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UEFA Final teaches unexpected lesson – one granddaughter tops even the best sports TV event

After months of anticipation, the UEFA Champions League produced a dazzling final between two of the best professional soccer teams in the world – Barcelona FC and Manchester United. About 300 million people watched it. I was not one. My granddaughter had other ideas, and it ended up a memorable lesson in priorities.

I have written several blogs about the UEFA Champions League and have followed the tournament closely, especially the Round of 16. It’s a terrific format – the winners of Europe’s best professional leagues come together for an eight-month super tournament. Since it draws the best players from around the world, the quality is very high and the pressure higher. It culminated Saturday with a one-game final in London’s Wembley Stadium, featuring two of the most popular teams in the world and drawing a far bigger global broadcast audience than the Super Bowl.

I was hugely looking forward to kicking back and soaking in the spectacle. In addition, I could watch it at our Northern California cabin. Though my wife and I had planned to take two grandchildren to the mountains for the weekend, I figured they’d understand my need to watch this one game.

Unfortunately, one child got Chickenpox, so my wife remained behind. I went ahead and took my 10-year-old granddaughter, Kaya. I mean, how tough could it be to persuade one little girl to let me watch one game? Besides, she played soccer and should want to watch the world’s best players, right? In retrospect, I guess her hot pink soccer shoes should have been a tipoff – or the in-depth conversation about world religions on our drive up. Obviously this girls is way smarter (and cuter) than the average 10-year-old.

So about the time Wayne Rooney of United scored to make it 1-1 and I was jumping off the couch, Kaya was losing interest. I turned and asked what she thought of the goal. She said:

“Can we please go hiking, grandpa?”

Kaya didn’t care about the Champions League; she wanted me to be her champion.

Dozens of excuses shot through my mind. It was unseasonably cold, cloudy with occasional showers, the dog would get muddy, and … well, you get the picture. I glanced at Kaya smiling at me, looked up at United celebrating on TV, and came to one of those humbling life lessons on what really matters.

No offense to Wayne Rooney, but he won’t be top-of-mind on my deathbed. Sir Alex Ferguson isn’t managing my life, just Manchester United. Lionel Messi may be the best world football player, but he’s not my child’s child.

I looked down at Kaya, turned off the TV and said, “Yeah, let’s go hiking.”

So about the time Messi was putting Barca ahead, 2-1, with an amazing left-footed shot just outside the penalty box, Kaya and I were walking along a beautiful recreation lake booting pine cones. About the time David Villa brilliantly looped one into the top right corner for a commanding 3-1 Barca lead, we were sitting on a bench eating a delicious peanut butter and jelly sandwich her mom made for us. And about the time Barcelona’s players were hoisting the UEFA championship trophy, she was explaining to me the nuances of “The Bachelorette” TV show along a tree-lined trail.

Later that night, I laid in bed thinking about choices. For years I was a sports writer and editor at several U.S. newspapers, but went into corporate communications to spend more time with my family.  Even getting into sports was a big deal for me, since I started as a news writer and still think of myself as a journalist more than fan. Heck, my son knows more stats than I do these days.

It’s easy to pay attention when making major decisions, because they demand your consideration. But when it comes to life choices, the little ones often make the biggest difference.

Lionel Messi is a special, talented and driven competitor.* But compared with Kaya, he was just another TV athlete this Saturday. Why? Because instead of watching Messi break down United’s defense, I got to watch Kaya get past mine. The result was a wonderful afternoon hiking along a mountain lake with a very interesting young woman.

Now about that Bachelorette format…

— New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

* Messi has been named FIFA’s World Player of the Year and World Pro Player of the Year twice. In addition, he was named the top player in the two most prestigious tournaments the past year – the FIFA World Cup (for national team Argentina) and UEFA Champions League. Oh, and he’s only 23…

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Does defense really win titles in NBA? Stats over past 10 seasons tell a different story

The National Basketball Association began its arduous two-month post-season journey last week, meaning we again must endure endless debates about what wins titles. A recent HoopsWorld article repeated my favorite cliché: “Defense wins championships.” That may be true for many sports, but it hasn’t been accurate the past 10 NBA seasons.

