Finally, my best friend is a Hall of Famer

Jody Norton, center, was one of the best distance runners in the state of Maine during the early 1980s. He was also my best friend. Today, he is finally a Hall of Famer.

Jody Norton, center in white, was one of the best distance runners in the state of Maine during the early 1980s. He was also my best friend. Today, he is finally a Hall of Famer.

When his high school athletic career started, he was a football player; all five-foot-seven, 135 pounds of him.

I don’t know what the hell he was thinking, but his two years playing for the John Bapst Memorial High School Crusaders, in Bangor, Maine, nobody could measure his statistics. That’s because I can’t imagine he had many.

They also couldn’t measure his heart, though. That, I knew from experience, was far too big for any run of the mill measuring device from the fall of 1979.

His destiny would not be found on a gridiron, though. He had to step outside the lines to find that out with a certainty. Sure he could run and get knocked down — and Lord knows he would always get up — but he was much better when nobody was trying to take his head off and pulverize him into a purple puddle.

He was much better when he was running in circles. He was much better running across trails through the woods.

He was just much better running.

• • •

The envelope arrived on my desk at work on a Thursday. It was addressed to me personally, my name over an address that I did not recognize. Yet still the letter found me.

The return address I knew by heart — 100 Broadway, Bangor, Maine — home of John Bapst Memorial High School; the place I spent my first three years of high school, and made too many memories to count and embrace.

The letter was from a gentleman named Mel MacKay, who is the present-day head of school at Bapst. What he wanted from me, I couldn’t imagine. I didn’t graduate from John Bapst, so I knew he wouldn’t be reaching out for money.

The first paragraph summed everything up rather straight-forward and succinctly.

“Dear John, On behalf of the John Bapst Alumni Association, I’m pleased to inform you that your nominee, Jody Norton, ’83, has been selected for induction into the John Bapst Athletic Hall of Fame.”

My reaction was a smile and one solitary thought: “It’s about fucking time.”

• • •

Jody James Norton was my best growing up. He was the best man at my wedding and I was the best man at his. You know the story.

Him and his younger brother, Robbie, they were the brothers I never had. We grew up together, each of us one year apart, with Jody being the oldest, me in the middle and Robbie the youngest, and to this very day I love them both will all my heart and there isn’t a thing I wouldn’t do for them.

Athletically, we pushed each other through every game we played; out-rights wars of one-on-one-one basketball on a nine-foot day, relishing the day I finally beat Jody (he wasn’t happy) and Robbie finally beat both of us (neither of us we’re happy).

Oh the stories we could tell.

Time and life has pulled us all apart, sent us down different roads we never would have imagined possible, but the memories bind us together without question. That’s ever-lasting.

Jody was my brother then and he is my brother now. It’s that simple, really.

• • •

Somewhere back in time, more than a decade ago now, I heard John Bapst had rekindled it’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

The small school — which had gone from a Catholic school of God to a strictly private non-religious school by the time I got there — had a long and storied sports, and plenty of athletes to choose from. Thus, I thought, it was a great idea to rekindle the honor.

Yet when I saw the list of athletes that were being inducted year after year my heart sank. Not because they weren’t great athletes — many of names I knew and recognized — but it was the name that was missing that got under my skin.

Jody Norton wasn’t on the list.

Jody Norton, front and center, and the author, to the rear and right, were part of a state championship team in the fall of 1982.

Jody Norton, front and center, and the author, to the rear and right, were part of a state championship team in the fall of 1982.

Like I said, Jody’s athletic career at Bapst got off to an underwhelming start. He played football, he played basketball, and he was your typical under-sized talent whose drive and work ethic and heart made up for his physical misgivings.

In the spring of his sophomore year, though, Jody was bitten by the running bug. A little bit of success on the track during his sophomore year sealed his fate.

Putting one foot in front of the other and beating everybody else to the finish line was his thing.

By the time he was done, he was a state champion during his first full season of cross country his junior year and he set a state record in the 3,200-meter run during track and field. His senior year, he finished second in the state as an individual, but he pulled us lolly-gaggers along and somehow led us to a state team championship. He was also part of a state championship basketball team, too.

How does an athlete with that type of resume and that kind of leadership not make it on the first ballot? Especially compared to some of the names that were there who, granted, were good athletes, but never represented the school in any type of state championship format or rewrote any state recordbook.

Angry, I wrote a letter via the “nomination process” nominating my friend and brother as a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

This was more than 10 years ago, mind you.

• • •

Year after year, the names piled up — again so many names familiar to me and, yes, so many good athletes, but Hall of Famers? They were teachers’ kids, board members’ kids, financial benefactors’ kids … see where this is going?

Years later a teacher from the school — who had been there when we both attended — agreed with me about my disgust for the process. “The politics of a private school education,” he said.

But I’m not here to put down the Hall of Famers who have been honored. Like I said, there are so many good athletes on there, deserving athletes, too, but I know in my heart and in my mind (to which I have devoted my life to serving the world of high school sports) that my friend Jody Norton deserved to be a Hall of Famer before many of them.

