Written by Jason Kirchhoff, Contributor to Gatorsfirst.com
Every year at Midnight Madness, my buddy Burnstein and I take a look at the new Freshmen and each pick one to be “our Boy.” Once the choice is made, you must claim allegiance to this player and defend him throughout his stay in Gainesville. While it’s easy to just snap up a McDonald’s All-American and call it a day, it’s far more rewarding to gamble on a lesser known player and then pound your chest a few years later when your boy is torching the SEC, as you shout out some prophetic nonsense along the lines of “I just knew,” or “there was something about him.” This decision can sometimes work out well (my boy Joakim Noah), and sometimes backfire (my boy Allan Chaney).
In October 2006, it backfired. Bigtime. I went out on a limb and picked a nimble looking young forward out of New Jersey with some solid high school credentials.
Yes, Dan Werner is my Boy. And yes, I have spent 3 years defending him, championing his effort and toughness and willingness to take on defensive matchups for which he did not have the physical gifts necessary for success. I even defended him upon learning that he once hit on GatorsFirst founder James Brown’s wife at Swamp (they weren’t engaged yet…no ring, no problem I say). He was my boy, and that’s how the game works. When his trademark shot (the 3-pointer off the shot clock) went up, I was the only one in the O-Dome without my hands on my head shouting “NO!”
Then, about a month ago, I violated the one and only rule of the game. I started bashing Dan Werner. It was sort of like the woman who stands by her man through repeated bouts of alcoholism and abuse, only to eventually - and usually far too late - reach her breaking point, pack up the station wagon and move back in with her mother in Palatka. Put simply, I had just had it. It wasn’t just the stats, though they were certainly abysmal (as of this writing, only 5 made field goals in the last 9 games, despite averaging 24.7 minutes on the floor). It was that the scant redeeming qualities – the tough defense, the hustle plays, the heady inbounds passes – had turned into fouls and turnovers. Suddenly the three off the shot clock became an improvement, as at least it hit something. There was nothing left to defend. The “slump” excuse was long past its expiration date. Burnstein wasn’t happy with me. It’s not like his ’06 boy Brandon Powell had panned out. “Play by the rules,” he told me.
On Wednesday night, things changed. I will, for the rest of this season, support Dan Werner unconditionally. And I encourage all of the Gator Nation to join me. And here’s why:
With about two minutes left in a close game, the ball found its way into the hands of Dan Werner, standing at the elbow. After a split second of clear discomfort, Dan realized that, as usual, he was unguarded. He decided to shoot, which was fine considering the nearest defender was under the basket, 15 feet away. The next 2 seconds was the most heartbreaking moment I’ve ever had in my years of support for this guy. Dan Werner clutched, leapt, and shot his 15-foot jumper not an inch more than 12 feet. It was without a doubt one of the worst airballs in Gator history, and almost assuredly the worst in Werner’s entire life, not just his stay in Gainesville. And it made clear something I had yet to realize.
Dan Werner has reached a mental breaking point. And the Gator Nation is to blame. The escalating level of hate and vitriol and calling for his head, the repeated claims of a wasted scholarship, it all needs to end. Today. We’ve destroyed him. He’s just a college student people. This isn’t the pros. Look what we’ve done. It’s like watching a shelter dog trying to play basketball. I feel like a sports psychologist, pressed with this charge, would turn into Office Space’s Dr. Swanson: “Wow, that’s messed up.”
Back to the airball. If you can find a replay, check out the body language. The jump is tentative and weak and the shot is brutally short-armed. This is a shot that in probably 17 years of organized basketball Dan has taken 20,000 times. The short-arm, as any beer pong veteran can attest, is an outcome that only appears when you’re thinking, deeply, madly, about your shot. When everyone is laughing at you and you’re so desperate to get back on track that all muscle memory disappears and it’s like you’re taking the first shot of your entire life. I’m no longer in Gainesville, but I’d bet my life savings that Dan Werner can’t walk from one end of Turlington to the other without a thousand eyes casting shame upon him. We have defeated the man to the point that the only supporters he has left in the world are his parents and, for some reason, coach Donovan. And it stops today. Dan is a four year player with a national championship ring. And we will respect that. I will allow us to acknowledge that he is “struggling”. And that’s it as far as criticism is concerned. Beyond that, listen to Bambi, that wimpy deer. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
This mental break down, it happens to athletes from time to time. It’s usually in individual sports, and particularly prevalent in golf, which I know from experience is 99.37% mental. Former British Open champion Ian Baker-Finch, already struggling with a career-threatening confidence problem, once duck-hooked a tee shot so badly that he put his driver back in the bag, walked off the course, and never played again. All time great Sam Snead once had such a mental block on short puts (known as the yips), that he actually started straddling the ball and using his putter like a hockey stick, just needing to change it up somehow.
It happens in team sports too. Former Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch once famously, and laughably, hit Keith Olberman’s mom in the face with an errant throw to first. Less laughable was eventual demotion to switch hitter and part-time left fielder. Cleveland Indians catcher and cliché dunce Rube Baker couldn’t throw it back to the pitcher, though he solved his problem by memorizing the stats of Playboy models and reciting them during the throwing motion. Baker was of course from Major League II, which is clearly fictional considering that Coach Lou Brown died despite a mustache so glorious it would earn absolute immortality for a real man. Still, fake as Baker was, the flaw was based on the real life struggles of former Mets catcher Mackey Sasser.
And it has happened to former Gators as well. Rex Grossman, constantly hounded by obsessive Chicago Bears fans, pretty clearly lost his confidence while there. In fact, Grossman’s father recently wrote an article blasting Bears management and fans for their perpetual negativity and criticism of QBs there. Closer to home, and actually on the hardwood, is the story of Brett Nelson. The hillbilly sharpshooter was a vital member of the 2000 Gator basketball team that made it to the NCAA finals. A sophomore that year, some analysts surmised that he could be a lottery pick. The next year he developed a hitch in his shot, and by his senior season was a bit-part bench player. The unrelated lesson there is, if you’re a projected first round pick, for the love of god, go pro. But more important to this article, it was yet another example of an unrelenting erosion of confidence derailing a career.
My point is that, in most of these cases, the attitude of fans went from amused early on to highly sympathetic as the problem worsened. No one likes to see an elite athlete lose their stuff, and it’s particularly jarring to see it happen not from to injury or fatigue, but due to a swift and systematic destruction of confidence that may have taken decades to develop (or maybe 15 years in Werner’s case). The public is rather unanimous in its support and hope for golfer David Duval to get past his mental demons and return to his former glory. I’m calling for the same level of support for Thunder Dan Werner. I want to bring attention to his confidence issues to jump start the switch from ridicule to sympathy that always comes in these cases. There aren’t many games left, and unless Albania starts a developmental league soon, the pro prospects don’t look good for Mr. Werner. I ask you, Gator Nation, to put a hard stop on the hate and see if we can’t get this guy back on his feet. If you see him on campus, tell him that you’re pulling for him. And tell him there’s at least one person out there who strongly, happily, proudly, refers to him as “my BOY, Dan Werner!”
You can find the original article here: http://gatorsfirst.com/index.php/fl