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Guess What - Character Still Counts

Aug 20, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Imagine you are Bill Belichick, head coach of the New England Patriots. You’re trying to turn around a franchise that has spiraled downward after their 1996 Super Bowl appearance. Granted, you have the personality of warm bile, but you are a good X’s and O’s guy who has a couple Super Bowl rings to show for it. You decide, in order to motivate underachieving players like Terry Glenn and Willie McGinest, to induce a small character movement: sign a bunch of players of modest salary but who are veterans and professionals who play hard. You ink Torrance Small, Charles Johnson, Marc Edwards, Anthony Pleasant, Mike Compton, and Roman Phifer, etc.

But then your best offensive weapon, Terry Glenn, gets suspended by the league for missing his drug test, decides to skip camp, and then ignores your five-day warning to get back to camp – which, as far as the league is concerned, gives the team the right to suspend the player for a year.

So Belichick, in a move that has become a refreshing notice of the importance of professionalism in the NFL the last few years, didn’t blink when he suspended Glenn for the year and recouped the $11 million bonus they paid him.

It seems like all too often we watched star players like Michael Irvin and Lawrence Phillips, players of weak character, get chance after chance in the NFL. Today, however, you get the feeling that coaches and general managers have had enough.

The 49ers were concerned enough about their legacy in 1999 to sign Phillips, the talented but self-destructive running back from Nebraska who had once dragged his girlfriend down a flight of stairs by her hair. Phillips was cut after a practice in which backs coach Tom Rathman yelled at Phillips for not paying attention to his blocking assignments. This occurred the week after his missed blocking assignment ended Steve Young’s career on an Aeneus Williams hit vs. Arizona. Phillips replied by mocking Rathman – pink slip. After the subsequent fallout of Phillips, including the disgust of coaches Steve Mariucci and Tom Rathman over the un-49er-like play of recent picks like Reggie McGrew, the 49ers went on a character movement themselves.

The 2000 draft was significant for not only the number of picks that were made, but the kind of picks they were. Every one of them had the reputation of being a self-starter, a hard worker, or a team leader. Ahmed Plummer was a team captain for Ohio State, married, and had his degree. Jason Webster was a chosen by his Texas A&M teammates to address the student body after the bonfire tragedy that killed 16 students. Gio Carmazzi was an Academic All-American. John Engleberger and Jeff Ulbrich were self-starters and fanatical workers. That trend continued in the 2001 draft with picks like Andre Carter and Cedric Wilson.

But never was the re-commitment to 49er football and professionalism more evident than with the suspension of star Terrell Owens last season for his antics vs. Dallas.

Anyone who saw it was embarrassed to be a 49er fan, and it was an embarrassment to the league. Paul Tagliabue unblinkingly cited it as one of the prime factors in establishing the somewhat ridiculous new unsportsmanlike conduct penalty this off-season, which will punish harmless celebrations like the Rams’ bob-and-weave.

Owens ended up appealing the decision, and his immature response to the suspension has been disappointing. The team was clearly weakened the next week without their best offensive weapon – but it didn’t matter. The message was clear: 'We will not tolerate this kind of behavior.’ And to let Owens get away with it because of his star power would have sent a devastating message to a young team in need of direction.

This was the same thing Belichick was thinking when he suspended Terry Glenn. Glenn’s sentence is much more severe – but so are Glenn’s problems. His reputation coming out of Ohio State in 1996 was as a lazy player – even workaholic Buckeye teammates like Eddie George couldn’t get through to him. He quickly showed his inability to work properly in his first Patriots training camp, especially when coming back from injuries.  He never attended off-season workouts. He was pulled over for excessive speeding on the roads. He was accused of groping a stripper in 1999. He skipped a team flight to attend a strip club later that same year and was late to the next practice. He ended the year by not calling to inform the team he was missing a mandatory meeting and was suspended one game. He was accused this off-season of striking the mother of his five year old son. And he has missed drug tests before.

Chris Mortenson made the point that Terry Glenn never had any semblance of a family life growing up and that simple, daily chores that normal people think nothing of – like showing up on time for medical tests – escape such people. While it’s worthwhile to make note of that, it is far from an excuse. For the reason why, Terry Glenn needs to look no further than the man he would have lined-up next to this year: Charles Johnson, the free agent wideout from Philadelphia.

Johnson never knew his father. His mother was a cocaine addict. He was homeless as a teen. He then tried to kill himself when he was 16 by swallowing 42 pills. But when given one ray of hope – coming in the form of football – Johnson didn’t wallow in misery like Glenn. He raised his younger sister, earned a degree, and became an Academic All-American at Colorado University. He has had a solid NFL career, and he was acquired by the Patriots as much for his character and leadership as his football ability.

“What I take from my childhood is that I can handle anything,” Johnson told the Boston Globe. “I have broad shoulders.”

I hope Glenn, Owens, and others listen to that statement. It’s proof that there is never an excuse for the kind of behavior Owens displayed in Dallas last year and Glenn has displayed his whole career. The NFL is finally sending the right message: character matters.
The views within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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