Thursday, February 28, 2008

Snow Fell, Time Froze by Tommy Tomlinson

Snow fell.
Flakes floated. Clumps stuck. Drifts formed. Mounds rose. Grass vanished. Trees sagged. Birds hid. Whiteness ruled.

Shut-ins watched. Slackers slept. Couples smooched. Singles wished. Natives compared. Newcomers scoffed. Babies dozed. Elders remembered.

Computers crackled. Pagers beeped. Newspapers thudded. TVs flickered. Radios blared. Callers chattered. Critics grumbled. Weathermen apologized.
Workers drove. Roads iced. Sidewalks crunched. Tires skidded. Cars crashed. Drivers cussed. Cops muttered. Survivors exhaled.

Snow fell.

Skies darkened. Sleet spattered. Rain froze. Fog swirled. Buildings dissolved. Landmarks retreated. Perspectives narrowed. Cities shrank.

Schools closed. Parents shrieked. Work halted. Employees departed. Interstates clogged. Buses crawled. Teachers high-fived. Kids rejoiced.

Hills beckoned. Slopes summoned. Sleds careened. Toboggans flipped. Snowmen towered. Snowballs soared. Bodies flattened. Angels appeared.

Tongues extended. Snowflakes landed. Hands molded. Feet stomped. Ears reddened. Fingers tingled. Mittens dampened. Noses ran.

Snow fell.

Wind whistled. Chimes tinkled. Limbs groaned. Dogs barked. Ground hardened. Ponds glazed. Snowdrifts crusted. Temperatures dropped.

Closeness mattered. Kinfolk called. Friends connected. Neighbors shared. Volunteers gave. Strangers helped. Clerks assisted. Cashiers smiled.

Wires popped. Transformers exploded. Power blinked. Clocks stopped. Fridges defrosted. Victims shuddered. Linemen mended. Candles burned.

Operators dispatched. Trucks towed. Mechanics tinkered. Engines cranked. EMTs rescued. Firefighters hosed. Officers probed. Doctors healed.

Snow fell.

Heaps collected. Piles enlarged. Masses expanded. Clearings faded. Angles rounded. Edges smoothed. Shapes blended. Colors disappeared.

Shovelers heaved. Runners puffed. Skiers schussed. Skaters searched. Hunters crouched. Fishermen shivered. Flasks opened. Bellies warmed.

Poets scribbled. Artists sketched. Photographers focused. Singers hummed. Inventors dreamed. Grifters schemed. Counselors soothed. Preachers prayed.

Coffee perked. Tea steeped. Cocoa foamed. Bourbon swirled. Soup simmered. Casseroles baked. Marshmallows roasted. Popcorn popped.

Snow fell.

Clouds parted. Precipitation ended. Sunshine emerged. Icicles melted. Water puddled. Eaves dripped. Snowbanks sank. Plenty remained.

Dark came. Slush solidified. Ice blackened. Highways slickened. Students hoped. Travelers worried. Storms poised. Forecasts wavered.

Midnight ticked. Peace settled. Sounds quieted. Movement stilled. Light reflected. Darkness shined. Thoughts overflowed.

Weather changed. Challenges abounded. Humanity won. Kindness prevailed. Hearts lightened. Memories accumulated.

People learned.

Nature taught.

Snow fell


One Good Thing on Top of Another by Lisa Pollak

At 7, Nyasha Dixon wanted a room of her own. Sharing a bedroom with her 6-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister was getting on her nerves. You'd feel the same way if someone popped the head off your Little Mermaid doll, scribbled on your kitten stickers and threw your stuffed dinosaur out the window in a rain shower.

A big sister can only take so much.

Lots of kids draw pictures of houses. Nyasha, the oldest of four, drew houses with initials in the windows, always marking one room as hers. She longed for a place where she could lock the door, hide her toys and talk to her stuffed animals with no one pestering her.

One day earlier this fall, Nyasha went grocery shopping with her mother. The store was holding an Oreo cookie-stacking contest. "Do you want to try?" asked the lady at the Oreo table. While her mother shopped, Nyasha built a chocolate skyscraper so high that when her mother returned, the Oreo lady was raving: "Your daughter did so well!"

They didn't think much of it. But a few weeks later, a letter arrived, announcing that the Baltimore second-grader was one of 10 finalists in her age group in the National Oreo Stacking Championships. She'd earned a free trip to Florida for the finals and a chance to win a $ 20,000 savings bond.

Enough money, she figured, for a big house with you know what.

The competition took place last week. The first contestant was another local stacker: 7-year-old Ian Bembenek of Ellicott City. Ian, using the five-at-a-time stacking method recommended by his father, calmly used his allotted 30 seconds to build a structurally sound, 22-Oreo edifice.

Twenty-two Oreos!

One kid after another attempted to better Ian's score. But after nine contestants, no one had.

The 10th, and final, contestant was Nyasha. "Ready, steady, stack!" yelled the judge.

The 30-second clock started ticking. Nyasha laid a two-Oreo foundation, and built from there, stacking and stacking until the cream-filled tower rose past her chin. Past her mouth. Past her nose. It wobbled and leaned, but she held it steady.

Then, when time was up, Nyasha removed her hands.

The tower collapsed.

Ian Bembenek was declared the National Oreo Stacking Champion and awarded the $ 20,000 savings bond.

For Nyasha, there was sadness, followed by consolation: A trip to Disney World with her siblings. But four kids under 8 and one parent is no easy trip, and her mother feels sure that were it not for Nyasha's help -- Please, Nyasha, hold the baby; Please, Nyasha, take your brother to the bathroom -- someone surely would have been left at the Magic Kingdom.

When she got home, Nyasha had a conversation with her stuffed animals.

"How did you do in the contest?" they asked.

"Fine," said Nyasha.

"I'm glad," they said. "How many did you stack?"

"A very big stack, but then it just curved and fell and I only had three Oreos left standing."

"Well, that's all right," said the stuffed animals. "At least you tried your best."

What made this conversation special wasn't that the animals answered back; they usually do. It was that it took place in a room in her home that used to be an office. With a little furniture shuffling, the office was easily converted into what her mother had decided in Florida was a much-deserved bedroom for Nyasha.

That, as they say, is the way the cookie crumbles. When she related this tale the other night, Nyasha shut her door, spread every doll she owned on the bed and ate Oreos dipped in milk, just the way she likes them. Out her bedroom window she could see the moon; it was only a sliver. But some day, she knew, it would be as round as you know what.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

How's this for short writing

Falling moose nearly takes out trooper
By Beth Bragg
McClatchy Newspapers
ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Motorists here have seen the highway signs that warn of falling rocks, and they've seen the ones that warn of moose crossing.
Now Howard Peterson of the Alaska State Troopers wonders if they need a new sign:
Watch for falling moose.
A swing-shift trooper based in Girdwood, Peterson was cruising the Seward Highway the night of Feb. 2 a couple miles north of McHugh Creek when something big and black fell from the sky, landing about 20 feet from his car.
"Falling rock!" he thought, ready to steer clear if it bounced onto the highway.
When the rock didn't roll or shatter, Peterson's brain came up with a crazy image:
"Falling moose?"
An adult moose, wandering rocky terrain more suitable to the Dall sheep that populate it, plunged to its death from the tall cliffs that hug a highway famous for its scenery and wildlife.
The animal landed on the side of the road just a few yards in front of Peterson, who figures it fell 150 feet, maybe farther. He snapped a couple of photos and called one of the charities that salvage road kill to tell them there was a moose available at Mile 113.
Then he started wondering what happened. Did the moose jump?
"How would you say it-moose-icide? He probably thought he was the only moose, with all those sheep around," Peterson said.
More likely, though, something spooked the moose and it fell. It was windy that night, Peterson said, so maybe a gust startled it.
Or maybe the moose merely misstepped.
"I'm sure the moose didn't jump," state wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott said. "They occasionally have bad days like the rest of us. They slip and fall. Maybe he was reaching for a branch and the snow just gave way."
In his years on the job, Sinnott has seen many moose die in many ways. He's heard tales of them breaking through ice and drowning, jumping off railroad bridges at the sound of a train, falling off small banks. Once he saw the remains of two bulls that died together during a rutting battle when their antlers got hooked together by a single piece of barbed wire.
But a plunge from a tall cliff? Sinnott doesn't think it happens often.
In 1995, a moose calf slipped off a cliff and fell 100 feet to its death in nearly the same spot, but flying moose remain an oddity.
As for Peterson, he's been a trooper for five years and has seen lots of things fall from cliffs while on patrol-rocks, snow, mud, even cars.
But he always figured moose held steadfastly to the earth.
He knows better now.
"They can fly and they can land," he said. "Just not very well."

By Norm Maves Jr.
The Oregonian Staff
Saturday, October 10, 1992

Annette Wyatt's eyes moved slowly from the bottom of the panel as she absorbed yet another swatch of a tapestry of hate Friday morning.

The eyes did not cry. If Anne Frank could hang onto hope, so could she. But Wyatt, a Linfield College senior, could not keep her head from moving slowly side to side every so often. The movement cried out in disbelief.

``The proportion of it all . . .,'' she said quietly. ``What I'm trying to understand is how society accepted it -- what part of us accepts this, and allows it to go on.

``I just don't know how I can accept all this myself.''

The exhibit ``Anne Frank In The World: 1929-1945'' had the same effect on many of its first visitors when it opened at the First United Methodist Church in Portland. They passed silently before each of the 76 panels that told of the journey of Otto Frank's family from its turn-of-the-century roots through Nazi Germany to its heartbreaking end in the Holocaust.

They saw the video that explained the ordeal. They paused at Devorah Sperber's powerful sculptures and the writings, drawings and murals of local schoolchildren.

Most of them have heard the story of Anne Frank through her famous diary. Few had seen it translated into documents and pictures, then blended into the panorama of the Jewish plight in Europe during the violent era of Nazi Germany.

The exhibit lasts through Nov. 9. Significantly, that day will be the 54th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the government-ordered terrorizing of Jews in Germany in 1938.

It opened quietly Friday, which was a good thing. The church recently received four anonymous telephone calls denouncing the exhibit as a hoax. Vandals on Thursday defaced a signboard at the Artists' Repertory Theatre advertising the play ``The Diary of Anne Frank.''

The incidents moved the exhibitors to hire round-the-clock security.

``As long as it doesn't get beyond telephone calls,'' said Wendy Leibreich, the exhibit coordinator, ``it will be all right.''

There was no evidence of a problem during Friday's opening hours. Visitors came individually; some brought their children. Teachers took advantage of Friday's in-service day to come in by the busload.

Dick Strycker came up from Grants Pass, where he teaches instrumental music and geography at Fleming Middle School. It was tough, he said, but he managed to control his emotions as he saw the story unfold in front of him.

``I'm a musician,'' he said, ``so emotion is my life. I had a whole lot of feelings about this. It brought back so much.

``What I really wanted to do was sit down in front of it and cry.''

Strycker talked about an experience he had as an 8-year-old in Portland in 1942. He had Japanese neighbors, but one day, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, they were gone.

``I asked my dad what happened,'' he said. ``My dad said he didn't know. But I could see that he was frightened. And he usually wasn't frightened by anything.''

Strycker was standing near the exit as he spoke. Above him, on the archway overlooking the exhibit, was a sign: ``You Are the Living Spirit of Hope.''

And just to his right, on the corner of a table, was a guest book. Some visitors signed their names. Some took advantage of a space reserved for comments.

They read, in part: ``We must remember.'' ``Impressive reminder.'' ``Never again!''

And to the right of Dick Strycker's name was a single word.



Thursday, February 21, 2008

I Have to Be Who I Am, by Julie Sullivan

The morning after the governor, the mayor and members of Congress demanded that he resign, David V. Beebe arrived at his desk, as always, just after 6 a.m.

As critics jammed telephone lines to his supervisors in California and Washington, D.C., Beebe worked alone in the locked, polished stillness of his fourth-floor office. His staff of 135, stationed mostly on the floors around him, were somber. Friends chatting on their lawns near his Beaverton home shared a hushed concern. But the telephone on Beebe's immaculate desk was noticeably quiet.

As district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Beebe is Mr. INS, the point man for immigration law in Oregon. His signature is stamped or signed on almost every significant paper that deals with deporting criminals, arresting illegal workers, approving steps toward citizenship. His name also appears on orders that divide families, incite attorneys and has now mobilized furious business and political critics.

For four months, his handling of INS rejections of Asian travelers at Portland International Airport has drawn a steady stream of senior INS and U.S. State Department officials to Portland, where his methodical, precise response has exasperated even the regional INS public relations director.

"She says I'm a total disaster," Beebe said of his image. "And she's probably right. It's not like I'm oblivious to that, but I have to be who I am rather than project a veneer of something I'm not."

When reports of Portland's unusually high rates of refusals at PDX drew a chorus of critics in April, Beebe responded exactly as he has in 12 years as district director, with little apology or emotion. He held lengthy public meetings and seminars, explaining in sometimes excruciating detail the alphabet soup of immigration forms and protocol. He telephoned business executives, wrote lengthy explanatory letters and is frankly flabbergasted that so many of the people he's been calling are the very ones calling for his head.

"I thought we were building bridges," he said.

Instead, critics are building a case that Beebe's office is out of sync even with the INS, operating with a draconian mindset that threatens international business and tourist traffic.

Beebe, the man who for 25 years has enforced the nation's immigration law, to the letter of the law, is finding for the first time in that pursuit, no sanctuary.

A supervisor who treats employees with a familial loyalty is having to publicly question his staff. A federal official who has embodied strict policy with no display of private feelings is facing a fight that feels very personal. A fight that, as in so much of his life, he faces largely on his own.

Attending to detail

Last year, 94,000 "customers" approached the counter of the Portland INS. The line of immigrants, refugees, adoptive parents and newlyweds forms outside the stained stone walls of the unmarked federal building on Northwest Broadway as early as 7 a.m.

But Beebe is always there first.

Neighbors can set their watches by the 55-year-old civil servant: up at 3:45 a.m. for calisthenics, out the garage door by 6 a.m., in the office 14 minutes later in a dark suit and silk tie. Beebe is 6-foot-2, 170 pounds of self-discipline who controls high blood pressure through habit. He takes the stairs, never elevators. He takes walks, not lunch. He never has more than a single glass of wine. He trims his lawn Tuesdays and Thursdays, like clockwork.

Neighbor Bob Eurick, a retired Portland battalion fire chief, had no reservations about loaning Beebe his small airplane. Beebe insisted on renting the plane, always paying more than necessary, returning it with the fuel tank full and the windshield clean. Eventually, Beebe bought his own plane, a 1980 Piper Turbo Arrow that he prefers to fly at 6,000 feet, where "it's safer." The two men, close friends whose families spend holidays together, fly to Independence for breakfast or Sisters for the weekend. Still, Beebe spends more time maintaining the plane than he ever does flying.

"He always does everything he's supposed to do first," said Eurick.

For Beebe, flying was always more than recreation. It was a way out.

"I came," he said, "from dust." He was born in Minden, Iowa, population 400, the second child of the publisher of the Minden Times, who died of a stroke when Beebe was 1.

His mother remarried and had two more daughters. Shortly after the youngest was born, his mother was infected during a polio epidemic and within three weeks, died. Beebe was an orphan by age 7.

His mother's husband, who never adopted him, struggled to farm 120 acres with four small children. Beebe walked each morning to a one-room school with no running water. But he had to get his work done first: up at 3:45 a.m. to hand milk the cows.

When he was 12, they lost the farm. Beebe went to work alongside his stepfather at a gas station in town. The stepfather, meanwhile, had married a woman with three children. She did not like Beebe, threatening to put him in an orphanage and taking little interest in his well-being.

What saved him were his schoolmates, "my contact with reality," and the planes crossing the Iowa skies. From the time his mother died, he dreamed of flying. He graduated from high school on a Thursday night in 1963 and by Sunday morning was en route to the Air Force.

It was only when he arrived at boot camp that he learned he needed to be an officer to fly, and he needed a college degree to be an officer. He instead was assigned to Bitburg, Germany, where he worked on guidance systems for missiles. At 19, he got his recreational pilot's license and his first sense of belonging.

Nine fellow airmen became his "brothers" while the military's bearing, structure, ethics and demand for personal responsibility became his foundation.

His "brothers," all college-bound, convinced him to start university studies. His high school grades were so poor that Iowa State University accepted him only on probationary status after his discharge. But once there, Beebe blazed through in three years, earning a bachelor of science degree in sociology and psychology, intending to return to the Air Force.

When poor eyesight ended his dreams of becoming a military pilot, he worked in real estate and for a telephone company before returning to Iowa State to earn a master's degree in industrial relations. By then, he had married his wife, Kathy, and was the father of his only child.

In 1975, he went to work for the INS, rising from employee relations specialist to program analyst to deputy district director in St. Paul, Minn. In 1988, he became acting director of the Portland office, made permanent four months later.

Oregon, though a small district, offered the authority, autonomy and field work he wanted. He arrived just as the office's first personal computers were being unloaded, the first sign of a new era.

A mammoth job

In the years since, the INS grew into the largest federal law enforcement agency in the nation and the Oregon staff doubled. In 1999, Beebe's office tallied the arrests of 2,200 illegal immigrants and processed 23,000 applications for immigration benefits.

"The job," he said, "is mammoth."

From the beginning, Beebe has been a student of efficiency, studying methodologies and where bottlenecks of paperwork choke the system. People still have to wait nine to 12 months for their documents, but the time is less than half the national average. When the Oregon congressional delegation last year asked the Portland office to track the paperwork of constituents' cases, Beebe responded with a worker and a pie chart on how fast queries were answered.

"He's a very, very dedicated public servant," said Gunther Hoffmann, the honorary German consul.

Such meticulousness earned Beebe an award for service from the Oregon Consular Corps in 1998. But it also strengthened his reputation as a technocrat, efficient but cold.

In an office that often deals with people fleeing persecution, poverty and war whose lack of English and money render them helpless, the process frequently seems remote, the leader devoid of sympathy.

"We have to move away from that term (sympathy) in terms of the performance of my duties," Beebe said. The INS must be impartial, he emphasized.

"If we allow personal opinions or feelings to inadvertently be factored in, we've compromised the oath to which we have all been sworn."

Unlike some district directors, he has almost never given people a break, believing that the place for discretion and sympathy is in immigration court.

"He lives by the book, strictly by the regulations," said his son, Capt. Bryant Beebe, 28, an artillery officer at Fort Sill, Okla. Beebe talks to his son almost daily, as does his wife, Kathy, who works at the Housing Authority of Portland.

Beebe says the most important things in his life are his family, his faith -- he's a stalwart member of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Beaverton -- and his duty. He believes he is keeping the nation safe and protecting jobs for its citizens.

On Monday, Beebe will meet with his boss, the INS regional director, and the elected officials demanding his resignation.

In the silence of his office last week, he picked up the telephone to call them, then put it down again.

"I've always been left on my own," he said.

Oregonian researchers Gail Hulden, Lovelle Svart and Lynne Palombo contributed to this report.


Thursday, February 14, 2008


A couple of weeks ago, when the snow was at its deepest, I walked up the hill in the middle pasture after chores. By that time in the afternoon, I am often trudging through my thoughts, barely noticing anything around me. Part of the pleasure of chores is that they happen in the same light every day, though the hour changes as the days lengthen and contract. No matter what I’m doing, I am propelled outside by the falling light, which means that I’m often doing chores mid-paragraph. I imagine that the animals are mid-paragraph too, for we are all just going about our business together.

Coming back down the hill, plunging knee-deep through the snow, I stopped. There was the print of a bird’s wings. From their angle and size, I guessed it was a barn owl. I looked across the pasture and saw a squirrel’s track, which ended at the wing-print — no sign of a struggle, just an abrupt vanishing. Going up the hill, I had walked past these marks without even noticing them.

A week later, all the snow had melted, which left me thinking about a question of ephemerality. That wing-print was a solid fact, the remains of a bone-jarring collision between two animals. One life ended there, and another was extended, but the only trace is in my mind. If I had come down the hill in the fog of thought that surrounded me while I was doing the chores, I would never have seen the print of those powerful wings and they would have left no mark in me.

I have grown used to the idea that nearly everything around me in nature happens unobserved and unrecorded. A snowy winter sometimes retains a transcript, but even those are rare. The bills of animal mortality are almost completely invisible otherwise. Who thrives, who dies, there is no accounting at all, only the fact of thriving and dying.

That wing-print allowed me to glimpse the uncompromising discipline of nature. But it will stand in my mind as the model of an almost perfect ephemerality, a vision of life itself. The snow has melted away, taking with it the squirrel’s track and the arc of those wings and my own track up the hill and the burnished spots where the horses rolled in the snow.

February 3, 2008
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

To Drive or Not to Drive: That Was Never the Question

Every now and then I meet someone in Manhattan who has never driven a car. Some confess it sheepishly, and some announce it proudly. For some it is just a practical matter of fact, the equivalent of not keeping a horse on West 87th Street or Avenue A. Still, I used to wonder at such people, but more and more I wonder at myself.

I’ve been driving now for some 40 years, right through what will come to be thought of as the heart of the Internal Combustion Era. There is no learnable skill — aside perhaps from reading and writing — that is more a part of me than driving. My senses have completely engulfed the automobile, like the tendrils of a vining plant. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, and the automobile has completely encased my senses.

That first time behind the wheel, probably in 1965, I could feel myself manipulating the machine through an unimaginable series of linkages with a clumsy device called the steering wheel. The car — a Dodge from the late 1950s, without power steering — felt more like a fallout shelter than something mobile. I had very little sense of where it began or ended. I was keenly aware of what it prevented me from seeing. A highway was just a linear succession of blind spots. As for backing up, how could you really trust what the mirrors told you unless you got out and checked? The transmission — manual, of course — was an instrument of betrayal. To drive down the road, those first few times, was to lurch through a series of unrelated states of being.

And now? I understand the richness of the phrase “second nature.” The car’s mirrors are no longer a Cubist experiment in perception. They have joined together in a panoramic view of the past, of where I have just been. I feel the road through the tires’ treads as though they were my fingerprints. When I learned to drive, I was taught to prize continuity above everything: to feel the drift of the car, to understand inertia, to ease into and out of a stop, to emulate the smooth orbital passage of the planet. Speed has turned into an extension of my consciousness.

How “natural” all this is becomes apparent when you realize how few people — still far, far too many but still miraculously few — are killed in accidents every year. If there were not some profound intuitive fit between us and these machines, we would be dying by the millions. Yes, there are too many people who drive while drunk or fall prey to road rage. But for most of us our behavior in cars reveals our innate orderliness, our willingness to get along with one another while still, soundly, keeping a wary eye out for the drivers around us.

Driving is the cultural anomaly of our moment. Someone from the past, I think, would marvel at how much time we spend in cars and how our geographic consciousness is defined by how far we can get in a few hours’ drive and still feel as if we’re close to home. Someone from the future, I’m sure, will marvel at our blindness and at the hole we have driven ourselves into, for we are completely committed to an unsustainable technology.

And it has all come to pass in just a couple of generations. My dad was born in the mid-1920s, just as the automotive moment was becoming inevitable. And now here I am, always wondering how much longer we will be driving, certain that every time I start the engine in my diesel pickup I am firing up a dinosaur technology. You could ask for no clearer sign of the bind we are in than Mitt Romney’s campaign promise to reinvigorate Detroit in an era of $100-a-barrel oil. America is full of people like me, who remember when gas was 21 cents a gallon, which is the price of admission to climate change.

I see that now. But try explaining that to me when I was 13 and learning to drive on the back roads of Iowa.

January 21, 2008
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company


A Guitar's Life by Hank Stuever

Intro (Waltz Across Texas): Debbie Katruska brings along her neighbor, Larry Bailey, to help her pick one out. What do I know about guitars, Debbie says. That's why she asks Larry. She likes to tease her husband, Dennis, with the JCPenney catalog: Look, Denny, here's a guitar for only $79. "Oh, he gets so mad at me when I tease him like that," she says. "Denny says, ÔLook, do me a favor and don't buy me a guitar.'"

Some of the men in their neighborhood get together once in a while at the gazebo in the park by the tennis courts, three cul-de-sacs over. They play guitar and sing songs past sunset, sometimes until midnight. Larry Bailey loaned Dennis Katruska one of his guitars. In a few weeks, Dennis managed to pick up a lot. Just by watching, by listening. Larry told Debbie that her husband really needed his own guitar.

And that's why she's working extra nursing shifts, saving a little extra, not telling him. Dennis wants to learn "Waltz Across Texas." That is something he wants very much to sing to his wife, while playing his own guitar.

Guitars and Redemption (John Begs the Lord.)
The Lord punished John Guerin with a pain that started in his hands, slowly, fingers to wrist. Then up his arms, through his shoulders, his neck. Finally, he couldn't play guitar. John sat one morning at the kitchen table, in his bathrobe, remorseful and wincing, barely able to lift a cigarette to his mouth, staring out the window at snow.

He took it as a sign.

He did not play guitar for a year.

Sometimes God would say to John, Go smell it. Go smell your favorite guitar. John would go to the closet and take a guitar case out, under the pretense of looking for something else. He would open it. It smelled like smoke. It smelled like booze, too, and these were good smells. His Stratocaster smelled like a bar at 2 o'clock in the morning. Guitars smelled like his recent, disastrous past; smelled like why his wife began to distrust him and his daughters were sometimes afraid of him and some of his friends stopped talking to him. Guitars were sin.

He would snap the lid back down, wedge the cases into shadows and shut the closet door.

When the Lord was satisfied, one Christmas day, the pain went away.

When the pain went away, John made a deal.

He moved his family home to Texas from Buffalo, N.Y. He told people he felt good and honest and more alive. But really he didn't, not completely, because instead of playing the blues, he was back to selling cars in the suburbs. Years before, under the flap-flapping of plastic streamers in the lots of the former Landmark Ford on Research Boulevard, John had worn suits and ties and enticed people into Tauruses and Broncos. He talked happy. Everything ended in an exclamation point. He even looked like an exclamation point, upended. He kept his head shaved bald. He seemed a little crazy to the front-office types, but his sales were high. He was good at selling the Ford Festivas, economy cars lined up like Skittle candies on the back lot, cars that no one else could sell. He was called a "heat handler." A heat handler smoothes it over.

He left the car business to become a guitar legend. In Buffalo, he called his band the Heat Handlers.

From the snow and addiction and pain, after redemption, he came back.

Landmark Ford had become Covert Ford. Management promoted him inside. They put him in an office, made him F-and-I Guy, finance and insurance, the one who makes that last excision of the money from the customer.

He would smile and shake hands and get the papers signed.

He was making $9,000 a month, some months, and he was miserable.

(Where's Guerin?)

(I dunno. Check the bathroom.)

Every day he locked himself in the executive bathroom, a few minutes alone, the only place to drown out the noise. He would start, Jesus, please. There was a blinking phone mounted on the wall, but he wouldn't answer it. There was a sink and a countertop, and a wicker basket with tools shared by polished salesmen: toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, hair gel, Right Guard, Brut. He would beg, on his knees, praying:

God, just get me out of the car business.

If somehow you get out, John says, "Other people in the car business will never stop talking about you: ÔOh, man. He got out.'" In the late winter of 1995, the Lord answered John.

It came to him in a dream. How the carpet should be a shade of red. How the walls should be green. It would be full of guitars. "Hey," John said, looking over at his wife, Kim, as they drove a rented RV down U.S. 183 on a camping trip with their girls. "God wants me to quit the car business and open a guitar shop."

"No, He doesn't," she said.

"Yes, He does," John said. "And we will be blessed."

A song.
I need one song that says it all.

I need this song to be about a shaved- bald, Bible-quoting, exclamation point of a man who opened a 1,300-square-foot shop called Guitar Heaven two years ago at the corner of Ninth and Austin streets in Georgetown; a man who sometimes almost isn't able to pay his bills but then manages to sell enough guitars to do so, and reminds himself to credit God.

I need this song to be about men and guitars. About how happy they are to stand around, speaking a language where pickup is not something to drive and fret is not something to do.

(Strum. The only chord I know: A.)

I need this song to be about one guitar of little or no distinction. How, on a random afternoon 11 months ago, I saw this guitar among 127 guitars in Guitar Heaven -- an unremarkable Fender acoustic guitar -- and slowly, when I had the time, traced it back to the six different men who owned it over 14 years.

Up to the guy who presently owns it, a plumber who lives in a subdivision in Williamson County.

That's at least three verses right there.

(Strum) This goes out to men who love guitars.
And I think you know who you are. Some men keep guitars under their beds. Some men keep guitars in their hallway closets. Some men keep guitars in a corner of the living room, on three-pronged guitar stands they bought at the shop where they buy strings, until they are asked to move their guitars to a guest room or the garage. And teen-age men, who sit on waterbeds beneath posters and work out chord progressions with the amp turned down low, or turned up, depending on the current state of domestic affairs. Men with electric guitars are men who -- secretly or plainly -- wish to start or join a band. To be a great among greats, looking back at the crowd for once instead of looking out from it. Otherwise the guitar wouldn't have to be plugged in, a life-death metaphor in show business and hospitals.

