Climbing back up to grace…

The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances.
–Aristotle

I woke today morning and performed a task as routine as morning ablutions: I opened my phone browser to Yahoo! Sports in search of the leaderboard for today’s Deutsche Bank golf tournament. I will explain: I did this every time Tiger played when I lived in China. It was a way, like music and bootleg movies, for me to stay tethered to something wholly American. Tiger was part of America’s sports greatness and he was a symbol of how I felt about my country.

The young LT. as budding golfer

I am one of the world’s worst golfers. No, really. I started the game in hopes of finding a way to “quiet the machine” and relax with the help of a sport that rightfully is known as a good walk spoiled. I had not thought of it as much of a sport until I learned it was easier to navigate a leech infested swamp at night with an M-16 above my head than to putt a tiny white ball into a PVC drain pipe. But, I digress…

Tiger Woods, son of a Special Forces Major, single-handed turned golf into an muscular, precision pursuit of excellence. Sure, John Daly could guzzle a beer, put his garish pants on backwards and hit 7 balls between cigarettes father than any other golfer on the tour, but Tiger was the one to watch. And people did it in such numbers that people who had never watched were devoted to golf where before they might have preferred to watch weeds grow in a vacant lot.

When Tiger’s life landed in the rough I couldn’t wait for the public to begin judging him again for his athletic prowess instead of his celebrity moral failings. He literally limped along for a couple of years as I continued to hope that rumors of his death were digitally exaggerated.

On my recent trip to Detroit I visited Piquette Square for Veterans. It is an apartment complex built on the site of an old auto factory. It gives permanent shelter to veterans who

Honor Guard at the Piquette Center mugging for the camera

At the center, I was introduced to Coniel Norman,a veteran and peer counselor employed by the VA to assist homeless vets there. I instinctively knew there was back story here. Coneil had just told me he attended the University of Arizona in the early seventies and I guessed by his height and powerfully large hands that he had been a basketball player. I just didn’t know how great an athlete he had been: Coneil, whose nickname was “popcorn” due to his rapid-fire accuracy, is still Arizona’s record holder for points scoring average in a season. He was drafted in the NBA’s second round and played three seasons: Two with the 76ers and then one with the San Diego Clippers, after a two year stint in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). After being released by the Clippers in 1979, Norman enlisted in the military and served four years. He left in 1983 and then played professional basketball in Europe for seven seasons. The man who was once lauded by an opposing coach ( he described Coniel Norman as the “finest pure shooter” he had ever seen), saw his basketball career end when he was injured in a serious car accident on the Autobahn.

Time passed and Coneil eventually lost his way via drugs and alcohol. Homeless, he reached out to his family who supported him through rehabilitation. He now lives and works at the Veterans Center.

When you are one of the best at what you do, there is little place to go but down. And the people who cheered your successes are not always there when you descend. Worse yet, they turn their disappointment into anger and add considerable weight to to the already heavy burden that is recovery from injury, personal loss, or misdeeds.

That Tiger has won more events this year than the average professional can hope for in a lifetime of golf, while under such close scrutiny and subject to such blistering critique (just read some of the comments below any Yahoo! article on Woods), is a triumph on its own merits. Even if he fails to live up to fan and sports writer expectations by surpassing Jack Nicklaus for the number of majors won, his achievements are legendary and his records will likely stand long after his detractors have left this life. Hoping one day to see him play.

Coneil’s impact on the world now extends beyond the record board at Arizona. There will be veterans who will remember him as someone who returned hope and sobriety to their lives. I could not be prouder that I was able to shake the hand of an ideal man.

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Today’s call to action is a little selfish for the first time in 9 years of blogging: I could use a little help in getting to Denver to pick up Gander: http://Indiegogo.com/veterantraveler/