Give Me Darien or Give Me Death

Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventures of She...
Sherlock Holmes in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He [Moriarty] is the Napoleon of crime, Watson. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city. He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker. He has a brain of the first order.” Sherlock Holmes, The Final Problem

The last game of the regular season was a nail biter fought against a motivated rival that wanted nothing more than to prove their prowess as a 8-1 team, secure regional bragging rights and defend their year-long hold on the coveted Turkey Bowl championship trophy. Our boys were 12-0 and recently crowned FCIAC champs, now fighting to stay ranked number one in CT and for the right to join the rarefied pantheon of undefeated teams from their high school.

As with all things New England, the weather proved a fickle twelfth man – denying each squad the ability to leverage some perceived advantage. The scoring see-sawed across missed and executed assignments, made and incomplete plays, turnovers, penalties, and defensive and offensive gems. It was a thrill and agony for thousands of Darien and New Canaan fans who left the warmth of their homes in hopes of sautéing their dinners with a win in the eighty-fourth annual Thanksgiving Day meeting of the two border town rivals.

Over the years, this particular rivalry has become part of our unique, small town mythology. As the parent of a senior player, I was very familiar with the families on both sides of the ball – having shared a decade of sidelines with my fellow New Canaanites and equally invested Darien parents at countless football and lacrosse games. The only thing that separated us over the years had been a thin green patch of field and an invisible geographic line of demarcation that moved like an EKG from east to west across Southern Fairfield County.

In a place where we must endure waiting – for spring, for summer, for a seat on a train, for a storm to stop, for electricity to go back on, for a market to turn and for a second chance to right a wrong, rivalries give our lives discreet meaning. Our rivals teach us much about ourselves – how to overcome defeat, how to behave in victory, how to work hard and how to focus. It’s about periodically having your best laid plans thwarted and not getting too comfortable with press clippings or self charted trajectory. Like the old west, it’s a reminder that on any given day, there may be a guy out there who can draw his gun a little faster.

I was informed upon moving to New Canaan that the tribe to the south was indeed the enemy. Like us, they were successful, war-like and athletic. As in nature, there was only room at the top of the food chain for one champion. Initially, I found it hard to distinguish them from our own – and it seemed that our mutual disdain, like property taxes, was foisted upon us when we signed the mortgage papers. We were in fact, like two twisted oaks arising out of the same single root system. Later in life, my daughter would return home from college across three thousand miles of America and announce that her new best guy friend was a guy named Grant from Darien. Mon enfant? Sacre Bleu?

Personally, I love being a part of the almost century long rivalry between these sibling communities. Competition is the essence of our American ethos and it brings us meaning and purpose. A player is not only competing for the right to assert his/her alpha status – a rank which, by the way, carries only a 364 day shelf life; but, the competitor also gets to experience what it feels like to be a standard bearer for their town. Any regional competition becomes much more than a game, it evolves into a hot stove debate over generational genetics and who has the better coffee shop and diner. And oh, those games can be barn burners.

Like Holmes and Moriarty, Superman and Lex Luther or Batman and the Joker, rivals need each other to fuel their own identities. Closer to home, it helps promote a sense of team and community and it creates life lessons. Irrespective of statistical match-ups, each year it seems our teams prove worthy of one another. As in life, there have been epic struggles and disappointing blow-outs, tear-jerkers and made for TV endings that somehow felt as though one or the other side had been favored by the Gods. More practically, these were the first opportunities for high-bottom kids raised in cocoons of managed self-esteem to have to bite from the bittersweet apple of momentary failure.

Any rivalry that runs deep can get out of hand. Having gratefully grown up before police blotters and social media attacks on kids who (yes, it is true) occasionally make bone-headed choices, I have seen fist fights, petty pre-school exchanges between adults, school graffiti and a Wild Kingdom episode from 2012 where some weak prostate alumnae thought it would be funny to urinate on our players’ gym bags (BTW, most of those gym bags smelled the same even after the incident, so the joke’s on you guys).

Yet, compared to some of the dumb things I saw growing up, most of these bad decisions can be classified as misdemeanors of stupidity. (I did, however, think it would be clever to give the first hundred Darien fans urine specimen cups as a gate prize at this year’s Turkey Bowl but I was dismissed from the adult’s table before I could get much support.) The fact is our kids do get caught up in the rivalry and don’t always have the same evolved filters or restraints that adults are “supposed” to exhibit. The good news is kids all grow up and eventually, with exception of Washington politicians and talk show hosts, they learn not to act on the first thought that comes into their head.

I stared up at the scoreboard as the last Ram pass fell incomplete. For the first time this season, it showed a visitor winning the game, 28-24. It was a very sad moment for the senior players and the fans on the west side of the field but I could feel the elation from those parents and families shivering in the visitor section. Yes, a few Darien students ran on to the field taunting us like protestors at a G8 summit but it is hard to take anyone too seriously wearing designer high tops and a Hermes silk handkerchief tied around their face.

It did sting to lose — especially to our rivals. But, there was something about the loss that added another log to the eighty-five year old fire. It created more conversation, more conviction and a level of focus. It passed a baton to a next generation of underclassmen to protect or wrest back the trophy.

Rivalry is part of any ecosystem. It seems at our core, we are all competing and at the same time, need to identify with something greater than ourselves. We need to benchmark our progress against something that we respect that is immediate. It’s in these rivalries that we discover the best and worst in ourselves as communities and as individuals. An annual grudge match that grew out of a muddy field to give bragging rights to one half of a tiny part of Southern Connecticut, has come of age.

As I watched my son collapse on the couch later that day, I knew there was nothing I could do to console him. Time, friends and copious amounts of food and football would ease his pain. These are quiet moments where a pregnant pause can feel like nine months. However, young adults are resilient and life lessons are important alloys to building stronger characters of steel.

“They played well.” He said sighing to no one in particular. “It was a thousand little things that killed us.”

I just sat listening as he deconstructed the day in random sound bites, finally lifting his bruised body off the couch.

“I sure hope we see them again in States.” He grabbed some food from the fridge and went upstairs to take a shower.

I smiled, slowly climbing out of my vicarious parental funk.

Yeah, I thought, just wait until next time!”

Living in a Fantasy World And Its All Good

Marshawn Lynch | Seattle Seahawks
Marshawn Lynch | Seattle Seahawks (Photo credit: Football Schedule)

I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.  Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope.  Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.

~ Dr. Seuss

The cell phone vibrated against my leg as I sat watching ushers move down the center aisle of the sanctuary carrying plates for its tithes and offerings.  It was communion Sunday – a service that often had a life of its own slipping past the expected time of dismissal.  I was restless as I saw the LED light flashing through my thin wool slacks.  If I could just glance at the…

A “don’t even think about it” Puritan laser penetrated my temple as I shifted ever so slightly away from my disapproving spouse to see if I could work my phone up to the top of my pocket.  I was in the last seat of the aisle with a perfect defilade from everyone except my partner who was determined to save me from damnation – and winning my game this week.

I had travelled all week and had been unable to complete my fantasy football roster.  I was waiting for text updates on certain injured players – attempting to gain any insights from the NFL hot stove of experts who would recommend a starter.  One of my running backs had suffered a concussion the previous week and I was desperate to find out if he had passed his cognitive readiness tests.  I was undecided between two receivers and was trying to find out if a certain all-Pro corner would be returning from injured reserve to defend one of my two wide-outs.  Earlier in the week I had begun following two of my players on Twitter hoping I might decipher their castrated missives to divine whether they were going to start.

