” He used to administer his form of self-flagellation on the court, because that’s what he saw Chris Paul do after a Clippers loss in L.A. But he noticed some fans lingering in the lower bowl with their cellphone cameras and he didn’t want anybody to think he was putting on a show. So he retreats, in space and time. Here he is not the $100 million man with the catchy nickname and the barrel chest who studies Magic Johnson’s fast breaks and Russell Westbrook’s mean mugs, who wrestles LeBron and mimes Dirk, who hears MVP chants and references 40-balls. Here he is not even the spring-loaded first-round pick who arrived wide-eyed in the United

FREAK UNLEASHED AMERICAN VOICES

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B Y L EE JENK INS

THE BUCKS HAVE HANDED THE REINS TO THE RIDICULOUSLY ATHLETIC 6' 11" GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, MAKING HIM THE TALLEST—AND MOST INTRIGUING—POINT GUARD IN NBA HISTORY JANUARY 9, 2017 / SPORTS ILLUSTRATED /

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TAKE T WO His three-point stroke is still shaky, but Antetokounmpo has made up for it by hitting 57.8% from inside the arc.

THE FREAK SURVEYS TRAFFIC LIKE A BIG RIG OVER SMART CARS.

Greek grinder. “I didn’t really look at my body and think about what it meant,” Antetokounmpo says. “I didn’t figure it out.” He glances down at his 12-inch hands, bigger than Kawhi Leonard’s, bigger than Wilt Chamberlain’s. He finally knows those names. “A lot of players will tell you, ‘When I was a kid, I watched Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, LeBron, Magic, and I wanted to be just like them,’ ” Antetokounmpo says. “For me it wasn’t like that at all.” He laughs, because at last he grasps the magnitude of his gifts and the ways they can be unleashed. He understands that a 22-year-old with his build and his drive should never go home hungry again. Antetokounmpo lives in a modest three-story townhouse near Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, in the same complex as his parents. Like any hoop phenom, he subsists on Wingstop and NBA TV. But when he needs to steady himself amid his unimpeded ascent, he heads west to Omega restaurant, where 24 hours a day he can order gyros and lamb chops with sides of nostalgia and perspective. “I think about where I was four years ago, on the streets, and where I am today, able to take care of my kids and my grandkids and their grandkids,” Antetokounmpo marvels. “I’m not saying that in a cocky way or a disrespectful way. But it is a crazy story, isn’t it?”

GA RY D IN EEN / N BA E /G E T T Y IM AG E S (2)

States three and a half years ago, tweeting breathlessly about his first smoothie, refusing to use the auto-pump feature on his gas nozzle because he was so excited to pump it himself, chirping after a burger at In-N-Out in Westwood Village: “This is America right here! The real America! Isn’t it beautiful?” No, here he is the lanky hustler from Athens, peddling watches, sunglasses, toys and video games, on the streets near the Acropolis while his parents feared that police would demand their papers and deport them back to Africa. Much of his backstory has been told, how Charles and Veronica Antetokounmpo emigrated from Nigeria to Greece in 1991 for a better life, had four boys there, and bounced from one eviction notice to another. But the further Giannis gets from his childhood, the more it resonates, in different ways. “I can’t push it to the side,” Antetokounmpo explains. “I can’t say, ‘I’ve made it, I’m done with all that.’ I will always carry it with me. It’s where I learned to work like this.” He could sell all day, serenade tourists with Christmas carols at night, and return home without enough cash for dinner. Still, he laments, “The results were never guaranteed.” Therein he finds the biggest difference between his life then and now. “If I work here,” he says, “I get the results. That’s the greatest feeling ever for me.” It keeps him coming back to the gym—straight from the arena after losses, straight from the airport after road trips, straight from the bed after back-to-backs. Antetokounmpo stands 6' 11", with legs so long opposing coaches constantly complain that he is traveling, until they review the tape. “He’s not,” says Wizards coach Scott Brooks. “It’s just that we’ve never seen somebody with a stride like this.” Among the NBA’s legion of stretchy giants, Kevin Durant is the scorer, Anthony Davis the slasher. Antetokounmpo is the creator, traversing half the court with four Sasquatch steps, surveying traffic like a big rig over smart cars. Durant and Davis try to play point guard. Antetokounmpo actually does it, to the tune of 23.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.9 assists, dropping dimes over and around defenders’ heads. This season he will be the Bucks’ first All-Star since Michael Redd in 2004, and before you learn to spell his surname, he will be much more. Growing up, his customers occasionally mentioned his cartoonishly long limbs, but he shrugged. He didn’t need a 7' 3" wingspan. He needed a sucker to buy those knockoff shades. He viewed himself less as The Greek Freak than a


O

N MARCH 28, 2013, Bucks general manager John Hammond sat in a dining room at the Bradley Center before a game against the Lakers and explained why his team could not acquire a superstar. Hammond was in his fifth season, with a record of 181–206, never good enough to contend and never bad enough to tank. The stars he had brought to Milwaukee, if you can call them that, were Brandon Jennings, Monta Ellis, John Salmons and Carlos Delfino. Hammond outlined the two most obvious ways to land a prospective headliner: Finish on the fringe of the lottery and turn a lucky Ping-Pong ball into the first overall draft pick, which has about a 1.8% chance of occurring. Or pitch a premier free agent on a small market with a frigid climate and a mediocre roster, which comes with even steeper odds. At the end of an otherwise dispiriting conversation, Hammond mentioned casually that he was leaving town the next day. “Where are you going?” I asked. “Greece,” he said. Memories of the trip have become blurred in the recounting: Antetokounmpo’s coach, idling outside the gym on a scooter, smoking a cigarette; Antetokounmpo’s teammates, nearly twice his age, coming straight to pregame warmups from their day jobs; Antetokounmpo’s parents, sitting high in the stands, as their beanstalk son deftly ran the point for Filathlitikos in the Greek second division. Hammond flashed back to a line that coach Larry Brown once told him. “For some people the game goes 110 miles per hour. For others, it goes 70.” Afterward Antetokounmpo’s Greek agents drove Hammond through Athens. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to this guy,” the GM said from the backseat. “But his life is about to change in a major way.” The 18-year-old Antetokounmpo was no secret among scouts, but many organizations were scared to draft him, given that he couldn’t even score an invitation to the Nike Hoop Summit. But Hammond, desperate for that elusive star, was ready to take a risk. The Bucks picked Antetokounmpo 15th overall in 2013, recognizing that there is yet another way to secure a difference-maker: Steal him. The day after the draft Antetokounmpo walked out of the elevator at The Pfister Hotel in downtown Milwaukee, where former Wisconsin senator and Bucks owner Herb Kohl was coincidentally sitting in the lobby coffee shop. Antetokounmpo was self-conscious about his broken English, but Kohl’s top lieutenant, JoAnne Anton, happened to be fluent in Greek. “I remember how his eyes lit up when he heard her voice,” Hammond recalls. “It was a small thing, but you couldn’t help but think, ‘Maybe this is meant to be.’ ” So began an endearing affair between Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee. He moved into a two-and-a-half-bedroom apartment in St. Francis that he shared with his parents and younger brothers, Kostas and Alex. Bucks guard O.J. Mayo sent him a U-Haul filled with furniture. Caron Butler and Zaza Pachulia helped him pick out clothes

AMERICAN VOICES

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AMERICAN VOICES

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P

RO SPORTS age everybody. There was the night in his first season when Antetokounmpo’s agent at Octagon, Alex Saratsis, told him that a Bucks assistant coach believed he wasn’t working hard enough. “You can tell me I’m not playing well,” Antetokounmpo replied, tears in his eyes. “You can tell me I’m not doing the right things. But you cannot tell me this. I won’t accept it.” And

there was the night in his second season when the Bucks’ new head coach, Jason Kidd, banned him from shooting three-pointers. “I want to shoot threes,” Antetokounmpo argued. “How can I not shoot threes?” Geiger left for the Suns. Morway went to the Jazz. Nate Wolters, Antetokounmpo’s best friend on the team, was waived. “I didn’t know all that would happen,” Antetokounmpo says. “You build these relationships, know these people, and then all of a sudden you get a text in the summer: ‘I’m not coming back.’ What? You get mad. You learn this is a business.” The first time Kidd benched him, Antetokounmpo was irate. “I was like, ‘Let’s see what this guy did in his career, anyway,’ ” Antetokounmpo recounts, and called up Kidd’s bio on his phone. “I saw Rookie of the Year, NBA championship, USA Olympic gold medal, second in assists, fifth in made threes, blah, blah, blah. I was like, ‘Jesus freaking Christ, how can I compete with that? I better zip it.’ ” At 6' 4", Kidd is one of the best point guards who ever lived. “But I wanted so badly to be 6' 7" or 6' 8",” Kidd says. “Guys like Magic are looking through a window that’s so high. They can make passes I could only dream about.” He detected enough playmaking ability from Antetokounmpo to try him at point guard in the 2014 summer league and again in the ’15 preseason, but he wasn’t satisfied with the results. Last Feb. 20 in Atlanta, with the Bucks 11 games under .500 and Michael Carter-Williams coming off the bench, Kidd put the ball in Antetokounmpo’s massive mitts. “We didn’t talk about it,” Kidd says. “We didn’t

