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This Team Wins Titles

To find National Champions, and lots of them, look no further than the Sporting Clay, Skeet and Trap team at JU.

A shooting team? At JU you say?

Exactly.

They’ve won nineteen National Event Titles, at least two outright National Championships and have had thirteen team members invited to the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Each year they’re a top ten national program, no matter what division.

“These are really good kids,” is the first thing founding program director and Head Coach Dave Dobson says about his team.”

There are usually around 40 members of the team. They “practice” at Jacksonville Clay Target Sports on New Berlin Road.

Dobson started the team as a club sport at JU in 2009. The team became a varsity sport in 2011. He also helped start the clay sports team at UNF as a club sport with one of his students in 2010.

Dave is an accomplished clay sports shooter who is also one of only two instructors in the US certified by both the National Skeet Shooting and National Sporting Clays Associations at level three. He runs a clay shooting school and serves on several boards including at Jacksonville Clay Target Sports. He’s also rated as a Master Instructor. In other words, he’s pretty unique
I first met Dave in the mid-‘80’s when my friend Larry Gordon invited me to sit in with the horn section and play my trumped with the “Not Tonight I’ve Got the Blues” band. Dobson was the band’s guitar player. He was, and still is, phenomenal at that as well.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say we are to the collegiate clay sports world what the likes of Alabama, Florida State, Florida and Clemson are to the football world: we are a powerhouse,” said Dobson.

“We recruit highly sought-after kids with very high GPA’s – honor students whom we help develop and succeed here and after they leave.”

And the team’s success is not a secret in the clay sports community. Dobson takes calls about students joining the team from all over the US and numerous countries in Europe and South America.

“We’re bringing top academic students to JU. Twenty-seven percent of the students here are student-athletes. Our team competes for the top GPA every year.”

“I only looked at schools where I could continue my shooting career and JU had a shooting team as a varsity sport,” Allison Franza a senior from Avon Park and an assistant coach on the team said this week. Franza was a highly sought after shooter coming out of high school but picked JU because of the “whole package” they offered.

“I loved the campus, the shooting facilities (at Jacksonville Clay Sports) and the academics were a big part of it,” the business administration major noted. The JU business program is rated top three in the country. Franza got her AA in high school, is a 4.0 student and will graduate this year as an 18-year old.

“Allison is pretty indicative of our student athletes,” Dobson said. “We’re looking for high GPA students. Recruitment and retention is what we’re all about.”

Franza is one of fifteen women who will be part of the squad this year. “I have a twin brother (who shoots on the UNF team) who did that. I went to one of his tournaments. I thought it looked easy, but it’s not!”

The team has spawned an academic track for the Dolphins in the JU Wingshooting program. They study the history of shooting, eye dominance, safety and plenty of theoretical and practical applications.

“The courses allow the students to gain an appreciation for the sport and become mentors and instructors themselves,” Dobson said.

“We go from beginning to advanced. It allows students to explore all parts of the clay sports industry. It gives them practical experience, including gun club management.”

In fact, clay-shooting sports are the fastest growing element of team sports in High School and colleges. Alabama, Clemson and Lindenwood out of St. Louis are among JU’s fiercest competitors.

“I’d say Clemson is our nemesis, our biggest rival. We beat them twice this year. We go back and forth. But they’re running a great program up there,” Dobson said.

As a four-time member of Team USA and an international competitor, Kelby Seanor had some family ties in Jacksonville and transferred to JU from the University of Georgia to join the team. In a bit of irony, picked the Dolphins over Clemson when he decided to transfer.

“I wanted to start at team at Georgia,” he explained of his first two years in Athens. “But JU had a well established varsity team here and I’m glad I came.”

Seanor is a multiple time clay sports All-American and graduated from JU this year with a degree in political science. He wants to get into the gun and shooting industry as a profession after graduate school. He’ll serve as an assistant coach for the Dolphins after competing in the World Championships in England next month.

Adding team members to the program who are beginners and learn through the academic program is one of the most rewarding aspects of Seanor’s experience at JU.

“The biggest place I’ve grown is my teaching,” he explained. “That’s grown exponentially. Mentoring all of these people who have never picked up a gun has really helped. Working on their mental and technical game. It’s cool to see how they grow.”
“Coach Dobson leads the program in a way that allows students to fully engage,” said Kristie Gover, the Senior VP for Student Affairs at JU and Dean of Students. “Team members are given the opportunity to play an active role in designing the team experience.”

“They run the team under my guidance-mentor program,” Dobson explained. “They have always made good leadership and business decisions. Super proud of them. They take a stake in it.”

“Some come to me and want to go inactive on the team to concentrate on their academics,” he added. “That’s paramount here at JU and we support that. Academics come first.”

While the team is subsidized through University funds, it’s donations that help them compete at the highest level. Fund raising is an important element in making the team what Dobson calls “the gold standard.” Dobson’s and his wife Adeline contribute every year. JU President Tim Cost and his wife Stephanie include the shooting team in their donations to the University.

“The board and Tim have been incredibly supportive,” Dobson noted. “We have so many friends of the program who donate money, the Felker’s (Caren and Paul), Sandy Semanik and others who make all this possible.”

Holzhauer Streak on Jeopardy! Impressive!

Lots of smart people come through the Jeopardy! pipeline but haven’t come close to what James Holzhauer is doing. Holzhauer is plenty smart and being a professional sports gambler, he knows how to play the odds but has the confidence and competitiveness of a top-level athlete.

It’s a rare combination.

It is impressive during Holzhauer’s streak, the amount of money he’s amassed, his breadth of knowledge, and as he says, the technique of hitting the buzzer at the right time so he could be the one answering the question. That might be the key.

Important? Absolutely.

On Tuesday of this week, the three contestants ran through Jeopardy and Double Jeopardy without missing one answer! They only didn’t buzz in on two questions but the rest they answered correctly. No wrong answers? I’m sure the statistics are pretty high for that happening so you’d figure the game would be close. Except Holzhauer won by over $60,000!

By somehow practicing how to hit the buzzer at precisely the right time, Holzhauer gets control of the board. He has the confidence that he’ll know the answer, the competitiveness to understand the stakes and amasses enough money to dominate early.

“You can see as soon as I get control of the board in the first game, I’m going for the $1,000 clues whenever I have the opportunity,” he told the New York Times, similar to a poker strategy.

“There are big advantages to having a lot of chips early on in a poker tournament. You can make plays that other people can’t.”
While Holzhauer is a game changer when it comes to playing the game, he’s also reshaping the image of a professional sports gambler. The stereotype of a dimly lit room with the racing forum and nicotine stained fingers has given way to a new type of pro gambler: college educated, statistically adept and fearless.

“This is an area that is shrouded in mystery,” Chris Grove, the managing director of the gambling research firm Eilers and Krejcik Gaming told the Washington Post. “I think Holzhauer demystifies it to a degree. This is a living, breathing relatively normal seeming individual.”

You might remember during my television career I did a popular segment called “Stump Sam.” For twenty or so years I answered questions, mostly submitted by viewers, live on the air asked by Tom Wills and Mary Baer. All told, I was asked over 2,000 questions before current management killed the segment, and as a credit to Tom and Mary, I was never asked the same question twice.

Answering trivia questions live on television is different than sitting around a coffee table having cocktails with friends playing Trivial Pursuit. Anybody who’s been in a trivia contest knows that one of the hardest things about answering the questions quickly is getting the answer that you know is wrong out of your mind.

In “Stump Sam” I had about 30 seconds to come up with an answer (usually with a producer yelling in my ear ‘wrap, wrap.” So my experience, while similar, is different than the contestants on Jeopardy!

I remember the first question I was asked:

“What team played the Montreal Expos in the first regular season MLB game played outside the United States.”

Finding the answer kicks in your deductive reasoning quickly: A National League team, in the Eastern division where the Expos played in 1969, probably a major market team, the Mets, or a traditional NL team like the Cardinals.

When I got it down to those two quickly, Tom said, “Aaaand?” So I knew it was one of those two. I guessed New York but the answer was St. Louis (they opened the season in NY but played their first home game in Montreal against the Cardinals.)

Only once did my mind go blank on an answer I clearly should have gotten. Late in the 1995 baseball season a pitcher threw a no-hitter and before his next start Tom asked me an easy question:

“Who’s the only pitcher in Major League history to throw back-to-back no-hitters?”

I’ve known the answer to that since I was about six but it just wouldn’t come up in my brain that day.
“Johnny Vandermeer,” Tom eventually said seeing me struggle and graciously added “Football overload,” as we had spent the summer in Stevens Point, Wisconsin with the Jaguars and were preparing for the their first game ever. Baseball was way off in the recesses of everybody’s mind, including mine.

Holzhauer knows the subjects, he knows how to buzz in, but he also knows how to play the game. Kind of like being a polo player. People in that community will tell you being a good horseman is important, but being a good game player is paramount. He’s a great games player and the way he runs through the board, from the bottom up might not be novel but it shows a confidence he has in the competition that reminds you of a 3rd-and-2 80-yard touchdown pass.

Being a professional gambler, going “all in” is usually a strategic move, and Holzhauer uses it with a competitive confidence that puts plenty of distance between him and the other two competitors.

Five-time “Jeopardy!” winner Eddie Timanus, who compiles the college coaches’ polls for USA TODAY says Holzhauer’s buzzer skills and aggressive money play sets him apart.

“Thanks to his ability to ring in first consistently and rarely miss, he usually has a considerable total built up by the time he uncovers a Daily Double,” Timanus said in USA TODAY. “He finds most of them since he’s able to maintain control of the board for long stretches, and, as we’ve seen, he’s not afraid to bet big.”

Jeopardy isn’t the first game show Holzhauer has competed on. He was on a show called “500 Questions” and although he didn’t advance he impressed the executive producer Phil Parsons.

“When we auditioned people, we did a ‘general knowledge’ test, and James, by far, scored the highest in that test,” Parsons told the New York Post.

“He was quite the tactician, and even in that way he was interesting to watch,” says Parsons. “A lot of people are talking about his top picks and concentrating on that, but the thing is you can’t get that far if you haven’t got the knowledge to back it up — and his range was astonishing.”

Record setting Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings was also on “500 Questions” but Parsons says, “James’ test score to get on the show was way better than Ken’s.”

“Jeopardy!” and host Alex Trebek are celebrating their 35th anniversary season. With a weekly audience of 23 million viewers, it’s the top-rated quiz show on television.

The original host, Art Fleming hosted the first version of the show from 1964-75 and again in ’78 and ’79. It was before electronics so somebody pulled a card with the money amount on it to reveal the answer: Seems quaint now. When asked to return as the host of the syndicated version in 1984, Fleming declined, saying the show had become “too easy.”

I don’t think there is anything easy about what James Holzhauer is doing.

Can’t Measure Heart


There’s been a lot of talk recently about the measureables of athletes: height weight, 40-time, shuttle run, bench press. And some talk about production and “getting to the next level.”

As anyone who’s played anything knows one of the best cliché’s in sports is “you can’t measure heart.”

Because you can’t.

That’s why Donnie Horner III and Sharon Siegel-Cohen are such great competitors. One’s an athlete and one’s not. They don’t have much these days in terms of “measureables.”

But they have heart.

Donnie has a form of MS. Sharon has a form of ALS. Yet both compete everyday, get out of their comfort zone, motivate other people and make a difference.

I’ve worked on and off with Sharon for the past 38 years. She’s one of the rare, good people in TV, but you wouldn’t know her if you passed her on the street. She’s what the industry calls a “producer” whose job basically is to make the people on-air look good. And Sharon’s an expert at it.

Never one to get bogged down in the details, she didn’t think a thing of it when during a family trip to NY in June of 2017 she tripped on a sidewalk in the city.

“Everybody trips on the sidewalk in New York,” she told me. “Even though the swelling in my ankle went down I was still limping around in November.”

As the orthopedists and the physical therapists were trying figure out what was wrong with her, Sharon started walking with a cane in February of last year. Eventually they did a nerve conduction study and she ended up at a neuromuscular specialist who diagnosed her nearly a year later with a form of ALS.

Right now, Sharon’s lost the use of her legs and gets around in a wheelchair. “Whether it gets worse, I don’t know,” she said. “I can type and talk. It’s my new reality.”

Her sister Frances, a pretty good athlete in her younger days, now has MS. She jokingly gave Sharon some family ribbing and encouragement noting, “You weren’t much of an athlete anyway!”

Sharon laughed telling me that story, saying, and “She was trying to make me feel good. And she’s right, I was president of the service club and the drama club. It wasn’t that big a thing for girls to be involved in sports when I was younger. I think people with this disease all have a sense of humor.”

Commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” ALS has been in public view since the Yankee first baseman retired, making his “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” speech in 1939.

“That’s 80 years ago,” Sharon remarked. “It’s time something got done.”

That’s why at the recent ALS walk, Sharon was asked to speak and paraphrased Gehrig’s speech in her remarks.

“Today, despite this physical limitation, I feel like the luckiest woman alive,” she said. “I’m surrounded by family friends, colleagues, college friends I haven’t seen in 40 years. I’m buoyed by the love and support I’m getting.”

We often hear announcers refer to the “courage” it takes to hit that shot or the “guts” it takes to make that tackle. That’s amusing when you consider the courage and guts Sharon and others like her have everyday, competing against this kind of disease.

Sharon’s somebody who always sees the big picture. As a producer, she doesn’t sweat the details and lets people do their job. So it was a conscious decision that took some courage to get “in front” of the camera, so to speak, after being in the background her entire career.

“If I can lend my voice, I’ll do it,” she explained. “This disease isn’t incurable, it’s just underfunded.”

Last night, Sharon received the Courage Award at the Augie’s Quest banquet.

“I don’t want to dwell on it,” she added. “I want to stay active, working, reading.”

While September 11th has meaning to all Americans, Donnie Horner III remembers that day in 2009 when he was diagnosed with MS. Horner was an elite athlete, played hockey at the Naval Academy as a four-year starter. He delivered the game ball on the field for the Army/Navy game in his senior year. Club sport athlete of the year, an all-star game starter, Horner was in, as he describes it, “the best shape of my life.”

Then shortly after graduation, as an Ensign on watch aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard during workups for his first deployment, Horner felt his first symptoms of MS. “It felt like my legs had fallen asleep. I thought it was vibration from the steel-toed boots from the vibration of the ship. When it didn’t go away, I decided to get checked out.”

For Horner, the diagnosis was quick. Neurology at NAS Jax, MRI, Cat scan and spinal tap, second opinion at Mayo Clinic. After a promising athletic and academic career, he was retired from the Navy in April of 2010 with relapsing, remitting MS.

“I was cocky as a junior officer but this brought me back to earth,” he explained. “I threw myself into research, I refused to believe that this wasn’t something I could deal with.”

But despite his previous success competing and excelling in athletic competition, this confident, bright, “meet things head on” young Navy officer lost his edge.

“I was a low self-esteem, didn’t know what I was going to do kind of person,” he recalled. “I had to walk with a cane for months. I didn’t know how to give myself a shot. I was scared; I didn’t believe in myself at all. I felt bad physically, mentally and emotionally.”

That’s when he called on his athletic background to restart his life.

“The first five years were brutally hard. I couldn’t recognize I was dealing with insecurity or low self-esteem because I hadn’t ever been that,” he said. “Time has a way of contextualizing things. It was five years before I figured out how to act with this disease.”

So with encouragement from his wife Kristen and his family, some medical and spiritual help, Horner says he’s back at a “good place.”

So good that two weeks ago, Donnie, despite having MS, ran the Boston Marathon.

How is that possible? Courage. Guts.

“I wanted to live my best life,” he explained. “I looked into diet, and exercise. I go to mental health counseling, I took my spiritual affairs seriously.”

Last August, Horner decided he wanted to run the Boston Marathon. Despite the numbness in his leg that’s always there, the tingling and vibrations that come and go, he was diligent in his training. But admits part of it is luck.

“The week before the Boston Marathon I couldn’t get out of bed because of a relapse. Literally. Three days later I felt OK and went back to training,” he explained.

“I’m at my best when I set my goal and get things done,” he added. “The competitiveness and wanting to succeed all comes from playing sports. I enjoy being part of a team. I want to do whatever it takes.”

