Friday, April 18, 2008

The Perfect Father

That's what I called my Dad back on May 10, 2003. I was elected to serve as the Graduate Student speaker for the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications' commencement ceremony at Syracuse University.

I knew right from the start what absolutely had to be said. I figured it might be my one chance to tell such a distinguished and large audience about my hero.

My father.

Next Tuesday, he'll turn 62 years old. His body is aging, but his soul and mind remain spry.

I easily recall that speech. I practiced it over and over. I wanted to get it right. I rambled for a while, telling 'Cuse-related jokes. I told the crowd the television world didn't need another overweight white guy. I was right.

After introducing my family and speaking about each one, I ended with my old man. Dad was sitting to my mother's left, their arms intertwined.

He gently smiled at me.

I told him that he was my Ted Williams, my Martin Luther King Junior and my J.F.K. all rolled into one. I told the masses at the Carrier Dome that not many people ever had the chance to meet their hero, let alone be related to them...but I did.

"Dad, you were never afraid to admit when you made a mistake. That you weren't a perfect man. But that's what makes you the perfect father. And I love you."

As I tried to gather myself at that podium, one which Bill Clinton would use the next day, my classmates laughed with innocent glee among a sea of robes, seated in lined rows far away to my right. They had all bet I would cry. I didn't. But I don't know how.

Anyone that has known me for anything more than a handshake and a hello knows just what my family, and most significantly my Dad, means to me. He's the person I've wanted to be my entire life. I always wanted to be by his side.

I remember living in Medford, Massachusetts as a boy. One day the snowflakes fell pretty hard. I must have been four or five-years old. We had breakfast together and Dad was running a bit late (which he never does) for work. He said goodbye, but I begged him to stay. He kissed my forehead and gently smiled. I watched him walk down our wooden porch steps and head for his car. I watched as he waved, then drove slowly down the road. I prayed to God that Dad would come right back.

Ten minutes later, Dad pulled back into the driveway. The snow had made the roads too perilous. Dad came home. And honestly, as odd as it may sound, my firm belief in God probably began with a moment as simple as that. I prayed, God answered. My Dad's presence was all that I wanted. As he walked through the door, he saw me standing by the window, looking both shocked and elated.

He gently smiled.

Growing up, Dad was always a tangible but incredibly awesome figure. At six-feet tall, he has a barrel chest and big muscular arms. He walks with his own gait and grin. He's been called a 'Holy Hell's Angel.'

You know what you are getting with Ken Halliday. Over his life, he first peered through thick frames, then bifocals, now trifocals. But his muttonchops and thick red suspenders were ever-present throughout. As was his laugh, his wit and his generosity.

When we were out camping my fellow Scouts called him "OI," an homage to the way he got your attention when it was necessary. I still remember him in the woods, helping us build fires. We would work in teams of six or more to move these monstrous logs; then Dad would stride over and effortlessly lift them with one hand, or snap them with one stomp. No one messed with OI. He was a real live Paul Bunyan.

Ever since I can remember, I've had perfect strangers accost me after hearing my last name. They've grabbed my hand and said, "You're Ken's son! It's nice to finally meet you. Your Dad is a great man, and he talks about you and your sister all the time."

"What a guy your Dad. Hell of a guy."

"We sure love your Dad."

"There aren't a lot of guys like your Dad left anymore."

And from some of my fellow Scouts and friends, words that have always stuck with me. "I wish my Dad was more like yours."

He is an important figure in so many people's lives, and I got to eat dinner with him every night. And watch Steelers, Penguins, Bruins, Red Sox, Pirates and Celtics games with him. And go to Scout meetings and camping trips. And talk. Just talk. I learned so much from him...but he learned from me as well. He always let his kids know how important they were...he listened.

He always told us he loved us. All the time. Constantly. No amount of false machismo was going to hold him back from hugging his son or daughter. His willingness to display his love made him a real man.

Dad was a four-sport athlete in high school, and he was a near-perfect student. He played football and baseball at Northeastern University before signing up to fight in Vietnam. No one was going to draft my Dad; he made the rules.

He was awarded four Purple Hearts. He's a legitimate war hero. He saved lives when he wasn't protecting his own. But all war veterans are heroes. My Dad knows that. He's never attempted to meaninglessly glorify his time in the Army because he respects his fellow veterans. Dad knows his tale is no different from theirs; so he takes no satisfaction from telling his stories. And he's hardly shared them, good or bad, with his children. As a kid, I desperately wanted to inwardly build my father's legend by asking him about his time as a soldier. As I grew older, I learned the lesson he was trying to teach. A man is judged by his daily actions. War stories were fine, but his constant effort to better himself was more important.

