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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How a college star changed my life

I was 10 years old when my father, Jack Hague, passed away in 1971. I was truly devastated by the loss. He was my Little League coach, my life mentor, my biggest supporter, my friend. He was sick, dead and gone in a matter of three weeks, dying on New Year's Eve. His illness was the way I found out the truth about Santa Claus, because we didn't celebrate Christmas that year.

After my Dad died, I was extremely moody. I cried an awful lot. I kept to myself mostly, except for a few close friends. It was a tough time for all of us, but it was really hard on a growing, impressionable young boy who thought he knew it all _ and didn't want anyone to tell him otherwise.

The next summer after Dad died, my neighbors in the St. Paul's of Greenville Parish did a wonderfully nice thing for me. They raised a lot of money to send me to the NFL Players Association football camp at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. I don't know whose idea it was to send me to the camp. It was either my St. Paul's grammar school football coach Bill DeFazio or my sixth grade teacher John Tennessen. They both believed that football would point me in the right direction in life.

It was the first time that I was away from home on my own. I was 11. My mother, who didn't even know how to drive yet, went with me to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to get on the bus to go to the camp.

As I got off the bus, carrying my brand new gym bag bought in the Great Western for three dollars (never had a gym bag before), the organizers said that quarterbacks went one way and running backs went another. I thought I was going to be the next Johnny Unitas, so I went with the quarterbacks. In fifth grade, it was the only position I knew.

But one of the big, burly organizers pointed me with the linemen. "You're a lineman, son. You're a big guy."

He must have known something, because I was not the behemoth I am today by a long shot. Believe it or not, at age 11, I was somewhat of a runt. I later evovled into Gigantor in high school.

There was a problem to all of this. I didn't want to be a lineman. I wanted to be Johnny U, my idol.

So when I was pushed off with the bigger kids, I started to do what I always did back then. I cried.

I was away from home. I wanted to go home. Right there and then. I was done. I knew I wasn't too far from my brother's house, so he could come get me. But I also thought of all those people who donated a dollar here and there to send me to the camp. How could I let them down if I came home after the first day? I'd be a disgrace to the neighborhood.

So I sat on a log and I cried. Cried some more. Got made fun of by the other kids, but I didn't care, because I didn't know anyone. I cried and cried. They started football activities right away, but I just sat on this log by myself and cried.

Then this huge burly guy came over to me. I couldn't see his face because of the sun. I looked up and just saw a gigantic figure.

"Son, I heard you don't want to be a lineman," the voice said. "Well, I'm going to teach you to become a lineman."

He stuck out his huge hand and helped me off the log. As I stood up, I recognized the face right away. It was Merlin Olsen, the All-Pro defensive tackle of the Los Angeles Rams, who after he retired, became famous for his roles on "Little House on the Prairie" and "Father Murphy" and as a sportscaster or even more importantly as the spokesperson for FTD flowers on commercials.

Olsen is the reason why I became a Rams fan. And I'm still a diehard Rams fan today. I have an autographed picture of the "Fearsome Foursome" hanging on my bedroom wall, with Merlin's signature right there. My friends gave it to me for my 40th birthday.

At the same camp, my counselor, who was in charge of me and about 20 other kids, was the starting quarterback at the University of Oklahoma back then, a wonderful young man named Steve Davis.

Davis and I hit it off pretty well that week and he promised to keep in touch if I gave him my address. So I did.

About three weeks later, the UPS delivery man came to my house carrying a huge box. It was addressed to me. As an 11 year old, I never got boxes before, so I was thrilled. In the box was an assortment of Oklahoma stuff, a hat, a pennant, a T-shirt, bumper stickers, posters, notebooks, pencils, you name it. The letter in the box was from Davis.

"Keep working hard, James," the letter was signed.

I was a Sooner fan for life and still am. Steve Davis made me a Sooner fan and Merlin Olsen made me a Ram fan and that has never changed.

I got to see Steve Davis several times at Giants Stadium, when he was working the Kickoff Classic for CBS Sports. I had to remind him who I was, but he remembered and we shared memories of that memorable week at Lehigh.

Yesterday, as I sat down at my computer to cover the Devils-Rangers game, I clicked Yahoo! Sports like I do almost every day. The first story that popped up was that Steve Davis was killed in a plane crash Monday. The private jet he was in hit a row of houses in South Bend, Indiana. Steve Davis, the starting quarterback on two Oklahoma national championship teams, was 60 years old.

