Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Thankful for many mentors and teachers, and here is one

     Her name is Willa Smith, and to me, she is a VIP. 
     Thinking of the people who have been mentors and teachers in my life, and how thankful I am for them.
      It covers a broad spectrum, beginning with parents and we mostly think of our school administrators, teachers (coaches) and our bosses as "mentors."
      But it's also our spouses, our friends, our co-workers, our kids and their friends, and now even our grandkids who can teach us.
      Really, if you're paying attention, and if your philosophy matches mine, you can (or should) learn something from most anyone you encounter. 
      I was thinking of some teachers and some fellow employees who -- frankly -- I did not enjoy. But perhaps they taught me about people skills, an area in which I had much to learn. 
      There is a long list of people, though, who were  important to me, personally and professionally. Forever grateful for them.
Willa Smith's photo from the yearbook section, 1965 Woodlawn High
 School Accolade (she was the main reason for outstanding yearbooks)
      This is often on my mind, and I could post names -- I have written about many -- but the incentive for the focus of this blog piece came several weeks ago when an old friend (which of our friends is not old?) asked about a particular teacher. She happened to be one of the key people in my first 18 years.
      Posted about her on Facebook and in e-mails -- to our Woodlawn High School friends -- after our conversation in mid-November, but I want to write more about Miss Willa Smith.
---
      She was not a journalism teacher per se, but she taught journalism principles which stuck with me forever. I will get to those in a moment.
      Part of the note I posted about her:
      ... Miss Smith was the excellent yearbook advisor (and also typing/shorthand teacher) at Woodlawn from its start in 1960 through May 1968. I have stayed in touch with her over the years ... but I had not talked to her in maybe five years (my fault). So I called her ... with trepidation, not knowing if she was even still alive.
      She is; she is 90, using a walker because she had both knees replaced at the same time, and then subsequently fell a couple of times, broke the femur in one of her legs and spent five months in a Hattiesburg hospital. She is back home now in Tylertown, Miss, and the last of her large immediate family (most lived into their mid-90s) and a sister-in-law live closeby.
      The good news: She is as sharp mentally as she always was. She is very proud and fond of her Woodlawn years, and those All-America-rated yearbooks -- and she should be.
      That was the note I posted. Here is more -- we had a good talk, and she remembered, and reminded me, that she shares a birthday (Oct. 23) with granddaughter Josie (our first grandchild). 
      She asked about Terry -- yes, Bradshaw -- and if I had seen him (other than on TV). The answer at that point was no, not in almost 30 years.
      The answer now is, yes, I was in the vicinity at the Frisco Bowl game last week when he was one of Louisiana Tech's honorary team captains and conducted the pregame coin toss in typical good Bradshaw humor. But he was on the field and I was in the stands, and that's as close as I needed to be. 
      About Miss Smith's teaching career: In the mid-1950s, she was at Covington, La., High School -- near her hometown. She then came to North Louisiana and was the yearbook advisor at Greenwood High School, just outside Shreveport. That school closed when Woodlawn opened, and we were so fortunate that she was part of what I consider an excellent Woodlawn faculty. 
      She stayed through the 1967-68 school year. It was the next year when Woodlawn won state championships in football and basketball; by then, she was back at Covington, having moved to be closer to her aging mother and more family.
      She retired after 31 years of teaching and said -- in a letter to me -- "took early retirement because [I] was exhausted after putting together 21 yearbooks while teaching hundreds of students."
      Through the years, we exchanged a few phone calls and a half-dozen letters -- not short notes -- and she reminded that she had kept them all (and so had I).
---
      Anyway, about Miss Smith and how she was a mentor ...
      First, she was so patient with everyone who worked on yearbook staffs. That trait I didn't pick up on all that often.
      (There was one day she was no so patient with me; I have written a blog piece about it. She was furious -- only time I ever saw her mad -- and ready to send me to the assistant principal in charge of discipline. But, dang -- a two-out, two-run tying Yankees home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of a World Series Game 5. Who, even stowed away in a back room listening to a transistor radio, would not have reacted and screamed about that?)
      Second, she was so careful, so thorough, so focused on details, so aware of meeting (or beating) deadlines imposed by the yearbook publishing company. 
      The thoroughness included proper cropping of photos and strict layout rules that meant recognizing borders and no "bleeding" photos off a page, and a proofreading process to  eliminate most would-be mistakes -- misspellings, transposed words and/or photos. 
       So our final products were extremely "clean" -- organized, disciplined, sharp-looking -- efforts. Can't remember mistakes in those books through her eight  years there.
       When I wrote the "mistakes were made" blog piece a week ago, it was an example that Miss Smith's focus on excellence didn't always carry over. But we did our damndest always to prevent errors.
