Sunday, November 9, 2003

Lasting Impressions

For a feature writing class I took in the fall of 2003, we had to write a story about a place. I chose Michael Jordan’s high school, driving to Wilmington, N.C. on a weekday (it was fall break so we had no classes on Friday and Monday). I talked to Jordan’s former junior varsity coach and noticed something odd about the trophy case outside of the basketball gym.




It looks like just an ordinary high school trophy case. Glass windows. Wooden frame. Sure there are plenty of track and tennis trophies. There is just one photo on the bottom left side, which was taken of the men’s basketball team that went 24-8 in 1999 and lost in the state finals. But nothing in the case gives any indication of the man who once played in the gym behind the modest trophy case. The man who won two Olympic gold medals. The man who everyone in America has talked about at one time or another. Even people in China know his name. So where are the trophies with his name on it? Where is his retired jersey?

Certainly some things have changed since Michael Jordan graduated from Emsley A. Laney High School in 1981. As I drove about 150 miles down Interstate 40, from Chapel Hill to Wilmington (the same trip Jordan made when he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and pulled into the entrance of Laney High School, it seemed as ordinary as the trophy case. There was a sign that read: “Home Port of the Buccaneers.” On both sides of the winding entrance road were dozens of Carolina pines, with an even greater amount of pine cones on the ground. In fact, with the random assortment of pine trees, there were spots with more brown pine needles than grass.

I found one of the many open parking spaces in the lot in front of the school. I looked to my right and saw a white student step out of his mother’s minivan. He was wearing a Kobe Byrant jersey. I wondered to myself whether Jordan still has the mystique he had with students a decade ago.

“Probably they all know who he was, and know he went here, but it’s been so long ago,” said Fred Lynch, who has coached the Buccaneers men’s varsity team for 20 years and was an assistant coach when Jordan was there. “A lot of these kids didn’t grow up Michael Jordan fans. You got a couple of them around, but young kids who are growing up now, they’re Iverson and Kobe fans. For them Mike is kind of old school to them. It’s kind of strange to say that, but to them he is. But to us, we all know him, all along. But to them, the only time they see Mike play is when Mike was in his last few years.”

Jordan, old school? Lynch, who also teaches history, is one of five teachers that taught when Jordan attended Laney High and is still teaching. Back then he was a good player, at least his freshman and sophomore years, but not a player that would receive recruiting letters from Dean Smith. As Lynch recalls, it wasn’t until Jordan was a senior that hordes of media and recruiters journeyed to Laney High, a building with faded brown bricks and white trim around the windows and roof.

“Everybody knew who he was and all that, but he wasn’t treated any differently than anybody else,” Lynch said. “At that time he was a good ball player. We knew he was very good, but nobody could have imagined that he’d end up being who he became.”

Walking through the hallway with my bright yellow “visitor” sticker on, with a picture of a buccaneer, I passed through a set of double doors and was outside. I walked through another set of double doors directly in front of me into the gym. There was the trophy case – the one I kept looking through, but couldn’t seem to find the name “Jordan” anywhere. Lynch informed me that the case used to contain Jordan’s royal blue and gold high school jersey and a plaque with his team that won the conference title Jordan’s senior year. It was all stolen from the case when he was on the Chicago Bulls, so they don’t put any more Jordan memorabilia in the case.

The only indication of Jordan attending this high school was a photo of him hitting the winning shot against Georgetown in the 1982 title game, which I saw hanging in the main office. But there were two more obvious indicators I soon noticed. Inside the gym, which seats about 1,200, there is a mid-1980s photo of Jordan dunking on a fastbreak. The photo is about twice as big as the glass backboard that is right of it. Other than the photo, it resembles any other high school gym across the country. The student body has increased from 1,200 to 1,800 since Jordan was at Laney, but has the gym changed since he played there?

“It is the same,” Lynch says with a laugh. “That’s the thing that shocks a lot of people when they walk in and see that gym – the kind of thing where since Mike Jordan is bigger than life, you’d think that the gym he played in would be the same. No, it was just a regular high school gym.”

Some of the performances Lynch witnessed were anything but regular. For instance, the time Laney High was in a Christmas tournament game, trailing its opponent by about a dozen points in the fourth quarter ... Jordan scored the final 15 points in the game, and hit the jump shot to win it.

While the inside looks ordinary, the white letters that are the same size as the “Laney High School” letters as the “Laney High School” letters on the brick building outside say, “Michael J. Jordan Gymnasium,” which honor was bestowed upon Jordan after he won his sixth NBA title.

Since Jordan graduated, the Buccaneers have had better teams than when he played there, such as the 1999 men’s team that reached the state finals.

“It’s kind of ironic that we’re able to do some things that we didn’t do when he was here even though he was the best player we’ve ever had come through here,” Lynch said.

Still, the students haven’t changed much since Jordan was there, Lynch said. They come from many different economic and racial backgrounds as I saw when white and black students jogged around the baseball field, located behind the gym, during physical education class. In the student parking lot you have your typical beat-up family cars with a Mercedes here and there.

After his first retirement in 1993, Jordan came back to talk at his alma mater. Just like the thrilled students, I was enthused to chat with Lynch, who told me about the number of interviews he’s done about Jordan, “Too many. Too many. You’re lucky that I gave you this one because I tell them I’m not ever doing any more Mike Jordan interviews ... that’s the only reason I looked out for you, because you were a student. If you had been a reporter, I wouldn’t have done it.”

Jordan’s influence remains.

Friday, October 31, 2003

Behind the Screen

It is Tuesday night, and like many people in Chapel Hill and across the nation, Justin Morrow is doing the same thing he does nearly every weekday at 7 p.m. He is watching the news on television. Sitting in a soft, brown chair in his livingroom, he grabs the remote and turns on CNN.


“Some of the men and women now battling the California wildfires are calling it war ... right now 15 major wildfires are raging across California ... 1,500 homes have now been destroyed.”

Those words came from Anderson Cooper, who hosts “Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees,” as a photo of a burning house appears on the screen. That photo appeared on two other channels during the next half hour on Morrow’s television.

“I think I’ve seen this story 15 times today and it hasn’t gotten worse, but it hasn’t gotten better,” said Morrow, a senior UNC-CH business major.

A few minutes later Cooper says, “... a major suicide bombing. The U.S. military officials say the attack bared the mark of foreign terrorists. Today in Washington, the president spoke about the violence ....”

Morrow interjects, “Every day they repeat about Iraq. It’s always foreign terrorists ....”

While most news stations report on the wildfires in California or soldiers in Iraq, no two stations report on it exactly the same. Still, many viewers like Morrow say the news on television overall is bias and sometimes in negative ways. Is television news bias? Are certain shows too liberal or too conservative? Is journalistic integrity sometimes being compromised?

“Sure there is bias,” said Charles Tuggle, an associate professor in UNC-CH’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication who oversees the University’s weekly television newscast, “Carolina Week.” “It’s in some places more than others. There’s no way around it.”

Tuggle says he tries to help students to minimize bias and avoid a conflict of interest. For example, he said a student involved in the Greek system would never be allowed to do a story on the Greek system.

While many “Carolina Week” reporters say they strive for objectivity, some news stations have a noticeable ideological preference. Sudhir Kumar, who graduated from UNC-CH last year and worked with Tuggle, said ever since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a “huge conservative shift” in television news. Kumar cited Fox News and MSNBC as news channels that support conservative and republican ideas. He said CNN is becoming more conservative.

Other people like Katie Coleman, a UNC-CH senior, said television news is becoming more liberal. She said the media has a trend of reporting on liberal issues, like protesters of the Iraq War.

Is there something wrong with having a majority of television shows bias one way or another? Some people think there are so many channels to choose from that it gives a viewer plenty of options. Others, like Kumar, think all the shows have become homogeneous.

“It’s a huge problem for America because we live in a democracy where there should be a free exchange of thoughts in every direction,” said Kumar, who claims no ideological preference. “When everything becomes bias, it’s like a dictatorship where you only get one view on everything and you don’t understand the full nature of what’s right and what’s wrong. You get no criticism of that one view either. There’s no criticism of government. You got to have that.”

Americans seem to be divided about bias on television news, in particular intentional bias. Two Gallup Polls that were conducted from July 11, 2003 to July 16, 2003, demonstrated a sample of how more than 1,000 Americans that were interviewed by telephone felt about:


Hosts of cable news shows having strong opinions about politics. Is that a good thing or a bad thing in your opinion?

Good thing ... 50 percent
Bad thing ... 38 percent
Neither ... 6 percent
Don’t know/ refused ... 6 percent

Reporters and news people having background as advisors to political
candidates and office holders. Is that a good thing or a bad thing in your opinion?
Good thing ... 44 percent
Bad thing ... 42 percent
Neither ... 7 percent
Don’t know/ refused ... 7 percent



As Morrow changed the channel to Chris Matthews, host of “Hardball with Chris Matthews” on MSNBC, Matthews says according to a recent poll, President George Bush’s approval rating has declined among independent voters while Americans are saying the economy is getting better for the first time in 16 months.

Matthews introduces his guest, Ralph Reed, as “one of the smartest people in politics.” Reed was a campaign strategist in the Southeast for President Bush for the 2000 election.

“I think all the president is asking and all the American people are asking is that the total story be told,” Reed said when questioned about American soldiers that have died in Iraq. “And the total story is Iraq is on its way to a free and a democratizing country ....”

“I don’t believe it for a bit,” Morrow said.

Perhaps Morrow is skeptical because the total story cannot always be told in a single news show. Morrow also said that television news, like other sources of media, is driven primarily by ratings – the more viewers watch, the higher a show’s rating.

