The Owner and the Onus

Skins tix

Those tickets up there? Those are my Magna Carta. My Holy Grail. The pebbles that grew into stones that evolved into the cinderblocks that became the foundation of my adult life.

And this post is going exactly where you think it’s going _ unless you think it’s going to be about cancer, sorry not this time_ but first, a love story.

My childhood memories before the 1982 NFL season, particularly when it came to football, are vague. I remember briefly adopting the Cincinnati Bengals as my favorite team in 1981 because they switched to the tiger stripes on their jerseys and they happened to make the Super Bowl. I was 7. My first favorite player was Cris Collinsworth, because he was Cincinnati’s best wide receiver. The fact we shared the same skin tone was merely coincidental.

The flirtation with the Bengals didn’t last. It couldn’t last. Grow up in the Washington D.C. suburbs as I did, and really, you had no choice. There was the Redskins and there was everything else. And by everything else I mean God, family, friends, work, life, whatever.

None of that mattered Sunday afternoons, especially not in 1982, not with Riggo and the Hogs and Theismann and the Fun Bunch and Dexter and the Pearl Harbor Crew and Coach Gibbs and nattily clad owner Jack Kent Cooke, so perfectly dubbed “The Squire” by Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser.

That 1982 team was my first true love. They were instant gratification. Sundays would come and Sundays would go, and they’d find a way to win. The joy those triumphs brought my family, particularly my father’s side, was indescribable. My grandmother would make spaghetti and bring cucumbers soaked in vinegar. One of my aunts would bring deviled eggs. We’d eat after the 1 p.m. games _ at halftime during the 4 p.m. games _ and watch and celebrate.

They won the NFC East during a season truncated by a two-month players’ strike and crushed the Detroit Lions in the first round of the playoffs. Then they took out the Minnesota Vikings the next week _ with Riggins bowing to the masses after 37 wearying carries for 185 bruising yards as RFK Stadium trembled in delight.

The Dallas Cowboys, with Tom Landry and Tony Dorsett and Randy White and that ugly star and nauseating aura of entitlement, awaited in the NFC Championship game.

And my dad got his hands on two tickets. He could have taken my mom. He could have taken my grandfather. He could have taken my uncle or any one of his buddies.

He didn’t. He took me. And it changed me _ and bonded us _ in a way that I will never forget.

I remember it was cold. We had a thermos of hot chocolate. We sat a million miles away _ at least it seemed a million miles away to this 8-year-old _ and it couldn’t have mattered less. I remember looking at the scoreboard as it flashed jersey numbers (for some reason it seemed like linebacker Neal Oklewicz made every tackle for the Redskins that day) and chanting “We Want Dallas” at every stoppage in play.

I’d love to tell you I remember Darryl Grant causing the earthquake that sent the Redskins to the Super Bowl but I don’t. I do remember the glee of 55,000 true believers walking out to the parking lot, some of them singing “Hail to the Redskins” at the top of their lungs. The way it snowed big snow flakes on the way home. The look on my typically taciturn father’s face. The smile lasted for days. Maybe weeks.

Seeing him happy made me happy. I became more than his boy that day, I became his buddy. We felt like equals. We felt like friends.

And while those moments became more fleeting as I grew up and our relationship became more distant before his death in 2010, the fact those ticket stubs remained on his dresser for years afterward served as a sign to me that he wanted to hold onto a part of that day forever. The only time I truly lost it after he cancer took him so abruptly at age 59 didn’t come as I stood at his bedside as he took his final breath, it was when I discovered the ticket stubs while taking an inventory of his things. Though my parents divorced when I was 17, the tickets remained in the same spot they’d always been. My guess _ my hope _ is his memory of that day did too.

The Redskins won the Super Bowl the week after that Cowboys’ game and two more by the time I graduated high school. My passion for them is what led me to become a sportswriter for a living. (Well that and the realization during my one inglorious fall as the smallest offensive lineman/linebacker in the history of the 75-pound Waldorf Wildcats that I was probably going to spend most of my teens in traction if I continued to play.)

My fandom for the franchise has flickered more than flared over the last two decades, though the embers remain ever vibrant just waiting to be stoked.

After all, I may be the only man in America to have this in his closet:

Schroeder

That is the jersey of former Redskins quarterback Jay Schroeder. He’s known mostly as the guy who came in when Joe Theismann’s leg was snapped in two during a Monday Night Football game like a first grader getting his hands on a Twix. I didn’t care that his prowess for throwing the deep ball was only matched by his petulance when he got benched. He was my guy. (And I maintain that if Doug Williams knee forced him out of Super Bowl XXII for the entire game Schroeder would have led them to victory anyway).

While I haven’t lived in DC for 15 years, I’ve done what I can to catch them when I can.

I flew halfway across the country to watch Jim Zorn coach in Dallas. I paid more than $400 bucks to watch Peyton Manning fillet them in Indy. I jumped out and down for 10 minutes the day Joe Gibbs returned in 2004. I was crushed when Sean Taylor was murdered and pissed when Art Monk spent year after year on the waiting list before going into the Hall of Fame.

And because of all that, because of the years and the money and the inordinate amount of time I’ve spent fixated on a franchise that made me want to become a sports writer before I ever figured out I wouldn’t be good at anything else, I can say this.

The nickname has to go. Has to.

And here’s why: because it doesn’t matter. The name itself _ like the nicknames for basically every other team in every sport at every level _ does not matter. People do not root for teams for the nickname. They might have an affinity for certain jerseys because they look cool. They may swag out because there’s something about how the colors silver-and-black go together or the way the NY falls on a Yankee cap, but the names themselves do not matter.

