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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

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.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Michael Phelps And The USA

I was in entryway for the media at the stadium following the Jaguars game when I came across about 20 people crowded around a small TV set. I knew what they were there for: Michael Phelps was going for his eighth gold medal, swimming in the IM relay with his American teammates.

The small crowd was pretty quite, intently watching the walkout and the introductions. When the camera panned to Phelps there were a couple of “there he is” comments but this was a group of people who cover sports for a living. A pretty jaded crowd, not much impressed by anything or anybody. Especially a swimmer.

But something different was going on here.

These folks weren’t just observing, they were, for the moment, fans.

It was really interesting to watch the race with these people. In the press box, since everybody started carrying computers, it’s a pretty quite place. The windows are closed and you only hear the silence interrupted by the dispassionate announcements of down and distance.

The stadium entryway is usually a busy place with people coming and going before and after the game. But for these couple of minutes, time stood still. Nobody moved.

The opening backstroke 100 had the Americans near the front. The breaststroke had the world record holder swimming for Japan so you knew the US would be behind when Phelps jumped in the water for the butterfly. And you figured, at least hoped, that he’d swim his normal leg: controlled for the first 50 meters then put on his big surge at the finish.

And that’s what happened.

A quick glance at the crowd showed a few heads bobbing with each stroke Phelps made and I caught the occasional “come on” murmured under somebody’s breath. When Jay Lezak jumped in the water with a half body length lead, somebody up front said, “Come on Jay, don’t blow it.”

Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t just some uninterested bystander. I was pretty intent and involved and even when Lezak turned for home I said something like, “Come on Jay, Swim!” By that point everybody was into it, exhorting Lezak to “hang on” and “finish strong.” And when he touched and that “carpet” rolled out on the water with the stars and stripes and “USA” behind the number one on the water something funny happened: Everybody clapped.

For a moment there were no naysayers, no critics. Nobody finding fault in the victory, nobody was trying to somehow downgrade the accomplishment. “We” won and Phelps got his eighth gold. It’s that kind of communal moment that we don’t often have in the States.

Since we don’t have a national team in any of the international sports the people follow, it’s not often that we all are in front of the television watching one thing and rooting for victory.

I was in Costa Rica once when their national soccer team had qualified for the World Cup and was playing in the first round. Sitting at a bar on the beach, the bartender didn’t acknowledge me when I sat down, instead keeping his gaze on the television. “Can I get a beer” I asked politely. “Come around and get it yourself,” the bartender said nicely, never taking his eyes off the TV.

We don’t get that much here.

The ’80 hockey club is about the closest to everybody being on the same page as we’ve ever been in the last 50 years. It’ one of the things I like about the Olympics. Not every four years, but occasionally, something or somebody will catch our attention and bring us all together.

Phelps was able to do that.

A kid from Baltimore who’s built like the perfect swimmer has also had the perfect temperament for dealing with the schedule, the media demands and the execution of his skill.

I saw him on the air on NBC in a split-screen between Beijing and Detroit with Mark Spitz. Spitz was tremendously gracious (apparently for the first time) and Phelps couldn’t have said more perfect stuff. Maybe it’s the times, maybe he’s just the right guy but for those two minutes everything seems just right.

And we won.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jim McKay Encounter: Long Ago

I met Jim McKay once, when I was in college. I had a late class but ran over to the theater he was speaking at promoting his book “My Wide World” on college campuses.

My first impression was that he was tiny! I got there after he was finished speaking but I was determined to hear something that he had to say so I hung around the exit to the stage and he walked out with the promoter, an on-campus administrator I happened to know.

McKay had a little bit of a beard if I remember correctly, and he couldn’t have been nicer. We shook hands, and he asked me if I had heard his presentation. I said I did not, I was in class but I wanted to get over here just to say hi at least. McKay said “Oh,” when I told him I wasn’t at the speech, but was very interested in hearing about the fact that I was majoring in communications.

I went to Clemson as a freshman as a pre-med major, and actually did quite well. But when they called us together after my first semester to tell us they were phasing out the pre-med program, I needed a change.

Political Science made a short appearance but after taking Introduction to Broadcasting 101, my professor suggested I look into majoring in that discipline. Citing that Clemson lacked a Broadcasting department, he gave me a list of seven schools where I could gain my degree. Luckily, Maryland was one of those and I transferred to get my degree in Radio, Television and Film, the Terp’s equivalent to Telecommunications.

I was already planning to transfer, and McKay encouraged my move, saying that the field was wide open and it was going to even get better. Remember, this was a time that was before cable, before ESPN, FOX and CNN. There were only the three networks, but McKay had an inkling that was going to change.

We spoke for just a couple of minutes, and I thanked him for making it seem so interesting to go around the world and experience different sports. I think I might have even mentioned barrel jumping and he laughed. We shook hands again, he wished me luck and he was off. But I remember how pleasant he was, and how encouraging he was about a career choice that seemed to be at the top of everybody’s list.

Obviously I’ve been thinking about McKay since he death on Saturday and I’ve read and heard what a lot of the different national “voices” have been saying. I do know he was a very good writer. He was plainspoken and occasionally Spartan, which is always best. A lot of “voices” want to wax eloquently about somebody else who waxed eloquently. But that seems kind of cheap to me.

McKay was a real guy. I met his son, Sean McManus the President of CBS News and Sports once here in Jacksonville and commented that his Dad had a very positive effect on my career. “He did that a lot,” was McManus’ response. Which was correct.

But what I realized in the last couple of days is that McKay fueled my wanderlust. As much as Chuck Thompson, the voice of the Orioles made it seem fun to me, McKay opened my eyes to a true “Wide World.” Since I was a kid I’ve been as interested in barrel jumping as I have in NFL football. Sure, I understand the difference, but perhaps because of McKay and his globetrotting I understand the similarities. The dedication, the sacrifice and the sheer joy of the competition, no matter on what scale.

McKay also represents another layer of professionals who are now gone, who shaped my interest in what I decided I’d put my life into. McKay was a little smarter than the average bear, a little more interesting than the everyday play-by-play guy, a little more well read and well traveled than just about anybody else in the room. He spent his retirement at home, with his family, knowing he had done it all.

Twice.

But he didn’t flaunt it.

He was it.

We should all be so lucky.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Big Brown: Bust?

Just like everybody else, I follow horse racing as a casual fan, focusing on the Triple Crown. I do follow some of the other races during the year, the Florida and Arkansas Derby, the Travers Stakes and the Breeders Cup. I watch the races and read a bunch about the different competitions. I’ve been to the track to see races in person, a must when it comes to that sport. The horses are so impressive and for the most part, the people involved are totally committed to the sport and the animals involved.

We’ve been talking about the next “Super Horse” for a while, from Spectacular Bid to Smarty Jones with 30 years gone by without another Triple Crown winner. It’s the longest stretch in history without a winner of all three races. I thought Afleet Alex was that horse in 2005, but he just didn’t run in the Kentucky Derby but went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont. Three races in five weeks seem like a lot, and it is when it comes to 3-year-old thoroughbreds.

I’ve heard that the sport has changed in the past couple of decades with breeding turned toward speed instead of endurance. That might explain some of the failures in the Belmont at 1 and a half miles but Saturday’s race with Big Brown was different.

Big Brown looked like a super horse in the Derby and the Preakness. Whenever Kent Desmoreaux asked him to run, he took off like he was turbocharged. When he broke from the gate at the Belmont though, he didn’t look right from the start. Big Brown has a beautiful stride and great gait but it wasn’t on display in New York. He looked uncoordinated during the whole trip. Even though he had a smooth ride and was sitting in the right spot at third coming to the final turn, he was already laboring.

It didn’t have anything to do with the distance; something was going on with the horse. There had been a lot of talk about Big Brown taking Winstrol, a steroid about once a month. It’s legal for horses in most states. Big Brown’s last injection was on April 15th, two weeks before the derby. Who knows if that had a negative effect on his run after it was out of his system but he just didn’t run?

“When I came to the final turn and asked him to go, I just didn’t have any horse,” Desmoreaux said immediately after the race. When he went to let him out, nothing happened. In fact he went backwards.

The weird thing is, Big Brown looked the part. He looked different than the other thoroughbreds. He looked big and strong, kind of like Secretariat. But he didn’t run like a Super Horse. He just didn’t run.

Have you ever gone for a run and just felt completely uncoordinated the whole time? It looked like that from the start. I don’t think Desmoreaux had anything to do with the ride. In fact, I thought he was masterful; especially when he pulled Big Brown up once the cause was lost.

Maybe the answer is to spread the races out since the breeding habits have changed. Maybe a standardized drug program is the right way to go. But whatever it is, the sport needs a fix up.

Affirmed, and even Alydar seemed like Super Horses and maybe they were bred to win the Triple Crown but there’s nothing like them out there now.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Derby Wake Up

Obviously, I don’t know anything about thoroughbreds anymore. I had this amazing string of calling the winner of the Kentucky Derby of about 12 years starting with Unbridled and running through about 2002. Since then I haven’t been close.

I had the field covered in 2005 except for Giacamo who came in as a 50-1 winner. This year Tom McManus asked me on 1010 XL who I liked and I said, “anybody but the 3-1 favorite Big Brown. I’ll take the field.” Of course, Big Brown won going away.

His trainer had predicted it amid snickers in the barn from his competitors. But he backed it up winning by 4 ½ lengths and could be a contender for the Triple Crown. He looked like the class of the field and the race that give the winners fits, the Belmont Stakes, seems suited to his closing kick at 1-½ miles.

The race was marred by the breakdown of Eight Belles, the only filly in the race who had finished second. On the warm down, she broke both front ankles and had to be “euthanized” right there on the track. Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post wrote on Saturday night that horses breaking down and being killed on the track is happening at the rate of about 2 a day in the United States alone.

What’s going on there? Is it just better reporting? Maybe this has always happened but it just wasn’t reported. Or maybe the colts are just being bred so finely that they just can’t handle the stress of the pounding on their bodies. Whatever it is, it isn’t good.

One of the sport’s most celebrated champions, Barbaro, brought the brutality of the whole thing to light. Injured at the start of the Preakness he was saved by the jockey and the on-track vet. After months of rehab they finally put him “to sleep” ending a sad chapter in horse racing’s annals.

If you’ve ever seen a racehorse, a thoroughbred in person, you know they don’t look like a regular horse. Perfectly muscled and developed, the rippled physique looks like it’s been carved out of a stone. Much like our awareness of human performance and the drugs that have augmented many athletes abilities, is that a part of the “sport of kings?” I do know that there are plenty of drugs that are illegal for racehorses to take. Most, I thought, are anti-inflammatory.

Is there compassion among the trainers and owners? It certainly seems that the bond between the horses and the people around them is something different than anything else. Like in “The Godfather” putting the horse’s head in the film director’s bed was the nastiest thing they could do. He called the horse, “my pride and joy.” They are beautiful things to look at but are we killing them through drugs, training and breeding? Two-a-day seems like a lot to be scraping off the track and going onto the next race.

Is the sport big enough outside of the Triple Crown for anybody to care? Obviously tracks have been in trouble and are closing and the sport is mainly fueled by off track betting these days. But is their enough to make anybody stand up and ask the questions? Hopefully there are answers and not just more questions.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Beach Boys Encounter

“Man, I have that same shirt,” Mike Love said to me as we were introduced and he pulled on my sleeve. “Really?” I responded. “No really man, I have that exact same shirt,” he offered again. “Well I was hoping you’d wear it tonight,” I told him, ” I was told it was a Beach Boys concert!” Luckily, Love laughed and I felt better about my half smart-aleck remark.

I had gotten an email from Paul Witkowski, the PR director of the Symphony that was pretty simple: “Hey Sam, wanna sing with the Beach Boys?” That sounded intriguing so I replied, “sure.” Paul and I have tried to cook up something with the symphony for a while. I’ve done some things with them in the past and we’re always looking to add to that total, especially a chance to sing.

A couple of days and a couple of emails later I found out the “singing” with the Beach Boys was a little less than I expected. I’d get a chance to sing along on “Barbara Ann,” you know the “Ba ba ba, Barbara Ann” part. Fair enough, I thought. The Beach Boys are an American icon in their own right and their music is a big part of our historical sound track. My personal one too. I think I had an 8-Track of their songs. Anyway, to stand on the stage with them in any form or fashion sounded like one of those experiences you never thought you have a chance to do.

I got there early (stop laughing) and grabbed a seat in the back for the first set. I wanted to see what the set up was in the Theatre. Four guys across the front, a drummer and bassist behind and the Symphony tucked behind them, behind plexiglass. That’s a pretty standard thing in this kind of “cross-media” performance. Voices and guitars could get lost in the full force of violins, trumpets, xylophones and tubas.

The vocals sounded good, perhaps surprising me a little bit. Love is 63-years old and his son stands next to him, singing and playing guitar. Bruce Johnston is the front keyboard player and he’s about the same age as Love. The other guys are fill-ins. Brian Wilson didn’t make this gig. They do make constant jokes about their age, but it is remarkable to think that some of their hits were written and recorded in 1963 yet they’re still timeless, still being performed and have some of the best vocal harmonies ever.

Showing their ability to still sing those harmonies, they borrowed “California Dreamin'” from the Mammas and the Pappas in the first set. Love and Johnston have a running show about each song in the run-up, pretty well choreographed, complete with sounds of creaking bones. Sometimes Johnston’s actions and attempts at audience involvement seem a little forced but it’s all about the fun and the songs anyway. Love does provide some background about the songs, (“Only song written about a car”, or “this song is actually very patriotic. It’s about cheerleaders.”)

At the break I ran into Paul who took me backstage to introduce me to the stage manager so I could help give a car away and understand how I fit into the whole singing with the Beach Boys thing. Problem was, nobody knows what the guys on stage are going to do. That whole laid-back California thing isn’t an act. We were looking for answers when Love happened to walk by so Paul introduced me and asked how it was going to work. After the short exchange, Love, who’s bigger than you’d think and wears about 8 rings, said “Just stand over there off-stage next to Bruce and we’ll figure it out.”

Then he went on to ask if I thought the Omni bar would be showing the UCLA game that night. “My nephew plays for the Bruins you know,” he added. I assured him that it’d be available and we chatted about the team and their chances. Then he drifted off, saying we should listen to the Symphony’s version of “In My Room.” “It’s really pretty,” he added.

So I hung around, looking at the set list and figured out it’d be about 40 minutes before they got to “Barbara Ann” the third to the last song of the night. I made it over to stage left, right by Johnston’s keyboard, under 10 feet off stage. “Help Me Rhonda” got the crowd going and Barbara Ann was just two away.

Except they skipped the song in between and went right into, “Ba ba ba, Ba Barbara Ann.”

That’s when Johnston walked off stage toward me and I figured this was it. Except he walked past me like I was invisible, circled around the curtain and the plexiglass and headed for a young, blonde violinist in the Symphony. This kind of thing has happened to me before so, although disappointed, I took it in stride.

That’s when I looked up to see Love motioning me on stage and pointing at Johnston’s microphone. I figured I’d take my chance and jumped on stage.

They were at the part in the song right after the “So I thought I’d take a chance on Barbara Ann.”

So I joined in with “Barbara Ann, take my hand, Barbara Ann, you got me rockin and a rolling rockin and a rollin Barbara Ann” in the best falsetto I could muster.

I guess it took Mike Love by surprise and I can’t figure out if he was shocked I was actually doing it or I was singing his part! Either way he was laughing, feigning shock and pointing at me.

In the next verse Johnston showed up with the violinist so I backed off and “exited stage left!”

It was great fun, I think one of those once in a lifetime experiences, I actually could hear myself, got to meet Mike Love and sang in front of the Symphony.

And I guess I have at least one cool shirt.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Australian For A Day

I’m sitting here watching the Championship games in the NFL and really enjoying it. Good games, both of them. But I’m also interested in the upcoming Rugby League game scheduled for this Saturday at UNF. The South Sydney Rabbitohs will face the Leeds Rhinos in what they call a “friendly” in soccer.

My long-time friend Spinner Howland is the driving force behind this match and I’m glad to see his dream come to life. Plus it’s a great thing for the city. These two teams aren’t just showing up to play a game on Saturday. In fact, they’re both already here, practicing and bringing a lot of publicity to the city.

The Rabbitohs are a resurgent team in Rugby League in Australia. Actor Russell Crowe bought the team a couple of years ago and has brought them back to championship form. When he was in town promoting the event he said he didn’t realize how much the Rabbitohs helped shape his personality as a young boy.

“They were the guys who did things right, and won,” Crowe explained. “They hung around after games, signed autographs, talked to people, were part of the community. They did it right and I wanted to bring that back.”

South Sydney is staying at the beach and enjoying every minute of it. Although the weather hasn’t been conducive to surfing, a couple of the Aussies on the club are waiting for their chance.

Leeds is a global powerhouse when it comes to Rugby League so their mere presence will bring attention to the city and the game. Plus Australia’s Channel 9 is showing the game live back in Australia (and providing it live for whomever wants to take it.)

The two teams are practicing all week and there are a couple of events that are open to the public. “The people here are so friendly,” one of the visiting players said on Saturday. “It’s hot at home so the change of climate is taking a little getting used to,” another noted pointing out it’s summer in the southern hemisphere.

They’ll have some good weather here this week and a little rain won’t bother either team a bit. The game is a full celebration of Australia Day as well so no doubt there will be plenty of fun had by all.

I don’t say this often but: Buy a ticket.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Off The Field (And The Media)

Sometimes I’m amused when somebody on the phone or calling into a radio show tells me that we’re not asking hard enough questions of our sports interview subjects. (I also get calls telling me to lay off.)

Covering professional and college sports means two completely different environments when dealing with players, coaches and the other media involved. College athletes are more eager, more honest and haven’t had the enthusiasm coached out of them when it comes to talking with the media. That means usually better answers but it might take some time getting that answer out of them.

The coaches are a little less wary of the media in college. Part of that comes from their tenure and from the knowledge that how they’re portrayed to the public can directly effect recruiting, fund raising and the whole perception of the program. The coaches in college are also less critical of their players, and rightly so.

There’s also a comfort level for college coaches among the media. You’d be amazed how many Florida grads/fans are in the media group covering the Gators. Same thing in Tallahassee for FSU. It’s usually a younger group and part of a pack mentality that exists among just about all media these days as well.

I’ve always thought that the key to getting good answers is asking good questions. Asking a coach or player to “talk about” anything is stupid. “Talk about your tight ends,” isn’t a question. “Are the tight ends fulfilling your expectations, blocking downfield and getting open regularly?” is a question. And that usually gets a decent answer.

Covering professional sports is a different animal. The players are coached to not give information to the media, the coaches are cynical and tight-lipped and the media horde is older, more cynical and skeptical (sometimes with good reason) and usually with an agenda.

Tuesday and Wednesday of this week were good examples in Gainesville and in Jacksonville. Tony Joiner’s arrest on a felony burglary charge was dealt with directly by Florida Coach Urban Meyer. Meyer said he was disappointed and admitted it was a distraction. “He won’t suit up as long as he has a felony charge against him,” Meyer said after practice.

There were some direct questions asked of the Gators head coach and he gave direct answers. Not a lot of beating around the bush or hemming and hawing. That’s not always the case, but in this instance, it seems like we’re getting the truth and the situation is being dealt with.

Wednesday in Jacksonville was a little different story. It was the first time the team met with the media since the Khalif Barnes incident came to light. Barnes had a well-publicized scrape with the law last year and last Wednesday left the scene of a one-car accident at 6:30 in the morning. Barnes said he was on his way to treatment at the stadium and fell asleep at the wheel. That could be a true story, or it could be false. And that’s the problem.

Jack Del Rio said he didn’t want to discuss it, that it had already been well reported and well documented. I asked him if it was customary for a player to be headed to treatment on a Saturday morning on the bye week and he said, “With Khalif’s injury he would have been required to report for treatment twice a day, every day, regardless of the day.” Then made it clear he wasn’t going to answer any more questions about it. Still, Cole Pepper asked, “In light of the recent moves by the commissioner’s office, would you suspect that Barnes might be suspended and unable to play this week?” Jack didn’t like that, but said, “I don’t think the commissioner’s office gets involved in citations but I also don’t think there is anything that would keep Khalif from being available to us this week. Now, does anybody want to talk about Kansas City?”

It’s a silly way to act, especially when it’s a developing story. Stop trying to manage the information. Just get it out there, no matter how good or bad it is and do the right thing. If he’s out of line, suspend him, fine him, or cut him. If Barnes has a problem, perhaps this is the situation that brings it to light and he can get some help before he hurts himself or someone else.

The public is getting very tired of misbehaving athletes and the slack they’ve been cut in the past. Barnes knows this, so does Del Rio and so do his teammates. Fred Taylor said it best, “If he’s gotten into trouble, he needs to use better judgment than that for himself and for his teammates. Bottom line.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Russell Crowe’s Rugby Adventure

I really didn’t know what to expect when I was invited to the press conference that Russell Crowe was holding at UNF. The Academy Award winning actor also holds a majority stake in the South Sydney Rabbitohs, a National Rugby League team in Australia.

When my friend Spinner first brought the idea of bringing Crowe’s “Bunnies” for an exhibition game here in Jacksonville in January I wasn’t sure what to think. Spinner has been the single driving force behind the Jacksonville Axemen and all things Rugby that have been going on in town in the last couple of years. He’s a big thinker but I thought this might be a little “big” even for his thoughts. It’d be like bringing the Yankees to Sydney for a little game against the Yomimuri Carp. That all changed when I walked into the press conference in the soccer locker room at UNF.

They know what they’re doing at UNF when it comes to putting on meetings and pressers. Crowe was sitting at a long table at the front of the room, alone, with South Sydney jerseys all draped neatly over the front. Behind him, the wall was decorated with more “Souths” paraphernalia. “RC” as he was referred to in the emails, was dressed in Rabbitohs gear, sweatshirt and hat and was speaking calmly and plainly about his team’s appearance in Jacksonville.

“I like the temperate climate,” Crowe said when asked what attracted him to Jacksonville as a place to play this game. “And the facilities are very nice here, plus it’s my preference that the fellas stay at the beach which will be like home.” “Plus, they already have a history with Rugby here, (UNF) they know the game,” he continued.

I’ve been to a lot of pressers with actors or musicians who were totally lost when asked any questions of substance. Crowe was the exact opposite. The more complete the question, the more thoughtful the answer.

There were about 30 people there, journalists, photographers and dignitaries all to talk to, see and have their picture taken with one guy. Some questions were about his movie career, some were about his ownership of the team. Some were about the team itself, and even of his athletic career.

“If I had played Rugby league mate, I wouldn’t have had an acting career,” Crowe exclaimed as he pushed his nose to the side and pulled his ear out perpendicular to his head.

As I said, I didn’t know what to expect, but this was very un-Hollywood. No pretension, no primping, no preening. No rehearsed responses.

He answered questions until they were exhausted, then stood and chatted with everybody within earshot. If he was on a schedule, he didn’t let on. He didn’t have a whole bunch of handlers. Just a few security people around making sure somebody didn’t get out of hand.