The previous 10 NBA champions averaged seventh in the league in points allowed per game. However, they also only averaged 10th in points scored. So how did they end up league champions? Like any good organization, the best NBA teams won because they hired the best employees who executed the best business plan. Who knew?

In relatively low-scoring sports like baseball, hockey or soccer, one dominant defender can significantly affect outcomes. For example, a great goal-keeper can be huge when you’re down to shootout stage of a major soccer or hockey match. And a strong relief pitcher can stop a rally by a great offense at key points in baseball or softball games. But in high-scoring sports like my golf game and basketball, it isn’t always so clear. There is too much talent in the NBA now for any one player to control every game. At least not since Wilt Chamberlain forced the goal-tending rule.

Only two of the past 10 champions ranked first in points allowed during the regular season – the San Antonio Spurs in 2004-2005 and 2006-2007. And none of the 10 champs led the league in scoring points. In fact, Detroit was the last team to win the title in “classic” D-style. In 2003-2004, the Pistons were 2nd in points allowed and 24th in points scored. Defensive purists still revere that team. Yet even the Pistons, like the other nine champions, were more concerned with being in position to reach the Finals than with regular-season team statistical rankings. (Individual stats are a different issue.)

Most important: All of the past 10 champs placed top-three in their conference, meaning home-court advantage the first couple of rounds. That helped get them into the NBA Finals, where anything can happen.

Take the Los Angeles Lakers in 2000-2001, for example. They ranked 23rd out of 29 teams in points allowed per game yet won the title. How? They scored enough on the other end to get them second in the conference seeding, and leveraged the home-court advantage to reach the conference finals – where they smoked the #1 seed Spurs to get in the Finals. There, they beat the East’s top seed, Philadelphia, 4-1. It was the only game the Lakers lost in four playoff series that year.

Of course, they also had Kobe Bryant and Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal in prime time leading the way.

The Lakers improved from 23rd to 10th the following season in repeating as champ, but they still messed up the case for defense in the process. When a team tournament has a multi-game format, you must play solid in all phases to make a deep run. One great night in one facet of your game won’t do it. Also, many other things factor in – injuries to key players (on your team or the other), favorable matchups, level of experience, equipment issues, officiating assignments, press distractions, family problems, travel glitches and much more.

If you want a wrap-up of the most important factors, the past 10 NBA champions had three things in common:

  • All had great athletes, a necessity no matter what the debate on approach
  • All positioned themselves in their conferences to reach the Finals
  • All peaked in the playoffs, playing some of their best games of the season

Veteran teams view the playoffs as the start of the real season, so they pace themselves during the regular season and thus have something left to give in the playoffs. They know they’ll need it. The intensity and physicality of play do ramp up considerably. Much less goes uncontested.

In part that’s because referees, under the bright lights, are hesitant to call anything but blatant fouls. I’m OK with that. It’s fun to watch the big boys bang inside a bit without the officials constantly interrupting the game. Unfortunately, the result of allowing more aggressive defense generally is lower-scoring games. The perception “defense wins titles” again gets reinforced when it’s really more about attitude toward the playoffs.

More specifically, it’s about the chance to be in the Finals. Like most organizations, NBA teams set their bottom-line goal as being #1 in their industry. Few care who won the regular season that year. It was a nice long run of consistent exposure in local markets, thank you, but the playoffs – especially the Finals – are show time for the NBA. So the stakes are high.

Players and officials feel it most, and the pressure picks up on both sides of the court. That’s when those three key factors stand out: All of the last 10 champions positioned themselves to get into these Finals, where great athletes who were peaking right now executed best in key moments of key games. It also got them lots of pictures hoisting trophies, along with very cool rings and many beautiful “friends.”

In the end, neither offense nor defense rule in the NBA. It’s about having good athletes on a team with a good 12-month plan. Gee, good employees with a good business plan. Go figure.

