Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A (difficult) visit with Mr. Byrd

Unlike the recent photo taken of him, Jerry Byrd did not
want to smile for this photo last Wednesday. Maybe it
was the company he was keeping.
     It was a relatively brief visit, 30 minutes maybe, but it was good to see Jerry Byrd last Wednesday morning.
     It was also difficult.
     Some of my friends, and Jerry's friends, know -- and I am writing this with the consent of and input from his wife Barbara and his son, the big man known as "Little Jerry" -- that Shreveport's best-known and arguably its most gifted sports writer/editor ever is in a mental-care facility.
     His short-term memory is lacking. But the old Jerry -- the mind for details and stories, sports events, people from the 1940s, '50s and early '60s, and the sharp wit, some of it (well, a lot of it) irreverent -- is still there. The ego -- as I always joked, as large as his very big head -- is too.
     The many people who worked around Byrd at the Shreveport Journal for the 34 years he was there know that's all true.
     Yes, he looks a little older (he's 80) and he has difficulty walking (a cane is necessary, a wheelchair is better), but he remains fairly robust. His handshake is very firm, he's still really loud, he still sings ... and he can make me laugh, even if he doesn't mean to.
      A few weeks ago, Little Jerry suggested I go by and see him; Barbara early last week agreed. It would be good for him; visitors stimulate his mind, maybe motivate him, keep him busy.
      But here is the tipoff. He did not recognize me when he first saw me (there is a possible reason); he's known me for 50-plus years. And when Barbara asked him the next day if I had been by, Jerry's reply was that he didn't remember.
      Little Jerry's take: "He probably didn't remember 30 minutes after you left."
      Gosh, it's hard. People with family members or friends with memory loss -- be it dementia or Alzheimer's, and I'm not qualified to define Jerry's situation -- know how hard it is. It starts with lost trips to the nearby store, or to work -- that was the case with Jerry beginning four years ago -- and soon the daily details become foggy or forgotten.
      Such an insidious disease.
      Here is this individual with such a compelling story -- born with a cleft palate and cleft lip, the cause of a severe stutter, and so he was a painfully shy boy and young man hesitant to speak much. But he found in high school that he could write and he loved sports, and as he grew more confident, he became one of the best sports writers, most knowledgeable ones, in Louisiana history. I'm far from the only one with that opinion.
      He talked more freely, met a young woman (Patricia) in his church and married, he was a father twice, a grandfather, and the Journal sports editor. And he grew to be a pretty darned good public speaker (still with a stutter, but the pauses only made his punch lines more timely) and a raucous, uninhibited public singer without stuttering (now that was a laugh).
      He was never afraid to express his opinion; he could handle the criticism; and OK, he could -- pardon the language -- piss off his co-workers because he was high maintenance and did have an anger button.
      But, look, almost everyone admired him. They knew how good he was, how talented, how dedicated, how devoutly Christian. He did so many favors for me personally -- beginning when I was in high school -- and we had so many good times together, so many shared stories, so many laughs.

      And it hasn't been an easy life -- Patricia's long illness and death, Jerry's battle with cancer, a gall bladder removed, other tough situations.
      I hear people, sports writers, described as "a walking sports encyclopedia." In my world, Byrd was the encyclopedia, especially on high school sports in Louisiana but in other areas, too.
      In July 2012, I wrote a blog piece on Jerry (link below) in which I referred to him -- as I have for years -- as "The Man, The Legend." He always made light of that.
      Not long after that, I began to sense that his e-mail or Facebook replies to me weren't totally coherent. Very unlike-Byrd. Few people were as sharp with facts and his typing -- his "copy," in newspaper terms -- was almost always immaculate (not a word used often for Mr. Byrd in other ways).

      A few months later, Little Jerry told me that his Dad was having memory issues. So I wasn't surprised when he told me a couple of months ago about his being in this facility. Barbara had been caring for him at their home, but it got to be too much of a chore for her. Like Jerry, she was in the Fair Park High Class of '53.
      And here is what dementia has done. He is not clear on where his wife and daughter are. He says he is still writing his column. He thinks this mental-care facility is only a temporary stop. There's more; I'll spare the details ...
      At this facility, Jerry is in a room at the end of the hallway at the far southwest corner of the second building. They probably want to reduce the noise level (I'm not being serious). It's a long walk there, and with an activities director, we went through a large dining room/activities area where maybe 25-30 people were sitting, most in wheelchairs. And not a word from anyone.
      It's gripping.
      One facility worker described Jerry as a "sweetheart" (that will be news to some people). When I asked the activities director how Jerry was doing, she said, "He can be grouchy some days, but he's doing better. When he first came, he would not take part in any activities, but he's beginning to get into it."
       (This is a man who would scream, "Twenty, twenty, twenty," as our Journal softball team neared that run total in games, who stripped off his shirt in freezing weather to pose -- hilariously -- for a photo at new Fair Grounds Field, who joined in singing Happy Birthday to someone during lunch at a restaurant in Bossier City. Not exactly reluctant.)
       As we neared a halfway, we passed a worker and the woman with me told her we were going to see Mr. Byrd. "You can have him," she said. As she explained later, when we passed her again, Jerry is not always the most cooperative of residents.
       When I went into Jerry's room, he was sleeping. So I left. But the woman who had walked me there saw me coming down the hall, and said we should go wake him because it was almost time for lunch "and he will like seeing you."
       He was groggy and a bit fussy when awakened, and the woman said, "I have someone here to see you." Jerry raised up a bit, peered at me and didn't say anything.
        "Do you know who this is?" she asked him.
        Me: "Put on your glasses, Byrd." Jerry, disdainfully: "I don't need my glasses to see you." And then he said, "He looks familiar, but I can't think of his name right now."
        When I said, "Nico," he yelled my full name -- loud enough that they could hear him in the nearby South Broadmoor neighborhood. And then, considering he hasn't seen me in about six years, he quickly added, "What happened to you?"
        He asked me what I was doing these days, and I told him I was retired ... "like you."
        "I'm still writing for the Bossier Press-Tribune," he replied. (He hasn't been on a computer in a couple of years.)
        About five minutes later, as we headed to the lunch room, he asked me again, "What are you doing now?"          
        As I entered the room, I saw some photos and a scrapbook. One of the photos was of Rogers Hampton, the great all-around Fair Park athlete of the early 1950s. When I mentioned the photo to Jerry, he said, "I have that photo at home." I told him it was here, and he said, "Well, if I'm going to have anyone's photo, it would be him."
        Then, as the woman got Jerry ready to go in the wheelchair, he asked where we were going. "To lunch," she said. "Who's paying?" Jerry said. Told it was part of the facility cost, he said, "Good."
       "He asks every day," she whispered to me. (And five minutes later, Jerry asked again.)
        I noticed that among the three dozen books on the shelves in his room were three of the books he has written on Louisiana athletics. When I mentioned that, the woman said, "I didn't know you wrote books, Mr. Byrd."
        "I've written eight," he said. She then said, "I didn't know you were famous."
        Byrd: "Some people think so."
        The woman said to Jerry, "I heard you singing in the lunchroom yesterday." To which Jerry replied, "I was singing? What was I singing?" The woman: "That song about sunshine that a Louisiana governor wrote." Jerry: "I don't know what song that is."
        I chimed in with "You Are My Sunshine." "That's it," the woman said. "Governor Jimmie Davis," I added. Jerry: "A Louisiana governor wrote that?"
        (Just think, the best of Byrd's tunes at the Journal: Duke, Duke, Duke, Duke of Earl. ...  Elvira. ... This Is Dedicated to the One I Loooooove. ... I Found My Thrill on Blueberry Hill. Ba ba ba, ba, Barbara Ann, Ba ba ba ba, Barbara Ann ...
        The one that made me laugh the hardest, though, was one night at old SPAR Stadium when a large group of barbershop quartet singers performed pregame. Just Byrd and me sitting in a box seat right behind home plate, no one else close, when he -- loudly, what else? -- joined them in Let Me Call You Sweetheart. I'm still laughing.)
       When we got to the lunchroom, the woman placed Jerry at his usual table. I asked him if he remembered Billy Montgomery. "Of course," he said. "Billy Wayne Montgomery." How about "Honey" Russell? "That's Jimmy, they called him Jimmy," he answered. "Honey was his nickname." 
       And I asked about Tony Sardisco, whose widow died just a couple of days earlier. "Yeah," Jerry said, "we used to call him 'Nabisco." (Which we did.)
       Little Jerry has told me several times that "Dad can remember most anything before 1965. ... In the scrapbook, there is a photo of him when he coached swimming; he must have been around 30, and there are four or five swimmers in the photo with him, and he knows them all, without even having to think about it."
        A man was slumped nearby in his wheelchair, sleeping. A worker awakened him and rolled him to the table where Jerry was sitting. "He's pretty low-functioning," the woman whispered to me. He didn't speak for a minute, then suddenly he sat up and began describing what he was going to do to his meal. It was mostly gibberish, but I think I heard "cut it up into little pieces, mash it, pulverize it."
        "That guy," Jerry said to me, "is not going to last much longer."
        Oh, wow. I hope I'm forgiven for laughing.             
        When I asked Jerry how he likes the facility, he said, "It's OK. But I'm not going to be here long, another week maybe. Then I'm going home."
        He's been there for two months already.
        He rarely goes out in public now and Little Jerry said that his Dad prefers to stay in his room and that he has to coax him into the outside world by stretching the truth a little.
        It is, as you can imagine, most difficult for his family. As a friend, I can wish for a lunch at Strawn's like hundreds of times before and I'd love to hear his opinion(s) on the LSU football season and the coaching situation. And to hear him tell so many of the funny stories once stored in that large head.
        We could always try to imitate him -- that voice, those mannerisms, that singing, the memorable lines ("Hey, Phillip, what took you so long?" and "he can skate, but he can't hide.") Professionally, we all could learn from him, take something from his work.
        We pray for him. We hope for a peaceful existence. And we can still love The Man, The Legend.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

This is tragedy ... this is heartache

Amy, about 4, with Miss Rose.
     Oh, Amy, we loved you so.
     Amy was the little girl who lived across the street from my parents' home. We knew her all her life.
      When our Jason -- at ages 3, 4, 5 -- came to visit with his new Oma Rose and Opa Louis, one of his favorite things to do was go play with Amy. They were the same age.
      They were a matched pair, both blond(e) and sweet and cute, two kids playing in the driveway or the garage. Loretta and Lynn Geneux, Amy's parents, were as proud of her as we were of Jason. My parents thought of Amy as practically another grandchild. 
      The Geneuxs lived on Schaub Drive in Shreveport for Amy's first decade (brother Emile came next, and sister Amanda followed). Lynn Geneux became our family attorney and, with Loretta, were my parents' "protectors" as they aged.
      Many people took care of Rose and Louis, but few as much and as consistently as Lynn and Loretta, even after they moved to another nearby neighborhood. If there was a Van Thyn family function, the Geneuxs were there. They were loyal.
      We thought about that Thursday, one of those days -- one of those phone calls -- that devastates you.
      We were getting ready to go exercise at the downtown YMCA when my phone rang at 9:47 a.m., and Lynn Geneux got right to the point.
      "We wanted to let you know that Amy died yesterday [Wednesday] morning," he said, hesitating. 
      What do you say to that?
The Keck family in summertime: Amy, William, Audrey, Jim
      He then told me a little of the circumstances. Amy Geneux Keck, age 41, wife of Jim (married for seven-plus years) and mother of 6-year-old twins Audrey and William, was nine months pregnant and at home in Houston when she began to feel labor pains. She was having trouble breathing.
      She told Audrey to call Nonnie and Papa in Shreveport. Audrey did and told them Mama was having the baby -- due near Thanksgiving -- and they better hurry to Houston. She then yelled at William to call 911.
      It was Amy who called 911. The medics arrived, and Amy got herself on the gurney. But, it is thought, she stopped breathing by the time they took her out of the house. They tried to revive her on the way to a nearby hospital, but ... no.
      The baby also died.
      Adeline Claire Keck, Geneux grandchild No. 8, never had a chance. 
      When I told Bea, her first response -- after sobs -- was that "you don't expect that to happen in today's world."
      As Lynn told me in a later conversation -- after I asked permission to write this blog piece -- the cause might have been a pulmonary embolism (blood clot). They are awaiting autopsy results.
       There had been no warning signs, not in a doctor's visit Monday. Some back pain Tuesday, but it all looked good. And then ...
      Lynn Geneux was in the Jesuit High School Class of '64, not an athlete -- not
All the Geneux/Keck/Ericson family; that's Jim and Amy, far left
even that much of a sports fan -- but one of the excellent students for which that school is known. He has been wise counsel in so many matters as our attorney; as a caring person, my parents believed so much in him.

