Monthly Archives: March 2015

Growing old gracefully? Not exactly

That's me on the left. The hairline receded a little, and I'm pretty sure my nose actually got bigger over the years.

That’s me on the left. The hairline receded a little, and I’m pretty sure my nose actually got bigger over the years.

Guys, we can exercise, party, kid around and act young, but there’s no hiding an ugly truth.

We’re getting old.

Hairs are growing where they never did. Hangovers last so long, swearing off drinking entirely sounds reasonable. Joints creak. Muscles ache. Getting up at night to go to the bathroom isn’t an inconvenience; it’s simply part of the routine.

A couple doses of growing old truth serum were served to me recently. The first came last Tuesday evening when this 40-year-old challenged himself to hang with high school seniors trying out for the Washington-Greene High School Senior All-Star Basketball Game, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Washington, for an upcoming feature in the Observer-Reporter.

I consider myself to be in good shape. I run regularly for long distances and at faster-than-average speeds. I’ve placed in my age group at races. I lift weights five days a week. I play racquetball and walk our dog, Ringo, … ok, enough already, right?

The fact is, no matter how much I train, I can’t hang with the speed and energy of 17- and 18-year-old kids. That became evident during the layup line at tryouts. Granted, the line lasted for 12 minutes – 12 minutes! – but it wasn’t long before the breathing turned heavy. As for getting off the ground, a four-inch vertical leap was on full display – over and over. When it came time to get on the court, I was tired. The kids were just getting started.

The second dose hit the next morning in spin class. Normally, spin class is reserved for Friday morning but Erin wasn’t working and she wanted to do spin class. I originally balked. but relented. After all, spin class is an outstanding way to train for distance running. It strengthens legs, bolsters endurance and commands complete attention.

I’d like to blame her for what happened next, but, let’s face it, I’m getting old.

About 30 minutes into class, I rose from the seat for a climb when I felt something unusual in my right foot. On rare occasions, the pedal causes a slight discomfort – unlike many enthusiasts, I spin in sneakers. This, however, was different. It was actual pain.

So guess what?

Yep, I kept riding.

Who says people get smarter with age?

I finished class, but I knew something was off. As the day continued, I became convinced something was broken. Walking was excruciating. Shoes provided instant discomfort. Of course, I didn’t go to the doctor. Instead, I went to work.

After dropping Anna off at school Thursday morning, a visit to MedExpress was in order and, after a few x-rays, a diagnosis of a foot sprain was given.

It’s Monday afternoon and that right foot still hurts. A few people told me foot sprains are worse than breaks. I wouldn’t know, but I know foot sprains suck. I’m basically confined to the house with the exception of going to work. It’s making me a bit stir crazy, even if I downloaded Trivia Crack.

Getting old kinda sucks, too. I can’t do many of the things I used to accomplish, and I’m beginning to realize achieving certain goals I’ve set for myself may be better suited for less mature audiences.

Now, it’s time to try and get off the couch.

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Kentucky’s historic run brings back the Willard years

Five-star recruiting classes are the norm for blue-blood programs like Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State and Louisville, where tradition, big-name coaches and NBA-caliber talent converge on a yearly basis.

A belief exists that programs like Pitt, which flirted with college basketball elite on multiple occasions in recent years, needs to seek out star-studded players – the ones who stay at school a year or two before seeking the riches of the NBA lottery.

There’s no doubting talent makes winning easier. Just look at Kentucky.

Filled with a roster of future NBA players, the Wildcats are 38-0 after Saturday night’s last-second victory over a game Notre Dame. Kentucky, led by former Pitt assistant John Calipari, can become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to win a national championship with no losses. If Kentucky accomplishes the task with two more victories, it becomes a team for the ages.

Meanwhile, at Pitt, the Panthers land the occasional four-star guy and, on rarer occasions, five-star recruit. On the surface, Pitt shouldn’t be a tough sell. It competes in a Power 5 conference. the Panthers are regularly on national television and the urban setting – complete with an occasionally packed, state-of-the-art facility – is something a lot of inner-city high schoolers can relate with. Yet, most years, Pitt finds itself down the list on recruiting rankings.

It wasn’t always that way.

Pitt once brought in a recruiting class that had Panthers fans thinking big, and it wasn’t as long ago as one might think.

Hot-shot coaching prospect Ralph Willard arrived in Oakland after Paul Evans was fired following the 1993-4 season. Evans guided, arguably, the most talented team in Pitt history in 1987-88, but, like most Pitt teams, it underachieved in postseason play, losing to Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Willard’s hire was seen as a boon. He had been an assistant for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Rick Pitino in the NBA and at Kentucky. As a head coach, Willard guided Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16, a place Pitt hadn’t been since 1974, when the tournament field was smaller.

Ralp Willard had the second-worst winning percentage at Pitt during the 1900s.