We moved from Medford to Pittsburgh when I was six. Dad actually moved to Pennsylvania six months ahead of us to make sure the job was worth it. Those six months were hard on us all, especially my Mom. Two kids under the age of six, all alone in our big house on Touro Avenue near the Mystic River. A dilapidating neighborhood at the time. We were all happy to be reunited when we moved west, even if it meant leaving our beloved and extended family in Massachusetts.

The original goal was to live in Pittsburgh for about six months or so. Dad bought a house so that we'd feel at home. It's the same one my parents live in today, 24 years later. I'm glad we didn't leave, if simply for the reason that Dad was able to help so many people there.

Just before I finished Cub Scouts, Dad took over as Scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 198 in Moon Township. From the day he turned 18 in 1964, he has been an active Scoutmaster or Assistant Scoutmaster on the troop level. He stayed on at Troop 198 until last year; that's 43 straight years of voluntary service to the Boy Scouting program. He still works for the council as Camping Committee Chairman.

On the 5th of this month, our new troop leadership honored my Dad's service with a surprise party. During his time at 198, he oversaw 37 young men earn the rank of Eagle Scout. Since roughly 1 out of every 100 scouts earn that rank, that's a significant number. Eighteen of those young men were on hand to personally thank him just two Saturdays ago. I knew so many of them as boys, now men. All of them carry a piece of my Dad with them...and they came back to show their gratitude.

After the awards were handed out, Dad said thanks and spoke of my mother's influence. A true man recognizing the sacrifice of a wonderful woman. He spoke eloquently without pause, but the emotion was in his eyes.

I stood to thank the crowd. Despite all of the professional training and experience I've gathered, I couldn't get through two sentences. Seeing my Dad look back at his only son was too much. I quickly sat down and stared at the floor, trying to keep my tearful joy inside.

All the while, Dad gently smiled at me.

Last October, our son was born with cancer. Huge tumor. Life-threatening. Mom and Dad dropped everything to be with us in Farmville. The boy was born, and it became a waiting game. We had to sit and wait six days before his surgery. No one spent more time with my son than my father, not even me. Only two were allowed to stay with him in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at any time, so Dad would enter with me. Then I would leave and Dad would stay with my wife...he wanted to help us.

He sat in the rocking chair, gently smiling and kissing his grandson.

Those days were not easy for any of us. Dad prayed with me. He put his hands on my shoulders as I stood over my son's crib, looking at the tubes and needles criss-crossing my boy's face, arms and legs. I needed my Dad to stand with me...and whenever I've needed him, he's been there. We took a lot of pictures that week. I wondered how many more opportunities we would have with my son, so I took some more. Hour after hour holding him, reading to him...hoping for good news.

And we got it. Our son survived the surgery and the cancer has not returned to date. But the boy is without a right kidney. He spent the first month of life staring at blinking lights, stuffed with breathing tubes and circled by kind, but strange faces. You would think that sort of experience would traumatize an infant. However, my son spends his days in joy.

Gently smiling at those who meet his beautiful, blue-eyed gaze.

He looks like his Grandad.

For nearly 30 years, I've been guided through life by such amazing and powerful people. My mother is truly fantastic, a strong and independent woman who continues to impress me. My sister and now her husband, along with their soon-to-be three sons, have always made me think fondly of family. And my friends. People that have seen me through rough patches and brilliant moments. And now my super wife Susan and our own little family...daughter and son in tow. My perfect circle.

And Dad has always been there, leading us all.

He once told me I had the gift of being able to surround myself with good people, no matter the circumstances. But that gift comes from those who provided me with a place to grow and develop.

For a boy, the first place to look in times of trouble or concern is in his father's eyes. Fathers represent strength and values. Fathers represent honor and work ethic. Fathers represent love.

I am still a boy looking to my father. I'll always be. Just as my son will hopefully always look to me.

Our son, Kenneth Edward Halliday IV. Named for the greatest man I have ever known. The greatest man I will ever know.

And these simple words are for him.

I love my hero, my friend, my father.

Happy Birthday Dad. May God continue to bless your presence in, and influence on, the lives of those around you. You will forever be appreciated. And may those who read this never underestimate the importance of fatherhood.

My father and daughter, gently smiling...

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Return of the Blog... Part Two: Finally Forgiven -Buckner Returns

Imagine having to face a contingent, nay a hovering swarm, of people you inwardly and completely despised.

This is not an individual hatred of one person but rather a piercing vitriol for a collective mass. A group of ever-changing, ever-criticizing, ever-present people. A faceless bunch that has collectively dragged your name in the mud for 22 years.

And now suddenly, they wish to embrace you. To pardon you of a punishment you did not earn. A simple mistake that, while important, was not deserving of such treatment.

That's what Bill Buckner faced last night at Fenway Park.

After infamously playing the role of scapegoat for the national media since the Red Sox's crushing loss to the Mets in the 1986 World Series, he sat in front of a cadre of microphones and reporters and struggled to maintain his emotions.

Bill Buckner was back in Boston.

For the younger generations of baseball fans across the United States and the world, this moment meant relatively nothing. But for anyone remotely associated with Red Sox Nation, or avid fans of that era, yesterday's ceremony honoring Buckner was long, long overdue.

When Buckner emerged from the Green Monster and slowly strode to the mound, all of Boston quivered. As did those living vicariously around the globe. You have to know the background of the story to understand the significance of this moment. You have to go back to October of '86.

The Boston Red Sox, led by young righty Roger Clemens and an incredible lineup featuring Wade Boggs, Jim Rice, Don Baylor, Dwight Evans, and Buckner, were 95-game winners and took the American League Pennant. Buckner was second on the team in runs batted in (RBI) and fourth in hits. He was one of the guys that "got them there." And 'there' was the World Series against the other baseball team from New York.

After taking games one and two, the Sox seemed poised to roll to a title. But they dropped games three and four in Boston. However, game five went to Beantown and the Red Sox were on the verge of their first World Series championship since 1918. All they had to do was win one of two at Shea Stadium and 68 years of waiting would be over. But in game six, Buckner's life changed forever.

Up 3-2 in the 8th inning, Mets catcher Gary Carter hit a sacrifice fly to tie it up and eventually send the game into extra innings. Boston scored two in the top of the 10th to go up 5-3 and, after getting two straight outs to start the bottom half of the inning, Mets fans began filing out. It should have been over.

But Sox reliever Calvin Schiraldi imploded. Three straight singles made it 5-4. Schiraldi's day was done, relieved by Bob Stanley. On his seventh toss to the plate, a wild pitch brought the tying run home. And three pitches later, Mookie Wilson hit a dribbler to first base.

Buckner was there, as always. He was an incredible fielder. Despite injuries to both of his knees, Buckner played 1,191.7 innings over the course of 138 games at first base that season and fielded a total of 1,067 plays. Out of those, he had made just 14 errors. A fielding percentage of .989. He simply didn't make that many mistakes. He was solid. If you were going to pick one guy to field that ball, Bill Buckner was the guy.

Then it happened. It got past him. Mets win 6-5 in 10 innings.

Two days later, New York won game seven and the World Series. The Sox faithful were crushed. The 'Curse' continued. And every time Boston's unique propensity for coming up short was brought up at dinner tables across the country, one man was to blame. Bill Buckner. His name was usually followed by expletives. Or laughs.

It was easy to blame him...especially for the national media. You could sum up all of Boston's woes in one twenty-two second video/audio clip. His name became recognizable with error, with the loss of hope, with failure.

After the following season, the Red Sox released Buckner. The stigma attached to that one play was enough to dump him a full year after the fact. He spent a season each with the Angels and Royals before coming back to Boston in 1990.

You read that right, he came back. He wanted to retire in a Boston uniform despite his longer MLB tenures with both the Dodgers and Cubs. It was because the Red Sox fans never blamed him. They never stopped appreciating all that he had done over his career.

He was the misunderstood friend at a party that everyone else in attendance was ignoring. But you went up and greeted that friend because you knew everyone else's perception of him was wrong. He was an alright guy. Right place, wrong time.

Yet for over two decades Buckner's name remained the golden standard for futility. But, when Boston finally won the World Series in 2004 and then again in 2007, the need to blame anyone for previous 'sin' became unnecessary. Bill Buckner was washed clean of his wrongdoing. Acquitted by his fickle judges from afar. He had served his sentence. It was time to be released back into the good graces of baseball fans.

But Bill Buckner was rightfully too proud to come running into their hypocritical open arms. Two years ago, the Red Sox held a reunion for the 1986 team to celebrate their accomplishments. It was saying, "See, we won one now. It's okay! You can come back; we won't hurt you anymore!" to all of those men. But Bill Buckner wouldn't come back. He sat far, far away, bitterly watching his old teammates return to glory. He was in real estate in Boise, Idaho. Far away from prying eyes and stabbing memories. An All-Star, a borderline Hall-Of-Famer hiding in obscurity. Not hiding from any one person...not a coward. Just a tired man looking for catharsis.

