A Matter of Time for Kellen Winslow Jr

The kid who lived down the street had size. He looked like an athlete, even at seven years old. He was big, muscular even. But he never played sports. His name was John, but he went by Kevin. People told me his father was the late John Mackey, the Hall of Fame tight end and one of the most magnificent players ever to play ‘ball. But I wasn’t sure of this because I never saw him. I saw the house, though. It was huge, the biggest house in our small Altadena neighborhood.

Kevin Mackey never played football. Not to my knowledge at least. What an unfulfilling task it might have been had he played. Could the shoes have been bigger? Or the name more significant? It’s fascinating how sons of famous athletic fathers can be left without a chance to find their own place in the world. It seems like those who inherit the genes are burdened by the angst of managing those genes.

If Kellen Winslow Jr. has been left out of some things, it’s because he’s had an issue with his timing. Winslow was the last of the colorful Miami Hurricanes players. In 2003 and 2004, the Canes played in the B.C.S. championship game, beating Nebraska in the former then losing to Ohio State in a classic the following year.

In the midst of that Winslow called himself a “soldier.” It wasn’t just what he said, but his delivery. It was defiant, bristling with an anger that seemed misplaced. Such a remark might have received some play in the eighties, when the Hurricanes were at the height of their dominance. In those days it might have garnered Winslow the macho cowboy points so coveted in the Reagan era.

But Winslow uttered those words when the country was engaged in its second Gulf War, when world tension was building, creeping towards the feverish pitch it is today. This was also after the Hurricanes—as well as Luther Campbell, the program’s unofficial spiritual leader—had lost its place in pop culture lore. The Miami Hurricanes were a great football team, but just another program. And Winslow presented himself as just another misguided athlete who knew nothing of what he spoke.

That was really the first time we had seen him up close. The image was nothing like the one cast by his father. For a lot of us, those who hear the name Kellen Winslow will always remember that one scene from the 1982 playoff game between San Diego and Miami. By then Winslow had already reshaped the tight end position to fit his image. His 13 catches for 166 yards were certainly impressive that day. But when he blocked a kick to send the game into overtime, then staggered off the field, dehydrated, cramped and bloodied, propped up by two of his teammates, we had a genuine folk hero.

That’s a lot of legacy to pass on and a whole lot more to swallow. In 2004, after Winslow Jr. was drafted sixth overall by the Browns, he’d already established himself as the best tight end in the country. I’m not sure his hands were softer than his pop’s, but the young Winslow was certainly a more fluent athlete and more explosive off the mark.

I’m sure that’s one reason—in addition to his being a young person—that Winslow lived as though he was invincible. His well-publicized motorcycle crash was an unfortunate circumstance and it kept him out of the 2005 season. But it followed some statements and gestures—like calling himself the “Chosen One,” and having a team employee carry his pads and helmet from the practice field—that kept the young man out there on the periphery, the place where opportunities are missed.

After a couple of Pro Bowl years, he was traded to the Bucs. They were just a couple of years removed from the playoffs, but the franchise had already begun its cyclical decline. Now there’s a new coach, who by all appearances, seems to prefer players without any kind of history.

Then last January, there was an occurrence in the football community—one that surely caught the attention of all those who line up at tight end. During the playoffs, for a two week period, everything in the football world orbited around the tight end. Guys named Vernon Davis, Gronkowski, and Jimmy Williams didn’t just dominate the scene, they dominated the conversation as well. Against the Saints, Vernon Davis had 180 yards, breaking Kellen Winslow Sr.’s record for yardage in a single game.

When Winslow was traded to Seattle, he had his chance to become part of this year’s great tandem. In the giant Zach Miller, Winslow had a perfect partner in crime. And in the Seahawks, Winslow had a chance to join something new and fresh. Say what you will about Pere Carroll, but when it comes to energizing a base and creating exciting new movements in places that have gone stale, the man has the touch. With the dynamic Russell Wilson as its leader, the Seahawks could very well be this year’s most exciting team.
Word is Winslow was asked to give up some cash in order to stay. Winslow declined. Winslow believes his salary is commensurate with his status in the league.

Even if that is true, now may not be the best time to express it.

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