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A True Story


I’ve been reading William Ian Miller’s latest book, Losing It, which is about getting old:

Occasionally I flatter myself that I am earning my keep, contributing more than I am consuming. And unlike those football players and boxers who do not know when to quit, professors, like me, cannot be cut. Tenure and age discrimination laws let us keep working, which somehow does not seem the right word. Besides, there are always a couple of lazy colleagues whose real contribution to the enterprise is to make less lazy ones feel like we deliver value for the price. Never mind that my keep would fund four entry-level scholars in history or anthropology who are now unemployed: I still have kids of my own to feed, though I might be feeding them with someone else’s. Self-deception and wishful thinking, looking on the bright side in a self-interested way, keep us conveniently color blind to our real value, seeing black when the ink is red. Or simply not caring if it is red, when we see it.

As Miller’s mordant take on his subject makes clear, the inevitable decline of our faculties forces all of us who will be both lucky and privileged enough to have a real choice in the matter to grapple with the problem of knowing, or not knowing, when to quit.

I remember the afternoon in December 1989 when a friend called to tell me, in those long-ago days when it could still take a few hours before one heard momentous news, that, seemingly out of the blue, our childhood idol, Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, had announced his retirement. Bo had just turned sixty, his team was about to play in the Rose Bowl for the third time in four years, and the year before that Michigan had finished ranked number two in the country. He was on top of his profession; why in the world would he quit?

In fact he had excellent reasons: he had almost died of a heart attack 20 years earlier, at end of his first season in Ann Arbor, and he had undergone two quadruple bypass surgeries, in 1976 and 1987. His doctors had been pleading with him to quit his high-stress job for years, and so he “retired,” first into a short and unsuccessful stint as president of the Detroit Tigers, and then for real two years later.

In 2004, I watched the Michigan State game with Bo in the Michigan Stadium press box. The ratty old press box featured a few private booths from which retired athletic department employees could watch the game; it has since been replaced by a phalanx of dreadful luxury suites — referred to by the euphemism-addicted university administration as “enclosed seating” — which are rented out by persons of quality for $80,000 per season, game tickets not included.

By then, it was clear Bo was not in good health – he was suffering from degenerative heart disease and diabetes – but his mind seemed as sharp and funny as ever. I asked him, among many other things, if he had ever regretted quitting when he did, and he said he had, many times. But, he added, if he had in fact quit too early, that was still “a damn sight better than quitting too late.” And then he laughed.

I thought of that conversation when I heard the news that Joe Paterno was dying. When Michigan’s new athletic director, Don Canham, was looking for a football coach in the winter of 1969, he offered the job to Paterno, who had just finished his third season as Penn State’s head coach (Paterno had been on the PSU staff since 1950). When he turned down the offer, Paterno recommended that Canham hire Schembechler.

Bo, who was two and a half years younger than Paterno, coached at Michigan for 21 seasons, reviving what had become a moribund program, and achieving an iconic status with Michigan fans – especially, I as I can vouch from experience, with those who happened to be nine years old and living in Ann Arbor when he began this work. That year, he would lead the team to victory in perhaps the single most famous Michigan-Ohio State game ever: an upset of a Woody Hayes-coached team that an intemperate and probably inebriate Columbus sportswriter had declared superior to the Minnesota Vikings. For a generation of fans, Bo Schembechler was Michigan football.

Amazingly, Joe Paterno kept the Penn State coaching job for 22 seasons after Schembechler’s retirement. It’s difficult to imagine what he came to mean to Penn State fans, given that even those now getting close to what is normally thought as retirement age have no memory of any other coach. Over the years, Paterno had many chances to quit on what would have seemed the highest of notes: after an undefeated season in 1994, or after breaking Bear Bryant’s career victories record in 2001 (Paterno is said to have told people that if he quit coaching he would, like Bryant, be dead within a couple of months), or after an 11-1 season and number three final ranking in 2005. But he clung to his job with ferocious tenacity, despite the evident fact that he was turning over more and more of it to his assistants (This past season, he was no longer on the sidelines, but rather watched Penn State games from the press box, alone and out of contact with everything happening on the field far below).