The “Strides Against MS” team raised $220,000 at the Boston Marathon. Horner alone raised over $9,000. Last weekend he competed in Jacksonville’s version of “Dancing with the Stars.”

“It’s a challenge,” he said of his active lifestyle despite living with MS. “I believe my background as an athlete has contributed to my well being as an MS patient.

And how’d he feel after competing in the Boston Marathon and seeing Kristen at the finish line?

“Like I scored a hat trick. Maybe ten goals! Never been happier since my wedding day.”

Sports Art from a Local Artist

It wasn’t until Heather Blanton had what she jokingly calls a “midlife crisis” that she became a painter.
She was about to turn 40.

The recession had hit. And her medium for more than 10 years — Polaroid manipulation photography — was on its way out.

“I needed to find something,” she said, standing in front of some of her work at the Plum Gallery in St. Augustine.

Although she played softball in middle and high school, sports was never really her focus. She watched football and baseball with her father, but she was never much of a spectator.

Still, the St. Augustine resident found her artist’s inspiration in an unexpected outlet: through those on fields of play.

“I have a twin sister who is an artist,” Blanton said. “She encouraged me a lot. She said, ‘I know you can paint. You just have to let go of your fear, and magical things will start happening.’ And they did.”
About five years ago, Blanton put brush to canvas for a commission from a cyclist who wanted original artwork around his sport. And that’s how it started.
Sitting in front of a blank canvas, the Sandalwood High graduate started creating cyclists as she saw them in her memory.

“I lived in Vilano Beach, and I would take A1A on Sundays to see my family,” she said. “I would get behind about 45 cyclists. So rather than be upset about being stuck in traffic, I tried to be grateful for all the colors that were in front of me.”

Blanton was less interested in the art being abstract or realistic, but more about conveying the energy she saw on the road onto the canvas.

“I try to not do too much planning because I’ve found that it’s better to allow the energy of the painting to move through me rather than a preconceived idea,” she said of her process. “I ask for some divine intervention to come and help me with a piece.”

There’s an organized randomness to her paintings. It’s not haphazard by any means, but there is a sense of what’s going on in that moment.

All of that inspiration, despite having no experience running, skiing, playing golf or cycling.

“I’ve never been on anything but a beach cruiser, usually with a drink holder on the front,” she said with a laugh.
From cycling, Blanton branched out to other sports, such as painting marathoners.

“There was just a calling to me about the mass numbers of runners. The marathon can be consistently chaotic,” she said. “I got a lot of feedback from people. ‘You don’t have the energy. Marathons are about chaos.’ So I tried to have more chaos in the feel.”

Most of her paintings come in one sitting, and if there’s a theme in any of Blanton’s work, a triangle makes its way into a lot of her paintings.

It can be seen in the form of golfers taking swings or snowboarders going for rides.

“It’s gone to some kind of geometrical form for me. I’m not sure why, but there’s something interesting about the lines for me,” she said. “It doesn’t have any real meaning besides that’s how I see it. I try to paint stuff I like and hope other people do. If you try to paint towards what other people want, I think you make yourself crazy.”

Others have found enjoyment in her work.

From a commercial standpoint, the Gaylord Marriott in Denver took her sixth painting of skiers and used it in 159 public spaces and common areas in the hotel. She is in numerous galleries all over the U.S., as well as overseas.

Blanton has met with the PGA Tour about doing some work when they open their new global headquarters in Ponte Vedra.

She and her twin sister, Holly, have collaborated on about 10 sports paintings and have sold them at the Saatchi Gallery in London. They’ve talked with Porsche about murals in their worldwide headquarters and would like to talk to the Jaguars about some of the collaborative work they’ve done that depicts football.

One shows a line of football players over an abstract background. “My sister did the background, and I came back over on top of it,” Heather said.

There are numerous colors and uniforms represented and plenty more than 11 players depicted.
“That’s not a line,” she said of the line of players across the center of the painting, “that’s more abstract. It’s not realism. Art is open to interpretation. It’s not about following rules. I’ve never been much on following rules.”

Said Holly: “Heather has the potential to be famous. There’s not a lot of images that come to mind when you think of sports fine art. There’s nobody else doing what she’s doing.”
Heather refers to her process as an “experience beyond words,” which gets her started and carries her through a project.
It can be a daunting feeling in front of a blank canvas, but she believes she’s as much of a “channeler” as a creator.

“The paintings I love the most take me the least amount of time,” she said. “When you are in that zone, when you go back to paintings, they don’t have that same magic. I try to do them all in one sitting. I almost feel a singing inside of me. It’s almost a harmonic.”
Often, even she is amazed when a work is complete.
“I don’t feel responsible for the finished product,” she said. “Sometimes, I stand back and just go, ‘Wow,’ I never would have come up with that.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Recovery Is The New Fitness Science

“Exercise, eat right, get plenty of sleep, drink plenty of fluids.”

Everybody’s heard that advice about staying healthy. As regular exercise became part of professional advice for living longer, more productive lives, the science of fitness found all kinds of “secrets” to being fit. It started with the number of reps, duration and amount of time between exercise, moved on to the intensity and then to the nutrition and hydration necessary to be at peak performance. It seems like everybody is wearing some kind of fitness “tracker.”

“Most of the exercise science in the last few years has been focused on recovery,” Jaguars Physical Therapist and Athletic Trainer Robby Hoenshel explained in the Jaguars training room on Tuesday.

While Tuesday is generally a “day off” for NFL players, the training room was full of Jaguars players rehabilitating injuries and getting their bodies ready for the physical demands of a Sunday game.

Looking for a way to help players begin their recovery quicker, the Jaguars and other professional sports teams have started using a new technology called “Firefly.”

“Cold tubs, massage, Normatec therapy, all of those work and are part of the routine, but the Firefly technology helps us start our players toward recovery immediately after the game,” Hoenshel explained. “Designed to be both portable and affordable, post-game, on a flight, resting and recovering, it’s a good time to get that in.”

On their website, Firefly says it’s an, “innovative, neuromuscular electro-stimulation (NMES) device, intended for the stimulation of healthy muscles to improve or facilitate muscle performance.” From a small strap that sends an electrical impulse to a nerve (peroneal) just outside the knee to stimulate blood flow in the lower leg. Originally designed as a way to prevent deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in patients and for passengers on long flights, Firefly has been found to have sports recovery applications.”

Their website goes on to say it “gently activate muscles in the lower leg that return blood towards the heart. This increase in blood circulation emulates that of active recovery without an athlete having to move or exert energy.”

Particularly after a road game in any professional sport, players sit on the airplane to fly home and like everybody else, sometimes get stiff and sore. This keeps that from happening in their lower legs. The Jaguars put Firefly on all 22 starters and any other players who ask for them. “We’ve had good success and guys are starting to ask for them,” Hoenshel added.

“Everyone knows it’s a long season so we’re looking for the quickest way to recover, ” Allen Hurns said as the Firefly was applied just below both of his knees. “It’s a jump start to the week, right after the game.”

“Coming back from London I had these on and was still able to get a lot of rest,” Hurns explained. “You feel little twitches but nothing that keeps you away from your sleep.”

While professional teams and athletes are seeing the benefits for immediate recovery, weekend athletes can also use the Firefly to stave off the soreness that comes from a hard workout. Anybody who’s given max effort at some point knows the feeling of “delayed onset muscle soreness” or “DOMS.” Keeping the blood flowing in your leg can keep that soreness from happening.

“Any weekend athlete will benefit from this, ” Jaguars team physician Dr. Kevin Kaplan told me has he attached the Firefly to my leg. “There are a lot of things that go into recovery a lot of pieces to the puzzle. After one of your long bike rides this is an excellent device to start your healing quicker.”

“As we all work out we know we’re tearing muscle and creating byproducts of exercise. Everybody feels great when they leave the gym,” “Dr. Kaplan explained,” “But the next day you get that delayed muscle soreness and fatigue. You want to get rid of those byproducts that build up in your muscles to speed up recovery.”

Backing up the science, I can tell you that putting the Firefly on for a couple of hours while I was working at my desk kept my normal post-workout soreness to a minimum.

A pair of Firefly straps is about $30 and they say they last for 30 hours of intermittent use. You can find out more about it at fireflyrecovery.us.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Sports And Politics: Not So Strange Bedfellows

It’s always amusing to see which “celebrities” claim they’ll be moving to a different country if a candidate they don’t like wins an election. Cher recently said she’d “move to Jupiter” if Donald Trump was elected President. Sports stars haven’t gone that far, but support for political candidates and causes is embedded in sports culture. Michael Jordan was roundly criticized during his career for not taking a stand on political issues. “Republicans also buy shoes” was his answer for not supporting a Democrat candidate in North Carolina. (He denies saying that) Ronald Reagan leaned on his portrayal of George Gipp, “The Gipper” during his campaign and time in the White House.

In 2016, LeBron James introduced Hillary Clinton at a rally while Bill Belichick penned a letter of support to Donald Trump. Former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Shilling was recently fired for airing his political views. ESPN has intertwined a litany of Trump jokes and references into their most recent coverage.

Prior to his time as the Republican nominee, Donald Trump spent plenty of time in Jacksonville. In the early ’80’s, Trump was the owner of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals. He signed Herschel Walker out of Georgia after the Heisman winner’s junior year. (Walker changed his mind and wanted to return to Georgia but had signed a contract and was ineligible.) The USFL held several of their owners meetings in North Florida, including one at Amelia Island. Jacksonville Bulls Owner Fred Bullard called Trump “charismatic” but also said that it was Trump’s ideas that put the USFL out of business. For the record, Trump did admit to trying to force the fledgling league into the fall to directly compete with the NFL, saying if they stayed in the spring they’d be “small potatoes.” (ESPN did a 30-for-30 on the USFL of the same name)

In the last 50 years, sports stars turning to politics as a career has not been unusual. Arnold Schwarzenegger served as Governor of California. Jesse Ventura did the same in Minnesota. Pitcher Jim Bunning was a Senator after he retired and Bill Bradley was a Senator from New Jersey. He ran for President in 2000. Steve Largent, Heath Shuler, Tom Osborne, Jim Ryun, and Ralph Metcalfe all won congressional seats after their athletic careers were over. Kevin Johnson is the Mayor of Sacramento. Ander Crenshaw played basketball at Georgia.

Most use their name recognition to gain a foothold in the political arena. Once there, the rough and tumble world of politics makes competition on an athletic field look tame. Largent and Osborne lost bids for Governor in Oklahoma and Nebraska, the former falling short of the state house because of his stand on “cock fighting.”

When it comes to being athletes, American Presidents have a varied history. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that anybody paid attention to the President’s athletic prowess. Prior to that only Teddy Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman was the only touchstone for athletes. (Of course, Abraham Lincoln split logs). Harry Truman was well known for taking long walks from the White House. He called it his “morning constitution.” Dwight Eisenhower was a well know lover of golf. They even named a tree after him at Augusta National. Winnie Palmer gave Arnold a weekend of golf with Eisenhower as a birthday present one year.

While there are a lot of theories about how John Kennedy defeated the sitting Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960, his vitality, backyard touch football games and a general “sporting” personality get some of the credit. Kennedy also played golf, and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness (and now Sports) was created during his Presidency.

Richard Nixon had a swimming pool and bowling lanes put in the basement of the White House. Gerald Ford played big time college football at Michigan.

Jimmy Carter liked tennis so much he took over the scheduling of the White House tennis court. Ronald Reagan was a swimmer and a college football player as well. George H.W. Bush was captain of the Yale baseball team. He loves golf and fishing and just about any kind of sporting activity. Bill Clinton’s dedication to golf is well documented. George W. Bush also plays golf but is an avid mountain biker as well. Barak Obama has played more golf in his eight years as President than any other who has ever held the office. But his first love is basketball, organizing a holiday game every year in D.C. His Chicago friends joked that while he was living there, he’d play basketball at the local gym constantly, only stepping outside to smoke a cigarette.

A running joke is that athletes want to be musicians and musicians want to be athletes. Some athletes want to be politicians, and most politicians know, being an athlete, no matter what kind, can help them get elected.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Cryotherapy Jax: Recovery Is The Key To Peak Performance

As technology is being used in all facets of sports, research is showing that recovery techniques are one of the key ingredients to avoiding injury. And it’s not just rest. Active recovery is being shown as a part of sustained performance for weekend warriors and elite athletes alike.

“I travel a lot, I was just in Malaysia and China and recovery is a big part of how I can get back to playing quickly,” said PGA Tour professional Russell Knox.

Knox and his wife Andrea along with Monica Rivera have opened Cryotherapy Jax on the Southside as a recovery zone that has a spa-like feel. “Revive, Rejuvenate, Recover” is on their logo and is their motto as well.

“After a week of work or hard workouts it’s good to have a chance to get your body back on the right track,” Rivera, a former pro tennis player explained. “You can come in, get a cryotherapy treatment, then get in the Normatec suit and you really feel ready to do again.”

In just three minutes in a cryotherapy chamber you can feel the cold working on your soreness and your inflammation. Much like a cold tub, it acts as a vasoconstrictor as well as reduces inflammation. But it does it without getting wet and in just three minutes.

“We’ve seen great results with athletes but with people who have arthritis and joint problems as well,” Rivera said. Their place just off Southside Boulevard has an athletic and welcoming vibe, comfortable but with a purpose. A cryotherapy session at -200 degrees definitely gets your attention: 30 minutes in the Normatec suit feels like the part of the workout you’ve been missing.

A Normatec suit creates variable pressure from your feet up through the end of you fingers. It’s designed to rejuvenate your muscles by forcing lactic acid out of your arms and legs giving them an easier path to recovery. It feels a little like a pulsating massage.

“I don’t know a PGA Tour player or any other professional athlete who doesn’t use this,” Knox said while sitting in a lounger looking like the Michelin Man. “After walking 18 holes, especially if it’s wet, getting this treatment can get you ready for the next day.”

In combination, the cryotherapy and Normatec treatments are proving to be very popular among athletes trying to avoid the soreness and wait time usually associated with a hard workout. I’ve had cryotherapy sessions and have felt the positive effects but adding the Normatec treatment afterwards had a long lasting, even lingering feeling of recovery.

In the long run, Rivera and the Knoxes are hoping to expand Cryotherapy Jax to a full recovery center, looking at all kinds of treatments with an eye on rest and nutrition as well.

“If you’re not paying attention to how you’re recovering,” Russell said, “You’re not going to be at your best.”

Cryotherapy Jax is open Monday through Saturday in the Perimeter Park just off Southside Boulevard.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Sawgrass CC: No Issues

As one of the original communities in Ponte Vedra Beach, Sawgrass Country Club has seen all kinds of different weather. Its golf course sits virtually right on the ocean and was the original North Florida host for The Players in early March in the late ’70’s and ’80’s. The weather was so severe one over par won the tournament, forcing the competition back to late March before they moved across the street to the Tournament Players Club.

Despite it’s proximity to the beach, Sawgrass weathered Hurricane Matthew with minimal damage.

“Not much damage,” Ponte Vedra Beach real estate agent and developer Rob Kearney said on Saturday. “We were shocked at the amount of wind we had but just some trees down and a lot of debris. We didn’t see any damage with any rooftops or anything else.”

While water is a big hazard for golfers at Sawgrass, it wasn’t a factor for residents living inside the community. Their lakes and canals connect with Guana Lake and were able to drain without a problem.

“Overall it came up about 2 ½ to 3 feet around the community and the golf course over two days ago,” Kearney explained. “We see some water intrusion in this fairway (7 West) but that’s typical anytime we get a lot of rain here.”

Now making Sawgrass his permanent home, insurance executive Joe Braunstein was very pleased with how things turned out considering the force of Hurricane Matthew. His home along the golf course and on a wide lake handled the storm just fine. “It did, I was really surprised. No trees down, no water in the house, we survived it,” Braunstein said standing along the golf course waterways. “I think the community did a really good job heeding the warning of either evacuating or getting to a safe place.”

Originally from Philadelphia, Joe said this was a first for him, that things are very different in Philly.

“No, we get snow and we get the Eagles,” he said with a laugh.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

PV Residents Say Beach Is Resilient

There’s a certain look to North Florida beaches. Wide and white, backed by sand dunes with a gradual slope to the ocean. Hurricane Matthew changed the topography of the beach, altering even the view from the road.

