Before I finally wrap this up, let me say it's been a pleasure writing this edition of "Jacques Talk." Stories that come straight from the heart are always the easiest to write, and that has certainly been the case here. The feedback from friends, family and other acquaintances, many of whom I haven't heard from in years, has been tremendous. Whether it's been pushing for some kind of reunion at "The Barn" or just sharing personal accounts of growing up with Brandon Stokley as a high school kid in the early 90's…it's all been a joy. Thank you.
Super Bowl 35 was not like the Super Bowls I had enjoyed during the previous several years. Instead of hosting a packed house of friends, with football decorations and great food spread about…I found myself lonelier than the Maytag repair man. I was sitting alone in a small sports office, watching the big game on a TV just as tiny. As the #2 sportscaster at KLAX-TV in Alexandria, I was doing what I've been doing for almost 12 years. With all apologies to Loverboy - and to all of you for referencing that band - I was working for the weekend.
January 28, 2001 was the day that truly put Brandon Stokley on the map. Instead of being at my Super Bowl party watching the Cowboys destroy the Bills or the 49ers crush the Chargers, he was partaking in his own world-wide demolition. Stokley ran a deep route right past pretty boy Jason Sehorn (Mr. Angie Harmon) and the rest of the New York Giants secondary. Baltimore Ravens' quarterback, Trent Dilfer, better known now as an ESPN football analyst, made a perfect throw. The result was a 38-yard touchdown strike that forever linked Stokley's name to football's grandest spectacle. And as we all know, the Super Bowl is so much more than just a football game. Many people who couldn't care less about the sport suck it up and watch. After all, it's what everybody is doing that day. Likewise, shortly after Stokley's Raven's thrashed the Giants in Tampa 34-7, he was again being exposed to an audience that wasn't hardcore football. While visiting my folks in Maurice, I remember staying up to watch Stokley make an appearance on "The Late Late Show" with then host Craig Kilborn. "You're very youthful looking," Kilborn cracked to his guest. This was taking surreal to new, ridiculous heights. Although it may sound absurd, little Stokley appearing on a late night show was almost more impressive to me than his TD catch in the Super Bowl. Who were Craig's guests later that week? Eric Rodgers, Danny Hughes, Johnathan Stoute and Rocky Benoit. And who was the sponsor? Zima.
While Stokley earned the first of his two world championship rings, things weren't so super on my end. The small, struggling TV station I was working for was reaching its end. Just after the Raven's victory parade and shortly before Mardi Gras, the majority of KLAX employees were laid off. The station simply did not have the budget or resources to proceed with four, 30-minute newscasts a day. And the reality of this was hitting me hard. TV jobs, ESPECIALLY in sports, are very hard to find. And they're even HARDER TO FIND when you wish to stay close to home. Most college students that graduate in broadcasting are forced to move far away from home for their first on-air opportunity. They migrate to places like Grand Junction, Colorado or Tupelo, Mississippi. It's what you do. The jobs are scarce. I was lucky to avoid that dilemma. I might have been low-paid and working for a small player; but I had a job covering sports, and I was doing what I always dreamed to do. Now, I was unemployed.
But as we have all learned, often times the worst things become the best things. Even though there will be some people who will tempt you to quit when you reach a crossroads. "Are you sure you want to keep doing local TV Jacques?," a female friend, no longer part of our circle, asked at the time. "Don't you want to do something else? Make some more money?" Her tone was a bit condescending towards me and my profession. I didn't like it and I didn't blink. "No. This is what I want to do."
To say I was lucky would be a major understatement. Not only did I land on my feet…I landed a dream job. Almost EXACTLY the same time I was let go, a coveted sportscasting job in our state capital became available. It would be a huge jump for me….in so many respects. The competition was, likewise, pretty fierce. WAFB was buried in resume tapes at 844 Government Street. What the heck; I threw mine into the pile. After an interview and a painstaking wait…WAFB-TV's management liked me enough to give me a Cinderella shot. Baton Rouge was a sports market with countless career opportunities and thrilling games to cover. The market size of 95 did the job little justice. I would be covering LSU. Enough said. And the New Orleans Saints and soon to be New Orleans Hornets were just an hour down the road. Not to sound melodramatic…but it would be an opportunity that would change my life. To think what I would've missed out on…
Going through the landmark sporting events that I've covered since isn't another column…it's another book. LSU winning not one, but two football national championships…both in New Orleans? Check. LSU reaching The Final Four for the first time in 20 years? Check. LSU winning the College World Series and travelling to Omaha? Check. Even other sports that struggled to succeed before had unbelievable breakthroughs, like the LSU women's basketball program. They had never been to a Final Four. Suddenly they went to 5 straight! The Saints? Yeah, we'll get to the most improbable of them all in a moment. My timing was pretty good. And so was Mr. Stokley's.
