|Locals again at center of Super Bowl storm |
|Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 7:00 pm |
|By MIKE HUTCHENS |
Who says lightning never strikes twice in the same place?
For the second time in four years, a pair of (Tornadoes) are in the eye of the perfect sports storm.
Union City natives Jon Robinson and Donnie Etheridge — both of whom played high school football for the Purple and Gold — will again bask in the spotlight of the entertainment world’s biggest stage this weekend when the New England Patriots play the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Robinson, the director of college scouting for the Patriots and a 1994 UCHS graduate, and Etheridge, a product of the school system 10 years earlier and an area scout for the Giants, are valued veteran personnel men in their respective team’s organization and will be part of the color and pageantry of the event just as they were in 2007.
And if the likelihood of two men from the same small rural West Tennessee town with a part in the world-renowned game was rightfully considered mind-boggling then, for it to happen on a second occasion — and in such a short time frame — simply is beyond the realm of imagination.
“Whoever would’ve thought two country boys from rural West Tennessee would make it to the NFL and have a chance to play in the Super Bowl,” Robinson — The Messenger’s Player of the Year in 1993 as an offensive/defensive lineman for the Tornadoes — playfully asked. “For it to happen a second time, and so quickly, is almost unbelievable.”
Etheridge, who actually coached Robinson for part of his freshman season and also played for UC before an injury cost him his senior season, shared those very same thoughts.
“The odds are stacked big against you to even make it to a Super Bowl, so it made for a pretty cool story after the 2007 season to make it there and to be playing New England, who Jonathan scouted for,” he said “Now to go back four years later facing the same team and once again to have the Union City connection is off the charts.
“I have a lot of scouting friends who have been on the job for many more years than I have who haven’t made it to a Super Bowl against anyone — much less a guy from your little small home town.”
Both Robinson and Etheridge are involved in what’s considered the lifeblood of professional football.
Each estimates spending more than 100 nights a year away from home and their families, scouting potential draftees for their team’s needs.
That demanding travel process includes countless hours of watching both practice and game tape, interviewing coaches and filing their findings in reports. In addition to visiting college campuses of all sizes and watching games in the fall, they attend and evaluate postseason all-star games, do the same at pro personnel combines and then are involved in extensive meetings at team headquarters prior to the April draft.
The 36-year-old Robin-son is considered a rising star in the business by many — including the Giants’ own General Manager Jerry Reese, the pride of Lake County who is third variable in this unique rural West Tennessee equation.
He joined the Patriots organization in 2002 as an area scout and already has two Super Bowl rings during his tenure with the club. He was promoted to regional scout in ’06 and then assistant director of college scouting two years later.
Etheridge, 11 years Rob-inson’s elder, has been in the Giants’ organization for 11 years now as an area scout.
The two said they cross paths some on the scouting trail, but not on a regular basis. Conversation is mostly limited to work-related topics, but with some references to home on occasion.
Each said there’s been very little mention of the first time their teams met in the Super Bowl four years ago when the Giants upset New England 17-14, spoiling their bid for just the second unbeaten season in NFL history.
Robinson did break what could’ve been an awkward silence, though, when he, Etheridge and Reese were together at the league combine soon after the game.
“I told them they cost me a key to the city and probably Jon Robinson Historic Declaration Day with that game,” he chuckled.
Etheridge laughed, too, and said there’s not even good-natured kidding among the scouting fraternity about such a subject.
“It’s a tender subject when you lose a game like the Super Bowl. Just a handshake when you see him on the road or afterward and smile,” he said. “I wouldn’t ever pick at a friend about something like that. To make it that far and not win is really tough, I’m sure.
“I hope I don’t find out this weekend.”
Robinson had to move his family to Wrentham (Mass.) — five minutes from Gillette stadium — upon being named to his current post. In addition to his time on the road, he also has regular office days at the Patriots’ team complex.
He oversees the entire draft ratings process and a staff that includes two national scouts, seven area scouts and five scouting assistants.
The scouts live in their respective regions of the country and are responsible for all draft-eligible prospects on all levels from the big boys on down. The majority of the prospects they see are from recommendations of college coaches and their staffs.
Some underclassmen who have down-the-line draft potential, too, and can ask an NFL advisory board when they might be picked if they elect to enter the draft early. Scouts grades determine that estimation.
The national scouts basically have the country divided in half and each is responsible for that half. They evaluate the higher graded players in their half of the country. It’s more travel and more miles and they don’t have the luxury of multiple looks. They see a prospect one time and make an evaluation.
