Category Archives: Football

Mayberry is Real, Happy Valley a Myth

At first blush the death of Andy Griffith and the release of Louis B. Freeh’s findings regarding the Penn State pedophilia scandal seem unrelated.

Griffith’s most famous role was as Sheriff Andy Taylor in the mythical town of Mayberry where the sun shone and showers fell as needed, folks were amiable and any feuds were settled within each half-hour episode. Crime was limited to moonshiners, carnival shell game barkers and snake oil salesman, all of whom Andy outsmarted and rendered justice upon.  Even Otis the town drunk was responsible enough to lock himself up when he had his fill.

With Griffith’s death some pundits have pointed out the obvious, that Mayberry was not real. It did not reflect the times in which it was made, the tumult of the sixties not descending upon Andy, Barney, Opie, Aunt Bee and the rest.

But that is missing the point.

The great movie, “A Face in the Crowd,” is evidence that Griffith was well-aware of the dark side of small-town life and the American dream. Griffith and the other creators of the TV show, the writers, directors and producers were intelligent people. They knew Mayberry existed only as an ideal. But it was one based on love of family, kindness toward your fellow man and a gentle humor regarding the absurdity that is this life. Unlike so much entertainment today which sinks to the lowest common denominator, the “Andy Griffith Show” spoke to the better angels of our souls, a place in the hearts of all people of good will who long for a gentler world. There was no intent to deceive or fool the audience, but rather an effort to create a world worth aspiring to.

The creators and producers of the longest running show at Happy Valley, the Penn State football team, were less idealistic. The Andy Taylor of this mythical place was Joe Paterno. The English major turned coach whose teams won the “the right way,” with players graduating on time and nary a whiff of scandal. Joe Pa set the pace, living by the same high standards he demanded of his players, residing in a modest home near campus, donating millions to the university. Maybe only John Wooden was as respected both as a man and a coach as Joe Paterno.

But as real as Mayberry was in terms of ideals, Happy Valley was a fraud.

It is difficult to understand how group think motivates otherwise smart people like Paterno, then President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and now-retired vice president Gary Schultz to allegedly cover up wrongs in the name of a “greater good.”  Money, of course, the perennially winning Penn State football program makes a fortune for the university in the form of ticket sales, memorabilia and bowl games. Paterno’s reputation for fair play and the Happy Valley mystique is attractive to tuition paying parents and their children who see it as a safe haven. Proud alums and others wishing to be associated with such a prestigious, well-thought of institution donate millions to endowments. But even greed cannot explain the rationalizations that had to occur in order to cover for a predator like Jerry Sandusky. To, as Freeh stated, participate in “an active agreement to conceal.”

Whether it is the Catholic Church protecting pedophile priests or a university not reporting suspected child molestation somehow the powers at be lose sight of the reason their institution exists: to serve others. The “reputation” of the institution takes precedence over its mission. Unlike Mayberry, where wrong doers answered for their crimes, at Happy Valley a pedophile was sheltered from prosecution for at least a decade because of concerns his actions might damage the football team and the university. And, according to Freeh’s report, Joe Pa was hip deep in the cover up. A note from Curley indicated that he changed his mind about reporting Sandusky “after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe.”

When we moved to Hoopeston fifteen years ago some of my friends, knowing my fondness for the “Andy Griffith Show,” and discovering I walked to my office on Main Street next to the movie theater, asked how things were in “Mayberry.” After being raised in small towns and living in Chicago and Dallas, my wife, Yolanda, and I were looking for a slower pace to raise our kids. But we never deluded ourselves into thinking we had arrived at some worry free nirvana. To that point, a coach at a junior high in a nearby town was recently convicted of child molestation.

Big town or small, we all know evil exists in this world.

Yet there are moments when visiting with fellow parishioners after Saturday night Mass, walking home from church along shaded brick streets, greeted by honked horns and friendly waves, that we get a taste of Mayberry. The fact these moments are fleeting amongst an ever coarsening world make them all the more worth savoring.

In that sense, the ideals of Mayberry and its humble leader, Sheriff Andy Taylor, are real.

It is the Happy Valleys and Joe Pas of this world that are myth.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Andy Griffith Show, Catholic Church, Crime, Don Knotts, Exploitation, Family, Football, Friends, Happy Valley, Institutions, Joe Paterno, July 2012, Mayberry, Penn State, Situation Comedies, Small town America, Sports page, The Movies

Brothers

“Mom, Mom,” my nephew Ethan wailed as he raced into my in-laws house in Texas, “Seth’s pickin’ on me…”

“She’s not here, Ethan,” I said, setting down the newspaper and motioning him my way. “What’s the problem?”

Ethan, six at the time, rubbed teary eyes and sat next to me on the couch.

“Seth won’t let me shoot baskets,” he said between sobs. “Keeps takin’ the ball away and laughin’.”

“He hasn’t passed you the ball at all?”

“Only to bounce it off my head!”

“You know, Ethan,” I said, putting an arm around him as I suppressed a smile, “I had two big brothers who did stuff like that. I’d get so mad I couldn’t see straight. Scott was wrestling with me one time and jammed my head into the wall…I had to get six stitches. Tim and I shared a room and he made me sign a contract that I couldn’t cross the floor without his permission. Dad tore that up when he found out…But guess what? They didn’t pick on me forever. They stopped.”

“What happened?” Ethan said, no longer crying, brown eyes wide with concern. “Did they die?”

I am happy to report that Scott, ten years my senior, and Tim, five, are alive and well. Furthermore, as unbelievable as it may be for Ethan to believe, they do not pick on me, at least not on a basketball court. I am six-two and they are five-ten (in their dreams.)

Though separated by time and miles, I think of my brothers often, particularly when other brothers are in the news. Most recently on the national scene it was the Manning brothers, Cooper, Peyton and Eli.

“I’m proud of Peyton,” Eli, the youngest, said before the Super Bowl in February where his New York Giants were playing the New England Patriots. He had been asked for the one-hundredth time about the hubbub surrounding Peyton’s contract with the Indianapolis Colts.

“I’ve talked to him this week,” Eli continued. “None of that comes up…he does a great job of trying to keep me relaxed. We talk a little football and talk about New England some. He’s supported me… I know he’s just working hard trying to get healthy and I’m supporting him on that.”

Eli went on to lead the Giants to their second championship in four years while garnering MVP honors. In so doing, he surpassed the future Hall of Famer Peyton in Super Bowl wins and stepped out from his big brother’s long shadow.

While the win certainly altered people’s opinions about Eli’s career, I doubt whether the Giants winning or losing would have changed his relationship with Peyton. They are brothers, close brothers, and career success or failure, does not factor into the equation.

Their older brother, Cooper, who could not play college football because of spinal stenosis, was once asked if he harbored any repressed jealousy for his two younger brothers’ athletic accomplishments. “No, zero of that.”

I believe him.  Brothers can be hard on one another, but they celebrate successes as if they were their own. They also close ranks quickly when support is needed. Scott invited me to live with him in Chicago when I was twenty and struggling to figure out what to do with myself, helping me find a job at a bank while encouraging me to return to college. Years later he unexpectedly toasted me at Christmas dinner at the end of my first year as a business owner, congratulating me on its success.

Tim and I lived together after I graduated from college and I began my career with State Farm Insurance in Dallas. It is rumored that Tim has the first dollar he ever made tucked into a safe deposit box in an undisclosed location, but he paid the rent and gave me spending money until my paychecks started.  Recently he called me on a Sunday morning to offer congratulations on my novel and inform me he “read it straight through…it really is good, Mike.”

About a year after my conversation with Ethan, my wife, Yolanda, and I were back in Texas. I had just finished playing basketball with Ethan, Seth and their neighborhood buddies. As I sat down in the living room with a cold glass of water a door slammed behind me.

“Mom, Mom,” Ethan wailed. “Seth’s pickin’ on me…”

I settled into the couch, smiled and thought of my big brothers.

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Filed under 21st Century America, April 2012, Brothers, Family, Football, NFL, Super Bowl, Transcendental Basketball Blues

Of Minivans and Memories

“Dad,” my eight year old daughter, Anissa, said, “are we ever going to return to civilization?”

It was August, 2001, a month before the world as Americans knew it changed forever. My wife, Yolanda, and I along with our two kids, Michael and Anissa, were speeding along in our tan Ford Windstar minivan on a two lane highway in North Dakota. On either side of us were endless miles of wheat and bright yellow sunflowers. Our only company farmers harvesting wheat, air-conditioned combines cruising effortlessly up and down the rolling hills. Their grain truck drivers, beds brimming with the golden harvest , tooted horns and gave us a wave.  I was grateful for their presence, knowing that if we broke down help would be quick in coming.

“Yep,” I reassured Anissa,  Yolanda and I smiling, “soon enough. So enjoy the view.”

I do not consider myself a car guy. I’ve never dreaded trading a car or longed for a certain type. We bought the Windstar new in 1998, but since then we’ve spent our money on a solid, if unexciting used Buick Century and a leg-room loving Lincoln Continental with 70,000 miles.  None of these cars evoke “zoom, zoom” excitement, yet get us from point A to point B relatively hassle free.

But it’s the Windstar that has stood us best. Over the years we’ve strapped a bulging canvas carrier to the top, loaded the back with suitcases, wedged a cooler in between the seats and taken off to see America.  Twice to the aforementioned Dakotas, the second time a few weeks before Michael went off to college. There was the summer we spent a week in Minnesota, one of the nicest family vacations ever, with a friend of mine whose father built a cabin for us to stay in. There was the trip to the Carolina’s with a couple of families, rolling the van off and on ferry’s, the kids thrilled to be “In a car, on a boat!” as we skipped the interstate and island hopped up the outer banks to Kitty Hawk, Jamestown, and into Washington D.C.

We trekked to Niagara Falls via Michigan and across Canada. Michael, new driver’s permit in his pocket, lead in his right foot, causing his nervous old man to shout: “It’s go time. HOLD ON!” as we barreled toward the back bumper of a car which had slowed to a crawl on a congested highway outside of Detroit.  One spring break we traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Windstar stalling out on a steep grade, coasting into a driveway where we cranked her up and went on our way.   The longest journey we took was to South Padre Island, Texas, 3,000 miles roundtrip, the passage through a deserted King’s Ranch the desolate flip side of the fertile Dakotas.  Add to this soccer games, swim meets, football games, birthday parties, piano recitals, band concerts, weddings, first communions and graduations where we filled the Windstar with family and friends, enjoying their company and the ride as much as the events themselves.  With the kids in college, the Windstar has slipped into semi-retirement, rolled out for tailgating at Illinois games or hauling stuff home from the hardware store. Back seat removed, it’s like a pickup truck with a roof.

A week ago, Yolanda and I drove to Anissa’s college to bring her home for fall break. She asked us to bring a futon with us, so we bought one at Walmart, hoisted it into the back of the Windstar and headed out. On the way, however, the “Service Engine Light” glowed an ominous orange on the dashboard.

Yolanda and I exchanged uncertain looks.

“I don’t want anything to happen to my van,” she said. “Take it in as soon as we get home.”

The local shop we’ve used for years ran a diagnostic test and determined that in order to stop that orange light from shining we needed a part that would cost $500 plus labor.

“What happens if we don’t install it?” I asked. “The car has 153,000 miles on it and is probably worth $1,500. Will the engine be damaged? The orange light stay on?”

“You’re not gonna hurt anything except gas mileage. She may start rough, sometimes. That light’ll stay on, though. Lots of cars have been driven lots of miles with that light on. But, well, you know, it’s an old car.”

“That it is,” I said.

The next morning was Saturday. We were scheduled to drive to Normal for parents weekend with our son, do some tailgating, see a football game. A tailor-made trip for the Windstar, so we loaded her up and took off.

It was a sunny, crisp, college brochure picture of a day. We pulled the van into the last spot of a crowded lot, hauled out the grill, table, coolers and canvas chairs and left the hatchback open.  We met Michael’s girlfriend’s parents for the first time, grilled fajitas and drank beer. A buddy of mine from high school dropped by. We leaned against the Windstar and caught up with one another. It was a perfect day in every way. The home team even won. After the game we piled into the Winsdstar.

I glanced into the rear view mirror as we drove along the two lane highway that leads to our little town.  A now eighteen year old Anissa was asleep in the back, her face as untroubled as if she were still eight, snug and secure in the reclined seat.

Empty, harvested fields stretched across the horizon on either side. Winter approaching, the farmers are tending to their equipment in  machine sheds, already preparing for spring planting.

I patted Yolanda’s knee and we swapped smiles. I turned my attention to the open road and nudged the Windstar up to cruising speed, doing my best to ignore the orange light glowing from the dashboard.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Baby Boomers, Canada, Carolina Outer Bank, Family, Favorite Cars, Football, Friends, National Parks, Niagara Falls, November 2011, Road Trips, Small town America, South Padre Island

Everything Old is New with the Orange and Blue

When  I was a kid in the early 70’s my folks would pile the family into our speed boat length Plymouth station wagon, with a rear facing back seat, a couple Saturdays each fall and drive from Bloomington-Normal to Champaign to see an Illinois football game.  We caravanned with a couple other families. Often we swung by my oldest brother’s fraternity house so he could join us.  I remember walking up the steps of the frat with my mom, dad and brother so the folks could check out his room.  As he approached each floor my brother hollered a warning to guys who might be walking to the showers:  “Female on second floor…female on third floor…”

Sometimes we ate buffet style at a family operated restaurant not far from Memorial Stadium.  Other times, we’d tailgate in the stadium parking lot, a spread of cold cuts, crackers, cheese, fruit, and vegetables with brownies for dessert laid out on a card table. My folks and their friends had a few adult beverages, the men carrying leather cases containing high ball glasses and steel mixers, Martinis and  Manhattans a favorite of the WWII generation. Most of the men smoked, flicking grey ash on the concrete, stubbing the cigarettes out with the toe of their shoes. The kids drank Coca Cola and tossed a football, pretending to be Mike Wells, the all-star quarterback for the Illini.

Wells, who my brother played high school basketball with, was the then designated savior of Illinois football. From an athletic perspective, Wells was super human.  Six-foot five, two hundred twenty-five pounds, he was a three sport star in high school. The San Diego Padres offered him a hefty bonus to sign as a pitcher.  Wells threw ropes on the football field, the spiral tight, the ball zinging past defenders.  When he turned up field to run, his long legs gobbled up yards.  Bigger than many of the linebackers and secondary backs of that era, Wells did not go down easy once caught.  He was also an accomplished punter and placekicker.  Wells kicked off using the old straight legged method, rocketing the ball high and deep into the far end zone.  All the major colleges recruited him, including the new coach at Michigan, Bo Schembechler. My dad, who Wells asked to sit in on a breakfast meeting with Schembechler at the local Holiday Inn, was impressed with the Michigan coach and hoped Wells would play for the maize and blue. Treasonous talk in Illini country, but my dad, a pragmatic man, when asked his opinion (and, let’s be honest, when not asked) spoke the truth as he saw it. But Wells chose Illinois.  While a great player for the Illini and drafted in the fourth round by the Minnesota Vikings where he played backup to Fran Tarkenton, Wells could not resurrect the Illinois program.

In fairness to Wells, since Red Grange galloped off campus in the 1920’s, the Illinois football “tradition” has been spotty. Not that there have not been good teams and players.  The Ray Eliot squads of the mid-forties, with a national championship in ’51, Dick Butkus leading the Rose Bowl champs in ’63, Mike White’s run in the 1980’s, seven bowl appearances in the ’90’s, the Sugar Bowl in 2002 and the Rose in 2008.  But in my almost fifty years on earth, the Illini have never been consistently good, unable to build a nationally recognized program on a par with midwestern rivals like Michigan, Ohio State, or Notre Dame.

Yet, for Illini fans, hope springs eternal. There is no Mike Wells at Illinois right now, but sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is talented. The Missouri Player of the Year in high school, Scheelhaase runs a 4.5 forty and throws a good ball.  So it was that yesterday, compelled by tradition and the chance to spend a beautiful fall day on an energized campus, I drove over to see the Illini face off with nationally ranked Arizona State.  These are games that Illinois traditionally loses, the 2001 team the last to beat a ranked non-conference opponent.  My kids are attending other colleges and my wife, Yolanda, a Texan used to supporting winning teams is not interested in the mediocre Illini, so I tailgated with a good friend, grilling fajitas and homemade tortillas.  Some kids next to us tossed a football around while we tossed back a few brews.  Some ASU supporters, sporting gold and red shirts, were nearby and we talked to them about everything but football, the game to settle that debate.  Later we hooked up with friends from high school and my younger sister, before taking our seats, a typical tailgating game day not much different from when I was a kid.

