Fall Means Football Season in my Family

Sugar maple seeds flutter to the ground like mini helicopters and leaves tinged in red signal fall and football season. As soon as my hand grew big enough to grasp the pigskin, my dad taught me to throw and catch a perfect spiral. On cool autumn evenings, we ran passing patterns – the down and out, button hook and v-slant – under the waning street light until mom called for dinner.

Back in the late 60s, I was probably the only girl in town that knew that a Hail Mary had nothing to do with the Catholic Church. The daughter of a Sterling High School football coach and the granddaughter of a former Northern Illinois University and Eureka College football coach, no one told me girls couldn’t love football. Though it was almost 2 more decades before girls would be allowed to participate on America’s ball fields, nobody in my family discouraged me from playing a game designed to build the character of men.

Only a half a century later did I realized how unique my upbringing and how privileged I was to grow up in a coach’s family in a community that valued sports.

My alma mater Sterling High School stadium sparkles in the night like a major university field. Dating back to the 40s, the football program brought pride to the community. My dad, a DeKalb High School Barb, remembers the challenge of playing against Sterling when DuWayne Dietz starred as a running back.

“Our game plan was simple – tackle Dietz!” my dad recounted, “Only problem, we had to catch him first. We chased him up and down the field all night.”

Last year, at the recently renovated stadium, the team made it to the semi-finals of a state championship and this season remain undefeated.

I grew up admiring the Sterling warriors, memorizing plays and tracking yardage gained. For me the only thrill greater than Friday night lights of American high school football was watching my grandpa’s college team play on Saturdays. As children, we cherished each excursion to Eureka, Illinois to spend time with our grandparents.

Sitting on hard bleachers, my sisters and I cheered “Go Red Devils,” and chuckled in amusement that a Christian college team could carry such a dubious nickname. But we knew the history behind it and felt proud; my grandma gave them that name when she started the pep club back in the 1930s.

Several Sterling High School athletes would go on to shine at Eureka College. In fact while I was playing basketball for Illinois State University, two of my best high school buddies – Mike Wietlispach and Chris Baldwin – wore the maroon and gold onto McKinzie Field.

Team loyalties transcend from generation to generation. I loved the Sterling Golden Warriors, the Eureka Red Devils and the Greenbay Packers long before the Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers era because Greenbay was my grandpa’s favorite team.

In early adulthood, I moved to Europe in pursuit of my own passion to play professional basketball. I have remained in the land of soccer ever since. Though I would never see another football game live, the love remains.

When my children were young, my dad gave them a football. As soon as their fingers were big enough to spread across the white laces, I taught them to throw and run those passing patterns.

I still dream of attending an SHS football game and heading back down to McKinzie Field for a Red Devils’ game. But for now that goal remains on my bucket list because I am still coaching in Switzerland.

In the meantime, if I close my eyes I can hear my ancestors’ voices echoing across the gridiron. Memories of family, pep talks of inspiration and love of football are imprinted in my soul forever.

France Names Gym After American Basketball Player, My Mentor

When a car accident in France ended my professional basketball career, I wanted to curl up and die. While struggling to rehabilitate, my physical therapist in Paris, saw my despair and said, “Don’t cry. Call Henry Fields. He’ll help you out.”

“McKinzie,” Henry said when I called. “Oh yeah, I remember you. Shot the eyes out of the basket. Need a job? Great. We need a coach.”

So I began coaching at American School of Paris under the tutelage of Henry Fields, dubbed the Father of French basketball, and one of the first Americans to play in Europe. After winning the military world championship while stationed in Orleans, France, in 1962 he was invited to stay on to play for Paris University Club for $50 a month. Not only did he rack up championship titles, he won over the heart of the entire country and paved the way for other American players to follow.

Though he earned accolades as a player, his greatest impact may have been as a coach, where he dedicated his life to developing ball skills in youth at the various clubs where he starred. As a teacher and coach, he built a dynasty at ASP, the first American school with an international community in Europe established in 1946.

After retirement, he and his lovely Norwegian wife, Ragna, resettled in Auterive, south of Toulouse (southwest France), to be closer to their daughters. When he found out that the community didn’t have a basketball program for kids, he built one for them.

From Hank, I learned international basketball rules and insider tips, like it’s okay to yell at a ref as long as you buy him a drink after the game. He showed me how to make sure that each player had a role and felt valued.

He exemplified the true spirit of the game. Basketball is more that X and 0s, back door cuts, and match-up zones, it’s about bringing people together from every race, nationality and walk of life.

A few days ago, when I saw on a Facebook post that the gym in Auterive, had been named Halle Henry Fields, I pumped my fist and cheered.

“Pat, I had no idea,” he said when he called to tell me about the surprise ceremony. “They told me to wear a tie and come coach a game. When I got there, they sang happy birthday and dedicated the gym to me. Friends from teams back in 60s and 70s came to join in the celebration.”

“Oh Hank,” I said. “I wish I could have been there.”

“You were. You’re a part of everything I do.”

I feel the same way; we share the magic of mentoring. Over time, the wisdom of mentors becomes part of the mentees’ psych.

In the highest level of sport, coaches give back, pass on, and pay forward, becoming immortalized in the hearts and minds of those players who shared their love of a game.

What greater tribute to offer an ambassador of the game than to name a gym in his honor?

Henry Fields, granddaddy of basketball in France, a man with all the connections, believes everyone who loves the game is related.

To me, he will always be family.

 

 

Grounded: Broken Wing After Skiing

Grounded: Broken Wing After SkiingDear friends and readers just wanted to let you know I have been grounded and won’t be flying around cyber space anytime soon. I broke a wing. I should have stayed in the save confines of the gym instead of sailing down the slopes. I wiped out cross-country skiing in the Jura Mountains trying to keep up with my Frenchman who defies gravity and age. One minute I felt on top on the world celebrating life soaring under a blue sky on a snow-covered mountaintop. The next moment, I was lying in a heap on the icy side of a treacherous incline with my head shoulders pointing east and my legs twisted west.

To make a long story short, after a bumpy rescue squad ride in a snow mobile, a curvy trip back down the mountaintop and a 5 hour wait in emergency room, a doc diagnosed what I already knew, “Broken collar bone.”Grounded: Broken Wing After Skiing

“It exploded,” he said pointing to the jagged edges on the computer screen, “looks like you will need surgery.”

But just before I fainted, he called his buddy the orthopedic surgeon who balked when he found out I didn’t have insurance. (Well, I have insurance but not the kind that covers this swanky private hospital where peasants move to the back of the long waiting line.) The doc strapped me in a sling to immobilize the shoulder and sent me home with instructions to stay off slopes and out of gyms. Next week I will return for another X-ray to assure that the bone is aligning properly on its own.

At least I am in good company. My buddy Aaron Rodgers busted his collarbone twice and still throws 70-yard touchdown passes. Ditto for Charles Woodson who broke his in the Packers 2011 Super Bowl victory and he still had a heck of a career. And according to my doctor daughter, who has seen her fair share of broken bones, the clavicle is the most common fracture in the human body.

My advice to all you skier wannabes, stick to the flatlands of the Midwest, and leave the European mountains to the foreigners.

Also never ski alone. To be extra safe, bring along your own favorite doctor.Grounded: Broken Wing After Skiing

In the meantime, if I you want to hear any of my tall tales in the near future, give me a ringy ding. Thank goodness for the old fashioned, one arm operated telephone.

Swimming Hope Laps for Serenity

When discouraged as a child I would play ball until my mood lifted. Now as an adult, as I face down demons and depression from a disease that threatens to defeat me and from alarming, discouraging world events, I swim in defiance. I swim hope laps for serenity. I can’t hurt myself in water. Without the pressure of gravity pulling on my knees, back, shoulders, I glide through the water weightlessly pain free. In my darkest moments, I swim. I would rather shoot hoops, climb mountains, run marathons, but illness and injury make those options impossible. Instead I swim. If I can still swim, I can hang onto hope for a better day.

I would much rather swim with sisters in open water than alone in public pools. It’s boring swimming from one end to the other, so instead of counting laps I say prayers. After a few times down and back, slapping the water in fury, fuming over my personal state and my trials, I shift my focus to others that I know are facing even greater challenges. Each length I think of someone else.

I backstroke down one lap focusing on my French sister-in-law and niece who are struggling, and my uncle who underwent emergency brain surgery after a fall. Then down a lap for my mom who is the caregiver and back one for my dad whose heart and legs grow weaker from neuropathy. Down a length for another uncle who lost his wife and back for my cousin who lost her mom.

I breaststroke for my brother-in-law who still suffers from a car accident that injured his neck. I breaststroke for my student whose mom battles cancer. I swim for my friend on dialysis, for my friend with leukemia, for my friend fighting depression.

Then my circle of thoughts widens to reflect on the world. I swim for the people caught in the crossfire of nature’s wrath. For the victims of wildfires in California, for the folks in Texas, Alabama, Florida, Puerto Rico, whose homes have been decimated by hurricanes, for the Mexicans suffering in the aftermath of earthquakes. And I freestyle harder and faster in frustration and despair for the innocent victims of man made violence, for the families whose lives were shattered instantly in the Las Vegas mass shooting and terrorist attacks in London, Paris, Brussels, Mogadishu and elsewhere around the globe.

I don’t have to look far to see someone far worse off facing even greater obstacles.

Swimming puts my problems in perspective.

I inhale serenity, exhale anger, inhale tranquility, exhale anxiety, inhale calm, exhale hostility.

Maybe we should all take to the water in prayer to sooth our troubled souls and focus on bringing serenity to mankind.

Breath in hope. Breath out hate.

May peace be with you today.

My Minnesota Lynx Win WNBA Championship

Minnesota Lynx Win WNBA ChampionshipHow do I put into words my emotions at being part of a packed arena of WNBA Minnesota Lynx fans cheering for women playing basketball? Almost 40 years after my teammates and I played ball with empty stomachs in empty arenas in the fledgling WBL, the first women’s pro league, I witnessed the first game of a WNBA final series between the nation’s 2 best teams.

