By Michael Conway
Before Dante begins the journey that encompasses The Divine Comedy, before he enters Hell, before he even meets Virgil, he is but a traveler “in the middle of our life’s journey” finding himself in a “dark wood.” Dante is literally meandering through a circle of trees, and he is also metaphorically lost in a clump of confusion. He has no idea how he wandered into this situation, and less of an idea on how to get out. It takes the guidance of Virgil to lead Dante through a vast array of hideous punishments and horrors so that he might begin an ascent out of the darkness.
The opening line of Inferno is a wonderfully rich depiction of a feeling endemic to being human. It is a sentiment that has been returned to again and again in the centuries since Dante composed the Comedy because it’s so easy to find oneself hopelessly turned around in a wood for just a few moments or for an extended period of time. It is uncomfortable, annoying, frustrating, disconcerting, alarming, and downright frightening. It’s also a simple fact of life that such obstacles will be encountered.
The Virgil’s of these moments are critical. Once committed to the journey out of the wood—whether it’s into Hell or somewhere else—the content and adventures of the journey take center stage. In the case of Dante, the spectacles in Hell assume greater prominence even as Virgil remains his guide and fount of information. But without Virgil, there is no journey. There is no next step—just more aimless wandering. Virgil provides direction and when you’re walking with purpose to a specific place or point, you are no longer truly lost.
Tony Reali, the host of ESPN’s Around the Horn and until recently “Stat Boy” on Pardon the Interruption, is one of the most important Virgil’s of my life. From a studio in Washington D.C., dressed impeccably in clothing that hugs his thin frame sensibly, topped by thick, black, gel covered hair, and armed with a broad smile, Tony has ushered me through the dark woods of life.
Before Tony became “Tony Reali, host of Around the Horn,” he worked without any recognition of his legal name. He was merely “Stat Boy,” the young man who looked like an old child, whose job was to tell PTI co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon the mistakes they made during the course of their sports talk show. His arrival at ATH was unexpected and born out of desperation. Entering February 2, 2004, ATH had no one to implement the overarching gimmick of the show—a “scoring” system where panelists are awarded points for offering “good” opinions and are penalized for any variety of reasons. It is as arbitrary as any barstool debate, attempting to embrace the absurdism of sports arguments rather than transcend it. Host Max Kellerman was embroiled in contract negotiations with ESPN so Reali was tapped as his substitute. His first day on the job came the day following Super Bowl XXXVIII, when the New England Patriots defeated the Carolina Panthers and Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake had a wardrobe malfunction. Over the next 18 months, Tony went from emergency host to long-term interim host to the full-time gig.
By the end of high school, I was watching both shows religiously. Five o’clock Eastern Time became sacrosanct to an, admittedly, mildly preposterous level. My family understood that I would be unavailable for all but the most basic consultations during commercial breaks for that hour. I structured my day with ATH and PTI in mind, planning errands, trips to the gym, meetings, appointments, and everything else in my life around that important one-hour block. It was not about watching a couple TV shows I liked. It was about observing a weekday ritual and recognizing the significance of the relationships built through regular viewing.
Tony was both keenly aware of the two shows’ relational potential—both between the participants themselves and between participants and audience—and was the driving force behind centralizing their importance. He was aided in part by being on both shows. The topics the two shows discuss are often similar if not identical, and both shows were the product of producer Erik Rydholm. Yet, they are two distinct shows and Tony is the lynchpin. His outfit on both shows is identical unless he takes the coat off and rolls up his sleeves for a more casual, man-of-the-people look on PTI. He leads the games that Kornheiser and Wilbon sometimes play in the B block, which are about as serious as the game within ATH. He audibly laughs when Kornheiser or Wilbon make a joke, yells “ball night!” to Wilbon, and cries out “YOW!” often. His time as Stat Boy spans the entirety of PTI’s existence, and his term as host of ATH feels eternal even if that’s not actually the case. The man never gets sick and his vacation was determined by when the shows were on break. He may not be the cornerstone upon which either show was built, but he is certainly the roof that makes the building and its foundation worth using.