“It’s pretty powerful, I’ve seen it maybe a dozen times in 30 years,” Bobby Weed, Ponte Vedra resident and golf course designer said while walking on Ponte Vedra Boulevard on Saturday.

“I’ve seen it at Amelia Island in the 70’s and 80’s and here a couple of times,” Weed recalled. “We’ve lost the dunes but the beach is resilient, it’ll come back. I think we’re all very fortunate”

Residents are used to idyllic weather, hot summer days, cool spring and fall breezes and occasional violent storms. But this was completely different.

“The power of the wind and the water is amazing,” Weed’s daughter Haley, said. “We’ve lost our dunes but they’ll grow back. Everything has changed so we’ll have to adapt. It’ll work out.”

“A little bit of devastation,” is how Nocatee resident Kevin Day described it walking back from looking at the ocean. “It wasn’t too bad. I expected it to be worse than I saw. There are palm leaves, trees, a little bit of board damage. And all the dunes have been washed away.”

“At first we thought it was going to be a Cat 4 and my wife wanted to get out of town,” Day explained. “We decided to stay at the last minute and I guess we got lucky.” As a more than 30-year resident of North Florida, and a prominent international golf industry businessman, Bobby Weed had a tinge of pride watching his home town recover.

“I’ve been over in Orange Park picking up my youngest daughter this morning and I’ve been impressed. Everybody’s pitching in and cleaning up. It’s a good community effort.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Historic Ponte Vedra Inn And Club Survives Matthew

Originally built in 1928 the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club is one of the most historic places on Florida’s east coast. Selected to host the Ryder Cup in 1939 and withstanding Hurricane Dora’s wrath in 1964, the Inn was 80% full as Hurricane Matthew steamed towards Jacksonville’s beaches.

“We informed our guests during the week and had a lot of cooperation getting people out safely,” Dale Haney, President of the Gate Hospitality group told us on Saturday.

Generations of families in North Florida have treated the club as their own, using it as a weekend retreat, a place to hold weddings or summer vacations. It’s no surprise Haney took calls before and after Matthew from residents and members asking about the club’s ability to survive.

“We’ve had calls since the storm was announced,” Haney said. “This is a second home for a lot of people and a big part of their lifestyle and an important part of their lives.”

Much like in 1964, the club itself survived the hurricane force winds. When Dora hit, it flooded inland. For Matthew, the seawall, the rooms on the ocean and the club itself kept the water on the east side of Ponte Vedra Boulevard.

“The structure held up fine,” Haney explained. “All the buildings are brick, the gym is on the second floor.”

“We do have pavers under all this sand,” Haney said light heartedly, adding, “It’s really a beach club covered with sand. I believe a wave came right through. The beach came to the club.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Air2G2 Local Company Making Good

As a concept, it seems pretty simple: All living things need air to grow. But for Glen Black, it was a brainstorm in college that led to a growing business based on that concept.

Black is the President of Air2G2 by GT Air Inject, a Jacksonville company with connections all around the world. While a college student, one of Black’s professors wondered aloud if they couldn’t get air to the roots of a grass system and if that would promote growth. Black went to work on the concept and the Air2G2 machine was born.

“Air is everything to anything that lives,” is the company trademark and Ar2G2 machine provides that where it doesn’t get to: underground.

Any expanse of grass needs to eventually given room to grow. Grass fields used for sports, football, baseball, golf, soccer and others, get compacted together where air can’t get to the root system and promote growth. The Air2G2 does just that. But putting three spikes in the ground that push compressed air in at a seven-inch depth to break up the “compaction layer” and again at 12 inches beneath the turf surface.

Traditionally “aerating” a grass surface (field, fairway, green, tee box) involves taking chunks of the turf out of the ground to let the remaining grass expand. The Air2G2 does that without disrupting the playing surface and allows teams and players to go right back to work.

Fields a the Jaguars stadium in town, Fenway Park, and Wrigley Field are among the places the Air2G2 is in action. Florida Field and others in college football count on it to keep their fields going all year. Real Madrid is one of the international soccer clubs who use the Air2G2 machine to keep their field in shape.

At a cost of $38,000 it’s in the price range that most clubs can afford. Handmade here in Jacksonville, the company is working on a home model for significantly less. As far as time, besides the “instant use” component of the Air2G2, it takes a little longer than mowing the grass to put the machine into use.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Cryotherapy: The latest in “Sam’s Big Comeback”

For those of you who have followed by journey since my stem-cell surgery in November, first I want to say thank you. Somebody asks me about my knee, the procedure, the braces I wore or my rehab everyday, and I appreciate it.

Since the stem-cell procedure is so new in the US, the experts are still gathering information the rehabilitation process.

“It’s all over the map,” said Mike Ryan, the former Jaguars athletic trainer who now runs Mike Ryan Fitness in Jacksonville Beach as well as other projects and commentary for NBC Sports. “The physical therapists are coming up with ways to rehab from that procedure but there are a lot of different opinions.”

Mike’s right about that but from somebody who’s undergone the procedure, I can tell you the rehab is closer to coming back from knee surgery than anything else. The first two weeks are filled with a lack of mobility and a lot of soreness. As I mentioned in the original story the advice from my longtime friend and medical advisor Dr. Paul Shirley was “Ice and prayer.” So I did a lot of both.

As I’ve progressed through this process, I started an upward trend to feeling better with less knee pain starting at about two months and getting progressively better into month five.

“That makes sense,” Dr. Stephan Esser from SE Orthopedics said as I filled him in on my progress. “The stem cells are immature when we first line your knee with them and it takes a while for them to mature and start to replicate.”

I tried to follow Dr. Esser’s instructions on recovery and was probably an “80%” patient, probably being too aggressive on more than one occasion during the early stages of rehab. After four months, they cleared me for a step up in the intensity of my therapy and I had my good days and my bad days. I had lost some flexibility and mobility in my left ankle and my left hip in the beginning of the process so I had a lot of soreness through my hip flexors, quads and lower leg.

“No surprise,” was again the answer when I met with noted physical therapist Dr. Mark Baughman in Jacksonville Beach. Mark has his doctorate in physical therapy so when he put me through my first evaluation, he and I laughed when he said I was a “classic case of dysfunction.”

Finding the “links” to where my lack of mobility and soreness was coming from, Dr. Baughman worked from the ground up using the old phrase, “we’ll be chopping wood for a while” when he discovered the lack of flexibility I had in my left ankle and left hip. Through a series of sessions with Mark I’ve regained a lot of that but there’s still work to do. Sitting in a chair at work, in the cockpit of the airplane, the car or riding my bike promotes a shortness in just about every muscle in the front of my body so I spend a lot of time counteracting that with stretching, the Swiss ball and sometimes just laying flat on my back on the floor.

At right about the six-month mark I was experiencing some associated pain around my knee so Dr. Esser suggested I come in for some “nerve retraining.” I had no idea what that meant but found out quickly it was an aggressive form of acupuncture combined with some electric stimulation.

That’s always seemed a little bit like hocus-pocus combined with voodoo to me but I was quickly converted. Going to treatment five out of seven days, Dr. Esser worked on the muscles around my knee as well as some of the meridians flowing through my knee and gave me instant relief and results. Shortly thereafter I rode my bike in Europe for a couple of weeks, even climbing the iconic L’Alpe d’Huez with no ill effects. And if you’ve seen me, I’m not built for climbing! Stephan has suggested regular acupuncture and I’m a believer.

Recently I’ve started a cryotherapy routine looking for another nudge forward. Ice baths and cold therapy have been around for a while but this is supposed to be the next step in recovery or managing chronic, old injuries.

“We get it down to negative 302 Fahrenheit (degrees)” Beau Dominiak, the owner and trainer at Outlast Cryotherapy in Ponte Vedra told me before one of my treatments.

“It’s basically pulling all of the fluid out of your extremities, sending all of the blood back to your vital organs,” he explained of the three minute. “When you come out of there as you return to a normal state you’re sending fresh blood carrying nutrients and oxygen back to your extremities.”

Dominiak is a former pro soccer player in Scotland and uses the machine himself up to six times a week. “It’s great for chronic injuries I’ve had and sometimes I even use it before a workout as pre-hab.”

“Very positive results,” is how he described what his clients have talked about. “It’s intended to be an everyday tool, a couple times a week is probably ideal.”

I can tell you it’s had some positive effects using cryotherapy along with the other protocols in my rehab program. I can also tell you the first two minutes you’re chilly but it’s OK. The last minute, you want to get out.

“It’s that fight or flight response that’s what you’re looking for,” Dominiak said with a laugh. “It’s supposed to have your body want to protect itself. It’s promoting both body health and brain health.”

I’ll keep you posted on the results!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Mayor Curry To Run Gate River Run

As a politician, Mayor Lenny Curry is used to looking for a way to win. For the Gate River Run on Saturday he’ll have find a new definition for the word victory.

“The streets are lined with people, I remember seeing beer stands last year,” Mr. Curry told me before a training run in his neighborhood this week. “There’s a little it of something for every body. If you want to be competitive you can, if you want to just run and enjoy the day you can do that too.”

It won’t be the first time the Mayor has run the Gate but it’ll be the first time a sitting Mayor of Jacksonville has stepped into the crowd to run after some welcoming remarks. He’s been suitably fast when he’s run the race before but says the hardest part will be remembering his age (45) instead of how old he thinks he is (30).

“We sort of have a little competition going on in the house as to who can finish the fastest,” the Mayor’s wife Molly said as she prepared to join in on the training.”

“You’re just throwing that in there now,” Mr. Curry asked with a laugh. “That’s the first I’ve heard of that.”

This year the Mayor will run with his wife and his son Boyd, so he’s not going to be looking at his watch, but rather enjoying the day, the crowds and the course.

“Last year I pushed myself the first three miles out of the gate and felt like somebody had punched me in the gut,” he recalled.

As Mayor, improving the fitness of Jacksonville’s citizens is one of his goals. He’ll be rolling out a walking and running initiative in the coming months because he believes in the benefits.

“For me it’s like brushing my teeth,” he said. “It’s that important. It’s not only good for the body it’s good for the mind.”

This year is the 39th edition of the Gate River Run with a record number of participants expected. The start is at 8:30 by the stadium with live coverage on News4Jax beginning at 7 AM.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Raising Money, Always Funny, Bill Murray’s In Town

When you go to talk with Bill Murray, you know two things: 1) You don’t know what he’s going to say or talk about and 2) something funny is going to happen. I’ve had a chance to talk with Bill over the years since he’s been holding his annual Murray Brothers Golf Tournament here in North Florida at the World Golf Village. Bill has made himself available to talk at his tournament over the years despite the hordes of people who are following him, watching him play and asking for something. Friday was no different.

Starting on the back nine at the King and the Bear, there’s always a backup on the 14th tee, a combination of finishing a par 5, going to a par three, a bar and a TacoLu truck as a distraction. That’s where we caught up with Bill to talk between bites of his favorite taco and a chat with his brother Ed.

“What are you playing,” I asked, referring to the Callaway irons in his bag.

“Whatever will go on the green,” he said, sizing up the upcoming 147-yard shot.

Murray’s popularity attracts players from all over the country to his tournament. This year over 420 players are participating over three 18-hole flights. For the fourth year in a row they’re raising money for the Firehouse Subs Foundation benefitting first responders in the military, and police and fire departments.

“They really need that stuff,” Murray said while waiting on the tee. “You should see them when they get stuff like the high powered Jet Ski’s. They’re like, ‘Wow, we could have used this last year!”

“When I took him to a meeting with the Governor and some of the first responders receiving some of the things we’ve bought with money raised over the years I could tell that he gets it,” Robin Sorensen, one of the founders of Firehouse Subs and the head of the Firehouse Foundation explained. “We’ve raised over a million dollars in the first four years of being associated with this tournament and Bill knows the money’s being put to good use.”

A big sports fan, Murray was as interested in Jake Arietta’s no-hitter from the night before as he was his golf game.

“How’d you like that?” he asked as any Cubs fan would.

“All it did was make me mad,” I said. “Since I’m an Oriole fan and he was terrible when he played for us.”

“Because you didn’t let him pitch the way he wanted to. You tried to change him. So now we have him,” Murray quickly responded.

That exchanged quickly reminded me of how big a fan he really is, not just paying lip service to keep his popularity.

“I was trying to raise money last night while that (the no-hitter) was going on. I had to leave the stage,” he added. “Then somebody said from the audience, ‘he did it’ and I was like ‘Great, and I missed it.'”

As a guest on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” last week in LA, Murray was promoting his recent movie the remake of “The Jungle Book.” I happened to see him on there and complimented him on how he and his young co-star performed.

“I couldn’t figure out why he had such a huge dressing room,” Murray revealed about arriving at the Kimmel taping. “But then I realized he had his parents, both sets of grandparents, everybody in his family there. He’s from Long Island and they all came out. Nice kid.”

Somehow our conversation turned to the equipment the first responders’ use and Bill said, “Well, we’re all first responders aren’t we? To take care of ourselves? Unless you can’t,” he added. “Except for me, a bird is just going to come and take me away.”

“Oh really, a big bird?” I asked.

“Yup,” he answered. “It’s just going to come in and grab me and carry me off.”

Like I said, you never know where the conversation is going to go!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

USA Soccer To Play Here September 6

Getting a game that counts has always bee on the “to do” list for the city of Jacksonville when it comes to USA Soccer and that will happen for the first time in 2016. Mayor Lenny Curry as well as sports executives from the Jaguars, the Armada and SMG will make the announcement tomorrow morning.

As part of the World Cup qualifying, Jacksonville will host the game on September 6th between the USA and Trinidad and Tobago. It’s the final game of semi-final qualifying and could have huge implications regarding who has a chance to play at the World Cup in Russia in 2018.

In their last two appearances in “friendlies” at the stadium Team USA has attracted over 44,000 against Scotland in 2012 and over 53,000 vs. Nigeria two years later. One of the roadblocks to hosting an official qualifier is distance from the corners of the pitch to the stands, not enough to satisfy international soccer specifications. That will be one of the issues addressed at tomorrow’s press conference.

For the first time in more than 30 years, USA lost to Guatemala last week 2-0 to put the red, white and blue’s chances to qualify at risk. They’ll have a chance to get back on track in the second game of that match tomorrow night in Columbus, OH.

A rich soccer history, dating back to the Tea Men of the NASL in the early ’80’s has allowed Jacksonville to host Team USA as a training base in the ’90’s, recent friendlies and the return of the NASL with the Armada last year.

Tomorrow’s announcement is scheduled at 10AM at the stadium.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

When Watching Tony Kornheiser, Buyer Beware

You might remember before Super Bowl XXXIX here in Jacksonville, then-Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser wrote a scathing review of Jacksonville as the host city. Since Channel 4 at the time was also owned by the Post, I invited Kornheiser to come on the air and explain his distaste for the city. He declined, but the higher-ups in Jacksonville and D.C. got involved and he was on our air the next day, via telephone, during our 6 o’clock news.

Having gone to high school and college in DC, I had read Kornheiser in the Post for years and always found his take pretty interesting. He once published a compilation of his columns and called it “Pumping Irony.” Nonetheless, I was interested to talk to him to find out why he was taking shots at my hometown.

Starting the live interview with a couple of basic questions, it became apparent to me during his answers that he really didn’t know what he was talking about.

“You’ve never been here!” I blurted out in the middle of one of his nonsensical answers.

“Well, I’ve been to the orange juice stand on 95,” he deadpanned.

“Are you at least coming to the game?” I asked.

“I’m sending (Michael) Wilbon to let him handle it,” was his answer.

After exposing the article as a farce, if not a fraudulent attempt at humor, Kornheiser spent the next couple of days on his radio show in DC ripping me, my high school and (short) college athletic career and it eventually went away.

When he was on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Committee, I used to sit by Mike Wilbon as he and Tony’s “hallway conversations” at the Post eventually led to their current show on ESPN, “PTI.” I don’t agree with much of what Wilbon writes, and we had that conversation several times. But I found him engaging and funny and always opinionated about what Kornheiser had to say.

“It’s about stirring it up,” he said as we left one meeting.

On Wednesday night’s edition of PTI, Kornheiser took the occasion to deride Jacksonville again, saying, tongue in cheek, that the league’s foray in to China was just an opportunity for “Jacksonville to play somewhere in a stadium that doesn’t have half of the seats covered with tarps.”

It’s an old story that’s never been true, but again trotted out by an entertainer who hasn’t done his homework and is just leaning on a perception rather than reality. We know why the stadium was built to the size it is, and by the way, just about every stadium built in the time since Jacksonville was awarded the franchise is in the 65-68,000 seat range.

That’s about the right size for any NFL team.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Remembering Rex Morgan

Somewhere along the way in his career, somebody associated with JU decided that Rex Morgan shouldn’t be the head basketball coach at the Arlington school. It’s a bit of a shame, but his loyalty to the Dolphins never wavered. Sunday’s celebration of life for Morgan, who died last week at 67 after a battle with throat cancer, was held in JU’s Historic Swisher Gym, the site of Morgan’s exploits as a player in the late ’60’s and ’70’s.

“We ran a very patient, patterned offense,” Morgan’s coach Joe Williams told the 800 or so at Swisher to pay their respects. “But the first time the ball went to Rex on the wing, he took it to the basket and laid it in. He changed what we thought about coaching. Once we got Artis (Gilmore) and Pembroke (Burroughs), Tom (Wasdin, Williams’ assistant coach) and I just wanted to get up in the stands and watch. It was that good.”

After a loss in his freshman year, Wasdin told the crowd, “Rex got the team together and said, ‘You don’t know what’s going on here. How special it is to be at this school.’ We didn’t have any bad losses after that.”

Recalling the recruitment of Morgan, Wasdin said, “I told Rex we needed him and really wanted him. Rex said, ‘Coach, I’ve never seen a team that needed me more.'”

It was that kind of story told Sunday remembering Morgan as a player and coach of great passion and intensity, a natural leader.

“When he got the ball, he was in charge,” Pembroke Burroughs, a forward on the 1970 team that played in the national championship game recalled. “He wasn’t our point guard, but at 6’6″ when he got the ball on the wing, he took over.”

Morgan’s coaching career took him from an assistant at FSU under Williams to the USBL to Arlington Country Day School where his teams won seven state championships including five in a row. Morgan was known as fun-loving as well. His USBL team hosted boxer Roy Williams as part of a promotion as Williams played pro basketball and got into the ring for a fight the same day.

“He had a passion for basketball and for Jacksonville,” his friend and teammate Artis Gilmore said in front of Swisher. “He was a very good player, got caught up in a numbers game with the (Boston) Celtics. Very aggressive, very passionate about the game. Just a great competitor and a great friend.”

Gilmore might have been the centerpiece of the great JU teams in the early ’70’s but it was Morgan who made it all happen according to his coaches and teammates.

“A great passer but a great friend,” Williams said echoing Gilmore’s sentiment. “He always had the ability to make you think you were the most important person around.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

“Krossover” Helping Hs Hoops Teams

For about 30 years or so computers have been in dugouts in Major League Baseball. Images of Tony Larussa scanning through matchups and statistics on a laptop in the dugout sent purists howling saying it signaled the end of the America’s Pastime. Now, every team employs an analytics expert, with some ascending to the General Manager spot, making decisions. A whole science, started by Bill James and called Sabermetrics has been created, dedicated to the study of baseball statistics. NFL teams have followed suit, compiling data and crunching numbers, looking for an edge. Tony Khan has an engineering degree but is the Jaguars Vice President for analytics, compiling a smaller sample size than baseball (since baseball has been around for more than 150 years) but still trying to find some secrets in the numbers of the game.

That kind of statistical analysis has now come to basketball, filtering it’s way down from the NBA to elite college programs to high schools like Providence here in Jacksonville where the Stallions are deep into the study of the game through a program called “Krossover.”

“We used to have to go back and forth, fast forwarding through a DVD,” Brian Hoff, Assistant head coach of the Providence Boys basketball team said this week. “Now with just one click, we can see whatever we want.

Krossover is a program that uploads game video and breaks down each play on offense and defense, each player’s contribution, or lack thereof, and how much success a team is having at any point in the game. Whether it’s separating each possession they played man-to-man on defense or how many three pointers were scored in the 4th quarter, the program shows it all.

“Whenever I have a bad game, I can go look and see what I did wrong,” Milon Sheffield, a Stallions Sr. Guard told us at practice. “Sometimes you get exposed because you know on Krossover, they’re going to catch everything.”

At Providence they also discovered the unique difference between using the Krossover program for boys and for girls.

“You have to get past the ‘Oh I look fat’ and the ‘Oh my hair’s messed up,” said Gigi Bistrow, the Providence Girls basketball coach.

“You know you see yourself running down the court and you say, ‘Do I really run like that?” added Providence Jr. Guard Kaylee Davis. “But then you’re like, ‘I gotta focus on basketball.”

Bistrow says as a teaching tool, it’s been invaluable because of how it augments the fundamentals she’s trying to teach. “You can say you have to do this or you have to do that, but when they see it, they know, ‘That was me, I did that wrong and I need to fix it.'”

“After the game we go back and look at it and see the things we did well and they things we did wrong,” Davis added. “We definitely benefit from that.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Lindy Infante: Jacksonville’s First Glimpse

I was pretty shocked to get the phone call this morning that Lindy Infante had died. His wife, Stephanie, confirmed that Lind passed away in St. Augustine after a lengthy illness at 75 years old. While he gained a national identity as the head coach of the Packers and Colts in the NFL, I got to know Lindy when he was the head coach of the Jacksonville Bulls, an expansion franchise in the fledgling USFL.

Former Bulls running backs coach Buddy Geis called me early with the news, and coincidentally, I was with Matt Robinson, the first big free agent signing for Lindy and the Bulls.

“He had the best offense ever,” Matt said shaking his head in disbelief. “Somebody was always open,” the Bulls first quarterback remembered.

While a lot of coaches have designed offenses to take advantage of whatever the defense was giving them, Infante had a whole different idea. He put the power in the quarterback and the wide receiver’s hands, letting them read what was going on in the play as it happened. It’s pretty routine now, but in 1984, it was considered revolutionary.

“Whatever the defense was doing before the snap of the ball and as you dropped back, if the quarterback and wide receiver saw the same thing, the defense had no chance,” Matt explained. “If they played inside technique, two deep, press coverage, it didn’t matter, you knew somebody would be open.”

Infante was the offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals before he came to Jacksonville as the head coach of the Bulls. At the time he was one of the “hot” names in coaching. After the league folded, Lindy joined the Cleveland Browns as their offensive coordinator, helping create the “Cardiac Kids” with Bernie Kosar at quarterback and Infante calling the plays. Kosar was the only QB Lindy seemed to have any luck with.

Most of his career was marred by bad timing and injured signal callers.

With the Bulls, Infante found exactly what he was looking for in Robinson. A smart, talented thrower who had some experience. Matt had played for the Jets, Broncos and Bills in the NFL but was lured to Jacksonville and the USFL by Lindy’s offense. But after a couple games, Robinson injured his foot against the Tampa Bay Bandits and the Bulls were forced to go with backup Robby Mafouz. That year it was never the same.

The following year, the Bulls thought they had pulled off a coup, signing Brian Sipe from the Browns as their prized free agent. They traded Robinson to Portland and installed Sipe, another smart thrower from the NFL, as the starter. And again, after a couple of games, Sipe was blasted to the turf, tearing up his shoulder and collarbone. He, and the Bulls, were never the same, going through quarterbacks like Ben Bennett, Ed Luther and Buck Belue looking for somebody who could run Lindy’s offense. (BTW, that team started Archie Griffin and Mike Rozier in the backfield, three Heisman’s among them). The USFL folded that year.

After the stint with the Browns where he was again the hot coach in the league, the Green Bay Packers hired him as their head coach. His bad quarterback luck returned. Don Majkowski was the toast of the NFL after a Pro Bowl season and 16 starts in Green Bay, leading the Packers to a 10-6 record. Infante was the NFL’s Coach of the Year. But Majkowski held out the next season, played in 9 games and the Packers were headed downhill.

Lindy once told me that the Packers were prepared to get the first pick in the 1989 draft after a 4-12 season and were planning on rebuilding around Troy Aikman. But in the last game of the year, the Packers slipped to the #2 pick through a couple of fluke results and Aikman went to the Cowboys. The Packers drafted Michigan State’s Tony Mandarich, who was later exposed as a steroid fraud. When Infante lost his job as head coach of the Packers after the ’91 season, the team acquired Brett Favre the next year from Atlanta. His quarterback luck continued at his next head-coaching stop in Indianapolis. After two losing seasons and a 3-13 record in 1997, the Colts fired Infante. They drafted Peyton Manning that year.

I hosted Lindy’s show called “Bulls Sidelines” for the two years he and the Bulls were in town and got to know him pretty well. We shared a builder for both of our first houses in Mandarin. We played some golf together and talked a lot of football.

I last saw him at the Florida/Georgia Hall of Fame induction two years ago. I mentioned that we should get together and play some golf again. “Call me, I’m in the book,” he said in his post-football casual manner.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

US Soccer: Is It Our Best?

Sometimes it’s called “American Exceptionalism.” In other words, we think we’re good at everything. And generally, we are. With a population of 330 million, a diverse culture, landscape and heritage, there’s usually somebody in America who’s good at whatever you can think of.

Which is why we get disappointed when we don’t win.

The World Baseball Classic? Come on, we invented the game. It’s always been played in the States.

And we’ve never won it. In fact, never even been the runner-up.

Olympic basketball?

Another game we invented and dominated, even with college players representing the red white and blue. So when we didn’t win it in 2004, part of the “Dream Team” era, it left us scratching our heads.

Really, we lost in basketball?

Sometimes we expect to win, and other times we expect to dominate.

But Soccer is a different story.

We’ve never really been interested.

If you travel, you know the rest of the world is just mad about the game. Anywhere you go you’ll see two sticks a few feet apart and a bunch of kids kicking what looks like a ball, trying to score. Europeans consider F1, MotoGP and Futbol as the real “sports.” Americans involved with football basketball and baseball are only interested in the “entertainment sports.”

But as the world has gotten smaller, the interest in our sports has broadened overseas and soccer interest has grown in the US, especially since games from all over the globe are readily available on television, all the time.

Which brings us to the 2-1 loss in the Gold Cup to Jamaica. We’ve never lost to Jamaica in the Gold Cup. And we’re 21-1 lifetime against the country of about 3 million people. Under a hundredth of what we have. Very disappointing after the recent success and excitement surrounding our national team.

So how does that happen?

First of all, every kid in Jamaica grows up dreaming of playing on the national team. The best athletes in Jamaica play soccer. (OK, some become the fastest people on earth) In America, athletes are generally dreaming of one of “our” sports and the pathway to becoming a professional. So suspend reality for just a minute and imagine we cared as much about soccer as the rest of the world. That means that our best athletes, like they do in Brazil and Argentina and Germany and everywhere else, dream of playing for the national team. Imagine a team representing the Red, White and Blue that has LeBron James at center mid. Mike Trout on defense and Blake Griffin in goal. Or JJ Watt? Go back in history and put Deion Sanders at striker and Barry Sanders on one wing. Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker in the mid-field. And the possibilities go on and on. Our best athletes in America don’t choose soccer. It’s not part of the culture and the money, in this country, isn’t there. But if we ever focused on it, things would be different.

It’s not to say that Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore aren’t good athletes. They are. And they’re the best soccer players in America. But the possibilities of what might have been are endless.

Jürgen Klinsmann, our coach, said we gave up two goals on set pieces and “that’s the reality of it.” Although our side didn’t look like they had a sense of urgency in the first half, Klinsmann is right: Jamaica converted two chances and we converted none. Looking at the history of US Soccer’s governing body, it wouldn’t surprise anybody if they went looking for a new coach. That would be silly because Klinsmann understands what it takes to win on the biggest stage and still is the right guy for the job.

I do wonder though if he ever looks at Kobe Bryant and thinks, “What if?”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Team USA Brings Us Together: Again

No matter where you went, its all people could talk about. The US team had played well enough to advance into the knock round of the tournament but were still underdogs. A young team, they had a coach who was positive, challenged them, and made them believe in themselves.

Sound familiar?

While that’s been the case recently with the US Men’s National Soccer Team, the scenario I’m talking about was 34 years ago when the US Hockey team went on a run in the Olympics and eventually won the Gold Medal.

I was working at the ABC Network affiliate in Charleston, S.C. at the time, new to the business and as excited as a sports fan as anybody that the hockey team had surpassed all expectations and was going to face the Soviet Union in the semi-finals in Lake Placid. All anybody could talk about was the upcoming match up (it was at the height of the Cold War) and as the ABC affiliate; we were on display since at the time ABC was the Olympic Network. Before cable and satellite were part of the everyday television reality, before cell phones and smart phones were in everybody’s hand, it was us vs. the Soviets and it was going to be televised on our station.

On tape.

Before negotiating with Olympic officials about the timing of the events and the importance of television to the whole Olympic movement, the IOC decided when the events would be contested at their leisure. So the US/Soviet Union semifinal hockey match, the biggest thing going, the only thing anybody was talking about, was scheduled for four o’clock in the afternoon.

With no other outlet to show the game live, ABC decided they’d run the game on tape and show it in “prime time” starting at 7pm on the East Coast. As I mentioned, it was before cable and cell phones so you could still play that game of not knowing what happened in the game, and turn your television on at 7pm and watch it “plausibly live.”

And a lot of people did that.

To accommodate them, I did all kinds of silly things on the air when we had the Olympics (and continued that tradition at Channel 4 when CBS picked up some of the Olympic games). I held up signs, told people to turn the sound down, skirted around the issue and generally had fun with it. But on that night with a big audience watching, I was in a bit of a dilemma. I don’t remember if the game was over by the time I went on the 6 o’clock news but I do remember telling people I wouldn’t reveal the score or anything about the game during the sportscast. That decision had it’s detractors, and I answered the phone starting at 6:30, telling people what they wanted to know since I had kept it out of the 6 o’clock news. (Remember, no internet, radio played music, no way to get the information unless you knew somebody at a news outlet. I know, seems like a hundred years ago.) I was the viewer’s conduit to the information of the day and some didn’t like that I had shirked my “responsibility.”

So I spent the next half-hour telling people we had won and explaining that it was a station-wide decision to not tell the score (we didn’t say anything during the newscast either) and that the News Director and the General Manager were part of that decision-making process.

You might know that network affiliates take advantage of their affiliation in many ways, but a “promo” or a “tease” at the top of the hour, right before one of your favorite network shows, is a big opportunity for an affiliate to promote their own product. You see this a lot in the evening with the local anchors promoting the station’s coverage of the news that night. At the time, we were only doing a 6 and 11 o’clock newscast so those three-second spots at the top of the hour were valuable in promoting our late news. So after all of this elaborate planning and shenanigans, the game broadcast was finally scheduled to begin at 7 o’clock. But at 6:59:57 we had a 3 second tease, taped in advance right after the 6 o’clock news, promoting our 11 o’clock broadcast, right after the Olympics.

At that moment, I looked at our monitor in the newsroom ready to watch the game myself (there was no feed of the game anywhere while it was going on) and our 11 o’clock anchor, a young woman who went on to some success in her career after Charleston, smiled, looked right into the camera and said, “Big win for the Americans. Highlights at 11!”

It sounds quaint, but people had set up their whole day around knowing this was going to be broadcast “plausibly live.” They rushed home from work, rushed through dinner and sat down in front of their televisions ready to watch the “big game.” And at that moment their bubble was burst. And they were mad. So what did they do, they called the television station. And since it was a “sports” story, the News Director designated me to answer the phones and explain what happened. While I’m not a big fan of being out of touch with what’s going on around you, I still probably was a bit harsh on the phone myself. I was also mad. And I knew I’d be taking the brunt of this “miscue” for a while.

So for the next half hour or so I answered the phone explaining what happened and ended each conversation with “The game’s on right now, don’t you want to watch it?”

Not since then have I seen this kind of excitement surrounding a team wearing “USA” on their chest. Yes, the women’s soccer team caused a stir in 1999 winning the women’s World Cup but nothing like this.

Watch parties, appointment television, interest from people who couldn’t care less about soccer or sports in general is an indication of the shrinking world and the expanding knowledge available when it comes to information.

