Wednesday, December 30, 2009

One scribe's picks for sports stories of the decade

As this year and decade reaches two outs in the bottom of the ninth, I find myself reflecting on the sports stories I was privileged to cover the past 10 years.

During journeys around the corner and the world, I was able to write about triumphs big and small. And whether it was sweating out the final pitches of my son’s Little League no-hitter, watching Abby Wambach’s euphoria after winning Olympic gold, chronicling J-Mac scoring baskets and a victory over autism or bidding farewell to Yankee Stadium, I was reminded of why I fell in love with sports in the first place.

So, as I prepare my “stories-of-the-decade” list, I’m going to leave the performance-enhancing drug scandals and the tawdry Tiger tales to others. Instead, I offer some stories that resonated with me and my readers.

A WALKING MIRACLE: The initial diagnosis for Kevin Everett was bleak. A day after the Bills tight end crumpled to the ground while making a tackle during the 2007 season opener, doctors told us that his chances of walking again were almost nil and that his life was still in danger. But in the ensuing days, we witnessed a miracle. Everett began regaining feeling in his legs and was able to come off the respirator. Within a few months, he was able to walk again. On Opening Day 2008 at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Everett received a thunderous standing ovation as he walked to mid-field to receive an award for courage. It was the most inspiring route I’ve ever witnessed on a football field.

COLOR THIS CHAMPIONSHIP ORANGE: Early during the 2002-03 season I wrote that the Syracuse University basketball team was destined for something special and I wouldn’t be surprised if they went a long, long way in March. Thanks to the hoops heroics of precocious freshmen Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara my words proved prophetic as the Orangemen exorcised the ghost of Keith Smart to win their first NCAA basketball championship in the same building – the New Orleans Superdome – where Indiana’s Smart had beaten them with a last-second jumper 16 years earlier. This SU alum couldn’t help but feel a tinge of Orange pride while witnessing something he had resigned himself would never happen in his lifetime.

THE GIRL WITH THE GOLDEN SHOES: Before the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, Rochester soccer star Abby Wambach signed a deal with Nike in which she would wear golden soccer cleats. They wound up matching perfectly with the gold medal she helped the U.S. women’s soccer team win with a goal in the championship game. Having written about Abby since her high school days made the moment all the more special for me. And I couldn’t help but wonder if Nike – the Goddess of Victory in Greek mythology – had been smiling down on Abby, who was only too happy to give her retiring teammate and childhood idol, Mia Hamm, a fitting going-away present.

A PROFILE IN COURAGE: Mike Fennell was a strapping, hard-nosed catcher from Fairport High School who spent several seasons in the Yankees organization before returning to Rochester, where he wound up coaching high school baseball at McQuaid. He had been a teammate of John Elway’s with the Oneonta Yankees and I got to know Mike through friends of mine from Rome, N.Y. who had been teammates of his at LeMoyne College. Mike had a great sense of humor and an iron will, and both traits would serve him well after he was diagnosed with inoperable, non-smoker’s lung cancer in 2000. For the final 18 months of his life, Mike gave us a primer on how to live life even when you know you are dying. The thing I remember most is how his players rallied around him, shaving their heads bald in a show of solidarity after Mike had lost his hair during chemo treatments. The lessons Mike taught those young men had obviously gone well beyond baseball.

MARV AND JIMBO ARE IMMORTALIZED IN CANTON: Yes, it’s been a rotten decade for the Bills, the worst in team history. But the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions of Marv Levy and Jim Kelly reminded us of the glory days when the wins and excitement were in abundant supply at Orchard Park on autumnal Sunday afternoons. Both Marv and Jim gave compelling speeches during their inductions in Canton, Ohio, enabling us to relive those halcyon Bills days of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. I’ll never forget seeing Marv pose near his bust, looking like a giddy youngster instead of a silver-haired 76-year-old. Sheer, unadulterated joy. And I’ll never forget Jim talking about his son, Hunter, who was in the crowd for dad’s induction. Hunter’s courageous battle with Krabbes disease would end in death not long after Jimbo’s poignant tribute to his son.

A SON GIVES A DAD A SPECIAL GIFT: Seven springs ago, my son, Christopher, gave his old man an early Father’s Day present by tossing a Little League no-hitter. As I watched him deliver the final, tense pitches, I was overcome by nostalgic feelings. I thought about the countless hours we had spent playing catch in the field behind our house on days so cold you could write your name with your breath and days so hot even the sun was perspiring. I remembered showing him how to grip the ball and crease his cap and scream “I’ve got it.” I recalled how it hurt like hell when I was catching for him and one of his pitches bounced in the dirt and caromed off my chin or my kneecap or someplace much more delicate. As I reflect now on those moments, I realize those times were about much more than playing catch. They were about a father and son making a life-long connection.

A GOLD-RUSH IN BEIJING: To be honest, I’m not much of a swim fan. I appreciate the incredible dedication and skill it takes to excel in the pool, but it’s just not my cup of tea. That said, I was definitely a swim fan two Augusts ago – I think the whole world was – as Michael Phelps torpedoed his way through the pool at the Water Cube to win his eighth gold medal of the 2008 Olympics to break Mark Spitz’s record. I’m a huge history buff, so it was great being there that day. The funny thing is that I almost missed Phelps’ golden moment. About an hour before his record race, I was barfing in one of the bathrooms at the Ice Cube. Fortunately, I recovered in time to make it up to press row. My up-chucking moment prompted my brother-in-law to inquire if I deserved a medal in “hurling.’’

J-MAC-MANIA SWEEPS THE WORLD: I wasn’t there for that momentous February basketball game at Athena High School when Jason McElwain, the team manager with autisim, suited up and swished six jump shots. But I – and the rest of the planet for that matter – felt as if we were there after the homemade video hit the television airwaves and the Internet and went viral. J-Mac became an international phenomenon, appearing on Oprah and shaking hands with the President. His inspirational story earned him an ESPY for the year’s most memorable sports moment and was immortalized in a book. And there’s still talk that the story will travel from that little gym to the big screen.

SAYING GOOD-BYE TO AN OLD FRIEND: I made my first trip to Yankee Stadium with my dad on Sept. 17, 1966, Bobby Richardson Day. I was just 11 at the time and the sight of that enormous, emerald, ballyard in the South Bronx made an indelible impression on me. Thirty-two years later, I took my children, Amy and Christopher, there for their first big-league ball-game, and I couldn’t help but feel the presence of my late father. I wound up writing a book memorializing The House That Ruth Built two years ago, and was at the Stadium for the final game in 2008. As I sat in the stands following the final out that night, I felt my father’s spirit again. And as I walked out the turnstile a final time, I realized that I was bidding adieu not only to a ballpark, but my youth.

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