Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
Runners need oxygen, and a trip to Hugh Taylor Birch State Park puts them close to the source: trees. The running path, so dense with green that runners need to duck under low-hanging branches, is a triumph of photosynthesis. Leave the iPod at home and listen to the symphony of subtropical birds overhead. And while there's only about one-in-a-million chance that an alligator will leap from the foliage and dive for your ankles, that's just enough of a threat to put an extra spring in your step. Best of all, despite Hugh Taylor Birch's lying close to downtown Fort Lauderdale, there's none of the disruptive sights, sounds, and smells of traffic.
Pompano Beach's Mickey Groody, an 18-year-old senior at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, has helped his football team reach the Division 5-A State Championships for three years running. This year, the star punter, who averages an NFL-worthy 42.3 yards per kick (about what Minnesota Vikings kicker Chris Kluwe, a longtime pro, averaged last year), is headed off to college -- but not far off. A self-described "hometown guy" with close family ties (he's a big brother to four younger siblings), he'll join legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger and the FAU Owls in the fall.
High school football is a big scene here, isn't it?
Yeah, we'll have 2,000, 3,000 people at a game. Come playoff time, the estimate is 10,000. Everyone goes to the games, even away games. When we went to the state championships, we packed 32 charter buses.
Punter is a high-pressure job What's the best thing about it?
Well, a quarterback can throw an incomplete pass, but he can redeem himself. For me, it's a one-shot deal. I don't get a re-do. The best thing is, though, I come out on fourth down, hearing all the groans and moans from the crowd because the offense didn't get the first down. But I can get the momentum going back toward us.
Tell us about this year's FAU team.
Our goal is to step-by-step get to the National Championship -- and I have a strong feeling that we will. The coach has done it with Miami, and he did the same thing with Louisville.
How important are good grades in all this?
Grades are important, especially to my family. I have to keep above a 3.3 GPA so I'm not grounded.
Any exotic locales you want to go to?
I always wanted to go to Hawaii. I like the whole Hawaiian theme you know, sitting on the beach drinking out of a coconut. I'd love to surf at one of those places where all the famous guys surf.
For any Marlins fan who remembers the 2003 World Series and the insanely good pitching that won it, the name Josh Beckett should be honored. Enshrined. Hell, can we apply for sainthood? Alas, Beckett was traded away to the Red Sox and left some mighty big cleats to fill. One of the players who came here in return for Beckett, through a complicated trade deal, was shortstop Hanley Ramirez. No, not Harley Ramirez. No, not Manny Ramirez. No, not that serial killer. We mean the kid who came out of Beantown's farm system to begin his major league career with the Marlins, under the weight of great expectations. He carried the load and then some. In fact, Ramirez won the National League Rookie of the Year in 2006 (notably, his Marlins teammates Dan Uggla and Josh Johnson were right behind him in votes.) It's not just that Ramirez has a .292 batting average or that he regularly slams homers over the wall or that he steals bases almost every third game (51 last year!). It's that, bundled together in a speedy package, with his hat cocked sideways on his head and his sunglasses coolly in place, Ramirez (lovingly nicknamed "Shadez") gives us something exciting to watch and someone worthwhile to cheer for. It's too early to guess whether the 2007 Marlins will make the postseason, and it'd be premature to call Ramirez our next Josh Beckett but hey, you're not calling him Harley anymore.
With D-Wade injured, this honor must now go to a mere mortal. Jason Kapono is most definitely human, flawed by his slow feet and inability to fly. But the six-foot-eight swingman possesses a laudable knack for pouncing on loose balls, plus an unselfish impulse for making the extra pass. He's a dexterous ballhandler and a fearless shooter, and he ranks as the league's best in three-point-shooting percentage winning All-Star weekend's three-point competition was no accident. With his superstar teammates, Kapono has formed a symbiotic relationship: By forcing defenders to come out to defend him, Kapono saves Shaq from double teams and opens up space for Wade to go soaring into the lane. Plus, on a team full of past-their-prime All-Stars (Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning, Eddie Jones, and, yes, Shaq), it's nice to have a goofy white guy hustling back on D like he's lucky to be in the league.
Chicago Bears (and former Gator) quarterback Rex Grossman put it best: "Jason Taylor is a beast." That utterance came after Taylor single-handedly whipped a then-undefeated Bears team. In the first half alone, Taylor intercepted a Grossman pass that he returned for a touchdown and, in the very next possession, sacked Grossman, forcing a fumble. It's just a shame that Taylor, at age 31, wasted his greatest year on a team that had no offense and a turncoat coach. It's also a shame that last May, Taylor had an encounter with a cracker named Redmond Charles Burns. In a road-rage incident near Davie, the five-foot-11, 168-pound Burns screamed racial epithets and threatened to kill the six-foot-six, 250-pound Taylor. Although Taylor is known for his off-field humanitarian work, his single greatest act of charity was resisting the impulse to snap Burns' neck.
After one year in the remote football exile known as the Canadian Football League, Williams is homesick for our Miami Dolphins, and superagent Leigh Steinberg is trying to make it happen. The question is, who's the real Ricky? Was that him in 2002, rushing for a league-leading 1,853 yards? Or was that him in 2004, when he retired from the league, abandoning what might have been a Super Bowl contender, ostensibly so he could live in an African hut and smoke several acres of ganja? It's hard to believe, but Williams didn't even turn 30 until this month. There might still be some gas in that tank. Unfortunately, the Dolphins running game is in the able hands of Ronnie Brown, so we might never know whether there's another side Ricky hasn't shown us.
