A Life in 3D

Photo courtesy Naples Daily News

Photo courtesy Naples Daily News

Mondays and Wednesdays were the worst. They were hell. Dragging yourself out of bed before sunrise was even a rumor. Trudging onto the track at Estero High in virtual darkness, where the Gatorade you slammed on your way did little to ease the knot in your stomach about what awaited you once he signaled it was time to get started.

Jeff Sommer called it “Speed Work.” Pure agony would have been more accurate. A series of 100s, 400s and 800s through the early morning soup at a school basically built on the edge of a swamp. Over and over and over again. Down and back. Down and back. Sommer’s voice a nonstop full-throated rasp _ the one that betrayed his West Virginia twang no matter how long he lived in Southwest Florida _ that doubled as a GPS for your soul.

And now suddenly, tragically it’s gone. His death last weekend at 58 just minutes after the Estero High girls 4×800 team won a state title leaves a hole that will be impossible to fill, perhaps because what he did and who he was seems itself impossible.

Running is a series of eternal battles. Between your quads and your mind, your hamstrings and your heart, your want and your will. It’s not that putting one foot in front of the other as fast as you can for as long as you can is difficult. It’s just that stopping is so easy.

Sommer understood the struggle. He embraced it. And for 28 years his passion served as the tie-breaking vote in your head all those mornings when you didn’t feel like going. When you wanted to hit snooze. When you wanted to tell him to find the highest point in the bleachers at Wildcat Stadium and take a head-first dive off it.

Only you didn’t. You couldn’t. Because he believed. He always believed. It didn’t matter if you had talent or not. Lord knows he didn’t attract the best athletes all those years even as his program littered the Estero High gym with state championship banner after state championship banner.

Cross country is often for the leftovers, the kids too skinny for football, too unrefined for soccer, too impatient for golf. And so he’d scour the halls recruiting, looking for kids who were searching for a place of their own. He never said no. Fat. Skinny. Fast. Slow. If you were interested in testing yourself, he was interested in you.

The club was his idea. He didn’t want cross-country to serve as a hobby that happened from August through November before you moved on to whatever came next. He wasn’t engineered that way. Running was no more a hobby to Sommer than breathing. He didn’t want you to commit, he wanted you to Commit _ capital C.

Dedication. Desire. Discipline. The “3Ds.” It wasn’t a club so much as a calling. A way of life for those _ not just the kids on the team at Estero but their parents, friends and family _ brave enough or stubborn enough to handle it. To handle him.

3D shirt

Maybe you arrived with all three of the Ds stashed away somewhere. You probably didn’t. He didn’t care. He would provide the bridge to them _ the tenets of his life _ if you provided the trust that he knew what he was doing.

He wasn’t for everybody. He could be too much. He cursed more than he should have. There were times when the fire that burned so deeply within could singe those closest to him. It could seem like he wasn’t so much as man as an experience. He didn’t coach his teams as much as he lived through them.

Every practice. Every stride. Every morning. Every meet. Six days a week, 12 months a year he set the tone and for a quarter century it never wavered. Not during those unrelenting speed drills. Not during those long Sunday morning runs. Not on the seemingly endless summits of the bridge to Fort Myers Beach, the closest thing that passed to a hill for 200 miles in any direction. Not when a heart attack at 42 nearly killed him. Not when the results would ebb and flow. Not during the first workout of the season or  the state meet..

He demanded respect, but he didn’t take the process for granted. Most mornings he would be out there right alongside you, churning out mile after mile in the thick heavy blanket of Southwest Florida air. His own running form _ his face contorted in pain, his thick arms and legs churning rather than elegantly gliding, the hat over his balding head drenched as he fought the perfectionist within _ was a fitting symbol of the bowling ball optimism he brought to each day.

He tried to slow down once. He gained 30 pounds after doctors slit him open and put a stent in his chest, his running and his arteries no match for genetics and a diet heavy on pizza and Mountain Dew.  The sabbatical ended quickly. It wasn’t long before he was hitting the road twice a day, once with the team and another in the scorching midday heat during his lunch break.