Social media platforms facilitated the growth of these relationships. Videos would be posted to YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter inviting the audience to learn more about the personalities of the pundits. ATH featured an “Ask the Panelist” series where panelists would answer a set of questions compiled from viewer comments on a Facebook post, and PTI would post videos of brief interviews with Kornheiser that were conducted by Reali. I learned that Bill Plachske is a huge ABBA fan, Israel Gutierrez attended University of Florida and still harbors a strong allegiance to the Gators, Bomani Jones will occasionally bake chocolate chip cookies, and Kornheiser usually doesn’t pick up his own catered lunch from the security desk. I do not actually know these people, but the shows encourage familiarity. Without the benefit of a formal introduction, these people try to share and engage with the audience (like me!) anyway.
Because of these relationships, I turned to Tony Reali in one of my greatest hours of need. In my first week of college, my grandmother passed away. After two days of classes, I returned home for the visitation and funeral before shuttling quickly back to school. Already battling homesickness, I felt like I was constantly passing from a moment where everything felt fine to another moment all I felt was grief and anxiety. Seeking some guidance, a friendly Jesuit novice suggested I find some sort of ritual or habit that could be repeatable in a variety of locations that would center me and establish a sense of home. It actually only took a few seconds to settle upon Around the Horn. I was already watching it every day just like I did all summer. Why would I not just ascribe it some greater meaning and recognize its constancy during a period of profound change?
Each day became a journey to four o’clock Central. No matter what happened during the course of the day, I knew Tony Reali awaited me. I could count on Woody to tell me to look at the schedule. J.A. Adande would still invite celebrities into the Adande Lounge. Mike Wilbon would somehow work Derrick Rose into the conversation. Having these things to count on was emotional medicine.
The literature on grief is pretty unanimous in noting that there is no magical moment when grief “ends.” The stages of grief do not represent a linear path that every grieving person follows, but simply identifies the states of mind grieving people may find themselves in at any given time. A person can alternate between two stages, dart among all of them, or remain stuck in a single stage for a long period of time. Reaching acceptance does not mean the grief has been conquered. Acceptance means choosing to live while admitting that the loss is real and important. Bouts of tears gradually grow less common, but the grief remains intricately tied to the griever.
These two shows did not cure me of my grief. They provided a stabilizing influence during a time of instability, which enabled me to learn to live with the grief. Tony was the smiling, well-dressed host of a ludicrous show who helped me navigate grief one mute and one error at a time. Like Virgil, he did not save me from a journey into hell, but he showed me the way out. The grief never leaves, but its prominence did fade. Tony helped reestablish a sense of normalcy through a kindness communicable through television.
Maybe this is not the safest revelation to reveal in our ever-increasingly technologized world of “catfishing,” Her, and an epidemic of falsehoods on the Internet. In a quest for authentic relationships and interactions, it is all too easy to fall into a pit of deceit or under the sway of a false Virgil. After confessing to an emotional bond with a television program, there is nothing I can say to definitively prove I am not a wee bit kooky. My two former roommates humored me very nicely. One even watched and would sip espresso with me. If I am crazy, I feel confident enough to assert that it’s a harmless crazy.
If we suspend our cynicism for just a moment, we can consider the possibility that the people, objects, and processes that can help absorb the discombobulating effects of transitions are all around us—defying a standardized form or set of characteristics. Dante is confused and lost in a pack of trees, but the massive, dark objects that can obscure our surroundings, clutter our minds, and confuse us to the point of despair take on all shapes—if they even have discernible shapes. Why would there not be an equally varied pool of Virgil’s?—the tangible guides of the forest and the less tangible guides of television.
