Feinstein, Gehrig and the nature of friendship
When our friend Connie Woolen invited Janet and me to a banquet/fundraiser for ALS (amyotrophie lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), she could be forgiven for being a bit sketchy on the details. Having lost her father to one of the ugliest, most horrific diseases on Earth ‘— which, ironically, is named after one of the most graceful, beatific athletes on Earth ‘— her prime concern is raising awareness and funds to help find a cure for the fatal disease. I, on the other hand, should be granted no quarter for my ignorance of the details of the event; I suppose I heard the words ‘free meal’ and ‘Koury Center’ and that was inducement enough to get me there. After that my eyes glazed over and I must’ve missed the rest of the conversation.
Had I been paying even slight attention, I would have known that the function was the Murray Abrams ALS Memorial Fund Dinner, and that the author who was the keynote speaker was one of my genuine heroes, the guy who may go down in history as the finest and most prolific sports journalist of our time, John Feinstein.
Abrams, I was later to find out, was a local surgeon who was revered far beyond the medical community and whose life was cut short by ALS in June 2003. His wife Elaine was the guiding force behind this event.
Feinstein, for those who mistakenly don’t equate sports with life, has over the past 20 years written no fewer than 15 books, many of them bestsellers. His titles include A Season on the Brink, March to Madness, A Civil War, The Majors, A Good Walk Spoiled, and his most recent, Caddy for Life. It was that latter work that made him the perfect speaker for a gathering of this sort, for it chronicles the relationship between golfer Tom Watson and Bruce Edwards, his caddy for 30 years who died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on the eve of the 2004 Masters.
The author (who, by the way, is a Duke grad) regaled the mostly well-heeled crowd with personal anecdotes from his years rubbing elbows with household names as well as anonymous wannabes. As polished a speaker as he is a writer, he set us up with his self-effacing wit and penetrating insider knowledge on the state of both college and professional athletics, before zeroing in on the parallel topics at hand: Edwards’ courageous battle with ALS and the way he and Watson fought it shoulder to shoulder, and the necessity of finding a cure for the disease. By the time I rose for the standing O, I had the sensation that something very special had happened this night, May 11, 2005, and that I was blessed to either witness it or be a part of it, I’m not sure which. I have no way of knowing how it may unfold, but this may have been one of those moments that shifts your life in a slightly different direction, that could be looked back upon years hence as part of something much bigger than it appeared at the time.
My mind wandered back a few months to when another of my heroes, Mitch Albom, addressed a very similar crowd in this very room. That crowd had gathered on behalf of Friends for an Earlier Breast Cancer Test to hear Albom, generally considered to be the finest sports columnist alive, talk about his runaway best-sellers, Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven. In fitting synchronicity, most of Albom’s address that day centered around Morrie Schwartz, his old professor and mentor at Brandeis, who died of ‘— you guessed it ‘— Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Is there a connection, some cosmic convergence going on here? I have no clue. But I do seem to be getting one of those feelings ‘— a friend of mine calls them spiritual nudges ‘— that I’m being pulled in some direction that I’m not quite aware of yet.
With my remaining years am I to do something that contributes in some minuscule way toward something positive? Certainly my delusions of grandeur have long since evaporated, but is there still a way for me to leave something behind that could be of use to somebody down the road? Is there some nugget of homespun truth that I could pass along that would somehow enrich someone else’s life?
Perhaps the nugget is simply this: All of us can’t be a Feinstein or an Albom. Not only can we not be celebrated authors, neither can we all be doctors or scholars or generals or statesmen or captains of industry. But the one thing we can be is what Bruce Edwards was to Tom Watson, what Mitch Albom was to Morrie Schwartz, what Connie is to Janet and me ‘— a friend.
And maybe that’s enough.
Ogi can be reached at email@example.com and heard each Tuesday at 9:35 a.m. on WGOS 1070 AM.