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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.”

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”