He was cooler than me. Something we both understood but never really talked about. Maybe because it was so patently obvious. He was laid back. Smart but not nerdy. Hard-working but not overbearing. Quiet and thoughtful. I was obnoxious. Loud. So unsure of myself and desperate for attention I’d do whatever it took to get it, and if that included stupidly picking fights with the biggest kid in class, so be it.
Yet Lester Pitts was always there. Sometimes playing peacemaker, a role which often included him asking whichever classmate I had egged on to have mercy on the scrawny punk with the bowl cut. Usually it worked. When it didn’t _ like say, the time in 5th or 6th grade when I made the mistake of looking down in the middle of a fight (a move I made at the request of the guy I was fighting) just in time to see a knee heading straight for my nose _ Lester pleaded with his older sister to break it up in hopes of keeping whatever remained of my face intact.
(Thanks Tonda, btw. If you hadn’t stepped in my nose would probably look like a “C”).
We grew up 100 feet from each other. A bond forged by proximity more than anything, though there’s little doubt no matter when or where we would have met, we would have been friends. I want to say it’s because of some sort of innate cosmic connection (and maybe there is one) but the reality is that pretty much everybody that ever met Lester Eugene Pitts Jr. was drawn to him. It was impossible not to be won over by his sincerity, his almost relentless good nature and his almost absurd lack of ego.
And now he’s gone, passing away on Monday less than two months after his 42nd birthday, leaving behind his wife Cathy, his daughter Ara and a hole in those that knew him, those that loved him, one that left me gasping for air.
I can’t remember the last time I saw him in person. Maybe 10 years ago. Probably more. Not that it mattered. His friendship _ one that spanned nearly four decades _ is a part of the firmament of my life, an intractable and cherished part of my childhood. I’ve known him longer than anyone not related to me by blood. We met when we were 3, when my parents bought that house on Anne Marie Circle and unleashed me into the wild.
My memories remain vivid. Of Big Wheel races (he had a green Incredible Hulk one with a bucket seat), football games and hundreds of walks home from the bus stop. Of his fear of dogs no matter how small. Of the way his eyes would well up with tears during the rare occasion when it looked like he was going to have to fight, his courage and need to stick up for himself outweighing his fear. It’s funny, not once _ not one time _ can I remember him actually using those raised fists in anger and never _ ever _ at me, which is a testament to his patience more than anything. I was so mixed up and insecure as a kid I probably would have picked a fight with my shadow if allowed.
Through the years our social circles changed. He became _ without even trying, without even changing _ one of the cool kids. And it wasn’t his clothes or his athletic prowess. It was just him. We never talked about it but there had to have been times when it was difficult growing up as one of the few black kids in an almost exclusively white neighborhood, but it hardly mattered. He was almost universally popular while I floated somewhere between dork and geek.
Our circle of friends expanded _ his more than mine _ but he never made me feel inadequate. The anxiety I normally felt (and still do feel) in certain situations evaporated when he was around. We could talk about anything. Sports. Girls. Music. He put me at ease. In high school his locker became a sanctuary in those chaotic 10 minutes between when the buses would arrive and first bell would ring. I was tractor beamed to him, sometimes using the excuse I needed to copy his homework (which he always did and I never did) when the reality was I just needed a place to dock my nerves because _ at least in my mind _ I had nowhere else to go. He never told me to get lost. Never avoided me. Never made me feel inferior (which in the stratified culture that only high school provides, I almost certainly was, at least in a social sense).
His friendship became a sort of currency. The picture at the top of this post is from 6th grade. I’d forgotten I’d written “My Friend” in the margin until my wife pointed it out. I have no idea why I did it, though I suspect it was to prove to myself that I had made friends with someone who had “made it.” (He was also voted Most Likely to Succeed that year, which means even at 11 the kids at John Hanson Middle School had at least a dose of common sense).
We went to different colleges and carved our own life paths, though we’d see each other at the bowling alley, a random restaurant or the increasingly infrequent pickup basketball games (though we were about the same height, he had an impossible _ and I mean impossible _ to block jump shot in which he would somehow throw the ball straight into the air, a parabola that would end more often than not with the ball splashing through the net).
I am terrible at maintaining friendships. I don’t call. I don’t write. I don’t text. Yet with Lester it never felt that we lost touch. It felt like we were just out living life. That we’d catch up whenever we’d get around to it. His place in my life, my heart, remains intractable.
We reconnected on Facebook several years ago and our lives moved in near lockstep. We got married around the same time. Started a family around the same time. He talked trash about his beloved Georgetown Hoyas. Or the Yankees. Or Notre Dame football. (Note: his attraction toward brand name sports entities may have been his only character flaw).
We even got sick around the same time. Me with cancer. Lester with kidney and other concerns. We used it as an opportunity to get healthy. We lost weight. We took better care of ourselves. We watched our diet. We posted the occasional note of encouragement to each other, still kind of shaking our heads about our brushes with our own mortality when we were _ almost certainly in our brains _ still those 9-year-olds playing”Invisible Football” at the bus stop.
He was due for a kidney transplant in early July, a blessing that would provide him with decades of good health and a chance to see Ara grow up. He was building a dream house that _ while much larger than the one he lived in as a kid _ would hopefully provide Ara with a chance to make the kind of friendships that last a lifetime.
And just like that, he was taken from us. The grief is crippling in a way I can’t fully explain. I’ve had close people die to me in recent years, but nothing quite like this.
