About Me

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I am a father of two amazing boys.  I have served in ministry roles for almost 20 years before transitioning to the areas of education and sports media, though faith is still central to my life.  I maintain multiple blogs and hope to some day have more published work.  I am an avid reader and writer and a self proclaimed sports junkie. Add all of that up and you get the foundation of my business, Varnell Media Resources.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Our Man In Charleston is an Encyclopedia of Little known history

While honing in on historical accuracy, this book lost me early on.  To be honest, it's one that my dad lives for.  He loves the attention to detail, sates, and names unloaded in heaps because he is both a scholar and eccentric history buff.  I found myself having to reread portions, check characters to make sure I was keeping the story straight, and putting it down in frustration all too often.  While I loved portions of the book, I found it hard to digest all of the information.  It is certainly not a slight to the author, who obviously worked diligently to craft a work that blended so many pieces together. I am sending the book over to my dad, and I am sure he will love it.  It was just too much for me.

As he completes it, I will come back and offer his perspective, or if possible, get him to share his own.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Legend by Eric Blehm: An Unedited Look at the "Off the Record" War in Vietnam

There is a reason Chris Kyle didn't like the word Legend attached to his name.  He felt it belonged to the men such as Roy Benavidez.  Blehm has a way of making his heroes part of your family.  Though I received this before it was on newsstands, I wanted a bigger picture of Blehm's work to compare, and thus read Fearless which documented a home state hero for me.
Both are fantastic and will lead you into a world of true engagement with the enemy.

What makes this special is the Vietnam era setting.  There are not as many war biographies from this time period, and very few that deal with the previously classified information regarding these special operations teams who achieved greatness in an area where we were technically not fighting.  You will have a greater understanding for the poor political environment that handcuffed these great warriors and the unknown war they fought to preserve freedom.  It was an unpopular war, but after reading this epic, I feel we achieved far more than most realize, and had we been less politically motivated, could have changed the dynamic in most of Europe and Asia during a time of political upheaval.  
If you like war epics or biographies, this is one of a kind.  I met, by sheer coincidence, a man who flew in one of these units.  His recollections line up perfectly with Blehm's account and detail of these flying tanks that changed the landscape of the war.  Benavidez is a legend, and your kids should learn his name.  May we all learn the selfless courage that drove him to greatness.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Inebriated Hope: My take on A Nice Little Place on the North Side by George Will



Disclaimer Alert: You must be warned, I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan.  As such, I have a vast repertoire of jokes that all revolve around the Cubs.  Also, I am at that point of the day (and the school year) where sarcasm flows uninhibited.  If you are one of those thin-skinned Cubs fans finding this review from the neighbors WiFi you pick up in the basement apartment of your mom's farmhouse in Iowa, prepare to be offended.  In fact, don't read this review or the book.  It will leave you never feeling like the nice young man your mom tells her friends that you are.

To be clear, most sports fans do not hate the Cubs.  They trend emotionally near empathy or embarrassment.  The Cubs are not a good baseball team.  They haven't been in quite some time, as Will documents with precision.  However, this book is not just about bad baseball.  This book weaves the craziest of details about a venue held sacred by the masses.  As I write, new ownership has finally come to the understanding that OSHA may have to get involved if the sacred wasteland is to be preserved in any usable state.  But, that is a story to be written after the final chapter of this book.  

Wrigley is unique, old, and always full of inebriated hope.  Legends have come and gone.  Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, who just recently passed, was beloved by most in sports.  However, he was not even appreciated by his own manager or team, and almost became a byline to Chicago Cubs lore instead of the only chapter worth reading.

George Will answers the questions around the fanaticism of the old place.  Stories of people dumping the ashes of loved ones abound, and he certainly takes opposition with the "called shot" from Babe Ruth. He details how the Wrigley familial interests and baseball I.Q. varied from generation to generation.  They had made their money elsewhere, and the ball club basically did as well.  Until recent ownership changes, the team always drew financially from the facility and the community that consumes it far more than the product on the field.  As a franchise, since 1948, they are an amazing 693 games under .500 with a winning percentage of .467 (29).  

Wrigley believed that people would come to the games to see his venue, and even painted "The Friendly Confines" on the dugout.  Will tells of all the details, bringing in the brick, the ivy, and even Ladies Day.  With every franchise, you can track revenue with team results.  When the team wins, ownership makes more.  Not so with the Cubs.  They have one indicator that has been consistent over the years.  Attendance has followed the beer prices.  Even with one of the costliest tickets in the league, they maintain one of the lowest beer prices, and attendance is good.  Honestly, I wondered how Pabst (PBR) became so connected with a Chicago franchise.  My Cardinals play in Busch Stadium.  We have Miller Park and Coors Field in the league now.  I am sure there are plenty of other connections that geographically make sense as well.  But PBR?  Well, George Will even addressed the issue, stating that Heileman's Old Style Lager became the official beer of Wrigley in 1950, and guess what else they own.

