Like songs, sports tend to create timelines in our lives. We remember certain summers and certain falls by certain teams. And certain rises and certain falls. We remember specific moments in our lives by specific moments on fields and floors. And like songs, sports are an escape.
And like songs, sports weave dreams that prompt us to redefine limits.
I was reminded of that this week.
We didn't know it, but as material items go, we didn't have much when I was young. There is tremendous beauty in that ignorance. Or innocence, as it were.
I remember one particular Christmas -- I was probably 7 years old or so -- when there was nothing beneath our tree but a shrink-wrapped baby-doll-in-a-bathtub for my sister and a toy tow truck for me. It was blue and had shifter handles on top that, when engaged, moved the truck forward and back or raised and lowered the hook.
When the tow rope broke, Momma replaced it with some yarn she bought to make an afghan.
Momma made Christmas so magical in our home that one gift apiece made us feel overwhelmed by abundance. It wasn't until we got a bit older that we realized most kids got more than one toy on Christmas. But we never felt inferior. Our parents instilled entirely too much personal pride in us for any pity parties.
The pity parties came later, of course. As we eased into our teens and Daddy got better jobs, our den on Christmas morning burst like a party favor. Gifts and paper and bows were strewn about everywhere, every year. But we were still ignorant. And still proud.
With 1990 came eighth grade for me. Daddy was doing pretty well professionally and I was infatuated with sports. Especially basketball. As with millions of men currently in their mid-30s, Michael Jordan was my hero. He was the Second Coming in overpriced sneakers. Sneakers I had to have no matter the price, because, naturally, they were sneakers that strode with status.
I was a rail-thin, pasty-white country boy who dreamed big dreams of someday playing in the NBA. But I had no talent. And I was ignorant to that, too. So the dream was vivid.
The Air Jordan I watched on WGN while laying on my living room floor in Nowhere, Virginia, seemed so distant and intangible, yet so inspiring. He was human but transcended the scope of mortality to me. And his on-court presence and ability captivated me so deeply I was compelled to believe those dreams were actually attainable.
I wore T-shirts with his face on them. I wore shoes with his name on them -- but I only wore them indoors. If they got dirty, they got scrubbed. Hard. I wore the coveted red satin Bulls Starter jacket to school every day, no matter the temperature. I hit "three-two-one" game winners dawn-to-dusk in my neighbor's driveway and before bed on the Nerf goal nestled amongst the wallpaper of posters on the back of my bedroom door. I studied harder to make the grades to play the game.
All because Michael Jordan played basketball that well.
At Christmas that same year, the party favor exploded and the gift-passing was complete. Or so I thought, until Daddy told me to walk around the tree and look for an envelope. I did. And there it was, addressed to me. Inside were two tickets to the Chicago Bulls versus the Charlotte Hornets.
I would see Michael Jordan play basketball. Live. I ran down the street hollering.
I'd never been past Roanoke.
We drove down the interstate early for the sole purpose of getting an autograph or a photograph. The drive seemed to take forever. When we finally made it to the arena -- hours early -- Daddy weaved through orange directional parking cones and past security gates until we reached the back of the building. It was pouring rain. But we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, we saw Hornets forward J.R. Reid, and he was kind enough to sign a trading card. I still have it. And I still appreciate it.
We never saw Jordan until he ran out on the floor for warm-ups.
I couldn't believe I was in the same building. It was inconceivable that he was right down there on that floor, this little red speck that was faster and sleeker -- and better -- than any other speck in its presence.
He scored 45 points that night.
Even then, at 13 years old with no context or understanding of the world's broader scope, I knew I'd seen something historically very special. My Daddy reinforced that message to me verbally, but he didn't have to. I knew.
Sometimes you just know.
I've experienced that feeling a few times since. I felt it in July 2001 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Pepsi 400 in Daytona Beach, and in October 2001 when I sat behind home plate during the post-9/11 opening ceremonies for Game 1 of the 2001 World Series in Phoenix. I felt it in Miami when Tracy Porter delivered the Super Bowl championship to New Orleans by way of a 74-yard interception return.
I felt it when Tony Stewart put a race car on his back last November.
And I felt it Tuesday night.
