Friday, June 27, 2014

Soccer: It's boring ... for boring people

U.S. fans are fired up in Brazil, and at home (photo from Time.com)
      So big-time soccer enthusiasm finally has reached the United States.
      Really?
      Short memories, people.
      I'm going to address the "boring" argument about soccer shortly, and the usual criticism the sport -- and the World Cup -- receive, but first a reminder: Soccer enthusiasm has been here for at least 20 years.
      I remember full stadiums all over the country when the U.S. was host for the 1994 World Cup, and I remember some people being excited when the U.S. national team -- after upsetting Colombia 2-1 on Andres Escobar's infamous "own" goal (that eventually led to his being shot to death back home) reached the round of 16.
      In 2002, the U.S. team even reached the quarterfinals, and lost 1-0 to Germany (sound familiar?). And people here were watching then, too.
      OK, maybe not as much enthusiasm then as now. But I sense it's not so much a love of soccer -- yes, the world's most popular sport -- as a love of this country. We love to watch our athletes beat the rest of the world.
      Think about it, think about the attention the U.S. women's national team received when it won its World Cup in 1999 -- the penalty-kick shootout win against China at the packed Rose Bowl Stadium, the Brandi Chastain-tears-off-her-jersey finish.
      Think about how we love to watch U.S. athletes win in the Olympics ... any sport, winter or summer. And otherwise -- maybe basketball aside -- we care little about those sports.
      I believe this month we are rooting for the Americans, not for the soccer team per se. You can just see the nationalism all over TV. When the major network news programs make the U.S. team and its support the lead item on their nightly programs, that's a clue.
      Look, we all know how everyone kept saying that because our kids were playing the game, soccer was the "sport of the future" here. I never bought into that. That's never going to happen.
      Our football and baseball and basketball have so much tradition, and millions more fans, and those fans are not switching sports. Our son played soccer for 11 years, through high school; he loved it, and he still does now that he's 40, but he's a bigger LSU football fan than a soccer fan.
      Soccer might take the headlines a few days here in June, but it's not ever going to overshadow college football, the NFL, NBA and MLB.
      I keep hearing that we'll see how the U.S. team's success helps grow the game after this World Cup. I don't see that.
      Major League Soccer, which has been here since 1996 and has had some world-class stars, seems to be solid and it will remain that way. It has its fans, and they're loyal, but it is not -- and won't be -- one of the world's best leagues.
      And this is coming from -- as you might know -- a lifetime soccer fan. As I wrote early last week, The Netherlands' national team was my first love, at age 5 maybe, and remains the team I pull for most. I am nervous watching the Dutch play as I am for LSU football, the Yankees, Cowboys, Mavericks and my other loves.
      (A Netherlands-United States semifinal, which would happen if both teams win twice more in the next week, would be wonderful. Very, very unlikely, though.)
      No question, soccer has its strange rules and no clock to watch (the referee is the decider), players who flop and fake injuries, players who bite other players (what is wrong what that guy?), and it's hard as hell to score (which is what makes it so difficult). But boring? I don't agree at all, if you have passion for a team.
      So as usual, as expected, there are people on Facebook and Twitter and in the media taking their shots at the sport, leveling their criticism and their "boring" argument. Some of these are my friends, people (writers) I respect, sports fans. Some I don't respect in the first place (Skip Bayless, Ann Coulter). Don't give a damn about anything they say.
      One I respect, the editor of the local newspaper where I worked, should stick to newspaper subjects. Three more fine journalists left the building for good this week.
      These people's "boring" snipes, frankly, bore me.
      I've always said that if people think soccer is boring, I think they're boring people. (It's a joke, see).
      I have problems with American football these days -- the violence of it, the concussions, the memory loss, the brain damage, the eventual artificial knees and hips. I have problems with the outrageous salaries paid to our coaches and athletes (and entertainers) in a country with so much economic inequality.
      Honestly -- and I've written this before -- a lot of baseball, NFL, NBA and NHL games bore me these days. Maybe if the Cowboys were still an elite team, I'd be more interested in the NFL. But you know that story.
      Almost any tennis match bores me now (and I used to watch the majors). So does a lot of golf; I like watching the sport, but it does take time. Auto racing? No thank you. 
      Maybe it's because I'm older, and I don't care as much, and I have to share the TV with someone who doesn't care (except for the NBA). I still read about all these sports, and about politics and the world, but I limit my sports watching on TV. I overdid college football and the NCAA men's basketball tournament, but that's about it.
      I've even limited my World Cup watching. Unlike my Dad, who could watch every game every day, I've picked my spots. And I have been pleasantly surprised by both the Dutch team and the American team.
      It's been an interesting World Cup through the first two weeks, even more exciting than I thought it could be. Hope the next two weeks are the same -- and that none of these games end in penalty-kick shootouts (which, in my opinion, is the worst thing about the sport.)
     So, if people want to criticize soccer (football in the rest of the world) and the American fans' enthusiasm, they can be asses about it. Live in your world.
     You don't have to "get it." It won't stop those of us who enjoy it. 
                      

        

      
    

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mixing the past with the present

