Sports ’07: Quiet moments were memorable, too
Vail, CO Colorado
There hasn’t been a sports year like 2007 in a long time, if ever.
The ringing in your head at the end of most years is the residue of all those well-deserved, raucous celebrations. This year, though, that noise was drowned out by the steady drumbeat of gavels being pounded in courtrooms across the land where athletes were on trial.
So maybe it follows that despite being on hand for so many of the events that shaped it, my favorite moments were some of the quietest ones, including one I didn’t get to see.
That took place a dreary, mid-February winter night in Chicago and I’d just finished a column about Don Grossnickle, who retired as an assistant high school principal a few years earlier to become a full-time advocate and fundraiser and part-time spiritual adviser and den mother to a handful of prep players who were paralyzed playing football.
We talk every so often, and Grossnickle always frets about how easily the rest of us forget those kids. What made the conversation newsworthy that night was a banquet downtown being staged by the Chicago chapter of the American Football Foundation.
In a courageous move, the foundation was offering Grossnickle’s kids center stage at its banquet, an opportunity to tell their comeback stories to an audience that needed to hear them. Grossnickle was elated for his kids, too. It was their chance to again be part of a game they once loved and still do, even strapped to breathing machines and confined to wheelchairs.
He called from his cell phone just before walking into the banquet hall to check if there were any more questions. All good, I said, then sent the story with the promise he’d fill me in later on how it went. Around 10 p.m., the phone rang.
“Amazing,” Grossnickle said. He was talking a mile a minute. “Not too many dry eyes in the place by the end, you know. You should have seen their faces.”
I could only imagine.
“But that wasn’t the most amazing part,” he said. “That was when they began our part of the program. The kids started rolling up toward the stage and the room went completely still. The only sound in the place were the ventilators, you know, going ‘whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.’
Grossnickle paused to catch his own breath.
“I just wish,” he said finally, “you could have seen their faces then.”
That wasn’t a problem with my second favorite moment. It came a month later at the Final Four in Atlanta, where former Georgetown coach John Thompson was working as a radio commentator and playing proud papa in between.
John Thompson III had the Hoyas back in the national championship semifinals a quarter-century after his father had first taken them there. I covered his dad’s teams a few times in the intervening years and remembered him as a gruff, imposing figure who still looked like he could bite your head off.
But Associated Press sportswriter Joseph White, who worked the Georgetown beat the past few years, knew him much better. He heard John Jr. talk often on the radio about the lessons he learned from his own father, and convinced him to grant me an interview, provided we limited it to that subject.
I wasn’t optimistic. But for the next 45 minutes, he was by turns so funny, charming and soft-spoken that I shed my fear and leaned in to hear every word. A few minutes later, he explained how that ferocious devotion to work he and his son were lauded for was simply embedded in their DNA.
“I always laugh when people say to John, ‘What’s it like to follow in your father’s footsteps?'” John Jr. said. “Because we both have footsteps to follow in that are much bigger than either of us.”
John Thompson was a laborer his entire life and John Jr. launched into his story with the memory of never seeing his father’s hands clean.
“Never. He’d come home and scrub his hands with this ugly brown soap that looked like tar. I thought that,” John Jr. said, turning up his own palms, “was the color of his hands.”
Memorable moment No. 3 came at the Kentucky Derby in May. Looking for a story that didn’t involve the favorites, I took the advice of a friend and wound up the morning before the race at the barn of a 30-1 shot named Storm in May.
The long gray colt had the look of a contender and the pedigree to match. He was the grandson of Storm Cat and a great-grandson of Triple Crown winner Secretariat. There was only one drawback, but it was a big one: Storm in May was blind in his right eye.
As he nibbled at the grass outside his barn, the colt’s right ear was cocked to track nearby sounds like a radar.
“The blessing,” Bill Kaplan, Storm in May’s engaging trainer, explained “is that he doesn’t know he’s different than anyone else.”
The betting public did, though, and so did anybody who had done their research. Twice in the previous 25 years, one-eyed thoroughbreds made the Derby lineup and crossed the wire covered more in dirt than glory. But listening to Kaplan recount all the obstacles the horse had overcome just to reach Churchill Downs made it feel like you’d wandered into the middle of one of those inspiring sports movies. Against my better judgment, I plunked down $20 on Storm in May to win.
The official chart that Saturday listed the colt’s finish as 16th in a field of 20. For all I know, Storm in May might be running still.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com