The Oak Cliff Mustangs

Craig-Mustangs-1975

Craig Dunning, Oak Cliff Mustangs, 1975

I had a two-season venture into youth football in 1975 and 1976. I wasn’t so much into football – I was always a baseball guy – but so many of my baseball teammates talked about playing football that I thought I would give it a try.

Most of the talk among my friends was about the Oak Cliff Mustangs, so that was the team I tried out for.

The Mustangs were considered to be one of the best youth football clubs in Dallas in those days (the Jets organization was the other, as I remember it). Therefore, many of the better youth football players chose the Mustangs because of their winning reputation. The odds were stacked against me because the challenge of competing for a roster spot with some of the best football players in Dallas was compounded by my small size and lack of experience. The only thing I brought to the table was effort; I desperately wanted to make the team. Not just any team. This. Team.

The tryout period was rough; it was hot, the practices were long, I had no idea what I was doing, and I didn’t particularly like getting crushed by the bigger, more experienced players. We practiced daily (M-F) from 6-8pm at the north end of Redbird Park, which is now known as Thurgood Marshall Park.

The head coach’s name was Ray Dean. He was old, stern, and ran a tight ship. We had other coaches, but I only remember him and his son (1976), whose name was Kit or Kip.

Craig Dunning, Oak Cliff Mustangs, 1976

Craig Dunning, Oak Cliff Mustangs, 1976

Tryouts were about 2 weeks long. Maybe longer, and definitely shorter for some! I think I have blocked the specifics of tryouts from my memory to preserve my sanity and dignity. The warm up routine was 3 laps around the field (about 1/2 mile) followed by calesthenics. For calesthinics, a couple players, chosen by Coach Dean, led us through a standard set of jumping jacks, sit ups, neck rolls, etc.

After we were sufficiently warmed and stretched, we went through a variety of skills and coordination drills, which were followed by full-contact and blocking pad drills. I did fine in the skills and coordination sessions, but routinely got smothered in the blocking and contact events.

The best part of practice – besides the end! – was scrimmaging. Even though it was stressful because I didn’t know what I was doing at any position they placed me, I most enjoyed scrimmage. To end practice, we did sprints or laps or both. I. Hated. That. Part.

The final thing each night of tryouts was the cut. I dreaded the thought of being called to the “gallows,” but pretty much expected it. Each night, my dad sat in a lawn chair with the other parents watching practice and waiting for the evening to end with the inevitable summons to meet with Coach Dean. After each practice, Dad always inquired: “He didn’t tell you to stay after?” Surprisingly, that didn’t happen the first week. It should have, but it didn’t. And more surprisingly, it didn’t happen the second week, either. I actually made the team! But not because of any skills or potential. I didn’t have either. According to Coach Dean, I had earned his respect and a spot on the roster because he tried but couldn’t make me quit. (Story continues below.)

1976 Oak Cliff Mustangs

1976 Oak Cliff Mustangs

At the year-end banquet, Coach Dean awarded me the Heart Award, which was 10 silver dollars and a handshake. More important to me, though, is what he said when announcing the award:

The recipient of the Heart Award shouldn’t be here tonight. He should not have made the team; by all accounts, he wasn’t supposed to. At tryouts, he was the smallest, slowest, and least qualified player in the bunch. But, he wouldn’t quit. He came in last on sprints. But, he wouldn’t quit. He shuffled along at the back of the pack on laps. And when I made him run more laps for being last, he ran them … slowly, but he refused to quit. He was easily knocked down. But he always got back up. I wanted him to quit, but he wouldn’t. I tried every way I could to get him to quit. But, he wouldn’t. And because he wouldn’t quit, I kept him on the team.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the recipient of the the Heart Award is Craig Dunning.

For two seasons, I didn’t quit. For two seasons, I went to practice every day Monday thru Friday, then to games on Saturdays. I rarely got to play in the games. It didn’t matter if I sat on the bench near the coach or stayed out of his way, I wasn’t getting into the game until mop-up time, if at all. Sometimes that meant less than 01:00 remaining on the clock. Many times I never entered the game at all. Only a few times in two seasons, did I get into a game when the outcome wasn’t yet decided. On one of those occasions, an away game against the Grand Prairie Packers, I made the most of my opportunity: I sacked the quarterback twice on consecutive plays. (Story continues below.)

In this undated photo, Craig Dunning pursues an opponent. This may be the only existing photo of Dunning in action on a football field.

In this undated photo, Craig Dunning (20) pursues an opponent. This may be the only existing photo of Dunning in action on a football field.

I know it was hard on my parents to see me work so hard and get seemingly so little out of it. There was a financial cost for them, to be sure. But, there must have been an emotional cost, as well. Yet, they never complained in my presence of either. They were team players. I appreciate their willingness to let me fight and struggle and hurt in this way, so that I could be part of something bigger than myself.  I had made the roster of one of the best youth football teams in Dallas, Texas. I was an Oak Cliff Mustang! That was important to me. Thus, it was important to them and they willingly paid their own price for that to happen.

