Sunday, August 31, 2014

Stewart's quantum of solace

Forget the words. The words were just ad copy.

The words were a press agent's script that touched all the requisite bases, up to and including naming every member of the immediate family of the young man whom Tony Stewart killed on a backwoods ring of dirt in upstate New York not quite a month ago. They were the vehicle for Stewart to re-enter his very public life again, and they meant nothing in and of themselves.

What did mean something, what meant everything, was the look and sound of the man who delivered them.

Three weeks and change after he struck young Kevin Ward and killed him, Stewart still looked haunted Friday as he sat up there in front of the media in Atlanta. No press agent could photoshop what was in his eyes and his voice and his manner as he said what you expected him to say, that what had happened would "definitely affect my life forever," and that it was "a sadness and a pain that I hope no one ever has to experience in their life."

And then he got up, went out to the track and strapped the sadness and the pain into a race car. And that is as it should be.

If you're a racer, you race, and so Stewart will race tonight. God alone knows what movies will be playing in his head when the green drops and the muscled-up growl of 43 stock cars winds up and up to full scream. God alone knows how high his heart will leap into his throat the first time he flies into a corner wearing some other speed junkie on his quarter panel, whether his foot will lift infinitesimally or whether he'll keep the hammer down and let the sadness and pain fend for itself for a time.

In any case, and as trite as it sounds, it's exactly what has to happen for him now. At some point he had to get back in the car again, because it's who he is and how he defines himself.

Racing gets inside a man (or woman) like hardly anything else, and that's doubly true of Stewart. If there's an element of never forgetting one's roots that drives his compulsion to buy country dirt tracks and then go racing on them, it's also because he can't help himself. Racing is who he is, his vocation and his avocation. If he can't do it anymore, where does that leave him?

And so he'll be out there again in Atlanta tonight, because there's simply no other way for him to get past such an unspeakable tragedy. The compulsion has become his solace, and maybe it always has been. Maybe it is for everyone.

"I'm sure he hasn't even worked through it yet," his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Danica Patrick said the other day. "But one step is to get back to something that feels normal again."

However abnormal that might seem to the rest of us.


Friday, August 29, 2014

NFL: Course correction

There rarely are any bad days for the National Football League, the monolith that looms over the American sports landscape like the Colossus of Rhodes.

But Thursday was to all appearances a gold-star day.

First, the league fined Peyton Manning for jawing at Texans safety D.J. Swearinger after Swearinger's helmet shot on Manning's teammate, Wes Welker. This proved that the league would, in fact, punish even its clear favorites, thereby removing from circulation that old standby, "Yeah, but they'd never fine PEYTON MANNING for that."

Second, Roger Goodell finally issued an apology that was long coming, saying essentially he blew the Ray Rice thing by issuing him only a two-game sitdown for knocking out his girlfriend and then dragging her out of the elevator like some latter day Oog the caveman.  It was an ugly thing made uglier by the NFL's lightweight response to it, and the league bought itself well and true the you-know-what storm that cascaded down on its head in the aftermath.

Well, never again. In one of the apparently deft course corrections that have helped maintain it as the true American Pastime, the league, in addition to Goodell's mea culpa, rolled out a new domestic violence policy that no one would ever mistake for a velvet glove.

 First offense: Six game suspension, with any previous domestic violence incidents from a player's high school or college past serving as mitigating or exacerbating circumstances.

Second offense: Lifetime ban.

This seems in line, and well overdue, for a league that's had far too many domestic violence and physical and sexual assault issues on its rap sheet for  far too long a time. When one of your top wide receivers (Rae Carruth) murders his girlfriend, you've got a serious problem. When one of your top quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger) gets charged not once but twice for sexual crimes, in two different parts of the country, you've got a serious problem.

The NFL didn't move after either of those incidents, nor many subsequent others. And it was only after a huge public outcry that it moved on this one.

So maybe, in retrospect, this course correction wasn't so deft after all. But at least the league finally made it.