“Because we live in an economy that is capitalistic, every business has a fundamental goal, and that is to be profitable,” said Zephyr Taylor, a UNC-CH economics graduate. “And profitability is based on demand. And demand is based on preferences. That’s what it all comes down to. People have preferences for certain types of things. Is the media bias? The media is partial toward what people want to see in a light that is interesting.”

Brent Tanner, a UNC-CH political science major, said liberal bias is more common than conservative bias in the media, which is increasing shows’ ratings. He said sometimes the truth is stretched by these stations because they distort the truth to back their stance, but he also said having a bias media can give a viewer a more thorough report about an issue and can motivate viewers to take an active role on certain issues.

Some people see fewer benefits than Tanner from watching news on television. After turning off the television with a sign of angst on his face, Morrow explained why he didn’t want to watch any more news that night.

“Instead of making a solid argument, I’m seeing a lot of negative journalism,” he said. “They’ll take one issue and say it’s too liberal or too conservative, and I tend to think the average American doesn’t have any clue what they are talking about ... I think the common thread in all these shows is the personality behind these shows has become more important than what they are saying.”

No Title

It was my first trip overseas. I traveled with my mom during spring vacation in 1996 to Cairo, Egypt. As a college senior, I wrote this story about my adventure in a desert tunnel.



I can neither see nor hear anything down here. I’m alone with a man whose name I do not know, and I can’t understand a word he says. It’s just the two of us and a sarcophagus about a hundred dark feet beneath the surface of the hot desert sand. But it’s not hot down here. I hope he can find his matches...

Those thoughts ran through my mind one sunny afternoon in April 1996. It was that moment during spring vacation my sophomore year in high school that I have found myself recalling to this day. After all, how many times have I experienced a moment like that?

To understand how I arrived at that moment, let’s go back to when I was with my mom and a close family friend, my two travel companions. We rented a car in Cairo, and headed south through the desert to Faiyum, an area of miles and miles of farmland and palm trees that flourish from the Nile to its east. Working the land with their bare hands or standing idle near their mudbrick houses, men, women and children stopped and stared as we drove by on a narrow dirt road. These Egyptians didn’t have cars. They had donkeys.

Riding down the long, winding road to the step pyramid of Maidum gave me a perspective of the desolate Sahara Desert. Many archeologists believe the step pyramid of Maidum was started by King Huni of the 3rd Dynasty and completed during the reign of his successor, King Sneferu of the 4th Dynasty in about 2500 B.C.

The reason we found Maidum – a place less popular than the pyramids of Giza among tourists - is because our close family friend is an Egyptologist who spoke Arabic and read hieroglyphs on our trip and recommended a place such as this one. Next to the step pyramid is a mastaba or an ancient Egyptian cemetery, which looked more like a long, rectangular mound of rubble.

The mastaba had an entrance that resembled a hole for a large animal. Since my mom is claustrophobic, I entered without her. I ducked down as I followed an Egyptian guide, who didn’t speak English, into this narrow hole that is believed to have been the robbers’ passage. We both walked hunched over with his candle as our only source of light. I began to realize how ants feel. After trekking about a hundred feet down a steep passage, I climbed down a 10-foot wooden ladder to another part of the passage, which was just as cramped. The guide waved his hand for me to keep following him. There were a few wobbly planks we crossed to make it over gaps in the passage floor. What lurked in those chasms I could not see. At one point, the passage became so narrow, I had to crawl.

Eventually we came to the tomb chamber. It was the size of an average bedroom. Besides us, there was an enormous granite sarcophagus in the room, nothing else. Thinking how the ancient Egyptians must have transported an object that weighed a few tons this far beneath the desert sand was truly mind-boggling. The sarcophagus’s cover had been removed by archeologists, along with all the other artifacts, and taken to a museum. In a way, I felt like myself and all those who had been here previously were trespassing on sacred territory. But for some reason, I never was nervous throughout the entire experience. Maybe it was because I let my mom do the worrying for both of us. The guide held the lit candle near the tomb and before I knew it, it blew out. We’re back to the moment. Did he find his matches? Well, I made it out and I’m still here.



This story first appeared in the Blue & White magazine in April 2004.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

(More Than) Just a Game

As a child, my Grandma Agnes was taller than her female classmates. She was also more agile and had more strength, especially in her shoulders, from swimming so often. These characteristics made her a match for her natural position on the basketball court as a center, or what she called “jump-center.”


While she scored many baskets against her classmates in gym by simply shooting over their extended hands, my grandma never played much basketball. In America, basketball wasn’t a big deal back then anyway. There were greater concerns, like the Great Depression.

But as a young child, besides swimming, my grandma loved to read. As the local librarian used to say to her, “Agnes, I think you’ve read every book in here.” And if her face wasn’t in a book, it was in water. My grandma said she learned to swim before she could walk.

Those childhood days were soon gone. My grandma was intelligent, but she couldn’t go to college because her family was too poor. She married at a young age and stayed home, taking care of my mom, Judy, and my Uncle Rob while my Grandpa Bill worked. Sports were enjoyed in my grandma’s house, but it was seen as a form of exercise, nothing to get excited about . . .

People change with time no matter how set in their ways. My grandma was no exception. Growing up in Danbury, Conn., basketball was a sport my family took seriously, especially my dad, Jack, my brother, Jaime, and I. As soon as the cool autumn breeze grabbed the bright yellow and red oak leaves from the neighborhood trees, University of Connecticut Head Coach Jim Calhoun and his boys up in Storrs, Conn., became a frequent subject of dinner conversations. “Husky-mania” was in our veins, and no one’s blood was thicker than my Grandma Agnes. Yes, my grandma loved watching the Huskies basketball team play just as much as anyone in the Nutmeg state.

She, however, became a Connecticut fanatic later in life, soon after my Grandpa Bill passed away on Dec. 7, 1991. At the time of his death, my grandma had been married to him for 49 years. This wasn’t easy for her, but she found an escape. Watching basketball games gave her a new joy, something to bring a smile to her face – something to make her forget about her Bill. At this time, I began to play organized basketball. My grandma never seemed to miss a game.

I found out just how serious a fan she had become when I called her during a regular-season Husky game and she did not pick up the phone.

I asked her, “Grandma, why didn’t you pick up the phone when I called you yesterday?”

“I was too nervous watching the game. If the UConn game is on, I don’t answer the phone. If you want me bad enough you’ll call back.”

She didn’t watch the games like most women over the age of 80. In fact, she sometimes didn’t watch parts of the games, leaving the room during a close game. When the games were tight she sometimes couldn’t take it, either could her high blood pressure.

During holidays or weekends, my grandma came to our house and watched the games on our livingroom sofa with me. One game, against Syracuse, I remember vividly. I was sitting on the sofa with my grandma watching the game as she kept blurting out instructions and cheers to the Connecticut players and Calhoun.

“Get the rebound! ... Oh, how did he miss that? ... I love (Ray) Allen. Isn’t he great?!”

The game was close down the stretch with both teams trading baskets on offense. My grandma had the palms of her hands together with her fingertips touching her bowed forehead as she whispered to herself.

“Grandma, what are you doing?”

“I’m praying for them.”

The game was still close. She went back to her position. The Huskies won.

Even without basketball, my grandma and I always had a tight bond. Countless times she came over to our house with yogurt pie and green Jell-O, two of her special recipes. We joked around for an hour or two after dinner. I can still remember her talking about her swollen leg, which she injured trying to get into a van to go see me play a high school basketball game.

“Brett, I think I’m going to grow marijuana in my backyard.”

“You’re going to grow what grandma?”

“Marijuana, that stuff that you smoke. I think it might help me get rid of the pain in my leg.”

“You also might be able to sell some and make some money on the side,” I said.

“I think I might try that,” she said.

We both burst into laughter. Even in pain she had a great sense of humor.

From fourth grade to my senior year in high school my grandma never missed one of my basketball games. After I graduated high school, she said she missed watching me play. Her love for Husky basketball continued. In 1999, Connecticut beat Duke in the national championship game. Before I ran around the house in excitement, I called my grandma. I asked her what she thought of the game.

“I’m speechless,” she said. “I don’t know what to say.”

There was nothing she had to say. I had a good idea how she felt. It was the team’s first national title. My grandma was 85 years old. Thankfully, that title game came when it did.

On January 30, 2001, there was no more Husky-mania in my grandma’s house. That weekday morning my mom called me at my school apartment and gathered enough courage to spill the news.

My grandma had passed away.

A few seconds after I hung up the phone I couldn’t see. Tears flooded my eyes like a dam. I still watch basketball on television, but the game hasn’t been the same.

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Listening to Your Inner Voice

Go ahead. Ask Woody Durham a question. He’d love to give you an answer and he has plenty to say – at least if it involves his life, which is an amalgam of college sports, broadcasting and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


He’s one of those rare people that started his chosen profession at an early age. Even when he began his broadcasting career at age 16 at WZKY radio in Albemarle, N.C., Durham was aware of his God-given talent as much as any of his most faithful listeners during his long, illustrious career.

“One of the things that I was given whenever they were handing out talents was I was given a good voice,” he said.

That voice helped him land the job as play-by-play announcer for the UNC football and men’s basketball teams in 1971. Now in his 33rd year, Durham, 62, is often referred to as the “Voice of the Tar Heels,” and has become as well-known throughout the state as the star players he talks about.

One time a lady noticed Durham walking down the street, and decided to confess her loyalty by telling him she always turned down the sound on her television and turned up his radio commentary during the games. Durham recalls her asking, “How many times have people come up to you and said that?” He replied, “I quit counting. But I tell you what, it’s a real compliment every time they do.”

