Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Father's Day Tribute

I've always viewed sports as a great bonding tool between generations old and young, especially among fathers and sons.  The amount of life lessons that can be taught through a game of catch or one-on-one are endless.  I have received some of my best advice from great men who used sports to clearly convey the message.

And that's why, in honor of Father's Day, I am writing a series on what today's college and pro athletes can learn from some of the influential men in my life, all of whom are fathers.

Part Four: M-V-Pops

One summer night in 1999, I was on the porch talking with my dad.  The exact extent of our conversation is a little fuzy, but I'm sure it was typical of the ones we have to this day.  We probably discussed sports, politics, women, and everything in between.  I love these conversations.

The one part of this particular talk that stood out the most was me telling him how I was terribly concerned that I wasn't going to make the freshman basketball team in the fall.  (These are things that cause mental anguish to a 14-year-old, but at the time, it was a big deal.)

That was the moment my dad told me something I will never forget.  He began quoting the poem "IF" by Rudyard Kipling.  (The following are parts of the poem)

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; 

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too....

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;....

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;...

You'll be a man my son. 

And after, my dad said, "if you can remember the message of the poem and continue to work hard, you'll make the team."

From that moment on, I worked on my game constantly.  I spent hours playing pick-up games under the scorching sun at Groves High School.  I would get to the court around 5 p.m and stay until the only thing you could see was the moon and stars.  I was playing with guys twice my age and three times my size and that challenge was paying off as my skills were getting noticeably better, but what was even better was that I was doing it all with my dad by my side.

He would come to the court after work and just sit and watch me play.  After games, he'd break down what I did right, what I can work on, and encourage me not to get discouraged.  When we were a man short, he'd grab his old gym shoes from the trunk of his car, lace 'em up, and hoop with guys half his age...for hours.

I made the team that fall and by my junior year made the varsity squad, because every summer my dad and I were on the court daily.  He was always there.

That summer represents our relationship perfectly.  My dad has been at his best when his best was needed.

Several years ago, after getting dumped by this girl, I was miserable.  I went into one of those movie scene depressions.  All I wore was sweatpants, refused to shave or groom myself in any way, shape, or form, and spent my nights watching sports, sulking in my own self-pity.  It was pretty embarrassing, I'll admit.

But my dad, like David Ortiz in the ninth, stepped up and hit a home run.  He told me, "young Samuel (that's what he calls me) if you are a baseball player and hit .300 for your entire career, just three-of-every ten tries, you know what happens?  You are in the HALL-of-FAME!"

I thought to myself, "look man, that's great, but I could care less about Ichiro at this particular moment."

He went on.  "What I mean is, sometimes you strike out.  Life doesn't always go your way.  But, great hitters don't just quit, they step into the batters box and swing themselves out of a slump."

In a weird way, it was exactly what I needed to hear.  I decided to shower and get on with life.  (For the record, my batting average is  still worse than Brandon Inge's at this point, but that's a different story).

Two years ago, after sending out about 200 resumes, hoping to get a new job, I was about ready to quit journalism.  I've wanted to be a journalist since I was five, but had been stuck in the same job, working about 70 hours a week, in a city where snow fell as often as the sun rose.  I was ready to throw in the towel.

I told my dad point blank, "I'm quitting and joining the Peace Corps."  I had put some serious thought into this decision and researched how to join.  After making this big announcement, all I heard on the other end of the phone was dead silence for about five seconds and then..."BAHAHAHAHA."  My dad was cracking up.  "Peace Corps?, you can't even rake the leaves," he said.  

Eventually he composed himself and again dipped into the sports analogies to shed some light on the situation.

"Great shooters don't just stop shooting when they miss.  They keep launching shots."  Translation, so what that the first 200 resumes that you sent out didn't get you a new job.  It may take another 200, but at some point, you'll get your shot.

To be fair, it took about another 100, but as he has always been, my dad was right and I got a new job, that didn't require me to get any shots or sleep with a mosquito net around me.

The all-time greatest athletes have another gear.  They take their talents to another level when it matters most.  That type of elevation is mandatory to achieve icon status.

My Dad is the Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Carl Lewis, Wayne Gretzky, and Willie Mays of fathers.  He elevates his game at the most critical moments.

Simply put, there are none greater.

 Part Three: The Legacy of a Champ

Sitting in the pew of a church in Venice, Florida last month at my grandfather's funeral, I felt uncomfortable.  It was hot and the emotions of the week leading up to the day had gotten the best of me, but neither were the source of my uneasy feeling.

For my 26 years of life , I had "The Champ" as my go to guy.  While a man of few words, he always knew exactly what to say.  I could count on him in any situation.  From what I heard at the funeral, I wasn't the only one who felt this way.

In that moment, sitting on the pew, on this tragically hot day,waiting to say my final goodbye, to one of the people I loved the most, I found myself wondering if my grandfather truly got the most out of his 82-years.

The question was answered quickly.

As my aunt Catherine read her perfectly scripted eulogy, I suddenly had the clearest understanding of my grandfather's life and what he wanted to get out of it.

I don't remember my aunt's speech word for word, but there was a part that listed a number of accomplishments my grandfather wanted to achieve before he passed.  By the time he died, he had everything checked off.  And what made the list so interesting was that his goals were based on making sure those around him were moving in the right direction.

He wanted to see all ten of his children grow up, have families, and find their identities.  For the most part, check.

He wanted to see his youngest daughter get married, check.

He wanted to see me graduate from high school, check.

My grandfather not only got to experience these joys in life, but he got a few extras.  He saw his children have children who grew into adults and teenagers.  He even saw his great-grand children.

Not only did he live to see me graduate from high school, but he lived long enough to see me put on a cap and gown after four-years at Michigan State, and then hung on long enough to see me jump across the midwest three times with new jobs.

He got the most out of life because he knew what was important.

Family mattered most to Roy Klemet and making sure his was ready to handle the rigors of life was his main motivation.

He didn't live a life of great luxury, but he made those around him feel rich.  He was tough as nails, but had a heart softer than snow.  He spoke in few words, but the words were always impactful.

Roy Klemet strived his whole life to make the world around his family a better one. 

In sports, I think we are seeing an opposite trend.  Athletes forget they are part of a larger picture.  The average career of a player in any given league is between three and five years.  Superstars and consistent role players are sometimes fortunate to squeeze out a decade or more.

In the grand scheme of things, their time spent on the field and court are but a mere speck in the history of their respective sports.   With that said, I want to see more athletes do more to make a positive long term impact and use the few years they spend playing at the highest level to make the leagues better for those that follow.

Time spent taking mug shots, in court disputing child support, and in clubs making it rain takes away from building a better legacy.  Those actions embarrass the reputation of the leagues these athletes are part of.

Players like Peyton Manning, Walter Payton, Bill Russell, and Mark Messier are great because they changed the way their sports were played.  Their attention to detail and passion for hard work were contagious and forced those around them to either get better, or get lost.  

They didn't distract themselves with trivial, self-serving indulgences because they wanted nothing to distract them from improving their careers, and in turn, improve their leagues.

Sports careers, like life, are too short to not try to get the best out of them.

My grandfather got the best out of life and because of that, made the lives of  others better, as well.

The Champ made sure he did what needed to be done so when he was gone, the rest of us could carry on using him as an example.

He showed his family how to live life right.  He helped those around him become better people and left a legacy of higher standards.

Which was the ultimate check on his life list.

PART TWO: Don't Forget the Fun

Let me paint a mental picture.  It’s the middle of summer.  Two boys - one eight, the other nine-years old - are standing with their jaws dropped just shy of the ground.  They are in absolute awe.  Confused, maybe a little embarrassed, but mostly proud.

By the looks on their faces you would have figured Phoebe Cates just emerged from a pool like a glorious sea-goddess and they were unable to avert their eyes.

But believe it or not, the spectacle they were looking at was a hard-breathing, man in his early 40s who had just left a streak of sweat on a basketball floor that was as long as a tire skid mark at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The two boys were my cousin Zack and I watching as his dad and my uncle (and godfather), Kirk, dove on the floor after a loose ball while playing hoops.

Now you are probably thinking, was this for the rec league championship? No.  

What about a high school reunion game? No.  He wasn’t trying to impress his old buddies? No.  

So where did he do this? A basketball camp?! Really?

That’s right, in a game with other dads and uncles, my uncle was sacrificing his body as if it was the final minute of game seven and not the annual Tim McCormick Father-Son Basketball Camp at Saint Mary’s High School in Orchard Lake, Michigan.

That’s just who is.  My uncle Kirk gives his all, all the time.

Those who read my blog regularly, all three of you, are probably guessing at this point I am going to use my uncle’s hustle as a way to rip lazy, over-paid athletes.  While I could, because there is plenty of material there, I actually use this example of my uncle doing his best Brian Cardinal impression to say…sports needs to get back to having more fun.

As hard as my uncle played that game, and weekend, he never stopped smiling.  He loved it.  He was a 40-something-year-old man getting in touch with his inner kid and reveled in every minute of it.
To me, there is nothing more refreshing, except for only the fact that this is my uncle Kirk’s approach to every day.

Maybe it’s his psychology background or various life experiences, but I can’t think of anyone who enjoys the little things in life more than my uncle.

Without getting too personal, Kirk could easily take a different approach and sulk in a number of bad hands he’s been dealt.  But instead, he uses those setbacks to find joy elsewhere.  

You won’t find a happier man than my uncle when he is singing, having a conversation while eating Subway, or simply listening to stories of his kids and nieces and nephews.  His joy is simple, yet perfect.

I wish he would spread some of that positivity to the sports community, media included.

Think about the biggest stories in sports right now.  The Heat failure.  The NFL lockout.  Lance Armstrong cheating.  And the scum of college athletics.

If I was a kid and these were the headlines I was reading growing up, I would trade in my bat and glove for a three-piece suit and campaign signs, because even politics doesn’t look this grim.

We, yes I said we (me 100-percent included), focus so much on what's wrong with sports, that we forget about why we fell in love with them in the first place.

Sports are all about the kid who catches a foul ball at his first game.  They are about the little brother whose favorite player signed the playing card he sleeps next to every night while dreaming of one day becoming his idol.  They are meant to be about the father and son enjoying a brew while watching the team they’ve cheered for, for decades, finally reach the playoffs.
As is true of most aspects in life, as you get older, you begin to understand everything is a little more complicated than it was as a youth, including sports. 

Sports are businesses which can lead to corruption and cheating, but at the core, they are still all about fun.

Sports need to channel their inner uncle Kirk more often.   Even when the times are tough, even when there are few reasons to be encouraged, stop for a minute, and simply smile.

I imagine the next day after his floor-dive, my uncle was walking a little more gingerly.  But, I have no doubt he’d do it again because he was spending time with his boys, playing a game he loved, having fun.

Exactly as sports are meant to be.

PART ONE: The Mount Rushmore of Greatness

It's fitting to start a four part series talking about four men who I view as a Mount Rushmore of sorts.

To me, Jorge Morales, Mark Roualet, Mike Peluso, and Bud Petcoff are the faces of business savvy.  They are each either immensely successful business owners or presidents of major companies.

I've always considered what these four men have accomplished as perfect examples of hard work paying off.  They have put in endless hours, paid their dues, consistently moved up the ranks, and once they reached what most would consider the apex, challenged themselves and tried to rise even higher.

They are the ultimate businessmen.

In the metro-Detroit area, I imagine they could give any doorman the Godfather "Do you know who I am?" treatment and have a top-notch table, at a five-star restaurant, with a 32-ounce steak waiting for them within minutes.  Through their hard work and commitment, they've probably earned the right to do so.

But, as good as they are at business, they are better people and never walk around entitled.

Each of the four are as selfless and as generous as there is.  When you work as hard as they do and accomplish as much as they have, it would seem natural that they would carry a hint of arogance.  But, not once in all my years of knowing these men have I felt like any less of a person when around them.

They represent everything I wish we'd see more of in today's sports world, humility and staying grounded.

It seems like every day I read a story about some player saying some variation of "I need to get mine."  Unless you are a track runner, who is not on a relay team, these should be the last words that enter your head, let alone leave your mouth.

We saw it in LeBron's (paraphrased) "my world is fine, because I'm rich, your world sucks because you are not me," postgame comment.  The mentality was on full display in Columbus, Ohio for almost a decade and the NFL is tarnishing its reputation and product by owners and players both trying to "get theirs."

Athletes, and even coaches, lose site of what got them to where they are.  It's an unfortunate trend that those that reach the top of their sport often buy into the hype.  That's why Terrelle Pryor figured he could roll around in any car he wanted.  It's why the Heat celebrated a title eleven months too early.  It's why Jamarcus Russell figured he could sip on Purple Drank instead of participate in off-season workouts.  Because they all believed they were in fact as big as the amount of zeros on their pay checks.

I want to send my men of Mount Rushmore to lecture these selfish, self-absorbed morons on what it means to be truly successful and truly a man.

Greatness isn't defined as the amount of cars in the garage or the number of carats in your chain.  It's defined as reaching the top of your abilities and then striving to go even further, even if that means failing in the process.

Jorge Morales, Mark Roualet, Mike Peluso, and Bud Petcoff are great men and fathers because through all their successes, they always stayed true to who they are and never let their feet elevate off the pavement.

Kids should wear jerseys with their last names on the back and hang posters with their faces on the wall, because these four men live Hall-of-Fame lives.

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