Wednesday, August 31, 2022

We Are Known: Reflections on Fans and Followers of Serena Williams and More....

Given that Serena Williams is "evolving away from tennis," the 2022 US Open is much more than the final Grand Slam of the year. After publicly declaring a "Farewell to tennis " in Vogue magazine, the tourney has  become the venue to celebrate and honor Williams' career. And a record 29,402 fans— the largest attendance ever recorded for an evening session at Arthur Ashe Stadium—showed up to watch her play.

As noted in the New York Times, "A former president, A-list actors and professional athletes were among the fans who packed into Arthur Ashe Stadium" on Monday, August 29, 2022. While the high profile, star studded list was exciting to observe and discuss, to me, their appearance was not surprising. Why? Because all athletes have fans and followers. No matter who you are or how famous you become, a person's favorites, leanings, loves, rivals, enemies and frenimies remain. Teaching a new Religious Studies course to Sophomores has reminded me, this truth applies to the life of Christ as well. 

Sports talk radio had a hey-day naming the celebs in the stands. Foo example, the announcers were amazed by the fact the 42nd President of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton was in the stands. I said to the radio and anyone with ears to hear: "I'm not surprised." 

A renown sports fan, Clinton has weighed in time and again on the impact and significance of the  Williams' sisters contributions to tennis and American society. He offered astute, thoughtful commentary in the documentary "Venus and Serena."

While in the White House, he was a regular at Georgetown basketball games (cheering for his alma mater). He called fellow Arkansan John Daly when he won the Open in 1995 and cheered loud and proud for the Razorback football squad time and again. Yes, Presidents are people, too. 

Just last week in Williamsport, PA, former President George W. Bush was honored with as a statue as one of the town’s most notable visitors to come to the annual Little League World Series. 43, who is the first and only sitting president to visit the youth baseball championship, praised the organization’s impact and import of playing Little League.

It is common knowledge that "W," former owner of the Texas Rangers is a devout baseball fan. However, in the media promotion of this event, I heard him say "As a kid, my favorite player was Willie Mays." His reasons for choosing the Say Hey Kid as his hero were personal and fun to hear.

My respect for George W. Bush went through the roof after watching him throw a strike inside Yankee Stadium during the 2001 World Series (the year of the 9/11 attacks). To hear this son of Midland, Texas choose a New York/San Francisco Giant legend pushed it further.

On the same night as Serena's match, I got to see Padres' first baseman Josh Bell against my Giants at Oracle Park. I have followed the career or the 6'4" power hitter as both a Pittsburgh Pirate and in his tenure the Washington Nationals. I became a fan because of his size, power, unusual hitting style / stance and the simple fact that he attended Dallas Jesuit. Bell has not played for the Giants, he doesn't live in the Bay Area. BUT, as a teacher in a Jesuit high school, the connection for me is clear. 

And that connection extends beyond sports to the course I am teaching this fall: Christology (the study of Christ). This is the hallmark of a Jesuit education. Here's how...

My students, all sophomores, were surprised by the fact that Jesus' disciples were probably in their late teens. They wondered "Why would someone so young follow Jesus?" To me, this question was an invitation to step back and think deeply. What is it about Jesus that people were attracted to? What did the disciples see in Jesus that sparked much more than interest in who He was, is and will always be?  I realized the questions I was asking are exactly the questions I ask of Bill Clinton about Serena Williams or George W. Bush about Willie Mays. In this way, starting with my love and understanding of sports has helped me understand spirituality.

As a fellow sports fan, what I find interesting isn't just who a fellow sports fan, athlete, coach, rock star or world leader follows but why. Why do we certain athletes over others? What draws us to follow a team that might not represent our school or community? And at what point does that allegiance "stick" or become connected to a person's identity?

Questions such as these are an invitational and welcome way for me to think about Jesus—the historical being and more.What draws me to Him? Would I have followed him? Do others know me as a fan and a follower of His message? His Word? His Way? How do I speak about him to others? And how do I show Him my support? 

Thank you, Serena for a career that has given me more to discuss, debate, reveal and understand more than you would ever know....

Photo Credits
Serena Heart
Clinton and Williams
Group of Fans
Josh Bell
W at Little League

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Back to the Basics: In School, Sports and Spirituality

Now in its 16th season, HBO's Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Lions begins in the film room. Standing 6'5" tall and weighing 265 lbs, the head coach Dan Campbell is an imposing figure. Pacing back and forth in front of 90 players, he declares his rules for the team.

He said,
  1. Be on time.
  2. Don't be overweight—which many of you have done a good job at...
  3. Don't disrespect your teammates or the game.
That's all. 

Every time I hear a coach make a pronouncement such as this, I can't help but lean in. I want to know, What do they value? What's important to them? What do they stand by?

To be honest, I have yet to hear a coach offer an expectation is is surprising or unique. Most team rules are (and should be) self-evident. In short, they are "the basics," which is why when I heard a school wide commitment to go "Back to the Basics" I took note. 

The first official gathering of the year for the St. Ignatius College Prep faculty was not in the film room, but inside the chapel. The Dean of Academics did not pace the floor like Coach Campbell, but her message grabbed our attention. 

She said, "Our hope for the 2022-2023 school year is to emphasize the basics. The past two-plus years have required flexibility and patience from teachers and students. Given where we are now with COVID, we want to focus on these expectations for our students. They are: punctuality, academic integrity, quality of work." She elaborated,

  1. Students need to be punctual and be on time. Let's do this.
  2. Students' work needs to be their own and maintain academic integrity. 
  3. During the past two years, we have been very accommodating. Excellence is the goal. Let's focus on the quality of the work our students produce and strive for better.

It was refreshing to hear an administrator call for a communal effort to raise the bar. Every teacher in that room recognize these basics are important. Not one of them is unrealistic or unnecessary. In naming them, we have provided our students with an awareness of what we expect and how we want to proceed. She was right, let's do this.

After thinking about the basics in sports and in academics, I started to wonder what the "basics" might be in the spiritual life. I said to myself, What should we do regularly. What ought we practice? What should we require of our brothers and sisters? This is what came to mind: prayer, gratitude, silence and service.

  1. Prayer: Say the Our Father daily. This is the prayer that Jesus taught us. 
  2. Gratitude: Pray Grace before Meals—once a day. Food nourishes and sustains us. So often it brings people together. Give thanks!
  3. Silence: Take but a moment each day to be in silence. God is always reaching out. What might you hear or sense in the silence?
  4. Serve: Every day. Yes, every day there is an opportunity to be of service to one another, our families, our community, and our earth. We can pick up trash, hold the door open for someone, listen generously or give our time to those in need.

Upon naming all of these basics—for teammates, classmates and fellow Christians—I have to wonder, how might our world be different if we just stuck to the basics. Perhaps that is my prayer for today—after the Our Father—that we do even more than meet these expectations. Let us work together to exceed them. 

You'll hear a report from me....

Photo Credits
Hard Knocks

Monday, August 8, 2022

Bryant Young: We Continue to Speak His Name

At the conclusion of his Pro Football Hall of Fame speech, Forty Niners legend Bryant Young used his platform to offer a few life lessons. A gentle man off the field, he was anything but that on the gridiron. His posture is remarkable, and his presence is noteworthy. When BY speaks, people listen. From Canton, Ohio he said,

  • From my pain, I’ve found purpose.
  • Letting someone grab my hand is as important as reaching for theirs.
  • In an isolated world, personal connections matter more than ever.
  • I keep my gaze on Christ and pour myself into good works.
  • I’ve learned to trust God’s timing and not mine.

While these lessons relate to his experience as an athlete, the most meaningful one came not from a teammate or coach, owner, fan or from football. This lesson was born from a profound loss, a personal tragedy. It is heart wrenching, and it is Hall of Fame worthy. I need to hear that and remember it. It is just this: “we continue to speak his name.” 

