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Friday, October 14, 2016


By Richie Whitt

   Fine, serendipitous structure. You win.
   I'm intrigued. Fascinated. On the verge of being mesmerized. I'm fully aware that we live in a scary, skittish world where terrorism has its own daily reality show from Orlando to France to Dallas to Baton Rouge to Germany. And that we exist in a warped culture where everything from Pokémon Go to Dak Prescott to Ken Bone can grip our nation.
   But you ... you temporarily have my undivided attention.
Rising mightily in, um, Fannin County
   So, c'mon, I've pulled over to the side of the road. Now spill your obscurely opulent beans. What-the-what is a big, ornate, marble statue doing perched high in the air smack dab in the middle of a tiny, unincorporated suburb of nowhere North Texas?
   I mean, when tootling along between the one-stoplight towns of Savoy and Ector on sleepy State Highway 56 on a sunny summer afternoon, the last sight I expected is the building of something fit more for Caesar's Palace than Fannin County.
   Rough, meet diamond.
   The thing is beginning to rise out of the nothingness, appearing as deliciously out of place as an ice-sculpture centerpiece at a farting contest between Larry The Cable Guy and Real Housewives of Dallas star Stephanie Hollman. The moment Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones lays eyes upon the spectacular structure he'll crave another glitzy AT&T Stadium accessory.
   Seriously, it's ...
   "Sir, we're going to have to ask you to leave," says the apparent foreman of a 10-man construction crew feverishly working on the statue, plumbing for the accompanying fountain and what looks like some sort of expansive entrance. "Stop taking pictures, please. This is private property."
   "Yeah," I retort in retreat, "but what kind of private property?!"
   As I drive away, I'm flagged down by a local rubbernecker. After all, it's not every day a UFO that glitters like the Palace of Versailles lands - or, in this case, was set into place by a 90-ton crane - in this down-to-Earth rurality 15 minutes south of the Red River.
   "What'd he say to you?" asks a 60-something-ish man in his pickup while his female passenger cranes to hear my answer. "What the heck is that thing?"
   "Honestly, I dunno," I shrug, "Best guess though, it's going to be the entrance to something. Something pretty big."
   "Well," responds the man, "whatever it is ... I wanna be part of it."
   In my rear-view mirror I see two more vehicles slow from 65 mph to skid marks in order to size up the mammoth mystery. If you build it, they will come ... to at least gawk.
   After several shot-in-the-dark phone calls and two more empty trips over a couple of months, I finally get my answer. And an invitation.
   "It's Trident Lakes," says Paul Salfen, who identifies himself as a spokesman and Director of Celebrity Relations for the development. "Think of it as a 5-star playground, equipped with DEFCON 1 preparedness. Why don't you come on up?"
   Gulp. At first glance I think these guys building something so big in somewhere so small are out of their minds. But, no, as life as we knew it deteriorates into one of those Southwest Airlines' "Wanna Get Away?!" commercials, it quickly occurs to me that they're merely way ahead of the game.
   Fine, serendipitous structure. You win.

