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Ithaca Women’s Rugby: Same Time Next Year

Continued from previous post…

ACRA LogoLike all sports that involve a lot of open-field running, much of rugby is about picking out openings and hitting seams. And in that department, the Ithaca College women’s rugby team excels—in more ways than one.

When last we visited with the IC Renegades, the team was prepping for a trip to the American Collegiate Rugby Association’s Mid-West regional, having earned the right to do so by turning in an undefeated regular season record and a resounding win in the first round of the national tournament.

Given that they are a collegiate club team playing against largely varsity-funded competition, the Renegades are used to simultaneously facing two adversaries—the opposing squad…and their own checkbook. Both battles get tougher as success mounts, which is why the resource-challenged team found itself drawing straws as to whose personal cars would be pressed into duty to transport the team 310 miles to Notre Dame College, in South Euclid, Ohio. 

And did I mention that a major blizzard was forecast for most of the area they would have to traverse?

Leaving on Friday, the day before their sweet sixteen matchup against the University of Cincinnati, the team’s caravan passed through the southern tip of the first wave of snowstorms that would eventually bury the city of Buffalo. Their reward for braving the elements was…well, braving the elements. “Not a good weather weekend for rugby,” said captain Alexa Darwish, displaying a talent for understatement. “It was a pretty interesting experience,” her co-captain, Mary Beth Tyson, added dryly.

When play began the next day, temperatures were in the 30s, and efforts to clear two inches of snow from the pitch were still underway. Fortunately, by the time Ithaca took the field for their game, the snow had been mostly removed, thus clearing the way for the powerful Renegade offense to operate at full speed. The result was an 87–12 win. And a date with destiny.

One year prior, almost to the day, Ithaca had been in the exact same situation: facing a game against Notre Dame College, with a trip to the national final four on the line. To the surprise of very few, the far more experienced Falcons won that game—but by the slimmest of margins. One single point.

After chewing on that loss for 366 days, “This was our Rocky II,” said Darwish. “This was our chance to beat Apollo Creed.”

But it wouldn’t be easy. While the Renegades had traveled nearly six hours in sketchy weather for the rematch, their opponents had merely to stroll across their own campus for a regional final that amounted to a home game for the varsity-funded, scholarship-granting Notre Dame College team.

This is the point in the story at which it would be my pleasure to share a detailed account of exactly how a team with next to nothing stacked in its favor beat the odds and engineered a trip to their first final four. But sometimes Goliath does indeed beat David.

“We started the first half kind of hesitant—a little slow,” said Tyson. “We were not our usual selves. And they started out really strong.” And in a game like rugby, where momentum matters hugely, a slow start is especially difficult to overcome. At halftime, Ithaca trailed 29–0.  

Given those circumstances, most teams would have a hard time maintaining their poise and resolve in the second half. Deficits of 29 points to an elite team are tough to transcend. But it was then that Tyson says she discovered a lot about the Renegades. “I learned how close our team is. How much we respect and love one another. We were losing by a lot, and it would’ve been easy for people to not try so hard in the second half. Then one person made a really big hit to get the ball back for us, and all of a sudden our whole team had each other’s backs and we were just fighting for each other. It was a lot of people’s last game, and we were playing for them.”

“The final score [41–5] is a little bit of a misrepresentation of how hard we did play,” added Darwish. “In the second half we really gave them a lot tougher match than the score would suggest. I think we really picked it up and proved that we deserved to be there despite what the scoreboard might say.”

The senior co-captain would have the opportunity to share those sentiments with her team the evening that we spoke, for as Renegades president Rachel Karlins explained, it was “Rugby Thanksgiving” that night. “We invite the whole team over, and our two coaches, and we have a potluck. That’s kind of our closing debrief for the season, and a good way to get a last team bonding experience. And to celebrate.”

Here’s the funny thing. There’s a reason that Rugby Thanksgiving would be the first opportunity for the team as a group to reflect upon their final game. See, they never had the chance to do so in its immediate aftermath. With no money for a hotel in Ohio, they jumped back in their caravan of cars and made the long drive back to Ithaca that Sunday night. In clear weather, all the way through.

On Monday, a chartered bus carrying the Niagara University women’s basketball team left western Pennsylvania after playing the University of Pittsburgh. Thirty miles away from their campus outside of Buffalo, the bus came to a stop, stuck in a blinding snowstorm. They remained there for 22 more hours before a highway patrol could come to their aid.

Had the Renegades possessed the funding to stay overnight after their game against Notre Dame, it’s entirely possible they would’ve found themselves in the same situation—but minus the comfortably-appointed bus.

Now I ask you: Do these women have a talent for hitting seams, or what?


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Of Renegades and Rugby

Every now and then I get to thinking about my days as a Bomber. Relax, all you folks at Homeland Security…just settle down. I was referring to life as an Ithaca College Bomber.

My athletic career while at Ithaca is the stuff basketball legends are made of. In my junior year, for instance, I managed to pull off a triple double:  28 points/16 rebounds/18 DNP–Coach’s Decisions.

Aside from the occasional basket though, what I remember the most clearly are the sensory experiences. I can close my eyes and bring them back almost at will. The buzz of the crowd in anticipation of tip-off. The fresh leather smell of a brand new pair of Adidas. The feel of sturdy, heavily-lacquered pine under my butt for extraordinary lengths of time.   

While I was collecting these memories (and associated splinters), one thing that never entered my mind was that I would ever have to pay for the right to play. I enjoyed all of the benefits of collegiate competition while completely oblivious to whether or not the team had enough gas money to get to the next game.

ICRenegadesAnd that is why I was so intrigued when I heard about the plight of the Renegades, the Ithaca College women’s rugby team.

