Sunday, October 7, 2018

Worth the Wait

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

It was late September last year, Maggie, and we were already back to school.  The Philadelphia Eagles weren’t yet a quarter of the way into their season.  The Washington Capitals were a few weeks out from starting theirs.  Like the many to-be-determined semester grades, the football team from the nation’s one-time capital and the hockey team from its current one were mysteries yet to unfold.

Both teams were at a crossroads.  The Eagles were figuring out what they might become behind new franchise quarterback Carson Wentz.  The Caps, meanwhile, had completed an offseason of curious roster tweaks that, after a couple years of pushing hard for a Stanley Cup, appeared to leave the team farther away from the sport’s elusive summit.

Different sports.  Different towns.  Different (to be kind) fan bases.  Everything in common.

Last fall there were a scant few fans of any professional sport capable of understanding the plight of Eagles and Capitals supporters.  Despite the visceral rivalry between the cities, they had only each other - a long-suffering and inseparable party of two.  Misery indeed does love company, even if, for Caps fans, the company’s a little unrefined.

In 2017, the resumes of these two star-crossed franchises read like a never-ending tale of brutal medieval torture.  The Eagles, after several lean years, had considerable success under head coach Dick Vermeil in the late 70s and early 80s.  A decade later Philadelphia make four playoff appearances in five seasons behind defensive stalwarts Reggie White, Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons. 

But Philly’s torment was just beginning.  Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb arrived in 1999 and together dominated the NFC East and, for several seasons, were the class of the NFC Conference.  It was a golden era in Eagles football.  It seemed inevitable that they would win…

Through all of these eras of winning Eagles football, the Caps were consistently killing it - playoff appearances in all but seven seasons since 1982, too-many-to-count division titles and three Presidents’ Trophies.  In the wild and unpredictable world of the NHL playoffs, statistical chance would indicate that the Caps would win…

The Super Bowl?  The Stanley Cup?  Yeah.  Neither happened.  Seemed neither ever would. 
For over three decades, the Eagles and Caps practically matched playoff collapses.  For every home NFC Championship loss by the Eagles, the Caps could offer two unconscionable Game 7 heartaches.  But perhaps worst of all, fans of these two ultimate teases endured championship seasons by arch rivals like the Cowboys, Giants and ‘Skins and the Penguins, Rangers and Devils.

Then the karmic forces shifted.  In 2016, after the Cavaliers brought Cleveland a championship and the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, I started to believe that the Caps winning a Stanley Cup was possible.  I trust there were Eagles fans thinking the same for their beloved birds.

And then it actually happened: the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl in February and four months later the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup.  Now both are embarking on victory lap seasons as reigning champs.  It’s still surreal.     

I’ve talked to a few Eagles fans in recent months.  They seem unburdened.  Validated.  Less, shall we say, goon-ish.  Most have mentioned on-going Super Bowl victory tears - uncontrollable emotion rooted in decades of pain.  Complete euphoria would succinctly described their victory parade.  I trust Eagles fans saw a mirror image of their post-Super Bowl selves as Caps fans celebrated their first Stanley Cup championship a few months later.  One-time brothers and sisters in misery are now brothers and sisters in sweet victory.

Life owes you nothing.  But for sanity’s sake, there has to be some semblance of fairness and equity.  Right?  Kindergarten taught us to share – to take turns!  Right?  From this Caps fans to all Eagles fans: we deserved this.  It was finally our turn.  It felt like the first time because, after so, so many years of suffering, it was.  Tom Petty once sang, “The waiting is the hardest part.”  True indeed.  It is also said that anything worth having is worth waiting for.  The Super Bowl title for Philadelphia and Stanley Cup championship for Washington certainty were. 

Heart and Faith

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
It is fascinating how a story finds you.  One minute you’re lost, out of ideas and incapable of creative thought, then a daydream, a song, a headline or a random event delivers the goods.  It’s the chase - the pursuit of inspiration.  That’s the best part of the writing process.  The words themselves…that’s a love-hate thing.  Sometimes the sentences come easy and the final product does the original idea adequate justice; other times it’s a grind to type a coherent sentence.

For this “View”, the idea arrived by accident – the best kind of delivery.  A deliberate, early-morning search of the infinite World Wide Web offered nothing.  I was trying too hard.  The topic was waiting in my in-box. 

