Tuesday, January 8, 2013

SEC Dominance? Let's Start--And End--With Nick Saban

All through the fall I’ve been hearing this chatter from SEC fans about their SUPER conference, dominance, etc, et al, blah blah blah.  And aside from some of these SEC fans being among the most obnoxious and arrogant I’ve ever known, it seemed they had a good point. 

But something about it just gnawed at me. Something didn’t fit.

An then last night, as I watched Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide dismantle my beloved Fighting Irish in the BCS title game, it hit me: this isn’t about the SEC—it’s about Nick Saban.  He's the one-man wrecking crew that has lifted the SEC into prominence!  Follow me for a minute…

First off, Saban won his first national title at LSU in January of 2004.  That began a ten year stretch in which the SEC won eight BCS Championship games—the only misses being USC and Texas in 2005 and 2006.  Saban stayed at LSU one season after his title, and then left to spend two years in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins, before returning to the SEC as Alabama’s head coach in the 2007 season.
Pause here for a moment to credit Urban Meyer with being the Robin to Saban’s Batman in the rise of the SEC: Urban came to Florida in the fall of 2005, and in only his second season led the Gators to the BCS National Championship in January, 2007.  After skipping a year, he did the same in the fall of 2008/January, 2009. Two titles in three years.

The title between those two by Meyer at Florida?  LSU led by Les Miles--oh yeah, with the juniors and seniors that Nick Saban had recruited.  So, in six years, we have two titles by Meyer, one by Saban, and one by the team Saban put together and left for Miles.
Re-enter Saban in the fall of 2007 to a battered and lost Alabama program.  Not to cut to the chase, but six seasons later, Saban has led the Crimson Tide to three National Championships in his last four seasons.  His four total rank second (tied with several others—Frank Leahy at ND and Robert Neyland at Tennessee among them) only to Bear Bryant in the college game; but all of Saban’s have been won in an era of unprecedented parity in the college game that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago, let alone in the era these other men coached.  

Back to the SEC and their chirpy little fans. (Sorry—but it’s hard not to take that shot.  When the fans taunting you about their “premier college conference” include Tennessee followers…well, let’s just say that both McDonald’s and Morton’s serve beef, but that doesn’t mean they’re in the same league…)  Talk about your “Top Gun” conference all you want, but this behemoth was built by Nick Saban, with a little help from Urban Meyer.  Together, they are six of the eight championships won by the SEC in the last ten seasons, and as noted, Les Miles won his with Saban’s talent and essentially, his system. 

As an aside--the eighth championship not in the lineage above was won by Auburn just two years ago.  Was it a fluke?  Well, that coach has already been fired.  Win a national title, and you can't even make it through two complete seasons after. So I'm just discounting Auburn's run as a brief Cam Newton sighting.

So back to your "dominant" conference?  Well let's see: bowl losses this year to mighty Northwestern; a bowl loss by kingly LSU to Clemson; and two of your top ranked teams, Georgia and South Carolina, were taken to the wire by very average Nebraska and Michigan squads. 

Oh, and I seem to have forgotten my own personal favorite: 3rd ranked Florida, who complained that they were left out of the BCS championship game, getting blown out--and I mean torched--by one of the Big East's FOUR co-champions, 21st ranked Louisville.  You remember the Big East?  That's the conference that was built for basketball and is in the process of going out of existence...?


Apparently, Florida's membership card in the most dominant conference in the history of college football had expired prior to kickoff...

In that vein, I guess you could say that the NFC West was the absolute most dominant conference in the NFL in the 80’s.  Just ask the Rams, Saints, and Falcons—who between them managed just two division championships from 1981-1990, while their divisional brethren the San Francisco 49’ers were winning all the rest, and uh, oh yeah, four Super Bowls.  Yeah, you get my drift…

So, all you (insert your favorite adjective here) SEC fans who want to credit your team with being part of the greatest conference in the history of college football: Cal and Arizona fans didn't do it with USC in the 80's; Northwestern and Minnesota didn't do it with Michigan and Ohio State in the 60's and 70's.  How about you don't do it with arguably the greatest coach in the history of this hallowed game, and his sidekick.  Here's to the great SEC!  The conference of Nick Saban's Alabama, Nick Saban's LSU, Urban Meyer's Florida, and uh, all the other teams we could round up for them to beat.


