April 30, 2002

The Death of Nellie

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Rest in Peace

Here lies the soul of one Sumeet,

To read his words was such a treat.

I, Sumeet Sarin, creator of Whoaaa Nellie!, one of Elmwood Avenue’s most popular columns that became an icon of popular culture, passed away in a Virgina Tech windbreaker sprawled out in front of my computer screen, in Ithaca, where I lived. I was 21 1/2.

I was born in Columbus, Ohio, which explains why I was allowed to be an Ohio State and Cincinnati Reds fan. I moved to Blacksburg, Va. when I was three, which explains why I was allowed to be a Virginia Tech and Washington Redskins fan. My uncle lives in California, so I could have been a L.A. Lakers fan, but I liked the Clippers better (Antennaes up!). My aunt lives in Toronto.

Growing up, I was a good kid — good at basketball, good at tennis, damn good at soccer. I scored my first goal with the grey team in rec league. It was great. For some reason, playing sports was a bigger deal for me than watching them. Something about being active really touched my little heart. I remember trying to watch a basketball game with my dad when I was eight but didn’t really understand what was going on. I wanted the white team to win — he was going for blue. The blue team won. Bastards.

Over time I began to appreciate just sitting back in a rocking chair and letting professional athletes do my entertaining for me. My first truly powerful sports memory keyed my moniker — one which suffered a fair amount of ridicule over the first few months (“You idiot. You should have called it, ‘Meat on Sheet.'”)

To understand “Whoaaa Nellie!” you must first grasp a certain passion. This is no My passion resides with the Virginia Tech football team. As I started to gain interest in the world of football, simultaneously the Hokies entered the national stage — earning an Independence Bowl win in 1992 over Indiana. (Recording a blocked kick which was returned for a touchdown, no less.) Slowly but surely, this team beat on bigger opponents and garnered my respect and admiration. Maurice DeShazo, Antonio Freeman, Dwayne Thomas, Jim Druckenmiller — they all held so much allure, so much power. This power came full force during the 1995 season. The team dropped its first two games and played like a locomotive running on marshmallows. However, after an upset win over Miami, the team reeled off eight-straight wins before butting heads with arch-rival Virginia. EIGHT!! Suddenly the team was en fuego, and here, standing in the way, were the hated 13th–ranked Wahoos.

A cold drizzle graced November 17, 1995. A packed Charlottesville crowd met the No. 20 Hokies with jeers and hoots. Virginia jumped out to a 29–14 lead in the first three quarters as the Hokies reverted to their locomotive–form. I stood next to my brother the entire game in our living room, teary–eyed, slowly coming to the realization that our winning streak was likely ending. A winning streak into which I had invested so much emotion and time. Blasted UVa. I wanted to throw a brick through the TV.

But early in the fourth quarter, Druckenmiller found Jermaine Holmes in the endzone for a touchdown. A VT field goal later left the score at 29-23, Wahoos. The Hokies could do nothing with the ball the rest of the quarter and our hopes grew dim again. Virginia Tech got the ball back with just over two minutes left in the game giving it one more chance to record the comeback of the century. Druckenmiller led a slow and startling drive that almost stalled in VT territory. But on fourth-and-ten, Druckenmiller found his receiver on a curl pattern, and the drive stayed alive. Embarrasingly enough, I began jumping up and down.

Fifty seconds were left in the game and my team had the ball at the opponents’ 42 yard-line. On the next play, a play that I’ve run through my head at least 2,000 times, Druckenmiller took the shotgun and dropped back. He pumped short and the defense bit. He took a step forward and let the ball fly. The ball left the screen as the camera couldn’t catch up to the ball. Quickly it zoomed to the endzone and there we watched little Jermaine Holmes running for his life.

The ball sailed above his head as he crossed the goal line. He dove (DOVE!), reached his arms out and the ball fell into his arms and he scored! Touchdown! Hokies win! I went nuts. Absolutely nuts. And through the euphoria, only two words rung true: Whoa Nellie. For two hours, the euphoria wouldn’t stop. Drunkmiller to Holmes! Druckenmiller to Holmes! And two words would not leave my mind. Whoaaa Nellie.

So what did I want this column to be? I didn’t want to rant and rave and spread hate around the world. I simply wanted to entertain. I wanted to capture that spirit of pure joy that the phrase brought to me. I wanted to bring non–sports fans to the backpage. I wanted you to forget about your failed prelim, your final project due the next day, and your recent heart–wrenching break–up and just smile for a minute — forget it all, close your eyes (after reading of course) and savor that smile. I wanted to bring a different take on sports. I wanted to write songs, try plays, draw pictures and fling one–liners. I can only hope that for the past two years, your Tuesday mornings have been a little brighter.

Of course this top-of-the-line production could not be possible without a few people. And so, in no particular order, thank you . . .

Readers. I don’t know who you are or where you come from, but I’m pretty sure you exist. Your high-fives/stomach punches made my day(s). Thank you for reading and thank you for taking interest. I only hope your appreciation for sports is a little lighter. And to Boomer Sooner — you owe me a computer, man.

Mom and Dad. I’ve found unfailing support a hard commodity to come by. And yet you hand it to me whenever I ask, without so much as one question. I wouldn’t be here without you — but I think you already knew that.

