Sports Afield with a Golden Receiver
Smithsonian, November 1986

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IF ANYBODY should wander onto the back trails of Washington's Rock Creek Park and glimpse an apparently demented man clapping his hands together and shouting "Bravo! Bravo!" there's no need to reach for a stick or run. It'll be me. And if you look out ahead you will see a big golden retriever barreling along, with a kind of proud, shoulder-rolling trot, benignly seeming to conduct the world with her tail.

That'll be Pamela just after making an over-the-shoulder circus catch of a tennis ball. When she fetches it back she sometimes gets a bit of dog biscuit. Meanwhile, extravagant applause is in order, and "Bravo!" which it took me a lot of time in Paris to learn to shout without feeling like a sap - does as well for dogs as divas.

The game we're playing is simple: at a hand gesture, the dog tears away into the middle distance; the man throws a tennis ball pass; the dog snaffles it up on the first bounce at a dead run and proudly paces toward an imaginary end zone. It can be played on lawns, vacant lots, even (with caution) on the tops of aircraft carriers. But for pigskin fans and aging high school passers it is best and briskest if practiced during pro football season in the woods where - I'll be the first to admit it - successful completions require breathtaking accuracy and amazing eye-mouth coordination.

Indeed, it is sometimes hard not to think of Pamela as a kind of four-footed Drew Pearson (the wide receiver, that is). She's a lot quicker than Pearson, of course. Especially when it comes to that final lunge for the ball, a lightning forward strike of the head and neck, the kind of last-second, snaky stroke that in the water lets retrievers suddenly clamp down on an elusive duck.

What I throw these days is mostly long, high floaters that might put Walter Mitty in mind not of Pearson's teammate Roger Staubach but of Earl Morrall and the late Baltimore Colts.

By wonderful coincidence, that is just what the game calls for. If you want a long completion on a wooded path, you have to loft the ball up through tree branches, calculating to a nicety, so it will sail down to Earth without being deflected by leaves. just ahead of the galloping receiver Doing this is most challenging when the path ahead is twisty and the dog is running at full speed. Winter is easier. Those arching throws float through the bare, black branches, to fall just ahead of the galloping receiver, sometimes bouncing so perfectly that she seems to inhale the ball going flat out. But sometimes she has to lunge to left or right, or leap to get the ball with all four feet off the ground like a sort of fur-trimmed flying carpet.

Of course I don't have to throw with hundreds of pounds of bone and muscle bearing down on me. But Pamela runs a gauntlet that is the moral equivalent of Redskin linebackers - hairpin turns in the path, bushes, stumps, brush piles, fallen trees. Imagine running flat out down a twisting path, as bumpy as the Mikado's billiard table, and then catching a ball in your mouth. In her situation, I figure, even a Pearson might poke out an eye on the end of some protruding stick or splatter himself against a tree (trees never get called for interference in our game).

What thrower does not remember passes thrown long or dropped by some other kid? But anything Pamela can lay a tooth on she can catch, even if she has to produce the kind of diving, rolling reception that you sometimes see made in the end zone, about ten inches off the ground, on a short, flat pass thrown after the receiver is already diving through the air. If there is a sift of snow when she does that, she kicks up an explosion of powder and leaves, rolls over and grins. And the dog-loving passer is reminded of a famous trainer's line about great racehorses: "They run from the heart like children at play."

I fantasize at times about inventing Retriever Football-Tennis. Or even creating a Golden Baseball League with a designated hitter (human) and dogs fielding and running bases. (The late Bill Veeck would be the commissioner of choice.) Certainly Pamela would never hold out for more pay or threaten to playas full of folly as Pickett's Charge in Calgary next year.  She might chase squirrels, though.  Her approach is as full of folly as Pickett's Charge. Any squirrel, no matter how far off, no matter how much cover she could use to stalk it, tends to bring a straight frontal assault. She would make a lousy tackler. Once a squirrel let her get between him and the only tree for 20 yards around. The squirrel just swung a hip to the right, drawing the gullible dog that way, then zipped past Pamela and up the tree. Alas, she has never heard my old coach (and math teacher) Tiny Nordstrom yelling "Follow the man, not the ball."

The command "Drop it" she sometimes takes under advisement - hoping I will produce a scrap of dog biscuit. Sometimes, after a spectacular effort, as when, with a high bouncing ball, she bongs it up in the air with the tip of her nose first, like a seal, before making a showboat catch, I whistle her back to a huddle. I kneel. She sits. We talk in low tones about the next play. Sometimes I rub her ears and tell her she's the most beautiful and skillful dog in the world. This is no more than the truth, but she is always pleased to hear it. At such times she looks at me with total attention and loving brown eyes. Her glance, however, has a way of shifting toward the pocket where the biscuits are.