                                                       PROVOCATIVE PROJECT
   We grow up here learning everything is bigger in Texas, so we're a tad cynical when someone proclaims to be building "the next greatestbiggestbest thingamajig".
Closer to Paris, Texas than Paris, France
   Our statues aren't something out of Greek mythology, but rather born-'n-bred icons such as Tom Landry, Nolan Ryan, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Big Tex. And our epic construction projects include the world's largest football stadium, largest high-school football stadium, a retractable-roof ballpark for the Texas Rangers, 200,000-seat Texas Motor Speedway, The Omni Hotel, The Star in Frisco as the epicenter of the $5 Billion Mile, those two weird, white bridges near downtown Dallas and Trinity Forest Golf Course, a 400-acre, $50 million project in South Dallas aimed at hosting the U.S. Open. We've seen a giant chair promote the future of Nebraska Furniture Mart in Frisco and a huge beaver open the mega-truck stop Buc-ee's in Fort Worth.
   Shoot, we've even seen Dallas swing-and-miss at hosting The 2012 Summer Olympics, drag its feet for 10 years on the Trinity River Corridor Project, and something called the Superconducting Super Collider flop and fail in Waxahachie in the '90s. In other words, Trident Lakes better be considerably bigger than something along the lines of "McRib is back!"
   It is.
   "This," says Salfen, pointing to the base of a statue that will soon rise to over 50 feet, "is just the tip of the iceberg."
   When Trident Lakes is complete, it will be one of the most ambitious, grandiose and important developments in our state's history. Maybe our country's.
   The plans call for it to be part private resort/part safe haven. It will be both a lavish country-club community that features upscale amenities, and also a state-of-the-art secured fortress that boasts subterranean luxury condos able to withstand the shit's direct hit into our fan.
   In other words, Trident Lakes promises to be the ultimate retreat for people seeking shelter from a world gone mad. The more your imperfect news cycle is littered with Amber Alerts, domestic terrorism in Orlando, an attempted coup in Turkey, police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, trucks used as weapons in Nice and the stench of ISIS seemingly everywhere, the more this idea - unfortunately - makes perfect sense. America's FBI "Watch List" has grown to include more than a million names for crying out loud, and director James Coney recently admitted that there are ISIS members or sympathizers in all 50 states.
   Yeah, yikes.
   "We'll be one of America's most unique, most safe neighborhoods," says Salfen. "What we offer are world-class amenities combined with unprecedented civilian security. It's life assurance. Luxurious life assurance."
   A settlement worthy of, indeed, a serendipitous structure.
   The construction around Trident Lakes' majestic entrance is already gaudy enough to be a spin-off from Rome's Trevi Fountain. When finished, according to Salfen, the massive water feature will be the heart of one of the largest fountains in the world.
   In terms of square footage (55,000+) and length (longer than Bellagio's famed lake of dancing water in Las Vegas), few - if any - fountains on the planet will be bigger. The height of the structure that will spew water and anchor the property's elaborate entrance will also be dimensionally unprecedented. Not exactly a fountain of youth, but more so one aimed at ensuring old age.
   Design options call for this sundae's cherry to be a huge, gold Trident, perhaps even wielded by Poseidon himself.
   (UPDATE: The Poseidon statue was severely damaged by a Blossom-based Unruh Construction cement truck in July. Construction on the surrounding fountain continues, but work on the statue is on hold until a settlement is reached with Unruh's insurance company - Albuquerque-based Mountain States. A Trident Lakes source says the company is hopeful the claim will be resolved without litigation, but - despite Unruh accepting responsibility for the accident - describes Mountain States as "wholly uncooperative.")
   Fitting of its bedazzled beacon, Trident Lakes will surely become the crown jewel of northeast Texas. For now there's a website - - and social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (though with minimal activity and few followers). Salfen was tight-lipped on details surrounding specific security features and pinpoint costs. But after a 30-minute tour across the surprisingly lush and rolling property on an ATV, and discussions with security and real-estate experts, I can make some educated guesses on the particulars:
   Try 700 acres and $300 million. Commence eyeball-popping.
   The community is being developed by Dallas-based Vintuary Holdings Corp. which - hence the giant fountain and grand entrance - looks like they have the moxie to pull this off. I managed to get in touch with lead architect Charles Ralph, but he only wanted to talk about what everyone else was already talking about.
   Yep, the serendipitous structure and its vast waters.
   "We’re confident one of the largest fountains in the world sets the stage for a standard of quality that will bond the entire community,” said Ralph. “It’s a unique tone-setter for a place residents will enjoy, but also depend on.”
   Our proud history and state pride be damned, I'm pretty sure we've never seen a community adorned with enough bells, whistles, upgrades and foresight to keep survivors from becoming victims in the event North Texas deteriorates into an apocalyptic combination of The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and The Purge.
   "You can't predict catastrophes, but you can prepare for them," Robert Glasser, head of the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, said in a recent speech. "The prudent people are taking steps to be ready the best they can for the worst that's likely to come."
   Says Salfen, "Live on a piece of paradise, get peace of mind. It's a win-win."
   Though Trident Lakes won't come alive with water through its veins until 2017, it's already casting a substantial shadow. Salfen says the early "trickle" of cars stopping with curiosity (guilty, party of one) has increased to a "steady stream" of visitors seeking answers, snapping photos or - in some cases - attempting to reserve a plot in the affluent-yet-anonymous neighborhood.
   Residence at Phase I - the first of three planned subdivisions - will be via invitation-only, complete with a waiting list. After successful beta testing, according to Salfen, engineering plans for Phase 2 have been accelerated and accompanied by a formal waiting list as well.
   Offered initially to movers and shakers throughout America, Trident Lakes' membership will likely parallel the hoity-toity exclusivity of Dallas National Golf Club, Washington D.C.'s Greenbrier Resort and that fantasy land beyond the armoire known as Narnia.
   Though the price tag will remain confidential until initial invitations are hand-delivered, seems reasonable to estimate the cost aligning with that of an affluent second home. That, of course, would preclude the community from becoming fertile ground for grass-roots, nut-job government separatists and keep it instead purely an oasis for the powerful and savvy.
   Make no mistake, Trident Lakes will be much more Elysium than Idiocracy.
   Though Salfen was adamant about maintaining the privacy of residents, rumors are that notable celebrities are already sniffing around the place. After all, swanky resorts exist from coast to coast, but not many - if any - include state-of-the-art security prepared to mitigate our planet's biggest threats.
   Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst. And, apparently, have a lot of fun in between.

