Monday, August 11, 2014

it's been 20 years since 1994

My original title for this was "The Year of Jay Barker." Because really, for Alabama fans — particularly Alabama fans in the eighth grade who spent Sunday mornings and evenings arguing about football with people at Sunday School and youth group — 1994 was about Jay Barker, as much as it was anything else.

It's funny to me now that more people don't talk about the 1994 football season. It was a strange time to be an Alabama fan — the national championship season of '92 wasn't so much a topic that summer as the '93 season, a mostly unhappy year in which the Tide had a) ended a long-running winning streak vs. Tennessee (the Vols outplayed 'Bama, which somehow managed to salvage a tie); b) lost a 28-game winning streak at home to a pretty lousy LSU squad; c) spent most of the year playing in the shadow of the AUmazings in East Alabama, who went undefeated under first-year head coach Terry Bowden (including a 22-14 win over 'Bama at Jordan-Hare that wasn't televised, due to an NCAA-imposed TV ban against Auburn that has not, to my knowledge, been repeated).
In any case, when assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the 1994 squad, quarterback play was hardly among them. It's easy to forget this now — since Barker's face is so visible in local television ads and his voice is so prominent on local radio (and, since his second marriage to Sara Evans has basically made him the sweetheart of most of the middle-aged mamas in the state — but most fans usually viewed Jay Barker as a placeholder quarterback. Gene Stallings, in essence, asked Barker to just not screw things up: The rugged and all-consuming defense, in Stallings' book, was good enough to carry the load, and the offense's only real job was to stay out of the way*.
* A number of people — including me — may equate the Stallings way of doing things with Nick Saban's, and there are some similarities. But at virtually no point did Stallings' teams impose their will on inferior opponents the way Saban's do. The famous blowout of Miami in the '93 Sugar Bowl was virtually the only time Alabama beat anybody by a margin larger than 10.
Even at a relatively young age, I always wondered when Barker would finally give way to one of the more promising quarterbacks on the roster — Brian Burgdorf and Freddie Kitchens were both superior talents, and there was some speculation that one of them might assume starting duties in '93, usurping the position from the guy who'd just won the national championship*.
* In retrospect, we all probably should've realized something was amiss in '93 — Barker missed several games that season with a shoulder injury, and the coaching staff showed so much faith in the Burgdorf/Kitchens combo that the majority of the snaps in those games went to David Palmer.

There was another wrinkle for Barker and savvy Bama fans coming into 1994: Homer Smith. One of the game's true offensive innovators, Smith had worked as offensive coordinator under Stallings' predecessor, Bill Curry. After an unhappy 1993 season, Stallings jettisoned play-caller Mal Moore (yes, that Mal Moore) and brought in Smith, which seemed like a curious move for two reasons:
1. Smith is, as I said, an offensive innovator. Few people believed his offense would mesh with Stallings' close-to-the-vest style.
2. As one of the top assistants on Curry's staff in 1989, Smith had passed on Barker, then a senior at Hewitt-Trussville.

Barker's moment didn't come until the fifth game of the season, in a night game vs. Georgia. Since video highlights of the game endure, we might as well pause a moment.
Understand, this was the nightmare scenario for any rational Alabama fan (sometimes we're few and far between, but we're out there). We all knew the goal of every game was for the offense to stay out of the way and the defense to carry things ... but, well, what if the defense wasn't up to the challenge? What happens when a supremely talented QB like Eric Zeier catches fire and we suddenly can't stop him? What happens when the team needs its offense to win a shootout?
That Barker came through that night — on a national stage, against the SEC's all-time leading passer, on a night when the defense was playing on its heels — was like seeing a kid grow up in front of you. I had no idea he was capable of this! Is this really the Jay we know? This is incredible*!
* If we're being honest, we should note that Georgia's defense played as much a starring role in the game as Barker. Specifically, on the two TD passes to Toderick Malone, the Dawgs either completely ignored Alabama's best receiver, or simply couldn't cover him. Even so, it was remarkable to watch.
Barker made himself a hero to youth group kids after the game, spouting off 1 Peter 5:6 during his interview with ESPN.
"I guess this was just due time for me," he said.
Here we must pause and explain how important that was to the Alabama fan base. Remember that a great many fans — too many, really — tend to view college football as some sort of larger culture battle, one that's meant to determine not just the best players and coaching staffs, but the better way of life. For Alabama fans, to see Jay Barker grow up on national television, then make intelligent use of Scripture in the postgame, was a galvanizing moment: He's one of the good guys, and he plays for us.

The rest of the season played out in a similar fashion: Alabama would spend three quarters screwing around, enter the fourth trailing ... and then the magic would happen. My favorite of those games was the November trip to Mississippi State — Bama was thoroughly outplayed for three quarters in a hostile environment, couldn't cover Eric Moulds and trailed by 10 in the fourth. Barker threw a ridiculous pass to Sherman Williams to key the game-winning drive, because of course he did. The Tide entered the season-ending contest with Auburn 10-0.
Auburn had spent most of the season soaking up the bulk of the attention — one season after their undefeated run, the Tigers won the ridiculous "Interception Game" vs. LSU, went to Gainesville and beat Steve Spurrier's Florida team (again) and remained unblemished until November, when Georgia rallied in the final quarter to tie them. The two teams entered the season-ending game that promised to be one of the more memorable in the history of the series.
It was either memorable or infamous, depending on your side.
Barker threw two TD passes as part of a 21-0 run early; after the half, Auburn staved off elimination — Bama threw an interception in Auburn's end zone on the first drive of the second half — and got the ball with a chance to tie with 2 minutes to play. Bryne Diehl unleashed one of the greatest punts I've ever seen — seriously, the thing hit at the 1-yard line and bounced sideways twice before our boys downed it — and Auburn methodically drove it all the way to Bama's 30-yard line before facing a fourth-and-2.
And honestly, I remember watching the sequence at our house in Troy and mentally conceding the first down. I was wracking my brain thinking how the defense would keep them out of the end zone — that Auburn might not get a first down never crossed my mind, at least not until Keith Jackson shouted, "He didn't get it!" right after Sam Shade's hit on Frank Sanders.
My friend Jim Cooley and I have been arguing about that spot ever since the game was played. It was apparently so close that Patrick Nix was attempting to call a play even before the official made a determination (drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in his rage after the ref pointed in the opposite direction). I still am not sure whether he should've had the first down*.
* Considering Auburn got the call back in the following year's game on Curtis Brown's play in the end zone, we'll call it even.

The magic ran out the following week in Atlanta, when Florida stymied Alabama's drive by intercepting Barker to preserve a 24-23 win*.
* It's unclear whether Alabama would have won a national vote even if it had finished undefeated. That was the same season Nebraska and Penn State both finished undefeated, playing on opposite ends of the country — Nebraska won the Orange Bowl, Penn State the Rose — and Bama was firmly entrenched in third. We probably would've claimed some form of a title, anyway.
Nevertheless, Barker felt the love from around the country — he was the winningest starting QB in Alabama history (he has since been surpassed), he won the Unitas Golden Arm Award and was actually invited to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. No, really — he finished fifth in the voting. I have no idea who won the award, but who cares? An Alabama quarterback who, as recently as two months prior to the ceremony, was nothing more than a caretaker ... and he was invited to the Heisman ceremony? Really?
It shouldn't have come as a shock, then, that the season ended with Barker leading a drive to beat Ohio State in the Citrus Bowl in the final two minutes. And his last pass as a starter at Alabama was a touchdown.
Of course it was.

Friday, August 1, 2014

the 2004 Laurens County football scandal: all journalism is local

Editor's note: Because of certain career changes currently taking place, I have spent much of the summer not writing. I am now forcing myself to write because it's important to continue doing so. So this blog — which was really only a vanity project on my part in the first place — may become even less readable than before. I apologize in advance.

A decade ago this summer, I became a sports editor for the first time. Actually, that's not true — I was Sports Editor for my senior year in Tuscaloosa for an online-only publication called Dateline Alabama, a project Dr. Stovall started mainly as a place for an eclectic group of journalism students to experiment. To my knowledge, the publication went away when he did.
In any case, the first publication that offered me real money to work was The Courier Herald, an afternoon daily in a place I knew nothing about: Dublin, Ga. In retrospect, I think the main reason they hired me was that the Sports Editor at the time was also from Alabama, and probably liked the fact that I had done some summer intern work* for The Lafayette Sun, in Chambers County.
* In this case, "summer intern work" means I showed up every day, listened to Bill Robinson rant about the evils of my generation, tried to come up with a story to write and ate whatever was on the buffet at Rodgers Restaurant.
After a year, the Sports Editor left to move closer to home — I think she* now sells real estate. Sometimes I wish I knew how to sell things.
* Lots of people work their entire lives in sports without ever working with a female. I have worked almost exclusively with them. This seems noteworthy for some reason.