But he knew he had to come back to get that. To add closure. And he finally did yesterday on a beautiful Boston afternoon.

After watching Buckner walk to the pitcher's mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, the man that now plays the very same position reflected on the moment for ESPN. "I've probably never almost been in tears for somebody else on a baseball field," said Kevin Youkilis. "I wanted to shake his hand because that's a true man."

A true man faces both his friends and his foes the same way. Head on. It probably helped that his daughter Christen, ironically now a television reporter in Boise, was on hand covering the press conference. Buckner, dignified yet very human, fought through tears in admitting that he had to "forgive the media" in order to finally receive the credit he was due. A stark moment that hopefully causes today's 'shock them all' media to pause and consider the effects of their accusations and opinions.

As Buckner walked to the mound at Fenway, fans showered him with praise. Some of them were probably sending him death threats just a few years ago. But for many, he was a hero they were so often told they could not embrace. Now he was opening his arms to them.

Buckner rose above all of our human flaws and our collective inability to forgive him. Our fickle and meaningless errors. By doing so, he finally allowed us to bury his.

Bill Buckner is no longer 'E3.'

He's forever #6.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Return of The Blog... Part One: The 'I Told You So'

It's not often that I'm right. Just ask my wife.

That's why this moment, as ridiculously predictable and random that it is, will not go unnoticed. You may recall a previous "State of the Celtics Address" posted nearly three months ago. In it, I guaranteed the Celtics would reach the 61-win plateau and set a new NBA record for best single season team record turnaround.

I predicted they would do so before their April 9th rematch with the Washington Wizards. I predicted they would come absolutely nowhere near the incredible 72-10 season of the '95-'96 Bulls. I predicted they would rally through injury and occasional poor performance to continue their torrid level of domination. And, in order...they did, they didn't and they did.

I told you so.

This past Saturday's de-clawing/neutering of the abysmal Charlotte Bobcats earned Beantown a 61-15 overall record and a remarkable 37-game improvement from last season's win total. Here's what I had to say about the single season wins turnaround on January 15th...

"If Boston wins 61 games this season, they will break that record. They are on pace to do so. Hear me now and believe me later, that record will be theirs by the time they next face the Wizards in Game 78 on April 9th."

The Celtics cut it close, but they proved me right. They did it with a game to spare as they prepare to matchup with Milwaukee and gun for win #62 tonight. And they beat the Bobcats on Saturday without a single member of the Big Three. Paul Pierce missed the game to be with his family (his daughter was born just less than 24 hours earlier) and Doc Rivers chose to sit Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to give them a breather. And they won by 23 points.

Most of the media looked at the achievement of this turnaround record as a positive milestone for the Celtics. While that approach is certainly understandable, the non-Boston media missed out on the larger point. They were able to set that record, not just because this year's team is so good, but mainly because last year's team was so bad.

The fact that the Celtics front office let it get that bad should not go unnoticed. And it was bad. Though they did make the playoffs for four straight years from 2002-2005, they slipped into the postseason mainly due to a weakened Eastern Conference in at least two of those seasons. No losing team should be allowed to play in the postseason...out of principle. Why should any fan have to pay to watch a losing team in a playoff tournament?

Meanwhile, Doc Rivers continues to get a good amount of credit for the turnaround while the players outperform their peers. I can not recall a single game this season in which I felt, for more than one possession at a time, that Doc Rivers outperformed one of his coaching peers. However, his players take care of that by simply raising their own level of performance...and winning.

But I will say this for Rivers, he's gotten this team to buy-in. Defensively and offensively, it's an all-out effort to win when it matters. That is very refreshing to see in today's haphazard NBA. Watching teams like the Suns, Warriors and Nuggets is irritating to me. They treat possessions like inconveniences. They are more fast-paced than McDonald's at quitting time...but even less effective. Shot quality isn't valued, it's about taking more shots than the other team. If you take more, you generally make more. Run the floor, sub in and out when you get tired, and pray the other team isn't better that given day. It's enough to make me almost want to watch golf. Almost.

