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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Cooking with Banshee: Cranberry Blue Cheese Spread

Thanksgiving is behind us, and the holiday season is in full swing.  It's a season that is filled with socializing.  This Cranberry Blue Cheese Spread is perfect for formal parties, impromptu gatherings at the house or office pot-luck lunches.  It's easy to make, but it looks and tastes elegant.

Cranberry Blue Cheese Spread

4 oz crumbled blue cheese
16 oz cream cheese
1 Tbs cognac
1 bunch fresh chives, chopped
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
3/4 cup dried cranberries, chopped

Allow the cheeses to reach room temperature.  Combine all ingredients.  Mix well.  Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.  Serve with crackers.

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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thankful Sports Fan

Like so many other areas of public discourse in America, the world of sports is too often filled with negativity and criticism.  I want to take a break from that.  In this season of giving thanks, I want to take a few moments to talk about the things in sports that I am thankful for in the past year.

Fenway Park tribute to Derek Jeter
1.  Derick Jeter.  I know, I know.  Many of you were tired of hearing about Derek Jeter by the time this baseball season ended.  I, however, am wholeheartedly thankful that I got to grow up as a sports fan during Derek Jeter's career.  I am also thankful that baseball fans had the opportunity to show their appreciation for Derek as he made his farewell tour.  As the year drew to a close, many media members and elitist bloggers took great pains to tell the world that Derek Jeter's numbers did not deserve to be compared to the all-time greats.  They told the world that any decent shortstop who played for the Yankees during Jeter's era would have a dazzling collection of World Series rings.  Those people may be entirely correct, but they are missing the point.  Life is hard.  Sports are supposed to be a fun distraction from the rest of life.  And, Derek Jeter provided a ton of fun.  From his flip play in Oakland to the home run that earned him the name Mr. November to the RBI in his final at-bat, Jeter had a flair for the dramatic.  And, Jeter did it all with a smile on his face.  No athlete has ever seemed to understand how blessed his life was the way that Derek Jeter did.  And Jeter never brought shame to his fans by showing up in a PED report or in a tabloid scandal.  Whether his stats are worthy of all-time great status or not, I am thankful that I got to come of age and grow into adulthood during Derek Jeter's career.

2.  Rory McIlroy.  Sport at its highest level is always a joy to behold.  During a thirty-day span this summer, Rory McIlroy treated the world to one of the finest exhibitions of golf the world has ever seen.  On July 20, 2014, Rory won the Open Championship at the Old Course at St. Andrews.  McIlroy followed that up with a win at the World Golf Championship at Bridgestone Country Club in Akron, OH before capping off August with a victory at the PGA Championship at Valhalla.  Rory then finished off the year as an integral part of the victorious European team at the 2014 Ryder Cup.  I am thankful that I got to witness this level of golfing greatness.

Sisters at fight night in Vegas
3.  Boxing.  Boxing is one of the oldest forms of sport known to mankind.  Yet, the sweet science is a recent addition to my sports viewing repertoire.  Over the past few years, I have been watching HBO and Showtime coverage of mid-level prize fights, and in the last twelve months, I started regularly buying PPV events.  In May, I had the amazing opportunity to attend a world championship fight between Floyd Mayweather and Marcos Maidana.  I devoted an entire post to the experience of fight night in Vegas.  I am truly thankful for the opportunity to attend this fight in person, and I am thankful for the extra perspective I have now while watching fights on TV.

4.  World Cup in a Friendly Time Zone.  A few years ago, it was inconceivable that I would have soccer included in any twelve-month sports retrospective.  Perhaps every World Cup has been as great as the 2014 edition, but this year's event in Brazil took place during the daylight hours here in the United States.  That allowed co-workers to gather in break rooms, friends to gather in barrooms and families to gather in living rooms to watch the beautiful game.  For many of us, it was a chance to learn and bond.  For others, it was a chance to finally share their passion with sports fans who were previously oblivious to the finer points of a corner kick.  I am thankful that the 2014 World Cup was played in a time zone that allowed for such learning and camaraderie.

(Terry Renna/AP)
5.  Resurgence of Dale Jr.  For the past decade, the sport's most popular driver was by no means one of its most successful drivers.  Not even close.  But, in 2014 Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s results on the track began to match his popularity.  His Nationwide teams were also strong all year long and finished the season with Chase Elliott winning the series championship.  Sure, the legend of Dale, Sr. plays a factor in Junior's popularity, but Junior is beloved unlike any driver because, despite his wealth and fame, he acts like one of us.  When Junior joined Twitter, he didn't flood his timeline with shots of his celebrity friends.  He tweeted about rooting for the Redskins and how his friends were doing at the local dirt track.  When Junior wins a race, he doesn't talk about sipping Cristal in a club that the rest of us can't afford to enter.  No, he talks about drinking beer at Whiskey River.  One of the most personal posts I've ever written for this blog was after a Junior victory in 2012.  I am thankful that the celebrations were not few and far between for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his fans this season.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veteran's Day Salute to Athletes

In the sports world, we often speak of teams "going to battle" and players "laying it all on the line."  As we celebrate Veteran's Day, it is important to remember that their are athletes who have done this in the literal sense.  These are just a few of the athletes who put country before self and interrupted promising careers for military service.

