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A Janitor’s Work…

Photo Courtesy of Briarcliff Manor – Scarborough Historical Society

It started as a day laborer job. The folks who were the caretakers of “The Alamo” (our ancient high school building) were regularly trying to keep the place from falling down and needed a couple of young guys to carry fifty-pound cement bags and cinderblocks up three flights of stairs.

Football players proved to be just the ticket they needed. My brother John (who had the job before me) greased the skids with the janitor corps and before I knew it my buddy Pags and I were employed. And in those knuckleheaded days of our youth, we loved hauling cinderblocks. We carried two at a time, racing up the stairs to prove our worth. It was good, exhausting work; we were happy for the money; and we enjoyed the grown up banter of the workmen.

They were a jovial group with a somewhat jaded view of life and a penchant for dirty jokes. The top guy for the whole school district was Richard Collachio (I’m sure I’m spelling his name wrong). He was a red-haired Italian American who was always in such a hurry that he was perpetually out of breath and covered in sweat.

No one could move fast enough for Richard; he was always pushing our deadlines. But for all his hyper expectations, he always protected his “guys” (us) from the “folks upstairs” (the administration). And since most of the janitors hated dealing with the people who wore suits, they were happy for him to shoulder the burden.

Our immediate boss, Joe Bednar, was Richard’s polar opposite. Joe worked hard, but was done rushing around to impress anyone. He liked to enjoy life and was kind enough to bring doughnuts to our coffee break most days. And if we were having a slow one, sometimes he’d let those fifteen minutes slide into twenty, especially if we were having a good time.

He and Richard had a love/hate relationship. Richard was always pushing Joe to work harder, always sweating the details and Joe was as calm a cucumber as God could make. As cuss words go, their discussions were really impressive, but I always had the sense that they liked each other and much of what went on was for show. Joe always delivered the work on time, never said a cross word to us (save one time – but that’s a different story), and still found a way to smell the roses that crossed his path.

Our high school was an old behemoth of a building built in a by-gone era when people made things as a testament to their labor.

Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Manor – Scarborough Historical Society

Our high school was an old behemoth of a building, built in a by-gone era when people made things as a testament to their labor.  Originally built in 1911, it was enlarged with a second building (united by a corridor between them) in 1928. It had Spanish style architecture, (hence the Alamo moniker), huge windows and a nice-sized auditorium.

To keep the place in shape for the six hundred or so students or who occupied it, (from grades seven through twelve) Pags and I were employed to work summers, holidays, and through every spring break. Most of the time, we spackled and painted our days away, as there was always something to spackle and paint. (Think of those hundreds of little gymnasium windows that every gym has. Guess who had to re-caulk and paint those insidious monsters? Yeah that was an entire summer).

But, we also were regularly tasked with janitorial duties: mopping the floors, oiling down the gymnasium floors, cleaning the bathrooms, incinerating the trash, (ah, the good old days), scraping gum off the underside of chairs and desks (my least favorite job) and washing the windows.

The bathrooms, too, were always challenging. The graffiti in the boys’ and girls’ bathrooms (yes, we had to clean both of them) always shocked me. The graphic nature of the caricatures, the commentary and – yes – the medium was almost always beyond my belief system.

It made me question the sanity (and the sexual predilections) of many of my classmates.

Some were funny (at least to the juvenile me). “Here I sit broken hearted, have to shit, but only farted.” Most, however, were just gross. It made me question the sanity (and the sexual predilections) of many of my classmates. People used everything: pen and ink, used tampons, and soiled toilet paper to perfect their art. And Pags and I had to clean it all up, sometimes painting the stalls over three and four times (those indelible ink markers showed through everything).

We kept those jobs all the way through high school and got to know all the ins and outs of the place. I knew, for example, just how to kick the boy’s locker room door from the outside to yank it open without a key. On our breaks, we hung out in the teachers lounge, explored the hidden passageways between buildings, and got to know all the janitors and administrative staff on a first-name basis.

Mid-way through my sophomore year, the school district opened a new high school. Sam Brown became head janitor of the high school.   He was a quiet soft-spoken man with a pencil thin mustache. Joe stayed at the Alamo (which had become the middle school), so Pags and I stayed with him. Over time, we took great ownership in the place.

