Defending Super Bowl title is gonna be kids' stuff, really

Commentary

August 22, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

THE Hard Knocks TV crew shouldn't be in Dallas, but back in Baltimore with the defending Super Bowl champions.

We're not talking about the New England Patriots or the Ravens, either. These are the Lakeland Vikings, who practice across the street from Lansdowne High. Last year, the Vikings won the 10-12 age division of the Pop Warner Little Scholars Super Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

The game went two overtimes before the Vikings pulled out an 18-12 victory over the Dale City (Va.) Cowboys. And now the big word for Lakeland is "repeat."

Who will be the Vikings' biggest competition?

"Nobody can block me. I'm nice," said defensive lineman Dezmand Ellison.

That's cool, little Shannon Sharpe, but we're talking team competition here.

"Oh, um, Mount Royal, they're nice," Ellison said. "There is this team in Pennsylvania, called Charm City. They play well. But we got trick plays, run a 4-4 stacked defense, and we got some speed. If somebody breaks, and they ain't running too fast, then they are going to get caught."

Confidence is high for the Vikings, who open the title defense Saturday. Lakeland coach Kevin Roberson studied the Ravens last season when they defended their title.

But unlike the Ravens, there have been no distractions. Not one contract holdout. There have been no sightings of a big, loudmouth defensive tackle flying in and out of the Vikings' training camp in a helicopter. Ellison has some flair, but he doesn't have a radio talk show like former Ravens defensive tackle Lional Dalton.

As for Roberson, 31, there have been no book deals. No genius labels. He is still a teacher's assistant in Baltimore City and a recreation council leader.

"His favorite expression is `Hit the hill,' " Ellison said. "If somebody gets out of line, he says go to the hill, run it and calm down. Some people might have changed, but not him. He still gives us water breaks when it's hot."

What a guy.

On a hot, muggy day on Aug. 14, the Vikings were playing in a home scrimmage against Park Heights. The community has a lot of pride in the Vikings, who have been to the Super Bowl two straight years. In 2000, they finished third.

Parents and supporters line the sidelines in lawn chairs waiting to get a peep of the defending champs.

No autographs, please.

"We're always getting support," Roberson said. "Somebody is always donating juices, water, soda or sandwiches to our kids. What is making this program really special is that the kids who have become too old are coming back and asking what they can do to help.

"I guess you would say most of our kids are from the middle class, but we also have a lot of kids that don't have the best," Roberson added. "But the kids are cooperative and don't give us too many problems. At this age group, they start getting into other things, but for the most part, they've stayed focused."

That's because a year ago some of these kids had the opportunity of a lifetime. According to Roberson, Baltimore City Recreation and Parks soaked up most of the expenses for the Super Bowl trip, including transportation around Disney World for the week.

The Vikings also returned to their own little heroes' welcome in Baltimore that included hats and T-shirts. Champagne was replaced by soda.

"I must have gotten on a zillion rides down there," said tight end Bryan Ruszala.

Said offensive lineman Daniel Harris: "We have a lot of pride in our team. For us to be so young, going places and traveling, it's a good thing. The first time, we lost because of some difficulties, but last year we were prepared. I was proud for my team and myself that we had won something big for Baltimore City."

Ellison cried after the Super Bowl game. A week earlier, he was overjoyed because he missed a week of school.

"It was great because I didn't have any homework," said Ellison, who attends Canton Middle. "I didn't have to listen to any teachers because the teachers usually holler at me. But the principal and fellow students wrote me a letter wishing me good luck on my game, and told me no matter what, they were always going to be behind me.

"It was a good experience for us," he added. "When we won that game, I was crying. I was happy. We were all crying. It was the biggest thrill of my life. I will never forget it."

Neither will Roberson. Or the teams the Vikings face this season. Everyone wants a piece of the champs. The Vikings have 25 players on their roster, but only three from last season. Salary cap problems, you know. The Ravens are not the only team rebuilding in this town.

But Roberson likes this team, and believes it can go far as long as it plays within the "parameters" (he must have read Brian Billick's book) of his game plan.

"It's going to be harder because everyone wants to beat us," Harris said. "But the bigger the challenge, the better we'll be."

Roberson expects the Vikings to meet the challenge.

"I've got a good feeling about this team," Roberson said. "We're going to get better as the season goes on through practice and hard work. Last year it was about unfinished business. This year, no one is going to lay down for us; we're not going to sneak up on anybody. But it's still about business. It's always about business."

Spoken like a true Super Bowl champion.

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