Wednesday, October 31, 2012

That one last talk

    It happens often these days. I think of things I'd like to ask my dad, or say to him.
    Wish now, four years after his death, that I had told him more often how much difference he made in my life, how much I appreciated him. Maybe he knew from some of my writing.
     Wish, too, that I had asked him to tell us more about his growing-up years and his years just before, during and after his time in German concentration camps. We've got the long interview he did for the Shoah Foundation on tape, but even now it's difficult to watch. Maybe someday again.
      If had known that I was going to do this blog, I would have worked harder at putting his thoughts and stories on paper.
      He didn't speak English well, and he didn't put his thoughts in print like my mother did, but -- as I've said often and written previously on this blog -- he was the better storyteller of the two. To the end, he had recall of events and people in his life, and he had some fascinating travels.
        So I wish we'd had one last big talk. Can't go back and do it.
        I know there was a final goodbye, but it was a few weeks before he died. As his health declined -- and he lived to be 89 -- every time we'd visit the house in Shreveport, when it came time to leave, I knew it could be the last time I saw him alive.
        My sister was there on a visit the late evening he collapsed. She called early the next morning
  to say he was in the hospital, and we should come on. She called back 15 minutes later to say he was gone. That trip from Fort Worth to Shreveport was, it seems, longer than ever.
Coach James Farrar, with granddaughter MJ Trahan
         So I've thought a lot lately about last visits. Had one with Dr. James C. Farrar three months ago, knowing his time was short. When he passed away Tuesday morning, it brought this particular blog subject to the front.
           How many people did you have a last visit with, and how many do you wish you could go back and see one more time?
          We -- Bea and I -- got a lot of quality time with my mother in her last few weeks after she broke her hip in late May two years ago. But if I could go back and ask, I'd ask how she managed to hold her rage -- which my sister and I saw enough times to be leery -- when she was shoved around by the German SS guards at Auschwitz. I guess the threat of beatings and/or death was a deterrent.
            If I could go back and re-visit ...
           My in-laws. I'd take one more fried fish meal (bream and perch) cooked by sweet Granny Shaw in the little kitchen in the little house on Shaw Hill in Jamestown, one more fishing trip to Lake Bistineau with Paw-Paw Shaw, or one more session at that table listening to him spin stories about "little ol' Buster" or a variety of subjects.
           Little ol' Buster was Howard Jr., Bea's only brother (two years younger) who we lost earlier this year. And, luckily, Bea and I both got a nice, long last visit with him when he stayed with us for a few days a few months earlier. (Bea also got a last visit with her dad, traveling from Florida to see him a couple of weeks before his death in August 1995.)
          My fill-in grandparents, Abe Gilbert and Janice Cahn, who always brought gifts and/or unconditional love. I've written about them previously.
          My newspaper friends. Start with Bill McIntyre, my first boss. Gave me a parttime job at The Shreveport Times when I was in high school and a fulltime job right after I graduated from college. He explained ice hockey to me, knew as much about boxing as anyone, could type as fast as anyone in history with two fingers, and was my "go-to" guy for questions about keeping score in baseball ... and was as mild-mannered and pleasant a person as you'd ever find.
           Don Bowman, who I've written about (Don's Ashes Are Happy This Week, Oct. 9). Kent Heitholt, the big, friendly guy so brutally murdered; I'd ask him about Missouri going into the SEC. Larry Feese, my page-design mentor. Jess Rutkin, a kind man, and his son Bill Rutkin, the meek guy we called "Bull."
             My sports information director mentors, the first T.H. "Pete" Dosher. More than anyone, he was responsible for me attending Louisiana Tech, and for four years, he was always there for me. One more time to hear him say, "Let's go get a bite to eat," and we'd go to his house where Miss Mary fed us and we'd discuss the news of the day. They were like family. Even in my senior year, after Pete moved to Grambling as the head of journalism, he'd call at least once a week.
           Jack Fiser, the erudite, brilliant writer, once sports editor/columnist of The Shreveport Times and for much of one year the SID at Tech. Paul Manasseh, who knew so much about people, sports and journalism, also Tech SID for much of one year. He had lots of opinions, but didn't let them stand in the way of practicality. Bobby Henderson, from Ruston and later Southwestern Louisiana, the best record-keeping SID of his time.
             Coaching friends, beginning with Joe Aillet, "The Smooth Man" who was a legend at Louisiana Tech. The smartest man I've ever been around.  
             The coaching list would be extensive. W.B. Calvert, our football ends/basketball/golf coach at Woodlawn; visited with him in Greenville, Texas, one day in 1994; he introduced me around and said "this kid was my manager." This kid was 47 then.
              Lowell Morrison, another Woodlawn coach with a tough exterior but really a soft heart. Scotty Robertson, the best basketball coach I've known. Bobby Ray McHalffey, the Haughton football coach (from Bossier) who you could quote in the paper ... if you took out the bleeps. Bobby Hudson, the only coach other than Steve Spurrier I've heard refer to his team as a "ball squad." The polished John Bilberry and John Crockett, a wonderful coaching team. Clifford Pennywell, the basketball coach/athletic director I wrote about not too long ago.
             One more steak at Bettye Bruning's house in Natchitoches (with Coach Jim always buying). One more bowl of ice cream at Jimmy and Jeannine Harrison's house in Shreveport, with all those lively Harrison kids. One more bowl of hopskotch ice cream at Jack and Giffy Marshall's house, with Jack showing us his superb photos he took all over Shreveport and talking newspaper business.
           My great friends, the Tuckers, Jimmy and Ruth, at my second home in Sunset Acres in the mid-1960s.
          My school friends, so many of them. Fabe Moseley and Larry Alexander, junior high/high school basketball buddies both taken too soon -- Fabe with Hodgkin's disease, Larry with Lou Gehrig's Disease. I did have good visits with both a few years before they went.
             Murray Pompei, the big kid from Paterson, N.J., who became a good friend at Louisiana Tech and took me to my first Yankee Stadium game in August 1967. He was dead a year later, of cancer.
             Tommy Spinks, one of the best athletes and personalities in the Woodlawn/Louisiana Tech days of the 1960s. Roger Hicks and James Rushworth, two Fair Park basketball/baseball stars who in the '70s and '80s loved to talk sports anytime I saw them or they phoned.
             Old school friends going all the time these days, it seems.
             But I wish I could go back and visit Henry Lee "Trey" Prather, and ask him why join the Marines after dropping out of LSU in late 1966? Why not transfer to another school; it would've been so easy?
          And I did get that last great visit with Ken Liberto several years before he died -- a visit I wrote about in my Bradshaw to Liberto, 82 yards, TD blog last week. As I noted, he was in good shape then -- colon cancer in remission -- and I'm glad I didn't have to see him two years ago in his final days. Ken didn't want that; when Kathy asked if she should contact some of his close friends, he asked her not to.
         I've had some profound last-visit experiences.
         Pete Dosher, mentioned above, was declining in his cancer battle in February 2003 when I went from Fort Worth to Ruston to visit his home. Sat with Mary and saw his two daughters, who I hadn't seen in 30 years, and finally after a long time, Mary took me back to Pete's bedroom.
         The man who was my foremost journalism teacher/booster was curled in a fetal position, a shell of himself. Mary leaned over and whispered to him to say I was there. For 15-20 seconds, no response. Suddenly, he rolled over and said, "Oh, Nico ..."
        Then he rolled back to where he'd been.
        Two days later, he died.
         In 2008, a tough year, a month before my dad died, Bea and I went to Dallas to see James "Spanky" Baker, younger brother (by one year) of my closest longtime friend, Casey Baker. Spanky was in hospice care, a not-long period after pancreatic cancer was found.
        He went in and out from being lucid that day, but he knew we were there. He seemed to be out of it when, all of a sudden, he said, "Hey, Nico, come here." I went over and he said, "WFAA is moving its offices out of Victory Park." Surprised, I replied, "What?" He didn't reply.
        I went back across the room, and Casey asked, "What'd he say?" I told him. Then Spanky began laughing, and said, "Fooled you." A moment later, he was asleep.
        He died two weeks later.
         The news about Dr. Farrar -- Coach Farrar -- that came Tuesday was no surprise. His health problems had been on-going for a decade, and his decline in the past couple of years was obvious. We had two wonderful visits, one-on-one, this year, and he was prepared.
          "I know my time is short," he said, "but I want to have things in order for my kids."
          On our last visit, he could barely get out of bed. But he did and we sat and visited for 20 minutes or so before I could see he was getting tired.
          One of the last things we talked about was a photo of him as the catcher/manager of the semipro Minden Red Birds in the late 1950s Big Eight League in North Louisiana. He's trotting home after a grand slam, smiling and about to shake hands with waiting teammates.
           "I didn't hit many home runs, or grand slams," he said, "so that was special."
           James Farrar was special -- as real a person as I've met, a coach with a big personality and a big heart, the best of storytellers, a man who knew baseball through and through as a player, coach, scout, a man devoted to his Miss Kate and his kids and grandkids -- and his many, many friends.
        When I got up to leave, he said, "Give me a hug" (which he always did). He knew, and I knew, that this was it. But over the years, we were a mutual-admiration pair; we'd said it all. He always, always, thanked me for the friendship and the writeups, and I thanked him because you don't find friends like him very often.
            That he died, as Teddy Allen pointed out, two days after the end of a World Series was poetic.     

