The best assignments a writer could ask for are the ones that include free food…but especially when that food is from recipes concocted by gourmet chefs. JerseyMan sent me to cover the opening of FoodieHall in Cherry Hill…a great place for outstanding grub. Check out the article from the magazine here.
Hall of Food
The new Foodie Hall in Cherry Hill is a revolutionary concept – first rate food prepared specifically for takeout and delivery, while offering something for every taste.
For you JerseyMan readers and Legacy Club faithful, since membership has its perks, we’re about to share privileged information with you. If you’re on a plane or train, check that no one is looking over your shoulder, and that there are no surveillance cameras nearby. We’re entrusting you as someone with a need to know.
Here it is: You can now get a Geno’s cheesesteak in South Jersey.
Okay, maybe it doesn’t sound that momentous. Tony Luke’s, Primo, DiNic’s and other iconic Philly sandwich shops have all opened outposts across the Delaware, sparing their enthusiasts in our neck of the woods considerable congestion.
But for Geno’s, expansion from its 56-year South Philly location has been minimal. You can find a couple of locations in the city, like the airport. But until very recently, a Jersey dweller had to pay bridge toll to sample a Geno’s cheesesteak.
Dan Goldberg, co-owner of the Foodie Hall in Cherry Hill that now offers the essential Philly sandwich, helped to make this unprecedented happening possible.
“We’re very excited about it,” Goldberg says. “Our PR firm had a relationship with Geno, and made the introduction. We pitched Geno on the idea, and surprisingly to us, he was receptive.
“Geno’s has never expanded outside of Philadelphia, ever. So for us, this was a really exciting opportunity. Geno toured our facility, was very impressed with the layout, the cleanliness, and the whole thought that we put behind it, and said he was interested.”
And so you know, Goldberg didn’t just throw a few bucks at Geno Vento to use his signage. Thankfully, Geno is more protective of his brand than that.
“We worked out our deal, and went through extensive training with Geno to make sure that the Geno’s steak you have here in Cherry Hill is the same Geno’s steak you’ll have in South Philly. Which is not only important to us, but obviously important to Geno as well. It’s literally his name on the marquee.
“Geno was adamant, because he’s approached all the time, he wants to make sure there’s consistency across his locations.”
To successfully persuade Geno’s to be a part of Foodie Hall is obviously a significant accomplishment. But it gets better.
Foodie Hall opened for business in May of 2022 offering a novel idea…multiple types of cuisine available for takeout and delivery. No more settling, they proudly proclaim. If your family bickers frequently over what to get for dinner, or your sports watching buddies can’t decide between pizza or burgers, Foodie Hall is your solution.
To be sure, maybe any-cuisine food delivery isn’t what you’d call a novel idea these days. As many restaurants in New Jersey were forced to close in response to a virus, many of them were offering takeout and delivery options to stay viable. If your local diner was doing this, you could probably choose from a varied menu and have DoorDash or GrubHub bring it to you.
Foodie Hall is revolutionary in being designed for the purpose of delivering higher quality food…whether it’s tacos, chicken sandwiches, or dumplings. Hop onto their website and order from menus that include Detroit-style pizza, Korean BBQ burgers, chicken Quesabirria burritos and much more. All chef-inspired creations.
In case you’re wondering, Foodie Hall wasn’t conceived during the pandemic. But the sudden pivot towards takeout and delivery definitely gave the idea a boost.
“In 2018-19,” Goldberg remembers, “my original founding partner (Nick Ballias) and I, we met at a food event that I co-chair, called Men and Women are Cooking, that raises money for the Atlantic City Boys and Girls Club. This was when GrubHub, Uber Eats and DoorDash had come to Atlantic City, and it was starting to blow up.
“We started coming up with an idea for a delivery-only restaurant. We had penciled this out already, and then Covid hit and restaurants closed, and all of a sudden everyone was ordering delivery.
“My parents were telling me how they had ordered Morton’s for dinner. That’s when it struck me, there are people whose consumer habits have now changed and will never go back. It’s no longer just wings and pizza. There’s my parents, who are not exactly the most tech savvy, ordering steaks for dinner, that means anybody can be ordering everything.
“So why not come up with a restaurant concept that had multiple different types of cuisines on it? We ran into this family idea, where the parents want adult food and the kids want pizza or mac and cheese. Or the parents can’t agree. Or you have a group of friends watching football and they all want something different. Rather than settling, let’s have something for everyone.”
Sounds great, but how could that all work? A conveyor belt is a big part of it (!), but Goldberg says every step of the process matters.
“We put a lot of thought into what delivery trends were taking place, what was working and what we saw that wasn’t working,” he remembers. “Packaging was a big piece of it. Many restaurants during the pandemic that were doing delivery kind of out of necessity were using takeout packages. Those packages are not meant necessarily to be reheated, or to be leak proof, or to sit in a car for half hour or to retain heat or cold.
“We looked at packaging specifically meant for delivery. We wanted something that would maintain heat and not leak. We literally made products in our kitchen, put them in different containers, and had them sit in our parking lot for half hour or drive around and see how they held up. We wanted packaging that would be eco-friendly, and also able to be reheated in microwaves and ovens and things.”
Then there’s the little matter of creating a wide variety of cuisine from one kitchen, maintaining quality, and somehow keeping overhead down.
“We are very conscientious in the ingredients we use to be cross-utilized across all the platforms. For example, chicken breast is used in multiple products across the different restaurants. I have a chicken parm sandwich at Criss Crust, and we have the chicken sandwich concept, Simply Fowl, and then we have salads that have grilled chicken on them. We’re trying to use things across and that keeps us more efficient.
“When we designed the kitchen, we were concerned with having a traffic issue, with people walking around and bringing all the various foods to the front. It would have been a waste of labor. We came up with a solution which I borrowed from my old business…a commercial laundry business…where we had a conveyor belt. It’s a 120-foot conveyor belt that runs down the center of our kitchen.
“I don’t need people running up to the front and bringing the food, I don’t have to worry about people walking into each other. It’s a way to keep costs down and keep order in the kitchen.”
The conveyor belt concept is indeed impressive to witness. An owner of a busy diner might see it and wonder how in the world they didn’t think of it.
“No one’s ridden on it yet that I know of,” Goldberg jokes.
JerseyMan loves telling readers what makes life in South Jersey great and highlighting business ingenuity among our own. Places like Foodie Hall give us plenty to work with.
In the days before smartphone maps, you might have had a difficult time finding the place. It’s situated in an industrial park in Cherry Hill, just off of Route 70 but requiring navigation of annoyingly tricky jug handles and intersections. If it were a sit-down restaurant, the difficulty getting there might be a factor in your going elsewhere.
But for this style of eatery, the location is the beauty of it.
“We are delivery and takeout only,” Goldberg says. “We need to be near people, and we need to be near businesses, but I don’t need to be on Route 70 or Route 73. I just need accessibility, I don’t need visibility. We built out this really high-end large kitchen, with the latest and greatest in equipment, but I’m not paying the prices I would pay to be on Route 70 or 73. It’s more economical to be here.”
Market research drove the location of Foodie Hall’s first outpost in Cherry Hill. Even though it seems obvious.
“Between Cherry Hill and Mount Laurel and Maple Shade, you have a tremendous number of people that are foodies. It really fit well for us.
“It has a great mix of residents and businesses. We can cater to people in their homes at nights and weekends, and our concept lends itself perfectly to office orders and catering during the day. We’re getting a lot of offices that typically order once a week, same idea as from home. Instead of having 20 people fighting over what we’re having for lunch, now 20 people can get what they want in one delivery.”
Including an authentic Geno’s cheesesteak, without the tolls and traffic.
Establishing The Brand(s)
Foodie Hall features eight restaurants under its umbrella as this sentence was written, including Geno’s Steaks, an instantly recognizable brand to Philly area natives.
You can order Mexican street cuisine from Dando Tacos, Jersey fried chicken sandwiches from Simply Fowl, craft burgers from DaNick’s, Buffalo chicken mac and cheese from Mac N Toastie, or vegetable dumplings from the Cantina Wok & Noodle Bar. If you’re going Italian, try the Criss Crust Detroit-style pizza, or the antipasti from the Fornire Italian Kitchen.
Seeing the choices, a South Jersey food enthusiast could wonder how they have lived here so long without recognizing the catchy names and logos sitting alongside Geno’s. How does anyone miss Mac N Toastie?
When questioned whether the others are established eateries in their own right, Dan Goldberg considers it a triumph of Foodie Hall’s design.
“I’m glad you asked that,” he explains, “because they’re not. The fact that you asked that question means we did a good job of branding and trademarking to look like they are established brands. And the idea is that these brands will proliferate and open up in other Foodie Halls.
“There was a lot of thought given to the name, the logo, the design, the color scheme, to make it look like a franchise or an established restaurant. But they’re all our own creations, we came up with them. We put the menu together, the recipes, etc.”
That includes DaNick’s, which sounds perilously close to DiNic’s, the long established roast pork sandwich destination in the region.
“No, different name,” Goldberg responds when asked about the similarity. “They’re actually named after (co-founder) Nick (Ballias) and I, Dan and Nick. Nothing to do with them, we love their sandwiches, but yes, completely unrelated.”
So foodies in the area can rest easy knowing that they haven’t missed out on Fornire’s, and a potential topic for their blog.
But if you’re one of those types, the clock’s ticking on trying out Foodie Hall before your blogosphere competitors do.
Key Players – Georgeann Leaming
Dan Goldberg and co-founder Nick Ballias don’t mess around when it comes to takeout fare for discriminating South Jersey natives. While working out the plans for Foodie Hall, they considered product quality important enough to bring a chef on board to be a culinary consultant, and design recipes for their menu of food creations.
Not just any chef, by the way…they partnered with Georgeann Leaming.
You may have heard of Leaming…she’s been a champion TV chef on Food Network’s Chopped, and competed on Hulu’s Man vs. Master. She’s been an executive chef for two of Gordon Ramsey’s restaurants, and has co-owned two food stops in Philly. One of them, Samwich, took Philadelphia Magazine’s “Best Fried Chicken Sandwich” prize in 2016.
That’s just a partial list of Leaming’s street creds in Philly area cuisine, but it’s enough to see why Dan and Nick would take the opportunity to work with her.
“It was very important for us to not simply have your average burger or chicken sandwich. We try to do everything higher end than your normal delivery would be.
“She left to pursue some other avenues in September, but she was with us all the way. She helped us design the menus, and some of the dishes were completely her own from top to bottom in terms of the ingredients, the recipes and everything. These are recipes that we use, and we haven’t changed anything since she left.
“Georgeann was a big help,” Goldberg acknowledges. “Fantastic, talented chef, culinary director, and really helped design and get this to where it is. Perfect person for this, and without her, we wouldn’t have the type of food that we have today.”
The decision of what to get for everyone in the room isn’t the only comestible conundrum Foodie Hall solves. If you’re looking for cuisine inspired by a top chef in the region without the triple-digit price, they take care of that for you too.
Meals 4 Meals
Dan Goldberg and his people consider giving back to be part of the ethos of business success, and they offer an incentive to philanthropic types who love great food. For every meal ordered from Foodie Hall, they donate a meal to Feeding America through their Meal 4 Meal program. On Foodie Hall’s website, they call the initiative “a vitally important guiding principle in how we operate.”
Goldberg is happy to explain how it works. “What they do is, they will take a monetary donation that they get a lot more mileage out of than we would, because of their immense buying power. We donate an amount to them for every meal that we sell, which is the meal equivalent for them. They use that to purchase meals for their partner charities, which are all across the country and the world.
“We initially got the idea from the Bombas Socks people. For every pair of socks that they sell, they donate a pair to people in need in a country outside of America. And we loved the idea. It made a lot of sense to us.”
So when you order from Foodie Hall, you’re not only providing all your guests or employees something for their own tastes, you’re making a contribution to a four-star organization with 200 food banks and over 60,000 programs to help feed the hungry in your own homeland. Not that you need any extra incentive to try Simply Fowl’s Nashville fried chicken sandwich, but it doesn’t hurt.
“By our calculations,” Goldberg estimates, “We’ll be donating about 50,000 meals in this year, which is really exciting. I’m very proud of that.”
JerseyMan sent me to interview Ted Mann and talk with him about his new app, CollX, which helps sportscard collectors easily find the value of their cards. Love fun assignments like this! You can read the article on JerseyMan’s website here, or view the PDF from the magazine here.
(All photos courtesy of Ted Mann unless otherwise indicated.)
Collectors & Sons – The CollX App
There is a new app available for sports card collectors that solves a decades-old problem…finding out how much your sports cards are worth. It’s called CollX, and the idea was hatched by a ten year old.
The wonderful thing about young children is that no matter how overwhelming a problem, they always see a simple solution.
And as any sportscard collector knows, finding the true value of cards is a pretty overwhelming problem.
Ted Mann, a former journalist, has just started his fourth technology company using visual search technology. It’s an app called CollX, and it’s an idea that is so obvious that adults need kids to help us see it.
Fortunately, Ted has just such a visionary living under his roof…his ten year old son Charlie, who saw how his father’s technical skills could make the world a better place.
The CollX app does the most important thing apps do…it saves collectors lots of time. With CollX, you can dig out that dusty collection of sports cards from your attic, scan each card, and instantly see its approximate worth. (Incidentally, if your cards are worth anything, hopefully you’ve been wise enough not to let them collect dust.)
No more poring through Beckett or Tuff Stuff guides, no more hauling your collection to a broker, no more countless hours on eBay. Ted and Charlie tried all those things with their collections, until Charlie suggested a better idea.
Ted gives all the credit where it’s due.
“When I was a kid, I ran into the same problem that Charlie had. Tuff Stuff Magazine, listings and prices, I also used Beckett back then, looking things up manually.
“But the Beckett Guide has become like a phone book. It’s super thick. It’s really, really tough and time consuming to look these things up, and even when you do, I was finding that the prices in the Beckett Guide, probably the minute they’re published, are out of date.
“We found some apps where you could look up cards, but they were really expensive, high value cards, which sad to say, did not fit the description of my collection or Charlie’s.
“We tried one thing after another, and finally Charlie’s like, “Dad, can you just build me something that would do this?”
Cue the light bulb.
Childlike vision works because adults can’t believe some things can be easy, like finding the actual value of a Cal Ripken Jr. rookie card. As a result, many of us let valuable memorabilia collect dust in the attic.
Charlie provided the inspiration, but as Jersey native Thomas Edison informed us, genius is 99% perspiration. Ted is well aware of this, and he’s been putting in the sweat. CollX is all about making a difficult and tedious process easy…but developing the app itself has been anything but an easy process.
It’s not the easiest to market research, for one.
