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Friday, October 31, 2014

The friendliness of strangers and those you know

Friday, October 30, 2009 started as just a normal day at the Palatka Daily News. Like I had done so many times before on a Friday during the high school football season, I set up our scoreboard page, which is very involved because of the three-day television box of events since we don't have a Sunday or Monday publication.

And then after I left the building, I was on my way to Pierson Taylor High School for the annual rivalry game between provincial schools Taylor and Crescent City, separated by 15 miles along US-17.

So as I headed on US-17/SR-100 like I normally do in Palatka heading over the Veterans Bridge flanked over the St. Johns River and headed south, I was in an easy feeling. The ride I made to cover Crescent City football on its home field was 22 miles from the office. Now it was a 37-mile ride which meant I had to leave the building at 5:55 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game. You could tear down US-17 at more than 60 mph, but you couldn't do it the entire ride.

Starting out early was kind of important.

Heading down US-17, I did something that I hadn't done in quite some time. I pulled out a cassette tape out of the middle container of my car and popped it into the tape player. This was a first in some ways since I had not really needed cassette tapes to keep me occupied since I had gotten my XM radio during Christmas 2005. In other words, the cassette player was not needed anymore, sad but true.

The tape I pulled out was "The Best Of Warren Zevon," which I had in both cassette and compact disc version. October 30th marked the seventh anniversary that my sister and I had seen Mr. Zevon live in the Ed Sullivan Theater on "The Late Show With David Letterman." And it was sort of a sad occasion since he was no longer going to perform, having found out he was suffering from inoperable cancer just weeks earlier. The entire night was him as the guest.

And so on the seventh anniversary of this show, I popped in the cassette. The ride through Crescent City was a little rough, but not quite as rough as the ride through the southern end of Putnam County on US-17. The ride is a disgrace with lots of cracked roads that have never been fixed in all these years and still haven't been fixed. In 2009, the Putnam County commission agreed to a 6-cent increase in our gas purchasing, which meant we'd pay a little extra, but that money was going to go toward fixing the roads. Damned if after all these years that the road I normally travel on still haven't been fixed.

But anyway, I was starting to feel the tires under me and really wasn't liking the sound. Then the sound would kind of go away and I'd be focused in on the road and the music playing.

Then it happened – not even one mile after I had crossed into Volusia County from Putnam on US-17.


Suddenly I was wondering why my car was riding funny and it didn't take long after hearing a guttural hollow sound for me to figure out the obvious ... I had a flat tire. The car started to decrease in speed ... from 55 mph to 45 to 35 to 25 and lower than that. Still, I was determined to get this car to a parking lot and not on the side of the road. There was plenty of gas in the car and I slowed the car down enough to take it yet another mile and a half before I got to a fern-producing plant in the small town of Seville.

Now I'm going to take you back further – back to August 29, 2009. For the second year in a row, I had done 10 stories on some of the smartest kids in our county that had just graduated from the local high schools and were ready to be published in our paper's Lifestyles section. The payoff for doing that was ... well, there was a payoff. My publisher, Rusty Starr, was pretty awesome to work with and he said he appreciated my work and wanted to reward me for it since it was off-to-the-side work I did away from sports during the summer season, especially when Andy, my boss, would be on vacation.

So I got a check for $500. And my commitment to the check on this day was to fix my car. I figured the brakes couldn't cost me that much. Nope, was I ever wrong. I took the car to St. Augustine to a place called Brakes-4-Less. They found more than what was the average brakes problem with the car and were willing to fix the problem ... for $397!

Yeah, I felt raped right there. But the brakes needed to be done and she ran very well, thank you. But that left me $103 to take care of the back two tires on my car that were going bald. Unfortunately, there was nowhere in town that I could take the car to get two quality tires put on for $103. My last resort was a hole-in-the-wall tire shop on King Street off of US-1. The guy was willing to put two tires on for $30 each, but they weren't going to be tires I could ride long with.

I told him to go ahead and do it and made the promise to change the tires when that time came.

Funny how all of a sudden you a) forget you have to change the tires on the car that are only there to help you temporarily and b) don't really have the money at that moment to change those tires. Living alone has a lot of benefits to it, but one of those isn't bill paying.

And now it's 6:40 p.m. on the 30th of October and I'm expected to get to a football game by 7 p.m. and I'm stuck there. Nope, this wasn't looking good.

