Diary of a Sports Madman

North County 5/4/94

DIARY OF A SPORTS MADMAN

Editor’s Note: Since Jim Campion has been committed to an institution for rehab resulting from last Sunday’s 12 hour marathon in front of the tube watching sports, we present these excerpts from a running diary of a sports madman.

12:35 – They’ve just tipped off at the Garden for Knicks/Nets game two. The comforting tones of Marv Albert’s voice fills my room. The curtains are drawn, the fridge is working, and the answering machine is fired up. There is a remote control in my right hand. I’m coming to life.

12:50 – The Nets are having trouble with the Knicks trap at the key. I’m having trouble dealing with some of the Knicks haircuts. Wait, here comes John Starks into the game. The crowd is on its feet, Spike Lee is psyched; and look at that, he has hair on his head!

1:12 – Devils/Bruins Game one is underway. It looks like people actually showed up at the Meadowlands to watch. Both teams look sluggish after their first-round, seven-game battles. I’m feeling a little sluggish, so I head to the fridge. A bruised apple and a half a carton of milk? This is no way to survive a marathon of sports action! Of all the cruel twisted of fate, why has this befallen me?!

My cat is trying to get my attention by rolling on his back and looking cute. Must be hungry. Well, he isn’t the only one. “It’s play-off time, you ungrateful feline!” I yell at him. “Show some guts!”

1:41 – Mets/Dodgers from Shea Stadium. It looks sunny and warm. Maybe I should step outside, open a window. Too much trouble. Tim McCarver and Ralph Kiner are discussing possibility of a juiced ball this year: “Homers are flying out of ballparks at a record pace, Ralph.” “I don’t care what those Rawlings people say, it’s a lively baseball.” “Do you realize that only two other months in major league history had more home runs hit than this past April?” “I hit a few dingers in my day, Tim, and I’ve never seen a ball jump off a bat like that.” “Perhaps it’s the bats?” Everyone’s bat?” Todd Hundley, who hit 11 homers all last season, smacks his seventh over the right-centerfield wall for a 1-1 tie.

1:47 – Patrick Ewing gets thrown out of the game with a few minutes left in the first half when Derrick Coleman sends him flying with a body block. Ewing looks as confused as I am. Nets look confident. The Garden faithful erupt in derisive cheers. Charles Oakley, shirttail out, bald head gleaming with sweat, is throwing his body around like a stunt man out of control. Knicks go on a 12-2 run to open up a 22-point lead at the half.

2:10 – First period is over in Jersey and it’s 2-1 Bruins. Devils goalie Martin Brodeur looks like a guy who’s tried interviewing Madonna on national television. Phone rings. Machine answers. It’s my mother. “Eat something that doesn’t fit between bread for a change.” My modest kingdom for a sandwich.

2:35 – A pitcher is ripping a 2-run double of Cy Young award winner, Tom Glavine in the Braves/Pirates game. Braves announcer Skip Carey: “Ball’s got to be juiced.”

2:53 – Nets have cut the deficit to six with seven minutes left. The crowd is restless. Woody Allen looks nervous. Alec Baldwin is chewing his fingers. Ahmad Rashad is in the Knicks locker room asking Ewing if he’s upset having been tossed out of a play-off game for being assaulted. There could be another assault. Girlfriend calls. I tell her about The Virus. “You haven’t heard? It was in Time magazine this week.”

3:15 – Bruins goalie Jon Casey is standing on his head. The Devils are going to lose. The Nets make it a Jersey Double and go down to the Knicks. Ahmad looks like he survived. The Bulls/Cavaliers game is starting up. There’s a knock on my door, something about a little car trouble, and he needs to use the phone. I remember “A Clockwork Orange” and ignore him.

3:18 – Todd Hundley hits his eighth home run of the year. McCarver: “What do you have to say about that, Ralph?” Kiner: Get Rawlings on the phone.”

4:20 – Yanks/Athletics are in the second inning out in Oakland. Melido Perez is giving up ropes to some guys named Scott Brosius and Mike Aldrete. I can read Buck Showalter’s lips: You can’t win them all, get me a Sanka.”

4:47 – Braves lost to the Pirates for the fifth time in six tries. I though they were supposed to be the ’27 Yankees. I’m nursing my last bag of stale Doritos, and I can’t find a single celebrity in Chicago Stadium. I can’t find any Cavaliers either. Bulls are up 12. Michael Jordan is yawning.

5:17 – The Yanks are down. Tony Kubek is wondering why no one has told Mike Stanley that the ball is juiced. He’s hitting .150. My cat is trying to get my attention by rolling on his back and looking cute. Must be hungry. Well, he isn’t the only one. “It’s play-off time, you ungrateful feline!” I yell at him. “Show some guts!”

5:46 – The Bulls finish off the Cavs and go up two games to none. The big highlight was when Bulls coach Phil Jackson was caught with a walkman singing “Truckin’” in the third quarter. Warriors/Suns game two is underway from Phoenix. Charles Barkley is screaming at a referee already and we’re only 30 seconds in. I point out to my cat that that is the type of resolution I expect from him. He darts outside in obvious disgust.

6:15 – The Mets win. The Yanks are fading. Steve Howe is on the mound and I sense trouble. I hear a basketball being dribbled in my driveway. I pull back the curtains to see my cat practicing slam dunks on my hoop. He looks at me and smiles. I think I’m losing it.

7:45 – It’s 15 minutes to the start of the Ranger second-round series with the Washington Capitals. No food, a cat that has mastered a death-defying reverse slam, and a machine full of messages from people who are convinced I’m dead. I’ll never make it through May.

