Thursday, December 31, 2009

TCU and Bowl Season

There's no doubt that this has been the greatest college football bowl season ever for TCU fans. The reason is obvious, of course--after years of pre-Christmas and New Year's Eve bowls (the latter only when we've been lucky or maneuvered our way into one), we've made January. And not only have we made January, we've made a BCS bowl in January--to be played not on, but after, New Year's Day. (Post-New Year's is the new New Year's Day in the bowl universe.)

Forget about the fact that we might have been one second away from the national-championship game. Forget about the fact that we're playing a rematch with Boise State of last season's Poinsettia Bowl and that Boise, like us, is an "outsider" from a conference that doesn't--thanks to the BCS cartel and its likely illegal practices--qualify its champion automatically for a major bowl game. Forget about missing the chance to prove ourselves against one of the "big boys." We are a big boy now--and so are the Boise State Broncos, who frankly will provide terrifying opposition on Jan. 4.

The countdown to the Fiesta Bowl--and, yes, my lovely wife and I will be there--has been one of the great sports experiences of my life, and it hasn't involved TCU playing a single game. It has involved me watching tons of other bowl games with the smug sense of satisfaction that we're not part of the bowl glut this year--that while USC and Texas A&M and Nebraska and Georgia are playing on random nights in December, we're awaiting a nationally televised Jan. 4 BCS game that will have no competition from the NFL or anything else of sporting significance. We're awaiting our turn as a top-five team, while many "traditional powers" are either sitting at home or pretending to enjoy the hospitality of the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

None of this is meant to sound snobbish. What you have to understand is where we came from, which is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. TCU had the winningest program in the nation in the 1930s and won two national championships (and had a Heisman Trophy winner) during that decade. We remained a national power through the 1950s, winning multiple Southwest Conference championships in a three-decade span and appearing in every major bowl except the Rose Bowl during that time. (Back then, the major bowls, of course, were Cotton, Rose, Sugar and Orange.)

On Jan. 1, 1957, TCU beat Jim Brown and Syracuse in the Cotton Bowl--and then stopped winning bowl games. A Cotton tie with Air Force (0-0) would follow, but the bowl appearances--for more reasons than I'm inclined to go into here--would dry up after that. In 1965, TCU lost to Texas Western (now UT-El Paso) in the Sun Bowl. We wouldn't play in another bowl for nearly two decades.

TCU football fell off a cliff in the late 1960s and then into a deep chasm in the 1970s. We won 26 games in the entire decade of the '70s--the years from 1974-1976 brought two wins in three seasons and finished with an 0-11 mark in '76. We were legendarily bad--some wag famously painted "TCU 0" on the Loop 12 highway sign in Dallas. We were consistently in the bottom 10 in every major publication's college football rankings. We even wore lavender uniforms for a couple of years--for reasons likely unknown to this day.

And tragedy touched the program during those years as well. Coach Jim Pittman dropped dead of a heart attack on the sidelines during the 1971 Baylor game (a rare TCU victory). Billy Tohill, Pittman's replacement, lost a leg in a car accident. Kent Waldrep was paralyzed on the field in a game at Alabama in 1974. Lightning even famously struck Amon G. Carter Stadium during a home game vs. Rice at some point in the disco decade. There was a dark cloud over TCU football.

It finally lifted in 1984. In Jim Wacker's second year as head coach, TCU became the darling of the old Southwest Conference, with running back Kenneth Davis slashing through defenses and a "smash-mouth" football (I've heard more than one person say that Wacker coined the term) team shocking everybody in Texas, Arkansas (especially Arkansas) and beyond. Even in '84, though, there was pain. There was a heartbreaking home loss to Texas in front of a sold-out stadium and a national TV audience. In the biggest event in TCU football in 25 years, we came up short. A huge loss to A&M would follow, and our Cotton Bowl dreams would slip into Bluebonnet Bowl reality. Still, it was TCU's first bowl game since the '65 Sun Bowl, and fans were pumped--until Kenneth Davis got hurt early and we succumbed easily to West Virginia in Houston. TCU finished, appropriately enough, 8-4 in '84.

Things actually got worse after that. There are many, many stories as to how this went down, but I'll tell you the one I believe. Jim Wacker found out that TCU had cheated--that boosters had paid players, including KD, to play for us--and turned us in. That he turned us in, thereby becoming the first coach in NCAA history to self-report violations, is not in doubt. That he told the NCAA way more than it could ever have discovered in an investigation is also true. Whether he knew about the cheating or not when he came to TCU is still a subject of debate--but I don't think that he did, and, regardless, he did the right thing in coming clean and kicking the paid players (yes, including KD) off the team. It was TCU's first (and, in football, still only) offense. Wacker hoped for lenience from the NCAA.

He didn't get it. Instead, the NCAA gave TCU the "living death penalty," effectively crippling our program for a decade. Wacker hung around through 1991, keeping the program alive with his vibrant personality, positive attitude and and high-powered veer offense, and actually managed to post a 7-4 record in his final season. Wacker was a good coach and a great human being. He is and will remain a TCU legend, despite the losing records his undermanned teams posted in the '80s. But there would be no bowls and few wins over big-name schools.

Wacker left in 1991 to move on to Minnesota in what amounted to a terrible move by TCU's administration--but that's another story. In my freshman year, Pat Sullivan, a Heisman Trophy winner, took over the program. A former quarterbacks coach at Auburn, his alma mater, Sullivan had never so much as served as a coordinator at the college level. He was a good man--I knew him--and a decent coach for a while. In 1994, he led TCU to the Independence Bowl, our first bowl appearance since the '84 Bluebonnet. Many of our best players chose to hang out in Shreveport's casinos until very late the night before the game, as we lost a wet, soggy, damp, cold and depressing affair to Virginia the next day. Sullivan would flirt with the head coaching job at LSU (seriously), but when TCU wouldn't let him out of his contract, he stayed on--and sulked through three more seasons, finally bottoming out with a 1-10 disaster in 1997. The cloud over TCU was as dark as ever.

In the meantime, of course, two conferences--the eight-decade-old Southwest Conference and the old 16-team WAC, left TCU "behind." (The SWC famously broke up altogether in 1994.) Our sordid conference history over the last decade is a massive storyline in TCU football, but it's so complex and such an emotional subject that I'm not going to touch it here. Needless to say, getting dumped by the SWC and WAC into the smaller WAC in the space of just a few years only darkened our cloud. In fact, it dropped us into a thick fog of doubt--on the occasion of both conference implosions, there was serious talk of TCU dropping Division 1-A football. Fortunately nothing came of that. Subsequent inclusion in Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference (our current conference, of course) would help roll our cloud away, but all of that came later.

Despite his ultimate failure, Sullivan did do one incredibly important thing as coach. He recruited a little-known and little-wanted running back from Waco named LaDainian Tomlinson. LaDainian, still "Football Jesus" to me, would save our program. Dennis Franchione took over as coach in 1998 and led TCU to another bowl appearance--this one in the Sun Bowl vs. a down USC program. We were massive underdogs--one pundit said it would take an "act of God" for TCU to win the game. Well, the "C" in TCU must have finally done us some good that day, because we did win, 28-19, behind the running of Basil Mitchell and Tomlinson. Our fortunes had finally begun to turn.

In 2000, Tomlinson's senior season, TCU took an undefeated record and a top-10 BCS ranking into November. We had beaten Northwestern, the Big 10 co-champion, badly, and we had clobbered just about everybody else on our schedule. Tomlinson was running crazy, leading the nation in rushing. All we had to do was go to San Jose State--a team we had beaten 56-0 the year before--get a win, come home and beat UTEP, and we'd be in...the Fiesta Bowl. Undefeated. Finally. What happened that night in San Jose, I still can't rationally discuss. It's still one of the lowest points in my life, period. Long story short, we went to a minor bowl and lost--and Fran bolted for Alabama, insulting TCU and Tomlinson in the process.

