Thursday, September 30, 2010


Lexington, Kentucky.  Visited April 2006

Time Cover Story - Spring 1973

I’ve been looking forward to this post. I get to talk about my favorite athlete of all time – Secretariat, the great thoroughbred. The opportunity for this blog right now is to commemorate the release on October 8 of his ‘biography’, the Disney-produced “Secretariat”. Disney has done a great job with a number of its sports biographies (Remember the Titans, Miracle and The Rookie come to mind), so I have hope for this.

It may seem odd to say that a horse is your favorite athlete. I mean, does a racehorse even know he’s in a competition? In days where sports stars are often either trouble makers or drug takers (or both), choosing an animal for a hero could look like a cop out. So I’ll need to need to make my case for “Big Red” as my favorite athlete. But first some bio.

Secretariat was foaled in March, 1970 and was put down due to laminitis at the ripe old horse age of 19 at historic Claiborne Farm in Lexington, KY. His birthday made him eligible for the 1973 Triple Crown races. As a two year old he had begun to show real promise, but nothing indicated what he would accomplish in three races over five weeks in May and June of 1973. No horse had won the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont) in a quarter of a century, and many said it could no longer be done. Secretariat not only won the Triple Crown, it was the way he did it that created the legend.

Big Red won the Kentucky Derby by a respectable two and a half lengths over a hard running colt named Sham. In the process though, he set a track record at Churchill Downs that still stands almost forty years later. Even more remarkable, his quarter mile fractions decreased throughout the race, which means he was accelerating the entire time.

The second race, the Preakness, is the shortest of the three. Secretariat beat a game Sham once again by two and half lengths, setting one of the lowest times in track history. But it is the Belmont race that will forever define Secretariat’s greatness.

The Belmont is the longest of the Triple Crown races at a mile and a half. Given that Big Red had come from last place to take victory going away in each of the first two races, only four other horses (including Sham) challenged him in the Belmont. This time Secretariat and Sham went to the lead together, but on the back stretch Secretariat nosed ahead. By the turn the race was effectively over; the only question would be the margin of victory. As captured by announcer Chick Anderson’s classic race call (“Secretariat is widening now. He’s moving like a tremendous machine!”) the horse simply took off – widening his lead ultimately to 31 lengths! As he crossed the finish line no other horse was even in the TV picture. At first you might assume that the other jockey’s simply pulled up to save their defeated horses, and this would account for the victory margin. But a glance at the race timer doesn’t lie – 2 minutes 24 seconds – a world record for that race distance that has never been broken! So essentially my favorite athlete smashed a world record simply for the fun of it. As jockey Ron Turcotte put it “I was just along for the ride”. If you’ve never seen Secretariat’s Belmont, you owe yourself the thrill – here it is:   Secretariat's 1973 Belmont

Home stretch of the Belmont.  My wife gave me this picture signed by the photographer and jockey Ron Turcotte - I've got it hanging in my office

When lists of the greatest athletic feats of the Twentieth Century are concocted, Secretariat’s Belmont is a consistent top five finisher. I vote it number one.

Secretariat statue at Kentucky Horse Farm in Lexington

So why my hero? Spring 1973 was a dismal time - the Vietnam War had finally ground to a bitter end in March, but the Watergate scandal was casting its jaded pall over the country.  In 1973 I was a 13 year old kid who, like everyone else, was looking for something to root for, not just against.  And like everyone else I got caught up in Secretariat mania.  I had re-arranged my Saturday schedules to catch the Derby and Preakness.  Imagine how bummed I was when I found out that I had to go to the store with my mom on the day of the Belmont. But one of the clearest memories I have of that period of my childhood was finding my way to the electronics department of J. C. Penny and watching this amazing race unfold on about fifteen TV’s simultaneously. As I stood there with that race flashing all around me I didn't cheer.  Instead, I was caught up in some deep but undeniable sense of peace. I was watching an animal do what he was created to do, do it with amazing beauty, and do it with what seemed like effortless joy.  I was tasting a 2 minute plus burst of equine shalom - a horse being exactly what he was created to be. That’s when he became my favorite athlete and that’s what he’s been ever since.

Here's some nice footage of Big Red galloping around his retirement paddock in retirement.

Secretariat is buried at Claiborne Farm in a small graveyard that is sometimes called ‘the Arlington Cemetery of Horseracing’. Along with Big Red are buried some of the legendary horses of the 20th Century, including Gallant Fox, Swale, Bold Ruler and Riva Ridge.  I had the chance to visit when a couple of my fellow pastors and I were in Louisville for the first Together For the Gospel conference and we took a little road trip into horse country - to pay respects to my favorite athlete of all time. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Oliver Cromwell's Head

Cambridge, England.  Visited December 1997

Oliver Cromwell
Ok, this post might be a little beyond the interest of most people. If there is a line between reasonable hobby and what should probably be left alone, the story of Oliver Cromwell might be on the other side of that line, because all I have to talk about is his head. But before we get to that, let’s talk about the whole man.

Oliver Cromwell (1599 – 1658) is one of the most controversial figures in British history. To some he was the destroyer of an ancient monarchy, the only dictator in the history of Great Britain. To others he was the final guarantor of true religious freedom in England. To history he is one of the greatest military leaders the world has known. The complexity of his legacy is perhaps best illustrated by one later biographer, who described him as "a brave, bad man."

Oliver Cromwell was raised in the English countryside as a minor gentleman and was educated at Cambridge University. Around the age of 30 he became a member of Parliament during its political ascent and rivalry with the court of Charles I. In his mid 30’s, Cromwell experienced a radical conversion to Christ under the ministry of the English Puritans, with whom he would identify theologically and politically for the rest of his life.

During the English Civil Wars (1642-49) Oliver Cromwell emerged as the most effective leader of the Parliamentary Army, never being defeated in battle. After the execution of Charles I, Parliament offered Cromwell the throne, which he refused. But bowing to political pressure Cromwell agreed to accept the temporary position of "Protector of the Commonwealth," essentially ruling the country until a parliamentary republic could be secured. While his ultimate vision was for a parliamentary rule, Oliver Cromwell died as Lord Protector in London in 1658 – the only ruler in Great Britain never to claim royal privilege. His final words reflect both his Puritan hope and his unpretentious approach to life, “My design is to make what haste I can to be gone.”

Cromwell was buried with great fanfare among the great heroes and rulers of England in Westminster Abbey.

Oliver Cromwell honored on the Reformation Wall
 in Geneva Switzerland

But our present interest in Oliver Cromwell is what took place after his death. Here’s the story as reported by the London Daily Telegraph in November 2008.

Cromwell's head - stone version

But now return to England, winding back the clock… to the 1670s… London is one of the most advanced cities in the world. Take a stroll past Westminster Hall, and look upwards. There, on the roof, are three strange objects impaled on wooden posts, looking suspiciously like human heads.

And that is just what they are; not mock-ups or effigies, but the actual heads of three of the 'regicides' who had signed the death-warrant of Charles I in 1649 - John Bradshaw, Henry Ireton and Oliver Cromwell. When Charles II was restored to the throne, the corpses of those three men were dug up, ceremonially hanged and then decapitated, and the heads remained on public display for at least 20 years.

Ollie on a portable pike held by his last private owner
Little is known about the eventual fate of the other two; but Cromwell's head went walkabout some time in the 1680s, when his wooden pole snapped in a storm. A surprised sentry, at ground level, recognized the face that came rolling down the street at him; for Cromwell had been professionally embalmed for his original funeral, and the treatment had preserved his skin like leather.

Tradition has it that the sentry had republican sympathies, and hid the severed head like a holy relic in his home, revealing its existence only on his deathbed. His daughter later sold it, and during the 18th century it passed through the hands of various entrepreneurs and showmen, who thought - mistakenly - that they could make their fortune by exhibiting it. In 1815 this bizarre item was bought by a Mr. Wilkinson, whose family kept it out of public view, but allowed it to be carefully inspected by two scientists in 1934; finally, in 1960, it was given a decent burial in or near the chapel of Cromwell's old Cambridge college.

