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Thursday, June 23, 2016

DEAD 'N GONE: VALLEY RANCH

Home, Sweet ... Gone
   You know how you know when you're old? When your sports playgrounds are deemed archaic and impractical.
   Yeah, ouch.
   For me, hitting the big Five-Oh wasn't a big deal. The real punch to the ever-softening gut is losing the venues that shaped most of my sports memories and a good chunk of my media career.
   Arlington Stadium. Reunion Arena. Texas Stadium. All kaput in the name of capitalistic growth. Next on the chopping block: Valley Ranch. Which for four years in the glorious early '90s was my office and, on a couple of occasions, my bed.
   The Cowboys opened the practice facility north of 635 on MacArthur Road in 1985. For on-field football purposes, it's closed for business. When the team returns from training camp in Oxnard this summer it'll move into the new Star in Frisco, with a grand christening slated for Aug. 27.
   And just like that, Valley Ranch will be tossed onto DFW's pile of discarded iconic venues alongside Bronco Bowl, Baby Doe's, Starck Club and Sanger-Harris. As part of my 18-year run at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram I covered the Cowboys from 1989-94. I wrote there. I lived there. I made friends there. I sometimes slept there.
   I loved there.
   Progress can take my buildings, but it can't delete my memories ...
   10. Good Ol' Day Syndrome - The football and the freedom were drastically better around Valley Ranch in the '90s. In an era only at the dawn of the mainstream Internet and way before social media, there was no need for media IDs. No "Players Only" parking lot. No restricted areas. Regularly during my time as a beat writer I borrowed shorts and a T-shirt from equipment man Mike McCord to play racquetball, waltzed back into the coaches area to watch tape with then-kicking coach Steve Hoffman and, on a couple of occasions after being over-served at nearby Cowboys Cafe, slept in the FWS-T cubicle adjacent to the locker room. How laid back was the vibe? One day FWS-T partner Mike Fisher and I went out onto the practice field for an impromptu Punt, Pass & Kick Contest with our friends/rivals Ed Werder and Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning News. Try that today and you'll be a headline rather than merely a punchline.
   9. The Hot Seat - In our tiny broom closet of an "office" we had enough room for a table and three chairs. One for me. One for Fisher. And one for guests. Players - Hall of Famers, turns out - would regularly come sit down on their way out the door. Just for casual conversation. To bullshit. "I'm not coming in here to be grilled on the hot seat," Troy Aikman once pronounced. Right then and there, we dubbed the empty chair "The Hot Seat." Michael Irvin. Emmitt Smith. Jay Novacek. Tony Casillas. Larry Brown. Even Jimmy Johnson, Jerry Jones, Brad Sham and Dale Hansen. Name a member of the Cowboys' '90s dynasty and chances are they sat a spell in our Hot Seat. I cherish those times. Because it wasn't notebooks and recorders and formality and on-the-record, but more so just a chance to blow off steam. To talk. Irvin was probably the most frequent visitor. One day he sat down, grabbed our land-line telephone, propped up his feet and spent at least an hour talking to ... who knows? Kevin Gogan popped his head in, saw Irvin making himself at home and yelled "Damn, I need to call ahead for a Hot Seat reservation?" In the week after a loss I handed Irvin the latest NFL statistics in which he was near the top of the league leaders in receptions and yards. "We just lost!" he said, getting up from the Hot Seat while crumpling the paper into a ball and firing it at our trash can. He left. And, of course, soon came back. "Psst," he said, pretending to be covert, "where's that paper?" His exit was punctuated by the trademark Irvin guffaw.
   8. Center Stage - I always kidded long-snapper Dale Hellestrae that he wasn't really a football player. "Snapping is an art form," he'd retort. So one day he bet us that he could snap a ball into the window of a speeding car. "You're on," we said collectively. But I'll be damned if Hellestrae didn't bend over and between his legs launch a perfect spiral through the passenger window of the Lincoln Town Car driven at 35 mph through the Valley Ranch parking lot by Mark Stepnoski.
   7. Merry, um, Christmas - In the early '90s "breaking news" was whatever appeared in tomorrow's newspaper. But the competition to "win" the day's paper was fierce. That's the reason I spent most of Christmas Eve, 1991 at Valley Ranch. Through sources, Fisher and I had obtained every NFL player's salary. But, of course, it was given to us as raw material, printed on a thick stack of paper. Today we'd simply upload the file onto a website and, voila, news. But back then we had to manually type in every name, every salary, every signing bonus. It started around Noon on Christmas Eve and ended ... just in time for Santa.
