Blessing, not a curse

RIO de JANEIRO — We knew something was wrong, of course. For one thing, she would not eat. Our oldest daughter had always been a jubilant eater, not so much in quantity – she never consumed a lot – but in diversity. She always wanted to try something new, even when a familiar favorite was right there. We would go to restaurants, and there would be the chicken fingers and cheese pizzas that entranced kids. Her eye always turned to the most exotic and audacious choice on the menu.

“Do you think the Scorching Spicy Red Lentil Curry would be good?” she would ask.

“There are like five little pictures of fire next to it,” I would say.

“I like spicy food,” she said.

OK. Sometimes, she did like spicy food. Sometimes, steam blew out of her ears. But she kept trying, kept exploring, testing her limits, because that sense of exploration is inside her. Then one day she just stopped eating anything. She kept saying that she wasn’t hungry. She kept making excuses not to eat. She would move around the food on her plate to make it look like she had eaten something.

“She’s a teenager,” we told ourselves.

She was tired a lot. Well, she had never been the most active of kids; one of the inside jokes of the family was how, if a monster came after her, she might “walk briskly.” But this kind of exhaustion was new. She started falling asleep in the middle of the day. She started saying that she was too tired to do just about anything, even things she had loved doing, even reading.

“She just has to eat better,” we told ourselves.

She began screaming about how much she despised swimming. She swam for a community center swim team, and though she was never the fastest one out there – we used to joke that while everyone else was racing, she swam to her own carefree rhythm (which sounded a bit like so the pacing of “The Girl From Ipanema”). Still, swimming made her happy. Sure she would grumble and grouse before practice, but after practice she was smiling and hungry and full of life. Swimming rejuvenated her.

And then – the joy stopped. She said her stomach hurt. She said she couldn’t keep up. She said her stomach hurt. She had to get out of the pool and gather herself. She said her stomach hurt. She would be in tears on the way home as she howled about how much she hated swimming and how angry she was at us for making her do it. She begged us to let her quit every day.

Then, it was around that time that quit caring about a lot of things. Food. Clothes. Us. Her sweetness dissipated. She lost weight she did not have to lose. She announced she wanted to become a vegan and we realized it was mostly an excuse to eliminate foods from her diet. We begged her to eat, and when begging did not work, we fought. We had braced ourselves for the teenage years, but this was more than we knew how to handle. We started to see the bones in her back after she put on her bathing suit, and we started to see her face lose its color and verve, and we could not get her to eat. We were panicked. And, we could tell, she was too.

“I wish your daughter would show more energy in class,” every one of her teachers wrote us in the mid-term report card.

“I think your daughter should see a counselor,” the swim coach told us.

“She’s a teenager,” we told ourselves with less and less conviction.

The power of the Olympics is in its inspiration. There are always issues, controversies, political troubles, positive drug tests, hypocrisies, money scandals and the rest, but the Olympics endure, and the reason is inspiration. The athletes inspire us. Sure, it’s corny, but at their best they can take us with them to these extraordinary places at the height of humanity, to the 100-meter finish line, to the edge of the diving platform, to the mat with hundreds of pounds trembling over our heads.

And, sometimes, the best times, the Olympics can take us even higher. Think of the typical Olympic story, the one you’ve seen a hundred times. This little boy or girl sees the Olympic Games for the first time, in full color and splendor, and it stirs something in them, something so wonderful and important that they can barely breathe. They have found their calling. They have found their essence. They have to go.

Take Kathleen Baker. Maybe you’ve heard of her, maybe you haven’t. She was 11 when she watched the Olympics in Beijing. She sat in the family room in Winston Salem, N.C., and she would not leave the television, even for a second, even for a bathroom break. “Kathleen, it’s OK, it’s a commercial,” her father Norris would say, but she just sat there, frozen, mesmerized, hungry — and it didn’t matter the sport. Gymnastics. Track. Fencing. Her sport, swimming. Didn’t matter. She needed to breathe it all in. This was her future.

And then, how do these stories go? Well, you know of course, the athletes give up everything for the Olympics. Kathleen Baker gave up so much of what so many of us would call “childhood,” you know, the food, the lazy afternoons, the goof-off time with friends, the parties, the vacations, the long and blissful days with nowhere to go and nothing to do. You know: The normal stuff. But what’s easy to miss is that Kathleen Baker did not want to be normal. “The Olympics,” she says, “mean everything to me.”

Baker swam constantly… and joyfully. That joyful part was what separated her. When she was 14, her family moved 79 miles south, to Charlotte, where David Marsh – “Miracle Marsh,” as 1992 Olympic champion Mel Stewart, one of Marsh’s many disciples, calls him – coached the renowned SwimMac. Baker would show up hours before her own practice every day just to watch SwimMac’s famed Elite Team (with Olympic legend Ryan Lochte, among others). She didn’t just watch. She hoped that maybe they would let her swim with them.

“She was always ready – and I’m talking every day – just in case we said, ‘OK, get your suit on and jump in,’” Marsh says. “I had never seen that.”

“With Kathleen, we would use NOT going to practice as discipline,” her mother Kimberly says. “We would literally say, ‘If you don’t finish this assignment or if you don’t get this thing done, you’re not going to practice,’ and it worked. With Kathleen, the perfect day is two practices and a third thing like weightlifting.”

This was her most powerful weapon – she is not one of those athletic swimming marvels. As Marsh says, “she is not 6-foot-3, she does not have a stroke that is beyond what other swimmers can do technically.” Her gift is that unceasing eagerness. Every swimmer has days when they show up at the pool feeling sluggish or cranky or generally uninterested — but not Kathleen. Every day was a thrilling chance to get just a little closer to the Olympics. She swims all four strokes with enthusiasm and verve; practice always ends too soon for her. From the beginning, she never doubted her destiny.

And then, one day – ironically, the very day she set her first age group national record – she started feeling these horrible stomach pains. She started carrying around a low-grade fever. She was diagnosed with mono, but it did not go away. She began to lose weight even though she ate voraciously. Kimberly, in something of a panic, made her eat a cheeseburger every day, just to fight off the weight loss. This led Kathleen to hate cheeseburgers.

“I would look at her,” Kimberly says, “and she was white as a sheet. And I would think, ‘this is not right!’ A mother just knows; something was wrong.”

Doctors. Of course they went to doctors. Blood tests. Theories. Prescriptions. There were brief bursts of hope, long stretches of panic, and, most of all, confusion.

Then one day, she saw an email that the doctor sent to her father: “Kathleen has Crohn’s Disease.”

“That,” Kathleen says, “was the worst day of my life. I was heartbroken.”

* * *

How do you explain Crohn’s? The technical way, I suppose, is to say that it’s a chronic disease (meaning it never goes away) that affects the intestines — particularly the colon. To be a bit less technical, all of us have harmless bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract; these help digestion. Our immune systems naturally know to leave those bacteria alone. But in a Crohn’s patient, the immune system attacks the harmless bacteria leaving behind tiny ulcers and wreckage. The Crohn’s Institute says there are about 700,000 people in America with Crohn’s, though I suspect for various reasons that it’s an under-diagnosed disease.

Anyway, none of this explains Crohn’s. It is a cruel and devious disease that alters the body in a hundred ways, never the same way twice. There are, of course, the terrible stomach pains — the flare-ups, as you learn to call them. These come and go in an irregular rhythm; they can disappear for months, even years, and then attack with extreme force. But the flare-ups are only one weapon. Crohn’s will obstruct appetite so that the very idea of food is nauseating. Crohn’s will sap you of your strength. It will steal your sleep. It will hollow out your zest for life. Crohn’s is nasty and unforgiving.

And, perhaps most horribly, Crohn’s feeds off of tension, stress, pressure — it hits students hardest at final exam time, hits workers hardest when deadlines approach, hits everyone at that exact moment when they desperately need to feel confident and ready.

All of which to say: Crohn’s is a rotten disease for someone whose one overriding goal in life is to swim at the Olympics, the most pressure-packed dream imaginable.

Then again, it is also a rotten disease for a 14-year-old girl who loves Hamilton, DC Comics, 1990s music, reading, the television show “Friends,” actual friends, fashion, the theater, Smosh, and who is deciding whether she wants to be a forensic anthropologist or a pro bono lawyer who helps change the world.

It’s really just a rotten disease, period.

* * *

The most inspirational stories don’t start out that way. They start out with anger and doubt and confusion. Before Crohn’s, Kathleen Baker had simply worn down every challenge in her young life with energy and ebullience. She would work harder, practice longer, try more.

But Crohn’s took that away from her. At first, she rebelled against the disease by pushing herself to the brink. “We wanted to adjust her training,” Marsh says, “and Kathleen wouldn’t cooperate. She’s one of the most driven athletes I’ve ever coached. She didn’t accept it, even a little bit, and she would wear herself down. It wasn’t working.”

Another thing about Crohn’s: The treatments and diet are different for everyone. There are a few basics. Dairy is bad. Fiber is bad: raw fruits and vegetables and nuts, the very thing we parents push hardest, can be devastating for a Crohn’s patient. Rest is needed. Medication varies from pills to shots to monthly infusions. Doctors know a lot more than in years past, but mysteries remain. It took a long time to figure out a treatment plan that worked for Baker.

And once they did — the pills didn’t take for her so she needs regular shots — Marsh and Kathleen’s family had a heart-to-heart talk with her.

“It was so hard for me,” she says. “I always believed I would get to the Olympics because I would work harder than anyone else. And then, I can’t do that. I was scared. I really thought it was over, my whole dream was over.”

“I’d say at this point, faith moved into this,” Marsh says. “We talked very frankly about it — ‘Kathleen, this is your situation. Why are you in this situation? Only God knows. The only thing we know is that there’s a plan. You have an incredible level of motivation and you’ve always been willing to do whatever it takes. Well, this will take something else.’”

They designed a unique practice plan that cut against everything Baker had come to believe. She would practice once a day, not twice. She would go home on weekends and be with her family and see friends — all those normal things. After treatments, she took more time away from the pool. Marsh would watch her very closely to see if Crohn’s was crushing her, and on those days he would tell her to stop.

“I can’t even begin to tell you how hard this is on Kathleen,” Kimberly says. “She had been raised to believe that hard work is what gets you places in life. And now we were telling her that hard work doesn’t work for her. And it doesn’t – in her case, it’s the opposite. She has to work smarter. She has worked on her technique, on perfecting her turn, on things like that.”

“Did I believe it would work?” Kathleen asks. “I didn’t know. That was the hardest part.”

* * *

The first thing we wanted to know after the diagnosis — the only thing we wanted to know — was if Crohn’s Disease would keep our daughter from achieving her biggest dreams. We asked the doctor a million questions, and we spent a million hours on the Internet looking up everything we could, and we sought out people who knew people who had Crohn’s, and through it all it we just wanted to the answer to one thing: Will our daughter get to live the biggest life she can pull off?

Of course, no one had that answer for us, because no one can answer that for us, because Crohn’s doesn’t work that way. There were medical assurances. There were encouraging words from people who have lived with Crohn’s. And then there were moments, horrible moments, like the night before I took my daughter to see “Hamilton.” We had been planning it for months; “Hamilton” is her favorite thing in the world.

But the night before we went, she was in tears, in pain, in that terrible place that Crohn’s can take someone. “I’m just so sad,” she told me that night as I held her and reassured her. “Sometimes, I don’t know if I can ever be happy again.”

The next day, though, the medicine kicked in, and the fog melted away, and “Hamilton” was transcendent, and it was probably the happiest day of her life. These are the lows. These are the highs.

Two weeks before Kathleen Baker tried to fulfill her lifelong dream and make the Olympic team, Marsh says, she didn’t look good in the water. She’d had a somewhat disappointing NCAA Championships while swimming for the University of California, Berkeley (second in the 200-yard individual medley). She was worn out. Even after she returned to Marsh, she continued to look sluggish.

“You know,” he says, “as someone who cares so much about Kathleen as a human being, in the back of my mind, I did wonder: ‘Is this what she should be doing? She has this illness that doesn’t respond well to stress, and here she is walking into the most stressful situations. Is this what she should be doing?’”

