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I’m a big Steve Almond fan.  I think he’s one of our smartest and gutsiest writers.  His latest book, Against Football (Melville House), is surely one of the year’s most provocative titles.  Almond offers a searing analysis of America’s most popular sport, going deep where most sports writers tend to stay safely in the shallows, challenging the reader’s assumptions about what the game means, and what its massive cultural import says about our society.

Steve and I had a great conversation on my podcast1 not too long ago, and this past week I had the chance to catch up with him via email for some follow-up questions.

 Dawidoff__NicholasExplain the term “Collision Low Crosser.”

Football has its own language. This defensive term describes players, usually linebackers, making legal contact with potential pass receivers crossing the field within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Beyond five yards, collisioning someone is a penalty. Since football is a game of precise timing and geometry, the point is to disrupt the pass route by diverting the receiver. The real inspiration of the phrase is how instantly it evokes the most basic elements of the game—speed, aggression, the interplay between space and time, plans that likely won’t come to fruition, how there’s always someone out there waiting to ruin your life. I like terms that imply a fresh, strange world existing within a world that seemed previously understood. Full Metal Jacket; Zero Dark Thirty; Collision Low Crossers.

29book"COLLISION LOW CROSSERS" by Nicholas DawidoffThe year really began in the last days of February, at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. The Scouting Combine is an annual invitation-only event at which more than three hundred of the country’s most promising draft-eligible college football players gather to audition for NFL teams by running, jumping, lifting weights, taking intelligence tests, and sitting down for private interviews, where each one might be asked about almost anything, including his injured shoulder, his bar brawl, his decision to save himself for marriage, and, as had happened the year before with the receiver Dez Bryant, whether his mother was a prostitute. When Eric Mangini led the Jets, he sometimes began a Combine interview by requiring the ten or so people in the room to introduce themselves to the player, after which the coach turned to the player and asked him to repeat all the names he’d just heard. This did not always go over well. LSU’s Dwayne Bowe, now a Chiefs receiver, believed Mangini was trying to humiliate him, and he shut down, producing a lengthy awkward moment that Jets officials still can’t recall without shuddering.

Dear Jeff Bezos,

Congratulations on your recent purchase of The Washington Post, one of the finest institutions in American journalism, as well as my hometown newspaper. I further applaud you for immediately speaking up and calming the speculation about what changes might be on the way for the paper. It’s comforting to know that you plan to keep the values and leadership of the Post intact.

muldoonWilliam Muldoon was built like a Greek God. In an era that saw women afraid to reveal even their ankles beneath a long skirt, the “Solid Man” wasn’t afraid to show a little skin. Even as far back as the 1880′s, at the dawn of professionalism in sports, wrestlers already needed gimmicks to sell bouts to the masses. Muldoon, for his part, was leading the way. He was a gifted wrestler but a better salesman. His gimmick was dressing as a Roman gladiator. Before bouts he was photographed in a loincloth and sandals, often naked from the waist up. He was a man who knew gimmicks, and with the gladiator getup, he was taking iconography to the next level.  Donald Mrozek, author of Sport and American Mentality, 1880-1910, thinks Muldoon was onto something that resonated with his audience. Muldoon’s costumes suggested that he was something more than a mere man. His sculpted body was the proof:

Raymond Felton is still kind of fat.  That’s not an insult to the Knicks’ starting point guard, but simply more of an observation. Considering that the last point guard to run the offense on the hardwood of Madison Square Garden was a relatively skinny, twenty-three year old Asian-American Harvard graduate, Felton’s stouter appearance is of note.

The reason why I bring up Felton’s weight is that, after he finished a depressing season playing for the Portland Trailblazers, a season where he averaged a career low in points (11.4) and field goal percentage (40%) —and just looked generally lethargic and round—one of the go-to jokes to make in NBA circles was to remark on how out of shape Raymond Felton was. Portland fans hated him and, because Portland fans are known for their passion and knowledge of basketball, general NBA connosieurs lost respect for him too. No one likes a player who half-asses his way through an NBA season, especially when that player is making $7.5 million per year and screwing over the Rose City.

 

“Myths and legends die hard in America. We love them for the extra dimension they provide, the illusion of near-infinite possibility to erase the narrow confines of most men’s reality. Weird heroes and mold-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of ‘the rat race’ is not yet final.”—Hunter S. Thompson

Maybe the real subject of every interview is how you really can’t learn much of anything about anyone from an interview.

Back at his gym in Los Angeles, the only instruction Freddie Roach gave after offering Mike Tyson’s phone number was a warning: “Don’t blindside him. It doesn’t matter if sent you. If you see Mike and you blindside him, he’s capable of attacking you.”

“I’m not looking to blindside anyone here,” I lied.

“Be careful, son.”

Walking around without Olympic fever has made me feel like a sicko these last couple weeks. The times I’ve sat down to watch the games on TV, I’ve annoyed my family because I’m not content to appreciate the athleticism on display. I can only engage when I start spinning stories, which for me takes the form of posing questions out loud.

History was made twice when the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 106-90 and advanced to the 2012 Western Conference Finals. In the National Basketball Association annals, of course, the game goes down as the one in which, for the first time, the young Thunder were able to get past the Lakers in a playoff series. Perhaps more broadly, the Thunder eliminating the Lakers will be remembered as a changing of the guard between the old NBA—represented by 5-time champion Kobe Bryant—and the New NBA, epitomized by Kevin Durant.