To be honest, I never went looking for Cromwell’s head. I stumbled on it, figuratively speaking. My brother John and I spent a week in England together in December 1997 which included a couple of days touring in Cambridge. As we walked through the University we ducked out of the rain into the entryway of Sidney Sussex College – which happens to be the alma mater of Oliver Cromwell and the final custodian of his noggin. Naturally I had to get a picture. And naturally Ollie Cromwell became a prime candidate for this blog.

The college purposely didn't identify the exact burial place of the head so no one would be tempted to dig it up and take it on the road again.  I think my head in this picture is scary enough.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Atlanta, Georgia.  Visited December 2006

Some dates stick out to you when you are growing up. For me, one of those dates was April 4, 1968. We were leaving a cub scout event at my school, Dresden Elementary in Chamblee, Georgia. It was early spring chilly as we all climbed into our red Rambler stationwagon and my dad turned on the car. The news came to us through WSB AM, the only radio station I knew. Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot in Memphis, Tennessee.

For a nine year old white boy in the deep south, it was an unsettling moment. I didn’t know much about Dr. King or what he stood for, but my parents had taught me to respect him, just like they had taught me to root for Henry Aaron. But I knew enough to know that not everyone around us thought well of Dr. King and the movement he represented. And we were white southerners in a white southern culture. So shock and grief were mixed with fear – fear of what might happen next as the news began to impact the world around us.

I’m so grateful for my parents. What they said over those few days helped settle the fears of a little boy who didn’t understand the volatility of the day. What they modeled helped that little boy understand that race doesn’t define who we are, but character does.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. His grandfather, Martin Luther King pastored the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Martin Luther King, Jr. would graduate from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Crozer Seminary in Philadelphia (now the location of Crozer Hospital) and receive his doctorate from Boston University. In 1954, he became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. It was in Montgomery that he began to walk out the convictions on civil rights that would define him and his impact.

King marker at Crozer Seminary where he studied theology.  The seminary
is right next to Crozer Hospital near Chester, PA

The major markers of King’s legacy in civil rights and racial reconciliation are significant events in American History – Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, the March on Washington and the I Have a Dream Speech; the Nobel Prize in 1964, opposition to the Vietnam War - all centered King in some of the momentous changes of the Twentieth Century.

In Spring of 1968, King traveled to Memphis, Tennessee to speak to and support a sanitation workers' strike. His final 'Mountaintop' speech on April 3 hauntingly foreshadows his impending death .  It was there, one day later, while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot to death by James Earl Ray.

In front of Ebenezer Baptist Church, December 2006
Martin Luther King Jr. is buried with his wife Coretta (4/27-1/06) next to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. The Church, Kings’s boyhood home and some other buildings have been combined with the King Study center as part of the Martin Luther King National Historic Site. It is a place every American should visit.

Martin Luther King’s speeches and sermons contain some of the most profoundly moving public words ever spoken. This is one of my favorite King quotes.

Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. Not a few men who cherish lofty and noble ideals hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different.

At the King gravesite, December 2006

The personal connection I have to April 4, 1968, came home to me in a fresh way this past May. My dad had suddenly passed away and we were all gathered together at the family home in Toccoa, Georgia. We had made a bonfire out beside the house – like my dad used to do – and we were all sitting around sharing Grandad stories. I mentioned hearing of Dr. King’s assassination as something that has stayed with me. My brother John jumped into the conversation and shared the very same impact hearing the news had on him.  We had never mentioned this night to each other before, yet we both could go back today to the very spot on the side of the road where we heard the news. It’s a sad memory, but an important one. Learning from my white southern parents in the late Sixties taught me to look beyond race – to see the value of a person in their character, not judge them by their color. That’s the power of parenting. That’s the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on me.

Statue which is the centerpiece of the Martin Luther King Jr.
Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC