Friday, January 31, 2014

A brutal day in Murfreesboro

       For the media, one of the luxuries of covering a football game in sub-freezing, snowy, ice weather is a heated press box. Or even a seat in the press box.
       I can vouch for it. I can tell you for sure that the coldest I've ever been at football games in which I was with the media happened in Tennessee -- twice. Once with a seat in a tiny press box without heat; once standing outside a press box that wasn't big enough for all the media.
       Probably no one else will remember the second time, in a remote outpost (Dunlap, Sequatchie County High School), 20-something miles northwest from Chattanooga. I was probably one of two media people at the game.
       How cold was it? I'll tell you more in a moment.
       The first time I was that cold? Many of my Louisiana Tech friends will remember, that is if their brains have unfrozen. All I have to do is say Murfreesboro. The Grantland Rice Bowl game -- Saturday, Dec. 14, 1968.
       "The most miserable day I have ever spent in my life," the Tech backfield coach that day, Mickey Slaughter, said last week when we talked about it.
Tommy Spinks: With Terry
Bradshaw, he burned it up
on a bitterly cold day.
        I'll give you the details soon, but one teaser: Terry Bradshaw and Tommy Spinks, the best of friends and a pass/catch combination that thrilled us all at Woodlawn High and then Tech, played a lot of great games together for five years. But considering the conditions, none was ever better than that day in Murfreesboro.
 ---
        First, Sequatchie County on a very cold Friday night in November, late 1990s. While I remember much of the Tech bowl game material (and looked up some), I cannot recall all that much about this Class AA playoff game I covered for the Knoxville News Sentinel.
        Tried to find my story from the game, and I don't have it. Called my buddy Phil Kaplan, the sports editor at the News Sentinel, and he tried to find it on their electronic library. He read me off three dozen story titles from my time there, but couldn't find this one.
        I know Dunlap was off into the southwest Tennessee woods, about two hours from Knoxville. Sequatchie County was a small school, with a tiny, antiquated stadium -- rickety bleachers -- and not much of a football tradition. And its team was not very competitive that night.
        I think -- but I'm not sure -- I was covering Alcoa High (Alcoa is located near the Knoville regional airport). Alcoa easily won the game, something like 42-6.
         I know it was a damn long game; it went on and on, and I wish they'd kept the clock running. Because I was freezing. It was about 20 degrees, it sleeted and snowed and the wind blew hard ... and the press box was one of those tiny ones, maybe four seats. No heat.
        At least I had a seat, and the wind wasn't quite as bad up there. But I've never been able to write well wearing a glove. So to take notes, keep a play-by-play, my left (writing) hand was bare a lot of the time.
        When the game mercifully ended, and I went to the field and then dressing rooms to get quotes, I couldn't help but think back to Murfreesboro 30 years earlier.
        Wound up in the Sequatchie County coaches' office to write my story and use the one phone at the premises (this was before cellphones were everywhere). But I was so cold that it was 15-20 minutes before I could even start typing.  
        The players and coaches, their season done, were soon gone. It was just me and a school janitor in the place. As I was writing my story, he said to me, "I'm leaving. When you're done, just flip off this light and lock the door."
        True story. I had the place to myself. I could have taken anything I wanted out of the Sequatchie County football facility (what there was of it).
        Story done, I sent it to the office and got the heck out of the cold town of Dunlap. Haven't been back.
---
        The 1968 Grantland Rice Bowl was a great reward for the Louisiana Tech football team -- and for me personally. By the time the regular season ended, we had an outstanding Division II team, which won its last six games and finished 8-2. There were no national playoffs in that division then, but the NCAA did have four regional bowl games for D-II. This was the Mideast regional.
        I think we had one of the nation's best teams at our level. We had the nation's best quarterback at that level; that I know.
        The second half of that season was when Bradshaw consistently showed more than just potential.
        So Tech was selected for a nationally televised (ABC) game against the University of Akron -- Bulldogs (8-2) vs. Zips (7-2-1), first bowl game in each school's history.
        Why Murfreesboro? Grantland Rice, the nation's best-known sportswriter for decades, was born in Murfreesboro and graduated from Vanderbilt University, 33 miles north, worked for the Nashville Tennessean before going to the big time. This bowl was a way to honor the great Mr. Rice.
        This was the fifth year in a row the game had been played at Middle Tennessee State University's stadium -- which reminded me a lot of Louisiana Tech's old stadium (we had moved into the new stadium that season).
        This was my last football game as Tech's statistician/student assistant in sports information. I didn't make all the road trips, but Paul Manasseh was the SID that year (he would move on to LSU in a few months) and got me a place on the traveling party and a seat on the plane.
        So I have the late Mr. Manasseh to thank for freezing my butt off. No, I really was grateful.
  ---
        On that Friday, we got off the plane in Nashville (took buses to Murfreesboro) and we knew it would be colder than Louisiana. But the  weather talk was ominous -- very cold and possible sleet/snow. Heck, we got it all the next day.
        Got to the stadium and it was about 20 degrees, with a strong wind -- so the wind-chill factor left it feeling like about 0 degrees. It was already sleeting, then we got snow flurries. For a bunch of Louisiana kids, this was awful.
        My job that day was to be a spotter for the ABC-TV crew. No room for them in the main press box (which seated about 10 people). So there we were outside to the left of the press box -- in the elements. I can't remember what I was wearing, but I know I wore a ski cap because they showed the TV crew a few times (we saw the TV broadcast at Tech several times the next few weeks). 
        I was cold when the game started. It didn't get any better.
        We weren't the only ones outside the press box; the Tech coaches working upstairs -- Slaughter calling plays, Pat Collins calling the defense -- sat in desk chairs. Slaughter remembered that not only was it cold, near the end of the game, a huge fight broke out among the (few) Akron fans there, right below where they were sitting.
---
        The game was one-sided -- for three quarters. By halftime, we (Tech) had a 21-0 lead. But Akron was there for a reason, and it showed in the third quarter, when it cut the lead to 21-13.
        Bradshaw had been really good in the first half. In the fourth quarter, he was great. The colder it got, the better he got. He finished off Akron, and we won 33-13.
        He wound up 19-of-33 for 261 yards and ran for two touchdowns (16 and 8 yards). People forget that as great a passer as he was, he also was a strong, fearless runner.
        But part of his success was because Spinks could not be covered. He caught 12 passes for 167 yards, with a 36-yarder a touchdown. Knowing Tommy, he probably could have described each of those catches years and years later.
        One Bradshaw play, early in the fourth quarter, was a play for the ages. Anyone who saw it can still revel in it. He rolled out to his left, got hit by at least six Akron players and with three of them literally hanging on him -- I'm not kidding -- somehow got off a pass to Larry Brewer, our tight end, for a 6-yard touchdown.
        "That play, that game is what sold NFL scouts on him," Slaughter said the other day.
        The game was, pardon the pun, a warmup for Terry's pro career in Pittsburgh, where he played cold-weather games for 12 years and won most of them. (But Pittsburgh was a resort compared to where our other Woodlawn/NFL QB hero, Joe Ferguson, played -- 12 seasons in Buffalo.)
        "How cold was it?" one of our offensive linemen, Jesse Carrigan wrote to me this week. "The band couldn't march at halftime because their wind instruments were frozen. And there must have been 50 people in the stadium watching the game."
        Jesse also wanted me to put in here how well the offensive line -- Butch Williams, Eric Moss, John Harper, Glenn Murphy and Carrigan -- played that day. It did.
 ---
        The attendance probably was around 3,000. That's a guess; there's no record of it that I could find. I can't imagine many people from the Murfreesboro attending. The NCAA noticed. The next few years, the Grantland Rice Bowl was played in Baton Rouge's Memorial Stadium.
        But a few of the people in the stands that day were special to me. The Tucker family took the 3 1/2-hour drive from their home in Atlanta to come to the game. They had lived in Sunset Acres, just around the corner from us, until the year before, and I spent a great deal of time at their house -- a lot of it playing wiffle ball in their backyard. Terry, the middle of three sons, had been a freshman at La. Tech the year before and worked in sports information.
        So I suggested that they come to Murfreesboro for the game and to see the half-dozen Woodlawn players that were familiar to them.
        When I visited with them before the game that Saturday morning, we laughed -- sort of -- at how the weather had turned out. I apologized for the suggestion.
        "Coldest I've ever been," Terry said this week. "I don't know how we made it home after that game that day."
        It was a tough day, but also a great day for Louisiana Tech and its fans. And, sure as heck, a memorable day. I hope I'm never that cold at a football game -- or anywhere -- again.
                                   