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for road trips. Hammond and assistant general manager David Morway taught him to drive, parallel parking on the seminary grounds, and assistant video coordinator Ross Geiger lent him his maroon Subaru Outback Legacy. Geiger was Antetokounmpo’s best friend in Milwaukee, the one who oversaw his graduation from EDM to hip-hop, and instructed him on which lyrics he could sing in public and which he could not. But when they ate dinner, even at McDonald’s, Antetokounmpo insisted on splitting the bill. Either he didn’t comprehend how much more he earned than a video guy, or he couldn’t bear to part with the cash. Milwaukee went 15–67 in Antetokounmpo’s rookie season, which dampened his enthusiasm not a bit. He memorized lines from Coming to America and Next Friday. He learned to throw a football with Morway’s sons, Michael and Robbie. He begged teammates to play the shooting game two-for-a-dollar that he picked up from power forward John Henson. When a Greek TV station came to visit, he told Geiger they would need a customized handshake, “so we look like we know what we’re doing.” The Bucks were brutal, and The Greek Freak averaged only 6.8 points, a reserve small forward who spent most of his time marooned in the corner, probing for open spaces and put-back dunks. But he provided highlights and hope. “I love Milwaukee!” Antetokounmpo told teammates over lunch at the facility one day. “I’m going to be in Milwaukee 20 years! I’ll be here so long they’ll be sick of me!” He feared that somebody would wake him from his dream and send him home. “That they’d take it all away from me,” he says. To Bucks vets, Antetokounmpo supplied comic relief during a dismal winter, but Geiger sensed he was capable of more. One night they were watching a game on television when Antetokounmpo shouted, “Whoa! Did you see that?” Geiger hit rewind. Antetokounmpo was always amazed he could rewind live TV. “There it is!” Antetokounmpo yelped. “Look at the action on the help side and how that opens up the whole play!” Another night Geiger invited him to dinner at a friend’s house and Antetokounmpo barely uttered a word. On the way home, he told Geiger, “You’re really close with Erik, but you’re not that close with Matt.” “He was right,” Geiger says. “He knows how to read people and situations. That’s because of how he grew up. He couldn’t waste his time selling you something for five minutes if you weren’t going to buy. He had to read body language and move on.” When Antetokounmpo reminisces about his rookie year, he sounds as if he is talking about another era and another person. “I was like a kid in the park, seeing all the cities, seeing LeBron and KD, having so much fun. But that kid—the kid with the smoothies—I’m not really that kid anymore.”


KEEP ’EM SMILING The innately sensitive Antetokounmpo wants all his teammates involved—an asset in a point guard.

J EF F H A NIS C H / US A T O DAY SP O R T S

“I HAVE A FRANCHISE ON MY SHOULDERS,” SAYS ANTETOKOUNMPO.

make a big deal out of it. There was no pressure. We just wanted to try something different.” The Bucks won that night in double overtime as Antetokounmpo had 19 points and three assists, and afterward Kidd embarked on an audacious experiment: building the biggest point guard anybody can remember. Kidd oversees the project, but assistant coach Sean Sweeney runs it, accompanying Antetokounmpo to his midnight workouts, deconstructing his pick-and-rolls, furnishing him with clips of Magic but also less predictable influences such as Kiki Vandeweghe’s post moves and Shawn Kemp’s transition dunks. Antetokounmpo hung a photo of himself, facing up against the Raptors, in Sweeney’s office. Sweeney has repeatedly taken the picture down, but somehow, it always returns. “Don’t forget about me!” Antetokounmpo sings. T h i s s u m me r t he y worke d out t w ic e a d ay for two-and-a-half weeks at Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid, picking strangers out of the bleachers to fill fast breaks. “It was an inordinate amount of time going through situations,” Sweeney says. “We’d start with the running game. ‘First look is to the big running to the rim. Next look is up the side to the wing. Next look is across the side. Now can you get it and go full speed? Now you can get it and go and pitch it back to a trailer who can shoot?’ ” “You know what I liked about using all those strangers?” Kidd adds. “He had to speak. You don’t know these people, but you have to tell them what to do. They’re looking at

you for direction and you have to give it to them. That’s what a point guard does. He has to know his teammates better than they know themselves.” The Bucks acquired Matthew Dellavedova in July and made him their de facto floor general, but Giannis is the one making the decisions and feeling the consequences. “If this guy gets the ball five times, I know he’s happy, and if that guy gets it once, I know he’s not,” Antetokounmpo groans. “So I’m like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to get that guy the ball.’ It’s hard to satisfy everybody.” Actually, it’s impossible, which is another of the lessons Kidd is imparting. There are things stars do, like pick up the bill at McDonald’s, and things they don’t, like placate everyone in their presence. “To make the next step, I’ve learned you need a little cockiness inside you,” Antetokounmpo says. “I can be a little cocky.” The Bucks have been seeing his snarl more often of late, after pep talks from Kobe Bryant last season and Kevin Garnett last month, as well as daily skull sessions with veteran Bucks guard Jason Terry. “I’ll tell him something at a timeout like, ‘Watch the curl, and if the curl isn’t there, the slip will be wide open,’ ” says Terry. “And he’ll always tell me, ‘I got you, bro.’ ” He searches for the slightest edge, because a highlight a night is not enough anymore. He needs 25/12/8 with a win. “I’ve definitely become more serious,” Antetokounmpo says. “I have a franchise on my shoulders.”

O

N 28-AND-A-HALF acres around the Bradley Center, the Bucks are constructing a new practice facility that will open later this year and a new arena that will open next year. Next to the site is a billboard, featuring Antetokounmpo’s muscled back, over the slogan the future looks strong. Hammond, it turns out, proved himself wrong, and possibly twice. He found a star, and he might have snagged another, drafting forward Jabari Parker second in 2014. The Bucks currently sit seventh in the East, but outside of Cleveland, their long-term outlook is as bright as anybody’s. Hammond and Antetokounmpo talk often, though no longer about the perils of right turns on red. “He’s trying to JANUARY 9, 2017 / SPORTS ILLUSTRATED /

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figure this whole thing out, what he’s going to be,” Hammond says. “We’re seeing this more focused side of him, but it’s a fine line. You still want to enjoy the game, the fun part of it.” His trust is difficult to earn. Private trainers with renowned NBA clients offer to work with Antetokounmpo every summer. He turns them all down, sticking with Bucks staffers. “Because my parents were illegal, they couldn’t trust anybody,” Antetokounmpo says. “They were always nervous. A neighbor could be like, ‘These people are making too much noise, their children are making too much noise,’ and the cops could knock at our door and ask for our papers and that’s it. It’s that simple. So you’re always a little closed. I’m outgoing when I feel comfortable, but it took me 21 years just to invite a girl to meet my friends. I’m closed too.”

Giannis looked alarmed. “I don’t know who’s paying for all this,” he cracked, “because I only said I’d get the steak.” Three months later he walks into the practice gym the morning after a home-and-home with the Cavaliers, 76 minutes in close proximity to LeBron James. “You feel different after you play him,” Antetokounmpo reports. “Your legs, your body, you’re sore everywhere. Sometimes you have to lie to yourself, lie to your mother: ‘Yeah, I’m good, I’m good.’ ” The team has the day off. “But where else do I have to be?” he asks. He plays two-on-two. He shoots along the arc with Sweeney. His three-point percentage, 29.3 this season, right around his career mark, is still the source of much consternation. Judging by his practice sessions, it will spike soon, and then there won’t be any way left to defend him. “When I’m coaching,” muses the 39-year-old Terry, “he’ll be pretty much unguardable.” The next night, against Washington, The Freak is on pace for one of the best assists-perAntetokounmpo starts the game with game rates for a big man—but he’s no Big Dipper. Here a reverse layup, a midrange pull-up, a are the top seasons for players 6' 11" or taller. pair of sweeping hooks and finger rolls. PL AYER TE AM SE ASON APG The Wizards can’t keep him out of the Wilt Chamberlain 76ers 1967–68 8.6 lane or off the free throw line. He dunks Wilt Chamberlain 76ers 1966–67 7.8 off a Eurostep, a lob, a back-cut and a Kevin Garnett T-Wolves 2002–03 6.0 put-back. He dunks over Kelly Oubre, Giannis Antetokounmpo Bucks 2016–17 5.9 Otto Porter and Markieff Morris, flexing Kevin Garnett T-Wolves 2004–05 5.7 as they wince. When Morris fouls him Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Lakers 1978–79 5.4 hard on a breakaway, Antetokounmpo Joakim Noah Bulls 2013–14 5.4 sprints over to ask him about it. He has Source: basketball-reference.com 24 points in the first half, Milwaukee has 73, and the Cream City Clash in Section 222 chant: “Can’t Stop GianAround familiar faces, like his live-in girlfriend, his innis!” He looks as long as Durant, as strong as Davis, as nocence is impossible to extinguish. When Saratsis mentions ferocious as Westbrook. He’s got Dirk’s fadeaway, with the the All-Star Game, Antetokounmpo hushes him, so as not right knee raised, and a nifty two-handed scoop all his own. to jinx it. When Geiger visits, Antetokounmpo hands him He finds Parker for a dunk and a layup, Henson for a the Wingstop menu, with the addendum, “I’m buying!” And layup, Dellavedova for a short J. Leading the break, he when Kostas left home for the University of Dayton this fall, whips a pass to Terry in the corner for three. I got you, bro. big brother drove six hours to move him into his dorm, stopIn the post he backs down a trio of Wizards and kicks out ping only at Wal-Mart. “Here is Giannis at midnight, with to Malcolm Brogdon for another three. With 6:26 left he 80% of the freshman class, walking up and down the hallway stands on the free throw line, and the locals break out a carrying bedsheets,” recalls Dayton coach Archie Miller. rare MVP chant. He has a career-high 39 points. He craves Giannis functions as the family patriarch, with his father the 40-ball. He tries to settle himself, but the second free adjusting to the United States and his older brother, Thanasis, throw rims out, and Kidd calls him to the bench. The Bucks playing in Spain. When Giannis inked his four-year, $100 millead by 27, which will be their final margin. He winks at lion extension in September—after postponing the signing Alex, his youngest brother, behind the courtside seats. by four hours to accommodate a morning workout—he called In the locker room afterward, players scatter for ChristBucks co-owner Wes Edens at his hotel in Ireland. “I just mas, two days away. “Stay out of the gym!” swingman wanted to say thank you for the money,” Antetokounmpo Tony Snell cautions, and Antetokounmpo surreptitiously started. “It means so much to me and my family. I’m going shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he mutters. A few minutes to work very hard for it.” Then he offered to buy friends and later the black Explorer turns right on North 4th Street, family steak at the Capital Grille in Milwaukee for lunch. toward the snow-covered bridge, taking the league’s most When the meat arrived, with appetizers and side dishes, unlikely driver to a place only he can see. ±

HIGH HELPERS

C A RLOS OS O RI O/A P

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As usual, you saw that coming. There are a lot of things that are easy to see coming, like man buns and homemade kombucha going out of style, but some things are a little harder to detect. Like that pedestrian unexpectedly jaywalking. That’s why Toyota Safety Sense™ P,1 including a Pre-Collision System2 with Pedestrian Detection,3 comes standard on the new 2017 Corolla.

Toyota Safety Sense™ Standard


TWO Each of the last four national champions started a pair of stellar point guards. With FRANK MASON III and DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, Kansas has a chance to make it five

BY LUKE WINN Photographs by GREG NELSON

THE FIRST MOVE, when constructing an ideal starting lineup for a national-title contender, should be to find a high-quality point guard—and the second move should be to find another high-quality point guard. It’s not a formula that works in the NBA, but the past four college champs started duos that could each handle the point: Villanova had Ryan Arcidiacono and Jalen Brunson in 2016, Duke had Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook in ’15, UConn had Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatwright in ’14, and Louisville had Peyton Siva and Russ Smith in ’13. The next in line could very well be No. 3–ranked Kansas, which has 5' 11" senior Frank Mason III, a front-runner for national player of the year who was averaging 19.8 points and 5.9 assists at week’s end, starting alongside 6' 2" junior Devonte’ Graham (12.5 points, 4.5 assists). Yet unlike the blue-blood programs that typically shop for guards at the Five-Star Boutique—that’s where UCLA picked up magician Lonzo Ball, Kentucky got De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe, and Duke found Frank Jackson and Grayson Allen—the Jayhawks came by theirs serendipitously, and without regard for

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OF A KIND


DIME TIME Mason (0) not only leads the Jayhawks in assists but also has an uncanny ability to know when to take over a game.


Mason and Graham

brand names. There is no blueprint for what Kansas did; there is only a story of how the most atypical KU backcourt and the ideal, contending backcourt are one and the same.

FORGED IN PIN OAKS Kansas’s coaches have a reliable way to irk Mason: When an opposing player’s bio intersects with his, they’ll make a comment during their scouting report along the lines of, “This is the toughest kid to come out of [example: Virginia] in years.” “Mannnnn, Coach,” Mason will say, gruffly. “Don’t play yourself.” Meaning: Don’t be delusional. The toughest player from Virginia is sitting right in front of you. Petersburg, Va. (pop. 32,477), is a 24-mile drive south from Richmond. Just east of Petersburg’s downtown, after a right turn off State Highway 36 before the Civil War battlefield site, a sign welcomes visitors to Pin Oaks Estates— estates being a euphemism for a public housing development of two-story duplexes. Mason’s father, Frank Jr., served much of his son’s childhood in jail on various drug charges, while his mother, NO DOUBT Sharon Harrison, raised eight kids in After finally getting Pin Oaks. After a 2001 fire ravaged the to play at Kansas, apartment Mason lived in as a young Graham (4) established child, the family moved into one directly himself as a leader right away and quickly across the street from the Estates’ two clicked with Mason. asphalt basketball courts. There was nightly action on the main court, which was surrounded—almost claustrophobically so—by a high, chain-link fence set less than a foot beyond the out-of-bounds lines. Mason scored enough there, in games with no fouls called, to be nicknamed the Phenom. But the Most Frank Mason III Story from Pin Oaks was based on a miss. As a fifth-grader he was shooting against another kid to secure the final spot in a pickup game. He lost the shootoff but refused to step outside the fence. “I deserve to play,” he declared, “so I’m gonna play.” A fight broke out; punches were thrown; the other kid yielded; and Mason played. He was hardly sportsmanlike back then, but he says he had a credo: “There was no way I was gonna get punked for a spot on the court.”

“A pit bull look,” is the way Mason describes his mean-mugging mien, “versus a happy, clown face on Devonte’.”

THE-RAEFORD-TO-RALEIGH ESCAPE Train your eyes on Kansas’s point guards during any game, and you’ll see not just contrasting styles of play—Mason, the bullish attacker who has evolved from pure scorer to complete, lead guard; Graham, the bouncy speed-shifter who has evolved from pure point to combo creator-scorer— but also contrasting expressions. “A pit bull look” is the way Mason describes his mean-mugging mien, even though he insists he is not actually mean, “versus a happy, clown face on Devonte’.” “Frank looks way tougher than I do,” says Graham, who also thinks of himself as tough. “It’s just because I’ve got the baby face and I’m always smiling.” Graham says he hasn’t had much to feel down about lately.

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He knows that he’s been fortunate to escape some unfavorable situations—and that the first and most crucial escape happened just before he was born. On Feb. 22, 1995, Dewanna King was 14 and sitting on the passenger side of the front seat of a U-Haul truck, braving the pain of contractions by squeezing the right hand of her 12-year-old sister, Mashonda, in the middle seat. Their mother, Doris, was driving north on Highway 210 toward Raleigh. The trio was fleeing the Raeford, N.C., home where Doris was in what had become an unsafe relationship. An incident the previous night had been her breaking point, and with Dewanna two weeks from her due date, Doris decided that house was no place to raise another child. She told her daughters to head to the school bus stop the next morning, wait until they saw their stepfather leave for work and then return home to pack while she sought a ride to a U-Haul office and a police officer to protect her in case her husband came back before she could get away. Raeford was a 4,300-person town where everyone knew everyone, and when would-be helpers were reluctant to get involved that day, Doris told them, “Either you’re going to get in the middle of it or you’re probably going to find me dead.” Dewanna’s contractions began 20 minutes after they hit the road, but she feared they would be prevented from escaping if they went to the nearest hospital, which was in Fayetteville. “We can’t stop,” she said. They pushed on for Raleigh, where they had a safe haven with relatives, even though it was 70 miles away. Upon arriving in the city, Dewanna went straight from the U-Haul to a hospital wheelchair to the delivery room. Devonte’ was born that night.


IN THE SHADOW OF MOSES Petersburg High’s most famous alum is Hall of Fame center Moses Malone, who carried the Crimson Wave to undefeated seasons in 1972–73 and ’73–74, then jumped straight to the ABA. In the school’s current gym, which opened the fall after Malone’s graduation, a banner with his number 24 hangs in the rafters. It was in that gym, as a fifthgrader in 2005, that Frank Mason III dominated an elementary school tournament and impressed AAU coach Michael Blackwell enough that he asked Mason’s mother if her son would join his program, Team Loaded. “That,” Harrison replied, indicating that her son already had a certain degree of autonomy, “is up to Frank.” Blackwell told Mason something that day that he has never forgotten: “This game can take care of you and your family. It may not put a dollar in your pocket right now, but if you do it the right way, it eventually will.” Mason bought in, thrived with Team Loaded, led the state in scoring during his junior year and came the closest of any PHS player to Malone’s record of 2,124 career points. (Mason finished with 1,901.) While Mason was not on a Malone-like trajectory— as a 5' 11" scoring guard, unranked by the major recruiting services, he had no offers from powerconference schools—he was at least on a route that might eventually provide for his family, which by his senior year included a newborn son, Amari, whom he had with a former girlfriend. In November 2011, Mason signed a national letter of intent with Towson, where he might have become a prolific enough mid-major scorer to open up professional opportunities.

But Mason never made it to Towson. He narrowly failed a government class in his final semester at Petersburg, ensuring that he’d neither graduate on time nor academically qualify for Division I. “That was one of the first times I’d ever seen Frank crushed,” says his stepfather, Bernard Gregory, who attended a meeting with Mason, the government teacher and school administrators. “He was in tears, asking, ‘What can I do?’ ” The teacher declined to let Mason redo his coursework. So he enrolled in summer school in order to graduate, got a job at McDonald’s to help support Amari, enrolled for the following year at Massanutten Military Academy to get his academics in order and headed back on the AAU circuit to reset his recruitment. “That was when Frank went from a young man to a man,” Blackwell says. “Some people might have quit. It made him say, I need to wake up.”