      When Dad had so much trouble with French attorneys and the government trying to settle his first cousin's estate -- Dad was the heir -- Lynn worked hours, days, months, a couple of years on the case. Not sure he ever charged Dad for any work; if he did, it was a cute-rate bargain.
      Loretta Gates Geneux, like Bea, was a country girl who came to live in the city. She was from Coushatta, La. -- Bea's mother's hometown -- and, for you baseball fans, a cousin of the famed Joe Adcock.
      She has her country twang, a delightful, upbeat person who is sneakily funny. She doted over her children -- and Miss Rose -- and she's the best Nonnie anyone could ever be.
      We have known so many great people, and the Geneuxs are right there.
      Lynn reminded me that Loretta was nine months pregnant when, after a weeks-long search, they found the house for sale on Schaub Drive. They signed the papers on July 1, 1974, moved in on July 5, and Amy was born July 10. Welcome home.
      Our Jason was 4 months older. They each started school the same year, graduated high school the same year (1992) and attended LSU (separate locations) at the same time. They each married the same year, each a few years into their 30s, had children the same year.
      Amy became a teacher, first in Shreveport and then in Houston, where she moved because it was Jim's hometown and he had a job as a chemical engineer. She taught in middle school (social studies) and elementary school.
      To be honest, we were not that close to Amy after they moved from Schaub Drive. But to look at her Facebook page now, and the many, many posts from longtime friends and her students, she was so much like her parents -- just as sweet and kind (and funny) as we remember her as a little girl. As a teacher, she obviously was dedicated and diligent.
      But mostly, she was about family. The Geneuxs are about family.
      Amy and Jim's twins are the oldest grandchildren and the first of two sets of twins; Dr. Emile, a dentist in Shreveport, and wife Dr. Beth, an OB-GYN, have twin daughters, and two younger daughters. Amanda (and Jeff) have a daughter and grandchild No. 9, a boy, due in February. 
      It is a loving, tight-knit group, and we admire them. On Loretta and Amy's Facebook pages, there are so many wonderful family photos -- many taken by Jim, who is a skilled photographer (side business) -- and so many neat posts. 
      They've had their challenges, serious health issues with two of the grandkids, and other difficulties. But they were patient and persevered.
      And now this. Our hearts ache for all the Geneuxs, especially for Jim, Audrey and William with the loss of their wife and mother.
Our little Amy, with baby Emile
      Their grief is profound and, no comparison, but for us, the rest of Thursday was full of tears and remembrances. There was no trip downtown -- too much emotion -- just long walks for each of us.
       Amy and the family was about all I could think about. It is difficult to fathom such a life ending so tragically.                        
       "She was a good mother," Lynn said of his oldest daughter, his and Loretta's first baby. "She lived for her children and for her family. She was good to them, she was good to Emile and Amanda, and their kids.
       "It is not supposed to be this way," he said, choking up at the thought (but not as choked up as the person he was talking with). "But it is."  
       Amy, the beautiful little girl who lived across the street.
        The Geneux family posted these visitation/funeral arrangements:
        Sunday: visitation, 5-8 p.m., Klein Funeral Home, Cypress-Fairbanks, 9719 Wortham Blvd., Houston, TX 77065
        Monday: Mass, 4:15 p.m., St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Church, 10135 West road, Houston, TX 77064
        Tuesday: Visitation, 5-8 p.m., Rose Neath funeral home, 1815 Marshall St., Shreveport, LA 71101
        Wednesday: Mass, 1 p.m., St. Joseph's Catholic Church, 211 Atlantic Ave. 71105, burial to follow at Holly Springs cemetery near Coushatta, LA


Thursday, November 12, 2015

Fight, Tigers, fight for Ol' Mizzou ...

      Because I was in journalism, and because I knew a dozen journalists with ties to the University of Missouri and Columbia, Mo. -- most of them sports writers -- I had this thought:
      I wonder how they feel about the student protests and the events of the past week on the Missouri campus?
      So I asked several for their reactions, with this blog in mind. Most (but not all) have a connection to Shreveport, and some did not respond or chose not to make their feelings public. But read on, if you want to see how they feel.
      I have my opinions -- uninformed, of course -- but I will reserve them until the end. I will say now that some of this makes sense, some of it doesn't.
      But it makes more sense than the murder, in Columbia, 14 years ago this month of Kent Heitholt, a Missouri journalism graduate who had come back to town as sports editor of the newspaper there. I'm sure Heity -- everyone's friend -- would have had a good take on these developments.
       I learned a long time ago that Missouri journalism grads, including my friends in sports writing, came out of the one of the nation's best journalism schools, and they were all pretty darned good journalists.
       (I can hear one of them, let's call him "Tiger," coaching us in the words of the Missouri fight song: " ... Fight, Tigers, fight, for Ol' Mizzou ...")
When the University of Missouri football team said it would
not practice or play games, the student protests' against racism
gained momentum and publicity nationwide
(photo from nbcnews.com)
       Maybe only Northwestern and Syracuse could match Missouri's journalism reputation, although -- some prejudice here -- I know that LSU and Louisiana Tech have turned out some fine journalism majors.
       So I have lots of respect for the Missouri people. Didn't like all their work or agree with them sometimes, and wasn't fond of all of them, but I know they were well-schooled. And they had to be watching the Missouri news -- charges of racism and bias, student protests, a hunger strike, a football team boycott, the resignation of the chancellor and system president, and an assistant professor of mass media asking for "muscle" to prevent a student photographer and cameraman for reporting the news.
       Ah, the lessons of political correctness and free speech, and the continuing issue -- always, it seems -- of the racial divide in this country.
       Here are the reactions from a few of my friends:
       Joel Bierig (former major-league baseball writer, Chicago): "[wife] Barb and I remember Mizzou as a friendly, tranquil place where our daughter [Becky] received a great journalistic education and had a very pleasant college experience, just as I had in the 1970s.
       " ... It's distressing to see our school in this sort of headline. Can this possibly be the same place we enjoyed so much? Now we know how Penn State grads felt a few years back. Obviously, the Mizzou administration must take the blame.
      "Today's climate and circumstances arguably are more complex, but the people in charge must be prepared to meet the challenges and deal with the issues. If the situation mushroomed and became magnified because of the administration's inattention, so much the worse.
      "The Mizzou brand has taken a beating under [president] Tim Wolfe's watch. Simply put, he is the CEO who presided over a stock crash.
      "I read where Wolfe was quarterback of Columbia Rock Bridge High's football team when it won a state championship in 1975. I graduated from Mizzou in May of that year. Weird in that regard, and also in that a football team (Mizzou's) was what finally sacked Wolfe.

       "I can't testify that racism and anti-semitism didn't exist during my time at Mizzou, but if it did, I missed it,  or perhaps differences often were hashed out in simpler ways. One of our best friends was an African-American student from West Plains, Mo., who was one of my apartment housemates for two years."
       Jeff Rude (golf writer, television host, Orlando, Fla.): "Well, I’m struck how the Missouri campus protest story had a little bit of everything. Race. Money. Power. Hunger strike. Politics – left versus right (or wrong). Students (read: football players) in effect ousting a president. A coach having no choice to rightly back his players. A clueless assistant communications professor stomping on the First Amendment. The irony of protesters not seeing both sides of the First Amendment. Even Michael Sam weighing in, and then getting bashed by the political right.
       "And, finally, a slow-acting president of the university system who seemed defiant when he resigned and who called for the dialogue he didn’t quickly deliver. This being 2015, a simple “we will not tolerate racist acts” early on might have helped.
       "You could say that football coach Gary Pinkel was caught in between the president (a boss) and his players. But let’s get real: Had he not rightly supported his players, recruiting African-American players would have been challenging, to say the least.
        "It's also important to note that the assistant professor is not on the School of Journalism faculty. The journalism and communications departments are different, unlike the case at many schools.   
       "Missouri’s celebrated School of Journalism also had good moments. A professor spoke wisely during a CNN interview. And the evolved journalism dean sent alums [a] note Tuesday:
        [Key paragraph from that note, commenting on the president-chancellor resignations]: "It was a day that demonstrated the important role of journalism in a democratic society. It showed why we hold dear our First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, assembly, religion, and petitioning against the government for grievances."
      Ed Cassiere (from Shreveport, sports information director, Xavier University, New Orleans): "All I can offer are two sentences. First one is pretty much public domain. Second one belongs to Rodney King. It's 2015. Can we all get along?"
      Tom Marshall (from Shreveport, advertising director, New Jersey Monthly Magazine): " When I was at Mizzou in the mid-1970s, I never witnessed any overt acts of racism. My dorm hall was integrated (now that I think about it), but neither then nor now would I consider that to be unusual or noteworthy.
      "I also covered high school and college sports for The Columbia Daily Tribune during my years at Missouri but again, I don't recall any incidents of racism.
      "Reading the coverage of the last few days makes me sad for the turbulence on campus and sorry that students there have been subject to hurtful acts of discrimination. But in my memory my experience at Mizzou was happy, productive and strife-free."
      Dr. George Sylvie (from Shreveport, assistant professor of journalism, University of Texas-Austin): "This is the halo effect from Ferguson [Mo.]. Certainly we knew about racism then, but thanks to Watergate, I was too busy trying to survive Mizzou J School [masters degree] and land a job to really give it much thought.
      "Going to Missouri from Louisiana was liberating for a black kid then. I stayed away from the Ag School and the frats, so I never ran into trouble. You could date white girls and no one gave you a second look. So that's why I say Columbia now is living in Ferguson's shadow, reliving the 1960s."
       Mark Burgess (Knoxville, Tenn., area resident, former co-worker in sports at Knoxville News Sentinel, University of Tennessee journalism graduate who grew up in Columbia, Mo.): "Conflicting feelings. Proud of university students taking a stand and speaking out on a topic that's probably more widespread and common than most of us know. Not happy with how some of it was handled, including the bullying of journalism students there to cover the event.
      "Obviously some serious issues on that campus and felt fine with student athletes taking a stand. Would have opened up a lot of serious questions if it had gone on long enough to impact games, TV contracts etc. Glad it didn't go on long enough for that to happen.
      "I've heard some people argue this sets a dangerous precedent for future similar protests around the country. It's possible, but we'll have to wait and see if those battles take place and have the same impact. A little surprised the president buckled as quickly as he did. He was either very guilty of poor leadership or feeling some serious heat from some powerful, big-money insiders. Either way, it's a problem."
      As for me, I agree that I thought the system president gave in to the demands -- but maybe that was the right move. Might have been better if he had listened more carefully or more quickly, and at least tried to satisfy the protesting students.
       It also bothers me -- and I think it's a dangerous precedent -- that football team members were willing to sit out practices, and even games. Don't blame them for backing the protesters and making a strong statement, but perhaps sitting out a practice or two would have done it.
      So I agree with one friend who did not want to be quoted by name publicly about the football team's involvement: "... Team is going to resist playing a game when you are paid nicely [with scholarships] to play games? My response would have been, how much do you value your convictions, like enough to forfeit a week's worth of scholarship/food money?"
       And, he added, in light of Missouri's 4-5 record (1-5 in the SEC) and struggling offense (3, 6, 3 and 13 points in four consecutive SEC losses), that "the funniest thing I read was a comment in the [St. Louis] Post-Dispatch from a reader reacting to the story about Wolfe resigning, telling Pinkel, "I'm starving to death for a touchdown!"


