Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Sis! Boom! Bah! Humbug.

Principal Terrence Cutler: “When I heard that you were going to be subbing here, I almost lost my mind. Well, there’s something you need to know about, Kenny. You’re not the only athlete here at Jeff Davis. I happen to be training for a triathlon right now. So, I’m doing a lot of running. And cycling. Swimming. Well, you know all about that.”
Kenny Powers: “No, actually, I don’t. I play real sports. I’m not trying to be the best at exercising.”

The UIL’s decision to pilot competitive cheerleading reminds me of this scene from HBO’s “Eastbound & Down.” Kenny Powers is a wasted and washed-up professional baseball pitcher, thoroughly, unredeemingly obnoxious. I love the guy, and I’m certain he’d agree with me when I say, “Competitive cheerleading is not a real sport.”
Actually, it’s not any kind of sport. Why anyone thinks it is escapes me. I asked a couple of cheerleaders if they thought it should be, and, of course, they did, but they failed to provide a single compelling reason beyond, “Cheerleaders work hard.”
Well, that’s lame. So do the team managers.  Anyone thinking about an ankle-taping contest? Or, how about competitive PE?
In truth, cheerleading ranks up there with twirling, which is a UIL music competition even though it has nothing to do with music and everything to do with dance and digital dexterity. It remains a UIL solo-ensemble contest because of events described later, and, of course, because it’s saddle-stitched to marching band.
Well, two wrongs don’t make a right.
I have no objection to twirling or cheerleading as school activities. Twirling provides girls (and a handful of boys, I suppose) the opportunity to perfect their tossing and fetching skills, which might prove helpful later in life should they turn into border collies.
Cheerleaders, meanwhile, learn histrionics and facial contortions as well as flipping and bouncing and shaking things — real and inanimate —which, I suppose, is the perfect preparation for future marriage counseling sessions or school board meetings where sex education is discussed.
So, please, don’t accuse me of being prejudiced against cheerleaders or twirlers because I’m not. Fact is, my daughter was once a head-bobbing, ribbon-draped, fist-pumping junior high cheerleader who for two full years spoke only in all-caps and exclamation points, as in “GOOD MORNING, DAD!!! PASS THE TOAST!!!” which, in time, forced me to respond, “Can’t you just take drugs like all the other kids?”
Incidentally, I remember when UIL’s former director of music proposed dropping twirling as a state solo-ensemble music contest because — duh — twirling isn’t music. He provided a clear and reasoned argument to support his claim, and his proposal appeared destined to pass when the doors of the big hotel banquet room burst open, and in tromped every mascara-caked, metal-mouth mad-as-hell twirler east of IH35, along with their mothers and the owners and operators of the local twirling academy.
Over the next hour, they testified in their little pixie voices about how that mean old UIL director of music was ruining their lives and stealing their dreams, and their tears soaked their rhinestone outfits, fringe and all. And what about all the people who come to the football games just to watch them? What would happen to these people? Does anyone even care?
It wasn't meant rhetorically.
It didn't matter. The sweet old men sitting on the committee charged with legislating such matters wilted in the face of this lipstick blitzkrieg.
Suffice it to say, twirling remains a state music solo-ensemble contest, today, tomorrow and forever.
I suspect the same will happen once cheerleading gets its bow in the door. There’s little difference between a head bob and a head butt, and, like it or not, competitive cheerleading is certain to become a UIL “sport” after its one-year pom pilot. Go ahead. Stand up and holler.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Game Changers