It is called Fantasy Football because those who play it live in a parallel reality. At times, I prefer this reality to my real one.  To enable my addiction, the NFL launched Red Zone, a single station airing only seven hours a week on Sundays — dedicated to tracking every score across fourteen games. On any given Sunday, a total of 60 touchdowns might be faithfully recorded and shared with viewers while a masthead of Fantasy Football statistics by position and player streams live across the base of one’s television.  Just thinking about it makes me shiver with delight.

Each week, my fellow owners and I drown ourselves in statistical minutiae seeking any advantage the way a stock analyst might rummage through the footnotes of a 10-Q filing. If a player is a rookie, they want to know how fast he completed the three cone drill during the combine? What was his vertical leap?  How fast did he run the 20 yard shuttle?

Part of FFL addiction is bragging rights.  In a time of political correctness, we are less courageous at home or at the office and less inclined to dish insults or speak our minds.  Men need outlets.  Each week, I look forward to abusing my fellow owners for their missteps that may lead them to start an injured player or not understand the historical significance of how travel and time zones effect west coast teams that travel east to play away games.

When a fellow owner’s player is arrested in a pink ballerina outfit, driving the wrong way on an interstate in a car loaded with cans of Red Bull stolen from a Green Bay convenience store, it compels me to write my fellow owner a note of condolence. I’m sure he is feeling disappointed in his player and like a parent, only wants what’s best for his 22-year-old wide receiver making $22M.  The fact that the player brought to the NFL a rap sheet longer than Eminem, and was acquitted for manslaughter while in pre-school is of no concern. Can he score touchdowns?

A recent NYT op-ed by CD Carter complained that Fantasy Leagues dehumanize players – essentially turning them into cattle to be bought and sold without regard for them as people.  The author was deeply concerned. “Instead of a young running back on the verge of a contract that would mean financial security for his family, we see glistening yards per carry.  Instead of an aging quarterback making one last run at glory, we see completion percentages and red zone efficiency.”

Uhhh, yeah. I think he just summed up the entire universe of real franchise owners.  If you think my lens is a tad jaundiced to the dehumanizing world of professional sports, try looking at players through the eyes of the media, owners hungry for a return on multi-million dollar contracts and coaches whose livelihoods depend on those dehumanizing factoids like completion percentages on third downs, yards after catch and a young man’s probability to avoid arrest for making sexual advances toward beer cart girls at off-season golf tournaments.  Alas, there is no room for delicate sensibilities in either the real or imagined NFL. It’s brutal, degrading and dehumanizing — and then there is a bad side.

I realize some Fantasy Leagues can get really out of hand.  One could argue the credit default market was essentially an unregulated financial fantasy league where buyers and sellers were promising to indemnify one another based on whether a third-party debt holder paid or defaulted on loans.  That fantasy league turned out to have no commissioner and be all too real – ending with taxpayers, Lehman and the stock market taking a helmet to helmet hit on the chin.

Other fantasy leagues can get downright bizarre.  Consider About2Croak.com – the too close for comfort fantasy league where you get points if your celebrity dies during that particular year. You pick 25 celebrities and get points based on a system that subtracts the dead celeb’s age from 150. Obviously, your portfolio must include a few sure bets like Betty White but you get more points if a dark horse celeb like Miley Cyrus or Lindsay Lohan choose to steer their Bentley into a telephone pole.  Yes, it’s sick but hey, that’s why I like it.  It is Schadenfreude on steroids.  It’s not enough to revel in other’s misfortune or death, you want to profit by it.  Wait, that’s what the insurance industry is for…

Sometimes you need to retreat into a world of fantasy.  If medicating your difficult day with M&Ms and Manhattans does not move the needle, it may require disappearing into a parallel universe where you can manage a stable of warriors and win fame with shrewd trades and cunning insights.  You can be king or queen for a day and the master and commander of your private cabal of friends.  In my case, it’s an eight man, breakfast club that convenes most weekends to commiserate and compare notes on life, sports and trends that make life worth living – like friends and Fantasy Football.

So I’m back in church and I am still distracted.  Who should I start, Andre Johnson or Josh Gordon.  Maybe I’ll sit Gordon and put in Chris Ivory as my flex player. What to do? I need a burning bush.  Actually, I wish had Reggie Bush but someone else got him.

My minister reads a piece on world mission and discusses the riches of ancient times. Gold, silver, ivory…

Did he say, “Ivory”?

It’s a sign.  I reach for my phone to add Chris Ivory of the Jets.  My wife frowns and whispers.

“Put that away, right now.”

“I have to submit my line…”

She has a black belt in emasculating looks of disapproval. I roll my eyes and abandon the phone. I know better than to take on my commissioner.

After the service, my minister greets us.  Knowing his passion for the Chicago Bears and the memory of my wife’s lingering disdain, I confessed my act of spiritual insubordination. He smiled and leaned in, “Go with Josh Gordon.  Schaub is playing terrible and can’t throw the ball to Johnson.  Besides Cleveland is up against Atlanta and they rank last against the pass. Both corners are injured.”

I pursed my lips and raised my eyebrows in approval.  I knew I liked this guy. As I walked out to the Common Room. I heard him call behind me.

“But remember, God is a Bears fan.”

Her Magnificent Obsession

Gaps and holes in American football. (See Amer...
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We were sharing a cab to Chicago’s O’Hare airport when my colleague disclosed her painful secret – she had joined a Fantasy Football League (FFL) and she was out of control. As a steady handed, pragmatic attorney, I had not pegged her as someone prone to bi-polar swings of allegiance and bizarre social networking normally encountered in advanced fantasy competitors. Yet, she was rapidly exhibiting classic FFL  symptoms as she lamented her inability to watch football as a “normal person”.  We were having a rare FFL 12 Step moment.

I shivered recalling my own Southern California winter Sundays when the beach beckoned or friends called for tennis. I let the phone ring – – glued like a trailer park crack addict hopped up on statistics, lurking in my darkness at noon. Fantasy Football was no longer about winning a paltry $500 purse for possessing the season’s best record; it was about claiming the intellectual high ground and lording it over my closest friends and colleagues. It was about life – dealing with competition, unfair advantages, inside information and a universe dominated by the talented, overpaid and narcissistic superstars– sort of like investment banking. And as often the way of finance, results often defy the most meticulous preparations.

My colleague confided how Fantasy mayhem had taken hold of her life. “I am a mess. I read five papers and watch ESPN until all hours of the morning. I purchased the NFL network on cable.” She was shaking like a Hunt’s Point heroin addict. Everyone is affected – my family and all the in-laws. We all have teams. I have become an obnoxious trash talker. I actually sent a text swearing at my mother the other day when her defense returned an interception for a pick six. I used to be a Seahawks fan. Now I could care less if Seattle wins – especially since they traded my one player, Deion Branch, to the Patriots. If the ‘Hawks are playing the Bears, I want Matt Forte, the Bears running back, to score a TD. I read injury reports more than I do legal briefs. “

As I listened to her share, I felt that familiar nicotine craving for Fantasy Football as if I had just completed my last line up. In a sick twist, I chose to enable her addiction by sharing some recent private insights I had gleaned while in Foxboro. “So does anyone have Hernandez, the Pats’ rookie receiver?” I asked. She made a face. “Hernandez?” “Oh yeah,” I smiled slyly. “He’s 6’2”, fast and the youngest player in the NFL. I recently got the chance to hear a chalk talk at Gillette Stadium. Pats QB coach Bill O’Brien shared that the rookie end would be figuring much more prominently in their offense.”

