The Bad News Bulldogs

The buses were supposed to be here by 6. It's 8. No buses — and no one is surprised. No one is even complaining. "Welcome to the Special Olympics," says a volunteer, grinning.

Spread across this north Fort Lauderdale parking lot is a group of 150 Special Olympics athletes and volunteers — the entire Broward County contingent — all clutching their luggage, waiting patiently to begin their trip to the 2007 Summer Games in Tampa.

I'm the new guy, and no one knows exactly what I'm doing here, least of all me. Three months ago, I volunteered, more or less on a whim, to coach the Tamarac Bulldogs, a volleyball team of mentally challenged players. So far as I can remember, it's my first unselfish act in my 29 years.

I'm not sure what I had hoped to accomplish. Whatever it is, as darkness falls, I find myself thinking: I don't belong here. I belong at home with a tumbler full of Glenlivet and the NBA playoffs on my flat-screen TV.

Because even if I were a brilliant coach (and by now we've accumulated incontrovertible evidence that I'm not), the plain truth of it is that there's no strategy, no pep talk that can elevate this team beyond the brutal fact of its athletic mediocrity. We're not even very good at having fun, which is the standard against which Special Olympics teams are measured. Part of me hopes the buses never show.

And in fact, they don't. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), my fellow volunteers are not so easily deterred. By 9 p.m., they've found a rental car agency with a fleet of minivans. The trip is back on.

The announcement is greeted with cheers among the athletes and the volunteers. If we've survived this setback, we can endure the next one: a long, late-night drive through the Everglades. As I pilot one of my team's two vans onto the highway, I'm startled to discover a tingling sensation in my fingertips. Adrenaline. Giddiness, even. This is no longer just a goodwill mission. It's an adventure. And I'm damned curious to see how it will end.

This all started last December, with a half-hearted e-mail to the volunteer coordinator of Broward County Special Olympics.

I sent the note around the time I began to suspect that I thrive on human misery. It's more than a hunch. After seven years as an investigative reporter, chasing around bad guys and chronicling their misdeeds for public consumption, the thrill is gone.

Worse still, I could feel myself starting to lose my grip on empathy. One day, I interviewed a woman who was losing her little beachside motel and her life's savings because of Hollywood's lust for condo development. The woman began to weep as she told me her story. All I could think was: Great! Real tears!

At that precise moment, I realized I had to do something to restore my compassion. The very word made me recoil, which was exactly the problem.

Having vowed to commit a good deed, Special Olympics was the first organization that sprang to my mind. After all, I love sports. Coaching a group of mentally challenged athletes would, I figure, offer an experience far from the world of con men and crooked politicians.

But the Special Olympics folks were slow to respond to my query, probably because I'd volunteered to coach basketball in the middle of the season. A month passed before I heard back from a volunteer. I blew her off.

That should have been the end of it, except that in mid-January, I received a phone call from a volunteer organizer named Teddy Goldberg. Basketball season was ending, Teddy explained in his thick Brooklynese. But a group in Tamarac needed a volleyball coach.

I had a batch of excuses at the ready. Wildly irregular work hours and a complete lack of prior coaching experience, to name two. But they all sounded flimsy. I couldn't bear to tell Teddy the truth: that my impulse to volunteer had passed and that I may not have been serious about it in the first place. So I said I'd do it.


This coaching gig will require some changes in lifestyle. No more late nights at city commission meetings — we practice Tuesday evening. No more Friday-night benders — we also practice early Saturday morning. Fine. Curbing these vices may add a few years to my life.

Second (and most pressing), I need a refresher course on volleyball, which I haven't played since high school P.E. in the early '90s. For the price of a Jamba Juice smoothie, a friend who coaches high school volleyball teaches me the fundamentals, along with a few drills.

But I'm just as clueless when it comes to working with mentally challenged people. Surely, there's a whole vocabulary I need to learn, while at the same time, there's a vocabulary I must forget — the R-word, for instance.

The key, I suppose, is showing some patience. And that's too bad, because I've never had it. I might get frustrated and commit some horrible faux pas. What if I yell at a player and he or she starts crying? Or quits the team? Then there's the hugging. The commercials for Special Olympics are a medley of hugs, but I've never been a hugger. I generally prefer a solid handshake or, even better, a friendly wave. Will this pose a problem? By the time I arrive at the dimly lit Tamarac Recreation Center for our inaugural practice, I'm pretty much a wreck.

"You made it!" Teddy says. He tells me the practice schedule but neglects to mention that the season is three months long, which is fortunate, as it prevents me from quitting on the spot.