Friday, August 10, 2012

A Letter To My Friend, by Dave Wilson

As most of you know, my brother Tom passed away on Saturday, August 4, after a ten month battle with pancreatic cancer.  At some point I want to post a tribute to Tom, but he impacted my life in so many ways over my 52 years that's it's really hard to sum that up.

In the meantime, I'd like to post a letter that our dear friend Dave Wilson wrote to Tom the evening after his death.  Tom and Dave were best friends in the truest sense of the word, and as you can see in Dave's letter, Tom has left a very big hole in all of us--myself, his daughter Kelly, and the love of his life, his wife Becky...but none any bigger than that of his best friend Davie.

Until I can get my post done, Dave gave me permission to share this amazing and personal tribute to our pal and brother, Tommie Boy Hoover:

Left to right, Greg Hoover, Tom Hoover and Dave Wilson.

August 4, 2012

Tommie boy,

Thought I’d let you know the world changed a bit today.  It might look the same……., but it’s really not.   It has diminished, like a breeze lessening against one’s face.

You were the best friend I ever had.  I’m not sure how many days we saw each other over the past 35 years…  three thousand?  four thousand?  I don’t know, but I treasured every one, and looked forward to the next.

You are a difficult guy to describe…  very complex….  lots of black and white, but even more gray.  You were one of the most intelligent people I have ever met, but more notable to me was your perception.  Countless times you would ask me a question that came from out of the blue.  And this question invariably would involve some troubling aspect of my life at that time.  I believe that you had a Rosetta stone on my thoughts, for which I am grateful.

Speaking of intelligence, I did see you do a lot of smart things (and some dumb ones), but the best thing you ever did was to marry that Becky girl.  You and I had so many good times together, so many doubled over belly laughs with tears in the eyes, yet… you were never even close to being the person that you became after falling in love with her.  I don’t think any of your friends would disagree even though you (ahem…) “could have done better”.  If someone were to ask me what was the second smartest thing you ever did in your life…  I would say; “I don’t know”.

That you were a loving father is evident by your daughter.  People like Kelly rarely grace this world and never by accident.   I know being a single parent and owning your own business couldn’t have been easy.   And as a brother?  Greg is the last guy that needs help from me with words, but c’mon, nobody has ever had a better brother, or deserved one more.  I won’t continue with names, it would go on too long.  Anyway, it isn’t necessary because you made all of us feel so special, like each of us were the most important person in your life.  And maybe we were.

My most poignant moment with you that comes immediately to mind was the day driving to Boone Valley, when I was telling you about the last words I had with my father.  I had to pull over to the side of the road to wipe my tears, and when I looked over at you, you were crying just as hard as I had been.

I also claim some responsibility for what I think was your favorite nickname, although Kate is the one who really came up with it.  After you moved my company out of the valley, the very night the levee broke in ‘93, she nicknamed you Clarence; after the angel that pulled Jimmy Stewart out of the water in “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  Truthfully, you saved me more times than that.

Our friendship went far beyond being able to pick out a single trait I liked best.  But one of the things I admired was your ability to avoid the rote.  I never heard you respond to a question with the standard answer or the common answer.  You always introduced some new angle which let the person you were speaking with know you were engaged in the conversation, and had actually considered their words.  Because of that, people were quick to ask your opinion and trust it.

And one more thing I loved was your irreverence, which was really your reverence.  As if you knew that without challenge, things could be taken for granted, something you never did.  Remember when we would always tell people that our friendship was “nothing special”?   Some people looked puzzled by this observation, but the informed mind knows that when nothing is special, it’s the same as saying everything is special.  

Oh it’s useless to go down the road with what I admired, everyone who knew you admired it too.  You never held back from anyone. 

So anyway, wherever you are, I hope you are well.  I’m really, really going to miss you.

Go ahead and make that tee time, but don’t blink your eyes first.  We always talked about how fast time moves.  It won’t be long before we’ll meet up.   And just like every time before this, I look forward to it.

See ya around……, fella.

Your friend,

Davie boy

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Blues--52 Weeks Later

Photo credit to Scott R. Kline.