      Here is what I have to balance almost daily: living in the past, and living in the present. I hope, I sense, you can identify with this.
      I've had more than a few people over the years tell me how good I am at living in the past; Bea likes to remind me often. It's true ... but only to an extent.
       Sure I love to watch television recaps or YouTube videos of sports events, musical stars, big bands, orchestras, comedians, Johnny Carson's Tonight Show clips, etc., and I can do this hours at a time.
       And I like to read the links to sports stories and historical events that friends send me -- and that happens several times a week. Other friends and I can talk for a few minutes, or many minutes, about where we've been and who we knew (and where are they now?).
       Plus, Facebook friends can post photos from the past or remembrances and, for me, that means virtual trips back to Shreveport, to the Sunset Acres neighborhood and to the days in school there, and then later at Louisiana Tech. That's only 45-55 years ago.
        Then there's stories/tales of the newspaper days and the long days in athletics, in sportswriting.
        The reality is that many of my blog pieces deal with past experiences, and I've received much positive feedback on those. Which tells me that a lot of people enjoy looking back, too.  
        So it's sort of a never-ending adventure. There's a lot of past; that's what happens when you're a senior citizen (and you have to admit you are). And it's fun -- well, most of it.
         I have to admit some of it leaves me feeling melancholy; I always come away from reunions that way. Fun to do, but also fleeting. It's always a kick seeing the Woodlawn people or, as in the past couple of years with reunions for Bea, the Ringgold and Jamestown people.
         I turned down three reunion invitations last year and a couple the year before that. No offense to anyone -- I appreciate the invitations -- but I have to be in the right mood.
        And again, I hope the people who grew up there understand, but every so often -- usually a couple of years apart -- I drive through the old neighborhood in Sunset Acres and past the old schools, and I feel a little sad. Well, sad and grateful for the good times we had there.
         It's certainly not the same; I mean, that's not surprising. Some neighborhoods do stay much the same; I'd say the area we live in now, around Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, has not changed a great deal.
         But Sunset Acres and southwest Shreveport -- and other areas in town -- well, I don't like going there anymore.
         On Facebook a year or two ago, one of the Woodlawn people posted that the school isn't like it used to be and he was wishing it could be the way it was in the 1960s and early 1970s. Hello, time has passed. We were there for the "glory days," I suppose, but the past is the distant past.
         Here's what bothers me: revisionary past. One of my classmates, who I don't talk to often (once every couple of years when he calls), was saying how he wishes we could play the Byrd (football) game of our senior year again; how badly he played in that game, and we could/should have won the game.
         A ridiculous notion ... although I diplomatically didn't say that.
         Beyond that, I have a classmate who I've heard tell me, and others, that he should have been a starting running back as a freshman in college, that the coach told him he was better than anyone we had. I think he actually believes this, because I've now heard the story twice.
         He can fool some people, but he can't fool me. I was there and my memory -- not infallible but pretty good -- is that he (1) was a redshirt who actually didn't play much until his third year in school; (2) the coach he's talking about would never have said that; and (3) we actually had three -- three -- all-conference backs on the team at that time, plus one other pretty darned good player.
         That's living in the past, and not even honestly. There's also a certain quarterback turned duck hunter/preacher whose football embellishments could be exposed (and I did a blog piece a year ago on what the record/statistics were back then).
         That's the kind of past remembrance I want nothing to do with, thank you -- a good reason to stay away from certain reunions.
         Hey, I've embellished a few events events myself and there are plenty of things in my past I wish I could change, too, problems I caused myself and others. Can't do it, of course, but what I try to remember -- what Bea reminds me of -- is that we should use the past as a guide for the present, to learn from what we've experienced, and to apply the lessons.
          We try to stay in the present here, finding things to do every day, new adventures and challenges. Here's our newest challenge -- figuring out the new phones and new phone systems which we acquired yesterday. We'll be a few weeks working on that.
           Proud as I am of many of my favorite teams' past achievements, I'm well aware that they don't help the present-day teams. So I look forward to tonight's game, and Sunday's game, and this fall's games.
           More than that, we're eager for the daughter and granddaughter's visit the next few days and the three grandchildren being together this weekend, and knowing that they'll be joined by a fourth grandchild in a couple of months.      
           Because that's the present and the future, and they will make moments and memories that beat anything from the past on YouTube or television.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Finding the way back ... a long way back

(24th in a series)
         In mid-January 1945, Dad (Louis Van Thyn) and the 26 other prisoners remaining in the Janina mining camp -- a satellite camp of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp -- weren't sure what to do next.
         Sure, they were grateful to the Russian Army members who found them in the camp abandoned only a little more than a week earlier by the Nazis. But they also received little help from those Russians in terms of their futures.
Reality is that my Dad (Louis Van Thyn) was in a group like this in
 Auschwitz--Birkenau camp and its satellite camps (from martinfrost.ws)
         It appeared their lives had been spared, that they were free after some 2 1/2 years under Nazi Germany's control. But they couldn't know how much freedom was out there in southern Poland, that the Nazis weren't waiting for them in the forests.
          And besides the scraps given them by the Russians, they were damn hungry. Malnourished, some of them ill and just hanging on, they were desperate for a future.
          And what of their families? What had become of the people they loved? For Dad, that meant his original family in Amsterdam -- mother, father, two brothers, one sister-in-law, one baby nephew -- and the family he'd married into in Antwerp -- wife, in-laws, sister-in-law.
          Lots of questions, no immediate answers. The answers to the family part would be forthcoming ... horrible answers.
           But Dad didn't know that at Janina. What he knew was he -- and the others -- needed a way out.
           Obviously, Dad made his way back home -- both homes -- but the route he took, the challenges he faced, weren't easy ones. Before he went west, he went east.
           In fact, he would go from Poland to Romania and would wind up in Russia, then back west to France and finally to Belgium ... and he wore a Russian Army uniform for much of his trip.
           It is a trip he talked about in his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview, and the trip began with a couple of stops in southern Poland. His recall is a bit disjointed and repetitive, but he is telling this 51 years after the fact and I'm transcribing it 18 years after that. So bear with it.
           Some of what he relates, the first time I heard it on the tape, I found difficult to fathom. I still feel that way.
---
           The Shoah Foundation interviewer asked Dad, "When you finally left the camp, where did you go?"
           The Russians told them to go to Katowice, a city 30 miles northwest of the mine (it is now the major city of the Silesian region of southern Poland). Dad does not say how he got there, but I imagine he walked a great portion of the way or hitchhiked.
           "... They say there was a house over there, they call it the Red Cross or maybe something else, they say they go take care for us," he recalled. "When I arrive by myself in Katowice, there was an old school, dirty, no food, nothing.
           "I met a man I know from Amsterdam there and we become real close friends," he added. "We start begging on the street, we go from house to house and begging on the street. We got fed by some people, not too many, but we were fed."
           (I cannot imagine this, the man I knew as my Dad, begging for food in the streets. Every time I hear this, and now as I write it, it leaves me feeling sick.)  

            "I saw people near Katowice I know, a couple of Dutch people I saw (and), Greek people," he said. "It was a mess over there. We go in a school. I remember I walked out the gate over there and they told me go on that road and I was walking a couple miles, and a horse-and-buggy there comes by and they say you want to have a ride, and they took me naar [near] Katowice."
          After a couple of weeks in Katowice, it was on to Krakow, some 43 miles east of Katowice. Krakow, the hometown of a young man, Karol Wojtyla, who about that time there was beginning the priesthood journey that would culminate with him becoming Pope John Paul II.
          "... They said we have to go to Krakow, there was an organization (there)," Dad recalled. "And I cannot remember how I come from Katowice to Krakow; if we took a train. No, there was no train. Yeah, maybe there was a train. I cannot remember that time.
         "And in Krakow, there was wier [again] an old school and we spent time over there and we did the same we did in Katowice, begging in the street.
         "My friend was a boxer and he organized a boxing party with another boy, and we got some money and food."
         The interviewer asked, "Who did he fight?"
          "Somebody else," Dad answered, "and we got some money together. We stayed together a long time. He passed away now."
          Next: Romania, Russia ... then home (and heartbreak)
 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Gratitude for 67: It's only a number

