It doesn’t surprise me that I went back to Montana Snowbowl after Peace Corps. Many of my friends and former colleagues found jobs with federal agencies or NGOs. Several studied policy or took for the Foreign Service exam. Not me. I couldn’t get into that sort of thing.

This wasn’t long after George W. Bush usurped the presidency and squandered the goodwill and sympathy of the world. These were times that the historians of the future will look back on as “The Oil Wars”—when millions of poor people died to secure a soon-to-be-obsolete resource, just as they did for spices, slaves, and religious trinkets in Dark Ages past. The government color-coded our fear and gave us a list of products to purchase accordingly. Electrical tape for yellow alert. Batteries for orange. Rolls of plastic for red. There was talk of a draft.

Throughout the season my phone rings at all hours. My facebook inbox is full of notes from football heads from all over the globe. But it’s my email that gets hit the hardest. Vicious, drunken utterances on how my picks for the week suck, how I suck, how my girlfriend sucks (I don’t even have a girlfriend), how I don’t know a damn about football, how the Steelers (I’m a Steelers fan) come from some stiff hillbilly state and that if I was a true tree-huggin’ liberal then I’d be a Seahawks fan. Or a Saints fan. Or a Niners fan.

I write them back.

Fuck off, I tell them.

The only thing from Seattle worth my time is Brad.

That I like Reggie Bush, but I like his ex-girlfriend more.

That I would never be a Niners fan because my uncle would turn in his grave or may surge with life, find me chowing down at In-N-Out and do me in mid-bite.

Most of the notes come from old friends. Bastards that feel they can write anything, say anything to me. One of them I call Lips because Lips has no lips. All you see is teeth. He looks like a mummy. He looks like Fire Marshall Bill. He packs my email to the gills.

I grew up with Lips.

He’s knows everything about me.

My mother’s name.

My therapist’s name.

The drugs I did.

The food I like.

He calls me Weed.

Weed,

I read your latest bullshit on The Nervous Breakdown. Really, loser? The Cowboys? They suck. Tony Homo? He’s a fag. And do you really like Rodgers or are you trying to bang some slut from Wisconsin? He’ll take GB nowhere. The Packers are nothing without Favre. They’re nothing with that old man. Brett needs to go back to the sticks and do whatever it is those people do. You’re wrong about the Bears. Watch. They don’t need Obama. They play in a weak division and will take it easily. The Colts are rebuilding this year. Kind of like your ex-girlfriend with the plastic tits. Ha! I say the Saints and the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Fuck your stats, Mexican, the Saints are going back. Mail me some cash and I’ll put in your bets. Later.

That’s how it went.

That’s how it’s still going.

For the bones have been thrown.

The smoke has cleared.

The playoffs, people, are here.

In the NFC the Saints, Seahawks, Eagles, Packers, Bears, and Falcons. This translates into three birds of prey, one pious fucker, a fuzzy mammal, and a…what is a Packer? Well, in this case the name comes from a meat packer. Lovely. Packing meat. Nevermind. In the AFC, the Patriots, Jets, Steelers, Ravens, Colts, Chiefs made the grade. Need I translate again? Right.

As I wrote before, you never know how the year is going to pan out. Some folks thought the Cowboys would be in the hunt. Nope. They weren’t. And they’re not. They suck. The Titans, who I thought would be solid this year, were shot out all season long. Same goes for the Chargers and the Vikings both of which were favored to go into the playoffs with the Super Bowl in their sights. No go. It’s a wrap.

The Chargers, who in recent history don’t lose in December and go into the playoffs gunning, got their asses handed to them and now they’re sitting at home watching the playoffs with the rest of us saps. Brett Favre and Vikings? What can you say? Well, you can say that they stunk up the field from coast to coast. Their coach got canned and Brett Favre’s life and his limbs imploded right before our football eyes. He needs to split and leave us and the game of football alone. Please, Brett. I like you, bro, but please go the fuck home and stay there.

Please.

There’s no need to mention (but I will) that most of us predicted that the Lions, Panthers, Bills, Cardinals, Browns, Bengals, Niners, etc, would have shitty seasons. We’ve come to expect these atrocities to occur when these horrific teams take the field. And they did. I should mention that the Bills played tough this season and they’re record did not reflect the character of that team. But to hell with the rest of them. They offered nothing to professional football, its fans, and should consider joining a pee-wee league.

Okay, enough of that. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.

The Wild Card Round

First up was the World Champion Saints against the Seahawks who farted into the playoffs with a 7-9 record. People bitched and complained that a team with a losing record shouldn’t get into the playoffs. But the rules state that the team that wins their division gets a ticket in. Period. So the Seahawks were in and hosting the champs. No one gave Seattle a chance. No one. Not me. No one. I settled in with a carne asada burrito and witnessed Seattle do the unthinkable: They won. It was one of the biggest upsets in playoff history. Matt Hasselbeck played lights out. That bald bastard threw four TD passes to Brees’ two. The Saints made a run, but in the 4th quarter Marshawn Lynch punched and pounded his way for a 67-yard touchdown that buried the Saints for good. It was one hell of a run.

My phone was ringing off the hook as the Saints were marching out.

Seahawks fly into Chicago.

Next up was the main event: The Colts against the Jets. This one had people talking. Peyton against Fat Ryan and his Jets. I’m no fan of either of these teams, but I like Manning and because of Jabba Ryan and his obese macho talk I now loathe the Jets the way I loathe T.O. So, I was pulling for the Colts. C’mon, Manning! C’mon, baby!

But it didn’t happen.

It was a slow-moving game. Both teams couldn’t move the ball. Good game for true football fans, but a bore to those who want to see some action. The Colts had the game wrapped up, but Blair White—a rookie out of Michigan State—couldn’t hold onto a Manning pass that would have pushed the clock down to a nub for Vinatieri to kick in the winning field goal. But it didn’t happen that way. White dropped the ball, the Jets got it back, and Sanchez and his crew marched down the field and won by one point.

Dead Colts.

Jets board their plane and head into Patriotville.

Damn.

I was 0-2.

On Sunday I opened the day with a three-mile jog in the freezing desert morning. I was chugging like Rocky determined to redeem myself after being blasted with emails and phone calls on how much my Saturday picks came up lame. I lost an Andy Jackson in the Colt game to a running buddy of mine. He hates football, thinks it’s for jerk-offs. He bet me because he wanted to prove his point that anybody can win a football bet whether you know anything about football or not.

“You have a fifty-percent chance,” he said confidently. “I’ll take the Jets. I like their helmets.”

“Helmets. Great. You’re on.”

I handed over the cheddar pissed.

The Ravens took the field against the Chiefs. I wanted the Chiefs to win, but I knew the Ravens would take it. But what I didn’t know was that they were going to dismantle the Chiefs to the tune of 30-7. I didn’t pay attention to Kansas City this year so I didn’t know what they did or how they did it. Apparently, they had a great running game all season long. Apparently, it wasn’t enough to beat the Ravens. Their running backs did look impressive at the beginning of the game. Fast strong fuckers hitting the holes like missiles. But then the Chiefs turned the ball over five times and watched the game turn into an ugly movie. Now they’re at home eating BBQ.

The game of the day was the Packers against the Eagles. Mr. Rodgers against Michael Vick, aka, Ron Mexico. I picked Green Bay to have a great season. I think Rodgers is a fantastic QB and if the Packers front office makes the right decisions they have a QB that could bring them the Lombardi. I also picked the Eagles to have a horrible season. I didn’t see Vick coming off the bench and having a good year. He was headline news all season long especially after his historic performance on Monday Night Football where he single-handedly beat the Baby Jesus out of the Redskins. Anyhow, these two teams took the field in Philly. I wanted the Pack and after the smoke cleared Green Bay was moving on and the Eagles weren’t.

Cheeseheads unite.

Mr. Mexico has left the building.

So now that’s left us with the Ravens/Steelers, Jets/Pats, Packers/Falcons, and the Seahawks/Bears. One of these teams will hoist the Lombardi. That is a sure bet. The Saturday games start with the Steelers/Ravens. I’m a Steelers fan so you know who I’m pulling for. I don’t like the Ravens. Not many people do. These two teams hate each other and this will be yet another ugly fight. A brutal yet beautiful way to open the weekend. Can’t wait. Pack/Falcons is the late game. Falcons have a great record at home and I picked them to make a serious Super Bowl run this year. I nailed it and here they are with home-field advantage. So what. I’ll take the Pack. Rodgers. Rodgers. Rodgers.

Sunday opens up with the Seahawks/Bears game. The Bears should take this one. They’re at home and I don’t see Seattle pulling out another miracle win. But one never knows. They took out the Saints and they can take out Da Bears which really would be fine with me because that means I don’t have to see and listen to Mike Ditka’s Eddie Munster hair and stupid dog eyes yapping it up in some mob suit. Next up is the Jets/Pats game. Geezus. I already told you how I feel about the Jets and their bloated coach. Fuck him and fuck them. Go Patriots. Brady, don’t let me down you handsome prick! Kick their ass! Period. I’ll be watching this one with a pile of chicken wings on my lap.

I might even ditch my root beer for a bottle of hooch for this one.

Well, that’s it. Four games of pure football heaven. I’m drooling and you should be too. So, order your submarine sandwiches. Fill up your coolers with beer and Sprite. Fire up the grill and let the games begin.

Cheers, folks.

Have a good one.

Like I wrote in my last NFL post no one knows how the season’s going to pan out. It’s a mystery. I yapped it up like every other football jerk predicting the winners and losers. So far I’ve nailed some of my pre-season predictions. Others not so much.

This year has been a bit different. There’s not a dominating team out there. Every week a new team is the best team. Last week it was the Giants. Before that it was the Jets. Then New England. Last night Vick and his Eagles beat the fuck out of the Redskins in front of god and everyone. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was nothing short of cruel.

So now Philly is the best team in the NFL. Next week some other team will take the headlines and the brilliant brains on ESPN will fill up their programs talking about how so and so team is heading to Texas to play for the Lombardi. It’s just the way it goes. Anyhow, folks, let’s see what’s up.

Dead Cowboys and Marching Saints

Most people figured the Saints would be at the head of the NFC pack and they are. Brees is way bad. Great arm. Great talent. They started off the season a bit shaky, but lately have been playing solid football. They took out Pittsburgh and are looking at taking out a few more teams on their way to the playoffs. I said they’d make the playoffs and the train would stop there. I might eat this one. We’ll see. Beads!

Falcons. I said these dudes were going to be knocking people around this year and they are. They beat the Ravens and if they get into the playoffs with home-field advantage then watch out. Hotlanta. No need for Ron Mexico to be on their roster.

I said Tampa would suck all things nasty this year and I was wrong. They’re playing pretty good football and have stunned us all.

The Panthers are dismal and I was right. So were you.

The Cowboys. Huh? No one predicted this disaster. No one. Hell, I don’t know what to say. What’s to say? They’re just no good? Their dull frumpy coach (who’s been fired) simply can’t lead a team? Tony Romo is a handsome devil, but a shitty QB when it comes down to it? Who knows. It doesn’t matter. People are crying and laughing over this one.