FREE D’TAE If Mason was undersized, Graham was miniature: 5' 3" as a freshman at Raleigh’s Broughton High and just 5' 11" during his post-junior-year summer, the most important recruiting period. Graham’s size 14 feet suggested he would get bigger, “but even heading into his senior year,” says his best friend from high school, Steven Thornhill, “it was like, Wow, he still hasn’t really grown. Maybe it’s never going to happen.” Graham was a talented enough point guard—he ran the show for Garner Road, John Wall’s former AAU program—that he earned mid-major offers. In November 2012 he accepted the best one he had, signing with Appalachian State. But after he broke out as a senior star at Broughton, he wanted to re-open his recruitment and called Appalachian State coach Jason Capel, twice, to ask for a release from the national letter of intent. Capel wouldn’t budge, partly due to his suspicion that N.C. State had violated NCAA rules by contacting Graham after he signed. (The Wolfpack denied reaching out to Graham.) A statement Capel issued in September 2013 read in part, “Due to our concerns that these rules were not followed and the fact that we had turned away all other potential student-athletes that could have capably filled [Graham’s] spot on the roster, we denied his request for a release.” Rather than play for Capel, Graham chose to take a prep year at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H. But as the saga dragged on and he remained off-limits to recruiters through the 2013–14 season, it became such a psychological burden that his mother persuaded him to speak to a counselor. Meanwhile, King launched a grassroots Free D’Tae campaign, making T-shirts—white, with red-and-black text on the front—and spreading the message on social media. When Graham’s extended family traveled to see him play for Brewster in the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla., in December 2013, they were wearing the free d’tae shirts at a mall when a shopper approached them and asked, “Is somebody in jail?’ ” “No,” King replied. “My son is just locked in a contract.” JANUARY 9, 2017 / SPORTS ILLUSTRATED /

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Mason and Graham

THE FOURTH OPTION Scene from late November 2016: Kansas coach Bill Self calls assistant Kurtis Townsend into his office to rehash what led the Jayhawks to recruit Mason in the summer of 2013. Self: “When Frank came out, was that the same year we were recruiting Cat Barber and Chris Jones?” Townsend: “And Demetrius Jackson. Frank was kind of our fourth option.” Kansas needed point guard help, and things weren’t breaking the Jayhawks’ way. Jones, the No. 1 junior college prospect, committed to Louisville. Barber, the No. 24–ranked high school recruit, committed to N.C. State. Jackson, the No. 33 recruit, committed to Notre Dame. Self: “That left us really kind of—” Townsend: “Scrambling. Then we were recruiting Jordan McLaughlin [for the following class], who ended up canceling our visit and commit-

Flying Start No one is running away with the 2017 player of the year award, but this quintet is setting the pace in a race that figures to be one of the tightest ever By Trisha Blackmar

Josh Hart

Frank Mason III

Luke Kennard

Lonzo Ball

Malik Monk ,

6' 5" senior guard, Villanova (20.3 ppg) He does it all for the nation’s top-ranked team (6.8 rebounds per game, 3.5 assists), and his performance in the 74–66 win over Notre Dame on Dec. 10—37 points on 14 shots—was one of the best this season.

5' 11" senior guard, Kansas (19.8 ppg) Other players are scoring much more, but when the game is on the line, there is no one more fearsome than Mason, who has hit one of the season’s signature shots: a dagger to beat Duke on Nov. 15.

6' 6" sophomore guard, Duke (21.4 ppg) Perhaps the most surprising addition to the player-of-theyear discussion, Kennard has been a steady presence for the turmoil-plagued Blue Devils, scoring 20 or more points eight times.

6' 6" freshman guard, UCLA (14.3 ppg) There’s a new wizard in Westwood. Ball is the engine driving the nation’s most efficient—and enthralling—offense, dishing out 8.1 assists (second in the nation) and grabbing 5.7 rebounds.

6' 3" freshman guard, Kentucky (22.4 ppg) One of the most exciting ballhandlers in the open floor, Monk vaulted into the top five by scoring a Wildcats freshmanrecord 47 points in a 103–100 victory over North Carolina on Dec. 17.

ting to USC. But I went to see him [at the Adidas Fab 48] in Vegas; Frank was playing against him, and Frank kicked his ass. . . . I knew Frank’s AAU coach, Ty White, so I called him and asked, ‘Does that little dude with the braids play like that all the time?’ He said, ‘Every day, Coach. He don’t know no better.’ . . . I went and saw him twice more, and each time he was good.” Self: “Kurt came back and told me, Frank’s better than anybody we’ve been recruiting.” The Jayhawks’ fan base, however, was less than thrilled by Mason’s commitment on Oct. 7, 2012, when he was a three-star guard ranked 131st in his class by Rivals.com. The comments on KUSports.com’s story the next day were mostly skeptical or negative, with one fan proposing nicknames for Mason that included “Red Shirt [sic] then Transfer” and “This Ain’t Towson.” A user with the handle Wave79—Mason’s stepfather—fought back. “I will assure you that Kansas will not be disappointed in Frank Mason,”

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Gregory wrote. “I can personally tell you that there are not 130 high school seniors better than him. . . . You ain’t gonna see a tougher guard at his size.”

THE MOST TIMELY OF FIRINGS In the end, it was fortuity that freed D’Tae. Capel was fired in March 2014, and the coach that replaced him at Appalachian State, Jim Fox, granted Graham his release that April. “The timing was a blessing for us,” says Self, “because if Devonte’ had been released right away [in 2013], someone else would’ve done a better job recruiting him.” Kansas, which had been rebuffed in its recruitment of top 2014 point guard Tyus Jones and was losing point guard Naadir Tharpe to a transfer, jumped in on Graham and secured his commitment on May 2.


#BIFM

Although he arrived with less hype than the eventual one-and-done freshmen in his class, Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander, Graham soon established that he belonged. When ex–Navy Seals led a weekend session of Kansas’s annual preseason boot camp in September 2014, they gave Graham an award for being the team’s best leader, despite the fact that he had yet to play a college game. As a sophomore Graham started in the Jayhawks’ backcourt alongside Mason, giving Self an arrangement that reminded him of his final season at Illinois, in 2003–04, when Dee Brown and Deron Williams shared the ball seamlessly and made it hard to define who was the one and who was the two. “I don’t know that they’re the best or the most talented,” Self says of Mason and Graham, “but I don’t think there’s two guards out there that play better together.” Or that complement each other as well defensively, as Mason is better at smothering ballhandlers—in his words, “Letting them know that I’m there”— and Graham is better at tracking foes off the ball. At Oklahoma on Feb. 13, 2016, it was Graham who drew the assignment of checking national player of the year front-runner Buddy Hield, the 6' 4" guard who’d scored 46 points at Allen Fieldhouse in January. Graham held Hield to 24 points, on 5-of-15 shooting, while scoring a career-high 27 in what became his signature performance. When he was named the Big 12 tournament’s most outstanding player a month later, all the nights Graham had spent stressing—wondering, Maybe I should’ve just stuck with Appalachian State—seemed like an eternity ago.

When Kansas’s managers distribute new Adidas gear—a new travel sweat suit, say—they typically write each player’s number on the inside tags. But lately, for Mason, they’ve been writing #BIFM. This is a part of his legend that precedes his being a college player of any note. In March 2014, RedHead, an obscure rapper from Hopewell, Va., posted a song on YouTube entitled “Frank Mason.” It begins with a voice-mail intro from Mason, and then the line “B----, I’m Frank Mason” is repeated 28 times in 3:43. It went largely unnoticed until 2015, when Grantland writer Mark Titus catapulted it into meme- and hashtag-dom. When the track debuted, Mason was a 5.5-points-per-game scorer who was merely being celebrated for having made it from Pin WELLOaks to D-I. Now he’s the nation’s most unCONNECTED stoppable guard and the author of the season’s The chemistry between signature shot to date: a game-winning, 15Mason and Graham foot jumper with 1.8 seconds left to beat Duke is unparalleled in D-I, on Nov. 15. A caravan of family members had according to Self. traveled to that game, including Amari, now five, who lives with his mother in Virginia. He told his father afterward, “Dad, I seen you make the shot, and everybody went crazy!” And while Mason never listens to his eponymous song anymore, it remains part of his teammates’ lexicon. In a video that surfaced of Mason getting mobbed in Kansas’s locker room, someone off-camera yells, “B----, I’m Frank Mason!” Against Duke, Graham had been struggling with cramping and Mason seized control of the game, scoring on a series of isolations in the final minutes. Self says his guards can sense when it’s not the other one’s night, and that Mason’s most overt displays of toughness—his #BIFM moments—“are when nothing is happening for us on offense. That’s when Frank says, O.K., I’ve gotta take over.”

IN CONCERT Scene from late in the evening of Dec. 20, 2016, when the Jayhawks are 10–1. Mason, Graham and redshirt sophomore guard Malik Newman are on Instagram Live from a room in Kansas’s new, $12 million basketball dormitory, freestyling over YouTube instrumentals during their winter break. Mason has his hoodie up, his delivery is low-key, and he introduces himself as Extreme Zero. He christened the Jayhawks’ digs the Mansion when he stood up at a thank-you dinner for the principal donors and told them he never expected he’d have the opportunity to live somewhere that posh. His freestyling on this night includes references to the Mansion and the highway leading to Pin Oaks. (“The 36 is where I’m at.”) Graham is buoyant and shirtless, exposing the forever grateful tattoo across his chest—a tribute to his mother and grandmother for getting him to this stage of his life. He intros himself as D-Teezy and begins riffing off the comment stream from the broadcast’s 200-plus viewers. He spots a compliment that he likes and spits out: “Best backcourt in the nation, on Live/N----- ain’t f------ with us, anytime.” They alternate between rapping and laughing at the amateur-grade bars. What they lack in refinement, they make up for with their sense of timing. When one guard is running out of ideas, the other is always there beside him, to take control of the beat. ± JANUARY 9, 2017 / SPORTS ILLUSTRATED /

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SP OR R T S ILL US T R AT ED. SP OR T S IN V E S T IG AT ED.