But the Celtics haven't wavered from their desire to win games on defense. They remain first in the entire league in opponents' points allowed, first in average scoring margin, and first in opponents' field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage. They also hit the glass, ranking third in the league in both defensive rebounds allowed and rebounding margin. They want to win. Watching them hustle when they're up double digits in a relatively meaningless game should make all hoops fans giddy. Especially Celtics faithful who suffered through the Antoine Walker show in recent years. Walker wouldn't sprint down the floor to play defense unless someone was dragging a deep-fried Twinkie across the court.

Some may argue this dedication to team basketball and downright toughness stems more from their two main offseason player acquisitions than it does from Rivers. That may be true, but Doc deserves some credit. They've worked day-in day-out for 76 games and it's paid off. They are on top of the East and clinched the conference title. Simply incredible.

And while I was right in most respects back in January, I was wrong in others. I discussed the team's player quality in three tiers back on 1/15/08:

"The second coming of the Big 3 in KG, Pierce and Allen...the 'I hope they positively contribute' group of Rondo, Perkins, Davis, House and Posey...and the 'If these guys are out there, I'm biting my nails and cursing under my breath' group of Tony Allen, Pollard, Scalabrine, Powe and Pruitt."

Here's where I made my major errors. Rondo has become one of the rising stars in the NBA. Unselfish, tough and hard-nosed, he scraps for rebounds and has become absolutely reliable. He's a stud but it took the Big Three to get his game on track. While Perkins has become more consistent, his 6'10'' frame still only brings down six boards a game. That needs work. While Rondo and Perkins have indeed raised their levels of play, two of the team's younger faces have had surprisingly strong seasons.

Glen 'Big Baby' Davis and Leon Powe, when called upon, have been impressive. Davis, the rookie out of LSU, established a fan following with a 20-point performance against hated Detroit ten days before my last Celtics-related post. Ever since, he's been a strong post presence in limited minutes. He spells a few breaths for the right guys and doesn't make as many critical rookie positioning/technique errors as he did near the start of the season.

As for Powe, whenever KG hasn't been in the lineup or wasn't quite playing up to 'Big Ticket' status, Powe has stepped up. He's led the team in rebounds in eight games this season and has twice gone over the 20-point plateau. He single-handedly decimated Charlotte on Saturday. When Garnett is out, Powe's game sends a message: "I may not be Kevin Garnett, but you will remember every possession that I defend you." He's making it personal.

Tony Allen, James Posey and Eddie House have been serviceable. They've done their jobs. All three are pitching in as each is scoring over six points per game. The addition of Sam Cassell has also been good. Maybe this pickup wasn't totally necessary because of Rondo's emergence, but it seems to have paid off. He lights a fire under Garnett...and if KG ever asks the front office for anything over the next two to three seasons, he should get it.

Six games. That's all that's left in the regular season. Then we find out what this team is really made of. It will be fun to watch. And since I'm doing so well with predictions...

Barring severe injury to two members of the Big Three, total team implosion or natural disaster, the Celtics will win the NBA Championship. I said the same in January.

No team can beat this group in a seven-game series. None. Not Orlando. Not Cleveland. And certainly none of the run-and-gun teams in the West. Detroit, New Orleans, San Antonio and Houston have a chance in hell.

That's it...a CHANCE in hell.

Last month, my cousin Seth and I sat in a Irish pub in Manhattan and watched as Boston came from 22 down to beat San Antonio in Texas. It was a watershed moment. They weren't at their best, yet they won. They could have quit, yet they didn't. The Spurs looked as if they were going to uphold recent Western Conference dominance, but the Celtics rallied and triumphed.

The rest of the NBA got the picture. No one is getting in this team's way. It's just not happening this season. No team can match their hustle or skill. If only the NBA season and it's mind-boggling playoff structure (seven-game series...every round...really?!?) wasn't so frustratingly long... Otherwise, Beantown could begin the parade preparations.

You know what? Why wait? All of you get a hold of Mayor Menino and tell him to publicly begin the celebration. There's no reason to put it off any longer.

Boston will again be a 'City of Champions' with the Celtics and Red Sox both on top of the sports world. If not for the single-most incredible catch in NFL history combined with Randy Moss lolly-gagging on the Patriots' last drive, it would be a three-sport title town.

But enough is enough, this is about the Celtics. The result has been predetermined. 2008 NBA Champions.

And on that note, cue the music.

Back In The Saddle Again

A quick post simply to stand as an apology to those who occasionally stumble into one of my blog posts. The semester has heated up, as well as a myriad of responsibilities to our campus media outlets. There have been precious few opportunities to enjoyably waste any time. I appreciate your patience.

Thanks to those that do partake in these written musings. I thoroughly enjoy your feedback and consideration.