Friday, November 6, 2015

Replay/review: Do it right, give the victory to Duke

     When a friend on Facebook posted the ESPN story about the officials in the Miami-Duke football game being suspended for the next two weeks, here is how I responded:
      I quote myself -- "That is not enough. That was a crime. What was the replay official seeing. That's the guy who never should do that job again. The ACC commissioner and/or executive committee should give the victory to Duke. And Miami players and interim [head] coach were acting like they deserved the win. It was all detestable."
     It was one of the worst "jobs" I've seen in sports.
Is there any doubt that Miami player Mark Walton's knee was down before
he lateraled the football -- one of the eight laterals on the controversial
kickoff return against Duke? How did the replay official not see this?
(photo by Grant Shorin, Duke Sports Information) 
     So Miami had eight laterals on the kickoff return that was ruled a touchdown, wiping out Duke's 27-24 lead. Duke had just scored the go-ahead touchdown, and all it had to do was kick off and survive the 6 seconds remaining on the clock.
     Miami: eight laterals, what was an "official" 75-yard TD return, two blocks in the back and one player running onto the field without his helmet before the play ended. And a victory celebration that should have been Duke's.
     On one of the laterals, the Miami player's knee clearly -- clearly -- is on the ground, with him holding the football. He was down.
     How in the heck did the replay official not see that? Unbelievable.
     You can give the on-field officials an "out" for missing the blocking-in-the-back calls, considering the wildness of the play and that the officials probably had to run and stop and run and reverse directions while the play developed.
     But, absolutely, there is no excuse for the replay official. That's why he's up there in the booth. It took him nine minutes to look at the play repeatedly -- and still make the wrong call.
     It's a crime.
     Instant replay or "the play is under review" is, I believe, one of the best things that's happened in sports recently.
     Let's get the calls right, no matter how long it takes. If you have the technology for replay and review, let's use it.
     Don't mind it in baseball, the NFL, NBA, NHL and certainly in college football. And for those few of you who care, it should be used more in soccer, where players try to get away with anything they can.
     In trading e-mail messages with an old friend last week, he said he is not a replay/review fan in baseball. He'd rather have the human element -- umpires' calls -- remain as they were before the past couple of years, that the human element is part of the game.
     I politely disagree. I say this knowing that the Yankees have won a few championships with the benefit of umpires' mistakes. And ask St. Louis Cardinals' fans about the 1985 Kansas City Royals winning the World Series.
     In that vein, if college football had had replay/review in 1972, the clock would have run out on LSU against Ole Miss. No extra second and no last-play touchdown pass and winning PAT kick.
     And how many more games would have ended differently? One I can think of immediately is the "fifth down" Colorado victory against Missouri in 1990. How crucial was that extra play. It helped Colorado score a last-play touchdown and win 33-31, and it merely -- merrily -- went on to win a share of the national championship.
      A replay official probably would have changed that one, and Colorado coach Bill McCartney -- a deeply religious man -- was indignant afterward when it was suggested Colorado forfeit the victory. As I saw on an ESPN "30 for 30" feature on McCartney last night, he still doesn't apologize for a victory his team didn't deserve.
      Makes me agree that Duke coach David Cutcliffe's suggestion (demand?) that college football set up some sort of appeals committee or central command, or that conferences have a system to settle these type disputes, has a lot of merit.
      The deserving team ought to win. And that team certainly was Duke against Miami last Saturday. But the human element -- poor judgment by officials -- prevailed.
      Here is what really galls me. Now there is a tee shirt diagramming the play and boasting of the victory available for the Miami people.
      Great. Take those shirts, and donate them to needy kids.
      And give one to each of the game officials -- and especially the replay official. They can wear them as they watch games on television the next two weekends.
      Or they can put them over their heads, and they'll see as well as they did on that final play last Saturday.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

The most bizarre college football season

     Having followed college football since 1958 -- forever the "dream" season for LSU -- I say this without reservation: This is the craziest, most bizarre season in my lifetime.
     Three end-of-the-game touchdowns on strange, not-often-seen plays -- all involving the kicking game. Michigan-Michigan State (fumbled punt attempt and return); Georgia Tech-Florida State (blocked field-goal attempt and return); Duke-Miami (eight-lateral kickoff return that began with 0:06 on the clock).
     (Before I go on, Duke got ripped off -- no question. Ugly situation; about as bad as it gets in this game. Worthy of a separate blog piece, so stay tuned.)
     Coaches fired or resigning, two or three a week, it seems. Offensive coordinators moved or fired  after the first game or in midseason.
     One head coach (Tim Beckman, Illinois) fired a week before the season began because of player-abuse/mistreatment allegations. A coach fired for repeated alcohol problems (Steve Sarkasian, Southern Cal). A highly regarded coach (Jerry Kill, Minnesota) who had to resign because of health reasons.         
College football will miss the Head Ball Coach, but maybe there will
be television spots for the great Steve Spurrier. (AP photo/Richard Shiro)
     Coaching legends -- a couple of the sports' biggest winners and, in many people's opinions, class acts -- resigning. Steve Spurrier, after 29 seasons as a head coach (five in the pros), quit right now (Oct. 13) on South Carolina after a 2-4 start and a big loss at LSU. Frank Beamer, 29 years at Virginia Tech and 35 as a head coach, announced this week he was through at the end of the season. His team is 4-5 this year.
    (My opinion: Few coaches have run their programs better, and made them more fun for everyone around them, than Spurrier and Beamer. College football will miss them on the sidelines.)
    Other firings/resignations:
    Randy Edsall, Maryland, a day after a 49-28 loss at Ohio State and three three-touchdown losses in a row left his team 2-4 this season and 22-34 in five years.
    Al Golden, Miami, a day after his team fell to 4-3 by losing 58-0 to Clemson. A winning record but mediocre showings isn't enough at mighty Miami.
    George O'Leary, Central Florida, a successful coach for years, resigned a day after a 59-10 loss to Houston that left his team 0-8 this season.
    Dan McCarney, North Texas, fired an hour after his team's day-game 66-7 loss at home to Division II (yes, I still call it that) Portland State, which led 45-0 at the half. That made the Mean Green 0-5 this season in which it gave up at least 45 points each game and lost by two TDs or many more.
    Norm Chow, Hawaii, a day after a 58-7 loss at home to Air Force. At several stops, Chow was regarded as one of the nation's best offensive coordinators before going home to Hawaii for his first head-coaching job. But a 10-36 record -- 2-7 this year -- in three-plus seasons isn't sunshine in Hawaii. Having lived and worked out there, I know they like their football.
    More twists:
    Kyle Flood at Rutgers was suspended three games in September-October and fined $50,000 for academic abuses (contacting a professor and trying to influence a grade given to a student-athlete).
    The head coach at the most prominent football school in the country (Brian Kelly, Notre Dame) physically grabbing a staff assistant in mid-game.
    The head coach at a school close to our family's heart (Butch Jones, Tennessee) accused of striking players in practice. Denials everywhere on that one, but a player from one of his former schools (Cincinnati) allegedly tweeted that it happened there. We've seen how angry -- and red -- Jones can turn during games.
     Notre Dame again: A New York Daily News story last week reported that a female academic coach in the athletic department was fired for coercing football and men's basketball players to have sex with her teenage daughter. (Can't blame the football program here, but what a story.)
     The Texas Longhorns were woeful in their season-opening 38-3 loss at Notre Dame. So head coach Charlie Strong removed Shawn Watson as play-caller and replaced him with wide receivers coach Jay Norvell. Somehow, a week after being blown out at TCU, UT upset Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl Stadium. But last Saturday, Texas lost at Iowa State 24-0. Iowa State. So who is calling plays this week?
     Mark Mangino, often successful offensive coordinator and head coach (at Kansas), was fired as Iowa State's offensive coordinator before the game with Texas. Guess that change did help.
     Perennial powers such as Nebraska and Texas -- among others -- struggling mightily. Former downtrodden TCU and Baylor are now superpowers and their coaches are considered stars.
     Houston, Memphis and Temple among the nation's best teams, and their coaches are at the top of everyone's "most likely to move" lists.
     It seems to me, because I've been around a while, that for years and years -- and not long ago -- we never saw coaching changes until football seasons were finished or nearly finished. We had to wait until late November, early December.
     Now, as much evidenced by this season, it can happen anytime. Maybe it's because there is so much more money involved, so many more big-money boosters having influence, so much more scrutiny from the vastly expanded media world.
     Used to be just a few newspaper guys covering teams, maybe a radio person or two. Now there are Internet sites all over, TV and radio talking heads galore. There's Facebook and Twitter and ... whatever else?
     Coaches can't get a rest and, if they lose a game or two or a lot, and even if their teams win but don't look good doing it, they are catching hell among fans and the media.
      Coaching jobs and demands are tougher than ever. So we've seen these 10 changes already and I fully expect a dozen or two more.
      A small sampling: lots of unhappiness with the very successful Mark Richt at Georgia right now; shaky status for Mike London at Virginia and golden-boy hire  Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech, and what kind of chance does Kyle Flood have at Rutgers?
      So more attractive jobs will become available. I don't even care to speculate who goes where; I'll leave that to others. But you can expect more firings and more surprises ... and as we've learned, we won't have to wait long.
      It's a wild world -- and it's getting wilder. Much as so many of us love the game, I'm not sure this is headed in the right direction.
      Now about the College Football Playoff rankings ...
      Don't ask me about them. I don't care ... yet. Too soon.
      I love the idea of the Division I college football playoffs, as so many people do, and we were all happy to see it begin last year. I think it should be an eight-team selection, and three rounds of play, but no one asked me.
      When we went to our YMCA on Wednesday morning, our friend there blared: "LSU is No. 2! LSU is No. 2! What do you think about that?"
      My reply: It doesn't matter.
      Hey, it's nice if your team is being considered. But ...
      It won't matter if LSU doesn't beat Alabama on Saturday. Or Arkansas next week, Ole Miss the week after that, and then Texas A&M. The games are what count.
      Ask TCU and Baylor faithful how much those CFP rankings matter ... until the final week. They're still PO'd about being left out of last year's Final Four. (And, yet, the team that I didn't think belonged, as many others didn't think so, won the national championship. Because Ohio State proved it did belong.) 
      The only thing that matters, in my opinion, is how the CFP playoff committee ranks the teams after the games of Dec. 5 -- the day of the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 Championship Games.
       I think the CFP committee does everyone a great disservice with these weekly rankings, and making a big show of them. And then it tells us that it starts the process anew each week. Ridiculous. 
       I know it's great for interest and talk and debate, and it gives the print media and all the TV-radio talk-show people something to do. But it's useless until Dec. 6.
       Same for -- again, my opinion -- the college football polls, and the Heisman Trophy speculation, and the bowl-game projections. That crap starts in the preseason, and it's updated after the first week, and the second week, etc.
        I can tell you honestly: I never pay any attention, never read a word or listen to a discussion about any of it.
        I know that makes me the exception. But I think it's all a waste of time.
        People wanted to give LSU's Leonard Fournette the Heisman Trophy after Weeks 4 and 5, etc., and he's been great, he's a contender. But so is TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, and Alabama running back Derrick Henry is right there with Fournette.
         So let's see what Fournette does against Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, and see what the others do in November.
         Come Dec. 6, I will talk to you about the polls and the Heisman and all the other college-football awards (there are so many now). And about the CFP Final Four.
          Until then, the rest of the world can speculate and talk. Have fun. I choose to ignore and wait. 


Sunday, November 1, 2015

A long time ago, Wickersham was a good Sport

     In researching the Internet for a project concerning professional baseball in Shreveport, this item got our attention: Dave Wickersham is the oldest living former Kansas City Royals player.
     That is pertinent because of the current World Series, although his name might not resonate with current fans. But for those of us who were teenagers and baseball fans in Shreveport, La., as the 1960s began, the name -- Dave Wickersham -- is a familiar one.
     In 1960 and 1961, he arguably was the Shreveport Sports' best pitcher and one of the best in the old Southern Association.
Baseball card photos from
     At the end of each of those seasons, he was called up by the parent Kansas City Athletics. The next year, 1962, he stayed in the big leagues. He was a major-league pitcher in each year of the 1960s.
      He was a star for a season or two, decent and consistent in other seasons, and by 1969, when he somewhat surprisingly made the roster of the KC Royals (one of the American League's two expansion teams), just grateful for one last season.
      By then, he also had established a second career -- in insurance sales -- and he had a life -- a wife, a family, and a city/area he had come to love.
      And a baseball team -- the Royals -- he could root for forever.
      So, because I've written frequently about Shreveport baseball over five decades, the question was -- in the tradition of the old Shreveport Journal series that produced many of our sports staff's best features in the 1980s -- "Whatever happened to Dave Wickersham?"
     Reaching the man took several contact attempts -- through Facebook, the White Pages, his insurance-business address/phone and his daughter Carey's work connection at the KC FOX-4 television station.
     Bottom line: He got the message.
     We had a nice chat about his life and career, about today's game and the Royals, and we took a virtual trip back to Shreveport in 1960-61.
     His is the classic humble beginnings-to-good life story -- with two successful careers and two nice pensions and, more importantly, a family to cherish. A devout Christian, he turned 80 on Sept. 27, and his four children have given him eight grandchildren to care for (and a ninth due soon).
     But there is loss. Carol Sue, the beautiful girl he met while he pitched for the KC Athletics and married in 1964, died in December 2012. She was a KC girl, seven years younger, and the reason the young man from northern Pennsylvania (East Springfield) became a Midwest resident. They were married for 48 years and 10 months.
     Before Carol Sue and KC and MLB, there was Shreveport.
     Dave was 24 and 25 the two seasons he pitched for the Sports. He was, as I recall, one of the most popular players and one of the best prospects on those teams. Although the KC Athletics were always woeful, there were -- I counted -- 28 players on the 1960-61 Shreveport teams that had some time in the major leagues (before or after). 
     (One of those was the player/manager, a thickly built catcher and ex-Texas Aggie named Les Peden, who was in nine games for the Washington Senators in 1953 and played for the Mel McGaha-managed Shreveport Sports in 1955-56.)
     Wickersham was one of the most successful Sports to advance (in the majors, he had a 68-57 record, 3.66 ERA, 1,123 innings and 19 saves). For Shreveport, he was a workhorse. What he remember mostly was the fun -- and a bit of agony.
     "I loved it, I loved Les, loved the guys on the team," he responded to my question about his memories of the Sports. And then we talked about 1960 -- one of the great baseball years in Shreveport history.
     True, it's ancient history. But for some of us, it was a never-forgotten year. I listened to practically every game on radio, with occasional trip to home games at SPAR Stadium. Those players were heroes.
     It was a so-so team (61-63 record) through mid-August. Then for a month, it was practically unbeatable. Talk about a great stretch pennant run ...
     Far back in the pennant race (the Southern Association was one eight-team league, no divisions), the Sports almost won the regular-season championship. Almost.
     They won 21 of 22 games at one point, winning streaks of eight and 13 games, and 24 of 27. But two losses in the last three games -- by scores of 1-0 and 2-1 -- left them a half-game behind the champion Atlanta Crackers.
     If they had won the final game, the second game of a doubleheader in Nashville (at the old Sulphur Dell ballpark, where the very short right field -- 262 feet -- had a steep incline that ran from along the wall in center field to the right-field line), they would have been champions.
     It was a bitter, and cruel, loss -- and Wickersham remembered details. He was the losing pitcher.
     He was the guy they wanted out there. As a starter and mostly a reliever, he pitched in 69 games (close to half the games), with a 10-7 record and a 2.65 earned-run average. In the stretch run, he won three games in four days.
     But late in a 1-1 game, Nashville's winning run scored on a fluke hit by  Johnny Edwards (who went on to 14 years in the majors as a catcher).
     "John Edwards hit a slider about two inches off his fists," Wickersham recalled, "and it fell in about 20 feet out of the infield. If we'd had faster guys playing second base and first base, it would have been caught. But we didn't. They were great guys and good players, but they didn't run well. In the majors, that would have been an easy out. ... It hit about 3 feet fair. He didn't hit it for diddly squat."
     Shreveport settled for second place, but made the league playoffs, only to lose a best-of-five series with Little Rock in four games. The finale was a 6-5 loss, and the tough-luck losing pitcher again was ... Wickersham.
     We loved that team, though. The first baseman was Jim McManus, a big guy who wore sweatshirts with the sleeves practically cut off to show off his big arms that produced a league-best 32 home runs and also 117 RBI. But the league RBI champ was outfielder Leo Posada (yes, uncle of the nephew Jorge), with 122. And the shortstop was out of Florida State, a Class B call-up who played half a season with the Sports and batted .338. His name: Dick Howser.
     The next year Howser was the rookie shortstop of the KC Athletics, and was an All-Star player, second in AL Rookie of the Year voting. He never was as good again in a journeyman career, but he became a third-base coach (Yankees) and then a manager (Yankees, Royals).
     Twenty-five years after his season in Shreveport, Howser was the manager of the first Royals team to win a World Series. It's also the only Royals team to win the Series (but as I post this, that could change tonight).
     "Dick was a fine guy, a good competitor," Wickersham said. "He didn't hit well enough to stay in the majors, but he was there a long time as a coach and manager."
     When I asked him about the old ballpark in Shreveport, he answered with a pitcher's perspective.
     "I remember the outfield fence had two decks, two sets of [advertising] signs," he said, "and it was a symmetrical ballpark, same distances down each line." (Almost true; it actually was 320 feet down one line, 321 to the other, 398 to straightaway center.)
     In 1961, on a lesser Sports team, Wickersham was in 57 games with a 14-11 record and a 2.45 ERA. But he was on his way to bigger and better.
     He was a good size (6-foot-3, 188 pounds) in his baseball prime, with a strong, sound arm and athletic ability. But his baseball development came slowly.

