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Michaux: Scott Parel's dream takes detour

Sat, 02/13/2016 - 6:21pm

Playing golf in south Florida with a bunch of old men isn’t what Scott Parel had in mind.

But if chasing dreams against hungry 20-somethings isn’t going to work out, perhaps competing for more money with guys his own age for once isn’t such a bad backup plan.

“It’s such a different atmosphere,” Parel said of the Champions Tour. “Not that guys aren’t competitive and don’t want to win, but there’s not guys throwing clubs and cussing like you do on the Web.com (Tour). These guys, most of them, have had pretty good careers already and this is just a bonus for them.”

Without high enough status to get into Web.com Tour events consistently, the 50-year-old Parel spent the past two weeks successfully qualifying his way into senior circuit events. So instead of chasing the sun around Central and South America for spots that don’t exist on the developmental tour, he’s competing for guaranteed checks in three-day, no-cut events against fields in which 21 percent of the players have won major championships.

Last week Parel tied for 19th in the Allianz Championship in Boca Raton, Fla., and took home $21,700 – a figure he’d have needed to finish seventh in the Web.com event in Colombia to earn a comparable check. This week he’s tied for 50th entering the final round of the Chubb Classic in Naples, Fla. The purses are typically at least $1 million higher each week on the Champions Tour than the Web.com.

“Obviously the money is a lot better out here and there’s no cut,” Parel said. “It’s still pretty darn hard to win out here but I think it’s a lot easier to make a living on this tour than it is on the Web.com Tour.”

Of course, it’s an end game that Parel isn’t certain he’s ready to face. For 19 years, the former computer programmer with degrees from Aquinas and Georgia has been chasing a dream of reaching the PGA Tour. Despite not turning pro until he was 31, he’s come agonizing close several times to earning a tour card at Q school and through the developmental tour.

Last season, he was hanging on just inside the top 75 to earn a place in the Web.com Finals and retain full status on the tour he’s called home most years since 2002. But he slipped to 76th on the last day and found himself in his current limbo.

With so many players holding higher status, Parel got a place in the season opener in Panama but wouldn’t likely get another start until May at the BMW pro-am in Greer, S.C. – the ninth event and nearly the halfway point of a season.

“I just didn’t anticipate this situation at all based on past experiences,” he said. “The status I had this year would have gotten me into all but one of the tournaments before the shuffle. So I’d have four chances to make the cut and then get in the shuffle and be able to play out there more regularly. I would like to be able to have some status out there to where I can play but it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.”

Without the Web.com Tour, Parel’s goal of reaching the PGA Tour is unattainable.

“That ship probably has sailed for me unless something dramatic happens,” he said. “That’s the only really tough thing. If I don’t go out there and do anything, after this year then my status is basically done out there. That’s a little tough to think about.”

But Parel is too good to just give up. He came close to earning a full-time Champions Tour card at Q School in 2014, then he failed to advance to the final stage in 2015 after hurting his wrist hitting a ball plugged in a bunker on the first day of regionals.

So instead he’s trying Tuesday qualifiers seeking a few limited spots in the 81-man fields. Last year he advanced once in three tries. This season he’s two-for-two. This week, Parel got himself into an eight-man playoff for one last spot in the field in Naples, Fla. Against a crowd that included former PGA Tour winners Ted Schulz, Neal Lancaster, Guy Boros and Glen Day as well as five-time European Tour winner Barry Lane, Parel eagled the first playoff hole to claim the spot in this week’s Chubb Classic

“I’ve probably played in as many or more qualifiers than anybody trying,” Parel said. “Most of those guys played on tour for a lot of years without having to do that. I’m definitely used to that whole situation. I can’t say that I enjoy it but I know that I’ve had some success doing it. I’ve got to believe it will be a little easier than trying to do the Web.com. I don’t see having to shoot 6- or 7-under every single time and get through. ”

It isn’t the easiest transition for a guy who’s only played in a handful of PGA Tour events. He wasn’t comfortable playing in his lone Champions Tour start in October.

“I’d been on the Web.com for so many years and knew everybody out there,” he said. “Now I’m out here with guys I’ve watched on TV. It’s different when you’re warming up next to Tom Watson and Jeff Sluman and Mark O’Meara and all these guys who have won majors.”

Last week, however, Parel was tied for fifth playing with former PGA champion Sluman in the next-to-last group on Sunday at the Allianz Championship. He shot 75 in windy conditions to slip to 19th, but was encouraged.

“I’d like to play it again; it was a very difficult day,” he said. “I started with three bogeys and was just hanging on and not trying to spend any more money than I already was. It was a good experience and it can’t do anything but help me, playing toward the end of the field and guys who’ve won majors. I’ve had plenty of people, Jeff Sluman included after we finished last week, tell me, ‘Hey you belong on this tour.’ So that gives you a lot of confidence.”

Would earning a place on the Champions Tour be enough to satisfy Parel after so many years tirelessly pursuing a taste of the PGA Tour?

The question drew a long pause.

“Uh, I think so,” he finally said. “I haven’t really given it that much thought as to how disappointed I would be that I would never have achieved the PGA Tour. I’ve given it my best and done all I can do. I’ve come close.

“Lucky for me, at 50 years old I’m still pretty healthy and still got a pretty decent golf game. If the Champions Tour gives me a chance to provide for my family, I can’t ask for more than that. It’s still playing golf for a living and playing with some really good players, and if you beat them you’ve played some pretty good golf. In the end, the bottom line is I’m trying to make a living to provide for my family. The PGA Tour would have been an awesome way to do it, but I think the Champions Tour wouldn’t be too bad either.”

It may be a dream deferred, but Parel isn’t done chasing.

There's nothing worse than a sore loser

Mon, 02/08/2016 - 5:11pm

Losing is one thing. Nobody likes it.

Losing composure is another thing. Nobody likes seeing it.

The Carolina Panthers lost a pretty gruesome Super Bowl 50 on Sunday night. After winning the opening coin toss, very little went right for the favorites against a relentless No. 1 Denver Broncos defense that stifled the best league’s offense. The cliché that “defense wins championships” was rarely more apropos, because the Broncos offense barely showed up, yet the AFC champs dominated from start to finish anyway.

Nobody on the Panthers offense covered themselves in glory Sunday. The receivers struggled to get open and dropped too many passes when they did. The running backs struggled to gain traction and fumbled the ball away on the rare occasion that they did. The offensive line struggled to contain Denver’s blitz and repeatedly flinched as though they had a football version of PTSD.

Nobody, however, came out of the experience worse than Cam Newton. The runaway league MVP was hounded into arguably his worst performance as a pro. He missed some open receivers. He failed to account for a touchdown passing or rushing for the first time all season. He was sacked six times, twice fumbling on the two most decisive plays of the night – the first recovered for a touchdown and the second essentially ending the game when Newton backed away from even trying to recover it.

Denver simply did what everyone has been saying all season – if you want to keep Newton from dancing and smiling and giving away footballs to children, then stop him.

There certainly wasn’t anything for Newton or the Panthers to smile about. Even a polarizing player like Newton, however, can recover from a bad title game. John Elway did it. Peyton Manning did it. These same Broncos tormented Tom Brady similarly two weeks before, so Newton is in good company.

But it’s what happened after the loss that opened the door for Newton’s many haters to pounce – and rightfully so. Newton has often been characterized as the best winner and the worst loser, a plight he had very little training for in college. Sulking on the podium and giving mostly terse answers before walking away was incredibly poor form. It’s certainly not the example he’s been trying to set for the kids who look up to him. When you’re the face of your team and the league, accountability is part of the job. If you want to dish it out, you’ve got to be able to take it as well.

This was the crack his critics were waiting for. Newton was mercilessly ripped on social media and in the network postgame shows. All of the pregame conversation about his maturity was rendered moot in two uncomfortable minutes. It was savage. He came across as a pouting brat.

The first thing that came to mind was the poetic wisdom of Caddyshack’s Judge Smails:

“It’s easy to grin

When your ship comes in

And you’ve got the stock market beat.

But the man worthwhile,

Is the man who can smile,

When his shorts are too tight in the seat.”

Newton didn’t handle it well, even if there were mitigating circumstances that weren’t apparent on the video clips of his exit. It turns out that just a few feet away, Denver cornerback Chris Harris was loudly extolling the details of how they harassed Newton into submission. Newton couldn’t help but hear it over the questions, shook his head and walked off the podium abruptly. He shouldn’t have, but it’s more revealing in proper context.

I’ve covered three Super Bowls and hundreds of other football games over the past 32 years, and never have the winners and losers been set up in close proximity to each other. After 50 Super Bowls, the NFL should know better than to present such a combustible scenario.

But that won’t change the takeaway on his reputation that Newton will have to live with during what will be the most important year of his career – 2016. The Panthers are set up to be the dominant team in the NFC South for the foreseeable future. Their defense was no slouch on Sunday, either, and they have the components to potentially reach the game’s greatest stage once again.

For all his skills and all his welcome exuberance, Newton will need to display growth of character in defeat because defeat is inevitable in sports no matter how good you might be. It’s not too late for him to man up. Manning certainly recovered from prominent missteps including bolting off the Super Bowl XLVI field without congratulating any New Orleans Saints players.

“There’s not much consolation for the guys who didn’t win,” Manning said that night.

Losing a championship game is the hardest thing to take in sports. You never know whether you’ll ever get a chance again. It’s funereal in those postgame losers’ interviews, and answering the same inane and repetitive questions must be torturous while the wound is still fresh.

I can vividly remember how stoic and hurt former Richmond County star Ken Whisenhunt was when he dutifully addressed the media as the Arizona head coach after a devastating last-second loss to Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. Even two months later, he didn’t want to talk about it and still suffered reminders.

“I’ll tell you when that happens,” Whisenhunt said when asked whether he had come to terms with it 75 days later. “It’s been tough. I’m getting to the point where I’m almost able to enjoy it. I’ve seen highlights of all the special things we did last year. Then they have to show that Super Bowl and it brings back tough memories of how close we came.”

The Panthers did a lot of special things this season – especially Newton. One day he’ll almost be able to enjoy how close they came and start dabbing and dancing toward rectifying the pain.

Until then, he needs to learn to grin and bear it no matter how tight his shorts feel, because the only thing worse than a great winner is a sore loser.

Michaux: South Carolina says it's ready for UConn

Sat, 02/06/2016 - 6:26pm

South Carolina’s women are a perfect 22-0 and eagerly anticipating a matchup between the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the nation in the week after Groundhog Day.

Sound familiar?

The Gamecocks certainly hope this isn’t a remake of the movie in which Bill Murray is trapped in an endless rinse and repeat cycle in the shadow of a weather-predicting rodent. South Carolina does not want to wake up Tuesday morning and find it’s Feb. 9, 2015, all over again with UConn-induced scars.

“We are a different team from last year,” sophomore star A’ja Wilson said. “I think we’re capable of doing what we have to do if we just stick with the system.”

Enough things are certainly different this time to believe the outcome won’t be another 87-62 mauling by the dynastic Huskies. For starters, the ranking roles have flipped this time.

More significantly, so has the venue.

The No. 2 Gamecocks play host to the No. 1 Huskies at Colonial Life Arena on Monday night, where South Carolina holds the longest active home winning streak in the nation with 45 consecutive victories dating back to Feb. 10, 2013.

“I think we’re all ready and I think the Colonial Life Arena is ready as well,” Wilson said.

A big reason for that is atmosphere, since the Gamecocks lead the nation in attendance for the second consecutive season with 14,557 per game showing up. A first-ever sellout 18,000 is expected Monday night to see if Dawn Staley’s team can knock off the greatest program in women’s basketball history.

“When you come in here, you’ve got to fight 18,000 people – and us,” Staley said after a tough 78-68 victory over Kentucky on Thursday night set the stage for the only remaining unbeatens. “Hopefully women’s college basketball will get a great performance by both teams.”

That Columbia has transformed into one of women’s basketball’s hottest environments is a testament to what Staley has built in eight years and the caliber of players she has brought to town – much of it homegrown.

“Being from South Carolina, this means so much to me,” Khadijah Sessions, a senior from Myrtle Beach, told ESPN. “This has always been a football state. So you wonder growing up, ‘Will it ever be about women’s basketball?’ because that’s what you love so much. To see the fan base grow to the way it is now has been one of the most amazing things in my life.”