Every fall, when the teachers arrived a week ahead of classes, I’d get a kick out of their reactions to the newly restored building. I remember the surprised look on their faces when we took off the walls of the library to give it, what today is called, an “open concept.”

As students, most kids start off resenting school. They are forced to get up early, take classes, in which, they have little choice, respond to bells like they are prison inmates, and are assigned homework that takes up whatever time is left in their day. The lucky ones find a coach, a teacher, or two who can inspire them, make them think, or awaken an unknown talent or interest. But rarely do students think about the administrative staff that also makes their education possible. It’s like they are on the other side of the looking glass. We know they are there, but that’s about it.

Pags and I had the rare opportunity to see the school from both sides of the glass.

Pags and I had the rare opportunity to see the school from both sides of the glass. We saw the effort required to keep an old building functioning while hundreds of students daily pushed it to its limits. We got to know the staff as good, kind-hearted people who earned their living each and every day. We saw the pride they took in keeping the place clean and the disdain they felt for the purposeful destruction of the property.

During the school year, Pags and I inevitably returned to the other side of the glass as students. The admin staff left us alone with our classmates. We were, once again, no longer part of their community, but of a community they served. Sure, they would smile or wink when we passed them in the hallway but it wasn’t the same.

Kids can be rebellious during their adolescence and I did a lot of things for which I am not proud (again, another story). But, for all the things I would do, I never left a mess in the cafeteria or trash on the school lawn. I never stuck gum to the underside of a desk or wrote graffiti on the bathroom walls – not because I might have to clean it up – but out of respect for those I knew who would.

Once an altar boy…

I was raised Catholic. And while that sentence sounds fairly passive, my life with the church was not. Although we did not go to Catholic school (my parents were public school teachers) much of my youth revolved around activity at St. Theresa’s Church.

Photo by Mike Feist

St. Theresa’s was a small, stone church located on a steep hill at the edge of town. It had great wide steps leading up to two large wooden doors. Inside the church were the customary wooden pews facing the altar. Stained glass windows graced the walls as well as fourteen wooden carvings representing the Stations of the Cross. A main altar with two smaller side altars filled the front of the church. Across the back was a choir loft that held the organ.

We were one of many Irish- and Italian-Catholic families living in Briarcliff. You could always tell the Catholic families by the number of children. There were families with twelve and thirteen kids apiece. The Gleasons had six and were considered a small to mid-sized family at St. Theresa’s.

Every Sunday we attended Mass. There were CCD classes on Monday afternoons and confessions on Saturday. But those were the basics; everyone who was Catholic did that.

My brothers and I were also tapped for such things as shoveling the nuns’ driveway and running errands for the priests – usually to and from Weldon’s Deli and the town’s liquor store. (I know, the thought of a kid picking up liquor seems foreign now, but back then, no one thought much about it). Once we had received our Confirmation it also was expected that we become altar boys. This last was considered an honor in my family. And it was.

It was also a challenge. Before Vatican II, priests still faced the altar and the Mass was a ceremony filled with conventions and rites that were a mystery to all but the few of us initiated. The entire Mass was said in Latin so we had to memorize all sixty minutes of it. I remember sitting in a pew with Donny O’Hagan, Craig Hoffman and two of the Luke brothers on Saturday afternoons trying to pronounce the opening phrases of the Mass.

Ad Deum qui Laetúíficat juventútem meam

“Ah day-um kwee la feechi cot. U van too too may–um.”

Although laborious, there was something cool about reciting prayers the same way they had been said for over sixteen hundred years.  It took us months to get our parts down and then we had to learn how to serve on the altar. It was like a choreographed play. We had to know where we were needed and for what, when we were supposed to stand, kneel or bow, and all the rules of the altar. “Never pass the tabernacle with out genuflecting, unless you are holding the Bible or the Cross, in which case, you bow.” “When holding the Bible for the priest, keep it at arms length in front of you with your head down. Keep the Bible steady and don’t cover the pages with your fingers.”

