Posted by: trevormeers | November 25, 2012

Dr. Tom

The nice lady behind the desk said, “He’ll be with you in a moment. Please have a seat.”

If this had been in the era of smartphones, I would’ve snapped a picture of that seat before gingerly settling into it. Two red leather couches formed a semicircle in the middle of the large lobby. A huge red N was embroidered into the carpet between them, and the whole arrangement centered on what you might consider the ultimate man-cave coffee table. A black pedestal stood between the couches, bathed in a beam of halogen light and supporting a black tower of a trophy topped with a crystal football.

By some amazing force of destiny, after a childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska, I’d worked my way onto hallowed ground: The Cornhusker football offices, six months after Tom Osborne’s first national championship.

“Trevor?” a voice said. “C’mon in.”

I stood and turned to face legend. Coach Osborne—far taller than I’d expected—was extending his hand, inviting me to pull up a chair in his inner sanctum, just on the other side of the wall from that trophy.

It’s hard to convey the sheer gravity Coach Osborne (aka, TO and Dr. Tom) carries in his home state of Nebraska. It runs far deeper than his football record, which is monumental on its own. Wins: 255. Conference titles: 13. National titles: 5. Record in his last five years: 60-3.

It’s possible that no coach not named John Wooden so perfected his craft. And like Wooden, Dr. Tom (he holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology) makes you feel like you’re near a walking chunk of Mt. Rushmore if you get within a few yards of him.

I made it into Osborne’s office in 1995 to interview him for an article about his faith for a Christian men’s magazine. His people told me to expect 30 minutes max in there, but the coach talked with me for 45 before ever glancing down at his watch. At the end of the interview, I dropped all journalistic pretense and took my one chance to tell him what his example had meant to all of us growing up in the long shadow he cast across the plains.

Dr. Tom carried himself like a Bible-believing Clint Eastwood. He spoke little and squinted a lot, but even when a failed two-point conversion cost him a national title in 1984, he uttered no more than “Dang.” It seemed like he spoke at every Fellowship of Christian Athletes banquet I ever attended. He was the white hat in many confrontations over the years. He was the stoic yin to the yang of Barry Switzer, the “Bootlegger’s Boy” leading the brash Oklahoma Sooners. Osborne was the steady hand that finally got over on the all-that’s-wrong-with-college-sports poster kids at Miami, beating them for his first national title. He wiped the smirk off the face of the visor-wearing Ol’ Ball Coach from Florida for his second title.

The crux of his impact on me came when I was in college. I was coaching a junior high basketball team, and doing it with my best impression of an old-school coach. I fumed and belittled and praised only grudgingly. I was an intense guy, and I figured that required acting like some mutant offspring of Bob Knight and George S. Patton. But then I read a story about a new offensive lineman at Nebraska. He missed a block and gave up a sack, then slunk back to the sideline. TO stepped over, put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Son, we brought you here to make that play. If you can’t do that, then we’re not going to have a place for you.”

Suddenly, I saw a better way. Who’s the stronger leader? The guy who has to kick over a Gatorade cooler to make his point, or the guy who can jerk a 300-pound man up short with one calm statement?

Once I began to consciously study Dr. Tom’s Great Plains cool, I saw it everywhere. The ’96 season left both Nebraska and Michigan undefeated, for example, and the media repeatedly asked Osborne to make the Huskers’ case for the title. “Well,” he said, “we won 12, and that’s all we played.”

Osborne retired from coaching that year and got elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Then he ran for governor and lost, shockingly. Even the storied native son couldn’t win over rural voters on a platform of consolidating more schools.

By 2007, Nebraska football had become nearly uncrecognizable. Osborne’s hand-picked successor was gone, replaced by an NFL guy who didn’t realize he was running a football team that belonged to the entire state, not him. Just before the whole ship sank, the university dumped the AD and brought in Dr. Tom to stabilize things. He fired the overmatched coach and hired Bo Pelini, and things have generally been trending upward ever since.

And that brings us to last Saturday, when the Huskers’ final home game saluted the kid from Hastings, who is retiring as athletic director at year’s end. He led the team onto the field one last time, reprising the lanky, sharp-elbowed jog onto the turf that always made Nebraskans feel like things were under control.

Over all those decades, I met TO only the one time. But I still knew him enough from afar to understand exactly what the country group Sawyer Brown was saying when they wrote “The Nebraska Song.” It salutes Brook Berringer, a Husker quarterback who played a career backup role, but helped secure a national title when Tommie Frazier went down with health problems. Right before graduation in 1996, Berringer died in the crash of a small plane about 10 miles from my house.

Tom Osborne went all the way to Goodland, Kansas, for the funeral of #18.

Well, I came up from Goodland, Kansas
I turned eighteen today
I’m college bound for Lincoln
Nebraska’s where I’ll stay

It’s been my dream all my life
To play football on this field
And if I ever get the chance
I’ll make you this deal

I’ll work hard,
I’ll do my part
You won’t hear me complain
I’ll never go down easy
I swear I’ll pull my weight
Hey there, Mr. Osborne
I’ll do anything to play
And it sure would be a honor, sir,
To call you coach someday

Here in the middle of the middle west
We ain’t afraid to fight
Well, I’ve looked up to you, sir
Now I’ll look you in the eye

Well, I hear something calling me
Like I’ve never heard before
It’s a red and white freight train
And I wanna get on board

I’ll work hard, I’ll do my part
You won’t hear me complain
I’ll never go down easy
I swear I’ll pull my weight
Hey there, Mr. Osborne
I’ll do anything to play
And it sure would be a honor, sir,
To call you coach someday

I came up from Goodland, Kansas
I turned eighteen today
I’m college bound for Lincoln
Nebraska’s where I’ll stay

Watch a live performance of “The Nebraska Song” (with Tom Osborne in the audience) here.

Posted by: trevormeers | November 11, 2012

Tall Tales

A road trip in the ’90s with my dad and some tall guy who has cropped himself right out of history.

The whine of a cordless drill couldn’t drown out the shrieks coming from the corner of the kitchen. While the rest of our volunteer team plowed ahead with a plumbing project, Dan was squirming in a vinyl chair over by the microwave. A nice older lady who claimed to be a nurse had pinned him down and was eagerly applying the icy tough love of Bactine spray to a raw spot scraped like a red Mohawk down the middle of his head.

Another penalty paid for the crime of being tall in a building with low doorways.

“You fellas are all just too tall,” said John, the manager of the community hall we were working in. “All of us around here are short enough that we walk right through that door with no trouble.”

Studies will tell you that being tall (anything over 5’9” if you judge by the height of the average American man) provides a measurable leg up. One University of North Carolina study found that every additional inch is worth an extra $789 in salary each year. That means a 6-footer earns $5,525 more each year than a 5’5” person. (Anecdotally, I’m not convinced, considering how many guys shorter than me pull into the office garage in a Mercedes every day.)

If your growth spurt carries you right into truly rare air, you’re virtually guaranteed a pro basketball career. Making it to seven feet may not carry you past life as a human victory cigar (you only show up on the court when the victory is in hand; ba-dum-dum). But there aren’t many real-world jobs that pay as well as being the 12th man on an NBA squad.

Those are all the upsides to height. But at times, unusual stature has been downright deadly. Genghis Khan was said to have a policy of parading captured enemies past a wagon tongue and lopping off any heads that extended above this measuring stick. But to be fair, the Khan was also known for wiping out entire cities, so his heightism may be overstated.

Today, a little altitude is far less risky, but more inconvenient than you may think. Garrison Keillor once broadcast “a message on behalf of the tall” asking the world to refrain from reclining airline seats out of consideration for the long legs they were about to crush in the row behind them. In the spirit of that public service announcement, here’s an informational list of the subtle challenges faced by your taller neighbors:

-       Chandeliers – Move a kitchen table a few feet, and you’ve created a trap. It’s only a matter of time before some tall person winds up with a forehead scar that looks like a little flame-shape light bulb.

-       Shower heads – Most people know that most hotel shower heads were positioned for gymnasts and jockeys. But tall people don’t just dip their head to wash out the shampoo. We often have to Tebow.

-       Bathroom mirrors – Until I grow a long beard and need to trim only the bottom of it, I’ll be doing deep knee bends in order to see myself shaving in many bathrooms.

-       Pick-up basketball – Trust me: You don’t want to be addressed as “Big Man” when you’re greatest hoops achievements were at a tiny private school. If you’re  6’4”, every mouthy point guard automatically assumes you’re primed to dominate the paint. Fail to do that, and you’re in for some serious trash-talking.

-       Air travel – Aisle seats are a sneaky danger. They promise the relief of extending at least one leg during the flight. But airline attendants seem to have a punitive policy toward people using this public space. Drink carts can be used as weapons.

-       Housekeeping – The more you see, the more you realize needs dusting. In Tall World, the top of every picture frame and refrigerator is a job nagging at your conscience.

-       Full-size beds – One of the most deceptive product names of all time, right up there with “fun-size” candy bars. Even sleeping on the diagonal, you can plan on your feet levitating off the edge for most of the night.

-       Cubicles – You can’t sneak out early on a Friday when your head sticks above the warren of cubicles like the fin of a giant land shark.

-       Refrigerators – From a standing position, I can view one full shelf in the fridge, and the first three inches or so of another. That means that as I hunt for leftovers to take for lunch each morning, I do my best impression of a giraffe bending low to a waterhole. I always worry that as I’m hunched over, looking for the Tupperware, a lion may be sneaking up on me, hoping to pick off a meal on stilts.

Posted by: trevormeers | October 31, 2012

How to Say “Halloween” In Iowan

Keeping troublemakers like these under control is what Beggar’s Night is all about.

Here’s a sure sign that you’ve lived in Iowa a long time: You talk about trick-or-treating on Oct. 30 without even realizing it’s odd. On Halloween Eve this year, my wife posted on Facebook that the flow of kids in costumes was pretty low at our front door this year. An old friend from Nebraska responded, “Maybe cuz Halloween is tomorrow?”

And quicker than you can say “Hawkeye State,” we realized that somewhere along the line, we’d bought into Iowa’s concept of Beggar’s Night. Apparently some other states also hold a Beggar’s Night, which is the designated window for what’s generally known in the United States as “trick-or-treating.” A few localities—like Iowa—hold Beggar’s Night on the evening before Halloween in an effort to move wholesome candy begging off the date traditionally reserved for mischief.

The Des Moines Register’s website reports that Iowa’s Beggar’s Night started in 1938 after cops handled a record 550 vandalism calls on Halloween. Fed up with the troublemakers, Kathryn Krieg of the Des Moines Playground Commission moved the “tricks or eats” event to Oct. 30 to short-circuit the rowdies.

So that’s not so different from a few other states, but even among the Confederacy of Beggar’s Night states, Iowa has a curveball. When kids say, “Trick or treat!” the adult at the door responds with something to the effect of, “What’s your trick?” And the kid is supposed to tell a corny joke in order to earn their candy. The first time I witnessed this, I thought the woman at the door was getting cheap with the fun-size candy bars, what with her insistence that kids cough up a joke before getting the sugar fix. But it turns out to be a highly formalized process that was first mandated by Kathryn Krieg’s Community Chest Work Council back in ’38. (Kathryn belonged to a lot of groups that had very heavy-sounding names considering their mission was to make life more fun.)

The council decreed “eats should be given only if such a ‘trick’ as a song, a poem, a stunt or a musical number, either solo or in group participation, is presented.” It was kind of an American Idol home edition in the Glenn Miller era. And proving that wholesome Iowa projects make a difference, Halloween vandalism calls dropped in half by the mid-1940s. (A social scientist may quibble that sending most of the young men off to fight in World War II may have had something to do with lower crime rates, but let’s not interrupt the story.)

Ever since, it seems that most Iowa kids naturally learn the call-and-response structure from the first time they dress up like Winnie the Pooh and go out in the cold. It’s all part of learning the local vernacular.

Like understanding what a “squinnie” is. I’d never heard this term for a chipmunk/ground squirrel before coming to Iowa, and I still haven’t tracked down its origin. But now I say it in conversation, because I’m usually talking to Iowans, and it’s easier than having them pounce on me for saying “chipmunk.”

Shameless promotion of my cute kid on Beggar’s Night.

And we’ve just about gotten used to the board-up-the-windows nature of Iowa’s spring break. In Nebraska, schools had their spring breaks whenever they felt like it. That meant while the Raymond Central Mustangs were sitting through Practical Math, the Parkview Patriots could be out at the lake, thinking that the ice really should be out by the time of spring break.

In Iowa, however, the state shuts down for spring break like a zombie horde is approaching. All schools take it simultaneously, including universities. You really ought to stock up on flour and gasoline right before it hits. The first couple of years we lived in Iowa, I’d try to schedule a meeting, and someone would look at me like a teenage girl scoffing at her parents and say, “That is SPRING BREAK, you know.” I’d say, “For who?” And they’d say, “For Iowa.” I still have a hard time closing my magazine each March because it goes to press right around spring break, and sure as tenderloins are delicious, that means half the staff is taking the week off.

I’ve learned to plan around it, just as I’ve started storing up Beggar’s Night jokes for future outings:

Why did the squinnie leave his winter coat at home?
Because the weather beacon was glowing red.

Trust me; if you were in Iowa, that would be hilarious.

Posted by: trevormeers | October 27, 2012

Google’s War On Dragons

I’m conflicted over Google Trekker, a new venture that will let users sit at their desks and feel like they’re actually descending the Bright Angel Trail into the Grand Canyon. Google—who, along with Apple, now holds exactly all of the world’s money—is outfitting crews with gonzo backpacks full of cameras and GPS receivers and sending them on hikes into America’s most incredible backcountry. (This job, which you can see in action here, was not the kind of internship opportunity presented to me back in the day.)

When it comes online, I’ll be among the first virtual hikers to try Google Trekker. But there’s a part of me—the part that ignores trail maps posted near parking lots—that isn’t so sure this represents progress.

All hikers juggle information and discovery. We like the mystique of wandering into the unknown, fate as our guide. But we tend to give this up once we do things like get married, have children and generally put a higher priority on coming home alive. So we call park rangers. We buy topographical maps and savor poring over them all winter, picturing ourselves in that canyon right there only three months from tonight.

Guidebooks take the beta (hiker-speak for info) one level deeper, representing a goldmine to some; a nasty spoiler to others. Many of my walkabouts into the Utah inferno have been guided by a Dante named Michael Kelsey, self-publisher of numerous hiking guides to the Colorado Plateau. I’ve stared at countless photos of him in some hidden canyon, wearing short-shorts and high-top basketball socks. A few months later, I have a picture of myself in the same spot, but with longer pants. Kelsey’s a free spirit, as you’d expect from a guy who spends most of his time wandering canyons alone. Convinced that America is about to go metric, for example, he uses only kilometers so that he doesn’t have to revise all his guides in the future.

The Metric Master of the Backcountry surveys a pictograph panel in this shot from Kelsey’s website.

Even so, his books are stunning in their detail. With his instructions, you’ll actually find the specific rocks to use as handholds when scrambling out of a canyon you’ve never visited before. This has earned him a spot in practically every backpack in southern Utah. (In the movie 127 Hours, James Franco photocopies a Kelsey book before his ill-fated journey to Blue John Canyon.) It’s also earned Kelsey some haters who think he’s made it too easy to penetrate the empty places on the map. To some backpackers, he’s the guy who takes the fun out of discovery and goes around blabbing the location of the secret fishing hole.

But I’ve practically worn out my copy of Kelsey’s San Rafael Swell guide. I usually go out with groups—most often intermediate to novice backpackers. And when you play guide, you can’t afford to get people hurt, lost or generally disappointed with how they spent a week of vacation. Just as good lawyers never ask a courtroom question unless they already know the answer, a guide dislikes surprises. “Adventure,” one explorer once said, “is just another word for poor planning.”

When I first took a group into Utah’s Coyote Canyon, I spent days trying to determine whether we could exit up the rock face just below the natural arch. I flew up and down its face on Google Earth. I interviewed a ranger about its difficulty, then called back a few days later hoping a different ranger would answer the phone so I’d get a second opinion. If we committed to the canyon and couldn’t get up the rock face, it would mean an extra three or four hours of hiking as the sun went down.

When we actually got our first glimpse at the rock face, I was immediately relieved. It looked half as tough as I’d feared. At least to me. One guy locked up during the climb, and another later said, “I was really questioning your judgment there for a while.” But we did make it up without any real trouble. Homework validated.

With Google Trekker, such outings will be less of a gamble since I’ll be able to preview the trail at my desk between meetings. As a sometime guide, that means peace of mind.

But as a sometime adventurer, that means a loss. Five-hundred years ago, mapmakers would punt when they came to drawing the part where no one had ever been. They’d sketch in some squiggly waves and a little cartoon and write, “Hic sunt dracones” (“here be dragons”). Satellite photography, Kelsey and Google Trekker have all grown powerful enough to leave dragons almost nowhere to hide. And while I don’t want to get eaten by a dragon anymore than the next guy, I do like the idea that they’re yet lurking somewhere in those places that we’re still just guessing at.

Posted by: trevormeers | October 15, 2012

I Go Out Runnin’, After Midnight

Disclaimer: Just because Dean Karnazes makes something sound fun, one should not assume it actually is.

Karno has made a career out of running painfully long distances (like 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days) and making it all seem like a jolly lark. One of his signature tales has him running through the night, working up a big hankering for some calories. Karno dials up a local pizza joint on his cell phone and tells them to meet him at an upcoming intersection in 30 minutes. Then, with the box balanced in one hand and a slice in the other, he keeps plugging on, refueling on ‘za as the miles slip away.

Most of us mortal runners, on the other hand, do well just to sip water at aid stations without sucking it up our noses, gagging or whacking volunteers in the nose as we toss away the half-empty cup. But running through the night…now that’s a taste of the exotic that every weekend warrior should enjoy at least a few times before they retire to water aerobics. I’ve gotten into night runs only recently, as duty required. Multi-day relays inevitably require each runner to do at least one nocturnal leg, and these inevitably are the finest parts of the race.

A recent Friday night found me limbering up for a midnight run in the parking lot of a church somewhere west of Lexington, Kentucky. It was one of those pseudo-Grecian brick Baptist structures graced with a white steeple, a form of Southern architecture outnumbered only by tobacco barns and Waffle Houses. An evening rain left the asphalt parking lot glistening in the light of a sign announcing a revival with “Bro. Tom Reynolds.” Right now, only runners were filling the church lot at a time of night when no good Baptist was out unless there was a youth group lock-in.

I stood on the crowd’s edge, waiting by the highway in a yellow vest, a headlamp and a blinking red light attached to the back of my head. One-by-one, other headlamps bounced their way up the highway toward the church. My job was to spot the light that belonged to my teammate Gayle, whom I’d met about 24 hours earlier. This meant sorting through a lot of pony tails wearing headlamps before I picked Gayle out on her approach to the transition area.

At first she tried to hand our team wristband to another tall guy with a blinking red head, but then she recognized me, handed off the band and sent me off toward the town of Stanford, about 7 miles away.

Out in the night, it seemed like a scene lifted from a Ken Burns documentary. Fog pooled heavily in the valleys. The full moon slipped in and out of the ragged clouds like a face peeking through torn curtains. For most of an hour, I chased an island of LED light a few feet out front, forever fleeing toward Stanford. Motivation came in the form of any red light blinking ahead, marking a runner I could try to overtake. I caught a few, passing them with the universal “Nice job” that runners use to show there’s no one-upmanship intended by running a little faster. A few passed me, offering the same olive branch. I never did get close to the guy with a blue light flashing a half-mile ahead. I labeled him “Blue Light Special” as I ran and finally lost sight of him in the quiet streets of Stanford.

A night like this in a place like this naturally tends to toy with the hairs on the back of your neck. The South is crawling with back story, since every holler, creekbed and ancient tree was probably the scene of some kind of duel, feud or Civil War battle. When the flashing lights all stretched out along the road, each runner was left on an island, and I remembered Faulkner’s observation that in the South, “the past is never dead; it isn’t even past.”

Before long, I came to the mouth of a driveway spilling out into the highway like a culvert meeting the creek. As my pool of light sped past the opening and I followed shortly behind, I barely noticed the drive. Then a voice from the dark said, “Good luck to you now.” I looked left and saw a man in a beard standing in the gravel drive. I nodded and said “Thanks” and kept running.

I suppose it should have given me more of a start, having a man speak out from the foggy night when I expected nothing but mailboxes on my left. But it didn’t even make me jump. It just felt like having a little company out in the middle of a midnight run.

Posted by: trevormeers | October 4, 2012

My Life As A Grammar Cop

Nobody likes a grammar cop, boy-o. Get that through your head now, before you even think of putting on the badge and slipping a brand new red pen into your holster. You may think you’re a hero, out there saving the city from awkward sentences and confusing signs. But the public? They don’t see it that way.

To them, you’re a fussy know-it-all. The guy who makes everyone nervous whenever they have to send you an e-mail or a Christmas letter. So before you hit the street and proofread your first billboard, son, keep this in mind: Grammar cops are at their best when no one notices they were there. Fact is, we’re a lot like Batman, saving the city from itself while hardly a soul notices. We’re Dark Knights of the Syntax, only without rock-hard abs and the cool car.

A classic moving violation. I nailed this guy and his misspelled door info out by the state line.

It’s taken me a lot of years to figure all that out, going all the way back to my first bust. What was the first one, you ask? Oh, it must’ve been when I was about five. My dad was a grammar cop before me. My mom was a Scrabble champion. So I came from the womb watching for rogue words. Dad would set me on his knee and say, “Adjectives are leeches in the pond of prose, buddy. They cost me a partner; don’t let them sneak up on you.”

One day, I noticed a sticker on my brother’s crib that said, “Pull lever towards foot of bed.” Towards? I was shattered. Did adults really talk that way? Was there anyone out there I could trust? I grabbed a crayon and crossed off the s, and I guess I’ve been on the beat ever since.

