September 19, 2006

Backup’s Stabbing Reveals Deeper Issues in Athletics

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You have likely heard the story by now: Last week at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, second string punter Mitch Cozad reportedly stabbed starter Rafael Mendoza in his kicking leg, sending Mendoza to the hospital and placing Cozad on the chopping block for a likely assault conviction.

In a plot that every writer in America has now compared to the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan episode (not to be confused with the Tonya Harding-Paula Jones boxing episode), a shocking and dangerous aspect of sports becomes increasingly relevant: how far will one go to be the starter, the No. 1 guy and ultimately the best? Because the idea of superiority is embedded deep within the psyche of an athlete, when one falls short of obtaining that role, what happens?

[On a possibly related note: I have been a backup for practically the entirety of my collegiate football career, so, I may approach this column with less than absolute objectivity.]

From most reports, it appears that Cozad’s only motivation was the fact that while he had competed for the starting job in the preseason, Mendoza, a returning starter had clearly emerged as the better punter. That’s it. All the literature on the incident paints a picture of a dangerously jealous individual who, because of his intense desire to be the starting punter, could not accept the perceived failure that comes with being No. 2 and in Darwinian like fashion, chose to eliminate his rival.

Psychologically, this issue raises a tremendous amount of concern in the sports world about the damaging aspects that surround the idea of the forsaken backup, who is seemingly left out in the politics of heavy-duty sports. It is a hard position to grasp, left on the sideline while the “other guy” gets the glory especially because this world is one that rewards superlatives and almost demands that we strive, especially in athletics, to be the best. Sports epitomize the top dog, alpha male mentality that demands competitive drive and ambition be a constant and ubiquitous facet of anyone involved in the game.

In many ways, the role of the reserve is enigmatic and complicated, and while nobody this side of the penitentiary walls can rationalize Cozad’s actions, the situation does shed light on the substance behind the precarious and unpleasant existence that comes from playing behind someone else.

This is not the case for everyone. In fact, there seems to be two groups of backups. In one class is a collection of individuals who don’t really have enough vested interest in the team or the sport to be concerned with where they stand on the depth chart. This group includes, but is not limited to the Jonathon “I don’t want your life” Moxon from Varsity Blues types and also players playing behind once-in-a-generation type athletes who are well aware that they have no shot at a starting role.

In the other class, of which Cozad is the tragically paramount example, are the green-eyed and embittered. This category consists of players who legitimately want to be the starter and are, in one form or another, jealous of the person ahead of them. Because of their desire to be the man, they often become uncomfortable with their role and develop a distorted, jaundiced, if you will, perspective concerning their position on the team. The implications that come with being second (or third or fourth) point at the desperation that finally overcame Cozad.

The bottom line is that the role of the backup is rarely glamorous, especially for a punter. Clipboards and breakaway warm-up pants are not touchdown passes or triple-doubles, and for every Kurt Warner success story, there are hundreds of guys that remain unknown on the sidelines — including Patriots backup quarterback Matt Cassel, who Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times unpleasantly calls the “quintessential backup” — hoping for the chance that rarely comes. And while these players are incredibly capable — talent is not an issue, especially at the elite collegiate levels and in the pros — they are not the best on their team and, in the eyes of fans, media and often themselves, they are shoved beneath the bleachers into oblivion.

And while every coach in America is well aware of the integral role that backups play on every team — most teams spend equal time preparing both the starters and the reserves, knowing that each of the backups is a cramp or an ankle tweak away from assuming the starting spot — the connotations associated with the backup remain intact.

Nonetheless, this is a problem that will likely never be solved. Coaches are paid to put the best players on the field, and thus, certain players are immediately relegated to the role of backup. It becomes necessary for the backup to work around the insecurities of his or her role and repress the egoistic envy in support of the betterment of the whole.

Selflessness is rare — many would say it doesn’t even exist — but it is an essential attribute of playing a team sport, especially for the reserve.

The best backups are the ones that can, however difficult, squash the Freudian ego, limit the seemingly pervasive jealousy and accept a subservient role in the pursuit of team excellence. And the worst? Well, they just stab their competition in the leg.

Patrick Blakemore is a Sun Staff Writer. Got Game? will appear every other Tuesday this semester.