Ralp Willard had the second-worst winning percentage at Pitt during the 1900s.

Willard was supposedly the answer to Pitt’s basketball problems, which were many after the program slumped mightily under Evans’ watch. It wasn’t long before Willard, whom Pitino once recommended for a NBA general manager job, was bringing in the type of players who would’ve had message boards and subscription web sites drooling, had those things existed in the mid-1990s.

Willard’s second recruiting class at Pitt was lauded. Some recruiting services – remember there weren’t as many at the time – ranked it second nationally. Second! Willard actually convinced some of the best high school players in the country to come to Pitt and play at the leaky, old Fitzgerald Field House.

There was Vonteego Cummings. The Georgia native could run the point, and was big for the position at 6-foot-3. Cummings was considered one of the top 20 high school players in the country.

Still say that Vonteego Cummings is one of the most unappreciated players in Pitt history.

Still say that Vonteego Cummings is one of the most unappreciated players in Pitt history.

There was Mark Blount. A Parade All-American, Blount was a 7-footer and pegged as a future NBA player.

There was Michael Gill, a 6-6 swing player who was tabbed as the most explosive scorer in the group. Like Cummings, Gill was considered a top 20-25 player.

There was Andre Howard, a 6-7 force from Philly; Isaac Hawkins, a big man from the South; and Kellii Taylor, a smooth-shooting defensive stopper.

It was an impressive group, a collection good enough to make many believe Pitt not only made the right hire in Willard, but that the Panthers were once again an up-and-coming program, much like it was during the early years under Evans.

As for Willard’s heralded recruiting class, well Pitt made one NIT appearance during his coaching tenure, which ended in 1999. Repeat: one NIT appearance.

No NCAA tournament appearances.

Bobby Jones and Tom Crean, two of Willard’s top assistants, quickly found work elsewhere. For Jones, who spent several years as athletic director at Trinity High School, the move was a lateral one to Minnesota.

Cummings proved to be the best player of the bunch. Hawkins stuck around and was a solid big man. Taylor stayed around long enough to be dismissed from the team in 2000, a result of drug problems. Howard transferred to St. Joseph’s. Gill transferred to George Washington. Blount stayed for two underwhelming seasons, but never returned to campus following a Big East tournament and declared for the NBA draft.

Blount  was drafted, in the second round, but it would be years before he ended up in the NBA, though, much to his credit, he stuck around for some time. Cummings ended up in the NBA, too, for three seasons.

Willard brought other big-named talent to Pitt in Attila Cosby, Chris Seabrooks, Fred Primus and Willie Cauley. None panned out, but the latter keeps popping into my mind as Kentucky keeps playing in this NCAA tournament.

Cauley’s son, Willie Cauley-Stein, is a marvel, a 7-foot combination of speed, skill and incredible defensive ability. He’s lived up to the hype he received heading into Kentucky. His dad sure didn’t.

Willie Cauley was considered a top junior college player, a can’t-miss NBA prospect when he came to Pitt. The problem was Cauley ended up in more fights and more trouble at Pitt than he did on the good end of the stat sheet.

I covered those Willard teams though the 1996-97 as sports editor at The Pitt News, the university’s student newspaper. And I can’t help but think of that heralded group every time someone mentions Pitt needs to recruit more talented players.

Pitt needs to recruit the right players.

Happy birthday, old friend

Marley in his old age

Marley in his old age

Hadn’t been out of the University of Pittsburgh for a year when my roommate in a terribly low-grade, poorly located “townhouse” decided he wanted a golden retriever. He grew up with them.

So, the search began for a female golden retriever. For two guys – one a hardcore gambler (him), and the other an unmotivated, wannabe journalist (me) – it was a difficult search. Pure-bred dogs cost big bucks, something neither of us had.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, news broke. A female golden retriever living next door to the house where my future brother-in-law was living was impregnated by a roaming farm dog. The result?

My  Marley shrine in my man cave

My Marley shrine in my man cave

A litter of mixed-breed puppies that looked a lot like golden retrievers. Since they weren’t pure-bred, the puppies were being given away.

Up for adoption was a male puppy. I informed my roommate.

He hoped for a female but quickly agreed to take on the responsibilities. This dog was coming to Dormont, where we moved after an epic stay in South Oakland.

Neither of us knew what we were getting into, but Marley, a 7-pound butterball of cuteness was sharing our place.  Strangers swooned over him. Some going as far as saying he needed to be on television.

Yep, Marley (named for my love of Bob Marley after the original suggestion of Bob – Bob Marley, Bob Weir, Bob Dylan –  was shot down) was adorable, friendly and a picturesque puppy.

He was also an incredible handful with a voracious appetite.