Make Thursday a silver-star day, in that case.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A few brief thoughts on college football

Cam McDaniel was only saying what you'd expect a guy to say when it's late August and he's at Notre Dame and he's a captain on the football team, which is about to embark on yet another autumnal excursion Steeped In Legend And Various Other Hoo-Ha.

McDaniel promptly declared that Notre Dame was going to win the national title. Because, you know, how could it be otherwise with all that statuary passing its silent judgment outside Notre Dame Stadium?

And so Notre Dame will win the national title, and, down in Tuscaloosa, Alabama will win the national title, and, out in L.A., UCLA will win the national title. Florida will bounce back from 4-8, run the table and win the national title.  Florida State will repeat, unless Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston gets a hankerin' for crab legs again.

Closer to home, Purdue will turn 1-11 into 8-4 or something. And Indiana, which will score on anyone, will find a way to stop someone for once and go 8-4, too, thereby qualifying it for a nice juicy Dot Com Bowl down in Dumbwaiter, Texas, or some such place.

In other words: Everyone's gonna do something big this year, as college football rolls into the post-BCS era this week. It's the meme of late August, the official Labor Day weekend canon.

No one wants reality to disturb this with the gridiron version of belching in church. But the Blob is contrary to its marrow, and so ... here goes:

* Sorry, Cam McDaniel. Notre Dame will not win a national title.

Not even the benefit of playing fearsome Rice right out of the gate -- the school of whom Lou Holtz, old Dr. Poormouth himself, once famously said he was "scared to death" -- will rescue the Irish from a likely 8-4 run or an even more likely 7-5 jaunt. The loss of  shutdown corner KeiVarae Russell and linebacker Ishaq Williams to academic issues turns an already green defense even greener, with Russell's loss the most devastating.

Add the loss of top wideout DaVaris Daniels, and the Irish will have nine freshmen, six on the defensive side, on the two-deep.   That's a heavy load of inexperience with which to face a schedule that includes five teams ranked in the initial AP top 25, including No. 1 Florida State and two others (Stanford and USC) in the top 15 -- and even a Rice team that, by the way, went 10-4 last year and is no longer the side dish it once was.

So ... 7-5.

* Indiana will go to bowl game this year. Write it down.

You can write it down because all it takes to go to a bowl game these days is a .500 season, and the Hoosiers seem to be hovering right on that mark. They'll score on anybody, and there's huge buzz in Bloomington over new defensive coordinator Brian Knorr's attacking scheme. But having for decades watched teams go through Indiana's "D" like Mario Andretti tearing around Indy, 6-6 is as optimistic as I'm willing to be -- especially with Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State all piled up in the Hoosiers' division.

Bottom line, they just don't have the depth up front yet. A chronic Hoosier condition.

* Write this down too: Purdue will not go 1-11 again.

That happened last year because Darrell Hazell threw his kids to the wolves, and the wolves did what wolves tend to do. It was a rough character-building experience, as they say, and it will pay some limited dividends this year.

But don't look for Hazell to duplicate what he did the second year at Kent State, when he took the Flashes from 5-7 to 11-3 in one gulp. The Boilermakers are still young and still thin, and they've still got Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, Nebraska in Lincoln, Minnesota in Minneapolis and Indiana in Bloomington to deal with.

In which case, 4-8 seems about right.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Incognito 2.0

Exciting news this day for Bill Belichick: The fruit basket is on its way.

It comes to him (theoretically, anyway) compliments of Tampa Bay coach Lovie Smith, who, thanks to Belichick, only singed his eyebrows in the firestorm that is Richie Incognito. Yes, Lovie and the guys played host to The Train Wreck That Walks Like A Man on Monday, but by Tuesday the Bucs had been bailed out by Belichick and the Patriots, who agreed to trade veteran guard Logan Mankins to Tampa, thereby alleviating the need for Lovie to give any further consideration to Incognito.

