By Jack Smith
Derrick Bird's dream seemed over before it started.
The NBA seemed far out of reach after Bird tore his ACL before his college basketball career even began.
A dismal redshirt year followed at Central Michigan for Bird, someone who seemed destined for basketball greatness. How could anyone expect anything less? His dad's name is Larry, he grew up on Boston Avenue and his childhood home was painted green.
He averaged 20 points a game his senior year in high school, and at 6-4, the rangy and athletic guard who was always the smartest player on the court looked like a surefire success, at least at the college level.
But the Ypsilanti, Mich., native's dream soon turned into a nightmare, a dark and difficult time that challenged Bird's character and pushed him to the edge mentally and physically.
As he clawed his way back from the doldrums, his confidence took longer to recover than his knee. His reliable jump shot faltered, and his role in the system was reduced his first year back from the redshirt season after several tough practices.
To make matters worse, he and several other players left the team feeling the sting of prejudice.
"I chose to leave after my freshman year because other African-American players and I felt we were not being treated fairly," Bird said during an interview while visiting Auburn recently.
Bird looked for a small school where he would not have to sit out a year. He landed at Schoolcraft Community College in Lavonia, Mich.
"You could see he'd been through a rough two years," then-Schoolcraft head coach Carlos Briggs said in a story published in 2003, after Bird had climbed out of the hole and resurrected his basketball career to keep his once fading dream alive.
"His whole demeanor was down," Briggs said. "His confidence was pretty much shot. He needed a chance to start over.'
After his first practice at Schoolcraft, a few of his new teammates stayed late to rebound for Bird, who could not consistently find his range on his surgically repaired knee.
Bird bounces back
Yet his confidence-and his game-soon came roaring back. Bird torched the nets for 38 points in one game while holding an all-conference player to four points with the tenacious defense that became his trademark.
"We saw a different player that game," Schoolcraft AD Ed Kavanaugh said. "And right about then, we started to see a different person, too."
Bird's game was back. So was his smile and outgoing nature, which Bird and those who know him best credit for his remarkable resurgence and his success on and off the court.
"He grew so much here," Briggs told the press at the time. "I always tell people Derrick is an even better person than he is a basketball player. He can do anything he wants. I'm more proud of him than anybody."
Bird had two years left to play. Several major schools came calling and he faced one of the biggest decisions in his life. He picked Auburn. He recalls a recruiting visit that changed the course of his journey.
He liked the coaches, campus and future teammates, but a meeting in the academic services building really got his attention.
"I just remember meeting Troy Smith, Janice Robinson and Virgil Starks, God rest his soul," Bird said.
He credits those three and other support staff members at Auburn Athletics for giving him encouragement and making him feel he was not just another athlete brought in to share his talents.
"My relationship with Virgil became very important in my life," Bird said. "I remember on my recruiting visit saying, 'Wow! Here is a brother that really cares about me, and not just because I can play basketball. You go on some recruiting visits, and it's all basketball talk. He really made me feel he sincerely cared about me as a person."
Bird soon felt at home at Auburn, and the future of the program looked promising with a solid core of players like future NBA star Marquis Daniels and the leadership and toughness of Donny Carlton.
That trio became captains. They were enforcers-and encouragers.
While the team fell short of its potential his junior year, Bird blossomed into arguably the toughest defender in the SEC. He was assigned to guard the opponent's best player every night. He made most of them miserable.
Bird held the opponent's top scorer to an average of 6 points a game his senior year while scoring 10 points a game. He was named a defensive All-American heading into his senior season, which would be one of the best in Auburn history.
'I was not going to be outworked'
He raised his game to another level his final year, crediting relentless preparation and intense conditioning for giving him the confidence to knock down shots and shut down the opponent's best player, no matter how talented or how big he was.
"Every time I stepped on the floor my senior year, I knew I was in better shape than the guy I was guarding and I was going to outwork him," Bird said. "I knew no matter how tough a guy might be, he might be a little more talented than me, he didn't have the same heart that I had. I was not going to be outworked."
