Column: The checkered flag at the end of the rainbow

Chase Elliott’s win in Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was incredible for anyone watching, as the 23-year-old from Georgia overcame a mid-race accident, came back through the field to take the lead with six laps to go and claimed his sixth career NASCAR Cup Series victory, then did a burnout at the very spot he had hit the wall an hour earlier.

But for me, this win had even more meaning. It was a checkered flag at the end of a rainbow.

But to understand what made Sunday afternoon special for me, you must first understand the road to get there.

From an early age, my aunt Terri taught me that if someone asked “who’s the best driver?” I was to answer with the name Jeff Gordon. That sparked an interest in NASCAR, and by Gordon’s championship season of 2001 I had joined her as a diehard fan.

She and I attended a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway eight times between 2002-12, witnessing 2,219 laps of racing, with everything from Mark Martin winning a million-dollar bonus at our first race, to Dale Earnhardt Jr. running out of gas leading on the final lap, to the time we thought we were on Noah’s ark through a day and a half of rain ending in David Reutimann’s first career win.

After Jeff Gordon retired (we watched the final race of his last full-time season together at a race-viewing party at the NASCAR Hall of Fame), we both became Chase Elliott fans the following year when the son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott took over the drivers seat of the No. 24 Chevrolet.

In September 2016, two-thirds of the way through Elliott’s rookie season, Terri died unexpectedly.

In the three years since, I had not been to Charlotte Motor Speedway until Sunday. I wasn’t avoiding the track, but simply never made it to a race there, between being busier than ever and, for a time, further away from Charlotte than ever, and attending races at other tracks.

She was on my mind Sunday — when we got to our seats, which weren’t too far away from where we sat during that rainy Coca-Cola 600; during the invocation and national anthem; when Gordon made a cameo on the track’s massive video screen.

As the race unfolded, by the middle of Stage 2 it was clear Elliott had the best car on the racetrack, and he led 28 laps over the middle portion of the race and won the stage. At some point I gave a thought to how personally meaningful an Elliott win could be.

But on a restart on lap 65 of the 109-lap event, Elliott locked up the brakes and his car wouldn’t turn, resulting in him hitting the tire barrier where the drivers turn off from the traditional oval into the infield portion of the “roval” track.

Since he drove the car back to pit road, I figured he would be able to continue and would not be out of the race, but I also assumed his chance to win was gone. The car’s hood appeared to be damaged, and I questioned if there could be damage inside the hood as well.

But the damage was minimal, and Elliott drove his way from around 30th back towards the front, even briefly leading again at lap 78 during a cycle of green-flag pit stops. With his driving through the field and the help of some timely cautions, Elliott was up to third by the final restart.

Within one lap after the final restart, Elliott had taken the lead again — clearing Kevin Harvick right in front of me in the frontstretch chicane.

Over the final laps, as Elliott pulled away from second-place Alex Bowman, I began to reflect, all while nervously hoping the race would stay green.

I thought about the times spent with Terri at Charlotte Motor Speedway. I thought about the fact that the driver I was pulling for, be it Gordon or Elliott, had never won a race I attended.

I thought about the fact that she would have been 60 two days later — today.

And then, in the midst of all of these thoughts, just as Elliott was coming to the white flag to signify the final lap, a rainbow appeared over the racetrack.

Rainbows are often used in a symbolic way, and in this case felt like further confirmation that what was happening on the track simply felt meant to be.

Furthermore, the symbolism of a rainbow specifically connects back to Terri and racing: Jeff Gordon’s Dupont-sponsored car was, for many years, painted with a rainbow, a scheme that was so iconic his pit crew became known as the Rainbow Warriors.

Chase Elliott navigated the 17 turns of the final lap under that rainbow, and at the end of that 109th lap of the afternoon found his pot of gold in the form of a checkered flag.

Chase Elliott on the final lap of Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Take note of the rainbow in the upper left, which the photo does not do justice. (Photo: Chris Stiles)

And as Elliott crossed that finish line, I lifted my hands up in celebration but also briefly glanced to the heavens in reflection. My friend Jackson, who I was attending the race with, gave me a high-five. After standing for the closing laps, I sat down to take a deep breath, and simply took in the moment.

I don’t mean to elevate my circumstances over those of anyone else — during the race I even had the thought that if another driver won it would be just as meaningful to one of their fans — but some things just feel meant to be.

I know it was just a race, and not one that I was a participant in. But sometimes sports outcomes can be more meaningful because of the underlying circumstances.

