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I waited until the last possible Maldini Monday to post my tribute to Paolo Maldini…I have rewritten and reread this post for what seems like two years but even in this final moment words don’t really show my gratitude…

It is an inevitable and unalienable truth in sports fandom, the moment you pledge allegiance to your team no matter how you came about doing so, the loss of your heroes becomes a very real truth. As a child I grew up watching the New York Yankees, New York Knicks, New York Jets, and AC Milan. My initial love affair with the pinstripes came from one Don Mattingly, who I watched struggle through back injuries to make the playoffs once in his fantastic career in 1995 only to see him lose his only chance at a World Series, and retire from the game soon thereafter. I watch Patrick Ewing lose title after title as the Knicks never had enough to get past the Rockets. Then came the green lantern Wayne Chrebet, always to small, always to slow, but with a heart twice that of his teammates he pushed through as the Jets yo yo’d through season after season, be it in last place or starting 4-0. These players shaped my fandom, my youth, and for those truly skeptical sports fans who say sports does not affect children, I call your bluff and say those players who worked hard, struggled, and fought adversity even helped shape me to what I am today.

I struggled with the retirement of my heroes, one by one, as I grew older so did they, and my teams forged on without them, and as they left I can’t help but think a small bit of my fandom went with them. I no longer struggle through Knicks game, while the new look Yankees make me yearn for eye black and dirty pinstripes, and the Jets well…my struggles with the Jets need a shrink at best. But it was Paolo Maldini who week in and week out renewed my faith in sports and my love affair with AC Milan.

I don’t remember the exact day it started, but I always remember my father talking about Baresi, Donadoni and Tassotti, and even though those players were fantastic in their own right, it was a left back that spawned my love for Milan and everything Calcio. I remember the red and black stripes, the white shorts, and the number three. I remember seeing these awkward black sliding shorts that stuck out just a bit past those white shorts and wondered on Earth would he wear those. Then as an attacker pressed the Milan goal I saw the reason; he slid, but not a normal slide meant to dispossess and disrupt the attack, this was a slide meant to steal the ball, rob the attacker of the object he coveted, and to begin a counter that to this day I have never before seen again. As he leapt from the ground with the ball at his feet he marauded up the flank at times finding Albertini, Ancellotti, or Rijkaard in the middle, as seasons wore on he found Boban, Pirlo and Kaka. Other times he would continue forward finding Massaro, Weah, or even Sheva. But when he felt truly game and most dangerous he would rattle the opponents with a shot or hard cross that even if it didn’t find net or target made you believe and understand how special Paolo Maldini really was.

Yes, I wanted to play defense and yes I wanted to wear number three, and though I found myself at times in goal or striker, I always managed to wander to the left back spot to try and be my hero. While I lost my aforementioned heroes in my teens, it was Maldini who pressed on, while I lost touch with the teams of my youth, my love for Milan grew as the years tacked on to Maldini’s career. I watched as he lost the World Cup in 1994, Euro 2000, and the crushing blow of 02 that saw him leave the Azzurri. During that same span I watched as he won scudetto’s with Milan and lifted not one but two Champion’s League trophies while others claimed his career was finished. I struggled through Istanbul, even using his look of shock as my desktop background to inspire myself to press on as he did. Then in Athens as he hoisted old big ears for the last time I cried tears of joy knowing that Milan and Maldini had defied all odds yet again.

So here I sit typing, contemplating my fandom yet again as my final hero, my last bastion of my sporting youth bows out graciously and and all too quietly. Paolo, like Baresi before you, there is no silverware in your swan song, there is no celebration of a CL, a scudetto, or even a Coppa Italia, but please don’t let that take away from everything you have meant to this club, this game, this team, these fans, and to me. Come next season I will come to grips of an AC Milan post Paolo Maldini, a post modern Milan if you will, a post Maldini-Milan that even at this moment has yet to take shape or form in regards to replacing a Legend. It is true we will never replace Paolo, we never did replace Baresi, we only united around a second living legend, and yes at the moment we are left with Kaka, Pirlo, Rino, and Pato but there is no heir to the throne, no player to stand above all the madness that is modern Calcio. So I wait patiently, maybe for Paolo’s son? Maybe a new defender to carry the legacy? But until then I sit and reminiscent with all the larger than life memories and the taste of my youth that I was able to relieve each and every Sunday…

Grazie Paolo, for the titles, the trophies, the losses, the loyalty, the passion, but above all the ability to be a unbridled youthful fan of you and this team, I will always love the Red and Black, but never again as I did yesterday…