Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Combine Grind

Autumn starts where the summer grinds to an end -- on a green turf field crisscrossed by white lines. Have you ever noticed the sideline boundaries are always thicker than those measuring progress down field in yards?  It’s too prosaic to contemplate -- or maybe not.
Summer of 2013 – the season of competition.  Two sons, four athletic camps, and six tournaments stretching from Boston to Virginia Beach and seven cities in between. Forty-six officiated lacrosse games, more than 51 football skill sessions, 23 7-on-7 games, and at every one, the ever-present figure of  good-natured Nellie, with free advice for all.    
For the eldest son, it’s a drive to be noticed and ultimately coveted by NCAA college coaches, no less in two sports. For the younger Boys’ Town grad, all fields are testing grounds of skill and athleticism to prevail over top talent in order to compete at the level where both of his older brothers now reside.  Eldest son, the steady Nellie Junior, triumphed in this fast-paced crucible and is now playing college athletics.
Sports, kids – what I’ve seen this summer in 2,700 miles of driving from New England to the Old South is most of all the American Dad: indefatigable, generous, hopeful, persistent and always folding up the chair at the end of the day – yes, on those prosaic sidelines -- thinking about tomorrow’s 8 a.m. session and how the heck their kid can improve his performance.
The football camps are the notorious “combines.”  A hundred select young men, 400 non-select kids -- all instantly organized, sorted by primary position, offense or defense, and then given identifying jersey numbers.  This is the wonderful mechanics of these camps.  There is little discussion or confusion, just a quick following of orders and hustling to get in line. 
Next comes the long and detailed regimen of workout drills watched by alert coaches with the Career Beginning and Ending Clipboards.  Your kid does closely watched drills with, for example, dozens of Outside Linebackers.  The coaches watch intently and dispassionately for hours, and what they write on the Clipboard means your kid may have a shot at their school, or it’s time to back home to Momma.
And they’re not asking for anything complex here. In fact, it’s simple and repetitive, just perfect for your correspondent.  Bulky, leather practice bags are laid out and kids high-step through them.  The bags are placed at oblique angles at various distances and kids high-step through them. Kids are thrown a ball as they run through the bags. They either catch it or keep high-stepping to the parking lot.
Four guys are placed in a square, a few yards apart from each other, and told to react to hand signals from a coach. Up, back, left, right.  Stopwatches are everywhere. 
Across three wide open fields these drills go on. Linemen push sleds, QBs and receivers and cornerbacks try to outwit each other.  For running backs, it’s running through pads carrying the ball: “Nose to the sky!” “Eyes up!” “Back straight!” Then passing drills with QBs and linebackers:  “Sharp routes!” “No cross overs!”  “Burst! Burst!”  The drills run for hours, yells floating across the fields like a long muted drone.
Every kid is trying their best, giving everything they have. They’re prepared.  Just to get here has required thousands of hours of practice, weight rooms, hot fields, cold mornings, pass routes long after dusk, countless collisions and snap counts.  What a remarkable set of circumstances has propelled them here. And it’s certainly not Real Life because there is not a single slacker to be seen.
And the parents.  Imagine the sheer production of getting Billie from Nashville or Pittsburgh or Seattle or Houston or Miami all the way to Boston or Annapolis. 
Having attended these camps and tourneys for years, I measure success by two critical elements:  Foot speed and size.  And you can’t teach size.  The eldest son, Nellie Junior, no behemoth, worked for years on agility – ladders, the parachute, shuttle runs, endless sprints -- and became one of the quickest kids on any field on which he plays (Yeah, I’ll brag a bit.  What are you going to do? Throw a clipboard at me?)  The value of foot speed is inestimable.  The coaches are entranced with it.
It takes about three reps of drills on day one, hour one, for someone to see where a kid stacks up. The competition is ferocious.  It doesn’t mean a darn thing that you were All League at Big Bad High in the Tri-County Conference.  Can you move out fast?  How tall are you? 
And last, and the coaches have a stock phrase when approached by a kid introducing himself:  “Howareyourgrades?” It’s one word.  It’s direct and hard, but hey, football is a direct and hard sport.
Little Nellie is 6’1”, 210 pounds, a linebacker who in addition, plays fullback and tight end.  To really seal the deal, about three years ago, I encouraged him to take up and get good at long-snapping because as former football great, Richie Petibon, once told me, “Snapping is THE tie-breaker.”  I.e. if a kid can do that, and play one, even two more positions, he’s going to make a team over someone else.
So my son and I practiced snapping, and I mean endlessly.  We’d have four footballs and he’d shoot them back to me, one after another, as I stood in punt formation.  Then then he’d shoot them back to me as I simulated a holder and Boys’ Town son kicked, all to get the tempo and rhythm down right. It no doubt looked comical to folks coming across us on a field. We read up on hand placement on the ball, how to use the legs to increase ball speed.  Over time, the snaps got faster, held a tighter spiral, and now Little Nellie is a machine.
And yes, if you really think hard about all this, you recognize instantly there’s a defining element of sheer madness. “Yes, I’m on annual leave from a serious job, driving 450 miles to watch my kid jump around bags and catch passes and push sleds all over a field – for eight hours.”  Once, a well-meaning Dad on the sideline affably asked me about my son.  I was distracted and said robotically, “Punt snap average zero point seven, zero point five on PATs.”
It was 10:15 p.m. at the Princeton Camp, and the hotly contestd 7-on-7 games had ended.  We’d arrived here about 20 hours ago from a lacrosse camp in Providence, RI. After 48 hours here, we’d split for a three-day Under Armour lacrosse tournament in Baltimore.
I was walking Little Nellie back to the dorm.  He’s beat. Heck, I’m even beat from sitting in a chair all day and spinning college intrigues in my head.
We’re passing darkened classrooms and buildings and big lonely quads.  “My man,” I say, “I know this a grind. But if you’re going to play college ball, this is where you gotta be.”  He was carrying his shoulder pads and helmet, his hair was matted to his scalp, his shirt soaked with sweat and his cleats clicked and echoed on the pavement.
“Yeah Dad,” he said and then added, asking and answering a question at the same time, “Where else would I be?”

