This is my story, or back story. Bits and pieces of it have been written in various newspaper and magazine stories. This is the full story. This is what made me me. Forgive the length and the sometimes raw honesty.
Few reading this will know or care about Y.A. Tittle, but his story was the catalyst for mine. His death about a year ago snapped me back to the turning point of my life, standing eye to eye with the scariest teacher at my high school, Mrs. Burdette, who looked like a prettier Wicked Witch from “The Wizard of Oz,” but with the same nasal-screechy voice that could instantly sweat-stain your underarms.
She had announced that she wanted to see me up at her desk after my sophomore English class. Two friends of mine shot me looks that said, “What did you DO?”
Mrs. Burdette was the journalism teacher at Northwest Classen High School, the largest in the state of Oklahoma, grades 9-12 nearly 3,000 students strong, one of 15 high schools in the metropolitan Oklahoma City area. Mrs. Burdette taught one non-journalism class a day, sophomore English, in hopes of discovering a writer or two for the school newspaper, the Shield. (We were the Northwest Knights.) I randomly wound up in that class.
Thank you, God.
The first day of school she assigned us a one-page book report. “I just want to see if you can write,” she said with a dismissive tone that added, “I doubt any of you can.” I naturally chose a sports book, a biography of New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle that I found in the school library. I mostly knew of him from the classic agony-of-defeat picture: Tittle on his knees in his end zone, having just thrown an interception returned for a touchdown, helmetless, balding, with blood snaking down a pained face. I wanted to know more about the former LSU star who made seven Pro Bowls and would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The classic Y.A. Tittle photo
I’d never tried to write much more than my name. I’m not sure my father made it through high school. My mother got married for the first time before she was out of high school. None of my grandparents, aunts or uncles had gone to college. All I’d ever really cared about was playing sports. I was going to play college baseball or basketball or both.
But I had always liked to read, quickly and voraciously – maybe to escape from my home life. I read all the Chip Hiltons, Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys … ‘Treasure Island,” “Robinson Caruso,” any biography I could get my hands on from Abraham Lincoln to Jim Thorpe to Babe Ruth.
I read Y.A. Tittle’s biography in about an hour. It felt like it had been written in an hour and a half. I wanted to know what made Y.A. tick. I got little more than fansy pablum. I was embarrassed for the writer and I wrote that in my book report, which turned into more of a scathing review. I had no idea what I was doing.
And now, walking toward her desk, I feared I had brought the shrieky wrath of Elizabeth Burdette down on my head.
But … she shocked me with a eye-toothy smile before announcing: “You’re coming into journalism.”
I was stunned. “But I … I don’t have any interest in journalism.”
“You will. You’re going to write a sports column for me.”
“But I … I play sports.”
I had been Athlete of the Year two years earlier. I had been chosen MVP of a big Oklahoma-Texas basketball camp. I would soon letter in baseball as a sophomore – no small achievement at our school.
“I know you play sports,” she said. “You can write about the teams you play for.”
I tried to stammer a no but there would be no more discussion. She wasn’t asking.
Little did I know Elizabeth Burdette had just saved me from myself and freed me from my upbringing. She had just sent me careening through a career I never could have imagined … years of controversy and conflict detonated by what I would write in the name of truth-telling in newspapers, magazines and books and what I would say on radio and TV. I would soon win a sports writing scholarship to a Vanderbilt University my mother never could have afforded. That would make possible a first job at the Miami Herald and a second at the Los Angeles Times … which led to a lead-columnist job in Dallas at age 27 and three books on the Cowboys, then lead columnist at the Chicago Tribune … which turned into 27 years of doing live debate on ESPN … which has now brought me back to L.A. and FoxSports1’s “Undisputed.”
From stammering in front Mrs. Burdette’s desk to Magic Johnson calling me “the Michael Jordan of sports debaters.” Thank you, God.
But what made me who and what I am was about to happen on the high-school basketball court and baseball field … and behind closed doors at home, where my mother practiced what her mother had always preached: “Never let the neighbors know what’s wrong.” I’m about to open those doors and provide the kind of detail I had hoped to read in that Y.A. Tittle biography.
Before proceeding, please understand: I loved my childhood, shockingly loveless as it was. I had no guidance or rules. I was pretty much on my own starting at age 5. My formative years were the perfect boot camp for my career – especially for daily go-for-throat debate versus Pro Football Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe on “Undisputed.” I learned to …
Trust only yourself and your instincts.
Never back down.
Survive and prevail.
I was “raised” by an evil creep of an alcoholic father and a self-absorbed mother who eventually fell to the bottom of the bottle herself.
Now, when I read about an athlete who grew up without a father, I wish I had. Now, when I read about the single mother who loved her future-star son so much she worked three jobs while playing mother and father, I wish I’d had that mother. Not once did either parent ever ask how I was doing in sports or school or tell me they loved me. I was amused by the recent social-media controversy over how Tom Brady encouraged his son to kiss him on the mouth. I couldn’t have imagined either of my parents ever kissing me period.
My upbringing is why I can’t completely condemn LaVar Ball. At least he loves his sons to a fault.
Yet understand, I’m looking for no sympathy here. In a crazy way, I was blessed.
Neither of my parents wanted kids. My mother admitted this to me much later in my life. My mother Levita was pressured to have three kids by her mother, Gladys, a domineering red-headed force in Levita’s life. My mother was the youngest of three and Gladys’ lone daughter, so the pressure probably tripled on her to produce grandchildren.
I was Levita’s first born. My father John went along with whatever my mother wanted, even three kids, because he knew how lucky he was to have her. My father, from a fatherless home in little Okmulgee, Okla., up near Tulsa, walked into the bank in which my mother worked as a teller, somehow convinced her to go on a date and soon talked her into marrying him. That was a bigger upset than 18-point underdog Notre Dame ending the Oklahoma Sooners’ record 47-game winning streak in Norman in 1957 … the first game I ever attended.
Many times I asked my mother why she chose my father and all I got was he “looked like Paul Newman,” that they had a strong physical attraction, and (in her often blind view) he could be a good man when he wasn’t drinking … which was pretty much never. My mother was a baffling blend of street smart and naïve, a tough businesswoman with a touch of dumb blonde.
My parents’ wedding photo
My very name perfectly explains who “wore the pants” and called the shots. On my birth certificate, I was John Edward II, after him, but they immediately started calling me their little Skipper, because my father had always called my mother “the skipper of the ship” when they were dating. She ran things.
Skip stuck. Not once did either of my parents ever call me John. I eventually had my name legally changed to Skip, in large part to sever any connection to him. In my 20s, I made the decision not to have children. I feared as a father I might start turning into him. I wanted to break the chain.
Through my childhood my mother was a pretty, flirty dynamo who often drew welcomed wolf whistles in public. Everyone loved my mother, especially my mother. No one could take over a room the way she could – as a little kid I often stood back and watched her in awe. To this day I have friends who considered her The World’s Greatest Mother because she was so nice to them.
My mother Levita when I was 5 years old. This portrait hung in our living room.