       That blog piece was about people's names being fouled up, misspelled. Miss Smith was a stickler about having names correct in the yearbooks, and properly identifying photos. So we double- and tripled-checked names, especially in the class-photos sections. Again, wish in later newspaper work, I had been more careful at times.
       Also, she insisted that a person's given name be used; no nicknames. So the guy everyone called Buster was Cecil in our yearbooks. But ... we did talk her into allowing the use of Trey -- star every-sport athlete and one of the best-known, most popular kids in school -- instead of (formal name) Henry Lee. Had to work hard to convince her of that.
        She had us count headlines to be sure that they were lengthy enough (one full line) and count the words in our copy block to fit the allotted space. 
        One principle that stuck with me: On cutlines (photo captions), don't let one or two words jump to the bottom line (no "widows" or "hangovers"). Same on paragraphs, if possible. An aesthetic aspect, but a good one. 
       Third, Miss Smith made yearbook work serious business. 
       She stressed -- I hesitate to use preached, although she is a deeply religious person -- (1) that yearbooks were history books, that the information contained would be reference material, and should be as accurate as possible; and (2) that these were not books for cuteness, for making fun of people, no "inside" jokes, or cutting out photos for collages (which you saw in many yearbooks). 
       I was never a "cute" writer anyway, but I do know some very talented, award-winning sports writers who were great at writing columns for laughs (and, honestly, often to please themselves).
       Miss Smith was dedicated to the task, and the kids, and it took hours on weekends to work with editors of each section -- including some eager-but-naive sports editors. 
       Serious business, yes. I might have been one of the great "light" cut-ups and a raging maniac at times in every sports department I was in; ah, no "might" about it. But also, journalism -- newspapers or sports information -- and effort for excellence was serious business to me. (So was winning in athletics, or making the best effort.)
---
       It was a close-knit family in Tylertown -- seven children -- and it was steeped in military service, religious service and teaching. Family reunions were special.
       Miss Smith's three brothers all served as pilots in the military. The oldest was a fighter-plane pilot who flew 72 missions over Europe in World War II, later was a Mississippi state representative. The second-oldest was a bomber pilot killed in World War II. The youngest, with 20 years in the military, served in Korea and flew helicopters in Vietnam.
A few years ago
       One sister taught high school math for 40 years (her husband was a coach); another sister taught business education, then went to the Baptist seminary to earn a master's degree and, with her Baptist pastor husband, completed decades of service with 17 years at a church in Alabama. 
       Her closest sister was Alda, who taught at Queensborough Elementary in Shreveport for nine years while our Miss Smith was at Greenwood and Woodlawn. They each remained single, went back to South Louisiana -- Alda also taught elementary school in Covington -- so they could be with their mother each weekend in Tylertown. When she died, they went to live in the old family home.
       They each proudly worked on the historical committee of their lifelong Silver Creek Baptist Church in nearby McComb, Miss., which reached its 200th anniversary in 2014, and they helped organize the celebration.
       Alda died that year. Near the end, she finished compiling the Smith family genealogy book, which her four-years-younger sister appreciated.
       Willa Lee, thankfully, goes on. A sister-in-law who lives nearby checks on her. It is not easy for her to move around, but our friend Miss Smith never lacked for smarts, spirit, drive and determination. 
       And I know some old Woodlawn kids who have never forgotten what excellence meant, what a teacher and a mentor meant to us, and still does.
            

Monday, December 18, 2017

Getting the names right (well, not always)

     When I hear or see the phrase "mistakes were made," if it pertains to journalism, I think of two names: John David Crowe and Charles McDaniels. 
     Make note of them. There's a catch. Get to it in a moment. 
     When I read a story or a book -- especially in the sports realm -- and I see a name that is misspelled or a fact that is obviously wrong, it reminds me that accuracy counts ... a lot.
     Personally, there have been some big misses, some big -- pardon the language -- dumbass moments. Easy to remember.
     Pointed out in a previous blog how once upon a time, I mixed up the names of coaches at the same school (Taylor for Turner at one, Sardisco for Cicero at another). Hey, it happens. 
     I recently saw segments in a couple of books that pertained to two of Woodlawn High School's greatest athletes, Mr. Bradshaw and Mr. Parish, which prompted this blog piece. 
     Saw some fact errors -- plenty, in fact, especially on names in a book published on Terry this year (I had several written and phone exchanges with the writer). Bugs me. 
Drop headline and top of the game story from the
1953 Byrd-Springhill game which Bill McIntyre of
The Shreveport Times considered the best high
school football game he covered. But "Crowe"
is incorrect.
     But then ... let's go back to the top, to those names -- Crowe and McDaniels. 
     They are wrong; they are misspelled. 
     People from Springhill -- and most old North Louisiana football fans -- will recognize them instantly. They are two of the greatest running backs ever from the old Springhill High School, the Lumberjacks.
