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Ellwood City, Pennsylvania
Eric Poole is a reporter and columnist for the Ellwood City (Pa.) Ledger, a small newspaper nestled near the Ohio state line in the heart of Steelers Country. He has a wife, a son and a daughter (so there will be some daddy stuff on this blog). A former steelworker and retired rugby player, Poole has a wide range of interests, which was reflected in the 2008 Pennsylvania Newspaper Association awards, when Poole won first-prize honors for best columns and best special project. His upcoming book, "Company of Heroes," due out March 17, 2015, from Osprey Publishing, tells the story of Vietnam War hero Leslie Sabo and his comrades. Sabo was awarded the Medal of Honor May 16, 2012, in a White House ceremony.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Blast from the past

This video has making the rounds on Facebook this week. The video's timestamp reads 2009, but it actually happened in 2006, because that was when I wrote this in the Ellwood City Ledger:

How would you like to be Jim Johnson? How would you like to be the basketball coach who let the best shooter on the team sit on the bench, wearing a shirt and tie, for three years, until finally turning him loose in the last home game of his senior year.

In Johnson’s defense, Jason McElwain didn’t look like a basketball player. In a big man’s sport, he stands a Lilliputian 5-foot-6, not even tall enough to make the Athena High School junior varsity team in Greece, N.Y.

And he’s autistic.

But he’s also the kind of kid who, for three years as team manager, did everything Johnson asked of him.

“He is such a great help and is well-liked by everyone on the team,” Johnson told the Associated Press.

So, as a reward, Johnson gave the kid a uniform for the last home game of his high school career.

By far, the best thing about high school basketball is that, on nearly every team, there is a kid who sits on the end of his team’s bench, working hard every day in practice, without the guarantee of glory on game night.

But as soon as the home team goes up by 20 points, the crowd begins to chant his name, calling for the last man to get into the game.

On Feb. 15, for the Trojans’ game against Spencerport, Jason McElwain was that kid, with students waving signs reading “J-MAC” in his honor. Johnson said he hoped to get the senior manager into his first game action, but with a playoff berth on the line, he had to worry about winning the game first.

Of course, winning the game might have been easier if Johnson had put McElwain in the game earlier, but he had no way of knowing his student manager would put on a shooting clinic.

With four minutes left in the contest, and a Trojans’ victory in hand, Johnson gave the crowd what it had asked for. After missing a long-range shot and a layup, McElwain went on the kind of tear that would have had Kobe Bryant shaking his head in wonder.

McElwain drained seven of his next nine shots – including an even half-dozen three-pointers – to finish with 20 points in Greece’s 79-43 victory. He had part of his foot over the line on one of his field goals.

Is it dark in here or did someone just shoot the lights out?

It’s possible that McElwain’s teammates were feeding him. And it’s equally possible that Spencerport decided to leave him open in a game that already had been decided.

But, even if that’s true, it’s not as if any of that would have diminished what McElwain did. If you think it’s easy to hit an open three-pointer, head on down to the Lincoln High School gym Monday and try to hit seven-of-nine from your favorite spot beyond the arc – you’re allowed to step on the stripe once.

You could try that for 100 years and not drain seven before missing three, even on an empty court. Now imagine doing it as a high school senior in front of a crowd of hundreds chanting your name in your very first varsity appearance. You’re likely to be throwing up nothing but airballs.

And your dinner.

After establishing himself as the straightest shooter in high school basketball, McElwain got a ride off the court on the shoulders of his teammates.

Then, the young man who didn’t talk until he was 5 did a creditable Dick Vitale impression.

“I ended my career on the right note,” he told the Associated Press. “I was hotter than a pistol.”

Little did Jim Johnson know 10 days ago that he would end up as the not-so-evil villain in McElwain’s Cinderella saga by keeping a marksman on the bench for three years.

But that’s not so bad. After all, not everybody gets to be a character in a fairy tale, even as the stepcoach.

For Jason McElwain, it must be even better. Even though he’s back in his suit and tie as his teammates head into the playoffs tonight, he’ll never again be the autistic kid at the bench’s end.

From now on, he’ll be known as just about the hottest hand high school basketball has ever seen, if only for one night.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The empty places

This column originally ran Sept. 28, 2006, in the Ellwood City Ledger.

There is something missing from the picture of New York Athletic Club's 2005 rugby team, but you might not immediately notice it.

Kind of like the void in New York City's skyline.

In Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, it's possible to make a handsome living playing rugby and get face time before the first commercial on overseas equivalents of "Sportscenter."

But in the United States, the sport is almost entirely amateur, so members of the rugby brotherhood in this country look out for one another. They lift furniture for teammates on moving day and bend elbows together at the local tavern.

They help their buddies find jobs, which is why Sean Lugano, Mark Ludvigsen and Brent Woodall were in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, working at the investment firm of Keefe, Bruyette and Woods.

"They were all looking out for each other." said Mike Tolkin, coach of NYAC's rugby team, also called Winged Foot.

I saw Lugano play in the last important match of his life, the U.S. 2001 Division I club championship. Based on its second-place national finish that year, NYAC won promotion to USA Rugby Super League, the sport's highest level in this country.

Lugano was a rugged and scrappy player, but for a scrum half, that's more a job description than a character assessment. Scrum halves are the rugby equivalent of a quarterback, only tougher, and few were better at it than Lugano, an All-American in college.

"He was definitely the heart and soul of this team," Tolkin said.

On that day five years ago when terrorists flew United Airlines Flight 175 almost right through the Keefe, Bruyette and Woods office windows, it tore the heart and soul out of Winged Foot.

It also erased a big piece of the club's past and its potential.

Ludvigsen, a former NYAC standout, went on to become the club chairman. Tolkin said he was one of the team's most effective recruiters because of his personality.

"He was the nicest guy there was," the coach said. "I can't remember him ever speaking badly of anyone."

Tolkin said Woodall was probably the best athlete ever to play for Winged Foot, where he was taking on his third athletic pursuit, and he competed at a high level in all three. He was a tight end for the University of California and reached the high minors in the Chicago Cubs system.

But rugby wasn't the only thing in his life. Woodall’s wife, Tracey, was pregnant with their first child.

In 2001, NYAC's first Super League season, it lost a spate of close matches in situations when just having some heart and soul might have been enough to turn defeat into victory.

Improbably though, Winged Foot managed to soar from the ashes of Ground Zero. The 2005 team – the one in that picture – won the USA Rugby Super League championship.

Tolkin said the team couldn't have claimed this country's biggest rugby prize without Lugano, Ludvigsen and Woodall, although that's exactly what happened.

Lugano's brother Mike played on the championship team. For years, the two lined up not far from each other in NYAC's backline. Tolkin said losing a brother was difficult for Mike Lugano.

But playing rugby means you're never an only child.

During matches, rugby players don't go anywhere alone. They are taught to run alongside the ballcarrier, ready to take a pass or protect him after the tackle. It's called support, and when a rugby player is in trouble, he knows to run toward his support. The same principle applies off the pitch.

"From a guy breaking up with his girlfriend to a house burning down to 9-11, you need support and rugby players have always been a part of that," Tolkin said.

Winged Foot memorializes its lost brothers Saturday with its annual Remembrance Cup tournament, but the greatest memories are in the things that weren't buried when the towers fell. For Woodall, it's a daughter he'll never see. For Ludvigsen, it's the friends he'll never again see. For Lugano, it's a trophy he will never hold.

And without them, there's a championship picture that will never be complete.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Amateur sports = hypocrisy

This article appeared originally Dec. 30, 2010, in the Ellwood City Ledger, and was purged from the paper's internet archives when it upgraded its website.

Early in the last century, there was little doubt that Jack Kelly was the greatest rower of his day. He won two Olympic gold medals and would have bagged more hardware had the 1916 Olympics not been pre-empted for World War I.

But Kelly was prohibited from entering one of the world's most prestigious rowing events - the Diamond Sculls in England - because his club had been accused of professionalism and also that, as a bricklayer, his work amounted to training.

Like the Olympic Games in those days, the Diamond Sculls was strictly for amateurs only, although the latter event was even more fiercely anti-professional. But the idea behind both was to enable the upper crust to participate in competition apart from the great unwashed.

In short, Jack Kelly's blood hue was tested and found not to have been blue enough to compete in the Diamond Sculls.

That turned out to be comically ironic when the bricklayer's daughter joined the ranks of European royalty as Her Serene Highness the Princess of Monaco - nee Grace Kelly.

As a business all amateur athletics is exploitative, elitist and corrupt because it's predicated on depriving the athletes of any financial benefit from their efforts. And the Olympic Games' history of hypocrisy is now repeating itself with NCAA football and basketball.

The modern Olympics were created in the late 1800s by the French Baron de Coubertin, whose intention was to establish the games as a pushback against professionalism in soccer, horse racing, baseball and boxing.

Initially,the Olympics' amateur rules were so restrictive that physical education teachers were deemed professional athletes and thus ineligible to participate. Coubertin's vision - he was a baron for goodness sake - was to limit the games only to those who could train long enough and hard enough to become an elite athlete without getting paid.

In other words, the idle rich.

As the Olympic Games became increasingly popular and generated huge profits for its promoters, that vision proved unsustainable. Ultimately, the lords of the Olympics discovered what everyone else knew - that letting athletes make money is infinitely more honest than amateurism.

Today, when people long for the days of amateur sports in the Olympics, what they're really nostalgic for is a system rife with hypocrisy that was rigged in favor of state-sponsored Eastern Bloc stars and the already wealthy.

A similar hypocrisy exists in major-college football and men's basketball, where athletes are getting punished for the same things that coaches and administrators do as routine.

Ex-USC running back Reggie Bush had to return his Heisman Trophy because he signed with an agent while still in college.

Ohio State University quarterback Terrelle Pryor is looking at sitting out five games next season after selling memorabilia that he received for prior bowl appearances.

Let me repeat that for you. Pryor and four of his Buckeyes teammates could be suspended for selling their own stuff. Of course, they'll be allowed to play a couple of days hence in the Cotton Bowl, so they can help generate income for the NCAA and its hangers-on.

The NCAA's rules, which seem designed solely to keep athletes from getting their hands on the great wodges of cash that goes to everyone else involved with college sports, foster corruption by driving players to seek under-the-table income.

Sometimes integrity is best served not by punishing corruption, but by making it legal. The International Olympic Committee learned that lesson. Now it's the NCAA's turn.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Lost "Brother" embodied military's virtues

This column appeared originally on Jan. 27 in the Ellwood City Ledger, but was never posted on the paper's website due to an editorial oversight.

There’s a scene in the first episode of “Band of Brothers” where Richard Winters where he reprimands another officer, Lynn “Buck” Compton, for gambling with the enlisted men.

Compton, who would one day lead the prosecution Sirhan Sirhan for the assassination of Robert Kennedy, thinks Winters – a religious tea-totaling non-gambler – is objecting on moral grounds. But that’s not the case.

“What if you’d won?” Winters asks, which temporarily baffles Compton. “Don’t ever put yourself in a position to take anything from these men.”

Winters, who died Jan. 2 just three weeks short of his 93rd birthday, distinguished himself as a young man during World War II. But fame found him late in life when he wound up as the hero of Ambrose’s book, “Band of Brothers,” and the follow-on Emmy-award-winning television miniseries of the same title.

In the anecdote above, Winters demonstrates a concept known to Christians as servant leadership – exemplified by Jesus when he washed the feet of his apostles.

During the invasion of Normandy, as depicted in the book and on TV, Winters led a force of 13 men in a successful assault on an artillery emplacement that was targeting American troops landing in the Normandy Utah sector. The guns were defended by 50 entrenched German paratroopers.

Earlier that day, Winters had taken command of Easy Company – of 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division – because the plane that was to have dropped the company commander in Normandy was shot down, and everyone on board was killed.

Winters received the Distinguished Service Cross, the U.S. military’s second-highest award, for combat valor for leading the attack. It’s probably not a coincidence that, going by the words of those who served under his command, he was the most widely respected of the Band of Brothers.

But where it relates to Winters, “Band of Brothers” wasn’t just a story of one exceptional soldier, but of a philosophy that has yielded an exceptional military. It wasn’t many years before World War II that the world’s armies parceled out officer’s status based on noble title.

It wasn’t uncommon, for example, command of a regiment to fall upon the man who provided the funds to outfit that regiment, which produced a mentality of entitlement on the part of military leadership.

In his book, Ambrose sets up Easy Company’s World War II battles as not just a clash of military forces, but one of systems, of American democracy and meritocracy against European tradition and aristocracy.

Winters matched wits and guts against German officers who won their commissions in many cases because their grandfathers happened to be barons. The German infantry were exhorted to fight for their country and social betters, while their American counterparts were compelled to battle for their comrades.

And the American system that Winters embodied proved superior, Ambrose wrote in summing up the 101st Airborne Division's heroic stand at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.

“It was a test of arms, will, and national systems, matching the best the Nazis had with the best the Americans had, with all the advantages on the German side … Democracy proved better able to produce young men who could be made into superb soldiers than Nazi Germany.”

A long time ago, Winters was one of those young men produced by that system. And the legacy of those young men is that in America, a nation created from the rejects of those European aristocracies, the American armed services are exceptional in large part because it embraces command the same way Winters did – as an obligation and a duty rather than a privilege to be exploited.

Eric Poole can be reached online at