7-22-04, 6:50 a.m.
The story has to be in the top left spot for Lance McAlister. That's how McAlister, the encyclopedic Cincinnati talk show host, always prepares before he goes on the radio to go word for word with you and heart to heart with Casey.
McAlister, the Sports Animal's drive-time voice who sprays as many facts in an afternoon as his boyhood hero Pete Rose did hits in his career, always lays out his show's notes like a newspaper.
The top story always goes in the top left.
Arrows shoot to top ten 10 lists on the right. They careen into stats in the middle of the page before sliding into questions for guests on the margins.
This one is for the top left.
Next week, July 31, to be exact, McAlister takes his 1360-AM microphone to Georgetown College for the Bengals' first two practices of training camp. It was two years ago, to be exact, that McAlister began his day at Bengals camp. It didn't end until dawn in a Cincinnati hospital room when a team of doctors gave him the news about his two-year-old son that buckled his knees.
But that July 31 was 731 DAYS ago, which is how McAlister begins all of his Casey e-mail updates to an infinite list ranging from Bengals Countdown Partner Bob Trumpy to prayer partners from unknown churches scattered across the country. Last month, it was 365 DAYS since the bone marrow transplant rid Casey of all the cancer cells.
He had a 20 percent chance to make it. Not real good odds in a casino. But better than even when it is the heart of a 4-year-old who sang the "Who-Dey," song on the radio last season.
"We still have the tape," McAlister says.
The prayers have been met. The karma is good. It needs to be gone three years before the doctors are satisfied. They are knocking on wood, but this has already been a knock-out year of Wrigley, and Disney World, and train dances to celebrate Bengals' wins.
Next week, it will be 400 DAYS, when McAlister hopes to get in touch with the Massachusetts woman who made the donation.
"How," McAlister asks, "do you thank someone who saved your son's life?"
You do it by doing what you always do. You talk sports. You go to Georgetown and you talk about Marvin and Chad and the fan poll you just put on your Blog that says 77 percent of fans are anticipating the Bengals' opening of training camp on July 31 instead of the Reds making a deadline move.
Casey may be named after the Reds' Sean Casey. And he may be throwing out the first ball Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field for the Cubs-Reds game. But he belongs to the Bengals, too, because of that first July 31.
"I'll never forget it," says McAlister of that phone call from his wife. "Kelly said that his allergies weren't any better and they were taking him to the hospital. That drive back, it was lightning and raining, and I almost had to pull the car over a couple of times. I was thinking, 'tumor, or this, or this.' How does it go from Georgetown to allergies and to leukemia?"
McAlister is the first to tell you that there is no comparison between the game Casey is winning and the one Carson Palmer begins to try and master next week.
Still. . .
"For the first time in a long time in this city, there is hope and excitement around this team," McAlister says. "And I'll be able to tie in the fact that our hopes and dreams for Casey have never been greater or higher."
McAlister deftly ties it in like he ties in ESPN's top 50 college summer basketball programs with a feature on Xavier's David West on Hornets.com in one of his vintage vacuum jobs along the web. He ties it in because sports aren't death, but it is life. He ties it in because he has to.
"Long before the diagnosis, I always talked about Casey and Peyton and Kelly on the air," McAlister says. "I couldn't shut it down. I couldn't keep it from everybody. The e-mails, the outpouring have been tremendous, the prayer partners who are total strangers. It's like I'm on the couch every day talking to the doctor or psychiatrist or whatever. I couldn't imagine working at a desk 9 to 5 and having it bottled up inside. I'm also trying to give people an idea of what families go through."
They go through months of chemotherapy and hair falling out and more vomiting than laughing, a Dad lying in the dark in a hospital room knowing what every beep and lurch means in the machines hooked to his son. If you are McAlister, you go through that change when you are finished at the studio at 6 p.m., and leave behind the anger and ignorance and enjoy the things that are now joys instead of annoyances.
A two-year-old sister screeching. A four-year-old brother teasing. Toys in the hallway. A backyard catch instead of dinner.
"I get pounded," says McAlister, who recently took a beating over defending his friend, former Xavier basketball coach Thad Motta. "But I get to go home to a beautiful wife and two great kids."
The talk hours are 3-6 p.m., but McAlister works it 24/7. Like a lot of kids who grew up in Cincinnati in the heart of the '70s, sports never got out of his blood. He carries a Pete Rose baseball card in his wallet. He has been known to roll over in the middle of the night to monitor his Fantasy pitcher toiling on the West Coast in the glow of his pager. He also drives Kelly nuts by carrying around his ever present notepad and jotting down topics like the 10 dumbest plays of all time while she's trying to sleep or they're watching TV, or eating.
That's because he plans like no one will call the show. Of course they do in droves, but he's always ready, staring at what amounts to a maestro stand of a computer screen on the left offering the web and another computer screen on the right listing the callers and what they want to talk about.
And, they want to talk Bengals. If anyone in this town has a pulse on the sports fan, its McAlister and his WLW soulmate, the equally well-prepared Andy Furman.
"What Marvin Lewis did in this city, with this team and this fan base last year is nothing short of a miracle," McAlister says. "For years, it was mind-numbing. Nothing changed. Fire the coach. Fire the assistants. Who are they going to draft because they're always in the top 5? It was Ground Hog Day.
"But the fans are so excited now, you can tell," McAlister says. "Last year, they would have been happy just to win more than two games. Now it's going to the playoffs. That's a change in the whole spectrum. I think the fans really are attracted to the accountability. That there are no scholarships. And the fact that Marvin has talked to any group at any time. He has energized the base."
McAlister has taken his Bengals' knowledge on the road to various area sports bars during NFL Fridays with Trumpy, the Bengals former tight end. He allows himself to get counter-pummeled by the sometimes-crotchety former Pro Bowler, but it makes for good radio because McAlister coaxes out Trumpy's intelligence and insight.
The first offer for a donation when people started to find out about the diagnosis?
"Trump," McAlister says. "He called and said, 'If you need bone marrow, you've got mine.'"
His best Bengals moment might have been the moment. Last November, and Kelly is out of the house and McAlister has the kids in three-point stances late in the game as the Bengals get the ball one last time trailing the Steelers.
"Have to score a touchdown to win," McAlister tells them and a minute later they are dancing in a train around the house singing, "Who-Dey," after Jon Kitna found Matt Schobel with 13 seconds left.
Now, we know the origins of Casey's name. Peyton's is shrouded more in mystery. McAlister says it could be for Peyton Manning or Walter Payton. Kelly says simply it's a girl's name.
"But Casey does have a Peyton Manning autographed jersey," McAlister says. "It's framed down in the basement."
But let it be known that Casey also wears Carson Palmer's No. 9 jersey. McAlister will be talking a lot about both in the coming months.
Because he has to.
There is Jose Acevedo's ERA to grill, Jason Gildon's decision to second guess, "Peter Vecsey's shot at UC basketball over the weekend in the New York papers," to dissect. Plus, Bengals rookie linebacker Landon Johnson is going to be on at 5:30 p.m. and there is a list of 10 questions to get to, such as "Contract?"
He has to do it because of that night at the hospital before the transplant and during that awful stretch they thought the leukemia was gone but it snuck back into his jaw. The chemo had chewed up his insides, and on this day the machines were making the funny noises, and McAlister thought Casey had vomited eight or nine times.
"I always read him a story and say a prayer," McAlister says. "I kissed him good night and said, 'We'll have a better day tomorrow.' And he said, 'Did I have a bad day today?'
"Here's a four-year-old kid who's been through everything imaginable. When he's in there fighting like that and going through it like that and not having a bad day," McAlister says. "then I'm going to do my job. I'm not going to let him down."
Put it in the top left on July 31.