Year in Review: 2014’s Top Posts

YearInReview

After the 100 Weeks of “Purely For Sport” post about a month ago, this article will once again take you back into the past. It’s a retrospect to 2014, except without the things you were bombarded with anyway – I promise this is the only time Taylor Swift, Ebola, the World Cup, Malaysia Airlines, the Oscar selfie and Flappy Bird will be mentioned in this article.

Here are the five most-read posts of 2014:

T5. “When I Was A Boy…” (89 reads) – After attending my first college class, I sat down in a Syracuse study room and reflected on how I got there. The result is a mixture of me feeling old and curmudgeonly, but full of happiness and hope for what’s to come. This was all brought up because of the beginning of classes and playing the card game Strat-O-Matic with an old friend of mine.

T5. Matt Bonner: The New Hampshire Sandwich Hunter (89 reads) – He’s a red-head and so am I. He’s from New Hampshire and so am I. He’s 6-foot-11 and I am not. Matt Bonner is (a little) better at basketball than I am, so he called me up to talk about everything from signing his new sponsorship to Jalen Rose’s advice when Bonner was a rookie; from collegiate “one-and-done’s” to sandwiches.

4. Hostile in Buffalo (303 reads) – Beer cans, the burning filters of cigarettes and the vulgarest of any insults you’ve ever heard: All those things were hurled at my friends and I as we walked into Ralph Wilson Stadium to watch the hometown Buffalo Bills take on our New England Patriots. One other observation: They really, really hate Tom Brady.

3. One Man, One Reason, 64 Fantasy Baseball Teams (548 reads) – Working four jobs each summer, sleeping four hours per night and constantly loving baseball this is a profile about fellow SU student Justin Mattingly. A lifelong baseball fan, he reminisces about seven years filled with fantasy baseball and the thrill he still gets from “The most important day of the year – not your mother’s birthday, not Christmas – but Draft Day.”

2. Who’s To Blame When Idols Fall in Shame? (795 reads) – On the cusp of my 18th birthday, I reflect upon all the people who have raised me until this point. This evolves into a stream of consciousness in which I consider what it means to be a role model. Using Chris Jones’ “Idol Thoughts” column from ESPN the Magazine, I wrote an analogue connecting role models to stocks, including buying, trading and accepting flaws.

1. 24 Hours in Death Valley: 8,000 Pounds of Pork and Saturday Football (10,619 reads) – I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life, the outpouring of support and kindness in response to an article. I traveled to Clemson, S.C. to see the Tigers take on my SU Orangemen. I blogged about it and, thanks to my friend Chandler who goes there, a lot of people got to read it. An alum told me the next time I made it down there, dinner was on him, Granny Wilson emailed me saying, “Y’all come back, ya hear?” and an admissions counselor from Clemson sent me a message saying they would love to admit me if I’d just send in an application. I admire Clemson for their incredible support for their football team and taking a short blog post from a New England kid to the heights of 10,000 views. Here’s to more just like that.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York as a freshman at Syracuse University. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and using the word “wicked” as an adjective. He’s not a fan of purposefully misspelt business names (“Kathy’s Kut & Kurl”) or grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

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The Best of 2014

As 2014 draws eerily to a close, I look back at all the reading I’ve done this year and pick out a solid 20 stories to recommend.

I am a college student, reporter gratis for my campus’ newspaper and employee of Syracuse University guest services, which doesn’t leave me with a ton of time. I’m also not a professional writer who has the luxury of reading obscure material from far-flung parts of the nation, so if you’re looking for exposes on New Mexican runners named “Caballo Blanco” – a great story told here – then I am not your man, unfortunately.

I have, however, read plenty of material from two magazines I subscribe to – Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine. I read from other sources as articles are recommended to me, but for this article I shall stick to recommending SI and ESPN because that is what I know best. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s a collection of the best stories I have read this year, ones I believe are worth your time. (Those in bold, more so.) Without further ado, here they are:

From Sports Illustrated: 

“The Other Side of A Miracle” by Thomas Lake

  • This is a powerful one-year retrospective at the 2013 Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama. The tragedy for Alabama fans, the triumph of Auburn, but more than that: The microcosm of Alabama state’s thirst for seriousness in football told through two sisters, whose tragic story unfolds to the reader.

“Inside An Agency” by Austin Murphy

  • Blake Bortles plummet down the 2014 draft boards is captured by Murphy’s terrific piece. But the real story is the Jacksonville Jaguars skulduggery which included fudging their own draft board to feign disinterest in Bortles. Murphy’s reporting is stellar.

“The Comeback Kids” by Thomas Lake

  • The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s Class-A affiliate squanders an 18-1 lead only to lose in extra innings.

“Beísbol Prospectus” by Eric Nusbaum

  • Guerrilla sabermetricians trying to locate the best talent in U.S.-embargoed in Cuba. Need I say more?

From ESPN the Mag:

9 Exits on America’s Football Highway” by Wright Thompson

  • 540 miles on America’s super highway through its second-largest state helps Thompson find the stories that make Texas football, Texas football. He travels through Odess, TX. the birthplace of “Friday Night Lights” to track down Boobie Miles, the cast-off Running Back from the book as well as two high school underclassmen on their journey to high school football greatness.

“A Family Kind of Town” by Joel Anderson

  • Adrian Peterson is suspended from the NFL, his appeal denied and he is ostracized for punishing his child harshly with a snitch. Bring up these allegations in his Texas hometown and everyone shrugs. They’re still behind his back, because they spank their children’s backsides too. It’s the Texan way, they say.

“Held Up in Customs” by Kate Fagan

  • Britney Griner forgoes the WNBA to play in China under the described tyranny of a coach who’s formerly of Korean military.

“I Am Not Very Good Yet” by Eli Saslow

  • Joel Embiid came to America from Cameroon, started playing basketball, and – in the subsequent two years – flew up recruiting lists and draft boards until he was considered possibly the best player in the draft. And he’s just starting.

“The Man With 200 Teammates” by Eli Saslow

  • Semi-professional basketball is tough. Vander Blue of the ____ (What team could he be affiliated with? He’s been with 15+ just this year) is one of those guys going through the cycle. Saslow’s reporting is superb in finding Blue’s tricks to game the system.

“Off Balance” by Andrew McNeill

  • Matt Bonner, San Antonio Spurs Power Forward and off-court comedic genius, takes to Twitter to find a pair of shoes.

“Shadowed by the Hand of God” by Wright Thompson

  • Set the scene: Argentina, pre-World Cup, struggles with whom to associate: Diego Maradona, the country’s hard-partying world champion, or the little, quiet, assassin in Lionel Messi, who has yet to bring them home a cup.

“Portrait of a Serial Winner” by Wright Thompson

  • This piece as the best of the year from either of these magazines. I’ve argued with others who have read this if Thompson should have picked a different lede – for example, the fact that Suarez is a modern day Gatsby because of his girlfriend – but this is a sensational piece that digs at the core of following a story to verify an anecdote oft-associated with a player.

“Awakening the Giant” by Seth Wickersham

  • Y.A. Tittle, the former Quarterbacking great, battles Alzheimers as he prepares for a family gathering.

One bonus, from Grantland

“Keyon Dooling’s Secret” by Jordan Ritter Conn

  • Keyon Dooling’s shame from an incident when he is 14-years-old is triggered when a man touches him inappropriately in a Seattle bathroom years later. Dooling battles shame, regret and understanding as he fights to accept himself and advocate for others.

Matt Bonner: The New Hampshire Sandwich Hunter

"SSubZero"

via “SSubZero”

While it is unlikely that Matt Bonner of the San Antonio Spurs causes mushroom-cloud explosions with his dunks, it is likely that Bonner always has interesting things to say.

Bonner, like me, is a red-headed New Hampshire native. The fact that he’s been in the NBA as I’ve grown up has made him a hero with which I could identify. All that seems to separate us is 13 inches in height, many more inches on the vertical jump and a tiny bit of basketball skill. (I topped out at Junior Varsity for my Division II High School basketball team…so I was close to his level.)

Bonner, the only New Hampshire public school student to ever make the NBA, has not lost his affable nature on the hardwood of The Association. He’s even grown a following, been given the moniker “The Red Mamba” by Kobe Bryant and recognized as “The Chuck Norris of Basketball” by some fans.

I caught up with two-time NBA Champion Bonner the day after he’d signed on to be the face of “Big Red Soda” – a popular Texas-based brand. “Compared to the average human, I’m a pretty big person,” Bonner said. “And I have red hair so it was a pretty easy fit.” Though he hasn’t seen himself in the store yet, and hadn’t ever heard of the soda until they contacted him about the endorsement, he still thinks it’s pretty cool.

BigRed

via BigRed.com

Bonner shared stories from his childhood to his decade in the NBA to his favorite hometown sandwich shops:

I got lucky. (I made it because) I had tall parents so I grew to 6-foot-9. I had good coaching growing up at the AAU level and at Concord (N.H.) High School. And the third factor was parents who taught me the value of hard work and, if I wanted to make it to the NBA, I’d have to work harder than everybody else.

AAU was pretty much the only opportunity I had growing up to play against guys from out of New Hampshire. We played tournaments in Boston and Providence and Connecticut. We went to the nationals every year.

You get to see other kids your age who are much better – dudes from all over the country – and that made me motivated to keep working to get as good as the kids I was seeing.

It’s a ridiculously huge leap going from New Hampshire High School basketball to college basketball.

I think (the college one-and-done programs) are fine. You have to take advantage of the opportunities you’re given. People make a big deal of the one and done, but to me it’s only a handful of student-athletes it affects. People exaggerate the effect it has on the overall of college basketball scene.

I’m a realist. I’m down to earth. (The one-and-dones) get blown out of proportion. Think about how many scholarship basketball players there are in division one and two level – Thousands and thousands of them. You’re talking about maybe 10-15 of them coming out after one year.

Any kid that can make millions of dollars – guaranteed – should. You know the NCAA works with the NBA and they can project kids as sure-fire first-round picks.

You’d have to be pretty crazy to come back to school for a year and risk it.

My rookie year, I played with a guy named Jalen Rose on the Raptors and he used to always say, “(Basketball’s) a thinking man’s game.” And he is absolutely right. Once you get to that level, it’s almost as much between the ears as what skills and how athletic you are, because everyone’s got (athleticism).

Matt Bonner was such an inspiration to one Texas middle-school student that he nearly took an In-School Suspension for supporting Bonner

One Texas middle-schooler faced an In-School Suspension for supporting Bonner during the 2012 NBA Finals

It was really cool to have one of the greatest basketball player’s ever, (Kobe), give me a nickname, (“The Red Mamba”). A lot of other people got a kick out of it as well. Given the fact that he did it right when twitter and social media were taking off, it helped it stick.

I don’t like having people in my business too much. I’m not on Facebook, I’m not on Twitter, I’m not on Instagram. If anyone ever sees me out there on social media, it’s not me. It’s an imposter. I do my best to take them down, but they keep springing up.

My teammates on Twitter, if they have a bad game, all their twitter followers will tell them how bad they are at basketball and all these horrible things. Other people on my team…it’s like their constantly under pressure to tweet witty, interesting things. They’re always tweeting what they’re doing and a lot of it seems pretty mundane. Why would someone care if you’re stuck in a traffic jam on your way to dinner?

Patty Mills is pretty active (on Twitter) and Manu (Ginobili) is as well. So is Tiago (Splitter). Some of those guys understand because they’re the face of basketball back in their home country so I guess it gives them an outlet to connect with their fans back in their home country.

I really like sandwiches. Always have.

Years ago, (the Spurs players) had a business of basketball meeting and (Spurs management) asked us if we have any side project that would help the Spurs fans get to know us better. I decided I was going to start a blog writing about sandwiches. The Spurs.com people loved it. They gave me an outlet to put ‘em up and then it just went from there.

via NBA.com

via NBA.com

I do love calling them “Grinders,” being from New Hampshire, but I quickly learned that people from other parts of the country don’t know what that means. I try to use all different lingos. I don’t discriminate any more.

In Concord, (N.H.), I have a rotation between Cimo’s, Beefside, Veano’s and the Yellow Sub.

I actually developed my own equation to rate my sandwiches on a scale of one to 100. I use weighted coefficients for the different ingredients because I think the ingredients of a sandwich have different levels of importance.*

Creamy peanut butter (is better). I’m a texture guy. Up until I was about 15 years old I wouldn’t eat yogurt with the fruit on the bottom yogurt because there were chunks of fruit and stuff in there.

*Below is Bonner’s “Great Grinder” Theorem, via Grantland

Score on a scale of 1-100:
A = bread
B = meat
C = fixings
D = sauces
.4(A) + .3(B) + .2(C) + .1(D) = overall score on a 0-100 scale

The last bit of Bonner Greatness I can offer is this eight-minute long video that is the cross between a basketball instructional video and Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” YouTube series.

Hear the entire interview with Bonner here.

Read more about the “Crunchy vs. Creamy” debate here.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York as a freshman at Syracuse University. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter (sorry Matt) and using the word “wicked” as an adjective. He’s not a fan of purposefully misspelt business names (“Kathy’s Kut & Kurl”) or grammatical error’s. You can follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR or email him at sjfortie@syr.edu. At both locations you can make business inquiries. 

The Daily Orange

The DO

As you may have been able to tell by last week’s column, I attend Syracuse University. (You can tell because, honestly, who else cares about 3-9 SU football?)

Being a student here, at one of the top-flight journalism schools in the nation, has already created so many opportunities for me that I would’ve never had otherwise.

I worked this semester for The Daily Orange, the campus newspaper, covering the Syracuse men’s and women’s cross-country beat on my own, the team’s finished 5th and 24th nationally.

Covering the team on my own forced me to find new, interesting story ideas and angles I otherwise may have discarded. It was a challenge to never have the opportunity to see them compete in person, but there was a wealth of human stories on the team. Formulating ideas for “midweeks” – otherwise known as profiles – or “advances”, which is essentially a preview of a game, challenged me in ways I have never been before. The grind of covering a team week in an week out was something I had never done before, because I usually whimsically muse about whatever catches my fancy here.

To say it was a learning experience would be to vastly understate my time there. Sports Editor Jesse Dougherty and assistant editors Phil D’Abbraccio and Jacob Klinger taught me so much about everything from ledes to A.P. style to interview tricks. I’ve improved immensely as a reporter in my time here, and worked in one of the deepest sports newspaper staffs in the country, clocking in at 20-plus guys.

More than that, I learned about competing in writing. On this blog, it’s my own space, my own column. (Can someone tell me what a word-limit is?) But in the house for the D.O. it is primarily about improving yourself, but a very close second comes to “winning your beat” which means finding the best stories from your sport before anyone else does. That’s something I’ll have to do more of next semester when I cover tennis with two other guys from the D.O. 

I’ve been able to meet D.O. alumni including 2014 Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eli Saslow, Detroit Lions beat reporter Michael Rothstein, and Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Matt Gelb. The veritable garden of journalistic knowledge here is incredible, and I’m so excited with what will come as I improve my writing and reporting.

The journey continues with my writing, just on a new platform.

You can follow me here, on my profile for the paper.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York as a freshman at Syracuse University. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter, Kanye West, and using the word “wicked.” He’s not a fan of purposefully misspelt business names (“Kathy’s Kut & Kurl”) or grammatical error’s. You can follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR or email him at sjfortie@syr.edu

Don’t Fire Scott Shafer

I felt the sudden urge to apologize to my whole family.

Myles Willis of the Boston College Eagles (7-5) had just run back the opening kickoff for a 95-yard touchdown against the Syracuse Orangemen (3-9) last Saturday, Nov. 29.

I had told my entire family on the way down, “We’re not very good! We’ll probably lose!” but still, I hoped Syracuse would play well. But even though I had low expectations, Syracuse football had managed to let me down before my feet had even frozen in the icy water-slush that were the stands.

Syracuse played 12 games this season, and I attended nine of them. I saw eight losses and a lone win.

