They are his id and his ego. I know they are his id because he has
no control over them. I know they are his ego because, well, that
is what he named one of them, a put-upon German shepherd who, when
he finally gave up his ghost, earned his master's most dismissive
epitaph: ``Poor Ego never learned to stand up for hisself.''
Evander Holyfield, the master -- and the former heavyweight
champion of the world -- understandably places a certain amount of
importance on one's willingness to stand up for oneself, whether
one is human or canine. For instance, the first time I visited his
500-acre farm outside Atlanta to see his dogs, I didn't exhibit
the proper determination to stand up for myself, and I wound up
not standing at all. Two of his dogs swooped out of their kennels
and met at the backs of my knees, and I went down without
resistance, like some pug happy for a payday. I looked up at
Holyfield, and he looked away. His shoulders were shaking, and
from his compressed lips leaked a sound of suppressed mirth --
kkkk, kkkkk, kkkkkk -- and his complicity in the mischief of his
beasts was clear.
Holyfield has, at present, seven dogs. They are Akitas, and in
their willingness to stand up for themselves they have
established, within the bucolic confines of Holyfield's farm, a
world so completely lawless and Darwinian that their owner seems
to have no choice but to comply with their wishes.
I have seen two of his females square off to fight, to
Holyfield's apparent pleasure, and then come to such a
protracted and bloody boil that Holyfield was moved to exclaim,
``They gonna kill each other!'' and to call in five members of
his staff of 13 to separate them while he shouted, ``Watch your
hands! Watch your hands!'' I have seen his prize male, a
thickset blond named Ing, ignore Holyfield's commands with such
extravagant gestures of disdain that I was embarrassed to be in
Holyfield's presence, as though I were being forced to witness a
cuckold's contretemps with a faithless spouse. Indeed, when I
heard, on my most recent visit to the farm, that Ing had
completed a course with a professional trainer, I wanted to give
Holyfield the opportunity to display his mastery, and I asked
him how Ing had responded to training.
``He did real good,'' Holyfield said. ``He listens to his trainer
real good. He just don't listen to me. I still can't get him to do
nothin'.'' Then he brightened. ``I can get him to do a trick,
though.'' He walked over to the kennels where he keeps his dogs
and stood in front of Ing, who grinned, jumped and wagged his tail
in a frenzy of incomprehension. ``Jump on top of the doghouse,
Ing!'' Holyfield commanded. ``Jump on the doghouse! Jump on the
doghouse. . . .'' Holyfield's voice trailed off, and he looked at
me, a corner of his mouth clamped shut and hiseyebrows raised
in wistful resignation. ``Well,'' he said, ``I guess he don't want
to jump on the doghouse.''
April 9, 1995
It was a clear, cold winter's day, and Holyfield, in a black cap,
blue sweatshirt, gray sweatpants and heavy black work boots, began
to walk around the grounds of his farm. Since I'd seen him last,
he'd lost his title to Michael Moorer; he'd lost his boxing
license, which was suspended after he was found to have a heart
ailment; and he'd lost Ego, the embattled German shepherd who
exhibited a singular willingness to obey Holyfield's orders and,
perhaps as a result, endured a lifetime of insults from Ing and
his Akita cronies.
Ego had gotten a fungus in his eye, Holyfield said, ``and then he
started to smell like he was rotten, like he was already dead.''
Holyfield had had him put to sleep three months before my visit,
and in so doing he had finally surrendered to the anarchy of the
Akitas. I asked him if he missed Ego, and he said no, not that
much, because Ego was ``a scaredy little dog. I don't know -- he
didn't have enough fire in him or something.'' Then, as Holyfield
walked the grounds, he started talking about his comeback: about
his visit to a faith healer who, with the power of God, cured
Holyfield's ailing heart; about his trip to the Mayo Clinic, which
pronounced him fit; about his intention to fight again and regain
``People say, `You got an ego; that's why you want to fight
again,' '' Holyfield said. ``No, I don't got an ego. If I had an
ego, I wouldn't want to fight again. For me to want to fight
again, my ego had to die. . . .''
We walked past some trees and came to a place from which we could
see Holyfield's kennels. Ing was standing on top of his doghouse,
wagging his tail. ``There you go,'' said Holyfield. ``He listens.
He listens good.''