My connection with the Redskins has nothing to do with the word Redskins. My connection is with the players  _ my heroes _ that brought those jerseys to life. My connection is with the fans _ my mother and father especially _ who communed every Sunday at the altar of the burgundy and gold and spent every Saturday night watching “Redskins Sidelines” on Channel 9 (RIP Glenn Brenner) and every Monday at the dinner table obsessing over every triumph and mistake the day before.

That day I walked into RFK, the guys wearing the home whites could have been named anything. Seriously, anything. Not for one second in 32 years have I ever expressed an affinity for the Redskins other than the way the name evokes such strong feelings about my childhood.

But it would have been that way if they were called anything else. Because it does. not. matter.

I used to think the argument over whether the name was racist and offensive was dumb. It’s just a name and an emblem. It’s laundry, right? 

Not really. The first domino fell when trying to get my son (who was 3 at the time) to watch a game with me. He asked me who was playing. I told him the Redskins were playing.

“What’s a Redskins?” he asked.

“Hmmm. Well, see Colin, they’re well. What I mean is … it’s ummm.”

And then I just gave up. The truth is it’s a compound word. Red and skin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it started out as a way to describe the tone of Native Americans along the Delaware River Valley but over the years “redskin lost its neutral, accurate descriptive sense and became a term of disparagement.”

OK then. You’d think that’d be enough to start a relatively short and effective conversation about maybe switching the name right?

Well, not exactly.

Owner Dan Snyder _ who like me grew up in the DC area and basked in the glory and the agony of each season as a child and who unlike me became smart enough and rich enough to buy the team for himself _ has dug in his heels. He told ESPN recently “The Washington Redskins fan base represents honor, represents respect, represents pride.”

Snyder also put his money where his nickname is, establishing the Original Americans Foundation early this year, a group which pledges to work with tribal communities to provide resources and opportunities.

All of which is well and good. Here’s the thing though. He’s owned the team for 17 years. The team has been named the Redskins for [checks Wikipedia] oh, 17 years. Why now _ only after the critics have started coming after what ESPN’s Bob Ley called the “low hanging fruit” of bashing the name _ is Snyder suddenly so down for the cause?

Not surprisingly, a large percentage of the fan base (my mother included) has joined in. And they’re not alone. A poll released last week indicated 71 percent of Americans are just fine with the nickname staying

Which makes perfect sense, except for the part where it doesn’t. Asking the casual fan _ almost all of whom are an ethnicity other than Native American _ on whether the team should keep its nickname is akin to doing a poll in the south during the 1840s and asking folks who aren’t slaves if they think slavery is cool.

Over the top? I don’t know, any more over the top than having the most popular professional franchise that represents the capital of the most powerful country in the world boasting a nickname that is the equivalent of a slur?

I understand the defensiveness. I believe some of the energetic defense of the nickname is due to a sense of “racism by association.” My mother thinks “I like the Redskins. I’m not a racist. But if you say the name is racist and I’m a fan of the team, then I’m a racist.”

First mom, you’re not a racist. Nor, I’m sure, are the hundreds of thousands of others who part with a substantial chunk of change for tickets, parking, food, the 18th version of a Robert Griffin III jersey or anything else that Snyder (who also does not appear to be a racist) has monetized to within an inch of your wallet’s life.

If you like the team, that does not mean you are a racist. If you’re not bothered by the name, that does not mean you are a racist.

You know who was a racist though, in deed if not in words? George Preston Marshall, the man who co-founded the Boston Braves in 1932 then switched the name to Redskins the following year because _ according to The Associated Press story at the time _ he didn’t want his team to be confused with Major League Baseball’s Boston Braves. The fact he had several Native Americans in uniform was immaterial.

“The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins,” the AP quoted Marshall as saying on July 5, 1933.

Marshall was a visionary marketer. He moved the franchise to Washington D.C., in 1937 and saw that football was entertainment. He created the Redskins Marching Band, who made “Hail to the Redskins” the first fight song for an NFL team. That song’s lyrics include the lines “beat’em, swamp’em touchdown let the points soar” which last I checked, appear to be pretty damn offensive. “We Are The World” it is not.

Marshall wasn’t, however, a visionary in terms of progress. Even as the number of African-American players flourished throughout the NFL in the 1950s, his team’s roster remained all white. It wasn’t until his hand was forced by the federal government _ which threatened to pull Marshall’s lease on DC Stadium _ that he reluctantly traded for Cleveland Browns star running back Bobby Mitchell. Of course, this was after Marshall drafted former Ohio State running back Ernie Davis, who declined to play for the Redskins because of Marshall’s reluctance to integrate the team.

So let’s see. Folks are backing a nickname considered a slur that was thought up by a guy who refused to sign African-American players for 15 years after it became common practice.

Yeah, that makes sense.

It’s the why that gets me. Why does the name matter? Will people stop coming to games, watching on TV or buying swag if Snyder decides to ditch Redskins for something _ anything _ less offensive.

No. In fact, he’d probably make MORE money. New name means new merchandise. It also means Snyder will still get to sell Redskins merchandise because if there’s anything the NFL loves it’s selling old jerseys as a revenue stream. People can complain all they want about the state of the economy, but I’ll start worrying only when I see folks stop shelling out money for things like this: 

When I was a kid, the NBA team in Washington was called the Bullets. In the late-1990s owner Abe Pollin _ pointing to the alarming rise in gun violence in the city _ held a contest to change the name. They came up with the Wizards. The colors went from red/white/blue to blue/gold and something else. It was an uninspired choice, but I understood the reasoning even if any sort of link between the team’s name and DC becoming the “Murder Capital of the World” for a brief time had nothing to do with each other.