My favorite task was to ring the chimes. These were reserved for honoring the Holy Trinity at the start of the Mass and at the Offering of the Eucharist before Communion. (There were three of these chimes and if you hit them in the right order they sounded just like the tones used by NBC Television. But, only the bravest of us ever used them in that order during Mass.)

We dressed in black cassocks (long-sleeved robes that reached our shoes) and a white surplice (a kind of tunic that draped over our shoulders to the waist). There was a dressing room to the right side of the altar where we could change. This was connected to the priest’s vestibule (on the left side) by a narrow tunnel that ran behind the altar. We were expected to prep the altar for Mass (light the candles, fill and place the cruets with the water and wine, and ensure that the readings were marked in the Bible).

Mass was said three times on Sunday and once each day at 5:30 a.m. Weddings and funerals were usually scheduled for Saturdays as were confessions. One altar boy was always assigned to serve at each daily Mass, two at each on Sundays and up to ten on the high holy days of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter.

The older boys got to do the cooler stuff like carry the cross and lead the procession into the church. They also got to light the incense and clink the chain of the thurible to spew smoke throughout the church. The rest of us mainly brought stuff for the priest to use during mass: the Bible, the water and wine, and water to wash his hands after Communion.

In those days, people knelt at a railing in the front of the church to receive Communion and the priest would move left to right across the altar to dispense the Eucharist. An altar boy would precede him, walking backwards with a plate made of brass. We were told to hold the plate under the chins of the recipients in case someone slipped; the Eucharist was never allowed to hit the floor. Because of this, I had the great pleasure of looking deep into the mouths of every Catholic in the village of Briarcliff for about two years.

There were three priests of note at St. Theresa’s: Monsignor Harrington, Father MacInnerny, and Father Dan Sullivan. Harrington ruled the roost. MacInnerny taught us the Mass. And Sullivan scared the Hell out of us.

Father Dan was a rough and in your face, tough Irish guy from the Bronx, who never lost his street smarts. One of ten kids, and brother to actor Barry Sullivan, he was big, bald, loud and as coarse a man as I had known to that point in my life. I never saw him smoke, but he always had a stogie in one corner of his mouth, which he chewed and ground down to a slimy stub. When he got tired of carrying it around in his mouth, he would hand it to the nearest altar boy, saying, “Here, hold this.”

He had it in for the Irish kids in the parish, because he thought we all shared his underlying demonic nature. I remember once, Frank Scully was in line for confession before me. He went into the booth and closed the curtain. I waited for about thirty seconds, imagining the small sliding door opening for him so he could unburden his soul.

“WHAT?” Father Dan’s shout pierced the quiet of the church. I was so scared I decided to wait another week to confess my sins.

Father Sullivan was a devout man who believed that, through the force of his personality alone, he could move the congregation. This was especially true when it came time to sing the hymns. Unfortunately, he couldn’t carry a tune. He sounded like a baritone Archie Bunker trying to lead the congregation.

“HAH LEY LUUUU YAAA! He would wave his arms to signal the congregation. HA-AH-AH LEY LUUU – YAH!” When no one responded, he would yell at my mother, who was playing the organ in the choir loft. “JAN! Pick it up, up there WILLYA?”

With Vatican II, everything changed. The priests turned to face the congregation. The Mass was said in English. (Yes, we had to relearn the whole thing). The choreography was simplified. At the offering, congregants brought forward the “gifts” of water and wine. At Communion, they stood in a line with their hands cupped to receive the Eucharist. Gone were our little brass trays. There wasn’t much use for altar boys anymore. We mainly served as guides to the congregation, demonstrating when they should stand and sit and kneel.

Strange things began to happen. We had folk Masses where kids with guitars and cymbals rocked the church with more contemporary music. Non-Catholics were invited to join us at Mass (but not Communion). And during one Mass, Father McInnerny gave a Homily (the priest’s lecture on what the Gospel means in today’s world) on divorce and a couple from the congregation spoke up.

“What if we don’t agree?”

Thunderous silence. No one ever talked back to a priest, let alone interrupted Mass.

Father McInnerny had the presence of mind to suggest that anyone interested in further discussion should stay after Mass. About thirty people showed up. I did too. It was just so unprecedented.