But no more than 30 seconds after the car hobbled its way into that fern-producing plant, I look behind me and a car pulls up. Now I'm thinking, "What did I do wrong? There's just something I did wrong and this person is going to tell me."

Turns out that the car was occupied by three people – an African-American lady in her 30s and her three young children. They were right behind me after they had picked up a pizza at Domino's in Crescent City for dinner.

"You need a ride?" she asked.

I told her, "Yeah. And I need to be at this place soon."

Then she asked me where I was going and I asked her, "Do you know where Taylor High School is?" 

She said she did, though it was a little out of her way since she lived in Seville. But she was willing to take me the rest of the way. I gathered what I needed to get me to the game, which included my notepad, my binoculars for the press box, two pens and my press pass. Once I got the car locked up, I hopped into the back seat of their van.

For the next eight miles of this trip, two of her children were arguing with one another, slapping each another in the process. With my patience with children, it's amazing that I didn't snap. But I was not going to do it ... I was grateful for this woman to come into my life at that moment and pick me up in my time of need and take me to the game, even if she apologized for her kids' behavior. It didn't bother me for one moment.

She knew her way to Taylor High and I told her if she just dropped me off in the parking lot, I'd appreciate it. Without saying a word, though, she went above and beyond the call of duty: She took me as far as she could toward the football field at Taylor High. She dropped me off at an open gate at the field ... an unoccupied gate, no less. I couldn't thank her enough and wished I had something to give her. She told me to forget about it and it was her pleasure to help me out.

I smiled and left her to go back to Seville.

Now it was a simple walk through an open gate in which I didn't have to show any press credentials and I was heading upstairs to the press box. It turns out that I had missed Taylor's opening drive of the game, but the team's statistician was upstairs in the press box and he gave me what I needed play by play. I was also lucky that of all the visiting press boxes I've ever been to since coming to Putnam County in 2003 that Pierson Taylor's was the best, hand's down. I picked it up from there and the rest of the game went rather easily.

Still at halftime and with Crescent City's lead well in hand at 28-7, I needed a way to get back to the office. It's nice I made it to the game, but without a ride back, this was going to be a challenge. So I called the one person who could bail me out of trouble because he lived in southern Putnam County at the time.

My boss, Larry Sullivan, my managing editor since 2009. I explained to him what happened and he more than understood the situation. So he told me he'd be there after the game, but just give him a call at the end of the third quarter to be on his way, which I did.

The game ended in the Raiders' 49-14 romp of their rival Wildcats as star running back Andre Addison, who would be the county player of the year in the sport, dashed for 197 yards on 13 carries and scored four touchdowns, while he went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. They finished with 435 yards of offense as a team, including 280 yards.

And once I finished doing my interviews with Addison and Crescent City mentor Al Wisnoski, who was nearing the end of his five-year run as head coach, I headed back toward the parking lot.

Larry was not there yet. Thankfully, I called him to find out where he was and he told me he was almost there. About five minutes later, he arrived to pick me up at the front of the parking lot ... the same front that I had told the lady who drove me to the game to just drop me off at, but yet continued to the field open gate.

We took off and I asked him to stop at the fern plant to take a look at the condition of the car and tire. About 10 minutes later, we arrived in the dark. Larry took out his flashlight and put a light to it. The tire was an absolutely mangled mess. I was going to have figure out what to do with the tire and the car in the morning. I wasn't looking forward to it.

I grabbed whatever necessary stuff I needed from my car and we drove back to Palatka ... all 29 remaining miles in which we got back and I started writing my story and Larry went to check on the work that Patrick, our photographer, had done that night at Palatka for the Panthers' game with West Nassau before he turned around and headed back to south Putnam. I thanked him again, he said, "You're welcome" and he was on his way.

Writing the story and putting together the boxscore of the game were pretty easy to do, as was helping with the layout afterward compared to what the rest of the weekend might have been like in my head. When the night got done and we were off the board, I left the Daily News building at around 2 in the morning and walked the two miles back to my apartment, something I had done numerous times before.

The walk didn't kill me. I went to bed about an hour later.

It's Saturday morning and I get a phone call. It's Don, one of our carriers at the paper. I've known Don since the day I started at the paper in 2003. I told him about the misadventure with my car the night before. He was sympathetic about it, but I didn't expect anything. Now Don has news for me on this Saturday late morning.

"There's a new tire on your car," he said.

Before I left Friday night, Don thought he could do something about the tire. And it turns out he knew a guy at a tire place in Crescent City that could fix the issue. So he and that guy traveled to Seville to the fern-producing plant and saw the car there. Don told me that he and the guy had never seen a tire look that terrible before. I had told him it was in bad shape the night before.
So what they did was get a new tire, go back to the plant and put the tire on the car and take the horrible one off. They said it was easy.

And to my absolute shock, I came to find out that Don and his son Larry were going to be in Palatka on this Halloween Saturday and they were going to pick me up. "OK!" I said.

They arrived an hour later and the three of us headed down US-17 to Seville where the car was still sitting in that parking lot, now clear daylight. Sure as anything, the tire was gone and a new one was in its place. I had felt a joy of relief.

I started my car up and she was still running smoothly, but as I began to move the car back, something didn't feel right. I stopped it and got out of the car. The tire may have been new ... but it was flat! 

Yes, flat! Not quite like a pancake, but flat!

It seems when the tire got replaced, the guy who got the tire from the shop failed to make sure that there were no punctures or leaks. So Don came up with the idea to follow him to the nearest gas station in Seville, which at this point was two miles away. I figured the two-mile trip wasn't going to do much damage to the tire. We got there and put money into the air dispenser to fill the tire up, knowing it may not last long.

Don was able to give me the $35 for the faulty tire that he paid for it (knowing he'd get it back) and I took the car north to Palatka, fully aware that I had no choice but to replace the tire. I got into town and took it over to my buddies at Tire Kingdom. They took care of the tire and put a new one on for a little more money, but I was glad to take care of it. A few days later, I managed to replace the other back tire that was showing tread and ready to pop at any time on a long road trip.

The albatross cheapie tires were gone. And my car was riding smoothly again.

But I couldn't have gotten through that weekend without Don's help. Or Larry's help to pick me up. But more importantly, without that African-American woman with the three kids who was willing to take a stranger to a football game out of a random act of kindness.

I never saw that woman again, but she was a Godsend when I needed one. She got the "circle of kindness" rolling just 20 minutes before a football game I was supposed to be at.

Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good.

It's fair to say I was lucky that night.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The night Rob Johnson took control

Wednesday, October 24, 1990, was a long day for me at the Observer.

My day started in the afternoon at Central Regional High School, covering the Shore Conference Tournament field hockey semifinal match between Central and Middletown North. The game went into overtime and in the extra session, Maria Merlucci, the team's top scorer, knocked in a pass from Jean Gardner to win the game for the Golden Eagles, 3-2, and send them on their way to the championship game on Friday night against Wall at Ocean Township High School.

Meanwhile, that was only scratching the service of my day. I had to hurry back to the Observer building to write the game story, leading off with, of all things, the sight on the hills next to the hockey field that Central played on. It was after I got done with my interviews with Gardner and coach Madeline Dutton that Dutton spotted something and made her senior midfielder turn around. There were three deer walking along the ridge of the hill overlooking the field. I'll never forget that sight whatsoever.

"I think that's an omen," Dutton said to Gardner and me. Turns out two nights later it wasn't as Wall won the SCT title, 3-1.

Meanwhile, I finished my story and my boss then wanted me to head to Brick Memorial High School to cover the second half of the Shore Conference Boys Soccer Tournament. Chris Christopher, who was our boys soccer writer, got to cover the first semifinal between Brick Township High and Middletown North. I got the nightcap, which started at 8 p.m., between two-time defending champion Jackson Memorial and Toms River East, a pair of Shore Conference Class A South rivals who were now going to mix it up for the right to move on to the final.

But this game was something more than just a winner and a loser on a cool night in the northern end of Brick Township. No, there was more to this story.

This was the night that Jackson Memorial's best player and Ocean County's best athlete, Rob Johnson, was returning to the Jaguars lineup. Was he injured? No. Was he out for personal reasons? Hardly.

Johnson was coming back to the Jaguars' lineup on this night after sitting out a two-game suspension mandated by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association after an ugly incident that had taken place just nine days earlier. On that Monday the 15th, the Jaguars were in Hazlet to face off with Raritan High School's squad. Now, Raritan had this reputation of being rough and tumble, hardly a picnic to play. They also had a predominantly white team.

You can see where this is heading. They were also marking Johnson, the team's talented center-midfielder, very tight the entire game. But he found ways to frustrate them and get free. Still, he was also paying a price by getting tripped up and having his body banged around. Again, far from a picnic.

It was somewhere in the second half when it happened. The young man who was frustrated having to follow Rob Johnson all over the field finally snapped. In one motion, he reportedly fouled him and called him the word.

