Author Archives: kurt
Foodie Hall in Cherry Hill
The best assignments a writer could ask for are the ones that include free food…but especially when that food is from recipes concocted by gourmet chefs. JerseyMan sent me to cover the opening of FoodieHall in Cherry Hill…a great place for outstanding grub. Check out the article from the magazine here.
Hall of Food
The new Foodie Hall in Cherry Hill is a revolutionary concept – first rate food prepared specifically for takeout and delivery, while offering something for every taste.
For you JerseyMan readers and Legacy Club faithful, since membership has its perks, we’re about to share privileged information with you. If you’re on a plane or train, check that no one is looking over your shoulder, and that there are no surveillance cameras nearby. We’re entrusting you as someone with a need to know.
Here it is: You can now get a Geno’s cheesesteak in South Jersey.
Okay, maybe it doesn’t sound that momentous. Tony Luke’s, Primo, DiNic’s and other iconic Philly sandwich shops have all opened outposts across the Delaware, sparing their enthusiasts in our neck of the woods considerable congestion.
But for Geno’s, expansion from its 56-year South Philly location has been minimal. You can find a couple of locations in the city, like the airport. But until very recently, a Jersey dweller had to pay bridge toll to sample a Geno’s cheesesteak.
Dan Goldberg, co-owner of the Foodie Hall in Cherry Hill that now offers the essential Philly sandwich, helped to make this unprecedented happening possible.
“We’re very excited about it,” Goldberg says. “Our PR firm had a relationship with Geno, and made the introduction. We pitched Geno on the idea, and surprisingly to us, he was receptive.
“Geno’s has never expanded outside of Philadelphia, ever. So for us, this was a really exciting opportunity. Geno toured our facility, was very impressed with the layout, the cleanliness, and the whole thought that we put behind it, and said he was interested.”
And so you know, Goldberg didn’t just throw a few bucks at Geno Vento to use his signage. Thankfully, Geno is more protective of his brand than that.
“We worked out our deal, and went through extensive training with Geno to make sure that the Geno’s steak you have here in Cherry Hill is the same Geno’s steak you’ll have in South Philly. Which is not only important to us, but obviously important to Geno as well. It’s literally his name on the marquee.
“Geno was adamant, because he’s approached all the time, he wants to make sure there’s consistency across his locations.”
To successfully persuade Geno’s to be a part of Foodie Hall is obviously a significant accomplishment. But it gets better.
Foodie Hall opened for business in May of 2022 offering a novel idea…multiple types of cuisine available for takeout and delivery. No more settling, they proudly proclaim. If your family bickers frequently over what to get for dinner, or your sports watching buddies can’t decide between pizza or burgers, Foodie Hall is your solution.
To be sure, maybe any-cuisine food delivery isn’t what you’d call a novel idea these days. As many restaurants in New Jersey were forced to close in response to a virus, many of them were offering takeout and delivery options to stay viable. If your local diner was doing this, you could probably choose from a varied menu and have DoorDash or GrubHub bring it to you.
Foodie Hall is revolutionary in being designed for the purpose of delivering higher quality food…whether it’s tacos, chicken sandwiches, or dumplings. Hop onto their website and order from menus that include Detroit-style pizza, Korean BBQ burgers, chicken Quesabirria burritos and much more. All chef-inspired creations.
In case you’re wondering, Foodie Hall wasn’t conceived during the pandemic. But the sudden pivot towards takeout and delivery definitely gave the idea a boost.
“In 2018-19,” Goldberg remembers, “my original founding partner (Nick Ballias) and I, we met at a food event that I co-chair, called Men and Women are Cooking, that raises money for the Atlantic City Boys and Girls Club. This was when GrubHub, Uber Eats and DoorDash had come to Atlantic City, and it was starting to blow up.
“We started coming up with an idea for a delivery-only restaurant. We had penciled this out already, and then Covid hit and restaurants closed, and all of a sudden everyone was ordering delivery.
“My parents were telling me how they had ordered Morton’s for dinner. That’s when it struck me, there are people whose consumer habits have now changed and will never go back. It’s no longer just wings and pizza. There’s my parents, who are not exactly the most tech savvy, ordering steaks for dinner, that means anybody can be ordering everything.
“So why not come up with a restaurant concept that had multiple different types of cuisines on it? We ran into this family idea, where the parents want adult food and the kids want pizza or mac and cheese. Or the parents can’t agree. Or you have a group of friends watching football and they all want something different. Rather than settling, let’s have something for everyone.”
Sounds great, but how could that all work? A conveyor belt is a big part of it (!), but Goldberg says every step of the process matters.
“We put a lot of thought into what delivery trends were taking place, what was working and what we saw that wasn’t working,” he remembers. “Packaging was a big piece of it. Many restaurants during the pandemic that were doing delivery kind of out of necessity were using takeout packages. Those packages are not meant necessarily to be reheated, or to be leak proof, or to sit in a car for half hour or to retain heat or cold.
“We looked at packaging specifically meant for delivery. We wanted something that would maintain heat and not leak. We literally made products in our kitchen, put them in different containers, and had them sit in our parking lot for half hour or drive around and see how they held up. We wanted packaging that would be eco-friendly, and also able to be reheated in microwaves and ovens and things.”
Then there’s the little matter of creating a wide variety of cuisine from one kitchen, maintaining quality, and somehow keeping overhead down.
“We are very conscientious in the ingredients we use to be cross-utilized across all the platforms. For example, chicken breast is used in multiple products across the different restaurants. I have a chicken parm sandwich at Criss Crust, and we have the chicken sandwich concept, Simply Fowl, and then we have salads that have grilled chicken on them. We’re trying to use things across and that keeps us more efficient.
“When we designed the kitchen, we were concerned with having a traffic issue, with people walking around and bringing all the various foods to the front. It would have been a waste of labor. We came up with a solution which I borrowed from my old business…a commercial laundry business…where we had a conveyor belt. It’s a 120-foot conveyor belt that runs down the center of our kitchen.
“I don’t need people running up to the front and bringing the food, I don’t have to worry about people walking into each other. It’s a way to keep costs down and keep order in the kitchen.”
The conveyor belt concept is indeed impressive to witness. An owner of a busy diner might see it and wonder how in the world they didn’t think of it.
“No one’s ridden on it yet that I know of,” Goldberg jokes.
JerseyMan loves telling readers what makes life in South Jersey great and highlighting business ingenuity among our own. Places like Foodie Hall give us plenty to work with.
In the days before smartphone maps, you might have had a difficult time finding the place. It’s situated in an industrial park in Cherry Hill, just off of Route 70 but requiring navigation of annoyingly tricky jug handles and intersections. If it were a sit-down restaurant, the difficulty getting there might be a factor in your going elsewhere.
But for this style of eatery, the location is the beauty of it.
“We are delivery and takeout only,” Goldberg says. “We need to be near people, and we need to be near businesses, but I don’t need to be on Route 70 or Route 73. I just need accessibility, I don’t need visibility. We built out this really high-end large kitchen, with the latest and greatest in equipment, but I’m not paying the prices I would pay to be on Route 70 or 73. It’s more economical to be here.”
Market research drove the location of Foodie Hall’s first outpost in Cherry Hill. Even though it seems obvious.
“Between Cherry Hill and Mount Laurel and Maple Shade, you have a tremendous number of people that are foodies. It really fit well for us.
“It has a great mix of residents and businesses. We can cater to people in their homes at nights and weekends, and our concept lends itself perfectly to office orders and catering during the day. We’re getting a lot of offices that typically order once a week, same idea as from home. Instead of having 20 people fighting over what we’re having for lunch, now 20 people can get what they want in one delivery.”
Including an authentic Geno’s cheesesteak, without the tolls and traffic.
Establishing The Brand(s)
Foodie Hall features eight restaurants under its umbrella as this sentence was written, including Geno’s Steaks, an instantly recognizable brand to Philly area natives.
You can order Mexican street cuisine from Dando Tacos, Jersey fried chicken sandwiches from Simply Fowl, craft burgers from DaNick’s, Buffalo chicken mac and cheese from Mac N Toastie, or vegetable dumplings from the Cantina Wok & Noodle Bar. If you’re going Italian, try the Criss Crust Detroit-style pizza, or the antipasti from the Fornire Italian Kitchen.
Seeing the choices, a South Jersey food enthusiast could wonder how they have lived here so long without recognizing the catchy names and logos sitting alongside Geno’s. How does anyone miss Mac N Toastie?
When questioned whether the others are established eateries in their own right, Dan Goldberg considers it a triumph of Foodie Hall’s design.
“I’m glad you asked that,” he explains, “because they’re not. The fact that you asked that question means we did a good job of branding and trademarking to look like they are established brands. And the idea is that these brands will proliferate and open up in other Foodie Halls.
“There was a lot of thought given to the name, the logo, the design, the color scheme, to make it look like a franchise or an established restaurant. But they’re all our own creations, we came up with them. We put the menu together, the recipes, etc.”
That includes DaNick’s, which sounds perilously close to DiNic’s, the long established roast pork sandwich destination in the region.
“No, different name,” Goldberg responds when asked about the similarity. “They’re actually named after (co-founder) Nick (Ballias) and I, Dan and Nick. Nothing to do with them, we love their sandwiches, but yes, completely unrelated.”
So foodies in the area can rest easy knowing that they haven’t missed out on Fornire’s, and a potential topic for their blog.
But if you’re one of those types, the clock’s ticking on trying out Foodie Hall before your blogosphere competitors do.
Key Players – Georgeann Leaming
Dan Goldberg and co-founder Nick Ballias don’t mess around when it comes to takeout fare for discriminating South Jersey natives. While working out the plans for Foodie Hall, they considered product quality important enough to bring a chef on board to be a culinary consultant, and design recipes for their menu of food creations.
Not just any chef, by the way…they partnered with Georgeann Leaming.
You may have heard of Leaming…she’s been a champion TV chef on Food Network’s Chopped, and competed on Hulu’s Man vs. Master. She’s been an executive chef for two of Gordon Ramsey’s restaurants, and has co-owned two food stops in Philly. One of them, Samwich, took Philadelphia Magazine’s “Best Fried Chicken Sandwich” prize in 2016.
That’s just a partial list of Leaming’s street creds in Philly area cuisine, but it’s enough to see why Dan and Nick would take the opportunity to work with her.
“It was very important for us to not simply have your average burger or chicken sandwich. We try to do everything higher end than your normal delivery would be.
“She left to pursue some other avenues in September, but she was with us all the way. She helped us design the menus, and some of the dishes were completely her own from top to bottom in terms of the ingredients, the recipes and everything. These are recipes that we use, and we haven’t changed anything since she left.
“Georgeann was a big help,” Goldberg acknowledges. “Fantastic, talented chef, culinary director, and really helped design and get this to where it is. Perfect person for this, and without her, we wouldn’t have the type of food that we have today.”
The decision of what to get for everyone in the room isn’t the only comestible conundrum Foodie Hall solves. If you’re looking for cuisine inspired by a top chef in the region without the triple-digit price, they take care of that for you too.
Meals 4 Meals
Dan Goldberg and his people consider giving back to be part of the ethos of business success, and they offer an incentive to philanthropic types who love great food. For every meal ordered from Foodie Hall, they donate a meal to Feeding America through their Meal 4 Meal program. On Foodie Hall’s website, they call the initiative “a vitally important guiding principle in how we operate.”
Goldberg is happy to explain how it works. “What they do is, they will take a monetary donation that they get a lot more mileage out of than we would, because of their immense buying power. We donate an amount to them for every meal that we sell, which is the meal equivalent for them. They use that to purchase meals for their partner charities, which are all across the country and the world.
“We initially got the idea from the Bombas Socks people. For every pair of socks that they sell, they donate a pair to people in need in a country outside of America. And we loved the idea. It made a lot of sense to us.”
So when you order from Foodie Hall, you’re not only providing all your guests or employees something for their own tastes, you’re making a contribution to a four-star organization with 200 food banks and over 60,000 programs to help feed the hungry in your own homeland. Not that you need any extra incentive to try Simply Fowl’s Nashville fried chicken sandwich, but it doesn’t hurt.
“By our calculations,” Goldberg estimates, “We’ll be donating about 50,000 meals in this year, which is really exciting. I’m very proud of that.”
Collectors And Sons – The CollX Sportscard App
JerseyMan sent me to interview Ted Mann and talk with him about his new app, CollX, which helps sportscard collectors easily find the value of their cards. Love fun assignments like this! You can read the article on JerseyMan’s website here, or view the PDF from the magazine here.
(All photos courtesy of Ted Mann unless otherwise indicated.)
Collectors & Sons – The CollX App
There is a new app available for sports card collectors that solves a decades-old problem…finding out how much your sports cards are worth. It’s called CollX, and the idea was hatched by a ten year old.
The wonderful thing about young children is that no matter how overwhelming a problem, they always see a simple solution.
And as any sportscard collector knows, finding the true value of cards is a pretty overwhelming problem.
Ted Mann, a former journalist, has just started his fourth technology company using visual search technology. It’s an app called CollX, and it’s an idea that is so obvious that adults need kids to help us see it.
Fortunately, Ted has just such a visionary living under his roof…his ten year old son Charlie, who saw how his father’s technical skills could make the world a better place.
The CollX app does the most important thing apps do…it saves collectors lots of time. With CollX, you can dig out that dusty collection of sports cards from your attic, scan each card, and instantly see its approximate worth. (Incidentally, if your cards are worth anything, hopefully you’ve been wise enough not to let them collect dust.)
No more poring through Beckett or Tuff Stuff guides, no more hauling your collection to a broker, no more countless hours on eBay. Ted and Charlie tried all those things with their collections, until Charlie suggested a better idea.
Ted gives all the credit where it’s due.
“When I was a kid, I ran into the same problem that Charlie had. Tuff Stuff Magazine, listings and prices, I also used Beckett back then, looking things up manually.
“But the Beckett Guide has become like a phone book. It’s super thick. It’s really, really tough and time consuming to look these things up, and even when you do, I was finding that the prices in the Beckett Guide, probably the minute they’re published, are out of date.
“We found some apps where you could look up cards, but they were really expensive, high value cards, which sad to say, did not fit the description of my collection or Charlie’s.
“We tried one thing after another, and finally Charlie’s like, “Dad, can you just build me something that would do this?”
Cue the light bulb.
Childlike vision works because adults can’t believe some things can be easy, like finding the actual value of a Cal Ripken Jr. rookie card. As a result, many of us let valuable memorabilia collect dust in the attic.