But for me my mother could be a vain pain – just too into herself to be much of a mother. She loved me, she just didn’t want to mother me … to take me places, care about my health or my successes or failures. Why did she campaign to be Parent-Teacher Association president of my elementary school? For her, not for me. Why did she somehow talk (or flirt) her way into being the moderator for a weekly cable-access TV show featuring members of the Oklahoma City school board? Definitely not for me. The truth was, my mother wanted to be the star of our family. Right away I excelled as a student and an athlete, and she was threatened. I realized early on I was – huh? – competing with my mother.
I learned it was no use to tell my mother about anything that happened to me, good or bad. She just didn’t want to hear it.
As she often said to me in later years: “I knew from the start you could take care of yourself, so I never worried about you.”
Levita was always gone somewhere. She even worked the lunch rush at the little barbecue joint she and my father started on the south side (the rougher side) of Oklahoma City. She ran the cash register at the end of the cafeteria-style serving line, in part because she loved all the compliments she got. My father’s constant refrain to guys who flirted with her: “You want her? She’s damned expensive.”
The Hickory House did pretty well, some years better than others, but we were never anything more than middle class. That didn’t stop my mother from buying clothes – she had an account at a dress shop, Jerome’s, in the strip shopping center near our house. My father, who survived the Depression by selling fruit on the street, never believed he could make enough to support my mother’s clothes habit … then one kid … and a second two years later … and a third seven years later!? Worse, my father was trying to survive in the fickle pickle that could be a little neighborhood barbecue place. You might say it ate him alive as he drank himself to death.
I soon realized I was actually in double jeopardy: I was a threat to both my parents. To my father, I not only was an unwanted financial burden, but a threat to the attention my mother paid him. He didn’t want me, just her. So at every opportunity he tried to embarrass me in front of her, to tell me how I’d never amount to anything, that playing sports was a waste of time. From the start, my father did his damndest to make sure I failed.
This, fortunately, has driven me my entire life to prove him wrong. My father helped turn me into a Type A+ personality.
BOOZE AND BIKES
When I was 3 or 4, my father would call me into drunken parties he and my mom threw at our house on, say, New Year’s Eve, and ask me to take a sip of whatever alcohol he was drinking. Of course, I made a face because it tasted worse than cough medicine … and all the adults laughed, including my mother, who was probably pretty tipsy by then.
That actually was the best thing my father ever did for me. Thanks to those early bitter sips, I’ve always disliked the taste of beer, wine and hard liquor. Later, in sessions with counselors during my father’s two failed alcohol rehabs, I was asked at age 14 and 16 if I drank. No interest, I said. Good, said the first counselor, because “you are genetically pre-disposed to alcoholism.”
At that point, I didn’t know I was doubly pre-disposed. Then, my mom was just a party drinker.
When I was 4, my mother told my father to get me my first bike, I think for my birthday. He bought me a dull-green girl’s bike, explaining to my mother that he didn’t want me slipping off the seat and injuring my testicles on the bar of a boy’s bike. What? Creepy. My mother actually bought that logic. I taught myself to ride on that bike but refused to ride it to school or the shopping center, as all the other kids did.
In sixth grade I was elected Mayfair Elementary’s representative to Junior Red Cross – we had two sixth-grade classes totaling about 60 students. Then I was elected president of the county Junior Red Cross featuring representatives from maybe 100 elementary schools. When I got home, I told my mother I’d been elected president, and she later told my father, who took one look at me and said: “He needs a damned hair cut.”
That was it.
My father’s abuse didn’t stop with the emotional or verbal variety. He did a lot of his own heavy lifting at the Hickory House, and in my childhood, before the alcohol began to weaken and shrink him, he was a black-haired, bad-tempered, muscled-up 5-foot-9 by maybe 180 pounds. When he got mad, which was often, he hit me in the face with his open right hand, always making sure he caught me in the cheek or lip or eye with his wedding ring, which would leave a bruise or welt or a little taste of blood. Freud would’ve had a field day with that. I put up with this until I was maybe 14, when one night I told him if he ever hit me again, I was going to hit back. He knew I meant it. I was big for my age. That was the end of the wedding-ring wounds. He was nothing but a coward of a bully.
From age 7 or 8 until I left home for good at 18, I spent just about every Friday and Saturday night at some friend’s house, just to stay away from my father. I didn’t even have to tell my mother where I was. Not once did a friend ever spend the night at my house. Not once. I had no curfew or ground rules.
Get this: When I was 14, my mother pushed my father to buy me a motorcycle – mostly because she was tired of having to take me places. My father told her in front of me, “He will die on a motorcycle.” My friends’ mothers were outraged that I had been allowed to have one. I rode my red Honda 90 all over town for two years in all kinds of weather. I’ve never had more fun. In those days, motorcycles were ridden mostly by “juvenile delinquents” – bad-apple troublemakers. I rode with a bunch of ‘em. I was lucky to avoid the police station and the hospital.
“You were a survivor,” my mother always said.
When I was 15 my mother made my father pick up my girlfriend and me after a movie – my girlfriend Liz who would become my first wife. I didn’t want my father to meet her but my mother had somewhere to be and I couldn’t ask her to ride on the back of my motorcycle. Later that night, in front of me, my mother asked my father what he thought of Liz. His response: “I thought she’d have bigger tits.”
Liz, by the way, had been voted queen of the pep club at our junior high, and as a senior in high school, she would be head cheerleader and homecoming queen.
How did my mother respond to my father’s “tits” dismissal? With her typical oblivious: “Oh, John.”
By then I had learned just to roll my eyes and go on. But looking back, I wonder if my mother didn’t mind my father knocking me down a peg with his vicious insults.
My father unwittingly thickened my skin and forced me to learn an invaluable lesson so many kids don’t: What it means to work long, hard, sweaty, boring hours day after day for low pay. Starting at age 4, he made me work at the Hickory House because he knew I hated it. He cooked. I had no interest in cooking. So he made me mop and sweep and clean tables during the lunch and dinner rushes, all summer long and through every Christmas and spring break. The result: In my career, I’ve never worked with anyone who worked any harder than I do. I work. I always have.
One morning at the Hickory House when I was 13, he ordered me to wash and dice green peppers with a butcher knife, for the potato salad. Neither my heart nor head was in the task, and the knife soon slipped off a wet pepper and sliced my left forefinger to the bone. I walked into my father’s little office – this was about an hour before we opened – and silently showed him the bloody mess that was my finger. He said, “Damn it,” heaved a sigh and drove me in silence to the emergency room. Six or eight stitches later, I was back cleaning off tables.
The next summer, while I was still 13, the Hickory House got robbed, again. This time the robbers came down through the roof and tried unsuccessfully to crack the safe. The damage to the roof was so severe that my father couldn’t get it fixed in a day and feared the robbers would return the next night to make another run at the safe. My mother knew my father would be useless as an over-night guard, so she asked her 13-year-old son to take the family .22 rifle and stand guard all night beneath the hole in the ceiling. My father went, too, but the nightcap he’d sipped while driving us to the Hickory House soon put him to sleep in a booth. So I sat there all night with that rifle in my lap wondering what I would or should do if I saw silent silhouettes descending. Fire warning shots? Shoot to kill? I’d used the .22 to target-practice on empty cans and bottles at the lake, but I’d never so much as shot at a squirrel.