I said the G-Men would be good if they didn’t shoot themselves in the foot like they did last year. They haven’t so far and are right in the mix even though the Cowboys handed their ass to them this past weekend. Jon Kitna? That praying jackass must have called up Jesus before kickoff.

Eagles. Speaking of Ron Mexico, Vick has the Eagles looking sharp. I said they’d have a horrible season and I was wrong. They’re at the top of their division with the Giants. Last night they blew up the Redskins 59-28 on Monday Night Football. It was sick. Sick. Sick. Sick.

I thought McNabb and the Redskins would have an OK season, but I don’t know if they’ll recover after last night’s shellacking. I’ve always liked McNabb, think he’s a class act on and off the field, but he may want to go the way of Favre. Just saying.

The NFC North has the Pack in the lead. I figured this. So have millions of others. No stretch there. They beat the Jets who’s arguably the best team in the AFC. That’s a keeper. Good defense, great QB in Rodgers. Cheeseheads stand up and shout. Lambeau Calling.

Brett Favre and the Vikings. Another bust. I was wrong, said they had a shot at a good season. Like the Giants last year the Vikings have shot themselves in the foot down after down, game after game. I dig on Favre, but he needs to hang up his cleats, stop leaving naughty messages on some hussy’s cell, and go back to the swamps for a freshly dipped country-fried fritter with all the fixins’. It’s over, homie. Sorry.

The Bears are winning. I said they wouldn’t. I was wrong. Da Bears. Fucking Obama must be thrilled. I’m not.

Detroit. I’m always right on this one. Everyone is. The best thing about writing about the Lion’s woes is the opportunity to blame their pathetic football ways on Matt Millen who’s a bloated human turd. But I’m tired of writing about Millen and his cheapness. We all know how he single-handedly dismantled that poor franchise. Damn you, Matt.

In the NFC West the Seahawks are in first place. Who cares. They’re Seattle. I said they’ll lose and they eventually will. If I’m wrong find me and punch me in the throat.

The story in this atrocious division (if there is one) is the Rams and Bradford their rookie QB who’s led the team to some impressive wins. I said they’d stink up the field this year and even though they have a losing record they’re not rolling over when Sunday comes around. Hey, hey.

And what about the Niners? I never, ever, bought into Singletary’s bulging eyes and his silly tough-man speeches. He blows as a coach and his team sucks big ones. Everyone employed by this franchise will be watching the playoffs and the Super Bowl with my pathetic ass. Enough said.

Ok, the NFC is done.

Manning and T.O’s Big Teeth

Indy is winning again. And again. Manning is a football god and barring no bizarre injuries they are playoff bound as usual. There’s nothing else to write here.

I said the Texans would have a horrible season and they are. Same goes for Jacksonville.

The Titans now have Moss who’s been on three teams this year. I don’t know. I thought they’d have a better record. But we’ll see. They have Moss to stretch the field, Chris Johnson who’s a punishing running back, but I don’t think that means a damn at the end of the day. They can’t beat Indy so it’s a wrap.

Jets. Well, they have a loud-mouthed coach, Tomlinson, and a cute QB. They look good and have won a couple of games in OT. They’re not dominating teams, but they’re winning and that’s all that matters. Namath probably couldn’t care less whether they’re playing lights out or struggling. Hey, and where is Namath by the way? At the bar? Tonguing Suzy Kolber? Regardless, they’re tough and playoff bound.

The Bills are horrible. Period.

I said the Dolphins would have a bad season and they are. Marino? Buler?

The Patriots are doing what we all expected them to do: win. Brady’s healthy and throwing the ball with gun-accuracy. The running game is solid. And despite their defense being young Belichick’s defensive schemes will win more games than not.

I predicted the Ravens to be kicking some football butt this year and they have so far. They’re at the top of their division and are looking at tearing up the Patriots in the playoffs once again. It could happen. I’m not a Ravens fan, but what I do like about them is that they could give a rat’s ass about Indy, the Steelers, Saints, and Brady’s cleft chin. They’ll bring it. It makes for good football. (I won’t engage in my traditional rip on Ray Lewis’ dull jock ways in this post. There’s a lot of football left to play. Next time.)

I’m a big Steelers fan, but I’m not convinced they’re that good. Sure, they have a winning record but they look out of sync, out of whack. The Patriots just kicked their ass in their backyard. It was brutal. So, I don’t know. Ben looks rough. Their defense is vicious, but have been giving up big plays in the second half. Pittsburgh Nation is nibbling at their nails no doubt.

Most predicted the Browns to have another losing season and they are. They’ve showed some light (beating the Pats convincingly), but in the end they just don’t cut it.

And the Bengals…heh. Like Robin Williams said in Good Will Hunting: “How ironical.” On paper you’d think these striped bastards would be taking teams out. But no. They have Ochocinco. So what. They have Palmer chucking the ball. Who cares. They got T.O and his stupid face in the off-season. Doesn’t mean shit. What does mean shit is that they suck shit and it tickles me when I see T.O and his huge choppers slumber off the field having lost yet another game. There is a god.

I said the Raiders would reek. We’ve come to expect this. Al Davis is a dreadful owner and needs to take a dirt nap ASAP. But they’re in first place. First place is first place. Living in Southern California I have a lot of friends that are Raider fans and have been getting hate e-mail from these misfits all season long:

“Raiders dickhead! What bitch? What are you gonna say now? Fuck your Steelers! Raiders, baby, Raiders! Deal!”

“Next time I see your Mexican ass me and my boys are going to jump you, paint you silver and black and teabag you!”

Lovely.

Chiefs have proved me wrong so far and are sharing first place with the Raiders. But they play in a perfectly awful division and I see them falling apart in the stretch. Watch.

I wrote that the Broncos would stink and they do. Like Singletary, I don’t buy into their coach. I don’t care about last year’s quasi-success or that he’s a Belichick disciple. The Broncos will have losing seasons for years to come.

Lately the Chargers have started off the season slow and pick it up heading towards the payoffs. I see this happening again. They’ve dominated this weak division for years. The Raiders will eventually lose and so will the Chiefs. Look for San Diego to squeeze out yet another division title and go into the playoffs.

Whew.

That’s it, folks. Football. It’s a disease. For all you Cowboy fans out there: my condolences. For you spoiled Indy fans: keep smiling and save your cash for that playoff seat. For you Jacksonville fans: pray for the Jaguars to pack up their bags and head for the smoggy and stuffy land that is Los Angeles. There’s a lot of football left to play, but we’re almost there. So don’t stop now, baby.

Ciao.

I didn’t give a shit about baseball until I turned 25. Hot days, slow games, the mundane repetitiveness of a guy throwing a ball at a guy with a stick. I’d rather sleep than sit through a round of glorified golf.

Then, three things changed.

One, I moved to a city with Barry Bonds on the team. I’ll fully concede he’s a cheater, a bad teammate, and a jerk. However, he was the best in the game, a lethal clutch hitter, and violently entertaining. I’d plan evenings around Bonds at-bats, lest I miss something fantastic.

Two, I figured out I could get tickets to the best baseball park in America for free. I simply make a little handwritten sign that says “Free Ticket Please” and stand in front of AT&T Park in San Francisco, usually landing a free ticket in less than five minutes. (Try it, it works.) My seat always has a view of the Bay, often with sunset crackling pink across the horizon. The garlic fries are delicious and affordable; bike parking is free. It’s a magical way to catch up with friends.

Three—and the most important variable—I started listening to baseball on the radio. The announcers’ descriptive powers are immense, and took me beyond the mindless commentary of television and into the characters’ heads. I learned the pitcher-batter chess game, how the history of pitches between players affects future pitches and future swings, how the balls-strikes count deeply skews the confidence of pitchers and batters, how fouling off a lot of balls slowly tilts the at-bat to the batter’s advantage. The importance of batters waiting for a pitch to hit and the beautiful talent of pitchers when they never dish up that pitch. The mental funk of a slump, the electric clarity of a hot streak. When to yank a pitcher and play the rookie. The endless joy of clutch play.

Finally, I got it. Beneath its placid surface, baseball cooks a cauldron of mental strength and emotion and guts. It’s the best of the novel in sport form.

Consider the characters. If you fall in with a team, like I have, you probably spend more time with the players than you do with your family—almost every day of the summer, for three hours a pop. Players are usually funny and likeable, and rarely speak in soundbite. My team, the San Francisco Giants, features an overweight Venezuelan nicknamed Kung-Fu Panda; an upgraded minor leaguer who needed ten years to make the big leagues for good; a two-time Cy Young winner called The Freak whose recent pot possession arrest may have made him more popular than his accolades; and a mohawked closing pitcher who dyes his beard and colors his spikes with Sharpies.

Consider the plotting. The season is a marathon, 162 games in which few games truly matter but all of them somewhat do, enough time for storylines to unwind and split and evolve into a saga that usually ends in dismal failure, softened slightly by the hope of next year.

Football’s more popular, the Hollywood blockbuster of our culture, loaded with violent spectacle and huge marketing budgets, invading our home theaters with surround sound body crunches. Their stories are epic and magnificent, D Day and Waterloo outfitted in pads. There’s still nothing bigger than the Super Bowl, a sporting event so huge I was seriously tempted to refer to it as “the Super Bowl of football” so you’d get just how massive it is.

Whereas baseball unlocks the quiet moments. The small adjustments of changing characters, the patience to let a player fight through mistakes and evolve. Hot breezes on a summer day. Incremental improvement over time slowly changing everything. As there is no page limit in novels, there is no clock to race against in baseball—only obstacles to beat. It’s so damn human it hurts.

This week we enter the postseason, the final act. With the pressure to win condensed into a five or seven-game series, strategies shift. Ace pitchers come in as relief; a cold streak can sink a team; every move matters more. Built-up pressures come to a head, capping the ride of the season with a genuine resolution.

It doesn’t get any better than this.

Thank you Mother Nature.

For the seasons are changing. Fall is right around the corner bearing two gifts. For one, my summer depression will soon hit the woe-is-me road for next year. And two, the 2010-11 NFL football season is here!

To hell with baseball!

And lawn bowling!

And Tiger Woods and that soft hobby that has delivered that horny misfit big cash, a divorce, and copious amounts of classy take-home-to-meet-momma beaver!

I mean enough already!

Tiger!

Is this all right with you? Huh?

Good then.

Bring on the blitz!

As you know this is prediction time, folks. Everyone and their dope man knows what’s going to go down this year.

The Saints will kiss the Lombardi once again.

Watch out for the Ravens.

The Raiders will blow as usual.

Keep an eye on the Packers.

So on and so forth.

The truth is no one knows what’s going to happen. That’s the beauty. It’s a long season full of cheers, jeers, and unpredictability. What you can count on is that weird shit is going to go down. Bad luck. Dumb luck. Fluke injuries and victories. Some teams will be sickened one month into the party and other teams will bite and claw for 16 brutal weeks and play their best football as soon as the playoffs hit.

One never knows.

Except for me.

Here we go.


The NFC

The South

The Saints took the pie last year and it was a happening sight. Some say they have a good shot at getting back to the big game. History says there’s a good chance they won’t even make the playoffs. They’re defense is sketchy, but they have Brees and a very dangerous offense to boot. They’ll put on a show no doubt. I say they make the playoffs, but it stops right there.