Charlie provided the inspiration, but as Jersey native Thomas Edison informed us, genius is 99% perspiration. Ted is well aware of this, and he’s been putting in the sweat. CollX is all about making a difficult and tedious process easy…but developing the app itself has been anything but an easy process.
It’s not the easiest to market research, for one.
“It’s easy to go and ask people around town, do you have any cards? ‘Yes.’ Do you know what they’re worth? ‘No.’ Have you ever sold a card on eBay? ‘No.’ Why not? ‘I don’t know what they’re worth.’
“It definitely gave me optimism that there was something big here. But understanding how big a market it is was a challenge. We did assess that basically, thanks to eBay and other marketplaces. The current market size is about 5.4 billion.
“But what about all those people that have never sold on eBay? Could you get them to do it? Could you get them reacquainted with their cards and back into the hobby?
“We actually had to conduct a pretty big omnibus study to get a sense of that…just this afternoon, another news outlet called New Street published the findings of our research. The big takeaway was that there are about 85 million American adults that own trading cards.
“It’s a huge 33% of the population, and yet none of them, or I should say a small percentage of them, have ever transacted on any kind of market like eBay. The thing blocking them isn’t necessarily getting the cards graded or having access to a place to sell them. There’s still a lot of card stores, there’s a lot of online sites. It was simply not knowing what the cards are worth, and not having a good way to figure that out.
“If we can help solve that problem, then this huge addressable market can be unlocked.”
There is also the sheer number of collector’s cards…the CollX database features 20 million, and most definitely counting.
It’s an ongoing process, Mann says. No kidding.
“We still don’t have every card by a long shot. There’s a few cards in my collection that I still can’t scan into CollX, because we haven’t gotten those images or gotten that data into our database yet.”
Spoken like a true entrepreneur…20 million is nowhere near enough. Just how, exactly, does a database of 20 million sportscards get constructed?
“We found a number of sites online, all publicly available sites, that have checklists. In the trading card world, you can build the set, right? And there’s a list of every card in that set. We started building those checklists, and then populating all the images for all the cards in those checklists.
“We started with baseball and then we added football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, wrestling. Soon we’re gonna add trading card games like Pokémon.”
Mann says that they have also developed what he believes is a generally accurate algorithm for determining each card’s worth.
“We’ve built up a ton of pricing data, most of which is coming from other auction sites. Again, publicly available and all readily searchable, eBay being the biggest. We’re taking all of those transactions and mapping those back into the individual cards.”
Arduous task, undoubtedly.
But the CollX app keeps improving, and its usage keeps growing.
During JerseyMan’s interview with Mann, a counter sitting on a nearby shelf occasionally made clicking noises and changed the number it was displaying. This counter, Mann explained, shows the number of people using the app at a given time. At that moment, the number was 232,408 and growing. There are plenty of curious collectors out there.
But Mann and Son’s E-Z Sportscard Valuation Service has bigger plans…not just helping users find the worth of their cards, but also facilitating the sale process if they are inclined, and ultimately monetizing the app through commissions.
“We’re a very early business,” Mann says. “We aren’t charging for the app. We know there are already users reaching out to other users to buy their cards…we see that happening in big numbers. We’re going to help them do that better, so we’ve created a number of tools.
“The first big tool is our deals feature, where you can negotiate on multiple cards. You can create a deal with a bundle of cards and negotiate on the lot. We’ll facilitate checkout and generate shipping labels, to ship the cards via the postal service.
“We want to help people make a lot of money on their collections. But the thing I think is really unique is, on CollX, you actually see what the buyer and the seller both have in their collections. That enables us to say, here’s the areas where you have a shared interest. If you really like the Phillies, Bryce Harper, we’re gonna surface those cards from my collection. When you add something from my collection, now here are a few other suggestions of other cards you might be interested in.
“We can build those recommendation systems in a really personalized way, and I think it creates a better experience.”
There are few better opportunities for fathers to tell their sons about athletes of their era than when leafing through a collection of sports cards. Imagine building a business around it with your son. Charlie Mann is getting a solid grounding in both…even if he still gets more stoked about interviewing Rickey Henderson, which he did at a recent sportscard event.
Charlie is obviously not old enough to remember baseball’s greatest base thief, but as Ted says, he knows plenty about him.
“He was super excited to talk to him, because that was one of the cards that he pulled out and he was like, ‘Dad, is this one worth anything?’ I was like, ‘That might actually be the most valuable card in my collection. It’s his rookie card. Let’s go try and figure that out.
“And sure enough, it was one of the more valuable cards. So when Charlie got to interview him, he shared that story. Rickey was really nice. I was really impressed with him.”
“I love getting to do this with Charlie,” Ted continues proudly. “It’s been a great way for us to bond and connect, and it’s not just us. I’ve noticed and seen and heard from countless users on the app that it’s been the same thing for them. Just fathers and sons, getting to bond over collecting cards and to do this together. I think for Charlie that was super gratifying too. To see it wasn’t just him that had this problem.
“And he’s helping all these people.”
Sometimes, the kids really do have the answers.
The Honus Wagner Card
As every baseball card collector knows, the T206 Honus Wagner card is the most valuable baseball card in history. In August of 2021, the card sold for a whopping $6.6 million.
Why is it so valuable? According to Wikipedia, in 1912 Wagner was asked permission by the American Tobacco Company, who manufactured baseball cards at the time, to have his visage included on a card. Wagner refused for reasons that still aren’t clear today, with theories ranging from his not wanting to advertise tobacco to kids to his being a tough negotiator who demanded greater compensation.
As a result, just 50 to 200 Honus Wagner cards were produced, and given his stature on a baseball field, this almost immediately made the card valuable.
Ted Mann well knows the value of scarcity in collecting. It was unintentional in the American Tobacco Company’s case (then again, maybe it wasn’t), but Mann says that card trading companies do intentionally create scarcity.
“The manufacturers of these cards create small print runs for certain cards. They’ll say, there’s only ten of these cards. It’s like your golden ticket. Golden auctions sold, I think a one of one Mike Trout rookie card for like $5 million. There’s only one of them, so that creates demand.
Mann doesn’t believe a Honus Wagner card will be scanned on CollX. He stresses that the app is more for “the rest of us”.
“I don’t think we’ll see a lot of $7 million Honus Wagner cards scanned in the collection. As much as I’d love to cater to the high end of the market and have them see the value on the app, I think it’s really kind of the rest of us, the long tail of the collecting hobby that we’re really appealing to.”
The value of some cards brings to mind a potential problem that Mann is also working to address: potential forgeries.
“It’s difficult, forgeries of cards is a tough thing to identify with just a picture, especially if they’re pretty much identical. Obviously, you wanna take a picture of the card and if for some reason you do receive a fake and you’re able to see that, you can report that. And we would not release the payment to the seller if they were peddling fake cards.
“I think there’s definitely some things that we can do to double verify it. But we will protect the buyer and make sure that they get the cards they paid for.”
Something to remember just in case you find yourself seeing a Limited Edition Honus Wergner card for sale.
Image Recognition – The Key to CollX
Ted Mann is an expert at how image recognition, a remarkable technology that CollX employs to determine what sports card it’s looking at. His son, of course, was aware of this when he suggested the idea of using it for sports cards.
“What we’re doing with CollX is a specific breed of image recognition that is sometimes called reverse image search, or reference image matching, where we have an existing reference image of a card. We’re trying to match the picture of the card that somebody’s taken on their smartphone to an image in our database.
“Think about it almost like matching fingerprints…when you’re matching a fingerprint, you don’t necessarily need to match everything about the fingerprint. You’re looking for the little variations that kind of define it. We kind of do the same thing. We have a deep learning model that is trained to identify specific features within each card image, and then we’re just trying to match up one to one.
“Imagine if the trading card itself was a QR code. And you’re basically just identifying that and matching that to an existing one in the database to get that one to one match.”
The explanation of the technology obviously goes much deeper, but Ted’s happy to take care of that for you so you and your son can scan your cards.
The Collector’s Community
Ted and Charlie and partner David Grzybowski recently attended a sportscard event in Atlantic City, where they were quite well received…and encouraged.
“I met probably a thousand people at the national in person who just really love the app. A couple of them came to me with a laundry list of features they’d love to see, which is great too.”
Incidentally, the audience for JerseyMan might find CollX right up their alley. “There’s a high overlap rate of entrepreneurs and card collecting,” Ted says. “It’s actually kind of a funny, it’s how a lot of them got started. I guess myself included.”
To Mann, the enthusiasm for CollX is an opportunity to improve things in the app, such as the accuracy of pricing, which has limits coming from auction sites where prices can vary.
“A lot of our data relies on eBay transactions and a lot of eBay transactions are bogus, we’ve learned. So when those happen, just helping us kind of prune those out. We’re actually gonna have an app update pretty shortly that gives some of that functionality so that our users can help us with that.
“We’ve done our best to come up with ways to average the prices or estimate the prices if needed. But the truth is we need help and we have 232,000 users, many of whom don’t mind putting in a little bit of extra effort to help us.”
Entrepreneurs who listen should be valued. CollX’s customer service is already an improvement over both of the TV providers in my area.
The Magic of Mio
I was given the privilege of interviewing Mio Rodriguez, a magician and mentalist of very high caliber in the Miami area, for the relatively new MiamiMan Magazine. You can view the magazine on MiamiMan’s website here, or have a look at the PDF of the article here.
The Magic of Mio
Magic By Mio is a close-up magic and mentalism act that is mind-boggling enough to spread the word…even among some of the biggest stars in the world.
Mio Rodriguez is surprisingly polite while he makes your head explode.
Throughout our discussion, he repeatedly called this simple scribe “sir”, and thanked me for the interview in a truly sincere tone. He even threw in a brief performance free of charge.
Mio is unfailingly gracious and genuine…which, when you think about it, is an odd quality for someone whose career is about deception.
It’s a key component of not just his considerable lifelong success, but also being repeatedly invited to entertain some of the most well-known humans on Planet Earth.
Just for the record though, he’s really, really good at magic and mentalism too.
During the interview, he divined a digit I had mentally chosen from an eight-digit number on my phone’s calculator, and followed up by intuiting what I had just searched for on Wikipedia, guiding me with skilled patter.
It’s all tricks of course, but I was duly impressed…and couldn’t wait to play the recording for my children.
I’m not the only one.
Mio performs astounding card magic and confounding mind-reading tricks, both at an exceptionally high level. His goal is always to bring out the wonder we had as kids.
“I’ll do close-up magic, cards and coins in the cocktail hour, followed by a mentalism show after dinner. People come to me and say, ‘You know, the magic with cards was amazing. We didn’t see any sleight of hand, we just figured that’s how you did it.
“’But the mentalism…were you really reading our minds?’
“Mentalism is the new magic for adults,” Mio says. “They think they know how the card trick was done, but when it comes to mentalism, there’s still that childlike wonder…‘How the heck did he know what we’re thinking?’
Mio’s Magic and Mentalism Show is well known today…not just in Miami, but in the highly exclusive celebrity world.
The list of names Mio has dazzled includes not just Miami’s own Dan Marino, Shaquille O’Neal, Wayne Huizenga, and Don Shula. You can view many more on his website…Stallone, DeNiro, Jordan, Gretzky, and countless others.
It started with Marino, though. Or more correctly Mrs. Marino.
“His wife saw me at someone’s party,” Mio remembers about a fateful moment, “and she has me at a birthday party for Dan at the Signature Grand.
“He liked what I did, and he said, ‘I want you to come to my celebrity golf tournament.’”
At that tournament, Mio says, “I met Mario Lemieux, he said, ‘Wow, I love your stuff. Can you do my celebrity golf tournament in Pittsburgh?’ One of his guests was Michael Jordan.”
And so on.
Mio has plenty of amusing stories about entertaining celebrities. He remembers a Christmas gathering with Pat Riley’s Heat:
“Riley had seen me at a party, and he wants me to come to the Heat’s Christmas party. He liked it so much he hired me for 12 parties in a row.
“For the last four years I did the party, LeBron was there. The first three years, other players would bring me over: ‘LeBron, you gotta see this!’ He would be like, I don’t like magic, I don’t wanna watch. The fourth year, finally he goes, okay, let’s see what you got.
“I do my favorite effect, a signed card to a wallet. When I bring his signed card out of the sealed envelope, he was like, ‘oh my God, that’s too much.’
“I go, let’s do one more. I have an invisible deck in my hand. I throw it to him and say, take a card out invisibly, turn it upside down, and throw it back. He throws the invisible deck, when I catch it, there’s a deck in my hand. I go, ‘I caught a pass from LeBron James! Sir, what card did you put in upside down?’
“At this point, Pat Riley’s come over. LeBron says the king of spades. I spread open the deck and there’s a card upside down. When I turn it over, it’s the king of spades.
“And Pat Riley goes, ‘You got the King with the King!’”
It’s a fallacy that anyone is born to do anything, especially in entertainment. It discounts the deliberate intention to excel at a craft, and the persistence to convince others that your skills are worth a look.
Mio’s had life experiences pointing him to a career in magic, including coming from a show business family and performing in front of Mrs. Dan Marino. But he’s worked at it plenty, and he’s made his own breaks.
“My father was a professional costume designer and my mother was a dancer. In fact they met doing a show together. My father’s great love was magic, and although he wasn’t a professional, he was a very good magician. He would sit me on his lap and teach me magic with cards. When we would go to magic shows, he would tell me how things were being done.
“I just thought everybody’s dad knew, I didn’t know I was getting privileged information! I knew a few great card tricks, fun at a party or whatever, but I never thought of it as a career.”
But then one of those fateful nudges happened.
“A magician just happened to move in next door, who made a living at close-up magic. I’m like, ‘Wow, you can make a living?’
“He showed me an effect, and it turned out to be one my dad had taught me. I grabbed the deck and showed him my version, and he showed me his other version. Because I had some knowledge, he started sharing with me like I was a magician. He said, if you learn these seven basic moves of sleight of hand, you could be a magician.
“I studied and practiced, hours and hours a day for months and months. After about a year, I decided I was gonna try to make the transition and be a magician. I moved from Dallas to Florida in 1990.
“My friend was doing magic in restaurants; restaurant jobs are the basic fundamental stepping stone, the bottom rung of the ladder. I would come in Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and go from table to table for a small salary and tips.
“Once I got those first jobs, I built off of those, then I started calling entertainment agents. I said, listen, I work at this restaurant, come in and have dinner, watch what I do and see if you like me. If you do, you can hire me for your private and corporate parties.”