Marley got into everything – garbage, cakes, empty beer bottles (he loved beer), food, the fridge. He’d stick his face into the bathtub during a shower and try to drink water. He’d stop to visit every person walking by, as he was certain every human found him impossibly adorable and wanted to pet him. He ate furniture and shoes. He stole food and beer from people at parties.  It took nearly a full year to house train him.

Marley also quickly attached himself to me.

It happened one sunny afternoon at a nearby park, where he once ran at a toddler, tackled him to the ground and proceeded to lick his face in glee. Marley was tiny and the grass was tall. He was unsure of my whereabouts, but when he found me, he couldn’t have been happier.

From that point onward, we were running partners.

Marley followed me everywhere. When he didn’t follow me, he was watching me. An incredible friendship was in its initial stages.

And to think, I almost gave up on him.

Marley was so ornery and exuded so much energy, I didn’t think I’d handle the important tasks of raising him. There were moments I was convinced I needed to help find Marley another owner.

But then that growing, adorable, wild man would look at me, and I knew I couldn’t.

Over time, Marley became a constant companion. We were a tag team, like the Rock and Roll Express, the Midnight Express or the Road Warriors, It was tough picturing one without the other. I’d walk or run him 3-5 times each day. I’d take him everywhere I could. He’d go hours without going inside the house while I was at work.

We moved all over the place – Dormont, South Side, South Park, Bethel Park, Dormont (again) and, finally, the Westwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Marley always adjusted quickly.

He forced me to be responsible when I wasn’t ready. Those extra drinks I’d normally have with friends, well, the dog hadn’t been out since 8 p.m.  Had to get home.

Without Marley, I doubt I’d be the family man I am now. Sure, I’m not perfect. But neither was Marley, and we needed to learn from each other.

Marley, who was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1998, slowly aged until he hit 12, when his hips began to weaken. He hung tough for a couple more years until he couldn’t go anymore. I knew it was time. He knew it was time. Everyone else knew it was time.

But June 27, 2012, remains the toughest day of my life.

Walking into the vet that evening, Marley said hello to another dog. We went to a room where they left us alone. I sobbed. I apologized for not being a better owner. I told him how much I loved him and how vital he was. I thanked him for being a great friend and incredible with Anna, who was three when Marley died. When an assistant entered the room for payment information, I got up. Marley shot up with one last burst of energy. I’m convinced he knew what was happening, and there was no way he wanted to left alone. Don’t worry. I didn’t leave. We had one last thing to do together.

He wasn’t perfect, but perfect dogs don’t have as much personality. And Marley had the latter in bunches.

There’s some funny parallels to the movie “Marley and Me.” I’m a newspaper man, just like John Grogan. I owned a golden retriever named Marley, and he was named for Bob Marley. (And no, my Marley was around long before the book became a household read.) My friends often said if my life were a movie, Owen Wilson would star in the lead role. The lead male in “Marley and Me”? You guessed it.

There’s so many stories about Marley, but he’ll never be immortalized on the silver screen or in a novel. It’s already been done.

He’d be 17 today, and I still miss him. Anna does too. She talks about him regularly though I’m not certain how she remembers him.

I know I’ll never forget him, from how he rough-housed with friends to how he sat with his head in my wife’s lap while she was fighting off going into labor during the Steelers’ Super Bowl win over Arizona to his last meal – a meatball hoagie.

Happy birthday, old friend. Long may you run.

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Countdown to racing season

Gone with “Road to Recovery.” Hello to “Countdown to racing season.”

Is the left calf 100 percent healed? Not exactly. And the right calf gets awfully tight sometimes, but neither ailment is enough to be considered a hindrance toward impending goals.

And that’s why it’s time to be out with the old.

A couple weeks ago, a friend who runs a paralegal service here in Greensburg and who is a physically fit marvel, made a fitness-changing suggestion via a Facebook message.

“Have u tried compression socks when running?”

Now, compression socks became part of my life five, six months ago. Wore them to walk the dog. Wore them after the gym. Wore them to work. Wore them after visiting the chiropractor. Not once did I wear them to run.

Well, now both legs are adorned with compression socks every time I run, whether it’s a long, time-consuming one to bolster distance endurance; a hilly battle of survival on the streets of Greensburg and its surrounding areas; or a shorter, fast-paced burst to improve speed and kicks. Those socks may look odd, but they’ve been a fitness blessing.

And they’ve helped me become re-energized for the upcoming racing season.

First up is the Pittsburgh Marathon, which takes place Sunday, May 3 (the same day as our seventh wedding anniversary). I’ll be part of a relay team, headed by the friend who suggested compression socks to run with. From there, the plan is to sign up for some 5k, 10k, 10-mile and possibly an adventure race or two while gearing toward the Greensburg Half-Marathon, which usually takes place in late September.

Then, in 2016, barring any significant setbacks, I’m running the Pittsburgh Marathon in its entirety.