Thursday, August 30, 2012

Emerald Isle

Emerald Isle
Excerpt from: Odyssey, Chapter VII
By Aaron M. Smith

Notre Dame vs. Navy, Dublin, Ireland
Marc Edwards squeezed into his undersized airline seat and tried to get as comfortable as a 240-pound fullback could be on a jetliner. It was a Tuesday and the Irish settled in for an all-night flight to the Emerald Isle. At roughly 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the Notre Dame jet emerged from the clouded cover and touched down in Dublin.
In an attempt to stave off jet lag, the Irish had a full day of tourism scheduled after their arrival. After a quick lunch at Sussex Restaurant, the team made its way to Croke (pronounced: crow) Park, the stadium in which the Irish and Middies would do battle.
The stadium didn’t look like the round bowls of Notre Dame Stadium and the Big House in Ann Arbor. It was more of a block-C structure with higher sections of bleachers on the sides and shorter sections on either end zone. The field was larger than an American football gridiron; there was plenty of green space surrounding the football field outline. The pitch was traditionally used by soccer, hurling, and Gaelic football teams, which use larger fields. The Notre Dame vs. Navy tilt would be the first American football game played at Croke Park.
Following the quick visit to the stadium, the team gathered on a bus and traveled the serpentine roads through the Irish countryside.
Through the bus windows, a velvet green tapestry wrapped itself around cliffs and mounds while small white cottages speckled the vast landscape. Ribbons of pavement swerved left then right and up and over and down and around leading eventually to somewhere. Chimneys puffed white smoke into the air while cold empty castles sat lifelessly where souls once gathered hundreds of years in the past.
“It was incredible,” Marc said. “I had never seen anything like it.”
Between football practices and team dinners, the players traveled the streets of Dublin and sat on the ivory stone steps at Trinity College where scribes such as Samuel Becket and Oscar Wilde once scribbled their thoughts onto paper.
Before the team had traveled overseas, a man from Ireland joined the squad for a luncheon. One of his bits of advice was against the law of Lou Holtz.
“When you guys get over there,” the man said, “you’ve got to try the Guinness.”
Holtz had a team rule that no one – regardless of age – could drink a drop of alcohol during the football season. But Guinness is an Irish treasure and the team would be in Ireland. The team tried to convince their coach to look the other way on this particular transgression.
Holtz was not happy.
“OK,” the coach said reluctantly. “You can have one Guinness while you’re over there if you are 21. And that’s final.”
Marc was a little unclear on Holtz’s new rule.
“Now, does that mean one keg?” he asked rhetorically to his friends. “Does that mean one bottomless pint at a local pub?
“I guess it was up to our interpretation of what ‘one’ meant,” Marc said. “After the game, we’d definitely have that one Guinness.”
But before the team could make merry in the waning hours of Saturday night, it had business to take care of under the gray skies of Saturday afternoon.
In the Dublin newspapers that morning, the editors printed the rules of American football so that those attending the game would have some idea of what was happening. This type of football was rarely seen this far from the States. Some fans in attendance, though, knew exactly what to expect.
A small group from Norwood, Ohio, made the trip to Europe to see their native son play across the pond. Matt Ventura, one of Marc’s teammates at Norwood High School, was among those who ventured east.
“We flew into London and spent a little time there,” he said. “And then a few of us went to Dublin to see the game. It was incredible; what a culture change.”
Ventura found himself explaining American football to those around him in the bleachers of Croke Park. He anxiously awaited the start of the game so he could see his friend trample all over the Irish gridiron.
The game was listed as a home contest for Navy, but the Fighting Irish clearly felt at home on the Irish sod.
To beat the water-based service academy, Notre Dame kept the attack on the ground. Ten minutes into the contest, Marc blasted into the end zone from five yards away to score the game’s first points.
To the Norwood contingent, Marc’s touchdown was something special.
“That was amazing,” Ventura said. “After he scored that first touchdown, they put his picture up on the big screen. It’s pretty cool to see one of your best friends from high school up on the big screen in Ireland. That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.”
Ventura would have plenty more chances to see his friend on the big screen.
A touchdown reception by Pete Chryplewicz and a 33-yard scamper for another score by Autry Denson sandwiched a Navy score in the second quarter and the Irish led 21-7 at the break.
Marc Edwards on his way to another touchdown. (Getty Images)
Notre Dame’s lead would expand to 28-7 early in the third quarter when Renaldo Wynn returned a fumble recovery 24 yards to pay dirt. But the pesky Middies kept coming back, keeping the game within reach. Two Navy touchdowns in the third quarter and another touchdown by Denson kept the margin at 14 (35-21) going into the fourth quarter.
Holtz wasn’t enjoying his trip. In his mind, the game should have been far out of hand in favor of his Irish. He took out his frustrations on the same offensive lineman he booted to the ground in training camp before Marc’s freshman season. It made Holtz furious when an offensive lineman would lean forward on running plays and lean back on passing plays, therefore advertising to the defense the intention of the Irish offense.
When the lineman came to the sideline after a stalled drive, Holtz went ballistic. He grabbed the lineman’s facemask while spit and screams spewed from his mouth. At one point during the tirade, Holtz slammed his face into the lineman’s facemask. The coach shattered his glasses and bloodied his own mouth in getting his point across.
“He head-butted the guy,” Marc said. “You don’t head butt a guy who’s got a helmet on. He’s screaming like crazy and it looks like his face just exploded. I guess he needed to just get that off his chest.”
The fourth quarter had been Marc’s time before that season, and on a cool day on a slice of green in the North Atlantic, it would be again.
Marc blasted into the end zone twice more in the fourth quarter to push the Irish’s lead to 47-21. His backup, Jamie Spencer, pounded into the end zone for Notre Dame’s final touchdown late in the game before Navy tacked on a meaningless touchdown.
Marc finished the 54-27 victory with 47 yards rushing and three touchdowns as Notre Dame amassed 303 yards on the ground and six rushing touchdowns. That was the Notre Dame way and the Irish crowd witnessed a clinic in old-school American football.
After the game, Ventura and the other Norwood faithful made their way toward the field. They wanted to greet their friend before leaving the stadium.
“I didn’t even know a Norwood contingent was there,” Marc said. “That was awesome and it was great to see them after the game.”
Marc signed a jersey they had brought with them, which they brought home to hang on the wall of a Norwood tavern.
“This whole trip to Ireland was one of my best experiences from my Notre Dame days,” Marc said.
It wasn’t over just yet.
The Irish plane bound for Chicago wasn’t due to leave until Sunday afternoon and Saturday night was still young. Temple Bar and the nightlife of Dublin, like a Siren, beckoned the Irish players. One thing stood in their way, however: curfew.
The assistant coach in charge of bed checks was willing to be a little lax in his responsibilities that night. He understood the special circumstances surrounding this last night on foreign soil. He knew some of his players may never travel outside of the United States again.
“Gentlemen, listen up,” he quietly told the team. “I am coming for bed check. I’m going to check once and then that’s it. I’m not coming back around. Just be there when I check. You understand what I’m saying?”
Oh, they understood.
“We closed down all the pubs that night,” Marc said. “We had an absolutely great time hanging with the locals and hanging with each other. And we had a great time enjoying that one Guinness coach let us have.”
To no one’s surprise, that one Guinness lasted deep into the night.
“Hey, we never saw the bottom of the pint,” Marc said. “They kept filling it up.”
The sojourn in Ireland was over and the players squeezed into their airplane seats for the long ride back to reality.
Up next for Notre Dame was a trip to Boston College for its annual holy war.
Marc did not know it would be the last time he would suit up and fight alongside his Notre Dame teammates.
To purchase Odyssey: From Blue Collar, Ohio to Super Bowl Champion, visit the following on-line retailers.
Barnes and Noble

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why the negativity?

Why the Negativity?
Aaron M. Smith

Dusty Baker gets blasted despite managing first-place team.
The Cincinnati Reds are in first place for only the second time in about a dozen years this late in the season. Recently, before a four-game slide, the Reds had the best record in all of Major League Baseball. They had won 22-of-25 games, most of which without injured Joey Votto, the best player in the National League. The last time the Reds went on a run like this, Grover Cleveland was in office.

Yet throughout this amazing run and especially now after losing four straight, the negativity voiced by this team's fans on talk radio and social media has gotten out of control. You can't turn on AM 700 WLW without hearing fans from all over the tri-state area blasting the Reds for an inability to hit, an ineffectiveness on the mound, and a general lack of knowledge from manager Dusty Baker and general manager Walt Jocketty. On Twitter, a flood of tweets from twits constantly blast Baker's lineup, his handling of pitchers, and even his use of that blasted toothpick. The critiques and complaints come in such high volume, you would think we're dealing with the Astros and their 40-games under .500 record.

We're not, though. We're dealing with a first place team. A team that is 21 games over .500 and that leads the surging Pirates by 2 1/2 games. We're dealing with a team that, prior to Dusty Baker's arrival, had sniffed the playoffs just once since sweeping the World Series in 1990. You would think fans would be grateful for what Baker has brought to the Queen City. Sadly, he's received a barrage of criticism.