FIFTEEN MONTHS AGO JOSEPH RANDLE, NOT EZEKIEL ELLIOTT, WAS THE DALLAS BACK RIPPING OFF CHUNKS OF YARDS BEHIND THAT AWESOME O-LINE. THEN CAME A POSSIBLE CONCUSSION, AN ARRAY OF OFF-FIELD MISDEEDS AND MASSIVE CONFUSION ABOUT IT ALL

COWBOY DOW JUST BEFORE 3 a.m. last Feb. 1, police in the Dallas suburb of Irving received a 911 call from a woman complaining that a man, whom she believed to be her daughter’s ex-boyfriend, was ringing her doorbell. When officers arrived at her ranch-style home, they found a lone male sitting in the driver’s seat of a four-door sedan parked at the curb. An officer approached and asked the driver if the nearby house was his residence. “Well,” said the man in the car, “I’m trying to see if [she’ll] let me in so I can sleep, so I can go home in the morning.” Home, he explained, was a five-hour drive away, in Wichita, Kans.; he’d traveled to Irving to see if the mother of one of his children had taken one of his cars to the house outside of which he was now sitting. The officer was skeptical. The car was not there. In the meantime, a second officer ran the driver’s name for any outstanding warrants. There was a hit: Joseph Randle was wanted for an unpaid speeding ticket in nearby Coppell. “I already paid that ticket,” pleaded Randle. “I’m telling you that we just called them, and they said, ‘Yes, please bring him in,’ ” said one of the officers. “That’s what’s gonna happen, O.K.? So go and step out.” Randle prepared to open the door and be placed under arrest. This night’s encounter was before the alleged dustups with casino employees and partygoers, before the chaotic scene in which he mowed down three people with a car. But he was already far along that dark path. “This,” he muttered in an aside picked up by the police cruiser’s dash cam, “is the end of my career.”

BY DAN GREENE Photographs by Tom Pennington/ Getty Images (foreground); DavidE.Klutho (background)

54 // SI JANUARY 9, 2017


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JOSEPH RANDLE

AST-FORWARD 10 months. Around midnight on Dec. 11, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott stands in the visitors’ locker room at MetLife Stadium, wearing silver football pants and a blue crop-top T-shirt; he’s already shed his number 21 jersey (the league’s top seller) and swapped it for the one off Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s back in a friendly postgame meet-up of rising stars. Blessed with an offensive line that includes three Pro Bowl starters, Elliott churned out 107 rushing yards on the night, further padding his NFL lead in that category and further bolstering his case as Offensive Rookie of the Year, maybe even league MVP. Despite losing, Dallas still sits comfortably atop the NFC, leaving the young back room for optimism. “We can regroup,” he says, flashing the maturity of a 10-year vet. “I know we’re gonna bounce back from this.” Fourteen hundred miles to the west, at the Sedgwick County Jail in Wichita, sits a man who may be beyond the point of bouncing back. Randle, the last Cowboys running back to don number 21—the previous focal point of the Dallas backfield, the guy who was supposed to be running through those gaping holes—is awaiting a court appearance the next morning on charges including aggravated battery, property damage and criminal threat. Sixteen months earlier Randle’s own career had appeared ascendant. At 23 he entered the 2015 season—his third in the NFL—as the starting back for a playoff contender that was laden with offensive talent. That campaign began promisingly enough: Despite sharing carries and despite a passing game that sputtered after Tony Romo broke his clavicle in Week 2, Randle was on pace through five games for more than 900 yards and 13 TDs. It was not hard to imagine Randle, once the offense returned to full strength, converting his line’s ample blocking into gaudier numbers. But by that October he had begun his quick and strange tumble out of football. In rapid succession he would lose his starting job, and then his roster spot altogether. He would be arrested four times for an array of increasingly serious and worrisome crimes. As the charges and incidents accumulated, a familiar and tidy narrative took hold, that of the young athlete who simply lost control and “let the whole situation [get] bigger than him,” as one family friend put it. “It was like watching the Dow Jones drop f------ 300 points in two minutes,” says a Dallas-area acquaintance. “He went from the top of the world, being the f------ starting running back, to [being] Johnny Manziel.” “To get up one day, and then all of a sudden to go left for no apparent reason,” says David Wells, a former bail bondsman who works as a sort of fixer for the Cowboys, “it’s just one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen.”

F

But many close to Randle suggest there were warning signs, if not easy explanations for the spiral. A closer examination of the running back’s tumultuous career reveals a complex and troubling narrative, one complicated by issues ranging from mental health to potential head trauma, from the disposability of the league’s players to the inherent tenuousness of those players’ support systems. “People perceive [Joseph] as this kid who just went crazy and started . . . doing all this bad stuff,” says Avina Rodriguez, the ex-girlfriend Randle was looking for in Irving. “But there’s a reason behind it. It’s much more than that.” H E BOYS & Girls Club of Sout h Cent ra l K a nsa s sit s at t he head of a looping Wichita street appropriately named North Oppor t u n it y Dr ive. T he 42,000-square-foot facility boasts an array of modern a menit ies—a black-light science lab, a Barre dance studio—and a football coordinator who has been a staple of Wichita youth sports for as long as anyone can remember. Over four decades as a coach Larry Allen has watched the city’s finest young athletes achieve the full spectrum of potential outcomes. In the early 1980s he tutored a shifty jitterbug named Barry Sanders. Before and since, he has coached too many could-have-beens to name. “I’ve got 50 [former players] on my wall who could be in the Hall of Fame,” says Allen. “I got one out of 50, which I guess is O.K.” None of those kids came closer to matching Sanders than Randle, a star at Wichita Southeast High from 2006 through ’09, when Allen was the Golden Buffaloes’ running backs coach. As the progeny of a local football dynasty, Joseph had entered high school with an unusual level of expectations. His father, Larry, a former semipro player, has been a Wichita youth-league coach for more than three decades. Larry Jr., 10 years Joseph’s elder, was a cornerback at Division II Emporia (Kans.) State. John, older by seven years, ran for 2,600 yards and scored 30 TDs at Kansas and Southern Illinois. The boys’ sister, Jaleen

T

“THIS,” RANDLE MUTTERED, “IS THE

END OF MY CAREER.”

B R A N D O N WA D E /A P (WI T H GA RRE T T ); A L T IEL EM A N S ( TO P)


T M Z SP O R T S (2); K T V T F O R T WO R T H & DA L L A S / YO U T U B E (MID D L E)

(second oldest of the four), ran track at Wichita State. “When you heard the Randle name,” says Jeremiah Plowden, a high school teammate of Joseph’s, “you thought about records being broken.” The youngest Randle’s football career began early. At three, before Joseph was out of diapers, Larry had his son practicing with a team of second-graders. (“I played way-, way-back safety,” Joseph would later tell the Tulsa World.) At home John would get on his knees and trample Joseph in one-on-one football games. Later, when John began attracting college recruiters, Joseph would steal the show during in-home visits, regaling coaches with highlights of his own

Kansas, where as a sophomore he led the Jayhawks in rushing and earned All–Big 12 honorable mention. “I didn’t think nobody was better than him,” Joseph told The Dallas Morning News last year. “Even when he was playing against Adrian Peterson [at Oklahoma].” Then came four arrests in 18 months. John was dismissed by the Jayhawks in March 2005 and transferred to Southern Illinois, where he finished out his college career. Those close to Joseph say he was reluctant to discuss his brother’s troubled past, but they hoped it would serve as a lesson. “That was a great tool for Joe,” John would later tell the Morning News, “that it can be here—and in a flash it can be gone.” For his own collegiate career, Joseph chose Oklahoma State, where Sanders had won the Heisman Trophy in 1988. Randle thrived in coach Mike Gundy’s high-powered spread offense, rushing for 2,633 yards and

PLAYING WITH THE BOYS Randle could’ve been one of Garrett’s (left) Big Three. Instead, his ruin played out on security and dash cams—at a department store, in a police station and outside his ex-girlfriend’s home.