Upon meeting the players, I am surprised to find that they're mostly in their 20s. Based on all those huggy commercials, I'd expected kids — teenagers or younger. But these are adults. A few of them smoke. A few more cuss. Fine, we'll be the edgy Special Olympics team.

If anything, these athletes might be a little too cool. I'd expected a gushing, enthusiastic group — again, like the commercials. The sullen expressions of the players standing in the gymnasium suggest they'd been dragged here by their parents.

Nor do most of them look or act like they have intellectual disabilities. I can't detect it in their speech, really. Most seem to be as physically coordinated as the average person. I wonder whether I've lucked into a bunch of ringers.

This notion is dispelled the moment we move from the drills — which go quite well — to a practice match. At this point, the players abandon textbook technique and revert to whatever form feels most natural. Or they lose interest in playing, preferring to stand and watch. Or they harass a teammate.

Normally, this would suggest a team in need of discipline. But channeling Bobby Knight isn't going to work with this squad. They're not willfully disobedient. They simply have disabilities that express themselves in subtle ways — behaviorally, socially, and mentally. This makes it hard for them to apply a learned skill or cooperate with teammates or listen to a new (and still-uncertain) coach.

The trick is going to be to locate each player's individual talents and focus on grooming those. Then I'll just have to pray they come together as a team. Or at least that they stop yelling at one another.

It quickly becomes clear that my most physically gifted player is Jason. He's a burly six-foot-two and 250 pounds, but even at age 32, he's prone to juvenile behavior. Example: He interrupts the first practice by chasing after his teammates with a booger dangling from his nose.

Andrew, age 26, from Coral Springs, wouldn't seem to be Special Olympics material — he knows enough Japanese to be a fan of J-Pop. At the same time, he struggles with the simplest financial transactions — ironic, given that his father is an accountant.

Andrew seems suspicious of a stranger who would volunteer to coach him. Despite my earnest demeanor, he seems to know I come from a world where Special Olympics is a punch line. In the first few practices, he avoids eye contact, ignores praise and constructive criticism alike, and encourages his best friend on the team, Austin, to misbehave.

Austin is also from Coral Springs. He's an echo of Andrew's personality — literally. The moment after Andrew speaks, Austin says the exact same thing. If Andrew isn't hungry, then Austin isn't eating either. Austin doesn't speak Japanese, but because Andrew listens to J-Pop, Austin listens to it too. When Andrew laughs after Austin's serve hits the gymnasium ceiling, it's impossible to persuade Austin not to do the same thing every time.

When the ball comes his way, Austin's habit is to swing across his body — as though the ball were a mosquito. "Two hands" becomes my refrain, but Austin never pays attention — until after about six weeks of practice, I hear Andrew bark the same order. "Two hands," answers Austin, nodding. "Yeah!" Then he starts doing it. Somehow, I've won over Andrew and, with him, Austin.

Lisa is a 28-year-old from Boca Raton with a sarcastic streak and a sincere, burning infatuation with David Hasselhoff. She seems more determined than the others to improve her volleyball game, but she still refuses to budge from her method of clasping her hands together — as if praying — to punch at the ball. After weeks of stopping practice to teach her the proper form for bumping and setting, I realize the instruction is only hurting her confidence.

So Lisa gets her way, and in these rare instances where her prayer technique scores a point, she whirls to say, "See?" But when she misses, she bows her head and says "I suck!" under her breath.

Kerri is Lisa's best friend on the team. Her intensity is infectious, if occasionally excessive. When another player blunders, Kerri vents her frustration, and her outbursts affect the confidence of players like Lisa.

Gustavo's powers of attention are sporadic, but the lanky 19-year-old can hit a leaping two-handed spike for winners all over the court. He just can't hit a ball lower than his shoulder. Also, at practice, he tends to shoot the volleyball at the basketball hoop, as if he's forgotten which sport he'd come to the gym to practice.

Then there's Eddie Barbanell. Eddie isn't a great volleyball player, but he leads the league in photo ops after his star-making turn in The Ringer, a 2005 Farrelly brothers comedy in which Johnny Knoxville's character tries to fix the Special Olympics. Eddie misses the first several practices because he's wrapping a short film called Sky Squad Eagle Eight, about a group of mentally challenged superheroes.

Do any of these superheroes play volleyball, I wonder?

For all the practices, our regular season will consist of just two matches, one month apart.