A scheming shadow fell across her face. “I don’t think anyone has him.” She checked her IPhone and swooned deviously, “Ooooh, no one has taken him yet. “ She moved her thumbs – swiping sideways and punching the virtual keyboard. In a matter of seconds she looked up with a satisfied smile as if she had just completed an inside trade. “Done! That’s going to really piss off my brother in law. We play this week.”

As a recovering FFL addict, I had travelled this lonesome, dispirited road.  She was suffering from the magnificent obsession – – a midnight owl trapped in a parliament that feeds on statistics.  These lost souls comb over Sporting News, ESPN, and a range of other social media trying to string together a psycho-physical profile of every player.  In their alienated delusion, everyone around them seems parochial in their understanding of football.  At my own low point, my wife entered my den to see a confused collage of newspapers plastered all over the walls like John Nash, the schizophrenic  in “A Beautiful Mind.”

At the waning days of my disease, I had isolated myself from old FFL friends- – choosing instead to join obscure computer commissioned leagues pitting me against anonymous Mensa data jocks that probably worked nights in the bowels of Cal Tech or a Tampa Bay Best Buy fulfillment center. It was a dark time where I combed the gridiron for the slightest insight that might mean an advantage. I was a beady eyed Vegas bookie leering out from underneath my rock.

For most recreational FFL users, a fantasy team can be exciting and fun.  Your goal is simple – select a team of individual players and then spend every waking moment attempting to throttle your opponents by outscoring them. While you must select a team defense which can deduct points from your score, fantasy football is about offensive performance – passes caught, TDs scored, and field goals successfully made. The key to fantasy management is a constant stream of real time information and perpetual engagement – which sometimes means that you forget anniversaries, neglect to pick up a child from a playdate or go to bed.

The Fantasy season is often determined by your pre-season “draft”.  Prior to your FFL season, teams gather in late August to draft their squads in a debauched and highly anticipated event not unlike the famous two week Teton gatherings of Mountain Men in the early 1900s. The draft is a time for bravado, verbal abuse and larceny. Teams with names like Madden’s Maulers and Jones Beach Bullies arrive with stacks of excel spreadsheets and perhaps even medical records. With the advent of the internet, FFL has gotten completely out of control.  Trouble starts when one begins to overanalyze the firehose of public data.  An overzealous owner may choose to follow tweets from Chad Ochocinco’s cousin “3Paks”  in hopes of divining some nugget of insight into the highly talented but mercurial receiver’s frame of mind. The fact that he cannot even understand a single 3Paks 12 character tweet is yet another blind alley on a perilous journey of frustration.

FFL data jockeys are generally the same individuals who show up with excel spreadsheets the size of War & Peace for your local fourth grade youth baseball draft. These men and women mean business and often combine to create formidable and amusing opponents. There is a personality pattern with most teams – each their own odd couple of dedicated, anal retentive statistics freaks and lazy, ne’er do well armchair quarterbacks who make rash decisions based on the most recent conversation they had about Colt McCoy with a Somali cab driver in Cleveland.

FFL skill is based on predicting how individual players are positioned to perform in any given week. A strong QB playing a team with a brilliant defensive secondary may not get the start one week in favor of a less statistically impressive “back-up” QB who is facing a team that is ranked 26th in pass defense. It is all about match-ups, health status, game conditions, and the critical wild card events that conspire to make sports and betting so unpredictable.

FFL also creates bizarre and contradictory matchups that permanently corrupt your ability to watch football as a normal fan. Perhaps you are a Giants fan and select Eli Manning as your team QB. Your receivers might by Boldin for Baltimore and the previously loathed Desean Jackson of the Eagles. You hate the Eagles (or used to) but you now like it when Jackson scores. This week’s game, your opponent is starting Brandon Jacobs, also of the Giants, at running back. A normal fan watches the entire game rooting for Eli and Brandon and cheers when the Giants score. Not you! In your twisted FFL mania, Eli might pass 85 yards to Manningham, who runs the ball to the 2 yard line. You are happy Eli completed the pass but you are angry because now you know there is a strong chance Eli will hand the ball to Brandon Jacobs who will score a TD. To your chagrin, Jacobs plows the ball across the goal line and voila, your opponent has just scored on you. Your iPhone immediately glows with a taunting text message from your opponent and you curse out loud at the television. Your wife looks at you in amazement. “I thought you liked the Giants?” You try to explain the dysfunctional world in which you are now marooned but it is too complicated. “Oh, forget it…” you sigh in disgust.

Throughout the season, teams trade players, pick up undrafted players and dump underperformers – always looking to exploit inside information and embarrass one’s opponent. Given that only one team can possess New England’s  QB Tom Brady, Raider RB Darren McFadden, Charger TE Antonio Gates or Bear kicker Robbie Gould, much of one’s success is determined in how one picks lesser known players. You must do your research or risk being mocked.  It is not uncommon for at least one neophyte FFL owner to come unprepared to a pre-season draft and select a seemingly great player that has gone undrafted through the first round. The rookie owner can’t believe their luck. These idiots he is competing with will never beat him if they are missing such obvious talents. After declaring his game changing pick of ProBowl Jones, he is stunned to learn that ProBowl is making license plates in Joliette for attempting to sell a rocket launcher to an undercover FBI agent. He may be picking up trash around Soldier Field but he won’t be playing on it. No mercy.

The season carries right up to the playoffs when a winning team is declared. After that season’s king or queen of football trivia have been crowned, a disturbing mid-winter doldrums sets in. Due to low winter light and the lack of a continuing weekly enterprise, the FFL owner’s brain becomes starved of the dopamine and serotonin that was being manufactured in such large quantities during the regular season.  January is indeed a dark post partum period where some fantasy leagues may develop sick, twisted transitional versions of competition turning to less conventional sports like golf, basketball and hockey.  The fact is you can set up a fantasy league on just about anything – – celebrities, world leaders and sixth grade math classes.  If you have access to information, there is a league waiting to be spawned.

Some FFL purists might argue that the notion of a Fantasy League for Reality Stars crosses some important line. But hey, it may kill some time while you are waiting ProBowl Jones to get out on parole.

A Veteran’s Day for Red Ormsby

Ty Cobb (297 triples) and Shoeless Joe Jackson...
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This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.  ~Elmer Davis

In 1934, the Great Depression had cast a shadow across the entire United States like the great plumes of scorched earth that choked out the sun in the dust bowl of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas panhandle.  An estimated 20% of the US population was unemployed.  Agrarian and industrial communities alike were struggling to stay afloat – swimming against the riptide of geographic turmoil and economic uncertainty.

It was a hard time to be a veteran – particularly a veteran of WWI where a nation’s memory of war was fading to be replaced by more domestic and immediate concerns.  Names like the Somme, Verdun and Ypres that had carved deep and visible scars across the psyches of an entire generation of Europeans were but distant echos and accoustic shadows from fairy-tale, haunted lands with names like  Belleau Wood and The Argonne.   The fighting had taken its toll on our young country whose brawny idealism had been wounded by the machinery of modern warfare. This was a new kind of conflict fought in trenches and against an unseen and lethal enemy.  There were battles with 90% casualty rates fought with such vicious ferocity that men often simply disappeared under a barrage of artillery.  Victories were sometimes measured in yards of ground. It was a new generation of guns, germs and steel that would serve as a chilling prelude to a next great war that would claim 20m souls. Yet, for those who lived through it, The Great War was like a brief and violent storm whose lessons were endured and then set aside like so many badges of youth, tucked away and forgotten – along with the memories of 320,000 casualties marked by monuments of those missing, killed and wounded.  It spared no one including those young immortals in pinstripes playing America’s greatest game – baseball.

