An ode to Elvis and George: In honor of Elvis’ disappearance

Of course it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything here. So long, in fact, that I completely forgot how to log in! With that out of the way, and a promise — or a threat — of more posts more regularly, including at least one new weekly “feature” beginning next week, I’m digging into the vault for a “Flashback Friday.” (Hey, maybe I have two new weekly ideas…) In honor of our celebration of “Elvis Day” today, here’s a column I wrote a few years ago about Elvis and Royals great George Brett.

Technically, based on the title, what you are about to read should be poetic and it should be sung. Well, since I’m not the best at writing poetry (only so much rhymes with “roses are red, violets are blue”) and you really don’t want me to sing (think William Hung on AMERICAN IDOL or Carl Lewis singing the national anthem), don’t get your hopes up about this being a true ode.

Twice a year in our household, since I am a huge Elvis Presley fan — OK, borderline nut — we celebrate “Elvis Day.” It’s a day that concludes with eating a meal from one of Elvis’ cookbooks, a rousing game of Elvisopoly, and, finally, one of his extraordinary movies (OK, you can stop laughing now). Today, we’re celebrating the anniversary of the day Elvis “disappeared.”

An oftentimes-neglected attribute of Elvis is his generosity. When I mentioned that to former Royals announcer Fred White one time, we made the comparison between Elvis and George Brett, one of White’s good friends.

Just start with the Hall of Fame. Ironically, Brett found out that he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on January 5, 1999, three days before Elvis’ 64th birthday. Maybe they are similar … in an odd sort of way.

George was drafted out of high school; Elvis cut his first record out of high school. George had batting titles in each of three decades; Elvis had gold records in each of three decades. George flirted with a .400 batting average in 1980; Elvis was spotted at a gas station off Georgia highway 400 in 1980.

Even though most people know Elvis only for his music and his movie roles — OK, to the general public maybe just his music, behind the scenes he was an extremely generous person. (Yes, for the sake of argument, I’m using past tense even though we celebrate the whole “disappearance” thing.) Presley’s benefactors and close friends, who, for the most part, were not famous people, usually were the only ones to see this side of him.   Brett is best known for his defensive play at first base — OK, maybe his hitting and his play at third. Away from the field, Brett was, and still is, an extremely generous person. Like Elvis, only his benefactors and close friends, who, for the most part, are not famous people, usually see this side of George.

White told me a great Brett story. About 90 minutes before a late-season game toward the twilight of Brett’s career, a young family spotted White walking into Royals Stadium. They asked Fred to help their young son meet George Brett. Fred told them that it likely wouldn’t happen, but he would try to mention it to George. To the family’s surprise, George went up to the lobby and talked to the boy for several minutes. From Fred’s account of the story, George and the boy had a fun and lively conversation. Obviously, George didn’t have to do that. But that’s George. Who knows, Brett may not remember the details of that incident, but I can guarantee that boy and his parents won’t forget those few minutes.   One thing I learned quickly about George is that he isn’t willing to talk much about his generosity. (Believe me, some former athletes are more than happy to share their stories of “generosity.”) The first time I interviewed Brett was when we worked on the Foreword for White and Denny Matthews’ book, PLAY BY PLAY. A couple of the funniest stories in the entire book come from the Foreword; one about ice hockey and the other about a black lab named Boo. Throughout the interview, I pulled several wonderful stories out of George regarding some of the ways he has helped people over the years. But, he wasn’t eager to tell those stories.   Even though George Brett can probably walk around in public easier than Elvis Presley can, they are quite similar. Well, maybe they are alike only in their generosity toward helping others. But, that should be good enough.

Now, where did I put those bananas and peanut butter…

 

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B.H. Born: A True Jayhawk

Earlier today, it was announced that former KU basketball great, B.H. Born, passed away a few days ago. He was 80. The news gave me an immediate flashback to a “Where Are They Now?” article I wrote about Born for the Kansas City Star, I thought, a few years ago. Indeed, it was a “few years ago.” Ten to be exact…well, nine years and 10 months, but who’s counting. So, here’s a reprint of that article that ran on April 4, 2003, as the Jayhawks were preparing to play in the Final Four in New Orleans.

As baseball legend Yogi Berra might say about the Kansas Jayhawks: “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

Except, instead of going to the 2002 Final Four with player of the year Drew Gooden and then having the likes of Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich step up and lead the team to the 2003 Final Four, a similar scenario played out exactly 50 years ago for Kansas. After winning the national championship in 1952 with player of the year Clyde Lovellette, the 1953 Jayhawks got an incredible year from other players, and made it back to the national championship game.

Specifically in 1953, B.H. Born, a 6-9 junior post player from Medicine Lodge, Kan., gave the Jayhawks a boost. After seeing limited action as a sophomore behind Lovellette, averaging just 1.4 points a game, Born broke out in 1953 and led the Jayhawks in scoring with an 18.9 average.

“Everybody thought I was a flop after my sophomore year. I was an All-American high school player, but (head coach) Doc (“Phog” Allen) didn’t play me much since we had Clyde,” Born said. “So, I spent most of my time during my sophomore year on the bench.”

Today, Born, 70, lives in Peoria, Ill., with his wife of 45 years, Joan. Although he retired from Caterpillar Tractor Company in the late 1990s, Born remains active with the Alzheimer’s Association. Over the last six years, through a breakfast he has chaired, he has helped raise $50,000 for the organization.

Born, who played at Kansas during 1952-54, went to work and play basketball for Caterpillar shortly after graduation. He played in the AAU, where players worked for a company and played basketball for that company’s team.

He played for Caterpillar for five years and worked 43 years for the company in personnel and public affairs.

“I did a lot of hiring of the technical (engineering) people for about 40 years,” he said. “During my last three years, I led the activity programs, heading about 15 different programs that we had. We had a motor sports club, stamp club, square-dance club. You name it, we had a club for it.”

Playing for Caterpillar in 1958, Born was a member of the first U.S. team of any kind to play in the Soviet Union. The American team played six games in three cities, winning each one.

Born’s biggest contribution on the court, however, came at Kansas in 1953.

Although the biggest difference between the 1953 and 2003 Kansas teams is that the 1953 squad lost seven players to graduation, the two seasons are uncannily similar. That team, much like this year’s, wasn’t expected to do a lot despite reaching the Final Four the previous season. And, much like this year’s team, the questions about the team started after an early-season loss. The 1953 Jayhawks lost their second game of the season to Rice.

But in much the same way that Collison, Hinrich and Keith Langford have stepped up this year, Born and the Kelley brothers – Al and Dean (the only returning starter from 1952) – led the 1953 Jayhawks to an undefeated record at home and the conference championship.

“At the start of the year, we felt like we were the underdog,” Born said. “But, we were in shape and we would outrun some of the teams. We won quite a few games that people didn’t expect.”

Another huge similarity: defense.

“Our defense is the reason we won. We pressured at the half-court line,” said Born. “When we played Washington in the semifinals, we had eight points before they shot the ball. We shocked them a little because they thought they were going to roll right through us. We used to push that defense.”

The Jayhawks eventually lost the national championship to Indiana at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. But Born, the only KU starter taller than 6-1, scored 51 points in the Final Four – more points than he scored during the entire 1952 season. He won the MVP award for the tournament, becoming the first player from a losing team to do so.

“Winning the 1952 tournament was the highlight of my time at KU. The other highlight was being the MVP of the tournament in 1953,” he said. “I wasn’t happy about losing the game, obviously, which takes a little away from the honor.”

Although Born would trade his MVP award for the national championship in 1953, the honor possibly has helped him return to other Final Fours.

“I usually put a note on the (Final Four ticket) application that says something like, ‘I was the MVP of the tournament in 1953, and I’d sure like to get back to the tournament.’ Then I include my address and phone number. I don’t know if it helps, but I have been getting tickets, so maybe it does. There’s one advantage to being the MVP, I guess.”

Eventually, I’ll start updating the blog on a regular basis. Eventually. In the meantime, feel free to visit MattFulks.com or “like” AuthorMattFulks on Facebook.

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Memories of Christmases past

As we sat around the dinner table on Christmas afternoon — my parents, my wife and daughter, my brother and his wife, and an uncle — Dad thought we’d go around and have each person share a memorable Christmas present from the past. Coincidentally, I had put together a similar column earlier in the day for the Kansas City T-Bones’ website…you can read that here. So my answer was fairly fresh in my mind.

The T-Bones column and the Christmas dinnertime discussion made me remember a column that I’ve done in the past, where I asked various sports personalities to share memories of their favorite Christmas presents*. This seemed like a good time to share those.

(*I’ve written a syndicated column, and did this type of piece each Christmas. Lord willing, I’ll try to remember to do it again in 2013. It all started, though, when I was co-hosting a radio show called Saturday Sidelines at WAKM in the Nashville, Tenn., market. Long-time Major League pitcher Bill Gullickson lived in the area, and I’d gotten to know him pretty well over the years. For a Saturday Sidelines special, Bill and his family allowed my co-host, Chuck Morris, and me into their home a few days before Christmas to record the show that was going to run on Christmas morning. All we did during that show was talk about Christmas memories and traditions. It ended up being one of our more popular episodes.)

The first of the personalities’ memories, which echoes my sentiments exactly, is from Fred White, long-time Royals radio announcer:

“I don’t have one special memory from Christmas … well, actually, one really big one. Every Christmas, period. Each one was special in our family growing up. They gave me years of great memories with family and friends.”

“When I was about 12 or 13, I got a TV for my bedroom. It was with that TV that I began to practice (broadcasting) games with the sound turned down. Our tradition was opening family presents Christmas Eve and then Santa came Christmas morning. I have many wonderful memories of snowy Christmas Eves in Green Bay.”

— Kevin Harlan, CBS Sports announcer and Kansas City resident

 

“When I was 4 years old, right after World War II broke out, our family moved into our first big house, which included indoor plumbing. That home felt like a mansion to me. Our first Christmas there, my brother and I each received one present, a toy machine gun. We had great times with those. Of course, times were different back then. But, the biggest thing about this time of year for me is family. I particularly learned that while I was playing and coaching. In the NFL, especially back then, we didn’t get much time to be with our families. When you’re not with family, you miss all the talking and laughing. Being together with family is important.”

