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The Whims and Foibles of Sports...

Class of '66 reunion will honor the grad in the empty seat

by J.W. Miller on 05/30/16

On this Memorial Day, I want to depart from our usual topics to remember a man I graduated high school with a half-century ago. Oh, I could put this in a sporting context since J.L. Travis and I played against each other in a summer baseball league, and I remember one game when he was playing first base and I took a too-long lead off the bag and the next batter hit a line-drive right at J.L., who caught the ball and doubled me up. J.L. did not play any sports in high school that I recall, while I was busy with football and baseball, but I remember him well as a handsome boy with chiseled features and coal black hair that fell over his forehead when he smiled. 

We went our separate ways after graduation, and I might never have thought about him until someone else brought up his name later. I was in college and had come back to my high school to watch a basketball game, and at some point during the game, our principal, Bruce Sweeney, took the microphone and said he had tragic news to announce. The last time I had heard Mr. Sweeney say those words was my sophomore year when he announced to a disbelieving young audience on November 22, 1963 that President Kennedy had been assassinated. But this night’s announcement hit even closer to home when Mr. Sweeney announced that exactly four years after the President’s death, on November 22, 1967, Thanksgiving Day, our classmate James Leonard Travis Jr. had been killed in Vietnam. 

That might have been the moment that I walked away from a protected childhood and into an unpredictable and threatening world. Until then, we lived in the cocoon of youthful innocence, aware of things like wars but dismissing them as subjects that occupied the evening news and happened to somebody else out there. We were oblivious to their tragic call and the fact that bad things do happen to good people. 

J.L. was inducted in the U.S. Army in March, 1967, along with his best friend Hubert Waford, who had graduated a year ahead of us. They were both from the Glenyrie section of the county, sons of farmers who spent their lives in the tobacco patches, hay fields and dairies of rural America. They underwent infantry training and were assigned to A Company, 3rd  Battalion, 22nd Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division. On August 22, 1967, their unit arrived near Binh Dinh, South Vietnam, a coastal province about 220 clicks south of Da Nang. Three months to the day after landing, J.L. Travis was killed by enemy fire. 

Hubert Waford served as military escort to bring J. L.’s body back to the United States for burial at the Dover Baptist Church in Shelby County. Hubert returned to Vietnam on December 8, rose to the rank of sergeant and was himself killed on Good Friday, April 12, 1968, in a battle in which he earned the Silver Star for bravery. 

This year is the 50th anniversary of the graduation of the Class of 1966 at Shelby County High School, and we will get together on July 30 to remember the best part of our youth and honor those who will not be with us, like J.L. Travis. We also will remember other classmates such as Billy “Twink” Hall, leadoff hitter on our state championship runner up baseball team, who died at 36 from cancer. And Barry “Buck” Cottrell, who might have been the funniest boy and man I ever knew until his death at 43 in a car crash. Earlier this year, we lost Hugh “Turkey” Smith, who hit the key free throws in a state tournament semi-final game on our way to the 1966 state basketball championship. And, of course, the star of that team and my all-time best friend, Mike Casey, died at 60 after a long struggle with congestive heart failure. 

There were others, and those of us who have survived will share stories about each. But on this Memorial Day, we should pay special attention to our classmate J.L. Travis and his buddy Hubert Waford, two young Americans from the heartland who fought and died so that we could grow to adulthood, have families and enjoy all the good things that a free country can provide. 

Bliss restored, the Old Fart is on the road again!

by J.W. Miller on 05/25/16

If you run long enough, you will experience occasional interruptions to the bliss of accomplishment and well-being that you get from a good run. Those interruptions are usually caused by pain or injury, so it was no surprise last December when I began feeling some weird pains in my left leg. It wasn’t a normal pull or strain, because the pain seemed like it was coming from the inside out. But I knew it was serious when I stepped off a 6-inch curb, my leg gave way, and I hit the pavement. 

The first doctor’s X-ray ruled out a hairline fracture. Another administered an MRI that ruled out a disc problem. Another doctor who gave me an ultrasound ruled out blood clots and pregnancy. Then the fourth doctor, a neurologist who administered a sadistic test called an electromyography (EMG) told me I had nerve damage in the leg. If any doctor prescribes an EMG for you, just tell him to go ahead and amputate. It will be less painful! 

I have had my share of interruptions before, the worst of which was a ruptured disc in 1990 that idled me for a year, but there have been others. A strained plantar fascia in 2011 sat me down for five months, a troublesome hip flexor in 2013 forced me to the exercise bike for four months, and assorted hamstring strains over the years forced me off the roads for two to eight weeks at a time. 

With the most running interruption, the neurologist said I needed to stay off the leg for six to eight months so the nerves would heal. During those past interruptions, I merely switched my workouts to the exercise bike. But not this time. The neurologist said the nerves don’t heal like sore muscles or strains, and I needed to go cold turkey. No exercise, no therapy, nothing but rest. Thank goodness for the stretching program I began several years ago that has saved my sanity while those pesky little nerves mended themselves. 

Now, five months and ten pounds later, I am on the road again but with a greatly modified program well-suited to 60-something runners! Distance runners have long practiced the drill called “fartleks” that combine intervals of slow running with intervals of faster running or even sprints. Well, I have developed a senior running program I call “Old Fart-leks” that alternates slow jogging with walking. I started about two weeks ago, slowly jogging a couple hundred yards then stopping and walking a similar distance. The first few days I probably covered no more than a mile, but now I can cover three miles by alternating slow jogs with walking. I have suffered no pain so far, and I hope I am on the road to as much recovery as I can stand. 

I know it’s hard for civilians to understand my desire to get back on the trail, but it’s been a big part of my life for 45 years. It pains me to see the general decline in the runners’ movement. A recent headline in the Wall Street Journal put it less than succinctly when it blasted “The Running Boom Goes Bust.” Although Running USA reported that the number of 2013 race finishers reached an all-time high, a decline the past two years apparently signals the “bust.” 

I don’t agree with the harsh nature of the headline, but as a lifetime runner I can’t disagree with the sentiment, especially as it relates to quality running. The 10-k Crescent City Classic is Exhibit A. Shortly after I came to New Orleans, I finished in the Top 500 of the race with times around 38 minutes. Let me say that I barely finished in the Top 500, placing roughly 475th in both years. (I lost my running log during Katrina, so I’m going by memory here!)  If I ran the same time in the most recent CCC, I would have finished in the Top 100

But a funny thing happens when you get older. You start to recognize your limits a bit easier. Two days before the onset of pain in December, I ran five miles, maybe for the last time. I plan to continue my Old Fart-leks for the time being, and maybe longer. When you get to our age, boys and girls, it is far more important to get out there and do what you can do rather than lament what you can no longer do. Bliss is still available, just in a slightly modified package!

Will this be Drew Brees' final year in New Orleans?

by J.W. Miller on 05/23/16

The fact that the Saints have not extended QB Drew Brees’ contract raises some interesting questions. Brees’ cap number in the contract’s final year is $30 million, which represents around 19 percent of the team’s total cap. Brees’ number includes $20 million in salary and a workout bonus that could be spread out in an extension, which has appeared to be the likely scenario this off-season. But consider what would happen if the Saints forego an extension and carry the bigger number this year? That raises three interesting scenarios, two of which would increase Zantac sales in Who Dat Nation! 

Scenario No. 1: The Saints are willing to bite a rather large bullet in order to get Brees’ money off the books totally. That would bring the team out the Salary Cap jungle in which they have been operating the past few years, trying to keep what they believed was a good team intact. That belief hasn’t been supported by the evidence. A good team doesn’t miss the playoffs three of four years between 2012-2015. Of course, this scenario means the Drew Brees era in New Orleans will likely end after the 2016 season. The Saints might have decided to devote more cash to improve other areas while they hand the reins to another quarterback. I don’t see this Saints organization doing what previous  administrations tried to do with retreads such as Jim Everett or Wade Wilson, but are they comfortable that Garrett Grayson is the guy or do they see the future in a new face such as Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly in 2017? 

Scenario No. 2: The club wants to get a deal done, but agent Tom Condon doesn’t see Brees’ value declining in future years. If the Saints hold fast, Condon will likely try to shop Brees and hope for a happy landing elsewhere as he did when the Colts cut his client Peyton Manning. This scenario sounds much like the first and means the team will be looking for a new quarterback next year.

Scenario No. 3: The team and agent are still working on the deal to tie up Brees for another two years or longer. This is the scenario that gives Who Dat Nation the best chance to breathe easier. But keep in mind, Brees will be 40 years old or older at the end of an extension. How long can he defy the gravity of age and injury? Brees and Coach Sean Payton are saying all the right things now, but sentiment is constantly sacrificed by the business of football. You’ll know if this is the right scenario during training camp. If nothing has been done by opening day, then re-read Scenario No. 1. 

- 0 -

I noticed with some humor that the Saints have signed on with WGSO, 990 AM to broadcast their 2016 games in Spanish. Our attempts to do the same thing in the late 1980’s provided one of my favorite stories of the Finks-Mora era. Our intrepid Marketing director, Greg Suit, came to us one day and said the local Spanish station wanted to broadcast our games. Of course, they wanted to pay us in pesos, which meant it was more of a community service than a money maker. 

The representatives of the Spanish-speaking station claimed in those days that about 75,000 Spanish-speaking listeners in the metro area tuned in to their broadcasts. (The census records did not back up those numbers, although since Hurricane Katrina, U.S. Census records show the Hispanic population as well over 100,000.) We agreed to the deal, and the station went about hiring a broadcast crew. 

I do not remember the names, but the station’s general manager was going to call play-by-play while he was proud to report that a former LSU placekicker would provide the color. The kicker had a Spanish surname, which seemed to add credibility to the broadcast, so things appeared to be in place. Then came the first broadcast. As it was reported to us later by the station GM, he could tell immediately something was amiss with his color guy. 

“What is it?” Suit asked him. “Doesn’t the kicker know football?” “Oh, he knows football,” the GM answered. “He just doesn’t know Spanish!” The kicker for the former placekicker came when the Saints opponent called a running play with the right guard pulling to block defensive end Pat Swilling. But the distorted translation came out something like this: “And the guard pulls out of the line, races toward Swilling, jumps on him and has sex with him!” 

The flabbergasted GM, unable to go on because he was laughing so hard, pulled the plug on the broadcast. 


Senior guys golf trip was more therapy than antics

by J.W. Miller on 05/16/16

I just returned from my first-ever guys golf trip. At my age, you’d think I would have done this before, but no. I have been to more than a dozen Super Bowls, a World Series, NBA playoff games, Stanley Cup playoffs, NCAA Final Fours, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. I have been to the Ryder Cup and PGA Tournaments, but I had never been on a guys golf trip. 

So, obviously, I had never written a column about a guys golf trip. I have read stories of other guys’ golf trips and their wild tales from the casino or  headlines such as: “What happens in Myrtle Beach stays in Myrtle Beach.” But the likelihood of naughty stories is reduced when your foursome ranges in age from 64-69. If anything wayward happened, it's highly likely we would have forgotten it by the time we returned home. This group was less concerned with adolescent antics than with our current medications, so this report will read more like a travelogue than an expose. 

However, the identities of my tripmates will remain confidential, because you never know what they told their wives. So, to protect the innocent, they are herein identified as the Duke, Sweet and the Dude. To give you a better understanding, their monikers have to do with the “Duke of do-over,” whose drives into the woods or water didn’t count. “Sweet” describes our best player’s swing, while the “Dude” is the geriatric equivalent of Jeff Bridges’ easy-going character in the Big Lebowski. 

Of course, they spent the first day of our trip trying to come up with a name for me and, while "whisky" had some votes, they settled on "Dewan," which offers the only identifying marks I will place on the group. Each one worked for the University of New Orleans while I was director of athletics. My nickname for the week was a tribute to my efforts to keep UNO as a Division 1 institution over the wishes, and ultimate decision, by the former chancellor to reduce the program to a lower classification. Get it? D-1. Dewan.

The location of our trip was easy because the Dude owns a six-bedroom house on a lake in Hot Springs Village, Arkansas, and old guys are notoriously cheap. Sweet was the only one of our group who no longer lives in the New Orleans area and had to fly in, but the rest of us drove up in my daughter’s SUV, the only car between us that would hold three sets of golf clubs and suitcases. If you’ve never driven that 450-mile route, you need a passenger like the Duke, who passed the time by writing down the name of every church we passed along the way. No joke, but there are something like 85 churches between Utica, Mississippi, and Hot Springs, and 76 of them are Baptist. 

The Dude’s house is a gorgeous property that was perfectly situated for our post-golf routine of cocktails on the deck and debates on the relative merits of Yankees vs. Red Sox or Zocor vs. Lipitor. But golf is the stated reason for a golf trip, and golf was good, despite daily forecasts of rain. Hot Springs Village encompasses a handful of top-rated courses, all with Spanish names because Hernando DeSoto is believed to have explored the area in 1541, according to a history of Hot Springs. We played courses named Cortez, Santa Maria, Isabella and Grenada, all of which were gorgeous and challenging. 

I shot 86 the first day, which included a couple do-overs, a mulligan and some rather generous gimmes from the group, who expected, and received the same consideration at various points of the week. I was chipping fairly well, but not well enough to overcome my erratic putting. I was chipping to within 7-10 feet of the flag, but that needed to be more like 2-3 feet. My game went down from there, which sufficiently covers my three final rounds, with the exception of an attack by gnats on the third day despite ample sprits of insect repellant. Nobody else had the problem, which leads me to the conclusion that my aftershave on the only day I shaved was insect catnip. 

Our schedule was flexible. Up when we wanted, copious cups of coffee and tee-times at noon. Dinner ranged from pizza to sandwiches and beers on Lake DeSoto, Mexican in a historic spot in Hot Springs and ribs. We were all in bed by 10 p.m. And that was it. No punchlines. No ribald tales of binge drinking, all-night casinos or dirty movies. You think that sounds boring? Then you deserve your owned damned golf trip with a bunch of adolescents, not with a bunch of 60-somethings! After all, one man's boredom is another man's therapy!

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat, although next time I won’t shave!


Can Nyquist follow American Pharoah to the triple crown?

by J.W. Miller on 05/08/16

Rick Bozich married my cousin Rhonda, so I consider him a valued member of the family. But what might interest you more is that Rick Bozich is a columnist for WGRB-TV in Louisville and one of the foremost experts on all things horse racing. His most recent observation came after Nyquist won Saturday’s Kentucky Derby and is now the only horse in the world that can win a Triple Crown this year. 

A year ago, that fact would not have been so compelling, but that was before American Pharoah became the first 3-year-old thoroughbred in 37 years to win the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in the same year. So, naturally, Nyquist is on the spot, and Bozich sees the fervor that follows. And his message to those who care about horse racing? Pay attention! 

“Get excited about another horse, everybody,” Bozich wrote Sunday. “Go crazy if you like. Prepare for another serious pursuit of a Triple Crown. Remember the name. The colt is Nyquist. He came to the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs Saturday and ran like he was chasing American Pharoah, Seattle Slew, Secretariat and the other winners of the Triple Crown.” So why does Bozich think we could have a second consecutive Triple Crown winner? Because he sees something special about the Derby winner. 

“There’s no reason to practice safe hype any more,” Bozich wrote. “Not if you watched how Nyquist crackled to a 1¼ length victory over Exaggerator and 18 other horses in the first leg of the Triple Crown. He answered the questions about his pedigree, stamina, soundness, size and everything else the skeptics whispered all week." You want tangible evidence? Bozich noted that Nyquist’s winning time of 2:01.31 was the fastest Derby in 13 years and nearly two seconds faster than the 2:03.02 that American Pharoah ran last year on his way to the Triple Crown.

This is a special horse, only the third Kentucky Derby winner to win his first eight stakes races and became the eighth unbeaten Derby winner. Nyquist came to Louisville after winning the Florida Derby, San Vincente Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and four other races since last June 5. Nyquist has never been worse than third at any call in any of his three races this year, winning them by a combined six lengths. He’s won in California, Florida or Kentucky and looks as if he’s ready to win in Baltimore (Preakness May 21), New York (Belmont, June 11), Pluto and Mars.

Jockey Mario Gutierrez urged the winner briskly from the middle of the starting gate, settled him just behind front-running Danzing Candy in the first turn and let the colt take it from there. He surged into the lead with about a quarter mile to run and his talent took it from there. It always has.

“If anybody watches Nyquist’s races, you will see that he will not allow any other horse to pass him,” said Gutierrez. “This horse is such a  special horse and he just shows it every day,” trainer Doug O’Neill said. “The fact that he’s unbeaten shows you a lot. Seeing it happen last year shows that it can happen with a special horse.” 

Will Nyquist become the second straight horse to win the Triple Crown? Who knows, but if Rick Bozich can paint such a convincing picture, then you gotta believe. After all, he’s family!

























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