There are much larger issues in the NFL _ and in life _ than the nickname. I get that. And when the Redskins play in Houston this afternoon, I’ll keep an eye on it even as I work in the press box at Heinz Field doing a job that I love, a job whose seeds were planted on that unforgettable day 31 years ago when RFK shook and the jubilation gave me a high I’ve spent three decades chasing.

But here’s the thing. The name is fixable. An easy fix at that. If even a small handful of people are offended _ and really, the number is considerably higher _ then what’s the point of keeping it around.

There was a time when it was OK to say “colored” or “Negro.” I know this because I heard those words from people in my extended family as a kid. That doesn’t mean it’s OK anymore.

Times change. And this is all so arbitrary and unnecessary. Any other name would work. Unlike college, the NFL is about the names on the back of the jersey, not the one on the front.

I don’t root for the word Redskins. I root for Riggo and RG3. For Schroeder and Santana and Coach Gibbs and (for now) Jay Gruden.

And I root for this silly nonsense to end so I can pass my love for the franchise _ and the link it provided to my father _ along to my son. I’m already fighting an uphill battle. He and his little sister will grow up surrounded by Steeler fans. And if they become one, I can deal with it.

Of course, if they opt for the Cowboys then they’re out of the will. I mean, you gotta draw the line somewhere.

Like say, a nickname whose time has come and long since gone.

Hail to the Redskins? I’ll hail when common sense prevails. Until then, may the battle for decency “fight on, fight on, till it has won.”

Then _ and only then _ will the franchise become “sons of Washington.”

Dear Colin

Colin bowling

Hey little man.

You’re not gonna believe this, but you start kindergarten tomorrow. Note in some far off daydream in my head, but In real life.

Your mother, sister and I will walk you the 400 feet from our front door to the bus stop. We’ll wait for No. 105 to come around the corner. The doors will open. We’ll make sure you have your lunch, your pencils and your courage. You’ll take three big steps up, find the window seat you’re so excited about and sit down.

Then off you’ll go. 

You’ll be fine. Hell, the fact that this is your favorite song means we should just drop you off at the nearest college and be done with it.

You’re ready. Your mother and I are not. Not even close. Sure we’ve known this day was coming since May 20, 2009, when the doctors stubbornly pulled all 9 lbs., 7 ounces of you into the world. (By the way, there’s a good chance your mother’s gall bladder _ the one you held onto as they tried to unwedge your foot from her ribs _ still hasn’t returned to its original shape.) And sure there were times during those first few months when colic made you so angry every night I actually stuffed cotton balls in my ears to survive that I wouldn’t have minded the thought of you finding somewhere else to go every day.

Not anymore. Not by a long shot.

You (and your sister) are the greatest thing to ever happen to anybody ever in the world. It’s as if someone distilled the best parts of us _ your mother’s kindness, grace and generosity, my inherent silliness _ and threw away the rest of the crap when they made you.

Your curiosity astounds me. Your photographic memory scares me. The light burning inside you is so pure that the only thing I want to do is protect it.

Only I can’t. That’s not fair. That’s not the way it goes. For you and for the other 20 kids who will walk into Mrs. Hoyle’s class in what quite literally will be the first day of the rest of your lives.

There’s a lot to do. A lot to know. And the sad truth is when you’re older you’re not going to remember much about your life before school started. There may be an image or two, a thought that might stick with you but beyond that it’ll be some sort of foggy blur.

So I’m going to tell you this now so we can look it up in 20 years and laugh about what a chicken your father was (and probably still is):

You are joy. You are everything that is good stuffed into 38 pounds of skin, bones and bliss.

I know that sounds like a lot to put on your tiny shoulders, but anyone who has spent more than five minutes around you knows it’s true. It’s the only way to explain a kid who turns to either one of his parents randomly and says “Mommy/Daddy, I really love you” and then goes back to whatever he’s doing without asking for something in return. The only way to explain a boy who still needs to touch his mother’s skin before bedtime, who shares his toys with his sister so willingly, who loves with a sincerity that I wondered could ever exist.

I see you and wonder how I could possibly be responsible for half of it. I’ve spent most of my life dealing with a voice in my head that makes me constantly examine my worth. If that same voice pops up in yours, I pray you have the strength (and the confidence) to ignore it the way I couldn’t. 

The greatest days of your life lay ahead. It begins the second the bus doors open tomorrow and you let go of mommy’s hand and grab onto your lunchbox and pull out of sight.

And as much as part of me wants to stop you, take you home and barter with God for another few weeks, another few months, another few years of the seemingly unlimited happiness you have provided us, it’s not what you need. It’s not what you deserve.

Starting tomorrow, your journey really begins. You will learn how to write letters and read books with chapters in them. I predict you’ll become obsessed with math. You’ll sing songs and run races. You’ll make friends that will last a lifetime. You’ll have your heart broken by a girl (eventually). You’ll get sent to the principal’s office (at least once, or you’re doing it wrong). It will be the best time. And I can’t believe I get a front row seat.

In a month this will all seem routine. In a year it will be an afterthought. In five we’ll pull out pictures of your first-ever day of school and your mother and I will laugh about how scared we all were.

We promise to be brave tomorrow morning. We won’t cry until the bus is around the corner, until the little baby with the seemingly inflatable cheeks is on his way to take on the big, bad world. One that will be a little better because you’re in it.

Thank you for the last five years Goobs. They have been the best of my life, no matter how complicated I tried to make it at times. You have taught me how to be a man, a gift I’ll never be able to repay. I’ll try to remind myself (and you) that you’re still our little boy. I’ll make sure to remind you that no matter what adventures await, your mother, sister and I will be there.

We just don’t get to hog you anymore.

It’s time for you to share your light.

May it never go out.

Love,

Daddy

 

 

 

Of Mice and Men

I get by with a little help from my ummm ... friends

I get by with a little help from my ummm … friends

I keep waiting for this to change me, for the tectonic plates in my soul to suddenly move around and reconstitute themselves, for the rough edges I’ve spent four decades trying to sand away _ my obnoxiousness, my impetuousness and my self-centeredness among others _ to just disappear on their own now simply because I have the qualifier “cancer patient” at the end of my name.

Only they haven’t. Five months after being told I have Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia _ an incurable but highly treatable form of lymphoma _  the clarity about What It All Means I expected to come along with the diagnosis remains elusive. I’m healthy (more on that later) but I’m no closer to figuring things out now than I was the second my oncologist walked into my hospital room back in March, handed me his card and made me, _ how do I put this politely _ freak the (deleted) out.

I thought cancer would give me a sense of purpose, that it would galvanize me in the way it seems to do for so many others. I thought somehow my condition would spur me to volunteer for the Red Cross or the Central Blood Bank since I can no longer donate the one thing that I absolutely need to survive.

I talked about reaching out to find other patients who have what I have to quell the momentary panic that sprints through my mind whenever my inner monologue begins a sentence with the phrase “if this treatment doesn’t work.” I talked about making this blog a regular thing in the hopes it would be therapeutic.

I talked. And talked. And talked. So far I’ve done little more than spend most of the spring and summer obsessing over my weight, my hemoglobin level and my place in the world.

I have somehow turned cancer into a vanity project. The only things missing are a Kardashian, an Instagram account and a well-positioned selfie (relax, not this time America).

When I bring this up to friends or family, I get an uncomfortable laugh in return. They tell me not to be so hard on myself. They tell me to relax and try to enjoy how incredibly lucky I am. They remind me to focus on the way my body is responding and the amazing support system I have in place.

And they’re right (note: they usually are but please don’t tell them I said so) but for some reason that voice in my head, the one that relentlessly reminds me of all the (extremely superficial) things I don’t have in my life _ and all the things I’m not doing with it _ will not shut the (again, deleted) up.

Until today. It’s time. Hell, it’s past time.  Way, way, way past time.

I turned 40 a few weeks ago and realized I’ve wasted most of the first four decades of my life constantly measuring myself against the vision in my head of what I SHOULD be.

And while ambition can be a virtue, too much of it can be maddening. All the anxiety. All the angst. All the hell I gave my parents for buying me Toughskins instead of Levis when I was a kid, no matter that they were saving for my college fund _ a plan that allowed me to be one of the fortunate few who graduated from school debt free. It’s a gift I’ve never properly thanked them for.

It’s time to let it go. To be honest, I was hoping my cancer would do the work for me the way it helped me lose the 30 pounds I’d gained in the last five years. As if somehow the fight that’s been raging in my bone marrow for far too long would also alter the neurons in my brain to permanently change the default setting from “self-absorbed egomaniac” to “grown up.”

It hasn’t, at least not yet.

Don’t get me wrong, this disease is equal parts humbling and harrowing. For the first time in my life, I have truly felt defective (as opposed to the usual normal socially awkward and self aware stuff), like the way your car operates when it’s sipping on ‘E’ as traffic whizzes by.

While my treatment is mild by most cancer standards _ one shot of chemo every 3/4 days and one IV treatment of a drug called Rituxan (made with a combination of mouse and human proteins) during each three-week cycle _ that doesn’t mean it has been smooth.

During my first  Rituxan infusion it felt like there was an earthquake under my chair. One problem: I was the one shaking, not the ground. It was terrifying. I had involuntarily lost control of my body as the Rituxan _ a mix of mice and human proteins that basically serve as a beacon for my white blood cells to get into my cancer-infested marrow and start kicking ass. The nurses pulled the curtain so I wouldn’t freak out the other patients. A shot of Demerol and my breathing slowed. The rigors eased.

And the lessons began.

Her name is Ruth. I didn’t ask but if I had to, I’d guess she was in her early 60s. We’d chatted in the waiting room that day, mostly about the magical qualities of Eat N’ Park smiley face cookies. She wore a pink bandana over her head. She was in for another round of chemo chemo (not the chemo-lite that I’m on).  Her hair was gone. Her voice was hoarse. Her smile was permanent. She’d been diagnosed with breast cancer and brain cancer in 2012. The doctors gave her 10 months. Here it was, more than 18 months later and she was still at it. She could no longer drive (which irritated her) and had to be escorted to therapy by one of her kids (which annoyed her even more).

A few minutes after the earthquake stopped, she walked over, the bag with the life-extending poison still dripping its way into her left arm.

“You doing OK?” she asked.

My response was ummmm, inelegant.

“God damn it Ruth, why are you checking on me? I’m the youngest person in here,” I said.

(And the dumbest, by the way.)

Here I was in a moment of true vulnerability worried about how I looked to the rest of the world. What. An. Idiot.

I laughingly apologized to Ruth before she left. A little while later, my wife Ellie and I struck up a conversation with Margaret, who sat across the room from us enduring her own chemo drip. Six years ago she beat back ovarian cancer. Now it had taken the fight elsewhere. We joked about how getting sick the greatest Jenny Craig diet ever. She lamented the fact she couldn’t ride her tractor even though her grass desperately needed cutting. She told me to “be strong.”

I wondered whether the fortitude that she and Ruth have in abundance would be there for me if I ever really needed it.

Silly me. I shouldn’t have worried. See, I got lucky. I married my strength.

World's greatest everything

World’s greatest everything

Her is Eleanor, which is Greek for “shining light.” For more than a decade she has been one of the few constants in a life I have built with an unintentional sense of impermanence.

We met May, 23 2001 and married four years later. It says something about her _ and about me _ that it was her idea to have our anniversary (June 11 if you wanna send gifts) inscribed on the inside of our wedding bands.