First, the good news. The Renegades finished their regular season last month with a perfect 8–0 record. Few of those games featured final scores that were remotely close, and in one contest the opposing team waved a white flag and ran for the buses at halftime, down 64–0. And while they inflicted the majority of their damage within their own Division II universe, Ithaca wasn’t averse to a Division I beatdown either, roughing up Syracuse by a score of 47–5.

Lest you think this season is an anomaly, you should know that it’s basically a replay of last year’s campaign, in which the Renegades carried just one loss into the national playoffs. Once there, they came within a single point of advancing to the national final four.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that women’s rugby at Ithaca is a club sport, while many of the schools that the Renegades toy with on the pitch enjoy varsity status. Notre Dame College, the team that nosed Ithaca out of the playoffs in last year’s regional final, even grants scholarships!

In practical terms, what that means is that on most weeks the Renegades compete against teams that have salaried coaches, uniforms, dedicated practice facilities, and a budget for travel. In comparison, Ithaca has…each other—and a huge-hearted coach named Dave Sanders, who volunteers both his time and the expertise that comes from having been a six-time New York state champion in his own collegiate playing career. Ithaca College, as most colleges do with their club sports teams, kicks in a stipend that’s slightly north of $1,000.

Somehow the Renegades make it all work though, assuming all of the management and administrative duties associated with playing a regional schedule themselves, as well as engaging in a variety of creative fundraising activities. Despite their commitment and considerable organizational talents, however, the team can’t entirely escape the cost of travel. And the further you go in the national tournament…well, the further you go in the national tournament.

When I caught up by phone with Renegades president, Rachel Karlins, and her two captains, Alexa Darwish and Mary Beth Tyson, the team was finishing up their packing for a 300-mile drive to South Euclid, Ohio, where they had been sent inexplicably to play in the Mid-West Regional of the American Collegiate Rugby Association’s Division II Championship, despite the Mid-Atlantic Region’s location in Poughkeepsie, NY—almost two hours closer.

Undaunted by the upcoming trip, the team’s leadership group focused instead on the fact that Ithaca’s undefeated season had earned them the right to play their first-round game at home, where they’d dispatched Dennison, 59-10. So six hours in a set of rented vans…no problem. Should they post two wins in Ohio, however…


The ACRA Final Four is to be played in early December in Palm Coast, Florida. Which may as well be in Palm Springs, in terms of affordable accessibility. Theoretically, the Renegades could suck it up and make the multi-day van or bus ride down and back. But in addition to the actual cost of vehicle rental, gas, and food and housing in transit, there would be the physical toll on the team’s ability to prepare adequately to play against the best teams in the country. And then there was this: Alexa pointed out that the team would miss too much school at a time that bumped right up against final exams.

Oh yeah, I thought, these collegians actually are student-athletes. Funny what happens to one’s perspective when watching too much college football coverage.

It wasn’t like the Renegades had been caught completely unaware by this financial conundrum. The experience of the previous year had verified that the team was indeed a national-caliber talent, so at some point during the season, they’d had the foresight to undertake a crowd-funding campaign (http://www.gofundme.com/RenegadesNationals, for those of you scoring at home). But while every penny pledged was both helpful and appreciated, they are still eye-to-eye with fiscal reality. Are the Renegades simply too good for their budget?

I wished Rachel, Alexa, and Mary Beth the best, and ended the call with a new respect for the quality of individual that my alma mater is turning out. The next morning, a news item caught my eye. Unseasonably early “lake effect” heavy snow and freezing temperatures were rolling into northeast Ohio for the weekend, directly into the path of the Renegades as they headed west.

To be continued…

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In Praise of Play: The Kids Are Alright

Just so you know, play is in. As in trending. As in the new black.

I tend to follow these kinds of things, and I’ve noticed of late that a number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly periodicals and publications have taken up the topic of “play.”

TheAtlanticCoverThe Atlantic ran a truly fascinating story on an emerging trend in playgrounds, whereby kids are all but unsupervised amidst an assortment of things that could theoretically be harmful. Of course, the setting for the story is Great Britain, and not here in the homeland of helicopter parenting. But the upshot of the piece was that, maybe…just maybe, kids might be better off in the long run if left to their own devices more often.

After reading the article, I found myself chuckling at the memory of a 13-year-old me, riding my bike along a state highway with no paved shoulder to speak of, and carrying a full set of golf clubs on my back. That’s the kind of thing you did back in the dark ages if you wanted to go play with your friends. Sometimes the assortment of sporting goods you brought along just happened to be a little larger than at others.

If that were to happen today, a SWAT team of social services folks would’ve descended first upon me, and then upon my parents. Lawyers would jostle for position to bring suit against the manufacturer of both my bike and my golf clubs for negligently allowing this situation to occur. There would’ve been consequences—not the least of which would’ve entailed confinement to my house, leaving me with nothing to do but watch endless reruns of Gilligan’s Island all afternoon. Safely, of course.

But I digress…

Maybe it’s just my imagination, but it certainly seems that since that article appeared, a slew of similarly-themed reports have cropped up. NPR even did an entire week-long series on play, introducing its audience to something called the National Institute for Play, whose website’s Home page displays the following quote: “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Apparently that was originally uttered by some New Age-y guy named Plato.

Plato (far right) testing out play vs. conversation theory

Rare archival photo of Plato (far right) testing out play vs. conversation theory

The common theme of all this banter is centered around the notion that kids inherently know more about reaping the rewards of play than do adults, who’ve been on a years-long crusade to replace random goofing around with scheduled, structured activities conducted while encased in bubble-wrap. It’s said that perhaps we’re witnessing a return pendulum swing of public opinion, as Millennials come to realize that their own childhoods were way too programmed, and set about to make sure that their kids have some more latitude in the play department. Makes sense to me.