Soccer was generally a fringe sport, and some even thought of it as “un-American.” In 1994 when we hosted the World Cup, I couldn’t get my News Director to even let me drive to Orlando to cover some games. Her answer: “Nobody cares.” What a difference this time around, and for a lot of reasons. The global information age we live in has brought the game closer. NBC Sports Network televises the English Premiere League every weekend in season. Stars like David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo transcend the sport. ESPN covers the MLS with highlights during Sports Center. The decision makers in newsrooms around America are familiar with the game, many of them having played it as kids. And the reporters are in the same group. Guys like Dan Jenkins and Jim Murray, influential sports writers of the 60’s 70’s and 80’s didn’t have that much interest in the game other than it was “foreign.” Now, sports reporters are familiar with the game, for many having played as kids and followed it along the way.

I played the game as a kid, mainly because they wouldn’t let me play football. Too big for my age group and my parents didn’t want me to “play up” with the older kids. I played on a church team, a club team and played a lot of pick up games. My interest in the game only grew when I was the voice of the Jacksonville Tea Men in the NASL doing television play by play on channel 4 when we broadcast the games. I spent many nights listening to Noel Cantwell, Dennis Viollet and Arthur Smith explain the ins and outs and nuance of the game. And I stayed close to it through my own children’s careers, as they all played, culminating with my son’s captaincy of his high school team as a senior.

So in other words, I really like the game. And I’m glad so many people are coming to the game and I don’t care if it’s only because a team with USA is playing.

Good for you.

Good for us.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Special Day in Town

Saturday was just a validation of who we are.

Not how we’re perceived. Not how we’re talked about or thought about or written about or disparaged by people who don’t live here. They’re usually about two years behind what’s actually happening in North Florida.

Whether you decided to watch a sailing regatta or a powerboat race, go to a NFL sponsored football camp or attend the Suns, Sharks or the USA friendly against Nigeria, there was something for just about everybody. You couldn’t help but notice what was going on if you were anywhere in town. From Fruit Cove to Orange Park, Arlington to St. Nicholas, the sights, sounds and yes, the traffic reminded you that this is where “it” was happening today.

Not that things aren’t happening every weekend in North Florida. Whether it’s the beach or boating, the river, running, cycling, golf or the multitude of games and leagues that take advantage of our landscape, our facilities and our weather, there’s something to do for everybody.

And we know it.

Sometimes that doesn’t sit well with people who want to try and keep us in their mind as an “outpost” that’s non-threatening. We’re perfectly comfortable being who we are. We don’t want to be Tampa or Orlando, Miami or Atlanta. And, oh by the way, none of those cities were selected to host the final friendly in the “Send-Off Series” for Team USA.

Because we were.

The fact that more than 44,000 showed up two years ago for a friendly against Scotland, just because it sounded like fun, lead to Jacksonville being chosen as the final stop for Team USA before headed to Brazil. This time, more than 52,000 showed up, and showed up early. If you headed downtown more than 3 hours before kickoff you saw thousands of people walking around, tail gaiting and just thoroughly enjoying themselves. Some had walked over from the powerboat races. Others were going to the Suns or the Sharks game before heading to the stadium.

“The reception from the fans here has been tremendous,” USA Soccer Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said after his side defeated Nigeria 2-1. “The fans lining up for our players to walk through. That was something special. We’ll take that with us to Brazil and build on it.”

Klinsmann was right. When the team walked into the stadium, from the bus, the atmosphere was electric. (I just wish the players ALL would have taken their Beats headsets off to enjoy the moment). A lot of high fiving, picture taking and chants of U-S-A. In fact, it seems that we’ve taken that “Ole, Ole, Ole” traditional soccer chant and made it our own, adding “USA, USA, USA” as a second verse.

I tweeted a picture of the stadium after Jozy Altidore scored the second goal of the match because it struck me as something very different than what I normally see there. Even at Jaguars games, it’s been a while since everybody jumped up and raised their arms in triumph all at the same time. When the ball hit the back of the net in the 68th minute, the place just exploded.

There was a time in the early and mid ’80’s that downtown looked like this on what the city annually called “River Day.” There were all kinds of events, all centered on the showcase of the Gate River Run. People made their way to the Southbank, downtown, walked the bridges and took advantage of what natural resources the city had to offer. With the improvements downtown and the advancements we’ve made with the different facilities, isn’t it time to make this kind of thing happen on purpose on a regular basis?

Since Jake Godbold left office, each subsequent Mayor has lamented about getting people downtown. Here’s another perfect opportunity.

Mayor Brown, are you listening?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

“Personal Foul” on the Dutch

I guess we should just be amused when people who don’t know anything about America try and come up with reasons why Americans are, well, Americans. We are somewhat iconoclastic, doing things our way in our almost 240 years as a nation. We drive on the other side of the road than the British. Our horse racing goes the other way, specifically to create an independent state of mind for “the colonies.”

We’ve developed our own sports, some of which we’ve exported to the rest of the world. Basketball is an international game. Baseball has a footing in Central and South America and in Asia. Football has a following, but it would be a stretch to call it “international.”

My European friends call the games we play the “entertainment sports.” To most of them, if it’s not futbol, F1 or Moto (motorcycle racing) it doesn’t count.

Other countries have their specialties. The Irish follow hurling religiously. Australia has it’s own brand of football. And the French have a sport that resembles bocce ball called Petanque. In fact, their biggest tournament was played in Jacksonville in the past two years.

So I suppose I should have just laughed it off when Dutch speedskating coach Jillert Anema on an American cable network during the Olympics, blasted Americans for focusing on what he called “foolish sport.”

“You have a lot of attention for foolish sport, like American football. You waste a lot of talent, athletic talent, in a sport where it’s meant to kill each other, to injure each other. …and when you compete once every four years, with talent, with a few lone wolves, who are skating, you can’t beat the world, it’s no way.”

I was amazed that the “reporter” asking him the questions let him get away with that, just smiling and saying his comments would be considered “blasphemous” in the US. She laughed when she said, “Americans love their football.”

So he continued.

“You’re [the US] is so narrow-minded, and you waste a lot of good talent in a sport that sucks,” he added.

It would be easy to call Anema “misguided” but he was clearly using this platform to slam the States at will.

Unacceptable.

Perhaps he should have been reminded of Shani Davis’ success in the past two Olympics. Or Apolo Ono’s medal haul in Vancouver. Maybe he’s forgotten about Bonnie Blair. Or he wasn’t around in 1980 when the single greatest feat in Olympic history was achieved by American Speedskater Eric Heiden. Heiden won all five gold medals in speedskating at those games, from the 500 to the 10,000. That’s akin to somebody winning the 100 meters and the marathon in the same Summer Games. He set 4 Olympic records and one world record at those games for good measure.

“Coach” Anema should be congratulated for the success the Netherlands scored in Sochi. Speedskating is a national sport in his country of nearly 17 million people. But he should also be reminded that it’s a good thing we’re not serious about speedskating as a nation.

With our more than 330 million people in the States, I’m sure we could find a few who might be able to rival the Dutch in just about anything. Imagine if there was no American football and those athletes turned to speedskating instead.

Our national team would be made up of guys like Maurice Jones Drew in the 500. Chris Johnson in the 1000. Megatron looks like a good fit for the 1500. Larry Fitzgerald could probably handle the 5000 with Tony Gonzalez or Vernon Davis in the 10,000.

So Coach, stay home and stay under the radar until every 4 years you can grab some global glory. Because if we decide we’re going to be good in your sport, you’ll be playing for second.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jax: An Events Town

While attendance at the MLS exhibition on Wednesday night between Philadelphia and New York was down because of the weather, that’s no indication of the passion for “the beautiful game” here in Jacksonville.

When the NASL had a team in North Florida in the early ’80’s it was relocated from Boston and kept the name ‘Tea Men’ despite calling Jacksonville home. That’s only because the Lipton Tea Company was the owner and ran the team from afar.

“We had no business being in places like Jacksonville, Atlanta and Tampa,” one former NASL executive said recently in explaining why the league folded.

On the surface, he’s right. As a professional sports league mostly fueled by ethnic followings in major cities, the NASL struggled to find a footing in places where American football as well as baseball, basketball and hockey were already established. To attract a crowd that wasn’t in town to see the New York Cosmos, whole retinues of minor league style promotions were in play, drawing scant attention from most of the sporting public.

But here, the Tea Men had a following that understood the game.

The crowds in Jacksonville were decent, anywhere from 9 to 17-thousand rattling around the Gator Bowl. But they were passionate and knowledgeable, and they were there for every game. A pair of English stars, Noel Cantwell and Dennis Viollet lead Jacksonville’s NASL effort, bringing in a blend of American, European and South American players to compete. It was a quaint, fun time with a big-time feel in a small-time town.

But it laid the groundwork for so many things to come, whether it was the USFL, the NFL or the Super Bowl. It was part of a dream.

Billy Joel said at his concert last month that it was fun to be back in Jacksonville because the first time he was here “you could smell it coming before you got here.” As the paper mills and the chemical plants disappeared and the quality of life improved, there were more and more queries about the viability of a real professional sports team calling Jacksonville home. Joel’s comments dated him back at least 30 years.

Oh how things have changed.

There will be a NASL team in town next year, with the announcement of their name and logo expected Tuesday morning at the Landing. More than 44,000 showed up for a “friendly” between Scotland and the US last year.

We’re an events oriented town, and if a team with “USA” emblazoned across their chests is taking the field (or pitch in this case) we’re going to show up. Think back to the buzz around the Rugby League match between Leeds and South Sydney a few years ago. It became “the thing to do.”

That’s why one of the final friendlies before heading to Brazil for the World Cup for Team USA should be played here.

Yes our stadium field is too small for an official ‘qualifier.” (A situation that can be remedied with about a $5 million investment for detachable seats in the four corners of the stadium floor) but if you want to send our boys off with a bang, let them depart from here. An early summer game as the jumping off point for Brazil could mimic the weather in that part of South America and would create a buzz in town that would attract at least 50,000.

Outside of Seattle, nobody attracts that kind of crowd.

Make it an event, bring in “our boys” and it’ll be an incomparable evening.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Its Summer, It’s Hot, No Kidding!

I’m always amused when people I meet find out I’m from Florida and the first thing they say is, “How can you stand it? It’s so hot there in the summer!” They’re right; it is hot here in the summer. So what do we do? We stay inside. That’s how Florida got be so popular as a place to live: Mosquito control and air conditioning (and no state income tax).

Same as they do in Chicago in February. It’s cold; it’s snowing so they stay in.

When Demi Moore was shooting “GI Jane” here in town her then-husband Bruce Willis came to visit in the summer. He was on a late night talk show when the host noted he had “just been in Florida.” “Yup,” Willis quipped, “in Jacksonville, hottest place on Earth.” I laughed out loud when I heard that because he’s right, it’s hot. High temperatures and humidity mean it’s uncomfortable for a few months.

While a lot of places start thinking about fall and what they call “football weather” right after Labor Day, our summer is still in full blaze. Been to a Jaguars or a Gators game at home in September? The most precious commodity isn’t points scored but rather water.

Golf courses are empty for most of the days in the summer. Early morning tee times are hard to come by as nobody wants to be out over a three-footer at noon in August.

In fact, most of the summer play is by visitors.

Including at the beach.

Save for a few weekends, Floridians don’t go to the beach in the summer. Most people you see on the beach in the summer are tourists. For natives, it’s too hot.

Maybe that’s why it seems so incongruous that the SEC has their media days in July in Birmingham. It’s about as hot as it can be in Alabama in late July, yet the assembled media flocks to the meetings looking for one morsel of information. Not much comes out of those meetings except the nuance of how coaches act when they know they’re going to be good.

Or bad.

Football practice starts in late July for some and sometime in early August for the rest. The latest technology is supposed to protect the players from overheating and threatening their health. NFL teams in Florida have their largest players swallow pills that work through their system and can be read from the outside to check their core temperatures. And to think we survived three-a-days with no water and salt pills until the mid ’80’s!

The summer is a good time to relax. Slow down. Read a book. Travel. Do something different. People say all the time that they can’t wait for “football season” to get here. It’ll be here soon enough.

Enjoy the summer.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Long Ago and Far Away: Sports Heroes of a Different Time

People ask me all the time how I got into sports journalism. “Did you always want to be a sportscaster?” is a regular question. “No, I always wanted to play third base for the Baltimore Orioles. This seemed like the next best thing. Since quarterbacking the Colts was being occupied by John Unitas.”

I guess I’ve always been interested in sports, always playing something and always active. My mother says I would definitely have been called “hyper active” by today’s analysts and probably been put on some kind of medication. But when it was clear I wasn’t going to make money playing sports, reporting on them would keep me close to the games.

While I had my heroes, Unitas, John Mackey, Brooks and Frank Robinson, the media shielded me from their failings, softly reporting on their “slumps” on the field and never talking about what might be going on “Outside the Lines.” I’ve often wondered how I might have reacted if Brooks or Frank had been dissected the way modern day athletes are while under the glare of constant inspection.

Perhaps because of my job I never let my own children participate in the kind of hero-worship that was a de facto part of my childhood. Maybe I deprived them of something they should have, but dealing with superstar athletes and coaches as part of my job exposed them as people with extraordinary talent but people nonetheless.

Not to name drop, but when Russell Crowe was in town a few years ago with his rugby team, he talked about how the Rabbitohs reflected the neighborhood they represented, South Sydney. “They played the game the way people in that part of town expected them to play. Hard, the right way. It helped form my personality.”

I had a chance to talk to him about that at length one day while he was here and reflected on my own upbringing in Baltimore and how the Orioles, and the Colts helped form my sensibilities. There was an “Oriole Way.” They wrote books about it. It was the right way to play baseball.

Period.

Earl Weaver’s death reminded me of that.

For all the media coverage of his temper tantrums and ejections, Weaver wanted the game played the right way, the Oriole Way, and that lead them to being the most successful franchise in sports during his tenure.

Being raised in an American League city, those guys in the National League seemed very far away. Only Saturday afternoon games on television brought them to life and the World Series often defined their careers. I knew all about Mantle and Maris, McLain and Lolich, and Yaz. Mays was a towering figure regardless of what league he was playing in but Bob Gibson could have been playing in another country until October rolled around.

Stan Musial was different though. He was mythical. You’d hear radio reports, read box scores or follow television commentators who talked about his hits, doubles, consistency and unfailing charm. He couldn’t be real? Could he?

Perhaps like Oriole fans of that generation, Cardinal fans are glad there was a bit of distance between their on-field hero and us mere mortals. We’re missing some of that mystery these days. Musial would have have been the perfect Oriole.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Arthur Smith: 1932-2012 Bye For Now

Arthur is the third person I met when I came to Jacksonville in 1981. He was the Player Personnel Director for the Jacksonville Tea Men and moonlighted as my broadcast partner when we televised the games. But we all knew it was his job to be Noel and Dennis’ best friend.

It seemed at every turn I was learning something from Arthur.

So I got to know Arthur professionally, and personally all at the same time. We traveled together, ate meals together, drank together, all the while as he taught me everything I knew about professional football (soccer), reminding me that he never taught me all that he knew. He taught me the nuance of the professional game, and more importantly, how to get along with Noel. In fact, Arthur kept Noel from beating me to a pulp in San Diego at dinner one night, diffusing the situation with his normal humor and grace. He taught me that if the bar bill wasn’t higher than the food total when somebody else was paying the tab, you hadn’t done your job.

I got to know Arthur professionally when he went to work at Tom Bush BMW. I bought cars from Arthur but actually many days I sat in his office while he worked on a sale, meticulously going over the numbers and executing the paperwork in perfect penmanship. Beautiful writing actually, crafted much like his personality: meticulous, thorough, and clearly understood, with a few extras thrown in. I don’t know why I was fascinated with Arthur’s handwriting but it always had clarity to it, with a little flair.

But it was over the years that he grew into one of my best friends. I’d like to think I was one of his best friends but that might be insulting to at least 20 people in this room alone because he treated so many people as his best friend. And a great friend he was. Always available always upbeat. Ready with some advice if you needed it, whether you liked to hear it or not. He raised my level of refinement when I needed it. Throughout his various ailments you all know Arthur never wavered. He always said to me, “I’m going to get out of here and be just fine. I’ll work on it until I make it right. No problem. There are a lot of people worse off than me.”