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bradshaw to Liberto: 82 yards, TD, 0:13

Ken Liberto headed for the end zone
 (NSU's Dick Concilio chasing him).
      A recent Sports Illustrated article on top-10 lists ranked The Immaculate Reception as the No. 1 play in NFL history.
       Maybe. But it wasn't Terry Bradshaw's greatest pass. Not even close. It was a lucky, freaky play.
       Bradshaw's greatest pass didn't happen in the NFL. It happened at Louisiana Tech. It was a play that anyone who saw it, and still has their memory, won't forget.
        Bradshaw to Ken Liberto, 82 yards, 25 seconds remaining when it started and 13 when it finished, the State Fair Game of 1968, State Fair Stadium in Shreveport.
        Louisiana Tech went from certain defeat, down 39-35, to one miraculous 42-39 victory over the longtime arch-rival, Northwestern State. It was so stunning, so unbelievable.
       Bradshaw threw 251 touchdown passes in the NFL, including 30 in the playoffs and nine in Super Bowls (five against the Cowboys). He quarterbacked four Super Bowl championship teams. The Immaculate Reception, in the 1972 playoffs, was the Steelers' first-ever playoff victory in the franchise's 40th season.
         No NFL TD he ever threw -- except maybe the Immaculate one -- was more dramatic than the pass to Liberto.
          It was the greatest play I've seen. But I'm prejudiced. The connection was two guys who I'd gone to school with  -- junior high, high school, college -- for almost a decade. The receiver was one of my very best friends for 50 years, my ride to school for most of six years.
This artist's conception of the State Fair Game scene and
the Bradshaw-to-Liberto pass was done by Cora Lou
 Robinson of Minden (who gave permission for its use here).
       It happened every October, first the Texas State Fair and the Texas-Oklahoma game at the Cotton Bowl and a couple of weeks later, the Louisiana State Fair and the Louisiana Tech-Northwestern State game.
       This would have been the week in Shreveport. The Louisiana State Fair just opened. Thus the timing of this blog.
       It was always the Game of the Year for us, the one game each team badly wanted to win. The neutral site -- because both schools were about 70 miles from Shreveport -- played into it.
      It didn't have major implications like Texas-OU or annual neutral-site games such as Florida-Georgia, Auburn-Alabama or Army-Navy, but it was our neighborhood rivalry, our bragging-rights game, an extra day off from school for the winner.
       Tech and NSU were so alike. Each had enrollments of, say, 7,000 to 10,000 in the 1960s; each drew heavily from North Louisiana cities and from all over the state and into East Texas; each  produced many of our teachers; each had its academic strengths -- NSU known for its nursing school, Tech for engineering ... and journalism (might not be true, but sounds good to me).
       For the kids from Shreveport, coming back to town for this game was special, to come back to the stadium where most of our high school games had been played. We knew a lot of the Northwestern kids; they knew a lot of Tech kids.
        And then there was the State Fair setting -- the crowded midway, the rides, the exhibits, the IMCA races at the racetrack, the corny dogs and cotton candy, assorted other foods, the smells (yuk, the barns with all the animals right next to the football stadium), the horrendous traffic and parking situation, the extra charge (or ticket) just to get into the Fairgrounds.
         Each school chose a State Fair court of coeds; from the late 1950s to whenever, each school had a fireworks art display to light up near an end zone before the game began. At some point, they came up with a flag called "The Rag" that went to the winning school.
         Tech-NSU was the State Fair Game 48 times, from 1937 through 1987 -- except for the World War II years (1943-45) when the teams played on one campus or the other. It was a rivalry, but mostly a one-sided one ... Tech had a 34-12-2 edge. Starting with that 1968 victory, Tech was 17-2-1 until the State Fair Game became history after the '87 season.
          Tech went strictly Division I; Northwestern stayed in Division II. Tech simply outgrew the rivalry. They've played once since, a 38-28 Tech win in Ruston in 1994.
          But going into the 1968 game, Northwestern had the edge -- a two-game winning streak in the rivalry. Its undefeated 1966 team, one of the Demons' greatest ever, beat us (Tech) 28-7; in 1967, NSU won 7-0 in a pretty dull game.
          Tech's 1968 team was 2-2 coming to Shreveport on Oct. 19. We had won at Mississippi State to open the season; beating an SEC school was a big deal. But we had lost consecutively to McNeese State and Southwestern Louisiana (we were 0-4 against both in my years at Tech). We didn't know what kind of team we had.
          We didn't know about our blond-haired quarterback with the big right arm. He showed flashes of greatness, then woeful inconsistency. We knew we had some great receivers -- Bradshaw's and our high school buddy, Tommy Spinks, and the tight end from Minden, Larry Brewer, and my man Liberto, on his way to Tech's first 1,000-yard receiving season.
           Both Ken and Spinks were three- or four-sport athletes in high school. Spinks was always one of the most popular, friendliest kids in school. Bradshaw was what he is now, just a crazy, upbeat guy; always loose and kidding around. Ken was reserved in public, easy-going. But among friends, he was very funny, master of the one-liners. All of them were confident they could help win football games.                      
          Liberto used to tell me and our mutual friend Jon Pat Stephenson -- yet another terrific all-around athlete out of Woodlawn -- that his dream was to just once win a football game by catching a long pass in the final seconds.
        By halftime, Northwestern was well on its way to a third consecutive win against Tech (that had happened only once before). After we took a 7-0 lead, the Demons scored on a safety, then ran the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown. At the half, it was 19-7 ... another disaster brewing for the Bulldogs.
         The quarterbacks, Bradshaw (2 of 12) and NSU's Don Guidry (3 of 14), were awful in the first half. In the second half, both offenses were unstoppable.
          Tech had 404 yards total offense in the second half, 523 for the game. NSU totaled 373 yards. It wound up as the wildest State Fair Game ever, the highest-scoring one ever. These days a 42-39 game is commonplace; in 1968, it was mind-boggling.
          Tech scored the first two touchdowns of the second half to take a 21-19 lead. NSU took back the lead, then Tech did, then NSU did again. So that made five lead changes.
           So the Demons had a 39-35 lead, with the ball, in the final minute. One first down would clinch their victory. And here's where Tech got a series of breaks.
            -- Break No. 1: On a third-down run for an apparent first down, an NSU back was called for an aiding-the-runner penalty.
             After another play, the Demons had to punt. Butch Daniel fair-caught the ball at the Tech 18 (I can see it in my mind because I watched that film a hundred times.) The clock showed 0:25. The NSU fans were chanting the all-too-familiar, "We wrecked Tech! We wrecked Tech!"
           Butch Williams, from Minden, was playing right offensive tackle for Tech. "I remember standing on the sideline with Jesse [Carrigan] easing toward the dressing room when they punted," he said. "... I will never forget telling Jesse, 'Oh, well, I guess we have to go back out there."
           -- Break No. 2: Northwestern's defense was only in a partial prevent defense. Who knows why? Its safeties and cornerbacks were too close to Tech's receivers when they easily could have given up some short passes.
            Liberto was lined up wide right. He ran past the cornerback in front of him and Bradshaw, the pocket having formed perfect in front of him, stepped up between right guard and tackle, and let fly with one of his typical whip-like, high passes. It was right on target ... some 45 yards in the air.
             -- Break No. 3: Northwestern safety Kenny Hrapmann, who had intercepted a pass earlier in the game, also broke to where Liberto was sprinting. But Hrapmann went for the ball ... and missed!
              Liberto, right in front of the Northwestern bench on the west (home) side of the stadium, was in full stride just behind the two Demons near the NSU 40. As I remember, he pinned the ball to his chest, more than catching it in his hands ... and took off. He was in the clear.
              Ken didn't have sprinter's speed, but he was plenty fast. No one was going to catch him.
One guy had a chance.
              -- Break No. 4: The player chasing Liberto was a linebacker, Dick Concilio. He had an angle, and he made a desperate dive at about the Demons' 20 to try to tackle Ken. All he got was one shoe. Liberto went into the end zone wearing one shoe. How funny.
              Bedlam on the Tech side of the stadium (although many Tech fans -- thinking this was a loss -- had left, headed for the Fair or trying to beat the traffic). Pandemonium. Sheer joy. Unbelievable elation. On the NSU side, sickness, shock. Disbelief.
               In the press box, my calm reaction was to jump on the counter and on top of the stats book and sheets where I was keeping the game statistics. Jumping up and down on those stats I cared for so dearly. Paul Manasseh, in his one year as Tech's sports information director before moving to LSU for a long stay, suggested I get down and act more professionally. Right.
               So I got down and pummeled O.K. "Buddy" Davis, fellow Tech journalism major and already sports editor of the Ruston Daily Leader (and he still is). And Buddy pummeled me.
               Then I wrote this sweet line on my now-smugged scoring summary: LT--Liberto, 82 pass from Bradshaw (Golmon kick), 0:13.
              When Liberto spotted Jon Pat Stephenson near the Tech dressing room after the game ended, he screamed, "I told you ... I told you," and then they hugged.
               The next day, as usual, I rode back to Ruston with Liberto. We were both still just so elated; we never had a more fun ride than that one.                          
               A year after the play, Liberto told a Shreveport sportswriter, "I was expecting them to be in a prevent defense. I thought everybody in the ballpark knew what we were going to do. But they were in their regular defense. When I saw that, I figured we had a 50-50 chance of completing the pass. It sure made my job easier."                                    
             "It taught me a very important lesson that I used many times in my future coaching life and even dealing with children as a principal and superintendent," Butch Williams said. "NEVER GIVE UP."
             Jesse Carrigan was at left tackle on the play and remembers that, "They didn't have much of a rush; they were in a prevent ... and I pretty much watched Kenny go 'deep,' and [guard Glenn] Murphy and I served as cheerleaders when we saw him catch it."
          That pass, that game, I believe, turned Bradshaw's career for good. From that point, he was on his way to being the NFL's No. 1 draft pick by the Steelers a year later.
          Liberto, after the '68 season, was drafted by the Steelers; Spinks (who wound up with most of Tech's single-season and career receiving records) and Brewer were drafted, too, a year later. But only Terry made it in the NFL.
           That win turned the Tech program around, too. The '68 team won its last seven games in dominant fashion, didn't really come close to losing, and Tech won its next 11 games overall.
          Concilio -- the Demon with the last chance -- and I became friends; his coaching career in Bossier Parish paralleled my sportswriting career in Shreveport-Bossier. In the mid-1980s, we didn't live far from each other in South Bossier; in 1985, when he was head coach at Bossier High, he wrote a "Coach's Corner" column for us at the Shreveport Journal. I edited it, but not a great deal; it was his voice, and it was well-done.
         (And I never mentioned his attempted tackle on Liberto. Yeah, you believe that.)
         Liberto and his family settled in Houston. The last time we visited, he looked good; the colon cancer he had been battling was dormant, and he was recovered from a severe heart attack. Spent an afternoon at his house and we laughed and reminisced. He was still a funny man, still the master of one-liners.
          (Sadly, the colon cancer led to his death in November 2010).
          On that day in Houston, he said when people learned that he had played wide receiver at Louisiana Tech and Terry Bradshaw had been his quarterback, they would ask, "How many passes did you catch?"
           Ken's answer: "One."
           One for 82 yards, with 13 seconds remaining. It has been 44 years since No. 44 scored that one glorious touchdown.   

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The White Knight: Part II

         Joe Ferguson came to the University of Arkansas in the fall of 1969 as perhaps the nation's top recruit, the expected successor to the very successful Bill Montgomery as the Razorbacks' quarterback. He became the Southwest Conference's Offensive Player of the Year in 1971; he wound up as a bench-warmer the second part of his senior season.
          Frank Broyles had promised him a pro-style offense and brought in some assistant coaches to help install it, among them Joe Gibbs. But with a team not as physically strong as previous Arkansas teams, Broyles gave up on the passing game during Joe's senior year and put him on the bench.
         Orville Henry, the longtime Arkansas newspaper columnist, wrote a column criticizing Ferguson and serving, basically, as Broyles' mouthpiece for the benching. It was a rip job on a college senior -- a very decent, dedicated young man -- and it was not well-received in Shreveport, La.
         You are supposed to forget and forgive. Henry is long dead and Broyles -- the most revered man in Arkansas athletics -- is retired after a lifetime as Arkansas athletic director. Someday I will forget and forgive.
           But this is the type of guy Joe Ferguson is. I have never heard him criticize Frank Broyles, and I've given him plenty of chances. He always maintained a cordial, if not close, relationship with Broyles, who certainly approved Joe coming back to Arkansas to be part of the football coaching staff. Before that, Joe had been the sideline commentator on Arkansas football games for a couple of years.
           So Broyles benched him. As I've pointed out to thousands of people, all Joe did was start in the NFL -- with the Buffalo Bills -- for the next 12 seasons. Then he played three more years with the Detroit Lions, two with the Tampa Bay Bucs, and one game with the Indianapolis Colts in 1990.
           But he couldn't play at Arkansas?
            Funny how things work. Two kids from the Deep South, two great quarterbacks from Woodlawn High, end up playing in Pittsburgh (Terry Bradshaw) and Buffalo (Ferguson). How proud we all were; how we Dallas Cowboys fans even pulled for the Steelers and the Bills ... sometimes.
Joe Ferguson, still a hero in Buffalo
           Joe spent his rookie year mostly handing off to O.J. Simpson -- ever heard of him? -- in the Juice's record-breaking 2,000-yard rushing season. In a few years, the Bills became Joe's team. He was never a great star, but he had some outstanding seasons and did take them to the playoffs a couple of times (once for a matchup with Terry and the Steelers).
            It was, all in all, quite an achievement to last 18 years in the NFL. The tall, thin kid who was a a high school superstar was still a superb passer and great competitor in the pros. Unlike Bradshaw, though, he never had enough talent around him to gain Super Bowl status.
          A couple of Ferguson stories ...
          We went fishing in the spring of 1985. Joe is as much a perfectionist about fishing as he is throwing a football. I love fishing, but I am an amateur; give me a cane pole, some worms and a bank or pier to fish off, and I'm OK. Joe was going to show me how to cast and fish for bass. He was not amused.
        We talked about his career, about the media in Buffalo. Joe knew his time in Buffalo was up; Bills management had told him they would find him another team. The NFL draft was days away. I was at the Shreveport Journal then; I asked that if he heard anything to let us know.
          The morning of the draft Joe called the office; he had been traded to Detroit for a draft pick.
         How many star quarterbacks would call and give you the scoop? Bradshaw, for instance, was increasingly difficult for the Shreveport area media to reach as his NFL career progressed.
          In 1988, Ferguson moved to Tampa Bay to back up Vinny Testaverde, the No. 1 pick in the draft the year before. We had just moved to Florida when I took a job at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. Just two weeks after I'd been there, Tampa Bay played at home against the Miami Dolphins, and with Testaverde hurt, Ferguson (age 38) was going to start. This was the Don Shula-coached Dolphins with Dan Marino at QB. The Bucs were only 2-6.
         Knowing Joe was going to play, it was a game I had to see, so I got a media credential. My son Jason, then 14, was in the stands.                                   
         After a scoreless first half, Marino and the Dolphins scored 17 third-quarter points. In the fourth quarter, Joe got hot, led two drives that ended with him throwing touchdown passes. The Bucs got the ball in their own territory late in the game. Again Joe led a good drive, but faced fourth-and-1 at about the Miami 40. Instead of trying to get the first down with about two minutes left, Joe -- after faking a running play to draw in the defense -- threw deep toward a Bucs receiver who was well-covered. Incomplete, game over.
          Facing the media afterward, Joe (who was 26 of 36 passing for 251 yards, one INT, two TDs -- not bad) took responsibility for the call, saying "we wanted to take a shot." He told this to several reporters in one-on-one interviews.
          I had waited around. When they were all gone, he smiled and said, "They [the coaches] called that play from upstairs."
         He was the Arkansas QBs coach in 1999 when Arkansas played No. 3-ranked Tennessee (7-1) at home. I was at the Knoxville News Sentinel, and spent the week in the Fayetteville area doing stories on the Razorbacks, who were 5-3, coming off being blown out 38-16 at Ole Miss and still remembering the late, lost, bizarre fumble that kept them from upsetting the Vols in a battle of unbeaten teams the year before in Knoxville. Tennessee went on to the national championship.
         Joe had helped guide Clint Stoerner into a very good college quarterback. That Saturday, Stoerner played one of his best games, and so did Arkansas, which finished off this upset of Tennessee 28-24.
         We visited several times that week, had lunch one day, and Joe introduced me to many of the Arkansas coaches. I watched the Monday practice, but was told by the sports information director the next day that Houston Nutt had said visiting team reporters shouldn't be there.
          Like I was a threat. It really questioned my integrity, as if I would write or say something that could help Tennessee. Me help Tennessee? That'll be the day.
           When I saw Nutt later that Tuesday, he apologized (sort of) and said "several of his coaches were worried about this."
          When I told Ferguson that, he laughed. "That was all Houston's doing," he confided. "He asked me if you knew anything about X's and O's, and I told him, 'I don't think he knows much at all.' "
          Thanks, Joe. (He was right, of course).
           So I guess I helped Arkansas win that game.
           I do know this: I know a class athlete when I see him, and a class guy, and they don't come any better than Joe Ferguson. The White Knight was one of the biggest winners ever, in every way.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Stressed out ... don't like it