It is important to remember what the community dynamic in Laurens County, Ga., was at the time. Though Dublin and the surrounding area would never be confused with a metropolis like Atlanta or even Macon, the community supported (and still supports) three separate public high schools — Dublin High, West Laurens and East Laurens — as well as a private Christian academy, Trinity (in this case "Christian" means "white"). Each school had its own identity and community:
• Dublin High, of course, is the city school. Its nickname, naturally, is the Fighting Irish. At the time, Dublin was the sports power of the county and the region. It was also the school with the largest minority contingent; according to local legend, the school always kept green and white as its school colors, choosing to incorporate gold as part of its color scheme following integration (the black school in town wore purple and gold, and the gold was a nod to their traditions and existence). Dublin plays its home games in The Shamrock Bowl — it feels like big-time high school football, small community be damned — and they carried themselves like the most important squad in the county.
• West Laurens had quickly swelled to become the largest school in the county (probably not coincidentally, as black leaders gained power in the city school system). West Laurens was and is an amalgamation of three county schools: Dexter, Dudley and ... I can't really remember the third school*.  West Laurens, at the time, couldn't beat Dublin in anything (they had won the state championship in basketball that spring, but lost twice to their hated rival in the process), and though they would never admit to it, spent most of their energies trying to best them in any way possible.
* Me being unable to remember stuff is probably going to be a theme throughout this entry. Since I left Dublin I've been back there once, and really only kept in contact through the only co-worker I know who still works there, who figures prominently into this story.
• East Laurens is the "other" county school, in every sense of the word. East Laurens is technically located in East Dublin, a separate community on the other side of the river. The community at East Laurens is built on the industrial employees who live there — I have forgotten what industry, of course — and their attitude reflects that. Going to East Laurens games as a reporter always seemed like the best place for something bizarre to happen (several bizarre things did happen to me there, but I should save those stories for some other time).

Many strange things were happening across Laurens County as football season neared. Dublin, West Laurens and East Laurens had been thrown together into a 14-team region in Georgia's Class AA, because the GHSA at the time (as I recall) was attempting to keep something resembling competitive balance among its five classes. The region made little geographic sense — it stretched from Macon all the way to Savannah down I-16 — and the swollen nature actually forced a subdivision, in which the teams agreed to play six "sub-region" games, two "crossover" games (with teams in the opposing sub-region) and reserve Week 10 game as a play-in for the postseason (the top-4 from each sub-region played elimination games, effectively adding another round of playoffs).
Meanwhile, many people — like me — saw the power dynamic among the three local teams shifting. In 2003, only one of the three local high school football teams had even qualified for the postseason: East Laurens, under a first-year head coach who was emphasizing a wacky multiple defense that confused his players almost as much as the opposition. West Laurens had struggled under its first-year head coach — the head coaches at West and East had worked together as offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, prior to coming to Laurens County —but they were brimming with optimism as the new year dawned (at the time they were also cultivating an as-yet unknown sophomore named Demaryius Thomas, who everybody called "Baybay").
And then there was Dublin. In 2002, Dublin's board had hired a head football coach who bailed on the school and the city following spring practice (I can remember neither his name nor the reasons he left town). So they cast their net for a new head coach, and a guy from Tennessee named Roger Holmes rode into town as a result.
Holmes was a brash guy with an Appalachian accent — he pronounced his "a" words with an extra vowel, so words like pass and grass sounded more like "paiss" and "graiss" when he said them. With the benefit of very little prep, Holmes took a senior-laden team to the promised land — DHS ended the season in the state title game, one victory short of a ring.
The 2003 season — my first in the area — wasn't so happy. Beset both by injuries and locker room troubles, Dublin finished with 3 wins. In that last loss, a despondent Holmes invited me into the locker room, didn't like my questions and basically invited me to leave. As a reporter I was ill, but I could hardly blame him — his team had quit on him. That sort of thing isn't easy to take.

So that's where we were going into 2004: the two county school programs were on the rise, and nobody knew what they were getting from the city school program.
Anybody who's grown up in a football mad area like ... well, most of the Southeast (and Texas) knows that the local newspaper cannot do anything more important than cover high school football. At that time, I was taking over a sports section with a robust staff of two (if you count me), and 12 schools to cover, spread out across several counties. Our paper delivered in the afternoons 5 days a week, and in the morning on Saturdays. So Fridays were never-ending: Come in at 7, finish the day's paper (which was hopefully close to finished when you left the day before, if no other news broke), start building the Saturday section, break for lunch (and maybe a nap), do more work on the paper, put in the requisite 45 minutes on the local radio pregame show ... write your game, come back, duck the carriers (angry because it's Friday and they already ran routes once today and they're ready to get their damn papers and be off), write your game, try to flag down results from other games, edit copy, finish pages ... you get the idea. Most Friday nights ended with me and a group of drunks from the bar next door stumbling to our cars after 1 a.m.
Criticism of the newspaper, of course, is one of the reasons newspapers ever existed in the first place. "You never cover (our school)," is the most common thing a local newspaper's sports editor will hear. "You cover (our rivals) all the time, but you only cover us when we lose. What do you got against us, anyway?" It's a part of life; often it makes us angry, but there's no silencing the noise; the best eventually just learn to live with it*.
* I am not the best, and that's probably why you're reading this now. Assuming anybody still is.

