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Screening of “Run Free”

Runners and movie buffs:

Micah True, known as Caballo Blanco (the White Horse) lived and ran with the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico after moving to Copper Canyon in the 1990s. And while the Tarahumara are relatively unknown despite being some of the best distance-runners in the world, True became widely recognized.

His story is the focal point of “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” – a best-selling book in 2009 from Christopher McDougall.

To honor the Tarahumana’s running traditions and aid their ability sustain, True created the Cooper Canyon Ultra-Marathon, a 50-mile test of endurance in its 13th year. True’s desire to honor the essence of the Tarahumana people is being told in a feature-length documentary, “Run Free: The True Story of Caballo Blanco.” The film will screen Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. at Southside Works in Pittsburgh. Fleet Feet Sports Pittsburgh is sponsoring the event. “Run Free” is a recent winner of the 2015 Bud Greenspan Memorial Film and Video Award, which is presented by the Track & Field Writers of America. It also was honored with the Award of Excellence from the IndieFEST Film Awards and was named “Best Documentary” at the 2015 Arizona International Film Festival.

Tickets are $12 in advance at http://www.imathlete.com/events/runfree or $15 at the door. Fleet Feet Sports Pittsburgh is offering discounted tickets for $11 at its 1751 North Highland Road location. For more information, visit http://www.fleetfeetpittsburgh.com. For more info on the film, visit http://www.runfreemovie.com.

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Childhood heroes: Dusty Rhodes and Roddy Piper

It was a Saturday morning, 1980-something, and I was posted on the couch at my grandparents’ house on Water Street in West Brownsville. Nobody in the room could look away from the television.

Professional wrestling, as it was called back then, or sports entertainment for those born after 1990, drew us in like a tractor beam.

This wasn’t just some nickel-and-dime program filled with jobbers, ham-and-eggers and scores of larger-than-life characters. Nope, it was a replay of WrestleMania.

The first WrestleMania.

Within 10 minutes, I was hooked.

King Kong Bundy, Ricky Steamboat (who wrestled Matt Borne, a person I’d later write about as a sports writer), The U.S. Express (Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda), Junkyard Dog, The Iron Sheik, Cyndi Lauper, Mr. T, Hulk Hogan and two characters I was quickly drawn to – “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff.

I was 10 years old, but I left my grandparents’ house a new man, transfixed by this blend of athleticism, brawn, violence and entertainment. It blossomed into a boyhood obsession. When forced to go to the grocery or department store with my mother, I immediately hit the magazine rack to scour pages of The Wrestler or Pro Wrestling Illustrated. I’d memorize each magazine’s wrestling rankings for various leagues – WWF, AWA, WCCW and, my favorite, NWA. I bought into characters. I truly believed Nikita Koloff was a Russian war machine incapable of being destroyed by American forces and, someday soon, he’d lead a communist takeover of our country and we’d be forced to live lives of misery, and singing Nikolai Volkoff’s version of the Russian national anthem. I spent Saturday mornings watching three consecutive hours of wrestling. Thumb wrestlers, rubber action figures, wrestling magazines – it all filled my closet and were among my most cherished possessions. I went as far as to figure out how to watch Saturday Night’s Main Event on my tiny 9-inch black-and-white bedroom television without awakening my parents.

We went to every card held at Cambria County War Memorial in Johnstown and Jaffa Mosque in Altoona. When possible, we hit matches in Pittsburgh. We watched wrestlers drive into the arena together. We were there so often, Ric Flair occasionally looked for us in the crowd so we could stand and salute the Four Horsemen. How cool is that?

Wrestling became such a part of my life I wanted to be a professional wrestler, and when I disappointed my parents with a report card, wrestling was taken from me.

Those six-week periods remain some of the worst of my life. At least me and a few friends had an imaginary wrestling company to ease the pain of not being able to watch.

Unlike many of my friends, most of whom developed a similar passion for a “sport” many of us believed to be 100-percent real, I gravitated toward the bad guy, or the heel as they’re called today. Hogan, Tito Santana, Steamboat and the like were of little use to me. I rolled with Flair, Arn Anderson, Curt Hennig, Jake Roberts and Randy Savage.

If the wrestler could cut a great promo, now that was worth something.

And when it comes to promos, not sure any did it better than Dusty Rhodes, the only true face who I found fascinating,  and Piper.

Rhodes, now there was a face worth following – the best face in the history of the business. Piper may be its best heel. Sadly, both died recently.

I received news of Rhodes’ death while driving to work June 11. It was a big blow. Rhodes was innovative, charismatic and the ultimate underdog. He wasn’t my favorite wrestler –  Flair was and always will be – but the yearslong feuds between the two leave me with lasting memories.  And no one cut a better promo than Rhodes.

Not even Flair.

Piper was the maniacal, kilt-wearing madman whose character was from Glasgow, Scotland. He brought instant heat to everything he did, and Piper’s Pit was often the highlight of WWF’s normally boring weekly programming.

