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Jewish World Review May 11, 2001 / 18 Iyar, 5761

Bob Greene

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Boys, let's go spellcheck one for the Gipper -- WASHINGTON | This isn't exactly "Win one for the Gipper."

Or maybe it is -- updated for the year 2001.

And therein lies the tale.

The lacrosse team at the United States Naval Academy had gotten off to an 0-3 start this season -- the worst start in Navy's 93-year lacrosse history.

The coach of the team, Richie Meade, was feeling low about the bad start.

But all of that changed, according to an account on the sports pages of the Washington Post, when the despairing Coach Meade walked into his office around midnight one Sunday night: "He found the answer to the team's problems that night. But it was not in the mountain of game films and scouting reports that cluttered his desk."

So where was the answer to the team's problems?

"It was in an e-mail that senior two-year starting defenseman Justin Hawkins sent the coaches and players."

Coach Meade told sportswriter Christian Swezey the story of the inspiring e-mail:

"That was our darkest time," Meade said. "We could have gone either way as a team and as coaches and players. . . . The e-mail said we had a good team, and that everything was going to be all right. He said exactly what you hoped the players would be saying. I walked into my office pretty depressed. When that e-mail popped on my screen, I knew we would be OK."

Now . . . this is a long way from Knute Rockne standing in the dank Notre Dame football locker room, telling his team the story of George Gipp, and how Gipp had said that if the time ever came when the Fighting Irish were in need of spirit and inspiration, they should think of him and win one for the Gipper.

The thought of Rockne looking his players in the eyes and, with a fierce yet quavering voice, telling them about the Gipper is one that has endured over the years. Millions of people have felt that they were almost in the locker room with Rockne and his football team. Movies have been made about it.

If Rockne were alive and coaching in the early years of the 21st Century. . . .

It just doesn't have quite the same appeal -- the thought of Rockne sending a mass e-mail to the computer mailing list containing the electronic addresses of his players and staff.

It's very nice that the Navy lacrosse team was inspired by the e-mail from the player. And it's nice that the player evidently had everyone's e-mail addresses stored in his computer.

But it can also be seen as one more piece of evidence about the increasing arm's-length nature of our world -- the world in which we tell ourselves we are all connected, but where a vague sense of disconnectedness always seems present.

We are able to reach each other immediately, and anywhere -- from pagers to cell phones to instant-messages on computer screens, we can find and be found, any time of the day or night.

Yet for all the electronic bytes speeding back and forth, there constantly seems to be the feeling that no one is really there. It's the illusion of human contact and human comfort.

Walking off the plane that brought me to Washington, I could hear the woman deboarding right behind me burst into excited conversation as soon as she set foot in the terminal. She was loudly saying hello to someone, enthusiastically announcing that it was good to be here.

But as I looked in front of me, I couldn't see anyone greeting her. So to whom was she speaking?

I turned around to look at her. She had one of those little wires hanging from her ear, and in front of her mouth. One of those little microphones-and-earjacks attached to a cell phone. She was in Washington, all right -- and in her first moments, she was talking to someone miles away, someone who wasn't there. She walked through the airport deep in animated conversation with an invisible man or woman not on the premises.

Good? Bad? Doesn't matter?

Who knows anymore. Meanwhile, the Navy lacrosse team got its pep talk mass-delivered, to be received not as a squad, but as each player logged onto his own computer. They may never make a tearjerking movie about it, but it would probably draw a lot of hits on

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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