On a warm Saturday afternoon back about the turn of the century, you remember Y2K, Sharyl and I were watching the McKinley Lawnmowers beat the dickens out of another opponent, unless that opponent was the team from Cleveland. If they were playing Cleveland, it was a heck of a Recreational League soccer match. Contrary to popular belief, people are not just serious about football in Norman, Oklahoma; they are also some kind of serious about soccer.
That day was the last day of the recreational season. There were a bunch of guys running around with clipboards, watching soccer and taking notes. Those guys coached the travel teams and were looking for next year’s talent. At the conclusion of our match, two of them were standing within earshot comparing notes. One of them asked the other “did you get number 23” (not sure if he was 23, but he always wore it if it was available); the other guy hesitated. The first guy then said “the little scrappy one” the response was “oh yeah, we can definitely use him.” Even if I didn’t hear the number, when he said the scrappy one, I knew he was talking about a kid named Conner.
There aren’t enough hours in a day or days in a week to play competitive soccer and competitive baseball. The scrappy one and his brother said good-bye to the soccer fields and became even more serious about the game of baseball.
I am their Paw Paw and may be a little biased but they both became very good baseball players. It didn’t just happen; they worked their butts off. They studied the game and learned to do things the right way.
Cale was always easy to find; if he wasn’t pitching he was over on first base. I saw Conner play every position on the field except first base. He wasn’t the best at any of them but he was pretty good at all of them. You just needed to look for the scrappy kid playing wherever coach put him and doing so with the utmost confidence.
He studied and understood the game. He had strong opinions on everything from hitting style to game management. He loved to share those opinions with anyone (including his head coach) especially if their opinion was different than his. That willingness to share probably earned him more bench time than playing time.
I think pursuing those philosophical differences earned him some Junior Varsity time one summer.
High school summer ball is kind of fun and relaxed, more about development than about winning. They had a new coach, the guy knew baseball but everything he knew about the kids was on the sheet of paper the high school coach had given him. I think it was the first or second game, the scrappy one was playing second base, and whoever was pitching was getting shelled. The coach went to the mound and called the centerfielder in to pitch; the kid took a couple steps back and obviously didn’t want any part of the bases loaded no one out situation. A brief discussion took place; my man interrupted with five words “give me the damn ball.” The coach asked, “Do you pitch?” He said again “give me the damn ball”. The coach obliged and the scrappy one got them out of the inning. If his breaking pitch was working, he could be very effective, if not you better have someone warming up.
On a hot July Sunday evening in ’05 (I think) the Predator had just lost in the finals of one of those grueling double elimination tourneys. Most of the team and their families were gathered in the parking lot replaying the game. With absolutely no fanfare, provocation or advance notice the scrappy one threw his trophy as high as he could and as it shattered in many pieces on the asphalt he very calmly said “no one wants to be second.” It broke the tension and broke up the party and everyone got ready for the next game.
Inside that scrappy, fiercely competitive body was a heart of gold and as big as all outdoors. He was very compassionate and always had a special place in that heart for those less fortunate. Bullying was never an issue if he was around. One semester he took a socially challenged, special needs kid to lunch one day each week. It wasn’t a big deal to him; he didn’t talk about it or want any recognition. He just knew a burger or some pizza with a friend was a big deal and it was just the right thing to do.
If you will allow me, I am going full circle and return to the McKinley Lawnmowers. John coached the Lawnmowers; I wish every kid that ever played soccer, baseball, the guitar, marbles or tiddly winks could play for someone like John. He taught them to play soccer and to play it very well, he taught them to be humble when they won and to be gracious on those rare occasions when they lost. He also taught them a lot about life. The way he did it they never knew they had been offered a lesson. The Lawnmowers are now young men and scattered around the world doing a lot of different things but when the chips are down they are still a very tight knit group. Thank you John.
I have passionately supported teams with names like Indians, Savages, Hornets, Sooners, Timber wolves, Trojans, Rangers and BJs to name a few. I will probably root for other teams in the future but I am sure my all-time favorite will remain the McKinley Lawnmowers.
To the scrappy one: I love you, I miss you every day and the pain is still very intense. Please give your Maw Maw a hug and tell her I love her and miss her.
Most of you were not personally acquainted with Conner, you only knew he was my grandson. I just wanted to share some memories and give you a peek at what made this kid that called me Paw Paw so very special. Thanks for reading what I write, it helps, and please keep me in your prayers.
Good Night and God Bless