Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Applause of the Heart

In the Sporting News magazine dated 12/22/2008 were the mentions of those who departed. And the people who felt enough about that person to offer their condolences made it all the more memorable.

I had to speak at someone's funeral after I was asked by the man's step-daughter and ex-wife. I found out about my former coaching mate's passing and in the middle of my scheduled vacation had to put my personal stuff aside and think about what the heck I was going to say on this man's behalf.

Eulogies done properly are constructed with great care and attention to detail. The more delicate the matter is the more important it is to handle your manner with aplomb.

A point needs to be made just how much this person meant to you. Others present should smile, maybe even chuckle, or better yet laugh aloud. Tears of joy are good for the soul.

Once again it was a Sporting News article that inspired me to want to share these thoughtful memories by well-known sports figures. This stuff is must read for the avid sports fan and the humanitarian alike or someone who is somewhere in-between.

The following tributes didn't really capture what I was looking for but it's how the writer/speaker felt and it is only my opinion. Perhaps someone else reading: Georgia Frontiere by Dick Vermeil. Johnny Podres by Carl Erskine. Harry Mangurian, Jr., by Larry Bird. Don Haskins by Bobby Knight. Skip Caray by Ted Turner, and Alexei Cherepanow by Jay Grossman may enjoy these pieces of heart.

  1. Kevin Duckworth by Clyde Drexler. Kevin Duckworth was, no doubt, the finest individual I have ever known, that anyone could know. He was a great player, a great friend, a great humanitarian, a great lover of the environment. We didn't have roommates in the NBA when we were playing, but as soon as we got to our hotel, I'd go hang out in Duck's room. Every team flight and every bus ride, he'd be sitting next to me. He was like my little brother. My big little brother.
  2. Bobby Murcer by George Steinbrenner. When Bobby started out and then succeeded Mickey Mantle, many people likened him to No. 7. ...They were both from Oklahoma, both played centerfield and both had that All-American look... He didn't have to live up to anybody else. At one point, he was the highest paid Yankee in history...Bobby was very proud to wear the pinstripes. It was his badge of honor in baseball...When he was traded for Bobby Bonds in 1974, it was very tough for me. I'm just grateful we got him back five years later. (The year the Giants acquired Murcer was the only year the broadcast crew consisted of Lon Simmons and Al Michaels.)
  3. Pete Newell by Jerry West. I came to know Pete well when he was my Olympic coach in 1960. (Jerry West was co-captain of Pete Newell's 1960 US Olympic team, which rolled to the gold, winning by an average of 42.4 points. Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Walt Bellamy were among those on what arguably was the greatest amateur team ever.) He was one of those lovable people that made you feel good when you were around him, but more important, he made an impression that you remembered after you left him. He had this wonderful balanced way about himself emotionally, which I admired because I don't have that.
  4. Gene Hickerson by Jim Brown. We're very happy that Gene was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, especially before he passed away, so his family could have that joy, that memory, that place in history. It's greater for the Hall of Fame than it is for him. How could you have a guy block for 3 Hall of Famers-myself, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly-and not become a Hall of Famer? He was our fastest and quickest lineman, and overall the best of the linemen we had in Cleveland. He was our best pulling guard. His downfield blocking was fantastic. The Hall of Fame did something very, very great when Gene was finally inducted , after years of us lobbying for him. They invited myself, Bobby and Leroy to wheel him out to receive his award on stage. That was one of my greatest moments in sports because of the privilege of having two Hall of Famers with me, paying tribute to our guy, the guy who had been blocking for all of us and who had been struggling for so long to get in. It was a great gesture, great thinking on their part. It was something everyone that witnessed it really appreciated. It was very respectful, very caring.
  5. Jack Mildren by Barry Switzer. Coming out of high school in 1968, Jack Mildren was the No. 1 player in the country...When Oklahoma recruited him, we received the first great player to ever come across the Red River from Texas to Oklahoma...I've always considered Jack the godfather of the wishbone...He led an offense in 1971 that no one will approach. Oklahoma averaged a record 472 yards rushing per ballgame. Teams can't do that for one game. He did it for all 11.
  6. Herb Score by Rocky Colavito. Herbie was more like a brother than a friend. He never made any excuses for anything that happened to him. We roomed together for all or part of 7 years. You get to know a guy pretty good. We never had a harsh word for each other. I get emotional just talking about him. I got traded from Cleveland to Detroit in 1960, and Herbie got traded the next day, to the White Sox. And then we played each other...It was the first time I had faced him as an opponent. One time in Spring Training I faced him in an intrasquad game, and he threw me a curve that hit me on the toe. I gave him hell, kidding him saying, "That's a nice way to treat your roomie." The first time I came up against him, he threw me a fastball. I hit the ball really well, far into the upper deck. I watched it-it was either going to be a home run or foul. It curved foul at the last second. He comes off the mound and says, "Hey, what the hell is this? I said, "Roomie, I'm just trying to do the best I can." I can't remember what he threw me next, maybe a curveball. They always played me really deep, and hit this 1,000-hopper down the third base line. Even with my speed, I beat it out. He didn't even make a throw. Herbie looks at me and says, "Are you going to take that?" I said, "Roomie, I'll take anything I can get."
  7. Gene Upshaw by Tom Flores. My second year, we were 2-3 and rumors were flying all over that I was going to get fired. (Quarterback) Dan Pastorini had broken his leg and Jim Plunkett was going to start against San Diego. There were a lot of things going on, as they usually do when you're struggling. Gene was a positive reinforcement on my side. He just said to me, "Coach, we're not doing anything wrong, we just gotta do it better." To this day, I still use it-we weren't doing anything wrong, we just had to do it better. And we did. We won the Super Bowl that year.
  8. Ernie Holmes and Dwight White by Mean Joe Greene. Before Super Bowl 9, in the AFC championship game against the Oakland Raiders, we were told all week about how Gene Upshaw was going to kill Ernie. And we teased Ernie that Upshaw was going to beat him up. So we kicked off to the Raiders and we were sitting across from them while they were in their huddle, only about 10 yards away, and Ernie starts yelling,"Eugene! Eugene!" Really loud, three or four times, while Gene, of course, was trying to get the play call. Ernie yells "Eugene!" as loud as he can, anf finally Gene looks up and Ernie just says in a loud voice, "I'm going to kick your (expletive)!"...When you write words, it's hard to really get at your feelings...Ernie was just making light of the game; we knew we had to play great because there was no one better than that Raiders offensive line. It was just the basic personality of the guys involved-Ernie, Dwight,L.C., Steve Furness, too, and myself. It was teasing, that's essentially what it was. We were having fun...It's been well-documented about Dwight coming out of the sickbed to play a great game in Super Bowl 9. But I remember Dwight and Ernie took over Super Bowl 10, when I wasn't able to play in the second half. Super Bowl IX (9), in New Orleans, we dropped our bags in our rooms, didn't even unpack, and went right down on to Bourbon Street to the Desire (Oyster Bar). We drank all the Heineken in the place, and right from there, Dwight fell ill (with pneumonia)...We never bragged about it, but you talk about the Steel Curtain, Doomsday I and DoomsdayII, the Purple People Eaters, the Fearsome Foursome, the Sack Exchange, all the great front fours, and it's hard to say which one is the best. But we're among the group. (Personally, I think the best has the most rings.)
  9. Buzzie Bavasi by Don Newcombe. Buzzie Bavasi was the man who created a career for Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson and me in 1946. Buzzie was our general manager at Nashua, and during our season with the Nashua Dodgers, Roy and I got called a lot of names. Pip Kennedy was Lynn's manager and the third base coach, and he was calling us all sorts of names one night because he knew we couldn't fight back. That was the thing: No matter what happened, we were not to fight back...Think about that. If we hadn't gone to Nashua, New Hampshire, in the New England League at the Class B level, where would we have gone? Back to the Negro Leagues? Buzzie made it possible to get where we did with our God-given talents. Jackie, Roy and I won 5 MVPs, 2 rookie of the year awards and 1 Cy Young award. Buzzie made it all possible.
  10. Will Robinson by Spencer Haywood. (LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have Spencer Haywood to thank-in 1971, Haywood's landmark Supreme Court case opened the door for players to enter the NBA without waiting for 4 years after high school. The Sonics retired his #24 in 2007.)

I was from a town in Mississippi called Silver City, in the Delta. Silver City had two things-cotton and the blues. So I went with my brother to Bowling Green, who was a student at Bowling Green University. I was playing in a tournament when I was 15 in 1964. That's when I met Will Robinson. He saw me play, and when he found out about my background, that my father died before I was born and my mother was down in Mississippi, he said, "I'll tell you what I'll do. You stay up in Detroit, with me as your father." And I did. I played for Will at Pershing High. We had a great team, the first public school state champs in more than 30 years, in 1967. He made me into a great basketball player. But that wasn't as important to Will as making me into a man. I was just a kid from the South...He taught me so much more than basketball. I will never forget driving with him on our way to a basketball tournament, and he was listening to music. I said, "What's this?" "That's Ella Fitzgerald, the first lady of song," Will said. "What about Aretha Franklin?" Will just smiled and turned it up. Right then, I became a jazz fan. I went home and started ordering all these albums -you know, from Columbia House, they had those record clubs, Ella, Nat King Cole, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. I listened to them until they were worn out. When I was at Will's funeral, the one thing I kept thinking, after all these years, was, "You know, I don't think I paid for all those albums." It must have been Will. But that was what was great about him. He always paid attention to you, made you feel like you were the most important thing. But, really, he knew everyone, everyone. I remember when my hardship case against the NBA went all the way to the Supreme Court. I was sitting in court, and they were wrapping up for the day. Thurgood Marshall was on the bench, and he looks down at me and says, "Say hi to Will for me." I never knew Will had that kind of clout.

11) Jim McKay by Al Michaels. Jim could take any subject and make it interesting. He was like a favorite teacher. He could draw you into something when otherwise you'd change the channel.

When I had my first grandchild, he said, "Do you know why granparents and grandchildren get along so famously?" I said, "No, why?" He said, "Because they're united against a common enemy."

In 1986, we were in Louisville to cover the Kentucky Derby. The Capital Cities group had bought ABC and taken over earlier that year. As is often the case with a transition, the new management was hellbent on cutting costs.

We wound up staying at a terrible hotel out by the airport. It was one of those places where it's pitch-black in the hallways.

McKay and I looked at each other like, "Oh man, what are we doing here?"

The bellman took our luggage, and we were walking to our rooms, and we could barely see our way. We started talking about the fact that, "Uh, oh, what happened to the old days?"

And all of a sudden, I heard Jim warble the line from the old Simon&Garfunkel song, "Hello darkness my old friend, I've come to talk with you again."

We had a great laugh. It was beautiful. He'd always find the bright side, and it was often ironic. He was fabulous company, and his was a friendship I'll treasure forever."

(Thanks to the Sporting News for their ability to know what I like in sports. All the black and white photos of players during my youth and the style in which they put it all together. It's something worth sharing with others who may appreciate how well these excerpts from TSN were put together. )

Kevin Marquez