Joey Votto
One complaint about Dusty Baker that I always hear: "He kills pitchers arms and works them to death." Fact: The Reds have used only five starting pitchers this year. Only the Marlins can say they've done the same. How would you like to be San Diego? They've used 13 different starting pitchers and, surprise, they're in second-to-last place in the NL West with a .434 winning percentage. Who's in last place in the division? The Rockies. They've used 11 different starting pitchers. Seems like Baker has taken good care of his pitcher's arms and, as a result, has managed a first-place team. Let's give that repetitive critique a rest for a while.

Another complaint that he always gets: "What's with that lineup? Dusty's lineups suck." Fact: The Reds went on a 15-3 stretch without Joey Votto. They won several without Votto and Brandon Phillips in the lineup. Why is that? Because every player on that bench has had playing time and every starter has received enough rest to keep him fresh. The Reds have veterans like Ryan Ludwick, Scott Rolen, Miguel Cairo, and Wilson Valdez. They're going to need rest. They cannot start every day or they won't be available or productive during the stretch run. Bench players like Valdez and Cairo and Chris Heisey all have seen significant time in meaningful games this year. Rookie Todd Frazier now has experience playing three different positions -- which comes in handy when you have an aging third basemen and an MVP first basemen on the disabled list. These bench players are not afraid of game time because they have seen it and played in it. The veterans are contributing greatly in the second half of the season because they haven't been played to death. That credit goes to Baker. The lineup bashing needs to stop.

I've mentioned some of these things to people and I hear all this "It's my right to criticize the team," or "I'm a fan, I pay money to see them play. I have a right to criticize them." I guess you do. You can have your freedom of speech. But why the negativity? I cannot understand why you would call yourself a fan and then spend all your energy dumping on the manager, who has them in first place? "They are in first place despite Dusty," I've heard. "They should be 10 games ahead of the Pirates," is another one. To them I say, -- well, I just throw up my hands. There is no logic to being so negative, especially for a first-place team. As assistant director of media relations Jamie Ramsey pointed out on Twitter, "Wait, what are they complaining about?" Said 24 other MLB teams' fans." Exactly. Enjoy the run people. It could be far worse. It's been a decade since the Reds have been relevant (pre-Dusty Baker).Why not enjoy this team. They're a great team with a great group of players. Put down your critic's hat and enjoy this.

Jamie Ramsey
Ramsey has also had enough of the negativity, and with good reason. People have blasted Ramsey on Twitter for, get this, being too supportive of his team. That's ridiculous. One twit wrote: "eternal optimist, you would have stayed on the titanic as it was sinking." To which Ramsey replied: "I don't give up on my team." And why should he? And why should anyone? I just don't understand. After firing off an onslaught of illogical critiques of the Reds, some Cincinnati fans decided to go after Ramsey personally with a vitriolic hate that has no place in society. It's really unconscionable how people can act like this ... they can act like this behind the veil of social media. There is no accountability. Ramsey, after sending off an ill-advised direct message to one of the worst offenders, shut down his account after the offender re-tweeted his threatening message. Should Ramsey have sent the message saying how he would have enjoyed kicking his a$$ in front of his six followers? No. And he knows that and acknowledged as much. But do I blame him? Absolutely not.

Ramsey is one of the Reds' most boisterous and ardent supporters. What he has done around Cincinnati to support the Reds, their players, and their organization has been fantastic. He is optimistic. He talks anxious fans down from the ledge after losing streaks. And he rightfully defends the team when a flood of negativity swarms his Twitter feed and Reds blog. I'm happy to report that his Twitter account is active again. I hope that this time, Ramsey simply blocks followers that are full of hate and negativity. I hope he doesn't bother with RTing these negative whiners in an attempt to defend the team. These people will find other outlets to spew their vitriol. Let's keep Ramsey's feed for those who actually support the team.

Long gone are the days of "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Now, it seems, people like to shoot off their mouths to get a reaction, to get RTd, to make themselves feel as if they know better. Yes, it's your right to act like a 10-year-old. But why? What's the point? This is a good team -- a first-place team. It's not like the Reds have been mired in a lackluster drudge of a season. It's been a heck of a year, and this Reds fan plans to enjoy this ride clear through October. And if they don't make it until October, this team will be back again next year for another run a title. And regularly being in a championship chase is really all you can ask for as a fan.

Trust me. I'm also a Browns fan.