Karen Crouse’s recipe for success: A passion for sports and writing (and knowledge) shines through in every article

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 25, 2015) — Her latest story appears on Page 1 of the International New York Times, bundled together with The Japan Times as a two-newspaper package available throughout the Land of the Rising Sun. In this piece, also displayed prominently on The Times’ website, she writes with clarity and depth about the state of men’s golf in 2015.

One brief passage, which appeared on the story’s jump page, immediately grabbed my attention because of its clever word play and broad viewpoint: “He has a twinkle in his eye, a strut to his step, a howitzer for a driver and 2.3 million Twitter followers.”

She was writing about Rory McIlroy, the 25-year-old golfer from Northern Ireland.

She is … Karen Crouse, a 1984 graduate of the University of Southern California and former Lady Trojans swimmer.

She has paid her dues in this business, reporting for newspapers located on the West Coast and East Coast. Her career has included stops at the the Savannah (Georgia) News-Press, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, Palm Beach Post and The New York Times.

I recently conducted this interview with her.

Who are three or four must-read sports journalists you read on a weekly basis? What makes their work appealing to you?

Anything by J.R. Moehringer, and if you read his piece on Alex Rodriguez in ESPN The Magazine, the reason why will be self-evident. His collaboration with Andre Agassi on Agassi’s autobiography is the gold standard of sports memoirs. I greatly enjoy our Sports of the Times columnists, especially Michael Powell, whose dexterity with the English language is laudable. His column from Madison Bumgarner’s dad’s home during the decisive game of the World Series was an instant classic. Sally Jenkins consistently writes thought-provoking columns, and her writing is so lyrical it could be set to music. I’ll read anything by Chris Ballard or S.L. Price in Sports Illustrated because of the depth of their reporting and the loveliness of their prose and I always look for Johnette Howard at ESPN.com.  I read a LOT of non-sports non-fiction. I just finished “Leaving Before the Rains Come” by Alexandra Fuller, whose writing is beautiful.

Do you have an all-time favorite favorite print journalist?

Jim Murray, because he could wound without drawing blood – he wasn’t vicious in his criticism – and his columns were unfailingly original, entertaining and artfully crafted. And a more humble person you will NEVER find.

Considering the ebb and flow of an NFL game (one of your past coverage beats) and a “typical” day of pro golf, how does your note taking, reporting, writing, interviewing … the whole enchilada differ?

In football, I filled my notebook with facts and numbers. In golf, my notes contain much more description of scenes, of player and crowd reactions, of dialogue. I have much more freedom in golf to find different stories because of the sheer number of players posting scores every week, and because they are in action from dawn to dusk, I have a lot more time to sniff out stories and report them than when I was limited to 15 minutes of watching practice, a half hour of locker room access or one game a week.

Is pro football and golf reporting equally intense, but different?

The misconception about golf is that it is a deadline dream job because it ends before dark. The reality, for me, anyway, is that I’m typically at the course from dawn to dusk most days, which is much longer than I spent at football stadiums on game days.  I love the freedom the sport affords me in plucking stories from all over the course. But one of my friends, after observing me at work one week, said it’s like I’m trying to write like (John) Cheever while keeping a wire service reporter’s hours. I’m not sure about the Cheever part, but the days are very long and four years into the beat, I haven’t really figured out how to strike a better balance.

What do you consider your chief strengths as a journalist?

My curiosity, my ability to ask good questions (which is a consequence of pretty exhaustive research, if I’m working on a profile), my genuine interest in what makes the people I’m writing about tick, my doggedness (a leftover quality from my competitive swimming days, I suppose), my desire every day to tell the readers something about my subject that they haven’t read before.

There are challenges, biases, and obstacles that female sports journalists have faced and continue to face that their male counterparts never do. But is there additional respect given to you when you identify yourself as a New York Times journalist? Does that open doors or provide greater access/opportunities that you wouldn’t have normally received in past newspaper jobs that you have had?