“But, we had faith,” Marsh says.

“We had faith,” Baker says too.

Kathleen Baker at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Credit: USA TODAY Sports/ Erich Schlegel
And the last two weeks before the Trials, it all came together. Baker began looking like herself in the pool. Swimmers are always trying to get the perfect taper — which is to say trying to schedule training and rest so that the swimmer is in peak condition for the event. At the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Kathleen Baker had the perfect taper. They scrapped the plan for her to swim the 200-meter backstroke, her second-best event: Everything would depend on her 100m backstroke. She swam fast in preliminaries, building her confidence. She advanced to the semifinals.

And then in the final, she faced off against a preposterously loaded field — a field that included the last two Olympic gold medalists in the event, Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin. She had never beaten Franklin. But on this night, in her moment, she swam the fastest race of her life, 59.29 seconds, to finish second to Olivia Smoliga. That put her on the U.S. Olympic team.

“Think about this,” Marsh says. “In the biggest race of her life, she swam her lifetime best time — and anything less than her best and she would not have made the team. How is that for a story?”

“Any parent would love to see that much joy,” Kimberly says.

“The feeling?” Kathleen asks. “Yeah, everybody asks me that. I still don’t have any words for it.”

* * *

The power of the Olympics is in its inspiration. When Kathleen Baker found out that she had Crohn’s disease, she – like all of us – rushed to the Internet to learn as much as she could about the disease. What she found, mostly, were devastating stories, despairing stories, hopeless stories. What she found mostly were limits and boundaries and the things that couldn’t be done.

“I kept telling her,” Kimberly says, “I don’t think that’s YOUR story.”

No, Kathleen Baker is not a medal favorite in Rio; she will need to swim well just to make the final. And if she did not have Crohn’s, well, Marsh says she would be one of the best all-around swimmers in the country.

Then, if Kathleen Baker didn’t have Crohn’s, she wouldn’t have heard from a 10-year-old boy who has lost 15 pounds and wonders how he can live with this thing.

She wouldn’t have heard from family after family that have stories that sound so eerily similar to her own.

And she wouldn’t be the guiding light to our own family, one that searches every day for hope, for optimism, for the confidence that our 14-year-old daughter with Crohn’s can do anything.

“Tell her I’ve been there,” Kathleen says. We do tell our daughter, and she smiles. The Crohn’s is in remission. We know it will be back. We brace for it. And though our daughter does not want to go to the Olympics, does not want to swim faster than the Bossa Nova rhythm of “Girl from Ipanema” that plays in her mind, well, that doesn’t really matter. Kathleen Baker made her sky just a tiny bit bigger.

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    Band of misfits

    SAN DIEGO – This is a story of past and present, and it begins with a young man named Nate Ebner leaning against his car and trying to catch his breath. The sun beats down hard. Practice just ended. Practice will begin again shortly. “You get so tired,” he is saying, “that you just have to find a way to keep moving. You have to play tricks on your mind. It’s not fun, sometimes. But you have to run. There’s no other way. The game’s too fast, there’s too much ground to cover. You have to run. It’s the only way to play.”

    * * *

    Here’s a good bar bet question: What country is the defending Olympic champion in rugby?

    New Zealand? England? France? Australia?

    No, of course not. It wouldn’t be a good bar bet question if the answer was one of rugby’s world powers. The answer is: The United States. It’s one of those trick questions, of course – rugby has not been in the Olympics since 1924 (and it was rugby union then with 15 players on each side compared to rugby sevens, a faster and shorter game that will be featured in Rio).

    Thing is: The United States wasn’t a rugby power in 1924 either. American football had already ended rugby’s impact in America. The U.S. won gold against the odds when a ragtag bunch of athletes, most of them football players. came together because, hey, why not? It’s the Olympics.

    * * *

    Carlin Isles is a sprinter who one day four years ago stumbled upon some rugby sevens videos on YouTube. He had never seen the sport before and of course he never played it. He gathered his life savings, drove from Texas to Colorado, and began to learn the rules. He is now called “the fastest man in rugby.”

    “As soon as I got to playing,” he says, “I felt alive.”

    Perry Baker played wide receiver at Division II Fairmont State – he once scored five touchdowns in a game against Shepherd – and he was invited to the Philadelphia Eagles camp. He hurt his knee, had surgery, kicked around for a couple of the years in the Arena Football League. And then he decided to try rugby, it looked like fun. His journey took him from a team called the Daytona Beach Coconuts to the Tiger Rugby Academy in Ohio. He shook up the rugby world with his four tries against New Zealand in the London Sevens in May.

    “Is there anything this man can’t do?” the announcer shouted at one point.

    Madison Hughes, the U.S. captain and emotional leader, is not from the U.S. – he grew up in London. Zack Test played football at Oregon. Maka Unufe was a brilliantly talented high school football player who dropped out of school and reemerged in rugby. And so on. This is the 2016 United States Olympic rugby team.

    And then there’s Nate Ebner.

    “My dad introduced me to the game,” he says. “I would go out and watch him play.”

    * * *

    The United States wasn’t going to send a rugby team to France for the 1924 Olympics. Nobody was too thrilled with the way that France was tilting the competition. The U.S. had won the 1920 Olympic gold, a surprising achievement even though there were only two countries represented – the U.S. and France. The French team was prohibitive favorite.

    But the U.S. sent a team of athletes (Morris Kirksey won silver in the 100-meter race; Dink Templeton was an Olympic long jumper; Erwin Righter was an all-conference basketball player) and world-rugby veterans (Daniel Carroll had won gold for the 1908 Australian team) and upset the French team, in more ways than one. French rugby enthusiasts complained that because the 1920 competition was held in August, the rugby offseason, its best players were out of shape and rusty. So in 1924, France changed the schedule so that the rugby competition was held in early May, two months before the Olympic track and field events.

    Because of the early date, England did not even send a rugby team. For a time, it looked like there might not be a competition. But French officials were able to convince Romania to send an overmatched team (Romania was outscored 98-3 in its two games). And, after much pleading and fund-raising, the U.S. sent a team to defend its Olympic gold medal.

    It was a nasty experience for the U.S. team from the very start. When they arrived in Paris, they were mistakenly turned away (leading to a fight). Soon after, they were targeted by the press. “The American are ignorant about rugby,” the Paris-Midi reported. “But they know all about wrangling, street fighting and individual and collective pugilism.”

    Or as United Press sportswriter Henry L. Farrell reported: “They (the U.S. rugby team) got the rawest deal that any team ever got in any country.”

    By the time the U.S. and France played their gold medal match on May 17, 1924, almost 50,000 French fans poured into the stadium ready to unleash some fury.

    * * *

    Jeff Ebner, Nate’s father, grew up playing football. But, as a freshman at Minnesota, he decided to give up the game. He had found rugby, and the sport spoke to him in a way that football never had. He would keep playing rugby long after he left college, long after Nate was born.

    And so for Nate Ebner, as a child in Springfield, Ohio, rugby was everything. He would watch his father play, and it blew his mind. He played all the sports like everyone he knew, and he had a knack for football and basketball – he was a terrific athlete. But rugby was the sport that meant the most to him.

    “I turned out to be decent when I was young,” he says. “I guess it’s because I fell in love with it at such a young age.”

    He was more than decent. Ebner was the youngest player to play in the U20 Junior World Championships, and at 17 he became the youngest player at the U.S. Sevens camp. But then, he ran into that most American of problems: Where is a rugby player supposed to go? In high school, they needed to combine three high schools just to make one rugby team (and it was coached by his Dad). After playing on the national level while in high school, he didn’t really know what to do in college. He briefly considered leaving college to play professionally, but that didn’t really appeal to him.

    And so, one day in 2008, Nate went to his father and they had, what Nate would call, “One of the more serious conversations of my life.”

    “I told him that I was going to stop playing rugby and walk on at Ohio State,” Nate says. “First thing he said was that he didn’t want to see me walk on to Ohio State and just try to be a football player because of what football means at Ohio State. He didn’t want to see me throw away my rugby career for that.

    “But then I told him I had aspirations of playing in the NFL. And then, he was like: ‘Well, then, you need to be all in for the NFL and football. You have to give everything you have to make it work. You have to move on from rugby and be all football.”

    A few weeks after that conversation, in November of 2008, Jeff Ebner was at the Ebner & Sons auto reclamation business he had built. There was an attempted robbery. Jeff was beaten severely; he died the next day. A man named Willie Anderson was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

    “He was my best friend,” Nate would say.

    A few months later, Nate made the Buckeyes football team as a walk-on. “It was hard,” he says. “I thought I would kind of go in and more or less out-athlete people. But there’s so much more to football than being an athlete. I needed to learn the game.”

    He learned. They called him “Leonidas,” the King at the center of the movie “300.” He played with extraordinary fury, so much so that he became a key player on the Buckeyes, and then the New England Patriots drafted him in the sixth-round just so he could be a madman special-teams player. He has been doing that for four years now.

    “I knew I was walking away from rugby,” Nate says. “I never expected to play again. That was part of my decision, for sure. I needed to be all in for football.”

    * * *

    When the U.S. team took the field on May 17, 1924 at Colombes Stadium in Paris– now named for the legendary French rugby star Yves-du-Manoir – the fans were, by reporter accounts, respectful but testy. They expected an easy French victory. They expected for the U.S. players to be taught some respect for the game. And then, two minutes into the game, the U.S. players tackled France’s speedy Adolph Jaureguy, knocking him unconscious and leaving him bloody.

    “The spectators,” reported the Associated Press, “who up to that time had been fair, began abusing the Americans, although according to every expert in the newspaper and officials stands, the Americans were playing a hard but fair game.”

    Two American students were knocked out during a fight in the stands. Police raced in and were pushed out of the way. And, it was reported, French fans screamed with menace and threatened the American players throughout the game. It was as nasty an atmosphere as anyone could remember.

    It did not change the outcome – the U.S. team of athletes outclassed the French team, which was clearly out of shape even though the date of the match was arranged. The U.S. won 17-3, and when the match ended the French fans poured on to the field in anger. A U.S. player, Gideon Nelson, was hit with a walking cane. When the American flag was raised, the national anthem was overwhelmed out by boos and shrieks – a photographer attempting to get a photo of the scene was hit with rocks. Police escorted the American players off the field.

    “The American Olympic rugby football team won two great victories,” the Associated Press story said. “The first was their defeat of France … the second was a victory over themselves in not losing their temper under great provocation from what was termed by spectators as unfair and unjust a crowd as ever attended a sporting event.”

    That ugly display marked the last time that rugby was at the Olympics. The American team returned home to little fanfare, and the sport – which had already faded in the U.S. – all but disappeared. Rugby was kept alive only by a few passionate souls who stubbornly and joyously played in recreation leagues, weekend leagues, men and women who raised their own children on the power and grace of the sport.

    People like Jeff Ebner.

    * * *

    Two years ago, Nate Ebner first heard the rugby would be back at the Olympics. He had never stopped following rugby, never lost touch with rugby friends like Zack Test. Now that it was in the Olympics, he had this crazy idea: Maybe he should try out for the team.

    “How do you not want to be part of something that great?” he asks. “I figured to be able to sleep easy at night and with no regrets, I needed to go for it. If it works, it works. If not, you know, I’ll sleep easy. I just think if I didn’t try, I would regret that forever.”

    He went to the Patriots to ask for permission to go – he had a personal conversation with coach Bill Belichick. “It was an emotional conversation,” is all he will say about it. At the end, he had the team’s blessing to take leave and try out for the Olympic rugby team.

    And the agony began. The constant sprinting. The three-a-day practices. The never-ending push. The U.S. team, coached by Mike Friday, has such overwhelming practices that afterward you can hear the players laughing, as if to say: “Can you even believe this?”

    “I’ve never been part of a sport that is so grueling like this,” Carlin Isles says. “But it’s because you have to think when you’re tired. There’s no stopping. You just keep going, you’re on offense, you’re on defense, you can’t get tired.”

