By age 12, Tyler Tidwell was certain of his future. He was bound for one of three places: Annapolis, Colorado Springs or West Point. He chose the former, fulfilling destiny as much as living a dream. A football standout, he graduated from the Naval Academy into the Marine Corps and started a family with wife Cassi. On Dec. 10, Tyler, a father of three young children, died from ALS.
Following is a much older story by a far less accomplished scribe who had the honor of writing Tyler’s ‘senior feature’ for navysports.comfrom Aug. 23, 2006.
By Bob Socci
They were words from a child’s lips to his parent’s ears.
Spoken from son to father, they explained the remarkably logical reasoning of a precocious 12-year old.
While most kids his age were years away from their first thoughts about a college of choice, young Tyler was certain of a service academy future.
Bobby Tidwell figured it was part of a phase – this fascination with the military – and assured his wife, Linda, of such.
Until the moment he was taken aback by a startling realization – what was thought a passing fancy was instead a young boy’s destiny.
“I guess I was stunned,” explained Bobby, recently recalling that day outside the family home in the countryside near Oklahoma City. “We were talking in the back pasture and Tyler said, ‘You know Dad, if I go to a military academy all kinds of doors will open up to me after graduation.’ I stepped back and said, ‘Whoa.’
“I never encouraged him to go into the military, nor did his mother.”
The Tidwells didn’t necessarily point their second son toward a higher calling. They seemingly led him there through their lives in service to others.
Sure, Tyler was motivated enough on his own to search the internet for information about the academies, leading him to understand the importance of extracurricular activities in the admission process.
And true, it was Tyler who took what he learned to heart, acting on every bit of it. He would become a four-time class president and valedictorian at Deer Creek High School, while playing football well enough to earn an opportunity to be a Navy linebacker.
But it’s also obvious why Tyler’s here today, just months from fulfilling a dream by graduating into the Marine Corps.
He is Bobby and Linda’s son.
They met as young officers on the Oklahoma City police force, Bobby having returned from a tour in Vietnam and Linda having left home in South Dakota for an education at Oklahoma Christian University.
A fellow officer had asked Bobby to set him up with Linda. Instead, he asked for himself. They married and had two boys, Justin and Tyler.
While his wife, Bobby says, “instilled kindness and softness” in their children, he exemplified toughness.
“I grew up with men in my family who were in the military,” Tyler said, noting the duty of both grandfathers in World War II. “My dad has been the biggest influence on me. He was also a police officer, and growing up he was the toughest guy I knew. Nothing ever seemed to defeat him or wear him out.
“After what (he) did in the (Marine) Corps, everything seemed easy. There was a mystical aura around the Marine Corps. (To me) he kind of felt invincible. I wanted to be like him, to have a ‘nothing could beat me, nothing could get me down’ attitude. I wanted to be the kind of guy who, no matter what comes my way, can stay on top of it.”
The military service the son speaks so proudly of – including search-and-destroy missions in the far northern section of South Vietnam – the father downplays as “doing what many others were asked to do.”
But whatever is said or left unsaid about a war in a far-off place long ago, Tyler has first-hand knowledge of Bobby’s next line of duty.
“I would go to work with my dad,” says Tyler, now 21. “When I was in the fifth and sixth grade, he was running a narcotics team. There were 12 other cops under him who were undercover. I spent some time with them. They were interesting characters.”
It was a real-life look at what most experience only in the fictional world of cop shows and movies. Despite its life-or-death seriousness, Tyler took away many lighter moments.
“When I was playing Little League baseball, (my father) would often drive different repossessed cars (being used on undercover operations) to my games,” he says with a few laughs. “Half the parents must have thought my dad was a criminal.”
Every day was an episode of Law & Order.
“Cops were always in and out of our house,” said Bobby, who, like Linda, has since retired as a Lieutenant. “I ran specialized units and (Tyler) grew up around those guys.”
They were officers forming SWAT teams and bomb squads, working in plain clothes and on street crimes units.
“It’s a very tight group,” said Bobby. “Tyler was used to that fraternity. A lot of us were hunters. He saw that brotherhood that existed in specialized units.”
Their bonds were never more evident, or imperative, than in the aftermath of one of our nation’s darkest moments: at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed, killing 168.
“I just transferred back into patrol,” the elder Tidwell remembered, his voice somber. “I got there that afternoon and was the Lieutenant supervising the on-site morgue.
“Officers would get off shifts and volunteer four or five hours every day to do what needed to be done. It was very, very hard. You’d come home and just want to hug your kids.”
As one would expect, the event affected how the Tidwells raised their boys.
“We’ve always stressed to Tyler to remain thankful and humble and don’t hesitate at night to say (his) prayers,” Bobby said, before shifting the mood. “He’s brought us a lot of enjoyment.”
Much of it takes place on Saturdays, either sitting in the stands or entertaining family and friends around the big screen in the family living room back in Edmond, Okla.
Whatever their vantage point, often it’s easy to spot their beloved number 45, considering how much time he spends disrupting opposing offenses.
As a junior last season, Tidwell ranked 14th nationally in tackles for loss, recorded 10 sacks and forced three fumbles. He was named Defensive MVP of the Poinsettia Bowl, making a career-high 11 tackles in Navy’s 51-30 rout of Colorado State.
Following a limited role his first two seasons, Tidwell seized his first starting opportunity defending both run and pass, while shifting from outside linebacker to undersized defensive end.
“We do a lot of things with him,” explains defensive coordinator Buddy Green. “The outside backer is critical for us. He has to take care of pass zone and run.
“When we go to our nickel package (of five defensive backs) we don’t want to take him or (fellow linebacker) David Mahoney off the field. (Tyler) was as effective with his hand down as he was in a stand-up position.”
Tidwell explains what he does with plenty of self deprecation.
“One play you drop into pass coverage and the next play you’re in a three-point stance,” he says, describing what it’s like giving away, in some cases, a hundred pounds to gargantuan offensive linemen. “Lately I’ve been playing defensive end about 75 percent of the time, which at 225 pounds isn’t a blast I definitely try to use my speed. Power isn’t going to do much.
“I remember games last year when the first time I lined up in a four-man front, the offensive tackle looked at me and laughed. He probably thought to himself, ‘Wow, you looked small on film, but…’ I can’t really blame him. If I was him and saw me on the defensive side of the ball, I’d laugh too.”
Of course, for the big guy wearing the smirk, it can be a now-you-see-Tidwell, now-you-don’t kind of embarrassment thanks to effort and experience.
“The first thing that jumps out is that (Tyler) plays 100 miles per hour,” says Green. “From snap to whistle he’s always going full speed to make up for a lack of size.
“He understands the game more. His recognition of formations and certain plays have helped him.”
Tidwell credits assistant coach Keith Jones and Mahoney, in particular, for helping him to play fast yet slow the game down.
“I felt ten times more comfortable with my position, learning to read at game pace and be more confident,” said Tidwell. “At the beginning of last year I was unsure of myself. As we started playing games, I calmed down.”
“We’d like to model everybody like David and Tyler,” Green says. “Tid has fed off David, who started as a freshman. They feed off each other, to be the guy who makes the most plays and forces the most (quarterback) hurries.”
They also measure themselves against the inside backers who stand between them, including defensive captain Rob Caldwell.
“We try to keep a competition between the outside linebackers and inside linebackers, to see who can make more plays,” says Tidwell. “It’s a friendly competition, giving each other a hard time.”
Mostly, though, the senior linebackers are giving the other team a hard time. Especially arch rivals Army and Air Force.
Together they’ve experienced a kind of academy ecstasy, helping the Midshipmen to three straight Commander-In-Chief’s titles with a 6-0 record against the Black Knights and Falcons.
None understands the magnitude of such achievement more than Tidwell.
At Deer Creek, where he and Justin were teammates on a state champion, Tyler refused to mail recruiting tapes to any Division I programs other than the academies.
Initially, he verbally committed to Air Force until Navy’s energetic assistant Todd Spencer persuaded Tidwell to visit Annapolis. Upon return, he was ready to conquer plebe summer.
More than three years later, including a recent experience at Camp Pendleton shadowing Marine infantry officers with Caldwell and cornerback Matt Garcia-Bragiel, Tidwell is certain of his next calling.
Just like in 6th or 7th grade.
“Those young officers were incredible,” he says. “It just seemed like the type of environment I want to be in. They’re very motivated, very excited about their jobs.”
As for much later in life, Green has an idea.
“I know he has mental toughness, physical toughness and a lot of moral toughness,” the veteran coach says of Tidwell, an International Relations major. “He could be one of the great leaders we’ll see in the next 10 years. This guy lives and leads by example.
“Someday he could be president of the United States. He believes in what he says. He gets respect because of who he is.”
Visiting relatives abroad, my thoughts are in a faraway place. I’m thinking of much younger days, when my father’s family celebrated July 4 by reuniting on our back lawn — the one time a year, aside from weddings or funerals, aunts, uncles and cousins on ‘the Socci side’ could be found in one place.
Mainly, I’m thinking of the oldest men in the family. Mostly, first-generation Americans. Mostly, veterans of World War II.
Like Uncle Les, who earned four Bronze Stars fighting in the Army’s “Big Red One” in Northern Africa and Europe and a Purple Heart from a battle in Sicily. Like Uncle Jim, a Marine who came home from the South Pacific with his own Purple Heart. And like my father, Tony, a Tech Sargeant the Army Air Corps kept stateside from the summer of 1942 to the fall of ’45 to fix the airplanes needed to train fighter pilots.
They loved this country and showed it with humble service and sacrifice. They worked hard, faithfully supported their wives and families, lived respectfully and honestly, cared about their neighbors and succeeded in raising children who did the same. They led long, full lives — Les to age 96, Jim to 93, my dad to 83 — and left us with a country better than the one they found. Imperfect, yes. But inching at least toward fulfilling promise and possibility.
Shifting thoughts from then to now, them to me, I worry on this 4th of July about the country we are leaving to our kids and their kids. I believe we have made gains and lost ground in significant ways. What worries me most is the desire of too many to ditch the entire idea of an ‘American experiment’ — as in “of…by…and for the people” — and the willingness or apathy of others to allow it to happen.
People like my uncles and father faced the hardship of the Great Depression and did their part to defeat fascism and the despots who rose to power as populists in times of widespread despair.
Will enough of us in these hard times do the same?
The National Sports Media Association annually honors many of the best in our business. More than that, as I experienced throughout my time in Winston-Salem, it reveals and celebrates what’s best about our business. Thanks to some charitable local peers, I was there to receive a state award. I left rewarded in ways that humble and inspire me.
Seeing ‘old’ friends and colleagues who’ve marked every step of my professional journey, from Chapel Hill to Boston. Getting to know others whose work I’ve enjoyed and respected from afar. Sharing time and insights with those in the earliest stages of their careers, trying to pay forward all the advice and encouragement I’ve accrued along my own way.
Meeting and, more so, listening to the men and women who led the way for others onto sets and into studios, press boxes and locker rooms; and/or raised the standards for everyone else lucky enough to call those domains our workplaces.
Like Jackie MacMullan, who delivered on her late father’s faith to become a Hall of Fame writer and example; Jayne Kennedy, who kept pushing for an audition with CBS, earned the full-throated endorsement of Brent Musberger and became the first Black woman to host a network sports telecast; and Ernie Johnson, simply the best at what he does in broadcasting and even better at what he is as a human being.
Thanks to Dave Goren, the NSMA board and their many volunteers for making this wonderful weekend possible.
Why and how I set out to finish what was left undone in my first Boston Marathon.
By Bob Socci
With every step, I counted.
One. Two. Three. Four.
Over and over. Mile after mile.
One (right). Two (left). Three (right). Four (left).
It was all I could do to keep a cadence, and part of a basic plan reliant on the simplest math and self-messaging to get through my first Boston Marathon.
Treat it like 26 one-mile runs.
Keep your feet underneath you.
Run your race.
Soak it all in.
“Are you a runner?”
It’s a question I’ve heard on doctor’s visits due to my low heart rate and one I’ve gotten because of the shoes I was wearing, namely the “Run Happy” pair I purchased less because of the message than sale price.
“I like running,” I say, defaulting to self-deprecation. “But I’m not really a runner.”
To start, I’m short and thick rather than long and lithe. My pace is plodding, my steps too choppy to call strides. Mileage and frequency vary. More one week, less another. I generally ignore splits, my time less essential than the surrounding scenery and podcast keeping me company.
Nevertheless, running is my favorite exercise. It can be liberating, even inspiring; decluttering preoccupying concerns or filling my mind with (hopefully) the right words to later write or say.
In a lifetime of travel, it’s the mode I’ve used most to explore new places. Quaint college towns and sprawling campuses. Small outposts on baseball’s minor league map. Big and vibrant cities of the NFL. The more to see, the longer I go. Frequently stopping, as you can see below, for picture-taking.
Once, while summering as voice of the Norfolk Tides, I decided to try more than logging miles in the International League. So, I signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon.
I set out on the sloped pavement near my apartment in Chesapeake, Va. for a long training run. It was hot and my feet and ankles were inflamed. Mistakenly, I tried powering through the pain and ended up with Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis and out of the running.
Thought of a marathon didn’t occur to me again until the spring of 2015.
That’s when, two years into my tenure calling Patriots broadcasts for WBZ-FM, I got a call from Bill Flaherty, assistant programmer at our AM sister station. Bill mentioned that Patriots predecessor Gil Santos was also long a part of their marathon coverage. He offered me the same opportunity.
Although my role would be limited to describing the end of the wheelchair and elite races, station news director Peter Casey suggested I drive the entire course to inform my broadcast prep. Peter’s a Lou Grant-like pro. If he said so, I was going to do so.
Without hesitation, I headed to Hopkinton, grabbed a coffee on East Main Street and returned to Boston by way of the Marathon route in my Honda CRV. Being a sports romantic with an appreciation for history in general, I thought it very cool. Of course, there was no medal at the end — only a media credential waiting to be picked up at the Fairmont Copley Plaza.
That Patriot’s Day I rose at the crack of dawn and rode the T to Park Street in a car full of runners, walked to the Public Library, climbed the stairs to the finish-line photo bridge and watched the city awaken. Hours before air, I was awestruck.
The feeling remained well after sign-off, as waves of participants kept coming at me, increasing in numbers, turning off Hereford Street and rolling down Boylston. More than once, on that afternoon and subsequent others calling the race, I allowed myself to wonder.
The notion, however, was — unlike my own runs — fleeting.
Until spring of 2019.
‘I’ll think about it.’
I met Mike Palmer a few weeks after the 123rd Boston Marathon at an annual gala for the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism. Mike, who’s autistic, was an honoree, having just run the race on behalf of the organization.
Father to an autistic son, I first saw in Mike a role model determined to meet his own expectations instead of limitations imposed by others. He set his heart on a goal and achieved it. By the end of the night, he set his mind to convincing me to do the same.
“You should run with us next year,” Mike said, excitedly pitching the notion in front of others.
On the spot, I laughed, expecting nothing to come of it.
“I’ll think about it.”
“No, seriously, you should do it!”
“Like I said, I’ll think about it.”
Over the next several months, Mike’s suggestion was made an invitation from the Foundation. I really did think about it, ultimately deciding to go for it. In January after the Pats’ playoff elimination, I showed up in Back Bay for my first weekly run as part of ‘Dougie’s Team’ for the 124th Marathon.
To date, I’d considered marathoning a solitary pursuit. Saturday mornings with charity runners corrected my misconception.
Hundreds of us from dozens of organizations convened at the Prudential Center. Venturing out and back together, we encountered hundreds more running up and down the Newton Hills. All along the way, volunteers supported us at tables stocked with drinks and snacks.
More than striking, the spirit and sense of community was stirring. I began to understand. This is what Boston is about. This is why Boston is so special.
In early March, we bused to the Natick VFW Post and made it back to The Pru on foot. Totaling 17 miles, it was my longest run. And last, at least for a while.
Before the next, the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) announced postponement of the Marathon due to COVID-19. When it was eventually held virtually in the fall, I couldn’t partake. Nor would I try to run No. 125 in Oct. 2021.
Regret over what was left undone two years earlier lingered into last December, when Mike touched base again. I told him I was thinking about the 126th; believing it possible but unsure if it was doable.
My thoughts, through Mike’s words, reached Nick Savarese, the Flutie Foundation’s executive director. A few days later, Nick texted.
“Hi Bob…Mike Palmer says you are considering Boston marathon?”
Although I allowed a week before verbally committing, I was back in training before I hit ‘send’ on my reply. I put the commitment in writing, paid the B.A.A. entry fee and launched fundraising.
With conviction in and a strong connection to the cause, use of social media and generous response of friends and strangers alike, I started fast. Both goals — 26.2 and $8K — seemed attainable.
But in early February, I stumbled into a pair of proverbial speed bumps en route to one of them. First, a flare-up of diverticulitis, and no solid foods or exercise for a few days. Next, literally and understatedly, a stubbed toe on the first full day of a family vacation.
We were in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, where my daughter wanted me me join her in our resort’s pool. I started down the first few stairs, expecting the same drop-off from the last step. But the split-second I reached out with my right foot came with an alarming, mid-step realization: it was three times as steep.
My upper body splashed sideways into the water, as my left foot scraped the riser, cutting the “ring toe” and badly bruising the “pinky toe.” Both swelled to twice the size of their chubby counterparts on the right.
For the rest of the week I hobbled around the all-inclusive. As much as I hurt, it had to be far more painful for my wife and kids listening to my non-stop obsessing over the injury. Running gear I packed went unused and I worryingly supposed weeks ahead.
What if I can’t run soon?
Will I have enough time to build up my miles?
Turns out there was.
Walks on the soft, sandy beach and laps swum kept my cardio up. Indoor bike rides served the same purpose upon return to snowy Massachusetts. In March, I resumed running.
On the 19th of the month, I re-joined our group and ran farther than I’d ever gone before. Twenty miles, Kenmore Square to Wellesley and back. Through the Hills. Twice. Going and coming. I was stoked. And sore.
The next day, I was tight. Extremely tight. My heavy legs were like a wrung-out towel twisted into a rope. They loosened a little on a mid-week run, before a scheduled 12-to-14 miler over the weekend.
Skipping Saturday and opting to stay local on Sunday, I took off from home in Milton to Dorchester. A third of the way through, I felt a tug on my right calf. I stretched, then continued. Again it pulled, tighter. Again I stopped to stretch. Finally, at mile six, the cramping became intense.
Half complete, my run was over. I called my wife for a ride and, in panic mode, ripped off emails and text messages to teammates. To Mike. To Nick. To Terri. To Coach John. I called a friend who’d recently finished his first marathon despite a similar injury.
Patience, they preached. Encouragement, they provided.
One recommended an appointment with acupuncturist George Leung of East/West Sports in Brookline. George has a history of treating ex-Red Sox and Patriots familiar to me, as well as skaters, ballet dancers and classical musicians I’ve never heard of.
Forty-eight hours later, I arrived at the brownstone housing his office, near Mile 23 on the Marathon course. The door opened to walls of photographs signed by clients. I laid down on a training table under pictures of Dustin Pedroia, Mike Aviles et al, felt a few pricks, the heat of a lamp and electrical stimulation.
Another friend put me in touch with Dr. John Tierney at the Greater Boston Orthopedic Center. He diagnosed a strained plantaris muscle, which is a rope-like tendon that runs alongside the Achilles, and suggested physical therapy as an additional treatment.
For that, I visited Joint Ventures in Kenmore Square. I was paired with Kyle Mahoney, who listened intently to my history, patiently guided me through testing and prescribed an exercise program to get me up and running.
On a test run, I covered a couple of miles encouragingly. But on the next run, I likely overcompensated on an uphill climb and, a mile in, my improving calf injury had company. Pain shot through my right hip flexor. With less than two weeks to recover, Kyle added work for a second muscle group.
There was one more specialist to see, Dr. Adam Tenforde at Spaulding Rehab in Cambridge. Formerly an All-America long-distance runner at Stanford, Adam is now an expert in extracorporeal shockwave therapy. On the final Wednesday before race day, shock waves penetrated the soft tissue of the strained muscles, causing micro tears to stimulate healing.
Confidence increased with two short, pain-free jogs sandwiched around my last pre-marathon treatment. After three acupuncture sessions and the jolt of shockwaves, I left a fourth PT appointment, bumping fists with Kyle on the way out, and marched to Hynes Convention Center to pick up my bib for Monday.
Reaching the corner of Comm Ave and Hereford, I snapped a photo with my iPhone. I made the right turn and took two more. One, looking up Hereford, toward Hynes. One eying the finish line in front of the Public Library. I wanted images to refer to the next 72 hours that would help put my goals for Monday into focus.
The afternoon was awash in sunlight and Boylston Street was abuzz, 72 hours before the first Patriot’s Day Marathon in three years. About 30,000 participants were expected to start the race. At least a third seemed to be there on that Friday, creating a Back Bay hubbub of accents and languages from across the States and many of the 120 countries to be represented.
People poured out of the Convention Center, while an equal number, like myself, went in. Remarkably, once inside there was order to what easily could have been chaotic. Hundreds of volunteers in yellow jackets and signs posted throughout pointed us in the direction we needed to go.
Up an escalator, down a long hallway and a few turns later, I came to a long row of booths fixed with numbered and color-coded placards. I spotted the yellow “25200-25799” sign and stepped up as entrant No. 25270. Bib in hand, inside a clear plastic bag containing some swag, I wandered the Convention Center.
The Hynes was transformed into parts B.A.A. museum, runner’s world trade show and retail extravaganza for Adidas. After a few sips of Gatorade samples, I started on my way out, only to encounter a blue wall listing names of all of Monday’s competitors.
People squatted at its base, searching low, and stood on their tiptoes, pointing high. Some posed for photos. Some waited their turn, standing four rows deep.
I wriggled into the spaces between them, searching for surnames in small white print, all caps, starting in “SO-” until I spotted the one I was seeking. I found it between “SOCARRAS” and “SOCHAY,” next to my given first name: “ROBERT SOCCI.”
I now had my bib. My name was officially — and formally — in the field. And for the first time in weeks, my legs felt really good.
