05/12/12 7:00am

A few weeks ago, my dad apologized for all the smoking he did in the house back when I was a kid.

“We just didn’t realize,” he said as we watched the little girl on the anti-smoking commercial cough into a room thick with secondhand smoke.

I’ve heard that refrain many times through the years. From my parents. From my aunts. From a ton of reformed smokers. That excuse — the lack of awareness of the dangers of secondhand smoke — has always rung hollow with me. As if my bloodshot eyes and hacking cough weren’t strong enough hints that breathing that stuff in was detrimental.

These days, I am beginning to seriously ponder if I will someday make a similar mea culpa to my son. Dan is 12 and has already played eight seasons of tackle football. He was an aggressive little guy, loved roughhousing, jumping around and knocking into stuff, so as he was heading into kindergarten — and a few months shy of turning 5 — I signed him up for peewee football.

In terms of catching, running and throwing, Danny has done some amazing things playing football. But he is particularly noted for his “pancake” blocks and bone-crushing tackles, the type of hitting that led to such scary nicknames as “Terminator” and “Assassin” from his coaches. My son’s ego feeds off the attention he receives for his warrior mentality.

I imagine Junior Seau experienced the same motivation while growing up menacing whoever crossed his path on the football field. Seau was the warrior’s warrior. The fire in his eyes alone was enough to lead his teammates into battle. In a game dependent on violence for fan interest, Seau was as fierce as they come. He hit — and was hit — for 20 seasons as an NFL linebacker.

Seau’s suicide last week should be a wake-up call for any father who pressures his son to play football and for any coach who pressures his players to play with a head injury. Seau shot himself in the heart. Like fellow NFL great Dave Duerson, who similarly killed himself in 2011, Seau — who suffered multiple concussions playing football — clearly wanted researchers to study his brain for trauma. It’s been documented that Seau had been suffering from depression in recent years. It would be irresponsible not to suggest that his depression was influenced by repeated blows to the head.

Among the institutions in line to study Seau’s brain is Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, the research center that found Duerson, a longtime Chicago Bears safety, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — brain damage — due to repeated hits to his head. CTE is not exclusive to NFL players. Boston University researchers found CTE in the brain of an 18-year-old athlete who had sustained multiple concussions.

Pain tolerance is among the core values of football. It’s a game where you’re rewarded for how much you can tolerate. Players — not just those getting paid or on scholarship — will go through anything to stay on the field.

I am certain that I played the last game of my junior season of college football with a concussion I had suffered days earlier during practice. My motivation: I wasn’t going to jeopardize my starting position by letting a headache and some dizziness keep me out of the game.

Awareness of the dangers of head injuries has increased on the youth football level. But there is still precious little medical oversight at practices and games.

Youth leagues need a trainer on-site to evaluate head and other injuries — to determine if it’s safe for a child to continue playing. It is worth the increase in registration fees.

Furthermore, leagues, coaches and parents should limit the amount of full-contact football a child plays during the year. Too many kids on Long Island play tackle football eight months a year.

Ridiculously, coaches begin full equipment practices for the fall season in July. Then, when the fall season ends in November, the indoor football season begins in December with teams registering to compete in for-profit youth leagues that schedule playoff games deep into February.

Hundreds of retired players — including Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett — are suing the NFL for negligence, accusing the league of deception and denial in failing to properly inform players of the link between head injuries and long-term cognitive brain damage.

If players have a solid case against the NFL, then how strong of a case would former youth and high school players have against their leagues, or worse, their dads?

I recall hearing about the first case of ailing smokers suing Big Tobacco in the 1990s and thinking that the smokers had no case, that they should hold themselves accountable for willingly embracing the risks of smoking cigarettes. How completely wrong I was.

Is it so far-fetched to imagine non-NFL players suing the league for selling a product that influenced them to make poor health decisions on the playing field?

Brian Harmon is public relations director at LIU Brooklyn and a former managing editor at Times/Review Newsgroup. 

04/07/12 7:00am

The electrician and the sleepy attorney have commuted home on the train to the same station — probably for years — but I’m guessing they had hardly acknowledged one another’s existence before last Wednesday.

That’s when the burly contractor gave the napping litigator a gentle nudge on the arm and said in a soft but assertive tone, “Hey, pal, we’re in Bay Shore.”

I ride the Long Island Rail Road every day to work and back, three hours a day. Riders have a lot to whine about — what with the delays, the shutdowns and the rising ticket prices.

