From the archives: Joe Cajic’s battle with leukemia

This article appeared in the State Press, Arizona State University’s student newspaper, on Oct. 28, 1998.

Cajic garners support from fans, ex-teammates.
Former ASU lineman fights battle with leukemia, relentlessly searches for donor

By Ed Odeven
STATE PRESS

Once a Sun Devil, always a Sun Devil.

For ex-ASU football player Joe Cajic, that sentiment was exemplified Tuesday night in his honor as several hundred fans showed up at ASU’s Karsten Golf Course to help raise money for the Joe Cajic Foundation.

Cajic, an offensive lineman at ASU from 1993-94, was diagnosed with leukemia in December 1997. He was given four years to live unless he found a life-saving bone marrow donor.

So far, Cajic has not found one. But he continues to search for a donor through the National Marrow Donor Pool.

Last night’s autograph party, hosted by the Sun Angel Foundation, United Blood Services and the Joe Cajic Foundation, raised approximately $10,000.

But more importantly, it reminded Cajic what it means to be a Sun Devil.

“It’s amazing how many people have showed up here to show support for me as well as for the other people that are out there in the situations that I’m in,” the bulky 6-foot-5 Croatian-American said. “This is absolutely wonderful — not just the fans showing up, but old friends of mine… This is like a reunion for me. There’s a bunch of guys we played with right here.”

Among Cajic’s former teammates in attendance were Jake “The Snake” Plummer, Mario Bates and Cardinals rookie free safety Pat Tillman, who was busy signing autographs all night.

“It’s the least we can do,” Tillman said between shaking fans’ hands and signing posters. “We (NFL players) are in an area where we get a lot of attention and we can take advantage of that.

“This is a chance to do something to help him a great deal and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

So was Mike Layton, a co-worker of Cajic’s.

“It’s amazing that all these people came out,” said Layton, who has worked at Cajic’s roofing company for two years. “They come out for celebrities, but Joe is the kind of person that people can take an instant liking to.

“He’s a big lovable guy.”

And Cajic’s will to live has been aided by the advice of caring ex-teammates.

“(They tell me) just keep marching,” he said. “Keep doing it (fighting leukemia). Take one step at a time. And that’s what I’ve been concentrating on.”

“They are all giving me 100 percent support and that’s lifting me up. As you can imagine, it’s a disease that’s day-to-day. (It’s a) disease that you get frustrated by because you can’t find a donor. But these guys are giving me the spirit and the energy that’s going to last a long time.”

Although he hasn’t found a donor, Cajic’s steadfast determination and commitment have not been shaken.

“I’ll do whatever I can to get people to know about this (disease),” he said sincerely. “An example of this is mammogram testing. Five years ago, the percent of the population (tested for mammograms) was extremely low. Now, it’s high.

“I want peoplel to know they can save somebody’s life. I want people once they turn 18 to go out and register (to vote) and donate blood for bone marrow testing.”

Bone marrow testing typically costs $40. However, funds from last night’s autograph party will be used to provide free testing across the country, including free testing for the first 2,000 participants at Paradise Valley Mall on Nov. 7 starting at at 9 a.m.

Cajic has contacted 52 Croatian Catholic churches across the country. The churches have coordinated their efforts to assist Cajic.

“The possibilities of being matched, I’ve been told anywhere from one million to one (odds) in the general population,” he said. “However, if you can narrow down the ethnicity, which we have with me, I’ve heard the odds are as good as 20,000 to one. So that basically breaks down to about 350 people per church.

“That’s not difficult. That’s something that can be done.”

***

2016 update: Joe Cajic received a life-saving bone marrow transplant in 1999. He serves on the board of directors for Sun Devil Family Charities.

Feature flashback – L.J. Shelton

This feature on Arizona Cardinals offensive lineman L.J. Shelton appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Aug. 7, 2003.

Healthy Shelton expecting big year

By Ed Odeven

Despite playing with an injured right ankle last season, L.J. Shelton had his finest all-around season as a pro.

The injury, originally a sprain, occurred in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks.

Now, the Arizona Cardinals’ starting left tackle is looking forward to having an even more productive, injury-free season. He underwent arthroscopic ankle surgery on May 2. That was followed by eight weeks of rehabilitation, which ended just before the start of training camp.