The 2003 team had talent, but something else made it special. It was a close-knit group with strong leaders.
"The leadership we had on that team made a big difference," Bird said. "We wanted it so bad we did our best to make sure everybody felt they had an important role on the team. Every last person, walk-on or whatever. It's different to hear that from your captains than just hearing it from your coaches."
Bird said that season, which ended in a thrilling run in the NCAA Tournament to the Sweet 16, taught him a lesson he believes in with all his heart: teams that pray together stay together.
"Having prayer together as a team and sticking together and being close, that's what makes a lot of teams play together. If you are a close team, you are going to play harder for each other. You are playing for each other, not your team."
The Tigers marched through the NCAA Tournament and faced eventual National Champion Syracuse with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line. Bird helped pave the way by scoring 11 points in a tournament win over St. Joseph's (which won its first 27 games the following season) and a 9-point effort against ACC Champion and No. 2 seed Wake Forest, when he held star player Josh Howard to 14 points.
The 'big game'
The Tigers were in the Sweet 16 with a showdown against might Syracuse looming.
Bird had arrived. He finally had a chance to play in the "big game" he dreamed about as a little boy shooting hoops until dark, a frustrated college player who spent countless hours in rehab and then as the sunny optimist who went from suffering from adversity to leading others through it at junior college and then at Auburn.
"It's been a long road, but that makes this all the more sweet," Bird told the school newspaper in Syracuse before the game. "A lot of times, I never thought I'd get here. I thought I was just bouncing around to end up nowhere."
He ended up on the ultimate stage in college basketball with the whole nation watching.
Of all the toughest assignments in his career, Bird faced his biggest test yet against The Orange that night. He would guard freshman phenom Carmelo Anthony, who everybody knew would be in the NBA the next season.
The Orange built an early double-digit lead against the Tigers, but Bird and Daniels kept Auburn in the game. He fixed his steely eyes on Anthony, fought and scrapped and held the much bigger forward scoreless in the first half.
Auburn had a chance in the second half. While Coach Jim Boeheim found a way to get Anthony involved and the regular NBA All-Star began to heat up in the second half, Auburn made a late barrage of three pointers to put a charge into the Tiger bench and a large TV audience of fans rooting for an upset.
They fell just short, losing to the eventual National Champion 79-78.
Facing the music, and the media
Bird stepped into the spotlight of the postgame press conference as he had so many times before, only there was a room full of reporters, not just the usual handful back home in Auburn.
Reflecting on his Auburn basketball career, Bird says the greatest lesson he learned was not on the court. It was in the media room after games, especially after losses that came more often than expected his junior year.
"You can't just throw in the towel just because you are going through tough times," Bird said. That's life. There are times it's going to be hard to talk to people when things are not going well. But you have to face things when it's not going well. It builds character."
Bird remembers when nobody wanted to talk to the media after a loss. Longtime basketball Sports Information Director Chuck Gallina pulled him aside and let him know why it was important. Bird, unfailingly polite and positive, agreed to help.
"I always volunteered to talk to them because I knew if I talked to them and treated them right when we were losing, they'd want to talk to me when we started winning. And that's exactly what happened. The media has a job to do, but if you are good to them, they will be good to you.
The experience of facing the media in good times and bad also reinforced a lesson instilled in him by his parents. When life throws challenges your way, hit them head on.
"It taught me you have to be willing to face tough questions in life. We all have to have conversations we don't want to have sometimes, so it was really good in preparing me for that."
A stellar student who led the team academically, Bird graduated from Auburn with honors. He knew he was prepared for life after basketball, whenever that might come.
Dreams and unexpected detours
A dream that a few years earlier seemed in doubt was suddenly in reach. The Detroit Pistons invited him to try out for the team in his home state.
He didn't make the team, but the Pistons encouraged him to pursue the National Basketball Developmental League, where he might have the chance to be called up to the NBA. Bird went to the Columbus Riverdragons, the Atlanta Hawks' semipro franchise.