It wasn’t obvious.  A friend sent an innocuous YouTube link to an NFL Films segment on one of our favorite players.  I clicked on it with no expectations other than a distraction from my lack of leads.  Minutes later I was feverishly searching for a killer excerpt from a poet and a poem I had never heard of.  That’s the chase.  Love it.  And now for those sometimes troublesome words…

The player was ‘Skins Hall of Famer John Riggins.  The poet?  Robert W. Service.  The poem?  “The Law of the Yukon.”  And the excerpt?  Well, I’ll get to that.  
It is easy to underestimate Riggins.  A self-proclaimed horse of a different color, his showmanship and appetite for debauchery always lead his story.  Yes, he did drink a couple morning beers during his first visit with new ‘Skins coach Joe Gibbs.  Yes, he was “El Presidente” of team’s infamous post-practice beer-slinging “Five O’clock Club.”  And yes, he did once encourage Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to “loosen up, Sandy baby, you’re way too tight” in an obnoxious drunken stupor.

But Riggins was and is more than an inebriated jock.  He is very thoughtful and a keen skeptic of conventional wisdom.  He possesses both the intelligence to see situations for what they are and the courage to speak about them honestly.  Abraham Lincoln once said, “Every man is born an original, but sadly, most men die copies.”  Riggins isn’t “most men.” 

During the NFL Films piece, Riggins talked eloquently about how the nasty business of football affected him personally.  He described his initial naiveté, his quick loss of innocence and how it bothered him to see teammates cut.  Riggins loved the game between the lines; the game played outside the lines weighed on him. 

The process of tearing through veils and uncovering the truth isn’t unique to football; it is part of growing up.  Eventually the fairytale of youth diminishes and the world is seen through an adult lens.  From that more complex and conflicted perspective, politicians become less virtuous, corporations less just, churches less wholesome and many people less genuine than advertised.  It’s the messy truth…making peace with it is an on-going internal wrestling match within us all. 

Riggins eventually found some peace with the underbelly of professional football.  When reflecting on his infamous playoff run after the 1982 season, Riggins, by then an 11-year veteran, talked about being aware of the moment and the opportunity to rewrite his legacy.  This awareness was the impetus for him demanding carries from the coaches.  Riggins was all-in.  Football was going to be just a game again, if just for this brief stretch. 

Riggins’s run to glory ended with Washington’s first Super Bowl championship and the Super Bowl MVP trophy for its eccentric running back.  Riggins was lost in the moment, a grown up once again playing a child’s game.  He found something in the competition between the lines that allowed him to play true to the excerpt he quoted from Service’s “The Law of the Yukon” poem: “Men with the hearts of Vikings and the simple faith of a child.”

Riggins found something pure during his legendary playoff run, something that, despite knowing the impurities of football, allowed him to play with all his heart and believe with the uncorrupted faith of a child.  While navigating our own complex and imperfect worlds, may we all find something worthy of such unqualified commitment.  

Forgotten Names, Remembered Stories

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

A long time ago (i.e. “before kids”), mid-summer trips to ‘Skins training camp were an annual pilgrimage.  These were simpler times for me and better times for Washington’s football team.  Dan Snyder’s ownership, or reign of terror if you prefer (and appropriately so), was in its infancy.  Washington’s football brand was still strong and the burgundy and gold could be worn with pride.  Snyder’s wild spending and impatience was considered youthful exuberance and not the fatal flaw that it proved to be.  And brass tacks: the questionable decency of his soul remained unexposed. 

But most important for this story, Snyder had yet to corrupt training camp into the paid event it was at the team facility or the polished, structured, political and no doubt profitable endeavor it now is in Richmond, Virginia.  The camps I speak of happened west and north of D.C. – in Frostburg, Maryland and across the Mason-Dixon line into south-central Pennsylvania and the quaint little town of Carlisle.  These far-off lands were technically within Darth Snyder’s empire, but they remained unspoiled or, to a use a modern term, “off the grid.”     

The stories.  Some are fit for print in this PG format, others I’d disclose only verbally after some liquid encouragement and with the express understanding that all of it would be denied if pressed.  Protect your source, protect the innocent…and protect yourself.  Splendid advice indeed.

Suffice to say late nights and spirited carousing were the norm.  And why not?  Constraints were minimal and it was good for the local economy.  Spread the money, spread the love.  Least I could do, eh?  The morning practices though, part one of the old brutal two-a-day sweat-fests, were a challenging bell to answer.  I observed most from distant bleacher perches while humbly nursing hangovers in the muggy July morning air.  This is when I first realized that professional football players are not from this planet – or are at least a unique human gene pool.  I watched many players practice, and seemingly well, despite being out very, very late the previous night and consuming a whole lot of non-performance-enhancing beverages.  How were they doing this?  A mere mortal, I could barely turn my head without feeling dizzy.  Maybe superheroes are real?   

There’s mercifully scant evidence from these excursions.  I do have hats though, each filled with autographs.  Even casual ‘Skins fans would recognize most of the names.  Buy some are completely obscure, even unidentifiable.  In this case, the unknown and forgotten are who matter.