What strikes me most in hindsight that did not strike me as particularly important at the time was how obvious this ritual really was. I just put a little more intention into an existing habit. Dante did not do anything to receive Virgil as a guide. Virgil just showed up and assumed control of the situation. Tony, too, was simply right there. I did not have to call him, but I did require assistance to consider him as an option—a Virgil to find another Virgil. It is not particularly surprising that becoming consumed by a trial or difficulty can obscure those who might help find a path back to the light. But since then, I have tried to remind myself that I should not let the trees crowd out the resources staring me in the face—which literally happened with Tony—and not reject the Virgil in my midst.
I am grateful for who Tony is and when he was that person for me. Tony is that person who rushes to give you the credit card you left at the counter before you walk out the door. There are simple acts of kindness and there may be really simple acts of kindness, but sometimes the timing of the act elevates its impact more than the doer can ever know. Anyone can be kind and provide a lift to someone in a tumultuous state, whether driven by a concerted effort to help someone clearly in need or just a nice person doing more good than he or she can possibly realize.
It reminds me of what Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood dreamed the “neighborhood” of the world would look like. He was driven to communicate kindness and compassion through the medium of television, hoping to teach children and whoever would watch to be kind and love his or her neighbor. This simple explanation, however, does not do justice to Rogers’ conception of the ennobling power of kindness. When discussing a letter he received from a high school student who asked him what he thought the greatest event in American history was, he said, “I suspect that like so many ‘great’ events, it was something very simple and very quiet with little or no fanfare…The really important ‘great’ things in life are never center stage of life’s dramas; they’re always ‘in the wings.’”
Rogers presents a remarkably subversive, downright countercultural depiction of greatness. It is not glorious—at least in the way we are conditioned to view glory—but he ends up praising the simple acts of living. The example he cites as a possibly great event is a person forgiving another person for a past, deep hurt. He is eschewing the titans of history who became larger than life in favor of those who simply live well and compassionately. He hints of a world bound by mutually supportive bonds of fellowship, a world driven by relationships steeped in kindness, a world where a few people who know each other can get together for a spirited discussion and invite a few strangers along for the ride.
This world strikes me as one of hope, which is really what ATH and PTI infused within me immediately following my grandmother’s death. Virgil provides a sense of order, a sense of home, and above all, a sense of hope. Hope that there is a way out, that there is a better place ahead. Tony talks about hope for some considerable length in the extended description for his PTI good-bye video on YouTube. Hope is not the denial of trials and tribulations. It is the conscious choice to accept them and remain positive anyway. Hope accepts grief and still maintains a generally positive disposition. Hope staves off defeatist-driven narcissism in which every man and woman must be for him or herself because that is just the way the world works. Hope defies fear. Hope takes the first step of a new journey.
About a year ago, I had my ultimate ATH fan boy moment. Tony was doing the final “Ask a Panelist” feature and it was stuffed with questions. My own question was answered and it is embedded below. (Fast forward to 9:23)
When I was younger, I was fascinated with Tony’s shirt and tie combos. They became more complex and varied as he grew into the role and acquired a more diverse wardrobe, circulating through a variety of coats, ties, vests, and pocket squares. When he called my question a good one, I could have jumped for joy but I kept my feet planted because I would have whacked my head against the Moon. It was a small recognition that I was not totally imagining an emotional attachment to these shows and the people who made them possible. Tony smiled and answered my question as if we had always been chummy.
As his wardrobe evolved, so too did Tony. Over the years, he has weathered a severe apartment fire, gotten engaged between the men’s and women’s bathrooms at La Guardia, and recently became a father. He began his career clean-shaven, but he now rocks facial hair that earned him considerable derision from some of the ATH panelists in its early days. When both ATH and PTI began high definition broadcasts in September 2010, Tony was there. As his life progressed, so, too, did mine, and as the journey unfolded, we digested thousands of games, countless championships, hundreds of instances of ridiculous fan behavior, Spygate, BCS debates, The Decision, Joe Paterno, and the ongoing conflict over whether to pay college athletes. He was always there.
