Sunday, August 28, 2011

I Believe I Can Fly

Ooops, I Did It Again

Last week I told you about how I delivered an AMOtivational Presentation to the counselors of Camp del Corazon (CDC), a camp for kids with heart defects. Seven days later I was so eager to go to Catalina Island and meet the kids themselves, I could hardly sleep last night. I woke up at 3:16 a.m., which both amused and inspired me because of the Scriptural significance of that number.

A couple hours later, in the darkness of the late summer pre-dawn, my friend Heather Laird - a.k.a. "Smiles" at camp - was in my driveway, ready to drive north. Like a week ago I fell asleep by the time we reached northern San Diego and, also like a week ago, I completely slept through Orange County. Ah, who needs to see San Clemente anyway?

CDC hosts two "VIP Days" where non-campers are allowed to visit so, feeling blessed with this VIP moniker, I was determined to do two things: leave the Blackberry and texting and connectivity behind, and take on any new challenge camp presented.

That attitude lasted all of about three hours. You might be surprised to learn I had no problem leaving my phone behind; it felt good to not be tethered to it. But after we arrived in San Pedro and took an hourlong ferry (where again I slept) to Catalina's Two Harbors stop, my resolve was tested. Joining us at the San Pedro boat terminal was Smiles' dad, Huey, who was granted the nickname 'Mapquest' because of his amazing navigation skills. Mapquest, Smiles, and I were due to meet a camp leader by the name of 'Captain' at the Two Harbors dock.

Captain was there. And so was a tiny motorboat that had no ramp and looked like a white plastic dingy that could flip over at any moment. He tied it to the dock but of course it was moving around in the water. As my boy Nick Golden might say, am I supposed to get in this thing?

"Can you sit down on the dock?" Captain asked. When I said yes, he said, "I've got an idea."  He then proceeded to tell Mapquest to climb in, they each grabbed underneath my arms, I slid to the edge of the dock, and found myself standing on the side of the boat. Sensing that I could only keep my balance for a millisecond, and not wanting to, oh, fall and drown, I quickly said, "Bring me in!  Bring me in!"

They pulled me forward, I planted my prosthetic leg into the boat, wrapped my good leg around the nearby seat, and slid down into it. My heart was beating rapidly but I was safe and all it took was calmness and teamwork. And for me to not hesitate when I saw I was a second from potentially losing balance.

We then sped towards the island, the water cradling us as if we were in a bathtub, and the sun booming on this late August morning. I held onto my white cap with green SD lettering and took in the refreshing wind and warmth already enveloping my sunglasses, ears, and neck.

Fifteen or so minutes later we arrived at the dock for Camp del Corazon. Again the dock was high and wobbly and I was skurred. Relax, said Capitán, who had more access to rope on this dock, which allowed him to tie the dingy to it, get out, and drag me by the armpits until I could plant my left foot and stand upright. The dock itself was creaky and moved around in the water, with very steep ramps connecting to the shore, so Smiles and the strapping Mapquest let me lean on them as we walked.

Camp looked phenomenal. It looked like a cross between an Italian seaside villa and a rustic Mexican beach resort, with cabins lined up on two sides and a main row of office/cabins - the main one was called "the White House" - and an infirmary kissing the shore. Smiles, who started volunteering here ten years ago as a wide-eyed 19-year old, gave us a tour. Shrek, Oops, and Gumby, who have become friends to me now, hugged me enthusiastically. The counselors were hyped. The nurses were hot.

All around us kids aged 7 to 17 swam, ran, shot BB guns in the range, rock-climbed, played kickball, golfed, and swung from a giant rope and harness. When they walked past, you could see scars on their chest from surgeries. Often you would hear an adult remind them to keep drinking water and take rest breaks. The scars were a reminder of their challenging lives but the costumes and glitter and free-spiritedness of the counselors were a reminder that these four days were about just cutting loose and having fun.

I lunched with a table of 17-year old "senior" boys, many of whom had been coming to CDC for 5, 6, 7 years. Most were from L.A. but one boy named Juan was here for the first time from Phoenix and yesterday was the first time he'd ever swam in an ocean. After they hit age 17, all campers are required to take a year off before applying to be counselors. Every boy I talked to planned on doing that and when I asked why, one replied, "This camp changed my life as a heart patient so I need to give back."

We munched on burgers as the DJ - Gumby - blasted Sweet Caroline and Party Rock and then I gave a brief spech. I had no notes because kids have no attention span but also because I wanted to just speak from the heart. I explained to them about my arms and leg, which they plainly saw in my powder blue t-shirt and mesh Notre Dame basketball shorts, and told them we face adversity for a reason. It strengthens us and allows us many great experiences others don't have. Have a blast, I said while walking through the outdoor lunch arbor, and never let anything stop you. Anything is possible.