The Lynx hosted the LA Sparks in front of 11,823 fans electrifying historic Williams Arena (University Minnesota) known as the “Barn.” Four league MVPs –Sylvia Fowles, Maya Moore, Candace Parker, Nneke Ogwumike – and Alana Beard, defensive MVP, matched up on the floor to compete.

From the moment I entered the arena, I felt like a star, as I pulled on my complimentary 2017 MVP Sylvia Fowles T-shirt draped over my seat. Before tip off as tradition, fans stood until the Lynx scored their first basket. Only they didn’t score.

The Lynx started the game with a 28-2 point deficit and clawed their way back into the game. In the final minutes, the score ricocheted back and back forth and noise reached a crescendo.

The Barn rocked. The roar deafened. The intensity grew. In the end, my Lynx lost by one point on a fade away jumper by Chelsea Gray in the last 3 seconds. My disappointment was short-lived; they were all winners in my book exemplifying what it means to be champions.

Using sport as a platform to bring about positive change, and in solidarity with the NFL, LA Sparks stayed in the locker room for the national anthem and the Lynx players stood and faced the American flag with their arms locked together in unity.

The athleticism of players like Maya Moore, hanging in the air with Jordanesque moves, or Sylvie Fowles ripping the ball off the glass was stunning; their ability to defy age was equally commendable. With a median age of 30.7 Lynx players, the oldest average in league, showed the young bloods, they still got game.Minnesota Lynx Win WNBA Championship

Nowhere I’d rather to be than Lynx home court. Where else are we offered such wholesome entertainment?

In “our house” we put our differences aside and people of every age, race, and religious affiliation share a moment of good, clean fun. We sang, we danced, we chanted, we waved rally towels, we held our breath in suspense.

For me seeing kids wearing Lynx jerseys emblazoned with favorite players’ names brought the greatest joy. In the children’s eyes dreams sparkled. Today no girl grows up feeling like a misfit, an oddball, or a loser for being big, strong, and athletic. She knows that she belongs on the court, in the classroom, and at the head of the company.

The subliminal girl power message was not lost on me a Title IX pioneer who fought so hard for the right to participate in “boys” games.

How fitting that I should watch the game with my little sister and my daughter. After each great play, Karen fist bumped me with her 1977 first ever girls’ Illinois state basketball championship ring. My daughter, who developed the perseverance playing ball to reach her dream to become a doctor, pumped her fist.Minnesota Lynx Win WNBA Championship

Dreams my generation made possible.

Nearly four decades after women’s pro basketball made its floundering debut and failed, we finally triumphed.

“You done good sister,” Karen said squeezing my hand. “Look what you started, what we started.”

In an epic series, the Lynx would go on to win game five of in front of a sold out crowd at the Barn making history as 4 time national champions.

Unbeknownst to all, I was with them every step of the way

FitBit – Tamagotchi for Adults

 

When our kids gave us a FitBit for Christmas, I had no clue what it was, but FitBit is like a Tamagotchi for adults. Remember those digital pets we babysat for our kids in the 90s? Well, FitbBit vibrates if you haven’t moved your butt in the past 30 minutes. A message flashes across the screen, “Wanna stroll?” And if you forget to feed FitBit with daily motion it will die. When I realized FitBit was another electronic gadget I was mortified because I am techno impaired. Alas, ze Frenchman to the rescue. Sure enough, he programmed that little wristband do everything except cook dinner.

Tamagotchi

For those not in the know, FitBit is a physical activity tracker designed to help you become more active,eat a more well-rounded diet, sleep better and live healthier. Or at the very the least, it can make you a more obsessive human being.

FitBit records time, measures motion, counts calories, steps, and stairs. It records pulse, tracks sleep, and differentiates between biking, hiking, skiing, climbing, strolling, and running.

FitBit data can be synced to an online account. You can track every breathing moment even while sleeping. Which may not be a good thing. Over morning coffee ze Frenchman checks my profile and scolds me, “Pot you did not sleep well. Only 4 hours and 18 minutes.”

“I know,” I grumbled. “Why do you think I wake up feeling like I’ve been run over by truck?”

For many FitBit is a great motivator. It collates data about your weekly fitness level and sends you virtual badges rewarding positive behavior.

London Underground Badge: You’ve walked 250 miles—as many as the world’s first underground railway.

My Frenchman, who is 62 going on 16, is really taken with it. Since retiring he never stops moving. He plays volleyball, lifts weights, skis, bikes, hikes and kayaks. With my bad feet, bad knees, and a bad back, I limp along a mile behind him.

“I am struggling to keep up with your dad,” I confessed to our daughter.

“Somebody needs to remind him he is retired.”

Good luck with that,” I said. “Your dad used to time his sisters when they walked to school. Now if FitBit shows we are not moving fast enough, he yells at me to hurry up.”

“Mom, what have we done?” Nat lamented, “FitBit will be the death of you.”

Ah, but for an old athlete I can’t think of any better way to go… on the move breaking records.