My photo
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.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The REST of the Olympic story I: Row, Row, Row your boat

Back in my pizza delivery days, I'd usually be out on the roads between noon and 12:20 p.m., when one of the local radio stations would air the Paul Harvey radio program. Now, Paul and I didn't have much in common politically, but credit where credit, the guy was one hell of a storyteller. The highlight of his show was always the "Rest of the Story" segment, in which Harvey presented a little known tale, often about a famous person, with some key element left concealed until the very end, punctuated with the sign-off, "And now you know ... the REST of the story."

Harvey might not have influenced me politically, but "Rest of the Story" definitely has an impact on my storytelling style. As proof of that, I'm going to dedicate some upcoming electrons to presenting some of my favorite stories from the Olympic Games, told in the style of Paul Harvey.

Early in the last century, Jack was the world's best individual rower, and second place wasn't close. He made off with mighty some pretty neckwear in the 1920 and 1924 Olympics and might have bagged some more medals had the 1916 Olympics not been preempted for World War I.

At the time, however, sports was undergoing something of a revolution. Over the previous 50 years, elite athletes were beginning to earn handsome salaries for playing kids' games - baseball in the United States, soccer in Europe, and boxing and horse racing on both sides of the Atlantic. The Olympic Games themselves were a pushback against the pay-for-play phenomenon.

As with all amateur athletics, the Olympics began as a class warfare weapon. By restricting the event to amateurs - even coaches and gym teachers were considered professional athletes at the time and thus ineligible for the Olympics - organizers were trying to limit participation to the upper crust, because those were the only people who could put in the training time necessary without the prospect of a payday.

And competing for money was considered decidedly declasse.

Founders of the modern Olympics would have regarded Jack, who worked as a bricklayer, as at least a quasi-professional because of his vocation. And the amateur standard for the Diamond Sculls, one of the world's top rowing competitions, was even more stringent. Amid accusations of professionalism against Jack's rowing club, he was prohibited from taking part in the Diamond Sculls.

Jack would ultimately have his revenge. More accurately, his children would have it on his behalf. His son and namesake won the Diamond Sculls twice in the 1940s. But his daughter would top even that.

Because some of the same European nobility who decided that the hue of Jack's blood wasn't sufficiently indigo would one day bow before Her Most Serene Highness, Princess Grace of Monaco, whose father was Jack Kelly, the greatest rower of his age.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A western Pennsylvanian we should know better

So a friend of mine used Facebook a couple of days ago to ask the identity of the most accomplished western Pennsylvanian, living or dead, to be relatively obscure.

After some thought, I came up with Uniontown native George Marshall, and called him one of the five most important Americans the first half of the 20th century.* I mean, we’re talking about the guy who planned and carried out strategy crucial to winning two wars – World II and Cold.

During World War II, Marshall turned the U.S. Army from a ragtag band into one of the most effective combat instruments in history over the course of a few months. Even so, he remains relatively unknown to casual military historians. He never commanded an army in the field and unlike most of his fellow generals, never wrote a memoir.

George Marshall grew up in the western Pennsylvania coalpatch, where men worked 12-hour days in the mines, descending from darkness into darkness and returned to darkness, and they didn’t call the newspapers when they punched out.

That was the ethos into which George Marshall was raised – do your job and don’t expect a ticker-tape parade for it. Needless to say, it put him at odds with braying jackasses like George Patton, Douglas MacArthur and British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, all lower-ranking officers and lesser men whose egos inflated their self-image beyond what their contributions would merit.

After World War II, he kept large chunks of Western Europe standing upright when they were still recovering from the conflict’s devastation and while the Soviets looked to entice them away from the West.

But because he shunned public recognition for his work, Marshall is relatively little-known even in the region where he grew up, much less in the nation he helped to save 70 years ago.

*I'm not altogether clear on the rest of the five most important Americans of the first half of the last century, but it would doubtlessly include the two Roosevelts. As for the remaining two, I guess we could draw it from this pool: William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Edison, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein (who took U.S. citizenship in 1940).

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Patriots execution, not bad play call, sunk the Seahawks

The most plausible explanation for the Seattle Seahawks' decision to call a pass play with 26 seconds left in the Super Bowl, the ball one yard outside the end zone and Marshawn Lynch in the backfield is that coach Pete Carroll called for a Lynch run up the middle, but New England coach Bill Belichick hacked into the communication system and changed the play.

For the second-best explanation, Vox website wins the prize. The short version is that, by passing on second down, Seattle would, in most cases, either get the game-winning touchdown or an incomplete pass that would stop the clock with about 26 seconds left. Had the Seahawks called a running play with Lynch stopped short of the end zone, they would have had to use their last time out and call a pass play on third down. The long explanation can be found here.

But, I still would have given the ball to Lynch on second down and taken my chances on a possible third-down pass play.

That said, though, all of the people that are pillorying Carroll for the play call to end Seattle's chances of winning a second consecutive Super Bowl title would have been calling it a gutsy and unexpected decision if only had it worked. 

But it didn't work. And - as is usually the case in professional football - it didn't work not because it was a bad play call, but because New England executed at the game's most important moment more effectively than Seattle did. 

And the man who executed most effectively wasn't Patriots' defensive back Malcolm Butler, who made the interception, but fellow New England DB Brandon Browner. As drawn up, the play called for Seattle receiver Jermaine Kearse to break of the line and run in front of Butler, which would have given receiver Ricardo Lockette the crucial half step of space necessary to complete the touchdown play.

But Kearse never got anywhere near Butler, because Browner jammed him at the line of scrimmage.

Butler made a hell of a play to be sure, going through Ricardo Lockette for the interception, but Browner - who played for the Seahawks last year but was suspended for the Super Bowl - gave him the space to make that play.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

"IT'S THE PRESIDENT!" - announcing a Medal of Honor

Three years ago today, I was in the living room of Rose Sabo Brown, just outside New Castle Pennsylvania. Brown's husband, Leslie Sabo Jr., had been killed May 10, 1970, in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. However, it had been only about 10 years earlier that Sabo Brown had found out that her late husband sacrificed his life to save dozens of his comrades.

During that time, many of those surviving comrades and others sympathetic to the cause had been campaigning for Sabo to receive the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military's highest award for combat valor. On Feb. 1, 2012, the wait came to an end. A representative of the Pentagon had called Sabo Brown a day earlier and told her to expect a phone call from a "high-ranking Defense Department official."

Taken at its word, that news was disappointing. A "high-ranking Defense Department official" would be calling Sabo Brown to tell her that her long-dead husband had been approved for the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army's second-highest award for combat valor. If it was the Medal of Honor, President Barack Obama would probably be delivering the news.

After swearing me to secrecy - the Pentagon representative had explicitly told Sabo Brown that no media members were to be present during the phone call because the public announcement wouldn't be made until later, but I was there as author of a self-published biography of Sabo - I was invited to sit in.

The phone rang shortly before 4 p.m., Eastern Time.

"What?" Sabo Brown said. Then, after a short pause, she said "Yes, I'll hold."

Then, she cupped her hand over the mouthpiece and mouthed a sentence that was silent, yet ended with an exclamation point.