The most touching sports-themed novel written, in this blogger's humble opinion, is 1956's Bang the Drum Slowly. It was adapted into a film starring Robert DeNiro nearly two decades later, and a good one at that. But I recommend Mark Harris's book over the film. The narrative's core principle is of the importance of friendship, both on the field of play and in life.
For the last three seasons, Arizona football fans watched the bond between quarterback Nick Foles and wide receiver Juron Criner play out via remarkable moments on the field that will live on program highlight reels for decades. Moments like:
The Criner-Foles pairing relates to Bang The Drum Slowly -- a story with a tragic end -- in that the greatest passer-receiver tandem in Wildcat history nearly suffered its own tragic conclusion.
Rewind to June 2011, when rumors surfaced of mysterious circumstances drawing Criner away from the program. Various reporters had cryptic news of a serious condition involving Criner or a member of his family. At their peak, rumors suggested the wideout's career might be over.
Criner's NFL potential has always been undeniable, and the possibility he may never get to fulfill it was nothing short of heartbreaking -- not merely from the perspective of a Wildcat supporter, either. No young man deserves to have his promise snuffed out before it can shine.
In a football season marred by scandal, Criner's return to the gridiron was a story of perseverance that went unappreciated. He overcame what was speculated as a career-threatening condition to return in under two months, then missed just one game after an appendectomy. Coming from someone who is bed ridden after badly stubbed toes, such toughness is nearly unfathomable, and certainly admirable.
And despite UA struggling to a 4-8 finish, Criner and Foles still had enough of those highlight reels moments to make even a forgettable season memorable.
Saturday's Senior Bowl was indicative of how special their on-field bond has been. Criner was a standout in one of the final opportunities to impress NFL scouts before April's draft. He caught six passes for 77 yards and the South's lone touchdown. He regularly scorched his coverage defender, running quick routes with the same skill that resulted in 32 career scoring grabs at UA.
Included in these was a goal line play in the second quarter that, had San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley placed the ball more effectively, would have resulted in two Criner scores.
Not a bad showing from a player rumored to be done with the game just a half-year ago.
As for Criner's touchdown, well...who more appropriate to have thrown it than Foles?
Draftniks criticized Foles for his performance in workouts leading up to Saturday's game. What pundits did not account for is Foles' career of shining more in game situations than on the practice field. He was the most effective of the six quarterbacks in Mobile, Ala., going 11-15 for 136 yards. Brandon Weeden, who had passed Foles on some draft boards because of the week's drills, was just 5-9 and was intercepted twice.
Foles benefited tremendously from his connection with Criner. The duo hooked up four times altogether, including the touchdown. Each elevating the other's draft stock seems so poetic -- the stuff of fiction, really. Perhaps some intrepid general manager will maneuver his way into both come draft weekend to ensure the credits don't roll on this storyline just yet.
But if the Senior Bowl was the end-scene, a bond that resulted in over 2700 yards and nearly 30 touchdowns is a great legacy to leave at Arizona -- and the happy ending fitting such a remarkable partnership.