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Monday, July 21, 2008

Top Caliber

How a gun-hating family from Billerica produced an Olympic shooter.

Stephen Scherer, a 19-year-old rising West Point sophomore, will represent the US in Beijing next month. (Photograph by Laura Barisonzi) Stephen Scherer, a 19-year-old rising West Point sophomore, will represent the US in Beijing next month.

Stephen Scherer fired his final shot at the Olympic trials in March, lowered his rifle, and smiled. There was no fist pumping, no chest thumping when he won the 10-meter air rifle competition and a berth on the US Olympic team bound for Beijing. Just a shy, slightly self-conscious smile. It was the first and only emotion Scherer showed during three pressure-packed days in Colorado Springs. He was as composed in victory as he had been throughout the best shooting performance of his life. Or perhaps he was in shock. Scherer had had no expectation of making the Olympic team, not as a 19-year-old with a lot still to learn about the sport. He figured the Olympic trials would offer good preparation for representing West Point - where he is going to be a sophomore - at the NCAA riflery championships a couple of weeks later.

"I probably surprised myself more than anybody else there," says Scherer. "Shooting is a very mental sport. A lot of times, it doesn't sink in that you've won until after, because you're so concentrated on the shooting."

Competing against a 2004 Olympic gold medalist and a two-time Olympic team member, Scherer consistently put up high scores. Out of a perfect 600, he posted 595, 597, and 594 in the daily matches (each competitor gets 60 shots and a bull's-eye is worth 10 points). And each day, Scherer advanced to a bonus round with the opportunity to increase his point totals. His consistency silenced whispers about the teenager being more lucky than skilled at hitting a dime-sized spot on a target 10 meters away; the higher the stakes, the better he performed. "I still can't figure out how he held it all together," says Scherer's West Point coach, Major Ron Wigger. "The mental aspect is learned over time. You just don't go to the Olympics. He was a total dark horse."

Not bad for a teenager from Billerica who professes a love of all things Army and his admiration for Jimi Hendrix in the same breath. And whose mother didn't even want him to have a squirt gun as a boy.

"I was very anti-gun when my kids were little," says Scherer's mother, Sue, who works a number of different jobs, including cleaning and painting houses, running a day care, and organizing Jeopardy!-style entertainment for nursing homes. "I always thought, `Guns are bad. Guns kill people.' So, I didn't want my kids to have anything to do with guns."

Sue eventually softened her stance and bought Stephen and his younger sister, Sarah, toy water guns shaped like elephants. But Stephen wanted more. He made complicated pistols with Legos. He played endlessly with a BB gun inherited from a friend. Talking about his early interest in shooting, Stephen now says, "It's sort of like, if it's wrong, you want to do it more." When he spotted a sign for the Massachusetts Rifle Association on the side of the road in Woburn, he copied down the phone number and called. The junior program cost $1 with equipment provided. Sue figured proper training at a shooting range was better than Stephen's firing his BB gun down the hallway of their home into a trap.

Stephen enrolled in the program at 11, and his sister followed. (Sarah, who is now 17, narrowly missed a spot on the Olympic air rifle team.) While Sue jokes that a distant relation to Daniel Boone played a part in the family's quick ascent through the national shooting ranks, Sarah says, "The only reason we're as good as this is because we've had each other."

The Massachusetts Rifle Association facility in Woburn has become a second home for the Scherers. On a sweltering summer day, it is too hot to practice in heavy leather and canvas shooting coats. So, wearing a red Hawaiian shirt and jeans, Scherer positions the psychedelic-blue stock of his air rifle - a precision firearm nothing like the BB gun he played with as a kid - high across his chest to demonstrate a shooter's stance. At 6 feet and 150 pounds, Scherer is taller and thinner than most of his competition. In many other sports, his wiry frame would be an advantage. In air rifle, it makes it difficult to find a stable shooting position. He works to keep his body as relaxed and still as possible, his breathing and heart rate steady and under control. The slightest unplanned movement can mean failure in a sport that rewards perfection.

Olympic shooting includes rifle, pistol, and shotgun events. Air rifle is Scherer's best event, but he also competes in small-bore rifle events for West Point. Much like track, shooters compete in different events at different competitions.

As children of a single mother who struggled to make ends meet, Stephen and his sister see the sport differently than other elite athletes. "I learned how to work your way through life and realized how hard life actually is. Shooting is a privilege and you should have fun with it," Stephen says. "For us, shooting is a part of who we are. It's not what we are."

The Scherers are a close-knit, religious family. They attend Park Street Church in Boston and during the school year go to services at a small chapel at West Point many weekends; they say grace before meals. The three talk and laugh among themselves like best friends. They are bonded by years of home schooling and financial hardship. Sometimes they couldn't make it from paycheck to paycheck. With competitive shooting start-up costs averaging $5,000, the family lived "very cheaply" in order to participate, Sue says, and last year, the Scherers couldn't attend nationals because they didn't have enough money.

