I was – at one time – an athlete. I played collegiate football at Ole Miss, Northeast Junior College and Tennessee Tech University from 1983 until 1987 where I held my own against future NFL players like long-time Bronco defensive tackle Andre Townsend and Cowboy Pro-Bowler Leon Lett. I was blessed with enough strength, tenacity and aggression to carry me through a rough-and-tumble, 5-season career and two knee surgeries before settling into normal family life and an engineering job with IFM Corporation in Saltillo, Mississippi, in 1989.
It was early March 1994, when our party of five arrived in Park City, Utah, and unloaded the rented SUV that had carried us into the Wasatch Mountains. I had never been snow skiing myself, but I was assured by our trip organizer, IFM purchasing manager Randy McFadden, that I could “pick it up in a day, a day and a half – tops.” Randy was a fast-talking, former high school quarterback who still liked to call the plays when there was opportunity to do so, and coordinating a ski trip for a bunch of work buddies was a great opportunity.
“Listen Randy, I’ve tried water skiing a couple of times. I never can even get up,” I offered up, as a reason not to go along, two months earlier.
Randy countered, “Man, that’s a totally different thing! This is snow skiing, man! You start up! It’ll be fine! It’ll be great!” Randy spoke primarily in exclamations.
In any case, his line of reasoning made enough sense that I bought a ticket on Southwest Airlines and flew with the gang from Little Rock, Arkansas, to Salt Lake City. I now stood with Randy, his brother Mack, Greg Miller, and Dan Schirmer, the oldest member of the group at 44, looking at the beautiful snow-capped slopes of Utah where the Winter Olympics would take place eight years later.
We (actually Randy) had rented a condo, complete with hot tub, in close proximity to the city center and a wide variety of local restaurants. Our (actually Randy’s) plan was to ski a different resort on each day of the 5-day trip. We would take in Wolf Mountain (now called The Canyons), Park City, Snowbird, Alta and the most elite resort in Utah at that time Deer Valley. President Clinton and Christie Brinkley had both been to Deer Valley the week before us, we were told.
Randy said we would start our snowy smorgasbord at Park City where they had a half-day ski school. Dan, only a second-time skier, wanted to take a little refresher course, and Randy suggested Dan and I use the morning getting our legs under us on the “bunny slopes” before joining Mack, Greg and him in the afternoon for “real” skiing.
The idea of three hours in ski school with a dozen 8 year-olds and a hodgepodge of non-athletes, mostly older women, was hard to swallow. Was it really necessary? I was a collegiate athlete. I had held my own against NFL players. And yet I slid onto the seat of an only slightly inclined two-man ski lift, Dan at my side, aimed towards a soft spot on the gradual hillside 200 yards ahead.
The first indication that the school was perhaps a good idea came as Dan and I reached the point where we were to slide forward on our seats and exit the lift. There was an operator booth on my right with a tattooed 15 year-old manning the lift controls, barking orders at the departing ski students.
“Keep moving! Move out of the exit path!”
I watched five or six seats empty in front of us, the passengers moving out onto a flat, snowy plateau just beyond the control booth. When our turn came, my feet and Dan’s hit the ground at about the same time. Right away, I realized there was a problem. I am from Mississippi. I did not know that ski boots straps had to be tightly buckled – and they hurt my shins – and so I had just let mine flop in the breeze on the ride up. However, when my skis contacted snow, I was surprised to discover I had zero control.
I still point to my exit from the ski lift that day as a testament to my superior athleticism. I did NOT go down. I somehow managed to detach both my loose fitting boots from their connections and essentially “ran” right out of my skis, which were left spinning in the drop zone. I did, however, wipe Dan out. I slammed into him and sent him hurtling past the safety barrier on our left and down a black triple-diamond slope. The tattooed 15 year-old dryly commented, “Now, that’s something I’ve never seen,” as he stopped the lift, and I helped Dan climb back to the exit area. He was on all fours as he peeked over the crest of the hill. Not only did I learn that your boots must be tightly fastened at all times, I also learned that to cause the continuous ski lift to stop was to bring down the verbal wrath of the hundreds already on the lift and of those in line waiting to get on. Clearly, I had committed a skiing faux pas – duly noted.