It does point out again, however, that the NFL is a business, hello, first and foremost.  Incognito is a thug and a bully who's worn out so many welcomes -- in college and the pros -- that you'd think he'd be reduced to bouncing drunks in some dive bar in Peestain, Saskatchewan, by now. But, no.

Instead, the Bucs came callin', a year after Incognito was tried, convicted and sentenced to purgatory by the NFL for turning yet another locker room into a civic theater production of Lord of the Flies. Football locker rooms tend to have that sort of ambience to them, anyway -- you can't stuff that much testosterone into one room without someone getting duct-taped to a goalpost on occasion -- but Incognito, as usual, took it a whole other level. A thoroughly noxious one.

So, Jonathan Martin fled the racist taunts and let's-toughen-this-guy-up nonsense, and Incognito was out of the league. But not forever, because ... well, because in addition to a lengthy rap sheet for mayhem and discord, he can also play a little. And teams will always make allowances for guys who can play a little.

And so here came O-line thin Tampa Bay a-courtin'. And don't think the Buccaneers will be the last to give Incognito a look. Right now, for instance, there's are arguments being floated about down in Indy that perhaps the Colts should give Incognito a look, because he can block people and the Colts are in desperate need of someone with that skill set.

Nothing fires a charitable spirit like simple craven need. At least in professional sports, anyway.

And so someone will give Incognito his second (or third, or fourth) chance, and frankly that is as it should be. He's paid his debt to Roger Goodell, and therefore has as clean a sheet as a serial jackass like Incognito can have. You just hope whoever does give him another shot keeps him on a very short leash -- or maybe outfits him with one of those Invisible Fence electric collars.

No doubt he'll do something worthy of banishment again. But if he can keep the big uglies out of Insert Quarterback Name Here's kitchen in the meantime -- and not cost a lot of coin in the bargain -- he'll be worth it.

Value, after all, is what drives any business decision. And so even jackasses may apply.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Here come the ... Cubs?

OK, OK. So I can read an agate page.

I've got the National League standings right here in front of me, in fact, and I know what they say. They say the Chicago Cubs are dead last in the NL Central, 14 games underwater and 14.5 games out of first place. I also know they're the Cubs, which means A) they probably belong where they are, and B) you should treat every ray of hope that surrounds them as an optical illusion at best and a fevered hallucination at worst.

But I've never been smart to believe in either my own lying eyes or conventional wisdom. So why start now?

Why not look at what the Cubs have in the pipeline, and declare that Theo Epstein is not some penny-arcade genius with the shine worn off him, but someone who, you know, actually knows what he's doing?

He rode into Chicago on a promise to rebuild the Cubs' wrecked farm system, and by all accounts he's done it. Anthony Rizzo is solid for the next decade or so. Javier Baez and Kris Bryant are apparently budding stars. And the Cubs just called up another ABS from Triple-A Iowa, Jorge Soler, who's been described by those who've played with him as a "freakish" athlete.

Thrown in Addison Russell, the young infielder acquired in the Jeff Samardzija/Jason Hammel deal who everyone seems to agree is the Next Big Thing, and you've got the makings of a team to -- dare we say it? -- look out for in the next two or three or four years.

Of course, the Cubs being the Cubs, you never want to say that out loud. And it's true Epstein's had to gut his pitching staff to do what he's done, and equally true that this leaves any supposed resurgence in the theoretical category for now, given that pitching, as ever, is the difference between contending for hardware and actually bench-pressing it.

But there's talent coming. And when, except sporadically, was the last time you could say that about the Lovables?  

Monday, August 25, 2014

Raiders, and other stuff

The man never was given to the timid gesture, so it's safe assume to Al Davis would never just roll over in his grave.

No, sir. Al would be inclined to do this, upon hearing the news that an NFL Nation Confidential poll identified his beloved Raiders as the least desirable team to play for in the entire league.

Lest we forget, after all, this is a league that includes the Buffalo Bills, who haven't won more than they've lost since 2004, and who play in a city that had a combined 38.5 inches of snow in November and December last year. And it's a league that includes the Cleveland Browns, who have marginally less hideous weather but who have only two winning seasons in the last 20 years.