Brenham head football coach Glen West’s first name isn’t Glen. It’s Gordon.
If you know anything about Texas high school football, you might guess where “Gordon” comes from — especially when you learn that Glen’s daddy grew up in Stamford and played football there for Gordon Wood — the greatest Texas high school football coach ever.
Wood coached from 1951-57 at Stamford, which is located 41 miles north of Abilene in the middle of not much and generally dry. The town was built by Swedish immigrants in 1900 along the Texas Central Railroad, so when folks there talk about “the wrong side of the tracks,” they mean it literally.
Glen West’s daddy — his name is Kenneth — grew up on the wrong side of those tracks. He was a bad student in a bad situation but he wasn’t a bad kid. He was mostly lost. His mother was often sick and hospitalized. His dad had trouble finding work, and when he did, it forced him to hit the road, so Kenneth and his two brothers were often left to fend for themselves.
One day around 1950, Gordon Wood pulled Kenneth aside and said, “Son, straighten up or you’ll end up in a place that’s a lot worse than Stamford.” Of course, he coaxed him to play football, but he knew football alone wouldn’t change what Kenneth needed: a steady, consistent, reassuring voice. Someone to break the chain and stand in the gap. Basically, a parent. So Wood stepped in, made sure the boys were fed, clothed, doing their schoolwork and sleeping indoors.
As for football, Kenneth played tackle and played well enough to earn a scholarship to play for the “Traveling Cowboys” of Hardin-Simmons, coached by Slingin’ Sammy Baugh. By the time Kenneth had graduated and served a brief stint in the Army, Wood was coaching in Victoria, and Kenneth joined him there, launched his coaching career, met his future wife and started a family.
In 1960, Wood moved to Brownwood, and Kenneth followed him two years later, toting with him an 18-month-old son, Glen, who grew up celebrating Brownwood state football victories — especially the 1978 title in which he started at linebacker.
“To say that Gordon Wood has had an influence on me is a huge understatement,” Glen said. “He has had an influence on my whole family.”
He can’t imagine where any of them would be without him. He probably wouldn’t be a coach, and even if he were, he probably wouldn’t be the coach he is — the man he has become.
Here’s why: For years, Glen was nagged by the thought that he needed to be doing more for the athletes and students at Brenham High, something beyond the X’s and O’s and coaching poster platitudes.  Then, on his way home from a leadership conference, he figured it out: To make a real difference in the lives of some young people, he had to be less like a coach and teacher, and more like a father. From that epiphany sprung the “Brenham Game Changers,” a group of local educators, business people, clergy and civic leaders who have committed themselves to do whatever is necessary to make a difference.
He says it’s not about quick and easy solutions or instant gratification.
“You’re not always going to get the Cinderella ending,” he said. “The slipper doesn’t always fit, but you just have to keep trying.”
Because that’s what Gordon Wood would have done.
So now, let’s end with an anecdote.
After coaching, Kenneth West  became a Brownwood High principal. One day, Gordon Wood pulled Gordon Glen West aside and said, “Who would have ever thought your daddy would end up being a high school principal?”

Wood paused, then added with pride, “Isn’t it great,” as if he was talking about his own son, which, in some ways, he was.

