Trophies for the victors — not the spoiled


There’s been lots of talk lately about kids and trophies.

Leagues and parents have come under criticism for awarding trophies to kids who don’t particularly excel or try very hard. The kids get the bling for just participating. Some experts say that leads to laziness and a much bigger problem for some kids: They get spoiled.

Other parents and experts say kids need all the encouragement society can provide and deserve recognition for all positive effort.

As you can imagine, with dads and moms among those taking part in the discussion, the argument gets heated.

But, hold on. Keep reading. I’m not going to try to pull you into that already convoluted debate. I’d rather get you to consider a consequence.

Because these possibly pampered kids got a heckuva lot of trophies over the years, a heckuva lot of old trophies sit in a heckuva lot of attics and basements — collecting a heckuva lot of dust.

And I have a way to get rid of them.

No, I’m not going to get all artsy and whimsical and send you to Pinterest.

It is true that such venues offer advice for turning trophies into planters, bookends, lamps. There are directions for unscrewing the little figurines, painting them and making them into wine stoppers, park scenes, Christmas ornaments.

All well and good.

But this is not a call for creativity. It’s a call for pragmatism.

If, like me, you stored away your kids’ trophies and now have no room for them, consider my idea as a way to clear out the house, preserve your free time and make you feel good.

Donate your old trophies to organizations that help disadvantaged kids, like Boys & Girls Clubs of Springfield.

The clubs use recycled trophies to celebrate achievements by kids who still get a thrill when handed the shiny silver or gold and faux-marble.

“Oh yeah, it’s something to see. They smile and their eyes get really big. It’s really something.”

That’s from Jeff Long, the Musgrave Unit Director for one of the clubs on the northwest side. He solicits for trophies, rehabs them and figures out how to give what to whom.


It can be like putting together a big puzzle. Or, taking a couple different puzzles and trying to make pieces fit where there aren’t any pieces.

He seeks help from a local trophy shop and buys some parts with the goal of getting trophies to match, with new engravings and victory symbols, but he avoids spending a lot of money.

The non-profit Boys & Girls Clubs serve families that aren’t exactly awash in the silver and gold — not the cash kind or the trophy kind.

A majority of the kids qualify for free or reduced school lunch. As you might guess, many live with parents or guardians who cannot afford fees to join the kinds of sporting leagues that guarantee trophies.

“Half the kids live with one parent,” Long said.

The Boys & Girls Clubs do not guarantee trophies, but Long and staffers and volunteers try hard to use the recycling effort to bring some booty and bling to big club events.

With the national discussion of the abundance of trophies and how kids might be taking them for granted, I hadn’t thought much about the youngsters from the poor parts of town. While some more affluent kids might have trophies spilling from dresser tops and shelves, the ragamuffins on my radar don’t have much of a shot at getting any at all.

The kids at Musgrave, Long said, look forward to the prizes.

Trophy recycling is not Long’s most important job so he has to fit the work in around other chores. It’s also difficult to predict when trophies will be donated so a banged up trophy can sit for some time before it can be refurbished.

The longer it sits, the more attention it draws. Sometimes a particular kid will show up to stare, and stare some more, even at a dinged trophy that still has old engravings, the donor’s First Place or achievement still intact.

Long said he sometimes cannot help himself; he gives away those keepsakes to the kids infatuated with them. “They don’t care what it says. They just think it’s neat. You can tell they probably never had one before.”

Think about that as you consider the bigger trophy debate. It’s actually not much of a debate at all for the families on the lower economic rungs of our country.

I don’t see a downside to letting a underprivileged kid get a little joy from a foot-tall, golden, basketball player that a little rich kid down the street has kicked to the curb.

I’d just announce something like: “Billy, you get first place for being the best-behaved, most dedicated hallway trophy monitor this week. Today, this one is for you to take home.”

I doubt that little Billy is suddenly going to start believing the world owes him everything, or he no longer has to cut grandma’s grass for his allowance, just because he’s been given a used trophy.

Long noted that the clubs don’t usually hand out individual trophies, anyway. For the most part, the clubs dispense the keepsakes in the same way as they are given out by sporting leagues and schools, except the club trophies are recycled.

The clubs don’t like to give out mismatched trophies, so they plan ahead. Right now (early September 2016) Long and club staffers are working to gather about 60 trophies to give out during a big “Games Competition” in the Spring.

Kids from eight different clubs come together to compete indoors at checkers, pingpong and lots of kinds of board games to win top places — and the bling.

Other times of the year, the clubs hold more impromptu competitions, for example free-throw shooting on a particular night, when it’s great to have some trophies on hand for prizes, Long said.

