The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 1, 2004


On the road with John Kerry, the sportsman

Ed. note: Ed Swift lives on River Road. He is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated.

In the summer of 2000, more than two years before Senator John Kerry officially declared himself a candidate for the Democratic nomination, I learned he was planning to run in 2004 from, of all people, my caddy.

drawing by Phyllis Hughes
I was a guest at the Nantucket Golf Club, which has a membership of the rich and famous, and I'd asked my caddy, a tall (6'8") engaging fellow named Marvin Nicholson, if he'd done a loop for anyone interesting that summer. He allowed he'd caddied for a foursome that included Kerry and President Clinton. After the requisite questions about Clinton's traveling mulligans and the quality of his golf game, I asked what the outgoing President and the junior senator from Massachusetts had discussed. Nicholson, who'd once worked in a windsurfing shop in Cambridge and had become friendly with Senator Kerry after delivering him a pair of sailboards, said Kerry had been pumping the President for advice on the best way to position himself for a presidential run in 2004. Clinton apparently was pretty helpful. The whole thing struck me as strange: it sounded as if both Clinton and Kerry expected then Vice-President Al Gore to lose to George Bush in November. So the exchange stuck in my mind. Later I asked Nicholson what he'd be doing at the end of the season. He said he was moving to Washington, D.C. Senator Kerry had offered him an internship.

That memory came flooding back in early August when I ran into Nicholson again while accompanying the Kerry campaign's two-week, 21-state, 3,500-mile Believe in America tour. I was there to interview Kerry about sports. Nicholson was the tall guy in the Red Sox cap who seemed to be at the candidate's side night and day. My erstwhile caddy, I discovered, had become Kerry's personal aide, his "body man" in political parlance. "Chief of Stuff" is how Nicholson's business card read, and he was charged with everything from waking Kerry in the morning to making his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches to helping the candidate remember supporters' names. Nicholson, who's now 32, also hikes and snowboards with the 60-year-old Kerry during impromptu outings in the backcountry and plays catch with the candidate when he feels like tossing a baseball or football around. Sports, not politics, is the portal through which they've built a deep and abiding trust.

Face to face with the Senator

My own tenuous threads to the Democratic nominee were also sports-related. I had come face-to-face with the Senator three times before last week. Once was outside the FleetCenter, before the opening round of the Beanpot hockey tournament that involves four local college teams: Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern and Harvard. Kerry, who played varsity hockey at St. Paul's School in Concord, New Hampshire, and later freshman and JV hockey at Yale, is a big fan of college hockey, and calls the Beanpot "one of the best tournaments in sportsup and down, back and forth, all out. I try never to miss a Beanpot."

The other two times were on the ice. In the winter I play hockey on Sunday nights with a bunch of men who call themselves the Flying Squirrels. Most of us fly slowly and are well past our prime. Twice in the last few years, most recently in the winter of 2003, Kerry skated with us as a guest. He arrived without photographers or bodyguards, bringing a properly mature game and an appropriate aversion to backchecking. In the reserved manner of New Englanders, few of our players acknowledged him as anyone special. I never introduced myself. Like most of us over 50, he'd "lost his legs" but still had a few moves, and I recall that he scored a goal. What struck me most memorably was that the future presidential candidate played without a facemask. Most old warriors have donned cages on their helmets in recent years, protecting aging eyes and yellowing teeth from high-sticks and flying pucks. But I've resisted, and so, too, had the craggy-faced Kerry. I admired his stubborn traditionalism.

Finally, in July, shortly before the Democratic Convention, Kerry, an avid cyclist, had pedaled his custom-made $8,000 Serotta Ottrott bicycle on my street to say hello to author/historian Doris Kearns Goodwin in Concord. He was followed at a respectful distance by a pair of secret service agents, also on bicycle, whose laissez-faire attitude caused some consternation among the neighbors. One later told me that if she'd been of the mind and owned a gun, it would have been no problem to pop him.

Anyway, every time I'd ever crossed paths with the Senator, sports had been the catalyst. When I mentioned this to one of Kerry's aides, she suggested I bring along my hockey equipment in case they were able to arrange for some ice-time, since the candidate liked to play pick-up games on the campaign trail. So I did. I'd arranged to meet the press caravan in Taylor, Michigan, where Kerry was scheduled to play a softball game in Heritage Park, and toted my wooden Titan stick and hockey bag to the security checkpoint. It was about 93 degrees outside.

"Where do you think you're going with that?" the guard asked, eyeing my stick as if it were a pipe bomb. "This is a softball field."

"I'm travelling on the press bus for a few days," I said. "We might get ice in Milwaukee."

He was rummaging through my bag and discovered my freshly sharpened skates. "You can't take this stuff in here," he said, signalling for backup.

Eventually a member of Kerry's staff was permitted to store my hockey stuff in her locked car, though she was escorted there by an armed guard. I certainly now felt safer. The softball game, delayed an hour by the tardy arrival of the bus caravan, was played under the lights, and Kerry, who played lacrosse in school, not baseball, went two-for-two, scoring twice. Both hits were first-swing line drives. It was obvious that the Senator, as I'd heard, was a natural athlete. He ran the bases with intelligence and a natural grace, belying the nickname bequeathed on him at Yale: The Camel. Supposedly it was because of his loping, ungainly strides on the soccer field — his best school sport and the only one in which he lettered in collegebut I began to believe it was more because of his long face and Dromedarian eyes. For a 60-year-old man he still ran pretty fast.

Kerry, a legitimate jock

Presidents and presidential candidates love to trot out their sports credentials, no matter how modest, but Kerry is a legitimate jock. Master of the sports photo-op, he's been photographed in 2004 skiing, snowboarding, shooting, kiteboarding, windsurfing and cycling, in addition to playing softball and hockey. He plays golf and tennis and waterskis. He's also a devotee of endurance sports. In the late '70s he ran the Boston Marathon in just over 3 1/2 hours, and as recently as last August completed the 110-mile Pan-Massachusetts Challenge, a bike race for charity, in 6 1/2 hours, finishing 32nd out of 3,700 riders. In the fledgling field of endurance windsurfing, he's made the 40-mile crossing from Cape Cod to Nantucket four times since 1998, a trip that takes over six hours. His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, describes her husband on the campaign trail as "type-A when it comes to sports."

Every day of a presidential campaign is its own endurance test, a marathon of bus rides, rallies, speeches, briefings, interviews and sound bites punctuated by meals and snatches of sleep. It is hectic and exhausting. Unfortunately, nowhere in that mix during my two-and-a-half day stint with the Kerry tour was there time to organize a pickup hockey game, and the only time the candidate could spare me was a few minutes on the top deck of a high speed ferry that was shuttling his Believe in America tour across windy Lake Michigan. The 6'4" Kerry likes fresh air, and he was getting a faceful of it. Impressively, his thick shock of gray hair, which I've heard he combs with a metal-toothed brush, barely moved in the 20-knot breeze. Some sound bites from the interview:

On his hockey career: "I was a journeyman player, a good stickhandler who wasn't as fast as I needed to be. I was tall and rubbery and could sort of bounce with a check. I had more of a Jaromir Jagr-type move when I shot than a boomer slapshot. I just never was fast enough. Power skating came later, and I wish I'd had it. I love the game. I don't play because I'm good. I play because I like it."

On his worst moment in sports: "I had two worst moments. Lacrosse games my senior year at Yale. I'll never forget them. One was a loss against Cornell, and the other a loss against Brown. They cost us our NCAA bid. It was a bitter pill because we had a great, great team. [Yale was 11-2 in 1966.] We beat Army, Navy, William & Mary, Maryland, Hopkins, North Carolina. We just had those two bitter moments."

On the differences between snowboarding and skiing: "I'm really a skier. I learned to snowboard late in life. I love snowboarding because it's different, it's a variation. I like the learning curve and having to work at it. But at heart I still love skiing, so I do them both. I actually find that boarding improves my skiing. I feel looser and more agile when I ski afterwards, sort of liberated, because suddenly you have [use of] both feet."

On the Tour de France: "I follow it every year. I know Greg Lemond, and I'm a huge fan of Lance Armstrong. For him to win it six times is extraordinary, stunning, one of the great athletic accomplishments of all time. A lot of people don't understand that because they don't know biking. The strength and focus and sheer courage of going up those mountains at that pace, day after day, somehow finding the energy in your body, really is the greatest athletic feat."

On team sports: "I'm a huge advocate that sports are a great teaching tool for life. You learn everything: Respect for the folks who work for you and are part of the team. Discipline. How to focus. The notion that you play the way you practice, and you have to practice hard at things to do them well. Training and working an entire season teaches you a lot about the marathon of a Presidential campaign."

On Title IX: "It has hurt some sports like wrestling. I know that. We've got to fix it, and we can, but I want to do it in a way that doesn't lose what Title IX did. My daughter Vanessa benefitted from Title IX. She played lacrosse. I love the fact that sports have opened up to young women. On the other hand, I know there's been this strict application that has hurt some men's sports, and that was not the intention of the law. So where you have unintended consequences, you sit down reasonably and try to work them through. I'm confident we can do that. It's a question of interpretation and a little bit of funding."

On his favorite spectator sports: "I love sitting in Fenway Park on a warm summer day or evening, watching the game with a beer and a popcorn and a friend, or my wife, just sitting there talking and listening to the sounds of the game. I'm also a soccer fan. I love to watch a great World Cup game, where the fans are really into it and the game's going on nonstop. Fabulous. And I like watching rugby on TV. I never played it, but I like watching it. I watch football games a lot, where I veg out on the weekend and follow the Patriots. They're unbelievable. Belichick is such a good coach. They're getting Ty Law back again this year, and they've added that running back from Cincinnati, Corey Dillon. They'll be good again this year."

On the Nomar trade: "I'm trying to figure it out, to be honest with you. Obviously I'll miss Nomar on the Red Sox. I know him. I like him. On the other hand, I know relationships are tricky and there's been some tensions since they tried to trade him last winter. I think the defense we got out of it will help Derek Lowe's pitching style. It will help the team in that sense. But I'm not sure. I mean, we've lost a little offense for some defense."

On the style of play in the NHL: "I appreciate a certain amount of hitting and checking, but the beauty of the game is when they stop the clutching and holding and let a hockey game break out. I like to see great stickhandling and passes, wonderful skating, not when somebody's hooking someone along the boards."

On the possibility of a lockout: "As a hockey fan, it would be devastating if the season were to be cancelled. Hopefully hockey will take a lesson from baseball. It took years for baseball to recover after the World Series was cancelled in 1994. For the love of the game I hope the players and owners can get together to work this out."

On steroids: "I don't think performance-enhancing drugs have a place in sports. I believe in competition with the basic gifts God gave you. Steroids and other artificial enhancements detract from the ethic and quality of athletics. We have to get drugs out of sports. I think it's important that sports regulate themselves, but government can play a role in setting a standard, and can use the bully pulpit to move it in the right direction."

On his affinity for trying new sports: "What can I say, I do things that are fun. People say: "He's out there trying to prove this or that." No. I do things because they're fun. If they're not fun, I don't do them. And if I don't think they'll be fun, I don't try them."

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito