Interviews from the world of sports!

Dan Jansen – Unbreakable

By:  Michael D. McClellan

It’s two hours before the biggest race of  your life and you’ve just seen death.

How do you compete when it goes down like this?

You’ve sacrificed large swaths of your childhood and even larger chunks of your adolescence in exchange for a place at the top of your sport’s elite, and now, with the whole world watching, with the payoff for all that hard work a mere 500 meters away, you’ve got to somehow cope with the grimmest news of your young life.  You toe the line and try to convince yourself that you can do this, that you can hold it together long enough to win this race for your sister.  Thirty-six seconds and change is all that separates you from making good on that promise.  Thirty-six seconds and change and you can finally let go.

But how do you skate with a broken heart?

The news comes on the morning of your big moment and it rattles you to the core.  As a 16-year-old high school sophomore, you’d set a junior world record in the 500 in your first international competition.  Two years later, you’d made U.S. Olympic team.  Competing in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, you surprised everyone by finishing fourth in the 500, just missing out on a medal.  By the time Calgary rolls around you’re setting world sprint records and dominating World Cup events the way Carl Lewis dominates the 100 meter dash.  Calgary was supposed to be a coronation.  A celebration.  Instead, your mind is a mess and your stomach is in knots.  You learn the hard way how fragile life can be, and it buckles you.  You’re twenty-two, as fast as a bullet on the ice and bulletproof off of it.  You’ve never had to deal with death.  Now you’ve gotten the worst news possible, and you’ve had all of two hours to pull yourself together, and just when you think you’ve built a mental flood wall strong enough to keep the sorrow at bay – at least long enough to skate those thirty-six seconds and change – the thought of Jane breaches the barrier and the pain seeps back in.

How can she be gone?

You’re here in Calgary, on this Olympic stage, because of her – because she’d taken you outside on a cold Wisconsin winter day all those years ago and introduced you to skating.  You were only four years old at the time, and in your universe Jane was the sun.  Skating transformed your life.  Jane did that for you.  The past year you’ve had to watch helplessly as the leukemia aggressively transformed Jane’s life in its own insidious ways – from a life with endless possibility to one pockmarked with painful bone marrow transplants and increasingly grim test results.  You’ve trained and competed and donated platelets.  You’ve prayed for your sister, laughed with her, supported her, cried with her…and through it all you’ve stayed focused on the task at hand, because that’s what Jane has wanted you to do.  It’s the only reason you’re in Calgary today and not back home in Wisconsin with her.

And then, on the morning of the race of your life, the news of Jane’s death levels you.

Thirty-six seconds and change.

You toe the line and wait for the start of the second heat.

A lifetime of hard work boils down to this.  A year ago the thought of sprinting for an Olympic medal made you smile.  Now it’s caked with dread.

Thirty-six seconds and change.

Your body might be here in Calgary, but your mind is back home in West Allis, 2,500 kilometers away.

~  ~  ~

You false start.

You never false start.

Yasushi Kuroiwa of Japan is in the lane next to you, but he’s not in your league.  Not even close.  You regroup.  The bell rings.  You get off cleanly but your massive thighs are sluggish, your trademark explosiveness MIA.  Maybe you don’t have it today.  Who would blame you?  You’re on the inside lane, Kuroiwa to your right, and as you reach the first turn you start to find your groove.  That split second of doubt evaporates.  You enter that first turn like you’ve entered dozens of turns on the World Cup circuit, a mix of speed and power and technical perfection that Kuroiwa will be unable to match over the full 500 meters.

And then, five strides into that first turn, the unthinkable happens.

You slip.

Your instinct is to steady yourself with your left hand, but it’s too late – you momentum drives you to the ice and whips your legs around in a centrifugal blur.  The roar of the crowd is instantly transformed into an elongated OOOOOOHHH, the sound gathering force when you clip Kuroiwa’s skate and reaching crescendo when you careen hard off the wall’s protective foam padding.

And just like that, it’s over.

You pop up off the ice in disbelief, your arms raised skyward for an instant, your eyes fixed on the Olympic Oval’s drab gray ceiling.  You remove your racing cap and bury your head in your hands.  Four years ago, in Sarajevo, you’d been an 18-year-old unknown.  No one expected you to medal.  You missed out on the bronze by 16-hundredths of a second, a tough break but hardly the end of the world.  You’d skated your best and come up just short, and you’d gone home without a shred of doubt or disappointment.

But this…

Calgary was supposed to be a fairy tale.  Instead, you can only watch as East Germany’s Uwe-Jens Mey wins the gold medal and 36 other skaters finish ahead of your DNF.  Jane’s death turns you into a household name.  Your teammates offer their support.  Complete strangers break down and cry.  You’re numb inside but you can’t mourn; you’ve got to hold it together long enough to skate the 1,000 meters four days later, and when you blister the first 600 meters in world record time, it looks as if this race – a race you dedicate to Jane – is going to be the one that honors her memory with Olympic gold.

And then, with one lap remaining, you slip again.

The expression on your face says it all.  You spin to a stop and sit there on the ice, legs extended, head in the palms of your hands, the weight of the world crashing down on you.  A thousand what-ifs run through your mind by the time you finally gather the strength to stand, but there’s only one thing you know with absolute certainty.

It’s time to go home.

~  ~  ~

Dan Jansen was a rocket ship on skates, his World Cup brilliance long overshadowed by those heartbreaking slips on the Olympic stage.  He was Scott Norwood before Scott Norwood, the kicker whose field goal attempt sailed wide right and sealed the first of four consecutive Super Bowl defeats for the Buffalo Bills.  The Olympics were Jansen’s Super Bowl.  His own personal wide right.  Failure begetting failure begetting failure, the pain and disappointment amplified by the fact that he was the best speed skater on the planet until the Olympics rolled around.  Sarajevo.  Calgary.  Albertville.  Lillehammer.  Close calls, heartbreaking falls and a reputation for choking with the stakes the highest, Jansen’s repeated Olympic failures were the lone blemish on an otherwise sterling résumé, one that included eight world records, 46 World Cup wins, 7 overall World Cup titles and two World Sprint Championships.

Six years to the day that Jansen’s slip cost him the 500 in Calgary, Jansen was on a world record pace in the same event at Lillehammer when he slipped again, dropping him to eighth place and out of medal contention.  He had one more opportunity in the 1,000, but he would now have to race it with another mistake gnawing at his confidence – and with the pressure of knowing that this would be his final Olympic race.  Sure, we hoped and we prayed that Jansen’s story would end happily ever after,  but deep down we knew how this Shakespearean tragedy would play out.  Dan Jansen was going to slip again, and he was going to go down as the guy who, try as he might, simply couldn’t get it done.

The best that never was.

~  ~  ~

The genesis of Jansen’s story can be traced to West Allis, where he was the youngest of nine children born to Harry and Geraldine, hardworking Midwesterners who had first dropped him off at the rink outside Milwaukee as a four-year-old rather than hiring a sitter to take care of him.  His connection to the ice was instantaneous.

“That’s all it took,” Jansen begins.  “From then on, it was me going along to the rink with my brother and sisters whenever they skated.  That’s really how I started out, just me tagging along and wanting to be a part of it.  I literally started on double runners.  I was four years old and racing by the time I finished that first year on ice.”

Harry Jansen was a police officer, and Gerry Jansen, a nurse.  Money was tight with a family that large, especially with all of the sports and extracurricular activities going on at the time.  Everyone, it seemed, was into skating, but it was Dan who showed the most promise.

“I was the baby of the family – number nine overall.  All of my siblings skated at one point in their life – some didn’t stay with it for very long, and others were quite good and skated for a long time.  My brother also competed on the international level.  They were all very supportive of me when I took it further, because they understood the ups and downs that went along with it, and all of the sacrifices that had to be made.  They were a big part of my team.”

Jansen’s childhood revolved around the rink, regardless of the season.

“Now it’s called long track and short track, but back then it was just indoor and outdoor,” he explains.  “We would skate indoors until the middle of November, and then we would move outdoors until the cold went away, and then we would move back indoors for the indoor season.  I loved it all, but the biggest memories for me  were of skating outside in the cold weather.  We loved it, but it was cold, and it was windy.  I remember traveling on the weekends to the meets and competitions, and those were held on frozen lakes and ponds.  Just great memories.  If you compare it to nowadays, many of the skaters have never even skated outdoors. But that’s how we grew up doing it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

The Jansens were clean-cut and close-knit, with Harry and Gerry doing their best to juggle evening and weekend schedules to make sure that all of their children were athletically and socially active.  Their sacrifices allowed the Jansen clan to dream, and their ability to stretch a dollar in pursuit of those dreams played a big part in Dan’s rise through the junior speed skating ranks.

 

“It wouldn’t have been a career without my parents.  They were extremely supportive and made incredible sacrifices in order for me to pursue my dream.  My success was made possible through them – the opportunity to grow as a skater was because of them, and certainly the opportunity to continue competing in speed skating was because of them. – Dan Jansen

 

“It wouldn’t have been a career without my parents,” Jansen says plainly.  “They were extremely supportive and made incredible sacrifices in order for me to pursue my dream.  My success was made possible through them – the opportunity to grow as a skater was because of them, and certainly the opportunity to continue competing in speed skating was because of them.

“The financial impact on the family budget was huge, especially with all of the travel and time away from home and everything else that goes along with trying to become an elite athlete.  Believe me, it was a burden.  I honestly don’t know how, looking back, with nine kids…I don’t know where they came up with the money to support me doing what I did.  We had to get creative – we held fundraisers and did other things to make money, anything to help take some of that burden off of them.  They made it work somehow. It’s really pretty remarkable.”

Wisconsin is known as America’s Dairyland, but it’s also a place where winters are long and frozen lakes are plentiful, making it the perfect breeding ground for hockey players.  But in the little corner of suburban Milwaukee that is West Allis, kids who are more inclined to forgo clunky hockey skates in favor of the longer blades of speed skates.  The Jansens were no exception; Jansen’s three brothers and five sisters all skated competitively.

 

Still a star: Dan Jansen shares a light moment with Stephen Colbert during a segment of The Colbert Report.

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“Skating is big in West Allis, and our parents supported our decisions to skate,” Jansen says.  “With that said, we were fortunate in that they never pushed any of us with the sports that we played.  If there was a certain direction that I wanted to go in, they were fine with it even if they might not have agreed.  If I wanted to quit skating and play football – I played football in high school – they weren’t going to stand in my way or try to influence my decision.  So I made my own decision on which sport to choose, and when I chose speed skating over football they never questioned it.  They always supported my passion for skating.”

Jansen was good at football, but he was exceptional at skating.  He progressed quickly, and within four years was winning national meets in his age group.  He was in contention for the 1977 national championship, when he was just eleven years old, but slipped on a lane marker, lost by one point and cried all the way home.  It was during this teachable moment that his father helped put the loss in perspective, explaining that there was more to life than skating around in circles.  It was a life lesson that would later provide strength with Jane at her sickest.

