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Dear Diary: Tom O'Brien

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Dear Diary,

It was an interesting weekend.

You might recall I told the Raleigh News-Observer that I recently attended a concert put on by the popular rock group Dave Matthews Band. Clippings of said article have been filed under "May 13," "Interviews" and "Personal." Well, diary, a young man named Wyatt read that article and invited me via electronic message to ride with him to a music festival where Dave Matthews was playing with his famed accompaniment.

As you well know, I have been a longtime fan of "DMB," as the band is sometimes called, since I saw them play "The Song That Jane Likes" at the very clean and affordable Charlottesville restaurant Eastern Standard in February 1992, which I frequented in my capacity as offensive coordinator at the University of Virginia (see files "Dining," "In Public"). In fact, I have adopted a line from my favorite song off the band's Grammy-winning follow-up LP, 1996's "Crash," as the slogan for my first season with the Wolfpack:

I can't believe that we would lie in our graves, wondering if we had spent our living days well.

I can't believe that we would lie in our graves, dreaming of things that we might have been.

I believe this inspiring lyric embodies the many goals I hope to accomplish in my tenure at North Carolina State University. As a former Marine who was commissioned for deployment to Vietnam, I know what it is like to contemplate one's life from the perspective of the beyond. I tell my new players frequently that they should work every second of every day to avoid lying in their graves, wondering if that extra squat would have gotten that running back on the ground instead of allowing him to run for a first down. They should do the squat, and then an extra one, and then another set of repetitions to be safe. When they reach the end of their lives, I tell them, they do not want to be dreaming of championships. Instead, they will want to be fondling the very high-quality rings I will personally order from the best manufacturer for actually winning a championship. These are the decisions that will matter on your death bed. I will file a photograph of the shimmel shirts bearing this slogan under the categories "Equipment" and "Motivation" when they arrive.

Now, I know what you are thinking, diary. Coach O'Brien, do you have time to travel hundreds of miles to attend a rock concert? The team you are inheriting was 3-9 last season. These are very valid statements. While I believe in the virtue of work, however, it is also important to fortify the soul with art and camaraderie. I could also visit a promising quarterback recruit, Curt Phillips, who attends high school near the site of the festival.

Initially, I deferred to Wyatt for travel and accommodations. He said he would meet me at the Shoney's in Raleigh at 0800 Friday, and we would then travel West on Interstate 40 into Tennessee, where the festival would be taking place in a rural location. We would be staying with several of his colleagues, who were acquainted with a young couple who lived near the event site and had room for a couple extra bodies. I am sure the courteous wait staff at Shoney's was beginning to wonder how much coffee one skinny Irishman could drink by the time Wyatt arrived at 1350. Anxious to depart on our trip, I was surprised to be delayed by a side trip to visit my companion's "boy" in a largely Cuban neighborhood downtown. This stop was supposed to be "in and out," but I sat alone in Wyatt's 1991 Toyota Camry for two full hours before he returned to the car. I had planned to organize my notecards for several important upcoming speaking engagements during the drive, but just a few minutes outside of the city, Wyatt pulled off behind a line of 18-wheelers at a truck stop and proceeded to fall asleep. Awakened a few seconds later by my questioning, and seeing the back of the truck in front of the car, Wyatt screamed an obscenity I will not repeat on these pages and lunged forward to slam on the brakes of the already-parked vehicle. He turned towards me with a wild, wide-eyed stare, then collapsed on the steering wheel, setting off the horn in a single continuous siren. I assumed the driving duties for the remainder of the trip, during which Wyatt did not open his eyes in the back seat until we neared our destination, well past midnight.

Our lodging was not so much a "house," as it had been described to me, as it was a 1984 Fleetwood Southwind 30' Class A RV camper. A sturdy model - which is important, as the RV Consumer Group has long noted that as many as 20 percent of Class A motor homes are structurally unsound and will not survive a collision at 20 miles per hour without significant damage to the coach and occupants (see "Leisure") - though not very well maintained in this instance. Inside, we found that all of the vehicle's dozen or so occupants were already unconscious, leaving us to divvy up the only available sleeping space: a frayed hammock strung from a doorknob to the kitchen sink faucet. I wanted to drive back to a nearby motel, but as that might be considered rude, and a series of tests proved the hammock capable of supporting our weight, I climbed in next to Wyatt and tried my old standby, counting tiny little braying goats jumping over a gentle stream, and struggling to prevent that stream from morphing into the bloodstained Cai Tua being leapt by retreating NLF guerillas in the Mekong (see "Marines," "Debilitating Trauma"). Once the hurried moaning at the other end of the trailer stopped and our makeshift bed stopped swaying from the rocking vehicle, this method proved effective.

The next morning, I met a lovely young dreadlocked girl named Raven washing out a cooler and jogged five miles into town for breakfast. I know, I know, but I felt the occasion allowed me to slack off. It was beautiful country. I brought back whole wheat bagels, coffee and a USA Today for the rest of the camper, though, after discovering the shower inoperable and also occupied by a shirtless, unconscious body, I returned to the kitchen to discover the bagels eaten and the newspaper covered in Wyatt's vomit. I was looking forward to the rest of the day.

