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Lessons from the sports world as we near another finish line

Journalism, in many respects, is like a continuing education course. Every topic you tackle, every interview you conduct teaches you new things, broadens your horizons. The lessons I’ve learned these past 52 weeks have been profound, extending beyond the fields, courts and rinks of play.

Whether it was writing about a father and son sharing a love for baseball and each other, or a determined Rochesterian becoming the first Black female official in the National Football League, or a nonagenarian thankfully refusing to act his age, I’ve been reminded that sports still matter, that at their best, they can inspire triumphs of the human spirit.

As we prepare, in the words of that ancient Scottish folk song, to take a cup of kindness yet for days of auld lang syne, I reflect on a handful of people and events from 2021 that give me hope we will make it through these unsettled, fractured times.

***

One of the greatest gifts Tony Wells gave his son, Chris, was tickets to Rochester Red Wings baseball games. They’ve been attending together for decades, but during the past 10 years, they’ve taken it to a whole new level. Tony ended this season with a streak of 734 consecutive home games, while Chris has been to 648 straight.

“I said to Chris (before the 2012 season), ‘Let’s just keep going and see how long it lasts,’ ’’ Tony told me. “And guess what? It’s still going.”

And going. And going. And going. A gift that keeps on giving.

Chris, who has autism, shares his father’s deep passion for the game, and continues to astound Tony with the boundless supply of facts, figures and trivia he has accumulated about America’s pastime through the years. Frontier Field has become a safe haven where the 46-year-old son can wander safely off to concession stands or men’s rooms without his father worrying about his whereabouts.

“When we first started going to games at Frontier, I’d shadow him and accompany him everywhere,’’ Tony said. “But about 10 years ago, I became more comfortable with him doing things on his own. The ushers know him. The concessionaires know him. Other season ticketholders know him. The Wings staff knows him. It’s been great for Chris socially. He doesn’t drive. He doesn’t get out a lot. So this is a chance for him to interact with others in a safe environment.”

And a chance to form unexpected, life-long friendships, like the one with Michael Restovich — the former Wings slugger who became Chris’ all-time favorite player. Restovich is now a lawyer in Rochester, Minnesota, and he corresponded with the Wellses after reading my column about their streak.

“Chris, I met a lot of fans throughout the 15 years I played,’’ Restovich wrote, “but you will always be my all-time favorite.”

***

Three-year-old Maia Chaka was determined to learn how to ride a bicycle on her own terms, even if it meant throwing caution to the wind and incurring a bunch of bumps and bruises.

“We brought the bike out, and when she saw the training wheels she immediately shouted, ‘Take those off!’ ” her mother, Terry Chaka, recalled last March, chuckling at a memory made on the sidewalks of Rochester 35 years ago. “We tried telling her she was going to fall and get hurt if we didn’t leave the training wheels on, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, we took them off, and she fell about a thousand times, and she cried each time she did. But wouldn’t you know it? By the end of the day, there was our little girl riding the bike without training wheels.”

Maia fell and rose numerous times that spring day in the 19th ward, and those hard-knock lessons would serve the Edison Tech graduate well as she went from learning how to ride a bike to learning how to blaze a trail. This year, her stick-to-itiveness and fierce self-confidence paid off once more when she became the first Black woman to become an NFL official.

“I think it’s a testament to the skills, hard work and resilience of all women, especially women from my culture,’’ Maia told me. “For the longest time, women have been underrepresented (in so many fields). … It’s taken so long for these barriers to be broken, but at least it’s finally becoming a reality.”

Maia credited her parents for “always encouraging me to try whatever I wanted. If they saw I had a knack and an enthusiasm for something, they fed into that. They didn’t try to change me, regardless if it went against gender norms.”

***

George Steitz grew emotional while recounting what it was like to be a 19-year-old soldier during the D-Day Invasion of Nazi-controlled France on June 6, 1944.

“You did a lot of praying, because it was out of your hands,’’ the 97-year-old recalled from the den of his Penfield home. “There’s an old saying that during war there are no atheists in fox holes, and, boy-oh-boy, was that ever true during World War II.”

Fortunately, the prayers of Steitz and many of his comrades would be answered as the Allied Forces pulled off the most monumental victory in the history of the free world. After a 30-month stint in the Army, Steitz returned to the States, thankful to be alive and anxious to get on with his life. And what a life he would lead as a physical education teacher and nationally renowned high school soccer, basketball and baseball coach who won 1,233 games in a 47-year career. But it would be the lives he touched rather than all the victories and championships he accumulated that would become his greatest legacy.

“When you’re teaching and coaching, you just don’t understand the impact you are having on the students,’’ he said. “It’s something you don’t realize until years later.”

Although he retired from coaching in 1984, Steitz didn’t retire from sports. Through the decades, he officiated more than 7,000 events, believed to be a world record. “Gotta keep busy,’’ he said. He stays true to that mantra by continuing his work as an assigner of sports officials in the area.

***

Perhaps inspired by Steitz, or maybe fictional movie hero George Bailey, I decided to challenge myself and do something I’d never done before: Participate in a 5K race at the tender age of 66. It had been a difficult year, with some health challenges that forced me to confront my mortality, so in an effort to do something special and go somewhere special to make me feel alive again, I headed to Seneca Falls. I figured this quaint Finger Lakes mill town during Christmas season would be the ideal setting to boost my spirits because of all its connections to the classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

I fully intended to walk the 3.1-mile course, but shortly after the race started, something came over me, and I began jogging. I did so for several blocks, before down-shifting to a brisk walk. Then, once I caught my breath, I began jogging again.

I wound up finishing in 1,708th place among the 4,100 racers in It’s A Wonderful Run 5k. No medals for that, but I was content. The lesson learned: Sometimes you win just by finishing.

Not a bad lesson for this or any year.

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

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