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Merry Christmas from the Staff of Hammer & Rails

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Thanks for being with us through a difficult year.

Christmas celebration in Jakarta Photo by Eko Siswono Toyudho/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

I started this crazy idea more than 14 years ago now, beginning on blogger at the start of the 2006 football season as the cleverly named “Boilermaker Football Blog”. I don’t even know if any of you readers are around from those days. I didn’t cover basketball during the 2006-07, but started the next year and changed the name to “Off the Tracks”. That was going to be the name when SB Nation contacted me to start this incarnation in February 2009, but the domain offthetracks.com was owned by a women’s hostel in Alaska at the time.

Over the years the staff has expanded. Juan was the first, then Jumboheroes, Kyle, Drew, Holmes, Casey, and Rachel. We’ve had others come by and leave over the years, including the tragic loss of Andy Zimmerman five years ago, which is the hardest thing I have had to deal with in my time as site manager.

This year, obviously, has had its challenges. When I was sitting in Bankers Life Fieldhouse 12th as it was announced that the Big Ten Tournament had been cancelled none of us a clue what we were in for. Purdue sports, kind of the reason we’re all here, was put completely on hold for more than seven months. All spring sports were halted. Only football, men’s basketball, and women’s basketball have done anything since. We could be about 7 weeks from baseball starting and we don’t even have a schedule.

In a way though, keeping this thing going has been somewhat therapeutic. We all needed something, anything as a distraction. I hope we provided it even if it was our simple player countdown to a forgettable football season that barely happened. Nothing has gone as planned, so why should blogging?

I am thankful though. After doing this for 14 years I am still amazed that this place has grown as large as it has. I am still amazed I receive emails asking if I have behind the scenes knowledge of things (I very, very rarely do), or just to say they appreciate what we have done. I am thankful that we all have a place to gather and celebrate like we did for those couple of days in Louisville, or lament like that night in Louisville.

I am thankful for the staff. Juan may have stepped aside this year, but he was integral in helping grow this place. He gets married next fall and it has been great to see him have great professional success after I met him as an undergrad and asked if he was interested in writing about volleyball. He is, of course, Dr. Juan Crespo now, despite what certain radio personalities think.

I am thankful to Andrew Ledman (Jumboheroes) for merging with us many years ago now. He is now the No. 2 here who mostly runs the site Twitter (which I gave up two years ago). This year he became a dad, and it is a joy to see his young family and how happy they are. I met up with him last summer in Baltimore and if you need a pizza recommendation there, he has one. It’s been great to see him pass the bar this year and give us our legally required one lawyer on staff.

I am thankful for Kyle, who has been great with providing insight all while juggling his role as a teacher and football coach. He is dialed into campus and has more inside info that I ever could. He is also gonna become a dad this coming year.

I am thankful for Drew, who has provided great insight not only here, but for his alma mater in Clemson at Shakin’ the Southland and for his local team with the Kansas State blog.

I am thankful to Holmes, who doesn’t post much on his own but is often a voice of reason in our group chats. He puts up with my dad humor and still stays.

I am thankful for Casey, who has driven all over the country to cover Purdue in the NCAA tournament for us from Boston to Kansas City. When I was practically catatonic after Diakite hit that shot he was sitting next to me and calmed me down. He moved away from Lafayette within the past year, but he was excellent in being at every game I couldn’t get to.

I am thankful to Rachel who has covered volleyball and women’s basketball for years for us. She hasn’t been around a lot lately, but she has done a great job even while working through grad school at Minnesota.

I am thankful for Jace. I can’t believe he was younger than my son when I started this thing. He is our on campus correspondent, as he is still working on his undergrad. He is a tireless young worker that has given us some excellent guests we’ve been happy to share on his podcast. He’s gonna be great in his career.

These guys are more than a staff. They are friends and family. I’ve already been invited to Juan’s wedding, had pizza with Ledman in Baltimore, drank at the bar Casey worked at, and covered high school games coached by Kyle.

Finally, I am thankful to my wife Liz and son Dillon for putting up with this. It was my wife’s idea to start this. In 2006 I was mostly unemployed and looking for a creative outlet since I kept getting the “You don’t have enough experience” in the job search. She said I should just go out and make it. A blogger account was created and the rest is history. She has been amazing in encouraging this, putting up with travel all over the country as we go to see a lot of bad football on road trips, and being home as a full time mom when I have been spending late nights at Mackey doing what I love.

Then my son Dillon, the greatest gift God has given me. The day he was born I posted a video saying we had our starting five-star point guard in the class of 2031. He is seven now, in second grade, and has gone through a year that no kid should have to. He has been out of school, seen his baseball season cancelled, lost the chance to play soccer and basketball again, but has taken everything in stride. This kid LOVES Purdue sports. He missed baseball in the spring and sitting with his grandparents in the fall at Ross-Ade. That time has always been their special time and it kills me they missed it this year. One of the last things we were able to do was youth basketball that finished in early March. I was his coach and coaching those kids, just 5-7 year olds, was one of the most satisfying things I have ever done. The team picture of those kids sits on my desk at work. I was not much older than Dillon when I started going to Purdue football, and he went to his first game against Indiana State in 2013 when he was just 6 months old. At least he got to see a rare Hazell win. He has since gotten to tag along in our travels, even meeting Testudo and the Scarlet Knight.

Also, thank you to the newest family member, Ventress, the Boiler Cat. She is a stray that came on our porch in July. She was a scrawny little kitten, barely four pounds. We weren’t sure if we could keep since Mrs. T-Mill is allergic, but we brought her in to see if she was chipped. It turns out she was a foster that escaped from her foster home more than a mile from our house in May. She survived on her own, an 8 month old kitten, for 6-8 weeks before we found her. The lady was relieved that she was found, and amazed she had crossed two busy streets to get here. She said we could keep her no questions asked, Mrs. T-Mill was able to get the allergies under control, and, as you can tell below, she is thriving, as this was taken during the Iowa game on my lap:

A rough life for a former street cat.

She was also not impressed with football:

A Purdue fan, at least.

I also want to thank Dave Kitchell, my former editor at the Kokomo Tribune. He is the guy that gave me a shot as a 19 year old sports stringer when I was about to become a sophomore at Purdue in the summer of 1999. I remember covering a youth baseball game as my first event, and a 7-year-old in that game has since gone on to be a three-sport star at Kokomo, play baseball at Ball State, get as high as Triple-A in minor League Baseball, and retire (yes, I have been at this that long). Kitch helped me get my start, and I am grateful for Bryan Gaskins, current sports editor in Kokomo, and Will Willems, the sports editor at the Lebanon Reporter, for letting me still enjoy my hobby of covering HS sports (and letting me get some great insight in incoming recruits each year). I have missed covering HS basketball this year terribly.

Finally, as always, I am thankful to you all. This place is nothing without you readers. I know you have all disagreed with me on posts or sometimes even policies around here, but You have all stayed to the tune of more than 10,000 page views every day and sometimes as many as 30,000-50,000 depending on the news of the day. That amazes me. Every time I get to cover an event with a media credential I am still amazed I get to do this. You have made this into place that is not only a hobby we all get paid for, but a place where we can gather and celebrate out fandom.

So Merry Christmas and Happy holidays to you all. May you all have a respite from 2020 and here’s to getting back to some semblance of normal in 2021.