An injury derailed his dream again. Bird ruptured his patella tendon at the end of the season, requiring surgery. He didn't give up without a fight, rehabbing for two years before finally realizing his knee could not handle the rigorous demands of basketball.
Bird would be the first to say that blessings sometimes come in unanswered prayers. He soon discovered his real passion of helping young people goes far beyond the boundaries of a basketball court.
"My dream was to get to the NBA. That's everybody's dream. The biggest thing I dreamed about if I got to the NBA was I have always wanted to give back to kids. I want to help them see that they can have an opportunity and I want to encourage them so they believe they can make it and be successful."
His basketball career over, a new opportunity to make a difference emerged.
It was not the job he expected-another unexpected detour on his journey to a fulfilling life and career-but Bird embraced a job opportunity with the Ann Arbor City Schools. He ran a program to help struggling young people.
"I saw a lot of struggles at home that kids would bring into the schools. There are a lot of single-parent kids, but then even the students with two parents who had problems at home would bring a lot of issues to school. At a comprehensive school, you don't have a lot of people to talk to. This school really promoted relationship with the teacher and students. That's what made it a tremendous success."
As many public schools across America slashed funding for extra programs after budget cuts, the program was phased out.
Bird's journey took another turn. Like some of the stops in his basketball career, he ended up in an unlikely place. He went to work for the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department.
His biggest challenge was trying to improve the climate between minority communities and law enforcement. It came during turbulent times when unfortunate incidents and police shootings strained the relationship between citizens and the law.
"It was very stressful. It was like law enforcement against citizens. That's just not the way it is. It's like a few bad apples ruined the whole thing."
He soon learned the same lesson that propelled him to a successful career applied even in the inner cities grappling with a vexing problem.
"What I tried to do when I would talk to young people is ask them, 'Have you had a bad coach?' That doesn't mean every coach is bad. I would also use an analogy with teachers. You may have had a bad teacher or two, but that doesn't make all teachers bad. That's the perception kids would have. They would see the news that an incident happened, and they would say I'm not trusting any of them."
'Relationships are huge'
For Bird, a big part of the solution is reaching out to others and being a community that shares experiences together, just like the teams he most enjoyed as a player.
"The biggest thing is relationships. Relationships are huge. You have to make sure you are having events where law enforcement and the community are doing things together and you are talking. It's not just us versus them."
Bird came to enjoy a career he never imagined as a young basketball star.
After four years with the sheriff's department, a major opportunity came open. The United States Department of Justice selected him for a critically important role. Due to the nature of the job, Bird says he cannot go into specifics about his work.
"What I can say is I love it. It's a blessing to be able to have a tremendous impact serving your country and working to help keep our country safe."
His early jobs gave him an opportunity to chase another dream he had always nurtured in his heart.
"As long as I can remember, I always wanted to be a mentor and give kids an opportunity to believe in themselves," Bird said.
"That was always my dream to make it as far as I could and then be able to give back. Even though I didn't make to the NBA, I'm still in a position now where I can give back and give people opportunity and hope, just like Virgil Starks did for me."
Bird credits the late Starks for giving him a chance to return to Auburn and earn a master's degree while working as a Graduate Assistant.
"I remember Virgil telling me that since I took advantage of the opportunity given to me at Auburn, he was giving me an opportunity to come back and give more to Auburn. That was a blessing."
It is a blessing he tries to pay forward every day.
His recent trip to Auburn gave Bird a chance to reflect on his life, the obstacles he overcame and the joy of finding a calling that he gets excited about every day. He says the values instilled in him by his parents and reinforced at Auburn have been the keys to his success.
'Just be nice, man'
Bird encourages young student-athletes to put academics first and build relationships not only in their orbit, but also across campus, with the media and administrators who have the ability to help.
"Just be nice, man," he says with the broad smile that lights up a room. "It's not hard."
As the interview wound down, Bird wanted to credit two things for giving him hope and a chance to pursue his dreams. His faith. And his time at Auburn University.