I definitely get calls back from people who almost certainly would have ignored me if I had contacted them when I was with any of my nine previous employers. I never take for granted the doors that open to me, if only a crack, because of where I work. And I never kid myself about why many people choose to talk to me – while I’d like to think it’s because of my sparkling personality or reputation (ha!), in many cases it is entirely because of I have the Times’ stamp of approval.

I’m not sure I’m automatically accorded more respect because of where I work. If anything, my work and how I carry myself is more closely scrutinized by people inside and outside the business. I’m keenly aware there are many people who would love to have my job, and who think they would be better at my job, and so in some respects I feel like I have to work harder than ever to prove to outsiders that I’m worthy of occupying such a prized position. I remember not long after I was hired by the paper, I was covering a football game and a fellow sportswriter, a man, congratulated me on the job and said, “I didn’t know they were looking for a woman to fill that position.

”Bless him, but it never occurred to him that the editors might have thought I was the best hire for the job. He assumed that if I was hired, it was because I was a woman and the paper was looking to diversify its sports section.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in this profession?

Treat the people you cover the way you’d like to be treated. Remember they are people first, athletes second. Don’t assume anything.

Maybe the biggest thing I’ve learned, and perhaps this is unique to me, is all these years I’ve been digging into people’s lives and asking all kinds of questions, it is ostensibly because I’m trying to make sense of their lives, but what I’m really trying to do in a very elemental way is make sense of my own and our collective lives.

A  mentor’s words of wisdom?

Don’t try to fit in because it’s your differences that set you apart.

Perfect is the enemy of good.

Steer clear of the comments under your stories

A past lesson you learned that served you well for future work?

At the 2012 Masters, I was misquoted in a national sports blog – in the headline, no less — and suffered greatly for it. It was an invaluable experience, being on the other end of an interview and seeing firsthand how your words can be a boomerang that knocks you off your feet. It gave me a greater appreciation of how vulnerable people become when they entrust you with their stories and their beliefs. The experience strengthened the empathy I already felt for the people I cover.

These days, because of their prolonged time away from the game, how much of a void is there without Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa winning frequently and traveling the world over for the LPGA? Which LPGA golfer now in the game do you feel has the greatest potential for legendary status?

Lydia Ko is 17 years old and already No. 1 in the world. Never mind Rory McIlroy, Lydia may end up being the next Tiger Woods. She has said she plans to play until she is 30 and then embark on another career.  She has a bubbly personality, a beautiful swing and is as gracious as Lorena, which is saying a lot.

Who has a better sense of humor in a one-on-one setting with a reporter for an interview — Tiger Woods or Michael Phelps?

I’ve been told Tiger has a wicked sense of humor, and I don’t doubt it. I’ve seen shades of it over the years. But since I’ve never had a one-on-one with Tiger, unless you count walking and talking to him as he strides purposefully to the practice range or his car, I’ll have to say Michael.

Has there been a years-long Phelps boom in increasing popularity in swimming that’s clearly noticeable in terms of participation numbers

There has been a noticeable Michael effect. There was a definite spike in club swimming participation after the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. I didn’t appreciate how much he transcended swimming until he showed up at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medina Country Club outside Chicago to play in the pro-am and drew a larger gallery than any golfer, Tiger included. Michael made swimming look fun and effortless. Of course, the rub is that anybody who gets into it on a year-round level quickly discovers the sport can be very time intensive and demanding, and the sensory deprivation can be so great — staring at a black line for hours on end is not everybody’s cup of tea, and so while Michael may have brought a lot of people to the pool, he alone cannot make them love the grind. That has to come from within and not everybody is wired that way. For that reason, I’m not sure the sport will ever take off, though when you see teens  like Katie Ledecky and Michael Andrew, there’s reason to hope.
in the U.S.

Are there female U.S. Olympian swimmers who also ought to be recognized for helping achieve this?