As Cooper supervises the packing for he and Missy’s move from Baltimore to St. Louis, we’ve been reminiscing via text this week about our Blues Road Trip—which took place exactly one year ago. It's been all over my mind these past few days.

First off, I’m blown away that it’s been a year.  Granted, I’ve changed jobs, moved from Chicago to Evansville to Louisville, had one child graduate from college and another enroll…it’s not exactly been a quiet year!  But all of that said it still amazes me that it’s been a year.  I told Coop this morning that I can remember touring Stax records in Memphis like it was last week, not one year ago tomorrow.

Reading back through our blog (check it out here: http://blues-mostly.blogspot.com/) it was not only a great trip and great time, but both Coop and I did a pretty good job of capturing it.

I’ll also say this: we’ve gotten better over the past three years (ever since Bazoo’s death) at doing these guys weekends and trips.  Coop, Newly, Campbell, Ettinger…we’ve even got Hack and Scott in from long distance.  Andy Knoop and I started doing this nearly ten years ago and those trips are a lifeline to me.  But it’s great getting reconnected with all of these guys too.  Do it.  Do it now. Life’s too short, and we’ve had far too many reminders of that lately in our little circle.

It's a very cool thing re-establishing your childhood connections as adults.  There's a commonality that you either forget or take for granted...a shared memory.  Until Dan and I started connecting like this again, I forgot that our Moms had been friends, and that Cooper and I started hanging out together when I was about 3 and he was 5.  We rode the bus together, played HS golf together, fooled around on the guitar together, and as it turned out from this trip--it was no accident, we like hanging out together.  LoL.

Anyway, this trip with him was just one of these myriad reconnections that have kind of sustained me through some challenging times over the past few years.  Andy and I never really lost touch. Scott and I have also done a pretty good job at staying close. Newly and I got reconnected when I moved to Evansville in 2000. But Coop and Campbell has really just been over the past three years, and Hack within the past two.  And it's very cool. Like finding money in your pocket you didn't know was there.

No real point to all of this rambling here.  Just thinking back on one of the great trips ever, and alot of great friendships over the years.  Coop…NOLA is calling again, and Austin is still begging to be hit…  J

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Rest In Peace Third Stone

The internet has changed the way we think, work, shop and probably most importantly, how we relate to people. I’ve considered this before, but last week it touched me in a very personal way. Let me explain.

Several years ago, I think it was 2005, I joined the website operated by The Sporting News, TSN. At first it was just to play online Fantasy Baseball (for you true devotees, it was online Strat-O-Matic), but as I starting reaching out to the community I discovered a rich blogging experience. Initially a reader and commenter, I was encouraged by my new found friends to blog—primarily by my internet Godfather Lew Troop. I’ve always been a writer, but had not blogged before. And Lew pushed and encouraged and critiqued me into it. He’s the only one of my TSN pals that I’ve ever had contact with outside the ‘net, and we spoke often and regularly on the phone.

Blogging became a wellspring for me. In addition to a creative outlet that really encouraged and developed my talent, it was a repository for my work—and I’ll tell you that I had some great stuff out there. Twice TSN recognized and posted my work on the national site, I won the only blogging contest I ever entered, and my colleagues recognized one of my pieces as among the best on the TSN site and named me to the Hall of Fame. This was all in the span of a little more than a year.

Unfortunately, my advancing career limited the time I could spend on blogging at that point, and I drifted away from it. Eventually, the sight was shut down, and I lost over 100 of the best pieces and columns I’d ever written. That still grinds me.

But in addition to the writing, I had stumbled upon an amazing network of friends. Not traditional at all, but friends none the less. I only ever had that one that I talked with on the phone, and have never met any of them in person; less from a conscious decision than from

But they’re friends. We mourn each other’s losses, encourage and support, celebrate the highs. And when one of us is gone for an extended period without contact the network whips into action and we try and find out what happened to the missing member of the family.

