New memories made where old ones will live forever. A trip back to the ‘old stomping grounds’ becomes a building block for the future.
There is nothing in this world more important to me than family. My incredible wife and two kids are my everything. They are what drives me to be the man that I am every single day. I watched my dad, ever the family man, live for his brood for the 28 years we spent together before he tragically passed away nine years ago. I’ve mentioned our close relationship in many pieces over the years here at WFNY. If there was ever a time that I knew he was watching, wishing he was with me and smiling, it was this past weekend.
I am a proud graduate of the University of Kansas. I was a 118-pound-soaking-wet know-it-all teenager heading in and a man who was focused on making something of himself on the way out. When I left for Lawrence, my parents sat me down and tried to warn me that I had no idea how different my life was about to become. “You have to go to class,” they implored. “You have to stay focused,” they said. “Stay within yourself. Have fun, but remember why you are there: The degree.” Then my father hit me with his famous mantra that he always told us he lived by. It worked for him when he was in his 20s and was still working for him that very day.
“Work hard and play hard.”
When I got married in 2001, my father summed up my freshman year failures—where I was forced to leave school because of academic issues—at our rehearsal dinner. He told the guests: “I told him my mantra—well, he got the second part right.”
Coming home to Cleveland after failing out of college, being “that guy” in my little community, it was a tough pill to swallow. I hated being seen around town. I felt embarrassed. The lesson was learned. Lawrence, Kansas was where I wanted to be, where my girlfriend (who is now my wife) and friends were having the time of their lives. They figured out the balance; I hadn’t. So I waited tables and took classes at Ursuline College (one of only two men taking classes in a college full of aspiring female nurses, of which I am neither a female nor a nurse). My social life, outside of going to Tribe games with my parents and brother—a recent graduate of Syracuse, working at WHK Radio when, at the time, it was an all-sports station—was nil. The gang was all back together under one roof, but none of us wanted that to be the case.
After eight months and a grade point average of 3.5, yours truly emerged a new man, ready to get back to Lawrence to conquer the world. I was re-enrolled at KU on a strict academic probation by both the school and my parents, the latter of which were completely supportive throughout the entire process. There was never any yelling or “I told you sos” from either of them. They helped lay out a plan for me to succeed and we stuck to it. I was back in Lawrence in the Spring of 1996 and spent the next three-and-a-half glorious years there finishing up my degree in Communications Studies, with a major assist to my amazingly supportive and incredible partner Leah. We took all the same classes and when I didn’t want to go, she dragged my lazy behind out of bed and got me there. We would marry three years later.
Twelve years and two kids later, I have a particularly charmed existence. Sure, we all have our issues in life, but I cannot complain at all. I have it great.
I‘ve been waiting for close to seven years to take my son, Andrew, to Lawrence for his first KU basketball game. Truth be told, while the Indians are my true first love (recall, I bleed Wahoo Red, White, and Blue), Kansas Basketball is a close second. The game day experience inside of Allen Fieldhouse is something that every sports fan needs to be a part of at some point in their lives—even if you are a casual college hoops fan, it is a Bucket List kind of place. ESPN’s Jay Bilas, widely respected in all sports circles, calls it the Mecca of College Basketball. Fellow ESPN colleague Scott Van Pelt, a college sports fanatic himself, is an unabashed Allen Fieldhouse junkie, rating it his favorite venue in collegiate athletics. The place is a cathedral. Its an old barn that rocks on game days. The millions and millions of dollars in recent improvements—including the Booth Family Hall of Fame which you walk through upon entering the Fieldhouse—have not affected the traditions of what has made the place so special for decades. Wilt Freaking Chamberlain played his college ball in this building; now, Joel Embiid does.
From the first time I set foot inside Allen Fieldhouse in 1994 for a pre-conference game against Florida, I fell in instant love. I’ve gone back every single year since I graduated for at least one game, usually with friends or the occasional work trip that has me in nearby Kansas City on a game night1. Every game is a sell out. Fourteen thousand and six hundred of our closest friends gather to cheer on what is the biggest thing in the state of Kansas.
Before tip off, the crowd sways together, arm in arm, and sings the alma mater. That is immediately followed by the famous haunting “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” chant that will induce goose bumps. The students all hold newspapers over their faces while the opposing team starters are announced, then tear up the papers and throw the confetti in the air as the PA announcer screams in full throat “AND NOW…THE JAYHAWKS OF KANSAS.” A newly minted hype video begins that is a quick history of his great program. “The power. The glory. The tradition. The championships. This is Kansas Basketball.”
The place just explodes. It is truly a sight to behold. And the game hasn’t even started yet.
When my wife and I found out we were having a son more than seven years ago, one of the first things I thought of was how badly I wanted to take him to a game at Allen Fieldhouse. But it was more than that: I wanted him (and my daughter for that matter) to see the place where his parents met and fell in love. He is now in first grade and a sports fanatic like his old man. The timing was right. The trip I have wanted to take was a reality. Readers of mine know that my kids are fixture with me at Indians and Browns games, but this is just different.
I couldn’t sleep Friday night thinking about the trip the next morning. Up and out early was the game plan. We breezed right through security and naturally we see our gate is D-2. For those who aren’t familiar with Cleveland’s Hopkins International Airport, D-2 is literally the furthest you can possibly walk from the security checkpoint while still remaining inside of the building. Under normal circumstances, my kids would whine the entire walk (and rightfully so, I hate that hike too), but Andrew was so giddy, he smiled the entire way. We happened to be next to the gate heading to Indianapolis, Indiana and randomly sat down in two open seats. I look up, there’s Cavs head coach Mike Brown right across from me. I’m not an NBA guy and I know there are plenty of opinions about his abilities, but one thing I can tell you: He was as nice as anyone could possibly be. Mike and his wife were on the way to Indy to see their son, Elijah, a freshman at Butler, play against Marquette. He graciously took a picture with my son before getting on his plane. It was a good omen for the events of the rest of the day.
Poor Andrew had no clue what was in store for him. The 45-minute drive from the Kansas City airport West on I-70 I had made so many times never felt so long. We went straight to my favorite pizza spot, Rudy’s, for a “pocket Za,” which I think I would request for my last meal if I had to choose one. We walked the main drag in Lawrence, Mass Street, where Andrew picked up some gear for himself and his sister. Then I hit him with the tour of campus. We stopped by my old freshman dorm. We saw two of the three apartments I lived in. His mother’s college apartment? Check. Strong Hall. Wescoe Beach. The Campanile. Potter Lake, where I told his mother I loved her for the first time. He saw them all and I made him take pictures at all of them. By the end, he just wanted to get to the game. So did I.
The final spot on my walk down memory lane and his history lesson was Allen Fieldhouse. We stood on the lawn in front of the cathedral and had a picture taken that will last me a lifetime. Walking into the building and showing him around was surreal. To think of who and what I was when I first set foot inside AFH. I had a picture of having this kind of moment with my own offspring, and there I was, actually watching it play out.
The experience didn’t disappoint. In fact, it exceeded my own sky high expectations. The ninth-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys, the last conference team to beat KU in their own building, came back for their annual visit. The place was as hyped as I have ever seen it in person. Half of the fans were in Crimson; the other, in blue. Andrew was in awe. He didn’t want to miss a thing and I didn’t want to miss seeing him soak it all in. The alma mater. The Rock Chalk chant. The hype video. We drank it all in—together. All I could think about was how much my own father would have loved being there with us.
In 2003, a year before he died, he and I trekked to Anaheim to see KU play in the West Regionals. KU beat both Duke and Arizona to advance to the Final Four and in a lifetime of great memories I have of him, that trip is close to the top of the list. There was nothing he loved more than watching sports with his boys.
Throughout the game, I have never seen Andrew so dialed in. This is a kid who has gone to almost every Browns game since he was four and went to 23 Tribe games with me last year alone2. Big time sporting events should be old hat to him, but he had never seen anything like this. The intensity during a big game at Allen Fieldhouse is a completely different animal. College sports is a community more than fandom. Fans of Ohio State Buckeye Football can relate.
Meanwhile, my little buddy loved joining in on the “flopper…flopper…flopper” chants directed at Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart. He stood on his bench seat when the crowd got up and I picked him up more often than I would have liked to. The game just had that many big spots. It was truly. my pleasure. In the middle of a 12-0 KU run, the crowd was in full throat and Andrew was essentially on my left hip, a head taller than me, KU big man Tarik Black threw down a vicious slam that blew the roof off of the building. I was raising Andrew high to the rafters and cheering. I looked up at him and saw him screaming for more. That’s my son, alright—a chip off the old block.
The game went back and forth and throughout it all, I couldn’t tell who was enjoying it more. Kansas would prevail 80-78, almost gagging away at 17 point half time lead and an 11 point lead with two minutes to go. We walked down towards the court and took a few photos as the place began to clear out and left the old barn as winners. As I told him “it’s a good thing we pulled it out, or you weren’t coming back.”
Just as my dad and I did after the wins in Anaheim 11 years ago this March, Andrew and I went to a post-game dinner at one of my favorite local spots, ate greasy food and watched more hoops. We went back to the hotel where Andrew fell asleep relatively quick. He was wiped, as was I, both physically and emotionally.
Throughout my long day of walking, driving, taking pictures, sitting, standing, cheering, jumping, lifting Andrew, eating—all of it—the gamut of emotions had been run. I had taken my first-born child to a place that was life-changing for both me and his mother. If not for our paths crossing in Lawrence, both he and his sister would not exist. Trying to explain that to an almost-seven-year-old kid is not exactly easy, but I think he understands now.
Once again, family and sports, easily the two biggest passions of mine, were intertwined to provide me memories that will last a lifetime. I finished writing this around 11:30 Saturday night local time in Lawrence3, all the while sifting through the pictures on my camera and smiling the entire time. Next time around, I won’t wait this long to do it again. Next year, the four of us—Mom, Dad, Son, and Daughter. We have to do this all over again.
(All images via Todd Dery/WFNY)