Natalie Coughlin has been huge, Missy Franklin, by her actions and her attitude, has won over a generation of impressionable youngsters while endearing herself to the casual fan.  Katie Ledecky, through her humility and her dominance, is raising the profile of the sport stateside.

And now … a bit of word association and descriptions that immediately come to mind from your experiences observing them and interacting with them over the years…

-Paola Boivin – one of my best friends in or out of the business, writes with humor and compassion

-Bill Plaschke –likes to tug at the heartstrings

-Edwin Pope – a sports journalist legend

-Donald Sterling – personifies a very small subset of Los Angeles

-Elgin Baylor — underappreciated

-Phil Mickelson – a born entertainer

-John Daly — complicated

-Arnold Palmer — beloved

-Jacques Rogge – the Beijing Olympics on his watch taints his legacy

-Gary Hall Jr. —  showman

-Don Shula  — old-school

-Joe Namath – misunderstood

-Teemu Selanne – a prince of a player and a person

-Jackie MacMullan — fierce

-Linda Robertson – wonderful writer, one of the best in the biz

-Jim Murray – singular talent; my favorite writer of all-time

-Bruce Jenkins – terrific wordsmith, I’ll read ANYTHING he writes on baseball

-Natalie Coughlin – admirable longevity and I’d eat meals she concocts!

-Federica Pellegrini – broke freestyle barriers with the help of the buoyant suits

-Pat Summitt – the all-time greatest college basketball coach of either gender

How many Olympics have you reported from?

Nine (every Summer Olympics since 1992 and every Winter Olympics since 2006)

Which assignment(s) brought you the greatest thrills/adrenaline rush to watch and report on them?

The Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cup Finals run in 1993 – I hadn’t covered much hockey and was thrown into this incredible postseason run, starring Gretzky and including series in Toronto and Montreal, cities that are the cradle of the NHL.  And Michael Phelps collecting his eight golds  in the 2008 Olympics. I started swimming competitively after watching Mark Spitz win seven golds in 1972 so to be able to cover the man who supplanted Spitz in the record books for The New York Times felt like my sporting life had come full circle.

And which off-the-beaten path Olympic stories are among your favorite stories you think you’ll be recounting to family, friend and colleagues in 20-30 years from now?

At the very first Olympics I covered, in 1992, two of the U.S. Olympic team members were swimmers I had grown up training with in Northern California. So it was kind of surreal to be covering their races as a journalist. And Mike Bruner’s victory in the 200 butterfly at the 1976 Olympics is a result that will always be near and dear to my heart. He let me interview him for an eighth-grade project before the Olympic Trials. I brought a copy of the interview to the Trials, which I attended with my father, and he later credited the interview with putting him in the right frame of mind to make the Olympic team.

What do you think is the biggest misconception the general public and/or sports fans have about a sports reporter’s job?

That it is glamorous and easy. That we come at our jobs as fans when, in truth, most of us bring to the workplace the detachment of anthropologists observing unfamiliar tribes in their natural habitats.

What are three must-read sports nonfiction books and three non-sports books you would recommend to anyone to read?

“Open” by Andre Agassi with J.R. Moehringer; “Swimming to Antarctica” by Lynne Cox; Jim Murray, “The Last of the Best, Seabiscuit” by Laura Hillenbrand

And a sampling of my favorite non-sports books; “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” by Jeff Hobbs; “Gold” by Chris Cleave; “Glass Castle”s by Jeannette Walls. “The Skies Belong to Us” by Brendan Koerner. “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert. “The Good Spy” by Kai Bird. “Fire in the Lake” by Frances Fitzgerald.

Is Dan Jenkins’ sense of humor (http://www.golfdigest.com/golf-tours-news/2014-12/dan-jenkins-fake-interview-with-tiger) something that Tiger will refuse to relate to? Or was Tiger’s reaction to what Jenkins wrote a by-product  of his drop in win totals and simply a public way to blow off steam?

My sense is that Tiger Woods’ inner circle was more upset by what Dan wrote than was Tiger, who I really, truly (believe) does not seem to care what anybody writes or says about him.