All that remained were a couple of Saturday team events, hopefully a couple of good nights of sleep and, by far, the most grueling undertaking of my life.
It was time to go home and load carbs.
‘Remember who you’re running for.’
This time of year, mainly because of what I do, which allows plenty of free time while others must work, I’m often asked about another sport.
“Do you play golf?”
“Rarely,” I’ll reply, in this case more self-aware than self-deprecating. “And terribly.”
I sold my last set of clubs in 2007; can’t center a fairway with a tee shot unless I bounce it there; and for every ball I hit onto a green, several others disappear into water and woods.
But lots of charities hold lots of tournaments requiring lots of celebrities. And around here, broadcasting Patriots games fits the definition of celebrity when a field of foursomes needs to be filled out for a mid-week round.
So, I get invited to play two, maybe three times a year. Including September 2018, when I attended my first Flutie Foundation event. It was held at Brae Burn Country Club in Newton, whose course unfurls just off Commonwealth Avenue.
Those 18 holes introduced me to the Flutie Foundation. Who knew, fewer than four years later, I’d run past that same spot on the 18th mile of the Marathon course, climbing the first of four infamous Hills in the Foundation’s singlet.
During the intervening years and months, our relationship grew through various non-golf functions. I got to know folks like Nick, who operate it, and many they serve. Among them is aspiring sports journalist and teenage Flutie Fellow Andrew Roberts.
Andrew’s been blogging about Boston sports since his junior high days. Both an exemplary and eloquent advocate for his autism community, he was recently awarded a full ride to Ithaca College as one of its prestigious Park Scholars.
It was one of the many reasons to celebrate as the countdown to Hopkinton reached 48 hours and the Flutie Foundation staged its Saturday-morning “26.2 Can-Do Fest” at Castle Island Brewery in South Boston. More than a pep rally, it was a reminder of why we’d chosen to run for Dougie’s Team.
Besides Andrew, who spoke of what the Foundation’s support has meant in his life, a group of young singers shared the mic. There were the Spectrum of Sound choir, a solo performer up from Florida and a rising rapper out of St. Louis. They gave us the gift of music born from the right of inclusion.
Most of the nearly $300,000 raised by our 30 runners, as one of the 40-plus charity teams in this year’s Marathon, will provide basic home and school services unseen in such a public setting. What reverberated from these young practitioners of artistic passions, to and from the crowd, was the spirit behind it all.
A local craft brewer opening its doors to an organization it’s consistently supported. Good people, from the personally involved to the totally unaffiliated, enjoying a good time while supporting a good cause. Again, a moment of comm-unity. One of many that would mark this Marathon weekend.
None was more touching for me than when a father and son approached to say hello. The dad was in a navy quarter-zip with Pat Patriot stitched over his heart. His boy wore the ‘Flying Elvis’ on a cap bearing the message, “Forever New England.”
“Hello, Bob,” the father said. “I’m Eric Taylor and this is my son, Caleb.”
We’d never met. Yet I recognized their names instantly. What’s more, I knew Caleb’s age.
During the first days of March, I received a string of notifications from my on-line fundraising page. Contributions in various increments started showing up from donors named Taylor and/or mentioning Caleb in their messages.
For Caleb Taylor’s 10th Birthday, good luck Bob!
I’m donating this on behalf of my cousin’s son, Caleb. I hope it helps!
Happy birthday Caleb, and good luck Bob! Thank you both for raising awareness!
There were plenty more, and their back story stemmed from the selflessness of a child. I learned that Caleb, an obviously big Patriots fan, was an avid listener of our broadcasts. When he saw that I was raising money for the Flutie Foundation, he told family and friends of his birthday wish.
In lieu of presents for him, Caleb requested that they donate to my fundraiser.
I’ve read or heard — or probably both — that in the Marathon’s toughest stretches, you should remember who you’re running for.
With two days to go, I had a very good idea.
‘Slow and steady.’
My diet as a kid was pretty diverse. Spaghetti and shells. Linguine and lasagna. And my favorite, ziti.
On average, I ate one type of macaroni (always macaroni, never pasta in our home) per weeknight. Always soaked in the sauce my mother learned to make from her grandmother. Always showered with grated cheese. And almost always served with Italian bread.
For the latter, we’d often visit the Columbus Baking Co. in Syracuse, where I loved listening to the old Greek bakers as they loaded dough on long-handled wooden peels into ovens that had been fired up since 1895. Long before “buying in bulk” was part of our lexicon, my parents bought in bulk.
I couldn’t wait to rip off a fresh, hot piece to eat on the car ride home. We’d finish that loaf and mom would freeze the rest.
Did I mention that Saturdays were usually homemade pizza days?
Now you know why my buddy’s uncle used to call me “Lou Costello,” which was one of my kinder, gentler nicknames as a kid.
Carbohydrates. Loved them then. Love them now.
Unfortunately, I’ve always struggled for self control over them. So, in my more health-conscious years, I’ve generally avoided them.
Except for this year’s Marathon weekend. My menu featured two types of pasta dishes at Saturday night’s team dinner and a third, homemade by my brother-in-law, on Sunday. Yes, pasta for Easter dinner. That’s something not even the Socci family did in my youth.
Then again, none of us were ever about to run a marathon.
Sufficiently stuffed, I spent the final pre-race night laying out my gear and readying my morning fuel.
Blue shoes and black compression socks. New blue shorts to match the blue-and-gray Flutie Foundation singlet. My misshapen yet trusty 98.5 The Sports Hub Patriots Radio hat and a white compression shirt. Garmin watch and Apple ear pods. Energy gels. Banana. Almond-buttered bagel. More carbs for the road.
Lights went out by 9:30. Eyes opened by 5:30. Relieved, I sat up from an overnight of undisturbed sleep and thanked Obi the dog for making it so. I showered and poured a cup of coffee, chased it with Gatorade, got dressed and got a lift from my wife to the North Quincy T station.
With my bib No. 25270 pinned to my singlet under an old sweatshirt soon to be discarded, I stepped from the platform onto the Alewife-bound train. Between there and Beacon Hill, more and more runners hopped aboard.
One, in particular, had a bib in the 600s. A qualifier. A runner.
As we got off the car, I remember thinking to myself: “That’s the last time I’ll see him today.”
His race started at 10. My odyssey was set to begin at 11:15. Dozens of us hiked up the stairs and through the Park Street station doors opened to an idyllic sunny Monday.
I followed a huge crowd across the Common. Then, as later, I took note of the colorful arrangement of participants before me and the Boston skyline beneath a perfectly cloudless sky. Marching toward the Public Garden, I panned the park’s perimeter, left to right along Charles Street.
Foreground to background, there were four parallel lines. A chain of metal barricades. A sidewalk row of runners waiting for their rides. A cordon of blue portajohns. And a convoy of yellow school buses. Without a break, they extended from the baseball diamond’s left-field corner to the corner of Charles and Beacon.
Since our team agreed to meet at the Newbury Hotel, I had to walk all the way around the front of the lines and through the Public Garden. Doing so, I made way for the Ducklings, making special note of the B.A.A. medal draped around Mrs. Mallard’s neck and matching her flowery bonnet and the potted daffodils at her side.
Her medal was just like the one I was after, a few blocks and eight hours away.
Before the ending, however, I had to get to the beginning. Around 8 o’clock, we left the Newbury for one of those buses. The ride lasted about 40 minutes. The bus pulled up to to the B.A.A. Athletes’ Village, adjacent to Hopkinton High School and we all emptied out. I didn’t sit again until dinnertime.
From the moment we walked to the staging area behind the building, I entered an all-day state of amazement. There were thousands of runners changing out of sweats, stretching their legs and standing in lines for the hundreds more portajohns bordering the parking lot. Meanwhile, countless volunteers waited by endless cases of water.
Figuring I’d have plenty of time before Wave 4 was called to the starting line, I figured wrong. In a blur, I filled my pockets with running gel, applied sunscreen and anti-chafing ‘glide,’ posed for a team photo, tightened my laces and answered nature’s call. Though not necessarily in that order.
With the temperature rising from chilly to cool, we were summoned to start. Walking to the line covered more than a half mile. En route, I, like others, shed my outer layers. Winter hat, sweat pants and hoodie all went into the bags of clothing being collected for donation.
You couldn’t walk 20 steps without a cheerful volunteer to take your garments or trash and give you a smile and word of encouragement. Not yet on the course, I marveled at the magnitude of this annual undertaking. And the logistical efficiency with which the B.A.A. and cities and towns on the course pull it off.
I have no idea how close I got to the actual starting line before the ‘gun’ sounded. Once again, I was positioned to follow a big crowd. Coach John Furey emphasized the importance of resisting a speed trap on the initial descent — about 130 feet of lost elevation in the first mile.
It wouldn’t — frankly, it couldn’t — be a problem for me or anyone else on this day, amid the congestion in the last wave of runners in the 126th Boston Marathon.
Usually, as I mentioned, I run to podcasts. If needing a pick-me-up, I go with music. For this run, I eschewed the ear pods. I wanted to hear the crowds others promised would be like nothing I’ve heard before. We took our first steps — and would take our last — to sustained cheers.
Quickly approaching Ashland, I picked up on the pitter-patter of the hundreds of pairs of feet now beginning to separate a bit before me. From an adventure that filled the senses, it’s a sound that stays with me a week later.
Meanwhile, roadside spectators implored us with shouts and signs. Some danced, others dressed festively, like the Chris Kringle clone holding a giant candy cane. Fairly early, I caught a funny remark from a runner coming up on my left.
“That’s awesome,” I said.
“Hey, I know that voice,” he replied.
It was veteran Patriots reporter Chris Price, now with The Boston Globe. We laughed and jogged together until the next mile marker.
During pre-Marathon meetings, a teammate advised us to take water at every station. In my recently-injured state, I took it a few steps further to fit my overall plan of 26 separate runs. At every drink station, I would downshift to a walk from the first hand-off of Gatorade to the last water table.
With my last sip at each stop, I’d bend slightly at the waist, toss my crumpled cup aside and pick up my feet. Leaving the station, I strode toward the next marker, always striving to reach the next cluster in those familiar yellow jackets with their hands out.
Chris moved on and, solo again, I resumed my counting.
One. Two. Three. Four.
If I noticed another runner flailing, I re-focused, afraid to entertain the very idea of struggling myself. I knew it was bound to happen. I was determined to reach Boston — or, more realistically, Newton — before it did.
Colors continued to captivate throughout the first half. As the pavement moved beneath my feet, I watched the river of reds and blues and greens and golds flowing forward off in the distance.
Little more than a dozen miles down, right on cue, the crowd noise amped up to a steady roar. Past reading about race lore alerted to me to what awaited around the bend: Wellesley College. The students, yelling as they hung over the barriers, lived up to the hype.
I didn’t need to tell myself to smile. Not there, and certainly not when I entered the town’s center and came to the end of Rice Street. That’s where my family was ready to greet me. My wife and children, in-laws, aunts and uncles.
My son and daughter stepped out for hugs. Like their mom, they had put up with my three-hour training runs on weekends, incessant venting over my latest ailments and outward fretting as the race drew nearer.
