Lelie’s stand iffy ... but admirable
MOST anyone who has ever played team sports -- and I mean most anyone as in the 99 percent who weren't anointed superstars with guaranteed spots set aside for them, offenses designed around them -- can empathize with Ashley Lelie.
"I'm not saying he should'a (done it) -- but I understand."
-- Chris Rock
Anyone who's played anything from Little League on up has at least seen a coach who seemed to have his or her mind already made up.
After writing about Bobby Doerr last week I was interested in reading the book "The Teammates." In it we find that Dominic DiMaggio -- he was a super-popular player in Boston, today some feel it's a crime he isn't in the Hall of Fame -- was edged out, he thought early, and without cause, when a new manager came in. Dom DiMaggio!
Lelie's new teammate, the guy he's so upset about, Javon Walker, could tell him all about it, too. (They've actually worked out together, this spring, don't worry, they're friends.) The reason Walker's in Denver is because he was on the outs with coaches and management in Green Bay. He was told to stop being selfish and get to camp because if he just worked hard he'd surely be rewarded and everything would take care of itself. (And who was saying this loudest? His friend Brett "What are they going to do, cut me?" Favre.)
Now, does "just come to camp and work hard" come true? Sure it does. Sometimes. Others ... well, Lelie is right. Walker's signing is writing on the wall.
"I don't want to go back down to No. 3 without a shot," Lelie told our Dave Reardon a few weeks ago. "It's pretty clear what direction the Broncos are headed in."
Crystal clear. He's no dummy. The players know.
Most guys who have been around -- minus the Favres of the world, of course -- can probably empathize with Lelie, at least see his side in this stand, might even offer a subtle nod, a silent fight-the-power fist.
But, this is where Stephen A. Smith would say HOWEVER.
That does not mean the former UH run-and-shoot star chose the wisest course of action here.
Lelie has no leverage, he's a man without hand. There's a reason he's in this spot to begin with -- the Broncos are convinced, right or wrong, they have other receivers who are better than he is. There's Rod Smith, and Walker, and all number of young guys waiting to take Lelie's place. So he holds out -- how does that hurt a team that had him at No. 3, at best?
The "come to camp and work hard" thing doesn't always mean much. But as an athlete, it's all you've got.
Now Lelie doesn't even have that. "I know it's hard to be the No. 1 receiver when you don't compete," his coach told reporters after Lelie's first missed day. Good comeback. Let's face it, Lelie is not winning, here.
The part that makes his stand even more admirable, but in reality makes even less sense, is that this isn't even about money. It's about playing time. The depth chart. Being demoted.
"So it's an ego thing?" my wife asked, as I was hammering out this column across the table.
No. It's a pride thing. It's about wanting to play. And there may be a thin line between ego and pride, but Lelie is on the right side of that line. He is very much about pride. He is very much a Hawaii guy. I don't mean he's very much a UH guy. He's very much a Hawaii guy, which is sometimes a different thing. He's a Hawaii guy, he went to Radford, he came of age here.
"I know how good I am," a Denver-area columnist writes Lelie told him last season, "and I keep it to myself."
He's a Hawaii guy. He comes from a place where humble is one of the greatest things you can be.
No, he's not doing this as a diva, but as a guy who's worked too hard, come too far to let this happen to him now. This is a guy who has come from nowhere. One legend has it that he walked on to the UH football team instead of basketball because football season started first. Another says he was once so unskilled he was inches away from being cut when the new regime took a look at who it had, that first spring.
He's gone from that to making big catches on Sundays in Denver's thin air. It's been a heck of a long road. Forgive him. This is where he makes his stand. He's not going down now without a fight.
He's said he's willing to lose a season over this. In a strange, convoluted way, I admire him so.
Unfortunately, his is probably not the world's smartest move. Even if he's angling for a trade -- and he is -- this can make him look bad. Athletes find themselves in this situation all the time. There's a reason Ashley's the only one to respond to it in this way.
It's a no-win situation. In real life, this is when you swallow your spit and go back to work, harder. It isn't fair, but most things aren't. Even in sports. Sometimes, especially then.
He's right about the Broncos, but they're right about him, too. He hasn't proven himself as a No. 1. And staying out isn't changing anybody's mind.
I'm not saying he should have done it. But I understand.
I do respect his guts, though. In a strange and convoluted way you could call it integrity, what he's doing. It's about time somebody stood up like this. It's just too bad it had to be him.