Like all of you, I just liked to spend time with Arthur, discussing his world travels and hearing stories of far away places. He became my de facto travel agent. There was never a place I was interested in going that he already hadn’t been there. Sometimes he waved me off. Other times he was insistent. He told me about an obscure Michelangelo sculpture in Brugge, encouraged me to go to Andorra because, as he put it, “their entire economy is based on smugglin’.” When I told him I was going to Santorini, one of the Greek isles, he told me a story about going there and passing on a boat cruise everybody else was going on. “I sat in this beautiful bar,” he told me, “and this lovely American girl was the bartender. From Kansas City. Went there on vacation and never left.” It was that kind of recall and detail in his stories that enriched the storytelling and gave real texture and fabric to the people and places he had encountered. Because you know he made friends with everybody.

We spent a bunch of time in Leo’s. Hours and hours of just sitting and laughing. One night I was there with Linda and all three of our children. I insisted that Arthur join us and I have such a fond memory of his recalling to my kids about his time as a child in England during WWII. How he went home from school in the dark. How the planes would fly overhead. And how they would go into the bog looking for a downed plane in order to get the Bakelite from the cockpit canopy. As a storyteller he had no peer. I can recall my children’s rapt attention at a life so different from their own.

I once tried to tell Arthur how important he was to me, and what a good friend I considered him and how he was one of my favorite people. He waved me off saying, “We’ll have none of that Sam, let’s get together tomorrow night.” When I came here last night, I got to the front door and knew I was in the right place. It sounded much more like a party inside than a wake, just as he would have expected.

He did touch his sentimental side in recent years, being sure to tell me, with Shirley in the room, how important she was to him and how she was the best thing that ever happened to him. I always chuckled when people said Arthur was living on “borrowed time” after his first episode with “upper aortic anuyrsum.” “He’s so lucky his wife came home at lunch,” people would say. The only time she’d ever done so. Ever. But she was supposed to be there, just like Arthur was supposed to be here for 80 years to touch all of our lives. He wasn’t living on borrowed time, it was HIS TIME. It wasn’t Arthur who was lucky but rather all of us who shared his life, his humor and his grace.

When my phone rang last Friday and it said “Arthur Smith” on the screen, I answered with my usual, “Hey Arthur, what ‘cha up to.” When Shirley’s voice came from the other end and said, “Sam, it’s Shirley, and I have some bad news,” I knew what was up. For some reason I knew exactly what she was going to say to me and I reacted very differently than I thought. I shed a tear, for sure, but I never, and still haven’t considered Arthur, “gone.” For some reason, and I don’t think this about everybody, I think I’m going to see him again. It might be a little hot for a while, between the two of us, but I believe I’ll see him again.

So to steal a line from Arthur that Barbara reminded me of last night, he would never say, “Goodbye,” when you left or hung up the phone. He’d always end it with, “Bye for now.”

So, Bye for now Arthur, we’ll meet later and I’ll be able to tell you how you’re one of my favorite people.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

They Broke The Mold: Peter Bragan, Sr.

It’s easy to write about great people and certainly Mr. Bragan was a great man. Decorated WWII veteran, figured out how to make some money after the war, wanted to be in baseball, bought the Suns and found out he liked everything about it: The baseball, the ownership, the players, the managers, coming to the ballpark and the city of Jacksonville. So instead of selling the club, he made it flourish and was rewarded with five championships. He was recognized as the Minor League Executive of the Year in 2004 by the Sporting News for his efforts.

But those are the nuts and bolts.

Those of us who knew him saw him as a true patriarch. A father-figure who commanded respect but more often engendered love as the primary emotion. I always sat up a little straighter in his presence. He regaled me with stories about baseball, about shooting sporting clays or real birds, about fishing and occasionally about how things REALLY were in WWII.

I was fishing with Mr. Bragan, Pedro his son, my Dad (who just celebrated his 79th birthday), and my son Cole once when my Dad and Mr. Bragan got into a conversation about the ’60’s, and the ’50’s and finally about the ’40’s and Mr. Bragan’s service in Patton’s 3rd Army. And a strange thing happened. Pedro fell eerily silent and as we fished, Mr. Bragan told numerous stories about his experiences in the War and he and my father smoked cigars, caught a few fish, and acted like old friends. When I asked Pedro later if he felt all right, he asked, “Why?” And I said, “Because I know you and you barely said a word while we were fishing!” Pedro got this amazed look on his face and said, “That’s because I was listening to Daddy talk to your Dad. I’d never heard any of those stories before!”

And that’s the kind of person Mr. Bragan actually was. Sometimes larger than life, and sometimes just a guy in the room who was trying to play the “Aw Shucks, I’m just a guy from Birmingham” guy. And after getting to know him, you realized usually when he was playing that “I’m just happy to be here” guy, it was usually because he was the smartest guy in the room.

Mr. Bragan taught me a certain amount of toughness, but he also taught me that you could be gentle as well. He always had candy on his desk and spread it out like everyday was your birthday.

He provided me with a close relationship and treated me like a son. But I soon came to realize he treated everybody like a son. And he also provided me with a chance to have a relationship with Pedro, who I regard as one of my closest friends.

He talked to me once at his desk about making sure I had clean and dry socks, and how important that was during WWII. He then pulled out his discharge papers from the US Army from his desk and showed me how many “credits” he had compiled when they finally sent him home.

I shared secrets and cigars with Mr. Bragan. He always somehow had one handy for me and we smoked together in the upper deck of the Baseball Grounds before a game and when it legal, at his seat at Wolfson Park.

He was generous and happy. He loved to sing and occasionally entertain.

My first conversation with Mr. Bragan started with him saying, “Hi Sam, nice to meet you. How’s your family? Can I get you anything? You hungry? Thanks for coming.”

My last conversation, at the end of June with Mr. Bragan started with him saying, “Hi Sam, how you doing?” How’s your family” How’s your Daddy? Can I get you anything? A salad? (With bellowing laughter thinking it was preposterous than anybody would order a salad at the ballpark after Pedro put it in the concession stand.) Thanks for coming.”

And my next conversation with Mr. Bragan I hope goes something like this, “Hi Sam, how you doing? How’s your family? How’s your Daddy? When you get back up here from your time ‘down there’ I’ll get you a salad!”

And hopefully we’ll share a cigar.

Thanks Mr. Bragan.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Ali Turns 70, I Remember When: Sam’s Brush With The Champ

It was early. Especially for somebody who’d been a bartender and was working on the first job of his career that also required working the “second shift.” In the summer of 1979 I was living and working in Charleston, S.C. Just after 7am my phone rang, jolting me out of bed as only a ringing phone can. The deep voice of the News Director at Channel 2, “Specs” Munzell, my boss was pleasant and direct.

“I just got a call that Muhammad Ali was having breakfast at the Mills House downtown. You need to get down there. Now.”

I don’t look like much when I get out of bed, and with the night before still rolling around in my head, I threw some clothes on, brushed my teeth, barely combed my hair, grabbed the camera and recorder and walked out the front door in about 5 minutes flat.

“No way,” I kept saying to my self. “Ali, here in Charleston. At this hour? For what?” I made it out of Mt. Pleasant and over the Cooper River Bridge, absent of traffic and headed downtown.

The Mills House is an old, historic hotel in the center of downtown Charleston. It’s been run by Hyatt and Holiday Inn among others, but it remains a landmark in the city. The front entrance is impressive as is the lobby with the restaurant off to the left. Big white columns run floor to ceiling giving it a very big feel. With white tablecloths to the floor, it oozes elegance.

Overlooking the restaurant from the lobby landing, I realized something was amiss: it wasn’t open. For some reason, at the time the Mills House didn’t serve breakfast. It was dark but I shuffled around and leaned to the right, camera equipment in hand, only to see three men sitting at a table way in the back drinking coffee. I sat the equipment in a corner and walked into the restaurant. Muhammad Ali

Facing me at the table, luckily was a guy I recognized and perhaps more astonishingly, he looked up and recognized me.

With an easy wave he motioned me over to the table where the unmistakable silhouette of Muhammad Ali was facing the other way.

The guy I knew and the other, young man at the table both stood as I approached offering a welcoming handshake.

“Hi Sam, great to see you,” my “friend” at the table said. “Do you know Reggie?” he asked as he motioned to the young guy at the table. Reggie did look vaguely familiar so I said, “Sure” as we shook hands.

“And you’ve met the Champ,” my friend added.

Ali had stayed seated and turned his shoulders toward me, just getting his head around enough to see his face.

It was a bit surreal seeing Ali this close. He was one of my boyhood heroes and I’d read everything I could about him. But as he turned, he was so familiar it was as if I was running into somebody I’d known for years. The cut of his hair, his smooth features, the color of his skin all were exactly as I had always thought.

“Hey,” he said quietly as we shook hands. It wasn’t much of a handshake, but as I’ve learned over the years, boxers and football players don’t always have much of a handshake. It usually hurts too much. Nonetheless I stood there and stammered out a sentence trying to do my job.

“Champ, I’m Sam Kouvaris from Channel 2 here in town and I’ll be over there in the doorway so when you’re done if you would just stop on your way out and answer a couple of questions I’d really appreciate it.”

Ali eyed me for maybe a second or two and turned completely in his chair to face me before he said, “Have you eaten?”

I was so confused by his question that it barely even registered in my head. So I went back at it.

“No, but I’ll be over there by the door and if you . . .” which is when he cut me off by repeating. “Have you eaten?”

That’s a pretty simple question so this time I just said, “No sir.” Which is when he pulled out the chair next to his and said, “Sit down.”

It was my first lesson in dealing with wealthy and/or famous people that has served me well. When they make some kind of offer with a declarative statement, just do it. Like, “Get in my plane,” or “Take my car” or even at times, “Let me get the check,” just follow their lead and it usually leads to very interesting experiences.

So I sat down. Of course I knew the restaurant wasn’t open but Ali called the waiter over and said, “Sam wants to eat.” The waiter was eager to please so when he asked me what I might want (without the benefit of a menu) I ordered an omelet and some coffee.

Over the next hour or so, I sat at the table with the retired heavyweight champion of the world, one of my idols, drinking coffee, having breakfast and talking about everything you can think of: Religion, politics, women, sports, friendship, loyalty and just about everything else. Ali was disarming, fun, playful, serious and easy to talk to.

When it was time to go, we stood up and faced each other, I supposed to shake hands. Instead, Ali stepped back and flicked two left jabs within a half-inch of my nose. I reacted by raising my fists to protect myself and striking my version of a “boxers pose.” With that, Ali dropped his hands and said, “I’m not fighting you,” as seriously as you can imagine.

I relaxed and said, “Why not?”
“You’ve boxed,” the champ responded.
“Sure,” I replied.

He laughed and mimicked my pose saying, “Nobody puts their hands up like that and turns sideways to give nothing to hit when they haven’t boxed.”

With that we did shake hands, did the interview, and snapped one photo. As he left, he patted me on the back in an approving way I’ve never forgotten and walked out, never looking back.

(As an addendum to the story, Ali was in town to testify at a trial for Reggie as a character witness. Reggie had run afoul of the law on a drug charge and Ali had taken the red eye in for a court appearance that day. Reggie still went to jail, Ali said he wanted to be there because he and Reggie were friends.

In case you’re wondering, I’m 23 in this picture, Ali is 37)

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Our “Hometown”

This summer will mark my 30th year of working and living in Jacksonville. Having also worked in Charleston, S.C., going to school in Washington, D.C. and growing up in Baltimore, I’ve had a taste of all different city sizes and lifestyles.

Baltimore is a city that’s really a big town. In fact, Jacksonville is similar to what Baltimore was 35 years ago. Kind of a second city on the East Coast. While Baltimore was never quite DC or New York, Jacksonville isn’t Miami, Tampa or Orlando.

And neither town wants to be.

Washington is a big city with all of the pluses and minuses that go along with that. Great restaurants, lots of culture and the traffic and headaches that go with it. Charleston is about a deep south as you can get (OK, maybe Savannah) and is, as described, “charming.” It’s a big tourist destination now, but it remains a bastion of US Southern culture.

I often joke that I bought and owned three tuxedos when I lived in Charleston and wore them constantly. Here in Jacksonville, it’s a rare occasion that “black tie” is required.

And that’s just fine.

Sometimes that bothers people from out of town. Especially among my peers in the reporting community, when I travel they always deride Jacksonville in one-way or another. But we’re pretty comfortable with who we are. Maybe that’s what bothers people. They’re always moaning and complaining about something and can’t quite understand why we like it here.

There’s a sign at the Navy base in Norfolk that says “there are other duty stations besides Jax.” Just a small inside joke about our Navy population in North Florida and how they want to stay here instead of being stationed elsewhere.

“What brought you here,” is a question I ask people when we meet (since it seems nobody is a native). “The Navy,” is a popular answer from dentists and doctors to constructions workers and engineers. A lot of them were exposed to North Florida and South Georgia by being stationed at Cecil, NAS Jax, Mayport or Kings Bay.

Do you know what Rob Meier, Paul Spicer, Mark Brunell, Matt Robinson, Tony Boselli and Lonnie Marts have in common? None are from here; all played in Jacksonville and all decided this would be their “home-town” when they stopped playing football. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. These guys and dozens of others have played around the league but picked Jacksonville as their post-career spot. When asked they all say, “The people. The lifestyle. I just like it here. Nobody much bothers you and people just live their lives.”

Pretty good testimonial.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Wanna Play!

Nobody lives in North Florida or South Georgia because they have to. Nobody has to stay here because they owe money to the company store. So why is it that our civic leaders, elected and otherwise, can’t figure out that’s the frame of reference they should be using for every decision?

Is it right that we’re the largest land-mass city in the continental US and have nine miles of bike paths? And only one dedicated trail for cycling, running, etc.?

Recreation and sports are the life-blood of the people who live here. Jobs are tough to come by, and the ones that are here aren’t, on average, the highest paying in comparison to other cities. So people are here because they want to be and their off-the-job activities are important to them. Yet it seems it’s the last thing on the agenda when it comes to spending money on the quality of life here.

You name it, there’s not enough of them here.

Tennis courts, baseball/softball fields, soccer pitches, lacrosse fields, etc. Many times it’s left up to the private developers to set aside land for recreation somewhere within the confines of the community.

Why?

Because it’s a selling point.

Our part of the country is attractive because of the lifestyle. Everybody does something. Run, bike, swim, sail, play golf, tennis, paddle board, whatever, everybody’s got something they do. So it ought to be a priority, along with public education and transportation to keep parks open, to keep building fields where kids and adults can play and to create programs to entice people to get involved.

I know there are private, not-for-profit organizations like the Mal Washington Foundation and the First Tee that identify and help kids stay out of trouble and learn life skills through sports. But if you just wanted to go throw the football with friends would you know where to go? Do you know where the nearest basketball court is where you can find a pickup game? Would you rollerblade on your street? Where would you go to ride your bike? Take a walk?

Where we live is our greatest asset. Let’s figure out how to use it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Its a Big Deal

What’s a big deal anymore?

Jacksonville has grown from a town of 200,00 in 1980 to a sprawling city of nearly 1.4 million in the last 30 years. Yet, it’s hard to pin down just what is a big deal to the people who live here.

Is it because we’re so diverse?

Westsiders almost never go to the beach. If you live on the Northside, you rarely venture south of the St. Johns. Beach people never come over “the ditch.” And if you’re south of town, everything you “need” is right there. So why is it so hard for everybody to make a “big deal” about something?

Even the recent city election failed to capture anybody’s attention as less than 29% of voters turned out. Jaguars Owner Wayne Weaver called that apathy by the community “shameful.”

I often get asked, “What in the world did you cover before the Jaguars came here?” Well, believe it or not, there were plenty of things to capture our attention and many of them were considered a “big deal.” College football in Gainesville, Tallahassee and Athens (and even in Miami) was and still the thing that captures everybody’s attention.

Every weekend in the fall was some kind of celebration, some bigger than others. When the Florida/Georgia game rolls around, the city has a spark not seen any other week. The Gator Bowl is fun, but as far as the locals go, they think it’s an excursion for the two teams’ fans.