Rachel posted this on Facebook two days ago ... one of the
two "selfies" I've ever taken; this one on her I-Pad.
       Rumor has it that today is my birthday. Rumor? Ha. Facebook has it, so obviously it's no secret.
        So thank you for all the birthday wishes. I appreciate everyone who takes the time to send greetings. Once a year, at least, we should feel special. I get more than my share of good feelings.
       This is my fourth Facebook birthday; it's funny -- a good funny -- to see the birthday messages begin coming in eight days ahead of time. It's my third birthday as a regular blogger, which is about all the work I do these days.
        And it's not really work; it's an incentive to continue writing and, as many of you know, to recount my life/work experiences and to share the story of my mother and father and their families -- especially as they relate to the days of the Holocaust.
         The previous two years I wrote blog pieces for my birthday; the first, at age 65, was about becoming eligible for Medicare and then turned into a Q&A with myself. Last year I wrote about my birthday and Father's Day falling on the same day -- first time that had happened in 11 years -- and I then listed a long series of birthday wishes, some serious, some whimsical. (OK, some stupid ... how's that?)
          Some of you might know that I do a daily gratitude journal and I generally keep it up to date. It is not for publication; no one has seen it but me ... and maybe someday my daughter and/or my wife will read through it and hopefully be pleasantly surprised.
          There is something to be grateful for every day. You don't have to think about it long.
          Many of my topics are family-oriented and sports-related, but the journal also extends to TV shows or movies or books or shows that I -- we, if Bea agrees -- have enjoyed.
          So I'm going to turn the rest of this blog into a gratitude journal, and I hope you can relate and enjoy it. Some of it will repeat thoughts of the previous birthday blogs (but then Bea reminds me that I tend to repeat myself repeatedly ... about everything).
          Here's what I'm grateful for ...
           -- Turning 67. Not so bad. Staying young mentally is a mindset and, except for days when I'm a little sore from exercising or after I didn't sleep well and feel tired, I get up with the intention of having a good day.
           -- Good health. (I know I'm repeating this from previous years). There is nothing like this, except ...
           -- My family. Bea, the kids, kids-in-law, three grandkids (my favorite role is being "Opa") ... and one to come in late August or early September. That baby boy already is on the gratitude list.
           -- Extended family ... my sister and her family, Bea's sisters and sister-in-law and all their crew. Fun to be around all of them, and it doesn't happen enough.
           -- Enough friends to last a lifetime -- the ones from Shreveport-Bossier and Sunset Acres, Oak Terrace, Woodlawn, Louisiana Tech, North Louisiana and the state in general, from Holland, those from the journalism/newspaper field, those from athletics, the Facebook friends ... and I still haven't covered them all. Nice to have.
           -- My teams. Oh, they all test me and -- no surprise here -- I detest losing as much as ever. But I think I've stayed loyal to them and I love following them as much as I always did. I also try more than ever not to let them dominate my life or my thinking. (Bea is laughing at this.)
           (That said, how about The Netherlands' opening game in this World Cup? Three days after my blog declaring the Oranje as "my first love in sports," that 5-1 rout of Spain -- defending champion Spain -- was glorious and unexpected. I don't want to get my hopes up too much, but ...)
           -- (Another aside: Forgive me if I'm not grateful for the Dallas Cowboys' owner and, damn, general manager. I don't want, or need, to elaborate. OK, so he's far from the worst owner in our major sports world -- there's this total whack job in the NBA, in Los Angeles -- but he's a big reason the fun is out of the NFL for me.)
            (Darn it, I meant to keep this positive. Sorry.)
           -- Journalism and athletics. For me, it was a perfect combination. I had passion for both, and they gave me a career. Yes, I have some regrets; no, there's not a thing I can do about it now, except look back with fondness at the positives.
           -- Books. I don't read daily newspapers anymore (I can explain, but don't want to here), so I've read more books in the past two years than maybe in 40 years combined. Plus, following daughter Rachel's example, we're doing audio books regularly. 
           -- A flat-screen TV. Our next addition, two weeks ago. Welcome to the 21st century. What now? Hi-def? Not yet.
           -- This country. We have our faults, we have our political battles, our social battles, there's too much division, too much poverty ... pick your complaints. I was so blessed to come here at age 8 1/2, with my family; I never take being an American -- naturalized -- lightly. I can't be President, so I don't have to worry about showing you my birth certificate.
           -- That birth certificate is written in Dutch. I also was blessed to be part of that little country seven hours to the east. I think it's at least the second-greatest country in the world.
           -- It's a year later, but my third trip back to The Netherlands -- but the first trip back with Bea -- is something for which I will always be grateful. That was a memorable two weeks.
           -- Speaking of trips, going back to Knoxville once or twice a year, to beautiful East Tennessee and to our girls up there, is a blessing. Plus, we go other places such as a wonderful (and long) journey to Savannah, Ga., recently.
           -- Being in Fort Worth has so many advantages. This is one of the best places to live in America -- a big place that's not overwhelming. Museums, the library, the symphony orchestra, Bass Hall, the zoo, Colonial Country Club, TCU, Stockyards, the libraries ... I could keep going. Everyday life here is good.
           -- My daily walks, whether it's hot or cold or windy (don't like it). I love the warm/hot weather, but I've gone in the snow or rain, too. Lately, at the physician's suggestion, I've added a little work (very little) in the gym several times a week. Plus, in the summer, there's some laps in the pool. I'm not terribly fit, but I'm not unfit.
           -- Facebook, Twitter. They're fun ... most days.
           -- The blog. It's fun to do and I've tried to do at least two pieces a week. Don't know how much longer I can do that, or want to. I'm trying to recap my career, but I also want to stay current. Some things I write will appeal to a wider audience; some things won't. Main goal is I want to stay mostly positive; no use being too critical of anybody or anything. (Don't bring up the Cowboys' owner, OK.)        
            I could go on and on, but I'll save some for my 68th birthday. But one more gratitude ...
           -- My parents. The blog has become a place to honor their lives, to recap their stories. I want the kids and grandkids to have these stories on record, so I hope the readers understand that. And the lessons of their lives, and of the Holocaust, should not be forgotten.  
           