I began to see all manner of shape-shifting ghosts up in the moonlight … but thank God no humans. I’ve never been more relieved to see the first light.
I don’t remember my mother even asking what happened.
My father drank from morning till night – vodka and orange juice for breakfast and vodka and Coke as he made the 45-minute drive home from the Hickory House. I rode home with him many times without wearing a seatbelt or feeling any drunk-driving danger. My father was what they call a functional alcoholic. He could drive and operate his business just fine. He was just always a little off, a little nuts, a little “tight,” as they said in those days. Just a little drunk.
That was the state he was in when we had our final confrontation. I was 17, still working at the Hickory House one 100-degree summer day when he ordered me to help him load his catering van with cookers of ribs. Each cooker had two plastic handles on the side. If you touched anything but the handles, you got burned.
So he started literally tossing the cookers up to me as I stood in the back of the oversized van, forcing me to try to catch them by both handles. I successfully handled the first two without burning myself, but told him to stop it.
In front of an employee who was a drinking buddy of his, he said to me: “What are you going to do about it if I don’t?”
That was it. I hopped down out of the truck and faced him. He came at me and threw a big kind-of-drunk roundhouse right. I stepped through it and dropped him with a straight right to the jaw. I didn’t even hit him that hard. I didn’t have the heart. It was just too easy.
As he lay on the parking-lot concrete, he yelled, “Go home to your mother.”
One Sunday afternoon not long after that, my Mom knocked on my bedroom door and said, “You need to go out and get your father. He’s sitting in the driveway with a pistol in his lap and he says he’s going to blow his brains out.”
And I shook my head no and said, “He won’t do it. He doesn’t have the guts.”
He soon moved out and took up with a woman who lived down the street, a friend of my mother’s. They eventually moved to Tulsa, tried to open another hole-in-the-wall barbecue place and lived in a trailer park. My father eventually drank himself to death at age 49. The official cause: cirrhosis of the liver.
AREA CODE 615
One night in May of my senior year of high school, I came home from baseball practice around 6 p.m. As usual, my mother was gone. She had left some Hickory House barbecue warming in the oven – for me it was always that or frozen chicken pot pies. But this time she also scribbled me a note to return a call to area code 615.
The second I saw it I knew my life had just changed.
I was free.
I knew 615 was Nashville and that Vanderbilt was in Nashville. I was pretty sure I had just won a full scholarship I thought I had no chance of winning.
My journalism teacher Mrs. Burdette had entered me in the Grantland Rice Scholarship competition and sent samples of my writing (sports columns, movie reviews, English-class fiction) throughout my senior year. She had kept after me to take the SAT required for Vanderbilt admission – only the ACT was needed for the University of Oklahoma, where all my friends were going and where I was sure I’d wind up. So I had taken the SAT, had applied to Vanderbilt – and had been accepted! Then, I had no idea how hard that was to pull off for a public-school kid from Oklahoma City.
But no way was I was going to win a full scholarship to the “Harvard of the South.” When Mrs. Burdette told me no one from west of the Mississippi had ever won it, I forgot about it. I didn’t even know the winner wasn’t chosen until early May, on the Monday after the Kentucky Derby, when several of the nation’s top sports writers traveled from Louisville to Nashville to make the final selection.
From the yellow phone on the kitchen wall, I called the 615 number. When I hung up, I knew I had my ticket out: full tuition, room and board for four years.
I was going away to school, to a faraway place I did not know, to compete against lots of rich kids who went to prep schools, and I was never going to look back.
To this day, I still feel some guilt about leaving my younger brother and sister in the mess I left them. But I’d had enough. I had to save myself.
I probably talked to my mom three times a school year in my four years at Vanderbilt, before Thanksgiving, Christmas and summer break, just to let her know what my plans were. She never asked how I was doing in school. After my freshman year, I had worked the summer in New York. Near the end of my sophomore year, I called to tell her I’d be working in Chicago that summer … and I knew as soon as she answered she was drunk. Her speech was slurred. My mother couldn’t handle her liquor the way my father could. She quickly lost control. She told me she had pretty much lost complete control.
Just when I thought I was free of an alcoholic parent, the impossible had happened. The same Hickory House that devoured my father had preyed on my mother’s potential addiction. As she had tried to run the Hickory House, alcohol began to run her.
Then again, in the 1970s, how many women with three children would’ve stepped right in and tried to take over a barbecue joint that had been robbed three or four times and whose employees would steal if you didn’t keep a close eye on it? My Mom had guts. Still, she was crumbling under the killer seven-days-a-week pressure.
“If I buy too much meat, it goes bad,” she told me. “If I buy too little, we run out. I don’t know how to buy meat the way your father did, and you sink or swim on buying the meat.”
After the last of my final exams, I drove 10 straight hours from Nashville to Oklahoma City, arriving home around 1 a.m. I found my mother sprawled across her bed. A window had been shattered from the outside and glass was all over the floor – I never found out why.
She looked up at me and cursed for the first and last time I ever heard her curse. Cursed awkwardly, the way someone who seldom curses would. She said to me, “I don’t give a dern shit.”
I tried to comfort her, but I must admit, my heart wasn’t really in it. I picked up the pieces of glass … but I did not try to help pick up her pieces. I had mentally cut the cord.
A year or so later, my mother was lucky she didn’t kill herself and others when she had a bad wreck driving drunk. That’s when my brother and sister convinced her to try an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. AA saved her life.
Unlike my father, my mother had the backbone to take on and beat her demon. That, and the desire to live. My mother quit drinking cold turkey, never missed a Monday-night AA meeting and stayed sober the rest of her life. My mother humbled herself into someone I barely knew. My mother openly and constantly referred to herself as a recovering alcoholic, said she had a disease and warned she would always be one drink from oblivion. My mother remarried happily. My mother became a leader in AA. My mother channeled her addictive behavior into, of all things … golf! She took up the game at age 50 and won her club championship several times.
My mother was something. Much of her is in me.
Every time I visit Oklahoma City, I drive by the little two-bedroom, one-bath house (now boarded up) on 43rd Street just off May Avenue in which I shared a bedroom and bunk bed with my brother Rick. He’s two years younger. My sister LuAnn, seven years younger, wasn’t born until after we had moved a mile or so away to a three-bedroom, two-bath house.
My birth house on 43rd in Oklahoma City, now boarded up.
I always sit for a few minutes in my rental car outside that house on 43rd and marvel 1) at how of all the houses on the block, in the neighborhood, in the city, on this planet, this was my gateway into this world and 2) at how my brother and I survived our upbringing and escaped to national-TV success. What were the odds, infinity to one?
My brother Rick is one of the nation’s top chefs and restaurateurs known for his authentic Mexican cuisine, his cookbooks, his PBS series “Mexico: One Plate at a Time” and his many appearances on national shows. He has won the James Beard Award for National Chef of the Year and his restaurants have twice won the James Beard Award for Restaurant of the Year. His Topolobampo in Chicago is known to be former President Obama’s favorite restaurant, and my mother told me Obama wanted my brother to be White House chef. From 43rd to Pennsylvania Avenue?
I’m so proud of the “little” brother we used to call Ricky. And of my sister Lu, who was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2012 and who continues to beat it with monthly chemotherapy. She’s the toughest of Levita’s three kids.
