Thursday, April 19, 2018

Rafa



The first time I watched Rafael Nadal play Roger Federer in tennis was in the spring of 2005, which kind of seems like a few lifetimes ago. In the fading light of a Paris evening, Federer and Nadal were grappling toward the end of a tense French Open semifinal.

Federer, from Switzerland, was already the established and beloved champion, trying to fill out the career grand slam by winning the French. He was down two sets to one but digging deep, and the crowd was chanting his name to will him on… “RO-GER! (clap, clap, clap) RO-GER! (clap, clap, clap)” A few months previously, Roger had rallied from down two sets to none to beat Nadal in the Miami Open final, but it had been a grind.

The Spaniard Nadal was the precocious teenager, smashing high-bouncing forehands the seemed to hiss and dive and attack his opponent. He was perfectly suited for grinding clay-court tennis. Once, with Federer at the net, Nadal hammered shot after shot, which Federer kept stabbing back at him. “A shot in the dark,” announcer Mary Carillo said of Federer’s volley winner.

It’s kind of funny what you remember, that all these years later I remember sitting on the couch in my parents’ house, watching that, and the crowd chanting and the color of the clay and Federer at the net in the growing darkness and Carillo’s comment. Nadal went on to win, and take the first of his ridiculous 10 French Open titles.

More than a decade later, after several classic Federer-Nadal matches, I stayed up all night watching the two aging legends battle five riveting sets for the 2017 Australian Open title. I rooted desperately for Federer, like all Fed fans, unable to stand the thought of Roger losing another big match to him.
You see, in all those years of rivalry, Nadal probably became my top sports nemesis. I watched him with a mix of respect and fear, and it was always an event when Nadal was eliminated from a major.

For my friends who saw the animosity up close, it probably seemed fairly ridiculous how passionately I rooted against poor Rafa. I wanted him out of the way for Federer, and to not come near Federer’s records, especially the Holy Grail, most Grand Slam singles titles. It’s like I was a Bond villain, and the lineup of players Nadal faced in tournaments was my lineup of henchmen sent to take him out.

When news of a Nadal injury broke, my reaction was often George Costanza’s “restrained jubilation.”

It was a little over-the-top, especially since the two tennis greats seemed to genuinely like each other, even as they battled again and again for tennis’ biggest prizes. There’s video of the two trying to film a promo for a charity event and they slip into a prolonged giggle fit, an inability to keep a straight face that would make Jimmy Fallon proud.

But in some ways, I came by my disdain honestly. Nadal beat Federer five times at the French Open, four times in the final, including a lopsided straight sets final in 2008 that set the stage for an epic Wimbledon encounter. For years Nadal was the unbeatable roadblock to Federer winning the French Open; Roger finally prevailed in 2009 by beating Robin Soderling in the final after Soderling earlier took out Nadal in a shocking upset.

There were other moments, too. Nadal won in five sets against Federer in the 2009 Australian Open final, which reduced Roger to tears in his post-match address to the crowd. “God, it’s killing me,” Federer said. Nadal put his arm around Roger to console him.

Beyond the results, there was the style difference that deeply divided Federer and Nadal fans, even if in later years more and more of us might be appreciating the difference. Federer is art on a tennis court, a player who spurs the late David Foster Wallace to write brilliant pieces titled “Roger Federer as Religious Experience.” He seems to float and dart just above the court’s surface, hitting an insane variety of shots. He picks his spots to charge to the net with the calculating mind of a chess master. He whips one-handed backhands. Words like grace and elegance and genius are used to describe his game. He plays quickly and barely makes a peep during points. His early career ponytail notwithstanding, his fashion style is dignified, classic, almost aristocratic.

Nadal is power. So much power. He digs in at the baseline and bashes the ball until he wins a point. He is also grit and competitive fire and iron will, running down ball after ball, battling each point as though everything was on the line, saving a bajillion break points and jumping and pumping his fist and me shaking my head and wondering how he ever loses a tennis match. His game seems created to give Federer problems, hitting high lefty topspin forehands to Federer’s one-handed backhand, the ball bounced up way higher than the ideal strike zone for a one-handed backhand. Nadal hitting high and wide serves to Fed’s backhand is basically a tennis cliche at this point. Nadal plays so. Darn. Slowly. And he unleashes loud groans on about every shot. So loud. His fashion style is occasionally cutoff shirts to show his spectacular arms, and freaking long pirate pants… on Centre Court Wimbledon.

Ah yes, Centre Court Wimbledon. I’ve been stalling but we must tread here. Federer beat Nadal in the 2006 and 2007 Wimbledon finals, running his streak to five straight titles at the All-England Club. They met again in the 2008 final. Nadal was always the chaser, Federer the chased. Nadal had dominated on clay but had not yet won a major on another surface.

The ensuing match was an absolute classic, on the shortest list for greatest match ever. Played at tennis’ most hallowed venue, it was incredibly tense and gripping, the champion and the challenger, opposite equals doing battle, storm clouds brewing to add drama and cause rain delays, the last year without a roof on Centre Court to keep rain away.

Nadal won the first set, and then the second. Federer dug in, not going to give his kingdom up without a fight, winning the third set in a tiebreak. Then Federer took the fourth set in a tiebreak, saving a match point along the way on what he still calls one of the best points of his career. The crowd exploded with roars when the fourth set ended. The fifth set had another rain delay and the two legends battled into near darkness, with Nadal prevailing 9-7.

Federer would recover to win the U.S. Open later that year, but it was a devastating defeat. Fed mentioned it many times since then when citing examples of how tennis can be heartbreaking. He won Wimbledon the next year, in fact winning the tournament three times after that fateful 2008 final and winning eight Grand Slams so far since then. But it was still a tough tough loss. That loss alone would turn Fed fans against Nadal, let alone all the other big matches.