There’s a “Rod S.”  Number 51.  Linebacker, I assume.  Monte Coleman he was not.  “Matt” something or other played quarterback and wore number 11.  He wasn’t quite Mark Rypien 2.0.  My favorite signature though is “Eric.”  I think it is Eric Whitfield but can’t be sure.  Nevertheless, the dude signed the hat right above the ‘Skins logo in big, bold cursive and ended with an emphatic “#36!”.  He was announcing his presence with authority.  He was going to make hay in the NFL…until he didn’t.  Eric Whitfield never played a down in the league.

This isn’t a knock on those players; it’s just the opposite.  While their names have been lost to history, their against-all-odds stories still stick with me.  I think of them every year as July turns to August and another NFL season approaches.  Training camp and the NFL preseason are loathed by established players, coaches and fans.  But for many NFL hopefuls – literally dozens per team – it is the ultimate opportunity, maybe the last opportunity, to realize their football dream.  No matter the odds or the sacrifices, they have it all on the line.  In late August, final roster cut-downs deliver a harsh and absolute judgment.  Some make it; many do not.  None are failures.  To a man, they dared to take a chance on themselves and pursue a dream.  They boldly stood on that thin line between NFL player and obscure autograph on a dusty old hat.  And all these years later, it’s the “Rod’s”, “Matt’s” and “Eric’s”, not the more famous autographs acquired, that I’m writing about.  It’s the “Rod’s”, “Matt’s” and “Eric’s” who have provided the lasting inspiration.

Imitating the Queen

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

As published in The County Times (

In 1993, unbelievably a quarter of a century ago, Charles Barkley declared in a provocative Nike ad that, “I am not a role model.”  The bit targeted the idolization of athletes who, in reality, do little more than entertain.  Whatever you think of Barkley, it was, at the time, a controversial and much needed challenge to skewed personal value systems. 

About 10 years ago and a decade and a half its release, I used Barkley’s ad for a piece on misguided hero-worship in this very column.  The inspiration arrived via a local charity golf tournament attended by local dignitaries, law enforcement, social workers and a former professional athlete.  All gave speeches.  All but one received polite applause – the former professional athlete brought the house down.  Despite the presence of several people having a direct, tangible and important impact on our local community, it was the professional athlete, one with no ties to Southern Maryland, who easily won the crowd’s adoration.

It was a strange scene, especially considering the audience was a pack of adults, not a goo-goo eyed crop of impressionable adolescents.  My conclusion in the article was this: Fifteen years after Barkley’s message, little had changed – by deifying athletes and not those who influence the pillars of society and our individual lives, we still had the role model thing all wrong. 

The years have provided many names that support Barkley’s claim that athletes have no business being in the role model business - Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Floyd Mayweather, Ryan Lochte and Ben Roethlisberger, to name but a few.  In fact, if the aperture is expanded to include those of power and fame – Steve Jobs, the Catholic Church and presidents Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump - Barkley’s only error may be that his scope was too narrow. 
But I am, despite this list of miscreants, revisiting Barkley’s position and my endorsement.  Time…and circumstance have a way of bending one’s perspective. 

Aretha Franklin.  The Queen of Soul.  Her music…white, African American, old, young: so long as you have a pulse, it reaches some special place in the human soul. 

Franklin left us last week, but her legacy will be long-lasting.  At age 45, though, I am not old enough to have experienced her prime.  I am also male and white, so while I can contemplate her impact on young women, and particularly on young women of color, I can’t possibly get it.  Not fully.  But the trail from Franklin through Diana Ross, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and Adele isn’t hard to trace. 

This is where Barkley’s contention that he wasn’t a role model because he simply bounced a basketball missed the mark.  Applied to Franklin, Barkley’s 1993 message would argue that as “just a singer”, and not someone who saved lives on a daily basis, educated children or protected families from harm, she wasn’t a role model either – a preposterous suggestion.

For some unbiased clarity, Meriam-Webster defines a role model as, “a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others”.  The phrase “in a particular role” suggests there’s no absolute formula; it allows for flaws, differences in social contributions and latitude for the prospecting imitator to select particular aspects of the role model’s character or accomplishments. 

Barkley’s suggestion that society overvalues power and fame was profound (it’s only gotten worse), but the powerful and famous – including athletes and musicians/entertainers – aren’t automatically disqualified from role model consideration by trade alone.  Further, and this is something to be mindful of, individuals don’t get to decide whether they become role models; the people who observe and are influenced by their actions do. 

As for that imitation thing…no one can sing like Aretha Franklin.  But Meriam-Webster’s imitation doesn’t have to be literal.  Franklin’s music was a feel-good tonic for whatever was ailing you.  Her golden voice made you happy.  Duplicating that magic for those in our lives and on our own scale is a worthy endeavor – that’s why Franklin’s a role model.  We all have an ability to make people smile or to lighten their blues, even if we can’t carry a simple tune.