38 TDs over his sophomore and junior seasons. But, like John, his time in the Big 12 would be abbreviated. Against the advice of his parents and coaches, he declared for the 2013 NFL draft following his junior season. Despite his gaudy numbers, Randle wasn’t selected until Day 3, when Dallas plucked him in the middle of the fifth round. The destination seemed fortuitous: Randle’s father was a longtime Cowboys fan, and Rodriguez, the college sweetheart with whom he’d had a daughter that January, grew up in the area. Still, one Wichita acquaintance who saw Randle shortly after the draft recalls him being fixated on the fall all the way to No. 151. OSU’s coaches, he believed, had depressed his stock by exaggerating the extent of an existing hand injury. (OSU officials declined to comment.) Another friend remembers seeing Randle, unprompted, show a liquor-store clerk his ID shortly after the draft, hoping that his name would impress the cashier. These observations seem in line with a change that some people around Wichita had noticed after Randle left for Stillwater—a bit cockier and more entitled, with a streak of paranoia. But no one foresaw the changes and trouble to come. “The Joseph Randle I know is not the guy you are asking me about,” Allen says now. “I don’t know that guy.”

exploits as a youth-league QB. When it was finally Joseph’s turn at Southeast, he was named the varsity starter as a freshman. One Buffaloes teammate remembers Joseph as a “poster boy” athlete, a locker-room jokester with a star’s easy swagger. At 6 feet, 180 pounds, he impressed coaches with his film study and endeared himself to teammates by dancing on bus rides. In the locker room he delivered fiery, impassioned speeches in the vein of Ray Lewis. He also proved headstrong and stubborn, especially when aggrieved. “If you say things to him derogatorily, he’s very aggressive,” says Allen. “But he always took it out on the field.” When Joseph rushed for 1,733 yards and 22 TDs as a sophomore, the comparisons with John were easy to draw: Here was another Randle dominating from Southeast’s backfield—same slender-legged gallop, same smooth hip swivel, seemingly destined for big-time college football like his brother. In 2003, Rivals.com had named John the No. 3 in-state prospect of his class, and that promise landed him at

HE FIRST public glimpse of the other Joseph Randle came on Oct. 13, 2014. One day after rushing for 52 yards in a headlinemaking win at Seattle, Randle visited a Dillard’s department store in a Frisco, Texas, shopping mall. There, security cameras spotted him lingering at a rack of Polo underwear before grabbing a $39.50 double pack and slipping it into his bag as he walked casually toward the exit without paying. Once he passed through the doors and into the parking lot, a security guard stopped Randle, who had also

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ing a Wichita bachelor party in the early hours of Feb. 3 when, around 1:30, police were called to the Hotel at WaterWalk by Dalia Jacobs, a woman with whom Randle had also fathered a child in late 2013. In her 911 call Jacobs claimed that Randle had pointed a handgun at her and their 13-month-old son, and that Joseph was carrying marijuana. In a subsequent request for a court protective order, Jacobs wrote that Randle had also punched and shattered her car window, sending glass shards onto the child and onto Jacobs’s friend. (Randle’s only charge, for marijuana possession, was ultimately dropped; Jacobs declined to speak with SI.) While the NFL investigated the incident, the Cowboys signed Darren McFadden to compete with Randle for playing time—but even then, Randle still appeared on track to start. “He was making noise,” says Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox, Randle’s closest friend on the team and an off-season training partner. “He finally got [his] chance.” In July, owner Jerry Jones publicly endorsed Randle as having the potential to be the No. 1 back. Randle seemed inclined to agree. In May he had made waves by suggesting that Murray, who rushed for an NFL-best 1,845 rushing yards in 2014, failed to fully take advantage of his line’s generous blocking, telling the Morning News, “I felt like there was a lot of meat left on the bone.” Among friends in Dallas, Randle referred to himself, Bryant and Romo as “the new Big Three.” Back home in Wichita he is said to have offered two women jobs as his assistants, promising he would make them famous. Once the season began, though, that path proved less clear. Randle opened 2015 with two unremarkable games. In Week 3 against the Falcons he racked up 92 yards and three TDs on 10 first-half carries, but in the third quarter he lost five yards over his first four rushes, and he didn’t touch the ball again. The next week, at New Orleans, he was reportedly rebuked by coaches for leaping over a goal line pile and recklessly extending the ball on a short TD run. He had been scolded for the same thing against Atlanta. Randle’s friends, meanwhile, were growing concerned. In the months leading up to the season,

B RE T T D EERIN G /G E T T Y IM AG E S (OS U); JAC K S O N L A IZU RE /G E T T Y IM AG E S ( T O P)

swiped a tester bottle of $84 Gucci cologne. Randle complied resignedly, reentering the store while security called the police. When officers arrived, Randle explained that he hadn’t paid for the items because he didn’t want to take the time. At the Frisco jail he turned flippant. Briefly left unattended, he reached across a counter to grab his confiscated cellphone. He asked one officer if she would give him a massage for $100. He brought up the names of Cowboys teammates who’d previously been arrested—receiver Dez Bryant and nosetackle Josh Brent—and noted how they’d been welcomed back to the team after legal entanglements of their own. When Randle posed for a mug shot, he asked why the picture didn’t include his height and weight. “This is not a damn trading card,” one officer told him. Randle eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft (resulting in six months’ probation) and was fined an undisclosed amount by the Cowboys. Bryant, seemingly bothered by Randle’s invoking his name at the jailhouse (security footage of which aired on the local news), confronted the running back at practice in what one reporter called “a snit.” But the Cowboys’ brass, according to a team source, dismissed the arrest as an anomaly. Those who know Randle say he deflected questions about the incident with jokes. “It didn’t seem like he thought it was that serious,” says one friend. It didn’t help when an L.A.-based underwear company, MeUndies, announced it would help pay Randle’s fine (and ship him some swag) in exchange for his becoming a spokesman. “It ended up being a plus for him,” says another acquaintance. “They were blessing this kid for stealing.” Unfazed, Randle appeared poised for the next level in 2015. With incumbent starter RANDLE’S ISLAND DeMarco Murray headed toAfter he headed to Stillwater ward a departure in free agency, (above), friends saw a new side of the job was Randle’s for the Randle: cocky, entitled and a bit taking, and his friends began paranoid. In the end, that would pressing upon him the signifileave few beyond Larry (far right) cance of this make-or-break and Avina (near right) on his side. season. He had two years remaining on his rookie contract, but not even $100,000 of it was guaranteed; a monstrous raise could loom. Even then, Randle lived fairly modestly, in a rental house so close to the Cowboys’ Valley Ranch practice facility that the goalposts were visible from his cul-de-sac. Neighbors remember Randle as a quiet father, often seen playing with his and Rodriguez’s daughter, Aubrielle, on their front lawn. But that promising picture was quickly punctured by another brush with the law that went public. According to friends, Randle was attend-


several say, the running back had begun drinking more frequently. One friend recalls him downing a “tall glass” of Crown Royal whiskey while sifting through his mail, shortly after waking up. (Rodriguez disputes that Randle ever had a drinking problem.) Others say he developed an unusual tic. “He would roll his eyes up top, then to the side,” says a longtime friend. “He did that a lot.” Randle also began acting paranoid. At one point

RANDLE PACED AND PEERED OUT THE WINDOW. HE ABANDONED CONVERSATIONS.

FAC EB O O K (W I T H AV IN A); IN S TAG R A M (WI T H L A RRY )

HE FORGOT PLAYS. he stormed out of a room when he noticed a friend was using Snapchat; he believed the friend was taking clandestine photos of him. According to one Cowboys source, this kind of unpredictable behavior was nothing new. “One day he’s nice, one day he’s quiet, one day he’s hyper,” the source says. “He was like that since he walked through the door [in Dallas].” Several friends speculate that Randle was growing stressed about finances, given that he was supporting a child in Dallas and another in Wichita, and without much guaranteed in his contract. They say he began making frequent trips across the Texas-Oklahoma border to the WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, sometimes during weekday afternoons, all by himself. One friend remembers Randle being short on a payment for an associate’s session at a recording studio. He said he would have to make a trip to the casino to cover the rest. “That was his mentality: ‘I’m gonna go flip this $300 to

$3,000 real quick.’ He had done that a few times,” says another friend. “But toward the end he was losing it all.” (The Morning News would later report that the Cowboys were concerned around this time about Randle’s sports gambling habit. A team source says the reports were investigated but revealed no evidence of sports gambling; those close to Randle claim no knowledge of any such activity.) Most concerning to Randle’s friends was how he handled his secondhalf benching against the Falcons. He and several teammates, according to a person present, spent that night surrounded by bottles in the VIP booth of a club they frequented. Amid the revelry Randle was despondent. “At one point he sat on the side, drunk, not talking to anybody, straight-faced,” says the fellow clubgoer. “He sat there for a good hour, just looking straight ahead. That’s it.” Then came a Week 7 trip to New Jersey to play the Giants. On the Cowboys’ opening series Randle took his first carry for a 13-yard gain. Two plays later he turned a delayed handoff into 11 yards before being tackled from behind by defensive end Kerry Wynn. As Randle fell forward, his head appeared to collide with the ground. He lingered on the turf for a moment before tackle Tyron Smith helped him to his feet. McFadden tagged in, and moments later TV cameras found Randle on the sideline with his helmet off. Fox’s sideline correspondent, Erin Andrews, reported the official word from the Cowboys: a “rib/muscle strain.” Randle would not return to the field for the rest of the game. His friends and family, watching from home, thought that was very unlike him. ACK IN DALLAS, that thought became recurrent. At the airport Randle embraced Rodriguez and Aubrielle as if they’d been apart for weeks, not days. At home he paced as if wired on caffeine and peered frequently out the window. He abruptly abandoned conversations. He confided in Rodriguez that he’d been forgetting plays. He repeated the same questions, often regarding Aubrielle’s whereabouts; other times, questions asked of him would seem to drift right past his consciousness. “I asked him multiple times: Did you pass the concussion test? Do you have a concussion?” Rodriguez recalls. “And he would kind of gaze out—you know when people daydream? It felt like he was daydreaming a lot. I’m like, Joseph, what’s going on?” On the Tuesday after the Giants game, Jones announced that McFadden, who had run for 152 yards in relief, would get the next start. On Wednesday, Randle sat out practice with a reported oblique strain and left Valley Ranch early. At 12:35 p.m., Irving police received a 911 call from Randle requesting that they check on Rodriguez at his house. He believed someone had broken into his home, but he couldn’t contact Rodriguez because she’d left her cellphone in his car. “I’m paranoid,” he told the dispatcher. Authorities arrived to find no one inside. Rodriguez was at nursing school; Aubrielle was at day care. Rodriguez returned home around 3 p.m. to find a cul-de-sac cluttered with cars. In addition to the responding officers, the Cowboys had dispatched their head of security, Larry Wansley, and their in-house mental health specialist, Jacqualene Stephens. Also present was Wells, the well-connected problem-solver. When Randle arrived 30 minutes later, the gathering crowd urged him to pursue psychiatric counseling.

