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On Sports

On Tiger, 'It's a Wonderful Life,' Norwood and more

On Sports
Rochester Business Journal
December 9, 2016

He finished 15th in a 17-player field, but it still felt like a victory for Tiger Woods at last weekend’s Hero World Championship. The mere fact he was able to finish was more important than where he finished. Yes, his golf game was quite rusty. Whose wouldn’t be after missing 16 months? But the fact his surgically repaired back didn’t flare up was another hopeful step in his quest to return to the PGA Tour. I’m not the world’s biggest Tiger fan, but there’s no denying golf is vastly more interesting when he’s contending. Just look at the TV ratings.

Before the tournament, Jack Nicklaus told BBC Sport he believed Tiger could still win five more majors to break his record of 18. Tiger is just 40, and Nicklaus was still a force at that age and beyond, as evidenced by the Golden Bear’s last Masters title in 1986 at age 46. And let us not forget the stirring, age-defying performance by Tom Watson, who lost the 2009 British Open in a playoff at age 59.

To me, though, this isn’t about age; it’s about health. I don’t see Tiger’s back withstanding the stresses placed on it by his powerful swing. I hope I’m wrong.

Leave it to me to find a sports and Syracuse University angle to one of my all-time favorite movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The guy who played Nick, the bartender who had Jimmy Stewart’s character (George Bailey) tossed out of the bar and into the snow, was Sheldon Leonard. A member of the SU swim and water polo teams in the 1920s, Leonard would go on to appear in 150 films, often playing the role of a snarling underworld figure.

But he would become better known for his work behind the camera as one of television’s most influential writers, producers and directors. His credits include immensely popular programs, such as the “Dick Van Dyke Show,” “I Spy” and “The Andy Griffith Show.” Leonard’s influence continues to be felt nearly two decades after his death. The characters Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter on CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” are named in his honor.

In 1968, Leonard returned to SU, where he was feted as a Letter Winner of Distinction. “I always said there must have been something in that water in Syracuse that helped me get to where I am today,” he once joked. “They must have used just the right amount of chlorine.”

By the way, there’s a lovely museum dedicated to “It’s a Wonderful Life” in Seneca Falls, the little town that bears a striking resemblance to the fictional town Bedford Falls in the film. Director Frank Capra visited relatives near Seneca Falls, where he drew inspiration for the storefronts, bridge and the scene in which Bailey dives in to rescue Clarence, his guardian angel.

Last week’s column hoping Scott Norwood would find the same peace with “Wide Right” that Ralph Branca did with “The Shot Heard ’Round the World” elicited plenty of support for the former Buffalo Bills kicker. Most respondents said they didn’t blame Norwood for losing Super Bowl XXV, and were saddened to hear that he’s still struggling with the missed field goal attempt a quarter-century later. There were, however, several responses that weren’t empathetic. One person wrote, “Geez, it’s only a game. He needs to get over it.”

I agree that it was only a game. And there obviously are much worse things in life than a missed kick. But I think you need to take a walk in Norwood’s cleats to understand the devastation. Imagine spending your life pursuing a dream and when your big opportunity arrives it turns into a public nightmare that continues to be replayed year after year after year. Doesn’t matter if it’s sports or some other pursuit; that’s not easy to handle. Getting over it is easier said than done.

Norwood and Branca have nothing on Mike Lantry when it comes to handling sports infamy. Friend and longtime Buffalo sportscaster Ed Kilgore reminded me that Lantry, a Vietnam veteran who walked onto the University of Michigan football team, missed three field goals by inches in the waning moments of the Wolverines’ rivalry games with Ohio State in 1973 and 1974. The left-footed kicker can be forgiven on the two failed attempts in the 1973 game because they were from 58 and 44 yards. And although the All-American’s miss in the 1974 game was from just 33 yards, he was kicking from an extremely difficult angle. The misses cost the Wolverines two Rose Bowl invitations and a shot at a national championship Lantry’s senior year.

After losing three of its last four games, SU hoops fans are ready to jump ship on a team with Final Four potential. There’s definitely reason to be concerned because the talented pieces of this puzzle haven’t fit together well so far, and sophomore All-American candidate Tyler Lydon is playing nothing like a projected first-round NBA draft pick. But I wouldn’t give up on the Orange quite yet. Jim Boeheim said this team was deep in talent, but would be a work in progress. There’s obviously much work to be done.

Mike Vadala and our golf-crazed burg have received heady and deserved praise from Symetra Tour officials. In a recent Thanksgiving blog, the Tour thanked Vadala and his dedicated committee for their efforts to launch the Danielle Downey Credit Union Classic at Brook-Lea Country Club. They called the golf tournament a major success. “The event has become a favorite among players because it features a $200,000 purse and because the hospitality and community support is incredible. The town just loves professional women’s golf—no other way to slice it.”

If I were making the call, I would have chosen the Chicago Cubs team over LeBron James as the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson(s) of the Year. Yes, King James ended Cleveland’s 62-year championship drought, but the Cubbies halted a 108-year famine. I didn’t hear any Cavs or Clevelanders say, “Now, I can die a happy man or woman.” I did hear plenty of Cubs fans and Chicagoans say that.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.

12/9/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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