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A Win That Was Out of Sight, Not Yet Out of Mind

By George Solomon
Sunday, November 11, 2007

The message from Coach Paul Johnson to his players at Navy's football practice Wednesday was simple: Look forward to the next game at North Texas and let rest the euphoria from beating Notre Dame, 46-44, in triple overtime and ending an NCAA-record string of 43 consecutive losses to the Irish.

"We haven't been able to focus all week," Johnson said.

And in the chill of the early evening, Johnson merely was echoing the words of just about every football coach who ever had to bring a team down from the emotional mountaintop to the reality of the next game. (Did NASA officials face a similar task with the original moonwalkers, getting those guys ready for the next mission?)

Still, in conversations with several players after practice, I came away with the feeling these kids were not ready to shed their glorious moment in South Bend and move on with the rest of their lives. Why should they? Rarely do athletes accomplish something so memorable that their story will become legend for decades, despite Irish Coach Charlie Weis's gracious "what streak?" postgame pout.

"I'll never forget the night," said Zerbin Singleton, a senior who blocks, runs the ball, catches passes, plays on special teams and in his spare time majors in aerospace engineering, carrying a 3.14 grade point average. "To be on the team and in the class that got the monkey off our back is amazing. The number of people who have said thank you to me is truly special."

The quarterback, junior Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, by way of Kapolei, Hawaii, whose 25-yard touchdown pass and two-point conversion throw to 5-foot-6 Reggie Campbell provided the winning points, had his own singular moment: "When the bus pulled into the grounds Saturday and the brigade came out to meet us."

His football future? "Growing up, I always wanted to win a championship or play in a game like the one last Saturday," he said. "I love football, but my future is getting an education, then serving my country."

For Ram Vela, whose leap over an Irish blocker to sack the quarterback late in regulation helped create the overtime, his highlight could have been dedicated to his father watching in San Antonio. "He was so excited," Vela said. Vela understands about overparenting, but said last Saturday night, "My dad lived that play with me" and "maybe he's living his dream through me."

And that's all right.

Shula vs. Patriots

So how does Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, the winningest coach in the history of the NFL with 328 victories and two Super Bowls, really feel about New England's Bill Belichick?

Not so great, is my read, after Shula responded to questions from Gary Myers of the New York Daily News about the NFL fining Belichick $500,000 and the team $250,000 and a first-round draft choice for using sideline video equipment on the Jets in the season opener. Shula said that transgression and the league's response were sufficient reasons to attach an asterisk to whatever New England accomplishes this season.

"That's a pretty significant," Shula said of the NFL's penalty in a telephone interview Tuesday. "It certainly diminishes their accomplishment, as Barry Bonds's records would be diminished if he's found to have used performance-enhancing drugs."

So far the Patriots' locker room defense is to cheaply dismiss the 77-year-old Shula's comments as the rant of an "old" man defending the merits of his perfect 1972 Miami Dolphins (17-0) against the challenge of a 9-0 Patriots team that appears capable of winning all 19 games en route to the title. If Tom Brady and Randy Moss stay healthy, who beats these guys?

To me, Belichick should have been suspended for a game, although the financial penalties against him and team were hefty. That noted, the Patriots deserve their accolades and whatever future accomplishments they attain. Comparing the Patriots to great teams of the past is fair, and Gil Brandt, the VP for personnel for the Cowboys from 1960 to '89 and currently an analyst for NFL.com, offers a key point:

"The player today is much better physically than ever before" which is why the Patriots "could match up" with Vince Lombardi's Packers of the 1960s, Pittsburgh's four-time Super Bowl winners of the 1970s, Joe Montana's 49ers of the 1980s and Tom Landry's 1977 Cowboys.

Shula's 1972 Dolphins? "The next category [down]," Brandt said.

"Well," said Shula, assessing the Dolphins' perfect season: "Nobody has done it before or since."

Of the rest, Shula said: "The Colts beating the Giants in '58 made pro football, Lombardi's Packers never made mistakes, Chuck Noll did not get enough credit with the Steelers, Landry's Cowboys were class, Joe Gibbs's Redskins were all about the run, Montana and Bill Walsh were all-time greats."

Added Brandt, needle in hand: "Don't forget the 1940 Bears; didn't they beat the Redskins 73-0 in the championship game? Did they run up the score?"

Finally

-- The college basketball season gets into high gear this weekend, with the guys from Georgetown, Maryland, George Mason and George Washington all hopeful of reaching the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, the women from Maryland are ranked No. 4 and George Washington No. 11.

It's also rather remarkable that a local team has made it to the Final Four the past two seasons -- George Mason in 2006 and Georgetown in 2007.

"And both teams had to get through North Carolina to do it," Patriots Coach Jim Larranaga said. "It shows how many good local players there are in this area and what can happen when they stay around."

-- Smiles: Bob Carpenter returns to do Nats TV, Caps stun first-place Ottawa, Wiz show a pulse, jockey Mario Pino passes 6,000 wins, Redskin Clinton Portis resumes Thursday dress-ups and Prince George's County officials declare Feinstein ineligible.

-- "Friday Night Lights" update. After a dreadful start, the TV show and the Dillon Panthers have bounced back nicely, with Eric Taylor reclaiming his job as head coach following a brief stint as a college assistant. Love seeing Smash and Matt reunited in the backfield, with Buddy Garrity regaining his role as Most Obnoxious Booster after getting rid of the nasty, hard-nosed new coach. Questions remain about team tutor/budding assailant Landry Clarke becoming a key player and how running back Tim Riggins and Buddy's daughter can leave school for Mexico for a week. Do high school kids nowadays just leave school and go to Mexico for a week? In my day, traveling across the causeway from Miami Beach for an afternoon in Miami was a big deal.

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