But then, an unexpected thing happened: Illinois won.

Scheelhaase was not great, but he ran the ball well and made a couple of big throws. The Illinois defense was aggressive and opportunistic, collapsing the pocket on ASU’s six-foot eight quarterback, Brock Osweiler, forcing turnovers and making big stops.  After one last defensive stand, the Illinois offense took possession with six minutes to go and on the last play of the game with four seconds remaining, Scheelhaase literally ran out the clock, taking the snap and racing backwards. Somewhere Red Grange may grimace at such tactics. But, hey, it was a smart play and we won.

As we waited for the traffic to clear, my buddy and I raised the hatchback of my thirteen-year old minivan, sat in lawn chairs and listened to the post-game show on the car radio.  The kids next to us tossed a football and took turns being Nathan Scheelhaase.

The night cool, the stars bright, we all enjoyed what can only be called a winning tradition.

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Filed under Family, Football, Illinois Football, September 2011

“We go from here”

We go from here.

When I was growing up my father said this to me when something occurred that threw me off stride in my march to adulthood.  No choir boy, I heard it often.

I’m grateful to have been raised by parents born in the 1920’s. Mom and Dad weathered the Great Depression, “potato pancakes” a staple at both their supper tables, and WWII.  Mom was a survivor of polio, Dad, bloody combat.  When he was nineteen his platoon was decimated in the Battle of the Bulge.  Seven soldiers alive at the end, five walking, they carried the other two to a field hospital.  The platoon was filled with replacements and Dad and the others followed Patton across Europe to victory.

We go from here.

My parents experienced suffering in a way few from succeeding American generations have.  But that suffering provided a sense of proportion to their every day lives which I find lacking in America today.  Far too often as individuals and as a country we invoke the term “crisis” to describe things that I’m certain my folks would view as challenges, but certainly not rising to the level of an emergency.

9/11 was different.

I remember asking Mom if it was worse than Pearl Harbor.

“Yes,” she said, voice cracking.

I called Dad.  A few months from death himself, he struggled to breathe and his short-term memory was shot. But he was aware of what occurred.

“We’ll beat ’em,” he whispered.

A few weeks after 9/11 I drove to West Lafayette, Indiana with three buddies from high school to watch the Illinois-Purdue football game.  I don’t remember who won. I recall a small plane approaching the stadium, an advertising banner trailing behind.  My attention went from the game on the field to the plane in the sky.  I realized I’d never hear the approach of an airplane or gaze at its flight path in the same way again.

Ten years pass.

Yesterday I’m at the Illinois home game against South Dakota State with a friend I’ve made since 9/11.  Two trumpeters play taps and there is a moment of  silence. Throughout the game uniformed service men and women, Illinois alums, talk and wave from the big screen on the stadium scoreboard, some holding babies, others taped from their posts overseas.

This morning I stretch in front of the TV, preparing to run three miles on a quiet Sunday morning.  Relatives of people who lost their lives on 9/11 read off the names of the victims, ending with their loved one and a brief remembrance of what they meant to them.  Tears well in my eyes.  I go run.

Along the way I wave to friends, neighbors and a local cop on patrol.  I think of the last ten years.  With rare exception, my wife, Yolanda, and I put our children to bed every night and awoke with them each morning.  We went to piano recitals, soccer games, swim meets, first communions, birth day parties, and high school graduations. Our daughter is now blossoming as a college freshman.  Our son, having survived a horrific auto accident (the paramedics told us there was a one in ten chance someone walks away from such a crash — our son walked away) is halfway through college and making plans to live in Taiwan after graduation.  Both my parents passed but remain a presence, a gift I will cherish until my final day.

I finish my run strong, racing up the final hill to our house.  I snatch a cold bottle of water Yolanda put in the fridge for me the night before and wander into the TV room where she is watching the 9/11 memorials.  Paul Simon sings “Sound of Silence.” Tears well in the eyes of the people in the crowd.

When he finishes, Yolanda tells me that earlier today a suicide bomber injured seventy-seven American service men and women at a base in Afghanistan. Five Afghani civilians, including a three-year old girl, were killed.

We go from here.

