Football Players Sound Off at College Preseason Award Luncheon

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a luncheon at The Pacific Club in Newport Beach held by former USC defensive back and National Football League Hall-of-Famer Ronnie Lott. The occasion was Lott’s annual College Football Lott Impact Trophy watch list ceremony.

Over 80 miles up the coast from the nearest professional football team in San Diego and 50 miles southwest of where Lott’s rival UCLA Bruins play at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, the banquet took place in a peculiar town for football whose pinnacle of pigskin is when Corona Del Mar High School hosts Mater Dei.

Dining in a pristine ballroom with spectacular waterfalls spurting just outside the windows, Lott Impact Trophy board members and donors arrived for what was expected to be a routine event to announce which college football players around the country the foundation was eyeing for their commitment to their communities.

One of the featured players on the list was Texas Christian University’s Tank Carder, a player who broke his back years ago and struggled to gain clearance to play football. Carder played a key role in TCU’s 2011 21-19 Rose Bowl victory, batting a pass down in the endzone on a two-point conversion attempt that proved to be the difference in the game.

Founded in 2004, the Lott Impact Trophy has handed out $850,000 in scholarships to student athletes and is expected to top $1 million in its eighth year of existence. UC Irvine’s Athletic Director Mike Izzi serves on the board of directors of the Lott Impact Trophy, but was not present for the watch list ceremony.

“I used to work with (the late) Bill Walsh at Stanford,” Izzi said of his connection to the Lott Impact Award. “Walsh coached Ronnie on the ’49ers and he was instrumental in getting the Lott Award started. It gives me an opportunity to get involved in the community.”

Former ’49ers safety Kermit Alexander was in attendance, however, along with former Los Angeles Rams quarterback Vince Ferragamo, president of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Dennis Kuhl, retired San Diego Chargers receiver Mark Seay and the president of the Newport Sports Museum John W. Hamilton.

The donors and board members, many of whom were wealthy, also gathered in order to listen to inspirational presentations from New York Jets safety Jim Leonhard and to give attention to local charities who pitched their causes.

“It’s great to have the Lott Trophy and scholarship to recognize those leaders,” Leonhard said. “It’s a positive message for fans. There’s a lot of negative in the media. Kids need to see those positives.”

After Leonhard shared his endorsement for the award and told a few comical stories about his lack of height (he stands at 5-feet-8-inches tall), the talks turned serious when he and Jets teammate, quarterback Mark Sanchez, graced the podium and voiced their opinions of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement standoff between the players and owners.

With the NFL Draft approaching on April 28, a 2011 NFL season lockout has become more and more likely due to the seriousness of the disparity in ideals between owners and players in terms of collective bargaining. Football enthusiasts are on edge.

According to Alexander, former president of the NFL Players’ Association, the strike “could end as early as the week after the trial [The players had a hearing on April 6 for their federal antitrust lawsuit against the NFL]. But networks are looking at whether they want their money back. Leonhard [a current player representative for the NFL Players’ Association] has a good grasp of [the situation] and the players trust him.”

In the midst of the multitude of issues that separate the two sides, including the NFL’s desire to expand the season to 18 games and the players wanting better health care protection and benefits due to the vastness of hits and severity of injuries that they face, a round of questioning opened up as the two Jets starters were asked if the players, not the owners, would eventually budge for the sake of playing football and making money.

“It’s not worth the money and risk,” Leonhard said of an 18-game season, rather than the traditional 16. “We [the players’ association] are not going to cave on this one.”

One of the audience members tauntingly replied, “My money’s on you guys to cave,” which adjusted Sanchez’s countenance from smirk to serious.

“Sixteen games puts you at risk as it is,” Sanchez said of one of the points of disagreement. “It’s such a grind and it takes a serious toll on your body.”

Alexander knows full well how fragile an NFL player’s career is. In 1968, Alexander tackled one of the greatest running backs of all time, Gale Sayers, rupturing Sayers’ cartilage and tearing two ligaments in his right knee. The hit was immortalized in the film, “Brian’s Song,” and nearly ended the Chicago Bears’ tailback’s career.

“The league needs more players,” Alexander said of the necessity to minimize injuries. “There are 50 to 55 players playing per team when there should be more like 75 players.”

Alexander would support adding expansion teams to the NFL, as Los Angeles has been talked about as a location, but he would like to see additional bye weeks and expanded roster space should there be an 18-game regular season.

Player health is one of Alexander’s main concerns. Alexander’s frustration stems from his belief that it took lawyers and a heightened liability on the NFL for the league to actually address the severity of mental and physical health detriments to retired and active players.

“Before that they never did anything,” Alexander said. “They’re doing that just because of the liability issue now.”

Before Sanchez and Leonhard left the luncheon, they assured those in attendance that they’ve been preparing for the 2011 season, despite the somber looks of negotiations. Cincinnati’s Chad Johnson is attempting to have a go at a professional soccer career, while Sanchez works out in his hometown.

“I’m working out quite a bit over at Mission Viejo High School,” said Sanchez, a former local preps star. “I need to bribe my receivers to come out [to California] with some In-N-Out.”