The vision of a 9-year-old girl, killed by gunfire in a South Richmond park, lit a spark in Gov. Ralph Northam on Sunday as he called for the General Assembly to act this week to toughen Virginia laws on the purchase and use of firearms.
Speaking to a predominantly black audience at 31st Street Baptist Church in Church Hill, Northam paced behind the pulpit as he remembered treating wounded soldiers as a U.S. Army doctor in the Persian Gulf and holding children who died from gunshots after picking up a loaded weapon from a bedside table.
He remembered a young woman he had treated since she was 2 years old who was shot to death by her enraged husband in front of their infant child, and the 12 people killed on May 31 at a Virginia Beach municipal building by a former colleague who used a silencer as he shot them.
But Northam said, “What really woke me up — as if I needed to be woken up — was Markiya Dickson,” a 9-year-old girl killed in a crossfire during a Memorial Day celebration at Carter Jones Park.
He raised Markiya’s memory as a challenge to members of the General Assembly, who will meet Tuesday in a special session that he called to act on eight legislative proposals to tighten gun laws, including allowing local governments to restrict firearms in municipal buildings and other public venues, including parks.
“They can bring their thoughts and prayers, that’s fine, but they were elected by folks like you to vote and enact laws,” Northam told an audience already roused by a combination of fervent gospel hymns, prayer and calls for action by numerous Democratic elected officials.
In response, a spokesman for House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, dismissed the governor’s call for a special session as an election-year stunt that would do nothing to address gun violence in Virginia.
“From Southwest Virginia to Hampton Roads, there has been strong public opposition to the gun control laws proposed by the governor,” said Matthew Moran, the speaker’s chief of staff.
“Along with law enforcement, the governor himself said nothing proposed in this special session would have stopped the terrible tragedy we saw in Virginia Beach,” Moran said in an email message. “It’s clear that this is an election-year political move by Democrats and not much more.”
But Northam appeared personally energized by the spirit of a rally that felt like a revival. He clapped his hands to a thunderous gospel performance by the New Life Deliverance Tabernacle choir and urged its members to “come to the Capitol on Tuesday and put some urgency into the General Assembly!”
The rally, organized by Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, was a boost for the governor’s efforts to reconnect with African Americans five months after a scandal erupted over a racist photo on his medical school yearbook page. Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photo and then reversed himself the next day, saying he was not in the picture, which showed a man in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.
McQuinn has stood behind Northam, whom she described Sunday as “a humble, passionate, spirit-filled man.
“Even through ups and downs, he has stood faithfully for the cause,” she said.
The rally also featured Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, who are trying to recover from their own scandals that erupted in early February, but it showcased Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s proposal to ban or restrict weapons in the city’s municipal buildings and other public venues.
The City Council approved the ordinance last Monday on a 7-0 vote with two abstentions. It will not take effect unless the assembly acts this week to approve enabling legislation proposed by Northam.
The governor thanked Stoney and said, “We ought to be able to tell people that we don’t want guns in our municipal buildings and we don’t want guns in our parks.”
Stoney voiced optimism that legislators “will see the light” and enact restrictions on firearms.
But if they don’t, he said, in a pointed reference to legislative elections in November, “you know what you have to do.”
Undeterred by the blazing sun and the automatic sprinklers shooting arcs of water around the soccer field at Huguenot Park, Phil Pollack went about practicing for the upcoming 2019 World Overall Flying Disc Championships with the energy of an exuberant child.
As he prepared for an event called Maximum Time Aloft — a sort of boomerang competition in which the player attempts to accumulate the maximum number of seconds between throwing a disc and catching it — Pollack would fling a disc high and far, and momentarily gauge its trajectory. Then he would take off in a dead sprint through the spraying water to the spot where he anticipated the disc would return to Earth and then, at the last second, he would dive — DIVE! — headlong to try to make the catch and do a quick roll in the grass before springing to his feet to do it all again.
Not bad for someone who’s 71.
“And a half,” said a smiling Pollack, who set the world record (10.68 seconds) in the event’s 70-and-older category in April.
Pollack, a retired programmer and part-time mathematics instructor, would seem to epitomize the seriously fun-loving spirit of the overall competition that tournament organizer Jack Cooksey says, with a laugh, attracts “a subculture of slightly weird people.”
More than 100 participants from around the world will converge on Richmond beginning Monday for the six-day event that will be held at various venues around the city: Bryan Park, VCU’s Cary Street Field, Forest Hill Park, Richmond Strikers West Creek Field Complex and Huguenot Park. A full schedule is available at www.rvadisc2019.com. Admission is free.
This marks the first time since 2011 the world championship has been held in the United States.
The modern notion of throwing a disc back and forth really took off in the 1950s when inventor Fred Morrison sold a plastic platter he had designed to toy company Wham-O Inc., which called it “Frisbee” and proceeded to sell millions of them, according to a history of the Frisbee compiled by the World Flying Disc Federation.
On the back of Frisbees, in raised lettering, are the words, “Play Catch-Invent Games,” which served as both an inspirational message and as sort of a directive: No, really, invent games so more people will play and buy more Frisbees!
So people did. Two results are disc golf, an individual game; and Ultimate, a team sport. Cooksey readily acknowledges those are far better-known than his “overall” competition, which he describes as “very obscure” but enjoyable and deeply competitive, in a good-natured way.
Overall features seven events including obvious skill tests you would expect to see in such a competition, such as accuracy and distance, as well as disc golf, plus others you might not necessarily expect, such as Pollack’s throw-and-catch-it-yourself specialty.
Others include a race around a slalom course while throwing discs as well as two events featuring pairs and freestyle, which Cooksey calls “the hot dog event” that allows participants to show off their creativity and artistry.