Somewhat related to the above is a movement afoot in the country to “do something” about childhood obesity. The most visible of these efforts is the “Let’s Move” initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama, but the central goal of getting kids up and about is embodied in a tidal wave of similar programs that have been launched in the past few years.

The reason that all of this is of specific interest to me can be summed up in two simple mathematical theorems:

#1)  Play + Move = Recreation

#2)  Recreation + Games = Sports

In a nutshell, the more that people engage in sports, the more I’ll have to write about. Which, in turn, diminishes the odds of me finding myself relegated to a life of dereliction on the streets. It’s a big win/win, wouldn’t you say?

There is, however, one small fly in the ointment. 

This “No Child Left (On His Or Her) Behind” movement is concentrated, not coincidentally it seems, on youngsters. And trust me on this: reporting and opining exclusively about kids playing sports can get to be…well, boring. There, I said it. Hopefully, Mo’ne Davis will find it in her heart to forgive me.

But there’s something much more important at stake here than the presence or absence of boredom in my life. While childhood inactivity is certainly in need of attention, it seems to me that it’s at least as important to our country that adults increase their pace of play, so to speak. Unfortunately, however, there is very little today that’s written or said about adults at play—well, little that’s G-rated, anyway. Unless, that is, the adults in question are members of the microscopically small group of people that get paid gobs of money to play the most visible of spectator sports; to be “sportainers,” if you will.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of pro sports, and I’ve certainly logged an impressive number of hours on various couches, bar stools, and bleacher seats in my time. But that’s something altogether different then what we’re talking about now. Because at the end of the day, if watching is the only thing we relate to when we hear the word “Sports,” then the only thing that we as a society have gained is…to have been entertained for a while.

Compare that to the benefits of playing sports: physical health and well-being well into our twilight years; mental sharpness, both now and for much more of our lives; and perhaps most importantly, a sense of community—the ongoing feeling of belonging to a group of people with whom you share a passion that you can act upon together.

Here’s the good news. Although you may not hear a lot about Americans at play just for the sake of playing, it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be said. It just hasn’t been done that much. But that’s about to change.

To be continued…

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My Relationship With Football: A Brief History

Anonymous fantasy football player warms up for his game by sitting in an easy chair and holding a football

An anonymous fantasy football player ponders the upcoming day’s action

I recently became aware of the existence of something called FSTA , or, as it’s fondly known by its proponents, “FaSTA.” My New England roots initially led me to assume this to be simply something Bostonians yell at a track meet. But today I came across an interesting online post, and learned that FaSTA is the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. I’m not sure which surprised me more: that there was such a thing, or that it is now “celebrating 15 years representing and advancing the fantasy sports industry.”

The reason that I keep bumping into FaSTA of late is that there is some legislative stirring in Washington on the subject of online gambling—something that FaSTA (and its well-heeled lobbying firm, Dentons) resolutely insists is a completely different animal than fantasy football. And they should know! As their website proudly displays, they have the backing of, among other subject matter experts, CBS Sports, ESPN, and the NFL.

Which brings to mind another recent phenomenon: in spite of strict operational instructions given to foxes guarding henhouses all over the country, chickens are still mysteriously ending up dead.

Normally I would give the whole matter the chuckle that it’s due and move on. But within the context of recent musings about sports watching vs. sports playing, my mind took to wandering. And before I knew it, I was reflecting on the topic from multiple perspectives. Which led to compiling the following timeline of my relationship with football…

Birth through teen years: I played several seasons of organized football, from Midget League through high school, as well as countless games of recess and after-school pick-up football. Except for coaches’ annoying insistence on conducting practices, it was fun.

Sometime in the late ‘60s: I fell in love with the New York (football) Giants, despite their status as NFL doormats. I spent three hours every autumn Sunday glued to the TV, familiarizing myself with the term “masochism.” Then I went outside and recreated each game with my friends. It was fun.

1981: Somehow, inexplicably, the Giants became good. I didn’t know how to process this. But I started watching games involving teams that were competing with the Giants for playoff berths. My pro football consumption basically doubled. In a related development, I stopped playing football of any kind. It was all still fun…in an agonizing sort of way.

1986: The Giants won the Super Bowl, initiating paroxysms of joy. In the succeeding years, I doubled down on my fandom. It was fun…ish.    

1992: I was invited to play in my first fantasy football league. It was a blast…although I did find myself distracted from focusing single-mindedly on my Giants.

1994: The fantasy football quarterback I drafted was a member of the Dallas Cowboys—the mortal enemy of all Giants fans. I repeatedly found myself in compromising rooting scenarios. It was perplexing.

The remainder of the ‘90s and into the late -‘00s: I gave up on going outside during football season, lest I miss a scoring play involving one of “my” players. I’d joined a second league, and typically had at least one player on my aggregate fantasy roster involved in every game being played. And sometime in there, the “Ten-Minute Ticker” was introduced to NFL telecasts, followed soon thereafter by a continuous screen crawl of statistics from other games. Radio shows providing fantasy football advice began popping up. Thursday Night Football was introduced. I stopped caring about the Giants…or any specific team, for that matter. They were all just delivery devices housing players that could accumulate points for me. I finished out of the money in my leagues more often than not, but I won just enough to motivate annual reenlistment. It was generally aggravating, interrupted with scattered bursts of euphoria.

2008: My job at the time required me to work Sundays that entire fall. I took a leave of absence from fantasy football. And, given my lack of a rooting interest in any specific team, my football watching decreased. Dramatically. It was…well…actually not that bad.  

2009: I returned to fantasy football and picked up where I’d left off. And since I’d found that I rarely took my eyes off of the continuous statistics crawl at the bottom of the screen, I considered switching from cable to DirecTV, in order to get not only the NFL Sunday Ticket package, but also the new Red Zone Channel. That way I could separate the wheat from the chaff and watch only potential scoring plays instead of actual games. I was test-driving this concept at the home of a DirecTV-subscribing friend when it hit me. I was no longer watching football; I was merely watching statistics accumulate. It was eye-opening.

2010: I declined the annual invitations to join fantasy football leagues, settling instead for simply watching full, unadulterated football games while paying no mind to the stats crawl. It was boring. I eventually turned off the TV and went outside.  

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not crusading, and I’m certainly not one of “those people”—the former cigarette smoker, for example, who self-righteously goes berserk if someone lights up anywhere within eyesight. I don’t have anything against fantasy football. And I completely understand the benefits, having experienced the camaraderie, the thrill of competition, and the occasional joys of claiming bragging rights (not to mention the money!).

But there’s no denying it. For me, fantasy football ruined real pro football. The silver lining in that cloud, however, is a mile wide. I haven’t watched a regular-season NFL game in years, and my sole visit to an NFL stadium during that time was a disaster. What I’ve discovered though, is that the camaraderie and the competition—and even the occasional bragging rights—are out there for the taking in any number of recreational pursuits.

I’ve walked the walk on both sides, so I figure I’m well-qualified to make the statement: playing a sport beats statistical spectating any way you slice it. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  

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Sports as a Social Construct (and Other Quasi-Deep Thoughts)

The arch that marks the start of a sprint triathlon frames contestants waiting for the starting gun

Contestants gather at the start of a sprint triathlon in San Diego, CA

I was going to start this post with the phrase, This just in: Sports are big in America. But then I had a little grammatical battle with myself, which, to be honest, got a little ugly.

See, part of me felt strongly that the proper phraseology is, This just in: Sports is big in America. And that stemmed from the notion that “sports” is a singular thing, as opposed to a collection of things. I eventually agreed to disagree with myself, but it did get me to thinking. And once again, that little one-year project—the one with all the games—provided needed context.

Whenever I’m asked to identify my biggest takeaway from the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour, my answer is always the same. I learned that, without a doubt, the happiest sports fans in America are those that spend at least as much time playing as they do watching. Of this I am absolutely, positively certain. You can retrace my steps if you’d like to test the theory, but trust me—you’ll come to the same conclusion. And you’ll also come to agree with me when I say that sports is and sports are. The former is entertainment. The latter are recreational pursuits.

A view of the grandstand during a Seattle Sounders game reveals an active, passionate supporters group -- one of four officially recognized by the team.

One of four officially recognized Seattle Sounders FC Supporter Groups engages in The Full 90

Sports as entertainment (or “sportainment”, if you will) offers a few key benefits. It gives you a break from the daily grind—a chance to lose yourself in unscripted drama. And many social scientists maintain that the physical act of rooting, i.e. the cheering, fist-pumping, and general jumping about while watching a game actually yields several physiological benefits as well. Sportainment also provides entrée to membership in a group of like-minded folks, even if you don’t actually interact directly with them. When you are a fan—particularly of a specific team—you are part of a tribe. Which is good.  

Sports as recreation also provides a release. And for sure, the health and well-being benefits are undeniable. But when you play a sport rather than watch one, you become part of a community. Which is better than good.

I know of a guy named Luke, who is campaigning for a role as Commissioner of Athletics. I’ve seen some of the stuff he’s written, and I like what he has to say:

“While of course I like to win as much as anyone else, I know it is more important to be respectful and a good role model whether we win or lose. Coming together as a team and improving each game is the most important lesson I’ve learned. I want to share that with everyone, no matter what they play or do… Sports are about learning to work as a team and showing our school pride, EVEN if you don’t play on a sports team. It is about community.”

Here’s the thing. Luke is 11 years old. The role he’s seeking is as a member of his school’s Student Council. He is wise beyond his years, and that will serve him well.

And here’s another perspective

Steve Mackel calls for all hands in, during a pre-marathon SOLE Runners pep talk.

The SOLE Runners huddle in the pre-dawn darkness just prior to yet another marathon

My wife, The Bird, likes to attend sporting events, and generally has at least a passing interest in any game to which I’ve tuned the television. But “sports” to her means getting up at an ungodly hour on Saturday morning and driving 25 miles to meet up with her SOLE Runners club. Together they train for endurance events, typically those that significantly test their individual comfort limits. They actively encourage and help each other in whatever way they can, and often gather as a group to compete in marathons or triathlons. They are an athletic community, both in the micro sense of their own club, and in the macro sense of being Runners.

From what I’ve witnessed in my travels, I’d venture a guess that there’s a local SOLE Runners equivalent for pretty much every sport out there. And judging from the fact that destination sports in this country is a $8.7 billion business, there are a lot of sports-related communities being built out there, participant by participant.

And then there’s this…

Amid a sea of blue, runners head toward the finish line of the Olympic Triathlon Trials in San Diego

A view of the finish line at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Triathlon Trials

A couple of years back, I was standing along the barrier at the finishing alley for the U.S. Olympic Triathlon Trials in San Diego. The woman standing next to me was clearly not a casual bystander, and sure enough, she eventually spotted the triathlete she’d come to see. It was a young man, who, with each approaching stride appeared even younger. After he’d passed by on his way to the finish line, I struck up a conversation with the woman who turned out to be his mom. When I asked her how old her son was, she glanced around and lowered her voice. “Well, not quite as old as his application materials say he is.”

Apparently, his USA Triathlon qualifying events hadn’t been all that strict about age verification, and they simply rode the wave on through to the Trials without ever having to prove that he was old enough to compete. Throughout the process, they harbored no illusions that he would come remotely close to earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team, so I eventually asked: Then why?

“For all of this,” she beamed, sweeping an arm to include the full panorama of the venue. “Can you imagine a better experience for a young athlete?”

Triathlon~RunnerInTransition Triathlon~SprintSwim

It turned out that her son had been flopping around in search of his identity, but when he began to compete in endurance events, all the cylinders of his personality began to click. “He’s matured so much in the past couple of years, and made so many friends through these competitions.” And then, with a little hitch in her voice, she confided, “I think he finally likes himself.”

Call me crazy, but I’m guessing he wouldn’t have garnered the same benefits by joining the junior fan club of his local NFL team.    

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Ghosts of Game Times Past…and Future

It's Game Time Somewhere author Tim Forbes relaxes in bleachers
Your humble correspondent, in his natural habitat

…Continued from the previous post.

For several weeks now, it’s been one coincidence after another around here, all revolving around a one-year journey I once made in search of the rhythm of sports in this country. Apparently, the rhythm has now come looking for me. Either that, or it’s been lurking around ever since. Whatever the case, I could knit a sweater with all of the old story threads that have popped up of late: Mo Martin, Manny Machado, Marqise Lee

Eventually, I decided to dig out the notebooks—the ones in which I entered all of the thoughts and impressions that presented themselves as I watched more than 100 different sporting events. And in so doing, I found myself amazed at the number of athletes I saw in humble surroundings that went on to achieve great things.

Ryder Cup golfer Keegan Bradley in his Nationwide Tour days

Just another Nationwide Tour golfer on the rise…

At a golf course a couple of towns over from the middle of nowhere, I witnessed a quiet but confident young golfer see his efforts pay off when his fourth-place finish in a just-completed Nationwide Tour event all but guaranteed that he’d “graduate” to play on the PGA Tour the next season. Less than one year later, there he was on my television screen, holding the Wanamaker Trophy as the winner of the 93rd PGA Championship. Later this month, Keegan Bradley will play on his third U.S. Ryder Cup team. At the time of this photo, though, my wife was simply trying to coax a smile out of him because she thought he looked like someone that one of our nieces should date. True story.

And then there was this: in three different venues I saw three different athletes who, anonymous outside the cognoscenti of their own sport at the time, would go on to Olympic glory…

Ashton Eaton, World and Olympic decathlon champion throws the javelin

The future World’s Greatest Athlete, shown here decimating college competition

I was one of perhaps 75 fans who’d made the trip to Cal-Berkeley’s cavernous Edwards Stadium to watch the Pac-12 (Pac-10 at the time) heptathlon and decathlon conference championships. I was admittedly undereducated about the track and field “combineds” at the time, but I knew enough to understand that I was seeing the elite’s elite in the decathlon. I was even so bold to state categorically (with tongue only partially in cheek) that this Oregon senior would someday be known as the World’s Greatest Athlete. Two years later, at the Olympic Trials, Ashton Eaton broke the world’s record in the decathlon, on his way to the gold medal in London. He hasn’t finished anywhere other than first in an international competition since. Eaton even wound up marrying Brianne Theisen—the girl that won the heptathlon championship on that day I first saw each of them.

Ashton Eaton and Brianne Theisen are interviewed onstage at the 2012 Olympic Track & Field Trials

Eaton and then-fiancee Brianne Theisen onstage at the site of his world-record performance

Ryan Lochte and Peter Vanderkaay sign autographs as the 2010 ConocoPhillips National Swimming Championships

Ryan Lochte (left) styling in the Autograph Zone with Peter Vanderkaay

By the time I attended the USA Swimming National Championships, Michael Phelps had already eclipsed household name status, so I can’t say that seeing him medal was an entirely unexpected thing. There was this other guy, however, who seemed like he had it going on in a big way. Blessed with exceptional talent and movie-star looks, he was certainly popular with the swimming fans on hand—the women in particular. But up to that point, he’d always been known as one of those “relay guys,” with just one individual international win to his name. Fast forward to today, and Ryan Lochte’s seven individual Olympic gold medals stand second in swimming history only to Phelps. Add to that his four standing world records, and you could say he’s done OK for himself since I saw him. Even if you do take into consideration his ill-conceived reality show, What Would Ryan Lochte Do? which was mercifully cancelled after eight episodes.

Pole vaulters Jenn Suhr and Becky Holliday relax while waiting their turn in the 2011 US National Indoor Championships.

Jenn Suhr (top) and fellow pole vaulter Becky Holliday get prepped for an assault on the U.S. indoor record

Months later, at the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships, I was introduced to a woman who was unquestionably considered to be the best in America at her craft—the pole vault. Initially, there wasn’t much to marvel at, as Jenn Suhr passed on the first half-dozen heights. No use wasting your efforts at a height you know you’ll clear with ease. But by the time the rest of the field had been eliminated and Suhr had won, she had vaulted just twice, clearing each height with ease. It turned out, though, that her work had only begun. Winning the event was only a byproduct of her actual intent, which was to set a new American indoor record. As she closed in doing so, I, in turn, closed in on missing my Southwest Airlines flight home, and despite pushing off the sprint to my rental car for as long as I possibly could, I missed witnessing the blessed event.

Suhr’s 5’11 ¼” did indeed set a new American record. But here’s the thing—it was well short of the world record, which has been held at various times by women from pretty much any country but the U.S. The shock waves that would have reverberated had an American broken the world record would have been global. Which is to say that, when Jenn Suhr won the Olympic gold medal the next year in London, it was even more of a massive upset. I could say I saw it coming that day in Albuquerque…but I would be lying.

