I’ve got a new NFL catch rule: ‘2-Feet-Plus Rule’ Go ahead, National Football League, steal this great idea

NBC color commentator Cris Collinsworth, during the broadcast of the Super Bowl last month, told an audience of 103.4 million people that he couldn’t explain the NFL’s catch rule. A league flailing for years at defining what constitutes a catch has reached an impasse and now confronts a dilemma: When those entrusted with the duty of interpreting the game for viewers openly admit their inability to do so, someone has failed.

In this case, it’s someones: the NFL’s decision-makers. They need to put forward a definition of a catch that announcers can articulate, fans can understand, referees can evenly enforce and players can tailor their behavior toward.

League commissioner Roger Goodell understands the league must correct the issue, saying the matter has left him “concerned.” And, equally important, he appreciates that the league should create a new rule instead of fixing the old one, saying, per NFL.com, “From our standpoint, I would like to start back, instead of adding to the rule, subtracting the rule. Start over again and look at the rule fundamentally from the start.” Reports surfaced a few weeks ago that the NFL competition committee is investigating alternate rules; thus, we should expect to see the league enforcing a different catch rule next season.

When people malign the current NFL catch rule, three plays ruled non-catches inevitably dominate the discussion:

  • Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson’s non-catch in 2010 against the Chicago Bears;
  • Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant’s non-catch against the Green Bay Packers in the 2014-15 playoffs;
  • Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James’ non-catch against the New England Patriots during the 2017 regular season.

These plays, nearly everyone agrees, should have been ruled catches, and whatever rule the NFL devises should also come to that conclusion.

I think I have the solution, what I’ll call the “2-Feet-Plus Rule”: A catch is completed when a player catches the ball and gets both feet down, plus another action. Here is a list of the other actions that satisfy the “plus” requirement: body part, football move, controlled reach, or catcher sustains possession of the ball when going to the ground. I’m open to adding to this list.

A few explanations or caveats:

  • A knee or body part equals two feet as always.
  • This is a sequential rule, meaning one must get two feet down (or body part) then the plus must occur. So if a player gets one foot down, then a knee, the sequence starts with the knee and the foot doesn’t satisfy the plus requirement.
  • If the sequence starts with a body part first, neither another body part nor a foot can satisfy the plus requirement (unless the player stands up). The player must maintain possession of the ball or perform a controlled reach.

Calvin Johnson’s play

Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) is unable to maintain possession of a ball in the end zone while defended by Chicago Bears cornerback Zack Bowman (35) during the second half at Soldier Field. The Chicago Bears defeated the Detroit Lions 19-14.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson jumps up for the ball and comes down on both feet, satisfying the two feet portion of the sequence. Then he falls down on his left hip, satisfying the plus portion and completing the catch. That he loses the ball afterward means nothing. The catch and touchdown stand. This is a catch under the 2-Feet-Plus Rule.

Dez Bryant’s play

Dez Bryant #88 of the Dallas Cowboys attempts a catch over Sam Shields #37 of the Green Bay Packers during the 2015 NFC Divisional Playoff game at Lambeau Field on January 11, 2015 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Initially ruled a catch, the call was reversed upon review.

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Here, Bryant catches the ball then gets two feet down, satisfying the two feet portion. Then, he gets a foot down again, completing the sequence. For good measure, his forearm strikes the turf, then performs a controlled reach. He obviously completes the catch under the 2-Feet-Plus Rule.

Jesse James’ play

New England Patriots Devin McCourty (32) and Duron Harmon (30) look for a call after Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James, left, lunged over the goal line during the fourth quarter of a game against the New England Patriots at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pa., Dec. 17, 2017. After official review, it was ruled an incomplete pass.

Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Here, James gets a knee down, satisfying the two feet portion of the sequence. Then, with the ball fully under control, James performs a controlled reach toward the goal line, satisfying the “plus” portion and thereby completing the catch before the ball comes free. This is a catch under the 2-Feet-Plus Rule.

I think the 2-Feet-Plus Rule solves the NFL’s problem. It’s easy to communicate — Collinsworth wouldn’t have stuttered and stammered trying to explain this during the league’s showcase game — and the rule, if enforced, would have resulted in a catch for three of the most obvious blown calls in the past few years.

The NFL is commonly called a copycat league. Go ahead, NFL, steal this.

The Stop: Racial profiling of drivers leaves legacy of anger and fear From ministers to pro athletes, they all get pulled over for “Driving While Black”

An idyllic afternoon of Little League baseball followed by pizza and Italian ice turned harrowing when two police officers in Bridgeport, Connecticut, stopped Woodrow Vereen Jr. for driving through a yellow light.

A music minister at his church, Vereen struggled to maintain eye contact with his young sons as one of the officers instructed Vereen, who is black, to get out of the car and lean over the trunk, and then patted him down. Vereen could see tears welling in the eyes of his 7- and 3-year-old sons as they peered through the rear window. He cringed as folks at a nearby bus stop watched one of the officers look through his car.

He never consented to the 2015 search, which turned up nothing illegal. The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut sued on behalf of Vereen, alleging that police searched him without probable cause. Last year, two years after the incident, he received a settlement from the city. His tickets — for running a light and not carrying proof of insurance — were dismissed.

Yet the stop lives with him.

Traffic stops — the most common interaction between police and the public — have become a focal point in the debate about race, law enforcement, and equality in America. A disproportionate share of the estimated 20 million police traffic stops in the United States each year involve black drivers, even though they are no more likely to break traffic laws than whites. Black and Hispanic motorists are more likely than whites to be searched by police, although they are no more likely to be carrying contraband.

Across the country, law-abiding black and Hispanic drivers are left frightened and humiliated by the inordinate attention they receive from police, who too often see them as criminals. Such treatment leaves blacks and Hispanics feeling violated, angry, and wary of police and their motives.

“You’re pulled over simply for no other reason than you fit a description and the description is that you’re black.”

Activists have taken to the streets to protest police shootings of unarmed black people. Athletes, including NFL players, have knelt or raised clenched fists during the singing of the national anthem at sports events to try to shine a light on lingering inequality.

Vereen had always told his children that the police were real-life superheroes. Now that story had to change. “Everything I told them seems to be untrue,” said Vereen, 34. “Why is this superhero trying to hurt my dad? Why is this superhero doing this to us? He is supposed to be on our side.”

The first time my now-28-year-old son was stopped by police, he was a high school student in Baltimore. He was headed to a barbershop when he was startled by flashing lights and the sight of two police cars pulling up behind him. The stop lasted just a few minutes and resulted in no ticket. It seems the cops just wanted to check him out. My son’s fear morphed into indignation when an officer returned his license, saying, “A lot of vehicles like yours are stolen.” He was driving a Honda Civic, one of the most popular cars on the road.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped. And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Shaken by cases in which seemingly routine traffic stops turn deadly, many black parents rehearse with their children what to do if they are pulled over: Lower your car window so officers have a clear line of sight, turn on the interior lights, keep your hands visible, have your license and registration accessible, and for God’s sake, let the officer know you are reaching for them so he doesn’t shoot you.