And now they've got Johnny Manziel, so welcome to Quarterback Controversy Hell, too.

The Raiders, of course, are no prize, either. Since going to the Super Bowl 12 years ago they've won more than five games only twice, when they went 8-8 back-to-back in 2010-11. They have no discernible stars, unless you count Maurice Jones-Drew, the mostly used-up former Jacksonville road warrior. And no matter how many roofing nails the Raiders' borderline psychotic fans attach to their elbow pads, Kenny Stabler or Cliff Branch or Ted Hendricks is not going to suddenly materialize to lead the Raiders back to the glory days.

In other words: That famous pirate on the side of the Raiders helmet could use two eyepatches these days, not just the one. 'Cause then he wouldn't have to watch.

Meanwhile, elsewhere around the NFL ...

* Has anyone fallen in public esteem farther and faster than Robert Griffin III?

The quarterback for That Team In Washington, once hailed as a franchise savior, has now disillusioned so many in the nation's capital that there is actual, serious talk that back Kirk Cousins might be the better option at this point. Which is crazy, because Cousins has given no indication that he's the next Kurt Warner.

His career numbers: Eight games, a 56.2 percent completion rate, eight touchdowns, 10 interceptions. And a 68.6 quarterback rating.

Yet he's the answer  RGIII apparently isn't. Astounding.

* So what's with the buzz around the Colts?

We're coming up on the last preseason game and everyone (or almost everyone) seems to think they have a shot as being better than last year, when they went 11-5 and lost big to the Patriots in the divisional playoffs.

Yeah, maybe, if you consider the schedule's softer than goose down this time around. But this could be one of those situations were a team wins more games but isn't as good; they are, after all, weaker on paper in the secondary, no better on either line (especially with Robert Mathis sitting out four games) and probably weaker in the run game with Donald Brown gone.

In regard to the latter, everyone seems to be putting a lot of chips on Trent Richardson  re-emerging as Trent Richardson again, instead of the pale imposter who spent most of last season vanishing into thin air. But that seems like a shaky bet at best; the longer the season went on last year, it became apprent that the pale imposter wasn't really the imposter, but perhaps the real article.

If so, then it's Andrew Luck against the world again. And the world might just get in a few more icks this time.     


Sunday, August 24, 2014

Drinking game

A wiseass would say this: Well, of course.

That being the only appropriate wiseass response to Purdue's announcement that it's turning what used to be 6,100 end zone seats in Ross-Ade Stadium into the South End Zone Patio, where craft beers, chardonnay and merlot will go for five bucks a throw this fall. And which will no doubt very popular among diehard Boiler-Up types who (wiseass alert again) would just as soon forget that's been a long time since Drew Brees  graduated.

In his place is a program coming off a 1-11 campaign in which new head coach Darrell Hazel spent most of last fall sweeping up after the unfortunately named Danny Hope Era. Word is the Boilers will be better this year, mainly because they can hardly be worse but partly because Hazell's track record at Kent State suggests a big jump in performance between year one and year two.

In the meantime, Purdue is putting the best face it can on the fact that it can't put glutes in the seats in Ross-Ade the way it once did. That's the headline news here, not the fact Purdue sees officially sanctioned alcohol sales as an eventual revenue stream. It's that the capacity of Ross-Ade just went from 62,000-plus to 57,000-plus because the product within can no longer sustain the former number.

Thus, the South End Zone Patio. Thus, a negative being spun as a positive.

"This is not meant to be a moneymaker this fall," Purdue AD Morgan Burke cautions. "It's not a beer garden."

No, it's beer and wine garden. Plus a food court selling, among other things, a grilled porkchop sandwich.

Which, as someone who was lucky enough to be in Ross-Ade on Pork Day a few times, I can heartily endorse. And which probably will soothe long-suffering Purdue fans just as well, if not better, than a dram or five of Goose Island IPA.