When TSN broke down, the core group started another blogging community. I’ve yet to engage to write or post there, but I read it regularly; and others of us connected via Facebook and Twitter. And I can tell you they’re among my closest friends. They’ve shared in my career and job changes, family moments and all of the things your friends are always there for. I’m attached to them. I need only get a retweet from Sharp Tusk (@SharpTusk) or a favorite from Jesse (@WhistlePig11) and it’s like my grade school best friend has called. They rally around you too. Through Sharp Tusk, I’ve become an adopted member of Arkansas Razorback nation, even thoughI’m a dyed in the wool Crème and Crimson Indiana Hoosier fan. I was struggling to reach 100 followers onTwitter (@GregLHoover) and ST fired out a missive to his beloved Hawg Nation and BANG! I had more #WPS tags (Woo Pig Sooey!, an Arkansas thing) than you can shake a stick at. I felt like someone from the country who was a little lost and had been taken in by his City neighbors.

And while this is all centered on our writing and blogging, it’s like the friends you meet from work that you have a beer with or go to dinner or a ball game, you develop other closer relationships. We’ve got standing jokes about the Mayans, the Apocalypse (actually Hogpocalypse as my WPS buds call it), and many others. They’re a very significant and important part of my life and I love each and every one of them.

And last week, the haunting shadow that I knew was back there but had never acknowledged came calling: we lost one of our old TSN gang, Third Stone From the Sun. Third Stone was a great writer—primarily on NFL and NFL Hall of Fame subjects—and he’d been MIA for a couple of weeks…when one of our friends was contacted via e-mail. Stone had suffered a stroke and passed away on January 22, 2012. Only 45, he left a wife and three young daughters.

Now, I only knew Stone from his writing. He’d have recognized me as well, though we’d never even so much as exchanged messages. I’m not even sure I’d ever posted in response to one of his pieces. But he was part of my TSN family. Certainly not as close as Lew Troop, Frags, Sharp Tusk, Harvey Dakota or numerous others…but there none-the-less. I can tell you that when I learned of his passing I cried, and was maudlin for most of the day and the rest of that week.

So how do you wrap your arms around that? Why this sense of loss for someone you’ve never even so much as exchanged an e-mail with?

Well it’s not as complex as you might think. Our emotional attachments come from interaction…and in this case, I’d interacted with Stone by knowing his opinions, his writing style, his likes and dislikes; even if we hadn’t directly communicated. That’s the thing about the internet—it’s changing paradigms all over the place. And now it’s changed another for me by redefining how I meet, engage, grow fond of other people, and eventually mourn their loss. Hopefully this is the first of many such times, because while it hurts, it’s also the mark that we’re out there developing lasting and important relationships that matter to us; the essential point of life from where I stand.

So Godspeed and Rest in Peace Third Stone; and prayers of sympathy and support to your family and little girls. While the old expression “we hardly knew you” might seem apt here, it really isn’t. Because even though it’s different from how I’ve known others for all of my 51 years, I knew you very well. I liked your writing, I respected your opinions, I looked forward to “seeing”you, and I am going to miss you being a part of my universe—even if it was the digital and virtual one.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fool for the City

With all apologies to Foghat and one of my favorite songs of all time, of the many things I’ve discovered in the past two-plus years, the fact that I’m a fool for the city may be both the most surprising and satisfying.

When I took the CEO gig in Chicago in early fall of 2009, I was looking forward to being around the city. I’ve always loved large cities and all that they offer, and had at times fantasized about living in the heart of one of them—typically Washington, DC or maybe NYC. But it was not on my mind in coming to the Windy City and my next career step. And being downtown had never even occurred to me.

I spent the first month or so looking at soul-less tract apartments in the suburbs that were within ten or fifteen minutes of work…but they were all pretty expensive, I still had cable and utilities to account for, and I was looking at $10-12k to furnish them. You couldn’t walk to bars or restaurants, your neighbors were all twenty-somethings just starting out. I just couldn’t embrace it.

Of course the thought of living in downtown Chicago was just as absurd. How could I afford that? What about parking? Never happen.

But then one night sitting in my hotel suite in Oak Brook I was just stumbling around on Apartments.com and up pops this great little two bedroom, furnished, in the south loop. The price was so ridiculously cheap that I didn’t even look at it for three weeks—there must be something wrong with the building, I thought. But it had literally everything but sheets and towels, included all utilities and extraneous costs, looked great in the pictures, and had a really appealing location…so one week when I was staying downtown for a conference, I went on a Saturday to take a look.