— Tom Flores, former Chiefs player and (should-be Hall of Fame) coach for the Raiders

 

“I was either 8 or 9 years old, and my folks returned home to Lawrence from Kansas City, and placed a sack on the floor. It looked like hamburgers (which then were 6 for 25 cents, believe it or not). I bent down and opened the sack, and inside was the cutest puppy you have ever seen. I named him Scrappy, and he was my very best friend for the next 11 years. While I was in the service (during World War II), he was killed in a dog fight, but my folks wouldn’t tell me that until years later. I still remember him with great affection.”

— Max Falkenstien, legendary KU announcer for 60 years

 

“The gift that most changed my life was a drum set I received when I was 14, from my mom and dad. Then, on my 50th birthday, that feeling was recreated when I got another drum set from my wonderful wife, Lib. I had a recurring gift and recurring dream. It was one of those wonderful things that actually happened twice.

“I loved my John Callison glove, but then my old man traded Callison for Gene Freeze, which negated that deal. It didn’t negate the trade, unfortunately, but it just negated the gift.”

— Mike Veeck, the son of legendary baseball marketer Bill Veeck and the originator of “Disco Demolition Night” at Chicago’s Comiskey Park

 

Whether you got what you wanted or what you deserved, I hope you had a wonderful Christmas yesterday and have a joy-filled remaining 2012.

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In honor of 12/12/12…Flashback to KU’s famous “12th man”

Although I’m not a big numbers person, in honor of today being 12/12/12, it seemed like a good time to re-publish this “Behind the Stats” column I wrote in December 2007 for Metro Sports about KU’s most famous (or infamous, depending on your view) 12th man, Rick Abernethy. I’ve made minor edits for clarification.

Rick Abernethy will always remember the headline in the Miami Herald on January 2, 1969: “It’s All My Fault, Blame Me”

“The type they used must’ve been as big as when they announced Pearl Harbor,” Abernethy said with a laugh from his home in Leawood.

Indeed, it’s one of the worst tags to hang on an athlete: goat. It’s worse than “bust” or “past his prime.” It’s as bad as being called Bonds. Well, maybe not.

But it’s a tag that Abernethy has carried with him, to some degree, for nearly 45 years. During the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day, 1969, a game the sixth-ranked Jayhawks lost 15-14 to No. 3 Penn State, KU had its goat.

Abernethy, a fifth-year senior linebacker, was the 12th man in KU’s infamous “12th man” loss that day. He was labeled the goat.

“It bothers me, sure,” he said, “but I don’t ever really get tired of talking about it. I can look at it humorously now.”

For almost 15 years, Abernethy carried the guilt from that loss. Finally, in 1982, he watched the game for the first time. Not only did he watch it; he broke it down. At the time, Abernethy was the strength coach for the Chiefs. He also broke down film for the coaches, so to break down that 1969 Orange Bowl would be a breeze. At least physically. During the NFL strike in ’82, Abernethy had a little extra time on his hands, plus the 15-year reunion of the Orange Bowl team was coming up, so he decided to go to Lawrence and get the film.

For the most part, no one really knew what happened in that game. Not the coaches nor the players nor the media. People had guessed, but no one went to the painstaking detail of figuring it out exactly. Abernethy did. And he watched in disbelief. There were 12 men on the field for four straight plays!

“I will say that I wasn’t the 12th man on the field for the first three plays,” Abernethy said, again with a laugh. “Of course, I was when they blew the whistle on us. But I’d rather be the 12th man on the field than the 11th man on the bench with 10 on field.”

Kansas had a great team in 1968. A four-point loss to Oklahoma was the only thing that kept the Jayhawks from a perfect regular season and the Big Eight title outright.

“In my opinion, when you look at nine guys from that team who went to play professional football,” said Abernethy, “I still think it’s the greatest season KU ever had.”

The week the KU went down to Miami for the Orange Bowl, coach Pepper Rodgers inserted a new defense that the Jayhawks hadn’t used before. It was more of a 4-4-3 prevent defense. The NCAA’s rules at the time stated that a team could sub four guys on a change of possession or for the punt and kick teams. But then only two subs per play. When KU subbed, the player coming in would shout the name of the guy he was replacing two times and tap him on the shoulder pads.

With KU leading Penn State 14-7 with about a minute to play, the Nittany Lions went from midfield to KU’s 3 with a long pass play. The Jayhawks quickly needed to change out of their new prevent and into a goal-line defense. The only problem was that they needed to sub more than two guys. Three came in, two went out. Using his memory and his notes from watching the game film, Abernethy says Orville Turgeon was one of the three but he didn’t tap anyone.

On third down, Penn State scored. Coach Joe Paterno decided to go for the win with a two-point conversion. The Jayhawks finished making their substitutions by bringing in two more players. Two went out. See the problem? Still 12 men on the field.

“Nobody came in for me,” Abernethy said. “(Vernon) Vanoy and I were trying to occupy the same spot in the huddle. I should’ve known then that I shouldn’t have been in there, but nobody substituted me.”