     (The school now is called  North Webster High -- a consolidation of kids from Springhill, and the disbanded Shongaloo, Sarepta and Cotton Valley high schools. They even changed school colors and team nicknames. What's worse, it's the Knights ... even though North Louisiana already had some Knights.)
      OK, back to Crow and McDaniel. Those are the correct spellings. 
      The late John David Crow, a legend -- who went on to Texas A&M (and the Heisman Trophy) and the NFL and a terrific coaching/administrative career.
      Charles McDaniel, the legendary "Quick Six" who went on to an outstanding four-year career at Louisiana Tech and was an NFL Draft pick. 
      Here is the catch (and I have known this for years, but because of my first newspaper allegiance, I am just now publishing this fact, admitting it): Throughout their years at Springhill High, The Shreveport Times sports department never spelled their last names correctly.
      It's true. 
      In 1952, when John David Crow as a junior led Springhill to its first state football championship, and again in his great 1953 senior season -- when he was among the nation's top college recruits -- he was always Crowe in The Times. 
 Class AAA All-State story, 1970: McDaniels is there.
      And in 1970, the first year many high schools and their football programs in North Louisiana were largely integrated, McDaniel emerged as a running back who was a threat to  break for a touchdown any time he touched the ball ... thus, a "quick six."
      But all season, he was McDaniels in The Times. You can look it up. I did because that's what I remembered and I wanted to verify it.
      I wrote a lot about him that season, including the state semifinals loss (to Hammond) at Springhill's stadium, located just a couple of first downs from the Arkansas/Louisiana state line.
      In fact, I'd like to take credit for the "Quick Six" nickname. However, that is a stretch.
      What happened was that in the Nov. 8 game story on Springhill's 27-0 victory against Jesuit-Shreveport at Captain Shreve Stadium (a rare Saturday night regular-season high school game), I wrote that future opponents should "beware of the Lumberjacks' "quick six" gang, halfbacks Charles McDaniels and James Harris. They can score on you, and it doesn't take long."
      So not Charles specifically.
      Apparently, the name caught on at Springhill High. Someone, some group -- maybe the cheerleaders -- liked it, and pinned on McDaniel alone. The next week, we heard there were "Quick Six" banners strung at the Lumberjacks' game.
      From then on, he was "Quick Six." He wore jersey No. 36 that season at Springhill, but at Louisiana Tech for four years, he -- appropriately -- wore No. 6.
     As a freshman, he broke the Tech  record for points in one season (104, 17 TDs and one PAT catch), broke it three years later, and scored 52 career TDs (some "quick sixes").
      A puzzling aspect of the misspelled names: In 1952, The Times' main prep sports writer was Bill McIntyre, who a decade later became sports editor/lead columnist and -- full disclosure -- was my first boss there. He was an excellent journalist and writer, but, well, he missed on John David Crow's name.
     In 1970, I was a guilty part on McDaniel(s). Did have company; the rest of the writers who covered Springhill that season also missed it.
     Even in the All-State stories, the names are spelled Crowe and McDaniels. In the late Jerry Byrd's book Football Country, where he lists All-State teams near the back, it's McDaniels in 1970. But he did have Crow in 1952 and 1953.
     Can't understand this: Apparently no one from Springhill ever called to correct matters, in 1952-53 or 1970.
     And, I'm thinking that the names were misspelled on the Springhill rosters that were provided to us, on preseason forms and in game programs. Plus, the coaches (Billy Baucum was head coach in 1952-53, Travis Farrar was in 1970) never said a word.
     How's that for an excuse?
     Anyway, when John David showed up at Texas A&M for the 1954 football season, he was Crow. When "Quick Six" came to Louisiana Tech in the fall of 1971, he was McDaniel. 
     So, on Crowe and McDaniels, mistakes were made. And, for every co-worker that I scolded, or yelled at, or hurled an object their way (plus some nice language), because they messed up a fact or a name (or a bunch of names), I apologize -- again.
     I was going to list the names and the newspapers, but I don't have enough space.
     There were mistakes/omissions, too, in the book Survivors: 62511, 70726 about my parents and my family, and I received corrections/clarifications that I posted on the book's Facebook page.
     Mistakes are made. Can't always hide from them.                    

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Tech's second bowl game: a long day in Baton Rouge

          (This was written for the Louisiana Tech sports information department as part of its bowl package)
---
      To start, two significant factors about Louisiana Tech's second football bowl game: (1) It was Terry Bradshaw's final college game; (2) he was sacked 12 times for 143 yards.
      That should tell you something about how the game went. It was a long Saturday afternoon for the 1969 Tech Bulldogs.
     Oh, there were similarities with Tech's first bowl game, played 364 days earlier:
      -- It was still called the Grantland Rice Bowl, although the site had changed ... from Murfreesboro, Tenn., to Baton Rouge, La.