 
            
                         
                             
         

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Football in the snow? No, thanks

New Year's Day, 1947, in Dallas: the Cotton Bowl -- LSU's worst
weather football game ever (final score: LSU 0, Arkansas 0)
     Considering the snow-bound Deep South this week and the usually frozen North has me thinking about bad weather and its effect on sports events.
     If you're a fan, you likely have put your health at risk and braved cold weather to sit through games, and you probably haven't forgotten it.
     Good luck to those people going to the Super Bowl in the Meadowlands on Sunday. It might not be another Ice Bowl -- nothing will be like that again, hopefully -- but sub-freezing temperatures are likely and snow is possible.
     And I'm not envious. If I decide to watch -- and that's a question, as you might've read (or not read) in a blog piece last week -- I'll do it from a warm living room.
     I've had my share of bad-weather games, and I'm not volunteering for any more.
     We've all sat through the rain to watch football, baseball, golf, soccer -- or most anything outdoors -- and we've might've seen some fog-affected games (if not in person, then on TV), and we have driven through rain and snow to get to basketball arenas.
     Many years ago, when I was the sports information director at Centenary College, we had some hellacious basketball trips -- through the snow and ice in New York City, Detroit, Chicago, upstate New York and even to Bozeman, Mont. -- all in the middle of winter.
     I knew we were in the deep freeze one night in Omaha, Neb., when I walked out of the hotel to go to the arena just across the street (Centenary was playing Creighton), and the temperature sign closeby said ... 5 degrees. That didn't account for the wind, and wind chill. Thankfully, no snow that day, but that was not a pleasant walk.
     Baseball in cold weather is not much fun, either. Few times in my life have I left a game of any sorts early, but one April night at Atlanta Stadium, Terry Tucker and I left the premises after the first inning. It was cold and windy, and we couldn't stand it. The Braves and Padres played on without us.
     It makes a difference when you have a child playing in the game. Beatrice and I sat (or stood) through many a soccer game involving Orange Park teams when we lived in North Florida because one of the kids on the field was our Jason.
     You generally think "warm" when it's Florida, but you'd be surprised how cold it can be at night in January or February, and how badly you want to watch your son play soccer.
      Which brings to mind the soccer games in Europe and the rest of the world when they play in winter, in conditions probably as harsh or worse than here in the U.S., and last I looked, the players were wearing shorts.
       I mean, have you ever seen a soccer game in which the players wear long pants? Better yet (Jerry Barnes, take note), have you ever seen a soccer game, period?
       I'm wondering, does the cold ever bother those players?  Funny, but when I was a kid in Holland going to those soccer games, I don't remember the weather bothering me. I'm thinking now that because I was only 7 or 8 years old, my parents probably kept me at home when the weather was awful. (Could I make you believe that I made that mile walk to Olympic Stadium and back home in the snow?)
---
       Ah, never mind. I'm here to continue my discussion on the Super Bowl being played outdoors in a cold-weather place; I touched on this last week. I think it's a stupid idea, OK.
       If the NFL wants to subject the players on the best two teams in the league this season -- and subject the fans and, yes, the media -- to a possible winter storm, or even a pretty miserable cold night, I don't want to hear or read about the whining afterward.
       But as I got ready to write this piece and thought about the miserable weather games of the past, I realized that there is a whole history of NFL Championship Games -- pre-Super Bowl era -- being played in snow and ice and brutal cold.
       One example: I was reading about the 1945 title game in Cleveland -- Cleveland Rams vs. Washington Redskins -- when 18 inches of snow hit town the week of the game, and the temperature was -8 at game time.
       Still, that wasn't as bad as the Cowboys-Packers Ice Bowl in Green Bay at the end of the 1966 season. Nothing was ever as bad.
       So, much as the NFL loves its throwback uniforms, this could be a throwback-type game, weather-wise.
       There was an NFL game this season reminiscent of those snow/ice adventures: the Dec. 8 game in Philadelphia, with Detroit as the visitor, a game played in a blizzard. You might remember it: The Eagles won 34-20, although at times, the field was practically invisible from the stands or on TV.
       I was thinking about the worst LSU football weather game. A friend with a long LSU history chose the 1988 Miami-at-Tiger Stadium game played in, as he put it, "a torrential storm." I remember it because not only did it pour, it also poured Miami points (the Hurricanes, in Jimmy Johnson's last year as their coach, embarrassed the Tigers 44-3).
       But that was a rain game. LSU had one of those "blizzard" games ... before I was born. I've seen the photos of the 1947 Cotton Bowl game -- Arkansas vs. a 9-1 LSU team. Dallas-Fort Worth was hit by a snowstorm and the Cotton Bowl Stadium looked like Philadelphia's stadium last month.
       The score that day: 0-0. No surprise. I'm posting a picture of the stadium that New Year's Day.
       Many of us remember the 1979 Cotton Bowl game, played after D-FW's worst ice storm in 30 years -- the horribly cold, icy day when Joe Montana led Notre Dame to a 23-0 fourth-quarter edge and back from being shellacked by Houston (34-12 lead) to a classic 35-34 victory.
       That day, I was cold just watching it on TV.
       I'm thinking about the fans who will be in the stands at Sunday's Super Bowl and the media, especially the ones who will be near the field for whatever reason and those assigned to the auxiliary press box (outside?) because the regular press box is full.
       Hey, have fun, people. Uh, dress warmly.
       I sure hope this isn't a "blizzard" game because I don't think that is fair to either team (or the fans). But if it happens, we can all say "told you so" to the NFL powers-that-be.
       I have my own media experiences with terribly cold-weather football games, and I'll write about them in the next episode.
       I'll give you two hints: (1) Both games were played in Tennessee and (2) Terry Bradshaw was the quarterback in one of them.
             
                    
                                
       
      

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The boxer Leen Sanders ... my Dad's hero

Leen Sanders (from boxrec.com)
(15th in a series)
     Before he was a prisoner of the Nazis, before he was in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Leen Sanders was a boxing champion in The Netherlands, one of the biggest sports names in the country during the late 1920s and through the 1930s.
     I never heard Dad expressly say this, but no question, Sanders was one of his heroes.
     That was true before World War II when they were young men in Holland, when Sanders -- 11  years older -- came out of his hometown of Rotterdam to make his name in the ring and Dad was one of his fans in Amsterdam, and certainly afterward when they were each Holocaust survivors.
     Sanders was a hero -- a life saver -- to many survivors such as Louis Van Thyn because at Auschwitz he risked his life almost every day, taking (well, stealing) food and goods right under the Nazis' hold and smuggling what he could to his fellow prisoners.
       Translated from his biography on the Rotterdam link of the web site joodsamsterdam.nl: "Sanders the boxer appeared in several respects to Sanders the camp prisoner. However tough the conditions were, he always found a way to survive and then without losing his dignity.
         "The latter maybe distinguished him from the vast majority of his fellow prisoners and even more striking was that he attached more importance to the lives of others than his own."
         After he first went to the camp and was treated like any other prisoner, one of the Nazi SS men realized who Sanders was and decided he would be given special treatment (that seems like a misnomer, doesn't it, considering the circumstances?).
          He was asked to put on boxing exhibitions and give lessons to the German guards and block elders. But more importantly, he was made one of the leaders in his block, a kapo or prisoner functionary, spared from hard labor and physical abuse.
          According to the biography, here was the essence: He was put in charge of arranging and distributing the food in the block (barracks), and oversaw and was responsible for the maintenance of the block.
         The work he did in the kitchen, according to fellow survivors, was key to their fate. Within a few days, everyone knew there was a champion in the kitchen.
---
      My Dad and Sanders had this in common -- each lost most of their families to the gas chambers, including their parents, siblings (seven for Sanders) and their first wives. Sanders also lost two children, sons Joshua (10) and David (8) -- murdered with their mother, Selly, only hours after arriving at Auschwitz.
        Unlike Dad, Sanders was part of the prisoners' group taken on the "death march" at the end of the war. That he survived that horrific ordeal made his story even more extraordinary.
      I heard the name "Leen Sanders" almost all my life. Boxing was one of Dad's favorite sports and when he would tell people about his Auschwitz experiences, he invariably would mention Sanders.
      He did so a couple of times in the 1996 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, on which this series is based.
      "In Auschwitz, we had some people who were more prominent, and they gave us some food sometimes," Dad told the interviewer, who was from the Los Angeles area. "I remember the name Leen Sanders -- I don't know if you've heard that name in Los Angeles -- he was living there before he died. He was a champion boxer in Europe. ... And he gave much food away, that Leen Sanders."
       A few minutes later, Dad returned to the subject, pointing out that Sanders "was one of the block elders (leaders) in Block 9" and a leader of the Holocaust survivors' organization in the LA area."
       This was in the 1960s when Sanders, as Dad noted, "lived in the Valley near Los Angeles. We   visited him twice."
The Dutch champion (from joodsamsterdam.nl)
        I remember that, but in researching for this piece, I found the tie-in. Sanders and his second wife came to live in Culver City, Calif., which is exactly where my parents were visiting. Their friends from back in Amsterdam, Max and Greta Himel, settled there after immigrating to the U.S. in the 1950s, as we did. And I remembered the Himels from my early days.
       Honestly, I did not know much about Sanders' boxing career or his Holocaust story. What I found was -- in my opinion -- one of the most interesting stories among Dutch survivors.
---   
       He knew from age 14 that he was going to be a boxer. The sport fascinated him; he followed older brother Abraham (Bram) into it. By 18, he began fighting professionally, despite his parents' objections.
       The web site boxrec.com shows that his pro record was 40-19-16 -- yes, 16 draws -- and that at different times he was the Dutch lightweight, welterweight and middleweight champion. He often fought against bigger men, but in 14 years, he was never knocked out.
         He fought all over Western Europe -- Holland, Germany, England, France -- and was proud of his heritage: According to his bio, he had a Star of David sewn on the front of his boxing trunks.
         He was often a contender for European titles, but given a chance to fight a Nazi-backed German champion for the middleweight title in 1936, he refused.
          He fought continually right through May 1940 when the Nazi Army stormed into Holland and took control. Then he became just another Jewish person whose freedom and rights gradually were taken away. He and his family went into hiding in 1942, when the Germans began taking prisoners, but they were betrayed ... and soon they were in Auschwitz.
---
       Sebil "Bill" Minco, like Sanders, was a Holocaust survivor from Rotterdam. After the war, he wrote his memoirs in a book Cold Feet (Koude Voeten in Dutch) and he detailed some of Sanders' heroics.
         He recalled their first meeting when Sanders found out he was a Dutchman, disappeared for a moment and then came back to slip a loaf of bread under his arm, describing it as "the bread which heaven opened."
         He goes on to say that "when we became desperate, Leen Sanders came to the rescue in person with a mess tin of soup, bread and underwear, and made it that we could pull something beautiful and we could [feel] appeased, overriding hunger somewhat.
          "Later we found out that where prisoners were in distress, Sanders stood in the breach to relieve suffering as much as possible. The Dutch women who were in the [Block 10] experiment, he regularly provided with extra food. With great risk and danger to his life, he had food and clothes stolen from SS -- care units, kept hidden, and he managed to smuggle it inside."
         Block 10, the medical experiment block where my mother was prisoner for much of her time at Auschwitz.
---    
      In the biography on Sanders, there is reference to letters he received from people thanking him for saving their lives. Members of the former "Beggars" resistance group -- Minco was one -- wrote a letter to the Dutch government in 1976 asking for a statue of Sanders to be erected at one of the satellite concentration camps where he wound up near the end of the death march in 1945.
       That didn't happen, but I suspect Sanders did not worry about it. One item I saw said he was always modest about his role at Auschwitz.
       In 1990, he told Ben Braber -- who wrote a book on Holland and the Holocaust -- that, "It was certainly a risk. If you got caught  then, then ... There were [built-in] risks that never came [developed]. I've never been caught. I was very lucky."
       After he came back to a wrecked Rotterdam in 1946, Sanders resumed his boxing career, but for only two bouts. A few months later he married Henriette van Creveld.
       They went to live for a time in Aruba, a Dutch-speaking country in the West Indies where Sanders was a boxing promoter-trainer, then moved to Los Angeles. As chairman of a Holocaust survivors group (WUF), he tried to arrange for war reparations and benefits. Dad makes a reference to this in his Shoah Foundation interview.
       Sanders and his wife returned to Rotterdam for his final years; he died April 8, 1991, at age 83.
       In his book, Minco wrote of the Auschwitz camp, "From the beginning there was aloofness [by everyone] for the Dutchmen ... There was one among us who have a very hard head and whose fist had always hit the mark."
       My Dad could've told you that about Leen Sanders, his hero.
       (Next: Food was always an issue)














 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Super Bowl? Not the real championship of football

      The world championship of football is coming up soon, and I'm rooting for the team in orange.
      No, not American football. Not the Denver Broncos. Not the Super Bowl. Don't be silly.
Two of the few reasons to watch the NFL, in my opinion: Two of the great
quarterbacks of all time, Tom Brady (left) and Peyton Manning, after
Sunday's AFC Championship Game (photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
      Real football, the world's football. The World Cup ... of soccer. This summer in Brazil. The team in orange, my team, The Netherlands.
      The Super Bowl in two weeks? I don't really care. If the Dallas Cowboys aren't playing -- and they haven't been on this stage in 18 years -- I don't care. I haven't cared for that long ... except I was happy for the New Orleans Saints and their fans four years ago.
      So the Broncos and Seattle Seahawks will be playing at the Meadowlands, right outside of New York City. So?
      This is a continuation of a blog piece I did at World Series time, stating the reason I would not be watching. That had more to do with who was playing (and who wasn't) because I still love baseball. But as I wrote in that piece, there are many trends in the game today I don't like.
      Same type trends are prevalent in the NFL. Mostly it has to do with the players' behavior, and their arrogance. Frankly, I don't like the game anymore. Still enjoy college football, but you can have the pros. Why? Read on, if you must.
 ---
      Here is how bad it's gotten: (1) Talk of the NFL has been outlawed at my house; (2) I have not watched a game live in two months.
      Item No. 1: Beatrice hasn't watched or cared about football for a couple of years now, and was a fan in recent years only because she likes Les Miles and she knew that Jason (our son) and I cared about LSU football. She hasn't watched the NFL in years.
      But when she saw a couple of pieces the PBS NewsHour and NBC News did on the brain injuries/concussions/suicides and the NFL's reticence to acknowledge that the violent nature of the game is likely linked to those players' problems, she was appalled.
      And so now I've been told: Do not discuss the NFL in any form or fashion in her presence. Do not mention the Cowboys, Jerry Jones, Tony Romo, Peyton Manning ... nothing. Period.
      She thinks all the players are doing is heading toward their demise. Grim.
      OK, I can't say I totally disagree. It is a gruesome side of the game.
      I have not watched a game live since early in the season. I wrote this previously; every time I watched the Cowboys live, they lost. Every time I taped a game, they won. Of course, once I stopped watching them live, that didn't hold up. They proved they could be an 8-8 team (again), with or without me.
      But because I still want them to win, and I'm still interested, and I want to write about it with as much intelligence as I can (yeah, I know, that's a reach), I taped the games and watched them late at night ... after Bea had gone to bed.
      Taped some other games, if the matchups were appealing (few were). New England vs. Carolina on Monday night, Nov. 18, was one I wanted to check out. And in the first half of that one, Carolina receiver Steve Smith and New England cornerback Aqib Talib had three shoving/wrestling/in-your-face matches worthy of Ultimate Fighting Championship feature attractions. (Both those guys have a history of on-field, off-field transgressions. Hard to feel good about either one.)
      It was ugly, ugly, ugly. They both should have been kicked out of the game. I stopped watching that game right there.
      But that's the NFL these days.  Far too much trash-talking, too much posturing, too much showing off ... too violent, really. Concussion Central waiting to happen.
      Look, I know it's a physical game, it always has been it, and always will be. It's just the nature of the sport.
      Even in this pass-happy era, it is still -- as coaches Billy Joe Adcox and Jerry Adams reminded us so often all those years ago at Woodlawn High -- about who blocks and tackles best, who can push the other guy around most effectively.
      The rules protect players -- quarterbacks, wide receivers, even running backs, from a lot of cheap shots these days. But they still happen.
      Patriots coach Bill Belichick whined publicly Monday about Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker's "cheap shot" block that injured Talib and knocked him out of Sunday's AFC Championship Game. I don't want to see any player get hurt, but I couldn't help but think of Talib and Smith's ugliness in that Nov. 18 game.
      So tough luck for Talib and the Patriots. Hard to feel sorry for Belichick, who -- no question -- ranks among the greatest head coaches (and defensive coordinators) in pro football history.
      Belichick, in the public view, is cold and calculating. A winner, for sure. But unless you were a New York Giants fan, when he helped Bill Parcells' team win two Super Bowl titles, or a Patriots' fan, you're probably not on his side.
      Remember this: He is close friends with Nick Saban; they are best of friends. Belichick is Saban's guru; when Belichick was head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Saban was his defensive coordinator for four years. And Saban isn't beloved by many, other than Alabama fans.
---
      But I digress. Back to this Super Bowl. Will I watch live? Don't know. I won't if it is going to be played in a snowstorm, or in frigid temperatures. There is a chance of that, of course, because the NFL powers -- dazzled by New York City's charms -- chose to put this game at the new Meadowlands stadium. No dome there.
      The Super Bowl has been played in cold-weather climates before -- Detroit, Minnesota, Indianapolis -- but at indoor stadiums. It was very cold the day the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl title, at old Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, in January 1972; it was cold at Rice Stadium in Houston two years later.
      Is the NFL pushing its weather-luck, with an open stadium in the middle of winter? Of course it is. But we proved right here in Arlington, Texas, three years ago that the Super Bowl could be staged in arctic-like conditions. Could it happen again with an outdoors game? Maybe the NFL powers want to show that the Cowboys-at-Packers Ice Bowl wasn't such a bad deal.
      I have taped all the NFL playoff games this year, and watched them late at night. Must say there have been some entertaining games, but also a recurring theme: ugliness.
      I thought Carolina's players were more interested in trash talking than actually playing well against San Francisco, and the Panthers got hit with some very costly penalties. When it came time to really man up, they couldn't do it. Talk is cheap.
      Which, of course, brings us to Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. As I write this, I have watched the AFC title game, but not the NFC title game, and not Sherman's profane, out-of-this-world postgame rant in the interview with Erin Andrews.
      There is reaction everywhere about it. I am one of the few sports fans, apparently, who has not seen it. Think I should?
      Why are we surprised? Sherman was featured in Sports Illustrated's main story in its preseason NFL issue, and he came off as pretty darned sure of himself (understatement). A friend yesterday posted a clip of Sherman tearing down ESPN announcer Skip Bayless, which -- as I pointed out -- isn't a bad thing. But Sherman is a little boastful (ha!).
       I won't be rooting for Sherman or Seattle, which has the only coach (Pete Carroll) who ever coached a Heisman Trophy winner who had to give back the trophy -- an indication of the type program Carroll had at Southern Cal.
       I'm not a Denver fan, either, but I am a Peyton Manning fan and he's the only reason I would even consider watching this Super Bowl.
       Now he's a great story. Certainly has his secure place among the game's greatest quarterbacks ever, but this comeback from a severe neck injury is almost beyond belief. Plus, he's humble and gracious and well-spoken.
       He's been such a class act -- so, by the way, has Tom Brady, whether you don't like hi or the Patriots -- and so is Peyton's quarterback/father, Archie.
       It would be nice to see Peyton have one more big victory -- in decent weather conditions -- and then retire from the game ... and remain in good health. That would be the good side of the NFL.
       To watch or not to watch, that is my question. Guarantee you I will not watch any pregame hype or read much about it over the next week and a half.
        I can do with a little less violent brand of voetbal. Looking forward to the World Cup and my team in orange.
       

Friday, January 17, 2014

We're all on a sentimental journey

     Gonna take a sentimental journey
     Gonna set my heart at ease
     Gonna make a sentimental journey
     To renew old memories

---
     I was looking through a file on my parents yesterday, trying to find information someone had requested, when I came across two dozen family photos. It made me think of the old days.
     Every week, I am participating in Facebook's Throwback Thursday, posting photos from my past, my family's past. This week, it was two March 1980 photos -- when Bea and I were still young, and our children were little kids.
       Six times in the past three weeks, the news has come that someone I knew, people who played a role in my world, has passed away. R.I.P. -- Ann Thaxton, J.W. Cook Jr., Bob Hood, Tommy Watson, Donnie Baughman, Wiley Hilburn Jr.
        It's never easy to hear, even when it's not a surprise. I just try to cherish the good times we had, their value to my life, the influence they left.
       What keeps playing in my head this week is that familiar old song: Sentimental Journey ...
        That's the way I feel. Every day, several times a day, we take a sentimental journey. I suspect it's the same for you.
        Yes, we do a lot of looking back -- whether we want to or not. There are reminders everywhere of where we've been.    
Nothing I'm more sentimental about than these
 two kids: Jason and Rachel, in 1984.
        My wife loves to remind me: "For a man who says he doesn't live in the past, you sure spend a lot of time there." If I've heard that a dozen times, I've heard it a hundred. She says I am much more "mushy" than she is.
        OK, guilty. My tears come easily, in many instances. Bea also will tell you that nostalgia is one of my strong suits, that I'm very sentimental. She is, too, of course, but she manages to push forward, to stay in today's world and look toward tomorrow. Admirable trait.
        But she does have her sentimental moments -- mostly thinking of her parents and her kids. And I like that.
        I can spend hours watching YouTube videos of great Yankees wins, LSU wins, Dutch soccer wins, Cowboys wins ... I can even watch some of the great losses. More hours watching videos of and listening to my favorite singers, or big bands/orchestras, Johnny Carson shows.
         Love to watch documentary-type shows on TV (particularly PBS), but not any of those shows relating to wars or military history. No thank you.
         As Bea says, and as I like to joke with friends, that's a lot of time with nothing to do.
         Nothing but enjoy the times, the memories.
         A couple of months ago, after my blog piece "Same Way Turkey Day," for the most part recalling the Byrd-Fair Park Thanksgiving Day football games (1930s through 1962), one of my friends said he enjoys those type pieces best because that's what I write best.
          A writer always enjoys hearing or reading that his work is appreciated.
          Doing those type pieces -- on Shreveport-Bossier or North Louisiana or the state, on Sunset Acres or Woodlawn or Louisiana Tech, or the Van Thyns' early days in the United States -- is fun because it does take me back, and I don't have to do a lot of research.
           But I also want to try to weave in how those times relate to what's going on in today's world. Because I don't want to live in the past. I really don't spend as much time rehashing games and stories from the old days as you might think I do. I could; I've got a lot of the memories stored in my feeble brain.
          But I'd rather think about what we're going to do today and tomorrow, what's on the agenda with the kids and grandkids, what events or places are attractions for Bea and me. I'd rather read and think about -- and read about, and speculate with friends -- how Louisiana Tech and LSU are going to win games in basketball and baseball and then football this fall, how the Yankees are going to find some pitchers, and how the Cowboys are going to rebuild (there's a laugh there).
           Love the past, and I'm sentimental about it. But I'm living for now and for the future, and more memories to be made.
           Maybe "my" teams will make those memories, but I'd like to look back a couple of decades from now, God willing, and think about the sentimental journeys I made with the grandkids.
              

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Hall of Fame? No, Hall of Blame

      This is perhaps going to surprise my baseball-loving friends and even certain members of my family ... but I am very disenchanted with the Baseball Hall of Fame.
       I no longer consider it a holy place, a shrine. It's just another museum, that's all. It's not that "romantic" to me.
       In fact, I have re-thought some future plans. (If you want the quick version, save yourself some time, go to the bottom of the piece and see what I'm talking about.) Hint: Don't send me directions on how to get to Cooperstown, N.Y.
       For those who aren't baseball fans, who don't care, stop here. That takes care of 95 percent of my readership. For the remaining 5 percent, bear with me as I lament and vent.
       I don't relish writing this because baseball remains my favorite sport. Not my original favorite; that was soccer (yes, Jerry Barnes, that's right), the No. 1 sport in my home country.
       But when it's not baseball season, when the Yankees aren't playing, I'm a little lost in the sports world. (Go ahead, make your little jokes about how they didn't play in the 2013 season.) I don't really
       Maybe it's because I'm older, or more cynical, or jaded, or just worn out. But to me, the Baseball Hall of Fame -- or perhaps voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame -- has become a joke. This year it was worse than ever. It's turned into a Baseball Hall of Blame.
---
       Two voters, or non-voters if you will, were the brunt of the joke this year.
       -- Dan Le Batard is a longtime columnist for the Miami Herald and an ESPN talk show host who, anonymously at first, turned his ballot over to Deadspin.com to let readers make his choices for him. That was his protest about the selection process.
       -- Ken Gurnick, who has covered the Los Angeles Dodgers for years and years and now works for MLB.com, voted only for Jack Morris -- the former Tigers/Blue Jays pitching ace in his 15th (and last) year on the ballot. Gurnick point-blank wrote that he would not vote for any player in the PED (performance-enhancing drugs) era.        
       The steroids/PED has gummed up all the voting. More on that later.
       I believe what Gurnick did is ridiculous, a real copout. If he cares that little, the Baseball Writers' Association of America -- which always has set the rules and conducted the voting for the Hall of Fame -- should take his vote away.
       Which is exactly what it did to Le Batard -- stripped him of his vote, took his BBWAA membership away for three years. Think he cares?
       In researching this piece, doing some reading and talking to current or former baseball beat writers and columnists who are friends, it's unanimous they think that Le Batard's giveaway of his vote was wrong.
       "He's a very talented guy who has made a career out of shtick," one of my friends said.
       My viewpoint: He did a good thing. Outlandish, outrageous ... sure. But, in a very pointed way, he called attention not only to himself but to a fouled-up voting system.
       The BBWAA, the Hall of Fame officials and Major League Baseball's powers-that-be -- hello, Bud Selig, Rob Manfred and one of my favorites, Joe Torre -- should consider these flaws.
       "I wasn't reckless or flippant about this; I thought this through," Le Batard explained last week on the air with ESPN show hosts Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic. "For 10 years, I've been on my platforms trying to instigate change here, and have done so unsuccessfully. I haven't attracted the amount of attention in 10 years trying this than I did just yesterday."
       The BBWAA, in its admonition of Le Batard, issued a statement saying it considered having a vote for the Hall of Fame "the ultimate privilege."
       Oh, holy eye roll. It's baseball, for Babe Ruth's sake. Let's put this in context. Ultimate privilege? I consider that to be alive on this earth, to be a husband, and father, and grandfather. I just cannot take it that seriously.
       But so many people do. ESPN hosts Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser called Le Batard "sanctimonious." I would counter by saying the BBWAA powers also are "sanctimonious." Just depends on how you look at it.
---
       I don't have a vote, never have, never will. I'm just interested in the game and in the Hall, or I wouldn't be writing this piece.
      Now, what changes need to be made? Le Batard and my friends all have their ideas; one is  obvious to me:  The voting membership needs an overhaul.
       There were 571 voters this year (those who are BBWAA members for 10 consecutive years, at any point, are eligible). Many of those no longer cover baseball regularly, or never did (they were columnists); they're not in tune with today's game; they don't study the players or the statistics closely. Le Batard said that even he shouldn't be one of the voters.
       For instance, there is no provision for the many knowledgable and experience broadcasters to have a vote, nor is there any former players/managers/general managers input ... except on the Oldtimers' Committee.
       One of Le Batard's suggestions is that a voter should be able to vote for as many people as they want; the current limit is 10. I don't agree; I like a limit of five, which I think is the ideal number for induction in one year.
      But the greatest issue today is the refusal of many voters to vote for the admitted or accused PED users. That, Le Batard said, "bothers me." He would vote for them because his reasoning is that it was part of the game, just as alcohol was over the years or "greenies" or amphetamines in the '60s, or cocaine in the late '70s and '80s.
        The list of players and the supposed links to PEDs, with their vote totals this year (none got really close to election): Jeff Bagwell (310), Roger Clemens (202), Barry Bonds (198), Mark McGwire (63), Sammy Sosa (41), Rafael Palmeiro (25, and off the ballot because he received less than 5 percent of the votes).
         A couple of my friends did not vote for these guys. One said he would.
         I was asked by a buddy recently what I thought about the issue. I said I would vote for McGwire, Clemens, Bonds and probably Bagwell -- who many believe was not a PED user -- because they were exceptional players, period, even before PED use. A lot of us didn't like Clemens and Bonds because of their arrogant, I-didn't-do-anything-wrong attitudes. But they were the best pitcher and hitter of their time.
          Sosa, I believe, was pumped up and helped by PEDs. Many suspect that of Mike Piazza. Palmeiro? Don't know. I want to believe he was tricked into a booster shot.
           Alex Rodriguez? Gosh, who can believe anything this guy says or does. Hard to imagine anyone voting for him when he gets on the Hall of Fame ballot.
            One of my friends says he can't get past the "integrity" part of the qualification process. I would remind him that Leo Durocher is in the Hall of Fame; "integrity" was not much of his makeup. George Steinbrenner, twice suspended from the game for illegal/unlawful/unethical acts, remains a candidate.

