8:55 PM EDT, April 15, 2014
During a media session prior to the February 2009 Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin pointed at me and said, "You owe me for getting you a week's vacation in Tampa."
Tomlin was right. Sort of.
His compelling story and intensely local ties — he graduated from Denbigh High School and the College of William and Mary — were the sole reason I was in Florida wearing shorts in the dead of winter.
But truth be told, I've been on vacation since starting at the Daily Press 30 years ago Wednesday.
What other gig affords a front-row seat to Hall of Fame athletes, coaches and administrators, not to mention 10 junkets to New Orleans — oh, that alligator cheesecake at Jacques-Imo's — on expense account?
What other "job" introduces you to the youth-league volunteers, high school coaches, weekend warriors and fervent fans who are the cornerstones of all we embrace about sports?
In short, what other profession encourages perpetual childhood?
So with the hope of entertaining, enlightening or surprising you, here are 30 moments/observations that highlight the good fortune and sheer fun of the last 30 years.
Oh, but before I start. Thank you.
Thank you to co-workers, colleagues, family and friends who offer support and guidance. Thank you to all who share their stories and insights, hopes and fears. And thank you to readers who are too kind in their praise and too gentle in their critiques.
•Thirty years ago, neither of the state's major college football programs had won a bowl. Ever. Since Virginia Tech has won 10, Virginia seven.
In 1990, the Cavaliers rose to No. 1 in both major polls. Nine seasons later, the Hokies played in the national championship game.
George Welsh. Frank Beamer. Enough said.
•Poverty, trouble and anger marked much of Allen Iverson's youth. But in November 1996, at age 21, Iverson found himself in the place of his dreams: sharing a basketball court with Michael Jordan.
It was Iverson's second professional game, and his Philadelphia 76ers had no chance against Jordan's Chicago Bulls, who on this night raised their fourth championship banner. But to see the unbridled joy in Iverson's face as he competed against Jordan, and even dared trash-talk him, was a refreshing change.
•Spring and summer basketball can be a mirage, but during Boo Williams' annual tournament in 2005, I saw a can't-miss kid. He was 6-foot-9, a brilliant, long-range shooter and a graceful athlete.
This kid could be better than Kevin Garnett, I thought. After texting several friends to race to Phoebus High School, I checked the roster for the young man's name.
•Virginia Tech's first football game after Sept. 11, 2001, was at Rutgers, not far from where the World Trade Center towers fell. Hokies associate athletic director John Ballein knew just the person to carry the Stars and Stripes onto the field.
Linebacker Brian Welch's father was killed in a 1984 terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy annex in Lebanon. Brian was a toddler then, but on this Saturday afternoon he was a proud American leading his team into the stadium.
On the game's second play, Welch intercepted a pass to set up a Tech touchdown. Following the Hokies' 50-0 victory, coaches presented him the game ball.
•Before Peyton and Eli Manning brought their sibling quarterback rivalry to the NFL, Aaron Brooks and Michael Vick did the cousin version. Both products of Newport News, Brooks and Vick faced one another as NFL starters for the first time on Oct. 27, 2002, when Vick's Atlanta Falcons defeated Brooks' New Orleans Saints 37-35 at the Louisiana Superdome.
Rarely has the Peninsula's wealth of sporting talent been more evident.
•At halftime of Virginia's 22-20 football victory at North Carolina in 2007, I went to the press-box restroom, where, even more than usual, I was startled by the reflection in the mirror.
"Mr. Teel, have you had chicken pox?" an ER nurse asked me the next day.
"You do now."
Chicken pox. At 48. Ugh.
•On Aug. 20, 2000, more than one year before Christopher Newport's football debut, CNU coach Matt Kelchner and athletic director C.J. Woollum greeted 72 young men interested in playing.
In Room 101 of Gosnold Hall, Kelchner and Woollum wasted no time in establishing the highest standards of comportment and competition.
"All 18 of our teams had winning seasons last year," Woollum said. "Football will be expected to do no less. ... This football program's going to shock the world."
"If you embarrass yourself, your family or this university, on campus or 10,000 miles away, you will no longer be a part of this program," Kelchner said.
They were right. Captains football has thrived off the field with community engagement and on the field with nine national playoff appearances and nary a losing record in 13 seasons.