While he notices his gifts, he doesn’t come across as conceited. Maybe it’s because he acknowledges the people and influences he’s had while growing up in the small textile community 40 miles east of Charlotte, called Albemarle. Although he lived in a small town, high school football was serious business. People would get off work early on game days, where the stadium was filled with as many as 8,000 fans an hour before Durham and his teammates took the field. Although he didn’t know it at the time, his football coach, Toby Webb, taught him lessons that helped him later in his career.

Pondering a dream of playing college football, Durham realized, “I wasn’t good enough, nor was I big enough to play at the next level ... so I quickly saw (radio broadcasting) was a way to stay involved in sports.”

You may not need to ask, but Durham will tell you how he was the sports director of WUNC-TV for three years before graduating from UNC-CH in 1963. He’ll explain that he never had any intention of working in Chapel Hill, but when he was offered the job in the spring of 1971 it developed into his life and what defined his career.

His career success did not come without sacrifice, often leaving his wife, Jean, to look after his two sons, Wes and Taylor.

“I really have a terrific wife, who realized what I wanted to do and what was necessary for me to do it,” Durham said. “I got home, everybody was asleep. I got up the next morning, maybe I’d see the boys a few minutes and I was gone. Maybe twice a week I’d get home for dinner at night between the shows. It was difficult and she did a good job of doing that.”

Although Durham has said he hasn’t always communicated well at home with his family (because he does it so much on the job), he is grateful that Wes and Taylor understood what he was trying to accomplish. In fact, both of Durham’s sons work in the sports broadcasting field.

On the job, Durham describes his style of broadcasting as “partial-objective” because everyone knows he is a Tar Heel fan. It’s his ability to prepare for work and communicate with his audience – two things he advises for anyone in any profession – that has earned him a faithful following during football and basketball seasons. Dedication and desire for his job were attributes Durham had when he would listen to radio announcers for pleasure as a child.

“I was one of those guys that sat around with a notebook and wrote down all these things these guys were doing and how they did it,” Durham said.

While taking copious notes and storing them in his memory bank, Durham blended particular styles he admired with his own to deliver a broadcast that he was comfortable with. Listeners, in turn, acknowledged his sincerity and authenticity on the job.

“Woody Durham’s pretty much my journalistic hero,” said Will Robinson, a UNC-CH junior majoring in journalism and Spanish.

On Feb. 2, 1995, UNC beat Duke 102-100 in a double-overtime basketball game. Robinson was watching the game on television when his mom made him turn off the TV and go to his bedroom before the game ended at about 1 a.m. Anxious to hear the last two overtimes, Robinson listened to Durham announce the play-by-play on the radio in his bedroom.

“That’s basically something I’ll always remember,” Robinson said. “Ever since then I’ve pretty much muted the TV and listened to Woody just because he’s so good at what he does. He’s got a great voice. He’s really passionate about what he does. You know he loves the Tar Heels, but he’s also very fair with his coverage. He’s extremely knowledgeable compared to a lot of the other radio commentators. I think that he’s very factual, very speedy with getting information across.”

Durham’s acute knowledge of what it’s like to be a fan has created a special rapport between him and his listeners. For instance, toward the end of a basketball game that UNC was losing, Durham said, “It’s about time to go where you go and do what you do.” Listeners at home could relate to this phrase because they each have a unique thing they do or place they go when the score is close. Durham knows his wife cleans her house when UNC is in a tight game.

Whether UNC has won or lost, though, Durham has learned how to keep the game and his life in perspective. That perspective has come from lessons he learned from 26 years being near Dean Smith, the first person he would consult on a big decision today: “Coach Smith’s philosophy is that a program, a consistent program, is much more important in the long run than one game.”

Thursday, October 9, 2003

The Future of College Football Scholarships and Amateurism

I wrote this for my JOMC 118 class (Ethical Issues and Sports Communication) during the fall of my senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Sweeney was a fair and interesting teacher. He was non-biased to the point where you wondered what his opinion really was, and he brought well-known alumni to class, such as Stuart Scott.



College and athletics have been a part of American culture for about 150 years. During this time, sports have grown into big businesses at some schools, especially with the top Division IA schools. Controversy over academic performance, recruitment, scholarships, revenue and media attention has sparked interest in the last half century.

Some people say sports has no place in college, and that academics should be the major concern. The idea of eliminating athletics from colleges or separating the two may seem inconceivable today not just because of the rules and laws made by the NCAA, but because sports has been a part of our colleges for so long. “Anyone who wants to claim that sports has no place in a college or university is quickly going to run headlong into both the insatiable appetite for sports that is evident in our daily lives – and the reality of history,” said authors James Shulman and William Bowen. (The Game of Life, 5).

Popularity in college football’s popularity began to rise in the late 1800s with its physical style of play. Before the turn of the century, about 40,000 fans watched the college championship game played in New York City on Thanksgiving. (The Game of Life, 6).

The seriousness of college sports was obvious by the time Howard Savage did a study in 1929 that was authorized by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He found that college sports were no longer student-run clubs, but rather institutionally managed. Today, athletic departments are in charge of their own budgets, staff and in many ways policing themselves. The questions Savage raised are still meaningful today, such as: Should financial aid be given to players based on athletic performance?; How should athletic facilities be paid for?; and the role of boosters for an athletic program. (The Game of Life, 8).

The media and fan attention has not diminished over the years. Today, college football is highly popular while facing much scrutiny. Alabama is an example of a college football dynasty that since winning the national title in 1992, has faced two NCAA sanctions, including a three-year bowl ban and loss of 34 scholarships. Several players and coaches have both been found guilty of NCAA violations. Soon-to-be coach Mike Price was fired on May 3 after he allegedly brought a stripper back to his hotel and ran up an expensive room service order at his hotel room the night of a golf tournament in Pensacola, Fla. To show that college football is more than an amateur game, USA Today writer Kelly Whiteside wrote, “when Price addressed the ‘Bama Nation’ after he was fired, 14 television cameras formed a tight ring around the podium. The state’s television and radio stations aired the day’s events live, describing the scene as if it were a State of the Union address: ‘Mike Price is walking down the stairs, coming into the room, flanked by his wife and two sons. He approaches the podium...’” (Kelly Whiteside, USA Today, May 5, 2003).


Before college
Parents and children are learning, if they don’t already know, that specializing and concentrating on one sport at an early age can possibly become an athletic scholarship when a child reaches college. With travel and AAU teams, the way games are played are more like minor leagues than recreational sports.

In a study involving several Division 1A public universities, the number of multiple-sport male athletes has dropped from 10 percent in 1951 to five percent in 1976 to one percent by 1989. This trend was also true for private universities during the same time period. (The Game of Life, 26-27).

“It is that children at (age) 10 also reach a sporting crossroads ... whereas eight- and nine-year-olds are conformists and cultivators of wide-ranging interests, at 10 kids might delve deeply into their passions but have fewer of them,” says sports writer Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated, Oct. 6, 2003. “It’s the age at which a child is likely to either set sports aside or choose to throw himself into them – or into one sport,” One of these examples that Wolff points out is Cooper Moseley, a star pitcher from Alabama who played in 127 games in 2001 at age 10.

Today, many kids like Moseley have their minds set on playing professional sports. For these kids, it’s not just a game.

Even though many football players were paid for their athletic ability, athletic scholarships were against the rules until 1956, when they became legal in college sports. (The Game of Life, 12-13). By the early 1990s, the NCAA reduced the number of football scholarships from 95 to 85. For football players at UNC, scholarships include tuition fees, room and board and books, said Lisa Deibler, director of compliance in her sixth year at UNC. For these athletes, the meal plan includes two meals on the training table (breakfast for any players and dinner just for scholarship players), she said. Then the scholarship players are all given the same amount of money for the remaining amount of meals each month, which is usually about $300 per person, Deibler said.

Scholarships are renewed on a yearly basis, but if an athlete shows up to practice and meets academic requirements his scholarship will most likely be renewed each of his four years or five years. In-state football players count as a full-scholarship, but their tuition is less, Deibler said. There are no partial scholarships unless a player joins the team during the middle of the year which is rare, she said.

Recruiting is a part of college football. Recruitment and the knowledge of the prep and even junior high talent pool are so widespread these days that the idea of having a walk-on or relatively unknown player make a significant contribution is virtually unheard of.

Still, there is no doubt that some players have received money or “gifts” while being recruited at some colleges each year.

“When we hear those things, we look into them,” Deibler said about rumors of a football player with an expensive car, etc. “But there’s never been a time in my memory that we’ve unearthed a problem with that. There’s usually a reasonable explanation for things like that. Or things just get blown out of proportion and you’re not hearing the truth.”

Rick Steinbacher, UNC assistant athletic director for football operations, is in charge of recruiting football players. “Myself and any coach that handles recruiting, anybody that does anything with recruiting on our staff has to pass an NCAA test that certifies you have working knowledge of NCAA rules relevant to recruiting,” said Steinbacher, who is allowed six visits per recruit whether on or off-campus and can only make one phone call a week per prospect. “Our practice at Carolina for years, our reputation, is we don’t break rules for someone. Has a recruit asked us for things we wouldn’t do? Yes, that’s happened, but not very much. Right away they get a quick ‘no.’”

Whether an athlete is involved in illegal recruitment or not, recruiting influences players’ decisions. Several studies done by the Cooperative Institutional Research program (CIRP) survey showed that by 1989, a majority of athletes in high profile sports (basketball, football, hockey) said being recruited had played a role in which college they attended. (The Game of Life, 38).

Steinbacher says at UNC, coaches ask three questions about a recruit: Do they have athletic ability or talent to help win an ACC title?; Are they academically qualified?; Do they have the right character for a player on our team?

While some people argue that athletes have a better chance of being accepted by a college than non-athletes, this advantage may also pertain to the children of alumni. These two groups of students put pressure on admissions. But at UNC, admissions likely look at more students applying whose relatives were alumni than they look at the number of athletes applying. So in retrospect admissions might have to struggle with the fact of letting a student in because his parents went to a certain college more often than deciding whether to allow an athlete to be accepted. At a small school like Williams, it may be the opposite.

