Jagged Little Pill

This was supposed to start with a hero shot.

I had it all planned. Me sitting in one of those beige chairs inside the cancer treatment center that at times over the last seven years has become a second home. IV needle jabbed into a vein on my left hand. The rack holding my meds placed ever so conveniently over my left shoulder in the background, probably with the big bag of obinutuzumab hanging from it. A look of calculated hopeful weariness on my face.

Maybe, I thought, I’ll wait until the rash that typically accompanies my infusion starts. Or maybe I’ll take video of the shakes I get. All of it carefully designed to elicit some combination of sympathy, empathy and inspiration.

My mother and sister laugh when I tell them this. They think I’m kidding. My wife knows better. She knows I’m not.

I joked when I was initially diagnosed with Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia in March, 2014 that I was lucky. That I had some form of incurable cancer that was somehow, too much of a slacker to kill me. What a break. I mean, there are few things more powerful than to end any conversation with “who cares, I have cancer.”

Now it’s become a punchline, an excuse I use to try to get out of everything from doing the dishes to cleaning the litter box to (insert unwanted daily chore here). (Note: I get out of none of those things).

It’s back now for a third time. My blood numbers — the ones I have become a relative expert in — told me last fall this was coming. Even though I look fine. Even though most days I feel fine. Even though by every metric outside of numbers on a page, I am as healthy as the next dad-bodded 40-something slightly overweight because I mean, who doesn’t love cookies, sports writer.

And while there was a sense of dread as I watched the cancer steadily peck away at my red blood cells, in a way there was also this mix of “OK, cool, cancer is back baby! Hero time!”

This sounds dumb. Hell, it is dumb. But in a way, I look back at the spring of 2014 — when I really was sick — with nostalgia. For a while, everything else fell away. I semi-coasted at work (even more than usual). I vividly remember getting into the idea of making dinner for my wife and the kids, often the highlight of my day. Nothing else mattered. Who was getting hired. Who was getting fired. Which of my colleagues were getting the assignments (I wasn’t getting). My seemingly endless pursuit for professional relevance in the city that has become my adopted home.

My days became a series of never-ending internal diagnostic tests, both physically and spiritually. How hard was my heart working as I climbed the steps. What the latest blood panel looked like. Then, as the meds started work, how was I going to use this reprieve to recalibrate everything.

I thought it’d be automatic. That somehow God would be like, “OK kid, I gave you this thing that’s manageable but I want you to make some changes, and here they are.”

For a while, they seemed self-evident. I joined a church. I volunteered with the Red Cross. I left work at work. My ego (as much as it could) went on sabbatical. I ran a half-marathon. I really did feel that in some ways I had reinvented myself. That the perspective I’d lacked has somehow been handed to me free of charge.

Only, it didn’t last. When my cancer came back in 2018, I was pissed. My privilege outweighing my humility (to be fair here, that’s always been a pretty low bar to clear). The steroids I loved the first go-round instead made me moody. I lost my composure over stupid things. I went off in the dugout at a Little League game because the 9-year-old left fielder had the gall to be — a 9-year-old left fielder by placing his glove atop his head while the ball was in play.

Sure, I went back into treatment with the “let’s go” attitude. Sure, I took selfies of me in the chair. Sure you mashed “like” on my Facebook page. I mean, what kind of person doesn’t “like” someone when they say “hey, here’s me fighting cancer.” Yes, I took notes if you didn’t. Yes, I’m keeping score. No, I’m not just kidding.

I gained 25 pounds. I shrugged my shoulders. When my oncologist told me my remission would be shorter this time, I went “meh.” Who cares? Like most movie sequels, the impact of Part II paled in comparison to the urgency of the original. Unlike the first time, I didn’t use my break from treatment as a chance to embrace the things I’d long ignored.

I kept going to church. I didn’t read much of the Bible. Yes, I sang in the choir. No, I didn’t dwell on the meaning of what I was singing (most of the time.) I stopped volunteering for the Red Cross. I stopped running. All the things I’d rightfully minimized resurfaced.

I went back to being the same old “me.” And yeah, that dude is kind of an ass.

