“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
As I write this, my sister sits in the eye of a hurricane.
As do many sisters, as do many brothers, as do many mothers and fathers and friends.
We as a nation have been battered and bruised, when the wind comes for some of us, when the water comes for some of us, it comes for us all.
God Bless Houston.
God Bless Florida and all in the track of Irma.
God bless also all our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean for whom also the water and wind came.
God bless all of our brothers and sisters in China for whom also the water and wind came.
God bless all of us everywhere who stand face-to-face with the wind and the water, with the fires in the brush and the cracks in the earth.
It is 2:30 a.m. wherever I am here at the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship, I get this screenshot from my sister, Cheryl, in Holiday, Fla….
…and this, “The eye is over our house now.”
Cheryl is not alone there, she is married to a righteous dude, John, ex-military, who has been deeply in love with my sister for decades and who from day one has always protected her and their children from anything, Irma included.
But as I laid in bed staring at the text, staring at the Weather Channel, and by the way we don’t need people to stand in a hurricane to know the wind blows, keep them safe as well Mister Weather Channel owner, I started to wonder should we play this AOY game we got here.
Should we play any game while there are trees across the road, soggy drywall and bedding in trees, oceans sucked from the beach?
Should we play?
Let me tell you a true unique story that convinced me, and I did need convincing, that the games, the games, must go on.
I was 11 years old in 1963, don’t remember what grade I was in, or to be truthful, the name of the elementary school I attended back then in Tonawanda, N.Y., a suburb a wad of gum spit from Buffalo.
I do remember walking up a flight of stairs, alone, I do remember a teacher, Miss Wilcox standing up on the landing of the stairs, white handkerchief with roses around the edges balled up in her hand, black streaks of stuff running down her cheeks.
“Hello Miss Wilcox.”
“Are you okay Miss Wilcox?”
Then Miss Wilcox did something she, or any other teacher never did in my life, she bent down some, reached out and hugged me and whispered in my ear, simply, “President Kennedy has been shot and killed…”
And then Miss Wilcox began to weep.
As if it was yesterday I remember the hankie with the roses, remember the smell of the stairwell, remember the tears on my neck.
School that day was let out early, I lived maybe 5 or 6 blocks from school, I was “a walker,” so with bookbag in hand I took my normal route home, through the school playground, through a little not real scary empty lot/field, and then down the two or three streets that led to my house, a white and black ranch in a sea of post war ranches.
I remember this about that walk…the silence.
In those blocks no one was outside, no one was in their driveways, even the old maid at the corner wasn’t in the window staring at me.
Tonawanda, and America, had the wind knocked out of it that day, no one knew what to say, everyone could only cry.
When I came in the house my mother was ironing, sort of, she had the ironing board in the living room, something I had never seen before, the Philco black and white television was on…and tears fell silently on my father’s half ironed white shirts.
I was 11 and all the adults around me were crying that day, I went into my bedroom and played with my Hop-a-long Cassidy cowboys.
And alone, I started crying too, even though I didn’t know why.
I just knew it was a time to cry.
And so I did.
On that Sunday, the 24th, two days after the assassination the NFL played a full schedule of football games. The NFL commish Pete Rozelle said play, my mother said they shouldn’t play, my father just sat and watched a game.
No one asked me but I gave my 11-year-old opinion anyway, my father always reminded me for decades later what I said that day, even though to an 11 year old I just kind of blurted it out…and ducked.
According to dad I said this, “I don’t think we should play games until mother stops crying.”
Do we, should we, play while so many of are still crying, is it right to take to the field while there are still tears?
Here’s the bizarre part, fast forward a lifetime, it is now November 1993, the 30th anniversary of the assassination, I’m in Cleveland, Ohio, sent there by my bosses at ESPN.
It is the old stadium on the lake built of steel and concrete and Jim Brown. The seats are small, the girders block some of the view, the wind comes off the lake and up your pant legs, “The Dog Pound,” was only a pup.
I am way up high in the pressbox, scary high, possibly OSHA bending rules high. I am sitting there next to Gib Shanley, the legendary voice of the Browns for more than two decades.
We are both looking at the football field below us.
I see grass and white lines, the field is empty.
For Gib though, it was filled, with memories.
“To be honest Don I sat up here and broadcast that game, that Sunday just two days after the national tragedy of Kennedy being killed and I had mixed feelings about it, I was doing my job, but it was like no other job that day.”
I told Gib of Miss Wilcox, he told me of the silence in the tunnel, in the crowd, in the locker room.
“Yeah it was tough to take to the field that day, hardest game day ever.”
Sitting on the other side of me was, again, a legendary Cleveland sports figure, Lou “The Toe” Groza, NFL Hall of Fame kicker, Cleveland famous for being “The Toe.”
“The Toe” was a bear of a man in 1963, and 1993, when he put his arm on my shoulder my whole body leaned into him, which wasn’t actually the way I was hoping to lean.
“I tell you Barone, you a good Italian gumba, I tell you Barone I cried that day, many won’t admit it but there were some tears in that locker room, I stood in that tunnel and thought should we be doing this, should I be doing this, and then they blew the whistle and we were doing it you know.”
Through, you know, some connections in Cleveland came the most amazing part of this day for me, “You know Don I sat right here with my dad at the game that day, I was 11 too.”
I was in the stands now, sitting next to me was a man called Dan. Dan was sitting in the exact seat he sat in 30 years ago with his father and watched the Cleveland Browns play on that Sunday of tears.
“You know I was 11, like you, I understood part of it, but I was also a little scared and a little mad because of what I saw down there on the field.”
And what 11-year-old Dan saw on the field that Sunday was his beloved Browns playing the Cowboys, “the Dallas Cowboys, Dallas, I mean that’s where Kennedy was killed and suddenly there stood down there on the field…Dallas.”
With that, Dan just turned from looking at me and just sat there looking at the field, in time came the tears, not so much I think about the game but more so over the empty seat next to him, the one I left open.
Why we play the game
It was Gib, it was “The Toe,” it was Dan who as we sat together in the empty Cleveland stadium explained to me why we played that game, why we play any game during a tragedy.
To a person they said this, “It is the fabric of life that keeps a little bit of normal during abnormal times.”
We play because these games are our blankie.
These games are to our soul your favorite jeans, your after-work fleece, your sleep number.
In the face of tragedy, the games must go on.
The fabric of life, no matter how small, helps heal, helps give just a tiny bit of comfort when comfort is so hard to come by.
At 11 I voted not to play.
At 65 I vote to play.
It isn’t the end of the world if the games don’t take place, but it is the end of a tiny piece of it.
There is no better time to continue the fabric of life as to when the fabric is frayed.
To all those frayed, you are in our thoughts, in our prayers, and what little it may mean in the scheme of things, to all of you frayed I dedicate this season to you.
Let the waters recede.
Let the wind become a breeze.
And most of all, let God be with you.