Monday night’s sellout is just another step in the progression. Naturally, it will be the largest crowd ever to watch a women’s basketball game in the state of South Carolina.

“I’m tremendously excited for our community, our university and our students that the game is sold out,” Staley said. “It’s an atmosphere that will create memories for our players – long-lasting memories. I’m hoping that there is magic in the building for us to play well and keep our home winning streak going.”

The Gamecocks were feeling good last season taking a No. 1 ranked and perfect 22-0 record to Storrs, Conn. But they got a harsh lesson in a hostile environment against a program that is more familiar with the pedestal and spotlight.

UConn is a perfect 10-0 in national title games since 1995, including winning the last three in a row. The Huskies have reached the Final Four eight consecutive years and 16 times in the 25 years since UConn’s first appearance when it lost to Staley’s Virginia team in the 1991 semifinals.

The Gamecocks were novices comparatively, and it showed.

“We learned it was a different level of basketball, and they were in a different place as a team,” senior Tiffany Mitchell told ESPN about the 25-point drubbing. “We realized, ‘What we’re doing is not enough,’ and I think that kind of refocused us as far approaching the rest of the season. We looked at the film and were like, ‘Look at that!’ We’d see the things that we didn’t do and they did.”

South Carolina refocused to finish 34-3 and reach the Final Four for the first time before losing to Notre Dame in the semifinals. The sour taste from both those experiences still resonates on a senior-laden Gamecocks roster.

“I think that kind of helped us,” Wilson said. “I think we really learned from that game and knowing it’s a different style of basketball out there. I think we really do have that sour taste in our mouth. I mean, we have it from the Final Four still. We’re just going to feed off of that.”

This is not a game South Carolina wants to go into at anything less than full strength. The scariest moment Thursday night came when Mitchell, the two-time defending Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, was sobbing after crashing to the floor on a drive and had to be helped off the court. She suffered a lower back bruise, but will play against UConn. Senior guard Asia Dozier is still day-to-day with a hand injury.

South Carolina is blessed with depth and fought off No. 18 Kentucky despite being short-handed.

“We’re resilient,” Staley said. “We’re gonna fight you hard for 40 minutes and we’re gonna let the chips fall where they may.”

A year ago, the Gamecocks weren’t ready for UConn. Now they believe they are, as the home crowd certainly attested by chanting “We want UConn!” in the final minute Thursday night.

“I think we’re all ready for it,” Wilson said. “We’re not going to change up anything. ... I mean, it’s a big game but it’s still a game. I think we’re just going to take it all in and seize the moment, really.”

Michaux: Results, not recruits, are what matter for Georgia coach Kirby Smart

Wed, 02/03/2016 - 8:56pm

ATHENS, Ga. — There were no big splashes. A few pickups, a few losses and a few missed longshots all added up to a pretty typical national signing day at Georgia.

The Bulldogs under new head coach Kirby Smart fared about as well on the recruitment front as they usually did under former head coach Mark Richt. Another incoming class regarded as top-10 by the people who apply stars on such things will be coming to Athens.

If you were expecting Smart to show up and sprinkle some Alabama magic dust on the recruiting trail leading to a late windfall, Wednesday may have been a little disappointing. The most significant components of the 20 players in the 2016 class were already committed to the Bulldogs before the coaching change in December.

The blue-chip acquisitions – heralded quarterback Jacob Eason and top tight end Issac Nauta – were already among six players who enrolled at Georgia in January, and their loyalty to the Bulldogs helped Smart shore up a relatively successful recruiting campaign.

“I think those six staying in place gave confidence to the rest of this class that everything’s good, everything’s going to be okay,” Smart said.

Not everything went perfect for the new regime, however. A day that started out on a high note when star Elbert County athlete Mecole Hardman stuck by his long-standing lean toward Georgia ended with a few slumped shoulders in Bulldog Nation. A big uncommitted pickup (defensive lineman Michail Carter) and two prominent flips – receiver Tyler Simmons (Alabama) and linebacker David Marshall (Auburn) – made lunch go down well for Bulldogs fans.

“You’re going to strike out 10 times to get one guy, two guys,” Smart said. “That’s just the law of averages. Those were just the two (flipped prospects) that hit that there was a good relationship there. There were a lot of other kids that we attempted but didn’t get.”

It got a little harder to digest as the afternoon lost momentum. A few long-shot hopes didn’t pan out and then two major in-state priorities announced they would be heading elsewhere – top Georgia defensive lineman Derrick Brown donned an Auburn hat while former Bulldogs commit E.J. Price will shore up offensive tackle across country at Southern Cal.

Both were likely headed to Athens before Richt was fired the day after the regular season, and even a last-ditch helicopter visit from Smart couldn’t keep Georgia’s highest-rated recruit from crossing the border to play for Georgia’s longest-standing rival.

“It’s critical for us to be successful to get good players out of our state,” Smart said. “To say you’ll get them all, I don’t think that’s realistic.”

Smart, however. didn’t talk about the losses.

“I’ve always gone with the theory that you worry about the ones you get and not the ones you don’t,” he said.

What matters now, of course, is turning potential into results. Class after class of top-10 recruits translated into 15 years of mostly 10-win stability under the former coaching staff, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy the Bulldogs who demand championships.

Smart won’t lose ground of the recruiting trail, but he’ll ultimately  be judged by what he does with all that talent.

After a hectic couple of months helping Alabama win another national title while simultaneously trying to lock down Georgia’s new class, he’ll finally get to settle down in his new town and start coaching. He is lobbying to fill Sanford Stadium with 93,000 fans for the spring game to send a message to his players as well as the rest of the nation.

“That’s the part that I enjoy most, the relationship with the players – not the chasing and not the recruiting part as much as the guys that are here,” Smart said. “Building a trust and bond with them and convincing them that the core of our team next year is on this campus. We’ve got to develop that so that we can be a good, productive football team next year.”

Without question, the most important new piece Smart will have to utilize is his top-rated pro-style quarterback Eason.

“Our six mid-years kind of held the glue and keeping Jacob a part of this class was critical,” Smart said. “It showed momentum, showed confidence in our program and the University of Georgia.”

The coveted passer from Washington state has already been hailed as a savior buy an eager fan base, whose expectations are likely to rise with a quality crop of new receiving targets (Riley Ridley, Javon Wims, Simmons and Charlie Woerner). Smart wants to take the pressure off his new quarterback.

“I’m the first-year head coach,” Smart said. “The pressure is on me and (offensive coordinator, Jim) Chaney to protect him. There’s no pressure on him, no expectations on him.”

Eason said he’s been transitioning well since enrolling Jan. 11, gaining weight and working on conditioning. He appreciates his new coach trying to take the heat off of him.

“There is a lot of expectation from the fans and the media,” Eason said. “I do look at that, but not too much. When Coach Smart says that, it’s kind of reassuring that I’m going to be able to go out and grow and do my job.”

While Smart hit on most of Georgia’s needs in his truncated recruiting cycle, he didn’t get through signing day without some laments. Losing a stud offensive tackle like Price was a big blow in building a front that can protect an asset like Eason. Smart called offensive line “the area we’re most disappointed.”

“We want to get bigger up front on both sides of the ball,” he said. “I would say we’ve most certainly addressed that on the defensive line. I think when you go to the offensive line, it’s not exactly what we want. We want some offensive tackles. If you say, ‘What’s the No. 1 need going into 2017?’ it’s offensive tackles. That’s the most deficient area on our front.”

You can’t get everything you want and fix it all in one day. This isn’t Alabama any more and he’s not Nick Saban.

Smart is off to a good start, but it’s where he finishes that matters.

“That’s what this class will be judged on – how productive are they four years from now?” Smart said.

Michaux: Losing to Falcons woke up Panthers

Tue, 02/02/2016 - 8:17pm

Most people will look at the lone Carolina Panthers loss as a blemish that prevented a chance for a historic perfect season.

Fernando Velasco, however, sees it as a blessing that made a Super Bowl championship possible.

“We had a hiccup there against the Falcons, but we didn’t let that stop us,” said the Panthers’ backup center from Jefferson County and the University of Georgia. “We just kept pounding like the team motto says. Just because some bad stuff happens, you’ve got to keep going.”

That “hiccup” – a 20-13 loss to Atlanta at the Georgia Dome in the penultimate regular season game – turned out to be the best thing that happened to Carolina. It reminded them of how they needed to play to win and reignited their will to be dominant.

Velasco did not play against the Falcons, but he could see that his teammates lacked their usual intensity from the start. Carolina was coming off an emotional victory over the New York Giants that was filled with controversy. The Panthers blew a 35-7 lead late in the third quarter and had to rally themselves in the final minute to win 38-35 on the road. But the game and its aftermath were focused entirely on the behavior of Panthers cornerback Josh Norman and Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who crossed the line against each other in a series of altercations.

The controversy even got the Falcons’ receivers jawing all week about Norman, ensuring that coverage would remain a focal point.

On Atlanta’s first possession of the game, already trailing 7-0, the Falcons were stopped on third-and-15 only to have Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct as he tangled with Roddy White away from the play. It was clearly a statement flag by the officiating crew, but the upshot was Atlanta’s offense stayed on the field and mounted a 16-play, nine-minute touchdown drive that altered the tenor of the game.

The Panthers’ secondary backed away from its usual aggressive style after the penalty and got torched by Falcons star Julio Jones only two weeks after shutting Atlanta down in a 38-0 blowout.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera complained to the league about the critical personal foul call, but he used the experience to wake up his team.

“Coach Rivera harps on it all the time about keeping our personality and being us,” Velasco said. “I think going into the Atlanta game we were coming off the Giants game and a lot of stuff happened during that game and I think we weren’t playing the same type of Panthers football we were playing after the first penalty, whatever it was, After that Falcons game he reminded us, ‘Don’t let anybody take your personality away. Your personality is what’s gotten us so far and you’ve got to keep it. You’ve got to be who you are.’ The guys grabbed hold of that and you can see it. Guys are having a lot of fun each and every play now.”

Instead of lamenting the lost opportunity, the Panthers came back better than ever. They routed Tampa Bay to secure playoff home-field advantage and jumped all over both Seattle and Arizona to advance to Super Bowl 50. The joyful exuberance that had been missing at the Georgia Dome was in full bloom as Carolina got its mojo back. Any critics who don’t like the team’s attitude can turn off the championship game Sunday.

“We already had a great personality but after that we showed even more personality,” Velasco said. “This is a game everybody’s been playing since they were kids and you want to have fun doing it. The job of playing in the NFL is hard enough, so any time you can have fun doing it you want to do that.”

The 17-1 Panthers turned out to be exactly the kind of team Velasco thought they could be after rebounding from a seven-game winless streak to win the last four regular season games a year ago to win the NFC South. He got picked back up by the Panthers after this season’s opener.

“It’s been a pretty special year for this team, for this organization,” said Velasco, in his eighth season in the NFL and second with Carolina. “It’s a great team and great organization. The quarterback’s not too shabby either. Cam Newton is a special player, a once-in-a-generation type of athlete. He’s the fiercest competitor that I’ve ever been around. To have a quarterback like that around this team, I knew it had the chance to be good. As the season started to progress, you realize this team could be something special. We just kept rolling.”

As Sunday’s game against Denver approaches, much of the emphasis has been on the quarterbacks. Newton is the likely MVP after an extraordinary season while Denver’s Peyton Manning is still the greatest statistical quarterback in history despite his worst season that, by most accounts, is expected to be his last.

But the matchup that really matters Sunday will be the Panthers’ stellar offensive line against the Broncos’ disruptive pass rushers.

“It’s going to be a good one,” Velasco said. “Watching film, they’re a real aggressive bunch. Their defense is all over. They don’t have any holes. You can’t say we’re going to attack the secondary or the linebackers or the defensive line. They’re No. 1 in total defense for a reason. We’ll have our hands full but we’ll have a great plan and be ready come next Sunday. Our coach always reminds us that this team will be as good as the offensive line will carry it.”

As backup to all-pro center Ryan Kalil, Velasco has played in 10 games this season and started one. But he’s prepared himself as a starter this week to be ready in case he’s called upon to face the NFL’s best defense.

“It could be the second play of the game or the 60th play of the game, you just never know when that opportunity’s going to come,” Velasco said.