The Hickory House that was a hell hole for me became my brother’s launching pad, his Mrs. Burdette. My brother loved to and got to cook at an early age, alongside our father at the Hickory House. Funny how life works.
Not once did I ever talk to my brother or sister about their relationships with our mother or father, so I have no idea of their struggles. My brother and I were as different as any two brothers you’ll find, and we went our separate ways. My brother had no interest in sports. Sports were all I ever really cared about.
You might say I was the black sheep of my family when it came to sports. No one in my extended family cared much if any about ballgames, and no one had ever played anything that I knew of. My grandfather had season tickets to University of Oklahoma football games, mostly because the Sooners were in the midst of a 47-game winning streak and those home games were THE place to be. Yet by the time I was 5, my grandfather didn’t know a tenth of what I knew about the OU players and opponents.
Starting in kindergarten I knew I was better than the other kids at softball and kick ball and dodge ball and I quickly became obsessed. I have no idea why I loved sports so much with no encouragement or reinforcement from a parent, relative or sibling.
The baseball team representing Mayfair Elementary was called the Chipmunks and, starting in second grade, we didn’t lose a single game our first three regular seasons. After every victory the parents took us to Dairy Queen, and we rode home with our Dilly Bars and chocolate-covered soft ice-cream cones chanting out the window, “We beat Madison, seventeen to one!”
But fourth grade was the first season we were eligible for the YMCA city and state tournaments, and in the city championship game we faced the first lefty we’d ever seen, Mark Stanley of the Ridgeview Rams, who went on to pitch at Oklahoma State. I tripled home a run and scored a run in the first inning and we carried that 2-0 lead into the top of the last inning. Our pitcher, Steve Harris, would eventually sign with the University of Oklahoma football team as a running back and linebacker. I think he was already shaving in fourth grade. He threw scary hard with a wicked tail.
My mom took this picture just before I left our house for the fateful City Finals game we lost to the Ridgeview Rams.
This was also the first time we had played under lights, with a backstop that was major-league distance from the plate instead of the neighborhood screen just behind the catcher. I was the catcher. Steve Harris got wild and I got nervous-handed and thanks to a combination of his wild pitches and my passed balls, we fell apart and allowed four runs. We lost 4-2. The coaches were so sure we’d win and go on to the state tournament that they had scheduled a team picture to be taken right after that game. In it, nearly every player on the team was crying.
That was the first time I experienced choking under what felt at the time like end-of-the-world pressure. I still think about those passed balls to this day.
GOD AND MISS MILLER
I got in a lot of fights as a kid. I loved to compete, and hand-to-hand combat felt like the ultimate test. Of course, I always thought I was right, and slugging it out seemed like the best way to settle the debate. I won more fights than I lost but I can remember every single fight I lost and why. Jamie Staley broke my nose in fifth grade, Jerry Veatch blacked both my eyes in seventh grade. Both times I sucked it up and went to school the next day.
I quit fighting in high school in large part because of the one and only rule my mother had for me: I had to go to church.
She didn’t care where I was on Saturday night or how late I came home. My brother, sister and I had to be in her car by 9 a.m. every Sunday because we were going to Sunday School and church at Epworth Methodist. My mother made this unbreakable rule in large part to impress her mother – we always went straight from church to my grandmother’s house about four blocks away for “Sunday dinner.” Sometimes we even returned to Epworth at 4 p.m. for Methodist Youth Fellowship.
Not once did my father ever attend church with us. And not once did my mother ever talk to me about God at home.
But church took hold and changed me. At times I even imagined becoming a preacher. From the start, I believed in God’s power and plan. I’ve doubted. I’ve stumbled. But I have never lost faith. I have always managed to hang on for dear life, to persevere, to look back and think, “Oh, so that’s why that happened.”
Which leads to the only other strange demand my mother made of me. She insisted I take public-speaking lessons, from a frail wheelchair-bound woman with 10 tons of personality named Miss Miller, who lived 30 or 40 minutes from us. I took these lessons twice a week for two years, from age 10 to 12. Why did my mom make me take them? Her mom made her take them when she was my age, she later told me.
Miss Miller taught me so much about emoting and enunciating and engaging every single pocket of your audience by moving your eye contact “like an electric fan.” I had to deliver poems and orations during recitals attended by all the parents of her students and I learned to love public speaking. I can be quiet by nature, in part because my mother was always so loud. But my favorite “Undisputeds” are the road shows we do before crazy-loud live crowds.
Thank you, Miss Miller.
In seventh grade at Taft Junior High, I wound up in the finals of the school oration contest, held before school one day near the end of the year. Neither of my parents was present in an auditorium packed with parents and family members. I came in second to Vince Hinson and believe to this day I was robbed. But I never said a word about it to my mother.
Growing up, I was often left at my grandparents’ house. They weren’t wealthy – maybe I’d give them upper middle class. In an old, tree-lined neighborhood fairly near downtown Oklahoma City, they lived in a two-story, three-bedroom, three-bath home with a little guest house attached to the garage. They were gone a lot – my grandmother traveled for Eastern Star, in which she ultimately was elected Worthy Grand Matron of the state. So her household was run by one Katie Bell Henderson, who lived in the guest house.
Katie Bell was a black woman from the South Side of Chicago. Maybe this was more of a sad echo of Deeper South plantation mentality than I knew as a kid. But Katie Bell had authority in that domain. Katie Bell became more of a mother to me than my mother ever was. I learned everything I knew about right and wrong, good and bad, from that woman. She was wiser and tougher than my parents or grandparents. She loved life more than they did and could laugh at life’s unpredictability more easily than they could … maybe because she had suffered more.
Katie Bell wouldn’t hesitate to scold me, to tell me I was wrong eye to eye, hands on my shoulders, in a tone I wouldn’t dare challenge. Katie Bell often warned me about the evils of alcohol. Katie Bell occasionally had to hustle my brother and me down into my grandmother’s dank, dark basement when my grandfather came home drunk. He was a raging-bull drunk – dangerously mean. And of course, his oldest child, my uncle Bill, drank himself to death at 39. My family tree was alcohol soaked.
I watched Katie Bell’s favorite shows with her. From the soap opera “Edge of Night” I learned about hypocrisy and duplicity. From the primetime Western “Gunsmoke” I learned about fighting for what’s right.
Katie Bell taught me that we all came from the same God, created equally. Katie Bell occasionally took me to her African Methodist Episcopal church, where I experienced what it felt like to be the only white face in a sanctuary packed with joyous black people. Of course, I was treated like a very special guest. That has always stuck with me. Katie Bell was a godsend.
On air on ESPN, Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas once paid me the most meaningful compliment I ever received. He said, “You’d be welcome in any barbershop in any neighborhood in this country.” If that’s true, Katie Bell Henderson deserves much of the credit.
