What’s in a name?

Jay Paterno tells a story. It is autumn, and his son is playing in a ninth-grade football game. Early in the first quarter, his son pushes through and brings down the ball carrier. The public address announcer says: “Tackle made by Joe Paterno.”

When the game ends, Joey Paterno goes to his mother, Kelley, and admits that he grimaced when he heard his name called over the loudspeaker.

“Why?” Kelley asks.

“Because,” he says. “I didn’t know how people would react to hearing it.”

“And that,” Jay Paterno says, his eyes filling with tears, “is why we fight.”

* * *

“The most saddening findings of the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State.

“They exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being, especially by not attempting to determine the identity of the child who Sandusky assaulted …”

“Paterno told a reporter that ‘I didn’t know exactly how to handle it, and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to other people.’”

“The Special Investigative Counsel finds that it is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the University – Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley – repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse.”

— From Findings in the Freeh Report.

* * *

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – On July 12, 2012, former FBI Director Louis Freeh announced that he and his group had investigated, prosecuted, tried and effectively convicted the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno of heinous crimes that included covering up the child sexual abuse by a former coach, Jerry Sandusky. The Freeh group did so without subpoena power, without identifying accusers, without guidance from sexual abuse experts, without putting anyone under oath and without testimony from Joe Paterno or anyone speaking in his defense. There were no appeals granted.

The Freeh Report ended all arguments and closed all doors. It was accepted across America. Media reports called it an “independent investigation,” though the Penn State Trustees – who controversially had fired Joe Paterno – paid more than $8 million for it. Media reports also called it “exhaustive” – repeatedly parroting Freeh’s claim that the group spoke to 430 key figures and that 3.5 million documents were analyzed – ignoring that the Freeh group, by its own admission, did not talk to a dozen or so key figures, save for an eleventh-hour interview with Graham Spanier, the former Penn State president. Spanier is now suing Freeh for libel and defamation.

The Freeh Report led directly to the ruination of Joe Paterno’s reputation, built over 61 years as a football coach at Penn State. Penn State scrubbed clean its stadium and gameday program of Paterno references. His alma mater, Brown University, removed Paterno’s name from its athletic award. After a threatening banner was flown over State College – “TAKE DOWN THE STATUE OR WE WILL” – a statue of Joe Paterno that stood outside Beaver Stadium and had been a landmark for Penn State fans was torn down and hidden.

Then the NCAA swooped in, announcing crushing sanctions against Penn State football: the cutting of scholarships; probation; a bowl ban; a $60 million fine and the removal of 112 victories, 111 of them under Joe Paterno. The NCAA left the impression that the Penn State program was lucky to not get the dreaded death penalty. “Worry about getting your culture right,” NCAA President Mark Emmert lectured Penn State.

The most piercing example of the Freeh Report’s power involved Nike chairman Phil Knight, who had spoken many times about his love and admiration for Joe Paterno. “I’m a man who needs heroes,” he said on numerous occasions. “And Joe Paterno fills my need.” He spoke lovingly of Paterno at his funeral. After the report, though, he entirely changed course. “It appears Joe made missteps that led to heartbreaking consequences,” Knight said. “I missed that Joe missed it.” He then announced that Nike would take Paterno’s name off its child care center.

In State College, the family of Joe Paterno watched it all in disbelief and horror.

“The lies they’re telling about Joe,” Sue Paterno told Dan McGinn, the crisis manager the family had hired. “I can’t believe the lies they’re telling about Joe.”

“Sue,” McGinn told her. “They are having their moment now. But I can promise you this: We will write the final chapter.”

“I want to believe you,” Sue Paterno said, as her voiced cracked. “But will I live to see it?”

* * *

This is a story of how Joe Paterno’s family wins back his legacy, inch by inch by inch. You will no doubt have strong feelings on the matter; it’s likely that no sports story of the last decade has sparked more emotions. Some have decided that Joe Paterno knew about Jerry Sandusky’s crimes because he had to know, because he knew all that happened at Penn State. Some have determined he turned away from his duty to protect children, and that his much-celebrated life as a coach, teacher and humanitarian was either ruined by his inaction or a lie in the first place. Many will not revisit the story no matter what new evidence emerges; it is filed under “old news.”

The Paterno family, more than anyone, realizes this. Still they fight back — against the Freeh Report, the Penn State board, the NCAA and those who continue to insist that Joe Paterno is responsible for the crimes of his one-time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. They fight back. And, more and more, they win.

Let me state the obvious up front: This is a personal story for me. I wrote the biography “Paterno.” This led me to know Joe Paterno’s family – his wife Sue, his two daughters Diana and Mary Kay, his three sons David, Jay and Scott. I have seen that they are good people, who did not ask for this fight. But they have not backed down from it despite immense pressure, horrific criticism and seemingly impossible odds. I have seen them win ground. I have seen them pay a hard price for their efforts.

The crimes of Jerry Sandusky against children are terrible and well-known. Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse. He will spend the rest of his life in prison for them. Three Penn State officials – Spanier, former Penn State Vice President Gary Schultz and former athletic director Tim Curley – were charged with perjury, obstruction of justice and child endangerment. They have all insisted repeatedly and voraciously on their innocence; the charges against them are still pending after more than three years. Court observers say there is almost no chance their cases will go to trial in 2015. They are in what seems a permanent limbo.

Then there is Joe Paterno. He was head coach at Penn State for 45 years, and assistant another 16 years before that. There is no way to catalogue the almost universal praise he received for his coaching — his teams won 409 games, the most for any Division I coach – and his integrity. His teams consistently graduated a high percentage of players. The NCAA never sanctioned them. His former players consistently call him one of their greatest teachers. The hard-hitting “60 Minutes” once did a segment on Paterno so glowing, that even he was embarrassed. On the November 2011 day of the grand jury presentment that indicted Sandusky, Pennsylvania politicians were in the process of nominating him for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Joe Paterno was mentioned only in passing in that grand jury presentment. He was never charged with a crime. To the contrary, he was praised by the attorney general’s office for being forthright in his testimony.

Still, Paterno has taken much of the brunt for Sandusky’s crimes. He said to his death that he did not know Sandusky was a pedophile and did not understand what he was dealing with. Freeh and others said he had to know and understand. Paterno said that with the benefit of hindsight, he wished he had done more. Those words of regret have been misquoted and twisted into a tortured admission of guilt.

He never hid from the fact that a graduate assistant named Mike McQueary came to his home one morning in 2001 and told him of seeing former coach Sandusky in the football facility showers with a young boy. McQueary, by both of their accounts, was vague in his description of the event; it is still unclear what McQueary actually saw (the night before, he had reported the incident to his father and a local doctor and they decided it wasn’t clear enough to call the police). Nevertheless, Paterno followed by all accounts Penn State procedures and promptly reported McQueary’s account to Curley and Schultz.

“This isn’t my field,” Paterno told me. “I don’t know what to do. I had not seen anything. Jerry didn’t work for me anymore. I didn’t have anything to do with him. I tried to look through the Penn State guidelines to see what I was supposed to do. It said I was supposed to call Tim (Curley). So I called him.”

It is very difficult to separate Paterno from the rest of this story. To do so prompts furious charges of insensitivity toward Sandusky’s victims and accusations of loving all-mighty football more than children in danger. No one, Paterno included, claims that things were handled properly. Sandusky, a prominent man in the State College community, was convicted of stomach-turning crimes. This left many wondering how they missed it.

In the aftermath of the Freeh Report, though, the lion’s share of the nation’s rage pointed squarely at Joe Paterno, the most famous man in State College. And it is precisely the difficulty of separating Paterno from the rest of the story that made it all but impossible for his family to be heard when they spoke out in his defense.

“I’ve never encountered an intensity like there was in this case, and I’ve been involved in some pretty controversial cases, including at the White House,” says Wick Sollers, the family’s attorney. “After the report came out it was a terrible, brutal, landscape. It looked very bleak. Any time any one of us tried to point out the fallacies of the Freeh Report, the fallacies of the NCAA’s extreme rhetoric, we were shouted down as protectors of pedophiles or supporters of child abuse in the worst possible way.”

This was the snare the family of Joe Paterno found itself in on July 12, 2012, and more or less every day since. To say what they powerfully believe — that Joe Paterno’s half century of accomplishment and teaching was maliciously darkened by an inaccurate and grandstanding report and a compliant media eager for a scandalous Shakespearean tale to tell – is to bring down the wrath of every person sickened by Sandusky’s crimes.

That day the Freeh Report was released, Jay Paterno says, was in some ways an even harder one than the day six months before when Joe Paterno died. “They killed him again,” he says. That day in July, he wrote a short note to his mother, Sue, that reflects the depths of his despair:

Even in the darkest moments when doubt tears at the threads of my sanity, I cling to the truth that at the bottom of Pandora’s box was that one word: HOPE.”

Meanwhile Scott Paterno, Joe’s youngest son, was defiant. He would remember telling his wife, Heather, “This is the nadir. This is as bad as it ever will be. They fired all the shots they have, we are still alive, and from here forward we start taking back ground.”

Every member of the Paterno family says that fighting back was their only option.

“I know what my father would say,” says Mary Kay Hort, one of Joe Paterno’s two daughters. “He’d say, ‘Whadya worrying about what they say about me? You know the truth. Go home, take care of your families, live your life, let them say what they want.’”

Then she sets her jaw and says, “But we couldn’t stop. It was literally impossible for us to stop because of how we were raised. My Dad raised us to fight for what’s right and what’s true. He didn’t care about what people said about him but if this had been anyone else, he would have been fighting harder than anyone else. We couldn’t stop. We had to fight.”

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* * *

In a three-week span after the Freeh Report came out, Dan McGinn says he had informal conversations with several Penn State administrators. According to McGinn, one administrator said that he was sure Freeh had gotten it wrong specific to Paterno and his culpability, but there was simply nothing to be done about it. The die was cast. The bell was rung.

McGinn says that meeting was a turning point for him.

“I knew then that we should win,” McGinn says. “And I had confidence that we would win. The whole plan was getting access to documents and putting people under oath. … The Freeh Report, the rush to injustice, all of it relied on an atmosphere where there are no rules. In a courtroom, there are rules. There are consequences for lying. I knew we had to get this into a courtroom.”

* * *

The family stayed silent for months after the Freeh Report. There were some people and several groups trying to fight publicly for Paterno’s name – most prominently, NFL Hall of Famer and Penn State star Franco Harris — but they were largely written off as quacks or truthers.

“There was no way a voice in the wilderness could succeed at that point,” Sollers says.

Silence was particularly hard for Jay Paterno. He was not only Joe Paterno’s son, he had been Penn State’s quarterback coach. His entire life had been tied up with his father. When he lost his father, he lost his best friend, his boss and guiding light. In the aftermath of the scandal and with the ushering in of a new coaching staff he was let go from Penn State. He could not find another coaching job or work in sports broadcasting, and he has become convinced it is because of his last name. He is involved in a separate lawsuit against Penn State for tainting his name, lost wages and damaging his reputation.

Jay Paterno, more than anyone else, became the stand-in for people’s rage in the aftermath of Joe Paterno’s death.

“It was all so toxic,” Jay Paterno says. “People would just say whatever they wanted about Joe. They demonized him. I would get messages every single day – every single day — about how my father was rotting in hell. Imagine being a son who gets those kinds of messages every single day.

“My father was a man of integrity, of honesty, of high morals. He always tried to do the right things, in every situation, no matter the personal cost. And every single day, people described to me what was happening to him in eternal damnation.”

He says this without emotion in his voice. After three years, he says, he has lost his ability to be shocked.

“I guess you can say I learned a lot about the human condition,” he says.

* * *

The family’s first public move came in February 2013, almost seven months after the Freeh Report was released. They commissioned several experts, including former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former FBI agent and profiler of sexual crimes Jim Clemente, to review the Freeh Report. Those two reviews of Freeh’s work, in particular, were unequivocal and scathing.

Thornburgh’s conclusion: “The lack of evidence supporting the Report’s most scathing findings and the serious flaws with respect to the process of the investigation cause me to conclude that the Report’s findings concerning Mr. Paterno are unjust and wrong.”

Clemente’s conclusion: “There is no evidence to support the conclusion that Paterno engaged in ‘an active agreement to conceal.’” … “There is absolutely no evidence presented that Paterno ever expressed any fear of or aversion to bad publicity.” … “The Report is a failure. It does a tremendous disservice to Penn State, Joe Paterno, and the victims of Jerry Sandusky.”

At first glance, it wasn’t entirely clear what the family hoped to gain from these reports. Even though Thornburgh and Clemente had distinguished reputations, most media observers immediately wrote off their conclusions. What else, after all, would something called “The Paterno Report” say?

But the Paternos say that they didn’t commission the reports to change minds of critics or to move the intractable.

“We just wanted to get a conversation going,” Jay Paterno says. “At that point there was no viable way to talk about the many flaws of the Freeh Report. There was no viable way to ask how Jerry Sandusky could have fooled an entire community – and that’s what happened here. This wasn’t a football story. This was a story about a whole town. Freeh impugned everyone in State College by making it seem like Sandusky’s crimes were an open secret. Nobody knew.”

Scott Paterno says the Paterno Report’s greatest contribution was how Clemente delved into the psychology of what he calls the “Pillar of the Community” predator. Clemente says the most dangerous type of predator is not the so-called “monster” people often talk about; monsters, he says, are not difficult to identify. The scary part of such crimes, he says, is that child predators are so often widely respected and liked – teachers, coaches, religious leaders and, in the case of Sandusky, founders of charities. Sandusky founded “The Second Mile,” a charity so admired that the first President Bush listed it among his thousand points of light.

“These ‘nice-guy’ offenders escape detection even by those who are vigilant,” Clemente wrote, “because they are on the lookout for evil predators, not pillars of the community.”

“He really opened my eyes to why we had to battle the ‘culture’ perception in the NCAA Consent Decree,” Scott Paterno says. “When you dissect it logically, the idea that the problem here was a culture problem is ridiculous. In essence it says that thousands knew (about Sandusky) but we placed football above all and let kids knowingly be hurt. That’s beyond absurd. It was accepted nonetheless; it is far easier to sleep at night when it could ‘only happen there in a sick culture.’”

Wick Sollers: “It is stunning that Freeh did not consult with or incorporate the perspective of anyone, not even one person, who studies and works with child sexual abuse in any meaningful way. How’s that possible? It is beyond irresponsible. … Certainly when (the Paterno) report was released, we started to see some of the more thoughtful people scratch their heads and openly wonder whether the commonly accepted narrative made sense.”

Efforts to reach Louis Freeh were unsuccessful; he has not spoken publicly about the report in two years. Penn State declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

“Joe gave us one mission, and that was to find the truth,” McGinn says. “That’s been our guiding principle: Follow the truth wherever it leads. The family has made it clear: They are not afraid of the truth. When you look at this case objectively you see a lot of other people are hiding things at every turn. They want every document hidden. They don’t want to answer questions. They do not want the truth to come out. We are not afraid of the truth.”

Shortly after the reports were released, the Paterno family sued the NCAA. “We were finally ready to really fight back,” Jay Paterno says.

* * *

The victories have been persistent the last two years, even if they have not always garnered big headlines. Many people – some in concert with the family, some connected with Penn State, some who have made this their cause because they see an injustice – have hit hard against the Freeh Report, the NCAA and University officials. And, from the Paterno family perspective, the tide has substantially turned.

The NCAA, subdued after a long series of embarrassing emails and facts were uncovered in association with a lawsuit launched by Pennsylvania State Senator Jake Corman, settled that lawsuit, withdrew all its penalties against Penn State football and returned the victories to Paterno and the school.

“The NCAA continues to publicly stand behind what they did,” McGinn says. “But they didn’t give back the wins just because they wanted to give them back. They gave them back because they have no leg to stand on.”

Frank Fina, the lead prosecutor in the Sandusky case, has said publicly that he has seen no evidence, nor does he believe, that Paterno was involved in any sort of cover up. “This was a man who saw a lot more (evidence) than Freeh,” Scott Paterno says. “And he put the lie to Freeh’s main and most damning conclusion [that Paterno concealed facts about Sandusky]. Fina’s statement means Freeh’s ‘reasonable conclusion’ was not.”

Tom Corbett, the former Pennsylvania Governor and attorney general who launched the Sandusky investigation, was directly involved in the firing of Paterno. He has since softened his view and said that Paterno “probably shouldn’t have been fired.”

Penn State president Eric Barron has cut against the school’s reticence and lambasted the Freeh Report. “There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said, “Freeh steered everything as if he were a prosecutor trying to convince a court to take the case.” He said the report arrived at an “absurd” conclusion about the students, faculty and alumni.

There is now even talk of returning the statue; according to a Quinnipiac University poll, 59 percent of Pennsylvanians believe that the Paterno statue should be returned to a place of prominence.

And perhaps most telling of all, Phil Knight has turned hard on the Freeh Report – which he now calls “worthless” — and hard on himself for caving in to the pressure after it came out. He says Joe Paterno and his track coach Bob Bowerman were the two most moral men he ever knew, and he berates himself for losing sight of that in the emotion and madness that swirled around in the moments after the Freeh Report came out.

“I have to recognize myself,” he writes in his foreword to Jay Paterno’s book. “I am a child of the west, who grew up to be the sheriff with the lynch mob outside the jail. ‘Give us the prisoner or we’ll kill you both,’ is the cry of the mob. I forestall for hours, then say, ‘Take him.’ No rewinds. I have to live with this. … Because I believe if the situation had been reversed, Joe Paterno would have left my name up, lynch mob be damned.”

So, yes, the Paterno family has won back a lot. But two difficult questions remain. One, how do they know when the fight is over?

And two: Can any of this bring them peace?

* * *

The Paterno family lawsuit against the NCAA and Penn State is ongoing, with depositions scheduled and angry motions going back and forth. The family says they just want a public admission that Joe Paterno was unfairly and unjustly blamed for Sandusky’s crimes. They want the many positive contributions of Joe and Sue Paterno to Penn State to be acknowledged and remembered.

“The case isn’t going away,” Dan McGinn says. “The NCAA and Penn State and Louis Freeh took a tragic situation and made it worse. The fact that this case is still being contested so forcefully 40 months later tells you that their strategy was, and is, a failure. They have always wanted to ‘put it behind them.’ That will never happen until they acknowledge the flaws in their approach.”

Jay Paterno has written a book, “Paterno Legacy: Enduring Lessons from the Life and Death of My Father.” He travels around Pennsylvania to talk about Joe Paterno.  This has led to numerous clashes. Jay says there is one person in State College who rarely misses an opportunity to berate his family; he once screamed obscenities at 15-year-old Joey Paterno. But, he adds, it has led to many more touching encounters with people who remember Joe Paterno lovingly and with deep admiration.

“I know there’s nothing here like total victory,” Jay says. “The damage that Louis Freeh and Penn State and the NCAA did here, it can’t ever be completely fixed. My life will never be the same. … I guess for me ‘peace’ is knowing that we did everything we could to fight for the truth. My father believed in the truth. I believe in the power of the truth.”

Scott Paterno has returned to his life as a husband, father and lawyer; for enjoyment he sometimes gets into Twitter spats about politics or sports. These spats sometimes deteriorate and end up with people saying the worst thing that comes to their minds about Joe Paterno. He has come to accept that for himself. But he cannot accept it for his children.

“When the first wave happened and before Dad died,” Scott says. “I told him that we were going to fight like hell, and in the end the best we will do with most people is move you from condemned to controversial because there is no way to prove a negative to the ‘He must have known’ crowd.

“I am very sanguine about my father’s role. I lose no sleep. I know my father did his best. But I am 42. I have young kids who will be in the world someday and will have an idiot throw something like that in their face. At 21, I would have beaten the crap out of someone, and I worry that my kids will have to learn a level of patience that may be too much to ask. So peace, like winning, is a relative term.”

Mary Kay Hort says her view of the world has changed. She doesn’t believe much of what she reads or sees in the news now. Long before Jerry Sandusky was indicted and convicted, long before the Freeh Report, she resented how people would treat her father like a demigod or a saint. She knew he wasn’t any of those things. She knew her father as a man – a good man, a decent man, but a man who had flaws and made mistakes like everyone else. For years, she thought, those impossibly positive portrayals gloried Joe Paterno beyond human boundaries. And she thinks that glorification led people to not treat him like a human being after the Freeh Report came out. There was no benefit of the doubt. There was no concession to his limitations. He became, in the eyes of a nation, all-knowing, all-powerful. This made it easy for people to tear him down cruelly and automatically.

“I never really got to mourn my father,” she says. “He was fired by Penn State, and he died two months later and not long after that the Freeh Report came out and the NCAA did what they did, and we have had to fight back for the truth about him. There was never time to mourn, no time to think about how much we miss him.

“I don’t know what can bring peace. I think about what all this did to my mother. I think about all those people who knew my father, knew what he was about, and still said these terrible things about him. I don’t know about peace.”

Mary Kay Hort looks down at the ground, and tears are in her eyes.

“But then,” she says, “I think about what my father always said. It’s not how hard you fall. It’s how quickly you get back up.”

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    Peter King goes 1-on-1 with Cowboys’ Jason Witten

    Year: 2017
    Runtime: 19:25
    Originally aired on: NBC

    Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has done it all during his 15-year NFL career. The two-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler is the Cowboys’ all-time leader in both receptions and receiving yards and is third in franchise history in touchdowns. The future Hall of Famer let Peter King of The MMQB and Football Night in America behind the scenes for a look into Witten’s recovery process. The end result is an incredibly rare shot of what it takes for an NFL player to take his body from gameday to gameday and perform at their absolute best week after week.

    Off Script: Jeremy Roenick opens up on career, family

    Jeremy Roenick was as outspoken as he was talented during his 20-year NHL career.

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    Once more, with feeling

    NEW YORK — Again and again, over and over, they ask him how he FEELS. Well, this is the question to ask, isn’t it? The bus crawls through New York traffic and takes Jimmie Johnson from office building to office building. People wait inside. Kelly Live waits. Charlie Rose waits. USA Today … Mad Dog Radio … NFL Radio … TMZ. They wait for him on top of the Empire State Building. They wait for him outside the Time Life Building.

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    How does it FEEL to come from nowhere to win your seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie? How does it FEEL to tie the two enduring legends of your sport, “The King,” Richard Petty and “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt? How does it FEEL to be the best at what you do, to be inside a race car, rushing at the speed of chaos with 39 maniacs around you barely holding on? No, really, break it down for our audience, how does it feel to be you, Jimmie Johnson, championship race-car driver, part-time triathlete, millionaire philanthropist like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, loving husband, adoring father, everybody’s best friend and somehow, still, the nicest guy?

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    “Insane,” he says. “It feels insane.”

    “Awesome,” he says. “It feels awesome.”

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

    “I don’t know that I have the words,” he says.

    We’ve known each other a long time, Jimmie and I. We’ve talked about a lot of things through the years, about family and sharks, about food and dreams, faith and football, about kids and ice cream and how hard it is to not care when people boo.

    “Let me ask you something,” I say as the day crawls on, and he has been asked the question two or three dozen times, and his eyes begin to close because he’s worn out. “All these people keep asking you how you feel.”

    “Yeah,” he says. “Part of the job.”

