A Gathering of Family

Bernie's Insiders webmaster offers his thoughts about Saturday night's United in Need banquet for Eddie Johnson.

Reggie Rucker looks older than I remember him, but I remember him when he was running down the field at Municipal Stadium. There are a number of NFL alumni walking around the lavish setting of Thistledown's club, and I'm embarrassed that I can't place some of them without a number on their backs. These are the men who played on the great Browns teams of the 1980s. These are the men who solidified the Browns in my heart as a team I will follow to the end of my days.

Rucker steps up to the microphone and the tones I remember from his days as an NFL analyst remain the same. The same self-confidence. He tells us about his friend Eddie Johnson, how a single type of treatment for his cancer costs nearly $40,000.

That brings it home.

Football players are glorified by their accomplishments, and many fans look angrily at their seemingly vast incomes. But when they are let go by their teams, there's no long-term medical coverage, no safety net under them. For the players who were around before the recent free-spending era, there's not a lot to fall back on. Today's era of players are not, by and large, the type to look back at those who paved the way for them. Don't expect help.

That so many people have rallied to be by EJ's side at this time speaks volumes about their affection for him and the impact he has had on their lives. Gerald "Killer" McNeil put it best as he talked about the team as a family. Pulling together in a difficult time is what families do, and EJ's family at Thistledown consisted of men like Mike Pruitt, Curtis Weathers, Hanford Dixon, Robert L. Jackson, and Doug Dieken. The hundreds of people who turned out to help Eddie fight against cancer is in itself a testament to the man which spoke louder than all those who stood up to toast him and tell stories throughout the evening.

* * *

Despite an uncharacteristicly clear weekend in Cleveland, there was a cloud hanging over my head as I drove to North Randall Saturday evening.

It's been a tough year or two for those of us in the information technology field, as the burst of the Y2K and dot.com bubbles has reduced previously high-flying income opportunities and reduced many to scrabbling at the edges of what they previously accomplished. I worked for the same employer for 15 years, moving steadily up in position and income to the point where even I admitted to being radically overpaid. Now, though, the raises and bonuses are small if they come at all, and the threat of sudden unemployment hangs over our heads like an omnipresent gulliotine.

Welcome back to the real world, Mr. Bietz. Hope you like it.

As I've learned that capitalism can be a hard master, I have learned that time can be as well. I've still got an interest in sports, and have been fortunate to continue to compete on equal terms against men slightly over half my age. I can occasionally defend my generation of middle-aged near-geriatrics by learning the young 'uns a thing or two. But age, I've learned, doesn't want to make exceptions for me. With every passing year, I find myself getting a little less flexible, a little less agile, a little slower. This has hit me hard over the past several weeks, as I wasn't able to compete as well as I did even a short time ago. Time has one dimension. Always forward, never back.

My heart was heavy as I sped south on I-271.

* * *

I've met Eddie Johnson a couple of times. We've talked about the web site and his contributions... I love reading Eddie on The Insiders board and his articles in the magazine. Eddie is honest, he's direct, he pulls no punches. As a fan, I make sure that I zero in on Eddie's comments. In the parlance of my era, Eddie rocks.

The times I've spoken with Eddie didn't prepare me for what I heard on Saturday night. The soft-spoken giant who talked to me about what he did in the community didn't seem like the EJ I remembered watching: the devastating middle linebacker who hit people in a way that they stayed hit. I saw a hint of that other Eddie at Thistledown Saturday, as he gave his remarks.

The Eddie Johnson who would drill any running back foolish enough to be caught carrying a football in his vicinity is looking to drill this new intruder the same way.

Eddie Johnson is not a man beaten down by cancer. Far from it. He has an evangelical fire in his eyes when he speaks about how he's going to beat this thing. Eddie talks about how Jesus is going to make another miracle, and I believe him. He talks about how the evening is a celebration, and thought of sadness vanishes. He talks about his love for the extended family that has joined him and even I, an outsider looking in, can feel it.

Eddie brings a cute little girl, just a couple of years older than my youngest, up to the stage with him. She's a doll in a red dress, any father's pride and joy. We hear about how she was diagnosed with cancer and told that there wasn't much the doctors could do. But she's still here. Eddie asks her to tell the audience what she told him and she gets up her courage to speak. Despite her own challenges, she tells us that she promised Eddie she would pray for him.

And she will. And so will we.

* * *

It's getting late, but I call my wife on my cell phone anyway. She asks me, with more meaning than usual these days, how I'm doing. Fine, I tell her, and we talk about our evenings as I head home. She has taken our three children to dinner with some friends of ours, and - news that only parents of young children can appreciate - I learned that all of them actually ate without complaint or the creation of food sculptures.

I tell her that I saw someone gather his friends close and face down cancer tonight. I saw that the purest legacy of a man are one's family and friends. I'm fairly stupid, because it's taken me almost four decades to figure this out.

I am heading back north on I-271. Despite the hour being close to midnight, I can feel the sun rising.

- AB