I did not go down during this event – I mentioned that – but I did go down 22 seconds after exiting the drop zone. I tried to “V-plow” as we were instructed (and that’s not real skiing, by the way) and so navigate down the 200 yards of slope to once again mount the lift and return for lesson number two. But I must have missed the part about how to steer left or right in what the instructor was saying. Perhaps I was still disoriented from the Schirmer wipeout, and I made a bee-line, as if drawn by a magnet, to the pole that supported the lift. It was so out of the realm of possibility the support could be hit by a skier that I didn’t see another set of tracks anywhere in the snow over the last 20 or 30 yards I travelled … just before I crashed face first into a 14″ diameter steel tube and suffered my first concussion of the day.
My next trip down the bunny slope I sailed left off the path into a grove of wonderfully scented evergreens. My left shoulder rammed into a mid-sized fir tree just as my right ski tip caught on a root separating my ski from my boot once again. This time, however, it was just the one. I saw it glide away into the distance as I lay curled around the base of the tree.
Within three hours, I was able to V-plow down the bunny slope, and Dan, who had fared only slightly better than me, suggested we break for lunch and wait on Randy and the others. I feigned a desire to make “just one more run” down the slope before giving in to his lunch offer. I doubt that I was believable.
We went to the top of the mountain after lunch and carefully mapped a pathway back to the base along only “green” slopes. The slopes progress in difficulty on a scale of green to blue to black to black with up to three diamonds. I would have been dead within seconds should I have mistakenly turned down a black triple-diamond slope, but it’s not the kind of mistake someone at my level of experience would have casually made. With a black triple-diamond, you just sort of walk up and look over the edge of a cliff, as tattooed 15 year-olds leap past you and disappear into the mists half a football field below. With my inability to yet steer myself with any confidence, I was in a pretty precarious situation standing there at the top of some unnamed Wasatch peak.
The natural beauty around me no longer registered as we selected a slope that, on our trail map, looked like a winding roadway. And that’s exactly what it was. But nothing was going to be easy on this day it seemed. The roadway most certainly had a modest angle of descent, but it was only about 10 feet wide total. On the mountain side of the trail was a snow-covered cliff wall, and on the non-mountain side was air and a straight drop to eternity. I hugged the cliff wall so tightly that occasionally I would have to stick my ski pole into it to dislodge myself. There was no way I was getting near the drop on my right, so with my steering problem I crashed into this wall maybe 20 times before we reached the bottom, often ending up on my back and skidding a few yards down slope before our trio of actual skiers would gather my loose skis and equipment and return me to a vertical position. They were all smiling. Dan was more sympathetic. I caught a few of his nastier spills in my peripheral vision. At least I think it was Dan. I couldn’t risk turning my head. We made several trips top to bottom, and when the day finally ended, it occurred to me that no Andre Townsend or Leon Lett had ever hurt me the way I was hurt at this moment.
The only thing I remember after that was sitting quietly in a hot tub listening to the laughter of my so-called friends who found humor in the fact that over the course of a couple of hours the only thing I said was “I think I have a concussion.”
It got better. There were times on our second day at Wolf Mountain that I was able to move my skis from the “V” to a correct parallel position and actually travel a few seconds before crashing. I felt a metaphorical kinship with the Wright Brothers. On Day 2, I spent only HALF the morning errantly careening through groves of trees, and by afternoon I kept my skis reasonably parallel all the time. I even began to jump-turn to change direction, and I was falling only every ten minutes or so – progress. I felt great satisfaction when our group came into one particular clearing, ready to proceed down a monstrously wide (but still “green”) slope that had developed a thin layer of surface ice. I was able to navigate down the mountain despite the increased difficulty the ice brought, and Dan – bless his heart – took his skis off and walked down.
That night I was able to converse with Randy and the others, though my head was still throbbing and my body ached like I had been in a car wreck. I took a bottle of Tylenol.