And here they were, pushing and pulling me in this race. Uplifted, I left with plans to meet again, at the finish.
Now I had to get through the Hills.
The course was dotted throughout by municipal police, staties and national guardsman. At Mile 16, one of them, an M.P., nodded at my unhurried form.
“That’s it,” he smiled. “Slow and steady.”
Onward and upward, I pumped my arms and plodded along with a confidence derived from all the training we’d logged as a team. Still strolling through those drink stations, I ran with eyes out for landmarks.
The Johnny Kelley Statue. Boston College. The Chestnut Hill Reservoir.
Like at Wellesley, the screaming Eagles at B.C. helped us over the humps that followed the last of the Hills. Some were especially boisterous, belting out “Flutie!” at the sight of my singlet.
In Brookline, I looked for George Leung, owing him a big “thank you” as I passed East/West Sports on my right. I did the same in Kenmore Square, seeking out Kyle Mahoney in front of Joint Ventures to the left.
With a mile to go, I realized, well beyond wildest expectations, what I’d been told.
The crowd will carry you home.
I reached the street sign still on my camera roll from Friday’s snapshot and hung the right on Hereford. I took the left two blocks later, remembering something Doug Flutie told our team on Saturday.
“That finish line is a lot farther away than you think,” he cautioned. “Don’t start sprinting too soon.”
A relative term, I know, in my case. Still, I took his word for it. Besides, I was in no hurry anyway.
I’ve strained to be heard above the din of 100,000 fans in Columbus and State College and had to lift my voice in the climactic moments of countless Patriots games, including Super Bowls. But those fans were cheering for others.
Here, on the last leg of the 126th Boston Marathon, these fans were cheering for me. Well, me and about 25,000 others.
The running joke of the weekend in my family had to do with reports that identified me as a celebrity runner, grouping me with former contestants from shows like ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘Survivor.’ Apparently, the race organizers saw me the same way.
Approaching the finish line, I looked up at the same photo bridge where I used to watch and wonder.
Suddenly, the video board affixed to it greeted me with my head shot, name and job title as radio-TV broadcaster. Wanting a photo, I reached for my iPhone tucked into my belt. By the time I found it, my celebrity had faded.
Oh well, I still had a medal to collect.
Volunteers directed me to keep walking. One handed me a bottle of water. Another gave me a bag of snacks. Finally, I reached a woman with the ribbons of five or six medals looped around her forearm. She grabbed hold of one, I lowered my head and she hung it over my neck.
Smiling throughout, I soaked it all in.
Minutes later, I met my wife and children for more hugs, walked to the Foundaton’s suite at the Newbury to shower and change and went to dinner nearby.
Before leaving, I checked for my official time. Five hours, 43 seconds.
The next day, I learned of my official results. I ended up in 23,036th place, behind 13,453 other men and 1,787 in my age group.
There’s a good chance any one of three questions will come up when others discover that mine is the voice they hear when putting the Patriots on their radio.
“What’s it like to work with Zo?”
“How is it dealing with Belichick?”
“Do you know Tom Brady?”
Regarding the first, there’s a standard response, punctuated with a smile. “Exactly as you’d imagine.”
As for the second, it’s usually asked in a tone that tells me they mean ‘Bill in post-loss, press-conference mode.’ It gets a two-part reply. “Great,” I’ll say, before pre-empting the presumed follow-up. “But I don’t have to ask him the tough questions others do.”
The third has a shorter answer. “A little bit.”
But this of all weeks, that one deserves a little more reflection.
Certainly, I knew a lot about Tom Brady when I was hired by 98.5 The Sports Hub in the spring of 2013. Back then, while I was a virtual unknown locally, Brady had long been both football star and celebrity.
He hadn’t met Gotham Chopra yet and shared his life in a docuseries, but much of it was already an open book. If not magazine. Who can forget the famed baby goat ad for GQ? What may not be remembered is the accompanying story by David Kamp, and the headline: “The Best There Ever Was?”
To think, it wasn’t far-fetched to ask, even then…in 2005!
Brady had just won his third Super Bowl alongside teammates who watched him grow up. But he was also still nine years away from the first of four more he’d win alongside teammates who watched him as they grew up.
The substance of Brady’s early football ascent is something I’d admired for some time. I’d even drawn from it. You know, sixth-round pick. Fourth quarterback on the roster. Gets his shot, wins the Super Bowl — once, twice, a third time.
I was a long way in my own career — calling college sports and Class A baseball — from my first Super Bowl when Brady appeared in his first, Super Bowl XXXVI.
When he set up Adam Viniateri’s title-clinching kick by spiking the ball and casually catching it in his left hand, I was watching from a cramped apartment above a contractor’s garage on the outskirts of Annapolis, Md. Seeing the underdogs on my screen and the kid quarterback chief among them triumph as they did, I took it as a dose of inspiration to anyone grinding toward a goal.
Seven years later, I moved to the Boston area to join my then fiancée. On my first full day here, I went out to pick up lunch. While waiting in the food court at Quincy’s Common Markets, I glanced at the TV just as CBS replayed Kansas City’s Bernard Pollard diving at the left leg of you know who.
Thankfully, Tom came back, and I got to stick around.
In preparation for my first broadcast, from Philadelphia in the 2013 preseason opener, I picked up the Patriots Media Guide, turned to Brady’s bio and found 18 pages full of milestones and minutiae from a career already worthy of a gold jacket. There was so much there, but only so much I could possibly use.
Somehow by 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 9, I winnowed the most relevant records and timeliest tidbits from all those facts and figures down to a dozen items to include with other notes on my spotting chart. Among them was the then 36-year-old Brady’s recently-stated intention to play “beyond 40.”
On Tom’s first six snaps, he handed off. In his next eight, he completed seven passes, including a touchdown to Shane Vereen. Thus concluded my first glimpse at the greatest from our radio booth at The Linc. Brady came out and Ryan Mallett went in before the opening quarter was over.
The regular season began in Buffalo, where Tom was needed to go the distance. Down four in the fourth, he drove the Pats to a pair of late field goals. The game winner by Stephen Gostkowski left only five seconds to spare.
I was just getting started, lucky that Brady was just doing his usual. It was, my chart confirmed, his 37th career comeback from a fourth-quarter tie or deficit.
There were more to come.
In mid-October, Brady beat the Saints with a time-expiring toss to Kenbrell Thompkins. In late November, he outperformed Peyton Manning on a frostbitten Sunday night, overcoming a 24-0 deficit vs. the Broncos. In December, he and the Pats doubled up, rallying in the closing minutes of consecutive contests to defeat Houston and Cleveland.
Imagine, all of this was amid a season ultimately deemed disappointing. For the team, and for Tom.
Early enough in the fall that the Red Sox were still playing, I joined Felger & Mazz at The Sports Hub’s remote studio near Fenway Park. Still unfamiliar to most in the market and unsure of my own words, I quickly got caught in a crossfire of criticism of the quarterback.
“Maybe,” I somewhat meekly suggested, “rather than looking for cracks in the armor of our aging sports stars, we should celebrate how good we’ve had it.”
Which in Brady’s case, despite a statistical drop-off leading a shorthanded group, was still pretty damn good. So I thought. Then I had the audacity to suggest that Brady might actually be getting better in some aspects. Smarter, perhaps?
Needless to say, the boys swatted that notion into the netting above the Green Monster, and I was laughed out of the studio. Wasn’t the first time it happened. Wish I could say it was the last.
The season ended at Denver in the AFC Championship, setting up more scrutiny in the spring. Belichick selected Jimmy Garoppolo and explained the choice by referencing “Tom’s age and contract situation.” To others, the implication was obvious on day two of the draft. Brady was on the clock.
At the end of September, we traveled to Kansas City for “Monday Night Football.” The Chiefs routed the Pats, fans at Arrowhead roared to 142.2 decibels, setting a Guinness World Record for loudest sports stadium, and the “window is closing” crowd turned up their volume as they increased in size.
What I recall as vividly as the red sea of Chiefs uniforms and partisan apparel in the stands on that evening are two images of Brady. One was captured by ESPN, of Tom on the sideline after being pulled. The other I stumbled upon in the post-game hours, of Brady sitting beside Vince Wilfork, each wearing the appearance of resolve rather than resignation.
It occurred to me during Chopra’s “Man In The Arena,” in the episode featuring Big Vince and focusing on 2014. Speaking of which, after losing to K.C., Belichick insisted the Pats were on to Cincinnati, Tom got untracked and together they embarked on the second iteration of their dynasty.
Along the way, Brady & Co. overcame a 10-point deficit in Super Bowl XLIX. It was the greatest comeback in the game’s history, until the next one in Super Bowl LI. With five titles, Brady’s bid for a sixth was delayed, despite 505 passing yards in Super Bowl LII; though not denied, as a winner in Super Bowl LIII.
In the six seasons since I started calling his games, Brady’s media guide bio expanded by 10 pages, up to 28 entering 2019. He’d added three more Super Bowl wins, six more AFC Championship appearances, two more Super Bowl MVP awards, a regular season MVP and a slew of all-time records.
Brady completed his 400th touchdown pass, a short strike to Danny Amendola, vs. Jacksonville in 2015, and his 500th, a 34-yard rainbow to Josh Gordon, vs. Indianapolis in 2018. Honored to chronicle both and everything else Brady accomplished, I realized over time that all the numbers and all the records found on all those pages didn’t begin to tell all of his story.
Nor could they convey what I’d come to appreciate most in my time talking about Tom.
Shortly after Brady’s final game with the Pats, a Wild Card playoff loss to Tennessee in Jan. 2020, I blogged about my experience as his team’s broadcaster. I wrote with an understanding that any acceptance I gained from listeners, especially at the outset, had more to do with the Pats’ success than how I sounded.
The hometown broadcast is always better when the home team wins. No player on this town’s home team had more to do with winning than the greatest quarterback of all time.
I’ve referred to Brady by those last six words for years. Even as I struggled to truly comprehend in the moment that I was the one calling some of the most important moments of his career.
As Brady’s Patriots tenure neared an end, I thought about the responsibility of delivering the last word on it from the radio booth. I never got that chance. Nor really, did Tampa Bay’s Gene Deckerhoff, who we now know did have the privilege of describing Brady’s final act at quarterback.
But that was a week before word of his impending retirement was reported, followed by a day of un-retirement, another day of official retirement and most of a week marked by hard feelings and attempts on social media to smooth things over after a statement of retirement.
Selfishly, I wish Brady had remained a Patriot.
But on the morning my phone buzzed with the notification he was officially a Buccaneer, other matters occupied my mind. Like not burning the pancakes as I made breakfast. And wondering how I was possibly going to manage remote learning for two kids, anticipating a school closure due to COVID.
Maybe such “distractions” made it easier for me to move on. I figured Tom had his reasons to say goodbye, so I should say goodbye too. Continuing to pull for him since — with one notable October exception — I remain grateful for the professional thrills he made possible. I feel the same way about his teammates.
Paying thought these past few days to the Brady I broadcast from 2013-19, I picture him bouncing on his feet in the pocket, passing with precision and punching his fist through the air as part of his pre-game warm-up. They are parts of what I appreciate most.