Falcons have what it takes to battle New Orleans for the West. They have a solid young QB in Ryan, a good running game, and a good defense. With Ron Mexico and the Dirty Bird (thank god) in their rearview mirror, Atlanta is one of those teams to keep an eye out for in 2010.

The other two teams, Carolina and Tampa, are horrible. If you see either of these teams on your team’s schedule then have a party at your house that day. BYOB.


The East

The Cowboys are the favorites to take the division. They have Romo, Austin, Bryant, Witten, a frumpy-looking coach, and all of Texas. That’s good eats. Cowboys fans span the globe and I met one the other day who barked in my ear for what seemed forever (she’s lucky she smelled good or it would have been intolerable) how the Cowboys were snatching the Lombardi this year.

“You’ll see,” she said, blowing a cigarette hit into the L.A night. “All you haters will see. Hot-ass Romo in the middle of the field talking about going to Disneyland or some shit like that. Just watch.”

“He’ll be fishing in the middle of the ocean when that trophy is raised.”

“Kiss my ass!”

I understood what that chick was talking about. The Cowboys are a good team and I expect them to be at the top of the conference at season’s end. Last year the Vikings dismantled them in the playoffs and I’m sure this year they’re looking to rewrite that nightmare.

Look for the Redskins to do a little better this year. Which is not saying much. Owner Dan Snyder (a bona fide football putz) signed McNabb and hired Mike Shanahan as the new head coach. You know, the one with the eye. The one with the Super Bowl rings. Their hope is that Shanahan will conjure up some of that Denver magic. I don’t see it. It’ll be more of the same for the Redskins: dish out a lot of fast cash for veteran players and high-profile coaches and keep losing.

It should be easy for the Giants to have a better season than last year. They ate themselves last year and just need to clean up their act. They have the talent. Saying that, their defense needs to pick it up and put the ball in Eli’s hands. If that happens then the Giants fans should have something to cheer about.

Philly ditched McNabb for Kolb and they’ll soon learn that, sure, the dance with Donovan may have run its course, but his replacement is simply not ready to lead the team to any semblance of success. Good defense. Bad offense. They’ll suck this year.


The North

Brett Favre and the Vikings almost made it to the Super Bowl last year but they blew it big time. But if Peterson can hold onto the fucking ball and the receivers can get healthy one never knows. Favre is a veteran and if he knows one thing it’s football. Minnesota fans should be optimistic.

I like the Pack this year. I think Rodgers is a kickass QB and will probably get a Super Bowl ring before he hangs up his cleats for a gig calling games for ESPN. If that offensive line can block for him and that defense can hold their own then watch out. Really.

Da Bears? Fuggedaboutit. Even if Obama gave them a you-can-believe speech before every game they’d lose more games than they’d win. Look for this to happen in 2010.

The Lions? Well, I will never pass up a chance to rip on Matt Millen so here it goes: yeah, I know that bloated jock pig is not on their payroll anymore, but his short-sighted, dimwitted, boneheaded vision of football cursed that franchise (they didn’t need any help) for all eternity. He ripped out their hearts and shitted on their puny dreams because that’s all he knew what to do. He was incapable of doing or knowing any better. Sorry Detroit. Truly.


The West

I don’t have anything to say about this crappy division so I won’t.


The AFC

The South

One word: Peyton. The Colts are still the team to beat in this division and the entire conference for that matter. Peyton is a football god and he’ll take his team into the playoffs without a doubt. Like the Saints, if the defense can hold their own then it’s on. It’s on regardless. Peyton. Say it again: Peyton.

Jaguars. I like the quarterback and have a good friend that hails from Jacksonville. He’s a crazy fucker that builds muscle cars and like me thinks that Amy Hempel is the bomb. Other than that I have nothing to say about Jacksonville.

The Texans were supposed to have a solid year last year. They didn’t. They won’t this year either.

Vince Young has turned his shit around. I thought the man was dead in the proverbial water. But hey. The Titans have the talent to do some damage this year. They have a vicious running back in Chris Johnson and a smart coach that sports a disgusting croissant-like mustache. I’ll be there to see it when they line up against the Colts. And you should, too.


The East

The safe bet is that the Patriots will again be in the Super Bowl hunt. Brady. Brady. Brady. Moss is returning for one last dance. Oh, and Wes Welker is back and the moody coach in the hoodie will be mumbling at the podium. Enough said.

The Jets have gobs o’ players returning to the team after a solid year last year. Sure, their obnoxious coach has a foul mouth and has the class of a road apple, but he has his team believing they can win. Maybe his verbal prowess can stop Tomlinson from being a post-game pussy and get him to just run the damn football. We’ll see. Sanchez needs to keep up his chops of last year or it’s a bust for New York.

The Dolphins shocked a few people last year when they ended the season at 7-9. One would think they’d be better this year. But because I inherently loathe the Dolphins I say they’re going to stink up the field. Let’s hope.

The Bills are perfectly horrible. Again, if you see the Bills on your team’s schedule chalk it up as a win.


The North

The defense-heavy Ravens should be in the fight once again. The Ravens have a thing for playing spoiler and I can see them making the playoffs and knocking off a team or two with a better record. Last year they smacked around the favored Patriots on national TV. It was a pure ass whooping. It’s what they do. I find Ray Lewis to be an utter bore with his lame two-bit sermons, but the man is an animal on the field and has the power to will his team to victory. I’ve seen it happen one too many times.

Roethlisberger’s off-the-field shenanigans have suspended that super genius for four games. If the Steelers can get passed this mess with a couple of wins they’ll be all right. Ben is still a good QB and the Steelers are, well, the Steelers. They know how to win. I look for them to make a run for the playoffs this year.

The Bengals should have an explosive offense this year with the acquisition of T.O and his big teeth. Let it be known that I think that man is a perfect asshole and hope he takes a short slant route right into Ray Lewis’ helmet and his world fades to black. Ray, I already told you that you bore me, but for the love of god, homie, if you have a love for humanity and god the way you claim that you do then you’d take that degenerate out. You have at least two chances this year. Put it to good use, dog.

Forget about the Browns once again this year. Most do.


The West

The Chargers have dominated this cheap division for some time and should have no problem taking it again and go into the playoffs. Good QB. Gates. Sproles. So-so defense and a coach with great infomercial skin. What else can you ask for? A Super Bowl ring? Oh.

The Broncos? Last year they came out of the gate punching and kicking and then petered out when it counted the most. I don’t like Orton. Nothing personal, but he’s not a leader. They’ll be watching the playoffs with you and me.

The Raiders stink but should have a better season than the Chiefs who stink even more. Like last year, pay no mind to either of these pathetic teams.

Whew. That’s it, folks. Lame utterances and fast picks void of solid ESPN research. Straight gibberish. Just the way it should be. Now, it’s time to call my dope man and find out what he thinks. So fire up the grill. Break out the hooch and the brauts. See you at the stadium.


American football used to be popular in the UK back in the late 1980s when Channel 4 showed games every Sunday. People loved watching players like Joe Montana and John Elway because, well, who doesn’t love a handsome, successful athlete?

I was born in 1989, two years before Joe Montana’s career as a 49er would be effectively ended by a tackle from Leonard Marshall in the 1990 NFC Championship Game. As Montana faded so did the British love affair with American football. Coverage would continue right up until 1998, but the popularity would decline rapidly.

1998 was the year I got into soccer. It was the World Cup, and I became obsessed with the game. Although I would take passing interest in other sports soccer was the only one I’d follow intently. And stayed like that until a dull afternoon in a San Francisco hotel almost a decade later.

Preseason: A Gridiron Galaxy

San Francisco, August 2007

The Grant Plaza hotel was a small hotel in the middle of Chinatown. It was no Hepatitis Hotel, but it was no palace either. The rooms were small and dark and the view out of the window was half courtyard, half scrapheap. But it had a TV.

My brother and I watched that TV a lot, because he and my mother had fallen ill and we couldn’t go out much. This is how we came to witness the stars of the gridiron galaxy come out to shine in a preseason game between the San Diego Chargers and the Seattle Seahawks. I don’t remember that game at all, but I think the Seahawks won.

It was hardly love at first sight, but we’d both gained an understanding of the game. We were keen to learn more, and knew that it was a sport we could come to love in time.

Week Six: Brady Does Dallas

October 2007

My bother and I didn’t pay any attention to the NFL until Week Six. We decided the best way to get into it properly was to start supporting a team. He picked Chicago seemingly at random whilst I unwittingly jumped on a bandwagon.

I didn’t feel too bad when I found out that the Patriots were one of the best teams in the NFL. For the past twelve years I’ve supported Tottenham Hotspur, a soccer team. In that time they’ve managed to win two minor cups and threatened both success and relegation in a rollercoaster of frustrating mediocrity. I felt it was about time I knew what it was like to follow a winning team.

I almost picked the Cowboys— because I’d heard of them. And I’d only heard of them because of the porn film Debbie Does Dallas. Ultimately I picked the Patriots because of their MySpace group. I’d joined a Cowboys group and got told to fuck off. The Pats group members welcomed me like it was an episode of Cheers and I was Norm.

In a twist worthy of a cheap thriller, Week Six of the 2007 season saw the Patriots going to Dallas to play the Cowboys. The Pats would end up annihilating the Cowboys, scoring two points shy of fifty.

I didn’t get to watch the game live. I followed it via updates on NFL.com, and caught the online highlights the next morning after I’d showered. The first time I saw Tom Brady throw a football I was drinking tea and feversishly trying to get my balls dry…

Week Eight: Giant Dolphin

October 2007

I was excited about Week Eight; the Giants would be playing the Dolphins at Wembley Stadium and it would be shown live on the BBC. I was going to watch an entire, proper NFL game.

I was in London on the Saturday before the game. There were stalls and stands all over the place selling football paraphernalia ranging from replica jerseys to commemorative t-shirts to over-sized novelty head gear.

In Trafalgar Square I saw a robotic Jason Taylor of the Miami Dolphins. If you’re going to have the Dolphins over to play a game of football then why not build a towering twenty-six foot likeness of their only decent player?

* * * *

By Week Eight the bad feeling towards the Patriots had increased. First there was ‘Spygate’, then they kept beating everyone and now rival fans were taking great offence at the manner in which the Patriots were winning. Week Eight was the week that the fifty point mark was reached as New England put fifty-two up against the Redskins.

‘Running up the score’ was frowned upon. I didn’t understand it; I was coming from soccer where teams are encouraged to score as many goals as possible. That’s how you win games: by scoring more than the other guys.

On the MySpace group the Pats hatred was fostering an isolated, communal, us-against-them atmosphere. It made for good fun, and it was almost worth the slight discomfort in supporting the sort of sports team that I would probably be outraged by if I didn’t support them. To us the Patriots were the good guys, and they were very, very good.

* * * *

I sat down on Sunday afternoon and took it all in. There was over an hour of build up where all the celebrities that were lurking about got interviewed and talked about watching the NFL in the Eighties.

Eventually the game itself got underway. The Wembley turf was being churned to shit. It was pouring with rain and the Giants’ white jerseys were dirtied and browned by the wet mud.

And there on the BBC Eli Manning threw the first touchdown I’d seen live in the 2007 season.

Week Thirteen: It Was In the Bleak December

December 2007

It had been close— almost too close. But it was 12-0 now, the Pats had beaten the Ravens and the Patriots were just four games away from an undefeated regular season: a perfect season.

At 27-24 it’d been the closest game of the season since the 24-20 victory over the Colts in Indianapolis a month earlier. Talk of the Perfect Season had become almost feverish; in the previous four weeks the Pats had destroyed the Bills and beaten the Colts, the Eagles, and The Ravens on the road. 

Meanwhile on the MySpace group I’d become popular with the regular members. They made me an honorary New Englander. A lot of it had to do with my talent for responding to the rival fans that would join the group to start arguments or spew abuse. It didn’t matter that I lived across the Atlantic and hardly ever got to watch live games, I was one of ‘them.’ The closer the Patriots came to the perfect season the more vitriolic the hate become. The us-against-the-rest mentality grew stronger, and I was ‘us’ because I was against the rest as well.

Week Sixteen: T’was Two Nights Before Christmas

December 2007

On December 23rd 2007 the New England Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins 28-7, and we were just one game away. The Dolphins were easily pushed aside, despite defeating the Ravens the previous week— the only game they won all season.

Over at the MySpace group seasonal greetings we discussed the game, the near-certainty of the 16-0 season and we exchanged season’s greetings. And then it was Christmas.

When Christmas Day arrived my brother and I received our present: cable subscription for the NFL postseason.

Week Seventeen: Standing On the Padded Shoulders of Giants

December 2007

My internet had gone down at home and I was out of contact with the guys on the MySpace group up to, and including game day. I don’t know what the general feeling was, but personally there was no doubt in my mind that the Patriots were going to do it. Defeat was inconceivable, and the Patriots were unbeatable. Sure, Eli Manning was a good QB, but he was no Peyton and over the season the Patriots had just been the best, they’d been the best by a long, long way.

The Giants led 21-16 at the half.

In the second half Brady and Moss would break NFL season records for touchdown passes and receptions to give the Pats a narrow lead. Later Maroney would run for a touchdown and a more comfortable ten point lead.

But right at the end of the last game of the regular season Eli Manning throws to Plaxico Buress for a touchdown. They go for an onside kick.

Vrabel recovers for New England and Brady kneels three times. It’s over: 38-35 Patriots. And it’s undefeated regular season. 16-0. A perfect season.

Super Bowl XLII: Failing to Graduate to Greatness in Glendale

Sunday, February 3rd 2008

Straightforward playoff wins over Jacksonville and San Diego put the now 18-0 Patriots in the Super Bowl. 19-0 seemed almost a formality. On the Myspace group moods were high. Someone in Hartford promised to post me a shirt when we won. A lot of jokes were made about Eli Manning. They were less jokes and more baseless accusations of mental retardation. We didn’t feel any need for caution, and why would we? We’d watched our team beat eighteen teams in a row in the NFL— twenty-one if you back to the end of the 2006 season. It stood to reason that we’d win the next one against a team we’d only beaten a few weeks earlier.

The concept of defeat was even mentioned on the MySpace group. Losing was something that happened to other teams, not the Patriots. Spirits were high on Saturday night, and the next day, whether for real or via TV, we descended on the Arizona desert for Super Bowl XLII.

* * * *

I still don’t understand how Manning spun past Green, or how Tyree caught the ball between hand and helmet. Then a twelve yard gain. All my pessimism, it comes flooding back. This is it. This is where it’s 18-1 and somehow, because it’s the Super Bowl and because it’s the Giants it’s even more humiliating than the Dolphins season.

I could hardly call myself a proper football fan at that stage. It was my first season, and I’d come in to it a few weeks late. I don’t think the Patriots winning every game of the regular season helped much either. It’s easy to support a winning team. I’d kind of just coasted a long on a tide of glory, and I felt pretty bad about it. Despite all the camaraderie on the MySpace group I didn’t feel like a proper fan. I felt like I was playing at it… I was riding a bandwagon from the comfort of a leather sofa three thousand miles from Foxboro— I was a plastic Patriot.

It would change, of course. The next season Brady would suffer a season ending injury and victories would be harder to come by. But at that time my future as a Pats fan was being shaped. The last thirty seconds of the Super Bowl would let me know defeat and lead me to receive gloating and abusive MySpace messages from strangers. It would draw the MySpace group even closer together. We’d become survivors of a harrowing sporting trauma.

Because there on the BBC Eli Manning threw the last touchdown I’d see live of the 2007 season. 

As we all know, everyone in Europe loves football. However, during the World Cup everyone in America has been more interested in where James LeBron (the brother of Duran Duran frontman Simon) is going to be hitting home runs next year, and as such, they missed most of the tournament.

For those of you in that crowd, here’s a team-by-team look at the nineteenth World Cup, so that if you bump into any weird European types you’ll be able to talk to them…


ALGERIA

Algeria contributed very little to this World Cup. They failed to score a single goal, got voted the ugliest team at the tournament by the website beautifulpeople.com, and lost to Slovenia and the USA.

However, they did contribute something: the most boring game of football ever played. In their Group C match against England they managed a 0-0 draw notable for its complete lack of incident— the game was so devoid of action that a bird spent a period of the game perched peacefully on top of Algeria’s goal.


ARGENTINA

What the Argentines brought to the World Cup was sheer comedy value and one of the most surprising comebacks in football history.

In 1986 Diego Maradona was a World Cup winner and had eclipsed Pele as the greatest player of all time. Later on he became a cocaine addict… and then he became really fat… and in 2006 he almost died of a heart condition. For some reason he was then given the job of managing Argentina.

Argentina did well, but Maradona was the star of their World Cup— watch his eyes, and never, ever question his sexuality


AUSTRALIA

They won their last game, apparently.


BRAZIL

Brazil were pretty disappointing; they abandoned their traditional attacking style for something more defensive. They only got as far as the quarter finals and most of their goals were pretty unspectacular. The only really highlight of their World Cup was the goal scored by Maicon in their opening game against North Korea.


CAMEROON

In 1990 Cameroon were the first ever African side to reach the quarterfinals. In 2010 they were the first team to be knocked out. There were literally no highlights— three defeats and only two goals.


CHILE

Somehow, despite winning two games, Chile didn’t really leave much of an impression. They got to the second round, but then lost to Brazil.


DENMARK

Denmark won one game— against Cameroon. They lost to both the Netherlands and Japan. This means their highlight is either beating Cameroon or the hilarious own goal they conceded against the Netherlands…


ENGLAND

It was all pretty bad for the English— beginning with an embarrassing 1-1 defeat to the USA and ending in an actual defeat to the Germans.


FRANCE

France came to the tournament hated by everyone because they cheated to get to the World Cup. They were then rocked by the revelation that star player Frank Ribery had slept with a prostitute— not just any old prostitute, but an underage prostitute.

In a move guaranteed to amplify his robust authority, the manager, Raymond Domenech, announced he was quitting after the World Cup.  He then sent Nicolas Anelka home following an argument, and the rest of the team refused to train. In the last game, several players, including the captain, refused to play.

Every moment of the French World Cup was a highlight.


GERMANY

Germany were pretty much the only side to play with any real attacking flair. They were a joy to watch, and introduced many exciting players onto the world stage— players such as Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller.

There were many highlights for the Germans, and they ultimately won the third-place playoff against Uruguay.  They notched up impressive wins over Argentina, England and Australia, scoring four goals in each. Their best performance was against Maradona’s Argentina, although the victory against England was perhaps the most resounding and most satisfying.


GHANA

Ghana’s defining moment was when they became the first African nation to reach the World Cup semifinals. Well, that should have been their defining moment, were it not for the disgraceful actions of Luis Suarez, who stopped the ball going in with his hands.

Against Uruguay Ghana were the last African team in the tournament and had the whole of Africa—and most of the world— behind them. They were very, very impressive; they beat a good USA side and really, really should have beaten Uruguay.

That should have been their highlight, but I’m giving it to the victory over the USA instead— a glorious achievement and a joyous moment for Africa.


GREECE

Greece were unremarkable— other than beating Nigeria, 2-1, they were essentially making up the numbers.


HONDURAS

Their real highlight was just making it to the tournament proper. Only a few of their players are professionals, and it showed.


ITALY

For only the second time in history the reigning champions failed to get past the group stage. They didn’t really deserve to win the World Cup in 2006 and they were shockingly bad in South Africa. They fucked over almost every single person who’d bet on the World Cup by failing to beat New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia.


IVORY COAST

The Ivory Coast had a disappointing tournament. Their only real highlight was their victory over North Korea—or, if you’re reading this in North Korea, their humiliating defeat to the glorious footballing nation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.


JAPAN

They got to the second round, so I imagine they probably won at least one game…


MEXICO

Mexico were quite good. They also had strikers with rhyming names in Franco and Blanco. They beat France, ruined the opening game for the host nation and reached the second round.

However, the true highlight of their World Cup was the revelation that their thirty-eight year old striker, Blanco, was going out with the eighteen year old Miss Mexico. Ay carumba.


NETHERLANDS

The Dutch won every game in qualifying, in their group, and every game up until the final itself.

None of this matters; the 2010 Dutch team will forever be remembered for karate-kicking a Spanish player and pretty much getting away with it. In 1974 the Netherlands invented ‘total football’ which was a beautiful attacking style. They got to two successive World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978. They lost both, and presumably it was because of this that they decided to play like Leyton Orient on a waterlogged Wednesday night league game against Barnsley.


NEW ZEALAND

Like Honduras, many of New Zealand’s players were semi-professional. One of their players actually had to ask for time off from the bank where he worked in order to play. I love the thought of him telling his manager that he needed to go to South Africa for ‘anytime between two to four weeks. It probably won’t be four weeks…’

New Zealand were glorious. They drew with Paraguay, Italy and Slovakia. They failed to make it out of the group, but they were the only team to go unbeaten at the World Cup.

Although their result against Italy is probably the most impressive, I think their highlight was the draw with Slovakia due to the late and dramatic manner in which they got the result.


NIGERIA

It didn’t matter what Nigeria did in this World Cup, they were always going to  be remembered for this incredible display of incompetence…

It didn’t get much better for them either…


NORTH KOREA

They lost all of their games—they lost to Portugal 7-0. However, they did score against Brazil—they lost, but they scored against bloody Brazil! Kim Jong-Il was so impressed he decided not to kill any of the players or their families. Seriously.


PARAGUAY

The fact that they got to the quarterfinals says more about the quality of this tournament than two thousand lighthearted, humorous words ever could. Succeeding through a couple of draws, a narrow win and a shootout victory after a goal-free 120 minutes, they finally got knocked out by Spain.

Their highlight? Not letting their astounding mediocrity get in the way of their attempt to ruin the World Cup for everyone else.


PORTUGAL

It didn’t get much better than the 7-0 win over North Korea. In fact that was the only game they actually won or scored in. They drew both of their other games, 0-0.


