LA Live, the entertainment plaza in the revitalized downtown Los Angeles district adjacent to the Staples Center was abuzz with the finest in field, court, rink, track and pool. It was the 19th Annual ESPY awards and I was on the red carpet taking it all in.
I went with one goal set to accomplish -– I wanted an authentic Adrian Peterson handshake. (They are legendary.) I have been taking Vitamin D supplements and working the stress ball twice daily in preparation for such an occasion.
But with my sights set rather low, it should come as no surprise that I got much more than I bargained for. It became clear after only a few minutes that these were no ordinary athletes parading the carpet that evening, but truly inspirational creatures.
Sure, it begins simply enough as Cleveland Browns tight end Ben Watson makes his way over wearing what looks to be a miniature model of a city built entirely out of jewels on his finger.
"I got this a couple of years ago," he says mysteriously, until I explain that I grew up five miles from Foxboro Stadium. The former Patriot opens up, "Oh, so you know the whole thing?" he says referring to a little Super Bowl championship the team won during his rookie season.
Yeah, I think it got mentioned in the papers.
The University of Georgia product loves Cleveland and wants his next ring to have a picture of a Browns helmet on it. "Cleveland deserves that," he says. "It's been too long."
A big Ben Watson fan since he was drafted, I warn him not to go to Miami, and he laughs, "Don't take my talents to Miami? No, I won't."
Speaking of Miami, Coach Jeff Fisher stops by looking like he's just come from the beach, wearing a short-sleeve button down shirt reminiscent of Tommy Bahama, and sunglasses. Is it because this is Hollywood?
"No, I'm just enjoying the opportunity. I got invited here with the Wounded Warrior Project. Six weeks ago, we climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro [with former NFL players Tedy Bruschi and Chad Lewis], and ESPN asked everyone who climbed to join, so it's my first time here tonight."
The Wounded Warrior Project is designed to help reintegrate service men and women from all of our armed forces back into society after they’ve been injured, or back into the armed forces to continue to serve.
And that's what they did to raise awareness? They could've just had a bake sale. I would've loved to have "Bruschi's Brownies." Didn't someone tell them that "Kilimanjaro" is a Swahili word meaning, "huge honkin' hill!"
"We certainly got an inspiring group of people and they were just so motivated. It was a great experience. We were all in it together. We were all players, no coaches."
And then the former coach rode off to his retirement (at least for now) allowing a fresh face to step in -– Trevor Bayne, the youngest winner of the Daytona 500, at aged 20.
"This is awesome, man!" he exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear. "It's my first red carpet experience, my first time at the ESPYs, so I'm honored to be here as a nominee."
Perhaps if it wasn't a red carpet, if it was asphalt, you'd be more at home."
"Oh, of course. You give me a steering wheel and some pavement and I'm good to go."
The phenom started driving at five years old with go-karts, graduated to stock cars at 15, and then made his first start with the Nationwide Series three years after that. Yet, he couldn't enjoy the champagne the winner of Daytona receives.
"I still have the bottles on my dresser with the cork still in them. Maybe next year, when I turn 21, I'll spray them in the yard or something."
Okay, so a Super Bowl champion, the youngest winner of the Daytona 500, and a climber of the highest mountain in Africa. Where could we go from here? A public relations rep comes up to me and asks, "Would you like to talk to this year's recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, Dewey Bozella?
Sure, what's he done?
From 1977 to 2009, Dewey spent time in prison until his conviction got overturned when they found out he was innocent (which they might have come upon quicker if they just asked him). And here he walks over, smiling.
Dewey, you look like you have a new lease on life.
"Oh, absolutely. I can start all over again and I honestly want to thank ESPN for giving me this award." (He received a standing ovation from the audience during the telecast.)
From here, the parade of inspirational figures gains momentum, like a boulder rolling downhill, or a wheelchair racer down the track, as is the case with Paralympian Tatyana McFadden, a nominee for Best Female Athlete with a Disability.
I see her, in the middle of the carpet, surrounded by family, yet looking around for the next place to go. She's stunning in her dress and her dimples jump off her cheeks even when she's not fully beaming. I wave her over and she effortlessly wheels over to me in what is essentially a 10m sprint.
Her mother hands me a trading card with Tatyana's picture on the front and accomplishments on the back: Six-time Paralympic champion, and an eight-time world champion, and a world record holder to boot.
Her story is truly amazing as she was born with spina bifida, yet has turned this disability into a strength. Some people are chained to their desks all day and she's in a wheelchair, yet remains freer than they'll ever be. I'm confused. I begin to realize it's only a disability if you look at it as such.