Drivers of all races worry about running afoul of the rules of the road. But blacks and Hispanics, in particular, also worry about being stopped if they are driving a nice car in a modest or upscale community, a raggedy car in a mostly white one, or any kind of car in a high-crime area. It affects everyone, from ministers and professional athletes to lawyers and the super-rich.

“It’s been more times than I care to remember,” said Robert F. Smith, 55, a private equity titan and philanthropist, when asked how often he thinks he has been racially profiled. Smith, with a net worth of more than $3 billion, is listed by Forbes as the nation’s wealthiest African-American. Yet he still dreads being pulled over.

“A very familiar feeling comes each time I’m stopped,” he said. “And that’s the same feeling I got the first time I was stopped, when I was 17 years old.”

Rosie Villegas-Smith, a Mexican-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Phoenix for 28 years, has been stopped a couple of times by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies, who are notorious for using allegations of minor traffic violations to check the immigration status of Hispanic drivers.

In 2011 federal investigators found that the department pulled over Hispanic drivers up to nine times more often than other motorists. The stops were part of a crackdown on undocumented immigrants ordered by Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff from 1993 to 2016.

Courts ruled the stops illegal, but Arpaio pressed ahead and was found guilty of criminal contempt in July 2017. President Donald Trump — who has stoked racial tensions by bashing immigrants, protesting athletes, and others — pardoned Arpaio the following month. Arpaio recently announced plans to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

The statistics on traffic stops elsewhere are spotty — neither uniformly available nor comprehensive — but they show the same pattern of blacks and Hispanics being stopped and searched more frequently than others. The disparity spans the nation, affecting drivers in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Men are more at risk than women, and for black men, being disproportionately singled out is virtually a universal experience.

A 2017 study in Connecticut, one of the few states that collect and analyze comprehensive traffic-stop data, found that police disproportionately pull over black and Hispanic drivers during daylight hours, when officers can more easily see who is behind the wheel. Many police departments have policies and training to prevent racial profiling, but those rules can get lost in day-to-day police work.

“One reason minorities are stopped disproportionately is because police see violations where they are,” said Louis Dekmar, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who runs the Police Department in LaGrange, Georgia. “Crime is often significantly higher in minority neighborhoods than elsewhere. And that is where we allocate our resources. That is the paradox.”

Too often, officers treat minorities driving in mostly white areas as suspect, Dekmar said. “It’s wrong, and there is no excuse for that,” he said.

“I felt embarrassed. Emasculated. I felt absolutely like I had no rights.”

Robert L. Wilkins was a public defender in 1992 when he and several family members were stopped by a Maryland state trooper while returning to Washington, D.C., from his grandfather’s funeral in Chicago. The trooper accused them of speeding, then asked to search their rented Cadillac. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, then what’s your problem?” the trooper said when they objected to the search on principle.

The trooper made them wait for a drug-sniffing dog. As Wilkins and his family stood on the side of the highway, a German shepherd sniffed “seemingly every square inch of the car’s exterior,” Wilkins recalled. Before long, there were five or six police cars around them. At one point, Wilkins, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, noticed a white couple and their two children staring as they rode by. He imagined that they thought the worst: “They’re putting two and two together and getting five,” he said. “They see black people and they’re thinking, ‘These are bad people.’ ”

Wilkins filed a class-action suit alleging an illegal search and racial profiling, and the state of Maryland settled, largely because of an unearthed police document that had warned troopers to be on the lookout for black men in rental cars, who were suspected of ferrying crack cocaine. The settlement required state police to keep statistics on the race and ethnicity of drivers who were stopped. A second suit forced police to revamp their complaint system. Those changes brought some improvement, and racial disparities in traffic stops in Maryland were cut in half.

What lingers, though, is the indignity and anger that drivers feel over being singled out. “There’s a power that they want to exert, that you have to experience. And what do you do about it?” Smith said. “There’s an embedded terror in our community, and that’s just wrong.”

About this story: The Undefeated teamed up with National Geographic to ask people of color across the U.S. what it’s like to be racially profiled during a traffic stop, and the ripple effect such incidents can have on families and communities. This report also appears in the April issue of National Geographic Magazine and online at natgeo.com/theraceissue.

Disney, Steve Harvey and ‘Essence’ magazine continue to help students achieve big dreams The Disney Dreamers Academy kicks off with a new class of 100

ORLANDO, Fla. — From “curing cancer” to “becoming a pilot” to “overcoming fears,” every child has dreams. And with the help of Walt Disney World Resort, Steve Harvey and Essence magazine, many of them also have a platform to help them achieve those dreams.

On Thursday, 100 high school students, ages 13 to 19, from all over the country found themselves experiencing a four-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World for the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy. Eleven years strong, the weekend is more than games and roller coasters, as Dreamers go through a series of power-packed workshops that give students the tools they need to reach their full potential.

Since 2008, 1,000 Dreamers have done this work. The students are selected from thousands of applicants who answer a series of essay questions about their personal stories and dreams for the future. Per tradition, the weekend kicked off with a parade at the Magic Kingdom, followed by welcoming remarks from Tracey D. Powell, Disney Dreamers Academy’s executive champion and Walt Disney World’s vice president of Deluxe Resorts; author and talk show host Steve Harvey; award-winning gospel artist Yolanda Adams; Mikki Taylor, editor-at-large for Essence magazine; and George Kalogridis, president of the Walt Disney World Resort; Mickey Mouse; and Disney Dreamers Academy alums. The experience ends Sunday with a commencement ceremony.

With a new #Be100 theme, Walt Disney World Resort is continuing its ongoing commitment to inspiring teens at a critical time in their development by providing a space to empower and encourage the Dreamers to relentlessly pursue their dreams.

(Top-bottom, left-right) Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Steve Harvey, Tracey D. Powell, executive champion for Disney Dreamers Academy, and Mikki Taylor, editor-at-large for Essence magazine, star in a special parade Thursday at Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The parade signals the beginning of the 11th annual Disney Dreamers Academy with Steve Harvey and Essence magazine. The event, taking place March 8-11 at Walt Disney World Resort, is a career-inspiration program for distinguished high school students from across the United States.

Courtesy of Todd Anderson

“When I was a dreamer I had a couple of questions,” Disney Dreamers Academy alum Princeton Parker said Thursday evening as he addressed the 100 Dreamers, parents, chaperones and invited guests during the welcome ceremony. “A lot of those questions were centered around ‘what if?’ ”

Parker — a minister and University of Southern California graduate, among his many accomplishments — learned through the program how to overcome his fear. He also attributed his success to the academy, which he said changed his mindset.

“If you decide to Be100, your destiny will respond,” he said.

According to its website, Disney Dreamers Academy aims to “inspire students through immersive and inspirational guest speakers; introduce a world of possibilities in a variety of interactive career sessions, ranging from animation, journalism, entertainment and entrepreneurship to culinary arts, medicine and zoology; and prepare students for the future through developing skills such as networking and interviewing.”

Kalogridis voiced his thoughts about the academy and shared his favorite times at Disney.

“Long before there is a happily ever after, there has to be a once upon a time,” Kalogridis said as he welcomed the new Dreamers. “We at Disney are glad that you’re enjoying your time with us,” he said. “We are thrilled that Disney Academy is entering into its second decade.”

Powell said the academy is challenging the planners on how to build success from the past 10 years.

“It’s our commitment to dream even bigger on how we can empower you,” she said to the Dreamers. “It’s a personal commitment to excellence.”

The impressive résumés of students landed them the opportunity of a lifetime. Dreamers and their parents and/or chaperones all have different itineraries throughout the weekend, which gives the students a sense of independence. Dreamers will engage in a wide variety of experiences while working alongside some of today’s top celebrities, community and industry leaders and dedicated Disney cast members. Celebrity panels include educator Steve Perry; motivational speaker Alex Ellis; retired NFL great Emmitt Smith; artist, producer and songwriter Ne-Yo; actor and singer Jussie Smollett; actress Ruth Carter; actors Miles Brown and Marsai Martin (black-ish); and sisters China, Sierra and Lauryn McClain of the girl group McClain.

Walt Disney World Resort hopes students “leave prepared to be a role model for others as they believe in the power of their dreams and make a positive difference in their communities and the world.”

What is the ‘State of the Black Athlete’? The cultural resonance, political awakening and activation of the black athlete, as told in pictures

Athletic success may get you through the door, but be mindful, once you get here: “Stick to sports.”

There has been an unspoken expectation and, more recently, an apparent insistence that athletes’ opinions and passions are to be kept quiet. But the cultural resonance, political awakening and activation of the black athlete has pushed back on this narrative.

We asked several artists of color to examine and interpret the current “state of the black athlete.” Here’s what they came up with.

Sam Adefé

I often find that no matter the sport, brothers in the game continuously have to prove themselves worthy of the pedestal they are heavily burdened with. I say brother because to me, every black athlete represents someone like myself — a black kid chasing his dreams — finding inspiration in the actions of the people already paving the way.

Represented here is Anthony Joshua’s raised clenched fist after he defeated Wladimir Klitschko. To the many black youths who happened to be watching that day, witnessing that gesture meant more than just a show of celebration. This gesture symbolizes a show of solidarity.

Adrian Brandon

My goal with this illustration is to address the commonalities between black professional athletes and the black victims of police violence — it highlights the incredible amount of responsibility black athletes have and the role sports fans play in the current wave of athlete activism.

The sprinter in the illustration is focused on the finish line, while his shadow represents the young black victims of police brutality, symbolizing the constant fear that all black men and women face in today’s society.

Both the sprinter and his shadow are running away — in the same direction, illustrating the chilling similarities between black professional athletes and the victims we see on the news.

The crowd supporting the runner changes from sports fans (right) to protesters/activists (left). This begs the question, who is the black athlete competing for? How has this wave of black athlete activism changed the mentalities of sports fans?

Brandon Breaux

I wanted to capture black athletes in a contemplative state. These competitors have or have had the ability to reach so many people — it’s a great responsibility, but can also be a great burden.

Athletes, in general, already have to deal with so much: unwanted attention, pressure, rumors, performance anxiety, and even more. Black athletes, have all that on top of feeling as though they aren’t 100 percent accepted in their own country.

Today’s current state of affairs feel special. I think it’s a time where the life of a black athlete/person is so much bigger than the self, and the athletes in my illustration represent the contemplation that comes with it.

Caitlin Cherry

John Urschel, a former offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, retired in 2017 to pursue his studies as a doctoral candidate in mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His retirement came suddenly, just two days after a study of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) found nearly all former NFL players who donated their brains to science had signs of CTE.

It seemed the two were connected.

Urschel knows the all-too-real statistics that injury risk is high and the average NFL player’s career spans between two and five years.

He should inspire the next generation of would-be ballplayers in any professional sport that their studies in college are not supplementary. There is a life after the NFL. I appreciate him as a Renaissance man.

Chase Conley

What Huey P. Newton has taught me is that I have the power to change my condition, and it’s vital that we stand up against the unjust and fight for what we believe in, even if the cost is high. Until these players start worrying about the issues concerning the state of black people in this country and not about their paychecks, they are still a part of the problem. Yes, you may lose your job, but is that job more important than the condition of your people? Young black teenagers being gunned down in the street every other week? We all should have the courage to sacrifice for the greater good.

What would these leagues be without black people anyway?

Emmanuel Mdlalose

I likened the movement of sprinter Allyson Felix to when a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. Representing Felix overcoming obstacles faced by a black woman, especially in the athletic world — just dominating. I am drawn to her composed personality while being able to be strong-willed at the same time. She really represents the metamorphosis of a butterfly — in all her beauty, swiftness, and, most importantly, freedom.

Kia Dyson

In a time where black bodies are on public display and seemingly viewed to hold no value, I have attempted to find a way to turn tragedies within the black community into works of art.

“Above All Things” represents the ability, and, more importantly, the necessity for women of color to go above and beyond in all we do just to receive fair recognition. The expectations are higher for us.

We don’t have the luxury of mediocrity when it comes to providing, performing or competing. So we use our excellence as a form of protest: a demonstration of strength, acceptance, womanhood and visibility.

Laci Jordan

The state of the black athlete is conflicted.

Athletes grow up simply loving the game. As they grow older, outside factors come into play that can inhibit that love: notoriety, fame, special treatment, money, etc. Players can also become public figures and role models. Black athletes are stuck between these two worlds.

As an athlete, you have the keys to success to take care of yourself and your family, but on the other end, you sacrifice your voice and ability to speak on anything political — you’re told to stick to the game. As a black athlete, you’re expected to enjoy your riches and fame in exchange for your voice, choices and ethics.

Pierre Bennu

This piece references the Afro-futurist interpretation of the slavery project in the Western Hemisphere as a centuries-long genetic experiment, as well as the Sankofa concept of looking backward and seeing the future.

In choosing materials to make up the image, I imagine the middle passage as a thrusting or throwing forward into the future of mass amounts of human capital. With the crown of shards, I seek to reference the toll that many professional sports take on the body and also the regal state of being at peak physical form.

Robert Generette III

The statement on the tape, “PLAY,” not only states a command but also commands attention. I wanted the art to speak to different sides of the argument: players who comply, players wanting to exercise their First Amendment rights, and fans for or against athletes’ choices.