Still, being an athlete often works in a student’s favor when trying to gain admittance to his college of choice. A study involving just male athletes at non-scholarship schools showed they have a 48 percent advantage of being accepted over non-athletes, while minority male students only have a 18 percent advantage in being accepted. (The Game of Life, 40-41).

The admission of both male and female athletes has continued to increase from 1976 to 1989 to 1999. (The Game of Life, 260). At UNC, there are minimum requirements for football players no matter how well they performed in high school, Deibler said.

“Generally at the bare minimum, for admissions to even look at a kid, they’re going to need at least a 2.5 in the core courses and a 900 (SAT score),” she said about football prospects at UNC. “And this is speaking in general terms. There’s always an exception. Anywhere below that, it is going to be near impossible for the coaches to get them in.”

Whether accepted or not, all high school athletes have to meet certain NCAA criteria before they can be considered for college admissions. NCAA requirement for participation in college athletics has become stricter during the last 30 years. To be eligible to play in college, high school students had to graduate with a 2.0 GPA, which was required from 1973 to 1986. Then came a minimum SAT requirement in 1986. Athletes had to score at least 700 on the SAT with a 2.0 GPA in 11 core courses, which lasted until 1992. (The Game of Life, 13).

The requirements for athletes who enrolled as freshmen in the fall of 2003 or the fall of 2004 are complex because of recent changes the NCAA has made, Deibler said. These athletes can meet the old standard, which was 13 core courses and a GPA scale that correlated to a student’s SAT score, or the new standard, which requires 14 core courses with a complete sliding scale that correlates GPA and SAT score, she said. For athletes who enroll as freshman in 2005, they will have to meet just the new standard. Before this recent change, athletes had to have at least an 820 SAT and a 2.5 GPA. The new scale allows students who scored below an 820 to get into college. According to Deibler, the new scale allows an athlete to score a 400 on the SAT if they have a 3.5 GPA or higher. This new scale also requires students to get at least a 1010 on the SAT if they have a 2.0 GPA, the minimum GPA allowed to participate in college. The SAT score requirement gets higher as the student GPA falls, and increases the lower the GPA with 400 and 1010 as the two extremes. Deibler said the new standard may create some problems, but that it must be in place for a while before judging it.

“Personally, I have some concerns about how a student who earns a 3.55 in high school would only score a 400 on the SAT,” Deibler said. “And I think in some cases it puts pressure on high school teachers and high school administrators to get the kids with the lower test scores to the higher GPA so that they can qualify.”

She said that a lot of schools may not accept a person with a 400 SAT score even if they are eligible because there are stricter requirements once in college for athletes who scored low academically in high school. She said this includes a certain GPA and a greater amount of course hours required per semester.

Male students in high profile sports (basketball, football, hockey) scored lower on their SAT scores than male students at large, according to a study done in 1989. In fact, at Division IA public universities, the SAT scores averaged out to be: 1154 for male students at large and 917 for high profile male athletes. (The Game of Life, 44).

A study by the same group of researchers showed that while the Ivy League colleges narrowed the gap in SAT scores between high profile athletes and students at large from 1976 to 1989, other colleges did not. According to authors Shulman and Bowen in The Game of Life, “liberal art’s colleges...became appreciably more selective over the course of the 1980s, but the mean score of their football, hockey, and basketball players actually declined by three points over this period.” These authors said the test scores at the Ivy League had narrowed from a 149 difference in 1976 to a 125 difference in 1989, while the liberal art’s colleges increased the gap over that time period from 99 to 135. (The Game of Life, 46-47).

These authors summed up their finds by writing, “The athletes at these selective schools are clearly smart people. Nevertheless, there are differences in pre-collegiate academic preparation between athletes and their classmates, and these differences have generally become much more pronounced over time. These patterns of difference in academic preparation are clear at every level of play and in sports of many kinds, not simply in the High Profile programs at the Division IA schools.” (The Game of Life, 47, 50).



College life and athletics

An important question is whether this difference in performance on the SAT has significance on the athletes’ performance in college compared to non-athletes? One answer to this question is the examination of graduation rates. According to a study, which Schulman and Bowen examined, involving males at selective schools playing high profile sports from 1951 to 1989, the graduation rate is similar to their classmates that aren’t on a varsity sport. (The Game of Life, 61).

Still, many big-time college football programs have less than average graduation rates. Ohio State’s graduation rate is 36 percent among scholarship football players entering school from 1992 through 1995, which is the most recent available data. This was 20 points beneath the rate of all athletes and the overall student body. (Malcom Moran, USA Today, Aug. 4, 2003).

Maurice Clarett, star running back at Ohio State, has shown interest in turning pro, but because of an NFL rule preventing players from turning pro without three college seasons, Clarett is taking legal action. Although Clarett has jeopardized his college career with his own dishonesty over academic and off-the-field violations, Sports Illustrated writer Phil Taylor says, “The (NFL) might be concerned with the health of prospective young players, but it is undoubtedly more concerned with the health of the system that has made college football a free minor league for the pros. Maintaining the status quo isn’t a good enough reason to deny young players like Clarett.” (Phil Taylor, Sports Illustrated, Oct. 6, 2003).

Another aspect to look into is grade performance. While grades between athletes and non-athletes in the study examined by Schulman and Bowen were virtually the same in 1951, they were lower for high profile athletes than non-athletes as time progressed. In 1989, high profile athletes ranked, on average, in the 25th percentile while non-athletes were at the 49th percentile. (The Game of Life, 62). A similar trend in low grades on average by high profile athletes has stretched down to Division III over time. The biggest discrepancy in grades involving high profile athletes and non-athletes has been at private universities in recent years, where colleges like Duke and Vanderbilt have significantly lower grades among high profile athletes compared to the rest of the student body. (The Game of Life, 64).

Shulman and Bowen wrote, “By 1989, the phenomenon of athletes underperforming their predicted class rank had spread to all levels of competition in the Lower Profile sports, and it had deepened in the High Profile sports at all levels of play except for the Division IA public universities.” (The Game of Life, 67).

One reason athletes may not perform as well as the rest of the student body is because they face demanding schedules and aren’t involved in the every day interaction with professors and students. College athletes, especially big-time football players, are often separated from the student body because of their busy schedules. At UNC, the football team has one academic counselor and two learning specialists, Deibler said. The director of the academic support program also helps out with academic counseling, she said.

Although it is considered an amateur activity, college football, or college athletics for that matter, appear as a minor league training ground to some observers. Many notice the daily regimens resemble professional practices or workouts. As Schulman and Bowen wrote on page 82 of The Game of Life:

“More generally, it appears that a distinct ‘athletic culture’ is appearing in essentially all sports and at all levels of play, including the Division III coed liberal arts colleges. This culture tends to separate athletes from other students and exacerbates the problems of academic performance. As one example, athletes are more and more concentrated in certain fields of study. Athletes at all of these schools, in the Lower Profile sports as well as in the High Profile sports, seem to be heading in their own directions—and in directions that may or may not be consistent with the missions of the colleges and universities that admitted them.”

If the practice and playing schedule don’t flirt with the correlation to professional sports, the high costs for advertising and commercialization of college football make many people speculate a college’s mission.

College football has in many ways become an arms race, but particularly in one way: school spending. Coaches are paid more and more as well as excessive spending on facilities. Washington University paid Coach Rick Neuheisel (who had numerous NCAA violations during his tenure at Colorado and Washington) $1.5 million annually, which increased the salary costs other college football coaches would demand.

But Neuheisel’s contract is child’s play compared to what the University of Oregon has done. It spent $3.2 million for its football locker room. A room that Bill Moos, the school’s athletic director, boasts, “The best in college football? It is the best anywhere, including the NFL.” (Blaine Newnham, The Seattle Times, Sept. 9, 2003). How can college football be considered an amateur sport when you have an athletic director bragging about how his school’s locker room is better than any in the pros? And some people might question how a bunch of “amateur” college football players need three 60-inch plasma TVs, two of which are hooked up for Xbox games at a cost of $15,000 each in the lounge area? Oregon has 120 lockers, which means that each locker costs $26,667, including one locker reserved for Nike chairman Phil Knight even though other boosters of the program provided the funding. Still, Knight paid for half of the nearly $100 million expansion of the football stadium. Proving that college sports is a moneymaking business, Moos says, “We have to produce revenue and you do that by retaining coaches and attracting talent. We don’t have 365 days of sunshine a year, but we do have great facilities.” Is spending a problem in college athletics? Blaine Newnham of the Seattle Times certainly thinks so, writing, “The state’s educational system is under economic siege. Dorm rooms shared by two average 145 square feet. Class sizes have grown. Professor salaries are among the lowest in the country ... The NCAA vigorously watches recruiting excess. It doesn’t control the building of facilities. The Ducks have found a loophole, and jumped through it.” (Blaine Newnham, The Seattle Times, Sept. 9, 2003).

In defense of Moos, the athletic departments are under tremendous pressure by boosters, alumni and fans to have winning teams, especially winning football teams. The Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act is another reason athletic director’s are spending more money. This act requires colleges to publicly report the amount they spend on athletic coaches, facilities, etc. Athletic directors are now looking at these reports from other schools and comparing them to their school, which puts pressure on them to meet their competitor’s price. (The Game of Life, 12).