I love stars, the kind you find in the sky, but I’m not as enamored with those on the ground.

They have arrived. The NFL playoffs. Back in September, thirty-two teams had their football eyes on the prize. High hopes. Expectations. Experts making predictions. Boneheaded waiters and balding fathers playing football prophet and talking shit.

The Eagles will take the NFC East.

This is the year the Ravens will put it all together.

The Raiders will suck ass.

The Pack will repeat and Favre will hang himself from a sycamore tree.

Blah, blah, blah.

It’s now come down to twelve teams. The talk is over. In the AFC, the Patriots, Ravens, Bengals, Texans, Steelers, and Broncos will be taking the field. In the NFC, the Packers, 49ers, Lions, Saints, Falcons, and Giants will be in the hunt for the Lombardi.

It’s a thing of pure beauty.

Almost more beautiful than Tamron Hall.

Almost.

Let’s see what’s doing.

 

 

The Moody Coach and Mountain Jesus: The AFC

The AFC had a crazy year.

The Bills started off the season winning and had their fans forgetting Scott Norwood. But then the Bills remembered that they’re the Bills and began losing—badly. Their fans quickly remembered Norwood and started choking on chicken wings en masse.

Al Davis took a dirt nap and, surprisingly, Raiders fans didn’t tag and burn the country to a crisp.

The Jets and their fat coach stunk up the field and the world was a better place for it.

The Colts slowly died, week after week, and finally disappeared with a whimper.

Three of the six teams playing in the tournament weren’t considered contenders at the beginning of the year. The Bengals? Most people didn’t even know Cincinnati had a football team. The Texans? For years people have been picking them to finally sink the Colts and take the AFC South, and for years they sucked dog ass and ended up watching the playoffs from their couches like the rest of us poor saps. The Broncos? Good, god. John Fox is as dull as a pair of house slippers and coaches the most boring game of football in the league’s history.  I bet he only fucks in the missionary position.

Most football junkies picked the Patriots, Ravens, and Steelers to make the playoffs. They are who they are, and it is what it is. Solid players. Great coaching. No mystery. One of these teams will be in the Super Bowl.

Wildcard weekend will see the Bengals take on the Texans and Pittsburgh travel to Denver. I like the Bengals’ story. They played tough all year, and we saw promising rookie QB Andy Dalton make a name for himself. He very well could be one of the league’s premier quarterbacks of the future, football smart, with a rifle for an arm. Going on the road and winning in the playoffs is a tall order. Especially with a young team that has no post-season experience. But I like Cincinnati and see them squeaking out a victory. The Texans are good, no doubt. They have a good defense. But they’re injured and don’t have any character. This is not a winning recipe. Sure, they might take this game, but it will end for them soon after that.

Pittsburgh and the Broncos. The story here is about Tebow and his Jesus-ness. He loves Jesus. Carries him in his backpack. Takes him to McDonald’s. Tebow’s positive god light has the whole team reading sappy Hallmark affirmations and running to confession. It’s a lame story that has the ESPN gang and everyone and their mother saying stupid things like “divine intervention.” And that the Donkeys are winning because of Tebow’s heavenly ways and have made the playoffs because “something else is at work.” It is, by far, some of the most ridiculous crap I’ve heard, in or out of sports, in my lifetime. The truth is, Tebow sucks as a QB, the teams he beat were shit or gave the game away, the Broncos made the playoffs because the AFC West is pathetic. End of story. The Steelers are beat up but should win the game easily and end the Second Coming.  Thank god.

Finally, the Patriots and Ravens, the conference’s one and two seeds.  They have a bye this week and await the winners of the wild card round.  Brady and his receivers are flying high on offense, but they have a pitiful defense and this is why they’ll eventually lose. There’s nothing that their moody coach, Bill Belichick, and his massive football brain can do about it.  Prediction:  The Ravens—with Ray Lewis’ big mouth and Terrell Suggs’ piranha teeth—will go to the Super Bowl.  A nasty, swarming defense and an effective running game.  That’s the recipe.

 

Packing Heat and Killing Marino: The NFC

The NFC playoff picture is loaded with surprises. Who thought the 49ers, with their obnoxious coach, would be a second seed? No one. The Lions? Most of us thought that bloated pig Matt Millen had ruined the team for good. Guess not. The Giants? Hey, they’re a good squad, but the Eagles with their “dream team” roster were supposed to eat up the NFC East. Didn’t happen. The Falcons?  Well, that’s not too much of a stretch, but their spot was reserved for the Cowboys. And speaking of the Cowboys: I think it’s about time we bury these amateurs for good, or pray that their rich, hillbilly owner either splits or joins Al Davis. He’s looking more and more like good ol’ Al everyday. And that, my friends, is not a good thing.

Just win, baby.

The Lions are heading into New Orleans to get a beatdown like they’ve never experienced. It’s going to be ugly. The Saints have a lousy defense, but they have Brees and that ass-whooping offense. They’re deadly. They’re cool. They’re tenacious. Brees is a badass and I was thrilled to no end to see him squash Dan Marino’s single-season passing record. I don’t like Marino, just like I don’t like Mercury Morris, just like I don’t like Don Shula’s nose, just like I don’t like Miami’s pansy colors, just like I don’t like Miami, just like I don’t like the Heat and loved it when they got their asses handed to them in the NBA finals.