— New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

PS: Would the NBA have a more international flavor as the North American Basketball Association? Even better, expanding into Brazil they could become a broader Basketball Association of the Americas (BAA) – or Asociación de Baloncesto de las Américas ­(ABA) – including North, South and Central Américas. Just a thought…

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A sports hero for older workers: Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs saves best for age 37

Occasionally an athlete comes along with a quality and depth that transcends their sport. I’ve interviewed some – Ali, Musial, Pele, Jordan, Staubach and other memorable human beings. But it’s hard to top English soccer legend Ryan Giggs of Manchester United. In fact, it’s hard to find a comparison in pro sports.

Giggs has been a productive leader on the same world-class team from age 17 to his current 37 – and may be playing his best now. Even more, he was a good goal-scorer on a great squad early in his career, then changed positions and became a star playmaker later. That’s like Brett Favre playing 10 years as a wide receiver and shifting to quarterback for 10. Giggs is a serious yoga practitioner, husband and father, and a UNICEF representative who launched a campaign in 2002 to prevent landmines from killing children. Yep, he’s the real deal.

That’s why you can’t help but root for him, and why he continues to respond. Giggs is a key reason Manchester United this week earned a berth in the semifinals of the incredibly popular and talent-laden UEFA Champions League tournament. United will face German club Schalke 04 in one semifinal, while Spanish rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid face off in the other semi. The title game on May 28 in London’s Wembley Stadium will be seen by more people worldwide than the Super Bowl.

Don’t be surprised if Giggs is there. He’s one of those rare athletes who performs best in the biggest games. Case in point: this year. After winning UEFA group play, United beat French team Marseille in the round of 16 and cross-town rival Chelsea in the quarterfinals. In those four games, United sccored five goals; Giggs had the assist on four of them.  In each case, he collapsed the defense with amazing displays of speed and dribbling skills followed by a perfect (and unselfish) pass to an open teammate.

That kind of big-stage success – plus a blue-collar work ethic – has endeared Giggs to several generations of United faithful. In fact, Giggs recently was voted the best all-time player for Manchester United by fans above better-known names such as David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, George Best and Sir Bobby Charlton – by a wide margin.  And yet the day after winning the award, there was Giggs in his 20th season a key factor as his team rallied from an 0-2 hole in the final 20 minutes to win an important league game.

Giggs broke the record for most United appearances held by Sir Bobby Charlton (above).

“Last year, I thought that was the best he had ever played, but this year he’s been even better,” said Charlton after Giggs broke his longstanding United record for English Premier League appearances last month (Giggs passed his record for overall appearances in 2008). “I don’t know what he’s putting in his tea, but he’s been at his peak again this season. He’s a great, great professional footballer, and I’m ever so proud of him for what he’s done, what he’s still doing and what hopefully he’ll continue to do.”

Giggs credits two things for his longevity – his yoga regime (see his video), and his decision in 2007 to retire from international soccer (to the dismay of fans in his native Wales). He played his first 10 years as a high-scoring left winger with a reputation for clutch performances. As the game of soccer changed, Giggs adapted and found a spot as one of the most prolific and creative midfielders in Premier League history.

He made his first appearance for the club during the 1990–91 season and holds the United record for competitive appearance (870 and climbing) and team trophies won by a player (23). All that came while playing on a very good team in a top league.

“I get asked about Ryan all the time and I always find myself talking about the same attributes — the way he’s looked after his physique, the way he constantly strives to better himself and the way he applies himself to make sure he succeeds,” long-time United manager Sir Alex Ferguson told Goal.com. “He’s a fantastic role-model for young players. Ryan is a model of how to carry yourself, both as a footballer and a human being. He’s shown by sacrifice what can be achieved.”

The 5-foot-11, 157-pound Giggs played in his first UEFA competition in June 1991. But his finest UEFA performances arguably have been this year. In the quarterfinals, Giggs assisted teammate Wayne Rooney’s winner in the first game, then set up Javier Hernández and Park Ji-Sung  in the clincher. Giggs was predictably modest about his contribution:

“I am enjoying it,” Giggs said. “I was fortunate to make the two goals tonight and I am in the position where I put it in the right areas. You’ve got players like Hernández who are just born goal-scorers and they are going to be there.”

Teammates feel the same way about Giggs. He has been there for 20 years. Don’t be surprised if he’s there on 28 May.

— New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

Bottom line: Since 1992, Giggs has collected 11 Premier League winner’s medals and five second-place finishes. He also has four FA Cup winner’s medals, three League Cup winner’s medals and two Champions League winner’s medals. In addition, he has runner-up medals from the Champions League, three FA Cup finals and two League Cup finals.

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Most Americans won’t watch biggest TV sports event of 2011: UEFA Champions League

What if this year’s Super Bowl finalists qualified for broader multi-country tournament – paring the top teams from pro football leagues around the world? Football has no such reach; but futbol does. Unfortunately, this year’s UEFA Champions League is the best event most Americans will miss.

In 2009, a soccer game became the first single sporting event to surpass the Super Bowl in terms of viewership. About 109 million people watched Barcelona (Spain) beat Manchester United (England) 2-0 in the 2009 UEFA final. The next title game of the every-two-year UEFA Champions League is on May 28 in London’s Wembley Stadium. The Round of 16 is under way and hits a critical point this week. Far more people will watch the UEFA championship game than the 111 million for Super Bowl 45. To add drama, both the 2009 finalists are in danger of being upset in the quarterfinals being held this week.

Why should UEFA matter to Americans? First, you must understand the importance of European club soccer to the sport and world.  FIFA, the world’s governing body, is divided into six continental confederations. By far the biggest and strongest in terms of club-level wealth and influence is the Union of European Football Associations, almost called by its French acronym, UEFA (pronounced ew-AY-fa). 

Most of the top players spend time in European leagues because of the salaries available from the world’s wealthiest football clubs, especially in England, Spain, Germany and Italy.  And since UEFA oversees most of the national soccer associations of Europe, its Champions League series draws huge interest globally.

The genius of the Champions League is matching professional clubs instead of national teams, as in the every-four-year FIFA World Cup. Since any club in any country can bid on any player in the world, you hugely internationalize the appeal – and marketing reach – of UEFA teams beyond their geographic borders.  It’s even called the “transfer” market instead of “free agents.” Think of it as talent on loan from the soccer gods.

A few examples from the UEFA Round of 16:

  • Cameroon’s star striker is the tournament’s leading scorer, playing for Italian club Inter Milan.
  • An Argentine superstar is leading defending champion Barcelona of Spain.
  • England’s Manchester United is anchored by a standout Serbian defender.
  • A Swedish striker is the top scorer for Italian club AC Milan.
  • French team Lyon is led by a Brazilian midfielder.
  • Portugal’s national team captain is a key player for Spain’s Real Madrid.
  • Spanish midfielders are leading German club Shalke 04 and English club Arsenal.
  • You get the picture.

Because of the broad global interest, an entire cottage industry has arisen around speculating and analyzing soccer’s transfer market. Think Carmelo Anthony going to the New York Knicks in America’s National Basketball Association was a big deal? England’s Chelsea signed Spanish star Fernando Torres to a record contract worth about $80 million just before the UEFA deadline. Speculation is still rampant on who won and lost in the pre-UEFA maneuvering. The positive side of additional coverage, of course, is we also get stories on player “WAGS” (wives and girlfriends), with lots of bikini photos. The British tabloids get it right on some things.

Of all the team sports, soccer has most successfully marketed its products internationally. Certainly a number of individual sports have cultivated global appeal, in particular golf and tennis. And semi-pro sports festivals like the Olympics always have wide interest. But soccer provides a level playing field for professional player development, allowing even small countries such as Paraguay and The Netherlands to field competitive national teams.

With that kind of solid fan base, you can guarantee broad viewership by attracting the top athletes in soccer. The UEFA Champions League has done that in spectacular fashion. Quite simply, you have some of the best athletes in any sport going head-to-head for very high stakes – including the defending finalists both on the ropes this week. What’s not to like, America?

