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Book Review: The Soul of a Horse

Soul of a Horse by Joe Camp

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Some years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing a real Hollywood maverick named Joe Camp. You might remember that Joe created the Benji movies, those independent features that shocked the studios and made a bundle of money by offering simple stories about a persistent little mutt named Benji. Camp, whose son, Brandon, recently directed Love Happens with Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston, kept creating books and movies about the beloved Benji, whom I referred to in 2004 as the screen’s most popular pooch since Lassie. But when the last movie failed to ignite, Joe Camp was discouraged and decided to take up a new hobby, with his lawyer wife, Kathleen. The result is his book, The Soul of a Horse: Life Lessons from the Herd, published in 2008. It’s an exercise in transference from dog to horse by someone who made his career out of caring about animals.

One of the best aspects of the Benji pictures, including the one that didn’t do as well, Benji Off the Leash, is Joe Camp’s strong sense of what forms the bond between man and pet and his soul-searching book about horses builds on that bond. As Camp turns inward in this meandering journal of an amateur horseman discovering and coming to terms with how one ought to treat a horse, he yields page after page of original and thoughtful insights about properly tending to this beautiful animal of prey. From feeding, riding and communicating to blankets, horseshoes, and ropes tied to posts, his hard-won lessons on the ranch, coupled with Kathleen’s slightly different approach, is another volume in the growing literature of books that argue for an organic, or “natural”, treatment of the horse.

One need not accept all of his conclusions, most of which make sense, to gain value from this thought-provoking, and, at times, poetic call for knowledge and understanding in horsemanship. As he puts it: “Few have put it all together into a single philosophy, a unified voice, a complete lifestyle change for the domesticated horse.”

“Leadership makes a difference,” Camp writes. “Even with borrowed horses. Or rented trail horses, who carry folks around every day of their lives. You never know when it will come in handy for the horse to think of you as a leader. And it’s so much nicer to know that you’re off on a ride with a friend. A partner who trusts you. Not some vacant-eyed mechanical device manufactured just to carry you around. The rub, of course, is that leadership isn’t easy or free. With horses or in life. It’s earned. But it does make a difference, and is worth every ounce of the effort.” Whether it’s his most treasured horse, Cash, or Kathleen’s Skeeter, or Mariah, Pocket, Handsome, or, later, Mouse, Soul of a Horse, with a foreword by Monty Roberts, is itself something of a treasure, from a man whose love of dogs has given us so much joy on screen. (Kindle for iPad app version read and reviewed. Click here to buy this book.)

The Vancouver Kiss

Photo Courtesy of Richard Lam/Getty ImagesThe story of the young couple in this photograph merits a moment of attention. According to an interview with NBC’s Today Show, the woman on the street, Alex Thomas, was pushed by Vancouver, British Columbia, riot police to the ground, where she apparently started to panic until her boyfriend, Scott Jones, kissed her to calm her down.

I don’t know the details of their involvement, if any, in the Vancouver hockey riots, which are nothing new (I commented on L.A.’s 2009 sports-related riots here and proper sportsmanship here), and I am disgusted by the looting and attacks on private property. The photograph, apparently captured inadvertently by photographer Richard Lam, is fitting for our troubled times. Whether the Canadian government’s use of force was appropriate in this instance, this young couple’s kiss amid the riots is a bright spot in dark and dangerous days. With the United States and the West in uncharted territory on the brink of economic collapse, with total government control a real and imminent possibility, and engaged in an undeclared war of total destruction with jihadist barbarians, we should take a cue from these Canadian youths and indulge in a kiss as often as possible. Ms. Thomas describes the image as “beautiful” and she’s right. More than ever, we should live in (not to be confused with for) the moment and make love, with vigor and passion for life, selfishly acting to be happy here on earth. We should hold close those we value, as Mr. Jones did when he “seized the day”, and kissed, and calmed, his girlfriend.

In these difficult times, we ought to “seize the day” and argue for reason and fight for our lives. Too many, perhaps most, accept what’s wrong with the world or, worse, reject it yet stand by and do nothing. But fighting is not the ultimate purpose in life. This kiss reminds us what is.

Lamar Hunt by David Sweet

Lamar Hunt by David Sweet

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Sports writer and editor David Sweet doggedly gets down to the business of professional sports, especially the early days of pro football, soccer, and tennis, in his biographical Lamar Hunt: The Gentle Giant Who Revolutionized Professional Sports. Sweet’s account of the extraordinary son of Texas oil titan H.L. Hunt tracks his successes and failures and innovations. There are many of each.

One of them is Hunt’s founding of the defunct American Football League (AFL), forerunner to the American Football Conference (AFC) of the National Football League (NFL), with which the AFL merged to form the most successful sports league in American history. After requesting in-flight stationery from an American Airlines stewardess on a plane from Miami back to Dallas, 26-year-old Hunt jotted down his thoughts on formulating what he thought it would take to deliver pro football to Americans: three exhibition games, a 15-game schedule consisting of three teams playing eight home games and the other three teams competing in seven home games, a 60-40 split of gate revenues favoring the home team, with visiting teams choosing the larger of 40 percent or $35,000 and each football team reserving the right to two territorial draft choices. Hunt, joined by hotel businessman Barron Hilton, also planned to beat the NFL’s starting player salary by paying them ten percent more.

