Monday, August 27, 2012

Tigers get back to football

Like a kid finally reaching the Willamette Valley on that old Oregon Trail computer game, or a hack golfer finally arriving at the green of a long par 5, we have at last arrived at football season.

(Pause to allow for celebration.)

Missouri kicks off the season at 6 p.m. Saturday against Southeastern Louisiana at Faurot Field. (For those wanting to watch on television, the game is available on pay-per-view.)

The Lions are a Football Championship Subdivision, or I-AA, team, a level below Missouri’s Football Bowl Subdivision, or I-A, status, meaning Southeastern Louisiana gives a smaller number of scholarships than teams on the Tigers’ level. These games are usually laughably one-sided, if countless runs into the heart of the line while the clock runs and one team is up 50 make you chuckle.

Under coach Gary Pinkel, Missouri is 7-0 against FCS teams, with an average score of 50-5. Even with a massive look-ahead factor to next week’s Georgia game, expect more of the same against Southeastern Louisiana, which went 3-8 last year.

But Saturday still serves as a return to football, a chance for players, coaches and fans to ease back into gameday rhythms before the first Southeastern Conference game next week. Seeing the Tigers run out on the field will be a familiar feeling, like easing back into a familiar sweatshirt after a summer, but it will also feel new again, with the bright new turf, the new uniforms and, yes, that new conference logo. “SEC,” it says. It does not whisper.

In contrast to this newness is Pinkel, the Tiger coach. This marks his 12th season at Missouri, tying Georgia’s Mark Richt for the most years at their school of any SEC head coach.

Looking long term, a fascinating aspect of this move to the SEC is its impact on Pinkel’s legacy. Naturally, a key part of his legacy is that he got Missouri football relevant enough that moving to the SEC was an option. I wonder if, at 60, a coach very familiar with one conference would want anything to do with a move to what’s currently considered the nation’s toughest conference. But Pinkel was a key voice driving the move to the SEC, by all accounts.

If Pinkel wins an SEC title before he retires, expect a statue. But if the Tigers struggle? If his record against conference opponents, perched at 47-44, dips below .500? How would that ending impact the story?

Pinkel’s place in the Missouri coaching pantheon is interesting. He is third on the school’s coaching wins list, trailing Dan Devine by eight wins and Don Faurot by 16 wins, and will likely catch both. But Faurot won three conference titles; Devine won two. Look at their records against conference opponents: Devine 62-23-4, Faurot 61-34-9, Pinkel 47-44.

It can be tough to compare coaches from such different eras, to be fair, but that’s still a noticeable contrast.

Pinkel is clearly third in the Tiger coach pantheon, but he did lift the program from a slumber. This grand SEC adventure will go a long way to determining his final standing.

The SEC cauldron awaits, but first we get back to football against Southeastern Louisiana.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Our greatest autumn

I think I fell in love with Columbia's autumn in 2004.

I've always loved the fall, and football, but 2004, when I first got Missouri football season tickets as a high school senior, really put it all together. October 23, 2004, Missouri lost to Oklahoma State on Homecoming, and I saw the Columns for the first time that night.

But like I say, the autumn and I go way back, and it goes back generations and centuries for my ancestors: we are farmers, and fall means harvest. It also means cooler, crisp weather. It begins with crops and plants turning golden, then continues with impossibly blue skies and leaves turning into an Artist's palate. It's trips to the apple orchard, football games, pulling out those hoodies you've missed.

In the spirit of my fall optimism, let's make this our greatest autumn. If Great Britain could declare its 2012 Olympic team, "Our Greatest Team," and then make it happen, why not do it with this fall? I'm not saying this out of greed or impatience; I'm saying it as a call to act, to dare greatly, to nudge ourselves a little closer to the dreams in our head.

Really, I'm saying enjoy this autumn. Wherever you're at in your life or your pursuit of goals, enjoy the journey. I love sporting events where you're aware during them that you're seeing something great, something memorable, something you could tell your grandkids about. Appreciate the greatness of autumn as it's happening. I think a good chunk of my blog readers are younger, and in old age you might reflect with nostalgia on the beautiful autumn days of your youth. You might be thinking back on these times for decades; lucky you, you get to enjoy them now.

So sure, enjoy the football. The fall of 2007 was one of the great ones, largely because of all my memories following Missouri's football team around the Heartland, watching the Tigers' 12-win season unfold. This year, I'm three exits past excited for three night games to open the year, including the cataclysm with Georgia. I'm excited for high school football and "Armergeddon II" at venerable Adkins Stadium in Jefferson City. I'm excited to pick every single NFL game against the spread on as though I'm a hardened gambler.

