Sweet Season: A Sportswriter Rediscovers Football, Family, and a Bit of Faith at Minnesota's St. John Universityby Austin Murphy
After fifteen years as a Sports Illustrated writer, pleading for interviews with large men in possession of larger egos, Austin Murphy decides to bail out. The time has come, he concludes, to fly beneath the radar of big-league sports, to while away a season with the Johnnies. So, he moves his family to the middle of Minnesota to chronicle a season at St./em>
After fifteen years as a Sports Illustrated writer, pleading for interviews with large men in possession of larger egos, Austin Murphy decides to bail out. The time has come, he concludes, to fly beneath the radar of big-league sports, to while away a season with the Johnnies. So, he moves his family to the middle of Minnesota to chronicle a season at St. John's, a Division III program that has reached unparalleled success under the unorthodox guidance of John "Gags" Gagliardi.
The Sweet Season is an account of what happens when a family pulls up stakes and spends months in a strange and wonderful place. It is also, not incidentally, the story of the most incredible football program in the country, run by a smiling sage who has forgotten more about the game than most of his peers will ever know.
Austin Murphy has written for Sports Illustrated since 1984. In 1992 he did a feature on St. John's College, a small Benedictine school in Minnesota, and its head football coach, John Gagliardi. Seven years later Murphy returned to the St. John's campus with his wife and two kids, ostensibly to write a book about Gagliardi and the Johnnies' season. Murphy is up-front with the reader: More important than writing this book for him was saving a troubled marriage.
The personal aspects of The Sweet Season border on treacle -- "Things are going better for us in bed..." -- without ever crossing that line ("...Bear with me here"). Murphy's family anecdotes are funny enough to keep readers entertained, but what really makes The Sweet Season take flight is Murphy's moving portrayal of the gracious, somewhat oddball characters at St. John's and their spirited postseason play.
Murphy is truly smitten with Gagliardi and the Johnnies. The 73-year-old Gagliardi is an aging pirate, forever sneering at the conventions of calisthenics and full-contact practices. His nonconformist tactics work: Gagliardi is the NCAA's second-winningest head coach of all time, behind Grambling's Eddie Robinson. In the '99 and '00 seasons he led St. John's on nail-biting playoff runs that would give younger men heart attacks. By the end of the book, the author realizes that the outcomes of the Johnnies' games become far more important to him than he had expected. The fervor with which Murphy follows the team adds dramatic tension, and a few revelations, to the end of an ultimately startling book. (Brenn Jones)
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Minnesota was a go! All that remained -- after tying up a mere two or three hundred logistical details -- was to have a trailer hitch affixed to the family station wagon, rent a U-Haul, and hit the trail!
If you need a trailer and long for a taste of good, old-fashioned Soviet Union-style customer service, I would recommend the U-Haul Moving Center in San Rafael, California. These people could screw up a cup of coffee, and how they stay in business is a mystery to me.
I'd phoned a fortnight ahead of time to set up a date to come and have a trailer hitch attached to the station wagon. When I showed up, they looked at me as if I were an idiot and pathological liar. There was no hitch. The eczema-afflicted U-Haul guy behind the counter asked, Did you call to confirm that it was here? Actually, I replied, the way that works is when an appointment is set up weeks in advance, you call me if the part is not in. That's when he began to get flustered, asking the person in line behind me, "Can I help you, sir?" which is when I began to feel sorry for him, because the individual he was addressing happened to be a very buff, very butch woman who was not amused by his confusion over her gender, and looked as if she might tear off his head and defecate down his neck. About ten minutes later a UPS person walked in and leaned my hitch against the counter.
Two days later I was back in the Soviet Union, so to speak, to pick up the five-by-eight trailer I'd reserved. Naturally, it was not available. I was sent to a U-Haul outlet three towns away, where things went more smoothly. But then, really,how could they have gone less smoothly?
August 11: Hard to believe, but we got a late start. But that's okay. A short day is scheduled -- it only takes four hours to cross the Central Valley skirt Sacramento, and commence climbing the Sierra Nevada mountains. Our first night will be spent at the Resort at Squaw Creek, near Lake Tahoe. The Resort has several pools, one with a bitching waterslide. I have been selling this waterslide to the kids for a good three months. We check in, change into bathing suits, and get down to the pool by 5:15. The waterslide is closed. "We close at five everyday," an off-duty lifeguard tells me on his way to the parking lot. We are the Griswolds, standing before a shuttered Wally World. I stand before my children exposed as an impotent bungler.
Go ahead and use the waterslide, I tell the kids once the lifeguard is safely out of sight. I'll guard your lives myself.
They do, and I do.
August 12: It is beginning to dawn on me that the concept of additional time in the bosom of family, virtuous and swell in the abstract, takes on an altogether different meaning when one is called upon to actually pass that time. As we cruise past Reno this morning, Willa and Devin, the lights of our lives, are attempting to stab one another with the plastic legs of the Wild Wild West mechanized tarantula facsimiles dispensed by a fast-food chain.
This is but a sampler of the hostilities that will erupt between them over the next 1,800 miles. Projectiles will be thrown, pinches and gougings meted out, hair pulled, epithets cast. The warfare is not always conventional. Checking the rearview mirror one afternoon in the middle of Montana, I saw my son thrust his fingers under his sister's nose.
"Hey, Willa," he said, sounding quite sinister, "smell this part of my body."
"Devin, God damn it!" I said. "It's disgusting to put your fingers in your crack." (He is, alas, a recidivist crack-scratcher.)
Without skipping a beat he asked, "Does Jar Jar Binks have a crack?"
That threw me, I will admit. Flustered, defeated, resigned, amused, I asked him, "Why?"
After a pause, he came back with this: "Because I don't know."
Jar Jar Binks, the grating, bug-eyed amphibian from Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace, is among the dramatis personae in one of the half-dozen cassettes I purchased for the trip. The tape is called the Jedi Training Manual, and the kids will insist on hearing it six times a day, on average, throughout the trip. I don't know if Jar Jar has a crack. I don't where our kids come up with this stuff, just as I don't remember what Laura and I did before we had them. We share dim memories of carefree dinners in Manhattan; lengthy workouts, fortnight-long vacations abroad.
It all came to an end in the small hours of March 28, 1996, twenty-five days before Laura was due to deliver our first child. When she shook me awake to report that her water had broken, I assured her she had merely experienced incontinence, and went back to sleep. Fifteen minutes later she curled into a comma and began regular contractions, between which she said things like, "We still don't have a pediatrician!" and "I never got sheets for the bassinet!"
Nine hours later, without benefit of anesthetic, she delivered seven-pound, eight-ounce Willa Madigan Murphy, who has been in a hurry to get places ever since. Willa's early arrival was both an augury of her impatience, and a kind of cosmic rebuke for our hubris -- our smug, yuppie expectations of a tidy, micro-managed birth. No, we hadn't set up her nursery or found a doctor for her because, well, the kid wasn't due for another month! We had time!
We did not have time. We have not had time since. We had less than an hour to bond with Willa before she was whisked to another room, where a doctor checked her heartbeat and subjected her to a whole-body prodding, to ensure that all her organs were present. "Man," said the doc as Willa squalled at him, "she is pissed!"The Sweet Season. Copyright © by Austin Murphy. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Austin Murphy is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. He lives in northern California with his wife and their two children.
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