Chicago newspaper editor Sweet (a former and favorite editor of mine from my early newspaper days) reports these copious details, which occasionally overwhelm the narrative, with relish, marking each part of an understated career in the life of what one Sports Illustrated reporter called a “poor little rich boy”, whom he compared to someone standing up nervously in catechism class with neither force nor authority. The biography rolls out a stream of rarely discussed items from an industrial athletics archive, with such early football legends as George Blanda, George Halas, Howard Cosell, Len Dawson, Tom Landry, Don Meredith and Gale Sayers, quoted here as crediting Hunt for racial integration in pro sports.

Besides the AFL, which would have turned 50 last year, Hunt’s widely unknown achievements are impressive: the two-point conversion, the advancement of pro soccer in America, and creating the model for today’s professional tennis tour and innovative retail, amusement and stadium parks and properties. Hunt even designed the Kansas City Chiefs’ arrowhead logo, scribbling it on to a napkin. Sweet packs it all in, from Hunt’s connection to Kennedy assassin Oswald’s murderer Jack Ruby to his Christianity, which Sweet sees as providing a general moral compass that allowed him to nurture his virtues of honesty, integrity, and rationality.

Lamar Hunt combined selfish values, such as his abiding love of sports, with an ability to take risks, even when he was losing money, and earn enormous wealth, and David Sweet’s Lamar Hunt, with photos, notes and an index, capably and convincingly demonstrates that fact, though he doesn’t write it that way. Sweet credits what he calls Hunt’s humility, which is alternately supported and countered by the facts of his career in the sports industry. Clearly, the man who coined the term Super Bowl thought big, not small. So, when one former NFL commissioner asserts late in the game that Lamar Hunt did not have an ego, the reader, having consumed the abundant evidence, may conclude that Hunt merely had an ego that was healthy enough to be nourished by his own ample accomplishments.

Mario Lemieux on Sportsmanship

Mario LemieuxKudos to athlete and businessman Mario Lemieux, former center forward and current owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, for denouncing the National Hockey League’s sanction of malicious initiation of physical force (as against rough play during competition) in hockey. The NHL didn’t do much to discipline the New York Islanders after they attacked the Penguins in a recent game that resulted in 346 penalty minutes.

Lemieux, a husband, father, and cancer survivor who saved the Penguins from financial failure by buying the team and is one of the sport’s greatest players, issued a statement about the NHL’s appeasement of brute force: “Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be. But what happened Friday night on Long Island [when the Islanders attacked the Penguins gang-style] wasn’t hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that. The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed. We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players.  We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action. If the events relating to Friday night reflect the state of the league, I need to re-think whether I want to be a part of it.”

Number 66 Mario Lemieux is one of hockey’s best players and one of the sport’s most successful businessmen. His all-around skills were amazing on ice and he led the Penguins to stunning victories year after year. Today, the Penguins have one of the NHL’s highest television ratings in America, according to FoxSports, and the team is worth $235 million, according to Forbes. When the ‘Guins won their third Stanley Cup a couple of years ago, Lemieux became the only individual to win the Stanley Cup as both a player and owner. He speaks with confidence, honor and reverence for the game. The NHL, which turned the other cheek on the Islanders’ brutality, should listen.

Pittsburgh Steelers and the Steelmark

Pittsburgh SteelersThough I no longer follow professional or college sports, which I think is often as thoroughly bankrupt or corrupt as American culture, next week’s Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers conjures the heyday of the National Football League (NFL). I remember reading about admirable players such as Johnny Unitas and the Packers’ Bart Starr, both valued for their intelligence and integrity, during my youth, watching the Packers play in those brutal Wisconsin winters and feeling the Packers fan pride during visits to America’s Dairyland. Of course, being from Pittsburgh, I always cheered for the Steelers (and Panthers, Penguins, and Pirates). I used to wait outside hotel lobbies for a sight of the Steelers when they came to play near my town, and I remember Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, and Lynn Swann as kind athletes who graciously signed autographs and answered my countless questions. Andy Russell, Jack Lambert, Mel Blount, John Stallworth, Frenchy Fuqua, Roy Gerela, Jack Ham, Rocky Bleier, I met nearly all of those Steelers of the 1970s. Mean Joe Greene seemed just like he did on the Coke commercial. They were my heroes.

One of my first heroes was the original Pittsburgh Steeler, Andrew Carnegie. He created U.S. Steel, whose diamond-shaped design is emblazoned on the helmets of the Pittsburgh Steelers, America’s only major football team with a capitalist logo, when he sold Carnegie Steel to J.P. Morgan in 1901. The Steelers’ diamond-shaped logo, composed of three hypocycloids, is known as the Steelmark. Cleveland, Ohio-based Republic Steel suggested that the Steelers use the logo, an industrial trademark by then, on their helmets in 1962.

According to the Steelers’ history of the symbol, the logo was intended to convey that steel lightens your work, brightens your leisure and widens your world and that steel is important in our daily lives. During the 1970s, the logo’s meaning was extended to include the three materials used to produce steel: yellow for coal, orange for ore and blue for steel scrap. Appropriate to an American symbol of productiveness that would not be possible without property rights, the Steelers had to seek and gain permission from the American Iron and Steel Institute to change the word “Steel” to “Steelers”. The Steelmark was created by U.S. Steel (now known as USX Corp), the world’s first billion-dollar corporation, in a deal which made Andrew Carnegie the world’s richest man. The Steelmark, a symbol of mankind’s most productive period in history, is one of America’s last iconic images (Ford Motor Company’s signature logo also comes to mind) of capitalism, the nearly bygone era.