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Like Ted Lasso, I’m giving thanks, counting my sports blessings

My bride and I were late to the game, but we’ve been playing catch-up lately, binging on an Apple television comedy series that has struck a chord with us and millions of others craving light — and some light-heartedness — during these dark, uncertain times.

“Ted Lasso” may be a figment of Hollywood’s imagination, but there is something powerfully uplifting about this Forrest Gump-like American football coach trying to turn around the fortunes of an English Premier League club even though he knows not a whit about soccer.

He is hands-down my choice for coach of the year. Heck, he might just be my choice for person of the year.

Played superbly by “Saturday Night Live” alum Jason Sudeikis, Lasso is an eternally optimistic bloke whose kill-em-with-kindness compassion, humility and decency eventually wins over the cynical, sarcastic Brits, who initially pelt him with a torrent of insults and abuse. There are many laugh-out-loud moments in this series, which is wonderfully written and acted. And there’s plenty of swearing, too. As someone who has spent considerable time in professional locker rooms and near fields, courts and rinks of professional play, this language doesn’t come as a surprise. But even if you are turned off by the profusive profanity, you’ll be turned on by Lasso, who is much more complex than we originally imagined, and by the other flawed, complicated characters whose spirits he helps boost.

“For me, success is not about wins and losses,’’ Lasso explains. “It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.”

He reminds us that kindness matters. Being a good person is what counts most.

With that in mind and another Thanksgiving upon us, I’m going to channel Ted Lasso’s positivity, and count some of the many sports blessings bestowed upon me.

I’m thankful for:

  • The return of fans to arenas, ballparks and stadiums;
  • The loyalty and generosity of Bills Mafia, who despite the stupid, table-smashing antics of a few have displayed unwavering passion for Buffalo’s beloved football team and raised tens of millions of dollars for worthy causes;
  • The sounds of bats hitting balls, sneakers squeaking on hardwood courts, putts dropping into cups and skate blades carving up ice;
  • Athlete, scholar and author Tim Green, who despite ALS, which has robbed him of the ability to type and speak, recently churned out another inspirational, best-selling book for young adults;
  • Mark Schmidt, who has established himself as the winningest coach in St. Bonaventure history and has the Bonnies in the Top 25 this season;
  • Jim Kelly’s remarkable fortitude;
  • Being there to see Mickey Mantle muscle baseballs into the upper deck, Michael Jordan sink a buzzer-beating, game-winning jumper, Muhammad Ali light the Olympic cauldron, Frank Reich engineer a miraculous comeback, Syracuse upset top-ranked Nebraska in football, Michael Phelps swim to a record eighth Olympic gold medal and Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods drain long and winding birdie putts at Oak Hill Country Club;
  • The never-fail-to-bring-a-smile-to-your face malapropisms of late catcher/wordsmith/true American hero Yogi Berra;
  • Birthday and Father’s Day games of catch with my kids, grandkids and bride;
  • The heroism of Don Holleder, Bob Kalsu, Gary Scott and Tom Way — four local athletes who paid the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam;
  • Warm, summer nights at Frontier Field with family and friends;
  • Athletes and coaches from youth leagues, high schools and colleges who kept the faith despite having their seasons interrupted or erased by COVID-19;
  • Classic movies, such as “Field of Dreams,” “Hoosiers,” “Bull Durham,” “Slap Shot,” “The Pride of the Yankees,” “The Express,” “The Natural” and “42”;
  • Play-by-play announcers Josh Whetzel of the Red Wings and Don Stevens of the Amerks;
  • Butterflies fluttering in the stomach before a kickoff, first pitch, tipoff or opening faceoff;
  • Trips to Syracuse games with my paisans;
  • Stefon Diggs, J.J. Watt, Serena Williams, Carmelo Anthony, Albert Pujols, Warrick Dunn and other athletes who give back deeply to their communities;
  • The Baseball Hall of Fame in bucolic Cooperstown;
  • Carrier Dome renovations, especially the state-of-the-art, high-def video board;
  • The magnetic attraction of Lord Stanley’s cup;
  • The Courage Bowl, a Gary Mervis-inspired idea that, among other things, gives kids with cancer an opportunity to be a part of a college football team and cheer squad;
  • Transcendent books, such as Roger Kahn’s “Boys of Summer,” which had a profound influence on my life and career;
  • The opportunity to see Derek Jeter experience his Baseball Hall of Fame induction in front of 25,000 fans in September — more than a year after the ceremonies were postponed because of COVID concerns;
  • Syracuse running back Sean Tucker, whose been a diamond amid the ashes for Orange football;
  • Gone but never forgotten sporting friends such as Joe Altobelli, Johnny Antonelli, Jean Giambrone, Jerry Flynn, George Beahon, Floyd Little, Nick and Sammy Urzetta, Al Cervi, Carmen Basilio, Mike Fennell, Jack Garner, Rick Woodson Tom Batzold, Kent Hull, John Ricco, Pearl Washington, Bob Schwartz, Pat Stark, and Bob Parker;
  • Memories of my first ballgame at Yankee Stadium with my dad on Sept. 17, 1966;
  • Mentors such as Frank Bilovsky, John Pitarresi, Vic Carucci and Jim Memmott, who helped me become a better writer and helped me through some dark times;
  • The annual Challenger Baseball World Series at Frontier Field, and how it gives kids with disabilities a chance to show off their abilities;
  • Yankee pinstripes, UCLA’s powder blue and gold football uniforms and the Rochester Americans red, white and blue crest;
  • Ralph Wilson, who brought the Bills to Western New York and ensured they would stay here, and whose foundation continues to positively impact thousands of lives here;
  • Marching bands, pep bands and college fight songs;
  • Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Kevin Love, Naomi Osaka and other athletes who have called attention to the serious, often stigmatized issue of mental illness;
  • Syracuse University basketball legend Felisha Legette-Jack becoming the first female athlete in school history to have her jersey number retired;
  • The Green Monster at Fenway, the ivy covering Wrigley Field’s outfield walls, and the massive brick warehouse at Camden Yards;
  • Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man on the face of the earth” and Jim Valvano’s “never, ever give up” speeches;
  • People who have read my stuff and passed it on to others. I couldn’t have done this for nearly 50 years without you.

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

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