All posts by nickeilerson

George Kittle doesn’t care what you think. He just wants to play football.

[READ FEATURE IN THE MERCURY NEWS]

It is too early to function. The sun isn’t even up, not even close. Garrett Celek, the San Francisco 49ers’ veteran tight end, barely wills himself into his car, his body aching from yet another loss two days earlier. Santa Clara lies completely still on this mid-November morning as Celek’s white Lexus SUV begins to roll forward.

But then up ahead … movement. Tons of movement.

The SUV’s headlights reveal a large man flailing next to the apartment complex’s exit gate. His hips rock back and forth in an apparent attempt at rhythm. His arms swing wildly from side to side. All the while, his gaze remains fixed on Celek’s face.

George Kittle is doing the Fortnite floss dance.

Beaming like he just won the Super Bowl, Kittle hops into the passenger seat and serenades his groggy teammate with some song or another. It doesn’t matter which one. What matters is that Kittle will spend yet another day shining his inextinguishable light upon a 49ers season largely mired in darkness.

“When I was first getting to know him I probably thought it was fake at first how happy he was all the time,” Celek said. “But then I realized, ‘No, this is how this guy is 24/7.’” Continue reading George Kittle doesn’t care what you think. He just wants to play football.

Kevin Durant gazes into his potential Chase Center future: ‘The possibilities’

[READ ARTICLE IN THE MERCURY NEWS]

Kevin Durant strolled across the dirt floor at Chase Center on Friday afternoon, his rented size-18 work boots slowing to a halt near a spot that approximated mid-court. Then the Warriors’ superstar forward looked toward the rafters, mouth agape, and contemplated his future.

Durant signed a two-year, $61.5 million deal with Golden State this summer, but he carries a player option for the 2019-20 season. That option allows the nine-time All-Star to either move elsewhere or ink another deal with the Warriors.

For now, though, Durant brushed aside questions about his future, instead leaving the phalanx of reporters and team dignitaries encircling him with a cryptic thought as he gazed upward.

“My imagination is going wild right now,” he said. “The possibilities.” Continue reading Kevin Durant gazes into his potential Chase Center future: ‘The possibilities’

This East Bay teenager is headed to Churchill Downs seeking a victory

[READ FEATURE IN THE MERCURY NEWS]

John Del Secco squeezed his brown cowboy boot firmly onto the gas pedal.

The 18-year-old’s Ford F150 — silver and black, the color scheme of his favorite football team — bolted out of Danville’s sleepy suburbs and made a hard turn westward onto Highway 24.

It was 4:15 a.m. on a Saturday, and Del Secco’s mind was already spinning. His horses awaited his care. They required new grain, water, medication; bandages needed changing, legs needed rub-downs, stalls needed mucking.

Then he let his thoughts slip further down the road, to the raucous culmination of so many mornings like this one.

“I’m a small-town boy going to the big city, I guess,” Del Secco said.

He was not referring to Oakland. Continue reading This East Bay teenager is headed to Churchill Downs seeking a victory

Verbal abuse from parents, coaches is causing a referee shortage in youth sports

[READ FEATURE IN THE WASHINGTON POST]

Warren Graver raised the whistle to his lips midway through the second half, bracing to shift his focus from the sideline hysterics to the girls’ soccer game at hand three years ago.

And that’s when the veteran youth soccer referee saw two men walking onto the field.

It was a Sunday afternoon at an under-16 tournament in Vienna, and Graver had just ejected an invective-spewing coach. Without warning or permission, two angry parents marched across the field to take the coach’s place on the bench.

Uncertainty gripped Graver. Emotions were running high. There was no field marshal or senior official in the vicinity. It was the only time Graver can remember feeling fear as a referee.

“It could have easily escalated into something physical,” Graver said.

Following a decade as a referee, Graver returned for one more season. But he said that incident in Vienna crystallized a creeping realization: His days in the job were numbered.