“It’s easy to go and ask people around town, do you have any cards? ‘Yes.’ Do you know what they’re worth? ‘No.’ Have you ever sold a card on eBay? ‘No.’ Why not? ‘I don’t know what they’re worth.’
“It definitely gave me optimism that there was something big here. But understanding how big a market it is was a challenge. We did assess that basically, thanks to eBay and other marketplaces. The current market size is about 5.4 billion.
“But what about all those people that have never sold on eBay? Could you get them to do it? Could you get them reacquainted with their cards and back into the hobby?
“We actually had to conduct a pretty big omnibus study to get a sense of that…just this afternoon, another news outlet called New Street published the findings of our research. The big takeaway was that there are about 85 million American adults that own trading cards.
“It’s a huge 33% of the population, and yet none of them, or I should say a small percentage of them, have ever transacted on any kind of market like eBay. The thing blocking them isn’t necessarily getting the cards graded or having access to a place to sell them. There’s still a lot of card stores, there’s a lot of online sites. It was simply not knowing what the cards are worth, and not having a good way to figure that out.
“If we can help solve that problem, then this huge addressable market can be unlocked.”
There is also the sheer number of collector’s cards…the CollX database features 20 million, and most definitely counting.
It’s an ongoing process, Mann says. No kidding.
“We still don’t have every card by a long shot. There’s a few cards in my collection that I still can’t scan into CollX, because we haven’t gotten those images or gotten that data into our database yet.”
Spoken like a true entrepreneur…20 million is nowhere near enough. Just how, exactly, does a database of 20 million sportscards get constructed?
“We found a number of sites online, all publicly available sites, that have checklists. In the trading card world, you can build the set, right? And there’s a list of every card in that set. We started building those checklists, and then populating all the images for all the cards in those checklists.
“We started with baseball and then we added football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, wrestling. Soon we’re gonna add trading card games like Pokémon.”
Mann says that they have also developed what he believes is a generally accurate algorithm for determining each card’s worth.
“We’ve built up a ton of pricing data, most of which is coming from other auction sites. Again, publicly available and all readily searchable, eBay being the biggest. We’re taking all of those transactions and mapping those back into the individual cards.”
Arduous task, undoubtedly.
But the CollX app keeps improving, and its usage keeps growing.
During JerseyMan’s interview with Mann, a counter sitting on a nearby shelf occasionally made clicking noises and changed the number it was displaying. This counter, Mann explained, shows the number of people using the app at a given time. At that moment, the number was 232,408 and growing. There are plenty of curious collectors out there.
But Mann and Son’s E-Z Sportscard Valuation Service has bigger plans…not just helping users find the worth of their cards, but also facilitating the sale process if they are inclined, and ultimately monetizing the app through commissions.
“We’re a very early business,” Mann says. “We aren’t charging for the app. We know there are already users reaching out to other users to buy their cards…we see that happening in big numbers. We’re going to help them do that better, so we’ve created a number of tools.
“The first big tool is our deals feature, where you can negotiate on multiple cards. You can create a deal with a bundle of cards and negotiate on the lot. We’ll facilitate checkout and generate shipping labels, to ship the cards via the postal service.
“We want to help people make a lot of money on their collections. But the thing I think is really unique is, on CollX, you actually see what the buyer and the seller both have in their collections. That enables us to say, here’s the areas where you have a shared interest. If you really like the Phillies, Bryce Harper, we’re gonna surface those cards from my collection. When you add something from my collection, now here are a few other suggestions of other cards you might be interested in.
“We can build those recommendation systems in a really personalized way, and I think it creates a better experience.”
There are few better opportunities for fathers to tell their sons about athletes of their era than when leafing through a collection of sports cards. Imagine building a business around it with your son. Charlie Mann is getting a solid grounding in both…even if he still gets more stoked about interviewing Rickey Henderson, which he did at a recent sportscard event.
Charlie is obviously not old enough to remember baseball’s greatest base thief, but as Ted says, he knows plenty about him.
“He was super excited to talk to him, because that was one of the cards that he pulled out and he was like, ‘Dad, is this one worth anything?’ I was like, ‘That might actually be the most valuable card in my collection. It’s his rookie card. Let’s go try and figure that out.
“And sure enough, it was one of the more valuable cards. So when Charlie got to interview him, he shared that story. Rickey was really nice. I was really impressed with him.”
“I love getting to do this with Charlie,” Ted continues proudly. “It’s been a great way for us to bond and connect, and it’s not just us. I’ve noticed and seen and heard from countless users on the app that it’s been the same thing for them. Just fathers and sons, getting to bond over collecting cards and to do this together. I think for Charlie that was super gratifying too. To see it wasn’t just him that had this problem.
“And he’s helping all these people.”
Sometimes, the kids really do have the answers.
The Honus Wagner Card
As every baseball card collector knows, the T206 Honus Wagner card is the most valuable baseball card in history. In August of 2021, the card sold for a whopping $6.6 million.
Why is it so valuable? According to Wikipedia, in 1912 Wagner was asked permission by the American Tobacco Company, who manufactured baseball cards at the time, to have his visage included on a card. Wagner refused for reasons that still aren’t clear today, with theories ranging from his not wanting to advertise tobacco to kids to his being a tough negotiator who demanded greater compensation.
As a result, just 50 to 200 Honus Wagner cards were produced, and given his stature on a baseball field, this almost immediately made the card valuable.
Ted Mann well knows the value of scarcity in collecting. It was unintentional in the American Tobacco Company’s case (then again, maybe it wasn’t), but Mann says that card trading companies do intentionally create scarcity.
“The manufacturers of these cards create small print runs for certain cards. They’ll say, there’s only ten of these cards. It’s like your golden ticket. Golden auctions sold, I think a one of one Mike Trout rookie card for like $5 million. There’s only one of them, so that creates demand.
Mann doesn’t believe a Honus Wagner card will be scanned on CollX. He stresses that the app is more for “the rest of us”.
“I don’t think we’ll see a lot of $7 million Honus Wagner cards scanned in the collection. As much as I’d love to cater to the high end of the market and have them see the value on the app, I think it’s really kind of the rest of us, the long tail of the collecting hobby that we’re really appealing to.”
The value of some cards brings to mind a potential problem that Mann is also working to address: potential forgeries.
“It’s difficult, forgeries of cards is a tough thing to identify with just a picture, especially if they’re pretty much identical. Obviously, you wanna take a picture of the card and if for some reason you do receive a fake and you’re able to see that, you can report that. And we would not release the payment to the seller if they were peddling fake cards.
“I think there’s definitely some things that we can do to double verify it. But we will protect the buyer and make sure that they get the cards they paid for.”
Something to remember just in case you find yourself seeing a Limited Edition Honus Wergner card for sale.
Image Recognition – The Key to CollX
Ted Mann is an expert at how image recognition, a remarkable technology that CollX employs to determine what sports card it’s looking at. His son, of course, was aware of this when he suggested the idea of using it for sports cards.
“What we’re doing with CollX is a specific breed of image recognition that is sometimes called reverse image search, or reference image matching, where we have an existing reference image of a card. We’re trying to match the picture of the card that somebody’s taken on their smartphone to an image in our database.
“Think about it almost like matching fingerprints…when you’re matching a fingerprint, you don’t necessarily need to match everything about the fingerprint. You’re looking for the little variations that kind of define it. We kind of do the same thing. We have a deep learning model that is trained to identify specific features within each card image, and then we’re just trying to match up one to one.
“Imagine if the trading card itself was a QR code. And you’re basically just identifying that and matching that to an existing one in the database to get that one to one match.”
The explanation of the technology obviously goes much deeper, but Ted’s happy to take care of that for you so you and your son can scan your cards.
The Collector’s Community
Ted and Charlie and partner David Grzybowski recently attended a sportscard event in Atlantic City, where they were quite well received…and encouraged.
“I met probably a thousand people at the national in person who just really love the app. A couple of them came to me with a laundry list of features they’d love to see, which is great too.”
Incidentally, the audience for JerseyMan might find CollX right up their alley. “There’s a high overlap rate of entrepreneurs and card collecting,” Ted says. “It’s actually kind of a funny, it’s how a lot of them got started. I guess myself included.”
To Mann, the enthusiasm for CollX is an opportunity to improve things in the app, such as the accuracy of pricing, which has limits coming from auction sites where prices can vary.
“A lot of our data relies on eBay transactions and a lot of eBay transactions are bogus, we’ve learned. So when those happen, just helping us kind of prune those out. We’re actually gonna have an app update pretty shortly that gives some of that functionality so that our users can help us with that.
“We’ve done our best to come up with ways to average the prices or estimate the prices if needed. But the truth is we need help and we have 232,000 users, many of whom don’t mind putting in a little bit of extra effort to help us.”
Entrepreneurs who listen should be valued. CollX’s customer service is already an improvement over both of the TV providers in my area.
For the debut issue of MiamiMan Magazine in April of 2022, the editors let me cover Super Bowl MVP Larry Csonka, the legendary fullback and key piece of the back-to-back Super Bowl Champion Dolphins. Zonk was very nice to me and had some great stories to share. You can see the PDF of the magazine article here, or see the article on MiamiMan’s website.
He was a legendary fullback and one of the most important players on a Miami Dolphins team that stood on top of the football world two years in a row. To this day, the Perfect 1972 team still stands alone.
To this day, Miami is the only NFL city whose team has gone a full season with a zero in the loss or tie columns.
Somewhere, probably in the clouds today, is an Akron area juvenile court judge and junior high principal we should thank for pointing a tough young kid in the right direction…back onto the football field, and on track to carry the ball for that perfect squad.
“I watched my older brother play,” Larry Csonka remembers. “and I went to a high school football game on a Friday night. There was probably three or four thousand people there, which was an immense crowd, I’d never seen anything like that growing up, a country kid on a farm. To play under the lights, I thought that was big time!
“I was sent down to the bench by my father, he sent a dollar down to my brother because he made a great catch. I got to go down by the bench and hand him the dollar, and I just marveled at the sidelines, I was just in awe of the whole thing. I couldn’t wait to get old enough to play.”
That is, until he was actually getting hit. “I went out for football in seventh grade, didn’t know anything about it, got knocked down a lot, and quit.”
Shortly after quitting, the kid from Stow, Ohio got into a bit of trouble, and was put before a forward-thinking judge who possibly saw his potential as a superstar fullback.
“The juvenile court judge told me that I needed to report to my principal every day. He would be responsible for me. Mr. Saltis made me write reports on football”, Csonka says with a laugh. “I started to understand the game and got back into it, otherwise I might not have ever played again.”
Every superstar player in sports history probably has a story of when their path to stardom came close to being derailed. Larry Csonka knows full well how important all of the ingredients are not just to an individual’s success, but to a team’s success.
We’ll come back to that.
In case you’re too young to remember Larry Csonka, or you need a refresher on what your parents told you, here’s a bit about why he was adored by the football loving faithful here.
In just eight seasons as a Dolphin, he rushed for 6,737 yards and 53 touchdowns…both still team records to this day. He averaged over five yards a carry in 1971 and 1972, and in 1979, as a power running back at the age of 32, he rushed for 837 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He also was, obviously, a key player on the unbeatable 1972 team, gaining 1,117 yards and averaging 5.2 yards a carry. The following season he was a Super Bowl MVP, rushing for 145 yards and two touchdowns against the Vikings. Read that again…Zonk ran for 145 yards against a defense good enough to be in the Super Bowl.
A player known for his legendary toughness, and sometimes carrying several defenders with him into the end zone, is quick to credit another man for his drive on the field…another legend in Miami, otherwise known as the winningest coach in football history.
“The competitiveness of it grew on me a little later, and then meeting a guy named Don Shula in the pros rejuvenated that feeling I had when I was a boy. After going through junior high, high school, college and being on some winning teams, I was motivated by that, but I still hadn’t become possessed by it. When you play for Shula, you either become possessed or you play for another team.
Csonka tells a story about Shula’s motivational skills that isn’t surprising.
“I got hit one time and was laying on the sidelines, and he ran up to me and said, ‘You can’t be hurt!’ It made me so mad I forgot I was hurt, I jumped up to grab him, and he took off!” Csonka remembers with a laugh. “He said, ‘I knew if I made you mad enough you’d forget you were hurt!’”
“He had a real chip on his shoulder about being unprepared, he wanted to anticipate everything that could be anticipated. In other words, total concentration, total commitment to the win.
“Now, that sounds easy, and all of us want to do it, and that sounds fine to go to a Boy Scout meeting and stand out and get your honorary badge, that’s great. But when you do it 17 or 18 times in a row, it’s hard to keep that up. And he would mandate that, he would demand that, and he would raise hell if he thought you were screwing around in practice and not paying attention.
“Two and a half hours, a couple of times a day – that’s five hours a day, and you’re talking about six weeks of intense concentration in training camp. It’s pretty hard to keep that up, on that plane, but with him behind you, we were motivated to stay on that plane.”
Zonk remembers that Don Shula pushed for absolutely every edge on a football field…including having a team train in the July Miami heat to prepare for hot days. After an embarrassing Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys, the coach made the team use the loss as motivation.
It worked out literally perfectly.
“Getting that far in ’71, and then getting your ass handed to you in the Super Bowl was embarrassing. But Shula said to us after that game, ‘I want you to remember this moment, because we’re gonna use this as a basis to make even more sacrifices next year.’
“He didn’t say what our objective was going to be. What he said was, we’re gonna treat every game like it’s the Super Bowl. That way we can’t ever relax. By the time we get to the Super Bowl, we’ll be able to make sure that we do it one more time.
“Those words rang true, that was a great prediction after a terrible loss.”
Indeed, as the football world remembers, the Miami Dolphins made winning quite the habit in 1972. The backfield of that team contributed to the obsession…the interchangeable squad of Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Mercury Morris made opposing defensive coordinators want to put 15 players on the field. It was an idea Shula had once he believed Morris could take the punishment.
“Coach Shula decided to talk with the offensive line coach to see if we had the offensive linemen that could get to the outside. And we did. Larry Little, a huge big man, who was super fast in the 40, so we could get somebody out there to block for Merc, and we could have that outside threat.”
“It gave us a three-dimensional backfield, and that made a difference. That was one of the contributing factors to going undefeated.”
The Dolphins’ backfield was so strong that even losing a Hall of Fame quarterback in the fifth game didn’t stop the victory train. But Csonka is quick to point out that absolutely everyone on the team made contributions to a season still unmatched in NFL history…starting with Kiick and Morris.
“In order to do that,” Csonka reflects about the interchangeable backfield, “you have to have the talent to do that, but you also have to have the personalities to do that. Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris were two unique personalities, but the great common thing between them was the mutual respect of each other, one realized the other had talent that he didn’t, and they both recognized that fact, and were all right with that.