Dogs are simultaneously tragic and comic creatures. They are
tragic because they aspire to our -- the human -- condition, and
they are comic because they reduce us to theirs. They bear
approximately the same relation to us as we bear to God, and so
they act as fun-house mirrors of our own humanity. A few years
ago, when Mark Breland was the welterweight champion of the world,
he would prepare for his fights by staring at his reflection in
the mirror. He would keep staring until he had managed to
transform his own image into that of his beloved Doberman, until
his own nose sharpened into a snout and his own ears rose into
points at the top of his head, and then he knew he was ready for
It is always that way. We buy dogs to reflect us, and somehow we
wind up reflecting them. They are the creatures who remind us that
we are creatural. Bereft of language, they remind us that language
is a conceit; reduced to gesture, they remind us that gesture is
the most legitimate currency of communication. They humble us when
we are exalted and exalt us when we are humbled, and that, I
suppose, is why athletes love them so, why they collect dogs,
surround themselves with them, in vast and sometimes absurd
Ing and Ming, Easy and Ego. Slugger, Slider and Rodney (a.k.a.
Little Dog, Puppy and Rodman). Trooper and Smooch, Jake and Head.
Al Capone. Bruno. Rocky. Rocket. Sir. Boca. Hawk. Ghost, Deuce,
Jagger, Sugar, Trigger, Bundy, Sleepy and Mutombo. Shaka Zulu and
Little Mama. The boys and their dogs, the dogs and their boys. The
boys are supposed to preserve our innocence, and the dogs are
supposed to preserve the boys'. If you are an American, and you
have an account with the great, dusty storehouse of American
fantasy, you know the script: Somewhere out there in the endless
fields of corn, a boy grows up gifted and lonely, with nothing but
a bat and a ball, a dog and a dream. He has nobody to play with,
but every day he stands in the shadow of the barn, batting balls
into the empty chrome skies, and every day his dog, his faithful
soft-mouthed yellow mutt, tirelessly retrieves his every grounder,
his every pop fly, his every line drive and then, yes, his every
epic home run. . . .
Nowadays, of course, the script has to be updated and sent back
for revisions. Nowadays the boy does not grow up in isolation, but
he grows up poor, maybe so poor that he can't even have a dog. He
always wants one, though, and when he leaves college in his junior
year and signs a contract for a million-five plus a signing bonus
and incentives, that's the first thing he does: He buys his dog,
and not a yellow mutt, either, but a Rottweiler . . . or an Akita
or a Doberman or a pit bull or a Neapolitan mastiff or a Tosa or a
Fila Brasileiro. A boy and his dog? No: A boy and his three dogs,
a boy and his five dogs, a boy and his pack of dogs. In the new
script, the boy buys the dogs for protection, because some
obsessed fan, his innocence insufficiently preserved, is making
threatening phone calls to the athlete's wife. He buys the dogs as
a fence, as a moat, as a line drawn between him and the incursions
of the world . . . and yet his dogs, because they are dogs, can do
nothing but live up to their end of the original contract: They
preserve his innocence, if only because they are innocent, they
are pure, and as long as they are around, the boy -- now hero, now
icon, now goat, now bum -- must remain a boy, close to his boyhood
You want to tell them to get their money back, these hulking
millionaires who crowd our days. They buy their dogs to augment
their manhood, and their dogs turn them into children; they buy
their dogs for a hiding place, and their dogs reveal them to the
world; they buy their dogs in a bid for silence, and their dogs
coerce them into confessions. Listen to Dikembe Mutombo, the
All-Star center of the Denver Nuggets. He is more than seven feet
tall and weighs more than 240 pounds. His teammates laugh at him,
not because they don't like him -- indeed, everyone loves the Big
Fella -- but because of his dog, a white German shepherd named
``My dog's a nice puppy,'' Mutombo says, in the thick accent of
his native Zaire. ``Why everybody criticize him? You know why they
don't like my dog? He fail at school. He don't listen to nobody.
Oh, he's a funny dog. I don't train him to be a mean dog, and my
teammates don't like that. They think he should be mean. I don't
want him mean. I don't want the police arresting me for my dog. I
don't want them taking him away from me. He just jump on people --
that's all I want him to do. . . .
``A friend of mine gave him to me as a gift. I put him in my 750
BMW, and he do poo-poo in my car. It was a sad thing. I had to
clean it up, it was stinking, and that was just the beginning. . .
. He breaking my house -- that's the only thing bad about my dog.