I wish I’d had a father or big brother to encourage me to continue playing football, but I stopped after 7th grade to concentrate on baseball and basketball. That year, my friend John Coury and I alternated at quarterback for a team of mostly older kids called the Utility Tower Toppers. (John eventually signed to play quarterback at New Mexico Military Institute.) We won every game until the city finals, played on a freezing night at Northeast Stadium – wind chill below zero. Our opponent was the South Side Bears. Their quarterback was a guy I competed against all the way up through high school in basketball and baseball. Darrell Porter would eventually turn down the chance to play quarterback at the University of Oklahoma to sign with the Milwaukee Brewers as the fourth overall pick in the 1970 draft. Darrell Porter would start an All-Star Game at catcher (for the Kansas City Royals) and win MVP of the 1982 World Series (for my favorite childhood team, the St. Louis Cardinals). I got to know him late in his career, when I thought he had won his battle with cocaine. But in 2002 he died from what the autopsy said was “toxic effects of cocaine.” He was 50.
Such irony: Darrell Porter, who grew up near the Hickory House, was everything I wanted to be growing up. And Darrell Porter shared my father’s fatal flaw. Addiction randomly chooses its victims regardless of talent or fame.
I probably share my father’s fatal flaw. Was I ever lucky.
That night in the city football finals, Darrell’s South Side Bears beat us 44-0. I was awful at quarterback and cornerback. The best thing I did all night was intercept Darrell Porter’s two-point conversion pass that would’ve made it 46-0.
While baseball was my best game, basketball became my first love. My eighth-grade coach, Jay Stevens, saw so much potential in me he often kept me after practice to shoot hundreds of three-pointers – before there was a three-point line. You might say he was my LaVar Ball.
Our Taft Royals team was so run-and-gun good that Stevens scheduled three ninth-grade teams. At home, we beat the ninth-graders from Classen, led by man-among-boys Dick Miller, when I made (if memory serves) six straight free throws in the last minute or so. I was going steady with an “older woman,” a ninth-grader named Gayla, and she didn’t seem to mind I was sweat-soaked when she ran up and hugged me just after the buzzer. That was a moment.
William Howard Taft Junior High School at 23rd and May Avenue in Oklahoma City, which looks exactly the same now as it did when I first walked through these doors in 1963.
I scored a season-high 21 in our final game, at John Marshall. At the final school assembly that year, I was named Athlete of the Year. My high-school graduating class had 681 students, so winning that award at a two-grade school with maybe 1,400 kids was pretty special to me. As I walked up on stage to receive it, coach Stevens tossed me a new leather basketball covered in plastic. I didn’t realize you can’t dribble a leather ball on concrete and immediately proceeded to scuff it slick in my driveway.
That summer, my teammate and rival Bruce Scott and I attended a basketball camp at McGuiness High School run by the Iba family. Henry Iba was the Oklahoma State legend who coached the 1972 Olympic team and was a mentor to Bobby Knight. The camp drew kids from across Oklahoma and Texas.
That week, I won the camp’s Most Valuable Player and my friend Bruce was effectively the runner-up, winning the Best Drilled award. My mother picked me up that night but had no idea what had just happened. As I got in the car, Bruce’s mother walked past and yelled at my mother, “Bruce should’ve won MVP!”
The article that appeared the next morning in the Oklahoma Journal about the MVP Award I won at the Iba Basketball Camp.
Bruce eventually would sign with University of Oklahoma to play basketball and golf.
My mother turned to me and said, “What’s that about?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Just drive.”
The next day, I was amazed to read a short story about my MVP award in the Oklahoma Journal sports section that I read like the Bible. I had arrived. Or so I thought.
An event I always dominated growing up was the softball throw, which was big in those days at junior track meets in Oklahoma City. It took the place of discus and shot put competitions up through age 14. My last year of eligibility, my coach Jay Stevens believed I could break the city record – 268 feet, I believe it was. In practice on football fields, I occasionally launched one from goal line to goal line, 300 feet.
But in competitions, throws counted only if they landed between two stakes maybe 30 yards apart. The night of the city finals, my first of three throws landed between the stakes but short of the record. My next two sailed wide right and did not count. My one in-bounds throw had won me the blue ribbon but my coach wanted the record. After a lengthy argument with the official running the softball throw, my coach convinced him to give me one more attempt at the record. By now kids competing in other events had gathered to see what was causing all the commotion.
As I prepared to throw, I became intensely aware of how many eyeballs were on me. All I could think about was how bad it would make my coach look if I let him down in front of all these people. I knew before the ball left my hand I was going to choke. I’m pretty sure it traveled record length but landed maybe 15 yards right of the out-of-bounds stake – not even close.
This would become my biggest problem playing sports: I thought too much and too deeply about the ramifications of failing. I could be too smart for my own good. At the highest level, we’ve occasionally seen the player with probably the highest basketball IQ ever, LeBron James, calculate the legacy impact of a missed late-game, big-game free throw and settle for a three-point shot or the “right play” pass instead of attacking the basket as only he can and risk getting fouled. In sports, brains can be a burden.
To this day, I still think about that final throw and how I should’ve gotten mad at myself and unleashed it with every last ounce of conviction that it would fly straight down the middle for 300 yards.
FROM STAR TO STARTING OVER
In ninth grade, Bruce Scott and I played on an AAU team that also featured Ron Ronborg (who would sign with the University of Houston), Danny Case (who would make All-State in football and sign with Oklahoma State) and Jimmy Edwards (who would sign as a running back with the University of Oklahoma). Bruce and I alternated leading the team in scoring. I probably had my best game in the state semifinals at Oklahoma Christian College. But we had to return that same night, a Saturday, to play the finals against Bartlesville.
I don’t remember being nervous, but I couldn’t buy a basket or do much of anything right. I lost another finals, badly. But I also was as sure as the sun coming up I would play college basketball.
Don VanPool did not share my belief. VanPool, the basketball coach at our high school, was already a legend. His Northwest team had won state championships in 1964 and 1965 and would win another my sophomore year.
This is the Northwest gym now named for the legendary coach who never loved my game. I spent many long afternoons and nights in this building.
From the start, VanPool didn’t like much of anything about my game. My style was to push the ball up the floor, attack or pull up for fast-break threes before there was a three-point line. VanPool, a deep-voiced, heavy-set, snuff-dipping former football player at Oklahoma State, insisted on an extremely disciplined offense run through the post. I was unnecessary hot sauce on his meat and potatoes. It wasn’t like he needed me.
My junior year, VanPool started FOUR players who would be Division 1 recruits: 6-10 Steve Mitchell (Kansas State), point guard John Cheatham (Kansas State), forward Ron Ronborg (Houston) and shooting guard Bruce Scott (Oklahoma). That’s rare.
My other problem: Shortly after Mrs. Burdette ordered me into journalism, I quit growing at 5 feet 11 inches. Did she foresee this? Decree this?
I was all shoot, no pass. But now VanPool wanted me to be more of a point guard. I was lost.
The first practice under VanPool in ninth grade, I blew by a defender with the crossover dribble that had helped me win Athlete of the Year the year before. VanPool’s whistle might as well have been a police siren echoing through the gym. Deathly quiet ensued.
He said to me, “They’ll call you for carrying the ball on that every time in the Mid-State Conference.”
I was stunned and mortified. After that, I was pretty much a basket case. My friend Bruce, who had now grown three inches taller than me, made the varsity as a sophomore and even made some key plays in the state tournament we won. I was lost on the B team.
