A picture of my oldest son sitting on Joe Flacco's lap hangs above the desk in my home office. It was taken at a college graduation party in the summer of 2009. My son was six, Flacco (a friend of the graduate) was coming off his marvelous rookie season and I was a respected former teacher with a reputation for freeloading at barbecues.
Flacco played Nerf football with my son and the other neighborhood kids for about an hour that evening. My son charged him screaming and waving, a pint-sized James Harrison in search of a sack, and Flacco picked him up with one arm and dangled him upside down while tossing passes to other tykes. The Ravens quarterback then autographed some paraphernalia for charity auctions. Finally, Audubon High School's most famous graduate was free to play horseshoes and ping-pong with his brothers and friends.
It was one of the most cherished moments of my career. Not this career, the one where I stand a few feet from NFL superstars but interact with them across a chasm of clashing agendas. It was a cherished moment from my other career, when I taught mathematics at Audubon High School and other schools, and interacted with hundreds of teenagers every year, one of whom happened to become a Super Bowl quarterback.
People often ask what kind of math student Joe Flacco was. What kind of math student is anyone? People are one way in a classroom and another way in life, and sometimes they are a third way in math classrooms, where boredom and bafflement hold sway. It's hard to get into the specifics of someone's classroom behavior without getting into shop talk.
"He was very logical in his thinking. He wasn't one to sit back and coast," Amy Curd of Pitman High School said of Colin Kaepernick, her most famous student, when I called her for some shop talk. "You never had to redirect him. It was really refreshing. He would volunteer and ask questions."
Flacco was logical, and he never needed to be redirected (polite teacher speak for "sit down and shut up"), though the notoriously low-key Flacco was clearly more taciturn than Kaepernick. The Super Bowl quarterbacks had other things in common as math scholars. "The moment he walked in the door, he was a math student. When he walked out the door, he changed hats," Curd, now an assistant principal, said of Kaepernick. And there was the drive to succeed: "He knew that if he didn't put in the work, he wasn't going to get there."
High school teachers see a lot of great athletes. Most achieve far less than Flacco and Kaepernick achieved, even at the high school level, and are far more impressed by what they accomplished. Kaepernick and Flacco excelled in high-level math courses because they dedicated themselves in those courses. They put their athletic gifts in perspective; ironically, that allowed those gifts to shine brighter.
Audubon, N.J., is a borough of about 9,000 people, a cozy town just a few miles from Philadelphia. It is an old-fashioned community, with tree-lined streets, a high school with Greek columns at the entrance and a still-functioning main (Merchant) Street, with an old firehouse, some businesses and now a banner hanging across the road reading "Good Luck Joe," with a Ravens logo.
Roots run deep in Audubon and the nearby towns. Families stay put for generations. Flacco still has a home in the area. It's impossible to forget the favorite son when he still stops by the local delis and jogs around Haddon Lake, when his younger brothers still bound into hoagie shops during college breaks.
Flacco has not forgotten those roots, or even the former teacher who now needles him at press conferences. "There were a bunch of people along the way," he said when I prompted him, with tongue planted in cheek, for a compliment during Super Bowl Media Day. "I think the grade-school teachers are the ones who are around you the longest, and they are the ones you remember most."
Curd noted that the Kaepernick we see now is just like the Kaepernick she knew at Pitman High School. "When he comes back here and visits, he's the same Colin," she said. "It's the neatest thing for me to watch. He has the same personality, the same sense of humor, the same work ethic."
Flacco has not changed much either: serious, driven, rather reserved and not willing to let some goofball get him off task.
The Rooting Interest
Good teachers root for all of their students. We root for the best students to thrive and the worst students to change, for the troubled ones to find peace and the timid ones to find courage, the driven ones to take joy in their success and the misfits to find acceptance, if only with themselves. We root for our students to become great doctors and great businesspeople, great employers and great employees, great parents and great citizens. Sometimes, rarely, we get to root for them to become sports champions.
That rooting causes two conflicts of interest. First, there are dozens of great mathematics students whom I have lost track of. If they get laid off or lose love ones, I don't know, but I know when Flacco throws three interceptions. Some of them are medical researchers or chemical engineers who could have impact on all of our lives, but there will be no Media Day for it, and no one will gather around the television to watch them. Second, I am a sportswriter, and I am supposed to be impartial about the events I cover.
There is no reason why we cannot appreciate everyday heroes and still feel undue excitement when someone from the old neighborhood becomes famous. Our society values sports stars and entertainers because we value our leisure time, and we cherish what they represent. My neighbors, former colleagues and ex-students root for Flacco because we know and love him and his family, and because our lives can be comfortable-but-staid, our horizons a little narrow, our sense of what is attainable hemmed in by our limitations on two sides, our compromises on the third, and our fears on the fourth. A Super Bowl quarterback is a symbol of life's possibilities, one who can grab your son by the waist and flip him upside down.
As for impartiality, it's just an affectation. Everybody in this business roots for somebody, except for those who have become jaded and now root against everybody. What is the point of covering sports for a living if I cannot take joy in someone else's success? Especially when that someone is a kid from the neighborhood, someone who represents the people and places that will always feel like home to me?
Someone who makes me feel the way Amy Curd feels about Colin Kaepernick: "I feel blessed that I got to know him, and to see him develop."
Football can make us feel exhilarated, as well as angry, inspired, frustrated, awe-struck, bitter and even confused or flat-out bored. In certain circumstances, on those rare occasions when the connections are personal, it can make you feel blessed. That is a wonderful feeling.