“You’ve got this now, man! I told you this was going to be great! Don’t you love it?! Snowbird resort tomorrow!” Randy exclaimed. I nodded and nodded off.
Day 3 was pretty doggone good. I fell rarely. I was feeling better from not falling so much, and I began to actually enjoy what we were doing. By the end of the day at Snowbird, I tackled one little section of a “blue” run. I am an athlete. I played college football and held my own against future NFL players.
Over my shoulder, I could see Dan at a crossroads, the fork of the intermediate run and the green. He paused, looking down at the four of us sailing off into the blue, and then chose discretion as the better part of valor. He pointed his ski tips to the gently declining bunny path, joining elderly women and a few of the 8 year-olds who hadn’t already advanced to leaping off black triple-diamonds. At that moment, I had a vision. I saw a SkiUtah leaderboard and a tattooed 15 year-old moving Schirmer’s name down a slot to #5 – and then inserting “Richey” in the #4 hole. And on cue, my pecking order possibilities took another sudden and unexpected uptick. Randy’s brother Mack blew his knee out trying to make a quick stop at the gateway to the next slope!
“Come on, man! You can make it to the bottom! I know you can!” Randy exclaimed. But Mack could NOT make it to the bottom. The ski patrol carried him down to the lodge, and two hours later when the slopes closed and Randy declared skiing done for the day, we helped Mack to the SUV.
“Just sleep on it! You’ll be all right tomorrow! We’re going to do Deer Valley tomorrow! You don’t want to miss Deer Valley!” Randy encouraged his brother.
We did not do Deer Valley the next day. We did Alta instead because it was on the western side of the Wasatch Mountains, and that was the same side Salt Lake City was on. Salt Lake City’s where we left Mack at the airport terminal – in a wheel chair – awaiting an expedited flight home for surgery.
“You’re going to be all right, Mack! I know you are! Have a safe trip! Let’s go, guys!”
The four men left standing made it to Alta only an hour later than Randy had planned. Gazing skyward occasionally over the next couple hours, the gang wondered which passing plane might be Mack’s as we immersed ourselves in an equal mix of “greens” and “blues.” Day 4 was the best yet, even though Dan had slowed considerably and spent much of his day drinking at Alta’s mid-mountain restaurant.
“Hey, Dan, let’s go up and do a mogul run!” Randy shouted at our elder one of the several times we passed him during the next four hours. Dan grunted and threw up a hand, waving us on. Or perhaps he was offering Randy a sign. I wasn’t quite sure from a distance and with Dan wearing ski gloves.
The condo was filled with chatter when we returned from dinner on the fourth day. We toasted Mack a time or two. Dan was up for that. I saw a change go up on my imagined SkiUtah leaderboard. Now hanging beside the name that had been at the front of the pack, since we rode the lifts up Park City’s peaks on Day 1, was a “DQ.” McFadden, M. – Disqualified.
Tenacity can carry a person a long way, I thought, looking back at the beating I had taken during those first 36 hours of hell in Utah. Now, only Deer Valley remained, where President Clinton had slalomed with Christie Brinkley the week before. Frankly, Randy, Greg and I had gotten into a pretty good rhythm on the slopes, and now even Dan seemed excited about the day we would spend at Deer Valley Resort, one of Utah’s finest.
Valet parking was available. That tipped us off that we had clearly taken a step forward. There was an air of elegance at Deer Valley, and lift ticket prices confirmed that this particular resort was not a stop on the Greyhound bus route. But we were each only footing the bill for a single skier, so we swallowed the check and had a blast.
The slopes weren’t as crowded, and snowboarders weren’t allowed, which decreased the number of tattooed 15 year-olds we had to contend with. One of the long runs from the top took you by several of the Olympic event sites, then under construction. And the best part, we skied without falling. I skied without falling – maybe a slight spill or two over the course of the full day, but that’s expected of anyone. And we skied fast, fast for us, and we skied through moguls, and we skied through tree runs. We knew this was the last day, and we, especially Randy, wanted to squeeze every ounce of fun there was to be had out of it. Dan dropped out first, and Randy, Greg and I headed back up to mid-mountain for “one last run” to the bottom.