That is one of the unique things about Jacksonville anyway. We don’t get too jacked up over celebrities. We like it here, they like it here, great, let’s get something to eat, is our attitude.

Spinner made a point to bring “RC” over and introduced me. He looked me in the eye with a firm handshake and repeated my name. He was more Arnold Palmer than John Travolta that’s for sure. And when he hung around and talked with Tom McManus and I for another 10 minutes, I was sold. If it was an act, it was a damn good one.

Somebody asked me afterwards if I was star struck, even for a second. I laughed and said, “No, not even for a second, but when he was standing next to me and answering a question Tom asked I was looking at him and it dawned on me ‘This guy was in Gladiator!” Not that I didn’t know that, but the whole time I was talking with him as just another guy, not the Oscar winner in the movies. That’s Palmer’s charm, and Crowe has some if that in him as well.

(By the way, he’s a bit bigger than you would think, nearly six feet and not skinny.)

During our conversation he told a couple funny stories, laughed at our comebacks and seemed to be enjoying himself. “We’ll let you go,” I said, sticking out my hand to say bye. “If you come back early for the game, let Spinner know and we’ll go have some fun,” I threw in just as “guy talk.”

“You’re on,” Crowe immediately responded with a laugh.

McManus and I walked out the back door and headed for the parking lot. About a half dozen UNF students were gathered outside, having heard that Russell Crowe was here.

“Is he coming out,” one called to me as I walked by.
“In about a minute,” I answered.
“Do you think he’ll talk to us?” she asked without desperation.
“If he sees you and doesn’t have to go anywhere, he’ll probably come over,” I said gauging Crowe’s mood inside.

And as if on cue, “RC” stepped out of the door of the building, walked to his car, saw the students and kept walking over to them. “Hi there,” he waved. He signed all of their autographs, took all of their pictures and asked as many questions as he answered.

When one student named a town in South Africa where she was from he said, “I know it. I’m not an American. I know geography.” It was a remark made in fun so standing in front of him I piped up, “What, Americans don’t know geography?” with a smile. “When I come back, want to have a test,” Crowe slyly said as he signed away. “You’re on,” I answered and thanked him for his time. “Cheers mate,” he responded with a wave. “See you in January,” he finished like he meant it.

The game is the weekend before the Super Bowl at UNF. The team will be here for about 10 days and there’s rumor that Crowe’s band might also make an appearance. Tickets are limited and can be purchased through the Jacksonville Axemen website.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

To Buy or Not

There’s a lot of talk about blackouts and fan support for the Jaguars early this season. The team avoided a blackout in their opener against Tennessee, extending the deadline and selling just under 2,000 tickets in the last week.

What’s behind the blackouts anyway, I’m asked on a regular basis.

The league has their own rule that mandates that if a game isn’t sold out 72 hours in advance of kickoff then it can’t be shown on local television. It’s supposed to encourage people to buy tickets to see the game in person.

The self-imposed rule is an extension of a law congress passed in the early ‘70’s. Before that, no local games were shown on television but the lawmakers didn’t think that was fair and said if it’s sold out three days in advance, it should be on television. When that law went away two years later, the league kept it up, hoping congress would keep their nose out of the NFL’s business. And so far they have.

There are blackouts all over the league and have been for decades. Almost no games in Los Angeles were ever sold out, so they were blacked out. And in Tampa Bay, the average attendance was around 40,000 so for a dozen years or so, nobody saw the Bucs. Games are almost never on in Miami. But here in town it’s somewhat of a new phenomenon.

People, me included, bought tickets to the games when the franchise first arrived out of civic pride. We figured it was our duty to support the effort the city made to get a team here. There was a lot of buzz about the Jaguars and the visiting team as well. When the team went to the AFC Championship game in 1996, the buzz continued. But for some reason, the Jaguars never seemed to be able to capture that. When the novelty waned, the team could only count on wins to fill the stands, and as we know, it’s a cycle that teams go through in this salary cap era.

And when the games don’t sell out, a segment of the media chastises the locals for not “supporting the cause.” I think that’s really wrong. People don’t want to be bullied into buying tickets. They want to go because it’s fun and it’s the place to be. There’s a buzz. But the Jaguars for some reason have always managed to have that “buzz-kill” when it comes to the fun people want to have.

I hear too many similar stories about trying to buy tickets or bad encounters with team administrators on the phone to think that they’re all made up. I mentioned once that they should be more “pro-active” when it comes to selling tickets at training camp. On hearing that, one senior Jaguars official asked me if I wasn’t “too old to be still having my (menstrual cycle).”

A friend went to the stadium and bought club seats season tickets and was asked “Why now?” he said, “Because you cut Byron Leftwich.” “What’s your problem with Leftwich?” the ticket seller snorted at my friend.

When the announcement was made that Leftwich was being released and David Garrard was named the starter, there was a “buzz” around town. But if you wanted to buy tickets after hearing the news at 5:30 on Friday night, sorry, the ticket office was closed until next Tuesday, after Labor Day.

The next week the office was open on the weekend and in fact up until halftime but the “buzz” was gone for many people by Tuesday. If you wanted to buy season tickets but not club seats, there aren’t any of those left, a good friend of mine was told. “But we have the four packs,” he was reminded. Only to be told, “but one is just a three pack because the Indianapolis game is sold out.” “So I can buy a season ticket but I can’t go to the Indy game?” my friend asked. “Exactly,” was the curt answer? As I said, I hear too many of these stories to not think at least part of them are true.

I know plenty of people who aren’t going to a game because of the “criminal element” in the NFL. Others need some time after a Florida, FSU or Georgia game to recover. The Jaguars haven’t developed enough of their own fan base here in town yet in order to fill the stadium. They need some of the Gator, Seminole and Bulldog nation in the stands to fill the rest of the seats.

Maybe they’ll get there, maybe they won’t. But don’t tell us we must buy tickets just because. It’s a party, not a penalty.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Summer Starts

For most Americans, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. School’s either out or just about done, the weather has turned and everybody seems to exhale and look forward to the slower rhythm of summer.

The two races, the Indy 500 and the 600 miles NASCAR race in Charlotte are two of the biggest spectacles in all of sport. This summer, sports fans have some things to look forward to and some decisions to make.

Hard to believe but the NHL season is still going on. The Stanley Cup finals between Anaheim and Ottawa have drawn a collective yawn from more sports fans. Actually the NHL and Gary Bettman would be thrilled with a yawn because it would mean that people noticed that the games were still going on.

Two months into the baseball season the story has been as much about how the Yankees are not contending as it has about the Red Sox or Brewers playing well. As an Oriole fan, I’ve kept a cursory eye on the Birds, but they still don’t have any pitching and at 11 ½ games behind Boston, and under .500, it’s about what I expected.

As Barry Bonds edges closer to Hand Aaron’s all time home run record, are we going to pay attention? Are we going to celebrate the breaking of the most recognizable records in sports or will we just ignore it?

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig hasn’t said what he’s going to do. Henry Aaron says he won’t be there. Bonds is a polarizing figure with most fans saying he cheated with steroids to get where he is while others say that doesn’t matter. The fact that Bonds is well known as a not nice guy only adds to his stature as talk show fodder.

I’ve never been a Bonds fan, I think he cheated and I don’t care if he hits a million home runs. Aaron is the home run champ. It’ll be interesting when Bonds’ career is over and he’s eligible for the Hall of Fame, will the writers keep him out like they did with Mark McGwire because of the controversy surrounding steroids?

Doubtful.

Golf has the US Open in front of it, but the anticipation of a rival for Tiger Woods in Phil Mickelson will be the story. Mickelson’s win at The Players and his work with Butch Harmon has golf fans waiting for that day when Phil and Tiger are in the final group of a major.

Tennis? Anybody seen tennis lately?

Roger Federer has dominated for so long and unless he’s playing Rafael Nadal nobody notices. Their final in Europe two weeks ago was relegated to the Tennis Channel. Nobody gets that and consequently, nobody cares.

The NBA will finish sometime in June. A San Antonio/Detroit final would be competitive, but nobody’s sitting around waiting for that match up.

I know a lot of people are waiting for football season, but the way the NFL works, it never really ends. After this week, the teams, including the Jaguars, will be back on the field three days a week, practicing and ramping up for training camp. It’s just 8 weeks away.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Tuscany – The Journey Home

It’s always good to come home after being out of the country. And at least this time I did get a “Welcome Back” from the Immigration (now Homeland Security) agent while clearing customs through Atlanta.

After the seven days in Tuscany, I headed to what’s called the “Amalfi Coast” south of Naples on the southwestern coast of Italy. Taking the Eurostar from Rome to Salerno (and don’t we wish we had that kind of train service in the States) it was just over two hours but you really thought you were in a different country when the doors opened in Salerno.

Southern Italy has a rhythm all of its own, with crowded, bustling streets and a heat and humidity index that’s akin to the southeastern US. If Tuscany is bucolic, the Campania region is just plain busy. Perhaps it was the season, but there were people everywhere.

The driving in Italy is something you have to get used to and along the coast it’s somewhere between a theme park ride and an adventure all rolled into one. Buses, trucks (big ones) cars and motor scooters all complete for a space on the asphalt, no matter how wide or skinny, no matter how curvy or blind it might be. Add to that the 500 or so foot drop at just about every turn, and you get the picture. Just plain scary.

You do get used, or immune to it, and it seems everybody understands the rules, if there are any. There’s no problem with road rage because everybody is cutting everybody off constantly with no seeming regard for safety or property. Add to the mix a bunch of aimless walkers all over the roads and it probably looks most like a video game.

But the coast is breathtaking.

Mythology says that the sirens at Sorrento seduced Ulysses, and you can see why the stories come from there. From a boat, the walls to the Mediterranean are sheer and imposing. The water is a true azure blue, and clear until the light runs out. My first thought was “why did these people move here?” But of course, people have been going to the Amalfi Coast for thousands of years.

The Romans made it part of their Empire and used it for a getaway (obviously arriving by boat).

Salerno is a working city, with a big port that takes in business from all over the world. Working north, Amalfi is over run by tourists and reminded me of beaches in the Northeast US. I half expected carnival barkers. But it is the gateway to Revello, a natural plateau rising over 1000 feet over the sea. Gorgeous, cool and quiet, some people think it’s the best place in Italy, and I can see why.

There are numerous small towns along the drive, some more discovered than others. Praiano is a small, expanding village while Poisitano is a hotspot for eating and shopping. The Island of Capri is all about see and be seen with high-end shops; restaurants and hotels perched high above the sea. The famed “Blue Grotto” is a free-for-all but worth the wait (and the 8.50 Euro somebody is collecting from a boat out front. I couldn’t figure out who they were.)

The rich and famous from all over the world come to Capri to “escape: but their pictures are everywhere, even with framed tabloid covers in the windows of the local restaurants.

The people along the coast were friendly and courteous, very unlike Rome or any other big city. I stayed at the Hotel Tritone (www.tritone.it) with sweeping views of the mountains and the Med with just a turn of your head. It was 690 steps from the hotel down to the beach (yes I walked and counted them) on a staircase that looked straight out of Lord of the Rings. I half expected Saran to be at the top. It’s a great place for a getaway because it’s so remote.

“The road is our friend,” Giuseppe, the manager told me. “It’s hard to get here so trouble doesn’t come out this far.” That’s one way to look at it and I’m sure if you live there, it seems like paradise.

Because it is.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Reports From Tuscany, Italy

TUSCANY, ITALY DAY 1 (The Journey & Arrival)

I was hoping it would be an adventure, and it certainly, inadvertently, started out as one. I lined up my ticket to Italy in March and for some reason I didn’t have a seat from Atlanta to Rome assigned. “No problem,” everybody with Delta assured me, from the agents in Jacksonville (who are always very helpful) to the people on the phone (usually not so helpful).

“They’ll issue it day-of when you get to Atlanta.” Fair enough, I thought.

When I arrived at JIA, two hours early, they still said, “No problem,” when I asked about my seat. Upon arriving in Atlanta, I realized it would, in fact, be a problem. Nobody at the desk would really talk to me.
“We’re working on it,” was about all I could get. When they called the flight and everybody got on, the gate agents still ignored me until I finally asked about going.
“Well, we don’t have a seat for you,” was the explanation.
“Wait,” I said, “I have a confirmed ticket on this flight.”
“Right, but we don’t have a seat for you,” was the terse response.

If you’re a regular reader you know of my problems with Delta so I half expected it. After about a half hour, they motioned me over to the desk and said, “We’re sending you to Rome, via Brussels and you’ll get there 3 hours late.” “You better tell my friend Bill (Dodge) who’s already on the plane,” I asked.

So I was headed to Belgium (again) with a $400 Delta voucher in my pocket. The flight from Atlanta to Brussels was an hour late, so I missed my connection to Rome and two hours later (five hours all told) I was in Italy.

Bill was nice enough to wait at the airport and people watch while I was making my excursion to Rome. My luggage actually made it (thanks to Alitalia) and even my bike. The shuttle train from the airport to the main train station in Rome was very utilitarian, and as usual, it took me a few minutes to get my bearings geographically, and emotionally as well. The Italians don’t put a big priority on organization or signs, so you have to get used to feeling your way around.

When I finally figured out where the train left from for Florence, we missed it by about 30 seconds, lugging our bike boxes along. We caught the next one; 30 minutes later and finally were settled. Nice train, non-stop to Florence.

My Italian is not good, but when I try to speak it, at least the locals help me along and compliment me when I get it right. The Florence train station was a zoo, as usual, but even more so with so many students in town. It seems to be more of a destination for studying (if you can get any done in a big party town like that).

The people running the bike tour, Ciclismo Classico sent a van to pick up Bill and me about 30 minutes later. He spoke zero, I mean zero English, but was very pleasant and helpful and agreed to drive us around Florence before we headed to our destination. We got to see the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio but, of course, thanks to Delta, didn’t get to see Michelangelo’s David, because the museum had just closed.

That’s twice I’ve been in Florence and missed one of the classical pieces of sculpture of modern times. At least I’ve seen it once and there are a few pictures around (everywhere!)

The drive to Fattoria Degli Usignoli (The Farm of the Nightingales) was full of switchbacks and pretty steep. (Perhaps a sign of things to come?) Once here I understood what all the fuss was about. It’s a farm on a hillside overlooking the valley where the main river runs through Tuscany. It was built by monks in the 14th century and converted to a farm and now a sprawling resort, Italian style. They have horses, pools, two restaurants and a beautiful view! In less than 24 hours I’ve seen two wedding receptions as well.

Since we were the first to arrive, we ate at the hotel restaurant, outside and since we’re in Italy, the food, of course, was fabulous.

We met Andreas and John Paolo, our guides for the next 6 days and watched the Italy/USA world cup game. We were, of course, the only Americans in the crowd, so we kind of kept quiet. But the Italians are very polite and afterwards several shook my hand since it was a 1-1 draw. “We were bad,” one patron, said, “you were worse,” he added.

Probably right, but It was funny that they were more mad at their own guys than blaming the ref or the Americans. I was beat so even though the bed in my apartment was like the floor, I slept like a rock.

I woke when successive calls from Bill and the front desk reminded me of: 1) where I was and 2) I had to move to a different room. I met Bill for breakfast on a terrace overlooking the valley. Very solid, strong coffee and other typical European morning fare. Packed up my stuff and moved it to a second room, this one overlooking the pool.

We walked up to put our bikes together and Andrea and John Paolo were already working on the rest of the group’s rides so we joined in, a little. They helped me put my bike together and checked it out, very different than the experience last year in Belgium. We met at 1 o’clock for lunch to meet with the rest of the group: a couple from California. A father and son from Minnesota, a family of four from Mississippi another family of three from the west coast, a guy from Boston and us.

Lunch was very nice, very Italian, and very Tuscan with salads, breads, some ham and the like. Andreas and John Paolo went over the rules, told us to get dressed and head to the bikes. I was pretty pumped to get on my bike after sitting there and talking about it. Once we got everybody ready, John Paolo went over the rules of the road once again, and we were off.

Well kind of off.

It’s a straight up climb out of the hotel that gets your attention real quick, especially with no warm up. Bill and I were cruising up front and agreed that the Italian idea of “rolling hills” and what Americans think are very different. We stopped a couple of times in the first 8 miles to get the group together and look at some of the historical buildings.

I did get to see a very old church with what’s considered the first Renaissance piece of art from about the 11th century. It’s called Massaccio’s Triptych nobody seems to know how it got there. With Tuscany being considered the birthplace of the Renaissance that was kind of fascinating.

From there we headed back up the hill and the group split off into those who wanted to go “long” or the short way back to the hotel. I picked long (surprise!) and headed up with John Paolo and three other guests. Soon it was just John Paolo and me going up the hill, about 7 miles at about 10%, (really). I thought about quitting a couple of times but slogged through, stopped once to get my heart rate down to a manageable level and made it to the top.

It was worth it going through the little village of Villambrosa with all of the people on a Sunday afternoon and the view was spectacular. We stopped at a natural flowing fountain to get some water, waiting in line while the locals filled up their bottles with their weekly visit. The descent was, as John Paolo described it, “technical” which means very curvy and very fast. It was pretty scary and when we stopped, I checked my back wheel and almost burnt my hand it had heated it up so much.

Two shorter climbs and we were back at the Fattoria, headed to dinner. The guides on this tour, Andrea and John Paolo are very attentive to small things like ordering the wines and setting up the dinners. They both have an even hand and seem to enjoy meeting the different people from the tour each week. The menu tonight had a local salad, two pastas and a beef filet. They explained why they picked certain wines and dishes and talk about the Tuscan eating style in an historical context.

We had some grappa and headed off for bed.


TUSCANY, ITALY DAY 2

It seems like one night whenever I travel to Europe; my sleep system gets turned around. Last night was that night.

I wasn’t tired, and lay in bed for about two hours and “napped” for a little bit, but when I looked at the clock and it was 4 o’clock, I was wide-awake. I took a walk; I visited the reception desk, (which was closed) and watched the sun come up. It’s a weird feeling being up and around when everybody, and I mean everybody else is sleeping. Finally the breakfast room opened and I met most of the group for coffee and the route meeting.

Sam in Tuscany, Italy Off we went at 9 AM, with Andreas riding along this time. He’s a former racer and obviously a very strong rider. He was attentive but not obtrusive and we actually made it to Lorro Cuifenna in the late morning. We “regrouped” at Coffee Centrale (apparently there’s a coffee centrale in every town in Italy) and drank espresso.

It’s the only picture I wanted from the trip, so Bill took my picture sitting on a chair on the sidewalk drinking espresso. It even sounds silly when I write it!

Anyway, we rode the two miles, straight up to a small church in Gruppo, a very small village. The church was built in the 8th century and Andreas gave us a tour and explained the symbolism through out the main part. Pretty fascinating stuff.

It was a steep downhill going back, and Josh didn’t make the turn so he slammed into a fence and some earth barriers. Luckily he wasn’t hurt (he’s young!) but his rear wheel was destroyed. We headed to the restaurant “Vino de Vino” in the center of Lorro where the Head Chef “Antonio” took all of us into the small kitchen and gave us a demonstration on how to make pasta. He spoke zero English, so he had their waitress translate, which was amusing and entertaining by itself.

Antonio literally made the pasta from scratch; so more than an exhibition it was basically us watching him do what he does everyday. I remember interviewing David Letterman once and asking him about Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” on his show and how amazed he looked. Letterman said “I’m amazed every night at the talent level of the people who sit in this chair. It’s amazing what they can do.”

I thought about that when Antonio was making the pasta, thinking he was truly gifted when it came to his craft.

We ate at Vino de Vino and it was, of course, fabulous. Back on our bikes after doing a report for Lex and Terry and it was funny to see the town deserted around 1:30 in the afternoon. I mean nobody was on the street. We headed down into the valley, going about 30 on the long straight-aways that had a mile downhill grade.

I was thinking we’d pay for this, and turns out, I was right!

We made a sharp right turn and headed nearly straight up out of the valley at an 8% then 10% then around a 15% grade. It was pretty taxing and I stopped once in the shade to recover. I was amused and disappointed to know that I stopped about 100 meters from the top!

I figured the rest of the ride would be uneventful, but it was a lot of climbing and then a significant downhill around curves at pretty high speeds. We were getting close to home when I took a wrong turn and headed back down into the valley, taking Bill and Guy with me. I was bombing down this road when I realized it wasn’t familiar at all! So I stopped with Bill, but we couldn’t yell loud enough for Guy, who was off the front.

We were lost, no question.

I called John Paolo and he asked where I was. “There’s a wall and a lot of trees,” I responded, which sounds pretty inane. “Get to somewhere where you know where you are and call me back,” JP responded. I could only laugh, knowing that the way out was straight back up.

“We’ve got to go back to Reggello and turn left,” I told Bill.
“UP THERE,” was his immediate response.

But Bill got back in the saddle and pedaled back up, only stopping once to recover and refuel. At the top he was rightfully proud of himself, and for that feat, I presented him with the “cappelinno,” the hat for the day. JP finally found us, but we were so close to home, I rode in and we had a lot of laughs recounting the day.

“How hard is it,” Bill asked JP in the middle of the road. “I can’t say,” John Paolo responded in his Italian accent. “It’s pretty easy in the van,” he added with a wink. I laughed myself silly when he said that and headed home.

Sam in Tuscany, Italy We met for the Italian lessons, which weren’t only about the language, but also about some of the Italian culture and a lot about the wines in Italy. I couldn’t get enough of it, but we had dinner reservations. The food again was perfect, a blend of Tuscan specialties, which I’ve found out is what I like. The wines were perfect, with Andreas and John Paolo explaining each course and how the wines blended in with the meal.

Andreas had hired a musician to entertain. Salvatore was talented and had a music machine with him. It turned into a karaoke for some of the staff, which made it much more amusing. Yes, they asked me to sing, and yes, I did some of the old standards as well as a few songs in Italian. Wrong keys, no monitors but plenty of fun nonetheless.

I think I’m actually tired tonight, so I’m hoping a few hours of sleep is in my near future.


TUSCANY, ITALY DAY 3

Leaving the “Fattoria” for the first point-to-point ride of the trip it was billed as mostly downhill and a fun day. Turns out, better than advertised. It was the first time that most of the group stuck together, with some shortcuts on farm roads thrown in for variety.

Coming out of the hills of Reggello I was getting more comfortable on my bike at higher speeds but trying not to be over confident. I’m happy with my bike, but if I do a trip like this again, I will put a triple on in order to make some of the climbs easier to spin through.

We stopped at a real Italian bike shop. That means it’s serious business when it comes to the bikes. They’re not messing around. It’s about the bikes the riding the setup and how it all works. This shop was pretty big with all kinds of bikes everywhere. The funniest scene was the owner going over a kid’s bike with a mountain bike set up with the young boy’s father. They looked. They debated; they looked again, all the while with the son sitting on the bike. It didn’t look like a serious bike purchase, but it was clearly getting the attention of everybody involved.

As expected, they didn’t really have much in my size. For Italy that would be “Giagante.” Off to lunch, a picnic in a vineyard was our next destination. There were a couple of small climbs involved, and one pretty serious steep that needed plenty of focus and effort. The countryside was changing, riding in the valley and the vineyard turned out to be quite an experience.

