Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Pat Tillman RIP

He never wanted any kind of special treatment. He refused interview requests, refused coverage of his enlistment or graduation from Ranger school. He turned down the networks and told the Army he just wanted a chance to be a soldier and try to become a Ranger. Pat Tillman didn’t want any fanfare. He just wanted to serve his country.

Tillman died in a firefight in Eastern Afghanistan on Thursday. He was 27. The news swept through the sports world like a swift kick in the stomach. Most of the media didn’t even know Tillman was in Afghanistan. Or that he had be deployed in Iraq in March of 2003. Tillman was the guy who turned down the $3.6 million to take an $18,000 enlistment in the Army. But while the media focused on the money he walked away from, Tillman focused on his sense of duty.

“Pat was clear-eyed ad made level headed decisions,” former Arizona Cardinals Head Coach Dave McGinnis said yesterday. “He left football for a higher calling.”

Tillman’s friends said he was greatly affected by the events on September 11th and that those events spurred his decision to enlist. While he didn’t want any fanfare, the associated coverage surrounding his death has re-focused many people’s minds on the Americans and Allies killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tillman is a hero, not because he walked away from the money and the glory of professional sports, but because he was willing to sacrifice, and make the ultimate sacrifice, defending and preserving freedom.

Just like the thousands of other men and women in uniform and in harm’s way right now. They have taken the fight to the terrorists front door, redefining the battlefield away from downtown Manhattan and the Pentagon Tillman has put an identifiable face on the sorrow and suffering many American families have felt since the War on Terror began in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was proud of Pat Tillman when he enlisted, and I’m proud and thankful for him today. The Cardinals are planning to honor his memory by naming a plaza after him at their new stadium. America can honor his memory by finishing the job that took his life.

Maybe Tillman’s death will show many of the players and coaches in professional sports, especially football, how silly they look when they compare their jobs to combat. “I’m going to war with these guys,” is a phrase used by a lot of athletes in locker rooms across the league. Comparing a game to an actual battle is ludicrous. It also should give coaches something to think about when it comes to refusing to let their players talk with the media. Wait a minute. Eighteen-year olds are being interviewed on the battlefield in between firefights on live television while certain players and coaches are “off-limits” after games?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Palmers’ Masters Legacy

Sometimes when people ask me about my job and whether I still like it, I have a pretty stock answer that really rings true in my head. “Are you kidding,” I’ll say, “I’ve flown with the Blue Angels and have had beers with Arnold Palmer, what’s not to like?”

And that’s true.

I’ve used Palmer as that standard of excellence, for all others to be compared to. And a lot of people have done that. Becaue it’s so easy. Arnold has always made it easy. He’s the only athlete I’ve ever met who makes you feel like he’s got all the time in the world and you’re his only concern of the day when he’s talking to you. He has more grace in the end of his little finger than most athletes acquire in a lifetime.

“Everybody out here should turn around and hand Arnold 50 cents on every dollar he makes,” said Curtis Strange, perhaps the only smart thing Curtis has ever said.

Palmer’s final apperance at the Masters as a competitor was a parade, and a celebration of his 50 years at Augusta. Palmer won the Masters four times, but his connection with the tournament and Augusta National is much more than that. It’s the place where Palmer became a star. It’s where he made his connection with everybody, golfer and non-golfer alike. Frank Chirkinian was the producer of CBS’s coverage of the Masters and recognized immediately that the camera loved Arnold. His charisma came right through the lens. Because it was, and is, real. A blue-collar guy winning in a white collar game.

But it was more than that.

Palmer is unfailingly polite, a characteristic he says his father instilled in him. Last week Palmer was in Ponte Vedra at his design company offices for the day. I was invited to do an interview with Palmer, but it turned out to be much more than that. Arnold asked me to stick around for lunch, and his favorite desert (strawberry vannila fudge sundaes) and just some chat time. He was affable as ever and during our interview told a great story about his latest (19th) hole in one, just three days earlier on 17 with 7-wood on his home course Bay Hill.

I asked him if there was one shot that remained in his memory of the thousands he’s hit in the Masters, one that might have been the best shot he’d ever hit there. “In 1960, I hit the Eisenhower tree on 17 with my drive and it fell straight down. I hit four-iron there on the green, made the putt and went on to win,” Arnold recalled like it was yesterday. We laughed, and turned the cameras off. He stepped aside and paused, and said without a smile “I could have told you about a bunch of bad ones I hit there. Like that 6 on 18 in 1961.”

Here we were 45 years later, and Palmer was still seething about the tournament that got away. The competitive fire still raging inside. And that’s what I’ve always liked about Arnold. He wants to win and makes no bones about it.

I was watching his final round on television last Friday and his interview afterwards. Palmer cried. And we all cried with him. “I guess I’m just a sentimental sop,” Arnold said when asked about his feelings. (I thought Bill Macatee and Peter Kostis were horrible by the way). But true to form, Arnold thanked the fans for their support over the years at Augusta. No Arnold, thank you.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Final Four Thoughts

Having picked Uconn to win it all, I thought it was funny that I found myself rooting for Georgie Tech to at least give them a game. But the Huskies were clearly the best team, and the predictions about the Final Four were right: The real championship game involved Duke on Saturday. They didn’t make a lot of headlines during the regular season, mainly because they were injured but once they got everybody back healthy, the Huskies validated how a lot of people felt about them.