    “I knew it was going to be hard, as hard as hell,” Ebner says. ““I mean, I knew but you know, you don’t remember that stuff. You remember that the training is terrible. You remember, ‘Man, that was the worst day of my life.’ But you don’t remember the feeling, the pain you feel during it. But it’s just temporary.

    “Football is different. I mean, in football, we HIT, man. It’s a violent game. There are some big boys out there. That’s a violent game, and you have to have a certain make up to able to just withstand that. There are guys who play in the league for ten years and don’t get hurt – it’s just crazy. This is similar in the amount of practice, but here’s it’s just running. We run miles out here, and we do it at top speed.”

    Ebner was a longshot to make the team. He had not played any rugby since walking on at Ohio State. He was not in rugby shape. But he was driven, utterly driven, and he made it.

    “In the end, I’m not going to remember the sprints and tackling bags all day,” he says. “I’ll remember the Olympics.”

    The U.S. rugby team is a longshot for a medal, of course. But they’ve been a longshot before. And, like before, they have speed and strength. They have great athletes. “The game is just so fast,” Ebner says. “The amount of ground you have to cover, the trust you need to have in the guy next to you, the playing together as a team – that’s what it comes down to. The top teams in the world play as one unit. One player is not making them the top teams. We just need to come together.”

    And when asked what drove him, what pushed him to do this, he shrugs. He knows the emotional answer is to say he did it for his father, but that’s too simple. It is closer to the truth to say that the sport of rugby just breathes inside him. “It wasn’t a thing like I said, ‘Oh my Dad would have liked that so I’m going to do it.’ It’s not like that. It’s just something I feel I need to do. I think if he were here, he would look at it and say, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty cool.’”

    Ebner looks back at the field where practice never quite ends.

    “Actually, he probably would have gotten a real kick out of it,” he says. “Because it’s rugby.”

    The rivalry that never was

    There’s a quirky statistic that I want to show you, but first I need to say this: Please don’t look at the stat and immediately pound out some wild email screed about my sanity. You can feel free to do that after reading the point, but in this case I would ask your forbearance and at least wait a couple of paragraphs before calling me a loon.

    OK, here’s the statistic:

    Top 3s in a major championship:

    Tiger Woods, 24
    Phil Mickelson, 23

    (This lunatic is actually comparing Mickelson to Woods. Um, last I checked Woods had 14 major championships and Mickelson had like five. This guy isn’t really comparing these guys, is he? Where is the comment section? What is this guy’s email?)

    OK, wait, please. There is a point to be made here, a fairly interesting one I think, and it is not a suggestion that Mickelson’s career is close to Woods’ career. Their careers are not especially close for all the obvious reasons – major championships, PGA Tour victories, scoring averages, etc. and so forth and so on and yadda yadda yadda.

    But …

    Mickelson is one of the 10 or 15 greatest players in history. Brandel Chamblee came up with an interesting top-15 list on Twitter, pairing Tiger and Jack on top, following them with a Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan exacta, and then going with some early stars of the sport (Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Harry Vardon), some golfers who starred in the ‘40s and ‘50s (Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Bobby Locke) and some more from the 1960s and ‘70s (Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino). Then he came to Mickelson at No. 15.*

    *Quick aside: Whenever people try to rank athletes in golf or baseball, they tend to have a strong bias against more recent athletes. I think that is because these are the two sports that connect most strongly with history. In baseball, modern players can never match up to ancient stars like Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson. On Brandel’s list, only two of the 15 were born since 1950 while six players were born more than 100 years ago.

    But getting back to it, let’s just say that Mickelson is the 15th best player in the game’s history – that seems reasonable. And let’s say that Woods and Nicklaus are tied for the top. That’s also reasonable.

    Well, what’s the difference between Mickelson’s career and Woods’ career? What’s the difference between being one of the greatest ever and the greatest ever?

    OK, now, look at that statistic above one more time. In their very different careers, Mickelson and Woods finished top 3 in almost exactly the same number of major championships.

    Woods put himself in position to win 24 times. He won four of seven at Augusta; four of six at the U.S. Open; three of five at The Open, and four of six at the PGA. Look at those percentages.

    Mickelson put himself in position to win 23 times. He won three of nine at the Masters, zero of six at the U.S. Open, one of four at The Open, and one of four at the PGA.

    That’s it. That’s the difference between great and legendary, between terrific and unparalleled. Woods closed. Mickelson faltered. Woods was rarely challenged. Mickelson ran into players who found their best at the right moment. Woods’ crucial putts dropped. And Mickelson’s, so often, lipped out.

    Just look at Mickelson’s 11 second-place finishes: Payne Stewart made a putt at Pinehurst. David Toms got up and down from the fairway at Atlanta Athletic Club. Woods ran away from Mickelson at Bethpage. Mickelson three-putted from 5 feet at Shinnecock. Mickelson lost his mind on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot. Mickelson’s putting went south down the stretch at Bethpage, Part II. Mickelson went on an ill-timed bogey run at Royal St. George’s. Mickelson could not hold on to a lead at Merion. Rory McIlroy was one shot too good at Valhalla. Jordan Spieth ran away from Mickelson at the Masters.

    And then on Sunday, at Troon, Mickelson at age 46 played the final round of his life, a bogey-free 65 that was so remarkable and wonderful that it reminded again and again of Nicklaus’ final round at Augusta in ’86.

    And the guy playing with him, Henrik Stenson, a 40-year-old star who had spent a decade or so building up his “best player to never win a major” credentials, played even better. I think it might be the greatest final round in major championship history. Johnny Miller’s extraordinary 63 at Oakmont in 1973 has long been considered the best closing round ever, and it should be: Only five players that day broke 70.

    But Miller was playing relatively pressure free golf, at least early in the round. He began the day six shots back, in 13th place. He knew he had to go out there and shoot low, and he birdied the first four holes, and began to realize that this might be a magical day. He tied for the lead by the 13th hole. There was extreme pressure, no doubt, but it was basically a wild comeback and a miraculous day.

    Stenson, meanwhile, had to sleep on the lead at The Open. He bogeyed the very first hole to lose that lead. Then he had to play a virtual match play against one of the legends of golf at his very best. It’s all a matter of opinion, of course, but Stenson’s extraordinary round certainly ranks with anyone’s in the long history of the game.

    And it left Mickelson second again. That’s was the 11th time; Tiger Woods finished second just six times. Mickelson also has more third-place finishes than Woods (7 to 4).

    Why? Why was Woods almost always the guy wearing the green jacket or lifting the trophy while Mickelson’s career has been marked by the close calls, the tournaments he lost and the ones that were taken away?

    It’s hard to figure. We can paper over it and just say that Woods was more clutch, but that’s a vague and imprecise answer. Would Woods have found a way to beat Stenson on Sunday? Or – and maybe this is the same question – would Stenson have not played that well if he was paired with an in-his-prime Woods? Interesting and unanswerable questions, both.

    Mickelson’s career shape is obviously very different from Woods’. Here’s another quirky statistic:

    Major championships by age 33:

    Tiger Woods: 14
    Phil Mickelson: 0

    Major championships after age 33:

    Tiger Woods: 0
    Phil Mickelson: 5

    So, we see that Woods was a force of nature unlike anyone. He won three straight U.S. Amateurs and was Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year before he won his first professional major. He won the Masters by 12 shots just months after turning pro, and he won four major championships in a row after he honed his swing (earning his second Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award), and he so utterly dominated the sport for a decade that he left the greatest players in the world defeated.

    Mickelson, meanwhile, grew into himself. He was a phenom too, a U.S. Amateur champ, the last amateur to win a PGA Tour event. But that didn’t suit his personality. His magical touch around the green prompted him to try impossible – and stupid – shots. His aggressive nature pressed him to shoot for the flag when the middle of the green was the winning play. For a while, it seemed like he would show up at every major with a new strategy, a new lifestyle, a new club, a new mantra. Sometimes he would leave the driver at home. Sometimes he would use two different drivers. There was chaos clanging around in that mind.

    But as he got older he found his speed. That long and easy swing of Mickelson’s held up while the violence of Tiger’s swing tore up his back and knees. Mickelson at 46 just played perhaps his best-ever major championship – he will contend again. Woods at 40, well, who knows?

    The shame of the Woods-Mickelson rivalry is that it never really was a rivalry. They never quite got the timing down. It was a blast to watch Mickelson and Stenson have their own Duel in the Sun (“High Troon,” I like to call it) but it reminded that we never really had that sort of hole-by-hole, birdie vs. birdie battle between Woods and Mickelson. We never got those two against each other at their best. Yes, the smart money would have been on Woods. Still: It would have been fun to watch.

    Tom Brady is innocent

    The other day, I was talking with a friend about Tom Brady. And here’s what he said:

    “I think he probably did something, but the whole thing was stupid.”

    At the time, I sort of shrugged it off. I mean, for one thing, he’s right: The whole thing was stupid. For another, I’m no Tom Brady fan. What do I care?

    But as time has gone on, I realized that I should have said something else:

    I think Tom Brady is unequivocally, unambiguously, thoroughly and 100-percent innocent of any and all charges of deflating footballs in a cheating capacity. I don’t think he ever asked anyone to illegally deflate footballs. I don’t think he wanted footballs inflated below NFL standards. I think the whole thing — every last page of the testimony, every last leak to the media, every text made public, every curious statistic like the one showing the Patriots fumbled less than other teams and every blunder Brady made along the way, like his awkward press conference and the destruction of his phone — was a bunch of phony-baloney nonsense that was either directly or indirectly inspired by a made-up NFL witch hunt. I think he’s entirely innocent.

    And let me say two more things:

    1. As mentioned, I don’t particularly like Tom Brady, and I have no affinity whatsoever for the Patriots.

    2. I believe Spygate was much, much worse than we in the public ever knew and that the Patriots — Brady included — would take any advantage they believed they could get away with. I believe this to be true of most teams and most players at the highest level of sports, but the Patriots in particular.

    So why do I believe Tom Brady is unequivocally, unambiguously, thoroughly and 100-percent innocent of any and all charges of deflating footballs?

    Because: The NFL spent millions of dollars in a ludicrous star-chamber investigation and, even with that, did not come close to proving it. Not even close. If this was a court of law and the NFL had presented that silly, convoluted, scientifically-challenged case of hearsay and bluster, the jury would have voted “not guilty” before lunch. And the judge would have wondered why everyone’s time needed to be wasted.

    Of course, there was no jury here. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has won the right to, more or less, be persecuting attorney, judge, juror and executioner. The shambles that remain of the NFL Players’ Association is not powerful enough to stem his wrecking-ball style of commissioning (or even make football owners give out guaranteed contracts).

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    And the courts confirmed: It’s Goodell’s world. All the rest of us can do is mock him.

    But while Goodell can suspend Brady for four games, while he can fine Brady and the team whatever he wants, while he can take away draft picks and speak piously about how he defended the game from the high crimes of the people breaking the ideal gas law, he should not be allowed to alter reality.

    And that’s what he is doing. In sports, every story — even the most convoluted and pointless and absurd story — eventually becomes a one-line item. Take David Ortiz’s positive drug test, to stay in Boston. In 2003, David Ortiz and other baseball players agreed to go through a drug-testing survey to determine just how deep the PED problem went. The players and baseball owners agreed that if more than five percent of the players tested positive, drug testing would automatically begin. The survey showed that 100 or so players did test positive, triggering the automatic drug testing.

    The results, of course, were supposed to be anonymous.

    A year later, though, the dynamic changed. The tests were seized by federal agents in their pursuit of BALCO. Now the results were in open air. In 2009, the New York Times reported that David Ortiz was among the players who tested positive.

    Ortiz — who has never wavered from his statement that he never used steroids — said he immediately tried to find out why he had tested positive. That seems a pretty basic right in America. But in one of the pathetic ironies of baseball’s ham-handed handling of PED use, he was told that they could not tell him … because the results were supposed to be secret.

    Ortiz says that one of the legal supplements he was using must have caused the positive test, but he doesn’t know which one. And he readily admits that he, like most baseball players, had grown sloppy and selfish in the way they used supplements — they would use whatever everyone else was using. But since drug testing arrived, Ortiz says that he has been tested dozens and dozens of times, including at home in the Dominican Republic. He has never tested positive since.