He ate up my $5,000 couch, but I love my dog. He's my friend and
my companion. I just buy new furniture. That's all. I just spend
See, they talk about their dogs, but the lives they render are
their own. Listen toReggie Williams, Mutombo's teammate.
Williams has a white German shepherd, too; thing is, Williams used
to be afraid of dogs. He grew up in Baltimore, in the hard part of
town, and when he was a teenager he had ``a bad experience,'' he
says. ``I was walking to play some ball, and some guy had two big
Dobermans two feet in front of me. He said, `Sic 'im!' You talk
about someone jumping! I jumped over a fence. I was terrified. I
just never felt comfortable around big dogs. They're big, man, and
they have teeth. Even when I went with my wife to pick up this
dog, I was like, `I don't know. . . .' I had to get my nerves up.
I walked into the kennel, and my dog's father brushed against me.
He was something like 185 pounds! Now, I'm like 195, 197, and I
couldn't push him away. I mean, this is a big dog. I couldn't move
his head. I was like, `Oh, lord. . . .' I told them, `Let me
outside this kennel, and then we'll talk.'
``Now I like having my dog around. I feel more secure. We got the
alarm system for the house, but I feel more secure with the dog.
You know, the dog thinks it's his house. . . . And I'm not as
afraid when dogs approach me. At first I was like, `Get your dog
away from me!' Now I kind of pat their heads. My dog listens to me
better than my kids listen to me.''
And listen to Gerald McClellan, who in February battled to the
brink of death in his WBC super middleweight title fight against
Nigel Benn in London. McClellan had, at last count, four pit
bulls; the count sometimes changes because his males occasionally
fight and occasionally kill each other. He told me this over the
telephone last year, after he'd defended his WBC middleweight
title with a first-round TKO of Gilbert Baptist, and I asked him
if he had ever considered neutering his dogs. There was a pause on
the other end of the line, three beats; when McClellan resumed
speaking, it was in a voice raised an octave by outrage. ``Neuter?
You mean . . . cut their balls off? Why would I cut their balls
off? I wouldn't let nobody cut my balls off, and my dogs are my
best friends -- why would I let someone cut their balls off?
That's cruel. That's worse than fighting them. That's worse than
killing them. You take away their aggressiveness, what good are
they? They fight sometimes -- so what? Two men can't live in the
same house. Two men can't be boss. So they fight. I mean, I love
my brother, but we fight all the time. Neuter my dogs? No. No. No
way. Everybody deserves the right to produce life, to make life,
whatever you want to call it. Man or woman or dog. You take that
away, what have they got?''
I knew, of course, that any discussion of athletes and their dogs
would eventually come down to a question of cojones. It is a
simple fact, beyond dispute, that athletes who buy large,
aggressive dogs do so as a declaration of machismo -- as an
extension, so to speak, of their essential manhood. They buy their
dogs as they buy their cars: If they buy them big, they do so to
amplify themselves, and if they buy them in quantity, they do so
to multiply themselves. I believe the only reason athletes buy
dogs at all is that dinosaurs are unavailable.
Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on your perspective --
the dogs tend to sabotage the aims of their owners, because dogs,
like the best citizens of any state, are at once deeply loyal and
deeply subversive. Indeed, when you own a dog you always run the
risk of having to renounce, rather than pronounce, your machismo,
and in this regard I think again of poor Evander Holyfield. One
afternoon several years ago he put his first Akita, Easy, in the
front seat of his Mercedes convertible and went for a drive. Now
Holyfield was clearly looking to make a statement of some kind,
for although he is a quiet and dignified man, he has never been
above subtly reminding people that he has been heavyweight
champion of the world. But Easy had never been out in the car
before, and when Holyfield stopped at a red light, the dog jumped
out and ran. Holyfield called her, and when she did not stop, he
abandoned his Mercedes and chased her.
``I had to leave my car running in the middle of the street,'' he
says. ``That dog ran a quarter of a mile, and I'm just running
after her. I'm running in between cars; I almost get hit four
times. Everybody's laughing, and when I finally catch her, they're
shaking their heads and saying, `Man, that guy must really love
his dog.' ''
The words are instructive: That guy. Here is Holyfield, making a
show of his power and prerogative, and suddenly he is reduced to
that guy, just another softhearted suitor stuck on his dog. But
this is not the most awesome of their abilities, this power of
dogs to make fools of hardened warriors. No, the most awesome of
their abilities is to be able to humble the hardened warrior and
then elicit his gratitude for the descent -- indeed, for whatever
instruction the dog may offer in matters of the heart. Athletes
buy their dogs to make themselves look bad? Well, they wind up
depending on their dogs to make themselves feel good. They need
their dogs, for as the slumping Odysseus found out many years ago,
no matter how bad the road trip, your dog always recognizes you
when you come home.