I should at this point note that my partner, Jason Halcombe, had joined the sports staff not long after my previous boss had departed, and was basically a de facto member of the paper's staff anyway while he was still in school at Georgia Southern. Halcombe is a native of California but did a good bit of his growing up in Dublin; he's been the Managing Editor for the Courier Herald for several years now, is married and is apparently attempting to father a baseball team. Anyone who's read the old "Gameday Texts" posts will note that he is a recurring guest there.

Halcombe and our photographer — a perpetually flustered guy named Joey who was also a native to the area — got an inkling that something was happening at Dublin over the summer of 2004. I don't remember all the details, but the basics were simple: the 2004 Irish were getting an influx of transfers, and some of them could really play.
This might be the point where I note that these types of shenanigans in high school football are the hardest things in the world to police. Opelika, my hometown, and their archrivals, Auburn, fight these battles pretty much all the time. Leeds, my adopted hometown, and its neighbor, Moody, lob shells back and forth every so often about the same thing. Hoover is pretty much constantly accused of recruiting outside its already swollen attendance zone. How are we supposed to track where every person lives and where they should be attending school? What if the guy moves in with his dad? His mom? It gets complicated in a hurry*.
* Here's one thing I do remember from this whole thing: One of the administrators at one of the county schools confided in me that Dublin's region rivals were keeping a particularly close eye on the Irish that summer. In the case of one transfer, he told me a sheriff's deputy was riding by his house every day "just to make sure they actually move."

A week before the season started, we got word that Dublin had gone to Washington County for a preseason scrimmage, and whipped the daylights out of the home team. This was a big deal — Washington County is another of that area's legendary high school programs, boasting such alums as Takeo Spikes. Dublin had (reportedly — we didn't go out of town for scrimmage games) beaten them badly. The narrative we had built for the season — the two county schools overtaking our local school — may have to be junked before an actual game was played.
There was another nugget from that scrimmage: The player who stood out the most was one of the offseason transfers.

The news didn't actually break until the day of the third week of that 2004 season. It was either Halcombe or Joey, our photog, who heard it first: Dublin's got an ineligible player. Dublin's got to forfeit its first two games. West Laurens turned them in; this is about to get really ugly.
We found out all of this on the afternoon before Dublin's third game, which was to be on the road, at Metter. Neither of us really knew what to do — the team (and the coaching staff and likely most of the fan base) would already be on the bus to the game, and getting the story from the GHSA seemed equally unlikely.
Halcombe saved the day with a fortuitous phone call — he managed to get the superintendent of the city school system on the phone, and she confirmed what we already knew: DHS had learned of a player who was academically ineligible, had reported it to the state, and had already agreed to forfeit its first two games (both wins)*.
* One thing we didn't find out until later was that all this had taken place on Wednesday of that week — had the school been up front with us as the matter was unfolding, none of what you're about to read would've happened. But it's probably unfair to say the school should've done our jobs for us.
We were facing two issues: The game was on the road, which meant we had hired a freelance writer to cover it for us; Halcombe had assigned himself to shoot photos of the first half, then come quickly back to finish the paper. We had enough material to run with the story about the forfeits, but it seemed a little weak to run without comments from the head coach or the principal.
And so Halcombe decided to take a chance — he drove down to Metter early enough to catch Holmes, and possibly the principal of DHS. He would try to get comments from them for that story, then leave the game for our stringer to handle.
That strategy worked about as well as you'd expect; the principal was amiable enough to help us add meat to the story, but Holmes angrily brushed off any questions about off-the-field matters so close to game time. We asked our stringer — who was a college student, I think — to reiterate the questions after the game, but that went basically nowhere.
"It's no matter," we thought. "We have the story."
Dublin won the game 63-6.

At this point, we pretty knew we were in for a storm. We knew Dublin had forfeited the games, and we were hearing from around the county that the student in question* had actually been enrolled at West Laurens in the spring of the same year (the head coach at East Laurens said that the same family had tried to enroll at his school, but he had seen his transcripts and questioned whether the boy would be eligible). There was already finger pointing, on both sides of the line.
* Honesty compels me to report that I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the boy in question; we certainly would've known his name, though we never published it. I have forgotten it, however, as he was more or less inconsequential to the story.
Two things happened after that:
1. A tropical storm of some description moved inland to our area, and shut down basically everything (including school) for several days. Some basic research (Google) tells me it wasn't Hurricane Ivan, but it was in the same time period.
2. After several days of silence — mostly due to the storm — Holmes came to our office to allow himself to be heard on the issue. Sitting alone with Halcombe in our boss's office — we were on deadline at the time, so I was trying to finish the paper — Holmes read a prepared statement regarding the forfeits. The statement did little to calm tensions around town: the bristly head coach napalmed his local rivals (for not being more forthcoming about the player's eligibility and suggesting they may have intentionally falsified his transcripts), he blasted the newspaper (we pretty much knew that was coming, but he accused us of using the superintendent's statements that were made off the record, which was absolutely false) and essentially laid the entirety of the blame at the feet of everyone but himself. On the way out the door, he shouted down my reporter for "telling lies" and pointedly told me, "Never send that reporter (Halcombe) back to my office."
And here's where I messed up: I reacted like a giant wuss.
In truth, the whole thing knocked me for a loop — the previous year's locker room mess aside, Holmes and I worked together pretty well. He'd actually worked pretty well with Halcombe to that point too, though he later admitted that he took personally his attempt to interview him prior to a game. My loyalty, though, should have been to my co-worker, who I knew had done everything in good faith and was only attempting to do his job; I should've said, "Coach, I don't work for you. What time do we meet for this week's interview?"
Instead, I meekly nodded and said, "Uh ... yessir." Later that same day I went to his locker room for another verbal beatdown; to this day, one of my greatest regrets is not telling the guy, "Look, I went to school and I know how to do my damned job. We did it right, and you can go pound salt." In my defense, I had little to no idea what I was doing; all I wanted at the time was to get my quotes for that week's game preview story, and go home.

The story that ran based on Holmes' statement, needless to say, caused more problems than it solved. West Laurens fired back with a statement of its own, more or less condemning Holmes for making the student's identity public in his rush to exonerate himself. Holmes, incredibly, refused to talk to anybody from our paper, claiming we'd misquoted him in his own statement. At one point both principals wanted to meet with us, to show us what a transcript SHOULD look like (and, conversely, why the opposing school had messed up).
The resolution, it turned out, was a meeting that included Holmes, Halcombe, myself, our boss (a Georgia politician) and the Dublin principal. Our bosses backed us up — a relief for a number of reasons — and essentially told Holmes that he could either talk to reporters from the paper, or see a picture of a closed locker room door on the front page. We replayed the tape of Holmes' statement with an accompanying transcript, as proof that we had misquoted no one, and reminded everyone involved that when the paper is on the line, everything is on the record, unless otherwise noted.

Eventually everything calmed down — Dublin incredibly finished second in the region, and advanced all the way to the semifinals in the state (Georgia plays the semifinals in the Georgia Dome), losing to a pretty powerful Buford team. Along the way they hammered both East and West Laurens, of course, pitching shutouts in both games.
Holmes is still the head coach at DHS, and in 2006 actually claimed half of a state championship (his squad tied Charlton County in a game that inspired the GHSA to do away with ties).

UPDATE: After I sent the link to the original draft of this to my old co-worker, he responded with the following contribution, tentatively titled "Five moments of high comedy from that same 2004 event."

1) Who's banging on my window at 1 a.m.?
During my hasty trip to Metter, I met up with school officials and the booster club president for the football team. He provided me with 10-15 minutes of conversation which included quotes that were all "on the record." I returned and compiled those notes with others to finish the story we were filing for Saturday.

As we were putting the finishing touches on the paper, Will and I both heard a rapping on our office window that grew steadily louder. Will responded in kind, "What in the? Who in the ?" and opened the blinds to see the booster club president's face plastered to the glass like a hopeful peeping tom. The BCP pointed to the adjacent front door Charlie Chaplin style and Will went around the corner to let him in.
"I got to thinking about our talk," (rough recollection), "and I stand by what I said. But is there any way you could NOT put it in the article."
Will: No.
BCP: Oh. Okay.
2) It's your fault. No it's yours. Aw shoot, they're fuh Dublin.
In the days following the story's publication, not only did we receive an unbelievable amount of hate mail from pro-Dublin supporters, but when word trickled out that county officials may have been duplicitous in the construction of the ineligible player's transcript (his failing grades buried essentially), we were immediately attacked by folks from both East Laurens and West Laurens.

The result? An article one day where Holmes and city school officials pointed fingers at the county (which got the county mad at us) and the next an article by county school board members pointing the finger back at Dublin (which got Dublin folks even madder at us).

This necessitated the long-standing belief that Will Heath (Alabama-native) and Jason Halcombe (California-born) were, in fact, "fuh Dublin."


As Will elaborated on (to great extent, according to his own account), Holmes paid us a visit on deadline Monday morning following our Saturday story. He and I were left to our own devices in the Executive Editor's suite, and got straight to business.

About halfway through the conversation, Holmes started dropping these nuggets, "If you had done your homework like the AJC" and "If you read what the Macon Telegraph published." I finally got him re-focused enough to read his seven-to-10 sentence statement on the issue before getting a, "So are we done here?"

Me: Yes.

As we walked out of the office, Will did, in fact run up on Holmes to speak which suddenly roused the coach's inner-Jules Winnfield and caused him to raise his voice just before our Executive Editor turned the corner.

EE: Well coach, how we doin?
4) Gator calls
Like any small town, Dublin and Laurens County is full of its own characters. And, in some cases, those characters show themselves in rarified fashion when football season kicks into gear. In this case, one of those people happened to be a frequent game day radio show call-in guest who went simply by "Gator."