Kelchner remains the coach. Woollum, the gentleman and music maven who hired him, passed away last year.
•Like most sports fans, I'm fascinated by iconic arenas, their designs, histories and vibes. And thanks to the Daily Press, I've worked at Lambeau Field, the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Orange Bowl, Michigan's Big House, Madison Square Garden, Allen Field House at Kansas, the Palestra in Philadelphia, LSU's Death Valley, Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, Pinehurst No. 2, Chicago Stadium, Rupp Arena and Army's Michie Stadium, to name a baker's dozen.
One venue that's escaped is Augusta National. But not for lack of trying. In town to cover the 1997 Peach Jam, an annual stop on college basketball's July recruiting circuit, I drove my rental rig to the home of the Masters, figuring I'd take a spin up Magnolia Lane to the clubhouse.
Club security had other ideas.
•My primary focus that summer was rising Hampton High senior Ronald Curry, the best prep athlete I've seen. One of our interviews was at his home on Victoria Boulevard, where he lived with his guardian, Lillian Crawford, a.k.a., Big Mama.
She was 72 then, cursed by arthritic knees that made walking a chore. As Big Mama savored a breeze on the porch, Curry left to get treatment on a sore Achilles' tendon. But before departing, he placed the cordless phone next to her chair.
•I've seen each of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski's four national championships and 13 ACC tournament titles, and dozens of his news conferences. Twice we've sat in his office for extended one-on-one interviews -- the second, in 2010, a fascinating conversation about his study of leadership in business, the military and sports.
But among the smartest things I've heard Krzyzewski say was three words at the 1991 Final Four.
Duke had just upset top-ranked and undefeated Nevada-Las Vegas 79-77, the same UNLV that had blistered the Blue Devils by 30 in the 1990 national title game. Naturally, Christian Laettner, Bobby Hurley and Co., were in the mood to celebrate.
"Stop," Krzyzewski admonished amid the sideline excitement. "One more."
One more. One more game to win for the program's first NCAA championship. Two nights later, Duke defeated Roy Williams-coached Kansas.
•The ACC used to conduct a bus tour each summer, transporting media to each conference school for preseason football interviews. In 1991, the league was especially ambitious.
Following our final school stop, at Maryland, we headed to the Meadowlands in north Jersey for reigning national champion Georgia Tech's season-opener against Penn State. Stories filed, we made our way to Manhattan for some late-night revelry at Runyon's, where the juke box was stocked with Hoboken's own, Frank Sinatra.
Our next stop was Newark airport and a pre-dawn flight to Los Angeles for Florida State's opener in Anaheim, Calif., versus Brigham Young. One night later, we red-eyed to Charlotte, where I reversed field and flew to Chicago for a friend's wedding in Iowa.
•Terry Armour, Lynda Frank and Mike Minium brought uncommon humor and energy to the Daily Press sports staff. They died too young.
•My first Daily Press road trip was in September 1984 to State College, Pa., where William and Mary's football team played Penn State. Such games are a chance for relative peasants to compete with royalty and cash a large check in the process.
"William and Mary worked hard for the money," I wrote from the 56-18 drubbing, a wise-guy line that didn't sit well with Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock.
But like most everyone else I've frosted over three decades, Laycock said his piece and moved on. Still on the job at his alma mater, Laycock is a better coach than golfer, and that's high praise.
•Helping chaperon Boo Williams teams to Paris in 1996 and Sao Paulo in 2001 transcended the basketball, which, by the way, included Shane Battier, Dirk Nowitzki, J.J. Redick and Jarrett Jack.
Watching those teens marvel at the Eiffel Tower and interact with locals at a Brazilian arts festival made the trips worthwhile.
•On the fifth anniversary of Virginia Tech's campus shootings, I ran in the school's commemorative 3.2-mile race. Hokie Nation's resolve, and the outpouring of so many others, remain an inspiration.
•There's nothing quite like a postseason baseball walk-off, and in 2011, Virginia staged a classic. Down to their last strike in an NCAA Super Regional elimination game, and with no one on base, the Cavaliers sandwiched three singles around an intentional walk to defeat UC Irvine 3-2.
Shortstop Chris Taylor from Virginia Beach drove in the tying and winning runs to send a standing-room-only home crowd into delirium and the Cavs to the College World Series.
