Mile-High Hopes?

Sure, I could have written about CU this morning. I didn’t for two reasons: 

1) There doesn’t seem to be a lot of need to. Everyone and their cocker spaniel is writing about the Buffs, Coach Prime and a transformation that’s right up there with Bruce Banner’s. 

2) I’m kind of afraid of jinxing the whole mess. Sure, it’s silly, but after seeing a “Yay, Nuggets” column get followed by the Heat’s only win of the NBA Finals, I am taking no chances. 

So instead, I’m turning my eyes to the Boys in Orange. After all, there’s only so much harm I can do there, right? 

If you felt a wind gust through the Front Range last week, it might have been the WHOOSH of deflated expectations from a horde of Bronco fans. After all, on the surface, we got a new coach, a new season and the same result: a 17-16 loss to open the campaign, just like 2022. 

It’s been hard to take, especially for the parts of the fandom that can remember the Broncos being at least a playoff threat for 30 years and then again in the Peyton Manning years. There’s history here. But ever since The Sheriff walked off the field, that history has been … well, history. 

That said, I have to admit something. Sure, I gritted my teeth through that Raiders game, too. But I still left with something that sorta, kinda, maybe, if-you-squint-real-hard, looks like hope. 

No, I don’t need the concussion protocol. 

The opening game came down to two big things: dumb penalties and a bad extra point. Both of these are correctable. More to the point, it did NOT come down to a disappointing day from Russell Wilson, who finally started to look like the quarterback we expected to see in 2022. I’ll emphasize the word “started,” especially since he didn’t exactly pour on the yardage in the second half.  But I’ll take a sharp completion percentage, two touchdown passes and – most importantly – no interceptions as a starting point. 

By the time this appears in print, Game 2 will have played and I’ll look like either a genius or an idiot. So it goes. But I’ll stand by this: for the first time in a while, it feels like there’s potential here. 

Yes, that’s a dangerous word. As Linus from “Peanuts” once put it, “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.” And when we’ve been burned so many times – OK, when we’ve burned OURSELVES so many times – it can feel instead like Charlie Brown rushing up to try kicking the football yet again. 

I’ll be honest: I do not expect the playoffs this year. But I do expect better. As long as we have a coach that’s willing to work, able to work and given a chance to work. (That last has not exactly been a guarantee with the revolving door Denver has seen in the last few years.) 

That’s where anything worth doing starts. With the willingness and the opportunity to try. 

As I’ve said and quoted before, hope isn’t optimism. It’s optimism plus sweat. If you believe that better is possible, you have to show that belief by committing to it. That’s true whether you’re talking about a sport, a job, even a country. 

That doesn’t mean being blind about faults and weaknesses: “My team/party/country right or wrong.” But if you can set your sights higher than where you are and put in the effort to travel that path, then even a failure can make you stronger. Even a stumble can be forward motion. 

We may have a lot of stumbles ahead. But if we keep them in the right direction, we’ll get there. Jinx or no jinx. 

After all, we’ve seen what can happen when a team hits its Prime.

Owning the Worst

I’m going to ask my fellow Denver Bronco fans to go to a very dark place for a moment.

Imagine that the recent Super Bowl bus accident was worse. Imagine that Von Miller, our monster with a license to sack, was hurt badly. So badly, in fact, that he was unable to suit up and take the field for Super Bowl 50.

Undaunted, the brothers of the Orange Crush know exactly what they must do. And when game time comes, they stream onto the field – 10 players, ready to go, with a gap where Miller would normally stand.

“We can’t let ourselves be dragged down by this,” they insist. “We have to think positively. If we play as though Von were still here, the rest won’t matter.”

And then of course, they get beaten like a drum. Why? Because you’ve still got 10 men going up against 11. And all the positive thinking in the world won’t change the realities of math.

It sounds obvious. Even a little bit silly.

But when it comes to the world of chronic illness, you’d be amazed how many missing Millers there are.