SERBIA

They beat Germany thanks to some awful refereeing. It wasn’t a surprise, because Paul the Pyschic Octopus predicted it would happen. Other than that it wasn’t great to be a Serbia fan during this World Cup.


SLOVAKIA

Does it get any better than beating the reigning World Champions with a thrilling last minute goal? I mean, for a country that has absolutely no chance of getting beyond the second round…


SLOVENIA

Beating Algeria was about as good as it got, and even that wasn’t very good.


SOUTH AFRICA

Unfortunately their highlight was probably Tshabalala’s goal in the opening game of the tournament. They drew that game and went out at the group stage. However, their lasting impression will probably be the way they came out of the tunnel—singing loudly and joyously.


SOUTH KOREA

‘Highlight’ is probably too strong a word to describe their second goal against Greece. It would be harsh to label them as unmemorable, but it would be accurate.


SPAIN

They lost to Switzerland, and didn’t exactly set the tournament on fire. I was one of the few people who found their stupid little passes incredibly irritating and frustrating to watch.

They won every game in the knock-out stage, 1-0.

This does of course mean that they won the World Cup. This would be their defining moment—in the only World Cup in which they’ve gone beyond the quarterfinals.


SWITZERLAND

The best moment of Switzerland’s World Cup was beating the Spanish in their opening game. It would be unfair to say it all went downhill from there, but it was the only goal they managed in the entire tournament.


URUGUAY

The small South American nation punched well above its weight and had their best tournament since the two that they won in the 1930 and 1950.

Much of the success goes to Diego Forlan, voted the player of the tournament. Everyone loved Forlan, and everyone loved Uruguay—that is, right up until the point Luis Suarez robbed Ghana of their place in history. Even more annoyingly, Suarez then openly celebrated when Ghana missed the resulting penalty.


USA

The U.S. had a fantastic World Cup; they were unfortunate not to beat Ghana in the second round, and they demonstrated what those of us who watched the Confederations Cup last year already knew: America are a footballing force to be reckoned with.

The draw with England was impressive, but for sheer drama the highlight has to be Landon Donavon’s stoppage time goal against Algeria.



All I can do as a European is apologise and promise that usually football is much, much more exciting than this. Honest.



Tonight LeBron James, arguably the best player in the NBA–hell, on planet earth–will announce whether he will remain a Cleveland Cavalier or will migrate to greener basketball pastures somewhere else. Somewhere else being either Miami, New Jersey, New York, or Chicago.

King James will announce his decision on an hour-long ESPN special entitled “The Decision.” The DVD release of “The Decision” should be available just in time for the 2010 holiday shopping season. It will make either a splendid stocking stuffer or one of the worst gifts imaginable, depending on what city you rep and where James decides to go.

I’m rooting for Chicago. If LeBron wants to win championships, Chicago is where he should go, considering the solid starting squad of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, and the recently acquired power forward Carlos Boozer. It also doesn’t hurt that Forbes has the Chicago Bulls organization ranked third–behind the Lakers and Knicks, respectively–on its list of the most valuable NBA franchises. The Bulls organization is a solid place for King James to land and embark on fulfilling his championship destiny.

Processing this situation over the past couple weeks–synthesizing the talk radio babble and tweets and newspaper articles into one well-rounded perspective–has been nothing short of bewildering. Everybody has an opinion on where LeBron is going to go, where he should go, where he could go, where he won’t go, et cetera. We’re all just sitting here waiting, scratching our heads and gnawing our nails, waiting for the King to speak. And he’s been mighty quiet about the whole ordeal.

If LeBron James becomes a Chicago Bull the Bulls are a championship-caliber basketball team. If he does not sign with the Bulls, the Bulls are significantly better than last year, which doesn’t amount to much when it comes to playoff time. You need to have a superstar to win an NBA championship, end of story.

Chicago acquiring LeBron James could prove a magnificent resurrection of sorts, bringing a whole generation of guys back to the team. Guys like me, who grew up with the Bulls Dynasty, and who will likely buy new Bulls schwag and will no longer have to refer to the team as Da Bulls. Personally speaking, a renewed Bulls franchise will steal my focus away from worrying about the morbidly awful Chicago Cubs–a team that has not won a World Series since 1908. (That’s the same year Henry Ford invented the automobile assembly line and started churning out Model Ts.)

Still, I have this nagging suspicion that King James is not going to be a Chicago Bull. My basketball insecurities bristle up, and my gut instinct tells James will remain a Cleveland Cavalier. If so, loyalty is clearly more important to the LBJ brand than winning. What’s more, LeBron James is a vital component of Cleveland’s economy, if not the only thing going for that city right now. So, what kind of person would commit an entire hour of television to royally screwing his hometown team?

Uncertainty rules. One thing’s for sure: Tonight’s airing of the “The Decision” will either cast LeBron James as a hometown hero of the highest class or as one of ugliest egos professional sports has ever seen. And we will all be witnesses.


I’ve never been a runner.  Then I moved to Boulder.  This brings to mind an atheist moving to  some similarly-sized Bible belt town.

New arrival: “Hi! I’m your new neighbor. I’m Mark.”

Neighbor: “Howdy Mark. I’m Chad. Great day for the move, eh?  By the way, what church ya’ll looking to go to?”

Except of course the Boulder version goes:

New arrival: “Hi! I’m your new neighbor. I’m Mark.”

Neighbor: “Namaste Mark. I’m River. Gotta love this Colorado weather, right?  So!  You a 5K guy? 10K? Marathoner? Iron man?”

I’ve never been a runner.  It’s the boredom that puts me off.  Just pumping one foot in front of another over and over again with no other real goal is not my flavor.  I do play soccer, tennis and basketball, which involve sprinting and jogging for maybe an hour or two at a time.  I skateboard, and I snowboard hard.  I practice Kenpo a few times a week.  I’m in pretty good shape.  But this is Boulder.  All that’s just dilettante shit.  No run?  No cool.

I hit the ball so fucking hard that as I approached second base, I remember thinking I should probably send a letter of apology to the ball’s manufacturer.  “Sorry I obliterated your product.  Nothing personal.”

***

July, 2003, Newton, Massachusetts

To the extent that men playing softball can be taken seriously by the outside world, I assure you that our league was viciously competitive.  To be fair, most of us were competing against the aging process, against the passing of our athletic prime so many years before, and competing against the emotional scalding you endure when you try to explain to someone that you play softball competitively, as they roll their eyes.

But back to the hit.

I don’t even remember if we were winning at the time but I do remember taking a pitch deep into right center field.  As I took off for first base, I recall thinking that it had been several games since I had hit a home run.  There was no fence in the outfield, so the only way you got a home run was to outrun the throw home.  I bore down.

As I rounded second, I lost sight of the ball, which was now somewhere behind me in right center field.  I looked towards “Bips,” our third base coach, for the signal to either hold up at third or to go for the home run.

Steaming towards third, I locked eyes with Bips, who looked back at me as if I had just asked him to name his top five favorite German theologians.  His stare was blank.

I realized that Bips, though physically standing at third, was mentally somewhere in the Bahamas.  I would have to blindly gamble on whether to go for it or not.

I recall thinking, “I’m fast as shit- I’m going for it.”

And so I did.

As I tagged third and made the turn towards home plate, I caught a final glance at Bips, who continued to stare at me as if we were just meeting for the first time (we had known each other for 20 years).  I gritted my teeth and charged towards home, arms swinging to drive my momentum through the final yards.

The ball entered my vision from the left , as I was about halfway down the line.  The throw first hit the ground, then bounced up into the catcher’s mitt while I still had a good three yards to go.

Our league had a rule where you always had to slide into the base when the ball was in the player’s hand or on the way.  This was to avoid injury, both by accident and fist.  So I did not have the option of taking the catcher out.  Instead, knowing I was dead to rights I lowered my right knee to the ground and slid right into him.

What happened next is one of the most horrifying moments of my life.

Sliding forward, my left foot hit straight into the catcher’s shin guard, and then time slowed as I watched my foot bounce back into my ankle, and then seemingly fall out of the joint.  My left foot folded ninety degrees inward and I lost the next 30 seconds.

I have been told that the scream in which I then indulged was of the blood curdling variety, but I don’t personally recall it.  I just lay there at home plate, out, and thinking to myself, “Shit- all these years and I’ve never broken a bone.”

My friend Marty was the first one to reach me from our bench.  He got right in my face, looked me in the eye, and with one of those overly-calm voices that people use when everything is spiraling out of control, said, “Joe, something pretty fucked up just happened, OK?  You don’t want to look down there- OK?  Just don’t look- look at me.  OK?  Just look at me.  You don’t want to look at it.  We’re calling for help…”

I took his advice, never again looking down at my ankle.  Even worse, while I could feel my foot hanging at an obscenely unnatural angle, my right cleat was still a good foot from home plate.

Fucking Bips…

Players came by and checked on me, including the opposing team’s catcher, who offered an apology, though he was completely blameless.  It was simply a freakish accident.

I noticed the wife of one of our players getting sick behind the bleachers, apparently from simply looking at my ankle.  Her reaction confirmed the soundness of my decision to not regard my dangling extremity.


***

The guys in the ambulance were vintage Boston- thick accents and absolutely no sense of propriety.  They were wearing street clothes, too, which I thought was weird.  It was like they had been mowing a lawn when the call came to get me.  The two EMTs in the back were having a field day.

“Jesus fahkin’ Christ, buddy.  What the fahk were you thinkin’?”

“Yah, we only see shit like this in fahkin’ cahr accidents.”

“Buddy, you were a fahkin’ mile from home plate.  Didn’t yah little league coach evah tell you to look at yah third base coach?”

“Jimmy,” one of them called to the driver, “Can you see this kid’s fahkin’ ankle?”

“Holy fahk!” I heard from the front seat.

“Hey pal, you evah have moah-feen?”

“Morphine?  No, never,” I said.

“Well yah gonna.”

“Great.  I can scratch another one off my list,” I said, finding a little bit of humor in this silvery narcotic lining.

One of the EMTs called ahead to the hospital and requested authorization to give me morphine.  He received it and went to town.

After a few moments, I said, “[h]ey, did you guys give me enough?  I’m not feeling anything.”

“Pal, yah lit up like a Christmas tree.  It’s werkin’.”

“You sure?”

“Yup.”

“Then can we put on some Allman Brothers or something?” I said.  “I need something to kick this into high gear,” I said, as I began giggling uncontrollably, still believing the morphine was ineffective.

The EMTs shook their heads at me as I, unable to stop laughing, continued to try to persuade them that I needed more.  Amazingly, I believed it.


***

When they wheeled me into the ER, I was still lying on my right side, clad in my dusty, sweaty uniform.  I had been in this position since the ill-advised slide, frightened to move my left leg at all, due to the freakish sensation of my left foot flapping in the breeze.

The ER doctor was a tiny woman with gigantic empathy.  She smiled sadly as she took a look at my ankle, asked me a few questions, and gently poked my silly little foot.

She said “[i]t doesn’t look like a break, but it’s a complete dislocation.  I’ll be right back.”

I lay there feeling the morphine wearing off and trying to imagine all the creative ways my girlfriend would surely find to call me a jackass.  We had, only weeks before, brought home two golden retriever puppies.

