This column appears in the Spring 2018 issue of Heart Beat of the Texas Hill Country
2017 will be the year I almost stopped being a fan of the National Football League. The NFL had already been testing my patience with inconsistencies in officiating, the handling of player misbehavior and interpretations of rules like “what is a catch” over the past three years. However last year, I was truly disappointed at how Commissioner Roger Goddell dealt with the players kneeling during the National Anthem. I don’t have a problem with someone wanting attention for their platform. Our forefathers wrote the first amendment for that reason. However, I draw the line at doing this during the National Anthem. Our flag is a symbol of this nation’s pride and our freedoms. People have risked their lives, been injured, or died defending our country.
While other professional sports addressed their players on the need to stand during the anthem, the NFL ignored the situation. Momentum escalated to some players not only kneeling, but clenching Black Panther fists and laughing with each other during the anthem. The media was not helping by filming the players kneeling rather than ones with their hands on their hearts. Mid-season, when a majority of Houston players took a knee during the anthem, Texans owner Bob McNair finally spoke out with words many fans were already thinking – “the inmates are running the prison.” Many of my relatives and friends stopped watching professional football, buying memorabilia and attending games. Was the NFL realizing the magnitude of their problem? No.
The league tried to sooth the waters with their players by having meetings with them to discuss their feelings and even run commercials for their platforms. There were creative attempts with having all the players first kneel, and then stand for the anthem with their arms interlocked. They even tried not showing the National Anthem to the TV audiences and having the players remain in the locker rooms until it was finished. The players reappeared on the field during the playoffs for the National Anthem and those who stood, most with their hands on their hearts, were shown on television.
The 2017 – 2018 NFL season officially ended on a positive note. Texans JJ Watt was the winner of the Walter Payton Man of the Year award which honors a player’s volunteer and charity work, as well as excellence on the field. After initially setting a goal to raise $200,000 in Hurricane Harvey relief, Watt raised more than $37 million. He not only did the fundraising, but was very active during the recovery efforts. Come next season, will fans remember the players like JJ Watt who chose the right moments for their platforms and forgive those who had a lapse in judgment? That remains to be seen.
The NFL ended their 2017-2018 on a positive note. After all the season’s negativity that blanketed the business with the kneeling saga and the usual bad behavior by some players, the Super Bowl was probably the best Super Bowls in its history. The game was won with Eagles Coach Pederson’s two gutsy calls – one, a 4th down play at the end of the first half to score and again towards the end of the game. Most coaches (except Belichick or Carroll) would have just punted and hoped for their defense to stop the other team. Both teams had trick plays where the QBs handed off to others who threw back to them. Tom Brady showed why he is a quarterback instead of a receiver missing the easy 6 points. Youth prevailed with Nick Foles catching his and scoring. The game ended on a Hail Mary pass with 7 defenders surrounding Gronk. I knew with Referee Gene Steratore officiating (remember the down determined by the index card?) that the game would not end on a defensive penalty. With the exception of the “Catch Rule Hell Moments” with Zach Ertz’s TD, the game officiating was pretty non-existent with only 5 for 47 penalty yards for the Pats and 8 for 79 for the Eagles – most given to offenses. They let the boys play — including the horrific helmet-to-helmet hit by Malcolm Jenkins on Brandin Cooks. Unfortunately, it may have been one of the least watched Super Bowls though because both teams were so disliked by the rest of the country as well as the hatred/jealousy for Tom Brady.
For those who didn’t watch the post-game on the NFL channel, a very drunken (or something) Kevin Hart stumbled to the podium where owner Jeffrey Lurie, coach Doug Pederson and MVP Nick Foles were being interviewed. The Philadelphia native said the F-word while professing to be an Eagles fan and then fought off Deion Sanders who tried to remove Hart from the stage. Also, unfortunate was how the Eagle fans destroyed the downtown area. Of all the championship post-celebrations, this one will probably go down as the most costly for cleanup. I know it’s a big deal for a city to win their first Super Bowl championship, but I question the need to be so destructive.