My wife Heather runs into this every so often online. Her own list of chronic conditions would have medical students fighting for the chance to invite her to show-and-tell. Crohn’s disease. Multiple sclerosis. Ankylosing spondylitis. A couple of others that lengthen the medical file and send spell check screaming for help.

Because of her situation, she visits a lot of patient-oriented online forums and groups. And when someone else wants to talk about their condition or the pain and discomfort it causes, she’ll usually respond, just to help the person see they’re not alone.

Unless, of course, someone else closes off the discussion first by insisting that “we don’t want to dwell on our illness here.” Or that “Focusing on it only gives it power over you.” Or otherwise implies (or states!) that by refusing to acknowledge the illness, you can continue to live your life in spite of it – sort of a medical prosperity gospel.

Few things will infuriate Heather more quickly.

“There’s not a part of my life that hasn’t been touched by this,” she told me recently, after one more clash with the power of positive thinking. “You have this – and it’s OK. You have to work with what you have.”

That’s true of so much more than the medical.

It’s a human thing to try to wish problems away, or to hope that ignoring an issue will eventually resolve it. It’s rarely that easy. You can compensate for it. Work around it. Even maybe come to peace with it. But outright denial not only doesn’t help, it can often make the problem worse. Ever driven a car too long on a flat tire? Or tried to exercise through a minor injury, only to discover what a major one’s like?

Contrary to the popular imagery, chronic illness isn’t a war. Not in the usual sense, anyway, where you can rally the cavalry and sweep the enemy off the field. It’s more like being a civilian during the Blitz, the German bombing of London in World War II. You don’t ignore the bombs. You take shelter when you have to. But you keep on living your life as best you can, making adjustments for what’s been damaged or lost.

It doesn’t mean you drown in your pain or become morbidly obsessed with your condition. But you forge a sort of partnership, taking what you can, planning where you must. Not a life without hope – quite the opposite! – but a life with the awareness and effort that real hope requires.

It’s OK to not be better. It’s not your fault. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You can own it, and in doing so, deal with it.

Take your best 11 and put ‘em out there. It might not be the team you want. But it’s the one you’ve got.

Play hard.

All’s Fair

When it comes to gardening, my green thumb is more of a shade of black.

My cooking skills, despite many good intentions, stop somewhere south of boiled eggs.

My history with a sewing needle mostly consists of finding one in my feet at inconvenient times. (Come to think of it, is there ever a convenient time?)

In fact, if you go down the list – livestock, shooting, dancing, model rocketry – I’m about as far from a 4-H kid as it’s possible to get.

And yet, I remain fascinated by county fairs.

After 16 years of newspaper journalism, I’ve covered a lot of them, along with the fair-like events that spring up here and there, such as the “Beef Empire Days” of Garden City, Kansas. I’ve been sunburned at the parades, deafened at the demolition derbies and confused terribly by the layout. (“Let me get this straight – the barns go C, A and then B?”)

But always, always, the memory that sticks in my mind is sheer admiration for the kids. This is their show and they make the most of it.

Raise a 290-pound market pig? Sure. Pull 300 pounds behind a pedal-powered tractor? No problem. Take on projects in photography, woodworking, rocketry and jewelry and still have time to raise rabbits? Ask for something hard, why don’t you?

These are, in short, some of the most capable people I’ve ever met. And that’s what truly makes the county fair, any county fair, exceptional.

It’s a place where we still celebrate capability.

I don’t mean excellence. We’ll cheer endlessly at people who excel, sometimes in very esoteric fields. There are pancake races, competitive sauna meets , cow chip throwing contests and the real head-scratcher – curling. However strange the event, there’s someone who wants to be the best at it and more often than not, we’ll sit down to watch the struggle.

But the celebration of practical skill is something else entirely.

The science fiction author Robert Heinlein once said contemptuously that “specialization is for insects,” rattling off a long list of (for him) basic competencies that he felt any human being should possess, from changing a diaper to planning an invasion. If anything, most of us have gotten narrower since, relying on Google and YouTube to fill in the gaps in our education. (The night that Heather and I had to use an online search to locate our main water shutoff while the kitchen ceiling was giving way was a memorable one, indeed.)