So what if the doctors told him he was at risk? Better to push your body to the limit doing something that you love _ something that defines you _ than scoot around on a golf cart like some fat old man while you bark orders.

When it came to the concept of family, blood was immaterial. Sweat is what mattered. If you lined up next to him, if you gave him the freedom to mold you, he was yours forever. A father figure to those who grew up without one. A best friend for the friendless. A protector in times of grief. A giver who never once sought credit. It didn’t matter what it was: shoes, food, advice, a ride. The answer was yes. It was always yes.

There were fights, sure. Arguments. He was stubborn and bull-headed. His eyes fixated on the stopwatch during practices, marking the time as you lunged for the finish line. The mistake the newcomers always made was thinking it was about the clock. It was never about the clock. It was about you. He had an innate sense of effort. And if yours dipped for a yard, a second, a footstep, he would let you know, often in a way that you didn’t like.

And yet you kept coming back. You couldn’t stay away. Because you started hearing his voice in your head. The one that screamed “DIG” or “PUSH” with the same passion and at the same volume no matter if you were the first Wildcat heading to the finish line or the last.

That’s the way it was in those final moments. His girls pulling away to victory. His face likely a still undiscovered shade of red and purple, joy bursting through his veins as he watched them break through whatever artificial barriers they had set in their own minds on their potential.

There is comfort for those that knew him that this is how he left us. And as heartbreaking as it is, this is how it was always going to end. It came far too soon and yet, if given the choice it’s hard to imagine him picking any other way.

It speaks to his effect on people that his passing has produced such an outpouring. Of grief. Of sadness. Of shock. The tears, in reality, are for us. Jeff Sommer was a gift. Scratch that. He is a gift. The love he provided so selflessly for so many years will carry on through his children, his grandchildren and the school and running club that was his lifeblood.

The Estero High cross-country team practiced early Sunday, just hours after his passing. They walked arm in arm, seeking comfort at a time of unspeakable pain. And yet they kept moving forward, the memory of a man known to so many as Coach _ there’s really no need for last names when it came to him _ providing one more parting lesson.

Keep going. No matter what. Keep going.

Push. Dig. Run.

Live.

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.

 

Survivor’s Remorse

Yep, that's about right.

Yep, that’s about right.

A year later, it turns out I’m going to live. At least for awhile (give or take the potential of getting smushed by a bus). Now what?

They say there are stages of grief. I probably experienced a portion of them all over the last 12 months following my cancer diagnosis. Denial and Isolation? Hell yeah. Anger? Absolutely. Bargaining? Kinda sorta. Depression? Sure, why not. Acceptance? Well, four out of five ain’t bad, right?

I named this navel gazing, insightful. narcissistic, self-absorbed site “A Blog Called Quest” because a: I didn’t have a better idea. Actually, there is no B. It’s just A. Well, A and the fact that these guys remain the greatest hip-hop group of all-time. So much for truth in advertising. It’s definitely a blog. A quest? Hmmm. Depends on your definition of the word. I could have called it “obvious midlife crisis hastened a bit by unlikely diagnosis of disease that sounds way scarier than it actually is” but the URL was just a little too long.

So what now? After 10 cycles of chemo (and two more to go by September) I’m as healthy as I’ve been since before my kids were born.I went back for a maintenance cycle last month. I’ve had oil changes that were more emotional. My disease isn’t the first thing I think about in the morning or the last thing I think about at night. Call it the upside of arrogance. I never worried that this thing would get me, even as I see others in the handful of Facebook groups I’ve joined struggle to repair their lives as the medicine that’s given me a second chance wreaks havoc with their own immune systems.

The default line here is I should be thankful, right?

A year ago I couldn’t climb the stairs in my house without thinking I was having a heart attack. Now if I do less than an hour on the treadmill or the sorority girl (note, that nickname came from a female cousin in law) errr elliptical machine I get cranky. I’m thinking about a 5K in a couple of weeks (my first race in a decade) and can’t wait until I become one of “those guys” who take their bike riding waaaaay too seriously sometime later this spring even if the truth is I typically get lapped by kids on tricycles.

I would love to sit here and tell you that I’ve figured it out, that I’ve figured me out. Yet I’m no closer now than I was the day my oncologist told me “Hey, you’ve got a rare form of incurable cancer but you’re going to be fine.” He was absolutely right of course, but reconciling two drastically different notions has been maddening.

Cancer got my father at 59. My brother-in-law at 35. Dad built houses. Bill was a teacher (and a good one). There is no explanation for what happened. How a non-smoker can be struck down in his prime by lung cancer is something I’m never going to figure out. How esophageal cancer turned a 6-foot-6, 230-pound titan into a graying, frail old man in six months is terrifying.

My experience has been far different. I’ve joked repeatedly that I have “JV” cancer. Most people think it’s me just being modest (important: as much as I try, modesty isn’t really my thing). I’ve sat in chairs next to folks nearing the end. I’ve watched the nurses come out wearing the blue scrubs with the chemo bags and tenderly administer it. I get four shots to the stomach and a four-hour drip of a drug that is basically little more than a reminder to my white blood cells to get to work and start kicking cancer’s ass.

It’s hard not to think about why I was spared. Why is my life more valuable than any those facing far more dire circumstances. It’s like watching a disaster movie where the entire planet is wiped out but hey, the protagonist is gonna live so really, everything is gonna be OK.

I wish I could tell you I’ve found my purpose. Lord knows I’ve been searching for one. If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that I have spent far too much of the first half of my life screwing around. And yet old habits die hard. I still play video games. I still obsess over what my professional contemporaries are doing (and just as importantly, what I’m NOT doing.) I still stare at my phone way too much, and while I’m becoming more of a grownup on Twitter, I’m still not exactly a paragon of responsible tweeting.

My smart friend Nancy (disclaimer, while this happens to be her name this is also a blatant ripoff of this guy’s work) says repeatedly “You had cancer, not a lobotomy.” Sometimes I’d almost prefer the latter (and my incredibly patient wife would agree). Far too often over the last year I’ve sounded like every politician who has ever promised “change” (no offense Mr. President) only to discover the mechanisms of democracy make progress a difficult and sometimes ugly slog (I’m looking at you Indiana).

I get told all the time that I’m being too hard on myself. That what I’m going through is completely natural, that I need to give myself a break. And I get it. Yet when I’m sitting there undergoing treatment and I see people who would likely switch places with me in an instant, it’s hard not to feel like every second when you waste not maximizing your life is a complete waste of everyone’s time.

There was a blissful stretch last summer where I really did unplug. I focused on my health and my family. I took time off work. I stayed out of the bubble I had lived in for far too long.

Then my numbers started ticking up. I felt my strength return. And the bubble returned, version 2.0. And I realized how incredibly fortunate I am. At my core though, it only made the issues I’ve struggled with for years seem only more urgent.

Every day I deal with intensified expectations. I want to be the best father. The best husband. The best writer. The best son. The best brother. The best (insert whatever I’m doing at a given moment). Every damn day. I can say unequivocally I am a better person than I was five years ago. At the same time that pursuit has made my awareness of my own shortcomings only more acute.

God didn’t spare me so I could win the Stanley Cup on my Playstation one more time. (At least, I’m figuring he didn’t). Trying to figure out what to do with the 40ish years I have left is perplexing. My greatest gift as a writer is my ability to get a handle on people. Whether it’s the best gymnast in the world or the kid at the end of the bench. I can ask the right questions, talk to the right people. And yet I’m no closer to getting the gears in my head straight than I was a year ago. Or five years ago. Or 20.

At least now, though, I’m trying. My family is in the process of joining a church, something my wife and kids have somehow taken faster to than I have. I’m trying to break out of my comfort zone by volunteering for a non-profit. I might not save the world. Not all of it anyway. But I will do my part if it freaking kills me.

Which, thankfully, blessedly it won’t. Not anytime soon at least.

Cancer might not be the best thing that ever happened to me, but it might be among the most important. To fully embrace my life, first I had to realize I might lose it. What a world. What a ride. The quest continues.

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–30–

Balance

Photo by the AP's Jim Mahoney

Photo by the AP’s Jim Mahoney

He was always eating. Always.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the why that is tripping us up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balanced at last.

Blood in, Blood out

blood donor pic

 

She sits quietly at the table absent-mindedly skimming the reading for her Russian film class. She doesn’t really want to, exactly, but the class is in an hour and she might as well because if 17 years of school have taught Alana Carr anything about herself, it’s that all those As didn’t simply appear on her report card because she simply wanted them to.

Outside the William Pitt Union student union it’s one of those Pittsburgh mornings that in its own Stockholm syndrome way isn’t that depressing. Cold but not that cold. Gray but not that gray. Bleak but … well actually it is pretty damn bleak but hey, at least we’re alive, right?

Tucked inside a lower level lounge Carr welcomes the slow trickle of students who have shown up for an impromptu Red Cross Blood Drive, one arranged with less than a week’s notice after a drive at another business was cancelled. Some of the kids are bleary-eyed, some are in a rush, some nervous, all of them practically buried in their phones. Each of them greeted with smile as they make their way to the reception desk, where Carr _ the vice president of Pitt’s Red Cross Club _ cheerily awaits with questions she memorized long ago.

“Do you have an appointment? Do you have a donor card? Is this your first time? Can you please take a seat and read this over? Great, when you’re done give it back to me and hop down the steps so the nurses can take care of you.”

There are more than 1,000 students on the Pitt Red Cross Club mailing list, but if Carr is being honest there are maybe 40 or so truly active members. They do things like plan visits to local VA hospitals, volunteer at camps and help raise money for disaster relief. But that’s not why Carr joined as a freshman. It’s not why she’s spent the last four years asking the same questions over and over, why she’s only too happy to take a random volunteer, give them 30 seconds of instruction then put them to work.

The way Carr figures it, she owes each person that walks through the door one.

More than one, probably.

She can’t quite remember when it started. Maybe it was her sophomore year of high school. Maybe she was a junior. What she does know is one day she could rip through marching band practice with her flute at the ready and the next day she was gasping for breath trying to keep up. She felt like she was suffocating. Her mind wanted her to get moving. Her heart had other plans.

A battery of tests revealed anemia. Not the kind that you treat with a couple of iron pills and fistfuls of spinach. The kind where your body struggles to get the oxygen where it needs to go. The kind of which there is no real cure, the one that can make an 18-year-old feel like she’s 80.

Carr spent more than a year receiving transfusion after transfusion, relying on bag after bag to sustain her until her doctors and her body could sort things out. While it’s under control at the moment, she understands it won’t be forever. She can tell what kind of day it’s going to be on how she feels after climbing her first flight of steps.

Ask her why a kid from Chicago with a blood disorder decided to go to school at a place where you have to scale Cardiac Hill to get anywhere and she just laughs.

She can afford to now, now that her blood is behaving. Now that she’s weighing her postgraduate options as she ponders medical school after spending four years as a premed major. Maybe Loyola Chicago. Or an Ivy League school. Or maybe someplace out west.

The future is a blank slate, one made possible in part by the charity of strangers she’ll never meet. This is how the whole give blood thing works.

A wave of her hand and she’s off to class _ she never did really read that Russian film class paper _ while another wave of Red Cross Club members file in. One girl is volunteering for the first time and spends 40 minutes quietly keeping to herself before ducking out. Others scatter about as donors come in, offering water or juice to some, ushering others from one station to the next.