Puppies that were not yet housebroken.

Our “house” being a tiny one bedroom apartment on the third floor of an ancient building on the busiest street in Cambridge.

A building with no air conditioning.

In the hottest month of the hottest summer in a decade.

In that moment, I understood that her summer had just gone from zero to crappy in about an hour.


***

The ER doctor reappeared with two massive dudes in white doctor coats.

“Mr. Daly, you know what we have to do, right?”

Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that they would have to pop my foot back into place.  Missing this detail was likely a consequence of the morphine coursing through my veins.  But drugs or no drugs, the way she asked the question led me to believe that the process would be considerably far from pleasant.

The female doctor began directing the two other doctors to hold me down, which raised my anxiety significantly.  I could not recall any experience in my life where being held down was associated with something fun.

Then she began, “OK, on my count.  One… two…”

Hold it!,” someone shouted suddenly.  I think it was one of the guys holding me down, but I had my face buried in my forearm.  “Give him some more morphine.”

My hero.

They shot me up with more morphine and then got back to business.

“One… two…  three!”

I know my scream was loud because when it eventually stopped, the entire emergency room was silent.  Not a single word could be heard from the waiting room, the nursing station, or the other patients and doctors around us.  Just the beeps of the machines.

But my foot was back in place.

***

My girlfriend soon arrived and she did call me a jackass shortly thereafter, having long mocked me for being a grown man playing softball.  She did take fantastic care of me, which was no picnic for her on a number of levels.  While I spent the next couple months beached on the futon, whacked out on Percocets and red wine and watching “Blind Date” reruns, she had to carry two puppies up and down three flights of stairs easily ten times a day in sticky New England humidity.  This of course earned her both rock star status and lots and lots of bargaining chips in future negotiations.

I attended the final game of the series on crutches.  We won the championship, and the guys gave me the game ball, which still sits on my kitchen counter to this day.  It is the one ball the dogs do not get to chew.

My left ankle has lost a considerable amount of flexibility, and whenever I run for too long, I experience sharp pains through the area.  Still, I came back the next season, although I moved from second base to right field.

When I moved to San Diego a year later, I entered the San Diego Adult Baseball League’s open draft and got taken second in the AA division.  I lasted one season, batting somewhere around the Mendoza line before hanging up my cleats for good.  My ball playing career, which begun at age eight on a tiny field in Worcester, Massachusetts, ended on a dusty field just north of the Mexican border, twenty years later.

Given the constant reminders that my ankle provides me, I reflect on the accident pretty regularly.  I don’t have many regrets with how it all went down, but if I could change just one thing about the entire experience, it would be this:

I would have asked someone to take a picture of me lying at home plate with my foot hanging off.  Seriously, how fucking cool would that be?




Super Bowl Sunday. February 7, 2010, 2:00 p.m.

If the hereafter has a switchboard, it’s jammed today.

There are prayers going out to the saints, for the New Orleans Saints. St. Jude might be getting a break this afternoon. He heard pleas for four decades, I’ll bet, for that lost cause of a football team.

My own grandfather requested divine intervention for his home team, year after year. Some weekends, I sat within earshot of him and my uncles as they shouted and prayed. Lord, the noise! Dear Blessed Mother, the fumbles and fouls! In my smart-mouthed youth, I might have asked aloud why they continued to cheer every season for such losers. I am almost certain I, too, muttered the slur, The Ain’ts. All involved, please accept my apology.

When your opponent is going to strike, and you are also going to strike, your body is on the offensive, and your mind is also on the offensive; your hands come spontaneously from space, striking with added speed and force. This is called Striking without Thought or Form, and it is the most important stroke. Learn it well.

-Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

 

I don’t go to Las Vegas looking for a fight but I end up with three of them anyhow. I win the first two, but the final one, the most important one, is giving me trouble.

My opponent is older than me by at least fifteen years and built like a bear, thick in the torso with stout, strong limbs, but surprisingly fast. Twice now I’ve underestimated his quickness and paid the price for it. He’s good, cautious, refusing to commit to an attack that won’t succeed and maintaining a solid defense. Trying to go toe-to-toe with him is foolish, so I keep my feet moving, waiting for an opening to present itself. The score stands 2-1, his favor.

This is final match of the Black Belt Men’s Heavyweight division. Championship bout. My first competition in twelve years.

As a teenager I did well enough on the tournament circuit to be ranked 5th nationally in my weight class, but I “retired” after my first year of college, unable to maintain the rigorous training schedule necessary for regular competition. I came out to Vegas because the promoters are friends who offered to comp my hotel room if I served as a judge. Competition anywhere other than the gaming tables was not in my plans. But that was before I turned five bucks into two hundred playing blackjack, and on a whim I signed up in the morning, galvanized by a sense of good fortune. I expected to lose in the first round, and I’m surprised–and more than a little proud–to have made it this far, and I know that I’ve already scored a victory regardless of how the match turns out.

But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to let this guy roll over me. Oh, hell no.

If he wants that trophy, he’s damn well going to have to fight for it.

He is, however, giving as good as he’s getting, and maybe a little more on top of that. Though I’m the more flexible of the two of us, faster with my feet, I have to keep surrendering ground to maintain kicking distance, and every time I do he presses the attack. I block a flurry of punches but I’m trapped up against the edge of the ring, and he scores with a lunging thrust kick to my belt. 3-1.

Despite what may be shown in movies and in the UFC, sparring in a karate tournament is less about brute force and more about skill, finesse, and technique, and even open tournaments like this one have lately been cracking down on excessive contact violations. Lower division competitors win by being the first to reach three points, but for black belts it’s either the first to five or a three-point spread: 3-0, 4-1, 5-2. It’s one point for a shot to the body, torso or groin, two points for a more difficult headshot. There are five judges in the ring, and at least three of them must confirm a point for it to be valid.

My opponent retreats a bit, trying to lure me in the appearance of an easy point, but I hold back, controlling my breathing and waiting for a real opening. Most of his previous attacks have come over the top, taking advantage of his greater size and longer reach, but this time when he lunges in I switch-step into a right stance and pivot on my right leg, launching a spinning back kick with my left. It’s a risky move, one that leaves me largely defenseless, and if I’ve fudged the timing I’m going to get clobbered. But my foot slips right on up under his elbow to land solidly in against his rib cage, and the judges give me the point. 3-2.

One way or another, we’re going for five.

I’ve never felt more physically sure that I’m out of my twenties than I do now. The previous matches have taken their toll on me and I’m bone weary. My limbs ache in a way they never did when I was a regular competitor, and I’m sharply aware of the heaviness of my arms and the dull ache in my left thigh that will most certainly turn into a cramp tomorrow, of the nasty silicone taste of the mouthpiece enrobing my teeth and the way the sweat gathering on the bottom of my feet is costing me traction on the ring floor.

We both attack when the center judge gives the command to start, clashing together in a flurry of mish-mashed punches and chops, close enough to taste each other’s sweat, to hear each other gasping for breath and grunting with effort. It’s a clumsy, awkward hit, and neither of us scores any points.

When the judges start us again, I get too aggressive, too cocky, very nearly giving him a free headshot and ending the match. I get my block up just in time, but he still manages to land couple of shots to my solar plexus as I do. 4-2.

My opponent thinks he’s found a weakness. He throws a roundhouse kick to my groin, but it’s just an easily-blocked feint, a cover as he tries to come in with a backfist-punch combination to my head. Instead of raising my block again I sidestep forward and under his attack, landing a couple of quick jabs to his ribs while he strikes the air where my head used to be. 4-3.

I’m starting to feel like I might actually have a chance of winning this thing, but I clamp that feeling down. Fights are lost by indulging it.

We circle each other warily, throwing a couple of feints, trying to feel each other out, but not committing to an attack. My opponent doesn’t need to score anymore to win; he just needs that two-minute clock to run down and the match is his. I know there are only a handful of seconds left, and my energy reserves are reaching a critical low.

Heck with it, I think. You had your fun. Give ‘em a good show on the way out.

My opponent’s strategy has been solidly based on linear backwards/forwards progression, so I for my last attack I play the angles, feinting sideways into hard right stance, intending to transition to the left oblique across his line of attack and deliver a roundhouse kick to his undefended head as he takes the feint and tries to counter attack.

But as I make the switch my sweat-soaked right foot slips forward as though it’s just come down on a stray skateboard, hard enough to make the muscles attached to my hip groan and throwing my weight forward instead of at the angle. I stumble, completely open and undefended, and my opponent moves to take advantage.

I’m screwed. My balance is shot and there’s no way to regain it in time to get my defenses up. And with out any traction available on the ring floor there’s no way to resist as my own center of gravity carries me forwards.

So I go with it. With all my weight balanced precariously on my right, I kick up and out with my left, aiming for the one target zone available.

It’s beautiful. Practically a moment of Zen.

My foot curves up and around like an inverted smile, whipping back into a perfect hook kick to my opponent’s unguarded head. It’s the kind of shot that gets the slow motion treatment in a movie, the physical equivalent of tossing my last five dollars down on a blackjack table and walking away with two hundred. It stops him in his tracks.

The judges’ decision is unanimous: two points to me for the win. 4-5

My left shoulder hurts, my ribs ache, I’ve pulled a calf muscle and wrenched both my right foot and right knee when I scored that final kick.

Damn it feels good.

Well, folks, the NFL season is coming to an end. Which for me and countless others means depression is creeping in. No more deep passes and corner blitzes. No more audibles, hot routes, bruises, or broken fingers. Like Thom Jones wrote, “Oh, baby, I’m so depressed.” ESPN and its talking heads will be neck-deep in baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, and NASCAR. Not good. Don’t count me in. I’ll be watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians, keeping tabs on Kim’s sultry, almond-shaped eyes and manufactured bolt-ons. And let’s not forget Bruce Jenner! I’m fully bewildered by his 70’s haircut and his train wreck of a face-lift. It’s a wild sight. The man is truly weird looking. Anyhow, football. The 2009-2010 NFL season is almost a wrap. This is what happened.

Life is a Brees: The NFC

In the NFC the Saints came out of the gate punching and kicking. Their offense was prolific and they scored TDs like Costco sells frozen chicken fingers: in bulk. Brees was a badass and lit up defenses all season long. It was something to see. They butchered the Cardinals in the Divisional playoff game and squeezed out a victory in overtime against the Vikings. People predicted them to make it to the Super Bowl and that’s exactly what happened. They’re going to Miami, hoping to bring a Lombardi to New Orleans. We’ll see. Who Dat!

Favre and the Vikings made a run for the big game. They played the Saints in the NFC Championship game and had the thing won, but Favre threw a costly interception that sealed their fate. They had their chances despite five turnovers. Now, the big question is: will Brett retire once again and ride his dusty tractor off into the hillbilly horizon? Brace yourselves, people. Another teary-eyed retirement may be on the way. Whay.

The Packers had a good year and made it to the playoffs and had a shootout with the Cardinals that had both teams scoring a million points apiece. They came up short, but watch out for these guys next year. I like Rodgers and see him doing great things in the years to come.