Maybe it’s because I’d always taken the idea we’d catch up eventually for granted. Maybe it’s because I never really did get a chance to tell him as adults how grateful I was for his friendship as a kid, a gesture he would have done his best to brush off and downplay. Maybe it’s because we’re at the same spot in our lives. Our illnesses gave us perspective and energy.
We were always going to be friends for life. I just didn’t expect this part to end so soon.
He will be laid to rest this weekend, a notion that seems unfathomable. A portion _ a happy, cherished portion _ of my childhood will go with him.
It’s too soon. It’s not fair. It’s never going to be not fair.
Yet maybe I have it wrong. Maybe this is part of the plan. Here’s why:
My favorite story about Lester, the one that to me crystallizes both of us, is from when we were in elementary school. One day, the kids in the neighborhood decided to race bikes around the block. Down Anne Marie Circle, around Temi Drive, up Country Road to the top of the hill and around back to the circle.
I wanted to win. Badly. My Huffy with the No. 42 was in front. I want to say I won, though maybe that’s just the fog of memory. Lester, in his red BMX, was in the pack behind us. One by one we crossed the finish line. All except for Lester. One minute passed. Then two. Then five. Eventually he comes riding up the street with a smile on his face and something in his hand.
It was a $100 bill. While the rest of us were hauling ass in search of bragging rights, he kept his eyes open. Rounding a corner he saw something in the grass near the sidewalk. He bailed on the race, turned around, and went to see what it was, combing yard after yard until he found the money just lying there.
That was Lester. Always seeing the big picture. Maybe that’s what he’s doing now, getting a head start so he can smooth the path for the rest of us on the way to what’s next.
When I heard the news on Monday, my 7-year-old son Colin was across the street playing catch with his friend Michael. I could hear their laughter in the breeze. If they are lucky _ really lucky, like lottery winning kinda lucky _ maybe they will form a brotherhood that will span the decades and the distance.
A brotherhood like the one I shared with my first best friend. Thirty-nine years of having him in my life wasn’t nearly enough. Then again, 139 years wouldn’t have been enough either.
It’s tempting to end with something like this but I can’t do it. Lester would have told us to dry our tears and get the party started. So let’s.
God bless you my brother. For everything.
You’ve always been just a smidge off to the side, pushed into the background by forces beyond your control.
A husband who wasn’t much for compromise or open discussion and kept his love at arm’s length. A son you had just weeks after turning 21, a kid who for decades took your love and support for granted, consumed by what he didn’t have: be it his father’s approval, some random job or his latest crush.
Whether I earned Dad’s respect, landed the job or wooed the girl, you were always going to be there because hey, you’re Mom. And being there is what moms are supposed to do, right?
You HAD to support me. You HAD to put up with me because well, that’s part of the job description, pushed in there somewhere between cleaning up puke stains off the carpet after your only son was too lazy/scared to make it to the bathroom and sending $50 and a note after that same son loses his rent money on a riverboat casino during Spring Break in ’96.
Or so I heard.
And while all that may be true, there’s something I’ve forgotten or overlooked or just been too wrapped up in myself to recognize:
You did this all by choice.
The first person that ever Ioved me has never asked me for anything other than to be happy. There are no conditions. No stipulations. No “if/thens.” I can’t even remember the last time you were even mad at me outside of a “hey, you better get your (deleted) together because you’re better than this kind of way.” OK, well there was that party Marcene and I threw during summer vacation back in ’94, the one where I drank Zima, got hammered, watched my oldest friend break a handrail, yak all over the pool deck at buddy’s house up the street before passing out for the first (but hardly last) time in my life.
It didn’t matter that the house was actually cleaner after the party than before, not so much out of fear but because Marcie Lawrence is so damn reasonable, so spectacularly accommodating, so unwaveringly supportive of her children we figured if the house was fine, we were fine.
In this case ummm, no. Sure, I might have been a month away from turning 20, old enough to fight for my country but not too old to escape seven days of house arrest.
The irony is that two decades later, I still give you hell about it and not the other way around. Why? Because it was one of the few times _ ever _ that you played the role of bad cop.
For most of my childhood you were my protector, the one who repeatedly saved me from Dad’s considerable wrath, the one who kissed my cuts and scrapes, the one who found any reason _ even when I couldn’t _ to cling to your fervent belief that I wouldn’t Screw It Up.
I love to tell people the story of how I went walkabout during one of Marcene’s countless gymnastics practices as a kid, traipsing around the outside of the industrial park the gym was stashed as if it was NBD even though I couldn’t have been more than 7-8 at the time. When we got home, you grabbed me by my hair just above each of my ears and lifted me off the ground for a handful of seconds. There may have been a wooden spoon involved. You blush when we talk about it, embarrassed. That’s typical you: I do something wrong and you apologize.
The truth is, Mom, I’m sorry.
Sorry that I spent most of the first 25 years (or maybe 35, but who’s counting) of my life taking your thoughts, your feelings, your needs into consideration only after I’d exhausted all other opportunities. (Prime example: when you landed two tickets to a Redskins/Eagles game back in ’98 and I immediately asked my Eagles-loving roommate to go and not you).