During his first five NFL seasons (all with the Ravens) Brandon's most productive season occurred in 2004 when he caught 24 passes, for 357 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers weren't exactly competing with the likes of Joe Horn. Health issues caused him to miss tons of games. Still…what did people remember? That's right…he's that guy who caught a TD in the Super Bowl.
I missed my first shot at the Super Bowl in 2006. The Saints made their magical run under first year head Coach, Sean Payton, and quarterback, Drew Brees, to the NFC Championship Game. The Chicago Bears whipped the Saints and kept us all at home. That same year Brandon would earn his second Super Bowl ring with his new team, the Indianapolis Colts. Again…injuries were a problem and caused him to miss the entire playoffs. In a recent interview Stokley said the ring didn't mean as much to him because he didn't play. Still, he deserved it; and he had proven himself to the team. During his first year with the Colts, he enjoyed his best season to date - 68 catches, 1,077 yards and 10 touchdowns. He garnered high praise from quarterback, Peyton Manning, and would catch his record-breaking passes.
"The best slot receiver in the NFL," was the Manning quote recited religiously by Stokley's fans.
I would finally get my shot at Super Bowl glory - or to witness it anyway - during the 2009-2010 NFL season. That same year on opening day, Stokley delivered his own miracle. Now with the Denver Broncos, Stokley hauled in a catch off an insane deflection behind the Cincinnati Bengals defense and sprinted 87-yards for the game-winning touchdown with 11 seconds left. Brandon ran sideways along the goal line just before scoring, taking an extra 6 seconds off the clock and away from the Bengals. His dad must've been a coach or something. If you've never seen this play, you probably don't own a television set. Either that or you're hooked to Netflix. If Stokley had a dollar every time Sportscenter played that highlight, he'd have Manning money about now … Peyton or Eli.
The young boy from Milton, Louisiana was on the field and in the locker room, bumping into the Vince Lombardi Trophy as the New Orleans Saints won it all. Tracy Porter tossed the football at my feet after reaching the end zone on his late interception return. My role on this day obviously was small. I was one of 1,000 or however many media credentialed for the game. But this was my dream. I didn't have the athletic ability to play here…but God had given me the talent to express and communicate what I had witnessed. Above all, He blessed me with the opportunity to be there in the first place. In my own silly way, I too had won the Super Bowl.
But I wouldn't return to the big game this year. Mr. Stokley and his Seattle Seahawks had other plans. He beat the Saints deep for 45-yard touchdown near the end of the first half and made several other critical catches on third down to move the chains. The 7-9 Seahawks shocked the Saints 41-36 in the opening round of the NFC playoffs. There would be no "Two Dat."
As the game ended, I had my video camera and was shooting all the contrasting emotions down on the field. There was the Seahawks elation … the Saints dejection. Inside, I was feeling a bit bummed. I was on the road alone, 2,200 miles from home with a 7 am flight the next morning and covering one hell-of-a depressing sporting event. This wasn't going to be much fun to recap. But my mood changed a bit when I saw #15.
"What's up Stokley!" I yelled above the roaring crowd, slapping him on the shoulder. In all the madness, chaos, it took a moment to focus on who had approached him. But it certainly registered.
"Jacques! What's up Jacques?!! What are you doing?!!" he made eye contact with me and shook my hand.
"Great game, man." He smiled and nodded back.
And as life goes, I then had to rush to next thing. That's what we do when we grow up. We rush to the next thing. That "next thing" was sprinting to the locker room and getting my camera set up in the media room. Hearing what Coach Payton and Drew Brees had to say was obviously pretty important. I couldn't miss that.
Stokley and I had shared our moment.
After relaying my story, a good friend of mind said exactly what I was thinking.
"That's pretty cool he still remembers you … that he's not jaded or egotistical … that he still remembers where he came from."
And Brandon Stokley wouldn't have it any other way. He's the true testament to being a class act and overcoming adversity. He lost both of his parents at a relatively young age. Coach Nelson Stokley passed away last June at the age of 66 due to Alzheimer's. Brandon expressed the grief of carrying on and playing the game of football without his father still around; but he's still going. He's suffered numerous concussions; but he's still going. Even as the Seahawks were bounced from the playoffs Sunday in Chicago, he was their leading receiver with 8 grabs for 85 yards and a score.
Stokley is not a future NFL Hall of Famer. He's not a superstar. But what he is, is a relentless worker and survivor who's maximized every drop of athletic ability God gave him. He's a role model for all those who are told they "aren't big enough" or "aren't fast enough." Simply put, he's Louisiana's Rocky.
I've certainly learned many life lessons….growing up with Stokley.