When Darius Rucker sings the national anthem, which he will do Sunday when his favorite NFL team, the Miami Dolphins, host Buffalo, he always is struck by the significance of the song.
The country star who also was the front man for Hootie & the Blowfish doesn't simply go on stage and lay down “The Star-Spangled Banner” the way he might one of his own hits. No way.
“I never think hours before the shows about singing my songs, I get up there and do it,” Rucker says. "But when it comes to the anthem, that's all you are thinking about for 48 hours, every minute.
“You're singing it for your country. It's an honor to sing it. You are representing your whole country and you know it, and you know everyone will be singing along with you. They all love America.”
Rucker, who mentions his devotion to the Dolphins in “Only Wanna Be With You,” also has a deep attachment to the South Carolina Gamecocks. Indeed, before Rucker performed at a 9/11 concert last Saturday night with the likes of Zac Brown Band, Lee Brice and Chris Young, he was tuned into South Carolina's win over East Carolina.
His deep involvement in sports runs to golf, including the Hootie & the Blowfish tournament the Monday after the Masters that has raised more than $7 million for education and youth golf programs in South Carolina. Rucker will have his own Fanatics NFL clothing line available this fall — yes, it includes all 32 teams, not just the Dolphins.
“It's amazing,” he says. “When you are as big a fan as I am — I watch every game I can, no matter who is playing — to be enabled to have these associations with the NFL and to have my logo on, I am very proud.”
TAG, YOU'RE IT
Rashad Jennings has been an elite athlete his entire life. Not only did he spend seven seasons in the NFL, he was a standout basketball player in college, with a dual scholarship at Liberty.
When Jennings, who retired from pro football in 2016, got the chance to host World Chase Tag, he was stunned at the athleticism of the participants. No, this is not the brand of tag you played as a kid.
“Their agility is off the hook,” Jennings says of the event produced by Tupelo Honey and Hall of Fame Village Media that took place in Canton, Ohio during this year’s Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend. "Their balance is unreal, and their ability to judge where they are in space. It's not easy to do. It does sound like a receiver or a running back, the skillset you must possess in order to maximize your experience in the NFL is similar.
“I am not saying any of them could play in the NFL and not saying NFL players could go and be world chase tag champs. But if we focus on it, the opportunity is there where we could grow. Like an artist.”
Jennings has an artistic bent, too: He won season 24 of “Dancing With The Stars.” In addition to working for Hall of Fame Village Media and hosting the tag event on ESPN platforms, he's writing a devotional. Much of his time also is taken up as “a coach” of the Hall of Fantasy League, which is in its inaugural season and includes 10 teams representing cities and states nationwide.
Not a participant in fantasy football when he played — he admits to sometimes being annoyed that “the fan base was crazy and dehumanized us so much” — Jennings has changed course the way, well, a tag player would.
“It's a new experience in consuming the NFL,” he says. “It is competitive and I still love to compete in anything I do. And make sure Team New York (the Bodega Cats) wins. I am representing all the New York fans as a coach for the team and letting people know who they should be playing and not be playing per week. I have an upscale understanding of the game of football. ... I am the secret sauce.”
Battlefields2Ballfields (check out the cool logo) is in its fifth year of promoting officiating by awarding scholarships to former military members interested in working in a variety of sports.
Thus far, the organization founded by former NFL officiating chief Mike Pereira, now an analyst for Fox Sports, has given out more than 550 scholarship and has more than 300 active officials. They work in such sports as football, basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball, wrestling and track and field.
“It continues to be terrific,” Pereira says. “I hear story after story of people who get involved, left being in the military and weren’t involved in much. They write notes to me how much this means to them and how they feel they are serving again.”
But the organization’s growth has led to a challenge because, Pereira says, there’s always the issue of raising enough money to support the cause. Battlefields2Ballfields will host its annual invitational golf tournament at the Del Paso Country Club in Sacramento, California on Nov. 8. It also appears at job fairs and other events throughout the year.
“This is something that allows them to feel good about themselves and make some extra money,” Pereira explains. “At at the same time we can help fill this horrible hole we have in this shortage of officials. In Sacramento, we have to play Thursday night (high school football) games because there are not enough officials for just Friday and Saturday games.
“That is not just football. That is all the sports.”
LATINX HERITAGE MONTH
The NFL is reaching out to its growing Hispanic fandom while celebrating Latinx Heritage Month with a variety of new culture and community-driven activities.
The campaign, “Por La Cultura," will focus on the diversity and vibrancy of its fans, players, and personnel. Grammy Award winner Ozuna will take part throughout the season in content reaching Latinx fans, and will join with former player Victor Cruz in the campaign.
Focusing on its 29.2 million strong Latin base in the United States, the initiative will also reach to Mexico and Brazil, where there are more than 15 million fans in each country.
“We are excited to celebrate the vibrancy, commonalities, and differences within the Latinx community through our new ‘Por La Cultura’ campaign," says Javier Farfan, the league's cultural marketing strategist. "We know our fans’ culture varies by region and country of origin. And that our fans have different language preferences.
"We wanted to create a platform that celebrates this diversity and uniqueness to inspire excitement all year round.”
To do so, the league for the first time used its international pathway program and had players wear their home country’s flag in addition to the U.S. flag on their helmets during the preseason this year. The NFL also will, through its social media channels, celebrate the independence days of countries across Latin America.
HEADED FOR HOLLYWOOD
After 17 seasons in the NFL and several years as a broadcaster, Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez stepped away from the studio this season to pursue acting. He just finished filming for “Long Slow Exhale,” an upcoming women’s basketball television drama. Gonzalez also stars in a new television commercial for TiVo Stream 4K. He previously appeared on episodes of “NCIS” and in the movie “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.”
“I’ve been pursuing it for a while now and I love it,” Gonzalez said. “It reminds me of football in the sense that you learn your plays and then you go out on the field and you execute. It’s not like you go 12 yards and cut out. It’s about you go there and things can happen all the time. And that’s what acting reminds me of. You learn your lines, you hammer, you finally get the muscle memory, but then you’ve got to let it all go and then go for it.
"And so I love that feeling of freedom. It reminds me of that freedom I had when I was out on the football field totally in the moment trying to do the best job that you could do. So I’m lucky that I was able to get this last gig. And if somebody wants to keep giving me a job, I’ll take it, because I really do enjoy doing it.”
The 45-year-old Gonzalez was a first-round draft pick by Kansas City in 1997. He played 12 seasons with the Chiefs and five in Atlanta. He is the NFL’s all-time leader in catches and yards receiving for a tight end.
AP Pro Football Writers Barry Wilner and Rob Maaddi contributed.
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