   6. Mutual Vomit - I witnessed Alexander Wright run a 4.14 40-yard dash on Valley Ranch's outside track and stood beside a freaked out Smith after he watched magician David Blaine seemingly levitate, but the most amazing performance came in '94 when Jones and Johnson held that infamous charade of a press conference to announce their divorce. During that 30-minute debacle I don't think one honest word was uttered. At the time the two men had zero respect for each other and their parting was anything was mutual or amicable. It was a tug-of-war, fueled by jealousy and targeted at credit. And, yes, it was down right disgusting.
   5. Identical Intensity - In '97 Irvin went ballistic on the media for reporting that he and teammate Erik Williams had sexually assaulted a woman. Claiming his innocence, he hurled a huge rubber trash can through the locker room and implored the media to use the "same intensity" when eventually reporting the clearing of his name. In fact the woman's claim was false. The trash can, however, suffered irreparable damage.
   4. Jimmy Genuine - Once a week Johnson would invite the print media - sans notebooks or recorders - into his office for a casual visit. The "fireside chat" it became known as. In it we could bring up topics, offer our opinions, engage in back and forth, touch on personal stuff, whatever. We just couldn't publish anything from the chat. One time Johnson started the chat by chastising me for documenting the play-by-play of his team's 2-minute drill at the end of practice. An opponent, he reasoned, could use that information and be prepared defensively come crunch-time. "I won't ask you to help row this boat," he said to me sternly, "but I demand that you don't punch holes in it." Message, received.
   3. Richie Shit - Charles Haley was one of the best players and baddest people I ever covered at Valley Ranch. Years later we'd hug it out and Haley apologized for tormenting me, blaming his erratic behavior on being diagnosed as bipolar. But in '93 being serenaded as "Richie Shiiiiiiit" and used for target practice was wholly un-fun. As I interviewed Aikman at his locker, a roll of athletic tape whizzed between our heads. Like a menacing bazooka with bad intentions, I mean, it's just tape. But it's a thick roll. Getting konked by it would be about like getting dinged with a battery. And Haley was firing the rolls at me from 100 feet across the locker room. "Stop writing about me, motherfucker!" Haley cackled. "Don't you even write my name!" Me (ducking): "You have any control over him?" Aikman (leaving): "Yeah, right. Good luck,"
   2. Spit Happens - One day Aikman is in the Hot Seat, flipping through the cheerleaders' calendar and bitchin' about how "Hail Mary" passes count as legit interceptions. "I think I'll just start taking a sack and maybe we'll stop calling that stupid play," he joked. As I pretend to listen while feverishly writing on deadline, I reach over and take a swig of my Sprite. Uh-oh. At the time the quarterback was huge into dipping tobacco. Always carried a paper Gatorade cup lined with a napkin in which to spit. On this day - lucky me - apparently he upgraded to an empty Sprite can. Guess who was too busy working to realize he'd picked up the wrong cup? Immediately, um, I knew. And realized I had two unfathomably nauseating choices: 1. Swallow Aikman's coagulated funk of saliva and tobacco and attempt not to vomit; 2. Violently spit and reveal my grotesque gaffe, and forever be the punchline that once had Aikman's bodily fluid in his mouth. Spit or swallow? I chose the latter, accepting one horrendous experience over a lifetime of ridicule. Until now, I guess.
   1. Goodbye, God's Coach - My first time at Valley Ranch forged the most lasting memory. In '89 I made my virginal voyage to the complex to help FWS-T writers chronicle the final days of Tom Landry. He'd been fired by Jones and any day now would clean out his office and leave for good. Today was that day. As a lifelong Cowboys' fan, I grew up worshiping St. Landry. And now I was helping fan the flames of his funeral. I watched him meander through the weight room exchanging handshakes and hugs. Late in the day I turned a corner inside the building and almost bumped into - yep - Tom Friggin' Landry. "Excuse me, young man," he said, as I froze, speechless in awe. Along with up-close encounters with Prince and Anna Kournikova, it's as star-struck as I've been in 30 years in media.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