Thursday, August 15, 2013

More Priceless Advice

Per last week’s entry, my eldest son and I had been having a breezy discussion about his impending college attendance and what might happen if he graduated. Thus, I wanted to lay out in a calm and understated manner a few things about the obvious future. “Our nation and the world, my boy, are in fiscal peril right now and headed toward irrevocable catastrophe. “ He nodded in a rehearsed, rueful manner and I continued.

"You know your old man is a numbers guy. Here are a few: Gross federal debt is 104 percent of GDP. The top five percent of Americans pay 60 percent of all federal taxes and the top 10 percent pay 77 percent. Oh, and 48 percent of all households pay no income tax.” Relentlessly, I droned on: “Twenty four million Americans – yes, that’s almost one-fifth of your countrymen 18 years or older -- are unemployed, have given up looking for work, or are offering to super-size an order at McDonalds. One hundred thirty-eight million people were working in July of 2008. That number today is one hundred thirty six million. And yet we’ve added twelve point six million new, wanna-be workers in that five years. Oh yeah, and there will be 76 million baby-boomer retirees by 2029, many of them in ill health with no retirement savings.”

 Junior didn’t flinch. Moreover, he knows by heart my secondary stats on BLS U-6 ratios, ten-year Treasury yields, workforce participation percentages, LIBOR tracking, Medicare Trust Fund outflows, SSI disability claims, and personal savings rates.

We were lunching in our old haunt, a throw-back diner that didn’t know that it was, staffed by individuals in their 20s. “Fifty two percent of college graduates since June 2007 are unemployed or underemployed in retail, clerical, or hospitality.” I glanced at the sullen restaurant staff and kept grinding on. “Thirty seven percent of Americans hold student loan debt, the average outstanding is $26,000 per person, and the total student loan debt load is at $1.1 trillion.” I pointed to our waitress. “I wonder how that Master’s in Psychology is working out for Patty.”

Then, seizing a cue from the true source of wisdom, Caddyshack, I smiled like Danny Noonan in Judge Smales’ country club office. “You’re probably wondering -- what does this all mean?” He nodded emphatically. “Let me repeat: It means this the nation is in irreversible financial decline. Outstanding current and future debt obligations, a shrinking number of wage-earners” – and here I raised my eyes to psychologically signal Patty for some more water – “and a massive growing number of claimants -- all are unprecedented in American economic history. You and your cohorts could be crushed,” I said dramatically. Then I whispered, “But there is a way out.” He was all ears.

“For seven years I’ve been riding you about getting top grades. Now, on the eve of your first class, I don’t want you to even think twice about grades. In fact, I will never look at one of your report cards again. Just choose what you think will propel you to a top station in life. If taking notes in class isn’t your bag – and it sure wasn’t mine – then don’t. Personally, I found it was a ton of work.”

“With all that grade stuff out of the way, here is more invaluable advice: What will propel your farthest in life are languages. Yeah, I know you have the Spanish deal down cold so now get on the Chinese bandwagon. There are a lot of them and even if their economy has slowed to 7.5 percent growth per annum right now, we’re all going to be living in Yuan City someday. Forget about Italian and French – those countries are doomed. I assure you that with languages, you will become indispensable in the business world.”

“OK.  Now, as far as lax, keep at it. Being on a college lacrosse team provides a real opportunity because most of your teammates are going to wind up as investment bankers. Yes, that’s how it works. So with your Chinese, when that Goldman Sachs VP post opens in Shanghai, it’ll be yours because your ole buddy, Cameron the goalie, is in charge of the firm’s derivatives portfolio.”

Junior nodded in agreement and then asked, “What about my Maori ancestry?” “Kia Ora!” I practically shouted. “That means ‘Right on!’ in Maori. I have another word for you, pal: Haka! The Maoris were disciplined, violent, ruthless people. They were cannibals -- you can look it up on Google. You’ve shown ferocity and drive in everything – just keep it up, thank you.”

“Now, the good thing is, you may be 416 miles away at school. But with the Interweb and all these electronic doohickeys, you and I can be in contact whenever I need to tell you something.” Junior nodded affirmatively.

“And remember, it’s all generational. When your Grandfather Don began college, he was 24 years old and had survived a year and a half in the Pacific fighting the Japanese. I left for college at age 17, surviving two years of the fever swamps of UC Berkeley before transferring away my sophomore year.” “Today, you head off with all this accumulated wisdom that neither I or your Grandfather ever had. You’ll positively thrive.”

“And heck,” I observed, waxing on, “In years to come, your sons will probably look to me for this same advice. “What will you tell them?” asked Nellie Junior sincerely. “I’ll say, “Run downstairs and ask your Dad."