Abernethy broke up the pass on the two-point conversion and the Jayhawks started celebrating their victory. Then, the official pulled out his flag. Among the noise and the chaos, there was some confusion about the call. Abernethy knew.

When the official told Abernethy and Emory Hicks, KU’s defensive captain and Abernethy’s roommate, the call, Abernethy and Hicks gave each other a sad, blank stare. They knew who the 12th man was.

Abernethy took the slow 30-yard walk down the KU sideline. On the second two-point attempt, Bob Campbell ran it to the left for, in essence, the Penn State win. Eight seconds remained, but it wasn’t enough time for the Jayhawks.

“I was devastated,” Abernethy said. “The newspaper people were walking around the locker room, trying to figure out what happened. I was crying. Emory was sitting next to me saying it wasn’t my fault. A writer from the Miami Herald heard me say it was my fault and they ran with it, including that headline.”

Looking back, the game didn’t necessarily come down to that play. KU had a chance to go up by 10 earlier in the fourth quarter. The Jayhawks had the ball at the Penn State 5 on fourth-and-1. Instead of going for the almost-sure three points, Rodgers chose to go for it. John Riggins was stuffed at the line.

“It was just a series of unfortunate events,” Abernethy says of the fourth quarter.

But it was easier for Abernethy to blame himself. And for people to say he was the 12th man.

Abernethy, who had gone to Center High School, moved back to the Kansas City area after receiving his degree in Advertising Journalism. He went to work for Phillips 66, but quickly decided he wanted to get into teaching and coaching.

After returning to KU and working with Don Fambrough as an assistant, Abernethy coached at several schools in the Kansas City area, including Wyandotte, Center and Ruskin. Then Marv Levy offered him the job with the Chiefs.

Today, he calls going to the NFL a “big mistake,” although it did give him a chance to watch the film from that Orange Bowl game and stop blaming himself for KU’s loss.

“The only thing I blame myself for now is that when we were lining up in the huddle, I should’ve known,” said Abernethy, who spent 18 years in the dairy business after Levy left to coach the Buffalo Bills. “If I could change it, I would in a heartbeat. If we would’ve lost the game with the right defense in there, I could’ve accepted that.

“Do I absolve myself from the blame? Not totally. Will I ever forget it? No. But look. If that — being the 12th man in a football game — is the worst thing that ever happens to me, I’ve had a pretty good life.”

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Behind the Stats: Hancock’s “Blue Moth” lessons resonate around holidays

There are certain books that leave an indelible impression. Their words grab you, page by page, and make you part of the story. Once finished, you never forget.

I think about one of those books this time of the year. I first read the book around Thanksgiving in 2005. As odd as it seems, the book is about a blue moth.

A blue moth, really? Sure, it sounds innocent enough. Harmless. Not tough enough to be a hero such as one of the Avengers, but certainly a loveable underdog in a Saturday morning cartoon. Except in Bill Hancock’s life.

The blue moth is unsafe. Malicious. Tainted. The blue moth is the best way for Hancock to describe and deal with the grief of losing a son.

Dave Matthews sang about it in one of his solo songs: “You should never have to bury your own babies.”

Bill and Nicki Hancock did just that more than a decade ago. Their son, Will, was the media relations contact for the Oklahoma State University men’s basketball team. He was on the plane on January 27, 2001, that crashed in Colorado, claiming his life as well as nine others from the OSU basketball family. Will was 31 years old.

“(The grief) doesn’t get easier, but you learn to live with it,” Bill Hancock told me when I originally wrote this column in 2005. “That’s an important distinction for me. You think this overwhelming grief and helplessness will be with you constantly but I now know that the blue moth will come two or three times a day, whenever it wants to, and then go away.”

If you didn’t know about the accident when talking with Bill Hancock, you’d likely have no idea a tragedy has befallen such a wonderful person. Think of your favorite teacher or coach or uncle and you have Bill Hancock.

Hancock, who is executive director of the NCAA’s new football playoff after serving as the first Bowl Championship Series administrator … after serving as the organization’s long-time director of the Men’s Basketball Tournament, is one of the most respected men in media circles. He’s proof that life isn’t fair sometimes.

Especially this time of the year; a time of family and giving thanks. For anyone who’s suffered a loss, the holidays in particular are tough. Always. But Will Hancock loved this time of year so much. He was a big kid inside. He genuinely enjoyed sitting with the family on Thanksgiving Day. And then participating in their annual touch football game on Friday.

“The holidays are really difficult because of the memories and because I know Will ought to be with us at the Thanksgiving table,” Bill says. “We have (three) terrific grandchildren, so the thrust for me now is making sure the holidays are memorable for them for the good times and not that their granddad’s curled up in tears in the chair.”

The blue moth and one of those grandchildren, Andie, Will’s daughter who was 72 days old on that wretched January night, are the focus of Bill’s first book, “Riding with the Blue Moth.” Understandably, Hancock says his number one wish in life is that he wouldn’t have had a reason to write this book. But anyone who reads it can’t help but be better for it.

The book chronicles a 36-day cross-country bike ride that Hancock took several months after the crash.