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Wells describes Randle as having been “standoffish” and “rambling.” “We were all like, Just go—you need to go!” says Rodriguez. “But imagine six people all telling you something. . . . He was very overwhelmed.” As Randle drove off in a huff, Rodriguez pressed Cowboys reps about whether her boyfriend had been evaluated yet for a concussion. “They said he didn’t have any signs in New York,” she recalls. “I was like, Well, was he checked out today? Monday? They said no.” Randle returned home 45 minutes later to find the crowd had dispersed. The next day he went briefly to Valley Ranch but, Rodriguez says, was told to stay away from the facility for a while. (Around this time, the team also received word that Randle would soon be suspended for violating the league’s conduct policy in relation to the alleged domestic-violence incident in Wichita.) This time the Cowboys dispatched to Randle’s house Charles Haley, a Hall of Fame defensive end turned player liaison. “I talked to him about how he doesn’t have to fight this battle alone,” says Haley, who as a player was notorious for erratic behavior and was diagnosed in retirement as bipolar. “I told him my story, about all my ups and downs, how I had a chance to be a better man.” According to friends and family, as well as one Cowboys source, at some point around this time Dallas brass— including Jones and coach Jason Garrett—also sat down with the running back and offered to help facilitate treatment for mental health issues. Several people close to Randle say he planned on accepting the offer, he just wasn’t ready yet. Others, including the team source, say he turned down the help. Randle instead spent the next few days after his 911 call working out at a local gym. While friends and family implored him to pursue treatment, and while Stephens, the team doctor, called frequently to check in, Randle appeared ambivalent about his future. “He told me, ‘You know what—I don’t know if I wanna play football right now,’ ” Wells says. “I go, ‘What are you gonna do?’ And he goes, ‘I dunno. God’s got a plan for me.’ ” One person who spoke with Randle during this time says he “had no reasoning ability.” Another close associate says, “I’d look him in the eye, and he just wasn’t the same guy. I was looking into his soul like, Joe, where’s the guy I know?” Rodriguez recalls Randle receiving a reassuring 30-minute call from Jones. “I remember him getting off the phone—‘Everything’s gonna be O.K.; he understands where I’m coming from.’ ” But that Sunday the Cowboys left Randle off their active roster for a home game against the Seahawks, and the running back was left to watch the 13–12 loss

from his living room sofa, alongside his daughter. After the game Jones finally addressed the situation head-on, telling reporters that he was “concerned” about Randle beyond the oblique injury. “It doesn’t deserve a real knee-jerk reaction as to [the] roster,” he said. “[I’ll] be patient relative to just the sensitivity of anybody that’s going through some trying times. Then we want to really be supportive

AFTER RANDLE WAS CUT, SAYS HALEY, “HIS WHOLE LIFE JUST

and help when we can. . . . It’s up to me to . . . let him work through these other issues.” On Monday, Randle finally acquiesced, traveling with Haley to see a psychiatrist. “They had a really long, good talk,” says Haley, who sat in a waiting room while Randle spoke with the doctor. “He came out a different guy.” Afterward, Haley reported back to the Cowboys about the appointment. The next morning, between her nursing classes, Rodriguez received a call from Randle. “Well, I guess we’re gonna be moving,” he said. “What do you mean?” Rodriguez asked. “They just cut me.”

WENT TO CRAP.”

R

J O H N W. M C D O N O U G H ( V ERS US SE A H AW K S); DAV ID E . K LU T H O ( T O P)

ANDLE’S EXPERIENCE highlights one of the myriad ways in which an NFL locker room makes for an unusual workplace. A player may share a particularly close bond with his coworkers, around whom he spends an inordinate amount of time during the season and upon whom so much of his personal safety is dependent. But he may also be abruptly cut off from those relationships and that support system altogether for reasons that may or may not


have anything to do with his job performance. In Randle’s case, it’s unclear how much he leaned on his teammates. Friends and family say he rarely socialized with other players. “He did his own thing, but that’s not unusual,” says a team source. Asked to describe Randle, Cowboys running back Lance Dunbar, one of the few teammates Randle’s friends saw with him away from the team, smiles. He says Randle was “a character” and “funny in some ways.” Funny how? “We’d laugh at him, some of the stuff he said. Just crazy stuff, stuff he shouldn’t be saying.” In the end, whether or not the Cowboys released him, Randle would have soon been separated from his teammates. On Nov. 10, 2015, a week after being cut, he was officially banned for four games by the NFL for the alleged incident at the hotel in Wichita. But the sudden loss of employment in the midst of his personal turmoil was a jarring fissure. “The kid never really got a chance to try to put his feet around [the mental health stuff] before he had to deal with not having a team,” Haley says. “After that, it’s like his whole life just went to crap.” Speaking to the media on the day of Randle’s release, Cowboys COO Stephen Jones referred to the running back’s “personal issues” and said his “full body of work” factored into the decision. Jerry Jones declined to address whether Randle’s looming suspension played a part. Asked about the sudden shift from his supportive comments two days earlier, he cited the “best interest of the entire team.” He continued: “We’re in good shape at running back, or we wouldn’t have made this decision.” Those close to Randle found the quick reversal perplexing. “If Jerry was really concerned about [Joseph’s] mental health,” Rodriguez says, “he would have helped him along instead of just releasing him and saying, I can wash my hands of it.” Friends describe Randle in the days following his release as being “lost.” He hoped to be claimed on waivers—particularly by the Texans, so he could reunite with former Dallas and OSU quarterback Brandon Weeden—but when no one came calling, reality began to set in. “Joe was on his own,” says a friend. “He’s a kid—how much can you ridicule him for not having guidance?” Randle moved back home, settling himself into a rental apartment owned by his father, 10 minutes from the house where he grew up. He returned to a familiar off-season routine, training twice a day in case a team came calling. But friends and family worried about his homecoming; they saw little awaiting him in his old haunts aside from detours and trouble.

Three weeks after Randle’s release, those warnings began to prove well-founded. While playing blackjack at the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane around 10:40 p.m. on Nov. 24, Randle became “belligerent” and was asked to leave, according to a source with the Kansas Racing and Gaming Commission. Following an alleged physical altercation with security, he was arrested and charged with criminal trespass, interference with a law enforcement officer and two counts of disorderly conduct. Two weeks later, representing himself in court, he told a judge that he planned to plead not guilty and asked for a 30-day continuance to find an attorney, which was granted. When Rodriguez’s nursing school semester ended in December, she joined Randle in Wichita. By then, she says, his paranoia seemed tempered, though he still had good days and bad ones. He gave up drinking completely for a period in January and began regular visits with a psychologist. “The first two [trips] he felt a sigh of relief,” Rodriguez says. “He was relieved that he didn’t hate it.” He continued working out regularly, running stairs with John at Wichita State’s Cessna Stadium, telling people around town that he’d received feelers from playoff-bound teams. But the NFL postseason would pass without a contract, and Randle’s continued unemployment began weighing on him. “He would be like, ‘What you up to? Come over,’ ” says Gregory Hawkins, a friend from college. “I’d be like, ‘All right—but you know I gotta work first.’ He’d be like, ‘Man, at least you got a job.’ ” In late January, Rodriguez returned to Dallas to resume nursing school. A month later came Randle’s 3 a.m. arrest at Rodriguez’s mother’s home for the unpaid speeding ticket. He secured a quick release and returned to Wichita, where, on the afternoon of Feb. 21, he stopped by the Boys & Girls Club to chat with Allen, as he often did. Randle mentioned two or three NFL teams as being interested in working him out. “He was still positive, still hopeful,” says Allen. The old coach reminded Randle to be mindful of trouble in town; his return to the league was already an uphill battle. “You know guys are gonna be hating,” Allen warned him. “Don’t be in the area where these kinds of guys are.” Randle seemed to be in agreement. His actions would suggest otherwise. That evening, according to an eyewitness, Randle visited a bar in Wichita’s Old Town district. Inside, he ignored the staff’s repeated requests to remove his sunglasses—a violation of the dress code—before grudgingly complying. When he ordered a drink, he threw his cash at the bartender. A short time later, the witness says, security guards kicked him out. Around 2 a.m., at the invitation of a friend, Randle made his way to a housewarming party across town. And that, according to eyewitness testimony, is when the night devolved into chaotic violence. Randle quickly got into an argument with a man at the party over the rules of a game of beer pong; shortly thereafter he objected to the same partygoer (who is half black and half white) using the word “nigga.” The party’s host intervened, following Randle onto the balcony and pleading with him to calm down. But back inside Randle engaged in another altercation, this time taunting the host’s 5' 7", 20-year-old younger brother. The host asked Randle to leave, and Randle complied, walking down a front set of stairs toward the door. But then, according to several witnesses, he tried dashing back up the steps, and both he and the host were sent tumbling down the staircase in a heap. At the