     So I said Sunday evening that my short-term goal is to take stress out of my life, right?
     Don't need it. Don't want it. Too old to worry about so many things. Just want to relax and enjoy the moment.
     Yeah, that'll be easy.
     OK, can't watch Yankees games. Can't watch Cowboys games. I'll follow them on my computer or my phone. The agony of seeing the actual thing, that's stressful.
     Can't watch LSU football games. No, just can't go there. I can handle this. They're just games ... he said. Besides, win or lose, it's just darned interesting. College football beats them all, unless -- as my wife has noted -- you watch five or six games every Saturday.
      Can't watch the Presidential debates. Missed the first one altogether, the one that President Obama also missed, apparently. Did watch the one Tuesday night, and it was ... stressful. I don't like watching these two men talk on top of one another. It's not, well, Presidential, and I want to respect them.
      So count me out for next Monday night. I'm sure all my Facebook friends will fill me in because they're so impartial and so objective.
       My friend and fellow ex-Star-Telegram sports writer Lori Dann had it right when she posted, "It's not the debate I can't stomach tonight. It's Facebook. I will be so glad when this election is over." I didn't only like that post, I LOVED it.
         So, yeah, it's stressful to watch the debates ... and reading Facebook afterward.
         I have found covering high school football games last fall and this one -- something I hadn't done in more than a decade -- that, with teams using no-huddle, hurry-up offenses -- it's tougher than ever. And I'm not getting younger, don't see as well as I used to. Some games last long enough that deadline pressure is tight.
        So Friday nights have been stressful, although I love the games, writing one quick short story for the newspaper and a more detailed one for the S-T web site after I return home.
         Really, I want no more stress than, say, cleaning the cats' litter boxes (two cats, three boxes) every day. That's bad enough.
           But take the non-stress vow, and cut out (or cut down on) some of the games involving the teams I love, and here's what happens next:
          We get the grandsons, ages 3 1/2 and 1 1/2, for five hours Sunday afternoon. Love those little boys; they are bright and active and funny ... a joy. Taking them for that long ... stressful.
          I'm changing diapers, cleaning up messes, trying to rock the little one to sleep, picking up toys ... and Bea is doing the same. But we'll take that stress once every couple of weeks.
          On Monday afternoon, Bea goes to a couple of stores, and when she returns, she comes through the door, looks at me quizzically (gee, that's unusual) and asks, "Did you notice a big black streak on the passenger side of the car?"
          While she was in one of the stores, someone sideswiped our 3-year-old silver Toyota Camry, leaving a huge, mean black streak from near the back bumper to a portion of the front door, plus a long silver scratch and a dented back door.
Stress: a banged-up car
           No notice, no nothing, except the damage. And because we're leaving for Tennessee in the morning, no time to do anything about it now because I'm going to work in a couple of hours.           
          A little bit of stress there. I'm rooting for good insurance coverage to help with the body-shop payment.
          Speaking of work ... I walk into the Star-Telegram ... fourth floor of the newly named Star-Telegram building, and the place is covered with long plastic tubes to suck water out of the carpets, the baseboards are torn up around the floor, and there are 150 small fans going to try to dry the carpets. It is, as a couple of people noted, loud enough that it's like being at an airport where a plane is taking off.
          There are maybe six of us working in sports, and we can't hear each other. The guy in the cubicle next to mine tells the night editor he couldn't hear me ... and, as he noted, I'm loud. 
         And I work my five-hour shift with all that noise. Then two of the stories I'm editing -- the Mavericks' preseason game and the Monday Night Football game (Broncos-Chargers) -- go right down to the deadline ... well, maybe even past deadline a couple of minutes.
           Tubes, fans, noise, deadlines ... it's a lot more stressful than I'm counting on.
           So I've watched the Cowboys find more ways to lose Sunday; the Yankees go into a horrendous offensive slump at the end of the season ... and all these other things out of our control.
           The next two days, it's the drive from Fort Worth to Knoxville. It's 15 hours or so; no easy way to do it. We break it up into two days, split the driving, and we've done it so often, we know the routine. But there's roadwork everywhere, and delays, and stops we have to make. So, yes, it has its stress level, too.
             Here's one great part of the trip, though -- beginning about 50 miles south of Chattanooga and going all the way up through East Tennessee, the fall foliage is spectacular, at its colorful peak right now. It's always breathtaking.
             And at the end of the trip, there's our Rachel, and Russell, and our beautiful, smart, energetic and creative Josie, who turns 5 on Tuesday.
             Some stress has its rewards.
             Life goes on. You deal with it.