I don’t remember stopping my service as an altar boy. It somehow just drifted away from my life. I never got to carry the cross at high Mass or light the incense or clink the chains of the thurible. I simply remember standing in the back of the church with the older boys and men (we were expected to stand when it was crowded). I often was tapped to do the collection – which was still a great honor. But other activities began to crowd into my life: high school, girls, sports. When I graduated, I went off to college and my folks moved away. I returned to St. Theresa’s twice as an adult. Both times for weddings. It seemed impossibly smaller than I remembered it.

Today, I am nowhere near the Catholic my mother raised me to be, but still, all these decades years later, when the priest begins the Mass and offers his prayers, I sometimes find myself whispering the responses in Latin.

“Confiteor Deo, omnipoténti…”

 

A Confluence of Talent, Tall Fish Stories, and Renaissance Men

There was a play (and later a movie) by Bernard Slade called “Same Time, Next Year” about a love affair that happens only on one weekend out of the year for twenty-five years. This book is like that movie, except that instead of an extramarital tryst, this read is a love-affair with fly-fishing, the outdoors and the camaraderie of old friends. 51+Yut7ww9L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_One weekend out of the year is reserved for these seven graduates from Dartmouth College, who fly fish in the pristine New Hampshire woods of the Dartmouth Grant. At times very funny, sad, and deadly serious, the book is a tribute to their secret identities as outdoorsman and renaissance men. It is a wonderful blend of tall stories, personal growth, poetry, music, some surprisingly good painting and their secrets of fly fishing brook trout.

Although the chapters are written by different members of the group, they are edited well and woven together into a consistent narrative. They invite you to join them on their journies, leaving behind their homes and families to drive into the remote woods of New Hampshire, shedding their alter egos as they head north. Once among the “luxuries” of the Grant, they crack open a beer (or three) and renew their friendships and love for wading thigh deep in rippling water. It’s a joy to be taken with them.

Here is a short excerpt:

“We heard the problem before we saw it.  It was the roar of water – lots of it – falling fast.  As the canoe rounded a bend, the river narrowed before us into a gauntlet of drops over ledges, alternating with huge standing waves.  It was the kind of chute you would never ride down on purpose, but we both realized with a sinking feeling that it was too late to reach the banks.  We were already committed.  Guy shouted, “Down the middle!” and that seemed like the best and only idea.  There was no room to maneuver, and if we turned sideways things would get ugly fast.

“So we plunged into the raging chute, both of us paddling madly to keep the canoe headed straight.  I braced a knee under the bow, which was a good move because the first drop almost threw me out.  Time slowed down the way it does in moments of crisis and it seemed for a while that all would be well.  We were keeping the canoe aimed ahead, and it fell straight across a series of steep drops.  I caught alternating glimpses of standing waves and of the sky as we bucked up and down, but we were keeping the canoe upright.  As we emerged into a pool at the bottom of the falls a few seconds later I felt relieved and proud.

“But those sentiments were premature.”

You can buy your copy of  The Confluence at: http://www.amazon.com/Confluence-Fly-fishing-Friendship-Dartmouth-College/dp/1942155123/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1461884787&sr=1-1&keywords=the+confluence

Tin Soldiers

I grew up in a quiet little place called Briarcliff Manor. It was off the beaten track, a “village” dwarfed by three larger towns. Fewer than one hundred kids graduated high school with me and I’ll bet half were around twelve years earlier when I attended Miss Barnes first grade class.

Not much went on in Briarcliff and our parents liked it that way. We had a police force, but not much in the way of crime. We had a “main street,” but it had stores on only on one side of it. For the most part, during my formative years, days were filled with playing football, basketball or baseball (depending on the season), hanging out, reading comics, riding my bike and trying to figure out how to talk to girls.

Our high school stood in the center of town next to the community pool, the park and the library. It had a large green lawn, a flagpole and a circular driveway out front for the buses to come and go. It looked like a Spanish fort, with high stucco walls and an imposing facade. Everyone called it “The Alamo.” The Rec Center used to sho
w movies against its front wall during hot
summer nights and families would turn out, sit on blankets to watch, “The Mouse that Roared” and “War of the Worlds.