“I had a bad sprain. I played through it for 14 games, so it worked out pretty good for me, being that I was hurt,” Shelton said after Thursday’s morning practice at NAU’s East Fields. “But it’s a scary feeling out there not knowing what’s going on, then finding out later that there’s a piece of bone floating around in there.”

While enduring the pain in his ankle, Shelton was able to concentrate on fine-tuning his skills.

“My injury forced me to focus on my technique a whole lot more, so I was able to really get my feet under my balance,” said Shelton, whose father, Lonnie, was a 10-year pro in the NBA and played for the 1978 NBA champion Seattle SuperSonics.

“I had to really focus on the footwork to keep my balance because the muscles in my ankle weren’t strong.”

Which is why he’s not trying to do too much in the preseason.

“I’m a little rusty because I didn’t do any of the mini-camps because of my off-season surgery. I’m not too hard on myself right now,” he said. “I know I’m able to play, but I want to play at a high level. I’m not quite there yet. I have four preseason games and a bunch more practices to get me there, so I’m not too worried about it right now.”

Adding depth to the o-line has been a key objective for the Cardinals. Guard Cameron Spikes, who played for the Houston Texans last year, was a free-agent pickup during the off-season. Guys like centers Steve Grace and Jason Starkey; tackles Reggie Wells, Kendrick Rogers and Watts Sanderson; guards Tony Wragge and Teag Whitting; and guard/tackle Raleigh Roundtree (who is recovering from a splenectomy) are vying for spots on the roster. Another lineman, Frank Garcia, will miss the first four games of the regular season after violating the NFL’s drug policy by testing positive for ephedra.

In 2002, the Cardinals’ starting offensive line was besieged by injuries. Center Mike Gruttaduria (knee), tackle Leonard Davis (knee), guard Pete Kendall (knee) and tackle Anthony Clement (triceps) all missed games. Shelton was the only one to start all 16 games.

“We’re not just counting on five guys to get it done,” Shelton said. “We’re counting on all eight or nine guys to make this team and get it done. We’re aware that it’s hard for the whole line to make it through 16 games. Injuries are going to happen. We’ve got to be able to have guys step in.”

When you’re 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, like Shelton, size and strength are the physical attributes people notice about you right away. The untrained eye might not see how exceptional Shelton’s footwork is.

“His biggest asset is his feet,” offensive line coach Pete Hoener said. “He has remarkable feet for a big man. (He has) quick feet, he’s athletic, he has great balance, and those are things that you need to have playing left tackle.

“I think he’s a heck of a player. He’s very gifted athletically. He understands the game. Again, once he continues to master his techniques he could be one of the best.”

Shelton, a No. 1 pick (21st overall) by the Cardinals in the 1999 draft, is in the final year of a five-year deal, a year in which he’ll make $560,000. He said he’s not dwelling on getting a new contract.

Instead, his focus is on the football field.

“Last year was a big year for me just as a confidence-booster, my first year playing consistently at a high level,” Shelton said. “I just want to carry that over to this year. If I can build on last year, then all the rest of it financially will take care of itself.”

‘Offensive linemen have to play as one group, one unit, and not as five fingers. They have to be one fist.’

This feature on the NAU (Northern Arizona University) Lumberjacks’ offensive line appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun  on Nov. 27, 2003.

The foundation

By Ed Odeven

Amidst the cacophony of whistles, blurted plays and banter, you repeatedly hear two of the most important words in a football coach’s vocabulary:

Set, hit. Set, hit, Set, hit.

Those are the words of Chris Wiesehan, NAU’s assistant head coach/offensive line coach, signaling the start of another blocking drill — offensive linemen vs. defensive linemen — during Tuesday’s practice.

Strong practices have translated into strong efforts in games for the offensive linemen, who call themselves “The Hogs.”

“We’ve been consistent for the most part,” Wiesehan said matter-of-factly.