Carolina is favored to win by six points, which is quite a turnaround from when skeptics wondered whether it was the worst undefeated team even as it kept finding ways to win 15 consecutive games. Velasco said none of that matters Sunday.

“Even when we were 10-0 we were still underdogs,” he said. “We really don’t mind if we’re underdogs or favorites. The last two games we came out and made a statement against two very good football teams. We definitely can’t buy into the hype, especially right now. We know we just have to play Panthers football and we can play with anybody.”

If they win, they can thank the Falcons for reminding them what Panthers football is all about.

Michaux: Jefferson County is celebrating Velasco's journey to Super Bowl 50

Sat, 01/30/2016 - 4:49pm

Fernando Velasco has accomplished some amazing things over the course of his football career. The most improbable might be turning everyone in Jefferson County into temporary Carolina Panthers fans.

“I think the best way to put it is we’re Fernando Velasco fans,” said J.B. Arnold, Velasco’s football coach at Jefferson County. “If Fernando’s playing for Carolina, we’re pulling for Carolina. If Fernando plays for anybody else we’re going to pull for anybody else.”

Velasco is the backup center for the Panthers, which will make him the first player from Jefferson County to participate in the Super Bowl when 17-1 Carolina faces the Denver Broncos on Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif. He realizes the sacrifices that predominantly Atlanta Falcons fans from his hometown are making to pull for an NFC South rival in Super Bowl 50.

“It’s amazing,” Velasco said of the countless messages of support he’s received since the Panthers routed Arizona 49-15 in the NFC Championship game – an outpouring that even exceeded his friend request limit on Facebook. “A lot of people have supported me through the years and have followed my career and all the ups and downs they’ve been right there with me. A lot of people are Atlanta Falcons fans, but more importantly since I’ve been in the NFL a lot of people in Jefferson County have been Fernando Velasco fans. They’ve been calling me and are really excited for me. I just appreciate them so much. It’s pretty special.”

It’s certainly special for his home county and his hometown of Wrens. The Warriors have blossomed into a consistent lower classification contender under Arnold since Velasco graduated in 2003. Jefferson County advanced within one game of reaching the Class AA title game this season for the first time in school history.

“Our county is bursting with pride right now – bursting with pride,” Arnold said. “What a great year for football here in Jefferson County. We make the state semifinals and now we’ve got one of our own actually participating in the Super Bowl. Rural places, not just in Georgia but throughout the United States, if they have one player make it to the NFL – and in the Super Bowl – it’s just huge. Gives us bragging rights and hopefully says a lot about what we try to do down here to get our kids not only prepared to graduate high school but to go on to other professional endeavors.”

Arnold calls Velasco “the best ambassador” the county has ever had. He’s been a role model since evolving into the overall team captain as a senior at Georgia in 2007. Jefferson County has been one of the biggest benefactors of Velasco’s charitable heart during his eight-year career as an NFL offensive lineman.

“It just gives us an example down here for a lot of kids that a lot of hard work and a lot of persistence you can overcome anything and make something out of yourself,” Arnold said. “Fernando is the greatest example we’ve ever had of that. Everything Fernando’s gotten in life he deserves because he’s worked extremely hard.”

Velasco takes his opportunity to be a role model very seriously.

“I know God put me in this situation and gave me this platform for a reason,” he said. “I think that reason is to encourage people. I’m from a small town, so this really lets kids know that no matter what your situation is or what your dynamics are growing up – single parent household or poverty stricken situation – if you put your mind to it you can be anything you want to be. Just have to work hard and sacrifice enough, good things will happen to you.”

That’s a lesson Velasco learned early on from his aunt, Della Mae Hills, who served as his primary caregiver growing up in Wrens.

“I used to tell him all the time, you can be anything you want to be, but you’ve got to go and get it,” Hills said. “He deserves everything that he gets because he didn’t get it easy. He really earned it, yes he did.”

Velasco’s relentless optimism proved prescient. Last spring before he was released in training camp by the Tennessee Titans, Velasco told local television anchor Chris Kane during an afternoon of golf at Palmetto Golf Club that he’d be playing in Super Bowl 50.

“I always try to be a positive guy,” Velasco said. “Going into every year that’s definitely your dream and your goal. But going to the spring and getting released, I really didn’t know what was going to happen. I remember telling Chris that I would be playing in the Super Bowl. It’s definitely crazy that it became a reality now.”

His aunt believes it was destiny that he got cut by the Titans and picked up to return to Charlotte, where he played last season.

“I told him that’s where God wanted him to be anyway,” Hills said. “It was his choice to go back to Tennessee, but it wasn’t God’s choice. So God sent him back to the right place at the right time.”

Velasco is relishing the opportunity. He bought 15 tickets for the game and is paying to have his and his wife’s families travel to California to share in the experience. His mother, Audrey, aunt, cousin and three brothers – Franz Velasco, Melvin Brookings and Cam Lewis – will all be there with him along with his wife, Tieshia, 14-month-old son and in-laws.

“Mere words can’t describe how it feels,” he said of getting to play in the biggest sporting event in North America. “Other than marrying my wife and having my son, it’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m just enjoying the moment, enjoying the process and taking it all in. I’m very grateful for it all.”

That he’s made it this far since he first fell in love with playing football as a 7-year-old in the Wrens rec league is not something he takes for granted.

“I have had those dreams,” Velasco said. “Playing my rookie year in Tennessee we went to the playoffs and then my next time going was last year with the Panthers. So you wonder, ‘Will I ever get a chance or ever get an opportunity to play in a Super Bowl?’

“I was talking to Ramon Foster, who plays for the Steelers, and he was reminding me to enjoy the moment and everything that comes with it whether it’s media day or the national anthem. Enjoy everything, because playing in the game you never know if it’s going to happen again. So just enjoy it because it may be a once-in-a-lifetime type thing.

“I told myself before the season started than no matter what happens this year I want to enjoy it. This is my eighth season and I’m closer to the end than the beginning so you want to really enjoy every moment and every game and not be looking forward to next year. I’m tickled to death to be in this situation and it’s a wonderful feeling.”

In Jefferson County, they’re excited enough to already hold church meetings to decide how they can honor the Warriors’ greatest ambassador. It will start with Fernando Day on Friday with everyone wearing their Fernando jerseys and will eventually culminate in a parade when he comes home.

“We’re going to celebrate him,” Arnold said. “He deserves to be celebrated.”

Michaux: Changes to sports traditions brings debate

Sat, 01/23/2016 - 6:18pm

Tradition isn’t what it used to be in sports.

Century-old football rivalries were cast away for conference realignment and expansion.

Historic venues get plowed under to make way for new luxury stadiums.

Classic uniforms are shelved for marketing promotions.

This week brought news of two new potential challenges to sports traditions. Whether you see it as needed progress or an egregious assault depends entirely on your world view.

The European Tour is now allowing its pro golfers to wear shorts during practice rounds and pre-tournament pro-ams. Most might see a few exposed knees in the Abu Dhabi desert heat as harmless while others think it’s akin to shouting “Denim!” in a crowded country club dining room.

Closer to home, word filtered out of the baseball’s quarterly owners meetings that the National League might consider adopting the designated hitter – some even calling it inevitable by the 2017 season. Some might call that an overdue offensive enhancement and safeguard for pitchers while many will howl at the last shred of independent identity between MLB’s two leagues being dissolved into homogeneity.

In this corner, caring spikes very deeply about one and hardly at all about the other.

The NL adopting the designated hitter would be an abomination. I say that as a lifelong National League fan who only pays attention to the AL in the World Series and the grudgingly accepted reality that interleague play is never going away.

Purist NL fans absolutely love the strategic element that having pitchers bat for themselves requires. The double switches. The bunts. The walks. The occasional unexpected heroics from a good-hitting pitcher. The forced tactical calisthenics that managers are required to make simply by having a pitcher at the end of a lineup card.

But the best part of not having the DH is that it’s different. It’s the last remaining element of what once defined two dramatically different leagues. I used to think the American League should abolish the DH, but I’ve come to realize that would be equally tragic. That the two leagues are forced to play by the other’s rules in their ballparks is a final connection to baseball’s roots. A homogenous set of rules would destroy that for a few more offensive stats.

That’s probably tilting at windmills at this point. A couple of ace pitchers got hurt batting last season and the scales are tipping toward protecting those valuable assets with full-time substitute batters.

“Twenty years ago, when you talked to National League owners about the DH, you’d think you were talking some sort of heretical comment,” said baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. “But we have a newer group. There has been turnover, and I think our owners in general have demonstrated a willingness to change the game in ways that we think would be good for the fans, always respecting the history and traditions of the sport.”

Pro golfers wearing shorts in non-tournament rounds hardly measures up in significance. The vast majority of weekend amateurs and college golfers wear shorts every time they play during the summer months. Only the pros (and Augusta National members and guests) are required to wear long pants.

Whether that makes any rational sense comes up every time the temperatures hit triple figures at a U.S. Open or PGA Championship.

The European Tour decided to allow it only during practice and pro-am rounds. The world didn’t collapse seeing Ian Poulter dancing down the fairway in scorching Abu Dhabi with his pale legs exposed.

“I think it’s awesome,” said world No. 1 Jordan Spieth. “I think it will be something that I would love to see on the PGA Tour, as well. Guys seem to all love it over here. I’ve not heard one person, one tour player, complain about it. And most of the guys that are really talking highly of it are the older guys, oddly enough.”

No. 3 Rory McIlroy has no issues: “I don’t think it takes anything away from the tradition of the game or etiquette or how guys look on the course.”

A compilation of four online polls (mine, former Augusta State star Oliver Wilson’s, a blogger’s and the Golf Channel’s) showed overwhelming support (73 percent of 8,160 combined voters) for allowing players to wear shorts at least during practice rounds.

But don’t hold your breath for the PGA Tour to make that change. The word “unprofessional” gets thrown around when it comes to shorts – as if John Daly’s garish trousers scream professional.

“We are aware of the European Tour’s change in policy that allows players to wear shorts at certain events during practice and pro-am rounds,” PGA Tour vice president Ty Votaw told Golfweek. “The PGA Tour’s policy remains unchanged. Players are required to wear long pants when playing practice, pro-am and official competition rounds.”

Traditionalists will like to hear that. But traditions these days are subject to change.

Cam Newton vs. Russell Wilson is NFL's new marquee matchup

Sat, 01/16/2016 - 4:41pm

Today marks chapter six of the new great quarterback rivalry in the NFL.

While the potential for a final 17th installment of the long-running Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning rivalry is on tap for the AFC Championship game, a new compelling quarterback drama is guaranteed to resume today in Charlotte.

Cam Newton vs. Russell Wilson is fast becoming the NFL’s new clash of titans. Like Brady-Manning, it started as a pretty one-sided show with Wilson and the Seahawks winning the first four encounters, including last year’s NFC Divisional playoff matchup in Seattle.

But Newton – who is considered the favorite to beat out Wilson and Brady for MVP honors in the NFL – got on the board with a fourth-quarter rally in Seattle in October to set the stage for this afternoon’s rematch at Bank of America Stadium.

Newton and Wilson are arguably the two most compelling quarterbacks in football. Like Manning and Brady, they came into the league with very different expectations. Newton, like Manning, was a No. 1 overall pick. Wilson, like Brady, was a later round selection.

When they are on the field, you can’t take your eyes off them. They each can make the extraordinary look routine – and vice versa sometimes. They can both beat you with their arms and their feet and their guile. They both play with poise in the fourth quarter and under intense pressure.

What adds a special layer of intrigue to their comparisons is just how different their personalities are.

Wilson is held up as one of football’s nicest guys. Considered an overachiever since high school, he excels on the field while doing all of the right things off it. He’s humble and pious and never draws attention to himself or stirs up controversy. Even his admission of being a childhood bully (as part of a campaign denouncing domestic violence) didn’t ruffle his Goody Two-shoes reputation.

Newton is certainly no troublemaker himself. As a pro, he’s charitable and has never run afoul of the law. He returned to Auburn to finish his college degree after leaving early for the NFL.

But the Panthers’ franchise QB is flamboyant and demonstrative in ways that are unique and somehow polarizing.