A performer never knows when momentum is going to kick in. But years of hard work and making connections finally turned into “overnight success”.
“I gave my cards out for the first four or five years. Then one day I got a phone call: ‘I had your card for three years, we have a party.’ Then the next day I got a call, and then the next thing I knew I’m getting calls three, four, five times a week. All of a sudden business just exploded.”
“I’ve been working full-time for 32 years now. We’ve had a really great year here this year. People are coming back out of Covid, and it’s been some record numbers.”
Not bad for someone who started with a few card tricks at parties.
As much as he enjoys the travel and performance life, Mio is planted in South Florida. It is, he says, a great place for a magician to call home.
“There’s a lot of corporations, conferences, and also parties, bar mitzvahs, all kinds of events. People come here and want to do something fun. Florida has a lot of people that have the ability and desire to have these parties, and they want great entertainment.
“I love Florida, the sporting activities, the fishing and the water activities. Even though it’s hot in the summer, the weather is overall fantastic. You’re not locked in. There’s so many opportunities here. It’s just a fun place to live.”
It’s an admirable lifestyle Mio’s carved out in the Magic City. He does quite well performing at corporate events, celebrity parties, and on cruise ships. His well-honed act sends him across the country…including Las Vegas, where magicians can be easily hired without travel expenses.
His lovely assistant…his wife Rhonda…performs a much more important function for Magic By Mio, Inc. than getting sawed in half. She handles Mio’s promotion, marketing, contracts, and the rest of the business end, so Mio can focus on staying on top of his game.
“It’s helped bring our business up,” Mio gratefully acknowledges. “She sends out all these email blasts and marketing that remind people of us, and they call us back, it just makes everything much more professional to have her.
“One job leads to another, because word of mouth is my strongest method of promotion. I don’t advertise. With the website there’s SEO, that’s the only thing I pay for.
“Things are newer, but back in the day, it was all word of mouth. And it still is.”
Those who have witnessed The Magic of Mio would agree. Just ask Pat Riley.
If You’re Interested…
MiamiMan probably doesn’t need to point out that if Mio is good enough to work the Heat’s Christmas party for over a decade, that his skills are exceptional enough to perform at a corporate event.
But he’s very easy to get a hold of, in case you’re interested…there is a contact form on his website, and his direct cell phone number is prominently displayed online as well.
You should probably contact him well ahead of time, though. Mio estimates that he performs about 145 shows a year, and many of those gigs put him on flights. The list of cities where he performs include Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, and many others, and his list of corporate clients includes IBM, Citibank, AT&T, UPS, Walgreen’s and many, many more.
You get it; Mio is in high demand…for his skills obviously, but also for his professionalism.
“For corporate, you want a really top rate entertainer who’s sophisticated. There’s a lot of CEOs, high level people, they’re spending a lot of money, and they don’t want anything hokey. They want to make sure they have a sophisticated entertainer who’s on a higher level, because they’re often wanting to impress other people.
“That’s what they get from me, and that’s one of the reasons I’m busy with so many corporate events, because once they find that out, the word also travels as well.
“I’m able to take care of their clients a professional, sophisticated, classy way, and that’s what they look for.”
As (Almost) Seen On TV
Mio Rodriguez just missed…twice…on capturing nationwide audiences on a level where he could add a “notoriety fee” to his performance price. He auditioned for both America’s Got Talent and Penn & Teller’s Fool Us shows, and just missed making it to the show both times…for reasons that had nothing to do with any lack of ability or skill.
“On America’s Got Talent, they called me up and wanted me to come on the show. I was doing mentalism in the audition, and they told me, ‘You don’t even have to wait in line. We want you to come audition for us.’
“We rehearsed in the morning, and I had two or three mentalism effects that were ready to go, but the producer or the director at the time had never heard of mentalism, and he kept skipping me. They just didn’t really understand what mentalism was. Now, of course they do, they’ve had mentalists get to the finals.
“What they actually ended up doing was choosing another magician who wasn’t very good. He was triple-X’ed off. I guess they needed, I don’t know, some humor on the show. It really upset me to the point where I didn’t try to get back on it.
His exclusion from Penn & Teller’s Fool Us is even more inexplicable.
“Penn & Teller, before they had their show, they were at one of those conventions in Vegas, and they saw me do some moves with the cards. They said, man, that’s the best we’ve ever seen. We want to film you, because we’re doing a documentary about the convention.
“They never did do that show, but in the meantime, I auditioned for Fool Us. They said, here’s the date of filming, make sure your calendar is open.
“But in the end, they never called me back.”
It’s unfortunate that America hasn’t had a chance to see Mio’s act on television. Mio has had audience members tell him that he’s as good as David Blaine. And more personable.
Women in Magic (Yes, They Exist!)
Have you ever given any thought to why you have seen so few female magicians? In fact, you may not have even given it thought…in terms of magic performance, you might simply be accustomed to women in sexy clothing, climbing into a box to get sawed in half.
There is a post on Mio’s website about this phenomenon and how magic is one of the rare fields that has not yet been fully infiltrated by the fairer sex. In it, he references the iconic “We’ve got a witch!” scene from Monty Python & The Holy Grail. As humorous as the scene is, Mio says, “its implications are quite horrifying.”
“Throughout history, up until the 18th century in fact, accusing women of practicing witchcraft and heretical sorcery was often a near-instant death sentence.”
In modern times, Mio notes that “many parents and relatives make assumptions about the interests children will take up based on gender. Men are encouraged to pursue fields like sports and sciences based on gifts like athletic equipment, chemistry sets and magic sets. Women, less so.”
But Mio says this is changing, and points out an inspiring success story in particular.
“I have a good friend who is a magician, and he gave his niece a magic book when she was 13. She loved it, she started learning magic, and she declared at a young age, I’m gonna have a show in Vegas when I grow up, I’m gonna be a woman magician who has a show in Vegas. Lo and behold, she just celebrated her 500th show last week.
“Her name is Jen Kramer, and she’s one of the few women magicians right now that have a big show in Las Vegas. She basically created that for herself, she manifested that by saying, yes, I’m gonna be a magician, I’m gonna have my own room in Las Vegas.”
“That’s the kind of orientation, goal setting and tenacity that it takes for a woman, let alone a man, to do that.”
You can learn more about Jen Kramer at her website.
Larry Csonka – Zonk
For the debut issue of MiamiMan Magazine in April of 2022, the editors let me cover Super Bowl MVP Larry Csonka, the legendary fullback and key piece of the back-to-back Super Bowl Champion Dolphins. Zonk was very nice to me and had some great stories to share. You can see the PDF of the magazine article here, or see the article on MiamiMan’s website.
He was a legendary fullback and one of the most important players on a Miami Dolphins team that stood on top of the football world two years in a row. To this day, the Perfect 1972 team still stands alone.
To this day, Miami is the only NFL city whose team has gone a full season with a zero in the loss or tie columns.
Somewhere, probably in the clouds today, is an Akron area juvenile court judge and junior high principal we should thank for pointing a tough young kid in the right direction…back onto the football field, and on track to carry the ball for that perfect squad.
“I watched my older brother play,” Larry Csonka remembers. “and I went to a high school football game on a Friday night. There was probably three or four thousand people there, which was an immense crowd, I’d never seen anything like that growing up, a country kid on a farm. To play under the lights, I thought that was big time!
“I was sent down to the bench by my father, he sent a dollar down to my brother because he made a great catch. I got to go down by the bench and hand him the dollar, and I just marveled at the sidelines, I was just in awe of the whole thing. I couldn’t wait to get old enough to play.”
That is, until he was actually getting hit. “I went out for football in seventh grade, didn’t know anything about it, got knocked down a lot, and quit.”
Shortly after quitting, the kid from Stow, Ohio got into a bit of trouble, and was put before a forward-thinking judge who possibly saw his potential as a superstar fullback.
“The juvenile court judge told me that I needed to report to my principal every day. He would be responsible for me. Mr. Saltis made me write reports on football”, Csonka says with a laugh. “I started to understand the game and got back into it, otherwise I might not have ever played again.”
Every superstar player in sports history probably has a story of when their path to stardom came close to being derailed. Larry Csonka knows full well how important all of the ingredients are not just to an individual’s success, but to a team’s success.
We’ll come back to that.
In case you’re too young to remember Larry Csonka, or you need a refresher on what your parents told you, here’s a bit about why he was adored by the football loving faithful here.
In just eight seasons as a Dolphin, he rushed for 6,737 yards and 53 touchdowns…both still team records to this day. He averaged over five yards a carry in 1971 and 1972, and in 1979, as a power running back at the age of 32, he rushed for 837 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He also was, obviously, a key player on the unbeatable 1972 team, gaining 1,117 yards and averaging 5.2 yards a carry. The following season he was a Super Bowl MVP, rushing for 145 yards and two touchdowns against the Vikings. Read that again…Zonk ran for 145 yards against a defense good enough to be in the Super Bowl.
A player known for his legendary toughness, and sometimes carrying several defenders with him into the end zone, is quick to credit another man for his drive on the field…another legend in Miami, otherwise known as the winningest coach in football history.
“The competitiveness of it grew on me a little later, and then meeting a guy named Don Shula in the pros rejuvenated that feeling I had when I was a boy. After going through junior high, high school, college and being on some winning teams, I was motivated by that, but I still hadn’t become possessed by it. When you play for Shula, you either become possessed or you play for another team.
Csonka tells a story about Shula’s motivational skills that isn’t surprising.
“I got hit one time and was laying on the sidelines, and he ran up to me and said, ‘You can’t be hurt!’ It made me so mad I forgot I was hurt, I jumped up to grab him, and he took off!” Csonka remembers with a laugh. “He said, ‘I knew if I made you mad enough you’d forget you were hurt!’”
“He had a real chip on his shoulder about being unprepared, he wanted to anticipate everything that could be anticipated. In other words, total concentration, total commitment to the win.
“Now, that sounds easy, and all of us want to do it, and that sounds fine to go to a Boy Scout meeting and stand out and get your honorary badge, that’s great. But when you do it 17 or 18 times in a row, it’s hard to keep that up. And he would mandate that, he would demand that, and he would raise hell if he thought you were screwing around in practice and not paying attention.
“Two and a half hours, a couple of times a day – that’s five hours a day, and you’re talking about six weeks of intense concentration in training camp. It’s pretty hard to keep that up, on that plane, but with him behind you, we were motivated to stay on that plane.”
Zonk remembers that Don Shula pushed for absolutely every edge on a football field…including having a team train in the July Miami heat to prepare for hot days. After an embarrassing Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys, the coach made the team use the loss as motivation.
It worked out literally perfectly.
“Getting that far in ’71, and then getting your ass handed to you in the Super Bowl was embarrassing. But Shula said to us after that game, ‘I want you to remember this moment, because we’re gonna use this as a basis to make even more sacrifices next year.’
“He didn’t say what our objective was going to be. What he said was, we’re gonna treat every game like it’s the Super Bowl. That way we can’t ever relax. By the time we get to the Super Bowl, we’ll be able to make sure that we do it one more time.
“Those words rang true, that was a great prediction after a terrible loss.”
Indeed, as the football world remembers, the Miami Dolphins made winning quite the habit in 1972. The backfield of that team contributed to the obsession…the interchangeable squad of Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Mercury Morris made opposing defensive coordinators want to put 15 players on the field. It was an idea Shula had once he believed Morris could take the punishment.
“Coach Shula decided to talk with the offensive line coach to see if we had the offensive linemen that could get to the outside. And we did. Larry Little, a huge big man, who was super fast in the 40, so we could get somebody out there to block for Merc, and we could have that outside threat.”
“It gave us a three-dimensional backfield, and that made a difference. That was one of the contributing factors to going undefeated.”
The Dolphins’ backfield was so strong that even losing a Hall of Fame quarterback in the fifth game didn’t stop the victory train. But Csonka is quick to point out that absolutely everyone on the team made contributions to a season still unmatched in NFL history…starting with Kiick and Morris.
“In order to do that,” Csonka reflects about the interchangeable backfield, “you have to have the talent to do that, but you also have to have the personalities to do that. Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris were two unique personalities, but the great common thing between them was the mutual respect of each other, one realized the other had talent that he didn’t, and they both recognized that fact, and were all right with that.
He continues: “If any one ingredient doesn’t mix with the other ingredients, then you’re gonna have that kind of animosity that’ll grow to be a cancer and it’ll keep you from attaining a perfect season. There’s a reason there’s only one team that’s ever done that. We had the best blend of players and coaches.”
“When you look at it, you take any one player, if you take Bob Griese, starting quarterback, Earl Morrall, the substitute quarterback, all made contributions. Charlie Babb, special teams, rookie player, got in there, made a big play, blocked a punt. You take Charlie out of that game, we lose that game.
“As a rookie playing on special teams, only got on the field a few times, but he got on there just enough to make a difference in us going undefeated or losing one game.
“That’s how finite it gets.”
Zonk is, at least partially, so fondly remembered in South Florida for an unfortunate reason. He represents a successful era for a team that hasn’t won a playoff game in over two decades. Young Miami football fans aren’t even accustomed to frequent playoff runs these days, much less three straight Super Bowl appearances.
Read some of the blog posts on his website about the team in recent years, and it’s apparent that like the rest of the city, he becomes frustrated with the Dolphins’ shortcomings. He’s still supportive, but it’s clear that it’s no easier for him to watch sometimes than for the rest of us.
Csonka confesses to not being able to apply his understanding of the game in his playing days to the game of today. But he does think there’s one constant in winning football that the Dolphins need to embrace to get back on top again. When asked that question, he begins his answer with one word: unity.
“If you get a strong head coach that believes in a certain way to do it, and you can get a cast of players that believe in him, I don’t think that formula’s changed that much.
“Is it Don Shula reborn again? I don’t know, but I think it starts with that. I think it starts with a strong coaching staff and the dedication of the players, and finding 40 or 50 players that really, truly want to win, and they’ll make whatever sacrifices that are necessary in order to obtain that.”
That said, he does make occasional public appearance to talk about the glory days.
“We get a few fans, that might go back and remember, and some of the young folks that have heard things from their parents or grandparents, or perhaps even great grandparents,” he says with a laugh. “What I do is reminisce about the championships and how we got there, Coach Shula, the colorful, fun parts of the game that you still see on Sunday are fun to talk about. Sports humor is really what it’s about, it’s a good time, not any deep message or anything
The Perfect Season, justifiably, is still today a great source of gratification for the Hall of Fame fullback.