    So that’s a shortened version of the fuzzy David Ortiz drug story. But do you know what the one-line tag on David Ortiz is? Of course you do:

    David Ortiz is a drug cheat.

    But, you say, the test was not supposed to determine individual guilt and it was supposed to remain secret.

    Too bad. It came out. He is a drug cheat.

    But even MLB itself has called into question the results of those tests, pointing out that many were contested by the union … and that the methods used to drug test were not the best ones … and that there were numerous uncertainties and inconsistencies …

    Yeah, yeah. Drug cheat.

    But Ortiz has vigorously and continuously denied using and has never tested positive again …

    They all deny. He figured out a way to beat the tests. Big deal. Cheater.

    This is how it shakes out. Ambiguities fade, storylines harden, and eventually even the people who appreciate and embrace nuance often cave in to a “where there is smoke there must be fire” position. When David Ortiz is up for the Hall of Fame in five years, there will be people who will not vote for him (interesting to see how many) because they will say he is a proven drug cheat.

    So, for me anyway, it’s important to make this Brady viewpoint very clear: He’s innocent. He’s not partially innocent. He is not someone with a “muddled history.” He is innocent. He was completely and utterly railroaded.

    Look, the NFL charged him with breaking a rule NO ONE cared about. The NFL cared so little about air pressure in football that they let teams bring their own footballs, which were barely checked. My guess is if Brady wanted the PSI level of football lowered, he simply could have petitioned the NFL and they would have just lowered it — they just wanted to make footballs comfortable for quarterbacks to throw.

    Then, there is no proof at all that Brady ever wanted footballs deflated BELOW the league minimum. We know only that he liked footballs AT the minimum (especially because, as we know, football naturally deflate in cold weather). Even the famed “Deflator” suggested his job was to make sure footballs were not OVERINFLATED.

    More, the NFL showed no proof whatsoever that he broke the rule or encouraged anyone else to do it — even in the absurd NFL-commissioned report, Ted Wells could only make the comical charge that “it is more probable than not that Tom Brady was at least generally aware of inappropriate activities.” What a sentence. It is more probable than not that Ted Wells was at least generally aware that this charge was full of bleep.

    And, finally, as if you need even more, there is only unconvincing proof and basically discredited evidence that the rule was EVEN BROKEN AT ALL. As you might have heard, a seventh-grader basically disproved it.

    So, yes, Roger Goodell can suspend Tom Brady for four games. But his stupid and distracting witch hunt should not be allowed to affect the legacy of Tom Brady. We should remember him as one of greatest players in NFL history, no asterisks. Now, Goodell’s legacy … that’s a whole other thing.

    Great Britons

    In the early hours of June 24, news filtered through that the people of the United Kingdom had made a historic decision regarding their nation’s membership in the European Union.

    In just the third referendum held in British political history, voters were given a seemingly straightforward decision to make: should the United Kingdom remain a part of the EU, or leave?

    The answer for 52 percent of the voters — a small yet seismic majority — was leave. After joining the EU back in 1973, the United Kingdom would now become the first nation to step back out of the single market.

    The hostile campaign and surprise result sent shockwaves through the nation. The pound fell to a 30-year low against the dollar, Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation. British society became fractured.

    The Leave campaign had always argued for short-term losses in favor of long-term gains, yet few could have predicted the fallout that would follow in the two weeks following the referendum. People were left questioning just what was so “great” about Great Britain — and what even was Great Britain? With its population divided politically and the geographic divides between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland appearing more pronounced given their respective voting patterns, few had a firm answer.

    But last Sunday, the Brexit blues took a back seat. Instead, Britain did its talking in the sporting arena, as two men — tennis player Andy Murray and Formula 1 racer Lewis Hamilton — led the way and brought the public together once again. It was a show of the best of the British that captured the nation’s imagination, uniting people through sporting success and helping to heal the scars the referendum had left on the country.

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    * * *

    As David Cameron stepped outside of 10 Downing Street, the historic residence where Prime Ministers have lived since 1905, the speech that he held in his hand was a drastic departure from the one that he had once expected to give.

    The referendum had been his gamble, taken largely to appease the right wing of the Conservative party which he had led since 2005. After becoming Prime Minister at the helm of a coalition government in 2010, Cameron led the Conservatives to an unlikely outright victory five years later, his pledge for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU being a key point of support among voters.

    Not until the first results began to trickle through late on June 23 did it seem possible that the Leave side would win. But at 7:51 a.m., the result was official. The United Kingdom was to leave the EU.

    “The British people have made a very clear decision to take a different path and as such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction,” Cameron said, his voice catching.

    “I will do everything I can as Prime Minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months but I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.”

    In contrast to Cameron’s emotional speech, Leave leaders Boris Johnson, Michael Gove — both Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) — and Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (with its very raison d’être being withdrawal from the EU) celebrated. They had won the battle, but the war had just begun.

    For when Cameron announced that he would be resigning, the Conservative party was thrown into a flux.

    Most looked to Johnson and Gove as likely successors, the assumption being that a “Brexiteer” would carry out the motions required to leave the EU. Six Conservative MPs put their name forward to succeed Cameron as Prime Minister, only for Johnson to announce his withdrawal. The former Mayor of London, who had been a driving force behind the 2012 Olympic Games in the city, backed out due to feeling betrayed by a political colleague in Gove. But Gove soon followed when Conservative MPs failed to give him the required support. With Farage also stepping down as UKIP leader, not one of the three leading Leave campaigners would have any role in deciding the Brexit settlement.

    The opposition Labour party occupied with in-fighting amid sentiment that leader Jeremy Corbyn did not do enough to back the Remain vote, leaving the electorate fearful of what would follow. Brexit was always going to result in uncertainty, but no one could have predicted it hitting such a level.

    And against the backdrop of this, a second “Brexit” of sorts was taking place just across the sea in France at EURO 2016.

    * * *

    England arrived at EURO 2016 quietly confident of its chances following an impressive qualifying campaign (10 wins in 10 games) and friendly victories over Portugal and Germany earlier in the year. From the outset of the first game against Russia, the team led by record goal-scorer Wayne Rooney looked lively, hungry and capable of upsetting anyone. Such hope looked justified when, after 73 minutes of trying to break down Russia’s defense, Eric Dier smashed home a free kick to give England the lead.

    Yet in the final minute of the game, England began its slip down the all-too-familiar slope. After failing to clear a corner, the ball came to Russian defender Vasili Berezutski, whose header looped over the hapless Joe Hart and into the net, making the score 1-1. Two points lost for an otherwise-dominant England team.

    The next game was against Wales, a team in its first major tournament since 1958, when it won its opener against Slovakia in confident fashion. Another upset looked in the cards when Gareth Bale, the world’s most expensive soccer player, swerved a free kick through Hart’s gloves to give Wales the lead. A fight back from England followed with Leicester City’s cult hero, Jamie Vardy, equalizing before Daniel Sturridge worked home a stoppage-time winner, sparing the Three Lions’ blushes. Qualification was all but secured, although a 0-0 draw with Slovakia meant that Wales went through as group winners, having beaten Russia 3-0.

    Alas, England fans weren’t too concerned given their next opponent would be Iceland. A nation of less than 350,000 people, Iceland appeared to be simply enjoying the party after getting through to the round of 16 thanks to a win over Austria and draws with Portugal and Hungary in the group stage. Few gave the underdogs a fighting chance against England. The odds became all-the-less favorable when Rooney converted an early penalty to give England a 1-0 lead.

    What followed was the upset of the tournament. Iceland rallied, scoring two quick-fire goals, courtesy of Ragnar Sigurdsson and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, to shell-shock England. The players were thrown, leading to a lifeless and sloppy performance for the remainder of the game during which they rarely looked like scoring. A 2-1 defeat sent Iceland into the quarterfinals, its fans into raptures and England onto the plane home after another disappointing international tournament.

    For the second time in the space of four days, England had left Europe.

    Wales was left to fight for the “home nations” that make up the United Kingdom, enjoying its own fairy-tale run to the semifinals before falling to eventual winners Portugal. Wales’ success only made the divides between the four parts of the UK more evident. Scotland and Northern Ireland had both voted to remain in the EU, only for the English and Welsh vote to tip Leave to victory. Wales now had sporting success. England had nothing to shout about. Britain seemed to be breaking apart, the notion of a “united kingdom” challenged. Absent, rudderless management was an apt and multi-functional description for both the government and England’s soccer team.

    All the doom and gloom surrounding both Brexit and the EURO 2016 humiliation of England left national morale at a low ebb. Yet in the space of two weeks, two sportsmen – two great Britons – worked wonders to get people united in celebrating sporting success. Neither Murray nor Hamilton can claim to have fixed the breaks caused by Brexit or make up for England’s EURO disaster. However, what they did do was hold the Union Jack aloft to baying crowds, reveling in their heroes’ successes.

    * * *

    For a nation that boasts one of the finest tennis facilities in the world, it seems unfathomable that Britain has produced just one grand slam victor in the past 75 years.

    Andy Murray arrived at Wimbledon three days after the referendum fancying his chances of a deep run in the tournament. His first appearance back in 2005 as a gawky, Scottish teenager now a distant memory, Murray was the second seed, making him one of the favorites. The only issue? No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic, who held all four majors simultaneously and had beaten Murray in the final of both the Australian and French Opens thus far in 2016, was also in the tournament.

    Alas, following the withdrawal of Rafael Nadal — admittedly no longer the player he was five years ago, but a threat all the same — Murray appeared to have a trouble-free route to the final. Djokovic and tennis legend Roger Federer were paired on the other side of the draw, meaning that if Murray could continue his early-season form, a berth in the final seemed academic. It’s what the British public expected.

    There is a long-running joke in the UK that Murray is Scottish when he loses but British when he wins. It is meant in jest, yet it offers a nice insight into the issues surrounding the nationality in the UK. In the United States, the question of nationhood is more straightforward, largely determined by place of birth or heritage. In the UK though, all citizens have another layer. If you’re from London, are you British, English, or both?

    Such divisions become less important when it comes to sport. British people love to celebrate the success of its own sons and daughters, regardless of their more precise national allegiances. This was clear during the 2012 Olympics when Team GB lit up London, featuring athletes from all four parts of the UK. The same is true of Murray at Wimbledon, the stands filled with red, white and blue when he takes to the court.

    Murray lived up to their expectations with relative ease. He didn’t drop a single set en route to the quarterfinals before being taken to five by France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, testing the resolve of Britain’s No. 1 tennis player.  A partisan crowd that packed Centre Court at Wimbledon showed their nerves. Since winning the tournament two years earlier, Murray had twice left the hungry British fans disappointed, losing in the quarterfinals in 2014 to Grigor Dimitrov and the semifinals in 2015 to Federer. When the game entered a fifth set, Murray’s fans would have been forgiven for thinking the match was about to go the same way.

    Yet Murray was able to finish what he started. The pressure of seeing a two-set lead be equalized failed to rattle him as he outclassed Tsonga in the fifth, taking it 6-1. Murray’s reward had always been expected to be a final against Djokovic, yet the Serb had crashed out in the third round to American Sam Querrey. The result stunned the tennis world as Djokovic looked powerless over two days of play — extended thanks to the rain — leaving Querry to sail through in four sets.

    Querry’s charge came to a halt in the quarterfinals, losing to the only other North American left in the draw: Canada’s Milos Raonic. Raonic set up a semifinal against Federer in which he added to the list of upsets, dumping the seven-time Wimbledon winner in five sets to reach his first Grand Slam final. Boasting the fastest serve in tennis and the bravado of a player yet to be weathered by the occasion of Grand Slam finals, Raonic looked capable of raining on Murray’s parade and dashing the hopes of a nation in the process.

    Rain would come on the Sunday of the men’s singles final. But it would not grace Wimbledon. Instead, it played a part in another British sporting success some 90 miles north at Silverstone during the British Grand Prix.