So is his act of playing catch and making it an art form. Same with the way he hurried from drill to drill throughout training camp practices, before arming himself with his resistance bands on the back field to re-shape the body of and reject narratives about a 40-something quarterback.
And especially how, win or lose, he was as tough as he was smart. Who else would absorb the all-game punishment he did at Denver in the 2015 AFC Championship and still scrap his way within an end-of-game, two-point try of tying it? Or rebound from a pick-six in the Super Bowl against Atlanta and rise up from 28-3 down to 34-28 in overtime?
Meanwhile, Brady showed the same deft touch with people as passes.
Take, for example, the way center David Andrews describes their first interaction. Andrews told me this week about his first day with the Patriots, as an undrafted rookie and roster long shot. Tom approached him and extended a hand.
“Hi Dave, I’m Tom.”
There’s a long handshake line of Brady’s teammates stretching out over two decades who’ve experienced the same. Others outside their football inner circle can relate.
Brady could often be seen making eye contact and heard saying “hello” to staff from every facet of the organization as their paths crossed in the Gillette Stadium tunnel. Every so often, I was on the receiving end. As silly as it might seem to you, such simple acknowledgement is rarer than you think.
And it’s consistent with another of Brady’s skills, as someone who commands a room’s attention — making someone else feel like the most important person in that room. That I observed in periodic Q-and-A’s we held for a team sponsor.
Outside of those sessions, opportunities to chat at any real length with Tom, formally or informally, were infrequent. So, I can’t tell you or anybody else that I got to know him any better than “a little bit.”
But I do feel I know enough to confidently consider Brady a nice guy who finished first the most in NFL history, as the best ever to play the most important position.
I’m also sure we should agree, we’re fortunate we got to enjoy it, while he did it for us.
After learning a favorite colleague and I have similar pre-broadcast rituals, I wrote about the story tellers and myth makers who helped pro football become our most popular sport and influenced a kid who would grow up to call it.
By Bob Socci
For all but the past few months of my nine seasons as a New England Patriots broadcaster, I kept an admittedly peculiar ritual a secret between me and my playlist, positive that it was exclusively mine.
It’s one of my first acts settling into my seat on the bus before leaving the team hotel on the road or heading to the home radio booth at Gillette Stadium. I pull out my iPhone, insert ear pods and search the music library for one artist in particular.
One composer, actually. Seeking one song, specifically.
Sam Spence, and The Raiders.
Maybe you know his name. If you love football, surely you know his score.
Probably, you’ve heard it as a drum-beating bed beneath poetry being read by a Philadelphia news legend with the ‘Voice of God.’
The Autumn Wind is a pirate
Blustering in from sea,
With a rollicking song, he sweeps along,
So goes the opening stanza of The Autumn Wind, which even to a childhood Raiders-hater, resonates from the lips of the late John Facenda and returns me to the mid-to-late seventies; again a kid dreaming of doing what I’d someday be lucky enough to do.
When I hear the song, I reflect. It’s a reminder as I ready for air that I occupy the seat of a dream fulfilled, in the role of all-time Patriots predecessors like Bob Starr, Curt Gowdy and Gil Santos.
Nerdy, I know. But, that’s me.
Until early October, I couldn’t imagine anyone else observing a similar game-day rite.
Few colleagues calling NFL games locally or nationally on radio have done it longer than Kevin Harlan. First hired by the Chiefs in 1985, he’s about to broadcast his record 13th consecutive Super Bowl for Westwood One.
When Kevin speaks, either thunderously and painstakingly describing a live play or as an interviewee humbly dispensing lessons from a career as full as his baritone pipes, I listen.
Harlan shared some anecdotes about people who’ve influenced his career. One was Steve Sabol, who with his father, Ed, co-founded NFL Films in 1962. Another was Facenda.
“The first real voice that captured my imagination,” Harlan said, while reaching for and fiddling with his phone. He looked down, trying to access something he listens to before every football assignment — on Sundays for CBS and Mondays for Westwood One.
Then he hit play.
The Autumn Wind is a pirate
Blustering in from sea,
With a rollicking song, he sweeps…
“I won’t get too emotional here,” Harlan gushed, his face aglow as he paused the recording of Facenda reciting words written by Steve Sabol to a song composed by Sam Spence. “When I hear that it just, it just puts me in the frame of mind of doing the NFL…we all feel so lucky and privileged to be a part of this great thing.”
Don’t you know, he was speaking for me.
Facenda’s voice, Kevin explained, was his “first football memory.” Much like the music of Spence was the soundtrack to mine. Lyrical and lyric-less, both take us back in time. We are men living dreams of children.
For me, those dreams flourished first in the finished basement of a duplex in Auburn, N.Y., a small city smack dab in the middle of the state. We lived a half-block from a large park, the Y-Field, where kids convened daily to play the main sport in season. When done for the day, I retreated inside to our downstairs TV to watch the athletes we had just imitated.
On fall Saturdays, following mornings of two-hand touch, I made sure to be back for afternoon college football offerings on ABC. Bill Flemming or Chris Schenkel, then Keith Jackson handled play-by-play. Dave Diles came on with the Prudential College Football Scoreboard. Once he dropped in a Slippery Rock update, we were off to church for 7:15 mass.
Network pregame shows set the table for our weekly family macaroni dinner coinciding with the one o’clock kickoffs. Unfortunately, the menu of early games via Syracuse affiliates — usually involving the then inept Bills, Jets or Giants — were often hard to stomach.
Highlights for me as a viewer were, well, the highlights.
It’s why I pleaded with my mom to let me stay up late on Mondays, to hear Howard Cosell’s halftime rundown, and so appreciated Friday invites to my pal Mike Murphy’s house. Unlike us, his family had HBO and, hence, Inside the NFL.
Long before 24-hour sports networks, the internet and on-demand, I couldn’t get enough. Decades passed, and as I moved on from describing games in my mind as a kid growing up to calling them for real all over the country, I collected NFL Films originals on VHS tapes, DVD’s and, eventually, digital downloads.
They helped pass time on lengthy bus rides through baseball’s minor leagues and filled the background as I prepped for Navy football broadcasts. Years before marriage led me to Boston, I wore out early editions of 3 Games to Glory, the series chronicling each of the Pats’ championship journeys. I loved them as much for Gil and Gino as Tom and Bill.
Then in 2008, my fiancé and I left Annapolis for Quincy. We got married, she started a new job and I began a search for same. Still voice of the Midshipmen, I took Friday a.m. flights to BWI, returned to Logan late on Saturday nights and listened live on Sundays to the Patriots radio legends.
During the week, I knocked on doors. One opened a year later at 98.5 The Sports Hub, the fledgling all-sports home of the Bruins and Pats. I introduced myself to the program director and his assistant and handed them an audition CD on my way out.
Meantime, I continued canvassing for openings or, at least, critiques. An out-of-market radio producer thought my play-by-play had a ‘college sound.’ An agent who turned me down suggested voice lessons.
I listened more closely, with real purpose, to the NFL Films radio cuts. What does an ‘NFL sound’ sound like? And how can I capture it? I paid a local opera singer moonlighting as a voice coach in hopes of losing my nasality. It was either that or pay a more harmful price by pairing cigarettes with scotch.
Real or imagined, I noticed a difference during Navy’s 2012 season. That December, three years after calling on 98.5, I heard back. With Gil retiring, they wanted samples of my recent work. I sent some, was granted an interview and got the job.
My first season began in Buffalo, only a couple of hours west of Auburn. Tom Brady led a fourth-quarter comeback that Stephen Gostkowski completed with his last-second, game-winning field goal.
It felt awesome, yet didn’t feel real.
Searching for validation, I turned on Inside the NFL two days later and waited for Pats-Bills highlights. Hearing myself, I cringed. Wow, I can do better. Then I smiled. Whoa, it’s really me!
Now nine years in, little’s changed. I still listen critically, and the experience of hearing anything I say on NFL Films is still a stamp of authentication. It could be a regular-season call on a weekly show or turning point on postseason commemoratives like America’s Game and Do Your Job. And 3 Games to Glory.
In my role, I’ve gotten to know the filmmaker who oversaw production of all that Patriots content, Ken Rodgers. He’s a protege of Steve Sabol, whose vision for the company endures more than nine years after losing an 18-month battle with brain cancer in September 2012.
Sabol saw himself as a storyteller and NFL Films as myth makers. Mixing the arts of cinematography, provocative writing, muscular musical scores and the raw reactions of mic’d up coaches and players, as author Rich Cohen once wrote in The Atlantic, they “taught America how to watch football.” (1)
Sixty years have gone by since NFL Films grew out of a small company Ed Sabol started with a 16-millimeter Bell & Howell camera focused mainly on family events, including Steve’s high school games. Thousands of programs and features earning hundreds of Emmy Awards have had as much to do with pro football’s enormous popularity as the men and moments they’ve mythologized.
The Immaculate Reception. The Holy Roller. The Catch. The Tuck Rule.
Mention of any one immediately conjures up the way they were captured among the millions of miles of film saved today inside endless rows of canisters stored at NFL Films headquarters. Built a decade ago at a cost of $45 million in Mount Laurel, N.J., about 20 miles east of Philadelphia, it sits on a 26-acre campus.
“Hollywood on the Delaware (River),” Steve Sabol called it in the Philadelphia Business Journal. (2)
Development of the sprawling campus was overseen by The Staubach Co. Yes, that Staubach, Roger, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Navy who went into commercial real estate when he retired from the Cowboys.
While in Annapolis, Staubach was a hero to a young Bill Belichick, who grew up to become the subject of numerous NFL Films documentaries, before becoming an Emmy-winning co-host of the 100 Greatest series.
In August, with the Pats in Philly for preseason practices against the Eagles, Belichick and his team crossed the Delaware to Mount Laurel, where Rodgers led them on a tour of NFL Films. The next morning, Rodgers did the same for a second group from New England. Thankfully, I was included.
Back in the summer of 2019, the Patriots paid a similar visit, stopping in Canton, Ohio on the way to joint practices near Detroit. The entire traveling party entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I studied the exhibits and stood in awe of its bronze busts, taking photos of many, including Staubach’s. And Ed Sabol’s.
I snapped another upon entering the NFL Films lobby, where a similar sculpture of the older Sabol greets visitors. Winding in wonderment into and out of creative suites and recording studios, past photos and artifacts, we eventually ended our several-hour stay where the gears of the younger Sabol’s creative motor constantly turned.
It is kept as it was. Boxes of index cards marked with Steve’s musings sit atop a credenza. Post-its featuring messages both banal and poignant, from phone extensions to life philosophies, stay pinned to cork boards. Though chairs around a conference table and at Sabol’s desk are empty, his spirit fills the room.
You hear it in Rodgers’ voice and see it on his face as he talks about his mentor and runs his fingers along those index cards. And feel it, perusing what’s written and displayed on the surrounding walls. The same spirit has gone into every tight shot of a spiral or close-up of a cloudy breath since the early sixties, dramatizing a game to make it much more than it is.
George Halas referred to NFL Films as “keepers of the flame.” In my life, they helped ignite a spark. Years later I still sense it in their work.
Shayne Graham understands what it takes to kick one’s way into the NFL and stay there. He did it for 15 seasons, with 10 different teams.
