Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Irish And Hozer

I was sitting at my desk on Sunday night when I heard the familiar sweet “ding-dong” from my computer, notifying me I had a new email message. It happens all the time, and five or six times a day, I go through the mailbox to cull out the junk and things that are actually sent to me. I checked it right away and immediately started laughing and crying at the same time. The sender was KTMill, one of my friends in the Navy, the one who I did some stories with when he was stationed at Cecil Field, the one who’s kids went to school with mine, the one who I thought was dead.

Cmdr. Kevin Miller’s current assignment is at the Pentagon, located just inside the helipad, just a few yards away from where the direct attack happened. He was there, watching the attack on New York, thinking, “we’re next.” And he was right.

Sitting at his desk, he sensed, as much as heard or felt the shudder of the building and the rush of hot air through the office. Knowing just what had happened, he evacuated with what he hoped was the rest of his staff. It wasn’t long until he learned that a third of that staff was gone in an instant, an act of war on men and women in uniform and civilians serving their country. Kevin, or “Hozer” as he is known in the Navy, is an FA-18 pilot, a member of the Navy pilot Hall of Fame in Pensacola with more than 1,000 carrier landings. He’s the kind of guy we’re not counting on to restore our way of life.

On the front line of that battle is my friend Pat Rainey. Cmdr. Rainey is the Operations Officer on the USS Roosevelt. They shipped out on September 19th. It was a planned deployment, but now with a different purpose. I picked up the phone today and it was Pat, “Irish” as he’s known in the Navy, on the other end. “Hey Sam, Irish here,” he said in his usual pleasant demeanor. “Hey Pat!” I exclaimed, “Where are you?” I foolishly asked. “We’ve got a new plan,” he said, “we’re not talking about where we are.”

I felt pretty stupid, but quickly realized these are the new rules, the new way of life. We chatted for a few minutes before the line went dead, but not before I promised to hold up my end of the bargain here in exchange for the work he’ll be doing in the months ahead.

On the morning of September 11th, Pat and his wife Kim were on a small vacation, enjoying a few days together before Pat shipped out for six months. Pat has made Captain, so this deployment will be his final one as Commander; he gets “pinned” early next year.

I was up early and was following the events very closely. I got Pat on the phone before 10, knowing he and Kim would still be sleeping after a late night out. “Hello,” he answered in his best ‘I’m not really asleep” voice. “Pat, it’s Sam,” I said calmly. “Hey Bone, what’s up,” Pat responded, paying me a high compliment by using the “call sign” the Navy gave me during some tactical jet, back seat training I went through a few years ago.

“Look, Irish, some terrorists have attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,” I explained in as straightforward a manner as I could. I was trying not to be alarmist, knowing a military professional who’s about to be at the “tip of the sword” would want the facts, not something hysterical. To compound matters, Kim is a flight attendant, spending most of her time in the air. “You’re kidding right Bone?” Pat said as I’ve heard him say a hundred times before about things I was kidding about. “No, turn on the TV,” I told him.

Amid the fumbling for the remote control I heard the distinctive “thump” of the television coming on, then silence, then “Oh my God!” in an even tone. “Let me get my bearings and I’ll call you right back,” Irish said before he clicked off.

Over the next few hours, I talked with Pat about a half dozen times, as he got his life in order, drove to Norfolk and back twice, trying to coordinate things that were already difficult. His daughter in Houston didn’t get a chance to see him before he left as planned. His wife now sends him off, knowing full well he’s in harm’s way.

It’s guys like Kevin and Pat that give me strength, give me confidence that we’re following the right path and doing the right thing. They also give me confidence in one other important thing:

We’ll win.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Security Conscious

I laughed a little yesterday. I cried a lot, but I laughed a little. Something my daughter said to me in the car made me laugh, and I noticed it right away. It was the first time I’d laughed in nearly a week. Little by little, we’re getting our lives back. Not back to what they were, but back under our control.

Our whole concept of “normal” has to change. More awareness, more diligence regarding our personal security. Because of our spot on the globe, we’ve enjoyed a society and lifestyle that no other country on earth has experienced. We don’t walk around wondering who the enemy might be, or what harm might come to us, or the people around us. This amazes people from other countries. Because world wars and terrorist acts have happened in their backyard, Europeans, Africans, Asians and Middle Easterners are all much more security conscious than Americans. They come here and marvel at the freedoms we not only give our own citizens but what we allow visitors as well.

We’ve always known we were vulnerable to attack. Not by conventional weapons of war, but to suicide fanatics willing to harm innocent bystanders. We just didn’t believe people would be willing to be so barbaric, so evil in their thinking and actions. Now we know. We know what the Israelis, the Germans, the English and others have known for some time. We’re vulnerable and now we’re a target.

If you’ve ever traveled in Europe, you know a public military presence is part of every day life. I’ve been in a German airport where soldiers were spaced every twenty feet or so with sub-machine guns. Checking into a flight in Frankfurt, I was pulled out of line and taken to a back room. It seems I fit the profile of troublemakers according to the Germans.

