Yesterday – Sunday, March 4 – marked 50 years on this planet for me.
Daunting to imagine. Impossible to grasp. How did five decades whiz by and not allow me to slam on the brakes and soak in countless life moments gone in a blur?
Birthdays bring about not only that gaze into what lies ahead, but an annual reflection and flush of the brain cells. For someone who grew up with a sports love affair, playing it, reading about it, reporting on it, walking, talking and writing about it, flashbacks often conjure up an athletic theme.
I share a March 4 birthday with such sports standouts as Knute Rockne, "Badger" Bob Johnson, Landon Donovan and Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. In 1990, I'll never erase watching former Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers crumble to the court in cardiac arrest.
Life and death reminders.
Brett Favre's career with the Green Bay Packers ended on March 4, 2008 – in some ways, a death blow that some fans will never accept, even with the emergence of his successor, Aaron Rodgers.
When you've been doing this birthday bit 50 times, watched up to three generations participate in the same sport, it will stagger and humble you. I've called ballgames with vivid memories of watching a player's father in action. I've stopped dead in my tracks reading over a Brookfield Central game program and spotted the son of a high school classmate of mine.
It can't be ... we were just in homeroom making fun of the morning announcements!
Sports are a great connector and reminder not only of the event itself, but of the surroundings and time capsule moments in our lifetime. Drift back to the event, and the final outcome is now hazily irrelevant. But the vibe and feel of it ... it lingers forever.
Take the Milwaukee Bucks. Young hoopsters probably have no idea what a local championship-caliber team is like in NBA circles. When Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson led the Bucks to the franchise's first and only NBA World Championship in 1971, I saw it play out – on a black-and-white TV set situated between the liquor bottles at a local bowling alley bar. Yep, Mom's bowling league was scheduled that night, and without a babysitter, my brother and I tagged along. I insisted on finding a seat and a tube showing the clincher against the Baltimore Bullets.
If I could, I would have bought a round of kiddie cocktails.
The Bucks had a second shot in 1974, but lost to the Boston Celtics in a seven game series. The famous double overtime Game 6 victory in Boston? Saw it ... on a banana yellow portable black-and-white TV positioned in the back seat of our Winnebago camper. Tucked away with "nature" on some makeshift campground, it was a constant battle to keep the rabbit ears aimed at the airwaves so we didn't lose the game.
That was the second event in 1974 that was difficult to witness. On April 8, Henry Aaron was poised to break Babe Ruth's home run record. Hank hammered an Al Downing pitch into the Atlanta night for his 715th career round tripper ... and I was in a car picking up my grandparents at the airport. Never was my gaze into my parents' eyes so intense when we returned home, found out this sports milestone already happened, and I was stuck at the luggage carousel at Mitchell Field.
Too young to recall the Packers glory years, I grew up embracing the 26 teams of the NFL in the early '70s. The Pack was still decades away from being back, so my team of passion loyalty was still up for auction. On Christmas Day 1971, the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs held an AFC Divisional Playoff smack down in what still registers as the longest game in NFL history.
I was mesmerized at the endurance test these two teams displayed, and when we were called to the table for Christmas dinner, the game continued to lengths beyond anything ever imaginable. Between nibbles of holiday ham, I was sneaking peeks at the NBC broadcast. When Miami's Garo Yepremian booted the game winning field goal in the second overtime, I ran from the table and shouted out "GOOD!"
From that day forward, I was a Dolphins fan. Hooked for life on Christmas Day.
The majority of my memories have local flavor, like Marquette winning the 1977 NCAA Championship over North Carolina. While I can still picture Butch Lee, Jerome Whitehead and Al McGuire in tears, my fondest recollection is the day after, when I enlisted giddy friends and hopped a bus trolling down Wisconsin Avenue because the downtown Boston Store was the only place carrying championship t-shirts.
The 1980 Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid was so stirring that almost every American can pinpoint where they were when they witnessed the USA shocker over the Soviet Union skaters in an Olympic upset for the ages. I watched it in my UW-Oshkosh dorm room, having full disclosure of the final score thanks to a Vince Gibbons news cut-in during the rebroadcast of the game on Channel 12 announcing the winner, spoiling the prime replay drama.