"We don't think of it as tough," says Sue. "We just think, `OK, this is the next thing we need. When we have money, we'll get it.' " Unfailingly positive, Sue believes family hardships helped make her son an Olympian much earlier than anyone expected. "He doesn't get nervous in pressure situations," she says. That should come in handy next month in Beijing.

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Unusual offseason hasn't hurt NFL's popularity

Even by its own disturbing standards, the NFL has produced a relentlessly peculiar offseason.
The roll call of odd activity was impressive.

For example, despite Roger Goodell's audition for the role of hammer-wielding administrator, the off-field behavior of many employees will require the hiring of about 32 assume-the-position coaches.

The possible return of Brett Favre provoked many otherwise reasonable citizens into facing Kiln, Miss., every day at sunrise.

Based on personnel inactivity, the Chicago Bears seemed to be considering the survival tactic of punting on first down.

A checkbook flurry from Al Davis led many to believe the Oakland Raiders' "maverick" managing general partner had mistaken himself for Daniel Snyder.

Pacman Jones was busy stripping himself of his own nickname.

And the beat went on.

But that won't stop us from embracing professional football — as it is interpreted by the NFL — as America's prevailing spectator activity. Oh, there are challengers, but until another sport makes a quantum leap forward, the NFL is king.

Here are 15 reasons why:

Parity

Sure, you probably despise the P-word, but it represents the potential for hope when none seemed available just one season earlier.

You may not even understand what parity — as encouraged by the NFL — refers to.

In NFL terms, parity means we'll never believe the NFC can produce a team capable of knocking off the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl until it happens.

Pace

With the exception of those times when a hitter attempts to strangle a pitcher for throwing a bit inside, Major League Baseball is no match for the NFL's tempo.

The NBA is at the same time afflicted by an exaggerated pace preferred by coaches with little interest in defense, and a methodical tempo created by control freaks who don't know how to coach offense.

The NFL strikes that happy medium, using its play clock to create a break between plays that allows fans to take two significant gulps of beer and consume three chicken wings without missing any action.

Money

Yeah, top-tier rookies receive a ridiculous windfall and signing bonuses can be obscene, but the NFL's multiyear contracts aren't guaranteed.

Thanks to the salary cap, a player can make the Pro Bowl one season and be let go before the next.

That sort of comeuppance makes the NFL truly popular with the working man.

Peyton Manning's image is plastered all over the place, but NFL is not a star-driven league according to Randy Hill. (Andy Lyons / Getty Images)

Emphasis on team

Even though we see commercials starring Peyton Manning an average of 137 times per Sunday, the NFL is not a star-driven league. Even if Favre sticks with his retirement threat, the league will not be irreparably harmed if Brett fails to return.

The NBA, on the other hand, went through some lean years when Michael Jordan decided to visit the sand trap on a regular basis.

The bye week

The bye week enables your team to dump its starting quarterback and prepare his back-up for a starting assignment that could — without ample practice time — register as an abject disaster.

It also provides the league's less responsible employees additional time to get into trouble in another city.

Sudden death

The NFL's overtime-resolution system almost never allows an early game to extend into the second quarter of a late game scheduled to be telecast on the same channel.

In-game officials

By insisting that its referees work on a part-time basis, the NFL prevents these on-field arbiters from having enough spare time to forge outside alliances with those who promote gambling.

NFL Draft

Quite simply, the draft reminds fans they may not be that much dumber than those hired to make personnel decisions for NFL teams.

Thanks to the predraft evaluation process, workers in other professions may be judged as superior job applicants without actually being as qualified as other applicants.

Coaching

Coaching interaction is so vital to every play in a professional football game that no NFL franchise would consider hiring a coach with zero coaching experience ... even if he is Vinny Del Negro.

Wide receivers

They have established definitive proof that the United States can produce egomaniacs with no discernible connection to Hollywood or politics.

Special teams

The existence of special teams and their signature moments creates even more opportunities for violent collisions.

Stats matter, records don't

You probably know how many home runs Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron hit, but you may have difficulty coming up with Emmitt Smith's career rushing total.

That's one reason why football fans don't seem to care that a pass-rusher's sack total may be abetted by the use of performance-enhancing substances. It's another reason why NFL executives didn't pretend that use of these substances was alien to their league.

They just suspend the offender for a few games and move on.

Fantasy and gambling

Fantasy football followers have established the main reason why stats matter, and this sweeping interest in numbers has generated a huge subculture of NFL fans.

We won't pretend to suggest that wagering has less than a huge influence on the sport's popularity.

Quarterbacks

With the possible exceptions of U.S. president, heart surgeon and last-minute FTD delivery guy, no job presents as much pressure to excel in the clutch.

It also should be noted that without the presence of quarterbacks, the responsibility of dating the nation's hot blonde singers and supermodels could fall to that poor slob George Clooney.

Playoff system

Nobody seems to worry about it diminishing the importance of the NFL's regular season.

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