There is a large segment of the American sports public that can’t stand Newton’s antics. His Superman pose, dabbing, cradle-rocking, jump-shooting celebrations after big plays and touchdowns have become a national touchstone for critics. He can’t even smile without irritating some people. It’s as though we’re seeing what it was like when our parents’ or grandparents’ generations were confronted by entertainers like Elvis or James Brown on the stage.

Without question, much of the Newton venom is related to his race. That was clear after the reaction that Newton became a father after Christmas with his long-time girlfriend, and there were letters to the editor in Charlotte’s paper admonishing him for parenting a child out of wedlock. Brady didn’t receive similar public scoldings even though he broke off his relationship with the mother of his child during the pregnancy.

But some of Newton’s joyful demeanor simply turns some people off – especially people who Newton has been beating pretty regularly this season. Even his tradition of giving touchdown balls to young fans is viewed skeptically as calculated. He can’t win with a segment eager to see him fail.

All that sets the stage for today’s battle between the good (Wilson) and the brash (Newton). The Seahawks may be the most dangerous team in the playoffs behind Wilson’s second-half surge. Carolina fans certainly didn’t want to see Minnesota’s Blair Walsh yank a chip-shot field goal that would have eliminated the reigning NFC champs from the playoffs.

Then again, it seems like another Wilson-Newton playoff showdown was inevitable. Seattle has been Carolina’s and Newton’s kryptonite for three years prior to this breakout season in much the same way New England and Brady haunted Indianapolis and Manning in the early years of their rivalry.

For Newton and the Panthers to get the respect they deserve, they need to beat the Seahawks and eventually win the Super Bowl. When the haters are just waiting to see you lose, the best way to shut them up is to succeed against the biggest tests.

Wilson and the Seahawks provide the perfect challenge for the Panthers’ desired supremacy. Wilson’s agility and talent – perfectly illustrated on a busted play last week in frigid Minnesota that reversed momentum against the Vikings – are a threat to Carolina’s vaunted defense in the same multidimensional way Deshaun Watson was a threat to Alabama.

The same can be said for Newton against the Seahawks.

For two franchises built on stingy defenses, it will likely come down to the two marquee quarterbacks to determine which team will get to keep dancing.

For the NFL running out of Brady-Manning promotions, it’s the perfect replacement rivalry for the foreseeable future.

Michaux: Gamecocks have come a long way in hoops

Thu, 01/14/2016 - 8:28pm

Alabama is indiscriminate in its disdain for Palmetto State perfection.

Two nights after spoiling Clemson’s 15 for 15 plans in the college football championship, the Crimson Tide men’s basketball team ruined South Carolina’s feel-good 15-0 start with a 73-50 bludgeoning in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

“We played awful,” Gamecocks leading scorer Michael Carrera repeated three times in his blunt post-game assessment.

It’s hard to win when your opponent’s sixth-leading scorer hits five consecutive 3-pointers in the first nine minutes and you counter by missing seven of your first eight shots and turn the ball over seven times in the same span.

All the Gamecocks can do is flush it. It would have been nice to move within one victory of the school’s all-time best start that happened 82 years ago, but Wednesday night’s loss doesn’t diminish the significance of how far South Carolina has come.

In his fourth season at the helm, Frank Martin has steadily made the Gamecocks competitive. Last year’s 17-16 team seemed to have turned a corner, but it didn’t portend a 15-0 start that Martin has called “a ride.”

“When I’m talking to you about the ride, I’m not talking about 15-0,” Martin said this week. “Fourteen-and-0 wasn’t helping us in the middle of that Vanderbilt game. Who we’ve become over the last three-and-a-half years, that’s what helped us in the middle of that game. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about the ride. Those kids, their growth, their continued commitment to one another, their belief in what we do. You start seeing something that wasn’t like that start taking shape in that direction makes it a whole lot of fun to be around.”

Before the loss to Alabama, the Gamecocks moved into the top 25 in the polls and reached the program’s highest ranking (19th AP, 15th in coaches’ poll) since 1998. South Carolina currently ranks 26th to 30th in various RPIs – a figure that would easily earn the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid since 2004.

It’s certainly important to note that the Gamecocks’ nonconference schedule wasn’t particularly grueling. South Carolina’s strength of schedule thus far ranks a pretty paltry 237th – the worst by far of any team ranked among the top 70 in the RPI.

However, it’s nothing to brush off being only two wins shy of the school’s most in five years. And it gives the team confidence heading into its all-important remaining Southeastern Conference slate.

“If they’ve been frustrated with anything this year, we need to check their brains,” Martin said of his team. “We’re still not there but it’s a heckuva lot further ahead than it was two years ago.”

Martin’s coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for getting things pointed in the right direction, but it’s the players who should get special acclaim. The Gamecocks’ five leading scorers average 11.9, 11.9, 11.6, 11.4 and 10.5 points per game. They all rebound hard and they all get to the free-throw line more often then any team in the SEC.

“We started building it four years ago with a group of guys who are seniors now,” Martin said of his top seniors Carrera, Laimonas Chatkevicius and Mindaugas Kacinas. “They didn’t run away from losing games as freshmen where we weren’t very competitive. And they didn’t run away from losing games our second year when we were obviously better than the year before. And they didn’t run away from it last year when we were a borderline top-25 team and didn’t start well in conference play and regrouped and finished pretty darn well and had our first winning season in seven or eight years at the school. We’re still not a finished product and still a work in progress.”

Maybe it’s taken a little longer than fans prefer. When you share a coliseum with a women’s basketball program that has become one of the best in the nation, it’s tough to measure up 30 games a year. But Martin’s teams have made small improving steps each season to get where they are now.

“Of course you’re frustrated that things didn’t work out as fast as you want them to work out,” Martin said.

“I’m a big believer, and it’s how I live my life, nothing good ever comes easy in life. If you fall victim into thinking that it’s easy you’re going to end up failing. You have to go out and earn respect, you have to go out and earn the opportunity to win. Our guys have done that and it doesn’t start the day after a loss. That’s an every day thing.”

With 15 SEC games still remaining, South Carolina has earned at least a place in the postseason conversation.

For a program that hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 1974, that a big deal.

But nobody is getting ahead of themselves. Wednesday’s lopsided loss at Alabama should serve as a reminder that there’s still much to be learned and earned.

“Most of the guys, as far as I know, don’t pay attention to all that,” said Chatkevicius of the ranking. “We don’t really pay attention to that and we try to keep it that way. I think that’s a great thing because it keeps our focus. I hope we are going to stay that way. ... I mean, all the seniors we’ve been down there those first few years and never got any of the hype. We’re used to it now and I feel like it’s a good thing for us.”

Of course, it’s still nice to be 15-1 and getting national attention after so long without it.

“I was dreaming that one of those four years we would get there,” Chatkevicius said. “We are all blessed to get here and to be here. We see that the hard work led us here and we’re all really happy.”

It’s been a great start. Now it’s time to see if the Gamecocks can finish.

Michaux: Tigers proved they belong against the best

Tue, 01/12/2016 - 8:40pm

If a performance can be heart-breaking and uplifting at the same time, Clemson might have pulled off the feat in defeat.

The Tigers were so close to historic perfection. So painfully, gloriously close.

It is undeniable that Alabama won the College Football Playoff championship 45-40 in a breathtaking battle in Arizona. But there is not anyone who could have watched that game Monday night and said that Clemson wasn’t – at worst – the equal of the four-time national champions in the last seven years.

Alabama made the plays that dynasties make in an explosive fourth quarter; Clemson displayed the heart of a champion. Every time the Crimson Tide delivered what would have been a haymaker blow to most teams, the Tigers responded until the bitter end.

If there were any doubters left regarding the Tigers’ place on the championship stage, they’ve gone into hiding.

“Just what a year. What a year,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “I’m incredibly proud of our team. Obviously we wanted to win the game and we came up a little short, but I think that at least the nation saw tonight why we’ve been so successful. They saw the heart of our team. This is a team that just has incredible will to win and heart, and I think they gave us everything that they had.”

Save for a handle of catastrophic mistakes that led to the big plays that defined Alabama’s fortunes, Clemson was the better and more efficient team and Deshaun Watson was unquestionably the best player on the field.

Even the head coach with five undisputed national titles to his credit in the last 12 years felt blessed to get away with another trophy.

“We didn’t always play pretty in this game,” Nick Saban said. “It probably wasn’t one of our best games when it just comes to flat execution. But when it comes to competing and making plays when we needed to make them, it was probably as good as it gets. I think that’s the kind of competitors that win championships, and that’s probably why we’re sitting here.”

As proud as Clemson should be for the way it battled, the Tigers come home loaded with regrets for the one that got away. Former Silver Bluff star Cordrea Tankersley will live with his share of frustrations.

Leading 24-21 entering the fourth quarter with the offense in high gear, Clemson had to feel good with a 51-0 streak of closing the deal in such situations. But a string of defensive and special teams breakdowns flipped the circumstances.

After tying the game on a short field, Saban called for a perfectly executed onside kick that caught the Tigers unprepared. Two plays later, the Tide scored on a 51-yard touchdown to uncovered tight end O.J. Howard who ran past Tankersley and faced no safety help.

After Clemson responded, Tankersley again had perfect position to contain the kickoff return but got juked in the open field springing the long touchdown.

After Clemson answered with a field goal, the Tigers just needed one defensive stop to set up a chance for Watson to be the hero. But the defense once again lost contain on the corner and let Howard turn what should have been a snuffed screen into a long-gainer to set up the clinching touchdown with 1:07 left. Watson had one more drive left in him but not enough time.

Watson broke the total yardage record for a championship game with 478, but it meant little to him.

“Going into this game, I was expecting to win,” Watson said. “I thought we should have won. But like Coach Swinney said, there were a few plays that we didn’t really capitalize on, I missed some throws, we dropped some balls and just had some missed miscues. Just some little things like that is going to really force yourself in a hole, and it’s hard to beat a team like Alabama if you make those mistakes.

“All the stats doesn’t really matter to me. I just wanted to get the win and do something that we haven’t done in 34 years. But at the end of the day, I love my teammates, love my brothers, and you’ll see us in Tampa next year.”

That’s the biggest takeaway from these playoffs. Saban’s Alabama dynasty formula is unassailable – but it was obvious that Swinney and Clemson belonged. This was not a one-time thing. The Tigers are young, and reloading around Watson for 2016 seems inevitable.

“Right now all of our hearts are broken,” Swinney said. “We really wanted, obviously, to win this game and to be 15-0. Last year’s national champion was 14-1. This year’s national champion is 14-1. We stand toe to toe with everybody in the country. This program doesn’t take a backseat to anybody. We can play with anybody. We can beat anybody, and that’s a fact.

“There’s no doubt that we will be back. It won’t be 34 years before we’re going to be back, I promise you that. Our team is built to sustain success. We’ve got the right ingredients from a toughness standpoint, talent standpoint, and then just, again, the will to win and the culture that we have in our program.”

Michaux: Swinney enjoying Clemson's journey

Sat, 01/09/2016 - 7:02pm

Storybook ending. Fairy tale. Amazing coincidence. Destiny.

You can call Clemson’s matchup in the College Football Playoff championship game many things. Dabo Swinney believes it’s divine intervention.

How else could a born-and-raised Alabama boy, who won a national championship playing for Alabama in 1992, have coached his 2015 Clemson team to the school’s 15th Atlantic Coast Conference title now seeking its unprecedented 15th win in the final game against a Crimson Tide that already claims 15 national titles?

“I think God has got a sense of humor. I really do,” the deeply spiritual Swinney said last week.

“I’ve been at Clemson 13 years, and I’ve been trying to get back to the national championship as a coach for 20-plus years now. You know, to have the opportunity to be in my first national championship game as a coach, and it comes against Alabama, I just have to smile at God on that one.”

Swinney bled ’Bama red for the first 33 years of his life and Tiger orange for the last 13. But if you think for a minute he’s remotely torn about having to face his beloved alma mater in the most significant game of his career, well, you just don’t get Dabo.

“I’ve got a lot of friends in Alabama, and for all of them, I’ve got a few of them that are conflicted,” he said. “I’ve kind of found out where I stand with some of them.

“If I could just script it, you know, if you could say, ‘Hey, you’re going to get a chance to play the national championship game at some point, who do you want it to be against?’ I would pick Alabama ... because they’re the best.”