Andreas had gone ahead and set up the lunch, under a round, thatched roof picnic area. We sat around like the Knights of the Roundtable while the owner of the house and the vineyard conducted a true wine tasting. The whole, throw the wine out over your shoulder and everything. They were great, and went great with lunch that was prepared.

Some of us headed over to the actual wine production facility for a tour. It was fascinating to see the different styles of making the wine, from wooden casks to glass lined refrigerators it’s quite a science. They even took us up to their private wine area, wine that is only made for guests, family and important clients. I liked everything about it, so I bought some wines. The only question is whether they’ll make it back to the States!

Some of us rode over the “Il Borro.” It’s a small, and I mean small, 15 full time residents, village that’s been completely restored by Salvatore Ferregamo. It sits on a hill (what a surprise!) but is connected by a bridge. At the bottom of the hill, a guy pulled up in a little tram. I noticed he was wearing a nametag that said “Phil.” So I asked, “Phil, can we ride our bikes up there?” “Sure,” he replied, and drove off.

The guys standing around were pretty amazed that I spoke to “Phil” in English and he responded right away. I figured that “Phil” was an American name, and probably was an American. Turns out, he works for Sara Lee and they had rented the whole place out for a senior managers meeting.

The ride to Arrezo was pretty good, with the last 10k or so on a pretty busy road into town. We did stop at the “Mona Lisa” bridge, where Da Vinci reportedly painted the Mona Lisa using the hillside across the river as the background. Of course, we had our pictures taken there.

Arezzo is a pretty bustling town, and our hotel was right in the middle. Hotel Vogue has only been open a few months and it’s very nice. The rooms are named after Italian artists. I might have thought more of it if I had gotten one of the other rooms. Mine was pretty straight forward, (they all had big plasmas). Bill’s was Michelangelo” and had a whole wall behind the bed set up as the shower. It was very avant garde. There was a lot of discussion about the other rooms and they sounded pretty neat.

We went on a walking tour of Arezzo, but the guide was condescending and boring as all get out. I really enjoyed learning a few things but she made it tough! It was our night to eat out on our own, so the group split up. Bill and I sat with Andreas and John Paulo in a café and watched the world go by for a while. Then we wandered around looking for a place to eat. Andreas found a place with a bunch of locals eating there, so we stopped in. What a surprise, the food was fabulous! Plenty of wine, lots of laughs later, we headed back.

Two of the other guides from Ciclismo Classico came through town (and brought our bike boxes) so we went out with them while they ate. Lots of people walking around late, but we headed back to the hotel. The ride tomorrow has a couple of climbs that are apparently serious!


TUSCANY, ITALY DAY 4

I wasn’t sure how this day was going to go to start with. The “Hotel Vogue” in Arezzo was very nice and brand new and the rooms were all named after famous Italian artists. They had grand showers and towering high ceilings but somehow, my room didn’t match many of my “teammates.”

It was on the busy street with pretty standard amenities, except for the bed(s). They were typical European “twins” meaning small people will sleep fine in one. But, as Andrea described me “Il Giagante” had to stay in one position or he’d fall out.

And his feet hung over the foot.

But the place was very nice, the staff accommodating and the breakfast was outstanding. Plus it was very convenient, right in the middle of town.

When I walked out the front door after eating, I still wasn’t sure about the day because I had a flat. Andreas recognized it immediately and went to work. I’ve seen tire changing, and comparably, this was a work of art. It rivaled the moves Phil from Champion used in the freezing cold and rain of Belgium last year when one of our fellow riders was bumbling around.

Andreas grabbed this thing and replaced the tube; with all of the quick checks you’re taught to do, in about a minute! We were off through the roundabouts and the old gates of the city and into some real Italian farmland countryside in no time. Fields of sunflowers and I don’t know what else were on both sides of us for most of the first hour of the ride. It was flat, so I got on the front and spun along with Bill and Dan through what looked like a painting.

Our first stop was the hilltop town of Monte San Savino where it was “market day” in the town square. It was a little climb up to the town but it was bustling with action when we got there. Just about everybody in our group was along as we strolled through the street market looking for bargains. I looked for some shoes, but got some laughs when I asked about my size. Bill and I did buy some traveling photographer/fishing vests. They were 8 Euros each (not much) and Andreas encouraged me to ask for the “sconto” (discount). When I turned to the merchant and said “Sconto?” he immediately blurted out “due? quindiche” ( two for fifteen) so I laughed and paid him with the 1 Euro discount!

Andreas took us into a butcher shop that’s apparently famous for their fresh meat. He bought a bunch of “porchetta” that was absolutely amazing and passed it around as we shopped. He offered it to several merchants and even the police but they said they didn’t eat pork without bread. That kind of surprised all of us, even Andreas. Too bad, more for us!

Back on our bikes and off to Lucignano another hilltop town that was very cool. The climb was pretty straightforward but sunny and hot and it got my attention. I was climbing better but I’ll never be a good climber by any stretch of the imagination. Dan was sitting on my wheel for over a mile and I finally asked him if he was going to be there all day. He’s a bit competitive (a former college runner, he’s strong but new to cycling) and I was probably a bit cranky so I told him he could get in front for a while. We finished together, but it was a foreshadowing of a later climb, that’s for sure.

Bill wasn’t far behind as we joked that he was “riding into form.” You actually have to use your Phil Leggett voice for that phrase to get the whole effect. There was something about that town I really liked. I’m not much for vibes but maybe I should be. As we passed through the massive stone gate, it was just very cool to see how the town was laid out in a spiral with spectacular views of the countryside.

We actually went into a supermarket to look around for something different (I actually drank a Fanta Orange for the first time in about 20 years) and had our mandatory espresso.

We set off with Andreas to the next town for lunch. The four of us tooled along easily and stopped in Foiana della Chiana, a town like something you’d see in North Carolina. Tree lined streets, very easy living, and common touch feeling. Andreas picked one of his regular spots for lunch, right on the main road. We were the only people in there, and the waitress was a hoot. Several tattoo’s, loud but engaging, and, once again, absolutely no English whatsoever.

We ordered pasta and the plate she brought was enormous. I, of course, ate the whole thing. Andreas reminded me “It’s Italy” and allowed me to wipe my plate with my bread to finish it off, as my Greek ancestry yearns for. (Probably another thing the Italians stole from the Greeks!) The ride from Foiana to Cortona was flat for the most part, and a good thing based on the size of the lunch.

I stopped by the roadside to chat with Lex and Terry, which brightened my mood as well. The fields were mostly in full bloom as we could see Cortona on a hill in the distance. I was taking video with Bill’s camera as we rode along and out of one field on our left a pheasant just walked right in front of me! Luckily he saw me at the last second and flew off to our right. I happened to get it on video and it’s pretty amazing.

The twists and turns in this valley gave us a bunch of views of farmhouses and plenty of chances to get lost but Gian Paolo was always there at the tricky intersections to point us the right way. Of course, he chuckled a bit as he pointed the way to Cortona and noted “Up there” as I asked exactly which way we were going. This climb was billed as 4K at 6% and it was all of that and more.

Again, Dan sat on my wheel, so I just told him I was going to go 1 mph until he got in front. It was a silly little game, but something to make the hot and steeper than 6% climb to go by a little faster. I did see a blind turn up and ahead, so I jumped out of my saddle, clicked in a couple of gears and put about 200 yards between me and Dan. Now I know why Lance and those guys scout the route beforehand. I made that move and faced the steepest and hottest part of the ride immediately. “You’re an idiot,” I screamed in my head, but laughed as well at my impetuous attempt at “strategy.”

I won’t do that again.

I did stay in front all the way to the top, but on the final switchback, my phone rang. Gian Paolo wanted to tell me that one of those coolers in the van had leaked and gotten my luggage wet. I really appreciated the thought, but I was dragging pretty badly at that point and probably heard every third word or so. Alora (kind of “and so” to start a sentence) was the thing that stuck in my head.

I parked my bike and sat in the main square in my biking kit, waiting for Bill. The waiter indulged my improving but still not good Italian as I ordered, water, then a beer then an espresso. After about an hour (they shot “Under the Tuscan Sun in Cortona” and I swear I saw Diane Lane walk through the Piazza) I went back to the hotel only to find Bill showered and ready to sit in the café. So back to the piazza we went, joined by several others including Andreas and Gian Paolo.

They ordered me a “panache” which was beer and sprite. “The perfect cyclists drink on a hot day,” is how it was described. It sounded dreadful, as did the “radler” which is beer and lemonade but it was actually quite good and refreshing.

An Englishwoman who had moved to Italy more than 25 years ago because, “I was tired of living in England” conducted our walking tour. She was very knowledgeable and pleasant, handing out tidbits about Cortona, the Cortonese, their history and habits. The views from up there were just great all over the city as it has sweeping vistas of the valleys below. It even looks at Lake Trasimeno where Hannibal defeated the Romans around 100 BC (I think).

Our dinner was a pizza feast, and I confirmed (to myself) that again, I was going to put on a few pounds on a cycling trip despite the miles I was putting in. The pizza was great, Tuscan specialties. We finished with some “limongello” which everybody tells me you can’t buy in the States.

It was a very memorable day


TUSCANY WRAP

Knowing it was going to be the final day of riding, I was looking forward to some fairly upbeat pedaling. I skipped breakfast, opting for a little more sleep instead. (I did have breakfast at the Hotel San Michele the next morning before our departure and it was very nice, including real scrambled eggs, very complete.)

As I was about to walk out of the room, Gianpaolo called to ask if I had taken my front wheel up to my room. That might sound strange, but when I rode into the garage the previous afternoon, there were about 5 bikes sitting there without the front wheel on. I figured it was a safety measure, so I took mine with me. “Sam, do you have your wheel,” Gian Paolo asked with a bit of hopefulness in his voice. “Sure,” I answered, which was followed by a sigh and a cajoling expletive, in English, wondering why in the world I would take the front wheel. I explained and Gianpaolo said, “Sure, they were on top of the van!” with the words “you idiot” implied I’m sure.

We got a good laugh at the time, but apparently he and Andreas were scurrying around for a while, looking for my wheel. I made a quick Internet stop on the way out of town, so Bill and I were the last to leave. No matter. The first 5k or so were straight downhill along the switchbacks we had climbed the previous afternoon. I had gotten more comfortable on my bike at higher speeds and with a little coaching from both Gian Paolo and Andreas, I was a bit more “technical” over 35 mph.

Bill cruises downhill, so we didn’t have any difficulty hooking up with the main group in no time. We took Dan off with us and had a good discussion riding three abreast through the countryside. The roads were very lightly traveled, so it was a nice cruise. We changed that though, dropping into a line and riding over 25 mph for quite a while. That ended at Castiglione della Trasimeno, a castle on the hill overlooking Lake Trasimeno. It was pretty neat, but it was obvious we wanted to do some riding and Andreas was more than happy to oblige. We zipped back down the hill and started the trek around the lake. As we turned west the wind kicked up in our faces and stayed pretty steady for the next 15 miles.

We took turns at the front with Andreas still doing most of the work. We stopped for lunch at Café de Moro a funky truck stop looking place half way around the lake. Turns out it really is a truck stop with all kinds of people going in. They serve pretty much one thing: fabulous giant pizza crust with all kinds of toppings and fillings on the side.

The guy cooking the crust had a dough ball of about 30 pounds in front of him with these giant round stone pizza cookers he kept shoving into the oven. There was no line (queue) so everybody was just jostling for position around the place where you order. If you didn’t know what you wanted, they just went past you and on to the next person, kind of like the Varsity in Atlanta. It was hilarious and delicious and I, of course, ate too much.

I mean way too much and when I got on my bike, I knew I was going to pay for it. Luckily, the climbs were minimal for the first 10 miles or so.

As we went around the bend of the lake the sun came out and the wind abated, so no tailwind all the way home! It was very different on that side of the lake. Much more tourist oriented, many beaches, camping sites and a couple of small towns oriented around the lake. “Only the Germans swim in there,” one Italian told me with a laugh.

I was in line with five others, when we got to a carnival looking town with boat rides and a park next to the lake. (Bill was walking toward the soda stand when his cleat hit a piece of very slippery marble and went to the ground. His leg got caught against the curb and twisted his knee and ankle in a very awkward way. It was bad enough for him to get into the van and eventually head to the hospital for x-rays. They put a supporting cast on the sides and Bill continued, without riding, with a limp. He actually was a trooper knowing it could be fractured according to the pictures. The hospital was empty because he went during the Italy World Cup game so nobody had time to be sick.)

I headed out with 5 other riders, sans Bill, at a pretty good clip with my stomach still as full as could be. Eventually, I got to thinking about spending a few minutes with my self. “Amphiloskepsis,” is what the Greeks call it and the Italians talk a lot about as well using the standard word, “meditation” so I dropped off the back and just took in the sights and smells heading toward Cortona. It was pretty fantastic even if it was hot and I was gradually gaining elevation along the way.

I took a bunch of pictures and some videos as well and got lost in my own thoughts.

OK, enough of that.

I got to a town and made a couple of turns asking the police (carabiniere) for directions. Andreas came back looking for me, which I really appreciated, and I told him about wanting to spend some time pedaling alone. He gave me a very Italian smile of understanding and didn’t say a word. Very nice, very perceptive.

On the start of the serious climb back to town, Josh was on the corner waiting, so we headed up together at a pretty good clip. On one of the serious turns we saw a couple of other riders coming up from another direction. We exchanged a few words in Italian both commenting on how steep and long it was. At the top the town was bustling (with tourists since the Italians were watching the game) so I showered and went to the garage to help Andreas break down the bikes and put Bill’s and mine in our boxes.

A wine tasting followed and I bought some Brunella to send home.

We met for our farewell dinner just above the main piazza on a beautiful Tuscan night. I’m sure we were all a bit sad it was ending as we exchanged the “Golden Rooster” awards with each other. (Certificates awarded from one rider to another by names drawn out of a hat) I was asked to say a few words on behalf of the group for Andreas and Gian Paolo.

I’ve become even more sentimental as I’ve gotten older, so I choked out a couple of sentences about how much we enjoyed it and how difficult it must be to entertain a bunch of people from America, a land of many cultures and show us the rich culture of Tuscany and Italy. I do remember finishing by saying, “Andreas and Gian Paolo, we thank you for not only sharing with us the Italian mind, but also showing us the Italian heart,” and I sat down.

To, I think, everybody’s surprise, Andreas stood up and began to speak, saying that it was the first time he had ever spoken to a group at the end in 25 years of hosting trips.

“I often wonder if what I’m doing makes a difference,” he began. “I’m a musician, but playing drums is that really making something? I owned a bike shop. But putting metal together and making bikes, is that really creating something? But today, I was sitting with Bill and he said something that touched me. He said this has been the time of his life. So maybe I am making a difference.”

And with that we were quiet and raised a glass to the trip and our experience.

As this trip was billed as a “Taste of Tuscany” it was all of that and more. It fulfilled my desire not only to ride and occasionally be challenged, but also to see some of the history of the region, to explore some of the churches and artwork and to hear the history of the people. It’s all wrapped up in the foods and the wines that are part of the culture and everyday life in that part of Italy and we got to experience it firsthand as opposed to from a tour bus or even a car.

I didn’t have any real complaints on the quick evaluation form they ask you to fill out after the last day of riding. The beds in the hotels were average, but the hotels themselves were very nice. I’d like to see one day added to the middle of the trip with an optional ride in the morning and some shopping and exploring time in the afternoon. Perhaps a second night in Arezzo would help.

As a point of disclosure, I paid full price for this trip, over $3,400 and as far as value goes, it’s better than average. Not outstanding, it is a bit steep for the time involved. The guides were outstanding, couldn’t have been better for what I was looking for and a sharp contrast to my trip to Belgium last year. (In fact, I’m wondering how that guy stays in business if these people are his competition.)

I’d go on another trip with Ciclismo Classico in the future, especially if Andreas and Gianpaolo are along.

If you’d like to learn more you can log onto their website at www.ciclismoclassico.com

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Owen’s Folly

Generally, this whole professional sports business has changed. It hasn’t happened overnight, but rather an evolution over the last 25 years or so. Call it a revolution if you will. Sure, there have always been selfish, self-centered pros, but it’s at a whole new level. If there was ever any question in the past, it’s in the open now: it’s all about the money. And while he’s not the only offender, Terrell Owens is the perfect poster boy for what we might see in the future. No questioning his talent. Last year’s performance in the Super Bowl validated his ability to play, and play well in big games. Especially after his injury. But Owens has brought to the public the thing that sits right beneath the surface of any professional athlete: it’s about me.

Certainly there are exceptions, but whether they’re parading in front of the media or just quietly doing their job, professional athletes are just that, professionals earning a paycheck. Owens can’t help himself, obviously. He wants the spotlight on him full time, good or bad. He’ll do (front yard workouts) and say (calling out his quarterback) anything that he thinks might make it more about him. The higher the profile in today’s world of “The Insider” the more money there is to be made.

Dennis Rodman brought it to basketball. Early on it was a very finely choreographed act, but Rodman started to believe it and blew himself up. Owens is just the next step in that evolution.

Football has always been different, mainly because of the team aspect and the violence involved. Guys like Owens have existed in the past, but as soon as they took one step in that direction, players on their own team took care of it. Whether it was in the locker room or on the practice field, Owens would have paid a price for his words and his actions that would have hurt and perhaps landed him on IR. In this politically correct world though, that won’t happen.

Even though Brian Dawkins and a couple of his Eagles’ teammates have expressed “concern” about the distraction, nobody’s hammering on this guy in order to get things straight on their team. And believe me, throughout the course of training camp and practices, they have their chances. Owens needs a good “beat down” as some of his peers have suggested, but because they’re “professionals” he’ll skip along without having to worry about looking over his shoulder.

Why?

Because his teammates know that somewhere along the line, he might be able to make them some money. If not on the field perhaps in his dealings with management. Owens started his latest circus in the off-season saying he wanted to renegotiate his contract. It’s widely reported that it’s worth $49 million over 7 years. He did get a roster bonus that was all swallowed up by last year’s salary cap. He’s no financial liability to the Eagles at all. Cut him and they don’t have to have any of his “dead money” on their roster. And that’s the crux of the financial fight, not only by Owens but also by his agent Drew Rosenhaus.

Owens’ deal isn’t guaranteed, in fact, no contracts in the NFL are guaranteed and Rosenhaus wants to change that. The only guaranteed money is in the signing bonus up front. The rest is pay for play. It’s not that way in the NBA or Major League Baseball. You sign in either of those sports and you get paid the full amount. In the NFL, the money you get is from the signing bonus and you earn the rest year by year. Rosenhaus thinks that’s unfair and wants to change that, using Owens as a tool.

Sure, Owens should be paid the going rate for players of his caliber, and his bonus should have been in line with what the other top players at his position have gotten in the past. But who ever made the rule that a professional sports career should pay you enough that you never have to work again? “I’m looking out for my family,” is the funniest and most hypocritical thing any of these guys ever say. Aren’t we all?

When the players start invoking that way of thinking it gets the fans wondering about their own financial situation. And when they do that, it’ll eventually come around to whether the fan will buy tickets knowing that money’s going to the player in question. Are they really going to spend that money, taking it away from their “family” to give it to this guy? That’s the question no professional sports organization wants to have asked. So in a quiet chorus the NFL is, in one way or another, saying in unison: Shut up T.O.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Belgium On My Bike

I learned a long time ago that I have eclectic tastes in just about everything. Music, art and even sports. As big a fan as I am of baseball, football, basketball and other traditional sports, I also follow English Soccer and Pro Cycling will an equal fervor. So I’ve always had it in my head to go see some cycling races in Europe and ride my bike over some of the storied routes of what are called “The Classics.” So when my long-time friend and bike guru Phil Foreman of Champion Cycling in Mandarin invited me along for a trip to Belgium this spring, I jumped at the chance.

I know something about Belgium, like where it is and how to get there. Some of the history, especially the country’s role in the two World Wars of the 20th century. And how they aren’t exactly Switzerland, but based on the countries surrounding it (France, Germany, the Netherlands and the North Sea) and as the capital of the European Union, they know how to make alliances and get along. I also didn’t know that cycling is their passion, their hobby, their existence way beyond just being a sport. Brussels is just like any other big city in Europe, a mixture of old and new architecture, two million inhabitants and snarling traffic. I was much more interested in the countryside where they contested the one-day races Tour of Flanders and the much hated and respected Paris-Roubaix.

An overnight flight put me in Belgium on a Thursday morning, dreary and overcast, but to be expected. It is northern Europe in the spring after all. Phil and the other guys in the group arrived a day early for an overnight excursion to Amsterdam, so I had some time to get acclimated to the time change (seven hours ahead of EST), the language barrier (Flemish), the money exchange (1 to 1.3 dollars to Euros!) before they made it back.

To no one’s surprise, Delta hadn’t delivered their luggage, now 36 hours later (you know what Delta stands for, Don’t Expect Luggage to Arrive) so our 1st day warm-up ride was postponed ‘till the morning. It was dark when we finished putting together our bikes, but we were just in time for a minor Belgian pub crawl to sample the local beers.

Beer is to Belgians what wine is to the French. They’re very serious about their beer, serving each beer in an especially logoed glass with a formality that would seem quaint to beer drinking North Americans. Beer wasn’t the only thing we learned about that night. If cycling and beer drinking are among the top pastimes in Belgium, smoking runs a close third. It actually might outdistance the other two combined if you consider the population as a whole. No matter where you were (except in church) everybody, and I mean everybody was lighting up. The restaurants and pubs were so full of smoke you had to step outside every once in a while to get a breath of fresh air. We started picking our watering holes based on the amount of smoke pouring out the front door. The situation did spawn the best line of the trip when Phil asked “anybody got any Nicorette gum? I’ve got to kick this habit before I get home!”

Phil, John Vance, Walter Campbell and Ron Howland from Jacksonville along with Alex Arato from Long Island turned out to be the perfect traveling partners for this trip. All good, strong riders, all very knowledgeable about the pro cycling scene in Europe and all kind enough to look after me even though they could easily have been “off the front.” And, perhaps most importantly, they knew the “non-cycling experience” was just as important as the cycling. In other words, they all can drink some beer.

It didn’t slow us down the next morning when we went off on about a 20 mile spinning jaunt out of the town of Aalst. Back to the town square for lunch (and boy did we get some looks) then off for an “organized” ride from the hotel at 2pm. We rode with CSC Assistant Team Director Scott Sunderland, a recently retired professional rider. An Australian who’s lived in Belgium for the last 18 years, Scott was the highlight of the trip. He’s accomplished just about everything you’d want in a professional cycling career so he didn’t have anything to prove. That attitude allowed him to ride with us, chat about riding, the pro circuit and the personalities involved. He couldn’t have been nicer, more helpful or more customer service oriented.

And that came in handy.