Sorry for the way I would get ticked when Bruce would call us “twins.” Looking back, I should have taken it as a compliment. To this day you’ve always looked younger than you are (you’re like 47 now, right?) and when I look in the mirror, I see a little more of you each day. And for that I’m grateful (though part of that may have to do with the fact I’m simply relieved I didn’t get stuck with Dad’s nose).
Sorry for making you the butt of so many jokes, the ones you laughed at even as you probably wondered when I would either shut the hell up or turn my sarcasm elsewhere. (Though in a weird way, I think you kind of enjoyed the attention, another trait which I get from you).
Sorry for setting you up with an ex-con that one time. I swear I just wanted to put a smile on your face (besides, the guy could tell a joke). Then again, if you don’t date him, maybe you don’t meet Big Boy, someone who _ for all his quirks _ loves and appreciates you for the gift that you are (in his own unique way of course).
Sorry for not appreciating the sacrifices you made for me and Marcene. I can’t imagine becoming a parent so young and being able (or willing, if I’m being honest) to raise two kids and to do it so well, so unfailingly, so steadily. I sometimes wonder what you wanted to be, the dreams you had before I came along and forced you to scuttle your plans and learn how to be a mom on the fly. Yet you’ve never made me feel, not for a second, as if I was a burden, as if I was something that tripped you up and prevented you from doing something else with your life. There’s no chance _ no chance _ I would have handled it the same way, with the same grace, honesty, sincerity or maturity.
I’m sure 18-year-old Marcie Samuel didn’t plan on having two kids before her 24th birthday then working at a desk in some random office for the next 35 years, making the same maddening commute through traffic into D.C. to sit at a desk to put a roof over her children’s heads and make damn sure they had enough money for college.
It would be easy to look back at my childhood and label you the pushover, the one we went to when Dad wouldn’t let us have our way. That’s not entirely true. You were also the toughest, the one most willing to hang in there. You spent nearly two decades in a marriage where the pieces didn’t fit quite right no matter how much you changed, how much you tried. And even as you mourned the relationship’s ending you vowed to become stronger and more confident.
On top of all of that, maybe the most important gift you gave me as an adult was freedom. Not once, not one time can I remember you telling me what to do or how to do it. I’ll admit, there were times I should have asked more specifically for your guidance, demanded you nudge me (or drag me) in the right direction. But that’s not your way.
The only thing you’ve ever wanted for either myself or Marcene is to be happy. That’s it. That’s not a long list. That’s the best list.
And for too long I’ve fixated on what I didn’t get from Dad (at least verbally or with any real consistency) rather than be appreciative of all the things I’ve received from you, the same things I am trying to do for Colin and Catherine, two kids who love their GMa something fierce and not just because your house has the best popsicles (though it helps).
For God’s sake, you spent years printing out EVERY SINGLE STORY I’ve written. Binders and binders of my life’s work, work that I do (and love) because of your encouragement, your enthusiasm and _ this is a big one too _ the fact I am one of the few graduates who didn’t have to pay a dime for college.
Oh, about that. Sorry I spent the first three years at WVU screwing around (and running up that $700 phone bill that one semester, the one you found about as we were packing up to head home for the summer. Are we even on that by the way?)
It’s funny though. When I sit down to write a story, to this day one of the first thoughts that goes through my head before I start is “will mom understand it?”
Why? Because I want you to be proud of me. Because I want you to know that _ after all the crap I put you through _ that in the end, at the very end, I did not Screw It Up, no matter how hard I tried.
Why? Because you didn’t Screw It Up. I am who I am today because of the example you set, the love you gave (and still give) the million other unnamed, unseen things you did, the things I may never truly appreciate until I do them as a parent myself.
With a little luck, maybe I’ll be half as good a dad one day as you are a mom. Maybe.
Happy Mother’s Day Suck-O. You are The Glue that holds this family together. Not pushed off to the side but in the center. See:
Never forget it. Ever.
Willie (and Marcene too)
P.S. I post videos at the ends of these things. I was gonna put up “Weekend In New England” by Barry Manilow since I used to sing this with you when I was 3, but listening to the lyrics now …. ummm, that’s creepy.
So instead, settle for this one instead.
For years I have been obsessed with him. His youth. His 32-inch waist. The gorgeous lemon of a black pick-up truck he could not afford but bought anyway, the downpayment made by a credit card with an interest rate that nearly matched his age. His hairline. His twentysomethingness. The way the world was laid out in front of him (or at least appeared to be).
I close my eyes and see the distinct jawline. The easy tan that comes when you’re unmarried, you live in south Florida and your biggest concern on a given day is which beach your post-work (and pre-Happy Hour) run will be.
The image I have ingrained of the 26-year-old Will Graves is a photograph I never purchased (I was too cheap) during a 10K in Naples, Florida. I am in the best shape of my life, having used the no longer legal boost of ephedra to drop 30 pounds in six months. I’m wearing a long-sleeved white running shirt, black shorts, sunglasses and have somehow made running look easy.
It was a fleeting moment. A snapshot that seemed to perfectly encapsulate — well, until they invented social media (and blogs!) — my own insipid vapidity. And yet I still see him out there on the road, when I’m slogging through the miles that once came so easy. I’m angry with him for his aimlessness, his ego-centrism and his absolute inability to give a damn about anything not directly in front of his face.
Hello me, hold this while the 41-year-old version of yourself kicks your ass and escorts you out. It’s time for you to go.