                                 
        
 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Oranje: Hup, Holland, Hup

Robin Van Persie: The Netherlands' world-class scorer ...
our biggest World Cup hope (photo from www.sbnation.com)
   It is my ultimate sports dream: The Netherlands as the world champion of soccer.
   It could happen in the next month. Not likely to, but when the Oranje plays, you never know. We've been so close before ... three times.
   The 2014 World Cup begins Thursday in Brazil, Friday for my team. And it will be a heckuva opening challenge: A rematch with mighty Spain, a rematch of the 2010 championship game that Spain -- deservedly but also luckily -- won 1-0 in overtime, with the goal in the 114th of 120 minutes of play.
     Another heartbreak for the Dutch. We've been there before.
     Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a passionate fan of the Yankees, LSU, Louisiana Tech, the Cowboys (when I can stand it), but above all, The Netherlands' national soccer team.
     That's my first love, that's the team I've rooted for since I was 5 years old in my native Amsterdam. That's my home country team.
     I love the traditional uniform -- bright orange shirts, white shorts, orange socks. I love the fight song, Hup Holland Hup; I've known the words since I first heard them, repeatedly, listening to games on the radio; I know the national anthem, Wilhelmus.
     I know that my dad loved all this, too. He learned to love American sports, but like me, soccer is what he knew first and knew best.
     If you know anything about soccer -- or care -- you know that The Netherlands, despite being one of the smallest countries geographically and population-wise in the soccer world, has been one of the great powers for 40 years. The Dutch teams are always respected.
---
     Don't mistake this: I certainly will be pulling for the United States team in this World Cup because I am proud American citizen. But in soccer, in voetbal, Holland has a much greater chance to succeed than the U.S. History tells us that.
     The Americans, to be frank, will be challenged to win one game in the "group of death." The Netherlands' draw, aside from Spain, appears easier. 
    But  this Dutch team doesn't appear to be nearly as strong as four years ago. The 2010 team was a bit of a surprise, but it kept improving and kept fighting, and kept thrilling the millions of fans back home.
    And thrilling one Fort Worth resident who could not have been prouder. I am still as big a fan of Dutch teams and athletes as I was 60 years ago.
    I figure that if our soccer team can perform as well as the Dutch speed skaters did in this year's Winter Olympics, we will be world champions.
    Those who saw my Facebook posts -- those who cared -- on the Olympics early this year saw the repeated photos and celebratory notes. Holland dominated long-track speed skating -- it won 23 of the 36 total medals, eight of the 12 gold medals.
    It meant something to me because my first sports hero was a Dutch speed skater, Kees Broekman, winner of two silver medals in the 1952 Winter Olympics.
     As proud as we were of those speed skaters, as I told several friends during the Winter Olympics, I'd still rather see Holland win the world championship of soccer.
---         
     The rise of the Dutch soccer empire is remarkable, really, considering how weak the country's status in the sport was when I was a little boy there. Until 1954, there were no professional clubs there; the top clubs were semipro at best.
     But the evolution of the pro clubs there, the amount of money spent on player development and eventually the money paid to players, paid off with the kids born in my generation, the baby boomers.
      By the early 1970s they made up the famed "Clockwork Orange" teams, known for their "total football" approach, players who could attack and defend and play with discipline all over the field, known for their precision short-passing game, a quick-striking offense and rugged defensive style.  

      (Soccer, many American friends have told me, is boring. It can be. It also can be ugly with shoddy officiating, too much complaining, too many intentional fouls, and no sports' players are better at "flopping," faking spills or exaggerating the extent of injuries. That's a disgusting part of the game. Holland's teams and games, though, aren't often boring.)
      In 1974 and 1978, the Dutch -- never before a factor in World Cup play -- reached the championship games, only to lose to the host country -- West Germany (2-1) and then Argentina (3-1 in overtime).
      Look, I'm not into alibis. But we had the best team in 1974 -- no one will convince me otherwise -- and we dominated most of the final game, but the West Germans held tough. The Dutch effort in the final at Argentina, before a totally crazy partisan crowd, was just as great. There are times when it's not meant to be.
        Like the Yankees' World Series champions of 1977-78, those Dutch players were my guys, all about my age, Johan Cruyff, considered the greatest Dutch soccer player ever (although Abe Lenstra was the hero of my boyhood and is a legend), was born 1 1/2 months before I was in Amsterdam.
        Holland's greatest soccer success was the 1988 European Championship -- a wonderful team led by the exciting Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Ronald Koeman, Frank Rijkaard and goalie Hans van Breukelen.
        That team should have fared better in the 1990 World Cup, but lost to the eventual champion West Germans; the 1994 team lost to eventual champion Brazil in a thrilling game in Dallas -- Dad and I got to see two group-stage games in Orlando, with Dad thrilled to have a seat right behind the Dutch bench for one game. The 1998 team, led by the brilliant Dennis Bergkamp, reached the semifinals and lost a penalty-kick shootout to Brazil.
        So close so many times, so many difficult losses.
---
        The Dutch teams, good as they have been at times, always have had a reputation for in-fighting, dissension, difficulty with coaches and management, and at times, rough play.
        But the 2010 team was a wonderfully tight-knit team that made big plays, scored big goals game after game. The 2-1 quarterfinal victory over old nemesis Brazil, a comeback from a 1-0 halftime deficit, was one of the greatest Dutch victories.
         Yes, the final against a skilled, superb Spanish team was a brutal, at times violent, outing. It was hard to watch our players resort to that, but they figured that was the only way it could stay in the game.   

The Dutch fans are known for their passion, and
their zaniness (photo from worldblog.nbcnews.com)
        We had one great chance to win it. Arjen Robben -- our speedy dribbling demon and longtime threat -- had a breakaway and the Spanish goalie got lucky, stuck out a foot and barely deflected the ball away before Robben could lift it over and past him.
         Robben is one of only six players from that squad on this year's Netherlands team. Louis Van Gaal, in his two years, as the team's coach -- he's headed to the world's most famous team, Manchester United, after this tournament -- has upended the roster and has a young, internationally inexperienced nucleus.
       Two other returning stars are Robin Van Persie, a world-class scorer and our biggest hope, and Wesley Sneijder, a little midfielder who was a giant in 2010. But both of them, I read, are dealing with leg issues. (We're without three would-be starters who are injured.)
          A memorable aspect of the 2010 journey was the aftermath. The Dutch team flew home from South Africa to heroes' welcome -- a meeting and photo op with the queen, a boat parade through the canals of Amsterdam and then a joyous celebration at the city's museum plaza with hundreds of thousands of fans, almost all wearing orange.
          The team was welcomed like champions, and deservedly so.
         And the fans ... Holland's fans, for most any sport, are known for their passion, their orange, and their fun-loving, zany ways. Frankly, collectively, they're nuts. I think LSU fans have the same type reputation. Throw in arrogance, and you have the Yankees' fans.
          As the Dutch players, and the fans, sang and danced in 2010, an announcer asked Robben -- the would-be hero -- how he felt.
           "This is unbelievable," he told the crowd. "... Spain might be the world champions, but we have the best fans in the whole world."
         I agree, and I am one of them, and proud of it.  
           