The final five miles of our ride that afternoon involved two steep cobblestone climbs, “The Muur” and “The Bossberg,” both legendary in Belgian cycling. As I struggled up the Bossberg at the back of the pack, I huffed to Scott, “I’ve got 10 years at 80 pounds on all of these guys.” Scott replied “No worries mate, it’s not a race,” as he calmly pedaled his way to the top. It was just the right thing to say at the right time, a knack Scott showed for the duration of the trip, each time we rode with him. That afternoon’s ride was a preview of what was to come. Every ride was full of surprises, changes in the weather and a blend of cruising descents and lung-busting, thigh-searing climbs.

Saturday’s ride was as a part of the Cyclosportif Tour de Flanders. It’s like the amateur ride in advance of the professional competition on Sunday. Outside of a golf Pro-Am, it’s the only thing I can think of that allows recreational athletes to compete on the same playing field as the best in the world will compete on the next day. We chose the 140 km course that included 16 climbs, 13 of which were cobblestones and under 10 feet wide. “You’d have to ride it to believe it,” is the best description I’ve heard about that experience.

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to ride the nearly 90 miles with 22,000 other registered riders. The climbs varied from 10 to 22 percent making it a physical and mental challenge as the day went on. I started dreading the descents, not wanting to give up that much altitude, knowing there’d be a climb around the corner to make me pay for this leisurely cruise! I walked the last hundred yards of two climbs, including the 22% Koppenberg where the guy in front of me fell and I had to stop. I unclipped my left pedal, only to fall to the right against the retaining fence, wiping out three sections of metal railing!

We joked that night that if we saw cows on the course the next day, we’d know where they came from! It was about the hardest single-day physical challenge I’ve ever encountered. I was glad everybody else agreed that it was tough, so tough in fact that if we knew how hard it was going to be, we might have said, “No thanks!”

I was anxious to watch the best in the world ride the same course the next day. Their ability brings you right back to earth. If you ever think you’re a good rider, just go watch how professional cyclists ride and climb. It’ll humble you right away.

That night after dinner, five of us headed off to the town square in Bruges to see what was going on on a Saturday night in Belgium. After a couple of “Leffe’s” a big group of young people came rolling out of the pub next to ours, with two guys in the front in a heated argument. They eventually separated themselves from the pack, and squared in the center of the small plaza. It looked pretty serious as they danced around and eyed each other, until one guy reached out a slapped the other to the ground.

“Slapped?”

That’s right, and the guy went to the deck and stumbled to get up. We just stood there laughing at the slap and the subsequent kicking display. Some young girls tried to break it up, but they were quickly brushed aside. We laughed that if this was in the US, some bouncer would have already taken care of this, and whatever was left over would be picked up by the sweeping local police. “Anybody can start a fight,” I told the group. “Finishing it is the key.”

You’ve got to be dedicated to be a cycling fan. They show up early, brave the weather, stand five deep throughout the course to see the “Whoosh” of the leaders and the peleton go by. We were part of that scene on Sunday at the Tour of Flanders. On the side of the mountain known as “The Muur” our group fanned out to find a good vantage point to see the climb and the leaders as they went by. Phil and I found a spot near the top, with a TV screen across the course and the beer tent behind us. We watched the leaders cruise by with much better looks than we had the day before, and waited for the peleton and Lance Armstrong as well.

Lance had apparently done a lot of work for teammate George Hincappe earlier in the race and looked pained as he ascended the second to last climb. Once they were by, we retired to the beer tent to watch the rest of the race unfold on television. And we weren’t alone. There were about a half million fans on the side of the mountain that day, and after the race went by, they were all looking for a place to see the finish. After about 10 minutes in front of the TV, I looked around to see the fans were about 15 deep behind me. The whole place went nuts when a Belgian, Tom Boonen won the race in a solo breakaway.

Generally, Belgians are pretty reserved, but overhearing Phil and I speaking English on the way down, the guy walking in front of us asked where we were from. “Florida,” I responded. “Oh, I’ve been to Florida,” he quickly answered. “Disneyworld?” I asked. “Yes, and many other places in Florida on holiday for three weeks last year,” he proudly said. Turns out the guy was about as nice as can be, so we spent about an hour talking to him and his young son before making our way to the rallying point.

Surprise, surprise, the rallying point was bar in the middle of town.

The rest of our group was already camped at a corner table, so we just jumped into the festivities. The group at the next table had one guy who spoke English (kind of) so we exchanged banter with them about the race. “Where are you from,” the guy asked me. Again in answered, “Florida.” “You’re Americans?” he said with an incredulous look on his face. “Sure. Why?” I asked. “I live about 200 miles from here and I’ve been coming here to this race for 20 years and I’ve never seen an American here. Are you here for the race?” “Of course, and we rode this yesterday,” I added as an aside. “Really! You rode this? Buy these men a beer!” our new found friend shouted to the waiter in both English and Flemish.

We spent plenty of time there, and the guy thanked me twice for being an American and for the sacrifice our country has made over the years for his. That seemed to be the general thought process as well. Maybe it’s just the Parisians that have a problem with Americans because in the countryside of Northern France and throughout Belgium, we were treated well.

We rode out of Bruges on Monday and Tuesday, the highlight being Monday’s ride with Scott. We were in his backyard basically, so he took us through a bunch of farm roads and saw plenty of that part of the country. We headed to the famed “Koppenberg” where the cobbled climb in matched by an equally as steep cobbled descent. It was cold and wet and about halfway up my bike completely flipped out from under me and I went down hard. Nothing really hurt by my pride, and Scott advised all of us to walk down the descent because it was so slick. Christian decided to give it a whirl and carefully navigated his way down. Pretty impressive. Scott took us to the Discovery Team’s hotel and we spent some time talking with Discovery’s “director sportif” Dirk De Mol.

Wednesday we were back at the start of the mid-week race, Ghent-Wevelghem a so-called “mini classic.” It was freezing, so I headed into the town of Denzie to see the start. The stage where the sign in happens was a quarter the size of the one at Bruges but the announcers/hosts were keeping things light and moving. One guy did the entertaining while the other did all of the interviews. He spoke to six different riders in six languages, none of them English.

Our group headed to the Koppenberg to watch the race as it comes over that climb twice. Only about 40 riders were left by the time the peleton got there. Apparently a big crash had taken a lot of guys out and the rest abandoned, saving their strength for the weekend and Paris-Roubaix.

There are a lot of sights in Belgium, but one of the most stunning is seeing men urinate in public just about everywhere. You might think I’m exaggerating but I’m talking about up against buildings, in bushes while scores of people are promenading by. It’s a little bit of culture shock to say the least. Occasionally we’d see a four-sided outdoor urinal, unenclosed. I theorized that if they could get the guys to use that at least, it’d be a step in the right direction. No American modesty there!

Thursday was one of the toughest riding days any of us had ever experienced. It was chilly but the ride from Ghent to our next stop, Tournai, was 65 miles dead into a 40 mph headwind. It was brutal. Why we didn’t drive to Tournai and ride to Ghent, downwind, I don’t know. Not enough advance planning I guess. We were slogging across this one stretch between towns that was wide open for as far as you could see. Walter dubbed it “The Killing Field,” it was so tough. I felt like I was going across Antarctica or something. I passed out in my room in Tournai for two hours when we got there.

Tournai is a neat town and very French, being right on the border. In Brussels they speak Flemish and some English. As we worked our way west, they spoke more Flemish and less English. And when we got to Tournai, they spoke no Flemish, no English and all French. I took French in High School, so I knew enough to be dangerous and get along.

Friday broke cold and rainy, but we were headed to the famed cobbles of Paris-Roubaix so the excitement and anticipation was pretty thick. We stopped a few kilometers from the start of section 20 of the cobbles (there are 26 sections). The beginning of our ride was a continual climb so I, of course, was dropped immediately, but hung on the back, just in sight of the group.

Scott was along for this ride and had given us just a quick “Cobbles 101” course before we headed out. Stay relaxed, don’t grip the handlebars too tight, ride the crown when you can and KEEP PEDALING, were the main points.

You can talk all you want about the cobbles, but nothing prepares you for riding them the first time. They’re wet, slick, muddy and rough doesn’t describe the ride. The pros go through the cobbled sections at about 26 mph. I was doing somewhere between 12 and 15, so instead of hitting every third one, I was getting the full effect. Your helmet is banging on your glasses, your hands go numb, your bike is fishtailing all over the place and the seat is bouncing so hard you’re convinced your bike will break apart at any second.

And that’s just the first hundred yards or so.

I was following Alex on a particularly muddy and slick section when his front wheel went to the right and his back wheel dropped off the crown to the left and he had no choice but to go down. I was trying to maneuver around him, but I was sure I was going to run right over him! I jinked right, then further right, heard Scott yelling in my head “Keep Pedaling” and just about made it around Alex when he stuck his hand out for balance and I ran right over it! I was absolutely mortified, but Alex yelled “I’m fine, keep going,” in a rather sporting fashion so I did just that. “You OK?” I yelled back. “Keep going,” was his only reply.

Luckily Alex wasn’t seriously injured by the fall or by his hand getting run over. It was kind of funny to see the tire tracks later on his glove though. He might have cracked a rib in the fall and was done riding for the day shortly thereafter.

We got through 15 sections before it really started raining and getting cold, so we made a direct move to Tournai, all of us except for Christian that is. He kept on, heading for more cobbles and Roubaix. When we finally say him that night he had finished but looked like a Zombie. “I was thinking about that hot shower for the last 20 K,” is what he told us the next day.

We returned to the cobbles on Saturday, but not before it started snowing while we were sitting at breakfast. There was some talk about calling the day’s ride off but that was quickly quashed by thoughts of coming all this way and not finishing the job. It was downright freezing when we left, around 28 degrees Fahrenheit and didn’t feel like it got above freezing the rest of the day. More cobbles lead to the town of Roubaix and the Velodrome. WE tooled around the Velodrome a couple of times but up high the white paint on the track was pretty slick. My back wheel slipped down making an “Ack, Ack, Ack” noise before it caught the pavement. I heard the same sound as Phil fell at that same spot. Luckily without injury, but with a little paint on his handlebars, a small memento from the trip.

We opted out of chasing the race the next day and instead; six of us joined John the Englishman and his friends at the Pave’ Gourmand restaurant in a small town for lunch along the course. We had met John and his friends at the hotel in Tournai and kind of invited ourselves along for the day. He and his friends were very gracious, adding us to their reservation. Our table of 15 had our own TV in the corner. It was a fabulous meal, and great company. After the main course, we walked outside, saw the race come through, and then headed back to our table for coffee and dessert.

The drive back to Aalst was uneventful and we packed up our bikes for the flight home.

Despite five calls to confirm taking our bikes on an international flight was free, Delta (typical) stuck us for $90 each coming back home.

It was a great adventure and as Walter told us “the group makes the trip.” He’s right, that group made the adventure fun and hopefully we’ll get together and do this again soon. Preferably somewhere warm. And flat.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Athens Games

Isn’t it funny how interest in the Olympics ebbs and flows every four years? The Sydney Games, arguably the best games ever to attend in person were not a bit hit on television here in the United States. The Athens games, considered a potential disaster, have been very popular on television in America, up 8% from four years ago.

Maybe the hype over Michael Phelps and his quest for eight medals has helped raise the numbers in the first week. Maybe it was the gymnastics, or the fact that NBC has been showing the games all over the place. Bravo, USA Network, CNBC and their own NBC, so people can tune in almost 24 hours a day, raising interest in the prime time show every night. Or maybe the opening ceremonies were so good, that it’s inspired people to keep tuning in. Whatever it has been, the games are a big success on television.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Americans are all over the place when it comes to the competition. Besides Phelps, it seems that every event has an American in it with a chance to win, or at least medal. My friend Lex says the Olympics stopped being fun as soon as the Soviet Union broke up, since there was no more “us against them” mentality. That could be why the US is so competitive all over the place, since the other countries have a smaller pool of talent to draw from.