"I was blessed to be recruited by several high major Division 1 schools and with no regrets chose Auburn University," he said. "Persevering through times that seemed like a debacle strengthened the faith, will, confidence and character I have today."
Bird and his beautiful young family returned to Auburn for last weekend's lettermen reunion. He wanted his son and daughter to see the place he loved and what makes it special.
They ate at Momma Goldberg's, visited with academic counselors at the Athletic Complex and attended basketball practice in shiny Auburn Arena.
His son and spitting image, DeMarus, got interested in football after attending the "Kick Six" game with his father a few years ago at Jordan-Hare Stadium. He has just recently shown an interest in basketball.
The visit to Auburn may have sparked the same fire in his heart that made his dad one of the best defenders in the program's history.
Young DeMarus was in awe watching coach Bruce Pearl direct practice, his eyes as big as saucers watching Auburn's talented team in the practice gym inside Auburn Arena.
"He just kept saying, 'They're so big!'" Bird said with a laugh. "He absolutely loved it."
Bird didn't make it to the NBA. But he has all he could ever want. A loving wife. Two beautiful children. A chance to protect and serve others. Sweet memories to relish from a basketball career that revealed his character, strengthened his faith and kept his hope alive.
"I'm so grateful for my supportive wife, Vanita, all these years," he said. "She has seen me go through several transitions and has been very supportive throughout my journey."
Bird realized an important lesson all young people could learn. The journey often makes life worth living, not the destination many spend so much time pursuing.
"I'm living my dream," he said. "And Auburn made that possible."
Football Zebras has obtained the officiating crew rosters for the 2017 NFL season. This season, there are 8 new officials to replace officials that retired or were moved up to the league office. There are five veteran officials designated as swing officials, matching last season’s record-level bench. The swing officials will move between crews through the season, and include include two umpires, two line-of-scrimmage officials, and a deep wing. Umpire Bill Schuster once again is listed as a swing official, however last season he was moved to a crew in preseason to replace an injured official. Head linesman Jim Howey is in his third stint as a swing official, having previously been one in 2011 due to an injury and continuing into 2012.
For the second consecutive season, there are no new “white hats,” as everyone from the referee position remains. Four crew chiefs were added from 2014-15.
This season, the NFL has renamed the head linesman position to down judge, in deference to use a gender-neutral term.
Crew members are listed with their years of NFL experience, including the upcoming season, the crews they were on last season, the college attended, and occupations. A replay official is assigned to each crew, but the replay assistant is assigned to the stadium, much like the chain crews and clock operators.
Veteran officials who have changed positions from last season are indicated at the bottom of each crew list.
*indicates an official who is on the same crew as last season.
|R||122||Brad Allen||4||Pembroke State||non-profit CEO|
|U||11||Fred Bryan||9||*||Northern Iowa||superintendent, juvenile correctional facility|
|DJ||48||Jim Mello||14||*||Northeastern||facilities manager|
|LJ||40||Brian Bolinger||1||NA||Indiana State||corporate safety director|
|FJ||97||Tom Hill||19||*||Carson Newman||teacher|