    * * *

    Standing on the grid with 15 minutes to go until the start of his home grand prix, Lewis Hamilton was going through his usual pre-race routine. The Mercedes team that had carried him to the past two Formula 1 drivers’ championships prides itself on its attention to detail, ensuring that every facet of Hamilton’s car is ready for the race. Hamilton continued waving across to the grandstands packed with fans sporting Mercedes caps with a Union Jack under its peak — as worn by Hamilton himself. Of the 120,000 fans packed into Silverstone for the race, few backed anyone else.

    Hamilton’s gaze was soon drawn from the stands to the sky. A black cloud that had been brewing over the track burst, releasing a sharp rain shower onto the grid. All strategy plans were thrown out the window, the onus now being on the drivers to manage their cars and tires in the tricky conditions.

    Hamilton led the field away behind the safety car, deployed due to fears about the wetness of the track, before eventually being given free rein once conditions had improved and the sun had emerged. Many of his finest victories in F1 had come in wet conditions, Hamilton boasting a confidence that most struggled to find. As the laps ticked by, his lead grew and grew before the time came to switch to dry tires.

    All the while, Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg continued to struggle through the spray. The German had arrived at Silverstone cast as the pantomime villain following a last lap clash with Hamilton one week earlier in Austria — one that Rosberg was deemed to have caused. His lead in the drivers’ championship had fallen from 43 points to just 11 in the space of six weeks, putting him under enormous pressure at Silverstone. Rosberg had long struggled to match Hamilton’s pace during their time together at Mercedes, losing the title in both 2014 and 2015. Four wins in the opening four races of the year combined with some bad luck for Hamilton put Rosberg in his strongest position yet, but the momentum had swung dramatically back in the Briton’s favor in the space of a few races.

    Come rain or shine at Silverstone, Hamilton was unstoppable. He eased across the line after 52 laps to pick up his fourth British Grand Prix victory, sparking jubilation in the grandstands. Rosberg came home second after a close battle with 18-year-old Max Verstappen, only to drop to third thanks to a post-race penalty.

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    The significance of the win was not lost on Hamilton as he got out of his car. After celebrating with the Mercedes team, he bounced across to the fans who had made their way onto the main straight for the podium ceremony. After clambering onto the barrier, he dropped backwards into their raised hands and crowd-surfed, producing iconic images that perfectly captured the connection between driver and supporter.

    “Ever since 2007, I’ve felt this incredible energy from these fans here, the best fans in the world, without a doubt, and the best crowd we have anywhere,” Hamilton said. “I really feel like I’ve grown with them over the years and obviously, naturally, when you have success that speeds up the bond, that connection you have. They really do make a huge difference. When it was wet, every time I made it through certain corners I could see in the corner of my eye the fans right there with me.

    “That’s why the British Grand Prix is the best grand prix we have. Plus, look at these guys, you don’t see this anywhere around the world. We’ve got good British spirit here.”

    Good British spirit was in abundance at Silverstone. Rosberg found himself on the receiving end of some booing on the podium, which, while being somewhat distasteful, summed up the tribal nature of parts of the British support which had packed the stands. Hamilton united them.

    * * *

    With the champagne sprayed and the celebrations over, the fans on the straight at Silverstone turned their attention to a big screen that had played out the race an hour earlier. Murray was by now a set up against Raonic, a break point in the seventh game allowing him to hold serve and win it 6-4.

    The next two sets saw Raonic put up a staunch defense against Murray, his serves reaching 147 mph — the biggest of the tournament — and preventing his opponent from breaking again.

    Murray’s big tournament experience shone through in the end. Both the second and third sets went to tie-breaks; both were won with relative ease by Murray. Five championship points in hand, the fans moved to the edge of their seats, willing Murray to finish the job. At the third attempt, a strong forehand pushed Raonic into the corner, his return sailing into the net. Game, set, match, and championship to Murray.

    Whereas his first Wimbledon victory in 2013 had been met with an immediate feeling of elation and delight, Murray initially seemed more relieved than anything on Centre Court. He had won a match he was the overwhelming favorite for; the upset had been avoided. As the officials rushed onto the court and prepared for the trophy ceremony, Murray sat in his chair and let the moment sink in. The now-two-time Wimbledon champion — Britain’s first multiple winner of the tournament since Fred Perry in 1935 — broke down in tears.

    “I’ve had some great moments here and some tough losses, and I’m proud to have my hands on the trophy again,” Murray said. “I played really good stuff today. Milos has had a great few weeks on the grass. He’s one of the harder workers out there. And a huge thank you to everyone who came out to support me.

    “The Prime Minister’s here as well,” Murray added, glancing up to David Cameron in the Royal Box. “Playing in a Wimbledon final is tough, but I wouldn’t want to be Prime Minister. It’s an impossible job.”

    Cameron smiled as the crowd released a mix of claps and jeers. The two weeks that had followed the referendum had seen him take a step back from the in-fighting marring the country’s major political parties. He knew his gamble had failed and his position had become untenable.

    Yet as he watched Murray sending most of the 15,000 fans in Centre Court to their feet with every point won, draped in Union Jack colours and holding their flags aloft, even for just a couple of hours, the divisions in British society would have seemed less severe. People were together, celebrating British success.

    * * *

    At a time of such fragility, hostility and uncertainty in Britain, good news stories were hard to come by. Its national newspapers have been dominated by hyperbolic scaremongering, talking of crisis and mayhem — but Murray and Hamilton’s success brought some positivity to both the front and back of the papers.

    “This is the biggest thing that I think I’ve experienced or at least I remember experiencing and that I’ve seen in England in terms of a change,” Hamilton said of Brexit on Saturday at Silverstone. “Whilst sometimes change is frowned upon or some change is not always welcome, I think sometimes change is a good thing. The fact is that it has happened, whether or not everyone that voted exactly knew what they were voting for. Now it’s the job of the government to make the right steps forward.

    “I don’t so far believe it’s affected the grand prix. We shall see tomorrow, but for sure it’s affected people but we all have these dips and maybe the next high will be higher.” As Hamilton celebrated his victory, it was abundantly clear that Brexit had done little to dampen the British support or unity at Silverstone.

    The celebrations on Centre Court at Wimbledon and the main straight at Silverstone may be microcosms within a far bigger picture, yet they act as indications of the power that sport has.

    Andy Murray and Lewis Hamilton did their bit to put the “great” back in Great Britain last weekend. Two of the most significant British sportsmen of the past 10 years offered some kind of remedy to the ease the Brexit blues that have blighted the country for the past three weeks.

    Sporting solace amid political polarization.

    Jersey Boy

    With a knowing grin on his face, Todd Frazier worked his way around the cramped confines of the visitor’s clubhouse at Fenway Park with a large silver tin. He stopped at everybody — teammates, coaches, support staff, media relations, media members — peeling back the aluminum foil covering the container to reveal a coffee cake dusted with white powdered sugar that his mother, Joan, baked and brought up for this trip from the family’s home in Toms River, N.J.

    Make no mistake, this was the best coffee cake in New Jersey, if not the world, according to Frazier. It was, quite literally, a slice of home for the White Sox third baseman who’s remained committed to his roots since he rose to national and local fame — and started signing autographs — at the age of 12.

    * * *

    Long before he was winning a Home Run Derby or becoming the centerpiece of the White Sox’s offseason roster retooling, Frazier was the undersized youngest brother in a family full of athletes. His two older brothers, Charlie and Jeff — who both went on to be MLB Draft picks, Charlie in the sixth round by the Florida Marlins in 1999 and Jeff by the Detroit Tigers in the third round in 2004 — and their friends often didn’t want to pick Todd for their backyard games due to his youth and diminutive stature.

    “He was always a little guy to us,” Charlie says. “We always called him ‘Todd the Toad’ because he never grew.”

    There was a problem with this exclusion from baseball, football, basketball or whatever game the Fraziers would play, though. Jeff says if Todd was ever left out, he’d go in and tell his father, Charlie Frazier, Sr., that his older brothers wouldn’t let him participate.

    So Charlie Frazier, Sr., would come out, take the ball, and say if Todd isn’t playing, nobody’s playing. And all of a sudden, Todd would be on a team. If it was football, he’d be in the middle of the huddle urging his elder teammates to remember, “Hey, I’m here, and I’m going to get open.”

    “I think he always had that will in him to say ‘Hey, listen, whether I’m not good enough today or tomorrow, I’m going to keep working and I’m going to prove you wrong,’” Jeff says. “So it was kind of like he had no choice. He had to fight his whole way up. And it’s obviously paid off.”

    The competitiveness stretched beyond the backyards and streets around Toms River. Charlie estimates he, Jeff and Todd broke “four or five” ping pong tables as kids because games would get so heated, someone inevitably would slam a corner of the table after losing a game, rendering the surface unplayable.

    Charlie and Jeff had the luxury of being the oldest kids, too, when it came to picking their favorite sports teams. Toms River is about the same distance to New York as it is to Philadelphia, so for the kids, there were decisions to be made as to which teams to root for. But there was no way the three Frazier boys were going to root for the same side.

    So Charlie and Jeff laid claim to New York’s teams — Charlie was a Yankees and Giants fan, Jeff was a Mets and Jets fan. Todd picked the Boston Red Sox as his childhood team, but when it came to the NFL, he decided to be a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan.

    “I tell him every year, have fun with that one, bro,” Jeff laughs.

    When Todd and Toms River East reached the Little League World Series, ESPN listed him at 5-foot-2, 104 pounds. The growth spurt came later, sometime around the end of middle school and the beginning of high school. When it did, Todd quickly became able to compete with his athletic siblings.

    It’s hard to imagine Frazier, who will compete in his third Home Run Derby Monday night in San Diego and has the most home runs of any White Sox third baseman before the All-Star break, as an underdog. But in his family structure, that’s what he was as a kid. And it’s something he still appreciates to this day.

    “I loved every second of it,” Frazier says. “I loved everybody saying, you gotta live up to (them). I couldn’t ask for two better people to look up to and try to live up to. They were always pushing me to be better. … I thank them all the time and whatever records they had, I was trying to get those records and eventually I broke mostly all of them. I thank them every day of the week and I couldn’t ask for two better guys to look up to.”

    * * *

    [nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/chicago_embed/select/media/ZntulGAWOVU0]

    The first time Todd Frazier became known for hitting home runs came long before he dramatically won the 2015 Home Run Derby at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.

    In 1998, in front of a crowd of 41,200 at Howard J. Lamade Stadium — which, by the way, accommodates more fans than 18 major league ballparks, including U.S. Cellular Field — Frazier launched a 1-1 pitch from Kashima, Japan starter Tatsuya Sugata over the left-field wall to lead off the Little League World Series Championship game.

    Now 30 years old, Frazier still thinks back to that moment from time to time. It’s hard not to remember it — he has a photo of the moment hanging in his locker in the home clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field.

    Frazier said his coach, Mike Gaynor, told him to take a peek behind him to see where catcher Tomoyuki Okawa was setting up. That’s obviously against the unwritten rules of baseball, and Frazier pretty clearly did it twice. And the second time, Frazier saw Okawa bounce inside.

    “We actually caught eyes when we did it,” Frazier laughs. “… I thought he said something in Japanese to me, probably not some kind words.”

    So Frazier stepped in the bucket — his front foot pointing between shortstop and third base — and swung with everything he had. His dinger quickly relaxed a team that ultimately had to fight back to secure the first win by a team from the United States in the Little League World Series in five years.

    “I just wanted to get things started and get everyone excited,” the 12-year-old Frazier told Little League’s website in 1998.

    Frazier, too, got the win in the championship game, with his 1 1/3 innings coming at a critical time. Frazier entered the game in a fifth inning that saw Kashima take the lead. Toms River then scored four runs in the top of the sixth, and Frazier closed things out in the bottom of the sixth to secure a championship.

    “When I look back at that kind of stuff, playing in front of 30, 40,000 people, God, it seems like it was so much pressure but we didn’t have any pressure at all,” Frazier recalls. “Just like here today, you’re playing in front of 50, 60,000 people and the pressure’s still off you because it’s just a game. In a way, it’s your job, but it’s just a fun game that you’ve grown up to play and you don’t take any of it for granted because you gotta understand, the one thing in baseball that I’ve come to learn is you’re going to fail more than you succeed.