Men with acoustic guitars wish to be charming, so they can be in love. They believe in campfires and circular meanings contained in simple narratives. They have messages: Jesus Saves and He is Groovy. This War is Hell. You Broke My Heart But I Love You Anyways.

A man buys a guitar and classifies himself. There is a beauty in the having, the keeping, the care. There is a suffering as well, not being virtuoso.

Whether he plays it.

Whether he doesn't, and it stays under the bed.

This goes out to the women.
In my song I say "men" as a way of saying "not women." A woman with a guitar is fighting a different fight. A woman with an electric guitar is up for the same crap as the woman who can clean and love a rifle. A woman with an acoustic guitar is up against everyone thinking she's on some equality kick, a cause, has a hammer. She can play guitar better than any man and still be referred to as a woman playing a guitar.

Fender, Clarence Leo (1909-1991)
For several years, he thought he was dying of a rare virus. This was after he was famous, after he tinkered with tube and solid-state amplifiers, after he co-devised and built the solid-body electric Broadcaster in 1948, his variation on the Hawaiian steel guitar.

Which in 1950 became the Telecaster.

Which in 1954 led to the Stratocaster.

Which is the guitar most people see, the mental image of the Strat, when the mind needs a picture of an electric guitar.

Air-guitar solos are played on the classic Fender Invisible.

Along with this, quietly, there was a return to the acoustic guitars. Leo Fender put his people to work on those in the '60s. The hollow-bodied beauties, the unplugged craft. But when the mind needs a picture of an acoustic, it doesn't see Fender. Maybe it sees a Martin. Maybe it just sees wood.

The guitar business grew too large for Leo Fender, and he thought his end was near. He had nearly $10 million in back orders and not enough magic to make that many guitars. He sold the company to CBS in 1965, and everything grew from there: electrics, acoustics, amps, mics, string manufacturing, drums, keyboards -- all of it with the Fender or Fender-related logos, some of these instruments having to be made overseas.

Leo Fender lived another 25 years, and now he is with Adolph Rickenbacker and other instrument makers in guitar heaven; footnotes, spirits in the sky, the by and by. The grandfathers and gods of guitar, the famously dead who teleported there via the heroin syringe or sputtering single-engine airplanes or overturned tour buses, everyone playing together.

Fender Herringbone-Inlay Acoustic, F-260S, Serial No. 400580.
The top is carved from spruce, polished to a comforting, yellowish-tan in the hue of worn leather or a stiff drink. It has a tiny, distinctly painted strip of inlay, a herringbone pattern, all around its edges and soundhole.

Joni Mitchell plays one just like it. Joan Baez has one.

It's not just about men at all. It never has been.

The perfect side curves of it, in rosewood.

This acoustic guitar, something so American, of little or no distinction, simple and nearly unnoticeable, was most likely Made in Japan, sometime in 1981 or 1982.

Juju (Or, the Brain Surgeon)
John Guerin, 38, is in Guitar Heaven on a cloudy Friday afternoon last fall, having a conversation at the front counter with a customer, a computer programmer- type, a bearded guy in khakis and a clip- on ID badge, blowing off time in the guitar shop. They are talking Bible. Something about the sins of the father. You will or will not be judged on the sins of the father, but on your own sins.

"Amen," the bearded man says. "Well, John, I gotta go, I gotta get back to work."

"All right," John Guerin says, "Thanks for blessing me with the Word."

The store is empty. Surrounded by all these guitars, and for a minute, not a sound.

John fills the silence with a story. When he moved back to Texas three years ago, he saw one of his old guitars, a Gibson ES175, up for sale in a South Austin shop. You just know when it's yours. He had traded it for a gold-top Les Paul in 1985. Here it was, a decade later, with a $1,200 price tag. "I said to the guy, `That's my guitar.' I was so excited. And he just looked at me and said, `Not anymore it isn't.' And then this other guy comes in and pays $1,200 for my guitar.

"And it turns out the guy was a brain surgeon," John goes on, underlining the air with the absurdity of it: "A brain surgeon.

"A brain surgeon who doesn't know how to play has my guitar."

Juju. (The Feel of It.)
That is one way to understand the coming and going of guitars. That all guitars have a story; belonged to somebody, and are about to belong to somebody else.

"This guitar, for example," he says, taking down the Fender with the herringbone-inlay (series F260S, serial no. 400580) from its place on the green pegboard wall.

"This guitar has been in my shop at least three times," he says. "I bought it from a guy I used to sell cars with, and I think he got it from a guy he used to sell cars with. Then I sold it to Ronnie, he's a barber who works at the barber shop around the corner. Ronnie traded it back to get a different guitar that he really, really wanted. ... Then I sold it to this young guy, Jeff, and he brought it back in because he wanted to get a bass guitar and start a rock band ... Now he wants to buy it back."

John handles it. (Strum.) It has a $489 price tag on it.

"It's a nice guitar. It's got kind of a high tone to it, but a really good sound. ... It's somebody's guitar," he says. "They go to the person they're supposed to go to. It's weird."

This leads to John's sermon about juju. One guy can pick up one guitar and just tell from the feel that he should own it. Some guitars always have juju. Some guitars have juju only for certain people.

Or, John says, "What about a 300-year- old violin? What makes it so much better than a 200-year-old violin? And how do you know when you pick one up?"

Guitars without juju are usually ghettoed, neatly, in their own section of the store -- the starter guitars, acoustic models favored by church groups, the vanilla-brand electrics for budding rock stars who just turned 12.

Guitars with obvious juju usually get to live behind the counter, on display, with signs on them that say things like No and Don't. John has a Gibson with the original "patent applied-for" pickups that was played every Sunday morning by a black church pastor, the paint worn down where his sweaty, meaty arm rubbed it with years of juju. The elderly pastor walked into John's store one day and gave him some of the Word. He walked around and blessed the store, the instruments, the green walls. He bought strings.

Many months later, after the pastor died, his son came in to sell the Gibson. John gladly bought it. He spent the next day tracking down its exact value, making calls. The thing oozed so much juju you'd almost expect it to fly around the store like a cherub; it is worth several thousand dollars because of certain little pieces of old metal screwed to it, but also because of no singular fact at all.

When you think about it, John says, there's a little juju in all of them.

The phone rings. John hangs the guitar back on the wall and gets to the counter in two leaps to pick up the phone: "Guitar Heaven!"

* * *

Two hundred miles north of Guitar Heaven, off the Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway west of the North Dallas Tollway, at the Roger Meier Cadillac dealership, I find David Berger on a Wednesday evening in May, while thunderclouds turn inky purple in the background. He has a dark mustache and sad eyes. In the wind, his hair doesn't move. He is waiting for two men, a father and son, to decide whether or not to purchase a '94 Infiniti with 52,000 miles on it, a "pre-owned luxury vehicle," another way of saying David Berger sells used cars.

He paces. He holds back. He is 49 years old, and has been in the car business for more than a decade. Before that, computer sales. Before that, insurance.

Fifteen years ago, he wanted to play guitar: "I liked the idea of it. I'd see people playing and thought, well, I'd like for that to be me. I didn't know how to play."

As closing-time nears, the Infiniti is sold. "They got a very good deal and they know it," David says, pleased, wiping some unseen speck of something from his desk in his glass-walled cubicle. "Hey, let's go get a drink and I'll tell you about that guitar."

On the other side of the freeway, in the Midway Point, a bar that could be the fern-and-darts hangout of some canceled sitcom, David Berger reaches back to remember where he found the Fender, how much it was. "I went into two or three guitar shops, just trying to get an idea. My friend said, `Gee, David, why are you gonna get such a nice guitar to start out with?'

"Here's what I think. If you buy something cheap and you outgrow it, what are you going to do? Sell it and take a tremendous loss anyway. It's like playing golf with cheap golf clubs: You hit a bad shot and it's the club's fault. If you buy really good golf clubs, you know it's nobody's fault but your own."

It was in a Dallas music shop, some November day in 1983.

"It was so beautiful ... the solid-spruce top," he says. "I just thought, well, this could always be around. I could always enjoy having it."

It was just a Fender acoustic guitar. The serial number was 400580. It was brand new, and retailed for about $650. "I think I got it for around $450 or $500," David says.

The store threw in some free lessons.

His wife rolled her eyes. "The toy of the month, David," she said, when he brought the Fender home.

"No, I'm going to learn how to play this thing," he said. "This is a beautiful instrument." (Strum.)

"You do that," she said.

Under the bed
"Well, you know," David says, on the second drink, "I didn't play it nearly enough. I took lessons for about two months and there would be different artists I'd hear and try to emulate them and I'll tell you, I was getting close. I guess I wanted to get to the point where I could entertain people, around the fire, sing songs and stuff like that."

He kept it under the bed.

For four or five years, sometimes not looking at it for months at a time.

"Oh, I'd show it to people," he says. "That's how Sam saw it. Sam and I worked together at Courtesy Nissan for a while. He came over one night and I showed it to him and Sam knew a lot about guitars. Sam had a whole room in his house for his guitars. He had worked for Kenny Loggins. He said, `Hey, if you ever want to sell this guitar. ...'"

It went under the bed for another year. By now its strings were beginning to rust.

David wanted golf clubs. "A new set of woods," he told his wife.

She said no more toys. Something would have to go before any more toys.

David called Sam and asked him if he still wanted to buy the Fender. They went back and forth on a price. "I think I sold it to him for $200, maybe $250," David says. "I wish I'd kept it. I do. I wish I'd kept it because when you sell something ... you just piffle the money away and then you don't have it."

After a third drink, the story begins to unspool, if with a little regret, of a man who did not play a guitar he wanted to play. He got a divorce. He came to consider himself an expert on golf clubs and car sales. I learn a lot about Pings (golf clubs) and that the Lexus (a competitor) is nothing but a "woman's car." I learn about his cat, an elderly tabby named Hobo, who died of an enlarged liver and broke David's heart.

On the notion that he has the actual receipt for his purchase of the Fender at home, I accept his invitation and follow the tail-lights of his weaving, pre-owned luxury vehicle through the streets of North Dallas, to his tree-shrouded, vaulted-ceiling condominium, which "used to be owned by one of the Dallas Cowboys," he says.

The receipt doesn't turn up. He puts on an Ottmar Liebert CD and shows me his snapshots of Vietnam, when he was young, an Army sergeant in charge of a PX. There are colonels smoking cigars beside swimming pools. Pretty nurses on three-day leave in Australia. Giggling Vietnamese children huddled around him.

In the garage he shows me the toy of the month, the decade, a BMW motorcycle. Zero-to-87 mph in 7.1 seconds, doing for him what a guitar could not. "When I get in my motorcycle motif with my leather jacket and helmet," he says, "it's like I'm a different breed of cat."

* * *

Maybe I need a song about car salesmen, too. Car salesmen who sometimes daydream other lives, some of them dreaming about playing the guitar.

Sam Smith is sitting in his office at Covert Ford on Research Boulevard before his shift starts, his red hair combed back, the door shut to the noise of car sales, the hurried windstorm of carbon- copied sales agreements. He's an F-and-I guy, just like John Guerin was. At 46, he has the freckled, curious face of a boy, the twang and easy narration of a man in a starched white dress shirt selling cars in the air-conditioned middle of Texas.

Sam Smith remembers the day John Guerin went into the general manager's office and abruptly resigned, telling whoever would listen that this was it for him and cars, that he'd be starting his own guitar shop. Management sputtered at John, cajoled him, berated him, possibly begged him to stay, all the way to the door.

"Once I found out John was going to open a guitar store -- well, I didn't know John played guitar. I was happy as hell for him," Sam says. "I'm going to say John was probably making 80 or 90 grand a year. It's a hard business to get out of. It takes a lot of strength and courage to make the break. ... To leave and be around guitars all day? I admire that like I can't explain."

Boy with freckles. The first record Sam bought was "Meet the Beatles" in a music shop in Northline Mall in Houston.

When he was a teen-ager, Sam was rearranging the furniture in his bedroom and knocked the headboard over on his first guitar, a department-store cheapie, crushing the box. "That was the end of my guitar playing for a while." Sam among the rock stars. In the mid-'70s, Sam booked travel arrangements for Loggins and Messina, the successful rock duo. He was part of the entourage, surrounded by guitars and guys who could really play them for thousands of fans. If he could whittle it down to the biggest moment, he would tell about the night Paul McCartney stood backstage at a Loggins and Messina show at an arena in Hawaii.

Paul McCartney.

Paul McCartney holding a guitar.

Paul McCartney holding a guitar, so close Sam could touch him, meet the Bea tles, waiting for Jimmy Messina to call him onstage for a rendition of "Lady Madonna."

But why Jimmy Messina never called Paul to the stage is wrapped up in mystery and ego. Sam won't speculate.

That next day, over breakfast, Kenny Loggins said that he wanted to be sure to rehearse "Lady Madonna" during the soundcheck, so Paul McCartney could join in.

"Paul's not coming to the show tonight," Sam said. "Paul said he's going body-surfing in Maui."

"What?" Loggins asked.

Sam shrugged. Jimmy Messina looked up from his breakfast cereal and gave Sam a look, a look that said: Don't tell Kenny anything.

"I just shrugged it off," Sam said.

Shrugged it off and, when it seemed that everyone in the business was getting younger and he was getting older (all of 27), when his hearing was shot, when he was tired of hotels and buses, left the rock 'n' roll business. A deal. "It appealed to me from the time it came out from under Dave's bed," Sam says of the Fender herringbone-inlay, series 260S, serial no. 400580. "Even though it had rusty strings and was out of tune. I said, `This is a beautiful guitar.'"

He brought over a set of Martin lights and restrung the Fender. He tuned it.

"David said, `Well, you know I never play the thing,'" Sam recalls. "Over the years I've probably had 20 or 25 guitars. They've always been something that I loved to have. It's something you can admire, and it also happens you can pick it up and make music. I told him if he ever wanted to sell it, call me."

Sam proffers the Fender to Kenny. After he moved from Dallas to Austin, after a divorce and remarriage, leaving his past behind but taking his guitars, Sam Smith had Kenny Loggins and some of the guys from Kenny's tour group over for dinner. Sam's guitars were, as always, on display in the living room.

Loggins picked up the Fender herringbone-inlay. He noodled around on it. For a while there was talk of him buying the Fender, to include among the guitars he carries with him on the road.

The next night, backstage in San Antonio, Sam brought the Fender for another look. Loggins thought it was a nice guitar. But they had 20 guitars on this tour already. Loggins said it wasn't like he needed another one. "Heck," Sam says now, "I'd-a given it to him. ... But I told him, if he really wasn't attached to it, I'd just rather hang onto it. I wouldn't have wanted him to hang onto it for a couple of months and then give it away. Because people give these guys guitars all the time."

The Motorboat Problem
Sam got lake fever. You get crazy, he says, "And you want a boat."