                                                       5-STAR PLAYGROUND
   You would expect the DFW Metroplex's rich and famous to vacation in exclusive spots such as Aspen, Cabo or Maldives. But why in the world would they make the hour trek northeast to a previously unremarkable landscape?
   Easy. Because most well-to-do families also own lake homes, and Trident Lakes vows to both pamper and protect its residents while turning the trick of putting this lil' corner of Texas on the global map. It's going to transform nowhere, into somewhere. Somewhere special.
Today: Natural Texas landscape
Tomorrow: Nasty Trident 18th green
   It promises to be one of the world's best-appointed hiding places. After all, we need complex "what if" plans. But, in the meantime, we also need cool "what if not yet" playgrounds.
   During my tour I heard general plans for seemingly every toy imaginable including an 18-hole golf course, 15-acre blue lagoons with white-sand beaches, a 5-star spa, jogging trails, sports courts, kids' play areas and learning center, equestrian center, polo fields, zip lines, gun ranges, retail shops, restaurants, waterfront wedding venue and a row of helipads.
   Weaving throughout the planned development will be about 400 Earth-covered, terraced condos with three unique floor plans ranging in size from 900-3,600-square feet and all providing patio views of the site's lagoons.
   Barring the Apocalypse, Trident Lakes could simply maintain itself as one of the most exclusive, best accessorized country clubs in Texas, if not all of America. But if Hell and high water converge simultaneously, developers have a plan for that too.

                                                  DEFCON 1 PREPAREDNESS
   Trident Lakes promotes itself as more than just a pretty place. Its three-pronged purpose ensures "Plan", "Protect" and "Play." With terrorism tragedies spreading almost daily from Orlando to Turkey to Belgium to Joint Base Andrews to (fill in the blank), some probably feel like this protective palace can't be built too fast.
   As last summer's sniper ambush in Dallas unfolded, the shooter (Micah Johnson) who killed five officers told police "the end is coming."
   Cue the chills. Call to action.
   "Our hope is that membership will never need Trident Lakes for anything more than a vacation home, main residence or just a fun place for a family getaway," says Salfen. "But in the event of something dramatic, it will also be a 5-star insurance policy and a place that will - as well as possible - dilute the ongoing dangers."
   I wasn't privy to a formal Master Plan, but was told Trident Lakes could eventually become a self-sustaining community using off-the-grid sources of food, water and energy. Among the extensive security features being kicked around are a protective wall surrounding the property (eat your heart out, Mr. Trump), watchtowers, air-lock blast doors, a navigable tunnel system, communal greenhouses and a DNA vault.
   Those detailed checks and double-checks would, in theory, protect residents and minimize disasters such as terrorism (ISIS). It will also be built to diminish the brunt of virus pandemics (Zika), intergalactic events and violent conflicts. From Mother Nature's mood swings to scary scenarios that would empty store shelves within hours, Trident Lakes plans to take a big swing at answering the most ominous questions ... even before they are posed.
   "One of Trident Lakes' most appealing features is its proximity to Dallas and Fort Worth, yet its location at least an hour from the major 'threat zone'," says Salfen. "Whatever danger arises, we feel confident we're providing the best Plan B money can buy. After all, preparation negates panic."
   One of the things that struck me about Trident Lakes is its seeming contradiction: Existing as a deluxe, secret safe house - but one adorned with one of the most ostentatious fountains on Earth. The palace screams "Look at us!" But the philosophy is founded upon "Please don't notice us."
   In his UN address, Glasser just might have it figured out.
   "It's all about risk management," he said. "If you plan properly, you can hide in plain sight."
   Like a joint password protecting sensitive information, a safe word drawing boundaries on sexual exploration or the designated family meeting spot during ominous weather, planners hope "Trident Lakes" becomes the default escape destination when and if Doomsday dawns in Dallas and beyond.
   Fine, serendipitous structure. You win.
   In the present, your sprawling fountain in the remote reaches of North Texas will generate unique curiosity.
   In the future, you just may provide unparalleled security.

