Sportsmanship: Lost and Found

     Remember Howard Cosell?  Never knew anyone who was lukewarm about him or his sports reporting, most famously on Monday Night Football and whenever he could get close to Ali, which was often.  Ali, self-proclaimed “The Greatest” with good reason, knew a good thing when he saw it, and Cosell was great for Ali, augmenting Ali’s effective self-promotion seemingly on television every day.   “Sports is the toy department of human life” is a famous Cosell quote of yesterday, but today sports is often a regrettable example of rude, childish, and dangerous behavior.  Coaches and players at all levels, rant, rave, argue, dance, punch each other, proclaim they are out there to take a player out of the game, toss clipboards and headsets, throw tantrums that would embarrass a three year-old, and so on. 

     Even the television announcers get into the act, pointing out players and coaches who are “working the officials” to “get them thinking about their next call.”  What does that have to do with sports?

     We more mature veterans of life, at least those of us who have played some ball, often observe to each other how coaches and players of our day would be laughed at if not simply tossed out of a game or even kicked off a team for much of the rude and classless and downright dangerous behavior so prevalent in many of today’s athletic contests. 

     But there are still coaches and players who manage to provide a good example of what it means to be a good sport, to savor the competition but not be consumed by it, and to approach sports with a sense of respect and gratitude for the privilege of being healthy and able to compete.

     Witness a recent letter from Illinois High School Association (IHSA) Assistant Executive Director Matt Troha to Chicago’s Mt. Carmel High School’s Father Carl, Coach Lenti and others following Carmel’s loss to Maine South in a state championship football game played on November 27, 2010.  Mr. Troha escorted the Mt. Carmel team to the postgame awards ceremony, photo, and press conference.  A few quotations from Mr. Troha’s letter:

“…As you can probably imagine, attempting to gather a group of teenagers who have just undergone the greatest heartbreak of their young athletic careers is no enviable task.

…At the conclusion of the contest, after briefly addressing the team, Coach Lenti instructed the players to report to the stage area for the trophy/medal presentation.  Despite the disappointment each of those players were feeling at that very moment, as a team they gathered themselves and followed their captains on a jog to the stage….After Mount Carmel’s portion of the awards ceremony ended, a few players began to turn to walk toward the locker room, but were quickly told by No. 4 (who I would later identify from the roster as senior captain and quarterback Chris Sujka)that the team would stay put and clap for their opponent as they received their awards….I felt your young men showed an incredible amount of integrity in this action, as it was clear that they would have offered this respect to any opponent, in victory or defeat….so I simply wanted to take the time to let you know that in a season where it was awarded the second-place trophy, the Mount Carmel football program remains first class.”

     Yeah, yeah – I’m a proud member of the Class of 1957 and more than a little inclined to favor all things Mt. Carmel, and receiving this letter once again reminds me of how lucky I am to be a part of the Mt. Carmel family.  And doesn’t a display of real sportsmanship still make us sit up and take notice? 

     One of the many quotes we had to learn as Air Force Academy cadets was this one from General Douglas MacArthur: “On the fields of friendly strife are sewn the seeds that on other days and other fields shall bear the fruits of victory.”  Today’s coaches should put more emphasis on the phrase “friendly strife” and supplement friendly with a few other adjectives such as classy and, yes,  respectful. 

     Play hard and support your team with great enthusiasm, but also with basic human decency, good manners, and always with class and sportsmanship.

The Wit and Wisdom of Dr. Nash Underwood

Introduction

This is but a small measure of Dr. Nash Underwood, a man for all seasons in the truest sense of the phrase. This too small collection of observations doesn’t do Nash justice, but his family and friends deserve a somewhat permanent set of memories….

