The Ottumwa Courier


May 24, 2012

HEINTZ: Getting acquainted with Ottumwa sports

OTTUMWA — It’s been about three weeks since I put Kansas astern and headed here to Ottumwa to embark on my newest adventure as a sports writer for the Ottumwa Courier.

Other than all the little irritants and tedious minutiae that go hand-in-hand with getting settled in a new place, I’ve had a pleasant stay here thus far.

I’ve particularly enjoyed familiarizing myself with some of Ottumwa High’s athletes and coaches. In addition, I sincerely appreciate all the warmth and generosity parents and fans have shown me at sports events — good-hearted people always make it easier to adjust to a new community.

In the more than 2 1/2 years I’ve spent writing about sports I’ve reached one conclusion: It’s not so much the sports events that are important, it’s the people who compete in those events.

I love the fact that sports writing brings me into contact with people from all walks of life. Whether it’s an old-school coach with a laundry list of accolades and achievements in his portfolio or an up-and-coming athlete with an unusual background, sports is essentially a story about the people behind the accomplishments.  

The person behind the smooth 3-pointer. Or the 30-yard touchdown run. Or the game-winning header. Or the natural-looking drive down the fairway. Or the “that was so fast I didn’t even get a chance to blink” serve. Or the lightning-quick 400 dash time. Or the towering game-winning home run?

I want to know what makes the people behind these feats of athleticism tick.

I want to know what magic formula is behind Frank Huston’s ultra-successful Ottumwa softball program? I want to know what intangibles make C.J. Ray and Ashley Salgado such talented tennis players? When their legs are screaming for a break and their mind is telling them, “now would be a good time to stop,” what makes Zach Messer, Spencer Hammack and Ben Kramer decide to run one more lap?

Trying to find the answers to these questions is why I love my job.

While there are more important things in life, there is something magical about sports when they are not only played right, but for the right reasons. And no matter how much some games have changed, sports still are capable of rendering those special moments that tug at the heartstrings and crowd the throat with joy. It is a privilege to write about these moments.

From the player who rides the bench to the star athlete who everybody aspires to be, I tip my hat to everyone who decides to go out for a sport. They deserve credit for being willing to put in the time and energy required to be part of an athletic program. Lord knows there were plenty of times in high school when the last thing I wanted to do was stagger out into the sweltering Kansas heat for another football practice.  

I still remember those days: There I was with a mouthpiece that looked like something the dog had chewed on for a couple of days and pads that were sort of — but not quite — in the right place. The prototypical All-American boy I was not.

Then there were those practices when our coach would makes us bear crawl four or five times up and down the field. Oh, how I hated the bear crawl —  especially when I had to do it for long distances.

First of all, the name bear crawl didn’t do an adequate job of interpreting how I felt during this drill. At no time do I recall feeling like a bear. A slow, depressed turtle maybe, but never a bear.

You see, despite an ample amount of practice, I never mastered the fine art of bear crawling. While others were crawling on all fours like that magnificent beast of the American wilderness, I often had to drop to my knees and crawl like a thirsty man in the desert desperately searching for a puddle of water. My only hope was that my teammates would camouflage me enough that I wouldn’t catch the attention of any of my coaches. Whenever I actually managed to make it up and down the field without being noticed, I felt like someone who had just survived a car wreck with only a few scrapes.

Anyway, the point is that student athletes should be commended for being willing to endure the inevitable ups and downs that characterize every season. It shouldn’t be forgotten that along with the fruits of victory, sports also teaches lessons in humility that many of us would just as soon forget. 

In some of the columns that follow this one I hope to  write about what it feels like to play sports with star athletes from Ottumwa and around the area, whether it be on the gridiron, track or on the basketball court. Other columns will involve me trying my luck in lesser-known sports and activities with people in the community and throughout southeast Iowa.

Hopefully, these columns will entertain, amuse and most importantly, paint a vivid picture of the people behind the sports we love.

Just as long as no one makes me try to bear-crawl.

Courier sports writer Andy Heintz can be reached at

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