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Popping off proves a troublesome path for sports figures to travel

JOHN McENROE and Brian Bosworth are certainly making it hard for themselves. McEnroe has been a bad actor in tennis for years, and he reached his peak in the recent US Open. There is no defense for an athlete cursing an official, and I read that McEnroe's abusive language was vile. A baseball player or a manager can argue with an umpire, but if he curses the official he is ejected from the game.

Bosworth, a football linebacker, is using his tongue in another fashion. He is bragging openly, sending challenges that are uncalled for, asking for trouble, and, in general, popping off. Bosworth was hard to handle at Oklahoma, so much so his coach didn't want him to use his final year of eligibility, despite saying he was the best linebacker he had ever seen.

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Bosworth signed with the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks for a lot of money. He is a big investment. But on the Monday before the first game of the season against Denver, Bosworth for no reason at all gave an interview to a writer for the Denver Post. Bosworth said he was out to get Denver's star quarterback, John Elway. He said, among other loud boasts, ``I'm going to take as many and as hard shots as I can get on him.''

I find this interview by a rookie who hadn't played in even a single pro game incredible. I can't recall any athlete asking for so much trouble. I would think the interview disturbed the entire Seattle team - owners, coaches, players. In the game, Denver blew out Seattle, 40-17. The Broncos had all the motivation and stimulation they needed. Bosworth has made himself a marked man, and in a world of hardbitten big men, not college players.

The greatest example in sports of the terrible cost of popping off was the pro football championship game of 1940 between the Chicago Bears and the Washington Redskins.

Washington had a fine team, led by the remarkable passer Sammy Baugh. In the regular season, Washington won nine games and lost two, while the Bears were 8-3. Further, three weeks before the title game, the Redskins beat the Bears in Chicago, 7-3.

Late in the game the Bears thought they scored a touchdown, but the officials said no. After the game many of the Bears were bitterly outspoken about the denied touchdown which would have given them the game.

George Preston Marshall was the pop-off owner of the Redskins. He publicly called the Bears ``cry babies'' and in many interviews said the Bears were alibiing. He laid it on. All George Halas, the owner and coach of the Bears, did was clip Marshall's blasts and put them on the clubhouse bulletin board. I never saw as raging and as mad a group of men as were the Bears when they got to Washington. They beat the Redskins savagely. The score was 73-0. No question - Marshall's mouth was pivotal.

Ty Cobb of Detroit was a terror. He was a marvelous player. He was a dangerous fist fighter. He could do it all on a baseball diamond. Some people think he was the greatest. Yet Cobb learned a bitter lesson about popping off. In the World Series of 1909, the first time Cobb got on first base, he cupped his hands and yelled at Honus Wagner, the Pittsburgh shortstop, ``Hey Kraut head, I'm coming down on the first pitch.'' Wagner replied, ``I'll be waiting.''

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Cobb came down, his spikes high and menacing. Wagner took the catcher's throw, calmly stepped around Cobb, and slammed the ball down on his face so hard it cut his lip and loosened some teeth. There was no further conversation.

Carl Hubbell told me that as a young pitcher he had a bad temper. He realized that when he got mad he got beat. He said that even more important than his screwball was the painful knowledge that he couldn't control the game until he first learned to control himself. Hubbell on the mound was ice water.

Most of the great athletes I've seen were never pop-off guys. They did their work in the words from a book of common prayer: ``In quietness and in confidence shall be my strength.''

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