The calendar insists that more than a year has gone by since Nash Underwood’s family and friends gathered to honor him at his funeral service at Wake Forest Baptist Church. Not a day goes by that I or one of Nash’s friends I happen to be with fails to mention how much Nash is missed, how his good nature and sense of humor brightened and made more special all the days we were privileged to be in his company.
The recollections of Nash most often take the form of repeating one of his stories or one of the stories about him, always followed by a chuckle, a grin, and a brief stab of regret that we won’t ever again hear stories from the man himself.  Mrs. Janis Underwood and a few of his friends asked me to attempt to get some of the “Nash Stories” in writing, a task I gladly take on with the warning that no words on a piece of paper will ever capture what it was like to be with him and to know that, whatever your mood might be, his greeting would always be upbeat, always delivered with a smile. You always felt – no, you always knew – that Nash Underwood was glad to see you, glad to be in your company, and glad to have you as a friend.
Some of the stories below have been told to me by his family and friends; some I can bear witness to myself. In the spirit of a friendship I shall always treasure, here is a rendition of some of the best of the wit and wisdom of Dr. Nash Underwood.

The Greeting

This first recollection is one that required two actors, Nash and Frank Toney. I use the word “actors” because I firmly believe what I am about to relate was a one-act, three-line play the two of them put on each time they had the opportunity to perform in front of a new audience. In my case I was a one-man audience in the parking lot at the Wake Forest Golf Club, and witnessed the following.

I drove into the golf club parking lot and parked next to Frank. We exchanged the usual greetings while we changed into golf shoes and lugged our golf bags out of our cars. When Nash pulled up and parked next to Frank, the following exchange took place:

Frank: “Good morning. How are you?”

Nash: “How am I? What are you, a doctor?”

Frank: “No, but I’m enough of a veterinarian to know a horse’s ass when I see one.”

My Visit to the Dentist’s Office

I knew the day I met Nash that his profession was dentistry. He didn’t mention it; I found out because I heard the pro shop guy (Derek Anderson, for those who remember) call him “Dr. Underwood,” and I asked what area of medicine he practiced. A while later one of the original “Gaggle” members told me Nash was the only dentist in Wake Forest for quite a while – more about the Gaggle and the only dentist later.

For this story I’ll stick to the time when I found myself walking out of the clubhouse with Nash and asked him if he still practiced dentistry.

“Yes,” he said, “I retired a few years back, but then got back into it. I have a small office in Youngsville.”

“I’ll make an appointment,” I said. “Had a filling fall out.”

“Well I can fix that right now. You know where I live, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, wondering if he intended to fix my filling in his carport.

“Well, follow me home. I’ll take a quick shower then you can follow me over to the office and I’ll fix your tooth.”

I did, and he did.

We were the only two people in the office. He fixed my tooth, x-rayed my entire mouth, and cleaned my teeth. I interrupted him while he made up a file, pen poised above my checkbook.

“What do I owe you?” I said.

Nash thought a moment and said “Forty-five dollars.”

In a louder and surprised voice I said: “Forty-five dollars?”

Nash looked a bit embarrassed. “Is that too much?” he said.

“Geez, Nash. I just moved here from Northern Virginia. What you just did would be about two hundred and forty-five dollars. I’m just surprised you charge so little.”

“Ah, I’ve never charged much for my friends. Besides, we don’t think of you Chicago people as Yankees, even if you did work in Washington before you wised up and moved here.”

The Seafood Dinner

Several of the original Gaggle members headed to Wilmington for a golf trip organized by Nash and Twig Wiggins. I don’t remember all the participants, but do recall the list included Frank Toney, Jim Cook, Don Stroud, Dink Puryear, Hal Smith, myself, and a few others.

I don’t remember where we stayed, the golf courses we played, or many of the other details of the trip, but do remember having a good time and the following Nash story:

One evening we went to the always wonderful Bridge Tender restaurant, where everybody ordered their favorites of the restaurant’s specialties: all manner of excellent seafood dishes.

As we approached the end of the entrees we had ordered, Hal noticed that Nash was still picking at an almost full plate of seafood.

Hal: “Nash, is your food okay?”

Nash: “It’s fine. I just don’t much care for seafood.”

Hal: “If you don’t like it, why’d you order it?”

With a rather forlorn look, Nash said: “Well – Janis likes it.”

The Smoking Cessation Counselor

In response to my whining about how I was finding it so difficult to stop smoking, Nash offered his method: “Put a rubber band on your wrist. A good-sized one that will sting when you snap it. Every time you want a cigarette, snap that rubber band, shake your head from side to side, and tell yourself you’re not going to smoke. I did that many years ago and it worked. ‘Course I had to try it a few times, but eventually it worked.”

It didn’t work for me right away either, but a few years and a few more times trying to quit later Nash’s method combined with Nicorette finally did the trick.

After a few months of no smoking I mentioned to Nash that I it looked like I had finally quit for good.

“I knew you had it in you,” he said. “Now if you could just learn how to putt.”

The Golfer, Part 1

Nash loved everything about the game of golf, from the fellowship on the putting green before a round, through the competition, and on to the good-natured ribbing and false bragging in the clubhouse after a round.  He told a lot of great stories, and a lot of great stories were told about him. I don’t recall who told me this the first time, but I never tire of hearing it or recalling it.

Seems one day a young man was by himself at Wake Forest Golf Club and asked at the Pro Shop if he might join up to play with someone who would welcome a fourth player. As it happened, he was paired up with Nash and two others.  As the game progressed the younger man was impressed with Nash’s game, so much so that after one of Nash’s “down the water line” tee shots he said: “Great shot! I hope I can play as well as you do when I get to be your age.”

Nash said: “Well – you don’t play that good now.”

The Golfer, Part 2

Many’s the time Nash would illustrate with words his own and his fellow golfers’ habits, strengths, and weaknesses. One time after a very un-Nash like pull to the left he let out an expletive deleted.  I was shocked. Here I was witnessing a man I considered the ultimate Southern Gentleman cursing like a sailor.

“Gee Nash,” I said, “I was sort of hoping I’d learn to accept those bad shots when I got older, but now that I’ve seen you get upset I fear there’s no hope for me.”
“There’s no hope for most anybody on the golf course. You either got it or you don’t, and it changes every time you play.”

The Golfer, Part 3 – Famous “Nashisms”

Answering a companion’s question about where he had hit his tee shot: “Right down the water line.”

Telling me where to hit my tee shot: “Put it in that green strip that divides the playing area.”

Smiling after he’d drained a long putt, which he did more than any other golfer I’ve ever played with: “Damn a man that can’t putt.”

After hitting a tee shot down the middle from the 1st tee: “We’re only taking one off the first tee today, boys.”

Noticing his tee shot was the longest of the group: “Let me know when all the boys have hit.”

His answer when the scorekeeper asked what he had on a hole: “Whatever’s par.”

An observation after hitting a lucky shot: “Shouldn’t be out here if you don’t have all the shots.”

A comment on the 23 or so clubs in his bag: “There’s a club for everything, and I’ve bought all of them two or three times.”

Advice to me on putting: “If you’re not making putts, use another putter. And another, and another, until you stumble on one that works. You can’t have too many putters, because none of them work for very long.”

Announcing the day’s rules: “We’re rollin’ ‘em inside the tree line, boys.”

Responding to my question about whether he would like me to pull the pin or tend it: “We dentists like to ask that the pin be extracted.”

Commenting on a less favored competitor: “He’ll tell you about it three or four times before he lies.”

Commenting on my attempt to hit a 200-yard draw around some trees: “I don’t agree with it, but somebody once told me trying a shot like that probably meant a body was plain eat-up with the dumbass.” It should be noted that on that particular occasion Nash and I were teammates.

And finally, on the occasion of my advancing a tee shot at the 4th hole at Wake Forest Golf Club with a mighty thrash that produced a divot the size of a beaver tail and a ground ball that advanced about thirty feet: “Nice out.”

Who’s Driving This Cart Anyway?

Picture the tee at the 15th hole, Wake Forest Golf Club, the one right after the water hole and overlooking the green at the 10th and the tee at the 11th, hard by the trees where the squirrels that grabbed whatever food you left in your cart lived – the ones that took your food up into the trees and sat there looking at you as they ate your food. The WFGC veteran will recall this spot was also the location of the only portable toilet facility on the back nine.

This particular day I was driving and Nash was my partner in both the match and the golf cart. I pulled the cart to the 15th tee, hit a decent drive, and told Nash I was walking back to use the toilet.

I emerged from the tiny green hut to see an empty tee. The other three in the foursome had apparently decided I had been abducted by aliens and headed down the cart path without me. When I caught up, breathless from the jog, a straight-faced Nash asked me where I had been.