“I said, ‘I would rather spend my time on the weekends with my kids and with my wife than stand out here and be abused by these parents,’ ” said Graver, who kept good to his word and hasn’t been a referee in the past two years. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Graver’s experience — or something similar — plays out every weekend across the country.

Administrators contend that escalating verbal abuse is partially to blame for a dwindling referee pool in youth and high school sports. The fallout is crippling officiating bodies mired in a deeply cutthroat sports culture, one that often holds amateur referees to a professional standard. Continue reading Verbal abuse from parents, coaches is causing a referee shortage in youth sports

This amateur soccer team, based in a liquor store, never practices and rarely loses

[READ FEATURE IN THE WASHINGTON POST]

The plumber in the liquor store lowered his nearly empty can of Natural Light and laughed.

Collin Fisher, the starting right back on the team that doesn’t train, had just been asked how he stays in shape. Sure, Christos FC’s most tenacious defender plays pickup indoor soccer games on occasion, but what about off the field? Did he lift weights? Belong to a gym? Ogle a treadmill?

“The last time I ran was probably in high school,” he said.

[VIDEO: Scott Van Pelt spotlights article on SportsCenter]

Fisher doesn’t have time to train, at least not during the weeks he is on call 24 hours a day as a plumber/gas fitter. Neither does attacking midfielder Daniel Baxter, an X-ray technician working night shifts in the shock trauma center of Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center. Or starting center back Josh Taylor, an audio/visual equipment sales manager whose only practice tool is his daughter’s size-3 soccer ball.

All form part of the last amateur squad left in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a single-elimination tournament traditionally dominated by pro teams. Christos FC, the Baltimore-based club named after and headquartered in a discount liquor store, will take on four-time Major League Soccer champion D.C. United in a fourth-round matchup at Maryland SoccerPlex on Tuesday night. Continue reading This amateur soccer team, based in a liquor store, never practices and rarely loses

Luis Vilca plays every game with a bullet lodged two inches from his spine

[READ FEATURE IN THE WASHINGTON POST]

On the Falls Church soccer field, diving is a sin. The act of feigning injury to draw a foul — or, worse, to catch a breather — is not tolerated at Paul Weber Stadium, not after what happened last summer. Even if someone truly endures a blow, teammates always bring each other to their feet with variations of the same phrase.

“Hey, Raymond got shot,” they implore. “Get up.”

Raymond is one of many nicknames for Luis Ronaldo Vilca, who also goes by “Shooter,” and not because he likes to shoot (he doesn’t). While on vacation to visit family in Lima, Peru last July, Vilca survived a gunshot wound to the stomach, not to mention the ensuing 16-hour wait in the hospital before undergoing surgery. The senior has since overcome incidental nerve damage in his leg and earned his way back into the Falls Church starting lineup, reprising his role as the tenacious defensive midfielder on a talented Jaguars squad bent on forging another playoff run next month.

“The team didn’t just gain another player,” Falls Church assistant coach Cristian Alvarado said. “They gained a brother back.” Continue reading Luis Vilca plays every game with a bullet lodged two inches from his spine

John Wall makes ailing young Wizards fan’s wish come true

[READ IN THE WASHINGTON POST]

Niyear Perez couldn’t stop smiling. Not only was John Wall’s name gracing the back of the 13-year-old’s brand-new Wizards jersey, his NBA idol was literally at his back, signing that jersey and chatting with the young visitor as part of the Make-a-Wish Mid-Atlantic event before Sunday’s game against the Orlando Magic at Verizon Center.

Niyear had a chronic kidney disease diagnosed in October 2015 and spent the following two months in the intensive care unit at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. He has been in and out of the hospital since then and currently is on a list to receive a renal transplant. While he waits for a new kidney, he endures three-hour dialysis sessions three times per week.

But as Niyear scampered through the player tunnel during Sunday’s starting-lineup introductions, Wizards fans simply saw a normal-looking kid with an extraordinary opportunity.

“He’s going to do anything he has to to be out there with them,” said his grandmother, Virginia Robinson. Continue reading John Wall makes ailing young Wizards fan’s wish come true