Learning to fly

Thomas Earl Petty promised he wouldn’t back down. Even in his final moments, the 66-year-old Rock- and-Roll Hall of Famer battled as we all tried to stand him up at the gates of hell.

Petty died late Monday after suffering cardiac arrest.

I know I’m a sports writer. You’re probably — hopefully — reading this week’s column with the expectations of getting my take on the hottest topic and maybe for a few obscure hip-hop references.

Stick to sports. I get it. I’ll get there.

But Tom Petty meant a lot to me. As I mentioned, I often lean on those hip-hop references and utilize this space to dive deep into metaphors to the Geto Boys. That should tell you how much I was influenced by Petty. I’m giving him a full column. He deserves it.

I saw Petty twice in concert back in Indiana — a state with plenty of reference in the Petty discography. He and his band, the Heartbreakers, fill up gobs of space on my life’s soundtrack. “Free Fallin’” is, in my honest opinion, the greatest song ever written, and I can find a spot where every Petty song nestles nicely somewhere into the Mike Pruden playlist.

Back to sports.

Remember that Super Bowl where David Tyree caught a pass with his helmet? That was the Super Bowl where Eli Manning and the Giants knocked off the New England Patriots 17-14. It ended New England’s run at a perfect season and was arguably the greatest Super Bowl in the history of the National Football League.

But Tyree’s catch wasn’t even the highlight. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers demolished the turf with a Super Bowl halftime show filled with classics, roaring fans and face-melting guitar solos. The set list featured “American Girl,” “Won’t Back Down,” “Free Fallin’,” and “Runnin’ Down a Dream.”

Coincidence that the greatest rocker ever — don’t @ me — performed at the greatest Super Bowl ever? I think not.

To Tyree and the Giants, even the losers get lucky sometimes.

Petty was born in Gainesville, Florida, growing up a huge Florida Gators supporter. If you watch the Heartbreakers’ “Live from Gatorville” concert, you’ll even spot the Gators logo on one of the band’s guitars.

Ironically enough, the only other Tom Petty I’ve ever heard of actually played football, and he played for the University of Kentucky in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Kentucky and Florida battle for conference dominance each year, and their fans hate each other.

And according to sports-reference.com, another Tom Petty played wide receiver for Virginia Tech in the 1950s. He caught six career touchdown passes. Not bad.

The stories poured in Monday and Tuesday as Petty’s death struck so many rock-and-roll fans. I shared stories with my friends, read other stories online and, of course, turned the speakers to 11 and cranked some “Damn the Torpedoes.”

One story I had never heard involved sports once again, so I’ll share. When Michael Jordan won his first NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990-91 season, Petty became part of the celebration. The video recapping the championship season was titled “Learning to Fly,” and the Petty song with the same title became the theme music.

The song’s opening line, “Started out, down a dirty road,” tied into the rocky start the Bulls had in Jordan’s first few years before…learning to fly and winning six NBA titles.

Petty has plenty of ties to our sports world, and that Super Bowl performance was iconic even before his death. And his music can be used in our world of sports even if that wasn’t its original purpose.

What’s more motivating than, “I’ll stand my ground, and I won’t back down?”

But Tom Petty touched even more souls outside of sports. In a time of tragedy and chaos — which seems to be never-ending at this point — I look back at the Heartbreakers and a blonde-haired, squeaky-voiced Florida Gator for an escape; for hope.

And he went down “Swingin’, like Sonny Liston.”

Mr. Petty, thank you for being a kind-souled rocker. We won’t back down.

By |October 4th, 2017|

About the Author:

Mike moved to Sheridan from Indianapolis, Indiana. Family and his passion for sports brought Mike to the Cowboy State, where he began working as the sports editor for the Sheridan Press in June of 2014.

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