Everybody out there gripes that grammar cops only pull them over because we have a quota to make. Case in point: I’m listening to sports talk radio and hear the host say, “They need to get a Dwight Howard before the trade deadline.” Twenty minutes later, I’m down at the station writing a citation, telling him, “There’s only one Dwight Howard, sir. There’s no other free agent out there that can be realistically compared to him. So they can’t go get ‘a Dwight Howard.’” He grumbles and says, “Since you’re pulling me over for this, I’m assuming you’ve caught everyone out there who has a subject/verb disagreement?”

I try to explain. I don’t need any quota to be pulling people over. It’s not a matter of whether I can find a subject/verb disagreement to pull over. It’s which one is the worst. I let 10 go by everyday, just so I can find the big one.

Just in case you don’t see how serious the threat is, consider this: I found this flagrant infraction on a vending machine in the break room of a company that’s in the COMMUNICATION business. Great googily-moogily.

But waiting on the big offenders isn’t easy. If I let the little violations walk, then how can I call myself a protector of the language? I don’t play favorites, and that can cost a guy. About 10 years ago, I busted a local politician. He waltzed into a restaurant and said, “I’ll take two Nacho Supremes.” I threw him on that counter and had him cuffed before he knew his nose was pressed against the Formica (cap that word, son; it’s a trademark). He wanted to know what he did. I said, “You don’t put a plural on an adjective in my town, mister, no matter who you are. You order ‘two Nachos Supreme’ or you take it somewhere else.” That one almost cost me my red pen. And it did earn me a year of hard time editing the junior-high newspaper. But guess what? I’d do it again. A stylebook’s not much good if it only applies to the little people, I say.

Do we grammar cops ever look the other way? Sometimes, when you know it’s for the better. English is an evolving language; they taught us at the academy. So am I going to wreck the future of some eager young teacher who tells a classroom, “That’s something I won’t put up with”? Technically, that’s a violation. But nobody says, “That’s something up with which I will not put” just to avoid a preposition at the end of a sentence. At least not the kind of people I want teaching my kids. So sometimes, I keep the pen in the holster and keep walking.

A long time ago, I realized it would’ve been better to work undercover all these years. It wears you down when in every class session your entire life you hear professors worrying that the editor in the room is probably picking their PowerPoint slides apart. But what I am supposed to do? Act like there aren’t five different spellings of the same word and incomplete sentences on every slide?

Can’t do it, any more than I can let any of the classics get by me. If I run into you on the street, know this: You’ll never get away with a few things as long as there’s ink in my pen:

Is it too much to ask that a restaurant know that “muscles” are in your body and “mussels” come from the ocean?

Nothing can be “totally destroyed.” It’s either destroyed or it’s not.

If you have a meeting every six months, it’s “semi-annual” not “biannual.”

Steam was not literally coming out of his ears, and you were not literally blown away. In fact, let’s just leave “literally” out of every conversation; I haven’t met a civilian yet who can handle that word properly.

“Irregardless” makes no sense; let it go.

If you say, “I could care less,” it means you actually do care. Try, “I couldn’t care less” once in awhile.

Nothing is “pretty unique”; unique says it all.

And unless you’re really upset with an idea, you “flesh it out,” not “flush it out.”

I know what you’re thinking. It must get old, all that running around fixing every sign and conversation you run into. It might seem that way to you. But someone in our society has to care about the details, even if everyone else feels like the grammar cops are literally driving them nuts.

Posted by: trevormeers | September 25, 2012

The Pirate of Autumn

We can give Steve Sabol the credit for making generations of men feel tougher thanks to the simple act of breathing.

Not just any breathing, of course. But slow, purposeful exhalations on days when a man’s breath rolls from his nostrils like the venting of some furnace smoldering within a leviathan intent on breathing fire down on everything in its path.

If that sounds a little overwrought, then you must not be a fan of Steve Sabol and the brand of sports documentaries he produced over several decades of running NFL Films with his father, Ed. The junior Sabol passed away a couple of weeks ago at the age of 69, and knowledgeable football fans across the nation began mourning one of the greatest makers of legend that America has known.

What John Ford did for John Wayne, Sabol did for football. He was the man behind all those classic NFL movies in which everything takes place in ultra slow motion, the narration is always in John Facenda’s godlike tones and, of course, it’s generally 10 below so that the players’ very breath becomes a character as it billows over the line of scrimmage. That was the look everyone one of us could replicate as kids, even those of us who went to tiny schools where the only football helmets were props in the drama closet. We didn’t need a stadium, a team or even a football to create our own Ice Bowl effect. We could go out at night and stand on that thin edge where shadow meets yard light. Finding just the right spot, we’d silhouette ourselves and slowly breathe out, painting the perfect image of a hero who scoffs at the elements.

Some have called Sabol the most influential man in the history of the NFL, thanks to his films’ ability to lionize the league during its ascendency in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. His dramatic scripts became so iconic, in fact, that phrases like “the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field” have entered the pop culture. Only thing is, no one ever uttered that tundra line in a Sabol film. But just like phrases that people think must come from the Bible, even if they don’t, the frozen tundra has gone down as something Sabol must have written for Facenda to say. Because, really, who else could have?

NFL Films painted a world irresistible to fans craving the kind of adventure that daily life rarely provides. The films delivered a decisive verdict in every installment, free of the gray ambiguity that haunts so many workaday lives.

In Sabol’s universe, there was never a simple football play. Instead, as the quarterback walked ever so slowly toward the line of scrimmage, Facenda announced that “an entire season’s work rests on a single play.” Every spiral pass took long minutes to complete its flight, soaring over the field as 22 men skirmished below, the camera ignoring their clashings until it followed the ball into a receiver’s hands. The music was unapologetically cinematic. Even today, when the production of most TV football games could leave you thinking you stumbled into a dance party, NFL Films laid down a soundtrack that would fit a submarine movie as easily as a sporting event. Even the groundskeepers had jobs laden with drama, what with the grass clippings flying from their mowers in super slo-mo and the painter spraying the lines of battle onto the grass. I’ve never wanted to chalk a line so badly as when watching NFL Films.