    “I know,” I tell him. “But if you keep talking about how it feels, how do you keep anything for yourself?”

    He smiles at that and shrugs and looks out the window of the bus.

    * * *

    There is a giant hill near the small house where Johnson grew up. People tend to know he grew up around San Diego and so they might think about the sun and the beach, colorful sailboats and yachts. He gives off the impression of royalty. But that’s not the San Diego where he grew up. His town was called El Cajon. There are no yachts in El Cajon. His father operated heavy machinery. His mother drove a school bus. They made do. Jimmie would escape down that hill on his bicycle.

    WATCH: NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards on Dec. 2 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app)

    That hill — El Cajon mountain — is a road that seems to go straight down. Even in a car, it is a bit daunting. And for the young Jimmie Johnson it held all the secrets worth knowing. He would rush too fast down that hill, then faster, then faster still, until his parents would tell him to chill, and his friends would nervously call him crazy. Then he went faster again. At that speed, he found that he could feel everything. Fear. Breathlessness. Joy. Hope. Love. Pain. Oh, sure, there was always some pain. There was always another crash. Jimmie Johnson was the kid who showed up for just about every class photo wearing a cast or leaning on crutches.

    Well, he couldn’t help it. He needed that speed. He needed to race. There was something about being on the edge — barely in control and barely out of control — that called to him. He would do ANYTHING for that feeling because being on that edge was the thing that made him feel most alive. As the years went on, he realized that to get that edge, he needed to make connections. So he made connections. He realized that to get to that edge he needed to know people. So he met people — the Herzogs, the Chevy people, Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick, the people who could help him get where he so needed to go.

    He is just one of those people who cannot leave his fears alone. He needed to explore the fears, dance around them, poke at them if he can. It’s still true. Even after he made his name as a race-car driver and could do more or less anything he wanted, he still spent a vacation diving into the water so he could be thisclose to sharks. Why would a sane person do that?

    “Because I’m absolutely terrified of sharks,” he says, as if that explains it.

    * * *

    Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Jimmie Johnson. It does boggle Johnson’s mind that he’s now in that company, officially and inarguably, one of NASCAR’s holy trinity to win seven championships. People can argue who is, in fact, the greatest of all time — and there will be those who believe it isn’t ANY of the three but instead is an Allison or a Gordon or a Richmond or someone like that. Johnson doesn’t care. He’s so happy to be in the discussion.

    Johnson never did race against Petty or Earnhardt, though he raced plenty against their sons. He did meet the legends. Well, he has met Richard Petty quite a few times, but he doesn’t really have any good stories about it. “What can you say about him that hasn’t been said a million times?” Johnson says. “He’s the King. He treats everyone with respect. He’s our greatest champion. He’s always been very nice to me, but he’s nice to everyone, you know? I don’t really know that I have more to add than that.”

    Johnson does have good stories, though, about the two times he met Dale Earnhardt.

    As part of Johnson’s effort to know people, he became friends with Ron Hornaday Jr., a four-time World Truck Series Champion, and a friend of Earnhardt’s. And one day, Hornaday sees Johnson and says, “Hey, you want to meet Earnhardt?” And of course Johnson says yes because Earnhardt was a legend by then. “People my age,” he says, “there was no one on earth cooler than Dale Earnhardt.”

    They walk in together, and Hornaday introduces Johnson. Earnhardt sizes up the kid; Johnson was 21 years old then. And then Earnhadt reaches for a little box and gives it to Johnson. “Here,” he says with no warning or explanation. Inside is a little pocket knife with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. Johnson is overwhelmed.

    “OK,” Earnhardt says. “So what did you get me?”

    Johnson kind of stumbles around. “Um,” he says, “I didn’t know …”

    Earnhardt growls, “You know it’s YEARS of bad luck if you give somebody a knife and then don’t get a gift in return.”

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

    Earnhardt goes on: “I don’t need your bad luck. I still haven’t won Daytona. I give you a knife and you don’t have anything for me, and now you’re telling me I have to walk around with your bad luck …”

    Johnson panics. He rushes outside and, using all the ingenuity he could muster up, gets a penny. He goes in and gives it to Earnhardt saying, “It’s a heads-up penny for good luck.”

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

    “You know,” Johnson says now, almost 20 years later, “I wonder if he was messing with me.”

    * * *

    Did you see Johnson going crazy?  In the minutes after Johnson won that race at Homestead on Nov. 20, the one that clinched the seventh championship, he lost his mind. He danced. He jumped around. He hugged everyone and everything in his path. He screamed — screamed so loud and with such force that even days later he did not have his voice back.  He had won six championships before this one, and he celebrated those heartily, too. But this was different. This was unchained. This was Spinal Tap’s eleven.

    “I don’t even know who that guy was,” Johnson says as he looks at footage of himself going bananas.

    Shock, of course, had something to do with it. Johnson went into Sunday’s race needing to finish ahead of three drivers — Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — to win the seventh championship. And all race long, he could not beat any of the three. They all had better cars. They all had better track position. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, had tinkered and gambled and even tried making a few rather desperate changes, but none of it mattered. Johnson just didn’t have enough car. Those three guys pulled away, and Johnson was left sitting in his car thinking of ways to be gracious when the inevitable loss happened. “I knew I wasn’t going to win,” he says. “I accepted it.”

    (All the while, his wife, Chandra, was a mess. Chandra is famous around the track for her relatively serene approach to watching Jimmie race. On Sunday, she admitted, she was in the fetal position).

    And then in the final 10 laps of the race, suddenly, a whole series of wacky things happened. Carl Edwards was in command of the championship when the caution flag came out. Poor Carl Edwards. He’s had a glorious NASCAR career, winning 28 races and more than $80 million in prize money, but something has always blocked him from being THE GUY. There was the time he tied Tony Stewart and lost the tiebreaker. There was the year he won nine races, including the last one, but fell short on points. And then there was this one, the time when he had the championship in his hand but a caution flag came out with 10 laps to go and it all went to hell.

    Edwards restarted on the front row, and he had Joey Logano behind him. Jimmie Johnson was behind Logano. And for the first time all day, Johnson thought: “Well, hey, maybe there’s a chance.”

    Logano, as is his style, made a bold move inside to try and beat Edwards on the restart — nobody in NASCAR restarts quite as aggressively and forcefully as Logano. He went so far inside that his car rolled over the painted area near the interior wall. And it was a winning move — his move would trap Edwards between cars, and there’s no escaping that spot. Edwards knew it, knew his race was over if he let Logano by, and so, in a desperate effort to block Logano, he swerved left. “I was a bit optimistic,” Edwards said ruefully afterward. He bumped Logano, and then lost control, leading to a fiery wreck that ended Edwards’ hopes and shut the race down for 30 minutes.

    “As soon as I got by that wreck,” Johnson said, “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What’s happening here? I might actually win this.'”

    Well, that was certainly the thought in the Johnson camp, where Knaus was pumping his fist and Chandra was losing her mind and so on. During that 30-minute, red-flag delay, Johnson’s crew, his fans, and the many people around NASCAR hoping to see a bit of history were going out of their minds. It was going to happen! Jimmie Johnson! Seven championships! Impossible!

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

    “I guess I was calm,” he says, and even now he’s surprised.

    There was one more break to come Johnson’s way — he expected to be lined up in the third position, which would have been him on the inside lane with his championship competitor Kyle Busch on the outside. If there was one thing that was clear all day in Miami it was this: You did NOT want to be in the inside lane. That was the lane where Carl Edwards AND Joey Logano saw their dreams end. “You just can’t hold your speed on the inside at Miami,” Johnson says.

    But, NASCAR determined that Busch, not Johnson, should be in the third spot. Johnson broke free from Busch on the restart and took the lead.

