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.

Balance

Photo by the AP's Jim Mahoney

Photo by the AP’s Jim Mahoney

He was always eating. Always.

Usually some kind of salad. Maybe every once in a while a sandwich. Jason Worilds did not miss a meal. He couldn’t afford to. You come into the NFL at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds _ undersized in the irrational way that only football players are considered undersized _ and being tethered to the training table is a necessary job requirement that becomes ingrained long after it outlives its usefulness.

Manners counted too. At least to Worilds. Whenever you’d make your way over to his stall in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room, he’d finish chewing whatever he was working on, bashfully wipe his mouth and apologize before giving you a few minutes to chat. He wouldn’t say much, it just wasn’t his way. Or maybe it’s because he just didn’t want to talk about football.

It didn’t matter anyway. Whatever polite and politically correct statement came out of Worilds mouth were largely unnecessary. Starting last summer, the narrative was in place. Journalism by watercolors. Worilds was entering his fifth season with the Steelers. He’d signed a one-year contract that paid him $9.75 million. Only four months of steady play separated the self-effacing kid that grew up in northern New Jersey from financial security for life _ his and the generations to follow.

It’s always about the money right? That’s what we’re taught. That’s what we’re obsessed with, who is spending what in a never-ending arms race to evaluate self-worth. Worilds just happened to do it in a job that made him a multimillionaire.

He did what every employee is instructed to do whether your employer is the local bakery, the high school down the street or the ATMs disguised as NFL franchises: he maximized his earning potential.

It made him richer than he ever imagined. This is the same kid who eschewed a limo to his senior prom _ he took his mom, by the way _ just because it wasn’t his style. He took it because it was offered. It’s not that he asked for it, necessarily, but that’s what the rules _ rules he didn’t come up with _ determined the going rate was for linebackers with his unique skill set. The deal raised his profile and raised the stakes too. Worilds entered training camp last summer on the cusp of the kind of small ‘s’ stardom (at least locally) reserved for those who wear black and gold and make a habit of burrowing opposing quarterbacks into the green sandbox disguised as the turf at Heinz Field.

James Harrison. Greg Lloyd. Joey Porter. Kevin Greene. Worilds was on the brink of joining them. He and linebackers coach Keith Butler talked at length during training camp last summer about how pivotal 2014 would be in not just shaping Worilds’ football career, but his entire world.

“I think for him, he said ‘Well, Coach money’s not important,” Butler said last summer.

It sounded like the right thing to say, even if players _ check that, employees _ in every walk of life say the same thing every day, unsuccessfully trying to squeeze a little sincerity into their triteness. We are programmed to make it about the zeroes on our paychecks. It’s how we keep score, the running tally always at the ready just in case you thought about stepping out of your place in line.

Only Worilds was not kidding. Not by a longshot. A season came and went. He played well if not spectacularly. His 7.5 sacks led the Steelers even though his coaches asked him to drop back more and attack the quarterback less to help a defense that played without its once considerable sense of menace.

Worilds said repeatedly _ politely of course _ throughout the year he’d proven he was a productive NFL player worthy of a long-term deal somewhere, be it Pittsburgh or some place else. The Steelers declined to hit him with a franchise tag _ which would have made him one of the highest-paid players at his position in the league _ but it hardly made a difference.

When you’re talking about making $11 million or “only” the reported $7-8 million a year Worilds figured to get as a free agent, either way you’re still just talking about an awful lot of damn cash for a guy whose mother worked multiple nursing jobs just to help the family get by.

Worilds’ teammates kept an eye on him. He sat a couple of spots over from Troy Polamalu and James Harrison in the Steelers locker room, franchise icons who won multiple championships but entered the twilight of their careers dealing with their own diminishing skills and murky medical future as the miles and the hits and the grind of 20-plus years treating their bodies a 3% body fat projectile missiles piled up.

As 2014 wore on, Worilds grew only more introverted. His answers blander. His sentences shorter. There is little doubt he cared about the season, cared about the guys next to him. Outside of that, who really knows?

“He’s always been a quiet guy,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “And when you’re a quiet guy, people can’t figure you out. That’s when people just get to writing.”

It’s what we do. We ask questions, get quotes, try to provide context and perspective. We are emissaries between the players and the thousands in the stands and millions on TV who have turned a children’s game into high commerce. We try to humanize them, strip away the very real wall that exists between Them and Us and find common ground.

Yet in most cases we don’t really know them, not really. The majority of our interactions are no more intimate than having a friendly chat with somebody in an elevator or a hallway.

Close personal relationships are difficult to establish let alone maintain. There’s not enough time, not enough access and in most cases not enough give a damn on either side. The players are almost to a man professional and courteous but hardly forthcoming. We are always in search of the next nugget, the next incremental development, the next Meme-worthy moment to share on Twitter or our blogs/Facebook pages whatever.

It’s a business exchange and a good one. They get paid handsomely to play. We get paid (not nearly as handsomely in most cases) to watch. We try to wring meaning from symbolic moments on the field or small conversations off it.

In the end though, they only let us know as much as they want to let us know. If we knew them, really knew them, then maybe we wouldn’t be surprised when somebody like Worilds walks away from a something that seems impossible to resist.

Hours into free agency on Tuesday, right at the moment we assumed he’d spent years pointing toward, that precious time when a player truly controls his own destiny, Worilds grabbed hold of it in a way few imagined. He retired.

No leaking through sources. No posturing. Three tweets and then poof. Gone. Done at 27. Leaving easily $10 million in guaranteed money on the table for someone else to fight over (and there will be no shortage of candidates).

It’s the why that is tripping us up.

He didn’t do it to be a movie star, as Jim Brown did when he retired at 30 back in the 1960s. He didn’t do it because his spot in the Hall of Fame was cemented, his financial future secure and his drive ebbing, as Barry Sanders did in the 1990s. He didn’t do it rather than face a lengthy and painful rehab from foot injuries as San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis did on Tuesday just hours before Worilds’ midnight missive.

Worilds tweeted he was going to pursue other interests. For some, pursuing anything other than becoming lavishly wealthy and famous is beyond reason. People want an explanation. He has declined countless interviews in the last two days (including multiple ones from me).

Five years ago I would have been baffled. Three years ago irate. At all times I would have taken the cynic’s stance. It’s my default position, though I’m not accepting full blame on that one.

For every Jason Worilds there are countless other athletes who feign retirement only to come trudging back through the locker room door for riches, vanity, opportunity, desperation or any combination of the four you choose.

Maybe he’ll come back, helmet in hand. Outside of marriage, parenthood and probably a mortgage, there are few things you should commit to at his age that you can’t wiggle out of if you feel like it. Provided he stays healthy and in shape and there are jobs that require 260-pound guys to run at top speed after a piece of leather available, he’ll have another chance to prove himself if the spirit moves him.

Things change. Narratives change. The ones we built for Worilds was on the well-worn premise that wealthy, fame and glory were his ultimate pursuit. He never said it. Not on the record. Not off. We foisted it upon him because that how it works whether there’s truth to it _ to be fair, there almost always is _ or not.

During one of our conversations last October with the Steelers struggling at 3-3, we talked briefly about the stakes and the future.

“If I have 30 sacks and we got 8-8, what did we really do?” he said.

I joked that if he did have 30 sacks _ which would smash the NFL single-season record _ his accountants would need accountants he’d be in such high demand in 2015. He laughed then repeated something he’d said in one way or another for years.

“I don’t really look as far as that,” he said. “I just try to be the best I can be day in and day out and I think the rest will fall into place.”

It fell into place for Worilds on Tuesday, just not the way we wanted. Not the way we planned. Not the way that fits so easily into the little narrative box we had built for him.