Three weeks ago, Jimmie Johnson won Hendrick Motorsports' 200th Sprint Cup race at Darlington Raceway, and on Tuesday the entire company converged upon the Fillmore in Charlotte for a private celebratory party. The team asked if I might attend to emcee the event, during which I would interview a who's who of NASCAR royalty about their respective experiences while driving for Hendrick Motorsports. My wife had a baby the previous night. I still said yes. I was that honored.
Included on the guest list was most every driver who ever won a race for HMS -- Geoff Bodine, Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd, Kenny Schrader, Terry Labonte, Jerry Nadeau, Joe Nemechek, Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Kasey Kahne was there, too. And Tony Stewart, Brett Bodine and Jack Sprague showed up since they'd won races in the Nationwide and Truck Series in Hendrick cars.
Sandy Welsh attended on behalf of her late brother, Tim Richmond. And Kelley Earnhardt-Miller was there representing her father, Dale Earnhardt, who was in fact the first driver to ever win a race for Hendrick Motorsports.
Hilarity and honesty and honor ensued. Old lies were told and yarns spun and congratulations cast. Every individual made time to attend because Rick Hendrick had so dramatically and so positively impacted their lives. He's not apt to say it, but that's a testament to his character.
I will remember that moment in my life for the men on that stage and the stories they told.
But Hendrick's wife, Linda, stole the show. She was there in place of her late son, Ricky, whose gregarious disposition, selfless common sense and budding business acumen were obvious when he was so tragically and abruptly taken in a plane crash on Bull Mountain in October 2004.
Mrs. Hendrick spoke of his passion. She spoke of his sense of humor. And she spoke of his adoration of auto racing and of his father. And she spoke of how it bonded them.
And my hair stood up.
And tears dripped from cheeks all around me.
And every eye was fixed on her every word.
And I knew I'd seen something very special.
And as I stood there listening, I looked around and thought back to that night my Daddy took me to watch Michael Jordan play basketball against the Charlotte Hornets.
Because I was standing on a stage with so many men that are somebody's Michael Jordan, whose on-track magic had prompted others to dream big dreams. And I felt awfully small.
What do you make of Rusty Wallace being inducted into the Hall of Fame this year? Is it too early?
-- Ben Marshall, Topeka, Kan.
No. It's not too early, Ben. It's fair and it's warranted. Fifty-five wins and a championship tells you all you need to know. That's not to say I'm not surprised. Because I'm shocked.
Do Benny Parsons and Tim Flock and Fred Lorenzen and Curtis Turner belong in the Hall of Fame? Of course they do. Do they belong there before Rusty Wallace just because they cut the path Wallace took to the big time? No. Not in my opinion.
If that's your logic, it also applies to Dale Earnhardt, does it not? Sure, Earnhardt won many more races and seven times the championships that Wallace won, but the same men cut his path that cut Wallace's. No?
Speaking of Big E, I believe Wallace's rivalry with Earnhardt is one of the cornerstones of NASCAR's growth. Every driver in the sport gave deference to Earnhardt. Wallace didn't. He was there to win. The two were great friends away from the racetrack and fierce competitors on it. It built a love-hate for the ages. And NASCAR benefited.
And above that, Wallace is arguably the greatest short-track driver of all time.
SONG OF THE WEEK
"Springsteen," by Eric Church.
This could have been the song of the week, every week, from the very first time I heard it a year ago. It is among the most iconic songs of its time, and joins Jamey Johnson's "In Color" and Miranda Lambert's "House That Built Me" as the best songs of the past decade. It is epic. It is beautifully, cleverly written and I sing my ass off every time it plays in my truck. Which is every single day.
Congratulations on the birth of your daughter!!! What did you name her?
-- Susan Light, Leesburg, Va.
Thank you, Susan. Her name is Vivian Grace Smith. We'll call her Vivie. She looks just like her siblings did as a newborn. My wife, Lainie, is a superstar. I need a nap.
Did Sturge (Casey Sturgill) graduate?
-- Leslie Martinez, Triangle, N.C.
Indeed, Leslie. He tells me there is rowdy video of the ceremony, but the editing process is taking a bit longer than anticipated due to a barrage of four-letter expletives that one of his over-served buddies spewed forth amid sips of Bud Light, and would rather his family not witness on the Internet. They are thoroughly impressed with their photographic prowess. We shall see.
That's my time this week. My computer is out of battery power. So is my body.
Thank you for reading, Team. And thank you for being NASCAR fans.