Enjoy whatever your career or (hopefully and) passion are. For me it's writing. I've got a few different writing plans and projects I want to get done. Autumn is a wind at my back, and hopefully it'll overcome procrastination and the initial wall of getting started when the chasm of blankness stares unblinking back at you. Never a day without a line, my advanced writing professor said in school. Whatever your "writing" is, be good to it this fall, pour some of yourself into it, make a little extra push for excellence.

And most of all, despite the obvious sorrows and daily frustrations out there, enjoy this time, regardless of where you're at in life. Appreciate the road on which God is leading you; don't compare it to others. "Not the victory but the action..." begins one of my favorite quotes. The glory lies not just in the final victory or achievement, but in the journey to get there, in the daily striving for our goals and dreams. The victory is meaningful because of the effort required to achieve it.

With that in mind, savor this autumn. Take advantage of its opportunities, experience its football and its crispness, appreciate where you're at. And who knows, maybe it will be one of the great ones.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Into the SEC fray

The switch, long anticipated and debated, has been made. Out with the Big 12, in with the SEC. Out with an opponent playing “Boomer Sooner” over and over, in with “Rocky Top” on repeat. Out with the track-meet shootouts, in with defensive slugfests.

It’s hard to imagine the state and the program being more excited about the move. Even if some did, and do, disagree with the change, it is done, and the games are upon us.

The coaches and players are talking about earning respect, knowing how huge the first SEC game, Sept. 8 at home against proud Georgia, will be.

The fans have bought up the full allotment of 46,500 season tickets, the first time that’s happened in program history.

Even old Faurot Field, preparing to host its 87th season of Tiger football, sauntered on down to the stadium beauty parlor and got new turf and freshly power washed seats, ensuring the old bowl will be looking spry for its SEC close-up.

The burning question, of course, is how will Missouri fare in the big, bad SEC? The SEC has won the last six BCS national titles, but the Big 12 was not junior varsity flag football, especially with its round-robin schedule instituted last year. But SEC teams in general play a noticeably different style from most Big 12 teams, with the teams down south favoring pounding ground games and ferocious defenses.

With that in mind, there are three areas to pay especially close attention to this fall.

QB James Franklin’s shoulder

Franklin is showing no effects during preseason camp of his offseason shoulder surgery. But then again, compact-car sized SEC defensive linemen don’t usually fall on one’s shoulder in preseason camp. How well the shoulder holds up to the inevitable big hits, and how well the Tiger offensive line can protect Franklin, will be critical.

Running back depth

With Henry Josey likely out for all or most of the season after last fall’s devastating knee injury, the burden falls on Kendial Lawrence to carry the Tigers’ ground game. But facing SEC defenses, Missouri needs some other backs to step up to help carry the load and take the hits.

Defensive line

While Big 12 offense are in general more known for slinging the ball all over the field, most SEC teams seek to impose their will by smashing into the line with their ground attacks. Missouri’s defensive line will face a stiff test. Big years from the highly-touted Sheldon Richardson and senior Brad Madison would go a long way.

*           *          *

So what’s the verdict? Will Missouri “get stomped on,” as Alabama radio host Paul Finebaum said? Or do that have a surprise for the folks down south?

This is a big year for Missouri, and the next few years may seal coach Gary Pinkel’s legacy, one way or another.

This year, I think the schedule is tough, with many of Missouri’s “swing games” on the road (Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M). I’m calling for a 7-5 season, but if Missouri upsets Georgia in week two, look out for the Tigers.

It will seem surreal to watch Georgia and Alabama run out onto Faurot Field, but it’ll get real quickly when the games start.

And for that, Mizzou fans can hardly wait.

Road to 10 wins: 
Like I said above, I'm thinking 7-5 for this team and this schedule. But, just for fun, if I were to draw up a roadmap to 10 wins for Mizzou, it'd involve going 4-0 in the nonconference games (any scenario where the Tigers don't run the noncon table doesn't compute well). In the four home games, the Tigers would probably need to go 3-1 (upset Georgia, take care of Vandy/Kentucky, lose to Alabama). Then splitting the four road conference games (say, win at Tennessee and A&M, lose at The Other Columbia and the Swamp) would put Missouri at 9-3, and give me a bowl win to make it 10. Yes, I know I'm dodging a bit using the bowl to get to 10, but which of the Bama/at S.C./at Florida am I supposed to suggest? In any event, nothing in the above scenario would be fall-out-of-your-chair crazy. Not saying it will happen (again, 7-5), but if your looking for some August optimism, there it is.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Of youth and dreams: The Olympics

Into London's Olympic Stadium they walked, team after team, country after country. For hours they walked in, so many colors and outfits and flags. From all over our globe, brimming with hope and beauty; the summer Olympics' quadrennial crop of youth.

The Olympics have rich history and tradition, but they are as big a celebration of youth as you'll find. Like youth, they are packed full of excitement and dreams and experiences and thrills. And like youth, they are relatively fleeting. For two weeks and change, the Games are overwhelming, all-encompassing, so much action. And then they are no more. Maybe that's why they can seem so bittersweet.

It's hard to express, but these almost felt like my Games. The average age of athletes at these games is 26.1. I am 25.5, if we're going to bring in the decimals. Had I been an Olympic athlete, these Games probably would have been my wheelhouse.

But it seems it's not my destiny to be an Olympic athlete. So I watched. We watched.

What moments we saw. Michael Phelps and the Misty May-Kerri Walsh combo affirming their greatness. Missy Franklin bursting onto the scene. Usain Bolt's awe-inspiring sprint victories (NBC announcer Tom Hammond can add "Here's Bolt!" to his growing list of enduring Olympic calls). Oscar Pistorius running on those artificial legs. Carmelita Jeter pointing at the clock after the U.S. 4X100 team broke the world record. Alex Morgan's 123rd minute header to beat Canada that shook Old Trafford. USA Basketball (men and women) doing what USA basketball does. The U.S. gymnastics girls steeling their nerves to win the team gold. Gabby winning the all-around. Morgan Uceny falling on the last lap of the 1,500, smacking the track in tears. And, of course, Britain's fans roaring for their athletes, cheering "face of the Games" Jessica Ennis to victory in the 800 meter run to wrap up her heptathlon gold. Cheering on Mo Farah to goosebump-inducing victories in the 10,000 and 5,000 meters. Cheering on Andy Murray to gold at the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon. What a 17 days. Till we meet again, Olympics. (Want to see all this and more, set to music? Here you go.)

It's the dual nature of the Games, the over-the-top money grab in which sponsors may have replaced the Olympian gods and goddesses of the ancient Games in stark contrast to the purity of the Olympic ideal, of the beautiful idea of the youth of the world gathering in the spirit of competition, sportsmanship and dreams coming true.

But in the end, I think that long drive by the athletes to achieve their dreams is a big part of why the Games appeal to such a wide range of people. Few of us are world-class athletes. (The thought of all those athletes near my age competing in the Games was just a bit sobering.) But all of us know something about dreams. Hopefully most of us know something about chasing our dreams.

During the Olympics, NBC aired a great feature by Tom Brokaw about Britain's Roger Bannister becoming the first man to break the four-minute-mile barrier. Bannister was a doctor, but he found a cause in trying to break the barrier. Britain was still war-weary in the 1950s, and it would bring great pride to whichever country could break the mark. Some people didn't think the human body was capable of running a four-minute mile. But Bannister had the goal, kept trying, and on a somewhat dreary day in 1954 in Oxford, he made another attempt. Brokaw asked, what were you thinking as you made that frantic final charge down the homestretch?

Bannister, an eloquent speaker, gave a simple, wonderful reply.

"All I knew was that I was going as hard as I could."

I think there's a lot of wisdom in that. Find your dream, then go as hard as you can.

Roger Bannister crossed the line in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Lolo: London epilogue

The London rain fell on the track as Lolo Jones prepared to run in the final of the women's 100-meter hurdles. Eight of the best women in the world at this event were on the track. Lolo was in Lane 2, the innermost runner as Lane 1 was unoccupied. On TV, one could see her lips repeating a phrase.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me...

Getting to an Olympic track final is never easy, unless perhaps you happen to be Usain Bolt, but Lolo had particularly needed to dig in and battle to get to this stage. In 2008 she was the best women's 100-meter hurdler in the world. As you probably know, she was leading the race in the 2008 Olympics when she clipped the ninth of 10 hurdles, causing her to finish an agonizing seventh instead of getting the gold.

But she threw herself into preparation for the next Olympics, even eating off of London 2012 plates for repeated motivation. She trained and trained and trained. Faster, higher, stronger.

She had to undergo surgery for a tethered spinal cord last summer and could barely walk after. She threw her ample determination into her rehab. Two hamstring injuries in the spring compounded the comeback, but she kept chipping away, improving her times. She was the third of three U.S. hurdlers to qualify for the Olympics in the 100 meter hurdles.

Lolo had plenty of support heading into the Games, but there was also a thinly-veiled jealousy by the other two U.S. hurdlers about the attention (and sponsorship dollars) Lolo had. There were critics who said she got too much attention relative to her success, including a nasty piece in the New York Times that led to significant reader backlash and caused the Times' public editor to write a piece calling the article too harsh, writing, "In this particular case, I think the writer was particularly harsh, even unnecessarily so."

The point the critics miss is that as sports fans we don't just pay attention to the absolute best athletes. We appreciate athletic excellence, sure, and Lolo is one of the best hurdlers in the world. But we really like good stories. Lolo has a great story, and her openness about her personal life (when asked) is refreshing. Fans like it when athletes are real, when they're human.

As for sponsorships, athletes can seek, accept or turn down whatever they want. Lolo grew up in poverty, and if they are a way to support herself and her family, then that's a blessing she should enjoy. And if we're still worrying about whether female athletes are too pretty or not pretty enough, well that's society's misfortune.

The point of all this is all the negative voices, combined with the regular, massive pressure of the Olympics and sure, the specter of that ninth hurdle at Beijing weighed on Lolo. She won her preliminary heat, and in the post race interview one could see the weight as she talked about proving the doubters wrong.

The semifinal was tough. I couldn't tell for sure, but it almost seemed like one of Lolo's feet drug out of the starting blocks. In any event, she sprinted on, at times at the very edge of her lane and once grazing a hurdle. But she has her speed and her will, and she churned out a third place finish that was fast enough to get her into the final.

So there she was Tuesday night in London's Olympic Stadium. London's familiar rain fell down on the athletes. It was a loaded final, with the three Americans, Australia's speedy Sally Pearson, and would be the fastest such race in Olympic history.

Lolo got a good start, and three of four hurdles in looked like she might medal or even win. But gradually, in the churn of those pumping and jumping legs, Pearson and the two other Americans surged ahead. Pearson set the Olympic record. Lolo finished fourth, the Olympics' heartbreak position, a tenth of a second away from an Olympic medal. Her time, 12.58, would've won a medal in Beijing, but she later said that didn't make her feel any better, understandably.

After the race, she stood with hands on her hips, gazing out into the night and the rain and the noise. Into the tempest. The classic pose of the gallant-but-defeated athlete.

"As an athlete, you never want to make excuses," Lolo said after the race. "I did the best I could tonight with the cards I was dealt... In '08, I tasted the medal. Here I was just clawing my way through each round and trying to get on the team."

As for continuing her pursuit of an Olympic medal, at Rio in 2016, she said she always thought those would be her last Games. But she added, "Now that I have two bittersweet Olympics, man, I don't know. Every time I come here, I get burned. I'm really disappointed in myself and I feel like I let a lot of people down."

Later, in her room, she tweeted that she was singing Hillsong's "Desert Song" and had it on repeat, adding, "Lord Jesus please comfort me, guide me & heal my broken heart."

Agonizing stuff, enough so that yours truly was tweeting whatever I could at her to try to in some way help.

Probably on little or no sleep, she gamely appeared on NBC's Today Show the following day, her eyes watery and her throat tightening as she was nearly choked up with tears, talking about the New York Times article and the criticism she's received. (Emotional, tough-to-watch clip of the interview here.)

"I think it was just crazy because it was two days before I competed, and then the fact that it was from a U.S. media. I mean they should be supporting out U.S. Olympic athletes and instead they just ripped me to shreds. I just thought that that was crazy because I worked six days a week, every day, for four years for a 12-second race, and the fact that they just tore me apart, it was just heartbreaking."

She was fighting hard against the tears at this point, but she continued.

"They didn't even do their research, calling me the Anna Kournikova of track. I have the American record. I am the American record holder indoors, I have two world indoor titles. Just because I don't boast about these things, I don't think I should be ripped apart by media. I mean I laid it out there, I fought hard for my country, and think it's a shame that I have to deal with so much backlash when I'm already so brokenhearted as it is."

She went on to say she did not regret being so open about her story, saying maybe there's a little girl out there who doubts she can make the Olympics, but maybe the story of Lolo's struggles overcome could help her see what's possible.

Lolo said after the final that her critics could now "have their night and laugh about me." But they don't matter, really. Through all the pain and heartbreak and tears, she probably knows this or will know it.

No, what matters is the action, the effort, the daily grind to achieve her dreams. What matters is Christ who strengthens her. What matters are the thousands or maybe millions of people who are inspired to run a better race, on tracks and in life, because of her. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. But it's the willingness to overcome fear and challenges and doubt to try anyway, to act anyway, to take a chance anyway; that's where the glory lies.

Teddy Roosevelt said it well, and switching man to woman I think it applies to Lolo's ongoing story:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong [woman] stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the [woman] who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends [herself] in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if [she] fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that [her] place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Winning, losing and being a fan

I root for losers, generally.

And I'm not saying that meaning I root for the underdog, like almost all of us do, at least a little. I'm saying the teams I support with such dedication just... kind of... lose.

The Royals... yeah. Each summer a slog toward 85 or 95 or 106 (!) losses, hope extinguished by May, losing and embarrassments and losing and bad "Royals suck" jokes I've heard a million times. And losing.

Then take my alma mater, Mizzou. Not fair to lump them in with Royals, but my friends know the two things that dig at me as much as about anything in sports: No Final Fours for the Missouri basketball team, ever, and no Missouri football conference titles since 1969. Twice in the last decade the Mizzou hoops team has stood one win away from the Final Four, once with me in attendance, in the Arizona desert; both times they lost. This year, as a No. 2 seed, Mizzou... never mind.

Mizzou has certainly given me some great moments, such as the 2007 football win over Kansas, Armageddon at Arrowhead. But it was followed by a Big 12 title game loss to Oklahoma, the same ending as the 2008 season. In 2010, Mizzou got past Oklahoma, finally, but then got smashed by Nebraska and didn't win the North. (Nebraska lost the Big 12 title game to... Oklahoma. See the pattern here? No Christmas card for you, Stoops.)

If the Royals are about relentless, mind-numbing, ever-creative ways to lose, Mizzou is about being good enough that the big losses really hurt.

But it wasn't always this way. As a kid growing up in Nebraska, the teams I most closely followed were the Nebraska Cornhuskers and San Francisco 49ers football teams. During the '90s, they won. A lot. From the year I was six to until two months before I turned 15, Nebraska went 102-10 in nearly 9 full seasons. But at the end of that run was a 2001 Friday after Thanksgiving in which Colorado stunned the Huskers. It was followed by a Nebraska loss to Miami in the national title game, and I jokingly say the two losses ended my childhood. Or maybe it was a Monday Night Football game in 1999, when my all-time favorite athlete of all time, ever, Steve Young, was knocked unconscious when running back Lawrence Phillips (a former Husker, the symmetry!) whiffed on a block. I vividly remember the close-up of Young's face, looking as if he was asleep for a few seconds on the turf.

But the point of this blog isn't to reverse-brag about how tough it is to be Ben Herrold the sports fan. I actually have a pretty well-adjusted view of sports, of how magical and rewarding they can be, but that they require the proper perspective. Yes, sports don't matter; congratulations on that scoop. But with an eternal lens, most stuff people devote their time to doesn't really matter. But for sports, the effort, the desire, the spending of one's self for a worthy cause (to borrow from Teddy Roosevelt), the contrast of victory and defeat, agony and ecstasy, of the big moments being so fleeting but lasting so long, makes sports so scintillating and fulfilling and captivating. And the stories; the humanity of the athletes. And a million other things.

So it's nice when your team or your athlete prevails, and it was brutal, agonizing, a metaphorical stab wound when Tom Watson faltered in the 2009 British Open playoff. For every Marcus Denmon scoring nine straight points to beat Kansas in Columbia, there seems to be a 19-point blown lead in Allen Fieldhouse with the fate of the universe apparently hanging in the balance. (Okay, not quite.) As fans, we share our athletes' and teams' joy of victory and agony of defeat; it just sometimes seems I get a bit much of the latter. I don't mean to sound pessimistic, it's just... well I'm at the unenviable crossroads of rooting for the Royals and against Kansas basketball.

But enter the Olympics, in which we're fortunate to root for Team USA, the Olympic juggernaut. We get to root for USA Basketball (men's and women's), Michael Phelps, Misty May & Kerri Walsh. For the Olympics, we're all Yankee fans.

So, emboldened by this, I'm rooting hard for Lolo Jones to get the medal (gold?!?) that eluded her after clipping the hurdle in Beijing. I want this one, people. I don't invest in being a fan to revel in Independence Bowl trophies, broken by Truman the Tiger or not, or how well Royals fans booed Robinson Cano. Given Lolo's story and how much I'm wanting her to win (and, yes, given my massive crush on her), a Lolo gold would be one of my great fan experiences. Yes, others are picked to take home the gold, but to be a fan is to hope.

One thing I do know about sports and being a fan, one glorious moment can outweigh plenty of bad ones.