Of '60 Minutes,' Dave Kindred and a life affirmation
There comes a time in everyone's life when we ponder our vocation. Soon, the The Question arises:
Did we make the right choice?
Happens to me frequently. Ping-ponging through my mind. And while I am happy and fulfilled, there is the whole Robert Frost/Road Not Taken thing that occasionally gnaws.
But an affirmation I never saw coming came this past Sunday when text alerts on my phone suddenly began pinging like church bells. (Full disclosure: I was in a snit at the time because BC hockey was about to gag away a trip to the Frozen Four.)
Texts came from Friends. Acquaintances. Coaches. Teachers. The best one from former Groton town mayor/old friend Bruce Flax.
"Hi Mike. Flax here. Just finished watching a '60 Minutes' story about Dave Kindred, a pretty famous national sportswriter who, in retirement, started writing stories about an Illinois high school girls' basketball team. Thought of you. If you didn't see it, it's worth the watch."
So I watched.
Caught tears a few times, too.
Here is Dave Kindred — in our business, you'd know him as a colossus — who has been there and done that. And then came to realize in retirement how the cachet of high school sports doesn't merely run like a current through communities, but through the veins of the chroniclers, too.
Two-minute drill on Kindred: He's been to 52 Masters and virtually every Super Bowl and World Series from 1969-2010 when he retired. Worked in Louisville, Atlanta, Washington and for the Sporting News. Muhammad Ali's hometown reporter. He won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sportswriting.
He retired with his wife in 2010 back to their roots. He grew up in Atlanta, Ill. and retired near there, in the words of 60 Minutes correspondent L. Jon Wertheim, "to sit by the pond, read and watch sunsets."
Until it got cold. And then the Kindreds, again in Wertheim's words, "repaired to the local high school gym for warmth and entertainment."
Dave Kindred and his wife suddenly went to every girls' basketball game of the Lady Potters of Morton High. Turns out Kindred wasn't ready for the rocking chair after all.
"Like an old war horse, I couldn't just sit there and not write about what I saw," Kindred said.
So he began covering the team for the school website and on Facebook. Became a must read. His negotiated compensation for every game: a box of Milk Duds.
This is where the story could have ended. Famous writer covering a bunch of kids, sitting there every game with moms, dads and grandparents. Worth a chuckle perhaps. But this is where, as Wertheim said, "the Milk Duds became life savers."
Kindred had been covering the team for about five years when suddenly, his grandson died. Three months later, his mother died. Not long after, his wife suffered a stroke that left her an invalid and unable to speak.
It has been suggested that sportswriters are underpaid and overprivileged. Imagine Dave Kindred, whose life's work provided him a lifetime of happy memories, suddenly became immersed in personal hell.
And that's when he realized The Lady Potters of Morton High became more than some team to cover. They were life-affirming.
"This team saved me," Kindred said. "They became part of my community. My friends. My life had turned dark and they became my light. A light that I knew would be there two or three times a week."
Upon hearing those words, the whole Road Not Taken thing finally became a moot point for me. My job has taken me to many exciting places. But its essence is close to home. Hell, it is home. Kindred helped me realize what a blessed event 30 years at The Day have been.
I've experienced part of Kindred's "light" numerous times covering numerous teams throughout our region. They become more than teams. I got to write about real-life, real-time connections to the greater community. Something bigger than all of us. And yet they weren't national stories attracting all the irritating hangers-on and bandwagon jumpers. They were of us, by us and for us. Just us. The same "us" Dave Kindred felt in the bleachers of central Illinois, many miles from the Super Bowl.
Some teams that came to mind:
New London basketball and baseball, 1994: Both state champions. Kids on that team are still my friends today. Tyson Wheeler led the basketball team — "four guards and a soccer goalie" — while the baseball team, Gil Varjas' last state champion, could turn a walk, bunt and two stolen bases into a six-run rally.
Fitch football, 1990-2000: They never lost ... and couldn't possibly have had more fun. Same story: Many kids have become my friends in their adult lives. Loved it when John McCoy would stand on the sideline next to me, hear a play call and go, "Mr. D., this is gonna be a touchdown." (He was often correct.)
Stonington football, 2001-2002: Jim Buonocore rebuilt the program into two division champions and playoff teams. Favorite memory: receivers Blake Jensen and Kyle Smith frequently coming to the sidelines yelling at Buonocore for not throwing them the ball. Buonocore: "Who are you? Michael Irvin?"
East Lyme football: 2003: The sons of Andy Dousis won the only state title in school history. They'd often score first and never score again, leaning on a stout defense. Coordinator Paul Tenaglia, to this day, won't watch the replay of the championship game against Masuk, "because I'm afraid we're going to lose."
Coast Guard basketball, 2008: The Bears made the Elite Eight and came within an eyelash of the Final Four. I rode the bus with the team to the regionals in Pennsylvania. On the way home, the same bus clipped part of a house. We were stranded and didn't get home till 6 a.m. Wouldn't trade it for a thing.
Waterford basketball, 2018: Never quite saw another team capture a community's fancy like this one. The Fighting Mikey Buscettos filled the 'X' routinely. Won a state title on a Sunday morning at Mohegan Sun Arena, whose lower bowl, save a pocket of Avon students, was completely awash in Lancer blue.
So thanks to all of them. And to 60 Minutes. And to Dave Kindred. What a trip it's been. Here's to many more.
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro