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How WWE’s Gable Steveson became your favorite wrestler’s favorite wrestler

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How many 275-pound men do you know who can do a backflip?

While you’re ruminating on that seemingly trivial question, let’s take this thought exercise a step further: How many 275-pound men do you know who can backflip, capture the attention of Triple H and Ric Flair with their athletic prowess, win an Olympic gold medal and sign a multiyear deal with WWE before graduating college?

I reckon not many aside from Gable Steveson come to mind.

That’s because the tantalizing heavyweight freestyle wrestler is one-of-a-kind, a bona fide original.

“When and if I can win, put on a good show for America, that flip is coming,” Steveson teased to NBC Chicago of his signature post-victory backflip ahead of his awe-inducing run at the Tokyo Olympics in August.

In due time, the ultimate showman made good on his promise.

There’s a fine line between confidence and hubris, and Steveson walks it masterfully. The 21-year-old’s keen sense of self and his belief in his otherworldly abilities is what enabled him to cruise through the first three matches of his Olympic debut without giving up a point.

It’s a feat that’s particularly impressive when you consider one of his opponents was Taha Akgul of Turkey, the defending Olympic champion. Steveson — The University of Minnesota Gophers’ heavyweight, reigning NCAA Division I National Champion and winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy — made light work of Aiaal Lazarev of Kyrgyzstan in his opening match, taking only 2 minutes, 2 seconds to win 10-0. He followed that up with an 8-0 drubbing of Akgul before winning his semifinal match against Lkhagvagerel Munkhtur of Mongolia 5-0 to advance to the men’s freestyle 125kg wrestling final.

“He’s the best heavyweight wrestler to probably ever step foot (on the mat),” Steveson said of Akgul after their quarterfinal showdown last month. “But his time is up. I came here for business. I came here to win. … Ain’t nothing going to be given to me. I’ve got to go get it.”

And that’s exactly what he did in an incredible comeback win over Geno Petriashvili — the 2016 bronze-medalist and three-time world champion (2017-19) of Georgia — in the final.

Steveson was born in 2000, and America hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal in men’s heavyweight in his lifetime (Bruce Baumgartner, 1992). If you know his story, it’s not surprising that the Apple Valley, Minnesota, native would be the one to get it done.

That is not to say the Team USA standout’s mom set this all in motion by choosing to name her son after wrestling legend Dan Gable (Steveson’s middle name is Dan), who was a two-time national champion wrestler at Iowa State and an Olympic gold medalist in 1972.

Who am I kidding? That’s exactly what I’m saying. The whole thing felt preordained. Maybe that’s why the charismatic superstar was so fearless and brash about what he intended to do. He was born for it.

“You can see that when the lights get bright, Gable comes to perform,” he told the Associated Press. “And I think that’s number one with me. And I think that’s what people can expect with me wherever I go.”

If the wrestler choosing to address himself in the third person and the above quote gave you strong Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vibes, you’re on the right track. The pinnacle of athletic achievement, winning an Olympic gold medal, was just the first item on a long list of aspirations for Gable — a stepping stone on the way to his ultimate goal: Becoming a WWE superstar.

It’s not presumptive to say the wrestler’s plan to use the accomplishment to springboard his WWE career was a resounding success. On Thursday, Steveson signed a NIL deal with WWE that will allow him to attend the University of Minnesota for his senior year and defend the Division I national championship at heavyweight. WWE will also set up a remote training facility for Steveson near campus where he’ll learn the finer points of in-ring work with WWE coaches.

While only time will tell if he will eventually be afforded opportunities like The Rock or Steveson’s mentor, fellow Minnesota great and WWE champion, Brock Lesnar, his ascension to superstardom feels about as certain as a post-victory backflip.

“When you’re a kid, you don’t really know how to make it to the WWE, but when I got to the University of Minnesota, I learned how Brock went about things and how to make connections,” Gable told Gopher Sports.

“My relationship with Brock has been awesome. It’s outstanding that a guy like that has noticed me and has gone out of his way to be there for me and guide me in the right direction.”

It was never a matter of if Steveson would go down the professional wrestling route, but when. Which is the same energy I’m bringing to the question of whether we will ever get to see him face off with Lesnar.

Steveson has already made a ton of noise in the professional wrestling space without ever stepping in the ring. From appearing in the crowd at NXT TakeOvers and WrestleMania to waving at Vince McMahon on Twitter (and eventually meeting up with him at SummerSlam 2021 after his Olympic victory), Gable kept his name top of mind among the WWE brass and stars alike.

Then there was the famed picture of the Team USA standout with Roman Reigns and his manager Paul Heyman.

“The picture of me, Paul (Heyman), and Roman Reigns is gonna go down as maybe one of the best wrestling photos in history,” Steveson said. “Just because the path that I’m taking with it and the path that Roman Reigns has set in stone being a champion, that’ll probably never be defeated again. The path that Paul Heyman has done for wrestling. He’s probably the greatest spokesperson. (He’s going to the) Hall of Fame.”

Steveson’s expectations for his future are larger-than-life, but why shouldn’t they be? Thus far he has been a walking, back-flipping testimonial for the benefits of doing it big.



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Leylah Fernandez and Felix Auger-Aliassime lead Canadian resurgence at US Open

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NEW YORK — Leylah Fernandez stood on the court as every person sitting in Arthur Ashe Stadium looked on, enraptured by her every word.

The 19-year-old had just won her quarterfinal match at the US Open against No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5), and advanced to her first major semifinal. After such a seemingly-improbable run, ESPN’s Rennae Stubbs asked the question that many had been thinking and tweeting throughout the tournament.

“What is it that they’re feeding you up North in Canada that’s producing such incredible, inspiring tennis this week?”

Without missing a beat, Fernandez answered:

“I would say it’s the maple syrup.”

The audience roared in appreciation, and the moment went immediately viral. While Fernandez was obviously joking, it has become abundantly clear that something special is happening with Canadian tennis.

Just hours after Fernandez’s triumph, countryman Felix Auger-Aliassime, 21, followed suit with a win via retirement over Carlos Alcaraz. It marks the first time Canada has two players, male or female, in the semifinal round at the US Open during the Open era and is just the second time at any major. It’s the latest in a string of history-making results for the federation, two years after Bianca Andreescu became the first Canadian to win a Grand Slam singles title (at the 2019 US Open).

“A decade ago, there were only about 50,000 kids in Canada playing tennis regularly,” said Michael Downey, CEO of Tennis Canada. “But now our most recent research says there are about 250,000. And we know that’s all credit to our players who have paved the way. The first inspiration was Milos [Raonic] in 2011 at the Aussie Open and afterward, and then Eugenie Bouchard at Wimbledon in 2014. This motivated the next generation.

“And then you had what Bianca achieved in 2019, and the men reaching the Davis Cup final that year. These are all the waves that inspired kids to pick up a racket. And now we’re in a situation where the country’s getting great results and Leylah and Felix, and Bianca and [world No. 10] Denis Shapovalov, are just feeding off each other and making each other better.”

Canada hasn’t always produced Grand Slam-contending talent. When Downey took over the CEO role at the federation in 2004, there wasn’t a single player, male or female, ranked in the top 100. And that wasn’t a fluke — Downey said it had been seven years since a Canadian player had made it into double digits.

In a country known for its cold weather, it’s an uphill battle to produce top-quality tennis players. Indoor courts are often hard to find, and many players still don’t have consistent access. In the past it was hard to attract promising young athletic talent, especially when competing with the uber-popular hockey.

But things began to change with Raonic’s success. After his run in the Australian Open in 2011, where he went through qualifying and into the round of 16, and his first ATP title at the Pacific Coast Championships soon after, he became the highest-ranking Canadian male player in history at No. 37.

By 2013, he had reached the top 10.

Bouchard captivated the world with her 2014 season, when she reached the semifinals at the Australian Open and the French Open, and then the final at Wimbledon. As she and Raonic both made the final four at the All England Club, it was the first time two Canadians had done so.

Bouchard lost in the Wimbledon final, but she became the first Canadian to crack the top five in the rankings — and her global popularity skyrocketed.

After Fernandez’s win over defending champion Naomi Osaka in the third round, she credited Bouchard as an early inspiration. She was an 11-year-old training in Montreal, also Bouchard’s hometown, during Bouchard’s breakthrough and the achievement had a lasting impact.

“It’s not just Leylah, all of these kids — Felix, Bianca and Denis — were all inspired by Genie and Milos,” Downey said. “They both trained at the National Training Centre in Montreal, and then Leylah and Felix were at that same facility, and then they’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, they were right here a few years ago, if they can win, I can too.’ I think that created this belief in themselves and their ability to win.

“The bar used to be, ‘How can I make it to the top 100?’ but now that’s just an amber street sign — they’re driving right through it now. In the past decade, I think it’s gone from, ‘I don’t belong’ to ‘I belong and should go deep in tournaments’ to ‘I know I can win.’ It’s a fundamental culture change that you’re seeing.”

There were six Canadians competing in the main draw at the US Open — Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and Vasek Pospisil on the men’s side and Fernandez, Andreescu and Rebecca Marino on the women’s. Raonic and Bouchard are both currently sidelined with injuries. Gaby Dabrowski, 29, is still alive in the doubles competition and will be playing in the semifinals with her partner, Luisa Stefani (of Brazil), looking to clinch her first major doubles title. She has twice won in mixed doubles.

Two matches now stand between Fernandez and Auger-Aliassime and their respective titles, but they both will have their hands full in the semifinals. Fernandez takes on world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka on Thursday, and Auger-Aliassime plays two-time major finalist Daniil Medvedev on Friday.

Downey hopes no matter what happens, what they’ve accomplished will enthuse the next generation of Canadian players and spark someone else to pick up a racket for the first time. Both with multicultural backgrounds and both the children of immigrants — Fernandez’s father is from Ecuador and Auger-Aliassime’s father is from Togo — he believes Fernandez and Auger-Aliassime represent the “essence of Canada” and subsequently have the power to reach even more of the population.

Instead of being in New York cheering them on, he remains in Toronto and is trying to capitalize on their momentum, advocating for more indoor courts across the country and convincing local municipalities to put temporary bubbles on outdoor courts as the winter months near. Growing the game remains his top priority, he said, but will cross the border for the weekend if one or both advance to the final.

Fernandez and Auger-Aliassime have undoubtedly furthered raised the rapidly growing profile for Tennis Canada during their impressive runs, as well as proven to be part of an exciting group of young players from all over the world expected to dominate the game for years to come. Auger-Aliassime is proud of what he and Fernandez have already achieved but believes it could be even better.

“It’s great for Canada,” Auger-Aliassime said on Tuesday. “It’s great for Quebec. We’re both born in Montreal. I mean, I never thought a day like this would come. Both a little girl and a little boy from Montreal, both at the same time in the semifinals of the US Open. It’s special. It’s special for us. I hope the people back home appreciate the moment also. We do a lot.

“It’s great. But it would be amazing if we were both in a final, right?”

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Is UCLA football finally on track with Chip Kelly?

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PASADENA, Calif. — Early in the second quarter of UCLA‘s 38-27 win against LSU on Saturday, athletic director Martin Jarmond stood in his suite and looked out over the nearly-full Rose Bowl, soaking in the atmosphere.

“This looks good,” he said, beaming with pride.

Moments later, running back Zach Charbonnet plowed through the LSU defense for a 12-yard touchdown run to put UCLA ahead for the first time in the game. Jarmond instinctually sent both arms straight above his head. Though he was cautious not to make too much of the moment — there was still a lot of game to be played — the celebration wasn’t just about taking a second-quarter lead. It was a brief glimpse at a vision becoming a reality.

“So happy for this community, for this team,” quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson said after the win. “It’s a long time coming. I know the Bruin fans had to wait a little while, but we’ve got things going in the right direction now.”

When former UCLA AD Dan Guerrero hired Chip Kelly in 2017, he was widely accepted as the best coach on the market. Though his foray into the NFL didn’t work out, Kelly’s 46-7 record in four years as the head coach at Oregon spoke for itself. His arrival in Westwood came with the expectations that UCLA could finally tap into its long unmet potential and compete regularly for conference titles. It also allowed for the possibility that UCLA could become relevant on the national stage.

Over Kelly’s first three years, that didn’t happen. Not even close.

The first two seasons were abject disasters from a win-loss standpoint (combined 7-17 record), and in 2019, season-ticket sales dropped to their lowest figure since the Bruins moved into the Rose Bowl in 1981. Last year, without fans in the pandemic-abbreviated season, there was progress (3-4), but that spoke to just how far the bar had been lowered.

Behind the scenes, though, Kelly grew confident that as the team’s depth improved so would its fortunes on the field. The Bruins had 115 players participate in spring ball — usually that number hovers around 70 — and they were positioned to have several veteran players in key roles.

“In our first season when we beat USC, we had 57 scholarship players,” Kelly told ESPN in July. “Everybody else has got 85. Then when we added 25, we got to 72. Then last year, we were still under 80. This will be the first year we’re over 80 in scholarships. So just getting that competitive depth [matters], because in this league your depth is going to get tested. I think we’ve always had some really good frontline players, but when one of them went down, there was a drop off.”

History shows it’s ridiculous to make any firm conclusions about a college football team in the first month of the season. How a win against LSU, which went 5-5 last season, will be viewed at season’s end remains to be seen, but that doesn’t take away from the fact it was the program’s most significant win since Kelly arrived.

It was important to build early-season momentum for an increasingly apathetic fanbase. The celebratory atmosphere with nearly 70,000 fans in attendance was the type of experience that can keep fans coming back and stood in stark contrast to the Bruins’ win in a mostly-empty stadium against Hawaii the week before.

“I think that was the most packed that I’ve seen the Rose Bowl since I’ve been here,” linebacker Bo Calvert said. “And I loved it. It was great energy from the get-go. The defense was on point, you know, really thriving off the home crowd. There were a lot of LSU fans here, too. And I think that was really fun to be a part of, to have a team that travels as big as they did.”

For Thompson-Robinson, who was committed to the program before Kelly was hired, the win also provided a sense of validation.

“I think everybody in the locker room was very confident going into this game,” he said. “Everyone expected to win the game. That just proved our expectations, and we’ve got more to come.”

Through two games, Thompson-Robinson has completed 19 of 36 passes for 390 yards with four touchdowns and an interception. While his numbers aren’t jump-off-the-page impressive, he has shown an ability to find playmakers at key moments. Against LSU, he hit tight end Greg Dulcich, who turned a medium-sized gain into a 75-yard touchdown in the second quarter and later connected with Kyle Philips on a 45-yard touchdown that put UCLA 38-20 late in the fourth.

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Kyle Philips impresses with his footwork as UCLA upsets No. 16 LSU.

What makes the offense go, however, is the two running backs: Charbonnet and Brittain Brown. A week after combining for 186 yards on 19 carries against Hawaii, the tandem ran for 213 yards on 28 carries vs. LSU. The team in the “sissy blue” uniforms, as what LSU coach Ed Orgeron referred to UCLA’s blue as, was the more physical one, and that applied to both sides of the ball.

UCLA allowed just 49 yards on 25 carries, and while LSU quarterback Max Johnson threw for 330 yards, he was never comfortable.

“You saw us changing groupings out there — it was like watching a hockey game with changing lines, but I think it is because our defensive staff did a great job of keeping everybody fresh,” Kelly said. “Every guy was just so dialed into the game plan and there is not a drop off when you go from one group to another group. I’ve been impressed with them for a long time.”

With offensive balance, a good defense and, finally, depth, the main takeaway from UCLA at this point is that the tempered external expectations that came with the season are about to rise.

The Bruins are off this week and will return to the Rose Bowl on Sept. 18 against a Fresno State team that gave Oregon everything it could handle before losing in Eugene on Saturday.

From there, the schedule sets up pretty well for UCLA once Pac-12 play starts at Stanford on Sept. 25. Of the first four teams on the schedule — Stanford, Arizona State, Arizona and Washington — only ASU won its opener. If the Bruins can get through that stretch unscathed, it will add to the intrigue when Kelly’s former team, Oregon, heads to the Rose Bowl on Oct. 23.

“They understand that if you embrace the process, the process will embrace you back,” Kelly said. “I think these guys are getting out of it exactly what they’re putting into it. And the cool part, the mature part, is that they’re actually putting more into it. They want more out of it.

“It’s the greatest game ever invented because you can’t fake football.”

Soon enough, the country will find out if UCLA is for real.

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Why the 2021 WNBA draft class has struggled to make an impact

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The Dallas Wings had the top two picks in April’s WNBA draft, and the Atlanta Dream had the third selection. When they met twice to open September for the stretch run of the 2021 WNBA season, those games theoretically could have helped decide the Rookie of the Year award. But they didn’t.

The New York Liberty‘s Michaela Onyenwere, the No. 6 pick in the draft, essentially has had that honor wrapped up since even before the Olympic break. That’s the kind of anti-climactic season is has been for the WNBA’s rookies this year. In a league with this much talent, it’s often difficult for first-year player to get much of a spotlight. This year, many have barely gotten on stage.

Is the 2021 WNBA draft class a bust? That can’t be determined in one season. Past draft classes have been underwhelming as rookies but then produced some long-lasting contributors.

We will see if that’s the case for 2021. But for now, here is why this rookie class has made so little impact so far.

No real race for Rookie of the Year

Onyenwere has started all 29 games, averaging 8.7 points and 3.0 rebounds. The 6-foot forward and former UCLA Bruin is a part of the Liberty’s turnaround from a dreadful 2-20 last-place season in 2020 to being on track for their first playoff berth since 2017. She clearly has done enough to earn rookie-award consideration.

But she has earned Rookie of the Year by default because no one has really challenged her.

Dallas had the top two picks: Texas Longhorns center/forward Charli Collier and center Awak Kuier of Finland. Collier has started 18 games and is averaging 3.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game. She had one of her best games of the season Sept. 5, with 10 points and seven rebounds. However, in her four previous games, she went scoreless three times and scored two points in the other. And in Tuesday’s loss to the league-leading Connecticut Sun, she had two points and took just two shots in 26 minutes of court time.

Kuier has played in 13 games, averaging 9.2 minutes, and has shot just 28.6 percent from the field. But she had her first double-figure game Tuesday, with 10 points. The 6-foot-5 Collier, who as a junior was eligible for the draft because she turns 22 this year (Sept. 22), and the 6-4 Kuier, who turned 20 last month, both could blossom with more experience. But in terms of 1-2 picks, they were chosen for potential rather than the ability to be impact players for the Wings as rookies.

No. 3 pick Aari McDonald of the Arizona Wildcats has played in all but two of Atlanta’s games and is averaging 6.2 points and 1.8 assists in 14.5 minutes. Not a bad pro start for the guard, but again, not rookie of the year numbers. And the Dream are close to being eliminated from the postseason.

Not enough court time

Perhaps the biggest issue is that the 2021 draftees, collectively, have played so little. Onyenwere is the only rookie who has appeared in at least 10 games and averaged more than 15 minutes per game.

Two of the 12 first-round picks haven’t played at all: No. 9 pick Rennia Davis (Minnesota Lynx) is out with a stress fracture in her left foot, and No. 12 Iliana Rupert (Las Vegas Aces) was with the French national team for the Olympics, and was not expected to play this WNBA season. No. 7 pick Jasmine Walker (Los Angeles Sparks) was lost for the season to an ACL injury in just the second game on May 21.

No. 8 pick Shyla Heal (Chicago Sky) of Australia played four games with the Sky before being traded to Dallas and immediately waived. Like Kuier, Rupert and Heal were 19-year-olds from overseas when they were drafted, so their best should be ahead.

No. 10 pick Stephanie Watts — who was drafted by Los Angeles and then traded to Chicago — was waived by the Sky after six games.

Kysre Gondrezick, a surprise pick at No. 4 by the Indiana Fever, has averaged 9.1 minutes in 19 games, but did not return after the Olympic break and is on personal leave. Indiana’s other first-rounder, No. 11 pick Aaliyah Wilson –who came via trade after being drafted by the Seattle Storm — has played in just 10 games, averaging 7.7 minutes.

Dallas’ No. 5 pick, Chelsea Dungee, had played once since the Olympic break — for 1 minute on Aug. 15 — until injuries and illness gave her and the Kuier more minutes Tuesday. Dungee played a season-high 17 minutes, 29 seconds, more than double her previous game time. She’s still averaging just 4.6 minutes in 12 games.

It’s hard to improve when you just don’t get much game time.

Beyond the first round

Sometimes the second and third rounds produce solid players even as rookies. That was the case in 2020, when Minnesota guard Crystal Dangerfield became the first second-round player to win WNBA Rookie of the Year.

This year, New York’s DiDi Richards (No. 17 overall) is the second-round pick who has made the most impact. It’s no surprise to anyone who watched her for the Baylor Bears that her defense can be a game-changer. Richards has played in 28 of the Liberty’s 29 games, averaging 11.3 minutes, 2.4 points and 1.1 rebounds.

Chicago’s Dana Evans, Los Angeles’ Arella Guirantes and Connecticut’s DiJonai Carrington are the only other second-round picks who have played at least 20 games. They are all averaging 3.3 points or less.

We knew this was coming

The 2021 draft wasn’t expected to be strong; WNBA coaches and general managers all but guaranteed that when asked about it before the draft. One reason was that three juniors who were draft-eligible in 2020 went pro then, which weakened the 2021 field: No. 2 Satou Sabally (Dallas), No. 4 Chennedy Carter (Atlanta) and No. 9 Megan Walker (New York, now with Phoenix). Two were lottery picks as juniors; all three might have been if they had been drafted this year.

Another factor is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on training, preparation and mindset for this year’s draftees. The 2020 draftees were robbed of the NCAA tournament, but for most of them, their seasons up until March 2020 were pretty normal.

The 2020 spring and summer and last college season were anything but normal — which Indiana general manager Tamika Catchings said has affected this year’s WNBA rookies.

“I think the biggest challenge for this class is you’ve got to get in the gym and work,” Catchings said. “I know it’s been hard with COVID. But how committed are they?

“After getting through this season, a lot of these players will go overseas. You can’t really make a judgment on what this class could be until they have time overseas, which hopefully will happen. They have about a year to figure out what they want to be.”

Hope for the future?

Some rookie classes have depth of talent. Others have a couple of franchise-changing players. Still others have both. Some don’t really have either.

Among the best classes, look at 2008. Five rookies from that class who have had very good WNBA careers: Crystal Langhorne, Erlana Larkins, LaToya Sanders, Leilani Mitchell and Allie Quigley. The latter two, in fact, are still playing in the WNBA. But as rookies, none of them averaged more than 4.8 PPG and weren’t in the top 10 in scoring among their fellow first-year players. That 2008 class had both depth and two players who were superstars then and still are now: No. 1 pick Candace Parker and No. 2 Sylvia Fowles.

Another of the greatest draft classes was 2006, which had five rookies average in double-figure scoring, led by Rookie of the Year Seimone Augustus at 21.9 PPG. The 2009 draft class also has proven to be legendary, with standouts such as Angel McCoughtry (ROY), DeWanna Bonner, Briann January, Kristi Toliver, Kia Vaughn and Shavonte Zellous all still active players in the league. (McCoughtry is out this year with a knee injury.)

It’s hard to gauge rookie performances in the WNBA’s first three seasons, since so many players who had been longtime pros came into the league in its early days and weren’t “real” rookies. If we start in the fourth WNBA season, 2000, all but two rookie classes have had at least one player who averaged in double figures her first season. The exceptions are 2005 and this year.

Onyenwere is on pace to become just the third Rookie of the Year to average in single digits. The others were in 2005 (Temeka Johnson, 9.3 PPG) and 2007 (Armintie Price, 7.9 PPG). No. 1 pick Lindsey Harding averaged 11.7 PPG in 2007, but an injury shortened her season to 20 games and she didn’t win ROY honors.

Not surprisingly, the 2005 and 2007 drafts, along with 2003, are generally considered the weakest in WNBA history, even though all three eventually did have players — Johnson, Price and Harding among them — who had good WNBA careers.

So we will find out if the 2021 draft class ultimately redeems itself. Their future is in their hands — but there are also eager players in the coming drafts ready to make their mark.

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Real or Not: Evander Holyfield shouldn’t be in a ring; Jake Paul should face a real boxer next

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Two fighters who shouldn’t be near a boxing ring are headlining cards in Miami and Tucson, Arizona, this weekend.

Evander Holyfield, 58, returns to the ring to face former UFC champion Vitor Belfort, 44, in an eight-round heavyweight match on Friday at Hard Rock LIVE at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Miami. Holyfield is replacing Oscar De La Hoya, who was scheduled to face Belfort before testing positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 3.

Holyfield (44-10-2, 29 KOs) last fought professionally in 2011 and hasn’t had a competitive fight since unsuccessfully challenging for Nikolai Valuev’s WBA heavyweight belt in 2008. Sources told ESPN the California State Athletic Commission wouldn’t sanction the fight, so the event was moved to Miami. Should Holyfield be allowed to fight? Is he going to get KO’d?

In Arizona, WBC junior lightweight world titlist Oscar Valdez defends his title against Robson Conceicao on Saturday. Valdez tested positive for the banned substance phentermine ahead of this bout but has been allowed to fight by the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Athletic Commission in a ruling on Thursday, Sept. 2. The WBC did not strip Valdez of his title, even after the positive test. Is this situation bigger than just this fight?

Last Saturday, the third fight between Josh Warrington and Mauricio Lara was stopped after two rounds due to an unintentional clash of heads that opened a gruesome cut over Lara’s left eye. Should they fight again? And how about Jake Paul? Is it time for him to fight a “real” boxer, or can he continue to face other YouTubers or MMA fighters and continue to draw an audience?

Mike Coppinger, Marc Raimondi, Nick Parkinson, Michael Rothstein and Ben Baby chime in to discuss these topics.

Real or Not: The Valdez situation is representative of a bigger problem in boxing

Coppinger: Boxing’s system of policing performance-enhancing drugs is broken, plain and simple. The decision to allow Valdez to proceed with his fight after testing positive for a banned substance just destroyed whatever credibility remained of PED testing in boxing.

What happens when the next fighter tests positive for a banned substance? Will he be allowed to fight, too? It’s a slippery slope, and there’s been a ton of misdirection from not just the WBC, but also Top Rank, Valdez and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe Athletic Commission to allow this fight to continue. In ignoring the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA) guidelines — the very rules Valdez insisted on for his fight with Conceicao — a dangerous precedent has been set.

Why have VADA testing at all? It appears the parties involved simply want the appearance of PED policing rather than actual practice of it. Yes, VADA does not adjudicate but the rules are clear as day: All prohibited substances are banned at all times. Valdez knew this. Top Rank knew this. The WBC, who uses VADA for its Clean Boxing Program, knew this. Instead, we have the powers that be moving the goalposts and insisting Valdez didn’t violate the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules which don’t ban stimulants out of competition. And we also have another black eye for boxing. This is much bigger than just one fight.


