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Heaven Fitch, 16, has made national headlines after becoming the first girl to win a North Carolina high school wrestling title and an emerging role model for young female grapplers

Heaven Fitch just wanted to be like her three older brothers. At six years old, she followed them onto the wrestling mat and she hasnt stopped since. Two weeks ago, she became the first girl in North Carolina to win an individual state mens wrestling championship.

Fitch, 16, is the only girl on Uwharrie Charter Academys 26-person team in Asheboro, where she recently finished her 11th-grade season with a 54-4 record. She was also named Most Outstanding Wrestler for North Carolinas 1A division. Last year, Fitch placed fourth in the states high school wrestling championships.

Because there are few women around to compete against, Fitch estimates about 95% of her matches from been against boys in her 11 years of competition. She cant hide her preference.

It definitely feels pretty good to pin a guy, she told the Guardian.

Originally from Illinois, Fitch and her siblings grew up watching WWE pro wrestling on Saturday mornings, then recreating the matches wherever they could find room. Not one to keep on the sidelines, Heaven was always in the thick of it. When she asked her parents if she could join the kids wrestling club as its only girl, they didnt hesitate. She had proven her mettle taking punishment from her brothers. My parents are probably the ones who pushed me the most, Fitch said. They always encouraged me.

Alongside her brothers, Heaven competed wherever she could. When the school season ended, the Fitch kids would continue to practice and compete in the circuit outside of it, an intricate track of junior tournaments that eventually lead to Olympic contention. Fitch often practiced five days a week. Sometimes she attended two practices in a day. Every Saturday there would be a tournament, and sometimes Id be back in the wrestling room on Sundays, she said.

When she and her family moved from the Charlotte area to Asheboro, Fitchs parents met with her new coach, Chris Waddell, to make sure she would fit and thrive in the schools program. You could tell she was talented right away, Waddell said. She was one of the hardest workers, if not the hardest worker on the team.

Walking into a wrestling room full of boys wasnt anything new for Fitch, though it still made her nervous. It always is [nerve-wracking], she said. Im a shy person, so I didnt talk the first few months.

Her wrestling partner put her through her paces and her strong work ethic won her the respect and trust of the group. One day, a boy talked to her. Then the rest followed.

The petite Fitch wrestles in the 106lb (48kg) division. She walks around at 102lb, and doesnt have to cut weight like many of her male opponents. This often plays to her disadvantage since wrestlers commonly make weight through dehydration, then are able to pack back on a few extra pounds with fluids.

For her history-making turn two weeks ago, the weight limit was increased to 110lb within regulation. Fitch weighed in at 102lb; her opponents at 110lb. Once rehydrated, her opponents likely weighed closer to 115lb when they met her on the canvas.

Fitch compensates with agility and a tenacious, but controlled pace. Shes proven to be an asset and last year, the team went 41-0.

Shes mentally tough, Waddell said. At this age, I think the only thing thats equal to the boys is core strength. Everything else leg strength, arm strength the boys will be stronger.

Fitchs gender-inspiring win has garnered heavy media attention. She has fielded inquiries from major news outlets around the country. A clip of her state victory went viral. In a podium picture that made the rounds, the silver-haired Fitch beamed from her first-place step, flanked by the less-enthused boys she bested.

Last year people didnt know who she was and they shook their heads when she came out, Waddell said. This year everybody knows her.

Fitch described the attention she has received as overwhelming, but it hasnt detracted from her goal to study medicine in college, whether or not the institution she chooses has a womens wrestling program. She said she is considering a focus on psychiatry, psychology or biology.

I know I could continue to wrestle in college, but its juggling the academics that I need with being able to do this, Fitch said.

Waddell believes Fitch could earn an academic scholarship to the University of North Carolina, which houses one of the stronger mens teams in the country. Though there is no womens team, many female national team competitors train there under the tutelage of the legendary Kenny Monday, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist in freestyle.

Wrestling is the only sport Fitch has ever competed in. She is a straight-A student, sings and plays the ukulele. She listens to alternative music and wears flannel shirts.

The sport continues to be a family affair. Fitchs oldest brother helped coach her Eagles squad this season. Her middle brother has been state placer for North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

In March, Fitch will compete in the Virginia Beach National Championship a rare occasion where she will wrestle other girls. In the off-season, she will pick her training back up again for the world team trials. Whether she decides to pursue wrestling after her senior year or not, her victory, and the attention it has received, will continue to push the womens wrestling movement forward. She has become a role model. A girl from the local middle school team will join her next year. Six more girls will follow behind them.

Heaven is one of a kind, Waddell said. A great wrestler, a great musician. Most important, shes a good person.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/mar/03/heaven-fitch-female-wrestler-north-carolina

Annoyed Garth Brooks fans ripped the musician when they mistook his tribute for legendary NFL running back Barry Sanders as a presidential endorsement

Leave it to the internet to interpret Garth Brooks wearing a Barry Sanders jersey during a concert in Detroit as a political endorsement of a certain liberal presidential candidate.

The more than 70,000 fans who attended the country music stars 22 February show at Ford Field understood it for what it was: a tribute to one of greatest NFL running backs and Detroit Lions players ever.

Brooks told the audience that he donned Sanders No 20 jersey to pay homage to him since they both went to Oklahoma State University.

I was lucky to go to school with him, Brooks said. You guys got the greatest player in NFL history, in my opinion, in this jersey. I love this man.

After the show, Brooks posted a photo on social media of himself wearing the jersey, which has Sanders and 20 emblazoned on the back. Thats where the trouble started.

Annoyed fans ripped Brooks in the comment sections under the photo, believing he was endorsing Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and the self-proclaimed democratic socialists 2020 presidential campaign.

I had no idea you were a big freaking liberal socialist! Ive listened to your songs for the last time! one person wrote.

Another wrote, If this is for Bernie Sanders, Im done with you. I thought you were a true American that loves our country.

Others, though, pointed out the apparent confusion over Brooks post or made fun of those who read too much into it.

How much did KFC pay you to wear this? a commenter wrote, referring to another famous Sanders: Colonel.

Jason Vincent (@jasoncvincent)

Facebook forgot who Barry Sanders is and is freaking out at Garth Brooks for wearing a jersey and Im dying. pic.twitter.com/wVfAKU7Cn1

February 27, 2020

Theres no indication of who Brooks supports politically, though he performed at former Democratic president Barack Obamas 2009 inauguration.

The widely adored Brooks also has a track record of songs that were regarded as too progressive for country radio, most memorably 1992s We Shall Be Free, a call for racial and LGBT tolerance.

The music video for the song, written in response to the Rodney King verdict, included footage of riots, the Ku Klux Klan, flag burnings and dozens of celebrity cameos and was deemed too controversial for television after NBC promised to air it before Super Bowl XXVII which prompted Brooks to walk out of his scheduled pre-game performance of the national anthem unless the network agreed to air it. (NBC relented and Brooks performed.)

Bernie Sanders hadnt weighed in on the matter as of Friday afternoon, but the Hall of Fame running back took it in stride, tweeting his fellow OSU alum, Hey @garthbrooks, want to be my VP? #Number20For2020.

Brooks responded in jest, I would run any race with you! #Number20for2020 HA!!!

