John Madden – a class act

John Madden passed away yesterday. People outside the United States may not know this exuberant and larger than life man. But, he was a superb professional football coach, a groundbreaking football announcer and an innovator in a football video game.

He made the game simple for us without talking down to his audience. He was colorful with his sounds and drawings to define what was happening. And, people loved it – but they loved him more. He did not use arcane terms to define things and just told you what was happening and how it happened.

Fellow announcers, coaches and players have all described how genuine he was. Three stories can shed light on this. One of the things that precipitated his retirement was a vicious hit one of his players made on an opponent named Daryl Stingley which paralyzed him. This kind of hit is now illegal in football as the intent is to injure. Madden visited Stingley daily in the hospital as the injury occurred in Madden’s home city.

Another story is Madden was scared to fly. So, he would travel across the country in a Winnebago leaving days before a game. Madden would visit with people along the way. This endeared him even more. He was truly an everyday person.

The final story is he was a player’s coach. He told you what was expected of you – show up for practice, pay attention and play hard. Those were his rules. He did not care about what you looked like or wore. No dress codes, just play and practice hard. One of my favorite lines of his is “In my experience, when you practice well, you usually play well in the game.” 

It was said Madden was well-read and did his homework for each game. Fellow announcers would commend him on well he knew the players in the game he was announcing. The time on the road allowed for this.

Madden may not have looked the part, but he truly was s class act. 

Sports movies that echo real life lessons (a reprise)

Last month, I highlighted a sports movie that made even men cry called “Brian’s Song.”  The movie was about friendship between men of different backgrounds who were competing for the same job on a football team. So, the movie inspired me to note a few other sports movies, that echo longer, due to the story and/ or circumstances. There are many sports movies that can easily be forgotten, so those that are not have a reason for lasting in our memories.

To me, the most profound sports movie is called “Invictus” which chronicles the greatness of Nelson Mandela using the example of the national rugby team. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon star in the movie directed by Clint Eastwood. Mandela would not let the Springbok team favored by white South Africans lose its support and galvanized a whole country behind it as it hosted and won the world championship. The team was a metaphor for inclusion and showed why Mandela was able to bring a fractured country together. Mohammed Morsi should have taken notes when he took over Egypt and he may still have a job.

“42” about Jackie Robinson becoming the first African-American major league baseball player is of the same ilk. The story is far more than about baseball, as Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) and Dodger owner Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford), showed a huge amount of courage to break the color barrier years before the Civil Rights Act. Both received death threats, but Robinson had to face so many obstacles, hatred and abuse by racists, fans, players and even teammates and do so, without responding with anger. Many people would not be up to this challenge and, at some point, would have reacted. By example, he helped pave the way for others.

A movie some might be surprised is on this short list is “Bull Durham.” The reason I picked this one is it captures the camaraderie of teams quite well and shows the not so glamorous side of baseball in the minor leagues. But, the movie is about an old player and unique woman mentoring a young talented pitcher with a “million dollar arm and a five cents head.” Kevin Costner plays the veteran catcher, while Susan Sarandon plays a unique and astute baseball fan. Ironically, Tim Robbins, who becomes her husband in real life, plays Nuke Laloosh, the pitcher who needs seasoning. It also provides advice for that would resonate in the non-baseball world.  Here a few:

– Strikeouts are fascist. Throw more ground balls, they are more democratic.

– Don’t mess with a streak. If you think you are on a streak because of….then you are.

– I am not interested in anyone who is interested in that boy.

– Don’t think, just throw.

But, one you may not have seen is a worth the watch – “Bang the Drum Slowly” which is similar to “Brian’s Song,” but about baseball. It stars Michael Moriarty as a pitcher who will not play unless his catcher played by Robert De Niro can play. The catcher has cancer, so this will be his final season, a secret only Moriarty knows.

There are several others that could have been highlighted. “Hoosiers” with Gene Hackman as the imperfect coach of a high school Indiana basketball team that beats all odds to win, is excellent. “Field of Dreams” is also excellent where Costner creates a baseball diamond in his corn field and has the best game of catch at the end. “Seabiscuit” and “Phar Lap” are two movies about race horses and people who should not win, but do while overcoming great adversity. The latter is an Australian movie and is worth the watch. “The Greatest Game Ever Played” about a teenage golfer, Francis Ouimet, who beat three of the best golfers in the world is a little cheesy, but excellent. “The Lou Gehrig Story” is cheesy at times, but with Gary Cooper playing Gehrig, it is worth it. And, even “Rocky” is a classic, although they should have stopped at one.

Let me know your favorites. I know I have left off some good ones,but would love to hear your thoughts.

Heartbreaking moments

For some reason, we seem to be watching more of the Olympics in Japan than we have in previous ones. The exhilarating competition and human stories are wonderful to watch. But, it also exposes us to heartbreaking moments where you just want to hug the athlete and say it will be OK. Let me set aside the Simone Biles story, as I have written about that as have others.