You’ve written, I believe, several thousand articles now during your colorful career in this business. Can you think of three or four stories that resonated the most with readers (and your professional colleagues)?

These are some stories that resonated with readers and that I’m also proud of because of the positive impact they had on their subjects:

In 2005, during the first month of my first Jets season, I wrote a profile on the receiver Laveranues Coles in which he talked about for the first time publicly being sexually abused as a child. After unburdening himself of this secret, his personality blossomed. I had a Jets front-office official come up to me a few years later and tell me that that story helped Laveranues come out of his shell and set him on the path to becoming one of the most beloved (instead of misunderstood) players in the organization.

While with the Palm Beach Post, I did a project in 2004 on the 1976 U.S. Women’s Olympic swim team and how the members were among the first competitors to face a playing field tilted against them because of competitors using performance-enhancing drugs. The anchor of the piece was Shirley Babashoff, who might have equaled Mark Spitz’s Munich gold medal outlay in Montreal if not for the fact she was going up against East German competitors pumped full of steroids. Shirley was famously reclusive, but I persuaded her to talk and the result was a really powerful piece that I hope gave people who don’t see understand why athletes using PEDs is such a big deal a different perspective.

In 2010, I did a series of pieces for the Times on the challenges faced by women whose prime years as child bearers coincide with their prime years as athletes. I did a piece on the golfer Cristie Kerr, who was considering surrogacy; on the tennis player Gigi Hernandez and the golfer Jane Geddes, who adopted two children after Gigi battled infertility; on the driver Sarah Fisher, who retired from racing so she could try to start a family, on Taj McWilliams-Franklin, a WNBA player then with the (New York) Liberty who experienced motherhood right out of high school, scuttling her college plans, and then again after she was established as a professional.

Also in 2010, I wrote a profile of the swimmer Amanda Beard in which she talked for the first time about her struggles with drug abuse, bulimia and cutting. The story led to her writing her autobiography for Simon and Schuster.

In 2008, I wrote a really fun profile of Kurt Warner and I included 8 Family Rules for being a Warner. It also was developed into a book, which Kurt and (his wife) Brenda did with the help of a ghost writer.

In 2012, I wrote an essay for the New York Times sports section about how I became a sports journalist and told the story of interviewing Mike Bruner when I was a youngster, and how impactful it was when he credited the interview with his making the Olympic team. That story really resonated with readers and colleagues alike, I think because it’s such a pay-it-forward type of story, a really feel-good tale for these tough times in journalism.

During your times covering the NHL, was Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux the more magnetic superstar in your view?

Definitely Wayne, because even though he is a shy man, when he had the puck on his stick your eye was inexorably drawn to him.

Follow Karen Crouse on Twittter: @bykaren

Here’s a link to her New York Times archive: http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/c/karen_crouse/index.html


Lenzie Jackson idolized Jerry Rice

This feature story on former ASU and NFL player Lenzie Jakcson appeared in The Stanford Daily on Oct. 16, 1997

Bay Area native hopes to put on a show
Jackson comes home to lead ASU against No. 25 Cardinal

By Ed Odeven
Special to The Stanford Daily

Superstar Jerry Rice was a hero for thousands of youngsters growing up in the Bay Area. Lenzie Jackson was one of those kids.

But the 6-foot, 186-pound wide receiver did not begin to emulate Rice until many years later. Instead, the native of Milpitas, Calif., idolized another All-Pro who starred at his customary position.

“I really looked up to Jerry Rice,” said the Arizona State junior. “He went through all those games without any injuries and he caught almost anything they threw to him.

“I was a big fan of Eric Dickerson. That was my idol when I was smaller… Walter Payton. Tony Dorsett and guys like that.”

Jackson played tailback until he was a junior at Milpitas High School. Then he became a wide receiver. It was a smooth transition.

“It didn’t take me long to get used to that conversion,” Jackson said.