There are some positive things that come when big-time Division I football teams bring in revenue. Some may argue that no matter how strong a college’s academic reputation or pretty a campus, athletics creates interest and brings in the revenue. In simple terms, fans are more concerned with touchdowns than good test scores. As Shulman and Bowen wrote, “The uniformed hero in his or her mud-splashed splendor is a much more arresting image than a photo of a history major with writer’s block or an economist hunched over a problem set.” (The Game of Life, 10). At UNC, the football team for the fiscal year of June 30, 2002: total revenues were $15 million; total expenses $8.5 million; and a net of roughly $6.5 million, according to Martina Ballen, UNC senior associate officer for business and finance.

Unfortunately for many colleges, their football programs are running deficits.

The football programs that bring in a lot revenue are often justified for the ticket sales, booster donations and endorsement contracts because they bring in money that helps support the low profile sports. Winning programs often please alumni that have a certain image or pride about their colleges’ football program, and can attract future student interest and marketing appeal. (The Game of Life, 4).

Power conferences can also generate more revenue than lesser conferences because they have a conference championship and usually are invited to play in the more prestigious and higher-paying bowl games. The money is split up between conference teams. That is why the ACC conference is expanding. Most would agree the addition of Virginia Tech and Miami are not going to improve the academic excellence of the ACC, but these two schools will resemble a Florida State-caliber football team. Conferences also gain revenue through college football television contracts. The NCAA used to own the rights to college football on TV until a 1984 Supreme Court decision let individual schools and conferences work out their own contracts. (The Game of Life, 16).

The increase in the number of football television stations and the increase in interest in the game with lucrative commercialization has caused the TV contracts to keep rising. Winning and losing sometimes involves more than millions, but instead billions of dollars for networks.

While television contracts and facilities may be secure for a significant period of time, coaches sometimes have a short career to meet a school’s criteria.

“Some coaches just like to be on that edge of right and wrong,” Deibler said. “Our coaches here are more conservative, and I think in most schools they are because they want to do the right thing.”

Possibly feeling pressure from his gaudy contract, Neuheisel is an example of a coach that doesn’t have a conservative history. He amassed more than 50 recruiting violations while coaching at Colorado. Less than a month after he was hired at Washington because he had won a lot of games at Colorado, Neuheisel was not allowed to accept any transfers because he made illegal calls to Colorado players. He was most recently fired at Washington because he bet more than $6,000 on NCAA basketball pools and did not tell the NCAA of this violation. He also lied to the Washington athletic director and the media about a secret interview he had in February for the 49ers’ coaching job. (Tim Layden, Sports Illustrated, June 23, 2003).

Many people say Division II and Division III college football is closer to being a purely amateur sport than Division I football because there is less money, commercialization and boosters involved, not to mention the fact it is rare that any of these players ever appear on an NFL roster.

Of course there is always the exception, like tight end Kyle Acker, who plays at Salisbury University. Although he is currently playing for a small Division III school in Maryland and has caught the eye of more than a dozen pro scouts and has received calls from agents, at 6'3", weighing 255 pounds and running the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, Acker is an anomaly. Of course neither he nor any of his players have athletic scholarships. They travel only by bus to away games. (Gary Lambrecht, Baltimore Sun, Sept. 27, 2003).

There are certainly many issues in college football that have, are and will be debated for generations. Whether something is right or wrong, human nature is always going to be part of the scenario, which could lead to future solutions or problems. As George Orwell wrote in 1947, “On the village green, where you pick up sides and no feeling of local patriotism is involved, it is possible to play simply for the fun and the exercise; but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused.”



Bibliography

Books
Bowen, William, and James Shulman. The Game of Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Newspapers and Magazines
Brooks, B.G. “CU can’t read between dotted lines.” Rocky Mountain News: Sept. 27, 2003.
Lambrecht, Gary. “Unexpected catch turns up on Shore.” Baltimore Sun: Sept. 27, 2003.
Layden, Tim. “Charms and the Man; He’s a talented coach, but can Rick Neuheisel’s charisma overcome his flaws?” Sports Illustrated: June 23, 2003.
Moran, Malcolm. “Ohio State, Clarett tackle off-field issues.” USA Today: Aug. 4, 2003.
Newnham, Blaine. “At $26,667 per locker, Ducks land in luxury.” Seattle Times: Sept. 9, 2003.
Taylor, Phil. “Phil Taylor’s Sidelines.” Sports Illustrated: Oct. 6, 2003.
Whiteside, Kelly. “NCAA official: ‘We do have a gambling problem on our campuses.’” USA Today: June 6, 2003.
Whiteside, Kelly. “Through scandal after scandal, Alabama’s faith remains firm.” USA Today: May 5, 2003.


People

Martina Ballen, UNC senior associate athletic director for business and finance
Lisa Deibler, UNC director of compliance
Rick Steinbacher, UNC assistant athletic director for football operations

Monday, September 29, 2003

Raising the Net

Joe Sagula knew he could not let his players know what everyone else knew. The UNC volleyball team was unranked and had five wins and three losses. Its opponent, Nebraska, was ranked No. 4 in the country and won the national title the season before. On paper his team exemplified the word “underdog,” but as UNC’s head coach, Sagula told them just the opposite before the match at Carmichael Auditorium on Sept. 13, 1996.

“We’re going to dominate Nebraska,” he said before delivering a game plan in the locker room. The players might not have dominated, but they did win. Not only did the win raise expectations on the team, but it was a sign of things to come.

“I always point to that year where we had turned the corner,” Sagula said. “It just seemed that things started to come together. We didn’t have the success, but I knew the attitude had changed. The type of players and the competitiveness had been raised.”

The “success” came two years later in 1998. The Tar Heels won their first NCAA Tournament match since it became a varsity sport in 1971, and started their current string of five consecutive tournament appearances. Last year, UNC won two matches in the tournament for the first time ever and ranked No.12 in the final national coaches’ poll – the highest it ever had by the end of a season. The players and Sagula, who improved the program in a short period of time, said they were happy with the accomplishments, but not completely satisfied.

Before he was named UNC head coach in 1990, Sagula compiled a winning record during his nine seasons at the University of Pennsylvania. He knew the Tar Heels had “an outstanding reputation nationally” for athletics and academics. He also knew an attractive campus and climate would help recruiting. For the young coach, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“I came here to be able to do what we’re doing now,” said Sagula, sitting in his office in Carmichael Auditorium. “To build a program that can be nationally competitive, where we can recruit great athletes at a great academic school and hopefully compete for a national championship.”

Competing for a national championship may be unrealistic this season, especially after losing four starters to graduation, including ACC Player of the Year Laura Greene. Yet, the expectations have never been higher.

“Last year’s team had a lot of experience,” said Aletha Green, one of two seniors this year. “This team has 10 times as much talent.”

While that talent has propelled UNC to a 7-2 record against several renown teams, a lack of playing experience at a high level is a concern. Green and junior Molly Pyles, the middle and outside hitters, along with defensive specialist Caroline deRoeck provide the foundation of game experience and leadership for a team ranked No. 20 nationally in the preseason coaches’ poll.

Although experience is lacking, a positive attitude and team unity is not. Sophomore McKenzie Byrd, who has played many games this year as a setter, said she considers all of her teammates her best and closest friends at the University.

“I think a big strength of our team is that it’s not a job, it’s fun,” she said. “We love to practice. We love to lift weights. We just love to play.”

Sagula agreed. He said the players have never complained, which he said is rare for athletes today. This attitude alone reflects just how far the program has come since he took the helm in 1990.

Despite UNC’s success in the 1980s, which included five ACC titles, Sagula had his work cut out for him. The ACC was not a strong conference for one thing. So while the Tar Heels were a regional power, they never won an NCAA Tournament match.

Sagula also had unfortunate timing. He took over a team that had graduated a majority of its starters, and hadn’t recruited anyone.

“They had one player coming in that next year who was a walk-on,” he said. “And that was it. So we kind of started from scratch. It was a whole rebuilding process at that point.”

With a personality that inspired his players, like the 1996 game against Nebraska, Sagula maintained competitive teams during his early years at UNC. By the year of the Nebraska win, the competitiveness in the conference had been raised with the addition of Wake Forest and Florida State – two teams that joined the ACC after Sagula arrived.

Team success also helped UNC recruit better players from around the country. Now, with five players from Illinois on this year’s roster and three from California, the program is established and respected as a national power.

“When I came in, I didn’t really know how a collegiate program was run,” Pyles said. “But now that I’m older I appreciate so many things that (Sagula) does.”

As a freshman Pyles hated looking exactly like her teammates. She hated the fact Sagula made sure everyone had their knee pads up and shirts tucked in. Those things that bothered her, she is now thankful for. Pushing players out of their comfort level, demanding more, and building team unity are three important components for a winning team that Sagula stresses on a daily basis. To achieve those components, UNC plays games every practice. Sagula tries to raise the competitive level by keeping score of the games.

Fundamental skills, like blocking and digging on defense, are emphasized in practice. Interacting and seeing players’ development is something Sagula likes most about his job. So he doesn’t just work on players’ weaknesses, he harps on them. And if it takes several months, he said, to learn a certain skill it’s that much more rewarding.

Even though Georgia Tech and Duke were ranked ahead of UNC in the preseason coaches’ poll, the players and staff still believe they have the chance to win the ACC title. And going as far or further than last year’s team is also a goal.

“I have the most faith in this team,” Green said. “It may not be the same road we took to get there as last year, but we can definitely reach the same goals.”



This story first appeared in the Blue & White Magazine in October 2003.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

As a senior at North Carolina, I interviewed my landlord’s father, John Brooks, a 97-year-old who lived in the same housing complex as me. I wrote this story in the fall of 2003. When I returned from spring break in March 2004, I received a call from my landlord. John had died in his sleep at age 98. At the church ceremony the priest was filling in and did not know John so he read my story and handed it out to John’s family and friends. Before John died, he had given my landlord an envelope and said, open it when I die. Inside the envelope was $200 with a message to have drinks on him. After the church ceremony, John’s family and friends went out for drinks.



The first time I met John Brooks, he was hunched over his living room bureau drawer. “I’m just looking at some old photos,” he said. He had to adjust his hearing aids before I introduced myself. After all, for a man who lives alone in the Town House Apartments in Chapel Hill, there’s no reason for him to have his hearing aids adjusted. Sometimes he doesn’t even wear them. Those family photos are more important. That’s what he’s got left. And boy does he love them. He looks at those photos every day. But he doesn’t just look. He remembers. Whether it’s inside his two-bedroom apartment or sitting outside on his back porch, happy memories come back. And at age 97, he’s got plenty of time to reminisce. As he says, “I don’t do nothing.”

Brooks appears to value visitors as much as his photos. But he doesn’t get many these days. He admits he’s lazy when it comes to writing letters to friends.

“I don’t think he’s ever lied a single time in his life,” said Brooks’s son John, who runs the Town House Apartments with his wife Julia. “And he’s always had a positive attitude. He wakes up whistling and singing. And that’s one of the reasons he’s lived so long.” He’s lived so long his wife, his ten brothers and sisters and many of his close friends have died.

I’ve lived in Town House Apartments for more than a year, often waving to him as I whizzed by on my bike. He always waved back and smiled as if we were close friends. Why didn’t I ever stop and say hi?

The next time I visited, I didn’t even knock. Even with his hearing aides on, he might not have heard me. I walked in since he never locks his doors during the day. As soon as I sat next to him on the back porch he grinned, and told me he was glad I came right in.

In less than a minute, he’s back to the beginning of his story. And if you have a set of ears, he’ll tell you.

“He can’t remember yesterday, but he can remember what happened 50 years ago – and names, and dates and days and he’s right on it,” Julia said.

He’ll tell you how his favorite number is 11 because he was born on November 11, 1905. He’ll tell you about how he never started fights, but wasn’t afraid to throw punches growing up in Bolton, England. He’ll tell you how he never took a licking either. He’ll tell you about how he started working at a spinning mill at age 12, and how he quit school so he could work 10 hour days by age 13. He’ll tell you how much he loved soccer and still follows the games on television. He’ll tell you how much he loved his mom’s meat and potato pie. He’ll tell you how his dad headed to the bars every night after work. He’ll tell you how he almost died when he was about 10 from scarlet fever. He’ll tell you how it took six days to travel to Boston by boat when he was 17. He’ll tell you about Mount Hope Finishing Company. He’ll show you his watch that was given to him when he retired in 1973. He’ll tell you how much he loved working at Mount Hope for half a century and why he decided to retire. “I wanted to give some young fellow the chance to move up,” he said. “Then somebody else would get a better job.”

And of course, he’ll tell you about his family. That’s why he has those photos specially arranged. They stand on his living room bureau. They’re above it on the wall. They’re on the other wall in the living room. They’re in his bedroom and guest bedroom.

“This is my family,” he says. “Here’s my mother and my father during the first World War. And this is my brother. He’s dead. That’s Billy. He’s dead too. My two brothers married two sisters. And that’s my wife. That’s my wife’s father and mother. There’s my grandmother and my great grandmother and my aunt. There’s my wife on both sides.” You have two of the same pictures of your wife. You like that one, huh? “I tell you, I like them all.”

Keep talking and he’ll tell you, for the second or third time, about his job working for Mount Hope in North Dighton, Mass., and that he stuck with the company even though he had to move to Butner, N.C. in 1952. Keep listening and it’s back to the photos on his wall...

When his son, John Jr., was 6 years old, John refused to go on strike despite the fact many workers at Mount Hope were upset. John didn’t believe in striking. He had a family to feed. One night, about 40 strikers appeared in John’s front yard. They told him to join them. With his family next to him, he refused to join. They walked away upset. One worker threatened, “Well, your son has to go to school tomorrow.” John answered, “Yes, he’ll get to school tomorrow. And if he doesn’t get to school tomorrow, you’ll be the first one I see.” Young John got to school with no hassle the next day.

“My dad was never a big man,” John Jr. said. “He didn’t weigh over 130 pounds most of his life. But he didn’t take anything from anybody. Nobody pushed him around.”

Maybe that’s why he’s so happy. He never was worried or afraid. He has no regrets. He never smoked and claims he never got a headache. He doesn’t feel a day over 18, but he knows...

Looking at an inscription, next to the photos, about his Uncle Robert, who died in World War I, he says: “He was good. He was nice. In Turkey, that’s where he died. He was the seventh son of a seventh son. It makes you think when you look at something like that. I’ve been very fortunate because he was just a young fellow.”

Sunday, September 14, 2003

Sweating It Out

Thousands of people around you are sweating. You wish you could sweat like them. But on this particular evening in late August you are really sweating. You are sweating like a man in the front row of a church that had just slept with the preacher’s daughter.

In the next two hours you’ll lose about four-to-six pounds in pure sweat. The short shorts you wore with the T-shirt and turtleneck and your knee-high socks might as well have been in a thunder shower because there’s a huge puddle left over after you wring them out.

But even though it’s about 40 degrees hotter around you than it is for the 50,000 people nearby, you love it. It’s a blast! After all, you are dressed up as Ramses, the UNC mascot. And it is the home opener against perennial football-power Florida State.

If you’re Andrew Head, one of three people that will rotate wearing the heavy Ramses costume during the course of the game, it feels like you’re wearing a huge coat with a football helmet on. But you tend to forget that when you run out of the locker room tunnel with the UNC flag in hand. Behind you is a pack of frenzied football players, hoisting their helmets in the air as the crowd erupts. You forget you normally can’t hear someone while wearing the costume unless they talk directly into your eyes or scream. And for a moment you forget about the thick layer of foam padding and fur – about two or three inches of solid insulation – on the Ramses’ head. On this particular day it is the loudest the crowd will get, and you realize you’re one of the reasons.

“It’ll give you the cold chills,” said Head, who is in his fourth year as mascot, but is more of a mascot coach this year. “It will give you cold chills for sure.”

Did you say “cold?” But even without the exuberance and chills you get, you’d still be obligated to run out the flag during the pre-game celebration by the football players. After all, it started two years earlier when you ran out the flag and the UNC team ended the FSU dynasty with a 41-9 win. And as it turned out, every game you (Head) ran out the flag that season the team won. While every time you didn’t run it out, it lost. But you didn’t pick up on the trend. The players did. And that is why the football team still gets extra excited when you carry out the flag. That’s why you rode to Atlanta for the Peach Bowl two years earlier despite not expecting to go on the trip.

Since you started putting on the Carolina blue and white costume, you’ve noticed how superstitious the team is. Gosh, even with a gazillion pairs of sneakers the women’s basketball team receives, some players still have to wear a lucky pair.

You’ve also noticed fans can be a little kooky. Like the time an ECU fan punched you in the face during the game two years ago. No, it wasn’t Head who took the punch. It was John Colpitts, who with Scott Jansen complete this year’s trio. They were the lucky three that survived tryouts, which take place in the fall and spring at the same time as cheerleading tryouts.

“We’ll put them in a suit and it’s kind of a charisma thing,” Head said. “Some people just look good in the suit. Some people don’t.”

When they decided that you looked good in the suit you went to a bunch of pre-game events first before stepping out in front of 50,000 people. But once you started putting on the suit on Saturdays in the fall, what fun!

Sure you have no peripheral vision. Sure you have to drink gatorade “like it is going out of style” during games like the FSU one. Sure you don’t get to see much of the game. But you’re the one that jumps up in the air with excitement when you see the crowd jump up in the air. You are the one that dances alongside the band conductor. And how about crowd-surfing on top of the band? You love that!

Besides that jerk from ECU, everyone seems to love you as well. Everywhere you walk, you get smiles and high-fives. To Toddlers, you’re like a big stuffed animal.

And it doesn’t seem like you mind taking a photograph with three attractive UNC girls in the front row. During the second half, you shoot T-shirts into a sea of eager hands. You are amazed what people will do for a free T-shirt – even leaning over the upper-deck railing so they can catch it. That is why you try to shoot the shirts into the upper or lower deck. You don’t want any casualties at a football game.

A safer activity you enjoy is the prearranged skit with opponents’ mascots. For instance at the Syracuse game, you watched the Orangeman get down on his knees and beg for mercy. But you didn’t show any, and you got a huge cheer of approval from the student section when you put the Orangeman on a life-sized orange squeezer, pretending to squeeze out juice.

You got some gig being the mascot. Well, at least minus the times when there is only one Ramses suit and you have to get sloppy seconds.

“It’s cold and wet,” Hand said. “It’s disgusting and nasty and it smells bad. And it’s somebody else’s sweat.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

"Mad Hops"

While covering the Great Outdoor Games in the summer of 2002 for the Burlington Free Press, I saw Big Air Dogs in person for the first time. The sport’s premise: the master stands at the edge of the dock and throws a ball or toy into the water as the dog leaps for it. The longest leap wins. A year later in Connecticut, in Stamford and Norwalk, I met the owner of two dogs that gained big sponsors for their big jumps.



Holding a photo of his dog Kiki soaring above the Newman Mills Falls in rural Stamford, Chris Litwin points just beneath the black Labrador and dreams of sports marketing stardom.

“Can’t you just imagine the swish and ‘Just Do It’ under here,” Litwin says, invoking the popular logo and marketing slogan of Nike. “He’s like 10 feet in the air, and he’s actually on his way down at that point. It looks like he’s dropped out of a plane.”

In street vernacular, Kiki, a four-and-a-half year old male Lab, does indeed have “mad hops” and has gained popularity competing in the rapidly growing sport of dock jumping.

