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Pick 6: A half-dozen NFL homecomings
Since the advent of free agency in the early 1990s, it’s a common story around the NFL: A player gets drafted by a team and puts in his best years there, connecting with the fans and the city and leaving his own indelible mark with the franchise, to say nothing of a Super Bowl ring or two.
Then, eventually, age, injuries and the dreaded “business” side of football get in the way and the player must make a bitter _ or bittersweet _ change.
A year or two later, that player returns to his old stomping grounds in a different uniform to play his old team.
Will the fans cheer, or boo, or even notice?
Come Sunday night in Indianapolis, that answer is a given.
Colts fans will give Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning a warm welcome. They’ll soak in the pregame tribute the Colts have planned for him, then they’ll pump up the volume, trying to make it as tough on him as they would for any visiting quarterback.
“Too hard to predict,” Manning said when asked what his emotions might be when he walks onto the Colts’ home field as a visitor. “If all I had to do was to walk in here and wave, and sign some autographs, and kiss a few babies and smile, it would be easy.”
Here’s a Pick 6 of NFL homecomings:
BRETT FAVRE RETURNS TO GREEN BAY: After his second un-retirement, Favre returned to Lambeau Field as the quarterback for the rival Minnesota Vikings. He was booed and jeered. Fans wore shirts that read “Traitor” and “Judas” and “Drama Queen.” A plane trailing a “Retire 4 Good” banner circled the stadium before the game. Favre got the last laugh. He threw for 244 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions to lead the Vikings to a 38-26 win and a season sweep of the Pack.
ERIC DICKERSON RETURNS TO LOS ANGELES: In the era before free agency, Dickerson was a bona fide star with the Los Angeles Rams. In 1984, he joined O.J. Simpson as only the second player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. But there were contract disputes and holdouts, and finally, in 1987, the Rams traded Dickerson to the Colts. Two years later, the Colts visited Los Angeles and Dickerson heard his share of boos. But the indelible moment came when fans threw fake money at him as he was walking off the field. Dickerson ran for 116 yards and a touchdown, but the Colts lost 31-17.
REGGIE WHITE RETURNS TO PHILADELPHIA: After the 1992 season, the Minister of Defense became the first high-profile player to leave his team via the NFL’s new free agency rules, heading out of Philly for a $17 million contract with Green Bay. He returned to Philly to play the Eagles in 1994. He finished with three tackles, along with two hurries against Randall Cunningham. But no sacks. The Packers lost 13-7. White got mostly cheers with a smattering of boos from the notoriously brutal Eagles crowd. He admitted getting caught up in the emotions of his return. “It’s hard playing against your friends,” he said.
EMMITT SMITH RETURNS TO DALLAS: After saying he felt like a “diamond surrounded by trash” during his last year in Dallas, Emmitt Smith signed with the Arizona Cardinals. When he returned to Dallas in 2003, the fans didn’t hold a grudge. The stadium was filled with blue No. 22 jerseys, “Welcome Back” signs and another that read “Once a Cowboy, Always a Cowboy” _ all fitting tributes for the man who set the NFL record for career rushing yards and helped the Cowboys win three Super Bowls. The game, at least for Smith, was forgettable. Six carries, minus-1 yards and a shoulder injury that knocked him out early in the second quarter. The Cowboys won 24-7.
RAVENS RETURN TO CLEVELAND: The NFL awarded Cleveland an expansion franchise to replace the Browns four years after Art Modell moved them to Baltimore. The Ravens’ first trip to Cleveland, in 1999, was a chance for Browns fans to let the emotion pour out and Ravens coach Brian Billick didn’t make anything better in the lead-up when he said the NFL wanted the Browns to win the game. They didn’t. Baltimore cruised 41-9. Modell, a pariah in Cleveland, chose not to attend the game. Afterward, he said he was happy for the win, but “not because it’s the Browns.” The Ravens won their first of two Super Bowls a season later. Cleveland? Still waiting.
MIKE SHANAHAN RETURNS TO DENVER _ That’s next week, in yet another “reunion” game for the Broncos. Washington visits Denver next Sunday for the first time since the man known in the Mile High City as “The Mastermind,” the coach who brought the Broncos their only two Super Bowl titles, was fired after the 2008 season.
By Tammy Bruce
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