But Tomlinson had done enough to make TCU relevant again--he was a Heisman finalist and a top-five draft pick--and Fran's defensive coordinator, Gary Patterson, would take over from there. Coach Patterson, after a rough 2001 season, would lead TCU to an unprecedented run of success, replete with bowl wins, double-digit win seasons and high national rankings. In 2008, we finished No. 7 in the nation with an 11-2 record. But perfection eluded us. Until this season.

Win or lose, I'm going to enjoy the Fiesta Bowl. But let me say this--if we win and go 13-0, it absolutely will erase the pain of 25 years frustration (for me--and many more for older fans) and replace memories of failure and futility with visions of glory. Yes, one game can do that. One game will if we win it, which we honestly should. TCU has been home to Sammy Baugh, Heisman winner Davey O'Brien, Jim Swink, Bob Lilly, Kenneth Davis, LaDainian Tomlinson and many more legendary players. Those among them who remain with us deserve to support a football program that lives up to its famous--if distant--legacy.

We (and I do very strongly mean "we," as TCU has only 9000 or so students and about 60,000 living alumni) are not just playing for perfection in Arizona in January. We're playing for history, for notoriety and, perhaps more than anything else, for redemption. The dark cloud is gone; the sun will be shining--hopefully literally--on TCU in 2010. It has been a long, painful, frustrating and yet sometimes so incredibly joyful journey, and now we're here. We've seen a lot of other programs rise and fall since our last era of greatness, and I've never enjoyed anything in sports more than seeing us rise again. Almost every other bowl game this season is just a prelude to our clash in the desert. It's great to finally be the headliner.

We'll see you on Jan. 4 in Glendale. GO FROGS!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


So, my 36th birthday has come and gone--way gone, now that it's well past 2 am on Dec. 21. All month, people have asked whether Dec. 20, 2009, would be a "landmark" birthday for me--they probably thought I was turning 40. Well, most people wouldn't think of 36 as a landmark. But I do.

I think of every birthday as a landmark birthday. This year, I learned the hard way what I already knew but never liked to think about: Not everybody makes it to 36. To my memory--and it did happen before I was born--my uncle died of a heart attack at 36. And then there was Derek, whose death is still completely incomprehensible to me and hasn't yet become real in my mind. He didn't make it to my current age. I miss him terribly.

Lots of people don't get 36 years on this celestial orb, of course, but I did--and I'm hoping to have quite a few more. I can't believe how blessed I am. I have a beautiful wife, amazing friends and a fantastic place to live. I have a steady job in a time of great uncertainty for many workers, and I have family that loves me and parents and in-laws who are there for me when I need them. I have three nieces and two nephews and another nephew on the way, and they couldn't possibly bring me more joy.

My Facebook page--which I've largely been ignoring lately (sorry, Facebook friends)--was full of birthday wishes today. I was overwhelmed, really. There's an old hymn that we used to sing in church when I was a kid that had a memorable refrain: "Count your many blessings; name them one by one." Well, I can't count that high (and that's not just because I'm bad at math, which I am). I'm blessed beyond anything I can comprehend.

It snowed on my birthday again this year, and I didn't mind. Late last night, my lovely wife and I turned out all the lights in the apartment and opened the blinds to watch the snow fall. It might sound like some schlocky script from a bad holiday TV commercial, but it was a genuinely touching moment. Rare are the times when I stop watching TV, surfing the Web or (these days) playing Wii long enough to really count my blessings, or at least think about them. I should do it more often. I've had more than my share in the last 36 years. So, here's to another landmark birthday, and I offer my sincere thanks and love to everybody who helped me get here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Time Life Music

These things just aren't fair. They're such sweet torture that I can't resist them. I absolutely adore the late-night Time Life Music commercials for CD compilations. I can watch them over and over and over again (and I did when I lived in Rotterdam--I could sing the snippets of the disco collection song-by-song without having to think about which song came next).

Right now, I'm in grave danger of purchasing "Romancing the 70s," a set of CDs containing some of the most spectacularly schmaltzy love songs ever recorded. All of these songs remind me of my young childhood, of AM radio, of earth-tone color schemes, pickup trucks, shag carpet, massive collars, medallions resting on sweaty chest hair, colossal sideburns and something we don't get all that much of anymore--sincerity in music, even if it was sickly sweet sincerity covered in treacle and topped with a dollop of Cool Whip. Who could resist Olivia Newton John whispering, "I honestly love you" or Kenny Rogers belting out "She Believes in Me?" And then there's Roberta Flack sitting at the piano and hauntingly cooing "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." It's just too much. Throw in some Leo Sayer, Gilbert O'Sullivan and Lobo, and I'm literally captivated. I can't live without it!

Of course, I've never actually bought one of these things, and I won't tonight, either. But some of these songs will stick in my head, and I'll end up going on an iTunes run to find maybe eight or 10 of them. Oh, singer-songwriters of the '70s, why did you have to be so captivating? And Time Life, why do you have to bring together in one collection all the songs I could never hope to find on my own? Capitalism, you mock me--and yet I keep coming back to you because you're just so darn compelling. Of course, I've never spent a dime on anything Time Life Music, so I guess I'm winning this battle. For now.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


My lovely wife and I are going to the Fiesta Bowl. We made our final arrangements tonight. My Frogs are 12-0 and have the chance to finish with a perfect record, something they haven't done for 71 years. I'm not going to miss that, even if TCU won't have a shot at a "big-name" opponent. Besides, Arizona in January sounds...nice.

We'll see you in Scottsdale for the party and in Glendale for the game. GO FROGS!!

Euphoria to Heartbreak

No disrespect intended to Boise State--and Bronco fans surely must feel this way, too--but matching the only two teams from non-automatic qualifying conferences is an obvious ploy by the BCS powers that be to spare the embarrassment of having another big-name school go down to an "outsider" in a major bowl game. We got screwed. Boise got screwed. The system stinks.

College football is the most corrupt sport in the world. It makes the NBA and South American soccer look squeaky clean. I can't believe that the unprecedented excitement of 12-0, that 25 years of waiting for perfection, has turned into bitterness and anger. The players looked disappointed on TV tonight, as well they should...after all, we did just beat Boise in a bowl game last season.

Nevertheless, I'm making plans to be in Arizona in early January. It's still the chance of a lifetime to see TCU in a major bowl.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Seven Points in Three Games

That's what it came down to tonight. TCU had an infinitesimally slim chance of playing in the national championship game going into today's college football action. We needed Pitt to beat Cincinnati, Clemson to beat Georgia Tech and (especially) Nebraska to beat Texas. It was unlikely, nearly impossible...and then...

The games got close. And they stayed close. Cincy pulled out a one-point comeback win at Pitt--bad for us because because it might let Cincy jump us in the BCS standings (right now, we're at four and Cincy's at five). But it was just a one-point win over a Pitt team that faded at the end of the season. It might not have impressed poll voters that much. So, we still had hope at mid-day.

Following Florida's big loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game--arguably a good thing for us, as it'll surely knock Florida out of the BCS top two--tonight brought Nebraska-Texas and GT-Clemson. GT-Clemson wasn't really critical to us; it just would have helped for Clemson to win the ACC Championship Game because we beat Clemson in South Carolina earlier this season. Long story short, Clemson led by one point late in the game but ended up losing by five. Not a good result for us but not a deal-breaker, either.

And then there was the Big 12 Championship Game between Texas and Nebraska. A highly unlikely Nebraska win (the Cornhuskers entered the game as two-touchdown underdogs) could very well have vaulted us into the BCS top two--over Florida and Texas, assuming Cincy didn't jump us--and into the BCS National Championship Game in Pasadena in January. I don't even have words for how I would have felt had that happened. Unfortunately, I don't need them now, either.

I expected--everybody expected--Texas to crush Nebraska. But the Huskers kept the game close...and kept it close...and then finally took the lead by two with 1:44 to play... ... ... ...only to lose on a (literally) last-second field goal. Crushing. Incredible. And there's nothing we could do about it.

Seven total points in three different games--Cincy by one, GT by five and, most painfully, Texas by one--"doomed" TCU to a mere BCS bowl. Honestly, I'm still thrilled that we'll be in a major bowl game, our first for half a century. And I'll make it to the game and have fun no matter what. We're still 12-0. This was still a magical season.