The first meet is in March, at Cypress Bay High School in Weston. It ranks as a disaster. Kerri insists on shouting instructions at Gustavo between points. A fine impulse, except that when the opposing team serves, Kerri is still yapping at Gustavo, and neither of them notices the ball sailing past.

Our star, Jason, who works two jobs, has overslept and never shows. Lisa misses a few shots early on, and her confidence is shot. Andrew is frustrated. As for Eddie, before the match even starts, he's greeted by junior high volunteers who shout out his ad-libbed lines from The Ringer, such as "Oh, Mylanta!" and "You scratched my CD!"

During the match, he's distracted by the notion that someone here has purloined his sports goggles, which he left in the bleachers. Eddie has an inimitable way of stressing the most important words of a sentence: "Coach Tom, I need my goggles or my mommy is going to kill me." I find that his words stick in my head for hours — perhaps because of the poetic rhythm, or maybe just because he tends to repeat the same thing about a dozen times.

Anthony, who is Eddie's best friend, also has an off-court distraction. He's batting his eyes and waving shyly at the cute girls in the stands. During points, he behaves more like a spectator who's mistakenly wandered onto the court; when the ball comes his way, he politely steps aside. The moment it lands, he realizes his mistake and slaps his forehead.

Our opponent is Victory Living, a Fort Lauderdale agency for adults with disabilities. The players are taller and more athletic than us, but the real menace is a short, balding player who looks a little like Al Roker and wields a cruelly consistent serve.

My Bulldogs aren't calling for the ball, and it falls at their feet. Half my team is yelling at the other half, which is sulking. No amount of sideline encouragement — I alternate between "Good try!" and "It's OK!" — can lift the team's spirits.

It occurs to me that my team looks poorly coached because, frankly, it is. In Special Olympics, competing alone is supposed to be heroic. One prefers to win but doesn't mind losing. It's the coach's responsibility to instill these noble principles in his athletes, even if he can't teach them a single thing about the sport. Judging by the shouting on the court and the dejected expressions of my players after the match, I've failed.

We get throttled.

I manage to greet them with babbled words of praise, but I'm not fooling anyone. This sucks. We suck. I suck.

It doesn't help that in the minutes after we shake hands with Victory Living players, Anthony and Eddie are orbiting me, asking hopefully, "Are we still going to State?"

I tell them, "Yes, but it will take lots of practice." In my mind, I don't really believe that will make a difference. To earn a berth in the Summer Games, we have to win next month's match in West Palm Beach, against the same Victory Living team that just routed us. Fat chance.

Due to a work conflict, I cancel the team's next practice, and when I tell Teddy, he says, "You're not quitting on me, are you?"

"Of course not," I tell him.

I don't mention that I'm awfully tempted.

My new objective is simply to salvage some pride. Forget about winning. It's time to recalibrate our expectations: If we're merely competitive in our next match, this will be progress. Just a few more weeks of practice, a match in West Palm Beach, and our season will come to a merciful end.

But fate has other plans. On April 21, the day of our rematch against Victory Living, the Bulldogs are doubly blessed. Jason wakes for his alarm clock and will play. A second miracle: Victory Living's best player is a no-show.

I fasten Jason's Velcro shoes and send him onto the court. Like most dominant athletes, Jason tries to do too much. He has a tendency, for instance, to bowl over teammates so he can hit the ball. At the same time, we're winning, and that eases the tension. The dreaded Roker doppelgänger seems suddenly mortal.

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, appear focused. They're getting along. Gustavo's double-fisted overhand is wreaking havoc. Lisa's prayer technique is getting lucky bounces. We get unexpected points from Austin, then Anthony, and even Eddie. My praise from the sidelines now has something approaching conviction.

Yes, I'm proud of my players. I'm actually beaming.

During the third and decisive game, Andrew's serve is punishing Victory Living. Having rattled off ten points in a row and with our team staked to an insurmountable lead, we can afford to show some mercy. So I ask Andrew to serve the ball out.

"No!" he says in his high-pitched voice. "I'm sick of being ashamed." Fair enough.

The Bulldogs win in straight sets.

While the players hug and dance, the jubilation on the sidelines is more restrained. Another volunteer grabs my shoulder, a little too tightly, and with a wry, wincing smile says: "Great. Now we've got to take them to Tampa."

Of course, winning provides only temporary anodyne to chronic ills. As the team reconvenes for another month of practices, the personalities are colliding and the injuries are accumulating.

