Distant Replay

October 29, 2013 | Posted in General

It’s been a couple months since Ray Smith passed away, the steel jawed hardnosed football and wrestling coach at my alma mater Schurz High School in Chicago. Ray was a block of granite, carved out of stuff that comes from hard work and discipline and dedication, words that used to really mean something not just a cliché’ bantered about. At his memorial I ran into a few of my former Bulldog teammates and we reminisced about the man and swapped war stories about our time at the 2nd largest high school in the city. After a time a “Reunion for Ray” was planned with the word going out that former players, managers and family would gather to watch a Bears game, drink some suds and reconnect. The date was set and then moved so that our head coach Frank Preo could make it to the reunion and since while it turned out the Bears had a bye week the timing was perfect.

I got there early was greeted by three amigos- Izzy, Keith and Bear. These guys were a couple years younger than me in school, but we share the common bond of purple and gold so age matters not. I played semi-pro with two of them- Keith was our quarterback and holds the distinction of the only human to end up in the ER to have a barb removed from his toe after trying to kick a dead catfish through the uprights on the practice field. Bear Kowalski was an all-state lineman for the vaunted Schurz Bulldogs (not an easy thing to accomplish for a Public League player) and we also put on the tools of ignorance and played semi-pro together for a few years.

It was good to see them.

The room began to fill up with familiar faces and less than familiar names, but one handshake or hug brought it all back. We were scattered playing cards from different years at school-but the common denominator were the two Kings- Preo and Smith, the guys that beat us into the ground, lifted us up and pushed us further than we thought we could go. Then coaches showed up, guys that worked at Schurz over the years, a few I taught with, a few I had as a teacher but all of us now on equal footing brought together to remember Ray. The word “coach” is a universal term-bestowed on anyone that has made the attempt to instruct fledgling players on whatever form a sport takes from badminton to baseball and from fencing to football. Once a coach- always a coach…so after 35 years it’s still hard for me to call Frank Preo by his first name…I supposed it would be like Green Bay Packer legend Jerry Kramer trying to call Lombardi “Vince”…It’s “Coach.”

Pictures of days gone by, gridiron glory when we were young, athletic, healthy and whole. Before careers, and deadlines, before demands and worry lines, there we all were with our battle gear on and shoulder to shoulder in victory and defeat. The din of the room rose as it filled up with more and more gladiators and the stories got bigger and the laughter got louder. Ray’s wife and two sons were there bathing in the energy and as the room got smaller, we all got bigger, stood a little taller as we reconnected with the part ourselves that formed on the football field and the wrestling mat, hundreds of hours of practice and repetition of hand to hand combat and a million other moments so many seasons ago.

The snapshots are fresh in my mind from the reunion, Coach Preo’s daughter snuck up behind me and whispered “Want a piece of gum?” something I had not heard since 1977 when part of my pre-game ritual was to have her give me sticks of gum until I had a mouthful. Bear’s battered and broken purple helmet with the bent gold facemask with stickers all over the back of it- gold stars for offensive awards and the skull and crossbones for the defensive awards sitting on a table. Watching guys reconnect after decades, a few still able to somehow fit into their high school jersey’s, Coach Preo floating through the room with a huge grin on his face. Ray’s wife Joan kissing his picture with tears rolling down her cheeks…

At one point I just stood off to the side to take it all in and looked at the gathering put in place by one man who pushed us all together in a room , reminding us that it never really was just about football. It’s been said that hindsight is 20/20- that one of the gifts of the passage of time is that events become clearer the further away we get from them and what we are left with is often the essentials of the moments we experience, the gold nuggets dug out of the dirt that often clouds our minds. For a few hours life was once again very clear, it felt good to be 18 again if only for a little while.

Thanks Coach…

Be well.

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Extra Innings

October 22, 2013 | Posted in General

Football is in week seven and basketball is revving up in preseason and the boys of summer have given way to the legends of the fall as the World Series in baseball will feature the St. Louis Cardinals vs. the Boston Red Socks, two stalwarts of “America’s Pastime.” It promises to be a knockdown, drag out battle between the clubs with both teams capable of delivering a knockout punch at any time, something that my hometown Chicago Cubs can only dream about in the off season as they watch the Big Show on their big screens.

So why this rant so late in the season as baseball is winding down?

There are three reasons- 1) The Chicago Trib article that laid out the next round of coaching requirements that torqued my bolts- 2) The Cubs have as much chance of a post season appearance as Miley Ray Cyrus singing the national anthem in game 7 and 3) I am convinced that I could get the same results as Mike Quade did before he was replaced by Dale Sveum as coach. In summation I am not a fan of Theo “The Wonder Boy” Epstein and the concept of playing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” without having players show up to actually play.