She is the one person in the world not related to me by blood whose belief in my inherent (if sometimes misguided) goodness is unwavering.  And trust me, I have done everything in my power to make her waver.

I say sometimes that living with me isn’t easy. It’s meant to come off as a self-deprecating joke. In most ways it’s not.

I’m moody, self-involved and most days unable to think of much that doesn’t involve what’s directly in front of my face at the moment. She is the Michael Jordan of planning: meticulous, thoughtful and relentless. She is equal parts mother, wife, friend, drill sergeant, teacher and muse.

Oh, and she’s tough as hell. The 13 years we’ve been together haven’t always been good. The overwhelming blame lies with me. I spent the first 20 years of my adult life trying to right all the “wrongs” I felt I’d endured growing up. I became obsessed with what other people thought of me. Am I funny enough? Am I talented enough? Popular enough? Smart enough?  The list is neverending.

And she’s sat there patiently as the days bled into weeks bled into months bled into a life together. She reassures me when I doubt. She picks me up when I’m too damn lazy to do it myself, though over the last three years she’s made sure I do my share of the heavy lifting too.

That demand _ which is really what she’s deserved all along _ is probably what makes our marriage stronger now than it has ever been.

There aren’t words (and trust me, I’ve looked) that can adequately describe how thankful I am that she’s too damn stubborn to bail. During those bumpy early days after the diagnosis, she let me crack all the dumb morbid jokes I wanted. These days she occasionally brings work to the treatment center on the days I receive Rituxan to make sure I’m not lonely or scared or bored or some combination of the three.

She doesn’t do it because I have cancer or because I’m the father of our two children. She does it because she believes in our marriage, our partnership and the unending possibility of what’s to come. And she does it because (and I like to think this is my influence on her) she’s too arrogant to think this thing is going to get the better of us. We have worked too hard. Too. Damn. Hard.

I will never be able to repay her for her kindness and grace. Ever. And I pray God doesn’t ask me to try.

See, here’s the thing: all the stuff that drives me crazy about myself she came to terms with that crap long ago. She has never really asked me to change beyond being committed to the idea that I can change if I feel like it. If I do and it makes me a better person/husband/father? Fantastic. If not? Hey, she’s stuck around this long. No sense bailing now.

There’s another inscription in our wedding bands beside our anniversary (note to gift-givers, we could use some new knives!) — INO.

It stands for It’s Never Over, a nod to the 2.5 years we were apart early in our relationship before she moved to Florida  but one that seems even more fitting today. Our marriage _ like our battle with my disease _ is an evolutionary process. Surrendering on either front is not an option. For her. For me. For our family.

Thank God.

The fight goes on. Gratefully.

Feel free to play us out Etta. 

-30-

The Invisible Man

Me and Dad

I didn’t call him enough. I can see that now. That’s on me.

Instead, I ran, just like I always did. I took the path of least resistance with my father because, well, that’s just the way Tom Graves wanted it. In the 59 years he walked the earth, in particular the 35 he spent with me in his life, you could count the number of times things didn’t go his way on two hands. Maybe one.

So when he diagnosed with stage 3 esophageal cancer in the fall of 2009 I did what he wanted. I let it go. Treated it as just another thing on his plate, like the property flipping business he started in retirement. A chore he would take care of on his own terms, thanks for not asking.

So I didn’t. He began chemotherapy in September, 2009 and I made exactly zero change to our routine. I think during his first four months of treatment we might have talked twice.  And when we did, it wasn’t about cancer. What questions I did manage to squeak out (note: my father remains the toughest interview of my life) were met with a simple “Oh, dad’s fine” and the unmistakable subtext that trying to work on a followup was completely unnecessary.

Being 600 miles away in Kentucky and preoccupied with a job and an infant son, I was only too happy to go along. I could hear the frustration in my sister’s voice when she talked about her inability to communicate with him and I wanted no part of it. Better to pretend that everything is fine rather than deal with the messy emotions that come with true honesty.

It’ll be fine, I convinced myself. This will be just another one of those things that he handles alone, like the three heart attacks he suffered between his mid-40s and early 50s. The ones he basically walked off like a bad cold.

He was so fiercely private about his health I literally had to invent an excuse to come home when he underwent surgery in January, 2010 for what he kept referring to as a “blockage” in his intestine. When I surprised him in the hospital, I lied and told him I was in town because a high school friend was having a bachelor party. Seeing him laid up in bed, his body dulled yellow by chemo and nausea forcing him to spit up into a wastebasket every few minutes was jarring. The 6-foot-6, 235-pound in his prime monolith I remembered couldn’t have weighed 170 pounds.

And still, the charade continued. I hung out with him before he went into surgery. We talked about my upcoming Olympic assignment. We talked about Colin, his grandson. We talked about the Redskins (because we always talked about the Redskins). We kept it light.

The day I flew back to Kentucky, I stopped by the hospital to chat. He appeared exhausted but OK. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be the last time I saw him alive, but it kind of felt like it was. It was pleasant but my most vivid memory was how I basically tried to get him to tell me he was proud of me. I needed to hear it. He obliged (kind of) but it wasn’t quite the heartwarming “movie” moment that I’d fantasized about. It felt forced (by me, not by him). I hugged him and left, already preoccupied with thoughts of the Vancouver Olympics.

Barely a month later, he was gone. It wasn’t the cancer technically. His heart, weary of the fight, gave out. I spoke to him a couple of days before that last heart attack. He was back in the hospital and high on pain medication. He thought I was his girlfriend when I initially called. I think the entire conversation lasted 97 seconds. Enough time for one last “I love you” from both of us. While I was able to get home and be in the room when they turned the life support machines off, there was little doubt he was already gone.

