As I am in the business of seeking wisdom and guidance in all things, I turn to my friend Frank Hughes the other day for his sophisticated insight on world events.
"Which is bigger?" I ask. "The City-Poly game or the Super Bowl?"
Hughes glances up from a tuna delight he is making and looks at me as if I am an idiot, which is not that far from fact.
"City-Poly, of course," he says.
This is known as a sense of perspective. Thirty years ago, long before he had his Holiday House bar on Harford Road, Hughes was an interior lineman for City College's varsity football team.
His coach was a fellow named George Young, who is now general manager of the New York Giants, opponents of the Buffalo Bills in today's Super Bowl.
On a wall above Frank Hughes, a television news announcer is talking of missile systems and prisoners of war, while the nation braces itself for this football game in Tampa, Fla. In a week of battlefield fighting half a world away, maybe no one in America has a better sense of perspective about a game on a football field than George Young.
He coached football because it was fun, but he taught high school history because he knew it was important. And he never lost his sense of which one mattered most.
"Education," says Frank Hughes. "Football was real important, but education was the most important thing. If you wanted to go to college, George would search the country for you. Because he knew education was the key to everything.
"That's why he'd really get down on you if you didn't study. Did he get down on me? Are you kidding? He was my homeroom teacher for two years. That's why I know what he's thinking about now. He's thinking about those kids at war."
Young grew up around lower Greenmount Avenue, where his father ran a neighborhood stag bar. But Young never drank or smoked in his life. At some high schools, football players were treated like gods. At City, Young required all his athletes to dress up in coats and ties.
Perspective, that's all. He couldn't remember a kid in a coat and tie ever being sent to the principal's office.
When City football practices would end, Young would head for night school. One year he took a course on the Chinese wars.
"Chinese wars?" asked a City quarterback named Dennis Wisner when he heard about it.
"That's right," said Young. "You know, coaching isn't the epitome of success."
"The Chinese wars aren't the epitome of success, either," said Wisner.
"Yeah, Denny," said Young, "but you can study them forever."
Two days ago, the talk all over town is of Super Bowl point spreads and killer defenses. Then the news arrives: Iraqi missiles have slipped through the Patriot missile defense to land in Israel. Talk of retaliation fills the air. Will America have to commit ground troops early, to bring a swifter end to Saddam Hussein?
The news announcer's face disappears, and a sportscaster's face replaces it. A war is going on, but America needs its diversions. Bet the Giants, the smart money says. What about this guy Kelly, the Buffalo money asks. Life must go on, including football games.
"Football," says Andy Tamberino, "mattered a lot to George Young. I mean, he talked football the way a good doctor talked medicine. But football was only part of it for George."
Thirty years ago, Tamberino played alongside Frank Hughes on City's interior line. Now he's slicing a pizza at Andy's Subs, the place he owns at Baltimore and Highland. Tamberino's thoughts of George Young run the same as everyone who's ever known him: Young may have a better sense of perspective on this game than anybody in America.
"George Young is a big, tough guy on the outside and a pussycat on the inside," Tamberino said. "Academics, see? This war in the Persian Gulf? That's where his head is today. George Young was never narrow-minded. This is history, and it's war. That's what he's thinking about, I'll bet you."
The nation argues with its own conscience these days. The playing of ball games seems sacrilegious. How can we turn our backs while some are dying? And yet, do we give Saddam Hussein that victory, the cancellation of our way of life while he hides out in his bunker?
A sense of perspective, that's what George Young has always had. The games go on, but let's keep them in their place. A long time ago, he coached a kid named Kurt Schmoke, who had dreams of big-time college football. Young looked at Schmoke and saw something more.
"Football isn't what life is all about," he said, and steered him toward Yale University and law and politics.
A quarter century ago, Young married a teacher, Kathryn "Lovey" Reddington. One day not long ago she noted, with infinite pride, that when she and her husband come to Baltimore, those who rush to greet George Young are just as likely to have been former history students as former football players.
Football games are OK. Diversions help us get through the darkness. But a piece of us feels queasy staging an athletic celebration while bombs are falling just off-camera. George Young will be at the ball game today, but his head will be in the war zone, too.