I realize I have given far more information than analysis, but for me, this type of book is all about details.  It is a hydrant of data and documentation, folklore and fable.  Will recounts the most minute details of Cubs history through the eyes of steel and mortar.  It is an amusing read for any sports fan, full of unlikely connections and unbelievable thought processes.  You will find yourself scratching your head and asking, "What were they thinking?".  It should also be noted, Will gives many additional pages of reference material as sources for his writing, along with an index for specific people or events.

I have one major issue with the text.  For people who read a lot, they will understand.  Many will think it petty.  My copy, which was graciously provided for me, had no real chapter markings, relying on roughly one inch brick and ivy dividers as it changed channels.  The index helps resolve this some, but going back to find one of the stories or details is difficult with no real trail of crumbs to follow.  It is just aesthetics.  I get it.  But this is my review, and, well, that stood out every time I picked up the book.  Other than that, it was a great choice, precise and direct enough that those who do not consider themselves avid readers would still hold in hand.

In closing, I would like to thank the Cubs for Lou Brock and Stan Muscial.  They looked great with the Birds on the Bat!


Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Matheny Manifesto


It is no secret, I am a huge sports fan, but beyond that, I am a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan.  I still remember attending my first game back in the 1980's and seeing Ozzie Smith, Vince Coleman, and Willie McGhee in person.  As an adult, I lived and worked in St. Louis for several years and had the opportunity to attend numerous games during the McGuire home run chase and the seasons surrounding it.  I still have a Mike Matheny Gold Glove bobble-head in my office from one of those games.  I was even able to hear him speak openly about his faith following a game and share the home plate stage with an artist I would get to know a few years later, Al Denson.  Those were great years, and it was so exciting to go back just a summer ago and see all of the new changes to the area, the new stadium, and a team that is a perennial contender under the managerial tutelage of player turned manager, Mike Matheny.

None of that is connected to the book, but I want you to know the perspective I had going in.  I am a Matheny fan.  I was one of the few that was excited when he was named manager following the World Series win and retirement of legend Tony LaRussa.  He is a calm, no nonsense kind of guy.  The book centers around this character trait.  He boldly addresses his challenges, weaknesses, and process that took him from the Gold Glove years back to Little League.  While that may seem like a demotion, readers will soon find this journey to be one of eventual renewal and reward.

Matheny opens with what many sports fans already know and have read, the team letter that has become known as The Matheny Manifesto.  When asked to coach a little league team in suburban St. Louis, Matheny wanted to lay the ground rules for expectations or players and parents.  It turned into a seven page letter that was firm and unwavering, but was accepted my most all in attendance.  He turned the focus from the "win at all cost" mentality to a disciplined approach focused on character and development.  The results were incredible, but probably not in the way that you would guess.  I'll leave that for you to read.

Other highlights that I enjoyed were his interactions with his father at an early age.  He discusses the issues that are detrimental to youth sports in America today.  Whether you agree completely or not, I must say as a veteran of youth culture and current sports media reporter, he is on target.  As a coach, some of the items are hard to hear.  I know I get it wrong, but hearing his perspective gives me encouragement and ideas for change.

Matheny speaks highly of his former teammates and managers, zeroing in on the lessons he learned from each.  The stories are engaging and succinct, bringing home a point of relevance that makes the reader turn the page with anticipation and personal reflection.  He dedicates several pages to the legendary basketball coach John Wooden.  Those pages of quotes are worth the price of the book alone.  They will be posted in my classroom immediately.  

Matheny closes with his transition from sitting behind the plate to become the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.  It is a story that few probably know.  Being an avid sports fan, I thought I knew the story, but his level of transparency is an emotional journey through the fast moving conclusion of the book.  I firmly believe the last 2 chapters could be a book in themselves.  

Matheny is a tough, high character person who has traveled an amazing journey to the top.  He is open about his faith and expectations, and he hold parents and coaches accountable for their interactions with these young men.  It has been a great personal challenge to me, and I feel it is a MUST READ for coaches everywhere.  This is not a nuts and bolts manual, but a challenge to personal character development and dedication to honing a craft you enjoy.  I would let him coach my kid any day!

If you are a coach, get this book.  It is not just a baseball text.  It offers insights that can be applied to any area, many outside of the athletic arena.  If you are a highly competitive parent of a young athlete, read this book.  You have no idea how your words and actions can influence productivity.  Finally, if you are a sports fan, you will love the insight and personal stories Matheny weaves through his Manifesto.  I hope to meet him someday, and hopefully I will have the book with me to have it signed.  Mike Matheny, you did a fantastic job.  Your transparency is courageous and will influence coaches and players for generations to come!

If you would like to to see the letter that Matheny wrote that would become the Manifesto, you can see it here on his site, along with other information about Mike and his work.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Maze Runner Series by James Dashner

I was given a free book.  Well, more correctly, I was given book credit as an educator, and since I had observed several students reading The Maze Runner, I selected it.  The premise sounded intriguing and I was looking for a good apocalyptic piece to read.  I have since completed the entire series, including the prequel, The Kill Order.  I will not give away any spoilers, but will attempt to give you a glimpse into the world of the Maze.