I learned much about life in those two years. I learned the value of getting up when I got knocked down. I learned the value of putting one foot in front of the other and continuing to move forward, even slowly if that’s all I have left in me. I learned the value of being part of something bigger than myself. I learned about team dynamics and team work. I learned the value of suffering. I learned the taste of victory and defeat. I learned what it feels like to be unappreciated. I learned what it feels like to sit the bench. I learned how to earn respect.

Thank you, mom and dad. Thank you, Ray Dean. Thank you, Oak Cliff Mustangs 1975 and 1976.

State Fair of Texas

It’s fall in Dallas … and that means the State Fair of Texas! I have so many great childhood memories from Fair Park. I’m not certain that we did the pilgrimage to Fair Park every fall of my childhood, but if it wasn’t every year we went regularly enough that the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and thrills are permanently etched in my mind; and I want those same things for my kids.

Colleen, Grace, Zach, and Big Tex at the State Fair of Texas 2015

Colleen, Grace, Zach, and Big Tex at the State Fair of Texas 2015

My earliest memories of the State Fair occurred on the same visit; I’m guessing I was about 4 years old, but I’m not certain at all. In one of the buildings, I’ve long forgotten which, I picked an oyster from a tray of oysters and watched the vendor cut it open to discover a pearl. I was so excited to have it crafted into a piece of jewelry for my mom. I think it became a pendant for a necklace; perhaps she remembers.

On that same visit to the fair, the “string game” on the Midway is another story I can never forget, and I don’t want to. In this game of chance, the carny holds a hand full of long strings from which the contestant pulls one; on the end of each string is a colored tag that indicates which prize, if any, the contestant wins. As I selected a string, the carny pulled it out of my hand and mixed it back into the bunch, and said, “pick another one, kid.” My dad blew a gasket, swearing (in every sense of the word!) that I had picked the string with the grand prize ticket; he let the carny know in no uncertain terms that we had been cheated, and that he (the carny) would be in serious danger if he stepped out from his game stall. The shouting went back and forth until our money was eventually returned.

The rest of the day was pretty much soured because my dad was so angry. But, in that moment, he set the standard that he would support me when he thought I wasn’t getting a fair shake. And he did; even when he didn’t understand why I chose certain paths in life, he had my back.

On a few occasions during elementary school, I remember parking at Sears in Oak Cliff and riding the bus. That was the only time I ever rode the city bus in Dallas. In those days, students received a free buss pass, a free fair ticket, and a day out of school to use them. I think kids get free tickets now, and some schools work in a fair day, too. Now, the big push is to ride the DART trains to the front gate, so students may get train tickets, too. I’m not sure.

Zach won an alligator at the State Fair of Texas 2015

Zach won an alligator at the State Fair of Texas 2015

When I was in first or second grade, I thought I knew the trail through the glass house and began to run as fast as I could to prove my prowess. Well, that prowess came to a crashing halt when I literally ran through a floor to ceiling window. The impact shattered the glass and cut me between the eyes. Blood was streaming down my face. Bleeding and disoriented, I struggled to find my way out, but couldn’t. Eventually a worker made his way to me into the midst of the glass maze and carried me out and to the first aid station.

My mother watched all of this from outside, but could only wait until I was brought out. She followed us to the first aid station, and, in the end, the cut was quite small and was easily cleaned up by the nurse. Lesson learned: I have never run in a glass house again.

Also during my elementary days, I enjoyed going through the Food and Fiber building … for one reason. Beer biscuits! At one of the booths, we were able to sample biscuits that used beer instead of milk. I really thought I was getting away with something, not realizing that all the alcohol had been baked out.

I like almost everything about the fair. I like watching people try to win stuff on the Midway. I like the buzz and energy of the crowd. I like hearing the roar of the crowd in the Cotton Bowl when a team scores. I like seeing the show animals in the barns and the pig races and the Frisbee catching dogs and the Budweiser Clydesdales. I like the rodeo. I like the parade, the Marine Corps Band, and the high wire acts. I like walking through the buildings, seeing all the various tools or housewares that are supposed to make life easier, whether that be chopping vegetables or loosening a rusty bolt. I’ve bought pressure cookers, cleaning supplies, drill bits and a host of other must-have items over the years. And, truth be told: none of them have ever worked as well for me as they did the demonstrators. But, I’m still fascinated to watch the presentations and even tempted to buy!

Grace enjoys an ice cream at the State Fair of Texas 2015

Grace enjoys an ice cream at the State Fair of Texas 2015

One of the big attractions now is the variety of weird fried foods. What hasn’t been deep fried and served at the State Fair of Texas. Butter? Check. Ice cream? Check. Oreos? Check. Bubble gum? Check. Coke? Check. Kool-Aid? Check. Pop Tarts? Check. I’m not interested in that stuff, though. When it comes to food at the fair, I’m fairly traditional. Give me a turkey leg, a corn dog, and corn on the cob. I always like nachos, too. This year, I introduced Zach to an overpriced, but delicious turkey leg. Though he was skeptical at first, it didn’t take long for him to say, “That’s delicious.” And what would a trip to the fair be without something for the sweet tooth? Cotton candy? Yep. Ice cream? Yep. Salt water taffy? Definitely! And every once in a while a candied apple hits the spot.

Growing up, I never was much for the rides at the fair, except for the old wooden roller coaster. I rode some rides, but don’t have any particular childhood memories of rides at the fair. I always liked the fun houses and side shows. They don’t really have side shows anymore, and I understand why. One reason is that people now realize it isn’t cool to pay to see people who have birth defects. The other reason is that what once was considered human oddities are now on display for free at Walmart every day!

The side show that I remember the most included several acts: Block Head, the human pin cushion. The human conduit sat on an “electric chair” and illuminated light bulbs by placing them on his head or in his mouth. There was a knife thrower and the girl in a box that wriggled around the saw blades. The morbidly obese “Fat Lady” lumbered her way on to stage and plopped down on a pile of pillows. The barker shouted, “Look at her dance, folks!” as the pitiful woman jiggled her belly in her hands to some background music. For an extra 25¢ we got to go into a back tent area to see the tattooed lady who must have been 70 years old. She stood stone faced in a bikini with saggy skin covered in tattoos.

So much fun. So many memories. Unfortunately, it has become so expensive to go the State Fair that my kids will not get to experience it annually. I hope to take them every few years, but somehow, I don’t think they will have the great memories of it that I do.

 

The Wedding Dress

Before we were married, Colleen was living in Czech Republic and I was living in Israel. Since we planned to live in Israel after our wedding, we decided that Colleen would bring her stuff to Israel and then, we would fly to Texas for our wedding. Our flight out of Israel was exactly 12 hours after Colleen arrived from Czech Republic, which isn’t quite enough time to see the sights.

When we arrived in Texas, very few details for our wedding remained to be arranged since most were either taken care of abroad, or, alternatively, by friends in Texas. Among the details that were managed from abroad was Colleen’s wedding dress, which she had custom made in Czech Republic. It was beautiful, inexpensive and hand carried. We didn’t take the chance of having it damaged or lost in checked baggage; and it came in handy as we went through airport security at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.

Usually, Israel is a destination point, not a transit country. That being the case, I suspected that her flying from Czech Republic to the United States via Switzerland and Israel might raise some serious concerns for the security team at Ben Gurion. Particularly, if she was in Israel only 12 hours. That’s just not a normal route.

When our turn came to go through security at Ben Gurion, we approached the counter expecting to be given the “full treatment.” It seemed reasonable given our particulars: we’re not Jewish, we’re not Israeli, and Colleen had only been in the country 12 hours. The agent who handled us was thorough, but courteous, which was appreciated. As he quickly moved from question to question, he finally arrived at the standard, “where are you going and why” questions.

“Well, we’re going to Texas to get married,” I answered. He smiled as if he had finally found a chink in our armor and asked,”Can you prove that you’re going to Texas to get married.” As quickly as I noticed the look in his eye, the answer came to me: “I can’t prove that we’re going to get married, but we do have a pretty good clue. She has her wedding dress!” I responded. “Can I see it,” he countered as we seemed to be sparring now. So, with great fanfare, I “jabbed” him with a little faux drama: “Sure! But in our tradition, I can’t see her dress before the wedding, so give me a chance to turn around!” Colleen pushed the garment bag toward our interrogator as I spun away. The timing was so perfect it had to be choreographed. But it wasn’t.

Apparently weakened by my ability to verbally spar, or more likely realizing that we were telling the truth, he delicately opened the bag just enough to peak inside. Upon recognizing that it was, in fact, a wedding dress, he blushed and quickly zipped the bag closed and said, “Okay, you can go.” And, as quickly as he zipped the bag closed he covered our bags with security stickers and moved us on to the ticket counter.

That was it: One of our easiest journeys through airport security. The interview lasted only a few minutes and the issue of Colleen’s 12 hour transit in Israel never came up. I felt victorious. Colleen was just happy that I didn’t get us dragged into the back room for the extra special attention offered to shady characters.

Next stop: Newark.

Israel Baseball and Me

I was intimately involved in the activities of the Israel Association of Baseball for twelve years: umpire, umpire trainer, club team coach, national team coach, fitness instructor, board member, peace envoy, guidance counselor and who knows what else. In 2009 I was honored to receive the IAB’s Outstanding Achievement Award.