Real or Not: Vitor Belfort will KO 58-year-old Evander Holyfield

Baby: Real. But it won’t be a full knockout. Eventually, this fight will be stopped.

If and when this “fight” actually occurs, maybe those inside the ring will realize what everybody seems to already know. Putting 58-year-old Evander Holyfield inside the ring isn’t just a joke, it’s human malpractice.

Belfort is 14 years younger than the former heavyweight champion who had his last professional bout in 2011 and declared bankruptcy one year later. Aside from the financial circumstances, there is absolutely no reason for Holyfield to take any more punishment.

Here’s a plausible scenario: Belfort realizes Holyfield is in no condition for a fight and pulls his punches. Or, the former UFC superstar decides to whack Holyfield a few times and the referee, perhaps feeling a bit of guilt for what’s happening in front of him, decides to call things off and Belfort records a TKO.

The odds this thing doesn’t go the distance should be fairly high. The bigger uncertainty is the manner of stoppage.

Of course, it should have been stopped already, before the opening bell.


Real or Not: There will be a third fight between Josh Warrington and Mauricio Lara

Parkinson: Real. Warrington still needs to set the record straight. The result of this past fight was not what Warrington hoped for, but after Saturday’s technical draw he needs (and wants) to face Lara again to restore his pride and gain revenge after losing to the Mexican by ninth-round stoppage in February.

Saturday’s rematch was just getting going when Lara was left with a nasty cut above his left eye due to an unintentional clash of heads, which prompted the stoppage at the end of two rounds. Afterward, Warrington — a big crowd-puller in his home city of Leeds — said: “I need to get the slate cleaned.”

Warrington will have to wait to face Lara until early in 2022, due to the cut, and he might take an interim fight in the meantime. But don’t expect it to be a big one.

Warrington said in the days leading up to fighting Lara for a second time, “Kid Galahad got beat by me and all of a sudden he gets to fight in another eliminator again. Why can’t I walk straight into fights with the big names like Gary Russell Jr. or Emanuel Navarrete, pick up where I left off?”

But after Saturday’s frustrating outcome, Warrington is going to have to do more — maybe two wins — to get back into world title contention after that non-event, and he might even reconsider his previous declaration that he is not interested in a rematch with Kid Galahad, his English and Yorkshire rival whom he beat by split decision in June 2019.

Warrington can’t afford any slip-ups, so promoter Eddie Hearn will provide him with a low-risk opponent before going for Lara again. Unless Warrington lands a world title shot next. But the chances of getting Gary Russell Jr. to defend his WBC world title against Warrington before the end of 2021 also seem slim. Navarrete also has a defense planned for next month.

What would be easier for Warrington (and possibly what he is persuaded to do) is face either Galahad or new WBA champion Leigh Wood, who are both from England and promoted by Matchroom. But Warrington seems driven by revenge, rather than glory, right now.


Real or Not: Jake Paul will fight a real boxer next

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Jake Paul reflects on his split decision win over former UFC champion Tyron Woodley.

Rothstein: Not real, for now, anyway. And I say this with the caveat that if you consider Dillon Danis a boxer, maybe that changes.

While Paul is clearly taking boxing seriously and has progressed, he might be one fight away from a boxing-first boxer. I say this because this might be the problem with Paul. It’s tough to market Paul against a complete no-name in boxing because part of the draw and the allure is people know the guy on the other side of the Paul matchup. If he were to fight a real boxer next, the chances of that fighter being a known quantity are … not great. And if it is a fighter who is known, chances are that might be a very bad thing for Paul, who doesn’t have the requisite experience level yet.

The best thing for Paul is to continue to work his way up — find another MMA fighter who would like to step into the ring and get a sweet payday — and then transition to real fighters. It’ll have to happen sometime if Paul keeps doing this, but it just feels a little too soon for that to happen.

The big money fight would be Paul vs. Conor McGregor, but the weight differential could be an issue. And that’s the other rub — so far Paul’s fights haven’t really been against someone in his weight class. I’m interested to see how that would go. So while he probably should fight an actual boxer next, it might still be a little bit too soon in reality.


Real or Not: Anderson Silva will KO Tito Ortiz in their boxing match

Raimondi: Jake Paul beating Tyron Woodley underscores again just how impressive Anderson Silva’s win over Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., a former world champion, in June really was. Chavez Jr., while surely past his prime and dealing with various issues including weight-cutting, is a far more established, legitimate boxer than Paul. MMA fighters have not always looked good in these types of matchups against boxers, but Silva looked really solid against Chavez Jr., turning back the clock a little bit. Silva has only one win in his past nine MMA fights. Paul, meanwhile, outpointed Woodley, the former UFC welterweight champion. Silva is the legendary former UFC middleweight champion, the best ever in that weight division in mixed martial arts.

Ortiz should, on paper, be a step down in competition for Silva after Chavez Jr. Not only is Ortiz a well-past-his-prime MMA fighter just like Silva is, his base in that sport was wrestling — kind of like Woodley. Silva, meanwhile, was long one of the most crafty strikers in the UFC. That’s not to say he’s a sharp, fundamentally sound boxer. But “The Spider” is one of the most creative, talented knockout artists to ever compete in MMA. And I do think he finds the finish here against Ortiz, so I’ll say real to this statement.

I’ll say this for Ortiz, though. Yes, he is 46 years old (the same age as Silva, actually), but he has been traditionally pretty durable. He has not been an easy guy to knock out in MMA. His last time getting stopped via blows to the head came way back in 2006. Ortiz, the UFC Hall of Famer and former longtime UFC light heavyweight champion, lost a couple of times with body shots since then, but his chin has always been pretty solid. However, the difference here is that Ortiz cannot fall back on his bread and butter — wrestling — if he gets in trouble against Silva.

If Silva looks as good (and confident) as he did against Chavez Jr. three months ago, Ortiz is going to have a hard time keeping up with him. Ortiz has never been the best boxer in MMA, though he made some strides toward the end of his run working with Jason Parillo, an excellent striking coach out of Orange County, California.

Ortiz is working with Parillo again for this camp, and that will surely help him. But there’s a lot of ground to make up against Silva. My best guess is Ortiz hangs around for a bit, but Silva pours it on late for a finish. Silva vs. Ortiz is a boxing match between two middle-aged MMA legends. Surely, Silva should win. But who knows? You never can tell exactly what will happen in these fights, which is why people pay to see them.



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The 10 UFC fights still to come in 2021 to get most excited for

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The UFC is down to 13 live events remaining in 2021 (not including Dana White’s Contender Series). As of now, the schedule consists of one more trip to Fight Island for UFC 267, the promotion’s first visit to New York since 2019 and a consistent lineup of events in Las Vegas to close out the year.

This week features a rare Saturday off before a 10-week stretch of fight cards, including three numbered events: UFC 266, UFC 267 and UFC 268.

With much of the schedule for the rest of the year already laid out, what are the top 10 fights you should be excited for? Here’s my personal list.

Note: This list consists of fights that are already signed or nearly so. The UFC is still matchmaking for 2021, and there are a handful of excellent fights in the works — but not quite finalized, so not included in this list.

10. Amanda Nunes vs. Julianna PeΓ±a, bantamweight championship, UFC 269 on Dec. 18

Frankly, most of Nunes’ fights wouldn’t make this kind of list … because she’s simply too dominant. I wouldn’t say she’s too dominant for her own good, because that’s ridiculous. She walks in, takes very little damage, drops a highlight and walks out. That’s great for Nunes. But she might be too dominant for our good as viewers, because most of her fights are over before they begin.

This one might be, too. There is certainly a chance that PeΓ±a is just out of her league here. That is always, always a possibility when talking about a Nunes opponent.

But I have to say, I’m giving PeΓ±a more of a chance than most recent challengers. At the very least, I don’t think she’ll be out of there quickly. I think she’ll force Nunes to compete with her. She’s very tough — mentally and physically. And I do believe her confidence is authentic. I might not predict PeΓ±a to win this fight when the time comes, but I can tell you I’ll predict her to put up a fight.

9. Rose Namajunas vs. Zhang Weili, strawweight championship, UFC 268 on Nov. 6

This would be ranked higher if it weren’t for the fact we just saw the matchup in April. And even though I’m fine with Zhang getting an immediate rematch — I do think she’s capable of giving Namajunas a completely different fight this time — it’s just not one of those highly anticipated rematches we all had to see immediately. That said, Zhang is undeniably world-class. She has proved she’s a champion, but nothing proves one is a champion more than bouncing back from a loss like the one she suffered the last time out against Namajunas.

8. Mackenzie Dern vs. Marina Rodriguez, strawweight, UFC Fight Night on Oct. 9

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Mackenzie Dern gets Nina Nunes in an armbar and forces her to tap out in Round 1 of their strawweight fight.

When Dern signed with the UFC in 2018, we all knew there was no ceiling to her potential because of what she brought from the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world. The question was whether she’d put everything else together.