Monday, August 5, 2013

Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Nellie Theorem and Lacrosse

The best season of the year is here. Lacrosse has started and the two eldest Nelligan boys grind it out at Severn School varsity practice on windswept fields in winter twilight.  Cold, tired, and aching from hits.  This is what it takes.   
From the afternoon chill of a high-performing varsity, the next morning at 7:30, it’s even colder, and hey, perfect -- it’s sleeting.  A third Nellie is in a fierce fight for a roster spot on a top-notch traveling team – the crucible will be a 35-minute scrimmage that trims 42 kids to a team of 17.  “No pressure, my man,” I tell young son before it starts, “If you don’t make it, your life will be ruined.”
No, there’s no sport like lacrosse.  It requires masterful hand-eye coordination –catching and throwing on the run, both left and right handed, with the ball coming in hard at a pocket 1/3 the size of a baseball glove.  The game requires continual, instant decisions on angles across a huge field of play on which there are at least a dozen guys moving. It requires the endurance to run distances, accelerate fast, cut, and backpedal.  And oh yeah, you have to absorb 15 to 20 collisions a game, some from the blindside.  There is simply no other sport that asks as much on a consistent basis.
It’s also a sport in which personal initiative plays an essential role.  It can come down to a kid throwing a ball against a wall, left hand, right hand – for hour after lonely hour, day after week after month.  I know.  I’ve seen three sons do it. 
In the larger scope, it’s commitment.  And numbers tell the tale.  Not long ago, wool-gathering at a practice, I happily ventured through the lacrosse career of eldest son Devlin.  All told, he’s been a member of 38 separate teams (school, rec league, travel).  He’s played in approximately 780 full-scale, refereed, and scored games.  And he’s attended about 1,800 practices.  And that doesn’t count today’s practice.
And yeah, there has been driving involved.  Conversely, that’s one of the best elements of the entire crusade.  Dad and a kid in a car – one-on-one with no brothers, no rush, and conversations about anything and everything.  If you drive 55 miles to a game and lose, it’s the old man saying, “Tough luck, bud.  Shake it off.” If you win, you recite, play-by-play, every minute of four quarters.  And after every game, there’s always the same sequence (derived from the 2006 Cherry Blossom tourney):  “Ok, pal, let’s talk The Good, The Bad, and the Don’t Over-react.”
The weekend tournaments – at home or in Rhode Island, Virginia or in New Jersey -- are even better.  Three or four games a day, constant pressure to win, Dads yelling around -- “Move the ball!!  Wheels, wheels!” and my personal favorite, "Get your head in the game!" In the older tourneys, college coaches sit in chairs on the sidelines. 
Middle-son Braden was on a team that won half-a-dozen tournaments in a single season.  Every championship game, I’d be in my usual froth:  Muttering and pacing up and down the sideline, mouth full of chewing gum, hands in pockets, kicking the ground with my shoes, a total nervous wreck.  In all my professional life in politics, working on the Hill and for cabinet officials, I have never been more anxious than on a sideline in a tight game with about two minutes left in a one-score thriller.
Why Why WHY?!  It’s the Nellie Theorem, and it applies to all sports in general.  First, any kid on a field has placed himself in full glare to be publically judged and measured – parents and kids take this for granted all the time but it’s vital to remember. Second, being on that field, a kid is welcoming adversity.  The wrong move, the dropped ball, the opponent crushing them – every decision counts and carries with it consequences.  Third, a kid is on a team and forced to work with others to accomplish a goal.  Those kids who can’t join and achieve?  Well, you’ll find them in the basement playing COD eight hours a day. Fourth, sports requires endurance – mental and physical – grinding, focused attention, which is converse from a shallow, entertainment-saturated, electronic culture of instant acknowledgement and gratification. 
The Theorem payoff is earned success, confidence, resilience, toughness.  A bonus, of course, is that you can marshal the talent, poise, and leadership into an assist for getting into college, which Devlin was able to do recently.  And all that means is more sidelines for the old man to pace, chomping gum and muttering like a madman.
And yes, the season looms ahead.  I recently, after work, was able to catch a little of Devlin and Braden at the Varsity practice. Wow, just like many years ago on the Bethesda six-year-old team, both sons on the field at the same time.  And no, no misty eyes for Dad.  Rather, I marveled at what it took for them to get to this level -- last spring, Severn was ranked 39th in the nation by ESPN.
I’ve seen how the sport designed them, in its intangible fashion, into these rugged and alert young men, hulking in helmets and pads and gloves, digging in around the goal as the opposing midfielders headed toward them on the dead run.  Man, here it is -- speed, angles, strength, decision making, teamwork, confidence – all again for the first time.
Yep, 1,800 practices.  What it takes, indeed.