My first clue was as soon as I walked in. Yes it had granite countertops and marble bathrooms and was charming, yes it was decorated very much in my style, yes it was on the twelfth floor with a balcony, and yes it had indoor parking. But there, sitting on the counter, was an Indiana University Kelley School of Business decorative plate. That’s where my daughter was going to school, and my son wanted to attend. That’s where my future landlord had gone as well. Turned out he was a year younger than me and we’d grown up about 40 miles apart in northern Indiana. Bill ended up being a really great guy and a terrific landlord.

Cue the lightning bolt and cut to the sun streaming in the sliding glass door.

It was over before it began. I had to have it. We signed all the paperwork and I moved in three weeks later.

What’s happened in the ensuing two years can only be called an epiphany. Turns out I’m a city dweller…for a guy who grew up on a farm and put himself through school raising feeder pigs, mowing yards and detailing cars, who knew? But I love everything about it: the restaurants and bars, the museums, the symphony, the theater, the lakefront. Taking the train to the north side for a game; sometimes just to have a drink at Murphy’s while a game is going on. Even the sirens at night. It’s a vibrant life and style that I have absolutely embraced, and I am going to miss it immensely.

The best mornings include walking to the Lake Michigan shorefront, and either working up a sweat or just sitting on a bench listening to seagulls and watching people jog by while I sipped coffee. My favorite workout is doing a three and a half mile lap around Grant Park; starting by going to the waterfront and walking it’s length to the north, and then circling back and coming down Michigan Avenue. Doing that before work is akin to the warm up laps before a race: here is your soul in the sun coming up over the water, and here is the traffic and bustle and pace of the world as you come back into the city…it‘s like building up your revs for a running start.

In the summers, the Chicago Symphony runs through their weekend show every Wednesday evening in the Millenium Park shell, and you can go for free. So if I could get home in time, I’d throw a bottle of wine in a bag with a glass, some kind of picnic food and a blanket, and walk the eight or ten blocks to sit on the grass in the park and listen to one of the great musical ensembles in the world perform a master work.

All by myself.

That might be the most interesting thing I’ve discovered. Living in the midst of all these people and energy and pace is one of the most comfortable places in the world to be by yourself. Rather than intimidating, everyone is friendly; I think because we’re all in this together. People talk on the elevators, say hi on the street. Waitresses will stop and talk to you routinely. Not because they’re hitting on you or interested in a big tip; it’s because we’re all living in the city and it’s like being in a great private club. I’ve had people I meet at the dry cleaner or café or in the lobby invite me over for coffee or drinks after a brief conversation.

My doorman Ken routinely harasses me when I wear my Cardinals gear for a game at Wrigley. Of course he also donned a Cardinals hat, and called me to come to the desk to pick up a fictitious package the Monday morning after we won the World Series so he could both satisfy a bet and offer his respects and laugh with me about my team’s success. A Cubs fan no less!

I use to hate eating alone when I traveled on business. I’d rather sit in my room then venture out. But with my experience in the city it’s become an anticipated pleasure, because you’re going to meet someone and make a friend, or at the very least just enjoy a great time with your service staff.

The memories could make up encyclopedic volumes. Walking two blocks to the Firehouse for a steak; drinks watching a gorgeous post-storm sunset from the rooftop; countless games and concerts and walks. Talking to neighbors’ dogs in the park or elevator. My pals who waited on me at Flo’s and Wabash Tap and Little Branch and the Dry Cleaner. The entire young, friendly, and eminently tattooed staff at Whole Foods.

The view looking back on the city from the Planetarium peninsula, bathed in a fresh early morning dew as the sun first put light on it. Calm, crisp fall Sunday’s when I could open the balcony door and hear the Soldier Field stadium announcer call out every Bears first down, following the roar of the crowd. Knowing that someone from the Sox just went yard because I could hear the fireworks exploding twenty blocks away.

The concerts alone would get their own book. Kiss at the UC on my first weekend in town. Paul McCartney at Wrigley. Coldplay at Lollapalooza with the lighted night cityscape as a stage backdrop. Ray Lamontagne and Brandi Carlile at the Millenium Park shell. Two Chicago Blues festivals. Joe Bonamassa and Chelsea Handler at the Chicago theater. U2 and Bon Jovi at Soldier Field on hot summer nights. And evenings without number at Reggie’s or Kingston Mines or Buddy Guy’s listening to every kind of act under the sun, but mostly just smoking hot Chicago blues.