Shoo fly.

The Falcons are going into New York, where they’re going to get slapped around. The Giants are playing solid football coming off a perfect dismantling of the Cowboys last week. Watch out for the Giants. They can play spoiler.

I don’t have much to say about the 49ers. I can’t buy into them. I see a so-so QB in Smith, a good defense, and a cocky P.E. teacher for a coach. That being said, they’re not a second seed for no reason. But I’ll be smiling when they leave the field crestfallen. Especially Harbaugh.

The Packers are the Packers. They’re good. Real good. But like the Saints and the Patriots, they have a weak defense. I see them getting into a shootout or two. Probably not the way you want things to go (especially, against gunslingers like Brees and Eli Manning). But Rodgers is a pure killer and I see him taking the Pack to the Super Bowl where they’ll play the Ravens, win another championship, and Brett Favre will either be found dead or pack up his Wranglers and play in the CFL.

Let the games begin.

 

I know there was a lot of shit going on in heaven this past weekend, what with Jesus busy preparing the Papa Hem suite for Christopher Hitchens while simultaneously arranging for Kim Jong-il’s ferry ride to hell. But the good lord totally dropped the ball on number one fan Tim Tebow, who suffered a streak-ending loss to the New England Patriots.

Full disclosure: I would bang Tim Tebow with the intensity of a thousand suns. This amuses me because I find him absurd in just about every facet of his life, from his fervent religious belief to his home schooling to his colluding with pro life organizations. But that didn’t stop me from imagining what it might be like to go on a date with him.

 

My Date with Tim Tebow

Tim Tebow would pick me up in his maroon Ford F-150 exactly five minutes before he was due. He would saunter up to my door in pressed blue jeans and a polo shirt. He’d have on some kind of mirrored sunglasses.

Tim Tebow would wear Cool Water or something similar, because Drakkar Noir sounds foreign and (he thinks) only gays wear Calvin Klein. He’d probably use too much gel in his hair, but I would overlook this because holy shit, he’s Tim Tebow.

He’d take me to a steak house and ask if I was Jewish. He would sigh with relief when I said no, but would tighten up again (albeit to lesser degree) when I informed him I was Greek.

“Aren’t Catholics, like, you know,” he’d gesture at the side of his head with his finger, “weird?”

“Oh, I’m not Catholic anymore, I’m an athei–,” I’d stutter, remembering that atheism and Tim Tebow go together like Israel and Palestine.  Then, recovering:  “I’m kind of between religions right now.”

“Well, Jesus is great,” he’d tell me, reaching across the table for my hand.

Tim Tebow would talk exclusively about football and Jesus, the topics almost interchangeable. I’d nod politely while wondering what he’d look like naked and covered in blood. (Oh shit, did I just think that? Regroup, Stacie, regroup.)

“So…” I’d say, wiping my hand over the menu. “Appetizers?”

“I can’t eat shrimp,” he’d whisper across the table. He’d then cite the corresponding biblical passage forbidding him from doing so.

We’d order the same cut of steak. I’d try to tame the typical vacuum-like configuration my mouth takes on at steak houses. He would tell me about the time he circumcised a bunch of boys in the Philippines just as I was excising a piece of gristle from my otherwise glorious cut of beef. My hands would freeze in place as I rolled my eyes up to him slowly.

“Say what now?”

He’d explain that during his stay in the Philippines the ministry his father worked for decided that the best thing for these impoverished boys would be to take knives to their peckers in the name of the lord. I’d drink some water to keep from gasping.

“Totally, totally legit,” he’d assure me.

At the end of the night I would try to pressure Tim Tebow into doing it in the cab of his F-150. He’d look uncomfortable and decline my offer.  “Come on,” I’d groan.  “Jesus doesn’t care.”

But Tebow would hold firm, removing my prying hand from his thigh and placing it gently back in my lap. He’d then invite me to bible study the following week, referring to my complete lack of morals as “worrisome.”

“Jesus is my go-to guy,” he’d explain, citing his many championships and awards, all of them won with the kind assistance of the son of god. I’d mention offhand that I always took Jesus to be a Patriots fan. Tebow’s normally placid face would then twist into a mild sneer. He’d lean across my body to open my door and suggest that we call it night.

“What about bible study?” I’d cry out as he sped away.   And then, pathetically:  “I’m a sinner!  Let’s bone!”

The rest of the night would be spent in an increasing state of drunkenness, crank-calling Tim Tebow’s cell phone, pretending to be the holy spirit. After about three tries, he’d catch on and block my number.  And that would be the end of it.   For the rest of eternity, we would never speak to each other again.

 

 

In a 1994, ten-year-old Dan Herman stepped to the plate during a Little League championship game in Mount Laurel, NJ. The score was tied. Smaller than most of his teammates, and not as fast, Herman was not exactly a star athlete. The pitcher threw him a fastball. Herman swung his bat, connecting solidly, and watched the ball sail over the outfield fence.

Seventeen years later, the amazement in Herman’s voice is still palpable. He had hit the game-winning homerun. As he rounded the bases, teammates chanted, “Nails! Nails! Nails!”—the nickname he had appropriated from his favorite major leaguer, Lenny “Nails” Dykstra, who had just led the hometown Philadelphia Phillies to the World Series.