“So what’s the point of all this reminiscing?” you may ask. Well at first, even I didn’t know. While I certainly enjoy mentally reliving some of the memorable aspects of that year, I haven’t ever really dwelt upon them. But eventually I started picking up on a common thread.

The athletes that have recently inhabited my encounters with ghosts of Game Times past were more or less unknown when I saw them. They were each clearly dedicated to their sport, and by the time I saw them, they’d made sacrifices both physical and financial to get to where they were. Which, however, when measured by the barometers of success in the U.S. (People magazine cover fame and/or massive wealth), was basically…nowhere. They were all more or less invisible.

So why did they do it? I’ve wondered. And more to the point, why do others—particularly those with almost no realistic chance of achieving breakthrough success—do it? I don’t honestly know… but I have a strong feeling it’s a question worth exploring.  

With cane in hand, 82-year-old Carlos Mora draws close to the finish line at the 2010 Long Beach Marathon, his 26th!

82-year-old Carlos Mora finishes his 26th Long Beach Marathon in 2010. Why 26th? Because that’s how many there had been.

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Ghosts of Game Times Past: That Other Wide Receiver

Gardena Junipero Serra and Arroyo Grande meet for the coin toss prior to their 2010 CIF championship game.

Friday Night Lights: Captain George Farmer (#3) represents Gardena Junipero Serra in 2010 CIF playoff game

…Continued from the previous post.

Boy, are we glad it’s finally here – the first weekend of the Los Angeles pro football season. To those who might quibble that we don’t actually have a pro football team in Los Angeles, I would agree, and counter that we actually have two teams: the USC Trojans and the UCLA Bruins. If you don’t believe these to be pro franchises, you may want to think about signing up for a remedial econ course. And try just thinking of the players as interns.

We USC fans in particular have been kicking around for weeks now, waiting to get this show on the road. There’s only so much time you can spend patrolling balconies in search of youngsters to save from drowning. While stocking the cooler and prepping the grill for tomorrow’s home opener against Fresno State though, I found my thoughts drifting back about four years, as they are inclined to do of late.

It was December, 2010, and I had been salivating for days at the prospect of attending an epic California Interscholastic Federation football playoff game between arch-rival high school powerhouses Oaks Christian and Westlake. But salivatus interruptus reared its ugly head when I was turned away from the gate of the sold-out contest. It was my 75th event on the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour, and the very first that I’d failed to weasel my way into.

More than a little disappointed, I made a hurry-up detour to another CIF playoff game, chosen primarily for proximity purposes. Usually when sportswriters offer up pre-game analyses and predicted scores, they tend to keep the margin within reason. So when previews of my backup game between the Junipero Serra Cavaliers and the Arroyo Grande Eagles had Serra running off with the title by almost three touchdowns, it didn’t portend edge-of-seat drama. But I needed to check a high school football game off my list…and did I mention that this one wasn’t far from home?

Serra was well-positioned to repeat their previous 15–0 season, one which culminated in winning the Division II California State Championship. In stark contrast, Arroyo Grande had snuck into the playoffs as a wild card, and it was a month-long Cinderella run that had eventually delivered them from their central coast enclave to L.A.’s south side, where they came off the bus and stared across the field at a team that outweighed them by an average of 30 pounds a player.

I wasn’t expecting a barn-burner.

Mismatch aside, the game did offer the opportunity to witness a coronation. Junipero Serra had a reputation for producing an assembly line of talented receivers, and the previous year’s undefeated team had featured Robert Woods, who had gone on to start as a true freshman for USC. But hold on!…There were those that insisted that Woods had been the second-best receiver on that Serra team. One year his junior, George Farmer was putting the finishing touches on a senior year that had made him one of the best college prospects in the country. In fact, the pre-game buzz that floated around me in the grandstands was that Farmer had, that very morning, ended months of speculation by committing to USC as well.

By the time the game started, my notebook, my camera, and my Flip video (remember, this was 2010) were all at DEFCON 1 alertness, ready to capture the inevitable heroics of Farmer for posterity. And he did impress, particularly on an electric punt return that was called back on a penalty. But there was this other kid…

Opposite Farmer was a real speed-burner, who, despite being a senior, was in his first season as a starting wide receiver. He’d backed up Woods and Farmer for three years, while starring at safety on defense. Oh, and he’d also won CIF championships in basketball and track. So he was talented. But mostly he was annoying. Because every time I had my camera trained on Farmer in passing situations, the ball went to this kid. And every time it did, he took it to the house. Three catches, three touchdowns—all scored without a defender laying a hand on him. Who knows what he would’ve done if the score hadn’t quickly become lopsided enough for Serra’s coach, Scott Altenberg, to dial his offense back to mostly handoffs between the tackles.

Prior to the game, Altenberg had been asked to compare Robert Woods and George Farmer. “I don’t know,” he said. “They’re different. George is more physical. Robert was quicker. They’re both crazy talented.”

The funny thing was, neither he nor the press even mentioned that other kid, the one that caught the three TDs—Marqise Lee.

Sometime shortly after that game, Marqise Lee, without fanfare, signed on to join Farmer at USC, thus reuniting the three high school teammates on a bigger stage.

Robert Woods eventually played three years as a Trojan, becoming a consensus All-American and setting a fistful of both Trojan and Pac-12 pass-catching records. The Buffalo Bills selected him in the 2013 draft, and he caught 40 passes—three of them for TDs—in last year’s solid rookie NFL season.

George Farmer, on the other hand, became perhaps the world’s unluckiest college football player, experiencing a string of injuries capped by a torn ACL that cost him an entire season. He is back at USC this year for a fourth shot at the glory that seemed his destiny.

