Thursday, August 16, 2007

Remember Bill

Perhaps it was a little strange to spend the first day after leaving my job by going to a memorial service for someone I had never met. Maybe sleeping in or going through my tivo recorded list would be more appropriate, but funerals happen at unexpected times, I knew I could make both the service and then go to a wedding that afternoon, and some of the most influential people in your life are the ones you never meet.

Bill Walsh was a childhood hero. Growing up the two mentors I wish I had were Bill and Obi Wan Ken-obi (the Alex Guinness version. The Ewan McGregor one I keep expecting to burst into song). There is a similarity of type between the two; at a deep level I believe that they were intellectual boxers, the ones who survived on their wits but knew how to battle when the time arose. There are the other kinds of fighters, those that use superior strength or unchecked emotion, to their advantage and in a given battle these types can win. A strong punch can triumph over a well thought out one. But I think to have a successful career is to know when to fight, to grasp the rhythm of a battle and set its tone, to understand and maximize the talent you have, to be ruthless in the brief times it is needed, and to be gentle every time else. Bill Walsh did all of these things.

“The Catch” is the “Stairway to Heaven” of football plays in that it is both overplayed and still is impressive. In the history of leaps Dwight Clark floated in the back of the end zone the way that Neil Armstrong did on the moon. The moment has been used extensively as a highlight from pre-game shows to sport drinks commercials. It was the YouTube football moment of the eighties.

Yet to shorten a decade down to a clip is to widdle its importance. A few months ago ESPN Classic replayed the entire game on television, and I was transfixed once again.

In 1982 San Francisco had an inferiority complex. The seventies weren’t kind as the drug use hardened, the Vietnam war raged, the presidency changed from paranoid to ineffective, and this rage now aimless without a fixed or easy concept to rally against (the war) or for (civil rights) manifested itself in the craziness that lead to the assassination of a mayor and soon afterwards the drinking of cool aid in the jungles of Africa.

We also sucked at sports. I don’t know whether as a pacifist city, San Francisco was doomed in a game that used war metaphors, but the Niners were bad not so much in the Charlie Brown sense where the ball is pulled away immediately before being kicked, but more in what used to be the Red Socks Way where the team would do well for most of the season until they would get crushed in the playoffs.

Bill Walsh would change this, but we could hardly expect it at the time. More Odysseus than Hercules he looked less like a classic hero than the tweedy professor who teaches classics. His boxing approach to football wasn’t going for the massive punch, but instead to use a series of dinky passes to grind an opponent. It was a strategy based on adverbs - “consistently” and “eventually” - rather than verbs such as “pound” and “crush”.

This was fine and good for the regular season, and to get a winning record was an achievement for a team that had gone 2-14 a couple of years earlier. But the question remained how would such a thing work against a powerhouse team with superior talent.

Texans breathe football the way that San Franciscans breathe fog. Any place that boasts they have “America’s team” has to have the talent to back the claim, and other than Steelers of Pittsburgh no one was as ferocious in the seventies, the battle orcs of red state America.

The Niners weren’t as talented then. They had a series of cast offs - Fred Dean, Hacksaw Reynolds - a few up and coming youngsters - Ronnie Lott, Dwight Clark - and one quarterback with a soft arm but a steady poise that slipped to the third round. Joe Montana would become one of the greats, but against this Dallas team it looked liked he was going nowhere. With three interceptions in the game, Montana looked mortal.

The local crowd felt it. The announcers kept mentioning it. When the Niners got the ball late in the fourth quarter, my memories stirred that “this was the drive,” but they went three and out. Dallas got the ball back, but a receiver dropped a ball on third down. If he made that catch then perhaps the West Coast Offense doesn’t dominate football strategy for the next twenty years. If he made that catch everything changes. But Dallas punted on fourth down to give the Niners the ball on their own 11 yard line with 4:54 left to go.

At this point watching the game I was ready for the greatest passer in history do his stuff, but what I had forgotten was that Bill Walsh was coaching. The counter puncher had to set up his final blow by doing something quite unexpected: run the football. This seems even more insane in hindsight, but the little runs by Lenvil Elliot, a player who had been cut during preseason, were available. To me, the definition of someone who can successfully do the unexpected, who achieves victory by the unanticipated, is a genius.

Finally the ball got down to the six yard line, and well, you know...

And so it was twenty five years later that I felt I had to go to the funeral. Small and with bad hands I was never going to play football well even on Nintendo. I have seldom had the courage to run when the world thinks pass. But I want to. I needed to say thanks to someone who showed that even the most physical of things can be won on wits.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Leaving Mellon

It was my seventh time doing the swim from Alcatraz, and the third that had a run afterwards. On any Alcatraz swim there is a point (usually about three minutes into the race) where the body goes numb. Perhaps the neurons grow indifferent to the danger and stop sending messages that “this cold water is a bad idea” to the brain so that the body can focus on stroking towards the shore. But what might also be the case is that after a few of these swims, my brain has been numbed to the point of thinking “Alcatraz isn’t really hard at all. It is only an hour swim.” Fear was a great motivator for training and to stop respecting the distance led to a little bit of slacking on my part. My twice a week master classes were reduced to just showing up occasionally to the pool. My series of progressive Aquatic park swims this year became just a single dip on a particular sunny morning. My crafted nutrition plan had been morphed to a couple of beers the night before.

I had no idea how strong my shoulders were, but I felt great going into the race.

The prerace portion of Alcatraz swims have the most nervous collections of athletes I have encountered. There is a constant anxious vibe about the day that causes chatter amongst the participants. Though the Alcatraz Challenge is my favorite of the swims that are held because it does not have the agro triathletes of the other events (something about having a bike brings out the worst of people), it still scares. I tried to my best with my prerace karma and offered a spare set of goggles to someone who had forgotten theirs, joked with a couple of Irishmen about the swim while waiting in line, and sat next to a man from Arkansas as he waved good bye to his indifferent children. The woman next to me on the ferry giggled hysterically

The captain announced that he would take the boat to the lee of the island and what we didn’t realize at the time was he meant that the water was too rough to position the boat normally. This fact became apparent as we hit the water in sets of three. We were push and rolled by the swells. It wasn’t the biggest ocean I have seen (that honor remains with the Maui Channel 2006), but it did feel like we were trying to swim on top of elephants.

I am more of a tug boat than a speed boat, and I did my best to trudge against the waves. This time around I found swimmers near me for most of the race which was unusual because often in the past a kayak would have to come to point me towards the expensive housing that is San Francisco. I don’t know whether this year I had better aim or there were few kayaks but I plodded alone through the waves as I learned how much I really need to respect the Alcatraz swim: one mouthful of water at a time.

Life isn’t sports.

Or if it is then it is the kind far away from Barry Bonds’ pursuit of fame. Sports are hobbies with a bit of health care thrown in. They are the distraction from the rest of our struggles whose score isn’t kept. There aren’t points given for being a good friend or responsible worker. Most of the time we toil anonymously without ever getting a medal for our efforts. But that morning swim wasn’t really about sports either even though I was quite proud of my catching a tattooed man during the run. What I will keep from my seventh crossing is an entirely different thought:

I never saw the body.

There was an ambulance at the finish line, but I assumed it was the usual precaution, the same modern notion that causes three release forms to do any activity, the one that wants not just air bags coming from the front but the sides as well. One of the reasons that we live longer now (other than we are washing ourselves more often) is that we are much more careful. It is easy to be cynical of our nerf like existence; the race t shirt itself mocked the danger with the words “swim or die.”

This was the first time the Alcatraz Challenge had someone in the second category. Sally Lowes of Houston never made it to the shore alive.

I was shocked when I discovered this after going home. Death isn’t what we expect on a Sunday morning. Granted I probably never saw Sally Lowes alive, but there was a part of me that felt it could of. How different was she from the guy who borrowed my goggles or the one from Arkansas with his kids still on the shore? There are the random people of our encounters – the extras in the cinema of our lives – that we catch briefly in a single moment perhaps tying a shoe or giggling loudly and we remember them briefly as the giggler until that moment too fades.

Looking at it now, I don’t just fell I should have respected the race more with both an awareness of the sea could do and the foresight to try to prepare, but I also feel that I should do that for life. It is easy to wander through things half numb to the world.

The race itself isn’t why I have decided to leave my job and spend 9 months trying to write. That decision was made a few weeks ago when the project I was on was canceled. But it does stem from a similar notion that I need to relearn passion again and find warmth as I get rolled by the waves. Because the one truth from yesterday is that there will be a time perhaps distant but perhaps too soon that we aren’t going to reach some shore.