“More than personal pride, it’s fun to feel a team pride in being part of that. I’m sure there are other people that have made it to the top of Everest and stood there and felt that exhilaration of being on top of the mountain. But to be able to stand on top of the mountain, and know there’s an entire team standing there with you and you’re all part of that, is just another benefit.
“When the ’72 team gets together, those that are still standing and walking around, there’s a great camaraderie, and there’s a constant feeling when eyes meet, nothing has to be said.
“The fans that were there, again, that are still standing, when we see them, it’s a celebration that’s very unique. They can’t wait to tell us about it, we can’t wait to hear about it. It’s a celebration that goes on and it’s just as enthusiastic today as the day it happened.”
Zonk also has a sense of gratitude towards one other group of people: The Super Bowl XLII-winning New York Giants.
“I’m indebted to my teammate at Syracuse, Tom Coughlin, the head coach of the Giants, and Eli Manning. I am still their biggest fan!”
MiamiMan loves success stories and views behind the scenes, especially when it comes to legendary sports achievements…and the Perfect Season certainly qualifies.
Larry Csonka’s coming book, Head On, shares tales behind his and the Dolphins success in that era. It includes flashbacks of his nearly quitting football, his occasionally rocky relationship with Don Shula, and his palling around with the likes of Burt Reynolds, Lee Majors, Elvis Presley and others during and after the Dolphins’ high-flying run.
But Csonka also shares some wild stories beyond the bright lights of the football field…such as his confronting thieves with a sawed-off shotgun, being adrift in gale force winds in the Bering Sea, and taking sniper fire in the midst of a USO tour.
As Csonka was quoted in Life magazine back in 1972, “No matter what your style, you have to take a beating.” Indeed, from the sound of it, the book describes a life of an athlete who took the hits on and off the field, and keeps moving forward.
Head On is slated for release on October 4, 2022. You can pre-order it on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites, and from the publisher, BenBella Books.
The Last Frontier
Visit Larry Csonka’s website and you’ll see a selection of videos of him and Audrey Bradshaw, his lovely longtime partner, catching fish in the midst of beautiful Alaskan backgrounds.
Many of the videos are from his surprise hit show, “North To Alaska”, which enjoyed a successful run until its retirement in 2013. ”North To Alaska” was everything an outdoor life show should be…a former star athlete enjoying retirement by becoming just like one of the rest of us again. He and Audrey catch fish together, visit beautiful lodges in remote areas of a remote state, and share the greatness of outdoor life in the last frontier. It all makes for enjoyable, leisurely, and educational television.
What makes “North To Alaska” special enough to have enjoyed a 16-year run is that Zonk, a man who made a considerable mark on a football field, is there as a hunting and fishing enthusiast, not a former star athlete. It’s because he has just as much enthusiasm for Alaskan life as he did for football.
“Through my entire career, starting in high school or junior high, I aspired to get to Alaska by hook or crook. I got sidetracked into the NFL, and some ten years after the NFL, I finally got a chance. Starting with ESPN and our sponsors NAPA and STIHL, we put together an outdoor adventure, fishing, hunting series. Audrey and I moved north and bought a place in Anchorage and then Wasilla. We were residents of Alaska for some 20 years, and still go back for a month and a half each year.
“I think from the time I was probably 11 years old, I just wanted to go to Alaska because I figured that was the last place you could experience things like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett did.
“What a great way to do it, getting paid to do it. By the time the series ended, it was doing quite well. By the time it was in its 16th year, we had been a lot of places that most people don’t get to see in the state of Alaska.”
The popularity of a retired football star, even a Hall of Famer and Super Bowl MVP, isn’t enough to carry a low-quality show for a decade and a half. The appeal of “North To Alaska” may be that Zonk shows us all that it doesn’t take piles of money or fame to enjoy the good life. He’s the ultimate everyman with a genuine love for the outdoors, and it works.
A Bird On The Cover
Larry Csonka made the cover of Sports Illustrated a few times in his career, but easily the best known cover shot features him and backfield teammate Jim Kiick…in a pose that featured Csonka giving a not-so-subtle middle finger. What makes the photo so priceless is the snickering look on Zonk’s face. You can easily find a copy of it on eBay if you’re interested.
Intentional? Not on Csonka’s part, at least as far as the photo actually making the cover. He’s not sure about the Sports Illustrated folks, though.
“We shot probably 200 photos that day of all the different kinds of poses. We had a couple of photos we just wanted for us to be funny, so we did that, and somehow that photo got in with the others and somehow inadvertently got put on the cover. I received very nasty letters from irate nuns for about five years after that!
“I sometimes wonder if that wasn’t done on purpose, but it wasn’t meant to be on the cover, it was meant for our own personal thing. So after that, I didn’t do that anymore. I certainly apologized, but at the same time, it was supposed to be private and it didn’t turn out that way.”
“But I’ll tell you what, a lot of people kept that issue!”
Going Out On Top
Csonka broke away from the NFL to play in the ill-fated World Football League with the Memphis Southmen, and then played a couple of seasons with the Giants before returning to play with the Dolphins in 1979. He was hired by the Dolphins to be a blocking back for Delvin Williams, but when Delvin performed below expectations, they gave Zonk the ball…and he carried it for 837 yards and 12 touchdowns, a performance that won Zonk the Comeback Player of The Year award.
“I came back to be a blocking back for Miami. I became the guy running the ball. I think on one occasion, I carried it 40 times in a game, and at 32 years old, whatever I was at the time, I don’t recall, I didn’t need to be carrying the ball 40 times a game.
“That’s very much a young man’s game, a power running game, and you have to have great offensive linemen, which I had in ’72 and ’73.
The end of Larry Csonka’s NFL career came shortly afterward, with Don Shula making the decision for him.
“I made the decision to hold out, unless I got paid a whole lot of money to run the ball, I was still pretty healthy. But instead, I held out and Shula got mad and fired me.”
He has no regrets. “I wasn’t mad that he fired me. I was at a point in my career where I was glad he said I was through. That gave me all the pushing I needed.
“At 33 years old, it’s time to retire, particularly for a power running back.”
Steve Friedman – Champions of Cheltenham
For the Winter 2021 issue, JerseyMan sent me to interview Steve Friedman, a Philadelphia attorney for the Duane Morris Firm (he is since no longer with the firm). Steve is close friends with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he told me a few stories about Bibi and his character. You can read this on the JerseyMan site here, or read the PDF from the magazine here.
Champions of Cheltenham – Steve Friedman
Steve Friedman is a longtime success story as a Philadelphia attorney for the Duane Morris firm. He’s also a close personal friend of the Israeli Prime Minister and fellow Cheltenham High alumni Benjamin Netanyahu. The two share a common ability: to make a difference through people skills.
On August 13, 2020, the U.A.E. acknowledged normalized relations with the state of Israel. It was momentous enough to interrupt wall-to-wall pandemic coverage.
It was also the type of event that foreign policy “experts” were claiming for decades wasn’t possible.
But Philadelphia attorney Steve Friedman knows Benjamin Netanyahu well enough to know that Bibi didn’t rise to the top of the Israeli government by listening to bureaucrats, who often manage to attain “expert” status without ever actually achieving anything.
The two have been friends since attending Cheltenham High together. Friedman understands Netanyahu’s gift for the big picture.
“One of the great skill sets and amazing record of achievement of Prime Minister Netanyahu is in international relationships, especially in Africa,” Friedman explains. “He developed a relationship with Egypt and with Jordan. But to get a relationship with the U.A.E., it’s mind-boggling. It’s just incredible.
“There was nobody in the world who said, ‘the greatest threat to the world is Iran.’ I heard that from him in 1982. Nobody was talking about that; they weren’t talking about it 20 years ago.
“He’s always understood that, and what really has driven this tremendous change in relationship between Israel and these countries…it’s essentially a mutual fear of Iran. They began to realize, Israel is not the enemy. Netanyahu is not the enemy. It’s Iran, the Ayatollahs, and their very radical views for the way life should be lived.”
Steve Friedman currently practices for the prestigious Duane Morris firm. On the company’s website, he’s listed as being a “personal and legal advisor” to Netanyahu, which he admits is a bit pretentious. He didn’t write that.
“Let’s put it this way,” he says, “We’re very close. We just talk and he’s a very smart guy, so he talks to anybody. I think he uses me because of my involvement in some things in the U.S. He’s always interested in knowing what’s going on here, and to an extent, I can help him with that.”
Friedman remembers walking with Bibi from the U.N. to the Israeli ambassador’s apartment on 85th Street. Which, incidentally, is quite a hike.
“There would be these secret service guys and state department security, and he would walk like Mr. Magoo. He ignored traffic lights, just kept walking, and I could see these guys thinking, ‘God, just don’t get killed on my watch!’”
So while Friedman does, in so many words, advise Netanyahu on U.S.-Israeli relations, that probably isn’t the key selling point for hiring him.
More likely, you’d call on him to protect your company’s trade secrets.
He’s had a bit of experience doing so with high profile clients, including NutriSystem during their high-flying 1990s run. A weight loss company that enabled people to eat pancakes and still lose weight inspired quite a few copycats, including Heinz and Jenny Craig.
“Heinz owned Weight Watchers,” Friedman recalls. “It’s been years, but my best recollection is it was triggered by a relatively high ranking employee, who left NutriSystem and went to Weight Watchers. The next thing you know, we see them starting to do things that seem very similar to the unique procedures that NutriSystem had.”
A similar situation occurred with Sid and Jenny Craig, a case where Friedman successfully negotiated a large settlement.
“They originally had a relationship with NutriSystem, they then went to California, and waited for their non-compete to expire. They started a company in Australia, and then they came back to California and expanded. It was called Jenny Craig, and they started using what we thought were trade secrets to NutriSystem.
“Shea & Gould, the New York law firm, was on the other side. Very good lawyer. We went at it and pounded each other for a while and then settled the case.
“These cases start because somebody works for Company A, begins to understand the trade secrets, has a binding agreement not to disclose them, or under common law or the law of the state where they’re living, can’t disclose them anyway. Then they go to Company B, and then Company B is starting to do things that Company A did.”
Friedman has enjoyed substantial success convincing juries over the years, enough to earn multiple speaking engagements. One is titled “Selling Your Case to the Jury: How to Effectively Communicate the Technology Behind the Patent Dispute”.
“You have a story to tell, and it’s a narrative, and you hopefully have most of the facts that support it, and you have to convince the jury that your narrative is true and demands relief. It’s the essence of any good trial lawyer.”
Friedman achieved an even greater milestone representing Signature Financial Group against State Street Bank in a Federal Circuit appeals court. It was technology-based litigation in the late 1990s, as the Internet was beginning to flourish. Friedman estimates that the case had an audience approaching 500 people.
“I practiced arguments in front of panels of patent lawyers, to really pepper me with questions, to prepare me. When I walked in that courtroom, I just said, ‘we’re gonna win this.’”
The preparation turned out to be secondary in the win.
“The Chief Judge was a very senior guy in his 90s, Giles Rich,” Friedman reflects. “He had drafted the patent amendments in 1952. The opening question from Rich was, ‘Mr. Friedman, I see you’re not a patent lawyer, I find it interesting that you’re here.’
“I went on and on with some answer, and I said, ‘I know that you published the amendments to the patent laws of 1952, so I’m honored to be in your company.’
“It was just total bulls***! And he was so taken that everybody on my side said, ‘Oh my God, he had a twinkle in his eye!’ They said, that’s when you won the case.
“There was nothing dishonest, it was actually true, I was trying to play to his ego a little bit. Then about eight months later, we got the opinion and we won.”
How powerful is a personal rapport with a judge? Judge Rich’s ruling in the case was considered not only controversial, but contradicting of his own past decisions. That’s how much Rich liked Friedman. Rich’s Wikipedia page describes it thus:
“Judge Rich justified his conclusion on the basis that the business method exception to patentability was abolished by the 1952 Patent Act. However, this line of reasoning is contradicted by Judge Rich himself, among others. He had earlier stated, in a law review article written not long after the passage of the Patent Act, that Section 101 of the Act denied patent protection to business methods, observing that the diaper service, ‘one of the greatest inventions of our times,’ was patent-ineligible because it was a business method.”
To simplify all of that, maybe flattery really does get you everywhere in a courtroom. Including out on the lecture circuit, where Friedman spent several years as a result of the ruling.
Friedman has too many personal and professional stories to fit into the 1,300 words JerseyMan gives writers.
He may not have Netanyahu’s track record for public relations. Not many humans do. But like his Prime Minister friend, Friedman understands the value of storytelling and people skills, and the difference it can make.
During this interview, he even invited this writer to visit the memorial for Netanyahu’s brother with him. Yonatan Netanyahu was killed in Operation Entebbe in 1976; Friedman and Benjamin dedicated the memorial in 1982.
“Being a good trial lawyer…or being a good lawyer, period…about 98% of it is people skills, the ability to deal with people, understand people, and get them to work with you. And that’s true of life in general.
“It’s the heart of politics, it’s the heart of business, it’s the heart of everything.”
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The Hits That Made Me A Lawyer
Remember, as comedian Gary Gulman says, how football coaches used to refer to players incurring concussions from nasty hits: “He got his bell rung”?
As a high school and college football player…who shared a backfield at Cheltenham High with none other than “Mr. October” Reggie Jackson…Steve Friedman had his bell rung a few times. It ultimately ended his football career, which he thinks was probably a good thing.
“I had one concussion in high school, as a sophomore, I must have got hit in the head. I got up and I started walking down the field. They grabbed me and put me on the bench. I’m fully conscious, but I have no idea who I am, and then as the game is still going, I started to figure it out. That was the first one, and then the other two were sophomore year. Football was my life from the age of four until about 20, and then I was done.”
He learned in his freshman year at Yale that football has a way of talking you out of playing it.
“When I was a freshman, we would scrimmage against the varsity. The senior fullback was Chuck Mercein. You run at each other pretty hard, and I had pumped up to about 208, 210, Mercein was about 235, and running into him was like running into the edge of a steel building.
“Three years later, when I was a junior, I watched him in the first two Super Bowls, as a running back for the Green Bay Packers, and said to myself, boy, was I over my head!
He has no regrets. “I was always very proud of it, and the good news is, I had the brain concussions, presumably I can still talk and walk. Some friends joke with you, they say Steve, you were really stupid until you got those brain concussions, and you got a lot better!”