For the better part of 15 years I have been chasing that image for reasons I can’t quite explain. My whole childhood I was fixated on being “cool” even though I never quite got there. Too short. Too skinny. Too nerdy. Too obnoxious. Too loud. Too insecure. Too …. something.
My friends put up with it. The people I tried so desperately to impress largely ignored it. Yet the drive to reach some far-off, totally subjective goal never wavered. It only gained momentum as I “grew up.” And it had its merits. I found out I was a pretty fun drunk. I found out I could occasionally get pretty girls to talk to me (no, really). I found I was pretty comfortable at a keyboard telling other people’s stories (and occasionally my own).
There were downsides too. I got busted for DUI when I was 27 (later dropped to reckless driving). I pretty much betrayed (repeatedly) any woman who trusted me. I did little to develop any sort of long-lasting friendships because hell, I was on the way up baby and you, well, you weren’t. I had only a vague awareness of self-respect, my moral compass’ default setting placed somewhere between “whatever is expedient” and “oblivious.”
God, what a flipping tool.
And yet, for too long I’ve let the pursuit of being that clueless kid define me. I’ve found myself apologizing to him for letting myself get out of shape in my mid-30s. For transforming 7-minute miles into 9-minute miles. For turning 155 pounds into 190. For trading the quest to Become The World’s Best Writer Of All Things At All Times Just Ask Me And I’ll Tell You for steady, productive and responsible work with the World’s Largest News Organization. For switching irresponsibility for responsibility.
Enough. E … flipping … nuff.
The truth is, my DadBod kind of rocks. It’s solid. It’s real and best of all easy to maintain. My job allows me to pick the most important thing going on in my section of the world on a given day and go write it the way I want (well, within reason). I have two unbelievably brilliant children, a 4-year-old daughter who squeezes me so sincerely every day it’s all I can do to keep from crying. I have a 6-year-old son who is already picking NCAA brackets with his dad and shouted “Yes!” when I told him me and mommy were going to coach his T-ball team.
Mostly though, I have Ellie. Amazingly. Confoundingly. Still. From the day she walked into the newsroom in 2001, the intern with the dimpled smile and a self-possession I still envy (she knows who she is, always has), she has always been the best thing about me, the best thing for me even though I have tried — with borderline catastrophic consequences — to convince myself otherwise.
We’ll be married 11 years this summer. I like to make public jokes every June on our anniversary “if you had X years in the pool, sorry, you lost” yet in the beginning if you’d asked me I’m not sure I would have pegged us to make it this long either.
Actually “us” isn’t fair. I mean “me.” I struggled to see a long-term future, because that’s not simply how I worked. I wrote in the column where I proposed that my biggest concern was hoping I could make next month’s car insurance payment while she worried about where we would be in 10 years. It came off as funny. It also happened to be true. Idiotic, but true.
I have tested her in ways that I would not wish on my worst enemy and yet she has stuck around, sometimes against her better judgment. Our marriage is not perfect, but it’s tough as hell. And as we begin our second decade together, it’s stronger than ever because of her patience, her loyalty and the way she keeps challenging me to be a better version of myself. I’m trying to be more mindful of doing the same for her.
Two years ago this week I began treatment for cancer. She sat there during the early days and did her work quietly (and off the clock) while I let the drugs drip into my arm. She spent most of that spring and summer as Mom and Dad while I laid on the couch popping meds and watching “Mad Men.” I’m healthy now. The cancer is under control. There’s no reason I can’t live indefinitely, though in some strange way it’s helped make me a better person, a little smoother around the edges, a little more sincere.
Actually, that wasn’t the cancer. That was Ellie. And she deserves the husband and father I am now, not the 26-year-old who thought he was Hot Bleep because he had a truck, a column and all of his hair.
So guess what kid? You’re gone. Take your tan, your flat stomach and your whatever is within arm’s reach worldview and get the hell out of here. Your time is up.
As the great American poet Jay-Z once said, “I got the hottest chick in the game wearing my chain.”
She doesn’t want me to be cool. She doesn’t want me to be famous. She just wants me to be me (though she’s probably prefer a version hat doesn’t make old man sounds so much, but hey, compromise is part of marriage, right?)
So Guess what kid? I win. You don’t. Thank God.
He bounds in every morning, obsessed with the night before. The winners. The losers. Who moved into first place. Who moved into last.
What follows is a 6-year-old’s version of “SportsCenter.”
“Hey Doddy, guess wot? Hey Doddy, guess wot?” Within minutes he’s ripped through everything from how Steph Curry and the Warriors are doing to who’s up to fourth in the NHL’s Central Division. (Important note: his sportswriter father might not be able name all the teams in the Central Division, let alone know who is what place at any given moment).
He is, in just about every way, a 4-foot version of myself. Will Graves 2.0. Precocious. Energetic. A bit obnoxious (which you can get away with when you’re in first grade, not so much when you’re 41). A little sweeter than his old man (his mother’s influence thank God) but with a bite that will sometimes surprise you. (Note to any 6-year-old’s reading this, the phrase “Mommy Days stink” should never exit your lips, trust me).
He is, even more so than I was at his age, obsessed with sports. We didn’t push it on him. It just sort of happened. He figured out pretty early daddy went to the games and talked to the players. But as the preoccupations of his young childhood faded (see you later “Thomas & Friends,” don’t miss you a lick weird, bald-headed “Caillou,” are we really past the “Cars” phase already? Sigh.) a new one emerged.