•North Carolina's Dean Smith passed Kentucky's Adolph Rupp as major college basketball's winningest coach during the 1997 NCAA tournament. Scores of former players, assistant coaches and managers flocked to Winston-Salem, N.C., for the moment, and Smith, blessed with remarkable recall, knew every one by name.
Which makes the dementia shrouding Smith today all the more poignant.
•I saw Norfolk native Curtis Strange win his second consecutive U.S. Open in 1989, covered the Ryder Cup team he captained in England in 2002 and attended his 2007 induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame. But he was never more impressive than after the 1985 Masters, when his two shots into Rae's Creek on Sunday gift-wrapped the tournament for Bernhard Langer.
Strange called the morning after and answered every question.
•My mother used to have a cousin/spy in Hampton who mailed all of my stories to her in Baltimore. Safe to say, I was not the family's best grammarian.
•Hampton's Mike Smith, the winningest high school football coach in Virginia history, is 18 years my senior. But for an all-access week in 1999, as the Crabbers prepared for what we would be his 300th career victory, Smith wore me out from before dawn until after dark.
The King of Queen Street is 72 now, poised for his 44th year as the program's big whistle. He's yet to endure a .500 season, let alone a losing one.
•Dale Earnhardt's death at the 2001 Daytona 500 devastated racing, the degree to which I learned a few days later. That's when I met Ed Saunders, a Newport News carpenter who in 1998, on his honeymoon no less, saw Earnhardt win the 500 for the first time.
The day after Earnhardt's victory, Saunders met his favorite driver at a promotional appearance. They posed for a photo, which Saunders emblazoned on a T-shirt.
The memory, he said, "is worth a million dollars to me."
•In the fall of 1993, then-Virginia basketball coach Jeff Jones told me about the brain surgery his infant son, Jeff Jr., had shortly after his August birth. Jones the player and coach always had been self-assured. On that afternoon, Jones the dad was, naturally, confused and concerned.
Today Jones coaches at Old Dominion, and this season he watched from afar as Jeff Jr. made the U.Va. team as a walk-on, and the Cavaliers won their first ACC tournament since 1976.
•Detachment is essential in this racket, but as South Africa's Josia Thugwane outkicked South Korea's Lee Bong-Ju to win the 1996 Olympic marathon in Atlanta, I couldn't help but smile.
"I win this medal for my country," said Thugwane, the first black South African to wear Olympic gold since the end of apartheid. "I win this medal for my president (Nelson Mandela)."
•Marathons were a stroll for Cheryl Lager, the Newport News runner I encountered in 2010. Twice she had completed 100-mile races in less than 24 hours.
"It's easy to accept that kind of pain," she said, "when you know it's temporary and the satisfaction is permanent."
As someone who detests even a hangnail, I cannot relate.
•The evening before Virginia Tech's 2005 basketball game at North Carolina State, I sat in the lobby of the Hokies' hotel with head coach Seth Greenberg and his top assistant/older brother Brad. Talk about a New York-flavored hoops history lesson.
Tales of Clair Bee, Hubie Brown, Jim Valvano, the old Madison Square Garden and Nassau County Coliseum flowed well into the night.
•With the fourth pick of the 1993 Major League draft, the Philadelphia Phillies selected pitcher Wayne Gomes from Phoebus High and ODU. Sitting in his parents' living room that afternoon, Gomes was in no hurry to celebrate elsewhere.
"This," he said, "is a good family day."
•I'm a numbers guy, but Taylor Heinicke's Division I-record 730 passing yards and overall NCAA standard of 791 yards total offense in ODU's 64-61 victory over New Hampshire two years ago paralyzed me at the keyboard.
•That Super Bowl I covered five years ago? 'Twas an epic as Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger threw the winning touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes in the final minute to make Tomlin, then 36, the youngest coach to win football's ultimate game.
It was almost as good as Springsteen's halftime show.
•As the husband of a former high school and college athlete, and the father of a 2-year-old daughter, I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the Hall of Fame women I've been privileged to write about: Pat Summitt, Debbie Ryan, Dawn Staley, Annika Sorenstam, Nancy Lopez, Kathy Whitworth, Mia Hamm, Kerri Strug and Chris Evert.
•I had hoped to write much of this column Monday night at home. Laura thought it would be more fun to play catch in the living room.
Daddy couldn't have agreed more.
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