Early in the book, Bill writes about how he had planned on taking the bike ride before the crash. In fact, Bill and Nicki Hancock spent much of that unseasonably warm January 27th day near their Kansas City home shopping for a vehicle, a SAG vehicle, if you will. Bill had a dream of riding his bike across America.

In July of that year, with Nicki as his “support and guidance,” Bill set off on the adventure. At the time it wasn’t for therapy or release. It was to ride. And to be with his wife.

We were going on an adventure,” he writes in the book. “Nothing more.

The ride helped his soul, though.

“In hindsight, it became much more than an adventure,” he says, “but I didn’t understand that at the time. From my vantage point, it was a healing time for me but even more importantly I have learned things that have helped other people.”

The biggest outlet for that help has come in the form of “Riding with the Blue Moth.” The book is Charles Kuralt, Jimmy Stewart and John Denver rolled into one, with a little Levi Leipheimer sprinkled on top. It’s a poignant look at dealing with grief, a father’s love for his oldest son, and an intriguing look at America passing by at 12 miles per hour on two wheels.

The book is a constant roller coaster. One page will bring tears to your eyes as Hancock describes witnessing a father yelling at his young son at a service station in New Mexico.

I wanted to grab him by the chest hairs and tell him, ‘You idiot! Do you realize that child is your greatest treasure? You have the luxury of hugging your son, telling him that you love him and buying a hot fudge sundae for him. That is your privilege, not your right. Do not take it for granted!

A few pages later, you’ll be laughing when Hancock writes about the next morning’s ride, which came on the heels of an overnight rain shower.

An army of frogs had trained in the flooded ditches and several made the mistake of conducting maneuvers on the highway.

“Riding with the Blue Moth” oozes with life lessons. That might be Hancock’s disputing that he’s an athlete for riding his 2,746 miles, stating: “I was just putting one foot in front of the other.

Or his encounter with Steve, who ran a roadside peach stand in Georgia. Steve, whom Hancock nicknamed the “Peach Angel,” gave Hancock a free peach and then they chatted for awhile.

“His message was what you’ve got is what you’ve got,” Hancock says. “I still get chills thinking about the 15 minutes that I spent with him that morning. It was the singular most important moment of the trip, and one of the most important in my life.

“Another lesson from that is when Steve went out there that day, he didn’t know he was going to meet a biker. He was just going out to do his daily chores. That could happen to us. We might be going out for our daily chores and run in to somebody and change his or her life.”

After each day’s ride, Hancock offers words of wisdom to Will’s daughter, Andie. They’re words that apply to all of us.

And what lesson did Hancock discover about people from those 36 days?

“I learned that people are compassionate and warm and interested,” he said. “Every time I started a conversation with someone, they wanted to know where I was going and what I thought I would experience. They gave me water and food. They cared.

“It confirmed that people, especially Americans, are wonderful. I told only one person that I worked at the NCAA, and I didn’t tell anyone about the accident. To them, I was just a guy on a bike.”

During the ride in the summer of 2001, Hancock also learned about the blue moth of grief. How to understand it. How to live with it. And how he has wonderful SAG assistance all around. That’s especially helpful to know during the holidays.

“Oh, gosh, we still have so much to be thankful for,” he said. “Primarily that we can live on this planet with these wonderful people. You can’t imagine the tsunami of warmth that we’ve received. Three things that have carried us through: faith, family, friends. … I’m thankful that I have the three F’s.”

A few times during “Riding with the Blue Moth,” you’ll read about how many lives Will Hancock touched during his short time on this earth. Now, his spirit, through Bill Hancock, is touching even more.

As soon as you’re done reading this article, do something for me: thank your family. Tell them how much you love them. And hug them. Not one of those half-hearted, nice-to-see-you-again-today kind of hugs. Rather, give them a George Bailey “It’s a Wonderful Life” mugging-the-kids-after-getting-a-second-chance kind of hug.

And then say a prayer of thanks for Bill Hancock and his family. For raising a wonderful son. For loving him the way he does. And for giving us a life-changing book.

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Behind the Stats: Monday’s act of courage a lesson for all

*The following is an updated reprint. It appeared originally on Kansas City’s Metro Sports’ website in 2006.

It takes courage to do what’s right.

On Tuesday night, my wife and I tried explaining that to one of our kids. Avoiding peer pressure. Standing up for what you believe in. And so on. He seemed to understand. But, who could blame him if he didn’t?

That lesson’s tough for most of us. Sure, we know what we believe to be right or wrong, but we don’t always have the guts to act upon it.

That lesson gets reinforced for me whenever I think of former major-league outfielder Rick Monday because I can’t help but think of something he did on the field.

Really, we all owe Monday a hand-over-the-heart-salute of thanks for something he did more than 35 years ago today.

As any long-time baseball player will say, each ballpark has a unique feeling. Its own personality. One pitch into the bottom of the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium onApril 25, 1976, Monday, playing centerfield then for the Chicago Cubs, realized the stadium’s “breathing pattern got out of sync.” He heard a commotion from the left-field corner.

