Cruel Summer -- Andre Jones (1969-2011)
The best memories for most sports fans are the ones that took place from their mid-teenage years through their late 20s. Generally, for most of us it was the time in our lives when we had our greatest "freedom to burden" ratio. Everything is good those years, not just sports memories. Food tastes better, drinks go down smoother, women are less complicated. (Yes, I'm totally coming at this from a male point of view, ladies. Sue me.)
First, yes, I just blockquoted myself in a blog post.
Second, if my sentiment is indeed the case, then my sports memories from that part of my life have taken a Tyson-on-Spinks type beating this last week or so.
The news yesterday of Lorenzo Charles, the hero of the 1983 NCAA basketball championship, passing away in a bus accident was horribly tragic. By all accounts a great guy, Charles made his way in the world driving a bus. He was by himself when he lost control of his bus yesterday and died in the crash.
CNN was once the equal of ESPN
I was fourteen when Charles broke the hearts of Houstonians everywhere by throwing Derrick Whittenburg's errant shot down. I'll never forget the look on Charles's face, like he may not have realized what he'd just done until he got back to the team hotel that night. It was perhaps the most important game in NCAA Tournament history as it brought Cinderella prominently into the March Madness mix, and truly begat the "anything can happen" feel of the NCAA Tournament.
Over the weekend, another icon of my childhood passed away. Ironically, his last name was Charles as well. Nick Charles, who was a fixture on CNN for years with Fred Hickman hosting Sports Tonight, passed away after a long battle with bladder cancer at the age of 64.
Many young people today know Nick Charles as the voice and face of boxing on Showtime for the past decade. They also know SportsCenter on ESPN as virtually the only game in town for sports news telecasts. However, there was a time when Nick Charles was more than just a boxing voice, and there was a time when SportsCenter had some major competition from CNN.
Charles and his partner Fred Hickman hosted Sports Tonight on CNN, and if you're under the age of 30 this will sound insane, but that show not only stood toe to toe with ESPN and SportsCenter, it was better. Charles and Hickman had a chemistry that was unteachable, and creatively the show spawned many of the ideas that are the foundation of today's SportsCenter, including the "Play of the Day," which was a must-see.
Hickman joined me on the radio this weekend to share thoughts on his late former co-host, and while you could tell that it was a tough day for anyone who knew Nick Charles well, there was a relief in Hickman's voice that his friend was no longer suffering. Hickman's admiration for Charles's professionalism and his fondness for that time in his career were very evident throughout the interview.
As sad as the deaths of Lorenzo Charles and Nick Charles are, I didn't know either of them personally.
I did know Andre Jones.
Last Wednesday, I got an e-mail from a college buddy of mine, and the subject header indicated that the body of the e-mail was a forward of a tweet. When I opened the e-mail and saw it addressed to a bunch of old names that I hadn't shared the "To:" section of an e-mail with in some time, I knew the news was either really, really good or really, really bad.
It was the latter.
Andre Jones, a classmate of mine at Notre Dame and a starting linebacker on the 1988 national championship team, had passed away at the age of 42 from a brain aneurysm.
You read news of a classmate dying from something so sudden, and you immediately process about ten different reactions at once, everything from praying for Andre's family to reminding yourself that you're also 42 years old and to call your kids to tell them you love them.
Then you reflect. Every team has a player that becomes a fan favorite because of their spirit, their boisterousness, their unbridled love of the game of football. There was no mystery with Andre Jones -- he clearly loved to play football. He savored being a part of Notre Dame football Saturdays. You could just tell.
Jones immediately saw playing time as a skinny true freshman on special teams in 1987. It was Lou Holtz's second year at the Notre Dame helm and the remnants of the perpetually pending doom that had beset the program during Gerry Faust's five years were being rapidly swept away. The roots of Holtz's infectious confidence were taking hold. If the upperclassmen (none of whom had tasted winning in four years) provided the hunger and leadership, the freshman class (which included future pros Ricky Watters, Todd Lyght and Chris Zorich) provided a naive cockiness.
Put simply, the upperclassmen wanted to win; the freshmen expected to win.