The great Georgetown University men's basketball coach John Thompson Jr. Kept a deflated basketball on the desk in his office. It was a reminder to his players that the games always come to an end. This was one of the reasons that many middle class parents of basketball players were hoping that their sons would choose and be chosen by the Hoyas. Thompson's players were well prepared and generally did well with life after basketball. There is only one guarantee about the game, any game, that it will end. Thompson was somewhat rare in the sense that he actually helped his players prepare for that reality.
For some who were wearing a black and gold helmet a week ago it is already over, though the process may drag on for weeks or even months more. Perhaps another team will give them another tryout, there's Canada, maybe Arena ball next year. Some will continue because they didn't get this far without persistence or acquiescing to real and perceived obstacles. Some will continue because their love of the game is so great, and some will continue because they have nowhere else to go. There is no dishonor in this, you may have a hard time convincing some of them as well as many interested and disinterested observers otherwise. The fact is to get this far puts you in very elite company. For most the air went out of that ball at Pop Warner, high school, or sometime in college.
If you have ever read anything that I have produced that renders a judgment of a player or prospective player's ability to develop and compete before the process has completely played out then you have caught me in mistake. I don't do it because I hate to make the same mistake more than once. The first time was with Rich.
I played high school ball in the Pittsburgh City League. One summer with Peabody, the bulk with Allderdice. For those reading without Western Pennsylvania roots, football is not just a serious obsession at the professional level. It was an important undertaking for participants and observers alike, but minus a lot of the craziness associated with the game in other areas of the country. Players were treated with respect but far short of godlike reverence. Nobody cared much about the cheerleaders.
In the City League the seriousness of the pursuit collided with the reality of limited resources. To use the term 'campus' to describe most of our schools would be a misleading extravagance. The practice field and the game field were one and the same. Some schools had no field at all. At Peabody if you happened to run out of the south end zone you ran into the school. At Allderdice one step over the end line would place you on an outdoor basketball court. Grass fields were expensive. The city solution was to coat dirt fields with oil to minimize weather erosion. The fields stunk. They were so hard at places that our cleats did not penetrate the surface. It was so hot at times that doing pushups became an ordeal in pain tolerance. The whole process was rather spartan particularly during two a days in August. One practice would leave you dirty, sweaty, greasy and reeking of the smell of oil. And then there would be another practice. There was no change of clothes. A few may have showered between practices, most didn't. The only thing worse than wearing our gear was to have to put it back on. Training table is whatever lunch meat or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches you brought from home augmented by a walk to a local store to, as a reflection of the nutritional sophistication of the day, purchase large amounts of sugar water of various colors for our principle method of hydration. Second practice was from Noon to 2, the hottest time of the day. There was one water break where we lined up to take a couple of sips from one of two small fountains. I'm still trying to figure out how nobody died.
We were lucky insofar that we had three coaches, more than most. Our head coach didn't believe in making cuts in the conventional sense. There were only about forty uniforms so you had to compete in order to wear one from one week to the next, but the key was to show up. One unexcused absence meant demotion, two meant you were gone. One of his assistants was a former Marine who specialized and took great delight in physically demanding practices. We did six miles of wind sprints in one practice. And that was just the structured running. The group that emerged from that crucible was not what one might expect. A lot of our best athletes couldn't handle it. It still stands for me as one of the hardest things I did in my life. I had to engage in all kinds of bargaining behavior with myself just to manage my way through a practice without quitting. The relief I felt when completing the day's work was soon overcome with a feeling of dread about the next day. The team was defined as much by perseverance as talent.
I took the bus to practice. I lived at the end of the line, Rich would get on in Point Breeze. Rich was a freshman, a quiet, skinny, redheaded Irish kid with a chipped front tooth. I decided in my wisdom that Rich wouldn't make it. He didn't look like someone who would make it. But of course this is precisely the point. Everyday I expected Rich to not get back on that bus and everyday he did. There were key qualities that were essential to defining a successful participant on that team that could not be discerned by the eye, or any other standard measurement. A key litmus test for that team was heart; something you either had or developed in a hurry. Rich had that and he made it.
The last time I saw Rich was three years later. I was standing with a small group of alumni watching practice, Rich was a senior leader, the sole remaining member of a team that would go undefeated and then do what most believed impossible, defeat regional superpower Westinghouse High for the City Championship. He wasn't skinny anymore. He had bulked up and was now a lineman. He joined us for a moment, we exchanged a smile and a nod, maybe a couple of words. He was always a quiet guy. I'm not certain but the air likely came out of the ball for him at the end of that season. Our coach was not good at promoting his players for consideration to the next level. A lot of good players throughout the City League never went beyond high school because of a lack of knowledge or interest in how those things came about. I didn't know when I last saw Rich that it would be nearly two years before the air went out of the ball for me.
A few weeks later I met Hal. He was different as night and day from Rich in talent level and demeanor. He was an All East defensive end at Temple University. (At that time we are talking of the eastern independent schools including teams such as Penn State, Pitt, West Virginia, Syracuse, Boston College, Army, Navy and so forth) Because my older brother was a star runner on the track team I befriended a lot of the other, older athletes rather quickly. Hal was a couple of years ahead of me, a graceful athlete and very well liked. My being a defensive lineman as well we would sit in the same room for meetings. After his senior year he would sign a free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
His projected path to the NFL will sound familiar. He was a hand on the ground defensive end who would convert to outside linebacker. Fellow Temple football alum and Steelers free agent signee Randy Grossman said to me that to make it in the league you had to be good, but you had to be lucky as well. Hal was good, he wasn't lucky. I don't know all the details, but I can figure some of it out. He was trying to make it with the Steelers as an outside linebacker competing against Andy Russell and Jack Ham. For Hal the air went out of the ball at Saint Vincent.
So I watch as always as some struggle and survive primarily through the strength of their talent, for others their heart, and for a few luck, the ability to adapt or some combination of all of these. And every year there'll be one or more who like Rich will be written off by those who think they know better, but will confound us by surviving and maybe even thriving. The air will eventually, inevitably come out their ball, but not yet.