Destiny Vaeao: A Warrior By Birth

Destiny Vaeao. (USA Today Sports)

Destiny Vaeao. (USA Today Sports)

Destiny Vaeao doesn’t remember much. He was little when it happened, just 9-years-old, so he doesn’t offer many words during a conversation in a corner office inside the NovaCare Complex after a recent training camp practice. His voice is so quiet the words barely make it out of his mouth.

He’s asked about his father, Tepatasi, and what happened on October 24, 2003 in Pago Pago, American Samoa. Tepatasi was known for being a quiet giant, who, at 6-3, 320 pounds, was an inch shorter and 30 pounds heavier than his youngest son on this day. Tepatasi not only kept his words to himself, but his pain as well, which he had much of. Read more »

Carson Wentz: In Pursuit Of Perfection

Carson Wentz. (USA Today Sports)

Carson Wentz. (USA Today Sports)

Even North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple couldn’t help himself.

Dressed in a green zip-up jacket while his wife wore a yellow coat to honor North Dakota State University’s school colors, he showed up early to the Carson Wentz draft party in Bismarck last month and had to snag a picture.

Not with the man the Eagles traded up for in hopes of landing a franchise quarterback, who was more than 800 miles away in Chicago, but with a cardboard cutout of him.

“He’s our hero,” Dalrymple says. “We feel like he’s our family.” Read more »

Jordan Hicks: A Man Of His People

Photo by Jeff Fusco

DeMeco Ryans and Jordan Hicks. (Jeff Fusco)

YOU TAKE THE three-minute walk from the painted red “W” on the field to the locker rooms, then a four-minute walk to the parking lot. You pile in a friend’s car, pull out of the parking lot, and drive down curving Union Centre Boulevard, past a bank and an insurance office, past the West Chester baseball complex. Then turn right on Princeton Glendale Road and drive until you see the mismatched, red-and-blue-fonts on the sign above Willie’s Sports Cafe in an unassuming Butler County, Ohio strip mall.

This is where you could find Jordan Hicks in the fall of 2006, with Aaron Phelan, Jordan Thompson, Mark Fowler, and plenty of other members of his Lakota West freshman football team. They were a force that year, losing just one game, while Hicks earned attention for his dominating play.

Larry Cox, the head football coach at Lakota West High School was so enamored with the linebacker, whom he first saw playing seventh-grade basketball that, for the first time in his 10-year tenure, he wanted a freshman on varsity. “I just thought to myself,” Cox says, “‘This kid’s got something about him.'”

“I only move a kid up if I think he can play varsity,” Cox says a decade later. “Jordan’s the only one I’ve ever felt that about.”

Read more »

Eagles Wake-Up Call: Doug Pederson’s Beginning

Doug Pederson. (USA Today Sports Images)

Doug Pederson. (USA Today Sports Images)

AT THE TURN of the century, a plot of dirty grass sat next to Calvary Baptist Academy, surrounded by chain link fencing threaded with barbed wire at the top. Abandoned baseball backstops stood in the corners.

The Christian school’s enrollment floated around 200 kids, depending on the year, putt-putting along since 1970 as just another school in Shreveport, Louisiana.

The area was a hotbed for young football talent, especially quarterbacks. The high school scene at the time was dominated by Evangel Christian Academy, led by a man named Johnny Booty. By 2007, Evangel was riding an 89-game win streak, one of the longest in the country.

Calvary never had the bodies or resources to cobble together a competitive football program, but around 2003, the men in charge decided they wanted to give it a shot, so they rang up Booty and asked if he would come help them get their program off the ground.

Read more »

Jason Peters: Twilight Before the Hall

Jason Peters

Jason Peters. (Jeff Fusco)

Jason Peters sat stoically at his stall in the center of a bustling visitors locker room, still in his game pants and wearing a black sweat-soaked t-shirt with big white letters running from one broad shoulder to the other that simply read, “The Bodyguard.”

The upset win over New England was minutes old and the room around him was humming. A pick six and a pair of special teams touchdowns flipped the script on a predicted Patriots route, pumping life back into a season that was just about out of air.

For a moment, the Eagles were dangerously close to letting it all slip away. Tom Brady led a pair of late touchdown drives to slice the lead to seven, reinvigorating a Gillette Stadium crowd that was in full throat as the Eagles stared down a 3rd-and-11 near midfield with 2:49 remaining.

The play got off to a lousy start. Brent Celek, lined up to Peters’ left, was supposed to get a good chip on defensive end Rob Ninkovich before releasing into the flat, but came up with mostly air. That left Ninkovich with what appeared to be a clear path to Sam Bradford for a would-be blindside hit that, at the very least, would have forced a punt. It took Peters’ best effort of the year to salvage the play and keep the drive alive. Read more »

The Teachings Of Professor Azzinaro

 Jerry Azzinaro and nose tackle Bennie Logan - USA Today

Jerry Azzinaro and nose tackle Bennie Logan – USA Today

“Growth mindset” was the buzz phrase floating around NovaCare this offseason thanks to a book titled Mindset: The New Psychology of Success that the coaching staff was applying to its teachings. Jerry Azzinaro was discussing the importance of this concept with a small group of reporters one day after practice this summer, and doing his best not to hate every second of it.