Graham also remembers what’s it like to perform literally in the shadow of Bill Belichick. He did that midway through 2010.
So when asked about Quinn Nordin, the rookie kicker seeking to earn Belichick’s trust and beat out two NFL veterans, Graham knows of what he speaks. And to him, it starts with absorbing an information overload.
“There are so many details he’s going to learn that he never (imagined) he needed to know,” says Graham, who expects Nordin to be tried and tested as never before.
The same way Graham was in his half season spelling an injured Stephen Gostkowski. Like the moment his mettle was measured on the practice field, with Belichick lurking just a few steps behind.
Eleven years later, Graham still pictures Belichick’s dark silhouette, as the shadow of the coach’s head bobs back and forth, extending to holder Zoltan Mesko. He also hears Belichick’s tone, angling to get under his skin.
Graham slowly repeats the line into his cell phone, momentarily abandoning the drawl of his native Southwestern Virginia in favor of a droll imitation of Belichick. He is speaking from the University of Florida, where Shayne now coaches and has just entertained a high school recruit visiting from Indiana.
That kid, accompanied by his mom, Valeri, was A.J. Vinatieri. Their timing is practically perfect. Because Graham’s shadow story concludes with a caveat relevant to the greatest kicker of all-time, A.J.’s dad, Adam, and the greatest coach of all-time.
Give in to the goading, under the glare of Belichick’s gaze, and the words only grow harsher.
The elder Vinatieri didn’t. And by dealing with daily doses of Belichick — and before him, Bill Parcells — Graham believes, developed the thick skin and resiliency needed to seal victory in ‘Snow Bowls’ and Super Bowls.
For his sake, Graham was also good enough to get the kinder, gentler side of Bill most of the time. Converting kicks in practices, then games, he finished 14-for-14 on field goals as a Patriot. Though not, as he notes, without a little uneasiness.
Imagine if a then 32-year old on his eighth NFL stop can be made uncomfortable, what it must be like today for a 22-year old taking his first swings at a roster spot.
On Thursday, in his first local press availability, Nordin was loath to say, giving short replies long on cliches. He said 16 words about what’s stood out most in his first Foxborough experience.
“Being able to learn from everyone in the building,” Nordin answered. “I think that’s the most important thing.”
The lone insight he allowed had to do with the difference between a college football and NFL K-ball (like everything else, it’s bigger in the pro’s). Otherwise, Nordin spoke of listening and learning, grinding and improving. Naturally, one day at a time.
Which to his credit, showed that Nordin’s already mastered an essential detail of being a Patriots’ rookie. Let the coaches speak to your performance. And leave most of what’s really going through your mind unsaid.
But what Nordin hasn’t left to the imagination is the strength of his right leg, which was obvious to all in this spring’s first two practices open to reporters. From 50 yards away, Nordin turned heads with towering kicks driven between and (well) beyond the uprights, including a special narrow goalpost.
Back in January, he drove the ball similarly in front of Graham at the Gators’ indoor facility.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy hit the ball with that much authority,” Graham said. “I don’t know that I’ve seen a guy hit the ball that high and drive it as far he does.
“When you hear the ball off his foot and see it in flight, it’s impressive.”
Graham took in such sound and sight when Nordin and his longtime kicking coach Brandon Kornblue made the 4 1/2-hour drive to Gainesville from Naples, Fla., where they trained at the “Kornblue Kicking” complex. First glance made a lasting impression on Graham.
“One thing I’ll say, before you even see him kick,” Graham recalls, “(Nordin) looks like an athlete.”
And he is.
As young as age 13, according to the Detroit Free Press, Nordin was fielding college scholarship offers in lacrosse — a fact likely not lost on Belichick, whose love of the sport is as well established as his appreciation of kickers who can’t be pigeonholed only as football ‘specialists.’
Namely Vinatieri. Remember him running down Herschel Walker at Dallas in 1996? And Stephen Gostkowski. How about him, an ex-college baseball player, sliding into the fray to help create an on-sides recovery vs. Cleveland in 2013?
Tough and athletic, they lifted in the weight room and ran gassers alongside teammates. Football kickers. Football players.
“That’s Quinn’s mentality,” Kornblue says. “He’s not afraid of mixing it up and (make) contact. His senior year of high school he broke his collarbone from going in and not trying to get the ball, but trying to be a wedge-buster on an on-sides kick.”
Kornblue says that attitude reflects off-field aspects of Nordin’s approach.
“He’s willing to do whatever it takes to be the best and to give himself the best opportunity to perform at the highest level. If it’s in his control in terms of the nutrition, the training, all those kind of things, recovery, there’s nobody who works harder than Quinn does.”
Including, as Kornblue discovered several years into their relationship, the schedule Nordin keeps to go a few extra miles before he kicks.
They’ve been working together since Nordin was a middle-schooler in Rockford, Mich. One a former Wolverine, the other a future Wolverine.
In Kornblue’s case, he walked on at Michigan and waited four years, mostly behind several NFL prospects, including Jay Feely, to finally take a single shot at glory at the end of the afternoon of Nov. 6, 1999.
Leading Northwestern, 34-3, with 33 seconds to go, coach Lloyd Carr dispatched Kornblue for a 26-yard field goal attempt. Attendance in Ann Arbor’s ‘Big House’ was 110,794. His holder was classmate Tom Brady. The kick was good.
A half dozen years of teaching math and playing arena football later, Kornblue opened his school for football specialists in 2007. The following summer, he started running Michigan’s kicking camp.
Nordin became a regular student. Eventually, midway through his high school career, he was invited to stay with Kornblue and his family for a few days of training in South Florida.
On night one, Quinn went to bed before the Kornblues’ 3-year old, so he could wake up with time to run on his own before an early-morning kicking session.
“‘Okay, what’s this guy trying to prove?’” Kornblue said, recently recalling his initial skepticism during a Zoom call. “‘He’s going to go out and be tired from this run, he’s going to come back and not kick well.’ Well, it was either that day or the next day, (Quinn) hits a 65-yard field goal off the ground. He was only a sophomore in high school.”
Produced by a high school buddy and incorporating a family friend’s private jet, the visuals for Nordin’s verbal commitment increased attention — and scrutiny — paid to one of the nation’s top scholastic kickers. Six months later, he was back in the recruiting spotlight.
Nordin grew uncertain about his choice and reopened the door for recruiters. On the first day of home visitations in 2016, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh showed up and wound up spending the night at Nordin’s house. The next day, Harbaugh drove Quinn to Ann Arbor for his official on-campus visit.
He saw Nordin enter U-M at 17 and redshirt behind an older scholarship kicker; blast his way into the box score with a 55-yard field goal vs. Florida in his college debut; score as many as 17 points in a single game; and drill a career-long 57-yarder against Alabama in the 2020 Citrus Bowl.
He also saw Nordin fall ill and lose his starter’s role as a sophomore; struggle through a junior season delayed, then shortened by COVID and impacted by an opt-out by long snapper Cameron Cheeseman, a 2021 Washington draft pick; before missing his final three career field goal tries in a win requiring overtime at Rutgers.
Through it all, Kornblue watched how Nordin handled it all.
“It was not by any means a clear, ideal college career for (Quinn). He had a lot of ups and downs throughout,” says Kornblue, who resumed work with Nordin almost immediately after the 2020 season ended. “I think he’s also matured a lot over the years. You come into college as a 17-, 18-year old, you’ve still got some growing up and learning to do.
“I’ve seen it just especially over the four months he (was) down here in Florida. I’ve just seen a difference in him in growth off the field and how he conducts himself.”
Counseling as much as coaching, Kornblue employs practices learned from the work of Dr. Bob Rotella, sports psychologist to stars like LeBron James and Rory McIroy. In Nordin, Kornblue recognized there was plenty of distance in the driver. But the swing needed control, by the mind more than the leg.
“Yes, there were some technical things that I corrected with Quinn and adjusted, but a lot of it was just getting (him) comfortable again and getting that confidence back,” Kornblue explains. “Having him really just be on his own schedule of however his body was feeling and what was working the best to kind of get him into a groove again.
“Just those little, tiny things make a big difference when you’re talking about a guy of that level. It’s not big, monumental changes of technique.”
The little things included shorter kicks.
“In the past I think (Quinn) would get in the habit of trying to impress too much or hit the ball too hard just trying to hit his monster kick,” Nordin explains.“Very rarely would we back it up (for) long-range kicks. It was just short range, building that confidence and routine of just hitting that same ball every time.
“By the time he hit his Pro Day, he was hitting a groove that was kind of the Quinn that he and I know he can be.”
Kornblue scripted the late-March Pro Day, where the lone NFL special teams coordinator in attendance was New England’s Cam Achord.
“When you go watch him, you can see the leg speed and the leg power that he generates,” Achord told reporters earlier this month.
“Quinn felt really comfortable with Cam and Joe Houston, the (Patriots) assistant there,” Kornblue says. “They were really showing the most interest from day one and kind of stayed on him in terms of showing that interest. It just was the right fit.”
Still, 14-year vet Nick Folk, who nailed 40-of-45 field goals in 23 games for the Pats in 2019-20, had just re-signed with the team a day earlier. Also under contract, Roberto Aguayo, a second-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2016, was a practice squad pickup in December.
Nevertheless, nearly a week after only one kicker — Florida’s Evan McPherson — was drafted, Nordin agreed to join New England. Asked why on Thursday, he mentioned the “opportunity to learn and get better” under “wonderful coaches.”
Currently, Nordin is the lone undrafted rookie on the Patriots, who’ve had at least one college free agent on their Opening Day roster for 17 straight seasons.
Thus far, at least in media-accessible OTA’s, Nordin has outshined Aguayo. But he’s yet to kick alongside Folk, who after skipping the spring’s voluntary phase should be present on Monday at mandatory mini-camp.
Ninety days until the season kicks off, Nordin remains a long shot. Nonetheless, by processing the finer points from Kornblue and his new kicking coaches, he’s shown that he can make it from a long way out.
“I think Quinn’s made a lot (of progress), Belichick said recently, noting Nordin’s improvement under Houston and Achord. “Joe and Cam have spent a lot of time with him going all the way back to rookie minicamp and in terms of working with his technique and his kicking mechanics, and he’s definitely made some changes, I’d say, for the better.
“And so, we’ll see where all that goes. But he’s doing well and as I said, he’s continuing to improve, so we’ll see where that takes us here.”
“It’s going to be exciting to see, because anybody who has ever seen him kick, they walk away kind of google eyed because he’s at a whole other level of talent and potential,” says Kornblue. “And he’s still getting better, and he knows that.”
Graham stresses the need for the young kicker to keep holding himself accountable. And when Belichick does the same, don’t take it the wrong way.
“You can’t take anything personal,” he says. “The last kick ends (and) the next kick begins the moment the ball leaves your foot. You have to do whatever gets you to your process.”
Particularly when the process allows you to strike the ball as mightily as Quinn Nordin.
“If he does it consistently,” Graham says. “He’ll keep turning heads.”
As a postscript, Quinn Nordin continued to kick well alongside Nick Folk during the Patriots Minicamp, June 14-16. A day after Minicamp concluded, Roberto Aguayo was released by the team.