As most of the focus from another hapless Cubs season has been diverted to rebuilding Wrigley Field and the mobs of local residents who obviously forgot that what goes on inside the park is more important than what goes on outside the park and continually threaten lawsuits if their “rights” are trampled…psst…if you don’t like so many night games…move four miles to the east…oops that’s Lake Michigan. All that diversion and investment and lawsuits and “W” flags don’t add up to a cup of spit if the guys on the field wearing pinstripes can’t beat the kids from “Sandlot.”

My first games as a kid was during that scorching summer of 69’ as I a rode the Irving Park bus down to Clark Street, waited outside the bleachers for my ticket and sat amongst the yellow hard hat wearing “Bleacher Bums” who taught me words I couldn’t say in front of my parents. I have been watching, analyzing, cheering, cursing and crowing about north side baseball for 44 years and my conclusion is well thought out based on serious science and a heart that bleeds Cubbie blue…and the survey said…

The line between the “baseball experts” and guys like me that know and love the game has evaporated perhaps due in part to the non-stop coverage of sports and the “open-mouth insert-foot” comments from office types that never played the game but talk like they did. In 2006 the Cubs could of had Joe Girardi the tough as nails smart as a whip catcher that was a field marshal for the Cubs during his playing days…they decided to go with Lou Pinella- and that went south…and seven years later after tucking a World Series in his portfolio Girardi said “no thanks” to Epstein. They could of brought in Ryne Sandberg, Hall of Famer and not only a great Cub player but a guy that was willing to pay his dues in the Cubs farm system as manager but Wonder Boy said “We need a manager with big league coaching experience” and hired Dale Sveum instead. Great move…now Sandberg is the skipper of the Phillies who thought enough of him to give him the reins to a club that knows what is like to win big. Good call…takes a lot of nads to turn away a guy like Sandberg that if nothing else would draw crowds to Wrigley and suck up $6 Budweiser’s…and give them a fair chance on the field.

Now that the answer to all the Cubs problems has been let go and the search begins for the next sacrificial goat I find it incredulous that in a recent press conference Epstein “thoroughly explained” his criteria for a new manager to take the boys in blue and throngs of fans to the promised land. “Developing players, major league experience, managing games, knowledge of personnel, and ‘intangibles” are the key factors to assure victory.

Really? Geez that really sounds like revolutionary blah blah blah…

Shouldn’t “developing players” be handled by the farm system so by the time they get to 1060 W. Addison they know where to park and how to hit a curve ball? Major league experience? Every guy on Theo’s short list has some major league experience…so did Sveum, Quade, Pinella, Baker, Kimm, and the 35 guys before them. Managing games? If you sit long enough at Wrigley the average fan with a scorecard could tell you that putting Carlos Marmol in to “build his confidence” was gonna end up bad and do nothing for his shell shocked psyche (Marmol now pitches for the Dodgers who made the playoffs.) Knowledge of personnel? That’s a good one. It’s a 162 game season and if you cannot figure out after three years that Starlin Castro (who is apparently incapable of maintaining his focus longer than three innings) needs more attention than just demoting him in the lineup…I could make that move…then the nonsense of “baseball experience” goes out the window and finally…the best word of the bunch…

“Intangibles” defined as “incapable of being defined by the senses.”

That word…makes the most sense of all…I find myself incapable of understanding how when all is said and done, winning baseball…a game of fundamentals can be left up to men who have never played even one inning and talk like they have. Hell, if that’s all it takes, then I could manage the Cubs. I hit a grand-slam at Randy Hundley’s Fantasy Camp-so I’m qualified.

Be well.

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Watch John on Gaiam TV!

October 11, 2013 | Posted in Videos


Watch John on Gaiam TV!


Near Life Experiences from John’s book Every Moment Matters and you can get a free 10 day trial to Gaiam right here to watch it! Click the “Beyond Belief” poster​ to watch the show-!

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President Ditka

October 11, 2013 | Posted in General

Smack dab in the middle of the battle over “Obama Care” or the “Affordable Care Act” with all the name calling, button pushing, finger pointing and ass wiping going on in our nation’s capital I kept wondering to myself “how the hell did all this happen?” Was it the lapse of memory on the GOP side that forgot like it or not the ACA was signed into law two years ago, not the first law that only part of the country agreed or disagreed with…heck there is a federal law that makes it a felony to issue a fake weather broadcast-some politician earned their 174K per year on that one. Was it Ted “Green Eggs and Ham” Cruz and his filibuster that launched this epic struggle that to derail the national health initiative that would then ensure all the private insurance companies that operate without flaw would remain solvent? Was it the backroom jabber between John Boehner and Harry Reid the “Heckle and Jeckle” of politics that pushed us to this point? After ten minutes of “Morning Joe” I really wanted to know whose fault it is that we are once again on the brink of total collapse as a nation…and faster than I could say “Super Bowl Shuffle” the answer surfaced.

