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!!
This was my column for the quarterly magazine, Heart Beat of the Texas Hill Country Spring 2017 issue.
As I write this column, it is Super Bowl Sunday. Normally, my favorite day of the year, but this year God threw a curve ball and took our Boxer Rex away from us a week ago. It just won’t be the same without him. “Big Boy” Rex was the one who would obediently come to the closet when I said, “Game Day! Where’s your bandana?” He would sit and hold his neck up, still as a statue, as I put his New England Patriots scarf on. He knew it came with his mom’s crazy superstitions on game day! You ask how could a gal who lives in Texas like a team who deflates footballs? Well, I’ve lived in three areas of Texas all but 14 years of my life, but I was born in New England. Patriots football is in my blood along with fall foliage, skiing on ice, “pahking the cahr” and loving “lobstah.”
It was fortunate for Rex that he was so big that I couldn’t find game jerseys to fit him. He just wasn’t into clothes. He made his point with one torn football jersey from his puppy days. He drew the line at bandanas. One time when I put my ski hat on him, you could tell by his look that it wasn’t a game face; it was instead a “Seriously, Mom?” There were exceptions to the rule like the time Rex helped me with a Duck Dynasty contest entry at Texas Motor Speedway by donning a beard … well, sort of … it was Rex posing behind a cardboard beard.
Rex’s claim to fame came at the Texas Rangers Bark in the Park. The first year we went, Rex became the hit of section 11 as he howled at the hotdog vendor. The guy yelled back, “Ain’t no dogs for you Bud!” The following year he was chosen from over 700 canines to wear the FanCam in the pregame walk around the ballpark. He proudly stood stoic while they mounted the camera around his neck. I could tell he was thinking this was something important happening and to not to screw it up. What a great job he did! As he did his lap around the perimeter, he got the attention of the Ranger players and coaches observing from the dugout as well as fans hanging over the guardrail. He was the envy of every dog attending! And his footage ran on a Fox Sports Southwest Special including his shot of his “sister” Roxie licking his camera.
Yes, Rex led a life many dogs only dream of. R.I.P. Rex. Sports will never be the same without you.
You Tube — Rex and the Hot Dog Vendor — Texas Rangers Bark in the Park — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c423zq5PIOU A classic Rex moment !!!
My article in Heartbeat of the Texas Hill Country – Winter Issue
What an exciting year 2016 was for sports! It’s not too often that one sees so much history in the making as we did. The year started out with a Cinderella ending for NFL great Peyton Manning as he guided the Denver Broncos to a Super Bowl win. What a way to end a career!! He hasn’t done too badly in post-football either. There’s rarely a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t see Peyton in a commercial. I think the funniest is the one where he’s sitting on the couch in his bathrobe and sipping coffee. Lionel Richie is singing in the background, “It’s Peyton on Sunday morning.” Manning is on the phone with brother Eli wanting him to come and watch Sunday football on his DirecTV set-up. Eli’s seen in the Giants locker room explaining why he can’t – he’s playing football. “I’ll pencil you in for Tuesday,” and Peyton writes “Eli” in the empty calendar.
March Madness in college basketball made history too when the number fifteen seed Middle Tennessee upset number two seed Michigan State in the first round destroying just about every basketball fan’s bracket including mine! The “experts” had predicted Michigan State to make the Final Four and some had even picked them to win the championship. And it didn’t end there! The fourteenth seed Stephen F. Austin upset number three seed West Virginia and Syracuse became the first tenth seed in history to advance to the Final Four. The finals were held in Houston where Villanova upset North Carolina to win the championship on a three-point shot at the buzzer!
The NBA followed suit when the Cavaliers brought Cleveland their first sports championship in fifty-two years! Hubby was happy as he’s from the suburbs of that city on the lake. As Rick watched the TV coverage, he wondered which speck was his nephew Bret and was probably secretly envious because he wasn’t there too.
Even car racing re-wrote history when both the June and July NASCAR races at Pocono Speedway had to be postponed due to weather as well as the Indycars at Texas Motor Speedway finishing the end of the June race in August due to weather. Weather delays are never fun for fans as a lot of the spectators travel in and postponements cause havoc on hotels, car rentals, transportation and work plans. We know only too well after waiting out a few ourselves only to be watching concession stand commercials on Big Hoss and covered cars on the track as the rain dripped off our hair and clothes.
But no greater history was made with the conclusion of the Major League Baseball season! For a while, it looked like both Texas teams, the Astros and Rangers were destined for the playoffs. Houston had a September meltdown, and then the best in the American League Texas Rangers found themselves swept by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1st round of the playoffs. Our home became a war zone with my husband’s Cleveland Indians and my Boston Red Sox meeting in the AL Championship. I was the queen of trash-talking only to eat my words as Rick’s Indians swept Boston and moved on to the World Series.
I quickly found myself OK with t he loss when I realized that I was watching sports history unfold yet again! The Indians were in the World Series in 1997 when they lost in extra innings in game seven to the Florida Marlins. They hadn’t won the title since 1948. The Cubs hadn’t won the title since 1908, and hadn’t made it to the World Series since 1945 – the infamous series where the Billy-goat curse was put on the team. We were witnessing one of the two longest championship droughts in baseball finally come to an end! It looked like destiny was going to hang onto the coattails of the Cavaliers and side with the Tribe, who jumped out to a lead of three games to one. Then Chicago shocked themselves and the Indians not to only to piece together back-to-back wins, but they also forced a game seven and won in extra innings! . I just wonder if sports will ever repeat a year like 2016!
My heart broke for UT’s Charlie Strong today. I don’t know who I felt sorrier for — him or the players of Houston knowing that their coach was in negotiations for two other schools. Distractions for both teams and staffs and because of those, losses for both teams. Texas will not see a bowl game and Houston will see one, but because of today, one of the lower tiers as well as drop out of the polls again. I am disgusted with the system which allows college coaches to be approached by teams before the playoffs are over (unlike NFL). I am disgusted that only money and notoriety is what the coaches care about rather than loyalty to the kids who committed to the program because of them. And I am disgusted with the media — for their hammering of the coaches involved and the players. Bon Voyage Tom Herman!