Indeed, a lot of things have gone right for the 16th-ranked Lumberjacks (8-3) this season. One of the biggest success stories has been the determined, dominant play of the offensive line. The starting five — left tackle Sean Funke, left guard Matt Cary, center Matt Raivio, right guard Matt Ryan and right tackle Jake Sanders — has been the foundation of the offense’s success, an offense which averaged 428.3 yards per game in the regular season (13th-best output in Division I-AA). The Lumberjacks’ 282.3 passing yards per game (No. 8 in the nation) is a direct link to the sufficient time true freshman quarterback Jason Murrietta has had to make plays.

Wiesehan, who received a master’s degree in sports administration from Fort Hays (Kan.) State, doesn’t need to write a 77-page thesis on what makes an offense click in order to explain why NAU’s offense has gone from being the Big Sky Conference’s worst (313 yards per game) a year ago to the aforementioned 428.3 ypg, the league’s best output.

It really only takes two numbers: 46 and 22. The former represents the number of sacks given up by NAU in 2002, the most in the Big Sky; the latter is the league-lowest total this year.

HEALTHY AND PRODUCTIVE

Another huge key for the Lumberjacks this season has been the health of the offensive line. While the unit was besieged by injuries last year, this year’s starters have all played in 11 games.

And as any coach will tell you, you cannot overstate the importance of a healthy offensive line.

“The health of the line, that’s the one position on the field that it’s very tough to exchange personnel, because it’s not like putting a new wide receiver in the game. It’s not like putting a new running back in the game,” Wiesehan said.

“Offensive linemen have to play as one group, one unit, and not as five fingers. They have to be one fist.”

Seniors Funke and the three Matts (Cary, Raivio, Ryan) were returning starters when the season began. Sanders, a true freshman, was inserted into the starting lineup for the season-opening Saint Mary’s game and stayed there.

Three months later, the quintet plays and thinks alike, down after down.

“Yeah, definitely being together as a group for more than a year helps a lot,” said Cary, a native of Juneau, Ak.

For the four returners, that continuity has helped them improve their productivity this season.

“Overall talk and communication with everybody (is better),” said Funke, who hails from Kentucky.

And, of course, that trickles down to the rest of the offense.

“The offensive line basically stabilizes the whole offense,” said the team’s primary ballcarrier, speedy Roger Robinson, who has rushed for 100 or more yards five times this season. “They are the foundation of the offense and without them nothing happens.”

ECHO OF THE WHISTLE

Wiesehan, the players will tell you, is a stickler for details. He’s a demanding coach who expects his players to perform up to their potential every game.

“He’s a real intense coach,” Funke said. “He gets you motivated and makes you work hard. It pays off on Saturday when you come out and play hard every down, every snap.”

Or as Sanders said, “He’s helped me a lot, because I didn’t even know the offense. He helped me learn the offense and gets me prepared each week.”

Others have noticed how prepared and effective Sanders, a Buckeye High School graduate, has become as the season’s progressed.

“He’s done an amazing job,” Robinson said of Sanders. “I know at the beginning of the year I was a little worried. It’s one thing to be a true freshman and start, but to start on the offensive line is even more impressive just because it’s basically a street fight down there and he’s fighting against guys that are three and four years older than him…

“He’s just another guy in there now. He’s not a freshman anymore.”

With Sanders picking up his assignments, Wiesehan has had more time to spend coaching the group as a whole. Here are a few characteristics that he looks for when analyzes the play of the line:

* Relentless

* Aggressive

* Consistent

“We look to be a violent line that finishes in the run and the pass and finishes their opponent,” said Wiesehan, who’s now in his third year coaching the line.

“We (strive) to find ways to play to the echo of the whistle. I think this group recognizes their talent and they recognize their deficiencies.”

Essentially, Raivio, an All-American candidate at center, jump-starts the line with a hard-nosed, intelligent persona. Wiesehan refers to him as the line’s anchor, the catalyst that ignites NAU’s high-powered offense.

“He does so many things from a mental perspective, getting us into the right checks, getting us into the right plays at times, recognizing the structures of (an opponent’s) defense and really getting our line from tackle to tackle on the same page,” Wiesehan added.

NAU coach Jerome Souers said credit must go to Wiesehan and strength and conditioning coach Casey Bond for maximizing the potential of these guys.

“You really have to credit the kids for the determination and the effort that they’ve had, the resolve that they’ve had to do it on their own,” Souers said. … “They are vastly improved in their technique. Their ability to communicate and perform as a unit has brought a lot of offensive production for us.”

After a game, running backs, receivers and quarterbacks fill the stat sheet with gaudy numbers. The offensive linemen, however, are more concerned with one statistic: knockdowns.

It’s knockdowns, after all, that lead to first downs … and touchdowns … and victories.

Funke leads the Jacks with 111 knockdowns, while Cary has done it 96 times.

That stat never makes it into the box score, but that’s fine with Wiesehan and his unit.

“It’s just the nature of the position,” Wiesehan said. “You are the workhorse and you understand your role.”

It’s a role these guys are filling admirably and effectively.

You’ve got to start somewhere

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 18, 2015) — NFL Films founder Ed Sabol’s recent death at age 98 triggered many memories for those who crossed paths with him over the years.

Sports columnist Dave Wiggins, who grew up near Philadelphia and became a high school football coach in the area, remembered Sabol’s work before NFL Films became an institution and a driving force of the NFL’s popularity from coast to coast.

“Believe it or not, before he got into NFL Films, Sabol used to work developing game films for Philly area high school football coaches,” Wiggins, who pens the Man About Sports column for The Japan Times, wrote in an email. “My first year as a head coach, I used to drop films off at his house to be developed and then pick them up later. After that, he moved on to the big time.”

Wiggins described his interactions with Sabol as “really pretty much all business.”

“He was a friend of my principal, who suggested I use him (our booster club provided the funds),” Wiggins recalled.

“I would just knock on the door of his big house out on the Main Line (ritzy area of Philly suburbs) and give him the films to develop and then come back later and pick them up.

“We’d just exchange pleasantries and he would ask if we won or not.

“I think it’s when he was just building up his business after he got out of the selling of coats because it wasn’t as much fun as film work – which he had dabbled in as a young adult onward. He began by filming his family, I believe.”

****
Recommended reading: http://thestacks.deadspin.com/idol-makers-how-steve-and-ed-sabol-turned-nfl-films-in-1685482922

“Call his yacht phone”

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 18, 2015) — Some phone calls stick with you years later, providing amusement or smiles when you think about them unexpectedly. The same can be said for certain phone messages.

While working as the assistant sports editor for Arizona State’s State Press in the September 1997, I was planning a big feature on former Sun Devils football great Danny White. The university was planning to retire the quarterback’s No. 11 jersey that month during a ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium.

So the plan was to interview several people about White’s college and pro career, including those associated with the Dallas Cowboys, his NFL team, for the article. Former teammates were reached by phone and they dished out interesting insights.

A planned interview with longtime Cowboys president and GM Tex Schramm took some time to set up. But persistence paid off.

One day while I was away from the sports desk for a few hours — at class or lunch, I think — Schramm’s secretary returned one of my phone calls, one of my requests for an interview. The proof was on my desk.

A hand-written note from one of the student media staffer’s relayed the secretary’s message: Schramm is away from his office for a few days, fishing in the Florida Keys. But that’s OK.

“Just go ahead and call his yacht phone,” the note said.

And so I did. And, as the note informed me, Schramm was out at sea and would be available to talk. The fishing would wait…

It was a quality 10- or 15-minute interview that touched upon various aspects of White’s personality as a football player, team leader and other general views Tex had about White’s coaching career in the years that followed.

“It is fun to see a country start American football”

This feature story appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 31, 2005.

NAU’s international outreach

By Ed Odeven

Before the widespread use of radios and automobiles, televisions and airplanes, Americans watched and played football on grassy fields in small towns and large cities.

Overseas, the sport took longer to gain a respectable following.

But Larry Kentera has seen firsthand how football has grown in Europe. He coached German club teams during the 1993-95 seasons. He worked for an Italian club in ’97.

“American football in Europe is big, in Germany, in Spain, in Sweden,” Kentera, Northern Arizona’s head coach from 1985-89, said in a phone interview. “I’m talking about the people playing it. I’m talking about how the people are interested in it.”

This is especially evident in Germany, he said, noting that four of NFL Europe’s six teams are based there.

Though football is now well-established in Germany, it is still in its infancy in other countries, including Serbia and Montenegro.