Mine was an unlikely beginning: As I was walking down King David street, I heard the sound of a ball hitting a bat come from behind the YMCA. Curious about that sound, I went around the building to see, to my utter surprise, a baseball practice. I stood around watching, making mental notes of things that could be improved, and when the players took a break, I asked the coach if he would mind if I made some suggestions. He was receptive to my input and asked if I wanted to umpire the scrimmage game that was about to start.

That’s how it started. A twelve year relationship that took me to places like Cyprus; Moscow; north, central and south Italy; and Philadelphia, Omaha, Kansas City and Pittsburgh for various competitions. A relationship that gave me the opportunity to participate in two Jewish Olympics; once as an umpire, once as a coach. A relationship that gave me the opportunity to travel to Jordan as a peace envoy in a failed effort to forge a relationship between Israel Baseball and Jordan Baseball. A relationship that gave me the opportunity to meet Major League Baseball owners, players, scouts, and executives.

But most importantly it was a relationship that gave me the opportunity to invest in the lives of young men, to see boys mature into men who would one day move beyond baseball to be soldiers and university students and build careers and families. And hopefully do those things better because of something they learned in one of my programs.

I’m thankful to those who offered any type of support to my efforts whether it was a financial gift, a kind word, friendship, a word of wise counsel, or by running interference for me with my adversaries.

I’m particularly thankful to Colleen who literally labored side-by-side as we built the best field in the country at the Baptist Village; traveled with the team in the early days; then, after Grace was born, waited up countless nights for me to come home after practice or games. Only a few realize how much she invested in Israel Baseball.

 

Where Were You?

Colleen and Craig at the top of the World Trade Center in 1999.

Colleen and Craig at the top of the World Trade Center in 1999.

Many, if not most Americans from the generation immediately before me seem to frame time around the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Over the years, I’ve repeatedly heard others ask and answer the question, “Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?” Now, it seems that question has been replaced with “Where were you on 9-11?” So, for all of those who will ask …

Colleen and I, and our friend Bill had just picked up an Israeli diplomat’s son at the foreign ministry in Jerusalem and were driving to a baseball game at Gezer when he received the initial news feed via a pager that each diplomat’s family members carry. But what was coming through the pager was incomprehensible for all of us in the car: A plane flew into the World Trade Center? As we continued to drive, the reports continued to come in with more details. But, more reports didn’t make things clearer; the story was so bizarre that we couldn’t understand what was going on.

After the game, we returned to Jerusalem and stopped over at Bill’s landlord’s apartment where the large screen TV was tuned into the news feed. Bill’s landlord was an elderly gentleman who had been a taxi driver in New York City in his earlier years. He was in shock as he was glued to the video footage, and kept muttering, “I’ve been there thousands of times; right there.” Over and over, he kept repeating the same thing, “I’ve been there thousands of times; right there.” Like everyone else, we were stunned and simply couldn’t believe what we saw on the television screen.

During the rash of suicide bombings in Israel (1990s-2000s), people frequently measured their closeness to the latest bombing by recounting the last time they had been in that location (sometimes only minutes prior) or by predicting the next time they would have been there. I think that is a fairly normal response to a momentous event, particularly an overwhelmingly life threatening or negative one.

We, too, have done that regarding 9-11. Less than 3-weeks prior we had passed near the World Trade Center with members of the Israel National Baseball Team on my birthday, August 26. Several of us were ending our first US baseball visit by going to see the Staten Island Yankees. We took the Staten Island Ferry to the game and then returned to Manhattan the same way, passing near the WTC once again.

We were also in the area shortly after the attack. After things were somewhat sorted out and flights were resumed at Newark International Airport (where Flight 93 originated), Colleen and I were on the first flight from Israel to arrive at Newark on the morning they re-opened for international flights.

On the separate, though semi-related matter of security post-9-11, we had an interesting view. We had been blessed with the rare opportunity to fly back to the States in business class. It was strange to see the other passengers receive their wine in clear plastic cups rather than the traditional wine glass, which had been a staple of flying up front. When the flight attendant brought our silverware for dinner, the fork and spoon were typical metal airline cutlery. The knife, however, was the cheap plastic picnic variety.

After arriving at the international hall we went through customs and then walked around to the domestic side where we had to return through security once the gates were opened. We were among the first people in line waiting to get through the security checkpoint, and our early arrival gave us the opportunity to see close-up how unprepared security was, even after implementing a new protocol. It was an absolute train wreck. The security agents didn’t know the answers to simple questions like, What do we do with our computers? What about our cell phones? The agents outside the security gate were literally hollering across the line, “Hey, what are we doing with computers and cell phones?” We were shocked that the security agents, in spite of a lengthy shutdown, had no idea what they were doing.

 

 

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