Dykstra, now 48, epitomized gritty determination more than any ballplayer of his generation. His cockiness and competitive zeal were legendary. Boys throughout the greater Philadelphia metropolitan region idolized him.

For Herman, the connection was even greater. In 1991, at age 7, he went into a sporting goods store near his father’s office. By chance, Dykstra was there buying a pair of tennis shoes. The impression that a star athlete has on a young boy can be enormous. Herman, in awe, approached his hero.

“He changed my life,” Herman said. “He told me, ‘Listen man, you’re only seven years old. You can be president some day.’”  The baseball player’s words seemed like prophecy; it was as if young Herman had been granted license to succeed.  “It didn’t matter if I wasn’t the biggest kid or the strongest kid. I was going to be just like Lenny. I would work really hard, harder than anyone else, and be successful.”

Now 27, Herman is indeed something of a success. While going to college at Penn State Altoona, he was paying $500 a month in rent for a room in a beat-up house. The house was only worth $30,000. He convinced others to help him buy the property, then rented out rooms to fellow students. He parlayed the investment into other real estate ventures. Eventually, he founded Chinga-Chang Records, a hip-hop label. Today, he classifies himself as a self-taught entrepreneur.

“I’m not a millionaire yet,” he says. “But I’m close.”

 

Lenny Dykstra, in his prime with the Phillies

**

 


In the days leading up to the publication of this article, I asked Herman to send me some photos. His Little League photo (top of the page) was among the ones he shared. “That’s the one my mother hopes you use,” he told me.

His offhand comment touched me. Herman is a grown man. I imagined the conversations that he and his mother must have had, leading to her endorsement of the photo.

Marilyn Dykstra, Lenny’s mom, no longer speaks to her son.

After retiring from baseball, Lenny established a chain of high-end car washes that he eventually sold for $38 million. Improbably, he gained a reputation as a high-flying financial guru. He touted investment strategies on CNBC, where Jim Cramer sang his praises, and published newsletters that were eagerly read within the day trading community.

By 2009 however, Lenny’s finances unraveled. He had an insatiable appetite for luxury goods of any stripe and could not rein in his spending habits. A series of bad investments and insanely stupid decisions cut into his income. He was hemorrhaging money. He summoned Dorothy Van Kalsbeek, his personal accountant, to a Camarillo, California airport hangar, where he dropped a huge black duffel at her feet.

“It was enormous,” Van Kalsbeek says. “And it was stuffed.”

The bag was stuffed with unpaid bills.

Jeff Pearlman, a reporter who has followed Dykstra for decades, wrote about the encounter in a recent Maxim article. “Do me a favor,” said Dykstra, his spirits as low as his credit rating. “Go through these and tell me where I’m at.”

Van Kalsbeek eventually told him what he expected: he was broke.

At 6 a.m. on March 23, 2009, Dykstra was stranded at a Cleveland airport. He called his mother. He had only spoken to her once in the previous three years.

“Mom. I need money,” he said.

Moderately-priced commercial flights did not appeal to him. He wanted to charter a private jet.  This is why he needed his mother’s money.

As Kevin Dykstra, Lenny’s brother, later told ESPN Magazine:

“[Lenny] had no money. He’s on the phone, crying to my mom, saying he has got to get home and he’s in Cleveland, Ohio. He asked my mom to put up her credit card for 23 grand. That is just sick, dude. The whole family is mad and she’s all sad, saying he caught her off guard. She was asleep. He was crying to her, man.”

Dykstra never repaid his mother. That is why Marilyn Dykstra no longer speaks to her son.

 

**

 

Few one-time celebrities have behaved as badly as Dykstra, who now resides at a swank Hollywood Hills drug rehab facility while awaiting sentencing on grand theft auto charges. Google Lenny and you’ll find stories of him bouncing checks to prostitutes, maxing-out friends’ credit cards, and defrauding his brothers. Soon, in separate cases, he will face charges of indecent exposure and embezzlement.

As Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Alex Karkanen said, “He has scammed everybody he knows.”

Dykstra’s former personal assistant, a single mother, claimed that Dykstra never repaid her for $7,300 worth of office supplies and business expenses he had charged to her credit card.

“Ninety percent of my day was spent on the phone, consoling people who were owed money,” the assistant said. “Jet company owners, printing companies, people trying to put food on the table, landscapers … it was all day, every day. I’d get calls at 6 a.m., [people] screaming at me, cursing at me.”

That wasn’t the worst thing about working for Dykstra.

“He ogled my then 11-year-old daughter’s chest with no shame when I worked for him… He is the most disgusting form of life walking the earth.”

America being America, every B-list celebrity has an entourage of apologists and enablers. In this, Dykstra is no exception.

A few years ago, Dan Herman became one of Dykstra’s people. Or, more precisely, he became his business manager. He booked appearances for Dykstra at lucrative autograph shows. He built websites, facilitated Twitter feeds, and plotted strategies to restore Dykstra’s credibility, an especially daunting task given the swirl of lurid allegations. He even contributed $30,000 towards Dykstra’s bail fund. He was, if you will, committed to the man.

“I was the one guy who would go to the press and on radio stations to defend Lenny when everyone else was calling him a creep.”

Responding to a paid escort’s account of Dykstra snorting cocaine, Herman told a Miami radio audience, “Lenny doesn’t do cocaine. If he was snorting anything, it was Adderall.”