The men who paid the ultimate price, men such as Pat Tillman and Christy Mathewson, deserve to have their own columns on a day such as Memorial Day.  Therefore, this column is confined to men who served and returned to the sports world.  This is not a comprehensive list.  As someone who never served, it would be inappropriate for me to rank these men, so this list is presented in alphabetical order.

Rocky Bleier.  United States Army, 1968-69.  NFL.   Rocky Bleier is best known for winning four Super Bowl championships with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970's, but before those days of glory on the gridiron there were dark days in the jungles of Vietnam.  After a star career at Notre Dame, Bleier was drafted by the Steelers in 1968.  After his rookie season, the running back was drafted once again ... this time by the United States Army.  Bleier volunteered for duty in Vietnam.  In August of 1969, Bleier was wounded by a bullet and shrapnel while on patrol in a rice paddy near Heip Duc.  Bleier's wounds were serious enough that doctors told him he would never be able to play football again.  While recovering in an Army hospital, Bleier received a note of encouragement from Steelers' owner Art Rooney.  Bleier took Rooney's words to heart and eventually worked his way into the Steelers' starting lineup for the 1974 season.  In 1976, Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris combined for the rare feat of having two running backs on the same team rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.

Bob Feller
Bob Feller.  United States Navy, 1941-1945.  MLB.  While visiting his terminally ill father, Bob Feller heard that the Empire of Japan had attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor.  Two days later, the 23-year old Feller enlisted in the United States Navy.  Despite his young age, Feller was already an established star pitcher for the Cleveland Indians when he voluntarily headed to war instead of spring training.  Feller volunteered for combat duty and was assigned to the U.S.S. Alabama.  Feller later stated, "I told them I wanted to ... get into combat; wanted to do something besides standing around handing out balls and bats and making ball fields out of coral reefs."  Feller got his wish.  When Feller was discharged from the Navy in 1945, he had earned six campaign ribbons and eight battle stars.

Warren Spahn.  United States Army, 1942-45.  MLB.  When the United States joined World War II at the end of 1941, Warren Spahn was struggling to earn a spot on the Boston Braves major league roster.  By the time Spahn retired in 1965, he was the winningest left-handed pitcher in the history of baseball.  In between, Spahn fought in the Battle of the Bulge.  During that campaign, Spahn suffered frostbite so severe that doctors considered amputating the pitcher's feet.  Fortunately for Spahn and for baseball fans, that drastic measure was avoided.  By the time Spahn left the service, he had achieved the rank of First Lieutenant and had earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.  After the war, Spahn recorded thirteen 20-win seasons and two no-hitters.  One of those no-hitters came after his 40th birthday, proving his battlefield toughness translated to the pitcher's mound.

Roger Staubach.  United States Navy, 1964-68.  NFL.  Veterans Day is not just a time to remember those who served in combat.  Everyone who volunteers for military service does so knowing that a combat deployment is a realistic possibility.  That's a tremendous sacrifice for any 18-year old to make, but it is an especially big sacrifice for someone with the talent to play top level college football.  When Roger Staubach enrolled in the Naval Academy, he signed up for a military commitment beyond his four years of college.  While playing quarterback at Navy, Staubach won the Heisman, the Maxwell and the Walter Camp Award.  Staunch was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, but his professional career was put on hold for four years while he fulfilled his commitment to the United States Navy.  During one of those years, Staubach volunteered for assignment in Vietnam.  Staubach finally made his professional football debut in 1969 as a 27 year-old rookie.  Staubach led the Cowboys to a Super Bowl victory in 1977.  Perhaps Staubach's most lasting contribution to the sports world was when he coined the term "Hail Mary" in the football context.

Ted Williams.  United States Navy, 1942-46, 1952-53.  MLB.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Ted Williams served two stints in the military.  Both were during wartime, and both were in the middle of his playing career.  The "Splendid Splinter" is widely regarded as the greatest hitter who ever lived.  In 1941, Williams batted .406.  No one has matched that mark since then.  World War II erupted after that historic season.  Williams went to do his duty during the war and became a naval pilot.  Williams did not see combat during World War II, but he was recalled to to active duty in the Korean War.  During the Korean War, Williams flew numerous combat missions.  Williams is possibly the greatest athlete on this list.

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

NFL Prediction Midterm Report Card

Week 9 in the NFL is in the books.  Every team has played at least eight games.  That means that we've had half a season to judge teams.  It also means we've had plenty of time to judge Wild Banshee's preseason predictions for each division.  It's time for the Midterm Report Card.

AFC East:  In the preseason, I picked the Patriots to win the division.  Despite getting off to a rough start, the Patriots have never slipped out of first place.  Right now, the Patriots are in the midst of a five-game win streak that includes absolute demolitions of the Bengals and the Broncos.  The Patriots are firing on all cylinders on both sides of the ball as they head into the bye week.  I would give myself an A+ for this prediction if I hadn't also predicted that the Jets would be the Patriots' primary challengers.  First Quarter Grade: A     Midterm Grade: A

AFC North:  I predicted that the AFC North would be a tough division.  I expected the Bengals to win the division and thought that every team would be competitive.  After nine weeks, all four teams are locked in a virtual dead heat.  The Bengals are technically on top of the division with a record of 5-2-1.  The Ravens are technically in last place with a record of 5-4.  Pretty good predicting, but right now the Bengals are trending the wrong way while the Steelers are one of the hottest teams in the league.  (This column was written before the Thursday night game between Cleveland and Cincinnati.  That game will be reflected on my next report card.)  First Quarter Grade: A     Midterm Grade: A-

AFC South:  Before the season started, I predicted that the Houston Texans would return to their winning ways and steal the division back from the Colts.  I also predicted that the Jaguars would make great strides forward this year.  In other words, I was a moron.  I gave myself a lot of leniency in the first report card because I believed so strongly in the savior of Penn State and new Texans head coach Bill O'Brien.  But, honesty is important to me.  I did at least predict that the Colts would be a playoff team, so I do not get a failing grade.  First Quarter Grade: A-     Midterm Grade: C

AFC West:  Before the season, I predicted that the Broncos would win the division and that the Chargers would win the wildcard.  At quarter pole of the season, the Chargers sat atop the division while the Broncos were also playing solid ball.  At the halfway point, the Broncos have reclaimed the top spot in the division, but they are coming off a miserable performance in New England.  The Chargers are still in the hunt for a wildcard, but they have slipped behind the Chiefs in the division standings and are in the middle of the pack in the AFC overall.  First Quarter Grade: A-     Midterm Grade: A-

Probably safe to throw this ticket away.
NFC East:  The Eagles were my preseason pick to win the NFC East, but I didn't expect any of these teams to be great.  At the halfway point of the year, Philly holds a narrow lead over Dallas, but the Cowboys are trending in the wrong direction with a quarterback who is nursing a broken back.  Yes, a broken back.  The Redskins and the Giants continue to be Jekyll and Hyde teams leaning heavily in the Hyde direction.  I expect my grade to continue to improve as the season progresses, but for right now, this is not A quality work.  First Quarter Grade: B     Midterm Grade: B+

NFC North:  I was in Virginia Beach when I wrote the prediction column, and it appears that Big Ron's Rum Punch got the better of me when it came time to write the NFC North portion.  I predicted that the Bears would win this division.  Instead, the Bears are one of the worse teams in the NFC.  The Packers are in the thick of the wild card race, as I predicted, but it is the Lions who are on top of the division at the halfway point of the season.  First Quarter Grade: B-     Midterm Grade: C

NFC South:  I predicted that the Saints would win the NFC South, but I did not predict that this would be the worst division in football.  Turns out, this might be the worst division in the  history of football.  New Orleans leads the division with a 4-4 record.  At this point it seems inconceivable that any of the other teams could challenge for a wild card.  It certainly will not be the Falcons, a team I picked to make the playoffs.  First Quarter Grade: C     Midterm Grade: C

NFC West:  Before the season started, I predicted that only one playoff team would come out of this division.  If two teams did make the playoffs, I believed that they would be Seattle and Arizona.  At the midpoint of the season, this scenario seems very likely, but it is the Cardinals and not the Seahawks who have the best record in the division.  The Cardinals actually have the best record in the entire NFL after eight games.  I give myself credit for predicting the decline of San Francisco, but I cannot get an A if I didn't pick the correct division winner.  First Quarter Grade: B+     Midterm Grade: B+

Overall Grade:  After consulting my trusty calculator, it looks like my grades have slipped a bit, but they are still, not an embarrassment.  First Quarter Grade:  B+     Midterm Grade: B

Think I was too lenient?  Want to make some predictions of your own?  Then, by all means, leave a comment and let me know.

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