Category Archives: sports

Cedar Water

The swimming season is coming to a close. Whether in Cedar Lake or the Pacific Ocean, the subtle shift has begun. Pockets of very cold water, previously a refreshing anomaly, are now asserting themselves like Trump followers. The vanguard will soon become the establishment and while “The Donald” will likely leave the race entranced and distracted by a new shiny object, the water will turn cold.

This saddens me because swimming is what I laughingly refer to as my exercise. I splash, guy4paddle, and tread water with joyous abandon. Between pretending I am Lloyd Bridges in “Sea Hunt” and frolicking underwater, I feel energized, youthful and refreshed. A jogger friend scoffed at the number of carbs I burn and how little cardio effect I gain from my water play. I was going to let his criticism pass or more correctly roll off my back, but when he added I looked childish, I was stung enough to retort, “At least when I finish my workout I’m not all sweaty.”

One of the few things I took from Camp Ockanickon (aside from a lifetime hatred of oatmeal and singing “Mamma’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin‘ Bread”) is feeling comfortable in the water. Camp was deep in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey on a dark, picturesque, spring fed cedar lake. Even at 4’ 4” I could not see my feet standing in waist deep water. This unnerved me and I failed the deep water swimming test (jump in and swim 25 yards any stroke) I was sent to remedial swim class every day after breakfast. As a non swimmers I could not join any other activity until I passed. Too terrified to leap into the ink colored water, I generally needed to be pushed. After splashing around frantically I would grab the pole and be fished out in tears.

In the afternoon during compulsory free swim time my stigma, wearing a red non-swimmer string around my wrist, confined me to the shallow area. Much worse, the caste system carried over to the mess hall, the cabin, and all non-water activities. Blue stringers (50 yards) and white stringers (100 yards) heaped scorn on us (“Red stringers, red stringers why are you here? Red stringers, red stringers have some beer!”). We would then be doused with whatever non-beer beverage was available.

I have been dancing around the most embarrassing part. I was the lowest of the red stringers: I wore nose plugs! Decades later I have difficulty admitting it. Even other non-swimmers scorned me. The plugs, pink to simulate a flesh tone I have never seen on a living person, was the only way I could navigate in the water. Blue and white stringers might deign to come into the shallow end but I quickly and painfully learned they were on a mission to pull back and snap the rubber strap. The sting subsides long before the red mark on the back of my neck. Perhaps that is why I never became a bra snapper in my adolescence.

Some of the counselors were college kids ready for “Hi Jinx” (it was the 50s) like sneaking out to the girls’ camp across the lake after lights out, then regale us with their exploits the next morning. Joey was different. He was an east Camden (N.J.) tough guy who someone (possibly a judge) thought could benefit from a summer of sunshine and fresh air. Even as a child I sensed his anger and despair marooned in a wholesome woodsy setting with a cabin full of brats. His surliness made what happened all the more surprising.

Joey was on lifeguard duty, supervising the shallow (red string/loser)area. Standing on the dock he beckoned me over. I’ll never forget his words. “Hey squirt! Yeah you, dum dum with the nose plugs. Blow a little stream of air out your nose when you go under. Just a trickle. Then you won’t need that stupid s_ _ _ on your nose.”

It was not a Hallmark moment, but I did it and it worked! It might have helped knowing Joey couldn’t care less. Other counselors had more patiently told me to blow air out. When I tried for them, I either panicked and, seeking to please them, blew all the air out at once, or I accidentally inhaled. With the breathing mastered my fear diminished and I was able to enjoy the water. Thanks to Joey I left camp a blue stringer.

My “instruction” was a momentary distraction for a bored, sullen teenager. Joey, if he is living could not possibly comprehend that I still give him thanks every time I wade into the water. “Blow it out your nose slow, dum dum!”