By the age of sixteen he was fully focused on skating, and was competing overseas against the world’s best junior skaters.  He set a junior world record in a 500-meter event, and finished ninth overall 1983.  His success in the shorter-distance events encouraged Jansen to concentrate on sprinting.

“To become elite – at least for me – took a total commitment to training, practice, and nutrition,” Jansen says.  “Becoming the one of the best at something also takes dedication and determination.  There’s a lot of hard work involved, a lot of sacrifices.  It goes all the way back to the early days, back to when I was four, or five, or six years old.  Certainly, I didn’t have any aspirations of becoming an elite skater at that point, but when I look back, all of the time that I spent on the ice at a very young age provided a great foundation for what I was to become.  As I grew stronger and my body matured, I benefited from all of those lessons that I learned along the way.

“And like I said before, you need a support system.  It means everything.  My dad worked two and three jobs just to support us all.  He was a police officer, and I remember that he would come home after the night shift, and then he would go downstairs and sharpen all of our skates for our competitions every weekend.  My parents would drive us all over the Midwest – up to Minnesota, down to Chicago, over into Michigan, and to all those little towns in Wisconsin. That’s how my parents would spend their weekends, driving us around and watching us race.  My father really had no other life as far as I know – he worked and worked, and then he made sure that he was with us while we were doing our thing on the weekend.  My mom made the same sacrifices as well.  She was a nurse who worked hard during the week and then traveled with us on the weekend.  It was that way all the time, especially during the winter months.”

~  ~  ~

So much has changed since the Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo.  Back in 1984, the winner’s podium celebrated the best of the best.  Years later it would be used by the Bosnian army to execute prisoners during the war.  Today, the Olympic facilities are crumbling reminders of both:  Up in the hills above the Bosnian capital is the bobsled and luge track, which was later used as a Bosnian-Serb artillery stronghold during the war.  The graffiti-stained track is overgrown with weeds, and a catchall for everything from natural sediment to man-made debris, with the spectator area below it now nothing but a bombed out, crumbling hull.  Broken bottles litter the ground around the ruins.  There’s a graveyard at the Igman Ski Center, honoring the Bosnian soldiers who lost their lives during the 1992–1995 war.  Behind it, red warning signs dot the hills where Bosnian-Serbs planted thousands of mines, many of which were left unexploded in the now off-limit areas.

 

The luge track haunts the hills near Sarajevo, a sobering reminder of the Bosnian War.

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Sarajevo was a far different place in 1984.  The first Winter Games held in a communist country, Sarajevo also marked the first Olympic confrontation of Soviet and American athletes since the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Games.  The competitions themselves were both spectacular and memorable – this was the Olympics of British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, American skiers “Wild Bill” Johnson and Debbie Armstrong, and East German skaters Katarina Witt and Karin Enke – and into this theatre stepped Jansen, wide-eyed and eager, and the youngest speed skater to make the Olympic team.

 

“It was such a weird feeling seeing people in person that I’d watched on television, and then it was even stranger interacting with them in the village or in the cafeteria.  One minute you’re turning on the TV and watching their highlights like everyone else, and the next you’re marching with them during the opening ceremonies.”  – Dan Jansen

 

“I guess the way that I would describe that experience is like this:  Take any 18-year-old and have them imagine what it would be like to compete in the Olympics,” Jansen says.  “It’s awe-inspiring.  It’s thrilling.  It’s a dream come true.  And that’s what it was for me, but it was even better than that.  It was such a weird feeling seeing people in person that I’d watched on television, and then it was even stranger interacting with them in the village or in the cafeteria.  One minute you’re turning on the TV and watching their highlights like everyone else, and the next you’re marching with them during the opening ceremonies.  It was surreal.  And then, just the whole Olympic experience – taking part in the opening ceremony, walking into the stadium behind the American flag…I would say that you’re kind of in awe, and maybe even a little overwhelmed by the spectacle of the whole thing, and even slightly intimidated with all that went along with representing the United States in the Olympics.  But the funny thing is, it wasn’t like that on the ice.  I was focused, and I wasn’t nervous at all.  I managed to compete very well.”

It helped having a support system with him – Team Jansen.

“My mom and dad both came to Sarajevo in 1984,” Jansen says proudly.  “It was important having family close, because they really helped me to enjoy the moment.  My brother Mike was there, too.  He showed up the day before my race and surprised me, so that was pretty special.  Like I said, he was a really good skater in his own right, and he competed at a very high level.  He just missed out on qualifying for the Olympic team.”

 

Dan Jansen (USA) skates in the Men’s Speed Skating competition of the 1984 Winter Olympics held in February 1984 at the Zetra Ice Rink in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. Jansen placed fourth in the 500m and sixteenth in the 1000m events in this Olympics.

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Going into his first Olympic Games, Jansen knew the margin for error was razor thin.

“It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t competed in speed skating, because it’s such a technical sport,” Jansen says.  “And even then when you put together the perfect technical race, there’s always the chance that one little slip can happen that changes everything.  It’s ice.  And if it’s outdoors, it could be a gust of wind or who knows what.  But that’s okay, because that’s part of the sport.  Speed skaters are used to that.”

Missing out on the bronze medal, Jansen wasted little time regrouping.  His speed skating career was just lifting off, The Fall a story for another Olympics, his Ali-Frazier rivalry with Uwe-Jens Mey still somewhere off in the distance.