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Always the White Knight

        The greatest high school football player I've seen? No doubt about it.
        Joe Ferguson, Woodlawn's White Knight.
        Anyone who knows me knows this is not a surprise. I know many, many people who saw him play for Woodlawn in 1966, '67 and '68 will agree.
         He was the real deal. He was the most accurate, most dynamic passer Louisiana had ever had to that point, and he went on to a very good but curtailed college career at Arkansas and then 18 years in the NFL.
         He took Woodlawn -- as I've said many times -- to the promised land: the long-sought-after, long-awaited state championship, a 14-0 season in his senior year. The previous Woodlawn QB took his team to the state-championship game, but the title escaped him and his teammates.
          Terry Bradshaw did OK, though, in the rest of his football career. We still see him occasionally on TV.
          Sure, Bradshaw wound up as the most accomplished quarterback out of Woodlawn ever. He has four more Super Bowl titles than Ferguson and he's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
           But Joe has a bunch of Hall of Fame honors and, like Terry, the great respect of anyone who ever played with him and was around him.
           And where Bradshaw loves the spotlight and is quite the character -- always was -- and worked hard at his craft, no one was more dedicated, more of a perfectionist, harder on himself than Ferguson.
            Where Terry could be quite loose -- and quite funny -- during practice or in the dressing room, Joe was all business. If you saw him on the field, even during off-season throwing sessions, he did not mess around.
         Despite his fame, he was one of the most grounded, unaffected great athletes I've known, and still is.
Joe Ferguson
          Joe is 62, lives in the Fayetteville, Ark., area with wife Sandy, and is again dabbling in the real estate business, as he did before a couple of college coaching stints -- at Louisiana Tech on the staff of his brother-in-law, Joe Raymond Peace, in the early 1990s and at Arkansas (QBs coach under Danny Ford and Houston Nutt) in 1997-2000.
         He's been through two battles with cancer (Burkitt's lymphoma, leukemia) in the past five years. He was very ill for a while, but he's recovered well.
          When we saw him at a Woodlawn football reunion -- the 1966 team, for which Joe was a sophomore starter -- in late May, he looked good. In fact, the always-trim QB/coach, it appears, has been eating well. He's not fat, but he's not the lanky kid who wowed us in the '60s.
           He became a legend starting in the second half of his fourth game of his junior year at Woodlawn. With no running game to speak of on a struggling team, Coach A.L. Williams and his staff considered Joe's strong right arm and decided they would go to an almost every-down passing game.
        Tied 7-7 at the half with Airline, Woodlawn came out throwing. Ferguson was 21 of 31 in the second half, wound up 28 of 48 for a state-record 317 yards and led a 28-14 upset of the team that would go on to win the Class AAA state championship.
        I believe Joe's life was never the same after that night. He was on his career path.
        From that point, Woodlawn lost only two games the rest of that season -- one in the state semifinals (much further than anyone expected that team to go). But there was no stopping the 1968 Knights and Joe wound up with unprecedented numbers (86 career touchdown passes, 6,710 yards).
          One story -- and Woodlawn fans are familiar with this -- illustrates the type of individual he is.
           After he threw six touchdown passes against arch-rival Byrd in his junior year -- he was 31 of 47 for 402 yards passing (he threw one fourth-quarter pass), and kicked four extra points -- the Shreveport Journal ran a headline, "Ferguson 40, Byrd 6."
            It embarrassed Joe. During Saturday morning's practice, he seemed jittery and uptight. As practice ended, he asked Williams if he could address a players-only team meeting.
            He tearfully told his teammates that they were very much the reason for his success, that they were in this together.
             Among those teammates were the offensive linemen, who weren't much at blocking for the run but pass-protected as well as any line in the state. Because Woodlawn often wore all-white uniforms, and Ferguson was rarely touched, the media -- I think it was Jim McLain, who covered Woodlawn for The Shreveport Times -- began calling him "The White Knight" because his uniform was spotless at the end of games.
             It could have been a reference to the all-white era Joe played in during high school. But he proved, in college and certainly in the NFL, that playing against black athletes didn't keep him from great success.
            Next: To Arkansas and then the NFL.

Friday, October 12, 2012

It was elementary at Sunset Acres

     Ruth Hughen was the "iron lady" of Sunset Acres Elementary School. She was the school's first principal and she stayed a long time, and there was no question who was in charge.
      She was a small, middle-aged woman with a gruff voice and, seemingly, a demeanor to match. I know it wasn't so, but it seemed like it in the late 1950s. She was omnipresent and kids were in fear of her. I'm sure her staff and faculty were leery of upsetting her, too.
      I can see her still, on rainy days, in her yellow slicker suit out in front of the school directing cars through the traffic circle. I can see her in the cafeteria during lunch time, also directing traffic.
      She and I had many a talk in my two years at Sunset Acres (1957-58, 1958-59). I was sent to the office every day of my fifth-grade year (there was a reason for it), and more than enough times as a misbehaving sixth-grader.
       She was as patient with me as she could be. I'm sure I tested that patience. More on Mrs. Hughen later.
        The school's layout was five wings of classrooms, six classes per wing. In the late '50s, we had two fifth-grade classes and two sixth-grade classes. I'm wondering, if each grade had two classes, that's 12 total -- for 30 classrooms?
        I know this, by the late 1960s, there were temporary buildings -- shacks -- for classes at Sunset Acres, and it certainly was a growing neighborhood. So ... if someone from those days can explain, please let me know.
       As I've noted in previous blogs on Sunset Acres, we spent hours and hours on that schoolground. You could play between the wings -- and hopefully leave the windows intact.
      One of our favorite places to play was a covered area next to the cafeteria/auditorium (which was next to the school office). This area had a fairly low roof and at the end leading to West Canal Street, there was an opening above the back wall.
        So we had baseball games there -- two-man games, playing with a tennis ball, and you'd get a single, double or triple depending on where you hit the ball. If you hit it through the back-wall opening ... home run. If you hit the ceiling, an out. This was a great place, even on rainy days, and this was a regular stop ... until we found wiffle ball (that's another blog).
      Loved that schoolground, too, for recess -- baseball, always baseball -- and for Field Day. Who didn't love Field Day? It was something we talked about all year. Blue ribbons, red ribbons, white ribbons ... no ribbons. And those events -- the potato-spoon race, the sack race, the 50-yard dash, the class rope pull and -- most important -- the class baseball game. One fifth-grade (or sixth-grade) class against the other. We planned our lineup for weeks, and it was so important, I don't even remember if we won or lost.
       Making the move from one elementary school to another (Line Avenue to Sunset Acres) was much easier than the move from Holland to the U.S. a year and a half earlier. I would have been OK if we'd stayed in the older neighborhood where we first lived and I would have gone to Hamilton Terrace Junior High and C.E. Byrd High School. But moving to southwest Shreveport proved to be a blessing.
      The keys to my fifth-grade year were (1) the Sunset Acres kids who quickly made me one of their own and (2) by that time, I had learned to read English fairly well.
        So my favorite memory of Mrs. Maxie Cooper's fifth-grade class is the library in her classroom. Here I found  simple biographies written for kids on George Washington and Abe Lincoln and George Washington Carver ... and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
       I was already a Yankees' fan. When I read the book on Gehrig -- whose parents were immigrants -- and he was a Yankees' great and left-handed, I had a hero. He wore No. 4 on the back of his jersey. When I joined a baseball team that next summer, I asked for No. 4, and wore that number throughout my "career."
       And I learned to love to read. That was also the first year my dad got a subscription to the daily newspaper -- the afternoon Shreveport Journal (he knew he could get the morning paper, The Times, at work). Every weekday afternoon, I would get the Journal, spread it on the floor, and was on my hands and knees reading all I could in the sports section.       
       Who knew how important those papers would be in my future? Talk about foreshadowing.
       Another highlight of the year was studying Louisiana history. Mrs. Cooper, who was an excellent teacher, prepared us all year for a field trip ... to New Orleans, by train. We knew all about St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, the Andrew Jackson statue, the boat ride on the mighty Mississippi, and, yes, the French Quarter.
       Mrs. Cooper also taught us about elections and campaigns. A week into the school year, we chose class officers. For some reason, I was chosen vice-president; I sure didn't volunteer.
       Every school day started with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord's Prayer and the class vice-president read a Bible quotation. First day when I went to read the quotation, it had a quote from Jesus ... it was in red type. "I can't do this," I told Mrs. Cooper. She was caught a little off-guard.
       Next day, she informed me that every day I would take the class lunch money to the school office while the class went through the routine. Some days, I would hurry and I would be back before the routine was finished, so I just waited outside. (And so now you know why I was always against prayer in school.)
        Sixth grade didn't go so well. Mrs. Lyndall Tinnin had taught for a long time; I doubt she had many students who gave her as much trouble as I did. She bugged me, and I bugged her. Lots of trips to the office for me. But I never got anyone else in trouble (Pam Parker and Diane Thomisee will have a different opinion of this.)
      One day, I saw my dog Snowball on the school ground. That wasn't supposed to be. I bolted out of the classroom -- without permission -- and took him home. So, another visit with Mrs. Hughen.
       In 1985, when I was working at the Shreveport Journal, I noticed in the paper that the Sunset Acres Elementary School PTA was having a Ruth Hughen Appreciation Night. I had to go, and I took my kids, who were 11 and nearly 6.
       Hadn't seen Mrs. Hughen in probably 20 years. When I walked in the office, where she was visiting with her old secretary, Mrs. Canal, and she realized who I was, she gave me one of the greatest hugs of my life. It was hard to hold back the tears.
       Saw several familiar faces from the old neighborhood that night -- among them, my first good friend there, Lynn Mills; Larry and Kent Wheeler's mom; and Mrs. Ruby Beadle, who lived in the house closest to the school ground (at the end of our block of Amherst).
        When she spoke to the crowd, Mrs. Hughen introduced me and talked about my mother, about my mother's Holocaust experience and how fragile and apologetic Mom had been at times in my troubled sixth-grade year. Again, I had to choke back the tears.
       I get emotional thinking about those two years at Sunset Acres Elementary. Those kids, those wonderful kids.
       They took me in -- a tiny, loud, temperamental, brash but also self-conscious, left-handed Jewish kid from Holland, crazy about sports -- and made me feel like someone who belonged.
        I know at least eight of us, maybe more, went all the way through the rest of school together -- Sunset Acres, Oak Terrace, Woodlawn and Louisiana Tech. I'm prejudiced, but that's a special memory.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Don's ashes are happy this week

        Don Bowman would have loved this week.
        With the Oakland Athletics and the Washington Nationals winning their divisions and being in baseball's playoffs, and with college basketball's "Midnight Madness" coming up, Bowman would have been in heaven.
         He probably is, if you believe in that kind of thing.
         Don was our co-worker in sports at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram -- a part of the "desk," the inside crew that puts out the paper -- and probably the biggest character in a department of characters.
Don Bowman
         We lost him suddenly in May 2008, the victim of a massive stroke. He was 56, and full of life, or full of it, to put it mildly.
         We all agreed. He was about as funny, or as crazy, as anyone any of us had worked with, anywhere. But he was a dedicated worker, he was talented, he was versatile, and he loved the newspaper business.
          He could edit copy, write really clever headlines, come up with great ideas, and he had one writing day a week in which he usually took a subject, researched it well, and produced some history-related stories which were usually pertinent and interesting.
         Mostly, though, he was a sports fan, through and through. He had his favorite teams -- and everyone knew who they were. The A's. The Nationals. The Terps (any University of Maryland team). He was opinionated and loud ... and such a clown.
          Yeah, we were kindred spirits.
          First night I worked at the Star-Telegram, I sat across from Don. Didn't take long to find out how knowledgable he was and how personable. Also this: I thought I had moved around the country a bit and had a bunch of jobs -- seven, ranging from Hawaii to Florida -- but Don had us all beat. He had a chart showing his job movement; it was something like 16 jobs over 30-plus years.
           He had been all over the country, and had friends from all over. He left them laughing in a lot of places.
          But like me, Don found a home at the Star-Telegram and worked there much longer than any job he ever had. Same for me.
          Found out, too, that first night that he had dozens of repetitive sayings -- "where's your messiah now" was a favorite -- and he was quick with a cryptic quip. He could dish it out, and sometimes he could even take it.
          And he had a desk full of toys and trinkets, and most of them made noise, such as the spinning, wheezing doll and the pen with hysterical, loud laughter. Then there was the pig mask (actually, it became two pig masks) that, about once a week, he would slip on and sneak up behind unsuspecting young Nolan Shaver in our department and then yell, "Nolan!" and scare the hell out of Nolan.
          Plus, his computer screensavers were usually a scream, too. Don hated Duke, anything Duke, but especially Coach K -- the iconic Mike Krzyzewski. He delighted most anytime Duke and Coach K lost. His favorite screensaver was of a young Duke fan crying after a Duke loss in the NCAA Tournament. Don called Coach K "ratface" and he'd scrunch up his face and make rat sounds when he talked about him.
          Much as he loved baseball, college basketball was his favorite topic. He followed it closely and knew more about it than 99 percent of the population. His favorite day of the year, I think, was "Midnight Madness," the start of college basketball practice, usually about Oct. 15.
         Don would let you know ... "142 days until Midnight Madness" ... "six weeks until Midnight Madness" ... "17 days until Midnight Madness," etc. So he'd be really proud today because it's "three days until Midnight Madness" and one of the sites ESPNU will visit Friday night is the University of Maryland.
          (The day after, Bowman would announce ... "364 days until Midnight Madness.")
          Don, a Maryland graduate, often wore Terrapins shirts and thought Gary Williams and Brenda Frese were the best basketball coaches in the country. He even liked Ralph Friedgen -- big Ralph -- as the football coach until he didn't like him any more and adopted the chant (in Seminoles/Atlanta Braves fashion) Ralph must gooooo, gooooo, gooooo; Ralph must goooo, goooo, gooooo.
            In my first year at the S-T, Maryland won the men's NCAA Tournament, Don's dream come true.  He also predicted a women's title soon, and it happened in 2006, and the championship-game victory was against ... Duke.
           One thing Don didn't like about college basketball was the impact of the mid-majors. He thought mid-majors didn't deserve NCAA spots over major conference schools. So in 2007, when Butler beat Maryland in a second-round game, it made a lot of people in sports happy as we watched on TV.
           Don didn't come in the office until after the game ended, but when he came in, someone said, "Too bad about Maryland, Don" (like he meant it). Don glared and then mumbled, "Why does everybody pull against Maryland? ... I'm not that bad a fan; I don't push Maryland on you guys."
           When I replied, "You just keep believing that, Don," it drew some laughs.
           But it was Don's love of the Oakland A's that drove the department to distraction at times. He would watch their games on his computer and practically give you play by play. He would talk about them constantly, whether you cared or not. (Now you know, I would never do the same about the Yankees or LSU.)       
           Don't know exactly why Don loved the A's. He grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and was a big fan of the 1960s Washington Senators, the awful Senators whose only real star was big Frank Howard. He saw them play often at RFK Stadium in D.C. That's the team that moved to Arlington, Texas, in 1972 -- with Ted Williams as manager -- and became the Texas Rangers.
             Don felt that Arlington, with mayor Tom Vandergriff, "stole" the team and that owner Bob Short sold out on Washington. So Don despised Short, and really, despised the Rangers.
            He rejoiced every year in the early 2000s when the Athletics whipped up on the Rangers. Disdainful of the huge contract the Rangers had given Alex Rodriguez, he kept a chart in 2002 and '03 of how many games A-Rod made a difference in the Rangers winning and how many he made no difference when they lost. The losses far exceeded the wins, to Don's delight.
            (When the Montreal Expos moved and became the Washington Nationals in 2005, Don was thrilled and made a trip home to watch the Nationals' first home series at RFK.)
            So in 2002, when Maryland won the NCAA basketball title, and the Athletics reeled off 20 consecutive wins that summer -- the Moneyball team featured in the movie last year -- Don had a great year. He laughed at Rangers' fans every day during that winning streak.
            He definitely bought into A's general manager Billy Beane's low-budget, great pitching, on-base percentage offense philosophy. He didn't like Art Howe much as a manager, but if he'd seen Moneyball, even he would have said that the movie disparaged Howe. Don could get down on players, too, such as Barry Zito, the pitcher whose name he changed to Barry Meato.
            Bowman would not have liked the Rangers' success of 2010 and 2011, but he absolutely would have relished the second half of this season, especially the A's sweep past the Rangers last week for the AL West title.
            Don had a lot more going than sports fandom. He did some charitable things away from the office, he liked theater and movies and cats, and after a bad marriage and some relationships that didn't work, he was happy with a girlfriend, Peggy, in Arlington.
            Don had thick, dark hair -- unlike some of us older guys -- and he led a newspaper drive for Locks of Love, in which people let their hair grow long, then had it cut and donated to make wigs. Don's hair got so long, we were rooting for the drive to end. Didn't want to tell him he looked like a werewolf.
           And here's what he did for me one time. A company was making CDs entitled "You Are The Star," a 20-minute radio-type narrative of a game -- a fantasy -- in which someone would be the hero for his team. I'm at my desk one day and I hear my name as the star for the LSU football team. I hear it several times. Don is playing this CD on his computer and it's loud enough so everyone in the office -- everyone in downtown, in fact -- could hear it. "Nico Van Thyn is the quarterback for LSU." This goes on for about five minutes, and I hear my name about 20 times.
            I don't embarrass easily, but that day ...
            Damn Bowman.
             On his final conscious day, on a day off from the paper, Don took Peggy and her daughter to an A's-Rangers game at Rangers Ballpark. The Athletics won 12-6, so Don was happy.
             He was too heavy and had a big belly, and had high blood pressure, so he worried some about his health. He had blood pressure medicine, but it didn't mix well with some other medications he was using.
             That Sunday night, while in bed, he had the stroke. It was devastating.
              Driving back from Tennessee on vacation the next morning, I got a call from an assistant sports editor with the news and the word: "It doesn't look good."
              For about 10 days, Don lingered in the hospital, never regaining consciousness. It was heartbreak for us, so hard to take. There was one day when there was some hope; some vital signs looked better. Two days later, they took him off life support.
              It's the hardest thing I've been through in 40-plus years of newspapering.
              The wake at the funeral home drew almost everyone from our department. There was Don in the open coffin wearing his red "Fear the Turtle" shirt. A day or two later, he was cremated. His remains are in Arlington.
               Not many days have passed since when I was in the office that we didn't have a mention of Bowman, something he said or did -- "Bowmanisms."
              Forgive us for this -- it's sports department humor -- but our friend Randall Perry suggested one night soon after Don died and the A's won a game that "Don's ashes are happy." That became standard for any of his teams. If they lose, it's "Don's ashes aren't happy."
             This week, with the Nationals and A's playing, and "Midnight Madness" almost here, Don's ashes are happy.
             We miss our crazy friend.                     