HO! HO!! HO!!! SCAAARY CHRISTMAS!



'Twas the night after Christmas,
  when all through the house;
An EF4 tornado plowed,
  leaving Lisa clinging to her spouse.


   Dec. 26 at the Alvizo home on Pacific Drive in Rowlett was supposed to be a quiet, family evening. Early dinner. Put away Christmas gifts. A deep, relaxing respite from the holiday hustle ‘n bustle.
   By 6 p.m. you’re in your favorite Superman “sleepy pants” and …
   “You don’t expect tornadoes around Christmas,” says Lisa Santos-Alvizo. “And never in a million years do you think you’ll be hit by one. But … here we are.”
   Married to Fernando Alvizo last August, step-mother to two daughters and – sure enough – pregnant, Lisa on that Saturday afternoon headed home from work at her hair salon in Plano. A quick stop at the Wal-Mart off Dalrock Road and on to cook dinner – Shake ‘n Bake chicken, broccoli and salad.
   “Who knows where that dinner wound up,” she says with a chuckle. “Probably still in the oven. But who knows where that oven ended up.”
   She knew bad, eerie, Spring-like thunderstorms were rolling through the Metroplex. And at 6:32 pm. the neighborhood emergency sirens sounded. Like we all have done, she heard them, briefly paused and then, naw, never in a million years.
   “I wasn’t scared at all,” she shrugs. “You live in this area long enough and you’ll hear your share of tornado sirens. In 1979 in Oklahoma I saw cows swept into the air by a tornado. I knew what they could do …”
   But when Fernie pulled into the garage from church much earlier than expected, she felt something was different. Something was wrong. Something, was coming.
   “I’m going about my business, about to get out plates for dinner and he checks the radar,” she says. “Um, yeah, we saw it headed right toward us. Something told me right then that this wasn’t going to be the nice, quiet evening we needed in between Christmas and New Year’s.”
   Quickly, but not yet frantically gathering her purse and her beloved Chihuahua “Cowboy”, Lisa was suddenly jolted by Fernie’s scream.
   “Closet!!”
   And for the next 10 minutes, Lisa, Fernie, 10-year-old Marlee, 6-year-old Maddyn and Cowboy hunkered down in the safest place in their house – and absorbed the full brunt of an EF4 tornado. With Cowboy in her lap and a flashlight in her hand, she sat alongside Fernie, who prayed loudly. The girls huddled closely on an adjacent plastic tote.
   “At that point I’m just trying to be calm, to keep the girls calm,” Lisa says. “They’re feeding off of us, and we’ve got assure them that we’re going to be okay. We tried to pray loud enough that they didn’t hear what was really going on right around us.”
   But that convincing becomes more difficult when Fernie’s prayers are abruptly interrupted by the violent sounds of 2x4s snapping and shingles slamming into walls. And then, with the sound of a deafening freight train, the tornado carved a direct path into the Alvizo home. The group was lifted into the air twice, and not-so-gently slammed back into the ground – or what used to be their floor.
   “Surreal,” she says. “There’s no doubt we were all in the air. Your sense of awareness is just all out of whack.”
   The turbulence, the noise, the free ride – it lasts all of 15 seconds. And then …
