Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Master of the one-liners

       Many of you have seen this piece before -- I sent it by e-mail two years ago. It's my eulogy for one of my best friends, Ken Liberto, who died two years ago today.
        He was one of the greatest athletes I've known; he could do everything well. He was a natural talent in football, basketball, baseball, even track (he could jump). If we'd have grown up with golf, I'm convinced he could have been a professional golfer. He had everything it took.
        So I'm posting the eulogy here because I wanted to make it a permanent part of my blog. I apologize because it's so lengthy, but I loved this guy.  I miss him ... and I always will.
        I want to thank Kathy for asking me to speak. It's quite an honor. Ken's death is a loss for me -- he was my friend for more than 50 years (hard to believe) -- and it's a loss for everyone here, but obviously mostly for his family -- and he was so proud of them.
       If I may, I'd like to name them all ... Kathy, his love and his partner for three decades; Kenneth and his wife Amanda and their new baby boy, Aiden; Kevin; Lauren and her husband Chris, and Jaxon and Ava; Brian and his wife Carey, and Tyler, Kaitlyn and Allyson. Wow -- six grandkids; that's four more than we have, but we'll be gaining on you soon. And his mother-in-law, Faye Rogers, who was such a big help the last couple of years.
      I want to mention this early because it was a funny connection between Ken and me. The phone would ring, either me calling him or him calling me, and the first words for both of us would be "Joe Fra-zier." Our Muhammad Ali imitations. Ken could do the greatest Ali -- the Ali shuffle (which evolved into “peel out” for the kids), the dancing, the way he boxed, the way he talked. We loved the way Ali would say "Joe Fra-zier," the way he would make fun of "Joe Fra-zier."
      I'm gonna miss that.
      You know this — this was a wonderful guy. He was quiet and reserved and polite and shy, true. But if you really got to know him, were around him a lot, you know he was quite funny.
       He could mimic anyone. Could make a joke out of most anything; he had a one-liner for most everything. Loved to laugh, loved to eat, loved ice cream as much as I did. We both loved the Beatles. Ken knew a lot of the lyrics and he could twist them ... unprintable. He loved country music, loved to go to Las Vegas (that’s where he married Kathy in 1980), loved riding in a Corvette, loved to watch all sports, loved the Cowboys and the Texans.
        Loved golf, that became his favorite sport. Also produced a couple of his best one-liners, involving our good friend Jon Pat Stephenson, who like Ken, was good at every sport he tried.
       Ken told Jon Pat, “I know the trouble with your (golf) game. You’ve got too much weight on both feet.”
      And, “After you hit your drive, you’re still standing too close to your ball.”
      And there was this line about Jon Pat’s house (a huge mansion-like place outside of Hallsville where Ken stayed one night): “When you call from one end of the house to the other, it’s in another area code.”
      I can't think of Ken without thinking of his parents. It was a neat story. Big, burly American serviceman meets petite English girl in a pub in London at the end of World War II, convinces her to marry him, then she follows him back to the United States, to his hometown of Shreveport. They have one child -- and what a beautiful child he was.
Miss Ivy always called him Kenneth; his dad called him Kenny. It was fun to go to their house. No one -- no one anywhere -- ever made better spaghetti than Anthony Liberto, believe me. That was a treat.
     My folks and Ken's folks were friends, through us, of course, and they remained friends long after we left school. There was the European connection with Ivy -- we were from Holland -- and my dad and Ken's dad were hard-working guys who thought their sons were the center of the universe. Tony wasn't the sports fan my dad was -- not many people were -- but Tony was so proud of Ken, and rightfully so.
      For 10 years, we went to school together -- three years at Oak Terrace Junior High, three years at Woodlawn High, four years at Louisiana Tech. I was a manager/statistician for nine of those years while Ken played a variety of sports; I probably kept stats in 95 percent of the games he played.
      For most of six years, we rode to school and a lot of games together -- Ken driving. So not only was I along for the ride in athletics, but literally, I was along for the ride. And what a great ride it was.
      That's a lot of time to talk about life, school, sports -- that was most of the conversation -- to analyze games, talk about players, coaches, talk about heroes, the Beatles, Ali (almost every day) and, yes, girls.