|SJ||26||Jabir Walker||3||Parry||Murray State||math teacher|
|BJ||83||Shawn Hochuli||4||*||Claremont||financial advisor|
|R||66||Walt Anderson||22||Texas||college officiating coordinator, retired dentist|
|U||124||Carl Paganelli||18||(swing)||Michigan State||retired federal probation officer|
|DJ||6||Jerod Phillips||2||*||Northeastern State||elementary school teacher|
|LJ||18||Byron Boston||23||*||Austin||tax consultant|
|FJ||117||John Jenkins||4||*||St. Mary’s||sales executive|
|SJ||125||Laird Hayes||23||*||Princeton||owner of football camps for high school and youth|
|BJ||119||Greg Wilson||10||*||USC||law enforcement|
|U||128||Ramon George||2||*||Lenoir-Rhyne||financial underwriter|
|DJ||94||Hugo Cruz||3||*||Texas-Pan American||investment manager|
|LJ||8||Dana McKenzie||10||Boger||Toledo||claims adjuster|
|FJ||73||Joe Larrew||16||*||St Louis||attorney|
|SJ||109||Dyrol Prioleau||11||Triplette||Johnson C Smith||manager, law firm|
|BJ||17||Steve Patrick||4||*||Jacksonville State||owner, supply company|
|R||23||Jerome Boger||14||Morehouse College||retired commercial insurance underwriter|
|U||49||Rich Hall||14||*||Arizona||custom cabinetry|
|DJ||134||Ed Camp||18||*||William Paterson||physical education teacher|
|LJ||63||Mike Carr||1||NA||Wisconsin||athletic director|
|FJ||103||Eugene Hall||4||*||North Texas||federal agent|
|SJ||87||Walt Coleman IV||3||*||Southern Methodist||financial advisor|
|BJ||112||Tony Steratore||18||*||California (Pa.)||co-owner, supply company|
|R||51||Carl Cheffers||18||California-Irvine||sales manager|
|U||19||Clay Martin||3||Hochuli||Tulsa||high school basketball coach|
|DJ||100||Tom Symonette||14||Allen||Florida||certified public accountant|
|LJ||79||Kent Payne||14||*||Nebraska Wesleyan||teacher|
|FJ||31||Mearl Robinson||1||NA||Air Force||instructor|
|SJ||88||Brad Freeman||4||*||Mississippi State||sports park director|
|BJ||5||Jim Quirk||8||*||Middlebury||financial advisor|
|R||65||Walt Coleman||29||Arkansas||manager dairy processor|
|DJ||74||Derick Bowers||15||*||East Central||sales representative|
|LJ||16||Kevin Codey||3||*||Western New England||middle school physical education teacher|
|FJ||1||Scott Novak||4||Cheffers||Phoenix||sales manager|
|SJ||95||James Coleman||13||(swing)||Arkansas||electrical engineer|
|BJ||111||Terrence Miles||10||*||Arizona State||quality control manager|
|R||99||Tony Corrente||23||Cal State-Fullerton||retired educator|
|U||76||Alan Eck||2||*||Bloomsburg State||tax manager|
|DJ||13||Patrick Turner||4||*||Cal State-Long Beach||plant manager|
|LJ||2||Bart Longson||3||*||Brigham Young||co-founder and CEO, digital finance company|
|FJ||82||Buddy Horton||19||*||Oregon State||water service worker|
|SJ||25||Ryan Dickson||1||NA||Utah||commercial real estate developer|
|BJ||30||Todd Prukop||9||*||Cal State-Fullerton||medical sales representative|
|R||85||Ed Hochuli||28||Texas-El Paso||attorney|
|U||14||Shawn Smith||3||Triplette||Ferris State||internal auditor|
|DJ||98||Greg Bradley||9||*||Tennessee||chemical engineer|
|LJ||59||Rusty Baynes||8||*||Auburn-Montgomery||general manager, safety services|
|FJ||104||Dale Shaw||5||*||Allegheny||pharmaceutical sales|
|SJ||55||Alex Kemp||4||*||Central Michigan||insurance agent|
|BJ||93||Scott Helverson||15||*||Iowa||sales, printing and promotions|
|R||35||John Hussey||16||Idaho State||sales representative, retail logistics group|
|U||115||Tony Michalek||16||*||Indiana||USA Football officiating director|
|DJ||123||Ed Walker||4||Steratore||San Jose State||real estate management|
|LJ||107||Ron Marinucci||21||*||Glassboro State||vice president, novelty cone company|
|FJ||86||Jimmy Buchanan||9||*||South Carolina State||insurance agent|