But for those of us who pick our heads up from our smart phones now and then, there are plenty of feel-good moments to be seen and heard.

I recently watched two riders team up to map out the quickest way to reach Jamaica via subway from Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn, after word spread that railroad service west of Jamaica was shut down “indefinitely.” Believe me, I’ve tried this and it’s no picnic.

The two men analyzed the giant subway grid on the wall, then weighed the friendly and a bit too ample advice of a disheveled passerby. Finally, they walked to the Lafayette Avenue subway station.

There, they chatted about work and commuting before catching an A train to Broadway Junction, where they ambled up the steps to the elevated platform and soon boarded a J train bound for Jamaica. The two never left each other’s side until they boarded their LIRR train in Jamaica.

Romance — depending on its form — is nice to witness on the train. One rainy Tuesday evening commute home, I caught a glance of a smartly dressed middle-aged man standing under an umbrella on the Islip station platform.

My train crept to a stop and I got a little choked up as the train door slid open right in front of where the man was standing and a woman stepped out into a quick embrace with the man before the two began walking together, holding hands. As the train pulled away, I watched the couple ease down the platform steps. The man guided the woman to the passenger door of his car. In a flash, they were out of sight.

What made this so heartwarming was that it was clearly a daily routine. How else would the man know just where to stand on the platform to greet his lady friend?

On a Friday commute home, it was sure nice to find a $20 bill on the floor of the train, even though I pounced on it a little too fast. Out of guilt, I asked the nearest person, “Does this belong to you?”

He said, “No.” That was good. Good to find the 20 bucks, good to keep it and good that the man was honest.

The train is always good for those chance encounters with old friends. For me, it’s bumping into a former Daily News colleague, a high school football teammate working as a conductor or a fellow parent from my time living in Bethpage.

It’s always a pleasure bumping into the coach of my daughter’s soccer club on the ride into work. Bob and I board in Patchogue, but Bob jumps off for work in Babylon.

Commutes with Coach Bob represent the best of both worlds for me. I get just enough stimulating conversation before Bob’s stop. Then, when he’s off, I’m able to kick back, read the paper, play Words With Friends on my iPhone, answer texts and do whatever.

It’s nice to watch old friends meet and hug. It’s nice to see a young family board the train together, embarking on an exciting trip to The City. They worry about things most commuters don’t: Should we sit in a seat facing the direction we’re traveling in? Do we change in Jamaica? What time do we arrive at Penn Station?

I frequently see regular riders switch their seats on the train, making room for a couple or a family to sit together.

It was a pleasure to see a regular rider who speaks fluent Spanish step in to serve as translator between a conductor and an elderly Hispanic man who didn’t have a ticket. The Hispanic man clearly did not understand the conductor’s English, even when the conductor spoke very loud and very, very slow.

From what I could tell, the amateur interpreter asked the man in Spanish, “What station are you getting off at?” I was able to make out “qué estación.”

The man replied, “Jamaica.” Then she informed him — in Spanish of course — that if he didn’t have money for a ticket, the conductor needed to see “identificación.”

The man quickly dug up his I.D. and the last I saw of him, he was on the platform filling out paperwork.

It’s especially good to see common sense prevail on the train, like when a regular rider realizes it’s a new month, but is already on an evening train back to Long Island and hasn’t purchased his monthly ticket. When the conductor comes around to check tickets, the rider barely gets out the syllable “for-” in the word “forgetting,” before the conductor recognizes him and quietly agrees to give the guy a pass for the ride home.

What makes the LIRR good — even great — on many days are the riders. Sure, they can be cranky and gruff and want their quiet and their space, but given the opportunity to reveal their goodness, they rise to the occasion again and again.

Mr. Harmon is a former Times/Review editor. He is now public relations director at LIU Brooklyn.

03/31/11 10:35am

It’s 60 degrees for the first time in what feels like four months. It’s St. Patrick’s Day, 5 o’clock in the afternoon in the heart of Manhattan. People are bathed in green and booze and I’m frolicking around Rockefeller Plaza dressed in an $8,000 blackbird outfit. And I’m having the time of my life!

No, really. The anonymity, the undying attention from young and old and the license to be a total buffoon all led to an exhilarating turn as the Long Island University Blackbird, which — by the way — included an appearance on NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”

The story of how I came across such good fortune starts on an icy Mattituck day two Decembers ago. On that chilly morning, I told my publisher and fellow staffers that after a whirlwind year as an editor at Times/Review Newspapers and a fulfilling 18 years in journalism I had accepted a job as public relations director of Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus.