The Eagles made it to the playoffs but got their asses handed to them by Romo and the Cowboys. In recent history the Eagles are the quintessential almost-but-not-quite football team. They’ve made the playoffs pretty consistently and even made it to the Super Bowl in 2004, but could never snatch themselves a Super Bowl ring. They might be cursed. But by who? Ron Jaworski? Terrell Owens and his big horse teeth? Regardless, I think their best days are behind them. Sorry, Donovan. Have some chicken soup and take a napper.

The Cowboys played well all year and in December—when they’ve historically imploded—they played their best football of the year. Their running game was solid, their defense was tough, and Romo was making plays. They smacked around the Eagles in the playoffs and then went on the road and got pummeled by the Vikings 34-3, sending them back to Dallas dizzy and crestfallen. Go figure. That whole sentiment of the Cowboys being “America’s team” has to go. Really. They’re just another team that watches the Super Bowl with the rest of us.

“They will never win with that pussy-looking coach,” a Cowboy fan yelled over the phone. “He looks like a fat eleven year-old with wrinkles.”

It’s true. He does.

So who are the teams that stunk up the field this season?

The Bears and Lions are perfectly miserable teams and thus had perfectly miserable seasons. Especially, the latter that have been eternally screwed by Matt Millen who’s an impeccable fool and a bona fide loser. As usual, the Redskins had yet another pathetic season. Don’t watch the Redskins snap another ball, folks. Don’t do it. Put on the Travel Channel and watch Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and watch that bald fucker scarf down a pair of sautéed bull nuts or gnaw on rabbit doused in a creamy chocolate sauce. It’s far more entertaining. Really.

The Seahawks, Niners, Falcons, Panthers, Bucs, and Rams were equally horrible (well, to be fair, the Niners and the Falcons didn’t look that bad) and should have quit a month into the season and worked on their golf game. They should have hired Tiger Woods for some pointers. But it seems to me that at that time Mr. Woody’s schedule was constantly booked with dewy waitresses and other assorted star fuckers.

There you go: The NFC.

Peyton’s Place: The AFC

The AFC will be sending the Colts to the Super Bowl. Peyton Manning is phenomenal and is arguably the best QB to ever play the game. Like the Saints, a lot of people saw these dudes making and winning the Super Bowl with ease and Manning getting sized for yet another championship ring and a healthy cash bonus to boot. Cha-ching. I do see them winning the Super Bowl.

Indy barreled through the Ravens in the Divisional playoff game, shutting Ray Lewis up until next fall. I saw the game in a dinky bar in Highland, California, and was thrilled. Now, don’t get me wrong, Ray Lewis is one hell of a linebacker but he’s arguably the most vacuous human being to ever put on an NFL uniform. He’s a five-star bore and his pre-game sermons are lame, dimwitted, and dull. It wouldn’t surprise me if Lewis becomes a TV evangelist after he hangs up his cleats drawing cheap boneheaded parallels between football and salvation. Lord have mercy! Please, Lord, have some damn mercy!

The Patriots made the playoffs but weren’t as good as people predicted. They looked flat and uninspired all season long and got their asses kicked in their own back yard by the Ravens in the Wild Card game. The Chargers played solid all year long. They scored big points and kicked in some teeth along the way, making them a serious contender to get to Miami. But then the Jets came into town and kicked in their teeth in the divisional playoff game and strolled into the sweet San Diego sunset eating fish tacos and eye-balling the ladies.

The Jets came out of nowhere this season. No one predicted them to win with a rookie QB in Sanchez at the helm. And definitely no one saw them making the playoffs. But they did and knocked out Ochocinco and his Bengals with ease and then zipped off to San Diego to piss on Rivers’ parade. Their Super Bowl dreams croaked when they got to Indy. But it took the best team in the AFC to eliminate them from the tournament. That’s saying something. It was a good ride loaded with a vicious defense and their obese coach flapping his insatiable gums every time a mic was in his face. That guy was a sound bite machine and has a body the size of a full-grown rhinoceros. Step away from the buffet coach. Please.

So, who were the teams that bored us with their inept football ways? Here they are:

Miami, the Raiders, Chiefs, Jacksonville, Texans, Titans, Buffalo, Browns, Steelers, and Broncos. I think that’s everybody. I may have forgotten somebody. But does it matter? The answer is no. Jacksonville and the Texans had a shot at the playoffs but came up short. The Titans—who started off the season losing a batch of games in a row—came back at the end of the season and had a slight chance at making the playoffs. But when the final whistle blew it was a no-go.

The Browns have been horrible for decades and will continue to be horrible for decades. The Steelers—the reigning Super Bowl Champs—delivered a perfectly shitty product this season that had Jack Lambert knocking out his choppers once again. The Bills and Dolphins are lousy and fully incapable of playing football on a professional level, period. The Chiefs were horrible this year. As usual. And the Raiders? Sure they had a decent defense but they suck and Al Davis sucks even more. That old fart needs to take a dirt nap or retire. He’s a disease. And the Broncos? Well, at the beginning of the season people were singing their praises. I was one of those that didn’t and was waiting for them to shit in their bed. And guess what? They did. A giant steamer that floated across this football land and beyond. Call me Ishmael. Call me Nostrareno.

Well, that’s it. That’s how it went down. Next stop: Miami. Colts v. Saints.

Watch it.

Order pizza and drink beer.

After all it’s a National Holiday.

Cheers, folks.

Prior to being expelled from the team and subsequently the school for stealing Coach’s cell phone, deleting all of his contacts to conceal the stolen item, then turning around and selling said stolen phone to another player, Delonta was a college basketball teammate of mine.

Delonta was no taller than 5’6″ with shoes. He was, by all means, an unlikely candidate for the sport, particularly on a roster of towering trees on the hardwood. However, Delonta had freakish athletic ability evident in his lateral quickness, vertical jump, and uncanny ability to create sufficient space between him and the defender, which allowed him ample time to get off the open shot. He was a sharp shooter who lived mostly behind the 3-point arc, but once inside the paint lived predominantly above the rim gliding by and above defenders over a foot taller.

He had a shiny head that he shaved regularly, a bright smile, and hands the size of our starting center, Stanford, who was well aware of Delonta’s pilfering past and prior misdemeanor convictions.

“Keep a close eye,” Stanford had said when Delonta appeared through the double-doors on the first day of tryouts.

After Delonta made the roster and our first away game scheduled, I was in Coach’s office shooting the breeze about our potential for the season when Stanford moseyed in through the door. He folded his giant body into the lone chair beside me in Coach’s office. He slouched a bit, positioned his elbow on his knee, and propped his face in his hand.

“Coach,” Stanford said, “I don’t care if the locker room door is bolted shut with a logging chain and a 5-inch thick padlock, I’m not leaving my shit in the open for sticky fingers to snatch. I’m telling you Coach, your golden boy is a thief and will pick the pocket of more than just the opposing player.”

Coach was The Redeemer in a way. He was all about second chances. No one was flawed in his opinion, only misguided, and could be put back on the straight and narrow with the proper mentor—someone who could identify the struggles of the individual and help them overcome it. One way of doing that was to be part of a team, an interconnected group of individuals whose success depended on the whole of the team and not on one individual. It was a way for a kid turned sour to turn good again. He could play basketball as well as earn his degree, and with an education came a better future and more open doors.

“I’ll pay close attention,” Coach responded, trying to appease Stanford. “But give him a chance, will you? People change.”

Stanford rose, sort of shook his head a little and unwillingly agreed to give Delonta the benefit of the doubt—for Coach’s sake.

For the short time I knew Delonta, he was a likeable guy and could tell a story with the best of them. On our third road trip that season, Stanford sat in the back of the bus with his headphones in, nodding along to the music in his ears. His left leg was stretched out and straightened in the aisle.

The entirety of the team went through their pre-game road rituals.

Jerel began freestyling.

“I like that,” Chris said in response to Jerel’s freestyle before beginning his own.

Then Buck jumped in.

Then Juan.

Keshawn Pickens sat beside me and Bird Owen and Palmer to the right of us.

My ritual consisted of reading Larry Bird’s autobiography, Drive, every road trip—a habit that, more than anything, grew out of superstition.

“I think you’d appreciate this,” Coach had said to me, handing me the book prior to one of our away games.

That night I went out and scored 19 points, grabbed 17 rebounds, and dished out eight assists in a win. Therefore, as a rule of superstition, it became a necessity to read Drive every trip while twiddling a crumpled Dennis Rodman trading card between my fingers for hours on end as I read.

Delonta initiated his road ritual that day, a ritual that would only last approximately two more games before being banished from the basketball team for good.

“I have a story,” Delonta began. He licked his lips and rubbed his thumb against his heavy eyebrow, a habit of his that accompanied the onset of a brief narrative.

“When I was in first grade, I was a good speller,” he started. “So I’m standing up there in front of the school in the auditorium. The year-end Spelling Bee. The Big Finale. It’s just me and another kid. We’re the only two left. Everybody else has been knocked out. Kids sitting down, still crying ’cause they missed a word ten minutes ago. One boy had to be picked up and carried offstage by two people because he was so upset he lost. Me and this other kid are going back and forth; the judges trying to make one of us slip up. My moms is in the front row, smiling. Proud of me.”

“‘Bicycle,’ the judge says.”

“‘B-I-C-Y-C-L-E,’ I respond. My moms gives a big thumbs up.”

“‘Hydrant,’ another judge follows.”

“‘H-Y-D-R-A-N-T,’ the other boy spells.”

“We’re neck and neck. It goes on like this for a solid two-three minutes. Neither of us falters.”

Delonta pauses. Jerel has stopped freestlying, as have Chris and Buck. All eyes are on Delonta except Stanford. He’s still in the back of the bus. Sleeping. Leg stretched out.

“Then the judge says, ‘Crayon.’ My smile gets this big.”

Delonta smiles from ear to ear.

“You stupid,” Bird says to him, laughing.

“So I’m thinking, ‘I got this Bee.’ This kid doesn’t have a chance. I’m taking home the gold today. ‘Crayon,’ I respond. ‘C-R-A-,'”

Delonta pauses again.

“‘C-R-A-Y-O-‘”

“I’m picturing my crayons in my hand, coloring. My favorite color green. I’m smiling. I’m gonna win the Spelling Bee. My moms is smiling. Everybody in the auditorium has their attention focused on me. The principal is looking at me. My teacher.”

“‘C-R-A-Y-O-L-A, Crayon.'”

“‘I’m sorry, Delonta,’ the judge says. ‘That is incorrect.'”

“‘C-R-A-Y-O-L-A,’ I spell out again.”

“‘I’m sorry, Delonta.’ He looks at the other kid as if to give him a chance to spell it.”

“‘Crayon. C-R-A-Y-O-L-A. Crayon,’ I say, crying. My moms is up from her seat, walking hurriedly toward the steps to the stage. The principal is nodding his head at the assistant principal. The auditorium is in complete silence. The kid who had been crying for ten minutes because he spelled a word wrong ten minutes ago has stopped crying. He’s looking at me.”

“‘That’s how they spell it on the box,’ I say to the judge.’That’s how they spell it on the box!'”