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/feb/28/garth-brooks-bernie-sanders-barry-instagram

The quarterback was an afterthought less than two years ago: now he is the star of LSUs successful national championship campaign

It looked like Mardi Gras come early: purple and gold confetti on green turf, laws fallen by the wayside for this one night, at least. Down here in New Orleans theyre always more like suggestions anyway: a red light means pause, sip a beer in the passenger seat, and no smoking in the Superdome means light a fat cigar. So there was Joe Burrow on Monday night, still in uniform but taking a few long puffs before detailing exactly how he and his LSU team, college football national champions now, had just dismantled Clemson, 42-25.

Barely an hour earlier, Burrow threw his 60th touchdown pass of the season, setting a new NCAA single-season record. The quarterback had rebounded from a first quarter in which LSU punted on their first three drives to finish with 463 passing yards, five touchdown passes and another touchdown run. He won the Heisman Trophy last month, will likely be the NFL drafts first pick in another three, and on Monday he handed off his cigar for safekeeping before making his public comments. This is special, he said. This doesnt happen this doesnt come around every year. This is a special group of guys that really came together, and its as close of a group as Ive ever been around.

It was almost, though, a group Burrow never met. Raised primarily in Athens, Ohio, the quarterback chose Ohio State out of high school. He never shed his backup role there, though, and transferred to LSU less than two years ago, arriving as a graduate transfer in the summer of 2018. He won the Tigers starting job on the eve of that season, and he led the team to 10 wins, with unspectacular numbers.

Now, 15 games and 15 wins later, hes a Louisiana folk hero a title he questioned with a smile as Monday night became Tuesday morning. This is going to be remembered for a long time, Burrow said before exiting the Superdomes interview room. Coach Ed Orgeron growled after him: Take it easy on that cigar.

Burrow ignored the admonition, and that cigar waited to be gripped in the hand that mesmerized college football all season, that racked up 5,671 yards and a 76.3% completion rate. But those numbers only tell half the story, which is as much about accuracy as arm strength, as much about brawn as the ability to throw into coverage and land nearly every pass in a square inch of perfection. Often Burrow does so under pressure, too, doing far more than simply scrambling to save field position; hell scramble, save field position and lob the ball square into a receivers hands downfield. Thats just Joe, running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire said.

When Orgeron set out to recruit Burrow to LSU in 2018, the quarterback was persuaded after a single phone call. His visit was almost a formality and with this seasons championship, both men proved their gut instincts correct. Orgeron locked in on a high school star whod barely seen the field in college. Burrow trusted an ace recruiter who hadnt fielded an elite team as a head coach, who led a program thats struggled to convert talent into a consistent top-10 presence. That was the knock on former LSU coach Les Miless teams: He could sure turn out a draft class, but what had those teams done on Saturdays? When Orgeron was promoted in 2016, some wondered if LSU was in for more of the same: Coach O, with his gravely Cajun rumble and gruff endearment, could certainly sign top recruits, but could he get them to play as a team that might unseat Alabama?

Monday proved he could. Every game in 2019 proved it, over and over, thanks to Burrow; to Joe Brady, the 30-year-old passing game coordinator lured from the Saints last year; to Steve Ensminger, the veteran offensive coordinator whos been at LSU since 2010 and who was promoted last year. Orgeron can recruit, sure enough players and coaches and brilliant minds to complement his vision for a program that just won its first title since 2007. He wins them over wins everyone over with talk of fil in his gumbo and Cajun French, with his name for this place where hes just become legend: the Great State of Louisiana.

On the confetti-carpeted turf, Orgeron spoke and fans danced. Louisiana is easy to put to music, and it blared: Callin Baton Rouge, Louisiana Saturday Night. Interviews, when attempted, were borderline incomprehensible over the sound of a state in song. One cut through the noise, though. Asked if he thinks hes been a part of the greatest team in LSU history, tight end Thaddeus Moss doubled down, loudly: The greatest team in college football history, and it feels great.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/jan/14/joe-burrow-from-back-up-quarterback-to-likely-nfl-no1-overall-pick

There was sympathy for the latest head coach to fail at Madison Square Garden. But the team make nothing but bad decisions

David Fizdale, the recently fired head coach of the New York Knicks, is not a martyr, though youd be forgiven for any confusion. Luminaries such as San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and LeBron James have eulogized Fizdale as if he were a doomed hero tossed into war by negligent leadership. On those terms, his NBA death isnt so bad: Fizdale will cash some $17m in checks from the leagues most dysfunctional franchise over the next two seasons, a happy return for him on 18 months of forgettable work. To be clear: his bosses did suck, and the roster was wretched, but Fizdale didnt really give the world any reason to mourn him, either.

The widespread support for the canned coach comes as no surprise. Across the league, the youngish, charismatic Fizdale is about as admired as the ancient, accursed Knicks are ridiculed. Players get along with him. He seems to be a good guy. In fact, Fizdales talent for relationship building was a major reason he was invited to helm the wayward Knicks ahead of the 2018-19 season. The Knicks ended that campaign with an NBA-worst 17-65 record; at the time of his firing, their 4-18 record was the worst of the current season. By December, Fizdale hadnt refined anything but his face of bespectacled befuddlement on the sideline, and the only case that could be made for him keeping the job was continuity. From a distance, it is easy to write off Fizdales failure as inevitable, but it was surely possible to fail prettier. For those who watched many of his 104 games a fate I would wish on no one it was not clear that any aspect of the basketball team, no matter how small, looked any better than the day he took over.

What was clear from the start was that Fizdale would be graded on an extremely generous curve. Franchise cornerstone Kristaps Porzingis got hurt and then fled to the Dallas Mavericks in a trade in early 2019, justifiably afraid his career would be stymied in New York. None of the roster changes since then have made the Knicks anything but a bottom-dweller; despite a lot of public bluster and salary cap maneuvering, the Knicks failed to lure a superstar this summer. Perennial All-Stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were linked to the Knicks instead they joined New Yorks other, less famous team, the Brooklyn Nets. Fizdale could not have been expected to guide this team to the playoffs, or even a weekly win.

And any fan purely fixated on win-loss columns at this juncture of the teams history is deeply unwell, even by Knicks standards. What a right-thinking fan wants to see what keeps a masochist watching the actual games is the occasional glimpse of a less dismal future. If the young players looked to be learning good habits, shaking off bad ones, developing synergies with one another, and having anything upwards of a miserable time, then I too would be lamenting Fizdales untimely exit. But the Knicks have a core of players aged 22 and under, unrefined but interesting, and all of those players stagnated on Fizdales watch. Some even got worse. It is difficult to locate the teaching moment in the consecutive 44- and 37-point routs last week, Fizdales final outings as head coach. Forget the coach: the real tragedy here is any player who has had the misfortune of getting drafted by, or traded to, these Knicks at a formative age. Lets take a look at the evidence:

— Mitchell Robinson, 21, a steal in the second-round of last years draft, is a light-footed giant with upside as an elite rim protector. His worst tendency racking up silly fouls has only worsened, and his limited offensive skillset has not grown at all beyond the usual lobs and cleanup work.

— Kevin Knox, 20, was allowed to experiment during his atrocious rookie season, but was abruptly given short shrift this campaign, and was benched for whole games. He remains a brick-footed liability on defense; Fizdale extended this flaw to logical absurdity by having him guard smaller, faster, shooting guards on occasion.

— Dennis Smith Jr, 22, the main return in the Porzingis trade, has done nothing but regress. At his nadir, he appeared to be fighting back tears while Knicks fans at Madison Square Garden clamored for him to be substituted. With every passing week, it becomes harder to envision a future for him as even a quality reserve.

— Frank Ntilikina, 21, the best perimeter defender this team has seen in a decade a low bar languished on the bench for months, and only cracked the rotation as a last resort after injury and family tragedy sidelined all other point guards on the roster. His offense remains in question, partially due to neglect.

These players werent given the opportunity to grow. Fizdales line-up decisions were frequently baffling. Some players would be yanked after tiny errors, while others were permitted to fail extravagantly for 30 minutes a night. The few players on the roster capable of putting the ball in the hoop from distance stayed glued to the bench, leading the Knicks to a league-worst offense. Julius Randle, an efficient scorer with the New Orleans Pelicans last season and presently the highest-paid Knick, is playing some of the worst basketball of his life, which should partially be blamed on the way Fizdale has deployed him in isolation-heavy schemes. I dont hear anyone bitching about Houston isolating, the coach protested when asked about his strategy. When Houstons James Harden isolates, the result is a stepback three or free throws. When Julius Randle isolates, the result is a predictable spin move into three defenders as the basketball bonks off his kneecap. Theres a difference.

What softens the blame on Fizdale is the realization that, while he might have played his hand poorly, he was still dealt an awful one by general manager Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, who assembled a roster by dream logic. Smart rebuilding teams opt to shoulder albatross contracts to grab other teams draft picks, and then afford their developing players lots of minutes. The Knicks instead opted to sign a slew of veterans on mercenary one-year deals with the apparent hope that they could be flipped for picks midseason. Each of these signings makes some sense in isolation you do need to pick up some experienced players who know what theyre doing but in conjunction they form one of the most muddled, redundant rosters in recent NBA history. Smart teams are asking how much three-point shooting and ball-handling they can pump into their roster; the Knicks, meanwhile, are wondering, what if we built the whole thing out of power forward? Moreover, the incentive to showcase these mediocre veterans for a hypothetical trade conflicted with the incentive to develop the youngsters who comprise the teams actual future. Fizdale wound up failing on both fronts. But his exit does not absolve the incompetents who saddled him with this roster and those dueling incentives in the first place.

And the blame doesnt rest at Mills and Perry, either. With this team, you always have to keep moving up the ladder. The tragedy of the modern Knicks can be traced to the fact that a billionaire named James Dolan has bad taste. Not only, or especially, in blues music, a pursuit that means far more to him than his ownership of the Knicks but in terms of basketball personnel, too. Back in 2014, Dolan hired Phil Jackson, who amassed 11 titles coaching players like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, to be president of a team full of players profoundly unlike Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Dolan hoped that Jacksons coaching pedigree would translate well to an executive role; he was instead exposed as an anachronistic mystic. After firing Jackson in 2017, Dolan replaced him with Mills, who came to the Knicks without prior NBA experience and still, arguably, has no NBA experience. The Knicks have made a number of devastating transactions over the past decade, and the owner is thought to have stuck a meddling thumb in many of them. Many observers, this one included, believe the Knicks have no true path to respectability until the owner disentangles himself from the franchise.

But NBA owners are hard to oust unless theyre captured saying something racist on tape. The Knicks sell out the Garden even when theyre the literal worst team in the league, removing the market incentives for a better on-court experience. James Dolan persists. And he is said to have his eye on a new candidate for president of the Knicks: Masai Ujiri, the brilliant executive who assembled the 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors, a team that weathered the departure of one of the best players in the universe, Kawhi Leonard as well as they possibly could have. Ujiri, for reasons unknown, reportedly reciprocates the interest. Will he be just another popular figure foiled by an excellence-proof organization? Will Knicks fans hail him as a messiah, entering another cycle of cautious hope and crushing loss? Anyone who has read this far knows the answer to both questions.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/dec/10/david-fizdale-was-another-example-of-the-tragedy-of-the-knicks-bad-taste

The future of the Calgary Flames coach is under question while the NHL and his team investigate allegations he directed racist slurs at a Nigerian-born player

The future of Bill Peters, the Calgary Flames coach, is under question while the NHL and his team investigate allegations he directed racist slurs at a Nigerian-born player in the minors 10 years ago.

Akim Aliu alleged on social media earlier this week that Peters dropped the N bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didnt like my choice of music. Aliu and Peters were together during the 2009-10 season with the Chicago Blackhawks minor-league affiliate in Rockford, Illinois.

Allegations of this nature, we take very, very seriously. This is subject matter that has no place in our organization, said Flames general manager Brad Treliving. Now its my job to find out exactly whats taken place.

He said he had spoken with Peters and has had two conversations with Aliu by phone. Treliving offered no timeline for the investigation and later announced Peters would coach the team against the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night. Associate coach Geoff Ward will handle the coaching duties in Peters place.

The NHL called the alleged behavior repugnant and unacceptable, but held off commenting pending further investigation.

Aliu has since expanded on his allegations by telling Canadas TSN sports cable network that Peters made the remarks in Rockfords dressing room, calling out his choice of music with a brief tirade marked by profanities and the n-word in front of several teammates. He then walked out like nothing ever happened, Aliu said. You could hear a pin drop in the room, everything went dead silent. I just sat down in my stall, didnt say a word. Two of Alius teammates, Simon Pepin and Peter MacArthur, corroborated the story to TSN.

Aliu referred to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a reason he stayed quiet for so long. Kaepernick has spent the past two-plus seasons out of football since he began kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games to protest police brutality and racial injustice. This isnt to the degree of Kaepernick by any means, but if you play the race card, its most likely the end of your career, Aliu told TSN. This isnt me being bitter. I sat on this a really, really long time. It broke my heart. I think it made my career go downhill before it started.

Flames players were blindsided by the allegations against the second-year coach. Defenseman Oliver Kylington, whose mother is Eritrean and father Swedish, said Peters has always treated him fairly, and yet respected Aliu for voicing his complaints.
If he felt like those words have been said, I really respect that hes speaking out, Kylington said. Words like that should never, ever be said.

Flames captain Mark Giordano called it a really tough situation for the men involved and the franchise. I think we all know theres no place for any of that sort of stuff in society, but also you have to respect that the allegations are just that right now, and youve got to go through the process, Giordano said.

Alius tweet came after reports surfaced of how poorly Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock dealt with his players in Toronto before he was fired several days ago. Forward Mitch Marner confirmed that during his rookie season Babcock asked him to rank Maple Leafs players in order of hardest to least-hardest working. Babcock then shared Marners list with numerous players. Aliu noted Peters was Babcocks protege.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/nov/27/bill-peters-racism-allegations-calgary-flames-nhl

This week the Chargers owner denied his team will relocate to London. But such rumors are unsurprising when home support struggles

The Los Angeles Chargers returned to southern California on Sunday after playing the previous two weeks on the road, but it didnt make much difference. Home-field advantage doesnt really apply to the Chargers, not when visiting fans routinely make the team feel like theyre behind enemy lines in their own stadium. That was the case again on Sunday, when the Chargers hosted the Green Bay Packers. The predominant color in the stands was the green of the visitors, and the cheers rang out louder for Aaron Rodgers than Philip Rivers. The home team won, convincingly at that, but most people left the stadium disappointed.