In Herman’s eyes, his hero could do no wrong. “I grew up watching him play baseball. I really believed he was innocent.”

Dykstra, in fine form after hosting a $400,000 party for 800 chums at New York's Mandarin Oriental hotel on April 1, 2008

 

**

 

Dykstra played his last major league game in 1996. In his prime, some people considered him the best lead-off hitter in the history of the game. His best season was in 1993, when he led the National League in runs, hits, walks, and at-bats while propelling the Phillies to the World Series.

As fantastic as his career was, he was equally known for his off-the-field recklessness. In 1991, driving home drunk from a bachelor party, he crashed his red Mercedes into two trees, nearly ending his life and that of teammate Darren Daulton. He gambled, legally and illegally, prompting Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent to officially reprimand him. He got into a brawl with a Pennsylvania state senator, who objected to Dykstra’s loud, foul-mouthed behavior at a restaurant where both were lunching.

“I’m going to drop you, dude,” Dykstra yelled at the state senator.

Outspoken rude behavior was one of his defining traits.

Jeff Pearlman related another incident in The Bad Guys Won!, his chronicle of the New York Mets’ 1986 championship season:

“Once, a bunch of the Mets spent a couple of hours at a collectibles show in New Jersey. Dykstra signed hundreds of items, rarely glancing up from behind his sunglasses. Near the end of the session, a Roseanne Barr look-alike handed him a baseball. Dykstra snapped. ‘Lady,’ he said, ‘you are too fuckin’ fat for me to sign this thing for you!’ Security was called in to escort Dykstra to his car.”

 

**

Today, Dykstra remains a guilty pleasure for the mainstream media. He is the fallen idol who once led the life of a rockstar.  The American Dream gone off the rails.  A spectacular flame-out.

Last week, The New York Daily News interviewed Dykstra at his drug rehab center. “[He] said his demons were wine, vodka, pain pills, party drugs and the rush he got blowing through his millions.”

As Nickleback sang in their smash song, “Rockstar”

“’Cause we all just wanna be big rockstars

Livin’ in hilltop houses driving fifteen cars

The girls come easy and the drugs come cheap

We’ll all stay skinny cause we just won’t eat”

 

The 2007 video for the  song featured a number of cameo appearances by famous people, including hockey star Wayne Gretzky, who posed in front of his sprawling 12,360 square foot mega-mansion.

A month after the video was shot, Dykstra bought the Gretzky home for $18.5 million. It would prove his undoing. The mortgage terms were not favorable. He was launching a high-end print magazine, an insanely expensive proposition that further strained his finances. Four months after buying the house, he failed to make a $260,000 payment to his magazine’s printer, the first of many financial obligations he would be unable to meet.

Though he tried to patch himself up with a slew of stop-gap loans, he would never again regain solid financial footing. Creditors repossessed his $400,000 black Rolls Royce Phantom, his $370,000 Maybach, his $53,000 Porsche. So too went his $2 million Gulfstream jet.

In his July 2009 bankruptcy filing, he declared debts of $50 million against less than $50,000 in assets. Acutely conscious of all status indicators, he listed one of his most valuable assets as a $10,000 purebred German shepherd.

Woof.

If I were to interview Dykstra, I’d ask how it felt to take possession of the Gretzky house. Most of the Gretzky furniture and fixtures conveyed with the house. Click on the photos in the preceding two links, especially if you who get a thrill from real estate porn. By all accounts, the home was one of the showcase properties in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan region, its craftsmanship and attention to detail unparalleled. Bricks were custom-colored, the interiors decorated with silk, wools, and chenille.

Wayne Gretzky and the house that Lenny bought

 

**

 

As I write this, my ten-year-old son prattles in the next room about Robin Van Persie, the Arsenal striker who currently leads the English Premier League in goals. He does this quite often, weaving a running commentary of Van Persie’s soccer exploits: “Van Persie chests down a cross at the top of the penalty box from Aaron Ramsey, weaves around three defenders, and strikes a brilliant volley for another brilliant goal!”

Whenever I intrude upon his Van Persie fantasies, he becomes quiet: This is his guilty pleasure.

Still, there is an innocence to what he imagines about his hero. My son doesn’t know that, growing up, Van Persie was a legendary trouble-maker in his Rotterdam school. He doesn’t know about the rape allegations that landed him in jail for two weeks and threatened to end his marriage. To my son, Van Persie is simply someone who kicks a soccer ball extraordinarily well.

Arsenal's Robin Van Persie

Arsenal's Robin Van Persie

 

**

 

When I first interviewed Dan Herman, I expected him to be as sleazy as Lenny Dykstra. Call me cynical, or call it guilt by association, but it came as something of a shock to realize that Herman is fundamentally decent.

Why would a normal person put up with Dykstra’s obscene shenanigans?

It wasn’t the money. Though Herman may have been one of the few people not to actually lose money because of his acquaintance with Dykstra, neither did he make a lot of money. Jail stints, drug use, and moral turpitude compromised Dykstra’s income potential. At best, he was a problem client who failed to show up at many of the card shows and personal appearance gigs Herman booked for him. At worst, he was a nightmare: someone who could not be convinced that responsible behavior might actually have positive commercial consequences.

I keep trying to imagine how my son would react if Robin Van Persie were to reveal to him some prophecy of greatness. What would the impact be? Ten-year-old boys can be amazingly innocent and impressionable. Would my son carry the moment with him for the rest of his life, or would he shrug it off like the advice (Don’t procrastinate! Brush your teeth!) I give him?