A Fort Lauderdale native who graduated from Deerfield Beach High School, Mickey Storey arrived at FAU in 2005 and immediately made his case as the best baseball pitcher in school history. He posted a record-low 1.70 earned-run average and won ten games that first season one against sixth-ranked Georgia Tech. The skinny, six-foot-two, 183-pound Storey was the NCAA's Freshman Pitcher of the Year and a third-team All-American. Of course, there was no topping a year like that one, and Storey came down to earth in his sophomore campaign, his ERA swelling to a more pedestrian 3.84. But this year, Storey's back to his old self with dominating wins to start his third year. Sadly, if Storey keeps this up, he's a good bet to leave FAU this summer after getting picked in the Major League Baseball amateur draft.
As the reigning WBA/WBC cruiserweight champion, O'Neil "The Supernova " Bell is the hottest commodity in Seminole Warriors Boxing, a promotions firm based in Hollywood. And Hollywood's Hard Rock Hotel & Casino has been the site of some of Bell's defining moments as a professional: a 12th-round knockout against Dale Brown and an 11th-round knockout against Sebastian Rothman, both in 2005. Those two matches were preludes for the legendary battle Bell waged in January 2006 against Frenchman Jean-Marc Mormeck in Madison Square Garden a tenth-round knockout for Bell. The two have a rematch scheduled for early March in Paris, though it's in flux since Bell's arrest in February on charges he threw a hatchet at his training partner an incident that suggests Bell has taken his Seminole Warrior association a bit too literally. Still, there's no questioning the native Jamaican's toughness. Keep an eye on Bell as he mulls adding weight for a run at the heavyweight title.
Panthers fans will probably tell you that the best Panthers player is, uh, on another team right now. Management has a nasty habit of trading beloved players (Roberto Luongo, anyone?) for unremarkable ones (we won't name names). Now, after seven seasons without a playoff game in sight, fans and the athletes themselves are tired of all those marks in the L column. By the end of this season, even the usually unflappable Olli Jokinen was expressing frustration and otherwise-promising powerhouse Nathan Horton was playing like he was asleep. But there on the ice, behind the blue line, stood the team's secret weapon on blades: Jay Bouwmeester. The notoriously shy 23-year-old defenseman speaks so softly in interviews that he can barely be heard. But his eyes? Intense. His feel for the game? Intuitive. His skating? Wicked fast. That's why he was the third pick in the 2002 entry draft, why he played on the Olympic team (for Canada), and why he made the All-Star team this year. By all accounts, JayBo is a smart, agile, well-rounded player who's just coming into his prime. And best of all is his contract he's ours until at least 2009.
No one at Dania Jai-Alai wins as much or finishes in the money or produces as many highlight reel plays as Arriaga Andoni Echaniz. A native of Markina, Spain, the 32-year-old Echaniz has no peer in the jai-alai frontcourt. That position calls for lightning-quick reflexes and swift lateral movement Echaniz has those, in addition to a crowd-pleasing habit of colliding with walls in his pursuit of a point. In his player profile, Echaniz claims a weakness for plays to his left, as well as for the occasional cigarette. But it doesn't seem to slow him down. So on your next trip to the Dania Jai-Alai, skip the slots. The smart money is on Echaniz.
So what is it that Pat Riley has for short, chubby, bald sidekicks? First, he had Stan Van Gundy, who might have been hopping barrels in a game of Donkey Kong rather than coaching an NBA team of giants. Now there's Ron Rothstein at Riley's side. Neither man looked all that impressive or had a stellar rise in the game. Yet both men proved formidable. Van Gundy was an able and animated head coach, leading what was a listless squad under Riley to the playoffs before he was fired. (Oh c'mon, you don't actually believe he voluntarily stepped down so he could spend every day with his kids do you? Puh-lease). This season, Riley stepped away from the team again as it struggled, leaving it in the hands of Rothstein, who immediately proved himself a worthy head coach during a Shaq-less seven-win stint. As if the roundball gods were out to punish Riley for his fickle comings-and-goings, Dwyane Wade suffered a serious shoulder injury on the day the former Showtime coach returned, hurting the Heat's hopes of repeating as champions. For his brief but impressive run as coach, we honor Rothstein as coach of the year. What, you thought we were going to give it to Nick Saban?
Back in March, the Heat coach decided to break his longstanding silence on political issues. It was a move most of us have since come to regret. On the Iraq War, he said, "When you're in a fight, you just can't blame. You've just got to win the fight and then figure it out. We've got guys over there that are fighting this war for us, and we're over here arguing about it." Uh, yeah, Pat, that's kind of what we do here in America. It's called democracy. "Win the fight and then figure it out"? Dude has obviously been playing the role of hardwood dictator for too long. Unfortunately, he kept going: "I've never taken any kind of a real stance, ever. I have my beliefs and the way I am. I'm very proud, so much, to be an American. I am pro-government, OK?" You know that part about never taking a "real stance," coach? Stick with that from now on.