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Next on NFL's plate: China

Patriots could play exhibition there in '07

In China, eight is a lucky number. NFL officials are hoping the same is true for them.

To mark that tradition, the league recently donated 88 specially painted footballs to the Beijing Olympic Committee, as part of an effort to promote the 2008 Games in China. Meanwhile, outside Chicago, Roger Goodell was being elected the eighth commissioner of the most popular sports league in America.

If lucky eights have anything to do with it, the NFL could be on its way to playing its first game in China next summer, in the first year of the reign of its eighth commissioner. And the Patriots may very well be one of the teams in Beijing.

The Patriots are among a half-dozen teams that have indicated a willingness to travel to China for an event that would be used as a dry run by both Chinese officials preparing to stage the 2008 Games and NBC, which would televise the game and use the experience to prepare for its Olympic broadcasts. The NFL staged a similar exhibition game in Australia in 1999, one year prior to the Olympics in Sydney, so this is not without precedent.

But one pro football game is not the real goal of the NFL in China.

The real goal is to reach the largest consumer market in the world with a game that has only recently been introduced there. This season, for example, CCTV, China's national television network, will simulcast NBC's Sunday night games, as well as the Thursday night season opener from Pittsburgh, using its own announcers. The Sunday night games will air on Monday mornings in China.

In addition, the Oakland Raiders recently hosted coaches from China's growing flag football program, which had a team in this year's NFL Flag Football World Championships in Cologne, Germany. China has been involved in that event since 2003. It finished ninth in 2004, fifth last year, and made it to the knockout round before losing to Spain last week.

In all these ways and more, the NFL is trying to forge a relationship with the most populous country in the world to tap a massive new market and add revenue streams.

``To continue to grow, you have to have an international business presence," said Pete Abitante, senior director of international public affairs for the NFL. ``China is such an untapped market for us. That's why flag football is important to us. When you think about how you learned to play football, it was, `Go down to the fire hydrant and I'll throw you a pass.'

``Flag football is a good place to start because it's the simplest form of the game for kids 11 to 14. Bringing flag football to their schools is a way to show we're not just there to bring in NFL games."

The league has sent representatives to China several times to discuss possible ventures, including a trip last May when they took not only commissioner Paul Tagliabue to Beijing and Shanghai but potentially the league's greatest ambassador: former Philadelphia Eagles tight end Chad Lewis. Lewis was a hit not because of his football prowess but because he speaks fluent Mandarin, which he learned during a two-year mission in Taichung, Taiwan, before attending Brigham Young University.

``You talk about catching people off guard," Abitante recalled. ``You can't get any more American-looking than Chad, and then he opens his mouth and he's speaking to the people in their language. He even signed autographs in Chinese characters. We're trying to open doors there little by little."

The next big effort will involve a preseason game next August, with the target date -- naturally -- 8/8/2007. There is still much work to be done before it becomes reality, including finding a local promoter in China to handle the logistics. But the desire is there on all sides, including the Patriots'.

``Nothing is finalized, but we're interested in bringing a game there, and the Chinese seem interested," Abitante said. ``We polled the teams to see who would be willing to go and there is interest among a half-dozen teams, including the Patriots.

``We have some people coming back from meetings there this week so we'll know better where we stand after that, but the Chinese know we'd bring a big event, and NBC is as interested as the Chinese are."

A push for a patriotic tribute

Tim Bonin hasn't forgotten Pat Tillman, and he doesn't want you to, either.

For the past three years, Bonin was chief financial officer of the San Miguel School in Providence, a middle school for at-risk urban boys formed by the Christian Brothers 13 years ago; it is now used as a model for 13 such schools around the country.

When Bonin isn't out raising money to keep the school going, he's working on a website, themissingpatriot.com, which is an effort to persuade first the Patriots and then the entire NFL to retire the No. 40 once worn by the former Cardinals defensive back, who gave up a million-dollar career to join the Army and then lost his life from friendly fire during a night maneuver in Afghanistan.

Bonin, who has a Patriots jersey with Tillman's name and number framed and hanging over his desk, believes he and a small but growing band of compatriots can create enough momentum to right what he feels was a wrong by the NFL, which he says ``dropped the ball" when it designated only one weekend two years ago to honor Tillman.

Bonin feels Tillman's life is ``a lesson for our youth," a lesson about courage but also about sacrifice. Bonin has started an on line petition asking Patriots owner Robert Kraft to be the first outside of Arizona to retire Tillman's number.

Bonin's efforts began a week ago when the Cardinals came to Foxborough. At that game, there was one banner in the parking lot acknowledging the ``missing patriot" effort. This weekend, he said, there will be two. So it goes with a grass-roots movement that hopes to use Tillman's life as an inspiration for young people.

``At the school, kids would come in and ask about the No. 40 and I used that to explain the message of Pat Tillman's life," Bonin said. ``I saw how the message resonated with those kids. That got me thinking."

One person who signed the online petition was a Patriots season ticket-holder who said he would make a banner for last night's game.

``Ironically, he was the 40th person to sign on," Bonin said. ``We reached as far south as Florida and as far west as Oregon and Anchorage. At that point, I knew that we were going to be just fine.