The commercials were different this year as well as, as Simon Cowell used to tell the American Idol contestants, not memorable. Was it just me or did it seem that there were a lot of NBC promotions of the Olympics and to their shows? Does this mean their price tag was so high that they had to fill spots with their own? And what about the 30 seconds of black when I thought it was because I paid our cable bill at the last minute? I’m sure someone got in a lot of trouble for not loading a spot. The Toyota’s ad kept my attention the whole segment, but I couldn’t figure out how all the athletes defying all odds tied to a car. Then this morning, I couldn’t remember it was Toyota who had the spot until I researched it. I loved the Budweiser water ad – what they did for the hurricane victims needed to be touted. The “Stand By Me,” music chosen was perfect for the ad. The most entertaining commercial was the NFL ad with Eli Manning and O’Dell Beckham doing their rendition of Dirty Dancing including the lift. Poor Peyton closely followed with his Universal Parks roller coaster ride with the kid, but it was like watching a field goal scored shortly after 100 yard pick 6. There was no comparison. Steven Tyler’s Forever Young Kia ad was fun as were the Tide ones.
Lastly, let’s address the halftime show or lack of. It was way too busy for me. It seemed like parts of it were pre-produced and if one is going to lip-synch badly, at least have the trombones in the background appear to be playing!! Wasn’t Justin Timberlake’s choice of wardrobe a little strange (his shirt looked like a piece of material cut from a curtain at a hunting lodge) and how does it tie in with a Prince Tribute? Maybe he could have worn a purple tux instead?
My report card:
Game – A
Post-Game – F
Commercials – B+ (would have been a C- but Budweiser and NFL brought average up)
Halftime – D
This column appeared in the Winter 2017/2018 issue of Heart Beat of the Texas Hill Country
I moved to Houston in 1964 where the baseball team was known as the National League Colt 45s and they played in an open stadium south of the city. The following year, the team moved to the Astrodome, nicknamed the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and the team was renamed the Astros. It was fitting as NASA and the space program were just down highway 45 going towards Galveston. Because the stadium was closed in, an artificial turf was installed for the games to be played on. Above the scoreboard was an area where two bulls snorted, pistols fired and music played when the Astros hit a homerun. The Astros center fielder Jimmy Wynn was nicknamed the “Toy Cannon.” I knew when Wynn batted, there was a pretty good chance the hit would be a homerun.
My favorite player was 2nd baseman Joe Morgan who used to quickly lick two fingers just before taking his batting stance. I was a true fan and even sent him a Get Well card when he was in the hospital. All the girls loved right-fielder Rusty Staub with his red hair and the handsome pitcher Larry Dierker. Bob Aspromonte was the tall, lanky 3rd baseman. One had to be a diehard fan — – the Astros weren’t very good, but we still loved the team. Dad and I attended several games and even sat through the longest shutout ever played. The Astros beat the Mets as Houston scored the only run in the twenty-fourth inning at one-thirty in the morning!
When I moved away in the 80s to the DFW area, I didn’t get to see the Astros games since I was living in an American League city. My parents were still in Houston and my mom morphed into a huge Astros fan with her favorites — pitcher Nolan Ryan and shortstop Craig Reynolds. The ‘Stros were actually doing a lot better making it to two National League Championships and one Division Championship game in that decade, but typical of the team, they lost all three of those games. One Christmas, I found the perfect gift for her – an Astros Cabbage Patch doll waving a pennant. Also included was a cute little Houston batting helmet. My niece Jennifer was very impressed that Santa brought her Grandma such a special gift. In 1989, my mom’s Astroworld came crashing down. Nolan Ryan had signed with the Texas Rangers! Ironically, my parents moved to an assisted living in North Texas the following year. Mom reluctantly adopted the Texas Rangers, but her heart was still with the Astros. Her collection of Nolan Ryan baseballs, baseball cards and the Astros doll were displayed on a bookcase. Hanging in her closet was her yellow, orange and red striped Houston jersey. Meanwhile the team moved from the antiquated Astrodome to Enron Field. The bulls, pistols and fireworks were replaced by a whistling locomotive over the outfield.
