Justin Skaggs certainly wasn't the most talented player Danny White ever coached. He may have been the hardest worker, however.
"Justin was the kind of guy that every coach dreams of having," said the Utah Blaze coach of his former receiver/linebacker. "You knew you were never going to have any trouble with him and he was going to give you everything he had on every play and in every practice and in every game. You just wish you could have 20 guys like him."
Skaggs, a popular player for Utah's Arena Football League team during their first two years as a franchise, passed away due to brain cancer on June 15, 2007, just weeks after his final game in a Blaze uniform.
Skaggs' death came late in Utah's '07 season, after all the team's home games had been played. As such, it didn't allow many of his Salt Lake City fans to pay their last respects. To that end, the Blaze will honor Skaggs during tonight's game against the Georgia Force at EnergySolutions Arena. His widow, Tara, and two young children, Jake and Abbie, will be on hand for the event.
"I had a locker right next to Justin and considered him a close friend," said Blaze receiver Aaron Boone. "I learned a lot from him. He was a fighter and a tough kid and a hard-nosed, God-fearing father. I'll never forget one of the lessons he taught me. He said, 'Don't tell God how big your problems are. Tell your problems how big God is.' That's the kind of guy Justin was and that's how he lived."
While the Blaze will spend a portion of the night celebrating Skaggs' life, they also know they have a job to do on the field. Utah, now 0-4, will be going for its first win of the season for the fifth time this young season.
"We're well aware of our record, but we know we are better than that," Boone said. "We know what we need to do. Now it's just going out there and doing it."
White said his team's biggest area of concern through the first four games was in the defensive backfield. But that's an area the team has addressed the past two weeks, trading with Orlando for 11-year veteran Damon Mason last week and then landing another top defensive back, Eddie Canonico, from the L.A. Avengers, on Thursday.
"We've made some pretty major adjustments (in the defensive backfield)," White said, "so I think we are on the right road there."
As has been the case for most of the franchise's history, the Blaze are among the AFL's top scoring teams. Utah, led by quarterback Joe Germaine, is fourth in the league in scoring, averaging 58.8 points per game. But on the flip side, the Blaze defense is 16th out of 17 teams in scoring defense, giving up an average of 62.5 points.
Georgia, meanwhile, has had the opposite problem through its disappointing 1-3 start. The Force's defense has been solid (giving up 51 points per game), but has struggled to put points on the board (scoring 48 per outing). Still, Utah knows that veteran QB Chris Greisen is a big-time passer who is capable of leading the Force to a huge scoring night.
"It will be two of the most prolific quarterbacks from the last two years (going against each other)," White said. "But we'll see. I'm hoping for a defensive game. I really am."
And the Blaze are desperate for a victory."Our guys are a little embarrassed right now," White said. "I don't expect a lot of guys having fun out there. We've put the fun behind us. We've decided that we need to win first and the fun comes later."
Blaze on the air
Georgia Force (1-3) at Utah Blaze (0-4)
Today, 7 p.m.