“My job is to do follow-up type work in the fall and to nationally see all the top-tier guys,” Robinson explained. “We have multiple people view every player we consider drafting. The area scout sees a guy once, the national guy once and then me. It gives us different and more opinions.”
The humble Robinson didn’t name names, but it is well noted the Patriots’ draft two years ago included current star tight-ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and defensive starters Devin McCourty (cornerback) and linebacker Brandon Spikes.
“In my second year as college scouting director, I feel like we’ve had some good drafts and gotten some good players who are good people, too,” he said. “It’s really all up to the players after you draft them.”
Etheridge says his duties as an area scout fit him perfectly right now.
He is one of 10 such persons in the Giants organization, which has no national scouts in their particular system.
Etheridge was hired by his friend Reese, after the two coached together at UT Martin — the former as a student and then graduate assistant — the latter as a defensive assistant under coordinator Larry Shanks and head coach Don McLeary.
The two were then assistants in the Giants system, with Reese advancing through the ranks until he was named just the third black general manager ever on Martin Luther King Day in 2007.
Etheridge insisted it’s mostly all business when the two are together in New York.
“We don’t talk a lot, other than me sticking my head in his office and saying hello some,” he said. “I may talk to him briefly at the end of the day, but basically, I’m just like all the other scouts, there to do a job.
“I don’t hang out with the boss.”
Both Etheridge and Robinson are family men with two children.
Etheridge has two boys, Jackson, 4, and Tim, 7 months, with spouse Jennifer and lives in Edmond, Okla.
He says the long days and nights of being away from his household sometimes take their toll, adding the job is not nearly as glamorous as some on the outside might believe.
In fact, he’d been forced to spend the night just last week in a Houston airport due to weather issues, upon trying to return home from Mobile (Ala.) and the Senior Bowl. He slept on a pair of benches, something he’s done on other occasions when there have been travel difficulties.
He was quick to dispel the notion, too, that he is friends with everyone on the New York roster.
“People think I eat dinner with Eli (Manning) or something,” he said in reference to the Giants quarterback. “That’s just not the case. I may’ve spoken to him or had a brief conversation, but I try to make it point to not talk to the players.
“The players are not people I necessarily know or have relationships with. They have so many fans all over them all of the time, I don’t want to bother them. I stay in my lane and do my job and that’s evaluating college prospects.”
Robinson and wife Jaimie are the parents of girls Taylor Brooke, 6, and Bailey Rae, 3.
He said he tries not to spend more than 10 consecutive days/nights on the road because of those family considerations.
“You can come off the road dead-tired and wired, but that stress level goes way down when you walk in the door and hear, ‘Daddy, Daddy,’ and see your daughters come running,” Robinson said. “I usually spend three or four days in the office then with paperwork, spend some family time, and try to recharge.”
Both men do make semi-regular treks back to their Obion County roots, Etheridge at least every summer and sometimes during the fall when he can find a reason to scout someone in the area.
His mother, Lenora Ray, and sisters Lisa Marcey and Connie Miller all still live in Union City.
Robinson returned to his hometown this past fall, spending time with his parents, Don and Linda Robinson, and his sister, Allison Palmer.
Though Robinson is widely-considered in the profession as someone who will continue to ascend the business ladder, he wouldn’t speculate on such and took the company line as is commonplace in the New England organization.
“I’m just trying to help the Patriots win as much as possible in this stage of my career and that is as a college scouting director in the NFL,” he said. “When Scott Pioli left for the GM job at Kansas City, (Patriots head coach) Bill (Belichick) and our Director of Player Personnel, Nick Caserio, entrusted the college preps with me. I’ve tried to be creative. It’s a fairly young staff of scouts that we have. My job is to help these guys grow, be better evaluators, be more organized and show them the way.
“I’m not a coach, but a little bit like a coach to our staff. I want to be an important part of the scouts’ makeup and for them to look back one day and say, ‘Jon really helped me in this business.’”
Etheridge said he’s perfectly content with his current position in the Giants’ organization.
“I really don’t see myself as an ‘office’ guy, and if I moved into another set of responsibilities, I’d probably have to move my family and spend time in an office,” he said. “What I’m most happy about is that I believe I work for the best boss (Reese) and the best organization in the NFL. I’m sure Jon feels that way, too.” And that’s just not fair-weather talk.
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by email at email@example.com.
Published in The Messenger 2.1.12