Dave. You rule.

Michael Sharp ’00. You gave me the opportunity of a lifetime and showed me what true class is all about.

Shivan. Listening to Bill Roth and Mike Burnop on the radio never was the same. I’ll never forget Hokie Madness, my victorious basketball games, teaching you your first cuss words over football, and becoming your soccer mentor.

J.V. Anderton ’01. The sports section could not have reached its current greatness without your guidance. You made coming down to The Sun a trip beyond description.

Shiva, Amanda, Persons, and Schueller. You guys made me a better writer — I hope it shows. Thanks for good times down at The Sun, and good laughs everywhere else.

Sean. Thanks for that unfailing support that’s so hard to find — despite never having picked up a Tuesday Daily Sun. Tompkins County tennis tournament, putt-putt golf, chipping in the yard, walking to Ithaca High school at five in the morning and walking to Stewart Park at all (“Stewart Park? Ooooh my”). Good times, man, good times. ATP tour, look out.

Alex. No one else could ever appreciate the true value of a bouncy ball. Traversing Boston would not have been the same. And your tennis skills provided many years of entertainment. I didn’t know a guy could lay so many
goose eggs. But hey, I’ll hand it to you — you’ve got Tekken — you’ll always have Tekken. And in all seriousness, I can’t wait for Decathalon II.

Peggy, my muse. You’re the first person I’ve met whose got a game to match mine. The left side of the court is all yours. Add the layup and you’ll be golden. ‘Course your off–court game is even better. Figure skating now has a whole new and deeper meaning — for better or for worse. A jungle cat you always will be and watch the left hand — it’s lethal.

GeoffandSarah. Geoff — you’ve been my basketball punching bag for four years. I’ve got to hand it to you — incredible heart, man. Incredible. Thanks for the inside Jordan tips, the quotes and four great Super Bowls. When Mario Party becomes an Olympic sport, you’ll get the gold medal you’ve always craved. Sarah — I never realized that people actually lived in Iowa. Thanks for opening my eyes to the midwest — and helping me to appreciate all I’ve got here on the east coast. The Cubs still suck. And so does Mark Grace.

Various coaches and players. I wouldn’t be here without you either. You’ve provided us all with a great amount of (often funny) material. Coach Graap, coach Cullen, and coach Taylor — you guys truly understand what coaching is about, and I fully appreciate having the opportunity to work with all three of you.

The three random people I played frisbee with on First Night back in 1998. That was mad fun.

And now, as I say my final goodbyes, I’d like to leave you with a few memories of columns past. (Cued to the tune of “Imagine.”)

“So if your name is only on par, and you want to be a big sports star, just change your name — and your rose will smell sweeter.”

“Year after year, early November signifies something special: Cambodian Independence Day, the Tunisian Tree Festival, and Ivy League title games, to name a few. And by this time of year, most Cornell teams have been ousted from any Ivy title runs, having caught every conceivable bug: the injury bug, the losing-slump bug, the disillusionment bug, and the ever-lethal, we-can’t-win-without-a-decent-mascot bug.”

“Everybody loves Jordan. He’s a 220-lb. Boeing 747. And who doesn’t love 747’s?”

“In Equador, they call me “The Swami.” In Romania, they call me “The Swami.” In Kazakhstan they call me “The Swami.” Guam? “The Swami.” Antarctica? You got it.

In fact, I know what you’re thinking at this very moment: “What the hell are you writing about, you bastard.”

“The ratings follow the cheerleaders, simple as that.”

“According to Sports Illustrated’s Marty Burns, Michael Jordan was recently practicing with former-Chicago Bull Bill Wennington, who wouldn’t be surprised to see Jordan make a comeback. This bit of news leads to a couple of questions. First, Bill Wennington? And second, Bill Wennington?”

” ‘I think Jordan is going to comeback, because Dean Smith used to live down the street from me when I was kid. He had a lot of horses,’ Katz confided. Not only has Katz worn black Nike socks, like those of Jordan, but he remains in contact with Boney, Jordan’s high school rival from Wilmington.”

“There’s a reason for every upset and a reason for every flop, and it all comes down to psychology. These are the five syndromes that can turn your sleek Nebraska into a messy Rutgers: the Media Syndrome, the Over-Hyped Schizophrenia, the Overlooked Syndrome, the Fate Disorder and the You Did It Complex.”

“Cinderella, Chicago Bears. Rating 8.06.”

“I remember the first time I wet my pants. I stood on the tips of my size 3 shoes, straining to look out of the library window — too afraid to enter the fifth grade hall where the closest bathroom resided. The fifth grade hall: no man’s land for a first grader like me. So I sat down, readying myself for a new experience.

“And I went.”

“Ivy League basketball is hot.

“In an unfortunately related story, no one cares.”

“A lone man trudges forth from a junk yard, tossing a coconut to himself. He is struck by a meteorite and dies instantly. The coconut falls helplessly to the side, and sinks into the stream.”

“But a new century brings new traditions, and if this season is any indication of what is to come, we will be treating ourselves to a red and white 21st Century. For this was the kind of early November weekend that just makes an Ithacan want to say, Whoaaa Nellie!”

Archived article by Sumeet Sarin