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Opining on QB injury comebacks, Whitey, Little Joe and the Sabres

scottteaser-215x160If Alex Smith had his druthers, he would have scripted a different ending Sunday afternoon. Rather than a 30-10 loss in which he put up pedestrian numbers after entering the game just before halftime, he would have rallied his Washington Football Team to victory. The rusty quarterback who hadn’t taken a regular-season NFL snap in 693 days would have pulled a Roy Hobbs and whacked the grid-iron equivalent of a game-winning, lightbulb-smashing home run.

Instead, he completed just 9 of 17 passes for 37 yards, and suffered six sacks. But don’t be fooled by those stats. They don’t get to the heart of the story. They don’t tell you that Smith had just staged a comeback for the ages. Two years after breaking the tibia and fibula in his right leg and enduring 17 surgeries and a life-threatening infection, he was back on the field. Sometimes you win just by showing up.

“It was great to be out there, the feeling, the range of emotions, the good and the bad,’’ he told reporters afterward. “It’s why I fought so hard to come back. Sometimes you can take it for granted. Certainly, to be away from it for a couple of years, I’ve missed it.”

For the record, Smith completed the first pass he attempted, a six-yard toss that resulted in a first down. After the connection, the cameras showed his wife and three children giving him a standing ovation at FedEx Field, where a limited number of fans had been allowed in for the first time this season. The emotional video quickly went viral. Smith would be sacked three plays later, and would struggle in the second half as Washington mustered a total of minus-six net yards against the dominating Los Angeles Rams.

But none of that really mattered on this day. What really mattered was that Smith had made it all the way back. He and the human spirit had triumphed.

And, hopefully, a similar triumph will be realized down the road by another quarterback whose season ended gruesomely. On the same day Smith was jogging back onto the field, Dallas Cowboys signal-caller Dak Prescott was being carted off of it with a horrific-looking dislocated ankle that required immediate surgery.

Prescott is not only an immensely gifted player, but also widely respected and loved. He displayed remarkable courage, empathy and candor last month by going public with his treatments for depression and anxiety brought on by his older brother’s death and the suffocating, deleterious effects of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Although his injury is different from Smith’s, a long, arduous recovery awaits. At 27, Prescott is nine years younger than Smith, so he has youth going for him. And, by all accounts, he is fiercely competitive. So I’ll be rooting for him to write another comeback story for the ages, perhaps as soon as next season.

***

A crappy year became even crappier with the recent deaths of Whitey Ford and Joe Morgan. The first time I saw Ford pitch may have been the last victory he ever recorded — though it was during an exhibition game, so it was unofficial. It occurred on July 25, 1968 at Syracuse’s old MacArthur Stadium, when the Chairman of the Board came out of retirement to throw three shutout innings in the Yankees’ 5-0 victory against their top minor-league club, the Chiefs. The crafty lefthander’s outing featured five strikeouts, a walk and just one harmless hit. Interestingly, Yankees outfielder Rocky Colavito and shortstop Gene “Stick” Michael threw two scoreless innings each that night.

Eight years later, I interviewed Ford for the first time. He and his Hall of Fame teammate, Mickey Mantle, were paired off in a two-man horse race at Vernon Downs Harness Track, near Utica. If memory serves, Ford’s sulky nipped Mantle’s by a nose. It was one of several times I interviewed Ford through the years, and I always found him witty and engaging, as he spun humorous tales in a distinctive Big Apple accent.

In 2014, as part of a project for the Baseball Hall of Fame’s 75th anniversary book, I interviewed 10 Cooperstown enshrines, and wrote 5,000 “in-their-own-words” essays for each of them, based on our conversations. Morgan, the little second baseman who propelled Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, told me the first time he met his idol, Jackie Robinson, he was in such awe he couldn’t get a word out. Was completely tongue-tied.

Morgan also revealed the flapping left arm routine he practiced while awaiting pitches had been taught to him by teammate Nellie Fox as a way of reminding him not to drop his shoulder. The quirky regimen helped Morgan become a feared gap hitter with surprising pop, and was soon being imitated by youngsters on diamonds throughout America.

Though just 5-foot-7, Morgan stood tall among Cincinnati’s two-time World Series champions. Pete Rose called him the smartest player he ever played with — no small compliment, given Rose’s Phi Beta Kappa baseball IQ. And Johnny Bench, considered by many the best catcher in history, said Morgan was the finest player he ever played with.

***

Faster than you can say Stanley Cup playoffs, things are looking up for the Buffalo Sabres, who stunned the National Hockey League by signing 2017-2018 league MVP Taylor Hall to a free agent contract. Few saw this one coming. Pairing a left winger who had 39 goals and 93 points two years ago with superstar center Jack Eichel could be the offensive catalyst the team needs to end its nine-year playoff drought. Kudos to second-year coach Ralph Krueger and rookie general manager Kevyn Adams for pulling off this blind-sided check. There’s still work to be done, but this is a game-changing addition. Suddenly, the woebegone Sabres are legitimate contenders.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. His latest book, “Remembrances of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” is available in paperback and digitally at amazon.com.

One comment

  1. Another great article, Scott. Wonderful anecdotes that I have never seen. Thank you.

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