Photo credit: miss_rogue on Best Running
Photo credit: PFX Photo on Best Running
Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery on Best Running
E-ZPass: Tae Seangpeoam Interview
Tae Seangpeoam is the owner of Neztec Solutions, helping businesses’ communications meet regulations in a rapidly growing global economy. His street cred? He was a senior network engineer on the team that made E-ZPass work. JerseyMan sent me to interview Seangpeoam about the story. You can read the article on their website here, or view the magazine article here.
E-ZPass: Making Life EZ-er
When this writer’s young son first hears the “you kids don’t know how good you have it” speech from Dad, you can bet E-ZPass will be part of the conversation.
“Transponder? Heck, we didn’t even know what a ‘trans-pond-er’ was! Back in those days you dug into your pockets for that extra quarter ’cause the rates went up all the time, and you had to sit there waiting at the booth for hours, and then you had to hand your cash over to that guy who always dropped your change on the ground! Plus you had all those people asking directions while you’re waiting, like them toll takers are AAA or somethin’! You kids today ain’t got no idea what it’s like to be searching for a dime on the floor while you’re…look at me when I’m talking to you, son.”
Yes sir, those were the good old days.
Making the switch from stopping at booths and dropping exact change in baskets to using E-ZPass to fly through a toll plaza is one of those “why did I put up with that for so long” moments in life. That little white tablet stuck to your windshield opens up a whole new world.
Suddenly getting off of the Pennsylvania Turnpike temporarily for a break or a bite to eat is a more viable option, since you no longer have to dig out a few bucks and sit at a toll booth yet one more time. An empty pocket no longer stops you from using a toll road as an alternative to a jammed freeway. Tolls for E-ZPass users are less expensive in peak times, and now using the pay as you go road for the length of a long trip isn’t such an expensive idea.
Not to mention that little bit about how we don’t have to sit and wait at tollbooths anymore.
Tae Seangpeoam, founder of Neztec Solutions, is one of the people we can thank for the considerable road stress reduction from that little invention. Seangpeoam was a senior network engineer for MFS Technologies (bought out by MCI WorldCom that year) when the company was called on to improve a promising but fledgling electronic toll system.
As he sat on a sofa at the Philadelphia Union League where we conducted the interview, he clearly enjoyed the trip down a toll-free memory lane.
“I had just come out from college,” Seangpeoam remembers. “I was almost the youngest one on the team. I was so excited, they were saying it was going to be the project of a lifetime. When you’re young, to prove yourself, you do it. I was lucky.
“E-ZPass started in 1980, the idea. But it was never successful anywhere. There were many failures due to design, engineering, and government agencies. The project would never go anywhere because it kept collapsing between authorities. My responsibility, as a senior network engineer, was to design the architecture for the telecommunication; the communication between all of the toll booths going back to New York, to the violation process center, and to the customer service center.
“During that time the main problem was billing. Sometimes it would detect an axle, sometimes not, sometimes it wouldn’t detect your license plate. The camera was not clear, it couldn’t read clearly. The system didn’t know how to match that, and it would send a wrong bill or something. Back in those days, each toll booth didn’t have anything at all. It was just bare bones toll booths. Atlantic City Expressway, Garden State Parkway, they just had manual booths.
“We went in, took a look and surveyed everything, can feed a fiber optic line through that, or are we gonna do something else? We put satellites in several locations around Atlantic City. We did all that to link the communications back. All the transactions from the toll booth link back to the center to process, every transaction at the toll booth links back to the main frame. Also the security aspect…we had to make sure that the firewall and every single thing under the sensor is protected.”
“When we launched in Delaware, it was a tremendous success. All the toll booths were connecting to each other throughout New Jersey and Delaware, all the transactions were processed at the Violation Process Center and Customer Service Center, all the tags and transponder were communicating to the system, censor and lighting, backup video record, etc.
“The whole project was about three years; then I left the company and went to work for Verizon. I have a passion about communication; every single thing about it.”
So when you sail through the E-ZPass express lane, is there a camera taking a picture of your car and sending it to E-ZPass Mission Control to fire off the bill in the mail? Well, yes, that’s sort of what happens. But there is, of course, more to it than that.
As Seangpeoam explains, the transponder on your car connects with a sensor at the toll booth, and it sends a signal that the car with your ID is approaching. As your car is passing through, E-ZPass completes an entire profile on it…the type of car, how many axles, who owns the transponder, etc. Seangpeoam says it all has to jibe, especially the number of axles.
“If you look down the road at the toll booth, you’ll see the sensor of the treadle, to tell if your vehicle is a two-wheel, four-wheel, sixteen-wheel and so on. Those need to match to whatever the camera sees. The tag sends the signal that the car is coming, that’s what goes through the transponder. But it also sends a signal to another interface behind the scenes, to make sure that matches your transaction, because otherwise it could be a motorcycle or whatever.
Does that mean you really shouldn’t be using your transponder in your wife’s car? “You can use it in your wife’s car, but legally that’s a violation.”
This writer hasn’t yet tried that with his own tag, but Seangpeoam assures me that this contingency had been considered by the network people. “You’ll get the bill,” he says.
Today Seangpeoam runs the show at Neztec Solutions. His services, according to his business card, include real-time messaging, visual communications, and safety/compliance.
“In the past 10-15 years, you’ve started to see the global economy growing,” he explains, “And every single business has to deal with rules and regulations and compliance. That becomes really complex, and it is getting more and more complex. Even the small business has to deal with certain types of compliance and regulation.
“No matter what you do, no matter how good the things you come up with, communication is always the bottom line of the process. You’ve got A, you’ve got B, how are they going to communicate?”
Has the E-ZPass experience, especially persuading state governments to cooperate with each other, given him street smarts? “Absolutely. I wouldn’t be where I am now without that knowledge.”
He’s still today pleased with the results of the system he helped design. As he should be. Imagine I-295 today on Thanksgiving weekend, he says, how backed up the toll booths would be, say, at the Delaware Memorial Bridge. No thanks.
“I am really proud in what I have contributed to my adopted country. I was lucky enough to be part of wonderful projects; it gave me foresight to build a career around my life, and see the future of transportation, roadways, bridges and tunnels, and infrastructure communications.”
“Less time, less energy, less frustration, people are happier, more productivity for sure. You get to your destination faster, and with less stress.
I’m proud of that because again, the purpose of communications is to take society to the next level. If you want to make a phone call right now, you push the number and it’s gonna ring on the other side. The devil is in the details no one sees, everything on the surface is very simple, very easy, but that’s why an engineer like me loves it. I love to go behind the scenes and see what makes things happen without people knowing it.
“I’m a technology guy. I love technology. However, I don’t believe in technology that comes out and makes people learn how to use it. E-ZPass is the only technology in the past 15, 20 years or whatever, do you need to learn how to use it? No. You just slap it on the windshield and go. Even kids know how to use it, because it doesn’t require you to learn anything.
“That’s what technology is supposed to do.”
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Donovan McNabb – Forever A Leader
Donovan McNabb is one of the all-time great quarterbacks in NFL history, and will always be a local hero in Philadelphia. But today, he spends much of his time coaching athletes who are too young to remember his playing days. JerseyMan Magazine sent me to interview the Eagles QB for the Fall 2021 issue…you can view the magazine edition here.
Donovan McNabb – Forever A Leader
Despite the opportunity to gather quotes and jump into a fray of controversy, JerseyMan didn’t ask Donovan McNabb about the most talked about events during his career in Philly.
We doubt our readers are interested in rehashing the decade-plus old rantings of a talented but ultimately cancerous ex-teammate…a receiver who was suspended and subsequently released by the Eagles for his statements, and then signed on with their most hated rival. No thanks.
But just in case you were wondering, no, McNabb didn’t upchuck in the huddle in the Super Bowl. There isn’t even discernible evidence that that happened, in an event that benefited from the best that television broadcasting had to offer.
As Mike Tanier’s Bleacher Report piece about the alleged incident puts it, “This urban legend is all about a quarterback’s inability to lead his team back from a double-digit deficit against one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history with four minutes to play in the fourth quarter.”
And no, the last player to wear #5 for the Philadelphia Eagles doesn’t hold anything resembling a grudge against local fans for their reaction to the team’s choosing him over Ricky Somebody in the draft.
It’s fairly easy to argue that the Eagles made the right call on that one. We love our friend Jaws at JerseyMan, of course, and the Eagles’ fan faithful will forever be grateful to Nick Foles. But by nearly any measure, McNabb remains the best quarterback to wear an Eagles uniform.
Put it this way. If you were a parent of a young quarterback, you wouldn’t object to having him as a mentor.
McNabb spends time today coaching young quarterbacks…junior high, high school, and college players. He is one of several former quarterbacks involved with The QB Legacy, a non-profit dedicated to teaching aspiring quarterbacks the fundamentals…not just of the game of football, but of being a leader in life.
Ty Thompson, a University of Oregon freshman, is one young quarterback who McNabb has mentored. As FanSided reports, Thompson is already a strong candidate for the starting job, and is Oregon’s top-ranked quarterback commit of all time.
“I’ve had an opportunity to implant my wisdom,” McNabb told JerseyMan, “on the things that they want to accomplish. I try to prepare them from a fundamental standpoint of knowing the intricate parts of the game. And also provide a little bit of spark for these young men, to give them that confidence that they can play this position at a high level, if they put the right time and effort into their craft.
“So many times you see trainers doing what they see Patrick Mahomes do or what they see Aaron Rodgers do. And I think that’s a negative, because not everybody is on their skill level, not a lot of people can do what they’re doing at this particular point.”
Most of the young players McNabb coaches don’t remember his playing career. But their parents do.
“The last time I took a snap was nine, ten years ago, and that was in Minnesota toward the end of my career. A lot of these kids have never seen me play. It’s more the parents that know a lot about you.
“And I have no problem with that, because I’m not coming in there, Donovan McNabb, NFL quarterback, I’m coming in as Donovan McNabb, quarterback trainer, that’s going to help you be able to perform at a high level and prepare you from a mental and physical standpoint.
“I’ll show up at their games and write down some different things that we can do on our next couple sessions. I’ll be there when they need any assistance, maybe something happened at practice and they don’t understand why, how they can change it or things of that nature.
“If I have a kid that’s in middle school, I want him, by the time he graduates from eighth grade, to be mentally where the sophomores are in high school. We know your body’s going to develop at some point. But from a mental standpoint, can you be able to get out on the field and tell each and every player what they’re supposed to do, explain to the coach what you’re seeing from a defensive standpoint, what blitzes they’re doing, how to attack those blitzes.
“That right there gives you the upper hand when it comes to a lot of these kids who are just athletic, because now there’s a trust value that coaches are starting to build with you, because they know you’re well prepared and understand the games.”
And yes, you have to handle shots from critics. As we all remember, McNabb knows that better than anyone.
“It’s not just younger kids,” he continues, “it’s adults too, who have issues with criticism. With social media now, people don’t like something that you post, or people comment negative to you, it affects them, instead of just moving on and using that as motivation.”
So is he tempted to tell young QBs not to play in Philly if they can’t take the heat?
“It’s not so much that, Philadelphia is kind of well known for that. But again, you’ve got to stand strong and you’ve got to be able to take it, move on.
“Smile, that’s what I did!” McNabb says with a laugh.
As a lot of JerseyMan articles about retired athletes have shown, success on the field doesn’t necessarily translate to success in other walks of life, but it definitely helps. Part of the goal of The QB Legacy program is preparing young athletes for life outside of or after football.
“The most important thing for me,” McNabb explains, “is trying to get these young men to understand that being the quarterback of a Division I program or being a quarterback of an NFL organization, that you are the CEO. You are in a boardroom in front of millions or thousands of people. Can we put you in front of a room, and you explain to me what each and every person is supposed to do in this office?”
“We’re building leaders, we’re building mentors, we’re building role models. We’re building CEOs. We’re building guys to understand that it’s much more than just playing the quarterback position. You have ten people on the field with you that are relying on you to make the right decisions, to lead them to a Super Bowl.
“And so you have to do your job. You have to be able to prepare yourself to go out and be at the highest level of your craft.”
Whether it’s young quarterbacks, or softball or girls basketball players, whom he also coaches, McNabb today is preparing the adults of tomorrow for the game of life.
As with many of the good guys in sports, it’s the preferred way of enjoying retirement.
This scribe choked on his chance to meet Donovan McNabb.
We don’t have much in common as far as athletic achievement or income level, but we’ve both been known to frequent Gaetano’s in Willingboro. And yes, we’ve been there at the same time. My hang-up about approaching celebrities during meals overrode taking advantage of a rare opportunity to chat with an NFL superstar.
McNabb lives in Arizona now, mostly just because the weather is better. It was where he started training in the second year of his career, and he liked the area enough to stay.
“It’s a great vacation place,” he says. “My family was from Chicago, friends in Philadelphia, New Jersey, when they come out here, drop the winter coats and Timberland boots, put on some shorts and a tee shirt and just relax.”
But he’s got nothing against the city where he made his considerable mark. Donovan still visits and loves Philadelphia and South Jersey…and mentions Gaetano’s as one of his favorite eateries in the area.
“I’ve still got friends there, I love the area. I’m talking over 15 years, pretty much, since I’ve been in Philly, but I go back and it’s like I still live out there. The people that know me are the people that watched me play, still remember you, have conversations with you.”
He’s happy for both the Eagles and Andy Reid for their Super Bowl triumphs. Regarding his former coach, McNabb believes that the Super Bowl win “implants him when it comes to one of the greatest coaches. For the things that he’s been able to accomplish over the years with us, and then turning the Chiefs organization around. Andy definitely is a sure shot Hall of Famer, and winning that Super Bowl is definitely going to help.”
They fell just short as a pair themselves. But McNabb hopes people remember the good times, with Andy at the helm and with #5 as the field general.
“I would love to have won a Super Bowl,” he reflects, “but that doesn’t define who I am as a player or who I am as a person.”
Maybe someday Ty Thompson, or another McNabb pupil, will get that done for him.
The Case For McNabb In The Hall
Wait, what? Donovan McNabb, the greatest all-time quarterback on a team that had Roman Gabriel, Ron Jaworski, and Randall Cunningham, isn’t in the NFL Hall of Fame?
Nope, he’s not. Critics say something to the effect of his not having won a Super Bowl, despite coming within three points of doing so against the NFL’s greatest dynasty, or not being a leader in statistics during his prime years, with no mention of the subpar receivers he had to throw to at the time.
So at best, McNabb’s entry into Canton is being denied by his crime of having less than championship level teammates.