   “We knew were okay because we were talking to each other,” she says. “And because we were all covered in clothes that had fallen off the racks in the closet.”
   It was pitch black. And it was, wet?
   “I was hugging Marlee and I felt her back was all wet,” says Lisa. “That’s when I looked up and just saw the sky. There was no roof. That’s when I knew we had just survived a tornado.”
   Carefully moving because they didn’t really know what was on top of them or – worse – what was beneath them (they had a pool in their back yard), the group climbed out from the debris and heard voices approaching. Neighbors, stunned that anyone survived the totally flattened house, helped them to safety. It was raining. The daughters were barefoot. The smell was of natural gas (“Rotten eggs everywhere,” Lisa says) and there were numerous explosions of transformers and live electrical wires dancing dangerously along their street.
   Finally able to get a signal on her phone, she phoned her brother, Hector, to say "We've been hit!" A cousin soon arrived with umbrellas and hugs and a ride to safety. Less than 30 minutes after the tornado had leveled their home, the Alvizos were sitting numb in Hector's house, contemplating their brush with death, the reality of their house, the steps needed to …
   “Ernie!” Lisa shrieked out around 4 a.m. the next morning. “We’ve got to go get Ernie!!”
   It was the ashes of her deceased brother,tragically killed in a motorcycle accident in 2010. He was Lisa’s hero. And he was resting in an urn in her new home. First crack of dawn and Lisa and Hector were back at the mountain of debris that just 12 hours earlier was her tidy little home. Somehow, Hector immediately found Ernie.
   “He was next to my grandmother’s 70-year-old wedding ring,” Lisa says, “and underneath his chaplain’s license.”
   Not everything – or everyone – was so lucky.
   The storms in North Texas that night killed 13 people, including one in Rowlett. Both Lisa and Fernie’s cars were destroyed. She lost a ring she’d just received on her birthday. The family’s Christmas tree – and most of their presents – were swept away, and as of yet still not recovered.
   “We lost … just about everything,” Lisa says, fighting back a tear. “It’s just such an empty, naked feeling. I mean, material things are replaceable, but it’s just a horrible feeling starting from scratch. I wanted to brush my teeth the next morning, but I had no idea where my bathroom was, much less my toothbrush. I just want to cook in my kitchen and lay on my couch and … it’s going to take a long time to rebuild that.”
   Amidst the daunting task of canceling credit cards and opening new bank accounts and and haggling with insurance companies for new cars and deciding whether to buy a home elsewhere or re-build on the same lot, there is hope. And joy.
   The family, other than emotional scars and material losses, survived a tornado. As did its cat Max, who was found hiding under a mattress three days after the tornado. And its rabbit Clover, discovered the same day shivering and scared but otherwise okay in what was left of the workout room. Lisa found Cowboy’s cage – a mangled mess of twisted iron.
   “Believe me, we know we were lucky,” Lisa says. “I’ve had some tragedies in my life, but so far my chances haven’t run out.”

