James O'Brien

The week before Christmas, I found myself in the Mall of America's food court, swimming through a sea of sports shirts. Amid all the au courant fashion statements, one stood out: an authentic mesh purple Vikings jersey with the number 44 and "Foreman" on the back. ¬ Cool, I thought; old school--somebody feels the same way I did/do about Chuck Foreman, the balletic running back who tore up Metropolitan Stadium and was the closest thing to Gale Sayers this area has ever seen. I looked up at the face of the guy who was wearing it, and, just as I was about to acknowledge his impeccable taste and sense of history, I realized that the face belonged to...Chuck Foreman. In a kiosk. Under an escalator. Selling autographed bobbleheads ($22).

I was stunned. I had interviewed Foreman once years ago, and we had talked about his triumphs and troubles; the article ended with him asking me to tell readers not to worry about him and that he had "weathered the storm." As I cradled one of the bobbleheads in my hand and reintroduced myself, he told me that he and fellow former Viking Carl Eller have this kiosk and that they do pretty well with it. He talked up the bobbleheads' craftsmanship, but I didn't buy one, partially because neither one of us could look the other in the eye.

We talked about his son, then said goodbye. I leaned against a wall across from the kiosk and watched him unpack the bobbleheads from their cardboard boxes and set them up on the glass counter. People streamed by. Most ignored him, but some did a double take, stopped and chatted, and walked away with a condescending grin: My, how the mighty have fallen.

Some might say the same thing about Robert Wilkinson, but I wouldn't. Whenever I run into him at a show once or twice a year, I can't help but be little-brother reverent, because Wilkinson is the one performer most responsible for setting my heart afire with local music. I used to go see his bands, Flamingo and Flamin' Oh's, three sets a night, three nights in a row, sometimes more, every weekend, when I was a teenager and twentysomething. I haven't forgotten what those nights meant, so these nights when I listen to Wilkinson's new solo CD, Days Like Glass (www.sursumcorda.com), I listen closely, for the sound of my voice as much as his.

One minute you're up and the next you're down
Some day I'm gonna leave this dirty old town
I see an old man holding onto the dreams he had
I see a young boy wide-eyed with fear
I see my young girl stepping into the future now
It's a new tomorrow on the new frontier

Days Like Glass plays like a mix tape a friend made for me recently: Every song feels as if it was written and sung for me, honest and painful and full of the sadness that comes with hunger and loss and perseverance. There are songs about love, self-reinvention, living in the moment, and chasing after a sense of peace. It's as good a local record as I've heard, mostly because Wilkinson captures something true about the middle-age muddle, and about how we all connect and fail to connect with each other.

No, it's not Flamingo. And it doesn't make me want to pogo or stay out all night, but when he sings, "Baby turn the lights down low/I'm feeling kinda bad tonight/I just wanna sit alone in the dark," it resonates with me more than anything he's ever recorded, including all those romantic live-forever songs we shared when he was on stage and I was at his feet. The bio says Wilkinson was transformed by recent trips to China, and the music and lyrics reflect as much, but this is a record that comes exclusively from the internal fount, and upbeat tunes like "Shine" are the sort that could only have been made by a has-been, a father, a man who has gone through domestic unrest, and is in a constant state of coming out the other side.

I'm probably drawn to it because so much of the time I feel the same way. But when I get tired of being tired, and weary of all the questions that pile up faster than answers, I go to the Gopher women's basketball games: I've been enthralled and enlivened by the badass energy and creativity of Lindsay Whalen, whose work I have admired this season in my role as professional bandwagon-jumper. I have known her primarily as a winner, but the other day she showed me something more as a loser.

Last weekend, after the Gophers lost their third consecutive game, to Michigan State, Whalen, center Janel McCarville, coach Pam Borton, and sports information director Becky Bohm walked into the interview room at Williams Arena wearing the same shade of crimson on their faces. To say Whalen was graceful in defeat would be a lie. She was devastated, pissed off, embarrassed. She was a 21-year-old woman who told me recently, "I wouldn't want anyone to be my friend just because I play basketball," and has been canonized by me and others as an icon and a symbol. But here she was just another loser.

She sat at the podium, her shoulders slumped with the weight of the world. She answered questions, quietly and professionally, and talked about how it's important "not to beat yourself up." The first few times after I wrote about her in December, Whalen and I shook hands and made small talk. This time, after the press conference, we shook hands and she recoiled from me without a word, like she'd let me down, like I was part of a whole world pressing down on her. Like she wanted to do what Wilkinson sang: "Sometimes I just want to run away."

Whalen is in her heyday. Foreman and Wilkinson are not. One thing they share is that they're not stupid. They know what you think about them. Foreman knows you've seen the footage of him as a young man bursting with speed and power, and the one of him crying on the sidelines of the Super Bowl. Wilkinson has heard all the Behind The Music and Smoldering Zeros jokes and how foolish old rockers look. Whalen hears the buttheads in the cheap seats say she's choking under pressure.

They are my heroes. They don't always make me feel good, but they do make me feel, and by doing so they kick my ass. They are tired, beaten, ridiculed, and still they get up, tougher than the rest, and they go to practice, sell their bobbleheads, sing their songs. Songs like the one my friend put on my tape, the one by Gemma Hayes that goes, "I wanna tell you how hard it's been/ Trying to talk myself out of jumpin'/ Today I ran for miles, just to see what I was made of."


Jim Walsh can be reached at [email protected] or 612.372.3775.

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