Gator called in weekly, regularly dogged Dublin, bemoaned lack of coverage for West Laurens and was fairly complimentary of East Laurens and Trinity (simply because I think he genuinely could give a rip about either school)

At any rate, the controversy surrounding the ineligible player had reached this chain-smoking Adam Schefter of hometown pigskin gossip. And, just like Schefty, Mort or that gawd-awful Todd McShay, it was all Gator could do not to spill the beans about the inner-workings of this controversy.

(Around 2 p.m. on a Wednesday. No, not really. Seriously? What day was your birthday on when you turned nine? Saturday? Well, that was easy. QUIT MOCKING ME!)

(Phone rings) Me: Hello?
Gator: Hey man.
Me: Uh, hey?
Gator: Do you know who this is?
Me: Uh, no.
Gator: It's Gator.
Me: Okay?
Gator: So, you wanna know what really went on?
Me: About?
Gator: The ineligible player.
Me: Sure.
Gator: You know he got stabbed like three times in Florida. He's got a rap sheet a mile long. Can you believe Dublin took him?
Me: Well, you know West Laurens took him first. So...
Gator: I know. But at least we learned our lesson.
Me: But y'all didn't feel the need to tell Dublin they might need to steer clear?
Gator: Shoot naw. They had it coming. You know how many times they done this and got away from it?
Me: I have heard stuff, but never had it confirmed. What about East Laurens getting the Dublin basketball player to transfer? Or how about the McLendon brothers who transferred to West from Dublin after staying with their grandmother in Columbus for the summer?
Gator: Well, I don't know about that. But I do know Dublin had it coming to them. By the way, you know my real name? It's Mark Passmore. But don't tell anyone.
Me: I'm sure that secret is safe.

5) Would you like pizza or a turkey sandwich on your school lunch tray?
I saved what I consider to be the funniest part of this whole ridiculous situation for last. Following Holmes' shouting match at our office, and ensuing hate from the community, the Dublin superintendent reached out to our boss and said we all needed to bury the hatchet, "for the kids." Naturally.

He told our boss he wanted to "have us over for lunch" toward the end of the week to work things out and move forward. Now, for many in the business world, lunch would consist of some meal prepared at a local eatery typically pricier than usual because, well, "the expense report is paying for it after all."

Instead of a waitress, or some hipster folding an eight-dollar-burrito behind the sneeze screen, we had three large black women in hair nets asking, "You want a turkey sandwich or a pizza, baby?" as we grabbed a tray and walked through the high school cafeteria.

"Honey, you get a cookie with that too now," said one of the lunch ladies, who remembered me passing through the line six years earlier.

Superintendent: Give him two cookies if he wants 'em. I want him to feel comfortable when he comes to Dublin.
We ate our pizza, fries and cookie (actually were provided sweet tea instead of milk cartons) and began the nitty gritty of working through our minor crisis.

It all worked out in the end.

In fact, I would consider Holmes a friend these days. He even smirked one time retelling it about two years ago.

"You know, I coulda kicked your aiss back then."

Me: Well, I wouldn't go that far. But I know what you mean.

Friday, July 18, 2014

contemporary worship, tradition and so forth

During my second turn at Music & Arts Week at Camp Sumatanga, in 2008, the clinician, Dr. Randall Hooper, introduced to me the concept of "aleatoric" music. In the most layman of terms -- I'm not particularly good at music -- it means "singing or playing without paying a great deal of attention to anybody else around you."
As part of this, he had his choir sing a 1,000-year-old Gregorian chant — "Victimae Paschali Laudes" — in aleatoric fashion. It sounded like ... well, you be the judge.

(Go ahead and listen. I'll wait.)

If you listened all the way to the end of the track, you likely heard Hooper at the end say that the beauty of music is that we can experience it in our present state, much the same as the people who experienced it 1,000 years ago.
(Note: Listen to it again and gauge the audience's response. They don't even know when to applaud. It's kind of hilarious.)

Obviously, I was raised and remain a United Methodist, and one of the most fundamental characteristics of the United Methodist Church — as it relates to worship, anyway — is its emphasis on tradition. The Apostle's Creed is more or less the same, as is the Lord's Prayer, the "Gloria Patri" and so forth. Periodically someone monkeys around and sings a different version of the Doxology, or uses an affirmation from the United Church of Canada ... and eventually that stops and everything returns to routine.
Like everything else, however, there is a growing emphasis on "contemporary" worship. Such services take many different forms, but they all typically share the common thread of guitars, a laissez-faire approach to church norms — "The pastor is wearing jeans! The guy leading music is drinking coffee in the sanctuary!" — and music that is loosely defined as "praise and worship."*
* Someone much more clever than I once referred to "praise and worship" music as "7-11 music," i.e., 7 words repeated 11 times. I wish I knew who made that up. Maybe we'll pretend I did just now.