Three years in, she appears to be on the cusp of putting it all together. She’s got a winner’s mentality. She’s not struggling to make the weight anymore. Her game is becoming more well-rounded by the day. She’s dedicated to the sport. There is no doubt in my mind Dern could become a 115-pound champion.

Rodriguez is unquestionably her toughest test to date. Rodriguez is on a roll as well. She views herself as nothing short of championship level. One of these two is going to fight for a belt in the next 18 months — I believe that. Let’s see who it is.

7. Paulo Costa vs. Marvin Vettori, middleweight, UFC Fight Night on Oct. 23

So much anger in one middleweight matchup. We’ve been waiting to see how Costa will respond to his very disappointing title bid against Israel Adesanya in 2020. Vettori is always entertaining, in the cage and out. This five-round main event will likely feature a very fun buildup and a violent clash of styles on fight night.

6. Rafael Fiziev vs. Brad Riddell, lightweight, UFC Fight Night on Dec. 4

Nearly all of the selections on this list are championship fights, main events, co-main events or featured bouts with high-profile fighters. This is really the only one that doesn’t feature a household name, but all true fight fans are looking forward to it. Fiziev and Riddell are two of the most intriguing and entertaining prospects in the lightweight division. This has legitimate Fight of the Year potential. It’s easy to tell your friends you’re looking forward to a Conor McGregor fight. Tell them you’re looking forward to this one, and show what a true (and smart) MMA fan you really are.

5. Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan, bantamweight championship, UFC 267 on Oct. 30

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After Petr Yan lands an illegal knee to the head of Aljamain Sterling, the fight is called off and Yan is disqualified, making Sterling the new bantamweight champion.

It might surprise you that I have this rematch so high on the list. But the story behind this one is just outstanding to me. Sterling was pretty universally well-liked in the sport before he won the title against Yan in the manner in which he did. Yan’s illegal knee. Sterling claiming the belt via Yan’s disqualification. Photos of Sterling holding it up and celebrating with friends that night, when many felt he should take no joy in winning the way he did.

Sterling has been forced to deal with the full force of internet trolls since that night in March, and he’ll go into this rematch under a lot of doubt. Many expect Yan to take the belt back and move on. So, Sterling has this one chance to drastically change how all of this is remembered. If he were to go in and dominate Yan, man, that changes the whole narrative. Nights don’t get any bigger for a UFC fighter than the one Sterling will go into on Oct. 30, and for that reason, I’m very hyped about it.

4. Justin Gaethje vs. Michael Chandler, lightweight, UFC 268 on Nov. 6

I won’t insult you by even explaining this one. Gaethje vs. Chandler speaks for itself. Absolute fire. Cheers to all of us for simply being allowed to witness it.

3. Khamzat Chimaev vs. Li Jingliang, welterweight, UFC 267 on Oct. 30

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Khamzat Chimaev needs 17 seconds and one punch to knock out Gerald Meerschaert at UFC Fight Night.

Chimaev could be the best fighter on the planet. I mean, I don’t know. He could be. Could he also be massively overrated? Yeah, that’s possible as well. The amount of hype this man generated in a short amount of time in 2020, it still boggles the mind. But he was deserving of it. He was looking to fight every week, in multiple weight classes. He exceeded all expectations. I still find myself wondering what would have happened had he and Leon Edwards met late last year. We could be looking at Chimaev fighting for the welterweight title already, which is just mad.

Will he look the same after struggling for months with COVID-19 symptoms? All reports out of Sweden say he will. Li is a legitimate foe, but if Chimaev stomps him as he has everyone else, the hype will rush back and this story will take off again.

2. Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington 2, welterweight championship, UFC 268 on Nov. 6

Now, this is a rematch to truly get up for. Covington has given Usman his toughest championship fight in the UFC. I would say he’s a bigger rival to Usman than even Jorge Masvidal, whom we’ve already seen fight Usman twice. Covington has a better chance of actually beating Usman than Masvidal probably ever had.

Personality-wise, Usman and Covington are complete opposites in so many ways. Usman is, by many votes, the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, which he wasn’t considered to be when they first fought. Covington has a real issue with the way that many people remember their first fight. He believes he was much closer to beating Usman than he has ever received credit for. The backdrop of New York City is perfect for this fight. I love everything about it.

1. Alexander Volkanovski vs. Brian Ortega, featherweight championship, UFC 266 on Sept. 25

So, my guess is that this is a sleeper pick for most anticipated fight of the rest of the year. I think fans are looking forward to this 145-pound matchup, but above anything else the rest of the year? I might be in the minority on that. But I really want to find out how good Ortega is. He made it to a title fight against Max Holloway while training out of a garage. Holloway outclassed him, and since then Ortega has changed virtually everything around him. He has fought only once in the past 2Β½ years but looked pretty much perfect in that win against Chan Sung Jung last October. How good is he? Is he the best featherweight in the world, but we’ve just had to wait a long time to find out?

Ortega will need to be the best featherweight in the world to beat Volkanovski. The champ’s style hasn’t fully resonated yet with the fans, but I struggle to find many fighters out there I respect more when it comes to preparation, fight IQ, professionalism, technique and ability to make in-fight adjustments. It is going to take a world-class performance to beat this man.

I love the prefight narratives and the dynamic between two fighters — all of that is really fun. But for me, nothing beats a fight in which I really do not know who is going to win, because both athletes are remarkably good. And that’s what we’ve got with this one.

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The story of Bijan Robinson, great expectations and the Texas legends showing him the way

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Moments before Bijan Robinson made the first start of his highly anticipated sophomore season at Texas, something felt different.

The former five-star recruit — the Arizona high school legend who ran for 7,036 yards and 114 touchdowns, both state records — was making just his seventh start for Texas and already owned school records for yards per carry in a game (19.1 against Kansas State) and in a season (8.2 yards).

But this was a new feeling: Robinson was nervous.

“I’ve never [played] in front of 100,000 people,” said Robinson, whose first year at Texas featured small crowds because of COVID-19 restrictions.

But he found reassurance from a familiar face: legendary Longhorns running back Ricky Williams.

“He just said, ‘Go ball out and represent for the guys who have been here before you,'” Robinson said.

Robinson doesn’t need any history lessons on those who came before him. They’re all around him.

In every aspect of his football life, Robinson has legends or direct ties to his idols as sounding boards, whether it’s Williams’ brotherhood, coach Steve Sarkisian’s connections to his idol, Reggie Bush, or business advice from Earl Campbell. If Robinson aspires to their level of greatness, he can ask firsthand how to get there.

Both Williams and Campbell, the Longhorns’ two Heisman Trophy winners, were on the field before the Louisiana game on Sept. 4. Their field. The turf that Robinson was standing on had just been rededicated as Campbell-Williams Field, a permanent reminder, along with their two statues, of their larger-than-life standing on campus.

Two icons, two running backs, two of the only people in the world who could understand the great expectations facing Robinson, who entered the season with the best odds among non-quarterbacks (25-1 at Caesars Sportsbook) to win this year’s Heisman.

But more urgently, the Longhorns’ season could be dependent on where Robinson’s legs take it. First-year coach Sarkisian’s momentum at Texas could, too. That’s another bond Robinson has with Campbell and Williams, who both had their best seasons for a coach who didn’t recruit them.

In 1977, when new Longhorns coach Fred Akers took over after Darrell Royal’s retirement, he ditched the famed wishbone for the I-formation to take advantage of Campbell’s skills. The Longhorns improved from 5-5-1 to 11-1, Campbell rushed for a Southwest Conference-record 1,744 yards and 19 touchdowns, leading the nation in rushing and scoring, and he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide.

When Mack Brown replaced John Mackovic in 1998, he re-recruited Williams and convinced him to return for his senior season, then built his offense around him. Williams would go on to run for 2,124 yards and 27 TDs that season, winning the Heisman and earning Brown instant credibility in Austin. It also helped jump-start his recruiting machine.

“When the coach believes and Texas has a star running back, special things happen,” Williams said.

Robinson’s versatile skill set allows Sarkisian to believe, a good fit for a coach who makes running backs a centerpiece of his scheme. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, in his six full seasons as a head coach and two seasons as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, Sarkisian’s running backs have been ranked in the top three in total touches in their conferences each year, with all of them surpassing 225. Robinson had 102 touches last season as a freshman under Tom Herman.

In Texas’ 38-18 win over No. 23 Louisiana on Saturday, the Longhorns ran 68 offensive plays. Robinson got the ball on 24 of them, running for 103 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries and catching four passes for 73 yards and a touchdown before giving way to backups. All of last season, he had career highs of 16 carries (in a loss to Iowa State) and three catches (against Kansas State).

He caught a touchdown pass on a wheel route out of the backfield, and even lined up in the slot, showing how dangerous he can be as a receiver.

“I go against that guy every day, and when I tell you it is a struggle, Bijan makes us work,” said Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, who had 13 tackles against Louisiana. “I felt like that’s one reason why we’re so good at tackling, because let me tell you, trying to tackle Bijan every day in practice is not the easiest thing to do. He’s amazing.”