This little guy seemed to enjoy his recycled trophy earned at the boys and girls clubs in Springfield.
This little guy seemed to enjoy his recycled trophy earned at the boys and girls clubs in Springfield.

I lugged around dozens of trophies from my five kids for years before they finally told me point-blank they could not take them to their own homes. I resorted to moving all the little gold and silver wrestlers, hoops players, baseball catchers and soccer goalies on to my driveway for a recent garage sale.

It was one of my dumber moves; I got no takers.

I did notice how the shine and glitz caught the eye of more than one or two little street urchins wandering through our neighborhood. They asked questions about the trophies, read the engravings, wondered aloud how hard it would be to wrestle and argued over who was the better baseball player.

I could understand how a kid who never had the thrill of running the bases with a a trophy held high would delight in taking one home, especially after besting his peers in pingpong or foul shooting or pool.

I didn’t know the local nonprofits accepted trophies before I held my garage sale. A passerby suggested I call and a staffer at Musgrave greeted me with enthusiasm and thanks in advance.

I planned my delivery and it went smoothly.

Long says he’s always happy to hear someone wants to donate but he likes the chance to do a quick screening first. Some older trophies (especially those made from heavier materials and less standard parts) are difficult to refurbish; new parts simply don’t fit.

The clubs also cannot use flat plaques or frames, designed to hang on a wall rather than stand on a shelf, Long said.


If you’re concerned about privacy, for instance whether your child’s name appears on a donated trophy, Long said you can remove the child’s name fairly easily yourself or the club staffers or volunteers will do so. He also stressed that trophies usually do not include names, often only the ranking or place achieved and the event.


Long says he’ll help you figure out if your trophies can be used by the clubs. Call 869-8211.

The mission statement of the clubs — which have been around a very long time — includes a heavy emphasis on building self esteem.

The statement also stresses that the clubs have “special concern” for kids “from at-risk circumstances.”

“At-risk” and “disadvantaged” are polite ways of saying some of these poor kiddos have been dealt some pretty bad hands. They need a break.

Director Long and those who work for the clubs are doing what they can.

These from the clubs are scrappy and inventive. They’ve shown the pluck to reuse and recycle to put together some memories — and nice mementos — for the boys and girls.

They deserve a granddaddy size trophy that says “Super Scrappers.”

Give them a hand if you can.

And consider getting your child involved if he or she has the social conscience to want to help. There are certainly lots of fine kids from more well-to-do families who volunteer to help those less fortunate.

Maybe while you’re sorting through some trophies together you can relive the moments that earned your kid that top prize or first place. My kids did not always appreciate my attempts at reliving their successes on the sporting fields and in the classroom. I tended to get a bit maudlin at times.

I think they were really glad to hear the trophies were gone. Then, I alerted them that I took photos before giving them away.

They didn’t seem thrilled that we’ll be able to share more memories while perusing those photos for years on down the road.

Editor’s note: Learn more about all the good done by the clubs and other ways you can help at

The truth about the flaming potato from Disciple Dave

tumblr_ld5axvgEoa1qfu4tho1_400Can writing a story ruin it?

I think so. There are some tales better left to bubble up by chance orally, when the same people who experienced an event — or heard about it —  recall it together.

You’ve seen this happen. It usually starts with “Do you remember that time when Uncle Tommy ended up  …”

Eyes light up. Everyone starts talking at once. Some rush to the best parts first. Some try to act out the crazy parts. They argue over details. They shout that their memory is the best.

Some insist they know exactly what happened even if they were not there and heard the story second- or thirdhand. Kinda like the Bible, maybe.

Or all religion?

I’ve watched and heard the story of Uncle Tommy and the Potato Gun told many times, and enjoyed them all. So why write it?

First, I owe Tommy one. He once threw me out of a swimming  pool on my head.

Also, like a couple of those questionable Bible stories, this potato story is starting to morph and mutate. It needs to be documented.

The last time I saw Tommy, he was trying to weasel out of some of the more embarrassing parts.

I was a key witness to this one though, so I’m going to take on this responsibility. Call this Uncle Tommy and the Potato Gun, Book of the Spud, (chapter 3, verse 4) Disciple Dave’s First Epistle to the Monongahelians.

First thing: You need to have a picture of Tommy in your mind, know a bit about him.

Some of his old nicknames: Saber-tooth Tiger Tom (dental issue) Algit Kabomb (some old cartoon character I couldn’t find with Google) and many others describing mental capacity or incapacity that have long ago become politically incorrect.

He loves his kids and nieces and nephews, especially when he can make them laugh.