It has become one of the peculiar features of the NFL calendar since both the Chargers and Rams relocated to Los Angeles in 2017, marking a reunion between Americas second-largest market and its most popular sporting league: more often than not, the teams home games look and sound like home games for the opposition. Chargers players were showered with boos when they took the field against the visiting Philadelphia Eagles two years ago. The Rams got the same treatment last season at home against the Packers. Both Rivers, the Chargers quarterback, and Rams quarterback Jared Goff have regularly been forced to use a silent count to combat the noise generated by the away sides fans, typically an unnecessary measure to take for a team playing at home.

Its certainly not ideal, Rivers said with a hint of resignation after the 2017 game against the Eagles. The home-field hostility hit a fresh apex for both teams on the same Sunday last month. That afternoon, the Rams were overwhelmed on the field and in the stands, which were blanketed by the red of the visiting San Francisco 49ers. This turned into a home game pretty quickly, said San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after the game. Ive never seen anything like it.

It hasnt been quite as enjoyable for the ostensible home teams. A few hours later that day, the Chargers hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose fans roared with approval when the stadium PA system blasted their teams adopted anthem, Renegade by Styx. It was supposed to be a gag; the song eventually transitioned to Never Gonna Give You Up by Rick Astley, the punctuation to a long-running internet prank. But the joke didnt land, and Chargers players were miffed.

It was crazy, Chargers running back Melvin Gordon said. They started playing [the Steeelers] theme music. I dont know what we were doing that little soundtrack, what they do on their home games. I dont know why we played that. Chargers offensive lineman Forrest Lamp was more blunt: Were used to not having any fans here. It does suck, though, when theyre playing their music in the fourth quarter. Were the ones at home. I dont know whos in charge of that, but they probably should be fired.

The go-to line from Rams and Chargers brass is that it will take time to cultivate a true fan base in Los Angeles. Chargers owner Dean Spanos, who engineered the franchises move from San Diego after voters there rejected his bid for public funding of a new stadium, told the New York Times earlier this year that it will take maybe a generation for the team to find its footing in LA. On Tuesday this week, he was forced to deny rumors the team has discussed relocating to London.

The two Los Angeles teams have varying histories in the city. The Chargers played their inaugural season there in 1960 before decamping for San Diego, where they remained for 56 years. The Rams have deeper roots in Los Angeles, playing in the area for 48 years beginning in 1946. But in 1995, the Rams moved to St Louis and the Raiders went up the coast to Oakland, leaving LA without an NFL franchise.

Its going to take us some time to build the fan base back up again, said Ralph Valdez, the president and founder of the So Cal Rams Booster Club. The Rams were gone for 21 years, and there were a lot of people who were left without a team to follow.

Valdez started the group in 2004, when the Rams were just four years removed from winning a Super Bowl in St Louis, but he has been a fan since watching the team as a kid in the 1960s. Once I saw the horns on the helmet, I was like, Im gonna follow them for the rest of my life, he said. They could be in Egypt. Thats still going to be my team.

Both LA teams are currently playing in temporary home stadiums the Rams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the permanent home of the University of Southern Californias football team; the Chargers at the 27,000-seat Dignity Health Sports Park, which serves as the home for the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer before moving to the $5bn SoFi Stadium in the suburb of Inglewood next year. There is hope that the opening of the stadium, which will host the Super Bowl in 2022 and is expected to host the main opening ceremony for the 2028 Summer Olympics, will deepen the bond between the teams and the city.

49ers
49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo described a recent meeting in Los Angeles as a home game for his team.
Photograph: John Locher/AP

When we get to Inglewood, thats our home. Thats the Rams opportunity to start gathering new fans, Valdez said. When you have a home, you can build something.
He added: In 10 or 15 years, youre still going to have fans of other teams [in Los Angeles]. But their kids, their grandkids, I would expect them to be Rams fans.

Perhaps. But to some outside observers, the recurring sight of away fans swarming Chargers and Rams home games has made the NFLs return to Los Angeles look frivolous. Zero teams in Los Angeles that wasnt enough. Twos clearly too many, said ESPN anchor Scott Van Pelt in a commentary that aired last month. There are NFL fans in Los Angeles, plenty of them. Most of them just root for other teams. And theyre going to have a fancy new place to see them play when they come to town.

The Chargers and Rams are not only contending with lost time in their bid to attract fans. With the proliferation of apps like SeatGeek and StubHub, through which customers can easily buy and resell tickets, the away fan takeover has become ubiquitous and not just in Los Angeles. Fans of the Minnesota Vikings flooded Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday for the teams away game against the Kansas City Chiefs, generating as much noise as the home supporters and performing their signature skol chant with impunity. New England Patriots fans turned out in droves for the teams road game last month against Washington; they did the same two weeks later when the Patriots played at the New York Jets. When iconic teams like the Patriots, Steelers, Packers or Dallas Cowboys come to town, whether in Los Angeles or elsewhere, the home fans are always at risk of being outnumbered. Resale ticket prices are an average of 53% higher than a typical game when the Packers are visiting, according to figures provided by SeatGeek. They are 55% higher for Cowboys road games. That can be enticing for a season-ticket holder, looking to resell a ticket.

Barry Svrluga (@barrysvrluga)

The walk from the Metro to FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins. pic.twitter.com/nQJfjTyz8t

October 6, 2019

Johnny Abundez, a member of the Chargers fan group Bolt Pride who lives in the San Diego area, expected Packers fans to account for about 80% of attendees at Sundays game, a projection that was easily corroborated both by those at the stadium and those watching on television.

I know Chargers fans who sold cheap seats for $350 to that game, Abundez said. Im not one to judge. I know a lot of Chargers fans who like watching the game on TV.

Abundez said that southern California, with its high concentration of transplants and warm climate, is particularly vulnerable to the away fan takeover. New York Yankees fans turned out en masse for the teams road trip against the Los Angeles Dodgers in August. And while the Los Angeles Clippers are NBA contenders now, the teams home games have long attracted throngs of visiting fans. It happened frequently to the Chargers in San Diego, too. San Diego is a military community, Abundez said. And once it gets to this time of the year, you see snow and rain in the Midwest and on the East Coast, and we have beautiful weather out here.

For Valdez, however, the secondary ticket market has been a source of frustration. His Rams group encourages members to sell to supporters of the home team.

I dont understand people who call themselves Rams fans and who are selling their tickets to make a premium, Valdez said. We tell them that if theyre going to sell them, sell them to Rams fans.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/nov/07/away-fans-nfl-los-angeles-rams-chargers-home-crowds

When Shakira lost her voice she was so desperate she went to Lourdes. Now its back and after re-evaluating her life shes got her sights set on a J Lo-assisted Super Bowl show

There was a time, in late 2017, when Shakira thought she might never sing again. After suffering a haemorrhage in her vocal cords, she could barely speak. I always thought there were going to be things in my life that would go away, like beauty, youth, all of that stuff, she says. But I never thought that my voice would leave me, because its so inherent to my nature. It was my identity. So when I couldnt sing, that was unbearable. There were times I couldnt even get out of bed I was so depressed.