So how on earth did I grow to admire Nadal? Early in the fifth set of that 2017 Australian Open “dream final,” when Nadal was up a break and it looked like the match was following the usual Fed-Nadal script (great drama, very competitive, but Nadal grinds it out in the end), I was a bit distraught. But as the epic decisive set raged on, and Federer dug in and came roaring back, and Nadal battled back, I came to appreciate what I was watching.

“We are all fortunate to be watching this,” ESPN announcer Chris Fowler said.

Nadal had not won a major in three years, and Fed hadn’t in four and a half years. Their rivalry seemed to be reaching its end as far back as 2013. But here they were, battling deep into the night and into their careers, pouring it all out. I cheered deliriously for Federer, but even I could see an appreciate the incredible effort Nadal was putting into the match.

Federer won that night, countering Nadal’s advantage with fearless tactics, including stepping in closer to hammer Nadal’s shots before they could fully rise and be as lethal. It left little margin for error, but Fed’s aggression carried the day. He ripped backhands. That shot was finally not a liability against Rafa.

In the post-match speeches, Federer didn’t gloat at all, instead saying something beautiful that no doubt pushed myself and other Fed fans toward embracing Rafa. Federer spoke of last fall, when he visited Nadal’s tennis academy and they talked about wanting to play a charity match, but they were too injured to do that. They were wounded old lions dreaming of better days, dreaming of pushing back against relentless Father Time. And they had done so.

Then Federer said one more thing, he said he was happy to win, but he would’ve been happy to share the title with Nadal if that were possible. The mutual respect and admiration was obvious.

The two went on a reunion tour of sorts. Federer won Australia, Nadal won the French, Federer won Wimbledon, and Nadal won the U.S. Open, the only major where the two have never played. Nadal finished the year ranked No. 1; Federer was second.

Federer won all four meetings between the two in 2017, lifting his record against Nadal to a pretty respectable 15-23, including 13-10 away from Rafa’s clay. I’m sure the tide turning toward Federer helped my stance some, but it was bigger than that.

Adding to the thaw was the first ever Laver Cup, where Federer and Nadal competed together for Team Europe and even played doubles together, a surreal and fun sight.

So far in 2018, both have taken turns at No. 1. In January, again at Australia, I maybe came full circle on appreciating Rafa. He was struggling with an injury, but he kept fighting. He would win a grueling point and then pump his fist and talk to himself between points, chattering and muttering and willing himself onward, telling himself to keep fighting and keep chipping away.

He eventually hit the end, retiring while losing to Marin Cilic. When I saw pictures of him lying on the court in obvious pain, receiving treatment, I didn’t feel any restrained jubilation. I felt empathy for Nadal, for his body not being able to do what he fought so hard to will it to do.

After all these years, I knew he wasn’t a machine, like it had seemed at his most dominant points. He wasn’t a wall. He was a man; it was his vast human will that had pushed him on, even when fatigued or injured or both. His grit had led him to chase down ball after ball, to keep smashing shots fearlessly and counting on them to dive down inside the lines. There is simply no questioning the raging Spanish bull’s heart.

The beauty of the Federer-Nadal rivalry is that it keeps writing new chapters, even when it was a bestselling book a decade ago. I don’t know what twists and turns remain, and I’m sure I’ll find myself mildly rooting against Nadal if it could help Federer’s chances. But I’ve come to realize that Federer’s 20 Grand Slams and vast career accomplishments aren’t lessened by whatever Nadal does.

And most of all, for my favorite athlete of all time, I couldn’t ask for a more worthy rival.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Mt. Elbert



Zooming along the Top of the Rockies Byway last August, I recognized Mt. Elbert as soon as I saw it, a graceful and lofty pyramid rising on the horizon, looking like you’d handed a child a crayon and asked them to draw a mountain. I study Wikipedia the way men on a higher plane might study Shakespeare or a new language, so I knew the look and shape of the mountain from its well-worn Wiki entry.

Five friends and I had driven there, to Leadville, Colorado, to climb that mountain. Here, reader, I ask for your input. Does it sound more impressive to describe Mt. Elbert, at 14,440 feet, as the highest mountain in Colorado, the highest mountain in the Rockies, or the second-highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. states? (Narrowly trailing only that showoff Mt. Whitney.) Whichever sounds most impressive to you, we’ll go with that.

Also dominating the view was Mt. Massive. The name is appropriate, and it appears even bigger than Elbert from the streets of Leadville. It’s only a dozen feet or so shorter than Elbert, and my mom tells the story of hiking Mt. Massive with her family on a vacation. They didn’t go all the way to the top, but they got so high a thunderstorm and rainbow passed by below them.

So yes, the view is breathtaking, including in the literal sense. If Denver is the Mile High City, Leadville is the two-mile high city. Aspen, where rich people romp, and Vail, where Gerald Ford schussed, are both high altitude skiing towns that are more than 2,000 feet lower than Leadville, situated more than 10,000 feet above sea level.

When I laid down to take a nap at our lovely Air BnB house at the edge of town, I folded my hands over my stomach, striking the pose of a great man lying in state. Before I could get into deep sleep, I found myself startled awake trying to draw a deep breath of thin air. After living most of my life below 1,000 feet, I found I was having to work to get deep enough breaths at the high altitude. The weight of my hands on my stomach was too much of an extra burden.

The thin air surely helped me soar to dunk on the decidedly-less-than-10-feet basketball hoop outside our rented home, and I drank water relentlessly to help ward off altitude sickness.

We had some time to explore Leadville as we tried to acclimate. It’s a quiet old town, but it wasn’t always that way. It was once the second-biggest city in Colorado, a booming mining town.
It was a wild and lawless town in the early days, full of mean men who were good with guns. Then the mayor had the brilliant idea to hire a guy who was even meaner and even better with guns to be the city marshal, and he generally restored order. The Tabor Opera House built by that mayor still stands on the main drag in Leadville.