Sunday, October 7, 2012

In Sunset Acres, friends for a lifetime

     The best thing that came out of my family's decade in Sunset Acres were the friends we made -- for my folks, the Gwins next door; for me, two sets of three brothers -- the Bakers and the Tuckers.
      When the Gwins left Sunset Acres for South Broadmoor in 1966, it was about a year before my parents, too, moved to South Broadmoor, only a couple of blocks away from Lou and Howard.
       When Howard was in his final days, it was my dad who spent hours sitting with him, looking after him. When my mother's health declined, Lou Gwin was about the only person she really trusted (other than my wife Bea) to do anything she needed.
       I've detailed my friendship with Casey Baker in any earlier blog. I spent many days at the Bakers' house, a block-and-a-half away, where Casey and I often befuddled his younger brother by one year, James Royce (we all called him "Spanky"). Chuck was still very young; he was born in '58, shortly after Casey and I first met.
My friends, the Tuckers: Johnny, Steve and Terry
(they didn't play golf in their Sunset Acres days)
       The Tuckers lived a block away in the other direction. Once Casey found his future wife, Marion, and we spent a little less time together, I became a regular at the Tucker house. It was Johnny, a year younger than me; Terry, a year younger than Johnny; and little Steve, about eight years younger.
       Lots and lots of invented games, card games, and football, basketball, baseball and even track and field competition. Lots of watching games together. Lots of messing around, nothing ever out of bounds, though. These were good families -- some dysfunction, just like my family -- but these were  good kids.
Lou Gwin
       We lost "Spanky" four years ago; it's still painful to think about. We've lost all our parents. But we never lost touch with each other. The bonds we formed in Sunset Acres are forever strong.
        And Miss Lou remains in South Broadmoor; we saw her a week ago. She's the wonderful, simple country girl who understood how much of a friend my mother -- an often-fragile Holocaust survivor from a faraway place but also a dynamic, forceful Holocaust educator -- needed her to be.
      In 1957, the Sunset Acres Shopping Center was a busy place, including a Palais Royal as an anchor store and Sunset Drug Store on the corner at Mansfield Road. (That's where Mrs. Baker worked for years.)
     Sunset Acres Baptist Church, just across Hearne Ave. from the shopping center, was the dominant church in the neighborhood, and would be for a long time. But other churches were thriving, too.  Southgate Bowling Lanes, between Hearne and Mansfield Road, would soon be built and bowling was extremely popular as the '60s began. That bowling alley would be a familiar hangout for kids, like me; we made many trips on our bikes there.
      Another hangout was the Dairy Queen on West Canal at 70th Street. In high school, that's where everyone went -- even the kids from other neighborhoods. There was a big Weingarten's at 70th and Mansfield Road, right across street from the famed Sunset Drive-In Theater (who didn't sneak in there every now and then?)
      Everyone knew the much-used scout hut on the Sunset Acres school ground.
      Seems as if it was at that hut where in the summer a SPAR (Shreveport Parks and Recreation) worker would be on duty to let kids play chess or checkers or table tennis -- sometimes competitively, with the Sunset champions going on to city championship to face winners from other rec centers.
      As younger kids, we played tag in the streets, and Red Rover, and hopscotch on the sidewalk. I turned the sidewalk into a track to stage and direct Sunset Acres "track meets," measuring the distances -- 25 yards, 50, 100) with my mother's yardstick (she used for sewing) and marking them in colored chalk. Mr. Gwin didn't much like his sidewalk being marked. I had a stop clock -- bought at the sporting goods store -- to use for timing.
      We knew all the kids on our block, and tried to get them involved. Tried, didn't succeed all that much. But there were always kids from nearby willing to participate.
       Two of those kids who lived nearby, Ross Oglesby and Edwin Tubbs, could really run fast. Didn't take long to realize that. What we didn't know in the late '50s, but found out in 1966 was they would be All-State football players for Woodlawn -- Ross (first team) at running back, Edwin (second team) at linebacker. Obviously, two of my favorite Woodlawn players ever.
      They were among the kids almost always on the school ground playing. It was a gathering place.  There were hundreds of baseball games there, and we were always concerned that the guys who could hit the ball a long way would knock out a window on an "E" wing classroom.
        There were touch football games, sometimes even tackle football, basketball games on the dirt "court" with the square wooden backboards and no nets on the rims.
      When the junior high (Oak Terrace) opened in the fall of 1959 and a year or two later, SPAR built a swimming pool, softball/baseball field and a basketball court -- without walls, but covered by a domed canopy, rounded plastic backboards, chain nets. Many of our games shifted to the football field at OT, and on that court under that dome.
       How many one-on-one basketball games -- fierce games -- did I play against the much-stronger, taller Johnny Tucker and brother Terry, who at that point was smaller than me but never easy to beat?   
      On the Sunset Acres school ground -- just as I had done at Line Avenue the two previous springs and summers -- I watched a lot of teams practice baseball. Wanted to play on an organized team, but I hadn't been in the U.S. long enough to grasp it all. And (surprise to those who know me), I was so small.
       I can remember in 1959 and '60 often watching the Southside Barbers -- a Junior A (ages 15-16) team -- practice. That team included three players (pitcher Ronnie Olague, catcher Jerry Downing and shortstop Terry Jones) who soon would be starting for Woodlawn High in its first couple of seasons.
       A year after we moved to the neighborhood, the Sunset Acres Athletic Club was formed. It sponsored teams in football, baseball and basketball, and they all wore bright gold uniforms with black trim. Everyone in town knew the gold uniform was a Sunset Acres team. I never played for any of those teams, but I watched a lot of baseball and football practices -- coach Robert Simmons drilling those football kids -- and I sure rooted for those teams.
        I don't recall many of the kids in my age group playing for the Sunset Acres teams. But some of the younger neighborhood kids did, and went on to start -- and star -- for Woodlawn. Wayne Barrett and Gary Green were players on the 1969 Class AAA state championship team. For me, that made it even more special than it was.
         Some of us not good enough to play for the Sunset Acres Indians, or not willing to join the Athletic Club, were fortunate that in 1959, St. James Episcopal Church -- fairly new in our neighborhood on Marquette Street -- decided to sponsor a midget-league baseball team. I had a place to play.
         Didn't play well, of course, and our teams were mostly terrible, but for four years, one Jewish kid played for St. James -- two years in midgets (ages 11-12), two years in Junior B (13-14). Loved wearing the green-and-white uniform the first two years; then we got slick grey-and-red ones. Every year I wore my beloved No 4, in honor of Lou Gehrig and my favorite Shreveport Sports player, Lou Klimchock.
         One year, I had a sprained left elbow and couldn't throw the ball 5 feet, as opposed to the normal 20 feet. But the coach (Robert Dubose) knew I already could keep score, and so I did. It was foreshadowing.
         An interesting sidelight on the St. James connection: The church's priest, who had moved in from Monteagle, Tenn., in 1957, was Alfred Chambliss. His son (four years older than me) was an outfielder, I think, for Byrd High School and in American Legion ball for the Broadmoor-based B&N Barbers. He came to help us in our practices a couple of times. His name: Saxby Chambliss.
        It's a familiar name now, the longtime senior Republican Senator from Georgia. I'm sure Saxby remembers our practices.
        I learned so much in Sunset Acres, gained these memories and friends for a lifetime. A lot of those came from school, and that's where we're going in the next blog.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Bucky F. Dent: The biggest homer of all