10:36 – Rangers win! I have crossed beyond the thin line of reality for sure. I could swear I saw Mike Keenan smile.

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Mickey Mantle’s Last Victory – James Campion’s look at Mantle’s fight with alcoholism.

North County 3/23/94

THE MICK’S LAST VICTORY

Mickey MantleMickey Mantle, baseball icon and hero of millions, is an alcoholic. He’s been an alcoholic most of his adult life; a life spent in the public eye. Mantle’s name has been synonymous with long homers and fast living. He recently admitted to being a victim of this very common and deadly disease by entering the Betty Ford Clinic for Substance Abuse. At 63 years of age, The Mick has had enough.

The most celebrated athlete of the Baby Boomer generation, Mantle has made three times the money signing his name, or making appearances than he ever did playing the game. From the spring of 1951, when he was a fresh-faced kid from the wheat fields of Oklahoma, to this day, no athlete has captured the reverence of baseball fans like the Commerce Comet. This humble cry for help has already echoed through the community of his faithful everywhere.

Hopefully someone is listening.

There is always the age-old argument that athletes have a responsibility to be the best role models possible, mainly because most sports fans start so young. This topic has surfaced again with NBA stars now that basketball is the game of choice for today’s kids. But in the 50s’ and 60s’, when Mantle was building his considerable legend, baseball was the nation’s passion. Every kid wanted to be #7. In 1956 he was the Triple Crown winner, the best player on the planet, and fast becoming an addict.

Mickey didn’t do much talking then, his actions on the field spoke louder than words. His actions off the field had a voice as well. Just not as loud. Turning away from his life inside a bottle of booze should be his most vociferous act. Although I do not believe being a world class athlete puts you in charge of the youth of America, or bestows the responsibility of becoming a walking billboard for alcohol intolerance; an icon recovering from harmful vice puts him in a position to help others. Many others.

Alcoholism is a pitch that Mickey Mantle, owner of 536 career home runs, could not handle. He was not a god after all, but a man, a man with a problem. A man with a problem he no longer wishes to endure.

Hopefully someone is listening.

All those kids who grew up with The Mick are now approaching middle age, with kids of their own, facing similar decisions about social behavior. Mantle came from an era when it was expected of a baseball star to frequent the many watering holes of their town. Throwing back a few with the boys was not only accepted as normal manly behavior, it was expected. Mickey, and teammates Whitey Ford and Billy Martin could be seen whooping it up anywhere from Toot Shur’s famous jock lounge to the trendy glitz of the Copacabana. Sometimes it was a few laughs, other times it was brawls, and cops, and ugly headlines.

Five years ago Martin died when a pickup truck he was allegedly driving from a bar ended up in a ditch. Ford is still battling. Mickey just lost his 26 year-old son, Billy, whom he named after his best drinking buddy. He died of an apparent heart attack in a detox center for substance abuse. Mantle did not want to end up in a ditch, or battle with Whitey anymore. He buried his son, but perhaps he can help prevent it from happening to another man’s son.

Hopefully someone is listening.

It is a fact that beer companies are the most powerful influence on professional sports today. Their advertising dollars allow networks to pay billions to carry these sports to the public. The owners turn around and dish a hefty portion of that bundle to their rich superstars. Every ball park, stadium, and arena hawks beer from vendors on up to those monstrous ads that line the walls of these places.

A couple of years ago the networks were preparing to scramble signals so that satellite dish owners around the country would eventually have to go through a pay-per-view process to watch an out-of-town game. About half those dish owners happen to be bars, whose Sunday business during football (gambling) season might fall off. No games, no drinking. The beer companies threatened to pull sponsorship. The games stayed.

It is in the face of that type of power and influence that Mantle must educate his fans on the dangers of alcoholism. Some studies have found that more people each year die from alcohol-related incidents than die of cancer, aids, or illegal drugs. Alcoholism is a pitch that Mickey Mantle, owner of 536 career home runs, could not handle. He was not a god after all, but a man, a man with a problem. A man with a problem he no longer wishes to endure.

Mantle doesn’t suddenly become responsible for the frailties of his fans. Just because he has made his mistakes in public does not mean he must answer for the dangers of alcohol; but by simply being a beloved celebrity of so many sports fans everywhere he should tell his story. He should tell it over and over again. He spent his life telling humorous stories of his exploits on the town. Now that his drinking life has nearly beaten him down, he can rebuild by talking about the other side.

It would be his greatest triumph.

Hopefully someone is listening.

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Phil Rizzuto enters the Hall of Fame ‘s celebration of the Scooter’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

North County 3/2/94

SCOOTER ARRIVES: BETTER LATE THAN NEVER

Phil Rizzuto was voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame by something called the veteran’s committee last Friday. It was a nice gesture by a group of peers righting sportswriter wrongs, and it arrived about 30 years late.

However, the absence of this honor never made the ever-popular Yankee great bitter or resentful. Since 1941 he has served the New York Yankees and the game of baseball with grace and humor, from champion shortstop, league MVP, to enthusiastic broadcaster.

Every season I inevitably meet up with “The Scooter” in the Stadium press box for a chat. Although our paths cross nearly every trip, just getting to him for a few minutes is no easy task.

One game alone could bring streams of fans wanting an autograph or a photograph with him. He can often be seen rushing in and out of the television booth between innings trying to accommodate them all; shaking hands and cracking jokes to a myriad of well-wishers, friends, and Yankee enthusiasts.

“I’ve heard talk over the years how the writers kept me out because of my smug attitude over winning all those World Series,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, it was nothing but happiness for me. There was no place I’d rather be than at shortstop and turn around and see Joe DiMaggio standing behind me. I was a happy young man playing in the big leagues for the best team in the world.”

We’ve had several conversations over the years; and even though I cannot seem to sit him down for a formal interview, one particular talk we had two summers ago hit home last week when I heard the news of his entry into baseball’s hallowed roster.

He was standing surprisingly alone outside his booth, staring out at the majesty of the illuminated field, while carefully sipping a steaming cup of coffee. I asked him what I always seem to ask each and every year: After 50 years of service to the game, what keeps him coming back every spring like clockwork?

“Fear,” he answered, with tongue firmly planted in check, but a telling smile showing through. “I’m afraid to try anything else. I couldn’t do anything else, and I couldn’t imagine not being around Yankee Stadium.”

“Doesn’t all the attention form the fans wear you down over the course of the long season?” I probed further. His tanned, wrinkled face cracked with another grin as he straightened his glasses and let out a brisk sigh. “No way,” he snapped, pointing out toward the half-filled park. “These people are just like me, they’re Yankee fans. It’s really the fans that make it worth while.”

“Many of these people never saw you play,” I pointed out. “They only know you as an announcer.”

“When I played, there was always Dimag, and Yogi, and Tommy Heinrich,” he said. “They were the big stars. Even then I was a fan of the Yankees, a fan of baseball.”

I was one of those who’d never seen him play. For me Rizzuto’s voice signified the Yankees. I told him of all the nights I would lie in bed and listen to him toil over every pitch. His voice sliding into monotone depression over a Yankee disappointment, or rise in excitement in a crucial moment.

“I miss doing radio most of all,” he said sadly. “It was much easier to communicate the flow of a game to the fan. I knew that they were in on every pitch, and my inflection could bring them closer to the game.”

After decades with the same team there are some who continue to badger him about being a homer. “I’ll never apologize for rooting for the Yankees,” he continued. “Come on, most everyone watching is a fan anyway. I’ve spent most of my life with this team, my heart always breaks a little with a loss.”

We were interrupted by another Scooter fan, and when he was done pressing the flesh and throwing out the complimentary “Holy Cow!” he turned to me and whispered, “That’s why I do it. I’m a lucky man to be loved by so many Yankee fans. I really don’t deserve it.”

“Do you deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?”

“Look, if those guys want me in, then I’ll be in.”

He forced a smile as he looked once more out at the game unfolding before us. The home team had brought a couple of runs across the plate and he was lost in the moment. “Run, you huckleberry! Get in there! All right!”

And that is why outside the Big Apple not everyone loves the Scooter. Even less so from the sporting press. “I’ve heard talk over the years how the writers kept me out because of my smug attitude over winning all those World Series,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, it was nothing but happiness for me. There was no place I’d rather be than at shortstop and turn around and see Joe DiMaggio standing behind me. I was a happy young man playing in the big leagues for the best team in the world.”

It was then I realized Phil Rizzuto never came in from the infield of his dreams. In many ways he’s still standing out there with Joe D. backing him up; the setting sun disappearing under the grand facade of the legendary stadium. He is still the “happy young man.”

He never did feel a sense of history in it all. It was as if it were still happening every day he walked into the ball park.

“Maybe, I’ll never get in,” he finished up. “Every year when the voting is done, I sit with my son and a bottle of wine and wait. We sit and talk and get a little tipsy, and I eventually get over the disappointment.”

I told him there isn’t a place in this country that should keep Phil Rizzuto out.

“Well, thank you,” he said. “Now I’ve gotta get going and watch the Yanks.”

A happy older man in the big leagues; and now finally in the Hall of Fame where he belongs.

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Muhammad Ali in America 1964

North County 2/23/94

BEFORE THE KINGS: ALI IN AMERICA 1964

Muhammad Ali 2/25/64“I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” -Muhammed Ali February 25, 1964

In the waning moments of Black History Month, it is important to remember a night 30 years ago when the Kid from Louisville, Kentucky stepped into a boxing ring in sweltering Miami, Florida and defeated The Bear, Sonny Liston. For it was in that percise moment that a generation began to thrill to the antics of its “greatest” son. He arrived that night as Cassius Clay, a 22 year-old braggart with razor blade boxing skills, and left as Muhammad Ali, heavyweight champion of the world, an American legend.

“When my generation needed pride, he was it. When we needed victories, he supplied them. He was bigger than life.” -Bryant Gumbel/TV Personality

Four years earlier, The Kid stood on the Jefferson County Bridge in his home town and tossed his Olympic Gold Medal, won in the 178-pound division of the 1960 Games, into the Ohio River. The story goes; earlier that week a transient tried to wrest it from his neck, and the subsequent fight left a disturbing mark on his memory. This act, The Kid said, gave him a new strength and sense of purpose. A metaphoric baptism for a man of peace in the barbaric life of a future prizefighter.

“Years later after Martin Luther King was murdered there was no one to cling to except Ali.” -Reggie Jackson/Baseball Hall of Famer

With less than 20 professional bouts to his credit, The Kid started one of the most relentless campaigns to fight for the heavyweight championship ever attempted. By talking to anyone with a microphone, acting for every camera, and showing up at ringside for every title fight, The Bear was forced to face him. The sheer pomp and will of his personality, as much as his extraordinary talent, put young Cassius at the doorstep of a dream.

“In private, Muhammed was a quiet person. He was always contemplating something. But in front of people he was a magician. He was the most accessible athlete of his era.”-Angelo Dundee/Trainer

The Bear was the most feared boxer of his era. Boxing writers of the time compare his intimidating ringside manner to that of Mike Tyson’s early years. “Sonny Liston was a frightening man,” said journalist Harold Conrad. “He was arrested 16 times, and once beat up an armed cop; even many black fight fans hated his demonic image.” He had a dark image, and an even darker side that put fear into the sport he stalked. Before he agreed to meet The Kid in the ring, he was the one feared by white middle-class America. Only the pomp and will of The Kid would change all that.