My baseball career, however, did not end after Mrs. Burdette ordered me to write sports columns. It took off. Not many sophomores lettered in any sport at Northwest. I lettered as a sophomore in baseball. Our baseball coach, Winston Havenstrite, also had won a state championship, at Northeast High School. He was a handsome charmer with a powerful physique, black-haired and dark complected and always decked out in the pastel wardrobe of a wealthy bon vivant (his wife ran the men’s department at Rothchild’s). He was also an ex-Marine who was wounded in the Battle of Iwo Jima and witnessed the iconic raising of the American flag.
Female teachers melted in his presence. But they never saw “Havo” go psycho after hours out on the baseball field. His players did. I learned so much of what I know about baseball from Winston Havenstrite. I also learned to dread and despise him, as did many of my teammates.
Havenstrite loved/hated me. He once told the team I could be “the best hitter in the state” if I wanted to be. He was right about my commitment. By then I was spending most of my free time writing columns for the school paper and making straight A’s. I finished second (salutatorian) in a class of 681. I made a B in driver’s ed – the teachers did not give A’s for fear of making new drivers overconfident. I was told valedictorian Justine Coyle did not take driver’s ed, but I don’t know that for a fact. I shared one class with Justine (Mrs. Speed’s Humanities). She was smarter than I was. I was more overachiever than brain.
When I made a mistake on the baseball field, Havenstrite yelled at me: “You can be so got-dang dumb.”
I would fire back: “I make straight A’s.”
And he would yell even louder: “I’m not talking about what goes on in those got-dang classrooms.”
My junior year, I went straight from basketball into the season-opener of baseball on a senior-laden team. I’d never played anything but catcher, but Havenstrite started me in the opener (against Darrell Porter’s Southeast Spartans) at the most difficult position on the field – shortstop. I’d never once fielded a ground ball in a game and now I was playing against the best player in the state’s team.
Havenstrite told me, “You’re a good athlete, you have a good arm, you’ll be fine.”
I still have nightmares after I visit the baseball field at Northwest Classen High School, which looks now pretty much the way it did in 1969, when I was a nightmare at shortstop.
I was a disaster. I can’t remember making a single throwing error that season, but I must have botched 20 ground balls. Worse, in that home opener, I got thrown out going from first to third to end a one-run game.
Did Havenstrite ever let me have it for that. So did a couple of the seniors. But I stayed in the lineup all season because I could hit.
THE REAL STORY
A defining career moment for me occurred one Friday during a home baseball game against John Marshall High School. In the bottom of the first, I came up with two outs and the bases loaded and proceeded to hit a ball about as perfectly as I could. Line drive right back at the pitcher, who appeared shocked that he somehow snagged it in utter self-defense.
As I trotted back down the dugout steps to get my glove, Havenstrite came running after me from the third-base coaching box, backed me up against the concrete wall and began slamming my shoulders against it for emphasis.
“Got dang you!” he yelled. “How can you do that to this team?”
I was dumbfounded. I said, “I can’t hit a ball any harder than that.”
Obviously, I wasn’t aiming to hit it right back to the pitcher. I was aiming just to hit it period. As teammates on the bench looked away, hoping to avoid Havenstrite’s crazed gaze, he dropped his head in mock-resignation and said: “You’ve cursed this team.”
I said, “OK, send somebody else out there.”
Here’s a shot of the batter’s box, where I got my share of hits, and of the dugout in which Havenstrite came after me.
“No, YOU get out there.”
I did. Somehow, I felt relieved and emboldened that I had stood up to him.
My next three times up, I hit the ball equally hard – three line-drive singles.
The next morning when I opened the Daily Oklahoman sports page, I was amazed to see that my three hits led our capsule in the Mid-State Conference baseball roundup story.
Here’s the reference in the Daily Oklahoman (6th paragraph) to my three hits that I read the morning after my confrontation with my baseball coach, Winston Havenstrite.
And I sat back and thought, “If only people reading this knew the story behind the story.”
I wanted to tell those stories. I wanted to write real.
That summer, reluctantly, I played for Havenstrite’s Sequoyah Mills American Legion team loaded with veteran players, a couple who were already playing for junior colleges. I moved to second base and didn’t make a single error through the first eight games, all of which we won. I also got hot at the plate and probably was leading our team in hitting, if not among league leaders – I never saw any stats.
But in our eighth game, I cut off a throw from right field to third base, and our right fielder thought I was trying to show him up. Mark Grimes had made All-State in football as a tight end and was headed to Oklahoma State.
Deeper story: That spring, my longtime girlfriend Liz and I had broken up (again) and Grimes had swooped in and taken her out a couple of times. Naturally, that inspired me to win her back (again). She eventually would follow me to Vanderbilt, we would get married … and get divorced four years later. It wasn’t her fault. I was married to my job.
But I had won her back and Grimes, I assumed, was convinced I was trying to rub it in by cutting off his throw. It’s also possible he just didn’t want his throws cut, period. But the truth was, for all his 6-4 by 250 pounds of football ability, he didn’t have much of an arm. (Grimes eventually became head football coach at our high school.)
After the third out, Grimes took a seat on the far end of the bench from mine. He yelled something down at me and I yelled back.
He smirked and said, “Come down here and say that.”
I got up and strode quickly toward him. I was 5-11, maybe 165 pounds. He could’ve hospitalized me with one punch. But I was just mad enough to see how long I could last.
Of course, a bunch of older teammates jumped between us and there was lots of pushing and shoving and cursing. Havenstrite, coaching third, came running, saw me in the middle of it and opened fire.
“Got dang it, what did you start now?”
I tried to defend myself but he would hear none of it. And I finally decided, “Enough.” I walked straight to the lock box, retrieved my car keys and wallet and left mid-game. Havenstrite called my house the next day but I told my mother I didn’t want to talk to him.
She shrugged and said OK. She never asked me why. I’m not a quitter but sometimes you have to take a stand. I didn’t quit on that team. I quit because of that coach. And I never once regretted it.
No more baseball freed me to play the last few summer-league games at the downtown YMCA for the Northwest basketball team. VanPool wasn’t allowed to coach but watched from the stands as our B-team coach ran the varsity. That coach, Clay Davis, liked me and always encouraged me to let it fly. Once, when he got mad at me for letting an opponent out of a half-court trap, he yelled, “You’re the quickest guy in the state.”
In the final summer-league game, against an Edmond team we would face in the state tournament, I scored 15 points. Not long ago, the team manager sent a copy of the box score. I spent the rest of the summer preparing to start for the Northwest Knights, one of the top couple of teams in the state.
That summer, I was my high school’s student-athlete representative at what was called Boys’ State, held on the Oklahoma State campus in Stillwater. Quite an honor. Each floor of the dorm was called a “city,” and a few doors down from me was a kid named Grant Burget from the little town of Stroud about an hour and a half from Oklahoma City. Grant was about to set the single-season state record for rushing touchdowns (49) and become one of the top recruits in the nation. Of course, he eventually chose the University of Oklahoma. We became friends that week and remain so to this day.
That week, all the “cities” participated in a basketball tournament featuring many of the best basketball and football players in the state. Grant and I led our team. I never played better, even outplaying Tulsa Hale’s Brent Blackman, who had helped Hale upset my school in the previous state tournament and was bound for Oklahoma State to play quarterback. I didn’t have to worry about VanPool yelling at me or pulling me. When I played free, I was pretty good.