Curt Schilling, the pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies? Sure,
he bought his first Rottweiler as a ``macho'' dog. Pretty soon,
though, Schilling found out that his dogs -- he came to assemble a
posse of three Rotts -- were blessed with a blissful ignorance of
his ERA, and so, he says, they became ``the one constant in my
life; you come home from the ballpark, and there they are.'' Andy
Benes, the pitcher for the San Diego Padres? He has three Dogues
de Bordeaux, the first of which he bought, at least in part, to
protect his family. They are great saurian beasts, and here is
what Benes says about them: ``I like them because they don't hold
grudges. They don't care how I do.'' And Holyfield? ``Sometimes
I'd rather be with my dogs than be with people,'' he says. ``They
never lie to you, and they always act so right, you know?''
Big? Tough? Hard? Macho? Yeah, I guess these athletes are -- but
not when they're seeking comfort, not when they're using their
animals to insulate themselves from the harsh vicissitudes of
their sports, not when they're talking the way Michael Cage of the
Cleveland Cavaliers talks about his Rottweiler Bruno: ``Bruno's
like a psychologist. When I'm bummed after a bad game or a bad
practice, he won't follow me. I'll come storming in and turn on
the TV, and I'll see him planning his strategy. You can almost see
him saying, `O.K., I'm gonna let him blow off steam, and I'll ease
in after that.' Then he'll slide over and start lifting my hand
with his head. So I'll just rest my hand on his head, and then all
of a sudden I'll start feeling pretty good about petting my dog,
and that's a start toward a new day.''
Indeed, it is the curative effect of canine companionship that
allows us to sidestep the issue of cojones entirely and extend the
purview of this discussion beyond the boys and their dogs to the
girls -- or women -- and their dogs. Jennifer Capriati, for
instance, has credited her black Lab-boxer puppy with helping her
emerge from her own slough of despond, and Dottie Mochrie, the
golfer, not only brings her chows on the LPGA tour but also has
imprinted their image on the bottom of her golf bag. ``They take a
lot of the stress out of it for me,'' Mochrie says. ``You can only
hold on to a round for so long when you come back to the hotel and
see that wagging little tail.''
So the next time you're watching a Milwaukee Brewer game and you
see outfielder Greg Vaughn with that tattoo of one of his
Rottweilers in a spiked collar, don't look at the design as an
emblem of machismo. Look at it, instead, as a declaration of a
need that has little to do with gender; as an inadvertent
admission that in response to the pressure of his profession,
Vaughn has allowed his dogs to get, literally, under his skin. Or,
as Bryant Young, a defensive tackle on the San Francisco 49ers,
said when asked why it is that he has a tattoo of his Rottweiler
on his arm: ``He's just a pup now, but we're growing into the
stage of being best friends.''
Glenn Robinson, the rookie forward with the Milwaukee Bucks, is
often called Big Dog, and he has, on his right deltoid, a tattoo
of a big dog -- a pit bull in a red spiked collar. He does not,
however, own a big dog. ``I can't keep no dog,'' he says. ``If I
buy a dog, and then I go out on the road for 20 days, when I come
home he's going to bite me, and then I've got to go buy a Smith &
Wesson so I can kill him.''
He is clearly a wise and even prescient young man, this Big Dog --
a man who understands that no indulgence is without its
consequences. Alas, not enough of his athletic brethren take heed
of the Big Dog's responsible position on big-dog ownership, and
indeed, if in order to satisfy contemporary tastes for realism and
grit we were truly to revise the American fantasy of the boy and
his dog, we might do it this way:
Boy buys dog on impulse because, what the hell, he can. Boy buys
dog because he is young and heedless and, maybe, in the first
flush of wealth. Boy buys dog and spends a lot of money on it. Boy
buys dog and has no earthly idea of the kind of responsibility dog
ownership entails. Boy leaves dog alone for hours, for days, and
dog shreds boy's apartment. Boy doesn't know what to do. Boy is
scheduled to embark on a weeklong road trip, and so he begins
shuttling dog among friends, acquaintances and kennels, anyone who
will take him. Boy still truly loves dog, but dog is a basket
case, a basket case. . . .