Now ... here's where the water becomes murky. Lots of churches have separated "traditional" and "contemporary" worship completely. At our church, only the diehards participate in "traditional" worship, which starts at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday. The main service is the "contemporary," at 11.
Every church has its own approach. At the church where I grew up, the "contemporary" begins at 10 a.m. — during the Sunday School period between two "traditional" services — and the senior pastor delivers the sermon in all three. At my wife's home church — the church where we were married — the "contemporary" service takes place simultaneous to the late "traditional" one; the church gets around the ministerial issue by simply employing another minister, whose primary job is preaching at the "contemporary" service.
The end result in most places, I have observed is something of a schism — those who worship in the "traditional" fashion, and those who attend the "contemporary" service. It is possible for people to worship at the same church and never actually meet.

As you might have already guessed, I'm of two minds when it comes to all this. I love the UMC and its worship traditions; I love the fact that — stealing a thought from Hooper — I can participate in worship in much the same fashion as people who came 100 years before me. I love the idea that I can sit down with a hymnal at a "5th Sunday" singing, and sing the same hymns that my great-grandfather used to help lead.
But "contemporary" music holds a special place for me, as well. That music grabbed hold of me in high school, when my youth minister, Rick Lane — one of the reasons I am who I am today and I wrote a column about him about a year ago that I can't link because I can't find the thing — introduced me to the music of Larry Norman and Randy Stonehill. That begat a lifelong love of "contemporary" music that, while it was never disrespectful to traditional church music, influenced an entire generation of musicians today (some of whom are, frankly, making and selling garbage, but then again, a lot of music is garbage in general).
In my mind, "traditional" music evokes memories of Sunday mornings; "contemporary" music evokes memories of Sunday nights. Both are equally meaningful to me*.
* While we're on the subject, we might mention that the current version of the United Methodist Hymnal isn't exactly beyond reproach. At least as many of the tunes in the hymnal — "Morning Has Broken," that weird song about lake shores and a handful of other songs I can't remember at the moment — belong there about as much as "Born to Run" belongs at the New York Philharmonic.

In December of last year, my wife and I were at Bluff Park United Methodist Church for Derek Webb's show there as part of his "I Was Wrong, I'm Sorry & I Love You" tour (the album of the same name is, of course, remarkable). Because I'm a big fan of Webb's — and because my wife enjoyed all his stuff with Caedmon's Call and often humors me in these matters — we paid a few extra bucks for our ticket, that earned a special "green room" audience with the performer (it was actually just the church parlor, but whatever).
Webb was, as one would expect, as thoughtful and intuitive as the songs he produces. I probably could've stayed there for hours, but I almost certainly would've been escorted out.
In any case, at some point the discussion turned to worship, because of course it did. Unsurprisingly, Webb himself made a point that I hadn't considered until that moment: That every time your favorite hymn or praise song plays, there's the distinct possibility that the person sitting next to you hates that song, and is only going through the motions for the purpose of being worshipful. The inverse is equally true; people next to you may love a song you abjectly loathe, and will expect no less than the courtesy they have already afforded.
"The only thing people who attend worship have in common," he said, "is their brokenness and their need of a Savior."

When I describe the meaningfulness of hymns — or the meaningfulness of "contemporary" music — what I am really describing is what each of them means to me. I have recreated what worship should be — my adoration for the love and grace of a forgiving God — and decided it must be exactly as I say it should be. I've become the thing I always said I would not: The person who quits church because we don't sing songs the way I want them sung. Even as I consider what a worship service that blends together the two elements — the word "blended" scares the bejeezus out of churchgoers, for the record — I become aware that I am making a service that has meaning for myself, and (most likely) myself alone.

What's the solution? I have no idea. Instead, the only way I know to wrap this up — and since I'm sure nobody else is reading at this point, I might as well — is with my favorite worship story of all time.
It happened when I was a graduated high school senior, traveling as part of the One Accord youth choir from FUMC Opelika. We were staying at a church in San Francisco — at one point we locked out one of our college counselors on the way to a YMCA for a shower, but that's another story for another time — that had a large Korean population as part of its congregation.
One morning while we were there, I woke up early and stumbled through the halls of the church — we were sleeping in a Sunday School room, on the floor — in search of a restroom. As it happened, there was a sunrise service that morning, and the restroom I found was in close proximity to the sanctuary.
I had missed the service, it turned out, but I heard a solitary voice coming from the sanctuary. As quietly as an 18-year-old boy can, I snuck to the doors of the sanctuary and peered through the window.
Near the altar, seated on the floor of the sanctuary, was one woman. She was sitting cross-legged, with her face bowed towards the floor, singing in what I assume was Korean. For just a moment I listened, and recognized the tune: "What A Friend We Have In Jesus."
I don't know how long I listened to her — it couldn't have been more than a few seconds — before I slunk back to my chambers (it's not polite to eavesdrop on someone's personal quiet time, after all). That image, though, is burned into my mind, maybe the purest, most honest expression of worship I ever saw.
I wish I could design a worship service like that. Maybe someone smarter than me can.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

thoughts on That Game: six months later

Editor's note: The sometimes author of this blog has fully intended to write a comprehensive breakdown of ... That Game. It has taken 6 months to find the time and composure to do so. There's a lot of ground to cover here. Let's hope it was worth it. 