While traveling in Europe, I had grown a beard, acquired a Greek fisherman’s cap and was wearing a leather jacket and khakis. The German security was very firm, polite, but no-nonsense as they patted me down, questioned me under armed guard and ran a high-tech metal detector over my body. When they let me onto the aircraft, they then made me get off, and identify my luggage that they had spread out on the tarmac. Was it racial profiling? Absolutely. I fit the stereotype. I was similarly questioned when I returned to the States. Did I mind? No, in fact, I was pretty pleased at the tightened security, knowing they were making it difficult for the actual “evil-doers.” It wasn’t as convenient, but that’s a small price to pay. Without suspending everybody’s civil liberties, we’re going to have to be more mindful of who’s around. If you look the part, you can expect to be questioned.

We’re going to have to get used to that as Americans. Going to sporting events will be a little less easy. Last year at the Super Bowl, security officials used a face recognition program for fans entering at each gate. Metal detectors were stationed at every entrance. It might become part of the regular fan experience. And that’s OK.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Tough Call

Unprecedented action takes unprecedented decision making. There is no history to rely on, nothing that has happened in the past to compare. While we have the thought that a return to “normalcy” is important, it is our very resilience that can make us vulnerable again.

Our enemy in this war is evil, but he is also smart. He has studied us, studied our culture, and our reactions. He knows we have a nearly maniacal drive to show that our way of life can’t be disrupted, that we won’t be deterred from our freedom. And we won’t be. But a rush to judgement because of our desire to return to normal would be rash. In fact, our whole idea of normal has to change. If we go back to our day to day lives without an altered sense of what is normal, then those people who were victims of this atrocity will have died in vain. It’s naďve to think that the government can ensure our security. We cannot live in a closed society of fear, but we must understand the risks. That’s why our security is our personal responsibility. An awareness of our surroundings is paramount to our safety.

The arguments regarding whether the sports world should pick up this weekend are equally powerful. One side says it’s important to let our enemies know that they can’t disrupt our way of life through the symbolic playing of games. That the games will provide a much needed distraction for a grieving American public. Another side says it’s time to mourn. That a weekend without sports would give people a true time to reflect, to spend time with their families, to deal with their grief on their own level. That putting airliners back in the sky with large stadiums full of 60,000 fans would be too inviting of a target for a cunning, evil enemy. And there’s a third argument. And it’s that the very fact that there are differing opinions and different actions taken is the essence of our freedom.

Instead of receding, this tragedy is getting larger. The numbers are becoming faces and families with the grim reality that it will probably get worse before it gets better. That’s why I don’t think they should play games this weekend. While the games would be symbols of freedom, it would be asking too much of our athletes to bear that burden. Is it fair to ask them to play games within sight of the wreckage where bodies are being extracted? Will we be able to attend as fans, to cheer without guilt, to conjure up a dislike for the opponent?

My biggest fear is that it is not over. But perhaps a larger cloud that hangs over this discussion is that those who say “play” will call those who say “don’t play”, wimps. And those who say “don’t play” will call those who say “play” lunatics. If that what it degenerates to, then the enemy has won.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Gators After Marshall

Sometimes it’s hard to gauge how good a top-flight college team is based on their early season games. Florida is particularly difficult to get a handle on because Head Coach Steve Spurrier can change his mind on a whim and shut his team down or run the score up at will.

Against Marshall, it was obvious Spurrier didn’t want to run it up against his former defensive coordinator Bobby Pruett but at the same time, Steve wanted to get his starters plenty of work in front of more than 85,000. Against overmatched teams, Florida occasionally gets a lead and loses interest. The number of athletes Florida can put on the field, especially when it comes to pure speed overmatched Marshall, despite their reputation as a solid opening opponent.

Still, Florida is the number one ranked team in the country, but are they the best? Hard to tell.

Spurrier was complimentary of Rex Grossman and Brock Berlin, and gave the game ball to receivers coach Dwayne Dixon because he thought the receivers played well. “It was a good pitch and catch game for us,” said the Head Ball Coach.

Steve has said he’d like to see his team run the ball better, and while he thought they accomplished that, it was clear he was more interested in getting the ball in the end zone than something as hackneyed as “establishing the run.” “We just don’t,” Spurrier started before his voice trailed off, “I don’t know, those running teams, it’s just hard to score a lot of points if you’re running it all the time.” Pretty obvious Steve wants to see the ball in the air and subsequently in the end zone.

Seeing Florida in person, they look pretty impressive. Standing on the sideline, the Gators look a little bigger across the offensive line and as fast as ever in the skill positions. They could run it if they wanted with Ernest Graham and Robert Gillespie carrying the load, but that’s not what Spurrier wants to do. The schedule favors Florida as well, getting Tennessee and Florida State at home.

They’ll have to stay healthy, and pay attention on the road, especially at South Carolina. If all that comes together, from what they showed against the Thundering Herd, the Rose Bowl is not that big of a reach for the Orange and Blue.