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bottom, as they pulled themselves from the fray, the host was able to push Randle out the door while partygoers leveraged the host’s back. The host followed Randle outside to make sure he left. In his black Honda Accord, Randle backed out of the driveway as if he was leaving, then accelerated forward onto the lawn, striking the host in the legs and sending him over the hood. Witnesses say Randle then drove across a neighbor’s yard and looped back again to strike the host and his sister, who’d come to his aid, sending them onto the vehicle’s roof. (Both suffered bruises and abrasions; the sister was concussed.) When those two managed to retreat inside, Randle used his car to strike the first partygoer with whom he’d argued. When everything seemed to have finally settled and everyone was inside, Randle kicked in the locked front door and began pointing at people, demanding, “Who else wants some?!” Police arrived soon after and placed Randle under arrest, charging him with criminal threat, criminal property damage, unlawful possession of a controlled substance (he was carrying marijuana), aggravated burglary (for kicking the door in) and four counts of aggravated battery. (He would later tell his family that his car had been surrounded, leading to the collisions while he tried to drive away, and that he’d been defending himself during the physical altercations. He later told a judge, “I don’t recall ever driving that car.”) At a subsequent hearing he unsuccessfully petitioned a judge to lower his $100,000 bond to $5,000 so that he could “go work out” and receive “alcohol treatment” in California. Randle spent nine days in jail, then posted full bond and was released on March 1. Five days later, after he failed to appear at his court date, a police officer arrived at his home to serve an arrest warrant. Instead, Randle took off, hopping a chain-link fence in his backyard and leading authorities on a lengthy chase down the block. Once the K-9 team arrived, Randle finally surrendered. “Hey,” he called out from behind a car, “I’m right here!” He would run no more.

executives available for this story. A good number of current and former Cowboys who played alongside Randle opted not to discuss their former teammate. After one practice this season, Bryant (who played at OSU right before Randle) grew visibly agitated when asked in the locker room if he had been in contact with the running back following his release from the team. “Why?” Bryant asked combatively. “Why are we talking about Joe?” Randle, meanwhile, has been not even a footnote in the story of the Cowboys’ return to greatness. In March, after his then lawyer requested

“HOW CAN THE COWBOYS PREACH SO MUCH ON FAMILY,” ASKS RODRIGUEZ,

O

that Randle receive treatment at a mental health facility, District Judge Kevin O’Connor set Randle’s $45,000 bail as being conditional upon his transportation to such a facility under the custody of either the NFL or the NFLPA. “The league,” says an NFLPA source, “is not touching this at all.” (The NFL declined to comment for this story.) Three months later, on Father’s Day, Randle’s family paid a $4,500 bond so that Joseph could be transported by the NFLPA to a 30-day

B R A N D O N WA D E /A P (WI T H T E A M M AT E S); DAV ID BA N K S /G E T T Y IM AG E S ( T O P)

“BUT BE ABOUT IT SO LITTLE?”

N A JUNE afternoon in Wichita, Joseph Randle takes a seat in the visitation room of the Sedgwick County Jail, a Brutalist concrete block that partially surrounds the Kansas African American Museum. Prisoner number 413484 is clad in an orange jumpsuit, his hair a bit longer than usual, as he prepares for a video conference call, the only type of visitation an inmate is allowed. “Who’s this?” he asks into the camera. He’s told that his visitor is a reporter from Sports Illustrated; he’s asked how he’s doing. The connection is spotty and intermittent. Randle is calm and cordial but hesitant to talk. “I’ll have to get back with you when I get out,” he says. After four minutes of this, Randle disconnects and leaves. He will decline three more such calls, choosing not to lend his voice to this story. A Cowboys spokesman, citing club policy against discussing issues personal to players, also declined to offer any comment or to make any team


stay at an East Coast mental health facility before returning to Wichita to stand trial. He had a plane ticket, and an NFLPA caseworker had traveled to escort him—but Randle refused to board his flight. Those present struggle to explain exactly why. (One source says Randle was concerned about the treatment center’s workout facility.) At his request, Joseph was transported back to jail. Unable to fulfill the conditions of their son’s bond, the Randles lost their $4,500. The life Joseph returned to has been a turbulent one. He was held for most of the summer in an “agg pod” for aggravated offenders, where inmates are housed individually. Among his pod mates have been men charged with capital murder, kidnapping and rape of the mentally deficient. His family relays stories, passed on from fellow inmates, of Randle’s having been picked on by guards, though they declined to put SI in touch with their sources. (SI was unable to corroborate these claims independently.) One guard, who spoke anonymously, says Randle is “very known” among the staff. “When he came in, it was like, Holy s---, that’s Joseph Randle.” Another guard recalls being told by a colleague that one day during linen exchange, Randle “came out like a running back and grabbed [the linens]. He turned around and said, ‘I just wanna see if I still got it.’ ” Not every interaction inside has been so friendly. Randle has spent multiple stints in disciplinary detention, remaining in his cell for 23 hours at a time. It was during one of these periods in May when a guard denied Randle’s requests to make a phone call. According to the guard’s court testimony, Randle told him over an intercom, “I swear on my life and everything that I have, I will kill you when I get out,” resulting in a felony criminal threat charge. In a separate July incident, Randle ripped a TV from a wall and was charged with criminal property damage. One regular visitor says that Randle’s engagement and approachability have fluctuated wildly in jail, where the strain of the environment has exacerbated his fragility. A source also says he has been prescribed anti-anxiety medication but has taken it only sporadically. Though he has twice passed mental competency exams, some close to him worry that his psychological and emotional states have further deteriorated behind bars. Randle’s family and his current lawyer, Steven Mank, have expressed frustration at their inability to provide him with further treatment given the judge’s bond conditions. His NFLPA caseworker was let go by the union in September, and Larry Randle says the replacement has been less involved.

Wells, along with representatives for the NFLPA and a source with the Cowboys, all contend that Randle has been offered every resource necessary to address his issues. Members of Randle’s inner circle, meanwhile, feel he was too easily cast aside, a casualty of the league’s machine-cog mentality. Larry Randle says he hasn’t heard from anyone with the Cowboys since Thanksgiving 2015, when running backs coach Gary Brown called to offer Joseph encouragement. An NFLPA source claims no knowledge of the team’s attempting to help Randle after releasing him. Even Wilcox, the safety who was by all accounts Randle’s closest teammate, said in September that while he was “still kind of devastated and hurt” by his friend’s situation, he had not spoken with Randle since he returned to Kansas in the fall of ’15. “That organization and that team preached so much about how they were a family,” says Rodriguez. “We had to go to all these dinners and meetings. . . . How can [they] preach so much on [family] but be about it so little?” N JAN. 9, Randle is scheduled to go to trial in Sedgwick County for four cases, on 11 of his 15 different charges. He has been jailed now for 10 months, his bond still tied to the cooperation of his former employer or union. All along, Mank says that his client’s intent has remained steadfast: “All Joseph wants to do is get out and play football.” That sentiment may be hard to swallow for those closest to the now 25-year-old. Mank says that he’s never heard Randle blame head trauma for his actions, but many of the people who knew the running back before and after his final game are convinced that it played a role. Even Wells offers this blunt, unprompted deduction: “I think Joseph Randle is suffering from some kind of concussiontype mental s---, man.” A number of academic studies have found links between mild traumatic brain injuries, such as concussions, and the onset of mental illness and personality changes. Several people who know Randle also point out that he’s right around the age when many psychiatric disorders typically reveal themselves on their own. All of which is to say: A legal verdict will offer very little to satisfy those still grasping for answers. “Maybe there was something going on that I could not diagnose,” says Allen. “Maybe he was crying out to me, and I just wasn’t smart enough to [say], Let’s get you some help. But there’s no way I could have known.” Instead, Randle’s trial will commence next Monday, and in a few days’ time he is likely to learn his fate, which includes the possibility that he spends further months, possibly even years, behind prison bars. The following weekend, the top-seeded Cowboys will host a divisional playoff game, two wins away from a long-awaited return to the Super Bowl. Number 21 will hope to find some daylight and run free. ±

O

Joseph Randle’s rapid descent is part of SI’s ongoing true crime series, one per month, each enriched online with video and interactives. To further explore Randle’s story, or to read previous entries in the series, visit SI.com/randle

63 // SI JANUARY 9, 2017


POINT AFTER

NFL Playoffs: Choose Your Own Adventure ´ BY JACK DICKEY

Do you want your postseason rooting experience to be over as soon as possible?

HOUSTON TEXANS

Yes, I want to be free an hour into wild-card weekend.

No

Do you miss the Bengals’ guaranteed openingweekend flop?

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Yes! And do you still trust leaders to accomplish things they have previously failed to do in every circumstance?

Then get psyched for Andy Reid in the playoffs.

Yes, my name is Marvin Lewis.

No

Has your ideal team failed to defeat a playoff-bound squad all year? Hell, no, and that’s why I voted for . . .

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

No, isn’t it the playoffs?

Yes Do you think it’s the college playoffs?

I root only for the most proven winners.

It is. But what year is it?

Hell, yeah, SEC!

2017

GREEN BAY PACKERS

NEW YORK GIANTS

DALLAS COWBOYS

You like the Yankees, don’t you?

Yes, Mike Francesa is my role model!

Love ’em. And I hope to visit New York one day.

DETROIT LIONS

1977

ATLANTA FALCONS

Uh, it’s basically 2014, right? It really isn’t. But good luck thinking it is.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

No Of cawse. If you were to give an insufferable soliloquy about your culture of excellence, and then were told to shut up, would you call your counterpart a jagoff?

Come on. Don’t do this.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

It’s yo-ah flow chaht!

No

Yes

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

But would you drop your R’s?

Fine, go root for the Patriots. Cheater.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

The hell did you say to me?

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Sports Illustrated USA - January 9, 2017