    * * *

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    There’s an irony about NASCAR: It is the ultimate thrill ride — 200 mph on sheet metal and horsepower and all that’s left of your tires — but you don’t get to NASCAR and you don’t win championships through daredevil feats. You get to NASCAR through great racing, yes, but also by building relationships, by impressing sponsors, by pitching the Lowe’s-Budweiser-M&M’s-FedEx-Napa Parts-Chevrolet-Toyota-Ford car and by working within a team. You win championships by driving like the devil when your car is loose and seems to be on a sheet of black ice, yes, but also by understanding what you don’t know and trusting your crew to handle things. You win championships by controlling your car, but also by relinquishing control. It’s the shakiest of balances.

    And balance is what Johnson does better than anyone in the sport.

    So when everyone asks Johnson how he feels after the seventh championship, well, he tries his best, he uses the balanced words that come closest, but really, in a private moment, he will tell you: He doesn’t really know HOW he feels. It’s all too much to take in.

    “All my life,” he says, “I just wanted to race cars. It was never about the numbers. I didn’t want to win seven championships. I didn’t really want to win one championship. I mean, yeah, I wanted to win, but what I really wanted was to drive a race car.”

    Before this race, he said the thing he wanted was to feel like he did when he was a kid, to strip away all the money and all the fame and all the past glory and just feel that thing he used to stay up all night dreaming about, that thing that pushed him to go down El Cajon Mountain just a little bit faster than felt right.

    Did he?

    “When people ask me how I feel,” he says, “I tell them best I can. I want people to share in this feeling i have. … But I don’t tell them everything.”

    * * *

    The second time Johnson met Dale Earnhardt, well, it’s a much shorter story. Johnson was hanging around with some buddies at Earnhardt’s garage when they all saw The Intimidator’s car roll slowly by with its windows pulled up. Suddenly the car stopped, and it backed up, and the window came down.

    “Hey,” Earnhardt said to Johnson. “You work for me?”

    “No sir.”

    “Then get the hell out of here. I don’t need no lawsuits.”

    And the window rolled back up and Dale Earnhardt drove away.

    At the end of that magical race at Homestead, there was one final restart, and after that Johnson heard “Clear” from his spotter, meaning the race and that seventh championship was his. Then came the disbelief and the crazy dancing and screaming and joy and hugs from his wife and children and the greatest compliment a driver could ever get.

    “Jimmie,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say to his friend as he pulled Johnson close, “Dad would think you’re such a badass.”

    The fourth wheel

    MIAMI — Carl Edwards has to know that he’s sort of the odd duck in this year’s Chase. Here, you have Kyle Busch, defending champion, force of nature, superstar. There, you have Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion, legend of the sport.  And third, completing the triangle, you have Joey Logano, 26 years old, phenom trying to insert himself into the story, everybody’s favorite young villain, the future of NASCAR.

    And here is Carl Edwards, 37 years old, a former dirt-track driver who ground out 28 victories in an excellent 13-year career but has never quite crashed through, never won a championship, never quite broken out of the pack of those excellent and professional drivers who make up the heart of NASCAR. People who know him probably know him as the guy who does a backflip when he wins. That’s fun. But it isn’t exactly what he wants.

    When you look at a list of the drivers who won the most races without winning a championship, you see this:

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

    Edwards knows this, knows it better than anyone. He knows there’s a difference in how people look at you when you’ve won a championship — knows there might even be a difference in how you look at yourself.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App)

    “Winning a championship,” he says, “it just means that, you know, you go to bed Sunday night and know, hey, you did it. You beat the best in the world. And we’re the champions … at least until they start racing again. I guess that’s what it comes down to. That’s about the longest a win can last in this sport.”

    Edwards has had his share of championship heartbreak, beginning with his loss to Tony Stewart in 2011. The two were actually tied in points after an epic duel at Homestead, but the championship went to Stewart because he won more races than Edwards that year. NBCSN has shown that race this week, and Edwards admitted that he watched maybe 10 minutes of it. After that, he was so motivated he was ready to jump in a race car immediately.

    There were other close calls, but now, he’s back, and he will not pretend that it’s just another week. When someone asked all four drivers if they were going to try and treat this week differently from other weeks, the other three guys said, “No.” They talked about how you have to treat this race like any other, prepare the same way. Edwards had a different answer.

    “For me,” Edwards said, “I’m going to be honest, this week does feel different. I mean, yes, we do have to go do the same job, like these guys said. But for me, each moment, I almost have to pinch myself, like, ‘Hey, this is really it, we’re getting to do this.’ So this is more excitement for me personally.”

    “Would winning a championship change your self-perception?”

    “Well, yeah, it would be great. I think it would be great … you can print that. It would be great for a different reason for me at this point in my career, though. I’m starting to just realize how difficult this is.

    “As far as self-perception, probably like most race car drivers, I kind of have an ego problem already. So that could put me over the edge, honestly.”

    Edwards’ advantage could be the track. He has won the pole twice at Homestead and has won the race twice, finishing top five five times in his 12 starts. He just won at Texas, which is a similar track that uses a similar tire setup. “There’s not a better race track,” he says. “Statistically, this is as good as it gets for me.”

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    And his dirt-track background sets him up well too. The toughest part of competing in a winner-take-all race is that you have to find a way to win no matter what gets thrown your way. In other races throughout the season, you just do the best you can with what fate deals you. There is always more than one winner in a regular season NASCAR race. There’s the driver that takes the checkered flag, but there are also those who had to overcome numerous problems, mechanical issues, tire trouble, poor pit stops, whatever, and somehow finished seventh or 10th or something like that. Every week, you will hear drivers and crew chiefs say happily, “We got the most out of our car today.”

    But for the four drivers left in the Chase, that’s not really an option on Sunday. It’s all about winning.

    “Carl’s real good at driving through the limits and being able to compensate for something not being right the with the car,” his teammate and competitor Kyle Busch says. “He’s able to make more out of it. So that sets him up pretty well.”

    “I think that comes from his dirt background,” Johnson says. “He’s used to dealing with cars that just weren’t exactly right.”

    “Yeah, that’s nice for people to say,” Edwards himself says. “But this is NASCAR, you have the best drivers in the world, they’re ALL good at making the most of their car. The other three drivers in the Chase are incredible. I don’t really think I have an advantage in that. All of us are good at that.

    “I do feel like, yeah, I like the challenge. I feel like if they would spray the track down with water and said, ‘OK, everybody race,’ I would enjoy that struggle. … But I’ll enjoy this week no matter what. It’s fun. This is what I like.”

    One for the history books

    MIAMI — There is a funny thing about sports dreams. You know, the kind you have when you’re a little kid. You dream about hitting the game-winning home run. You dream about catching the game-winning touchdown pass, or swishing the game-winning basket, or scoring the game-winning goal, or making the putt that wins you the Masters.

    Few of us ever get to do it, of course. But that’s not the funny part.

    The funny part is that the people who DO get to do it, well, they find that it isn’t exactly like the dreams. Take Jimmie Johnson. He has won six NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Six. Only two men — Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven — have any idea what that’s like. But to be realistic, even they don’t know EXACTLY what it is like because the sport has grown so much bigger, the money has grown so much bigger, the pressure has grown so much bigger. So many people are counting on you. So many people are rooting against you. Gigantic companies have many millions of dollars at stake.

    And so even though this is all Jimmie Johnson ever wanted — to be the best race car driver — those first five championships felt nothing at all like his childhood dreams. He didn’t even ENJOY them, not in the way we understand the word “enjoy.” Yes, he was very proud of what he and his team did. Yes, he thrilled in the racing, the speed, the challenge, the victories, the opportunities that came with being the best stock-car driver in the world. But it wasn’t fun, if that makes sense. It wasn’t that innocent joy that went along with all those childhood daydreams, that feeling of the world going in slow motion, that intoxicating blur of champagne and happiness and wonder. He would stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how he could stay on top.

    In 2013, when Johnson was 38 years old and won his sixth championship, the feeling was closer to what he had hoped. By then, Johnson had let go of a lot of things, a lot of the insecurities. He had stopped worrying so much about pleasing everyone. But even that wasn’t EXACTLY what he had dreamed about.