He sold two Martin acoustic guitars and the Fender herringbone-inlay to John Guerin at Guitar Heaven, so he could put money down on a new boat. He got about $350 for the Fender.

"The two happiest days are the day you buy the boat, and the day you sell it," Sam says. The boat, a Sea-Ray 175 Bowrunner, had electrical problems. The boat had a cracked engine block. On his wedding anniversary the boat wouldn't start. On Labor Day weekend it was locked up in the shop.

Sam is now down to one guitar.

It's a Gibson J45, an acoustic. He plays it to relax. He says he gets hesitant, too shy to play in front of people who are better at it than he is. If you handed Sam a guitar right now, "I'd play `Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,'" he says. "I play basic chords. I can play rhythm, but I'm not a finger-picker. ... I'll sometimes pick it up when I hear something on the stereo and think, boy, I could play that."

When he owned the Fender, he liked to keep light-gauge strings on it. He has some high-frequency hearing loss, from too many rock concerts in the '70s. "That Fender had such a good, rich, clear tone," Sam says, speaking of it like a child lost in a crowd. "No fuzz, no distortion. It was in tune and you knew it. ...

"I don't have that boat anymore," Sam says with some scorn. "And now I don't have my guitars. I wish I'd never sold it, that Fender. I'd love to have it back."

* * *

You can get guitar lessons at Guitar Heaven, but not in heavy metal. One mother mouths the words "thank you" when John Guerin explains to her teen-ager that he's out of luck, that they only preach the elemental blues in here.

Guitar Heaven ("Let Your Noise Be Joyful")
The store is a block south of the town square and courthouse. It is around the corner from the antique shops and cafes, where each window displays a picture of one or another Georgetown High School football player. It is down the street from the historic limestone firehouse, and hidden, really, except for its giant painted sign, and John's white Volvo wagon parked out front with "Guitar Heaven" screaming across it sides in 10-inch letters, virtually ensuring John's teen-age daughter will never borrow the car.

John will have some weeks where he sells $4,000 worth of guitars. "And other weeks, almost nothing," he says. One day John is sitting in a corner of the store, teaching himself to play "Zip-a- Dee-Doo-Dah" arranging it into a bluesy improv, like he had done with "Over the Rainbow" a few weeks before. Such simple songs. John says they're not. The highest G chord comes along at the 15th fret, ("Zip-a-dee-DOO-dah, zip-a-dee-ay") way up the neck of the guitar.

"I spent so many years playing rock and blues, I was maniacal," John says. That was when he fronted the Heat Handlers, before he was stricken with carpal- tunnel syndrome. "People used to think I was possessed. I played guitar behind my back and jumped off the stage and all this stuff. It doesn't appeal to me now. I like elevator music now. Elevator music with guitar guys on it."

Some days I walk straight into guitar chaos: John will be teaching one 13-year- old girl basic guitar chords in a corner and an employee, Dan Vogel, will be teaching a 10-year-old boy how to play bass in another corner. Mothers will be waiting to pick up and drop off children for guitar lessons. Someone needs 11- gauge strings. The Visa card machine will be flashing in transmittal error. The phone rings -- someone wants to know if John has any classical flamenco guitars; someone else wants to sell his grandfather's Les Paul, wanting to know what John will give for such genuine, unspecified juju.

A different day, for several hours, morning becoming afternoon, there is not a single customer. John puts on a recording of a dead jazz guitarist named Lenny Breau and feels that it is very important to examine each note of how Breau played "How High the Moon." Afternoons like this, time with a guitar is a way of praying.

And some days religion prevails, in a non-denominational church of six-string iconography, the sharing of the Word among Promise-Keeping men. One day John made me listen to a 40-minute recorded sermon, a tape of a tape of a tape of the Rev. Jimmy Somebody, who has painstakingly translated Bible verses to mean Prince Charles is the devil and the apocalypse can be penciled in for September 2000. "Interesting, isn't it?" John says, his eyes alive with inspiration.

Guitar Heaven is a place people come to because they are hungry to connect. They can hold and wish for a certain guitar, feel some juju, and not have to drive all the way to the city for the officially- stamped Austin juju. They can connect because John is a blues guitarist of notable skill, with as many tricks to pass on as he has to learn. They can connect by debating who is the greater of the guitar gods. They can connect by picking up any guitar and playing, knowing someone will listen.

A man named Bob Simpson, a retired Austin police officer, comes Saturday afternoons to fix guitars that people bring to Guitar Heaven for repair. Bob doesn't play guitar, but his garage is full of them. And there's Lucien Nastase, another employee, a guitar whiz who immigrated from Romania. There's Bill, who works for Dell Computers, who has bought a dozen or so guitars here. There's Lou, "like a doctorate in engineering, or something," John says, who also buys a lot of guitars here.

Every once in a while, Clint wanders in. John didn't like Clint at first; his attitude, the way he bragged about never paying his child support. "But man, you should hear him," John says. "I mean, he's incredible, he could be famous, but he's this knucklehead, right?"

Clint frequently has a warrant out for his arrest. John has sold or loaned Clint some nice guitars, which Clint has pawned. Clint wound up in jail and John bailed him out. "I just didn't refuse anything Clint asked for," John says. "That's what I decided to do. He needed a good guitar and an amp and I said, `Well, how's your credit?' and I get this whole sordid tale of woe. The bank laughed at me, snot running out their nose, when I mentioned Clint."

"So," John says, "I loan Clint like a thousand dollars and he pays me $40 a week and never missed a week for like, forever and ever. ... But then troubles come, and he disappears for a while. Then he needed a car and I helped him get a car. The tale just got weirder and weirder." Clint threatened to hit John one time. "I said `Clint, it will be a brawl, I promise you.'"

Days and weeks will go by. Just when John thinks he's seen the last of Clint, he comes around with 50 bucks. (Currently, Clint is square with John, but without any guitars to show for it.)

"Ya pissed at me?" Clint says.

"No, Clint, I'm not pissed at you, man," John says.

"You're not pissed at me?"

"I'm not pissed at you."

"OK, man."

Clint leaves.

There's Douglas, a teen-ager with black fingernail polish who used to work part-time fixing amps, until John had to fire him, who then asked if he could hang around anyway. John said yes. There's Andy, Jerry, Ed. Some of them with day jobs elsewhere -- jobs in the making and selling of software, the shrubbery tending of mutual funds, the maintaining of city parks -- who manage to while away whole afternoons. Even the UPS man stops to talk about guitars and musicians.

"I'm married 17 years, have the kids," John says. "It's hard to have best friends. I know guys, they go hunting with their pals, they go bowling every Tuesday, they play on a team. I don't hunt, I don't bowl, I don't play softball. I have no outside activities. The guys I was always tightest with were musicians. I play guitars and that's all I do. I play them and sell them."

* * *

Around the corner from Guitar Heaven, Ronnie Courtney cuts hair at the town barber shop. "We don't hardly have any breaks around here," he says. "You cut hair until lunch and then you cut hair until you quit. Standing in that little foursquare gets you down. You get what we call barber burnout. Especially when you're at the level I'm at. In 1974, I was the No. 2-ranked barber in all of Texas."

During his lunch, Ronnie -- who walks, talks and sings and even looks a little like Johnny Cash, if Johnny Cash wore faded blue Wranglers and a powder-blue barber shirt -- goes around the corner to the guitar shop.

Ronnie plunks down some $20 bills on John's counter, paying off an $1,800 Yairi Alvarez, one of the most treasured things in his life. ("At no interest, by the way," Ronnie says.)

For six years, Ronnie was on a Navy ship in the Phillipines, and in 1963 or so, he bought a beat-up, no-brand electric guitar and amp from one of his friends. He paid one of his shipmates 10 bucks to show him how to play "Pipeline." He practiced the surf-rock classic over and over, especially that opening beach-bum-falling-down-the-deck stairs Drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrllllddddddlll maneuver, "Until I could play that one song real good."

Without getting into it a whole lot, Ronnie, 52, thinks he may have started the Vietnam War. The battleship guns were supposed to have been pointed in such a way as to warn the enemy, to shoot over and across the target, a flash of light, a thundering, a gesture. But that's all past now.

When his duty was complete and he came back to the States, he and a friend bought a convertible 1967 Impala with their back pay. Which they drove across Ohio, in a snowstorm, with the top down. Ronnie also bought a Gibson Jumbo acoustic guitar, and when the money ran out, he pawned it.

"After that," he says, "I owned several cheap guitars that wadn't worth 20 cents."

Thirty years later. Ronnie's wife won't let him smoke in the house, a double-wide mobile home on some rolling, empty acres in Briggs, a one-Texaco dot 45 miles west and north of Georgetown.

He is allowed to smoke in the spare bedroom, which has become his guitar room, decorated with a framed, fake thousand-dollar bill he got at Six Flags, a harmonica that belonged to his great- grandfather and a Hopalong Cassidy cup he drank out of as a boy.

When he's watching TV at night and wants a cigarette, Ronnie goes into his guitar room. His 13-year-old chihuahua, Pee-wee, follows him. He feeds his dog peanut M&Ms from a glass jar. He plays guitar, smokes the cigarette, has another cigarette, plays more guitar. Sometimes he's in here for two hours.

He has a Washburn standard electric on one stand, a $900 gift from his wife, and a handmade $1,800 Yairi Alvarez acoustic on another stand. He has several thousand dollars worth of karaoke machinery and song discs that belonged to his father, who ran a juke joint in Sherman. When his father died, it seemed to Ronnie that the karaoke machine needed to be used. It might make money. For a while, he and his wife would load it up and take it to VFW halls or American Legion outposts in town. He'd sing a few country songs, and try to get some of them to get up and sing. Hand anyone the microphone. Once the old guys got into it, they kept inviting Ronnie back. It got old. They liked it, but Ronnie got tired of hauling the karaoke to town, watching the veterans croon.

Beauty is one thing
Ronnie went into Guitar Heaven in the summer of 1995, almost as soon as John opened for business. Among the first guitars John had for sale was the Fender acoustic with the herringbone-inlay, which John had bought from Sam Smith, along with the two Martins.

Ronnie picked it up and thought that it was a pretty guitar, one that he could keep, "Knowing I'd probably trade it in later for something else." He paid around $500 for it.

"Beauty is one thing," Ronnie says, "but to find a guitar with a particular tone is the most important thing. I could have bought a lot more beautiful guitars than what I have, but not have found the tone I was looking for." Ronnie sings a song he wrote for his wife, years ago, when he first met her. He had been married twice before. He wishes he'd met his third wife first:

She's a jealous devil/
She don't understand/
A jealous devil/
And she don't trust her man.

Ronnie says, "I always felt like I was the best barber I could be. I always felt like I was the best pool player I could be. And I try to be the best guitar player I can be. It's not that I'm a great guitar player. I play as good as I can play."

Watch this. Ronnie says.

He picks up his Alvarez and strums an open chord.


He looks up to a corner in the ceiling, tilting his head and drinking in the sound, how it comes from of a deep place in the wood, surrounds us. Pee-wee cocks his head and listens. The strings vibrate.

Ronnie counts, softly: 17, 18, 19 seconds ...

"It will hold an E chord for 27, sometimes. You either have that feeling in your fingers and your ear, you know, your whole body feels that sound, and if it matches what you feel then that's the guitar for you."

Ronnie trades the Fender
Visiting John in Guitar Heaven one day, Ronnie saw the $1,800 Alvarez. "I was there to look at a Gibson Jumbo, like the one I had owned way back. But when I picked up this Alvarez, there was no comparison. This is one of those guitars that when you walk by it says, C'mere."

He brought the Fender herringbone- inlay back to John, with another guitar, trading both in as a down payment toward the Alvarez.

"That Fender was a wonderful guitar and all. You see it being played by folk singers. It had that higher pitch. No matter what kind of music you try to play on it, it still sounds like a folk guitar," he says. "I'm a country and western guy. I play old rock 'n' roll and surfing music. I'm just not a folk-guitar player."

Fire (Or, Ronnie Tries to Buy the Fender Back)
A few weeks later, a house burned down. It belonged to Ronnie's son, and among the things lost in the fire was a well-worn Takamine acoustic guitar. The Takamine had been in the family for 35 years, a hand-me-down, and even bore the son's baby teethmarks along its neck. Ronnie felt bad. He went back to Guitar Heaven to repurchase the Fender acoustic, so his son would have a guitar.

It had been sold.

"The two guitars I have now will never leave my hands until I die," Ronnie says. "And then they'll be handed down to the right people."

* * *

He came into Guitar Heaven looking for an acoustic guitar. He had turned 17 in September 1995 and his parents said they'd help him buy a nice one.

Jeff Nitsche lives alongside a golf course in a place called Berry Creek ("Family first, lifestyle second to none," according to the billboards), on the north edge of Georgetown. His dad sells insurance. His mother breeds and raises Labrador retrievers.

Now 19, Jeff thinks he might like to go into insurance sales, like his dad. When he graduated from Georgetown High School in May, he decided to take community college classes for a while. He has a part-time job delivering documents. He decides we should meet at Arby's, on a spring afternoon. He shakes a drape of brownish-blond bangs from his forehead. He is tall and quiet and says he belongs to no one crowd.

"It was my third guitar," Jeff says. "My first guitar was an acoustic, I forget what kind. I sold it to my brother for like, $50. The second guitar I got was a Fender Stratocaster, and I still have that. Then I bought the Fender acoustic. I just liked the way it played and the way it looked."

When Jeff bought the Fender herringbone-inlay, he had John restring it. "I think I'm the only one who had it strung upside-down," he says. "I'm right handed, but I play left-handed."

After nine months, he brought it back. There was a whole other plan now. He needed a bass guitar.

At an Arby's (Exit 266)
He says: "It's basically love. That's what I'd like to do, is know a lot about guitars. I used to draw comics and stuff but that's not what I do anymore, because I started liking music more."

He says: "Other people have a guitar and they don't even play it."

The story of a band that wasn't "These two other guys, Robby and Willie, Willie's in my marketing class. I met Robby through one of my friends. Robby graduates next year. We were thinking of starting a band. Robby has, I guess, like about five guitars? He has a Gibson Les Paul and a Yamaha acoustic and a couple other guitars. There are some bands that play down at San Gabriel Park. Like the skater kids come down ... I guess it's like heavy metal. A little bit like Korn.

"... We called our band the 3 Wishes. It's more like grunge alternative. We also play blues stuff. Practically anything we like. Ska. We were writing songs I guess.

"I wanted to do a kind of punk version of `Margaritaville' sometime.

"I played bass for about six months, and then I traded it back to John. I got new pickups for my Fender (Strat) and I inst

alled it all myself, but I messed up in rewiring it. So John went ahead and fixed it for me. "I started, like, playing acoustic guitar again. I kind of wished I hadn't sold the Fender, because I liked the sound that it had. I told John I was going to come back down, and get it. But I didn't and then he sold it again anyway.

