Flashfiction: “Cutdown Day”

This past weekend was the time when 30% of the roster of each NFL team lost their jobs.  “Why,” I hear you cry, “should I care about millionaires getting fired?”

Because 90% of them ain’t rich.  All those huge contracts you hear about in the NFL?  Yeah, those go only to a handful of guys.  The vast majority of players are making something around the league minimum.  Now, that’s still a good salary by most standards, but it isn’t “retire for the rest of your life” money.

A lifetime of work and training…

A lifetime of pain and injuries and broken bodies…

A lifetime of consequences…

All for an average of three years playing for the league minimum.

Now, I’m a football fan but not a “football guy.”  No, I’m a hockey guy.  I know hockey, and hockey players.  And it’s just worse there.  Take those three years and play them for a salary that is barely middle-class (if that much) down in the minors and that picture gets a lot harder.  The pain and consequences are still the same, though.

Although it was the period for NFL cutdowns that got me thinking, I had to run with something I know.  The piece below is based on memories from a friend of mine:

“Cutdown Day”

Shit, did he hurt.  Two hours of pushing hard, two hours of sprints and hits, two hours of sweat and exhaustion…why do it?

Why do it?

He asked himself that every single morning, now.  He hadn’t asked it as a kid, when his mom would get him up for practice.  He hadn’t asked it in college, either, when the other students Would all praise him for the last game.  He hadn’t it asked it then, but he had to ask now.

His friends from school, they had all gone on to jobs.  Cars and condos and real lives.  Him?  He had three roommates in a rented two-bedroom, a place that didn’t even have his name on the lease.

A last chance, then, to impress the team.  A last chance to keep his place on the ice…and to keep the apartment that the team provided.

When he’d arrived that morning, it had been there, that which he most feared: a note on his locker.

“You’re on the bubble.  As of now, I ain’t gonna keep you,” the coach had said at the meeting.

He had spent thousands Just to get himself to training camp.  Had spent countless hours working the phone to friends and acquaintances just to get the invitation, and now he wouldn’t make it.

A last hour on the ice.  A last hit of water before that hour’s scrimmage, and he felt the coach’s eyes.  Oh, he knew the guy was watching the others, the ones who would get the contract offers, but still he felt those eyes.  Felt the disdain.

He felt the shame, too.  He had never failed before.

“Last chance!” the coach yelled to the milling players.  “Play your way on to the roster, or go home!”

A whistle to start the scrimmage.

Broke and soon-to-be-unemployed, what did he have to lose?  His resume had nothing on it, nothing but the blood and sweat and tears of a life of 5:00am practices and late night games.  How did you sell HR departments on bruises and concussions and pain As a job skill?

Fuck it, he thought, nothin’ left to lose.

He stood under the shower, after, and tried to soak away the blood and bruises from the scrimmage.  Every hit, every shot, every play, had been his last.  He would go home to his parents, broke and ashamed.

He would apply for that job at the call center and give up the dream he had had since he was five.  He would turn into that bitter, drunk guy that every local rink has, the one bitching about the pro career he never had.

After the shower, he wasn’t even surprised when he saw the note on his locker.  His gut still clenched, and his body shook, but that was shame and panic and desperation, not surprise.

Up the stairs, then, and into the coach’s cramped office.  An office that stank of old gear and mildew and hours-long bus rides up and down the east coast.

He didn’t say a word, just sat in the one chair and stared at the folder that sat on the desk, his death warrant waiting to be signed.  He flipped it open without saying a word.  What was there to say?

The papers inside, they meant nothing.  The words meant nothing. They couldn’t penetrate the fog.

“I told you to be ready to go,” the coach said, with no preamble, nothing to soften the sting.  “Practice starts in the gym at 6:00 Monday morning.  Sign the fucking contract and get your ass out of here.”

His hands were still shaking as he signed.

Note 1 — my friend, the guy who so barely made the roster of a minor-league team, went on to play ten years in the NHL…for the league minimum every single year.