The early stages of the pandemic, however briefly, reminded me of those early days of my diagnosis. For a while it was just our family tucked into this protective bubble. We were around each other 24/7. We didn’t drive each other crazy. Our kids didn’t become brats. We got to projects we’d long put off. Even as the world around us went to hell, in some ways I’d never been happier.

The world, however, has this insane habit where it just keeps spinning. It’s relentless like that. And as we’ve started to get back to some semblance of “normal” I found myself falling into habits I’ve long tried to kick. I ran my mouth on Twitter. I attempted to mic drop people in Facebook groups in my constant pursuit to — as comedian John Mulaney put it — become the Mayor of Nothing.

I wrote a long time ago that I expected cancer to shift the tectonic plates within me. I’m still waiting.

That’s why when I saw my numbers start to slide last fall I got … excited? Yeah, kind of excited.

“Woot,” I thought. “I’ll be ‘interesting/sympathetic/hero’ again.”

I girded myself for another round of long days in the treatment chairs, chatting with the nurses. Walking around the other patients — most of whom far sicker than I am — with a “look, I can do this, you can too” air of confidence. The kind that comes not because I am some sort of beacon of anything but because well, I just happened to catch another break in a never-ending string of them.

And in a way, I needed that treatment. A little bit of pain. A little bit of anxiety. A little bit of a brush (a very, very faint brush) with my own mortality.

I viewed it as my penance for those who aren’t as fortunate. For the younger sister of a colleague who died at 20 last year from COVID. For people like my friend Beth, diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in her late 30s. She’s chronicled her journey in painstaking detail over the last six months. Chemo. (Real chemo, not chemo-lite like I’ve received). Surgery. Radiation. Baldness. Weight loss. All of it.

We have exchanged notes of encouragement over Instagram. I am in awe of her realness. And in a way, when my remission officially ended in early January, I almost looked at going into treatment as a stroke of good fortune. Like, ‘Hell, yeah! I’ve got cancer too baby. I can keep it real too. Let’s Gooooooo.”

Now, I don’t even have that.

Instead of the drip, instead of steroids, instead of rashes and the tremors and the fevers I’m … taking a pill. That’s it. I’m taking a freaking pill.

What a letdown. Where’s the heroism in popping something into your mouth twice a day that — much like parents when the clock ticks past midnight during a sleepover — tells the gene that screws up your bone marrow to shut the hell up and go to sleep?

The plan to go to the pill was semi-last minute. We had planned on real chemo. At my oncologist’s suggestion I went for a second opinion. The doctor I saw suggested the pill, mostly because it’s less toxic and in theory would make me a candidate for a stem cell harvest/transplant down the road, yet another form of therapy that is (checks notes) yes, not nearly as “look at me” as going bald or having surgery or puking my guts out.

The overwhelming feeling I had last night when I took the first one wasn’t anxiety but guilt and some form of Fear Of Missing Out. Why did Beth, who did nothing wrong, get big scary Varsity “holy hell this could kill you” cancer while I got this thing that never really goes away but is now mostly an inconvenience and an “oh by the way” thing?

Maybe I’ll get lucky. The twice-daily pill is not a cure. But it’s going to work for a while. Maybe a long while. But there are also side effects. Most of them run of the mill.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll grow a shell on my back. That’d make me interesting, right?

Meaning … I’m going to be fine. How boring is that?

I have to find a way to define myself. Apparently, cancer isn’t going to sand off the rough edges for me. I’ve tried to let that happen for the last 2500 days or so. I’m still waiting. I’m still struggling to find out why I’ve been spared. I’m terrified that if you strip it away I don’t become some sort of walking story of redemption but just … a pretty damn privileged middle-aged white guy who doesn’t really know what struggle looks like.

I fear there’s a karmic bill coming due that I won’t be able to pay. That the prayers and cards and thoughts that people have sent my way yet again over the last few weeks are being wasted because I am not worthy of them. That I don’t need prayer but some sort of instruction manual titled “OK, Looks Like You’re Going to Live, Here’s What You Do Now Idiot.”

It’s all in my head. God gives grace freely. It’s his greatest gift.

If we had to earn it, we never would. So better just accept it and make the best of it.