In the illustration, a spotlight is placed on an ambiguous African-American athlete who is shirtless, which suggests he’s baring it all. For the athletes who comply with “shut up and play,” the red arrow symbolizes the potential for them to excel or “climb the ladder to success” in their sport. The athlete who complies thrives.

For the athletes wanting to exercise their First Amendment rights, the intense stare reflects the absurdity of being told to shut up and play. The athlete has the complex choice of raising one fist (in protest) or raising both fists (in victory). For the fans who are not affected by or disagree with the views of athletes, the sticker across the athlete’s mouth, in their opinion, should become an essential part of the uniform.

I want this illustration to beg the questions: Should you keep quiet and find contempt for living one’s dream? Or should you use your dream as a platform to speak for those whose voices go unheard at the expense of sacrificing one’s dream?

Ronald Wimberly

I asked myself about the political role of the black body within a racist, consumerist paradigm and how that plays out in sports. For this image I thought about how athletes may work through these very same questions through sports. From Muhammad Ali’s name change to the Black Power fists of the 1968 Olympic Games, to Colin Kaepernick’s act of taking a knee — we are given expressions, symbolic abstractions, symbols that challenge us to think. I think this is the most radical act: to be challenged to think, to ask questions. Explaining artwork is a trap.

Formally, the work is a dialogue with the works of Aaron Douglas and Tadanori Yokoo and the movements to which they belong.

Tiffany B. Chanel

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” said Colin Kaepernick. In the face of explicit and implicit racism, everyday people rise selflessly to address social injustice. Among these people are African-American athletes, such as the ones in my painting, who use their public platform and their First Amendment right to solidify their purpose as change agents. Their primary goal is to rewrite the narrative of oppressed people and afford them a pathway to upward mobility.

Some may say we have come really far, but have we really? What would you say?

Before season 2 of ‘Atlanta’ kicks off? A spoiler-packed power ranking of season 1’s episodes Swisher Sweets? The Migos? Lemon pepper wet wings?  Which episode was best?

The hiatus lasted well over a year, but the wait is finally, nearly over. Atlanta, the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning FX series starring renaissance man Donald Glover (“Earn”), Zazie Beetz (“Van”), Brian Tyree Henry (“Paper Boi”) and LaKeith Stanfield (“Darius”), returns Thursday with the premiere of season two. It’s dubbed “Robbin’ Season,” a direct homage to ATL slang for the time of year when robberies tend to increase: during the holiday season.

“You might get your package stolen off your front porch. While we were there, my neighbor got her car stolen from her driveway. It’s a tense … time,” Stephen Glover, executive producer and writer, said at the Television Critics Association panel in Pasadena in January. “Our characters are in a desperate transition from their old lives to where they’re headed. And robbin’ season is a metaphor for where we are now.”

There really were no terrible moments from season one — the episodes truly range from “good” to “phenomenal.” That being said, a power ranking is in order. And after reading ours, the real fun arrives with your rankings. Hit us up on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook and let us know where you stand. Enough talking, though. Without further ado …

10. Episode 4 — “The Streisand Effect”

Guy D'Alema/FX

This is the episode where we meet Zan, the social media troll who gets the best of Paper Boi after a series of tweets, Instagram posts and videos sullying his good name in these Atlanta streets. It’s an interesting dynamic, and one that illustrates how much people invest in social media these days. But the true crutch of the episode lies with Darius and Earn.

AIDS was invented to keep Wilt Chamberlain from beating Steve McQueen’s sex record. By ’69, he was already No. 3 on the all-time list. By ’71, he would’ve beat that boy, fa sho. — Darius

Earn needs money because he’s broke (as hell). Darius takes on a journey to get money that involves a thrift store, pawning off a sword, and a Cane Corso dog. The only catch is Earn won’t get the money until September, prompting Earn to utter one of the more sobering realities in the first season: Poor people don’t have time to invest because they’re too busy not trying to be poor. A dope episode, but in comparison to the rest of the episodes — well, someone had to finish in 10th.

9. Episode 1 — “The Big Bang”

Guy D'Alema/FX

This starts out with a bang, quite literally, as Paper Boi shoots a guy who kicked a side rearview mirror from his car. It was an example of how pride becomes the downfall for so many. It’s in this episode that we meet the major players. Earn’s broke and living part time with his girlfriend, Vanessa, and their daughter. Paper Boi is selling drugs and trying to get his rap career poppin’. And Darius is just Darius. And to know Darius is to love Darius. Is Earn opportunistic with regard to trying to get on with his cousin, who has a hit record in the A? Of course he is, but as we’d come to find out, he does have his cousin’s best interests at heart.

On the lowest of keys, though, the best part of this episode is Earn’s reaction to Dave (a white guy) saying the N-word when describing a party he’d attended, and how Earn used the white guy’s ignorance against him and also tried to hustle him out of money to get Paper Boi’s song played on the radio. When asked to tell the same story again, but this time around Paper Boi and Darius, Dave not surprisingly omitted the N-word.

“Our characters are in a desperate transition from their old lives to where they’re headed. And robbin’ season is a metaphor for where we are now.”

8. Episode 5 — “Nobody Beats The Biebs”

We have Darius who goes to a shooting range. Everyone looks at him crazy when his target practice is a dog and not a human. He doesn’t understand how shooting a dog is considered inhumane when shooting a human is completely normal. The situation becomes so heated that the owner points a gun at Darius telling him to leave. We could get into a lot of discussion about Darius’ experience in this episode alone — it’s harrowing. At least he made us laugh, though. Meanwhile, across town, Earn and Paper Boi attend a celebrity basketball game. Earn is mistaken by Janice for another black guy she knew (who she says ruined her career). Earn uses the perks for a while.

It’s Paper Boi who is forced to deal with Black Justin Bieber. Now I’m not saying Black Bieber is seeing eye to eye with Dave Chappelle’s “Black Bush” skit, but it’s damn close if it isn’t. We see Black Bieber doing all sorts of outlandish things: urinating in public, mushing a reporter in the face and generally acting out. Everyone thinks it’s adorable. “He’s just trying to figure it out,” the singer Lloyd says in a brief cameo. The twist is, of course, he’s black. Paper Boi and Black Bieber eventually end up fighting, but Black Bieber wins everyone back. He turns his backward cap forward. He apologizes and performs a new song right there at the news conference. Everyone instantly forgives Black Bieber while Paper Boi stands in the back wondering what the hell just happened. It’s an interesting case study: white celebrity behavior vs. black celebrity behavior.

The only white person in the entire episode is Craig, and he wants to be black so bad he even did a spoken word poem to prove it.

7. Episode 2 — “Streets On Lock”

The criminal justice system is addressed here — in its own special Atlanta way. Earn and Paper Boi are still in holding following the shooting. While Paper Boi is bailed out at the beginning of the episode, Earn is locked up until Van bails him out at the end.

“You been arrested for weed. It’s not that bad, right?” — Earn

“Well, it’s not as good as not getting arrested for weed, man.” — Paper Boi

Earn sees what it’s like from the inside. The arguments, the stories of innocence, the mentally unstable who receive anything but rehabilitation, the violence and even the drama. Earn gets a crash course in the prison-industrial complex. On the outside, Paper Boi and Darius celebrate temporary freedom with a stop at Atlanta’s famed J.R. Crickets, where they’re given lemon pepper wet chicken wings. This episode became such a hot topic that Crickets actually added lemon pepper wet to its real-life menu afterward. Paper Boi also comes to understand how his actions affect the youth: He sees kids playing with toy guns, saying they’re mimicking him — a subtle reference to Tamir Rice.

6. Episode 3 — “Go For Broke”

Or, as it will always be remembered, the Migos episode. Quavo, Offset and Takeoff guest star as dope boys copping work from Paper Boi and Darius. The scene is hilarious, as the two attempt to get out of the situation with both the money and their lives intact. Elsewhere, Earn takes Van out to eat. Earn’s broke, so he’s expecting to see a happy hour menu, only the restaurant has recently been redesigned and everything on the menu is way too rich for Earn’s blood. Thanks to a waitress who upsells him on food and drinks all night, Earn has to call Paper Boi — in the middle of a drug deal, mind you — to wire him money so he can pay for the bill. Earn’s poverty hits home on a spiritual level. Especially when he calls his bank the next morning to report his debit card stolen.

5. Episode 10 — “The Jacket”

Quantrell Colbert/FX

Here’s the thing to know about season one. The first half was dope, but the second half is incredible. So much so that the finale, a great episode that really brings a lot of things into perspective, is only No. 5. Earn loses his jacket at a house party and uses Paper Boi’s Snapchat. He eventually figures out he left the jacket in an Uber. The Big 3 of Earn, Paper Boi and Darius drive out to get it, only to find themselves involved in a police sting that leaves the Uber driver dead — with Earn’s jacket on.

We eventually learn why it was so important to retrieve the coat. Earn is homeless. He needed the jacket because he believed a set of keys were in the pocket. The keys unlocked a storage unit where he was spending many nights. The finale is a power episode about the societal trauma of being black in America. Only hours after the same day they were pulled over by the feds and watched a man die, Earn is cooking for Van and their daughter. Pride, the same pride we saw on display in the first episode, won’t let Earn sleep at Van’s another night without being able to fully provide for his family.

4. Episode 6 — “Value”

Guy D'Alema/FX

Prior to this, we had never seen one character carry an episode. And prior to this, we didn’t really know Van. Much like Earn, Van’s trying to figure out a lot of things. Many of which were only compounded by the most uncomfortable moment of the entire season: her dinner date with old friend Jayde. Van is more of the blue-collar, just-trying-to-provide-for-my-daughter type, while Jayde is the type to post her meals on Instagram and “date” NBA and NFL players. After a falling-out at dinner, the two make up and get high at the top of a parking deck.

That’s all well and good, but Van has a drug test the next day. The most unusual and surreal scene of the entire season is Van frantically searching for clean urine — going so far as to slice open her daughter’s dirty diapers to get it. She goes full Breaking Bad in the kitchen, and it works — until it doesn’t. Van gets all the way to the goal line and fumbles. The condom with the urine, literally, pops in her face. She admits to smoking weed. She’s fired. And now both parents are without a source of consistent income. If she wasn’t already, Van instantly became a fan favorite after this episode. Sometimes you just have to get high to funnel out the nonsense in your life. And sometimes you do have to go to desperate measures to pass a drug test.

3. Episode 9 — “Juneteenth”

A lot of people put this in their top two — and I’m not mad at that. The episode starts off with Earn waking up beside another woman, only to realize he’s late to meet up with Van. She picks him up outside the unnamed woman’s apartment and the two ride off, in virtual silence, to a Juneteenth party her ostentatious friend Monique is throwing with her annoyingly hilarious white husband who’s too woke for his own good.

Van and Earn front like they’re married in an effort to look better in front of new company. But it’s impossible in a house full of characters — and a house full of black workers. In fact, the only white person in the entire episode is Craig, and he wants to be black so bad he even did a spoken word poem to prove it. The couple is outed when two valets recognize Earn as Paper Boi’s manager. Monique frowns upon his line of work, causing Craig to check Monique, but by then it’s too late. Earn leaves in disgust with Van not far behind. The lesson? Never sell your soul for an opportunity that wasn’t meant for you to begin with.

Fun Fact: If you go back and watch the episode, you’ll find Childish Gambino’s Awaken, My Love! album cover in Craig’s study. We just didn’t know what it was at the time.

2. Episode 8 — “The Club”

Quantrell D. Colbert/FX

Now if we’re talking my favorite episode, it’s this one. Classic Atlanta in every sense of the words. The theme is as simple as it is true. The club really isn’t all that fun. The celebrities are paid to be there. For those in gen pop (aka, non-VIP) it’s all a game of territory — sections are the highest form of real estate, and bottles are the highest form of cultural currency. Everyone’s just trying to one-up each other.

“F— the club!” — Paper Boi

We really remember this episode for three solid reasons. One, for Marcus Miles’ invisible car. Two, for Earn’s unsuccessful attempt to get their club appearance money from a snake promoter (and then Paper Boi roughing up that same party promoter). And three, for Darius leaving the club after he wasn’t allowed back in the same section the bouncer saw him leave. Darius played the situation perfectly. He went home to eat cereal and play video games.

The theme is as simple as it is true. The club really isn’t all that fun.

1. Episode 7 — “B.A.N.”

An episode so good that even the commercials, in actuality part of the episode, deserve their own separate piece. Seriously, the Swisher Sweets and Dodge Charger commercials made this an instant classic in black television history. As for the episode itself, Paper Boi sits down with Dr. Debra Holt on Black American News’ Montague. After some comments he made on Twitter about Caitlyn Jenner, Paper Boi is accused on the show of being transphobic. He claims he isn’t, saying he doesn’t have anything against the community. Although he’s accused of it, Paper Boi says he never said the trans community shouldn’t have rights. But he finds it hard to fully support that community’s call for freedom when people who look like him are still fighting for theirs. Much to the chagrin of the host, the two come to an understanding.

The “trans-racial” story runs away with MVP honors in this episode as it follows Antoine Smalls, an obviously black male who identifies as Harrison Booth, a 35-year-old white man from Colorado. He’s invited on the show, where he quickly shocks the host and guest. Smalls says he feels deeply ridiculed by black people for not being more understanding of his lifestyle. But he’s also quick to call gay marriage an “abomination.” The hypocrisy is enough to send an already tickled Paper Boi over the edge in laughter, while Montague and Dr. Holt are left to wonder, whereas the rest of us knew, almost as soon as the credits began rolling — this was Atlanta’s magnum opus.

A career in sports analytics busts another barrier for African-American women I’m in the game to change it, not to be part of the status quo

I was standing right outside of the team personnel entrance when time seemed to slow down. Was I in the wrong place? What if I dressed wrong? Maybe red lipstick was too bold. I’m 17. How in the world am I even standing here even if it is the wrong place?

After an excruciating wait of what could have been two or 200 minutes, the arena door opened and out walked my mentor Calder Hynes. “Hi, Tiffany? Welcome, let’s get you started for the night!” Before his current stint overseeing public relations for some of the world’s most valuable athletes at Wasserman, Hynes was one of the main points of contact for the then-New Orleans Hornets communications team, and graciously took on the role of educating yet another eager high school student in the art of game-night operations.

I’d wanted to take career day off — goof off after four long years of honors courses, two-a-day volleyball practices, and PE Accelerate (physical education for the competitive overachievers if you were wondering). Instead, I marched over to the event, up to the public relations team and asked if I could shadow for a regular-season night or two in order to get skin in this game that would, though I did not yet know it, be my future.

After a rundown of team responsibilities and introductory small talk, Hynes then handed me an all-access pass to the New Orleans Arena, now Smoothie King Center. “I have you assigned to shadow the guys who will be inputting stats while I attend to our celebrity guest for the night, Will Ferrell. I hope that’s OK?” Hynes directed.

“The guys who input the stats?” What about shadowing Will Ferrell? Why can’t that happen? But rather than the response I was thinking, I simply said; “That’s perfect.” I headed off to assist the Hornets game night stats crew disappointed, but determined to make the best of my time with the stats guys.

Following Hynes into an entryway of an 8-foot-by-10-foot space barely big enough for an area rug, I walked into what I noticed was a closet transformed into a makeshift office by dint of the two desktop computers displaying NBA and team websites, a collection of roster posters of the Honeybees dance team pinned to the wall and two men unlocking their gaze from the monitors to greet me.

The stats crew for game nights was in charge of getting box score updates into the hands of prominent front-office personnel during timeouts and halftime, and manual statistical inputs to the team website after the game.

It wasn’t until I started tagging along with said crew as they were handing out stats sheets during timeouts to Monty Williams, the head coach of the Hornets at the time, and entering the suite of former Hornets president Hugh Weber, for the halftime stats update to help with any last-minute team decisions that I realized the significance of the situation.

Never mind Will Ferrell. I’d discovered that stats were what I wanted to do with my life. I’d found a career … maybe even a calling. I now knew that these stat sheets that revealed everything from player on-court contributions to net efficiency were my golden ticket. With these, I could go anywhere … even to the front office of an NBA team. Analytics, coaching and development personnel.

Who should be the sixth man off the bench? How are players developing over time? Should a trade even be entertained?

Still the doubts persisted. Was I really in the right place? The room housing the stats guys were clearly last-minute resources the team scrambled to find. They looked tired … manually inputting stats until 1 a.m. with an emptied bag of Lay’s potato chips near the computers for a postmidnight snack. I was tired leaving the arena before the end of the game news conference. After all, it was still a school night.

Seven years later, I’m still in stats. Moving on from handing out numbers to crafting intelligent insights from those numbers is now my life as a sports analytics associate for ESPN. It is still the career I want but the “Am I in the right place” doubts have never gone away. Sometimes I feel as if they’ve amplified. I have mentors, supportive colleagues and a challenging and intellectually stimulating job that I know I’m good at and to which I can bring my best self. But I have no role model. I am an accidental standard-bearer for black women in sports statistics. The first woman of color on ESPN’s sports analytics team — the only one crunching numbers among all of statistics and information at ESPN. And the shortage of women who look like me hasn’t changed a whit since that day with the Hornets.

Choosing a career in sports had, in part, grown from my experience playing volleyball, basketball and swimming and my hypercompetitive relationship with my older brother Osby (Oz for short). The day I beat Oz in NCAA Football on PlayStation is a day I will never let him live down. But sports became an obsession after that night with the Hornets and still is. I knew then I didn’t want to be what the sports industry expected of me. I wasn’t going to take a job I didn’t feel fit me because it fit the societal expectations of female-dominated roles in sports.

Analytics would be my path. Damn the comments and consequences.

I was and am constantly asked about what I’ll do if I hit that glass ceiling, the infamous old boys’ club that generations of women have struggled to join. And like generations before me, I ignore the question and focus on the work — work that reveals clearly what I bring to my field and hope it does the trick.

I remember receiving a text earlier in my career. A colleague with significantly fewer qualifications than myself was asking for help on statistical methodology that would be used to evaluate him for an analytics position with one of the few NBA teams that were hiring. It was a job I’d also applied for through a well-acclaimed referral (and had heard nothing back). That silence would then turn into apologies followed up with “you’ll end up somewhere soon.”

If I’d known about the glass ceiling on that night in New Orleans, if I’d known how hard it is for women to break new ground in a field that hasn’t ever included them, I’m not sure I’d be in stats right now. But today, it is my work that combats gender and racial stereotypes when I tell people what I do for a living and it is my work that prepares me for the seemingly choreographed head snaps when I walk into a room full of men.

Analytics is my path and I’m not stepping away from it. With a little bit of luck and a more courage than I’d expected I’d need, I found my way to change the perception of what a woman can do in the sports world.

This respect that women, minorities, and frankly any human being should have in pursuing their purpose comes from running toward the gray. It comes from accepting the norm as merely a long inherited social custom to be considered and then rejected or accepted depending on what works for any individual. I chose rejection. By embracing what cultural differences set me apart from my team, I am able to create and quantify different insights that expand the usefulness of analytics.

Analytics is used mostly to help front offices or journalists to find those undervalued players, those Davidson College-Stephen Currys of the world. But what happens when we use analytics for stories about issues that go far beyond pure sports? The stories that intersect cultural experiences and sports. The very stories that create the tension behind the “stick to sports” label.

Basketball aside, maybe that’s using our metrics to calculate the total quarterback rating (Total QBR) or impact on a team’s football power index (FPI) of Colin Kaepernick vs. well, insert any injured NFL starting quarterback of your choosing. For the record, that would be the Kaepernick ranked 23rd in Total QBR for the 2016 season ahead of seven current starting quarterbacks, including the now-injured Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Either way, analytics should be looked at as a conversation-starter, not ender. And in being just that, it uncovers the rudimentary answers to questions all of us have either had or haven’t thought were relevant, all while trying to strip bias from the equation. This is what I want all individuals to understand about what it is that I do and about what analytics can and will do, prejudices aside.

And yes, there are biases in analytics that I am fully aware of. The bias to strategically exclude racial, gender and educational minorities, or the biased belief that athletes are not bright enough to comprehend these analytical insights. Being that I, ironically, am a target for all four of these prejudices makes me the exception that proves the arguments for and against analytics. I find solace in the coming generations ready and already acting to squash preconceptions of African-Americans, women, athletes, and nonstatisticians. Though it may appear to be but slight progress with me being the lone African-American woman in sports analytics within ESPN, professional leagues – specifically the NBA – and our sports analytics industry as a whole are realizing the significance of not following the norm and following people who look like me.

Shane Battier for the Miami Heat. Aaron Blackshear for the Detroit Pistons. Curry and Andre Iguodala for the Bloomberg Players Technology Summit (the Summit). Rajiv Maheswaran for Second Spectrum. John Scott, Jahkeen Hoke, and John Drazan for 4th Family.

All are “minorities” moving into or helping other minorities move into analytics and data-tech, all while realizing their momentous influence on our industry. But most importantly, they are all building the future of our industry so the next stream of analytics looks like all of us. Specifically, 4th Family and its win in the research competition at our annual conference, what most call the meeting of the nerds – the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, for developing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education using basketball analytics for minorities in underprivileged schooling communities.

Curry and Iguodala are two African-American NBA players in the forefront of investing and all in the battle for startup equity among top venture capitalists interested in the tech right in the Warriors’ backyard, Silicon Valley. Using their own summit to invite other professional athletes to share in their sports tech capitalizing endeavors, my mind can’t help but wander to a player investing in the next startup that revolutionizes the way sports data is managed and how analytical insights are formed.

An investment with professional athletes as primary stakeholders in potential sports tech companies founded on tracking depth perception in arenas and stadiums for holographic experiences that will be used in their team practices. An investment that returns a double bottom line – strengthening on-court or on-field performance and a peek into franchise operations. Now that’s a real key to the city.

My key?

I have accepted my life detour into sports media with open arms, and have complete faith in the handful of women NBA front offices have progressively placed their confidence in. I am an extroverted sister navigating my way in this mostly introverted, analytics industry of men and a few women sprinkled about. I am accepting and learning from role models that do not look like me in order to catalyze change. And that is the exact reason that there is beauty in having no standard. I’m figuring out my own black girl magic.

As she says goodbye to Olivia Pope, Kerry Washington opens up  The style icon is honored at the 20th Annual Costume Design Guild Awards

BEVERLY HILLS — The hooting and hollering from the photo bay picked up when Kerry Washington breezed onto the carpet at the Costume Design Guild Awards on Tuesday night. The star — in her last season of the game-changing Scandal — was the last to grace the carpet, and outside of the legendary Lily Tomlin, Star Wars’ Mark Hamill, and Eva Longoria, Washington was easily the most famous person in the event space at the Beverly Hills Hilton. The event is in its 20th year, and bestowed upon Washington the Spotlight Award, which was presented by Longoria.

This night is one of award season’s keystones, and by far one of the more chill events, as it honors the women and men who create the television and film looks we all fawn over. As the big show — the Academy Awards — draws closer, other such events will take place, and Washington is always a notable face. This year, her husband Nnamdi Asomugha — a former NFL star — is up for a prestigious best supporting actor Indie Spirit Award for his excellent turn in last year’s Crown Heights. So this night of award season celebrating certainly won’t be the last time we see Washington grace camera-filled carpets.

Washington took the stage in a body-hugging Dolce & Gabbana floor length sparkler, and was — perhaps — at her most candid. The notoriously private star rarely references her husband and children, preferring instead to talk about her work as an actor and activist. But this night, she chose relay some insight: about the season on Scandal in which she was pregnant with her first child—and the show’s attempts to hide it. And she talked about saying goodbye to Olivia Pope.

“It’s crazy for me to be saying goodbye to Olivia Pope because I’ve been Olivia Pope longer than I’ve been anybody’s wife or mother.”

“When I grow up, I want to be Kerry Washington,” Longoria said. “But there’s a big problem because she’s just too much. She’s lovely and warm and kind and thoughtful and genuine. She’s the one of the most genuine people you’ll find in this business. But she’s also at the same time one of the most kick-ass women that you will ever meet. All the while being a devoted wife and mother to two beautiful kids.”

Longoria talked about Washington’s seven-year reign as Olivia Pope— she called Washington a TV icon. Importantly, Longoria recalled about the headlines Washington grabbed as the first black woman to lead a network drama in over thirty years. “After all, why shouldn’t a black woman be the boss in politics or anywhere else?” Longoria said. “She owned it … she normalized it. Her success paved the way — not just for women of color — but for our society as a whole.”

The show’s costume designer Lyn Paolo cried as she called Washington “stunningly graceful…Your love of costume design and storytelling … all of that is self evident in your whole body of work,” she said. As Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need To Get By” played — a musical moment that felt directly plucked from Scandal — Washington made her way to the stage. She recalled a hilarious story about being a scholarship student at George Washington University and failing miserably at pressing a dress in the school’s costume shop.

“That is how much I knew about costumes…By the time I left college, I not only knew how to iron, but I was able to say to people that I don’t really know who a character is until I know what shoes she wears,” she said. “Because the shoes tell you how I walk. They tell me how I stand. They tell me who I am. I have relied on the wisdom and genius of costume designers every step along the way.” Washington also revealed how she took ownership of Olivia Pope. She wasn’t just the face of the series, she wanted to make sure she had a stake in the brand itself.

“When we heard that the network was going to create a clothing line inspired by Olivia Pope, Lyn and I said together, ‘not without us!’ Women wanted to dress like her not only because of what [series creator] Shonda [Rhimes] wrote … but it was because of those extra 15 minutes in a fitting,” she said. “We wanted to go past okay, into right. We wanted to go past okay into telling a story and informing the audience of a deeper truth because we know that a pair of shoes can do that!” Soon, Washington will hang up her white hat and Olivia Pope will go away. This is the show’s final season, and it’s been an emotional ride.

“It’s crazy for me to be saying goodbye to Olivia Pope because I’ve been Olivia Pope longer than I’ve been anybody’s wife or mother. Those things are new to me because of her,” Washington said. “When I told Shonda I was pregnant and Shonda told me that Olivia Pope was not going to be pregnant, I panicked. How in the world am I going to hide this bump? And I could do it because of Lyn. There were no maternity clothes out there. But she took those beautiful couture Armani pants, cut out the front and replaced it with with growing material that held my daughter. I waddled—but I waddled well dressed.”

Russell Wilson and Ciara’s baby girl Sienna makes her debut The princess is here!

Sienna Princess, the daughter of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and songstress Ciara has officially made her debut, and she is a stunner!