So it’s with a thankful but heavy heart that I finish packing up my little apartment this week. The two bedrooms did exactly what I hoped: they provided a place for my kids and my friends to come and share in the pleasures of the city with me. I love having guests and entertaining, and that has been a real treat here. From birthday visits from Scott Kline and Greg Miller, to the closeness I re-established with “cousin” Hack on his frequent weekends to the city (he and wife Sue still own the two best visits: the impromptu weekend during my first Chicago Blues Festival, and later that summer when they blew into town for my surprise “50th Birthday Party” that was two plus months after my birthday), to Newly and Cooper and Davey Wilson and the weekends when Alex or Dane would pile in with two or three of their friends, to being able to share it with my good friends the Ryans when they needed to be close to the University of Chicago hospital. Half a dozen impromptu “cocktail parties” when people visiting town on business would come over to sit on the balcony. Amazing times and recollections, every single one.

Speaking of the balcony, that’s been a magical place. That’s become my do-it-yourself version of a therapist’s couch. Sipping wine on a glossy summer night; puffing a cigar in one of Chicago’s numerous snow storms; coffee on a beautiful Saturday morning or watching a weeknight thunderstorm. The many pictures you’ve all come to enjoy and comment on in my Facebook posts.

I was never much on a Florida retirement. Maybe Arizona or California; nice weather and less humidity. Even Colorado. But that’s all smoke from a distant fire now. My second home is going to be a downtown apartment. Most likely Chicago, but could be DC too. I’m not cutout for tee times and beaches—though the occasional long weekend or ten day respite is nice. I’m a concert, ball game, dinner and theater, New York Times-on-Saturday-morning-with-coffee kind of guy.

So while I’m not going to the city, but rather am leaving, I can assure you that I have it on my mind. The country sure is pretty, but I’m going to leave it all behind. ‘Cause when I hit that inner city, child, I’m walking on a cloud.

Turns out I’m a fool for the city. ;-)

(And yes, I took all of these photos myself on my iPhone--the obvious exceptions being the two that I appear in)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Of Spacewalks, and Debt, and Near Death at the Home Run Derby

I have to confess that as I start this particular piece, I really don’t know where I’m going with it.

It started in response to my cousin Hack noting on Facebook that today is the last American space walk in the foreseeable future; coming as it does on the final mission of our space shuttle program. That lit a spark in me to talk about American genius and spirit, and how we’ve pretty much squandered both as we’ve pissed away being the greatest country in the world for the last sixty or so years.

I wanted to espouse the greatness that was America when I was a kid growing up. The spirit that made us all stare in silent wonder at our television sets on that July night 42 years ago and watch a fuzzy picture of Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon. Muscle cars and industrialism and jets and space and wonder and awe and just being winners!

I think I wanted to challenge us to get that back...

And then right in the middle of that, I saw my friend Dean Jackson’s FB post about the idiot at the MLB home run derby last night, who almost died trying to catch his THIRD ball of the contest. Think I’m over-reacting? Check out the perch this moron was on just before attempting the catch…

So let me make clear: I’m drawing a line between this lunacy and the hero firefighter who died last week while reaching for a ball in front of his six year old son. I may be wrong, but I see multiple empty beer cups in the above shot. This is not smart behavior. Ever.

Ok, so the country that was great enough to put a man on the moon is also capable of producing whackjobs that are willing to stand on a small metal table twenty five feet in the air and dive for baseballs in a scenario where only a week before a man lost his life. Not that it would make it worthwhile, but these aren't Derek Jeter's 3000th hit or Somebody Else's Milestone Home Run ball. This ball is one of 95 home runs hit in THIS contest. The guy had already caught two, about two thirds of the way through the event.


And of course in the midst of all this we have a congress arguing over making it legal for us to be $14 trillion in debt…which is nearly $130,000 for EVERY American taxpayer.