I then fielded questions and the kids, who had been completely still and silent, shot up their hands. I was asked how I put on my socks and shoes and also if I could lace up my own sneakers (no). My favorite, though, was <high-pitched> "Uuuuuummmmmm....when YOU have an do you scratch it?"  So I demonstrated by scratching my nose and then giving a counselor a quick massage.

These kids were AWESOME.

Afterwards, as they all rested, it was time for me to fulfill a pledge. I had promised I'd try one new activity so a group of adults led me to the Giant Swing.

It was Smiles, Mapquest, Oops, and two firefighters named Nozzler and Booter and, ladies and gentlemen, I was terrified. We figured out I could wear a harness and hold, and then release, some rope in order to swing freely in mid-air. But I needed to climb a step-ladder first? Sorry, guys, this ain't happenin'.

Nozzler, the 26-year fire fighting vet, had an idea. We tied a second ring onto my harness, attached it to the wire about 15 feet above us, and that kept me suspended no matter what. They then allowed me to shift my weight onto them and I'd lift my left leg onto each ladder step and they'd lift my right one for me. It was grueling and scary and took about 15 minutes but we did it.

I leaned back far more than I desired but I knew I was secured and was wearing a helmet. Finally I tucked my right arm into the harness and released the rope out of my left.

WHOOOOOSH! As if shot out of a cannon, the wire catapulted me into the air, where I glided left and then glided right. I was about 12 to 15 feet off the ground and Swinging back and forth. My friends cheered. I started singing Far East Movement's "Let's Fly" and R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly".  True story.

As fun and liberating as this was, I was still frighteningly leaning back (Nozzler later said an extra D-ring should have been used to prop me up) and my right arm was getting tired within my harness. So they halted me and we slowly climbed down the step ladder. I was dizzy and sweaty but a sense of relief washed over me. Then elation - I had never swung in mid-air like that in my life!

I thought about this on the dingy and ferry rides back (when I wasn't asleep) to Two Harbors and eventually San Pedro. I tried some scary, new things today. Nothing like those kids will face but still daunting to me. And we did it with teamwork, communication, the ability to remain calm, and just plain having some guts.

Back in L.A. we bid farewell to the brilliant and kind-hearted Mapquest - God always has a history of sending people when I need them and, boy, was this guy a major help - and then Smiles and I drove home.

We stopped at the In 'n' Out in Costa Mesa for dinner and I told her that being inspired by those campers was a great way for me to wind down my summer. She brought up my success on the Giant Swing and I slurped my Coke Classic. "Smiles, not only had Sparkplug never been on a swing like that," I smiled, "I've never even climbed a freakin' step ladder!"

She laughed and on the way back to her car I thanked her for introducing me to Camp del Corazon. I had spoken to those kids but in their actions and bravery, they had spoken volumes to me. I need to keep pushing myself and trying new things.

We kept chatting and a half hour later I looked out the window. Orange County looked beautiful at night.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Irish Football: We're On The Edge, The Edge, Of Glory

August 25, 2011


I have returned from the wilderness, where I was alone with the bare necessities: my thoughts, water, and a Blackberry Bold 9930. The Irish have consumed my thoughts and I have meditated daily on their upcoming campaign, a weekly battle of good vs. evil.

When we last left our Irish, they were in frigid El Paso, Texas, routing the University of Miami in the Sun Bowl. Little did we know the Hurricanes were swirling – see what I did there, Larimer? – toward a summer of immense controversy. More importantly, little did we know that Notre Dame would have a less controversial, but still eventful, offseason. Check out my remarks from the Sun Bowl Post-Game Reflections in early January:

My thoughts on beating down The U; how it was not a one-day occurrence but a culmination of a month of improvement; and what it all means for next season and beyond:

-       I will be stunned if Floyd returns. If he does go pro, good on him. He has been an impact player since his frosh season and only injuries have slowed him. DB’s definitely haven’t and he absolutely schooled Miami’s trash-talking corners….Credit Weis and Clausen for recruiting him, Kelly for motivating him to elevate his game, and Floyd for working hard to be the next Vincent Jackson (minus the off-the-field headaches). If he does return to South Bend next fall…pssssht….kid will be unstoppable.

-       Dayne Crist is a great guy and deserves a fair shot in spring competition. But the de facto starter, the guy who’s job it is unless dethroned by a challenger, is Rees. He hangs tough, exhibits patience, makes great reads, and showed leadership in consoling Ruffer after the PK’s first miss of the season.