My “city” made it to the tournament finals. (Of course, we lost.) But when Grant and I parted for our senior years, he thought I was going to average 20 a game for mighty Northwest Classen.
The worst moment of my athletic life came before our first basketball preseason “scrimmage” that November. I’d been getting starter reps in practices. But at the end of a practice before our first practice game, we took a knee around Don VanPool and he announced the starters. The fifth and last was … his son.
Not me. His son Donnie VanPool.
Donnie, a junior, had transferred in from Southeast High. I should’ve seen it coming. But I was blindsided and devastated. I just didn’t think Donnie was better than I was.
VanPool even announced the final starter in something of an apologetic tone. He obviously knew this wasn’t the best look. So he sarcastically (but lovingly) said: “Get up here, Lightning.”
Donnie, a couple of inches taller and definitely heftier than me, was far from the quickest or fastest on the team. He was the spittin’ image of his father, built more like a football player. He had a nice feel for the game – his father had taught him well. He was a better rebounder than I was. But better player? No way.
That night I drove around by myself for an hour or so trying to figure out what to do about losing my starting spot to the coach’s son. If I’d had a dad or big brother to advise and encourage me, I would have made a stink. If my parents had been like a lot of parents I’ve known, they’d have been in VanPool’s office the next morning raising hell. Instead, I just lost confidence and faith in myself. If Don VanPool didn’t think I was good enough, I guessed I wasn’t. My parents certainly didn’t think I was.
Oh, the irony: in the team photo, I wound up standing next to the coach’s son, Donnie VanPool (No. 42), who would start over me, and I’m wearing No. 23 before it became THE number.
Not long ago, my friend Bruce Scott told the Oklahoman: “If Skip had transferred to (rival) John Marshall, he would’ve averaged 18 a game.”
Maybe so. But we would’ve been blown out twice by Northwest.
I remember starting two games that year, once when somebody was sick and once when VanPool was mad at his son. (Bruce Scott remembers I started three.) When I started, I played hesitantly and poorly. I knew if I shot and missed, I immediately would be back on the bench. Otherwise, I had two good games, at our arch rival Putnam City, when I made a big shot, a 20-footer, in the fourth quarter of a close game we won, and when I guarded Darrell Porter, our league’s leading scorer, for most of the game against Southeast at home. But as the year wore on, I fell deeper and deeper into VanPool’s doghouse, playing just a few seconds in each of the last 10 or so games.
What made me most ashamed was a letter I received from my new friend Grant Burget. This was before cell phones and email. Grant wanted to know if I had been hurt. He kept reading our box scores looking for 20-something from me and wondering what had happened. I wrote back that I was just having a bad year and that the coach’s son was starting ahead of me.
We lost in the state finals, to Norman High (featuring Joe Simpson, who would play nine seasons of major-league baseball then become a longtime Atlanta Braves radio/TV analyst). But this time it wasn’t my fault. VanPool waved me in for a few seconds once the game had been decided — a senior parting gift so, I suppose, I could tell my grandkids I “played in a state championship game.” I was humiliated. It was a long season.
The first day of school my senior year, I saw baseball coach Havenstrite in the hall and let him charm me back into playing baseball my senior season. I had a pretty good year, hit three-something, but our team was pretty bad. At times, we were on the verge of open rebellion against our coach. But I’m pretty sure none of the teachers or administrators knew that.
After the regular season, every team got a chance to advance in the postseason. In our elimination game, against U.S. Grant, I was playing catcher and threw out a runner at second to force extra innings. A teammate who was the star of our football team chastised me on the bench, asking me why I was trying so hard. He just wanted the season to be over. That’s how bad it got.
After that final game, I wrote a column for the school paper detailing how difficult it was to play for coach Havenstrite. I didn’t need sources. I was basically quoting myself on what really went on inside the 1970 Northwest Knights baseball team. Several of my teammates were pleasantly astounded – the truth had been told – but they also feared for my safety. I passed Havenstrite in the hall that day but either he didn’t see me or he looked the other way on purpose.
To be fair, Havenstrite did win another state championship several years later. Maybe he mellowed. I never doubted his baseball brilliance.
I still have my Northwest letter jacket. You’ll notice my patch for senior year baseball (catcher, 1970) is missing. I burned that bridge with Coach Havenstrite as the season ended and never got it.
But a month or so after I wrote that column about Havenstrite, my junior-high coach Jay Stevens ran into him at the golf course. He said Havenstrite told him, “If I ever see Skip Bayless again, I’ll kill him.”
Didn’t scare or even bother me. I had written the truth and Havenstrite knew it. That helped prepare me for the many confrontations I would have with players and coaches, some who would threaten bodily harm … and for the countless death threats I’ve received over the years from readers, listeners and/or viewers. This is part of the deal when you write or speak real. You either want to be loved or you want to be right. I’ve never cared what anyone else thought.
Two posters hung on my bedroom wall: Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath, who never cared what anyone else thought.
The last baseball game I ever played came in July of 1970. I got four hits and as I walked to my car I knew that was it and I thought, “If it has to end, that’s the way to end it.”
The next day, my best friend Craig Humphreys and I drove (in his gold 1970 Pontiac GTO) to Houston to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play the Astros in the Astrodome. (Craig would become a legendary sports-talk radio host in Oklahoma City.) Two days later, I checked in with my mom and she said a man had called to say I had made the American Legion all-star team and that I was invited to play in the all-star game the next night.
My friend Craig agreed to cut short our trip, leave early the next morning and drive the six or seven hours back to Oklahoma City so I could play in the game. On the way, I actually started thinking maybe I should forgo the full scholarship to Vanderbilt and try playing baseball at a junior college. But in the notorious speed trap that was Gainesville, Texas in those days, we got nailed, and back then you had to follow the patrolman to the courthouse. We lost so much time that I didn’t make it back for the game. I was furious, but looking back, I was saved from myself one last time. Baseball was over, the way it was supposed to be.
ONE SHINING MOMENT
I attended my first Dallas Cowboys game with my uncle Jim at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas in 1961. I was 10. They lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, 31-17, but they had won me for life. In college, my favorite Cowboy was Roger Staubach, the Heisman winner from Navy. Roger the Dodger, who could beat you scrambling as well as throwing. Captain America, as spiritual as he was clutch.
In late 1978, I found myself writing columns about Roger’s Cowboys for the Dallas Morning News. He didn’t always like what I wrote, but he always took or returned my calls. Roger retired my second year in Dallas (prematurely, because of concussions), and that winter I saw him more and more at the Aerobic Center, where I often played basketball on the indoor court. I was 28, 10 years younger than he was. One Friday afternoon, I wound up in a five-on-five pickup game with Captain America, and I got hot. I can get about as hot – and cold – as anyone I’ve ever played basketball with or against.
Roger over-complimented me after the game, saying, “I’ve never seen anyone get that hot.” I’m not sure I’ve ever been prouder of myself.