Now, a couple of days later, I’m grateful. Grateful for the experience, for the chance to reflect and to remember a special person in my life.

I went to a NASCAR race Sunday. I never expected to find a personal pot of gold.

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Column: From one home to another

Nine months ago, I packed up and left Clayton, Ga. to move back home.

This week, I packed up as I prepare to leave Asheboro, N.C. to move back home.

Before I explain, let me avoid what we in the business call “burying the lead” – I’m excited to announce that I will be starting a sportswriting job at The Robesonian in Lumberton, N.C. on Monday.

Now, about the whole “move back home” thing…

Two areas have always been home to me, as I’ve spent large portions of my life living in both of them: the Piedmont Triad of North Carolina and the Pee Dee region of South Carolina.

I lived in Kernersville, N.C. from birth until I was 14, and lived in Mullins, S.C. from then until I got my first job out of college. Granted, for four of those years I was in Anderson, S.C. eight months a year (and it’s a home to me as well), but Mullins was still my home base.

So it was truthful when, in November of last year, I said I was moving close to home when I left my job at The Clayton Tribune for another at The Courier-Tribune in Asheboro N.C.

Now, after a roller-coaster nine months in Asheboro, I’m moving back close to home – my other home – as I join the excellent staff at The Robesonian and relocate to Lumberton, just across the state line from Mullins.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect in November I would be changing jobs and locations again so soon, but circumstances more or less made that decision for me.

In May I was laid off from The Courier-Tribune as part of a wave of company-wide layoffs within parent company GateHouse Media. I was one of the approximately 200 journalists affected nationwide. I woke up one day with a position in the company and by the end of the day that position had simply vanished.

The move from Clayton to Asheboro had felt perfect. I was close to my original Triad home and, more importantly, to my grandmother and other extended family. I had the opportunity to cover some big events with The Courier-Tribune, including the ACC Tournament in Charlotte and several University of North Carolina events in Chapel Hill.

That perfection was over quickly – the NBA season that started before I moved to Asheboro was still in progress when I was laid off – and I wondered what was next.

Fortunately, an opportunity at The Robesonian opened, things moved quickly – in part due to a connection to sports editor Jonathan Bym through us meeting at UNC games – and here I am announcing my latest career move.

This job will be very similar to the one in Asheboro, as I’ll be covering high school and college sports at a newspaper that publishes five days a week (the only difference in that sentence would be that Asheboro publishes six days a week).

The Triad will always be a home to me. But now I’m excited to be close to family and friends as I start the next chapter and “move home” yet again.

SportsShorts: Indy 500 win comes full circle for Pagenaud, Chevrolet and France

In 1920, French-born driver Gaston Chevrolet won the Indianapolis 500, becoming the third Frenchman to win in the first eight editions of the event.

Little did anyone know it would be 99 years before a French driver would again win at the greatest spectacle in racing.

Sunday, some 36,154 days later, the day belonged to Poitiers, France native Simon Pagenaud. The 2016 IndyCar Series champion won the race’s 103rd edition from the pole, earning triumph over 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi in a riveting final-laps battle.

Pagenaud soaked in the win for himself and his country, stopping on the track at the start-finish line and delaying the traditional victory-lane celebration and milk-drinking to celebrate with his team, family and friends. Perhaps Chevrolet had done the same nearly a century earlier.

If you’re wondering if Gaston Chevrolet has something to do with that Chevrolet, you’d be correct — as I found out in some brief research after Sunday’s race.

His brother Louis Chevrolet founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company in 1911 after moving to the United States. Gaston, Louis and brother Arthur co-founded the Frontenac Motor Corporation in 1916, a racecar manufacturer, and all three competed in the Indianapolis 500 multiple times, including Gaston’s 1920 victory.

Frontenac also won the 1921 Indy 500 with driver Tommy Milton before the company folded later that year. Chevrolet, of course, has become one of the largest auto brands in the world and is heavily involved in many forms of auto racing, including IndyCar.

Chevrolet eventually earned their first Indianapolis 500 win as a manufacturer with Rick Mears in 1988; Sunday was their 11th.

Hopefully Pagenaud’s fate after his 500 victory is better than that of Gaston Chevrolet: While his 500 triumph helped propel him to the AAA National Championship in 1920, he was killed in the season’s final race in Los Angeles.

Fast Five: Best athletes to retire before 30

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from the game at age 29.

But while Gronkowski’s announcement came as a shock to the sports world, he’s not the first player at his level to retire young.