      -- It again was the NCAA College Division Mideast Regional game (no playoffs beyond that, though).
      -- It was another powerful Tech team (8-1 regular-season record, with an excruciating one-point loss), even better than the year before (8-2, with a six-game winning streak).
      -- And Bradshaw was still the Tech quarterback, the star attraction.
      He was the College Division All-America QB (an honor announced the previous week), and considered by many the best at his position in the country, regardless of classification. And that included the NFL talent scouts who saw him as a potential high first-round draft pick.   
      The most notable similarity: The final result was a 20-point margin. But this time Tech -- a 33-13 winner against the University of Akron on Dec. 14, 1968 -- was a 34-14 loser.
      Because, in a significant difference, this opponent -- East Tennessee State -- obviously was much stronger, an unbeaten, once-tied team that had won the Ohio Valley Conference championship. 
      Didn't matter that the "experts" -- primarily the Dunkel Power Index -- had Tech as a 14-point favorite coming in. ETSU had won games by 2, 4, 6 and 2 points; Tech had only one narrow escape (a 1-point victory). Results against two common opponents made Tech appear as the much stronger team.
      Prediction fiction.
      No, ETSU had a heralded, ball-hawking defense which had held seven opponents to no more than seven points. (More on that unit in a moment.)
      Turned out it had no fear of a Tech team that had averaged 35.2 points a game -- a school record that stood for 29 years -- and was boosted by one 77-point game. ETSU's speed and aggressiveness proved too much for the Bulldogs, and even Bradshaw.
      From almost start (Bradshaw was sacked for a 19-yard loss on his first play) to finish (Terry sacked on his final three  plays, for 9, 14 and 14 yards), not much went right for Tech.
      Maybe Bradshaw had tougher days in a 14-year NFL career and was treated more roughly -- such as 1976 when Cleveland defensive end Joe "Turkey" Jones slammed him on his head and neck, causing a concussion and sidelining him for a few weeks. He was sacked 307 times in the pros, but likely never more in one game than this one.
      Still, despite all the harassment and some mistakes, he stood in and showed his talent, completing 20 of 39 passes for 299 yards and the Bulldogs' only two TDs, and -- briefly in the third quarter -- leading a Tech comeback and hopes for a victory.
      Bill McIntyre, The Shreveport Times sports editor/lead columnist, reflected Terry's status in his postgame column.
      The second paragraph read: "You get a Terry Bradshaw every three or four decades, maybe. You don't get one very often. A Y.A. Tittle comes wheeling through Louisiana football in the '40s and you get a Terry Bradshaw in the late '60s. Probably a Joe Ferguson in the early '70s, but you don't get one very often."
      He went on to write about Bradshaw's travails that afternoon, including an injured leg near the end of the game.
      And, in his game story, McIntyre turned to a cliche'-filled paragraph to describe the scene: "Bradshaw, the finest passer ever produced in Louisiana, was the boy caught on the burning deck as the Pirates climbed aboard. He was the kid with his finger in the dike and the water swirling around his shoulders."
      Actually, ETSU was the Buccaneers; its defensive players -- the "Hardrock Club" -- were rewarded for good deeds with skull and crossbones decals (the pirate theme) on their helmets. In this game, they could have used an extra supply.
      (Both teams' helmets also included a "100" logo, emblematic that season of college football's 100th anniversary.)
---
      Not only was it Bradshaw's finale, but so, too, for his fellow seniors who had helped resurrect Tech's program in the 1968 season after a couple of down years.
      The group included split end Tommy Spinks (Bradshaw's teammate and close friend since junior high in Shreveport), tight end Larry Brewer, offensive tackle Butch Williams and defensive tackle Johnny Richard -- all all-conference selections -- plus others such as fullback Buster Herren, center John Harper (a team tri-captain with Bradshaw and Spinks), speedy wide receiver Robbie Albright, safety Ricky Taylor, running back  Dwain Istre and punter Butch Troegel.
      But there were rumors ...
      In the game's aftermath, and maybe beforehand, word was that Tech's players -- after a long, hard season -- voted to refuse the bowl bid. Head coach Maxie Lambright, his program fully functional in his third season at Tech, wasn't having that. 
      Another factor: the site of the game. Baton Rouge perhaps wasn't the players' idea of an ideal bowl trip.
      For its first five years, the Grantland Rice Bowl had been played in Murfreesboro, hometown of America's most famous sportswriter. The bowl was named for him. 
      But as Tech's team and fans well knew, the weather in Murfreesboro the day of the game in 1968 had been brutal (snow flurries and a wind that brought the chill to near 0 degrees) and the attendance at Middle Tennessee State University's old stadium had been estimated at 600.
      So when Baton Rouge and its downtown Lions Club bid for the game, the NCAA was happy to move it. (Why it remained the Grantland Rice Bowl at the new site is hard to explain, but it remained that way through 1977 and two more host cities -- Fargo, N.D., and Anniston, Ala.) 
      Now the site was Memorial Stadium, Baton Rouge's best high school stadium, a no-frills facility just off downtown in the long shadow of the majestic Louisiana State Capitol building. It seated 22,000 -- and this game, on a beautiful mid-50 degrees afternoon for football, drew 16,101 paid spectators.
      But that stadium ...
      "Some of the players, and even some of the coaches, were not enthused about a bowl game in Baton Rouge," remembered Tech offensive backfield coach Mickey Slaughter, Bradshaw's coaching mentor in 1967-69. "We knew what Memorial Stadium was like, and playing there didn't seem the preferable place to end a very good season."
      And, as Slaughter recalled, "They had had a circus there the week or two before that game, and the smell was still just awful."
      About a circus and the smell, that was a fit for Tech football that day.
---
      It was 13-0 at halftime. A zero for a Tech team that had scored no fewer than 23 points in any game.
      The Bulldogs never caught up, although they closed to 13-7 and later 20-14. At the end of the third quarter, they were on the ETSU 34 with a chance to take the lead.
      Typical of the day: On the first play of the fourth quarter, Bradshaw was blitzed and tackled for an 18-yard loss. Tech ended up punting, and then its defense sank.
      The omen, though, came on Tech's first offensive play and series.
      ETSU defensive end Ron Mendheim (No. 89) introduced himself right away, closing on Bradshaw as he dropped back to pass and then retreated on his scramble ... and Mendheim chased him down from behind. So second-and-29, and it got worse.
      Terry completed two passes in a row to Istre, for 13 yards (nullified by a motion penalty) and then a 35-yard gain (brought back by a clipping penalty). On Tech's fifth play, Mendheim was back, blindsiding Bradshaw and causing him to fumble. ETSU recovered at Tech's 17, and soon scored.
      By halftime, Mendheim had five sacks, and Bradshaw had avoided another sack (and a 24-yard loss) with a desperate throw. Intercepted.
      Another pass, deflected, was picked off, too. So was a third one.
      But, considering ETSU's 34 interceptions in the regular season, it fit a pattern. The Bucs' defense was known as "Bennett's Bandits" in honor of secondary coach Buddy Bennett.
      "We made that guy famous nationally," Slaughter recently recalled, laughing. "Well, if not nationally, maybe just in the deep South."
      Indeed. The next year Bennett was the secondary coach for the Tennessee Vols and first-year head coach Bill Battle. An unheralded secondary improved rapidly, intercepted 36 passes (eight against Alabama) -- the "Bennett's Bandits" nickname had moved to Knoxville -- and then four more in a 34-13 Sugar Bowl victory against Air Force, capping an 11-1 season. And the following season, 1971, Bennett became defensive coordinator for Frank Broyles at Arkansas.
     More early offensive misery for Tech: After the Bulldogs recovered an ETSU fumble on a punt at the 30, Herren caught a flare pass from Bradshaw, but fumbled the ball away at the ETSU 10. (Buster later did go in for Tech's first TD on an 8-yard pass.)
      Meanwhile, ETSU broke two significant offensive plays -- a 37-yard halfback option pass that completely fooled Tech's defense for the game's second TD, and just after the Bulldogs' first score, a 61-yard run (longest in NCAA College Division bowl history then) by Jerry Daughtry to the Tech 1. 
      "When No. 44 (Daughtry) broke loose on that simple little dive play," Bradshaw said after the game, "and ran all the way to the 1-yard line, that mentally broke us."
      Except it didn't; Terry misfired on that recall. Because he rallied Tech again for its second score on a 19-yard pass to old buddy Spinks late in the third quarter. 
      Tech's top receivers -- who had totaled 94 catches for 1,854 yards in the regular season (Spinks 46 for 995, Brewer 30 for 357, and Albright 18 for 502) -- had decent days vs. ETSU: Brewer five catches for 111 yards, Spinks five for 76, and Albright four for 72. Didn't matter.
      The last quarter was all ETSU, drives of 88 and 44 yards, capped with touchdown passes by Larry Grantham for 33 and 18 yards. Ballgame.
      Proof that Tech made a lot of little plays: It led in first downs, 17-15. But the Bucs' total-yardage edge was big (419-256) and their 245 rushing yards was 14 short of the then-NCAA College Division bowl record.
     Tech assistant coach Pat Collins, then the linebackers coach and later the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame/national championship head coach at Northeast Louisiana, summed up the game in his usual direct, salty manner:
      "They just flat beat the hell out of us," he told an Alexandria Town Talk reporter covering the game. Slaughter, standing nearby, nodded in agreement.  
      Lambright was more low-key, as was his media manner.
      "East Tennessee State was the best team out there today," he said. "They are a fine, fine team. ... I didn't think anybody could get to Terry as many times as they did." 