Emmit “Red” Ormsby was born on April 3, 1895 in Chicago, Illinois.  He grew up as a physical force of nature – enjoyig all sports but excelling at baseball.  As a strapping right hander who mixed an above average fastball with a delightfully wicked spitball, he opted to play semi-pro ball in 1912 for Green Bay in the Wisconsin-Illinois Minor Leagues. Red pitched well enough to graduate into a starting rotation of St Paul in the American Association. That year, he shined hurling several complete games while racking up impressive stats  – – a dominant ratio of strikeouts to hits and fewer earned runs. Red was going places and baseball was his meal ticket.

In 1914, war broke out in  far off places like the Dardenalles of Turkey and along wispy meandering rivers in Belgium and France.  By 1917, the US had been drawn into the conflict and Red had not hesitated to do his duty – he joined the Marines.  At Quantico, he briefly played on an armed forces baseball team along another green recruit, all-star second baseman Eddie Collins.  He was quickly shipped off to France with the Fifth Corps– a fighting unit that would soon be decorated for valor in several battles including the decisive Argonne Forest campaign. 

In the Argonne, Red’s strong arm earned him a spot on the grenade throwers roster.   Grenaders  were essential elements to bolster the conventional fire power of infantry units.  The massive Allied offensive in the Argonne would include confusingly close hand to hand combat with trench lines sometimes exchanging hands multiple times across a no man’s land as short as 25 feet.  If the bloody stalemate was to be broken, the Allied Expeditionary Force under General “Black Jack” Pershing would need to be its catalyst.

In what would go down as the bloodiest campaign to date in Marine Corps history, the Argonne became a killing field shattered by unsurvivable enfilading machine gun fire, errant artillery and a deadly swirling ground fog of poison mustard and phosgene gas.  On a late Autumn afternoon, Ormsby had infiltrated toward the front lines of the fighting — preparing for a suicidal offensive when he was wounded in the back.  In addition to this injury, he was overwhelmed by poison gas which partially seared the lining of his lungs.

Ormsby would survive his encounter with the Germans and return to the US as a decorated veteran.  His injuries eliminated any possibility of his continuing to compete as a player.  Yet, his love of the game, could not move him away from the cut grass and red dust diamond.  Red Ormsby decided to become an umpire.

Over the next 19 years, Ormsby would rise to become one of baseball’s premiere umpires including presiding over four world series and league championship series.  Ormsby had a booming voice that sounded “ like two steam ships bickering for their right of way along a lakefront.” He was also master and commander at home marrying and fathering a dozen children. Like many veterans, his injuries never fully healed and he spent his entire career suffering from severe back pain.  In the days before unions or employment protections, workers understood that the inability to perform one’s job –  even as a result of temporary disability or illness – essentially meant unemployment.

According to his grandson, Red secretly donned “a back brace in almost every game he umpired for 19 years. Nobody in the American League, except the other umpires knew about his back. If the league front office had known about it, he wouldn’t have been umpiring. If they had checked the records at Hines Veterans Hospital they would have seen that he was listed as 74 percent incapacitated. But with straps and braces of an umpire, nobody could tell and if they did, they never said anything.”

On this day at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, it was hard to tell that the depression was still raging like a fever across America’s working class. The stands were filled to capacity as the White Sox were squaring off against the hated Detroit Tigers. Birdie Tebetts was catching for Detroit with catcher Mike Tresh catching for the White Sox. Ormsby was calling the game from behind home plate and he was in pain. Author and historian C. Brian Kelly chronicled Ormsby’s story in a November, 2006  Military History magazine article that described the veteran umpire’s difficult circumstances. “During the depression, an injured day off work was tantamount to a pink slip. A good American League umpire could make up to $300 a month, according to catcher Birdie Tebbets – a tidy sum in those days. ‘With 12 mouths to feed, we all knew that Red Ormsby needed his job. On that particular day, we were not about to see him lose it.”

Tebbets could tell that Ormsby was hurting and laboring to breathe.  The scarring on his lungs from the phosgene gas was now regularly impeding his ability to catch his wind. It was on this day, according to Kelly, that Tebbets and Tresh caught the best games of their careers when they threw this disabled veteran ump a lifeline.

“A guy hit a ball up the right field line and Emmett ran up the line to make the play. When he came back to home plate, he said, ‘‘Birdie, I’m getting very dizzy and can’t see the ball right now. It’s  from my Army (injury) thing and don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to quit as I’ll probably lose my job.”  For the first time in Tebetts career, an umpire was actually admitting to being blind.

“I said, ‘look Red, you just sit tight and when I raise my right hand after the pitch, it’s going to be a  strike. If I raise my left glove, it’s gonna be a ball.’ Sure enough, the pitch came in and I raised my right hand. ‘ S-T-R-I-K-E!’  bellowed the veteran umpire. And we went through the hitters this way until the end of the inning. “

It was now Tresh’s turn and he did not hesitate to replicate the secret pitch call code for Ormsby.  For the next several innings, both catchers called the game until Ormsby recovered his breath and vision.  At one point in the sixth inning, Tebbets saw Ormsby lean in and whisper something to the White Sox catcher.  The following pitch, Tresh did not raise his hand.  Red Ormsby was back in charge of the game.

Years later, Tebbets revealed this story in an amusing biography,  Birdie: Confessions of a Baseball Nomad.  Tebbets shared that he would never expect that kind of relationship between players and umpires to exist in today’s free agent, self-centered game.  “But in the 30’s and 40’s, it was a different place and time.  We looked out for each other.”

For Red Ormsby, father of 12 and World War I veteran, there was never any doubt about duty – – to his family, to his country and to his sport. He ruled across a 19 year diamond studded universe of all-stars like “Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Bitsy Bobby Shantz, Leo Durocher, Lefty Gomez, Connie Mack, Babe Ruth, Jack Dittmer, Joe DiMaggio and others. ‘Ty Cobb,” he would say, was the greatest of them all.”

Emmit “ Red” Ormsby was just one of many veterans who gave so much and then came home just to “get on” with his life.  He did not expect anything in return for his service – except  perhaps a chance to work.  On that day, Red’s umpiring career was in jeopardy at Comiskey Park. It was only when two wily catchers found a way of paying back an aging veteran that they added yet another colorful footnote to humanity and to the grand narrative of America’s greatest game.

Watching Out for Woody

Woody Hayes on the OSU sideline
Image via Wikipedia

“Statistics always remind me of fellow who drowned in a river where the average depth was only three feet.” Woody Hayes, legendary Ohio State Coach

It was a torturous bike ride up a tediously long horizon line hill.  At the summit of the road rested The Huntington Sheraton, the grand dame of early Los Angeles art deco hotels.  It was our generation’s Four Season’s with its ornate dining rooms, spacious grounds that included Oriental gardens and koi ponds adjacent to an enormous Olympic outdoor pool and courtyard with ivy that climbed and adorned its façade like a fairy tale Austrian castle.

Each year, the hotel played host to the reigning Big Ten Champion football squad who would invade Pasadena along with fifty thousand pale Midwesterners in massive motor homes.  Their mission was simple – return with second degree sunburns, a few phone numbers from local Rose Princesses and a win in over the Pac Eight champions on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl.  Each new years brought rose-covered parade floats along Colorado Blvd, flocks of alabaster skinned snow birds and Big 10 football players. Once the Big 10 team had checked in to the Huntington, we would pedal our bikes to the edges of the hotel grounds and infiltrate our way through the bushes like the Viet Cong avoiding the beefed up hotel security, valets and team staff who patrolled the perimeters searching for and eliminating straying media, gridiron groupies and adolescent autograph hounds.