      Ken was tall, dark and handsome. He understood the tall and dark parts, the handsome part, he just brushed off. Here were all these girls who wanted to go out with him -- they'd mention it to me sometimes -- and he was just unaffected by it. It didn't register. I told Kathy that early last week and she laughed. "Oh, women used to come up to him and they're flirting with him,” she said, “and I'd mention it to him later and he'd say, 'What? What are you talking about."
      Those of you with Shreveport connections know this: He was one of the most talented, most versatile athletes of his era, in a time when athletics in Shreveport-Bossier were very, very competitive. He had great hands, great vision, great coordination, he was smooth, and he could run all day and never seem all that tired.
      He started three years in high school in basketball and baseball. Didn't play football until his junior year -- Ivy was worried about him getting hurt -- but he came out and immediately started at receiver and safety and was the team's punter, and it was no small high school.     
      This was a time when football in Shreveport was very, very competitive. He was an All-State receiver in the top class in Louisiana as a senior, all-district basketball (he averaged 21.6 points a game as a senior, had 37 points against our arch-rival Byrd when he made 19 of 19 free throws), All-City in baseball as a first baseman -- smooth fielder, excellent .300 hitter -- and then he was a long jumper and triple jumper in track when he found the time.
He had great hands, great vision, great coordination. He could run. Odd running style, straight up, laid back, but he could move. He was, from my viewpoint and many others, fun to watch.
      And through it all, through all the success and the publicity, he was the same calm, unaffected guy. Never changed. Didn't brag, played hard, cared, great teammate, coachable. Not as outgoing or fiery like our good friend Trey Prather (who was our quarterback and also played all the sports, all the same years as Ken, and played them very well) ... Trey went to LSU, dropped out, joined the Marines, and sadly, died at age 20 in Vietnam). Ken and I talked about him often.
      What did excite Ken -- and Mr. Liberto -- was this: The football scholarship to Louisiana Tech. That was a money-saver, a college education paid for. Tony liked that.
      I have to tell you about two times Ken was very excited. He had been talking about Cassius Clay for months -- this was when Clay was becoming the Louisville Lip, calling the round he would knock out people, and then doing it. We're riding to school, Ken's talking about Cassius. So Clay gets ready to fight Sonny Liston -- the Big, Ugly Bear. Ken's predicting he's going to win. I'm skeptical. And it happens -- one of sports' greatest upsets. And the next day, Ken was SO fired up. Then a year later, we're at my house listening to the Ali-Liston rematch on radio. This was the fight when Liston caved in, fell to the floor on the first round. Knocked out. Total controversy. And Ken is jumping all over the place ... he's replaying the fight. He's Ali, and I'm Liston. He's punching me -- well, just pretend -- and I'm getting knocked out.
       And this is the way it would be for the next few years. Ken is Ali; I'm the chump, the opponent. He's doing the shuffle on me, throwing punches, doing his Ali talk, and I'm laughing so hard I can't stand up anyway.
       Gosh, we must've watched every Ali fight for the next 10 years or so, and replayed them a thousand times. Those great fights with Joe Frazier, the fight with George Foreman -- and we just loved to listen to Ali and watch those silly interviews with Howard Cosell. We replayed it all so many times, had so many laughs.
      At Tech, Ken didn't play all that much the first 2 1/2 years. Maybe it was because he was quiet, maybe the coaches didn't understand him that well. He was perplexed, a little frustrated, but he didn't complain. He kept working, didn't lose his confidence. And all of a sudden in our junior year, he had that breakout game -- three touchdown catches. From then on, he was a starter -- and a star.
       The quarterback's name for much of the last two seasons was Terry Bradshaw. You might've heard of him.
       The highlight of Ken's Tech career came in 1968. Bradshaw threw the pass, Ken caught it -- 82 yards in the last minute to beat our arch-rival Northwestern State, which was about to beat us for the third year in a row. A lot of Tech fans were leaving the stadium or had left, Northwestern fans were chanting, "We wrecked Tech." Somehow Ken got behind the defense and Terry's long, high-arching pass hit him beautifully on the right sideline, right in front of the Tech bench. Ken went the rest of the 45 yards or so, although one Northwestern player dove at him and stripped him of one shoe.
      It was impossible come true, one of the greatest plays I've ever seen, a play for the ages, one of the greatest plays in Louisiana Tech football history. This past week a dozen people mentioned it to me.
       For years, Ken wouldn't necessarily tell people he had played football at Louisiana Tech or that Bradshaw had been his quarterback. But when they did find out, and if they asked how many passes Ken caught, he would answer, "One."