During a practice two days before we're to leave for Tampa, Jason walks off the court. He blames a knee injury, but it's clear that after a half hour, he's grown sick of playing. This insubordination attracts a follower, Anthony, and without them, we don't have enough for a game — especially since Andrew is sidelined with a bad back.

No amount of begging will budge them. So I try tough love. I tell Jason, in a stern voice, that he has to practice or he won't be allowed to travel with the team to Tampa.

"Good!" Jason says. "I don't want to go to Tampa anyway."

Lisa declares that the team doesn't need Jason — a shock to his pride. As they argue, Lisa announces that if Jason plays, she will not. When she storms out of the gym in tears, Kerri follows.

So now I've got a full-blown mutiny on my hands. Fortunately, Teddy intervenes and, with his booming voice, scares the players into submission. They all shuffle back to the court, and I try to cheer them through another 15 minutes, breaking up the practice before another conflict can bloom. By the session's end, I'm not sure this team will stay intact long enough to reach Tampa as a team.

Then there's the distraction that comes from having a movie star on the team. Eddie really enjoys his celebrity, rarely missing an opportunity to remind the other players of his special status. And this tends to cause the team to gang up on him. For me and the other volunteers, it's hard to pick a side.

After all, Eddie really has been a hero to people with intellectual disabilities. I see it everywhere I go with the team. Outside the gym at one of our matches, for instance, I spot a mentally challenged boy by himself in the hallway, rehearsing his approach. "Hello, Eddie. Saw you in The Ringer..."

Eddie shines in that movie because he's the one actor who seems not remotely self-conscious. He says words emphatically, with a forceful pitch perfectly suited to mock rage or bewilderment. And though he's bashful about how his eyes cross, he's turned that into another weapon in his comedy arsenal.

For people with Down syndrome, the laughter of strangers is cruel, even traumatic. Eddie actually invites the laughter — only on his own terms. People laugh with Eddie, not at him.

Sadly, not even Special Olympics gives points for charisma. When we get to Tampa, we'll have to get by on skill, far more of it than we've demonstrated so far. Otherwise, my Bulldogs will endure a new round of humiliation.

Which brings us back to the Friday night last month, when we were supposed to ride those buses to glory. As you'll recall, the buses never showed, so we had to rent minivans.

Fortunately for the Tamarac Bulldogs, our first match isn't till 2 p.m. Saturday. So we stay at a local Hampton Inn, hoping to catch some sleep before making the cross-state trek the next morning.

Michelle Leonardo, Kerri's mom, shares a room with her daughter and Lisa. Manny Nunez, a caregiver at the Coral Springs group home, rooms with Jason. Austin and Andrew are rooming with Bob Cohen, Andrew's father. That leaves me with Eddie and Anthony, who, in their 25 years as best friends, have honed a sophisticated comic repartee. "You better not snore," Eddie warns Anthony. "Or else you'll wake up to my farteroonies."

Instead, it's Eddie who's up late. At 12:30 a.m., I find him alone in the Hampton Inn lobby, pecking away at a computer. "I'm e-mailing Johnny Knoxville," he says by way of explanation.

"You guys e-mail?" I ask.

"I do," he answers.

The next morning, the big question is whether the same Tamarac Bulldogs who were stranded for several hours in a parking lot can now be awakened, assembled, and moved across Florida in time for our match.

Jason could definitely be a problem. His monolithic form never moves until it's received its full portion of rest. Michelle Leonardo, expecting resistance, arms herself accordingly. A cup of coffee is poised; for the moment, Jason's jaws can be pried open. Two others are ready to pull at his bed sheets and tug at his hands and feet — or if all else fails, douse him with water. All that, plus a pack of Marlboro Reds, is just enough stimulation to make him upright and ambulatory for the walk to Michelle's van.

In my minivan, the adversary is smaller but no less formidable. His name is Michael, and he's not even a member of the Bulldogs. He's here because last night, in a flourish of generosity, our team agreed to let him ride with us, to allay his mother's fears about his riding in a car at night with a drowsy driver.

Michael, who looks about 10 years old, climbs into the back seat next to Eddie and Anthony. He doesn't talk much, but his head and arms sway constantly, like tree branches in a strong wind. These motions are related, of course, to Michael's disability, but that doesn't make it any easier for Eddie and Anthony to endure. From the back, they howl, "Coach Tom, make Michael stop it." I feel guilty about scolding the kid, who seems to think Eddie and Anthony are playing with him. He sticks his tongue out and spits a tiny shower of saliva their way.