The band never did anything. He sits in his room and plays guitar while he watches TV. He says: "I can play a lot of different things. Pretty much anything you want, I could learn it by ear. I like to play fast metal. Like Pantera and Metallica. It's not all two-chord. It's a lot more than that.

"Most people don't know that I play guitar."

In the bump-and- pardon shuffling of the moneychanging in guitardom's temple, I wander among the endless rows of dealers and guitar freaks with their eyes agog.

One man is carrying a half-dozen Minoltas around his neck, to trade cameras for juju. Several people are simply wearing guitars with "For Sale" or "Will Trade" signs. One dealer shouts, "Hey! Don't touch that. That's a $10,000 guitar." In a men's room, a guy plays one blues lick after another and pretty soon there's a crowd gathered, watching in slack- jawed, arms-folded appreciation. "The acoustics are better in here," he says.

I checked out every last shaved-bald head in the place, seeking the angel of Guitar Heaven. I find John Guerin and his 11-year-old daughter, Gaby, sitting on folding chairs, with various guitars spread out for sale. "Well, it's hard to find us because, tech nically, we don't have a table," John admits. "We just kind of hang out and sell guitars, until the security guards come and chase us off. We're guitar gypsies, right, Gaby?"

He brings Gaby along because he says her negotiation skills are sometimes better than his. She is a born saleswoman, able to bolt herself down to a best-offer price and not budge.

In Georgetown, John loaded his car with vintage guitars: a '73 gold-top Gibson Les Paul, a Gibson SG, an L50, a '75 Fender Strat, a Washburn archtop and a 1950s mandolin. It's tax time. Things have been slow. He could use some good sales. God, he says, driving along I-35, just give me good favor.

Later that night, after all six instruments are sold, there are jubilant father- daughter elevator races in Reunion Tower.

* * *

"See here, Denny," Debbie Katruska teases her husband, in the fall of 1996.

"Why pay so much for a guitar? Right here in the Penney's catalog, only $79. And it's a new guitar, Denny."

"That's a toy," Dennis Katruska says. He's serious about guitars now. Ever since Larry Bailey loaned him one, ever since he saw his neighbors play at the gazebo. Men from all over this sliver of Williamson County have come down to join in at the gazebo. Larry's learned how to play mandolin and the upright contrabass.

The Katruskas live in Buttercup Creek, a neighborhood near Cedar Park. They have three daughters and go to the Church of Christ. It would be hard to find a place of fewer guitar legends. Dennis is a bespectacled, large-armed, 40- year-old plumber. Dennis gets home late most nights, too tired to do much.

Then one night they were over at Larry and Melissa Bailey's house having coffee and Dennis just started playing guitar. Debbie did not even know her husband could play, or that he had lessons for a year or so when he was a teen- ager.

There's memories in there, Larry thought, watching Dennis play.

"I could tell in his hands there were memories in his fingers," Larry says. "That he had it in him." So this is Debbie's idea for Christmas. She is going to meet Larry Bailey during his lunch break one afternoon and go to that little guitar shop in Georgetown, and get Larry to tell her which guitar to buy for Dennis. She is going to save money that Dennis doesn't know about.

Fender Herringbone-Inlay Acoustin, F-260S, Serial No. 400580 (November 1996)
Larry Bailey likes this one. It's well-made, in good shape. He strums it. Examines the spruce top. The price is $489.

"That's a nice one," John Guerin says.

(Thinking to himself: Well, that's the guitar Jeff Nitsche brought back to me and traded in. Jeff had been back just a week earlier, saying he was going to buy it back. He had said that for several weeks, in fact, but John hadn't seen any money. And, he thinks, this is the guitar that Ronnie from around the corner had, and wanted to buy back, but didn't get to it in time. This is the guitar that Sam from Covert Ford sold him. And, further back, further than John goes with it, David Berger still kind of wishes he had a guitar, thinks what if he'd kept it.)

This guitar has been to Guitar Heaven three times.

This guitar needs a home.

"I like it," Debbie says.

"Good choice," John says. "Great guitar."

Debbie puts $80 down, and will pay the rest when she picks it up, a few days before Christmas.

After this transaction, John slides a pink index card into the strings of the Fender that says "Sold."

"When women come in and want to buy a guitar for their husbands or boyfriends, I want to weep openly," John says. "We always go around apologizing for wanting to be a musician. We say, ÔOh, honey, this is the last one.'"

Behind the Couch
In the living room, which she and Dennis and the girls painted a bright carnation pink when they bought the house, which she decorated with colonial-style antiques and embroidered pillows, she hides the Fender behind the couch.

No, Denny's going to find it here, she thinks. She hides it behind her daughters' waterbed. She keeps it in a cardboard box on which she has written, in black marker: J.C. Penney.

Listen. Debbie says when it's late, when Dennis has been under every sink in town, after the girls are in bed, she can hear him in the other room playing the guitar she bought him.

"When I hear it," she says, "I know that he's relaxed."

* * *

Guitar Heaven (Or, the Vision of the Lawn Mowers)
"Get this," John says, chopping at the air with the sheer importance of it. "Eric Johnson is going to mow my lawn." Great. Who's Eric Johnson? I say. (Two other customers shake their heads with the pity they save for poor, stupid men.)

"Eric Johnson?" John says. "Come on: Eric Johnson."

Wait, don't tell me, I say. He plays guitar. I get it now.

John wants $1,500 for an amp, a '68 Marshall Plexi, that used to belong to the Austin musician. Eric Johnson called the store, after someone told him the amp was there. John thought it was his friend, Tommy Z, making another one of his crank calls. "Then I realized, it really is Eric Johnson." Eric said his fiancee would kill him if he bought another amp, especially one he sold before. This fact is the part John likes: Even Eric Johnson can't bring home every guitar, every amp he wants.

John struck a deal. Eric Johnson can borrow the amp if he'll come mow the lawn at John's house in Liberty Hill. The whole acre, and all around the dozens of oak trees. John wants a picture of that. Or a counter-offer: Come over and make one pass around on the mower, long enough for John to make a video to show his friends.

Which will never happen. Instead, Eric Johnson comes by the store and John gets a picture there, of him pretending to teach Eric a D-chord. I like the mental image anyway, of all the world's major and lesser guitar gods circling in, riding a herd of lawn mowers through the green thickness of Texas, around and around the porch of a shaved-bald, Bible-quoting exclamation point of a man, while he sits in a chair and picks out "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" on his Gibson 335, divine in his hands.

A song (August evening, the Gazebo É)
I need a song about men and their guitars.

The sun is going down in Buttercup Creek and little girls are turning cartwheels in the grass around the gazebo. The Larry Bailey family moved up the road to Leander, became "Leanderthals," as Larry notes, but comes back for a Tuesday night jam session. Larry brings his 14-year-old son, Ben. There is Doug, playing his guitar. And Ken and Jim and Chris, playing their guitars. And Tom, playing Larry's upright bass.

They go around in a circle, telling stories about their lives, cracking jokes, suggesting folk songs. They always play one gospel song. They always play one by the late, great "Johann" Denver.

They never talk about their jobs.

They do talk about guitars.

"One thing about musical instruments is that it doesn't matter how much they cost. It's what they've come to mean to you," Doug Taylor says. "Over the years I've collected a few and I've had a real hard time getting rid of any of them because they've all developed a personality. You develop a love affair with each and every one of them."

It's one of the rare nights Dennis Katruska can make it home from work in time to join in. He goes down to the gazebo with the Fender herringbone-inlay, series 260S, serial no. 400580, a guitar of little or no distinction. He has learned to play along with just about any song. Sometimes he shakes his head and laughs and waits for the chorus to come around, falling back into the rhythm of the chord changes. "It's a lot easier to learn how to play when you play with guys like this," he says.

They sing "Grandpa Get Your Guitar." They sing a song Larry wrote about high-cholesterol breakfasts. They sing about aliens, lost loves and the times- they-are-a-changing.

Dennis says his guitar isn't going anywhere ever again. It's staying with him, even as he accepts a job transfer to San Antonio and prepares to move his family by this Christmas. His eyes tear up when he sings "Waltz Across Texas" for his wife. Almost every time. His daughter holds the song sheet in front of him. When we dance together/ My world's in the skies. It's a fairyland tale that's come true. ...

Past dark, when all of them should have been home hours ago, the gazebo crowd decides it's time to finish as always, singing "Happy Trails to You." They say good night and set off for home, either on foot or by minivan, in the by and by.

(Austin American-Statesman | Nov. 13, 1997)


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

23 Reasons Why A Profile of Pete Carroll Does Not Appear in this Space by JR Moehringer

Pete Carroll, head coach of the football team at the University of Southern California, turns to me one night around 8 p.m. and says he’s got something to do, somewhere he needs to be. We’re standing outside his office at Heritage Hall, the redbrick headquarters of USC’s athletic program, the trophy-filled heart of Troy . I ask Carroll where he’s going, what he’s doing. He doesn’t answer.

I ask if I can come along. No, he says, absolutely not. I ask again. Sorry, he says. I stare imploringly. OK, he says, looking me up and down—but you’d better change. He rummages through a small wardrobe in the corner of his office and finds a white polo, which he flips to me like a screen pass.

Put this on.

How come?

Your shirt, it’s blue—you might get shot.

Where the hell are we going?

He walks quickly out of the office.


While wriggling into Carroll's shirt, I hurry to keep pace. It’s not easy. Carroll’s normal gait is what others might call a wind sprint. Down some stairs, around a practice field, through a parking lot, we zoom across campus. He tells me to stow my notebook. It might make the people we’re meeting uncomfortable.

Who are we meeting?

Look for a blue van, Carroll says.

A blue van?

There, he says. Sure enough, a blue van is double-parked at the corner, and beside it stands our driver and escort for the night, a deep-chested, gentle-voiced man named Bo Taylor. I climb into the backseat. Carroll rides shotgun.

Along the way Taylor tells me that he and Carroll do this often. They make late-night journeys through the dicey precincts of Los Angeles. Alone, unarmed, they cruise the desolate, impoverished, crime-ridden streets, meeting as many people (mostly young men) as possible. The mission: Let them know that someone busy, someone famous, someone well known for winning, is thinking about them, rooting for them. The young men have hard stories, grim stories, about their everyday lives, and at the very least Carroll’s visit gives them a different story to tell tomorrow. Carroll says: “Somebody they would never think would come to them and care about them and worry about them—did. I think it gives them hope.”

Few fans of USC, Carroll concedes, know that he spends his nights this way. He’s not sure he wants them to know. He’s not sure he wants anyone to know. I ask what his wife of 31 years, Glena, thinks of these excursions. He doesn’t answer. (Days later Glena tells me with a laugh that she doesn’t worry about Carroll driving around L.A., but she drew the line when he mentioned visiting Baghdad.)

We start in east South-Central, a block without streetlights, without stores. Broken glass in the gutters. Fog and gloom in the air. We hop out and approach a group of young men bunched on the sidewalk. Glassy-eyed, they’re either drunk, stoned, or else just dangerously bored. They recognize Carroll right away. Several look around for news trucks and politicians, and they can’t hide their shock when they realize that Carroll is here, relatively speaking, alone.

Carroll shakes hands, asks how everyone’s doing. He marches up and down the sidewalk, the same way he marches up and down a sideline—exhorting, pumping his fi st. At first the young men are nervous, starstruck , shy. Gradually they relax. They talk about football, of course, but also about the police, about how difficult it is to find a job. They talk about their lives, and their heads snap back when Carroll listens.

A car pulls up. Someone’s mother, back from the store. She freezes when she sees who’s outside her house. Carroll waves, then helps her with the groceries. He makes several trips, multiple bags in each hand, and the woman yelps with laughter. No, this can’t be. This is too much. Pete Carroll? Coach of the roughest, toughest, slickest college football team in the nation, schlepping eggs and soda from her car to her kitchen?

Next we drive to the Jordan Downs housing projects , one of the most dangerous places in L.A. We find a craps game raging between the main buildings. Forty young men huddle in the dark, a different sort of huddle from the ones Carroll typically supervises. They are smoking, cursing, shoving, intent on the game, but most fall silent and come to attention as they realize who’s behind them. Pete Carroll, someone whispers. Pete Carroll? The most famous sports figure in the city, excluding Kobe Bryant? (Maybe including Bryant.) Pete Carroll, mentor to Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White—here? A sweet-faced teen named Jerome steps away from the game. He stares at Carroll, shakes his head as if to clear it. He says the same thing over and over. Pete Carroll in the ghetto. Man, this is crazy. Pete Carroll—in the ghetto! Crazy.

Some time after midnight Carroll and Taylor head for the van. Time to get back to Heritage Hall, where Carroll will catch a few hours of sleep on his office floor before his assistant coaches start showing up. A young man stops Carroll, takes the coach aside and becomes emotional while explaining how much this visit has meant to him. He gives Carroll a bracelet, something he made, a symbol of brotherhood and solidarity. Carroll accepts the bracelet as if it were a Rolex. He’ll wear it for days, often pushing back his sleeve to admire and play with it. He gives several young men his cell phone number—something he’s never offered me—and tells them to call if they ever need to talk. One, an ex-con, will call early the next morning and confide in Carroll about his struggles feeding his family. Carroll will vow to help find him a job. (So far, Taylor says, Carroll has found part-time jobs for 40 young men.)

Driving back to campus, Taylor is bleary-eyed, I’m half asleep, and Carroll looks as if he could go for a brisk 5K run, then start a big home improvement project. I ask Taylor if people on the streets ever seem suspicious of Carroll. Do they ever think he’s grandstanding or recruiting—or crazy? Taylor says he’s heard almost no cynicism, though he admits that he was doubtful at first. “Pete was like, ‘I want to go through the community with you,’ ” Taylor says. Sure, Taylor told Carroll, assuming it was just talk. Then, late one night, Taylor’s phone rang.

Hey, Bo, what’s up?

Not much. Who’s this?


Pete who?

Pete Carroll. Hey, man, I’m ready, man. When can we go out there?

Taylor was stunned. Not only did Carroll follow through, but there was something in his tone. He was asking to visit neighborhoods where police don’t like to go, and he was asking without fear. “He asked like he wasn’t afraid,” Taylor says. He turns to look at me in the backseat, to make sure I’m sufficiently astonished or to make sure I’m still awake. “He asked that shit like he was not afraid.”


Carroll gave up fear long ago. He gave it up the way people give up carbs. Fear now has no part in his daily life. Fear is like an old, distant friend. They know each other well, talk once in a while, but they’re not close like they used to be.

