Sports needs athletes who will ennoble sport, who will shape its integrity and its values, and give it substance over celebrity. I recall one athlete who handed down the integrity and values of a sport to me. And I'll never forget the last game he played.
On a cold and windy Thanksgiving Day in the fall of 1949. I was hurrying to the old football field up on the hill to watch the championship club football game between my Philadelphia neighborhood team, East Falls, and its crosstown rival, Frankford. There was a good crowd – maybe 300 to 350 – on hand for the game.
Club football thrived in big-city neighborhoods all around the country in the '30s and '40s, but nowhere as intense as in Philly, a city of neighborhoods where fealty to community was fierce. Football helped fashion our neighborhood, where the game, like the apple pies, was homemade. It helped to unite and hold the neighborhood together, just as church and family, picnics and block parties did. It was solid, changeless.
I was 8 years old, and I was the fortunate kid anointed to carry Billy's helmet on the walk from the locker room to the field.
Billy was the star halfback for East Falls and a legend in our neighborhood. An Irishman in the best sense of the word, he had pitch-black, wavy hair over a flawlessly chiseled, ruddy face, and deep, dark brown eyes that lighted up like polished pine wood.
As game time neared, Billy came over to me to get his helmet. "Thanks," he said as he popped it on his head. Then he winked at me, and added, "I'll try to score a touchdown for you today."
I felt as though I were in heaven. Billy was, by football standards, small, only 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighing 155 pounds, but he was so fluid in his movements that he flowed like running water through a tackler's arms.
It was only a few minutes before the game would begin, and we were all excited. East Falls won the coin toss and elected to receive. During the first series, Billy took a handoff and burst up the middle of the field so fast that the defensive linemen became a blur. Once into the secondary, he adroitly avoided one defender, then head-faked another, and, looking like a Pygmy in the distance, crossed the goal line – a 72-yard romp. My little heart pounded like a noisy tin can.
Billy didn't indulge in any showboating after he scored – no spiking the pigskin, no crazy dancing, no high-fives. Instead, he simply handed the football, as though it were a loaf of bread, to the official.
Deep in the second quarter, Billy took a pitchout around right end. A big, burly Frankford lineman pole-axed him with a cheap-shot elbow to the face – helmets didn't come with face masks in these days. Billy went down face-first into the sandlot field, but he got right back up and walked to the East Falls sideline.
"We'll get him," a teammate said. Billy shook his head, then popped on his helmet and ran into the huddle.
My pulse quickened as the East Falls quarterback pitched the football to Billy on the next play. Once again the big, burly Frankford lineman was set to take Billy out, but this time Billy lowered his body into the shape of a cannonball, picked up amazing speed, and exploded into the big, burly lineman, who went down with a resounding thud. Billy went down, too – but 25 yards upfield.
Late in the third period, the Frankford club recovered a fumble and went in to score, taking a 14-13 lead. With three minutes left in the game the East Falls club got the football on its own 38-yard line.
They broke out of the huddle. The quarterback pitched the football to Billy, who cut, as if on ice skates, to his left, just out of reach of a flailing tackler, and raced down the sideline, only to be body-slammed out of bounds at the Frankford 36-yard line. As the East Falls team huddled, I yelled at the top of my tiny lungs, "Give it to Billy!"
Billy took the handoff and shot straight ahead, blasting through any tackler in his path, then flared into the secondary, leaving me breathless. As though his feet were on fire, Billy ran all the way to the goal line.
When the gun sounded, Billy's teammates hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him to the locker room. I followed them. On the way, Billy tossed me his helmet and I caught it. "It's yours," he said.
Today, when I reflect on that game, I think about today's sports icons compared with the sports heroes of the past. There are so few real heroes in sports for kids anymore, and that limits hopes and dreams.
I was fortunate. I had Billy. He was my pop.