Several star athletes have retired before the age of 30; here’s a look at the five best.

As a disclaimer, this list does not include athletes who made a comeback after retiring at age 30, or from sports that a competitor retiring in their 20s is common (i.e. gymnastics).

5. Brandon Roy

Brandon Roy was an All-American at Washington before winning NBA Rookie of the Year in 2007 with the Portland Trail Blazers. He averaged 20.2 points and 5.0 assists per game over his first four seasons with Portland, was twice named All-NBA and made three All-Star appearances. Kobe Bryant once called Roy “the hardest player to guard in the Western Conference,” saying the guard’s game had no weaknesses.

Knee injuries, which had bothered Roy since college, caused limitations during the 2010-11 season before Roy announced in the following offseason that he had been diagnosed with a degenerative knee condition and would retire.

Roy attempted a comeback in the 2012-13 season, but played just five games for the Minnesota Timberwolves before re-injuring his right knee and retiring for good at age 28 in 2013. After the high level of play shown in his first four seasons, Roy’s career is one of the great what-ifs in recent basketball history.

4. Rob Gronkowski

“Gronk,” known not just for his incredible play on the field but for the fun he had both on and off the field, retires as arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history.

Gronkowski’s 79 touchdown receptions in just nine seasons are both a Patriots franchise record and the most by any NFL player since he came into the league, and he led the league with 17 receiving touchdowns in 2011, a rare feat for a tight end. He holds the all-time playoff records for a tight end in receptions (81), receiving yards (1,163) and receiving touchdowns (12), helping lead the Patriots to five Super Bowl appearances and three championships during his tenure.

The only thing Gronkowski has struggled with is injuries, as he hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since 2011, and perhaps that played a role in his decision to retire. He will turn 30 in May.

3. Justine Henin

Despite a short career, Belgian tennis star Justine Henin won seven grand-slam titles and spent 117 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world.

Her seven grand-slam titles came between 2003-07 and included four French Open titles and two U.S. Opens. She reached the final of all four majors in 2006 and is the only player in history to win consecutive French Open titles without losing a set (2006-07).

Henin retired abruptly and immediately as the sitting World No. 1 in May 2008, citing fatigue. She made a comeback in 2010 and reached the Australian Open final, losing in three sets to Serena Williams, but after reaggravating an elbow injury opted to retire again in January 2011 at age 28.

2. Bobby Jones

Bobby Jones was the greatest amateur golfer of all-time — he never turned professional — and had one of the greatest careers in the history of the game, all accomplished in a short timespan.

By modern standards, Jones won seven major championships — four U.S. Opens and three Open Championships. But by the standards of the day, when the U.S. Amateur and British Amateur were considered as majors, he won 13 major championships.

Jones won what was then considered the Grand Slam — the U.S. Open, the Open Championship, the U.S. Amateur and The British Amateur — in 1930, and retired from competitive golf at age 28 following the feat.

After Jones co-designed Augusta National with Alister McKenzie and co-founding The Masters, Jones did play in the first 15 Masters tournaments, but only on an exhibition basis; his appearances helped attract media attention to the event, helping it become what it is today.

1. Jim Brown

Jim Brown is widely considered one of the greatest NFL players of all-time, yet he walked away from the game while he was still in his prime.

In nine seasons, Brown led the league in rushing yards eight times and in rushing touchdowns five times. He was named NFL MVP in 1957, 1958 and 1965, his first, second and last seasons.

Brown played his final game at age 29 and retired before the 1966 season to pursue an acting career. At the time of his retirement, Brown had the most rushing attempts (2,359), yards (12,312) and touchdowns (106) in NFL history, and he remains the record-holder for most career rushing yards per game (104.3).

Despite his short career, The Sporting News named Brown the greatest NFL player of all-time in 2002. He is not only in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but also in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame after a stellar collegiate career at Syracuse.

Column: Tyler Trent won

Tyler Trent, the Purdue superfan whose cancer battle inspired millions, died Tuesday. He was just 20 years old.

It will be said in the coming days that Tyler Trent “lost” his battle with the rare bone cancer osteosarcoma. But that statement utterly misrepresents Trent’s battle, even if it ended in his death.

Tyler Trent won.

tyler-trent
Purdue University superfan Tyler Trent died of cancer on Tuesday. He was 20. (Photo: Purdue Athletics)

Yes, he won spiritually — if you believe what I do and what he did, you understand what I mean by that. But beyond that, physically on this earth, Tyler Trent won by the positive way in which he battled, the faith and hope he showed each day and the inspiration he provided to all who followed his story.