In the last dozen years of his tenure, Paterno’s teams were beset by inconsistent won-loss records, and a host of legal troubles. In 2008, ESPN’s Outside the Lines ran a feature revealing that over the previous six years 46 PSU players had been charged with 163 crimes (Paterno decried the program as a “witch hunt.”). His behavior became increasingly erratic: he had a series of run-ins with referees, culminating in an incident in which he literally chased the officiating crew off the field at the end of the game. The next day, a referee was hung in effigy on the front door of Paterno’s house. The figure remained there for several days – an act which would have been considered intolerable by the powers that be under normal circumstances.

As we would all learn eventually, nothing about the waning years of Paterno’s reign featured anything resembling normal circumstances. He would sometimes ramble incoherently at press conferences, while for the most part the national sports media either discreetly looked the other way, or indulged in worshipful encomia to the “larger than life” figurehead the old man had become. When he turned 78 PSU asked him to retire, but he absolutely refused to go, and there were stories he let it be known to his putative superiors that, if he was not allowed to leave on his terms, he would make sure many people would never give another cent to Pennsylvania State University.

All this was sad to watch. Paterno was the last link to the college football of my childhood – to the world of Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes, and to all those long-ago fall Saturday afternoons listening to Bob Ufer’s understated radio calls of the game action. Bo died on a November morning in 2006, on the day before what was supposed to be the biggest Michigan-Ohio State game of all. A few days later I went, along with tens of thousands of others, to a cold and windy memorial service at Michigan Stadium. As I sat there shivering through the speeches, and trying to say goodbye to my childhood, I couldn’t help but feel that, despite everything, this was a story that had ended well.

My favorite piece of sports writing is John Updike’s essay about Ted Williams’ last at-bat:

Understand that we were a crowd of rational people. We knew that a home run cannot be produced at will; the right pitch must be perfectly met and luck must ride with the ball. Three innings before, we had seen a brave effort fail. The air was soggy; the season was exhausted. Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around a corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

Fisher, after his unsettling wait, was wide with the first pitch. He put the second one over, and Williams swung mightily and missed. The crowd grunted, seeing that classic swing, so long and smooth and quick, exposed, naked in its failure. Fisher threw the third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and, as far as I could see, vanished.

Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs—hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn’t tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted “We want Ted” for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

Every true story has an anticlimax. The men on the field refused to disappear, as would have seemed decent, in the smoke of Williams’ miracle. Fisher continued to pitch, and escaped further harm. At the end of the inning, Higgins sent Williams out to his left-field position, then instantly replaced him with Carrol Hardy, so we had a long last look at Williams as he ran out there and then back, his uniform jogging, his eyes steadfast on the ground. It was nice, and we were grateful, but it left a funny taste.

One of the scholasticists behind me said, “Let’s go. We’ve seen everything. I don’t want to spoil it.” This seemed a sound aesthetic decision. Williams’ last word had been so exquisitely chosen, such a perfect fusion of expectation, intention, and execution, that already it felt a little unreal in my head, and I wanted to get out before the castle collapsed. But the game, though played by clumsy midgets under the feeble glow of the arc lights, began to tug at my attention, and I loitered in the runway until it was over. Williams’ homer had, quite incidentally, made the score 4-3. In the bottom of the ninth inning, with one out, Marlin Coughtry, the second-base juggler, singled. Vic Wertz, pinch-hitting, doubled off the left-field wall, Coughtry advancing to third. Pumpsie Green walked, to load the bases. Willie Tasby hit a double-play ball to the third baseman, but in making the pivot throw Billy Klaus, an ex-Red Sox infielder, reverted to form and threw the ball past the first baseman and into the Red Sox dugout. The Sox won, 5-4. On the car radio as I drove home I heard that Williams had decided not to accompany the team to New York. So he knew how to do even that, the hardest thing. Quit.

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  • ploeg

    You have to realize that the alternative to being pushed out is to have your admirers take your corpse to a taxidermist and stick your stuffed remains in the press box for all eternity. And that sort of impulse is not limited to sports either.

  • LosGatosCA

    ‘Always leave them wanting more’

    Paterno unfortunately left with many people wanting less, much less. It’s clear that many people (take Strom Thurmond, please) cannot separate their personal identity from their professional position and that rarely ends well.

  • LosGatosCA

    on the John Updike essay on Williams – he lost me at the Tappan Zee Bridge.

  • Mark Centz

    John Wooden. There’s the model of a great coach with great finish.

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