Who knows, I may even learn a team song before it’s over…

— New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

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‘Groundbreaking’ Arco Arena name elicited tough stance from Sacramento Bee in 1980s

When the Sacramento arena naming-rights contract with Arco expires next week, I’ll have mixed emotions. Something considered to be heartbreaking by Sacramento Bee staffers 25 years ago is being called “groundbreaking” by current editors. Truth is, the name Arco Arena brought a tough and controversial initial response from the local paper. 

Back then, I was sports editor of The Bee, which purchased a table at the Sacramento Kings’ 1985 preseason community luncheon event a few months after the deal to change the name of the 10,333-seat temporary facility from “Kings Arena” to “Arco Arena.” I dreaded going, because all was not well between the team and newspaper. 

The Bee refused to call it Arco Arena in news stories – on the grounds Arco was just placing advertising content in Bee news coverage – and instead called it Kings Arena until the current permanent facility was finished three years later. The Kings’ ownership, then the Sacramento Sports Association, was vocally upset at the decision. Worse for me, our table at the luncheon happened to be near the front – and I was the only Bee representative in-seat when the event began. 

Gregg Lukenbill, then managing general partner of the Kings, looked down at me as he strolled to the podium. We had struggled through numerous private conversations on the issue. He knew I was a loyal-but-less-than-enthusiastic supporter of The Bee’s policy.  I knew he felt our position was pompous if not downright arrogant. Worse, I knew Lukenbill wouldn’t be able to resist a dig: 

“Well, I see the folks from The Bee had trouble finding Kings Arena,” Lukenbill quipped. “I guess they should have followed the signs to Arco Arena like the rest of us.” 

Everyone laughed, but in retrospect it probably summed up things well. Few other media outlets saw it as a problem. However, Bee staffers were significantly split – leading to many interesting discussions over how to handle sports naming rights years before it became de rigueur in international marketing.                           

In those days, editorial decisions at The Bee began and ended with executive editor Gregory Favre, a top-notch newspaper editor who was intensely passionate about excellence in journalism and the role of the press in society. He was recruited from Chicago by C.K. McClatchy and led the rise of The Bee from state to national recognition. He also was an active and knowledgeable sports fan. So when Favre expressed concern over “Arco” being in every news story and picture published about the team and arena, he was not being frivolous. 

To the Kings, converting the warehouse was a way to move the team from Kansas City quickly – and the Arco deal would help fund a new permanent arena. To Favre, this money was being used to promote the oil company, not the facility – which he contended was originally converted and named solely to house the team. He believed Arco was simply buying its way into daily news coverage 

Like many Bee staffers, I agreed but wrestled with how far that should go. This was new turf for mainstream journalists. Were we reporting the truth by calling it something different from the name on the building? Also, how would we handle a photo with prominent Arco logos? You can only crop them out so much. And what about other divisions of the newspaper, such as advertising, circulation and marketing? Were newsroom concerns worth all this? 

The issue came to a head in a standing-room-only meeting of editorial managers plus other guests. Favre sat at the head of the table, per custom. He led a lengthy, wide-ranging and robust discussion. Afterward, he took a straw vote on the issue. The overwhelming consensus was to call it Arco Arena. Favre thanked everyone for their input, announced we would call it Kings Arena until they built a new facility, and that pretty much ended the meeting. 

None of us had any illusions it was a democracy, but the decision affected the newspaper well beyond editorial. Advertising and marketing account managers had to deal with it for years when handling arena events. Some subscribers boycotted briefly. And there were predictably caustic letters-to-the-editor. However, the issue soon lost steam – then went away completely when the permanent arena was built. 

All the angst we expended back then seemed futile, until now. With fewer companies willing to dole out for traditional big-ticket advertising – especially long-term vehicles such as stadium naming – the issue could simply disappear due to irrelevance. I mean, Power Balance Pavilion? Really? 

In the end, the journalistic quandary about free advertising in news stories will be resolved by economics, not ethics. What’s next, advertising on the front page of The Bee? 