Bryant Colby Young, Sr. was a defensive tackle who played 14 years in the NFL with the same team: the San Francisco 49ers. A consensus All-American at the University of Notre Dame, they drafted Young seventh overall in the 1994 draft. He was a four time pro bowler and the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year in 1999. He is the 29th 49er to earn the gold jacket.

At Notre Dame, Young graduated with a degree in marketing and met his wife, Kristin. They have been together for 31 years and have six children.

Standing 6’3" tall and weighing in at 305 lbs, the most obvious word to describe BY is “strong.” As noted by the former owner Eddie DeBartolo, “Young was always double teamed, if not triple teamed!” However, Young’s physical strength pales compared to something else. The man has an inner strength that allowed him to admit his vulnerability, share the adversity he has withstood and cry several times on stage. 

As mentioned in his speech, on August 11, 2016, Bryant Colby Young, Jr.—Kristin and Bryant’s eldest son—went home to heaven. Their words, not mine. After the first headache in 2014, Colby died of a brain tumor that returned and spread “too far, too fast.”

BY said “He didn’t fear death, as much as the process of dying. He wondered, Would it be painful? Would he be remembered? We assured Colby we’d keep his memory alive and continue speaking his name.” 

BY said the name Colby fourteen times in his speech. He honored him with the words, “Colby, you live in our hearts. We will always speak your name.” He has. He did. He will. 

I believe one of the most important ways to remember a person is to know, say, and share their name. For some, it might be too painful, but to speak a person’s name affirms their humanity. It honors their story and preserves their personhood. Colby was a son, brother, athlete, cook and friend. He may no longer be with his parents and siblings but by continuing to say his name, BY was right: he lives.

Professional football players are eligible for the Hall of Fame five years after their retirement. During this tenth year of eligibility, Canton, Ohio, gave the nod to #97, Bryant Young. Many believe that BY deserved to be a first year ballot inductee. But as noted by BY, he has learned to trust God’s timing.

Bryant Young is a proud member of the Class of 2022. Upon congratulating his classmates, he said, “Colby’s favorite number was #22.” 

Once again, BY continued to say his name....and we—his fans and followers — make the connection.

I am grateful to have followed and shared in Bryant Young’s Hall of Fame journey. From school in South Bend to his time in the Bay Area, I have always held great respect and admiration for one of the game’s greatest. I have shared his testimony about Colby’s own journey with my students. I would like the Young family to know I too will continue to say his name; I hope that others do the same.

This might be on the most important things we as Christians can do. Those we love and have lost live in our hearts. To say one’s name is to offer the same prayer as one we pray at Mass: 

Christ has died. Christ IS risen. Christ will come again.
So too it is with Bryant Colby Young, Jr. Congratulations and thank you to Bryant Colby Young, Sr. 

Photo Credits
Young Family
HOF Congrats
BY Wave

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Retiring of #22 in Honor of Will Clark: Fire and Beauty

Go to any Giants game—home or away—and you're sure to see a legion of fans wearing a white, cream, gray or black jersey in honor of #22 Will Clark. Clark, played eight of his 15 years in MLB with the orange and black. He had a tremendous career as a Giant, turning around a team "that accumulated a dry spell of 15 straight seasons without a playoff appearance or even a finish higher than third place in the NL West (SJ Mercury News)" Will was named MVP of the 1989 NLCS, but the Giants were swept by the Oakland A's in the fabled Bay Bridge Series. The World Series ring he wears was earned by other players. 

Still, I encourage you to see for yourself. Take your own straw poll of Giants' jerseys and I guarantee you'll see the likes of Mays (24), Posey (25), and even MadBum (40). Those names and the rings that accompany them, speak for themselves. So what gives? Why do countless men and women cite Will Clark as their favorite player? Why is his jersey evergreen? Two words: Fire and Beauty.