How did 16 people not vote for Greg Maddux? In
fact, he did anyone fail to vote for him?
(photo from bleacherreport.com)
          I am of the opinion that MLB should reconsider its banishment of Pete Rose for Hall of Fame eligibility. He has paid his price; almost a quarter-century of ineligibility for gambling on the game. But at least, finally, he owned up to it. That should count for something. Certainly he's a lock based on playing achievements.
          But then I also think Shoeless Joe Jackson long ago should have been released from baseball's Hall of Sin. Bad deal, but MLB rulers have never wanted to overrule Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. 
            Finally this -- there were 16 voters this year who failed to vote for Greg Maddux. To me, that's as much a protest as Le Batard's. They should have their votes taken away. Only Clemens was better than Maddux in their time.
            But no one has ever been selected unanimously to the Baseball Hall of Fame. If that's not a joke ...
           Think about it. Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Mike Schmidt, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Tom Seaver, Cal Ripken Jr. ... and on and on and on. 
           Some voter is always going to say, "No one should be unanimous; not voting for him this year." When you have so many voters, there's always going to be a Ken Gurnick-type protest vote.
           But how in the heck does someone vote for Armando Benitez and Jacque Jones and Kenny Rogers and J.T. Snow; all got at least a vote this year? Those guys shouldn't even be on the ballot.
          Back to the unanimous selection. Makes me wonder how many voters will omit Mariano Rivera four years from now? Don't send them my way.
           Speaking of Mariano Rivera (and Derek Jeter); one of my "bucket list" items was to attend their inductions at Cooperstown, which I've never visited. I don't think I'm going to do that; I just don't have a good feeling about the Baseball Hall of Fame anymore. But maybe I'll feel differently in four or five years.  

Friday, January 10, 2014

The second camp: a plumber's helper

(14th in a series)
     Whether it was in the main camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau or the satellite camps -- the coal mines named Jawischowitz and Janina -- where he spent much of his 2 1/2 years in concentration camp, my father's tales are gripping.
The Janina coal mine in south Poland: Still in operation, but in World War II,
 part of the Nazi concentration-camp network (from Wikimedia Commons).
     The punishment, the abuse, the starvation, the constant and desperate scramble for food and scraps, the smell and sight of death everywhere, human lives wasting away ... he covered much of it in his 1996 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation.
     From October 1943 to when the Nazis abandoned camp in late January 1945, he was mostly located at "Janina," a large coal mine facility located in the town of Libiaz. It remains in operation today; Poland still is much dependent on the mining of coal and, to a lesser extent, copper and silver.
     Rather than work in the Auschwitz main-camp tailor shop doing odd jobs or outside on street construction, Dad -- Louis Van Thyn -- "volunteered" to go to Janina shortly after the Germans, the Nazis turned it into a concentration-camp work area late in 1943.
     "It was a new camp, midden [in the middle] in a small town," Dad told his Shoah Foundation interviewer. "The street waar [where] the camp was, those were streets where people were living. The gates, people could see what [was] happening in the coal mines, in the camp."
     His job, he said, was a plumber's helper. I don't know what he knew about plumbing, but his view was that it was better than having to do the actual mining.
     "It was an old school building; when we come there, there was maar [but] 400 people over there, and we were the first ones there, and they asked if they was people who worked in the coal mines," he recalled. "And I was a coal miner" -- he had done that time at Jawischowitz months before -- dus [thus] they give me a better job."
     "I got a better job and better food," he said, laughing at the thought. "You know we could organize [to receive] more food until there came more people. ..."
     In the coal mine, he began work with a 10-man crew in the night shift and one of the men he assisted with plumbing "brought me some food. You know that's [one] reason I stay alive."
     Within the battle for survival itself was the challenge of working alongside the Germans.
     "In Janina, we were working first with three [German] civilians and one haftlinge (a German criminal made to work in the camps]," Dad said. "Later on, in '44, we were working with one civilian and three haftlinges, and they were all folk-Duitschers ... the leaders, the engineers, and everything. We had about 10 SS [guards] there; we walked every day [from the main camp] to the coal mines."
     The mines themselves meant tough work. But beyond that ...
     "The trouble was that we had to work eight hours in the coal mines, that was bad," Dad said.  "But not so bad. But when we come back in the camp, we had to do all kind of work nog [still], like working in the yard and making the beds -- that was a kick for the Germans, to have the beds straight like the military -- and then we had to do some cleaning in the camps.
     "First you had the school [to clean], then later on, they build six more buildings. We had a sick barrack, and we had a kitchen. They feed us two times a day, and I saved my bread all the time to go to the coal mines and eat it before I go in the mines. Sometimes I got some food, too, in the mines from the civilian workers."
---
     The interviewer asked him about the conditions in the mines. Dad's recall of that focuses mainly on the constant change in the population -- the people who disappeared, the dying ones.       
     "The conditions were that people had to work hard," he said, "and we had to change 200 people every two weeks; 200 people were sent back to Auschwitz. They were all muselmanns (according to the Internet, a camp term used to describe prisoners who were on the verge of death).
     "There were about 50 people that stay there [in the mines]; they were the ones that were already in the camps. The longer you were there [the better] ... the newcomers they were not used to the work. They were the ones that become white [pale], become skinny, become muselmanns.
     "Every two weeks there come a couple of trucks and they picked up [people]. We had to stay on appell [at attention], and somebody picked out the bad [ill people], with the ribs, and they were sent back to Auschwitz."
     With the ribs ... the ribs sticking out. No use any longer to the Nazis. And soon sent to the gas chambers.
     "We knew already what happened," Dad said. "We had not too many Germans over there. We had a transport from Holland, the second transport from Holland. We were transported [in] from Belgium; most there were from Belgium, and then in '44, we got a Greek transport in, some Greek boys, and they were real weak.
     "The Dutch people were real weak, too; that was well-known. We no spoke the language, and the Polish haftlinge spoke the Dutch language and they said, 'Yeah, the Dutchmen, they don't want to work.' The [Polish] spoke the [German] language with the civil workers, and they had the toughest jobs, and they were killed much faster."
     But through the physical and mental challenges, Dad was a survivor.  
     "We had sport; they called it sport," he said. "You had to walk and run, and do all kind of [physical] things. ... My saving is that I was military [he had been in the Dutch military].  I'd had boot camp; that helped me. And I did sports for many years. I think that a little bit helped me to stay alive."
     Next: A Dutch boxing hero, a camp hero

 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Speaking of eulogies ... here's my take

     Eulogies, whether written or spoken, can be difficult ... if you let them be.
     I try not to. And, in what might be a surprise to many (including me), I have become a eulogist (is that even a word?). This is not a role I envisioned.
     The one I did last Friday for Mr. Cook -- J.W. Cook Jr., the longtime Woodlawn High School assistant principal, principal and friend -- was my sixth.