As a senior he was selected the Most Valuable Receiver in the Santa Clara Valley-DeAnza Super League after catching 29 passes for 484 yards and seven touchdowns.

And it didn’t take long for Jackson to make an impact as a Sun Devil. As a freshman in 1995, he played in 10 games and had six receptions for 37 yards. Last season as a sophomore, he made 36 catches for 505 yards and three touchdowns and shined in Arizona State’s 19-0 upset of then-No. 1 Nebraska (eight catches for 105 yards).

Sun Devils’ offensive coordinator Dan Cozzetto is more than pleased with the production of Jackson, who has become the No. 1 target of redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Kealy.

“He’s been everything we thought he would be when we recruited him,” Cozzetto said. “He’s come along at the pace we thought he would. He performed well as a sophomore and we look for great things out of him as the years come. “I think he’s the best receiver in the Pac-10. We just need to get the ball to him more. He has all the characteristics of a great wide receiver. He does everything. He’s very coachable. He runs great routes, and (has) tremendous speed. We just need to make him our big play guy.”

Cozzetto is not the only one complimenting Jackson.

“We all know that Lenzie’s probably one of the toughest guys on the team,” fellow wideout Ricky Boyer said. “He’ll go across the middle and take a hit to make sure he’ll catch the ball.”

Additionally, in football circles across the country, Jackson has been mentioned as an up-and-coming star Several magazines have listed him as one the top 20 receivers in the country. Lindy’s Pac-10 Football Annual named Jackson the 13th-best receiver in the country.

Said Jackson: “I think I do rank among the best receivers out there. I do believe that.”

However, believing he’s good isn’t what motivates Jackson.

Returning to Pasadena is what inspires the easy-going fellow.

“It’s something that’s in the back of my mind,” he said. “But I really can t dwell on that too long because it’s a whole new season. It’s a good feeling so 1 want to get back there. That kind of pushes me getting the job done.”

Boyer pushes Jackson to play harder, and vice versa. The two receivers met as freshmen and have been good friends ever since.

“When I moved into the dorms, Lenzie was the first person I met,” Boyer said. “Lenzie and I have gotten to know each other real well… We talk a lot about our different routes and our different breaks and everything.

“Every time I go to practice I just like to watch him run his routes If I’d something wrong, I just go to the sideline and ask, ‘What did I do wrong? What can I do to get it better?’ Or he’ll come and ask me, ‘How did that look?’ ”

Despite having what many experts call the best receiving corps in the Pacific-10 Conference, the Sun Devil receivers haven’t had a breakthrough game yet. There’s an explanation for that, according to Jackson.

“I think more than anything penalties have been hurting us, because that hurts the play calling because it limits us to what we can do,” Jackson said.

Jackson admits that he’s anxious to show what he can do against Stanford on Saturday.

“I think the receiver has to have the mentality that ball is mine no matter where it is. I proved that I can go across the middle, that I can take a hit and come down with the ball. It takes a lot of guts to do that, so I’ve taken pride in it.”

What will make Jackson proud this week is hooking up with Kealy all afternoon in Stanford Stadium. “We need to get it to him on some bigger plays,” Kealy said. “He’s a big-play receiver.”

If things go as planned, Jackson won’t be just idolizing Jerry Rice — he’ll be imitating him in the NFL someday.

Ed Odeven is an assistant sports editor at the ASU State Press.

You’ve got to start somewhere

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 18, 2015) — NFL Films founder Ed Sabol’s recent death at age 98 triggered many memories for those who crossed paths with him over the years.

Sports columnist Dave Wiggins, who grew up near Philadelphia and became a high school football coach in the area, remembered Sabol’s work before NFL Films became an institution and a driving force of the NFL’s popularity from coast to coast.

“Believe it or not, before he got into NFL Films, Sabol used to work developing game films for Philly area high school football coaches,” Wiggins, who pens the Man About Sports column for The Japan Times, wrote in an email. “My first year as a head coach, I used to drop films off at his house to be developed and then pick them up later. After that, he moved on to the big time.”