Four years later, I still don’t know what to make of his death and how it impacted my life. It’s funny. I miss him more now than I did two years ago. Maybe it took cancer (in some small way) to find the common ground that we failed to reach as adults.

My cancer is different (thank God). I’m not going to die. Not even close. While the first cycle of treatment was a little bumpy (I’ll blog about that later) I’m amazed at my body’s ability to handle constant bombardment of medicine, whether it’s Velcade or the Rituxin that is treating the cancer or the fistful of pills I take daily to ward off the side effects. The early numbers are encouraging. And while I may be in treatment longer than anticipated, my resolve _ thanks in large part to the support of my wife Ellie _ has only strengthened.

Yet sitting in a chair for hours on end (my Rituxin days are a good 7-8 hours long, as are the days when I receive blood transfusions) gives you time to think. I can’t shake the idea of what treatment must have been like for my father.

The thing that has frustrated me the most since this thing has started is the knowledge that I can’t predict on a given day how I’m going to feel. I’ve called out of assignments on my way to them because I’ve been hit with a sudden fever or weakness. I can’t imagine how difficult and painful ceding that power from his mind to his body must have been for dad, who never met a situation he couldn’t find a way to immediately take control of. I imagine it was infuriating and agonizing. I’ll never know, though. I never called to ask. I happily took ‘no’ for an answer.

I shouldn’t have.  I wasn’t a kid when he went through this. I was 35. I was a husband and a father. I was a professional with a career. Yet the balance of power in our relationship never evolved. In many ways I was still the 10-year-old who famously told him once that I didn’t have to do my homework anymore because I was  a big kid. He responded by grounding me.

I fully understand that some of this is on him. That he kept nearly everyone, from his parents to his brothers and sisters to his children, at arm’s length. And because he had a force of will unmatched by anyone perhaps on the planet, we didn’t fight it. We should have. I should have.

The guilt of failing to do that ebbs and flows. I don’t feel it quite as acutely as I did in the immediate aftermath of his passing. Instead, I just miss him. I would have liked to see him as grandfather. He saw his grandson Colin once. He never met my 2-year-old daughter Catherine. I bet she would have owned him. The thought of it makes me laugh.

One of the blessings (if you can call it that) of this illness is that it has forced me to empathize with him. The differences and distance that had us reach out from neutral corners most of the time has disappeared. I feel closer to him in a way. I was wide awake at 4 a.m. last week (thanks steroids!) when I envisioned him walking into the bedroom. He filled the frame (he always did). I didn’t hallucinate but the image was so clear that I started to cry. For years during young adulthood he was on the periphery of my life. Now that I finally have the courage to want him to be a part of the nucleus, he’s gone.

Colin asked Ellie this morning who my dad was. She politely responded “Grandpa Tom” and the name didn’t register in Colin’s ears. Part of that’s on me. I haven’t talked about my dad enough, perhaps because I never talked TO him enough.

Yet Colin needs to know about his grandfather, even if I’m still learning. He needs to know that the reason I do what I do for a living isn’t because it’s cool or because I think I’m good at it. I do this because sports was the one thing my father and I could talk about.

He took me to my first football game when I was 8, the 1982 NFC championship between the Redskins and the Cowboys. Three decades later I can still hear the crowd at RFK chant “We Want Dallas.” The Redskins won. My father was joyful. I was hooked.

I have no idea how my relationship with Colin will evolve over the next 30 years. I want us to be friends when he’s my age. (Hell, I want to be alive when he’s my age). I hope we’re close. I know one thing’s for certain. I won’t raise him to take no for an answer from me. I won’t let him be satisfied if I try to keep him at arm’s length. If that’s the lesson I take from my father’s death, so be it.

Thanks Pop. Sorry I didn’t call enough. For both of us. It won’t happen again.

Dad was a big Motown/R&B guy. I’ll let Marvin show you out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ph0aELhsQoc

Will

 

The Best Medicine

The 2nd best medicine around. But nowhere near the top.

The 2nd best medicine around. But nowhere near the top.

The messages keep flooding in, one after another. On Twitter. On Facebook. On my phone. In my email. Close friends. Random acquaintances. Total strangers.

All expressing their support. Or offering prayers. Or wanting to know what they could do to help. Or all three.

To be honest, overwhelming doesn’t come close to describing the response to last week’s blog about my cancer diagnosis. I’m not really sure what I was going for, really, other than the pressing need to get it off my chest.

Subtlety has never been my thing, I mean I’m the same guy who proposed to his wife in a column nearly 10 years ago.

Amazingly, Ellie said yes that Saturday morning in June 2004, even though she later admitted she didn’t actually read it at the time. Instead she stared at the page and waited the appropriate 90 seconds while I fumbled with the ring and tried not to vomit.

In a way, maybe last week’s post was like that. Except I kind of knew what was coming when Ellie opened the box. I did not when I hit send on “Patient No. 840379159.”

How could I? I consider myself a tough guy to know. For all my chattiness, I keep people at arm’s length even while I spend most of my professional life doing a pretty solid Arnold Horshack impression hoping to sate an ego that sometimes gets the best of me.

So when the notes started coming in _ and really, they haven’t stopped _ I wasn’t sure what to do (and I’m still not). For someone who loves attention, I’m terrible at handling it when I get it.

What’s the proper way to thank people to making time to reach out no matter how long it’s been since we’ve spoken? To honor their compassion for thinking of you during one of the most difficult moments of your life? To repay the gift of those _ from family members to old friends to folks who’ve never laid eyes on me _ who have promised to donate blood or make a charitable donation of some sort, a truly life-saving gift for whoever receives it?