And then there’s the fair. Your hands. Your work. Your competency, in as many fields as you have time and desire to take on. It’s a reminder of something older and more essential, a world that may have become even more distant to us than the farm itself.

At its heart, it’s a reaffirmation that we are more than our tools. That we’re builders, not just watchers.

That’s a statement with a lot of implications.

When even the simplest things are challenges, it’s easy to feel like a helpless bystander. “Fix the country? I can’t even fix my sink.” Get used to competency and it’s addictive. If I can do this, why not that? Or that?

After a while, optimism becomes natural. Even hope. Why not? When you already know achievement is possible, the only thing left to get used to is the scale.

That may be a life’s work. But hey – got anything better to do?

So here’s to the kids of the fair and all those behind them. May there be many more like you and still more inspired by you.

Because let’s face it, you’re more than fair.

You’re outstanding.

A Staggering Achievement

Hop. Hop. Hop.

The single leg pumped hard as Liu Xiang made his way around the track. The crowd cheered, not a medal, but an effort.

Hop. Hop. Hop.

Everyone had seen the fall. The pain. A dream dashed for the second time in four years, again on the first hurdle. Winning was no longer the goal. Simply finishing was.

Hop. Hop. Hop.

When he finished, a competitor raised Liu’s arm into the air. Two others helped him into a wheelchair. He had nothing to say. There were no words to give.

There often aren’t, on the dark side of the Olympic dream.

We celebrate the Olympics as a time of triumph and inspiration. Rightfully so. These are the best in the world, fantastically dedicated men and women who have given years of their lives for a chance at glory on the world’s biggest stage. Even those who miss a medal can still walk off with their head held high at their achievement.

But sometimes, you get a big break – and it gets broken.

Liu at least had climbed the mountain before. In 2004, he’d not only been the gold medal hurdler, he’d been the fastest ever. At only 21, a big future was ahead.

Now, at 29, people are asking if it’s behind. Two Olympics. Two torn Achilles tendons.

Too much.

Disaster in the Olympics is so public. As I watched the hopping hurdler, my own mind went to Dan Jansen. A world-class speed skater, he learned of his sister’s death from leukemia just hours before his start in the ’88 Calgary Games. Shaken (and who wouldn’t be?), he fell twice in two races.

A broken heart. A broken dream.

Jansen was lucky. He got a second act, got to reach triumph at last in Lillehammer in ’94. But not everyone does.

When the London Games started and teenagers claimed some of the early medals, I heard the same question from a lot of friends: “What do you do next? Where do you go when you’ve already reached the top so young?”

A legitimate question. But there’s a parallel one. Where do you go when the dream may be over? Maybe sooner than you thought?

Where can you go?

Most of us have never been on that scale. But we’ve been in that place. Hopes dashed. Plans destroyed. Opportunities shattered.

It’s a dark place. A hard one to leave.

Where can you go? Nowhere but on. That’s true of the brightest success and the most painful collapse. Time doesn’t stop like the end of a film. The story goes on and we have to go on with it as best we can.

If that means hopping, hop like hell.

And when you’ve met the moment with all the pride and stubbornness inside you, be ready. Other moments are waiting. They may be second chances. They may be different chances, ones you could never anticipate.

But they won’t just happen. They need to be claimed.

Eight years ago, in a Kansas column, I wrote about a high school classmate who knew that well. As a girl, she wanted to be Mary Lou Retton. As a teenager, a knee injury ended her gymnastics dreams early. And as a young woman, she channeled her will and ability into diving, going on despite four shoulder surgeries.

Now, Kimiko Soldati is a proud mom. A proud collegiate diving coach. And, oh yes, a proud national champion and Olympian, who qualified for the 2004 Games in Athens.

“I used the obstacles as stepping stones and fuel to my fire,” she told writer Darrell Hamlett then.

She grabbed the chance. Whatever it might be.

I hope Liu can do the same. And all the others like him.

After all, sometimes it’s only a short distance from “hop” to “hope.”