The afternoon was hot, diary, hotter than the approximate melting point of potassium feldspar. Being of Irish descent, and rather office-bound for longer than I would care to acknowledge, I knew I would burn quickly without a liberal coating of SPF 30 sunscreen. My new colleague Amber had only SPF 15, however, and though she objected to the liberal volume of cream I slathered on her own rather pale, strapless shoulders and neck, I knew she would politely thank me later for protecting her from dangerous UV rays. Yet as the day wore on, I began to sweat, and the sunscreen on my forehead began to seep into my eyes. Not only did this result in an unpleasant burning sensation, but it also hindered my vision. I squinted, wiped my brow, refused to complain and tried to stay near what I thought to be the hemp beanie of Zig, deemed the most responsible of our group and subsequently in possession of the car keys. After a while, though, it became evident I had been following a very short-haired girl through the crowd, who became alarmed and notified her bespectacled companion. He was a very polite young man, thankfully, but suddenly I found myself alone, disoriented, with obscured eyesight, in the middle of tens of thousands of people wholly devoted at that moment to Cold War Kids, with no ride out of the immediate area.

This was a very inopportune time for it to begin to rain. The sky opened up quickly, without warning, and dropped its accumulation on us at full force in a matter of seconds. This relieved my eyes, thankfully, but did little to relieve my situation. I spotted one young lady wearing covered only by a bikini top, and of course gave up my shirt, as any self-respecting man would do under the circumstances. I assured her despite her protests that I have five other coaching polos exactly like it hanging in my closet at home, and two spares at the office, but now without adequate clothing in the cold rain, I knew I would have to act quickly to prevent too much heat from escaping my uncovered torso if the sun didn't reemerge before nightfall.

Remembering my field training, I kept moving in the downpour until I came across a small swatch of open ground near the back of the crowd gathered for Amfibian. I reached down and, gathering up the largest handfuls of mud I could collect, began smearing it on my arms as an insulant. As this thin coating was washing off rather quickly, however, I decided it would be necessary to roll around in the muck, thus ensuring a thick, even coat. As I tossed and turned, suddenly other bodies were all around me, writhing and laughing. Soon they were piling on top of one another, and on top of me. Limbs swung, bodies slipped and slid, inappropriate contact was made with various females (and, for that matter, with males, I am ashamed to report*). I was pushed facedown into the mire. Struggling to breathe, I wriggled free and stood beside the tangled mass, detesting its heathen conglomeration. I was forced to admit for one of the rare times in my life that I was miserable.


Tom O'Brien jumps in the mud, love. Gets his hands filthy.
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Then, almost simultaneously, the rain ceased, the clouds parted, and I heard it: the unmistakable snare beat of Carter Beauford to kick off the classic "Ants Marching."

In that moment, diary, as the music rushed over my lost, sunburned, half-naked, half-blind, mud-caked body, I found myself in a state of emotional bliss. I discovered my body moving in ways it never had before, indeed in some ways I felt I could not even control. The music. I swayed; my arms began to gyrate wildly. In the heat of the day, in my frustration and impatience, I had forgotten what this excursion was all about, diary. Amidst the heat, shaggy hair, drugs and mindless allegiance to immediate gratification, I had allowed other people to distract me from my focus: enjoying the experience of patronizing a performance by world-class musicians. I turned my attention to the stage, fixated. It was very pleasurable.

As Boyd Tinsely's riveting solo on "Dancing Nancies" crashed to its soaring crescendo (which is totally different every time, I might add), everyone in attendance seemed to be lifted to an entirely different level of emotion. It was captivating, intense and surreal, not unlike a well-executed bootleg off of the counter-isolation action. I was so far under the spell of the jam, my mind so thoroughly dominated by those first-rate strings, that I failed to notice my free-flowing, out of control limbs had made contact with the young man standing next to me until I realized he was saying my name. I stared intensely at his face.

"Coach O'Brien?" I was stunned and, I will admit, a little embarrassed to be looking at prized recruit Curt Phillips. I have always endeavored to represent myself and my employer in nothing but the most professional light to prospective student-athletes, as you well know, but here I found myself soiled, scowling, disheveled, unable to control certain aspects of my own anatomy, much less a squad of several dozen promising but often directionless individuals in need of nothing more than guidance and discipline in their young lives.

"Curt," I began, understanding instinctively the revulsion with which this young man must view the successful adult he once considered a positive role model.  Imagine my surprise, then, when he flashed a wide smile and said,  "Oh snap, dude, coach is a Dave fan? That is totally wicked bitchin', homie!"

I paraphrase, diary, because in my astonished state, his teenage slang failed to register. I will, however, be returning next month for Bonnaroo, accompanied by several laminated letter of intent forms. I am enthusiastic, and Wyatt has assured me has other acquaintances in the area with more comfortable accommodations.

Until then, don't drink the water,

TOB

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* - Not that there's anything wrong with that.