I am still an egomaniac. I am still chasing the likes. I am still sometimes far consumed with what others think of me. I’m still a narcissist. (I mean, if you’re still here, I’ve just written 1500 words on it).

But as Jules said at the end of Pulp Fiction.

“I’m trying Ringo. I’m trying real hard.”

For now, that’s going to have to be enough.




I’ll be honest. I thought I was going to be The One. Patient Zero. The One Who Made The Impossible Possible Because I’m Just So Damn Awesome.

Sure, I’d read all the material (or at least the parts I could decipher) when I was diagnosed with Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia four years ago.

I became an “expert” at reading and interpreting hemoglobin levels, red blood cell counts, platelets and all the other terms I would have remembered had I been paying attention in 10th-grade biology. (Note: I did not).

Yet here’s the passage I couldn’t get out of my head even as my care team assured me I was going to be just fine.

WM is usually indolent (slow growing) and can be managed as a chronic disease for a number of years. However, it is not yet curable.”

Wait, what?

I mean, it SAYS that. But it doesn’t actually MEAN it right? Incurable? Really? All I could think of as my body responded brilliantly to 18 months of treatment was something along the lines of …


I mean, just ask me, I’ll tell you. Repeatedly. It’s kind of my thing.

I can’t pinpoint when the feeling of invincibility came in. Maybe it was training for the Pittsburgh Half Marathon in 2017. Maybe it was running all over Rio de Janeiro during the Olympics. Maybe it was going open to close with my wife and kids at Kennywood. Maybe it was walking up a flight of stairs without thinking I was having a heart attack.

Or maybe it was always there. I was a dork in high school. (Are you stunned? Yep, you’re stunned).  Acne. Socially Awkward. The whole deal. Yet my junior year I somehow talked myself into asking the hottest girl in our school (and also one of the nicest) to the prom. Blame it on an overdose of John Hughes movies.

One day, about two months out, I worked up the nerve. I put on my best black-and-white paisley shirt and my pleated pants (hey, it was the early ’90s). I may have even showered. As we walked out of trig class (#nerdalert) I caught up to her and sort of asked her if she was going to prom. Here is an artist’s re-enactment


Anyway, turns out she already had a date with Tom, the very nice, very tall and very senior guy she sat next to in our class. She couldn’t have been nicer. I couldn’t have been more crushed. It didn’t matter that I had no car. No license. No money. And certainly not a clue as to what I was doing.

Yet I was still convinced I could get her to say yes. The image of me stopping in my tracks with her politely smiling back at me as she continued down the hallway on Tom’s arm is seared into my brain.

Looking back, I’m not sure if I was disappointed she turned me down or impressed that I’d somehow convinced myself I could get her to say yes in the first place.

The same feeling returned when I got the quick stats on my blood panel earlier this month. Hemoglobin: 9.7. RBC: 3.49. IgM: 1950ish. (Translation: I’m not a walking corpse like I was when I was initially diagnosed in 2014 or anything, but I’m not so great).

I knew what they meant immediately: that it was time to go back in for treatment. For more pricks to the belly. For more stabs to the hip. For more drips to the vein in my left hand.

I gave myself 24 hours of self-pity followed by 6 days of driving my wife insane and wondering how I would tell my kids, who are now old enough to know (and ask) why daddy is going to the doctor’s office so much.

Then I walked into the waiting room and the sense of anxiety vanished. I’d been so well for so long _ nearly 3 years with little more than the occasional sniffle _ that I’d made myself believe it was never coming back. There’s the miracle.

It’s also only part of the story. A small part.

The reality is I’m not different. I’m just like everyone else with this curious and frustrating disease. And I’m also lucky as hell.

The proof came at me from all sides when I stepped into my hematologist’s office:

  1. Since I’d gone at least 2 years between recurrence we can use the previous drug regiment, which my body handled fabulously minus that one day I got tremors in the middle of a treatment and thought I was going to explode.

2. Steroids: Woot!

3. Since we caught it so much earlier this time, I don’t (for now anyway) need any blood transfusions. (Though there is a dire need every single day so roll up your sleeves, eat some free Cheez-Its, grab a can of juice and a stress ball and go. I know you’re scared. Go anyway).