I paused for a second and then did what I did when I was 11 years old. I cried.

I hadn't seen Steve since perhaps 1996 or so, but every time I put on one of my 35 Oklahoma T-shirts, one of my 25 Sooner hats or my gaudy Oklahoma fleece, he always came to mind.

It also made me reflect that some of the most inspirational people in my life are now all gone _ my Dad, my coaches like Bill DeFazio, Dick Branagan, Bill Gargiulo; and then those two people who changed my life in the summer of 1972, Merlin Olsen and Steve Davis. They're all gone and that's a shame.

I hope OU recognizes Steve Davis in some capacity this season. It's almost eerie to think that he went down in South Bend and the Sooners play there this fall.

I will always remember how good Davis was to a moody 11-year-old and how good he made that kid feel when that box arrived. I felt like a king, pulling one thing after another after that box. For that _ and for making me a Boomer Sooner _ I'll always be grateful. Rest in peace, Steve.


Just a quick bit on Seton Hall basketball. The worst kept secret since Michael Strahan got to sit next to annoying Kelly Ripa every day became official when one of the two talented players on the Pirates' roster, Aaron Cosby, came through with what was rumored and announced he was leaving the Hall to transfer elsewhere.

Losing Cosby was yet another blow to the tenure of Kevin Willard, who has done very little to earn this six-year contract extension that is also being rumored about.

Willard has done no recruiting whatsoever, except getting the quartet of lackluster performers from the same secondary school in Spain. None of those four kids can play.

The one good recruit was Cosby and he's now left, because he was not happy with the way Willard treated him.

And the two recruits that Willard went after have now both been charged with felony assault.

That's just awesome. The Pirates went 13-17, lost almost every single game under the sun since New Year's Day and don't have any top recruits coming in for next year. There were several top New Jersey players who the staff didn't even bother to approach.

Reggie Cameron and Kavon Stewart of Hudson Catholic? Nope. Didn't get a call. Hallice Cooke and Josh Brown of St. Anthony? Sorry. Trevis Wyche of St. Peter's Prep? Not him either.

Right there are five kids less than 15 miles from the South Orange campus and they didn't get a sniff, but those four kids from that school in Spain panned out great, right?

Haralds Karlis, who can't put the ball in the basket whatsoever, would not play at neighboring NJIT. He's not good enough. Tom Mayaan, who was supposed to be a god-send point guard, also can't shoot his uniform number. By the way, he wore 0.

That program is a complete mess and Willard gets a six-year extension? That's because the new AD, Patrick Lyons, worked with Willard at Iona. The new head of the Pirate Blue Fund? He comes from Iona, too. They're also pursuing the Iona women's basketball coach to replace the departing Anne Donovan as the Pirates' head women's coach.

Since when did Iona become the pattern school and athletic program that everyone should follow? They're turning South Orange into South New Rochelle, a Gael-force wind of changes. Iona was no big shakes, a program constantly flirting with NCAA probation. "I-O-N-A, Idiots on North Avenue," is the chant that the Fordham student section used to spew to rile up the Iona faithful. Well, that's where Seton Hall is headed. A bigger, less boisterous version of Iona.

Which makes no sense whatsoever _ just like this reported extension Willard received. Until Willard landed a good solid local recruit, he shouldn't have received an additional penny, never mind six years.

OK, here goes, the great predictions on the entire NCAA Tournament

In the Midwest, we're going with Louisville over whomever they play first round, Missouri over Colorado State, Oklahoma State (this Marcus Smart kid is a player to watch) over Oregon, St. Louis over New Mexico State, Memphis over St. Mary's (I think, this play-in crap has me reeling), Michigan State over Valpo, Cincy over Creighton and Duke over Albany.

Continuing there, then it's Louisville over Missouri, Oklahoma State over St. Louis, Michigan State over Memphis and Duke over Cincinnati (sorry Darren Savino).
Then I have Louisville over Oklahoma State and Duke over Michigan State and Duke over Louisville in the final.

In the West, I got Gonzaga over Southern, Pitt over Wichita State, Ole Miss over Wisconsin, Kansas State over my mother, Arizona over Belmont, New Mexico over Harvard (take that, Tommy Amaker), Notre Dame over Iowa State and Ohio State over Seton Hall North, oops, I mean Iona.