Mom passed away in 2003. Her Astros finally made it to the big dance just two years later, but the series was ugly with a sweep by the Chicago White Sox. This year Houston not only got to the World Series but they were there as the underdog. The series went seven games with Houston shutting down the Dodgers in game seven 4 -1 and finally winning the big prize. Nolan Ryan is back with the ‘Stros as their executive adviser. Something tells me there’s an angel in Heaven celebrating the World Series Championship win and who is happy Nolan is back where he belongs.
A GREAT fall vacation with Chamber of Commerce weather until the last day when temperatures hit 88 at the Monster Energy Cup Series at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It was bittersweet as NASCAR is moving the fall race to Las Vegas next year.
This column appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Heart Beat of the Texas Hill Country
Fall is my favorite part of the year – changing of the leaves, relief from sweltering temperatures and of course, football. During the summer I attended the two-day Conference USA Kickoff where I interviewed coaches and players from the fourteen schools. I wondered who of this group was in the one per cent who might see the NFL gridiron in the next few years and which coach was a winner not just in championships, but with lessons in life for his team.
Before the session even started, I had one of those, “This Could Only Happen To Me” moments. I was still trying to get orientated and passed a slender black man in a suit. “Are you Coach Frank Wilson?” No, he wasn’t. He did look to know what he was doing, unlike me, and politely gave me directions to the room set up for the media. A few hours later, I again saw the mystery man. He was now wearing a Conference USA tag. He asked me how things were going and of course, I excitedly told him about my interviews so far. We chatted about football and somehow ended up in an area I am passionate about, the NFL. “So who do you like in the Pros?” I inquired. He grinned. “The 49ers” and then walked away. A photographer I knew from NASCAR walked up to me and said, “Wow, you were talking to the man…. Merton Hanks!” Yes, I googled him when I got home. “Safety San Francisco 49ers… 4 times Pro Bowler ….Defensive Player of the Year… Super Bowl Champion.” How did I miss that gigantic Super Bowl Ring? A good thing there was a day two!!
It’s no secret with young kids being thrown into the limelight overnight; coaches have their work cut out for them being a manager, mentor and in some cases parent. Imagine having that responsibility to 115 kids between the ages of 18 to 22. It takes special men to be coaches. According to Coach Brad Lambert of Charlotte, “I look at it as I do my own children. I have eighteen years to pack their suitcase. When they leave home, they go with this suitcase. When our guys come in, you have to look at who has been packing their suitcase for the last seventeen years. Some you have to unpack then repack. It’s a fun process, just getting to know kids and bringing the right ones in. Hopefully they leave better men than they came in. “
I asked how the coaches could keep their teams from unpleasant sagas like Baylor’s. Coach Jay Hobson of Southern Miss found that having two daughters of his own is advantageous to getting out his message – “I emphasize the importance of being a good man. I’m always looking for the guy that gets between the white lines – a guy that’s an extremely physical football player, but outside the lines, it’s my wife, my daughter, their mother.” As he pointed out, the morals and the principles are the same as our era, but young men have to be careful not to put any negative vibe out there especially with social media. We agreed that coaches have their work cut out for them.
Middle Tennessee’s Coach Rick Stockstill embraces the responsibilities. “A good coach wins games, but a great coach saves lives. I want to help these kids learn how to be a good husband, good father, good parent, good son and good person so when they leave my program; they are ready to take on the world.” His athletes must understand “You aren’t going to be able to play football all your life. There are more important things than football – get your education, build relationships that can get you the job you want, get involved in the community and internships. You may play football until you’re only twenty-five.” Unless you’re Merton Hanks, I thought to myself…. Where was he anyway?