Robinson said he studied another Heisman winner, Bush, to develop his style and work on his versatility. He wears No. 5 as an homage to Bush, who wore the number at USC.

“He didn’t waste any time trying to break down defenders,” Robinson said. “He just broke them down quick and got north and south immediately.”

Sarkisian, of course, saw Bush firsthand as USC’s quarterbacks coach during Bush’s glory days with the Trojans. He knows what Bush did, how he did it, and how to utilize Robinson’s abilities in a similar fashion, and he can envision Robinson playing like Bush in his offense.

“I always said Reggie had such a unique ability to put his foot in the ground, one cut and get vertical and get back to top-end speed,” Sarkisian said. “Guys have tried to do it before, but very few could do it that way, and I think Bijan is a unique guy that can play at top-end speed, put his foot in the ground, make someone miss. Those one-cuts are violent. You almost feel the ground when they put that foot in it. So they are unique that way for sure.”


Robinson does everything fast. He answers questions rapid-fire, punctuating the response with a “yeah” almost before they’re finished being asked. He offers insightful responses that show off his personality, like saying after the game Saturday that his first touchdown catch was a matchup exploit based on something Sarkisian saw on the previous play.

“I don’t want to give all the secrets out,” Sarkisian said with a smile about that comment on Monday.

Robinson’s enthusiasm, potential and platform make him one of college football’s best bets to cash in on the new name, image and likeness rules. In addition to some deals such as a clothing line collaboration and selling personalized Cameo videos for $189 (up from $100 initially), Robinson has already taken advantage of a very Texas opportunity, partnering with one of the state’s best barbecue spots.

In his new business concerns, as well, Robinson has found a mentor in a Heisman winner.

For more than 40 years, Campbell has been in the NIL business, including his legendary Skoal commercial. Earl Campbell’s Hot Links are a grocery-store staple, with Campbell on the package wearing a cowboy hat and holding a football on his hip.

When Robinson was trying to get a handle on business opportunities, he turned to Campbell, who invited him to his Austin home to walk through his options.

“I told him there’s a lot of money to be made in this,” Campbell said. “What the NCAA is doing with these young men is the proper thing to do. When I came to college at UT from Tyler, Texas, I left a mother, six brothers and four sisters. There’s no way my mother could have helped me in college. If I would’ve had something like this in college, it would’ve made a big difference in my life. The NCAA has gotten rich enough. Guys like myself have made them billions.”

Robinson, who was in awe of Campbell’s trophy room and memorabilia, said Campbell made sure he understood that you will be judged by the company you keep and to always make sure you’re doing things you believe in.

“He’s a role model for me in the NIL stuff,” Robinson said. “He did all those business deals in the NFL, and those are the same kind of things I’m trying to do right now.”

Campbell is the no-nonsense of the two, a Texas icon who doesn’t pull any punches and is an almost mythical figure graced with otherworldly strength. Williams, who broke Tony Dorsett’s all-time Division I rushing record while at Texas (since broken by former Wisconsin back Ron Dayne), offered a blend of speed and power to which Robinson aspires. And Robinson, like Williams, has a more contemplative style.

His pregame hype music, he said, is sounds of the ocean, or the “Watercolor” station on Pandora.

“I love to listen to soft music and just get my mind elsewhere,” he said. “It’s the music you hear in elevators, like smooth jazz.”

Robinson and Williams also followed a similar path to Texas stardom. They’re both outsiders, coming from Pac-12 country — Robinson from Arizona, Williams from San Diego.

“When someone is in the right place at the right time, you can feel there’s something special about them,” Williams said. “I thought I needed to be at Texas. That’s why I made the trip. And I sense something with Bijan, one of the top-rated running backs in the nation coming from Tucson. It just has that feel to it.”

And like Williams before him, Robinson has already been crowned as the Next Great Texas Running Back. Williams was nicknamed “Little Earl” early in his Texas career. Last year, Williams himself dubbed Robinson “Little Ricky” on the Longhorn Network.

“I threw it out there because when the name comes from inside the circle, I think it means more than when it comes from outside the circle,” Williams said. “You can say a lot of things about expectations. But the reason I came to Texas was because of expectations. The reason I came to Texas was to win the Heisman Trophy, to be special. And so, me giving him that name is me telling him that: That’s my expectation.”

When Robinson and Williams finally had time to hang out for several hours this summer at an event in Arizona, Robinson said there was a quick bond.

“It was just like having a big brother,” Robinson said. “We saw each other and it was instant love. We talked for about four hours on what he’s done here and how he can help me. He taught me the ropes in the little time that we were together. It was really inspiring.”


On Saturday, the Longhorns visit old Southwest Conference rival Arkansas (7 p.m. ET, ESPN), and Robinson figures to be a key factor.

Last year, the Razorbacks allowed 192.1 rushing yards per game, 93rd nationally, and were 106th in total yards per game, allowing 451.7. Robinson gained 5.8 yards after contact per carry last season, second best in the country, while Arkansas allowed 103.2 yards after contact per game.

Robinson has insisted all offseason that he had no issues with his limited opportunities last season, saying he always wants to do whatever his coaches need from him. It wasn’t all that unusual for him in high school to get only 10 to 15 carries because he reeled off such big runs his team would get a lead and he’d sit out the second half.

But it’s clear Robinson is ready and willing to take on a bigger role.

“As I talk to Bijan, one of the things he’s most excited about is Sark has told him, ‘We’re gonna give you the ball,'” Williams said.

On the final Sunday before the season started, Robinson and wide receiver Jordan Whittington made an NIL appearance, signing autographs in nearby New Braunfels, Texas. As they signed items for Longhorns fans and took pictures with kids flashing the “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign, Campbell made an unscheduled appearance and sat at the table alongside the players.

“These college coaches don’t seem to want guys around these young men like a Ricky Williams or an Earl Campbell,” said Campbell, who frequently attends Longhorns practice. “I don’t know if it’s intimidating to them. But one thing about Sarkisian, he reached out his hand, and I think that made the players feel comfortable and it made me feel comfortable.”

Heisman chatter and lofty expectations can be a lot to handle for a sophomore. But Williams thinks Robinson is equipped to handle the noise.

“I don’t want to put the pressure on him, but he already knows,” Williams said. “People would ask me if I felt a lot of pressure. I’d say no, because the pressure I put on myself is much greater than the pressure anyone else could put on me. I feel like Bijan has that kind of confidence.”

Robinson agreed.

“It’s just doing something that you love,” he said. “There can’t be pressure if you love it and God gave you the ability to do it.”

That doesn’t mean he won’t hear an invitation from Campbell to join an elite club. At the autograph table, Campbell pointed out that he saw a photo of Texas players with his Heisman, and he offered his own suggestion with a smile.

“Why don’t you just go on ahead and get you one for yourself?” Campbell said.

Williams thinks it’s time, too, which is why he thought it was important to find Robinson before Saturday’s game.

“When I came up to him, I said, ‘I’m here for you.’ Meaning, yeah, the field was being named after me, but the reason I was showing up at the gate was because I was here to see him,” Williams said. “I just think he’s got that special once-in-a-generation kind of talent. They say a generation lasts about 20 years. There’s about 20 years between Earl’s Heisman and mine. And it’s been a little over 20 years since mine. It’s time for Texas to have that once-in-a-generation type of player.”

The two men whose names grace the turf under Robinson’s cleats believe, which makes Robinson that much more driven to leave his own mark.

“On the field that’s named after them, I can try to do the same thing for my legacy,” Robinson said. “Maybe one day, I can join them with my name on that stadium.”



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The battle for the Cy-Hawk, another test for Ohio State and more to watch in Week 2

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It’s only Week 2 and we’re already making history.

What we’ve got here is the greatest Cy-Hawk battle of all time. For the first time in the 67-game history of the series, both the Iowa Hawkeyes and Iowa State Cyclones will be ranked when the rivals meet in Ames (4:30 ET, ABC). Even better? They’re both in the top 10: The Hawkeyes jumped from No. 18 to No. 10 this week after crushing Indiana 34-6, while the Cyclones dropped two spots to No. 9 after escaping Northern Iowa 16-10.

The matchup will be the ultimate test of how far Iowa State has come under Matt Campbell. This is just the second time in history the Cyclones have been ranked in this rivalry matchup (the other time was in 1978). But for all that Campbell has done — his .556 winning percentage is the best in school history among coaches who have been there for 50 games — he has never beaten Iowa. But he has closed the gap: In Year 1 in 2016, Campbell and Iowa State suffered a 42-3 loss. Since then, the past three losses have been by a total of 14 points, including an 18-17 nailbiter in 2019. The game was not played last season.

The Cyclones will face an Iowa team that has won 12 straight nonconference games and four straight games against ranked teams. And while Iowa State’s Breece Hall is one of the nation’s most productive running backs, Iowa has allowed just 2.8 yards per carry since the start of the 2020 season, third best in the country in that span.

The stakes are high, and they got even higher with the prospect of realignment hitting the Big 12 and the Big Ten being part of the alliance with the Pac-12 and the ACC. As of now, there’s no guarantee the game will continue once everything shakes out.