Note 2 — WordPress just force-changed their creation and posting system.  Yeah, the option to use this new system has been there for some time, but I’ve ignored it.  Now I have to use it…and I have no idea how to.  I hate it.  I hate it to the point that I’m not sure it’s worth it to keep this blog going.  Sorry, I know that sounds petty, but I want to write, not spend my time trying to use some software idiot’s definition of a “good platform.”  I don’t get paid for this, so why bother?  We’ll have to see…

They Won

dogs_lgnv95Like a lot of folks, I love me a good David and Goliath story.  Hell, I’m a writer, I kinda have to like those stories since pretty much everything I create has some form of David & Goliath or another to it.

But, it’s important to note, I don’t like those elements just as a writer, I like them as a person, too.

Hell, a big reason why I — and folks like me — get so into sports is that same David v. Goliath thing.  It’s why we root for the underdog.  It’s why many of us root— even more strongly — against the “big boys” who win the league all the time.  Whether you’re talking about the NFL’s Patriots, MLB’s Yankees, or insert-your-own-dominant-team-here, we love to see the powerful fall and fail just as much as we love to see the underdog win.

But in the US we really only get to see a bit of that.  The Yankees will always be the Yankees, and the Patriots will continue to be the Patriots so long as Brady and Belichick continue to sacrifice small children to their infernal master…

No, although we have plenty of worst-to-first stories to talk about — I’m an LA Kings fan, after all, I lived that journey! — our league structures are just too rigid and defined to have true magic.

Soccer, however…

Okay, fine: football.  European football gets it right.  Promotion and relegation are true rewards and punishments, they bring true emotion and drama to the teams and fans involved.  A team can — theoretically — climb over the years from the lowest, most miserable league all the way to become champions of the highest one.  Look, think about it like a writer: would you rather write a story about the continued ineptitude and mediocrity of the Browns in NFL season after NFL season, or one about that same team having to rally and fight to keep themselves out of a forced move to the CFL?  I know which I’d rather write…

But even that doesn’t compare with true drama, with the true David versus Goliath stories…with the English FA Cup (and the other national cups around Europe).  Now, for those of you who might not know, the FA Cup is (mostly) not a thing of leagues and rankings.  No, instead all of the professional and semi-pro teams in the top 10(ish) levels of the English professional football pyramid take part.  Oh, the big boys get to wait to enter until the later rounds, but when they do enter, they still go into a hat to be drawn for matches against, well, whoever.

A team who normally plays in front of 500 folks in bumfuck Norfolk might end up playing in front 75,000 at Man City…

But that’s not the best part.

No, the best part is that team might win.

This past weekend was a special time in the English FA Cup, it was the Third Round.  The Third Round is when the Premier League teams jump into the pool, when the sharks start chomping on the minnows.

Now, sometimes you get the feel-good stories of the minnow fighting back, of the plucky 6th tier team that comes this close, that almost pulls off an upset against one of the biggest teams in the entire world (Woking versus Watford this year).

black_eyeBut occasionally…rarely…the minnow actually eats the shark.  The little guy wins, and the bully gets the black eye…

This year’s Third Round had a few such upsets, had some moments that were special, but it wasn’t until one of the last games of Sunday that the true magic came.

The Newport County Football Club — appropriately nicknamed the Exiles — is a team that disappeared into bankruptcy not so long ago, a team that had to fight its way back up the English football pyramid level by level.  It’s a team that wasn’t even allowed to play at its own stadium for a few years, for God’s sake, because they owed too much money…

The Exiles were playing not that team from bumfuck Norfolk, not another team from the shadowy, underpaid, rough & tumble lower professional leagues.  Nosirree, they were playing Leicester.  They were playing the team that won the freaking Premiership just two years ago.  They were playing a team that is arguably among the top 20-25 in the entire world.

And they won.

The American equivalent is Pasadena City College playing the LA Rams…and winning.

newportNewport fucking won.

This is why we talk about the emotion and drama of sport.  This is why we talk about the magic of sport.  This is why it affects folks so deeply.

This is why I love this stuff…

True Greatness

Jackie Robinson started his first game for the Dodgers 71 years ago, in 1947. That is an accomplishment that we should never — that we can never — forget. Did it mark the end of racism? Not by a long shot. Did it change the fundamental facts of life in America in the 40’s? No. But it did mark a step down the right road…a very, very important step.

As much as I admire the courage and ability of Jackie Robinson, however, I’m not a baseball guy. I never played it as a kid, I never watch it on TV, and I barely understand the tactics and strategies of the only sport in the world that can rival golf, cricket and curling for sheer, mind-numbing boredom.

Nope, I’m not a baseball guy…I’m a hockey guy.

Now, unlike baseball, hockey is…er…pretty freaking white. That being said, there is an increasing presence of minorities in both the amateur and professional ranks. Dustin Byfuglien is a stud, I’ve loved Wayne Simmons all the way back to his time with the Kings, and PK Subban is a freaking machine (and one of those rarities in hockey: the player you can and should build your franchise around)…just names off the top of my head of players I admire. There are currently several dozen minorities in the NHL, let alone those in the minors. That’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the thousand or so who will play in the NHL in any given season, but every year those numbers grow. Especially in youth and junior hockey, those numbers are growing. And that matters, it matters a great deal.

But the story that doesn’t get told often enough is the man who started it all: Willie O’Ree.

F8399E3D-583E-4C6D-91BC-28866A4AB42AWillie O’Ree suited up as the NHL’s first black player in 1958. The first black player in one of the whitest sports in history (I’m looking at you, golf and auto racing, as the leading villains on that ignominious list of the lily-white). But the best part is that O’Ree is still with us, and is still active in the community. He still speaks to players — to kids and adults alike — and he is still working and fighting to open doors and create opportunities. He is still a source of inspiration and respect. He is still making a difference.

But he’s not in the Hall of Fame.

Wait…what the fuck?

He’s not in the Hall?

Are you kidding me?!

How the hell is Willie O’Ree not in the hockey Hall of Fame?!

Don’t get me wrong, I love the greats…I love Gretzky and Howe and Orr and a list too long to get into, but O’Ree didn’t just play, he changed the sport. He didn’t change the style of play like Gretzky, nor did he redefine a position like Orr…no, he did far more. He opened the door for every black and brown kid with dreams of playing. He opened the door for players like Subban and Iginla and Fuhr and Carter and Byfuglien and the rest of the greats that came after him.

But he’s not in the Hall.

He is eligible for nomination this year (again), in the Builders category. Now, there is a limit to the number of players who can even be nominated as candidates, and he is up against guys like Brodeur and St Louis and a host of others, but all that is needed is ONE member of the selection committee to champion him as a nominee.

Just one.

Imagine if Jackie Robinson were not in the baseball Hall of Fame…

If you are a hockey fan at all, or a fan of recognizing the folks who truly mattered, do me a favor and let those folks with a say in the matter know that Willie O’Ree doesn’t just belong in the hockey Hall of Fame, he is the very definition of an all-time great.

Here is a link to the list of selectors.

Antagonism vs. Aspiration

Oh, what the hell…it’s “news” right now, so why not jump on the bandwagon?

The NFL anthem controversy.


Crap, will this thing never go away? It is, perhaps, the stupidest and most pointless “controversy” on the face of the planet right now. It doesn’t matter on which side of the fence someone sits, there are bigger things to worry about than this.

Now, first off, one thing needs to be said — it doesn’t matter on which side of the kneel-or-stand debate you are, Trump’s comment the other day was the most moronic, asinine and stupid thing in the world:

“You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe they shouldn’t be in the country.”

No. Just no. Actually, not just no — hell no.

Leaving aside the NFL crap — I’ll get to that in a moment — any act of respect or honor, just like any act of faith or gratitude, must be heartfelt and self-initiated to have any worth whatsoever. That is why, by the way, I don’t like the mandatory Pledge of Allegiance in schools. For such a thing to have any meaning, just like standing for the anthem, a student/kid/person must willingly choose to participate. Anything else is just empty symbolism.

Okay, that being said…what about the NFL?

I wrote once before about this, when it was picking up steam. My point then — as a guy who has played team sports all his life — was that the “kneelers” were being selfishly individual in what is, honestly, a sport where team has to be everything. I thought teams should act, one way or the other, as a team. The decision belongs in the locker room, and especially with the team leaders.

Of course, that was a year ago. I thought then that this whole thing would soon die out. How naive.

The whole issue has, sadly, become conflated with the current cultural and political divide tearing us apart as a nation. And that is just stupid. Must everything be about “beating” the other side?

Sadly, I know the answer to that.