Van Thomas

In late November, 1970, the White Oak Roughnecks were undefeated, ranked second or third in the state and about to enter a deep run into the Conference A state playoffs. I was a decent enough starting wide receiver and cornerback on that team, and we were all full of ourselves — smalltown heroes with pretty girlfriends and fawning parents and cool teachers who knew better than to saddle us with too much homework.
It was everything it's made out to be. Of course, you can say the same about a fibrous tumor. Both are benign until they grow so large as to, as the physicians say, "overexpress themselves."
At any rate, one afternoon, at the end of practice, the sports editor of the local daily newspaper, Van Thomas, cornered me and said something along the lines of, "I read your story (in the high school paper). When this season's over, you should swing by the office. We might be able to find a job for you."
Well, the season ended two weeks before Christmas on a frigid Friday night in a 7-6 loss to Pflugerville, one game short of a shot at the state championship. Of course, we were devastated. Our girlfriends and our moms cried, and most of our dads tried to console us and place it all in perspective, which wasn't entirely necessary. Soon enough, the fall semester ended, and we turned our thoughts to Christmas and New Year's and other sports and the final slog toward graduation — not to mention all the homework our teachers were inexplicably assigning.
In time, I accepted Van's offer and made an appointment to meet him at his cluttered mess of a desk in the front right corner of the dank, nicotine-caked newsroom. I wore my new gold crushed-velvet blazer that I bought to have my senior portrait taken in, which Van was polite enough not to laugh at. Instead, he nursed a cigarette and explained what he and the other sportswriters did and  how I might fit in. He then introduced me around the office by my first name like I was a favorite nephew just back from the war with my arm in a sling.
I don't recall him offering me a job, but a few nights later, I called in my first story: White Oak falls to West Rusk in non-district basketball game
The piece was no longer than three paragraphs. No quotes. No official stats. Just a final score and a line or two how White Oak had squandered a 10 point lead going into the fourth quarter. 
The best thing about the story? It carried my name in the byline. "By Bobby Hawthorne, Special Correspondent."
If I wasn't insufferable enough before, I certainly was after.
Over the next four years, I would write at least another 100 stories for the News-Journal. My freshman and sophomore years at Kilgore College, I took 16-18 hours per semester and worked upwards of 40 hours a week at the newspaper, covering high school games, keeping stats for the Kilgore College beat writer, and knocking out three or four or more stories a week in between.
I wasn't very good, but I was reliable and willing to learn from my many mistakes, and by the time I left in the fall of 1973 to attend the University of Texas at Austin, I mostly knew what I was doing.
I also knew I would major in journalism.
I knew I would be a reporter.
I knew I had a job as a sports reporter when I finished at UT because I had learned how to pound out a clean and coherent story on deadline.
I learned to listen to the older guys, to accept their advice and to read their stuff because it was better than mine.
I learned how to overcome my natural timidity and talk to coaches and players and get them to say something more than boilerplate bullshit.
Perhaps most importantly, I learned the tribal customs and rituals of a newspaper newsroom.
In particular, I knew to never interrupt Van while he writing, especially on deadline.
I knew that whatever Van said to or screamed at me or to anyone else in a flash of red-faced anger or frustration was forgotten 10 or 15 minutes later.
I knew Van had my back — like the time when I dared to predict that White Oak would lose to New Diana in a pivotal district football game. At the pep rally, the Roughneck coach held up the Longview sports page and pointed to my story and called me a traitor. That evening, as I sauntered up to the press box, I heard a sprinkling of boos, but I assumed they were aimed at the officials or the New Diana coaches. They weren't. They were directed at me by people I knew, people who I thought were my friends.
I brushed it off, but it stung, even after I realized it brought me a dose of notoriety I found useful in dealing with the local thugs and ne'er-do-wells.
When I told Van about it, he laughed and asked, "Well, was your prediction right?"
He knew it was. New Diana throttled them.
So, he took a slow drag on his cigarette, nodded at me, wheeled around and walked off, and I came to understand what he was teaching me: In this  job, if you want a friend, get a dog.

• • •

Van died October 10, 2014, at the age of 81, not more than a month after telling me he wanted to cover the Livingston football team at least one more season.
"You like to think you can continue doing what you’re doing year-after-year, but you can’t,” he said, then proved it so.
I suppose that will be the last lesson Van Thomas taught me. I hope I'm smart enough and wise enough to heed his advice. At any rate, here's the column:

• • •

For only the second time since 1961, Van Thomas didn’t make it to coaching school. He had planned to go to San Antonio, but it was hot and he’d just returned from Austin where he was working on a story about the dismissal of a local boy from the UT football team. Van said he sympathizes with the young man but, darn it, the kid seems as talented at finding trouble as he is the end zone.
Van was also peeved at the NCAA for abruptly barring college coaches from speaking at high school coaching clinics like the THSCA’s. It’s all big business now, and Van realizes it, but he misses the old days, as old men are apt to do.
Van turned 81 recently. He has covered East Texas high school athletics for 55 years plus. Red-headed, flat-topped and freckled, he moved to Texas in the spring of ‘61 by way of northeast Arkansas and northern California, landing first in Henderson, then moving to Longview, then to Nacogdoches, and finally to Livingston, where for the past 36 years, he’s written his twice-a-week “Once Over Lightly” column for the Polk County Enterprise.
The column is full of sports flotsam, homespun humor and innocent gossip. I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t mention this interview to his readers, not a one of whom know me. When Van is finished, they’ll feel as if they do.
Van said he thinks about retiring and would if it weren’t for the kids.
“I still love getting to know them,” he said. “Many of them will never have their name or picture in the paper again. This is their one shot.”
Of course, he’s encountered hundreds of fabulous athletes over the years and has a story about almost every one. Among the best: Big Sandy’s Lovie Smith, White Oak’s Mike Barber, Palestine’s Bill Bradley and Henderson’s Joe Wylie.
He said he needled Smith after Big Sandy ran up 100 points against some hapless opponent. He claims he had a hand in Wylie’s decision to attend Oklahoma over Arkansas — his alma mater. “Joe was one of the smartest kids I ever met, and I told him I thought OU was a better fit,” Van said.
Of course, Van spoke at length about Longview’s James Street, who might have attended Arkansas had the Razorback coaches taken his advice and offered him a scholarship. Van said he asked Frank Broyles if he planned to pursue Street, and Broyles replied, “Who all is interested in Street?’”
“Looks like it’s you and Texas,” Van said.
“Well, I tell you what,” Broyles said. “I’m going to let ol’ Darrell have him.”
We know how that turned out.
Van loves telling these stories, and over the course of an interview that stretched almost two hours, he told so many that I couldn’t mention them all if I committed to a two-volume biography. And they’re not all about sports. He described in great detail his 1967 trip to Saigon to write about a three-wheeled, 100-ton jungle-crusher built in Longview by LeTourneau.
But mostly, he talked about high school players and coaches, with whom he forged long and deep friendships, and that’s made the recent deaths of Street and Robert Newhouse of Hallsville and Rodney Thomas of Groveton particularly painful.
“James’ death broke my heart,” Van said. “I loved him like a brother.”
The same is true of Thomas.
“I almost adopted Rodney,” he said. “One of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.”
Van said he plans to cover the Livingston team again this fall. His health is good enough, he says, even though he smoked a pack or two of Benson & Hedges a day until he went cold turkey in January of 1983. But he’s not kidding himself.
“Eighty-one, well, that’s getting up there,” he said. “You like to think you can continue doing what you’re doing year-after-year, but you can’t.”
I wish I could have interviewed him in person. His staccato laugh seems an octave higher today than what I remember from my days as a young sportswriter in Longview, and I tried to picture him as he surely is now: a flat-topped and freckled ruddy old man, a little hunched and pudgy and jowly but sweet blue eyes still dancing behind his black, horned-rim glasses. I hope he has at least one more season in him before he and “Once Over Lightly” hang it up.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Lesson Learned