I settled in pretty quickly at my new post, publicizing such key events as the campus’ commencement ceremonies and the George Polk Awards in Journalism, which are administered by the university. During the winter of 2010, the men’s basketball team, the Blackbirds, struggled to win as many games as they lost. March Madness seemed light years away from downtown Brooklyn.

But when the wins started to pile up for LIU this year, I took notice. I started attending games. I brought my kids, and my wife. Heck, even my teenage daughter’s boyfriend came to Brooklyn for a game.

When LIU earned a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 14 years, the school bathed in free publicity. The biggest media coup may have been Jimmy Fallon’s adoption of LIU as his 2011 NCAA tournament team. The Blackbirds were featured in “Late Night” skits for three straight nights, leading up to the Blackbirds’ second-round game against North Carolina in Charlotte. I made it my mission to get the school’s mascot on the show.

Convincing Fallon’s producers to invite the bird was an easy sell, though they said it needed to happen Thursday night. This presented a bit of a logistical nightmare, considering the costume needed to be in Charlotte on Friday and the student who wears the costume was in Orlando, Fla., until Friday. The understudy Blackbird was somewhere in Myrtle Beach for spring break.

“The Blackbird has a reputation to uphold. We can’t just let anyone wear it,” an LIU associate athletic director told me, before suggesting, “You might laugh, Brian. But do you want to do it?”

Roughly five minutes later, my DVR was set to record Channel 4 at 12:30 a.m. Friday. It was all a “go” after Pete Tymus, a campus administrator and diehard Blackbirds fan, committed to meeting me after the show and driving the suit to Charlotte to meet its rightful wearer for the big game.

Before I knew it, it was mid-afternoon Thursday and I was in a “Late Night” dressing room, struggling to squeeze into the Blackbird. Aside from the giant feet, the body part of the suit was tolerable.

It was the mascot’s giant head that posed the problem. Peripheral vision was, well, not very peripheral, while not really being able to see up or down was clearly going to be an issue due to the fact that I had to jog up the studio stairs high-fiving audience members.

An hour later, I was in full gear, standing in the dark behind a giant curtain and waiting for my cue to hit the stage. In my skit, three contestants from the audience were playing a game in which one of the prizes was a high-five from the LIU Blackbird. “You’re on! Go to No. 2! No. 2!” shouted the director backstage, after Fallon excitedly told Contestant No. 2 it was her lucky day.

I bounded into the studio and became awash in bright light. Spreading my black wings, I waved to the audience and hopped around a bit before remembering I had to find “No. 2.”

I looked right, spotted her and hurried over, but just before our high-five, the ground shifted under one of my feet. In order to avoid a complete flop, the high-five became a hang-on for dear life. I held the woman’s hand high for a moment as I regained my bearings. After letting go and locating the stairs, I tilted my beak up, gazed into the crowd and decided to slow down the pace, for I had never seen so many people so happy to see me. The high-fives evolved into hugs. Near the top of the steps, I became trapped in a delirious group hug.

I broke away before doing a quick little dance at the top of the stairs, and then I was gone.


But taping the Fallon show was merely Act I of my Blackbird odyssey. A Daily News photographer was waiting outside NBC Studios to take my picture in Rockefeller Plaza.

Once outside, I wasn’t hard to find. I was the giant Blackbird posing for a picture between the two blondes from France, then standing alongside a brunette with sparkly shamrock tattoos on her cheeks. Youngsters wanted to meet me, too, and a grandmother with a Spanish accent.

After a dozen or so impromptu photo shoots, it was time to turn back into Brian. The Blackbird had a date in Charlotte and his ride was parked on 50th Street.

Lucky for me, I was going to Charlotte, too, flying south to watch the real-life Blackbirds take on mighty North Carolina. Despite playing with tremendous grit and heart, undersized LIU fell to the Tar Heels 102-87.

I hadn’t had such fun with the NCAA tournament since 2009, when I ran the office pool at Times/Review in Mattituck. That year, I drafted a newsletter after each round, noting who was winning and assigning silly nicknames to the participants. Some names were related to basketball, i.e. Julie “Three Seconds in the” Lane, The Suffolk Times reporter who won the pool that year. Others were hardly related to hoops, namely “Pardon me, sir. Do you have any” Grant Parpan, now the company’s web editor.