He doesn’t go there, though.
“There’s no need for me to make a case. I think numbers and film alone define that. Some people look at numbers, some people look at accolades, some people look at Super Bowl championships, some people look at appearances. And so you can’t please everybody. So for me to try to state my case, no, it’s nothing to it.”
“Look at Walter Payton, people always said that Walter had to win a Super Bowl. Walter Payton was the best running back to play the game at that particular time. He also was one of the best players to ever play the game, not just running backs.”
“So, when it comes to a lot of these players, it’s sad that we want to sit and talk about, well, how many Super Bowl championships have they won, or how many times they’ve been All-Pro? How about, why don’t you ask the defenders they played against, ask them how hard it was, the game plan against them. It says a lot.”
So do McNabb’s numbers…37,276 passing yards, 3,459 rushing yards, and 234 touchdowns. Six Pro Bowl appearances, five NFC East championships, five NFC Championship game appearances, and nine postseason wins. If you find any QB with similar numbers, they’re probably enshrined in Canton.
From 2000-2004, McNabb led the NFL in QB wins. During his career, he ranked fourth in wins behind guys named Brady, Favre, and Manning.
There’s always arguments with every Hall of Fame induction about who got slighted. Donovan McNabb shouldn’t be the subject of one.
The First Professional Baseball Team
I’ve always known that Cincinnati was the home of the first professional baseball team, but until I visited the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum, it always puzzled me how the Red Stockings could be the first baseball team…because how could there be just one team? Wouldn’t they need someone to play against? Did they just stand on the field practicing until another team filled out all of the legal forms? Maybe they signed the contract for their ballpark the day before the Phillies did or something?
I wouldn’t say it kept me up at night, I knew there had to be an explanation, but it was just one of those things that puzzled me a bit.
But now I get it…one less thing to waste brain power pondering.
The Reds Hall tells the story—that the Red Stockings were the first professional baseball team because they were the first team whose players were actually paid to play baseball. Other teams’ owners balked at the idea of ballplayers being professionals (some things never change), but the Red Stockings were willing to pay players. And by doing so, they attracted some of the best talent around. No doubt radio show hosts in other cities began demanding that their team owners start paying players.
This all-star team of professionals went on a tour in 1869 and won everywhere they went, finishing their first ever season unbeaten and actually drawing some crowds on the road. (I think hot dogs were $1.50 back then.) This was back in the days before gloves and catcher’s masks and the DH, proving that people will play baseball for money even if they’re risking life and limb.
Their second season was marked by dissolution and player bickering (that didn’t take long), despite that the team resumed its greatness, winning all but one game against the Brooklyn Atlantics, in an 11-inning affair. Eventually some players moved to Boston, as did the Red Stockings name—now the Red Sox, of course.
The team disbanded, and then a new Red Stockings team joined the newly formed National League in 1876. This team was banned from the National League for…get this…serving beer at ballgames. Nowadays a team might be banned from the league for not serving beer.
Finally in 1881 another Red Stockings team (they loved that name for some reason) joined the rival American Association, and in 1889 they moved to the National League, replacing the bootlegging Red Stockings team that had been booted. In the move, they changed their name to the Reds, probably to save on stitching costs.
So the current incarnation of the Cincinnati Reds that we all know today wasn’t exactly the first professional baseball team, but you could argue that Cincinnati simply hit a few bumps in the road to become America’s first iconic baseball town.
There is a great deal of history when it comes to Cincinnati baseball, and it’s as good a place as any for a team to feature a Hall of Fame and Museum that is a microcosm of baseball’s Hall in Cooperstown.
The Reds Hall of Fame is definitely worth the visit if you’re coming to Great American Ball Park, if only to learn how there could only be one “first professional baseball team”.
But of course, there’s a lot more to know about Great American. Especially if you’re visiting for the first time.
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Professional Cornhole – Beyond The Parking Lot
JerseyMan asked me to cover a local cornhole event they arranged, and to work in a piece about the phenomenal growth of professional cornhole in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hope you enjoy it. You can also view the PDF of the article here.
Beyond The Parking Lot – Professional Cornhole
You can write for JerseyMan and attend Legacy Club events for ten years, and almost never see Ken Dunek animated enough to shout loudly and pump his fist.
Then again, you don’t see many people gain a lead against John Kitchin in a cornhole match, however short-lived that lead may be until Kitchin finds his bearings and starts effortlessly nailing throws. It’s understandable for even a reserved person to be thrilled at the achievement.
This anomaly was at the Infinity Club Cornhole Tournament, held this May at the PCS facility in Moorestown. The event raised nearly $4,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and for survivor T.J. Smink’s bid for the Society’s Man or Woman of The Year.
Of course, many esteemed Legacy Club members were present. It’s an ideal opportunity to avenge a recent defeat on the golf course. No one tanks, of course, but a loss isn’t so bad…it’s an opportunity to grab a drink and catch up with fellow members.
One would think that, in a crowd of Eagles fans, who have to have considerable tailgating experience, there would be some players standing out in the crowd. But other than Smink’s team, who prevailed in the match, most of them were unexceptional shooters. Even by frequent tailgater standards.
The tournament was for fun and to help less fortunate people. PCS’s parking lot is obviously no billion dollar, luxury box-filled venue.
But professional cornhole has grown well beyond the parking lot.
Present at the gathering were Kitchin, a national cornhole pro who resides in West Deptford, and Joe Harsh, the American Cornhole League’s (ACL) Northeast Conference Director.
Yes, there is a nationwide professional cornhole league. As seen on TV.
Before 2020, the ACL had already landed some national television deals, and events could be seen on various sports networks. Then they got a boost…professional cornhole became one of the rare entities that benefited from an outbreak. With no baseball, football, basketball, hockey, etc., there was a fairly ginormous hole in sports broadcasting to fill.
So cornhole moved into seriously choice TV slots. Harsh notes that “We had eight to ten broadcasts on Saturdays, prime time with our Pro Division, and traveled all over the country.
“We’re really fortunate,” he adds. “Everything went well for us. And the exposure and the growth, it’s been really, really beneficial to the league.
“I’ve known John for a couple years now, and the fact that someone would ask John for an autograph, it’s the coolest thing.”
Kitchin has been known to drive to Cincinnati for the day to throw bags. At least, that became a thing for him when someone noticed he was a pretty good shot at tailgates.
“I played in the parking lot of Eagles and Phillies games, and a guy came to me and said, ‘Hey, we have a league for this.’ I kind of laughed at him. Here I am seven years later, and if I could play more I would.”
Indeed, Kitchin started playing in a league, and did well enough to compete in local tournaments. Then he became a pro. Then an ACL Pro.
He’s added some impressive achievements to his league bio…#1 Northeast Conference player in 2018, ACL Man of The Year in 2019, and a 2nd place finish in the 2020 USA Cornhole Club Championships – broadcast on NBC Sports – to name just a few. He’s so good that Bush’s Baked Beans and LG have put their logos on his jersey.
You can see why even Ken Dunek would celebrate well beyond his typical demeanor scoring a lead against him. Which, to Kitchin and Harsh, is part of the appeal…anyone can play, even against the pros.
“I play in leagues around here all the time,” Kitchin says. “I play pretty well, but there’s a lot of people who, when they play against me, they use that as a measuring stick. I don’t beat everybody, so I think that makes them even more interested…‘That guy’s been on TV!’”
“That’s the coolest part,” Harsh adds. “You can see him on TV on the weekend, and then Monday or Tuesday night you could literally play against him.”
Jeff McCarragher is a freelance sports broadcaster. His LinkedIn profile describes his most recent position as a “Play-by-Play Announcer for College Football & Basketball…and yes, Cornhole too.” His resume covering other sports is impressive, but by most any measure, McCarragher is the Voice of American Cornhole.
He landed the gig by simply being in the right place at the right time. Literally.
A South Carolina resident, he worked college football and basketball throughout the Carolinas. Tupelo Raycom, the company that brought him announcing work, had an office there. And they knew ESPN needed a cornhole announcer.
“When COVID hit, being a freelance play-by-play broadcaster was like being a waiter or server at a restaurant,” he remembers. “We were shut down immediately because all the sports just went away. When they got the contract on ESPN, they called me and said, ‘Hey, are you willing to travel if we put together cornhole through the summer?’
“I had done a little bit for them in the past, I’d done the national college cornhole championships that previous New Year’s. I said, absolutely, I’m comfortable traveling. And so away we went, ESPN signed a deal with the American Cornhole League.”
McCarragher’s enthusiasm for covering professional cornhole of all things is palpable. The players may not have toiled through college or minor leagues, but they definitely have well-developed skills.
“It’s a very simple sport, right? You just slide it up the board and put it in the hole. But just like any other sport, when you get to a very high level, you start to learn how technical it is. I had to learn a whole new vernacular, whether it’s replacement bags or grab bags, the way a player collects the bag.
“I relate it to being a really good major league pitcher. He’s got his fastball, his slider, his cutter, his change-up. The ones who play at the top level, they’ve got a little cut shot, they’ve got an airmail shot. They can make the bag curve one way or another, they can angle it and get the bag to kind of roll. Instead of different pitches, they have different technical shots that they can throw. It’s really pretty amazing.”
There’s considerable tension in big matches, too.
“It gets to be like golf,” he continues. “You’ve got a two-stroke lead, or maybe a one stroke lead, going into the 72nd hole on Sunday. I don’t care who you are. That final tee shot on the 18th? It has to be good. There’s so much pressure. Again, I get it, it’s cornhole. We’re not talking about the Masters. But it’s still competitive, the desire to win for these players.”
McCarragher is confident that the growth of professional cornhole will continue, even with the return of other spectator sports.
“Did COVID help give it added exposure? Absolutely. But I will tell you, they have been working behind the scenes with these little ESPN contracts now for several years. They were on ESPN a few times in 2018-2019. We had college national championships on New Year’s Eve going into 2020. The ratings were slowly going up and up. So this was already on the rise.
“Just by the sheer TV contracts that are coming in and new sponsors, I for sure would say that the ACL is still growing.”
“I think the success they had during COVID is going to allow them to continue. Will the viewership be the same? Perhaps not, but I think in this country there’s a niche for these types. Like, would you watch baseball, which is hours long, or you’re clicking through and, ‘Oh, cornhole, this is something I do in my backyard. My buddies and me bust our chops all the time, let me watch this. I think that’s what’s opened it up for those types of things.”
Joe Harsh has already experienced professional cornhole’s impact beyond TV.
“For me it’s not even the size of the events and the cool venues we’ve visited. It’s some of the charity work we’ve done, like for veterans groups. We did an interview with a guy, roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Long story short, he’s a double amputee, and he’s thanking me for everything I do, and it just absolutely blows my mind.
“I would do anything for someone like that because they’ve given so much, and they’re thanking us for what we do and the release that we give them. That’s my favorite thing to take away from all of this.”
Needless to say, McCarragher is eager to keep telling the story.
“I would love that guys would call and have me do a national college football championship. As young broadcasters coming up, we all hope to get that call. But even that being said, I still really would always hope I can continue doing cornhole.
“I will do this for as long as they’ll let me, because I love it.”
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T.J. Smink, who won the Infinity Club Cornhole Event with his partner Kyle Reider, had personal reasons for both winning and co-arranging of the event: he is a cancer survivor himself.
Smink is a Senior Account Executive for Premium Seating with the Philadelphia Union. But in 2020, the shutdown of sports was the least of his worries. In December of 2019, he was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
He decided to control two things that he could control: his hair and his attitude. He shaved off the hair he felt he was going to lose from treatments…but ultimately didn’t. And he kept upbeat, all the time.
“I made sure to keep a positive attitude, to look on the bright side of life. Having that mindset, being able to say I’m going to beat this s***, that was way more than half the battle.”
Legacy Club member Devin DiNofa, at the time campaigning to be the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Man or Woman of The Year, reached out to Smink.
“He’s an awesome dude,” Smink says. “He asked if I would be on his team to help raise money for others. Even then, he wanted to work with LLS to raise funds for me directly, LLS said we can’t go towards one specific person.
“Even then, I went back and told him, I’m killing this s***. We’re good, I appreciate it, but I would prefer it goes to someone who actually needs the funding.”
Today Smink, at DiNofa’s urging, is campaigning for the LLS Man or Woman of The Year himself. The Infinity Club Cornhole event was a part of that, to great success.
“Ash (Ashley Dunek) came up with the idea of working one of the Infinity Club events into a fundraiser. And we had a really big turnout. There were 32 teams and a lot of people that came just to hang out.
“Our team is going to get a research portfolio named after us. I’m excited to see where that research goes.”
And he and Kyle Reider topped it all with a cornhole tournament win.
“He’s a lot better than I am,” Smink says of his teammate, “but together, we normally win all of our friends’ get togethers and stuff.”
So You Want To Be A Professional Cornhole Player?
In a write-up about John Kitchin from Power Equipment Direct’s website, he is described as a professional cornhole player who “practices for roughly 32 hours per week, where he throws 2,000 to 3,000 bags.”
While that is probably technically true, Kitchin doesn’t exactly work in his garage, perfecting his follow through and stance and watching himself on video. He just plays a lot, which to him is the simple secret to improvement.
“When you figure in going to leagues and playing tournaments on the weekends, and then throwing it in my shop or something like that, the amount probably adds up. I play on the leagues on Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights, and Thursday nights usually where I try to get out too.
“If you want to become a better cornhole player,” Kitchin continues, “just get out and play, go find a local league. Even if it doubles as a night out, you know, go out and play. You’ve just got to get throws in, and if you can’t and you just throw in the backyard, go out and throw. You have to throw bags.
“So practice for a pro to me would be going out and playing in your own league and it’s all about getting throws in.”
Wait, no proper ways of holding the bag? No commentary on wrist movement? Nothing about how to warm up? Kitchin says that once you find a groove that works for you, the mental aspect is far more important. And that part can’t always be taught.
“I’m probably the worst pro to talk about this, because I’m a firm believer of under-thinking. People overthink. It’s whatever is most comfortable to you, you just have to tweak that. Throw eight bags, and I would want to see how you threw. And I would say, was that comfortable? If that’s comfortable for you, you can tweak it from there.”
That sounds simplistic, but he’s right. Cornhole players lose matches overthinking.
“I might throw 50 bags in a row in the hole, but what changes from the time that you just threw 50 bags in a row and then you line up next to me? What just changed? Nothing changed except for your mental, so you’re overthinking it. Now all of a sudden that same guy who’s just hit 50 bags in a row off to the side warming up, is now maybe two on two in. It’s the overthinking.”