(In fairness to Van Persie, he seems to have changed his life around rather nicely and might now actually be a worthy role model.)

Lenny on the subject of chewing tobacco: "Swallowing that wad gave me this weird high."

 

**

 

Herman ended his association with Dykstra a few Saturdays ago. He had booked him to fight former Oakland A’s slugger Jose Canseco in a pay-per-view Celebrity Fight Night event. Promoters pre-paid (in cash) a hefty portion of Dykstra’s $15,000 appearance fee, yet Dykstra was a no-show.

“Now that I’m looking back at it, I believe [Dykstra] had no intention of fighting,” Herman said. “In the back of his head, he was thinking that they’d give him the money and not bother to ask for it back. He was just going to take their money and run.”

Celebrity Fight Night participants are generally overweight, down-on-their-luck ex-celebs fighting to recapture a toehold in the public eye. Kato Kaelin. Joey Buttafuoco. Coolio.

The crowd was not impressed. They booed.

At a certain moment during the Octomom-Amy Fisher bout, something clenched in Herman’s gut.  He was seated, ringside, in a crowd of rockstar wannabes, all of them living a cheap, artificial dream. “It suddenly dawned on me that everything around me was false,” he said. “It was like sitting in this medieval English freak show.  I had devoted the last few years of my life [to Dykstra], who I suddenly realized was as bad as everyone said. I was a downed power line. All my energy, all my talents were being wasted. It  all came to me that everyone was right: Lenny had conned me too, just like he conned everyone else.”

Cami Parker and Tila Tequila in their CNF throwdown

 

**

 

Rarely does a homerun or touchdown change what we know or value about the world. Nor, for the vast majority of us, are the skills we learn on the playing field directly translatable into real-world job skills.  Yet sports can provide a lasting sense of accomplishment.  Especially for the young.

Four years ago, Herman was promoting a DJ Premier/Kool G Rap/Haylie Duff record. Lenny’s people heard a radio interview and contacted him. At the time, Lenny’s fortunes were just beginning to derail. Connections were made, a friendship formed.  “I really wanted to get [Dykstra] on the comeback track,” Herman said.  “He had meant so much to me. It would have made me feel good to give something back to him.”

With the benefit of hindsight, he now believes that his Dykstra reclamation project was somehow connected to reclaiming some earlier version of himself.

 

**

Asked what he’d tell Lenny today, Herman chooses his words carefully.

“You are the biggest disappointment I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life. I want to remember you for what you were rather than what you actually became.”

What was Lenny?

An inspiration.

“The coaches awarded me the game ball,” Herman says, thinking back to his long-ago Little League triumph. Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. Championship game. Score tied. The fastball. The swing. The game-winning blast.

Hearing him talk about it now, you can almost see the ball whistle over the fence.

“That was something,” he says.

For a brief moment, in his ten-year-old world, he was a rockstar.

 

Time flies.

It seems like just yesterday I was depressed because the NFL players and the owners were in a lockout. Months of negotiations. Months of nightmares. It was an anxious time that had many of us lost and nervous. A year without pro football? The reality was a soul killer. I think I read somewhere that alcohol sales doubled in that time. I think. Well, I’m happy to report that that’s a thing of the past, the world’s a better place, and now we’re halfway into the season. As expected, it’s been a beautiful thing. Big hits. Quick slants. High drama. The Pack is undefeated. The Bills are winning. Peyton is broken. Tebow loves Jesus. Yeah! I’ve won some picks and have lost some picks. I’ve sat on my lazy ass for hours watching and yelling at the TV, texting people, calling them losers, and feeding my fat face like it’s nobody’s business. I’m bona fide. There’s a lot of football to be played, people. It’s a week by week deal. Anything can happen and probably will. Here’s a quick recap of what’s going on.

Cheeseheads and Dream Eagles: The NFC

I wrote a while back that by the time Aaron Rodgers hangs up his cleats he’s going to have a championship ring. Well, now he does and is looking for another one this year. The dude is a fantastic quarterback and in my opinion the best QB in the NFL right now. Better than Brady. Better than Brees. Better than all of them and back again.  Green Bay is my pick to win the Super Bowl. Right now they’re playing lights out. The Bears stink. Cutler is about as animated as a dead armadillo. Fuck Ditka. Enough said. The Vikings. They stink, too. They’re looking at a future with Ponder, who looks pretty sharp for a rookie and just won a shootout against Cam Newton, the NFL’s darling. Their season is over (2-6), the McNabb trade a big fat bust. Here’s the deal: I like Donovan McNabb. I think he’s a great ambassador for the game. Doesn’t walk into a club with a gun and almost blow his dick off. No DUIs. Nothing. But it seems his playing days are over. It happens. If I was his ass I’d get a job yapping it up at ESPN and hug up to Erin Andrews. And what about the Lions? Good god. I wrote on these very pages that the Lions would lose for all eternity. That the stench of the lousiest football jerk-off that is Matt Millen had doomed Detroit to wallow in fresh dog turds forever. But no. Something happened. The Millen root was lifted. The Lions are winning! They have a fine QB in Stafford, a madman in Suh, and a cornerback’s nightmare in Megatron. Megatron! They’re not up there with the Pittsburghs and the Green Bays of the league, but they can make the playoffs. There’s no doubt about it. Good for them, you know? They’ve been horrendous for millions of years. Suck it, Millen.