Hearing from others who’ve experienced the rewards of relationships with the animals we love and the hurt of having to say ‘goodbye’ to them was deeply touching.
Some, I thanked individually. Some, I now thank collectively.
All, I owe at least that much and more, including best wishes to you and yours and an update on me and mine.
Before our kids’ tears had dried the night Leo was put down, they began asking if we could adopt again.
“A kitten,” our 10-year old specified.
He thought of Leo as his one, true friend. And in his mind, rescuing a kitty, rather than an older cat, would give him a better chance of forging a similar bond.
My wife, Monique, and I agreed. She started a search on-line and soon enough we were all sorting through profiles and pictures at www.petfinder.com.
The process didn’t take long. By the following week, we were filing applications, listing references and even filming a video to prove ourselves capable of providing a loving and caring home.
We made sure to feature cameos by Obi the dog and Little Kitty. With their help, we made a convincing case. We quickly learned that our two pets were about to become big brother and sister to a third.
Like Obi, an Alabaman rescued at the outset of the pandemic, our new cat would arrive out of the South. Fittingly, hailing from good ole Rocky Top Tennessee, he was – is – an orange tabby.
He’d been saved by the Whiskers Fund animal rescue service in Soddy Daisy, Tenn., a town just north of Chattanooga. It was operated by a couple of close friends who previously worked in veterinary clinics before changing careers.
One now works as a flight attendant. When not flying on the clock, she flies standby, delivering cats and dogs to foster and adopting families.
Talk about, ‘No days off!’
In the early morning of Monday, May 10, she drove more than 130 miles to Atlanta and checked into Hartsfield-Jackson airport with a kitty carrier and bag of supplies.
Expecting a late-afternoon touchdown in Boston, I planned to swing by Logan to meet her after my appointment to see an orthopedist in the city. I had a noon consult following a recent knee injury.
My visit was quicker than anticipated, so I went for a walk and some lunch to eat up some time.
But just as I stepped into a Beacon Hill pizzeria, my phone buzzed. Flights out of Atlanta were oversold more than usual, so our new kitty and his guardian angel couldn’t get on the first plane.
Or the second. Or, as I’d see in subsequent texts, the third or the fourth.
Obviously, plans changed. I went home and headed to our neighborhood elementary school to get the kids. They left the house that day thinking they’d return to a new kitten. Instead, they were told we wouldn’t see the kitty, at the earliest, until late that night.
Thankfully, they took Dad’s explanation in stride on the walk home, where snacks, a virtual Taekwondo class and Minecraft occupied their attention. Meanwhile, I kept receiving updates from Atlanta.
Options narrowed. Either the cat was coming on the last flight out, landing around 10 p.m., or sometime – fingers crossed – in the a.m. Luckily, an 8 o’clock notification brought good news.
Kitty and caretaker were aboard a plane bound for Boston. But first, they’d be slightly delayed.
Keeping tabs on the flight’s status, I left for Logan a little after 10 and pulled up to the curb outside Terminal A on the ‘Departures’ level. A few other cars were already parked in front of me.
With a classic rock station playing from satellite radio, I waited and watched for someone I’d never seen before to show up with our new pet, while also keeping an eye out for authorities who might tell me to take my car out of park and beat it.
The wait continued, long enough to hear a second song from both Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. Sitting in the darkness, shifting my eyes between the terminal exits and my rear and sideview mirrors, seemed like a stakeout. Well, at least, what I’d seen of so many in the movies.
Finally, passengers rolling their luggage emerged from the airport. After all but a couple of cars pulled away, a woman toting a padded carrier smilingly approached my vehicle.
Relieved, we shared a laugh over the long adventure of a day, then carefully transferred the kitty to my car.
After reviewing a checklist covering vaccinations, general care and nutrition, I drove away, leaving the indefatigable good samaritan behind waiting on a ride to Allston to deliver two other cats.
Ten minutes or so later, I pulled into our driveway. Kitty and I were greeted at the door. Although our 9-year old couldn’t stay awake, our son was still up, at his mom’s side.
For him, as well as our daughter the following dawn, it was love at first sight.
And, as Monique mentions, a number of other monikers.
While none of my sports-inspired suggestions — such as, given the cat’s coloring, Rusty (Staub) or, based on his Volunteer-State background, Ernie (Grunfeld) — met approval, it’s just as well.
For one thing, as well as the former University of Tennessee star of “The Ernie and Bernie (King) Show” fame could pass and shoot, Chili’s quickness is more akin to Allen Iverson off the crossover; vertical more on the scale of Spud Webb; and appetite about the size of Shaquille O’Neal.
All combined with boundless energy, an insatiable curiosity and a steadfast refusal to accept no! for an answer, especially when determined to join us for dinner — on the dining table.
Monique cites the medical benefits of owning animals. Like lower blood pressure and less anxiety.
Me, I think this little bouncy blend of orange and white stripes puts such scientific theory to test at times.
Good thing my knee checked out okay at the doctor’s. In case I have to find my stress relief in exercise.
“Even the smallest feline is a masterpiece of nature.” – Leo(nardo) da Vinci
By Bob Socci
Throughout our first dozen years of marriage, I drew a pretty big distinction between my wife and me.
“I’m a dog person,” I clarified, whenever the subject of pets came up in conversation with other couples. “Monique is the cat person.”
Truth is, I wasn’t being honest with them. Or myself.
This I’ve realized, more and more in recent days, since bringing our elderly cat Leo, a part of our lives as long as I’ve lived in the Boston area, to the vet’s three times in less than a week.
When Mo and I moved here in 2008, still months away from our wedding day and a couple of years away from the birth of our first child, we were eager to start a family.
At the time our apartment building was feline-friendly. But unfortunately, canines were unwelcome. So when Mo eventually stopped by the Quincy Animal Shelter, she stuck to the cats’ section only.
That’s where she found Leo wearing a gray-and-white tuxedo of smooth, soft shorthair. Mo was told that Leo had been brought there by some teenagers. They’d been outside a convenience store when a car pulled into the parking lot and a stranger randomly handed them a cat before driving away. Thankfully, they thought enough to take Leo to the shelter.
Whatever life he’d led to that point and however unsettling his experience had been, Leo was remarkably chill. Instantly, he and Mo bonded.
Before leaving, she asked about another kitten being caged separately nearby. It was an enormous and fluffy, black-and-white Maine Coon. Shelter staff cautioned her that this one failed to get along with others. Well, except for the little guy several years his elder; Leo.
Instead of one rescue, we ended up with two.
Raffy immediately became our constant source of alternating angst and comic relief, as a clumsy bundle of rambunctiousness. Leo was his dainty complement, still playful but always with aplomb; a Bud Abbott to Raf’s Lou Costello.
For me, having gone from stages of childhood through adolescence living with Sandy the Collie, Jed the Doberman-Shepherd mix and Chelsea the Shorthaired Pointer, my new roommates took getting used to.
Camping out on my desk as I tried to work, often resting their heads on my keyboard. Planting themselves between my coffee and me, right in the middle of the Sunday sports section. Chasing one another in the dark of night, converting our two-bedroom apartment into the Calgary Stampede.
That was the relatively easy stuff to deal with. Then there were the incidents I barely got over.
Like the time Raf somehow knocked a framed poster of Miles Davis off the wall, crashing it to the floor amid shards of broken glass. And the times — emphasis on the plural — both cats ignored the scratching posts we bought and instead dug their claws into our leather furniture. Years later, albeit under slip covers, those scars remain.
But so too do amazing memories. Especially of the kitties and our kids.
In July 2009 we moved into our first house. Less than a year later, we welcomed our baby boy. Eighteen months after his birth, a sister was born.
In each case, I was charged with the advance work before mother and child came home, grabbing a swaddle cloth from the hospital and allowing Leo and Raffy to sniff it, so they’d know the scent of our new addition.
Kids and cats became inseparable. Today as I look back, every photo or video seems to feature either one or both cats and either of one or both kids from those formative years when our house became our home.
While little Leo remained his savvy, steady self, big Raf exerted his mischievous influence. As if it were yesterday, I still laugh at the look of guilty pleasure on el gato grande and our little boy when I found them rummaging through some bedroom clothing bins. Both sitting atop piles of socks and underwear on the floor.
Sadly, within a few more years, Raffy’s huge heart gave out. We lost him while rushing him on a Sunday morning to the animal hospital in Weymouth. As much as the kids hurt, having Leo to hold and hug helped to ease their pain.
Before long, Mo revisited the QAS and adopted another kitten. With the kids unable to agree on a name, we simply called her, ‘Little Kitty.’ Unfortunately, she would need time to overcome her skittishness from a prior life as a stray on the street. Little Kitty didn’t quite yet know how to give back the affection she was getting.
Therefore, the kids grew more strongly and deeply attached to Leo. Particularly our son. Especially upon moving into a new home in the summer of 2019.
By then our eldest learned of his diagnosis on the autism spectrum, while struggling daily to socialize with peers. Occasional bullying episodes in school and summer camp only added to his stress. Always and unfailingly, he found comfort in Leo by his side.
Really, both kids did as they tried to adapt to our new surroundings. They started sleeping together in our guest room. And every night, our bunny-like Leo nestled between them to make it three’s company.
Months later, COVID-19 came along. Schooling switched on-line, we rarely left home and the relationship between children and pets became more important than ever.
That’s when and why Mo and I decided to add a pandemic pup to the family. Our search eventually led us to Hartford to pick up an adorable rescue from Alabama. The kids named him, Obi; short for Obi Wan Kenobi.
Meanwhile, our Yoda-like Leo, a sage 16-year old, was slowing down considerably. The grace in his gait was gone. He climbed stairs more slowly and seemed to rest more regularly.
And as long as he got his cream in the morning and wet food in the afternoon, Leo was content. At night, he was happiest when cuddling — sometimes even burrowing under the comforter — with his buddy, our boy.
Our daughter was always around to fill any gaps in affection. She took over daily cat feeding duties, clung to Leo while reading a favorite book and stroked his fur as he crouched atop a bedroom radiator cover.
Leo never lacked love. Giving it, or receiving it.
But increasingly of late, he lacked his once hearty appetite.
About two weeks ago, just as a fully-vaccinated Monique and the kids left home during school vacation to visit relatives in Guatemala, Leo’s condition changed considerably.
His thirst was unquenchable, no matter how long he licked water from a bowl, sink or bathtub. His weight dropped drastically, as he repeatedly rejected any morsel of tuna or other Temptation.
Up until then, Mo, the doctor in our house, handled calls to the vet. Now it was on me. I got Leo an appointment and drove him to the VCA Quincy. They kept him for the day to run tests and I picked him up around 8 p.m.
The next afternoon, the doctor called. Leo was in kidney failure. His prognosis was dire.
With few options to weigh, I worried mainly about keeping Leo alive long enough for Mo and the kids to return, but not at the expense of him suffering. The vet suggested administering fluids subcutaneously for a few days and gauging Leo’s response.
I returned to the VCA, where very caring nurses demonstrated the treatment Leo would need at home.
“Pinch the fur with your thumb and index finger to create a ‘little tent’ in which to insert the needle,” they said. “Open the flow of saline solution and give him 100 milliliters at a time. Twice daily. Twelve hours apart.”
With that, they handed me a full IV bag and a bag full of needles.
The next afternoon, there were some small signs of encouragement. Leo seemed to be moving better. He even took a few bites of food. It was Thursday and Mo and the kids were due back late Saturday. I was confident they’d get to see him. But understood it might be long enough only to say goodbye.
After they returned, everyone doted on Leo all day Sunday; looking, praying for signs of progress. By nightfall, our only choice was pretty obvious to Mo and me. We had to do what was best for Leo.
On Monday morning, I called the vet’s office at 9 a.m., sharp. We set an appointment for 3:40 in the afternoon. The vet would evaluate Leo at least one more time and let us know where we could go from there.
When the time came, the kids loaded into my car. I placed Leo in his carrier on the seat between them. Our son asked if he could take Leo out, and hold him during the ride.
“Of course,” I said, swallowing my short reply.
Upon arrival, an assistant met us at the car to bring Leo inside for his exam. Minutes later, the vet called with news of a worst fear realized. He kindly and compassionately talked me through the process to soon follow.
The side door of the building opened and the kids and I walked inside a small exam room. The vet then gently lifted Leo onto a table, which was covered by a New York Yankees blanket, of all things. I tried to crack a light-hearted line about it, if only to momentarily delay a dad’s heaviest duty — consoling his children as they confront the heartache of lasting loss.
The next two minutes will stay with the kids and me. Suffice to say, it was hard.
It’s only gotten harder. And it’s been hardest on our son.
As we’ve talked the past couple of days, I’ve discussed my own similar loss as a teenager, when my dog Jed had to be put down.
In sorrow, I stress, we can also find joy. The thought of losing Jed still makes me sad decades later. But the years’ worth of memories of my life with Jed always makes me happy.
Someday soon, as far off as it seems right now, we will all feel that way about Leo.
We gave him a wonderful life, and he gave us the same.
Late Monday afternoon, as word of Julian Edelman’s release and subsequent retirement announcement launched an unending string of tributes and ongoing debate about Hall of Fame worthiness into the Twitter sphere, I put my iPhone down and started scrolling through the timeline of the past eight years.
Why eight, and not the dozen since the Patriots drafted Edelman in 2009?
Personally, that’s how long I was privileged to describe (well, try to describe) his play on radio. More importantly, it’s a period that begins at a pivotal juncture, when Julian drastically altered his individual narrative and served to silence prevailing talking points about his team.
Think about where he, the team and we all were a week into the 2013 season, as questions about the Pats were amplified and criticisms sharpened over airwaves and in print.
Wes Welker, whose acrimonious exit from Foxborough had become daily fodder for local sports talk callers and hosts alike, was coming off nine catches and two touchdowns in his Denver debut. Meanwhile, Danny Amendola, signed as Welker’s presumed replacement to a five-year, $31 million deal, despite an injury-plagued past, was hurt again, having torn a groin muscle in Buffalo.
Eight weeks in, the backlash over one free agent’s departure and another’s arrival became even more embittered. Welker’s nine touchdowns in the Broncos’ record-setting offense had already tied a career-high. At the same time, Amendola’s 2013 games missed equaled his games played.
“It’s been a total failure,” one prominent radio voice declared, his words echoed by many others. Including his co-host, who proclaimed, “The Patriots are getting their asses kicked on this one.”
Concurrent with the Welker-Amendola storyline was another widely-expressed opinion, locally and nationally. Losses in consecutive postseasons to Baltimore (twice), the Jets and Giants led many in football’s chattering class to refer to — insult — the Pats as a “finesse team.”
For many, that label still stuck well into 2013.
Which is when it became clear that Edelman was beginning a mid-career breakthrough that would help prove such suggestions libelous and eventually render the Welker lament moot.
Until then, Edelman had gone from ex-college quarterback picked in the 7th round to instant dynamo on special teams to promising Welker understudy on offense. A feel-good journey, sure. A “hell of a story,” not yet.
Edelman had entered that April a free agent, after his 2012 campaign was cut short by a broken foot, only to re-sign with the Patriots on a one-year deal. At a maximum value of slightly more than $1 million, their agreement featured a split-salary clause to insulate the team in case of further injury. After all, Julian had missed 16 of 64 regular-season games to date.
The Patriots got more than their money’s worth. As they would usually get from a guy who gave them everything he could give.
In 2013, Edelman caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards. His six TD’s included two in New England’s largest regular-season comeback ever, a Sunday-night victory over Welker’s Broncos.
Following another unrequited flirtation with free agency in 2014, he again re-upped with the Pats. What continued was one of the greatest six-season stretches by a receiver in Patriots history. What followed was one of the greatest postseason runs by a receiver in NFL history.
The latter alone, leaving him behind only Jerry Rice in playoff receptions and receiving yards — need one say more? — is why Edelman merits consideration for Canton. Never mind the naysayers who quickly dismiss the notion. Especially those who wrongly see Edelman as a slot-receiving hybrid of Welker-Amendola or only pass prompt judgement off statistics and accolades.
As Edelman’s biographer Tom E. Curran says, you can’t tell the history of the NFL without Edelman. A big reason why is the starring role Julian played in the second decade of football’s greatest dynasty.
“One of the great success stories in our franchise’s history,” is how Robert Kraft characterized Edelman on Monday. If a presenter is ever allowed to make Edelman’s case to the Hall’s electors, evidentiary exhibits A & B should be the full testimonials from Kraft and Bill Belichick.
In Belichick’s statement, he described Edelman as “the quintessential throwback player. He could, and did, do everything – catch, run, throw, block, return, cover and tackle – all with an edge and attitude that would not allow him to fail under any circumstance. Julian Edelman is the ultimate competitor and it was a privilege to coach him.”
Edelman covered kicks. He returned punts, averaging 11.2 yards and totaling four scores. He completed passes — 7-of-8 overall, two for TD’s.
The first is forever etched into memory from the 2014 AFC Divisional playoffs. That was his strike to Amendola, a 51-yard dagger against big, bad Baltimore in a comeback win that revealed the Pats’ true heart and shredded some of the silliness about them being “soft.”
Edelman even blitzed passers and covered receivers.
When the secondary was shorthanded late in 2011, Belichick gave him a defensive directive. Edelman eventually split snaps in the AFC Championship win over the Ravens — 27 on offense and 27 on defense. Two weeks later, in Super Bowl XLVI, he was again aligned in the defensive backfield.
In the years to come, starting mostly in 2013, it’s what Edelman did to defensive backs that left his most indelible marks. On his stat line, sure. On the game’s grandest stage, absolutely.
Sticking to Edelman, when healthy, was a near impossible ask. See him step, stop and spin free for the game-winning score against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. Or watch him probe and exploit the openings in the Rams’ defense en route to his 10-catch, 141-yard exception to an otherwise offensive struggle in Super Bowl LIII.
If somehow you could stay with him, out-competing Julian was an entirely different matter. The world got to witness that truth in Super Bowl LI, during a split-second battle royale over a tipped ball between Edelman and three Falcons.
Uncanny reaction. Incredible concentration. Undeniable want-to. Combine them all and you come up with ‘The Catch,’ one of the most iconic plays in football history.
But as vividly as I see it unfold again right now, as I type — the ball plummeting off the right leg of Robert Alford and right arm of Ricardo Allen before Edelman squeezes it tight — so many other highlights flash by.
Stopping, starting, darting left, then dashing right, breaking ankles in the process, on a punt return. Catching a throw across the middle in front of oncoming defenders and instantly ducking to fold himself into the turf.
And of course, gritting his way through a painful fourth quarter of the Kansas City game two years ago on a weakening knee that would ultimately become one of “the wheels (to) fall off.” Or grimacing his way past reporters after an earlier playoff meeting with the Chiefs, while heading for an x-ray on the foot he’d broken back in Week 10 of 2015.
Finesse, my ass.
Broken feet. Broken ribs. Broken knee. But never a broken spirit.
Edelman’s competitiveness, like his fearlessness and toughness, have often been mentioned in his teammates’ social media messages the past few days. Some, such as Kraft and Tom Brady, cited Edelman’s personal growth.
It’s a subject that arose during a conversation with Matthew Slater a couple of training camps ago. We were discussing a moment captured by NFL Films in the celebratory aftermath of Super Bowl LIII.
Slater and Edelman had wrapped their arms around one another. In mid hug, Slater learns of Edelman’s Most Valuable Player honors and tightens his grip before becoming more emotional.
A private moment made public, to me, it symbolizes something more significant than success in sport.
One Black, the other White. One abstains from social media, the other is all over it. And while one is devoutly Christian, the other is Jewish; having increasingly and publicly embraced his faith and heritage. In recent years, Julian’s served as a source of pride, strength and enlightenment after the horrific mass shootings at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and repulsive anti-Semitic speech by other pro athletes.
“Love is a tenet of my faith, of Julian’s faith, of a lot of people on this team and how we try to live our lives,” Slater told me in August, 2019. “In love you can find common ground. Certainly we have differences, but that love and respect for one another brings us together.
“I love that guy like a brother. We’ve been through a lot together. They call us the odd couple, but for whatever reason it works.”
Sadly, Slater and Edelman won’t get to experience one more season as teammates. Julian’s knee no longer works well enough.
And unfortunately, football is too unforgiving to — like other sports — allow for farewell tours.
Instead of a pregame ceremony replete with a rocking chair and framed jersey, it’s a failed physical, an update to the transaction wire and announcement that one has played — not will play — his final game.
On Monday, we learned Edelman’s last game was last Oct. 25 against his boyhood favorites, the 49ers. His was a one-catch performance in a 33-6 loss.
Thinking back to an afternoon that seemed to offer little for Pats’ fans to savor, I picked my phone back up to search the camera roll. It’s habit — ritual, actually — for me to take a pregame walk, taking pictures along my route.
On this day, I strolled along the concourse and stopped at the Veteran’s Day memorial in the last row of the North end zone seats to capture a shot of the view. Six championship banners — three of which Edelman helped earn — help form the backdrop.
In between them and the foreground I stand on is a tiny, somewhat blurry figure, right where he usually is hours before kickoff in a mostly vacant stadium.
He wears a blue ball cap and red, hooded sweatshirt, its sleeves cut off at the elbows. A white towel hangs from the right side of the waistband to his gray sweatpants.
And, of course, he has his red gloves on. The red gloves that are every bit his trademark as the yellow Kent State t-shirt he dons for practices and overgrown beard he wears most Januarys.
Julian Edelman stands still in the photo. But I can picture him. One after another. Both hands, then one hand. Catching pass after pass, as part of a precise routine he’s repeated umpteen times.
This is this kind of example, no doubt, Kraft has in mind when he says, “No one was more committed to his craft and honing his skills than Jules.” And one of many reasons Edelman engineered a “professional trajectory” and enjoyed “longevity” that Belichick classifies as “historic.”
That his ascendance occurred after Welker left the team as it’s all-time leader in receptions and before Amendola became known as “Playoff Danny,” makes Edelman more than an all-time great Patriot.
It makes him an all-important Patriot.
He, as much as anyone in the past eight years, helped change how others view and talk about football in Foxborough, forever.