Keep Fierce Battles on the Field

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Established October 31, 1996
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Last updated: 10/04/2012 11:49 AM
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Football Recruiting
Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: If Only ‘Fierce Battle’ Could Stay On The Field
By Jeff Rapp

(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).

When I first heard about former Ohio State star Jim Stillwagon’s involvement in a road rage incident in which he fired off a gun at another motorist, I was left shaking my head. Sad to hear that a man I have met several times, and enjoyed being in the company of, had “lost it.”

John Hicks, a former teammate of Stillwagon who has remained his good friend for more than four decades, had a similar reaction. However, Hicks admittedly is more invested and closer than most anybody to Stillwagon, now 63.

“I’ve known Jim for 43 years and I’m telling you he had to be provoked to do something like that,” Hicks said. “He’s not riding around on a motorcycle looking for trouble. He’s too old for that.

“Now, ’Wagon is a tough MF'er. He ain’t putting on airs for anybody. Don’t get me wrong there. But I love Jim Stillwagon. He’s one of the finest people I know. He’s caring. He’s done a lot of charity. And he’ll help you fight the battle. I’d jump into a foxhole with Jim.”

Being around athletes for as long as I have, I always admire that kind of conviction and loyalty, yet wonder at the same time if it’s a bit misguided.

Do coaches and athletes past and present put too much trust in the human beings with which they go into battle in the sporting arena, defending their actions outside of that playing field too vigorously? Probably.

Are administrators hypocrites for putting pressure on coaches to win the right way but also helping them gain an edge, cover up faults, and keep the media at arm’s length from programs? Likely.

Should Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio condemn one of his offensive linemen’s apparent effort to eye-gouge OSU’s Johnathan Hankins during Saturday’s game? Without question.

Was Jim Tressel overprotective of Maurice Clarett and Terrelle Pryor? Almost certainly.

Sports creates an us-against-the-world mentality that doesn’t always play the same way in real life. But what about the flip side? Do we as fans care too much about the athletic pursuits of players and not nearly enough about their sporting afterlife? That’s almost always a big yes.

The Stillwagon story is unfortunate, but we don’t care as much about him anymore. He’s a hero gone by. He doesn’t push the product. He doesn’t add anything to the fandom experience anymore, unless he shows up at a shopping mall or a dining hall to sign a ’68 team photo and tell a couple Woody stories.

The truth is, athletes often face their most intense battles away from the gladiator pit, where they are comfortable and at home. And their inner demons are even more prevalent after the cheering stops.

Some stop taking care of their bodies and fall into poor health. Many are left wondering what to do with their education – if they even have much of one – and whom to trust. Most still desire to find a new niche in the competitive world but simply don’t know how to find it.

ESPN may have just unveiled its most important 30 For 30 film yet, when it aired “Broke” Tuesday night and rocked the sportsworld. It was obvious that the athletes I follow on Twitter, many of them members of the current OSU football and basketball teams, watched that program mouth agape.

They may have heard about a few jocks who mismanaged their money and been warned about shady hangers-on, but many were floored at the volume of incidents. As “Broke” portrayed example after example, it’s way too easy for athletes to lose their way, lose their money and lose their dignity.

The program is promoted thusly on ESPN.com: “More money, more problems. ‘Broke’ digs into the psychology of men whose competitive nature carried them to victory on the field yet seemed to ruin them off the field.”

Saddest of all is when the perfect storm of chemical imbalance, personal heartache, financial loss, depression and other factors collide and we end up with tragedy. Professional football standouts Junior Seau and Dave Duerson ended their lives for reasons we can barely fathom, and their deaths leave us wondering if anything more could have been done, along with what toll the world of highly competitive sports and its epilogue sometime exhaust.

Yes, athletes are people and people occasionally find trouble, but it’s not that simple. They are trained to harness aggression, channel rage. Sometimes that training and opportunity to compete at the most pressure-packed level turns out to be an invaluable tool for real life; sometimes it leads to recklessness.

And that leads us back to the bizarre incident in Delaware, Ohio.

Stillwagon is a native of Mount Vernon, Ohio, and is as tough as nails. He was an immediate impact player for the Buckeyes as a ‘Super Soph’ in the national championship season of 1968 and played with nearly unmatched tenacity for Woody Hayes. In 1970, Stillwagon not only was a two-time All-American, he turned a rare feat in his senior season of 1970 by winning the Outland Trophy, the first-ever Lombardi Award and being named UPI Lineman of the Year. After an abbreviated career in the Canadian Football League, Stillwagon was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1991.

He was the epitome of a hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners football player. And he managed to go on to a very successful venture in the businessworld. But one week from today, Stillwagon will have a day in court after being charged with felonious assault.

If you find it amusing that Stillwagon pistol-whipped a pickup-truck driver with a very checkered past, that’s one thing. But Stillwagon’s .45-caliber Glock handgun discharged and grazed the head of Richard Mattingly.

Mattingly said Stillwagon, while driving a motorcycle, shot out the tires on the passenger side of his pickup truck, then fired at him several more times.

“If I had had a passenger with me, they would have been shot,” Mattingly told The Columbus Dispatch.

Mattingly, 41, is not exactly a sympathetic figure. He served prison time after fatally shaking his 3-month-old son in 1996. Still, he’s claiming Stillwagon was the aggressor.

Thomas Beal, Stillwagon’s Columbus lawyer, said his client fired his gun to protect himself. Stillwagon was taking a Sunday afternoon ride after attending his grandson’s baseball game when he encountered Mattingly on the road.

Now he’s going to have to explain his side of the story to a judge and hope to avoid serious time behind bars. Stillwagon was released Monday from the Delaware County jail after posting $35,000 of a $350,000 bond.

Stillwagon has had nine traffic-related convictions in Ohio since 1996, mostly for speeding. At least one conviction was for following another vehicle too closely. Twice he was clocked for going at least 80 mph on Columbus’ north side.

We’ve heard of this type of behavior from athletes before and it usually just makes them seem more mortal. Speeding doesn’t make you a felon. And perhaps if Stillwagon really was defending himself, as his attorney claims, he will not be labeled as one.

But it still leaves me wondering a lot of things, like are we putting too much value on fierce play on the field and not enough on humanity and acts of human decency off of it?

Do we as a society crave the SportsCenter-worthy, bell-ringing hits so passionately that we can shrug at the discovery that at least one NFL team rewarded players monetarily for causing injury?

Do we justify classless behavior and poor sportsmanship as part of the price of achievement and then have the audacity to wonder why athletes and coaches have trouble interacting in society?

Or are athletes just big targets for trouble, especially when they are naïve to greed and carry a rough exterior?

Hicks told me that the very day he was released from the hospital this spring after being treated for a serious health condition, a young man saw him heading to his car, didn’t like the look of him and threatened to “kick his old ass.”

“There’s no way that would have happened,” said Hicks, also an Outland and Lombardi winner at OSU in 1973. “But I just drove away.”

Sometimes it’s actually the smart move to back down from a challenge.

*This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.

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