But I feel as though this TCU team could play with anybody in the country--even Alabama and Texas--and we won't get the chance. It's funny how I've gone from euphoria to frustration without TCU losing a game. College football is a stupid sport--it has the worst and most convoluted process for determining a champion in all of sports. Today, we got stung by that process.

Hopefully we'll be able to prove ourselves in a BCS bowl and start high in the polls next season. I'm still excited about going to a bowl in January for the first time in my lifetime--but I'm also frustrated and drained. Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be sports fans...

A Bit Early, but That's OK

Today is the day we celebrate the birthdays of my sister-in-law and her daughter, my middle niece. Given that I also have a December birthday, my wife's family has decided to include me in the celebration. The family is doing this despite my mild protests--I'm a bit superstitious about birthdays (dumb, I know), and don't like to celebrate them until they actually arrive. Mine is on the 20th.

Anyway, the best thing about this early birthday celebration is the spectacular cake my lovely wife made for it:
Yes, that's the famous "flying T," the logo the TCU Horned Frogs wore from the late-'70s until 1992 (my freshman year at TCU, oddly enough), when the current "arched TCU" logo came into fashion. The flying T doesn't exactly bring back memories of TCU's most successful years (the football team was mostly a real loser during that time), but it is the logo of the Jim Wacker-coached teams I fell in love with in the mid-'80s, particularly in 1984. That's when Kenneth Davis and the smash-mouth, "TCUnbelieeeeeeeeeeeeevable" Frogs were shocking the Southwest Conference on their way to their first bowl appearance in almost two decades. (We won't talk, of course, about what happened after that because we're all about happy memories today.)

I'm still very nostalgic about the flying T, of course, and I still love the way it looks. TCU won the last game in which it sported the flying T with a Matt Vogler-to-Stephen Shipley touchdown pass in the dying seconds of a wind-swept game at Amon Carter Stadium to beat Houston 49-45. TCU went 7-4 that year, and although we missed a bowl game (there were a lot fewer of them back then), the Houston win was a great way to cap the Wacker era and send the flying T off with a victory.

Of course, the TCU football program is better now than it has ever been, arguably (with due respect to the team that was the nation's winningest in the 1930s), and I wouldn't trade today's success for anything. But I do like to remember who we were, where we came from and what we went through as fans and as an institution to get where we are today. So, for my 15-day-early birthday celebration, I salute the flying T, and I will surely enjoy devouring it, too.

Friday, December 4, 2009

NPR Loves the Frogs

Well, who wouldn't?

Seriously, though, I'm thrilled and amazed by this very good NPR report on TCU football. Just one note for the reporter: If you're reporting from Fort Worth (which you are), please don't sign off by saying "Dallas." We don't want anybody confusing Fort Worth with its inferior neighbor to the east. (Yes, I made the same comment on the NPR Web site. I feel very strongly about this.)

Other than that, it's a great listen.

Saturday, November 28, 2009



I haven't even begun to collect my thoughts (or emotions) on this, but I can tell you that I'll be out of town for New Year's. I am experiencing the greatest sports moment of my life right now.

GO FROGS!!!!!! And thank you...

The Best Sports Ticket in Boston

Last season, I bought a "Holiday Hat Trick" ticket package for the Bruins--three games, $33 per ticket per game, for a total of $99. It was a good deal, and it was fun for me to get to my first Bruins games since about 2001. I do love that franchise, after all, as much as it has tortured me over the years.

This season, the Bruins ticket office came back to me with a similar offer, three games for a set price (plus a hat and a gift box--it is, after all, the Holiday Hat Trick package). But this season, the price for three games is $129. I'm no math major or anything, but that seems like about a 30 percent increase in price year-over-year. In this economy, and with the team having done almost nothing to better itself after last season's early playoff exit, I'm not inclined to fork over $30 more this season than I did for the same package last year. I'll have to be content watching Jack Edwards and Andy Brickley on NESN.

I will, however, be making it to a few hockey games this year. Right now (but only through Nov. 30), Boston College has a hockey-ticket sale going on that's the best sports deal in town. Tickets to a handful of games are on sale for $5 and $10 each at BC's athletics Web site. I just picked up pairs of tickets for five different games--10 tickets total--for $70.

Granted, college hockey isn't the NHL. There isn't a lot of fighting, and the pace of play is obviously slower at the college level than it is at the highest level of hockey in the world. But BC games are a huge amount of fun--they have a great collegiate atmosphere, and they're relatively easy to into and out of. Besides, BC is usually pretty good, and it's likely that if you make a few BC games, you'll be seeing some future NHL players on the ice. Conte Forum is a fine facility as well--very accessible and comfortable.

There is so much hockey in New England that I sometimes wonder how the Bruins--not exactly the most successful team of the last 35 years or so--draw any fans at all. The American Hockey League, the NHL's farm league, has teams in Lowell, Worcester, Springfield, Manchester (NH), Providence (RI, where the P-Bruins play) and, of course, Portland (Maine, naturally; the Pirates are my personal favorite AHL team). There's also top-level college hockey at BC, BU (the last two national champions, those two), Harvard, Northeastern, Merrimack, UMass-Lowell and even Bentley--not to mention UNH, Maine, Providence and a few other New England programs. Make no mistake--Detroit might have nicked the nickname, but Boston is a hockey town, and New England is a hockey region.

Of course, I still love the Bruins, and I would love to get to a game or two this season. But, for now, I'm happy to get my hockey fix on the cheap at BC. Where else can you go and be entertained for $5 per ticket? Even the $10 games cost the same as a movie, and I'll take a live sporting event over a night at the movie theater just about any time.

I've even managed to score tickets to the college version of the Winter Classic at Fenway Park. I can't come close to affording a ticket to the Flyers-Bruins outdoor showdown to be on New Year's Day, but for $25 each, I bought four tickets to the Jan. 8 college event. It'll still be hockey, and it'll still be at Fenway--plus, it'll be BC-BU, which is a bigger rivalry than Flyers-Bruins has ever been.

So, sorry, Bruins, but I'm not down with your price hike this season. I'll be back in Chestnut Hill this winter cheering on the hard-working lads from Boston College and enjoying the best sports value for the money in town. Go Eagles!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Great American Thanksgiving

It doesn't matter why or how, but this year's family Thanksgiving just kind of fell through. So, after taking in the increasingly mediocre Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV--seriously, why does it have to stop every two minutes for some lame song?--my lovely wife and I finally decided to have Thanksgiving dinner at that great American institution, the Old Country Buffet.

That turned out to be a superb decision. For $12 each, we feasted on an unlimited buffet of traditional Thanksgiving fare as well as on a wide range of desserts (and I do mean a wide range--I ate five, and I am now something of a "wide range" myself). There was turkey (of course), along with roast beef, candied yams (more or less sweet potatoes with melted marshmallows, in case some of you aren't familiar with yams), mashed potatoes with gravy, cornbread stuffing (absolutely amazing), soft rolls with real butter, corn, and all sorts of green vegetables--but I don't remember having any of those.

The crowd was interesting, too. First, there was a crowd; the place was packed around 1 pm. Granted, we hated that anybody had to work on Thanksgiving, but the staff was friendly and didn't seem to mind too much being there, for what it's worth. (I suppose nobody really minds having a job right now.) Anyway, the folks populating the OCB represented just about every segment of American society--except, maybe, the super-rich, but who really sees them, anyway?

Everybody else was there--people of all sorts of ethnic backgrounds and origins; folks from a pretty wide spectrum of social classes, from what we could tell (although it is hard to judge such things on appearances); big families going all out and celebrating Thanksgiving dinner; couples like us just out for a massive holiday meal; old folks; kids; people of girth; skinny folks (although the larger folks won the day, it must be said--no surprise at a buffet that doesn't exactly specialize in organic bean sprouts)...pretty much any kind of American I could imagine, save maybe those with names like Gates or Trump. And if Bill and Donald weren't there, they don't know what they were missing.