In meetings, practices, pregame talks, fear is Carroll’s theme. “That’s what we’re all about,” he says, lying back on the leather sofa in his office one night. “Our entire approach is to come to the point where we have the knowing that we’re going to win. There’s nothing to stop us but ourselves. To do that is to operate in the absence of fear.”

Carroll teams are 65 and 12 over the last six years. They win 84 percent of the time. They win like the sun rises and the Santa Anas blow. Strictly by the numbers—84 frigging percent—he’s the best football coach in the nation, Division I-A or pro. His players, apparently, operate in a fear vacuum. I, on the other hand, operate in the constant presence of fear, the ubiquity of fear. I’m lightheaded with dread at the prospect of profiling Carroll, because early on I realize it can’t be done, not in any conventional sense. Carroll’s the acme of unconventional, and thus a profile of him needs to be radically different. Knowing this creates pressure, a feeling under the ribs that starts like indigestion and becomes a persistent, nagging fear, which is then compounded by Carroll’s noticeably absent fear. Even when Carroll says or does something inspiring, a frequent occurrence, part of me feels lifted up, but much of me feels cast down. It’s analogous to the way, no matter how fascinating you find them, superrich people can make you feel sad.

Also, a profile is like a football game. Yes, football is used as a metaphor for just about everything—manhood, America, war, sex, the real estate market—but it’s a better-than-average metaphor for writing. (In football, as in writing, your flow is impeded by blocks.) It’s especially useful as a metaphor for writing about another person. Football is all about taking something that’s not yours, wresting it from someone who’d just as soon keep it. In football the coveted thing is the ball; in journalism it’s the subject’s self, his interior life, and in a psychic struggle for that prize, Carroll is nearly unbeatable. He’s too amorphous, too various—too quick. He walks too fast, talks too fast, runs too deep. Fathoms deep.

His longtime friend Michael Murphy, cofounder of the Esalen Institute, e-mails me from Russia when I plead for help with my profile, but his answer only scares me more. He says Carroll is more complicated than I suspected: “When we talk, we sometimes turn to sports, but more often to philosophy and the amazing possibilities of human nature. For awhile we worked together with Russian coaches and athletes and talked about ending the Cold War…. We’ve discussed Indian philosophy, religious mysticism, parapsychology as a scientific discipline, and various social causes. I’ve probably forgotten more topics we’ve explored than the ones I can remember.”

Carroll is an unnerving inverse of the traditional sportswriter’s dilemma—the athlete who says nothing and has nothing to say. Carroll says a lot and has a lot to say. The problem, therefore, isn’t lack of information. The problem isn’t even too much information. The problem is finding the right template, the right format for all that information. You can’t capture a character like Carroll using that dried-up magazine format—The Profile. (The opening scene that shows our Subject in a quirky/revealing light; the writerly riff that makes a claim for the Subject’s relevance; the quotes from friends/family/enemies; the quotes from the Subject himself; the closing scene that shows the Subject in a setting that recalls the opening.) With Carroll, I know from the start, this format won’t work. It won’t feel true. Not even 84 percent true. People will think I never got close to him. People will say: “Damn, didn’t you get any access?”


I first meet Carroll just before the season starts. His team is ranked number one in the nation. We’re standing on Howard Jones Field, a fenced pasture at the center of the sprawling concrete campus, and I make my pitch. I want to write something distinctive, I tell him. Comprehensive.

Sure, he says, let’s do it. Awesome, he says. (Along with cool and stuff , awesome is one of Carroll’s words. He says awesome so often that I anticipate it, hear it, remember it, whether he actually says it or not. He’s forever decreeing people and things to be awesome, and the word is no boilerplate superlative: He means that this person or thing is filling him to the brim with awe.) He promises me total access, and in the days that follow, he’s good to his word. He waves me into rooms and meetings barred to other reporters. He lets me eat with him and his assistants. He invites me to watch game films, sit in on private speeches to players, accompany him on recruiting visits, travel with the team—live his life. I’m grateful, of course. I’m aware that a heavy curtain is being drawn back. But I also see that the real VIP area, Carroll’s soul, remains behind velvet ropes.

Carroll’s specialty, after all, is defense. He knows better than most people how to keep opponents at bay, even while letting them feel as if they’re advancing. On the field he favors the bend-but-don’t-break style, whereby his teams surrender small nibbles of yardage but never the big bite. I believe that’s how he treats a would-be profiler. Not by design, maybe, but by instinct.

In an unguarded moment Carroll confesses that he made up his mind long ago about journalists. They’re unavoidable, he says. Like injuries and agents, they come with the job, and it’s best to “build relationships” with them. Know your enemy as you know yourself. (Wisdom from Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist, one of Carroll’s spiritual pillars.) Journalists might help Carroll or flatter him, but they’re more likely to wound him, something he learned the hard way in Boston, ten years ago, coaching the New England Patriots. Boston writers were brutal, he says. They blamed Carroll for not being his predecessor, Bill Parcells. They blamed him for not being his successor, Bill Belichick. They blamed him for breathing. Holding back a little, therefore, isn’t ungenerous. It’s gamesmanship. It’s ball control.


Even when he's not holding back, Carroll crosses me up by repeating stories and quips to other writers. He’s promiscuously quotable, spreading his wit willy-nilly . He doesn’t understand, or care, that we’re all trying to wring something new out of him. He tells me a great story, never before published, about the time he hit bottom in New England. Unable to sleep, he flipped on the TV and found a movie about Babe Ruth. He watched Bostonians booing Ruth and thought: Those are the same guys who boo me as I come through the tunnel every Sunday, and they’re booing the greatest baseball player of all time! He was able to laugh, to lighten up, to feel a connection with the Bambino, which got him through the hard times. I write it all down. Days later he gives the same story to The Boston Globe.

I can’t count the number of times I hear Carroll being pithy with a reporter, e.g., “I always think something really good is about to happen” or “Sleep is overrated,” then say the same thing to another reporter a day or two later. Worse, when he does say something new, something legitimately juicy, he gives my tape recorder the big eye and says—Off the record. He goes off the record like Lindsay Lohan goes off the wagon. I like him (another reason I can’t profile him, shouldn’t profile him), but I’ll never forgive him for declaring one particularly delicious rant against a fellow coach—an “asshole” and “a fucking asshole”—off the record.

More confounding, Carroll’s conversations and private interactions are note resistant. Looking through my notebooks, I find page after page of fragments, moments, scenes that seemed poignant or telling at the time and now feel thin. He might be too evanescent, too ephemeral. His essential aura might lie outside the ken of shorthand.

For example, Carroll tells me he suffers from attention deficit disorder . “Self-diagnosed,” he says, kidding, but I concur with his joke diagnosis. Besides leaving half his sentences (and meals) unfinished, he’s in constant motion, tapping his foot, jiggling his leg, swaying to music, playing drums on tables and dashboards. He’s also endearingly absentminded. For the longest time he had no e-mail, because he couldn’t remember his password. He misplaces his cell phone charger. He loses his keys, locks himself out of his office. (Twice in one 24-hour span.) Days after our drive around South-Central, we bump into Taylor at a charity event. Carroll tries to introduce us. We both look at him, bewildered. I gently remind Carroll that the three of us just spent six hours together.

But then this. I’m watching him watching film. In one hand he holds a laser pointer, in the other a remote control, which freezes the action, runs the play backward and forward at diff erent speeds. Without taking his eyes from the screen, he casually asks Nick Holt, his defensive coordinator, how things went at the doctor. Holt, sitting to Carroll’s right, grunts that a thing on his skin is precancerous and will need to be removed. Like the players on the screen, Carroll abruptly stops, midmotion. He stares at Holt, unblinking, gauging Holt’s level of concern. He stares until Holt lifts his head from what he’s reading and looks Carroll straight in the eye. “It’s nothing,” Carroll says.

“Yeah,” Holt says, and shoots Carroll a grateful grin.

No earthshaking words. No grand gesture. Just a sudden payment of attention, despite an attention debt, because attention is the thing most needed. Just a focus of his personal laser, as in his hand. In my notebook it says:

It’s noth—

Doesn’t blink. Doesn’t jiggle leg

Just stares

In my memory it feels like much more.


On two separate occasions, though I aim the tape recorder at Carroll’s mouth, I later discover nothing on the tape but sibilant mumbles. I hear his voice, then a rustling, then silence, then garble garble—it’s spooky. The tape recorder is brand-new. It was the most expensive one they had at Radio Shack. It picks up my voice fine. When Carroll speaks, the recording sounds like an articulate man gagged and locked in the trunk of a car.


Most football coaches are bald, pear-shaped sourpusses. They look like Southern sheriffs, circa 1954. But Carroll is a Hollywood fever dream, a hybrid of Knute Rockne and a rock star. (Folk rock.) He looks like a man who spends his days in the sun. Not the bad sun, the sun of Marlboro Men and aging soap opera actors, but the good sun, the sun of tennis pros and yachtsmen. He’s not leathery, just burnished. His eyes are bright Caribbean blue, and the browner his skin gets, the bluer his eyes turn. His nose is slightly zigzag. It breaks left, then right, a runner in the open field, and his chin is jutting, prominent, always pointing the way forward.

His hair, however, might be his signature feature. A puffy palette of white, silver, and gray, it reminds you sometimes of Bill Clinton, other times of Dick Van Dyke. Now you see follicular intimations of Richard Gere, now you see flashes of Phil Donahue, now a fleck or two of Jack Kemp. A journalist friend, when I mention that I’m writing a profile of Carroll— before I realized I couldn’t write a profile of Carroll—says the coach has always seemed to him the paragon of kicked-back cool, the Burt Bacharach of coaches. It’s a fine, and fittingly hair-focused, comparison.

He’s taller in person than on TV. Stalking a sideline, he’s always dwarfed by that phalanx of giants in his private Praetorian Guard, but walking the campus he’s taller than most students he passes. He’s also in better shape. He dresses in concealing layers—a blousy polo shirt over a white body shirt, khaki pants— but when he changes in his office, when he’s standing there shirtless, you notice the definition. A USC strength coach says Carroll is a workout fiend, always looking for new ways to get the heart rate up and the body fat down. He lifts weights, boogie-boards under the pier at Hermosa Beach, and after an exhausting morning of meetings and interviews and speeches, he likes nothing better than to run the floor hard with a pickup basketball team. A doctor told him long ago that his knees are bad, bone-on-bone bad, and he should never play basketball again. He doesn’t go to that doctor anymore.

Every year on Carroll’s birthday he vows to throw a football as far as he is old. When he turned 56 in September, he made a point of going out to the field in the morning and chucking the rock 56 yards. He takes visible pride, disarming pride, in telling me that his ball landed with several yards to spare. There is the trace of a smile on his lips as he tells me. There is always the trace of a smile on Carroll’s lips. His effectiveness as a motivator begins and ends with that smile, which is sincere, unrestrained, and wide, though he mixes in half smiles and smirks when being sarcastic. More than the smile, it’s specifically the prospect of a smile that seems to fuel the many people orbiting Carroll all day. They are prepared to go to great lengths, endure significant pain and inconvenience, to earn one of those Carroll high-beamers, and they brighten visibly upon receipt. They become flustered. They turn the colors of a Pacific sunset. They titter.

Many TV and movie stars hang around Carroll. (On his desk is a Jack Bauer action figure given to him by Kiefer Sutherland for his birthday, and he sometimes plays with it while talking to visitors.) One star, however, is known to giggle uncontrollably around Carroll, according to eyewitnesses. The eyewitnesses don’t blame the star, really. Carroll’s smile just has that effect.

More than charismatic, more than charming, Carroll’s smile represents a break from tradition. Football coaches aren’t supposed to smile. There’s no crying in baseball? There’s no smiling in coaching. Football coaches are supposed to snarl and growl and look chronically constipated. Football coaches are supposed to make Dick Cheney look like Mr. Haney. Football coaches aren’t supposed to flash you a smile that makes you go all goosey and forget your dignity. Or your next question.


These are some of the things Carroll doesn’t do:






Think negative .

That is, I haven’t seen him do any of these things, not the way most people do them, with regularity. I, however, do all these things, sometimes at the same time, and following Carroll around, therefore, doing everything he does, not doing anything he doesn’t do, I’m always hungry, tired, thirsty, and need to find a men’s room. He pushes me to the limits of my endurance, until I’m barely able to function.

After we’ve spent the night cruising South-Central, after Carroll has catnapped on the floor of his office, I expect to find him exhausted the next morning. I want to find him exhausted. Instead he looks as if he’s slept ten hours, eaten a heart-healthy breakfast, then enjoyed a 90-minute deep-tissue massage.

It’s emotionally as well as physically demoralizing. Under the best of circumstances, emasculation is a major concern when hanging around the USC football team. Heritage Hall is a hypermasculine, phallocentric environment, and with your little notebook, and your nettling questions, and your trick knee, you can’t help but feel like Woody Allen’s kid brother. It doesn’t help that, while interviewing the defensive star, you hold the tape recorder above your head and wish there were a step stool handy. But when the head coach outworks you, outlasts you, when the head coach grinds you into a fine dust, you feel like Dakota Fanning.

If I shut my eyes and try to picture my time with Carroll, one scene comes quickly to mind. It’s late. He’s pacing outside his office, glancing at a game on TV, tossing a football to himself, talking to me and several assistant coaches all at once. Suddenly and unaccountably he leans against a leather chair and starts doing pushups. Slumped in a chair, eyelids heavy, I can’t help wondering if he might secretly be using crystal meth.

Carroll’s wife says that when he does sleep, he sometimes shoots awake in the middle of the night, seized by inspiration. A new play, a new solution to some Xs and Os problem. Carroll likens his mental state to the movie Phenomenon. He says he feels something like that John Travolta character, whose mind is racing with ideas and flashes of insight. I remind Carroll that at the end of the movie, doctors discover that Travolta’s character has a tumor. Carroll says something to the effect that I’m carrying the metaphor too far.

While watching Carroll in practice one day, I’m vaguely thinking I need to start taking vitamins more regularly. He’s smiling, throwing the football, chewing a wad of gum, inspiring everyone, pumping everyone up. He’s 14 years older than I am. His job is harder than mine. His hours are longer. His path is strewn with greater hurdles—Cal and Oregon, to name two. But here he is, on the balls of his feet, running and jumping, leaping through the air while happily blowing his whistle. Baryshnikov as a Baywatch lifeguard.

I think: Maybe if I had a whistle.


When he’s not helping them conquer their fear, Carroll is preaching to his players about fun. He urges them, if they do nothing else, to have fun, because fun is a natural antidote to fear and a prime motive for most of the things we do.

People who know him best invariably seize upon fun to describe Carroll, either saying it’s fun to be around him or that he’s forever having fun. His emphasis on fun comes mainly from his DNA but also from his reading, specifically W. Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, a 122-page book with a cult-like following. (The latest edition features a foreword by Carroll.) Using tennis as a prism through which to view all human endeavor, Gallwey says we focus too narrowly on results. “The three cornerstones of Inner Game,” he tells me, “are Performance, Learning, and Enjoyment . Usually people put Performance first, and Learning and Enjoyment are almost absent.”

If we focused more on Enjoyment and Learning, Gallwey says, we’d perform better and we’d be a lot happier: “You look at a child. He learns while he plays. Anything he tries to do, or win at, he’s playing, he has a wonderful time doing it. They’re not separate things for a child. That means to me these things are inherently built into human beings. Most human beings, you have to coach what’s already inherent—that is, the drive of excitement to learn and keep learning, and the drive to enjoy. It gets really covered up when winning is everything. I agree with Lombardi: Winning is everything. It’s just what your definition of winning is.”

Defensive end Lawrence Jackson, cocaptain of the team, says he struggled last year, recovering from an injury, fighting to play his way back into shape, until Carroll gave him a copy of Gallwey’s book. Jackson’s game, and his life, changed. “He was telling me to settle down and kind of get back to having fun,” Jackson says of Carroll. “Who knew that it was going to come down to 120 pages of a book?”

I study The Inner Game of Tennis. I try to have fun with my Carroll profile. But I’m caught in a trap. The more I learn about Carroll, the more there is to learn. The more time I spend with Carroll, the greater the pressure. As pressure increases, enjoyment decreases. As enjoyment decreases, performance plummets.

Sensing my rising tension, Carroll can hardly conceal his pity or his amusement. He asks what my plans are for the week. I tell him I’ll be reading about him, thinking about him, trying to figure out how to synthesize all I’ve seen, heard, and read. He smiles and says something that, unless I’m hearing things, sounds like “Poor guy.”


Carroll dislikes “goals.” He doesn’t use the word, makes a face when I use it. So let’s say he’s undertaken two enormous tasks, and he can’t be judged fairly—or profiled—until he succeeds, fails, or quits.

His first task: Turn USC into the grandest college dynasty ever. Not this week’s number one team but history’s. “To win forever,” he says, and before this year he looked to be well on his way. He’d won back-to-back national championships and come within 19 seconds of another. (He still goes over critical decisions in that 2005 championship game against Texas, when the Trojans had the lead late but couldn’t bottle up mighty Vince Young.) He put together a 2007 team that was fast on defense, loaded on offense, the heavy favorite to win the third championship of the Carroll Era.

Then came week five and a series of disturbing setbacks.

There was the inexplicable collapse against Stanford, the most improbable loss by an “overdog” in college football history, according to oddsmakers. There was the flare-up of an old scandal surrounding Bush, the virtuoso former tailback, who stands accused of taking $280,000 in improper payments while a student athlete. (Should Bush be found guilty, the NCAA could levy hefty fines against USC.) There was a rash of injuries on offense, decimating a corps that was supposed to dominate and sidelining John David Booty, the starting quarterback, who cracked a finger on his throwing hand. Suddenly, people were questioning the invincibility of USC and its coach.

Carroll’s second task, however, is even more lofty and less likely to be finished soon. Having achieved job security for the first time in his life, he’s expanded his work to include the city beyond USC. Some want to save the world—Carroll wants to coach it. He’s launched a foundation, A Better LA, aimed at motivating on a large scale, at ending violence in the inner city, and he now takes time each week to think and talk about problems other than what to call on third and long. With any coach who’s still coaching, drawing conclusions can be hard. His legacy is always in flux; it hinges on what happens next Saturday. But when a coach is remaking himself into a social activist, when he’s just beginning the task for which he may one day be best remembered, firm statements feel that much more ridiculously premature.


On a recruiting swing through the city, Carroll drops in at a private high school. He asks to see a faculty member, a woman whose son is a touted prospect. The mother emerges from her office and frowns. She recognizes Carroll immediately and knows why he’s here. She brusquely explains that all the men in her family played for USC’s hated rival, Notre Dame, and that’s where her boy is almost certainly going. Carroll says he knows all about the boy’s Notre Dame pedigree. He’s been well briefed. But he came anyway, he tells the mother sheepishly, because he likes a challenge. He smiles. The mother scowls.

Carroll is a master at recruiting. His life is predicated on competition, and he particularly enjoys competing for people, kids, prospects, which is how dynasties are made. (College football geeks have ranked Carroll’s last five recruiting classes among the best in the nation.) Sometimes, when talking to a recruit and his parents, Carroll can barely contain his enthusiasm. “I know what I’m offering,” he tells me. “They can’t even conceive. They don’t—they can’t possibly understand how special—.”

Booty remembers his first recruiting visit to USC. Carroll won him over in seconds. “Acted like he’d known me my whole life,” Booty says. “Just coming up, giving me a high five, hugging my parents. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had meeting a college coach. I’ve met just about every coach—hands down, he was the best.”

Before leaving campus Booty knocked at Carroll’s door and told him he’d decided to play for USC. “I didn’t even go home to think about it. I told my dad, ‘This is where I want to be.’”

Carroll tries everything, but the mother refuses to warm up. It’s not just that Carroll coaches the Enemy; the mother clearly doesn’t like the idea of her son leaving home, ever. She cringes at the thought of handing him over to any coach, no matter the school. He’s 14, she tells Carroll, pleading. He’s a baby, she says. Carroll tries to reassure her. In the soothing voice of a suicide hotline operator, he says that he realizes her boy’s young and college is years off . He simply wanted to introduce himself. No big deal, no pressure. But when the time comes to choose a school, he adds, he hopes she’ll at least consider USC. Come to the campus for a visit.

The mother nods, thanks Carroll, then walks him—no, escorts him—to the front door. As Carroll crosses the street, the mother yells: Good luck with the season! Hope you have at least one loss!

Carroll turns to me.

What’d she say? Hope you have green moss?

Hope you have one loss.

He squints. Still doesn’t get it.

In other words, she hopes you lose to Notre Dame.

Really? That’s what she said?

We climb back in the car. Ken Norton Jr., Carroll’s linebacker coach, drives to the next school. Carroll turns up the radio. Humming along to an R&B song, he stares out the window, lost in thought. All at once he brightens. Hey, he says. At least she wants us to win 12 games! That’s what she’s saying, right? She hopes we win 12 games. That ain’t so bad!


Shortly before arriving at USC, Carroll sat down and drew up three rules, three basic imperatives that are central to his view of coaching. The three rules are among the first things a freshman learns when he steps on the USC practice field. The three rules must be memorized, internalized, or the player is out. The three rules are:

1. Protect the team.

2. No whining. No complaining. No excuses.

3. Be early.

No matter how many times I add them up, the three rules look to me like five rules. I feel like a malcontent, a contrarian, for raising the point, for even noticing, but I can’t help it.

Also, something inside me rebels against Rule No. 2. (No. 4, by my reckoning). Something inside me bridles at any blanket prohibition of excuses, for reasons that by now should be obvious.


I could write that Carroll failed as a head coach in the National Football League, that he didn’t hit his stride, didn’t find himself, until he returned to college ball. It’s the most common knock against him, and his NFL record (33-31) was less than dazzling. But I could just as easily write that Carroll deserved more time, that he was done in by idiot fans and trigger-happy NFL owners who didn’t recognize his strengths. Given more time, Carroll would have become one of the best. “He never really had a chance to establish himself,” says Boomer Esiason, who quarterbacked for the New York Jets when Carroll was the coach. Esiason calls the day Carroll got fired “the saddest day of my professional life. I basically went from a Ph.D. to an elementary school education in about 15 minutes.”

I could write that Carroll was too soft on his players in the NFL—it might be the worst charge that could be leveled at a football coach. It’s been leveled at Carroll plenty, and he winces when he repeats it. But I could just as easily write that Carroll’s positive attitude, his native optimism and idealism, find more receptive ears among young players, who haven’t yet become cynical, who don’t play for money.

I could write that Carroll’s restoration of USC’s glory, his resurrection of a prowess and cachet that date back to the 1920s, is one of the most impressive achievements in the annals of college football, so fast and dramatic that it borders on miraculous. Carroll took a team that had become a nonfactor, that hadn’t won a national championship in 22 years, and turned it into a machine. His stars made a habit of collecting Heismans as if it were their birthright— three winners in four years, a feat no other school has achieved. No one would have dared say I was wrong—until this season. When USC fell to Stanford, you could hear the critics clearing their throats, rehearsing their revisionist histories and eulogies of the Carroll Era. Maybe the magic is gone, they said. Maybe Carroll benefited from a crew of talented assistants, they said, guys like offensive mastermind Norm Chow, who left to become offensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans, and Lane Kiffin, who left to become head coach of the Oakland Raiders, and Ed Orgeron, who’s now coaching the University of Mississippi.

Just wait. Another few losses, another season or two without a championship, and the critics will get louder. Carroll was overrated, they’ll say. He got lucky, they’ll say. He came along at the same moment as a rare cluster of once-in-a-lifetime players, they’ll say. He’s lost his Trojan mojo.

Carroll knows what they’ll say, and when he hears it, when he feels that he’s losing the players, losing the fans, losing momentum, or just losing, he might leave. Regardless of the contract extension he signed in 2005, details of which he declines to discuss, he’s not likely to stay where he’s not wanted, or where his message is no longer working. “I never want to coach again when it’s not like this,” he says. “I won’t hang on for dear life. I love winning so much that I can’t imagine being here when it’s any other way.”

I could write that, even if he does leave, he’ll never go back to the NFL, where he was booed and labeled a failure. “There’s no way,” he says, and Esiason agrees. “I don’t know if there’s nirvana for Pete Carroll—but I know it’s not in the pros.” And yet. When I press Carroll, I can’t help feeling that he hedges. “There’s no franchise, there’s no ownership, there’s no philosophy,” he says. “The only thing it would give me would be credibility. That you’re the best in the world.”


He was born in San Francisco, September 15, 1951, and grew up in nearby Marin County. A boisterous, happy household, by several accounts. His father was a liquor wholesaler, his mother “the life of the party,” Carroll recalls. Dad was “competitive,” Mom was “loving, really kind.” His mother died in 2000, his father in 2001.

He takes after them in equal measure, he says, though at least one friend disagrees. “His mom was really his heart,” says Dave Perron, a buddy who played college ball with Carroll. “She just lavished so much love and affection on him that made him feel confident about himself.” His father wore the gear, the sweatshirts and hats of every team Carroll ever coached. “Because I got fired and kicked around so much,” Carroll says, “he had about eight closets full of stuff .” Still, Perron insists, “his core, his soul, comes from his mother.”

Carroll attended Redwood High School, where he played three sports. He continued playing football through college, first at the College of Marin, then the University of the Pacific, where he transferred in his junior year. He starred at free safety.

After graduating with a degree in business administration , he went out for the World Football League, but an injured shoulder kept him from making the team. “They might not say it was the shoulder,” he confesses. He briefly tried his hand at selling roofing materials. He was miserable. When he got wind of a job opening on the coaching staff at his alma mater, he pounced on it. The pay was nothing, but he didn’t care. While studying for his master’s in sports psychology, Carroll worked as a graduate assistant with the team, coaching the school’s receivers and pass defenders. At 25 he married Glena, a fellow jock. (Volleyball.) She was one of the first female athletes to earn an athletic scholarship from the University of the Pacific. They have two sons and a daughter.

In 1977, Carroll signed on as a graduate assistant at the University of Arkansas, under Lou Holtz. He soon advanced to the level of assistant coach, first at Iowa State, then Ohio State. In 1980, he caught on as defensive coordinator at North Carolina State. Three years later he returned to Pacific as assistant head coach and off ensive coordinator.

Carroll broke into the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, in 1984, coaching the defensive backs. From Buffalo he moved to Minnesota, coaching backs for Bud Grant’s Vikings. In 1990, he jumped to the New York Jets, as defensive coordinator, and in 1994, when he was 43, he became the team’s head coach. He was young for such a big-time job, and the word wunderkind got hung on him, sometimes flatteringly, sometimes sarcastically.

The wunderkind went 6-10 his first year and got fired. Carroll recalls sitting across from team owner Leon Hess. It felt, Carroll says, as though he were “staring into the eyes of Satan.” He spent the next two years with his hometown 49ers, building a ferocious defense. The playbook was a mess, a mélange of schemes and ideas that went back years, he says. No one could tell where anything had come from, who was the originator of what—like a polygamist’s family album. His ability to unravel, decipher, and streamline the book won him praise from many in the organization, including Bill Walsh, his shining hero. (Months after Walsh’s death, Carroll keeps a Walsh voice mail in his cell phone and listens to it every time he clicks through his saved messages.)

In 1997, Carroll landed the job of head coach in New England. His first year was his best. The Patriots won ten games and captured the AFC East crown. His next two years saw a slight but steady drop-off . Owner Robert Kraft said publicly that firing Carroll was a tough call, but David Halberstam, in his bestselling book The Education of a Coach, says Kraft had grown enamored of Belichick and was eager to shed Carroll.

Most often Carroll sloughs off past failures. Now and then, however, his voice darkens and his tone betrays the residual pain. Over takeout one night—I devour mine, he picks at his like a supermodel—Carroll says his time in Boston inoculated him against criticism. “I’ve already been dead,” he says. “You can’t kill a dead man.”

It was late 2000, just when he felt he’d recovered from the trauma of New York and New England, that USC fired its coach. The school had been to only one Rose Bowl in ten years. Fans were clamoring for a recognizable name with a sparkling résumé. Carroll knew he was a long shot. School officials had a list of three or four candidates, and he wasn’t on it. But to everyone’s surprise, Carroll aced his on-campus interview with USC athletic director Mike Garrett. Overnight he was the front-runner.

After weeks of drama and intense public speculation, Garrett introduced Carroll as the new coach shortly before Christmas. The announcement was wildly unpopular with alumni, writers, and fans. “I’m not mad at Pete Carroll,” wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke. “I’m mad at USC for hiring him.”

A shaky start seemed to validate the anti-Carroll voices. His first season opened with a big wet thud—two wins, fi ve losses. Although Carroll believed this was his last chance at coaching, he didn’t panic. As always, he expected something good to happen, and it did. The players began to mesh. The three rules took root. From 2001 until the present, USC has been the nation’s dominant team. At one point the Trojans owned a streak of 34 straight victories, spread over three seasons. But it was also the way they won. The 2004 muscling of Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The 2005 systematic demolition of Oklahoma. The 2005 “Bush Push” thriller against Notre Dame.

Carroll takes particular pleasure in the change at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. For those first few months of his tenure, the stadium was half full. Now every home game brings 92,000 dressed in cardinal and gold, the kind of hard-core fans who make “Tribute to Troy” the ring tone on their cell phones, who know what Palmam qui meruit ferat means, who proudly wear pins that read IN PETE WE TRUST.


He speaks in Joycean sentences composed of Xs and Os and arrows. He draws up elaborate problems—on dry-erase boards, in a code of symbols and squiggles that might as well be ancient Sumerian—solves them, reconstructs them, then erases them, and starts again. He turns to his assistant coaches one night, all of them sitting in high-backed leather chairs, eating homemade cookies and milk. “How can it be this easy?” he says, drawing up another play to stymie the next opponent. They dunk their cookies, laugh. Thousands of these problems take up the neurons of Carroll’s brain. (There are more than 900 plays in USC’s playbook alone.) The names of the plays convey their esoteric quality, names like “Mash Two Trips Right 99 Y- Stick X-Snap” and “Trips Right Z-Short 12 Track F-Seal.” You can’t profile someone unless you speak his language, and you can’t hope to profile Carroll unless you know the difference between Amigo Burst and Zombie Right, or the relationship between the Mike, the Will, and the Sam, or the glorious history of the Seven Diamond, or why Carroll and his assistants sometimes spontaneously and simultaneously cry out “Tokyo!” And you can’t understand such things without years of study.

One afternoon I watch Carroll enjoy a private eureka moment with his assistant Rocky Seto. While analyzing data on their next opponent, they realize that the defense has a tendency to react the same way every time it’s faced with one situation. Leaping to the dry-erase board, Seto points to a series of numbers and says, “They run all their spiders from the right hash!”

You don’t say.

On another occasion Carroll lets me sit in a corner as his offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, briefs players about the next defense they face. Everything Sarkisian says is Top Secret, but Carroll knows I might as well sit in on a U.N. Security Council session without headphones that provide translation. I lose the thread—and, briefly, consciousness— somewhere in the middle of the following Sarkisian speech: “I want to make sure we’re clear when we’re running seal zone plays and when we’re running our regular zones, when we’re making slow calls, when we’re running power, and when we’re blocking with Ds and Cs, and when we’re making slappy calls. Big in this game, on first and second downs, guys, is our play action passing, whether it’s off the bootleg pass, 13, 12 boot, A 42, A 43, our Nakeds, Rose and Lee, and A 26, and A 27…80, 90….”


The first quarter of the first game of 2007. Carroll’s team is preoccupied, heavyhearted, mourning their beloved placekicker, Mario Danelo, who died in January after falling from a cliff in San Pedro. (Danelo was drunk, but police still don’t know why he fell.) The players have honored Danelo with an emotional pregame ceremony and with a moment of silence before kickoff , but it’s not enough. After USC scores its first touchdown, Carroll sends just ten men onto the field to kick the point after. One man is missing—Danelo.

Slowly the crowd realizes what’s happening. They see the holder kneeling in an empty backfield—a sort of missing man formation . Murmurs ripple through the crowd, then a cheer goes up. It grows louder. The play clock runs down, the refs whistle the play dead. USC is penalized for delay of game. The ball is moved back five yards. At last Danelo’s replacement trots onto the field and boots the ball through the uprights. The symbolic gesture, which perhaps has given some extra comfort to Danelo’s family, sends chills around the Coliseum and further cements the bond between coach and players.


Americans have always felt a deep reverence for their Lombardis and Halases, their Landrys and Bryants, their Rocknes and Strams. The American love of coaches goes back 110 years, and it says something about who we are and where we stand as a culture, the way we lap up gossip about them, chart their up-and-down careers, YouTube their tantrums. We thrill to watch them throw clipboards, pound lecterns, grab face masks , berate writers—so long as they win. Hell, we love them even if they don’t win, so long as they’re good and crazy. When Mike Gundy, head coach of Oklahoma State, suffered a public nervous breakdown in September, when he spent his weekly press conference bullying a female columnist for something fairly innocent, I expected him to be hospitalized. Instead he was lionized. Writers and fans praised Gundy for “backing” his players. Recruitment at Oklahoma State spiked. Parents wanted to pack up their sons and send them to live with this lunatic.

Maybe we love coaches because deep down we long to be coached. Whatever we do, we’d like to do it better, and we go weak at the knees for the man of passion who vows to kick our ass until we do our best. Even some of our cultural icons are actually coaches in disguise. What is Oprah but a coach to tens of millions of women?

Or maybe some deep, virulent strain of cultural bellicosity underlies our football coach fetish. We’re a warlike nation, on a war footing, and if football is our weekend simulacrum of war, football coaches are our stand-ins for four-star generals—and God knows we swoon over generals. (More than one in four U.S. presidents was a former general.) Given our atavistic fondness for field marshals and chieftains, it’s a wonder more coaches don’t run for high office. Then again, why would they voluntarily submit to such a drastic cut in pay and a still sharper decrease in power?

Carroll believes he knows why we love coaches, why the epic coaches have become American icons. “They were themselves,” he says. Great coaches, he says excitedly, know themselves. What about coaches who fail? “They don’t know themselves,” he says. “So they act in accordance with what they think they should be acting like, as opposed to finding out who they are so they can act directly in connection with the essence of who they are.”


While coaching the Jets, Carroll got his hands on some strange reading material, stuff that was really “out there,” he says. He was seeking the philosophers’ stone, the idea or set of ideas that would help him reach players and also find meaning in his life. He befriended a blind woman, a “futurist,” who read crystals in her spare time and experienced strong visions whenever Carroll was near. “We had kind of a cool friendship. I was learning about Native American stuff .”

Carroll stumbled on a concept called “Long Body,” a way the Iroquois thought of the tribe. One feels pain, all feel pain. One triumphs, all triumph. Long Body. He began applying this idea to football. “Things were occurring,” he says. “I didn’t know—I had a meeting with players and coaches, and I was telling them about this Iroquois concept. Connection of the tribe. They live together, they hunt together. They become one. So I’m telling them about this concept—this is really far out—and I say, ‘As we go through this camp, go through this season, we’re going to get so close, we’re going to connect in this true fashion. Long Body. It’s going to take us to places we’ve never been before.’ And at the end of my talk I say, ‘As we get through it, I’ll explain it more to you, and I know this to be true so much right now that thunder will strike—’”

At that moment, Carroll says, he struck a table with his fist and a clap of thunder shook the building.

His coaches, he says, turned white.

I turn a little pale myself.

“At bed check,” he says, laughing, “I found guys curled up, reading their Bibles.”

As with many gods, and most holy men, Carroll endured the archetypal Time of Suffering, followed by the mandatory Period of Exile, then the classic Journey Through the Wilderness, culminating with the all-changing Epiphany. It happened this way. After being fired by New England, Carroll retreated to his office in Massachusetts, to read and reflect. He thought his coaching career might be over. That is, he did and he didn’t. He still believed, deep down, something good was about to happen. He still believed he was a winner who simply hadn’t won yet. John Wooden told him so. Carroll read one of the UCLA basketball coach’s books and learned that the man who won ten national championships in 12 years didn’t win any in the first 16 years of his career. His dry spell gave Carroll comfort.

During his exile, Carroll also tried his hand at a column for the NFL’s Web site. Something about the discipline of writing every day made him look inward, a thousand miles inward. A logjam loosened; the universe got clearer. Eventually it all came pouring out, his principles, his beliefs. He wrote and wrote, page after page, caught in the grip of inspiration. He laid out the Carroll Doctrine, a battle plan, a battle cry, a manifesto, stressing the value of Fun, Competition, and Practice in helping athletes “self-actualize.” In other words, know themselves. An athlete who knows himself, Carroll says, is unstoppable. The Soul is the Zone that every athlete must strive to enter. Before a big game, Carroll is likely to remind his players to be themselves. “Be who we are. Don’t make shit up, ever!” He says this to his men before their game against Nebraska, a street fight in which they put 49 points on a stunned Husker team that thought it had improved.

I ask Carroll if I can read this manifesto. Carroll says he has no idea where it is. He might not have written it, per se.


It might have been a dream, he says. What matters is that he woke one day and knew himself. He had himself down cold. He was ready to go forth. He was ready to win.


Carroll is part camel. It’s the only explanation. After a morning of meetings, followed by a speech to a booster group, we return to campus. It’s unseasonably warm. I fantasize about a dozen glasses of cool water lined up before me. Looking at my watch, I calculate 18 hours since he’s ingested any type of liquid. I couldn’t be more parched if I were trailing around after T.E. Lawrence. I mention my ravenous, desperate thirst to Carroll. He sighs, guides me to a minifridge in the assistant coaches’ locker room, grabs me a cold Gatorade. My mouth waters as I start to unscrew the cap.

Aren’t you going to have one? I ask.



I hesitate.

Well, I say, I’m not having one until you do. I set down the Gatorade.

He warns me not to make it a competition. If I make it a competition, he’ll die before he takes another drink. (Later he explains it this way: “What I am is a competitor. That’s what I am. My whole life, everything I can ever remember, I’ve been competitive—competitive for friendships, competitive for love, competitive for sports, competitive for heroship, competitive for everything and battling for everything. When I throw my gum away, I’m trying to land it on the line.”) Clearly I don’t want to get into a thirst-off with this man. Nothing good can come of that. I take a sip of Gatorade. The cool orange flavor runs down the back of my throat, and I almost weep with pleasure.

That night I get a text message. I don’t recognize the number. But it doesn’t take long to fi gure out who it’s from.

still haven’t had anything to drink.


He loves music. The computer in his office is always playing something, usually his favorite radio station, KFOG, in San Francisco. He lives from song to song—John Legend, Stevie Wonder, the Grateful Dead—so it’s perfect that Heritage Hall sits 20 feet from USC’s music school. Whenever Carroll walks to or from practice he passes through a wall of music.

Not music, actually, but scales, exercises. Students sit outside at all hours, rehearsing on their cellos and oboes and French horns. They unwittingly provide a sense of perpetual overture and underscore a central tenet of Carroll’s coaching—practice, practice, practice.

“One thing I’ve learned, which I was taught a long time ago but didn’t grasp at the time, is the power of practice,” Carroll says. “The discipline that comes from practice, that allows you to transcend the early stages of learning and take you to a point where you’re freefl oating and totally improvising. Through the discipline, the repetition, you become free.”


Ben Malcolmson, a 22-year-old former player, sits at a tiny Bob Cratchit desk outside Carroll’s office, ready to drop everything and follow Carroll to the next talk, practice, team meeting. Malcolmson takes careful note of everything Carroll says, then blogs it instantly, with photos, on his popular Web site, uscripsit. com, which he launched earlier this year with Carroll’s help. Thousands of people visit the site every day.

It’s an experiment few coaches would be open enough to permit, and it’s a life-changing adventure for Malcolmson, who might be the most ardent Carroll fan of them all. “I’ve learned a lot from him about eliminating all negatives,” Malcolmson says. “That’s something that’s going to stick with me the rest of my life.”

Malcolmson recalls last season, when USC lost to Oregon State, the team’s first regular season loss in three years. No one knew what to do, what to feel. Everyone looked to Carroll to tell them, to guide them through the pain: “I was thinking—I can’t wait to get [there] Monday, to know how to feel.”


Carroll is standing in Salon E at the Omaha Marriott, the night before the Nebraska game, when he spots 14-year-old Ryan Davidson. (A USC alum introduced them four years ago.) Carroll hugs Ryan, asks how he’s feeling, then invites him to sit up front with the offensive linemen while Carroll addresses the team.

Davidson looks painfully small, wedged between linemen who outweigh him by 200 pounds. But they all pat him on the back, talk with him, go out of their way to make him feel welcome. He beams. He radiates joy.

This is precisely why Ryan’s father, Kirby, brought the boy here, all the way from their home in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Ryan is due to have surgery in four days, Kirby says. Doctors will remove two new tumors on his brain, a third recurrence of the brain cancer first diagnosed when he was six. “We found out two months ago it had come back,” Kirby says.

Carroll bounds to the front of the room. Before talking about tomorrow’s game, before giving the team its last-minute instructions, he asks them to welcome their honored guest. The players give Ryan a thunderous ovation, which can be heard down the hall and out in the lobby.

At the game, Ryan and Kirby are Carroll’s guests on the USC sideline. They watch alongside Will Ferrell and Keanu Reeves. During the postgame press conference, they try to stay out of the way, but again Carroll spots Ryan.

Hey, Carroll says. Come up here, Ryan. I need you up here with me.

While answering questions, Carroll wraps an arm around Ryan. “He was up there with Coach a good ten minutes,” Kirby says later. “Anybody I’ve shown that videotape to—you can just tell the feeling Coach Carroll has for Ryan. He held on to him really tight and never let go.”


Seated next to me at the black-tie event is a USC student. He takes a call on his cell phone, then closes it and turns to me. USC lost, he says.

No, I say. Impossible.

My friend just called me, the young man insists. Final score—Stanford 24, USC 23.

We both stare at the floor. The first home loss in 35 games? To a 41-point underdog?

I’m surprised by how the news affects me.

The next day I watch clips of Carroll’s press conference. He calls the loss “crushing.” I blanch. That’s not the Carroll I know. That’s not a word I’ve ever heard him use. If Carroll is crushed, I’m further than ever from understanding him. More important, if Carroll is crushed, we’re all in trouble. If Carroll is crushed, if his ideas about Fun, Competition, and Practice can be swept away by one loss, what chance do the rest of us have to connect with our inner Carroll, to coach ourselves, to inspire ourselves, to go forth and win?

I drop by Heritage Hall weeks later. Middle of the night. I find Carroll huddled in the war room, watching film with his assistants. He gives me a big smile and seems to be in better spirits. His players are getting healthy, and they’ve just delivered a mega-statement in South Bend, skunking Notre Dame, 38-0, for the first time since 1933.

He takes me into his office, asks me how the profile’s coming. I tell him that I decided I couldn’t write a profile of him, so I wrote about all the reasons why I couldn’t. He laughs—as if he’s won something. Which makes me laugh.

He asks when we saw each other last. Before Stanford, I remind him. His face changes. No more laughter. No more smile. Stanford. Not even the trace of a smile. Stanford. He starts replaying the game for me, describing the interceptions, the fatal miscues, the wrongheaded decisions. Stanford. He reaches for a black baseball bat and tests its weight, swings it hard at a phantom fastball as he recounts the final harrowing plays. The fourth-down conversion. The stomach-churning touchdown.

I was so pissed off , he says. I’m still pissed off . I’ll always be pissed off.


Well—he smiles. I want to feel pissed off . I harvest that pissed-off feeling.

He talks excitedly about the next opponents, the remaining schedule. The smile grows. The bat slices quicker through the air. He lists the things that are about to start falling into place, the good things that are about to happen. I lean back. I listen. I smile.

I don’t know if I believe. But, hard as I try, I can’t think of a single reason not to.

Copyright 2007 LA Magazine