The late ESPN anchor Stuart Scott once said “When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and the manner in which you live.”

By that criteria, no one won their cancer battle bigger than Tyler Trent.

Trent first fought cancer in 2014, then battled recurrences diagnosed in 2017 and last March. His story was familiar locally, but be became a pseudo-celebrity nationally — possibly the face of the disease in mainstream America — after the Purdue-Ohio State football game on Oct. 20.

ESPN featured Trent’s story on College GameDay that morning, and Trent predicted his Boilermakers would upset Ohio State.

The first miracle came when Trent, who had been so sick earlier in the week his family wasn’t sure he would live more than a few days, became well enough to travel from his Carmel, Indiana home to Purdue’s West Lafayette campus to attend the game.

The second came when Purdue upset the then-No. 2 Buckeyes in a 49-20 blowout. As the Boilermakers team left the field, many players and coach Jeff Brohm spoke to Trent — and some even credited their victory to his inspiration.

“His prediction that Purdue was going to beat Ohio State, as crazy as that may have sounded…I think he got everybody really believing that that could happen,” said New Orleans Saints quarterback and Purdue alum Drew Brees. “It’s amazing just how one person can make that type of impact on, not just a football team, but an entire university and everybody who has any type of affiliation with Purdue. I think that there’s some divine intervention at work here.”

From that point, Trent’s story had national attention and he received visits, letters and social media messages from dozens of current and former athletes and coaches around the country and even President Donald Trump. He made numerous television appearances and was awarded the Disney Spirit Award at ESPN’s College Football Awards show and the Sagamore of the Wabash, Indiana’s highest civilian honor.

He became the honorary team captain for the Purdue football team, lifting the Old Oaken Bucket trophy when the team beat Indiana and, despite his grave condition, traveling to Nashville for the team’s bowl game on Friday. The team’s official Twitter account posted on Tuesday night “Forever our captain” after news of Trent’s death.

Trent’s courage and spirit inspired so many who heard his story, and it’s estimated his story resulted in millions of dollars in donations to cancer research.

Trent, whose career goal was to become a sportswriter, penned a book before his death called “The Upset,” in which he tells the story of his cancer battle, Purdue’s inspired victory over Ohio State, and the future upset he hopes will happen when a cure for cancer is found. The book’s goal is to continue raise even more money for cancer research through its proceeds.

“My drive revolves around the legacy I leave,” Trent said on the book’s website. “The chances of my living to see cancer eradicated, or our finding a cure, are pretty low, but hopefully one hundred years down the line, maybe my legacy will have an impact towards that goal.”

Trent’s perspective changed over the course of his battle, helping lead to his moving final months. According to a column published Tuesday night by Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel, when Trent was diagnosed a second and third time he was determined that, if it was his fate to battle cancer, he would use his battle for good.

“I wanted to make a difference,” Trent said. “I didn’t think I’d made a difference the first time (I had cancer). That’s what I prayed for: If I’m going to have cancer, use me to make an impact.”

And have an impact he did.

“He was only 20 years old,” said SportsCenter anchor Scott Van Pelt on Tuesday night. “But in those 20 years he made a mark and a dent, and left a legacy that’s going to outlive us all.”

Trent’s life may be over, but the finality of his battle doesn’t equate to a loss or a surrender to this horrible disease.

Because in every way, Tyler Trent won.

Column: A most thankful Thanksgiving

At the first Thanksgiving, the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock celebrated a feast thanking God for their newfound home and for bringing them safely there.

This year, in the spirit of the holiday’s origins, I too am thankful for a new home and the journey to get here over the last year.

I have so much to be thankful for this year, so strap in. If anyone set an over/under on my use of the word thankful here, I hope you all took the over.

Ten days ago, I began a new job at The Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, North Carolina, leaving The Clayton Tribune in Rabun County, Georgia after 14 months on the job there.

I am so thankful to The Courier-Tribune for this excellent opportunity to advance my career, allowing me to move to a daily newspaper in a bigger market and giving me the chance to cover sports at a larger set of high schools, with some college sports mixed in too. I’m thankful they think enough of me to bring me back — I interned with them in the summer of 2016.

But perhaps the best part of moving to Asheboro is being closer to home and my family. I’m closer to my parents in South Carolina, but I’m now very close to my grandmother and much of my extended family in central North Carolina. I’m thankful to be within a 30-minute drive of such important people in my life, especially after being three to four hours away (depending on where I lived) for the last nine years since my parents and I moved to South Carolina.