He represented John Bapst Memorial High School with class and grace every time he stepped foot off campus, be it for an athletic event or a casual stroll through the city.

I’m sure he still carries that pride with him into his adult life. After a great college career at St. Joseph College in Standish (speaking of memories), he still lives in Maine, as the owner of Norton Family Chiropractic. He is married to a wonderful woman and they have a great son together, too.

He was a great runner and a great friend, a great brother and, probably, the first real-life person I looked up to athletically and respected. I wanted to be as fast as him, but I was in no way good enough and didn’t have the inclination to work as hard as him.

All these years later, I’m so proud of him and even though in my mind he always was one, finally, my best friend is a Hall of Famer.

First Ted, now Yogi … Who’s next?

File- This Sept. 21, 2008, file photo shows former New York Yankees player Yogi Berra at home plate at Yankee Stadium in New York before the Yankees play the Baltimore Orioles in the final regular season baseball game at the stadium. Berra, the Yankees Hall of Fame catcher has died. He was 90. (AP Photo/Ed Betz, File)

This Sept. 21, 2008, file photo shows former New York Yankees player Yogi Berra at home plate at Yankee Stadium in New York before the Yankees play the Baltimore Orioles in the final regular season baseball game at the stadium. Berra, the Yankees Hall of Fame catcher has died. He was 90. (AP Photo)

When I first dove into the field of journalism some 31 years ago, one of the first lessons I was taught was this: Once the paper was put to bed at night, always check the wire one last time.

Why?

Because Ted Williams might have died.

Growing up, both personally and professionally, in the heart of Red Sox Nation that would have been a “stop the presses” moment.

I was living in New Hampshire in the summer of 2002 when Ted Williams finally passed away. It was morning when I found out as I was driving to get my morning coffee and I heard the news on WEEI, which is simply the greatest all-sports talk radio station in the world.

But I digress.

After Ted’s passing, I still checked the wire, but I didn’t really know who I was looking for. It had become habit, I suppose. One last final look at the day’s world of sports.

When I relocated to Fairfield County, Connecticut, which for all intents and purposes is a bedroom community of New York City, I had my legend once again.

Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees.

And every night, one last check of the wire would be making sure that Yogi didn’t pass away. Or, if the paper was wrapped up before deadline and the staff went home early they went home knowing that if Yogi passed away when we had hours ahead of us, it was playing with fire.

This morning I woke up to the news that Yogi had passed away at the age of 90. The news didn’t break until two in the morning, more than three hours after our deadline had passed.

But, in honor of Yogi, I think it’s fair to say the region where I now work has lost a living legend.

Who’s next? Who knows.

I’ll be checking the wire every night (but let’s face it, Twitter is going to have everything before the Associated Press, so why I am even checking? … Like I said, habit), hoping I don’t see the name that comes to my mind.

Muhammed Ali, if you’re out there — live long and prosper, champ.

Bella Bond loved more in death than she ever was in life

The beautiful little Bella Bond, whose life was taken from her before she was even three years old.

The beautiful little Bella Bond, whose life was taken from her before she was even three years old.

I heard a man the other day say no child is a born a loser.

He was talking about football players and how some can develop a losing mentality, but on the day they were born there was no built-in mentality whatsoever and that child’s mindset was wide open, its future unabashedly not preordained.

It reminded me of a talking head I once saw on television who claimed one of the world’s many killers wasn’t born evil. Nobody, he said, was born evil.

The day of our birth, the moment we emerge from the womb and come out into the world, for that one instantaneous moment, we are truly all equal.

It lasts about 10 seconds, I figure; the time it takes for a doctor to hold us and somebody to cut the cord.

We get handed to our mothers and from that point on, it’s a whole new world.

 

Some of us are fed with a silver spoon. Some of us are fed with government cheese. Some of us have a meal waiting for us every night at six o’clock. Some of us go so hungry, our bellies hurt.

That say our country is a melting pot and it’s true. The rich of us get richer while the poor try not to cry themselves to sleep at night. In between is everything else, a mishmash and hodgepodge of life lived daily.

On Friday afternoon, news came out of Boston that Baby Doe — a young girl whose dead body was found wrapped in a trash bag on the shoreline of Deer Island — had been identified.

Her name was Bella Bond and she wasn’t even three years old when a man whose heart and soul must have died a long time ago allegedly ended her life.

He was her mother’s boyfriend.

From where I sit, he is nothing more than a piece of shit.

Period.

In the fall of my life, I try so hard not to judge people anymore. One of my pet peeves is how so many people rush to judge others for faux pas both giant and miniscule. As if they’re better than the next person.

Matthew 7:1 says, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” and it’s probably the one Bible passage that I presently try to live by on a day-to-day basis.

But when I look at the photos of Bean’s mother, and when I look into the dead eyes of that boyfriend, I can’t help but judge.