Shows how much I know.

As you know by now, especially if you’re a member of our <inserts shameless plug here> IRISH FANS UNITED Group Page on Facebook, Floyd did indeed stay, then got in major trouble that temporarily got him removed from team activities, then was reinstated. Crist was not the afterthought I figured he’d become and in fact was confirmed as starting quarterback this week.

So with those two likely being the largest personnel moves in Brian Kelly’s offseason (as if head coaches really have an offseason), where will this place our beloved program this season?  By the way, I’m glad there is a season, Lord willing. That whole Judgment Day thing would’ve made USC-Notre Dame really hard to schedule.

But I digress.

Clearly this is the highest level of optimism Under the Dome in many years, due to last year’s 4-0 finish and a roster with more depth than The Help.  I’ve heard from more than one of you that 12-0 or 10-2 at worst is your expectation.

Boy do I hope you’re right but, truthfully, I respectfully disagree.

I do wonder if the pro-style Dayne is cut out for this spread option offense and also, if he can get past Halloween without an injury. Having said that, I think Kelly likes #10’s arm, size, and agility and also figures the running game and defense will carry this team. The guy at the throttle then, really, just needs to manage the game and not make mistakes. That’s a departure from Kelly’s past but does make sense for this seemingly physical Irish team.

My concerns are: Do the Irish have depth behind Floyd?  Can Cierre and Jonas finally be a strong 1-2 in the backfield?  Will losing Darrin Walls hurt the secondary?  Will we ever have a decent kick return game again?

Granted, those aren’t a lot of question marks and certainly the talent is there to turn those into affirmative answers. But I need to see that Dayne is a reliable starter and that the vaunted defense can withstand the number of strong passers on opposing squads.

USF is no pushover and two gauntlets scare me: UM-MSU-PITT-PUR and Maryland-BC-Stanford.   We also face ‘SC with Matt Barkley at the helm and need to prove we can – again – sink Navy.

The key then is attitude. These Irish have gotten more positive press than Derek Jeter. Will they be as hungry and excited as Clare Mundy at a Ke$ha concert?

If so, look out because the roster looks deep, physical, and fast. If we can stuff the run like late last fall, everything will flow from that – turnovers, offensive opportunities, points.

My meditations tell me the schedule isn’t as easy as many have claimed. So on the admittedly conservative side, I say:

PACO PREDICTS: 9-3 and a BCS Bowl.

Tell me if you disagree. Just don’t be a douche about it.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

You Gotta Have Heart. Or "Corazón".

Today was one of my best days in a long time. It started with my friend Heather Laird, a.k.a. "Smiles", - I'll explain - picking me up at 6am at my house. Months ago she had asked if I could deliver an A-MOtivational Presentation to the counselors of a camp for which she volunteered. It's an early day, she had said, but you can sleep on our way up.

If there's one thing I can do well, it's sleep. So after a slumber that made me completely miss Orange County, I awoke as we entered the exciting and ennervating city of Los Angeles. I love L.A.'s energy. It's never lacking and it's always awesome to see the Capitol Records building and Studio City and the skyscrapers of downtown. We arrived in North Hollywood and I chuckled that our day-long training would be at the Masonic Temple because the Masons basically created the Shriners - the organization that flew me to this country when I was 2 and provided me free prosthetics at their hospitals in San Francisco and L.A. from age 4 - 21. Hooray for (North) Hollywood!

I was prepared, as we climbed the concrete stairs into the Temple, to fire up these counselors of Camp Corazón. I was ready to hit them with the emotional punches befitting of a camp for kids with heart defects. What I wasn't prepared for was that every counselor greeted me with a hug. Whoooaaa, buddy! Or that a camp rule was that you go by a nickname of your own choosing so suddenly I was receiving these embraces from adults named Gumby, Apple, and Shrek. True story.

Whereas I was ready to motivate them, they motivated me. It was Rotary's Camp RYLA and Notre Dame first day of fall classes all in one. Everyone hugging each other, telling jokes, talking smack, and performing skits. I saw that a main crux of this camp, and this orientation-like atmosphere, was to let kids who had always been told 'no' that this camp would be their first chance of hearing 'yes'.

I grabbed a pen and revised my notecard because I had experiences with both: as described in my first book, friends who said YES let's try the Monkey Bars, and the Camp Anytown director who said NO you shouldn't be here because you might get hurt.

After about two and a half hours it was finally my turn to rock the mike.