It was December 1974. Three of my more daring friends and I had staked the four corners of the hotel to intercept the great Archie Griffin – a Heisman Trophy winner whose Buckeyes were here on borrowed time – – soon to fall in defeat to my beloved USC Trojans.  That afternoon, I remained hidden among azaleas, as still as lawn jockey waiting for Lady Luck to blow me a kiss.

I idolized these bulging, behemoths with their protruding eyebrows and necks that exploded into shoulders.  Yet, up close, they were rather intimidating missing links. Perhaps the most terrifying of them all was their leader, coach Woody Hayes.  Coach Hayes reminded me of every older man that ever chased me off his lawn.  He was all business with dark engineers glasses, wild, tangled salt and pepper eyebrows and a chin that screamed, “fight to the death.”. He hated everyone in California – USC, UCLA, our refs, and especially the tanned, metro-sexual fans. He probably hated our sunshine. The only thing coach Hayes hated more than his opponents in the Rose Bowl was The Michigan Wolverines.  To make it to the Rose Bowl in the 1970’s, you must beat Michigan and Bo Schembechler.  Hayes was rumored to hate Michigan so much than he once told his team (when they were running low on gasoline) that he would rather push the bus all the way to Ohio than spend one dollar in the state of Michigan.

In late 1974, Ohio State was flying high, having humiliated my Trojans 42-21 earlier in the year at the Rose Bowl.  Leading into that game, Ohio State had brooded, waiting to avenge their own beat down at the hands of John McKay and the Trojans who completed their amazing 1972 season becoming co-national champs. That ’73 OSU team was an unstoppable force with QB Cornelius Greene, monster fullback Pete Johnson and super star Archie Griffin. To add insult to injury, my hero, USC running back Anthony Davis had come in second in the Heisman voting to Archie Griffin.

I made bold promises all year and waited for Christmas, praying that those two golden tickets to the Rose Bowl might magically appear under the tree.  Yet, in those last few days of December 1974, there was a wrinkle in my confidence.  Ohio State was returning to the Rose Bowl with that angry old man and his Ajax – the greatest warrior running back, Griffin who would burst through Holland Tunnel sized breaches created by behemoth offensive linemen like Kurt Schumacher and 6’5” and 270 lb Doug France.

My friends and I had agreed to cover different parts of the hotel and in typical adolescent fashion, there was no plan to meet, communicate or reconvene.  It was each kid for himself. We had no idea what these helmeted warriors looked like and just assumed anyone with muscles must be a player. During that one-week in December, most kids would annoy any adult possessing a bicep and a room key. My first attempt at an autograph involved accosting a surprised but flattered overweight gentleman and his attractive companion.  He laughed agreeing to sign my book. Oddly, I later could not find a player for Ohio State with the name “ John Smith”.  Years later, I realized that I must have hit up some guy who was committing infidelity with his secretary.

My own bumbling attempts over the years to get autographs included being chased by a kitchen dishwasher  (he was very fast) and ripping my pants in the rose garden as I avoided a less mobile, ancient security guard.  This year, I was determined to get that Heisman winner’s autograph but I was afraid – – very afraid that Woody Hayes would get me before I got to his star running back.

After a half hour of watching cars and bellhops and valets, I made my move – edging out of the bushes and down a hillside tangled with Vinca and brightly colored Lantana.  Stumbling on to a narrow garden walkway between buildings, I gathered my bearings – gratefully recognizing the koi pools covered in magnificent lily pads the size of Frisbees.  I could have walked this area blindfolded.  As a boy, I had spent countless afternoons with my buddy Stu, dodging hotel staff and trying to capture the Chernobyl sized toads that peered from the ink blot ponds.  The hotel must have fed the amphibians a radioactive material, as even the polliwogs were the size of small brown trout.

Zigzagging north along a walkway lined with roses, I spied the swimming pool and to my delight, there were at least twenty shirtless, muscle-bound men in shorts and flip-flops resting in the late afternoon sun in its northeast corner.  This gathering was the mother lode of finds for a young teen eager for a brush with fame.  Yet, I had no one with whom to share the moment. I was going to have to execute this mission impossible without any backup.

I watched five gigantic players surrounding a tremendously fit and handsome black man who could not have been taller than 5’ 9”.  His 34” thighs were larger than my father’s waist.  He was smiling and laughing as he got up and began walking to the southern side of the pool where I was hiding behind a hibiscus bush.   He was coming to exchange a towel and get a soda from the poolside bar. It was – Archie Griffin.

Suddenly, a bumblebee the size of a B-52 strafed me and I swatted indiscriminately at air.  The bush started to violently shake as I lunged at the elusive flying fortress.  Archie glanced in my direction but quickly got distracted by the din of laughing players and transistor radio music.  He was now within five feet of me. I screwed up my courage and darted out of the bushes.  In my haste, I caught the higher edge of the walkway with my sneaker, spilling face first on to the poolside with my autograph book sliding five feet in front of me.  I looked down at my skinned palms and bloodied knee and then up toward the Heisman winner. His back was already turned to me as he returned to his lineman. I did manage to catch the eye of an annoyed security guard who began to move in my direction.

Suddenly, a pair of gigantic hands picked me up from behind and said, “ son, if you were playing for me, I’d make sure you learned how to carry that book without fumbling.  Are you ok?”  I turned and was suddenly staring into the face of the devil himself – Coach Woody Hayes.  I tried to speak but I was terrified that he was going to eat my face or perhaps just scream, “hey boys, we got us a Trojan lover over here.  Let’s give him an old-fashioned OSU can of whoop ass!”

Instead, he gently dusted off my backside, smiled and carried on over to a group of coaches. I was dumbfounded.  I had looked into the eyes of Satan and he had smiled. I just turned and sprinted down the back pathway against a backdrop of obvious laughter. I could not find my friends. Yet, I was not embarrassed. Au contraire, I had seen the man himself.  I pedaled home in record time to retell my story to an unbelieving audience.  “Sure, you did, you liar. And where’s his autograph. “ I was frustrated and lifted my pant leg. “ And how do you suppose I got this? “ My friends remained unconvinced.  “Well, let’s see.  You are an idiot so you could have gotten it any number of ways.” I realized at that moment, I had fumbled away my chance.

On January 1, 1975, my Trojans went on to beat the Buckeyes in an 18-17 thriller.  I was there – in the stands with my Dad clutching his ancient binoculars watching the plays and occasionally drifting over to coach Hayes as he screamed and cajoled his team to stop the USC’s final drive and two point conversion. Years later, the passionate silver Ohio State legend would be fired after striking a player in the 1978 Gator Bowl.  He would never again coach at the collegiate level.

I think of that day and wonder what might have happened had I possessed the guts to ask Coach Hayes for a few autographs. My guess is he would have surveyed my bloody knee and nodded, “Son, nothing cleanses the soul like getting the crap kicked out of you.  You go grab as many as you can.“

He was inducted into the college football Hall of Fame in 1983 and died in 1987 – taking with him a legacy of intensity, three national championships and a record of 238-72-10. He remains in my memories to this day– an imposing phantom from another time.  His is not the image that some choose to recall of a rigid, bitter relic grabbing the throat of an opposing player. He looms large, watching from a sideline – a great and passionate competitor, beloved coach, leader of champions and an Ohio patriot who simply refused to accept losing.

