Best part of this job? I’m asked that often. It’s an easy answer: the people I meet. Covering a few dozen sports over the years it is quite the eclectic array. Some are incredibly famous; some are stars limited to their own orbit, nonetheless heroes in their world; a few are simply out there in some other galaxy.
Most of the people I crossed paths with are in professional settings, at best they might recognize me as the guy with a microphone when we meet again; others are on a first name basis and a few have become real friends.
The past few days as if a roaring confluence brought four personalities that I know into a stream of consciousness with milestones, conjuring up memories of crossing paths from the gridiron to the cage to the hardwood.
PEYTON MANNING: A career with few peers came to an end, 18 years, a record 5 MVP awards and 2 Super Bowl rings. But you know that. I remember the first time interviewing him when he was an All American quarterback at Tennessee. The humbleness hadn’t changed when we met again for another interview after an Indianapolis Colts game. It was at the Kentucky Derby though that was the most special for me. NBC had sent me to the third floor area where dignitaries hang out to do interviews, just months after his first Super Bowl title.
I reintroduced myself and Peyton, being the class act pretended to remember. After that though I asked about his older brother Cooper. I had never met him in person, but had written an article on him via a phone conversation. Cooper, a successful New Orleans businessman, had ventured into horse racing ownership. Peyton told me Cooper was around somewhere in the 150,000-plus crowd and he would try to bring him by.
The interview ends, I’m waiting to do another one in thirty minutes and hanging outside on the patio overlooking the Churchill Downs winners circle. A few minutes passed, I felt a tap on the shoulder turning to find Peyton with Cooper. We were officially introduced. He was proud of his big brother’s accomplishments, had read the story and wanted us to know each other.
Of all the passes and victories that is what I remember most about Peyton, the graciousness and consideration. All the fame, money never got in the way of being genuine.
MIESHA TATE: The lady known as “Cupcake” iced her place in UFC annals with a rear naked choke submission of Holly Holm taking the bantamweight belt. But you know that. The first time I met Miesha was in the early days of Inside MMA. She was a guest, still early in her career as a fighter. She was engaging and interested in how the show was going, how the sport as a whole was going. This was still in the formative stages of Strikeforce holding a tournament to decide its champion, the biggest organization recognizing female fighters.
We shared a cab from the studio to LAX airport. Miesha was going back to Washington state at that time. She was typing on her iPhone while talking about how she had wrestled on the boys team in high school because that was the only available avenue. She also told me about social media marketing and how she was using it to bring attention not only to herself but women in MMA, that tweeting was the new and best way to go about this, showing me a post about being on the show. When we said goodbye at the airport, Miesha reminded me to get involved with tweeting and flashed that captivating smile.
Miesha was on the cusp then of taking off as one of the faces of the sport. She has come back several times to Inside MMA and even been a guest host.
As I watched her use some basic boxing skills, footwork and angles, to set up her ground game against Holm, I remembered that cab ride and the way she was always thinking ahead as she worked that iPhone. Always thinking ahead.
NATE DIAZ: Stepping in fearlessly and defeating the hottest fighter on the planet Conor McGregor. But you know that. I first met Nate at one of the early shows HDNet (as it was at the time) was doing. Brother Nick was with him. They were and remain two of the most enigmatic people I’ve ever met. And I like them both. In between an incessant amount of F bombs were pearls of wisdom about conditioning, diet and the importance of teammates in training. Instantly I knew the brothers Diaz were as independent as you’ll find, they follow rules yet have their own when it comes to how they deal with you.
With all the homogenized fighters I’ve met–“this will be a tough fight,” “you have to respect this guy,” babble, babble—you can count on Nate (and Nick) to never stay inside the lines. Whether it’s intentional or not is still to be determined no matter how many times I have heard them, but it can be effective on an opponent’s psyche. That and talent. Both of which were on display last Saturday in Las Vegas.
Whether he did get a bit in McGregor’s head only the tough Irishman knows, what he did on the ground was obvious. That is the puzzle of Nate, one that is always fun to watch the pieces being put together. After all these years I don’t know what is next but it is never a dull moment.
TUBBY SMITH: The Texas Tech Red Raiders have had a remarkable turnaround season on their way to the NCAA Tournament. Their coach Orlando “Tubby” Smith has been named National Coach of The Year by The Sporting News. But you know that. I covered the future Hall of Fame coach in his first year at Kentucky when he led the Wildcats to the 1998 NCAA Championship with a team appropriately nicknamed the “Comeback Cats.” Tubby had taken over for the popular Rick Pitino who had departed for the Boston Celtics. He was left with some key role players from a team that had reached the title game the season before, but it wasn’t a team with real stars.
In mid-February that season UK began to come together as well as any team I’ve seen. Little things adding up to a cohesive unit culminating with Tubby’s Cats rallying from 17 down to Duke in the regional finals to advance to the Final Four. He did it without panicking, without using a time out. He could see his team was regrouping and the Blue Devils were rattled, so he simply did an amazing coaching job by not over coaching. UK had gotten back in it by muscling back against the physical Blue Devils. I’ll never forget Jamal Magloire standing over a knockdown Duke player. Another UK player approached Tubby and said “Coach, Jamal is getting rough.” as he shrugged. Tubby said, “Get back and play.”
He was a cool as a cucumber off the court and laser focused on it and never more personified than at that time. It was time to fight back and he made sure his team didn’t yield an inch.
I saw Tubby late last summer. It was in an unexpected place, a hotel lobby in Montreal. I had called a boxing match there and was returning and he and his team were arriving. His son Saul, an assistant, and Vince Taylor, another assistant, and both friends were with him. They were going to play a week of exhibition games against Canadian teams. He told me he thought this would be a good team but acknowledged it had been a tough building of the culture for hoops at Tech. This wasn’t an interview it was a couple of old friends catching up, yet there he was as straightforward as ever, as fun to talk to as when he was holding up the big trophy.
I haven’t spoken to him since but watching his games on TV, seeing those eyes bulge with intensity lets me know he’s enjoying coaching this team as much as any other. He’s a coach after all. A great one. And when it gets rough, don’t underestimate him.
It’s been fun reminiscing, watching people I know and who interest me, have their moments. Most of my memories are not about what they’ve done but the people they are.
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