Thursday, August 30, 2007

Contra Costa Times: Ainge's mentor is well-qualified

Contra Costa Times

If you're a Cal fan looking for someone else to blame for the Bears' 35-18 loss last season to Tennessee, here's a target you might want to consider: Danny Ainge.

That's right, the former Boston Celtics great and current Celtics director of basketball operations.  You see, if not for Ainge, his nephew, Erik Ainge, might have grown up to become a basketball or baseball player instead of a Tennessee quarterback.  A year ago as a junior, Erik Ainge threw for 291 yards and four touchdowns against Cal. And on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, despite a broken pinkie finger on his throwing hand, Ainge expects to take aim at Cal's defense again.  So here's how the story goes.

When Erik Ainge was just a sixth-grader, living in Hillsboro, Ore., his mother, Diane, wouldn't let him play football. She thought the sport was too dangerous, too violent. Then one day uncle Danny called and began lobbying on Erik's behalf. "He said his biggest regret was that he didn't start playing quarterback earlier in life because he thought he would have been better at that than anything," Erik Ainge said Wednesday during a conference call from Knoxville. "He to this day will still tell you that. And so he didn't want the same thing to happen to me. And so he said, 'Just let him try it. See what he can do.' Any athletic young kid is going to love to play football and everyone wants to be a quarterback. I just kind of ate it up." Danny Ainge didn't just plead on Erik's behalf. He  took it a step further. He had shown some home movies of Erik playing sports to a Celtics consultant, a sports psychologist.

The sports psychologist supposedly determined that Erik shared many of the same traits -- extroverted, logical decision-maker, receptive to new information -- as some of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks, including Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Brett Favre and Joe Namath. Whatever. The information helped convince mom and helped launch Erik Ainge's career as a quarterback. There have been times during his career at Tennessee when Ainge probably wished he had never put on a helmet. After a phenomenal freshman season, Ainge crash-landed as a sophomore two seasons ago. He lost his starting job. He lost his confidence. The Volunteers went 5-6, which in Tennessee is cause to declare a state of emergency. It's hard to imagine the amount of pressure Ainge was under and the amount of scrutiny he faced that season. You have to remember, Volunteers football is all but a religion in Tennessee. What's more, Tennessee quarterbacks can never escape comparisons to ex-Volunteers great Peyton Manning of the reigning Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts. "That can wear on an adult in the NFL," ex-Cal quarterback Troy Taylor said of the scrutiny. "Think of how that affects an 18- or 19-year-old kid. But I think he's stronger because of it." Ainge, indeed, showed plenty of resiliency last season. He rebounded to complete 67 percent of his passes, setting a Tennessee single-season record. He led the Volunteers to a 9-4 record, throwing 19 touchdown passes with just nine interceptions.

Read the entire story here.

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