Wiggins described his interactions with Sabol as “really pretty much all business.”

“He was a friend of my principal, who suggested I use him (our booster club provided the funds),” Wiggins recalled.

“I would just knock on the door of his big house out on the Main Line (ritzy area of Philly suburbs) and give him the films to develop and then come back later and pick them up.

“We’d just exchange pleasantries and he would ask if we won or not.

“I think it’s when he was just building up his business after he got out of the selling of coats because it wasn’t as much fun as film work – which he had dabbled in as a young adult onward. He began by filming his family, I believe.”

Recommended reading: http://thestacks.deadspin.com/idol-makers-how-steve-and-ed-sabol-turned-nfl-films-in-1685482922

“Call his yacht phone”

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Feb. 18, 2015) — Some phone calls stick with you years later, providing amusement or smiles when you think about them unexpectedly. The same can be said for certain phone messages.

While working as the assistant sports editor for Arizona State’s State Press in the September 1997, I was planning a big feature on former Sun Devils football great Danny White. The university was planning to retire the quarterback’s No. 11 jersey that month during a ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium.

So the plan was to interview several people about White’s college and pro career, including those associated with the Dallas Cowboys, his NFL team, for the article. Former teammates were reached by phone and they dished out interesting insights.

A planned interview with longtime Cowboys president and GM Tex Schramm took some time to set up. But persistence paid off.

One day while I was away from the sports desk for a few hours — at class or lunch, I think — Schramm’s secretary returned one of my phone calls, one of my requests for an interview. The proof was on my desk.

A hand-written note from one of the student media staffer’s relayed the secretary’s message: Schramm is away from his office for a few days, fishing in the Florida Keys. But that’s OK.

“Just go ahead and call his yacht phone,” the note said.

And so I did. And, as the note informed me, Schramm was out at sea and would be available to talk. The fishing would wait…

It was a quality 10- or 15-minute interview that touched upon various aspects of White’s personality as a football player, team leader and other general views Tex had about White’s coaching career in the years that followed.

There’s no need to overanalyze

By Ed Odeven

After he won the 3-Point Contest, I read sharpshooter Stephen Curry’s interview comments posted online from the NBA’s All-Star Weekend in New York on Saturday.

His detailed response underscores his understanding of what works for him.

Curry was asked if he used statistics or analytics to improve his shooting.

“Not really,” he answered.

“Most of it is kind of‑‑ I look at shooting charts to know where my hot and cold spots are, but mostly it’s kind of just watching film and having a feel for the game. That’s kind of how I learned the game and what I’m comfortable with.

“I know the analytics there’s a lot of good things that go with it. But for me I don’t want to cloud my head as a player with too many stats and ideas and information that may slow me down on the court. It’s more just about having a feel for what I need to get better at. I know in the games if I’m going to my right‑‑ if I’m shooting terribly over the course of a season, there’s usually a reason for it and I have to work on it.

“So it’s kind of how I approach it. And it works for me. ”

Curry knows the game isn’t played on paper, reminding the press that execution on the court comes from practice, from repetition and from experience. He’s improved his shooting form … year after year after year by, well, shooting the basketball.

And that’s not a novel concept.

Establishing the Iraqi Softball League

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Aug. 1, 2003

Flagstaff soldiers play ball in Iraq

By Ed Odeven

Baseball may be America’s pastime. But for a group of Flagstaff soldiers deployed in Iraq, playing softball is a way to pass time while feeling connected to their hometown.

Arizona Army National Guard soldiers from the 220th Transportation Co., including Staff Sgt. Armando Gonzalez, Spc. Lorenzo Apodaca, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Casados and Staff Sgt. Rudy Almendarez, play in the Iraqi Softball League, which was formed in May by the Flagstaff residents.