Piper was a genius with the mic, so much so his in-ring work was not appreciated fully. From Portland to the NWA to WWF, Piper put in great work. He put people over. And, as wrestling fans wised up over the years, he became a beloved figure.

News of his July 31 death hit the news three days ago. Another reminder that we’re getting older and that the heroes of our youth can’t last forever, especially when those heroes made sports entertainment a career.

Fare Thee Well Done

Take a bow, boys. You earned it.

Take a bow, boys. You earned it.

Beautiful. Liberating. Spiritual. Divine. Epic.

It all fits in describing the second, and final, Grateful Dead show at Levi’s Stadium Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif.

Surprising also fits.

Given the mixed reviews of the 1960s-leaning, jam-heavy Saturday show, the average age of the group’s core four, the idea Trey Anastasio – you know, that guy from Phish – was “filling in” for Jerry Garcia on lead guitar and the fact the seven main players hadn’t played on such a large stage in decades, there was no reason to expect greatness.

Yet, just like the Dead did so many nights during an often-magical and occasionally maddening 35-year run, magic happened. And by magic, we’re talking about the type of magic that can only happen at a Dead show. We’re talking a strike of lightning flashing above Three Rivers Stadium moments before the Dead opened the second set of a June 30, 1995 show with their Rain set – Rain, Box of Rain, Looks Like Rain and Samba in the Rain. That made an an otherwise snoozer of a show a special one. We’re talking a post-diabetic coma Jerry giving thumbs up during “Touch of Grey.”

Despite its warts, 6/28/15 was three-plus hours of cathartic bliss – and two sets with a heavy Jerry Garcia influence – for Deadheads.

Setlist – Set I: Feel Like a Stranger, New Minglewood Blues, Brown-Eyed Women, Loose Lucy, Loser, Row Jimmy, Alabama Getaway, Black Peter, Hell in Bucket; Set II: Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo, Wharf Rat, Eyes of the World, He’s Gone, Drum, Space, I Need a Miracle, Death Don’t Have No Mercy, Sugar Magnolia; Encore: Brokedown Palace.

While no Dead show is perfect, this setlist helped offer moments of pure inspiration, and it showed that, in its 50th year, the Grateful Dead are capable of achieving great heights, even during some slightly sloppy moments.

Bob Weir started strong and never relented. He was playful and inspired, hitting vocal high notes during “He’s Gone” and the beautiful “Brokedown Palace.”

Ace was strong Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif.

Ace was strong Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif.

Phil Lesh played a thunderous bass, working a wonderful back beat with the Rhythm Devils – the ever-steady Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart. On lead vocals, Lesh wasn’t strong during “Eyes of the World” but I didn’t mind it as much as many other Deadhead friends did. The moments when Lesh spoke to the 70,000 in attendance and countless others watching from home about the liver transplant he needed to stay alive. Again, just another moment to bond the Dead and those die-hard fans.

Bruce Hornsby and the piano and Jeff Chimenti on the keyboards, those two couldn’t get enough of each other. Their dynamic interplay showcased the joys the band experiences during a good show, which, make no mistake, this was.

And Trey. Well, he entered guitar royalty Sunday night. For those Deadhands who never got into Phish (my hand is raised), Anastasio’s inclusion was reason for slight concern. Would he Phish-up beloved Dead classics? Would he simply mimic Garcia? Would he lead on all Garcia songs?

Thankfully, the answers are no, no and no.

Trey worked wonders Sunday night. He played inspired, and, during “Wharf Rat,” it truly looked like he and Garcia were communicating. As one friend put it, “Trey was practically genuflecting. Heavy shit, man!”

The Grateful Dead conclude their all-too-brief Fare Thee Well tour with three shows in Chicago, starting tonight. That’s three more opportunities for magic moments.

Whether you’re in attendance like several of my friends or couch touring like myself, expect a miracle or two.

Schifino tells his side of the story

Getting the whole story is a vital component of journalism, and when it comes to the tale of Steel Valley High School boys basketball and its coach, Drew Schifino, many of us, including this blogger, are getting it wrong.

That’s the message Schifino conveyed when speaking to him. He initiated contact with me via Twitter in regards to this piece, which I wrote shortly after developing an opinion on Schifino’s decision to not coach the Ironmen in their WPIAL Class AAA playoff game against South Fayette. Schifino’s decision was in response to having Steel Valley’s leading scorer – Dom Keyes – ruled academically ineligible before the postseason.

The timing made it easy to jump on the decision, but Schifino, who remains Steel Valley’s coach, said he’s had little trouble maintaining the trust of his players and the majority of their parents. The fact he remains at Steel Valley backs up that statement, and he’s already anxious for the 2015-16 season to start,

“There was a player and parent meeting before that (playoff) game, and I told them what was happening and what I was going to do,” Schifino said. “Ninety percent were on board. A large majority have been backing me.”

Schifino, a former standout at Penn Hills who went on to play – and play well – at West Virginia and California University of Pennsylvania, knew his decision would be controversial.