Cooksey, 52, a freelance writer and editor, has participated in competitive Frisbee — players use the term generically — since he was 13 when he tagged along with his older brother, Robert, to a meeting at the downtown YWCA where a Frisbee football club was being formed.
Cooksey was intrigued because he and a buddy enjoyed throwing a Frisbee around after they finished their afternoon paper routes, but he was not quite prepared for what he was about to see.
“We walked into the YWCA, and all of these shaggy-looking young guys were throwing around Frisbees, careening them off the walls and skipping them off the floors,” he recalled. “There were throws I’d never seen before. I walked into that gym, and that was that: That’s where my love affair began.”
Cooksey was recently inducted into the Virginia Frisbee Hall of Fame and is coach of the Richmond Floodwall, a men’s Ultimate traveling team. He also holds or has held dozens of state, national and world competitive titles.
He raves about the friends he’s made through throwing flying discs.
“It’s just a good community,” he said.
In fact, a woman he met playing at an Ultimate game, Lisa Berman, became his wife.
Cooksey met me at a coffee shop a few weeks ago to tell me about the championships. He suggested we could get together later for a demonstration, which is why he invited me to see him and Pollack practice last week. Pollack, he said, has been his mentor.
Pollack laughed when I told him that.
“I taught him everything I know,” he said, “which is one-tenth of what he knows.”
Pollack has indeed known Cooksey a long time, and he’s definitely been around when it comes to flying discs. He grew up near Richmond’s Thomas Jefferson High and played sports, but never really found his athletic niche. He played baseball, even learned how to throw a curve, but he was always “in the bottom half when choosing up teams.”
Then, he discovered Frisbee in college, and he’s always kept one nearby (including in August 1969 at Woodstock, where he had one in hand when he was in the background of a photograph that wound up being on the inside cover of the “Woodstock Two” album).
There’s been a Virginia state tournament every year since 1977, and Pollack, who’s in the state’s Frisbee Hall of Fame, is one of two people who has competed in all of them.
Cooksey hopes the event will kindle an interest in the world of flying discs among those who attend. There will be disc giveaways to kids of middle school age and younger (while supplies last), and those discs will offer families an opportunity to “find another way in their lives to be active and happy and healthy,” Cooksey said.
“I’m really hoping to kind of plant a seed here, too,” he said. “Because I think Richmond is a good place for it. Richmond is just weird enough.”
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Eastern League All-Star Week got off to an electrifying, wet, interrupted start Sunday night on Brown’s Island. The scene was nicely set for the free event bearing Mayor Levar Stoney’s name, the first pitch of four days of festivities that culminate with Wednesday night’s EL All-Star Game at The Diamond.
Mayor Levar Stoney’s All-Star Week Kickoff began at 5 p.m., and musical act Mighty Joshua entertained on stage, food and beer trucks were open for business, and youngsters jumped in bounce houses and played other games set up for their enjoyment.
The crowd of a few hundred was growing when the first raindrops started falling at 5:15. By 5:30, hard rain came down. At 5:40, the lightning began, and the music stopped. Event attendees were asked to leave Brown’s Island and invited to return once the heavy weather passed.
The function resumed about 6:30 p.m., but Brown’s Island was cleared again at about 7:15 p.m. because of more lightning, ending the night and throwing another weather curve at the Richmond Flying Squirrels. Their sold-out July 4 game at The Diamond also was rained out.
Previous EL All-Star Games were part of two-day celebrations in other league cities. The Flying Squirrels went to a four-day schedule to showcase Richmond more fully. Todd “Parney” Parnell, the Double-A franchise’s vice president and COO, said it was Stoney’s idea that Brown’s Island become part of the EL All-Star Week calendar.
“I looked at him and said, ‘That’s a great idea. Congratulations! It’s going to be named [for you],’” Parnell said. The Squirrels hoped to have 3,000 to 4,000 guests, according to Parnell, but weather was an issue. Stoney made an appearance on Brown’s Island on Sunday night following the resumption of activity.
Lou DiBella, the Flying Squirrels’ president and managing general partner, said he hadn’t seen his management team as energized since the franchise began playing at The Diamond in 2010.
“Parney is in another dimension of excitement, and he’s been working so hard I think he’s going to explode, but in a good way,” DiBella said. He acknowledged that a four-day event is ambitious, “but that’s sort of the way we’ve done everything. This is a great way to sort of get everybody into all-star mode.”
DiBella said the organization wouldn’t have attempted a four-day event if it wasn’t confident that the community was a willing supporter, and that he views EL All-Star Week as a jubilant observation of the team’s 10 seasons in Richmond.
Joe McEacharn, the EL president since 2003, said the league has never seen any EL all-star experience developed to the degree that the Flying Squirrels have grown the 2019 edition, and that includes when the Eastern League participated in one all-star game for all three Double-A leagues.
“You get the idea when you’re talking about the concept of it that it’s about four individual events. Now I kind of look at it more collectively,” McEacharn said. “It’s not four different events. It’s the totality of it all. It really does highlight the city, getting businesses involved, the civic pride ... the reach is a lot farther than I think I ever really understood.”
EL All-Star Week continues Monday night with the All-Star Country Music Jam at Virginia Credit Union Live! at the Richmond Raceway Complex. The show is set to start at 7 p.m. and feature Big & Rich, Cowboy Troy, DJ Sinister, and Mickie James & The Heaters.
Tuesday’s festivities are highlighted by the Celebrity Home Run Derby (hitting contest) from 6 to 8 p.m. at The Diamond, and that will be followed by a concert (Three Sheets to the Wind). The EL All-Star Game will start at 7:05 p.m. Wednesday at The Diamond.
An All-Star Pep Rally will be held at The James Center on Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and an All-Star Block Party is scheduled for The Diamond’s parking lot on Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.