      Actually, he caught enough in his senior year -- 1968 -- to become the first Tech receiver ever with at least 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
       He would go on to be drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Ken didn’t make the team, but at least the Steelers knew the way to Ruston and Shreveport. A year later they made Bradshaw the No. 1 pick in the draft.
      In 1970, Ken went to camp with the Washington Redskins, where Vince Lombardi was the new coach. Ken said Lombardi treated him well, but Ken was ready to move on with his life.
       So he went to work. And mostly, he had a good time doing what he did. He loved his travel, loved meeting people. He became a factory representative for the Stetson Hat Company. Someone last week said that he must've been a good salesman. You know, I never thought of Ken as a salesman -- he wasn't pushy or aggressive. But I know he was such a nice guy, he met people well, he made them comfortable and he made them laugh. So, yes, I could see where he’d be a good salesman..
       We didn't see each other much, but we’d talk 3-4 times a year. They found colon cancer in my wife in October 2002, they found Ken's two months later. Bea was a Stage III, but she -- thank God -- is well. Ken's was a Stage IV. It never really went away, you know. He and Bea would talk, comparing the treatments, and talking to me, he’d always ask about her.
        So was in treatment from time to time, taking chemo. His mother would tell my mother that Ken wasn’t doing well. I would immediately call him and he’d almost always downplay what was going on. He'd say the chemo wasn't fun, but he didn't complain, he didn't feel sorry for himself. I always worried, we all did.
      I've got to tell you about my last visit with him. Five years ago, I came down to Houston and went to the house, stayed for three hours, met Kathy again, her mom and the kids. Oh, Ken and I laughed and laughed; I got to see the Ali Shuffle again, and he looked good. He was still a big guy, but not the 250 pounds he’d been once ("I'm a flanker in a tight end's body," he joked about that).
      When I got ready to go, he said, "Hey, man, you've got to give me a hug." Last time I saw him. Went home and told Bea that was the perfect afternoon -- what a great family he had, what fun it was to see him.
      Talked to him a few months ago, and he said he was OK. "Just something I have to deal with, got no choice," he said. He always said that. He didn't let on how sick he really was. Kathy said he'd go to the oncologist's office and cheer up everyone there because his attitude was so positive, and because he treated all the other patients so well and made them laugh. No surprise.
       But then things turned worse. I'm sorry to say I wasn't aware of it. But maybe it was just as well. Don’t know that I could have handled it all that well.
       Kathy wanted him to have one last trip to Vegas, one last ride in a Corvette. It didn't happen; he wasn't strong enough. His bucket list included a set of new golf clubs. He bought them. He never got to use them.
      When I got a message from Kathy last Saturday, she didn't spell it all out. But my heart sank. I knew the news wasn't good. Told Bea this was going to be one of the toughest return calls I’d ever make, and I took my time.
    "He never gave in," Kathy said, "but his body just wore out."
     So here we are. I'm not ashamed to say he was always one of my heroes. Better yet, he was my dear, dear friend.
      Good-bye, Joe Fra-zier, and thanks. God bless you and your family.



  1. Loved ken liberto...he was truly one of the very good guys always and the memories are a treasure! Thanks for your lovely testimony of this dear friend!

  2. From Maxie Hays: Nico, you know how to make a man cry on November 27th. What a wonderful story of love between two friends. I can relate this to the love that I had for my best friend that I also lost to colon cancer at the young age of 59. It is still so hard to think about. Thank you for sharing your story. Just wonderful. Truly enjoyed the read. I loved Ken's one-liners regarding golf. Laughing with tears in my eyes. I'm touched.

  3. From Doug Bland: Thanks for sharing this with everyone again. I've saved it because in a lot of ways Ken reminds me of our son Jason. Jason didn't have the stats Ken did and played on a high school team that only won six games in three years, but he had the same sense of humor you told us Ken had and he was a fighter. Like Ken, he never gave in, his body just wore out. One thing that has always stuck in my mind, was seeing Ken at practice [at Woodlawn]. I can't remember him ever dropping a pass.

  4. From Jack Thigpen: What a great eulogy on Ken. I never really knew him, but heard a lot about him and watched him play at Tech. It is tough to lose a longtime friend. I have lost a few and know how hard it is.