Near Naples, we stop at a BP station. Michael wanders to the snack counter, helps himself to a hot dog and a soda, then wanders out without paying. Gustavo, meanwhile, is having trouble understanding why the clerk won't accept a five-dollar bill for the nine dollars' worth of sandwiches he's buying. Michelle makes up the difference, but before we leave, she spots mold on Gustavo's sandwich and goes back for a refund. At this rate, we're likely to forfeit our first match.

We speed up I-75 and arrive with an hour to spare. The team is groggy, but each member is accounted for and uniformed, waiting in a University of South Florida gymnasium for their turn on the court. A few minutes after 2, a wild-eyed organizer informs us we're waiting in the wrong gym. We sprint outside to the adjacent gym, arriving moments before the referees declare a forfeit.

It hardly matters. Our opponent is from Brevard County, an all-star team formed by cobbling together the best players in its Special Olympics volleyball circuit. Aptly named the Brevard Spikers, the team has twin towers who can soar above the net, complemented by shorter, quicker players who show impeccable technique in their bumps and sets. Even their satin jerseys and matching shorts make us self-conscious — the Bulldogs wear matching cotton T-shirts with generic black shorts.

Behind Jason's serve, we win the first several points, but after the Spikers break him, they go on a furious rally. In a flash, the first game is over. We've lost, 25-9.

The next game, Jason decides to take on the Spikers by himself. He flies all over the court, knocking over teammates in a desperate effort to swat the ball back. Against Victory Living, the rallies rarely lasted beyond a few hits. Now, the ball's flying back and forth six, seven times per point — until finally the Bulldogs can no longer keep up. We lose the second game 25-10.

As the deficit builds in the third and deciding game, the Bulldogs are in disarray. Jason is yelling at everyone else for missing shots. Lisa is pouting. Andrew is completely flustered. Though he's one of the best players, he's begging to come out, which means that Austin wants out too. Everyone on our side of the court is moping. The Spikers smell blood. They win the third game 25-12.

We have another match the following morning, and since it's a best-of-three series, we need to win to play again that night for the state championship. But as the Tamarac Bulldogs limp back to the hotel, optimism is scarce.

"The second-place team are still champions!" Eddie announces, shattering the funereal silence of the minivan. As noted, he's a far better actor than a volleyball player. And it's easy for Eddie to be cheerful. The highlight for him isn't the competition; it's the pageantry. Opening ceremonies are slated for that night.

I find that sharing a hotel suite with Anthony and Eddie reminds me of my college apartment, minus the alcohol. We argue about the first round of the NBA playoffs — they're Heat fans, and I like the Bulls. There's locker-room humor, as Anthony considers what romantic leads he'll pursue and Eddie interrupts his own speculating to say, "I completely forgot. I can't talk to ladies. I'm getting engaged!" (He's in a long-distance relationship with a young woman in Albany, New York, named Brea. "Like the cheese," Eddie likes to add.) In a development that seems astonishing at first, then inevitable, I discover that Anthony and Eddie are both fans of the heinous early '90s sitcom Full House.

I'm not surprised when one of the two forgets to put the shower curtain on the inside of the tub — I've made the same mistake. But I am a little surprised when the next guy lays out our entire supply of towels to soak up the puddles, then takes his shower while also forgetting to put the curtain on the inside of the tub.

Predictably, Eddie is mobbed at that night's opening ceremonies. He honors each and every request for an autograph and recites his Ringer catch phrases on cue. Flashing cell-phone cameras follow his every move. When a local TV crew shows up, Eddie gives his second televised interview in as many days.

Though neither one of us has slept much lately, Eddie and I stay up late to watch his television appearance. Eddie proves himself a worthy ambassador of the Special Olympics, telling the reporter, "There's a sense of camaraderie and friendship and how we all become one big team." But that's the extent of his sound bite. "How about my movie?" Eddie asks the TV, accusingly. "They cut my movie!" (Eddie gets a share of the residuals from The Ringer, so promoting the film comes naturally to him by now.)

The next morning, the Bulldogs seem refreshed and focused for their rematch with Brevard County. In our pregame huddle, I exhort the team to trust one another. If you can't hit it over the net, keep the ball alive for your teammate. "Remember," I say, "we're all on the same team."

In our first game, everything is clicking. Lisa's serve is racking up points. So is Kerri's. Andrew, still bothered by his back, also keeps the Bulldogs on serve. Jason is staying in position and actually cheering on his teammates. We're tied at 16 before, suddenly, we lose our composure. Austin foot-faults on his serve. The Brevard servers have discovered a weak spot in our return game — the middle, where either no one calls for the ball or everyone collides. We lose the first game 25-17.