Perspectives shift. He made more money last season than all but a precious few will make in our entire lifetimes. We always viewed the next contract as “The Big One.” The smaller truth is it had already happened. The larger truth is no answer he could ever give will sate those who can’t fathom making the choice in the first place.

He spent 20 years chasing a dream. We always assumed that dream included the trappings of the modern star athlete as we know it. We we wrong.

Perhaps one day he’ll talk about it. Politely, (as if there is another choice). Without a salad in his hands and some other place he needs to be. Without cleats on his feet. Without the expectations of others on his shoulders. Healthy. Happy.

A man _ not just a football player _ in full.

Balanced at last.

SCOREBOARD

scoreboard

Every pickup basketball game has “That Guy.” Never the best player (who can’t bothered to be bothered) nor the worst (who is too busy working his ass off to notice or at the very least admit it out loud), “that guy” is the guy who has decided long before he took the court that he’s going to keep score.

After every basket or possession, he’s calling it out. Quick to correct those who have it wrong. Repeating it ad nauseum _ particularly especially when his team is winning _ to serve as a reminder that there must be a sense of place in the universe and (with god’s grace and a couple of 3-pointers) his team’s place is on top, not yours.

I am that guy. I have always been that guy from the day my dad paved part of our backyard and turned it into a 20 x 20 court with one of those upper-end glass backboards in hopes that I would use it to become the kind of player that made him a pretty good junior college forward (before life got in the way) and my uncle an even better one at Penn State (before being 20 got in the way).

While I loved to play, genetics and a decided lack of ability relegated the idea of me making a last-second shot for the Washington Bullets to the goings-on inside my head. I topped out at 5-11, a good seven inches shorter than my dad (and if we’re being honest here, a deck of cards shorter than my little sister). I made up for my lack of height by having no talent whatsoever other than the confidence to jack up any shot from anywhere no matter the circumstances.

We’ll pause here to give anyone who has ever played with me a chance to avoid vertigo while they finish vigorously nodding their head.

But dammit, I could add and subtract. Maybe it was simply a byproduct of all those imaginary games I would hold when noone was around, the ones where Jeff Malone or John Stockton or whoever I wanted to be on a given day was always open from 15-feet as the buzzer sounded. And yep, you can bet I was “fouled” if for some ungodly reason that shot had the temerity to clang off the rim.

It was my court. I figured it was my job to keep order. I can’t tell you I did it on purpose, but hey, nobody stopped me. Looking back, it’s hard to not laugh. During those countless afternoons spent honing a shooting stroke that still stops by every now then at 40 (and hopefully sticks around until 80) I was a walking/talking/jump-shot heaving abacus.

Not much has changed. While I technically don’t get paid to keep score (though I do anyway most nights) I am paid to tell you who won, who lost _ and perhaps most importantly _ what it all means. Some days, I’m pretty good at it. Some days I stare at the screen waiting for inspiration to strike and _ when it doesn’t _ pluck my right eyebrow furiously and hope I can “fool’em again” as the great Jim Murray used to say.

If only the scoreboard fixating was limited to my work. And that’s the problem. I have too often turned every part of my life into some kind of endless track meet. I can tell you my weight without getting on a scale within a pound or two (and no matter how high or low the number, it’s never low enough). I haven’t balanced a checkbook in years but I know what the balance in my account is within a buck or two (and no matter how high or low the number, it’s never high enough). I can tell you who has done the last five loads of laundry, who called who last in (insert relationship here), and who sent me a note on Facebook on my last birthday and who skipped.

The funny thing about this is, I’m losing. I’ve been losing for as long as I can remember. The blessings bestowed upon me are so countless it would make most people puke. Every problem I have is a #firstworldproblem. And I’d include my cancer on that list. This week the FDA approved the use of a drug that could turn something I worried would eventually kill me a year ago into something that requires one silly pill a day. (Downside: this means playing the “but I have cancer” card to win any argument I’m losing may be coming to an end).

