A different kind of hero
His father played on a basketball team in the state finals. His son sets out to find the rest of the story.
In 1954, tiny Milan High School defeated the powerful Muncie Central Bearcats in the Indiana High School Basketball State Finals. Milan became "Hickory" and the team's story became the movie "Hoosiers." Just five years earlier, a tiny school in Auburn, Ind., had also made it to the finals, but the Red Devils lost, and their story remained untold. I knew a bit of the history because my dad, Ted Miller, played for the 1949 Red Devils. He never talked much about it, and I assumed this was out of a sense of modesty.
After he died, I found a 1989 newspaper article about their trip to the final four. It gave just enough detail to whet my appetite and quoted Roger Wertenberger, one of Dad's teammates, who described him as "scrappy." I was curious and decided to contact some of the players, several of whom were still in Auburn. One teammate and his wife, Don and Nancy Derrow, were especially enthusiastic about talking to me and invited me to Auburn.
The visit started as I had expected. Don and Nancy showed me lots of memorabilia and articles about the team. I saw pictures of my dad celebrating the trip to the final four and being honored. Next, we got in the car and drove by the gymnasium where the team played. When we arrived, I saw a wrecking ball and a pile of bricks. "You just missed it by a few weeks," Nancy said. "You can take a brick home if you want."
Don interrupted. "For goodness' sake, he doesn't want a brick."
I barely heard any of it. Instead, I looked at the pile of bricks and realized that history was disappearing before my eyes.
At dinner, Roger, who'd been invited to join us, told me, "Your dad's best sport was football." This seemed a strange thing to say. I said I remembered hearing Dad say he played football as a freshman at Michigan State. Don and Roger looked at each other, then looked at me. "Well, he got knocked around quite a bit up there," said Roger in a tone that told me he didn't want to let me down too hard.
"What about basketball?" I asked.
"Well, your dad was ... small," said Nancy kindly.
"Yeah, I figured he wasn't the star. He was a sixth man or something, right?"
"Sixth man might be stretching it," said Don.
Roger chimed in. "Twelfth man was really more like it."
Finally, as though it was all too much, Don said, "Your dad wouldn't have been on the team if your grandpa wasn't principal." I looked at Roger hoping his recollection would differ, but after a pause, he confirmed it. "Your dad was just too small."
I was deflated. The image of my dad as sports hero was now forever altered. I almost regretted opening up this window into the past, and yet I yearned to know more and sought out other players on the team.
Theo Webb was known to be especially close to Dad. I asked him what he remembered. "I remember we were born the same day. We celebrated lots of birthdays together and we played lots of Monopoly at your grandpa's house."
"But what about basketball?" I asked.
"Every Saturday morning was open basketball at the Y. For a quarter, we got a hot dog, chocolate milk, and a doughnut. Your dad loved doughnuts."
Doughnuts? I tried to focus. "What was he like as a player?"
Theo was undeterred. "I remember he was notoriously slow getting dressed in the shower and your grandfather used to chew us out."
I became more direct. "How about the state finals?"
He paused. "I remember we had a lot of time in the hotel. We'd get hungry sometimes, and so we would sneak out to get sandwiches and milk. The coach caught us because the milk came in glass bottles and we had them all lined up outside our rooms."
Barney Beers also had memories of being stuck in the hotel. "We were four days at the Marriott with nothing to do but eat and practice."
"What was my dad like?" I was longing to hear a description of some sort of athletic prowess.
Instead, Barney said only, "He was just so dang smart."
"He was good at football, wasn't he?" I asked hopefully.
Barney's voice softened. "Before we went off to college, Ted and I went to the football field and spent hours playing catch and reminiscing."
Jim Schooley was the star of the '49 team and described Dad as "a smart kid who was interested in athletics."
"Was he a good player?" I asked.
"He passed a lot. And he was smart enough to understand his role."
"What about football?" I asked.
"It was a single wing offense. The quarterback had a different role. Your dad did a credible job."
"A credible job?" The disappointment resonated in my voice, and Jim tried his best to give me something to hang onto. "Athletics have the great feature in that you are not judged by anything other than your enthusiasm. Your dad was enthusiastic."
Jim and his teammates' polite honesty about my dad and their rather ordinary memories of the final four left me to reconsider what I had really been searching for. My quest for another "Hoosiers" story starring my dad had not turned out as anticipated. He was not a star but was smart, scrappy, and enthusiastic.
Back at home, I traded shots in a one-on-one game with my 7-year-old son. "Wow, Dad, you are a great basketball player," he said, beaming with admiration.
For a moment I thought I should correct his misapprehensions and tell him how poor a player I really am and that even his grandfather wasn't the star we all thought he was. Instead, I looked at his excited brown eyes and simply said, "You'll be a good player someday, too."