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A Christmas Wish Remembered (Mike Karney article)
This write-up is an oldie but still a goodie.
A Christmas Wish Remembered
By IRA BERKOW, NY Times
Published: December 25, 2004
NEW ORLEANS, Dec. 18 - The letter was written 15 years ago by a little boy in Kent, Wash., some 25 miles south of Seattle.
"Dear Santa Claus:
My name is Michael Karney. I am 8 years old. I have been a good boy. And I would like two things for Christmas. One is a football. And two is to play in the N.F.L. Thank you, and Merry Christmas, Santa. Michael."
The boy also drew a picture of a football, so Santa would not confuse it with anything else. After all, Michael did not know whether they played football on the North Pole. Like many of us, he was not sure what, for example, the elves did beyond helping Santa prepare for Christmas, so he thought he would add a hint.
The note was written in December 1989. Michael, a husky lad for his age with blond hair and blue eyes, loved football. Maybe it was the colorful uniforms, or the excitement of running and throwing or blocking and tackling, or the big, booming punts that caught his eye.
Whatever it was, his mother, Tina, remembered that as far back as when Michael was 4 years old, he would prefer to watch football games to cartoons on television. In the next several years, he would stand in front of the television set when a football game was on and have his father, Bob, toss him a Nerf ball, and simulate catching touchdown passes, as he saw them do on television.
Maybe, after all, there was something in the air, for, thinking only that it would make a sweet picture, a family photograph was taken of Michael at 15 months wearing a football jersey with the number 44.
So that Christmas morning, after his letter to Santa, Michael Karney woke up early, crawled out of bed and hurried to the living room, where the family's tree stood.
And there, beneath the lights and the ornaments and amid the gifts for his parents and two older sisters, the boy unwrapped a present marked for him. He tore open the bright paper to find, to his delight, a brand-new football. Santa had remembered!
As for his second request - to play in the N.F.L. - well, that would have to wait.
Michael understood this. There was no record of an 8-year-old boy ever playing for the Chicago Bears or the Giants or the Green Bay Packers or even the neighboring Seattle Seahawks. So he knew he would have to be patient - if Santa would ever grant him his other wish.
But Michael Karney was not one to sit around with his head in the clouds. From his PeeWee football and junior high and high school days, he was, his mother recalled, surprisingly disciplined.
"He took the games seriously," Tina Karney said. "As he got older, he learned the best way to train, and he listened to his coaches. He also knew that if he was to get ahead, he would have to do well with his school grades."
Michael Karney excelled in sports - he was an outstanding catcher on his high school baseball team - and in the classroom.
His love remained football, and he was one of the better players, primarily as a running back and fullback. He was not particularly fast nor especially gifted, but he applied himself. As he grew older, he learned about myths and legends and what was true and what was not. He was, certainly, no longer the 8-year-old boy penning a note to Santa Claus, but he had discovered that if he were to realize his dreams, he would have to adhere to certain virtues. He had hoped to go to college and play football, and then - well, his dreams did not end there.
A number of colleges offered him football scholarships, and he chose Arizona State. He started for four years, mostly at fullback. He was a devoted weightlifter, and in his spare time, starting in high school, he pulled a weighted sled, ran with a parachute on his back and pushed a car around his high school parking lot to strengthen his legs. Observers would ask if he was having car trouble and offered to help.
In years past, fullbacks ran with the ball, smashing into the line, a position made famous by the likes of Bronko Nagurski and Jim Taylor and John Riggins. Now, however, they are used primarily as blocking backs, to protect the quarterback or open holes for halfbacks.
There is virtually no glory for a fullback, other than the appreciation of other players, less often by fans. One rarely sees a fullback dancing in the end zone. The job of a fullback has sometimes been described as being in a car wreck on every play.
Karney took pleasure in it.
"Blocking is an art," he said. "There's the pancake block, in which you lay the defender flat on his back; there's the block where you cut a guy and make him lose his footing; and there's the cover, in which you maybe get a piece of the guy but re-direct him away from the play. Some people look at you like it's beastly, but I see myself as a gladiator, like in Roman times."
Dave Atkins, the running backs coach for the New Orleans Saints, recalled how a young fullback once stood out during a film session.
"I was scouting the tailback for Arizona State and saw a punishing block by a fullback and wasn't sure I saw it correctly," he said. "So I re-ran the film. And there it was again. I wasn't even scouting the guy, and I was impressed. Then I saw another block and another. I turned off the projector and looked him up on the roster. Number 44. Mike Karney. He was only a freshman. I took note of it."
In the spring of 2004, Michael Karney, now 22, had grown to 5 feet 11 and 254 pounds, and was a senior majoring in education, a few credits short of a degree. The N.F.L. draft was to be held April 24-25, but first there would be the scouting combines at which teams evaluate players eligible for the draft. Karney prepared for the combines in San Diego by working out with, and studying pro techniques from, Lorenzo Neal, the Chargers' fullback, whom he had met when he was a senior in college.
In the combines, scouts and coaches test players for skills and football acumen. Karney did well, enough to solidify his rating as the best college fullback in the country.
"I studied all the teams that would need a fullback," Karney recalled. "And I saw that the New Orleans Saints had lost a good one, Terrell Smith, to free agency."
Smith had been a senior at Arizona State the year before Karney enrolled.
"But I wasn't sure what would happen, whether I'd even be drafted," Karney said.
On the first day of the draft, Karney was not taken. "I thought that if I had a chance, it would be on the second day, anyway," he said.
On the second afternoon, some 50 to 60 people gathered in the Karney home. "I had aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and neighbors and my high school coaches and teachers," Karney said. "We were watching ESPN, which was televising the draft. But my name wasn't coming up. It was now the fifth round. So I went outside to shoot baskets with a few of the kids. And then I heard my mother call out that there was a phone call for me. I went inside to take it."
It was Saints Coach Jim Haslett on the phone. As Karney recounted it, Haslett said, "We're planning to draft you next, Mike. Are you ready to block for Deuce?"
That is, Deuce McAllister, the Saints' running back.
"Oh, yes. Oh, sure," Karney replied.
"Good," Haslett said. "See you in camp."
Then Haslett passed the phone to Rick Mueller, the director of player personnel, and Mike McCarthy, the offensive coordinator, to congratulate Karney.
After the call, Karney turned to the houseful of people waiting to hear what was said. And it was about that moment that his name flashed across the bottom of the screen, relating that he had been drafted by the Saints.
"And then, everyone went crazy, jumping up and down and screaming," Karney said.
Mueller said he had seen films of Karney in college and had talked to his coaches.
"I knew he was our guy," he said. "He's a special kid."
In the Saints' first preseason game, against the Jets, Atkins, the running backs coach, told Karney that he would start. "I got chills up and down my spine," Karney said.
Now, he is not only the team's starting fullback, but the only fullback on the roster.
The second wish to Santa from the 8-year-old Michael Karney had been realized, 14 years later.
"You have to be completely unselfish to play Mike's position, and that's Mike," said Ernie Conwell, a tight end for the Saints and a nine-year N.F.L. veteran who is from the same high school, Kentwood, as Karney. Their families know each other.
"I was happy that we drafted Mike, but I was concerned," Conwell said recently in front of his locker at the Saints' training facility here, with Karney within earshot, several lockers away. "He had big shoes to fill, with Terrell gone. He was a new guy, and you never know. But right from the beginning, you saw how hard he worked. He's in the weight room on days off. He's watching film. He learned all the plays, even the ones that don't involve him.
"He just rammed into people, and he couldn't be denied," Conwell said. "He'd run through walls if he had to. But he's made for it - look at him. No neck, no traps, just a solid block."
Conwell smiled, and so did Karney, sheepishly but appreciatively.
The Saints are struggling to get to .500 this season. "But Mike's been one of the positive forces for us," Atkins said. "He's made mistakes, but he doesn't make the same one twice."
And after the Saints beat Dallas on Dec. 12, Mueller saw Karney sitting in the corner of the locker room, crying.
"He looked like he had gotten bad news, or maybe he was hurt," Mueller said.
Mueller went over and, as he recalled, asked, "Mike, are you O.K.?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Karney said.
Then he got up and hugged Mueller. "It's just great to win," he told Mueller.
Mueller said: "The week before, Mike had missed a block on a guy, and Deuce fumbled. I know he took responsibility for the fumble. But against Dallas, he redeemed himself."
Karney, again wearing No. 44, had thrown a crushing block on Roy Williams, the Cowboys' safety, opening a big hole for McAllister to complete a key touchdown run.
Late in the game, Karney said he stepped back from the huddle for a moment and looked around Texas Stadium. "It's a historic place, like Lambeau Field in Green Bay and Soldier Field in Chicago," he said. "And I thought, 'It's unbelievable. Here I am playing in the N.F.L. and with and against guys I grew up following.' And, yeah, after the game, I just couldn't stop crying. It all came true."
Karney recalled the letter he had written to the portly gentleman with the red suit and the reindeer. At some point, the letter was misplaced by his family, but they still have the football he drew for Santa at age 8.
"Do I believe in Santa Claus?" Karney said. "Yes, sir. No question about it. I believe wholeheartedly in Santa."
Re: A Christmas Wish Remembered (Mike Karney article)
Dear Santa Claus,
My name is Rambunctious. I have been a good boy and I would like two things for Christmas. One is a Championship for my favorite team the Rams. The second is a date with one of the Rams' Cheerleaders.
Thank you, and Merry Christmas, Santa. Rambunctious.
Re: A Christmas Wish Remembered (Mike Karney article)
Dear Santa you look like a fairly big Guy and my team is in need of a big LT would you please come play LT for my St. Louis Rams.
My OL would then be:
LT - Santa 6'0 385
LG - Greco
C - Brown
RG - Incognito
RT - Barron
Thank you signed,
Last edited by RamsSB99; -03-15-2009 at 01:44 PM.
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