Theres something almost fairytale-like about this: a cautionary fable about the danger of taking happiness for granted, starring the Colombian singer who sold a reported 75m records and became one of the richest women in pop. To give her voice the best chance to recover, there were periods when Shakira wouldnt speak at all. I had to communicate through signs and nobody could understand me.

Her children then two and four couldnt read, so writing didnt help. She says she never fought with her partner, the Barcelona defender Gerard Piqu, so much as when she couldnt speak. He jokes that you would think you would want your wife to shut up but when I had to remain quiet, he felt like one of those ex-convicts who are given their freedom and dont know what to do with it. How did she stay positive? I was not positive. I was so pessimistic. I was a bitter person to be around. She laughs. Gerard saw the worst of me.

Doctors told her she needed surgery, but she wasnt convinced it would work. Instead she tried hypnosis and meditation, even going to Lourdes to get holy water. Either I needed surgery or divine intervention. When her voice eventually returned, without an operation, it felt like I was having some kind of religious experience. On her El Dorado tour, which shed been forced to postpone, every night on stage was a gift.

A film of the tour is about to be released, which is why were meeting in a hotel suite in Barcelona, by the window in the late afternoon, a darkening sky outside. Shakira sits cross-legged and tiny in a giant armchair, eating gummy sweets. A publicist is somewhere across the room in the shadows.

Watch a trailer for Shakiras El Dorado tour film

There is a palpable joy to Shakiras concert performances, filmed mostly at her Los Angeles show in August last year. She dances in sparkly fishnet leggings, her voice filling the stadium as she sings such Spanish-language favourites as Chantaje and her English-language crossover hits, including Whenever, Wherever and She Wolf. She thinks the experience has made her a better singer. You go out in search of affirmation that youre good, that people like you. But this time it was different I was out there because I wanted to feel the pleasure of singing.

In February, Shakira will perform with Jennifer Lopez at the Super Bowl half-time show, viewed as a career high for many artists. At least it was until 2016 and the NFLs treatment of the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had started kneeling during the national anthem in protest at racial inequality and police brutality. Many artists, in solidarity with Kaepernick, reportedly turned down the chance to perform at half-time. Did his protest have any impact on her decision to take to the stage? She looks down. Well, you know, I think its the right thing to do for the Latino community because weve also been through so much in Trumps America, with walls being built and She doesnt finish the sentence. Its an opportunity to celebrate our culture, you know?

Why has Latin pop become so big? Well, it was about time, says Shakira. Now 42, she wrote her first songs at just eight and recorded her first album, Magia, at 13. When I started, Colombia had a nonexistent pop scene. I had to overcome so many obstacles to become an international pop singer. Later on, even when I crossed over to the Anglo-American market, I had to fight my own record company to put out music like Hips Dont Lie. My music always had some kind of fusion Colombian and Middle Eastern influences, so it made my path even harder.

She lives in Barcelona with Piqu and their two sons. This tour is her first as a mother. I had no idea how this was going to feel, she says. At some points, I thought it was going to be impossible. My kids were so little, running around amok. She tried to arrange the dates so they would coincide with school holidays and they could be with her, but other times they stayed at home with Piqu. Those separation periods were hard.

Keeping
Keeping the balance Shakira and Gerard Piqu, with their sons Milan, left, and Sasha at a New York basketball game in 2017. Photograph: James Devaney/Getty Images

Being a mother, she says, is the hardest job Ive ever done. Im never sure if Im doing it right. Im always second-guessing myself. I love being a mother but its challenging to keep the balance to not let motherhood prevent you from reading a good book, going out with your boyfriend-slash-husband, having an adult conversation. Has it affected her creativity? It could if you dont protect and defend that space.

Her children attended her show for the first time and saw their mother perform to tens of thousands of emotional fans. In the film, there is footage of her sons with their father, watching Shakira and looking a little bewildered. It must have blown their little minds. Yeah, I think a little too much. Im trying to give them some normalcy and thats one of the hardest things, because were not normal. At least, we are normal people but our lives are very unnatural in a way. We try to hide all the unnatural things and pretend were a regular family.

Its a work in progress, she says. I dont want to overload them with every single detail of my career, or every victory. Im more interested in them learning about the obstacles, my difficulties and their dads. They werent born when I was back in Colombia and every single door was shut in my face. Those are the stories I want to tell them because life isnt always easy. Not everything happens as you planned.

Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll grew up in Barranquilla, on the coast of northern Colombia. Her father, who is Lebanese but grew up in Colombia, ran a successful jewellery business until he went bankrupt when Shakira was a child. She and her mother went to stay in the US for a while and, when they returned, her father had sold everything, including their furniture, to pay debts. Though largely insulated from the countrys decades-long armed conflict, she was still very aware of it. When youre born in a country where there is huge social strife, and a few people have a lot and a lot of people have nothing, you grow up intolerant to that inequality.

Every Friday, her Catholic school would send its students into poor neighbourhoods to teach other children how to read and write. It was almost an impossible task. They were barefoot, shirtless in the sun. There were no proper resources or infrastructure. It was so unfair that some kids were able to go school and university, but for others that wasnt an option. I had to succeed, make money, become someone relevant in society, because I felt that only that way could I do something.

When her third album Pies Descalzos (Barefoot) was a hit, Shakira taught herself English, released the crossover album Laundry Service and became an international star. She also started the Pies Descalzos Foundation, which opens and funds schools in Colombia. She has since campaigned for education on the global stage, advised committees and presidents and formed an unlikely friendship with the former British prime minister Gordon Brown.

Her reputation as an activist and philanthropist took a hit this summer when she appeared in court in Spain answering allegations that she had avoided 14.5m in taxes. A statement released at the time said the singer had paid all tax due, and the issue was about when she had become resident in Spain (previously, she had been resident in the Bahamas; in 2017, she was also named in the Paradise Papers, the investigation into offshore finances). But she wont talk about any of this, says her PR, because of the legal issues involved.

Palpable
Palpable joy Shakira in concert. Photograph: Xavi Menos

The film portrays her as fiercely determined, with laser-focused knowledge of what she wants. I am very structured and I make the rules, she says at one point, sitting on a private jet, travelling between shows, and I dont allow myself to fail. That sounds exhausting, I say, and she laughs. I dont remember saying that, but maybe I say so many things. Actually, with time Ive learned that you have to allow yourself to make mistakes. I guess we all have a little fear of failure we were trained that way but its true, its an exhausting way of living. Does she still have a fear of failure? Of course. But I fear other things a lot more. I fear for my familys health, their wellbeing. There are things that are much more important than personal and professional success.

That doesnt mean shes ready to take her foot off the gas. I want to continue growing and continue being an interesting lady. There are so many other things that I still want to achieve. Such as? Like one day waking up on a farm and being able to just mow the lawn, and milk some cows. One day I want to have a farm life. I dont think I could ever be bored of being in nature. Eat all I want. Sometimes I think theres going to be more to life than my actual life.

She smiles, not entirely serious. I dont believe her anyway. There is a shot of her at the end of her concert, a tiny tornado, all wild hair and pink leopard-print, performing an inhuman leap. She looks as if she couldnt be anywhere else.