He continues: “If any one ingredient doesn’t mix with the other ingredients, then you’re gonna have that kind of animosity that’ll grow to be a cancer and it’ll keep you from attaining a perfect season. There’s a reason there’s only one team that’s ever done that. We had the best blend of players and coaches.”
“When you look at it, you take any one player, if you take Bob Griese, starting quarterback, Earl Morrall, the substitute quarterback, all made contributions. Charlie Babb, special teams, rookie player, got in there, made a big play, blocked a punt. You take Charlie out of that game, we lose that game.
“As a rookie playing on special teams, only got on the field a few times, but he got on there just enough to make a difference in us going undefeated or losing one game.
“That’s how finite it gets.”
Zonk is, at least partially, so fondly remembered in South Florida for an unfortunate reason. He represents a successful era for a team that hasn’t won a playoff game in over two decades. Young Miami football fans aren’t even accustomed to frequent playoff runs these days, much less three straight Super Bowl appearances.
Read some of the blog posts on his website about the team in recent years, and it’s apparent that like the rest of the city, he becomes frustrated with the Dolphins’ shortcomings. He’s still supportive, but it’s clear that it’s no easier for him to watch sometimes than for the rest of us.
Csonka confesses to not being able to apply his understanding of the game in his playing days to the game of today. But he does think there’s one constant in winning football that the Dolphins need to embrace to get back on top again. When asked that question, he begins his answer with one word: unity.
“If you get a strong head coach that believes in a certain way to do it, and you can get a cast of players that believe in him, I don’t think that formula’s changed that much.
“Is it Don Shula reborn again? I don’t know, but I think it starts with that. I think it starts with a strong coaching staff and the dedication of the players, and finding 40 or 50 players that really, truly want to win, and they’ll make whatever sacrifices that are necessary in order to obtain that.”
That said, he does make occasional public appearance to talk about the glory days.
“We get a few fans, that might go back and remember, and some of the young folks that have heard things from their parents or grandparents, or perhaps even great grandparents,” he says with a laugh. “What I do is reminisce about the championships and how we got there, Coach Shula, the colorful, fun parts of the game that you still see on Sunday are fun to talk about. Sports humor is really what it’s about, it’s a good time, not any deep message or anything
The Perfect Season, justifiably, is still today a great source of gratification for the Hall of Fame fullback.
“More than personal pride, it’s fun to feel a team pride in being part of that. I’m sure there are other people that have made it to the top of Everest and stood there and felt that exhilaration of being on top of the mountain. But to be able to stand on top of the mountain, and know there’s an entire team standing there with you and you’re all part of that, is just another benefit.
“When the ’72 team gets together, those that are still standing and walking around, there’s a great camaraderie, and there’s a constant feeling when eyes meet, nothing has to be said.
“The fans that were there, again, that are still standing, when we see them, it’s a celebration that’s very unique. They can’t wait to tell us about it, we can’t wait to hear about it. It’s a celebration that goes on and it’s just as enthusiastic today as the day it happened.”
Zonk also has a sense of gratitude towards one other group of people: The Super Bowl XLII-winning New York Giants.
“I’m indebted to my teammate at Syracuse, Tom Coughlin, the head coach of the Giants, and Eli Manning. I am still their biggest fan!”
MiamiMan loves success stories and views behind the scenes, especially when it comes to legendary sports achievements…and the Perfect Season certainly qualifies.
Larry Csonka’s coming book, Head On, shares tales behind his and the Dolphins success in that era. It includes flashbacks of his nearly quitting football, his occasionally rocky relationship with Don Shula, and his palling around with the likes of Burt Reynolds, Lee Majors, Elvis Presley and others during and after the Dolphins’ high-flying run.
But Csonka also shares some wild stories beyond the bright lights of the football field…such as his confronting thieves with a sawed-off shotgun, being adrift in gale force winds in the Bering Sea, and taking sniper fire in the midst of a USO tour.
As Csonka was quoted in Life magazine back in 1972, “No matter what your style, you have to take a beating.” Indeed, from the sound of it, the book describes a life of an athlete who took the hits on and off the field, and keeps moving forward.
Head On is slated for release on October 4, 2022. You can pre-order it on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites, and from the publisher, BenBella Books.
The Last Frontier
Visit Larry Csonka’s website and you’ll see a selection of videos of him and Audrey Bradshaw, his lovely longtime partner, catching fish in the midst of beautiful Alaskan backgrounds.
Many of the videos are from his surprise hit show, “North To Alaska”, which enjoyed a successful run until its retirement in 2013. ”North To Alaska” was everything an outdoor life show should be…a former star athlete enjoying retirement by becoming just like one of the rest of us again. He and Audrey catch fish together, visit beautiful lodges in remote areas of a remote state, and share the greatness of outdoor life in the last frontier. It all makes for enjoyable, leisurely, and educational television.
What makes “North To Alaska” special enough to have enjoyed a 16-year run is that Zonk, a man who made a considerable mark on a football field, is there as a hunting and fishing enthusiast, not a former star athlete. It’s because he has just as much enthusiasm for Alaskan life as he did for football.
“Through my entire career, starting in high school or junior high, I aspired to get to Alaska by hook or crook. I got sidetracked into the NFL, and some ten years after the NFL, I finally got a chance. Starting with ESPN and our sponsors NAPA and STIHL, we put together an outdoor adventure, fishing, hunting series. Audrey and I moved north and bought a place in Anchorage and then Wasilla. We were residents of Alaska for some 20 years, and still go back for a month and a half each year.
“I think from the time I was probably 11 years old, I just wanted to go to Alaska because I figured that was the last place you could experience things like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett did.
“What a great way to do it, getting paid to do it. By the time the series ended, it was doing quite well. By the time it was in its 16th year, we had been a lot of places that most people don’t get to see in the state of Alaska.”
The popularity of a retired football star, even a Hall of Famer and Super Bowl MVP, isn’t enough to carry a low-quality show for a decade and a half. The appeal of “North To Alaska” may be that Zonk shows us all that it doesn’t take piles of money or fame to enjoy the good life. He’s the ultimate everyman with a genuine love for the outdoors, and it works.
A Bird On The Cover
Larry Csonka made the cover of Sports Illustrated a few times in his career, but easily the best known cover shot features him and backfield teammate Jim Kiick…in a pose that featured Csonka giving a not-so-subtle middle finger. What makes the photo so priceless is the snickering look on Zonk’s face. You can easily find a copy of it on eBay if you’re interested.
Intentional? Not on Csonka’s part, at least as far as the photo actually making the cover. He’s not sure about the Sports Illustrated folks, though.
“We shot probably 200 photos that day of all the different kinds of poses. We had a couple of photos we just wanted for us to be funny, so we did that, and somehow that photo got in with the others and somehow inadvertently got put on the cover. I received very nasty letters from irate nuns for about five years after that!
“I sometimes wonder if that wasn’t done on purpose, but it wasn’t meant to be on the cover, it was meant for our own personal thing. So after that, I didn’t do that anymore. I certainly apologized, but at the same time, it was supposed to be private and it didn’t turn out that way.”
“But I’ll tell you what, a lot of people kept that issue!”
Going Out On Top
Csonka broke away from the NFL to play in the ill-fated World Football League with the Memphis Southmen, and then played a couple of seasons with the Giants before returning to play with the Dolphins in 1979. He was hired by the Dolphins to be a blocking back for Delvin Williams, but when Delvin performed below expectations, they gave Zonk the ball…and he carried it for 837 yards and 12 touchdowns, a performance that won Zonk the Comeback Player of The Year award.
“I came back to be a blocking back for Miami. I became the guy running the ball. I think on one occasion, I carried it 40 times in a game, and at 32 years old, whatever I was at the time, I don’t recall, I didn’t need to be carrying the ball 40 times a game.
“That’s very much a young man’s game, a power running game, and you have to have great offensive linemen, which I had in ’72 and ’73.
The end of Larry Csonka’s NFL career came shortly afterward, with Don Shula making the decision for him.
“I made the decision to hold out, unless I got paid a whole lot of money to run the ball, I was still pretty healthy. But instead, I held out and Shula got mad and fired me.”
He has no regrets. “I wasn’t mad that he fired me. I was at a point in my career where I was glad he said I was through. That gave me all the pushing I needed.
“At 33 years old, it’s time to retire, particularly for a power running back.”
Donovan McNabb is one of the all-time great quarterbacks in NFL history, and will always be a local hero in Philadelphia. But today, he spends much of his time coaching athletes who are too young to remember his playing days. JerseyMan Magazine sent me to interview the Eagles QB for the Fall 2021 issue…you can view the magazine edition here.
Donovan McNabb – Forever A Leader
Despite the opportunity to gather quotes and jump into a fray of controversy, JerseyMan didn’t ask Donovan McNabb about the most talked about events during his career in Philly.
We doubt our readers are interested in rehashing the decade-plus old rantings of a talented but ultimately cancerous ex-teammate…a receiver who was suspended and subsequently released by the Eagles for his statements, and then signed on with their most hated rival. No thanks.
But just in case you were wondering, no, McNabb didn’t upchuck in the huddle in the Super Bowl. There isn’t even discernible evidence that that happened, in an event that benefited from the best that television broadcasting had to offer.
As Mike Tanier’s Bleacher Report piece about the alleged incident puts it, “This urban legend is all about a quarterback’s inability to lead his team back from a double-digit deficit against one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history with four minutes to play in the fourth quarter.”
And no, the last player to wear #5 for the Philadelphia Eagles doesn’t hold anything resembling a grudge against local fans for their reaction to the team’s choosing him over Ricky Somebody in the draft.
It’s fairly easy to argue that the Eagles made the right call on that one. We love our friend Jaws at JerseyMan, of course, and the Eagles’ fan faithful will forever be grateful to Nick Foles. But by nearly any measure, McNabb remains the best quarterback to wear an Eagles uniform.
Put it this way. If you were a parent of a young quarterback, you wouldn’t object to having him as a mentor.
McNabb spends time today coaching young quarterbacks…junior high, high school, and college players. He is one of several former quarterbacks involved with The QB Legacy, a non-profit dedicated to teaching aspiring quarterbacks the fundamentals…not just of the game of football, but of being a leader in life.
Ty Thompson, a University of Oregon freshman, is one young quarterback who McNabb has mentored. As FanSided reports, Thompson is already a strong candidate for the starting job, and is Oregon’s top-ranked quarterback commit of all time.
“I’ve had an opportunity to implant my wisdom,” McNabb told JerseyMan, “on the things that they want to accomplish. I try to prepare them from a fundamental standpoint of knowing the intricate parts of the game. And also provide a little bit of spark for these young men, to give them that confidence that they can play this position at a high level, if they put the right time and effort into their craft.
“So many times you see trainers doing what they see Patrick Mahomes do or what they see Aaron Rodgers do. And I think that’s a negative, because not everybody is on their skill level, not a lot of people can do what they’re doing at this particular point.”
Most of the young players McNabb coaches don’t remember his playing career. But their parents do.
“The last time I took a snap was nine, ten years ago, and that was in Minnesota toward the end of my career. A lot of these kids have never seen me play. It’s more the parents that know a lot about you.
“And I have no problem with that, because I’m not coming in there, Donovan McNabb, NFL quarterback, I’m coming in as Donovan McNabb, quarterback trainer, that’s going to help you be able to perform at a high level and prepare you from a mental and physical standpoint.
“I’ll show up at their games and write down some different things that we can do on our next couple sessions. I’ll be there when they need any assistance, maybe something happened at practice and they don’t understand why, how they can change it or things of that nature.
“If I have a kid that’s in middle school, I want him, by the time he graduates from eighth grade, to be mentally where the sophomores are in high school. We know your body’s going to develop at some point. But from a mental standpoint, can you be able to get out on the field and tell each and every player what they’re supposed to do, explain to the coach what you’re seeing from a defensive standpoint, what blitzes they’re doing, how to attack those blitzes.
“That right there gives you the upper hand when it comes to a lot of these kids who are just athletic, because now there’s a trust value that coaches are starting to build with you, because they know you’re well prepared and understand the games.”
And yes, you have to handle shots from critics. As we all remember, McNabb knows that better than anyone.
“It’s not just younger kids,” he continues, “it’s adults too, who have issues with criticism. With social media now, people don’t like something that you post, or people comment negative to you, it affects them, instead of just moving on and using that as motivation.”
So is he tempted to tell young QBs not to play in Philly if they can’t take the heat?
“It’s not so much that, Philadelphia is kind of well known for that. But again, you’ve got to stand strong and you’ve got to be able to take it, move on.
“Smile, that’s what I did!” McNabb says with a laugh.
As a lot of JerseyMan articles about retired athletes have shown, success on the field doesn’t necessarily translate to success in other walks of life, but it definitely helps. Part of the goal of The QB Legacy program is preparing young athletes for life outside of or after football.
“The most important thing for me,” McNabb explains, “is trying to get these young men to understand that being the quarterback of a Division I program or being a quarterback of an NFL organization, that you are the CEO. You are in a boardroom in front of millions or thousands of people. Can we put you in front of a room, and you explain to me what each and every person is supposed to do in this office?”
“We’re building leaders, we’re building mentors, we’re building role models. We’re building CEOs. We’re building guys to understand that it’s much more than just playing the quarterback position. You have ten people on the field with you that are relying on you to make the right decisions, to lead them to a Super Bowl.
“And so you have to do your job. You have to be able to prepare yourself to go out and be at the highest level of your craft.”
Whether it’s young quarterbacks, or softball or girls basketball players, whom he also coaches, McNabb today is preparing the adults of tomorrow for the game of life.
As with many of the good guys in sports, it’s the preferred way of enjoying retirement.
This scribe choked on his chance to meet Donovan McNabb.
We don’t have much in common as far as athletic achievement or income level, but we’ve both been known to frequent Gaetano’s in Willingboro. And yes, we’ve been there at the same time. My hang-up about approaching celebrities during meals overrode taking advantage of a rare opportunity to chat with an NFL superstar.
McNabb lives in Arizona now, mostly just because the weather is better. It was where he started training in the second year of his career, and he liked the area enough to stay.
“It’s a great vacation place,” he says. “My family was from Chicago, friends in Philadelphia, New Jersey, when they come out here, drop the winter coats and Timberland boots, put on some shorts and a tee shirt and just relax.”
But he’s got nothing against the city where he made his considerable mark. Donovan still visits and loves Philadelphia and South Jersey…and mentions Gaetano’s as one of his favorite eateries in the area.
“I’ve still got friends there, I love the area. I’m talking over 15 years, pretty much, since I’ve been in Philly, but I go back and it’s like I still live out there. The people that know me are the people that watched me play, still remember you, have conversations with you.”
