December 29, 2003
Several of my co-workers are playing hockey this winter, recalling to mind my own career in team sports.
Perhaps my best moment was in 1966, on a cold, crisp autumn Saturday morning, when I tackled Sam Conway in a Delta Tau Delta game on the field by the Women’s Building at Syracuse University. Sam didn’t see me coming; he was up in the air catching the ball; I had a perfect line on him, and wrapped him up like a mummy before slamming him to the scrubby turf. “Any man would have been proud of that tackle,” said Steve Wood as I trotted back to the line of scrimmage. And later Sam noted, “I remember hitting the ground and thinking, Oh, God, let that be anybody but Winship.”
That same day, David Taylor caught me a few yards from the end zone with a vice-like grabbing tackle through two sweatshirts that sent me cartwheeling out of bounds. When I showered, I found that in clamping down on my shoulders he had left two perfect sets of finger prints, four purple prints on each pectoral and two thumb prints on my back. And Ken Knudson — who weighed 220 to my 110 — capped the day by knocking the snot out of me, literally, bulling through the line and tossing me ten feet, while my snot unreeled in slow motion, an unbroken crystalline ribbon playing out before my shock-widened eyes as I flew back from the point of impact. It was so fascinating, I hated to land.
About a year later, I had a better evening of football at Elmlawn Cemetery, after the annual employees’ summer picnic. Beer was involved. We found an open space among the monuments, and planned our plays around those stones that stood in-bounds. I was quarterbacking our three-man team; the opposing QB was a younger lad named John Lyth who had played that position for Kenmore East High School. There was no rushing allowed, so I had time “in the pocket” to find my receiver, a mower-man named Jerry, who simply ran as fast as he could, hands in the air, and I threw the ball as far as I could in his direction. Amazingly, we won. John’s spirals were prettier, but his receivers were not as gifted.
Softball was not as rewarding. As a boy, I was cut from my church team. It was fast pitch, and I could not keep my left foot in the batter’s box. Nor could I catch or throw with any predictability. After I was released, a teammate, Tom Lovell, stopped by our house to ask for my hat back. It was green wool with KBC in white letters, and the team was one short.
I could not be cut from gym class at Kenmore West, where we played in shorts, t-shirts and sneakers. No gloves. One sunny day, one of my brawnier classmates popped a ball up in my direction and I got under it, watching it come down, hissing with spin. I raised my hands, and it hit the top of the middle finger of my right hand, bouncing straight back up into the air, six feet at least. My next memory is the x-ray technician trying to get the finger to lay flat on the cold film plate at Kenmore Mercy.
The Syracuse New Times gave me one last chance in softball. It was slow-pitch, and I was surrounded by talent: the smooth fielding of Roland “Scoop” Sweet, the peppy banter of Alan Kraut, the precise pitching of Mike Greenstein, and the big bat of Lee Smith. The death knell for my on-field participation came one evening during practice behind Levy Junior High, when I finally connected for the hit of my dreams. The pitch floated in and I read it clearly; I coiled and released all my energy through the swing, whipping the bat through a tight arc, crushing the ball on the sweet spot. I felt a rush of elation. Yes, this truly was the smash I had dreamed of since boyhood, the true realization of my potential, rocketing into the outfield where Lee Smith caught it without moving his feet.
Halfway to first base, slowing to a walk, I looked into the evening sky and saw the handwriting. It was the spectator’s life for me.