New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

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From global soccer perspective, NFL title game is only semi-super

The NFL should be proud of leading the U.S. TV market – by a mile. Especially after producing a title game that broke viewership records. However, its growth will remain domestic because football simply isn’t that popular internationally. Out there, soccer is king – by several kilometers and gaining. 

Sunday night’s Super Bowl 45 (drop the archaic Roman numerals, please), the championship of America’s favorite TV sport, drew a record 111 million viewers. The Nielson Co. estimate tops the 106.5 million who made last year’s Super Bowl the most-watched U.S. television event ever. At No. 3 is my personal choice, the series finale of “M-A-S-H.” It held the top spot for 27 years.

However, consider the Super Bowl’s 111 million from a global sports perspective:

  • An estimated 4.7 billion people watched the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, with an estimated 842 million viewers in China alone.
  • Both the 2010 and  2006 FIFA World Cup finals, soccer’s premier event, were watched by more than 700 million people worldwide.
  • The most popular regular-broadcast sports event and TV program is the top pro soccer league in England, the Barclays Premier League. It is broadcast to 600 million households in 202 countries. And that doesn’t count rampant pirate signals and Internet streams we’ve come to expect from our inventive U.K. friends.

“Outside the U.S., Canada and Mexico, only a couple million people see the Super Bowl — and probably a lot of them are expatriate Americans,” Simon Kuper, co-author of “Soccernomics,” told CNN.

Still, give the NFL credit for focusing on an achievable niche – the lucrative U.S. weekend TV sports market. The league has long understood it has a narrow segment with limited global growth potential. Why? Because football is simply not a participant sport in much of the world. The NFL is content to rule a rich little kingdom, and you can’t blame them. For those outraged at the idea of sports being that popular at all, be at peace. Few sports events compare to viewership of major news:

Add in things like Chilean miner rescues and lunar landings, you get the picture. While the Super Bowl deserves kudos for huge ad sales, six times as many people saw England’s top sports championship game. But I’ll bet the cost per minute for that great VW commercial with the kid Darth Vader was a lot more in the U.S. And that’s the bottom line for the NFL.

As for sports events in 2011, my favorite will be the Round of 16 in soccer’s European club championships, the UEFA Champions League, beginning next week and running off and on for three months. About 109 million people watched Barcelona (Spain) beat Manchester United (England) 2-0 in the 2009 UEFA final. That was the first time another sporting event displaced the Super Bowl in viewership, putting a spotlight on the distinctly American appeal of the NFL’s product. How many Brazilian or Dutch players were in the Super Bowl? Most UEFA clubs are cross-pollinated with top players from other national teams (“transfers” instead of “free agents”), increasing the international flavor and interest.

This year’s Champions League final is May 28. It may not have Aaron Rogers, but I promise you even Ryan Giggs of Manchester United is a more interesting story anyway. Tune in for more.

NewOld Flame (Stan Johnston)

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‘Rudy’ In Disguise: Rams’ Danario Alexander NFL’s feel-good story of year

Imagine if “Rudy” Ruettiger had actually been an outstanding athlete at Notre Dame, but blew out a knee after his senior year. Now imagine Rudy as an undrafted practice-squad project for an NFL team. Any doubt how it would end? Meet Danario Alexander, a feel-good story with Hollywood potential.

Alexander, a talented rookie wide receiver for the St. Louis Rams, went undrafted out of Missouri after injuring his left knee practicing for last year’s Senior Bowl. But he showed he still has legs on Sunday. Alexander had his breakout game for the Rams against the San Francisco 49ers when it mattered most – at home with a playoff berth at stake. He caught six passes from Sam Bradford for 99 yards, including three key first-down receptions – one a sensational 46-yarder to the 49ers’ 3-yard-line that set up the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter (photo to right).

Don’t be surprised if a lot more people are talking about “D.X.” after this Sunday night’s NFC West winner-take-all finale at Seattle. Why?  Everyone but the Rams gave up on Alexander, and that’s when Danario became the next Rudy.

My interest in Alexander’s story began September 2009, early in his senior season. I had attended Mizzou (School of Journalism) and later covered college and pro football for years, so I went to see the Tigers play against Nevada in Reno. It wasn’t a gimme-game for Mizzou. The Wolfpack played them tough (the nation saw the quality of the program this season in their upset of Boise State). The Tigers needed some big plays to escape with a win, and Alexander was the difference. He had nine receptions for 170 yards and two touchdowns – one a 72-yarder.  

After watching him play, I came away convinced Alexander had all the ingredients to be a top-tier pro player. First, he has good height (6-foot-5) for a receiver, an important advantage against cornerbacks in the NFL, especially on red-zone fade routes. He also had good speed even for the NFL – a much faster game than college. And coaches loved his work ethic. I also saw two other strong qualities – he caught the ball with his hands instead of body and was willing to block downfield for teammates. He simply was a complete player. The result:

  • As a senior, Alexander led the nation in receiving with 1,781 yards – averaging 15.8 yards per catch and 137 yards per game. He finished with 113 receptions and 14 touchdowns, shattering most Missouri receiving records along the way.
  • He was named a 2009 first-team All-American by Sports Illustrated among many other awards.
  • He was picked to the Senior Bowl roster, but in practice the week before the all-star game he suffered a potentially career-ending knee injury. That’s when Alexander showed he had more than great skills, but also great heart.

Alexander had surgery on the knee in February 2010, leaving him unable to work out for pro scouts at the NFL Combine or his pro day at Mizzou. Because of that, no team was willing to risk a draft pick on him. However, the Rams signed him to a free-agent contract on Aug. 22 – after the first two exhibition games. Three weeks later they cut him from the active roster, but then signed him to their practice squad.

 At the time, St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney said the team was taking on Alexander as a long-term project, not rushing his progress on the chance the long-term payoff would be worth it. While on the practice squad, he worked hard to strengthen his knee. After five surgeries, the lingering problem became muscle atrophy around his left knee – raising fears he would re-injure himself compensating. Some folks even suggested he take a year off.

“He’s moving around well, we just want to make sure that you don’t put him in a position where he’s going to injure something else,” Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in October.

However, Alexander’s determination and the team’s playoff hunt have accelerated his progress. Measurements in October showed the left leg had caught up, and he was looking better each week on the field. When starter Mark Clayton went down with an injury, the Rams finally signed Alexander to their active roster on Oct. 11. The results: Alexander has been a major factor in three of the Rams’ victories:

  • In Alexander’s first pro game, his 38-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Sam Bradford helped the Rams beat San Diego, 20-17. He had four catches for 72 yards.
  • Against Denver, he had four catches for 95 yards – including a 45-yard reception that led to a touchdown.
  • In Sunday’s victory over the San Francisco 49ers, he had his best pro game when the stakes were highest. Using a four-receiver formation, the Rams were able to match Alexander in the slot against much shorter defenders – and took advantage. His leaping 46-yard reception was the difference.

“It was an awesome catch by Danario,” Bradford told Yahoo! Sports. “I think he always has great body position, seems like he can adjust to the ball wherever it’s thrown. He just keeps himself in good position and ends up getting the ball somehow.”

Though Alexander still looks stiff running routes compared with his college days, he loosened up as the game progressed and was able to get separation from defenders.  The league is paying attention as the playoffs near. By beating the 49ers last week, the Rams put themselves in position to win the NFC West with a victory at Seattle. Don’t be surprised if No. 84 is a big part of the game plan on Sunday. And don’t be surprised if a lot of people are talking about him on Monday. This undrafted rookie could help the Rams make the playoffs for the first time since the 2004 season – after going 1-15 last year.

 That’s when everyone will learn Danario Alexander is Rudy in disguise.

PS: An interesting side story involves Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who told Spagnuolo in early December he thought Alexander deserved more playing time. “He said, ‘put in some plays for Danario,’ ” Spagnuolo told the Post-Dispatch. “They’re going in now. They’re definitely going in. He’s got a lot of pull.” Alexander responded by pulling in passes.

 New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)

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