He’s happy for both the Eagles and Andy Reid for their Super Bowl triumphs. Regarding his former coach, McNabb believes that the Super Bowl win “implants him when it comes to one of the greatest coaches. For the things that he’s been able to accomplish over the years with us, and then turning the Chiefs organization around. Andy definitely is a sure shot Hall of Famer, and winning that Super Bowl is definitely going to help.”
They fell just short as a pair themselves. But McNabb hopes people remember the good times, with Andy at the helm and with #5 as the field general.
“I would love to have won a Super Bowl,” he reflects, “but that doesn’t define who I am as a player or who I am as a person.”
Maybe someday Ty Thompson, or another McNabb pupil, will get that done for him.
The Case For McNabb In The Hall
Wait, what? Donovan McNabb, the greatest all-time quarterback on a team that had Roman Gabriel, Ron Jaworski, and Randall Cunningham, isn’t in the NFL Hall of Fame?
Nope, he’s not. Critics say something to the effect of his not having won a Super Bowl, despite coming within three points of doing so against the NFL’s greatest dynasty, or not being a leader in statistics during his prime years, with no mention of the subpar receivers he had to throw to at the time.
So at best, McNabb’s entry into Canton is being denied by his crime of having less than championship level teammates.
He doesn’t go there, though.
“There’s no need for me to make a case. I think numbers and film alone define that. Some people look at numbers, some people look at accolades, some people look at Super Bowl championships, some people look at appearances. And so you can’t please everybody. So for me to try to state my case, no, it’s nothing to it.”
“Look at Walter Payton, people always said that Walter had to win a Super Bowl. Walter Payton was the best running back to play the game at that particular time. He also was one of the best players to ever play the game, not just running backs.”
“So, when it comes to a lot of these players, it’s sad that we want to sit and talk about, well, how many Super Bowl championships have they won, or how many times they’ve been All-Pro? How about, why don’t you ask the defenders they played against, ask them how hard it was, the game plan against them. It says a lot.”
So do McNabb’s numbers…37,276 passing yards, 3,459 rushing yards, and 234 touchdowns. Six Pro Bowl appearances, five NFC East championships, five NFC Championship game appearances, and nine postseason wins. If you find any QB with similar numbers, they’re probably enshrined in Canton.
From 2000-2004, McNabb led the NFL in QB wins. During his career, he ranked fourth in wins behind guys named Brady, Favre, and Manning.
There’s always arguments with every Hall of Fame induction about who got slighted. Donovan McNabb shouldn’t be the subject of one.
JerseyMan asked me to cover a local cornhole event they arranged, and to work in a piece about the phenomenal growth of professional cornhole in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hope you enjoy it. You can also view the PDF of the article here.
Beyond The Parking Lot – Professional Cornhole
You can write for JerseyMan and attend Legacy Club events for ten years, and almost never see Ken Dunek animated enough to shout loudly and pump his fist.
Then again, you don’t see many people gain a lead against John Kitchin in a cornhole match, however short-lived that lead may be until Kitchin finds his bearings and starts effortlessly nailing throws. It’s understandable for even a reserved person to be thrilled at the achievement.
This anomaly was at the Infinity Club Cornhole Tournament, held this May at the PCS facility in Moorestown. The event raised nearly $4,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and for survivor T.J. Smink’s bid for the Society’s Man or Woman of The Year.
Of course, many esteemed Legacy Club members were present. It’s an ideal opportunity to avenge a recent defeat on the golf course. No one tanks, of course, but a loss isn’t so bad…it’s an opportunity to grab a drink and catch up with fellow members.
One would think that, in a crowd of Eagles fans, who have to have considerable tailgating experience, there would be some players standing out in the crowd. But other than Smink’s team, who prevailed in the match, most of them were unexceptional shooters. Even by frequent tailgater standards.
The tournament was for fun and to help less fortunate people. PCS’s parking lot is obviously no billion dollar, luxury box-filled venue.
But professional cornhole has grown well beyond the parking lot.
Present at the gathering were Kitchin, a national cornhole pro who resides in West Deptford, and Joe Harsh, the American Cornhole League’s (ACL) Northeast Conference Director.
Yes, there is a nationwide professional cornhole league. As seen on TV.
Before 2020, the ACL had already landed some national television deals, and events could be seen on various sports networks. Then they got a boost…professional cornhole became one of the rare entities that benefited from an outbreak. With no baseball, football, basketball, hockey, etc., there was a fairly ginormous hole in sports broadcasting to fill.
So cornhole moved into seriously choice TV slots. Harsh notes that “We had eight to ten broadcasts on Saturdays, prime time with our Pro Division, and traveled all over the country.
“We’re really fortunate,” he adds. “Everything went well for us. And the exposure and the growth, it’s been really, really beneficial to the league.
“I’ve known John for a couple years now, and the fact that someone would ask John for an autograph, it’s the coolest thing.”
Kitchin has been known to drive to Cincinnati for the day to throw bags. At least, that became a thing for him when someone noticed he was a pretty good shot at tailgates.
“I played in the parking lot of Eagles and Phillies games, and a guy came to me and said, ‘Hey, we have a league for this.’ I kind of laughed at him. Here I am seven years later, and if I could play more I would.”
Indeed, Kitchin started playing in a league, and did well enough to compete in local tournaments. Then he became a pro. Then an ACL Pro.
He’s added some impressive achievements to his league bio…#1 Northeast Conference player in 2018, ACL Man of The Year in 2019, and a 2nd place finish in the 2020 USA Cornhole Club Championships – broadcast on NBC Sports – to name just a few. He’s so good that Bush’s Baked Beans and LG have put their logos on his jersey.
You can see why even Ken Dunek would celebrate well beyond his typical demeanor scoring a lead against him. Which, to Kitchin and Harsh, is part of the appeal…anyone can play, even against the pros.
“I play in leagues around here all the time,” Kitchin says. “I play pretty well, but there’s a lot of people who, when they play against me, they use that as a measuring stick. I don’t beat everybody, so I think that makes them even more interested…‘That guy’s been on TV!’”
“That’s the coolest part,” Harsh adds. “You can see him on TV on the weekend, and then Monday or Tuesday night you could literally play against him.”
Jeff McCarragher is a freelance sports broadcaster. His LinkedIn profile describes his most recent position as a “Play-by-Play Announcer for College Football & Basketball…and yes, Cornhole too.” His resume covering other sports is impressive, but by most any measure, McCarragher is the Voice of American Cornhole.
He landed the gig by simply being in the right place at the right time. Literally.
A South Carolina resident, he worked college football and basketball throughout the Carolinas. Tupelo Raycom, the company that brought him announcing work, had an office there. And they knew ESPN needed a cornhole announcer.
“When COVID hit, being a freelance play-by-play broadcaster was like being a waiter or server at a restaurant,” he remembers. “We were shut down immediately because all the sports just went away. When they got the contract on ESPN, they called me and said, ‘Hey, are you willing to travel if we put together cornhole through the summer?’
“I had done a little bit for them in the past, I’d done the national college cornhole championships that previous New Year’s. I said, absolutely, I’m comfortable traveling. And so away we went, ESPN signed a deal with the American Cornhole League.”
McCarragher’s enthusiasm for covering professional cornhole of all things is palpable. The players may not have toiled through college or minor leagues, but they definitely have well-developed skills.
“It’s a very simple sport, right? You just slide it up the board and put it in the hole. But just like any other sport, when you get to a very high level, you start to learn how technical it is. I had to learn a whole new vernacular, whether it’s replacement bags or grab bags, the way a player collects the bag.
“I relate it to being a really good major league pitcher. He’s got his fastball, his slider, his cutter, his change-up. The ones who play at the top level, they’ve got a little cut shot, they’ve got an airmail shot. They can make the bag curve one way or another, they can angle it and get the bag to kind of roll. Instead of different pitches, they have different technical shots that they can throw. It’s really pretty amazing.”
There’s considerable tension in big matches, too.
“It gets to be like golf,” he continues. “You’ve got a two-stroke lead, or maybe a one stroke lead, going into the 72nd hole on Sunday. I don’t care who you are. That final tee shot on the 18th? It has to be good. There’s so much pressure. Again, I get it, it’s cornhole. We’re not talking about the Masters. But it’s still competitive, the desire to win for these players.”
McCarragher is confident that the growth of professional cornhole will continue, even with the return of other spectator sports.
“Did COVID help give it added exposure? Absolutely. But I will tell you, they have been working behind the scenes with these little ESPN contracts now for several years. They were on ESPN a few times in 2018-2019. We had college national championships on New Year’s Eve going into 2020. The ratings were slowly going up and up. So this was already on the rise.
“Just by the sheer TV contracts that are coming in and new sponsors, I for sure would say that the ACL is still growing.”
“I think the success they had during COVID is going to allow them to continue. Will the viewership be the same? Perhaps not, but I think in this country there’s a niche for these types. Like, would you watch baseball, which is hours long, or you’re clicking through and, ‘Oh, cornhole, this is something I do in my backyard. My buddies and me bust our chops all the time, let me watch this. I think that’s what’s opened it up for those types of things.”
Joe Harsh has already experienced professional cornhole’s impact beyond TV.
“For me it’s not even the size of the events and the cool venues we’ve visited. It’s some of the charity work we’ve done, like for veterans groups. We did an interview with a guy, roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Long story short, he’s a double amputee, and he’s thanking me for everything I do, and it just absolutely blows my mind.
“I would do anything for someone like that because they’ve given so much, and they’re thanking us for what we do and the release that we give them. That’s my favorite thing to take away from all of this.”
Needless to say, McCarragher is eager to keep telling the story.
“I would love that guys would call and have me do a national college football championship. As young broadcasters coming up, we all hope to get that call. But even that being said, I still really would always hope I can continue doing cornhole.
“I will do this for as long as they’ll let me, because I love it.”
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T.J. Smink, who won the Infinity Club Cornhole Event with his partner Kyle Reider, had personal reasons for both winning and co-arranging of the event: he is a cancer survivor himself.
Smink is a Senior Account Executive for Premium Seating with the Philadelphia Union. But in 2020, the shutdown of sports was the least of his worries. In December of 2019, he was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
He decided to control two things that he could control: his hair and his attitude. He shaved off the hair he felt he was going to lose from treatments…but ultimately didn’t. And he kept upbeat, all the time.
“I made sure to keep a positive attitude, to look on the bright side of life. Having that mindset, being able to say I’m going to beat this s***, that was way more than half the battle.”
Legacy Club member Devin DiNofa, at the time campaigning to be the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Man or Woman of The Year, reached out to Smink.
“He’s an awesome dude,” Smink says. “He asked if I would be on his team to help raise money for others. Even then, he wanted to work with LLS to raise funds for me directly, LLS said we can’t go towards one specific person.
“Even then, I went back and told him, I’m killing this s***. We’re good, I appreciate it, but I would prefer it goes to someone who actually needs the funding.”
Today Smink, at DiNofa’s urging, is campaigning for the LLS Man or Woman of The Year himself. The Infinity Club Cornhole event was a part of that, to great success.
“Ash (Ashley Dunek) came up with the idea of working one of the Infinity Club events into a fundraiser. And we had a really big turnout. There were 32 teams and a lot of people that came just to hang out.
“Our team is going to get a research portfolio named after us. I’m excited to see where that research goes.”
And he and Kyle Reider topped it all with a cornhole tournament win.
“He’s a lot better than I am,” Smink says of his teammate, “but together, we normally win all of our friends’ get togethers and stuff.”
So You Want To Be A Professional Cornhole Player?
In a write-up about John Kitchin from Power Equipment Direct’s website, he is described as a professional cornhole player who “practices for roughly 32 hours per week, where he throws 2,000 to 3,000 bags.”
While that is probably technically true, Kitchin doesn’t exactly work in his garage, perfecting his follow through and stance and watching himself on video. He just plays a lot, which to him is the simple secret to improvement.
“When you figure in going to leagues and playing tournaments on the weekends, and then throwing it in my shop or something like that, the amount probably adds up. I play on the leagues on Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights, and Thursday nights usually where I try to get out too.
“If you want to become a better cornhole player,” Kitchin continues, “just get out and play, go find a local league. Even if it doubles as a night out, you know, go out and play. You’ve just got to get throws in, and if you can’t and you just throw in the backyard, go out and throw. You have to throw bags.
“So practice for a pro to me would be going out and playing in your own league and it’s all about getting throws in.”
Wait, no proper ways of holding the bag? No commentary on wrist movement? Nothing about how to warm up? Kitchin says that once you find a groove that works for you, the mental aspect is far more important. And that part can’t always be taught.
“I’m probably the worst pro to talk about this, because I’m a firm believer of under-thinking. People overthink. It’s whatever is most comfortable to you, you just have to tweak that. Throw eight bags, and I would want to see how you threw. And I would say, was that comfortable? If that’s comfortable for you, you can tweak it from there.”
That sounds simplistic, but he’s right. Cornhole players lose matches overthinking.
“I might throw 50 bags in a row in the hole, but what changes from the time that you just threw 50 bags in a row and then you line up next to me? What just changed? Nothing changed except for your mental, so you’re overthinking it. Now all of a sudden that same guy who’s just hit 50 bags in a row off to the side warming up, is now maybe two on two in. It’s the overthinking.”
“I try not to worry about all that.”
Why We Cheer – The Human Interest Stories
The ACL is fortunate to have Jeff McCarragher behind the microphone, because he does what the best broadcasters do…he tells backstories about the participants.
He shared a small few everyman stories of cornhole stars with JerseyMan.
“Steven Bernacet, he won the singles national that we just had in Wichita about a month ago. Outstanding cornhole pro, but in his senior year, he was a great high school football player, lineman. He was in a horrific car accident and broke his neck. He could have died.
“The doctors immediately told him he wouldn’t play contact sports ever again, obviously to a high school kid who’s played sports his whole life, it’s devastating to him and his family. Two years later, once he was able to rehab and get back to his new normal of life, he picked up cornhole, and has been playing cornhole ever since now.
“It’s been his outlet and his happiness and his source of competitiveness, to fill that desire and that need in his life. Cornhole has been literally life changing for him.
“One of the top female pros is a manager at a Taco Bell. You know, she plays cornhole on the side. Daymon Dennis, who’s the number one player in the world right now, worked at a cheese plant for 27 years.
“He used it to support his family and to keep food on the table. And now here he is, number one player in the world.”
“It’s like American Idol,” McCarragher says. “There’s a lot of people who can sing, but what captured the audience and the ratings for American Idol is all the backstories.”
I interviewed two-time Super Bowl champion and ex-Patriots defensive end Jarvis Green for the Winter 2021 issue of BostonMan. You can read the magazine edition here, or click here to read it on BostonMan’s website. Enjoy.