“I think it’s important for all of us. I have to – no offense to you guys – but I don’t enjoy this,” he said. “I have to have a growth mindset to come out here and not be all f—king pissed off. I’m just being honest with you.”

Azzinaro, the Chip Kelly confidant and leader of one of the top defensive fronts in football, has a way of cutting through the bullshit and grabbing the truth by the throat. A former Golden Gloves boxing champ and judo brown belt, the stocky Staten Island-turned-New England-er with the more-salt-than-pepper mop, thin-rimmed glasses and Santa scruff is an imposing figure whose voice cracks like a gun shot through the steady practice hum. Read more »

Trey Burton: Through the Pain

Courtesy of USA Today

Courtesy of USA Today

TREY BURTON STOOD at his locker stall at Lincoln Financial Field in the minutes after the Eagles fell to the Cowboys, 20-10. He wore a pair of black gym shorts, and an ice pack was sandwiched between his right shoulder blade and a thick layer of plastic wrap.

“Could you pull this down for me?” he asked as he tried to fit a black mesh Eagles sweatshirt over his sore shoulder.

Burton left the game midway through the second quarter with a right shoulder injury, received an x-ray, received good news, and returned to the field. He was featured on the majority of special teams snaps the rest of the way. Officially listed as a tight end, he’s earned his steady spot on the team’s roster as a special teams expert, the glamour-less third pillar of football teams.

Tug, pull, yank, grunt. The sweatshirt reluctantly eased over the ice pack and plastic.

“Thanks.”

Then Burton slung a black backpack over his left shoulder and made his way from his locker, leaving behind locker mate Zach Ertz in a sea of reporters.

Nobody stopped Burton to ask how his shoulder was feeling.

Because of his high school coach, John Peacock, Burton tries to play through pain as long as he can. Growing up, from high school to college, he saw other players — sometimes teammates — step out of games with minor injuries, missing a couple of plays to rest up an ailing extremity.

Burton said Peacock taught him that if “you might be hurt, but you’re not injured,” you don’t come out. Every player on a football field is hurting, Peacock told him. You don’t stop playing football when you’re hurting.

You sit down when you’re injured, and not a moment sooner.

“Tough, physical, never giving up,” Burton said.

That’s how Peacock wanted his players to play the game, so Burton did, and Burton does, and Burton will.
Read more »

Kenjon Barner: With Family In Mind

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Maisha Barner ran onto Rogers Field screaming hysterically in October of 2010. Her baby brother, Kenjon Barner, lay motionless on the ground in his Oregon uniform after being knocked unconscious on a kick return.

“Kenjon, get up!”

Barner was running an “opposite return,” calling for him to take a few steps up the field on the left side before cutting back to the right. As he was cutting back, though, a teammate blocked a Washington State player directly into Barner’s blind spot, and initiated a helmet-to-helmet collision. Read more »

Behind the ‘Legend Of Kiko Alonso’

Photo By Jeff Fusco

Photo By Jeff Fusco

Jermel Ladd first noticed the transformation just before the start of their senior year of high school.

He and his best friend, Kiko Alonso, decided to strap on the pads and hit the field for a little one-on-one work prior to the start of fall camp. Alonso was the ball carrier, Ladd the defender, and when they popped, Ladd was overtaken by a force — and a ferociousness — that seemed to appear out of nowhere.

“I did not know that existed in him,” he said.

The rest of his Los Gatos teammates would soon make the painful discovery themselves. Read more »

Showing Up: Inside Fletcher Cox’s Journey

Fletcher Cox Feature

Fletcher Cox, Shaddrick Cox and Malissa Cox

 

Shaddrick Cox always told his brother to listen, and so Fletcher tries.

When friends and family explain to him that things will get better, that the good days will outnumber the bad, that he should focus on the happy times he had with Shaddrick, Cox pays attention.

But that doesn’t make it any easier.

“Losing my brother had to be one of the hardest things that I’ve faced as a young man,” Cox said. “Everybody says it’ll get better. There’s days where I don’t think it’ll get better. Some days I may believe that. But some days I’m like, ‘This’ll never get better.’ ”

On Jan.5 of this year, Shaddrick was in the process of purchasing a 1999 two-door Chevrolet Tahoe. A mechanic by trade and a car junkie, he’d had his eyes on that specific SUV for some time. But before he was able to drive away with it, he suffered a heart attack.

Shaddrick had been dealing with heart issues for years and was also working to keep his diabetes under control. But his big heart failed him that day, and he died at the age of 34. Read more »

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