       
 

Friday, June 6, 2014

D-Day: the day of a lifetime

          (23rd in a series)
          It was the most monumental day in the modern world's history, and the reason I say that is because that's what my Dad always told me.
         If not for the events of June 6, 1944 -- a day of great heroism and great tragedy -- Dad likely would not have been a Holocaust survivor. Same for my mother.
         Because they survived, because of the unprecedented surge of military force on a foreign shore, my life became a reality three years and 10 days later.
The American cemetery at Normandy
(from commons.wikimedia.org)
         Without the D-Day invasion, without those American, Canadian and British troops storming the beaches in Normandy, France, and marking the turning point of World War II, what would have happened?
         Who knows how much longer they and the fellow concentration-camp prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau or, in Dad's case, the Janina mining camp, would have survived the Nazi hell.
          My Dad, and my mother, were forever grateful for D-Day. As soon as he thought I was old enough to understand, Dad explained how much June 6, 1944, meant to him and to us. And, of course, to the whole world.
          We talked about it over the years, especially on June 6, but I don't remember what, or if, he talked about the question that's on my mind now, one of those hundreds of questions I wish I could go back and ask.
           When did the people being held in the concentration camps, people like my parents for whom the outside world had been closed by the Nazis for almost two years and who had been under German control for more than four years, learn about D-Day?
           They must have, I am guessing, heard rumors in the camps or noticed the increased worry shown by the SS and other Nazi guards. Dad alluded to that in his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview on the Holocaust when he noted that in June 1944 the prisoners in his camp were forced to stand at attention for 24 hours.
           It took another half year, with the prisoners' physical and mental conditions deteriorating even more than they already had and the Germans becoming more desperate -- it was obvious by then they were not going to "win" the war -- before the Allied forces, the Russians from the right and the (mostly) Americans from the left -- discovered the camps.
           They found the harrowing barracks and heavily fenced-in enclosures and -- yes -- the gas chambers, with the smell of death, all around ... and the survivors, many of them devastated and clinging to life.
           Dad was one of those, probably in better condition than many. It was the Russian Army that came into the camp hospital at Janina where he and 27 others remained when the Nazis bolted in January 1945.
           My mother also was rescued by the Russians after she and a dozen other women from Auschwitz's infamous Block 10 -- the medical-experiment block -- had been forced to walk through the southern Poland woods for a couple of weeks. 
            In both my parents' cases, the Russian Army provided some basic necessities but not much comfort. My Dad began a circuitous route back home -- Antwerp, Belgium -- where he'd been living with his first wife before the German occupation.
            My mother and her buddies were told by the Russians that an American Army camp was nearby, and they went there to receive -- as my mother always told it -- royal treatment. There, she decided, America was a place she wanted to live.
            They would not have been there without the D-Day invasion. I think it's natural to assume that.   
---
              I am no student of wars and, frankly, don't relish reading about their history. I read enough about World War II and the concentration camps because I've heard about them almost all my life and because I needed background for writing the chapters in my Dad's Holocaust story.
             In preparing to write about D-Day, I read some Internet stories and watched a few minutes of a couple of YouTube videos. It was difficult.
             I have always thought of the nearly impossible mission the Allied forces had storming those beaches, with the German machine guns set up to mow them down.
             It took wave after wave of men jumping from the boats into water deep enough to drown many with their packs of equipment sending them to the bottom and, if they surfaced, making their way to the sand, somehow dodging bullets hitting rapid-fire all around, and then fighting through obstacles such as hedgehogs and stakes and a sea wall and rows of barbed wire ... and land mines.
             How the heck did they do that?
             I could go on and give you the facts and figures, the details, but there are a hundred thousand sources for that. I just marvel at how it all happened.
---
             When the movie The Longest Day came out in 1962, it was billed as the story of D-Day. My Mom and Dad wanted to see it; for some reason -- I guess because they thought we could handle it -- they took (my sister) Elsa and me along. We saw it, as I recall, at the old Sunset (Acres) Drive-In in Shreveport.
             Tell you now, I couldn't handle it. I've not forgotten how uncomfortable it made me. Never wanted to see it again.
             I looked this up online to recall the movie. This was a helluva production, the story told from the Allied and German perspectives, with a spectacular cast. The billed stars, from imdb.com, were John Wayne, Robert Ryan, Richard Burton and Henry Fonda. Some of the other notables in the cast (alphabetically): Eddie Albert, Paul Anka, Red Buttons, Sean Connery (he wasn't yet Mr. Bond), Richard Dawson, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Peter Lawford, Roddy McDowell, Sal Mineo, Robert Mitchum, Tommy Sands, George Segal, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner.         
             Here's what I remember most: The scenes of the men crossing the beach, stepping on the land mines and being blown away. Too graphic for me then. Six years later, that scene would play out in real life, in Vietnam, to Trey Prather, a good friend and one of the greatest athletes I've known.
             The Longest Day and the "greatest generation" (thank you, Tom Brokaw, who helped made that term for those World War II veterans a common expression). That was D-Day.    
---
            On June 6, 1944, Dad was exactly one month short of 25 years old. My mother was 22. Dad lived another 64 years; Mom lived another 66. Without D-Day, who knows?
             It strikes me today -- on the 70th anniversary of D-Day and as some of the world leaders and the veterans of the invasion gathered on the beaches at Normandy to honor the day -- that most of the Holocaust survivors and most of the men in the armed forces have left us.
              Even the veterans who might've fudged their age and enrolled in the military before they were 18 are nearly 90 now. But as they leave us, it is up to the generations who followed to honor their memory -- and we will.
              God bless those people, the leaders' vision and the courage of the men who carried it out and ended the insanity of World War II. God bless those who were lost on D-Day and those who survived ... including the two people who gave me life.
              Greatest generation indeed. Monumental day. My Dad told me that.
              Next: Finding the way back (but heartbreak, too)
                   

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Our man Jeff: He left us with a smile

       Jeff Fries passed away on May 23 in Jacksonville, Fla., at the age of 53, and his friends -- including many of us who worked with him in the Florida Times-Union sports department in the late 1980s/early 1990s -- are mourning his loss.
        His name won't mean anything to many of my blog readers, but if you want to read some good writing, read below my introductory part. Promise, it's worth it.
        Jeff was a sportswriter, and a damn good one. He was a better guy.
        Not much was easy for Jeff the last 23 1/2 years. Life was difficult, but he lived it with grace and humor, and a toughness we all admired.
         At age 29, he had a severe stroke while visiting his parents in the Philadelphia area over the Thanksgiving holidays. He was impaired from then on, his career basically finished.
         He recovered to learn to walk with use of a cane and to type (one-handed, and slowly) columns on sports TV subjects that ran online at the T-U. He enjoyed some good times and good outings with his friends and family, and a decent quality of life in the Jacksonville Beach area.
         I left that area almost two decades ago, so I wasn't close to check on Jeff's situation regularly. But I was thrilled when I received a Facebook friend request from him a couple of years ago, and we had several message exchanges. He was still sharp.
         However, two more strokes since then were too much, and we lost him. It was not unexpected, but sad nonetheless. 
         On a talented staff of writers, with strong personalities and strong opinions, Jeff was one of the least stringent and most agreeable people.
         He was a good beat writer (University of Florida), a good reporter, a good columnist, and he was the best takeout/feature writer we had at the time. He could take a subject and deal with it thoroughly, and write an interesting, entertaining piece.
          Many from that staff moved on to bigger and better, some now nationally prominent, a couple still at the T-U as veteran leaders in the department. I asked a number of them, and Jeff's friends, for tributes/remembrances.
           So here they are. I give them to you with respect for these people and especially for Jeff's family, and with love for a fine once-young man who was dealt a tough lot in life. 

          Pete Prisco: I first met Jeff Fries at Arizona State when we were 19-year-old kids, dreaming of working as sports writers, talking sports night and day and laughing way more than we studied.
     Through the years, including our time in Jacksonville working for the Florida Times-Union, there is one thing that never changed about Jeff: He was the nicest guy in the room. Always.
     As many of you know, I am jaded and have an acerbic way about me, but Jeff was the complete opposite, which might be why we were friends.
     Jeff never had a bad thing to say about anybody (OK, maybe a sports editor or two with a bad idea).
     But, seriously, he might have been the most upbeat person I know. One of my favorite stories involving Jeff was when we were assigned to ride along with a Gainesville police officer for a story on drugs in the city since the University of Florida -- our beat at the time -- was having some issues.
      It was a bad idea since we had no crime-reporting experience, but even more so because it really had nothing to do with the school.
      Yet here we both were riding with the cops as they went on cocaine busts. I remember one situation started to look serious and it appeared that there could be some shooting. So I looked over at Jeff, and we're both slumped down in the back seat of the car as the cops ran to the suspects.
      Jeff, in his usual dry wit, looked over and said, "I wonder how (sports editor) Mike Richey gets this story if we both die."
      We didn't die that day, but the sad news I got last Friday was that Jeff did die -- way, way too young.
       For most of his adult life, since suffering a stroke in his early 30s, Jeff battled constant physical problems. Yet, through it all, he never complained. Not once. He instead found humor in his plight to offset what truly had to be a burden for a kid -- I still see him that way since I met him in my teens -- I know who was once so full of life.
      Even after he suffered a second stroke, he would text me to discuss the things I wrote or something I said on the radio.
      His favorite line: "Somebody wrote a pretty good story and put your name on it."
      As I remember him, and look back on all our fun times, from the innocent dreams of our youth to the horrible hand he was dealt later in life, the one thing that stands out to me more than any when it comes to Jeff Fries is this:
      He was the nicest man I will ever know. RIP, friend. You will be missed.
     
      Mike Richey: Jeff was one of the nicest people anyone could ever hope to meet. We first met in Denver at The Post when he was just out of Arizona State, and he was on the staff in Jacksonville when I became sports editor.
      He always had a smile, even after his life had turned upside down. Not too long after this first stroke, a mutual friend (Bob Van Winkle, Washington Post) and I drove up from D.C. and spent the day with Jeff at his parents' home outside Philly. He couldn't walk and couldn't use one of his arms at all. But he could smile, and joke, and laugh. There wasn't even a hint of self-pity. Not then, and to my knowledge, not ever.
      He was the model of what we all would hope to be if faced with similar circumstances. Most of us wouldn't come close, myself included. He was a good reporter and talented writer but his legacy to me is one of attitude, determination and inspiration.

     Pat Dooley: Jeff was genuinely one of the nicest people I have ever known. He had the gift of being able to mimic people and his impression of our boss Craig Stanke would have us doubling over in laughter. Unfortunately, Craig has passed on, too. Of all of the staffs I have worked on in my 37 years in the business, the staff at the T-U when Jeff was there was the closest. We did everything together and I believe he was a big reason. Everyone loved to be around him.

      Jill Cousins: I worked with Jeff at the Florida Times-Union from 1987 to 1990. I was the only female sportswriter at the time, and -- in an office with plenty of male chauvinists -- he always treated me with kindness and respect. He was funny and had a sweet smile, and I remember him defending me when he heard a co-worker complaining that I was taking too much time off to visit my sick sister (who, shortly afterward, died of cancer). Now that I think of it, his bright eyes and sweet smile remind me a little of Jimmy Fallon! Jeff, you will be remembered as a sweet man and a talented writer whose life ended too soon. May you R.I.P.

     Matt Hayes:  It would be easy to talk about Jeff Fries, the professional. The writer who had more talent, more vision, more concept of telling stories, than anyone I’ve ever met.
     I prefer to remember Jeff Fries, the friend.
     The guy who playfully nicknamed me “two-buck,” because when you’re making $8 an hour as a part-time sportswriter working full-time hours and paying off student loans, well, you’ve got two bucks in your pocket when you’re eating lunch and the check arrives – and once again, somebody has to cover you.
     The guy who never took anything or anyone too seriously, and never showed anger.
     The guy who, after dealing with so much heartache, looked at me years ago as I apologized for not seeing him enough, and said, “forget about that; tell me about your family.”
      The guy who loved to laugh; who had this barely audible, guttural sound when he saw or heard something that turned him sideways. One such moment, a certain anecdote Jeff and I shared over and over, was at the expense of one of our colleagues, Garry Smits.
      One weekday night, after Garry had worked long into another night of taking prep calls and writing roundups and making sure the guys downstairs in prepress didn’t wrap type on different columns and screw it all up, he called his sister who was expecting.
      Jeff was GA writer that night, and had to stay late, and I was working with Garry on a typically busy spring weeknight. Garry made the call – to this day, I’ve never asked him who he was talking to – and started getting the specifics.
      “Oh, great! So the baby is fine? And how big? How much did he weigh? And no problems with the birth?”
      At that moment, there was a pause for what seemed like an hour, but was really only a matter of seconds, before loveable Smitter blurted out, “What … huh? It’s Garry!!”
      Apparently, whomever Garry was speaking with; whoever was giving intimate details of a wonderful family moment, suddenly realized they didn’t know Garry.
      Jeff and I laughed so hard my temples hurt. We replayed that once in forever moment over and over through the weeks and months that followed, laughing harder each and every time. Smitter, bless his heart, learned to laugh about it, too.
      When I heard of Jeff’s passing, the first thing I thought of was that perfectly imperfect laugh of his, and that moment with Garry that will forever tie the three of us together.
      The second thing I thought was I should have been a better friend. I told Jeff that very thing years ago when I saw him during a Florida-Georgia weekend, when some of his friends met at a local Jax Beach bar to throw back a few beers and tell old stories.
      At one point that night, when it was just he and I at the table, I told him, “Freezy, you haven’t changed at all.”
      He said, “You have; I don’t even know it’s you with these coke bottle glasses.”
      And then, I couldn’t resist.
      “It’s not me,” I said, “It’s Garry!”
       I'll miss that laugh.

