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Rebuilding the Swagger Won't Be Easy, But It's Been Done Before

I've been around Lehigh football a long time and I have seen a lot of different Lehigh football seasons.

For some Lehigh football teams, things seem to come easy.  Some teams would come into Murray Goodman Stadium, and the Mountain Hawks would seemingly win before the coin toss.  The opponent already had beaten themselves, intimidated - and all Lehigh would have to do is not do anything ridiculous, and all the home fans would go home happy.

Those types of games reminded me this weekend of the swagger someone like CB Deion Sanders had as a player.  How many NFL receivers beat themselves fifteen minutes before going onto the field because they knew Neon Deion would be on them?

It looks like the for the 2017 Lehigh Mountain Hawks, this will not be the case.  It was a season that started out like it would be one where things came easy, but that didn't happen.

For whatever reason, this team will have to earn it the hard way, and in so doing, have an opportunity in front of them.  For inspiration, we don't need to go with Neon Deion.  Instead, we can go with a different choice.

"Yo?  YO?  I'm over here!"
For most football fans, naming their favorite defensive back is kind of like asking them what their favorite opera singer is.

People can rattle off QB Tom Brady, RB Leveon Bell, and WR Jerry Rice as favorite players off the top of their heads, and sometimes defensive players, too, like DT J.J. Watt.

With the exception of Neon Deion, though, even the greatest defensive backs in history never get their just due.  Everyone remembers QB Doug Williams from the Super Bowl Champion Washington Redskins, but few remember one of the all-time greats that got them there, CB Darrell Green.

Being a defensive back is arguably the toughest job on the football field.  It requires a unique blend of intimidation, skill, instinct - and a seriously short memory.  Defensive backs can't get hung up on the result of the last play - the "next play" mantra truly applies to them.

College football is a game where teams improve from week to week - the same team in Week 10 is not the same team as the one in Week 2.  How each team grows and improves from week to week is what determines the outcome of a season.

This is precisely what happened last season for the Mountain Hawks.  After an 0-2 start, where the Mountain Hawks lost to Monmouth and Villanova, the entire team came together in Week 3.

The improvement from Week 2 to Week 3, arguably, set the course of the season to a Patriot League Championship.

In losing those first two games against Monmouth and Villanova, there was a sense in that version of Lehigh football that nothing at all would be given to them.  Part of it came from some agonizingly close runs at the championship - being stopped at the goal line against Colgate in 2015, falling against Lafayette in 2013 - but it also came from the pain of two losses that could have been wins.

To that 2016 team, it seemed like those two early losses galvanized them, to that point at the Penn game where the team seemed to say, as a collective unit, "enough".  They would survive a tough half against Penn, and then decided to blow Penn out of the water in the second half.  They would have to take it over themselves to win this thing.

Returning to the analogy of the elite defensive back, the Mountain Hawks had to forget the first two weeks, and earn the swagger back that they had lost.  

And then, game after game, they did.

The big difference from 2016 to 2017 is that the 2016 squad did not have the same level of expectations of them - expectations that come with being nationally recognized in the Top 25.  This season the swagger was built in.

In 2016, Lehigh was hoping to keep it within a couple scores of Villanova.  In 2017, Lehigh was being picked to beat Villanova.

But the team in 2016 that lost to Villanova and lost to Monmouth was no different than the team that would win their next nine straight games.  They were the same guys.  They simply proved to the world what they were, and how they wanted to be remembered.

When I think of an elite defensive back that had to earn everything that he got, I think of the eventual hall-of-fame CB Willie Brown.

Brown graduated from Grambling State in 1963 under legendary head coach Eddie Robinson and had to plea with NFL and AFL teams to give him a chance in the pros.  The AFL's Houston Oilers gave him a tryout, but then cut him.

"From the very beginning, Willie was a clean-cut athlete, very fast,'' Robinson said years ago. "He was one of the guys with great ability. It wasn't real important where we put him. He would've been a great running back, or great tight end, because he was such an outstanding blocker. And he had character."

The AFL's Denver Broncos, the worst team in the league in 1963, eventually took a chance on him, and by the middle of the season he was starting.

Four years later, Raiders head man Al Davis would complete one of the most lopsided NFL trades in history when he swindled the Broncos into giving him the future hall of famer for a journeyman defensive tackle and a 3rd round draft pick.

Brown would remain a Raider for the next eleven years, helping Oakland win an AFL championship, three Super Bowls, and finishing as a 1st team all-Pro twice and a member of the Pro Bowl twice.

What is really striking about Willie Brown as a corner isn't only the fact that he essentially "invented" bump-and-run coverage - it's that he might have been considered the first "rover" at corner, built like a linebacker but playing defensive back.  Though he had quickness as a defensive back, he didn't have the pure speed expected of corners today - most of his many interceptions came from technique, positioning, and instinct.

(That "Old Man Willie" Touchdown call, with the NFL Films soundtrack booming in the background - nothing better.)

Sometimes when the road is not as easy, it feels like it is more earned.  There is a sense with Willie Brown's career that he earned every bit of his success.  There were plenty of times when he could have given up, but he worked hard and made a lot of people eat their words.  He's truly an NFL player whose story needs to be told more often.

And such is the opportunity that presents itself to Lehigh now.

Lehigh lost its swagger this Saturday.  But that doesn't have to determine the course of the season.  Sometimes earning the swagger is better than having it gifted to you.

It looks like the 2017 Lehigh Mountain Hawks will have to earn everything they get, and that doesn't have to be a bad thing.  But it all has to start by winning one football game.


Anonymous said…
God perspective. My favorite DB was Philadelphia Eagle Joe Scarpati. Undersized but a gritty player with tons of heart. I am hoping we will see the true heart of this team this week.

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