Going back to running office pools during the tournament will be bittersweet. I already miss being the Blackbird.

Brian Harmon is a former Times/Review managing editor and Suffolk Times editor. He lives in Medford.

12/21/10 8:00am

Dictionary.com’s “the hot word” has tapped “cellar door” as the most beautiful word or phrase in the English language. Yes, cellar door. Go ahead and say it aloud a couple of times.

The blog explains it’s a matter of phonaesthetics, and that cellar door produces a truly unique euphonic sound combination. In other words, it’s extremely pleasing to the ear.


Well, around here, our Long Island accent just kills it. “Sella daw” lacks any charm.

I suppose if you focus on pronouncing the Rs and say it in a cheery tone — all while ignoring its meaning — cellar door can sound mildly pretty.

For me, I just can’t get away from the fact that cellar door is a phrase that defines an entrance to a place I never really desired to go when I was a child. The cellar in our home was dank, dark, dreary and unfurnished. It featured a cranky boiler and a rusty weight bench.

And even when I was curious enough to think about venturing down to the basement, the door was cracked and so weather damaged that it would be tempting fate to try to open it, and then creep down the stairs without it slamming down on my head. Hence, my mother’s shouts of “Stay away from the cellar door” never sounded beautiful.

To be called beautiful, words should be held to a very high standard. And in my book, they ought to adhere to most of the following criteria:

• They should be fairly easy to pronounce. If a word causes its speaker to trip over its syllables or innocently misspell, then it has no business on a pretty-word list. Think discombobulated and ostensibly, and discombogulated and ostensively.

• They had better sound pretty, particularly if the meaning of the word isn’t necessarily attractive. Malicious, ostentatious, artillery and malfeasance come to mind. The language’s most beautiful words usually reflect their meaning.

• A word or phrase that conjures a feeling of warmth, contentment, excitement and/or love qualifies as a beautiful word. And that depends on the individual. For my mom, bingo is one of those words. For my dad, it’s Fighting Irish. And for my teenage daughter, it’s iPod Touch.

• The more syllables a word has, the better chance it has of landing on a Most Beautiful Word list.

• A word cannot qualify for the beautiful list if it sounds gross, repugnant or silly and at the same time means something gross, repugnant or silly. This is probably why you won’t find diarrhea on prettiest-word lists.

In no particular order, I offer a plethora of the items on my working list of beautiful words, a grouping I someday may call “Harmonizer’s Most Alluring Words.”

Rambunctious: I love being rambunctious, especially when the drinks are free and I don’t have to work the next day. I love saying “rambunctious”; the incredible ebb and flow of the word truly mirrors its meaning. It roars in like a lion (OK, like a ram) and shushes out softly like a lamb. I liked it so much that I named my first pet, a busy little kitten, ‘Bunctious.

Effervescent sure sounds pleasant, and my Aunt Barbara, whose company always lifts my spirits, is quite effervescent. Vivacious, enthusiasm, anticipation and extravaganza — words with pronunciations that mirror the mood of their meanings — all are high on my list.

I have held a particular affection for harbinger since I was about 8 years old. That’s when I heard the ape character Cornelius profoundly tell Charlton Heston’s Taylor in “Planet of the Apes” that man “is the harbinger of death.” That word encouraged me to think.

Quintessential, delicatessen, gentrification, synonymous, rapture, serendipity, cinnamon and facetious are all nice-sounding and well-meaning words, worthy of appearing on my list. I like chagrin if for no other reason than my wife gets a kick out of hearing me say “Much to my chagrin.”

I’ve never been to Mississippi, but I remember it being fun learning how to spell it, and it’s still fun to say it.

There are words that would land on my list simply because they sound silly or even naughty. Dillydally, lollygag, titillating and onomatopoeia fall in this category. I like that when I read “onomatopoeia,” the pronunciation in my mind sounds like the Italian guy that makes my pizza telling me he doesn’t want to hit the john.

Perhaps the most beautiful-sounding word is your first name. Daddy (not necessarily Dad) and Mommy (definitely not Maaaa) are not far behind. And the names of my wife, children and some of my relatives and close friends are among the words I most like to say and hear.

And given this exuberant and joyful time of year, it seems appropriate to conclude with a wish that includes three words sure to land on most everyone’s beautiful-word list:

Peace, love and harmony to all.

Mr. Harmon is a former managing editor at Times/Review Newsgroup and the New York Press Association’s Writer of the Year for 2009.