She's smiling in most of the pictures you'll see of her (non-action shots) and she's smiling now. "It's very good to be an optimist and look at things in a different, positive way. It brings you more success."
Along with being an athlete, she's a pioneer. Her lawsuit paved the way for passage of the Fitness and Athletics Equity for Students with Disabilities Act in Maryland, which has subsequently been adopted by eleven other states. Like the quote on her card says, "Sport is my passion; paving access for others is my purpose."
Another like individual is her USA teammate on the Paralympic team, Jerome Singleton, who walked up to me. I sense a scam here.
What's your disability?
"I've been an amputee my whole life. I lost my foot when I was a year and a half. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was a top prospect in football." Now he's a track star.
And he's a dual degree major at Morehouse College (mathematics and applied physics), finishing his studies at the University of Michigan (adding an industrial engineering major into the mix, just for kicks).
So it's easy to see him as a fully able-bodied individual. Many people with two feet just use them to stick in their mouths. They stub their toes and they're miserable and here Jerome stands, smiling. He has the proper perspective.
You don't see it as a disability. It's natural for you.
"Yes, sir," he said as he smiled like life couldn't get any better. Ah, but it could. "My big goal right now is the London 2012 Paralympics. I'm racing against a double amputee –- South African Oscar Pistorius. He beat me in '08; I beat him in January in the World Championships so this will decide it.
Ah, the proverbial "prosthetic match," if you will.
Jerome is currently the fastest amputee in the world and as he says on the Team USA Paralympic Team site, "I am grateful that I have been blessed in other aspects of my life and hope through my actions I can inspire others to push themselves to greater heights."
I am left in awe, having been shown that if you focus on the "ability" in "disability," you'll achieve things others might think impossible.
I can't dwell on it though for here comes Adrian Peterson now! At long last, I will experience a seismic greeting from the Minnesota Vikings star running back. I rear back and thrust my hand forward for the full brunt of it.
When I come to after what I was told was only a few minutes, I get to ask him a few questions. (Seriously, he's like the henchman of a James Bond villain with that thing. "Mr. Bond ees snooping around ze compount. Vy don't ve send 'ze Claw' to go 'greet' our friend? Heh heh heh.") Somebody needs to nominate me for the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for going through with it. Or maybe there's an award for being a fool.
Adrian has several nicknames but he likes "AD" the best for the connotation of "all-day." And as I tell him about my favorite AD moment, the time he ran over Pittsburgh's William Gay, he remembers it immediately and smiles. "It's all part of the game."
As for his legacy and what he'll want to be known for, he says, "It's the great moments and I can sit back and reflect on them when I retire."
And that's when the screams start. I'm normally used to it as I can't go anywhere without a throng of adoring fans, but this is different – it's not a figment of my imagination; it's real ... and really annoying.
Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones comes over, dressed to the nines with a designer bow-tie and probably the most celebrated hair do of the night. Or at least, I thought it was his mane fans clamored to see. Over the noise, he shouts, "There's too much Bieber Fever!" then says with just a hint of sarcasm, "I am definitely a Bieber fan. I inspire to be Bieber ... Dhani fever!"
There's something to that, for Dhani isn't your run-of-the-mill, perfectly-quaffed NFL linebacker, but he's also an owner of the Bowtie Café in Cincinnati, a founding partner of VMG Creative, a star on the Travel Channel's show "Dhani Tackles the Globe," and a slew of other endeavors I would type out if I had regained any of the feeling in my hands from my AD experience.
"Bieber inspires people to sing, I want to inspire people to travel," Dhani continues. "I want people to travel, to see the world, because it's important to get out there. It's the best education you could ever have."
Follow him on Twitter @dhanijones and travel with him, though he wants to make it clear, "I'll help you find a ticket. I didn't say I was going to buy you a ticket."
The carpet is brimming with these unique, amazing individuals. It's easy not to care about missing the television and film stars that just breeze by without even a wave. Give me the athletes with the impressive accomplishments.
Like Jose Bautista. Two years ago, he was an unknown. "I was with the Pirates and was a little bit stagnant over there. I was traded to the Blue Jays and everything's been flourishing. I made some changes to my approach and to my swing. They gave me an opportunity to be confident and go out there every day, not worried about results."
Now, with his perseverance and belief in himself, his name is at the top of the list for home runs since 2010 began. Joey Bats, as he's known to friends and on Twitter @joeybats19 leaves with a moral, "It shows, with the right situation, with the right team, with the right guidance, people with talent can really develop."
Some others did not give their talents enough time to develop but rather pursued another avenue instead, with renewed passion. That characterizes actor Casey Bond who was with the San Francisco Giants organization making his way up to Triple A Fresno where he had one at-bat and then decided he wanted to give acting a shot.
As Fate would have it, he landed a role as a baseball player (submarine pitcher Chad Bradford, no less) in the upcoming Brad Pitt/Jonah Hill vehicle "Moneyball," based on Michael Lewis' best-selling book.
"I read it when I was in college," Casey explains. Plus, the evening allowed him to reunite with a lot of the players that he knew in the organization who have recently become World Series champions.
Looks like the scouting reports about him having a career in pictures may be right. Bonnie-Jill Laflin, the first and only female scout of the Los Angeles Lakers knows a thing or too about scouting. It may not be such a complex system used by baseball geeks, but she's good with the eye test.
As new Sacramento Kings guard Jimmer Fredette (pictured with his date) walks by, she comments, "He's the king of basketball." And sure enough, to go with his Naismith and Wooden Awards, he walked out of the Nokia Theatre with the Best Male College Athlete ESPY.
As if the number of engaging individuals wasn't enough already, a man who, having made a living of talking to legends, has now become, in my opinion, a legend himself –- Chris Berman -– strode by wearing a bright orange San Francisco Giants tie.
"Well, you're very kind. I don't know if that's true," he said regarding my legend comment. "I was lucky to be in a good place. I've had a good time. I'm still having as much fun as when I started."
One thing this man destined for the Mount Rushmore of ESPN can promise you: "If I don't have fun. I'm out. I'm done. I won't fool anyone."
Someday, he'll go ... all ... the ... way into retirement, but for now, he's gonna carry on as "da Schwam."
The screaming picks up again. We all turn to see a gaggle of teenaged girls exhibiting advanced symptoms of Bieber Fever, fandemonium gone wrong. A slight pounding behind my eyes seems to override the throbbing in my hand. They do know Justin's been inside the building for over a half-hour now, right? Why are they screaming? And why are they here at the ESPYs anyway? I imagine many of them don't know a basketball from an onion.
Over the vocal cries of lust comes Kirk Morrison which doesn't surprise me as the Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker is everywhere these days. He's hosting sports talk radio shows, he's doing some MMA training, he's acting in Funny or Die's hilarious short "Field of Dreams 2," ...
Football is going to get in the way of your life.
"Y'know, honestly, you're right. If I go back to work right now, I'll be done playing football. All my stuff has to stop."
At least, when the NFL does start, he'll be ahead of the game with his training.
"You're right. Training camp can't come fast enough. Though once it gets here, we're all going to dread it. Be careful what you wish for."
I wish those with Bieber fever are quarantined.
Finally, with no end in sight for the screaming, I had the chance to speak with one of my favorite people, and maybe the only Lakers fan I enjoy speaking to, actor/comedian Guy Torre. This time, we managed to put our differences aside as rival fans (I'm from Boston, after all) in order to come together and devise a solution for the NBA lockout.
"I'm used to players getting locked up, not locked out," says Guy, just getting warmed up. "It's kind of a switch. I'd rather take the locked up than the locked out because at least we still have a game. What if they decide to bring the players back, but maybe only the bench plays? Then you've got a bunch of white guys and the score will be like 20 to 30, final score."
Well, Brian Scalabrine's off to Europe. He understood he had to get out.
More screams interrupt us. "That's for me," Guy says.
What's going to get the players and owners negotiating in good faith to get the 2011-2012 season to start on time? We agree, for the sake of the league, "We gotta see the books. We need to see the books."
And with that, my evening was over as the live ceremony begins inside the theatre. It gives me a chance, as the paparazzi breaks down their equipment, to reflect on all the amazing people I had the privilege to meet.
If anything, their stories teach us that all what we consider to be disruptions, disabilities, or obstacles, such as the screams of a few thousand confused teenagers, are not even a blip on the screen compared to true problems like cancer that a portion of the tickets from the ESPYs went to fight through the "V Foundation," like being born without the use of your legs, like spending decades in jail based solely upon a mistake, like the bones in my hand that have been turned into a fine powder, or like a disagreement between two rival fans or owners and players. These can all be overcome. Even true adversity can be overcome with a positivity of spirit and a willingness of the mind.
And it was from that inspiration that I gained the strength to not swerve my car into the gaggle of Bieber fans going ten deep on a sidewalk facing the artist's entrance of the Nokia Theatre, a true accomplishment.