Tony recently became a correspondent for Good Morning America. In order to continue as ATH host, the show tested out remote hosting duties from ESPN’s New York studios while Tony interviewed for the job. A couple times, Pablo S. Torre served as substitute host—the first time in Tony’s career that he needed a substitute. In the summer, Torre substituted again for two weeks—first for paternity leave and then for Tony’s move to New York. Fortunately, the remote hosting worked, but he would be unable to continue as Stat Boy. His last day was September 5.
Tony’s last day with PTI was also my first day with a new job—my first nine-to-fiver (yes I started on a Friday). I have to wear a coat and tie to work, and the image of Tony behind the ATH desk sprang to mind as I fumbled with my half-Windsor knot. Tony’s final show aired while I was at work. As I rode the train home, I read Tony’s little essay attached to his good-bye video and actually started to cry—a steady stream of tears that I did not feel compelled to hide. I sniffled, watched the video, and thought about how much of my life I could situate by relating it to what was happening on ATH and PTI that day.
The fact that Tony was going through a major transition of his own on the same day I began the biggest transition of my life since my grandmother’s death triggered an avalanche of emotion that was not governed by a single, easily discernible emotion. On that crowded el car, stuffed to the brim with businesspeople driven to the train by a pop-up monsoon, I experienced something like the flash of a transition. It was a visceral reaction to the sudden appreciation of all that had preceded that very moment—both for Tony and me.
In fact, it reminded me of Mad Men’s Don Draper, someone who was deeply intrigued by the opening lines of The Inferno while reading it on a beach in the season six premier. On the train, I was reminded of his pitch to Kodak at the end of season one, his famous “carousel speech.” Draper centers the pitch on nostalgia and the word’s literal translation from its Greek origins: “the pain of an old wound.” Nostalgia is a “twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone…It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”
The twinge in the heart must be an inescapable feature of transitions. I am convinced that the tears were simply the product of an old wound bleeding freshly. The bleeding is not necessarily bad—it just happens. Transitions mark both endings and beginnings, and beginnings can be quite exciting. People are expected to graduate from schools, to mature out of childhood, and these achievements are celebrated. Yet, events, phases, and moments all must end and, no matter how wonderful the next stage of life may promise to be, there is still a period of mourning for what has ended and the ache for a familiar place.
That is why we need Virgil’s—Virgil’s who will recognize the reality of our grief when something that was part of who we were for a period of time comes to an end, and who will guide us during the rough beginnings of the transition. In these early stages of transition, it is easy to focus squarely on what has been lost and the uncertainty that lies ahead. Virgil reminds us that transitions are not something to be conquered or denied. They are an inextricable part of life that we simply must learn to accept. As we struggle along the path to acceptance, Virgil helps shoulder the load, radiating hope and denying a descent into despair.
PTI has yet to replace Tony. There has been a wide set of celebrity substitutes, but no replacement. It is unclear if they’re actively looking for one at this time. Maybe the staff of the show is grieving.
I do still record ATH and PTI. I end up watching the shows about 75 percent of the time. I still like them immensely, but I’ve surprised myself a little bit by not necessarily needing them every day. Perhaps I’ve emerged out of this particular wood, and the next challenge will elicit the support of a different Virgil. At this point, it is just nice to know that these two familiar shows are still there whenever I may need them. If my viewing habits turn irregular, I may need an update on newer inside jokes, but the relationships with the shows will endure.
I trust that the relationships will endure because I hope that they will—just as I hope and trust that satisfaction, happiness, and fulfillment lie on the other side of this transition. There will be times I ache and long for the past, which is fine, and there will also be times when the present is profoundly meaningful. Since moving to New York, Tony has taken to saying “Tony and Mike are next,” as he makes his customary paper ball toss at the camera. This habit is still new, but I can easily see it becoming endearing and familiar with repetition. So, too, can life after a transition change and still remain highly gratifying. Change is a constant, often hard, but never the end. The dark wood is a beginning. We do not despair. We just adjust, doing the very best we can and turning to the Virgil’s around us when our very best is not quite enough.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @AIR_istotle