If more modern ghost stories are your preference, check out the Delaware Hotel. It was creepy and creaky and full of weird old photographs and weird old people who looked alarmingly like the people in the photographs. The receptionist spoke good-naturedly of all the “entities” that were supposedly in the hotel, in the casual manner that I might talk about a round of golf.

We ate at the marvelous Tennessee Pass Cafe the night before our climb. I gamely attempted to go to bed early, even if my body was unsure with that foreign development.

We started our climb before 6 a.m., just as light gathered enough to see. Weighed down by five liters of Smart Water and some food in my backpack, walking at the back of our group and the only one without a significant other, it felt like if this were a horror movie I would be ripe for being the first one picked off.

It wasn’t a horror movie, but the climb proved to be plenty arduous. After a brief stint on the Continental Divide Trail, we turned left onto the South Mount Elbert Trail and climbed steeply. I breathlessly calculated how quickly I could chug water to lighten my load.

After a while the trail leveled off some to become a more steady, gradual climb. The trees thinned and we began to see spectacular views to mountains on the horizon and Twin Lakes and the Arkansas River valley far below. Eventually we got high enough we stopped seeing Aspen trees. And then we got high enough the evergreen trees ceased as well, there going the last option for places to relieve yourself in a dignified manner.

Periodically we would stop and rest and guess how high we’d made it. Other groups would do the same thing, and so we’d seesaw back and forth ahead of each other. One such group included Wisconsin Man, a presence wearing a Badgers sweatshirt and khaki shorts, climbing the peak as a Wisconsin Man would, with as little fuss and gear as possible. He didn’t have a pack at all, perhaps just a water bottle in hand.

As we climbed higher, in general the wind was blocked by the mountain itself, but at one spot some strong winds hit, and I started layering on clothes, cocooning myself in wind-resistant material.

But overall the weather cooperated, the wind was minimal, and the sun shone on us. The trail was less kind, turning and seeming to go straight up a wall.



I metaphorically hit a wall as we churned upward. With my pack on my back, I was leaned forward, nearly on all fours, moving along with the drifting and gradual movements of an astronaut in space. At one point I gathered enough breath to tell my friend Nathan Yount I might be nearing my limit. His response was perfect, just a slight tilt of the head and raise of the eyebrows, and he kept inching forward. That was all the discussion I required, and I kept struggling upward, taking deep, frequent and unsatisfying breaths.

Eventually, mercifully, the extreme steepness yielded to a more gradual, back-and-forth climb, and my optimism grew. We kept at it with a deliberate pace and ample rest breaks.

Once, while resting on a grassy overlook, I was taking a picture of my friends Chase Ruble and Caleb Barron looking out at the spectacular view, when a large and friendly dog happened by. He walked over like an Alpine St. Bernard making a mountain rescue, but instead he lowered his head to inspect the contents of my backpack. Deciding he could do better than Smart Water, Uncrustables, fruit snacks (mostly empty wrappers) and Clif bars, he sauntered on. We would next see him at the summit, where he was the star of the show.

We moved on, but it was far more of a trudge than a saunter. Excelsior. Upward.

Like stores on Black Friday, the terrain above 14,000 feet is not a hospitable place for a human. But we could see the bright colors of people on the summit, and determination was the great rubber band stretched between us and that summit, drawing us closer.

Finally, we made the final steps over shattered rocks to the summit. My friends Seth and Oren Maberry, as brothers do, raced to be the first to set foot on the summit.

We made it, all six of us. The summit was a pretty good-sized area, and pretty well populated, as expected on a nice weather Saturday morning in early August.

The views were staggering in all directions. Mount Massive right next to Elbert. Leadville way down below in the valley. Towering “14er” peaks both near and far, distant ranges a hundred miles away, snow and valleys and lakes.

We took photos, sat together and ate some lunch. We had done it!



… Well, half of it. Next came the little matter of getting down the mountain and back to our car. We had more incredible views and a sense of accomplishment, but more than once I looked back up at the mountain and kind of wondered how we had done it.

Quads quivering, skin pinkening in the sun, and dust rising, we made it back down.



Back at our AirBnB, I toasted our efforts with a glass bottle of pop and housed about six Kings Hawaiian rolls, assuming I had racked up a lifetime carb deficit.

We put the party in climbing party and dined that night as conquering heroes, but also tired, humbled heroes. I had assumed it would be hard to climb the mountain, and it had been even more challenging than expected.

The squeeze had been harder than anticipated, but the juice had been sweeter. A good pair of Nikes, prayers, Uncrustables, the encouragement of great friends and general Midwestern stubbornness had lifted me onward, up to the top of the Rockies and to our little lunch spot in the sky.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Roger's 18th

The first time I really started to think Roger Federer might be done winning majors was way back at the 2011 U.S. Open, when for the second year in a row Federer lost in the semifinals to Novak Djokovic after being on the brink of victory.

Of course, the very next summer Federer roared back to the pinnacle of the sport, winning Wimbledon for the seventh time, his 17th Grand Slam title.

But time doesn’t stop, and four and a half years after that Wimbledon triumph, I wondered if it was time to stop calling it Roger’s “most recent” major title and instead start calling it his last.

There was the challenging 2013 season when Federer started to seem old. But then came his switch to a larger racquet head and a resurgence in 2014. 
There were agonizing near misses; a gutting five-set loss to Djokovic in the 2014 Wimbledon final, a semifinal loss at the 2014 U.S. Open when the path seemed clear, four-set losses to Djokovic in the 2015 Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals.

I was thrilled to see my favorite athlete playing so well so late into his career, but it felt like the last sands were slipping through the hourglass. After a knee injury, Federer had a gasp-worthy fall to the Centre Court grass in the fifth set of the 2016 Wimbledon semifinal. It was a shocking fall for an athlete known for his graceful, gliding style, especially on grass. It felt like too perfect of a metaphor. The chorus of voices saying they didn’t think Roger would win an 18th major grew louder, understandably so.