For Litwin, a Stamford resident and dog lover, Kiki’s exploits have become a fulltime
endeavor. Litwin sells T-shirts adorned with a picture of the handsome lab, and they travel to sanctioned events across the nation with the hope of finding a major corporate sponsor (like Nike) to endorse his dog’s world-class jumping ability.

While Kiki is an established star, Norwalk resident Doug Kilmartin has only recently discovered that he has an up-and-comer in his yellow Labrador Jake.

Jake established himself as a world-class jumper in his competitive debut last weekend at the Rex Plex in Elizabeth, N.J. To the surprise of Kilmartin and other observers, Jake jumped 19 feet 10 inches on his second competitive jump ever. His second place finish, with a jump of 22 feet 2 inches, was within nine inches of Kiki’s winning leap.

“We went down there thinking we would be bumped down,” Kilmartin said about his 20-month-old dog. “But I found my dog had a natural ability to jump. They were amazed I had a world-class competitor.”

Kilmartin had seen Kiki on television before the event, and had contacted Litwin
by e-mail through a mutual friend. Having just met, they hope to start a regional club with sanctioned jumping events since there is no club in the Northeast.

“I think Jake and Kiki will be the two stars in the Northeast, and hopefully other
dogs will follow,” Litwin said. “I hope Jake goes out there and beats Kiki because it will bring more interest to the sport and attract more sponsors.”

Litwin is on his way toward his goal of creating a profitable business from “Big Air” and “Dock Dog” events, which organize competitions where dogs jump off a rubber-matted dock into the water.

According to their Web site, Dock Dogs is “like NASCAR, we establish the rules and standards of our sport, and track the results and records as well as support and promote the growth of our athletes, events, spectators, and sponsors.”

The sport’s recognized birth took place in July 2000 at ESPN’s “Great Outdoor Games Big Air” competition, or simply put, the Super Bowl of dog jumping. Litwin said fire marshals had to stop letting people in at this year’s event because they all wanted to see the world’s top 12 dogs compete.

“This sport is exploding,” Litwin said. “It’s made for TV. It’s something that
everybody can relate to because most everybody has dogs. It’s fun to watch dogs
jumping in the water, having a great time.”

Kiki’s popularity has grown with the sport. After two years of competition, two world records (a career best jump of 26 feet 9 inches in 2002) and a national title, Kiki has appeared on major television networks, including the David Letterman Show. Kiki even has his own Web site (www.gokikigo.com) (www.gokikigo.com)and a life-time
supply of dog food at Choice Pet Supply.

While Litwin wants to breed and train elite dogs for a living, Kilmartin views the
sport as a hobby because of his obligation as an orthopedic sales representative. Still, they share a similar path to competition.

Kilmartin’s uncle has an older yellow Labrador that he jumps in his swimming pool. So when Kilmartin first got Jake, just a seven-month-old puppy at the time, he took
him over to his uncle’s to see how far he could jump. Ever since, Kilmartin has been
jumping Jake at his friend’s dock in Westport.

“As soon as I came around the corner (near his friend’s dock), Jake went crazy in the car,” Kilmartin said. “I don’t feel like I’m forcing him to do this. I think dogs will do whatever they’re bred for. And he’s bred to swim, jump and retrieve.”

Litwin discovered Kiki’s love for water the first time he took him to the Mianus River at eight weeks old. As soon as he set Kiki down, the young lab bolted straight into the river despite never putting a paw in the water before. Then Litwin started taking Kiki for regular jumps and was floored to see him sail about halfway across the 50-foot wide river.

“I was amazed at how far he could jump going into the water, and we weren’t even aware of these competitors,” said Litwin, who has attracted crowds of about 100 people. “We were just doing it for our own entertainment.”

Like Kilmartin, Litwin saw dogs jumping in events like the prestigious Big Air competition at the Great Outdoor Games and became interested. Kiki won his first competition at the Purina Dog Challenge, an eastern regional event in New Jersey in July 2001.

The two dog trainers also use the same uncommon technique. Most handlers run next to their dog with an object in hand that they toss into the water. Kilmartin and Litwin
use a “sit-stay” technique, where they tell their dogs to sit and stay while they walk to the takeoff point on the dock. Holding a stick or tennis ball high in the air, they call their dog and release the object at the last second before takeoff.

Litwin has developed some exercises that he uses to increase Kiki’s vertical jump,
speed and stamina. He creates a competitive atmosphere by racing Kiki with Lala, his
black lab who’s two years younger, for a stick or tennis ball in his yard.

“I’m looking forward to working with Chris,” Kilmartin said. “To get some pointers from somebody who’s been doing this longer than I have.”

The growth of the sport has created a wave of excitement for spectators, and especially for the competitors.

“Over the past year the sport has blossomed,” Kilmartin said. “The best part is the
dogs love it. They’ll jump all day long.”



This story first appeared in The Hour in August 2003.

Monday, August 4, 2003

Django Haskins

When Django Haskins first came to the National Guitar Worshop at age 14, he found his niche.


“I had this weird name growing up and people were always getting it wrong, or spelling it wrong or making fun of it,” said Haskins, whose parents named him after legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. “I come here and everyone here knows how to pronounce my name and thinks it’s the greatest thing ever. It kind of was like the ugly duckling finds his crowd.”

Growing up on a farm in Gainesville, Fla., his parents were musicians, exposing him to the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Cole Porter and Elvis Costello. Haskins started playing classical violin at age 6, but he found his calling when he discovered his father’s electrical guitar seven year later. The following year, 1988, Haskins enrolled at the National Guitar Workshop, located on the Canterbury School campus, as a student. He has come back every summer since, and has been a faculty member for the past decade.

Established in 1984, the workshop has six weekly sessions each summer, attracting a wide variety of musicians from around the United States and even overseas. Haskins says it is one of the top two or three summer programs of its kind that he has seen. Students range in age from 13 to 79 and from beginners to recorded musicians, who come to learn guitar, bass, keyboard, drums or vocals.

Like many faculty members, Haskins only teaches for three weeks because the schedule is so intense. He teaches seven hours a day for six days a week. His day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 11 p.m. with a break from 4 to 6 p.m.

“There’s always been really great teachers here,” he said. “One reason I really like coming back is my friends from all around the country teach here. And we all see each other every summer.”

Another thrill he gets is watching his students progress.

“Well, this is my first time here, but so far I’ve probably learned more than I have in the past year, just in a couple of days, with Django especially,” said Danielle Schwob, a 16-year-old guitar player from London taking Haskins’s voice class. “I’ve never had a voice class. I can already tell there’s going to be improvement in the way I sing.”

Still young himself, Haskins, 29, recalls his not-so-glamorous journey to becoming a professional musician.

At age 15, after playing in a band for a couple years, he began to seriously think about a career as a guitar player. His parents weren’t too keen on the idea and had a family friend, who was a saxophone player with Ike and Tina Turner, give him the lowdown on his new found love.

“He sat me down and said, ‘Look, you got to really like to eat peanut butter and jelly for the rest of your life if you want to be a musician’,” Haskins said.

So Haskins continued to write songs at home with a four-track recorder during high school, and then studied literature at Yale University to see if he liked anything more than music.

“I found a lot of things I was really interested in, but nothing that felt as right and personal to me as (music),” he said.

One of his interests was learning Chinese. He decided he wanted to grasp the language better so he felt the easiest way would be to live there, which he did, playing at local pubs and teaching English at a university.

“It was a really good learning experience for me as a writer because it just took one element away,” said Haskins about the songs he performed in English. “The lyrics are no longer going to help the song get over with an audience. It really helped me to develop showmanship, basically entertaining people.”

After his stay in China, Haskins moved to New York City in 1996, where he recorded an album and performed solo gigs. A few years later he assembled a band called “Django & the Regulars,” which he made a few albums with.

“When you’re in a band with someone it’s like having three girlfriends,” Haskins said. “It just has to be a close relationship because you’re working so closely together and you’re traveling and you’re sleeping on floors together.”


Much of his touring is done alone, solo acoustic. He now lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., half of the year. The other half he spends traveling, often to New York City. His latest album, “overeasysmokemachine,” has catchy sounds and demonstrates his ability to play with a band and as a solo artist. But he mostly wants to be remembered as a songwriter since his music doesn’t fall into a particular genre.

Haskins has taught a song-writing class for the past few years at the National Guitar Workshop. Everyone in the class, including Haskins, is required to write a song a day, which they perform the following day and then write their next song. For Haskins, it something he enjoys because he never has time as a traveling musician to write at least 15 songs in a short time period – just another reason to come back.

And it’s always nice when people know your name.

This story first appeared in the Danbury News-Times and New Milford Spectrum in August 2003.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Jim Galante and the Mystique Racing Team

He always loved fast cars. Unlike most people, Jim Galante can afford automobiles others dream about. At the race track his driver and crew live by his motto, “second place is the first loser.” When Galante, a New Fairfield resident, spent a few nights at the races more than a decade ago it’s no surprise he wanted to get involved.


So he became a race car owner, and linked with NASCAR driver Ted Christopher in 1995 in what they presently refer to as “a good marriage.”

“The whole reason I got involved originally in the races is because I love cars,” said Galante, owner of Automated Waste Disposal in Danbury. “I never realized how competitive of a person I was until our company put a race car on the track. From the first day I came to the racetrack I think there’s always been this mutual attraction, (Ted) and I. He’s not afraid to take that car and put it anywhere on that track and go for it, and I’m not afraid to spend the money to get the car to the finish line. So it’s a great relationship.”

The racetrack offers a chance for employees and customers to see the race car. Unlike others, Galante prefers no advertising on his race car.

“At 120 miles per hour you can’t read the names of the sponsors anyway,” Galante said.

Instead, sponsorship for Mystique can be found on a giant billboard on the backstretch of Stafford.

