Wednesday, September 26, 2007

IT'S THE LEAST YOU CAN DO

Pennant races are smouldering in Major League Baseball. The NFL season is in full swing and captivating a sports-loving land. College football dominates in certain sectors.

Sports are wonderful, a blessed gift presented to our nation by people of vision as part of the freedom we enjoy. But this blog will venture from our fantasy world where the worst that can happen is your team loses a game, or some athlete foolishly thinks he can make life better by taking performance-enhancing drugs.

I have eschewed the pennant races, the SportsCenters, the inane drone of sports talk on the radio this week to focus my attention on something far more important. I have been watching one of television's greatest events courtesy of PBS, Ken Burns' World War II documentary, "The War."

Everybody needs to watch "The War," at least some of it. Most of all, the young people who take their freedom for granted as they write and read this blog and so many others like it, must watch to get a sense of what life was like when madmen in Germany and Japan decided they would stop at nothing to try and conquer the world.

Imagine, you, a 19-year-old enjoying the fruits of your forefathers' sacrifices, seeing what they saw and having to do what they did. Imagine rushing out of a transport onto a beach under the fire of Nazi artillery and watching the guy you were playing cards with last week get his head blown off.

Imagine hacking through a thick jungle on a teeming tropical island, mosquitoes as thick as humid air on a hot summer day. Suddenly, you come face to face with a fanatic Japanese soldier who can only think of severing your head from your body.

Imagine getting captured by the Japanese and considered a coward for not fighting to the death. You must bow and bow deep to your captor, or he will sink his bayonet into your thigh. At any given moment and for no reason at all, he slams the stock of his rifle into the side of your head. Imagine actually getting hit so many times that it becomes routine.

And you, the 15-year-old wise guy who thinks it cool to disrespect your parents and grandparents for the sake of impressing your friends. Imagine drifting around in your blogosphere when the doorbell rings. A sober man in military garb stands there with that dreaded telegram. Your mother sinks to her knees sobbing in agony. Your father, whom you've never seen shed a tear, weeps uncontrollably. Your older brother has been killed in action.

Can't happen here? Can't happen now? Perhaps it can't, but these are real scenes that happened right here in your town from 1941-45 while some of the grandparents that maybe you've never met fought tyranny so you could log on to You Tube.

Why dredge up the unhappiness of the past? Did you ever consider that the old man who lives down the road may have witnessed one of those scenes I've described. Maybe he waved goodbye to his parents and bravely went to war. Maybe you should thank him for sacrificing three years of his life so you could be free.

My father was one of those men. He was listening to New York Giants football (remember, there was no TV then) when the broadcast was interrupted with the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, my father, 24 at the time, went off to war.

I was one of the lucky ones. My dad came back. I, and then my sister, soon became products of his love. I got to sit on his knee and listen to his stories about his days in the bombed-out cities of Normandy and how he was in Ansbach, Germany, when the war in Europe came to an end.

Dad died in 2005. Oh how I wish I could have watched "The War" with him. I have so many questions and death has silenced his answers. Chances are your dad didn't have to go to war. Thankfully, my son's dad didn't. But I believe it your responsibility as an happy-go-lucky American kid to understand what happened.

Watch the documentary. When you go to bed, before you fall off to sleep in the darkness of your room, consider where you'd be if Hitler or Tojo had won the war. There would be no blogging. There would be no hip-hop. Hanging out at the mall would not be an option. Your father's eye that you may have been the twinkle in could have instead been glazed over in the corpse of a man staved to death in a concentration camp.

Listen to the stories of the brave men, now ravaged by age, who made it possible for you to enjoy the finer things in life. Think of them next Memorial Day. Think of them on Veterans Day. Think of them the next time you shift around and daydream when the National Anthem is played before a basketball game this winter. Give them an occasional moment of your time. It's the least you can do.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

HS FOOTBALL INTEREST ON THE DECLINE

So many of Connecticut's baby-boomer sports fans have complained to me that the atmosphere surrounding high school football games is nothing like it used to be.

Indeed, even the New Britain with its legendary past doesn't attract the kind of crowds that it did even a few short years ago. Some venues have literally been reduced to family and friends. With the advent of blogs, talk radio and blanket coverage of national and even regional sports, the hometown has fallen off the radar, and I find it very sad.

But I did find a venue on Friday night that was alive. With New Britain on the road at Windsor, the hometown folks filled the grandstands and supported their team with a passion that I rarely see these days. Sure New Britain has its wonderful marching band but neither the student body nor the community rallies behind the 'Canes anymore.