Of course, as fantasies go, this one does not exactly play, but it
happens in real life all the time. There's a kennel in
Pennsylvania by the name of Kimbertal -- specializes in Dobies,
Rotts, Filas, all the beasts athletes love. The breeder, Bob
Yarnall Jr., says that Kimbertal has sold upward of 200 dogs to
professional athletes, and it currently has a customer in every
major sport in the U.S. They make pilgrimages to Kimbertal, the
athletes do. They travel to Pennsylvania when they're still in
college or right after they've signed their contracts. They want
the biggest, the best. Most times, though, Yarnall breaks their
hearts. Tells them that buying a dog is like adopting a child.
Asks them if they could handle a child right now. Advises them to
come back when they're married, and that's exactly what they do.
They come back to Kimbertal with their wives -- on their
honeymoons, for crying out loud, on the last legs of their trips
to Hawaii or the Caribbean. They get their dogs, and then everyone
is happy, because what Yarnall likes to see is not boys and their
dogs but men and their dogs.
Even then, however, there is no guarantee that the men will be
able to handle their dogs or that the dogs will be able to handle
their men or their families. Look at what happened to Latrell
Sprewell of the Golden State Warriors and one of his pit bulls.
The dog was a family dog, but last fall it bit Sprewell's daughter
on her lip and nose and severed her ear. Look at what happened to
the goalie of the San Jose Sharks, Arturs Irbe. Last July he had
to destroy his dog Rambo after Rambo, a Newfoundland-Labrador mix,
bit Irbe's hand and inflicted enough injury -- a broken middle
finger, a severed artery and nerve damage -- to require surgery.
And look at Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks. Ewing had a
perfect situation for dog ownership. He had a wife and children
and a house with plenty of land, and so he bought, with the
guidance of his friend Mark Breland, a black Neapolitan mastiff
puppy from a store in New York City called the International
Kennel Club. Then Breland moved from New York to Atlanta, and
Ewing called him up and said, ``I thought you were going to train
my dog.'' Ewing could not, or would not, train the dog himself,
and so he spent $2,500 to send the dog to a trainer in Maryland,
and upon the dog's return it snapped at Patrick's daughter Randi.
Patrick's wife, Rita, immediately called the International Kennel
Club to find the puppy another owner.
``I told her I would train the dog for free,'' says Frank Lopez,
who works as a trainer for the International Kennel Club. ``I told
her that we'd work with the dog and make it right. She never got
back to me, and when I spoke to her again, she'd already given the
dog away. It seems to me that Patrick likes dogs, but his wife
gets stuck with all the work. I said to her, `How about a golden
retriever or a Lab?' She said, `We won't be having any dogs for a
long time.' ''
Why would an athlete buy a dog before he is ready to own one?
Well, in some cases he can blame peer pressure. He wants that dog
because on a lot of teams the purchase of a dog serves as
something of an initiation: You join the club, you buy a dog; you
buy a dog, you join the club. Players buy their dogs together,
train their dogs together; veterans take rookies to their favorite
breeders the way old cowhands took greenhorns to their favorite
bordellos. Teammates start as strangers; dogs, as ready intimates,
serve as a currency of clubhouse camaraderie.
Two years ago, for instance, when the Phillies developed a
chemistry that took them all the way to the World Series, all you
had to do to divine the team's social structure was to sniff
around. John Kruk, whose nickname is Jake, had an Akita named
Head, and Dave Hollins, whose nickname is Head, had an Akita named
Jake. Kim Batiste had a Rottweiler, Mitch Williams had an Akita
and two retrievers. Schilling, who dotes on his three Rottweilers,
had a close friendship with Mickey Morandini, who dotes on his
golden retrievers. Indeed, at spring training in Florida, the
Schillings and the Morandinis rented adjoining apartments and took
along their dogs -- a total of five animals, well over 500 pounds
of dog flesh -- to keep them company and to sleep in their beds.
Eventually, of course, the team fell apart. Schilling started
feuding with Williams, the Phillies' erratic reliever, over
Williams's difficulty throwing strikes.Well, Williams was traded
to the Houston Astros in the off- season, and Kruk got testicular
cancer, and Schilling opened the next season miserably and then
had elbow surgery,and Hollins got hurt, and then . . . and then,
as we all know, baseball temporarily ceased to exist.