I have treated every single aspect of my life like a game. I read the wire to see which of my colleagues is writing what, who is traveling where and wondering why I’m not. I read both newspapers in my town and send texts/twitter shoutouts when I see something I like while at the same time wondering how I could (or have) done it better even if in many cases that’s probably not true.

It’s even worse in my house. For too long I viewed my marriage like a competition. I kept mental tabs on who was doing what/when. If I cleaned the litter box a half-dozen times before my wife got to it, I made damn sure to passive-aggressively let her know. (“Oh, you know where the litter box is? I thought you’d forgotten” stupid stuff like that).

I am the player who – with his team down 30 points in the last minute – drills a 3 and hoists his arms in the air. You know, kind of like this:

The irony _ even on the days I want to admit it or not _ is that I am down. Big time. And yet I create scenarios that allow me to find a category in which I somehow have an advantage. I have known my wife for nearly 14 years and she has devoted herself to me selflessly and relentlessly, sometimes against her better judgement. She does not need to keep score _ hell, it probably has never even occurred to her to try _ because this isn’t some contest. This is life. There is no scoreboard. There is only the day to day. How we live and who and what we devote our lives to is what matters.

It’s a lesson that I have spent the last four years trying to beat into my head, with mixed results. Parenting has taught me a lot (actually, it’s taught me just about everything) by forcing me (at long last) to grow the *%# up. I see my two kids every morning and wonder how some schlub like me has managed not to screw them up yet.

This is usually the point where I would throw in a “but there’s time” in order to get a laugh. But there are still moments when that obsessive competitiveness seeps out and finds its way into my son through some strange osmosis. He’s 5 1/2 and he absolutely hates to lose. It doesn’t matter if it’s a video game or a race around the house or brushing his teeth, he absolutely cannot come in second (and heaven help you if he comes in third). I have used that drive as a motivator when he doesn’t want to do a chore or get dressed, often pitting himself against his sister in a sprint to see who can finish what task first.

This morning it led to tears, my 3 yo crying because her brother tugged on her arm in the scramble to reach the top of the steps so they can finish a mad dash to get dressed. The moment soon passed, but they are becoming a bit more frequent than I would like.

I have no idea how to change it and I’ll admit I’m probably not quite ready. I played pickup hoops on Wednesday night. The first game I happened to be guarding a friend of mine. He got the ball. A small skirmish that may have resembled defense ensued. He called a foul and I immediately became a fourth-grader, making a joke about his height and disrespecting the call. What an idiot. While the call was debatable, my immediate reaction was not. It was dumb. And I’m getting too old to do the same dumb stuff I’ve done for the last 40 years.

I imagine I could start by trying to set a better example, to take some TNT to the ever-counting scoreboard in my head _ the one that reads “Will 2, Life 1” with “Dude, when are you gonna stop doing that and realize you’re one lucky bastard and just get on with it” scrawled beneath it like some sort of advertising sign _ blow the thing up.

Pass me the detonator. it’s time, don’t ya think? At least, after this one last game …

Hey, Rome (and the eventual deconstruction of my ego) wasn’t built in a day.

A little new school for this space, but hey, times change:

Roots

The Burgh2

This was not supposed to be the place. Too many hills. Too many unironic moustaches. Too many roads to nowhere. Oh, and too much black and gold. Way, way too much for a kid who grew up in the D.C suburbs and spent each spring of his childhood watching Mario Lemieux and his buddies crush the dreams of the guys wearing red, white and blue (you know, the colors of America, not some industrialized wasteland).

I never wanted planned to live in Pittsburgh. Let’s just get that out there. My college buddies and I would drive up a couple times a semester when we were at WVU 20 years ago, going to games and charging beers to a Discover card I ended up not paying off until I was nearly 30. (Note to kids: I don’t care how cool that free T-shirt those credit card dudes are offering in front of the student union looks, pass on it until your annual W-2 hits at least five digits).