“Jackie Robinson is the white man’s hero, but Cassius Clay is the hero of his people.” -Malcolm X/Activist

Flailing about like a lunatic, and braying like a wild banshee, The Kid planted the seed of doubt. He whipped himself into a frenzy. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!”

Boxing authorities threatened to cancel the fight when word leaked through the Miami Herald that Cassius Clay had intended to change his name to Muhammed Ali. He would denounce Christianity and strip his slave name to become a member of the Nation of Islam. The religious sect had caused quite a stir with its growing anti-white, anti-American rhetoric. The promoters were worried about the gate. But despite the controversial socio-political overtones and being an 8-to-1 underdog, interest was swirling around this charismatic young fighter from Kentucky. In the first spiritual decision of many to come, The Kid would not renounce his faith for a taste of boxing glory. Instead, he plowed ahead against the storm, creating a solitary voice in an angry sea of negative press. He said he harbored no hatred toward anyone. His will and pomp won out, the fight was on.

“Ali reinvented the rituals of boxing” -Thomas Hauser/Ali’s Biographer

Flailing about like a lunatic, and braying like a wild banshee, The Kid planted the seed of doubt. He whipped himself into a frenzy. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” he screamed the day of the weigh-in. In front of the Miami Boxing Commission, former champions, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, and hundreds of reporters, he concluded the frantic show with a prediction of an eight-round knockout. After the near riot in the crowded room, the writers gave The Kid little chance. The Bear did not agree. “Only a crazy man wouldn’t be afraid of Liston,” said writer, Robert Lipsyte. “Ali convinced the champ he was entering the ring with one of the craziest.”

“I remember thinking that a dark cloud would fall over young Cassius Clay the night he fought the brutal Sonny Liston.” -David Halberstam/Author

The first three rounds were everything The Kid said they would be. The Bear was having trouble sizing up his quickness; dodging the snapping jabs and the crossing right hand. Cassius Clay had the champion of the world looking like a rank amateur. Between rounds the champ’s cornermen surrounded him. They had decided that the fourth round would be an entirely different story. When it was finished The Kid’s eyes were burning. Someone apparently rubbed an illegal substance on The Bear’s gloves.

Before the bell for the fifth round, The Kid was blind. With stinging tears streaming down his face, he pleaded with his corner to do anything. Angelo Dundee assured the young challenger that if he could ride out the round, the fight was his.

Valiantly, The Kid ducked and weaved his way through it. “Everyone in the place thought Liston would destroy him, even with everything being equal,” said fight doctor Verde Pacheco. “After he survived the fifth, with his sight restored, the sixth round could be no worse.”

The sixth round was all The Kid needed.

“Wait a minute! Sonny Liston is not coming out! The winner and new heavyweight champion of the world is Cassius Clay.” -Howard Cosell/Broadcaster at ringside

Bloody, battered and beaten: The Bear did not answer the bell for round seven. The legend of Muhammed Ali was born. The Kid became a man before he became a champion, and when the boxing world stripped him of his title three years later for refusing to fight in Vietnam because of his religious beliefs, they could never take that away.

He would win the title back. It seemed the great Ali would always win in spite of popular opinion. He would be the model of champion, gold medal or not, championship belt or not.

“If you need to know history, the real story of those before you, then you should go to the library and read newspaper clippings of someone like Muhammad Ali every day, then it might giver you some understanding of the man.” -Alex Haley/Author

Thirty years have passed since that night of February 25, 1964, the day that the most influential athlete of the 20th century made his mark on history.

Shook up the world, indeed.

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New York Jets win Super Bowl III revisits Joe Namath’s famous garuntee.

North County 1/26/94

SUPER BOWL III: SETTING THE STAGE FOR ALL THE REST

A quarter century has passed since the 18-point underdog, New York Jets defeated the Baltimore Colts in the third AFL/NFL Championship Game; the first such a contest to be called Super Bowl. It was the story of the brash, new, and rebellious versus the old, guarded establishment in a time when similar battles outside of sports were commonplace. In the span of an afternoon almost 50 years of pro football history was altered, and by evening everything that had come before would look different.

The Jets represented the upstart American Football League, an alternative pro league that in 1960 challenged the 40-year monopoly of the NFL. The AFL had battled for five years to establish franchises, procure talent, and gain an audience in the shadow of the NFL. It took a bright, shining star to finally burn away the shadows and put the junior league on the map.

In 1965 that star shined on New York Jets owner, Sonny Werblin when he offered the richest contract in the game ($427,000) to potential NFL number one pick, Joe Namath.

Joe NamathAlthough he never saw him throw a pass for the University of Alabama, the showbiz mogul had a hunch that with his piercing good looks and distinct persona, Namath would be just what the AFL’s big market city needed. “The star system,” Werblin argued. “is the only thing that sells tickets.”

Jets doctors felt signing Namath would be a risk, with his many knee operations, but Werblin’s marketing instincts and record offer paid off. A year after Namath signed with New York, league attendance rose, and television ratings increased, prompting the NFL to call for a meeting that would iron out a deal to quit their war over talent and franchise rights. Both leagues would merge in 1970 and it was decided that for the four remaining years an annual title game between league champions would be played at the end of each season. “On that day,” said AFL founder, Lamar Hunt. “We established what we wanted, and that was parity.”