    “And when you can accept that and not expect it, it’s a big difference. You accept failure knowing that you’re going to get up there again and you’re going to have a better opportunity to get on base and drive some runs in.”

    Frazier isn’t the first player to play in and win the Little League World Series and later reach the major leagues. But those games in Williamsport were key in developing Frazier into the level-headed, never-too-high-never-too-low player he is today.

    “There’s no doubt that the Little League World Series helped him play at the next level,” Frazier’s father, Charlie, says. “There’s no doubt.”

    * * *

    Jordan Descafano remembers a moment the winter after Todd Frazier won the Little League World Series, when the pair were playing in a basketball tournament in New Jersey. Frazier excelled at other sports besides baseball — Descafano figured he could’ve developed into a pretty good college or pro quarterback — and when winter rolled around, it was basketball season.

    So Descafano and Frazier’s team was warming up for their game, doing the usual drills. As the team is in the layup line, Descafano realized Frazier wasn’t participating in it.

    “All of a sudden I look and he’s signing autographs in the corner to older kids,” Descafano, one of Frazier’s closest friends, says. “Fourteen-year-old kids, he’s signing baseballs, basketballs.

    “That’s Todd. Nothing’s changed.”

    The Fraziers always had a reputation as an athletic family around Toms River, but Todd’s home run and win in the Little League World Series elevated him to local stardom. He got to go up to Yankee Stadium and stand next to Derek Jeter at shortstop — the position he played for Toms River East — before a Yankees game. The parade Toms River held for its Little League champions was “insane,” Frazier’s dad says, with a crowd so large it was almost impossible to get to the field where the parade ended.

    “They put us on a fire truck, drove us around Toms River for about an hour and the streets were packed,” Todd says. “It was crazy. Everybody’s out on the streets. Hundreds of thousands of people coming from not only Toms River but all across the East Coast and even further. It was a whirlwind, man. It was a whirlwind time for us. We dominated the world, we took it by storm. I don’t know how a bunch of 11 and 12 year olds did it, but we did.”

    With a swing of a bat and a dog pile in Pennsylvania, Frazier got his first taste of fame. Descafano recalls getting to see three movies for the price of one, with help from local cops, when he would go to the local theater with Frazier.

    “He thought he was a bad, badass,” Todd’s brother, Charlie, says.

    But Frazier’s parents and brothers weren’t about to let his success go to his head. His father’s mantra was “stay under the radar.”

    So whenever Todd or any of the kids got a little too cocky, the patriarch of the family would raise his hand above his head and say: “You’re here right now,” and as he lowered his hand to his hip, he’d say, “I want you here.”

    “All three of us had success, even at a younger age,” Jeff says. “We’d be seven, eight, nine years old, putting home runs out, I think each of us in Pop Warner football scored like 20 touchdowns a season. Basketball, we all scored 1,000 points. So we had every right to let our heads get swollen a little bit, but if we even started to act like we were the big shots in town or something, it wasn’t somebody else telling us. It was Big Fraz.

    “That kind of discipline is still instilled in us now. So him doing that, gosh, it meant the world to us. Because easily we could’ve got away with everything and easily we could’ve just thought we were hot stuff. Him doing that and the discipline he instilled definitely made us the people we are today.

    “You got a 6-8 guy raising a paw that’s about 12 inches big, we ain’t messing with that big dog. No way.”

    That humbling discipline helped Frazier deal with fame at a young age, but also helped him in his baseball career. It’s a sport where failure happens more than success, and the lessons Frazier received at a young age about life still remain relevant to him today.

    “You go 5-5 one day and the next time you’re 0-20 and it’s like God, what’s going on,” Frazier says. “My dad taught me the right way. Those kind of things, not only was it the right thing to do, I was a very emotional kid. I was very hyper. Sometimes I got too excited so he’d bring me aside and say, ‘Chill out a little bit.’ I respected that because he’s the guy, he’s your father. You gotta respect him.

    “He knew best. Most of the time I didn’t think so as a young kid because you’re a little brat. You think back on it and every step of the way he did the right thing.”

    * * *

    Toms River, N.J., is a city of a little over 90,000 situated on New Jersey’s coastline about halfway between New York and Atlantic City. It’s about equidistant from New York and Philadelphia, with a ride to each city taking about an hour and a half.

    Its beachfront boardwalk area has been featured on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and MTV’s Jersey Shore, but back in the 1990s, it was known predominantly for its baseball prowess.

    In addition to the Fraziers, the Leiter brothers — Al and Mark, who pitched a combined 30 years in the majors — hail from the area, as does former major league reliever and Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry DiPoto. Todd’s brother, Jeff, played for Toms River East in the 1995 and 1996 Little League World Series, too.

    “It’s a sports town for one, whether it’s baseball season, basketball or football, it always seems like everybody knows what’s going on when it comes to sports,” Todd Frazier says. “They love their baseball. I’d say it’s predominantly baseball first.”

    Charlie Frazier, Jr., runs a baseball academy in Toms River, at which Jeff helps out plenty (Todd does, too, when he’s back in the offseason). Even for a beachside town without a professional team, baseball is big here.

    “Sometimes, I gotta hide,” says Todd’s father, “because — ‘Hey, about his swing, did he drop his hands on that one or did he pull them in?’”

    Staying close to home has always been important to the Fraziers, even if it means the occasional question about a cold stretch Todd is going through.

    When faced with a decision about where to play his college ball, Frazier didn’t go to a baseball powerhouse in the ACC or anything like that. Only 23 Rutgers alums have ever played in the major leagues, and of those Scarlet Knights, Frazier has appeared in the third-most games behind Eric Young and David DeJesus. And he’s the first one to appear in multiple All-Star games.

    But the decision to attend Rutgers wasn’t described as a difficult one by his friends and family.

    “He’s a Jersey guy through and through,” Descafano said.

    * * *

    Frazier, his wife, Jackie, son, Blake, and daughter, Kylie, all reside in Toms River. Given his upbringing, it makes plenty of sense that he’d choose to raise his family in this town alongside the Atlantic Ocean.

    “I love the city, I love the town,” Frazier says. “… It’s just a close-knit group that you have and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

    While Todd can’t be there much during the season, by having his family in Toms River, there’s a strong support system there for his wife and kids. His brothers and parents see his family about once or twice a week, and there’s always a get-together before Jackie & Co. leave to join Todd on the road.

    And when the family comes back after those trips, there’s always an offer on the table to lend assistance. Jeff and his wife will offer to watch after the kids for a day to help out Jackie, which has the added benefit of helping those young cousins bond with each other.

    “It’s not like (Jackie’s) coming home and going to Scottsdale (Ariz.) to a house with a bunch of neighbors you barely even talk to,” Jeff says.

    In the offseason, Todd always makes it a point to get back to his prep alma mater — Toms River South High School — to see how the football team looks and hang out with some of the locals who’ve been there since he was a teenager. Descafano says Todd always makes time to see his parents when he’s back, too.

    “I’m a New Jersey guy, I’m always there to sign an autograph, if they say Rutgers or Toms River, I’m always there to have a one-minute conversation with them,” Todd says. “It’s just something that makes me feel at home and I feel good about it.”

    Some of the more special moments in the Frazier family come not only on holidays, but on those offseason nights where the three brothers and their wives and kids are all together. The ability to make those get-togethers a normal occurrence is something the family cherishes, with Todd’s parents and brothers also residing in Toms River.

    “It brings it back to normal to the old days,” Charlie Jr. says. “Our wives start yelling at us because it starts to get a little heated with us talking crap on each other, we’ll start throwing the football outside and the kids will start yelling and screaming if we’re not throwing to the kiddies. It brings us back to the old days. You have your bickering here and there and it brings back a lot of memories. There’s always Italian food there. We’re in Jersey so you always have some kind of pizza or garlic bread or something.

    “We always say, eat your Italian food, Todd, get those calories.”

    * * *

    For the third consecutive year, Charlie Frazier, Jr., will pitch to Todd in the Home Run Derby Monday night at Petco Park in San Diego. The Fraziers finished second in 2014, then won the 2015 home run derby in front of Frazier’s then-home crowd in Cincinnati.

    A day after winning the Home Run Derby, baseball’s All-Stars were paraded to Great American Ballpark through downtown Cincinnati on the back of Chevy pickup trucks. Charlie Frazier, Sr., gets emotional thinking about the sight he saw there — a throng of fans going wild cheering for his son. It was a bookend of sorts to the 1998 parade celebrating Toms River East’s Little League World Series championship.

    “There are some things — I don’t know what to tell you,” Charlie Frazier, Sr., says. “It’s just very humbling for me. Oh my God, look at what this kid has done.”

    Charlie Frazier, Jr., agrees: “It was the first time our family got to sit back and go, holy shit, baseball’s been very good to us.”

    But make no mistake, the Fraziers still won’t let anything slide with Todd. If Charlie Sr., Charlie Jr., Joan or Jeff ever see anything they don’t like, they won’t hesitate to call Todd out on it.

    “He’s not that big a deal to us,” Charlie Sr. says.

    “The reputation around Toms River, New Jersey is level-headed kids, down to earth and we’ll never let that get away,” Jeff adds. “He knows that.”

    In that respect, not much has changed since Frazier hit that home run and earned the win in the Little League World Series championship 17 years ago. That swing, that final pitch, that celebration, and the Frazier family structure go a long way toward explaining who Todd Frazier is today.

    “I think that stage right there in the Little League World Series was the start of something good for me and for the city and my family,” Todd says.

    But through his journey to the major leagues and All-Star Games and Home Run Derbies, Frazier always carries Toms River, N.J., with him.

    Even if it’s in the form of, again, the best coffee cake in the world.

    The Last Stand of Fed

    Late in the fourth set of Roger Federer’s epic Wimbledon match with Milos Raonic Friday– and in this case I mean “epic” not as a hipster synonym of awesome but literally as a lyric poem of a hero’s valor and eventual fall — he took a 40-love lead. A single point would force a tie breaker, Federer’s playground. No man has won more tie breakers than Fed. Then again, no man has won more anything than him.

    “This is just what Roger Federer needs,” announcer and coach Darren Cahill suggested. “An easy game.”

    Ah yes, an easy game. Roger Federer used to have those all the time. There was a time, in his youth, when it seemed almost unfair to play against Federer, when he toyed with the best players in the world. There were times even in this fourth set when he played like that — running forehands and glorious overheads and mind-boggling service returns where he flashed his racket like a switchblade and somehow parried back Raocnic’s 140-mph missile. This surge of energy tempted us romantics to believe that Federer was not 35 and beat up but was instead 25 again, floating a few inches off the grass, hitting shots at angles that would have baffled Euclid.

    Raonic, as they say, didn’t buy it.

    Raonic actually is 25, with all the energy and power that goes with the age. As we sportswriters like to tell it, the pressure was all on him. He has been tennis’ next big thing for years now — rocket serve, huge forehand, surprising quickness for a 6-foot-6 powerhouse– but he had never been past the semifinal of a grand slam tournament. And the clock ticks. The clock always ticks. New next big things come along all the time.

    So, yes, we might have believed that the pressure was on Raonic — inexperienced, unproven, alone against the crowd and history and the greatest grass court tennis player in the history of the sport. Federer had been in 10 Wimbledon semifinals, and he had won all 10 of them. Get this — in those semifinals he had won 30 sets (obviously). He had lost ONE, just one, and that was to Novak Djokovic. Just two years earlier he had dismantled Raonic in the semis — a neatly symmetrical 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 termination. We might have believed that while the younger player’s insides were twisting and turning, that Federer was as calm as a magician escaping from the water torture chamber fore the 1,000th time.

    But this misses a point that we so often miss: Age itself is pressure.

    “An easy game,” Cahill had said.

    Only then, Raonic — hitting out as players do when they’re down 40-love — cracked a forehand winner. OK, so 40-15. Still an easy game.

    Then Federer double faulted.

    And then, the veteran double faulted again.

