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More wonders than space in the newspaper

In rugby, a referee is ‘the Sir’ — also, a Chicago cop who took up the game as an example to his son.

Tony Valentin and his son Anthony, at a rugby match.
Chicago police Sgt. Tony Valentin (left) started playing rugby on the CPD team as an example to his son, Anthony, 14, a student at the Latin School of Chicago.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

If there is one comment my readers make most frequently — well, after some variant of “you suck” — it is that they are fans of the print newspaper, the log of dried tree pulp tossed at their homes every morning and spread with a sigh of pleasure over the breakfast table.

I like that too. But at the risk of apostasy, I have to confess that, as a writer, I prefer the online edition, for two reasons.

First, errors can be easily corrected. If, say for instance, a careless writer’s right index finger falls short of the “Y” and hits the “U” instead, converting the J. Tyke Nollman Field into the J. Tuke Nollman Field, it’s a moment’s work to set it right, not counting responding contritely to all those print readers solemnly pointing out the gaffe.

Second, you can find older stories without pawing through filing cabinets and manila folders. Searching is a breeze.

Print, however, has one big advantage over online. It’s finite. With print, you have to cut, and cutting is good, because while the internet is boundless, attention spans are not. In print, my column should run 719 words, which means if I want to go much longer, like Monday’s introduction to the joy that is rugby, I have to get approval ahead of time.

Even then, I lost marvels worth sharing. For instance, in rugby, referees are called “the Sir” — even women (though some female refs prefer “Ma’am”). Regular players may not speak to the Sir — that’s a penalty. Only team captains can. Here’s a line from the Nashville Grizzlies online “Rugby Primer”: ”If the Sir speaks to [a] player directly, it means the player did something bad. The ONLY correct response by this player to the Sir is ‘yes Sir.’”

Kinda makes you wish life were a rugby game.

Then there was Tony Valentin. I was standing on the sidelines Saturday, watching players tussle over the ball, and struck up a conversation. Turns out he is a sergeant, 20 years with the Chicago Police Department, assigned to the boat unit.

Of course I instantly explained that I was The Dreaded Media, and expected his face to contort into that look of visceral, what-did-I-just-step-in? disgust that cops often assume when confronted by the press, either clamming up or invoking News Affairs. He did neither, but chatted amiably as if we were both just people.

But that isn’t the wonder. Valentin said he had recently joined the CPD rugby team, and I asked why.

“I joined for my son,” he said “At 50 years old, it’s going to be hard on my body. But he really has taken to the game; he’s been playing for four years now.”

Valentin is playing rugby to set an example.

“I saw it as an opportunity for him to see that sports are a lifelong game,” he said. “And that when you really find something you enjoy, it’s fun to keep it going. And it’s important for him to know that as you get older it’s important to keep moving and keep physical.”

His son, Anthony, 14, who attends Latin School but is a member of the Chicago Lions, ran over. I couldn’t help but think of my own two sons: how the older would have reacted had I joined the Illinois Chess Association and begun haunting his matches. Or, worse, the younger, horrified at my suggestion that I show up to cheer at his meets when he rowed crew for Northwestern. I’m sure he pictured me, standing on tip-toe, holding a small dog in one hand, waggling the fingers of the other, trilling a high-pitched squeal like Nathan Lane in “The Birdcage.”

Anthony not only allowed his father to take up his sport, but encouraged him.

“I tried to convince him and he finally did it,” the teen said.

That’s a wonder worth putting in the newspaper, whether print or electronic. Another advantage the online realm has over print: clippings yellow and tear and are lost; online is forever, for good and ill. With my boys in their 20s and busily studying in distant cities, I’m always happy to encounter some old story I wrote when they were 14 and smiling beside me. A precious time most dads seldom realize is fleeting until it’s gone.