      Garry Smits: In the summer of 1990, I was given a great opportunity at the Florida Times-Union: Get off the high school beat and go live in Tallahassee, to cover Florida State.
      There was a caveat. I would cover the nuts and bolts of the beat, such as covering practices and writing injury reports. When it came to a big takeout or huge game on deadline, Jeff Fries would come out and serve as a designated hitter of sorts.
      I  had no problem with that. My respect and admiration for Jeff over-rode any ego on my part, which other friends would assure you was no small miracle.
      It was only about four months later that Jeff had his first stroke and that effectively ended his career, which was headed for great things. I'm talking destination Sports Illustrated. Or The Sporting News, Dallas Times-Herald, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago ... I'm sure Jeff was holding out hope one day that he'd land back in his hometown and work at the Philadelphia Inquirer.
      On a sports staff loaded with guys who went on to become lead columnists and national writers, Jeff was among the best. He wrote concisely, with an economy in words but a wealth of impact. And he did it all, college and pro football and basketball, golf, baseball, whatever was needed.
       In looking up his last work on our microfilm files from the fall of 1990, I discovered that Jeff's final assignment was a 3-on-3 basketball tournament called "Hoop It Up." I'm sure in the height of football season some guys of his stature might have seen it as beneath him -- especially since in the weeks before, he had covered a Miami Dolphins game and the Notre Dame-Tennessee game.
       Jeff attacked it with relish and turned in four days of entertaining writing.
       In one of life's cruel jokes, one of his last stories was about a wheelchair basketball team.
       Jeff was a better person than he was a writer. I never heard a single person say a bad thing about him. He had the respect of his colleagues, and the coaches, athletes and front-office people he covered.
        There there's his courage. My God, who among us would have handled his fate without bitterness or self-pity? He never displayed either when around his friends and family.
       About that master plan for me in Tallahassee in the fall of 1990, for Jeff to come out of the bullpen at 1 Riverside Avenue to do the big stories and write the big gamers? Well, what Jeff said to me gave me the confidence to know I could go from high school sports to a major beat.
      "Don't worry," he said. "They won't need me out there. You'll do great."
      God bless you my friend. God bless you a million times over.


      Chris Smith: I was truly saddened to hear about the passing of Jeff. Although it's been years since seeing him and beingwith him on that memorable sports staff at the Times-Union, I'll always remember him as a wonderful, down-to-earth guy with an easy personality ... in thinking back, Jeff was a perfect counterbalance to some of those "bigger" personalities in the newsroom. He will be missed. My heartfelt condolences go out to his family.

     John Oehser: “Today was Gary Darnell’s birthday. Yesterday was cake.” That was Jeff Fries’ lede from a University of Florida football game -- in the late 1980s, obviously. Akron may have been the opponent and the occasion may have been homecoming. Doesn’t matter. But I still remember the lede 25 years or so later. I don’t remember ledes of my own from the last week anymore, but I remember that one.
       When I started at the Times-Union in the late 1980s, the staff was good. Really, really good. And deep. And a bunch of good guys. With a lot of Fs, oddly enough -- Fabrizio. Frenette. Frangie. The non-Fs included Prisco and Smits and Smith and names such as Larson and some others I’m unintentionally omitting. I won’t insult these guys who I respected and admired 2 1/2 decades ago by saying Fries was clearly the best, but I think those same guys would agree he was in the conversation.
       He was as good a guy as any of them, too. I’m pretty sure that would be unanimous. As a writer, though, as good as he was -- and he was damned good -- I have to think he would have kept getting better. He had a gift for takeouts, and a gift for a turn of phrase, and mostly I remember him really giving a damn about the craft of it, and I remember as a young writer who wanted to get better that there was little cooler than a slightly older writer who gave a damn about the craft of it.
      I don’t know where Fries’ career would have taken him. I am pretty sure it would have been some damned good gigs and there would have been some damned good ledes. I didn’t know Fries as well as a lot of the guys at the T-U back then did. I think I’d been there about 2 1/2 years when what happened to him happened. We hadn’t traveled together, and hadn’t gone out drinking much together, so we hadn’t had the heartfelt conversations such occasions bring. A lot of the guys I’ve already mentioned probably had those. What I have is a few years of having worked with a damned good writer, and as me and Prisco were discussing at the Jaguars the other day, about as nice a guy as you want to meet in this business. He was one of the first writers at the T-U to reach out and accept me as something close to an equal.
      Maybe my most vivid memory of Fries was coming into the T-U on a February morning. I forget the year but I had covered the Rolex 24 in Daytona the day before. I remember the lede I wrote after Jaguar won the event to break some sort of drought: “Jaguar … there is no substitute.” I don’t know how good it was, but I thought it was OK then, and when I walked past Fries’ cubicle, he poked his head up and said, “Hey, somebody wrote a pretty good lead and put your name on it.”
     That meant a hell of a lot to me. As I said, he was a damned nice guy.

     Joe Adams: I was fortunate in the sense I had left Florida when Jeff had his problems so my memories are of the Jeff I knew when we were at the T-U in the 1980s. Just a good, good guy -- sharp, funny and a good writer. We had a good crew then and had a lot of good times. Jeff was always a part of them. Jeff is gone way too soon, but I'm sure he's in a better place and he's the Jeff we all want to remember. The pain is gone now but our fond memories remain.

     Gene Frenette: In my lifetime, there's never been anybody I've known in our sports writing industry that has endured tougher health issues at a young age like Jeff. Nobody can possibly fathom why some people end up suffering to a much greater extent than others. But one undeniable fact about Jeff is he handled a completely unfair medical circumstance with a fantastic attitude and a grace to be admired.
     Really, who does anyone know that has a stroke at age 29 or 30 that pretty much ends their working career? And puts them in such a tough rehabilitating situation that it also impedes so many qualities of life that most of us just take for granted?
      In the 23 years that Jeff had to endure all that rehabilitation, all the surgeries, all the dependency on family and friends to help him perform simple tasks, I had the privilege of being married to a wonderful woman and raising four kids. That hardly seems fair. How did I get so lucky and Jeff so brutally unlucky? There's no answer for that. For whatever reason, God asks us to make the most of whatever adversities that come our way, and some of us do it better than others.
      For about three years, Jeff's working cubicle at the Times-Union was right behind mine, so it was impossible not to hear all the conversations he might have with people who came by or were on the phone. I can tell you this: no working colleague in the course of a normal day laughed as much as Jeff. He just had that way about him. He was always smiling, or joking, or busting a friend about something. Some people make coming to work a bit of a drudgery, others make it a fun experience, and Jeff was definitely the latter. He was almost always upbeat. He was fun to debate with because he didn't try to outscream you. He actually listened and if there was still disagreement about something, he could leave it at that and not get offended if you didn't see a point of view the same way.
     When I visited him at his parents' home in Pennsylvania after covering a Florida-Syracuse football game, following his first stroke, it was as if nothing was different. He was still the same jovial guy, still kidding me about my sweet tooth when his mother brought out dessert.
     Looking back, everyone probably knows somebody that life has kicked in the teeth and handled whatever suffering or adversity amazingly well. Jeff was that guy for a lot of us. Maybe God puts him in front of us to show what is truly possible with a positive attitude and sense of humor. All I know is Jeff is in a better place now. No more pain, no more suffering, no more wondering if there's a reward for all those medical and emotional setbacks.
      Rest in peace, Jeff. You're in the heaven that you richly deserve.