Unfortunately, for Hunt, Werblin, and the AFL, the deal did not include mutual respect. The prevailing sentiment among the media, fans, and most insultingly, the NFL players, was that the merger was a big favor for the lesser league. The outcome of the first two championship games seemed to put to rest any doubts of this as Vince Lombardi’s legendary Green Back Packers made short work of the Kansas City Chiefs (35-10) in the first and the Oakland Raiders (33-14) in the second. Lombardi, the man for whom the Super Bowl trophy would be named, felt the NFL had more than adequately proved its case.

By the time Joe Namath led his Jets through a solid 11-3 season and an AFL title in December of 1968, everyone in the football world thought New York would be fodder for the 15-1 Baltimore Colts.

The Jets received the ball first; and on their second play from scrimmage powerful fullback, Matt Snell slammed into Colts safety, Rick Volk. Volk was recognized as one of the toughest tacklers in the pros. “When Rick hits you,” said young Colts head coach, Don Shula, “you might not get up.” This time it was Volk who did not get up.

The Colts finished their season by winning 10 straight with a devastating defense that had broken the NFL mark for the fewest points allowed in a season. Unlike the Jets thrilling 27-24 victory over the Raiders, the Colts destroyed the Cleveland Browns 34-0 in the NFL title game. “This is the hungriest team I ever saw,” said Baltimore’s all-pro tight end, John Mackey. The so-called experts agreed. The Jets, they all said, would have no chance.

Namath seized the moment. Upon arriving in Miami, the man the media dubbed, “Broadway Joe” ripped the Colts’ defense for being “predictable and easy to deceive.” He told the eager press that although Colts quarterback, Earl Morrall did a bang up job winning the Most Valuable Player honors in the NFL, he would have had a hard time cracking the top five signal callers in his AFL. Then, on the Thursday before the big game at a dinner honoring him as the AFL’s MVP, Namath stood at the podium and boldly announced, “We’re going to win Sunday, I guarantee you.”

The Colts, many of whom had already spent their winner’s share, wanted nothing better than to embarrass New York and their loudmouthed quarterback. Jets head coach Weeb Eubank, having led the Colts to an NFL crown ten years earlier, reminded his team that many of them were once considered “not good enough” for the NFL. “Now you have the opportunity to show them otherwise,” he told them.

At 3:00 PM on January 12, 1969, the long-haired wild bunch from the Big Apple and the God-fearing crewcuts from the working class town, stood 53 yards across the great divide of respect.

The Jets received the ball first; and on their second play from scrimmage powerful fullback, Matt Snell slammed into Colts safety, Rick Volk. Volk was recognized as one of the toughest tacklers in the pros. “When Rick hits you,” said young Colts head coach, Don Shula, “you might not get up.” This time it was Volk who did not get up.

The story of Super Bowl III had begun.

The Colts spent much of the first quarter self-destructing on offense. Interceptions, missed field goals, and busted plays left the game scoreless; and more importantly, with 14:09 remaining in the half, left the door of opportunity open for Namath to back up his words.

Starting from the 20-yard line, Namath handed to Snell three times for a first down. The Colts front line, anchored by the ferocious Bubba Smith, squeezed in tighter, allowing the Jets QB to pass for short but solid gains to wide receiver, George Sauer. Suddenly, for the first time in the game the Jets were in Baltimore territory. The Colts looked angered and confused, the Jets fluid and efficient. “Standing in that press box and watching Namath unravel the NFL myth,” remembers veteran broadcaster, Howard Cosell, “was a thing to behold.”

A quick 12-yard pass to Snell moved the Jets to the Colts 9-yard line. Baltimore’s madman linebacker, Mike Curtis screamed at his defense. Snell ran for five more. Across the field in the stands Lamar Hunt clapped his hands in excitement. Shula clenched his fists in bemused anger. Snell ran for four yards and a touchdown. The Jets were ahead, and never looked back.

For most of the second half Namath played the befuddled Colts defense like a virtuoso, leading to three Jim Turner filed goals. Down 16-0 Shula called on the injured but lengendary Johnny Unitus to save the day as he had countless times over a then stellar13-year career; and with the a little over three minutes left in the game, the Colts scored their only touchdown. But it was way too little, and far too late.

“I stood in the Orange Bowl with tears of joy streaming down my face,” said Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson. “All of us in the league won that game, and underdogs everywhere could feel good that afternoon.”

The AFL is gone now, but 25 Super Bowls later the memory still lingers. Sometimes in sports like in life, it takes years to gain respect. Sometimes it only takes an afternoon.

Books by James Campion are available on this web site or at Amazon & Barnes & Nobleclick to order

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Four Quarters to Four Downs – Yorktown Football vs. Gorton Football 1993 Section One Championship

North County 11/10/93

FOUR QUARTERS TO FOUR DOWNS

It was a cold, brisk Saturday night at Somers High School; the field that would play host to the Class B Section One High School Football Championship of New York. The crowd was large, the lights were bright, and the stakes were high. For the winner, a trip to the first-ever state play-offs. For the loser, a trip home.

Ron Santavicca’s Yorktown Cornhuskers had seven wins and one loss. Don Dematteo’s Gorton Wolves had seven wins and one loss. Two fine coaches of two great teams playing four quarters of the most heart-stopping football either one had ever seen. Two best friends, about as close as could be, on separate sidelines, 50 yards apart. Each one trying keep the other from moving on.

Forty-eight minutes had elapsed and both teams had 28 points. Two close friends, two great teams; dead even on the season, dead even on the scoreboard.

The Yorktown bench exploded; fists clenched and faces contorted in screams of motivation. Santavicca now looked to his defense.

