Night of Champions delivered treasure chest of memories

Annual sports party celebrating local high school sports has shown tremendous growth

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By Marty Farmer

Sports Editor

It's Thursday, June 29, and I've got Pirates on my mind. Of course they are Pirates of particular persuasions, notably Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Kent Tekulve, Bill Madlock and Andrew McCutchen on a baseball field and Blackbeard, Black Bart, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and Sir Francis Drake at sea.

I'd also like to add Buccaneer Bruce, the famous logo on the previous Tampa Bay Buccaneers' helmets when the team's color scheme was Popsicle orange and white.

As for Johnny Depp, he might take his role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series a little too seriously, so let's put him on hold for now regarding my list of favorite Pirates.

A primary reason for my preoccupation with Pirates this day is I'm on vacation in Florida with my good friend Charlie Anderson. We made the three-hour drive lunch from Jacksonville down to Tampa and are enjoying lunch at Gaspar's Grotto in the bohemian community of Ybor City in Tampa, Florida.

While I rarely work during vacation, there are worse tragedies in life than writing a story with chicken tacos and a pitcher of beer within arm's reach.

According to Wikipedia, José Gaspar, known by his nickname Gasparilla (supposedly lived c. 1756 – 1821), was an apocryphal Spanish pirate. He represented the "Last of the Buccaneers" and claimed to have roamed and plundered across the Gulf of Mexico and the Spanish Main from his base in southwest Florida. Gaspar's legend is celebrated in Tampa during the city's annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival (first held in 1904).

As for Charlie, I became friends with him during my senior year at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville. He was a very good baseball player who played collegiately at Mississippi State. He also played for the Arkansas Travelers, a Double-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals (at the time/now Seattle Mariners) and he even had a few cups of coffee at a few Cardinals' spring training sessions.

Combining our shared love of Major League Baseball in such a swashbuckling atmosphere as Gaspar's Grotto, our conversation inevitably touched on the World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates of 1979. 

"Pops" Stargell and Dave "The Cobra" Parker powered that fun-loving team to 98 wins in the regular season. Their theme song that year was the popular disco hit, "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge.

Although I'm sure our younger readers have no idea about this iconic team let alone Sister Sledge, the Pirates concept of family caused me to reflect on the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark's recently held, Night of Champions sports party in June.

In conjunction with Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review and Dominican University, the Landmark hosted a sports party honoring the accomplishments of high school teams, players and coaches from Riverside-Brookfield, Lyons Township, Fenwick and Oak Park and River Forest.

This year's Landmark winners included Hall of Fame Award Winner, Tom McCloskey, Riverside-Brookfield boys basketball; Coach of the Year (Female Team), Doug Schultz, Riverside-Brookfield softball; Male Team of the Year, Lyons Township swimming; Male Athlete of the Year, Spencer Walker, Lyons Township swimming and Kyle Fitzgerald, Riverside-Brookfield baseball; Female Team of the Year, Lyons Township girls tennis; Female Athlete of the Year, Lahari Yelamanchili; Female Team of the Year, Lyons Township girls tennis; Most Inspirational Athlete, Joey Swallow, Riverside-Brookfield football/wrestling; Breakout Athlete of the Year, Jacob Kaminski, Fenwick wrestling.

As each team, player and coach came on stage to accept their award, I was blown away by how each award winner was so gracious and appreciative. Praise was often diverted to others who supported their successful journey. Love and respect was palpable watching coaches and student-athletes interact. It felt like, frankly, a family.

Feedback about the event was immediate and positive. Taking my vacation just two days after Night of Champions, I received approximately 60 congratulatory texts, emails and phone calls.

LTHS boys swimming coach Scott Walker wrote: "Thank you for a great event last evening. You and your team did a super job in distinguishing the high school talent across Riverside-Brookfield, Fenwick and OPRF. I thought the guest speaker (Mike Huff) was great and the speeches from the coaches were wonderful. Thank you for the wonderful job you and your team do and for the event last evening."

Fitzgerald texted me with similar sentiments: "Thanks Marty for picking me as the Male Athlete of the Year. That's awesome, a great honor. What a great night you ran, thanks again. Enjoy your vacation- you earned it!"

Now that you're reading this story, I am back at work. Sun-splashed Tampa is, literally and figuratively miles away, although it's nice to come home to pleasant Chicago weather. The vacation was needed and enjoyed. Thankfully, I love my job so work and personal time kind of mesh together. In other words, it's not a drag going back to work.

I'll never forget though the fun afternoon I spent at Gaspar's Grotto talking pirates and local student-athletes with my pal Charlie. In a weird kind of way, they are synonymous with each other, at least for me.

Hope to see you at Night of Champions next summer!

Contact:
Email: marty@rblandmark.com

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