Shakira in Concert: El Dorado World Tour is in cinemas worldwide on 13 November via Trafalgar Releasing. Find your local cinema at shakira.film.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2019/nov/11/shakira-interview-singing-el-dorado-tour-film-super-bowl

Prior to the victory over the Golden State Warriors, many had fallen victim to the music stars reputation for bringing bad luck

His repeated interactions with athletes before critical games and their subsequent losses have earned Drake the unfortunate reputation of bringing bad fortune to teams. But one historic basketball game may have broken the curse.

High-profile victims of the so-called Drake curse include Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose team lost to Everton three days after meeting the Canadian rapper in London, and Paris Saint-Germain, who had their biggest loss in almost two decades after defender Layvin Kurzawa posed for a picture with him.

Also, boxer Anthony Joshua was so confident before his fight with Andy Ruiz Jr that he posted a photo with Drake on Instagram with the caption bout to break the curse only to subsequently lose to his little-known rival.

Such is the extent of Drakes reputation for bringing bad luck that AS Roma enforced a tongue-in-cheek ban on its players taking pictures with the star until the end of the season.

But following the Toronto Raptors historic 114-110 win over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night, which made them the first ever Canadian NBA champions, Drakes cursed influence appears for now at least to be over.

Following the game, an exultant Drake, a Raptors mega-fan who, as the official global ambassador of his hometown team, has been a court-side fixture throughout the finals, declared the curse null and void. Wearing a 2019 champions baseball cap he said: They said I was a curse, now they cursing each other out.

As well as announcing that he would be releasing not one but two songs to celebrate the victory Omert and Money in the Grave (ft. Rick Ross), he took the opportunity to gloat to Warriors guard Klay Thompson.

Yo Klay! when youre wakeboarding this summer in your Quicksilver shorts when you see me, you better wave. Friendly, too, he said.

His erratic and highly meme-able court-side posturing and emotional outbursts during the playoffs have attracted almost as much attention as the players on court. Drake taunted opposing players, wore provocative clothing, gesticulated wildly and even gave Raptors coach Nick Nurse a quick shoulder rub.

Drake described the Raptors win as poetic. And said: We did this off of heart. We did this off of love. We willed this into existence.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/14/the-drake-curse-canadian-rapper-vindicated-after-raptors-nba-championship-win

The touted No2 pick in this weeks NFL draft has scrubbed his social media of conservative views. But fans and teammates value winning above politics

Take a trip through Nick Bosas social media accounts and you will find something interesting: the projected No2 overall pick has been deleting tweets and Instagram likes in the run-up to the NFL draft.

Bosa and his representatives have taken to systematically scrubbing the players social media, removing supportive references to President Trump, tweets about Colin Kaepernick (who he called a clown), and removing likes from Instagram posts on pictures that included the n-word and homophobic slurs in their captions.

The former Ohio State pass-rusher is expected to be selected second overall on Thursday night by the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernicks former team, though there is still a chance he will be taken with the first overall pick. Interestingly, it appears Bosa made the changes to his social media specifically because he is going to a city considered a liberal haven. I had to, Bosa told ESPN in a story published this month about his deleted posts. There is a chance I might end up in San Francisco.

The first thing that should be said is that Bosa shouldnt just scrub those likes of posts involving homophobia and the n-word: he should apologise and renounce bigotry. As for his other posts on Trump and Kaepernick: he is perfectly entitled to his political views. Which raises an interesting question: how should players balance their marketability with their off-field opinions? There is no right or wrong answer. It depends on your perspective, your priorities.

Colin Kaepernick took a knee knowing he could be ostracised from the NFL. But giving his community a voice was more important to him than slinging footballs, no matter how much he loved his job. Bosas priorities appear different. The younger brother of Charger All-Pro Joey, and son of John, an ex-NFL pro with the Dolphins, Nicks family is well versed in the business of football and its commercial impact. His decision makes financial sense. But his lack of conviction is jarring.

Whether you agree or disagree with Bosas politics is beside the point. If he truly believed, like really believed in these causes and views, he would use that to promote his message, the way Chris Long, Michael Bennett and Kaepernick have done. San Francisco is liberal, sure. Maybe you distance yourself from some folks in the locker room. Maybe some of the Niners more liberal base grabs a Garoppolo jersey instead of a Bosa one. But you show conviction, not timidity. Rational people can respect that.

Besides, the reality of sports is this: winning cures all and most fans and teammates have an ability to avert their gaze as long as the sacks and pressures and Ws are flowing. Its sad, but its the truth. As long as Bosa is devouring quarterbacks, it wont matter if hes battling a cocaine addiction or getting a DUI with a stack of guns and a child in the car. Dallas fans still cheered for Greg Hardy despite a domestic violence incident that included throwing a woman onto a bed of guns. Fans and other players will wince at those headlines. Then go back to rooting for the name on the front of the jersey, ignoring the sins of the name on its back.

By comparison, questionable social media activity is small potatoes. And heres the other thing: just because the tweets and likes are deleted, doesnt mean theyre gone for good. Screen grabs and memories live on. If a Niners fan has already checked out on Bosa due to their support for Kaepernick or their political leanings, deleting tweets will not change their mind. And you can bet theyll still let out the slightest of fist pumps when Bosa drops Jameis Winston in week one. For some like Kaepernick having your voice heard is more important than the extra dollars from a sponsorship deal or jersey sales. For Bosa, its clear that its not.

Top five players in this years draft

Note: these are the most talented players available, not a prediction of the order in which they will be picked.

1) Nick Bosa, edge, Ohio State

Questionable social media strategy aside, Bosa is widely considered the best player in this years draft class on either side of the ball. Bosa missed most of this junior year after undergoing a core-muscle surgery. Yet his place atop draft boards was already assured thanks to a dominant sophomore campaign, in which he had the highest pass rush wins percentage in all of college football. Bosa finished the season with 25 hurries, 15 hits, nine sacks and three batted passes. It was a non-stop highlight package. Bosa will be really, really good, really, really fast. No one is a cant-miss prospect, but Bosa is about as close as you can get.

2) Quinnen Williams, defensive line, Alabama

Quinnen
Quinnen Williams sacks Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond during a game last season. Photograph: Butch Dill/AP

Pass rushers and pass blockers, thats what this draft is all about. Either get someone who can hit the other teams quarterback or grab someone who can protect your guy. Watch Williams play, and you will instantly be awed by the sheer spectacle of someone so big being able to move so fast. He is damn-near unstoppable off the snap. Talent wise, he would be a top-five pick in any year.

3) Josh Allen, edge, Kentucky

Yes, Allen is an excellent pass rusher. But hes so much more than that. He is a defensive chess piece who drifts between a bunch of different positions and makes plays all over the field. He has a turbocharged get-off and has been compared to Chicagos Khalil Mack.

4) Ed Oliver, defensive line, Houston

If you listen hard enough, you can hear the sound of 32 NFL defensive coordinators cajoling their general manager to find any way possible to grab Oliver in the upcoming draft.

Thanks to the dominance of Aaron Donald, small, twitchy, defensive linemen are all the range. The 287lbs Oliver is still considered small by the Donald-standard. He was even asked to perform linebacker drills by the Titans at this years combine. Id ask myself to play linebacker too, Oliver said at the time. He will play inside, outside, and stood up on Sundays. And he will be a potent force for years to come.

