Loved ones are gathering, turkeys are basting and, today, we're counting our blessings. So, if I may, allow me to offer the prayer:
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Just because you walk up to the drinking fountain ... doesn't mean you'll get a drink of water. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.
I was thinking of this Saturday as, through texts from friends over the miles, I was tracking my old high school football team's semi-final win, which puts them in Friday's state finals. Seriously, this prayer often was uttered at the start of Biology class by Brother Marius, a balding, compact man with a big hairlip and a booming voice that rattled the windows. Looking back, he was straight from central casting.
We were just freshmen then, and I wondered at the time what the heck kind of prayer this was. You wonder about a lot of things through life. Some of them, you figure out. Many, you don't.
Last Thanksgiving, after a beautiful day with my family at home in California, I took a redeye flight back to Michigan to watch the Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central High School Falcons battle in their second state title game under Coach Jack Giarmo, my old classmate and buddy, on the day after Thanksgiving.
I'd give anything to be there in Detroit's Ford Field again this year. Except, two weeks ago, my wife -- same one who keeps things running so smoothly at home when I'm spending half the baseball season on the road -- underwent a hip replacement surgery. So now nursing duties are keeping me close to home, no matter how great the temptation is to board another jet.
She's awfully young for this kind of procedure. Then again, one of those things you figure out through life is to protect your investments. And it cost me $50 to marry her.
That was the bill that came due from one of those classic high school summer evenings so many years ago involving close friends who over the years have become blood brothers. We all had summer jobs back then and, with senior year closing in, we'd gather at Eebs' house after work four or five nights a week for pickup basketball games on his backyard court under the stars. We played, and talked, for hours.
Eebs, Sam, Ollie, Wildman (long story), Bob, Jerry ... when the games finished, the jawing began. "Your girlfriend has you so whipped you can't even go out with us one night this weekend, can you?" "You're going to be the first one of us married because you can't even get a date now. First girl you can get to go out with you after high school, you'll marry." High school stuff, from those simple times when anything seems possible, when the world appears no more complicated than a pop math quiz.
Out of one of those nights, over delivery pizza and still-under-construction dreams, came the bet: First six guys to marry had to present a check for $50 to the rest of us at the reception (hey, $50 was big bucks back then). Jerry's mother worked in a bank. We opened an account. Last man standing got the $300 at his wedding.
It took 15 years to settle that bet as each of us followed his own path and made his own way (I was the fifth guy married, finishing two places out of the money. Damn!).
There's a line in the Rob Reiner film Stand By Me, last line of the movie, in which the narrator says: "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. ... Jesus, does anyone?"
Plug in 16 instead of 12, and, bingo.
I never felt more alive than I did on some of those high school nights when, with full heart and clear mind, surrounded by pals who were becoming friends for life, I felt what it must be like when the concrete in a housing foundation is curing.
Now, some guys play fantasy football. When I'm finished covering baseball for the season, and especially when I come home after the World Series, my fantasy football team remains the same as always: Jack's Falcons.
From then, when he was an All-State player himself, to now, he's built a strong, tough program predicated on the tradition of the past and the school values that made so many of us what we are today -- hard work, respect, sportsmanship, no short cuts. (Same stuff that helped the school's girls' volleyball team win a state title on Saturday).
Mike Pannone, Jack Cusumano, Edmund Shinevarre, Anthony Gaynier, Robby Cardella, Zack Moore ... I do not personally know the boys on today's team. But I know them, because I know the small-town, tight-knit community that produced them.
Nick Wilson, I sort of know him because his mother, Kaye-Lani, also was a classmate. And it turns out, sometimes Miss America (1988) is even more beautiful on the inside than on the outside. Who knew? I close my eyes and I can still see the cheerleaders all riding in her orange jeep the fall of our senior year, Kaye-Lani at the wheel, as we dragged ourselves through another cross country practice.
It was an all-boys' school of only 400 students when I was there, and the all-girls' school with which it's since merged was a block away (but Lord, surrounded by 25 other boys in Brother Marius' class, sometimes those girls seemed like they were 1,000 miles away).
I count those priceless days, and that school, among my many, many blessings today. Because we all need to get our footing early in life to stand a chance later.
Those friends I made back then remain a source of strength today. Eebs, now an orthopedic surgeon, has been a gift, an incredibly valuable sounding board over the past year throughout my wife's hip ordeal. Wildman, who has battled epilepsy throughout his life, underwent brain surgery in September and, before he went under, told me he really thought that my mother's famous chocolate chip cookies -- the ones we devoured by the dozens when we were kids -- would aid in his healing process. She delivered, and Wilds is doing great.
This weekend, she's promised to deliver me some pumpkin pie. With my wife and me still housebound, my parents are coming in for Thanksgiving, as are my brother, his wife and their baby. It's going to be a great weekend, filled with love, laughs and, thankfully, improving health. Blessings are abundant, up to and including the fact that we're so fortunate to be living in a time when modern medicine has conquered hip problems.
But there will come a time on Friday afternoon when a part of me will be back in Michigan, missing a whole bunch of friends -- extended family, really -- who will be in a Ford Field "whiteout" (the team will wear white jerseys and white pants, and the school is selling white T-shirts for $5,), willing the Falcons to a state title.
The game will be telecast on FoxSports Detroit, and I may be able to do even better than watching it online. Among my hundreds of cable channels, it looks like one of the channels in the sports package is picking up the telecast.
We're all products of where we come from, and this week, as it did last year, SMCC has asked alumni to send messages to the team. To that extent, I've got three things:
1. Reach for the stars as you move through life and never, ever settle for anything less.
2. If you do lose $50 in some crazy high school bet involving girls, trust me, it could turn into the best $50 you've ever spent. Good hip, or bad.
3. Just because you walk up to the drinking fountain, it doesn't mean you're going to get a drink of water. But as you move through life, quite often, you do. And those happy times can quench some of the greatest thirst you'll ever have, and you'll figure out what this means as you go.
To all, a blessed and rich Thanksgiving filled with love, laughter and good health.
And, to the Falcons: Go get 'em!