The 1982 Brewers season was an amusement park ride of thrills, chills and spills. I saw it all dressed in a blue and gold Midwest Services usher uniform, the perfect gig for a college student earning some bucks, but also satisfying his sports geek within. Game 5 of the American League Championship Series is earmarked and cataloged almost as fondly as the follow-up World Series with St. Louis, because without the drama of Game 5, the California Angels take on the Cardinals instead. Instructed to lock arms on the field in front of the home team dugout with other security members when the last out was recorded, the idea was to allow mobbed Milwaukee players to enter, but keep everyone else out.
I was crouched down just steps away from Manager Harvey Kuenn's dugout perch, and when Rod Carew lined to Robin Yount at shortstop, his throw across the diamond took the air out of County Stadium. Literally. I can still hear the silence ... it was a collective gasp that paused in unison for just one second before the eruption. I hurled open the dugout gate, positioned myself, locked arms and looked up to see the field engulfed in frenzied fans. My instant fear was the Redbirds might not have an opponent.
Players were hidden in the sea of delirium, but one by one, pinstripes emerged clawing for room to breathe. I spotted Pete Ladd and Don Money arm in arm helping each other navigate the traffic. I reached out and grabbed Ladd by the shoulder and pulled him to safety. My heart was racing in equal beats with the players.
10 years later, when Yount was on the doorstep of career hit number 3000, I wasn't sure I would be able to witness a future Hall of Famer's magical moment in person. My TV sports casting job in Eau Claire had me four hours from home. Without the assurance it would happen the night I was in attendance in a working capacity, it was tough to gamble and justify the long trip to a small-market station.
During this time, my grandmother was ill and losing her fight to stay alive. When she passed away, the funeral in Milwaukee was scheduled for the night Yount could reach his milestone. It was almost as if my grandmother timed it to bring me back home ... to first honor her life, and then assure I was on hand that Sept. 9 to capture a moment in the life of my baseball idol.
Wisconsin and the world stopped, watched and listened on June 17, 1994. That's when O.J. Simpson went on his infamous White Ford Bronco chase in Los Angeles. I was meeting friends at Brew City Barbeque in downtown Milwaukee, and the patio was buzzing with activity typical of a Friday night.
I can rewind to that evening and trigger so many senses: the warm summer breeze, the BBQ aroma, the ice-cold Leinenkugel's Honey Weiss in my hand. I intended to keep one eye on the NBA Finals, but instead, we all got the first legit dose of reality TV. As much as we tried to mingle and tingle the night away, you couldn't stop staring.
Not all of my sports imagery got interrupted or absorbed from a distance. On Nov. 13, 1999, the Badgers Ron Dayne was poised to make Senior Day an historical event. Dayne racked up 216 yards in a win over Iowa to blow past Ricky Williams' career rushing mark at Texas. There was so much to soak in that day in the stands, including the sun.
It was unseasonably warm that late autumn afternoon. I remember the proud roar of the crowd when Dayne busted Hawkeye tacklers, broke to the outside and tumbled to the turf 31 yards later to set the mark. The visual is cemented forever: a sea of Dayne towels twirling in Camp Randall to honor the future Heisman Trophy winner, surrounded in that last splash of glaring sunshine from Mother Nature.
Memories. Now if you'll excuse me, I have an airport run to make.
Hope nothing happens while I'm gone.
Bob currently does play-by-play at Time Warner Cable Sports 32, calling Wisconsin Timber Rattlers games in Appleton as well as the area high school football and basketball scene. During an earlier association with FS Wisconsin, his list of teams and duties have included the Packers, Bucks, Brewers and the WIAA State Championships.
During his life before cable, Bob spent seven seasons as a reporter and producer of "Preps Plus: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel High School Sports Show."
And the joke is, Bob has a golf shirt from all four Milwaukee television stations. Sad, but true: Bob has had sports and news anchor/reporter/producer stints at WTMJ, WISN, WDJT and WITI.
His first duty out of college (UW-Oshkosh) was radio and TV work in Eau Claire. Bob spent nearly a decade at WEAU-TV as a sports director and reporter.
You may have heard Bob's pipes around town as well. He has done play-by-play for the Milwaukee Mustangs, Milwaukee Iron, and UW-Milwaukee men's and women's basketball. Bob was the public address announcer for five seasons for both the Marquette men and women's basketball squads. This season, you can catch the starting lineups of the UW-Milwaukee Panther men's games with Bob behind the mic.
A Brookfield Central graduate, Bob's love and passion for sports began at an early age, when paper football leagues, and Wiffle Ball All Star Games were all the rage in the neighborhood.