Emeka Okafor, “Mr. Perfect” as dubbed by his teammates, was a force that was almost Walton/Alcindor-like in the championship game. He moves like David Robinson, but doesn’t have the outside jumper Robinson has. But with his size and work ethic on the court, he’ll be a great addition to any NBA team. In fact, the Magic could really use him to start rebuilding.

One thing about NCAA basketball that is starting to grate on me is how much attention is lavished on the coaches. Jim Calhoun is a good coach, no doubt because he’s taken Uconn to two National Championships. Maybe it’s just Billy Packer, but stop sucking up to these guys like nobody’s business. They’re coaches. They recruit and motivate and install a system but the players play. The players win and lose games.

Maybe it is just Packer. He’s starting to drive me crazy. I didn’t have a problem with his opinion regarding St. Joes and their number one seeding. He was right. They couldn’t have played in The ACC, The Big Ten or The SEC and had the kind of run they had during the regular season. But he constantly hits you over the head with a lot of “I’m smarter than you” talk.

The only guy with more of that attitude is Jay Bilas. Wow is that guy off the charts with his idea of self-worth. Look up condecending in the dictionary and his picture is right there. As my friends would say, “Typical Duke guy.”

I like Brad Daugherty. Straightforward, doesn’t take himself too seriously and even though he had a very solid college career he doesn’t sit there just waiting to tell everybody how he would have done it or how he would have made that play. Dick Vitale is really a character. Predictable, but fun, and knows what the game is about. He’s become part of the fokelore of college basketball, but in a non-offensive way. College kids like him and long-time fans get a chuckle out of him.

I heard people already predicting next year’s top teams on the radio today. Kansas is supposed to be loaded, Duke has just about everybody but Duhon coming back, and Georgia Tech will be tough again. But who really knows? Some freshmen will back out of their commitments, others will go to the NBA and some of the established players expected to return, won’t. But boy was college basketball fun to watch this year.

Hopefully Bill Donovan will get his team in order and be competitive again and my alma mater, Maryland contends again with all of those young players. That would really be something. For me, at least!
Commentary by Sam Kouvaris.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Driving At Daytona

I’ve been trying to do a story on driving at Daytona International Speedway for a couple of years now. The Richard Petty Driving Experience (RPDE) runs an operation there, as well as 21 other tracks around the country. It’s been suggested to me more than a few times, “Why don’t you just do the ride along?” “Look,” I’d answer, “if I’m going to get on the track at Daytona, I’m driving.” So, I contacted the RPDE p.r. department last year and finally settled on a date, April 16th of this year.

The sun was shining and the wind was down when I arrived at the track, “a beautiful day to drive” is how my ride described it. I’ll admit, I had no idea what to expect. I was a little uncomfortable with the idea of driving at Daytona. I wasn’t afraid, but I wondered if I would be once I got behind the wheel. I heard a coach once describe that feeling of “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” So I thought about that and settled into the routine set up by the Petty instructors. Those guys were great. There were 31 “drivers” in my class. The only requirements are you have to be at least 16 and have a valid driver’s license. You also have to know how to drive a “stick.” My class was varied, with some returnees, some thrill seekers, some NASCAR fans, and others who were given the driving experience as a gift. So a lot of the class was on a “0” birthday. Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty and seventy. One driver was 74 years old. “Just wanted to see what it was like,” she explained.

Arriving at the media center, the instructors helped everybody get into an official RPDE drivers uniform and laid out the plan for the day. It started with a video, featuring “The King” himself, going over what to expect and what some of the basic rules were. Then the instructors followed that with a review of some of the technical parts of the day, and then split us into four “teams.” We headed out the door in groups of eight to get a basic overview of the car we’d be driving. I’d wondered if the cars were fake versions of Cup cars, but they’re the real deal. Climb through the window, put the steering wheel on, locate the fire extinguishing system and figure out how the switches on the left dash get the car started. My “team” then climbed into a 10-passenger van for a trip around the track. Out on pit road, James, a RPDE driver and instructor, floored it and headed for Turn One. When you haven’t driven on a high-banked track, that’s a weird experience when it first happens. The van just goes sideways and you’re going around looking “down” at people and cars on the infield. It’s like being on a carnival ride. James was an expert on the track, and it showed as he maneuvered the van in and out of the turns, talking about the line and how to drive the 2 1/½ile tri-oval. “Make you’re instructor do this,” James told us as he showed the hand signal for “back off.” (Waving his right hand in front of the rear view mirror.) “You should get waved off at least twice while you’re out here,” he continued as he talked about the sight picture you should get by keeping your instructor’s car about 5-car lengths in front of you. From there it was on to some pictures and a final drivers meeting. The lead instructor of the day, Dave Williams, (who actually runs the Orlando operation) was funny and cordial, treating us like real drivers and getting our competitive juices flowing. “Rev it at 2,000 rpm, and shift at 4, 000,” Williams explained, “and don’t spin the tires. If you do, it’ll be a stop and go penalty.” That’s a term familiar to NASCAR fans but Williams followed it up with, “We’ll tell you to stop, and you’ll go home. Our version of stop and go.”