The killer and his girlfriend, Bella's "mother."

The killer and his girlfriend, Bella’s “mother.”

He is somebody’s son, maybe somebody’s brother, maybe even a “dad” himself. But he is a piece of shit and if he did do this heinous crime then part of me wants to say nothing short of the death penalty would be a worthy retribution.

An eye and for an eye, right?

Not really. It’s too good for him.

He took away a child’s hope, a baby’s future. He took away a little bit of all us because we have to be reminded that such evil exists in our world.

Perhaps the daily beatings of a baby killer in general population would be a just and righteous punishment. Every day in a cement cell behind bars, rotting away — if there is anything left to rot, that is.

And then I look at the mother and wonder how could this happen? How could she let such a person into her life? Drugs? Mental illness? Stupidity? Hatred?

In reading all the coverage over the last 24 hours, since Bella had been identified and we’ve learned how everybody’s heart is breaking, one sentence sent chills up my spine.

The website boston.com was talking about the mother’s facebook page. There was many photos of Bella posted on her timeline, it said.

The last known photo of little Bella Bond before her murder.

The last known photo of little Bella Bond before her murder.

“But the photos stop in December 2014,” the story reads. “The last photo of Bella was of the toddler opening Christmas presents with her mother.”

Bella is wearing a pink robe and sitting on a pink Hello Kitty chair as her mom helps her unwrap a gift. It’s a Kodak moment.

I can only hope that it was her last happy moment, captured forever because the thoughts of her actual final moments make me want to cry.

Bella Bond was born into this world the same as everybody else. The future should have been hers to grow into and to build. She should have grown up, felt loved and safe, gone to school, made friends that would last a lifetime, graduated and gone to college, seen the world, gotten married, had children of her own and raised them before dying of old age, loved by all those who knew her.

But we know life is not always like that. Life is cruel.

Instead, Bella died loved by a world that never got to know her; by a community who watched her disappear right under their nose and never thought about what happened to the little girl with the innocent eyes.

Did Bella really have a chance being born to that mother who had that kind of inner weakness that she would let somebody do this to her daughter? I don’t know. It appears not, but only the road traveled by that family over the last two and a half years holds the answers.

In Latin, the name Bella means beautiful, loving, lovable, graceful.

And, from looking at the pictures of the little girl taken from this world far too soon, you can see was aptly named.

May she rest in peace knowing that in death she is more loved than she ever was in life.

9/11, #neverforget — Reliving that morning 14 years later

The Twin Towers as they once stood in the 1990s.

The Twin Towers as they once stood in the 1990s. (Photo by John Nash)

Every year, on this day, we remember.

Some of us take a moment of silence and go on with our day. Others converge on the site of all the horror and remember by reading names of the dead — 2,977 of them, all told.

Some of us, I’m sure, no longer care enough to remember, or don’t even want to remember, or are too young to recall the day that changed life as we knew it — Sept. 11, 2001.

Me?

I’ve made it a tradition to watch MSNBC because every year they re-run the live coverage of what happened that day after the terrorists flew the first plane into the World Trade Center.

It was breaking news, as-it-happened journalism, and it’s how I watched all the events unfold on that fateful day.

Thanks be to God, or whatever higher powers are out there, I didn’t know anybody personally that died that day.

I was at work at Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, N.H., on the morning of September 11, in 2001 — the only time in the history of my journalism career that being an afternoon paper actually paid off in terms of getting the most recent news in the paper.

I remember the AP alert coming through. I remember jumping on the World Wide Web for more information. I remember standing in the main portion of the newsroom when the second jet flew in to the second tower and that’s when everybody knew that this was no accident.

The United States of American was under attack.

People have called 9/11 my generation’s Pearl Harbor. They have said, just like the day JFK was shot and killed, that everybody remembers where they were when they heard the news.

It’s true.

Since moving to Connecticut nine years ago, living and working just 40 miles outside of New York City, the after-effects of 9/11 are still felt all these years later.

The new tower stands tall in lower Manhattan.

The new tower stands tall in lower Manhattan.

I feel lucky to live where I do. I feel lucky that I get to go into New York City, a place I had only visited once in the first 30 years of my life, as often as I have.

Now, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had the honor to go into that great city — to Madison Square Garden, to any of the ballparks, to Times Square, to the museums and theaters, to Central Park.

That’s why on this day, every year, instead of hearing the roll call of the names of the dead and watching the tears of those left behind, I put my television on MSNBC and I remember.

It reminds me of how I felt that day, 14 years ago. From the shock to the anger to the sadness as both towers crumbled before my very eyes.

It reminds me of why it takes so long to get on a plane and fly across this land of the free. It reminds me of why I have to be patted down before I enter a sporting event. It reminds me of how much some people hate us.

It reminds me of why there are young people in far away lands giving their lives for so we can do everything we do here at home.

I’ll never forget 9/11 — most of us never will.

Thus, on this day, every year, I remember by reliving it the way I lived it the day it happened.

#neverforget