Tommy and sister Lynn, my wife
Tommy and sister Lynn, my wife

He and other concertgoers once jumped off a high steel bridge in Pittsburgh (nicknamed the Bridge to Nowhere) because it took so long to finish) into a wide old river. They made the 11 o’clock news.

As I mentioned, for no apparent reason one summer, Tommy threw me backwards out of a small swimming pool even though I was his partner in Chicken Fights. Asked why, he shrugged.

His five brothers say to never fight with him. He does not register pain, and will never give up. They once heaved him through a plate glass living room window in their home. My wife, their babysitter, locked him out, more concerned about what he would do back inside than whether he was hurt.

OK, that covers Tommy.

Now, you also need to have a picture in your mind of Luke, the builder of the potato gun.

Our oldest son, he is very smart and has always liked to blow things up.

His mom’s brothers, some of whom occasionally and proudly transform from uncles to drunkles, teased Luke mercilessly when he was very young.

Luke loves science in part because it has helped him blow up stuff. He once cut off the heads of a gazillion wooden matches, stuffed them through a slit in a tennis ball, taped up the slit and made this really cool looking swirly, sizzling, exploding mini-fire ball like a special effect in a Star Wars movie.

He made his first potato gun when he was about 8.

Like Tommy, Luke also loves to make little kids laugh, especially if that involves embarrassing any or all of his numerous uncles.luke

When I was a young father, during all the interactions between my five kids and the drunkles, I took on the role of security guard or safety officer. Maybe bouncer is the best term.

But, by the time of this story all the kids were adults and my role had diminished. I was less like the cop with the Taser  and more like one of those flashing neon road signs that says: “Drive only in marked lanes.”

potato gunpotatowiithguyDid you ever fire a potato gun? A big one? The kind that sends a full-size potato hurtling?

That’s the kind Luke built years and years ago, with my help.

It was about 8 feet long and made of PVC pipe, most of it about 2 inches in diameter. Think medium-sized drain pipe, which is thicker than most professional baseball players’ bats. One of the coolest things about the gun is the fuel, the stuff that makes the explosion to send the potato flying. It’s just regular ol’ hair spray.

You unscrew the top of a Y-shaped PVC part, spray the hair spray in there, quickly close it, make sure the barrel isn’t pointing at anyone, hit the trigger (an igniter like those used on a propane grill) and the hunk of potato you have stuffed into the open barrel rockets away, more than a hundred yards — usually.

goodgunI personally credit our gun with helping at least three of my kids become better baseball and softball players. They would stand at least a football field away from me and Luke (usually I also had the baby, Adam) and we would fire potatoes their way, sky-high, so they could try to catch them with baseball gloves.

Talk about a twisty turning fly ball. Those potatoes took some nasty loops and swirls in mid-air. Catching a real baseball was a piece of cake after that.

Of course, with any kind of explosive device, something can go wrong, which is why I insisted on wielding my full bouncer powers.

But, on this particular day, the day of Uncle Tommy and the Potato Gun, my only job was to shoo away anyone younger than 5 who appeared to have no responsible parent nearby.

I don’t recall whose idea it was to fire the gun, but I do know that some of the younger cousins had never seen one and were intrigued.

“C’mon you guys. It’s getting dark. You said this would be cool.”

The crowd was getting restless and Luke, or someone, had promised pyrotechnics. Luke had taken over logistics at this point, and Tommy was still in the house, unaware of what was happening out on grandma’s patio.

That back patio, in suburban Pittsburgh, had a wooded hilly expanse behind it. Though not the best spot, the patio had been commandeered as a launching area, and at least six kids and at least that many adults now wanted a payoff for time spent waiting.

Everyone seemed to have a thought on why the first couple launches fizzled out. Luke busily and efficiently fixed leaks and called for more hair spray. That’s when Uncle Tommy sauntered outside.

“Oh-oh, a spud gun,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “Let me do it.”

Luke, as was his typical approach with his uncles now that he was bigger and stronger than them, ignored Tommy until he thought of a demeaning comeback. Something like: “Why don’t you go stand over there and I’ll shoot your cigarette out of your lips.”

Then, Luke shouted “Stand back” but it was another misfire. A potato flew low, plopping only about 15 feet away onto the grass. It was hard to see, because the sun was now set.

“You’re a dork, Luke. This is dumb, because you’re not going to be able to see it,” Tommy said.

I suggested smearing lightning bugs all over the next potato, as Luke, ignoring everyone, realized there was still a leak, probably near the igniter, that hadn’t been sealed.

Tommy, standing by the lawn mover someone had failed to put away, started gesticulating and saying one word, over and over and over: Gas.