I noticed recently that the Golf Writers Association of the America selected Tiger Woods as its player of the year.
I assume that means “player of golf.”
At any rate, I mention this because I wrote something a while back and have been sitting on it, wondering if and when I’d submit it. The Tiger Woods story triggered my decision to do so, and here’s why: In his mea culpa regarding his marital meanderings, Tiger Woods said, “I convinced myself that normal rules don’t apply.”
He may well have been speaking on behalf of a generation of talented, young male athletes, who are too often taught by parents, teachers, coaches and many others that the normal rules don’t apply to them either.
I say this based on a piece by Andrew Smiler, a North Carolina therapist and author of a book about promiscuous young male sexuality. He examined several incidents where seemingly popular, likeable boys did insidious things, usually to not-so-popular, not-so-likeable, powerless girls.
How does this happen, Dr. Smiler wondered. How do otherwise good boys behave like beasts?
Well, here’s how, he concluded.
• Mom and dad are fans, not parents, so when grades sag, they blame the teacher. He gets in trouble at school, they bail him out. It’s not his fault. The rule isn’t fair. The policy is arbitrary and capricious. He gets in trouble with a girl, well boys will be boys.
• Teachers and administrators fail to enforce rules. He curses a teacher, doesn’t do his homework, flunks a test or a course, well there’s always an escape hatch. As they say, the teacher knows the rules; the student, the exceptions.
• He is surrounded by servants and sycophants, hangers-on who coddle, protect and clean up after him. In some schools, they’re pep or spirit club members. In others, they’re groupies. Either way, he’s treated like royalty.
• His narcissism is constantly stoked. He’s late to class, gets caught sneaking a smoke between classes, rips a toilet out of the bathroom wall, takes a jab at some kid in the hall, well maybe he’s just having a bad day. There’s always a coach or a counselor to smooth things over. He might end up running a few bleachers. If worse comes to worse, he might scribble his name on a letter of apology someone else wrote.
• His parents feed off of his celebrity. Perhaps mom and dad are socially connected anyway. Maybe they’re chummy with the police chief or the mayor or even a state representative or two— people who are in a position to pull strings, make phone calls, make problems disappear.
• He gets whatever he wants when he wants it. Hot wheels. Cool clothes. Five hundred dollar headphones. Access to the liquor cabinet and free weekends devoid of nosy parents who may wonder but won’t ask what’s going in there.
• He’s raised to believe that men are men, and girls are just girls, and anyone who attempts to bend or straddle the line is inferior or weird and thus worthy of whatever comes their way. This is particularly true for sissy boys and misty-eyed girls.
• He’s taught to choose his victims carefully, preferably the weaklings, the chemically incapacitated, the mentally or socially impaired. If caught or confronted, he knows the system will blame the victim. They asked for it, after all, and they got it.

And so, this is how otherwise nice, likeable, popular boys come to behave despicably. In so many cases, they’ve been taught — and they’ve learned — that the normal rules apply to saps and nobodies, not to them. After all, they're heroes.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Roses in the rain

I won’t feel the full brunt of Jeff’s death until the Saturday before the 2014 summer journalism workshop at Michigan State because he won’t be there to pick me up at the airport and drive me to his home in Grosse Pointe and lug my suitcase up the stairs and deposit it in his twin boys’ bedroom, where I’ll spend the night.
Jeff and I won’t then head over to a Polish restaurant in Hamtramck or to the Cadieux Cafe for Belgian beer and steamed mussels and feather bowling, where he’ll try gallantly to let me win at least one game because, he believes, that’s what a good host and a good guy does. He’ll fail, even though he’ll spot me a huge lead because I suck at feather bowling, especially after two or three beers, and even though I really want to win. 
Regardless, he’ll find all this hilarious, as if we haven’t done these things a half-dozen times already. By the evening's end, we’ll be exhausted from laughing and yapping, and I’ll have no trouble sleeping in Cy or Cal’s tiny twin bed, even though I’m a chronic insomniac and have been for decades.
And so, I know the Saturday before the 2014 MIPA workshop will be painful, and I’m thankful for and fully expect my Michigan friends and colleagues to pull me through. I promise to reciprocate in full.
Jeff’s funeral service was as perfect as a funeral can be. The pastor choked up once. Two of his former students spoke brilliantly, as did his two colleagues and four of his long-time running mates — members of the so-called "Fab Five." The wives of one of these pals — a woman Jeff had known since kindergarten — dubbed him “the daughter his mother never had,” and it drew a huge laugh. Though there wasn’t a dainty cell in his body, Jeff was kind and courteous and as giving a person as I’ve met. I know no one who thinks otherwise. 
In the last couple of years, as he grappled with his horrible illness, I came to understand how much I adored — oh, fuck it, how much I loved — him, and so it was hard for me to admit to myself that he had better friends than me — though, of course, I knew it had to be so. I rarely saw Jeff more than three times a year. It's also hard to realize that he was a better friend to me — not his best friend —  than I am to my best friends. 
I plan to rectify that.
The all-too-brief time I spent with Jeff was crammed with long, interesting conversations about family and sports and journalism, interrupted only by an occasional bad movie or amazing meal or wild adventure — like our trip to Cedar Pointe, where he and I literally sprinted from roller coaster to roller coaster, elbowing our way past 12-year-old boys and anyone else who dared stand between us and the front of the line. We rode every monster ride in the park before lunch —several of them twice.
Then, we wolfed down cheeseburgers and fries and laughed and yapped and then rode two or three rides one last time before hitting the road back to Detroit to pack up Jeff’s GM van and head toward East Lansing — me with my carry-on suitcase and Tumi man-bag; Jeff with his ice chests, air conditioner, sacks of candy, stacks of handouts, and God only knows what else. As in all of his life, Jeff arrived locked and loaded. All in.
For example, years ago, the workshop directors quietly pressured their instructors to quietly pressure their students to compete in the closing night’s big talent show — and most of us did, even though we knew either Jeff or Kirk would win because both started planning their performance months in advance. They'd arrive with props and costumes and scripts and everything short of a Children's Chorus and chamber orchestra.
I once kidded Jeff that his class syllabus must look something like this:
Sunday: 5-5:10 p.m.— Welcome. Review of rules.
Sunday: 5:15-7:30 — Auditions. Costume fittings.
Monday: 9-9:30 a.m. — Sports coverage, writing, opinion, headlines and captions. Design, graphics and photography. Tom Izzo press conference. First draft of story due at 9:28. Second draft by 9:30.
Monday 9:30-9:40 a.m. — Break. Change into costumes.
Monday 9:40 a.m.-Wednesday, 3:45 p.m. — Rehearsals.
Wednesday 4-5 p.m. — Show time.
Thursday 9-9:30 — Presentation of First Place Trophy. Brainstorm next year's performance. 
Strangely enough, no one I know begrudged Jeff a bit because (1) he made it part of a larger learning experience, and (2) he somehow convinced 15- and 16-year-old boys to sing and dance, and to wear makeup and an occasional boa. In other words, he taught them to prepare, take chances, give their best and laugh the whole time they were doing it.
And, I'm guessing, that’s how he lived right up to the second he died.
That's why the church was packed. 
As I said, the service was lovely — funny, uplifting, powerful. I only cried a little. It ended with a video, of course, and I want to thank and curse whoever chose “Thunder Road” as its soundtrack because I’ll never hear it again without thinking of Jeff, and I love that song and listen to it often. I played it three or four times during the plane ride from Detroit to Dallas, and each time Bruce belted, “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,” my eyes puffed and turned watermelon pink.
I also listened to “Hungry Heart” and “Blinded by the Light” and “Jungleland” and five or six other Springsteen songs including, of course, “Born to Run.” And when he sang, “Together, we can live with the sadness,” well, it was as if Jeff were saying to me — and to us — run 'till you drop, never look back, love each other with all the madness in our souls. One day, we'll walk in the sun. 
Or, as he might also put it, "Rehearsals in ten, kids. Find your boa."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sun and grand-daughter