After eight seasons with the Patriots and two Super Bowl rings, defensive end Jarvis Green is growing a business selling his superb canned shrimp pate in the New England region he loves. In the age of Covid-19, he’s managed to do pretty well meeting the needs for PPE too. BostonMan caught up with Green to talk about his football career, his successes in business, and being a part of the Patriots family.
Jarvis Green didn’t exactly part ways with Bill Belichick and the Patriots on the best of terms.
The two-time Super Bowl champion defensive end, who’d finished the 2009 season with 36 tackles and a sack, was offered a four-year extension from the Patriots. He turned it down.
The move is on his small list of regrets.
“I should have took it,” he reflects. “My sports agent, he got into it with Belichick. It was more or less, you know, you should fire your agent. I can’t get into details, but a lot of s*** happened between Belichick and Denver.”
You might not think it was the worst move on his part at the time. He was, after all, offered more money to go to Denver than many of us will make in our lifetimes. Denver isn’t an awful place to live in or to be a pro athlete. And he knew Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, the Pats’ former (and now current) offensive coordinator.
But Green, who is prone to using colorful language in an entertaining way, describes his short stint in Denver as a “s***show”.
It started out promising. After having stem cell work done on his deteriorating knee, he was having the training camp of his life.
“When I went in the off season, I was number one. When we used to practice these one-on-ones, I was the one who’d get the best guy on the Denver team. I get him lined up, I kill him! I remember calling Pepper Johnson, saying this is my best off season ever. I’m killing these guys. They can’t even keep up with me.
“I go in to training camp, I’m the sixth string D-line man. I’m like, what the hell just happened? But they knew. They saw my knee kind of tripping in film. They saw that I had something going on with my knee.”
Still, he was rightly displeased at a demotion without warning or explanation. “I got released the day before cut day. When I left, I didn’t say bye to anyone.”
After similar fruitless visits with the Browns and Texans…Green describes his three weeks in Texas as a vacation…he “limped out of the office” in Houston and retired.
Jarvis Green frequently gets asked who the leaders were in the locker room of those great Patriots teams. His answer makes clear what made Belichick’s Pats one of the great dynasties in professional sports: everyone.
“Everybody was leaders, man. I’ve been to Denver, I’ve been to Houston, everybody’s waiting for one guy to show up. In New England, we had everybody pushing, trying to get in front to say, who’s going to say this, or who’s going to do this, who’s going to make the play first.
“I remember when Junior Seau came in. It was so funny because he was a guy that wanted to be on top of the soap box and give out his three, four minutes, you know? I remember I could see the guys, we just kind of grin and give him his throne.
“That’s the type of tradition we had.”
Oceans 97’s Amazon entry for hickory smoked shrimp pate describes it as being keto-friendly, made with only natural ingredients, and a versatile product that can be eaten straight out of the can, or on vegetables or crackers.
There’s no mention of the dedication of Oceans 97’s founder, or a picture of his New England-famous face. You have to visit the website for that.
Being on a two-time championship squad may have pushed him to set a higher standard for himself. Maybe that’s how he stayed on that squad. But Jarvis Green is dedicated like that, and he proved it again in life after football.
He decided to go into the shrimping business as a favor to a friend. After buying a boat that he christened “Jenny”, he sang with the choir in church every weekend until a hurricane wiped out every boat but his.
Okay, that last paragraph is bunk, except for the bit about going into the shrimp business for a friend. Green is well aware of the parallels to Forrest Gump. Don’t call him Bubba. Like Forrest, Green knew nothing about the shrimp business.
Given his status as a Super Bowl champion, he could have simply lent his face, name, and uniform number to Oceans 97, the company he started.
But knowing that having his visage on a website wouldn’t improve the product’s taste, he dove deep and learned the business. The hard way. Green is a proud native of South Louisiana who knows the importance of quality food and its role in good times. He wanted his shrimp product to be the best it could be, because “people are going to create s*** all the time. It’s hard to sell s***.”
The two time champion multi-millionaire endured a six month internship in the world of shrimping. He even took on a broom and a mop in the factory. (Imagine handing a 6-foot-3, 285-pound defensive lineman a broom. Someone there has some brass ones.)
“We had a factory of like 90 people. I remember, I’m the tallest person looking across the factory. We’ve got about 50 people, peeling shrimp, eight hours, ten hours at a time. I was on that line, peeling and de-veining shrimp with my hand, and understanding that it’s a certain process, the way you procure the shrimp, you peel it, you rinse it, you freeze it, you package it. And it makes a difference, you know?
“That’s the biggest thing about having the right quality shrimp. It’s the supply chain.”
Oceans 97’s supply chain, Green confidently asserts, is “super tight”. He had landed multiple deals with local markets, and had several larger deals in place when a blasted virus changed the world. Green’s story is one of the lesser told stories about the impact of Covid…the devastating damage to businesses from lockdowns.
“I had got just approved with our Hong Kong market. Hong Kong Island, with a company called Food Wise and another 2,000-plus distributors of stores. I had that and I had another, and I’m working on some other more independent retailers in the South.
“I had that kind of set up and Covid hit. Can’t do demos anymore, Hong Kong canceled, corrections canceled, a few of the independent guys canceled because it’s a new product, right? They said we’re going to buy what we typically buy, buying a new product’s going to be kind of hard. You can’t do demos.”
Many established entrepreneurs could probably tell you a similar story. Not very many could say how they turned it all into a net gain.
After a few of his ongoing deals fell through, including with a corrections facility in Louisiana where Green lives, he found himself in the “what now” state that so many entrepreneurs faced in 2020. That’s when the corrections facility he was working with asked him if he could supply hand sanitizer.
“Covid hit, locked down New Orleans, limit this, limit that, limit limit limit. I remember I wasn’t looking for this, but then my corrections guy was like, ‘Hey Jarvis, could you help me get some sanitizer, figure out how to get some sanitizer for the inmates?’
“I have no idea. I don’t know the first thing about sanitizer. I started doing research, calling some people. A friend of mine had another friend, he knew someone who had some spirits company in the mountain, west, whatever area. I helped my guy with some stuff in the corrections.
“I started looking into some stuff, and I won a bid with the state of Louisiana for sanitizer. I won some masks bids with Louisiana, and then I won a huge proposal deal with the Tennessee National Guard.
“I won the bids, made a ton of money. I made more money in those two months than I made with my shrimp business in the last five years. You can put that on paper. It’s just been crazy and I’m still doing that now.”
They may be wholly unrelated businesses, but Green credits his education in the shrimping business “big time” for his success in the world of PPE distribution.
“The biggest thing is about being patient and to find the deals, because every deal’s not for you. I’ve lost some great friends, because everybody’s playing octopus and has got ten different deals that they thought were real and weren’t real at all.
“I got my counsel involved, and I separated from all the different deals. I stopped dealing with all of these agents and buyers. We started working with the factories in China directly. The biggest thing right now is price gouging. The things we’re selling, we’re not price gouging, and we’re selling a competitive product through great sources.
“This is what I tell people. When I got into the shrimp business, it taught me how to understand international trade, international business. Dealing with different companies, dealing with banks, understanding LCs and different jargon, just to get business done abroad.”
Throughout his football career, Jarvis Green dealt with severely debilitating back pain. Even to this day, he says, he is strongly encouraged to have back surgery.
“My spine doctor, they call me twice a year. In 2014, they wanted to rush and give me surgery. They wanted to give me fusion, L3, L5 fusion, six points, all this bulls***.
“I didn’t want to do it, because my Dad had 17 back surgeries. He shakes like a leaf. He’s a veteran, he has a wheelchair. He has all kinds of s***, he broke his back with a job back in ‘79.
“My dad always said, I don’t care what you have to do. Don’t ever let anybody touch your back. Deal with the pain, it’s going to be much better than going through surgery because you’ll never be the same person again.”
Green deals with the pain, through highs and lows on the football field, in business, and in his personal life. Today, of all his considerable accomplishments, he is proudest that he’s still the same guy.
He unexpectedly learned that the local football team, with whom he went to the top of the mountain twice, felt the same way about him.
After some years of hard feelings, Green is currently an ambassador with the Patriots again, making appearances and occasionally going on trips with the club.
Mending the broken fences following his contentious departure, it turned out, wasn’t as difficult as he thought.
“It took three years for that to happen,” he says. “The Patriots were playing the Saints. Home game for the Patriots, right? I went to the game, I had the throwback jersey on, #97. I’m just a fan, I bought my ticket. I just went to the game, enjoyed myself and went home.
“So I’m thinking this just the way it is when you retire, they don’t give a s*** about anybody. That was my mentality, right?
“I’m in the stands, and they caught my picture on the Jumbotron when I was eating popcorn. Before that, I heard people behind me saying, why’s this guy got a Jarvis Green jersey on? They didn’t know who I was. After that, people come to me asking for autographs.
“I got a call from Pepper Johnson, or a text. He said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You at the stadium?’ And then somebody said, hey, they want you to come down into the operations the next day.
“This is three years apart from the beef, you know, the Belichick situation, me and my sports agent, going to Denver, getting cut, all this s***. And I’m like nervous as hell. Won two Super Bowls with this team, now nervous as hell. I remember walking in and right when I walked in, I think I saw Tom first.
“I was there for like two and a half hours, just going through, saying hey to everybody. I remember talking to Josh in the cafeteria, just me and him at the table. Just saying, it’s business, things happen, back was against the wall, do what he had to do and pretty much a shake and a hug.
“It was very emotional, seeing all those guys. You know, eight years is a long time in the football world to be under one team, one organization. I appreciate Coach Belichick, to let me come in there.
“That’s kind of how everything got back. You know, they say, hey, you’re okay.”
In the interview for BostonMan, Green speaks slowest and pauses the most when speaking of his former coach’s words to him that day.
“Now this was the biggest part. After I was leaving, I’m walking out, drowning some of my tears. Belichick walks out, he says, ‘Hey Jarvis, remember, you’re always gonna be family here. You were a part of all of this.’
“He said, ‘Never be a stranger. You’re family.’”
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Jarvis Green on The Helmet Catch Play
You probably remember the Pats’ undefeated season of 2007. You may remember Jarvis Green on that invincible squad. You might have to read his Wikipedia entry, though, to know that he was one of several Patriots who had Eli Manning in his grasp on the “Helmet Catch” play in Super Bowl XLII. Green nearly tore off Manning’s jersey, but the Giant QB got away and fired a Hail Mary pass to David Tyree. You know the rest.
It was hardly the ground ball dribbling through Buckner’s legs, or the 7-20 September collapse of 2011. The New England sports fan faithful have dealt with far worse as season ending falters go. Even Manning called it “the luckiest play in NFL history”, joking that it went exactly how they scripted it in practices.
Green doesn’t think about it much these days. But it did cost him sleep for a couple of weeks. Because leading up to that play, he’d played a hell of a game.
“It could have probably changed my life. I’m like, it was like third and seven, I should have been the guy saying ‘I’m going to Disney World!’ You know, because I remember that game, I had a sack and maybe seven tackles or five tackles. That would have ended the game, that would have been icing on the cake.
“I think for the guys who really played, it’s not something that we really talked about at the time, it’s more friends because the family don’t bring it up. It’s more the friends, you know, everybody wants to get a one-up on you.
“So it’s always comedy time, you know, for everyone except me.”
Canned Shrimp Pate – From A Man Who Knows Shrimp
BostonMan is hoping that Jarvis Green can make it to a future Legacy Club gathering, because his Oceans 97 shrimp pate will be a great addition to the already excellent finger foods usually available at our events.
But for now, you can find it in 150 specialty retailers, strategic restaurant partners and on Amazon.
Green’s canned shrimp pate is available in five varieties: Hickory Smoked, Creamy Lemon, Shrimp Rillettes, New Orleans BBQ, and Jalapeno Chili. On the Oceans 97 website, there’s a brief description of each flavor…for Creamy Lemon, it explains the presence of vinegar:
“It is the Gem that interacts with shrimp protein, water and milk. It also alters the texture and consistency making the Creamy Lemon Paté unique from the other flavors. Vinegar is a tenderizer.”
Spoken like a football great who knows his food. And he does. Green also offers several recipes on the website that make the best use of the shrimp pate, including a corn bread recipe that includes a can of the New Orleans BBQ edition. Just the pictures of the corn bread may make you start planning your next dinner gathering.
The website is www.ocean97.com.
Bringing The Chefs To You
Food delivery has become enormously popular. Restaurant chains have focused on apps to help customers continue to enjoy their eats, through pickup or delivery.
There’s just one problem, as Jarvis Green points out.
“Everybody knows the menu of Burger King, McDonald’s, Chipotle, Domino’s Pizza. That gets old.”
Great point. It might be nice to be able to find chefs in the area, and enjoy a decent meal for a change.
Green and his partner, Eddie Rhodman Jr. of Rhodman Enterprises, are part of a team producing a new app that does just that. With Chef2U, you can find a local chef to make an amazing meal for you, delivered to your home.
“If you’re tired of eating Big Macs and Little Caesars, you could go in and see the chefs in your area. It’s like an eight to ten mile radius. Then if you want like Mediterranean food, that’s going to pop up, but it will be the chef’s face. It won’t be the name of the local restaurant, but his face.”
It also offers chefs a much-needed chance to supplement their incomes.
“The app has food trucks, bartenders, baristas, chefs, catering, meal prep, and instant meals. It’s very detailed. There’s so many opportunities to get private chefs back into and create diversity in this industry.”
Green expects Chef2U to outlast the pandemic.
“This is built to stay, because again, we will not be competing with traditional fast food chains. We’re going to be giving all those chefs, entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, a chance to make money on the side.”
Rhodman adds that Chef2U gives aspiring chefs “the opportunity to create their own brand, their own customer base, because they haven’t been given the opportunity. It will give them the freedom to expand their brand and have the unique luxury to deliver their personal chef experience directly to a customer’s home.”
Jarvis Green and Eddie Rhodman expect Chef2U to be available in April. If you have favorite Beantown chefs, make a note to get the app. It’ll make for a great date night or family night.
Aaron Cox, Millville area baseball star and best friend of MLB superstar Mike Trout, was drafted by the Angels in 2015. JerseyMan sent me to interview Cox for the Spring 2015 issue, and talk a little bit about his baseball superstar buddy too, for the Spring issue. You can view the PDF of the article here.
Sadly, Aaron Cox passed away in 2018 at the age of 24. I was devastated to hear that. He was a really nice kid and a great interview. R.I.P. Aaron.
Baseball’s best player is from a small town in South Jersey, and his high school buddy has just been drafted by the Angels. The two friends are still just Jersey kids.
On a baseball field, Aaron Cox has shown an uncanny ability to focus on the task at hand.
Even if that task is, say, pitching a no-hitter on his school’s Opening Day.
How focused was the Gannon University ace in shutting down opposing bats? He didn’t even know he was firing blanks until his team swarmed him after the victory.