I did catch up with Merton toward the end of the session. Known for his interception gyrations during his 49ers’ tenure, he is currently Senior Associate Commissioner of Conference USA. We chatted about his playing under Hayden Frye at the University of Iowa, being drafted into the NFL and life as a 49er as well as after the gridiron. His favorite quarterback to play against? Joe Montana in practice! And his last career interception? Brett Farve on Monday Night Football. His advice to the kids coming into football? “Don’t specialize in one sport. Play a little bit of everything. Guard against burnout. Guards against injury. Your body only has so many reps.” Merton also played baseball, basketball and ran hurdles in track. “My mom ran track too,” I interjected. “I didn’t take after her. I ran after the track team though.” We laughed in unison.
Hanging with Camping World Truck Series driver Austin Wayne Self at Texas Motor Speedway June 2017
Austin was 2014 ARCA (Automobile Racing Club of America ) Racing Series Rookie of the Year and finished second in the 2015 Championship Points Battle.
We’ve all heard the Disney song “It’s A Small World.” In April, I found myself in one of those situations while at Texas Motor Speedway for NASCAR race weekend. Hubby Rick and I had gone over to see one of our favs, Brendan Gaughan at the Chevrolet display. I first met Brendan in 2013 and interviewed him the following spring so he immediately called us out by name and planted a kiss on my cheek. Just as previous times seeing him, Rick was still waiting for the camera to focus, so the picture was me reciprocating back the kiss. After Brendan, three of the newer Xfinity drivers came out. One was named Garrett Smithley and immediately caught my attention when he shared he was into theater. One just doesn’t picture a guy, who risks his life driving high speeds, being into the arts. He mentioned he was from Pennsylvania and then pointed out his parents who proudly smiled and waved. Since no one is a stranger to me (remember I am a retired flight attendant), I approached the couple. I introduced myself and asked what part of Pennsylvania they were from. When they answered that it was a small town in Western Pennsylvania, I told them my best friend lived in Ligonier. Bethanie Smithley’s jaw dropped and she replied, “Garrett, tell Carlotta where you were born.” “Ligonier, Pennsylvania,” he replied. We’re talking a town of 1,549 in the last census. But it didn’t end there. Garrett’s mom was also a former flight attendant and his dad,R K, was a pilot who flew military charters at World Airways with Barb Lambert, one of my flight attendant friends from Delta! It is indeed a small world.
The following month, we again found ourselves at the speedway. This time it was for Wheel of Fortune auditions! I begged poor Rick to go along just in case I got chosen to go on stage so he could take pictures. The next thing we knew, we were in a long line of cars to enter the midfield where auditions were being held. When we joined a two-hour line already snaking through the NASCAR garage, I realized that I was not the only one with the great idea of going!! There were several hundred people!!! We had to fill out a small 4” by 5” yellow piece of paper (the “application”) telling our names, ages, contact info and what made us unique from the others in the line. Try being original given just four lines as well as writing legibly using one’s other hand as a clipboard!! The rope finally dropped and we ended up very close to the stage. There were to be three rounds of an hour each with the names being drawn from a hopper for several games. Our Pat Sajek was a guy named Marty Lublin who was personality extraordinaire!! Our Vanna was a perky blonde named Mallory Harden with a body I will wish for in my next life. Marty did a quick interview of each contestant that was even more important than the actual puzzle solving. After all, the producers didn’t want someone whose hobby was watching paint dry, for the real show! As people came and went on stage, I was mentally rehearsing my spiel. They got to the last group for round one. They called, “Carlotta…..” finally!! “Gonzales.” Not me. They announced the last person for the round. “Rick…..” My hubby got a look of horror since everyone pauses before they try to say our last name. “Schmittgen!” Oh boy! The man, who I talked into coming as well as filling out an application and was bailing after round one, was chosen!! Rick did pretty well on the interview pointing me out in the audience…. I just wished he had added something like sports guru. I knew from the Smithleys at NASCAR to just proudly smile and wave. He mentioned he liked gardening and woodworking, then “playing with our two-month-old Boxer Katie” who was actually almost five months. I had to smile – nerves. As for the rest of the twelve hour day, my “application” was never drawn. I knew it wasn’t meant to be. They didn’t have one sports puzzle!!