Briarcliff High School 1909 Number 2
Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Manor – Scarborough Historical Society

Oddly enough, The Alamo was an
appropriate name for 1970, when this story takes place, as most of our
parents were desperately trying to keep the outside world from invading the quiet life of our little village. Six years after the
Beatles had landed at JFK, the country had transformed itself into something unrecognizable to them.

Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, Meatloaf were merely symbols of the type of change rocking the country. The Kennedy brothers had been assassinated; so had Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. People were marching in the streets for civil rights, women’s rights and against the Vietnam War.   With the invention of the pill, the sexual revolution was in full swing and our parents were more than a little worried.

You could see the change in school. Boys started wearing their hair long; everyone sported jeans and tie-dyed tee shirts. Drugs found their way into student lockers and everyone was talking about the Vietnam War. Congress had done away with the college deferment and instituted a lottery system for the draft. All 18-year old males, including those in that year’s senior class, were eligible.

Although, I loved the music, I was largely unaffected by the changes going on. The son of a Marine, my hair was still short and my politics, if you could call them that, were conservative. At the time, I was thinking of going to West Point. I found the changes that many of my friends were going through perplexing. I hung back, preferring the company of my football buddies, and kept my nose clean.

Critical to this story is Kevin Johnson, a junior at the time. Kevin scared the crap out of me. There was a nervous edge about him – an “I don’t give a shit” edge – that a straight-laced fourteen-year-old boy like me found incomprehensible. Making matters worse, he didn’t like me. If he walked into a room, I’d check for the location of all the nearest exits before I took my next breath.

It was in early May when our moment of truth arrived – a breach in The Alamo. It began with an announcement by President Nixon that the U.S. would bomb Cambodia (to stop the North Vietnamese from using that country to make end-run attacks on our troops). College campuses all across the country were in an uproar of protest, with sit-ins, marches and candlelight vigils.

One such protest was held at Kent State University. Although it started out peacefully, unruly behavior among the protestors and some poor decisions by the mayor of Kent caused the situation to escalate into violence. The mayor called on the governor to issue a state of emergency. The governor concurred and called in the National Guard.

A second day of protests started and the confrontation continued to mount. Someone set fire to the ROTC building and a thousand protestors surrounded the blaze to cheer. When police and fire fighters arrived at the scene, they were pelted with rocks. In the ensuing exchange a student was bayoneted. The governor called the protestors “un-American” and vowed to “eradicate the problem.”

Cooler heads among the students tried to prevail. Several showed up the next morning to clean up the mess from the riot but were ordered off the streets. The protestors tried a new tack, holding a sit-in in hopes of securing a meeting with the mayor and the university president. The National Guard used tear gas and fixed bayonets to disperse them and several more students were stabbed.

A fourth day of protest started and the Guard was ordered to clear the campus commons. After tear gas canisters were ineffective, the Guard again fixed bayonets and marched on the protesters. They succeeded in dispersing a majority of the students, but some remained on the steps of a nearby campus building. They heckled the Guardsman marching back through campus. One of the Guardsmen, a sergeant, turned and fired into the protestors. Twenty-nine members of his platoon turned and fired as well. In all 67 rounds were fired, killing four students and wounding nine others. Two of those who died were protesters; two – including one young man who had been in the ROTC – were simply on their way to class.

kent_state_shootingTheir deaths rocked the country. Back in Briarcliff, Doc. Pruitt suspended his lesson plan and opened our 9th grade history class to discussion. I was stunned by the vitriol of the opinions on both sides and I couldn’t believe anyone could see it differently than I did.

“Who started the violence?” I demanded. “Who torched the ROTC building?” The debate became heated and at one point I shouted a slogan used often back in the day. “If you don’t like our country, why don’t you leave it?”

After class the argument spilled out into the hallway. Everyone was angry. Kevin came around the corner with a look of exuberance on his face. “Someone lowered the flag to half-mast. It’s for the four students!”

“Well that’s not going to happen,” I said, and, without thinking, stormed off to the front lawn. Kevin followed, stalking my steps.

“What you going to do?” Menace poured from him.

“Raise it back up.” I kept my eyes ahead, afraid to look at him.

“Why?”

“It’s just not right.”