“My teammates ran out of the dugout like we won the World Series,” Cox says. “And I was like, this is the first game of the season, what’s going on here? ‘You just threw a no-hitter!’
“I don’t know if it would have jinxed me if I started thinking about it or not. But it worked out.”
That story must be embellished, you think. Most of us would be aware if we were pitching a no-no in a backyard wiffle ball game.
Well, the Millville High alumnus had an additional distraction. He had to help his cause on offense. Cox was one of those multi-tool players that could hit, too.
“It was a tight game. I didn’t come into the dugout and think about what I had to do next on the mound. I was just as much in the game on the offensive side, so I think that was the biggest thing that kept me from realizing it.”
He has that mentality that coaches long for in a player. “I just wanted to get the win,” he shrugs.
Cox has a future in baseball. The young power arm has shown enough promise to be selected by the Anaheim Angels in the 19th round of this year’s draft.
It’s a fairly deep pick to assume that he’ll be on the mound at Angel Stadium anytime soon, but he’s already gone to work improving his chances. He’s ditched the hitting and expanded his pitch repertoire. According to his scouting report, his fastball touches 96, his slider has a big break, and he’s developing a change-up. If he can learn to throw all three for strikes at any time, he could turn out pretty nasty. The Inside The Halos blog mused that he could be a “quiet steal”.
A three-time All-Conference selection in high school. Ace of his high school and college staffs. The single season strikeout leader at his university—breaking his own record. A no-hitter to his credit. Now in the Angels farm system.
Not bad for a small town South Jersey kid. In fact, Cox was the best ballplayer to graduate from Millville High in, well, about three years.
You’ve probably heard of Millville. Especially if you’re a baseball fan. The town produced a ballplayer that now plays outfield for those Angels, a player whose nickname is “The Millville Meteor”.
You could say he’s pretty good. A .304 lifetime batting average. Led the league in RBIs in one season and in stolen bases in another. He’s been an All-Star in every season that he’s played. He’s also undefeated in winning Silver Slugger Awards. He was the American League MVP in 2014 and hasn’t yet finished lower than second in MVP voting…a guy named Cabrera had to win a Triple Crown to overtake him in 2012. At just 24 years old, he’s already clouted 139 home runs. He’s no slouch with a glove, either…YouTube has a few pages of videos of his negating pitcher mistakes with awe-inspiring catches.
You’ve heard of that WAR statistic? “Wins Above Replacement”? That all-encompassing number that no one understands but is supposed to define a player’s ultimate worth? Without a deep explanation (we have space limitations, but you probably know the depth to which statisticians go in baseball), FanGraphs states that he’s been worth more in Wins Above Replacement by age 23 than any other player in the history of the game.
Oh, and online voters on Topps’ website just named his baseball card to be #1 in the 2016 series. Collectors know. The stats are, after all, right there on the back of the cards.
So yeah, maybe he’s better than pretty good. He’s really, really good. Ludicrous good. Schizoid good. The phrase “best baseball player on Earth” is used to describe him fairly often, and it doesn’t lend itself to much argument.
Here’s how big a superstar Mike Trout is.
In the early weeks of spring training, there isn’t much to write about other than overly optimistic quotes from players and managers about the coming season. So blogs and websites looking for traffic need attention-grabbing headlines.
Maybe something like “Should the Angels trade Mike Trout”?
Yes, they said it. And believe it or not, there is a case to be made, however absurd the notion may seem. The Angels, you see, don’t have much of a farm system. ESPN writer Keith Law not only ranks it dead last among 30 teams, he says it’s the worst he’s ever seen. The team badly needs a future, so writers publicly ponder the sacrifices they’ll need to make. Or at least speculate a scenario that generates a must-click headline.
In response to the sudden wormhole in the baseball space-time continuum caused by the notion of a Trout deal, Grant Brisbee from SB Nation wrote a column with this headline: “The Angels Will Never, Ever, Ever, Ever, Ever Trade Mike Trout”. Yes, four “evers”. Here’s the quote from that article that best explains why: “It’s like selling a Honus Wagner card on the playground. Even if the 7-year-olds empty out their toy chests and video game collections, you’re still not going to be happy with the return.”
One can imagine going back in time to 1918 and reading a newspaper story with the headline “Should the Red Sox trade Babe Ruth?” Or even going back to 1991 and reading, “Should the Orioles trade Cal Ripken?” GMs who value their ability to avoid being hung in effigy know better.
“We like our chances” = zero traffic. “Trade Mike Trout” = web firestorm. Mission accomplished.
How does a mega-superstar from a town of 28,000 adjust to skyrocketing fame and wealth beyond recognition? By all accounts of those who know him, you wouldn’t even know the difference. The word “humble” is thrown around so reflexively that it’s almost his unofficial first name.
It’s remarkably difficult to find a Millville resident who doesn’t know Mike Trout personally. At the counter at Jim’s Lunch, the iconic 93-year-old Main Street diner, waitresses and customers all still refer to him as simply Mike, or even Mikey. As if he were a regular at the diner, which he still is, rather than the greatest baseball player in the known universe.
It’s the same at Millville High, where coaches and athletic directors talk about his senior year and the scouts regularly visiting town. The longtime baseball coach, Roy Hallenbeck, clearly has experience with journalists. He shows Trout’s locker, inspirational signs in the locker room, and the glass enclosure that displays his jersey and other gear. He has a picture of the scoreboard sign on the baseball field…now “Mike Trout Field” after Trout contributed to a renovation…stored on his phone ready to be texted. Like everyone else, Coach has nothing but praise for the local star.
It’s almost as if the townsfolk gather together to get their story straight about Millville’s most famous son for whenever reporters visit. But you know it’s real. Best case in point: the 2014 AL MVP is worth over $100 million now, and he’s still dating his high school sweetheart…who happens to be Aaron Cox’s sister.
Mike and Aaron are close, and the younger prodigy doesn’t dispute any of the hometown accolades for his mentor and friend.
“As long as I’ve known him, since he was a freshman in high school, he’s never taken anything for granted. Whenever I have a question I go to him, and we’ll sit down and talk. Whenever I need him, he’s there. In the off season he likes to be with friends and be a kid again. If you ever hung around him, he is a kid, trust me.”
Hallenbeck laughs at the humility attribute so frequently ascribed to Trout. The coach was quoted in an MLB.com article referring to Trout as a “killer”. He means it as a very flattering joke.
“To be clear about that, he really is a humble kid. He truly does appreciate everything he has. Just don’t compete against him, because it isn’t going to work out well for you…if you’re playing golf with him, or if you’re playing pickup basketball, or if you go bowling with him, he is going to beat you.
“I still have visions of him leading off of second base, just absolutely terrorizing pitchers. Not that he was doing anything demonstrative, just that he was so good, and so aggressive, and so competitive, everyone just knew he was gonna go and that they couldn’t stop him.”
Cox shares a story about the killer. “Out of the blue one day, we said, let’s go bowling. That was a month ago, and I think we went 25 times in the past month. I was better than him at first, and he didn’t like me beating him. We just kept going back, and now the guy at the bowling alley doesn’t make us pay because we come there so much. He has lanes reserved for us.
“It’s fun, because he’ll stick with something until he’s better than you at it. And I won’t let that happen!”
The trademark humility may come from being raised in a small town…or in a state with no shortage of people who will gladly bring you back to earth. The killer mentality probably comes from a father who scratched for every hit as a ballplayer himself.
Jeff Trout’s baseball career ended where the overwhelming majority of them do…in the minor leagues, where players are either shown to be insufficiently skilled or made so by increasing bodily wear and tear. Drafted by the Twins in 1983, Jeff played four years in the minors as a second baseman, hitting .321 in his last season in Orlando before finally growing weary of waiting for a promotion from the Twins. With a torn plantar fascia and worsening knees, Trout gave up baseball to raise a family.
The elder Trout doesn’t hold a grudge. He’s admitted to his defensive inadequacies in interviews, and at 5’9”, his size was probably a handicap too. He succeeded as a hitter, to a point, through guile and scrappy dedication.
Cox testifies to how Jeff instilled a work ethic in young Mike. “His dad would make him hit every night, do push-ups, do everything, eat the right things. He may have gotten by on just talent, because he was blessed with a lot of talent. But he wouldn’t be where he is today, how good he is right now, if he didn’t have the work ethic that he has.”
Jeff also learned Mike about dwelling on failure, as he once did. He told Ben Lindbergh at Grantland that “I really, really overthought the game at times…some of the things I struggled with I tried to give to Mike and teach him that’s not the way it should be done. He can shake a bad game off.”
No one can better teach a youngster how difficult baseball is, or how to appreciate God-given talent, than a player whose dream died in AA. Thanks partly to his father, Mike Trout is baseball savvy enough to stay grounded and determined.
Because as even Babe Ruth learned, sooner or later the game will humble everyone.
As Dave Lagamba, the athletic director at Millville High, shows this observer around the school grounds, he briefly chats with a groundskeeper about fixes needed to get Mike Trout Field ready for the coming season.
It’s a sudden reminder of what should be obvious…that Millville isn’t Mike Trout Central, or even Mike Trout Sideshow. Not even baseball’s biggest star can fix the town’s struggling economic conditions. Like in any other town, people go to work and raise their families and live their lives. As proud of the All-Star as Millville is, he and the locals still treat each other the same.
Of course he’s the same humble guy. Why wouldn’t a kid from a South Jersey small town be? All the money and fame one could ask for doesn’t change who someone’s parents are, the town they grew up in, their favorite food or who their high school influences were.
On a major league baseball field, there’s no denying that there’s something special and unique about the Millville Meteor. He plays baseball like a very small number of humans can. But back home, Mikey will likely always remain a guy who spends his spare time hunting and golfing with his buddies, challenging them to yet another round at the local lanes.
It’s not hard at all to imagine Mike Trout being enshrined in Cooperstown someday.
Or celebrating his induction with a burger at Jim’s.
College and minor league teams have been known to retire the numbers of major league greats, but Millville High decided on a better way to honor their greatest player…by using his #1 jersey as a motivator. Trout was asked what they wanted to do with the jersey, and according to Roy Hallenbeck, he gave his stock answer: “Coach, whatever you think is best.”
The #1 jersey is now awarded to the player best seen as the team leader…not necessarily the best player, but the player coaches want other players to look up to…someone who works hard, hustles, and stays grounded. The first player to wear the jersey after Trout’s departure? Aaron Cox, by winning the championship final against Lenape High.
Hallenbeck tells the story. “My assistant coach, Kenny Williams, said to Aaron, you win this game and we will give you the #1. Aaron was like, don’t you think you should check with Coach? Kenny said, don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it.”
It was no easy ride. Cox gave up a three run shot in the first but then blanked Lenape the rest of the way. “That Lenape team that we beat was just loaded,” Hallenbeck says. “They jumped on us early, and Aaron settled in the rest of the way. One of the most exciting games I’ve ever been a part of. That could have gotten away from Aaron. And it didn’t.
“We talk to our guys about leaving a legacy here, be that guy that we’re gonna refer to years after you’re gone. And we refer to that a lot. He absolutely earned the jersey that day, without a doubt.”
The “Millville Meteor”?
If you’re wondering how the nickname “The Millville Meteor” got attached to Mike Trout enough to be listed on his Wikipedia page, it’s probably because you’re not old enough to remember Mickey Mantle’s playing days. Don’t feel bad; most of us aren’t. This author’s father never even made the connection, and Mantle was his hero.
Mantle was and still is far more popularly known as “The Mick”, but he was also sometimes called the “Commerce Comet”, for his hometown of Commerce, Oklahoma. The nickname was probably a nod to his running speed…something fans don’t always notice right away when a player can jack a ball 500 feet. In his autobiography, Mantle quoted Ted Williams as saying “If I could run like that son of a bitch, I’d hit .400 every year.”
Like Mike Trout, Mantle set the baseball world on fire early in his career with both his crushing bat and blazing speed on the basepaths, and like Trout, Mantle was from a small town whose notoriety quickly became about a baseball star.
So the “Millville Meteor” nickname, see, is a tribute to The Commerce Comet…another speedy power-hitting outfielder who was considered among the best of his generation.
Jim’s Lunch – Millville’s Other Great Institution
If you’re doing the Mike Trout Millville Tour, be sure to stop at Jim’s Lunch, the Main Street diner that has been serving locals for nearly a century. It’s still today a favorite of the Trout family, and the waitresses and customers know them well.
There’s some memorabilia, but the restaurant is thriving on the special sauce that is constantly being slathered on burgers, not the connection to the MVP. As one customer puts it, “They come here for Trout, they stay for the sauce.” It’s somewhere between chili and gravy, but not too close to either. The owners refuse to sell it in jars, lest anyone figure out the secret recipe.
Jim’s is perfect for Millville…an inexpensive, venerable, character-filled diner in the heart of an economically struggling town. Trout still frequents Jim’s in the offseason, and he’s been known to down six burgers in one sitting. (The burgers aren’t mammoth, but six still seems like a lot.) Burgers are even served on wax paper…as authentic as diner food gets.
Jim’s is no slouch in food quality, especially in a state where diners are barely distinguishable from one another. Not only is the secret sauce addicting, the home fries and Nana Rochelle’s caramel apple pie both perform well above expectations. Patrons will tell you that you can’t go wrong with anything.
Rochelle Maul, the owner, tells the story of Mike Trout’s first appearance at Jim’s…as an infant. Debbie Trout proudly showed her new son to the waitresses, calling him ‘our little Angel’. “True story,” Rochelle says with a smile, “and here he is playing for the Angels.”
When asked if she’s relieved that Debbie didn’t call Mike “our little Yankee”, Rochelle laughs and nods.
Unfortunately, you can’t stop at Jim’s on the way to Wildwood in the summer…it’s a longtime tradition that the owners take summers off. But an offseason trip is still worth it.
Precision Pistol shooters are phenomenal at focus…it’s quite a feat to be able to consistently nail an eight-inch wide target from 50 yards. JerseyMan sent me to cover the annual State Outdoor Pistol Championship for the December 2015 issue. I learned some amazing stuff. You can view the PDF of the magazine article here.
Precision Pistol Shooting For Greatness
“It’s the ultimate badass sport with pistols.”
At the end of “Rocky III”, Apollo Creed challenges Rocky to a rubber match between the two of them…to settle the score of who is the best, once and for all. As Apollo explains to Rocky, it’s only to prove it to himself…“no TV, no newspapers, just you and me.”
Because in the end, that is all that matters to a true competitor, at any level. Self-respect.
Rich Kang, a surgeon from Maryland, has had his picture added to the New Jersey Pistol website, as the Winner of the 2015 State Outdoor Pistol Championship. His name is now engraved on the Madore Trophy.