So embrace this, much like the winner will embrace the Iowa Corn Cy-Hawk trophy. There’s never been a bigger game sponsored by corn.

A tribute to service

Army and Air Force will meet on Saturday on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Navy will mark the occasion with a show of unity for military branches by wearing special Marine Corps football uniforms, inspired by the Marines’ “Dress Blue A” uniform with white gloves, black cleats, red trim and royal blue pants. “The actual ensemble worn by a Marine is the only uniform within the U.S. Military designated to include this red, white, and blue color scheme,” the Navy website says.

The helmets say “OO-RAH” on the front of them, “Semper Fi” on the back and the player nameplates and feature the Corps’ Eagle, Globe & Anchor logo on the sides.

Air Force will wear its annual “Air Power Legacy” alternate uniforms, with this year’s honoring the B-52 Stratofortress.

Johnny Majors and the Pitt Script

When Pitt and Tennessee meet on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN), they’ll honor legendary coach Johnny Majors, who coached at both schools. Former Majors assistant Jackie Sherrill, who succeeded him at Pitt, will serve as the Panthers’ honorary captain.

Majors obviously made an enormous impact on the field. But we spoke to Sherrill last year about one of Majors’ most interesting contributions to college football: the Pitt Script.

Upon arriving at Pitt in 1973, Majors wasted no time making it clear how much he cared about details. In his first team meeting, he stuffed the Panthers’ jerseys in a trash can, saying he believed proud teams played better, and this included looking good. The nondescript logoless helmets were history. The Panthers’ blue and gold looked too much like Notre Dame’s colors, too.

“In the coaching profession, Coach Majors was the best PR guy ever,” Sherrill, who was a 30-year-old defensive coordinator for Majors when they arrived, told ESPN. “He went to Carnegie Mellon classes on how to be a PR guy. Coach studied pretty hard.”

Majors hired an artist to create a Pitt logo and picked more distinctive colors. He was involved in every aspect of the design, down to the placement and thickness of stripes on the jerseys and where they’d go, unlike today where shoe companies often design uniforms based on a template.

“I went on vacation with Coach and his family back to Tennessee,” Sherrill said. “We were still designing the uniform on that trip. I remember going around to helmet companies to make sure they were able to make that color, because he wanted it implanted in the plastic, not painted.”

For six months, Sherrill frequently had to model prototypes on the field while Majors sat in the stands and pondered the combinations. He finally settled on the iconic Pitt Script, which adorned helmets as part of one of the greatest uniforms in college football history. It was the logo of the Panthers’ 1976 national championship team and was worn by Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino when they became legends. Pitt returned to it in 2015 after an ill-advised makeover in 1996.

“The Pitt Script was kind of like the Nike swoosh or the Adidas stripes, like the Texas Longhorn or the Alabama A,” Sherrill said. “It’s iconic. During that period of time, it was a symbol of one of the best football teams in the country.”

What else to watch this weekend

C.J. Stroud and Ohio State vs. Oregon (noon ET, Fox)
Stroud’s debut against Minnesota was a good one; he completed 13 of his 22 passes for 294 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. But there was a noticeable pattern that Oregon might try to take advantage of.

Stroud was at his best, by a wide margin, when throwing to his left. Stroud was 7-of-9 for 204 yards with three TDs and no picks when going to his left, but if he threw the ball anywhere else, he completed just 55% of his passes for 90 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

With Kayvon Thibodeaux’s status up in the air, don’t be surprised if you see Oregon make an attempt to see if Stroud can beat the Ducks going anywhere but left.

Washington’s redemption game vs. Michigan (8 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App)
Washington is coming off of one of the worst losses from Week 1. After going up 7-3 through the first quarter, the Huskies allowed Montana to score 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to give the Grizzlies the 13-7 upset.

Huskies head coach Jimmy Lake said on Monday, “We should not have played the way we played on Saturday night and that’s why I feel so bad for our fans, for our supporters. They should be disappointed. They should be pissed, just like we are. All we can do now is move forward here and make amends. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

There aren’t many other games that Lake could ask for as a better opportunity to make amends than a Saturday night trip to Ann Arbor against Michigan. The Wolverines aren’t the power that many expected them to be, but it would be a good win nonetheless.

If Washington loses, it will be the Huskies’ first 0-2 start since the 2008 season, when they went 0-12.

It won’t be an easy task. If Washington wasn’t able to somewhat bully its way past Montana based off of talent and skill alone, the Huskies won’t be able to do it against Michigan. That’s where Lake thinks Washington can improve.

“We’ve got to be better prepared, we’ve got to have a better plan and we did not execute a good plan,” Lake said. “It all starts with coaching first, and it starts with me.”

Kennesaw State (and the turnover plank!) vs. Georgia Tech (noon ET, ESPN3)
Georgia Tech welcomes Kennesaw State to Bobby Dodd on Saturday, which would make for a fun upset if the Owls were able to pull it off for a couple of reasons.

The first is location. Kennesaw State is north of Atlanta, and considered part of the metro area. The Owls have only been playing football since 2015 as a member of the Big South Conference, but have quickly established themselves as one of the better teams in FCS.

The second and more important part of this is Kennesaw State’s turnover plank, a piece of wood with two eyes and a mouth that the team uses to celebrate turnovers. Plank is a character from Cartoon Network’s “Ed, Edd n Eddy,” with no sort of significant ties to Kennesaw specifically. Tanner Jones, who played multiple positions for the Owls, found Plank on spring break in 2015, took him home and then introduced him to the team in 2017.

If the Owls were to upset the Bees, we’d probably get plenty of looks at Plank.

No. 21 Utah vs. BYU (10:15 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App)
The next-biggest rivalry game in Week 2 is happening in Provo, where Utah will face BYU. It’ll be the second of three consecutive Pac-12 games on BYU’s schedule, as the Cougars are coming off a 24-16 win against Arizona.

Utah comes into the game up three spots in the AP poll at No. 21, after cruising by Weber State in Week 1, 40-17.

BYU wide receiver Gunner Romney is doubtful to suit up against rival Utah, which would be a big loss for the Cougars. But brothers Samson (who previously played for Utah) and Puka Nacua are expected to play in what should be a fun matchup between rivals who can’t agree on when their first game was played or the series’ all-time record.

No. 15 Texas at Arkansas (7 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App)
From a breakup in the Southwest Conference to a future remarriage in the Southeastern Conference, this is one old rivalry we’re excited to regain. The teams are meeting for the 79th time, making this the most-played rivalry in Arkansas history. But just five of those games have come since the Razorbacks left the SWC in 1992. And while the Longhorns lead the series 56-22, Arkansas is 3-2 against Texas in the nonconference games.

The trash talk has already started where it matters most, the local barbecue joints.

A bye week by any other name

Mercer at No. 1 Alabama (4 ET, SEC Network): Alabama should really pick on someone its own size, like … well, we’re not sure. Nick Saban is 10-0 vs. FCS teams at Bama, winning by an average of 44.2 PPG. A win here would be the Tide’s 99th straight over unranked opponents. Just don’t tell Nick Saban this one will be easy.

Western Carolina at No. 2 Oklahoma, 7 ET: This is available on pay-per-view for the low, low price of $54.99. If you need any help getting over the hump to mash that “buy” button, consider this: Oklahoma is 8-0 vs. FCS teams, winning by an average of 52.6 points.

South Carolina State at No. 6 Clemson (5 ET, ACC Network): A cure for the Clemson offense, which was held to just three points in a loss to Georgia last week? That would be playing the Bulldogs of Orangeburg, South Carolina. Since 2008, Clemson has played South Carolina State four times. Average score? 60-5, including a 73-3 win in 2014. Clemson is 35-0 against FCS teams.

More corn news

Forgive us, Iowans. But it’s important to include an important historical footnote. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the sadly departed “pewter family” trophy that became the object of scorn after it was introduced for the rivalry in 2011.

The trophy, which depicted a father kneeling next to a bushel of corn alongside his family and a tall cornstalk, was roundly mocked and quickly abandoned. It was never awarded, and never seen again.

But it lives on lovingly. In Polk City, Iowa, this week, families could re-create the trophy on a photo stage. Now that’s entertainment.



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‘Go for two’: Why Buccaneers feel ‘miles ahead’ of 2020 as quest to repeat begins

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TAMPA, Fla. — At around 8:30 on the morning after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 in Super Bowl LV, Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen was enjoying a visit with his grandchildren when his phone rang.

It was a FaceTime call from none other than Tom Brady, who didn’t see Christensen after the game and wanted to thank him. But the quarterback was also eager to get to work on the 2021 season, telling Christensen, “Hey, I’ve just been sitting here thinking about we could really be a lot better next year. We still haven’t hit our peak. I really believe we’ve got a chance to be much, much, much better this year.”

And they do.

“We’re miles ahead of what we were last year,” wide receiver Mike Evans said. “Not just me and [Brady’s] connection, but the whole team — the whole offense.”