Nash the Raconteur, continued

Nash loved the made-up jokes and the true-to-life stories that made people laugh. He knew how much I loved jokes and stories and for a time would approach me on the putting green to ask if I’d heard any clean ones he could use in a speech he had been asked to give. I came through a few times and when he used one I’d told him he’d always let me know it went well. I suspect he always told me it went well even if it didn’t – he was that kind of guy.

He was particularly fond of stories about the things young children do and say that delight and surprise their adult audiences.
For example, he told me about the little boy who, when asked to draw a picture that told a Bible story, drew a picture of an airplane with the pilot waving out the window. When the Sunday school teacher asked him what Bible story that was, he said is was a picture of “Pontius the Pilot.”

Another time he told me about a child reciting a portion of The Lord’s Prayer this way: “And forgive us our trash passes as we forgive those who pass trash against us.”

And one more surprise for Nash was a time a youngster told him they were going to Grandma’s after church because Grandma knew how to cook.

Must have been from his experience running the Wake Forest Baptist Church Sunday School…..

Another example was a story I had told Nash about my grandson Max. He had only seen Max twice but always asked about him, I think in part due to the story I told him about Max’s visit to Wake Forest.

Here’s the story. Max and his parents lived for a time in Vienna, Austria, where his mother worked on a project at the United Nations office. About a year into that project Max and his father came back for a visit. At dinner two year-old Max, who had been attending day care in Vienna, where the kids spoke German, came out with a couple of sentences none of the adults understood. His father asked him: “Was that German or English?” Max looked at his father as if Dad were a bit slow and replied: “English.” His father asked him to “Say it more slowly please,” whereupon Max again gave his father an exasperated look as though Dad should have understood what he said the first time, sighed, and said very, very slowly: “Eng ——– lish.”

I know Nash liked that story because he had me tell it to some of our other pals a few times and I heard him repeat it a few other times.

Nash at the Golf Course Water Cooler

It’s fair to say Nash was not the most mechanically-minded person. There are people who are good with mechanical things and people like Nash, who care more about other people than making things work.

And so one day at Olde Liberty Nash kept pushing on the handle of little door that slides up to allow a person to push the button that delivers the water, all the while questioning: “Why do they make these things so complicated?” Of course, Nash’s eyesight was growing weaker in his later years, so none of us could or would do anything other than give him a hand. But when somebody did point out that he was “mashing the wrong button” Nash got a good laugh out of it.

Nash the Dietician

Nash always had some homemade snacks with him on the golf course, and he always offered some to his fellow competitors. Peanut butter on saltines was my favorite. He also showed up regularly with fresh fruit.

Hal Smith tells about the time Nash held forth on the virtues of blueberries and offered Hal a handful. Hal said no thanks, that he had eaten breakfast. Nash asked: “Well – what time did you eat?”

Another time Nash described with a wistful look in his eyes the okra and tomatoes he loved to eat, even telling me how to prepare the dish.

Nash the Golf Trip Organizer

In the 90’s Nash organized many a day’s outing at golf courses other than Wake Forest GC. He told me he got tired of playing the same golf course all the time and needed to get out to some other place now and then. Among the day trips was The Pit, a golf course on the way to Pinehurst from Raleigh. Despite its terrible name, The Pit was a remarkable and challenging golf course that we all enjoyed. More often than not Frank Toney would volunteer to drive three or four of us, and we’d gladly accept because Frank and Nash were the only ones who could find some of the venues pre-GPS devices.

Nash also organized a few trips to Wintergreen in the Blue Ridge Mountains not far from Charlottesville, Virginia. We stayed at Steve and Judy Gould’s place, enjoyed the fabulous views of the Shenandoah Valley, and embarrassed ourselves on the mountain and valley golf courses.

Although he groused a bit about golfers who couldn’t seem to make up their minds about joining those trips, it was plain to us that he enjoyed being responsible for selecting the venues, setting up the teams, and making sure everybody had a great time.

And Finally

When Karen and I first moved to Wake Forest in 1992 I wrote character profiles for the Wake Weekly newspaper as a way of meeting people. One of the stories was about Nash. Since Nash knew just about everybody, I often consulted Nash for a comment to include in one of my articles. About one retired Seminary professor the quote I used from Nash was: “A fine man. If he doesn’t get to heaven none of us will.”

We know where our friend Dr. Nash Underwood is, and we will miss him forever.