There are two stories I want to focus on, but I will leave off their names, as I do not want to highlight who they are, just what happened. Plus, these two people qualified for the Olympics, which is not a small feat.

First, in one of the many “heats” for the women’s 400 meter hurdles, the Great Britain champion racer was looking to qualify for the semi-finals. This was her first race of the Olympics. Sadly, on her way to the very first hurdle, she got her feet tangled and fell into the hurdle. Her Olympic competition was ended. Seeing in live action was one thing, but when they showed it in slow motion, you truly agonize with her.

Second, the next day, in the women springboard diving competition, the top twelve divers were looking to qualify for the semi-finals, I think. After several dives, a Canadian diver was in ninth place and just needed a couple of more decent dives. Apparently, the young woman must have felt she did not get enough elevation for the twists and turns as she hopped once (per the routine) and propelled herself upward. She just meekly fell knees first into the pool. The announcers could not hide their feelings for her as they called it a “failed dive.”

Seeing both of these women, who trained so hard, walk away from what just happened made you want to hug them. Fortunately, coaches and teammates were there to do so.

It reminds me that I have failed on more than a few occasions. We all fail at some time. It hurts. Plus, you replay that hurt over and over in your mind. Hopefully, we have learned from that failure, as it can be a better teacher than success.

One of the things that I admire about the gymnasts (or skaters) is they keep going. If they mess up or have a small misstep, they keep going. It should be noted the women’s gymnastic team winners from Russia overcame two of their better gymnasts falling off the balance beam (I still don’t know how they perform on a four inch wide beam). Guess what they did? The two got back up on the beam and continued on. And, the team won.

So, it may not be a four inch balance beam, but we need to get off the floor and climb back on and keep going. And, for those two women I highlighted above. They were there. They made it to Japan. There is a lot to be said for that.

*Note: People remember failures like this, which is why I did not use their names. If you ask people in Boston who Bill Buckner is, some will tell you about a terrible error he made playing first base for the Boston Red Sox that cost them the 1986 World Series. But, there is far more to this story. His error was in Game Six and there was another game the next day. Plus, the winning New York Mets knew Boston’s weakness was their late game pitchers – they knew if Boston pulled their starting pitcher, they had a chance. Yet, Red Sox fans also forget that Buckner had a heckuva season and helped Boston make the World Series. Yes, he made a key error, but the team lost, not Bill Buckner.

A quiet and competitive baseball star passed away

As a boy, I had dreams of being a professional baseball player. I began playing organized baseball when I was 8 and did not stop until my senior year of high school. I was reminded of that yesterday, when one of the older stars named Bob Gibson passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 84. You may not know who he is, so allow me one paragraph on his success, courtesy of Wikipedia, which I will follow with a few recollections.

“Robert Gibson was an American professional baseball pitcher who played 17 seasons in Major League Baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. Nicknamed “Gibby” and “Hoot”, Gibson tallied 251 wins, 3,117 strikeouts, and a 2.91 earned run average during his career. A nine-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion, he won two Cy Young Awards and the 1968 National League Most Valuable Player Award. Known for a fiercely competitive nature and for intimidating opposing batters, he was elected in 1981 to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The Cardinals retired his uniform number 45 in September 1975 and inducted him into the team Hall of Fame in 2014.”

The above paragraph speaks of him being fiercely competitive implying he must have been some kind of jerk. While pitching, he was a force as he was paid to get the batters out. And, he could be off putting to teammates. This talented pitcher was very quiet, even soft-spoken, and did not brag on himself like too many do today. He was very smart and confident and largely kept to himself. That did not always sit well with reporters and others. So, to say he was a warm person would also be off the mark.

But, as his former catcher and later baseball announcer Tim McCarver said about Gibson, he scared batters because he had command of two pitches – a moving fastball and curveball. Batters did not want to dig in too deep at the plate because of these two pitches. He would throw the fastball inside, then strikeout the batter with his curve ball away. As a former player, facing a fastball that moved was more frightening than one that was straight.

In 1964, 1967 and 1968, he led the St. Louis Cardinals to three World Series, with his team winning two of them. They came close to winning all three, but succumbed to a loaded Detroit Tigers team in seven games in 1968. Yet, even then, Gibson pitched the Cardinals to two victories. In the first game against the Tigers, Gibson struck out seventeen batters. At the time, the record was 18 strikeouts.

When Gibson was pitching against a team I was pulling for, I knew it was an uphill battle. I remember a sports show where Bob Costas interviewed Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, two of the greatest baseball players who played in Gibson’s time. Gibson was in the audience and when Costas asked him to stand, both players showed Gibson much respect as a worthy adversary.

There is an old saying that applies to Gibson; be more scared of the quiet one. He did not boast, he just performed. He was quiet, but he was confident. He was someone I would love to talk with about his philosophy on pitching. Then, again he may not have let me.