At least we played them close, and the team's confidence is high. Midway through the second game, though, disaster strikes: Jason limps off the court with a skinned knee. By the time we get it cleaned and bandaged, the Bulldogs are down 18-4. Jason rallies with his serve, but the damage has been done. We lose 25-11.

In the third game, Brevard again serves straight at the Bulldogs' soft middle. Now Lisa is drifting that way, and her prayer technique sends the ball flying in every direction — except over the net. It takes a late rally even to get our score into double digits. The Tamarac Bulldogs again fall in three.

Still, as each player's name is called and each bows to receive his or her silver medal, I find myself scrambling for my cell phone and snapping pictures. This is something I never do. It suggests a sort of sentimentality — or maybe I really mean an untarnished sense of enthusiasm — I thought I'd left behind years ago.

After the medal ceremony, Anthony asks to talk to me, and as he leads me away from the court, he takes off his glasses and wipes his eyes. His lower lip is quivering and he chokes on his words as he asks, "Are you going to be our coach next year?"

It's a low-down dirty trick if ever I've seen one.

Then it gets worse, because over the course of the next few hours, nearly every other Bulldog asks the same question. A few threaten to boycott volleyball next year if I don't return as coach. I'm blindsided. And embarrassed. Surely, if they knew what a cynical schmuck I really am, they wouldn't be saying any of this.

Naturally, I give an equivocating answer. Having lived in four cities these past four years, I've learned not to make plans too far in advance. But the truth is, I've formed my attachment to this mercurial group. They haven't exactly caused my heart to triple in size, like the old Grinch. But they have shaken me out of the emotional detachment I'd lugged to those first few practices. Hell, the evidence is right on my cell phone — a gallery of Bulldogs bowing to receive their medals.

Oddly, our loss doesn't cause the team to sulk. Just the opposite. It relaxes all the competitive tensions. The Bulldogs retire cheerfully to the hotel, with most of us guys flocking to a television screen in observance of the hetero male holiday that is the NFL draft. After several hours of debating draft picks, Bob Cohen, Andrew's father, leads us on an expedition to that other sacred male institution: our local Hooters franchise.

The Bulldogs misbehave, of course. But they're no more obnoxious than the regular clientele. Jason, a fan of misogynist comic Andrew Dice Clay, makes naughty gestures at the waitresses. Anthony waves to each one as she passes, then blushes. Gustavo simply gawks unabashedly at their bulging white tank tops. Eddie's method is to stand in the heavily trafficked hallway, bellowing in his loudest stage voice, "Have you seen The Ringer?"

Before they leave, Eddie, Anthony, and Gustavo have their Special Olympics shirts signed by nearly every server in the joint, and their demands for pictures bring Hooters service to a virtual halt. In short: They need to be dragged from the premises. Anthony makes us all swear that we won't tell his mother he went to Hooters — though the fresh "Hoots & Kisses" graffiti on his shirt might be a tipoff.

At that night's closing ceremonies, Eddie is again besieged with autograph requests and cell-phone pictures. On the way back from closing ceremonies, he observes, "Next time, we should play spin-the-bottle."

Kerri admonishes him. "That's inappropriate, Eddie."

"Not for me — I'm a celebrity," he says. When that doesn't get a laugh, he adds, "And I would definitely bring protection."

On the long ride back to Fort Lauderdale, I realize that I'm actually going to miss our twice-weekly practices, which have become a kind of respite from the pressures of my day job. Most of all, I'm going to miss these Bulldogs.

These are the mawkish ruminations that occupy me during the drive back, which is going quite smoothly until I see the minivan ahead of me veering off Alligator Alley and onto the shoulder of the road. Yes, here, at what appears the most desolate spot in all of Florida, our other minivan has gotten a flat.

Our team's two vans are the last in the Broward-bound motorcade (of course), so the other 16 vans ahead of us continue homeward, oblivious to our dilemma. Out come the cell phones and tire jacks.

Yes, this weekend's blooper reel has a few more frames: We use the jack from my Dodge Caravan to prop up Michelle's Kia minivan, thereby inflicting a gnarly gouge on the latter's underbelly. After a half hour (and despite the buzzing of 10,000 flies), the spare tire is on. We chug eastward, toward home, this time with our emergency lights flashing, our speedometers set to 50, and the rest of the traffic zooming past us at 80 mph. It doesn't look much like a victory parade. But it kind of feels like one.

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Thomas Francis