I was about two-thirds down the list so I got to see a lot of the “drivers” go on the track, following their instructors around Daytona. It’s true, the anticipation was revving up my own motor and I was getting more comfortable with the idea of getting behind the wheel.

They finally called my name, and I was off to the staging area where I was fitted with a helmet and a head restraint system (it’s just like a parachute harness that hooks to your helmet. It’s a good idea that they have you completely ready before you get into the car so you can start to get “comfortable” with being “uncomfortable” wearing the equipment.

I can’t stress enough how much fun the guys at RPDE made the day. When it was my turn, another staff worker greeting me with a big smile and yelled, “ARE YOU READY?” Walking out to my car (The Aarons 312 machine) I reminded myself to “go for it” as I have many times when I’ve gotten to do these kinds of things because of my job. As expected, climbing in was an adventure, but the briefing was a big help. Another RPDE staffer helped me strap in the four-point harness, fire the engine and yelled, “When I tap the roof, GO GET THAT GUY!” At this point, I’m completely stoked these guys have me so fired up. So just like in the real thing, I’m sitting there running the RPM’s up, listening to the exhaust, waiting to go. My instructor (it turned out to be James) pulled five car lengths in front of me and I heard the “bang, bang” on the roof and “Go get ‘em” from outside the car. I pushed the gas pedal in and slowly let out the clutch and the car began to sputter and cough. “Don’t kill it you idiot,” I heard the voice inside my head scream as I pushed the gas pedal down. Meanwhile, James is pulling away from me, so I slid it into second gear and picked up speed. James was still pulling away. Into third as pit road was going by, and James was disappearing. So I jammed it into fourth and shoved the gas pedal down. “Roar,” is what I heard from the engine, as I closed the gap on my instructor. No sooner than I figured out the “sight picture” we were ON THE TRACK! We stayed low coming out of pit road, letting two cars on the track go by as we got up to speed and that voice in my head was screaming, “YOU’RE DRIVING AT DAYTONA! HOW COOL IS THIS?”

It’s an eight lap session, with your warm up and cool down laps counting, but your instructor is trying to give you the best experience possible. Before I knew it, we’re coming out of turn two and heading down the back straightaway. James is still accelerating in front of me, and I’m pushing the throttle down staying five car-lengths behind him. That’s when I remembered that he told me to make my instructor wave me off a couple of times in the first lap. So I jammed the accelerator down and tucked up behind the car in front of me, and sure enough, he waved me off. I saw turn three looming in the near distance and realized that “WE’RE TURNING LEFT THERE!” I never could figure out what those white stripes were on the track around Daytona, but behind the wheel, it’s obvious. They’re sight lines for the drivers as they get into position on different parts of the track. So as James put his right tires just inside the white stripe going into turn three, I figured my car would follow his if I just didn’t mess things up.

It might seem that the cars just follow the banking at Daytona, but I can tell you, if you don’t drive thru the turns, you’re going into the wall. Particularly coming out of turn four. The centrifugal force wants to run your car up the track, so you constantly have to adjust the line. Doing this without backing out of the throttle is un-natural, but I’ve heard the Earnhardt’s say that so often that it rang true in my head as I was doing it myself. Through the tri-oval and back into turn one, James was pushing the speed up incrementally, but we were definitely going faster. With each lap I was getting more comfortable, even telling myself to relax and made James wave me off a couple more times. I started to look around, seeing different things on the track and realizing there were constant adjustments needed to “find the line.” Driving was a full time job. But I did look around, even noticing the stands and where Dale was killed in turn four.

On my fifth lap coming out of turn four, I caught a glimpse of the two cars in front of us heading into turn one. Right away I thought, “We can catch those guys.” So I tucked up under James’ car again, and he waved me off, again. But he knew exactly what I was thinking because he picked it up again heading through the tri-oval and into turn one. Those guys in front of us kept appearing and disappearing out of my peripheral vision but I could see we were gaining on them. So as we rolled out of turn two, there they were, right in front of us, easily get-able. Just as they had described, the two cars in front of us drifted ever-so slightly down on the track, and James and I slipped to the outside. “Whoosh,” I heard as we went by them on the back stretch. That was really a highlight. We averaged about 150 mph, not fast by NASCAR standards, but enough to get my attention. I went as fast as James would let me, and thought later that I probably could have gone 30 mph faster, but it would take faster reactions in the turns and setting the car up right as you entered the high banking.

So it was great. “Put that among the coolest things I’ve ever done,” is how I think I described it when I got out of the car.

It costs around $500 and worth every penny. If you ever thought you’d like to do it. Go. And go FAST!