Christopher, a Plainville native, has had a similar passion for cars, only he prefers to be on the speedway. Unlike many modern professional drivers, Christopher was not exposed to the sport at an early age, nor did his parents have an interest. He raced go-carts toward the end of his high school days through age 25 with his brother Mike. They traveled all over the country, paying for all their races themselves. Mike raced for Galante before Ted took over.

Although racing is practically a year-round sport, Christopher will race most of his 101 features this year from April to October. He drives a modified, or open-wheeled, race car at Thompson Motor Speedway on Thursdays and at Stafford Motor Speedway on Fridays – the two main features throughout the year.

After thousands of races in practically every car and competition imaginable, Christopher acknowledges money affects racing.

“This is a very financially-driven business,” Christopher said. “It takes somebody like (Jim Galante) to supply you with the equipment you want to do well, and we’ve been real successful.”

The Mystique race team has been so successful that winning has become an expectation, not just a goal. Christopher’s laudable driving career includes: 77 victories at Stafford, the most by any driver; a National Championship in 2001, beating over 2,000 drivers from about 90 tracks across America; and a competitive desire that makes him willing to take risks many drivers won’t.

They recognize Stafford fans are more opinionated – both in favor and against – toward them than other race teams because of their success. Galante said he enjoys when the fans boo because he knows he is winning, but gets annoyed when people say his team cheats or doesn’t deserve the win. After thousands of races, Christopher seems unfazed before or after races. He sometimes sits in the Pits before a race wearing blue jeans and t-shirt, cracking jokes. It’s a big change from when he built his own racing motor for eight years.

Galante and Christopher credit the crew for much of these accolades. Many of the members work at the race shop, also the location of Christopher’s transmission business in Plainville – MNT Enterprises. Others pay their way into the Pits – a parking lot area near the racetrack where the cars are adjusted before the race – to volunteer assistance or support. This is a place where fans like to see the cars and drivers in-person and sometimes take photos or voice their opinions.

Before they load the black, blue and silver No. 13 race car into the jet-black 35-foot trailer, the crew goes through its routine check – tires, nuts and bolts, etc.

“There are a lot of teams that will show up to the track with a bent race car or bad parts or something that they know they have to change,” said Mystique co-crew chief Mike O’Sullivan, who spends 40 to 60 hours a week working on the race cars. “Jimmy gives us the opportunity every week to go to the track with the best equipment. We never go second best. We’re there to win. We’re not there for anything else.”

The crew has become so accustomed to the track that adjustments during practice runs and before the feature are second nature. For instance, they know if it’s hot outside, the track is slicker, forcing them to lower the panhard bar so the rear tires hug the asphalt.

Even with a dedicated race team and an owner like Galante, who is willing to fund the best parts and several standby cars, the driver has to sacrifice. One weekend before Christopher won the National Championship in 2001, he stayed up all night fixing his crank shaft after getting back to the shop at 2:45 a.m. from Stafford. As Christopher says, “Effort equals success,” or in this case: 49 straight hours awake equals two wins.

As Christopher and Galante know through experience, even possessing the best equipment with a talented driver and crew, anything can happen on the race track.

“When we lose and have a bad night I don’t have to say anything because no one is harder on them than themselves,” Galante said.

On Friday, June 6 at Stafford, Christopher was in second place for the entire second-half of the 100-lap race only to have the distributor screws loosen with five laps to go. But the crew had no time to mope. In less than five hours they’d be up before the sun, heading to a race in Long Island. Although rain was in the forecast, skipping the race never entered their minds. They only thought of winning.

This story first appeared in the Danbury News-Times.

Thursday, June 5, 2003

Ray Bardis: Sharing memories as caddy for stars of screen and green

I didn’t have to ask Ray Bardis, a former PGA Tour caddy, many questions. Instead, he just told me one story after another at the Stamford Senior Center in Connecticut. He filled in many of the details so I wouldn’t even call it an interview. It was one of my first stories I did while writing for The Stamford Times in the summer of 2003. After we chatted for a couple hours, we had a putting contest on the Astro Turf putting green which overlooked the bustling city of Stamford.



Ray Bardis has a memory like a steel trap, or maybe that’s a sand trap.

Bardis, a 64-year-old former caddy to stars such as Sam Snead, can close his eyes and remember shots and yardage from matches that took place 40 years ago.

One weekend in 1963, the 24-year-old Bardis caddied for television producer Fred Briskin at the Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles. After Briskin shot a 79, his career low at the course, he told Bardis, “You’re going to caddy for Sam on Monday.”

Briskin was televising a celebrity tournament between Jerry Lewis and golfer Sam Snead.

“I hardly slept that weekend,” Bardis said. “I thought, this is Sam Snead, one of the five greatest golfers in the entire world. I’m going to say, ‘hello.’ Then what?”

On the par-five first hole, Bardis told Snead he had caddied at Bel-Air for five years. Snead made it clear he expected him to know every shot on the course. He also told Bardis, just once, how far he hit each club.

“I said, ‘I don’t come to golf courses to eat my lunch,’” Bardis said. “I come there to give the people I caddy for what they’re paying for. I feel if I don’t do that right, I’m in the wrong profession.”

With Snead’s drive 180 yards from the pin, Bardis looked away and prayed after handing him his 5-iron. Snead placed it 12 feet from the hole and two putted for birdie. He birdied the first three holes and finished the front nine at four under par.

The Snead story is just one of hundreds he’ll retell down to the club, distance and even slope of the green. As a professional caddy, Bardis worked five to six days a week for 32 years, greeting pros in parking lots in hope he could carry their bag and earn a living.

“A lot of people ask, ‘What have you done? What have you accomplished in life?’” Bardis said. “I’ve got that here (pointing to his head), and in here (pointing to his heart) for the people I met, the places I saw and experienced. You cannot put a price on that. You can’t.”

Commitment to a single player or sacrificing for a big name golfer didn’t suit his personality. While playing golf has always been more fun for him than caddying, the latter paid his bills.

Growing up in Los Angeles, his father taught him how to caddy at age 8. Little did he know seven years later his son would think about doing it for a living while caddying at Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles for a $2 double-bag round.

Even after his parents initial apprehension, Bardis never second-guessed his decision to travel across America, hustling for a tour bag. It was his calling.

When he decided to skip school to caddy in his first professional tour event, the 1951 Kansas City Open, his teacher told him he didn’t know anything about golf.

“I told the teacher to his face, ‘I know as much about golf right now as you know about your profession of teaching.’”

Bardis says a caddy’s most basic responsibility is finding the golf ball. One afternoon in 1962 at the 207-yard seventh hole of the Desert Inn Golf Club, a golfer in Bardis’s group took out a 3-wood.

“If you hit that stick, you’re going to hit those mountains (in the distance),” said Bardis, who never liked to advise another caddy’s golfer.

Bardis watched the golfer switch to his 4-wood. He saw the ball hit the top of the bunker, kicking up sand, wind down the apron and into the hole.

No one believed what Bardis thought he saw. After searching the bunker and rough, they finally checked the pin. The ball was in the cup. His reward: six silver dollars.

While he had to earn every dollar in his pocket, his talent as a caddy enhanced his reputation over time.

A member at Annandale Golf Club in Pasadena, Calif., named Dave faced a wall of trees with his ball in the rough 205 yards from the flag. Bardis recommended his Ping 7-iron. Dave said he would double his payment if the ball landed in front of the green and triple the money if it reached the flat surface. After Dave’s shot landed on the green, he asked about Bardis’s prediction in disbelief.

“I said, ‘I know that those Pings go one club longer than any other brand of clubs that are made at that time,” Bardis said. “Besides that, you had the wind behind you and a flier lie.’”

From then on, Dave always sought him to caddy. By the time Bardis moved to Portchester, N.Y., in 1969, many pros knew his caddying capabilities – sometimes earning well-known tour bags in Florida during the winter.

In 1977 a caddy named Cigar Hank carried Billy Casper’s bag, but said he didn’t want to caddy in anupcoming tournament in Hawaii.

Bardis overheard the conversation, offering to take Hank’s place. Bardis paid $164 for a one-way ticket and got the job only to have Casper miss the cut. Casper found Bardis crying because he was scared Casper wouldn’t pay him enough to get home.

“He gave me 450 dollars and I only worked two days,” Bardis said. “He said, ‘Would you at least stop crying now?’”

In 2001 he met Casper at the Red course at the Doral Country Club in Miami, Fla., and Casper said, “I’ve seen you made it back already. You survived,” and they both laughed.

Just carrying the bag never satisfied Bardis. Figuring out yardage, recommending a club and reading putts is his forte. His memory is almost as good as his ability to read greens, which he claims is, “the best thing I know how to do today.”

Bardis also found a way to separate himself as a golfer. His playing partners watched him reach the green out of the rough or bushes, sometimes over 100 yards away, with his putter.

“I know what to do with my sticks,” he said. “I can’t chip, but I know what to do.”

There isn’t too much he hasn’t seen. He watched a professional caddy stumble headfirst into a sand trap. He recalls athletes from different eras that revolutionized their sport. The rule book has changed from 13 to 242 pages since he started as a professional caddy. Even at 64, Bardis acknowledges change.

“I’ve seen all the greatest players that ever played in the world, this kid (Tiger Woods) presently playing now is something I’ve never seen in my life,” he said.

These words come from a man who made 96 out of a 100 foul shots underhand in eighth grade. When he got home, his father said, “Even the pros don’t do that.”

“I don’t care about the pros,” Bardis said.

He cared about the experience.

“There’s a saying that you come into the world with nothing and no matter what you got you’re going to exit the world. No matter what welt you got, you ain’t going to stop from dying. I’m not going to sit here and lie to you. I enjoyed every bit of it and I wouldn’t trade it.”



This story first appeared in the Stamford Times in June 2003.