Passing around a cup full of thanks

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A player has a chance to think about those who matter most in his life, who’ve helped him most to get where he is – his parents, his wife, his coaches, one coach, his friends, one friend – and for that day to share the Cup with them. To thank them.

Ken Dryden wrote that in his book, “The Game.” The former Montreal Canadiens goalie referred to the tradition of individual players taking the Stanley Cup home for a day. It’s a beautiful paragraph, an even better sentiment, and comes at the end of the book’s 30th anniversary edition published in 2013. On a list of the 100 greatest sports books of all-time, Sports Illustrated ranks The Game fourth. It could be higher. You should read it. I bought it several years ago as a gift for my brother, but never read it myself until seeing a copy while Christmas shopping last month.

I finished the book Saturday afternoon, by a pool, in Florida, a few hours before receiving the Eclipse Award and thought about Dryden and his paragraph the rest of the day. He summed up my thoughts, the thoughts of anyone really when recognized for a personal achievement. Nobody does anything alone.

The Eclipse Award is not the Stanley Cup and it does not define or make a career or a person, but I share it with dozens and dozens of people who influenced me, helped me, made me.

My wife Sam was in the room Saturday night at Gulfstream Park. She was so proud, so beautiful, so happy for me. I’ve smiled for two weeks, thinking of her thinking of me winning this award.

My parents. Dad taught me horses, to look at them, to think about them, to work with them. He taught me that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, no matter how much you prepare, the horse can still lose, get sick, get hurt, be moved to someone else’s barn. Mom taught me a love of words, I think. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s there somewhere and surely on her side of the pedigree page. Her father was a journalist, editor of a local paper and a columnist. My great-great-grandmother, Mary T. Waggaman, wrote more than 20 books for young readers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Since so much of Thoroughbred racing is about breeding, Mom and Dad produced full-brothers who won Eclipse Awards. What are the odds? I thought of them, and how proud they must be, while I stood (sweating) on that stage Saturday.

My brother. Sean and I have worked together since 1994. He won an Eclipse in 2009 and, again, a bronze statue is just a piece of metal in the end but having two in the family is better than one, especially when you pause to look at the names on the list of previous winners – Smith, Hirsch, Axthelm, Deford, Hovdey, Kindred, Nack . . . Clancy (twice).

My sons. Ryan, Jack and Nolan grow and change and expand their characters all the time. They make me proud, make me smile, make me think there’s a reason to be on this world. If you spend any time in Saratoga, you probably know our boys. They deliver papers, work as ushers at Fasig-Tipton, smile, shake hands, meet people. They have big, bright futures though it would surprise me greatly if they ever wrote anything for a living and I’m OK with that.

Those are the easy ones. The others fly in my head from barns, classrooms, family gatherings, memories, a life spent with horses and words and moments.

Josh Pons. Now, he’s the president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, publisher of the Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred magazine where my winning story ran. Twenty-some years ago (yikes), he was writing a column for The Blood-Horse and at the request of my grand-uncle Lew Waggaman showed me around, finagled a short Blood-Horse byline for me on the Selima Room at the Bowie Library and later got me an assignment for the Maryland Horse.

Uncle Lew. He wrote the letter or made the call to Pons and somehow set an example. He was graceful, literate, smart, successful. He also liked horses and racing. He was Mom’s uncle, which meant he came from the non-horse side of my family. He worked in advertising in Baltimore, had a few horse clients, knew people. He died late last year at 97 and I found a letter he wrote to me with career advice. It’s magic, typed immaculately on the gray and green stationery of Lew Waggaman Graphics and dated Jan. 30, 1991.

Granddad. Uncle Lew’s brother wrote for a living. I knew him as the hunting and fishing columnist for the Wilmington News-Journal in Delaware. I didn’t hunt and barely fished, except when he took me, but I remember the columns he wrote about those trips. He bought a subscription to The Whale, the paper where I got my first job out of college, and clipped every article I wrote. They’re in three stuffed-to-the-gills (I can use that cliche in this case) blue binders in my basement.

Dennis Forney. Publisher at The Whale, he brought a common-sense approach to community journalism. Talk to people, write about it. His Lewes Polar Bear nickname was “Imitation Amishman” for his beard, thin build and no-frills demeanor. Mine was Jimmy Olson because I was the kid reporter. Dennis had a knack for news, for knowing things. When I left The Whale for a job at a slightly larger community newspaper, he sent me a note encouraging me to write something about racing and send it to a trade publication, that I might be pleasantly surprised.

Lon Wagner. The Whale’s Jimmy Olson before I came along graduated from the University of Delaware a year or two before I did and covered more news stories than I did. Courts, school board, town meetings, that sort of things. I did that too, but split my time with sports. We covered two murders, both involving teenagers, at The Whale and I remember him telling me the first six words of the story were the most important or something like that. It was a lesson learned at Delaware, one driven home again under great stress in front of an old boxy Macintosh computer. Lon left The Whale for bigger and better, including a gig as the narrative coach at the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. He wrote the story every feature writer wants to write – about a long-haul trucker who’d driven 4 million miles in 40 years.

Don Herring. Editor of the Cecil Whig newspaper, my second newspaper job, Don was cut from the Lou Grant cloth and could have been nothing but the editor of a daily newspaper. He sat in the middle of the newsroom, we worked around him and soaked up so much. He told me I knew what I was doing, that I could do this for a living. He also told me when I screwed up.

Mike Freeman, Chuck Arnold, Kevin Donahue, Lloyd Fox and the rest of the revolving staff at The Review, the University of Delaware’s student newspaper. We tested each other, pushed each other, wrote some good stuff, and some terrible stuff. We laughed, cried, fought, sweated deadlines, somehow put out a newspaper back before technology made it relatively convenient – if still not easy – to publish words and photos on a page. Mike covered Sunday’s Seahawks-Packers game for Bleacher Report and has 51,000 Twitter followers. Chuck worked for People magazine for 17 years, the last 13 as the music critic. He wrote a column about race while we were at Delaware. I still have it. Kevin is the senior managing editor at Men’s Health. Lloyd is a photographer at The Baltimore Sun.

Harris Ross, Dennis Jackson, Chuck Stone, Bill Fleischman and the other journalism professors at Delaware. In class, they inspired – with lessons from Ross and Jackson, practical examples from Stone and Fleischman. I remember learning the basics in E307, the first-level journalism class, and a semester as a reporter on The Review staff for E308. We studied the AP Stylebook for Copy Editing and Layout. While teaching, Fleischman and Stone worked at the Philadelphia Daily News and provided professional examples to students. I remember hanging on every word. They worked for newspapers, taught classes on the side. The lessons flowed – from Stone’s bow-tied wisdom about the “veritable cornucopia” of column ideas on campus to Fleischman’s concrete rules for usage and headline counts.

Lonnie Fuller. I’ve written about him before, so maybe you’ve heard of him. A racetrack groom, he worked for my father and taught me horses and people and hard work and class and dignity. I learned from Lonnie, I laughed with Lonnie, I almost fell out of a horse van on the Bay Bridge with Lonnie, I won and lost and grew with Lonnie. Man, I’d love to show Lonnie my award, to see him smile his gold-toothed smile, to see him sit down a tack trunk and stare at it. He’d be so happy.

I could go on, and will in my mind. The list doesn’t end. People in my past, my present, they all did a little something.

Ken Dryden said it better, but thank you. Everybody.



More on “The Game.”

My winning story.

An Eclipse Awards slideshow.