5) Kyler Murray, quarterback, Oklahoma

The likely No1 pick is the most electric player in the draft, regardless of position. He is the only quarterback in 20 years who comes close to matching the athleticism of Michael Vick. In the right offense, he can be a special weapon.

Two of the major concerns about Murray have been answered: his commitment; his slender frame. He spurned baseball to concentrate on being a quarterback full-time and he turned heads at the combine turning up at a bulked up 207lbs.

Theres no disputing his on-field performance or production. He wasnt as methodically brilliant as Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma but his highs were just as high wow throws delivered from the most bonkers of body positions; game-breaking runs. Someone will take him first overall. Will it be the Cardinals or the Raiders?

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/apr/25/nick-bosa-nfl-draft-san-francisco-49ers-colin-kaepernick

He played six NFL seasons and won a Super Bowl with the Colts, but Utecht is making an even bigger impact in his second career as leading advocate for players suffering from head trauma

They figured it might be cute to leave Ben Utecht hanging out to dry, just for old times sake. Only this was a nippy December in Minnesota, as Utecht was on stage, channeling Andy Williams. If Andy Williams happened to be 6ft 6in and ran a 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds.

Im kind of a balladeer at heart, anyway, says Utecht, the former NFL tight end. If you ever wouldve told me Id be singing Andy Williams, Id have laughed.

So theres a bit in An Andy & Bing Christmas, a vocal revue that Utecht, the pro football veteran with the granite shoulders and the velvet pipes, and Mick Sterling, a Twin Cities entertainer who serves as the Crosby half of the show, have performed around the state every December since 2015. In the bit, Utecht cracks wise about his six seasons in the NFL; the hits that kept on coming; the silver bells that never stopped ringing; the five concussions; and the Super Bowl he won as a member of the Indianapolis Colts in February 2007.

And the band would play the NFL theme song, Sterling explains. And he was just being very silly. Its a very funny bit, and Ben thought of it.

Only one night, the 16-member backing band decided it was the perfect time to pull a prank on their towering front man. While Utecht was in mid-pose, waiting for a music cue, the band decided, puckishly, to call an audible. And stopped playing altogether.

As the silence lingered for several beats too long, as Utecht stood, awkwardly, Sterlings face reddened with embarrassment, then rage.

Backstage, in between sets, he let loose.

That was too much, Sterling told the band. Hes the star of our show. You cant put him in that position. OK, theres fun, but you cant have that much.

Hes the star of the show. Dont make him look like anything but the star of the show.

Utecht forgave.

A 10-minute issue, Sterling says now. He laughs. But it got us closer in some ways. Everybody felt a little bad. It was a silly joke that went a little bit too far. We talked it over. It was great. Ben was great.

No time for grudges, let alone regrets. Utecht has two sold-out performances in September to prepare for, songs to write for a new vocal trio in Nashville, and speeches to make on behalf of Keystone Culture Group, a consulting firm he formed last year with Dr Daniel K Zismer.

I was part of such a special team, this team in 2006 under Tony Dungy and guys like Peyton [Manning], Utecht says. But Ive got a huge passion for how to build a high-performing culture. That culture is going to be a part of your group whether you want it to be or not. Why not design it?

And I use that championship [approach] to really go into companies and give them a blueprint of how to do that and that results in direct performance. So its been a joy to be able to do that.

So much joy, in fact, that Utecht is a little embarrassed about the book that brought him back into the national spotlight some two years earlier. If he could take back any words from Counting the Days While My Mind Slips Away, the autobiography published in August 2016 that detailed Utechts history of head trauma, thats easy hed start with the title.

To be honest with you, I almost feel like I would go back and definitely change that, Utecht says. I wrote [that] when I was going through kind of the most difficult time, right after my retirement transition. And so I was very vulnerable, afraid.

But it [doesnt] represent how Im doing today. I think that, if anything, there were people that probably didnt want to read that book because of what they thought I would be sharing, based on such an ominous title like that.

Instead of counting the days, 2018 has been about counting blessings. A narrative built on making memories rather than mourning the ones lost to the ether.

Im doing better cognitively, I think, than Ive ever been in my life, says the 37-year-old Minnesota native, whod spent four seasons with the Colts (2004-07) and another two with the Cincinnati Bengals (2008-09).

I found myself in a really good place.

***

Ben
Utecht finished with 87 catches for 923 yards and three touchdowns in six career seasons with the Colts and Bengals. Photograph: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Although the journey was fresh hell, the road to the good place felt long, winding, and given the publics heightened awareness as to the long-term effects football can have on the brain eerily familiar.

Utecht says the biggest hits were delivered across the middle, served by linebackers or defensive backs he never saw coming. He wound up with 87 catches in his career, and one of them on a seam route in Houston ended up with the Minnesota native plastered high and low at the same time by a pair of onrushing safeties.

I got my head ripped off, he says now. It was so bad.

If your body doesnt tell you to hang it up, NFL front offices sure as hell will. Utechts final concussion as a pro came during a preseason practice in 2009 with the Bengals; he was eventually released in November of that year after an injury settlement.

A subsequent tryout with New England went really well I caught everything, Utecht recalls. I was flying around the field.

Off the field, Patriots brass sent him crashing back to Earth.

I do remember getting a lot of questions about that concussion history, Utecht says. And part of that was realizing that my concussion history was going to make it really challenging for me to make a team again, number one.

Number two, we just had our first daughter. My wife I thought, Gosh, even though you didnt reach that personal level that you thought you were capable of, you were in the league six years, you were on a Super Bowl team, its such a blessed career. It was just time to take care of what was more important.

The son of a Methodist minister, Utechts gifts included a wicked set of pipes and a commanding stage presence. Having grown up in front of crowds, performing was the natural next step. His 2012 record Christmas Hope was nominated for a Dove Award in 2012 presented annually by the Gospel Music Association for Christmas Album of the Year.

One daughter became four, yet the love couldnt completely pave over the mental and emotional scars left by the violence of football, the recurring fissures. Utecht found himself forgetting minor points so consistently, he felt compelled to leave himself sticky notes with pertinent details. Honey-do tasks got accidentally overlooked. Tempers started to flare up, the wrong buttons pushed, from out of nothing.

I had come home to a house full of [girls], where theres a lot of communication happening, there are a lot of situations always occurring, Utecht recalls. And I was really struggling to really be in that environment, because number one, Im going into the initial stages of no longer being an athlete and having to figure out my life, but on top of that, Im not able to function, cognitively. Im struggling with being able to focus.

Because I cant focus, I cant remember the last thing that my wife has asked me to do. And when I dont do those, that causes situations at home and when you see that, you can see how all that starts to compound. No wonder, at times, I lost my temper or I noticed that I was acting in ways that are not really normal to my own character.

Utecht found himself receiving compliments on a stunning vocal performance he gave at a friends wedding. When he realized couldnt remember a damn thing about it, the alarm bells started ringing even louder.

***

Cue the fates, daring to chuck a lifeline into the mix. Utecht happened to be appearing on a local talk show where Rich Frieder, owner and executive director of the LearningRx centers in suburban Eagan, Savage and Woodbury, Minnesota, was also booked as a guest. The two struck up a conversation, which eventually led to Utecht signing on to 100 hours of cognitive therapy at LearningRx, broken up over sessions held four days per week, 90 minutes at a time.