There was a decision made, an audible by our signal-caller, that this run would be a “race.” I am a former college football player who has held his own against future NFL players. I am tenacious and aggressive. Five days did not make me a skilled skier, but I raced anyway. I did not win. But neither did Randy, and now with the sun about to set, he told Greg and I that he believed we yet had even “one MORE run” in us – all the way from the top to the bottom. Greg shook his head and walked away, his victory tucked in the belt of his ski pants. He joined Dan at a table near the lodge and waited.
“Come on, Clark! This is it, man! Don’t go back to Mississippi and leave a run on the table! One more run! When you watch the Olympics, you can say, ‘We did that!'”
Randy was quite persuasive. What the heck. We mounted the lift and went all the way up. It was glorious – sun hanging low, slopes nearly empty – the mountain was ours. We discounted entirely the fact that Miller had won that last race. There were now only two men left on this mountain. Greg had forfeited his title when he walked away and sat down with Dan.
Randy and I flew down the hill – he representing the brotherhood of high school quarterbacks and me carrying the pride, honor and weight of collegiate lineman throughout eternity. After two days of physical abuse and another three days of intense exercise, we were both exhausted. Two-thirds of the way down my arms and legs were trembling, but we raced on. Finally the terrain flattened, and we approached that last stretch, the home stretch that led to the lodge. We saw the huge Deer Valley crowd, their day complete – the skiing elite, drinking and laughing, the soft glow from the string lights shining on the snow with the sun sinking below the horizon.
Randy and I are furiously driving forward with our poles, Nordic-style. The crowd murmurs but parts as we sail towards the smiling faces of Dan and Greg who cheer us on. I edge ahead and refuse to slow up even though the crowd is thick and complaining as we bump past. I am almost at Greg and Dan and a hundred others – and a ski length ahead of Randy – when an elderly couple who have taken off their skis step from the lodge’s patio directly into my path. With Randy barreling in on my right, I have no choice but to jump-turn quickly left to avoid a repeat of the Day 1 Schirmer wipeout, this time involving people I don’t know … and old people. The problem with my left turn was that it was onto the lodge’s brick patio. And I learned a new lesson, even on Day 5, in front of five hundred to a thousand of Utah’s upper crust. Skis only slide on snow.
Immediately my skis came to an abrupt halt. Unfortunately, this time my boots were tightly fastened, so my knees hit first. The circle of on-lookers around me widened as my upper body folded forward, but I was able to get my hands down and thus prevent a full-on face plant. I was a collegiate athlete. I could still react – I had just saved those two old people’s lives, for crying out loud! I could still react, but after 5 days of physical exertion, my strength was no more. And my shaking arms began to spasm and buckle. I used every iota of energy left in my body to resist, but slowly my face descended and with a ‘thunk’ my forehead tapped – some later said “struck” – the brick patio. There was complete and deafening silence from the elite. Some looked on with pity and some with disdain. The silence mercifully was broken by a familiar sound.
“Man, you won’t ever forget this! Man, what a finish! Dan, Greg, did you see that?!”
OK, not so merciful, and yes, Dan and Greg saw it. So did five hundred to a thousand others at the close of day at Deer Valley. I got up as quickly as I could, and soon folks returned to milling and chatting. Occasionally, they would point my way and speak in hushed tones. At first, I was upset with Randy’s immediate promotion of the ignominious end to my Wasatch ski adventure, but after reflection, I think his assessment was right on. I won’t ever forget it.
I was – at one time – an athlete. I played collegiate football at Ole Miss, Northeast Junior College and Tennessee Tech University where I held my own against future NFL players Andre Townsend and Leon Lett. I am blessed with strength, aggression and tenacity. I returned to the Wasatch Mountains, and Deer Valley, the very next year, with a gang of friends led by a high school quarterback who spoke primarily in exclamations … for the rematch, of course.