     Growing up in a small place on the banks of Lake Erie, and not far from Erie, Pa., he was like so many -- "as a little boy, like all little boys, I dreamed of playing in the majors," he said.
     But there no kids' programs then -- "not like now, like my kids and my grandkids have" -- and so "I didn't play in a [team] game until I was 14." His high school was small; only 16 were in his graduating class. Still, playing on town teams, "I knew I was pretty good because we played against men while I was in high school."
     He showed enough that Ohio University offered him its only baseball scholarship -- this was the mid-1950s -- but he was there only a little while until he attended a tryout camp with the Pirates in Pittsburgh.
     He was offered, and signed, a pro contract. He was not yet 20. He saw opportunity to leave his northern Pennsylvania roots ("the work was too hard," he said, laughing. "I knew I didn't want to go back there."
     The men who signed him: Pirates' general manager Branch Rickey -- one of baseball's greatest men -- and George Sisler (Shreveport connection; he was manager of the 1932 Sports, whose season ended with home games in Tyler, Texas, when their ballpark, Biedenharn Park, burned to the ground. Same grounds where what would become SPAR Stadium was opened six years later.)
     The Pirates gave him "the biggest bonus you could get then" without being what was known as a "bonus baby" (which means a mandatory spot on the 25-man major-league roster; Sandy Koufax, in Brooklyn, was the best example of that rule.)
     "My coach at Ohio advised me to sign," he said. "He was a scout for the [Cincinnati] Reds, so he wanted me to sign with them." But Branch Rickey was a spellbinding and convincing talker.
     "The most intelligent man I've ever spoken with," Wickersham recalled. "I could not believe his mind."
     He related a story that while he was in Rickey's office talking contract, Rickey received a call from the general manager of the Pirates' struggling Class AA farm team in New Orleans. "He talked for 20, 30 minutes; they were asking for help to improve their team," he said, "and when he hung up, he picked up our conversation in mid-sentence, right where he'd stopped before. It was amazing."
     Dave was a consistent and often big winner in five minor-league seasons, but not a top-level prospect and the Pirates didn't protect him in the minor-league draft. That's how he came to the Kansas City farm system in 1960, and to Shreveport.
     In his first full big-league season, 1962, broken ribs kept him out for 2 1/2 months. But mostly as a reliever and with nine starts, he had an 11-4 record for the less-than-mediocre Athletics. The next year he made 34 starts and was 12-15 ... and then was traded.
     The Detroit Tigers wanted him, and the big name acquired by Kansas City in the deal was outfielder Rocky Colavito.
     His first Tigers season was his career year -- most wins (19), most innings (254), most complete games (11). And his chance to be a 20-game winner was marred by a strange incident and ejection at Yankee Stadium (see links below).
     Three more seasons in Detroit followed, but they were only fair for him, although he came close to making the World Series with the 1967 Tigers. Between two short stints back in Triple-A came a 1968 trade to Pittsburgh, then a route back to a new Kansas City team.
Carey Wickersham  interviewing her father, Dave
     In a television interview that Carey Wickersham did with her favorite player ever, her Dad, on Kansas City TV two years ago, Dave tells about making the 1969 Royals as a -- to use a football term -- walk-on.
     He was 33, and fellow pitcher Moe Drabowsky was the only player older on the first-year team. None of MLB's 14 expansion teams -- since 1961 -- had a winning record, so it was a tough year.
     But one star emerged. Lou Piniella was a 25-year-old rookie, an outfielder (sort of) and designated hitter whose .282 average led the team. He was an All-Star Game player and AL Rookie of the Year.
     "He was a good hitter, but not a good fielder at all," Wickersham recalled. "When he went to the Yankees (in 1974), they worked with him on his defense and he improved a lot. That's what we (KC) should have done. But Lou used to take his bat to bed with him."
     When I laughed at that last notion, Dave said, "No, really. That's true."
     Wickersham pitched in 34 games, all in relief, and 50 innings and had a 2-3 record with five saves.
     And that was it. The insurance business was set, the family was growing, and Kansas City was home ... for good.
     He is one of four players to pitch for both Kansas City teams (Athletics, Royals). He keeps up with baseball, still very interested. The game, he says when asked, "has much more speed than when I played." And, "They've done everything to help the hitters, brought the fences in in a lot of parks (including KC's Kauffman Stadium, which once was considered a pitcher's park "but is more like a regular park now."
     Plus, the designated hitter "makes ERAs much higher in the American League than the National; it's tougher on AL pitchers."
     He bought four tickets to each AL playoff game and World Series game in Kansas City, and the children and grandchildren are using them. 
     As I write this, they might not need them for Games 6 and 7. That's fine with Dave.
     "This club has a lot of tenacity," he says of the Royals, and all of baseball has learned that the last two postseasons. "It's spread around the ballclub; they have this 'We're going to get this done' attitude. They're better at that than any team I've ever seen.
     "We don't have big-name players, but we've got a lot of really good players."
     His days are filled with caring for the grandchildren. As we talked, he tried to settle down a rambunctious 4-year-old grandson (we have that in common; I know that challenge.)
     How devoted to the Royals is he, how proud is he to have played for them?
     His gravestone, he tells me, will be inscribed on one side with his favorite Bible scripture --  Colossians 3:17, which as has been noted in several references I saw, he always included when he signed his baseball card.
     The other side of the gravestone? A Royals logo.
     But before that ... "I am a young 80," he says with a laugh. "I get along good. I've never been a drinker or smoker; that's always helped me, I believe. 
      "God still has a purpose for me."