I have no clue. I guess I’ll just keep writing. I’ve asked people in the last week what should come next and their answers mostly fell in the “talk about whatever you want” camp. Funny, I’m not sure what that is anymore. Maybe because for once it’s not just about me.

Am I “Cancer Guy?” Am I “Blood Donation Guy?” Am I “That dude that got sick and is turning this into a career springboard Guy” (kidding about that last one, well, probably).

I can tell you in the last 10 days the catharsis that came with disclosing my diagnosis and the high from the half-gallon of blood I received from random donors has faded.

Reality has set in. I’m a cancer patient in practice now, not just in theory.

Each morning starts with a handful of pills, drugs for my drugs. Every 3-4 days I receive a small chemo injection into my abdomen that over the next 3 months will turn my gut into the world’s ugliest checkerboard thanks to the bruising that comes when your depleted platelets need scads of reinforcements to deal with the incessant barrage of needles.

Next Monday I go in for my first dose of IV immunotherapy, a mixture that includes mice DNA and probably more than a bit of my sanity.

And yet, I know I’m lucky. That part hasn’t changed. While prepping for treatment on Monday, I sat down next to another patient who will turn 90 this summer but easily looked 20 years younger. The oldest of eight kids (and the only daughter) she is now the matriarch of a massive family to which she remains the linchpin. She smiled while the nurse tucked the IV into the port on her chest and settled in to read a book while the bag slowly dripped the life-saving poison (because really, that’s what we’re talking when we’re talking about chemo) into her veins.

There was no drama. She didn’t look to the heavens wondering what it all means, when this battle will end. She read quietly and went about her day. It wasn’t heroic (except for the part where of course it was). She wasn’t trying to send a message. She was just doing what she had to because, well _ that’s what millions do every day, really _ when they’re faced with this monster.

And it is a monster.

Even while I bound up the steps after my kids, even as I brag I’m too damn arrogant to let this thing get to me, even as I refuse to park in the designated “cancer patient” spots at the treatment center, I’m well aware of what my family and I face.

It’s menace is evident every time I get to the top of the steps in my house and wait to see if my pulse will start pounding inside my temples again. It’s there every time I get my blood tested, where my mood on a given day will depend entirely on my hemoglobin level at the moment. It’s there when I toss back a handful of pills and hope the steroids I’m on (and really, to be fair, they’re fantastic) will also make me so edgy I accidentally snap at my kids. It’s there in the research Ellie and I have done on Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia, which constantly reminds us there is no cure, at least not yet.

And it’s intimidating and terrifying and at the same time, it’s no big deal. I wrote last week that “Cancer will not have me.” Know what else cancer doesn’t have?

You.

I do. Thank God.

Sorry cancer, you asked for it. Right Eric B. & Rakim ?

— 30 —

Patient No. 840379159

Sadly, this wristband did not get me into the club

Sadly, this wristband did not get me into the club

Here’s what happens when they tell you that you have cancer. You don’t hear the rest of the sentence. Or the one after that. Or the one after that. Or anything else for the next hour really. The moment the word escapes the doctor’s mouth, everything they say starts sounding like the teacher in Charlie Brown. “You have cancer womp womp waaah waah …”

So before we get too deep into this, I guess I’ll start by telling you: I have cancer.

Womp. Womp. Waaah. Waah.

It’s OK. Take a second if you need it. Trust me, I needed more than one.

Technically, I have Waldenstrom macroglobulinemia, a rare form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. It’s named after Swedish oncologist Jan G. Waldenström, who “discovered” it in 1944. Lucky guy. His name is forever associated with something that freaks people the (deleted) out. Or so I hear.

You might have lots of questions. Trust me, I have lots of questions. Of course, there’s only one that really matters whenever you get diagnosed with anything associated with the word “cancer” in it.

The good news (depending on what side of the ledger I am with you) is that it’s not going to kill me. To be honest, it’s too damn lazy, but we’ll get to that later.

Now let’s back up. Over the last six months I had noticed a significant decline in my energy level, a decline I basically attributed to an erratic work schedule, a shaky diet and the fact I have two young children who don’t believe in sleeping through the night in their own beds. Oh, and my age. I turn 40 in August, and I remember thinking “no wonder getting old sucks” as I felt my heart rate climb whenever I did anything more taxing than lift my phone to check my twitter feed.

I had tried to donate blood last spring (something I try to do semi-regularly to honor my father, who died of esophageal cancer in 2010) when the nurse told me I couldn’t because my iron level was too low. I was disappointed I couldn’t donate but hardly concerned. My eating habits consist mainly of serving as a garbage disposal for whatever my son Colin and my daughter Catherine don’t eat with the occasional bag of Combos or Twizzlers thrown in. (Sadly, this is not much of an exaggeration). I figured a little more spinach and the occasional steak and I’d be fine.

I was not fine.

The signs that things weren’t right (fatigue, a loss of appetite, shortness of breath) manifested themselves during my 3 1/2 weeks in Russia covering the Winter Olympics. Headaches, pasty skin and pretty rapid weight loss joined the party (though I wasn’t really complaining about the weight loss part). I had an excuse for each symptom, blaming them on 14-16 hour days, the horrific food and an extended case of jet lag.

It really didn’t register until my colleague Eddie Pells and I attempted to climb up to the gondola from the media center at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on the final day of competition. The climb isn’t for the faint of heart, maybe the equivalent of 60-70 flights of stairs.

I didn’t exactly race up the mountain.

It took forever. I stopped every two flights to catch my breath, as the ego that challenged me to keep up with Eddie ceded that something was going on beyond what I like to call “fat sportswriter syndrome.”

I thought all I really needed to do was get home. That didn’t work either. I visited a primary care physician a week after I returned. He ordered me to have some tests done. Of course, I put it off even as my body kept bludgeoning me with the fact that I was in serious trouble.