Turkey Bowl

Thanksgiving postcard circa 1900 showing a tur...
Image via Wikipedia

Turkey Bowl

Lucy van Pelt: Charlie Brown, I’ll hold the ball and you run up and kick it.

Charlie Brown: Hold it? Ha! You’ll just pull it away and I’ll fall flat on my back and kill myself.

Lucy van Pelt: I wouldn’t do that. It’s Thanksgiving.

Charlie Brown: What does Thanksgiving have to do with anything?

Lucy van Pelt: One of our most cherished traditions is the Thanksgiving football game.

Charlie Brown: Gee, I guess if it is a tradition, it would be an honor. She wouldn’t pull it away if it is a tradition. This time I’m gonna kick that ball clear to the moon!

[he runs to kick the ball, but Lucy pulls it away]

Charlie Brown: Aaauuugh! [falls flat on his back]

Lucy van Pelt: Isn’t it peculiar how some traditions just fade away?   – Charles Schultz, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”

The Thanksgiving Day football game is a rich side dish served on a day where each American consumes an average of 16,000 calories while at the same time giving thanks for life’s simplest pleasures.  On this gilded holiday, we are reminded of the blessings that we often take for granted such as proton pump inhibitors, analgesic heat rubs, knee braces and a gluteus minimus that does not swell into a gluteus maximus after a long touchdown run.  The Turkey Bowl is a ritual whose championship trophy is forged from silver bragging rites and golden nostalgia.  It’s principle ingredients are any ambulatory human aged 6-60, a beat up football and most importantly, mud – – caked, brown malleable clay, a symbol of our temporal toil and a timeless tribute to our agrarian DNA.  As Americans, we landed in the mud, we rose out of the mud, we fought in the mud, eventually we hired other people to work for us in the mud and then we invented Tide to eliminate any evidence that we ever actually consorted with mud.  But, each Thanksgiving morning, we return to the peat bogs of our past to refresh old rivalries and lay claim to another year of bragging rites and hyperbole.

In California, Thanksgiving arrived unceremoniously on a warm desert wind sweeping down across silent, vacant freeways and empty schools.  Our house fashioned out of Marine Corps dogma and the testosterone of five men grew restless at the percussion of chopping knives and the regular entreaties for someone to “please peel the potatoes and green beans.”  The low dulcet tones and punctuated spikes of laughter from a generation of kitchen matriarchs mixed with the reassuring aroma of sautéed onions and baking turkey.  A football suddenly bounced off the den window.  Outside, a boy in sweats had appeared, grinning in a tear away shirt and cleats.  There was a sudden rush of motion as we mustered outside ready to bike the two blocks to our local junior high school where a sea of jerseys and baseball caps pitched and argued over the balance of talent and rules of engagement.

The local Turkey Bowl was a one time annual opportunity to run with the larger dogs of our neighborhood – – siblings home from college and older kids that would normally look right past you as too small or too insignificant to join them in any sport.  Yet, on this day, a spirited tackle or timely body block might win a rare compliment from an older idol that would be gratefully deposited in one’s shoebox of memorabilia and taken out many times over a lifetime of self reflection.  There were broken bones and stitches – -badges of honor and fodder for the bragging rite debates that would ensue later in the winter.  As in life, there were broken plays, personal fouls, selfless acts, winners and losers.  There was instant acceptance when one was picked to play on a team.  It was a Christmas morning thrill to watch as an older teenager opened his muddy, catcher’s glove palm and designed a play, especially for you – “Turp, go five yards out and turn around.”  It was the old button hook and it was my play, designed exclusively for me like a jewel encrusted Faberge egg.  Me! – a mere 11 year old paramecium was deemed worthy of possibly receiving a pass from this multi-celled seventeen year old God.  Just one problem, I was being guarded by a sixteen year old with bad acne, mood swings and suborbital ridges that suggested that someone in his family was discovered by Dr Leakey.

“Ready, set, you bet, go Charlie go, hike!”

As I sprinted to my spot, the older defender shoved me roughly to the ground like a rag doll.  “Sorry kid” he flipped with a smirk.  Back in the huddle, everyone was hissing that they were open. I was busy rubbing the dirt out of my eyes. Each down, I was repeatedly tossed to the ground unable to complete my “button hook.” By the fourth quarter, I had eaten more mud than an earthworm. The score was tied 49-49.  I had not touched the ball.

Someone’s sibling rode up with a summons from home and there was talk of ending this year’s grudge match in a tie. “That’s like kissin’ yer sister” someone yelled.  Another shouted,” One more set of downs!”  I was once again lined up against my delinquent tormentor but instead of running my assigned button-hook, I turned suddenly and sprinted long as if the devil himself was chasing me.  I screamed and waved my hands.  The ball was launched in my direction and my heart leapt as I stumbled through the mud never taking my eye off the spiraling pigskin. My opponent had fallen down and I was alone behind the defense.  The pass seemed to hang in the autumn air for an eternity.  It fell into my arms and bounced off my chest careening away from my body.  I dove forward grasping like a drowning man, my arms and fingers straining for the deflection.  My fingers clawed under the muddy ball preventing it from hitting the dirt.  I fell awkwardly feeling a white flash of pain in my knee.  But I held on.  Celebratory screams from down field confirmed my reception and as I rose grimacing, I spiked the ball.  With the TD, the game disintegrated. But, our team had won.

As I limped to my bike, I heard the deep baritone of the seventeen year old icon, “great catch, Turp”.  I blushed with self conscious satisfaction and weaved my way home, tossing the ball in the air and catching it.  Later, as I donned my dreaded holiday dinner ensemble, the shirt collar did not feel so tight, and the gray wool slacks did not itch so much, and the hand me down loafers did not bite my heels   That night, turkey never tasted so good.  The mashed potatoes melted on my tongue like butter on a hot skillet. The pumpkin pie seemed snatched straight from the open window sill of an Amish farmhouse.

On this day, I had much to be thankful for.  I had entered the pantheon of Turkey Bowl heroes, scoring the winning touchdown.  Me, the single cell amoeba.  Perhaps, I was on my way to evolving into something bigger, and more noble.  Alas, I would have to wait until next Thanksgiving.  Only 364 days to go.

A Fair Weather Fan

A Fair Weather Fan

 

The Coliseum, Los Angeles, November, 1968 – There once was a professional football team called the Los Angles Rams.  Their owner was Carol Rosenbloom, and their head coach was George Allen.  Their defensive front line was known as the “Fearsome Foursome”, anchored by future hall of famers, Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen. The D line of Jones, Greier, Lundy and Olsen literally ate quarterback alive.  My favorite player was “The Deacon” who owned the nickname, “Minister of Defense” well before it was attributed to other NFL stars.  The Deacon had perfected a technique known as the head slap, a tactic that would stun offensive lineman while he used his speed to race into the backfield. I regularly utilized this move on my younger brother and friends in pick up football.  The head slap was outlawed both in the NFL, our home and on the local sand lot around 1972.

 

Very few people were true Ram fanatics.  Most were fair weather fans – – fickle and aloof, choosing only to get off the beaches or tennis courts when an LA team was at least several games above .500 or had made the playoffs.  During the season, the LA Coliseum was filled with a harder core working class who faithfully followed their team.  They were the nucleus of the team’s support – – true Ram fanatics.  Once an LA team made the playoffs, the stands would transform from blue collar to thin wristed, tan metro-sexuals with sweaters tied around their shoulders driving BMWs and lugging picnic baskets full of wine spritzers and quiche.

 

It happened later to the Lakers.  For years it was only Jack Nicholson.  Suddenly, we make the playoffs and Dyan Cannon is showing up. This seasonal gentrification was not lost on me.  I resented these imposters.  I knew the players.  I collected the cards.  I calculated the stats.  I begged my father to stay until the end of any game we attended even though it meant being stuck in dreaded LA traffic.  But, in Los Angeles no one ever stayed until the end of a game.  Most Angelinos thought football games were 45 minutes, baseball eight innings and basketball three periods.  We were sunshine patriots and summer soldiers.  We were not really die-hards, we were just people who had tickets to a game.

 

Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisconsin – January ,2008 – We exited the bus and crunched on to frozen ground along South Ridge Avenue.  We were looking for a podiatrist’s parking lot where a close friend and one hundred “cheese heads” would be tailgating prior to the NFC Championship game.  We were looking for Sean, a fellow NY fan who had grabbed a last minute ticket and called us to meet up at the game.  The driver shouted he would meet us in eight hours next to that “tall building over there”.  Being from NY, we saw no tall buildings.  We did see a two story wooden structure that looked like a 1950’s professional services building.  “That one?“,  I yelled. “Yeah, that’s the one, right there, yup, she’s the place, yup”.  I’d fallen into “Fargo”.

 

It was 30 below zero with the wind chill.  The wind slashed at any exposed skin. The guy exiting the bus ahead of me looked like a tortoise retracting his neck into his shell.  He started to curl into a walking pill bug.  We were adrift in an arctic sea of green and yellow.  We were deep in enemy territory – – and wearing the wrong gang colors. There was a tribal electricity in the air as knots of hooded figures huddled by blazing fires, barbeques and television sets.  It could have passed for a Finnish refugee camp. Attendance was projected at over 72,000 and about 1,000 of these fanatics, many dressed in cheese heads and Cabelos hunting gear, were suddenly eying us like a trophy elk. 

 

Green Bay, Wisconsin has a population of 100,000 souls, hardly the critical mass the NFL believes is necessary to support an NFL franchise.  The Packers are the only community run team in American professional sports.  They are non profit with about 100,000 shareholders, many of whom are long time residents of the town. The team was founded in 1919 and has contributed of 21 Hall of Fame busts to Canton, Ohio. It is sacred ground with frigid sidelines and ancient Kentucky blue grass turf.    

Having not been a fanatic for many years, I now realized I was with the faithful.  However, I was still not ready to emotionally commit to the Giants.  They might embarrass or disappoint me. Their quarterback, Eli Manning, looked all season like Beaver Cleaver. “Boy, Wally, you think I am gonna catch it from Coach Coughlin for that interception?” Yet, somehow this team had won nine straight games on the way to today’s showdown with the 13-3 Packers and their Hall of fame QB, Bret Favre,

 

We crunched along ice and snow, finally finding what we thought was our tail gate party.  We crossed into an entire parking lot of people who all turned to stare at us. “We are going to die,” I hissed.  Three men who appeared to have spent their entire lives hurling refrigerators walked up to us. “You boys lost?”  We waited.  I could outrun them although they might hit me at twenty yards with a television. Then another said, “Well, @#%#, Jim, we might as well feed these jokers if we’re going kick their bee-hinds today”.  I was suddenly confronted with a meat packer’s cornucopia – – bratwurst soaking in beer, onions and water, burgers, chili, pulled pork and prime rib.  Two color TVs blared the Pats games as a wind gusts ripped at our jackets.  Cheeseheads surrounded us and thumped our backs proud that we made the sojourn. The heartland had opened up its doors.  These were fanatics, not fans. 

 

We eventually found our friends and remained until we could no longer feel our feet or hands.  We could not find Sean although he was now communicating to us via  blackberry.  Apparently he had been caught up in a similar wave of hospitality and was on his way to his seats – – outside, in 24 below weather.  Throughout the game, we kept getting emails from Sean effusively complaining, “I’m freezing to death…but this is so amazing!”  Sitting in my skybox, I suddenly again felt like the Giant fan but like the guy with the ticket to the game. “The bleachers have ¼”ice on them.”  “The guy next to me is going to rip my head off”.  “Did you see Plaxico’s catch?” “Bradshaw ? Oh my god, did you see his run?“ He would not dream of coming up to the sky box – a place of soft hands, warm food and artificial loyalty.

 

The game was an epic, nail biter in unbelievably frigid conditions.  For those of us that risked the trip into enemy territory, we were rewarded with a Giants overtime win, 23-20.  For the first time, I felt the twinge of what it was like to be a real fanatic.  It wasn’t just the victorious Giants, it was the losing team – – an entire town devastated by the loss.  “You guys were the better team today they said” as people passed us in the stadium.  It would be a long, hard winter for the Packer faithful. 

 

As the Giants were interviewed in the South end zone by Fox Sports, the Giant fans gathered five deep and fifty wide to watch, cheer and high five the celebrating Giant players.  Sean was clearly out there somewhere stretching his arm to try to high five Michael Strahan or Plaxico Burress.  We weathered a freezing walk to the bus only to find that Sean was no where to be found.  We waited, getting no phone or text responses, and reluctantly returned to the hotel.  At midnight we got this email message: “In the Giants locker room! Most amazing experience of my life.  Won’t be on the plane tomorrow. Will call when I get back…”  When we arrived back in NY, we still hadn’t heard from Sean.  Whatever happened, it was clearly a fitting reward for a guy who would not sit in a skybox to see his team play.   

 

Now that, my friends, is a fanatic. 

Ehrmann’s law

Ehrmann’s Law

 

Pulitzer Prize Winner MacKinlay Cantor once wrote that perhaps loving one’s children too much was a form of severe conceit.  That somehow by loving too much and living too vicariously through them,  that we forget that we are merely stewards preparing them for life.  In deriving too much happiness through them, we lose ourselves. 

 

I had the great privilege of witnessing Joe Ehrmann’s “sermon” at NC high school the other evening.  What I appreciated most about his life views was challenge to us as a community to consider how we are raising our young men and women.  More importantly, how do we prepare them to be a part of a community – whether it be on a sports team, middle school or our town?  As a parent, employer and coach, I was interested in how Mr Ehrmann defined success and what he did to reinforce it in his kids. 

 

Ehrmann talked about the pain and dysfunction visited on many children who fall outside of the fringes of a very distinct social order that starts at an early age and is reinforced by society – – a society that celebrates strength, athleticism, conquest and financial prowess in men, and beauty, belonging and popularity in women.  He related his own confusion as a young man with an absentee father.  He shared how he relentlessly pursued his athletic career, suffocating his own sense of self and having no interest in anyone other than the validation that came from winning.  As a 29 year old, All Pro NFL star, he lost his eighteen year old little brother to cancer, and had his epiphany.  Perhaps there was more to life than conquest, self satisfaction, conflict, and finally an unceremonious death where the crowd pays homage and then turns its backs on the cold hole in the ground and melts away.

 

He began a journey that he travels to this day – as a reverend, a coach, a father, a friend, a citizen of his community and a man.  He believes our society’s messaging to kids is all wrong.  He believes a parent and a coach’s responsibility is to validate each kid and to use that precious self esteem to teach them how to be the best that they can be.  A society defined by seeking to maximize the potential of every one of its citizens is a great and noble society indeed.  On his football team he asks his kids, “ what is the coach’s responsibility ? “  “ To love us” is his kids response.  “What’s your responsibility” asks the coaches.  “ To love each other “, is the team’s response.  He promotes compassion, community and self-less respect for everyone.  He has been the subject of an HBO special and an award winning book.

 

Ehrmann believes boys and girls need to be taught that it is ok to express emotion and love.  The penchant to hide one’s emotions, to dread embarrassment, to muscle through  pain and to always wear your “game face” has trained a generation of young men to separate their heads and hearts and to perhaps miss the very essence of what it means to be a real man, a complete human capable of love and to be loved openly and unconditionally. 

 

Ehrmann’s football teams sign contracts of conduct.  They have ten minute lessons on a variety of social and racial issues before practice to sensitize his community of players about their obligations to themselves, to young women ( these are teenaged boys after

all )  and to their broader community.  Sure, some parents feel like the coaches are overstepping their roles.  As Ehrmann said, “ the Mom’s get it right away.  It takes the dad’s a little longer , especially if they were brought up in the don’t cry, don’t back off, conquer everything “ culture of the great American Male. 

 

As I think about my own experiences as a baseball coach and the audience of young, earnest boys that I lead each season with my friend Michael Kramer, I understand the opportunity we have to shape these young men and reinforce key messages.  I realize when I coach and parent, I send my kids hundreds of little messages every day as I react to their actions and their accomplishments – – their grades, sports, achievements and popularity.  Am I reinforcing the right values?

 

I consider my own ten year old that lives for sports, idolizes ands seeks to please his coaches and thrives on the chaos and testosterone of his band of brothers. I think of my teenaged daughter and her vulnerability to the messages the media and our society sends her about the way she should dress, interact with boys, spend her money and time.  What will ultimately define her as a women ?  Is femininity defined by being cool or compassionate ?  Thin or thankful ?

 

Is the fact my eight year old son shows less interest in sports than he does in reading his Guinness Book of World Records ?  Nope.  It’s about me remembering what’s important and that if my kid finds a sense purpose beyond himself,  he stands a better chance to navigates life’s currents and shoals and find ports of serenity and peace.  It stands to reason that the opposite of self love is humility – not thinking less of yourself, just thinking of yourself less of the time. The true definition of love is to serve others unconditionally.  Ask Mother Teresa.

 

The fact is, as a coach, parent, friend, neighbor, boss, brother, sister, husband or wife, we can change so many lives.  As Clarence, the angel, says to Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life,  “ you see George, you really did have a wonderful life”.  It took Heaven to remind old George Bailey that his own self imposed sense of failure was defined by a misguided sense of what society judged him as and it had no real bearing on the fact that he was a great man, friend, father and civic leader.  George Bailey was a “rich” man – – wealthy in character, integrity, compassion and selflessness.  Joe Ehrmann reminded me that those are the attributes of a real man. 

 

I looked around that auditorium and I saw my friends, neighbors and fellow coaches.  I felt a sense of deep kinship to my community as I saw a village recognizing its need to come together to better raise every child.  That’s Ehrmann’s law

Yards To Go Before I Sleep

[Otis Love Guernsey, football player and "...
Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

Yards To Go Before I Sleep

“ Football is 90% temper and 10% mental “   Doug Plank, ex-Chicago Bear

Neurosurgeons note each year in September that there is a marked increase in male testosterone levels.  Brain scans reveal new levels of activity in cerebellums that have been dormant since early February.  For most, autumn is a time for back to school celebrations, pumpkins, apple picking and a landscape brushed from a palette of reds, oranges and golds.  It is also football season. Booyah !

Over the course of so many seasons, I have noticed how certain people, particularly men,  rely on sports analogies as a framework for relating to any situation.  During last year’s Pop Warner football season, I lampooned many of our most scared institutions – coaches, parents, politicians and our vicarious preoccupation with pre-pubescent gridiron, subjecting the parents of our then fifth grade players to a series of nonsensical newsletters simply titled, “Under The Bleachers”.  In one edition, I managed to memorialize the metaphors muttered most by manic men (how’s that for alliteration?).  These catch phrases are universal bridges guaranteed to penetrate to the thickest skull when trying to make a point.  They are the lowest common denominator of literary vehicles.

He tends to out punt his coverage – This individual has a habit of getting ahead of himself and his team and in doing so, exposes the squad to a negative consequence.

A good punt allows the kicking team to get down the field to prevent any return.  In business, people who out kick coverage are usually found in Sales and Marketing.  It’s often also referred to “writing checks one does not have the ability to cash”.

He’s played a little too long without a helmet – This person is generally a dullard, oaf, boor or a health insurance executive.  Rarely is this person aware of this fact.

I have seen better hands on a grandfather clock – The person in question has poor hand eye coordination that results in constantly dropped passes, missed catches or poor performance on a first date.  This individual would probably be best employed as a firewatcher or rickshaw driver.

He’s a few yards short of a first down – Metaphorically, this suggests a person does not completely possess the skills necessary to complete a complicated task and would best be suited in non skill positions such as politics or working for the CIA in foreign intelligence

This coach is depriving a village of an idiot somewhere – generally used when a coach has made a poor decision causing great harm to his/her team.  The practice of employing village idiots is now illegal in the world except in parts of the District of Columbia and England.  “So many walls, so little time” – The English Idiot Creed

He zigged when he should have zagged – This describes an individual player that made the worst possible choice and as a result, the play ended in disaster.  It can also apply to any circumstance where someone with 50% odds of success makes the wrong decision. This often results in tragic consequences.  Example:  John Wayne Bobbit zigged when he should have zagged and Lorena got the better of him.

Time for a Hail Mary – This refers to a wild, last ditch effort – – normally a trick play or long bomb pass to attempt to win.  As with all football, it has a clearly Catholic theme.  For Protestants, it is a suspicious play.  It was most likely first attempted at Notre Dame University when the team had one last play to go eighty yards to score against a protestant university.  “Hail Mary, Mother of Grace” was possibly uttered in the huddle and forever became synonymous with a call for a miracle.  The baseball equivalent of a Hail Mary is “swinging for the fences “.  The singles bar equivalent is asking the person you just met what they like to eat for breakfast.

The best defense is a good offense – This strategy is well understood by any married couple and is a commonly deployed strategy by wives to deflect attention from legitimate points of view during an argument.  In football, a sustained offensive push can keep one’s team from being put on the defensive.  This is also a device used by men who are on the cusp of losing arguments with the opposite sex. .  For example, let’s say you roll in at 4 a.m. with a ripped suit , black eye and lipstick written on your forehead that reads “ I am a pig “.  The best defense in this situation is:  a) blame it on your best friend, b) laugh and say it is all one big misunderstanding,  c)throw yourself on the mercy of the court, or d) go on offense and pick a fight with your spouse over the fact that Village Cleaners did not drop off your laundry that day. Answer: D

You can only option right so long before you get thrown for a big loss – as a general rule of thumb, it’s best not to keep calling the same play as your opposition will adjust and catch on, possibly resulting in a loss of yardage.  This also applies to moderate democrats who have the occasion to run right and in doing so, attempt to garner a broader base of votes without really intending to stay right.  Some one may produce a photo of you in the sixties burning a flag or dancing at Woodstock.

He was born in the end zone and thought he scored a touchdown – The actual comment was attributed to President W and drew on baseball: “ he was born on third base and thought he hit a triple “ This applies to anyone who as the result of luck, birthright or impeccable timing starts with a highly advantaged situation but seems to forget this fact and behaves as if they have accomplished great things.  This analogy is often used as a pejorative political devise or a non sequitor to deflect a question about one’s opponent.

Football is America’s sport.  It has served as an important refuge for the strong, the unimaginative and those with overactive pituitary glands.  But it’s greatest gift is it’s clever metaphors which serve as a masculine lingua franca in every mental locker room across America.