Oh, did I mention that Rob Johnson is African-American? Sorry.

Within one second, that young man who dared to "go there" went there. And when I mean there, I mean to the ground in a crumpled mess. One shot ... that's all it took. One damaged jaw. Apparently, that was what was needed for Jackson's amazingly talented senior to supposedly snap. Personally, I wouldn't have condoned the behavior, but believe me, I certainly would've understood him doing what he did.

No one deserves the "name" calling.

However, things got very complicated. The game was stopped for good, a near riot broke out and in the end, both Johnson and teammate Ashley Eure, another African-American who also took offense to what the kid said, got two-game suspensions. Jackson coach Mike Costa was suspended by his school for two games, but he went further than that, and suspended himself for the entire Shore Conference Tournament.

So the SCT began with Jackson Memorial defending a championship without its best player, a major supporting player and its coach. Turns out they didn't need them as they won both games. Now the Jaguars, the Class A South champions and tournament top seed, were about to face off with the Raiders of coach John Crowley, the fourth seed and a fairly talented club in its own right. But the Raiders hadn't beaten the Jaguars yet this season and was 10-1-1 against everyone else leading into the game.

And doing the coaching for the Jaguars was again, not Costa, but his assistant coach Martin Smith. Here's all you had to know about the man in charge: He was quite vocal and he was quite vocal in a British accent. Yes, he was a huge football fan (soccer over there). And if you didn't get to where you were supposed to get, he'd let not just you know, but he'd let the entire complex know! 

In other words, he was a perfect fit to be Costa's assistant coach. As for Costa, he's one of the most enjoyable people I've ever been around in terms of coaches. He also had a way to -- how do I say this -- be direct about his opinions. Let's just say he was not the most liked guy out there.

However, I enjoyed him and knew him from coaching the Jackson Memorial girls soccer team in the spring season. By now, though, he was just looking to talk to anyone but Chris. Understandably, Costa got tired of reading about the fight, the punch, the aftermath, and soon, the legal fees that were about to be paid because of this fracas.

Let's just say he saw me when I got onto the field and couldn't wait to unload his anger and frustration about Chris on me while he was leaning against the fence, nothing more than a spectator while his assistant was in charge.

Let's also say it was a tenuous time for the program and the relationship our paper had with them.

In other words: I had to be the go-between and play Switzerland.

So as I wrote down lineups for both teams and wished both coaches Crowley and Smith well, I noticed something immediately ... Rob Johnson was not in the starting lineup, but Ashley Eure was. I remember asking Smith if this was continual punishment against Johnson and he simply said, "No."

East and Jackson kicked it off on this cool evening, knowing the winner was going to face Brick in the final after the Green Dragons had dispatched of Middletown North in the first semifinal, 3-1. To East's credit, it held firm defensively as Eure and teammate Carlos Vasco were doing their darndest to keep the ball down at the Raider end. Goalie Scott Bennert, though, was frustrating the Jaguars' front line by either taking the ball away from a dangerous moment or making the save to stop any threats.

This went on for a good amount of the first quarter as the teams played to a scoreless tie. And still no sign of Rob Johnson, who was sitting on the bench awaiting his moment to come into the game.

The second quarter was nothing more than a repeat of the first quarter. But almost six minutes into the quarter ... and I can still remember the time without reading the story I did on the game ... Smith glared at Johnson. Johnson took his warmup hoodie off. He began to jog on the sideline in preparation of the first out-of-bounds ball that East hit last.

So with 13:42 left before halftime, Johnson had finally stepped onto the field, his first action since the unfortunate incident at Raritan High School. Immediately, the pace of Jackson's game got faster. Johnson was not afraid to get the ball and roam where he wanted to, but he had East players trailing him wherever he went. Some of his passes were just missing the mark and Bennert was at the other end covering up and sending the ball back.

The Raiders had done a tremendous job in holding the fort down. And at halftime, the game was scoreless. But I could see the look on Crowley's face -- it wasn't good. He knew there was still another half of soccer left and he knew Johnson was getting warmer as the night wore on.

Costa and I talked along the fence at halftime. He told me he was fortunate enough to have a coach like Smith to take over the team while he was in exile over the incident. He had that much confidence in this very vocal Englishman. Oh, he was also still steaming over the coverage in our paper over an incident none of us witnessed in person.

I smiled. I didn't know exactly what to tell him at that point, but he understood my quandary of having to take his ration and me telling him a lot of times, "Yeah ... yeah ... uh-huh." I just didn't know where else to turn at this point.