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    “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is nutty, this is stressful, can I do it?'” Johnson says. “You have all of these things weighing you down. When I won those first few championships, it wasn’t fun AT ALL. There was always more to do, you know? In ’13, it definitely felt different. I felt different. That was the most fun I’ve ever had racing for a championship by far.

    “Still, some days, you wish you could feel that thing you wanted as a kid, you know, that place you see in the movies or hear about in stories, and it is surreal, and the world stops and time stops, and it is perfect.”

    So that’s what this time is about. Johnson is 41 years old. He’s a legend of the sport. He has won six championships and 79 races and more than $150 million in prize money. He has won multiple races every year since he was a rookie. The legacy, if such a thing matters, is secure.

    And so, this race is for him.

    “I feel different going into this championship than I have ever felt before, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Johnson says. “As weird as it may sound, I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. And that’s a major player. I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I don’t care what other people think. I really don’t. I’m racing this weekend for me and my family and my team. I don’t have any outside baggage that’s on me. That was other years. There was plenty of that stuff. None of that matters to me anymore.”

    He endured an odd year. It began like most Jimmie Johnson years do — he won in Atlanta in the second race of the year and followed that up three weeks later with a win at Fontana. And then he and his team went into a bit of slump. In a 15-race span, he finished in the top five four times while finishing 20th or worse six times. He and his crew chief Chad Knaus struggled week to week. There was the talk — which has grown louder the last couple of years — that Johnson was close to the end. “I definitely missed driving up front,” Johnson says.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App)

    Then came the Chase and it has been absolutely perfect. He breezed into the second round, then won the first race, Charlotte, to automatically move into the third round. He promptly won the first race of the third round, in Martinsville, to qualify for Sunday’s final four. Johnson’s team has had two stress-free weeks to prepare the car for this final race, and while nobody knows if that will make a difference, well, it can’t hurt.

    And Johnson is just enjoying it. “I’m excited,” he says. “And I’m fresh. I don’t know if it will change as we get closer to the race, if the nerves will come. But I don’t think it will.”

    He is well aware, of course, that winning this title would tie him with Earnhardt and Petty for most championships — so aware of it that ever since he won the race in Charlotte he has been wearing a helmet with Petty and Earnhardt’s photos on it and the words “Drive for Seven.” He says that if he could tie those two legends of the sport, it would mean the world to him because it would connect him to history.

    But, again, he promises not to let that inflate into pressure.

    “I never race for stats,” he says. “I’ve never raced for stats, for fame, for money. I’ve just always loved racing. I feel like I’m more in touch with that, in tune with that, than I’ve ever been in my career.

    “I think about those dreams I had as a kid, dreams all of us have in our own way I suppose. I guess I want that moment. I’ve done this for a long time. And I’d love to have that moment.”

    Promises, promises

    MIAMI — Two years ago, Joey Logano showed up for his shot at destiny … and he was scared out of his mind. He doesn’t like to say it that way. He would prefer to just say, “I was nervous. Because I didn’t know what was happening. And I think that’s where nerves are going to come from.”

    He was just 24 years old then and he was trying to join Jeff Gordon and Bill Rexford as the only two drivers to win a championship before turning 25 years old. But it was different for Logano. He’d been preordained to be NASCAR’s next superstar ever since he was a teenager. “Sliced bread,” they called him — as in “best thing since …” — and while he sort of got a kick out of the nickname and the expectations when he was a kid, those things soon felt like an anchor tied to his waist.

    “Sliced bread,” people would mutter savagely every time he finished out of the top five.

    “Sliced bread,” people would taunt him because he won just three races in his first five full seasons.

    “Sliced bread,” other drivers would mock when they felt like Logano pushed his aggressiveness too far.

    Then in 2014, it finally came together for Logano. He won five times. He came to Homestead with a real chance to win the championship … only he readily admits that his head just wasn’t in the right place. “I couldn’t settle my mind down,” he says. “I was thinking about what could happen … or what’s going to happen … what’s the week going to look like … what’s the feeling on Sunday going to be … what is it going to feel like like getting in the car … do I have what it takes?”

    Here Logano smiles. He’s famous for that smile.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App)

    “I think that’s the big one. ‘Do I have what it takes?’ I didn’t know then. I know now.”

    “What do you know?” 

    “I know the challenge ahead. I’m prepared for that. I’m ready for that, ready for the pressure. I’m more than ready, I’m excited about it. I’m genuinely pumped. It’s like a complete 180 from last time I was here.”

    There are times when it feels like Logano has been racing forever — and he HAS been racing full time since 2009 — but he’s still just 26 years old. He’s five years younger than Jimmie Johnson was when he won the first of his so-far six championships, three years younger than Dale Earnhardt when he won his first of seven. And he’s five years younger than any of the other drivers in the Chase this year.

    And it’s the combination of youth and experience that makes him unique … and dangerous. NASCAR people will tell you: Young drivers go FAST. The great Junior Johnson used to say, “They don’t know no better — they haven’t hit the wall yet.” So younger drivers push closer to the edge than might be prudent out of youthful exuberance and daring. That makes them go extremely fast, yes, but then they tend to burn out (or spin out or get spun out).

    Logano has that speed. But he has more or less stopped burning out.

    “When you’re flirting with the edge, you’re going to step over it from time to time,” Jimmie Johnson says. “And he has. I think he’s figured out how to inch his way up to the edge instead of flying over it like he did three or four years ago.”

    “For me,” Carl Edwards says, “a switch has gone off the last couple of years for Joey. He’s just so fast everywhere. I have a feeling he’s going to be VERY fast on Sunday. He’s hungry. He wants this very badly. You could argue that he doesn’t have a lot of experience or whatever but I’ve been around long enough. I’ve watched how he’s been approaching this. I think he’s got a ton of confidence.”

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    The other three drivers talk a lot about handling whatever adversity comes this week, being patient, always, in the immortal words of NASA legend Gene Kranz, “Working the problem.” Logano talks about these things too, but more he talks about being aggressive … and being aggressive … and when that doesn’t work, to keep being aggressive.

    “Attack all day,” Logano says of the gameplan. “That’s it. It’s the way our team is. It has been for the last three years or whatever. That’s what we found to be successful for us. Race aggressively. Attack every minute. I start the race and say, ‘I’m here to win,’ and I have that ‘I will not get beat’ attitude throughout the race. Whether that’s good or bad, well, it’s different for other people. Probably it’s a lot different. But it works for us.”

    And when you ask him how he will deal with the frustration that might come with a poor pit stop or a car that won’t quite adjust to conditions or the ever-changing conditions of the track, he smiles again.

    “Frustration is OK,” he says. “It’s OK as long as it’s channeled in the right way. But there’s never that feeling of ‘We’re just not going to win today. It’s just not our day. We suck.’ There’s never that feeling. Because I know we don’t suck. I know I’m a very good race car driver. I know I have a very good race team. And I know we can handle this.”

    The Magic Man

    MIAMI — The wonderful thing about the press conference for the NASCAR Championship Four — just three days before the big race — is that you have all four of the contending drivers sitting on the stage side by side. And because they are sitting next to each other, you can get just a small feel for how they feel about each other and their chances and everything else coming into the winner-take-all final race.

    Joey Logano, for instance, is totally pumped up, super happy. Why not? He won last week to become one of the four drivers to have a chance to win a championship Sunday. This is the dream, man.

    Jimmie Johnson seems calm, beyond calm, like he’s done this whole thing a million times before, which is pretty close to true.

    Carl Edwards looks a bit dazed, but in the best of ways. He’s 37 years old now and he has won 28 races and more than $80 million, but he has never won a Sprint Cup Championship. He looks like a guy in a dream.

    And then there’s Kyle Busch. He looks, um, lethargic.

    “Do you guys like each other?” someone asks the group.