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Filed under 9/11, Family, Football, Friends, Greatest Generation, Illinois Football, Running

Fall Ritual Reboot

It’s the last steamy Friday morning in August and I am perusing the local newspaper’s Prep Football Preview 2011.  Staged photos reflecting the roles of each position dot the insert.  Carefree, helmet less half backs run free or are suspended in mid-air as they dive toward the end zone.  Quarterbacks are poised to throw, projecting leadership with determined gazes. Serious looking offensive linemen are grouped together in crouched stances, models of team play and submission of the individual for the greater good.  Screaming linebackers charge the camera like enraged grizzlies.

In a few weeks, when the daytime temperature dips into the 60’s and a cool nip grips the evening breeze, my wife and I will trek to our favorite high school’s Friday night football game.  We’ll pay the $3 admission and crunch across the cinder track as the home team warms up in the end zone, blue and gold uniforms aglow beneath bright lights.

Pep band blasting, we’ll shout our order to parents working concessions: “Two rib eye sandwiches, two Cokes, two popcorn, please.” We’ll spread grilled onions and cold mustard on the sizzling steaks, then swing a leg over the bench of a wooden picnic table and strike up a conversation with whomever is across from us.

Ritual honored, another change of seasons will be official for me.

From a sport perspective, I associate hockey and basketball with winter. In the spring, images of baseball players stretching at spring training, golf at a flower-filled Augusta National or engines revving at the Indy 500, are conjured.  The summer, more golf, more baseball, the beach or the pool, along with lots of grilling.

But fall is football.  High school, college, pro.  It dominates coverage, the other sports playing second fiddle until the high school champs are crowned in November, the bowl games played during the holidays, and the Super Bowl capping it all off.  Football is America’s game.

Perhaps no book captures the preeminence the game has achieved than Buzz Bissingers’s Friday Night Lights.  For those unfamiliar, Bissinger followed the 1988 Odessa Permian high school football season from training camp to elimination in the state semifinals.  He captured the emotional weight high school football carried in small town Texas, the success or failure of the local team a point of community pride or disappointment. But the book speaks to more than just high school football in Texas.  It is evidence of America’s love affair with football and our need for community.

Now I will concede that football in 2011, even in Texas, may not garner the attention it did in 1988.  That world was one in which the internet,  a plethora of 24 hour news and sport channels, streaming movies, X box, Playstation and Nintendo either did not exist or were available to only a few.  Although only twenty some years ago, it was a different era.  The beeps and buzzes of technology we take for granted today were a distant white noise.

Certainly high school football is not the focal point of small town Illinois.  At one time basketball was, entire communities emptied as citizens caravanned to neighboring towns for away games.  Criminals sometimes robbed deserted businesses while local police listened to the game on the radio.

But if the numbers paying attention to football have thinned due to the new digital day, you can bet other sports have suffered as well. When it comes to the transformation of American society wrought by the Bill Gates, Steven Jobs, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, I am no old fuddy duddy lamenting days gone by (my kids might throw a flag at that statement, but I stand by it.) I enjoy touching base with people through Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, email and this blog.  Like anything else, it’s all good if used judiciously.

But it’s not the same as attending a live event where you meet and greet people face to face, shake hands, laugh out loud (for real not in text), smell popcorn, munch hot, greasy food and join the pep band as it leads the singing crowd in a rousing rendition of the school fight song.

Perhaps the key to football’s ongoing popularity is that it complements both past and current.  Attending a football game, or watching it with friends at home, is social networking in 3D.  It accommodates a web surfing attention span that thrives on constant and varied input.  Football lets folks visit, but within a fixed time frame.  The pregame meal a moment to discuss the teams and catch up with each other. The thirty seconds between downs allows for conversation, yet the ticking clock keeps thing moving. Each play provides a new window to digest in silence and provides grist for verbal instant messaging.  The post game is all about quick, flashy highlights, and no guilt good byes.  Everybody logging off and going home, game over.

Football fits in a world where technology simultaneously complicates and simplifies, connects yet isolates. It provides a gathering place where good food, warm smiles, back slapping, hand shaking, lively conversation, high fives and hugs carry the day.

For me, anyway, that’s a ritual worth honoring.

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Filed under August 2011, Family, Football, Friends, High School, Internet, Social Networking