The first game was held May 3 between Team Arizona and Puerto Rico. The Arizonans were victorious, 15-5. The league features six teams: two Arizona teams from the 220th Co. and national guard squads from Puerto Rico, Alabama, Nebraska and Kentucky. According to Gonzalez, who sent a letter to the Daily Sun sports department from the City of Ur, Tallil Airbase in Iraq, the Republic of Korea also planned to field a team.

So, you’re probably wondering how did this league get established?

“It started one afternoon in late April when a solider from the 220th Transportation Co. from Flagstaff went to the 456 Quartermaster Company from Puerto Rico to pick up supplies,” Gonzalez wrote. “While there he noticed that there was some softball equipment lying around. He asked the Puerto Rican solider if they play softball and the Puerto Rican responded: ‘Do you know anybody who thinks that they could play? Let us know.’

“At that point, it was on.”

After all, playing softball is in their blood. It’s what these guys do every year. Or as Gonzalez wrote, “For soldiers like SSG Gonzalez, SSG Almendarez and SFC Casados, it would have been the first season (in the Flagstaff Parks and Rec Softball League) they would have missed in 20 years.”

Here’s where a little ingenuity paid off.

After finding an empty field near their company quarters, Casados, who works for the city of Flagstaff Engineering Department, made contact with the 92nd Engineers Battalion. That battalion cleared the field under the watchful eye of Casados. Almendarez, a city of Flagstaff Environmental Services Department employee, Gonzalez went to an old Iraqi junkyard to locate items to clear and get the ballfield ready.

What followed was a task that required much caution.

“When constructing the field a lot of care had to be taken because it was previously a site that had been bombed by the U.S. bombers,” Gonzalez wrote. “Nearby there was a bunker that had been hit by a Bunker bust bomb. Luckily, there was no ordinance found on the field.

“They then filled sandbags to use for bases. Within days they had a field constructed. After the field was completed, it was named Iraqi One Ballpark.”

Casados is a well-known name in the Flagstaff Softball A-League. His father Danny Casados coaches an American Legion softball team. His brother Joe Casados plays on an American Legion squad.

“Being able to play ball has made time away from home faster,” Daniel Casados said in the letter. “It’s been great to play with friends that I have played with and against.”

Almendarez, meanwhile, regretted that he didn’t bring his glove, bat and other equipment overseas.

“I should have known that going anywhere with Daniel and Armando, that we were going to find a softball game,” Almendarez said. “I just didn’t think that being deployed in Iraq that we would have found a team to play.”

Gonzalez, an Arizona Department of Corrections parole officer who plans to devote more time to his grandchildren after returning to Flagstaff, said the 220th Co. delivers supplies throughout Southern Iraq for 6 1/2 days each week.

Thus, the soldiers truly treasure their leisure time.

“For one-half day a week, all the players make an attempt to make it back to the base camp so they could participate in the softball game,” Gonzalez wrote. “I would rather be playing in the city league where it’s cooler; here sometimes it gets to (be) 120 degrees. But we have to make do with what we got.”

“It is fun to see a country start American football”

This feature story appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 31, 2005.

NAU’s international outreach

By Ed Odeven

Before the widespread use of radios and automobiles, televisions and airplanes, Americans watched and played football on grassy fields in small towns and large cities.

Overseas, the sport took longer to gain a respectable following.

But Larry Kentera has seen firsthand how football has grown in Europe. He coached German club teams during the 1993-95 seasons. He worked for an Italian club in ’97.

“American football in Europe is big, in Germany, in Spain, in Sweden,” Kentera, Northern Arizona’s head coach from 1985-89, said in a phone interview. “I’m talking about the people playing it. I’m talking about how the people are interested in it.”

This is especially evident in Germany, he said, noting that four of NFL Europe’s six teams are based there.

Though football is now well-established in Germany, it is still in its infancy in other countries, including Serbia and Montenegro.

Kentera left Phoenix Monday for a trip to the Eastern European nation, where he’ll accompany ex-Arizona State football assistant Gene Felker to teach the game to high school and college-age students. Both are volunteer coaches.