Kentera left Phoenix Monday for a trip to the Eastern European nation, where he’ll accompany ex-Arizona State football assistant Gene Felker to teach the game to high school and college-age students. Both are volunteer coaches.

ACDI/VOCA, a private, non-profit organization which works to promote broad-based economic growth and the development of civil society in emerging democracies and developing countries, is paying the coaches’ expenses and sponsoring the trip.

Starting today through June 19, Kentera and Felker will visit several cities, including the capital Belgrade, for a series of practices, clinics and meetings.

“The biggest part of our trip there is going to teach them fundamentals,” Kentera said, “and then more technical parts of the game, like different techniques for offensive linemen, linebackers and running backs.”

In Serbia, the ex-Yugoslav republic that now forms a confederation with Montenegro, American football is just beginning. The Serbian American Football Federation, a five-team league comprised of the Wild Boars, Belgrade, Legionaries, Panthers and Steeds, completed its first official season in 2004.

“It is fun to see a country start American football,” Kentera said. “It’s going to be interesting.”

And Kentera, who is of Serbian descent, is eager to lend a helping hand.

“These people want to get a program started. They want to know more about American football,” said the 80-year-old who grew up in Globe and later worked for 13 years as the Sun Devils defensive coordinator under legendary coach Frank Kush.

“We are going to help them on some techniques and schemes, offensively and defensively.”

NAU is also playing a role in this trip. The university has donated approximately 500 pairs of athletic shoes — some shoes that remain in their original boxes, many of which date back to 1981 — and an assortment of used shoulder pads, practice shirts and pants to ACDI/VOCA.

Equipment is scarce overseas, Kentera said.

NAU’s equipment, meanwhile, has been collecting dust in the Skydome for years, according to Lumberjacks equipment manager George Fox.

So why couldn’t the school divvy it up among local schools? NCAA rules prohibit university athletic departments from giving equipment to high schools because it’s considered illegal recruiting.

That said, this isn’t the first time NAU planned to donate the equipment. Fox, a retired Air Force major, wanted to send a shipment of athletic shoes to Iraq.

“I’d see some TV clips of young kids playing soccer there and they are barefoot,” Fox said. “And that’s when I got the idea, ‘Hey, maybe we can … send them over there.’

“We had worked it out last year (that) we were going to try to send it to Iraq because there was a program going on that FedEx would ship them free. But that program shut down in a hurry before we could get it together.”

Fast forward to 2005. Recently, Kentera called NAU athletics director Jim Fallis to inform him of his summer trip. Then Fallis called Fox to ask him, ‘Hey, is there anything we can do to help these guys out?'” Fox recalled.

So the equipment was rounded up at the Skydome and put on wood pallets. Swift Trucking Company made the recent pickup. The supplies were taken to New York, where other equipment had been stored before it was sent overseas.

“It’s an opportunity to do something good, so we were glad to be a part of it,” Fox said.

Said Kentera: “NAU was very nice to provide assistance. We appreciate the equipment to help this program out.”

Kentera, who was 26-29 during his tenure with the Lumberjacks, is semi-retired and lives in the Valley.

He runs 2 miles or plays golf every day. He’s also a consultant to a sports agent, offering evaluations of potential clients.

When you speak to him, his love of football and NAU is evident immediately.

“I tell you what,” he said, “some of my greatest memories are being at NAU. We just loved it up there, the wife and I.”

“Just the other day, a group of our players when I was up there called me and said we’ve got to get together.”

A group of ex-Jacks visits with Kentera three to four times a year.

But before he returns home, Kentera has plenty of fun activities planned. He’ll visit some of his former German players in Kiel, Germany, a coastal town on the Baltic Sea. He’ll hang out with cousins in Budva, a Montenegran city on the Adriatic Sea.

“When I’m there, I might as well enjoy myself,” he said with a good-natured chuckle, revealing he won’t be back in Arizona until July 6.

All in all, Kentera sees nothing but good things coming from the grassroots development of football in Serbia.

“(Through sports), people get together and congregate and express their ideas and express their culture, express their personal life,” he said. “You get a lot from being in sports, playing against each other, with each other.

“I think that’s a good thing about sports.”

Even far away from home.