4. I can return to playing the “I Have Cancer” card to engender unearned goodwill, copious amounts of pity and maybe – just maybe – get myself out of cat litter duty.

So next week I’ll go in. I’ll get jabbed. I’ll get weighed (here’s hoping I can at least trim 15 lbs like last time). I’ll get jabbed again. And on most days I’ll walk out right back out. And the folks in there – many of whom are in far worse spots in their battles than me will go “who is that kid?”

Trust me, I’m no one special. And that’s the beauty of this. I am pretty much the same person I was when I walked out of my first batch of treatment in 2015. (Though maybe a little more spiritual, maybe a little less inclined to get worked up over the small stuff – but only a little – and more mindful of my health in general).

I am just one fighter in a battle that includes millions of all ages, races, genders and lifestyles. Cancer is not political. It doesn’t care who you voted for. It doesn’t care who your favorite team is or your zip code or tax bracket.

And while there’s never been a better time in history to fight it, cancer has never been more determined to continue its insurgency. We have more ways to take it on than ever. It has more ways than ever to come at us.

The cancer center I attend has changed dramatically in the 33 months since I stopped going regularly. It’s expanded. Gotten bigger. What was an open-air room of 12-15 chairs and a couple of beds has doubled in size, with more on the way. The halls are byzantine. A little crowded. The construction apparently nonstop.

I used my initial blog post to tell the world I have cancer. I still do. But so do countless others. You know them. You might not have thought of them in awhile. You may not have seen them in awhile because … reasons.

But know this: they need you. Not to donate a kidney or half your paycheck. Not to bake a cake. (Though cakes are appreciated).

They just need a call. A text. An email. A tweet. A Facebook message. My god, an actual ink-on-paper letter. A drop-in. A prayer. Time. Not a day or a week. But 10 minutes maybe. Maybe 20.

Note: I don’t need these things. I’m fine. Hell, I’m writing this so you DON’T call me.

I want to stress here that I am fine. Really. I’m so much healthier going into the battle this time than last time it’s laughable.

To put it perspective: cancer is the Browns. I am Not The Browns. Or for the gymternet: (yes it’s a thing, look it up) I am Simone Biles. Cancer is the vault.

Four years ago I went over my initial blog post over and over. I took a couple of days. I poured over every word. I ripped this off in an hour in between watching a Pirates game I’m covering because this isn’t a big deal. This is Tuesday.

I’m 43. I will have this for the rest of my (very long) life. It will come and go. It will occasionally slow me but it will NEVER stop me. Never. And for that and many other things, I’m lucky as hell.

I didn’t want this to just be a cancer blog when I started. But maybe that’s what this is supposed to be. Just like I’m supposed to have this stupid disease, the one whose ass I will continue to kick.

You know, if that girl in high school said yes, maybe I never meet my wife. Maybe I never have THIS family. Maybe this fight comes with different people, different stakes, a different care team and support staff.

Hell no.

The same goes for this disease. Maybe if I beat it once and that was it, my life would be in a totally different place.

It’s not. This is it. This is my fight. This is our fight. From the fortunate ones like me who have a version of cancer they can handle to the countless others whose battle is more uphill. We are in this together.

All of us.

Let’s Freaking Go.

Swagged Out

OK, so you’ve probably figured out that I write about gymnastics as part of my job. It’s easily my favorite thing to do, which I’m sure comes across as strange considering 95 percent of my gig is covering either one of the NFL’s most popular teams, the reigning Stanley Cup champions, one of baseball’s comeback stories and a major Division I University. And all those things have their moments when I’m like “man, this is pretty cool. I’m a lucky dude.”
Yet there is nothing like gymnastics. Nothing. The reason is simple: access, freedom and respect.
Access as in access to the athletes at a time when more and more walls are being put up between those that make the plays and those that write about them. And I totally understand the reason there’s more availability in gymnastics – or horse racing, or IndyCar or any of the other “niche” sports I’ve written about — as opposed to the Big 4 (Big 5 if you count colleges) is because well, usually there’s nobody writing about them most of the time so they’re happy to have us, particularly if you work for the world’s largest news organization.
It’s the exact opposite in the NFL, for example, where there are more of us in the press box and locker room than ever, catering to different masters, different platforms, different agendas. Too busy trying to come up with something on twitter (I am GUILTY AS HELL OF THIS) or a GIF or something shareable than to take the time (or have the ability to) make meaningful connections.
I do not blame the players for wanting to protect themselves, and by and large the overwhelming majority of pro athletes I’ve covered are courteous and usually OK human beings. Yet., we are also there to help promote interest in their product. No other private business in the world gets the kind of free advertising sports sections/web sites provide on a daily basis. Though while I love to chastise players for keeping us at arm’s length, I get why they do; because the second they screw up or truly speak their mind, the Hot Takers will come for them. And the Hot Takers come for everybody eventually. It’s what they do.
Freedom as in freedom to write – to really write – the way that I want and an editor in Noreen Gillespie Connolly that gives me plenty of rope so long as I don’t try to work unicorns into my copy. Everybody understands baseball. Nobody understands gymnastics, (and Scott Bregman would say I don’t either) but I enjoy the task of trying to translate it so the folks at home who tune in every four years have some idea of how great Simone Biles is, for example.
All of which leads me to respect … and Maggie Nichols. Unless you’ve seen me post about her (or follow me on Twitter) you probably don’t know who she is. And that kinda sucks.
She’s 18. From Minnesota. Probably one of the 10 best gymnasts in the world. Last fall she won two medals at the world championships and was the only American to compete in all four events during the team final, something her BFF Simone (who is also happens to be the world champ and the soon to be Queen of Rio) and reigning Olympic champ Gabby Douglas did not do.
Fast forward nine months. And Maggie’s not going to the Olympics. Her dream died probably the instant she tore the meniscus in her right knee this spring, setting back her training and while she worked her butt off to get back for national championships and Olympic Trials, the truth is she probably needed another month to be close to 100 percent. She wasn’t. So she’s not going to Rio.
She’s a good kid. Hard-working. Smart. Confident. When I started talking to her last fall, I jokingly started something on twitter called the #Swagometer (which is a take on her handle: @MagsGotSwags12).
Surprisingly, in the little part of the world called The Gymternet (look it up), it became A Thing. Like, if she hit a vault I’d tweet something like #Swagometer = nailed it. Innocuous, funny and benignly obnoxious. As Nancy Armour admitted, I made fetch happen.
Maggie thought it was funny. Her father actually made his own Swagometer T-shirt and my friend Jessica O’Beirne had a T-Shirt company come up with another take on to support her fabulous website GymCastic (that’s what’s at the top here). Heck, my buddy Nick Zaccardi wrote a feature on her that basically served as the official #Swagometer coming out party.
I thought _ as Maggie probably thought _ man, when she gets to Rio, #Swagometer totally gonna be one of those things NBC steals and tries to claim as its own A Very Big Deal.
Only I’m going to Brazil. And she’s not. And she probably knew it after national championships last month. The kids, all the kids, can do the math. And they do it often. And unless she was given a time machine so she could heal more quickly, it wasn’t going to happen..
I ran into Maggie and her family in the airport leaving St. Louis. I could tell by the look on her face she knew what she was up against. We talked for a couple minutes. How many years? How many thousands of hours in the gym? How many nights at the National Team Ranch in Texas thinking about this moment in her life? And then it was here and because of one awkward landing, she wasn’t at the level she knew she needed to be at to make what is perhaps the greatest Olympic gymnastics team of all-time.
At the Olympic trials last week, she was better. Not as good as she was last fall, but better. She ended up sixth in the all-around, yet when the five-woman team was announced, her name wasn’t on it. Gabby, who finished one spot behind her and has an uncanny ability to turn it on when it matters, made the cut. Madison Kocian, the world champion on the uneven bars who finished eighth at trials, did too. Based on the way international competition works, the selections all makes sense. And Maggie understood. When Simone was asked afterward what Maggie’s reaction was, Simone looked up at the ceiling to blink back the tears and said “She just said she’s proud of us and go Team USA.”
Maggie didn’t even make the three-person alternate squad either. National team coordinator Martha (important note Gymternet: IT IS SPELLED WITH AN ‘H’) Karolyi chose three gymnasts who are better in their best events than Maggie is in hers (at least at the moment). Karolyi, in her typically blunt way, said basically Maggie wasn’t really in consideration because of the injury.
There was a spot available as the non-traveling alternate, which is the equivalent of “attending” prom because you’re watching it on Periscope. (Is that still around?)
Maggie said thanks but no thanks. Today she “retired” (at 18 … 18) from elite gymnastics. A full scholarship at Oklahoma _ and a shot at plenty of NCAA championship swag _ awaits in the fall. She is crushed, to be sure, about not making the team. But she will get over it.
Why am I telling you this? Because there’s a lot of stuff _ a LOT of stuff _ going on around the Olympics that’s not great. Crime. Corruption. Doping. So-so NBA players and professional golfers saying they don’t have the time or the interest to go despite being invited, an invitation thousands of athletes like Maggie Nichols would accept without hesitation.
Maggie won’t be famous. Not in the way Simone will be famous. Yet her story needs to be told, because there are countless other ones — rowers and swimmers, archers and javelin throwers and all the rest — just like her. Ones who put in the work, who put in the time, who had the talent and yet for reasons beyond their control, it just didn’t happen.
My wife Ellie went to Tulsa. She hates OU. That actually might not be a strong enough word. By proxy, I can’t stand OU either. Yet I’m going to make an exception this one time. I’m down with Maggie Nichols and the Sooners.
The #Swagometer lives on. It has to. See ya in college Swags. Boomer Bleeping Sooner.
Maggie bye



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.











The Glue

grad pic

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.

The Chase


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.”

Mrs. G

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.


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:


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.

No, really.

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 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.


Swing State

Tiger Tiger Woods yall

Photo by AP’s Matt Slocum

I’m still pulling for him. Five-plus years after the Escalade and the fire hydrant, the Perkins waitress and the porn star, the squandering of his marriage, a fortune of public goodwill and the moral high ground over his critics.

I still want Tiger Woods to walk into Butler Cabin on Sunday night, accept his fifth green jacket as Masters champion and renew the chase of Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major titles that once seemed a foregone conclusion but now seems like an overambitious fever dream.

Michael Jordan is a decade too old. LeBron a decade too young. Tom Brady too pretty. Peyton Manning too polite. For men of a certain age, Tiger Woods is our avatar. The torchbearer for a generation of athletes (and wannabe athletes) whose single-minded greatness served as undeniable proof that Generation X _ who invented navel gazing before the millennials took a stab at perfecting it _ really are the Best. Thing. Ever.

It’s not his fault, really, that he bore the burden of our own expectations. His father raised him _ or maybe engineered him is the right word here _ to be that beacon.

“Tiger will do more than any other man in history to change the course of humanity,” Earl Woods once famously said before his son was old enough to drink legally.

And here’s the thing, Woods seemed to thrive off the pressure. His success was our triumph. Over the course of four days in April, 1997 he changed a stodgy, graying and moneyed game forever. Birdie after birdie after birdie between those plush azaleas and Amen Corner and the Eisenhower Tree. He was the hip-hop (albeit in his own benignly nerdy way) son of an Army infantryman, a biracial amalgam of golf’s New World Order. He word red on Sundays and blasted Biggie Smalls from massive speakers during practice rounds back home.

He turned an elitist sport and pushed it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The powers that be at Augusta National were so terrified of his talent they added heaping amounts of rough “a second cut” to try and give mere mortals a chance.

There was more to it than that, of course. Somewhere along the way the kid nicknamed “Urkel” by his college teammates at Stanford became less “You the Man” and more “You the Brand.” And it was all well and good as long as the victories piled up. If he felt the need to put himself at an icy remove, whether it was letting a former Masters champion turn on the media-crazed spit awhile before accepting an apology for racist remarks or hiding out on his yacht named “Privacy” that was fine. On Sundays in the spring and summer, he was our golf-club wielding pied piper, smashing records and stereotypes, showing our parents that we knew what we were doing, that we had things under control, that the future was not beholden to the past.

He burst onto the scene as a supernova burdened with outsized expectations and not only managed to surpass them but had no problem rubbing it in the game’s face in the process:

Woods was perhaps the last big star to evolve before the Internet truly came of age, before every public misstep was tweeted and Vine’d and parsed by TV caricatures for our entertainment. Inside the cocoon he created for himself it’s easy to see how things could get lost, how priorities could get mixed up, how personal shortcomings could stay hidden from view.

He married the pretty girl, had two beautiful kids and bought an island. By the time we he reached our his early-30s, Woods wasn’t going to break Jack Nicklaus’ major record, he was going to bury it. The chip-in back on 16 at the Masters in ’05. The putt on 18 to force a playoff at the U.S. Open in ’08. The tearful embrace of his caddie Steve Williams at Royal Liverpool to win the Open Championship just weeks after his father’s passing. These weren’t just milestones but something more, something deeper. This was our generation growing into adulthood, surviving whatever life threw at us and coming back stronger than ever.

I’m a child of the 80s. My father and I were friendly but not close, so I discovered my role models in the pages of Sports Illustrated or The Washington Post.  The mistakes of my athletic heroes rarely made it into print. I didn’t know my favorite football player was a sometimes petulant child behind the scenes, that my favorite college basketball player wasn’t above trying crack cocaine (whatever that was to my 11-year-old self) until it was far too late.

Tiger was the last one to get in before the inherent cynicism that comes with part of the job became my default setting. He was a peer _ if by age and happenstance _ who just happened to be the best in the world at something. Maybe the rest of us could be the best in the world too.

Of course it all came crumbling down on that night in December, 2009, when he became a punchline and just another philanderer, fodder for talk shows and tabloids. His response was tone-deaf at best and frighteningly out of touch at worst. The image he so carefully cultivated came crashing down around him. He was mortal, after all. Painfully so.

And while he’s spent the last six years battling his stunningly fragile body, his form and the ghost of his own dominance on the course, off it he has become something of a curiosity. His ex-wife has moved on. He is arm candy to the world’s greatest skier. The pieces are still being put back together. Who knows how far he’ll get.

And maybe that’s why I still find myself in his corner. We all fall short. I reached a painful crossroads in my life four years ago. I’m still grappling with the reasons, the remorse and the recovery. I don’t view Woods as a role model or a touchstone for my generation anymore but simply a product of it. I have friends working on second marriages, second careers and second (or third, or fourth) chances. Woods is in a different tax bracket, but he’s really no different from the rest of us. The perfection we projected onto him is myth-making at its finest.

My 5-year-old son is starting to take an interest in sports. He reads ESPN’s “Bottom Line” religiously and shouts out the scores. He knows who “The Crosby” is and where the Pirates play. He’s obsessed with race cars and can name more NASCAR drivers than I’m willing to acknowledge in public.

He will develop athletic heroes of his own. And that’s OK. I want him to have posters on his wall and jerseys to wear. Yet I’ve come to realize that heroes are one thing but role models are another. He can root for any player he wants. He’ll no doubt one day stumble upon a phenom who he’ll identify as the leader of the next wave, the one that will be better, bigger, faster and stronger than his dad’s.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s what’s supposed to happen. The problem begins if Colin takes his cues on how to act from the millionaires his father writes about. Then I’m doing it wrong.

One day _ hell maybe this weekend _ we will talk about Woods. When Colin is older he’ll get a chance to read all about Woods’ ignominious fall. My hope is he doesn’t pass judgment. My hope is I can teach him _ in a way that I was never taught _ that people screw up but it does not necessarily define who they are.

There is nothing Americans love quite as much as a good comeback. Maybe Woods will regain his confidence, his swing and his swagger on the same lush greens where he began forging his legend 18 years ago. Or maybe he’s done. The next generation is already banging at the door, ready to bust through and turn Woods into a sideshow and a footnote (it’s possible it has already happened).

I’m pulling for one last stand, an Indian summer before the sun sets on the prime of his career for good. If the rest of us can return from the brink, then he can too.

I am Tiger Woods. And he is us. Warts and all.



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.