When Monday looked over, he saw two guys running toward left-center. One of them had something under his arm. They stopped and spread the item on the ground as if they were preparing a picnic. One of the two guys then took out a shiny can of a liquid and started squirting it onto the piece of cloth.

Monday immediately realized that the item on the ground was the American flag. The liquid doused onto the flag turned out to be lighter fluid.

“At that moment I was mad,” Monday told me by phone. He then did what he thought was the right thing to do. The only thing to do. He started running toward the two men to stop them. One of the guys lit a match, but the wind blew it out. Then, he lit a second one.

“I don’t know what I was thinking, if I was thinking about trying to bowl them over, or what,” Monday says. “I was close enough, though, that I remember thinking, ‘They can’t burn it if they don’t have it.’ So, I reached down and grabbed the flag.”

When you look at the photograph or the video that’s circulating on the Internet, you’ll notice that Monday’s timing was so perfect that the person with the second match proceeded to put the match to the ground, thinking the flag was still there.

Monday ran toward the Dodgers’ dugout, passing then-Dodger third-base coach Tommy Lasorda, who was shouting every obscenity known to man.

“I told Tommy, ‘What you were yelling would make a longshoreman blush,’” Monday, who eventually played for Lasorda inLos   Angeles, told me in 2006.

After the crowd of nearly 40,000 that Sunday afternoon began to boo the two guys for their despicable act and then cheer as security escorted the two off the field, the stadium grew quiet for a moment. Then, Monday’s proof that what he did was the right thing.

“Without any prompting at all, without the organ starting, without anything being put on the diamond vision,” remembers Monday, “one section of the stadium and then another and then another, began to sing ‘God Bless America.’ When those people reacted that way, it brought goose bumps, and it still does when I reflect upon it.”

Monday, whom the Kansas City A’s drafted with the first-ever selection in the Major League draft in 1965, the same year he started a six-year stint in the Marine Corps Reserves, had a solid 19-year big-league career. He played in nearly 2,000 games, compiling 1,619 hits and 775 RBIs.

After posting what turned out be career highs in home runs (32) and RBIs (77) with Chicago in 1976, the Cubs traded Monday to the Dodgers, where he played the next eight seasons as an outfielder for Lasorda, who took over as manager in ’77. In 1981, his solo homer with two outs in the top of the ninth againstMontreal, sent the Dodgers to the World Series.

Despite the numbers, Monday says that if fans mainly remember him for saving the flag, instead of a game-winning hit or a great catch or a long career, that’s just fine.

“It wouldn’t bother me if that’s what they remember,” said Monday, who receives letters every month from fans about that one moment, which the Baseball Hall of Fame voted as one of the 100 Classic Moments in the History of the Game. “It would bother me more if people asked, ‘Why didn’t you stop them?’”

Monday added that not only has he not had any communications with the two guys who tried to ignite the flag, but he’s never even wondered why they were attempting to do it. He says it’s not important. It was wrong, “regardless of the message.”

When it comes to that April day, Monday quickly points out that, even though he’s not a fan of the recognition he’s received, he’d do the same thing again.

“(The act) hasn’t changed me, but I have been embarrassed by the attention placed on me, because I didn’t do anything,” he says. “There isn’t anyone I know, fortunately, who wouldn’t have done the same thing. I am just honored to be able to maybe tell the story to someone who might stop for a moment and think about what’s right or wrong.

“And for someone to think that the reason we all have our rights and freedoms is that – to obviously greater extents than what I did in stopping two guys from burning a flag – somewhere along the line, someone has stopped to do the right thing.”

To contact Matt Fulks or for more information about his books, please visit MattFulks.com. Feel free to comment on Rick Monday’s act from April 25, 1976, below. We will make sure that Mr. Monday receives messages directed for him.

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Behind the Stats: Looking back at Lefebvre’s battle with depression

For those of you who are outside of the Kansas City area, please hang with me for a moment. On Tuesday, a popular Kansas City weather guy and TV personality, Don Harman, committed suicide. He was 41. Don Harman was one of the funniest guys you’d find on TV in Kansas City.  Unbeknownst to viewers and probably a lot of people around Don, however, he battled depression for years. This morning, I overheard two guys talking about Harman. One of them said how he couldn’t comprehend how a guy who seemingly had it all — a great job on TV, beloved by thousands and thousands of people, with a wife and a young daughter — could fight depression and, eventually, take his own life. Frankly, that’s impossible for a lot of people to process. That guy’s statement, though, reminded me of another young, seemingly happy media personality who had it all, but battled with depression: Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre.

Lefebvre suffered depression during much of the 2005 season. In his case, he was able to get help that worked. Before Opening Day, 2006, Ryan allowed me to share his story on Metro Sports’ website. For those of you who wonder how a guy can battle depression, or for those of you who might have your own demons, here is that column from March 2006.

BEHIND THE STATS: Lefebvre back on track after depression

It was a typical sun-filled Midwestern summer afternoon, August 7 of last year. The temperature hovered around 90 degrees. Perfect for baseball, but even better for some time on a lake.

Ryan Lefebvre had the best of both worlds. After his job of announcing that Sunday afternoon’s Royals game on radio, Lefebvre planned to go to hang out with some friends at his home on a Kansas City area lake for an afternoon of playing on the water and cooking out.

What a life. Being in his early 30s, single, calling games for a major-league team. Along with those came a nice income, a four-bedroom house, two expensive cars, not to mention a boat and a jet ski parked at his dock. Then there are the road trips, spent at incredible ballparks, the best hotels and exquisite restaurants. As if those things aren’t enough for a guy’s dream life, Lefebvre’s girlfriend at the time was a former Miss USA runner-up.

Only, as Lefebvre was hanging out that afternoon with his girlfriend and Dave Witty, the Royals’ Vice President of Communications and Marketing, and Witty’s family, he felt uneasy.

The feeling worsened. He was alone, jealous, empty, a hole in his stomach. He didn’t know this feeling. He knew it wasn’t alcohol or drug-induced. He was all too familiar with those nightmares before sobering up in January 1998. No, this was different. Much different.

After everyone left that night, Lefebvre had a breakdown. As a child would when he’s scared, Lefebvre went to his bedroom closet and hid, huddled in the corner, and cried uncontrollably for an hour.

As he went to bed that night, Lefebvre didn’t think he could sleep this one off. He was right. The next morning, he called his mom in New Mexico.

“She’s been through clinical depression twice, and she’s been through disappointments with me during my entire life,” said Lefebvre. “She knew something was different with this. She made me promise that I’d make an appointment (with a psychologist) that day.”

That afternoon, August 8, Lefebvre began a life-changing process.

NOT JUST A WOMAN’S ILLNESS

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 6 million men are treated for depression each year. The number of women treated? A little more than 12 million.

In today’s world, or really at any other time in history, men are taught to be tough. It isn’t cool to talk about feelings. Heck, it isn’t even hip to think about feelings.

Hollywood and Madison Avenue both reinforce that idea more than ever today. They show a world that Lefebvre was living with the cash, cars, chicks and celebrity. Crying and depression and all that other womanly stuff is taboo for today’s “real” man.

“Even though I had everything I thought I wanted, I was miserable,” said Lefebvre, who still takes medication for major depressive disorder. “I had everything but at the same time I had nothing. My purpose had been fulfilled, but I was empty.”

The result often becomes suicide. In fact, the Mayo Clinic reports that depressed men are four times more likely to commit suicide than depressed women.

Despite his personal hell, Lefebvre says he never seriously considered killing himself, although at one point late in the season, he realized that was an option. It came on Oct. 1, the day before the season finale in Toronto.

Lefebvre suffered another breakdown.

“Short of planning my own suicide, it occurred to me that if worst came to absolute worst, there was a way out,” he says. “For a man of faith, I realized that it wasn’t about quitting on life, it was about being in a better place with God. It wasn’t as dramatic as people would assume; it was more peaceful. But it also crossed my mind how much it would hurt people, namely my family and friends, if I were to do that.”

LIVING UP TO AN IMAGE

On the surface, Ryan Lefebvre’s childhood in southern California sounds blissful. He lived in Manhattan Beach with his parents. During his early childhood, his mom, Jeane, was a model. His dad, Jim, was a baseball player.

Indeed, Jim Lefebvre was a solid major-league infielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers during 1965-72, where he played in two World Series. After doing some acting, including television roles on “Gilligan’s Island” and “Batman,” Jim Lefebvre went on to manage Seattle, the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee. He’s also coached with the Dodgers, San Francisco and Oakland.

Most recently, he managed China in the World Baseball Classic.

But Ryan’s relationship with his dad throughout the years has been OK at best. Ryan’s parents separated when he was 18 months old and divorced when he was 6 years old. He grew up with his mom, whom he considers a close friend.

“There’s a certain image attached to my father being a major leaguer and to my mom being a former model,” Lefebvre said. “As they went their separate ways after the divorce, I thought I needed to get their attention through an image that was either taught to me, or others believed I should portray. Regardless, I wasn’t living my own life.”

Take baseball. Lefebvre enjoyed playing through his years at the University of Minnesota and then a season in the Cleveland organization, but he was playing because of his parents. Truth be told, it wasn’t making him happy. All the while, beginning early in his high school years and continuing until his late 20s, Lefebvre turned to alcohol and drugs.

“I think most people drink or do drugs because it makes them think they’re portraying the image that everyone wants,” he said. “But the problems don’t actually go away.”

Even after Lefebvre sobered in 1998, shortly before his final season with the Minnesota Twins and his first with the Royals, his burden grew. He likens it to carrying a backpack of rocks representing life’s good and bad experiences, and expectations. The rocks, much like life’s burdens, are dead weight.

“Sometimes the burden becomes too much and you can’t carry anymore,” he said. “I think it’s an interesting analogy because putting the rocks in your backpack puts them in a place that you can’t see them, but no one else can, either.”

Ryan’s mom carried many of his rocks on a daily basis during his bout with depression. He still hasn’t told his dad.

“I wanted to sit down with him alone during spring training and talk to him about it, but we couldn’t work out our schedules,” said Lefebvre. “I’m trying to plan a trip for him to come to my house in late April so we can sit down and talk about it.”