I started by explaining that I wanted my nickname to be The Situation. But after lifting my shirt and reviewing my abs, or lack thereof, I saw that I was short, stocky, and yet powerful. Hence my official camp name, one given to me in college: Sparkplug.

I explained about my disability and how my arms worked but spoke slowly because some of the doctors were from USC. (The UCLA grads looooved that one.)

I talked about my camp experiences and how summer camps, especially for those with physical challenges, can be life-defining. How sometimes we provide hope just by our actions. I recounted how the first marathon relay I did with Team MADness motivated a lady who was running for her deceased father and was ready to quit - but didn't.

You can make a difference, I told the 100 or so mostly young adult volunteers. Because you ARE the difference.

They received it real well and I felt the love. I made many friends afterwards, from someone who is helping actors in the Little People community gain jobs, to a guy that wants to teach me Wall climbing, to young ladies who showed me the scars from their heart surgeries.

It was from the latter that I think I learned the most. I know I have my challenges and have endured my share of "pain".  But present in that Masonic Temple (just a space, by the way, this camp isn't affiliated with the Masons) were counselors who had survived heart defects and surgeries as kids. Many of them hadn't enjoyed the activities of youth because other kids had teased them about their scars. Or they were afraid to overexert themselves. Can you imagine being 7 or 10 or 12 and not being able to run and jump and have fun?

This camp, held on Catalina Island, had allowed them that freedom and now they were providing it for other youths aged 7 - 17. Incredibly, some of them were still going back for heart treatments. Now that's courage.

I stuck around and had a marvelous day. And not just because for the second straight afternoon I had In 'n' Out for lunch. #Winning!!

I met incredible people nobly living and assisting an incredible cause.

We left L.A. before the late August sun had dipped into the Pacific and I did what I do best, sleep in the car. Smiles drove and chatted with her backseat buddy - "Kitty" - and I awoke to my cell phone blowing up with texts. Colleen McD, Larimer, and Ana Maria were all at the Padres game and apparently we were beating down Florida 14-1. I had felt guilty about taking a night off of work but my boss Sue had told me this was a great opportunity and to enjoy it.

She was right. Tomorrow we'll honor Trevor Hoffman, himself a survivor of a kidney transplant, who'll someday be in the Hall of Fame. You can never take anything for granted or minimize the impact it may have when kids get a second chance. Sometimes the one most impacted is you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

How to Rid College Athletics of Corruption & Hypocrisy (Somewhat)

USC is in trouble. Ohio State is in trouble. Georgia is in trouble. And now the University of Miami - that bastion of glitz, bravado, and snarling in-your-face spite long known as "The U" - is in deep, deep trouble. All of these institutions, in one form or another, fell prey to student-athletes - mostly football players - accepting impermissible benefits.

As much as I dislike some of these programs, I don't judge or laugh at them (well, maybe just a chuckle) for two main reasons: 1.) Karma's a beeotch and I pray the athletes at Notre Dame don't give in to these temptations; and 2.) the entire system is corrupt.

What you have here is universities making MILLIONS upon MILLIONS of dollars and fans, myself included, who root fiercely for the guys from my school to beat the guys from your school. Often times the guys doing the beating (playing) are from poor cities and neighborhoods. Even if they're not truly impoverished, many are certainly not well-off.

And the NCAA will not allow them to hold down jobs like their classmates. Coaches want them practicing and playing as often as possible. Meanwhile universities are raking it in via sponsorships, ticket sales, licensing fees, and so much more.

It's no wonder these kids - and they are 18 to 21-year old kids - give in to the first scumbag offering a free meal, or fast car, or even cash.

This is not to justify any student-athletes who break the rules. Especially at Miami, where the freebies allegedly extended to prostitution and lavish parties.

But haven't we heard this song before? Programs have been busted for infractions since the early 1900's. In 1979 Texas A&M gave Eric Dickerson a gold Trans-Am that he eschewed for a bigger, though to this day still unspecified, bribe at Southern Methodist University. SMU eventually was nailed with the so-called "death penalty".

Michigan's Fab Five took dough. Reggie Bush accepted a free crib for his parents. In the mid- to late 90s some Irish players got the school in trouble, though the university acted pretty swiftly to prevent further damage.

The biggest problem is AGENTS. And agents only have a foothold because these athletes, like all students, need money! It's that simple.

My proposal, and granted it's very simplistic, is pay all student-athletes a stipend. Pay the high-revenue sports of football and basketball a higher stipend. That's all some want. Some will be greedy and want more, I know, but you're eliminating the agent as their main source of income.

