Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Guest TigerBlog - Tad La Fountain ’72 Has The Floor

TigerBlog has a standing offer to pretty much anyone who would like to have his or her say in this space. Very few ever take him up on this offer, of course.

Jim Barlow, the men's soccer coach, has done it more than anyone else. 

Tad La Fountain of the Class of 1972 does so again today, for the second time. His unsolicited piece came at a very good time, as TigerBlog was headed back from the NCAA lacrosse championships in Massachusetts and would have faced a long night of writing were it not for La Fountain.

Also, what he has to say is both extraordinarily well-written and extraordinarily poignant. 

TB will be back tomorrow with his NCAA thoughts. For today, the floor belongs to Tad. 

And, if you want, it can be yours at some point as well.

In “The Heart of Humanities: Reading, Writing, Teaching,” Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia bemoans that there are too many books to read – and too many new ones to allow the old ones their due. 

Consequently, some valuable and previously beloved works slip slowly and inexorably from view, destined to become part of a sedimentary accumulation which one supposes could become of value to a future cultural paleontologist.

While this trend may provide unceasing fodder for academia, the realm of athletics has its own parallel dynamic. Bodies of work – or spectacular one-offs (think Al Weis, or Mario Manningham) – will inevitably lose their relative significance. Thus the crying need for barroom stools, so that oft-inebriated oldsters can wax poetic about Titans-gone-by (those viewed as gods, not just the erstwhile New York entry in the American Football League, although one supposes…) and engage in hypothetical match-ups that will defy resolution despite raised voices and robust posturing.

Even hallowed Ivy halls aren’t immune to this sort of thing. Buzzer-beater in New Haven to defeat the Cantabs? Impressive. As good as UNC cheerleaders reduced to tears watching one of Dean’s best teams – with three future NBA stars – get creamed in Jadwin? 

Maybe, maybe not. 

Kaz ’52 making mincemeat of Cornell was special, but Bjorklund ’72 running roughshod over an undefeated Dartmouth squad was extraordinary and Elias ’94 was absolutely electric every time he touched the ball; who’s on your fantasy team (and there are a dozen other players you might mention). 

Other than Bradley ’65 and Johnson ’17 (who share the distinction of returning to campus for their senior years weighted down by precious metal), even the best of the best appears to be ‘eclipse-able.’
But what about others whose best may have been even better? 

Think Atkinson ’03, Rasheed ‘13 or DiBilio ’15 whose gaudy career totals were dinged or foreshortened by illness or injury.  “What if” might be the cruelest two-word phrase in the athletic lexicon.

No matter how successful a career, it’s well understood that an athlete dies twice – the end of the athletic career serving as something of a dress rehearsal for the real deal. But the true saving grace of Ivy athletics in general - and Tiger athletics in particular - is that forget the endings: the extraordinarily successful athletic career often ends up being the dress rehearsal for the extraordinarily successful life.

Finney ’51 named All-America in two sports pales in comparison to his accomplishment as educator.  Tortolani ’92 serving as captain of an NCAA-championship lax squad isn’t nearly as impressive as his stance on taking responsibility for things not going according to expectations in delicate spinal surgery. The back of every issue of PAW is likely to have a memorial about Tiger/s who truly received an Education Through Athletics and used it to Achieve/Serve/Lead, and that trend only seems to have accelerated over the past couple of decades.

There are those, however, who don’t get the chance to show their mettle over a normal lifespan.  When I moved to Princeton in the summer of 1989 to start Life 2.0, it was to a small rental house on Murray Street behind the E-Quad. From there, it became a simple matter to quaff from the ale yard (figuratively speaking) that is Princeton Athletics – Jadwin, Palmer Stadium, Dillion all just a few minutes away by shanks’ mare. For the next four years, I was treated to an array of impressive performances.

It wasn’t long before I became a fan of Glenn Nelson’s coaching of tall young people throwing their arms akimbo trying to either jump really high or dive really low. This was well before Tom Hanks became BFF with Wilson, but I could certainly understand the allure.

Many of these volleyball players were from California. Maybe that’s why they were such a tight, close-knit group - but I’d like to think it went way beyond mere geographical happenstance. 

One evening in Dillon, one of the players’ father showed up; apparently, he had had business in New York and came down to see his son.  He was greeted as though he was every player’s dad, and there was just no denying how much of a family this squad was.

Just weeks later, in May of 1992, that player – multiple-year All-Ivy and AFROTC cadet Morgan McKinzie ’93 took his classmate Michelle Goudie (president of the Tigerlilies) for an evening plane ride out of Princeton Airport to view the night lights of Manhattan. Going around after a failed landing attempt, the plane struck a tree, and both died. “Tragic” is a word that gets bandied about all too easily, but in this case, it probably doesn’t even begin to be sufficient.

The Class of 1993 graduated a year later and headed off without these two. That July, their classmate Second Lieutenant Lisa Bryant was murdered in her barracks at Fort Bragg. Captain of the cheerleaders, Lisa Bryant had an incandescent smile that occasionally made the lights in Jadwin seem superfluous. The notion of that luminescence being snuffed out was and is barely comprehensible.

So this year the Class of 1993 returns for its 25th. We can safely assume that many of these suddenly middle-aged Princetonians have already compiled impressive careers, have sired remarkable offspring and have contributed mightily to their communities. 

I intend to make the trek, even though it’s a bit farther from Southside Virginia than it was from Murray Street. When the Class of ’93 goes by, there’s every likelihood that my reaction will mirror the feeling watching the Class of ’44 a few years ago when they carried pictures of every classmate lost in WWII. It will be the feeling of grief that not every Princeton student being stuffed with potential energy to go out and change the world will get the opportunity.

Thank God that so many of those who do make the most of it. Locomotives to all…including those no longer with us. 

And let’s not overlook that the manager of this year’s Men’s Varsity Volleyball team was a young lady from Charlotte, North Carolina – Morgan McKinzie ’21. 

“Another throng shall breathe our song…” indeed.

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