“It was one of the toughest things I ever had to do,” he said. “I wanted to be there. The situation was tough for me, and I pretty much knew my name was on the line. I’ve had different adversities in my life, and the main thing is I’ve learned a lot of stuff. It’s easy to say I should have coached that game, and this is something I can say that I’d probably never do that again.”

What Schifino wants to do is to keep coaching at Steel Valley, and he wants basketball fans of Western Pennsylvania to look past the things they’ve read.

For him, coaching high school basketball is a passion. It’s a big reason why he gave up a professional playing career in Europe to return to Western Pennsylvania and take a gig coaching boys basketball at Waynesburg, which entailed a 75-minute commute to a school where many top athletes opt to wrestle during the winter sports season.

He counts West Virginia men’s coach Bob Huggins and Pitt men’s assistant Brandin Knight among his friends, but the college game is not for Schifino.

Schifino follows Steel Valley in offseason leagues. He offers one-on-one training with players from places as varied as Norwin, Fox Chapel, West Mifflin and Pine-Richland. Schifino said he trains an averages five to six players a day, six days per week. He’s in the first year of leading an AAU program, Oh Boy Sports.

And, during those hard winter months of the 2014-15 school year, Schifino drove Steel Valley players to school, as the school district does not bus students.

“I just wanted to give back. I’m a guy who worked hard and I wanted to show others where hard work can take you,” Schifino said. “During the winter, I drove players to school, and I’d go pick them up. People don’t know those things about me, but when I get mentioned, people just see negativity. It’s the only perception of me for whatever reason. I want people to see the good that is going on.”

Blogger’s note: No anonymous comments or comments under pseudonyms will be accepted.

Can’t quit on the kids

Drew Schifino was already considered one of the best basketball players from the WPIAL in some time when he entered legendary status.

It happened during the winter months of 2000. The highly skilled guard, a player talented enough to play any position on the court for Penn Hills High School, carried a good, but inconsistent team to a WPIAL Class AAAA championship.

To say Schifino single-handedly won the title might not be fair, but, yeah, he pretty much won a district basketball championship in the state’s largest classification by himself.

Schifino took over games, set a postseason record for points scored and Penn Hills dispatched several good teams along the way.

How good was the Peters Township, one of the teams Penn Hills defeated, in the 1999-2000 season? Well, the Indians, led by Eric Lang, went to Uniontown and left that overflowing gymnasium with a win. Remember, at the time, the Red Raiders were in the midst of an amazing multi-year run as an elite Quad-A team.

Wins like the one in Uniontown earned Peters Township the top seed in the WPIAL playoffs and a first-round bye.

The Indians reward? A quarterfinal game against Penn Hills.

Schifino put on a show. He scored at will and carried Penn Hills to a four-point win. The rest of the WPIAL playoffs followed a similar pattern. Schifino played otherworldly basketball, his teammates offered just enough help and Penn Hills won a WPIAL title and went all the way to the PIAA semifinals before it lost to Uniontown.

Schifino’s record-setting postseason display drew praise from every corner. Heck, even the holier-than-thou columnists from the Post-Gazette took notice. Considering how those scribes rarely “stoop” to writing about a high school athlete offers an idea of how much attention Schifino garnered.

From Penn Hills, Schifino went to West Virginia University, where he ended up leading the Mountaineers in scoring before being suspended indefinitely. He’d eventually land at Cal U., a frequent stop for former Division I athletes from Western Pennsylvania.

Schifino played professionally overseas and again drew attention when he made anti-gay slurs on Facebook concerning Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

The social media posts and problems at West Virginia were in the past, and Waynesburg Central High School made Schifino its boys basketball coach before the 2013-14 season. By all accounts, Schifino exceled in the role and pointed an anemic basketball program in the right direction before filling the opening at Steel Valley, a location much closer to his home, before the start of this season.

Steel Valley had its ups and downs, players and coaches dealt with behind-the-scenes difficulties, but the Ironmen still managed to make the Class AAA playoffs – another testament to Schifino’s burgeoning coaching career.

Behind the scenes, however, is where stories differ depending on the source, but it boiled over hours before Steel Valley’s playoff game against South Fayette. That’s when Schifino learned senior center and leading scorer Dom Keyes was ruled academically ineligible.

The timing was certainly curious, and the decision obviously angered Schifino, who refused to coach the playoff game, which South Fayette won handily.

Schifino claims he wants to return to Steel Valley next year, and told the Post-Gazette that the school board at Steel Valley wants him back.

The question is why? Schifino quit on his kids. There’s no way of sugar-coating it. Why Steel Valley or any other WPIAL program would give him a head coaching gig following this transgression would be something more than head-scratching.

No matter what was going on out of public view, to let down players is unforgivable. What if Keyes slipped getting on the bus and couldn’t play?

It’s life. Things happen. How you deal with it speaks volumes.

And this was an instance where Schifino, unlike the 2000 postseason, didn’t deal with adversity well.

High school athletics is about the student-athletes. Always has. Always will be. No matter your previous credentials, it’s never about the adults.