He missed the rest of the 2016 season to rest the knee and rehab. I saw his notice announcing the time off while riding in a car near Yosemite National Park, in the Stanislas National Forest, and I was just glad it wasn’t a retirement notice.

Roger Federer is my favorite athlete of all time, and I don’t know that that will ever change.
Like so many fans, I’ve enjoyed the graceful, artistic, brilliant way Federer plays tennis, at his best seeming to float above the surface, hammering forehands and those work-of-art one-handed backhands. He was great, of course, ridiculously so, at one point making the final in 18 of 19 Grand Slams. But adding to that, he was a nice guy, a fierce competitor but a sportsman and an extremely decent human being, a family man who constantly offered to mentor and help younger players. He loves tennis, loves being Roger Federer, loves his hordes of fans. He was GQ’s 2016 most stylish man, but there’s always been an endearing goofiness about Roger, cracking up filming promos with Rafa Nadal, taking stabs at humor in post-match interviews, his obsession with emojis on social media.

Ah, social media. On New Year’s, Federer posted a tweet, saying goodbye to ’16, welcoming ’17, and saying he was hoping for 18. Accompanied, of course, by an upside down smiley face emoji.
For four and a half years, I’d been rooting desperately for Federer to win his 18th Grand Slam title, and I’m a little embarrassed to say the idea of it crossed my mind, however briefly, pretty much every single day during that stretch. When I run, I use mental tricks to keep going, and they are often tied to step counts and Federer’s major total, including imagined future triumphs, and the Grand Slam calendar. I also listen to music. In one song on my starred playlist, Bruce Springsteen sings, “So you’re scared and you’re thinking we aren’t that maybe we ain’t that young anymore; show a little faith there’s magic in the night…”

* * *

There would be magic at the 2017 Australian Open, the first major of the year.

Federer came in ranked 17th and hadn’t played since Wimbledon six months earlier. He later said just being there felt great, and a run to the quarterfinals would be a fantastic result.

He won in the first two rounds but didn’t look particularly great. But he was out there, playing and getting cheered.

Federer faced Tomas Berdych in the third round, a top-10 player and a real test. I was visiting a friend in Arizona, and I got up to check on the match only to see it was already over. Federer had destroyed Berdych in a rapid hour and a half. People raved that it was a vintage performance from Federer. So whatever happened, he’d had a good match Down Under.

In the fourth round, Fed faced another top-10 opponent, Kei Nishikori. Federer prevailed in five grinding sets, finding a way in the deciding fifth set as Nishikori faded.

Federer won in straight sets over Mischa Zverev in the quarterfinals, a welcome respite, and then survived another five-set classic in the semifinals against fellow Swiss Stan Wawrinka, his third win over a top-10 player in the tournament.

But there would be one more top-10 player to face in the final.

Rafael Nadal.

Roger and Rafa have engaged in a storied rivalry for over a decade now. Nadal has so often had the upper hand, a lefty hitting high topspin bouncing up high to Federer’s backhand, and playing with an unnerving tenacity. Of course, off of clay, Nadal’s best service, their rivalry was pretty even, but some of Federer’s biggest defeats had come against Nadal. In short, I’d rather Roger had faced about anyone else in the final. But it was Roger vs. Rafa Round 35, with enormous stakes. Both players were seeking to end long major title droughts, and the match would have a big impact for the endless Greatest Of All Time debate.

It was a little after 2:30 a.m. when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal began playing in the 2017 Australian Open men’s final, possibly the most anticipated tennis match of all time. It was the middle of the night, but I was too nervous to be sleepy.

Roger took the first set and we Federer fans around the world were fired up. Nadal roared back to win the second set and I started stress-eating Golden Oreos. Federer was brilliant in the third set, winning it 6-1, to take a two sets to one lead. But Nadal, ever competing, won the fourth set.

A fifth set to decide the title, to add to and alter legacies. The tension was crushing, almost paralyzing.

That fateful fifth set began like so many Federer-Nadal matches, with Rafa going into wall mode, just grinding and grinding and covering the entire court until his opponent has to crack. Nadal broke Federer’s serve to start the set. Federer put enormous pressure on Nadal’s first two service games, but the Spaniard was unyielding, stretching his lead to 3-1.

I was fairly distraught at the thought of having to stomach another stinging loss to Nadal.

Uh oh, here we go again…

But Federer went to work, holding serve to get to close within 3-2 and keep the scoreboard pressure on Nadal.

The first point of Nadal’s next service game was a long, bruising rally, the type Nadal so often has won to demoralize his opponent. Federer dug in. This time he wouldn’t yield, and finally won the point with a crushing cross-court backhand.

Roger had been playing aggressive tennis all tournament, stepping in closer to rob his opponent of split seconds. It was especially helpful against Nadal, as he was stepping in and smashing backhands before Nadal’s vaunted topspin rise could take as much effect. His biggest weakness against his biggest rival had become a devastating weapon.

Federe won the next point for a 0-30 lead as a Nadal forehand went into the net.

“Chum jetze!” Federer shouted, Swiss German for “Come on!”

Nadal saved a break point and even regained the lead in the service game, but Federer kept attacking fearlessly. Another smashing backhand to earn another break point. The crowd, lively all night, was getting louder and louder.

After failing to convert his first five break points of the set, Federer got the break on his sixth, and the match was back on serve, 3-3 in the fifth.

Federer held serve at love, with the crowd at Rod Laver Arena growing louder with each point: ace, winner at the net, serve winner, second serve ace. 4-3 Federer. Standing ovation at Rod Laver Arena, including Rod Laver himself.

Then came the game of the match, two legends on serve deep in the fifth set of a major final. Federer jumped to 0-30 lead with a brilliant point.

