Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Bees, Watermelon & Public Nudity

Tales from the Recruiting Trail 
July 1st each year indicates the day college track coaches can officially make contact with the soon-to-be senior high school recruits. This usually takes place in the form of home visits. I actually love this part of the job. Sure, you put in crazy hours on the road but you get to see parts of this country you would have never taken the time to see- and most of the families you meet turn out to be terrific. The unique experiences on the recruiting trail almost always deliver to us coaches a tale worth telling. I have quite a few, but here are a couple of unique and very true experiences that come to mind.

Early in my coaching career I had scheduled a long recruiting trip in late July to the Midwest and I was excited about it. Other than connecting with important recruits on this trip, my one big goal was to eat a watermelon. Yes, they had watermelon in Oregon, but nothing like Midwest watermelons. When I was a kid, I couldn’t believe adults, free to spend their own money, weren’t just walking around with watermelons under their arms at all times. We ate huge pieces in the Steele family. We were famous for it. I couldn’t imagine eating SO much watermelon I couldn’t eat another bite. I loved watermelon. And I really, really missed the ones from my childhood. (To illustrate that point, when I sat down to write this particular blog, I couldn’t take my mind off how great one would taste right now. I had to pause so I could drive to the grocery store and buy a watermelon. Yes, really.)

I flew to Chicago, rented a car and began my long meandering journey through three states. It was mid-afternoon and I was on a beautiful two-lane road in rural Indiana when I saw the sign for a farmers market. “Yes!” I said. The watermelons on display were enormous. I looked them over like an uncompromising livestock judge at the state fair. I settled on one so beautiful it nearly brought tears to my eyes. I was deeply happy carrying my melon to the check-out. I was also trying to figure out how I was going to eat it. I figured I could just slam it into something hard to break it open. I grabbed a box of assorted plastic utensils and headed out. 

I got back onto the lazy road, hoping my route would take me past an obvious place to eat my melon. Unfortunately, no such place appeared. I had some extra time but was getting fairly close to my next recruit’s house. I started driving past what looked like a park, only to discover it was a big, beautiful cemetery instead. Hmm… I mean, what’s the difference? 

There were just a couple of cars parked in the big asphalt lot I pulled into. It was just off the two lane road, but the cars on that road were few and far between. I selected a shady spot away from the other cars, popped the trunk and got out. My plan was to smash the watermelon on the ground, eat as much as I could with my plastic fork and go on my way. I was immediately confronted with my wardrobe situation. I almost always wear a suit and tie when I do these visits, and this time was no exception. I was wearing my most expensive suit and was worried about getting watermelon juice on it. I took off the jacket. Not good enough. For this to work I had to spike the melon right at my feet. I imagined exploding chunks all over my pants and shoes. I looked at my beautiful melon sitting in my trunk. Crap… OK, I’m wearing boxer briefs. They could be argued as “shorts” if pressed by the authorities. I took off my shoes and pants. Good enough? A car drove past. I was wearing a light blue dress shirt. Any juice or shrapnel that found its’ way to my shirt would be impossible to hide. Oh boy… Off went the tie and dress shirt. I was now standing in the cemetery parking lot in black socks, black boxer-briefs and a white wife-beater tank. I was ready. 

I grabbed the melon from the trunk and carefully dropped in onto the pavement. It cracked, but not nearly enough. I picked it up again. This time lifting it over my head and slammed it down. Much more effective, but it still only broke halfway. Finally on my third attempt, I had two large, deliciously red, broken pieces. A car pulled into the lot and parked a few spots from me. I’ll go out on a limb and say that 60-something year old woman hadn’t expected to see me smashing a watermelon in my underwear when she left for the cemetery that day. Whatever.

I set one of the broken halves of the watermelon on the rear bumper, held it in place with one hand and scooped out the bites with my plastic fork with the other. The first mouthwatering bite made it all worth it. I was in heaven. I was a bit concerned the old lady might report me, so I practiced my statement while eating more watermelon in one sitting than I’ve ever eaten before. Yep. A personal best. Winning! 


I’ve never had a problem with bees. 
My brother, on the other hand, is famous for his hilarious, animated fear of them. My wife has a genuine phobia over them, turning into the Tasmanian Devil whenever any flying insect comes near. But not me. The bees and I have always been simpatico.   

So it was a sweltering day in mid-July and I was I was on the road visiting a few more Midwestern blue chip recruits. The first visit had gone well, but I had to overcome some minor embarrassment when my remote PowerPoint clicker ran out of juice half-way through my presentation. I had some extra time before my next visit, so I pulled into a Walgreens to replace the dead batteries.  