      He specified ETSU's third-down success as a key. "They made their big plays, and we didn't," he said. "It was as simple as that."
      That, and a dozen sacks, three interceptions and two lost fumbles, and a leaky defense.
---

    Bradshaw afterward was disheveled, battered and bruised -- red welts were evident -- as he shed his grass-stained white jersey in the quiet Tech dressing room. He appeared to have been on the losing end of a fight.
     Moments after speaking with general manager Don Klosterman of the Houston Oilers, he faced the surrounding media.
      "Most of the time they blitzed on second down," he said of the ETSU defense. "I thought I had picked up a key, but the way they were jumping around, it was hard to tell what they were going to do."
      Then he reflected on the past four years.
      "I've had a great career at Tech," he said. "I just hate to lose the last game. I hate to lose any game."
      But the game proved -- if there was doubt -- that Terry could take a beating and keep playing, and Klosterman voiced what NFL teams were thinking.
      "We want him," he said. "We think he is one of the greatest pro prospects to ever come along. We just hope we get a chance to draft him." 
      Picking 14th, they had no chance. A little more than six weeks later, after Bradshaw had played in a couple of all-star games (one with Spinks and Brewer as teammates), the Pittsburgh Steelers made him the No. 1 overall pick. 
      Terry would go through two difficult losing seasons in the NFL, but by his third year the Steelers were in the playoffs and soon winning four Super Bowls in six seasons, and he was on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
      Louisiana Tech football would sink badly in 1970, then hit its greatest era -- 44-4, three national championships -- from 1971 to '74. (That included a 12-0 record in 1972 and another Grantland Rice Bowl at, yes, Memorial Stadium in Baton Rouge, and a 35-0 victory against Tennessee Tech. That one didn't smell.)
      For East Tennessee State, it never before or since had a season like 1969 -- its only season without a loss. Under respected coach John Robert Bell, the Bucs were very good again the next year (7-1-2), but winless in 1971. After that, only once in 35 seasons did they win more than seven games, and interest in the program waned so badly that the university dropped football after the 2003 season. 
      After 11 dormant years, ETSU fielded a team again in 2015; its head coach until Dec. 8 this year was Carl Torbush, a Louisiana Tech assistant in the early 1980s, then head coach for one year (1987).
      But on one December 1969 afternoon in Baton Rouge, ETSU had its finest football hours. And Louisiana Tech -- in Terry Bradshaw's last stand -- had a game to forget. If only we could. 
---
      Note: From 1965 to spring 1969, I was student assistant in Louisiana Tech's sports information office. The fall of 1969 was my first fulltime football season at The Shreveport Times.
      Photos copied from Alexandria Daily Town Talk, Dec. 14, 1969.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A great (and dumb) experience: first trip to Yankee Stadium

        This happened a long time ago -- 50 years -- and it was so embarrassing, so stupid, that I have never told the story in print.
       It has a happy ending; I did make it to Yankee Stadium -- the old, original, fabled Yankee Stadium, my field of dreams -- on August 18, 1967.
       And it has a sad ending. But you have to read this piece to get there.
Murray Pompeo
       It involves a neat, gentle kid -- Murray Pompeo -- from Paterson, N.J. (a key element to the story). He really is the hero of this adventure; he took me to the Big Stadium in the Bronx.
       But not before I messed up big-time. 
       Here is the confession, the major problem (and try not to think of me as a total idiot, just a partial one): I lost, or misplaced, and certainly did not have with me, Murray's contact information.
        Another key element: Murray and his mother lived with his stepfather, and I did not know his last name.
       So, no address, no phone number, no way to reach them. 
       But I knew Murray would pick me up at the airport -- Newark, close to where he lived -- and we would go to Yankee Stadium and then his parents' apartment in Paterson.
        Fine ... until my Delta flight from Atlanta was canceled. And then I had an issue. 
        I also had the makings of an adventure.
---
        I had been in Atlanta -- after my very first airplane trip, from Shreveport -- to spend a few days with my good friends, the Tuckers, who had moved there from Sunset Acres, our neighborhood, a few months earlier. 
        We had gone to some Atlanta Braves' games, and the second part of my vacation -- after a summer of covering American Legion baseball for The Times -- was the New York City area ... and Yankee Stadium. It was an awful Yankees team that season, but No. 7, Mickey Mantle, was still playing -- first base, on two bad legs. And I'd in person never seen him play.
        Murray Pompeo, his parents' only child, invited me to come up, stay with them, and go to Yankee Stadium.
        We had become friends in our second year at Louisiana Tech University, dormitory mates and he was going to be my roommate that fall. He was a big kid, built funny (big hips, big butt) because of glandular problems; he smoked constantly; and he was a late-night hanger-on in the dorm TV lounge area. That's where we began visiting. 