We went back and forth all the way to the flagpole. Kevin was so mad he was spitting. I untied the cord securing the flags but he grabbed it above my hands to stop me. Here it comes, I remember thinking. He’s going to beat the shit out of me.   But, I wasn’t backing down.

“What’s going on here?” Bob Prout, the dean of students, seemed to appear out of nowhere. And he wasn’t alone. My older brother Jim, Michael O’Hagan and Deryl Seemayer (three of the biggest guys on the football team) all stood behind him. My confidence was magically restored.

“Someone lowered the flag to half-mast. I came to raise it.”

“Go ahead.” Dean Prout folded his arms.

With a look of betrayal and fury Kevin flipped us the bird. “This is all bullshit!”

He stormed away as I pulled on the rope to lift the flag. I felt vindicated in my actions. I felt proud to have faced down my fear. And, I felt relieved that Kevin didn’t beat the shit out of me.

But, looking back on that moment, I see the world a little differently. Kevin was right. And I’m ashamed to say that it would not be the last time that I found myself on the wrong side of history.

Although there was plenty of blame to go around in the tragedy at Kent State, just as there is in the state of our politic today, I got caught up in the rhetoric.  I lost my perspective. It was a shameful day and a lesson in what happens when antagonists double down on their righteousness. Those students didn’t deserve to die and their death was a national tragedy. They deserved to have our flags lowered on their behalf. To function, democracy requires a unique talent – the ability to listen – especially by those in power, and especially if they carry guns.

No one was listening that day in Ohio on either side and we all paid the price for it, especially those four kids. They deserve our apology and, for my behavior that day, so does Kevin Johnson.

You were right, Kevin. It was all bullshit. And I’m sorry I wasn’t smart enough to see it. Maybe next time I will

Meā culpā, meā culpā,meā máximā culpā.

My Brother’s Trophy

I got my life-long wish during my freshman year in high school. I made the football team.

Although at thirteen I was technically IMG_1264ineligible to play, I could practice with the team until my fourteenth birthday in November and still play the last two games. I can still remember putting on my pads like they were plates of armor and heading out to the dusty field behind our high school. The start of practice always began the same way: the varsity and junior varsity ran through a defined set of calisthenics. Set up in eight rows of ten we barked out the count for each exercise, mimicking the movements of senior Captain Mike O’Hagan.

If Mike put his hands to his helmet and yelled, “Hunh,” we put our hands on our helmets and yelled, “Hunh!” If he clapped his hands and slapped his thigh pads to a syncopated beat, so did we. To adolescent boys, the percussive rhythm to this routine resonated with astounding power. We were part of something bigger and far cooler than ourselves. It was awesome.

I had two older brothers on the squad, Jim and John. I was not alone in this privilege. Briarcliff Manor had a number of families that produced children at a prodigious rate: the McCloskeys, the Borhos, the O’Hagans, the McFaddens, the Kennedys…at six kids, the Gleasons were considered a mid-sized family.

That year, my brother Jim was a senior and he had the distinction of being the most valuable player on the team. I know this, because he has a trophy to prove it.

We didn’t receive too many trophies back in those days. I think I had one from a third place finish in a basketball tournament from my sixth grade youth league. It was about an inch tall and little more than a tiny basketball on a tree stump. It was the only recognition I had ever received for sports throughout my childhood.

Jim’s trophy by comparison was twenty-four inches tall, a golden pilaster rising from a marble base. On its top, it featured a football player in mid-throw. It was awarded in front of the entire high school community on senior recognition day in the last week of school. Jim won it for playing fullback.

He didn’t always play at that position. In a surprise decision by Coach Ed Hoffman, Jim was moved from guard to fullback his senior year. At 220 lbs., he was a bruising blocker. In one of the first games of the season, he knocked out two defensive ends in successive plays. The game took forever to finish as the town only had one ambulance and we had to wait for it to return for the second injured boy. As the season unfolded, Coach Hoffman discovered that Jim could also carry the ball and my brother began to rack up 100+ yard games.

In hindsight the move to fullback was obvious. Briarcliff’s offensive line that year was huge. Anchored at center by Mike O’Hagan, the line featured two gargantuan tackles, Mike’s brother Gary and Scotty Mickelson, it also included my brother John and an uncharacteristically large sophomore named Deryl Seemayer.