Super Bowl XXXIX was a big deal, but there were a lot of people who decided, “I’m not going downtown into that mess” and just stayed home. That was a shame. It was well run, well organized and starting on Thursday the weather made the experience nearly perfect. Fans from New England and Philadelphia thought so, as nearly 90% of our visitors didn’t arrive until Thursday night.

The Players is a fun week but honestly as the GJO it was a bigger deal to the locals. I don’t know if it’s because of the corporate aspect of the tournament or it’s isolation in Ponte Vedra (it was played at Selva Marina, Deerwood and Hidden Hills as the GJO) but it’s a little removed from even golfers on the Northside and Westside, that’s for sure.

We used to have gymnastics competitions, national bowling meetings, and kart races that seemed to be a big deal.

When The Jackson’s opened here, that was a big deal. The Rolling Stones in 1989. Very big. U2, Garth Brooks? All seemed to envelope just about everybody in the city in some way.

Honest.

The Jaguars are a big deal. No matter whether they sell out or not, they’re a big deal. We’re one of only 31 cities (two in New York) with an NFL franchise so when you’re in that kind of elite company, you’re a big deal.

Now our population is exploding, the geography of the city is split by the river and roads (I-95 and I-10) and everybody has their own thing to do. Maybe it’s just growing pains but I liked it when everybody thought something was a big deal.

So what now makes it a big deal?
If it’s a big deal to you.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Onboard the USS George H.W. Bush

I knew I wouldn’t get much sleep, but I was excited about the trip so 2 ½ hours didn’t seem that bad. An early morning flight to Norfolk was necessary because I had been offered a chance to actually fly out to the George H.W. Bush, the newest aircraft carrier in the United States Navy.

Amazingly, all went according to plan. The commercial flight was early, the cab ride was only 15 minutes and the C-2 (COD in Navy terms) was on schedule.

Even if it turned out to be delayed for an hour, nothing was going to dampen my enthusiasm when it came to flying on to a carrier. I’d done it before in a F/A-18 Hornet, but this was a whole different experience. No windows, bouncing around, and sitting backwards, I nodded off, as the flight from Norfolk was more than an hour. The Bush was well south, looking for good weather and smooth water. The ten minute announcement rousted me and the hands in the air and “here we go” call from the crew signaled we’d be on deck any second.

Landings on a carrier look smooth and comfortable from the outside. Inside, it’s violent and a crushing G-force smashes your body into the seat: for about 2 seconds. It’s exciting, exhilarating and exhausting all at the same time.

Inside the ship, we met LCDR John Schofield the ship’s Public Affairs Officer (PAO). He’s a pro and laid out our schedule for the next 24 hours on board covering everything from flight ops to night ops, lunch, dinner and a meeting with the skipper.

After a quick cup of coffee (I really like Navy coffee) we headed to the flight deck. It was “open” and they were in the process of bringing the Air Wing (CAG 8) on board. The main platform for Naval Aviation now is the F/A-18.

On the flight deck, it’s loud.

You hear “Rhino, 90” and “Grizzly, 45” among other things on the loudspeakers above the wind and the jet engines. Rhino and Grizzly are how they differentiate between the two different Hornet platforms. It lets the crew know how much tension to put in the landing wires based on their different weights.

While it looks like a smooth transition on deck, it’s a very violent event. Thirty-Eight thousand pounds going from about 150 mph to zero in 340 feet is loud, scary, dangerous and violent. Yet the crew is as efficient and professional as if they were cooking meals going about their business capturing and launching planes with regularity. With most of the sailors just over 19 years old, it’s impressive to see the pride and professionalism they all have.

Of course they know it’s a matter of life and death; for everybody involved. It’s a coordinated effort, no different than an offense or a defense in football.

If it’s violent to “arrest” a plane on deck, the launch from the catapult is awe-inspiring. The blast shield comes up behind the airplane. The plane is hooked to the “cat,” by the “hold back” and the numerous checks and re-checks begin. When the pilot moves the throttle to full power (before burners) it shakes the whole ship. And it’s deafening. The pilot and crew go through more checks and rechecks for about 40 seconds before the salute and launch. Three hundred feet, zero to 125 miles and hour, all in about 1.7 seconds. We got to see that over and over.

And it never got boring.

We didn’t want to leave but an elevator ride was waiting.

Not just any elevator. The mechanism they use to move airplanes from the flight deck to the hangar deck is simply called the “elevator.” But moving 40-tons up and down all day should have a much more dramatic name. And it’s fast! They zip up and down with planes and sailors constantly. Another harrowing experience!

I’m sure it’s harrowing inside the Skipper’s brain on the bridge, but you’d never know it. The bridge is where the Captain oversees the whole operation, looking for potential trouble spots and is responsible for everything.

That’s right, everything.

But Capt. Chip “Bullet” Miller looks confident and in control, no matter what’s at stake. It’s about what you’d expect from a former F/A-18 pilot and former squadron commander. As impressive as the crew is on the George HW Bush, they take their cues from their equally impressive Skipper. Capt. Miller is the guy you want on the bridge, in good times and bad. He’s everything you expect from a Naval officer and more. He remembered when we flew together out of VFA-105 “The Gunslingers” in 1992 at Cecil Field. He gets high marks from all of his contemporaries as well as those who work for him.

As he spent time with us and conducted a couple of interviews during the flight ops portion of the day, he smoothly handled problems about every 15 seconds while answering questions with the aplomb of a diplomat.

As night fell, we were treated to dinner in the officer’s mess. Excellent fried chicken and great company.

We headed off to witness the night operations on the deck, this time watching from the Flag Bridge. Then down to the ready room of the Golden Warriors, commonly known as “War Party.” We were briefed on what was up for them tonight: two touch and goes and two landings to become carrier qualified. It was off to the combat operations center to see how the ship defends itself. Some ships in the carrier group were accompanying the Bush on this “at sea” period so they were involved in the perimeter defense of the ship.

My personal favorite was in Air Operations. A dark room with four large electronic screens on the front wall all with information about where the planes were, where they were headed and what time it was all happening. Sitting on the benches on the back row “observing” were the Group Admiral, the Commander of the Air Group (CAG) and just about every squadron commander on the ship.

That room is small, so the intimacy of it was fascinating. Every move is scrutinized, analyzed and debriefed. If you don’t want to be evaluated on your actions, don’t get involved in this situation! A group of air traffic controllers were next door, coordinating the air traffic around the ship, all happening seamlessly.

We were treated as “Distinguished Visitors” onboard the USS George H. W. Bush. As a “DV” we were assigned to the “Congressional Suite” along the row with the rooms named “Ambassador to China,” “RNC Chairman,” “Vice-President,” “Director” (CIA) and others. Bunk beds, 13 cable channels on the TV and beautiful towels and robes all embroidered with “GHWB.” (They were the only things LCDR Schofield said we couldn’t take from the room!) The DV rooms are on level “O3” amidships. Until we turned in for the night, we didn’t know they were right under the blast shield for Cats 1 and 2. So as each Hornet or Growler was ready to be launched off the deck, the 40-second full military power run up was right over our heads! Matt and I had a laugh and turned on what we called “the airplane channel,” the closed circuit broadcast of what was happening on the deck. “At least we’ll see it coming,” we laughed.

They quit night ops around 2AM. With the room “68 and dark” as our friend Kevin calls it, I fell into a deep sleep. But not for long. They blow reveille at 6AM for the “DV’s!” We were on the deck before sunrise (honest) but we were far from the first people “topside.” A full crew was already doing maintenance on some of the Hornets parked on deck. Another was working on one of catapults. The radars were going and the ship was still alive. We had breakfast in the officer’s mess with some more excellent Navy coffee.

With 5,500 sailors and officers on board when the full air wing is active, the USS George H.W. Bush serves up to 22,000 meals daily. Four meals a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner plus “mid rats” (midnight rations) the seven galleys onboard stay busy. A visit to the food stores was impressive just by the sheer number of goods on board. On a ship, and particularly on a carrier, they carry what they need with them. And I mean carry. No automation to get things from one spot to another. They’ll take more than 100 sailors to load and unload the food and drink they need.

By the way, the food was great.

We had a full tour and review of the ships medical facilities. It is a warship, so treating casualties is a prerequisite. But sick call, physical therapy, and preventative medicine are all part of their daily routine. The Senior Medical Officer (the “SMO”) is a Captain in the Navy but also an internist and a hospital administrator. They have 53 beds available for patients, can do full surgeries and have a digital x-ray system among other cutting edge medical systems. They even have their own pharmacy.

A visit with the Skipper concluded our time onboard.

Back in his in port cabin, he told us stories about the pictures arrayed in the room (a one of a kind photo of The President and First Lady Barbara Bush as well as Bush family photos and a picture of George H.W. Bush receiving Babe Ruth’s hand written memoir’s while he was Captain of the Yale baseball team) about the President and First Lady visiting (Mrs. Bush didn’t recognize the setting a young Ensign Bush was in giving a toast at a wedding surrounded by three young women!) and how the President just likes to meet sailors on board, roaming around at 2:30 in the morning just to see the ship operate.

Captain Miller talked about his pride in the ship and crew, how putting his team together was almost like fielding a new club in the big leagues. An expansion team, if you will. It’s obvious Captain Miller believes in the people around him and that’s reflected in the personality of the ship. It’s his personality: upbeat, can-do, friendly, but with an eye constantly on getting the job done.

I also think the crew’s attitude might have something to do with being onboard the only ship in the Navy who’s namesake is still alive. President Bush has been onboard a couple of times and many of the sailors have met him. They don’t want to let him down.

Personally.

And that shows. (I’d really be remiss if I didn’t mention how well the Captain’s cook/chef, Culinary Specialist 2nd Class Leesa Zilempe, treated us each time we stopped by the in port cabin. We’re a bunch of nobodies but she acted like we were ambassadors from abroad. And the cookies were fantastic!)

The Captain bid us farewell guaranteeing “the first 300 feet” of our journey home.

That, of course, is the length of the cat shot off the bow of the ship. The C-2 (COD) had returned so we put our gear on and climbed inside. The brief was the same, only backwards. Sitting still, and backwards, the crew explained that when they gave us the signal we had to “grab our harness, tuck our chin, put our feet flat on the floor and brace yourself.” I’d done this before in a Hornet so I kind of knew what to expect.

But not backwards.

The signal of hands in the air and the call of “we’re getting ready to go!” were followed by a quick jolt and a forceful push out into your harness. I just remembered the plane captain in the Hornet putting his foot on my shoulder and tightening the harness until it almost hurt, and being appreciative of that the other time I did this so I kept pulling on the harness until it was just about cutting off my circulation.

And it worked. About 1.7 seconds later we were airborne and climbing.

The flight home was uneventful and shorter since the ship had steamed north overnight. The landing smooth and the Force PAO was on hand to make arrangements to get us back to Jacksonville.

There are so many people to thank; I’ll just say again that Captain Miller was fantastic. LCDR Schofield and his deputy Matthew Stroup were experts at putting us in the right situation, guiding us but not being intrusive. We were greeted with “Good Morning Sir,” and “Excuse me Sir,” so often that it was gratifying that it felt normal to be polite.

The men and women serving our country deserve our unending respect. But more than that, they serve as examples of personal accountability, dedication, pride and professionalism that sadly, are often missing in the civilian world. They’re willing to be evaluated at every turn, and their leaders are doing what they can to make them the best they can be.

I only hope I run into President Bush one more time to tell him how proud he should be of “his” ship.

But I’m sure he already knows.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Of Family and Friends

I usually don’t write much personal stuff in this space but my Uncle Angelo died on Sunday and I just wanted to give you a sense of him and family in general.

Barely five feet tall, my Uncle Angelo is 18-months older than my Dad and perhaps two brothers couldn’t have been more different. My father is strong (still is at 76) and athletic with a solid handshake formed from many years of pulling wrenches under the hood of a car. His brother Ange, as he calls him, was a true artist, twice over.

As a kid, we moved in right across the street from my uncle, his wife Gloria and their two children, Paul and Lisa. “My Uncle is an artist for the Sun papers,” I proudly told everybody in my new neighborhood. I was very impressed with that kind of ability. Freehand, he could draw anything. Portraits, landscapes, even a simple 3-D rendition of a coffee table for the ‘for sale” ads, his talent was natural and looked like magic to a 10-year old.

But when not using his hands to create, he used his voice to amaze.

In eulogizing his father, Ange’s son Paul said, “It was funny growing up with my Dad. He wasn’t an athletic Dad. And when I was on the baseball field, he’d be in the car, with the windows open doing what he called ‘vocalizing. The other kids on the field didn’t know what that was.” Everybody got a chuckle out of that, but as I told my cousin afterwards I had to stifle a hearty laugh when he said that.

My Uncle Angelo was a Tenor. That’s with a capital “T'” in the truest sense of the word. When asked if he had any special talents, he would say, “I can sing a little.” Which was usually met with a dismissive nod. But when this diminutive man let loose with his booming voice, men sat up and took notice. Women sat in awe. It was as if he was possessed by a higher power when he decided to sing. He sang selections from the great operas with ease. And even slipped in a few “contemporary” songs as well. His voice had the sweetness of Pavarotti’s and the power of Domingo’s. He sang “Ave Maria” at my sister’s wedding as if the Pope was in attendance.

I can remember as a kid hearing him “vocalize” from across the street and after while think nothing of it. I like to sing a bit, and he encouraged that saying, “You have to vocalize everyday Sammy.” So it was nothing to be playing curb ball in the front street and hear this booming “AAA, EE, III, OO, UU,” coming out of my Uncle’s house. To hear him sing “scales” seemed to be a normal part of every day and one of the vivid memories of my childhood.

They called him “the little man with a big voice” at his church. After services, people would wait for him to get out of his choir robe and lineup in front of the church to say hello and thank you.

It was difficult to see my father in such pain at his brother’s funeral. They had a bond that perhaps only they understood. My Dad told me that once his father had said, “You might be younger but you’ll always be the strong one, you have to take care of Angelo.” It’s something my Dad took to heart and he watched over him from that day on.

It’s hard to say that anything good comes out of somebody dying, but I did get to reconnect with my cousins and see a lot of people from “the old neighborhood” in Baltimore where I grew up. I also spent time with my parents and my brother and sisters with no spouses or kids around for the first time in I don’t know when.

You get older, but the dynamic in that situation never really changes.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

USA Soccer: Play American!

I read that some of the American players were crying when they accepted their silver medals at the Confederations Cup in South Africa on Sunday.

And they should have been.

Leading 2-0 at half, I don’t know what coach Bob Bradley said to the team, but it was completely backwards.

Now all of you soccer snobs out there just keep your panties on because I played the game for years, did the play by play for the Tea Men of the NASL and watched my kids go through all sorts of school and club teams over their careers.

Having said that, one of the problems Bradley or any other coach has at the national level is they don’t play to the strength of “Americans.” They’re always trying to play somebody else’s game either “English” or “South American” or whatever. Let’s play like “Americans.”

What does that mean?

It means not standing around and just packing it in the box when you have a lead and counter attacking.
Up 2-0, we want to make it 3-0.
That’s what we understand.
It’s in our DNA!

So keep moving forward, not with somebody else’s game but our own!

What, did we think the Brazilians were not going to score? We were going to shut out Brazil? Come on! They’re Brazil! They’re the best team in the world and we flat out played them for a half. Then decided we’d do something different.

What do you think the Brazilian coach said at halftime? He told those guys, “What’s the matter with you, you’re losing to the Americans! Any more of that and you might as well stay in Africa!” So what did they do? They came out and scored in the first minute and dominated play from the start. And what did we do, we sat on our heels and let them bang it at the goal for 45 minutes.

Soccer is such a political game in the US to begin with, we don’t even have the best players out there half the time and don’t’ develop the best players as teenagers with any gusto. If you go to the right camps, play for the right clubs and suck up to the right guys, you’ll move forward. Play another sport? Forget ever moving toward the national level.

Brazil is a country of a 100 million people and the best athletes are on their soccer team. Our best athletes of 300 million people are playing football, basketball or baseball, where the money is at this point. Beating Brazil at this point wouldn’t have changed the game here in America, but it sure would have given us some confidence going into the World Cup next year. Instead, we’ll be thinking how we couldn’t beat Brazil playing just one half spotting us two goals!