The second half began and once again, to East's credit, it did everything it could defensively to bottle up Vasco, Eure and Johnson, the three main threats the Jaguars had offensively. But one pass was about to change the complexion of the game.

In the game of soccer, it takes a player just a split second to leave his defender and get to a ball and not be called for off-sides. If Eure and Johnson had worked this play out over and over and over again, I wouldn't have been surprised. Eure had the ball at about the Raider 30-yard line. He tapped a pass by two defenders who were on Johnson. The ball landed perfectly on Johnson's feet and the only person left in the way was Bennert.

Somehow, Bennert figured he was about to be posterized, soccer-style. Before Bennert could even commit to a direction to go, Johnson had already made his mind up and ripped a 15-yarder past the goalie to give Memorial a 1-0 lead.

The seal was open and the Raiders were now in trouble because they needed to become more offensive just to tie the game up. They had played defense for a good amount of this game whether Johnson was in there or not. Now he broke through and Crowley and his team had no choice.

And after chasing the Jaguars all around the field for three quarters, the Raiders were looking like a tired team going into the fourth. That's when the Jaguars decided to put the hammer down. Yada Carew, another talented midfielder, fed Johnson on the right side of the field with a pass. He slipped past his defender and then started coming on toward Bennert. Again, before the Raider goalie could react, Johnson fired a left-footed shot past the keeper to make it 2-0 with 5:48 left in the game.

Two minutes later, Johnson scored maybe his prettiest goal of the night. Another talented midfielder, Damon Richvalsky, found Johnson streaking down the middle and fed him. Johnson once again beat his defenders and went to the right of the goal. When Bennert came out to take on Johnson, the Jaguar star floated a right-foot kick over the goalie's head and into the back of the net to finish out the natural hat trick and a 3-0 lead with four minutes to go.

East pushed up to make something happen, but it was all too late. And when Vasco got a hold of the ball, he found himself streaking down the left side of the field with no one in front of him and two Raiders trailing him. Once again, Bennert felt awfully alone. He beat Bennert to finish out the 4-0 victory.

And the Jaguars were on their way to the SCT final again, this time to face Brick in the first all-Ocean County final since Jackson Memorial beat East in the 1986 championship.

So I approached Smith first and I asked him why he started Eure, but didn't start his superstar center-midfielder.

"Whatever the rights and wrongs, you shouldn't hit someone," Smith started, sounding like he was still punishing Johnson for what happened over a week earlier. Then he changed tone. "I think a more important reason (not to start Johnson) was because (midfielder) Sean Donnelly kept him out. He's played the last two games. Even if it was an injury or whatever reason, I don't think you throw someone straight in."

Then he added about Eure starting, "Ashley was different because I actually thought we missed him more than Rob."

I stood there almost jaw-dropped. I'm thinking, "Really? This game was scoreless until you put Rob Johnson into the game and then he broke down East's defense."

To this day, I'm still struggling with that rationale. Sean Donnelly was a nice player, but he simply wasn't Rob Johnson, period. I hated to burst ol' Martin's bubble there, but Rob Johnson was an exceptional player.

I then approached Johnson, who was doing his first interview with anyone since the incident. He was cool with me.

"I wasn't really frustrated," he started. "I felt like I let the team down (not being on the field those two other games). I get nervous about my conditioning sometimes. But after I got in, I was just working hard."

This was when I knew I was talking to someone very, very special. At 17 years old, Rob Johnson was not thinking about himself or whatever he did. He was thinking about what he could do for his team. He was being the consummate team leader coaches dream of and can't coach up themselves.

And things changed in an exciting way for the Jaguars after that game. They went on to win the SCT title three nights later against the Green Dragons, then went from there to win the state Group IV championship. And Johnson finished out a brilliant winter by winning his second straight individual wrestling championship. In the spring, he went on to win the county 100-meter dash championship.

He was, easily, the best male athlete in this county. To this day, he's still the best male athlete I've covered in 30 years. Johnson went on to a very successful soccer career at Rutgers University, helping the Scarlet Knights to a Final Four in 1994. He went on to play for the New York Metrostars in Major League Soccer before moving on to a coaching career in the sport.

Rob Johnson accomplished quite a lot. But it was at his most vulnerable he stood up and took charge when his Jackson Memorial soccer team needed him. And it was a thing of beauty when he did.

It made that long day at the newspaper well worth it.