But still, the US has made a committment to being competitive in Olympic sports, creating the training center in Colorado and putting athletes in a position to succeed. Give George Steinbrenner some credit for that.

Really.

Steinbrenner was really upset in the ’80’s when it looked like we were going by the wayside when it came to the Olympics. So he prodded the USOC to do something about it, and in turn, the training center and success followed.

Still, it takes a special talent to be the best in the world, no matter what the competition. And to stand on that podium and hear the Star Spangled Banner must be a life altering experience. Nobody knows how that feels, unless you’ve been there, so that’s a pretty elite group.

NBC likes to show the medal ceremonies anytime an American wins gold, obviously their research shows that’s what viewers want. So we get to see these athletes stand on the podium in the prime of their careers, having shown they’re the best in the world while representing their country. I like it when they sing. Or even mouth the words. But how do they not cry!? Maybe they’re so caught up in the moment that it doesn’t occur to them to be emotional, but I’m sorry, I’d be crying like a baby standing there listening to the Anthem.

And the wreaths! They’re great! When the guys take them off and put them over their hearts when they’re playing the Anthem that’s enough to make any American spectators cry. The wreaths should be a permanent part of the Games, one little nod to Greece as the founding country.

So what if you don’t care about diving or fencing or track and field any other time every four years? Enjoy the games, you deserve it.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Coming Home

I’ve been on vacation for the past couple of weeks with my family. We spent some time in Ireland and Greece, seeing the countryside, looking at the Olympic sites in Athens and visiting Ikaria, the island where my father’s family is from. Leaving the country always gives people a different perspective upon returning. In fact, it used to be an American tradition to live outside of the States just to get a different view of the world. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams all spent years abroad while remaining resolutely in favor of life in America.

Sports wise, my trip coincided with the first couple weeks of Euro 2004, the quadrennial match up of the top European soccer teams in a World Cup format. Anytime a team competes under the banner of it’s national flag there’s going to be a swell of support. But soccer, or as everybody else calls it, football, brings out a passion that can’t be found anywhere else. Both England and Greece were in the tournament, and both advanced out of pool play to the quarterfinals. When that happened, you’d have thought they declared a national holiday in Greece. They took to the streets and partied until dawn. (Not unlike they do on most days, but this time they at least seemed to have a reason!)

It’s very rare that we have a chance to all root for the same team, under the Stars and Stripes, perhaps the last time was the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team. So it was fun to watch the news coverage and read the reams and reams of newspaper coverage about a 90 minute game. Every shopkeeper, every clerk, every taxi driver, in fact, everybody was up for a conversation about their team in both England and Greece. I felt a tinge of jealousy when it came to their communal fan spirit. It’d be nice to have something like that here again. Anytime we have a big event, fans are split. Our national teams aren’t competitive in many of the “international’ sports, and soccer is still developing. I say that because our best athletes are not choosing soccer because there’s not enough money in it. What if our national team in the last World Cup had Michael Jordan at center midfield, Deion Sanders on one wing, Barry Sanders on the other, Cal Ripken as the stopper and Kevin Garnett in goal? Think they would have been any good? That’s what other countries have, their best athletes play on their national soccer team. Even with 280 million people in this country, when your best soccer players are not your best athletes, you’re going to get beat on the international stage.

I was able to just sit and listen on many occasions to people’s opinions about the United States. Everybody has an opinion, and it seems that they want to give it to you, well, ‘cause you’re “a Yank.” Just like with anything, some people love us, some people hate us. The one thread that ran through all of the people who wanted to tell me how bad America is was their lack of information. I was amazed at how ill-informed so many people were about everyday life in the States. The communication system abroad is not like ours. You can be in a remote spot, and have satellite television, but only get a couple of channels. Between that and the radio, your knowledge of anywhere outside your village is pretty narrow. So I sat politely many times, listening to what’s wrong with America, only to pose the question at the end, ‘Have you every been to the States?” I’d always get the same answer, “No, but.” And I’d stop them right there. “You should visit,” I’d say, “You’d find many things about America that you’d like.” And with that, the conversation usually turned to something else. But after I gave that answer a few times, I realized that in a small way, I was using that old line “Our diversity is our greatest strength.” And it’s an old line, because it’s true. If you were to come to America from say, Greece, you’d find it so vast and varied that you couldn’t help but find somewhere and some people you liked.

I know I’m not breaking any new ground here, but the view of our country from that distance is very different. Every other country has it’s own infighting, but not quite as out in the open as here. (Except for England where everything is plastered on the front of the tabloids.) My son got a bit frustrated with one of the people who were running down America and blurted out, “Look, I support my country and until yours is perfect, leave mine alone.” Pretty good for a 13-year old I thought. You may not support the war in Iraq, or you might not like what’s happening with Medicare, and there’s a lot of other things people don’t agree on here in the States, but I promise you, we’ve got the best thing going.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Smarty Jones

Growing up in Baltimore, I was exposed to horse racing as part of the sporting culture. They gave the results on the radio and showed the highlights on television. Pimlico and Bowie were as familiar as Memorial Stadium as a sporting venues. I’ve been to the races and enjoyed them, but that doesn’t explain my fascination with thoroughbreds.

I’ve stood in the last turn for race after race, just to see the field come through and drive for the finish line. And not just to see it, but to hear it and fell it, the thundering of the pack, the charge of the herd as they turn for home. You can see a lot of things, and not experience anything like it.

A friend asked me a couple of weeks ago, “which horse is going to win the Kentucky Derby?” “I can’t remember his name,” I answered, “but whichever one won the Arkansas Derby.” That colt was Smarty Jones or perhaps more correctly that colt is Smarty Jones.

There’s an affection for winning thoroughbreds that’s reserved for them and nothing else. Maybe it’s the majestic way they carry themselves. Maybe it’s the all out effort they seem to give in a race. Or maybe it’s just how their coats shine, or rather, glisten after a race. I did think it was silly when ESPN named Secretariat one of the top fifty athletes of the last century. Racehorses are born to run and trainers, good trainers anyway, get the best out of them.

Somebody early on saw that Secretariat could run, and the trainers helped make him a champion. Yes, there was something special about that horse, but you can’t compare horses to people. But you can compare horses to horses, and Smarty Jones looks like Secretariat to me. No, he’s not a big chestnut like Secretariat, but he has that look that Big Red had when he takes the track. I’m in charge, you all can do whatever you like, but when I decide the race is over, it’s over.

Not in 129 years had any 3-year old won the Preakness by 11 ½ lengths until Smarty Jones did it last Saturday. And how he did it was pretty remarkable. He just stalked the leader, and when it was time to go, he took the rail and disappeared, winning handily. Kind of looked like Secretariat in the Belmont. And how he looked afterwards had an eerily similar look about it. Like Secretariat in 1973.

So when the Belmont comes around, I’ll be watching. And I’ll be rooting for Smarty Jones. Not because thoroughbred racing needs a Triple Crown winner but because I like Smarty Jones. He reminds me of greatness.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Tea Men

While I don’t spend much time dwelling on past accomplishments, occasionally it is fun to look back and share some memories with people you’ve known for a while. I did that on Saturday night with a few remnants of the Jacksonville Tea Men.

The Tea Men were in the North American Soccer League (NASL), a transplanted team from New England. They hung around for a few years in that league and in other smaller leagues as well. The Tea Men’s name came from New England with the team, not only a regional moniker, but also relating to the team’s ownership, the Lipton Tea company. When the Tea Men moved to Jacksonville, I was working in Charleston, S.C. and saw a score come over the wire, “Jacksonville Tea Men 2, Tulsa Drillers 1.” “Look at that,” I laughed in the middle of the Channel 2 newsroom, “they moved the team and kept that stupid name.” Little did I know I’d be the play-by-play voice of that team with the stupid name only six weeks later.

When I took the job at Channel 4 in Jacksonville, the station was televising the games and installed me to do the games right away. I made friends with a lot of people on and around the team. I was probably closer in age to most of the players, but traveled with the coaching and training staff, so I got to know them fairly well. We ate and drank together often, with the standing rule that if the bar bill wasn’t bigger than the food bill, we’ hadn’t done our job. And usually we succeeded.

Noel Cantwell was the Head Coach, a world class soccer and cricket player who was a big personality and a big man. He taught me how all bets were won on the first tee one morning in San Diego when he took my money with a laugh with a bogus handicap over 18 holes at Coronado. Noel is currently serving as a scout for the English National Team. Dennis Viollet was the assistant, known as the Michael Jordan of English soccer, he held many records for Manchester United and still does. Viollet survived the Man U plane crash and was a legend. “You can’t score if you don’t shoot lads,” was his oft-spoken advice to the team.

I once stood in goal during the indoor season and let him fire penalty kicks at me. The velocity and force of the shots knocked me into the goal a couple of times. Dennis died a few years ago of complications of a brain tumor. A very nice man, who stayed in town, coached locally for a while and is still missed by all who knew him.

This finally brings me back to last Saturday night. I shared the broadcast booth with Arthur Smith, who was listed as the player personnel director of the Tea Men when they came here. He was a long time friend of both Noel and Dennis, knew players from all over Europe and the UK and fit in perfectly with this whole group. Arthur and I hit it off famously and as broadcast partners, we spent a lot of time traveling together. I learned most of what I know about the game from Arthur, most of it coming in the years since the Tea Men folded. We’ve stayed friends and socialize often.

He’s had his share of serious health problems but always has a positive outlook and a strength that’s inspiring. So when we heard that a couple of the former players were going to be in town at the same time, we decided to make some calls and see how many guys we could get together. (Jolly) Jack Carmichael, a defenseman on the Tea Men was going to be visiting from England, and coincidentally, Alan Green, a star striker from the team was also going to be coming to the States. Alan had been my closest friend among the players, and we had stayed in touch until he moved back to England a few years ago.

When I walked into the restaurant (Leo’s in Lakewood) I saw Arthur, Alan, and Jack at the table along with former players Nino Zec, Dusan, and Ringo Cantillo. Only Dennis Witt among the players who stayed local didn’t show. They were with a variety of wives, and friends and clearly enjoying themselves. I’ve run into Nino a bunch over the years. He’s in the floor installation business, but also coaches a team in the men’s soccer league here in town. He’s still passionate about the game and his thick Slavic accent remains despite more than two decades in the U.S…

Dusan was a late add to the team in the early ‘80’s but has made a home here. He’s told me he was headed back to Yugoslavia in a couple of weeks to visit family and hoped to see the U.S. basketball team play an exhibition game while he was there and the American’s were on their way to the Olympics in Athens. Ringo lives in Mandarin and has all along. He and his wife have two grown children and are grandparents. His son was recently named the wrestler of the year in North Florida from University Christian. He’s the same. He’s a nice guy and always has been. Very earnest, very tuned into personal responsibility.

We talked a lot about parenting and laughed about his now being the second youngest player to sign a professional soccer contract in this country behind Freddy Adu. Ringo was 16 when he turned pro, Freddy’s only 14. Alan is doing social work in his home town of Worchester. He works with abused and abandoned kids each day. “Tough work mate,” Alan explained through a grin. “Could make you a little loony if you didn’t really care,” he explained.

Jack is “in the car business” in England. A vague reference to some kind of work he’s doing for a big car dealer/distributor in Peterborough. It was fun to watch these guys catch up after twenty years. They talked about old times some, but nobody was about to break into Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”

“You all look the same, only older,” I countered to Jack when he made fun of my thinning hair on top.

All in all, it was a nice trip down memory lane, made memorable itself by a comment Jack late into the night. “I’m so glad these guys showed up,” Jolly explained. “We’re different nationalities, but we’re all here together. We’re still teammates.”