Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Final Five

There is no better picture of all that is good with the United States of America than the shot of the five members of the U.S. Women’s Gymnastic Team on the top of the podium at the 2016 Rio Olympics.  Young, driven women that achieved a dream through hard work, grit, and perseverance.  They captured the hearts of young and old over the course of the competition that was broadcast world wide.

Copyright 2016 Associated Press

They are the face of our nation, as you see two African-Americans, a Latina, a Caucasian  and a Jew.  It is a perfect example of the diversity that makes our country great, and when you look at the back story of the whole bunch you do not have to go back too far to see evidence of immigrant families making the choice to come to our great nation, the land of opportunity.  

They epitomize the Puritan work ethic and the stories of millions who through incredibly hard work, they reached the ultimate place — the top of the podium in the Olympics!  All of them overcame significant set backs, specifically injuries.  All of them experienced pain and questioned whether they had the internal fortitude to go forward.  That’s what Americans do!

All five of them are incredible role models and have had the good fortune to have positioned themselves to where they can capitalize in the market place because of their success.  Like  Mary Lou, Shawn, Nastia, Carly, Shannon, and many others, they have inspired young girls to follow in their footsteps.  They are women who have excelled and took yet another step toward equity that still alludes females in our country today.

We Americans love our sports heroes, and over the years young female gymnasts have carved a place for themselves in the nation’s conscience.  But what you will notice is how the sport has moved from one where only white girls from families who could afford the private coaching dominated the sport.  Back in 1996 with the group known as the Magnificent Seven, two of the girls were members of a minority.  That was a much different looking team than the one that rocked it in Rio.  There should be no limits placed on people, nor people excluded because of some trait.  The Final Five exemplify that belief!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

A Refreshing Story About A Dad Doing The Right Thing

In June 2017 Keyshawn Johnson, Jr. was cited for suspicion of marijuana possession while on the football roster at the University of Nebraska.  He had moved to Lincoln from his home in California in January of his senior year in high school to start his college life and to be able to participate in spring football practice.  This summer he had been participating in off-season training as a member of the Cornhusker football team and living in the dorms.  Johnson, Jr. was a highly recruited 4-star wide receiver coming out of Calabassas High School and projects to be strong contributor in the next few years.  From all reports he is an engaging young man, very popular among his teammates, and is given credit for convincing others to join the Cornhuskers.  And yes, he is the son of one of the more famous professional football players in the last twenty years, Keyshawn Johnson, Sr.

Who knows what the young man was like before he moved to Lincoln, but my guess is he was pretty much the typical teenager, though one with a lot of attention because of his name.  He most likely avoided a lot of struggles that many other kids have because his father did well financially and continues to pursue opportunities, and he had both parents in the home.  My assumption is that he was a pretty good kid because 1) Coach Mike Riley and his staff screen their recruits very closely and there isn’t much about a prized recruit they don’t know, and 2) he has been covered extensively by the media and if there were warts, missteps, or skeletons in the closet, I have to believe journalists would have found them.  So, I would assume he was pretty much a normal teenager, one that hung out with his friends and did things that teenagers do.

What I like about this story is that he earned the trust of his parents such that they allowed him to move out of their home a semester early and go off a couple of thousand miles away to become a college student a semester earlier than most.  They gave him the opportunity to start the next stage of his life and to be more responsible for the decisions that would determine the path he would take.  And guess what . . . he made a bad choice.  He made a bad decision and it got him jammed up with the law.  I am sure that he was convinced he was mature enough to make his own decisions, and I am sure he convinced his parents that he could handle all of the exposure and publicity that comes with being a D-1 athlete and in the public eye.  And then he screwed up and dad says, “Whoa!  Not so fast!”  

Within a couple of days of the incident, Keyshawn Johnson, Sr. released a statement that his son was going to take a leave of absence from the Nebraska football team and was returning to California because he was not mature enough to live life on his own, yet.  Senior had him gather all of his things, pack them up, and Junior got on a plane and headed home.  In information released to the media, no decisions will be made as to his future, he has to grow up and figure some things out.

So what’s the point?  For one, a parent stepped in and held the child accountable.  KJ, Sr. did not make excuses.  He did not point fingers anywhere except directly at his son.  That in itself is refreshing because many other parents today would have found excuses, maybe blaming other guys living in the dorm or saying that having a little weed is no big deal.  This is also refreshing because he is a man — Keyshawn Johnson, Sr. — that is very proud.  He worked hard and succeeded.  He is proud of what he has accomplished and of his name. Junior tainted the Johnson name, and a lesson is going to be learned.  Dad knows what it is like to live life in the spotlight, and when it shows brightest is when people need to make sure they are doing the right thing.  Junior ignored that.  He wasn’t quite conscious of all of the responsibility that comes with fame.  I am sure that his dad had all kinds of conversations with him about that, but like they say, until you live it you can’t really appreciate it.  Junior’s actions showed that he hasn’t quite figured it out.

So, Keyshawn Johnson, Jr. will not be catching passes this fall wearing  the scarlet and cream of the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  He will be getting his education back in Calabasas, California, learning to be a man of character and how to get back in his father’s good graces.  As a Cornhusker fan I am hopeful that he returns when it works out for him, and that he becomes the man his father is raising him to be.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Beyond CTE and Brain Research

In the spring of 2016 I was at a meeting with Mike Eischeid, a former NFL punter and kicker that played for the Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings.  Eischeid is as old school as it gets when it comes to football players and on his resume has three Super Bowl appearances, two for the Vikings and one for the Raiders.  He played in an era where some of the truly enigmatic characters were on the field, including some of the greatest Vikings of all time.  He was there in the era of the Purple People Eaters on defense, anchored by Alan Paige, Carl Eller, and Jim Marshall.  There were also some incredible offensive linemen, anchored by Hall of Fame center Mick Tingelhoff and Wally Hilgenberg.

Mr. Eischeid is not the first professional football player that I have had opportunity to know and talk to, but he is the only one who played in that era when I was an impressionable young boy that loved to watch the games on Sunday afternoons.  I was even a little bit of a Viking fan for a while and found out that if you wrote players a letter they would send you an autographed photograph.  All you had to do was ask!  I had a number of them pinned on the wall of my bedroom as a kid.  In my mind that was the Golden Era of professional football as I cheered mightily for the Miami Dolphins and my favorite players Larry Czonka and Jim Kiick.  And I was very aware the Purple People Eaters on the Vikings as I ran with buddies who were diehard fans.  

In my time in West Union I have not had opportunity to meet with Mr. Eischeid as much as I would like as we usually just see each other at meetings and a few community events, but I know people who know him well and have told me stories about his life as a professional football player.  However, on the day I reference above, what he and his wife shared with me made a strong impression.  We were making small talk prior to a meeting and I asked if he was in Minnesota when Mick Tingelhoff played.  Tingelhoff had just been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and was a Nebraska alum, as am I.  Mr. Eischeid affirmed that he had in fact played with him, and added with a chuckle that they were good friends and over the years had spent time with each other and their families.  I got a sense that after their playing days were over these old warriors remained good friends and would gather occasionally when their schedules allowed.  

In addition to Tingelhoff, Eischeid mentioned Wally Hilgenberg and a few other players and smiled at some unstated memories.  I listened intently and then mentioned how I found it sad that Tingelhoff was unable to give his own speech during the induction ceremony for the Hall of Fame.  The great Viking quarterback Fran Tarkenton spoke for him because Tingelhoff was unable to do so on his own due to memory loss.  Eischeid mentioned that it had been sad to watch some of these once strong athletes succumb to age and the battering they put their bodies through when they played the game.  He mentioned them not knowing where they were and how tough that was to see.  I am not an doctor and will not diagnose, but one could guess that Tingelhoff, the victim of hundreds if not thousands of head slaps and banging heads helmet to helmet, suffered some type of neurological damage due to his days playing football.  He started 240 consecutive regular season games at center, which ranks third all time.  That’s a lot of banging heads, and getting slaps and forearms to the side and back of the head.

Mr. Eischeid said that it had been a while since he had seen some of the old teammates and when I asked about Hilgenberg I was not aware that he had passed away in 2008 at the age 66 due to Lou Gehrig’s disease, or at least that is what was originally determined.  However, his widow and children agreed to donate his brain for examination and a different story came back.  Like many former players who died well before their time, Hilgenberg’s brain showed definitive signs of CTE.  What made him unique is that he was the third individual whose brain was studied that developed a type of motor neuron disease that masks itself as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  

Over the past few years I have paid a lot of attention to CTE and the brain research that has taken place and am very saddened by what I now see with some of my childhood heroes.  Long before this disordered came to the surface I was well aware of how these Sunday warriors of my youth had bodies that were broken and who moved like old men when they were still very much middle-aged.  Their daily routine was filled with pain and discomfort.  But what struck me after my conversation with Mr. Eischeid was that as many of us reflect on our younger days our memories are filled with all kinds of stories about people we knew and things we had done.  Oh what I would give to have a couple of hours to talk with him about his playing days and some of the characters he played with!  But just as Mr. Eischeid has such fond memories of Tingelhoff and Hilgenberg, because of the damage they received playing the game of football, they would not be able to sit around the table and share those same memories.  I find that very sad.