I am not talking about mentoring, adoption, or huge life changing sacrifices and good deeds. My focus is “Joey moments.” Serendipitous chance encounters where a word, an act, a small gesture made a huge difference. The classic is “The Lone Ranger” leaving before he can be thanked unaware of how he has altered history. I am not so grandiose but I really hope I have done small anonymous kindnesses that have been meaningful to others.

Tom H. Cook has often imagined writing a letter of support for Joey to his probation officer or appearing in court on his behalf


Some people think football is a matter of life and death.  I assure you, it is much more serious than that.

—Bill Shankly

Nobody in football should be called a genius.  A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein.

—Joe Theismann (former quarterback)

 Football is a mistake.  It combines the two worst elements of American life.  Violence and committee meetings.

—George F. Will

I take no solace in reading that some hulking, swaggering, high school hot shots and big men on college campuses that used to stuff people like me into lockers are now suffering from football related injuries.  Many of these men who succeeded in the professional ranks were my childhood heroes and it saddens me they have such a high rate of dementia, physical afflictions, and premature death.  It sounds hollow, like claiming to read “Playboy” for the articles, but I never enjoyed the “big hits” and violence of the sport.

Some four thousand retired professionals recently settled a lawsuit against the National Football League claiming that the full ramifications of head injuries was known by the owners but not shared with the players.  Much like the suits against “Big Tobacco” a generation ago, there was intuition that slamming your head into a crazed 300 pound opponent running full speed, and inhaling smoke were both bad for you.

Tobacco companies secretly manipulated the amounts of addictive nicotine and the risk of cancer.  NFL coaches, general managers, and owners (from their plush sky boxes) questioned the courage of any concussed player who just had their “bell rung” and displayed no obvious broken bones.  The crux of the players’ argument was that while exhorting them on and relying on their loyalty to each other (like soldiers in an unpopular war), team honchos knew more than they disclosed of the long term hazards to their charges.  That a former player shot himself in the heart, leaving a directive that his brain be used for medical research, is sobering.

In my youth the strategy, artistry, and pure athleticism of football on a perfect autumn afternoon captivated me.  A running back juking past three defenders leaving them grasping at air.  A sixty yard touchdown pass that perfectly leads a streaking receiver.  A stout band of brothers of all races, shoulder to shoulder, bloody but unbowed in a desperate goal line defense on fourth down, bunched up, unwilling to grant the invaders even an inch of ground.  These are the elements of football that I miss.

I was never big or talented enough to make even the junior varsity, mighty mite midget, pee wee, Pop Warner traveling squad. Growing up, I watched the Philadelphia Eagles with my father, wrote a sports column (“Cook’s Corner”) for my high school paper, and went to the University of Michigan (Go Blue).  Is my exile, going on twenty years, just a case of sour grapes?  I do not believe so.  I was a fan.  I wasted thousands of hours on beautiful fall days watching Nichols State get trounced by North Carolina A&T, or the Phoenix Cardinals handle the St. Louis Rams.

Every year there are rookies who are bigger, stronger, faster… until they are not.  They are blithely discarded for the next new thing.  We are a consumer culture not only of products, but human lives.  The only match for our thirst for violence is the greed of the owners.  Between product licensing, alcohol sales, television revenue, and gate receipts, the NFL brand is a billionaires’ club.   It still amazes me that I once cared so deeply about the sport.

Re-watch “The Magnificent Seven.”  The Seven arrive as saviors, to defend a village from ruthless invaders (from Green Bay)?  The farmers welcome them but wisely hide their women.  The children idolize the gladiators whose lives appear more glamorous than the back-breaking labor of their parents.  Yul Brynner, the leader of the hired guns, realizes that he and his cohorts risk their lives, but in the end have nothing.  Then consider this: Three quarters of professional football players are bankrupt within five years of their retirement.

Free Clipart Illustrations at

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer wondering who is advocating for the high school and college players who have suffered post career concussion symptoms.  He is delighted that the Gophers have given up plans to field a serious football team.