           It is Oct. 2, a national holiday -- for New York Yankees fans.
           Yes, our team is involved in quite a race for the American League East championship. Just as it was 34 years ago today.
What a moment: Bucky Dent connects.
            What happened on Oct. 2, 1978, stands as the No. 1 highlight among many, many, many in my 56 years as a Yankees fan. That day, at historic and overrated Fenway Park in Boston, Bucky Dent hit the greatest home run in Yankees history.
            OK, I'm a little biased about this. I think the Yankees-Red Sox playoff game for the AL East title that day -- a one-game playoff -- is the greatest game in baseball history. There you have it.
          (And the second greatest, if you ask me, is a game the Yankees lost: The seventh game of the 1960 World Series, 10-9, Pirates, Bill Mazeroski's Series-winning home run. If I were a Pirates fan, that would be greatest home run of all time.)
          That 1978 season, that Yankees' World Series championship team, is one of the top ones for what I like to call the premier franchise in American sports (yes, it's arrogance personified). I put that season right with 1927, 1961 and 1998.
          What made it so special is that the playoff game (1) was against the biggest rival, on that team's field and (2) completed the biggest comeback in baseball history.
           On July 19 that year, Boston had a 14-game lead on the Yankees.
           No one gave the Yankees -- who had won the World Series the year before and two AL pennants in a row -- a chance. I sure as heck didn't think they had a chance.
           The Yankees were in disarray; Billy Martin had been fired as manager (for the first of five times) after referring to Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner with the classic line: "One's a born liar; the other is convicted."
         No team has ever wiped out a bigger deficit. (And as I'm writing this, the Yankees have blown a 10-game lead this summer and are battling the surprising and determined Baltimore Orioles for the AL East title. No Yankees team has ever blown a lead that big, or even close.)
         Once Martin was fired, the Yankees got straightened out under a stoic new manager, Bob Lemon; the Red Sox, bothered by injuries, began losing. The lead began shrinking. When the Yankees went into Fenway on Sept. 7-10 and pulverized the Red Sox in four games, 15-3, 13-2, 7-0 and 7-4 -- forever known as baseball's "Boston Massacre" -- the race was tied.
         On Sept. 14, the Yankees took the lead, and held it the rest of the way. But Boston, one game back, wouldn't lose. The Red Sox won their last seven regular-season games; when the Yankees, with a chance to clinch, were blown out in Cleveland on Sunday, Oct. 1, both were teams 99-63.
         I was the sports information director at Centenary College. There was no way I was going to work on that Monday. My joke about that day, and that game, is that I was more nervous than on the day Bea gave birth to Rachel (some 6 1/2 months later). It's a joke, OK.
         So much is memorable about the game. The Yankees' starting pitcher was Louisiana's own Ron "Gator" Guidry, who that year was practically unbeateable (24-3 record when he took the mound that day). The Red Sox pitcher -- and this was delicious irony -- was Mike Torrez, the winning pitcher in the World Series clincher for the Yankees the year before who had left for Boston as a free agent.
         Carl Yastrzemski, who had said early in the season it was the best Red Sox team he'd played on, hit a home run in the first inning. Jim Rice, who had had a fabulous season and would be voted AL MVP, drove in a run in the sixth -- his 139th RBI of the year. For six innings, the Yankees hardly touched Torrez.
         And then the top of the seventh. With one out, Chris Chambliss singled, then Roy White singled. Suddenly, we had a chance. Problem was, Bucky Dent was coming to the plate. He had hit .243 that season, and had been awful for the past month. He had little power (four home runs), but because of injuries, Lemon had no extra infielders. A pinch-hitter was out of the question.
Coming home: Roy White (6) and Chris Chambliss (10)
scored ahead of Bucky Dent on Oct. 2, 1978
         After Bucky fouled a pitch off his ankle, hobbled around a while, and was given a new bat by on-deck batter Mickey Rivers, he caught a hanging slider from Torrez and sent it, as Bill White said on the Yankees' radio play-by-play, "Deep to left. Yastrzemski will not get it. It's a home run! A three-run homer by Bucky Dent. And the Yankees now lead by a score of 3-2!"
         I was watching the game at home. When that ball landed in the net behind the Green Monster, my reaction was the same as it had been after Billy Cannon's Halloween punt return for LSU in 1959 against Ole Miss. Charged out the front door, into the street,  screaming with joy.
          So much more happened in the game. The Yankees scored two more runs -- including a Reggie home run -- Boston kept coming back. Rich "Goose" Gossage relieved Guidry and had to pitch out of trouble three times.
          It was 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth, and if Lou Piniella, playing right field and looking into the sun, saved the game when he reached out and luckily kept a single from getting past him. That kept a runner from going to third base.
          With one out, Rice came to the plate. I'm thinking he's had this great year and now he can win the game with a home run. Yikes. I couldn't watch. Talk about nervous.
          When I heard the announcer say, he had flied out deep to right (with the runner now going to third, instead of it being a sacrifice fly), it was a relief. But here came Yaz -- the great Yaz, the hero of the Red Sox's "Mission Impossible" 1967 AL pennant winner. If Boston was going to win, who better to be the star than Yaz? Even Yankees had to like him.
          When Gossage's first pitch overpowered Yaz, and he popped out foul to Graig Nettles at third base, it touched off one of my greatest victory celebrations ever.
          I have watched a tape of that game a hundred times. It's exciting every time.
          The Yankees had more adventures in beating Kansas City in the ALCS and the Dodgers in the Series. But that day in Boston topped it all.
          A few years ago, Bea was recovering in the hospital after surgery. A woman came to the room delivering flowers; she was a volunteer worker at the hospital. She saw I was wearing a Yankees' shirt, and she laughed.
          "Are you a Yankees fan?" she asked. "My son-in-law played for them."
          Of course, I asked his name.
          "Bucky Dent," she answered. You know what's coming, right?
          "BUCKY DENT!"
          I then grabbed for my phone, and played my ringtone for her: "Deep to left. Yastrzemski will not get it. It's a home run! A three-run homer by Bucky Dent. And the Yankees now lead by a score of 3-2!" 
          She was impressed, I think.
          I asked if she knew Bucky's nickname in Boston: Bucky "F..." Dent. Yes, she knew. We talked a while, and she said, her daughter had been an airline attendant when she met Bucky, and that they now live in Florida.
          As she was leaving, I told her to tell Bucky about the ringtone and that I knew all the details of the game on Oct. 2, 1978, then added, "Tell him I will love him forever."