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Kent State Basketball: Grooming NFL All-Pro Talent Since 2002

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland


Kent, OHIO--The NFL Pro Bowl makes its debut outside the island of Hawaii and for the first time will be sandwiched between the Conference Championship Games and the Super Bowl. Unfortunately for the players involved, the game will now become even more lackluster.

During the hot summer training camps and two-a-days, every NFL player validated the pain for a chance at playing in Miami for the top prize. The new format will parade top athletes as the under card to the only meaningful football left on the schedule. Yes, the game
is an honor, but how would you like to be the NFL's garnish to better present its title game? To those who are playing in both Championship weekend and the Pro Bowl, especially, it must feel like a Third Place Loser's Bracket Game where there is no joy from winning.

All while in Miami, Pro Bowl players will be flooded with the sights and sounds of the teams they failed to beat--a pleasant reminder that they could not get the job done. Along with those that have declined an invitation out of spite or injury, the biggest crime to spectators will be the absence of Super Bowl participants, mainly Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. At least the "powder puff" game in Hawaii in mid-February had incentives and the correct scheduling to get the best talent on the television screen. The result of the 2010 Pro Bowl is a water-downed roster, with too many people laying claims to being an All-Star. As of today, 31 drop-outs have rendered this a NFC vs. AFC Junior Varsity match up. This is where my main issue arises.

I understand that the NFL is creating a two-week buzz around one city, a mega event for fans to see the greats all in one place. However, the greats are quickly turning into the so-so's. Case and point: Vince Young did not start for his own team until week 7 and yet will represent the AFC. Pro Bowl: yes, All-Star: no. In essence, Young's career will be remembered for one more Pro Bowl than it should.

You have every right to say, "So what?" or "Who cares?" The answer is, "I care" and the reason is simple--I am a proud Kent State University alumnus.

Too many readers there is absolutely no correlation to what I just wrote. Let me explain.

It is going to sound like a contradiction of things written earlier, but the NFL Pro Bowl has mattered. What I should have said earlier was that being voted to play in the game
is an honor...on paper. For a football-stricken school like Kent, representatives in the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl are all we have to measure our value. The alumni of Texas do not need Vince Young to validate their program with another Pro Bowl selection. On the flip side, Kent State needs the publicity for recruiting and therefore needs the game to still mean something...on paper, at least. Saturating the league with Pro Bowl selections via injury and Super Bowl replacement players takes away the impact of Kent State graduates earning their spots.

Success in the NFL is despite Kent State, not courtesy of it. Players that move on to the next level have such a chip on the shoulder that they will not be denied success. This gives each and every student a strange sense of pride.

Kent State has grown accustomed to an embarrassing product, one better suited for the FCS (Division I-A). Two-time National Championship coach, Nick Saban, was a KSU safety in the 1970s, but never mentions playing, coaching, or even graduating from the school. One would assume the perfectionist does not want to associate himself with a losing program at any level. Filed in the laughable category of Kent State football is a picture of ESPN analyst and legendary coach, Lou Holtz--who has never weighed over 190 lbs., as a linebacker for Kent in 1956 and 1957.

The last time Kent State appeared in a college bowl game was in 1972. The MVP of that Tangerine Bowl was middle linebacker and future Pittsburgh Steelers legend, Jack Lambert. During his NFL career he was a 9-time Pro Bowl selection; his last appearance coming in 1983. It took the school 21 more years to find its second Pro Bowl player, and it come from the most unlikely of places.

The 2004 NFL Pro Bowl featured a second-year tight end by the name of Antonio Gates. He was two years removed from leading the Golden Flashes to a 30-win basketball season and an NCAA Elite 8 appearance as a power forward. The footnote to this success story is that Gates never once played for the Kent State football team before joining the San Diego Chargers. Since the '04 Pro Bowl there have been 11 total selections by former Kent State players. Six of these appearances were by Gates, three by James Harrison, and two by Josh Cribbs. In this same time span Kent State football has compiled a record of 24-46 despite the All-Pro talent. Pro Bowls: 11, Wins: 24. Laugh at that statistic; what else can you do?

Each of the three players has an amazing story of overcoming adversity and adapting to a new position. Cribbs was a quarterback during his Kent State career, but is now the all-purpose return specialist and Wildcat runner for the Cleveland Browns. His story pales in comparison to James Harrison, who went from Golden Flashes defensive lineman to undrafted scout team journeyman to Pittsburgh Steelers back-up linebacker to multiple Super Bowl winner to Defensive Player of the Year (2008).

Should New England Patriot and former Kent State quarterback, Julian Endelman, continue to live up to his early reputation as a mini Wes Welker, more Pro Bowl selections could be in the future.

Every one of these 11 Pro Bowl selections in the modern Kent State football era was not of the replacement variety. The spots on the roster were earned and each played, for it was an honor. Of the 31 drop-outs or no shows for this year's event, none of them are Harrison, Gates, or Cribbs. On Sunday, I may finally watch the Pro Bowl. It will mean something to me, because it means something to them.

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