It's funny how the progression of time can change a person's perspective, particularly when one is evaluating a football season.
This is actually a thought I have written about on at least one occasion: when we evaluated the 2010 Alabama football team. That team that was riddled with injuries and ultimately lost 3 games, in order, to the SEC Eastern division champ, an LSU team that won 10 games and the eventual national champs (who, as an added bonus, started Superman at quarterback). Those losses came by 14 points, by 3 points and by 1 point. Two of them were on the road in two of the SEC's toughest environments.
Was it a disappointing season? A "failed" season? If we judge everything by the national championship, then sure.
And, for better or worse, that's kind of where we are with Alabama football these days.

Aside from perspective, the other important thing we talk about periodically at this site -- and they probably talk about it on other sites, but you only read those because I tired of blogging -- is the importance of ... well, luck. The best teams are typically the most talented and best prepared, to be sure, but they are also the luckiest. The ball tends to bounce their way when it matters most.
We have covered this ad nauseam, but Alabama fans, above all, should understand the value of a little good fortune, particularly in the midst of this run. In 2009, the Tide got lucky when Tennessee couldn't kick the ball past Terrence Cody, when replay officials wouldn't overturn an apparent interception vs. LSU, when Marcel Dareus knocked out Colt McCoy in the national title game. In '11 and '12, a little luck was necessary to climb back into the national title picture after devastating home losses to opponents in the same division.
Alabama was the best team in all of those years. But a little luck didn't hurt the cause, either.
Luck, unfortunately, tends to even out over time.

These are two of the mechanisms I have attempted to use to cope since Nov. 30, 2013. You hardly need me to remind you what happened that day. And if you do, look it up, because frankly I'm not in the mood to rehash it all over again.
But we do need to confront it, because there is no proper way to move on, otherwise.
With the passage of time -- and particularly since a disinterested squad was shocked in New Orleans by Oklahoma -- a narrative has emerged from the coaching staff and the locker room (and subsequently parroted by the most obtuse in the fan base). It is a similar narrative to the oft-repeated assessment in 2010: the team was entitled, its players didn't work as hard, didn't prepare like champs, didn't "take care of the little things" its predecessors did in similar circumstances.
I'm not here to question the validity of the narrative -- certainly, the value of "staying hungry" as a competitor cannot be diminished.

And yet, if we learned nothing else from the 2013 game at Auburn -- Auburn 34, Alabama 28 -- we should learn that the difference between "champions" and "disappointments" is razor-thin. As thin as a failed fourth-down conversion that might have put away the game. As thin as one made field goal by an otherwise unknown place-kicker. As thin as two key defensive failures at the end of the second and fourth quarters.
Gene Stallings famously told his teams that they played 60 minutes of football for the privilege of making 5-6 plays per game that ultimately affect the outcome. Six months ago, Auburn made all the plays, and Alabama did not. And so, the "Kick 6" happened -- Auburn won the SEC title, then came within a few seconds of its second national title in the past four seasons.
And in the process, the entire narrative of this season, and possibly the upcoming season. Now it is Auburn receiving recognition as a budding powerhouse, with the up-and-comer as head coach, the relentless offense and the swagger that comes with defending a title. If Nick Saban's Alabama is the Roman Empire, Auburn is the Barbarians at the gate (I'm not up to speed on my Roman military history, so somebody correct me if that analogy doesn't work).

It is difficult, of course, to say where we go from here. Those who proclaim themselves experts in the field of college football are all over the map when it comes to assessing 2014, with some ready to crown Auburn the new power in the SEC West, and others saying statistics still trend towards Tuscaloosa. With the new College Football Playoff dawning, it's likely the national championship picture will grow even crazier than it ever has been in the past.
Which means it will require a little luck. Or maybe a lot. Whatever.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

starting fresh with something different: a wrestling paper

So. Here we are, wondering why it's been so long since we've been together. I don't have a good excuse, but my intent is to make better use of the platform. It's unlikely to be the same as in the past — stuff other than football, at least — and to prove it, I'm sharing a paper I wrote last fall for an English course (never mind why). It's a Google doc, and the paper is about professional wrestling, but you might enjoy yourself.

For what it's worth, I got an A on this thing.

See you again soon, I hope.