         I was there in a hopeless attempt to study -- I wasn't diligent, not with a TV and other people there -- and Murray, well, I never saw him study.
        He was likeable, and such a sports fan, a Tech fan (I was working in the sports information office) ... and a Yankees fan. Perfect.
         So I did have his address and phone number at one point, and we set up my trip. The schedule: an early Thursday flight from Atlanta to NYC, an afternoon game that day with the Baltimore Orioles and a Friday doubleheader with the Minnesota Twins.
          (Game tickets were easy, and free. Ballclubs then were very generous with "comp" tickets for sports newspaper departments, so I arranged them through The Times ... for the Braves' games and the Yankees' games.) 
          All set, and then the flight cancellation. I was re-booked on a United flight ... to JFK International. 
          I needed to let Murray know I wasn't going to be at Newark at the agreed time. Didn't have his contact info.
         Time to panic. I was 20, more naive than I am now, and dumb (d-u-m-b).
          Found a pay phone (this is three decades before cellphones), called home (collect, of course), and asked (told) Mom to find Murray's phone number or address.
          I had no idea where I had put it, nor had my parents thought to ask for it. I just assumed everything would work out well.
          Of course, Mom couldn't find the info. (I took that well.) Strike one.
          So, it was on to NYC/JFK on United, lots of time to think of what to do. 
          I knew the Thursday game at Yankee Stadium was a scratch, and I wondered what Murray must have been thinking when I didn't show up at Newark.
          Got to JFK, and got to a pay phone to call Louisiana Tech (because surely they had Murray's address and phone number). Charged the call to my parents' number (of course) and tried the admissions office where I knew Mrs. Patsy Lewis -- wife of Coach E.J. Lewis -- would help me.
          Patsy wasn't there. The girl who answered was not willing to help (likely couldn't give out that info anyway). So,  strike two.
           Asked for help at JFK. Someone suggested I go to Port Authority (by subway or bus) and then catch a bus for Paterson, N.J., and that's what I did. Port Authority was quite a trip; traffic and people everywhere, including one lonely, lost Louisiana kid.
           But not brainless; I did scramble well. Got to Paterson by early evening, found a hotel downtown and got a room, and had a plan.  
           In the morning, I would go to the Paterson newspaper office, where I knew -- this was from my experience at The Times -- they would have a city directory.
           Don't even remember the paper's name; only that it was downtown, not far from the hotel. So I went in, found people in the newsroom, told them my "problem," and they were very helpful. They were willing to dig into their files and/or call the authorities.
           I always have been lucky, so here was the best luck, as I remember it: Murray -- maybe because he was 21 -- was listed in the city directory as a student. Had his address and phone number.
           I called, and he was there in 10 minutes. Problem solved.
           It was midday; the Yankees' doubleheader was a twi-nighter, which meant -- I think -- about a 1 p.m. start for Game 1, about 4 p.m. for Game 2.  
           It was about a 30-minute drive to the stadium, and we arrived just after Game 1 had ended (a 1-0 Yankees victory in which Mantle had played first base and gone 1-for-2). 
This is about the angle we had during the first game
 I saw at the old Yankee Stadium.
           Quite a thrill walking up the tunnel to see the historic stadium for the first time. We had great seats, front row of the second level, just to the left of home plate, right behind the media area (which hung over the first deck). 
           (During Game 2, Joe Garagiola -- then one of the Yankees' broadcasters -- walked right in front of us, going to make a pit stop, probably. Someone behind us yelled, "Hey, Joe." Garagiola never looked up, kept walking and said, "Hey, guys, howya doing?")
           OK, Game 2 lineups went on the board, Yankees took the field. No Mantle.
           More luck. Tie game (2-2), bottom of the sixth inning, Yankees loaded the bases with one out. Ruben Amaro, a .227-hitting shortstop, due up. He went back in the dugout, and it was quiet for a moment ... and then the roar of the crowd (22,991 paid, plus us freebies) began to rise.
            They sensed what I did ... No. 7 was coming out of the dugout to pinch-hit.
            One of my great early life thrills. But not a good result. On the second pitch, batting right-handed against lefty Jim Merritt, Mickey hit a hard grounder to the third baseman, who stepped on the bag and easily threw to first for a double play.
            So much for the only time I was in a stadium -- the stadium -- when Mickey Mantle batted.
            The Twins won the game 4-3 when Rich Reese pinch-hit a ninth-inning, two-run homer. At the time it kept Minnesota -- with Zoilo Versalles, Tony Oliva, Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, the nucleus of the team that two years earlier had played in the World Series -- in first place of the American League. They were still first on the next-to-last day of the season.
           So ended my first Yankee Stadium visit (there have been three since, all to the renovated -- and now obsolete -- ballpark). 
           My trip wasn't a total disaster; the mistake really was harmless (I've made thousands that were more harmful to me and others). 