And then there was that third wheel—the one that played safety at Junipero Serra while Woods and Farmer started at wideout. During his three-year career at USC, Marqise Lee had 248 receptions for 3,655 yards, the most ever for a USC receiver—by more than 500 yards. He set or tied 18 USC records in his 2012 season, earning unanimous All-American status and winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver. No Trojan had ever done that. Not Mike Williams, not Dwayne Jarrett, not Keyshawn Johnson. Not even Lynn Swann.

Lee was rewarded for his efforts by the Jacksonville Jaguars [insert your own joke referencing “Jaguars” and “reward” here], who drafted him with their second pick in the 2014 NFL draft, making him the 39th overall selection.

And to think that I saw Marqise Lee before he was…well, before he was Marqise Lee. I’d have the pictures to prove it…but it never crossed my mind to take any.

To be continued…

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Ghosts of Game Times Past: All-Star Manny Machado


The Aberdeen Ironbird welcomes ids home after rounding the bases after a game.

Future Ironbirds run the bases at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland

…Continued from the previous post.

Ordinarily, I might have chalked up Mo Martin’s win at the Women’s British Open to being one of those inexplicable, yet wonderfully inspirational stories that make sports the ultimate reality show. After all, other than the great memories it brought up, her victory really had nothing to do with me. But then, just two weeks later, the ghosts of Game Times past got personal, causing me to commit the cardinal sin of baseball fandom: I doomed my team to failure, simply by envisioning exactly how it would take place.

It’s been 12 years since my favorite team, the Anaheim Angels (sorry, but they will simply never be the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to me) won the World Series in their one and only appearance in the October Classic. In nearly every spring that followed, they’ve looked poised to win it again. In fact, sometimes they’ve appeared very nearly unbeatable—on paper. But then they play the season and invariably disappoint.

This year I wasn’t falling for it. My spring training expectation levels were at a nadir not seen since…well, since that magical 2002 campaign. Which is why this season has been one big, satisfying joyride. Heading into the final third of the schedule, the Angels had not only performed like a playoff team, they’d actually become a delight to watch as they gelled into a fun-loving, cohesive unit right before my eyes. Truth be told, I have a hard time remembering the last time I’ve felt it necessary to yell at my television during a Halos game.

Yes, I’d gotten cocky. So much so that in the 12th inning of a game in Baltimore, I pulled the rookie-est of all fan moves. With the Orioles’ Manny Machado at the plate I said—out loud, mind you—“Wouldn’t it be ironic if Machado hits one out?”

Two pitches later, he did just that. Walk-off home run. Drive home safely. And it was all my fault.

But hear me out! I do have a viable excuse to offer.

Travel with me back to a picture-perfect autumn Sunday in 2010, smack in the middle of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour. I was luxuriating in the grandstand at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland, watching the homestanding Aberdeen IronBirds close out the baseball season against the Connecticut Tigers. This was a NY-Penn League game, pitting two Class A minor-league teams against each other in a game that meant virtually nothing. But the stands were full, and nobody was in a hurry to go home—least of all the two teams. Tied 4–4 after nine innings, they played into the 10th… and the 11th… and the 12th. In the top of the 13th inning, Connecticut scored two runs, and fans began trickling toward the exits. But I chose to hang around because it had become a gorgeous evening, and…because I had no other specific place I had to be.

The first two IronBird batters in the bottom of the 13th struck out, prompting even me to start collecting my belongings. I paused, though, as the next batter was hit by a pitch and trotted down to first base. Then, a lengthy at-bat resulted in a bloop single to right. Still alive. Up to the plate came a kid that the Baltimore Orioles had drafted out of a Miami high school just a couple of months prior and assigned to Aberdeen—three levels below the Bigs. I’d noticed him earlier in the game, when it jumped out at me that this was a man, albeit a very young man, playing against boys. Sure enough, he hammered out a triple, implausibly tying up the game once again. But not for long. The next batter singled to left field, and after 13 innings and nearly four hours of season-prolonging baseball, the IronBirds celebrated a walk-off victory as if it’d been Game Seven of the World Series.

The kid that tripled to tie the game and then scored the winning run? Guy by the name of Manny Machado. Here’s the picture to prove it.

The Aberdeen Ironbirds celebrate a walk-off win to end the 2010 season. The hero was Manny Machado

You’re just gonna have to trust me — Manny Machado is in there somewhere!

It didn’t surprise me at all when, less than two years later, the Orioles brought Machado all the way up to the majors, where in just his second game he hit two home runs. The next year he was an All-Star third baseman and Platinum Gold Glove winner. So, given recent events, with the game on the line against my Angels and Machado coming to the plate, how could my mind not wander back to that idyllic fall day in Maryland when I’d first laid eyes on him?

Yes, I know. I could’ve refrained from saying his name out loud, thus costing the Halos a win. I’ll give you that much. Like I said—it was a rookie fan mistake. And I’m normally better than that.

But…Mo Martin…Manny Machado…either there’s something really bizarre going on involving the letter “M” (now that I think about it, I’ve always had a thing for Marilyn Monroe), or the cosmos is trying to tell me something.   

To be continued…

Manny Machado comes off the field in his final game with the Aberdeen Ironbirds.

Look! That’s him! No, not the furry blue and gray one, the one in the black uniform.

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Ghosts of Game Times Past: Golfer Mo Martin

MoMartin~GolfWorldCoverI was in the neighborhood anyway. So I thought I’d drop by the old website and take a look around. See if everything looked the same. I can scarcely believe that it’s been almost four years since the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” staff finished sweeping up the last of the confetti and streamers that accompanied the completion of the 100-event, 50-sport tour.

OK, who am I kidding? I wasn’t really just “in the neighborhood.” Truth be told, I came by because I’ve been getting visitations from ghosts of Game Times past, at a rate that falls somewhere between curious and alarming. Like this, for example…

A few Saturday evenings ago, I found myself setting both my alarm and my coffee pot to go off at 6:00 the next morning. On purpose, mind you. See, I didn’t want to miss a minute of TV coverage of the final round of the Women’s British Open. And my sacrifice of shuteye did indeed reward me with the kind of sports story that by all rights should get saturation coverage…but won’t.

As I sat watching a half a world away, the wind off of the Irish Sea was playing havoc with the golf being played at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England. Flagsticks were bending nearly parallel to the ground, and golf balls that had been lying stationary on the green suddenly took to wandering around of their own volition. In short, it was breezy.

One after another, the tournament’s leaders succumbed in one way or another to the elements. A par on most holes became the equivalent of a birdie, and a birdie became…well, it just didn’t happen. Frustration was etched on every player’s face. Except one.

Mo Martin, the world’s 99th ranked woman golfer, looked unfazed. Downright serene, in fact, as she played one solid hole after another. And seemingly each time she finished fishing yet another par putt out of a cup, she looked up to see another highly-regarded competitor’s name drift down the leaderboard and come to rest below her own. If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…

By the time Martin stood on the par-five 18th tee, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibilities that, should those still on the course behind her continue to struggle, she could position herself to get into a playoff. After all, she’d birdied this final hole in two of three previous rounds that week. She striped her drive down the middle, and when she reached her ball on the fairway, well, there really wasn’t any reason not to go for the green in two, despite a diminutive status that the LPGA is likely generous in publishing as 5’ 2”. So she pulled out a three-wood and took aim.

After traveling about 230 yards on a direct line, the ball hit the base of the flagstick, eventually coming to rest five feet away from the hole. A few moments later, Martin calmly stroked the ball into the center of the cup for the first eagle of her LPGA season. On the 72nd hole of a Major tournament. Under conditions that might make Weather Channel storm chaser Jim Cantore say, “Uh, guys, maybe we should stay inside for this one.”

Stories like this are almost legally obligated to end happily, and indeed, when nobody else could catch Martin’s one-under-par score, she was informed while keeping loose on the driving range that she had secured her first-ever LPGA tour win. Her reaction was priceless—but that was just the beginning of the heart-warming. Unaccustomed to the limelight as she was, it would’ve been understandable if, in the impromptu on-course interviews that followed, she’d stammered out some sports clichés consisting mostly of a liberal sprinkling of amazing’s and awesome’s. Instead, the 31-year-old pro extemporaneously spoke from the heart with warmth, intellect, wit, and perspective. She managed to pull off “giddy” and “dignified” simultaneously. And when the audio was thrown back to the announcers, someone summed up the environment perfectly:  “Full disclosure—there have been tears in the broadcast booth.”

Here’s the thing. None of this surprised me in the least. Well, OK, the whole ball-hitting-flagstick-and-short-eagle-putt did pull me out of my seat in disbelief, but the rest…pretty much as I would’ve expected. See, I know Mo Martin. She came out of UCLA and onto the LPGA’s Futures Tour while I was employed by the latter. And over the course of the next few years, I had the pleasure of working with her on numerous promotional events.

One of my favorite memories of those days was from a chilly, rainy evening in Concord, New Hampshire. Mo had agreed to help with a uniquely-formatted clinic for that week’s tournament sponsors, and when I caught up to her out on the course, she was standing greenside, watching in bemusement as four men cavorted before her. I could hear the giggling from 100 yards away as I eased my golf cart up behind her group.

“What’s going on?” I sidled up and asked Mo in a whisper.

“Not much,” she answered with a conspiratorial grin. “I just taught them how to hit a flop shot, and now that they know they can actually do it…well, they’re like little kids at Christmas.”  

And with that, she flicked away the beads of rain from where they’d gathered on the bill of her cap and rounded up her charges to head for the next instructional station. As they trooped off, it was readily apparent that each of these happy sponsors was oblivious to the damp gray mist that enshrouded them. Mo Martin has that kind of effect on people.

That’s why, a couple of years later, when I played in a Futures Tour pro-am as one of the 100 events on my IGTS itinerary, I was delighted to be paired with Mo. She was a treat to be with on that occasion, and now, years later and an ocean removed, Mo delighted me once again, with an out-of-nowhere treat that brought back to mind the kinds of sports vignettes that I’ve been blessed to have witnessed.

Little did I know that this would be just the beginning.

A little Mo Martin bunker magic from Futures Tour days

A little Mo Martin bunker magic from her Futures Tour days

To be continued…

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Back To The Ballpark: A Cactus League Deja Vu

baseballleprechaunA whole lot can happen in two years. The Earth orbits the sun twice, while spinning on its own axis 730 times. Elections are held without incident in some countries, while in others, entire governments are overthrown. People are born and others are laid to rest. The only thing constant is change.

Look at me, for example. On St. Patrick’s Day in 2011, I was in Scottsdale Stadium, happily seated a few rows off of the left field foul line, watching the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants play a spring training game. In stark contrast, on St. Patrick’s Day in 2013, I was in Scottsdale Stadium, happily seated a few rows off of the right field foul line, watching the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants play a spring training game. Talk about your major metamorphoses!

They say that the first step toward overcoming a dependency is admitting that you have a problem. So here goes: I am addicted to the Cactus League. So much so that I will endure cloudless skies, 80 degree temperatures, and reasonably-priced tickets in order to watch Major League Baseball games that don’t actually count.


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