Baseball. Football. Basketball. Hockey. Soccer (true story: he dropped an MLS reference on a buddy a couple of weeks ago). He loves analyzing the stats of his favorite players (and some random ones too). I’ve written a series of very basic children’s sports books and occasionally I’ll find him laying on his bed flipping from one page to the next. “Hey Doddy, guess who was a good team? The 2013 Miami Heat. Hey Doddy, guess who won Super Bowl X-V-I-I?” He knows the answers, packing them somewhere in his brain between what he wants for dinner (usually tacos) and whether or not he has gym that day (translation: Doddy will let him wear sweat pants if he does).
It is fascinating to watch him jump around while watching NBA highlights, for him to constantly provide updates that happen to scroll across the bottom, to reflexively flip to one of the ESPNs in search of a game, ANY game (we’ve watched softball and cricket and Monster Truck racing together).
He is a fan. And there is a purity in his fandom that provides with me a daily reminder on why I love my job, absurd as it occasionally may be. He doesn’t care about salaries or free agency. He’s never known a Pittsburgh Pirates team with a losing record or the Pittsburgh Steelers as Super Bowl champions. His shirt drawer is filled with hoodies and T-shirts of his favorite teams and his favorite players. Guys I know. Guys I cover. Guys I like. Guys I don’t. Guys who don’t like me.
I often think about how much of my job to share with him. Then I think back to what I knew about the men I idolized when I was his age, lower-case gods who didn’t have to deal with the 24/7 news cycle or social media, developments that kept my opinion of them restricted largely to how they did on the field. It wasn’t colored by their Twitter feeds or their Facebook posts or some Vine that got sent to Deadspin or TMZ, things I am thankful for. Things I will try to shield him from, though reality is only one revelation from a blabbermouth 4th-grader on the bus away.
His interest has less to do with the players winning — though he has already become uncomfortably obsessed with results (example: when we turn on some random game, he automatically starts backing whichever team happens to be up) — than the actual GAMES they are playing. Games he can play. With his friends. With his father. With himself.
His joy is evident. His smile unmissable. The way he cocks back his right arm to throw a pretty damn good spiral for a kid his age. The intent look on his face every time he grabs a bat and eyes the ball on the tee. The sound of his voice doing play-by-play during the imaginary showdowns in his head, the ones that make me feel 12 again, when I threw myself onto the ground in our backyard to score the clinching touchdown (to the puzzlement of my parents and the neighbors) or pulled up to hit the winning jumper at the buzzer over and over and over again.
Yet back then I never worried about the risks. You played with your buddies and you got knocked around. I have no doubt my first concussion came when I was maybe 8-9 and playing in the street, my head bouncing off the asphalt when another kid tried to two-hand touch me into oblivion. I remember seeing stars, breaking down in tears and riding my bike home in a daze. The next one almost certainly came during my one year playing organized football, when _ as a 58-pound left tackle in a 75-pound league _ I was bowled over on a running play and woke up looking at the moon. There was the time in high school when I was clotheslined (I can still see Chris W in midair, his right arm extended). I laid on the ground for several seconds (no tears, thankfully) and kept playing. Then there was the street hockey game where the ball popped up in front of my face and the opponent in front of me grabbed his stick like a bat, swung and missed the ball … but not the front of my goalie cage.
I never went to the doctor. I never told my parents. I didn’t even really think about it once the headaches went away. It was part of the game.
I’ve heard that phrase over and over again in my professional life from athletes (not just football players) coming back from injury, concussions or otherwise. It’s a cliche I try to keep out of my copy, but one I have some sense of fealty to because, hell, I always figured it was.
But it’s one thing when it’s your head, your health, your pain. It’s another when it’s your child’s. I am not a helicopter parent (the morning routine in our house after my wife leaves every morning could best be described as polite anarchy) but I ask our kids “Are you OK?” so much it comes off as a nervous tic (and maybe it is).
Our son’s second Little League season awaits. He has more than a token interest in basketball (our Nerf games in his room are suitably epic) and his affinity for football (at least throwing it and catching it) is growing by the day. My wife and I have talked about what to do when he asks to play Big Boy Tackle Football.
Thankfully for now we don’t have to worry about giving him a serious answer. For now, simple games of catch _ the ones that end with a “Gronk Spike” _ are enough. Maybe by the time he’s big enough (at 48 pounds he’s still more Pop Tart material than Pop Warner material) the medical community will have some sort of consensus on how to deal with head injuries.
The science is evolving, but hardly fast enough to provide anything resembling consenus. Some doctors feel concussions are complex but treatable and apparently some of the guys they take care of agree:
Treatable, maybe, but treatable is far different than avoidable.
And that’s the part where the journalist in me and the dad in me can’t seem to agree on well, a lot of things.
The NFL acknowledged there was a 58 percent increase in reported concussions this season even as the league has tried to take steps to eradicate the kind of play that leads to them in the first place.
You know, plays like this (which Deadspin perfectly described as an “assassination attempt“) against Pittsburgh wide receiver Antonio Brown (and the reason the two-time All-Pro is in the above picture in the first place) in playoffs a few weeks ago:
The league ended up suspending Burfict for the first three games of next season, not so much for this one individual shot as much as his rapidly growing resume of hyper-aggressive plays make it appear he’s playing “whack a mole” with someone else’s life.