   A GoFundMe Page established for the Alvizo family has so far raised approximately $10,000.

Friday, January 30, 2015

American Sniper: Hero? Coward? Or Somewhere Between?

   Saw American Sniper last night and, yep, figured my review was worth dusting off the ol' website.
   In short: It's a good - but not great - movie, about neither a hero nor a coward.
   Allow me to expound.
   I won't sit here and pretend I was close friends with Chris Kyle. At most, we were friendly acquaintances. I was flattered that he was a loyal listener to my former radio show on 105.3 The Fan. He even came on as a guest one day in 2012 at the old Duke's Roadhouse in Addison, and wound up staying after the show and hanging out late into the night as a judge for our Miss RAGE beauty pageant.
   He was always polite and respectful - and hopefully vice-versa - but no doubt we had our differences on military conflict. I would ask him why America needed to keep being the bully on the world's block, and he'd counter that it was simply his duty to keep bad guys from doing bad things, regardless of the location.
   We got along. I'd make him mad, and make him laugh. But in a way that, post-chuckle, he'd punctuate his reaction with "You're a jackass." Guilty.
   Kyle was more brave than I'll ever be.
   But no, even in Clint Eastwood's Hollywood-ized version of his life - Kyle isn't a hero. But he's also far from a coward, which to me is a preposterous notion. My opinion of Kyle lies comfortably between what Michael Moore thinks about him and where my former radio partner placed him - on a pedestal just above Superman and a smidge below Jesus.
   I'll go with what Kyle told me when he heard people refer to him as a "hero." He was just a guy with a gift, that used it to the best of his ability to help protect his country.
   An epic marksmen? No doubt. A badass? Every SEAL is. But a hero? Nope. To me a real hero is the guy who - guaranteed zero reward despite assuming monumental risk - voluntarily runs into a burning building to save a complete stranger.
   Kyle willingly chose the military for his career, and was compensated for it. He was doing his job. A dangerous, important job. But a job nonetheless. And boy did he ever do it well. With 160 confirmed kills, he is indeed the deadliest sniper in U.S. history.
   The movie, however, takes liberties and sometimes strays from Kyle's book by the same name, in an obvious attempt to inflate his legend.
   From Bradley Cooper's beard and build to the big, black pickup, the portrayal of Kyle is as uncanny as it is eerie. But where was the back-story building of Kyle via his celebrated bar fight with Jesse Ventura, his killing of two carjackers or his sniping of New Orleans looters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? According to the book - and in opposition of the movie - Kyle wasn't suddenly impulsed to join the Navy after watching 9/11, his wedding wasn't interrupted by a call to duty, he didn't find weapons under the floor of an Iraqi house and there was no bounty placed on his head.
   I left the theater confounded how the movie made Kyle's SEAL training seem like a weekend at the beach. I was confused at how he overcame his own Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder seemingly overnight and immediately began helping soldiers cope with theirs. And I didn't get enough of Kyle's human side. For example, on the radio show he admitted he had a great fear of heights. Who'da thunkit?
   I remember when we got the news of Kyle's death. The Fan staff had just arrived back in Dallas from the Super Bowl two years ago and were at our Fan Bowl event at the House of Blues. News swept through the party like a suffocating blanket of sadness. That night I cried.
   But after watching American Sniper, I didn't.
   In life and at war, Chris Kyle was better than his movie.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

GOOD NEWS: FREE; BAD NEWS: INFREQUENT


   Good news: As of today, March 1, DFWSportatorium is free.
   Bad news: It will also be infrequent.
   I thank you guys for buying memberships and supporting me, but recently my blogging time has drastically dwindled. With NBC graciously upping its ante on my writing, I'm now blogging there three times daily. And last week I also commenced some media consulting for an Internet start-up in North Dallas.
   If I find time I'll write a Whitt's End on a Friday and perhaps sprinkle in a column or some radio news here and there, but as of now I don't have the time to make DFWSportatorium a daily commitment.
   Canceling your recurring monthly membership can be done quickly and easily at PayPal, and of course I'll refund any payments that slip through the cracks to me from here forward.
   You can still read me at NBC 5, where I'll blog daily on all things CowboysRangers and Mavs. And you can keep up with my casual ramblings on Twitter @RichieWhitt.
   Thanks again.
   And don't be a stranger.

Friday, February 28, 2014

WHITT'S END: 2.28.14

      Whether you're at the end of your coffee, your day, your week or even your rope, welcome to Whitt's End:

   *Bigger ain't always better ...

   *After not happening in DFW in '13 for the first time since '89, it's set to resume this Spring ...

   *Good news: Starting March 1 DFWSportatorium will be free. Bad news: It will also be infrequent ...


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Thursday, February 27, 2014

WHITT'S END: 2.27.14

      Whether you're at the end of your coffee, your day, your week or even your rope, welcome to Whitt's End:

   *Stop it, irrational dreamers, he ain't playing for the Cowboys ...

   *I'm apologizing to this player. For now ...

   *Will this guy be the best No. 84 in DFW sports history? ...


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