Sabol wrote something of his own eulogy when he said of John Facenda, “John may have made a game seem more important than it was because he read lines with a dramatic directness.”

True, but it was Sabol’s words that Facenda voiced, and Sabol’s images that Facenda narrated. One of Sabol’s greatest classics was the following poem he penned as a tribute to the autumn wind that scours gridirons from the Pee Wee fields in the suburbs to Lambeau itself. It’s a fitting tribute, a perfect example of Sabol’s knack for making us feel like even a September walk around the neighborhood is an epic battle with a willfull force of nature promising to raid every village it happens upon. And for that, all of us average guys can say thanks to Steve Sabol with all the passion of a linebacker filling the sky with the hot breath of competition.

(If there just haven’t been enough goosebumps in your day so far, you can hear John Facenda himself reading the poem here.)

  • The Autumn Wind is a pirate
    Blustering in from sea
    With a rollicking song he sweeps along
    swaggering boisterously
    His face is weather beaten
    He wears a hooded sash
    With his silver hat about his head
    And a bristly black moustache
    He growls as he storms the country
    A villain big and bold
    And the trees all shake and quiver and quake
    As he robs them of their gold
    The Autumn wind is a Raider
    Pillaging just for fun
    He’ll knock you ’round and upside down
    And laugh when he’s conquered and won.
Posted by: trevormeers | September 11, 2012

The People’s Race

Team 4206 (having known each other for about 20 minutes) heads to the starting line.

A Tri Tat belongs in that category of decorations that demand a certain amount of achievement before wearing. Just as with a paratrooper’s bloused pants or an actual rodeo trophy buckle, you don’t want to be the person caught wearing the temporary number tattoo from a triathlon before earning it. Yet at 5am on a weekend morning, I was pressing the number 4206 just below my shoulder in preparation for the Hy-Vee Triathlon, one of the richest triathlons on the American semi-pro circuit. It made me more than a little self-conscious knowing that while the bike and run legs were right in my wheelhouse, I’d be lucky to swim four laps in the pool at the local Y. Fortunately, in this triathlon, I wouldn’t have to.

When we arrived at the race’s hub, Gray’s Lake near downtown Des Moines still lay mostly shrouded in night. But I could make out the glowing stern light of a boat that was dragging an inflatable buoy across the lake, marking the swim route. I wasn’t afraid to admit it out loud: I was glad I didn’t have to go out there.

The masses take to the water.

That job fell to Khristy, the designated swimmer on our triathlon relay team. Lori would anchor us on the 6.2-mile running leg, and I’d hold down the middle on the 24.85-mile bike ride. Our squad wasn’t exactly assembled Dream Team-style with victory in mind from the ground up. We’d met each other for the first time the day before after being randomly thrown together when each volunteered at work to participate in the relay.

The relay division, as far as I can tell in my first year at this race, has revolutionized the Hy-Vee Triathlon. The race’s elite divisions include some of the world’s best semi-pro triathletes, as well as the premier pros, including all six of the mens’ and womens’ medalists from the London Olympics two weeks earlier. Then come the weekend warriors—average joes and janes stretching their personal limits to finish a tri. Finally, there are the relay teams, 300 strong this year, filled with people seeking something like the tapas menu of triathlons, trying a taste of the action without getting weighed down with the full portion.

This is Tri Guy, who is generally unamused by amateurs.

As roughly 3,000 of us waited by the lake for the swimmers to start the day, it become obvious that I was on strange new ground. Ground occupied by the different breed known as Triathlon Guy. In the starting chute of the running events I’m used to, there’s not much intimidation in play. A few runners look leaner than the rest, but in the gear department, we’re all pretty much there in shoes, shorts and digital watches.

Tri Guy, on the other hand, rolls in with enough high-tech toys to outfit Batman’s fitness program. With time to kill until the relay bikers headed out, I watched the elites pass through T1, the transition from swim to bike. They jogged beside their bikes to the mounting line, armed in tear-drop-shape helmets that swept down past their shoulders. One guy’s lid had built-in goggles and, for all I know, a holographic targeting system. Their bikes were invariably carbon-fiber and probably weighed less than my iPhone. When they passed on the road, the bikes gave off a hollow hum like some kind of menacing dragonfly.

As the field of elites worked its way out of T1, the commoners began to arrive. “This is the people’s race,” the announcer on the beach had said as the desk-jockey swimmers waded into Gray’s Lake. And now T1 was starting to reflect the egalitarian spirit. The bikes began turning to more average models—models more like the one I ride. I still find it a little strange to think of a $1,000 bike as low-end, but compared to Tri Guy’s ride, you’re rolling in a Hyundai at that price point. By the time the relay bikers started leaving T1, you had pretty good odds of spotting a Schwinn on the race course. I even saw one woman trotting toward the mount line with a commuter’s bag rack bolted above her back wheel.

And here’s our intrepid reporter, wondering how long he can wear the Tri Tat before people start laughing at the office.

I waited in the relay corral for Khristy to jog up from the lake. It would be the third time I’d ever seen her, and, to be honest, I was watching for the 4206 on her arm more than I was hoping to recognize her face. Still, I somehow missed her until I heard someone yelling my name in the crowd inside the corral. Eventually, she found me and handed off the Velcro ankle strap holding our team’s timing chip.

A little over an hour later, I raced into T2, found Lori and handed off the timing chip. On the third and final time I’d see my teammate, I shouted, “Go get ‘em!” and she headed through the inflatable gate labeled “Run Out.”

