(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Book Review: "It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium" by John Ed Bradley

I had read Bradley's stuff over the years in Sports Illustrated, where the writers are anonymous enough that you have no way of telling whether they were just smart kids who like sports, they might have played something in high school, or they were actually varsity college athletes. As it turned out, Bradley played center for LSU in the late 1970's, and his is an interesting story to tell.

He grew up in a small town in Louisiana, his father a high school teacher and coach. He ended up with his father's size, played well in high school, and, because of his efforts, got the ultimate golden ticket for a Louisiana high school kid -- a chance to play football for Charlie MacLendon ("Cholly Mac") at LSU. I once heard the expression that "youth is wasted on the young," and that didn't seem to be the case for those who played football in Baton Rouge. What probably was the case that the experience couldn't last long enough and that some of the guys who played had a difficult time adjusting to life after college football.

Bradley sensed that this would happen as his last season was ending and before he graduated. He wanted to be a writer, a novelist, badly, so much so that he threw everything into this endeavor the same way he had given his heart, soul and skin on his chest to playing football. He vowed to look forward and (never) to look backward, and he was in a funk for several years after he left the locker room in Tiger Stadium. He turned down an opportunity to be a graduate assistant to Cholly Mac's successor, Jerry Stovall, refrained from staying in contact with the program or his former teammates, and only returned to Baton Rouge a few times since (the first invoked a panic attack and the next two were highly unsatisfactory). No, he wanted to write, so much so that he never settled down and had a family the way (as it would turn out) many of his teammates did.

His LSU football experience ate at him. Boy, did Bradley love (and, at times, loathe) everything about LSU football. He loved playing for Cholly Mac, he loved the overall experience and he thought very highly of many of his teammates. But there were times where he wanted to quit, where the intensity and regimen of it all was suffocating, and where the bruises and the agony of intense workouts pushed him to his limit. Deep down what he seemed to realize was that he would never have that experience again in his life -- one of a deep commitment, bonding and being the focus of an entire community again. That's a harsh thing to realize when you're in your early twenties.

But as time passed he realized that he couldn't stay away, and as he tells his life story, sometimes vividly and at other times opaquely, he talks with those familiar with his teammates, visits Cholly Mac (by all accounts a gentleman who really cared about his players) when his old coach is very sick, and checks out some former teammates. Fortune didn't smile on all of them -- several ended up in jail, one ended up paralyzed as a result of a freak accident, one died young and others settled into normal lifes, but their LSU football experiences left them feeling, well, differently. For some, playing football as LSU was the highlight of their lives (such as Ramsey Dardar, a one-time defensive lineman who played in the NFL but who ended up jailed as a result of a career in crime fueled by drug addiction). For others, such as lineman Big Ed Stanton, leaving LSU left them with a sense of loss that was hard to describe (even though Stanton worked in a family business, was successful, and had a good family to boot).

Bradley's is a gripping book, about a Louisiana boy who did all the right things (except, perhaps, pursue the right woman or choose a conventional career), fulfilled the childhood dream, but found that once he achieved all that it wasn't enough. Back in Louisiana now, it's hard to tell whether Bradley has achieved a sense of peace after all these years having written the book, or whether he's still out there searching for a happier medium, a more stable equilibrium, that will let him emphasize the positives of the past and enjoy the rest of his life knowing that the value of what he learned from Cholly Mac and his teammates outweighs the sense of loss from knowing, simply, that it had to end and that he didn't want to be one of those guys who, as he aged, only could trade in one currency -- sitting around and telling all who would listen embellished tales of the days when he played for the LSU Tigers.

We've all been there, not wanting to look back at certain things, and setting ourselves out on courses where we want to do better than most and find a uniqueness that sets us apart from everyone else. But, as we age, we realize that there is a rich value in a community of people -- for all its warts -- that is a gripping part of us, because that's what life is. It's not about the totems of writing critically acclaimed novels or winning sales awards or getting continued promotions. It's about where we're from, the paths we've traveled, whom we've met along the way and shared our lives with, and how each person, in some way, has enriched or changed our lives, regardless of whether they can't stop living in the old neighborhood mentally after having moved away physically a long time ago. John Ed Bradley realized that no matter how far he traveled with his writing career, Louisiana is home, and the LSU Tigers were an important part of his village and will continue to be for his remaining days.

And that there are many worse things out there than that.

Even if people keep on asking you what it was like, and even if some former teammates can't stop talking about a certain game or a certain play. After a while, instead of having those endlessly repeated stories sound like a nails on the blackboard, they become part of a montage of the music of one's life, sometimes exciting, sometimes not, but always familiar. And, after a while, no matter how far you've traveled, there's something very comforting in that, and those whom you think might have forgotten you or be mad at you for having taken your journey with a vow not to look back will welcome you with open arms, knowing full well that the village is at the core of all of us, especially when it's full of good, memorable people, shared, positivie experiences and good lessons.

It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium teaches us all of this.


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