A wonderful life

Cat people? Dog people? In our family, including Leo (left) and Obi, we’re both.

 

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.

Raffy (left) was such a big presence and, sometimes, naughty influence in our kids’ lives.

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. 

Not surprisingly, Leo rarely had the energy or desire to engage our playful pup. Still, he managed to out alpha the younger, bigger, stronger mix of Husky and a handful of other breeds that turned up in Obi’s ‘doggy DNA’ test. Leo quickly commandeered the dog’s crate and accompanying bed, announcing himself king of the KONG©.

Leo, taking over the dog’s bed, asserting and Obi respecting seniority.

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.

How Julian Edelman helped change a Foxborough narrative, forever.

Photo credit: Keith Nordstrom

The following originally appeared on http://www.985thesportshub.com on April 14, 2021.

By Bob Socci

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.”

Everything, indeed.

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. 

From 3 Games to Glory VI

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.