One of the things I love most about my job is the education I receive. The people I interview and write about often teach me something not only about them but myself. Occasionally, the lessons are profound and go well beyond the fields, courts and rinks of play. They remind me that sports still matter — that at their best they can inspire triumphs of the human spirit. I recently called a timeout from the fast-break that is my life to re-read the columns I wrote the past 12 months. Here are some of the lasting lessons I learned.
Marv Levy taught me you’re never too old to pursue your dreams. During his octogenarian years, the Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame coach published a New York Times best-selling memoir, a novel and a book of poetry. Always in pursuit of new challenges, this spring Marvelous Marv added yet another title to his sterling resume: Children’s Author. At age 91, he published, “Go Cubs Go!” an inspirational tale about the importance of persevering, of never giving up. Like many Chicagoans, Levy’s faith was rewarded when the Cubs finally ended their 108-year World Series title drought a year ago.
Writing a children’s book had always been on my bucket list. Interviewing this remarkable man whom I’ve covered as both coach and author and am privileged to call a friend prompted me to get off my keister and start writing. I wound up publishing, “Let’s Go Yankees!” a few months ago. So, I say, “Thanks, Marv, Thanks!” And I look forward to reading that second novel you’re currently writing.
One of Levy’s former players, Steve Christie, taught me that sometimes an athlete’s greatest victories are scored away from the arena. Christie will forever be revered by Bills fans for delivering the field goal that capped the greatest comeback in NFL history. But wiping out a 32-point second-half deficit in that 1993 wildcard playoff game paled in comparison to the comeback Christie’s been waging since being blindsided by a cancer diagnosis three Julys ago. He approached his cancer as he would a game-winning field goal attempt.
“Although it’s obviously much more serious, it’s basically like the battles I fought on Sundays,’’ he said. “I treated it like a challenge, like a Super Bowl. I’m going to go out there and try to split those uprights.” Happily, Christie is well on the road to recovery since having a fist-sized tumor surgically removed three years ago.
Amanda Sparrin and her late son, Bryson, reminded me that it’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years that count. Bryson endured so much before dying on April 4, 2013, just four months shy of eighth birthday. His cerebral palsy and epilepsy resulted in roughly 30 surgeries and more than a year of hospitalization. But his challenges didn’t prevent him from living with gusto, especially when he was smacking base hits as a Challenger Little League Baseball player.
“Like my sister told us in her wonderful eulogy: ‘Who is to say you need to live 70 or 80 years to leave an impact on this world?’ ’’ Amanda said. “My son needed only seven years. And, I know I’m biased being his mom, but what an impact he made. It’s still being felt.”
That it is. Kids like Bryson inspired caring people like Ron Kampff and Don Barone to help build the Challenger Miracle Field of Greater Rochester, which opened this year in Webster. Thousands of kids will get to take their turns at-bat on their own diamond. Bryson’s legacy will live on.
Kelly Smith reminded me how sports can form powerful bonds between fathers and daughters. A bond that even death can’t break. Kelly’s dad, Gary Smith, died last June, but the love they shared for the Cleveland Indians continues to connect them.
“There’s definitely a deeper meaning here for me because this was something I shared with my dad my entire life,’’ she said. “The Indians have been a constant in our relationship, something we could commiserate or celebrate together.” Although I’m not an Indians fan, I’m hoping they win it all for Kelly and her dad.
In May, I learned about former St. John Fisher College soccer star Thomas Urban Way, and the statue on campus that celebrates his heroic life. A few days before he was killed by enemy fire in Viet Nam a half century ago, Way was photographed in his army fatigues playing soccer with several smiling Vietnamese children. The statue shows Way with two of those kids.
“That was Tom,’’ reminisced Betty Bufano, his older sister. “Even in difficult situations, he tried to remain positive and help others.’’
Now, when on campus, I try to stop by that statue and reflect on the life of a person I’ve gotten to know through Betty and Jerry Vasile, Tom’s good friend and the driving force behind the bronze remembrance.
“I’ve often said that Tom’s goal in life was to see how many friends he could accumulate,’’ Betty said. “His love of people is what stands out. Tom liked you whether you were like him or not like him. He was known for his athletic ability; he was a natural at whatever he took up. But he also had many friends who were not athletes, who couldn’t catch a ball or throw a ball or kick a ball. It didn’t make any difference to him. He just loved people, and people loved being around him.’’
Kyle Williams taught me about perseverance, especially when every season feels like Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown each time the Peanuts comic strip character is about to kick it. Williams has been around for 12 of the Bills 17-year playoff drought, but has never allowed that to drag him down. The undersized, overachieving defensive tackle keeps — as he likes to say — taking the sledge hammer to the rock every day. That’s easy to do when you’re winning. It’s damn hard to do when your efforts are never rewarded with a postseason. I admire that, and I’m rooting for him to finally taste the playoffs.
Rochester Red Wings chairman of the board Gary Larder showed me that nice guys don’t have to finish last and that you can do your job with humility and integrity. As Wings General Manager Dan Mason said: “He’s the fan’s man. He always keeps their interests at the top of his list, and he makes sure that everyone in our organization does the same.” That’s admirable in an era when so many sports franchises seem intent on gouging the fans out of every last cent.
Each of these people, in his or her own way, also has taught me how fortunate I am to have a job that imparts life lessons and gives me a forum to pass them on. Here’s hoping 2018 is filled with many more educational experiences and stories worth telling.
Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.