Back then Pittsburgh was the big city. Then my world got bigger. Larger. More complicated. I graduated and my horizons expanded. I needed a job. The location didn’t matter, just the opportunity to see my name in print and tell everybody how good I am live the dream.

One problem: by wanting to be from anywhere, I ended up being from nowhere.

When I tell people where I went to school, they assume I’m from West Virginia. I immediately correct them and tell them I’m from Maryland, as if being from West Virginia is something to be ashamed of when the fact is most of the truly great people I’ve met in my life are from the place where montani semper liberi. When people hear I’m from Maryland, they assume I identify with Baltimore. I make sure to correct them and tell them I grew up 30 minutes from the White House regardless of my stance on the NFL’s team’s nickname.

The truth is I’m from a town without a center. There is no main street in Waldorf, MD. The most unique things about it _ slot machines and tobacco barns _ are long gone. There’s a liquor store, a bank and a fast-foot place on every corner, but there no there there. That doesn’t make it the seventh circle of hell, but the truth is my memories and fondness of it are tied to the people, not the place.

My adult life has been little more than a series of itinerant phases: 4 1/2 years in Morgantown (sorry about that extra semester mom and dad, I was just too damn lazy), 2-plus at my first job in Easton, MD (where I didn’t have nearly as much fun as I should have), a half-dozen more in southwest Florida (where I became ridiculously tan, incredibly fit and professionally challenged but also terribly broke) and another six in Louisville, KY.

It’s telling _ and not in a good way _ that I hardly keep in touch with anybody from those stops. I adore Motown but I’ve only been there a handful of times in the generation since I left. My first boss remains an inspiration but we’ve spoken maybe four times since I hooked up the small UHaul trailer to my Jeep Cherokee and sprinted for the Gulf of Mexico in July, 1999. I met my wife in Florida. We were married in paradise in June, 2005 then bolted for the Bluegrass (sight unseen, I might add) five months after we made it legal.

Louisville is tricky. We bought a home there (still sort of for sale, if you’re looking!), had our children there and where I might have been happy if I’d allowed myself to be. I couldn’t. It wasn’t enough. The job. The house. The life. I spent so much time fixating on what came next I didn’t bother to make a real investment personally or professionally. I became claustrophobic and did everything in my power to sabotage any chance at developing a meaningful, lasting relationship with an area that had warmly accepted me even as I daydreamed about where I’d end up next.

When the opportunity in Pittsburgh popped up, it took me five seconds to apply and three months sweating out the decision even though the truth is I wasn’t running to something as much as I was running away from the notion of truly settling down. It was only when I accepted the job that I bothered to look down. I’d grown roots in Louisville. Real ones. Mortgage. Kids. Did I mention mortgage? Yet I pressed on anyway, determined Pittsburgh would offer salvation and a needed fresh start. The truth is, the fact it was Pittsburgh was merely incidental. It could have been Sydney or Sheboygan. It was a step up, a step away, another notch on a bedpost becoming ever more crowded and ever more meaningless.

The carousel needed to stop. Any maybe it has, as hard as it was to imagine 3 1/2 years ago when my wife pulled up to the house I’d chosen to rent with a 2-year-old on one arm and an infant slung under the other. She stared at the 32 steps up from the driveway to the front door and shouted “do you (bad word) hate me?”

She wasn’t kidding. Neither am I when I say it wasn’t her that I hated. It was me. Pittsburgh initially was my purgatory, a place I needed to atone. And for the first two-plus years I treated it just like I treated every other mailing address I’d used during my adult life: as a waystation between this stop and the next, wherever it might be.

Juggling a demanding new job while replacing someone who had been an institution for three decades with a family life that included two young children and a wife who wondered how in the world she’d gotten here was a hell of my own creation. I couldn’t stand the town for a good two years, projecting all the anger I felt about my own mistakes onto a city that didn’t give a damn either way.