During the game, a variety of Bay Area celebrities from James Hetfield, the lead singer of Metallica to basketball great, Chris Mullin of the Golden State Warriors weighed in with their congratulations by way of video tributes. Nine out of 10 of them used the same word to describe Will the Thrill: intense. At one point, I thought "can't they be more creative?" The answer is "no." I'm the one who missed the point. 

Bob Brenley, Al Rosen, and Kevin Mitchell each described Will as intense because he was. It was his signature, a fire that burned brightly. From his trademark eye black to the way he channeled his 20 x 12 vision behind the plate, every pitcher, TV camera man, manager, and baseball fan could see just how focused Clark was when he came to bat. And that intensity produced results. Will's lifetime batting average is .303. I will never forget the day in 1989 when he lost the NL batting title in the final game of the season. Will finished the season with a .333 average. Tony Gwynn, who collected eight batting titles in his career took it with a .336 average. All intensity aside, I have a feeling even Will was able to tip his hat to one of the game's greatest hitters, and he did as the game was among the two teams. 

It's worth mentioning that Clark brought the same intensity and fire to the both sides of the game. As a Giant, he earned two Silver Sluggers (1989, ’91) and a Gold Glove (’91). One of his career highlights at the retirement ceremony featured Will crashing into the cameras along the first base line to make the out. He emerged from a virtual handstand in the media box with the ball in his glove. Unfazed, Clark tossed the ball back to the pitcher ready to get the next out. Intensity 2.0

However, fire isn't always friendly. Clark's intensity was known to create conflict in the clubhouse. For example, his relationship with other strong personalities such Jeffrey Leonard and Barry Bonds were often cited as problematic and potentially racist. Over time, both sides have admitted they needed to fan the flames. They did and it was a sight to see both men standing by his side at the ceremony. Bonds' words were heartfelt. The hugs they exchanged were not forced or fake. They were strong and sincere. Just one mark of the fire... and the beauty.

As many times as one heard the word "intense," it's worth noting no one spoke of Will Clark without mentioning beauty. Why? How? Will Clark had a beautiful swing. It was fluid. It was long and it was strong. It even has a name! The Nuschler—Will's middle name, which is a family surname.

One might think, so what? A swing ought to be effective. It's objective it is to make contact and get hits. Whether or not it's beautiful is inconsequential. Right? Wrong. 

Baseball can be slow. There's a lot of dead time. Outs are routine. Plays to the infield and the outfield come and they go. However, the game is punctuated by action and reaction. And infrequently that action is characterized by something beautiful. 

Will's left handed swing—one that hit to all parts of the field— was a thing of beauty. You wanted to watch him hit because of his intensity, and it was hard not to watch because it was so beautiful. 

There are but a few players I can name who have a swing as beautiful as Will Clark's; those belong to Darryl Strawberry, Mr. San Diego himself and from what I've read—Ted Williams. I invite you to look for beauty in baseball and other sports—golf, basketball, football and swimming. And look back at Will Clark's swing to point the way.

The San Francisco Giants do it right. They spared no expense in the ritual and ceremony of a great day—one that was  highly emotional for Will Clark and fans like me who are lucky enough to have seen, been a part of and still hold the memories he made. There was fire. It was beautiful.

Before Will exited the field in a 1957 Chevy Convertible to the tune of B.B. King's "The Thrill is Gone," he was asked to throw the ceremonial first pitch. His son, William Nuschler Clark, III—Trey—was there to catch the ball. Before the wind up, Will's intense gaze looked at the plate. This was a man ready to throw a strike. However, Trey who has Autism and struggles with spatial navigation missed the catch. If you didn't know better, it looked remiss. But all I could see was Will charging to the plate to give his son a massive hug. The result of that pitch was completely inconsequential. It was a beautiful moment...another sight to see. It was the Fire of Will the Thrill standing on the field and the beauty of the relationships to others and to the game that has left a Giants footprint forever on our hearts. Thank you, Will "the Thrill" Clark. #22

Photo Credits
Mercury News
Sweet Swing