Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Hunger Is Lacking at the Top of the Food Chain

The former Michigan guard Matt Lentz (67) is on the Giants’
practice squad. Both teams could use some good news.
Tony Ding/Associated Press

Published: September 4, 2007

East Rutherford, N.J.

Insults in jest and Appalachian State jokes buzzed in Matt Lentz’s ears yesterday in the Giants’ locker room, but at least he was around to hear them.

On Labor Day, with the returning Michael Strahan still setting his own schedule after his August-plus sabbatical, Lentz could boast of a playbook, a refreshing appreciation of employment and a reasoned perspective regarding the ambush in Ann Arbor of his humbled alma mater.

“Appalachian State, they came to play,” Lentz said of Michigan’s shocking home-field defeat Saturday at the hands of a program with roughly 90,000 fewer seats at its own stadium in Boone, N.C. “But it’s a football game, and all you can do is hunker down, come back next week.”

Easier for him to say, several states and a second season removed from the Michigan offensive line, having exchanged the Big House blue for Big Blue, all-Big Ten status for a position on the practice squad after failing to make the final roster cut.

“Nice to know I have a job,” said Lentz, a 6-foot-6, 320-pound guard who spent his rookie season on the Giants’ injured list.

On the far side of the room, at the upper end of the pro football food chain, reporters took up strategic positions around Strahan’s empty dressing stall. Soon word came that the Giants’ most tenured player and alleged leader had treated himself to a long holiday weekend after blowing off Albany training camp humidity for the cool ocean breezes of Southern California. He did arrive later in the day for a physical, after his teammates had left.

“He’s been to more training camps than most,” said the veteran receiver Amani Toomer, answering the question of what example had Strahan set for a team plagued with chemistry issues the last few years.

Most observers believed Strahan, under the guise of contemplating retirement, was holding out for a raise. Maybe he was hoping the Giants would release him so he could sign with a better team. As Coach Tom Coughlin embarks upon a season’s quest to save his job, all he can hope is that the others have too much team pride, the professional urgency of a Matt Lentz, to pay Strahan any mind.

How does a 24-year-old dealing with pending career derailment pass the time, ease the anxiety? The Bronx Zoo sounded good to Lentz and his wife. They spent Saturday afternoon there after the roster cuts and went out for dinner in a restaurant with televisions tuned to ESPN.

“They were showing the highlights, and I saw 34-32 and I’m thinking, Wow, and then I did a double-take — Oh my God, we lost!” he said.

He and the rest of the country had been smacked upside the helmet by the new college season. Far away, without a condolence call yet placed, Lentz said he could feel Ann Arbor’s pain. He could hear the disgruntled masses in the chat rooms calling for Coach Lloyd Carr’s head.

“It’s tradition-rich there, and you’ve got to uphold it,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re going to hear it.”

At least he didn’t have to listen to Josh Huston — the rookie kicker from Ohio State, who was released Saturday — gloat. At least he had a fellow Michigan alum, Toomer, to share with what he called “a lot of stuff in here” on a morning of hitting the weights and meetings, as the Giants, sans Strahan, began preparations for their opener Sunday night in Dallas.

Toomer was having lunch in San Francisco on Saturday when his cellphone rang — Plaxico Burress, a former Michigan State Spartan, calling to say, “Did your guys play today?”

“Appalachian State,” Toomer said.

“That’s right,” Burress said. “You just lost.”

Having played one season under Carr 12 years ago, Toomer has little remaining contact. Lentz, however, spent two years protecting quarterback Chad Henne and opening holes for running back Mike Hart. These are his people.

He grew up bleeding Michigan blue, on a farm in tiny Ortonville, north of Detroit, building muscle by pulling his father’s pickup trucks on back-country roads. He dreamed of playing for Carr.

Now Michigan’s national title hopes are turned upside down, along with the hourglass surely counting down on Carr’s tenure — a crying shame, in Lentz’s opinion, because, “He’s a lot more to his players than a football coach.”

But the college game is about bottom-line leverage, just like the pros, as evidenced by Strahan’s disregard for Coughlin — there’s a history there — and, worse, for Jerry Reese, the new general manager (and the Giants’ first African-American in that position).

At the top of the football food chain, it must be nice to know you can take off the sweatiest month of the season, and then a holiday weekend, and still have a job. But what an insult to everyone else.

E-mail: hjaraton@nytimes.com


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