And maybe that’s why here  _ as odd as it seemed during those first miserable months _ became the perfect place to rebuild. Pittsburgh is welcoming but not charitable. It makes you earn its respect. Maybe that’s because its spent the last 20 years remaking itself after the collapse of the steel industry.

The Pittsburgh in your mind (alright, the Pittsburgh in my mind too) is not the Pittsburgh you imagine. The mills are all but gone. There is a thriving college scene. A dynamic health care industry. A booming energy economy. Hipster neighborhoods. family-friendly cul de sacs and perhaps the prettiest baseball park in the country. There’s an arena where two of the best hockey players in the world go to work 40-plus nights a year, hardly complaining even as their everyday brilliance is taken for granted. There’s a model NFL franchise that rarely makes me check the police blotter. There are parks and bike lanes and dive bars and five-star restaurants.

We ended up buying a house in a suburb east of the city that _ to be honest _ looks an awful lot like a hilly version of my hometown. Chain restaurants and Target. Giant Eagles and a gym. It’s comforting even as we warily planted true roots. We spent the first year basically renting the house from ourselves, unpacking what we could and throwing everything else in the basement. We survived a cancer scare, back surgery (her’s, not mine) and potty-training the world’s most dramatic 3-year-old girl. Over the Christmas break we decided it was time to unpack. We recycled an avalanche of boxes. We tossed a bunch of crap that we’d forgotten we even had. We came upon a trove of pictures from when we were younger, thinner and tanner. We laughed. Then we put them back.

Slowly we are making the house our own. The art on the wall doesn’t favor the past but the promise of the future. Our 5-year-old’s kindergarten’s pic. Our daughter’s beautiful smile. Our fridge is dotted with pics of people — check that, of FRIENDS — we’ve made here. I am trying to emerge from my own self-imposed bubble (the one that’s kept me from investing in anything other than what I see in the mirror) and become a part of the community. Hanging out at my daughter’s daycare. Wrapping presents at my son’s school. Maybe (MAYBE) running a 5k. Maybe (MAYBE) volunteering with the Red Cross. Learning my neighbor’s first AND last names.

I don’t know if we’ll be here forever. But I do know that I’m OK with the idea of that being OK. My son has a Pittsburgh Pirates jersey. He asks me about “the Crosby.” One day during the fall he wondered where his Steelers shirt was (he doesn’t have one yet, but I have a feeling I’m fighting a losing battle). My daughter will attend her first birthday party for a friend early next month. They will grow up Pittsburghers, certified “yinzers.”

And while I can still get lost here at the drop of a hat, while I’m still mystified at why everybody feels the need to slow down entering a tunnel and while I still feel like I have a ways to go before I will no longer be considered an outsider by my peers (a concept that might be in my head at this point than anybody else’s) I have developed an affinity for this place. It has earned my respect. I’m trying to earn its.

As long as it doesn’t require a moustache, I think it’ll work out just fine.

Usually we close with a rap song, but not today. The quality is poor, but this video the Pirates showed the home crowd before Game 3 of the 2013 NLDS gave me chills, and I’m not one to get chills. It’s a tribute to those who had faith in a franchise that for years was lost but found itself after two decades at sea.

Sounds familiar. Sounds awfully damn familiar.

The Kid on the Back of the Bus (aka Tweet Decked)

twitter yin yang

I can still see that kid in the back of the bus. Toughskins. Not quite brand name tennis shoes. Hair straight as the hands of Big Ben at 6 o’clock. Small. Smart. Insecure as hell.

Oh, and loud. Really flipping loud. He didn’t have an inside voice. Or an outside one for that matter. It’s as if God stuffed a megaphone down his throat then shredded the internal filter that was supposed to protect him from blurting out every thought before it neared completion.