    “Kyle,” Logano says, “we’ll let you answer that.”

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports App)

    Busch looks out with a bit of a bewildered expression, as if someone has just woken him up from a nap. “I am exhausted,” he would say later. And when asked why, he would say, “I am always exhausted.”

    “Do you like each other?” was the question to the group.

    “Right now, yes,” Busch says. “In about 25 seconds, no.”

    Kyle Busch has the aura now. For so many years, he was the guy with unlimited potential, the impossibly talented driver who won a lot of races but always should have won more. Busch himself bought into the hype. He lashed out. He got into numerous dust-ups. Fans loathed him. He beat himself up continuously. In the words of his team owner Joe Gibbs: “He always felt like he was letting himself and his team down, like he wasn’t living up to his great talent.”

    Last year, it all changed. What a year that was. Busch got into a wreck at Daytona that threatened to end his entire season — for a brief time it seemed like his career might be in danger. Even once the doctors got a handle on his condition, Busch was supposed to be out for a minimum six months. Three months later he was standing — wobbly but standing — in the hospital room when his wife Samantha gave birth to their son Brexton.

    Then he came back to the track … and he was essentially unbeatable. In a beautiful five-week span, he won at Sonoma, at Kentucky, at Loudon and finally at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis — his first major victory. He won so much that he easily qualified for the Chase even though he’d missed 11 races. Then he made it to the final four, and he ran away to victory at Homestead for his first championship. In the last few laps, he was singing the theme song for “Vocabularry” — his infant son’s favorite TV show.

    A magical year like that, yeah, it changes a person.

    “No,” he says now, “it doesn’t feel a whole lot different.”

    A magical year like that, um, it sort of changes a person?

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    “Well, look, it hasn’t been terribly different on the racing side,” Busch says. “Personally, with Brexton at home and stuff like that, that’s different. Having him come to all the races, that’s pretty fun. We certainly enjoy the time that we have on the road. But, you know, I’m just me.”

    So, OK, maybe a magical year like that doesn’t change a person — but don’t tell the other drivers that. They see a different Kyle Busch. There was always a saying in the garages about Kyle Busch during those years when he could not quite put everything together: If he ever wins a championship, watch out.

    Now that he’s won one, yes, watch out.

    “He just has so much confidence now, you can see it,” Johnson says. “I mean, he was always a confident guy, but it’s different, I think. Now, he’s a champion. Now, he KNOWS.”

    That is exactly the thing that is apparent as Kyle Busch sits off to the side during the press conference — it’s like he’s separate from the other three. He knows. He’s the defending champion. He’s the closest thing this Chase has to a favorite. He’s the guy in the best position to take over this sport, to be the new Dale Earnhardt, the new Bobby Allison, the new Richard Petty. A year ago, after he won his championship, he boldly said he’d like to win 10 in a row. When people laughed, he made it clear that he wasn’t joking.

    “It’s not about what we did last year,” he says. “We’ve already got that one. It’s in the bag. This is about going out there THIS one. It’s one race. It doesn’t matter what the situation is this week, doesn’t matter what comes your way, you have to figure out a way to win.”

    That, more than anything, might be what makes Kyle Busch the favorite. Right now, there is no stock-car driver anywhere who can make more out of less than Kyle Busch. Just last week in Phoenix, he had a tepid car that was running around 15th for most of the race. Through sheer relentlessness, a few adjustments on the car and a bit of driving brilliance — especially on restarts (Busch is a wonder on restarts) — they somehow finished second and could have won.

    “Oh, Kyle can make some magic,” Johnson says. “And knowing him, I’ll bet he will on Sunday.”

    No more fun and games

    Cam Newton, at his best, is a magical player. He does things that blow minds. He throws 30-yard darts that slip by defensive backs before they can react. He avoids sacks not so much by eluding them as by simply standing up through them, a brick house in the Big Bad Wolf’s wind. Newton takes off running and in the open field he is both halfback and fullback, able at times to split defenders in two the way Gale Sayers could, able at other times to blast through a defender, not unlike the way Neo blasts through Agent Smith at the end of “The Matrix.”

    This is Newton at his height, when the conditions are right, when his team is playing great and the opponent is in retreat and, as the Magic 8-Ball says, “All signs point to yes.”

    This was Newton last year for a 15-1 Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl.

    Something has changed this year, of course. That part is obvious. It isn’t that Newton is playing badly. His numbers are down, yes, and the Panthers are 3-6 and in last place. But he’s still among the top five or 10 quarterbacks out there. And there have been a few familiar moments. He threw for four touchdown passes against San Francisco. He has had a couple of dazzling runs. He has put his team in position to win for the most part, including last week against Kansas City. It isn’t like Newton suddenly forgot how to play football … he’s still Cam Newton.

    But something has obviously changed.

    What? There are a few clear possibilities. The Panthers’ defense was otherworldly last year, forcing turnover after turnover, setting up Newton and his offense with golden opportunities time and again. That has more or less stopped this year. The Panthers are starting inside their own 20-yard line more often. This has affected the Panthers’ offense generally and Newton specifically. He’s thrown only 10 touchdown passes this year. All the numbers are down.

    On offense, the line has been beat-up and inconsistent, and that has knocked Newton off his game. He has thrown off his back foot more often, and that usually leads to bad things. It did last week when the Panthers seemed about ready to put away Kansas City — a retreating Newton threw a pick-six that put Kansas City back in a game that should have been over. Newton has dealt with injuries, too — he missed the game against Tampa Bay, and he wasn’t himself in others.

    Watch: Saints vs. Panthers on Thursday Night Football (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com and NBC Sports app)

    And, perhaps most of all, teams have been taking their free shots at him at every turn. Newton is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and a great runner, so teams obviously have to tackle him hard. But there’s no question opponents have taken this to an extreme this season. They have hit Newton late a few times, stolen some shots to the head, unloaded some knockout blows. And, for the most part, there have been no penalties to accompany the hits, possibly BECAUSE Newton is so big and powerful.

    This has driven Newton to distraction. Newton seems to believe the whole world is ganging up on him. A couple of weeks ago, he flatly said that the late hits are “really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe.”

    Newton has a beef. But more to the point here, all of this leads to this rather simple theory that I have about Cam Newton.

    He needs to be having fun to play his best football.

    And this year, he’s just not having any fun.

    Great athletes tend to feed off different motivations. Some want to be loved. Some seem to get a huge kick out of being despised. Some are motivated by fear, others by anger, still others by fame and fortune. Tom Brady, for instance, STILL seems to motivate himself by disrespect (you might have heard that he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft) even though it has been years since anybody disrespected him (Roger Goodell aside). Meanwhile, a player like Carolina’s impeccable linebacker Luke Kuechly seems to motivate himself through the daily challenge of figuring out how to break up an offense — it is like a puzzle for him.

    Newton apparently grazes off joy. He wears the hats. He does the dances. He gives away the footballs. The bigger the lead, the more fun he has, the better he plays. The louder the crowd, the more fun he has, the higher he soars. This is part of what makes Newton such a joy; through it all, he PLAYS football the way kids PLAY football. It’s a game. And it’s so much fun when everything is working and everyone has come together.

    This is something people around the Carolina team have noticed for years. There have been times that people inside the organization have wondered if Newton could be serious enough to become a great NFL quarterback. Soon enough they realized that it was the wrong question, realized that being serious doesn’t suit him or his play. You probably noticed how serious Newton looked in the Super Bowl last year. That didn’t turn out well.

    Marty Schottenheimer is one of the many coaches who noted that you can’t have fun in the NFL if you lose. The Panthers are coming off one of their worst losses in recent franchise history, a complete giveaway to the Chiefs. Their playoff situation looks pretty dire — Carolina might have to win out. The key will be getting Newton to start having fun again.

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

    For years, there was this fun argument going on about Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The argument assumed that both men are the best who ever played golf and tennis (an open debate, obviously). And it led to one question: Who is better at their sport?

    The argument never really went anywhere because for every point (golf requires beating the WHOLE field rather than one opponent at a time), there was a counterpoint (one mediocre/bad day in golf does not sink a golfer’s chances, but it can end a tennis player’s tournament).

    For every factor that points to the difficulty of golf (it is so mentally challenging that even the great golfers will miss cuts with some regularity — Phil Mickelson missed 11 in his career) there is another that points to the difficulty of tennis (it is so physically grueling that many of the greatest players — John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Mats Wilander, on and on — won their last Grand Slam singles title by the time they turned 25 years old).

    Anyway, it was fun to talk about, even if it never really led anywhere. But there is something that does seem to be emerging about the wonderful dominance of Woods and Federer. You might call the two effects “dishearten” and “hearten.”

    All of this, eventually, will take us to Andy Murray. Hopefully.

    Tiger Woods was such a force in golf that he disheartened his opponents. He broke their spirit. They could not beat him, not when he was on his game, not when he was slightly off his game and, quite often, not even when he was very much off his game. There’s an old Jack Nicklaus line that is even more true for Woods: He knew he would beat you, you knew he would beat you, and he knew that you knew he would beat you.

    FIfty-eight times, Woods was either in the lead or tied for the lead going into the final round. He won 54 of them. He won the first 14 major tournaments he led after 54 holes.

    And how did this uncommon mastery of a sport that is supposed to defy mastery affect other golfers? It crushed them. Sure, there were supremely talented golfers in Woods’ time, several who are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But let’s put it this way — from the time when Woods broke onto the scene and breezed to the 1997 Masters title to when he won the U.S. Open on one leg, there were 46 major championships.

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

    The other 32 majors? Well, 25 different golfers won those 32 majors. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson won three. Mark O’Meara, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els won two each. Those five terrific players — four already in the Hall of Fame with only Goosen waiting — won fewer majors than Woods COMBINED. And the other 20 majors were won by 20 different golfers. It’s a clear pattern: Everyone would show up at the majors with the hope that Woods was way off his game. Then, and only then, did they have a chance.

    His magnificence was unassailable. It was meant to be enjoyed and feared but not challenged. The best golfers on earth not named Tiger Woods had to console themselves with the huge sums of money that Tiger brought into the sport and the hope that maybe someday he would stop winning everything and leave some tournaments for everyone else.

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

    Roger Federer, somehow, was the opposite. He was every bit as dominant as Woods — the numbers are even more striking. From 2003, when Federer won his first Wimbledon to 2010 when he took the Australian Open, there were 27 Grand Slam tournaments. Federer won 16 of them, more than half, and reached the final in another six. The only other tennis players to win Grand Slams in Roger’s time: Rafael Nadal, who won six, and five others who managed one each.

    But it was different somehow. There was something magnanimous about Federer’s beautiful game, something that opened up possibilities in the minds of other tennis players. Golfers would see Tiger Woods hit miracle shots out of trouble and make every important putt he looked at and they would think: NO SHOT. But Federer would hit some implausible running forehand winner or spin a drop-volley with such touch that it would not even bounce, and the other tennis players would think: I WANT TO DO THAT!

    That begins with Nadal, of course. He seemed to be just the latest in a long line of Spanish and Latin American clay-court specialists — Sergi Brugera, Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrera — who would show up at the French Open to win and then disappear like top-spinning swallows of Capistrano.

    Nadal, though, was stirred to take his game to a higher place. He has spoken eloquently about how the inspiration of Federer took him there. Nadal has won all four major championships and 14 Grand Slam tournaments in all — he has his place now in the inner circle of all-time tennis greats. His rivalry with Federer might just be the greatest in tennis history. Nadal has controlled it for the most part with shots that kick up high and attack Fed’s backhand like wasps. Still, their tennis has lifted the sport.

    Novak Djokovic was next. He had both Federer AND Nadal to contend with, something that certainly could have left him entirely discouraged. At times, he did indeed seem discouraged. Djokovic does not have quite the grace or touch of Federer nor the ferocious power of Nadal. He found his own path — foot speed, instincts, hitting balls on the rise, imposing return of serve and sheer ambition. He has now won 12 Grand Slam titles, including the career Grand Slam. He has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal. He too has a place in tennis’ inner circle.

    All of which brings us to Andy Murray. He has been around a long time. It is tempting to think that Murray is younger than he is, but he was born in the same month as Djokovic (Murray is actually a week older). He is less than a year younger than Nadal. He played in his first Wimbledon in 2005. He has endured more or less the ENTIRE period of Roger and Rafa and Novak’s dominance.

    He did not just endure that dominance, he was repeatedly smacked down by their dominance. The first 10 times he reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal, he was knocked out by Nadal (four times), Federer (three times) or Djokovic (two times)*. If anyone had good reason to grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time, it was Murray.

    *He was also beaten once in a semi by Andy Roddick, another slap in the face — he couldn’t even be the best ANDY on the court that day.

    And Murray seemed, well, to put it delicately, just the type of person who would grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time. Murray in 2008, when he was 21 years old and had not yet won a single significant tournament (no offense to the Qatar Open) nor reached the final of a Grand Slam event, wrote an autobiography called “Hitting Back.” Nobody was entirely sure WHY he wrote an autobiography at that time, but he did indeed hit back — at British tennis, at the media members who doubted him (he was refusing to even talk to the BBC at the time) and at the unfair obstacles he seemed sure that everyone was putting in his way and his way alone. He came across as a very angry young man, though nobody was entirely sure why.

    Then, maybe the answer why was obvious. Federer was majestic then. Nadal was ascendant. Djokovic won the Australian Open that very year. There seemed to be no room in the tennis world for Andy Murray, and he seemed to know it.

    So what happened from there? The book kept getting updated as Murray began growing up. The paperback version of that book was called “Coming of Age.” And then the book title was updated and titled  “Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory.” That happened in 2013, after Murray broke the 77-year British drought and won Wimbledon. By then, he was a different tennis player and a different man. He had won the Olympics in London. He won the U.S. Open that year. He had found himself.

    And I would argue that it was, once again, the inspiration of Federer, who inspired Nadal, who inspired Djokovic, who inspired Murray. Andy improved everything about his game. And he did it by building up every single part of his game. He doesn’t really do anything specifically better than the rest of the world. But you know those Sprint commercials where Sprint basically admits it’s not QUITE as good as Verizon, but it’s 99 percent as good for half the price?

    Murray doesn’t quite have Djokovic’s return of serve (no one in tennis history does) or his pure speed — but it’s probably 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Nadal’s bullfighter tenacity — win or die with honor — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Federer’s ability to hit the “gaga shot” that tilts an opponent’s head the same way shaking a pinball machine does — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    In other words, at least as I see it, Murray created a game that is like an homage to those masters he has been trying to beat. He does a little bit of everything, and he brings along some of that youthful rage and intensity, and here he is: Murray is now the No. 1 player in the world.

    It is unclear if he will stay at No. 1 for very long. Djokovic seems worn down by his own extraordinary rise, but he has still made the final of nine of the last 11 Grand Sam tournaments, winning six of them. Djokovic also dominated the head-to-head matchups between them, winning 24 of 34 matches and eight of the 10 times they played in Grand Slams. It seems a pretty good bet that he will be back, and so this could be just a Murray blip, a fluke of timing.

    Or it could be more. Either way, for Murray to reach No. 1 after all these years is an extraordinary thing.

    When Tiger Woods hit the golf scene, you will remember there was a lot of talk about the generation of golfers he would give rise to, the young golfers who, seeing what he was doing, would find a way to take golf even higher. We might be seeing that with golfers like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, though it is too early to tell.

    Federer’s impact is clearer. He came into the sport during a lull, just as the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era was ending, and he played sublime and previously unimaginable tennis. And his tennis genius has helped create three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that. But, hey, who DOESN’T want to be Roger Federer?