The other problem, besides slimeball agents, is guys like Bush, Terrelle Pryor, and probably Cam Newton who leave behind a scorched earth. They do wrong, make it to the pros, and their alma mater is left cleaning up the huge mess. Their has to be some sort of legislation, either politically or as a partnership between the NCAAs and pro leagues, that punishes fraudulent student-athletes who become pro athletes.

The hardest part would be regulating a play-for-pay system. And I still believe 99% of the student-athletes are clean and not on the take. But that 1% are ruining programs and it's because we hold on to this obsolete theory that a scholarship is enough. It's not enough and the agents have invaded. Pay the players some of the millions they are earning for you.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Dude, Where's My Car?

My friend Brookie G. gave me permission to tell you about some craziness we endured last night. Brooke is a friend of mine from the Padres event staff. I got a late offer for free tickets to the Seahawks-Chargers preseason opener, and she had never been to a game, so I invited her. We had a great time and, just as planned, exited the gates after the third quarter ended and all the starters and top reserves were on the sideline making dinner plans.

We had our own dinner plans too: find her car between section C and D of the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot and high-tail it to nearby In-n-Out Burgers. After representing my work at a community event in the afternoon, my friend Carlos Rocha dropped me off at the Q, where I waited to meet Brookie. Remember that point. We met up at the game at one of the gates (H).

So we stroll out at game's conclusion and our seats happen to be near Gate C - nice, that means a straight shot to area C of the parking lot! So we walk out to look for Brooke's silver Accord with SDSU license plate frames.

But in area C we didn't see it. So we walk to adjacent area D. In area D we didn't see it.

It's all good, it's barely past 7:30pm. "You probably parked in E and walked through C and D," I told her, "let's walk over there."

But in area E we didn't see it. We then took a jaunt to area F.

Brookie is stunned, and a bit nervous, but insists she walked through C and D because the first gate and ticket windows she saw were C.  I was more preoccupied with the observation that there were a lot of foo's tailgating with Doug Flutie and Natrone Means jerseys. Bro, if you can afford to tailgate, can't you afford to replace the jerseys of guys who retired years ago?

It's 8pm and we still can't find her car. She then flags down two dudes driving by batting her eyelashes or something and they agree to drive us around to look for it. Two random guys, one rocking some Chargers gear and the other wearing some Dolphins clothing, and professing to be a Dodgers fan - ain't that some s***? - and they're driving in circles looking for Brookie's car. Now I owe them tickets to a future Padres game. Dang it!

After a half-hour, they give up and we get out of their car. My stomach is rumbling and we flag down a cop car. We're desperate and confused so we ask these nice cops if they can help because we don't see any Chargers shuttles or anything. No problem, they say, we'll drive around the Stadium but you guys stay here so we can drive back to you.

They point us to a chain-link fence and it happens to be near the Chargers player parking lot. By now it's 8:30 and, yes, the game is over and players are leaving. So we stand and wait by the fence.

Out of nowhere out walks one Karen Madden, my co-worker, close friend, marathon relay partner - Team MADness woot! - and part-time gameday staffer for the Bolts. She is headed home but when we tell her what's going on, a.) she laughs and b.) she volunteers to drive Brooke around the now-thinning lot while I wait for Officer Friendly.

The policemen do return and say they'd seen several cars matching the description but none of them matched Brooke's registration. So no dice. But they'll keep looking.

Meanwhile I notice there is a random leather boot on the ground next to me. Who the heck lost that, I wonder? Then I see Chargers players driving out of the player lot in their Beemers and Hummers and souped-up rides. So I start waving to them while yelling, "Go Chargers!  Super Bowl, baby!"

Antonio Gates slows down, looks me up and down, and says: "'Sup, bro?"    Philip Rivers drives out, looks me up and down, signs autographs for a few kids clinging to his car, gives me a thumbs up, is apparently chewing gum, and smiles and nods before peeling out. I see Antonio Garay and I shout, "I follow you on Twitter!  Great Tweets, bro!"    The massive nose tackle laughs and responds, "Thanks, man. Good luck to you."

Good luck to me? Why would he say that? Then I realize he and the other players saw this boot next to me. They think I'm a war veteran collecting donations. Dang it!! True story.

Finally Brooke and Karen return. K-Mad had speculated that Brooke had parked in an OUTER lot and walked through the main entrance. Guess what?  She was right. There is no one more clutch than Karen Madden and no more embarassed than Brooke.

It's 10pm. So we take Brookie G., who is apologizing profusely, to her car and Karen takes me to Wendy's drive-through and then home. It's all good. Brooke promises increased situational awareness. I promise that if football players think I'm taking donations, I will take them next time.