A couple of the Woodlawn graduating classes
sent beautiful flower arrangements for
Mr. J.W. Cook Jr.'s memorial service.
      As I said at the start of my talk, and have said every time, it is an honor to be asked. Although at two of my eulogies, the ones for my father and mother, I wasn't asked; I just did it. They were two of my favorite people.
       Eulogies, in my opinion, require propriety, respect and tenderness. These are not everyday qualities for which I'm known, but I can get there when need be.
       What one wants to convey to the audience, or the readership, is the sense of the person's life and personality, of their values, what they meant to you and those you're addressing. Mostly, one wants to give the family comfort, an expression of the love for them and the deceased.
        I think I've done that; I've been told so. After this many times, I would hope I've gotten the idea.
        But if you think I'm comfortable doing eulogies ... no, not quite. It's not scary, but it is a challenge. I'm not nervous beforehand (I know nervous from involvement in athletics, and this ain't it). I'd say I'm anxious.
         I thought the two speakers before me at Mr. Cook's memorial service, Coach A.L. Williams (my good friend for so many years) and Janis Hill, did wonderful jobs. So did the Rev. Tom Harrison of Broadmoor Baptist Church, whose eulogy was as good as any we've heard in recent years (and we've been to a bunch of funerals).
          I so admire members of the clergy, who do these eulogies -- among many other tasks -- so often, sometimes in tragic situations.   
---
        Two disclaimers:
        (1) I made my living as a writer and editor, not as a speaker. I sometimes tell the audience of this before I speak in public, reminding them to bear with me.
        (2) As I write this, I am not -- emphasis, not -- looking for compliments. I have received many over the years and particularly in the past few days, and I'm grateful.
        The purpose of writing this piece is to explain what it feels like to do a eulogy. I talk about this with good friend Teddy Allen, who has done several eulogies and like a lot of us with newspaper and sportswriting backgrounds written many more. We, of course, have North Louisiana in common.
        Us Louisiana-based writers all, I believe, greatly admire Teddy's ability to dazzle with his writing, so I was surprised when he said that he finds writing a eulogy more difficult than delivering it in spoken form before an audience.
        My view on that is that I can erase or change what I'm writing. Speaking, I sometimes lose track of where I'm going.
        I know Teddy is also quite entertaining as a speaker; he has emceed events, and even gotten paid for speaking engagements. Whatever he's earned is more than I've been paid to speak (it's never happened). Nor has that even been my desire. An orator I'm not.
        Sure, I took speech in high school (Judy Bordelon) and college (Ed Luck), and I was a solid "B" student -- as I was  in most everything, except science courses) -- but I'm glad they weren't at the eulogies I gave to grade me.  
       Makes me wonder, though, how I could've done if my career path had turned toward television or radio, or if I'd have stayed in the writing/reporting end of sportswriting -- rather than editing -- later in my career when so many writers crossed into TV reports and videos.
        I did do enough P.A. work on sports events and analysis on football/basketball/baseball on radio to enjoy it. But I know that writing/editing was the best route for me.
        Still, I'd be interested in giving speeches or reading TV news with the use of a teleprompter. I've heard people do that, and it works.
        Maybe I'll go to the TCU journalism school and ask if I can sit in on some classes with instruction in teleprompter use. But my goal is to improve as a public speaker.
          Yes, I know people "enjoyed" the eulogies I gave, if enjoyed is the right word. Maybe appreciated is better. And they were satisfied with them. But I wasn't ... totally.
          Tried to do one (on my Dad) off the cuff, but stumbled around too much and was too disjointed. Tried "talking points" notecards for my mother's service; it went a little better.
          I've written out the last three I've done and read portions of them, but when I do that, I lose eye contact with the audience. Don't like that. And sometimes when I go "off script," I have trouble getting back to where I was.
           You might be saying, "He's too hard on himself." OK, I am often that way, always have been. That's my insecurity. But my motivation is to improve. I want to be a smoother, more comfortable speaker.
---
           Teddy and I agree on this: The most difficult part of doing a eulogy is to keep a check on your emotions. He remembers that in the first one he did publicly, his emotions were hard to control and he had a tough time getting through it.
           I've had my moments of choking up each time. But I find I have to try to stay detached, and it is hard.
           Talking about my parents, my father-in-law (Howard Shaw Sr.), brother-in-law (Howard Shaw Jr), one of my very best friends (Ken Liberto) and the man who meant so much to so many (Mr. Cook), it was hard not to break down in tears. But it was also easy because these were people who meant so much to me.
           What a eulogy should be, what I want it to be, is genuine, heartfelt (even if it's not smooth). I was -- again -- honored to represent all those Woodlawn kids over three decades.
           Don't mind doing eulogies. But you know, really, I hope it's a long, long time before I have to do this again.             
                  
                

Saturday, January 4, 2014

They called him "Bubba" (but I didn't)

     Here, more or less, is the eulogy I gave at J.W. Cook Jr.'s memorial service Saturday in Shreveport. He was the longtime assistant principal, then principal at my alma mater, Woodlawn High School, and he was a good friend -- to me and everyone.

Mr. Cook
      We had a great school at Woodlawn in the 1960s, great kids, great athletes. You can debate who was the Greatest Knight of them all; my opinion is it was J.W. Cook Jr. He was Mr. Woodlawn.
      I am honored to be asked to speak today. Don't relish the occasion, very sad for Mr. Cook's family and for all of us. Even though we knew the situation and that this day was coming, which might make it a little easier to prepare, it's still difficult.
      We lost an important figure in our lives, a leader in this community. This is a man we all loved.
      I am honored because if you had told me when I entered Woodlawn High School as a sophomore in the fall of 1962 that I would be doing this, I would not have believed it.
      Here's one reason why: I was scared of Mr. Cook. Really scared. Had that in common with thousands of Woodlawn students.
      Hey, I was scared of all the authority figures -- assistant principals, counselors, teachers, certainly the coaches, and, for darned sure, the principal, Mr. Turner.
      Ah, James Earl Turner, the man the students called The Great White Father ... but, of course, never to his face. Are you kidding? He was the voice from the top of the mountain.
      We learned pretty soon that unlike Mr. Turner -- at least it seemed this way -- Mr. Cook was approachable and he was friendly. I mean, you didn't mess around when he was there -- it was "yes, sir" and "no, sir," and he was firm, but he was also fun.
       Now we know that through 29 years at Woodlawn, he had to deal with a lot of tough kids and tough situations. We know also that he did it with reason and steadiness, with class. He was calm and measured and, above all, fair.
       Twenty-nine years. Amazing. When he left, he was the last link to the original Woodlawn, and the only person I know who topped him in longevity is Linda Loper Bradford, with 39 years on the faculty, starting in 1963 -- the school's fourth year. And Linda was a young girl when she began teaching.
---
       Mr. Cook and I talked maybe 3-4 times a year, maybe more if I saw him at events. We had a great relationship, an easy relationship. He was just always the same -- the handshake, a good story or remembrance, comparisons of who we'd seen or recalled from the old days, some Woodlawn memories, and more.
       When he'd call, he might open the conversation by saying, "This is the Cook boy," explaining that's what the older folks in Haynesville might say. And he'd laugh. Or, if he called from his lakehouse, he'd say, "This is the Claiborne Parish Cook branch." It was always something.
And you know what I called him? Mr. Cook. Always Mr. Cook.
       He was Joseph William Cook Jr., known as William as a kid in Haynesville. He became "Bubba" Cook as a student at Louisiana Tech. We, of course, knew him as J.W. Cook Jr.
A lot of people called him "Bubba," right? Not me. Which gets me to thinking ...
OK, will the people who were students at Woodlawn please stand?
      Now, remain standing if you, as a student, called him "Bubba."
      Thank you.
      Could you see someone -- as Forrest Gump -- say, "Hey, Bubba." It just didn't happen.
      Nor did I recall anyone at Woodlawn kidding him about being a cheerleader at Louisiana Tech. Maybe Greg Boring, Charlotte Hudson or Barbara Norrid -- who went from Woodlawn to being Tech cheerleaders in the mid-1960s -- might've done that. But I don't think we brought up that cheerleader business with him.
      When I called him, I might address him by saying, "Is this the esteemed former principal of Woodlawn High School?" But if I was talking to someone else, I referred to him as Mr. Cook.
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Mr. Cook with two of his three granddaughter (photo from his
daughter, Becky Cook Mason's Facebook page)
       We had this in common. Although we both graduated from Louisiana Tech and rooted for Tech, we also were avid LSU football fans. So we invariably talked LSU football. I'm sure he would've enjoyed the bowl game Wednesday, and maybe like me, agonized through it. I'm convinced that a couple of the recent LSU quarterbacks caused him more grief than any Woodlawn student ever did.
       Here are a couple of things I really appreciated about him: (1) In my sportswriting career, he was never critical of anything I ever wrote; in fact, he was often very supportive. You know, we do have our critics at times. (2) He was very kind to my parents, as many people were.
       At times, he would alert me to stories he thought I should read or he would send them to me. In fact, the last story he sent me, last summer, was a story about the Holocaust that he knew I'd be interested in.
       We talked often, too, about Haynesville. He loved growing up in that little town, and he learned a lot about football -- winning football -- there. He was quite proud of the place, and he wanted to take me up there and show me around. Never got that chance, I'm sorry to say.
       Of course, I covered a bunch of games up there early in my career, just when Red Franklin was building his championship teams. And Haynesville already meant something to me because I knew a bunch of people with connections there -- Mr. Cook, Lowell Morrison, M.D. Ray, coaches Joe Aillet and Cecil Crowley before they wound up at Louisiana Tech, and most significantly perhaps, Trey Prather's mother and her parents, the Callenders. They were great Woodlawn supporters. Back to that in a moment.
       It's funny. Many of us, of course, associate Mr. Cook just with Woodlawn. But on Tuesday, I got a note from one of my best friends from the old days who attended that high school on Line Avenue ... I can't remember the school's name. He recalled "Coach Cook" as a P.E. teacher at Youree Drive Junior High the year it opened in 1959 and as coach of a Riverside Elementary 65-pound football team.
        I never knew that.
       The next year when Mr. Turner was appointed principal at the new Woodlawn High, he came from years as a teacher and administrator at Fair Park and picked as one of his assistant principals a young man (then 30) who had taught civics at Fair Park from '56 to '59. Good pick.
       Mr. Turner made some good picks, Lee Hedges as head football coach and A.L. Williams as an assistant -- and a heckuva faculty.
       The results were obvious. We had quite a school, quite a school community, and it was the kids who made Mr. Cook feel so at home. He told me that the hard-working, blue-collar type parents and kids reminded him so much of Haynesville, which is a reason he never left when chances came his way.
        It changed some when Southwood opened in 1970 and Dr. Turner -- by then he had his doctorate -- moved there. That was Mr. Cook's opening to become Woodlawn principal. Perfect.
       Like Mr. Turner before him, Mr. Cook had a knack for selecting good people, including many of the coaches. Being a favorite of his faculty and students came naturally.
        I posted three messages on Facebook the past several days about Mr. Cook's passing. The response was enormous. One post had 30 shares ... far beyond anything I've posted in 2 1/2 years on Facebook. And I have seen more than a hundred comments about Mr. Cook.
        Here are a couple:
        -- "What a wonderful example he was to all of us. His life really counted, and that's all any of us can hope for."
        -- "Such a fine person. He was the cornerstone of Woodlawn for so many years. He also had a great sense of humor and always made you feel important."
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        One thing you could count on -- if there was a Woodlawn class reunion, Mr. Cook would be there ... if at all possible. And he remembered so many of the students.
        He endured. He told one of my classmates at our last reunion how much fun it was in the '60s, how easy the discipline part of his job was. Things would get tougher. Integration, to be honest, was difficult for everyone -- whites and blacks -- in the early '70s. Lots of things changed. But he handled it.
        While others bailed out of the public school system or took jobs in the school board office, he stayed. He stayed loyal to Woodlawn and kept the school running smoothly for his 19 years as principal.
        And, back to the Haynesville angle, the Trey Prather angle. After Trey died in action in Vietnam in 1968, we also suffered. Mr. Cook was one of the people most responsible for beginning an annual tribute to the Woodlawn kids killed while serving in the U.S. military.
        The first-Friday-each-May sunrise ceremony -- and many of you know -- is a moving one, around the center of the beautiful quadrangle area at Woodlawn where the stone monument honoring those kids is located. It's always breathtaking and poignant, from the singing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic to the bagpiper walking on the school rooftops toward the assembly, playing Amazing Grace. This is a tradition that has endured.
         As long as they were alive, Trey Prather's father and his grandparents from Haynesville were there. Mr. Cook was always there.
         Just like he was at all those Woodlawn football games, 333 in a row. You could count on him.
You knew in the years he was there that Woodlawn was going to be well run, that he was going to do it with honesty and integrity, and -- most important -- he was going to do things in the students' best interests, in the school's best interests. It was not about J.W. Cook.
         It was that way in all in which he was involved.
         I thought the last paragraph of his obituary in the paper and on the funeral home site wrapped it up well: "Bubba loved people and people loved him. He knew someone everywhere he went and touched so many lives throughout his career and will be greatly missed."
         He was a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, and for us from Woodlawn, a role model. You could hardly live a better life as a man, a better life as a human being. The boy they called William, the man they called J.W., or Bubba -- if you dared -- did well. "The Cook Boy" from Haynesville did well.
         Thank you, Mr. Cook. Thank you to Mr. Woodlawn.