A few weeks later, I was playing h-o-r-s-e with my friend Pat Toomay, a former Cowboys defensive end who also went to Vanderbilt, and Roger and a friend of his challenged us to a game of half-court two-on-two. Pat is 6 feet 6 inches tall and played freshman basketball at Vandy. We beat Roger and his friend three straight games. Pat was just too big for them, setting picks for me and rolling to the rim.
Roger, the legendary competitor, was not happy – especially about losing to a sports columnist. When he lost, Roger was not a nice guy – I loved that about him. The following week he told me he wanted a rematch that Friday at 2 p.m. I assumed he had set it up with Toomay. I didn’t know Toomay couldn’t make it.
So Roger surprised me by bringing me a new teammate, a guy who (I think) worked at his real-estate firm. The guy was pretty good, but he was maybe 6-1, not Toomay’s 6-6. Roger also brought a new teammate for himself, Cliff Harris, the perennial Pro Bowl safety for the Cowboys who also had just retired. Harris and I had clashed several times over what I had written about him.
(In those days, several Cowboys stars challenged opinions I wrote with: “What do you know, you didn’t play.” My response: The man who drafted all the Cowboys stars, Gil Brandt, didn’t even play high-school football. Today, the man who built the Philadelphia Eagles team that won last year’s Super Bowl – Howie Roseman – didn’t play any sport in high school. Conversely, the greatest player ever in any sport, my all-time favorite player – Michael Jordan – has proven to be perhaps the worst talent-evaluator and general manager in NBA history. I learned my football from 1) Bill Walsh, 2) Jimmy Johnson and 3) Tom Landry. So I’m comfortable and confident debating football – the one game I didn’t play in high school – with any player or coach on live TV.)
Cliff Harris was nicknamed “Crash” because he played so high-collision violently. And now, in a game that really seemed to matter to Roger Staubach, “Crash” was going to guard ME. Though it was just two-on-two, Roger insisted we play full court. Full court! I was also surprised to find the gym had been closed for an hour or so to members, and several of Roger’s friends and co-workers had come to watch from the little pull-out stands along one side of the court. I knew one of the observers: Terry “Stick” Stembridge, who had been a play-by-play announcer for the ABA Dallas Chaparrals.
To say the least, I was unsure about what was happening. Was Cliff Harris going to get even with me with an “accidental” elbow to the teeth? I played very carefully for a while, but to his credit, Cliff Harris played hard but clean. He and Roger beat us badly three straight games.
As I drove home and the smoke cleared in my head, I realized I had just played in a basketball game in which a quarterback who played in four Super Bowls and a safety who played in five Super Bowls wanted to get even with ME, a frustrated high-school athlete from a nonathletic family in Oklahoma City. Of course, here were two legendary warriors trying to find an outlet for competitive juices that were still boiling over in their first year of retirement. But that Friday afternoon before a “crowd” at the Aerobic Center was the highlight of my athletic life. It was almost as if God said, “Here, I’ll give you a little taste of what this feels like.”
Thank you, Roger.
P.S. That night, Toomay was so angry with Staubach that Toomay went looking for him. Fortunately, he did not find him. Toomay, who writes as impactfully as he played, has written piercing fiction and nonfiction about playing in the NFL. We share a university and anti-establishment thirst for truth. He was not happy “Captain America” had settled the score with me without Pat being there to level the playing field. Pat wanted to tell him so to his face.
One dangerously humid afternoon in May of 1982, Gary Gibbs asked me to run with him on the mile loop at the Aerobic Center. Gary had been Grant Burget’s roommate when they were freshmen football players at the University of Oklahoma, and Gary had started at linebacker for the 1973 and ’74 Sooners who finished a combined 21-0-1. Now Gary was an assistant coach on Barry Switzer’s OU staff, assigned to recruit Dallas-Fort Worth. Gary eventually would become head coach at OU for six seasons, then a longtime NFL defensive assistant for Dallas, New Orleans and Kansas City.
Gary ran a machine-like three miles every day. I had never tried running distance, so I wore my basketball shoes and failed to drink the extra water required to withstand the humidity. It was all I could do to last two miles. Gary left me in his dust to sit (or lie) in the grass while he finished his third loop. I was humiliated. And hooked. I vowed: “This will never happen again.”
The addictive personality I inherited from both mother and father kicked in. Running took me over. A little later, so did weight-lifting. For a while, I suffered from exercise bulimia, trying to “purge” my binge eating by running more miles. But I finally got a grip on my running and my eating. I’ve always defended my fanatical fitness as a “positive addiction.”
After Gary Gibbs ran me in the ground, I trained harder and harder, ran farther and farther, faster and faster. Six months later, I invited Gary to run with me at the Aerobic Center on a cold gray day made for running. After two miles, I began to increase our pace. Gary was starting to fade as we approached his three-mile limit. I said, “Let’s go one more.” Gary gutted out a fourth mile, but waved me ahead when I said, “I’m going one more.”
And I threw a fifth mile at him that I clocked in 6 minutes, 30 seconds.
Feel free to call me whatever name you wish. I deserve it for what I did to Gary that day. But that’s who I am, what I’m made of.
Of course, I was channeling my athletic frustration into competitive distance running. I started winning my age group in 10Ks and half marathons. Then my obsession ran away with me as I ran nine marathons, including Boston and New York. My best was 2 hours, 47 minutes and 10 seconds (6:23 a mile) at the Houston Woodlands Marathon in a 55-degree drizzle in February of 1985. I finished 8th overall. My best 10K was 35:15 (5:40 a mile) at the Dallas Azalea Run in 1988. I still run or exercise-bike for an hour every day. Never miss. I also lift weights, hard, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Never miss. I am as addicted to exercise as my parents were to alcohol.
Me, attacking the weights now, as I always have every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
But I also believe my fitness makes me better at extreme sports debating for two and a half hours a day every weekday (9:30-noon E) on live TV (FS1). Being in even better overall shape than Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, who was known for his extreme fitness as a player, has given me an edge in stamina and focus. At least that’s my opinion. I try to Gary Gibbs him every single day.
I live to compete, to test myself under fire. My wife Ernestine cannot understand this but she agreed from the start, 13 years ago, to share me with my obsession (career) and my addiction (exercise). She is the greatest thing that ever happened to me. She often saves me from myself. She doesn’t love sports but she continues to love me in ways that astound me.
I love you, Ernestine. You taught me to love something other than myself. You taught me to trust, even a little.
One night in 2008, in a packed ballroom at the Skirvin Hotel in Oklahoma City, I was inducted into the Oklahoma City Public Schools Hall of Fame. Sitting next to each other at a table just to my left were my wife, my mother and my high school journalism teacher, a surprise guest for me that night. I had the opportunity to publicly thank Elizabeth Burdette for what she did for me. She was 90. She died a few months later.
I couldn’t find it in myself that night to publicly thank my mother. The wounds were just too deep. But over the last couple of years, I was able to make peace with her. I often told her I loved her. I told her how much it meant that she made me go to church and to public-speaking lessons. I told her how much credit she deserved for blessing me with some of her gift of gab and performing charisma. I told her how my childhood made me who I am.
She died last March 3, at 91. I rarely cry but I cried the rest of that night and am crying again as I write this. I miss you, Mom. I succeeded in spite of my father. I succeeded because of you.