I remember when George Steinbrenner got fed up with how the Olympic team was competing on an international level and used his “bully pulpit” to push them in the right direction with a training center and forced them to get serious about competing as a country. I wish somebody like that, Mark Cuban, Jerry Jones, Hank Steinbrenner, somebody with a sports background and a bunch of money would do something about US Soccer.

Start by firing Bradley.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Michael Phelps: Out Of Chances

Did he every actually say he smoked marijuana?

I’m not sure Michael Phelps ever really did say he had committed a crime or did take a bong hit of weed. He did admit to irresponsible behavior and adolescent decision-making but I don’t think that’s illegal. Of course I’m not being stupid or naïve about what happened at the party at the University of South Carolina. Phelps was wrong.

It’s just the firestorm of publicity, all negative, has been a little much for a picture taken by an anonymous person and sold for a ton of money to a tabloid.

First of all, who does that? I know Phelps is famous and I know that everybody has a camera either in their pocket or on their phone but must every well known person have to hide in their house for fear that their picture will be taken? It’s just wrong and a shame but it doesn’t absolve Phelps from serious bad judgment.

At 23 years old he has a lot of life experience for somebody his age but he’s still young and is going to do stupid things. This qualifies as one of those stupid things, no question.

I do think USA Swimming made the right move, suspending Phelps for three months. It’s not that he failed a drug test or they’re keeping him out of any big time competition but they’re sending a strong message that they’re not going to let the little things go and they’re not putting up with any irresponsible behavior from anybody.

Phelps apology was one of those non-denials, denials but at least it was an acknowledgement of wrongdoing. He knows who he is and he knows he’ll have to be a better custodian of his lifestyle if he expects companies to rely on him as a spokesman. When he won the eight medals in China, his agents estimated that he’d be worth $100 million dollars. Maybe so and possibly he’ll win more gold in London, but his mistakes being forgiven are now over.

Kellogg’s has already dropped him and I’m sure his other sponsors are taking a long, serious look at what the public perception is of Phelps in the long-term.

A DUI when he was 19 and now this picture have expired his chances. People will forgive Phelps and if he’s contrite enough as we go forward, this will be a thing of the past. This is also the kind of thing that will motivate him to train harder and prove that he’s not some kind of dope head who is getting ready to fall into the abyss.

Phelps is a likeable guy who’s fabulously talented, highly motivated and out of chances.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Holiday Story

As we go into the holiday season, I just wanted to tell this story so perhaps when things get hectic over the next couple of weeks; perhaps we can take a deep breath and think about what’s really important.

As many of you know, I like to ride my bike. I have a lot of friends who are in the bike community and like to ride with them when I can. If not, I’ll be out by myself. Either way, it’s fun, and can be a good workout.

Last Saturday morning I got up early to catch the group ride out of Champion Cycling in Mandarin. The ride goes right by my neighborhood so even though it leaves at 7:15 from the shop, I usually leave around the same time and catch the “bunch” on the road. It was perfect when I left, a really beautiful golden sky as the sun came up.

What I didn’t know is the sun was catching the edge of a big front so when I got about two miles from my house, the bottom fell out. I ducked under a tree, put my stuff in a plastic bag and tried to wait it out, waiting for “the bunch.” But in about a minute I was soaked and no sign of the riders. So I figured I’d rather be soaked riding than standing there, so I headed back on the road trying to find the group. Of course, they took a detour and I never did find them, but since I was already soaked, I figured I’d put some miles in.

Almost two hours later after wind and rain and questioning my own sanity, I was pretty close to home when my back tire went flat. “Perfect,” I thought, as I fumbled for my phone looking for a ride. For some reason, I happened to look up and not 50 feet from me a guy was standing in front of his pickup truck in running shorts waving and asked, “Do you need help?”

He obviously had just finished the Mandarin 10K also in the rain. “Where you headed,” I asked, a little warily. “North,” he said. “Can you drop me at Champion?” I wondered. “Phil’s place?” he said with a laugh and finished, “sure.”

So I threw my bike in the back and he drove me the couple miles up to Champion Cycling. He told me his name, said he rode out of the shop on a regular basis but lived in Arlington. Phil knew him, “Grey truck?” Phil asked. No big deal right? Nice guy did me a favor.

But on Tuesday night I was at Starbucks in Lakewood and happened to be on the phone when I pulled up as a guy pulled up next to me on a nice Harley Road King. As I continued my conversation, the guy got off his bike and walked over and knocked on my window. I rolled it down and motioned that I was still on the phone. He waved and backed away. But stayed right there. When I finished the conversation, I rolled the window down and said, “What’s up?”

He walked towards me; one hand supported by a cane, and said, “Hey, I know you!” “Thanks,” I said, “nice bike.”

“Yeah, I like it,” he answered. “I rode up here from St. Augustine,” he continued “and when I went to put gas in my tank I realized I left my wallet at home. Can you help me out with a couple of bucks to put gas in the bike?”

“Sure, let’s go across the street to the Shell and fill it up,” I offered.

I was somewhat stunned, not because somebody was asking me for money, because that happens all the time. But rather I couldn’t get the image of the guy helping me out on Saturday out of my mind.

“Gee, God,” I chuckled to myself, “this is kind of fast!” I’ve always believed in “Paying it Forward,” but I laughed at the quick, “payback.”

The guy mumbled something about high octane and I could see that he was uncomfortable with my offer, so I got out of the car and said, “Hungry?” He demurred, adding “Sam, it was hard enough asking you for money for gas.”

So I said, “Come on, let’s get a cup of coffee.”

He gladly followed and after ordering coffee, we sat and talked for about 20 minutes before I had to get to work. I put enough money on the table to fill the tank of his bike and buy a decent meal on his way home. “Is that enough,” I asked. He said, “Man that’s plenty,” so we shook hands, I wished him well and back to the station I went.

Still no big deal right?

Except last Saturday I was up early again for the morning ride, but it was freezing out, so I put it off for an hour before heading to the road. About halfway into it, I saw the front tire going flat, (different tire, different bike) so I pulled over to fix it. Of course, TSA took my CO2 cartridges out the last time I traveled with my bike, so I was stuck.

Again, I fumbled for my phone and again, a guy appeared not 50 feet away at the intersection, rolled down his window and said, “Do you need help?” I almost laughed out loud but couldn’t get the images of the last week out of my head of being helped and trying to help.

So I threw my bike in the back of his Pacifica, said hi to his teenage son in the back seat and accepted the ride, once again up to Phil’s place at Champion Cycling.

He went out of his way to drop me off and all I could do was again say thanks, shake his hand, wish him luck and tell him how kind his offer was.

And of course, all I could think about lucky I was to be in a place where people were so kind and generous and hope to be able to replay that again in the future.

So for the holidays, when things aren’t going exactly how you’d want them to, look around, there might be somebody who needs a little more help than you do.

I know I will!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Change, And What That Really Means

I used to think I liked politics. And maybe I did from afar before talk radio and cable television revealed the raw nerve that’s always hanging out when it comes to getting elected. Maybe it’s always been this way, but we just didn’t know it. That why the word “political” has such a negative connotation anyway.

I’ve figured out it’s not politics that’s interesting to me but rather the result of the political process. In a word, leadership. And that’s where Barak Obama and the Democrats find themselves following the election.

It’s much different to be the party of dissent versus the party of leadership. To be a counter-puncher always reacting to what the other guy does is sometimes a comfortable place to be. At this point though, the Democrats have had plenty of pent up anger that they’ve directed at President Bush over the last eight years. But for those who wanted change, the question is, “Now what?”

Do they have a true socialist leaning agenda or will Obama force them to govern more from the center? If he truly wants to be a consensus builder as he said in his speech Tuesday night, he’ll have to be willing to compromise to get things done. The Republicans can play defense, having weathered the onslaught of seats in the Senate, holding onto just enough to avoid a veto-proof, filibuster-proof majority. While he was coy on some of his relationships and his “big-picture” thinking during the campaign, Obama will now have to reveal what he actually believes in and bring ideas to the table and sell them to the American people.

In 1960, America elected a young, telegenic leader who energized an entire generation with ideas like the Peace Corps and the space program. That’s the challenge for the new President. He called for a “new spirit of service” telling Americans that it’s work and sacrifice that will get the job done. “I hear your voices and I need your help,” is what he told the crowd at Grant Park.

It might be the same message he was promoting as a candidate but it’s not the message his followers were hearing. Many Obama supporters believe he’s going to fix everything and they won’t have to participate. That’s why he’s spent the last week or so lowering expectations, trying to get people to have a realistic idea of what is going to happen.

“It might not happen in a month, a year or even in one term,” is how he phrased it in Chicago on Tuesday night. But with control of the White House the House and the Senate, he can push his agenda forward without any delay. But only if he can get the people to buy into it. Democrats are already talking about re-implimenting the Fairness Doctrine that would essentially silence critics, especially on the radio. Even if they voted for Obama, will his followers absolutely support that?

Obama was a fantastic candidate: telegenic, lucid in his thoughts and tight with his message. He stayed on course during the campaign hammering on the economy and the action in Iraq and Afghanistan. He stayed away from abortion, immigration and other issues that are “no-win” strategies for any candidate. And he won. In a way, it reminds me of the ending of the Robert Redford movie “The Candidate” where he runs against the establishment and wins as a long shot. In the final scene he mouths to his campaign director the words “now what?” And that’s what American’s are now thinking: “Now what?”

As a candidate, Obama was able to talk in generalities about policy but as President, he’ll need to have specifics. I’m not worried about his lack of experience simply because there’s a whole Democrat machine standing at the ready, poised to take their places in Washington. And he’s smart and motivated. The important thing to look for will be whom he chooses as his top advisers. Who’s close to him? Who will he take his advice from?

He’s a smart and resilient politician, proven through a tough primary campaign against the Clintons and followed by a winning run for the Presidency against the Republicans and John McCain. Now he is the President for all Americans, a very different role than being the candidate for one party. If he wants to be that, he’s up to that challenge, but that’s the big question: Does he want to be that or is his view much more narrow? We don’t know because we don’t know much about the man or where he’ll take us. He talked about the “humility and determination to heal our divides,” which is just what it’ll take to get a lot of people with different ideas to get moving in the same direction.

Obama quoted Lincoln a lot on election night, noting that Lincoln was from Illinois and was elected President in a country during a far more divided time. “We have the enduring power of our ideals,” he said, calling on all Americans to unite behind our common goals instead of focusing on our differences.

“America can change,” he said. And he’s right. The encouraging thing is it doesn’t have to change much. It just needs the right leadership.

Here are some other random thoughts about the election (since this is a sports site and I don’t expect to be writing about politics very often).

Now that we’ve elected a black man as President (I know he’s half white, half black) does that signal the end of racism in America? With Blacks being only 12% of the total population, Barak Obama needed an awful lot of white voters to cast their ballot for him in order to get elected. Does it mean racism is dead or has it been overblown by those who have made a living on the “politics of race?” Has the media given so much credence to those who have used race as a leverage to get what they want that it became part of the landscape that we accepted even though it wasn’t there at the purported level?

With so many blacks voting for the first time (even though first time voters comprised 11% of the total the same as in 2004) will they return to the process in the future if a black man is not a candidate? In my role as the “interactive reporter” during Channel 4’s coverage I heard from a lot of people on both sides of that issue. Many were happy that people had joined in the process and an equal number were angry saying, “where ya’ been?” I hope that those who sought change see that becoming part of the process is the thing that brings about that change.

And finally, I though John McCain’s concession speech was the most gracious and finest exit from a campaign I’ve ever seen. And that’s a double-edged sword. It was almost as if that’s the speech he expected to give all along. That would be disappointing, except that he certainly did his part to try to put the two sides together.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Vote

I haven’t liked just about anything about this year’s campaign. The negative tone, from both sides, fueled by the avalanche of information distributed by the media hasn’t done anybody any good.

The Democrats have been able to set the tone, putting the Republicans on the defensive from day one. Whether it’s been about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan or the economy, John McCain has been answering questions instead of trying to put forth his own agenda. Barak Obama has raised more money than any candidate in history, over $600 million. He’s spent it on advertising, setting the tone and pushing his middle class tax cuts and hooking McCain to George Bush.

Senator McCain is a bad candidate who could be a good President. Senator Obama is a good candidate who remains a mystery. There hasn’t been much scrutiny of his background as the media rides the wave of “change.”

Working in newsrooms all of my professional life, there’s no question that a liberal point of view is the dominant sentiment among those in the news business. It’s the kind of business that attracts young professionals who are “out to change the world.” It’s disappointing to see such a distinct point of view invade what is supposed to be a journalistic environment but it is a fact and it’s not going away.

Just know that every newscast has a point of view. No matter of everybody’s claim to “the truth” every bit of news comes from somebody’s point of view.

Do your homework. Figure out the issues that are important to you. Don’t be influenced by the PR machines that the campaigns have become. They’re all saying what you want to hear but none of it is close to the truth regarding what actually is going to happen.

I’m not impressed with either side. The Republican’s seem disorganized and while McCain is the standard bearer, nobody seems convinced that he’s the right guy. The Democrats have done a good job with their electoral strategy, and Obama has become the new version of a “Teflon man.” No matter what questions about his associations and views are asked, he and his advisers have been able to deflect those without much investigation.

Many people are voting “against” something instead of “for” one candidate.

But there is a clear choice in the election. The Democrats want to move the country in a more socialist direction, redistributing earnings through taxes. Republicans want to enable wage earners to keep more of their money and allow businesses to distribute money by hiring new employees and expanding the business.

Health care, the economy, national security and abortion are among the hot button issues for this election.

Whichever is your issue you can do one thing about it.

Vote.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

NBC, China and The Games

I don’t know if I could have enjoyed the Olympics more than I did this year. Part of it was the mixture of taped and live events that television was able to bring to the east coast of the US because of the 12-hour time difference between here and Beijing. NBC did a masterful job of blending the competition in with the US’s efforts in nearly every competition.

Some, like swimming, we dominated in so it was easy for the network to focus on both objectives at once. Other sports, like say women’s pole vault has mostly non-US athletes involved (although we won silver in that event) but NBC was still able to bring the event to life with out over dramatizing the whole thing.

There are a lot of things I don’t like that NBC Sports does with their whole television philosophy but they had these Olympics figured out. I guess it’s not their job to point out that the host nation is one under communist rule and the people are oppressed but I think on a regular basis they did go a little overboard politically pointing out how wonderful China was.

I think it’s a fascinating culture with a rich history and according to all reports from friends who were there, the people were very friendly. Perhaps, much like people think of Americans when we travel, I’d like their people, it’s jus the government I disagree with. Nonetheless I got caught up in all kinds of sports from the standard swimming, gymnastics and basketball to table tennis, open water swimming and team handball.

I do like it that they put all kinds of sports on all kinds of networks. My son made a chart for me so that just about any time of day I could tune in to see some kind of competition.

That’s one of the other things I really enjoyed about watching these games. It’s the first time I was able to sit down with my son and see him enjoy all kinds of competition, learning about different sports and awakening his curiosity about not only the sports, but also the culture of the people who excelled at them. Who knew that the national sport of Hungary was water polo?

As Bob Costas said in his final commentary, the Olympics are big for any city that hosts them but this one was huge for the host country as well. China, in many regards, can be described as a third world country with first world weapons. But their expanding economy and now this two-week exposure to the world could bring the people of the country, one fifth of the world’s population, onto center stage. If a communist country can have a job classification of “capitalist,” you’d figure they’d know how to capitalize on this time on the world stage.

I do know that I never have really wanted to visit China, despite my insatiable wanderlust, but after seeing the Olympics, I’d like to go there. It sure will be interesting to see how people view China in the future when it comes to tourism. It hasn’t been a big destination in the past but that sure will change. And now that 1.3 billion people have seen the world through the eyes of the Olympics, will they want to go visit these foreign lands for themselves? How many Chinese have you seen touring around the world? That could be the next thing that happens.

I also think that any rational person, after seeing these games, the expense China incurred, the number of volunteers involved and the organization, must consider China a player on the world stage in just about any situation. In any conflict, either in the boardroom or on a battlefield, they’ll be a formidable foe.

Based on their performance in these Olympics, they’re going to be a force in sports on the international stage for a long time.