The world has been waiting to see the dynamic duo’s 9-month-old daughter for quite some time, and it was certainly worth the wait. Ciara tweeted photos on Twitter and Instagram announcing the princess’ debut on the TraceMe app. The app, which was founded by the Seahawks quarterback, aims to give fans a closer look at their favorite celebs.

Instagram Photo

Sienna is already serving up chic looks like her mom along with a full side of chubby cheeks and a winning smile. And if you weren’t already impressed that her proud papa is taking on the tech industry when he’s off the field, you will be when you find out who shot the photos. That’s right: Papa Russ.

Wilson and Ciara have become quite the power couple, and their family — along with 3-year-old Future Zahir, whose father is rapper Future — has stolen the hearts of music lovers and sports fans. Throughout the NFL season, Ciara and her son were in the stands rooting Wilson on. And Wilson exercised his photography skills on his wife before turning the camera to baby girl Sienna.

We’re hoping there are more pictures of the family to come!

‘The Plug’ podcast: The Eagles are here, Stephen A. Smith is too (Episode 10) We’re closing out the NFL season while ready to turn up with the NBA

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It’s All-Star Weekend … Week. It’s Black Panther Week. In other words, it’s a big week in The Undefeated’s neighborhood, so we had to bring in the big guests. The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles are in the building and they’re still on cloud nine. And by the sound of things, don’t expect them to come down either. We also have the one and only Stephen A. Smith on board talking all things NBA. Stay long enough too, and he’ll dish out some Valentine’s Day advice for all the lovers out there.

We’re off to Los Angeles this weekend, so be ready to pull up on us next week for all of the All-Star Weekend juice. It should be common knowledge by now, but for those new to the party — subscribe to The Plug on the ESPN app!

Previously: ‘The Plug’ podcast: ‘Black Panther’ details — plus ‘GLOW’s’ Sydelle Noel (Episode 9)

NASCAR driver Jesse Iwuji debuts at Daytona International Speedway this weekend The 30-year-old will compete in the Automobile Racing Club of America event

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — When Jesse Iwuji appeared on a NASCAR podcast at a trade show in November with NASCAR driver Ryan Blaney, the challenges to make it in racing were evident.

Iwuji, at 30 years old, had started his racing career just a few years earlier at 27. Blaney, 23, was completing his second full-time season and fourth overall as a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver.

NASCAR drivers typically know by age 27 whether they have a future in the sport. But the Navy lieutenant and former Naval Academy cornerback is used to doing the unconventional.

While many of his friends have settled into more normal jobs, Iwuji just can’t fathom a 9-to-5 life just yet.

“That’s just too regular and boring to me,” Iwuji said Thursday as he stood in the garage at Daytona International Speedway. “I’m all about excitement and doing cool things. I couldn’t just go home every day and sit on my couch and go to sleep, wake up and do that every single day.

“To me, that’s not fun. For some people, that’s what they want: safe, conservative, that is the life. For me, it’s not. I’ve got to go out and do things. It is a lot of work; sometimes it can be stressful and take up a lot of time. At the end of the day, I look back and wow, I was on TV racing in front of thousands of people. That’s cool.”

Iwuji will compete in the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) event Saturday afternoon. The stock car series — a mix of up-and-coming drivers as well as veterans who compete in the circuit, which races mostly on Midwest tracks — will feature drivers competing at speeds of 180-185 mph on the high-banked 2.5-mile trioval.

On Sunday, he will compete in NASCAR’s developmental K&N Pro Series East on the half-mile New Smyrna (Florida) Speedway. He competed full time in East’s sister series, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, last year, finishing 14th in the standings.

Iwuji’s cars for both races will be fielded by Patriot Motorsports Group, whose ownership includes former NFL All-Pro linebacker Shawne Merriman. In the regional series this year, Iwuji is hoping that his full year of racing last season will give him the experience to keep pace with the younger, more experienced drivers. He also spends an hour or two nightly on iRacing, a racing simulation program.

SPOKANE, WA – MAY 13: Jesse Iwuji #36 talks to a member of his crew during final practice at Spokane County Raceway on May 13, 2017 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by )

“Age, to me, is just a number,” Iwuji said. “I am still very energetic. I still work out and run. I’m stronger and faster than half the people here physically. Just because I’m not 16 or 18 doesn’t mean I can’t physically outdo a lot of people.

“Experiencewise, yes, I am behind. It just takes time. The more time you’re in the seat racing, the better. A lot of these people started when they were 5 years old. Their 10 to 15, 20 years of experience racing is huge.”

Iwuji’s 2018 plans include about seven ARCA races and a return to the NASCAR regional series. The next step would be to compete in NASCAR’s truck series.

His Daytona debut Saturday will be something special, and part of the progression for any stock car driver.

“Everybody out there who has a dream to race or just do anything that is out of the ordinary, I’m here to show them it’s possible,” Iwuji said. “I’ve always loved cars, I’ve always loved racing. Sometime around 2014, I made the decision, ‘Hey, I want to become a professional race car driver.’

“I remember I went on deployment that year and every single day on the ship, every night on watch, I’d just be in my head thinking, How can I make this happen?”

Like many of his Navy brethren, Iwuji will use his military experience to make up for the lack of experience in his field.

“They’re behind in maybe real-world experience in whatever field, but they’re not behind in just real-life experience, period,” Iwuji said. “They’ve been out there, they’ve been doing things, they’ve led people, they’ve had to make big decisions, whether it’s money, equipment, time or lives. … They have had to manage a lot of things that people in the real world really don’t get the opportunity to do at their age.”

His military experience allows Iwuji to handle the stress of racing, a sport that often depends on sponsorship and is unpredictable in regards to how a driver rises through the ranks. He has sponsorship for the ARCA race from BBMC Mortgage.

“You’ve got to deal with a lot in the military,” Iwuji said. “Being here? There’s nothing here that is going to faze me. When people get stressed after dealing with one or two things, I’m like, ‘How about dealing with about 30 things?’ ”

Iwuji will be the only African-American driver in the race Saturday. There is only one full-time African-American driver in NASCAR’s three national series: Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., a NASCAR Cup rookie this year at Richard Petty Motorsports who is the first African-American full-time driver at NASCAR’s top level since Wendell Scott in 1971.

“Bubba Wallace, he’s definitely paving the way right now,” Iwuji said. “Right now, diversity is going in a positive direction for the sport. … Whether they’re females or black, Mexican, Asian, you name it, the sport’s open to it and I think more people are starting to recognize that.”

Iwuji hopes to follow Wallace and race at NASCAR’s Cup level in a few years. The odds are against him. But whether he makes it or not won’t define him.

“At the end of the day, racing isn’t my whole life,” Iwuji said. “I’ve got some other big stuff going. I’m going to make it big in the business world too. Racing is the really cool, fun side of things.

“I’m not going to look to make this my end-all, be-all. I’m going to make it to where I want to go but I don’t have to just to live.”