“I try not to worry about all that.”
Why We Cheer – The Human Interest Stories
The ACL is fortunate to have Jeff McCarragher behind the microphone, because he does what the best broadcasters do…he tells backstories about the participants.
He shared a small few everyman stories of cornhole stars with JerseyMan.
“Steven Bernacet, he won the singles national that we just had in Wichita about a month ago. Outstanding cornhole pro, but in his senior year, he was a great high school football player, lineman. He was in a horrific car accident and broke his neck. He could have died.
“The doctors immediately told him he wouldn’t play contact sports ever again, obviously to a high school kid who’s played sports his whole life, it’s devastating to him and his family. Two years later, once he was able to rehab and get back to his new normal of life, he picked up cornhole, and has been playing cornhole ever since now.
“It’s been his outlet and his happiness and his source of competitiveness, to fill that desire and that need in his life. Cornhole has been literally life changing for him.
“One of the top female pros is a manager at a Taco Bell. You know, she plays cornhole on the side. Daymon Dennis, who’s the number one player in the world right now, worked at a cheese plant for 27 years.
“He used it to support his family and to keep food on the table. And now here he is, number one player in the world.”
“It’s like American Idol,” McCarragher says. “There’s a lot of people who can sing, but what captured the audience and the ratings for American Idol is all the backstories.”
Neil Peart: The G.O.A.T.
A thoughtfully considered Neil Peart tribute, from a devoted Rush fan.
I remember where I was when I heard John Lennon was murdered. I remember where I was when I heard that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center. And I remember where I was when I learned that one of my biggest musical heroes had passed away.
It was January 10, 2020. I was upstairs in my living room, playing with my kids on a weekend afternoon. At 4:28 PM, my phone chirped with a text from Greg Miller, a friend of mine since we were four years old…and a fellow Rush fan since we were in our teens.
“Dude!!??? Did I just read that right!!! Neil Peart is DEAD??”
Almost at the instant I read the text, the phone rang. It was Chris Salvatico, another longtime friend and another fan since high school, where I was well known for my beyond fanatical dedication to a rock band. He had heard the news on the radio, and of course I was the first person he thought of.
Suddenly this life’s journey was on the other side of my favorite band’s drummer still being alive. In that moment, any sliver of hope that we Rush fanatics clung to of seeing our musical heroes play on stage again, maybe just one more time, was gone.
2020 would have more than enough misery and heartbreak that people would be gladly wishing it away by the end of it. I suppose I should be grateful that losing Neil Peart and Eddie Van Halen, two musicians I never met, would be the toughest thing I would have to deal with on a personal level.
While both men passed from this earth prematurely, they were both here long enough to give us an outstanding catalog of music…blood-pumping soundtracks for our lives.
A New Generation of Neil Peart Fans
As I would do some months later following Eddie Van Halen’s passing, I filled a thumb drive with Rush music and played it in my car for several weeks. Soon my son, just four at the time, was taking to the music Dad was playing. He is now a big fan…watching Neil drum solos on YouTube constantly, frequently asking Dad to put Rush CDs in the stereo, even setting up a miniature kit of various toy drums that he bangs along with his favorite Rush videos. At five, Neil Peart is already his hero. No paternity test will ever be needed with this one.
At some point, his favorite songs have been “Caravan”, “The Main Monkey Business”, “YYZ”, “Crossroads”, “Tom Sawyer”, “Roll The Bones”, and “The Big Money”. He likes watching the live videos for “One Little Victory” and the “R30 Overture”, too.
So evidently, he isn’t partial to any particular era, unlike so many fans who think Rush was never as good as they were on Moving Pictures or 2112. Not only is he not bound by some imaginary noose of expectations for his favorite artist, at five, he doesn’t yet know that the music is too old to possibly be cool.
I remember going to Rush concerts in the 2000s, and seeing kids that were my age when I became a fan, wearing tees for albums that were released before they were born. In 2009, I went to a Mets game at Citi Field, and unexpectedly ran into an old friend from my bartending years. He was at the game with a young man who was sporting a Power Windows T-shirt. I marveled at this, and gleefully informed him that I had seen that show from the sixth row at the Philadelphia Spectrum. “I was like, 20 feet away from Alex!”
Rush may not be for everyone, but for the personality type that gets into their music, it is as timeless as any in this world.
There were, of course, other bands with iconic drummers whose fame long outlived their existence, or at least their peak years. Led Zeppelin and The Who, and The Beatles for that matter, all had unique stars behind the kit.
But the drums weren’t the main catalyst for launching any of them to mega-stardom. With Rush, it most definitely was. As great as Geddy and Alex were as musicians and songwriters, it was the drums more than anything else that propelled Rush to a level of cult fanaticism unequaled in rock music. The unusual beats, oddball time signatures, memorable fills, and the technical wizardry of the man behind the kit…more than anything else, Neil Peart’s drumming defined this already great band.
You need only to have attended a Rush concert and seen hundreds of arms flailing away at imaginary kits, often quite accurately along with the fills, to know that.
“Tom Sawyer”, Rush’s signature song, became a rock staple that still holds up today almost entirely because of the drums. Maybe that synthesizer riff in the middle is a pretty cool hook, but the tune wouldn’t have killed like it did without the drum fills following the guitar solo. Four decades after its release, no classic rock anthem inspires more completely shameless air drumming, often with no regard even for chicks in the room.
No drummer…no musician…inspired listeners to memorize passages like Neil Peart did. The beats and fills were always an integral, key element of Rush songs. You can pick 20 tunes from any era in the band’s history, and very often not hear the same fill twice.
Rock Music’s Greatest Drum Solo
It’s a challenge to think of any rock artist whose live show featured the drum solo as the highlight…especially for bands as established as Rush were. Sure, Phil Collins, Bill Bruford, Danny Seraphine and others could play entertaining and skillful solos, but one hardly considered them the pinnacle of their bands’ shows.
But the Neil Peart Drumming Showcase? Yes, for many in the audience, that was the apex of the evening. Only at Rush concerts could you feel the audience’s growing excitement that the drummer would soon be taking over the stage.
It wasn’t just the profoundly challenging technical skill, the limb independence, or the blinding speed, crossovers and waltz enhancements that were just as fun to watch as to listen to. A Neil Peart drum solo was literally a piece of music, especially in Rush’s later years when brass samples, an electronic marimba, and Buddy Rich Big Band horns all became a part of his 7-plus minute percussive masterpiece.
A Neil Peart drum solo could often be the clincher that turned one into a dedicated Rush addict. That certainly was the case with this young fan, who shortly after discovering this band had “YYZ” from the Exit…Stage Left LP…and its insanely fast solo…near the top of his most-played Rush cuts. When their third live set, A Show of Hands, was released, I happily bought it for just one reason: the drum solo and its new sound effect samples, which now had a name: “The Rhythm Method”.
As electronic drum technology evolved over the years, Neil’s solo did too, becoming even more musical, as the Professor added new elements to it with every tour. As a treat for the fans whose favorite part of a Rush show was the drum solo, Neil even released a video dissecting each part of his “Der Trommler” performance on Rush’s 30th Anniversary Tour, including how he both came up with each section and learned how to play it.
No drummer in rock music history commanded such stature when his bandmates left the stage, because no drummer in rock put the effort into his solo showcase that The Professor did. Like his approach to conjuring up challenging and suitable parts for Rush songs, or constructing words for Geddy to sing, Neil saw the drum solo as a craft, something that he believed should be as entertaining as it could possibly be.
I saw Chicago, Genesis, Yes, Van Halen, King Crimson, and a number of other acts that prominently featured a drum solo in the show. But no one at the Van Halen concert leaned over to me and said, “It’s Alex Time.” Everyone at Rush concerts anticipated Neil Time.
Rush had a devoted enough following that they could get away with leaving some very popular staples out of their set and still leave a crowd blown away. I’ve seen Rush shows that were missing “Freewill”, “Limelight”, “Subdivisions”, and “2112 Overture” from the setlist (to name a few), and the audience never seemed to mind.
But there would likely indeed be unrest, torn tickets, and declining T-shirt sales if a Rush audience were deprived of their drummer’s solo event.
A Rarely Equaled Rock Wordsmith, Too
Not many musical artists, certainly not in 1980s rock, were as dedicated about putting beautifully composed words in their songs. Neil Peart wrote so many verses full of thoughtful observations about life that I can’t think of, say, five favorites. It’s enough for me that, to this day, he’s given me the best answer I’ve heard to life’s most infernal question: Why are we here?
Peart covered a lot of topics in Rush lyrics…have you ever heard a rock song full of anagrams?…but pursuing one’s dreams was a major theme. Nearly the entire Roll The Bones record contemplates this, as does the entire first side of 2112. He could be encouraging about following one’s heart, as in “Middletown Dreams” or “The Analog Kid”, but he was realistic about the trappings of fame too, as in “Limelight” or “Superconductor”.
Ayn Rand’s capitalist views were a strong influence in the band’s early years, then he turned to science fiction fantasies. As the band became increasingly popular, Rush’s lyrics commented on the human condition less metaphorically, and sometimes went into darker places, especially around the Grace Under Pressure period.
You can see a clear change in Neil’s lyrical demeanor between Test For Echo and then Vapor Trails, which, as every Rush fan knows, were the two albums on either side of devastating personal tragedies in his life. Test For Echo is full of lyrics written by a man confident in his ability and in sharing his viewpoint about how to best live life. Following the loss of his daughter in a car accident and then his wife to cancer ten months later, the lyrics on Vapor Trails reveal a soul that had risen from the ashes, but was clearly forever scarred by the blows. The words in the title cut are particularly emotional and heartbreaking.
No doubt this patch of the journey affected his view of life in general very deeply, and it was bold of him to share a great deal of that with the world. It would be easy to understand anyone questioning a Benevolent Supreme Being, as he did quite effectively in songs like “The Stars Look Down”, but he also directed angst at faith in general and its practitioners. Or more correctly, its abusers.
As a practicing Catholic who grows weary of anti-Christian platitudes from wealthy performers, I admit to taking issue with some of it, especially several songs on the Snakes & Arrows album. But I’ve since come to realize that there is a lot of truth to what he wrote on that record, certainly so if one had a darker view of human existence as he understandably did. I am careful not to take the same viewpoint, but “Bravest Face” and “Good News First” are powerful examples.
Whatever the focus of Neil’s words, there was never any lack of precision or clarity, never any lack of a powerful statement contained within them. Whether you agreed with what he thought or not, he always made the point.
Like with Rush’s music, you very often didn’t get the words to a Rush song in one listen. A song like “Subdivisions” endures because there are so many ways it grabs the listener…the classic synthesizer riff, the soulful guitar solo, the epic drumming behind the verses and towards the end. In the same way, the words of that particular classic take every opportunity to move the listener too. Just as one grasps “in geometric order, an insulated border, in between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown”, they’re hit with “some will sell their dreams for small desires…or lose the race to rats, get caught in ticking traps, and start to dream of somewhere to relax their restless plight”.
I remember a radio show called “Rockline”, where fans could call in and ask their musical heroes questions. Shortly after the Power Windows album was released, Rockline featured Geddy Lee. The host, the late Bob Coburn, asked Geddy about what inspired Neil in writing the words, saying, “The lyrics on this record are unbelievable!”
Geddy responded with something that has resonated with me ever since. He said, “Neil works very hard at everything he does. It’s another thing he works hard at.” Power Windows, still probably my favorite Rush record, was a shining example…it contained songs about the corruption of people in power, the design of the atomic bomb, the demands of a lifetime striving for excellence, the nonsensical destruction caused by nation borders, and the risks of being outward with your emotions. Unheard of for a rock record, especially in the MTV-polluted 1980s.
Every Rush album was like that. A new Rush release always gave you a whole slew of subjects to ponder, and you were offered an initial way of thinking about these things from someone who’d carefully considered them. The words in Rush songs, to those outside of Rush fandom, are an extremely underappreciated facet of their music. Yes, they were definitely intellectual…if you thought Def Leppard or Van Halen wrote deep stuff, Rush probably wasn’t for you.
Sometime after Power Windows was released, Neil gave a terrific interview to Guitar For The Practicing Musician magazine, that I actually still have laying around. (I scanned it and it’s an excellent interview; you can read it here.) The amazing thing reading it, even today, is that here was arguably the most highly regarded rock drummer of his generation, giving an interview entirely about writing lyrics.
But for a Rush fan who loved the words too, it was a fascinating read. I learned so many things just reading that interview that have helped me as a writer. One thing he pointed out was that there were two things you couldn’t compromise: inspiration and craftsmanship.
He pointed out that, “When an inspiration comes to you, it doesn’t matter how inconvenient it is, you must take advantage of it at the time.” That is SO true…and I have probably missed opportunities to write best-selling books because I thought “Oh, I’ll remember that” about an idea that I would later be fuming over having forgotten.
He said that “craftsmanship speaks”, and that he could tell when the lyrics to a song were written in five minutes. Most of us could.
Rush fans got it. There was always something more in the words of a Rush song, another line, another verse, that you missed in the first listen and that knocked you over the head in the second. Just as their music contained little turns and riffs and drum fills that you didn’t catch the first time. The albums that grow on you are always the best ones, and every Rush album had that quality.
If you didn’t get it, as most critics didn’t, well, that was your loss. If you were willing to make the investment of giving a Rush album a few listens…which you likely had no choice but to do if you had a Rush fan friend…you soon would get it, and you’d be wowed as much by the words as the drums.
Was Neil Peart The Best Rock Drummer of All Time?
Like I did with Eddie Van Halen, I thought any Neil Peart tribute should answer the question of whether he really was the greatest rock drummer that ever lived. I find it hard to rank any drummer above Buddy Rich overall, but in the realm of rock music, Neil had few peers.
So I’ve produced this list of well-known rock drummers, with my comments on what I think made Neil a better one. I LOVE ALL OF THESE DRUMMERS…please do not think I am being critical of them. This is just here for your next music conversation with friends at the bar.
Keith Moon. It’s doubtful that The Who would have become the rock monsters that they became without the certified lunatic behind the drum kit. He had a style like no other and is always included in any discussion of rock’s greatest. Moon was also, as you can clearly tell listening to the Fly By Night album, a heavy influence on Peart himself.
However, I could say that Neil ultimately became a better overall drummer than Moon in his career. For one, he was more precise…John Entwistle once said Keith Moon was the hardest drummer in the world to play with; Geddy Lee never had any such complaint about Neil Peart. Neil could play with as much reckless abandon as Keith on a record…but Peart would memorize that reckless bit, and play it precisely on the stage.
John Bonham. I underestimated Bonham’s technical ability until I watched a video comparing him with Peart soloing…and definitely holding his own. Bonham was in fact an outstanding drummer technically, and he could play as fast and as precise as nearly anyone in his day.
If nothing else, though…and I remember debating a Led Zeppelin fan friend about this…Peart produced more songs that became rock staples because of the drums. “Tom Sawyer”, “2112”, and “Subdivisions” are great examples. Bonham had an unmistakable sound and was perfect for Led Zeppelin, and the drums are always great in Zeppelin songs. But he didn’t quite match the imagination and variation that Neil added to Rush records.
Bill Bruford. Bruford is a respected icon among prog drummers especially, and rightly so. He’s played with Yes, King Crimson, U.K., and Genesis…and he made them all better with his jazzy style. A common phrase I’ve read about Bruford is that he was “too rock for jazz and too jazz for rock”. Absolutely true, but when he got somewhere in the middle, he shone like few could.
Give Bruford props for moving from rock to fusion to jazz in his career and excelling at all of them. On several levels, though, I still think Neil was better, especially having seen them both live. Bruford sometimes duplicated the sound of the records live, sometimes not, and his solos in the seven shows I saw him were great. Peart duplicated the sound of the drums on Rush records nearly 100% of the time, and his solos were even better.
Phil Collins. In light of his mega-stardom as a singer and songwriter, it’s easy to dismiss how great a drummer Phil really was, even garnering lavish praise from Neil himself for his performance on the Selling England By The Pound record. Especially in the Peter Gabriel-led era of Genesis, Phil came up with some profoundly complex rhythms and skillfully executed them live. He may have lost the desire to produce that complexity in Genesis’s later years, but he was always a more skilled drummer than he was given credit for.
If I were to ultimately rank Neil as a better drummer, it might be on just on one level…the drum solo. Even playing a duet alongside Chester Thompson, Phil’s drum solos didn’t compare to the visual and aural spectacular that was “The Rhythm Method” or “O Baterista”. As I’ve said, Neil’s drum solo, unlike Phil’s (or any drummer’s, for that matter), was a highlight of a Rush show…and that was no small feat to pull off. I can’t say that about Genesis shows.
Ginger Baker. I had a musician friend once tell me that he thought Baker could have been a really great drummer if he chose to practice more, which I thought was humorous. I might believe it given the overall sloppiness of his playing…although I do enjoy listening to Cream’s better stuff for that reason.
It’s just my opinion, but Ginger doesn’t ultimately hold up as one of the greats alongside Neil. He was a cool rock icon and could play interesting bits really well, but he ultimately didn’t quite establish himself as a rock drumming giant in the way Moon, Bonham or Peart did.
Alex Van Halen. Alex had a good rock sound and could play fast, but he wasn’t in Neil’s league as far as skill, imagination or creating a worthwhile solo. He happened to have a brother in his band who was an enormously talented guitar player and songwriter, and he played up to his own abilities and let his brother lead the way. He was fine for Van Halen, but not one of the all-time greats on a kit.
Danny Seraphine. It’s hard to top Chicago’s “Introduction” as one of the greatest drumming performances in rock history. Danny brought a jazz style to rock music, and he made it kick ass like no drummer could, not even Bill Bruford. In a band full of world class musicians, Seraphine was unquestionably a key cog in the machine.
Seraphine had great technical skill and could play very fast, and the drums in Chicago’s Terry Kath era songs especially always sounded great. But he didn’t have quite the imagination…nor the technical prowess, I would add…that Neil had behind a kit. Seraphine provided great backing, but he couldn’t have come up with something as varied and imaginative as “Subdivisions”.
And just for the record, Neil never got kicked out of his band for not practicing. (OK, maybe that one isn’t fair…)
Tim Alexander. Herb can play faster and better technically than all but a small handful of drummers…he may be the most technically skilled drummer I’ve heard, and that’s saying a lot. But Primus is a decidedly inferior band to Rush on a songwriting level, and to this point there aren’t any Primus songs I can think of that are great because of the drums. I might put “John The Fisherman” on that list, but not many others.
Alexander might top Peart on technical skill by a small margin; he’s not even close on imagination.
Mike Portnoy. Every time I hear someone suggest that Geddy and Alex hit the stage with Mike Portnoy on the drums, I cringe. At every Rush show I attended, Neil was the star of the show. I’m sure Portnoy could play any Rush song as precisely as fans would expect, but would he mimic Neil’s solo too? Or would he come up with his own? Either would be too painful to watch.
Like Tim Alexander, Portnoy is astoundingly skilled and he’s a cool guy. But he doesn’t have the compositional drumming skill that was the signature of Rush’s best music.
Ringo Starr. Someone once asked John Lennon if Ringo was the best drummer in the world, and Lennon replied, “He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles.”
That might be true, but Ringo was brilliant in his own way, providing simple backing to arguably music’s greatest act. His one known solo, a short bit on the Abbey Road album, was minimally perfect for the song. Ringo never overplayed, making him perfect behind the tremendous songwriting talent in front of him.
Both Rush and The Beatles became huge after replacing their original drummer, but it’s possible the Beatles could have thrived with someone else on the kit. Not likely maybe, but possible. I doubt one could say that Rush would have become the iconic cult band they became with any other drummer.
Carl Palmer. It’s hard to listen to “Karn Evil 9” and argue that Palmer wasn’t a rarely equaled rock drumming great…especially given that he could accurately reproduce this enormously complicated prog rock anthem in live performance. I love Palmer’s playing on both the Brain Salad Surgery and Tarkus records; he was a drumming force to be reckoned with.
But take away those two records and ELP doesn’t really have a classic statement, and unlike Rush, some of their albums…like Love Beach…are embarrassing. Palmer didn’t come close to playing to his considerable abilities on several ELP (and subsequently Asia) records, while every Rush album features several great Peart performances.
Frank Beard. It’s not that I would make a serious argument that ZZ Top’s drummer is as good as Rush’s was, but I have to include him here because I believe he’s one of rock’s more underrated percussionists. The world may know his machine-like timekeeping on the Eliminator album, but listen to cuts like “Manic Mechanic” or “Crunchy”…this dude could freaking play.
But yes, it’s because of albums like Eliminator…and I like that album, don’t get me wrong…where Beard abandoned skillful time contortions for MTV-friendly danceable beats that keeps him from a podium finish in Kurt’s race of rock drumming greats. Some Rush efforts may have been more poppy than others, but none of them lack for imaginative drumming performances.
To ultimately sum up why I feel Neil Peart was a better drummer than all of these rock greats…and it’s not always an easy argument…it’s this: Neil was compositional enough to come up with brilliant parts that fit and enhanced already great songs, and he was technically skilled enough to faithfully reproduce those drum passages on stage. Much like Eddie Van Halen (as I discussed here) none of the drummers I’ve listed here excelled at both like Peart did, even without consideration of an untouchable drum solo.
As Stewart Copeland (another superb drummer who probably should have made this list) pointed out, “Neil Peart is the most air-drummed to drummer in history.”
That’s all you really need to know about how great he was.
The Look of Fire And Intensity
In the video for A Show of Hands, a recording of a 1988 show from the Hold Your Fire tour, Neil can be seen sharing a chuckle with Alex while playing “The Spirit of Radio”. You can see the rare smile from Neil while playing, and giggles for some unknown reason between the two.
The exchange distracts Neil just enough that he plays the beat of the second verse just a half second too long before the song goes into the chorus.
It’s the tiniest of mistakes, one that very likely no one in the arena noticed. But for the rest of the show, the smile is gone from Neil’s face. It’s evident that he is thoroughly disgusted with himself for even this almost negligible lapse in concentration. Needless to say, he plays flawlessly for the rest of the concert, including through some pretty challenging songs, like “Tom Sawyer” and “La Villa Strangiato”.
One of my favorite elements of a Rush show, especially when I was sitting close enough, was just seeing the measure of extreme focus in Neil Peart’s face.
Neil’s visage while performing on stage betrayed a constant look of angst. A profound level of determination to play these incredibly challenging drum parts, and to play them right. To give the people that paid a few bucks to see this a completely perfect performance.
That twisted look of intensity on his face revealed that he truly was a human…arguably a godlike one when sitting behind a drum kit, but still a human nonetheless, and not the machine he often appeared to be. His humanity seemed otherwise impossible to conceive for anyone so well familiar with every beat and every drum fill of a Rush record. At a show, you expected every fill to sound exactly like it did on the album, and he would be damned if it didn’t.
I remember a fellow fan saying to me, “I’ve seen Alex have bad nights, I’ve seen Geddy have bad nights. I’ve never seen Neil have a bad night.” I believed him, although in 23 Rush shows I didn’t witness Geddy or Alex screwing up their parts very often either.
It’s hard for me to even quantify any time where I thought Neil played a better show than any other time. He was so consistently on top of his considerable game, every show, every tour. He set a standard for himself that a tiny number of musicians would set, and his pained expression on stage made it seem like excruciating work to be so perfectionist.
Which, when one thinks about it, it probably was.
You might very occasionally see him smile, twirl a drumstick or toss it in the air, to share at least a fleeting moment of belief that he might actually be enjoying himself up there.
But for 99.5% of Rush’s three hour show, there would be a demeanor on the drummer’s face that was an equal mixture of seriousness, rage, and determination…looking perpetually as if he had an axe to grind with the meaninglessness of life, and he was taking the opportunity to make the point as hard as he could.
I could never be as good a drummer as Neil. I likely wouldn’t ever be as good at writing lyrics either. But I sometimes doubt I could ever even manage to pour so much fire just into a facial expression.
Top Ten Neil Peart Performances
There are many, many outstanding Neil Peart performances in Rush’s catalog, so I didn’t think too much about choosing these ten; they stick out for me for both the drums and the words. Take these ten songs away from me, and I’ll easily come up with ten more examples of why My Rock Drummer Can Lick Your Rock Drummer. (Or even why My Rock Lyricist Can Lick Your Rock Lyricist.)
I’ve linked to the best YouTube videos I could find with them. Enjoy.
10) Secret Touch (Vapor Trails, 2002) – The big achievement in this one is still having unbroken cymbals at the end. This song just slams, and I chose the R30 version to link to because of the extension of the ending, my favorite part of the song.
9) Driven (Test For Echo, 1996) – This song is Neil and Rush at their prime-numbered time signature best. No danger of anyone dancing to this one.
8) 2112 (2112, 1976) – One of Neil’s lyrical masterpieces, a statement that still defines Rush today…freedom of expression vs. the tyranny of the programmed masses. All while effectively slamming the skins for 20-plus minutes.
7) BU2B (Clockwork Angels, 2012) – A lyrical tirade about the unfairness of life, extremely effectively delivered by a singer not often respected for his singing. Backed with some seriously challenging drum work.
6) The Big Money (Power Windows, 1985) – From the dropping bomb of the opening chord, the drummer’s wrists never stop. And like The Police’s “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da”, the lyrics are far more complex and meaningful than they sound. One of my all-time favorite Rush cuts.
5) La Villa Strangiato (Hemispheres, 1978) – Words be damned, this is still arguably the best rock instrumental ever. And it is largely so because of the superb drumming. This is the one you play for people who question whether Neil was the best. (Of course, I included the “drum camera” version…)
4) Double Agent (Counterparts, 1993) – One of the higher ranking cuts on my list of criminally underrated Rush songs…the limb independence in the drums behind the guitar solo is staggering. And the chaotic music perfectly complements lyrics that define moral conflict.
3) Natural Science (Permanent Waves, 1980) – A brilliant take on the advancements of science and how it is our responsibility to keep it under control, backed by prog rock drumming at its finest. This one is stocked full of drum fills that kick in air drumming instincts.
2) Tom Sawyer (Moving Pictures, 1981) – An easy choice, perhaps, but still an enduring Rush classic. I love that last fill at the very end of the song, barely audible in the song’s fading…it’s one last moment of yes, this may be the best playing of drums in a rock song, ever.
1) Subdivisions (Signals, 1982) – Neil Peart at his lyrical, technical, and compositional best. A somber look at the loneliness of growing up in the oppression of the suburbs as a misfit, divided from the bright lights of the city and cast out from the cool kids who conform. All backed by a different and uniquely challenging drum part for every verse, with Neil’s unmatchable limb independence concluding the song. A musical masterpiece.
A Void Unlikely To Be Filled
Neil Peart was an inspiration to us all in so many ways, not just in the wonderful…and wonderfully large…catalog of music he gave us, full of drum parts we love to mimic and words we love to sing. He was a profound and brightly shining example of how to excel…be it in drumming, writing, cooking, whatever one’s vocation in life. He demonstrated to us all the value of a strong work ethic, and he made plain what any of us could achieve…if we were willing to pay the price.
He frequently could be heard saying things like he had to earn the audience, every album, every show. That when show time comes, you give 100%, and there are no excuses. Rush didn’t get into music for money, fame, or women. They got into it because they wanted to be rock musicians. Everything Neil Peart did drove that.
Search on YouTube and you can easily find dozens of videos of drummers who can play Rush parts to perfection, some of them very young kids. That speaks volumes about his imagination behind a drum kit. Neil Peart left a volume of work and a legacy that, judging from my five year old’s enthusiastic (and increasingly accurate) air drumming, seems a far cry from exhausting its shelf life.
I have plenty of music to listen to and concert videos to watch, all of which I can share with my young son. And I will have plenty of stories for him about their concerts, and what it was really like to witness Neil playing live. When he is old enough, maybe I’ll take him to see a tribute band, but of course, it will never equal the experience.
I miss Rush. I miss Neil. There is still, years after the band’s retirement, a void in my existence where the excitement of hearing a new record or attending a show once was. There was little that compared to walking through an arena parking lot when my musical heroes were finally in town, hearing obscure Rush songs playing on car stereos and boom boxes, seeing excited fans everywhere in anticipation and celebration. For this misfit suburban fan, it was a sudden and rare moment of belonging. You could easily have a conversation with any stranger there…and I often did.
The days of anticipating a new Rush album or show are now unquestionably behind me in this life, and even though the whole dream lasted a lot longer than any of us had a right to expect, there’s still sadness knowing that it’s truly over.
Neil Peart will never be replaced. He can’t.
But as Dr. Seuss famously said, don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.
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