I wrote this for Texas School Business magazine, for whom I'm a regular columnist and reporter. Since then, Evie has been fitted with hearing aids and is progressing fabulously. She will be here Thanksgiving, and I plan to make sure she hears "A Hard Day's Night" at least a dozen times.

There’s little chance Simon Sun will try out for football or any other sport inasmuch as he suffers from cerebral palsy, and it’s a struggle for him to talk let alone walk, but he’s determined to live as normal a life as possible, and his efforts to do so are nothing short of heroic.
I’m thinking about Simon a lot right now. He was one of the best students in an advanced writing class I taught this summer at Michigan State. I was notified beforehand that he had signed up, and I received a copy of a letter his father wrote, asking that we be patient with but not coddle him.
“He is 16 and will go to college,” his father told us. “He needs to learn how to get around on his own.”
So, we helped when Simon needed it and were patient as he struggled to ask a question or explain how he thought an anecdote might be used or how a descriptive phrase might be teased.
But it was tough. At first, I couldn’t understand him. His words seemed a jumble of honks and squawks, and I felt guilty being unable to decipher them, of pretending that I could. Several times, I interrupted him with responses to questions he didn’t ask, and I hoped — assumed, actually — he wouldn’t notice the difference.
I committed the cardinal sin of teaching: I defined Simon by his disability, not his ability. And then, I read his personal opinion column. He cranked it out in about an hour, and I suspect he has wanted to write it for a long, long time.
Here are a few excerpts:

• I’m trapped in my own mind. At least, that’s how it feels. As one who is physically disabled, it’s constantly a struggle to breathe before I suffocate in my thoughts. Almost no one listens to what I have to say. Or, if they try to listen, many can’t understand me. It’s as if I don’t exist.
         • What irks me the most are not those who ostracize me. Instead, it’s those who insist on helping me. I fully understand that they’re just being nice, but when I’m treated like a 5-year-old or a sick puppy, that’s what I hate. I don’t need my hand held as I walk through society. I’m 16, and I would like to be treated as such.
• While we’re at it, don’t call me “buddy.” I’m not your buddy. I don’t even know you. It’s as if you’re talking to a dog, or a scruffy little kid. Call me “friend.” “Bro.” Say, “Hey, man” as I pass you in the hall, not “Hey there, little buddy.”  I’m not Gilligan.
• When I try to speak, I either get ignored or interrupted. I’m not sure whether I’m just not loud enough or whether the others don’t have the patience to really listen to me. I want them to know what I have something to say, but it’s frustrating. My thoughts are caught somewhere between my brain and my mouth, and so, I’m trapped, trapped in my own mind, suffocating in my own thoughts. But let me tell you something. I exist. And I will be heard. Somehow. Some day.”