Friday, August 19, 2016


Not bad for a neighborhood gate house, eh?
   I'm not a big fan of "Who's wearing what?" or "Keeping up with the Joneses." But I am, alas, a huge supporter of the Cowboys in general and much-maligned, always-underrated Tony Romo in specific.
   So ... let's bend the rules, crane our necks and check out the quarterback's new house.
   We all know Romo moved out of his old house in the Cottonwood Valley neighborhood of Irving and is selling the 5,500-square foot joint for a cool $1 million. As for his new address?
   I haven't seen his new digs with my own eyes, but got a couple of sources who have been on the  property and inside the home in the far North Dallas community of Glen Abbey near Bent Tree Country Club.
   The key, cool statistics:
   *12,000 square feet
   *Three stories
   *A spiral slide that lands on an indoor basketball court
   *A back yard that features a glass-enclosed spa and sauna
   Sounds like a pretty swanky playground for sons Hawkins and Rivers, and not a bad place to entertain or relax for Tony and wife Candice.
   The locale, of course, makes total sense. For now it's a quick drive up the Tollway to the Cowboys' new headquarters at The Star in Frisco. And, when Romo retires, he can simply meander down the street to play his beloved golf on one of the Metroplex's best courses at Bent Tree.
   Don't have a price tag, but - relatively speaking - it sounds like a modest place. In 2013 the quarterback signed a contract worth a whopping $108 million. One of his peers - guy named Tom Brady - recently sold his moated mansion in Los Angeles and moved into a $50 million castle outside Boston.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


   UPDATE: Thanks to the thoughts, prayers, actions and tips of thousands of Wally's family, friends, former co-workers, neighbors, alums, media members and the homeless shelter volunteer community, he was located in downtown Dallas and picked up healthy (and sober) by his brother Friday afternoon. Thanks to everyone for their support. Happy Fourth of July weekend!