These hits _ for decades legal (google: Jack Tatum, Sammy White and Super Bowl XI if you need proof) _ are now either “a part of the game” or “criminal” depending on which side of the Ohio/Pennsylvania border you happen to live on. An hour before Burfict drilled Brown, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was neither fined or flagged for this:
The sportswriter #HotTake (note: I am decidedly anti-hot take) is that there is a war on football. Not exactly. Ray Rice knocked his fiance out, and people still watched. The drumbeat of former players concerned about the long-term health effects of treating their bodies (and particularly their heads) like well-muscled but hardly invincible pinballs for years is growing louder. And still 62.9 million people clicked to the final minutes of the AFC Championship game.
There is no war, at least not one you can see at the professional level. The ratings have rarely been better. The money never more astronomical. The stardom of the league’s bold-faced names never more widespread.
The real battle, the one whose ripple effects won’t be felt maybe for decades, is happening at dinner tables across the U.S. between parents of their own little 6-year-old Antonio Brown wannabes, the ones who watch the games on TV, follow their heroes on Twitter, hear the roars, see the commercials and the highlights and dream of pulling a jersey over their own heads one day, running out of the tunnel and “Dabbing” to his heart’s content.
For now I can keep my son satisfied with a Nerf ball and our own imaginary 2-minute drills, the one where we have to go from our mailbox to the neighbor’s before the clock hits zero to win the game.
Yet those days are dwindling. He’s going to start asking more frequently, more seriously, if he can put on pads and play for real.
And I will try to reconcile the writer who makes a living chronicling a league and a sport celebrated in no small part for its brutality with the parent who isn’t sure he wants to send his small but rapidly growing firstborn into harm’s way.
The writer in me believes the dangers of football (or any contact sport) are self-evident, just like smoking. Watch a game for 10 minutes and you know what you’re getting into. Firefighters will go to every elementary school in the country this year, hand out plastic red helmets and teach kids to “Stop, Drop and Roll” to avoid smoke in case of fire. How anyone thought inhaling a slightly filtered version of that same smoke into their lungs intentionally was a good idea, I’ll never understand.
While I sympathize with players and families dealing with CTE, I can’t ever remember a time when one NFL player _ or any player for that matter _ say he was forced to play against his will.
I freely admit that viewpoint is cynical with hints of hypocrisy and hindsight elitism. And yet I can’t shake it. And I understand that there’s no guarantee he’ll suffer any sort of long-term effects from playing football as opposed to anything else.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if his dreams are allowed to come at the expense of my wife and I’s unspoken terror.
A coach I once covered likened every play to a car accident. When I asked him why he felt it necessary to have one running back carry the ball on 19 straight plays (or “19 straight car accidents” as I called it) he flushed and said he was simply trying to get the game over as quickly as possible.
Look, there’s a Senior Golf Tour. Gyms across the country are filled with guys playing basketball into their 60s and beyond. The same goes for tennis and soccer (and even hockey) and on and on and on.
Not in football, which is typically relegated to once a year Turkey Bowls. Why? Because it hurts like hell. Because it’s dangerous. Because the risks of what can happen when the ball is snapped are clear and hardly worth the pain when there aren’t millions of dollars on the line.
Yet my son doesn’t know that. He just wants to watch the game. He wants to know the score. He wants to pretend to be the guys his father spends so much time writing about. He wants to join them on the field.
And each day that goes by brings us closer to the day when his mother and I will have to give him a real answer.
Right now, we have no idea what it’s going to be. And we’re not the only ones.
Most Sundays, I still want to cry. Most Sundays, I still do. Sometimes a little. Sometimes more than a little.
I’d love to tell you this has come from sort of internal epiphany, that I’ve reached some level of enlightenment on whatever kind of spiritual quest I’m on, one that I haven’t defined and one that — if I’m being honest — I kind of don’t want to.
It started, as most things do for me these days, with a challenge from my wife. For years she heard me talk about this somewhat seemingly random college phase where I was saved, joined a church, a ministry and even served as a youth group leader. I led prayer groups, sang in the band and went door to door in dormitories with a Bible in hand.
As I’ve written about before my intentions at the time were mixed. I was motivated as much by social awkwardness as anything else. And just as suddenly _ at about the same time I joined the student newspaper and found my professional calling (and as a True Believer in the power of the written word, a spiritual one too) _ the urge vanished.
I’ve spent the better part of two decades locking that period in a box save for occasionally bringing it up, mainly to get some perverse sense of enjoyment out of the surprised look on the face of those I tell, people who know me only the cynical, perpetually foul-mouthed smart ass persona that I have carefully (well, maybe not so carefully) cultivated.
Every year the pangs of reconnecting — or maybe connecting on a truly sincere level for the first time — came around Christmas. And every year I’d talk about it, the holidays would pass and I would do nothing, the urge vanishing as quickly as M&Ms in the hands of my two children.
Then last winter my wife told me to put my faith where my fingers were. We took online tests to see what we believe _her a Catholic disaffected by the way the church handled (or didn’t as it turns out) serial child abuse, me a nondenominational wanderer _ what we don’t and where we might find a compromise.
I wanted to shop around. She didn’t. There are a handful of churches in our neighborhood but we opted for a Methodist church a little up the road.
We shuffled into a pew about halfway up the aisle. The kids polite but anxious. My wife calm. Me wondering battling the doubts that have prevented me from putting one foot in front of the other _ really, one knee next to the other in prayer _ for years.
I can’t tell you what Lynn, the church’s remarkably talented pianist, played. All I know is the emotional wave that accompanied it staggered me. The tears came slowly then all at once.
This is the part where we talk about Jesus and religion and big Gods and little ones. I know how that tends to go over. Hell, when I’m interviewing an athlete and he starts talking about his faith, my instinctive reaction is to roll my eyes, hit pause or walk away. Who cares what God thinks about your game? Tell me more about that play in the third quarter that I’m going to forget by Tuesday.
I lived with a Muslim for several months in college. He was in his early 30s, a graduate student from Saudi Arabia getting his masters in engineering. He washed his hands and feet five times a day, prayed toward the east and had a wife and family who would call once or twice a week. He would talk to them on speaker phone. I have no idea what his wife was saying, but I can remember the sound of the chaos that comes from having small children filling in the background as she spoke, a noise that doesn’t sound that unlike my house on a random Tuesday morning.
This was the mid-90s, before the Towers came crashing, before Watch Lists and Ted Cruz. I found him fascinating but I didn’t fear him. The respect was mutual. Muhammad gave me a Koran. I let him look at my Bible. We would talk about the differences (and more shockingly, the similarities) between the two books.
He was a good guy. A decent guy. I repaid that decency by neglecting to pay the phone bill, at one point taking his share and using it to buy concert tickets. (Did I mention I
was am kind of a tool?)
We didn’t keep in touch after that semester. Yet whenever I watch the news or read stories or Facebook screeds about Muslims or Islam, I think about Muhammad. I wonder how his life is. I wonder if his house still sounds like that.
The inherent skeptic in me makes it hard for me to imagine a God (feel free to use whatever name you prefer) who would exclude large swaths of people, of a God that would choose one ethnicity over another. Of a God that would encourage slaughter in the name of faith, something that your 10th grade history teacher tells you has happened just as much in Jesus’ name as in Allah’s.
And while all that is true, there’s a deeper level of conflict here. I hate labels. It’s one of the reasons I’m impossible to shop for. One of my biggest fears is looking back at a picture 20 years from now and seeing the logo of some clothing company (save for Nike, who I will ride or die with forever) and feeling so … dated. So … old. So … wrong.
My mistake for years has been wanting the same thing out of my religion. My mistake was thinking that my faith and God’s word are both static. They’re not. They’re living. They’re evolving. They’re morphing.
AND THEY ARE THERE. ALWAYS THERE. WAITING. PATIENTLY.
And maybe that’s what caused the tears to fall that first Sunday back. Maybe it was the comfort of the organ, the familiar smell of the pews’ upholstery. I have no idea if God was talking to me. I don’t trust myself enough to think I can divine whatever message he (or She, because let’s be real here, we have no idea) might be sending.
But I know that I felt … something. The best way I can describe it is silent grace, some sort of reassurance things can be different, that I can be different.
One weekend turned into three turned into us becoming members by the end of the spring, fueled as much by my wife’s level of commitment and determination and our kids’ level of comfort as the tears on my cheeks.
I’d love to tell you I’ve thrown myself into the Bible. I haven’t. The best I can do is immediately texting myself verses that stand out, like Matthew Chapters 5-7, which basically is Jesus asking his disciples what they are setting as the foundation of their lives? How will they weather the storms that will come? And … this is important for egomaniacs like myself … the dangers of getting so focused on what you are getting that you never realize what you have been given.
And I have been given far more than most, something that’s impossible to judge by my Twitter feed, which is a mixture of sarcasm, shoutouts to Journalism Purists (we still exist) and taking the piss out of anybody who gets a little too full of themselves (something that in the grand scheme just makes me look petty, which is probably the truth).
It’s funny how so much of what the New Testament and what Jesus talks about can be boiled down to this: Don’t be a jackass.
That is a sentiment that is universal. One I can get behind. One I can believe in.
It’s funny how the hesitancy I felt going back to church that first time has been replaced by an expectancy. After much dragging of my feet, I joined the choir. I’m the youngest member (save for the music director’s daughter) by at least a decade. My best buddy in there is an 81-year-old man named Ralph whose assuredness in his gentle faith is as staggering as it is compassionate.
I didn’t join to be the star. To be the new guy. (And while I could point out I made the Tri-County chorus in 1991 …. ss anybody who has karaoked with me knows, I make up for in enthusiasm what I lack in talent). I did it be a part of something. Not to stand out but to blend in. To feel part of something larger than myself. And in those moments when we stand as one, the grace I’ve been chasing for so many years appears before me. I tentatively drink it in, baby steps in a journey I hope never ends.
I am pound sign blessed, whether I want to admit it or not. Heck, I hope we all are.
Mondays and Wednesdays were the worst. They were hell. Dragging yourself out of bed before sunrise was even a rumor. Trudging onto the track at Estero High in virtual darkness, where the Gatorade you slammed on your way did little to ease the knot in your stomach about what awaited you once he signaled it was time to get started.
Jeff Sommer called it “Speed Work.” Pure agony would have been more accurate. A series of 100s, 400s and 800s through the early morning soup at a school basically built on the edge of a swamp. Over and over and over again. Down and back. Down and back. Sommer’s voice a nonstop full-throated rasp _ the one that betrayed his West Virginia twang no matter how long he lived in Southwest Florida _ that doubled as a GPS for your soul.
And now suddenly, tragically it’s gone. His death last weekend at 58 just minutes after the Estero High girls 4×800 team won a state title leaves a hole that will be impossible to fill, perhaps because what he did and who he was seems itself impossible.
Running is a series of eternal battles. Between your quads and your mind, your hamstrings and your heart, your want and your will. It’s not that putting one foot in front of the other as fast as you can for as long as you can is difficult. It’s just that stopping is so easy.
Sommer understood the struggle. He embraced it. And for 28 years his passion served as the tie-breaking vote in your head all those mornings when you didn’t feel like going. When you wanted to hit snooze. When you wanted to tell him to find the highest point in the bleachers at Wildcat Stadium and take a head-first dive off it.
Only you didn’t. You couldn’t. Because he believed. He always believed. It didn’t matter if you had talent or not. Lord knows he didn’t attract the best athletes all those years even as his program littered the Estero High gym with state championship banner after state championship banner.
Cross country is often for the leftovers, the kids too skinny for football, too unrefined for soccer, too impatient for golf. And so he’d scour the halls recruiting, looking for kids who were searching for a place of their own. He never said no. Fat. Skinny. Fast. Slow. If you were interested in testing yourself, he was interested in you.
The club was his idea. He didn’t want cross-country to serve as a hobby that happened from August through November before you moved on to whatever came next. He wasn’t engineered that way. Running was no more a hobby to Sommer than breathing. He didn’t want you to commit, he wanted you to Commit _ capital C.
Dedication. Desire. Discipline. The “3Ds.” It wasn’t a club so much as a calling. A way of life for those _ not just the kids on the team at Estero but their parents, friends and family _ brave enough or stubborn enough to handle it. To handle him.
Maybe you arrived with all three of the Ds stashed away somewhere. You probably didn’t. He didn’t care. He would provide the bridge to them _ the tenets of his life _ if you provided the trust that he knew what he was doing.
He wasn’t for everybody. He could be too much. He cursed more than he should have. There were times when the fire that burned so deeply within could singe those closest to him. It could seem like he wasn’t so much as man as an experience. He didn’t coach his teams as much as he lived through them.
Every practice. Every stride. Every morning. Every meet. Six days a week, 12 months a year he set the tone and for a quarter century it never wavered. Not during those unrelenting speed drills. Not during those long Sunday morning runs. Not on the seemingly endless summits of the bridge to Fort Myers Beach, the closest thing that passed to a hill for 200 miles in any direction. Not when a heart attack at 42 nearly killed him. Not when the results would ebb and flow. Not during the first workout of the season or the state meet..
He demanded respect, but he didn’t take the process for granted. Most mornings he would be out there right alongside you, churning out mile after mile in the thick heavy blanket of Southwest Florida air. His own running form _ his face contorted in pain, his thick arms and legs churning rather than elegantly gliding, the hat over his balding head drenched as he fought the perfectionist within _ was a fitting symbol of the bowling ball optimism he brought to each day.
He tried to slow down once. He gained 30 pounds after doctors slit him open and put a stent in his chest, his running and his arteries no match for genetics and a diet heavy on pizza and Mountain Dew. The sabbatical ended quickly. It wasn’t long before he was hitting the road twice a day, once with the team and another in the scorching midday heat during his lunch break.
So what if the doctors told him he was at risk? Better to push your body to the limit doing something that you love _ something that defines you _ than scoot around on a golf cart like some fat old man while you bark orders.
When it came to the concept of family, blood was immaterial. Sweat is what mattered. If you lined up next to him, if you gave him the freedom to mold you, he was yours forever. A father figure to those who grew up without one. A best friend for the friendless. A protector in times of grief. A giver who never once sought credit. It didn’t matter what it was: shoes, food, advice, a ride. The answer was yes. It was always yes.
There were fights, sure. Arguments. He was stubborn and bull-headed. His eyes fixated on the stopwatch during practices, marking the time as you lunged for the finish line. The mistake the newcomers always made was thinking it was about the clock. It was never about the clock. It was about you. He had an innate sense of effort. And if yours dipped for a yard, a second, a footstep, he would let you know, often in a way that you didn’t like.
And yet you kept coming back. You couldn’t stay away. Because you started hearing his voice in your head. The one that screamed “DIG” or “PUSH” with the same passion and at the same volume no matter if you were the first Wildcat heading to the finish line or the last.
That’s the way it was in those final moments. His girls pulling away to victory. His face likely a still undiscovered shade of red and purple, joy bursting through his veins as he watched them break through whatever artificial barriers they had set in their own minds on their potential.
There is comfort for those that knew him that this is how he left us. And as heartbreaking as it is, this is how it was always going to end. It came far too soon and yet, if given the choice it’s hard to imagine him picking any other way.
It speaks to his effect on people that his passing has produced such an outpouring. Of grief. Of sadness. Of shock. The tears, in reality, are for us. Jeff Sommer was a gift. Scratch that. He is a gift. The love he provided so selflessly for so many years will carry on through his children, his grandchildren and the school and running club that was his lifeblood.
The Estero High cross-country team practiced early Sunday, just hours after his passing. They walked arm in arm, seeking comfort at a time of unspeakable pain. And yet they kept moving forward, the memory of a man known to so many as Coach _ there’s really no need for last names when it came to him _ providing one more parting lesson.
Keep going. No matter what. Keep going.
Push. Dig. Run.