This is all Mike Ditka’s fault.

That’s right the vaunted former head coach of the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints, the feared tight end that earned the nick-name “Iron Mike” for his sledgehammer like forearm shots to hapless defensive backs, the cigar chomping, Eddie Munster haired, gum throwing man that has become legend on and off the field, is responsible for this mess.

Ditka a staunch Republican says that if he had run for the U.S. Senate from Illinois in 2004, he would have beaten Obama and ended his political career then and there. “Biggest mistake I’ve ever made,” Ditka said in a public appearance recently and with typical coach talk quipped “LISTEN PUNK Not dat I woulda won dat senatorial race but I prabbly woulda have and dat bum Obama he wouldn’t be in dat White House” The translated version is…”Not that I would have won, but I probably would have and he wouldn’t be in the White House.” Uh..ok Coach.

Imagine however if Ditka would have run and followed the same route at Obama and become POTUS #44? Would the Saturday Night Live “Super Fans” still be doing commercials with Aaron Rodgers? “Welcome to grill class yer tongz are in da seat back” Would the bigger than life coach still be the focus of such questions as “Who wuld win dis one? Gadzilla vs Ditka? DITKA!” As Prez would the man Papa Bear Halas hand-picked to lead Da Bears to glory still have partnered with Vienna Sauuusage to create “Ditka Sauusages” that are a robust 8 inches long and a full 1/3 lb. that comes wit dat slogan dere “ Mike’s Meat Is Big-Eat It OR… He’ll slap ya around like da weasel u are dere…”

For sure there would be some real advantages to having Iron Mike in dat White House. First Harry Reid would have been dropped to the floor like a bad habit the first time he opened his cake hole because President Ditka would have brought that sledgehammer to bear. There’s a good chance that Prez Dyzcko (the name was changed to Ditka because Dyzcko was too hard to pronounce) would have the same relationship with Johnny Boehner as he did with his defensive coach on the Bears Buddy Ryan. “Hey dere Boner dere aint no cryin in politics, if you wanna cry put on a pair of dem Depends.” Meetings with Democrats would be short and to the point “ See dat ya bum (holding his fingers in a way to create a zero sign) dats yer eye que buddy boy and dan’t get any ideaz dat duh bill yer holding dere is gonna get pazt my line of scrimmage ya geek.” That punk Putin would would think twice before taking pictures with his shirt off showing his manboobs, full well knowing if Iron Mike unbuttoned his tailored made Arrow Shirt his forged in steel chest plate would put Putin to shame. Same goes for “dat punk in Narth Karea who needz an ass whippin.” One glance in the direction of Kim Jong-Un from the stout jawed Ditka would be enough avert nuclear war. “Whaat bum names der kid wit testes after a girl anyway?” Cigar chomp…..

Well, Da Coach decided not to run against Obama back in 04’ giving way to that bastion of political perfection Ambassador Alan Keyes as Barak’s opponent and thus catapulting our nation toward this battle of nitwits nine years later. Iron Mike backed down from the senate race and put in motion a chain of dominos (not the pizza) that has strained America to the breaking point…again. In a rare move however in October 2011, Ditka and the 1985 team went to the White House after they didn’t attend in 1986 due to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. He presented President Obama with a Chicago Bears jersey with the number 85 on it with “Obama” on the back of it. Reporters close to the scene reported that the Da Coach whispered to the POTUS…

“Lissen Barak u might want tink about dat dem udder stuff when dat time comz for dat stuff dat you tink is impartant but migh nat be dat impartant as u tink it is cause like I said yer lucky dat I let dat bum Keyes in cause I wulda kicked yer backside from here to dere…you know over dere.”

President Obama was reported to have said “Thanks Coach.”

Be well.

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Disposable Heroes

October 9, 2013 | Posted in General

I was walking in the crisp fall air yesterday morning and the first thought that came to mind was “Man it’s a great day to play football.” Sunny, cool and clear with low humidity-the perfect day to man up on the gridiron…while my mind thinks it’s a good idea, my 55 year old body probably wouldn’t make it through the first quarter-unless I was playing against a bunch of codgers my age, then all of us would probably be done in fifteen minutes. It’s been twenty four years since I last played in a full contact football game at the semi-pro level-I had it in my mind to stop when I was 30 and I did reach that goal (no pun intended.) While the NFL never called the CFL (Chicago Football League) did and for six years I beat my brains out on guys like me, stand out players in high school and college that just couldn’t get the game out of our system. Before that it was four years of college football, four years of high school football, three years of park district football and two years of “midget” football…nineteen years of practice, practice and more practice to get ready for a one hour game once a week. Thousands of hours spent studying plays, defenses and drills designed for two outcomes, delivering physical punishment to the opposing team and winning the game. Did a lot of both and had both of those outcomes sent back my way. Fingers that are permanently bent and a knee devoid of cartilage along with constant cracking in my neck on are my enduring reminders.