It is important to note that, in spite of all the rhetoric and vituperation — on BOTH sides — this is not an argument about patriotism. This is not an argument about love of country, nor is it about who is a “better” American. There is no such thing as a better American. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are any more or less American or patriotic than the other, and anyone who thinks they are “better” — anyone who wants to use patriotism as a weapon — is helping only to bring us down.

What this whole thing is about is money, and the currency of power.

From the NFL’s point of view, it’s quite simple: this is purely a question of marketing. Roughly forty percent of their fan base was upset, for one reason or another, with the anthem protests. No business can afford to offend that large a portion of their customers. The league had to do something…unfortunately, they screwed the pooch from day one by trying to play to both sides. They didn’t “solve the problem” in the first place, which irked the first 40%, and now they have backtracked on their “promise” to allow the players to choose, which alienates another 40%.

Congratulations, NFL, for once again kicking yourself in the balls.

The league does, by the way, have every legal right to dictate the players stand during the anthem. That is a fact, whether you “like” the protests or not. It is a workplace environment, and the employer can dictate workplace rules. And, no, those rules do not apply to the league’s customers (the fans). Anyone arguing that the new rule applies to fans as well is just putting up a pointless strawman.

The NBA, by the way, requires their players to stand, on pain of suspension, yet there is no brouhaha surrounding that league…

Now, for the player’s point of view. I can understand the impulse and reasoning…understand, at least, those players who actually have considered and heartfelt positions.  Players like Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. He knelt, but that was just the beginning for him. He went on to sit down with Denver police officers. He participated in ride-alongs. He took part in some of their training scenarios on shooting and violence. He articulated what he saw as problems, and worked with others to come up with solutions. That is legitimate, respectable and honorable. That is the kind of thing we need more of if we are to solve, well, anything.

Unfortunately, Marshall’s attitude and actions are not the rule. Many of the “protestors” had/have no clear message, and instead offer only the vaguest generalities and broad-brush attacks on others. These folks are just as guilty of politicization and divisiveness and useless antagonism — and are as worthy of scorn — as those who want to turn overt, ostentatious “patriotism” into a political weapon.

Others have no plan or goal, other than one of protest for the sake of protest. For that group, kneeling WAS the message, rather than a tactic to bring attention to any particular problem. This is the group — players, reporters and fans — who are most virulently up in arms right now about the new rule. They are not talking not about the ostensible reasons for the protests in the first place — racism and policing — but are talking only about…protesting.

Folks, if the tactic becomes the message, you are doing something wrong.

On a personal level, I should probably say a couple of things. First off, as much as the league screwed up in their initial handling of this issue (and in all subsequent efforts to “handle” it), the players screwed up just as badly. There was no plan, there was nowhere to go, there was just…protest. When this thing first came to a head, then was the time for a real message. Then they had the real spotlight and soapbox, then was the inflection point for action. Now? Now, positions are so bitterly entrenched that neither side can even hear the other. Decisions and judgments have been made, and the bitter reality of political “teams” has taken over.

Secondly — leaving aside the team-versus-individual dynamic of football — I was not a fan of the kneeling. To me, on a personal level, the flag is a symbol. Not a symbol of the US as it is, and not a symbol exclusively of the military and those who have sacrificed, but a symbol of aspiration. It is a symbol of what the nation could be. It is something to rally around as a higher ideal, something to unify us and give the common identity and purpose we need to make things better.

The US is far from perfect, in any sense. Culturally, socially, politically, economically, and yes racially, we still have a lot of ground to cover. But we cannot even begin to cover that ground if we cannot agree on a common identity…and the flag is, to me, the symbol of that identity, and of the aspiration to be better.

That being said, I may not have liked the protests, but I do not question the hearts of those who protested, nor their motives. I am a white man, I only know the realities and problems of racism through conversations with minority friends. I have no personal experience. Now, I’m not going to even try to tackle racism in this post, but I have heard and learned enough from those friends to understand…a bit.

In the end, it is that message that matters. It is neither the protests, nor the politics and bile currently taking hold, that matter. The answer is not to kneel, nor to attack the kneelers. The answer is for every player to be a Brandon Marshall…and for every fan to be a Brandon Marshall. The answer is to understand, and to aspire for more.