“Federer is flying around the court now!” ESPN announcer Chris Fowler said.

A double fault gave Federer a 0-40 lead, but Nadal showed his legendary competitiveness to get the game back to deuce.

Then came an interminable rally, Federer and Nadal racing around the court, Nadal’s shrieks reverberating, both players hitting remarkable shots. For 26-shots they battled before Federer reached out and flicked a forehand winner.

“You gotta love this!” Fowler shouted.

Nadal fought off a break point, but Federer forced another, and converted this one, digging deep. I leapt off the couch and shouted. 5-3.

After four and a half years, Roger Federer was serving for his 18th major.

It wouldn’t be easy. Not against a champion and a battler like Nadal.

Nadal took a 0-30 lead. Federer calmly boomed an ace up the middle to get it to 15-30. But then Nadal won the next point to set up two break points. Oh boy.

Roger drove another ace up the middle to save the first break point. Then he won a five-shot rally on a powerful forehand to save the other and get the match back to deuce.

“We are all really fortunate to be seeing this right now,” Fowler said.

Nadal saved one championship point, but on the second one Federer hit a great serve, raced toward the net, and then popped a forehand on the line for the championship. Nadal challenged but the replay showed it was on the line, and upon that ruling Federer jumped and shouted in pure joy, along with millions of his fans around the world, defying time zones to watch an enduring memory unfold. The crowd thundered and fists raised in triumph across the arena and around the world. At last!

“The remarkable Roger Federer!” Fowler said, nailing the call. "A victory has never been sweeter."

Roger had his 18th, in a match for the ages against his biggest rival, no less.

It was one of the best moments I’ve had as a sports fan, and a reminder to keep dreaming, to keep trying.

Roger was gracious after the match, saying he would’ve been happy to share the title with Nadal if such a thing were possible. You could sense the genuine admiration between the two old rivals. Months earlier they’d been hanging out at Nadal’s tennis academy, lamenting that they were too injured to even have a charity match. Now they had played an epic match in a Grand Slam final. Now the middle-aged father of four had turned back the clock, had become the oldest man in over 40 years to win a major, had found a little magic in that Australian night.

One last line from Federer after the match summed it up so well, a good reminder for the things we all want and chase.

“The moment when you wait for something for a long time, it feels that much better, doesn’t it?”

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Crossing

I was bouncing about, hunting for a church in Columbia, and a college friend suggested the Crossing. Among other noble and interesting things about the church, he mentioned the girls.

The Crossing was and is, of course, full of beautiful and fantastic women. But I quickly noticed other things. Sermons where it felt like pastors were speaking right to my life. Music that stirred the soul. People of all stripes wanting to live for God.

There were certainly times growing up when church felt like a bit of a chore, but the Crossing was something I didn’t like missing. I brought the phrase “appointment television” or “appointment viewing” to my friend group. As in, when an event, usually sports, was so big that you blocked off time on the calendar to make sure you saw it. We usually use it sarcastically, when a game is ridiculously unimportant. But the Crossing actually felt like appointment viewing.

Along the way, slower than I’d like to admit, it became not just viewing, but participating. I joined a small group and loved it. I decided to take the Discovery Class to learn more about the church and eventually become a member.

One of the only other people I knew in the Discovery Class was a girl from my small group, and she liked to sit on the front row, so I sat on the front row. It was like having Keith Simon and Dave Cover talk in your living room while you sat on your couch, which feels fitting, as Dave used to live in the house where I now reside.

Toward the end of the class, Keith talked about serving in the church. He talked about the need to get involved, and the phrase “get your butt in the two-year-old room” of Crossing Kids stuck with me. They handed out cards where we could check areas we would be willing to serve. Buoyed by Keith’s bluntness and the person next to me checking they could serve in Crossing Kids, I took a leap and checked that box as well.

Having no discernible skills with kids, I told the staff to put me wherever they needed me, so I ended up in the Fourth Grade room.

Whatever personality type is not Type A is mine. I can often only hit the extremes of being socially reserved or saying whatever ridiculousness comes to mind. Stepping into big, new situations can be a nervy experience for me; big group 20-Somethings functions, my new small group, that Crossing Kids classroom. But all you can do is step out in faith, a super poor man’s Abraham leaving his home country and the familiar. I prayed God would put me to good use.

My Crossing Kids experience has been wonderful. I met fantastic people. I played Sorry and chess and remembered how marvelous Chutes and Ladders is. I chatted with kids about their faith and their lives and their schools and their families and their pets. I’ve had numerous chats with the boys about being a man, which is kind of preposterous.

A few months ago, I found myself teaching Psalm 23, talking about it with a table of kids. It struck me that older believers have been teaching younger believers this psalm for thousands of years. I hoped I wasn’t letting that chain of believers down.

Of course, I’ll freely admit in my Crossing experience I’ve been more of a learner than a teacher. I remember sermons about relationships and how we treat other people, and the focus was not on legalism but on treating people like they have a soul and are created in the image of God. I remember sermons about our longing for God, often without realizing it, and how we try to fill that void with all kinds of things. I remember sermons about doubts and struggles.

Last August, kicking off another school year, around which Columbia’s heart beats, the Crossing had another terrific service. The music team was on point, and Dave Cover preached a sermon titled “Intimately Acquainted” from Psalm 139.

“The same God who created the universe is intense and intentional about you and about every detail of your life,” he said.

Dave contrasted our plan for our lives vs. God’s plan; my chasing the wind for a wife and material riches and prestige contrasted with God leading me to what He wants. That one’s still a challenge.

Earlier this year, Keith Simon preached a sermon titled, “Jesus is the Light in a Dark World.” It was so powerful. Sometimes, a lot of times even, things don’t work out. But Jesus’ light shines on, pointing to hope and redemption.

I sometimes feel like I’m the last Christian who should be writing a blog post about faith, accustomed as I am with my own shortcomings. But God has so blessed me with the Crossing that I felt the need to write. I’ve met remarkable people there who make those delightful Sunday services happen and make the world a better, brighter, more beautiful place. I love my church home.

On Sunday, we ended the service with communion, a beautiful moment of orchestrated chaos as we all come forward. We sang “Every Hour I Need You” and “King of My Heart” during that time.

A refrain from the latter song stuck with me.

You’re never gonna let, never gonna let me down...

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Spartans and Hawkeyes

For hours, neither the Iowa Hawkeyes or Michigan State Spartans could score a touchdown in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis. Twitter, ever-snarky, produced tweet after tweet saying this was a “typical game” for the supposedly offensively blunted Big Ten.

But even then it was riveting theater, as the teams traded field goals. Everything was on the line, a conference championship, a berth in the College Football Playoff, seasons for the ages for two proud programs.

Michigan State is a bruising, blue collar program that beat rival Michigan on a miracle play and then muscled past Ohio State to the top of the heap. Iowa’s schedule had been widely criticized as soft, but they had won every game by not beating themselves and competing relentlessly. Now they were proving themselves against an elite team.

Iowa led 6-3 at the half after a long Spartan field goal hammered off the crossbar, sending a booming sound throughout the stadium.

Michigan State kicked its way in front with two third quarter field goals, taking a 9-6 advantage into the final quarter. The game to this point had been gripping, but that had just set the table.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard heaved a deep pass, which cut through the air and into the hands of Hawkeye receiver Tevaun Smith, who raced free down the field for a stunning 85-yard touchdown. Watching the game in Columbia, Mo., I all but heard the roars from the delirious state to the north. 13-9 Hawkeyes.

The teams traded punts one more time, for old time’s sake.

Then Michigan State began a drive at its own 18 with 9:31 to go.

The Spartans converted a third down with a Connor Cook pass, and they were on the move. Slowly. Another third down, running back L.J. Scott got four yards when he needed three.

A replay review turned a catch into an incompletion, forcing a third third down situation, this one at the 50. Cook fired a pass to Aaron Burbridge, the receiver who had just had a catch taken away. Burbridge caught it and hung on despite a punishing hit from an Iowa defender.

First down Michigan State at the Iowa 34. The Iowa defense dug deep. The defense had been sound all year, but this second half had been a grinding test at the edge of a cliff. In the second half, Iowa would run no plays in Michigan State territory. However, the Spartans would run 30 plays in Iowa territory in that second half.

The Iowa defense was a chef preparing a world-class meal in a kitchen that was on fire. Still, they kept dishing out punishing hits, following their assignments, making the tackles.

Following the Burbridge catch, Michigan State began hammering away, running it 12 straight times, some by Cook but mostly L.J. Scott. The minutes slowly faded away. Everything was on edge.
Cook for seven yards. Scott for three yards. Scott for three yards. Scott for six yards. Scott for two yards on 3rd-and-1. Scott for three yards to the Iowa 10.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, resolute in his team keeping the Spartans out of the end zone, nevertheless began calling timeouts to preserve time for a rebuttal, always covering his bases just in case. He hammered away at the gum in his mouth, as he had all game. Whether it was to calm nerves or simply an outlet for intensity, his jaw churned endlessly.

Scott for five yards. Scott for no gain on third down. 4th-and-2 at the Iowa 5. Everything on the line. The tension was unbelievable.

After Iowa’s third and final timeout, Cook ran it on an option keeper on fourth down. Right at the line to gain an Iowa defender smashed into him. Cook was driven to the turf right at the line. The refs measured... first down. After 19 plays, the drive was still on. Less than two minutes to go.

First and goal from the Iowa 3. The Hawkeyes, winners all year, were in a dire spot. Some sportswriters on Twitter said Iowa should maybe let Michigan State score so they could have time to respond. But Iowa’s offense had mostly struggled in the second half against the steel Spartan defense, and Kirk Ferentz and his Iowa Hawkeyes weren’t going to simply let any opponent in. They would have to earn it. The game would be decided here and now.

Ferentz looked out at his gallant, probably exhausted defense, like a father looking at his sons. His face was etched with reminders of the effort big-time college coaches pour into their craft. He kept pounding the gum. Making eye contact with his team, he made fists with both hands and lightly shook them at his sides. It was the understated, Midwestern way of standing on box and shouting through a megaphone to leave it all on the field.

On the other sideline, Spartan coach Mark Dantonio stared at the action. He had built and built and built Michigan State. Despite his stern exterior, he is a man capable of transformative smiles. But not now. His face was also etched with hard lines, his stare carrying a ferocity. He seemed unblinking.

First and goal. Scott, on his 12th carry of the drive, slammed ahead with all the force and fury he had. The Iowa defense stopped him just short of the goal line, after a gain of two yards.

Second and goal. Scott, on his 13th carry of the drive, slammed ahead with all the force and fury he had. The Iowa defense stopped him just short of the goal line. Less than a minute to go.

Third and goal. Scott, on his 14th carry of the drive, slammed ahead with all the force and fury he had. The Iowa defense stopped him just short of the goal line.

But not quite. After the initial stuff, Scott, kept surging forward, sliding off one, two, three, four would-be tacklers, finally in desperation sticking the ball where he could not get his body, across the line into the end zone.

Touchdown.

The Michigan State fans erupted. There were no longer seats, rows and aisles, just one jubilant, tumultuous mass of green and white and noise.

It was a drive for the ages. 22 plays, nine minutes, touchdown for a 16-13 lead with the season and the conference title and the playoff hanging in the balance, against a defense making a courageous stand.

Iowa’s final frantic effort with the remaining 27 seconds didn’t go very far. The Spartans had won.

Whether it mattered to the Hawkeyes or not, they finally had widespread national respect, having gone down to the wire against one of the nation’s best teams. As the Iowa players gathering in the corner of the field to jog to the locker room together, the Iowa fans stood and cheered and applauded, on and on, thanking their players for the remarkable season.

Michigan State was moving on to the College Football Playoff, and Iowa to the Rose Bowl. Both teams, and the Big Ten in general, had put on a show, a battle of wills, college football at its finest. In the end, it was anything but a typical game.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The night the Royals won the World Series



On Nov. 1, I settled in to watch the Royals try to win the World Series. I sat on a blue couch, wore a blue Royals shirt, and kept my blue Royals hat within arm’s reach. I had loved the Royals even though they were pretty awful for all my life, like you might love an ugly dog. But over the last 15 months they were a juggernaut. It was bizarre and wonderful. The Mets started Matt Harvey in Game 5, and he was cruising, hanging up zero after zero. The Mets led 2-0. Perhaps the series was going back to Kansas City.

It was August of 2005. I was about to embark on a major change in life, going off to college. The Royals lost 19 games in a row. I remember listening to a game in the upstairs of the house where I grew up, and Denny Matthews saying Chip Ambres had dropped a routine fly ball that would’ve ended the streak. It was all ridiculous. 

Initially it appeared Mets manager Tony Collins would take Harvey out of the game after eight scoreless innings, but Harvey pretty much refused. Collins let him go back out. Leading off was Lorenzo Cain. The Royals offense hadn’t done much all night, but Cain churned out a walk, and then stole second. Hosmer then belted a double to left and Cain raced home. 2-1. The Royals had life.

It was September 30, 2014. Maybe the best game I’ve ever seen in person, the AL Wild Card game. Three times the Oakland A’s took the lead, and three times the Royals rallied, twice when they had to score a run or the season was over. The Royals won in 12 innings, near midnight, with Kauffman Stadium roaring. That launched a remarkable postseason run that didn’t end until the unyielding Madison Bumgarner shut the Royals down to win Game 7. It was epic theater to be there, but it was crushing. They’d been so close, and there were no guarantees they’d ever get there again.

After Hosmer’s hit, Mike Moustakas grounded out to first, moving Hosmer to third with one out. Salvador Perez hit a grounder to third. As soon as the Mets’ third basemen threw to first for the out, Hosmer charged home like a madman. It was an audacious move, and Lucas Duda’s throw home was wild and Hosmer slid in safely. My shouts could presumably be heard all over northwest Columbia. Tie game. Extra innings.

It was June 6, 2006. I was raking hay on my parents’ East Farm, listening to Sports Radio 810. It was the day of baseball’s draft, and the Royals had the first pick. They seemed to be a franchise that had reached its Armageddon. Operating without a general manager (Dayton Moore had been named but supposedly wasn’t involved in the draft), picking on 6-6-6, the Royals took Luke Hochevar, a pitcher who had thrown a year in independent ball the year before. He was historically bad as a starting pitcher, just abysmal. Still, he kept digging. The Royals tried him as a reliever in 2013, and he was terrific. But then he was injured for the season heading into 2014. A devastated Hochevar said he was sad he couldn’t be involved in the celebratory dogpile at the end of the season. I thought that was kind of a crazy thing to say. That fall, the Royals had a celebratory dogpile as American League champions. Only the Giants and Bumgarner kept it from being a World Series champions dogpile. 

Luke Hochevar trotted out of the bullpen to pitch the 10th inning of a tied World Series game. He threw two scoreless, hitless innings. To the 12th inning the game went, still tied 2-2.

It was December 19, 2010. The Royals’ best pitcher, Zack Greinke, asked the team to trade him, basically because they were bad and he was tired of pitching for a constantly rebuilding team. He wanted to win. Among the four players the Royals got were shortstop Alcides Escobar and centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, starters in the 2014 and 2015 World Series. A Royals broadcaster once said he would be a special player, and I ranted to my friend Caleb Barron at a Royals game in early 2014 that he had been anything but a special player so far. Since then he has indeed been special. 

It was November 1, 2015. The 12th inning of World Series Game 5 was full Royals. Perez singled. Jarrod Dyson, a 50th round pick, pinch ran. He stole second and then went to third on an Alex Gordon groundout. Then with Dyson at third and one out, Christian Colon, batting for the first time in about a month, lined a single to left with two strikes to put Kansas City ahead. The slow drip of the Royals offense continued. A Mets error. An Escobar double to make it 4-2. The versatile, incredible Ben Zobrist was intentionally walked. With the bases loaded, that special player, Lorenzo Cain, hammered a double to clear the bases. 7-2 Royals. Start the party. The overwhelming Wade Davis closed things out in the bottom of the 12th, and the Royals were World Series champions. Hochevar was the winning pitcher. I was on sensory overload, watching and listening to the FOX broadcast of the final outs while also listening on my phone to Denny Matthews and Ryan Lefebvre call it on the radio. I’d imagined the Royals winning the World Series many times through the years, but none of it prepared me for that moment when they actually did it. I was stunned, euphoric, and so proud of Kansas City and its Royals.

There were so many great memories from this championship season. They came flooding back that night, along with memories through my decades as a baseball fan. Going to my first game of 2015 with my mom and dad and sister. Going to a game with Caleb Barron before he moved to Arizona, a far cry from the awful game in 2012 the first time I dragged him to Kauffman Stadium. Going to a Royals-Cardinals game with my great Columbia friends, blue and red enjoying the game together. Watching the Royals win on a perfect spring day at Wrigley Field. All those nights listening to games on the radio or idly watching on TV, the air outside warm and heavy and sweet. My brother’s friend pounding the steering wheel of his cheap car when Dan Reichert gave up a devastating home run in some lost season. Turning double plays and catching fly balls out in the yard as largely forgotten Royals players from a largely forgotten team. Games at Kauffman Stadium from snow flurries to crushing heat and humidity. Postgame fireworks. Postgame ice cream with Kansas City girls we met. Sluggerrr starting rallies with the slow clap. Buck night hot dogs and taking your life into your hands. Hats and shirts gradually worn out. The desolation of that Game 7 loss, which Dayton Moore said “haunted him.” The incredible rally in Game 4 this year against the Astros, facing elimination, when I went on a text rant to Barron just before the Royals punched five straight singles to crawl back from the grave. Listening to Denny call the clinching of another pennant. Going to Game 2 of the World Series with my sister and brother and sister-in-law, when Cueto went the distance and the Royals poured it on, white and blue jerseys a blur on the basepaths, knocking the ball all over the park with two-strike hit after two-strike hit. And at last, November 1, 2015, the night the Royals won the World Series; a night and a season to cherish forever.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

100

Columbia never ages.