Even as I’ve left Clayton, I’m thankful for the opportunity I had there. I very much enjoyed my time there and it was a great position to allow me to familiarize myself with the industry while covering high school sports (and even a little bit of news too) at a weekly newspaper in the beautiful northeast Georgia mountains. I developed some incredible relationships in Rabun County while getting the treat of covering three successful high school athletics programs.

And just as the pilgrims were grateful for reaching Plymouth Rock safely, I’m thankful I made it through possibly the toughest six months of my life earlier this year.

While my time at The Clayton Tribune was incredible, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t without some bumps.

During the holiday season of 2017 our editor and our publisher left within a month of each other — a tough time anywhere but a major blow at a small weekly paper — and me and one other young reporter, my friend and then-roommate Tommy Culkin (who has since taken his own excellent opportunity in Texas), were left to keep the paper running (at least from the editorial side) for two months before reinforcements could arrive.

It was a baptism by fire, a stressful time full of some long nights on deadline day and more weight on my shoulders than I felt I was capable of bearing.

But now, on the other end of it, I have come to be thankful for the positive aftereffects of this. I am a better journalist from learning how to do the job under that kind of pressure, and I’m now better-equipped to maintain composure when the job gets hectic.

During the turnover in Clayton, I lost both of my grandfathers in a 90-day span. Of course I miss them both, but I’ve also come to appreciate the influence of their lives on mine. I’m thankful to have known them both for 23 years, for both of them to have lived long, productive lives (84 and 90 years) and the comfort through my faith of knowing they’re truly in a better place.

I’ve said a lot in this space, but I’m really just scratching the surface on what I’m thankful for this year.

I’m actually working this Thanksgiving Day — somebody has to get the paper out, and it’s falling to the new guy — but it doesn’t bother me in the least.

One reason is because I’m reaping the advantages of being much closer to family by taking a long lunch break to go enjoy our meal.

But beyond that, I’ve reached a point in my life I don’t need to set aside a day to give thanks.

I’m so grateful, for all of the above and more, that every day is Thanksgiving Day.

Column: Finding inspiration from a winless team

Today marks one month since I began working as sports and education reporter at The Clayton Tribune in Clayton, Ga.

Over the last month, I’ve grown comfortable with the job and the area, and I’ve enjoyed the stories I’ve covered and the people I’ve met.

But I’ll be honest: for the first few days, I was internally a nervous, anxious wreck.

Learning the duties of the job was almost overwhelming, while at the same time the logistical side of moving to another state and being as far away from home as I’d ever been was hanging heavily over my head.

But things changed when I found inspiration from where I least expected it: the winless Rabun County High School softball team.

On Thursday, Sept. 21, one week after I started, I went to cover their senior night game against Monticello. I had covered two of the team’s games earlier in the week, which they had lost 11-0 and 20-1. I expected more of the same on this night, especially when the Lady Cats fell behind 10-0.

In the bottom of the third, however, the team fought back. They battled, scratching and clawing for runs. The effort that coach Danette Holcombe said was missing two nights earlier was back, even though they were down big.

They got frustrated with a blatantly bad call, but channeled that emotion productively and scored five runs. Even as they still trailed by five, they were fired up as if they had tied the game.

The rest of the game had the feel of a tight game, even though the Lady Cats never got closer than five runs and eventually lost 11-6.

I was impressed how hard the team had played, how much emotion they had shown, and how genuinely they cared in a situation where many teams would have simply mailed it in. After the game, the players were disappointed they had lost, but Holcombe was, rightfully, proud of their effort.

The team honored its five seniors, then set up for a pizza party as part of their senior night celebration.

There’s no way they could have known this, but after witnessing the team’s spirit in spite of their circumstances, I was inspired by them. I was less anxious than before, and felt more at home.

My appetite hadn’t been good for the whole week before due to nerves and anxiousness–and if you know me, you know that’s unusual–but it was back. My plan of leftovers was scrapped and, prompted by the Lady Cats, I went out and got some pizza of my own.

The athletic teams of Rabun County High School are doing some amazing things this fall. The football team is undefeated, and the volleyball team hosts their state playoff opener on Tuesday after winning the area championship.

The softball team didn’t win a game this season, but they did accomplish something.

They helped a young journalist feel better acclimated to his new home, and for me that was a victory in itself.

 

For more coverage of Rabun County High School athletics, subscribe to The Clayton Tribune or visit theclaytontribune.com.