Staying there, I like Pitt over Gonzaga (the first big upset of the tourney), Ole Miss and Andy Kennedy and Marshall Henderson over Kansas State, Arizona over New Mexico and Ohio State over Notre Dame. Then I like Pitt over Ole Miss and Ohio State over Arizona and Pitt to go to the Final Four, joining Duke.

In the South, let's go with Kansas over Western Kentucky (in a nailbiter) and North Carolina over Villanova, who I still can't believe is in the tournament. Then I have VCU over Akron and Michigan over South Dakota State, UCLA and my boy Kyle Anderson over Minnesota and Florida and my boys Mike Eusebio and assistant coach Rashon Burno over Northwestern State. I like San Diego State over Oklahoma (only root for Sooners in football) and Georgetown over Florida Gulf Coast, which sounds like a place I'd rather be right now than cold Kearny, NJ.

Staying there, I like Kansas over North Carolina, Michigan over VCU, Florida over UCLA and Georgetown over San Diego State. Then I have Michigan over Kansas and Florida over Georgetown and the Gators of Florida going to Atlanta in the Final Four with Duke and Pitt.

On the East side, I like Indiana over the Jersey City YMCA, then NC State over Temple, UNLV over California and Syracuse over Montana (although the Grizzlies' people were sure nice to this Biggun when I visited Missoula). It's Butler over Bucknell and the Golden Eagle Warriors of the greatest Jesuit university this side of Lake Michigan taking care of Davidson. Coach McKillop is a nice man who I met at the Coaches Party in Detroit and had a few libations together, but he's not taking out Buzz and the boys from my alma mater. I also like Colorado over Illinois and Miami over Pacific.

Staying there, I have Indiana over NC State, Syracuse over UNLV, Marquette over Butler (avenging that horrible loss to begin the season) and Miami over Colorado.
Then it's Indiana over Syracuse and Miami over my beloved Marquette. Some have picked Marquette to go further. I can't see it. If Buzz pulls that off, they should rename Wisconsin Avenue as Buzz Boulevard.
Then it's Indiana over Miami to go to the Final Four.

So I have Duke, Pitt, Florida and Indiana at the Final Four in Atlanta, with Duke beating Pitt, Indiana beating Florida and then Indiana defeating Duke to win the national title.

And yes, my old friend Tom Crean gets a national crown, just not with my beloved Golden Eagle Warriors.

So there's the tournament in a nutshell.

Thanks for reading as always.

You can read more of my work at, and

Friday, March 15, 2013

Memories of the Big East, as it once was

Georgetown will face Syracuse today in the Big East Conference tournament semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

If there's ever been a more fitting showdown for the final Big East tourney as we once knew it, it's a matchup of the Orange and the Hoyas, two of the original members of the old league, two of the titans of the Big East.

OK, so James Southerland isn't exactly Billy Owens and Otto Porter isn't the same as Reggie Williams, but the meaning is still there. Sure, it's Boeheim vs. Thompson, but this time, it's the big, burly Thompson's kid, not the menacing giant with the towel draped on his shoulder.

But it's almost like karma that these two teams face each other today for the very last time _ unless they somehow meet in the Final Four. Syracuse took the ACC's money and ran, a move that really didn't make much sense for their entire athletic program, considering Syracuse is only beginning to become relevant in football again after many years of dormancy.

I don't care what bowl game Syracuse goes to in the years to come, because the school was, is and always will be a basketball school _ make that a basketball powerhouse.

And we all know what Georgetown is.

But Syracuse leaving for the greener (as in $$$$$) pastures of the ACC can't exactly excite the rabid followers of Orange basketball. Are they getting pumped up right now for that classic Syracuse-Clemson showdown? How about the Orange against Virginia Tech? Or even Virginia, for that matter? I just cannot see 30,000 screaming basketball junkies jamming the Carrier Dome for those games. Sure, Duke and North Carolina will stir some interest, but the rest of the ACC? There are no rivalries there.

Not like Syracuse-St. John's in the heyday, with Pearl Washington going up against Chris Mullin. Or Syracuse against Villanova or Syracuse-UConn. Those were basketball games.

So this is the final year of the Big East as we once knew it. Sure, there will be a conference called the Big East next year and some of the familiar names, like Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova will be part of it, as will my alma mater, Marquette. They'll even play the tournament in Madison Square Garden, the arena that helped to build the Big East.

But will it be the Big East? Hardly. Not without Syracuse. Not without Pitt. Those were Big East mainstays.

For me, the Big East will be 1985, when three members of the league went to the Final Four in Lexington, Kentucky and Villanova shocked the world by stealing the NCAA title. Earlier that year, St. John's and Georgetown met in a regular season game at the Garden, with Patrick Ewing going up against Mullin and Walter Berry. They were the top two teams in the country, facing off on a Wednesday night, with the Garden abuzz. Lou Carnesecca had that ugly sweater and Thompson unveiled a matching one. It was classic showmanship.

That game was so huge that practically every sports fan in Jersey City flocked to bars in Bayonne, because Jersey City didn't have cable television yet. I remember standing the entire game watching in a now-defunct bar in Bayonne, where a Domino's pizza store now stands, and the place was packed with Jersey City basketball fans.

There were other great moments, like Pearl Washington's three-quarter court running shot, like the 1996 tourney final pitting Allen Iverson against Ray Allen, like the six overtime classic between UConn and Syracuse, like the sharpshooting of Gerry McNamara.

There were even the two Big East Tournament titles won by local favorite Seton Hall, championships thought to be unreachable when the Hall was the doormat of the league in its inception.

It was a basketball haven for Hall of Fame coaches. Just think of all the coaching greats that participated in that league. Thompson, Boeheim, Carnesecca, Calhoun, Pitino _ all Hall of Famers.

So the Big East as we knew it ends this weekend. It should remain a strong basketball conference for the years to come with the Catholic 7, along with Xavier and Butler, forming a solid conglomeration.

But can it match what it once was? No way, no how.

And we can thank the pursuit, the greed of the almighty green, for the league's passing.

It's basically like Dallas replacing Barbara Bel Geddes with Donna Reed or the Three Stooges replacing Curly with Shemp. Sure, the show must go on, but it's just not the same show.

And for a basketball purist like me, it's sad.

I was already in love with college basketball by the time the Big East came around during my senior year of high school. I already watched Bill Walton capture my fancy with the UCLA teams and saw David Thompson became David Skywalker during his North Carolina State days in the early 1970s.

And of course, I was hooked by the time my future school, Marquette, won it all in 1977.

But the Big East became my home. I gobbled up those games, those tournaments, those memories.

It's a shame that it all ends, the way it was, this weekend. That's why Georgetown-Syracuse tonight proves to be something special, one for the ages, one last dance to remember what it once was.


I am so totally through with Mike Francesa.

The blow-hard egotistical windbag sealed that deal earlier this week, when he took yet another passing blow at the New York Jets and especially head coach Rex Ryan.

Now, I'm not a Jets fan, but Francesa made it a point to open his show Wednesday morning taking more pot shots at the Jets and Ryan. However, this time, the narcoleptic know-it-all actually went as far as to say that maybe the Jets could play all four quarterbacks at the same time. He thought that was funny.

But when he went as far as to say, "And where is Rex during all of this? He's invisible. He thinks he lost so much weight that he can't be seen."

Now, Francesa should have taken a slice of life from his former good friend Bill Parcells, who used to be as thick as thieves together, owning horses together, and now don't speak. Gee, I wonder why.

Where in the world does Francesa get off criticizing someone for losing weight? As Parcells once said,  it was time for Francesa to take a long look "at the man in the glass," because Francesa is beyond portly.

I've had it with Francesa's condescending tone to callers, his hypocritical approach with interview guests, where he kisses their collective asses when they're in front of him, then blasts them when they're gone. I'm done with him constantly repeating himself, over and over, to the point of annoyance.

Did anyone catch his reporting of the new Pope? It's beyond ridiculous. And for that, he gets paid in the millions.

But when you're a fat ass (like I am as well), you have no right to make fun of someone's weight loss. If you are in dire need of a salad to go along with that Diet Coke you swill, then you cannot poke fun at a guy like Ryan, who had the lapband surgery and has dropped over 100 pounds.

I'm done with him. I was an avid listener and even called the mo-mo to knock him down a few pegs when he was wrong about St. Peter's playing Monmouth in that 6 a.m. game a few years ago. He had no idea what he was talking about.

Now, I won't listen. I have better things to tune in to. Like 80s on 8 on XM Radio.

Come on Eileen from Dexy's Midnight Runners. Much better than blowhard Francesa any day.

You can read more of my work at, and, where I have a great feature about famed figure skater JoJo Starbuck and her twin sons. Check it out.