Want to blow your mind? Check out this website: http://www.usdebtclock.org/

And so we come full circle to why we can’t afford the space program. Because we’re a country that’s made up of people willing to go $14 trillion in debt, and risk our lives to catch baseballs from a made-up sideshow carnival contest, but we can’t comprehend the vision or wisdom or attitude and spirit that it takes to explore new worlds and expand our boundaries.

Call me nuts, I liked us better 50 years ago.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Best Dog...Ever

I’m a confirmed dog guy, for as long as I can remember. I’ve had some great cats that left indelible impressions on me—I once found a litter hidden in our barn after the mother had been hit by a car, and raised the three kittens from the age of eight days—but I’m a dog guy.

From our hunting beagle Soxy, to Taffy the Cocker Spaniel, to the German Shepherd named Casey that practically raised me (let a little air out of the football and he would actually play as the sixth guy to even out three-on-three teams, seriously…of course it had to be touch instead of tackle), to the first dog we had with our kids—a female boxer named Bud—I can honestly say that I’ve been blessed with some of the best dog relationships a human can have.

Bud was our transition dog. Less than two years after we were married, and before kids, we were a young working couple, and we both wanted a dog. I lobbied hard for a lab, but my wife Jenny had always had boxers in their family…so she won out. And I was quickly won over to the breed. Gentle, playful, short hair, great with kids. I became a fan for life.

So we started the search, and through a friend found a family that had a boxer about to give birth to registered pups. We actually went and visited them, played with the mother, and plunked down a deposit. The day Bud was born (Veteran’s Day 1986), we went and picked her out, held her when she was less than 12 hours old, and went back numerous times to play with her before bringing her home at six weeks old. In an ironic twist, though we lived more than fifty miles away from my home town and had gotten Bud locally, we later found out her father lived less than a half mile down the road from my mom and childhood home, and we actually went to see him too a year or so later. We’re weird about dog connections like that.

Bud was a terrific dog and will always be our first kid. She started getting sick in the fall of 1997 with a brain tumor and we had to put her to sleep in the spring of 1998. I’d done that before, but this day I cried worse than either of my parent’s funerals. I couldn’t begin to describe the grief.

But this post isn’t about Bud…it’s about her follow-up dog, Penske.

We were going to let some time pass, as you always say when you let go of a dog. But it was less than a week later when there was an ad from the St Louis Post Dispatch circled and sitting on the table when I got home from work. "Boxers, $300, in Maryland Heights" and a phone number. No, I said. We’re going to wait. But after hours of begging and pleading (Dane was only 5, so I think it was mostly Alex and her mom, but I could be wrong), I finally agreed to just go look.


We were ushered into the family’s back yard, and there were the parents with their little herd of pups—eleven or twelve of them as I remember. They were frolicking around, and we asked about a female. There were only two, they said, “Here’s one—not really the color you want—where’s the other one…?” And as if on cue the little girl blasted out of a hole in the deck and raced at Alex and Dane, bounding straight into our lives. We were sunk. 30 minutes later Penske was a Hoover and stumbling around her new house in Chesterfield.

Yes, her name was Penske. We’re racers in the Hoover household; open wheel racers. And Penske was named for one of my hero’s and the King of Indy, Roger Penske. It was close…she was almost Lola or Enzo. But it was my turn to pick, and none of us really liked Cosworth either. Penske came home with us the Wednesday night after the Indy 500 of 1998 (Eddie Cheever in the Rachel’s Potato Chips Special), and the day before I left for the weekend to race in the Skip Barber Series at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Penske was a most appropriate name in her youth and for most of her life—she raced everywhere; up and down the stairs, around the yard. Sometimes she would actually sprint all-out in huge circles, doing four or five laps of the back yard as fast as she could run, before loping out to a trot like she’d just won the Saturday night feature at some fairground dirt track.

The weird connection with Penske was that her birthday was the same as Alex’s: April 14. So every year they’d each put on a hat, eat cake, and celebrate together. We have some great pictures from those parties.

A lot of people will tell you that their dog thinks they’re a person, but I always said that Penske thought we were all dogs. The way she played, how she reacted to us. I’m still to this day convinced that we were Penske’s pets.