The NFC South is all about Brees and the Saints. I like this team. I like the coach. I like his bunk knee. And more importantly I like their helmets. That’s right.  I said it. If all things stay the same they’ll take the division and make the playoffs eyeballing the Super Bowl. WHODAT! The Falcons are up and down. They have a decent running attack and their QB knows how to manage the game. That’s a good recipe for winning. This division is competitive and looks like it’ll be competitive for years to come. I think the Falcons can take the Saints. I think the Bucs can steal one from the Falcons. It just depends. And what about Cam and the Panthers? He’s no joke, and if he continues on the path he’s on we could be looking at the new kings of the South. Maybe even a championship ring. Same goes for Tampa. Why not? Like I said it’s a competitive division and that’s yummy for any football aficionado.

Right now, the Giants are the best team in the NFC East. They’re not getting much media attention, but are winning quietly. Eli knows how to win. It wouldn’t surprise me if they take the division which was supposed to be won either by the Cowboys or Eagles. The Redskins are another soul-sick team meandering around. That whole organization from top to bottom needs to be canned. Shanahan and his eye. The waterboy. The owner. All of them motherfuckers. The Cowboys are confused. Let it be known that their record doesn’t reflect how talented they are. Saying that, they’re in shambles. They look good one week and horrible the next. They just got their asses handed to them by the Eagles in front of god and everyone. It’ll be interesting to see how they react. They’ve been a favorite to take the East for years but have nothing to show for it. Mike Vick and the Eagles. When the season started they were the team to challenge the Packers. The press was all over their schnitzel. The ever moronic Vince Young (their back-up quarterback) dubbed them the “dream team.” That they were all that. But no. They weren’t. And they’re not. They just gouged Dallas, but they’re still hit and miss, and if their season goes to shit the Philly faithful will want Andy’s head. Despite their losing record, I think they’re going to make the tournament.

Okay.

Whodat.

McOver.

Ndamukong Suh.

The NFC.

 

Bad Necks and Chick Boots: The AFC

The North is a battle of two teams: the Steelers and the Ravens. They don’t like each other and will never like each other. And this makes for good football eats. The Ravens dismantled the Steelers earlier this year. They have a so-so offense, but the defense is solid, and I think it’s enough to get them to the Super Bowl. They can beat the Pats. If Flacco can step up his game and Lewis goes on a praying binge god knows what could happen. The Steelers are winning, which is to be expected. Typical story: they should get into the playoffs and make a run for the Lombardi. Ben is a playmaker and Polamalu is a monster. The Bengals are making a little noise. I like it. It would be cool to see them make a playoff run, but I don’t see it happening. Too young. Tough division. Pay no mind to the Browns. No one does. Well, except for those two drunk hot dog eating b-holes I met at The Palms last weekend.

“Go Brownies!”

The AFC South has been owned by Manning and the Colts. No other teams in that sad division have given them a fight in years. They all suck. In fact, this year the whole division sucks, including the Colts, who are minus the one person that makes them the Colts: Peyton Manning. Poor Manning. His latest neck surgery (he’s had three neck surgeries to date) will most likely have him sidelined for the entire season. There’s some speculation that he’ll never return to play again. If so, that’s horrible. Peyton is arguably one of the greatest QBs in the history of the league. He’s a great guy on and off the field. Let’s hope his days aren’t over. Anyhow, you can put your cashish on the Texans taking the division and going into the playoffs, where they’ll lose in the first round.

The Patriots are the team to beat in the AFC East. Brady is lighting up the field and has already thrown for a trillion yards. Must be those cute boots he’s walking in. Or the girl. Their defense is shabby, but as long as you have Tom throwing the ball you have a shot. The Jets. Jesus. I don’t like them. And it’s only because I don’t like the coach. Yeah, I know that’s ridiculous, but so what. They’ll probably make the playoffs. And that sucks. Buffalo! Who would have thought they’d have a winning record right now? No one. Not even Buffalo fans. I don’t think they’ll make the postseason, but they have a shot. Like the Browns, pay no attention to Miami. They’re the worst.

The AFC West has been owned by the Chargers, and they should take the division again this year. The Chargers are good. Rivers is a competitive bastard. But when they need to win they don’t. And won’t. Right now they’re a bit shaky coming off a pathetic loss to the Chiefs, but they have the talent to fix things. The Raiders don’t look too bad. McFadden is a punishing running back and they just got Carson Palmer in a trade. But he’s been sitting on his ass the whole year so we’ll see. They won’t make the playoffs. The Broncos are horrible, but they have Tim Tebow to save the day. Well, that’s what some people believe. Others believe he blows. I couldn’t care less. The Chiefs are not looking bad. They started off the season like crap, but have steadied themselves and won the last four straight games. Sweet.

So, there you go. This is the time of the season when things get really interesting. Some teams get it together and head into the tournament peaking. Others who started off the season winning fizzle out in November and December. Injuries. Spoilers. Flukes. It’s all at hand. Thanks for tuning in. Eat, drink, and remarry.

Go Brownies! 