   Dear Wally Lynn,

   I'm writing you this letter ... because I desperately don't want to author your obituary.
   It's going to be one of the most heart-breaking and gut-wrenching pleas I've ever made. Don't make me beg for your life. For now, just allow yourself to be found. Then surrender to some help.
   Small steps.
   You've endured an unfathomably painful fall from grace. Gone is the fame and fortune and marriage and houses and cars and good chunks of your family and friends. You've been in and out of hospitals, in and out of rehab.
   Now, best we can piece together, you've been in and out of a homeless shelter in downtown Dallas.
   You were last seen refusing the open arms of your brother and heading out of Presbyterian Hospital in Plano on May 17. On that day you wore khaki pants, a green Polo and sneakers, and were wheeling behind you a royal blue suitcase containing your last few possessions. You accepted a ride from your college roommate, but only if he'd take you to downtown Dallas. A volunteer at The Bridge Homeless Assistance Center near Farmers Market swears that on May 20 you came in for a shower and a hot meal and ... poof. Gone.
   That was 41 days ago.
   You're one of the most talented, creative and funny people I've ever known. Resourceful. Clever. But now - due to a toxic mix of stubborn pride and brain-skewing alcohol - I fear you've willingly transformed yourself into a human needle in a homeless haystack.
   At least I hope that's the case. Because at this point that's the best scenario I can stomach.
   Your brothers, your two college-grad sons and a handful of your friends have spent endless hours on countless days scouring the streets and shelters to no avail. I used to call you "Waldo," never in my worst nightmares envisioning I'd be searching for you under these dire circumstances.
   The Bridge. Austin Street Shelter. Union Gospel Mission. Even random convenience stores. Despite questions and photos and cash, neither employees nor residents can confirm you're alive, much less pinpoint your whereabouts.
   Too old for an Amber Alert and not clinically diagnosed with a specific enough ailment to warrant a Silver Alert, Dallas police categorize you as just another 55-year-old homeless man lost in their crowded missing persons reports.
   I spent a couple hours looking for you Tuesday morning, better known as running into a brick wall. One man outside a shelter told me "Oh yeah, see him all the time." But I have the feeling he would've confirmed a UFO landing on my shoulder for another $5. Another pointed me toward bushes behind what looked like an abandoned building on Cadiz Street, which he called "the store." "If he's a drinker, he down at the store with the other drinkers." Sure enough there were 8-10 homeless behind "the store" and - at 8:45 a.m. - drinking. None of them were you. None of them knew you.
   I was simultaneously relieved, and horrified.
   Searching for you amidst the shards of what once were whole lives punched me right in the spoiled kisser. Some have blank stares. Some are shuffling to nowhere. Some are babbling about nothing to no one. They all have a story, co-starring some form of demons, depression and despair. Suicide feels like it's just around the corner.
   I was forced to wonder what happened to them all. Like you, had they chosen to go AWOL straight into Hell? Did they alienate their families and maybe they even ...
   Screw that. To me you're still Walter Ralph, a guy who gave himself the stage name of Wally Lynn and blossomed into one of the most successful personalities in DFW sports media.
   We met in the early '90s at Valley Ranch covering the Dallas Cowboys - me writing for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and you as a talk-show host for KLIF 570 AM. Immediately we hit it off. Home-grown kids with talents better suited for reporting than playing, we shared old memories about the Cowboys. We commenced a game of Cowboys' history in which we volleyed uniform numbers and/or names at each other.
   "Twenty-seven," I'd say casually and randomly.
   To which you'd quickly retort, "Easy. Ron Fellows."
   I'd go home that night to hear you on my answering machine with a simple message: "Guy Brown." I called back with only "Fifty Nine" and a dial tone. And the game played on, for the better part of two decades.
   You had popular sports talk radio shows with Leon Simon and Mike Fisher. You had fruitful ESPN stints in Austin and Dallas. You hosted a show with Daryl Johnston. You won admiration, listeners and multiple Katie Awards from the Dallas Press Club. You called everything from the Sidekicks to SMU to the Mavs and Cowboys. I got the pleasure of working alongside you at 105.3 The Fan.
   But now you've made the most undesirable of treks: From homer, to homeless.
   A Lake Highlands kid living in Allen, I was always fascinated by your talents. You could sing like Sinatra, impersonate everyone from Jack Buck to Michael Irvin and effortlessly play the guitar, piano and even an old washboard.
   Unlike a lot of us more, um, polarizing media dorks, seemingly everyone liked you. Not a disparaging word from any corner of an industry laced with competition, jealousy and back-stabbing.
   You weren't bad off the "field" either. In 1995 you were one of the first hires at an Internet radio company run out of a Deep Ellum warehouse by an entrepreneur named Mark Cuban. When AudioNet morphed into, then had the largest IPO in Wall Street history, and then was bought by Yahoo! for $6 billion in 1999, you became an instant multi-millionaire.