The long summer of drills and practice, the weekly battles on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons, the half-time speeches, the blackboard sketches, the fumbles and touchdowns; the highs and lows of six months of preparation for a right to play in this game. Four quarters played. Nothing had been decided.

Four downs for each team from the ten-yard line. Something called a Kansas City shoot-out. Eight downs to decide a season. Two friends. Two teams. Ten yards.

Gorton won the toss of the coin and DeMatteo elected to let Yorktown go first. If they could make it, Gorton would be able to equal the task. If they didn’t, the task would be at hand.

Across the field, DeMatteo looked almost serene, clad in green and clutching his clipboard with both hands; his defense forming a circle around him to listen for final instructions. Gazing down the yard-marker stripe, Santavicca looked coiled and ready — as if he were going into the contest at that very minute. Wearing his lucky shorts and jacket with a baseball cap pulled tightly to his head, he paced back and forth before addressing his converging troops.

The Yorktown offense jogged back onto the frozen turf, led by Brett Sowka, their capable, left-handed, senior quarterback, with enough skills to already have brought his team back twice in this game. Once in the first half, after trailing by 14, and once in the final quarter down by seven.

The first two plays would not be enough, and with two shots to go and three yards to pay dirt, Sowka scrambled over the left side of the Yorktown line looking for the end zone.

Instead, he met with two hard-charging Gorton defenders. Down went Sowka’s right shoulder, forward plowed his legs, and across the goal line all three of them fell. No fourth down was needed. Touchdown.

The Yorktown bench exploded; fists clenched and faces contorted in screams of motivation. Santavicca now looked to his defense. Across the field his friend knew that without a solid kicker, and having opted out of point-after tries all night, his offense would either win or lose. There would be only four more downs, and maybe, one more two point try. Either way, the Cornhuskers offense was done for the evening. Victory would now be in the hands of their league-leading defense; the cornerstone of the season, and the reason they were on the field in the first place.

Gorton QB, Jose Cruz had put together a pretty good night himself; passing and running for TDs. But that was all history now. It was four more downs for the title. Three of those downs had left him and his offense one yard short. Then a motion penalty on the left side of the line pushed it back to the six. It would have to be six yards in one play or the season for Gorton was over.

DeMatteo’s sideline was silent and pensive, waiting for a decision one way or the other. Santavicca’s sideline was screaming about “one more play” and how they could call themselves champs and squeeze another game out of the 1993 football season. Somebody turned around with a mile-wide grin and said, “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Time stood still. The crowd started an uncontrollable cheer. Both sides, no matter whom they rooted for, applauded the effort. The officials bit down hard on their whistles and smiled. Yorktown dug in. Gorton snapped the ball.

Cruz started to run to the right of the line looking into the night–into the endzone–for someone in a green uniform. He saw nothing but silver and white. He continued to run. DeMattteo hugged his clipboard tighter. Santavicca wandered further onto the field, closer to the action.

Cruz kept running. Suddenly, he turned up field to the four, the three, but at the two yard-line the Yorktown defense met him. The game was over. No more plays on this night. No more games for Gorton.

Covered with dirt and jubilation, the Cornhuskers spilled onto the field to jump on top of one another. In the excitement of the moment the two coaches, these two friends who entered the coaching ranks on the same year long ago, embraced with tears streaming down their faces. In the midst of the exploding mayhem, in the middle of the field, they thanked each other for this magnificent game, and mostly for the friendship.

DeMatteo took his clipboard home. Santavicca pushed his lucky hat back on his head and headed for another game against an unknown team on a neutral field somewhere far from the electricity of a night that four quarters was not enough for victory. Two friends. Two teams. Four quarters. Seven plays. One great memory.

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The Retirement of Michael Jordan reports on the first time Jordan steps down from the Chicago Bulls.

North County 10/13/93

THE NEW JORDAN RULES

Michael JordanMichael Jordan is tired of being Michael Jordan.

Sports version of Elvis Presley has decided to hand in his celebrity card at the expense of the game he loves. A game that has loved him back, like few games have loved an athlete before. It is impossible to believe anybody could have that kind of love affair with a sport again.

For the last three years basketball’s premier attraction has played no less than 120 games a season, won three titles, and captured his second gold medal, which has apparently capped a career that will leave no doubt who was the greatest talent to grace a professional basketball court. But it was never the game that pushed Michael Jordan around the way the glow of his star has, and in the last few years the backlash of fame has pushed him as far as he will go.

Gambling allegations, celebrity golf tournaments, endless endorsements, and finally, the brutal murder of his father this past summer, has pushed the world’s most recognizable personality to retire in his prime.

Since the day he held a basketball in his hand, Michael Jordan has been pushing back. Every challenge has been conquered with that ball in his hand. When the ball was absent, life, was not so simple.

No human being could be that proficient at anything else, have that much control in the outcome of events. Michael Jordan was as close to perfection as any athlete gets between the lines, but real life problems are not the final seconds of a fourth quarter when Jordan would clear the floor, ignore everyone in the jam-packed building, and take charge.

Michael Jordan didn’t become the icon that he is today until well into his pro career as a member of the Chicago Bulls, a mediocre franchise in a league that had been on it last legs until he, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson saved it.

Since the day he held a basketball in his hand, Michael Jordan has been pushing back. Every challenge has been conquered with that ball in his hand. When the ball was absent, life, was not so simple.

As a freshman, he was never the focal point of North Carolina’s 1982 national championship team. Dean Smith was known for coaching teams, not players; and even though it was young Jordan’s jump shot that sealed the win in the final seconds of the final game of the season, his stock seemingly failed to rise when two years later the Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers passed him up in the NBA draft.

Jordan won the Rookie of the Year award just the same, turning the act of dunking a basketball into a work of art. How he soared above the crowded lane of giants, disseminating logic of physics, while sliding the ball through the cylinder as if it were an afterthought to his midair ballet.

But those beatific moments paled in comparison to the way he developed into the ultimate compete player. Jordan was a scoring machine, bleeding you with jumper after jumper, only to blow by you off the dribble. Then, when you had the rock, he was as tenacious a defender as the game had ever witnessed.

He was basketball’s Babe Ruth, and as one of the Bambino’s many biographers once told me, “It was as if he had come from another planet.”

Like Ruth, and the century’s most influential athlete, Muhammed Ali, he transcended not only his sport, but the world of sports itself.

But unlike those guys, Jordan calls it quits before the legend outlives the body. In fact, except for Rocky Marciano and Jim Brown, both of whom exited their sport at the pinnacle of excellence, nobody had ever walked away so soon, so good. But Marciano, undefeated in 49 professional bouts, chose to feed off every minute of his celebrity until his untimely death, and Brown, football’s version of Superman, took the first plane to Hollywood and hung his star on the silver screen.

Michael Jordan says he doesn’t want to make movies, or become America’s guest, or sit in a TV booth and stumble through inane analysis of a game he played as if he was imbued with divinity.

No, His Airness is trading in his crown for a golf club and an afternoon with his family. He’s trading in his million-dollar smile for a five-cent laugh with friends.

He walks away, for now. Will he return? I think it’s not as certain as his 15-foot fade away jump shot, but for today, the man will stop being everyone’s expectations of Michael Jordan. He’ll try to find that enthusiastic kid who wanted to take his God-given talent and make a run at a dream.

Then, and only then, will Michael Jordan be back.

For now, he’ll be someone else.

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Reggie White’s free-agent tour of the NFL ‘s analysis on free-agency in pro sports.

North County News 8/17/93

INMATES IN CHARGE

You have to feel for Reggie White. It’s not enough to be the most sought after free agent in the first year of the NFL bidding wars, but he’s currently burdened with attempting to restructure every team that is willing to shell out the big bucks to procure him.

When White blew through Jets’ camp last week, he was hit with the sudden urge to announce that the franchise should go ahead with its proposed trade with Cincinnati to acquire the services of one Boomer Esiason. The next day it was a done deal. On the surface, you might be inclined to view this as a man overstepping the boundaries of decorum, when in essence the guy just was trying to fit into the brand new trend in sport’s etiquette. From the looks of things, the people who sweat for a living are now donning power ties and dictating team policy.

“Athlete Management” is sweeping the New York area. The most influential, and usually the most expensive, player on a local team decides to take over the reigns of command by personal decree.

“Athlete Management” is sweeping the New York area. The most influential, and usually the most expensive, player on a local team decides to take over the reigns of command by personal decree.

Sure, you remember when Rangers’ captain, Mark Messier had philosophical differences with head coach, Roger Nielson. The five-time champion used his clout with Garden management and fans to run Nielson right out of town. Despite the fact that the team was coming off a season where they compiled the best record in the game, it was good-bye and good luck for Nielson.

Who could forget the exploits of Pepper Johnson, who had the bright idea of organizing a coup de tat against Giants’ defensive coordinator, Rod Rust because he and most of the spoiled veterans couldn’t quite get his scheme down. Of course, the simple matter of tackling the opposition with all the ferocity of the Brooklyn Boys Choir was never an issue.

Derrick Coleman spent all of the previous NBA season deciding when he felt like playing because in his mind his coach, Bill Fitch, was a lost puppy, and there would be no use trying for a guy that was headed for the unemployment line. So, when New Jersey Nets’ GM, Willis Reed sent Fitch packing, he asked Chuck Daly to consult with Coleman for approval..

Then of course there was the request that Jeff Torborg quit having all those meetings by the infamous, Vince Coleman. When the Mets’ invisible man led the rest of the team in his mini-revolt they were a few games under .500, and in some semblance of a pennant race. The meetings subsided and the Mets dropped out of sight.

So when you take a step back, you discover that Mr. White is just the new kid on the block trying to assimilate and pitch in for the greater good of the metropolitan sports scene. Apparently, when Reggie returns to talk to the Giants, he plans to address the long lines to the bathroom at half time.

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1993 Phillies ‘s on the scene lockerroom meeting with baseball’s wild bunch

North County 6/16/93

THE 1993 PHILLIES: AS ANIMATED AS THEY COME

Last weekend the first-place Philadelphia Phillies, the team with the best record in baseball, invaded Shea Stadium. I’d been hearing tall tales about this wild bunch; but as often happens in sports, a team is straddled with an animal image by the media that falls far short of its bite. It is always incumbent on beat writers to manipulate that vision of an animated bunch and turn them into a maniacal clan of loons crashing through the league like a band of pirates out of control. But although it sells newspapers and makes for interesting headlines, it is far from anything resembling the truth. So I decided to stop by the visitor’s clubhouse at Shea Stadium before a game to see for myself.

When I approached the door of the place I could already hear music blaring from within. The security guard leaning back on his chair skipped me as a look as if to say, “Are you sure you want to go in there?” But I’d heard loud rock music emanating from a winning clubhouses before, in fact, last year’s Braves locker room could have doubled for the set of Saturday Night Fever. Never mind the inner sanctum of the 1990 Cincinnati Reds when the Nasty Boys were romping their way to a title.

On cue, Kruk leapt to his feet, grabbed a ball, wound up and hurled an out-of-control pitch across the crowded clubhouse. This sent players, reporters and shocked witnesses scurrying for safety.

Once inside I was quickly, if not painfully, able to ascertain that this was no ordinary sound system; unless, of course, I wandered on stage at a Mettalica show. But even though the volume was close to excruciating, I had little trouble picking up the booming voice of catcher, Darren Daulton with amazing clarity.

“How many people are coming tonight?” he asked an unsuspecting clubhouse boy.

“About fifteen, sixteen thousand; I think,” the shaken young man answered meekly. Daulton then stood on a stool in front of his messy locker, a hulking man of 6’2 and 220 pounds, and bellowed. “That’s all that’s showing to see the battlin’ Phils?!”

Suddenly, a breeze blew by my ear. When I tuned to notice, Mickey Morandini, the pesky little second baseman sporting the ugliest goat-tee since Robin Hood, was swinging the biggest bat I’d ever seen just inches from my head. Above the din I could hear him mumbling, “Stay down on the ball” over and over with each swing.

Things were getting dangerous, so I moved to the corner lockers of feisty, Lenny Dyksra and burly, John Kruk; both in different stages of undress. The man they call “Nails”, back when he was patrolling centerfield for the New York Mets, was preoccupied with throwing his clothes in a feverish search for his lucky batting gloves. Where are my batting gloves?” Dykstra began to scream, his face getting more red with anger. “Don’t tell me I made this trip without my gloves?!”

Meanwhile, Kruk was busy entertaining Philly beat writers, who collectively seemed oblivious to this chaos, and spitting what I believed to be huge wads of tobacco from his gruff, portly face anywhere he deemed appropriate. The gregarious first baseman is not your basic finally tuned major leaguer, but a man born to play the lead role in a caveman flick. Yet he leads the National League in just about every offensive category, looking right at home with this biker gang masquerading as a baseball team.

Just then, former Phillies shortstop, and present third base coach Larry Bowa stormed in the scene to address Kruk’s pitching prowess. “Johnny,” he cracked. “Show us that backdoor slider.” On cue, Kruk leapt to his feet, grabbed a ball, wound up and hurled an out-of-control pitch across the crowded clubhouse. This sent players, reporters and shocked witnesses scurrying for safety.

This was about all I needed to see, when out of the back room sauntered Mitch Williams, the man who carries the moniker of “Wild Thing” like a badge of courage. He is an expert closer and a big reason this team is where it’s at in the standings. He also looked as though he’d just escaped from a mental institution. Just like everyone in this room, he has wild flowing hair, a ragged beard and what looked like a headband right out of Rambo wrapped around his sweaty forehead.

“Everybody shut-up!” he shouted. “Let’s play this game already, I’m gonna explode!”

As I was running out of there I could still hear him scream in that high-pitched squeal. “Take no prisoners!” And I couldn’t help thinking of three words of advice for the rest of the National League: Give up now.

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Remembering Jim Valvano ‘s moving eulogy for Jimmy V.

North County 5/5/93

REMEMBERING JIMMY V

Jim ValvanoWhen word came over my car radio last Wednesday that Jim Valvano had succumbed to cancer after a two-year battle that ended in a room at Duke University hospital, I immediately stopped to notice my surroundings. It just so happens that I found myself in a neighborhood much like the one in which Jimmy V grew up. I rolled to a stop across from a school yard where some kids were shooting hoops behind a twenty-foot fence.

As I watched them play, I thought about Jimmy dribbling around a similar school yard years ago. How he put his first shot through the orange cylinder, snapping the net.

How his father, already a successful coach, must have tutored him in the nuances of the game. The hours of practice that turns casual interest into a fanaticism that convinces a young man that life would no longer be worth living without it.

As the cool breeze of the day swept through my car window, I was frozen by the thought of all the impressionable minds a coach or teacher touch by handing down the love and passion for a sport; not just the nuts and bolts of it, but the way it feels to impart the knowledge of experience. To push a little farther ahead than perhaps even the student thinks he may go. To win the battle within, before the battle with the opposition can be won.

What Jim Valvano realized in the last weeks of his 47 years among us is that he had been hugging people all along. After all, isn’t that what teaching is all about? To embrace the eager mind, and mold it into a sculpture that reflects the devotion of their spirit.

In the last two years of his life, Jim Valvano was even better at touching us with his love and passion for life. Basketball was merely his metaphor, a vehicle to make us stand and take notice of his extraordinary personality. He cajoled us to witness his suffering while he smiled and joked his way through endless antidotes the way he always had before cancer had taken hold of his body.

He took on the fight the way he took his North Carolina State Wolfpack miracle team all the way past the powerful Houston Cougars in Albuquerque to win the 1983 National Championship.

It was not only the finest example of coaching in the history of the sport, pro or otherwise, it solidified the NCAA Tournament into the second biggest sporting event behind only the Super Bowl, but what we remember most about that night is the image of him running helplessly around the mass of elated humanity looking desperately for someone to hug.

What Jim Valvano realized in the last weeks of his 47 years among us is that he had been hugging people all along. After all, isn’t that what teaching is all about? To embrace the eager mind, and mold it into a sculpture that reflects the devotion of their spirit.

Books by James Campion are available on this web site or at Amazon & Barnes & Nobleclick to order

It was then that I realized what Jimmy V was saying when uttered, “Never give up,” his rallying cry those last few months. “Cancer can take my body, but it can’t take my mind and my heart and my soul.”

Jim Valvano is gone now, but his soul lives on in every kid who may pick up a basketball, or a bat, or a pencil. And even though they may never know his name, like those kids who were playing just outside my car on that cool spring afternoon, they will pass it on forever.

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