Before I finished my ride, Teri stood at the cycling finish and watched one of the elites wipe out on his bike right before the dismount line. As he pulled himself off the pavement, the race leader’s wife leaned over the barricade, screaming at the racer, celebrating the crash that gave her husband a bigger lead.

At about the same time, I was out on the road, noticing an outbound rider wearing a giant beard and riding a bike that seemed custom-built for delivering Sunday papers. He was wearing Tri Tats, just like me. Just like the guy whose wife was screaming at the guy picking gravel out of his calf. We won’t all qualify for next year’s elite division, but in the People’s Race, Tri Guy still has to make a little room for the rest of us out on the course.

Posted by: trevormeers | August 28, 2012

Fat-Tire Triathlon

I’m afraid this whole fad will turn out to be almost as flattering as Jazzercise after a few years. In an effort to juice the traditional road running event, creative race directors have dreamed up a variety of wacky “runs” that are proving wildly successful, mainly when it comes to attracting young, white-collar people who have a deep passion for running, provided it’s disguised as a beer commercial.

The Warrior Dash, for example, has swept the nation, offering participants the chance to crawl on their bellies through mud, scale obstacles and leap a line of fire near the finish line (and even nearer to a cameraman taking souvenir photos).

The Spartan race series has struck a chord with desk jockeys who have watched 300 and Navy SEALs a few too many times and pine for a more strenuous existence, provided it’s over by 3pm on Saturday. This race features its own gauntlet of unique obstacles, including dudes who dress up like warriors and bop runners with those big foam batons made famous in American Gladiators.

The Color Run is drawing legions of (mainly female, it seems) runners nationwide with the promise of getting splattered with colored powders throughout the 5K. By the end, everyone looks like a bag of Skittles exploded in their vicinity. I’ve resisted joining a Color Run on principle based on the facts that A) There is no clock kept during the event and B) The race describes itself as a “vat of colored goodness.”

The whole thing clearly seems to have already jumped the shark. Last week, I received an e-mail promoting The Epic Mud Run, which features mud pits, color bombs and zombies that try to grab passing runners. The brochure photo is more crowded than the cast photo from Ocean’s Eleven.

The swag bag’s contents provide the first clue that this isn’t the typical run through suburban boulevards.

But all that’s not to say I’m a total road-race purist. Endless miles of urban streets wear on me as much as the next zombie victim. But I tend to look for variety that’s a little less contrived. That’s why we run the famous Living History Farms cross-country race each November, and why I wound up at the starting line of the Webster County Conservation Department’s Adventure Race in scenic Brushy Creek State Rec Area.

It’s a cozy race, with only about 50 participants in its third year. But the premise of a backcountry triathlon was too much for me to pass up. The route includes a 5K trail run, a 12-mile mountain bike ride and a 1.2-mile kayak paddle to an island and back. Spicing things up would be several checkpoint challenges that “test your brain and fine motor skills, but not too much,” according to the lady at the pre-race meeting.

The race structure was about as relaxed as I would imagine most things are in Webster County. Participants could tackle the three legs in any order they wished. The transition area for your gear would be at the check-in tent—or the kayak beach. Or your car. Wherever. And the participants’ swag bags (a package of freebies mandated for all races under the Geneva Convention), immediately set a different tone. Along with a cool wicking shirt, every racer got a brochure warning against the dangers of poison ivy and a tube of anti-itch cream designed to stop the misery of said flora.

At the starting whistle, it became evident that we’d each spend most of the race in isolation. With three different loops to tackle in order of preference, the pack was scattered. Since you couldn’t usually see other racers, and since nobody was going in the same order anyway, it was impossible to gauge how you were faring. That made it the epitome of the “run your own race” mantra that urges runners to keep their own pace rather than trying to keep up with some gazelle just in front of them.

That speck in the lower-right corner is a lone paddler, headed for the island checkpoint at the tale end of the race.

The checkpoint challenges added a fresh element to the competition. At my first stop, I was asked to identify the string of animal pelts hanging on a fence. (This is probably where a lot of Color Run participants would call PETA and start picketing the conservation board.) After scoring 100% on the first try, I headed down the trail to the next stop, where the goal was to fill a container by carrying water from a nearby stream in a glass with holes in the bottom. Two men sat on horses on the stream’s far side, watching me race between the creek and table, water pouring onto my shoes. For a moment, I pondered how I used to be the guy on the other bank, sneering at the Spandex-clad crowd who clogged up the horse trails. But I didn’t have long to reflect. When I glimpsed up the trail, I spotted Bob, the obstetrician I’d met at the starting line. He was plodding up the dam toward the transition area, threatening to open the gap on me.

I saved the kayaking leg for last, figuring that if I soaked my shoes, I didn’t want a run or bike in front of me. I paddled out to the island, where I found the final checkpoint just uphill from the tiny dock. Two teenage girls waited in lawn chairs and played bird calls on an electronic device. When you got three correct, they stamped your passport and sent you back to the dock.

As I panted up the hill, they pressed play on the first call.

“Whoops,” one girl said. “Sorry, dude. Looks like we ran down the battery. You can listen to our radio while we change the battery.”

“Yeah, I guess” I said, watching another racer paddling away from the dock, headed for the finish.

“Wow,” the other girl said. “This dude’s not happy with us. Better hurry up.”

They got the calls working again, and after I fumbled on the grosbeak, I got a gimmee with a goose call and dashed back to my kayak. The paddle home was a beautiful one, with my boat carving a line through a forest of dead trees rising from the water of the flooded river valley. On any other day, I would’ve floated on the far side of the island for a lazy hour or so. But for all I knew, Bob the obstetrician was barreling down the last stretch of the bike leg, racing me to the finish from some unseen place in the woods. I didn’t have a minute to waste.

Plus, the branches scraping against the bottom of my boat were making me think a little too much about zombies.

Posted by: trevormeers | August 20, 2012

Return to Snowy River

Negotiations began in the afternoon, when I declared we’d have a big-screen movie night thanks to the projector still in my possession from the week’s business trip. Finding a film equally acceptable to a middle-aged guy and an 11-year-old girl proved more challenging than anticipated. Allison proposed the attractive-sounding Star Wars, but we’d just plowed through the original trilogy a few months ago. (I learned that there’s no greater fun than watching a kid cope for the first time with the devastating news about how things really are between Darth Vader and Luke.)

Other options included:

Tangled. Eligible for no more than one courtesy viewing on my part, and that had been used up over the winter.
Hoodwinked. A winner, but we lost the DVD somewhere along the line.
Princess Diaries. Moving on….
True Grit. Just kidding.

Finally, Allison stumbled upon a brilliant compromise: The Man From Snowy River. She had no clue what it was about, but it had a cool horse silhouette on the front, so she was intrigued. The movie had been sitting in shrink wrap since a relative gave it to me as a gift a few months ago, and suddenly, tonight was perfect for its premiere.

The 1982 movie was made on a low budget, about $3.5 million, and somehow made its way to the US, where it sold an impressive $20.7 million worth of tickets.

The Plot: Mountain cowboy Jim Craig is forced to find a job in the low country after a demonic wild stallion kills his father and the mountain people decide Jim hasn’t proven himself worthy of living alone in the hill country. At his new job on a ranch, Jim falls for Jessica, the rancher’s daughter, who—Romeo & Juliet-style—is prohibited by her cattle-baron father from fraternizing with this mountain trash. Meanwhile, Jim carries on a somewhat Ahab-like quest to take down the stallion that killed his father and, not incidentally, assimilated Jim’s favorite saddle horse into the wild herd (known as the “brumbies”). Comedy relief comes from the rancher’s twin brother, who lives in exile at a mountain goldmine and waits for Jim to stop by and ask for life advice.

The film is spectacularly photographed and holds up well three decades later, despite some flaws. The freeze frame on the wild stallion with screeching violins is strictly B-movie. Jessica is portrayed as a spunky lass battling gender stereotypes, but every time she steps out of the ranch house, she requires Jim to rescue her from things like angry horses and mountain ledges. And the dialogue includes some clinkers, like in the final scene when Jim looks at the herd of brumbies and says, “There are 12 good broodmares in that herd. I’ll be back for them—and whatever else is mine.” Then the camera gives us a close-up of Jim’s favorite broodmare, er, Jessica.

Looking back, it’s hard to overstate the impact this film had on my little subculture of horse people back in the ‘80s. Because we were solid fundamental Baptists who avoided movie theaters as if they were Amy Grant concerts, we had to wait for Snowy River to become acceptable entertainment. Namely, that meant the day when it could be viewed on videocassette instead of a movie screen.

At that point, our equestrian lives were revolutionized. Every weekend trail ride we attended was suddenly populated with oilskin dusters and low-crowned Australian hats. Riders with extra cash traded in their Western saddles for Aussie models, which had the cosmopolitan look of an English saddle, but none of the Jane Austen overtones. Aussie saddles were built for work, with honest-to-goodness saddle horns and solid swells that held you in the seat like no Western saddle could. Exotic and tough as a thorn bush; just like Australia itself, it seemed to us.

Even when we weren’t out on the trail, Snowy River was all around us. Every high school girl remotely connected with horses spent her spare hours playing Jessica’s Theme on the household piano. Repetitive as it became, Jessica’s Theme at least freed us from the era’s other high-school girl staple Heart and Soul.

As we spent Saturday night watching a new generation discover Jim and Jess on our basement’s pseudo big screen, I tallied a few key lessons we can learn from this classic.

  1. 1. It always pays to be a good horseman. In his book about Buffalo Bill, Larry McMurtry reminded that we should never underestimate how far a man can advance himself simply by looking good horseback. Jim Craig proves the point all over again. He looks about 15. He’s fairly scrawny. But sitting his horse on a ridgetop, he leaves every audience smitten.
  2. Cowboys aren’t the same as gunhands. The cinematic American West is generally won by men who are good with a sixgun. But in Snowy River, nobody every pulls a trigger (although one ranch hand threatens it when other cowboys are fighting dirty against Jim). Jim gets the girl and gets his favorite horse back simply by being the best in the land with a stockwhip in the backcountry.
  3. High-end actors are worth it. The evil rancher and the jolly miner are both played by Kirk Douglas, a casting coup I can’t explain. I’m sure the Snowy River production budget looked something like this: “Mr. Douglas’ salary: $2.9 million. Helicopter rental: $.3 million. Everything else: $.3 million.” But it was money well-spent, as Douglas owns the screen as both villain and the hero’s wingman.
  4. Old-school stunts still have their place. The film’s climax has a mob of cowboys pulling up short at the edge of a steep hill, afraid to follow the wild horses down. Then comes Jim, ripping past the cowards, leaping over the precipice and galloping down what looks like a 45-degree slope. And it was all real. When Snowy River came out, articles in the horse magazines explained how actor Tom Burlinson really flew down that mountain on a horse, all in one take. When the scene was over, Allison was agape. “That’s crazy!” she said. Digitized robots may be destroying entire digitized cities in every other film right now, but a gutsy guy bombing down a mountain on a horse still leaves them talking.
  5. Romance can wait. At the film’s end, Jim rides off into the mountains, promising to return for his string of horses—and Jessica. As the credits rolled, Allison griped, “I hate this ending. How do we know if he actually makes it back for his horses?”

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