      Mark Wollemann: I worked with Jeff in the late '80s and always thought of him as one of the kindest people I'd ever met. Hard-working, tough and determined, for sure. But just a nice, and good-natured guy. My fondest memories revolved around playing hoops with him and some of the gang of young bucks in Jacksonville at the time. Also, his spot-on Vince Dooley impersonation.
       I had left Jacksonville before his first stroke and recovery but he was always in my thoughts. And I was able to reconnect via social media in the past few years. I'm glad he was surrounded by good friends and loving family all these years.
       We make strong emotional connections to those we encounter early in our careers and the memories of them stay with us forever. I'll long remember Jeff as the gentle and kind spirit he was.

        Frank Frangie: What I’ll remember most is the smile. More than the quick wit, the insanely good writing skills, I’ll remember most the never-ending smile.
        The first time I met Jeff, he was walking into the newsroom to meet his new newspaper family at the Times-Union. He was just beaming. You could tell this was a guy so happy to be here, in town, happy for this beginning. And he truly loved it. Loved writing, hanging with the guys, going to games, having a cold one. A sportswriter, truly one of the guys. One of the really good guys.
        We all had tons of memories together. None will ever trump, for me, the legendary East Coast baseball trip. Ray McNulty, Tony Fabrizio, Jeff and me. Games in Baltimore, Philly, both New York stadiums, and Boston. Ray and Jeff had family in the Northeast who put us up. Tony and I were the freeloaders. We watched baseball. And more baseball. Went to bars from near Inner Harbor to the Boston Harbor, in pubs in Philly and Manhattan. Laughed, told stories, played wiffle ball in the same backyard in Eastern Pennsylvania where Jeff grew up.
        Just four single sportswriters, with no money and no real responsibilities, having the time of our lives. We all smiled the whole time. Laughs and one-liners. Oh, the one-liners. And the Jeff Fries wit.
        A full week of fun. Including the 24-hour straight drive back home from Boston in the rented Ford Taurus. I can remember leaving Fenway that night knowing we were headed home. Leaving Fenway and heading for the I-95 ramp.
        Someone (Tony I think): “How do we get back?”
        Jeff: “Right on 95. Left on Riverside."
        (Riverside Drive, home of the newspaper in Jacksonville.)
        I think we laughed all the way to Virginia.
        That’s where Fabrizio got the speeding ticket. We were afraid to laugh. But we did anyway.
        And about that writing ability. I think among our group, it was a roundly held opinion that Jeff was the one with the ridiculous talent. He was that good. Sports Illustrated good. It was just a matter of time.
        That time never arrived. Yet, despite life dealing him a cruel blow, Jeff never seemed defeated. At least not the times I was around him. I remember the times he told me, “It could have been worse.” I”ve never forgotten that.
        I remember his 50th birthday get-together on the Aqua Grill patio. Grinning the whole time, around family and friends, one-liners as if it were the old days.
        Sometimes when we memorialize someone, they become better in memory. Kinder, nicer, more friendly. Didn’t need that with Jeff. Truly, he was one of the most genuinely good, genuinely kind people most of us ever knew, and was that way the entire time we knew him. The guy with the really quick wit. The wonderful friend. The wonderfully talented writer.
        With the never-ending smile.  

        Tony Fabrizio: Seriously, was the guy ever not smiling? My enduring memories of Jeff from working together at the Florida Times-Union in the 1980s are his quick wit, his boundless knowledge of sports and bands you’d never heard of and, of course, that big toothy smile.

        Jeff was such a good guy he had about six best friends, all the while making each of us feel like the most important person in his life. He was a great listener and loyal to the point of blindness, always taking your side in matters of the heart, family and speeding tickets (the cop was always a jerk!) He had this way of making you feel better about yourself while still laughing at your quirks.
        No one should have to suffer like a fan of the Philly sports teams, but Jeff endured without ever taking Prozac. He eased his struggle somewhat by claiming Syracuse basketball and seizing upon any small success of his alma mater Arizona State Sun Devils.
       Jeff was gentle and non-confrontational and, at least during the T-U days, pretty darn allergic to the gym. That’s why we all still laugh about that Quarter Beer Night at CJ’s when he caught a would-be thief breaking into his Oldsmobile Calais and punched him out.
       Sportswriting was a blast in the ‘80s, and that was doubly the case at the T-U because several of us were close in age and spent a lot of time together away from work. The summer car trip that Jeff, Ray McNulty, Frank Frangie and I took to visit several East Coast baseball stadiums still ranks as one my most memorable vacations. A highlight for sure was visiting Jeff’s family in Landsdale, Pa., and playing a fiercely competitive game of wiffle ball in the backyard. Jeff would rib me for years to come for complaining that “Frank always has to pitch, always has to play quarterback.” In retrospect, Frank, you were pretty good.
       Our group also included Dan Macdonald, Pete Prisco, Michael Howe, Mark Basch and Garry Smits, and I remember Dawn Rodriguez and Bev Keneagy hanging out from time to time. I’m probably forgetting someone, but no matter who was involved, Jeff was the glue that pulled everyone together.
      Jeff was in my wedding party in 1988, along with Ray and Frank, and of course I had to pull out the photo album this week and go through the old photos. There was Jeff in every group shot with that big, shick-eating grin. Over the years, Jeff got to know my family and strike up a friendship with my sister Amber and I got to know his parents, Richard and Sonia, and siblings, Eric and Susan. Jeff adored his family, which was hardly a chore, and he had a special place in his heart for then-little nieces Callie and Amy.
      I moved to Atlanta after getting married, and Jeff came to visit us right after my daughter Erin was born and just before his first stroke in November 1990. He stayed at the house, and though I couldn’t find it this week, I have a picture of him sitting on the arm chair, grinning ear to ear. I, in turn, was able him visit twice in Lansdale in the early '90s while covering games in Philadelphia. My then-wife Ann came along on one of those trips and recalled this week how Jeff’s parents made her feel like family. She, too, is saddened by Jeff’s passing.
     Jeff was dealt a bad lot in life, and yet he dealt with his predicament with grace and determination. Instead of getting angry, he became more spiritual, and he never gave up on life or trying to get better. Jeff made his mark in journalism, and we can only wonder how impactful his career would have been had he stayed healthy. He easily could have become a lead columnist, broadcaster, analyst or, with his people skills, a communications executive with a pro team or league.
     But I do think Jeff did something in his life even more important than reach the pinnacle of journalism. He left us all better off from having known him.