If you scripted Dabo Swinney’s life up to this point, it wouldn’t seem believable. College football has never really seen anyone quite like Swinney. He breaks the typical mold of football coaches with his relentless, hyperactive optimism. His story is so improbable, Disney would hesitate trying to pass it off as plausible sports drama.

But Swinney is as real as it gets and this opportunity he and his undefeated No. 1 Clemson team is presented with Monday night in Glendale, Ariz., is as an inspirational tale of perseverance and belief that starts with the head coach.

Swinney was named William Christopher by his parents when he was born in Pelham, Ala. But the third Swinney son was only known as “that boy” by his middle brother, Tripp. In the accent of an Alabama toddler, “da bo” was a label that stuck.

There were plenty of hardships that could have derailed Swinney along the way – his family’s poverty, his father’s alcoholism, his brother’s accident, his parents’ divorce. But Swinney never quit on any of his family or himself.

He desperately financed his first semester at Alabama with $1,000 on an introductory credit card. He slept in the same small bed with his mother through three years at school. He walked onto the football team as a receiver and eventually got a scholarship.

He just kept going and building a foundation for his remarkable life.

“When you’re in the middle of situations in your life, you know, you just make the best of it,” he said. “That’s kind of how I’ve always lived my life, and that’s what I try to tell people. Just make the best of it. That’s what the happiest people in the world do. They don’t have the best of everything, they just make the best of everything. That’s to me what true peace and happiness is all about.

“I think that it gave me a drive, because I was driven to graduate. I was driven to create a better path for my family, for my brothers, for my dad, for my mom, and I didn’t want to be a part of the problem, I wanted to be a part of the solution. ... I wanted to arm myself because I was sold out that if I get my education, then my life can be better, and if my life can be better, my family’s life can be better.”

Swinney’s father, Ervil, gave up drinking 15 years ago and was fully reconciled with the family. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2007, and lived in his son’s basement last summer while undergoing chemotherapy. He died back home in Alabama on Aug. 8, five days after Swinney planted the “15 for 15” seed into his Clemson players’ heads.

“Big Erv goes home to be with the Lord in August and here we are 14-0,” Swinney said. “I just have to believe he’s having a lot of fun up there and smiling down, because this would have been like his little shop down there – that little M&M Hardware Store down there in Alabaster. It would have been a scene right now coming in to see my dad and talking about Alabama and Clemson, because that’s his two teams.”

In his last game at Alabama, Swinney won a national championship with the 1992 team at the Sugar Bowl. It was a storybook finish to his playing days, for sure. But it’s not the ending that Swinney recalls but the journey. That’s what shapes every message he’s delivered to this Clemson team.

“The biggest thing for me was the experience of being on the mountaintop,” he said. “That’s not what it’s all about. And that’s what people think life is about, how much money is in your bank account, all that stuff, your friends you have, what house you live in, the car you drive, how many championships. But that stuff is so fleeting. It’s amazing how quick that moment goes away. It really is.

“But what I got out of that more than anything was a perspective of, man, what a journey. It was truly the journey. It was the daily grind. It was the summer workouts. It was the bus rides. It was the movie theater. It was the dorm. It was the dining hall. It was the tough practices. It was just the relationships.

“So I’ve always just kind of had that perspective of let’s make sure we enjoy it, and I’ve tried to be purposeful in that this year with this team because I knew that these guys were on their way to a special season.”That Dabo Swinney’s journey has brought him to this moment with this Clemson team against this Alabama team is remarkable.

Of course it’s Alabama. Clemson’s coaching history is so entwined with Alabama that it defies belief. Frank Howard played at Alabama. Hootie Ingram played at Alabama. Charley Pell played at Alabama. Danny Ford played at Alabama. Swinney played at Alabama.

“I mean, it’s just amazing the ties between the two schools from a head coach standpoint,” Swinney said.

Swinney’s script would have his Tigers taking on Alabama for the title. He calls it “cool” and “neat.”

“To me, this is what it’s all about,” he said. “They represent the best, and there’s really no way you can argue with that. This is their fourth national championship appearance in seven years. They’ve won 15 already. We’ve got a lonely (1981) trophy sitting down there in that case. They’ve got a family of trophies in Tuscaloosa, and I’m proud to be a part of one of them.”

What would it mean if this story ended with an upset victory over the Crimson Tide to become the first 15-0 national champion in major college history?

“That would be we’re the best ever. That’s what it would mean,” Swinney said. “Who’s going to argue with that? One of y’all will. You’d lose in a court of law. I promise you that. I’d love to be the lawyer on that one, because you know what, ain’t never been a 15-0 team.”

That would be quite a script indeed.

Michaux: PGA Tour winners so far this season are on the young side

Thu, 01/07/2016 - 7:38pm

Officially, the Hyundai Tournament of Champions is the eighth event on the PGA Tour calendar, but who are they kidding? The “real” season doesn’t begin until Molokai looms in the distance from the first tee at Kapalua.

The countdown to the Masters Tournament is on with players talking about building their games and schedule towards the Augusta target less than 100 days away. With winter finally arriving in most of North America, a select field kicked things off Thursday in the Pacific tropics.

Aiken’s Kevin Kisner enjoys a head start in the New Year on the tour’s season-long points race having won the last official event in November at Sea Island, booking his first trip to the Plantation Course for the winners-only event. He played four fall events in a combined 58-under par to get the jump on his peers, enhanced by a runner-up finish in the WGC event in China as well.

But after a historically significant golf season distinguished by the new Big Three – Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy – passing the world’s No. 1 ranking around, 2016 is poised to introduce a slew of fresh stars to the mix.

Many of them have made it to Maui this week for the strongest field since Tiger Woods stopped attending the year after winning his last Masters in 2005. Prominent no-shows annually dampened the mood for the traditional “season-opener” more than the volatile January weather in Hawaii.

While top-10 stars McIlroy, Justin Rose and injured Jim Furyk will sit out this week, the tournament still boasts six top-10 players including Nos. 1 and 2 Spieth and Day as well as No. 13 Zach Johnson to account for all the major winners in 2015.

“It’s exciting there’s so many guys here,” said Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, who crashed the party at age 51 with a victory in Greensboro, N.C. “The top players are here. Obviously Jason and Jordan and all the guys that are hot right now are here.”

The 32-man field reflects a vitality and enthusiasm of golf’s new era – players who are happy to be there and eager to keep the energy rolling from 2015.

“If I am eligible to play in this tournament and I’m not (here), I hope every single one of you calls me and bashes me for it,” Spieth said at his news conference on Tuesday.

Despite all of his accomplishments last year by winning two majors, making a sustained run at the Grand Slam, earning a record amount of prize money and claiming the No. 1 ranking, Spieth is still the youngest of the lot at 22. But not by much.

Fourteen players younger than 30 won 23 of the 48 official tour events played in 2015. Eight of them are 25 or younger – making grizzled vets out of McIlroy, 26, Rickie Fowler, 27, and Day, 28.

The fall season opened up the box on a new generation of talented young guys who will be challenging each other for major titles as guys like Phil Mickelson fade out and Woods tries to get healthy enough to compete again.

The first three weeks on the new season delivered 23-year-olds Emiliano Grillo and Justin Thomas and 24-year-old Smylie Kaufman to the winner’s circle and the Masters.

The first eight events revealed six first-time winners in all including Kisner, Russell Knox and Peter Malnati.

“I think it’s pretty cool, us being here together,” said Thomas, who competed in junior events against Spieth, Grillo and Kaufman as well as the slightly older crowd of Brooks Koepka, Danny Lee and former Augusta State star Patrick Reed.

“The age that we’re at and the amount of tournaments we’ve played together and all being winners on the PGA Tour is pretty cool.”

Young guys having success is nothing new, as Woods, Mickelson and others proved upon their own arrivals. It’s just that the volume of young talent capable of winning immediately at the highest level seems to have increased dramatically.

“I think it’s a lot different,” said Love, who got the first of his 21 career victories at Harbour Town in 1987 the week after turning 23. “You see guys like Smylie Kaufman or Justin Thomas or Jordan Spieth, they come out of college or a little bit of college and they are professionals. They are experienced.

“I know when I was coming out, I was still learning the game, learning my way around. Finding myself. These guys are very mature, very polished. They played a bunch of AJGA events all the way up to U.S. Amateurs and Walker Cups and they are very, very prepared. They are more ready I think than guys back when I was coming out.”

The familiarity with peers and shared backgrounds seems to have this new wave feeding off each other’s successes.

“It seems like the younger guys are picking up momentum as far as building more and more confidence just off of seeing other guys play well it helps elevate their game,” said Fowler. “And to continue, all of us push each other.”

Day, Fowler and McIlroy were merely the first wave in golf’s new golden age of talented young stars.

Defending Kapalua champion Reed is close on their heels. Only 25 himself, he already has four career wins in his first three full seasons on tour and has climbed to No. 10 in the world.

Reed seems poised to become the next breakout star entering 2016 off six consecutive top-10 finishes worldwide in a seven-week stretch starting at the end of October.

“I feel like my game is the best it’s ever been,” Reed said. “I’m definitely trending in the right direction.”

All of the trends point toward golf new target trio of Spieth, Day and McIlroy. None of them intend to give any ground to their determined chasers. Spieth and Day, in particular, want to build off the best years of their careers.

“Everything has to be 100 percent full bore this year,” said Day, who is coming off a three-month break after a scorching finish to his five-win 2015.

“I’m very motivated to get back to No. 1. I’m very motivated to win as many tournaments as I can this year, and to be a more dominant player.”

And what might Spieth do for “an encore?”

“Doesn’t an encore mean that the show is then over?” Spieth said. “I hope I’ve got like 40 years out here. ... To be honest, I’m not thinking of this as anything different. We’re just continuing. The month changed, the year changed. When you write the date, that’s about it in my mind.”

Michaux: Former Thomson star James Farr says current Clemson squad reminds him of 1981 title team

Tue, 01/05/2016 - 8:44pm

James Farr sees a lot of similarities between the current 14-0 Clemson team heading to the College Football Playoff championship and his 12-0 Tiger team that won the national title in 1981.

Farr himself, however, would not be one of those similarities.

“When we played in the Orange Bowl I remember weighing 217 (pounds) starting guard,” said the former Thomson lineman who started 35 consecutive games his last three seasons at Clemson, including all 12 in 1981. “If I was playing now I’d be a linebacker or a tight end or something like that. I wouldn’t be playing offensive line.”

Clemson’s current starting guards – Eric Mac Lain and Tyrone Crowder – weigh 315 and 330 pounds. The starting offensive line today averages 108 pounds more than Farr weighed (205) when he became the first true freshman lineman since World War II to start Clemson’s season opener against Rice in 1980.

“It’s played a whole lot different now,” Farr said. “Back then, coach (Danny) Ford would rather not throw the ball one time if he didn’t have to, so we were running the ball 70, 80 times a ballgame and throwing it maybe eight or 10 times. Lining up double tight, I-formation and here we come. That’s the way everybody played back then. He wanted guards who could pull and fast and get out on the sweeps.”

Despite his size, the quick and agile Farr more than held his own against giant defensive linemen like Georgia’s Eddie “Meat Clever” Weaver. He had to practice first-team drills twice a week for three years against teammate William “The Refrigerator” Perry, of Aiken. In 1983, Farr was team captain and earned the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the most outstanding blocker in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He was credited with 122 knockdown blocks in his college career and went on to play two seasons in the USFL.

Farr had no idea what he was getting into when he left Thomson in 1980 to go to Clemson. Growing up on his father’s dairy farm and getting up at 2:30 a.m. in the summer to milk cows had been the scope of his life outside of playing football and baseball for the Bulldogs. He wasn’t showing up on any recruiting hot lists, even if he was described by teammate Alvin Wright as “the glue that held the team together” on Thomson’s 1979 region championship team.

“I hadn’t really thought about going to college,” Farr said.

“It wasn’t on my radar because I was just farming and milking cows, and that’s basically all I did. The media and all that wasn’t big then and it was basically by word of mouth and coaches coming by to visit you.”

Farr got offers from Georgia and South Carolina, but they never had a chance once Farr talked to Danny Ford and fell in love with the bucolic rural setting in Clemson.