Shortly after walking into the store- OUCH!!! I felt something sharp and really painful right in the side of my butt. “HEY!” I yelled, turning around to see nothing. I quickly reached back and felt the area of pain. Nothing. What the heck? I thought. I shook my head and took a few more steps. OUCH!!! “HEY!” I yelled again, looking behind me and seeing nothing. Again I reached back and felt my pants. What IS that? I pictured something like a rose thorn stuck under my pants, but I didn’t feel anything. Shaken, I took a couple more steps, still grabbing all over for the source of my pain. Then- OUCH!!! And I knew. Something was in my pants either stinging or biting me. 

My first reaction was just to drop my pants and end this madness. I started smacking my butt all over with both hands, looking around frantically for a bathroom. From the middle of the store I spotted a guy behind a cash register. “Hey!” I yelled, startling him. I was grabbing, smacking and pinching the backside of my pants. “I need a place to take off my pants! I think I got a bee!” He looked back, very confused and visibly concerned. “What?” he asked. My annoyance at his lack of urgency was quickly turning to anger. Now, with the loud and exaggerated enunciation of a frustrated wife, I yelled, “I think I have a bee down my pants. I’m going to take them off right HERE (pointing straight down) unless you can point out a bathroom!” His eyes got big and he understood. “Oh… NO!” He pointed wildly to the rear of the store with his own mild panic and yelled, “Back there, back there!” I turned and walked/jogged to the bathroom, all the while smacking my butt like a lunatic.

My suit jacket was almost off when I violently shoved the door open with one hand. I threw down the coat, loosened my belt and dropped my pants. Immediately, a very agitated Yellow Jacket emerged from my pants, flew past me and up to the ceiling. I felt a kind of rage towards that bee I’ve rarely felt in my life. There might be more, I thought. I stripped off everything but my black socks- on the off chance it wasn’t acting alone…  Nope. I was dealing with a single.  

I looked up and focused my eyes at the Yellow Jacket that had caused me such unprovoked pain and suffering. I clapped my hands together and said, “Let’s dance, (EXPLETIVE)!” I picked up a shoe and accidentally caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. The ridiculous nature of this scene- me furious, naked except for my socks & wielding a shoe as a weapon- wasn’t lost on me. I didn’t care. I jumped up and swung the shoe at the bee. I hit the ceiling hard, but missed. He flew to the plastic cover protecting the fluorescent light. I jumped, swung and loudly missed again. “Come on!” I yelled in frustration. Finally on my third maniacal swing I nailed him. He landed lifeless on the ground... I swung again. And again. Then I got on all fours and pressed that shoe into what was left of that evil SOB as hard as I could, twisting the shoe back and forth as I pressed. “Tell your friends, (EXPLETIVE)!”

If someone would have walked into the bathroom in that moment, they would have needed a team of therapists to work through their PTSD from the scene.  

I stood up and put my suit back on. The cashier was clearly distraught when he rang up my batteries, but he didn’t ask any questions and I gave no report or explanation. He’d have to draw his own conclusions from the smashed Yellow Jacket on the bathroom floor and the sweat pouring down my face.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Believing in Superheroes

Bruce Jenner, 1976 Olympic Decathlon Champ
When I was seven years old, my twin brother, Darrin and I watched every second of the 1976 Olympic decathlon. I still remember the two of us on the floor in front of the TV, watching a man named Bruce Jenner break the world record en route to his Olympic gold medal. Like thousands of people around the world, Bruce was like a superhero to us. Without question, he was my first real hero. He inspired in me a love for the decathlon and Olympic Games that remains to this day.

I have been fortunate in my life to have met a good number of famous people. Some have been kind and some of been jerks.  I once met one of my greatest athletic heroes who rolled his eyes when I told him what a big fan I was, and asked him for an autograph. I very conspicuously tossed the autographed piece of paper into the trash as I walked away, crushed. 

And then there was Bruce Jenner. In 1995 I emerged on the scene as a rookie, national class decathlete. In 1990, Visa became the signature sponsor of the US decathlon, sponsoring the top ten US decathletes each year. It was an amazing partnership, connecting current decathletes with the greats of the past. I finished 5th at the ’95 US Championships and was named to the Visa USA Decathlon Team. The morning of the ’95 team announcement I stepped into an elevator that Bruce was in. I’d like to say I introduced myself in that moment and finally met my childhood hero. Instead, I was transported back in time, a seven year old, too star-struck to say a word to his hero.  Through the Visa sponsorship I did eventually meet him, along with all the other living US decathlon gold medalists. I found Bruce easy to talk with and genuine. In fact, I am very happy to say they were all great, great guys. 

Bruce Jenner
One year later I was in my Atlanta high rise hotel room the night before the 1996 Olympic Trials. It was after midnight and I was too keyed up to sleep. I decided to take a walk. I remember riding down an enormous escalator and seeing Bruce all by himself in the lobby. He saw me as I stepped off the escalator, smiled and walked up to me. He correctly assumed I couldn’t sleep and asked how I was feeling about my chances of finishing top three. I played it cool, but was thrilled to run into him. Then, in one of the most surreal moments of my life, he told me a story. He told me how he had been in the Quad Cities (where I grew up) a couple of weeks earlier for an appearance. He said he was at a media event where local reporters were asking him questions. “One of the reporters asked me if I thought you had a chance to make the Olympic team in the decathlon,” he told me. “I told them, You know, I just watched him compete, and that guy’s pretty darn good. I said, Yes, I think he’s got a real shot.” His words just hung in the air. Here I was in front of my childhood hero, and he was telling ME a story about a reporter asking HIM a question about me. And he knew me well enough to answer the question. I remember very distinctly thinking to myself that I have no idea what it feels like to “make it,” but this was good enough for me. Bruce didn’t have to share that story with me. I wasn’t a star of any kind, and he had been around long enough to know that I would never be one. The generosity he showed me in that moment has always stayed with me. My first hero in life was worthy of my admiration. 

Through the years it has pained me to see and hear the ridicule directed at Bruce Jenner. I’ve always been quick to defend him. I have watched the Kardashians, and my opinion of Bruce hasn’t changed. Even on the show I find him kind and generous. I see him as the voice of reason. This past year the rumors regarding his gender identity have been frequent. Selfishly, I’ve not accepted any of it. “It’s for the show,” I’d say. “Nope. No way.” I am accepting this is a very real issue thousands of people (millions?) must deal with. But Bruce Jenner was my hero. I just couldn’t accept that someone so influential to me was somebody else.

Ashton Eaton Winning the 2012 Olympic Decathlon
This weekend I brought my athletes to the Drake Relays. My famous former athlete, Ashton Eaton and his coach, Harry Marra were there as well. I’ve known Harry since 1995- he was instrumental in the Visa partnership and is a personal friend of mine, and of Bruce. A more decent man- more committed to the decathlon, you’ll never meet. Friday evening Harry and I ran into each other outside of Drake stadium, right around the time of the Bruce Jenner, Diane Sawyer interview. We discussed Bruce and our take on this- both wishing we were watching the interview instead of waiting for the hotel shuttle. We casually explored ulterior motives and possible explanations outside of face value. Finally, Harry said, “You know, I don’t know what the truth is, Dan. But I consider Bruce a friend. I’ll always consider him a friend.” And that pretty much summed it up. I can’t personally say he’s a friend because I don’t know him that way. But I can say he always was and always will be my hero.

Libby, Ashton and Derek at the 2015 Drake Relays
The next day I was able to watch Ashton interact with fans. I’ve known Ashton since he was a high school senior and I am proud of whatever role I played in his assent to becoming the world’s greatest athlete. I swell with pride watching the kindness and generosity he shows to a young athlete I currently coach who says Ashton is his hero. Just last week I told Ashton’s mom, Roz that I was more proud of the man Ashton’s become than I am the athlete. Of course, she concurred. Watching Ashton with his fans is surreal. I see myself with Bruce and sit in awe at the incredible connection between the seven year old I was, Bruce, Ashton and the current generation that sees Ashton as a hero. 

I got home last night from the Drake Relays and the first thing I did this morning was watch the entire interview of Bruce on Hula Plus. Maybe I’m na├»ve, but I didn’t see any ulterior motives. I saw my childhood hero, bravely telling a story that most of us would be terrified to tell. I take him at his word. Clearly, I know very little about the transgender community, but I have great compassion for anyone trying to navigate this life with a gender identity different than their gender assignment. I can’t imagine the courage it takes to go public with this. As if life isn’t challenging enough. 

So as it turns out, the man I idolized in childhood, (in his words) “has the soul of a woman.” At the age of 65, Bruce Jenner is courageously telling his story because he can’t live a lie anymore. And so begins his brave new authentic life as a woman. He aspires to change the world by bringing front page awareness to the transgender community. And I am forced to come to terms with the following truth: The man I saw as a superhero in childhood turns out to be a genuine, bonafide superhero. Who knew? And how lucky am I?