“At this point, my mom has whisked me from the stage and taken me behind the curtain. Her hand is over my mouth. My feet are dragging the ground.”

“‘Crayon,’ I hear the other kid say, ‘C-R-A-Y-O-N, Crayon.'”

“I’m throwing a temper tantrum, protesting to my mom and telling her they are cheating. My mom is whipping my ass behind the curtain. And everybody’s clapping for the other kid who just won the spelling bee.”

Less than a month after telling this story, Delonta was expelled from the team after Coach’s cell phone went missing and was traced to another player on the team who it had been sold to. Whether or not Delonta’s failed attempt at winning the coveted Spelling Bee championship in 1st grade after being robbed of the crown on account of corporate branding and product monopolization was the result of his descent into a life of crime and kleptomania is anyone’s guess.

Nevertheless, his theft did result in his banishment from the basketball team for good; and though Delonta may have been a kleptomaniac, it was never suspected he was a pathological liar and had made up the Spelling Bee story. Stanford would later transfer on scholarship to an apprentice school in Norfolk and be zapped by a high voltage of electricity while working as an apprentice in the shipyard. He would be okay.

Fin.


“I got beaten by a fairy,” I said to David, the New York City Marathon finish line director, after I crossed the finish mats, wondering if I was going to puke. A worker put a medal around my neck. I talked instead of puking.

“I ran as hard as I could but the fairy beat me,” I said, and peeled off to the celebrity exit. I felt like weeping. I always do after a marathon, good or bad – it’s a flood, the emotion, the stuff you’ve kept pent up for a few hours because you’re concentrating on running, that stuff takes the easy way out, which is release by weeping. With David I didn’t worry about weeping or not making sense, because he’s seen a good half million marathoners finish and must have talked to a thousand of them. Or listened to them. Or danced away from their puke.

So he didn’t bite on the fairy thing. “Good job,” he said, “Good job. Looks like you’re in under five.”

“It sucks,” I said, drawing my mylar blanket around me, “I blew up. Groin. Groin blew up. Yesterday I told you hamstrings, but it was the groin. And I got beaten by a fairy.”

“Go up to the celebrity tent.”

He led me to a gap in the fence, where orange-jacketed workers checked out my secret stickers, and let me through. I had only had a couple of hundred feet to go and lots of attendants, because I was a celebrity, and we got special treatment before the race and after it, even though what happened during it was up to us. The other celebrities were real celebrities, like P Diddy, or they were friends of the sponsors, or they were like me, one of the guys in the racing business, getting what amounted to professional courtesy. Celebrity status at this race covered a lot of ground, and although I liked what it promised, I had been ambivalent about it because most of the other celebrities were not serious runners. Evidently I wasn’t either, because I’d just been beaten by a fairy.

At the moment, though, I felt like a celebrity. Someone offered me water. A man draped my arm over his shoulder and walked me away from the gate. Another person clipped my timing chip off and thanked me. A woman walked me up the path, looked at me carefully and asked if I was all right. I knew she meant was I physically all right, so I said I was fine and didn’t need anything. At the tent a young woman led me to the bags and found mine for me.

“Can I take anything out of it for you?” she said while handing it to me.

“No, I’m fine. But thank you.”

I wasn’t fine. What I meant was that I wasn’t going to faint, I wasn’t going to puke, my blisters and sore toes were nothing, and my groin didn’t hurt now that I’d stopped running. So I was fine except for the cramps that I knew would be along pretty soon, but in the meantime I could flop down on the Central Park celebrity grass and have some Poland Spring and hope that nobody I knew would find me for a while, wouldn’t out me and my dogshit time, because I wasn’t ready to talk about how much of an idiot I’d been, how I’d forgotten what I knew how to do, that I’d run stupidly and had been beaten by a fairy. Probably.

By this time I was thinking more clearly and wondering if the fairy had really beaten me. Maybe I’d beaten her. I didn’t know for sure, even though when I charged up the last little hill to the finish line, I’d thought that the fairy had been ahead of me, even though I couldn’t see her. The last time I’d seen the fairy she was ahead of me and moving away, but that didn’t mean she’d stayed there. The fairy and I had swapped positions eight or ten times since the 59th Street Bridge, and the last time I’d seen her moving away from me had been back on Central Park South, which had felt a hell of a lot longer at the end of the race than it had when I’d walked down it the night before to get to my free celebrity room in the Sheraton. I’d bet there were a thousand people on that stretch of road, so it was possible that I’d passed the fairy for the last time and hadn’t known it. But in my heart I was sure the fairy had beaten me.

It wasn’t that I wanted to beat the fairy. I wasn’t racing against fairies, or against women in their twenties, which is what I judged her to be. It was more that I didn’t want to be beaten by a fairy. At the time these seemed very different ideas to me, and after it was all over they still seemed different, but I couldn’t have said why. Logically they were identical. Either I beat the fairy or the fairy beat me, or we tied, which I knew hadn’t happened and couldn’t have happened because if I’d gotten into an all-out sprint with the fairy I felt sure I would have kicked her fairy ass, groin or no groin. I wasn’t sure I’d have had the balls to given the fairy an elbow or knocked her into – well, of course not. What had the fairy ever done to me? Nothing.

At least the fairy who beat me was an international fairy – English, because of the Union Jack stitched onto the top of her white fairy costume. I fell in with her on the 59th Street Bridge, just about the time my groin blew up for real. Back on the Pulaski Bridge it had started to go but it hadn’t gone bad until the big bridge. I’d been monitoring it carefully since the halfway point and it’d been deteriorating since then, which was bad because I had 10 miles to go, and had already fallen off the pace, because of the groin. I don’t even like the sound of groin, it’s blunt and ugly. Plus it’s all those little tiny muscles I can’t even remember the names of, little ones so you say, well, who cares about those little guys? Look after your quads and hamstrings and the rest’ll take care of themselves. Except nope.

Too fast, too fast, I couldn’t stop saying to myself, you took it out too fast, you idiot. How could I? Being old and out of racing form and reentering marathoning after twenty years out wasn’t any excuse because I’d known all those things and had meant to be cautious. And I’d even run the race the year before. But, almost unbelievably, I’d started my watch at the gun, and all the way walking and then jogging the 13 minutes it took to get to the actual starting line I hadn’t stopped and reset my watch so I could start it at the line. Me! The professional timer guy, timer of more than a thousand races, of nearly a million runners, making an idiotic mistake trying to time himself. Not starting my watch properly meant I couldn’t judge my pace from the mile markers all along the course.

So I’d run the first ten miles too fast. But I felt good, as I said to my son later, the plaintive cry of the runner who misjudged his fitness badly. When I was young I’d just say, well, I went out too fast so I’ll just have to hang on and maybe I’ll have a good one. Now that I’m old I say, I went out too fast, I’m fucked.

The Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge was the usual mixture of paces. Some runners were attacking it, some were walking, and the rest were passing people or being passed. I was passing people who were walking but about as many people were passing me. When I came up on the fairy I wasn’t too surprised. She wasn’t the only person in costume, although she was the only fairy I’d seen. You don’t really expect costumes in a marathon, because a marathon is serious business. You can get goofs in a marathon, people with stuff written all over their shirts, sometimes funny hats or socks, but not many costumes. But here was a fairy, white with silver trim. She looked good, too; her stride was short and controlled – just right for climbing. I passed her, slowly, wondering if I’d see her again, suspecting that I would.

Back in the pack the runners seem to be part of a giant phase-shifting experiment. We start in the same place, we end in the same place, but at every moment some of us are speeding up, some are slowing down. It’s almost fugal. I saw Nori, the Japanese guy, about every half hour. I came up on another Japanese guy and decided to say konnichi wa, good day, to him. I concentrated on my accent. He was surprised and, I think pleased. I never saw him again so maybe those words, the only words I said before I finished, magically took us so far out of phase that we never fell back in again.

The fairy never turned to look at me, and I never turned to her. I didn’t want to talk to her – it felt as though it would break some kind of spell. I almost did when I passed her in Harlem at the same time we both passed a chubby blue bug, well – something with antennae. I wanted to say, shaking my head, That blue bug is too much, isn’t she? In Harlem I still had hope for my 4:40 or 4:45, because I thought the groin might be easing and I’d be able to speed up even if I had to slow down on the long pull up Fifth Avenue.

The groin. Years ago when I was hanging with some medical guys who referred to people by their complaints.

“Got a toe to see you.”

“Is the tropical ulcer still out there?”

I wanted my groin to get better so I wouldn’t have to find the celebrity doctor, a thoracic surgeon doing volunteer duty. I imagined him calling out from his little tent, I’m ready for the groin.

I walked out to Central Park West to find my son. I was still thinking about the fairy and how I didn’t like being beaten by her. She was probably a fine fairy and on this Sunday she had been the better runner, but she was in costume. There’s a Richard Pryor routine about fighting a guy who knows karate, where he says Kick my ass if you can but don’t be hollerin’ at me while you doin’ it.

That’s how I felt about the fairy. You can clean my clock in a marathon but don’t be doing it in a costume. But is it really that simple? Is that really the problem? It’s not. It’s not really about the fairy. It’s about screwing up when I shouldn’t have, and not liking admitting it to myself.

When I finished, someone put a medal around my neck. I left it on when I went out to the street. I’ve never been one to wear a finisher medal. The year before I hadn’t worn mine, but later David gave me a hard time about it. Everybody wears their medals after this race, he told me, big-time executives wear their medals to work on Monday, with their Armani suits and silk ties, and it’s cool. So I wore mine and yes, everybody said Hey, congratulations. On the street they said it. At the restaurant where I went with my son they said it. At Jet Blue I wasn’t the only one in the lounge wearing one, and they all said it, and we the finishers exchanged glances. In the airplane my seat mates said it. What they all said was, Good job. If I’d run a smart race I’ve have loved it, but all I could think of was, I ran a bad race. I lost control. I was stupid.

I was married then. My wife picked me up at the airport and said, “You’re my hero.”

I said, “I got beaten by a fairy.”

And she looked at me like I was nuts, and I didn’t know what to say, so I said it again, “Don’t you get it? A fucking fairy beat me.”

She said, “Who cares? You’re sixty years old and you ran a marathon faster than a lot of other people did and I don’t know why you’re complaining. How many in your age group?”

I said, “I don’t know. P Diddy beat me, too.”

She said, “You’re old enough to be his father.”

“Christ,” I said, “you don’t understand.”

When we got back to the house I went to my workroom. I didn’t want to do anything childish like throw my medal in a drawer so I hung it on the window latch. The neighbors wouldn’t know what it was, so they wouldn’t tell me I’d done a good job. Then I went out on the net to check the stats. Had I really gotten under 5, as David said?

Shit! No – 5:00:16. Seventeen seconds faster and I’d have been there, not that a sub-5 was anything to brag about.

So much for the absolute time. What about place? Just over six hundred men 60 to 64, and I’d beaten nearly half of them. Not bad. But if I hadn’t been an idiot I could have beaten more of them.

How many runners finished behind me? 8,500. OK, not so bad. I can live with it. But more than twenty thousand finished ahead of me. Bad.

The fairy beat me. Bad. But she deserved the win. So, the truth? Not so bad.