``We have kind of a captive audience in Mr. Kraft's parking lots so we can go around and talk about our effort. You get a lot of cheerleader groups there trying to raise money. We're not asking for anything but people's interest in honoring Pat Tillman and the guys like him who gave up so much for our country.

``I don't want this to be rushed. In many respects, this effort has to be about us -- the fans and good people of New England -- before we look to anyone else. The key here is for this thing to grow slowly. The Kraft family should know this and shouldn't feel pressured into action or even commenting on it from us anytime soon.

``I want to grow this thing and plan to work very hard at it. Others are, too. This is a movement about people uniting, which I think Mr. Kraft would appreciate.

``He was a patriot. So are we. Eventually, we'd hope to make a case to Mr. Kraft that [retiring No. 40] is worth doing. We understand the league is very strict about the way it does things, so if they can't do it as a stand-alone, maybe he will take it to the league and start a dialogue. A lot can be told to young people from Pat Tillman's life."

Etc.

Minds are his business
Rookie Lions head coach Rod Marinelli has been testing his players' resolve all summer and Friday he took it to new lengths when he decided to leave for that night's exhibition game in Oakland in the morning, play the game, then get back on the plane immediately and fly back to Detroit. That's about 9 hours and 20 minutes and 4,050 flying miles in one day. When asked why, Marinelli said, ``It's a team issue, and it's team business. That's our schedule on Friday, and we're going to take off and we're going to go. I try to keep those things with myself and the team private." Sources in Detroit claim Marinelli is tired of hearing his players' complaints, which they have been legendary for around the league for years. Marinelli believes such constant carping is the sign of a weak mind, and he intends to change that.

Job slipped out of his hands
The quarterback controversy in Jacksonville is over. After David Garrard went 4-1 as a starter last year when Byron Leftwich was hurt, there was some thought that he might be a viable alternative this season. Coach Jack Del Rio played Leftwich only two series against Carolina and played Garrard with the first string. Garrard fumbled three times and threw two interceptions. Thus Leftwich retained his position.

Upshaw, unleashed
Only one problem with Bryant Gumbel's comments about NFL Players Association head Gene Upshaw being ``on a leash" held by outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Many owners remain angry over the deal they felt Upshaw crammed down their throats in the spring, with Tagliabue's assistance, to extend the CBA at least four more years and force increased revenue sharing. If you talk to them, Gumbel's charge seems laughable.

Deeply troubled
Ex-Steelers safety Chris Hope is beginning to see that life in Nashville is not the same as life in Pittsburgh. He made a pointed comment last week that one of the problems with a team like the Titans is the lack of depth creates a comfort level for starters, something he never saw at Florida State or with the Steelers. ``Here, you might not have anybody to push you, so you fall into a win-win situation," Hope said. `` `If I don't do it, who are they going to put in for me?' It can't be like that. That's the frustrating thing for me right now."

A tenuous position
Here's why depth at cornerback is so key in the NFL. Last year, there were only three cornerback tandems that started all 16 games: Jacksonville (Rashean Mathis and Kenny Wright), Tampa Bay (Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber), and Green Bay (Ahmad Carroll and Al Harris). Only 19 cornerbacks leaguewide started all 16 games, one being the supposedly too old and fragile Ty Law, who tied for the AFC lead with 10 interceptions. None of the 16-game starters played for the Patriots, which is why the early exposure given to safety Eugene Wilson at the corner position was a forward-thinking move by coach Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Dean Pees.

Receiving good news
Cincinnati's Chad Johnson is attempting to become the first receiver since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to win four consecutive receiving-yardage titles, and he got some good news last week when quarterback Carson Palmer said he'll start the final preseason game, barring any unexpected swelling in his knee. Johnson joined Tim Brown as the only AFC receivers to win the yardage title three straight times. Jerry Rice did it in the NFC. The all-time leader is Don Hutson, who led the league four times (1941-44) with the Packers.

McGinest is uniformly upset
Willie McGinest remains peeved at how the Patriots handled his departure, which is why he spoke so candidly about the decision to allow Junior Seau to wear No. 55, McGinest's old number. According to McGinest, Belichick called him and was ``uncomfortable" asking McGinest's permission to give the number to Seau. McGinest feels owner Robert Kraft should have stepped in and told Seau it was off-limits. Seau also called McGinest and left a message, but the two did not talk. ``Belichick's trying to get his team ready to play football, he's coaching," McGinest said. ``I don't think that was a decision that Belichick should have had to make or Seau. I shouldn't have been in the position to have to answer that question. I think that's an executive organization thing. If you posed the question to me, and I had a chance to sign with San Diego in the offseason, what if I would've went to San Diego? I don't think that would have been an option for me, to ask for 55. I think they would have said, `You know, you're a great player and we respect you, but we're putting this number aside because of Junior.' Out of respect, I wouldn't have even asked for the number. I probably would have went back to my high school number. It's just another indication they were making `another business move.' "

Easing his pain
The Jets showed how to treat a longtime productive employee when they reworked running back Curtis Martin's contract without manhandling him. He was to have earned $2.5 million this year but agreed to a split contract that reduces his 2006 salary to $810,000, the veteran minimum. If he's placed on season-ending injured reserve, which seems more likely with each passing day, his salary would drop to $475,000. It was a good-faith gesture by the Jets, rewarding one of their greatest players rather than simply releasing him without having to pay anything but an injury settlement.

Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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