Something for the Rest of Us

By John Feinstein
Special to
Tuesday, December 25, 2007; 12:22 AM

In the spirit of the season, we take a week off from The Mitchell Report and Michael Vick and Tim Donaghy and players giving 110 percent, not to mention santimonious coaches who credit God for wins and blame the media for defeats.

This is a week to celebrate some of those who deserve to be celebrated. Happy Chanukkah; Merry Christmas; Happy Kwanzzaa and, most of all, Happy Festivus! Here are some of the people in sports who put a smile on our face this year:

The American University basketball team...They call them "guarantee" games: the visiting team is guaranteed a chunk of money; the home team is guaranteed a victory. Hundreds of them are played every year in college basketball and the number of times a visiting team wins one of these games can usually be counted on one hand at season's end.

American at Maryland is a guarantee game. The Terrapins are in the all-powerful Atlantic Coast Conference. They are six years removed from a national championship; three years removed from an 11-year run making the NCAA Tournament. American has never -- as in not once -- reached the NCAA Tournament. The first time the two school played, on a date unknown during the 1926-27 season, AU won 26-21.

Maryland must have taken the loss hard because the two schools didn't play again until 1976. Before last Saturday, they had played 14 times since and Maryland had won every time, usually with ease. In five of the last six seasons, Jeff Jones-coached AU teams went to Maryland for a guarantee game and the Terrapins won the five games by an average of 22 points per game.

That all changed last Saturday. This is not (at least so far) one of Gary Williams' better Maryland teams. It has two good guards and a senior center who seems to think he's a guard. American lost four starters off last year's team, but Jones has mixed some new players and some old to produce a respectable 7-5 start.

Even so, no one could reasonably expect AU to walk into Comcast Center and beat Maryland. That's not how guarantee games are supposed to turn out. But the Eagles won and won convincingly, 67-59. They made big shots whenever Maryland made a run. They handled the Terrapins' fullcourt pressure with the lead and they made their free throws down the stretch.

For Jones, the win had to be especially gratifying. Ten years ago, he was fired by the University of Virginia -- his alma mater -- after going to five NCAA Tournaments in eight years. He picked up the pieces of his coaching life, landed at AU eight years ago and has built a solid program in Northwest Washington. Realistically, Jones's last chance to take a team into Maryland and win went by the wayside the day he left Virginia. But there he was, being congratulated by Williams after his kids played with all sorts of poise down the stretch.

Certainly a loss in a guarantee game is a tough pill for someone with Williams' pride to swallow. But anyone who knows Jeff Jones or knows AU's basketball history had to have a smile on their face in the waning seconds. Now, if the Eagles can just put together a run in mid-March...

Zerbin Singleton...If you follow college football even a little bit, you've probably heard the name in recent months. Singleton is a very good football player, a 5-foot-8 inch 164 pound slotback on the Navy football team that just finished its season 8-5 after a fifth straight bowl trip.

But Singleton is a lot more than someone who scored 10 touchdown in his senior season and, in the last minutes of the Poinsettia Bowl caught a touchdown pass and then recovered an onside kick to give his team a chance to win.

Singleton wants to be an astronaut. He has a 3.14 GPA in aeronautical engineering. Earlier this month he was selected as the brigade commander (senior class president in civilian school terms) -- the first football player ever selected for that honor.

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