ACDI/VOCA, a private, non-profit organization which works to promote broad-based economic growth and the development of civil society in emerging democracies and developing countries, is paying the coaches’ expenses and sponsoring the trip.

Starting today through June 19, Kentera and Felker will visit several cities, including the capital Belgrade, for a series of practices, clinics and meetings.

“The biggest part of our trip there is going to teach them fundamentals,” Kentera said, “and then more technical parts of the game, like different techniques for offensive linemen, linebackers and running backs.”

In Serbia, the ex-Yugoslav republic that now forms a confederation with Montenegro, American football is just beginning. The Serbian American Football Federation, a five-team league comprised of the Wild Boars, Belgrade, Legionaries, Panthers and Steeds, completed its first official season in 2004.

“It is fun to see a country start American football,” Kentera said. “It’s going to be interesting.”

And Kentera, who is of Serbian descent, is eager to lend a helping hand.

“These people want to get a program started. They want to know more about American football,” said the 80-year-old who grew up in Globe and later worked for 13 years as the Sun Devils defensive coordinator under legendary coach Frank Kush.

“We are going to help them on some techniques and schemes, offensively and defensively.”

NAU is also playing a role in this trip. The university has donated approximately 500 pairs of athletic shoes — some shoes that remain in their original boxes, many of which date back to 1981 — and an assortment of used shoulder pads, practice shirts and pants to ACDI/VOCA.

Equipment is scarce overseas, Kentera said.

NAU’s equipment, meanwhile, has been collecting dust in the Skydome for years, according to Lumberjacks equipment manager George Fox.

So why couldn’t the school divvy it up among local schools? NCAA rules prohibit university athletic departments from giving equipment to high schools because it’s considered illegal recruiting.

That said, this isn’t the first time NAU planned to donate the equipment. Fox, a retired Air Force major, wanted to send a shipment of athletic shoes to Iraq.

“I’d see some TV clips of young kids playing soccer there and they are barefoot,” Fox said. “And that’s when I got the idea, ‘Hey, maybe we can … send them over there.’

“We had worked it out last year (that) we were going to try to send it to Iraq because there was a program going on that FedEx would ship them free. But that program shut down in a hurry before we could get it together.”

Fast forward to 2005. Recently, Kentera called NAU athletics director Jim Fallis to inform him of his summer trip. Then Fallis called Fox to ask him, ‘Hey, is there anything we can do to help these guys out?'” Fox recalled.

So the equipment was rounded up at the Skydome and put on wood pallets. Swift Trucking Company made the recent pickup. The supplies were taken to New York, where other equipment had been stored before it was sent overseas.

“It’s an opportunity to do something good, so we were glad to be a part of it,” Fox said.

Said Kentera: “NAU was very nice to provide assistance. We appreciate the equipment to help this program out.”

Kentera, who was 26-29 during his tenure with the Lumberjacks, is semi-retired and lives in the Valley.

He runs 2 miles or plays golf every day. He’s also a consultant to a sports agent, offering evaluations of potential clients.

When you speak to him, his love of football and NAU is evident immediately.

“I tell you what,” he said, “some of my greatest memories are being at NAU. We just loved it up there, the wife and I.”

“Just the other day, a group of our players when I was up there called me and said we’ve got to get together.”

A group of ex-Jacks visits with Kentera three to four times a year.

But before he returns home, Kentera has plenty of fun activities planned. He’ll visit some of his former German players in Kiel, Germany, a coastal town on the Baltic Sea. He’ll hang out with cousins in Budva, a Montenegran city on the Adriatic Sea.

“When I’m there, I might as well enjoy myself,” he said with a good-natured chuckle, revealing he won’t be back in Arizona until July 6.

All in all, Kentera sees nothing but good things coming from the grassroots development of football in Serbia.

“(Through sports), people get together and congregate and express their ideas and express their culture, express their personal life,” he said. “You get a lot from being in sports, playing against each other, with each other.

“I think that’s a good thing about sports.”

Even far away from home.