Later, when I saw Schilling shilling for the players' union and
agonizing about the prospect of teammate Lenny Dykstra crossing
the picket line, his isolation reminded me of something he told me
last year when I went to visit him and his wife, Shonda, and of
course Rodney and Slugger and Slider.
Curt's dogs were Rottweilers, but they had been neutered, and they
were about as threatening as otters. They climbed all over him and
all over me. In Philadelphia they were celebrities in their own
right, these dogs, and after fans lined up for Schilling's
autograph, they lined up againto pet the heads of Rodney and
Slugger and Slider. Schilling had suddenly gotten rich, and he had
suddenly gotten famous, and yet . . . these great harmless
creatures, sans cojones, had become his public face. ``My dogs are
like the bastion of normalcy in my life,'' Schilling told me.
``Because I don't own my dogs any different than anyone else owns
his dogs. People see my dogs, and they know that basically I'm
just like them.''
I understood, at that moment, why Schilling so cherished his
dogs, beyond the fact that they offered him the pleasures of
protection, privacy, comedy, company, comfort. He cherished his
dogs because, like all athletes of any celebrity, he had to draw
a line between himself and the world, and, like all athletes who
own dogs, he trusted his dogs to do the job, to define the line
and then to patrol it. Of course, the line that Rodney, Slider
and Slugger defined was a rather unthreatening one, a white
picket fence that simultaneously asked for privacy and
advertised innocence: We're just like you.
Other athletes use their dogs to erect stockades, garrisons,
barbed-wire fences, moats in which the dogs themselves serve as
the alligators . . . and some athletes, like Kenny Norman of the
Atlanta Hawks, assign their dogs the intricate task of enforcing a
policy of exclusion while at the same time setting the standard
for admission. By this I mean simply that if you want to be part
of Norman's life, you had better like his dogs. He has six of them
-- a husky, four Rottweilers and a cocker spaniel. All of the
Rottweilers are attack-trained, Norman says, and the cocker, well,
she's ``pretty tough.''
Of all his dogs, he has selected as his primary companion a
Rottweiler named Remo. ``He can be around anyone, but if you do
wrong, he'll rip your throat out,'' Norman says. He is at least as
serious about his dogs as Schilling is about his. ``There's
nothing I wouldn't do for my dogs,'' Norman says.
He learned the value of canine companionship and constancy a
couple of years ago during a difficult divorce. ``It was the
toughest time of my life, and the only one I could turn to was my
dog,'' he says. ``If it hadn't been for him, I would have been in
a real bad situation. . . . I don't know what would have happened,
but it would have been real bad.'' Now, Norman says, ``when I meet
people I tell them, `If you want to have a relationship with me,
you have to accept my dogs -- it's a package deal.' I'd trade my
dogs for no woman, except for my mother, and she loves my dogs.''
They are just like their dogs; their dogs are just like them.
Norman and Remo? They're both ``ready to go,'' he says. Vaughn and
his Rottweilers? ``They'll do anything it takes to survive, and so
will I,'' Vaughn says. Chris Green, the Miami Dolphin safety, and
his Akitas? ``Silent but deadly,'' Green says.
Of course, of course. . . . They buy their dogs to define their
relationships to their teammates and to define their relationships
to the world; what they wind up doing, though, is buying their
dogs to define their relationships to themselves, to act as their
alter egos, their slobbering or snarling shadows. Nine years ago,
when Herschel Walker was looking for a dog, a man from Tennessee
sent him a letter; the man said he had a Rottweiler for Walker.
Although Walker does not trust many people, for some reason he
asked this man, a stranger, to send him the dog, and ``the minute
I opened the traveling cage,'' Walker says, ``I knew it was the
dog I was looking for,'' Al Capone. Capone, like Walker, ``is
short and stocky and wide, a muscular dog,'' his master says.
Capone, like Walker, loves to train, to run, and sometimes Walker
works him out by having him pull logs up hills. Capone, like
Walker, ``is sort of laid back,'' the master continues. ``He does
his own thing, but when it's time to get going, he cranks it up.''
Capone ``understands'' Walker, and ``when things get real hard or
hectic,'' Walker likes to ``talk to Capone.''