    Jack Nicklaus, when asked why older golfers so often struggle with their putting, talked about the conviction of youth. A younger golfer sees a three-foot putt, OK, right edge, boom, knock it in, it’s not that hard. But an older golfer has seen the ball lip out a lot. An older golfer has seen stray spike marks knock the ball off course. An older golfer has a lifetime of haunting images flickering and blinking in the mind, and they resist being shut out.

    Federer, like everyone else, knew this was his last great chance. Novak Djokovic, far and away the best player in the world, had been dispatched. Fed himself had already escaped once when he used every physical, emotional and psychological bits of magic he had picked up through the years to make Marin Cilic beat himself. He had somehow put himself in position to win against a younger, stronger and deeply determined Milos Raonic. It will likely never be this good again.

    And, he blinked. After the double faults, Raonic broke Federer to win the fourth set. And then, in the fifth, Federer was injured and exhausted and broken. Like Tom Watson after he bogeyed the 18th hole at Turnberry, like Jimmy Connors at the end of his extraordinary U.S. Open run in 1991, Federer had nothing left to give.

    And now … it’s over. Oh, Federer undoubtedly still has some great tennis in him. Even now there are only a half dozen or so people in the world who can beat him even on their best day. But the body breaks down. The next wave of players come into their own. The dream of that 18th grand slam championship, the dream of him holding one more trophy to the sky, that fades away. And you get the feeling that he knows it.

    ***

    There are things Federer has done that no one will ever do again. Djokovic stalks Fed’s record of 17 grand slam championships, but let’s not kid anybody: Djokovic still has 12. He has to win five more — the odds are against him. Even if Djokovic does get the record, there are other records, untouchable ones. Federer reaching 23 consecutive grand slam semifinals — nobody’s doing that again. Federer reached 10 consecutive grand slam finals — that will probably never be equaled (he reached the finals of all four grand slams in a year THREE TIMES). Federer’s 27 grand slam finals and his 36 of consecutive grand slam quarterfinals, these are all incredible, as in beyond belief.

    And while it’s too soon to write the final chapter of Federer’s book, it is a good time to celebrate what makes him unique. Yes, he is the most graceful player in the game since John McEnroe or Björn Borg. Yes, his serve is a masterpiece, a work of art, never quite as powerful as the biggest hitters but utterly unreadable and as precise as an Olympic archer. Yes, his forehand ranks as one of the five greatest weapons in tennis history, and it was always when Federer seemed most vulnerable — off the court, off balance, seemingly out of things — that he would hit the miracle shot that David Foster Wallace so famously called a “Federer Moment.”

    But there was something else. He was (and is) always present. There is something tennis players, even of meager talents, understand: Tennis is a sport of inconsistency. Some days the serve is there, some days it isn’t. Some days you feel like you can anticipate every shot and others you feel like you’re running in water. Even the greatest players feel it. Sometimes Pete Sampras loses to Jaime Yzaga or Gilbert Schaller. Sometimes Serena Williams falls to Virginie Razzano or Alize Cornet.

    In this way, tennis players can better associate with the story of Nick Kyrgios or Gael Monfils or Svetlana Kuznetsova who, on the right day, can do miracles and on the wrong day can lose before the match ever begins.

    Federer brought his tennis genius to the court every single time. Sure, he was upset now and again — Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon comes to mind — but that came later in his career. He was never upset in his prime. Only the greatest players playing their greatest tennis — clay-court genius Gustavo Kuerten, two-time grand slam champion Marat Safin, the wonderfully gifted Juan Martin del Potro and, of course, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic — could beat Federer. He defied the tennis tides.

    He doesn’t need anything else; he already has the golden career. But we always thought he would get one more. He won his 17th four years ago, when he was not quite 31, and he kept on playing extraordinary tennis, better tennis than almost any one else is age. One more! But no. Djokovic beat him three times in grand slam finals. Andy Murray ended one tournament run, Stan Wawrinka another. Federer now deals with more severe injuries than he has in his career, and it’s probably not going to happen now. Age gets us all. After a while, even the great ones find that there are no easy games.

     

     

    Gotham’s fallen hero

    Let’s begin with a few numbers:

    Matt Harvey, according to Fangraphs, has been worth $107.2 million to the New York Mets. That’s just regular season work on the field. Let’s throw in another couple million for his very solid pitching in the playoffs and World Series last year (before going out for that ninth inning) — this, just one year after he came off Tommy John surgery and had a doctor and an agent suggest that he shut things down. Throw in whatever off-the-field value he might have to the Mets as the Dark Knight — for a while there he was the Mets’ singular drawing card — and we can round it up to a cool $110 million.

    When this year ends, the Mets will have paid Harvey about $6 million.

    That’s a tidy little 95-percent markdown for the old Metsaroos.

    This is how baseball contracts work, of course. Good young players don’t get paid their value. Old players are vastly overpaid. It’s a long game. Kris Bryant leads the National League in home runs — he’s getting paid $652,000. Corey Seager is hitting over .300, he’s tied for third in the NL in hits and runs and has played every game at shortstop. He’s getting paid $510,000. Good salaries. A fraction of a fraction of what they are worth.

    Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez is getting $21 million and he’s got a .256 on-base percentage in the few at-bats he manages to get. Ryan Howard is hitting .151 and getting $25 million. Josh Hamilton is getting $28 million and can’t get on the field.

    Everybody knows this is how the game works but either (1) does not know how to fix it or, (2) does not believe it needs to be fixed. The idea is that the players will eventually make the money — that is to say it will all even out — assuming that the player can stay healthy and productive.

    But the question is: Will it even out for Matt Harvey?

    Last year, you might remember, Matt Harvey said that his surgeon, the estimable James Andrews, put a 180-inning limit on him because he was coming off Tommy John surgery. This inspired a Godzilla-in-Tokyo kind of panic because the Mets were contending for the postseason at the time and the idea that Harvey, like fellow Scott Boras client Stephen Strasburg, might shut things down and not pitch in the postseason was enough to create mayhem in Gotham.

    The mayhem was so overwhelming that Boras — who, to his credit as an agent, has never been one to back down to public outcries — completely backed down after the season ended, calling the whole thing a “misunderstanding.”

    “We were all baseball players,” Boras said. “We know you pitch in the playoffs.”

    OK, that’s all well and good but then 2016 began and, from the start, Harvey flailed. His top-speed velocity was inconsistent. His location was even more inconsistent. Close observers worried that he was changing his arm slot, maybe to compensate for something. He kept telling everyone that he felt fine, better than fine, but things kept getting worse, and you could see it all backing up on him. He evaded the media after one terrible performance, sparking a New York tabloid firestorm. Then, in his last couple of starts, he only made it into the fourth inning. Thursday, it was revealed that he has symptoms consistent with thoracic outlet syndrome, which is essentially nerve damage in the shoulder. He could (and probably will) have season-ending surgery. There is also the option of blocking the pain and pitching through it, though this would only put off the inevitable surgery.

    There are a million intricate factors that form a pitcher’s success and health, and it would be nothing but speculation to say that the pressure-packed extra innings that Harvey pitched in September and October (his 216 total innings are the most ever for a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery) contributed to either his season-long struggles or this injury. There might be no connection at all.

    But here is the point: Harvey was expected to give it up for the team last year. The idea that Harvey would shut things down before the playoffs was so abhorrent to people that he and his agent basically had to apologize for the MISCONCEPTION that he would not pitch. And here we are now, with Harvey’s very career on the brink, with the big-money contract that is supposed to come with early years of success now very much in doubt. And who will stand up for him? Where can he go for the $100-plus million of value that he gave the Mets?

    As the years go on, I find myself rooting more and more for players to cash in. They are the stars of our sports. They are the physical geniuses who can throw 100-mph fastballs or hit them, who can beat a balletic 350-pound left tackle to the quarterback; who stay on their skates through a hurricane of checks and somehow beat the goalie to the high side; who make two quick moves that level a defender frozen and then sink a 24-foot jump shot even as the crowd boos. They are why we go to the games. And yet, they are the ones we as fans have long demanded give up things. We ask them to give up money so the team can stay under a faux salary cap that keeps owners from spending more money. We ask them to take less money so they can stay with the hometown team — a hometown discount, we so innocently call it, as if we are not simply saving the local owner money.

    Who else do we ask this of? Would we ask it of our friends — hey, take a little less money so that the company can run a bit more smoothly?

    We ask pro athletes to play through extreme pain and we are not especially open to their complaints. We get angry at them when they ask for more money. We get REALLY angry at them if they unionize to get a larger sum of the pie. We feel no sympathy for them whatsoever when they get so much less than they are worth on the open market. After all, Harvey is getting paid $4 million this year, and that’s a lot of money. Heck, he got $600,000-plus last year and THAT is a lot of money, too. Who among us wouldn’t want to make that kind of dough? And it doesn’t matter to us that the $20 or $30 million in value that he actually produced doesn’t just disappear. It is going to Mets’ ownership.

    Matt Harvey might have been destined to have this injury. But a year ago he was told by a doctor — a doctor who knows his business pretty well — to pitch no more than 180 innings. He pitched on for the team, for the fans, for his own pride. It was noble, at least by sports standards. Many people cheered him. The cheering stopped pretty quickly, though, when he started pitching lousy this year. And there will be nothing but silence as he tries to put his arm back together again. If he can return as a great pitcher, it will be a wonderful story.

    And if he can’t? Well, everyone will move on — everyone but Matt Harvey.

    The best laid plans

    First of all, we should say: Nothing quite like this has ever happened before. The Golden State Warriors getting Kevin Durant the year after they won 73 games is a bit like, say, the 72-win Chicago Bulls getting David Robinson, or Magic Johnson’s dominant late ’80s Lakers teams getting Larry Bird. Really, it’s a bit like the Empire, circa third Death Star, getting Luke Skywalker.

    Yes, there have been many attempts to build superteams before — we’ll talk about a few in a minute — but never before has a team as great as the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors simply added an in-his-prime player as transcendent as Kevin Durant. He turns 28 in late September. He was, by player efficiency rating, the second best player in the NBA last year behind Steph Curry. He is already one of the greatest scorers in the league’s history, and he’s joining a team that averaged 115 points a game, most in the NBA in a quarter century. This is the mountain coming to Muhammad.*

    *People may bring up older players like Gary Payton or Karl Malone or Oscar Robertson going to great teams, but in my opinion the only near-example that compares happened in 1986. The Boston Celtics had just gone 67-15 and easily won the championship. The Celtics lost one time at the Boston Garden. They were a team of basketball Hall of Famers — Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Dennis Johnson, Bill Walton. They remain in memory one of the greatest and most wonderful teams in basketball history. And then they drafted Len Bias, who was so good at Maryland that Michael Jordan comparisons were inevitable. Bias would undoubtedly have been an extraordinary player. He died two days after the draft of a drug overdose, one of the saddest sports stories.

    Now comes the question: Will Durant to the Warriors work?

    But before you can ask “Will it work,” you have to define your terms. And that’s where it gets tricky.

    In 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies built a pitching staff featuring Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. They were four of the best pitchers in baseball, and together they combined a pitching staff so extraordinary that Sports Illustrated’s legendary writer Gary Smith decided to follow them around for the whole season and write about what figured to be their ultimate triumph.

    Did it work? Define your terms. That Phillies team won 102 games, most in baseball, most in the National League in seven years. But they were promptly booted in the playoffs by the Cardinals, and they never made the playoffs again.

    So you would have to say by superteam terms: DID NOT WORK.

    In 2003, the Los Angeles Lakers — still featuring Shaq and Kobe — went out and got all-time greats Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Those two were not the players they had once been, but the Shaq-Kobe Lakers had won three consecutive NBA titles before having a down year. Picking up Hall of Fame players like that had everyone buzzing.

    Did it work? Define your terms. The Lakers won 56 games to take the Pacific Division. They took out the defending champion San Antonio Spurs with relative ease, winning four straight to clinch the series. They reached the NBA Finals. And then … they got pummeled and manhandled by Larry Brown’s Detroit Pistons in the Finals.

    So you would have to say by superteam terms: DID NOT WORK.

    Here’s a quirky one: In 2004, the U.S. Olympic basketball team decided to go young. Well, it wasn’t so much a decision as a necessity — many of the best players (Shaq, Kobe, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, etc.) did not play.

    And so that team featured the best young players of the upcoming generation — LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony. It also featured established superstars Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan. That team was coached by the aforementioned Hall of Famer Larry Brown.

    Did it work? This one’s obvious: The team was blown out by Puerto Rico in their opening game, lost to Lithuania in group play and was stunned by Argentina in the semifinal. They did win the bronze medal.

    By superteam terms: This was an unmitigated disaster.

    One more: The 2006 New England Patriots went 12-4 and lost a thrilling (for non-Patriots fans) championship game to the Indianapolis Colts. Tom Brady had a somewhat pedestrian season (24 TDs, 12 INTs, an 87.9 passer rating) and so Bill Belichick and company decided that what he needed were weapons around him. So, they went out and got the much maligned Randy Moss and the much-ignored Wes Welker to play receiver.

    Did it work? Well, sure it did. The Patriots went 16-0 and scored a staggering 589 points. Brady had a season for the ages — 50 TD passes, 8 interceptions, a 117.2 passer rating. Moss was once again unstoppable. Welker in a way reinvented the slot receiver position.

    But DID IT WORK? The Patriots lost the Super Bowl. They are mostly remembered not for their 16-0 season but for losing in the end. By superteam standards, one more time, you could say: DID NOT WORK.

    * * *

    What do all these have in common? Well, the same thing the 2016-17 Warriors will face: Nothing but a decisive and overwhelming championship will do. If these Warriors win 56, struggle through the playoffs and win a seven-game series with Cleveland, yes, it will be a triumph. But it would not live up to expectations.

    This is the danger for the superteams. They are expected to win big and easy. This is especially true of these Warriors because this whole thing SEEMS like it should work. Durant is going to Golden State because he wants to win. The Warriors’ stars recruited Durant and seem eager to give up their own spotlights for him. There’s a whole lot of talk about strength in numbers and unselfishness and so … IT SHOULD WORK.

    But things that look so perfect months before the season begins tend to muddy as time goes on. It’s easy to imagine the Warriors as unstoppable, with three historic scorers — Durant, Curry and Klay Thompson — at the points of a triangle that cannot be defended. Seriously, how can you cover all three? The image of Durant with wide open looks is both mesmerizing and terrifying, and yet how can it be any other way? Are you really going to leave Thompson and Curry with one defender?

    But will it really be that easy? Let’s consider Klay Thompson for a moment. He averaged 17 shots and 22 points a game last year. He’s willing to give up some of those for Durant, so now let’s say his scoring average drops from 22 to 16. No big deal, right? Only, at 16 points let’s say he doesn’t get named to the All-Star Game for the first time in three years. Of course he says that doesn’t matter as long as the team is winning. But let’s say the team loses two or three in a row, and everyone keeps asking him about his shrinking production. Let’s say he goes into a shooting slump and people after every game ask about the effect of Durant on his own game.

    Now consider the same exact scenario for Curry and Green and everyone else on a team that just won 73 games.

    And there’s one other thing about the 2016-17 Warriors that will be different: People will not like them. The backlash to Durant’s move is not fair or especially logical — who can blame a man for taking $27 million a year to join one of the greatest and most fun teams ever? — but it’s powerful.

    Does that backlash matter? Maybe. It occurred to me this past year that the Warriors fed off the positive energy that surrounded their team even when they played on the road. They were the good guys. That’s long gone. The playoffs exposed some of the Warriors’ humanity, and now Durant leaves Oklahoma City and joins the enemy to create this overwhelming team. Americans rarely like the favorite, especially the heavy favorite. Many will root for them to fail, for Durant to fail, for the whole Warriors thing to collapse under its own weight. Many will look hopefully for any sign of weakness and pick at it and pick at it and pick at it.

    This is the superteam cadence. Every dominant performance is anticipated. Every slight crack in the foundation inspires panic. Nothing in the NBA regular season matters, so there are 82 games for stories and takes and social chatter. It can be suffocating. Look at the Washington Nationals. In 2014, they had the best record in the National League, and then they added probably the best pitcher in the American League, Max Scherzer, along with various other valuable players. They should have run away with it in 2015, especially because Bryce Harper emerged into a superstar. But instead there were injuries and there were grumbles and there was tension and in the end the team was a molten mess. The closer was choking the star, the manager was canned and the season was a fiasco. This happens so much more often than you would expect.

    The Warriors are good enough, of course, to rise above any and all of it. I asked a dozen people in the basketball community a simple question: “Are the Warriors invincible?” My favorite answer came from Kansas coach Bill Self: “No, not invincible. But the Warriors-Cavaliers are now like the old Lakers-Celtics.” I think that’s right. From 1980-88 to the Lakers and Celtics won all but one title and they played each other in the Finals three times. The Warriors and Cavaliers will probably meet in the NBA Finals again. It’s just that the word “probably” leaves room for doubt.

    Get the quarterback

    A few years ago, in the early days of computer sports games, a friend and I used to play this football game where you could design your own plays using actual X’s and O’s. You would point to where the X’s and O’s were supposed to go and, in theory, they would follow their paths in a reasonable reproduction of an offensive or defensive play.

    We spent countless hours trying to put in our Buddy Ryan defense.

    We never got it working, never, and my theory is this was because a Buddy Ryan defense required a sort of swashbuckling gall that Buddy had and we lack. We thought it was enough to just send eight blitzers at the quarterback in a furious race to maul him before he could release the ball. That seemed to be the whole trick. But Buddy always knew there was more to it than that. He didn’t just design blitzes, he lived them. His whole life was one well-designed blitz.

    “Chico!” he used to yell at Bears linebacker Ron Rivera during practice. “Get your ass over here! Stand here next to me!”

    And then Buddy Ryan would quiz Rivera, again and again: What was that formation? What do we want to do in that formation? Where is the middle linebacker supposed to be? He taught Rivera, now coach of the Carolina Panthers, a valuable lesson, but it wasn’t the lesson that Rivera learned at first. Yes, of course wanted Rivera to understand the play, to understand why they were running the play, to understand what were the strengths and weaknesses of that formation.

    More, though, he wanted, needed Rivera to FEEL the defese inside his gut. That’s the only way his freewheeling, go-for-glory, destroy-or-die-tryin’ defenses could possibly work.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/media/0vi46KeTOqnC?autoPlay=false]

    Buddy Ryan died on Tuesday and there won’t ever be another one like him. “Quarterbacks,” he wrote in his playbooks, as discovered by Smart Football’s Chris Brown, “are overpaid, overrated, pompous bastards and must be punished.” If ever there were 10 words to sum up the coaching philosophy (and general philosophy) of James David “Buddy” Ryan, it is those.

    He grew up in Oklahoma, around farms, and when he was 17 years old he went to war. He became a platoon sergeant in Korea. Years later Ryan was asked if he was scared. “Nah,” he said dismissively. “I was too young and dumb to be scared.”

    He loved football, of course. He played both offensive and defensive line for the Fourth Army in Japan. He came back home and played some football at Oklahoma A&M. He then began coaching — high school, college, wherever they would take him. Gainesville High. University of Buffalo. Vanderbilt. The University of the Pacific. At some point, New York Jets coach Weeb Ewbank came across his name and in 1968 Ewbank hired Ryan to coach the defensive line.

    By then, Buddy had a two-pronged plan that he had carefully developed in the shadows:

    1. Hurt.

    2. Quarterbacks.

    Nobody even counted quarterback sacks back then. Buddy Ryan turned them into the very basis of defensive football. He vividly despised quarterbacks; to him they were just pretty boys who got too much of the credit and were treated like prima donnas. They belonged on their backs. Ryan would always credit Ewbank with crystallizing his defensive viewpoint. Ewbank would tell his coaches that nothing mattered more than protecting Joe Namath, even if it took nine blockers. “I figured if it was that important to Weeb to protect the quarterback,” Ryan said, “then it ought to mean just as much to the defense to get him.”

    After having success in New York — he was on the coaching staff for the Jets team that upset Baltimore in Super Bowl III — he went to Minnesota to coach the defensive line for Bud Grant. And then, he finally got the chance to be his own defensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears in 1978. He was 44 years old. And he was ready.

    “You can’t play multiple defenses with dumb players,” Buddy announced as he showed up in Chicago. Buddy wasn’t interested in hiding in the background. He wanted everyone to understand that a football genius had arrived in the Windy City, and he had come to change the way the game was played. He was sure that his menacing bring-the-heat defense would damn well work as long as players weren’t too stupid to pull it off.

    From Day 1, he began inventing blitzes — the Cheeseburger blitz, the Taco Bell blitz, the 59 blitz, — and game after game he sent his players in an all-out assault. After a couple of years of trial and error, Ryan invented his masterpiece, the 46 defense, and he loaded up eight men on the line and sent those eight men in all different directions at the snap. It was his Symphony No. 5, his “Hamlet,” his “Starry Night,” even if not everybody got it. “Some say the 46 defense is just an eight-man front,” he growled. “That’s like saying Marilyn Monroe is just a girl.”

    In the mid-1980s, he got the right players — with Mike Singletary at middle linebacker, Richard Dent and Otis Wilson and Steve McMichael and Wilber Marshall going after the quarterback, with Gary Fencik and Dave Duerson delivering the punishing blows in the secondary — and put them in his 46 defense. And the NFL changed. The 1985 Bears did not just stuff offenses, they scared the living hell out of teams. They pitched back-to-back shutouts in the playoffs, then steamrolled the Patriots in the Super Bowl. They danced and shuffled the entire way.

    After the game, head coach Mike Ditka was carried off the field by his offense.

    And Buddy Ryan was carried off the field by his defense.

    He built more great defenses when he became head coach in Philadelphia, where, as he would so famously say, he eventually got fired for winning. It’s true: He led the Eagles to the playoffs for three straight seasons. But it turns out that owner Norman Braman could not tolerate watching the Eagles’ offense sputter and flounder in the playoffs. They scored 12, seven and six points in three straight playoff losses and Braman canned Buddy Ryan.

    “If any of you know a team that needs a coach that can win,” Ryan said to reporters on his way out of Philadelphia, “let me know.”

    He did have one more chapter. He went four years later to coach in Arizona (“Get ready for some winning,” Ryan warned Cardinals fans). His first year was OK, his second a disaster, and that was the end. Buddy Ryan left the game and the stage, though he did leave behind his twin sons, Rob and Rex.

    Buddy also left behind a defensive philosophy that thoroughly changed professional football. Almost nobody uses the 46 anymore, but everybody believes as Buddy believed, that defenses are meant to attack, that the quarterback must be pressured.

    Of course, not everybody is willing to push all their chips in the way Buddy Ryan did. He threw EVERYTHING at an offense, and there was no Plan B. “If there is a breakdown in pass coverage,” Gary Fencik told reporters during Ryan’s first year as a defensive coordinator. “It could be a BIG breakdown.”

    That never changed. One of my favorite plays in NFL history remains Steve Bono’s 76-yard bootleg against Buddy Ryan’s last defense. Bono, as he readily admitted, couldn’t run at all. He was only looking to get a few yards. But Buddy’s defense had been fooled, and as Fencik had warned, breakdowns become big breakdowns. Bono just ran and ran into open field. The field was so open that the Chiefs offensive lineman Joe Valerio just sort of waved him on, like a third-base coach. It was, frankly, one of the funniest plays in NFL history.

    “To be candid, I was not expecting him to go the distance,” Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer said. “All I said to Bono was, ‘Don’t pull a hamstring.’ At the rate he runs, there was no danger of that.”

    Well, that was the flip side of the Buddy Ryan defense, the thing that would happen if everyone wasn’t fully focused and playing at a fever pitch. That’s what my buddy and I kept running into. We would design these sophisticated defenses, and the X’s and O’s would bounce into each other and move around each other, but the defense never quite got the job done. We couldn’t get it done because the real secret to Buddy Ryan’s defense was Buddy Ryan. He instilled in his players fear and hunger and confidence and fury. He made his players feel invincible.

    You can’t really do that with X’s and O’s on a computer screen.