The donors wait dutifully, a good 20 to 30 minutes after finishing up, before heading out. Some accept the free T-shirt; others don’t. They’re not here for the swag (though to be fair, the T-shirts are pretty good as far as these things go). They could be selling their plasma for a little extra beer money, asleep in their dorms, studying for midterms, or playing in a Madden tournament against half of their floor–but they’re not. They’re carving an hour out of their day just because.

It’s not heroic exactly. Yet for people like Carr (and me) who can no longer donate but have relied on the occasional transfusion to survive, their selfless act is humbling.

And _ unfortunately _ all too rare.

While 40 percent of the population can donate, only 10 percent of eligible donors roll up their sleeve, grab the stress ball and wait for the pinch of the needle. (Note: IT DOESN’T HURT.) This means that the entire blood supply relies on the generosity of 4 percent of the population.

That’s not a typo.

There’s a shortage in Western Pennsylvania at the moment, a byproduct of a nasty flu season that’s forced some regular donors to push back their next visit and a particularly brutal winter that has forced several drives to be postponed. There’s not blood enough to go around, at least not in any sort of sustainable way. Clever marketing, peanut butter crackers, donation stickers (which run second only to “I voted” stickers) and plush T-shirts can only get you so far. Donation is a personal and sometimes time-consuming act. People are busy. They can’t be bothered. They’ll do it next time.

Here’s a suggestion. Check that. Here’s a plea: make now the next time. Not when you can get around to it. Not when the mood strikes.

Now.

The funny thing is most of us (like say, me) don’t realize how valuable the gift is until you’re on the receiving end. Until you’re the one getting prepped for transfusion. Until you’re with the red bracelet they make transfusion recipients wear wrapped around your wrist. Until you’re studying the numbers on the bag and wondering who provided the one thing you absolutely needed to survive.

At some point in your life, you’re probably going to need it. And it’s only then that you’ll wish desperately that you’d given more back when you had the time, the health and the motivation.

Do it for Alana so she can spend the next 40 years exploring her potential as a mental health professional or wherever else her life may lead.

Do it for the folks sitting in cancer treatment centers who desperately need transfusions to keep them going until the chemo starts to work.

Do it for those coming out of life-saving surgery.

Do it for the thousands who will walk into blood clinics this week anxiously awaiting the best (and most natural) drug there is.

Do it for the snacks or the stickers or the warm feeling in your soul or the T-shirt.

Do it so you can get out of class or an afternoon of work.

Do it so you can one-up your neighbor on the “do gooder” list.

Or maybe do it so that one day you’re not sitting in a chair giving yourself a guilt trip knowing one of the few things keeping you alive is the blind benevolence of a complete stranger.

Do it so I’ll shut up about it (note: I probably won’t shut up about it).

Red Cross. Central Blood Bank. Your local hospital. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t cost money. It won’t eat up your weekend. Oh, and it won’t hurt. Promise.

To schedule a donation appointment, click here: http://www.redcrossblood.org/give/drive/driveSearch.jsp

or here: http://www.centralbloodbank.org/donate-blood

or here: http://club25pledge.org/

or follow @RedCross or @CentralBloodorg or join if you’re at Pitt, email redcrossclub@list.pitt.edu for help.

March is National Red Cross Month. It’s also National Frozen Food Month and Irish American Month and National Craft Month. If you can squeeze in an hour between National Pig Day (March 1) to National Ear Muff Day (March 13) and National Bunsen Burner Day (March 31), someone you’ve never met but whose life you’ll help save would greatly appreciate it.

The needle isn’t big. The nurses are great. The snacks are solid. The T-shirt a solid option on laundry day.

It isn’t heroic. But it is necessary. For Alana. For me. And maybe one day for you. Pay it forward so one day it can pay you back.

Play us out, Bob:

 

 

SCOREBOARD

scoreboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roots

The Burgh2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds familiar. Sounds awfully damn familiar.