Of course my father wanted me to play football. He played in the coal mine league in western Pennsylvania, and in high school before that, and would have gone on to college to play football except he had to keep working to help support the family.
I would do anything that I could to try to make him happy, so when the time came at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Elementary School in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in the late 1950s, there I was in line for the football team.
The problem with the Catholic schools in that era was that they really had no sugar daddies to bankroll sports stuff, so we got by with very old, moldy equipment with straps that snapped and snaps that wouldn’t hold and jerseys that smelled like someone else.
So I brought my gear home and put it on and waited for dad to get home from work. He smiled and said, “Show me how you get into your stance on the line.”
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I was going to be an offensive center, just like he was an offensive center.
I got down in a three-point stance and looked as tough as I could.
“Where’s your chin strap?” he asked.
“They didn’t have any but they said it didn’t matter,” I told him.
“Oh, yeah?” he said.
That was a clue about what was going to happen.
“On three,” he said.
“Hut, hut, three …”
I almost fainted.
He grabbed the protective bar on the front of my helmet, pushed it up so violently that it ripped the skin where my ears attached to my head, jerked my head back and pushed me flat on my backside, with a violent thump.
I wept like a baby. It really hurt.
“Don’t play without a chin strap,” he said.
Then he left.
Fast-forward to a nursing home in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, a while back, where my father was flat on his back in the same bed he had been flat on his back in for a long time. There is no light in his eyes when he sees me. There is no recognition. It has been that way for quite some time.
Dementia, I was told.
Then he died.
I have not watched football in decades and probably never will again. With the latest news from the National Football League about brain damage and long-term costs for football players, I am haunted by the ghostly image of my father, dying in that bed.
I remember his advice to me, go low and as hard as you can at everyone, no matter the size. If you hit him hard enough, you will hurt him and scare him and then you will be able to do what you need to do.
I don’t know how many concussions he had. The industrial leagues were a little loose about things like that. About all I remember about it is that he once swallowed a plug of chewing tobacco during a game and was sick for a day.
What healthy person chewed tobacco while playing football?
My own football interest died on a playing field at St. Columban’s Minor Seminary (no longer there) in Silver Creek, N.Y. I was playing defensive center at that point, right across from a guy whose name was Moriarty, (Swear to God, true!) an Irish kid with a nose like Jim Thorpe.
A Dangerous Man for a future missionary priest, he was.
There were no helmets in the seminary, of course. I watched Moriarty’s hands for that little twitch that would show me the ball was about to move, my sign to launch.
He was faster. A lot faster as it turned out.
He ran over me like a pavement roller smashes hot asphalt. In the process, his spikes (Yes, we were wearing spikes!) came right down across my forehead, opened up a huge gash that left me bleeding. I did not know it because I was flat on my back, trying to watch the action upside down.
The priests taped me up and the lovely woman we knew as “Sister Infirmarian” cleaned it and stuck it together with adhesive tape.
I would pick the scab in study hall. It would bleed and I would be allowed to go again to see the delightful nurse nun. I never became a priest, but I maintained an immense affection for nurses and nuns, and eventually, my wound healed.
But I didn’t. I needed the last 10 years of my father’s life so I could know how it would be to really be a man with a family. I needed to forgive him for nearly ripping my ears off. I needed to know it was OK with him that I walked away from football and never looked back.
We can do that too. And I’m thinking now we probably should.
Charles M. Madigan is presidential writer in residence at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He wrote this for the Chicago Tribune.
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