Although there are worse ways to wash down all that delicious pork. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Hey, look, it's the future of baseball

You hear it all day from the doomsayers, who love to slouch around the landscape spreadin' sour the way John Chapman spread apple orchards, and who get especially revved up when the topic is Baseball And Why It's No Longer The National Pastime.

Baseball in America, they say, has gone the way of Betamax and the eight-track. Kids, especially inner city kids, don't play it anymore. They're all about hoops and football and sometimes soccer, but mostly hoops, because the vast AAU mafia gets its hooks in them early and lures them with treacherous fairy tales about how they, too, can be the next LeBron or KD.

Consider today a rebuttal to all that.

Consider Williamsport, Pa. and the two most intriguing storylines in the Little League World Series. On the one side are the joyous, irrepressible kids from the Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago, who are fast and fun and will run all day on you. On the other is the Taney team out of Philadelphia, whom you know about because their best pitcher is a girl, Mo'ne Davis, who has a snapping 70-mph fastball and an unearthly poise that have made her the story of the summer.

Inevitably, no doubt, she'll be forced to give up throwing overhand and gravitate to softball, if she so chooses, because that's what we do with baseball-playing girls once they get to high school. But forget that lapse in imagination for a moment.

For now, allow it to run riot as Mo'ne 'n' them play the Jackie Robinson bunch in an elimination game today. Allow yourself to marvel at American kids still head-over-heels in love with the American game, and to believe, for six sweet innings, that there is a future for baseball in this country, and that these kids are it.

They may not be, as nature takes its inevitable course with them. But for now ... man, how great is this?         

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Enough with the rumor mill

The rumors say Tony Stewart will never race again.

The rumors say he is selling his stake in Stewart/Haas Racing, climbing out of the car, retiring from the sport at the age of 43.

The rumors say he is going to hire on as a line worker at GM ... or work the second shift flippin' patties with Elvis at Burger King ... or float an "NCIS: Laotto" outline to the fennelheads in Hollywood in which he plays a small-town driving instructor in Indiana who suddenly gets the yen to be Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

Think all of the immediate aforementioned sounds sillier than kittens on ether?

Well, so does the other aforementioned, all that tripe about Stewart never racing and selling his race team and strolling off into some leadfoot sunset.

Truth is we live in fertile times for the rumor mill, and it accommodates by churning out grist 24/7/365. Most of it isn't fit for human consumption, but we consume it, anyway. Because if the interwhosit has given a lot of it the look and sound of authenticity, it's really just the same old watercooler tale-swapping in another form.

And so, last time, here is what we know, and all we know, about Tony Stewart right now: He's sitting  out a third Sprint Cup race, this one the marquee night race at Bristol, since his car struck and killed Kevin Ward in a dirt-track race somewhere in Middle of Nowhere America. Jeff Burton will again occupy his seat in the No. 14 Chevy. And Stewart himself remains in seclusion, having made no public appearances or statements since the incident.

Which of course creates the ideal vacuum for wild tales to sprout like thistles in an untended garden. But they are only that, wild tales.

As to the rest, the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that Stewart indeed remains distraught over what happened that Saturday night, and not yet in any frame of mind to climb back in a race car. Whether he will ever be in a frame of mind to do so, no one yet knows.

 You don't strap into one of these muscle machines, or at least you shouldn't, unless you're feeling bulletproof. It's ultimately a testosterone-fueled fantasy, but it's the only way to go about a pursuit that requires you to do what most rational people would consider at least mildly insane. Until Stewart can get that feeling back, he's wise to stay as far away from his chosen line of work as he can.

And if and when he does come back?

 Who knows, even then, if he'll be the same Tony Stewart. Bad wrecks change drivers -- it happened to Darrell Waltrip at the end of his career -- and so does getting intimate with death. Or at least one would assume.

But of course, assuming is where we came in with this. And so we'll go out the same way.

Tony Stewart isn't racing this week.

Beyond that, no assumptions need apply.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Big league moment

I wouldn't know Dave Belisle from Cumberland, Rhode Island, if he bought me a beer and started telling me stories about Roberto Clemente.

But I'd let the man talk to my kids anytime.

This is how you do it, all you wanna-be Lombardis and Bob Knights out there, when you've got a bunch of heartbroken 12-year-olds in front of you. This is the essence of coaching, not yelling and screaming and hollering, not getting in some poor seventh-grader's grill because he missed the cutoff man for the 37th time in a row.

The caricature of the youth coach we are all familiar with, all pumped up with delusions of grandeur and full to the top with self-loathing and tough love. And we're familiar with it, unfortunately, because like all caricatures there is a home truth at its core, a real breathing human being somewhere who is its inspiration and wellspring.

But there is Dave Belisle, hundreds of him, actually, who understand proportion and the human connection that is a different kind of wellspring. There is the man who understands implicitly that there is, indeed, crying in baseball, especially when you're 12 years old and ESPN is watching and it all seems so big and loud and infinite, until of course it's not.

And here's the wonder of it: There are many, many more of him out there than there are Bobbyheads.

And thank God for it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Johnny Foofball

So here's the guy you should feel sorry for right now: Brian Hoyer.

Who grew up in Cleveland, rooted for the Browns, wound up playing quarterback for them.

Who's probably going to lose his job now because the Browns threw wads of cash at Johnny Manziel as a first-round pick, and so will give Manziel every opportunity to succeed or fail.

Who -- in case anyone is paying attention, and they aren't --  has outplayed or at least played as well as Manziel so far in the preseason.

But Manziel stole the headlines again last night. And this time for all the wrong reasons.

It's not all that hard to defend him for his off-the-field activities, mainly because his off-the-field activities have been scandalous only when viewed through the distorted lens of TMZ America, which brackets even the most mundane of occurrences in vivid exclamation points. But flipping off the Redskins bench is another matter entirely, because it thunders loudly about the kid's basic immaturity and lack of impulse control on the football field, where those things actually count for something.

On the one hand, you love the kid for the sheer ballsiness of his single-digit salute. But in the next eyeblink, you slap your forehead, because it essentially anoints him as an easy mark.

Every NFL defensive lineman who caught Manziel's act now knows he can get inside the kid's head. And with not a lot effort.

What all that tells you is Browns coach Mike Pettine's got some work to do with this one, as if we didn't suspect as much already. And in the meantime, the young man who grew up dreaming of playing for his hometown team essentially becomes a coat-holder for a kid who was not only no Brian Hoyer last night, but not even Connor Shaw.

Who, as the Browns' third-string QB, completed 8-of-9 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown in the 24-23 loss to the Redskins. And brought home a QBR of 155.8.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Myopia unchained

Of course Brian Kelly is shocked and disappointed. Of course this is a great big deal, this notion that four football players might have committed academic fraud at (gasp!) Notre Dame.

Because, you know, Notre Dame is Notre Dame, not Alabama or Ohio State or any of that other riffraff.

And so the head of the university, John Jenkins, showed up at a news conference the other day, and the athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, showed up, and the head football coach, Kelly, professed to be shocked and disappointed. And behind all of that, yet again, was this notion that Notre Dame is special, Notre Dame doesn't tolerate academic fraud, Notre Dame is an academic institution first and everything else second.

Implied, if not stated, was the exceptionalism that is woven so deeply into the tapestry in South Bend it can never be undone. Other schools might not summon the president of the university to a news conference to announce that four football players might have been caught cheating -- other schools might not have even called a news conference -- but Notre Dame is not, ahem, other schools. It is a universe unto itself, above the fray, unaltered by an athletic landscape increasingly indistinguishable from any other commercial enterprise in America.

If only that were so.

If only Notre Dame could be Harvard in the classroom and the Green Bay Packers on the football field, with none of the inherent contradictions that entails. But it can't. It's no more immune to those contradictions than any other Big Five football power; it's only better at willfully not seeing them.

In truth football at Notre Dame is just as much a business as it is anywhere else among the riffraff, and perhaps more so. The school has a long-running exclusive deal with NBC. It turns its student-athletes into snot-knockin' billboards for apparel companies just like any other school. And Kelly would no react like any other coach at any other football power if, say, Everett Golson came to him and said, "Coach, I've got a big poli-sci exam coming up, so I won't be able to make the Navy game."

A grinding head-on between Harvard and the Green Bay Packers would no doubt ensue. And Harvard would be the loser, because ... well, NBC's payin' us to put our best product on the field every Saturday, son.  Poli-sci can wait.  

In a way that's a sad thing, because in an ideal world the model to which Notre Dame aspires would be the model that drives big-boy college athletics. But the cold reality is, it doesn't. And if Notre Dame can't yet see it, plenty of its brethren are starting to.

Hence the NCAA proposal to allow the big-boy football conferences to play by different, more business-friendly rules. It's a welcome splash of common sense from an organization not well noted for it -- even if it's common sense that's been compelled by a growing sense that some great worm is turning beneath it, what with the outcome of the Ed O'Bannon case and the uprising by the serfs at Northwestern.

Who've decided that, if college football is going to rake in dough like a business, it should have to behave like a business in regard to its employees. And so, bring on collective bargaining -- and also, by no coincidence at all, a newfound regard for the economic well-being of the student-athlete.

And getting the scales to drop similarly  from a few eyes at Notre Dame?

Hey. One mountain at a time.

Tony Stewart: Love hurts

The cliché was one shopworn rag until Tony Stewart got his hooks in it. Then it became something else.

Remember where you came from: That's how it goes, right?

Except Stewart didn't have to remember where he came from, because he never chose to leave. Instead, he kept going back to his birth scene, back to the mean little bullrings out in Flyspeck, America that made him. Sticky dirt and smoky lights and bangin' wheel hubs, he loved it when he was 18 and nobody and he loves it now that he's 43 and a corporate mogul in the most corporate racing series in America.

Here's the thing about that, though: Just as you can never go home again, you can also never stay there once you leave.

And so last summer the corporate mogul got upside down in a nothing race on a nothing circle of dirt in Iowa, and shattered his leg and his NASCAR Sprint Cup season. And a couple of weeks back he sent a kid named Kevin Ward jouncing into the fence at another nothing circle of dirt in upstate New York.

It was a meat-and-potatoes sprint car deal but Ward took exception, got out of his car, marched down into the middle of the dimly-lit track pointing at Stewart as the field line-danced around under yellow. The car in front of  Stewart had to swerve to miss him. Stewart appeared to light his tires as he went past, and the rear end swung out, ran down Ward and killed him.

And now we've all seen the vid a million times, and the family's sneering at the notion that Stewart didn't see Ward. The cops aren't charging Stewart with anything yet, but you can bet the family will drop a chunky civil suit on Stewart (and by extension, his race team) somewhere down the line.

And Stewart?

He's sat out two races now, and his inner circle says he remains distraught. You can call that image-polishing if you want. I'm not prepared to be that cynical. Stewart may be a lot of things, but a cold-hearted bastard he's not, at least in my 20-some years of admittedly intermittent interaction with him.

All I know is, this is a hell of a price to pay for love. It's a hell of a price to pay for remembering from whence you came. It's a hell of  a price to pay to be your own man, a man who always called these nostalgia walks to dirt tracks his "vacation," a man who was never going to give them up no matter how crazy some people around him thought he was for doing it.

Defending him, I wrote a year ago that he did this because when you're a racer it gets inside you and you have to race, no matter where or how or when.  It's a passion, and passion recognizes no prerogatives but its own.

Well. In less than a year now, that passion has cost Tony Stewart a busted leg and maybe a busted heart and goo-gobs of dough. And a young man is dead.

Time to acknowledge the obvious: That sometimes, passion just comes too dear.