That mouth tended to lead to trouble. The constant need to be heard, to be taken seriously, to be deemed “cool” led to problems, specifically “fist in the vicinity of the face” problems. He had no trouble telling people when they were wrong, where they screwed up, how they could do better. By third grade that mouth could curse a streak so blue if it had to be edited for TV it would have sounded like a garbage truck backing up (which in some way, it was). Beep. Beep. Beep.

That kid got his ass kicked on more than a handful of occasions. There was some bullying involved _ it tends to happen when you are a nerdish 57 pounds in fifth grade _ but just as often it was that mouth, that damn mouth, piping up, unable to resist the temptation to get the last word in. The mouth made up for in bravado what the kid lacked in strength and _ sadly, especially when it was time to get off the bus in the afternoons _ speed.

God, was I a piece of work when I was 8.

I taught my sister (who was three grades behind me) the seven words you can’t say on TV (and then a few dozen more) when she was in kindergarten. I remember this because she would use them (some of them even in correct context, impressive considering she was 5) to whoever happened to be chasing her too cocky for his own good older brother on a given day.

I can laugh about it now, three decades later, because I survived. And if it sounds like I’m blaming the victim a bit here, I don’t consider myself the victim of bullying, not really. Sure I had to deal with kids who wore cooler clothes, who were stronger and more popular and didn’t have a problem letting everyone know it. I was never in that group (not really) and it pissed me off. So I attacked with that mouth, the one that all too often would start moving even though it had no idea where it was going. I’m not saying the kids I would fight with (and before we get too far into this, let me stress it was typically the same handful, including a kid who lived down the street and was the size of your typical motorhome). We antagonized each other. My words rattled him. His arms occasionally tried to rattle me. It ended mercifully when I was in 5th or 6th grade. We were fighting. He told me to look down. Because I’m nothing if not accommodating, I obliged. One knee to the nostrils later, my Georgetown Hoyas T-shirt was covered in blood, my parents were called we were both told that if my insults wouldn’t reach his ears then his knuckles wouldn’t reach my face.

I’d love to tell you has a ton has changed. It has not. Not really. While it’s been probably 20 years since I last got in a fight _ and it was during a hockey game, so it probably really doesn’t even count _ that mouth still gets me in trouble. It just does it in an entirely different way: by using my fingers as an accomplice.

I get paid _ amazingly _ to write about sports for a living, just like I planned when I was 15. I am incredibly fortunate, particularly when there are thousands of journalists who have lost their jobs, victims of an ever-changing media climate that can’t seem to strike a balance between profits and public service.

It should be enough. It should be more than enough. And yet, it’s not. In many ways, I’m still the kid in the back of the bus, surveying everything in front of me, trying to find a way to fit in, trying to find a way to be cool, trying to bridge the gap between my shortcomings _ both personally and professionally _ and the incessant voice in my head that never stops reminding me that I can be better, that I can do better and that I’m not nearly close to reaching whatever murky goal lies out there in the distance even as the realist in me knows I’ve got it better than just about anybody.

Which leads me to twitter (FOLLOW ME! … or don’t). Finally, a medium where my brilliance could be doled out in 140 characters or less. A chance for those unfiltered thoughts to run wild. A place I can say what I think (and just as importantly, what YOU should think) and be funny and snarky and obnoxious without the fear of getting off the bus and facing whatever target I honed in on in a given day.

Over the last five years and 33,000 tweets (and counting) I have inadvertently painted myself into a corner. What began as a legitimately earnest attempt to be the sarcastic voice of reason has morphed into me becoming the kind of shrill, “get off my lawn and by the way, you stink” troll that I have for so long despised. Take any subject and I’ll find a way to find the cloud inside the silver lining. Whatever your take is, I’m only too happy to take the opposite point of view. My ability to find the one thing that’s going to tick someone off remains fully functional. Do I believe it? Not always, but hey, anything to get one more retweet, one more favorite, one more follower even if it’s just a spambot or Taye Diggs.

I am trying to have it both ways. My employer is one of the most trusted names in the news industry, and part of the deal is they ask us to color inside the lines, a standard I am growing more and more thankful of as accuracy and fairness takes a backseat in the increasingly heated competition for more clicks, Facebook likes and hashtags.

The small (note to bosses: VERY small) tradeoff can be relative anonymity compared to my peers. Sometimes you’ll see a byline. Most times you’ll just see “PITTSBURGH (AP).” It can appear nowhere or it can pop up in millions (no, I’m serious here) of newspapers and hundreds of web sites depending on how big the story is on a given day. More people stumble across my stories than I ever dreamed, and yet the kid in the back of the bus remains unimpressed.

That kid has opinions. Dammit, they must be heard. That’s what the mouth tells the fingers all too often when I hit “send” for the latest bit of snark and analysis to unwitting souls who mashed “follow” (whether they meant to or not) next to @WillGravesAP. And while I think I’m hysterical (just ask me, and I’ll tell you) at times it’s also gotten too much. The back of the bus is crowded. And I don’t want to sit here anymore. Not all the time anyway.

There are people who have made themselves professional provocateurs and who have the chops and conviction to back it up. And there are folks who hide behind easter eggs to take shots at those further up the food chain. I’m not in the former group and have no interest in joining the latter.

At my best I consider my feed a mix of news and benign antagonism. Too often lately it’s become me shouting just to shout, to chime in on whatever the topic of the day is because Important People are doing it (the trolls too) and dammit, I’m important, right? RIGHT?

I have a 5-year-old son who is bright and thoughtful and as competitive as hell. He wants you to do well so long as he does better. He’s cornered the market on patronizing, amazing considering my wife would tell you I perfected the art long ago. He beat me in “Sorry” the other day, did a victory lap and patted my head saying ‘You did good daddy.” The flashback was so vivid I wondered if my wife had laced that night’s spaghetti with LSD.

He’s starting to pay attention to sports now. Flipped on a game the other day and one of the teams I cover was losing on the road by a hefty margin. He told me “Pittsburgh isn’t very good.” It’s as if a seedling sprouted its first shoot. I’ll be honest, I’d love it if one day he wanted to do this for a living. In my wildest dreams I can see him sitting next to me in a press box putting together a game story or writing a feature or talking to a player. I have little doubt sports will provide the same bond that was the only real connection between my father and I.

Yet I wonder what he would make of the old man on twitter. He might say “daddy, why are you so mad?” The other day I went on an unasked for rant on the baseball Hall of Fame vote, chiding more senior members of the Baseball Writers Association of America for failing to elect two stars whose careers were pockmarked with evidence they used performance-enhancing drugs. Why did I do it? I have no idea. Was it personal? Not really, but 140 characters doesn’t allow for nuance, not in the chase for eyeballs. My rant might have been well founded but it was also unnecessary. Even worse, it was borderline unprofessional.

When I was done, I was kinda disgusted. I thought, “dude, get over yourself.” It’s a battle I’ve been fighting since those days in back of Bus 98. The war is nearing an end. It has to. The noise is becoming too deafening. The constant need to prove myself by being the funniest, smartest, whatevereset guy out there is exhausting.

I love Twitter. And I’m not quitting. But I’m going to try _ TRY _ to be more of a grownup. The truth is the only thing that will quiet that voice in my head, the one that won’t shut up, is by becoming a better man, a better reporter, a better role model for my son and hell, for me.

As much as that kid on the back of the bus is exasperating, he’s still a part of me. He just doesn’t need to talk so much. Maybe more thoughtful writing and more aggressive reporting will calm him down. Maybe a little less worrying about what everybody else is saying and a little more worrying about the example I’m setting will help. Or maybe he just needs to listen more and check his twitter feed less.

Like Common says on “Driving Me Wild” — “It’s a shame what they do for fame and to be respected/ Joe, you coulda got it if you never woulda stressed it.”

It’s time to get off the bus. Or at least move up a few rows. Save me a seat, will ya?

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