And that’s pretty much the extent of his recognition for this exceptionally difficult achievement. The top result of a Google search for “Rich Kang” is the LinkedIn profile of a California product developer with the same name.
Precision Pistol excellence isn’t something one pursues for stardom, applause or financial gain. There wasn’t much in the way of an audience or media…other than a lanky, curious writer for a popular men’s magazine…present at the championship event. Shooter Frank Greco likens it to golf: it may not be the most exciting spectator sport, but among participants, there is an unwavering admiration for the best.
“It’s the ultimate badass sport with pistols. In the shooting world, badass is snipers,” he says. “In the pistol world it’s precision shooters.”
Greco is the Regional Vice President of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs, based in Highland Lakes. A portion of this event took place at the Central Jersey Rifle & Pistol Club in Jackson. Greco didn’t participate in the competition, but he was there to explain the mystique of it, right down to the effect of donut consumption on shooters. True.
“The sugar raises the blood pressure and affects the steady hand,” Greco says, while offering a donut to this observer. “Sugar and caffeine in excess can be Kryptonite to a shooter.”
It’s that demanding?
To say the least.
Picture how far 50 yards is. 150 feet. Half of a football field. Now fathom being able to steadily aim and fire a pistol from that distance and consistently hit a target eight inches wide.
That’s just for an eight-point shot. For a 10-pointer, that target is just three inches wide; for a bull’s eye…which is used as a tiebreaker if two shooters have the same score…it is just an inch and a half.
Can that even be done with normal human vision? Yes, and the shooters on the firing line this day are proving it. With multiple types of firearms and various types of shooting…moving targets, rapid fire, timed firing.
It’s a three-gun match, with .22, centerfire and .45 caliber pistols. With each type of pistol, a shooter takes 90 shots. Those 90 shots are broken down into four matches: Slow Fire is two strings of ten shots each over ten minutes; National Match Course is ten Slow Fire shots, followed by two strings of five shots each at 25 yards; Rapid Fire is two strings of five shots each over ten seconds; and the Timed Fire Match is four strings of five rounds each, with 20 seconds per string.
All day long, the barrage goes on. Casings litter the ground. Wisps of dust float from the dune behind the targets. The unmistakable odor of gunpowder fills the air. Wrists snap back in recoil with larger pistols. The noise is thunderous and deafening at times, but that’s the only aural distraction allowed. No talking or other sounds behind the line. During one match a ringing smartphone is immediately shut off; only in church could that be more embarrassing.
It’s grueling, this full day of shooting. Comfortable footwear is a must.
Between rounds a horn sounds and a red light begins flashing. When the light is flashing, guns must be down, and must remain untouched until the flashing stops.
Ed Glidden, the director of the match, calls out instructions to the shooters, obviously with safety as the top priority. Cease fire, magazines out, make the firing line safe. Empty chamber indicators installed. Check your gun; check your neighbor’s gun. And so on, dozens of times. Glidden’s role looks boring to someone witnessing the action. But needless to say, it’s an essential one.
Part of Glidden’s occupation is training shooters in gun safety, including teaching youngsters in the club’s highly touted junior program. “Individual training,” he says, “is keeping the gun pointed in a safe direction at ALL times and treating every gun as if it were loaded. Constant awareness of the range officers and other shooters, to prevent and/or correct the slightest infraction until safety becomes a habit. Any unsafe practice will result in expulsion from the match and the range.”
The Central Jersey Rifle & Pistol Club people have a reputation for their focus on safe handling of lethal weapons. They are frequently praised for it in online reviews. It is particularly impressive to see younger people on the firing line, some barely in their teens, completely comfortable handling firearms. Partly because of Glidden’s repetitious direction, safety is second nature in this competition.
Besides, with the concentration required at tournaments like this, competitors have more than enough to occupy their minds.
Watching the shooters it appears as though they are cool as ice, with the focus, the concentration, the steady hand. But as one of the better shooters on the line can tell you, it takes years to develop this composure. And even he still grimaces at the occasional subpar shot.
Lateif Dickerson is the master instructor at the New Jersey Firearms Academy. His resume of other titles is very impressive: Certified Pistol Instructor, Range Safety Officer, Combat Handgunner at the School of Defensive Firearms, the list is long. He’s been training civilians, police and military for 19 years in various weapons usage and self-defense.
Dickerson can tell you a bit about becoming adept enough for this competition. There are three stages, he says…know how, physical conditioning and mental conditioning.
Know how is mastering the fundamentals… like stance, breath control, and recoil management. Stance “should be as comfortable but as stable as possible. Think like a crane; your legs are the outriggers, your arm is the boom.” Breath control is “basically holding long enough so you aren’t moving.” Recoil management is the ability to “consistently recover to the same place when shooting.”
Then there’s the physical conditioning.
“A match can go from 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM, or longer. If you start fatiguing during a match your performance will fail. You must be able to hold the weight of your arm and gun up all day – and steady. Holding steady requires an isometric tension that needs to be developed also.”
But the mental preparation is by far the toughest part.
“The ONLY thing that should exist in your mind is that your sight is where it’s supposed to be as the trigger moves rearward…this is very hard. We all have a lot of noise and distractions, so conditioning your mind to focus is a process. That process is largely the challenge in shooting.”
Frank Greco emphatically agrees, sharing a story of his own self-defeat in the mental aspect of the game.
“When you’re in it, on the line, loading, in the zone, improving your score, it’s incredibly intense and extremely difficult mentally.
“One of my first times I experienced the ‘mental game’ was in the NY State Championship. The match director came over to me and asked me if I knew I was shooting better than most of the Experts and Masters. I said no, and got accidentally sidetracked, thinking I was going to win the match. The lost focus immediately showed; my shots were random and my scores went down.
“It’s vital to maintain a positive outlook and to speak to yourself in positive statements. It’s important to train your subconscious mind and create a positive self-image.”
He pulls out his smartphone and shows this observer a picture of a target, the high-value section of it riddled with bullet holes. Sometimes, he says, he needs to look at it during a match, to remind himself what he’s capable of.
It’s all undeniably worth the effort.
The true reward of Precision Pistol, as Greco relates from his own personal experience, is self-respect…the realization of one’s hidden abilities and the ability to meet the most difficult of challenges. Once a person can hit that one-and-a-half inch bull’s eye from half of a football field away, it’s hard to imagine how monthly bills could faze them.
“Great shooters have an almost Zen-like approach to shooting and how they approach their daily lives, jobs, etc. Since I started, my ability to focus has sharpened dramatically, and it’s positively benefited other areas of my life. The ability to focus on what matters, and disregard unimportant matters, literally frees your mind.
“The benefits are real, and to that extent, shooting has made me a better person.”
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Get Started With Precision Pistol Shooting
If you’d like to try Precision Pistol Shooting, there is a website dedicated to helping you get started, with several informative pieces from top shooters. The site is called “The Encyclopedia of Bullseye Pistol”.
Among the articles is a piece by site owner John Dreyer about essential equipment. There’s a lot to know when laying out the considerable funds for pistols…like whether they are mass-produced or hand built, or the differences between high performance and convertible pistols. Not to mention other necessary equipment, like eye and ear protection, scopes and cleaning supplies. Pistol shooting is not a cheap sport, so spend wisely.
Another piece by Dreyer quotes several Zen philosophies and describes the achievements in pistol shooting in how they relate to such quotes. One example: “A man who has attained mastery of an art reveals it in his every action.” Dreyer compares this to pistol shooting in the sense that once a shooter can sustain an “empty mind”, he can see “underlying principles in everyday life and life in all things”.
Another piece from top shooter Jake Shevlin reveals the “secret” to shooting high scores. It’s the same secret one learns about how to get to Carnegie Hall…practice, practice, practice. The shooter must sacrifice…sacrifice time, money, convenience, and priorities in life to excel at just one thing. Top marksmanship requires a level of commitment unmatched by few endeavors. That, says Shevlin, is the “secret”.
The Encyclopedia of Bullseye Pistol website also features a discussion group, e-mail updates, and links and maps to shooting clubs and ranges.
Multiple Champion Dave Lange on Dry-Firing
Dave Lange’s name appears a lot on the NJ Pistol website. He has won the overall state outdoor championship nine times since its inception in 2001; the only other shooter who has won it more than once is Ron Steinbrecher, who has captured the title just twice. Lange was also the NJ resident champion in 2015, though he lost the overall title to Rich Kang.
Lange is the author of a piece for Shooting Sports USA, linked to the NJ Pistol website, detailing the benefits of dry-firing…firing a weapon without ammunition. With dry-firing, a shooter can focus on weaknesses, like maintaining consistent grip. Lange states in the piece that he practices his dry-firing three times a day, 15 minutes each time.
With dry-firing, a shooter can run a mental program through his mind of executing a successful shot; Lange’s program involves picturing a red dot in the center of the bull’s eye and then picturing the bull’s eye with the bullet hole in the center.
Dry-firing can address any shooter’s specific problem, Lange says. The key is being willing to commit to it until a shooter’s scores improve. Given his success, he’s probably got a point.
The Best in the Nation
The NJ State Outdoor Pistol Championship, according to Frank Greco, is the 3rd largest of such events in the nation; the national event, known as the “World Series of the Shooting Sports”, takes place in Camp Perry, Ohio, 40 miles east of Toledo. Events have been held there since 1907.
The overall National Pistol champion for 2015 is Keith Sanderson from Colorado Springs. He scored an incredible 2,655 points out of a possible 2,700. Second was Brian Zins with a score of 2,641. Sanderson is an Olympic gold medalist; Zins was the 2007 NJ State Champion.
To put those scores into perspective, do the math: 2,655 divided by 270 shots equals an average shot score of 9.83…so Sanderson’s average shot was almost always in that three-inch range for ten points, with maybe one or two in a hundred falling outside of it for a nine-pointer.
The difference between Sanderson’s and Zins’ score was just 14 50-yard shots out of 270 that covered a five inch range instead of three.
One wonders if Zins thought about having a donut the week before the match.
The Phillie Phanatic is the greatest mascot in sports…largely because original Phanatic Dave Raymond simply put on the costume, went out and had fun. I had a chance interviewed Dave, who now creates team mascots as the owner of Raymond Entertainment Group, for the April 2015 issue of JerseyMan. You can view the PDF of the magazine article here.
The Power of Fun
Imagine being a business owner who is looking to improve your marketing. You want a smart, polished, exciting campaign to bring life into your adequate but unmemorable image. You want to target a younger audience that otherwise might not discover your product.
Needless to say, this problem requires professional expertise, so you call in a consultant.
A consultant who, for much of his adult life, made his living wearing a furry green costume, recklessly riding around in an ATV and thrusting his ample hips at sports officials.
Because if your company is a minor league baseball team, and the idea is to bring more kids to the ballpark, and you want to create a mascot on that basis, hiring the original Phillie Phanatic to handle the design is a no-brainer.
As the man behind arguably the most beloved mascot in sports, who today is the “Emperor of Fun” at Raymond Entertainment Group, Dave Raymond understands the marketing value of a fun diversion.
Even if he learned it by accident.
“The joke was that the Phillies got the kid that was stupid enough to say yes,” Raymond says with a laugh. “I was a student at the University of Delaware. I had my fraternity brothers telling me, ‘they’re gonna kill you, they’re gonna hang you in effigy and set you on fire, and that’s when the Phillies win! When they lose you’re really gonna get in trouble!’
“That first day, I went into Bill Giles’s office and said, ‘Mr. Giles, what do you want me to do?’ A smile came across his face and he said, ‘I want you to have fun.’ I was tearing out of his office thinking, ‘Wow, this is going to be easy,’ and he screamed, ‘G-rated fun!’
“The first night I fell over a railing by accident, and people laughed. So I was thinking, I have to fall down more. Slapstick humor was something I loved, I was a Three Stooges fan, I watched all the cartoons. It was Daffy Duck and Foghorn Leghorn and Three Stooges because that’s what they laughed about.”
Dancing with the grounds crew quickly caught on, too.
“The first night I did that, I tripped one of the guys by accident, the kid tripped and fell, and people laughed. That turned into me running around the bases and at each base I would knock one of the kids over, and then we would all gather behind home plate and dance. Fans were giving us standing ovations, because they’d never seen the grounds crew animated!”
In a rabid and brutally unsentimental sports town, it also didn’t hurt that the Phanatic could so effectively taunt the opposition. Tommy Lasorda, who could often be described as a cartoon character himself, once even wrote a blog post titled “I Hate The Phillie Phanatic”.
Raymond gets along with Lasorda and has read the post. Their feud was usually friendly, but it could escalate: “One night he just snapped, and he came out and tried to beat the ever-lovin’ you-know-what out of the Phanatic.”
The two smoothed it over, but Raymond retains his proud Philadelphian perspective towards the Dodgers icon. “He’s a wonderful ambassador for baseball; the only problem with him is that he’s a Dodgers fan from Philadelphia. Worst type of traitor we could ever have,” he laughs.
“I understood the psyche of the Philadelphia fan. I was one of them! I hated the Mets, I hated the Yankees, I hated the Celtics. And the Dallas Cowboys, to this day, I see Tony Romo in a commercial about pizza and I run and turn the TV off. I knew the fans would cheer when I stepped on a Mets hat or made fun of the Dodgers. I wanted to do that, because I hated the Dodgers, and I hated the Mets!
“It was that type of thing, and you put all those together and make a cartoon character out of it.”
Today Dave Raymond brings a lifetime of experience as a world-famous character to Raymond Entertainment Group, which designs and builds mascots for sports teams and even corporations.
REG focuses on marketing the Power of Fun. It’s not an easy trick to blend two seemingly opposite concepts like fun and business, but Raymond can speak from solid experience.
“I watched my kids become Phillies fans because of the Phanatic. They wanted to go to games because they had fun. And they learned how to watch baseball and appreciate baseball. My daughters fell in love with the players because they looked cute in baseball uniforms. And now they are not letting me leave when I want to beat the traffic. From a marketing standpoint, the Phanatic’s building baseball fans.”
So in dealing with clients, Raymond emphasizes how valuable—to their bottom line—their furry representative can be. The goofy character in a bird costume is a worthwhile business investment, and for it to pay off, it needs to be done right.
“The first thing we do is make sure they understand the difference between a kid in a costume and a character brand. A character brand is a living, breathing extension of your brand, and a kid in a costume is just that.
“We research who they are in terms of the organization’s history, and who their community is in terms of the history. We help sketch out a back story that becomes the story of the character.
“They look at designs and they play Mr. Potato Head, they tell us what they like or more importantly what they don’t like, and then we go back and continue to draw until we get a design, we assign the copyright to that design, and then build multiple costumes for them. We help prime performers and train them.
“Also, what are you doing with the character brand? How are you rolling it out? How are you trying to get sponsorships? By the time we roll out the character, they should already know when they’re going to make all their money back, and when they’ll start making a profit.
