The Player

Colin batting

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:

AB concussion

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:

shazier

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.

Cam

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.

A Life in 3D

Photo courtesy Naples Daily News

Photo courtesy Naples Daily News

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.

3D shirt

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.

Live.