The NFL hasn’t seen a repeat Super Bowl champion since Brady’s Patriots in 2003-2004, though, and it has been done only eight times, with three other teams even reaching the Super Bowl and losing the next year.

“It’s just that the league is so competitive,” said tight end Rob Gronkowski, who won three titles with the Patriots but never did so consecutively. “That’s what makes it so hard to win a championship, let alone to repeat.”

Here’s how the Bucs have tried to build on last year and what they’re up against as they try to “go for two” — their mantra this season — with their journey beginning Thursday night against the Dallas Cowboys (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).

More cohesiveness with Brady and the offense

Tampa Bay returns all of its starters from last season. Brady has gone from last year’s having to learn an entirely new language in coach Bruce Arians’ offense with no offseason or preseason to fluency. Receivers know precisely the way he wants routes to be run. They are no longer struggling to get their heads around fast enough to account for his quick release or seeing different coverages than Brady does on option routes — an issue the Bucs ran into at times early last year.

“Now that they have an understanding of each other, you see us having more success just by them knowing each other and knowing what each other are going to do in certain situations,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said.

“It’s been so much better. Everybody is more comfortable. Everyone knows each other. Last year, it was bizarre almost,” Christensen said. “I didn’t know [Brady], and the receivers didn’t know him. No one knew him. I was scared of him …. It’s been a 100% difference just on us knowing what he likes, for Byron to know what he likes, for us to know how he trains and for him to know what we expect out of him.”

After a three-and-out on the opening drive against the Houston Texans in the third preseason game, the Bucs went no-huddle and Brady executed it to perfection, ripping seven straight completions to four different receivers — including a 24-yard touchdown to Chris Godwin.

“Tom really operates it fast now,” Arians said of the no-huddle. “All the words mean something for him, where they didn’t — ‘What the hell did that mean?’ — last year. So it’s a lot easier.”

Granted, it was preseason, when teams stick to vanilla defense, but the potential is there.

“Everyone’s on the same page. Last year, we felt like we left a lot, a lot out there,” Evans said. “Games could have been a little bit easier last year for us, we feel like.”

New pieces

Tampa Bay’s selection of linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka out of Washington with the 32nd overall draft pick is looking like a smart move, as he was plenty disruptive in the preseason and adds freshness to the team’s rotation. His average get-off speed of 0.74 seconds this preseason ranked sixth among 200 players with 30-plus pass rushes. He also got pressure on 16.7% of his pass rushes, tied for fourth best among those players, per NFL Next Gen Stats data.

“I told him today that he’s going to be one of the key guys that helps us get back to the Super Bowl,” veteran outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul said. “The way he bends — it took me awhile for me to know how to bend and stuff like that. The way he grasps the plays and stuff — he’s there.”

The Bucs also bolstered the short passing game with the addition of veteran Giovani Bernard, whose 2,867 receiving yards and 342 receptions are third most in the NFL among running backs since 2013. Brady’s 69.7% completion percentage on passes to running backs in 2020 was tied for third lowest in his career, and he saw the fewest yards per attempt in passes targeting running backs (4.44 yards per attempt).

Special teams coverage was a major area of focus this offseason. Tampa Bay surrendered a league-worst 33.6 yards per kickoff return last season and allowed 10.3 yards per punt return.

Dee Delaney, Chris Cooper and Grant Stuard (along with second-year running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn) all reached 20 mph in punt and kick return coverage this preseason, something the Bucs only consistently got from Ryan Smith (now with the Los Angeles Chargers) and Jamel Dean last year.

Injuries

The Bucs couldn’t be in better shape. Arians gave the veterans a rest this spring — the result of some self-reflection after injuries plagued his Arizona Cardinals after reaching the NFC Championship Game in 2015, and his reliance on sports science, including use of GPS tracking devices that monitor player steps, speed and exertion.

Several players also underwent surgery for chronic injuries, including knee scopes for Brady, Pierre-Paul and wide receiver Antonio Brown.

“This is the healthiest I’ve felt,” Pierre-Paul said. “I feel like JPP from 2010.”

Brown also has shown glimpses of his All-Pro form from five years ago, at times looking unbeatable in camp.

“He’s able to go out there more and give more effort and energy to his routes and to his technique,” wide receivers coach Kevin Garver said of Brown.

“He can stick his foot in the ground better. Because the knee’s not bothering him as much — I think if you go back and watch the Saints game from the playoffs, he couldn’t stick his foot in the ground to get out of his route, so he couldn’t go anymore.”

Starting strong safety Jordan Whitehead is dealing with a hamstring injury and won’t play Thursday night, but the coaching staff believes backup Mike Edwards has really blossomed into a ball hawk and can step in.

Evans’ best season yet?

One of the best-kept secrets out of Tampa Bay’s camp has been the feeling that this could be Evans’ best year.

“It’s the best he’s been — I hate saying that,” Leftwich said. “He had a hell of a camp.”

In the past, Evans struggled to keep his weight down and would gain around 15 pounds in the offseason, going up to 240, having to exert himself physically to try to burn off all that weight. This year, he managed to control his weight through diet and hydration.

“It’s way harder [to get back into shape versus staying in shape],” Evans said. “I’ve been shooting myself in the foot doing that the first four or five years of my career. … This training camp I feel like it’s the best shape I’ve been in.”

The extra activity — like running 100 routes a day — to try to burn off excess weight was taking a toll on his body, giving him hamstring strains and wearing him out.

“Now I’m just trying to be smart and always stay in shape so my body can be ready,” Evans said. “As long as I’m in good shape and I’m healthy, I feel like I’m the best receiver on the planet.”

There’s also been a misconception that Evans — known as a long-strider because of his 6-foot-5 frame and success downfield — can’t excel in short to intermediate routes, which rely more on quickness. He has worked hard to improve that, his timing with Brady and his yards after the catch.

“That’s one of the things I told Tom when he first got here is, ‘You’re going to be surprised with how good he is in those short areas,'” Leftwich said.

Becoming a target, fighting complacency

Like every team that hoists the Lombardi trophy victoriously the previous winter, the Bucs must learn to adjust to having a target on their backs, to go from hunting each week to suddenly becoming the hunted. They got a taste of it when the Tennessee Titans outplayed them in the first of two joint practices before roaring back on Day 2.

But Leftwich thinks it started last year.

“Every day we were on TV, good or bad,” Leftwich said. “I know how that goes in the opposing locker room. … we had everybody’s best shot last year before we were able to prove what we were as a team. We expect the same.”

Another issue Super Bowl teams must navigate is the threat of complacency and living in the rearview mirror.

Longtime defensive captain Lavonte David said although he’ll have goose bumps Thursday night — the first time a packed Raymond James Stadium will see the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers after last season’s COVID-19 restrictions– when kickoff comes, last year’s title will be an afterthought.

“We’re the 2021 Buccaneers now,” David said. “There’s no more 2020 Buccaneers. We just can’t be distracted by it.”

That’s a major reason Tampa Bay chose to have its White House visit before training camp despite there being talks of possibly doing it in November when the team will play the Washington Football Team right outside Washington, D.C.

“Going back to the first preseason game … we had all those [Super Bowl] banners around the inside of the stadium. I’m so glad they got ’em out, and I’d like to get ’em off the fences here, me personally,” said assistant head coach/run game coordinator Harold Goodwin.

Christensen believes it’s all about leadership, particularly at the quarterback position, which is what he witnessed with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. Players wouldn’t dare come to camp out of shape on his watch.

“There’s zero chance for complacency — zero,” Christensen said. “They won’t allow it to happen. It’s not in their being. … I think that’s the advantage.”

Brady is eager to see how this team can measure up.

“I’d love to see where we can get this year,” Brady said. “All of it is earned. There’s nothing given. It’s not about a bunch of hype or a bunch of buildup and B.S. We have to go do it.”

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Larry Walker’s love of SpongeBob immortalized at the Baseball Hall of Fame

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Larry Walker, the former Colorado Rockies and Montreal Expos star, is going into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday. He was one of baseball’s best hitters in that era, and the 54-year-old set the internet ablaze (again) during the induction ceremony thanks to the man who lives in a pineapple under the sea.

When Walker received the call that he was heading to Cooperstown in January 2020, he wore a SpongeBob SquarePants shirt. The shirt also sent a subtle message, as it read, “Ain’t no ordinary sponge.”

During the induction ceremony, Walker reminded everyone that you’re never too old for SpongeBob.

The gray and black suit Walker wore during the event had a small splash of yellow. The three-time batting champion took the stage wearing a SpongeBob lapel pin.

His love for the Nickelodeon character is real and everlasting.

The now-iconic shirt Walker wore during his election call will also be immortalized in Cooperstown.

The shirt is on display in the Hall, right next to Joe West’s umpire mask. Did he know wearing that piece of clothing would end up being a part of baseball history when he wore it? Probably not, but having SpongeBob in Cooperstown brings Walker’s adoration for the cartoon character and his Hall of Fame journey full circle.

Walker, who played in the majors for 17 seasons, was a five-time All-Star and won the NL MVP award in 1997. He finished his career with 383 home runs, 1,311 RBIs and a batting average of .313.



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