I have a lot of indelible images of Penske: there’s the picture I can’t find of she and I laying on the sofa when she’s about a year old. Or rather, Penske laying on me. I’m stretched out reading a book, and Penske is sprawled out lengthwise and flat on top of me…her head under my chin and her feet stretched out almost to my ankles. I wish I could find it to post it here. I'm sorry that cell phones with cameras didn't come sooner, because you would have incredible pictures of Penske accompanying this piece. We have some hilarious shots of her and the kids--I'm particularly thinking of one where she is licking Dane's face when he's about six--but they're all on film and paper. The ones here, while good, are from the last couple of years and really don't capture her vigor...this was more what we referred to as her "reclining and napping" phase... :-)

One of my favorite memories is of her racing up the stairs of our home at about three months of age, barely able to do it because she was so small, and blasting (yes, I used "blasting" again; she did a lot of blasting in those days) across the landing and hall like a bullet to launch herself onto our bed, hammering her head into whatever part of your body she hit first and then just burrowing in there, like you were a gaggle of puppies and she was trying to snuggle up.

She would also crawl under the bed; at least until she did it one day and was too big to get out; I had to lift up the entire King bed so she could stand up, shake her head, and look at me like she was saying "Well I guess THOSE days are over..." Or she'd lay with her head stuck into dark corners, like the intersection of the couch and loveseat. Until she was about five, her favorite thing was to lay down by you, and jam her head behind your back and hips.

Penske always slept with us, and she would dream vividly and in full action, muffled barks and legs churning as she chased some imaginary rabbit. She would look up at you once in awhile and her upper lip would be stuck to her teeth, making her look like she was trying to do a canine impersonation of Elvis. As you'll also note in one of these pictures, she loved "hanging off" of things--the edge of a stair step, the end of the couch.

When I would get down on the floor, she’d wrestle with me round and round, snarling like it was the end of the world…but stopping just short when it got too rough. Inevitably it would end up with me facedown, her pinning me across the back, and pretending to bite my ears as she growled and licked my neck. All the while her stub of a tale going a million miles a minute.

She ate a bottle of prescription steroids when she was about three, and the vet warned that might take some time off her life at the end…but her physicals were always top notch, and she was really in great shape until the last three months. Her worst infirmity was being deaf as a stone over about the last year…which was an endless source of amusement to both our family and Penske. There must be something special about a dog waking up to find you nuzzling her face, surprised at your touch or that you’re even that close and she didn’t know…because her eyes light up and her tale wiggles non-stop.

This storytelling could go on for hours. Penske is the best dog I’ve ever known, and she had her own special communication with each member of our family. She and I would “hug” standing up…I’d bend over and put my arm around her neck, and she would put her face up to mine, nuzzle, and just kind of smile as she leaned into me and wiggled her tail. We’d stand like that for as long as I could bend over, which wasn’t nearly as long as I’d like in the last couple of years.

I share all of this with you because we put Penske to sleep this afternoon (Friday , March 18th); a month before she and Alex would have shared birthdays 13 and 22, respectively. I had hoped to get back to Evansville the night before, but a last minute work situation and numerous calls and commitments kept that from happening. Since I wasn’t there to help with the 4:30 appointment at the vet, and Jenny was going to have to do it alone, her neighbor Sheila went with her. Alex was in Florida, me in Chicago, and Dane was unreachable at some after school activity. The two ladies from the vet’s office were there too, bawling their eyes out—which we’re told is not normal. Penske was routinely touted as the office’s favorite patient, and she received much special treatment when she went there, whether for boarding or an appointment.

So, I’m sitting here tonight thinking of the best dog I’ve ever known in a very long and distinguished list of contenders; and I’m crying like a baby. Today would have been an extremely difficult and tense day at work under normal circumstances, and with this hanging out there I was a wreck all day. It’s the kind of day that I would have come home and just sat on the couch with Penske. When she had her head on my knee, I didn’t need a drink to smooth out the troubles of the world; and I knew I was loved, unconditionally and always. Tonight would have been a prime Penske night.

So godspeed Penske; aka Snoop, Penske Lee, Princess, the Queen, Penny, Racer Dog, Penners, and Penskerella. Dogs are a gift and a blessing; and you were an overachiever in that and every other regard. Thirteen years wasn’t nearly enough, but it was more than we deserved from a dog like you. We love you old girl, and we all miss you terribly already…