The Maze Runner is the first book, and starts out strong, though introducing characters at a fast pace.  If you are like me, you may find yourself flipping back and forth a few times to make sure you have the right images in your head.  Essentially, there is a secluded group of young men and boys trapped in a central area they call the Glade.  They have limited memories and have established their own micro-society, complete with their own societal roles and terminology, including profanities.  Each day, a small select group tries to find a way of escape through doors that open into an ever changing maze.  The reasoning for the maze, the micro-society, and the tortures that they face are relatively unknown.  This book focuses solely on escaping the maze and establishing character roles for future testing.

The Scorch Trials trends toward the more gruesome side of things, focusing on a disease known as the Flare and it's unknown cure.  Following the direction of an apparent governmental oversight program known as WICKED, group members trudge through a scorched earth scenario while fighting off the disease ridden members of society known simply as Cranks.  It has it's slow spots, for sure.  It takes a while to develop additional characters, and some may not like the twist with the imagery of what the disease does to people.  Having finished the series, I look back on this one as foundational to the series, but possibly the slowest.  

The Death Cure brings things to a definite closure.  For all of the character development in Scorch Trials, I felt the Death Cure made up for with the mental and physical aspects of the journey.  If you know who to trust before it ends, you did better than me.  I kept playing out a ton of scenarios, and I am not sure I had any one of them correct.  It is full of adventure and peril, plot twists and anguish.  More importantly, it has resolution and hope.

Enter The Kill Order.  It opens and runs cover to cover with new and different characters from before the maze was established.  It is a bit more of a thrill ride than the other books, and has plenty of gruesome details.  You find out a bit more of the scorched earth details and the origins of the Flare.  Some say they have put the pieces together about halfway through the book.  I had some guesses, but you really do not find out the true connection until the epilogue material.  The book stands alone to that degree.  I am still glad that I chose to read it, though I thought there would be more connections.  Maybe the imagination is a better transitional piece than the ink.  

Connections to the movie: THE MAZE RUNNER

Up front, they are drastically different.  There are character and plot differences throughout.  Grievers (when you read or watch you will know) are not the same in the movie.  Abilities, decisions, and key materials are all different.  Even the basis of figuring of the maze, my favorite part of the book, is different in the movie.  The book takes a more manual approach to society, whereas the movie trended toward digital means.  The movie was good to me as well.  My boys both watched it and had a million questions.  Though I might let my preteen read the books, my elementary child is much too young for the imagery.  I will have to wait and see on the movies.  In fact, I do not know how they are going to connect the movies for the 2015 release date of the Scorch Trials.  That is how different they are.  It will be interesting.  Just know, if you didn't like the movie, you may still love the book!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

SoulPrint by Mark Batterson



The timing for this book, for me, was unique. Working on some other projects, and enhancing a skill set for a new ministry venture really stretched the text of the book for me. The initial hook of his story about having a box of memories really hit home. I have one of those boxes. In fact, I just went through it recently during a move. From that vantage point, I filtered the rest of the book.
I have been in ministry for 18 years. Early on, I remember simply reproducing what I saw in the church. Poor communication, overused one liners, and abrasive language was accepted on a weekly basis. However, from a young buck; not so effective. I did my best without a mentor, but I was never me. My identity was gone and in its place was an arrogant persona that was "ministry."
Looking back, I see the freedom that comes from pursuing and operating in your God-given Identity. Batterson brings that to the table. The message of identity is empowering, especially to the new believer.
Batterson brings a unique perspective, because not only is his life unique, but his ministry model is captivating. His words bring added depth when you understand the heart behind them. For too long, we have had generic church services for a generic believer. Mark adds depth and liberty to the experience of following Christ, and brings it from obligation to desire.
A staple of Batterson's publications are the education and research that adds tremendous depth, and Soulprint delivers. Sometimes you catch yourself re-reading to grasp the depth of study behind the statements. Myself, I have already used some of the information when speaking to groups, as has my wife. The text flows well and drips with encouragement. Ill be gleaning more resource material from it in the future.

Sun Stand Still by Steven Furtick


I read this book at a time when I was hard pressed, highly motivated, and taking on the biggest challenge of my life. It was a steroid for me. I like people who dance on the edges and are willing to take body blows from the corduroy clad masses of hyper conservatism. Here is the catch. I failed. I failed big. I wasn't able to pull off the giant success I had envisioned. Most would look back on these pages with contempt or anger, feeling misled. I choose to go back to my place on the hillside and ask God to help me dream a better dream. I'm not even sure where the miracle is needed for my next step, but until then, I will continue to think and expect bigger than what I can individually produce. Sun Stand Still is an essential read for those daring to step outside their comfort zones and stereotypes. You will be challenged to not just do more, but be more.
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