   Maybe, in retrospect, money is indeed the root of all evil.
   Because life - even when camouflaged in temporary success - is a fragile little bitch.
   You had it all. Beautiful, fun wife. Smart, sensible kids. Notable media career. BMWs in the garage. New 80-acre ranch in Spicewood, just west of Austin and around the bench from Willie Nelson's annual Fourth of July picnic. We'd play golf in the morning at Twin Creeks and enjoy a post-show Happy Hour at Love & War in Texas. Summer weekends would find us at your ranch playing Wiffle ball and washers, boating on the Colorado River or using 100-year-old Oaks as makeshift flagsticks for our impossibly designed Par 12s played through knee-high weeds.
   You were a Jack Daniels & 7Up man. I introduced you to Captain Morgan & Coke, constantly reminding you that I was the big drinker of the group. Or so I thought.
   Shit happened on the way to happily ever after. Actually, a shit storm.
   Your financial windfall was severely diminished by the 2000 bubble burst. Your marriage dissolved into divorce. You absorbed a legal hiccup. You had to sell the ranch. You voluntarily sold your house, and your car. You lost your gumption for media, for fellowship, for everything.
   By early 2012 you quit The Fan, and life. You hung your head, and raised your white flag.
   The Wally Lynn that could light up any room was now moping in the dark corner of a modest apartment along the Tollway in Plano. Your sense of humor was devoured by a hermit. Ashamed of where you were compared to where you had been, you withdrew. From friends. From me. From family. From sports. From your world.
   Phone calls went unreturned. Texts weren't answered. Neither were knocks at your door. Christmas parties got no-showed. Birthdays were ignored. Before your appalled family could clearly grasp the depths of your depth, you almost drank yourself to death.
   Found lying in your apartment unconscious with a swollen brain due to Alcoholic Induced Encephalopathy, you hit what we thought at the time was rock bottom. Thirty days in ICU at a hospital in Abilene just to survive, followed by another month of rehab just to start thinking and stop drinking.
   "It's pretty scary what I did to myself," you told me upon returning home from rehab. "I'm lucky to be alive."
   It was dramatic. It was also bullshit.
   Over the next four years we remained friendly, but never returned to being friends. The physical and psychological damage of your downward spiral and ugly episode was irreparable. During phone calls and lunches there were hints of Wally, but you just weren't you.
   I asked you to go to a Rangers game but you didn't feel up to it. I helped get you a job offer as a media consultant but you "weren't ready for that yet." You claimed you had money stashed away, and some sort of gig working for Google.
   You didn't seem fresh, but I thought you were at least functional.
   I talked to you this year shortly after your birthday in February. Same. Stagnant, but nothing seemingly alarming.
   We haven't spoken since.
   Those of us who tried to tip-toe the delicate balance between tough love and enabler are now having severe second thoughts, because sometime this Spring you totally gave up.
   Your brother found you again passed out on the floor of your apartment, which was littered with Miller Lite cans, eviction notices and the unmistakable stench of Idon'tgiveashit. Your family initially thought you were dead, or would soon die. They reasoned that jail was the best place for you. Safe shelter. Limited options. Forced to clear your mind and rise to your feet.
   But after another eight days in the hospital nothing changed. There had been no light-bulb moment of clarity. There was no apology. There was no repentance. There was no accepting responsibility. There was no rock bottom.
   You lied to yourself and to social workers about the grim gravity of your situation. You were belligerent in refusing help - shelter, rent money, etc. - from friends and family, instead deciding to blend in with the herd of homeless in Dallas. Some hearts broke for you. Others hardened against you. Both agreed on the sad truth: You can't help those unwilling to help themselves.
   Father's Day came and went recently, your sons left to only reminisce about the full-of-life-full-of-love Dad they once knew.
   There is sadness and, yep, guilt in not knowing for sure if I helped push you over the edge or merely didn't catch you when you fell. I dunno, maybe it was both.
   If When you read this story it will probably make you angry. Good. I'd rather embarrass you than bury you. And since I can't wake you up with a slap to the face, I'm instead slapping your face on this virtual milk carton.
   I pray that someone will read this and remember something. See something. Hear something. Maybe spot your blue suitcase. Or your barely recognizable face sipping a Miller Lite. It's a long-shot I realize but, unlike you, I'm not ready to totally give up.
   Despite the anger and resentment over the pain you've caused and the life you seem Hell-bent on wasting, there remains a lot of us that still care about you. That still love you. Willing to forgive. Ready to open our minds and hearts and homes.
   But the first step, Waldo, is allowing yourself to be helped. And that starts with being found.

   Richie Whitt

Thursday, June 23, 2016


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


'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.
   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.