I’m thinking about Simon a lot now because my wife and I recently learned that our 20-month-old granddaughter, Evelyn, is mostly deaf, and there's a chance she could lose what little hearing she has.
I’ve not had time to process this, and I’m not sure when the reality of it will sink in. Soon enough, I suppose.
It’s ironic. A couple of months ago, I wrote a snarky piece about how the U.S. Justice Department's Office for Civil Rights had reminded school districts that they were obliged to provide students with disabilities equal access to extracurricular sports.
I contacted the UIL and a couple of athletic directors and coaches and asked if this changed anything, and they assured me it did not. I had no reason to doubt them, so I glibly dismissed it all as another case of government run amuck.
The piece never saw the light of day though. I shared it with my wife, and she hated it, so I dumped and forgot about it.
But now, this.
As I begin to imagine all that Evelyn might miss — the opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night,” a thunder clap, a kitten’s meow  — I hope the chance to play high school sports isn’t among them. I hope she’s defined by her ability, not her disability.
I hope too that you think of Simon and his determined heroism when you encounter another young person with a disability. Please be patient with but don’t pander to him or her. I ask this of you because one day, that young person might be my granddaughter.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cookies and memories

I am baby-sitting my 3-year-old grandson, Oliver. His mom is having her hair cut — a task that takes three or four hours, apparently. My wife is working or watching. I’m not sure. At any rate, I’m here with Oliver and our 21-year-old yellow tabby, Woody.
Oliver and I have explored, rough-housed, tormented Woody and chased each other up and down stairs and around the kitchen island. Later, we’re visiting the fire station that’s just around the corner. We baked oatmeal-pecan-coconut cookies that we’ll deliver to the firemen, a little thanks for welcoming us into their cramped, old station. I know they will. I stopped by the other day, and they assured me they’d love to show Oliver the gear and the truck. It’s going to be great.
Fact is, Oliver loves firemen. He’s watching Fireman Sam on Netflix right now. That’s how I have time to write this. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a couple of days.
You see, Oliver is a special kid. I know, all grandkids are special. Brightest. Cutest. Most this. Best that. That’s a given. But he is special. He’s incredibly verbal. Yesterday, he said “forget,” then corrected himself and said “forgot.”
Remember, he’s three.
He’s also plucky and courageous. He doesn’t mind taking a hit. We played “close your eyes and Pops will sweep your legs out from under you” for about an hour. He laughed every time, even once when he almost fell off the couch onto the tile floor, perhaps by way of the coffee table corner. Scared me to death. Don’t tell his mom. Please.
He has the innate ability and temperament of an athlete.  The only problem is that he’s little and a little shy, and that can be a problem. He can get lost in the pack, become discouraged and disenchanted, and quit.
I would hate that. It almost happened to me. It did happen to my daughter.
I have no intention of re-living my childhood through a grandson. If I were to, I’d re-live it through Oliver’s 1-year-old brother. His name is Shepard, but I call him Turbo. If there’s a middle linebacker in our future, it’s Shep.
I just want Oliver to enjoy the thrill of the game. I want him to be tutored and mentored by men and women who fully appreciate how profoundly important they can be in his life. I don’t want him to be the cannon fodder of coaches revisiting or, even worse, trying to reclaim their lost youth though my grandson.
I want his coaches to teach values like hard work, persistence, dedication and teamwork, but I don’t want these terms to be twisted or warped. I once knew a coach who ran his boys until they threw up, and he was proud of it. He placed barrels around the gym floor and warned his players that if they puked on his floor, he’d run ‘em that much and more.
His floor.
He was a bully and a creep.
I had a high school coach, Tommy Atkins, who inspired me, motivated me to achieve something I could have never achieved alone: to run a 2-minute half-mile on a cinder track on a cold, windy February evening. Sure, he ran me half to death too, but I busted a gut for him out of respect, admiration — not fear. I finished third in district, and he treated me as if I’d taken first at state.
I hope Oliver’s coaches help him to discover the love of athletic competition — be it football or golf or table tennis or even, God forbid, soccer. With my luck, he’ll be an all-star flopper, and I’ll spend the autumn of my life camped out with 16 other parents and grandparents, caravanning to soccer matches coast to coast.
Of course, I’ll be glad to do it if he loves the game and if he’s getting out it as much as he’s putting into it. One of my great regrets going forward is knowing I’ll never play another game of football without suffering horribly for it. My best tennis and racquetball and basketball are far behind me too.
That’s OK. I have my memories.
I want Oliver to have his memories too. If you’ll help him, guide him, inspire him, then I’ll make sure there’s a batch of oatmeal-pecan-coconut cookies coming your way too.