Now trying to flex myself back into full bouncer mode, I tried to talk over Tommy, changing the subject. But too many people heard him. And, Tommy was already unscrewing the cap to the gas can, still with his cigarette in his lips.

Dumb. Stupid. Dangerous. Cool. Exciting. “I’m telling Grandma,” one of the littlest, more nervous children threatened.

But the gas-potato-pyro idea had caught on. Tommy poured gas on a couple of the fattest spuds, not caring or oblivious to how much he was spilling on his hands and shoes.

I continued to lecture Luke on how he really wanted no part of this one, and, with images of hair afire and everyone screaming “Stop, Drop and Roll,” I scoured the crowd for those littlest kids to corral.

Now, it was really getting dark. The first launch proved that the vacuum chamber with the hair spray worked. Schwooooop! We presumed something flew into the night sky. Someone said they a blue flume above us. We didn’t hear anything hit the ground.

“More gas,” was all Tommy said.

I shouted that we really didn’t want it to hit the woods hundreds of yards away. We didn’t want to start a forest fire. We needed to aim a little more vertical.

I reminded how close we were to the airport.

Yup, just like one of those flashing road signs. Ignored.

I moved the gas can to the side of the house, trying to hide it behind a lawn chair.

Schwoooooshh, chucucuczzzzzz!!!

Everyone looked up. I pushed my crowd of littler ones under a porch overhang and stood beside Tommy, secretly hoping for a fiery potato rocket streaking above us. Hands on his hips, Tommy looked up, waited, looked down and then looked defeated.

No streak in the sky. No Tommy’s Comet. No fireworks show today.

Kids disappointed. Not even the thud of the spud landing somewhere. Lots of groaning.

Then, a much louder groan. More like a wince.

And a very odd sound, like someone slapping away a wasp trying to sting. A big wasp.

I also felt a spray, and smelled gas. Time to move away from stinky Tommy, who was no longer standing.

Bent to his knees, he asked me why I punched him.

As he looked up at me, there was just enough light from the porch lamp to see the welt forming on his forehead, and the rainbowy reflection of oil. In his hair and near his ear was what like shredded potato au gratin.

He swiped at the injury, gassy hands now spreading the fuel near his eyes. He stood holding his head but then started flapping his hands, realizing he was adding, well, fuel to the fire of the potato that had just returned to earth to whack him in the head.

I fell to my knees, unable to even laugh, just wheeze. I couldn’t even share the news with the others. After they saw me fall to the floor in laughter, though, they began to realize what happened. At least a half dozen of us lay on the floor paralyzed by the poetic justice of the potato hitting the protagonist. Some curled into fetal positions. Even Luke, who had perfected stoicism in order to never let his uncles think they did anything cool.

Tommy still couldn’t figure out why — or if — I had punched him. The welt was bigger now, but he could walk and talk.

One of my daughters, still doubled over, tried to get back in the house to tell those inside to get out to the patio to witness this ridiculous Three Stooges-like scene. She remembers “trying to climb up the basement steps into the main floor of the house to tell people to come outside and see what happened. .. Was Scott there with me on the steps? Alex maybe? Adam?”

“But I was laughing so hard on the way that I couldn’t really convey the story properly to Grandma up there or several aunts.”

Every time I started to recover from my laughing fit, I imagined Tommy as Mr. Potato Head with the potato from the gun knocking his plastic eyebrows kerflewy, or bouncing his brown ears off his bumpy oblong head.

The injury proved minor. The embarrassment was major. And it was time to rub it in.

Unfortunately, Tommy is humiliation-proof. He just went back to his beer, giggling and looking at the potato gun, contemplating a new approach.

Everyone who could talk screamed “No!”

I asked Luke to please put the gun away, hide it, get rid of it quickly.

I asked the kids if anyone else got hit with anything. I looked around for small brush fires.

Then, seeing Tommy still rubbing at his eyes, I grabbed the lighter. I thought about asking: “Hey genius. Want another cigarette? I’ll light it for ya.”

But, the journalist in my decided instead to ask everyone what they saw, to get the moment embedded in their memories. I knew right then that this tale would be told again and again.

At least two years later, during one such oral recounting, Tommy seemed surprised we were still talking about the potato. He did not understand why this was still, sorry for the pun, seared, in so many memories but not his. He asked:

“We used gas? That was probably Luke’s idea, right?”

Then, reminded of some details, he had the gall to ask: “What do you mean the potato hit me. I just remember …”

Get the picture? See what he’s trying to do? I could’a predicted it. I’m way ahead of him, though.

Who ya gonna believe?

A trouble-making uncle who still, if  you look closely, has a knot in the shape of a spud on his forehead?

Or, Dave the Disciple and all those Monongahelians?