The bane of my youth – stadium trips, line drills and gassers

People who have participated in high school sports will likely know these terms, even if they referenced them differently. While my children are more artistic and musical than me, I spent my youth on some ball field or gym floor. So, I became well acquainted with training tools known as “stadium trips,” “line drills” and “gassers.”

Stadium trips required concentration, as you did not want to fall (which I did), especially coming down. At the end of practice for cross-country or before a football season might start, we would be required to run up and down the bleachers of the stadium. If you think about most high school fields, the stadiums are fifty or sixty rows high. So, a stadium trip would constitute one run up and one run down. A coach might say do 30 stadium trips and then hit the showers, e.g. This would be a phrase you would learn to love and hate. The hate part is obvious. The love part is you knew practice would be over.

The same could be said for line drills. They usually were done at the end of basketball practice, so you knew it would soon be over. Line drills are, in essence, a series of growing sprints from the baseline (end of the court) to the closest foul line and back, then to half court and back, then to the other foul line and back and finally to the other baseline and back. The key to making good time is to slide into the line and using your hands to set yourself back up and return. It was not uncommon for the coach to make it a contest, where the winner of each line drill would get to leave the court sooner. So, the key would be to win early.

But, nothing was as bad as something we called gassers. I mentioned these before, but when training for cross-country, after running a three-mile practice run, we would rest and then end practice with gassers designed to make you faster. For my foreign readers who are on the metric system, please forgive the reference to yards. We would start with two 880s (twice around the track), then do four 440s, and finish with eight 220s. The 220s would be killers as you would round the turn and feel like someone slapped you as you finished each race. Living in Florida, I vividly recall awakening in the middle of the night to cramps in my legs, with my parents running into the room to see what was all the fuss.

So, remember these survival tips. Pay attention on the downward half of a stadium trip, slide into the lines on line drills, and drink water before and after gassers.

Great Rivalries

Having just concluded a very exciting NBA basketball final pitting two great teams and players, I am reminded of when sporting events are at their finest. It is due to great rivalries, be it players or teams. Much of the rivalry’s greatness is due to opportunity and timing, but it is also due to proximity and passion. Tiger Woods will eventually be remembered as one of the greatest golfers ever. Yet, he has not benefitted from having a great rival, as he was a cut above for most of his career. Only when he had injuries and philandering issues, did the bloom fall of the rose.

Conversely, Jack Nicklaus had several rivals throughout his career that made his greatness more memorable. Very few people remember how he was not liked at first as he was a challenge to Arnold Palmer who was literally the first TV sports star. Arnie still won while Jack was around, but it made for great theatre, when the two dueled and it became obvious Jack was the better player. Gary Player, Lee Trevino and eventually Tom Watson were up to the challenge to battle Jack. Probably the greatest golf match I have seen was at the British Open, when Tom beat Jack by one stroke with both playing at their very finest and together at Turnberry.

Tennis has several examples of great rivalries, even today. More recently, to see Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in their epic battles at Wimbledon and the French Open is about as good as it gets. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe staged several memorable breakfasts at Wimbledon (with sequels at the US Open), especially during one of the longest tiebreaker matches I have witnessed, complete with a diving McEnroe during his eventual loss to Borg. On the women’s side, seeing Chris Evert, the best clay court player, and Martina Navratilova, the best grass and overall player, battle at Wimbledon and the US Open was also a privilege.

On the basketball court, it is usually more about team rivalries, but one that transcended into individual player rivalry were two team-oriented players – Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Magic’s team won five NBA titles to Larry’s three, plus Magic’s college team beat Larry’s team in their final year of college. Both were known more for their elegant and artful passing which had truly become a lost art. They made their teams better. The NBA was actually in trouble (with some finals played on TV tape delay) when the two joined the league and their rivalry brought it back to prime time.

Yet, teams sports are more about team rivalries, so the fact that Bird played for the Boston Celtics and Magic for the Los Angeles Lakers was fortuitous, as it was a coast to coast rivalry of excellence built over time dating back to the 1960s. That made their individual rivalry even greater to watch. While this was coast to coast, most team rivalries are legendary because of proximity and passion. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees rivalry is perhaps the best example in this country, but it may be “rivaled” on the college level by Duke University and the University of North Carolina, as they sit only eight miles apart.

Both sets of fans are passionate and their team’s success is as much a part of who they are as anything else. There are great HBO documentaries on both rivalries, but one of the things I most remember from watching them, is when the Red Sox rallied to beat the Yankees and eventually won the World Series about ten years ago, Red Sox fans would take pennants, bobble head dolls and ball caps to the cemetery to celebrate with their dad, mom, uncle or aunt who had passed away without witnessing a triumph over the Yankees in the playoffs. Their teams meant so much to the deceased, their children had to celebrate with them.

Please forgive me if I slighted your favorite rivalry. Ohio State/ Michigan, Alabama/ Auburn, etc. are all great rivalries. By not listing your favorite was only due to brevity not malice. And, please forgive this US centric post, as I am certain there are many rivalries that could “rival” the above. I would love to hear about some your favorites. Please share them for all to see.