You try to build sustained attention and strength to deal with things over long periods of time, explains Brad Olson, assistant director at LearningRx and Utechts personal brain coach. Initially, I know, Ben would leave sessions saying he was exhausted. Not just mentally, but feeling physically exhausted.

But over time, he built up that strength and stamina. We worked hard for an hour and a half. I always appreciated his take on [it being like] having a conditioning coach in the NFL. But I pushed him back hard, I had the freedom to just go at this hard and not stop to be careful, because he took everything I asked of him seriously. And sometimes, he wouldnt stop until he would do it. Which I admired.

Utecht usually sat across the table from Olson, no stone left unturned. Processing speed. Executive functions. Short-term memory. Long-term memory. Olson checked what the former NFL receiver could remember after five minutes, then what stuck after 60. At the start of their sessions, he graded out in the 12th percentile at five minutes of recollection and the 17th percentile after an hour.

It was shocking, Utecht says, but it also gave me a lot of peace because it told me that I wasnt crazy. Because what I had been sharing with the world, on national television, was true. I was having some issues in my ability to retain information.

Olson kept pushing. Flash cards. Vocabulary work. Puzzles. A lot of math problems. Every exercise was done with a metronome on the table turned on at 120 beats per second.

Tock tock tock

Different shapes that related to six different quadrants, Utecht explains. Youd have three seconds to see what order they were in and youd have to do your best to place the cards in the same order they were in before.

Tock tock tock

And youve got to understand: the training room is an open cubicle, Utecht said. So you could have four other students in there listening to their own metronomes. It was one of the most challenging environments that Ive stepped in.

Those first couple weeks, I remember literally sweating in this room and visibly frustrated that I couldnt perform the tasks that were asked of me. And I was overwhelmed I was hearing all these other students completing their tasks, and their metronomes going off. It almost brought me back to what it was like being on the football field all those years of practicing and shutting the crowd out.

By the end of Utechts 100 hours, his recollection numbers jumped to the 78th percentile after five minutes and the 98th percentile after 60.

Throughout training, Im giving him words quicker and quicker, Olson says. I think, by the end, Im giving him 20 words in 20 seconds and he loves doing that and he loves pushing himself and seeing what he can remember.

Numbers. Dates. Towns. Lyrics. Laughter.

It became this miracle of coming out of this cognitive fog that I believe existed due to multiple concussions, Utecht says. It was really just as easily explained as almost being parallel to a personal trainer in a gym.

It doesnt mean Im going to regain memories that I had lost of the past, or I had noticed were not there from the past Id given myself the ability to store more memories going forward. My ability to focus [improved]. The other thing that came out of that that, I noticed, was because I was functioning at a much higher cognitive level, I wasnt getting frustrated.

Patience returned. The angry outbursts didnt. Clouds of depressive moments a recurring fog of doubt and indecision began to part.

My wife would say, I got my husband back, Utecht says. And a book that was designed to be about fear for the future turned into an answer I found for being able to create and retrain more memories going forward. And that was a miracle.

***

Ben
Utecht, second from left, spoke at a 2014 US Senate hearing on sport brain injuries and the diseases of aging. Photograph: Win McNamee/Getty Images

A miracle he thinks could be repeated, if only it were made more widely accessible or even encouraged by NFL teams and players.

I think in athletics, this should be a part of every high school program, every college program, Utecht says. Our brains are a part, if not the most important part, for us as elite athletes. Why not make brains as elite as they could possibly function?

Its definitely something that needs to be more available for veteran players who are struggling. I do believe that, in many cases like my own, youd see not only cognitive change, but you will see cognitive healing to help the behavioral issues that we talk about. I also believe this type of product is something the [players] union and the NFL would agree on.

From the NFLs perspective, how do we keep players on the field and how do we get them back on the field faster or keep them on the field longer? I believe this type of cognitive training program can do that. I think from the players perspective, it could be very beneficial too, because theres nothing negative about sitting down with a personal trainer for the brain and honing all the cognitive things that you use in game situations. I think, hopefully, as we learn more about the brain in the last five or 10 years, and maybe this type of program grows and hopefully, its something we see more available.

The walls of stigma separating discussion of mental health and machismo continue to crumble, but the NFLs Wally Pipp quandary those who dont play risk losing their job forever to the next guy in line makes it hard for active players to risk a lucrative roster spot, concussions be damned.

Utecht has been up front about his struggles with head trauma, having presented at clinics in recent years and even testifying before the US Senate in 2014. But he says former teammates have been hesitant to seek his advice about how best to put the head before the heart.

Every once in a while, Ive had that happen, but not a whole lot, Utecht says.

Its interesting. Theres so much out there now. Theres a whole broader range of supplements that are available neural feedback machines, chiropractors, there are just so many facets to whats available out there. So guys are just trying to go and find what they can in order to find some comfort.

Some turn to faith, others to drugs, some to the abyss. Utecht turns to Andy Williams, the Emperor of Easy.

Music has been such a support system throughout my life, in so many different ways, he says. But definitely over the last six years and trying to define this new identity to have things that youre passionate about is something that I was able to do to help through the challenging times.

But even a peaceful mind gets restless. Utecht dropped another record, Standing Strong, earlier this year. During a late-summer junket to Music City, he laid down tracks as part of a nascent singing trio.

We just wrote and recorded three songs down there, and were just going a step at a time, Utecht notes. Its in its infancy. What weve kind of described it as is theatrical pop.

Meanwhile, the Andy & Bing revue rolls on. Utecht and Sterling performed 18 shows last December; theyre shooting for at least 15 more to close out 2018. Theyve talked about performing with local symphony orchestras, or even taking the act to other states. The crooner and the crooning tight end.

Its so funny when I get done with the show, when we go to meet people, Im 5ft 11in, Im not short. And theyre like, Hey, youre not that small, Sterling laughs. Ben has an amazing voice that can do that Andy Williams stuff really well. But hes not trying to imitate Andy Williams; he just sings like Ben Utecht showcasing those songs, which is no easy feat.

Plus the guy is just ridiculously charming. People love him. Hes very natural, hes very engaging and he sings this stuff like a champ. Obviously, hes an impressive figure hes kind of hard to take your eyes off of. You still have to back that up. You still have to be able to sing. The thing thats separated him from athletes in a lot of sports, when they do something in retirement, they try to get away with it because of who they are. Theyre not the best singer or the best actor. Ben is not that. Ben is the real deal.

Hes a Super Bowl champion, and thats part of his life, for sure. But he is way more than that. What hes doing now, the way that he sings, the way he performs, and the good things that hes doing to get the word out about what hes gone through, its really inspiring.

The real deal reminds us that theres life after a half-dozen head shots. Life and a song. Every day.

I think one thing we have to do, as fans and players, is accept that concussions are an eventuality within the game, the former NFL receiver says. You cant have football without them. You cant have any sports without them. If we want to support our athletes and want to continue to love watching the game, weve got to accept that.

Utecht forgave, ages ago. The real gift, the marvel and the muse, is how much easier it is to never forget.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/sep/14/ben-utecht-nfl-player-head-trauma-cte-symptoms