A few years ago, when Walker went out to his garage one night,
turned on the radio in his car to listen to music and fell asleep
with the motor running, Capone understood Walker enough to know
something was wrong; he began barking and was heard by Herschel's
wife, Cindy. Cindy went to the garage and found her husband
unconscious. In what is perhaps the ultimate act of identification
between dog and master, the dog had saved its master's life.
I was disappointed, therefore, to learn that during games, while
he sits on the sidelines or stands in the huddle, Walker does not
think of Capone or draw on him for inspiration. In a moment of
duress Capone had obviously thought of Walker; I thought that
Walker would have returned the favor by thinking of Capone. I
thought that Walker would be like Gerald McClellan, the fighter
sustained by his love of fighting dogs. When McClellan trained, he
thought of his pit bulls; when he fought, he thought of his pit
bulls; and two years ago, when he challenged Julian Jackson for
the WBC middleweight title and Jackson drove him to his knees with
a low blow, McClellan looked up at Jackson and thought, I have to
get up, my dogs would get up; I can't quit, my dogs don't quit. So
he got up and, in the very same round, scored a TKO of Jackson and
won the title.
In London against Nigel Benn, McClellan didn't quit either, though
the fight ended with him bending one knee to the canvas and the
referee counting to 10; no, against Benn, McClellan fought until
his brain was bleeding -- until he walked back to his corner and
collapsed, a blood clot growing inside his skull that would soon
spark a renewed debate over the morality of prizefighting. He has
not spoken publicly since, and although his life is no longer in
danger, we can only wonder if under the onslaught of Nigel Benn,
or later, as he fought for his life in the hospital, Gerald
McClellan sought, once again, to draw on the inspiration of his
animals -- as if the boy never quite managed to separate himself
from his dogs.
The phone rang at nine o'clock inthe morning. I picked it up,
and on the other end was an NBA player. ``Youhave my dog,'' he
said. ``I want him back.''
I have insisted, all along, that a man cannot talk about his dogs
without making a confession about himself, and this, I guess, is
my own: My dog Hawk once belonged to a professional athlete. I do
not want to name the athlete, because I harbor the certainty that
Hawk was neglected and the suspicion that he was abused. I will
say only that Hawk has now had as many owners as this athlete has
had NBA teams; that the athlete finally played his way down to the
CBA; and that when I spoke earlier of boys who have made their
dogs into basket cases, I spoke from personal knowledge.
Hawk is a Cane Corso, a type of mastiff originally bred in Italy
to guard its masters and hunt wild boar. I found him through a
classified ad. I had been searching for a large, imposing and
unusual dog -- a macho dog, I suppose. I called the number that
was listed in the ad and listened to a man named Joe explain that
an NBA player had bought Hawk for a lot of money; that the player
hadn't been able to take care of Hawk and had wound up giving him
to a close friend, Joe's mother; and that the woman had become
frightened of Hawk and had decided to sell him for ``$800 or best
I drove with Joe to see Hawk on a cold, wet Saturday afternoon and
was shocked by what I saw: a beautiful brindled beast exiled to a
concrete-slab kennel, living in and slipping in and falling in a
scabrous landscape of his own feces. He had a frightening bark
made more frightening by its echo of abandonment, but I did not
want to leave him where he was, and I bought him for $200.
Seven months later the player called me and told me he wanted Hawk
back. He had never given Hawk to Joe's mother, he said; he had
lent him to her, and now, well, he accused me of owning a stolen
dog. I called my lawyer, who explained that the player's gripe was
with Joe's mother, not with me; that I had legal claim to Hawk;
and that there was nothing the player could do to take him away
from me. I called the player back, and we agreed to meet for lunch
to try to work something out. The next day I went to a restaurant
and waited an hour; the player never showed.
A year and a half has passed; I have not heard from the player
again. Hawk is my dog, wild and grateful; my wife and I even joke
that we bought our new house for Hawk and his adopted brother,
Marco, because the house sits on a full acre, and the dogs can run
themselves to exhaustion. In my heart, however, I know that we
bought the house for me; I know that we bought it so that I can
spend hours throwing a football as far as my arm will let me, and
Hawk and Marco can spend hours bringing the ball back.
The boy and his dogs, the boy and his dreams: I suppose that was
me, all along, and I tell this story now only toacknowledge what
anybody who loves adog already knows -- that the best dog
story, the only dog story, is always your own.