I watched an excellent documentary last night about the brain damage that comes from playing football especially in the NFL where humans the size of dinosaurs collide with such force that the crack of the pads can be heard all over the stadium. For years there was a cover up by the NFL about how much damage is done to the brain bucket as highly paid gladiators sacrifice their bodies for two reasons- delivering physical punishment to the opposing team and winning the game- and going for the brass ring of the Super Bowl. The cover up started to unravel as the stars on the field started to suffer off the field and eventually take their own lives to stop the pain-the ripple effect of being a “disposable hero.” Harry Carson, the standout linebacker for the New York Giants who played twenty years said “It’s not just the NFL where these concussions happen that can hurt the players, it starts when we send ten year olds with underdeveloped brains at full speed against each other and it escalates from there.”

That got my attention.

I can clearly remember lining up for the “kiss drill” in high school and college where we stand ten yards apart from a one of our teammates and on the whistle run at top speed, smashing into each other face to face “kissing” the other guy with our facemasks slamming together like cow catchers on the front of a locomotive. “HIT-KISS-WRAP” was repeated until we were out of breath or one of us had enough and dropped to the ground like a wounded rhino. BAM! BAM! BAM! over and over again to get the tackling technique just right and to this day I can remember what it felt like to do it so many times that by the game kick off-all I wanted to do was put my face into someone else and see if I could knock their teeth out. My nose took the brunt of the force and over those nineteen years I broke my nose four times-the evidence is now I can only really sleep on my right side in order to breathe at night. That being said, I loved the contact, the physical energy it took to perform on the field and the battles that were fought every week over imaginary enemy lines.

There were three times that I know of where I was hit so hard by an opposing player that I had a white light flash in front of my eyes and for the next few minutes thought Abe Lincoln was still president- the force generated by a couple of guys weighing 240 pounds colliding was akin to two bull elephants battering their foreheads together. One time a guy named Robert Placek hit me so hard I actually saw stars as he was the lead blocker on a run play and I the linebacker that filled the hole. Robert and I came together for only an instant but both of us got knocked silly, we held each other up and he said “Wow! Great hit” with a glaze in his eyes as the running back scored from the five yard line.

It’s just part of the game.

Now imagine the force with a couple of 300 pound guys banging on each other in the NFL-to the point that no matter how good a helmet you have on, your brain gets damaged and the effects do not show up until you hang up your helmet for good and the screaming throngs of fans have forgotten who you are, and you no longer know who you are and the changes in your behavior related to the blunt force trauma you were paid millions to endure cannot save you from putting a shotgun into your chest and pulling the trigger, or drinking anti-freeze to stop the pain as in the case of Chicago Bear Dave Duerson and Pittsburgh Steeler Terry Long, both of whom are on the list of players that ended their lives and whose brains show evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from all the collisions during their careers. Over a dozen players have chosen to take their lives and all of them had CTE.

For years the NFL said that the high impact collisions did not lead to brain damage, and it reminded me of when the tobacco companies denied that smoking doesn’t cause cancer. The NFL “expert” for a long time on the issue was a dinky little dude and he maintained there was no connect between the violent game hits and CTE.

I highly doubt the “expert” ever had to run into Robert Placek or Dave Duerson.

So what now? Football is America’s Sport and millions of kids are slamming into each other in their quest for gridiron greatness and with the hope of one day striking it big and getting their name on the back of a pro jersey. There are over 100,000 high school senior football players in the United States only a privileged 218 will make it onto a coveted NFL roster. Those numbers give us chances of about .218%. That’s not even a solid three of 1,000 hopefuls. The average career in the NFL lasts 3.5 to 6.5 years and then…that’s it.

Something to be mindful of as a fan when we watch our modern day gladiators do battle while screaming at the television set and spend billions to wear the same garb as the players on a fantasy football team. Perhaps that’s the real allure of “fantasy football” as the human mind often has a hard time discerning reality- so “playing” from a distance gives chills and thrills but far enough away from the real game so the only brain cells that get damaged are the ones that come from consuming alcohol in both in victory and defeat.

Be well.

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