|BJ||61||Keith Ferguson||18||*||San Jose State||sales|
|R||77||Terry McAulay||20||Louisiana State||college officiating coordinator|
|U||54||Steve Woods||1||NA||Wabash||financial advisor|
|DJ||91||Jerry Bergman||16||*||Robert Morris||sales executive|
|LJ||101||Carl Johnson||14||Morelli||Nicholls State||full-time official|
|FJ||72||Michael Banks||16||Vinovich||Illinois State||carpenter foreman|
|SJ||120||Jonah Monroe||3||*||Arkansas||systems engineer|
|BJ||39||Rich Martinez||4||*||Canisius||sales manager|
|R||135||Pete Morelli||21||St. Mary’s||high school principal|
|U||92||Bryan Neale||4||*||Indiana||sales consultant|
|DJ||22||Steve Stelljes||16||*||Friends||business planning manager|
|LJ||47||Tim Podraza||10||Cheffers||Nebraska||corporate real estate|
|FJ||126||Brad Rogers||1||NA||Lubbock Christian||college professor|
|SJ||41||Boris Cheek||22||*||Morgan State||director of operations and management|
|BJ||12||Greg Steed||15||*||Howard||computer systems analyst|
|R||132||John Parry||18||Purdue||financial advisor|
|U||131||Mark Pellis||4||*||Allegheny||financial advisor|
|DJ||90||Mike Spanier||19||(swing)||St Cloud State||middle school principal|
|LJ||45||Jeff Seeman||16||*||Minnesota||brokerage sales|
|FJ||118||David Meslow||7||Allen||Augsburg College||marketing manager|
|SJ||7||Keith Washington||10||*||Virginia Military Institute||program financial analyst|
|BJ||46||Perry Paganelli||20||*||Hope College||retired high school administrator|
|R||114||Gene Steratore||15||Kent State||co-owner, supply company|
|U||81||Roy Ellison||15||(swing)||Savannah State||technical staff member|
|DJ||24||David Oliver||1||NA||Baker||information systems manager|
|LJ||108||Gary Arthur||21||*||Wright State||president, commercial printing company|
|FJ||116||Mike Weatherford||16||*||Oklahoma State||energy trader|
|SJ||29||Adrian Hill||8||Blakeman||Buffalo||software engineer|
|BJ||105||Dino Paganelli||12||*||Aquinas College||educator|
|R||62||Ron Torbert||8||Michigan State||attorney|
|U||121||Paul King||9||*||Nicholls State||school teacher|
|DJ||53||Sarah Thomas||3||Triplette||Mobile||pharmaceutical sales representative|
|FJ||50||Aaron Santi||3||*||Southern Oregon||middle school principal|
|SJ||3||Scott Edwards||19||Triplette||Alabama||environmental engineer|
|BJ||38||Greg Yette||8||*||Howard||defense contractor|
|R||42||Jeff Triplette||22||Wake Forest||restructuring consultant|
|U||71||Ruben Fowler||12||Cheffers||Huston-Tillotson||retired firefighter|
|DJ||32||Jeff Bergman||26||*||Robert Morris||president and chief executive officer, medical services|
|LJ||113||Danny Short||1||NA||North Carolina-Charlotte||executive officer, global sales operations|
|FJ||80||Greg Gautreaux||16||Torbert||SW Louisiana||athletic programs manager|
|SJ||43||Terry Brown||12||Coleman||Tennessee||probation supervisor|
|BJ||133||Steve Freeman||17||*||Mississippi State||custom home builder (former NFL player)|
|R||52||Bill Vinovich||13||San Diego||accountant, former NFL officiating supervisor|
|U||102||Bruce Stritesky||12||*||Embry Riddle||airline pilot|
|DJ||110||Phil McKinnely||16||*||UCLA||inventory control (former NFL player)|
|FJ||89||Jon Lucivansky||9||(swing)||Minnesota||college educator|
|SJ||60||Gary Cavaletto||15||*||Hancock||general manager, agricultural operations|
|BJ||78||Greg Meyer||16||*||Texas Christian||banker|
|R||4||Craig Wrolstad||15||Washington||athletic director|
|U||20||Barry Anderson||11||*||North Carolina State||builder/developer|
|DJ||28||Mark Hittner||21||*||Pittsburg State||investment broker|
|LJ||10||Julian Mapp||9||*||Grambling State||software QA tester|
|SJ||21||Jeff Lamberth||16||*||Texas A&M||attorney|