I ended up giving a blood test on Monday, March 10. That night I told Ellie “they need to call me tomorrow and tell me what’s going on.”

They did. At 8:30, my doctor’s nurse ordered me to “go directly to the hospital.” Stupidly I drove my kids to daycare. The blood test had revealed my hemoglobin level was 3.5. Typically the range for someone my age is 12-14. The nurses in the ER told me it was a miracle I was even conscious.

The problem? My blood had turned to Jell-O. I was walking around with the blood-oxygen level of someone standing atop Mount Everest. My heart was working so hard because it was trying only somewhat successfully to pump sludge through my body.

Still, I wasn’t exactly prepared when I woke up in the hospital on Wednesday morning and a doctor walked in and handed me a card with UPMC Cancer Centers splashed across the front.

I believe my reaction was something to the effect of “Um, what? Dude, I’m just anemic. Stuff me full of blood and iron pills and I’ll be on my way.”

Not exactly. Three days in the hospital, seven units of EPO-enriched blood (seriously, I think Lance Armstrong can probably smell me from Austin), a bone marrow biopsy and a PET scan followed.

The 10 days between when I fell ill and was diagnosed were maddening. The wormhole of information on the Internets can lead you to some pretty dark places. (Note: the nurses say WebMD should be avoided at all costs).

I thought long and hard about my father and my brother-in-law Bill, a non-smoker who died last summer at 34 after a brief and soul-wrenching bout with lung cancer. They were physically imposing specimens (6-6, 225 for my dad, 6-3, 190 for Bill) chopped down in their prime by the cruel mixture of chemo and disease while their families could do little but watch, a scenario that plays over and over again far too often every day across the globe.

Bill and my dad were strong. I am not. Bill and my dad were stoic. I am not. Bill and my dad were grown-ups. I am not. If cancer took them, what the hell kind of a chance did I stand? I am 5-foot-10, 190 pounds of  blah. I get that it sounds like self-pity. Did I mention the part where I spent 10 days not knowing for sure what kind of cancer I had?

Though I made plenty of jokes to deflect the terror that was building within, as Ellie and I drove to my oncologist’s office _ how in the hell did I just type “my oncologist” with a straight face _ it kind of hit me. “Good Lord, I’m going to get diagnosed with cancer. Like in real life.”

On the surface, it looks bad. About 80 percent of my bone marrow is cancerous. A bunch of lymph nodes in my gut and my spleen _ which apparently is the size of a football (note, it should not be the size of a football) too. No wonder my body stopped producing blood, my good marrow is getting strangled.

And while all that sounds horrific, the truth is I am going to be fine, or as close as somebody with cancer can get. It says so right here.

Here’s what I can tell you: it’s not a tumor.

Waldenstrom’s is considered an “indolent” form of cancer. That’s a fancy word for lazy. The doctor estimates it was growing anywhere from 2-5 years before showing itself.

Of course I got the laziest form of cancer. Because well, have you met me?

The long-term survival rate is off the charts for patients my age, basically because there are so few of us (the average Waldenstrom patient is 61). The treatment, amazingly, is not chemo but targeted immunotherapy, which I will receive once every three weeks. I’ll get a shot in my stomach (fun!) every 3-4 days and pop some steroids in between.

Basically, I’ll be on enough drugs (along with the EPO) that I should be penciled in at third base for the Yankees.

The doctor says the cocktail I’ll be on is 97 percent effective. Because there is no cure (at least not yet), we can’t kill the cancer, just make it go to sleep for awhile. I’ll be tested regularly for the rest of my life to see if it’s waking up, which it will at some point.

This sounds bizarre, but I’m lucky. Very lucky. At the moment, I plan on working during treatment. I have no restrictions on my diet or what I can do. (That’s what the doc says, but I’ll point out I still can’t dunk a basketball). And hey, I get to pull the “I have cancer!” card out in mid-conversation if I get into an argument I think I’m losing.

I’m writing this because I watched my father hide his battle with cancer until it was almost too late. I’m writing this because I’m a blabber-mouth. I’m writing this because it’s going to get out anyway and I don’t want folks (particularly colleagues) to hear “Will has cancer” and have them think they can start polishing their resumes.

I’m not going anywhere. Sorry copy editors of the world.

The folks I have told in person have offered up their prayers and support. I imagine more is on the way as this gets out. And while I am thankful and grateful for them, there’s something that will be just as important to me: your blood.

Because I’m not a vampire (and more accurately, because I don’t look like Alexander Skarsgard) I can’t take it directly from your neck. That would be rude. And gross. And probably illegal.

Hopefully I won’t actually need any more transfusions, though the doc tells me I likely won’t see any real progress in my marrow until months after my initial treatment. Seriously, though, there is a blood shortage throughout the country and people in worse shape than I am are in desperate need. It really is the best drug out there.

And if they tell you your iron level is low or there is some other issue: GO GET IT CHECKED OUT FOR GOD’S SAKE.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this space. Like myself I consider it a work in progress. I won’t write about cancer necessarily (though I will provide the occasional update).  Maybe I’ll write about my kids. Maybe I’ll write about something I couldn’t find a place for in a story I’m working on. Maybe I’ll write about my stunningly supportive wife, who has already endured more in our 9 years of marriage than some spouses have in a lifetime. Or maybe I’ll just crack lame jokes (oh wait, that’s my twitter feed).

The gist of all this, though, that I’m going to be fine. My sister told me this whole thing is just a ploy for attention.

Think maybe next time I’ll just post a naked selfie instead. Tastefully done, of course. Then again, maybe not.

I’ve got cancer. So what? Cancer will not have me.

Take it from here Uncle L.

— 30 — (that’s fancy journalist talk for I’m done)