I was at Newington Thursday (the game was moved back a day in observance of the Jewish New Year) and despite having one of the state's best running backs (Nathan Pagan) and a team that is drawing votes in state polls, the grandstands were nearly empty enough to hear a pin drop.

It's doubtful that we'll ever recapture the excitement of heading on over to the football field for a dose of community spirit like we did when life was simpler. It's a slice of Americana that has withered away and died here in central Connecticut and we're much worse off as a result.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

NB'S DEMISE MAY BE GREATLY EXAGGERATED

Retired New Haven Register editor Bob Barton, in his 5oth season of covering high school football in Connecticut, is the most entertaining and knowledgeable gridiron scribe in the state bar none.

His insight into the National Federation rules that govern the game and his understanding of how to compile game statistics are unparallelled. His work on the Connecticut High School Football Record Book, along with that of Gerry deSimas Jr., has revived the brainchild of the late, great Hartford Courant scholastic editor Bohdan Kolinsky and former Hartford Weaver administrator Tim Sullivan.

But has Mr. Barton misstepped in downgrading the New Britain High football program? He provided the Hurricanes some poignant bulletin board fodder in the New Haven Register's comprehensive football preview section when he wrote, "You may not find me at Veterans Memorial Stadium in New Britain, where what I've seen the past few years makes me think New Britain football is headed for a decline."

Granted the Hurricanes' results since the departure of the oft-vilified coach Jack Cochran after the 2004 season have fallen short; they have not qualified for the Class LL tournament in the first two seasons of the Paul Morrell era after four consecutive appearances under Cochran.

Anything less than a state title is viewed as failure by those who revel in New Britain's proud tradition but Morrell's 15-5 record over his first two seasons doesn't signify a collapse. Early returns may indicate that Greenwich and Shelton are the teams to beat in the 'LL' division, and anybody who discounts Southington and coach Bill Mella can't be thinking straight, but the 'Canes are a legitimate threat to unseat the Blue Knights in the CCC North.

Senior tailback B.J. Aponte is a potent offensive force. He's lightning quick and runs behind one of the state's bigger and better offensive lines. He's also wields a major impact from his outside linebacker slot on defense, but can he withstand playing both ways all season? Does Morrell have other players in his arsenal to capture the attention of opposing defensive coordinators so he'll have Aponte when he needs him most?

Fleet senior Jamal Redding didn't push Aponte from the headlines that followed New Britain's 41-30 win over a Bristol Central squad that will win its share of games in the weeks ahead but he scored three touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Rafal Garcarz has plenty to learn but he's long on ability.

If Morrell gets some of his players with bumps and bruises back in the fold and his team can avoid the mental mistakes (penalties), Mr. Barton may yet regret not placing Willow Brook on his 2007 itinerary.

Monday, September 17, 2007

WHY HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS?

The question has been posed to me so many times.

Since becoming a professional sports writer in 1992, I have been covering local high school sports and Eastern League baseball in New Britain.

I have grown to love the Eastern League, serving as an administrator from 1981-88 and writing about the circuit since 1992. I hope to continue in that regard for as long as my brain and fingers continue to function.

My work has been well-received throughout the baseball world and I've often wondered if I should have pursued a major league beat. But living out of a suitcase doesn't interest me and neither does being away from my family. No amount of money can make either palatable, so I'll live out my satisfying career perusing the local scene.

But why high schools? Why not the vibrant Connecticut college scene? The simple answer is that high school sports are woven into the dense fabric of all American communities.

Back in 1994 or so, I ran into a young man who asked me if I remembered him. I told him that he looked familiar, but I couldn't recall his name. He opened his wallet and pulled out a tattered newspaper clipping from several years prior in which I wrote about a no-hitter he pitched for the Farmington High baseball team.

It dawned on me how important high school sports are, not only to the development of the young people who play them, but to all of us. High school team sports teach young people one of the most vital lessons in life -- how to work with peers toward the achievement of a common goal. Documenting their exploits in a positive way helps construct a foundation for the future. I find that to be ultimately more important than satisfying my ego by finding a niche in an NFL or MLB press box.

Covering high schools may be at the bottom of the sports chain from one perspective, yet is more difficult than plying our craft at higher levels. When you walk into the professional or college press box, you are immediately handed media guides and more statistical analyses than you can imagine and enough minutiae to fill a lifetime's worth of notebooks.

When you cover a high school game, you're on your own. In most cases, historical facts that enrich a story have to be researched painstakingly, something for which we have so little time. There are no media relations people scampering to dig up the answers to your questions. There are no sports information mavens who maintain historical data bases passed down since helmets were made of leather and bats solely of wood.

Difficult, yes, but I find it quite rewarding and interesting. I hope you do, too.