In a huge upset, Briarcliff beat Pleasantville near the end of the season to clinch the league title. Pleasantville was a powerhouse of a team that hadn’t been beaten in nearly three years. The day after the game there was a front-page picture of Jim in the Citizen Register barreling through the Pleasantville defensive line to score the winning touchdown.

To my thirteen year-old mind, my brother had set a high bar for a perfect season: Play fullback, beat Pleasantville, lead the league and win the trophy.

I planned to achieve all of them.

For the next two and a half years, I dedicated myself to becoming the best football player in the school. I lifted weights year round, ran extra sprints after every practice, learned the playbook by heart and ate voraciously to gain weight.

Unfortunately, my senior year left a lot to be desired.

I didn’t play fullback. We didn’t win the league. (We didn’t even have a winning season). We lost to Pleasantville. And while there were many reasons why none of these things happened the way I had it planned, the hard truth always remained. I had failed. And if there was one thing I hated most in life, it was failure.

There was only one chance left for redemption: the trophy for most valuable player. Unfortunately, I had to wait until the last week of school to find out if I’d won it.

Months rolled by. Fall became winter. Winter became spring. College acceptance letters arrived. Our futures began to stretch out in front of us. The last week of school brought all the usual pomp and circumstance and with it came senior recognition day. I waited in the stands as the coaches went through the superlatives for each sport. The last sport recognized was always football and Coach Hoffman stood to award the prize. In his hand was the twenty-four inch golden trophy that my brother had won. I held my breath.

“This player is an exemplary young man,” Coach Hoffman began, but I couldn’t hear the rest because the sound of my heartbeat drowned out the pre-amble to the winner’s name. He stopped to give the award the appropriate drama it deserved.

“This year’s most valuable player award goes to…Bobby Kennedy.”

I stood to applaud with all my classmates, our parents and the entire school community. Bobby was one of my best friends. I was happy for him, but like everything else I had planned for that year, I had failed. I had to recognize that I just didn’t deserve it.

The final trophy of the day was the American Legion Sportsmanship Award. As Coach Hoffman began his soliloquy for it, a sense of dread stole into my mind. Before he even announced my name, I knew it was my consolation prize. I groaned.

Sportsmanship. The nice guy. The guy who congratulates the winner. I couldn’t stop thinking of Vince Lombardi. “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

I was furious. With cheeks burning, I strode to the podium to accept the trophy. Sportsman that I was, I shook Coach Hoffman’s hand and smiled and waved to acknowledge the audience applause. But, in my heart, I was dejected. I had failed four for four. I went home, put the trophy in a box and set my mind on college.

Many years later, I was reminiscing with my older brother Jim about his senior year in high school. We talked about their safety, “Radar Rick” Webber and the team’s halfback, Ross Connolly.

“You know what I really regret?” Jim said.

I shook my head. I couldn’t think of a thing he might regret.

“I didn’t win the Sportsmanship Award my senior year.”

“But, you were Most Valuable Player.”

“Yeah, but the Legion trophy was always the big prize. That’s why it’s awarded last. Mike O’Hagan won it my senior year. I was really pissed off about that.”

It took some time for my adult brain to convince my adolescent brain to step aside so I could look at those events from a different perspective.

As an adult, I had brought my competitive nature to work. And over the course of my career, I succeeded and failed many times. Hard work, I found, was a precursor to success, but did not guarantee it. There were times when my best work was in the worst of my failures.

I took pride in giving a good day’s work for a good day’s pay and tried to align myself with people who brought the same enthusiasm to their jobs as I did. I treated people with respect, regardless of their job title or importance to me. I valued trust and competency and ethical behavior and was rewarded in kind by those who held similar standards.

Success has its merits (it really does), but when I think back on it, how we succeed is just as important. There is something to being able to live with the person you see in the mirror.

I have won many accolades and awards over the course of my professional career but only one trophy sits by my desk these days. It’s from American Legion Post 1054. A golden pilaster rises twenty-four inches up from a marble base. And on its top stands – not an athlete – but a human being.