 

The trapeze has its own kind of hubris. Similar to the myth of Icarus who flew too close to the sun, the likelihood that you will both fall and allow yourself to be caught is what makes the art so exhilarating. From a seat in the audience, trapeze artists are otherworldly. Their bodies almost cease being human as women are tossed intro triple flips and gracefully grasp hold of a partner’s arms. Static trapeze, where balance is used to hang off the bar with only the arch of one foot, makes the performer seem little more than a series of shapes suspended in midair.

In person, watching middle-aged parents and their children leaping off platforms gives new meaning to audience discomfort. The sense of awe that exists watching a real performance with lighting and leotards is replaced by a gut-dropping feeling each time someone takes off from the platform. These are not people who have been training since birth. They could be your little brother, your grandmother. They could be you.

If you’ve ever taken a summer drive along Manhattan’s West Side Highway and not been paying close attention to the road, a strange sight may have caught your eye. On top of the Chelsea Piers are the outlines of ropes and wires. Unless you are lucky enough to pass by in time to see people propelling themselves into thin air, it would seem like a school playground. The New York Trapeze School, with both outdoor and year-round indoor locations, is the main place for Manhattanites who want to learn how to fly.

For sixty dollars, aspiring trapeze artists can learn the basics starting with the first swing off a twenty-three foot high platform. Though you are roped into a harness until more advanced levels, the ladder to get up there is precarious. It’s not much more than the flimsy aluminum you would use to paint a house. And there are two of them, held together with something that looks like a metal clip. Once you have reached the platform, it is time to fasten the harness into the ropes used for actual trapeze. In the beginner classes, someone is stationed at the platform to help you with adjusting your harness before taking off into the air.

This is the point where you will have your first experience holding the bar in two hands. Though they’re wider, there doesn’t seem to be much distinguishing the trapeze bars from the monkey bars most children use at the playground. As long as you forget that, unlike a play-set, this one is not built on a base of wood that has been solidly staked into the woodchips beneath you. And, unlike climbing sets, you will be required to lean the upper half of your body far over the edge of the platform before moving forward. The second reason the spotter is there on the platform with you is to hold the back of your harness in place until it’s time for you to sail out into the air. Once you’ve assumed this leaning position, there is no turning back. Your body is stretched so precariously that the simple opening of a hand will send you soaring.

Fifteen minutes of the class has probably elapsed at this point. There is only an hour and forty-five minutes left.

Next is the most basic trapeze trick—the knee hang. It’s more or less self-explanatory. You curl your knees into your chest in order to get them over the bar. Then you hang upside down by your legs and undo the process. Beginners tend to miss the gravitational cues that announce when to move to the next step. Flying trapeze relies entirely on your ability to use balance to your advantage. You become that pendulum from physics class, moving from one end of a trajectory to another. Only, in this case, you have the ability to increase your momentum by releasing your arms at one end of the knee hang and curling back into yourself at the other.

There is only one part left before the end of your basic training is over. There are thirty minutes left in the session.

For the last step of your foray into circus arts you will be asked to trust a stranger beyond the limits of most romantic relationships. On the ground, an instructor readies you. “It takes twelve seconds from the time you take off. Being off by one second ruins everything.” You will be hanging upside down from the bar. Swinging back and forth, the stranger will yell that he is ready. This is when you are supposed to reach backward to grasp the forearms of a strapping young man. He is also on the trapeze, pulling you off of your perch. You will hang in the faith of your increasingly firm hold on his skin.

From the audience this is a heart-racing moment. Though the net below and the harness rid the act of fatal danger, there is something both raw and brave in watching someone rely on another so fully. In the motion of straightening legs, normal people gain a grace that can rarely be found on the ground. For only a second, the two on the trapeze are suspended in the air. It takes watching a number of people take their first turns to figure out why: the person being caught always waits to lock arms before allowing their legs to let go of the bar. There is trust here but it isn’t perfect.
Some members of the class will never get the catch quite right. One woman has trouble with finding the rhythm of steps. By the time she swings to be caught, the other person has pulled too far away from her. Her husband can do it. So can her children and all of her friends. She is jealous. Discouraged. Before the last round of flights, she takes her harness off and gets ready to go.

To become a true trapeze artist you have to feed off the exhilaration of height. You need flexibility, strength, and above all else, a sense of yourself as a gravitational object. Trapeze is a sport like anything else. It builds strength and requires discipline but it also metaphorically—and literally—reaches something higher. The bar centers you in a unique way. Either you will find balance or you will fall. Short of trying something a little closer to the offering of your high school gym class, those are the only two options. People at the trapeze school come to the sport for many different reasons. Some have been gymnasts or dancers. Some came to accompany a friend and couldn’t stop doing it. One woman quit her job as a lawyer specializing in international law to travel for a year. When she gets back she is hoping to teach trapeze to others. People at this school—at least those in the upper levels—are not sure what they would do without it flying their lives. One woman says she has worried about the possibility of moving to a place without access to trapeze. This is a lifestyle and an addiction rolled into one.

It’s why true trapeze artists—those ones you’ve paid to see illuminated by stage lights—can make a possible activity seem wholly unattainable. As moving forms, their bodies are not what you are made of. This is not a matter of endurance or muscle tone. The need to be in the air is apparent from the first few swings. After dismounting from the bars, the more advanced students turn to their instructors in order to perfect their tricks. Few of them have real smiles but the thrill is clear on their faces. To trust the bar is to fly and to fall like Icarus. You know you have the ability to catch yourself on the way down. For the next swing, you will only push yourself higher.