The rest of the day just kind of floated by. There was a nap, perhaps fairly long--who was keeping track? There were phone chats with parents and friends, although, sadly, there was no face-to-face contact with family due to illness (FYI, we're not the ones who are sick--and we certainly hope everybody gets better soon) and other circumstances. That was a bit of a downer, Thanksgiving being a family holiday and all...but my lovely bride and I made our own memories with our OCB experience, which was a holiday treat in its own way. And then, of course, there was Dallas 24, Oakland 7--a nice, secure Thanksgiving victory for the old hometown 'Boys on the day when I love watching them play most.

Tomorrow, I suppose, the Christmas season begins (although my wife insists that it begins on Dec. 25--something about Advent or what not). With Christmas comes gift stress, incomprehensible traffic jams near my office (and the shopping areas near it) in Framingham, and general holiday fatigue. (Christmas does, though, bring a month of listening to the Kinks' masterpiece, Father Christmas, so that part is good.) Of course, we will celebrate the birth of Christ, which really is the reason Christians bother with Christmas in the first place. It can be hard, of course, to tune out the constant distractions of advertising and gift-buying and focus on God's gift to us. I'll do the best I can to do that this year...although I know that commercial Christmas will find a few ways to annoy me somehow.

For today, though, there is (or was--it's past 10pm now) Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. The most American of holidays, we celebrated it in the most American of ways--by stuffing ourselves at an all-you-can-eat buffet. And it was fantastic. We were patriots today, great American heroes, preservers of the culture and evangelists for our American way of life. I say this without a hint of irony: God bless America, and a happy Thanksgiving to all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. It reflects my values perfectly; the whole point of it is to overeat, indulge in a few beverages of intrigue, watch football and nap on the couch. There are no gifts (an absolutely enormous point in Thanksgiving's favor), and there's no hype, no annoying music and no religious connection. (Hey, I appreciate Easter and Christmas, in that order, as a Christian, but I do like being able to say "Happy Thanksgiving" to anybody and everybody.)

Thanksgiving is the great American holiday, the peak of our culture, our greatest achievement in leisure, a field in which our achievements are among the most stunning and numerous in the history of humankind. What makes Thanksgiving the pinnacle of Americana is the fact that we managed to work a four-day weekend into the bowels of November, when the weather is lousy in much of the country...and we also managed to actually have fun with it, cramming it full of two of America's greatest cultural touchstones, overeating and ultra-violent sports.

Oh, sure, there's the presence of family, sometimes a joy and sometimes a burden, but sleep-inducing food and non-stop football from 1pm (on the East Coast, anyway) until fairly late in the evening can plaster over even the biggest cracks in the familial foundation--for a day, anyway. Christmas? It's nice and all, but it's really just an unavoidable marketing onslaught that leaves few traces for most of the significance of the holiday--that significance being the birth of Christ, of course. (And, to be fair, we Christians seem to have co-opted the December celebration of the solstice--although why anybody would want to celebrate the darkest days of the year is beyond me--from some sort of pagans or druids or something.) Besides, Easter is the money holiday for Christians. The whole basis of the faith revolves around the death and resurrection of Christ. But I digress...

I would have some time for arguments that our greatest holiday achievement as Americans is the Fourth of July, Independence Day. It's also the day that kicked off about a half-decade of war (which we totally won, of course)--but whatever. Who remembers the day the Revolution actually ended, anyway? (Sept. 3, 1783--and, yes, I Googled it.) Sept. 3 isn't in the middle of summer, and besides, we have Labor Day in September and Memorial Day in May to frame summer--that seasonal frame being another spectacular American idea. The point here is that it's very worthwhile to celebrate American independence, but we're smart about it. We celebrate the day the Revolution began (more or less) rather than the day it ended, likely because the day our forefathers signed the Declaration of Independence just happens to fall right in the middle of the most glorious time of year. Boo-yeah. U-S-A!

But Thanksgiving is still the greatest of all the (mostly) American-created holidays because it's in November. Late May, mid-July, early September--they're all likely to be lovely times of year, day(s) off or not. But November is mostly lousy everywhere in the US except in those places where it's sunny all the time, anyway. And yet we came up with an excuse (Pilgrims, Indians, did that all end, anyway?) to make late November absolutely fantastic. Congratulations on another victory, America. Seriously, Thanksgiving rocks.

Plus, Thanksgiving has led to many of the greatest moments in American TV history, several of which involve the Dallas Cowboys (of course). There was Clint Longley in 1974, Jason Garrett in 1994, 51-7 over Seattle in 1980, Leon Lett in 1993...wait, scratch that last one. But beyond the Cowboys (and, uh, the Lions, I suppose...), there's one Thanksgiving TV moment that stands above all others, one shining beacon of artistic Turkey Day achievement never likely to be surpassed. I'm referring, of course, to (and, yes, the bold is justified here) the Thanksgiving episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. Bask in it; breathe it in deeply...let it wash over you. This, like Thanksgiving, is total American genius.

By the way, lest I totally ignore the purpose of the holiday, I'm thankful for any of you who bother to read this blog and actually got to the end of this entry (and I'm also thankful for a lot of other stuff). Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thierry, Diego, Paolo and Handballs

Ireland got jobbed. Let's just say that right up front. Thierry Henry's handball assist to William Gallas for the goal that sent France to South Africa and the World Cup finals was illegitimate and a total travesty. Nobody who knows the first thing about football would dispute that.

FIFA (or UEFA), if it had any sense of fairness, would order a replay of the match at a neutral site (or even in Paris again...) and give both teams a shot at redeeming themselves. Of course, that won't happen. And that's a shame. But the whole episode, while still fairly fresh, has led to some interesting discussions.

Already, the inevitable comparisons to Diego Maradona and his notorious "hand of god" goal against the English in the 1986 World Cup finals are floating around out there. And already, a few backlash pundits are kind of sort of defending Henry, asking what any of us would have done in his place.

Henry did, after all, admit after the match that he handled the ball, adding, somewhat brusquely, that he's "not the referee." Neither, apparently, is the Swedish ref who was in charge of the game--or, at least, the Swede's not much of a ref, nor are the linesmen who should have assisted him with the handball call. This wasn't a subtle case of handling, after all. This was slap-and-tickle, not a caress.

But the Henry-Maradona comparison is interesting. Maradona was quite possibly (and for my money, was--sorry, Pele) the greatest player of all time. He was also massively arrogant and a bit of a scoundrel (allegedly)--he was rumored to have run drugs in Naples during his time with the local club, Napoli, and many observers, insiders, journalists and the like have linked him with a notorious Naples mafia family. So, really, the "hand of god" was par for the course for Diego, not an aberration. Or so it would seem.

Thierry Henry, while brilliant, was likely never the best player in the world at any time and won't go into history as one of the two or three best ever. (Top ten? Maybe...but he's not in the Maradona-Pele class.) He does, however, have a reputation for being a classy player, for lack of a better word, and he certainly doesn't carry the image of a mafia associate or drug dealer. Quite the contrary--from most of what I've read and heard about Henry, he has a good-guy reputation and serves as a pretty legitimate hero to French kids, especially minority kids who often struggle to fit in with French culture.

Great athletes, I really believe, play on instinct. Yes, they make decisions, but they make them quickly--so quickly, in fact, that those decisions are really more instinctual than they are rational. They're the result of years and years of training, repetition and constant improvement. It's highly unlikely that Diego Maradona calculated slamming the ball into the net with his hand just before he did it. In all likelihood, instinct took over, the hand went up and...well, any Englishman knows the rest of the story.

Likewise, despite the blatant nature of his handling violation, I doubt that Henry said to himself, "I'm going to knock this ball down with my hand and then pass it to Gallas" (in French, of course). He just did what his instinct told him to do--and, in this case, his instinctual move was illegal.

Of course, not all athletes' instincts lead them to break rules. The great Paolo Di Canio, a West Ham legend and one of my favorite players of all time (strictly as a player, that is), famously caught a ball in a Premier League game versus Everton after the Everton goalkeeper suffered an injury and ended up in a heap on the pitch.

Di Canio could have scored into an open net, and the goal would have counted--but he didn't. His instinct led him to do the sportsmanlike thing and stop play--not just because a player was injured but because (I like to think) a goal into an empty net in that situation would have reflected poorly on him and on his team no matter how important it might have been. In that moment of snap decision-making, Di Canio got it right, probably without even thinking about what he was doing.

And while I'll freely admit that a random Premier League match carries not even a fraction of the weight of a World Cup game of any kind, instinct is instinct, and great athletes rarely let up or react differently based on the competition they're in. Would Di Canio have caught that ball playing for Italy in the World Cup? Maybe not--but I like to think that he would have, without really even thinking about it.

Nevertheless, it's harsh, perhaps, to call either Henry or Maradona a "cheat," at least based on the two incidents in question. Cheats use more premeditated methods for gaining an unfair advantage--like a pitcher in baseball carrying a piece of sandpaper to the mound and using it to scuff balls and affect the trajectory of his pitches. Henry and Maradona just acted on instinct--poorly, unfortunately. And the referees and linesmen who allowed both goals are frankly the primary culprits in both affairs.

However, that doesn't excuse Henry or Maradona. They're still guilty of breaking the rules--and of not admitting it on the pitch. Either player, realizing what had just happened in his respective situation, could have admitted to unfair play right there during the match. Would their goals have counted? Possibly not--I really don't know, honestly, but my guess is that a referee could have disallowed either one or both of them upon hearing the guilty player's confession.

But both Henry and Maradona let their goals stand--quite proudly in Maradona's case. And therein lies their guilt and their shame. The "hand of god" and the illegal Henry assist will forever stain the legacies of Maradona and Henry (not that Maradona probably cares, but Henry very well might)--just as they'll forever taint Argentina's otherwise brilliant World Cup win and France's qualification for South Africa 2010. And the incidents will linger not so much because of what the players did in the heat of competition but because of what they didn't do--the bravery they didn't show with the world watching--in the immediate aftermath of their handballs.

I'm not sure whether character has ever really mattered in sports. It's entirely possible--probable, I think--that yesterday's athletes cheated more often and more blatantly than do today's. (If only steroids had existed prior to the '70s or so...) And character in sports is a funny thing. Paolo Di Canio, the hero of this story, was a moody player at best and often took games off completely. He was tempestuous and, while sometimes brilliant, could be frustrating to both fans and teammates. Plus, I've read many accounts in which he has called himself a fascist--and, although he insists that he's not a racist, fascism isn't exactly one of history's more admirable political models (to say the very, very least).

So, it's not always accurate to judge an athlete's personal character by his actions on the field of play. But it's fair to criticize athletes who don't own up to doing the wrong thing and don't at least try to put the situation right. And that's the saddest part about the Henry affair (for anybody who's not Irish). Ireland loses, obviously. The officials lose for being incompetent. FIFA and UEFA will likely lose for not encouraging fair play and ordering the match replayed. And even France and Thierry Henry lose--their reputations, their legitimacy and the respect of millions of fans. France wins, but, really, nobody wins. And football definitely loses.

So, after all this moralizing, what would I have done in Thierry Henry's place? To be perfectly honest, I probably would have let the goal stand. The pressure to please an entire nation would have been too great. But I would have felt guilty and remorseful about it for the rest of my life. Would it have been worth it? Thierry Henry might just be about to find out.

Warriors vs. Celtics

All in all, a fine night tonight. My lovely wife found online yesterday a package deal offering a buffet (with open bar...ahem) and Celtics tickets. So, my friend, George, and I began our evening tonight at the Greatest Bar, the name of which carries more than a little hyperbole, although the place wasn't too bad, everything considered.

After a few beers and some meatballs, wings and pasta (fine pregame fare, actually), we strolled across Causeway Street to the...uh, what's it called now? TD Fleet Center? Fleet Banknorth Garden? Shawmut Fleet TD? Anyway, we went to the New Garden (now the TD Garden, I think), the place where the Celtics (and Bruins) play.

The Celts didn't play especially well, but it was a treat for me to see Ray Allen, KG, Paul Pierce (my personal favorite), Rajon Rondo and company play live. I'd never been to a Celtics game in Boston; the last time I saw the Celts play, they were in Reunion Arena circa 1996 and their "best player" was probably Never Nervous Pervis Ellison. The game vs. the Mavericks wasn't exactly riveting.

But tonight's game was entertaining--Boston played sloppily enough to let an undermanned Golden State team hang around in the first half, but the Celtics turned on the afterburners in the third quarter and pulled away with some big threes from Rondo and Eddie House and a few nice plays from Allen and a somewhat hobbling Pierce.

Final score: Celtics 109, Warriors 95 (an old-fashioned, high-scoring NBA game--how about that?); three beers; a gin & tonic (hey, I took the train into town); approximately four plates of buffet food; a surprisingly inexpensive Celtics cap from the Pro Shop in North Station, which is actually called the Boston Bruins Pro Shop; and one Big Gulp of caffeine-free Diet Coke at the 7-Eleven across from the Garden. Other than the Warriors, there were no losers!

We had balcony seats, which weren't actually too bad. I managed to snap a few shots. Enjoy. The entire (completely unedited, as always) collection is here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Kansas City Royals

Unmentionably incredible things are happening in a particular amateur school sport; the Boston area is still buzzing about Bill Belichick's now-infamous call; the Bruins are literally driving me insane, and I've got surprise Celtics tickets for tomorrow night's game.

There's no better time, then, to talk a Yes, it's about my fifth-favorite sport (if that), and it's well out of season now. But I'm going to talk about it, anyway. Actually, this post is somewhat timely. Zack Greinke won the AL Cy Young Award today, capping a marvelous season for him and another dismal season for his team, the Kansas City Royals. So, I'm using the news of Greinke's well-deserved award to officially come out: I am a Kansas City Royals fan.

Why? I have no idea. Maybe it's because the Red Sox, having already grabbed their holy grail in 2004 and then again in 2007, aren't much fun to cheer for anymore--they're just a big, rich club now with a fairly obnoxious fan base. (Sorry, Boston fans--but you long-timers know it's true.)

Where's the fun in cheering for a team like that? Where's the challenge? I found myself not even caring that the New York Yankees returned to the top of the baseball mountain this season. Who cares about the Yankees? Who cares about a rivalry between two big, rich teams with massive payrolls and loud-mouth, bandwagon fan bases? (Again, sorry, Boston fans--but you know what I mean.) It's like choosing sides in Microsoft vs. Google or Goldman Sachs vs....well, some other big, nasty Wall Street firm, if there are any others left.

Both choices (in all of those categories) are particularly unpalatable right now for lots of reasons, and they're not exactly headed in the direction of being charming again. So, I'm going to go with the fallen empire in Middle America, a club that, one would hope, can go nowhere but up...or at least can't sink much further down.

There are certain sports loyalties I will never relinquish. I'll always be a Dallas Cowboys fan by birth and by blood, no matter how much I detest Jerry Jones (and I really, really don't like him). I also cheer for the Patriots because they're local and because I like football and they're on TV every weekend. Actually, I became a Pats fan in 1993--check their record back then.

After wandering a bit, I've settled firmly on being a supporter of the English football side West Ham United, a glorious failure of a club whose fans' commitment to style and passion over results strongly appeals to me--and whose theme song, "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," seems to serve as a kind of succinct soundtrack for my life. (Just check the chorus in the link; the verses are immaterial.)

Then, there are the Boston Bruins, my local sports passion and perhaps the worst-run, most frustrating, most aggravating, most crazy-making and most utterly lovable sports team anywhere outside of East London. I've been a Bruins fan for going on two totally pointless, fruitless decades now, and I'll continue to be one because...well, I'm still talking with my therapist about why.

Of course, my ultimate sports loyalty is to my alma mater's college football team, which I can't mention for entirely legitimate reasons of superstition. But trust me--this is a torrid love affair that began 25 years ago, waned a bit, came back about 20 years ago and has never abated since. I'm honesty surprised that I haven't been institutionalized over this team. The thing about the Bruins and a therapist was a joke--but if I told you that I'd talked to a counselor (or two, or three) about my college football addiction...well, I'd be telling you the truth. I'm working on it.

I suppose I like the Celtics well enough; they are, after all, the only basketball team of any kind I actually watch. And I'll keep checking in on the results of Stade Francais, the pro rugby club in Paris that I grew to love when I lived there. So, I have loyalties. And I'm not a fair-weather fan. In fact, I'm the opposite--I tend to lose interest in sports teams when they win too much. I can identify with the losers, or at least with the strugglers.

Besides, baseball has always been a bit of a wild card for me. Never having had much interest in the second-fiddle (to the Cowboys, and third when the Mavericks started play) Texas Rangers, I adopted the New York Mets as my favorite baseball team in the early '80s. (Again, check the record.) I'll still be a Mets fan. That's the nice thing about baseball--it's totally legitimate to have a favorite team in each league. But I've never had a rock-hard baseball loyalty like the one I have for the Bruins or West Ham or especially that amateur football team I'm not mentioning.

When my wife and I decided to attend her family reunion this past summer and I realized that our trip would take us through Kansas City, I decided that I had to see the Royals. Oh, sure, the Cardinals are more successful and have a higher profile, and their new stadium is OK, I guess...sort of. I dutifully went to see the Cardinals play and had a nice evening with family.

But the feeling I had for the Royals was different. I had to see them. I was drawn to them. Maybe it was nostalgic memories of the great George Brett, one of my all-time favorite athletes. Maybe it was the crippling love of the hopeless underdog that I've clung to for much of my life, except where the Cowboys were concerned. (And, even with them, I watched every game of the 1-15 1989 season. I'm not sure I've caught a full Cowboys season since.)

Maybe it was a desire to bond with my father-in-law, a KC-area native and all-around good guy. Maybe it had something to do with the weird attraction I seem to have to Kansas City as a place. (I've been reading the KC Star online pretty much every day since our trip there.) Maybe it was the fountains in the outfield, the crown-shaped scoreboard, the "KC" logo, the color of the uniforms or the allure of supporting a once-great franchise that had fallen and couldn't (can't) seem to get up.

Whatever, I went to KC, waited through a rain-out one night, went back the next night, saw the Royals play and became a fan. There was just a charm to the place and the people there that attracted me. For the rest of a near-100-loss season, I tracked every game the Royals played, read articles and blogs in the Star and watched KC on TV when I had a chance. I know--it's crazy. But, like REO Speedwagon, I just couldn't fight this feeling anymore.

So, there you go. I've used a lot of words to tell you that I'm officially a fan of a lousy baseball team that happens to have a great pitcher. (Congrats, Zack.) As for the Red Sox--well, I'll still cheer for them if I go to Fenway (and they're not playing the Royals), but I've really lost my passion for them. They're boring these days, win or lose, and I find baseball boring enough as it is. So, I'm taking up a new challenge. Or, at least, I will be in the spring. Go Royals!

Monday, November 16, 2009

So, Here's My Train of Thought from Tonight's Game...

OK, 4th and 2 from their own 28, six-point lead, a little more than 2 minutes to play. They've just blown two time outs for some reason I can't entirely comprehend. Brady's trotting off the field now, and...wait...he's signaling something... Wow, they're lining up on offense. No punt team.

Alright, so Brady's going to try to draw the Indy defense off-sides. This never works. It's kind of stupid, actually, as the Pats are just going to end up giving up five yards of...hang on. Brady actually looks ready to take the snap. OK, quick kick, then. Kind of a weird call, again, thinking about field position, but...

GOOD LORD!!! WHAT THE...??? THEY'RE ACTUALLY GOING FOR THIS...wha...who...Faulk...oh, he caught that. But the official standing right there is making a juggling motion...a juggling motion, that can't be good... Good night, where are they spotting that ball? What...? How...? NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! Belichick! Why have you betrayed us?
The rest is extremely recent, and extremely puzzling, history. What on earth was Bill Belichick thinking? Did he get arrogant and get burned by his hubris? (Yes, I think he did.) Did he really have that much confidence in his offense, which had no momentum at the time (and had the considerable handicap of having Laurence Maroney on the field)?

Did he have that much confidence in his defense, which had completely lost the ability to stop Peyton Manning? At least kick the ball deep and make Manning work for it...they had to score a TD, after all. WHAT could Bill have been THINKING? And let's not even talk about his use of time outs...

What a weekend for Boston sports. The Bruins allow Pittsburgh to score with 0.4 seconds left and then lose in overtime (an absolutely classic Bruins finish). The Celtics fall off the face of the earth. And the Pats...well, I'm still not sure what happened.

Oh, I know. Boston fans can't complain. And I'm more of a Cowboys fan than I am a Pats fan, anyway (and, boy, were the 'Boys lousy today). Still, this weekend was...weird. And not good. At least not for pro sports, and especially not in Boston.

There was, of course, one spectacularly good thing that happened far from Boston and in the amateur realm, but I'm not going to talk about it. I can't talk about it. All I'm going to say is this: two more games. Two more games. We've come this far before and choked. So, two more games. That's all.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

2:25 am

I'm still awake. Lots to think about. Paris was a wringer. I'm not even close to processing everything that happened there. I do know that I miss Derek terribly and that his passing still doesn't seem entirely real to me. I'm not really sure when it will. I can't really imagine being sadder than I am now.

I've taken a break from writing here to mourn the passing of my friend, to attend his funeral in Paris and to try to get myself together and move on. Eventually, I'll get back to writing about trivial things: sports, pop culture, current events and the like. For now, though, I'm stuck pondering faith, life and death, and the purpose we all serve on this little planet. This is the kind of heavy stuff I try to avoid thinking about but can't help but consider right now.

It's pretty warm outside, 51 degrees, and I think some rain is on the way. Thanksgiving will arrive, unbelievably, in a couple of weeks. And then (and possibly before then) winter, the dismal season, the time of year when I always question why I live in New England and whether the bursting springs, idyllic summers and glorious falls here really make the suffering of December through March (in a good year) worthwhile, will arrive.

Oddly enough--and I never, ever feel this way--I could go for a good snowstorm tonight, for the calm and serenity of waking up on a Saturday morning with the ground covered in snow, knowing that, for a few hours anyway, there's nothing to do but gaze at the white tree branches and the confectioner's sugar piled up on the sidewalks. But, instead, we're going to get rain, and not-too-cold temperatures, which, in the end, will make life easier, if a bit more boring than snow would have.

If you're looking for something profound in those last few paragraphs, it's not there. I'm just rambling now. It's about all I can think of to do, as sleep still isn't coming easily, and the prospect of a rainy, gray weekend reminds me that the long struggle of winter is about to begin. This year, though, winter will likely be the least of my struggles. Real life can be really lousy sometimes.

It's now about ten minutes to three in the morning. Time to sign off. Good night. I hope to be back again soon.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Derek Torres

I have tried, for the most part, to keep this blog light-hearted and fun during its thus-far brief existence. But it won't be light-hearted and fun tonight, and it might not be for a while.

Last week, I lost a very good friend, Derek Torres, to Swine Flu. He died at a hospital in Paris, and I'm even having to pause while typing this because it upsets me so much to think that Derek is gone. Derek left behind his wife and three young children, including a baby girl born in March. That in itself is more than tragic; it's unthinkably, devastatingly sad.

Aside from his family, Derek also left behind a legion of friends that included, as far as I can tell, pretty much everybody who ever knew him and even some people who didn't. I have tried since Tuesday night, when I got the horrible news, to put my feelings about Derek and his passing into words. I have failed thus far, and I'm failing now.

I want my tribute to Derek to be perfect, articulate, touching and memorable. Derek, though, wouldn't care about any of that stuff. The master of the one-word e-mail and the one-line postcard would probably prefer something brief and funny--but I just don't think I have any funny in me right now. Besides, this isn't about me. It's about Derek. So, I'll just say what comes to mind.

I never knew anybody who didn't like Derek Torres. In fact, I never knew anybody who didn't like him a lot, or even love him, even after chatting with him for just a few minutes. He was charismatic but never intentionally so--that was just the way he was. He never put on a show. Really, Derek was a bit shy, but he had a sharp wit and a relaxed demeanor that both entertained people and made them comfortable around him.

Derek could laugh at anything. He found everything funny. He made everything funny. A lot (most) of our inside jokes I'd rather not repeat or try to explain here, but trust me when I say that Derek could look at a road sign, a box of cereal or a completely innocuous magazine cover (anything, really) and have us both shaking with laughter about it in seconds. He was funny without being cruel or self-deprecating, and that's a rare trait for anybody to have. He was one of the most clever and quick-witted people I've ever known.

For lack of a better phrase, Derek was also the least argumentative person I've ever known. That's not to say that he didn't stand up for himself and his family--he did. But I never had a cross word with him, and he told me once that he'd never had so much as a tiff with a lifelong friend of his who is now also a friend of mine.

Derek didn't even make snide jokes at friends' expense or drop an insult followed with "ah, I'm just kidding." He wasn't that way. He was unfailingly nice to everybody--especially the people he loved. I always admired that about him. I was always comfortable around him. His loyalty to his friends was unshakable, and his reliability was never in question.

For me, the bottom line of Derek Torres's life was that that he loved people and wanted everybody around him to be happy all the time. He loved his family most of all, of course, and relished every chance he got to get his wife the boys, his late father (who died a couple of years ago), his mom and his brother together. He loved his friends, too. And he made us all happy--with his humor, with his warmth, with his love.

Derek loved a good joke (and really loved a great one) and wasn't somebody who often spoke in muted, sincere tones. He was too busy cracking a joke or making an observation that would have me buckled over with laughter for 20 minutes. But I know that he loved me and all of his friends and family. It was obvious every day, every time I saw him or connected with him on instant messenger, which is how we stayed in touch when we were living in different cities or on different continents.

Derek was always very good about keeping in touch. Distance meant nothing to him. He was a traveler both literally and in terms of crossing miles and time zones digitally. I've lost regular contact with some dear friends due to a move, but I never lost contact with Derek. Morning after morning, his IM would pop up as soon as I managed to drag myself out of bed and fire up my computer. He was always around somewhere, somehow.

Here's another testament to his friendship: When my ex-wife and I divorced, he remained good friends with both of us, staying in contact and listening to our separate concerns. His capacity for sympathy and compassion knew no bounds.

We, his friends, loved him. People who read his blog and had never met him loved him. Friends of mine who met him once (at my wedding, in which he was a groomsman) were crushed by his death. A night or two before he died, when I was still sure that he was going to pull through (Derek, after all, was one tough dude), I said to my wife, "I can't imagine a world without Derek Torres." I'll bet most people who knew him felt the same way.

And I still can't. I don't want to have to. Derek left a hole in the lives of his loved ones as large as the man himself--and he did, after all, christen himself FatMans (and not ironically). So, while Derek (I believe) communes with God, we're all down here now, trying to figure out why this diamond of a human being didn't even make it to 35, praying for his family and wondering what we're going to do without him. I haven't figured it out yet. I don't know that I ever will.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Great place, great people and spectacular views in autumn. The photos don't do the place justice, but here's a taste:
The rest of the (very large and completely unedited) set is here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

(Not) Remembering the AFL

f there's one thing sports fans are talking about today, it's yesterday's New England-Denver NFL game. Why? Well, because it was an important game...Denver moved to 5-0 and dropped the out-of-sync Pats to 3-2, further dampening the Boston sports scene on the same day on which the Red Sox got booted from the playoffs by the California Angels of Anaheim at Los Angeles Angels of California at Anaheim. Or whatever they're called now.

But what really has fans talking today isn't so much the game itself as it is the sartorial implications of the throwback AFL uniforms both teams--particularly Denver--wore in honor of the 50th anniversary of the rebel football league that took on the NFL and actually managed to infiltrate it.
Consensus seems to be that the vintage 1960 Broncos throwbacks were hideous, but, as you might imagine, I actually liked them. The gold jerseys were arresting, and the striped socks and stripes down the pants made many of the players--even some of the linemen--look taller and sleeker than they probably are.

Credit to Denver, too, for going all out for this one--the end zones at whatever Mile High Stadium is called now had traditional diamond designs painted in them, and at one point CBS pointed its camera to a Broncos PR official who was decked out in a brown and yellow suit and hat straight from 1960s. Righteous. The only problem with the game, of course, is that the Pats lost.

But, although New England-Denver was the fashion and football highlight game from the NFL yesterday, the one that intrigued me most was Dallas-Kansas City. Of course, as a lifelong Cowboys fan, I'm always interested in what the Cowboys are doing--even if I can't stand Jerry Jones and get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach when I see that Arkansas carpetbagger celebrating a victory.

There was a lot more to yesterday's game for me than just interest in seeing the Cowboys play, however. When I was a small child, I remember being at someone's house--I don't remember whose--with my parents and seeing painted footballs (the kind a player gets when he earns a game ball) with the words "Dallas Texans" on them. Now, I don't think we were in the home of a former Texans player, so I don't know where the footballs came from. But I do remember asking my dad who on earth these Dallas Texans were.

He explained to me that the Texans had been part of the old American Football League and that they had moved to Kansas City for the 1963 season after three seasons in Dallas. Founded by prominent Dallasite Lamar Hunt, the Texans had started playing in the Cotton Bowl in 1960...the same year the Cowboys occupied that stadium for their first season.

What really got me, though, was that my dad told me that the Texans were his first favorite pro football team--he was a Texans fan, not a Cowboys fan, as a high school kid in 1960. And he remembers well to this day the AFL Championship Game the Texans won in 1962, a game in which they beat the rival Houston Oilers in professional football's first-ever double-overtime game. (I want to say--and and have said before--that my dad was at that game in Houston, but I might have just dreamed that or something. He might very well have been there, but I haven't asked him about it in recent years because I'd rather live with the hazy notion that he attended this legendary contest than find out that I've been wrong about that all these years. And so I do.)

My father joined the Army in 1963, shortly after Hunt ceded Dallas to the Cowboys and moved the Texans to Kansas City. Dad went to Germany and didn't come home until 1966--and, given the lack of Internet or satellite TV in that era, my guess is that he didn't follow football much. So, in a sense, my dad was a Texans fan until the mid-'60s, when he returned to Dallas and adopted the Cowboys. (For the record, though, he can't stand Jerry Jones, either, and gets an odd feeling of satisfaction these days when Dallas loses.)

Over the years, while watching football or just chatting about it, my dad would tell me stories of the old Texans. Legendary coach Hank Stram led an entertaining team with a high-flying offense. Interestingly, many of the Texans were actual Texans--TCU's own Jack Spikes and Sherrill Headrick starred for the team, as did--in 1960, anyway--Cotton Davidson, a quarterback from Baylor.

And then there was a young man from what is now the University of North Texas, the school my dad was attending the year the Texans won the big game in Houston. The man's name was Abner Haynes, and he was a former North Texas star and--for my dad, anyway--one of the all-time greats. Abner Haynes was an African-American star in an era before the old Southwest Conference (Texas's showcase college conference of the era) was integrated. North Texas integrated long before most schools in Texas and the South, so Haynes became a big-time player for the Eagles in the '50s and then went on to become a popular Texan.

Many were the times when Dad would tell me about Abner waiting for a kickoff--back when the goal posts were still on the goal line--by leaning back on a goal post with one foot resting on it behind him. Then, Abner would sprint forward, catch the ball, and launch a long and electrifying kickoff return. I'm probably still one of the few football fans younger than 60 who knows who Abner Haynes is; I'm surely one of the very few who knows of his exploits with the Texans.

Needless to say, I've been intrigued by the AFL for years--by the rebellious nature of it, by Hunt's desire to break the iron-fisted rule the NFL had over professional football in the '50s, by the ridiculous uniforms, by the outcast personalities who populated the league, by the league's powerful and lasting legacy, and by the team that won Dallas's first professional football championship. (But not, however, its first professional football game--the 1952 Dallas Texans, a one-season NFL franchise, earned that honor by beating the mighty Chicago Bears for their only win of an otherwise dismal season. But even my dad probably doesn't remember the original Texans all that well.)

Anyway, back to Cowboys-Chiefs, at last. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the AFL and of the late Lamar Hunt, the Chiefs wore spectacular 1960 Texans throwback uniforms yesterday, including the splendid helmets with the state of Texas on them and a star in the state representing Dallas. The Cowboys responded by wearing the closest thing they have to 1960 throwbacks, which, as it turns out, aren't actually exact replicas of what the team wore in 1960. The result was gorgeous, if I can use that word to describe a football game:
Given my soft spot for all things Kansas City--my father-in-law's family hails from there, and my wife herself went to high school in Manhattan, Kansas--and given that the Chiefs were wearing, surely for the first time anybody has since 1962, the uniform of my dad's original favorite pro football team, I was honestly a little torn about which team I wanted to win the game. I was somehow happy when the game ended in a tie after regulation--and even happier when the Cowboys won in overtime (until I saw Jerry Jones celebrating on TV, and that sick feeling came back again).

What made me happiest, though, was that the Dallas Texans, long gone and mostly forgotten, were getting a little recognition on the NFL stage. The old AFL has left a massive and lasting legacy on pro football, as evidenced by the AFL franchises that still exist in the NFL today and the success many of them have had. The AFL actually cracked the NFL's hierarchy by merging with the old-line league--but not before famously pulling two consecutive upsets in Super Bowls III and IV, which were played back when the leagues were still separate entities.

Lamar Hunt was the driving force behind the AFL, and it's a shame that he didn't live long enough to see Sunday's game. According to an excellent article in the Kansas City Star, Hunt always wanted the Texans to face the Cowboys and was convinced that he had the better team. (And, in the early '60s, he might have, despite the fact that the AFL was mostly a league for NFL castoffs, or so the experts said.) The Texans' attendance was on par with that of the Cowboys in the early '60s; the team had a following, but its future was never going to be in the Lone Star State. Dallas would belong to a great man, Tom Landry, and his Cowboys.

Of course, Hunt's Texans-Cowboys Cotton Bowl showdown never happened, and Hunt took his franchise to KC--where, it's worth noting, it won a Super Bowl two years before the Cowboys claimed their first Super Bowl title. (Of course, the Cowboys now have five to their name, and the Chiefs still have only one. But still...) As the Star article notes, it's funny that the game ended in a tie after regulation yesterday--because, in 1960, there was no overtime for regular-season games. The Texans and Cowboys, meeting at last (sort of), played yesterday to a dead heat. And then, perhaps appropriately, the Cowboys just pipped the old Texans in overtime.

But, best of all, I got to get a tiny little taste of what it was like to see Dallas's "other" team play, the star-studded champion that time forgot and that left Dallas in the hands of a legendary franchise. Sure, it was the Chiefs playing in hi-def in KC and not the Texans playing in black and white in the Cotton Bowl, but I felt a certain bond with my dad nonetheless.

I got so excited, in fact, that I went out last night and sponsored Abner Haynes's page at in honor of my dad. It's a small gesture, and maybe a strange one at that, but I feel as though by keeping Abner's stats alive, I'm helping to preserve the legacy of a man, a team and a league I don't remember but have always wished I could have known.

Monday, October 5, 2009


I like cars to the extent that I enjoy watching Top Gear on the BBC (maybe the best show on television right now--or possibly ever) and I get pretty heavily into Formula 1. Outside of that, I'm not what you'd call a car buff.

Certainly, from a mechanical perspective, I'm totally useless, and I can't even really drive a stick. So, a grease monkey (or petrolhead, as our British friends would say) I am not. I am, however, awfully sentimental, so I let out a bit of a wistful sigh last week when the news broke that Saturn, a little principality on the edge of the crumbling GM empire, was almost certainly dead.

I had two Saturns in my pre-Europe days. My ex-wife and I had one in college that my parents essentially bought for us; we took it with us when we moved to Brooklyn and drove it north again when we moved to Stoneham, Mass. It was, to my memory, a gold 1996 SL1 (or possibly SL2) with tan interior. And it was a fantastic car.

The little Saturn could chug through anything. It survived the broiling heat of Texas; the salt, sand, snow and potholes of New England and the general abuse of New York City. Many were the weekends we drove it out of Brooklyn and up to my ex's parents' place in New Hampshire, and the little gold Saturn never so much as lost tire pressure. It was completely reliable, surprisingly comfortable and powerful enough to allow us to zip around on the highway with confidence.

In 2000, my ex and I needed to buy a second car because I started a new job, and my new office wasn't reachable by public transportation (which not many things are in Greater Boston, frankly). We drove to Saturn of Danvers without hesitation, armed with a $1500 down-payment bonus from my new employer and intending to buy another SL1 (or SL2--I still can't remember).

My need for a car was fairly urgent, and I was disappointed when the friendly salesman at the dealership told us that there weren't any used (new was not in the budget this time) SLs available--except for...a wagon. A wagon? For heaven's sake, I was 26 years old and didn't have kids. Why on earth would I buy a wagon?

The sales guy assured me that the wagon was just a regular SL--same length and everything--with a wagon back on it. I drove it--reluctantly--and loved it. It turned out to be one of the greatest cars I've ever had. The little maroon Saturn had all the comfort and capabilities of its gold older brother, but it also had an absolutely immense amount of room in the back.

Seriously, this thing had SUV-level storage without being an SUV, and it got great gas mileage and drove like a regular car. We could haul anything in it--and did. (There was a memorable camping trip on Martha's Vineyard for which the wagon was absolutely fantastic.) And I eventually came to embrace the notion of owning a wagon; it was so incredibly uncool that it verged on coolness, and it was an early "green" statement (although one I didn't really consciously intend to make) in the age of the massive SUV.

In late June of 2001, in preparation for moving to France, my ex and I sold our Saturns. To my memory, we sold both to Saturn of Danvers, and we didn't lose a penny on the deal--the gold one we owned outright (thanks, Mom and Dad), and the dealership bought out the entire loan on the wagon. I remember driving my wagon for the last time and really not wanting to let it go. The excitement of moving to France was tempered by the loss of a car I had really come to love.

Now, I could say that my Saturns represented a memorable time in my life, a time when my ex and I were still happily married, a time when we had great jobs and a bit of money and a life that we ended up tearing apart (with no regrets) by moving to Europe. But really, for me, this post is all about the cars.

I'm happier now than I've ever been before, so I don't look back with particular wistfulness on my Saturn days--just on the cars themselves. And when I moved back to the US from France in 2006 and needed to buy a car, I didn't go with a Saturn. I bought a Scion tC, a little two-door coupe made by Toyota...because it looked like (and, I still think, was) the best value for the money. I'm very happy with it. By 2006, Saturns (to my mind, anyway) had become a little bigger, a little clunkier and definitely more expensive. They were less Saturn and more GM. They had lost that unique feel that had attracted me and so many others to them in the first place.

I was never a Saturn groupie. I didn't make the pilgrimage to Spring Hill, Tenn. I didn't hang out with other Saturn people. I didn't have t-shirts or other Saturn paraphernalia. I didn't join a Saturn message board or subscribe to some sort of e-mail list.

But I did love those two cars, two late-'90s (I think the wagon was a '98) models of a unique vehicle the likes of which American producers had never really made before and don't really make now. I think I caught Saturn at its peak--after the company had had time to perfect its approach and its vehicles and before GM started to choke the life out of its little experimental branch.

I'd like to think that somewhere (I'm still looking) somebody is stuffing sports gear in my maroon wagon, and some family is happily scooting around in my little gold four-door sedan. (Both cars are probably in junkyards somewhere, but I'm trying to put a happy ending on this.) And I'm a little sad to think that GM and Saturn couldn't keep it going, couldn't make a good-looking, fuel-efficient, comfortable, Euro-style car with no-haggle dealerships and a dedicated following stick in the American market.

Or maybe I'm a little disappointed that they didn't try a bit harder. (It's certainly sad to learn, too, that 13,000 people will lose their jobs--not to mention the impact Saturn's disappearance will have on dealerships all over the country.) In any case, though, I'm happy and proud to have been part of the Saturn experiment, and my memories of it will always be good.

RIP, Saturn, 1991-2009.