THE LONG SEASON

As the Royals continued working toward their club-record 106 losses in 2005, Lefebvre did his best to make it through each day, thanks to a team of people led by his mom and his psychologist, Dale Williamson.

On a perfect day, he could escape his thoughts for 30 minutes or so. Unfortunately, there weren’t many of those.

Although going to the ballpark everyday opened up the possibility of questions from others about Lefebvre’s abnormally somber demeanor, that sure beat the “living hell” that he faced with being alone at home or in a hotel room, trapped with his thoughts.

Those times never were easy. Like September 16, in Cleveland, when Lefebvre was going to wait until everyone had left for the stadium, and then call in sick before checking himself into a hospital. His mom convinced him otherwise.

Even life outside of hotel rooms wasn’t easy. Three weeks before the Cleveland incident, Lefebvre suffered a public panic attack while out for a night with Mike Sweeney and John Buck in New York.

“I don’t think anybody had any idea how deeply troubled I was,” said Lefebvre, who talked with his mom at least twice a day from Aug. 7 until the end of the season. She often reminded him that fighting depression was “one day at a time, one step at a time and one foot in front of the other.”

Unlike his previous 11 years announcing in the big leagues, Lefebvre doesn’t remember much about the games on the field in 2005. Looking back, he recalls the early part of the season. Then, as June rolls around, details are fuzzy. July and into August become more blurry.

“From then on, I remember hardly anything from the field,” he admits. “But I remember vivid details of some of my worst days at home and on the road. Like most people, I’ve lost my personal problems in my work. But with this, I simultaneously called the games and focused on my problems at the same time.”

And he remained to himself, embarrassed and unwilling to talk about his depression. In fact, only a handful of people knew of Lefebvre’s torment. He didn’t even tell his radio partner, Denny Matthews, or their producer/engineer, Don Free. Not until their last day in Arizona for spring training.

THE BISHOP’S FRIENDSHIP

As with former alcoholics and drug addicts, most people who have suffered through depression say that recovery is a long and arduous process. Usually, it’s the rest of the person’s life.

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’m cured,” Lefebvre agrees.

Lefebvre’s road to recovery, however, gained momentum in early November 2005, when he traveled to Florida for a wedding. As he strolled down the beach one day, watching families build sand castles along the Gulf of Mexico shore, he realized he felt better. He had an “even keel.” He was thinking more rationally.

Lefebvre decided to spend the rest of the offseason doing things he wanted to do. Things that would help him in recovery. He volunteered at John Knox Village and Lee’s Summit Hospital. He hosted a weekly bible study for high school students at his house. He got back to playing weekly pick-up hockey games with a few friends, including Matthews.

And, he planned vacations. One to Jamaica, where he’d visit Gordon Bennett, one of his former principals who’s now a bishop in the Catholic Church; and then his first trip to Europe, specifically Rome.

“Meeting with Bishop Bennett was almost my own ‘Tuesdays with Morrie,’” Lefebvre said, referring to the best-selling book. “During our discussions I asked him what common characteristics he saw in a good man. One that stuck like glue was the difference between a tough man and a brave man.

“He showed me that tough gets you nowhere. Or, you can be brave and be the type of man to say, ‘this is what happened to me.’”

Lefebvre’s also sharing his story with others. It started as a self-realization of how far he’d come. It’s transformed, though, into helping other men.

Said Lefebvre: “When I began sharing this with people, it was incredible how many men would come up to me and say, ‘I haven’t really told anyone about this…,’ and then they’d tell me their story about depression.

“There are too many men in this world who are more frightened by the cure than they are the disease. They settle into not being happy and feeling like they can deal with it. But there’s no better feeling than chiseling away all those layers of grime that collects around our hearts, and getting back to who God designed you to be.”

Lefebvre’s biggest project, however, is still a work in progress. He wants to touch a bigger audience through a book, which is near completion.

“I accept what happened to me, and I’m not ashamed of it now,” he said. “Maybe a man who’s ashamed to go to therapy and share his emotions with a doctor, can read a story or listen to my experience and draw strength from it. That’s all I wanted and needed to hear during the whole thing. When you’re going through this, you want to feel like you’re not losing your mind, that you’re normal and you’re going to be OK.

“I know how that felt, and I want to provide that for someone else.”

EVERY DAY IS OPENING DAY

The 2006 season marks Ryan Lefebvre’s 12th opening day as a major-league announcer. He enters this one, however, with a little more optimism, a little more zeal.

“I’m excited about this season because, regardless of how the team does on the field, I’m going to just go out and enjoy it,” he said.

After all, it was just six months ago when Lefebvre felt he’d be the one guy who ended up in an institution.

“Going through this was horrible; there’s no other way to describe it,” he said. “But, with all the things I’ve discovered, had I not gone through this I wouldn’t feel as good as I do now. This was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, but at the same time it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.

“I’ve never felt better in my life. I’ve never experienced the joy that I have now.”

If you’d like to contact Ryan Lefebvre, you can post comments below or send them through www.MattFulks.com. Although we can’t guarantee personal responses, we’ll make sure Ryan gets copies of all comments and emails.

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