“What attracted me was Coach Ford,” Farr said. “You know, he was a country boy and I was born and raised on a dairy farm and a country boy myself. I just took a liking to him. I just liked the campus up there and the atmosphere.”

Winning a national title was the furthest thing from Farr’s mind, especially after a 6-5 season his freshman year that left the Tigers unranked starting 1981.

“Nobody had us on the radar at that time and wasn’t expecting us to do anything,” Farr said.

Beating reigning national champion Georgia the third week put the Tigers on the map. Then beating No. 8 North Carolina on Nov. 7 made the national title objective feasible.

“The Georgia and North Carolina games stick out a good bit,” Farr said. “Because Georgia was coming in after winning the national championship the year before and we felt like we should have beat ‘em the year before but it didn’t happen. They came to Clemson and me being just 50 miles from Athens it was a big game for me.

“As the season progressed we just gained more confidence and just felt like we were capable of reaching something that we didn’t know we could reach. North Carolina had Lawrence Taylor playing for them and they were ranked high and it was a good close ballgame. After we won that one we thought, ‘We have a chance.’”

Like the current team, which is a touchdown underdog against Alabama, Clemson went into that Orange Bowl against a two-loss Nebraska team that was favored by four points. The Tigers won it 22-15.

“I don’t think we felt any mounting pressure – I didn’t feel any,” Farr said. “Coach Ford, he didn’t talk about it and just said keep taking care of your business and don’t bring any attention or distraction to the team and keep doing what you’re doing. We didn’t and just kept moving along each week taking it one game at a time and just wound up in the Orange Bowl.”

Like the 1981 team, the current Clemson excels behind the leadership of its MVP quarterback plucked from Georgia’s backyard. Deshaun Watson of Gainesville, Ga., has more tools than Athens native Homer Jordan did 34 years ago and a more explosive offense that poses a unique challenge for Alabama’s vaunted defense.

But Farr thinks Clemson’s defense can rise to the challenge and prove the experts wrong.

“I’ve always liked to be underdogs because it makes you work a little bit harder,” he said. “I think we’ll match up well. We have the talent one-on-one to match up in the backfield and I think we can spread them out. You’re not going to stop (Heisman Trophy winner Derrick) Henry and all you can do is try to slow him down by putting more people in the box. I think we can do that and cover one on one with the defensive backs and have the athletes to do that.”

Farr – who owns a parts and machinery company in Cartersville, Ga., but returns to the family farm in Thomson every weekend to tend to his 60 head of black angus cattle – is impressed with the way Dabo Swinney has developed as a coach and kept these Tigers on track.

“I’ve felt good about them all year,” said Farr. “After that Notre Dame game I thought they might have something special throughout the rest of the year.”

Farr believes another national title could have an even bigger impact than the first one, the celebration of which was cut too short by eventual sanctions against Clemson.

“It would mean the world to the university,” Farr said. “It will put Clemson out there throughout the nation where everybody can see the kind of place Clemson is. It’s a fantastic campus, fantastic university and good academic university. I think this will put them right on a pedestal and draw a lot of attention to that.

“It’s exciting times for everybody that’s a Tigers fan.”

Michaux: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney plays no-respect angle perfectly

Sat, 01/02/2016 - 7:11pm

At some point, Dabo Swinney needs to summon up his inner Pat Riley and file a trademark on the term “Clemsoning.” It’s already proven to be a very valuable motivational commodity for the Tigers.

Once the Tigers’ coach owns it, he can redefine the word anyway he likes just as Clemson has redefined its program with a 14-0 run to the national championship game.

Riley, you might recall, filed a trademark on the word “Three-Peat” back in 1988 when his Lakers were trying to win a third consecutive NBA title. He since added other variations with and without numerals and hyphens and cashed in handsomely over the years on various dynasties.

Granted, “threepeat” has far more positive connotations than the origin of the “Clemsoning” slur, but Swinney and the Tigers are currently cashing in on the fire that comes up every time the skeptics bring it up.

After another dominant second-half performance in what turned into a rout of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl semifinal, a reporter reached for the low-hanging news conference fruit with a loaded line posed to linebacker Ben Boulware.

“I guess we can put the term ‘Clemsoning’ to rest now.”

Groans and indignation quickly erupted from the five Tigers assembled on the dais.

“Ah, get this guy outta here,” interjected senior offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain from one end of the stage as Swinney simultaneously shut it down from the other end.

“Next question. Next question,” Swinney said, declining to reprise the emotional rant a similar query elicited after a win over Georgia Tech in October. “Good idea. Next question. I’ll answer it for him.”

Don’t kid yourself. Swinney secretly loves it. Few coaches play the respect card as well as Clemson’s cheerleading front man. He applies every perceived slight liberally and to great effect.

He used it well in the Orange Bowl after the top-ranked Tigers kicked off as a 3.5-point underdog to the same school it slaughtered 40-6 in a bowl the year before.

“It’s amazing to me that, you know, I told them, you ain’t favored to win the damn game, but we ain’t no underdog,” Swinney said in his on-field postgame interview that has become regular must-see TV. “Everybody out there, nobody believes in this team except these guys and they just got a great heart, and it showed tonight.”

You have to hand it to a coach who can milk the no-respect angle with an unbeaten team that has never not been ranked No. 1 in the only poll that matters.

Just imagine the bulletin-board material that will blossom in the Arizona desert with he Tigers already installed as a touchdown “underdog” to No. 2 Alabama.

The Tigers certainly deserve respect with four consecutive seasons of 11 or more wins to their credit since the term “clemsoning” was first installed in the Urban Dictionary in 2011 after Clemson’s first Atlantic Coast Conference championship season in 20 years  was marred by more disappointment than elation.

“The act of delivering an inexplicably disappointing performance, usually within the context of a college football season,” was the initial definition after the Tigers’ ACC title season was marred by four late losses capped by a 70-33 embarrassment to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

That season was a turning point, however, in so many more positive ways. Swinney even cited it himself in the aftermath of Friday’s triumph.

“Four years ago we got our butts kicked right here on this field, and to come back four years later and play like we did and know that we’re going to go have a chance to play for the national championship against another great team, I mean, our hats off to this program and to our team and to the heart of this team,” Swinney said.

Truth is, Clemson has been the least “Clemsoning” team in the nation ever since the phrase became popular.

Swinney likes to cite supporting facts like its perfect 39-0 record against unranked opponents since 2011 as well as an impressive list of elite bowl conquests including LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma twice.

He broke out a new stat Friday after the Tigers locked things down in the second half.

“Since 2010 we’re 51-0 when we take the lead going into the fourth quarter,” Swinney said. “These guys finish. We know how to finish.”

That’s about as un-Clemsoning as it gets.

So it’s time the Tigers take ownership of the term and make it their own.

File for the trademark and print T-shirts if you beat vaunted Alabama on Jan. 11 in the national title game.

“15-0 – This is Clemsoning.”

Good idea. Any more questions?

Michaux: 2015 was case of close calls in sports

Thu, 12/31/2015 - 9:38pm

It only takes two words to encapsulate the latest year in sports – almost perfect.

Like Max Scherzer retiring 26 batters before hitting the 27th down to his last strike and settling for the first of two no-hitters on the season, the prevailing story line for much of 2015 was unrequited perfection.

At barely 22, Jordan Spieth dared to make us believe that the calendar Grand Slam in golf was possible by coming within one stroke at the British Open and one player at the PGA from sweeping golf’s majors after compelling victories at the Masters and U.S. Open.

At the ripened age of 34, Serena Williams came within an historic upset of completing the first singles Grand Slam in tennis since Steffi Graf in 1988. Williams had to settle for her second “Serena Slam” after her bid to win a fourth consecutive U.S. Open title ended in a shocking three-set semifinal loss to Roberta Vinci in what some have dubbed the biggest upset in tennis history.

In college basketball, Kentucky was seemingly unbeatable winning 38 straight games before getting upset in the NCAA Final Four by Wisconsin.

In the NBA, a year that started with the Atlanta Hawks rebranding itself with a 19-game winning streak closed with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors redefining the concept of basketball perfection by winning a record 24 games to start the new season after winning the title last summer.

Last Sunday, the Carolina Panthers quest to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only undefeated Super Bowl champions came to an end with a 20-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons after a 14-0 start.

Then on New Year’s Eve, the Clemson Tigers (who shared their Memorial Stadium with the expansion Panthers in 1995) kept their bid for perfection alive with an Orange Bowl semifinal win over Oklahoma after a perfect 13-0 record through the regular season and ACC Championship.

The only athlete to close out perfection in 2015 was a horse, as American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought by winning the Triple Crown and adding a Breeders Cup Classic victory to become the first horse to sweep the “Grand Slam” of American horse racing before retiring to stud. Yet even American Pharoah fell just shy of perfect, finishing second in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga to snap an eight-race winning streak.

My vision wasn’t quite 20/20 forecasting 2015, but it was closer to perfect than most. I didn’t quite hit on the Cubs winning the World Series, the Patriots losing the Super Bowl or Oregon’s Ducks taking the first College Football Playoff title.

But try to beat this string of wins from my New Year’s Day predictions:

Regarding Falcons: “Arthur Blank will probably bring in Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as the next head coach.”

Regarding majors: “At the faux links venues of Chambers Bay and Whistling Straits, Jordan Spieth (U.S. Open) and Jason Day (PGA) will join the ranks of major winners.” Bonus update: After British Open pick Rory McIlroy was sidelined by an ankle injury, I predicted live on SkySports that Zach Johnson would win at St. Andrews, and there’s video and a 100/1 betting slip to prove it.

Regarding Braves: “John Smoltz joins his golfing buddies in the Hall of Fame.”

Regarding SEC: “Georgia fans will miss the productivity of Mike Bobo’s offenses in another 9-3 campaign. South Carolina will have to stomach another unsatisfying season. Florida will rise again to win the SEC East.” I didn’t see Mark Richt getting fired or Steve Spurrier quitting midseason, however.

Regarding ACC: “Clemson will be the class of the Atlantic ... en route to a conference championship and playoff berth.”

I’ve had worse forecasts.

So while we wonder whether or not the South Carolina women’s and men’s basketball teams can maintain their perfect pace when 2016 brings conference play, let’s see how foggy my crystal ball is for the new year:

• After Alabama wins national title and Nick Saban leaves for an NFL job (Indianapolis?), Dabo Swinney turns down coaching his alma mater and leads Clemson to another undefeated regular season and a showdown with Mark Richt’s Miami team in ACC title game.

• Kirby Smart will enjoy a 10-3 season on the solid foundation Richt left behind at Georgia, but the Bulldogs will have to sit out another SEC title game.

• Will Muschamp’s South Carolina and Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech both return to bowl eligibility. It’s a start.

• Cam Newton dances as Carolina Panthers beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl 50.

• Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks women go a step further but lose to UConn in national title game. Frank Martin’s Gamecocks men win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 1973, but it’s North Carolina that wins NCAA title while women’s program takes the fall for academic scandal.

• Stephen Curry’s Warriors match Bulls’ NBA record with 72 regular-season wins and repeat as champions in rematch against LeBron James and Cleveland.

• In the epic rivalry showdown we’ve all been craving, Jason Day beats out Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy in a Masters for the ages.

• Spieth becomes the first player since Curtis Strange to repeat as U.S. Open champion at Oakmont. McIlroy wins British Open at Royal Troon while former Augusta State star Patrick Reed beats Dustin Johnson in the PGA at Baltusrol.

• Emiliano Grillo of Argentina wins Olympic golf gold medal while Sergio Garcia and Spieth take silver and bronze. On the women’s golf side, Karrie Webb caps her career with a gold medal over fellow medalists Lydia Ko and Charlie Hull.

• Usain Bolt will headline an Olympics tainted by athlete illnesses, sprinting into the Brazilian sunset by sweeping the “triple-triple” in track events he won in 2008 and ’12.

• Behind Spieth, Reed and Kevin Kisner, Americans roll to a lop-sided victory for captain Davis Love III in the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine.

• Atlanta Braves will lose 100 games for the first time since 1988. I’m rolling with Chicago Cubs again to win World Series after NLCS showdown with Dodgers.

Whatever happens, let’s hope 2016 is a healthy and happy New Year for everyone.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219

or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com

Michaux: Ex-Silver Bluff star Cordrea Tankersley embraces challenge during breakout season with Clemson

Tue, 12/29/2015 - 6:58pm

It’s football strategy 101 – steer clear of an opponent’s strengths and pick on its perceived weaknesses.

Teams trying to find the weakest link in the Clemson Tigers’ defense, however, ran into a tank instead – Cordrea Tankersley.

Playing opposite heralded all-conference first-team cornerback Mackensie Alexander, the former Silver Bluff star expected to get picked on as a first-year starter on the opposite corner. Instead, Tankersley has done most of the picking himself, with five interceptions tied for second in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“I knew teams would stay away from Mackensie and probably test other people, most likely me, and I was just up for the challenge,” Tankersley said. “It’s something I expected and something I welcomed. ... I would pick on me, too. But it’s something I embrace.”

The testing hasn’t gone particularly well for the opposition. Thirteen teams have failed to beat Clemson this season. Oklahoma will try to solve the riddle against the No. 1 Tigers on New Year’s Eve in the Orange Bowl semifinal game.

Tankersley’s breakout junior season also includes a team-leading seven pass breakups and 12 passes defended to go along with a respectable 39 tackles – numbers impressive enough to earn him third-team all-ACC.

“What a year he’s had,” said Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, the national coach of the year. “He’s gotten better and better and still has a lot of upside and improving to do, but he’s been tremendous all year. He’s been as consistent a player as we’ve had on defense.”

It was a long time coming for Tankersley. He was a highly regarded recruit coming out of Silver Bluff in 2011, ranking among the top 40 as safety, athlete and even receiver by various recruiting experts.

Tankersley spent a season at Hargrave Military Academy before going to Clemson, and it was an opportunity to redefine himself as a 6-foot-1 corner with the size to stand up to taller receivers.

“My sophomore year in high school I played corner and then I played all-time quarterback and just safety,” he said of his Silver Bluff experience. “A lot of colleges recruited me as safety. Then I went to prep school and saw a lack of depth at corner so I was like I’ll try corner. So I played corner every day in prep school and I fell in love with it. I got here and they moved me to safety and I was fine. But there was more opportunity at corner and I just jumped at it.”

Tankersley was expected to contend for the starting corner last season, but the Tigers’ coaches balked in preseason camp and kept him in a reserve role. But this year they made the commitment to him and he’s delivered.

“Not being able to play as much and having that anger and hunger to go out there and try to be the best and help my team try to get to this point,” he said of what has fueled his ascent. “I feel like I have come a long way in my career. I feel like there’s more room for improvement but I just go out there and work hard with my teammates and the coaches challenge me. I just want to be the best.”

Despite the high volume turnover of NFL-caliber talent off last year’s No. 1 defense, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said his only “real concerns” coming into 2015 were in three untested spots – middle linebacker B.J. Goodson, defensive end Kevin Dodd and Tankersley.

“Had no real track record,” Venables said of all three.

“Those three guys that we were going to be counting on was really big,” he said. “And then their maturation – all three of them – had far exceeded my expectations. Those three have played outstanding this year. That’s not to downplay anybody else, but those three guys – because I know we had enough guys that had played at the other positions – would be huge.”

Venables said Tankersley’s emergence hinged on “his confidence and experience are the main two things.”

“The success he’s had has validated the work we’re asking him to put in, so he’s more excited to come and say, ‘Give me some knowledge here so I can go play well,’” Venables said. “He’s really starting to come into his own and develop into a consistent player. ... I’m real proud of Cordrea and how far he’s come.”

Part of Tankersley’s confidence was born from the faith his coaches had in proclaiming the secondary as a defensive strength in the preseason despite having an untested starter on one corner.

“Coach Venables and Coach Swinney put me up for the test,” Tankersley said. “They said the ball is going your way, which I already knew, and I just wanted to show them I could make plays. My goal is to always be great. Coaches have put me in position to make plays and I just went out and made them. I also wanted to help out Mackensie in the secondary and coach tested us saying our strength would be our secondary so I wanted to make sure I was a big part in that position.”

On a defense that ranked fifth in the nation in pass defense (166.9 yards per game) and seventh in total defense (295.7 ypg), his defensive teammates have appreciated the contributions Tankersley has made.

“He definitely gets overlooked a lot,” safety Jayron Kearse told the Spartanburg Herald Journal about Tankersley “He’s a great player who can do it all. The sky is the limit for that guy. People just don’t recognize him much and he wants to prove people wrong, and he’s been doing that so far.”

Tankersley and the Tigers will face their biggest test against quarterback Baker Mayfield and an Oklahoma offense that ranks third nationally in scoring offense (45.8 points per game) and seventh in total offense (542.9 yards per game).

“I think there’s a lot of things I think we can try to slow down,” Tankersley said of the Sooners. “They have a great, explosive offense. You’re not going to be able to try to stop everything, but you can just try your best to slow them down. They’re just so good.”

The Tigers can’t afford some of the uncharacteristic defensive lapses the led to yielding 41 points to N.C. State, 32 to rival South Carolina and 37 to North Carolina in the ACC Championship game. It’s one of the reasons Clemson is a 3.5-point underdog against a team it blew out 40-6 in last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl.

“Clemson kind of beat Clemson a little bit with some blown plays,” Tankersley admitted of the late-season letdowns.

But the Tigers are still 13-0 and two wins away from the greatest single-season record in collegiate history and the school’s first national championship since 1981. Tankersley believes he still has something left in his tank to give Clemson when it matters most.

“I feel like I made a little bit of a statement,” he said of his season. “There’s always room for improvement. I feel like I established myself, but still have more to give.”

Michaux: Panthers' Fernando Velasco has generous heart

Fri, 12/25/2015 - 11:02pm

On a 14-0 NFL team chasing history, the backup center doesn’t draw a lot of attention.

Fernando Velasco doesn’t have touchdown balls to give away to kids in the stands. He doesn’t wage high-profile battles with opposing receivers. He doesn’t dance in the end zone.

But among all the Carolina Panthers, the veteran pro from Jefferson County and Georgia might have the most generous heart. As his team continues its quest for perfection on Sunday in Atlanta, Velsaco’s mission goes beyond the football field.

Sunday marks the 57th day in his “61 Days of Giving” campaign that Velasco’s Right C.h.o.i.c.e.s Foundation sponsors in the communities that have contributed to his success from Wrens and Athens in Georgia to Williston, S.C., to Charlotte, N.C.

“It’s always a blessing to be a blessing,” Velasco said. “God has truly blessed me and I like to be a blessing to others.”

The 61 days mirrors the jersey number Velasco wears in his second season with the Panthers. He started his foundation in 2010 with his wife, Tieshia. C.h.o.i.c.e.s stands for Christ, humility, opportunity, integrity, charity, education and success. The goal of his holiday season initiative is to have a positing impact on as many lives as possible.

“So each day, every single day, from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31, we partner with organizations to do some type of giving event, whether it’s giving away turkeys or coats or serving people food,” Velasco said. “It’s a fun time of year to try to put some smiles on faces.”

Over the course of these 61 days as the Panthers keep on winning, Velasco has served as principal for a day distributing books at Bruns Academy, served dinners at the Charlotte Rescue Mission or collected purses full of toiletries for women in need. On Wednesday night, he took a group of kids to see the NBA’s Hornets play.

“We let our kids experience something different, things I didn’t get to experience when I was young,” he said. “We let kids know the choices they make now are going to affect the way they live and we just try to spread that message.”

Jefferson County still holds a special place in Velasco’s heart. He plays host to a football camp there and last spring invited players like T.J. Bell, Melton Brown, Marquis Carter and Dontavis Hunt to Atlanta to train with him and take college testing preparatory classes. Velasco returned home to attend the Warriors’ last two playoff games in the school’s deepest run to the state semifinals.

Next Sunday, two days beyond his 61-day window, he’ll play host to 75 football players and cheerleaders from Jefferson County for the Panthers’ regular-season finale at home against the Tampa Bay Bucs.

“It’s a blessing to be a blessing, man,” he repeated. “Really cool stuff.”

It’s been eight seasons since Velasco left Georgia and entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent. He’s never forgotten where he came from or the people who helped him along the way.

He credits former Georgia coach Mark Richt with advancing his career by switching him from guard to center as a senior, broadening his skill set to be more marketable.

“Not to sound arrogant or anything, but I did know that I could play at this level,” Velasco said. “I remember back in college when coach Richt did decide to move me to center he told me with the diverse tools I have to play guard and center I could go in this league and play 10 years. Thank God I’m on year eight now and I give a lot of credit to coach Richt and his staff back in the day for making that change and helping me learn how to play center. If I was only a guard, maybe my career wouldn’t have been this long. That diversity of being able to play more than one position is what’s kept me around so long.”

Velasco has played center in nine games and started one this season for Carolina, backing up Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil. He was released by the Tennessee Titans after final cuts in the preseason and re-signed with the Panthers on Sept. 17.

“I knew something was going to happen and I was just blessed and fortunate to come back here because this was the place I wanted to be,” he said. “Just happy everything worked out.”

Even after being a part of the Panthers’ playoff run last season, Velasco had no idea just how well things would work out for Carolina this season. But every week the Panthers keep figuring out ways to win.

“I knew it was going to be a good team, but as the season goes on you recognize that we can be on the verge of greatness and do something special,” he said. “Through 14 weeks of the season that’s what we’ve been. Special group of guys and just unbelievable. It’s great for the Carolinas and great for the city of Charlotte. This organization is a classy organization and it deserves it.”

Velasco played on lines in front of David Greene and Matthew Stafford at Georgia and a season snapping for Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, but he said Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton has a different gear when the end-game stakes get tense, as they did last week against the Giants or last month at New Orleans.

“I’ll tell you what, there’s not a quarterback in this league that I’d rather have in that situation to go down and lead a game-winning drive than Cam Newton,” Velasco said. “He’s proved over and over in his career, even going back to college, he’s just a winner at everything he do. I’m just glad he’s on my side of the ball.”

Sunday’s game in Atlanta will be a homecoming of sorts for Velasco, who lives in Gwinnett County.

“You don’t need any kind of motivation to play in the NFL, but it’s something special when you get to go home and you get to play against a team that you grew up rooting for in Georgia,” he said. “I was a Falcons fan growing up by default. I remember the whole Dirty Bird growing up. I’ll have a lot of family and friends at the game and a lot of folks in Jefferson County will be watching the game. So it’s fun.”

While the Panthers scorched the Falcons 38-0 just two weeks ago in Charlotte, Velasco knows nothing can be taken for granted.

“They’re still playing for a playoff spot, so we know they’re going to come out ready to play. What we did two weeks ago, we can’t lean and depend on that because it’s a new Sunday. Anything can happen. We have to be ready to go out there and play our best football because we know we’re going to get their best.”

Although everyone is watching the Panthers to see if they can stay on track to join the 1972 Dolphins as the only undefeated NFL champs in the Super Bowl era, Velasco says the team isn’t getting ahead of itself.

“Not a lot of guys even talking about that,” he said. “We’re talking about this week we get a chance to clinch homefield advantage. That’s what’s important right now. We get that then we can worry about Tampa next week. Undefeated would be nice but that’s really not the focus.”

If they all keep their priorities straight like Velasco has, anything’s possible.

Michaux: Trip back to Augusta National emotional for Jordan Spieth

Sat, 12/19/2015 - 6:09pm

Jordan Spieth has plenty of time to grow accustomed to his new station in life as multiple major champion and the No. 1 golfer in the world, but sometimes it takes returning the place where it all changed to truly sink in.

Last week, Spieth drove down Magnolia Lane with his father – his first trip back to Augusta National since winning the Masters Tournament wire-to-wire last April. It wasn’t like anything he’d experienced before.

“When I got in and the staff there saying welcome back, welcome to the club, you’re a member now, let me show you your new locker room,’” Spieth said, “that’s when it’s like, ‘Wow, this is really, really cool.’”

The coolest moment, however, was when he walked into the Champions Locker room for the first time. There’s a display case inside with the green jacket and photos from his triumph and his name listed on the board with all the others.

But it was his locker that gave him pause. The room isn’t large enough for every champion to have his own locker, so the new champions always share with someone else. Jordan Spieth found out who his locker mate was when he saw his nameplate underneath four-time champion Arnold Palmer.

“To walk down to that last locker and see who his locker mate was, that really hit him,” said Shawn Spieth, his father. “The look on his face I’ll never forget, which in turn choked me up.”

Spieth appreciates being paired with arguably the most popular champion to ever win the Masters.

“To share a locker with Mr. Palmer, that’s historic and something I’ll be able to tell my kids of kids of kids passed down,” Spieth said. “I knew I’d be with somebody. It doesn’t matter who you’re with in there, it’s special. It just seems to be with ‘The King,’ a pretty special moment.”

After a historic season in his own right by chasing the Grand Slam, winning five times including two majors and the Tour Championship, amassing the most money ever accumulated in one year and climbing to No. 1 in the world, Spieth has his sights set on accomplishing something even Palmer never managed to do.

Only Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods have ever won consecutive Masters, and Spieth is determined to add his name to that list.

“That’s certainly something that motivates me,” Spieth said of another
opportunity to make history at his fingertips. “When asked, I was pretty constant in my response to that throughout the year and at the Open Championship and the PGA. When you have a chance to chase history, that’s what we’re doing it for. It’s rare to get a chance to chase history at anything you can do. But when you get a chance to do it you may as well work as hard as you can for it. That’s how your legacy is left. When I come back to my favorite tournament as a defending champion, sure there’s a lot that goes with that but I certainly hope I’m healthy and coming in as confident as I was this past year and that will be on my mind to try and be that next history maker.”

Spieth has paid attention to the details. There have been 17 players to win multiple Masters. Six of those 17 had only a one-year gap before winning again – including Palmer all four times. The others were Horton Smith (1934, ’36), Ben Hogan (1951, ’53), Sam Snead (1952, ’54), Phil Mickelson (2004, ’06) and Bubba Watson (2012, ’14). Even Nicklaus has a one-year gap between his first in 1963 and his second in ’65 before becoming the first to repeat in 1966.

The only champion to back up his first win another immediately was Faldo in 1989-90.

Spieth’s new locker mate is the best incentive.

“Arnold Palmer won four of them in ’58, ’60, ’62 and ’64 – all two years apart,” Spieth said. “It’s almost like that in-between year is much harder than when you settle in as Masters champ. You had that jacket and then you had it taken away. You’re not walking around with it everywhere anymore. You have that fire back in it.

“I think the realization of that might help me. The fact that I recognize that and can come in almost like I’ve never won this thing. I can certainly use the positives from the last couple of years, but as far as 2016 goes think about these other guys who didn’t (repeat).”

The pressure and responsibility on the reigning champion is often cited as the biggest hurdle to repeating at Augusta. Spieth has to host the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night, and he will have smoked meats likely from his favorite Austin, Texas, barbecue restaurant shipped in.

“The food selection will be easier for me than trying to choose the wine,” Spieth said. “For a 22-year-old, I enjoy (wine) and enjoy trying it. I’ll get some advice on what’s right to pair with Texas barbecue.”

But Spieth doesn’t think any unique distractions the reigning Masters has is any reason not to be competitive in the tournament.

“That’s a low-maintenance host problem,” he said. “All I do is pick the meals and stuff and thank the people there. There’s more to do than there was last year, but I don’t think it’s enough to take away the time. I couldn’t possibly use that as an excuse. I can promise you that.”

Considering Spieth’s average finish in two career Masters starts is 1.5, his chances are better than most.

Michaux: Quarterback Liam Welch adds to Aquinas legacy

Sat, 12/12/2015 - 6:00pm

ATLANTA — There was time for only one last play. A 99-yard interception return had effectively ended the Class A private school championship game, but senior quarterback Liam Welch had a few seconds for a Georgia Dome encore.

Aquinas coach James Leonard was in his ear before Welch took the field one last time for the Irish.

“Just told him I loved him,” Leonard said. “He had a great season and I’m proud of him.”

Great season is an understatement for both Welch and Leonard. As the starting quarterback all three seasons since Leonard took the head-coaching reins, Welch has presided over the greatest era in Aquinas football history.

There was the perfect season and a Class A title in 2013, followed by a run to the state semifinals the next year and capped off by a second trip to the Georgia Dome this season. A 35-14 defeat to Eagles Landing Christian Academy on Saturday morning didn’t diminish at all the legacy Welch and his seven fellow seniors will leave behind.

“It’s going to be hard to leave this team,” said Welch, who will play at Samford next season. “But hopefully we have left a legacy.”

Starting with former coach Matt Lezotte and reaching the next level under Leonard, nothing at Aquinas will ever be the same. A program that spent decades playing in the shadow of fellow Class A region power Lincoln County has flipped the tables with three consecutive wins over the Red Devils and has no plans of ever turning back.

Welch was already talking about next year as he was walking off the field, even though his only role will be standing on the sidelines cheering like former Irish star Brendan Douglas was Saturday.

“There’s different expectations coming into each year,” Welch said. “Next year I don’t expect any less from this group of guys. We’ve got a great group of guys coming up. I have no doubt that they can lead the Irish to another state championship next year.”

It’s fitting that this collection of Aquinas names have been associated with its rise to power – Leonard, Douglas, Welch.

The quarterback – whose younger brother, George Welch, stars as a sophomore receiver – is part of a legacy Aquinas family. His father, Dennis, played quarterback for the Irish in the early 80s. His four uncles all played football, including his Uncle Matt who was part of the 1972 team that beat Lincoln County before the 40-year drought.

Sophomore running back Joseph Douglas is the latest in the Douglas chain that has left its mark on the Irish program.

And of course there’s Leonard, an Aquinas grad whose grandfather, Denny, coached Boys Catholic/Aquinas from 1946-66. One prominent member of Denny Leonard’s teams was Welch’s great uncle, Matt Lyons.

This generation is proud to be part of the Aquinas lineage and even prouder to have established a higher standard.

“It means the world to play out here in front of our fans and to represent my school,” Welch said. “It’s really been the best years of my life. I love these guys and couldn’t have asked for a better four years and these players all four years.”

When Welch, Ethan Crawford and Will Evans started four years ago, they saw the direction that senior class – with players like Brendan Douglas – was heading and then took it a step further.

“We definitely added on to what was changed when we were freshmen,” Crawford said.

“It was great to see those guys my freshman year and I couldn’t wait to get on the field and try to carry on their legacy,” Welch said.

There were doubts that this Aquinas team, with only eight seniors, could make it as far as the Georgia Dme. But those doubts never made it into the locker room.

”We knew from day one that we were competitive,” Welch said. “It was a mind-set that every guy in the locker room had and we expected to be here.”

“It’s always great to get back,” Leonard said. “Nobody thought we’d ever come back after the first year and then we lost in the semis last year. We lost some really good players the past three years. ... I think they definitely cemented their legacy getting back here to the state.

“Very proud of those guys. Unbelievable record. Very small class this year but they set the tone, they were the leaders and kept us going all season.”

After Verenzo Holmes returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown, it triggered hopes that Aquinas might pull this off. That hope carried into the second half after Welch hit Justin Gibbs on fourth down for a touchdown and 14-13 lead.

But Eagle’s Landing proved too strong to overcome.

“You’ve got to give it to them,” Welch said of the Chargers. “They’ve got a great defense and we just really didn’t have an answer.”

Crawford was emotional about the loss, but proud of what was accomplished.

“It’s really hard,” said Crawford, who will play at Liberty University next year. “I would have loved to go out with a state championship. It hurts a lot. I’m just proud. It was God’s will.”

Before they ever left the dome, Aquinas was talking about getting back after Christmas break and hitting the renovated weight room.

“It’s going to take a lot,” Leonard said. “It always does. We’re going to get back to work.”

The guys who are leaving have no doubt about that.

“We’re coming back,” said Evans, who will play at Ohio next year. “Trust me.”

Falcons aren't fooling anyone with this week's catchphrase

Thu, 12/10/2015 - 9:52pm

There’s a hilarious phrase being bandied about in Flowery Branch, Ga., as the reeling Atlanta Falcons prepare for the flawless Carolina Panthers.

“Championship week” is the term first-year Falcons coach Dan Quinn is calling it, presumably because it has a better ring to it than “Desperation Sunday.”

“It’s our championship game for sure,” Quinn said on Sunday’s NFC South matchup in Charlotte, N.C. “The things we have to do for the future is going to be decided on what we do right now. That’s been the messaging.”

That messaging might have been a little easier to swallow before November started. Through Halloween, the Falcons were 6-1 on the tail of the 6-0 Panthers. It was reasonable to look down the road at a pair of Interstate 85 rivalry games in a three-week span in December as the decisive divisional climax.

Instead, the Falcons have lost five in a row while the 12-0 Panthers are the only team in the NFL to have already clinched their division. A dramatic Cam Newton rally in New Orleans last week, coupled with the latest Matt Ryan blundering performance at Tampa Bay, secured Carolina’s third consecutive NFC South title.

The “champion” ship has already sailed.

Atlanta’s best hope is to run the table these last four weeks and hope things fall in line for a wild-card berth.

“As far as expectations, obviously I wish we were 12-0 right now and not 6-6,” Ryan said. “But that’s where we are and we’ve still got a lot of ball in front of us.”

Where the Falcons are probably shouldn’t be as much of a surprise as it might have seemed when they were 6-1 after a 5-0 start. The warning signs were already there considering Atlanta was the first team in NFL history to start 5-0 despite trailing in the fourth quarter of four games.

The fast start was essentially as genuine as fool’s gold.

They’d coughed up a 20-3 halftime lead in the opener to Philadelphia only to survive 26-24 on a late Matt Bryant field goal. They were gifted a 24-20 win by the New York Giants, who blew a 20-10 fourth-quarter lead and seemed poised to pad it before Eli Manning fumbled on a sack at the Falcons’ 9. They trailed the Tony Romo/Dez Bryant-less Cowboys 28-14 and were making Brandon Weeden look like a star before scoring 25 unanswered to rally. They gave up a game-tying field goal to Washington after taking 19-16 lead with 24 seconds left and needed a pick-six in overtime to win again.

If Atlanta had been in the NFC East, the outlook would have looked rosy. Instead, things turned sour quickly thanks largely to an unexpected source.

Ryan – who slipped in behind Dan Marino, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers as the fifth-fastest quarterback to throw for 30,000 yards in his 117th career game when the Falcons beat Tennessee – has been as much a liability as a strength of late. He’s thrown nine interceptions and fumbled the ball away three times in the Falcons’ 1-6 swoon as Atlanta currently ranks tied for 26th with 22 turnovers.

Last week, the Falcons settled for field goals on its first four scoring opportunities. Then, after letting Bucs rookie quarterback Jameis Winston escape for 20 yards on third-and-19 to extend the late go-ahead touchdown drive, Ryan sealed the Falcons’ fate by throwing an interception on the first play of the final possession.

“When you’re winning games, you’re making the plays,” Ryan said. “At the beginning of the season we were making those plays and overcoming mistakes. Of course there were mistakes, but we were able to overcome them. We haven’t been able to do that now for an extended stretch. That’s disappointing and frustrating for sure and we’ve got to find a way to get it done.”

Quinn – whose luster has dimmed since that heady early run – said he has “unbelievable, unwavering faith” in both Ryan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

But that faith hardly compares to what the Panthers have working with MVP candidate Newton. With his legs, arm and instincts, Newton keeps drawing winners as the Panthers pursue a perfect season despite all the odds against them.

“He’s doing the same thing Cam always did for the past few seasons, but now you can see the confidence he’s playing with,” Falcons safety William Moore said. “He’s got receivers probably no one’s really much heard of until now, but he’s playing with confidence and a team feeds off your quarterback being the leader. He’s playing with a lotta, lotta confidence and it’s striking through the whole team.”

That’s pretty much the opposite of what’s happening in Atlanta. The Falcons have had eight games decided by less than a touchdown, but the confidence to win those close encounters has gotten away from them as the losses pile up on a once promising season.

Quinn keeps preaching optimism, talking to them in a team meeting “about not doing things differently but doing things better.” He was the defensive coordinator of the only team to beat Carolina in 18 games dating back 53 weeks, as his former Seattle Seahawks beat the Panthers in the NFC Divisional playoffs en route to the Super Bowl.

But as much as Quinn and the Falcons like to think of this as “championship week,” the game everyone had circled on the calendar reeks more of desperation than opportunity.

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