I had fun (road-tripping to Clemson, bussing to MetLife), but by the time the game ended, I felt a bit like a masochist because I enjoyed everything about Syracuse football except the game. They found a new way to lose every week.

Solutions?

The easiest one is fire head coach Scott Shafer.

But Syracuse would be foolish to fire their head coach.

Shafer coached as the defensive coordinator under Rich Rodriguez at Michigan and, before that, Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. While coaching the Cardinal, in addition to having the fifth most sacks in the country and upsetting the University of Southern California – who entered the game favored by 41 points – by a score of 24-23, he was called “one of the most creative and innovative defensive minds in college football” by Harbaugh.

But don’t just take the now-NFL coach’s word for it.

When Shafer was hired by former coach Doug Marrone in 2009, he took one of the nation’s most porous defenses and made them respectable – they rose from 101st to a top 20 unit.  The defense of Syracuse was actually pretty good this year, too, 47th-ranked in the nation for points against, allowing just 24.3 per game. They played with swagger that was effective and enjoyable to watch.

But the awful, horrendous, painful, excruciating offense ruined it.

SU did not score a single rushing touchdown with a Running Back after Opening Night on Aug. 29 when it took the team two overtimes to defeat FCS opponent Villanova. They did rush for a few touchdowns, but it was usually the Quarterback, or even one time a Defensive Lineman.

I remember multiple occasions throughout the season that Syracuse had a 1st-and-Goal situations from inside the 10-yard line and failed to score touchdowns. Penalties, drops, bad play-calling, there were always reasons they couldn’t score, always different.

In a particularly painful segment I remember against Louisville, SU Wide Receiver Ben Lewis had three passes in his arms in the end zone, but none scored.

To be fair, Shafer doesn’t call the plays. If he did, I’d be the first one barking for his resignation. A great breakdown by NunesMagician.com shows us that, in SU’s Nov. 22 game against Pitt, through the first three quarters Syracuse ran the ball 17 of 20 first downs. They scored once the whole game.

To summarize my exasperation: Syracuse lost games this season by tossing interceptions returned for game-winning touchdowns, clock mismanagement, and one particularly cruel loss because an NCAA rule prevents advancing a ball after recovering an onside kick. They also have a pathetically predictable offensive scheme.

The offense’s early season struggles were thought to be remedied when Syracuse demoted Offensive Coordinator George McDonald on Oct. 6 following a 28-6 loss to Louisville.

Offense With McDonald Without McDonald
Points Per Game 18.8 12.8
Rush Yards Per Game 194.8 109.7
Pass Yards Per Game 214.6 162.3
Third Down Conversion % 34.2 33.6

All this tells us is that Tim Lester, McDonald’s replacement, did not do any better at the task of getting the Syracuse offense to score and possibly that the plug may have been pulled on McDonald too quickly.

Most times, Syracuse lost because of the offense. Against 21st-ranked Clemson on Oct. 25, Syracuse allowed 16 points. Then on Nov. 8 against 22nd-ranked Duke, SU gave up 20 points on defense.

They lost both contests by double-digits.

It’s the offense that needs fixing. Granted, there will multiple complications with the turnstile Quarterback system the Orange dealt with this year, but that’s no excuse for scoring fewer than two touchdowns per game as well as regressing in every offensive statistical category. So if you fire someone, let it be Lester.

After seeing what happened to McDonald, many Offensive Coordinators may be wary of joining the Syracuse sidelines for fear of job security.

Don’t fire Shafer, that’d be jettisoning a successful defensive coach who has proved himself across the country. You can blame him for demoting McDonald and thinking Lester would improve the offense. You can blame him for not intervening and saying, “This isn’t working.” But firing him isn’t the answer.

If Syracuse is serious about improving their football program, they need to scour the country for the best offensive mind they can find and assure them total creative control until full results can be seen.

This season was a disaster, but next season is a new one, it’s a first down. Maybe this time Syracuse will let it fly.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York as a freshman at Syracuse University. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter, Kanye West, and using the word “wicked.” He’s not a fan of purposefully misspelt business names (“Kathy’s Kut & Kurl”) or grammatical error’s. You can follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com.