           It was an inconvenience, but it turned out to be a wonderful day, nonetheless, thanks mostly to my friend Murray. That night at his parents' apartment, they were so gracious and we had an Italian meal -- lasagna, which I think was a first for me. 
           Flew back to Shreveport the next day, no problems, and soon I was back at Louisiana Tech as fall football practice began.
           Now the sad part. Murray and I never roomed together at Tech. I cannot recall if he even came back to school (don't think he did). If he did, it wasn't for long.
           They found cancer -- leukemia I believe it was -- and he was gone in about six months. 
           I was grateful to have known him, and I never forgot how he helped me get to Yankee Stadium, although our visit was delayed a few hours.    
           It was a learning experience: If you are meeting someone, have their contact info -- always.

           

Friday, November 24, 2017

"There Is A God"

        Today's topic is an unusual one for me: religion. Heard something this past week that resonated with me.
       The bulk of this blog is provided by one of the world's most famous and most historic actors, Sir Sidney Poitier.
      It is a segment on religion and spirituality from his book written in 2007, Life Beyond Measure, sub-titled Letters to My Great- Granddaughter. He was 80 then; she was not yet 2.
      The timing was right because it is Thanksgiving week, and the Christmas season is here for the next month. And obviously, I like what Sir Sidney write and -- in our case, through audio book -- what he said.
       In a previous blog or two, I have written -- and people close to me know this -- I am not the religious type. Proud to be Jewish, would not have it any other way, but have not been observant in decades.
       Even my parents, Holocaust survivors whose family were terribly thinned because of religion (and hatred), were not that deeply observant. My younger sister has stayed with it.
       But my parents believed in their God. I believe. Certainly support anyone who practices their faith and religion.
       To be honest, though, I am not comfortable in how religion so often divides us. I am not comfortable with people -- yes, friends -- who "wear their religion on their sleeve," who push it (my opinion) at every opportunity in every conversation.
       (An example, going back to my previous blog about the Robertsons and Duck Dynasty: Duck hunting did not interest me, nor did Phil and the family's very religious theme.)
       Sorry if these thoughts offend you. When I hear that sports and politics shouldn't mix, I also think that sports and religion shouldn't mix. If so, only at a minimum.
       Houston Astros fans' prayers were answered. Mine weren't. OK, that's a joke.
       Really, though, I don't think God favors a team or players over another. And I don't think God directs free-agent players to a team -- yeah, I've heard that said -- but money sure does.
       Enough already. On to the segment from Sir Sidney Poitier because he puts religion in terms with which I agree.
---
       "Dear Ayele,
       As you will learn in time, there are many religions, many sects, many images of God. ... Each culture has its images. While I have mine, which differs in some measure from images held by others, my image of God permits me to question it, and myself. Why else would we have been given a curiosity, an imagination, a network of instincts and perceptive capabilities. I believe these gifts were and are survival tools, without which we could not have survived as a species. Gifts given to us, I believe, by the image of the God that I embrace.
       That brings me again to my own position, which is I believe there is an intelligence, and it is limitless, it is alive, it is conscious, and this is just a part of what it is. I don't think it's interested in one religion over another religion, held by two different cultures. 
       But I feel this about my life, I feel that I am constantly in the presence of God, by that I mean, I am constantly going about my life conscious that the universe is aware of me and I am aware of it. I go about my life feeling that the all-encompassing God has a relationship with me, and I with it. I have to then accept, or rather insist, on embracing the God that I think looks after me. I couldn't have survived as I have under my own direction, my determinations or my own choices. I made all of my choices and I stand by them all, even the ones that turned out in one fashion or another to have been incorrect, to have been unworthy of the me I perceived myself to be. I don't lay it all to the fact that I believe myself to be imperfect and finite, which I am. And it is our mistakes and fears, our imperfections that damage some of the people we care about, that damage our environment.
       So I come back to the belief that I am not here without its concurrence. I may not want to believe that, but I do not know which of its designs require me to function in a certain way. Not independently as an entity as I may think, but as a part of other things, as part of another kind of objective. I am interrelated as a coming together of all kinds of energies, and these energies come together in order to produce a result that is necessary for the functioning of the universe.
       There is more to say about the questions, answers and mysteries related to God and the nature of the universe and I have contemplated them in my time. ..."
       (He then describes his return to the Bahamas for the first time in eight years to see his parents, and how he was able to provide money -- from his film-career beginnings -- for them to live in a home with electricity, indoor plumbing and a porch for the rest of their lives.)
       They talked of "the unlimited prospects of the life upon which I was embarking, a life beyond measure, without barriers to where I could go and who I could become.
       "And, as we sat there late into the early hours of the morning, no one said it per se, but I know that deep down in the center of the joyous occasion, we were all thinking the same thing: 'There is a God.' "