“If they don’t do due diligence, frankly, I don’t want them as a customer. If they don’t want the best, they’re not gonna value the best.
“There are people saying I need a kid to get in my suit; right away I know that’s probably a client I don’t want. This is a character costume, it’s not a suit. It’s not a kid, it’s a trained performer. If you don’t want that, we’re not the ones for you. It’s a good thing not to waste time trying to make people buy from me. You’re not going to be able to service everybody.”
That’s not to say that REG doesn’t have a long list of satisfied clients; happy customers include the Cincinnati Reds, whose mascot “Gapper” is an REG creation, the Toledo Mud Hens, the Delmarva Shorebirds and the Phillies affiliate Lakewood Blue Claws, among many others. Raymond estimates that REG has created over a hundred characters, including at least ten for corporations.
“What separates us is that no one has the track record of success that we’ve had for not only designing and building, but also helping clients make money, drive revenue and brand, find performers and train them.”
It’s a seemingly natural progression for Raymond: from being an eager young intern who spent sixteen years bringing an inimitable brand of fun to a community, to now supporting a family by showing others how they can do it too.
“I’ve been to a lot of business training seminars, and they always ask what your ‘why’ is. My ‘why’ is, I want my marriage to be great, I want my kids to have good parents, and I want them to grow up and get married and have a great family. Every time I get a check for something, I’m going this is great, now I can pay my salary, and I can invest in what’s important to me, which is my kids and my relationship with my wife.
“Also, I’ve been delivering this presentation, which is the life lesson that the Phanatic has taught me, how powerful fun is to building a family and raising kids or whatever you’re doing. Using fun as a distracting tool is so powerful.
“That’s truly what I love doing more than anything else, getting in front of people and telling these stories and hopefully giving them something that helps them. I’m focused on going into Philadelphia, in the corporate community, and preaching the Power of Fun.”
If anyone knows how to appeal to sports types in the City of Brotherly Love, it’s Dave Raymond. After all, he’s lived it.
“One of the things I miss the most about not working as the Phanatic is the connection to the Philadelphia fan base. Once Phillies fans love you, they love you forever, and it’s almost impossible to do anything to get to the point where they don’t love you.
“That was the beauty of being the Phanatic.”
“This Costume Stinks!”
One service that Raymond Entertainment Group offers is costume cleaning…a surprisingly neglected aspect of mascot performance for many teams. The cleaning includes a “State of The Fur” analysis. A performer in a smelly costume is not a pleasant one, as Dave notes.
“The Phanatic opportunity for me, it truly was the best job you could ever imagine. But there were things about it that I hated. I hated that costume getting beer spilled on it, for example. I’m very anal retentive, I can’t stand things out of place, and it just drove me crazy. So I was meticulous about how I cleaned that costume.
“The first year, the people in New York that built it said they couldn’t wash it. You couldn’t even imagine what it smelled like. I finally just threw the thing in my bathtub with Woolite. I thought, I don’t care if I ruin it, it can’t smell like this anymore. When I got done cleaning it, it smelled great, and I wrote a note to the people in New York saying hey, this is how you clean it, and they were like, wow!”
Dave actually will frequently take on the cleaning tasks at REG. “This is what small business is about. I’m cleaning a lot of costumes myself. It’s just something that doesn’t require any great skill; you just spend a little time doing it. I have people that help and clean and restore the costumes. But I jump in there and do it a lot. It’s one of those healthy distractions for my mind.”
The “State of The Fur” analysis is for advice on cleaning and storage. “We try to give them feedback on what we all think they’re doing based on what is wrong with the costume. We want to have our eyes on it, because then our costumes last longer. Then people will say hey, when you get a costume from Raymond Entertainment it lasts for ten years.
“We prefer that rather than make money on rebuilding costumes, although we do that. It’s better that they know that their costume lasts three times longer than the competition.”
Mascot Boot Camp
Although Raymond Entertainment Group trains performers as part of their character creation package, Dave Raymond also hosts “Mascot Boot Camp”, where performers spend a weekend learning all about the business of being a character in a costume and non-verbal communication. It’s for everyone from new mascots learning the trade to longtime performers looking to rehabilitate their skills.
“It’s a great reality experience. If you want to experience what it’s like to be a mascot, come and experience mascot boot camp,” Dave says. “We’ve never marketed it for that, but it’s a lot of fun and they learn to move and communicate non-verbally, they learn how to take care of their costume, and learn how to take care of themselves physically.
“It’s a deep dive into mascot performance, there’s a real method to it now, where once it was Bill Giles telling me to go have fun.”
There’s another important rule of mascot performance: keep it safe.
“Lighting yourself on fire and jumping off a building and crashing into the ground might be something that people will talk about from now until the end of time, but you’re gonna kill yourself. And you’re gonna ruin the costume.”
REG’s “Angel Investor” – Sir Charles
Every business needs capital to get off the ground, and when Dave Raymond sought an investor for his idea to design and build characters, he found what he calls an “angel investor” who is well familiar with Philadelphia sports…Charles Barkley.
“When he would come to the Phillies games,” Raymond says of Sir Charles, “he would have fun with the Phanatic and we did a couple of routines here and there, where he was smacking the Phanatic around. It was fun. Charles invited me to hang out with him and some of his friends in Birmingham when I was doing minor league baseball in Birmingham one weekend.
“I just called him up, and he said my financial guy likes it, I’ll be happy to do it. His financial guy said listen, people haven’t paid Charles back over the years. I said, well, I’m dedicated to paying him back. I haven’t paid him every cent back, but he keeps telling me don’t worry, it’s no big deal. Charles just wanted to help. In the description of an angel investor, Charles Barkley’s picture should be in whatever dictionary or manual that is talking about angel this or that.
“Nobody knows that sort of thing. Charles has done that hundreds of times, he’s just a generous guy, one of the best people on the planet. I’ll be working until I close the business down to make sure he gets every penny back.”
Dave Raymond did some consulting for the 76ers in the rollout of their new mascot, a blue dog named Franklin. The humorous back story of Franklin on the 76ers website shows Franklin’s “ancestors” throughout Philadelphia history, including a missing bite out of Wilt Chamberlain’s “100” sign following Wilt’s 100-point game.
Raymond believes Franklin will be a success, despite the recent “controversy” surrounding the character—that Darnell Smith, who wears the Franklin costume, was a Knicks fan.
“One of the things he said to me was, I really need to be a Philadelphia fan, you gotta help me with who the Philadelphia fans are. He worked for MSG, and he was a mascot for the Liberty, the WNBA team. He’s done a lot of work with their performance team, the dunk team, all of that for the Knicks.
“Darnell is an awesome human being and an unbelievably gifted performer. I went to the first game that he was at just a couple of weeks ago and brought my kids, and he was kind enough to come up and interact with us. All the fans in our section were screaming for him. It was for kids by kids, which is what Tim McDermott said he wanted to do.
“What’s nice about it is that he recognized that getting in touch with the psyche of the Philadelphia fan was important. That just shows what a good performer he is. He’s an asset to the 76ers organization, I’m glad they got him.”
I first met Baseball Joe Vogel on June 12, 2016, while meeting up with friend and fellow baseball road tripper Dan Davies and his group of traveling friends, who invited me to join them in Pittsburgh. He’s become a good friend and I always meet with him when I’m in Pittsburgh.
It was a picture-perfect day at stunning PNC Park, as the Pirates prepared to battle the Cardinals in a late afternoon matchup.
On this day, though, baseball isn’t the only thing on the mind of the Bucs faithful.
Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are in San Jose this evening, set to seal the deal on a fourth Stanley Cup for the city. Which they would, a few hours after the ballgame ends. Penguins jerseys, tees and caps can be seen in large numbers for a baseball crowd.
At one point during the game, a young fan brings out a mock, almost-life-size aluminum foil Stanley Cup and parades it proudly around a section in the right field corner. It gets a round of sustained applause from the excited fans sitting in the area.
But despite being a Pittsburgh native from birth, Joe Vogel is having none of this.
Without warning, as if duty calls him, he springs from his chair in the right field cove and disappears into the concourse. Seconds later he can be seen roaming the section where the Cup-carrying fan was. To the great amusement of his buddies in the cove, Vogel spends several minutes determinedly searching for the fan, who by this point is long gone.
The laughter in Vogel’s section grows louder as his determined search continues well beyond the amount of time one would think the situation warranted. Because after several innings of sitting with this character, they know exactly why he is seeking out the proud hockey fan.
It was to shame him. To frown on him. To educate the young lad on priorities.
Because as Baseball Joe Vogel will always let you know, only baseball matters. Every other sport is a waste of time.
Baseball Joe is deaf and mute from three debilitating strokes. He communicates through gestures and hand signals, with a small keyboard, or on a folded piece of paper with the alphabet on it.
He lives in an apartment in downtown Pittsburgh, a short walk across the Clemente Bridge from PNC Park. Baseball, Pirates baseball, is his life. It has been since he was a young boy. He proclaims himself the “biggest baseball fan anywhere”, and thus far in my near half century of existence I haven’t met a bigger one…which, if you knew my father, is saying something.
The Pirates know him well. He occasionally plays catch with manager Clint Hurdle and even advises him at times via e-mail. Courtesy of a team that loves his dedication, he has season tickets and attends every game in the covered handicapped section in right field, underneath the right field bleachers. He can’t be in the sun for too long. He may be the only fan in PNC Park who doesn’t care about the picturesque city backdrop.
Sitting with him, it’s almost impossible to pay attention to the game, especially as opposing hitters tee off on Pirates pitching as the Cards would that night. Baseball Joe is every bit as entertaining as the action on the field…constantly having conversations with bystanders in his own way, patiently communicating with his keyboard or well-worn piece of paper when people have difficulty understanding his gestures.
He carries a baseball that he frequently tosses to passing ushers, who nonchalantly toss it back to him, knowing the routine. Throughout the game, other team employees stop to greet him. He constantly collects souvenirs and seems to have a never-ending supply of the large soda cups, one of which he shares with me.
Throughout the evening loud laughter is heard in the section at both his knowledge of baseball and his chastising of fellow fans for their comparatively insufficient reverence for the game.
At one point, he asks me if I like any other sports. Forgetting his disdain for the hockey fan, I tell him I like NASCAR too, and he shakes his head. He pretends to be driving a car, and then frowns at me and does the shame symbol with his fingers. He then holds up a baseball and makes a circular motion with his finger. By this point it’s understood. Baseball, year-round.
All night long, it never stops. With his keypad, he fires baseball trivia questions at his buddies…like “Name two players in the Hall of Fame that have the same first and middle names.” A wiseacre in the group replies, with great bombast as if he’s sure of the answer, “Ken Griffey Senior and Ken Griffey Junior!”
As the rest of the group laughs, Joe smiles, turns to me and informs me: Henry Louis Aaron and Henry Louis Gehrig, or Joseph Paul DiMaggio and Joseph Paul Torre.
Later Dan, who took Joe along with his group to several ballparks and the Hall of Fame, told me the story of his wiping up the floor with an interactive trivia game at the Hall. If there was a baseball edition of “Jeopardy”, Baseball Joe would be Ken Jennings.
Baseball Joe holds the distinction of being the first fan to ask for my autograph, at least as an author of baseball books.
At the Pirates game, he asked me to send him the PNC Park E-Guide…and to autograph it for him. He also gave me firm instructions…make sure I sign my full name, middle name included, and do it neatly, which I am not accustomed to doing with my usual chicken scratch of a signature. He’s a stickler, this one, especially when it comes to matters baseball.
Joe loved the E-Guide and raved about it to me in an e-mail…a badge of honor…but he also had a few suggestions: elaborate more on seating, include some photos in the whitespace, and maybe talk more about food and such. He is the first fan ever to complain to me that there isn’t enough information in a Ballpark E-Guide.
He has been repeatedly asking me to send him guides for Wrigley and for Busch in St. Louis, should I ever write that one. I will. I’m always happy to have an audience.
A few days after the Pittsburgh experience, I met up with Baseball Joe and the group again, this time in Citizens Bank Park in my hometown of Philly. I found them a free parking spot and sat with them in the upper level for the evening. Throughout the evening, Joe kept me entertained, once again more often than the action on the field.
I tell him I am an Orioles fan, and he holds up fingers…first seven and then one. I immediately get it. 1971 World Series. Pirates over the Birds in seven. I was three.
Then he makes a “7” and a “9” with his fingers. 1979. The Pirates, led by Pops Stargell and rallying around the passing of manager Chuck Tanner’s mother, come back from 3-1 to once again beat the O’s in seven games. My response is to hang my head and to pretend to rub tears from my eyes, illustrating the heartbreak of the 11-year-old Orioles fan that year. “I still NEVER dance to ‘We Are Family’”, I inform him.
He nods, understanding. He does the eye rub himself when he brings up the Pirates’ long stretch of down years.
He asks me who my favorite player is, and when I say Cal Ripken Jr., he quickly replies on his keyboard with a stat for me: “Lowest batting average of any player with 3,000 hits”. Sigh.
When I show Joe a picture of my daughter posing with baseball-themed stuffed animals that I’ve brought home for her from my travels, he briefly types on his keyboard and shows me. “You so blessed,” it reads. “Me haves no family.”
I instantly feel both sad for him and guilty about the occasional dissatisfaction I feel with my own life. He’s right. I am so blessed. I not only have two beautiful and healthy kids, I still have time for the only sport that matters.
Long after the crowd has filed out of Citizens Bank Park that night, Baseball Joe manages to make a few ushers uncomfortable with his refusal to leave the seating bowl before collecting as many souvenir cups as he can. You can see clear agitation growing in the ushers’ eyes as they anticipate a confrontation. Joe seems oblivious to the approaching ballpark police, but he exits the seating bowl at what seems the exact moment before the ushers turn snooty. He’s a pro at this.
Back at the hotel where the traveling fans are staying, Baseball Joe and I pose for a picture, and he surprises me with a huge bear hug. Apparently I’ve made a good impression. I’m grateful that he’s not upset with me for showing him family photos.
Joe and I e-mail each other frequently. In his e-mails to me the subject line is almost always “Baseball 24 7 366”—making sure he’s covered in leap years. His e-mails are usually brief but always thoughtful…wishing my family a great holiday season, asking me to send along more E-Guides when I can, and sharing his thoughts on the Pirates’ fortunes. Shortly after the Pirates failed to make the playoffs in 2016, he sent me an e-mail with the words “Pirates eliminated – me cry” in it. For 33 years and counting, this Orioles fan has known the feeling.
I’m always grateful to hear from him. Because whenever I reflect on it, he’s right. Other sports are a waste of time.
And Baseball Joe knows as well as anyone that our time is too valuable to waste.
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