Or so it seems. Restaurants change. Towers of downtown apartments keep popping up. Mizzou switched conferences. They tore down Shakespeare’s, for goodness sake.

But the college town remains fairly timeless, Missouri’s fountain of youth. College kids still arrive every August, their youth and energy giving Columbia a second spring each year. The quad is still regal and Columns-y. Downtown still buzzes on Fridays and Saturdays and really Thursdays, too, because the week is pretty much over anyway, right? And students and alumni still flock to the old bowl south of campus for football games in the fall, like they have for 90 autumns now.

We all get older, but Mizzou Homecoming can trick you into thinking time has turned back and you’re a student again. Visiting the familiar old places and taking part in the traditions, the years melt away. Homecoming is a time for reflection and nostalgia.

So in a thoroughly satisfying quirk, Saturday’s Homecoming game against Florida is my 100th Mizzou football game. This will make it 75 games at Faurot Field, 15 neutral site games and 10 road games. (Some of those neutral site games were not entirely neutral; sharing the Georgia Dome with hordes of raucous Auburn and Alabama fans comes to mind.)

My first Mizzou game was another time, the last game of the 2002 season. Kansas State hammered Missouri, 38-0. It was the last game with a grass field at Faurot. East stadium tower renovations. The official attendance was 47,000 and change. There are links to then, obviously, but life then is almost hard to recognize now. I wore a 49ers shirt to the game and was more into the NFL back then. I had no clue what Facebook would be and how it would shape aspects of my social life in the years to come. I didn’t even know who Roger Federer was, something that makes the 2015 version of myself purse my lips and slowly shake my head.

But for all the changes, Faurot Field was still Faurot Field; the same bowl where Missouri fans have congregated in cold and heat and rain and perfect fall days for generations, with the Rock M on one end and trees peeking over the stands on the other end, ablaze with color in the fall.

Missouri alum Tom Shatel, now an outstanding columnist for the Omaha World-Herald, once wrote that Faurot was a “portrait of autumn,” and that it was where he fell in love with college football.
It’s also where I fell in love with college football, with a tough loss in the 2004 Homecoming game, Game 6, and seeing the Columns for the first time after the game.

The football has been wildly entertaining, but college football has always been about more than just games. It’s a lifestyle, memories with friends and family, a good time. It’s road trips to experience new college towns and tailgates and beautiful women milling about and going out the night before games and games in the student section and chatting up girls at halftime and the buzz around town heading into a big showdown and endless idle chatter about how the team will fare. It’s how quiet exiting the stadium is after losses and how festive it is after wins. It’s a steak grilled perfectly and pop in glass bottles as the pregame hours slowly melt away. It’s thrilling and colorful and goosebump-inducing and musical and something you share with friends, friendships you maintain long after college.

These 100 games have filled page after page in the photo album of my memory. Game 13, my first Homecoming as a student when Chase Daniel led Missouri to a comeback win. Game 24, when some friends and I rode a bus to the Sun Bowl in El Paso and Rhianna performed at halftime even though it was a mid-tier bowl in the middle of nowhere and we (the busload of students, not Rhianna) got into a snowstorm and had to spend the night in Roswell, New Mexico. Game 33, the epic Border War win over Kansas, when intensity hung in the cold, clear air at Arrowhead Stadium; truly one for the ages. Game 45, when I shot a buck that morning and then some of us drove up to the game at Iowa State and it was so incredibly cold half the stadium yelled “Wind!” and the other half yelled “Chill!”

Game 51, when it rained relentlessly and the stadium sound system wasn’t working and Nebraska came back from nowhere to beat the Tigers. Game 61, when College Gameday came to Mizzou and Gahn McGaffie ran back the opening kick for a touchdown and the Tigers beat BCS No. 1 Oklahoma.

Game 72, Missouri’s first SEC Conference game, against Georgia, a massive change and a departure from 100 years of history; a wild, frenzied scene. Game 84, a road trip to magical little Oxford, Mississippi, with its courthouse square and its Grove and its Rebelettes, and I fell in love with all three and fully embraced the SEC. Game 85, when Mizzou beat Texas A&M to stunningly win the SEC East and “Georgia on my mind” played on the stadium speakers. Game 90, a fantastic road trip to South Carolina for a thrilling win, and Game 94, a fantastic road trip to Tennessee for a thrilling win that included me seeing Tim Tebow the night before and saying, “Hey... Tim!” Game 95, a comeback win against Arkansas to clinch another SEC East title as a gorgeous sunset lit up the sky above Faurot Field and everything was magic and the stadium was rocking.

Games 34, 47, 86 and 96, the sound and fury of conference title games, each excruciating losses. Gary Pinkel got so close to the brass win and was turned away, only to keep chasing.

And now, Game 100 under the lights, a big divisional game against those surging Gators. I realize it’s kind of nerdy and perhaps even self-aggrandizing to have kept track of each game I’ve attended, but I’ve learned that as fun as college football is, it’s at its best when you share it with the people you love. I’ve been fortunate to be doing that for several years now.

Here’s to the next 100.