 

“For me at that point, it wasn’t so much that I missed a medal from something technical.  I skated great for what I had at that time in my life.  That was a really good outcome for me, because nobody really expected me to do that well in my first Olympic Games. ”  – Dan Jansen

 

“For me at that point, it wasn’t so much that I missed a medal from something technical.  I skated great for what I had at that time in my life.  That was a really good outcome for me, because nobody really expected me to do that well in my first Olympic Games.  As a result I almost won a medal, so it wasn’t a disappointment for me at all.  You always have those thoughts that cross your mind, the what-ifs.  What if I had done this differently?  What if I had done that instead of the other?  But at the end of the day, it is what it is.  I couldn’t have done anything differently, or better.  It was a good, solid race, and that was all I had to give at that point in my career.”

Back home in West Allis, Jansen received a hero’s welcome.

“I guess it became kind of a big deal locally, because the community had this kid who went to the Olympics, so it was noticeable from that standpoint.  But it never got to the level where there was any real amount of fame.  It was more a case of people recognizing that this Dan Jansen kid is good and he went to the Olympics.  I had a few people tell me that it was too bad that I didn’t win a medal, and that was a little confusing to me because being in Sarajevo and representing the United States was major accomplishment in itself.  But that’s when you learn that people really don’t understand what goes into it all.  They don’t see the hours of sacrifice on the ice, and they don’t get what an honor it is just to be a part of the U.S. Olympic Team and representing your country.”

Unfazed by coming up short, Jansen threw himself into preparing for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary.  He recovered from hamstring injuries in both of his legs to win the silver medal in the 500 at the 1985 world sprints.  In 1986, he won a medal in every event he raced and became the first American to skate the 500 in under thirty-seven seconds.  A year away from Calgary, a bout with mononucleosis zapped his strength and stamina, casting the first hint of doubt about the upcoming Games, and then Jane’s diagnosis hits like a ton of bricks.

 

“It was a hard year all the way around.  The twelve months leading up to Calgary was when Jane was diagnosed with cancer…I went through a whole summer of trying to train while also trying to support Jane.  It was a difficult period.  She was going through her bone marrow transplants, so I was donating platelets and traveling to Seattle to be with her, and at the same time I’m training for the upcoming Olympics.” – Dan Jansen

 

“It was a hard year all the way around,” Jansen concedes.  “The twelve months leading up to Calgary was when Jane was diagnosed with cancer…she was diagnosed in January, 1987.  I was ill as well – I had mono – and because of that I was never really at full strength, which at times translated into sub-par performances on the ice.  I just didn’t have a good season.  I went through a whole summer of trying to train while also trying to support Jane.  It was a difficult period.  She was going through her bone marrow transplants, so I was donating platelets and traveling to Seattle to be with her, and at the same time I’m training for the upcoming Olympics.

“I was healthy when the next season started, and suddenly I’m winning all of the World Cups.  I also won the Speed Skating World Championship the week before the Olympic Games – thank God they were held in Milwaukee, because that meant I didn’t have to travel and I could spend all of my free time with Jane.  But then I had to leave her when I went to Calgary with the Olympic Team.  I was the clear favorite in Calgary.  I was expected to win.  That was my mindset, too.  Off the ice, I expected to see Jane in March when the season was over.  One week later she was gone, passing away on the day of my race.”

Jane’s passing, on Valentine’s Day, was the hardest blow of Jansen’s life.

“It was impossible to focus,” he says.  “That’s not an excuse, but it didn’t go very well for me.  I tried.  But nobody in Calgary had ever been in that position before, so there was nobody that I could lean on for advice.  I just did what I thought I should do – which we decided as a family – and that was to go out and try my best, because that’s what Jane would have wanted.  And I did.  With having said that, I didn’t have any of that physical or mental preparation that you would normally have on race day.  I just figured that I would go out there and do what I always did, but my level of focus wasn’t where it needed to be.  And with speed skating, when your mind isn’t all there it really shows.”

With four days to prepare for the 1,000 meters, Jansen appeared ready to compete.  Looks, however, can be deceiving.  He was an emotional train wreck.  His fall at the 600 meter mark sealed the most miserable week of his life.

 

Calgary washout – Jansen falls at the 600 meter mark, ending his Olympic bid with two falls in two events.

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“It was very disappointing, but I was empty inside and skating was really the furthest thing from my mind,” he says.  “After that second fall, it was just time.  I needed to go home.  I felt like I’d kept my brothers and sisters that were in Calgary with me long enough, and we all needed to get back and say goodbye to Jane.  We left almost immediately after that race; there was a local company in Wisconsin that donated the use of its airplane to us, so we flew home that night and prepared for the funeral, which was held a couple of days later.  It was just time to try and say our goodbyes.  It was very hard.  Anybody who has lost a family member knows what that’s like.”

Jansen’s heart and resolve not only earned him the admiration of millions – he received more than seven thousand letters in the weeks immediately after the Games – it also resulted in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Spirit Award, an award that goes to the U.S. Olympian who exhibits the Olympic ideal, overcomes adversity and exhibits extraordinary persistence and determination.  Jansen accepted the award in memory of his sister.

“It meant a lot to me then, and it still means a lot today,” he says.  “It was an unbelievably nice gesture to know that the other members of the team – and not just the speed skating team, but the whole U.S. Olympic Team and U.S. Olympic Committee – recognized what I was going through.  It was special to receive their support in the form of that award.  Like I said, it meant a lot to me and still does to this day.  It wasn’t like all was suddenly good in the world, but it certainly helped ease the pain a little bit.  It let me know that there were a lot of people supporting our family during this difficult time.  It was very moving to get that kind of support and recognition from my Olympic teammates.”

Just three weeks after the Olympics, Jansen bounced back to win a World Cup 500-meter race in Savalen, Norway, and placed second in the 1,000.

“I took half of the next year off,” Jansen says.  “I returned to Calgary and went to school.  I didn’t compete because my focus was on taking classes and getting my education.  It was difficult because everything was still so fresh and the emotions were still very raw.  I tried to block a lot of it out.  To a degree I was able to do that, but going back to Calgary was a very difficult time for me.”

When Jansen finally returned to the ice later that year, he was in a healthier place, both physically and mentally.  In December 1991, he skated the fastest 500 meters of the season, winning the U.S. Olympic Trials at 36.59 seconds in Milwaukee. The following month in Davos, Switzerland, he set the 500-meter world record at 36.41, beating the record set a week earlier by Uwe-Jens Mey, now Jansen’s top rival for the title of world’s best sprinter.

 

“Everything on the ice kept going well.  Each year got a little bit better, and I continued to win medals on the World Cup circuit.  I was also having success at the World Championships, so everything was coming together leading up to Albertville Olympics in 1992.  I had also set a world record two weeks before the Games began, so I felt like I was peaking at just the right time.”

 

“Everything on the ice kept going well.  Each year got a little bit better and I continued to win medals on the World Cup circuit.  I was also having success at the World Championships, so everything was coming together leading up to Albertville Olympics in 1992.  I had also set a world record two weeks before the Games began, so I felt like I was peaking at just the right time.  That’s when I decided to shut it down and rest my body before the start of the Games, but in retrospect I feel like I kind of rushed into rest mode.”

To most experts, Albertville seemed the perfect place for Jansen to finally exorcise his Olympic demons, and even Jansen himself felt poised to do big things.  He said he felt good when he woke up Saturday on morning of the 500.  He said Calgary was the farthest thing from his mind. He said he was convinced silver would be the lowest value metal he could win.  But when he got to the Olympic ice rink, an outdoor oval that would be turned into a running track after the Games, it was raining – the first sign that the skating gods weren’t sitting with the fans waving the homemade “Go Dan,” signs clustered among a sea of U.S. umbrellas in the stands.

“Let’s just say that it wasn’t a favorable turn of events,” he says, smiling wryly.

It turns out that rain is not a sprinter’s ideal weather.  Rain creates small bumps – “pebbles,” the skaters call them – that don’t allow for the best grip on the ice, especially with the skates used back then.  Courses with pebbles favor lighter, finesse-type skaters – skaters more the size of the Japanese.  Jansen, at six feet and just under 200 pounds, was a thickly muscled sprinter who’d been dominating the finesse skaters on the World Cup circuit.  But not on this day.  Used to digging his skates into the ice to generate thrust, Jansen wasn’t able to execute that technique as effectively in the rain.  Instead, it was the Japanese who excelled in the unfavorable conditions, with Toshiyuki Kuroiwa and Junichi Inoue winning the silver and bronze medals, placing just behind the winner, Uwe-Jens Mey.

 

Speed skater Dan Jansen of the United States finishing fourth during the Men’s 500 metres Speed skating event on 15 February 1992 at the Olympic Oval in Albertville, France.

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“He certainly should have won a medal,” Mey said at the time.  “I feel sorry for him. The Olympics don’t obey regular rules.”

Jansen followed up that fourth place finish by finishing 26th in the 1,000, completing the washout.

“I regret making the decision to rest,” he says.  “I came in a little flat, and I just wasn’t in top form for those Olympic Games.  I thought I was ready – I was at the top of my game just two weeks before and had that world record to prove it, but I wasn’t the same skater in Albertville.  To finished fourth again and out of medal contention was very disappointing.

“Looking back, I also think I under-trained.  We were fully prepared just two weeks before Albertville.  At that point I can safely say that we hadn’t over-trained or under-trained.  We were right on track.  When I set that world record we’d trained really hard so I decided to cut back.  The plan was to be as fresh as possible at the start of the Games, and I felt like I’d be flying on the ice if I gave my body some time to recover.  Looking back now, we cut it back a little too much.”

 

“Looking back, I also think I under-trained.  We were fully prepared just two weeks before Albertville.  At that point I can safely say that we hadn’t over-trained or under-trained.  We were right on track.  When I set that world record we’d trained really hard so I decided to cut back.  The plan was to be as fresh as possible at the start of the Games, and I felt like I’d be flying on the ice if I gave my body some time to recover.  Looking back now, we cut it back a little too much.” – Dan Jansen

 

For Jansen, Albertville was as disorienting as it was fruitless.

“The whole experience was surreal and kept me off-balance in a lot of ways,” he says.  “We practiced on a track in Italy, which wasn’t familiar to us at all.  We usually went to Germany when we were in Europe, but we weren’t able to go there and practice like we normally did.  When we arrived in Albertville, we quickly learned that the track was not a good track – it wasn’t even a permanent track.  It was thrown together for the Games and torn down immediately afterwards.  And overall, it just didn’t feel like an Olympics – we had strange weather, and we felt like the people really didn’t want us there.  We never felt welcome in Albertville.  So it turned out to be a not-so-good experience for me.  Don’t get me wrong; it was still the Olympics and I was still very thankful to be, and extremely honored to represent my country.  From a competition standpoint, you just want that to be at your peak physically, emotionally, and mentally.  I just feel any of that in ‘92.”

Albertville marked the last time the Winter Olympics was held in the same calendar year as the Summer Olympics.  Beginning with Lillehammer in ’94, the events were spaced two years apart.  Jansen, who’d exited France with a growing reputation as a choke artist, attacked the World Cup circuit with a different attitude and determination.  Between the 1992 and 1994 Olympics, he was the only skater to break 36 seconds in the 500 meters, doing so four times.  In 1994, he won his second World Sprint Championship title, and arrived at the 1994 Winter Olympics for one final attempt at an Olympic medal.  Many speculated that the compressed timeframe between Olympics would help Jansen, both physically and mentally, given his advancing age as a speed skater and the heartbreak he’d endured on the big stage.

“The quick turnaround between Olympics was nice, because I didn’t have as long to dwell on the disappointment in Albertville.  I feel like I would have been in top form even if Lillehammer had been held four years later.  I still was improving, even when I retired.  But it was great to have another Games in two years, because after the disappointment of coming up short I was ready to go again.  I had improved so much during the two seasons between Albertville and Lillehammer, and I was skating better than I had ever skated.  I went into the Lillehammer Olympics with tons of confidence.”

A major part of that confidence was directly related to training.  Peter Mueller, the 1976 gold medalist at Innsbruck, was pushing Jansen harder than ever before.  Gone were the days of focusing on the 500 and treating the 1,000 as an afterthought.

“We worked really hard on the 1000-meter event,” Jansen says, “and we trusted that it would be enough, and that it wouldn’t hurt our chances in the 500.  We actually trained as if we were competing in the 1,500, so that the 1000-meter result would be better.  We were able to keep the speed in the 500, so I think we trained smart.  Mentally, we worked for two solid years to just get into a better state of mind when I stepped to the line in the 1000-meter.  I hadn’t always had the most confidence at that distance, but all of that preparation had me believing in myself for that race.  It’s a good thing that I did work so hard on that event, because it turns out that I needed to. That was my last chance to win a medal after what happened in the 500.”

 

Dan Jansen arrived in Lillehammer at the top of his game. This would be his final chance at Olympic glory.

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Improbably – or as his critics would say, predictably – Jansen slipped on the final turn in the 500, touching the ice with his hand and finishing eighth.  That the 500 in Lillehammer took place exactly six years to the day that Jane had died, on Valentine’s Day, only added to the disappointment.  Suddenly, a snake bit Jansen had one last opportunity for an Olympic medal.

“I don’t know that I felt snake bit,” Jansen counters.  “I certainly wondered if it was meant to be, but nobody did anything to me to cost me a medal in any of those Olympic Games.  It was just tough luck.  That’s speed skating.  One little slip can cost you, and it did in the 500 at Lillehammer.  But I think the way that I prepared for the 1000-meter made up for all of the bad luck leading up to that event.  It all came together because I was so prepared physically, mentally, and emotionally.  That hadn’t always been the case in the 1000, but this time I believed that I was good enough to win.  My confidence was at an all-time high because I had shown good results leading up to the 1000, especially in December, so I had a lot of good things going on in the back of my mind.  I may not have been known for the 1000, but I knew that I could win a medal.  I knew that I could go to these Olympic Games and win that race.”

If the world expected Jansen to crumble from the pressure of another high stakes slip in the 500, he certainly wasn’t showing it.  In anything, it looked as if a giant invisible weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

 

“Ultimately, I just had to go out there and skate my best, and let the results be what they may.  At some point you have to accept whatever happens, good or bad, and I was prepared to deal with it either way.  I think that helped to diffuse any pressure that may have been building.” – Dan Jansen

 

“Ultimately, I just had to go out there and skate my best, and let the results be what they may.  At some point you have to accept whatever happens, good or bad, and I was prepared to deal with it either way.  I think that helped to diffuse any pressure that may have been building.”

It certainly helped having Mueller in his camp, especially during those long, agonizing hours between events.  He understood the complex calculus running around in Jansen’s head – the feelings of letting down the people who mattered to him most, the falls and out-of-the-money finishes, the energy drain that comes from answering the same questions thousands of times.

“Pete is a great motivator,” Jansen says.  “He just sort of let me overcome the disappointment on my own in terms, which really helped me get past the 500.  He understood that it hurt.  I could tell that it hurt him as well, but he also understood that I was skating extremely well, and he didn’t let me forget that.  He kept reminding me that it was just a slip, but that I’d been flying on the ice up to that point.  It just clicked.  I’d been flying on ice for the past two weeks.  I just won the World Championships again.  I’d lowered the world record.  So nobody was skating better than I was at that point.  But the mind is a funny thing, and sometimes you need to be reminded of things like that, and Pete did that every day.  That’s why he’s such a great motivator, but more than that, that’s why he became a great friend as well.”

Jansen’s Olympic history in the 1,000 was abysmal: a 16th, a fall, a 26th.  He could open up to 600 meters, but the rocket fuel that made him such a talented sprinter would quickly burn out.  To those closest to Jansen, however, something about racing the 1,000 in Lillehammer felt different.  That Mueller had placed a premium on conditioning certainly played a part, as had Jansen’s decision to consult with a sports psychologist in the run-up to the Games, but the biggest difference-maker was having his wife and eight-month-old daughter Jane in Norway to help Jansen keep it all in perspective.

 

“Fatherhood changed everything.  It was my last Olympic race, but I was prepared for whatever happened.  Another slip, another fall, or finishing out of medal contention didn’t matter.  When you become a parent, it changes how you look at everything.” – Dan Jansen

 

“Fatherhood changed everything.  It was my last Olympic race, but I was prepared for whatever happened.  Another slip, another fall, or finishing out of medal contention didn’t matter.  When you become a parent, it changes how you look at everything.”

Paired with Junichi Inoue of Japan, there was a certain looseness to his start that hadn’t been present in previous races.  Instead of pushing too hard from the bell, he held back, covering the first 200 meters in 16.71, not world record pace but fast enough to push him to the top of the leader board.  Where losing his sister in 1988 had proved debilitating, he suddenly seemed liberated from all of the expectations that had been placed on him.  He didn’t press.  Instead, Jansen let the race come to him.  At the 400-meter mark, where the skaters cross over from one lane to the other, Jansen was able to ride briefly in Inoue’s slipstream and slingshot into the next turn.  It was enough to cause those in the Jansen camp to believe, if only for a moment, that this was really happening, that Dan Jansen, the hard luck king, was suddenly on the verge of an historic breakthrough.

“It was all finally coming together for me,” Jansen says quickly.  “It was the strongest that I’d ever raced at that distance.  It was the smartest, too.”

In control but now skating on the inside lane where the turns are tighter and the G forces are heavier, Jansen’s family knew that he’d just entered speed skating’s danger zone, the place that posed the most risk to the final race of his Olympic career.  Then, on the next-to-last turn, it happened again, another Jansen slip, his left hand barely grazing the ice, a mistake that cost him two, perhaps three hundredths of a second.

Groans went up in the crowd.

The old Dan Jansen would have panicked and tried to recover too quickly, but the new Dan Jansen, the father with nothing to lose and everything to gain?  He simply took the misstep in stride and skated through it.

“The 1000 is a little bit longer race, so there’s a little bit more that you can get away with,” Jansen says.  “The chance of something happening did creep into my mind, especially with it being my last race and because of my slip in the 500.  But I was able to keep my composure and recover.  When I slipped in the 500 I panicked.  I tried to get the time back right away because you have to in that race, but I just kept slipping.  My skates didn’t grip the ice in that last turn.  When I slipped in the 1000, that moment instantaneously went through my head, but I thought, ‘Just don’t panic.  Don’t try to get this back too fast, just carry your speed to the end of this turn and then accelerate.’  It worked.  Strangely enough, I think I learned a little bit from my slip in the 500.”

The raucous crowd cheered wildly as Jansen opened it up on the straightaway.  Mueller was as animated as he’d ever been, nearly clapping his protégé on the back as Jansen whizzed by.  And when Jansen crossed the finish line with a time of 1:12.43, not only had he beaten out heavy favorite Igor Zhelezovsky of Belarus and Russia’s Sergei Klevchenya to capture gold in his final race, he’d broken the world record in an event that seemed ill-suited to his strengths.

 

“Overwhelming, that’s all I can say about that moment.  I just said a little prayer of thanks and thought about Jane.  I know she would have been proud of me.  And I knew that she was there somewhere.” – Dan Jansen

 

“Overwhelming, that’s all I can say about that moment.”  He pauses, and then:  “I just said a little prayer of thanks and thought about Jane.  I know she would have been proud of me.  And I knew that she was there somewhere.”

The win also overwhelmed his wife Robin, who hyperventilated and had to be rushed for treatment.  Hamar Olympic Hall was an intoxicating brew of wild celebration and unrestrained tears, as Americans, Norwegians and fans from many other countries showered Jansen with love.  People back home in West Allis and neighboring Milwaukee took to the streets to cheer their favorite son.  Living rooms across the U.S. – scratch that, around the globe – were buzzing over the fact that, in his final Olympic race, Dan Jansen had finally struck gold.

 

Golden Moment – After years of Olympic heartbreak, Dan Jansen finally breaks through.

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“It’s hard to describe that feeling,” Jansen confesses.  “Anyone who’s ever won an Olympic medal can try to describe what it feels like – getting up there on that podium, hearing the national anthem – but words can’t do justice to the emotions that are going through you at that time.  I never felt more patriotic than I did that day.  I never appreciated our national anthem is much as I did that day.  I’d been up there dozens of times at part of the World Cup, but never at the Olympics, so this had so much more meaning.  As I’ve said, other medalists can try to tell you what it feels like, but I’d guess that there are very few, probably, that have had the emotions that I did after going through everything that I went through with my sister and all of the disappointment in the Olympics leading up to that moment.”

Jansen, visibly moved in the moments after the win, waved to the sky in memory of his sister as he took that now iconic victory lap in Lillehammer with eight-month-old daughter Jane in his arms.

“One of the biggest moments in my life,” Jansen says.  “To be able to take that lap with Jane meant everything.”

His mind was still spinning when he stepped up on that podium.

 

“I just remember feeling so much pride.  The national anthem is a short song, and a lot goes through your mind in that short period of time – a lot of things that we’ve talked about tonight.  You remember moments from your childhood.  You remember racing outside on the lake.  You remember everyone who’s ever helped out in any capacity, when you’re up there in that moment you realize that it’s not really about you, it’s about all of those people who’ve sacrificed to help you live your dream.” – Dan Jansen

 

“I just remember feeling so much pride,” Jansen says.  “The national anthem is a short song, and a lot goes through your mind in that short period of time – a lot of things that we’ve talked about tonight.  You remember moments from your childhood.  You remember racing outside on the lake.  You remember everyone who’s ever helped out in any capacity, when you’re up there in that moment you realize that it’s not really about you, it’s about all of those people who’ve sacrificed to help you live your dream.”

 

A promise fulfilled: Dan Jansen celebrates with daughter Jane, six years after his sister Jane passed away.

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If there were any doubts about the significance of Jansen’s victory, those were erased by the congratulatory phone call that he received from President Clinton shortly after the medal ceremony.

“It was cool!” Jansen says proudly.  “It happened during a press conference.  Somebody handed me a cell phone and said, ‘Hold for the president.’  So I had to tell the reporters that I had to hold off on answering their questions because I’ve got to talk to the president.  That got a big laugh out of everyone.  It was pretty special moment.  It was something I’d never even considered happening.  You can dream about the Olympics and winning medals and all of that, but having a conversation with the President of the United States is something that never entered my mind.  It was an amazing moment, and it just added to how special it was to win a gold medal.”

~  ~  ~

The victory meant that the low-key Jansen could no longer fade into the background.  His story of tragedy, perseverance, and triumph created worldwide buzz.  His clean cut image and handsome good looks made him a hit from Main Street to Madison Avenue.

“The attention was different for me,” Jansen concedes.  “I’m not one who loves the spotlight, so it was bizarre and it was intimidating.  After the closing ceremony I went straight to New York and did the talk show circuit – The David Letterman Show, all of the morning shows like The Today Show and Good Morning America.  It was surreal – even just walking around New York people knew who I was.  It was a huge adjustment for me to be someone recognized in that way on a national scale.  It was certainly that way when I came home to Wisconsin.  It was big time. I didn’t even think about going out for dinner or doing anything in public for awhile.”

 

After winning gold, good friends Dan Jansen and Bonnie share the cover of Sports Illustrated.

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Jansen’s newfound celebrity landed him on the February 28, 1994 cover of Sports Illustrated, along with good friend and fellow speed skating legend Bonnie Blair.  His autobiography Full Circle:  An Olympic Champion Shares His Breakthrough Story, hit bookstores later that fall.  In between, Jansen was also very much in demand as an endorser and motivational speaker.  Two years later, on February 14, 1996 – the eight year anniversary of Jane’s passing – A Brother’s Promise: The Dan Jansen Story premiered on national TV, as well as in such far-flung places as Germany, Spain, Finland and Hungary.

 

“It was a phenomena for a while, but eventually the buzzed died down, which suited me just fine because I’m a private person.  People had great intentions, and I’m super appreciative that they were happy for me, but the newfound celebrity was unsettling to say the least.  Even today, after all of these years, it’s still requires an adjustment on my part.” – Dan Jansen

 

“It was a phenomena for a while, but eventually the buzzed died down, which suited me just fine because I’m a private person,” Jansen says.  “People had great intentions, and I’m super appreciative that they were happy for me, but the newfound celebrity was unsettling to say the least.  Even today, after all of these years, it’s still requires an adjustment on my part.  I can appreciate how real celebrities have to deal with that type of lifestyle every day, and how tough it can become on them, but for me I knew fame was fleeting. It was great to celebrate with my hometown people, and I still to this day I get nothing but good things spoken to me.  I’m thankful for that, because I didn’t become famous for something negative or notorious.  I’m just glad to be famous for something that makes people feel good.  That’s always positive.”

Surely, after all these years, Jansen’s fame has led to many good-natured ribbings from his brothers and sisters.

“I can’t say that there’s ever been any ribbing, but occasionally the subject will come up.  My brother was there with me, so there are a lot of good memories that we talk about.  I’ve heard my siblings talk about it among themselves, about how great it was for them immediately afterwards – walking around Lillehammer without me and the people coming up to congratulate them.  There were times when people didn’t know that they were my siblings, they just knew that they were Americans.  That was really special, and to me, that really said a lot about the people of Norway and how much they knew about my story.”

 

Retired and enjoying life:  Dan Jansen at The Michael Jordan Celebrity Invitational golf tournament.

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A movie, and autobiography, and a place on People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People list…it would be easy to get caught up in the trappings of fame, or for Dan Jansen to get drunk on his own mythology.  But Jansen was no Icarus – he was raised humble and stayed humble – so there was no danger of him flying to close to the sun, his wax wings melting away, the subsequent fall chronicled on Dateline or 20/20.

“Winning the gold and the fame that came with it didn’t change me,” he says flatly.  “I was still the ninth child in a large family from Wisconsin.  What really changed for me were the opportunities that came my way, in terms of the people that I was able to meet, and still meet today, the friends that I’ve made, things like that.  I am invited to celebrity golf tournaments, or other events that you wouldn’t ordinarily wouldn’t get invited to, so those are perks that I enjoy.  That’s really the biggest way it changed my life.  It’s allowed me to meet some great people.  The negative part, as I’ve mentioned, is the lack of privacy.  That was the biggest negative adjustment to becoming a celebrity, but celebrity is what you make of it.  If you want to make a big deal of it then you will, you will find an entourage to walk around with, or whatever the case may be.  But that’s not really me.  It never has been, and it never will be.”

~  ~  ~

Jansen retired a few months after winning the gold medal in Lillehammer.  In 1995, he won the prestigious AAU James E. Sullivan Award, presented annually to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States.  The list of winners is long and impressive:  Bobby Jones.  Dick Button.  Wilma Rudolph.  Mark Spitz.  Carl Lewis.  Tim Tebow.  Jansen’s year was so big that he nudged out golfing phenom Tiger Woods to win the award.

“You know, I think it’s one of the lesser-known things about me, and even one of the lesser-known awards, so I’m glad that you’ve brought that up,” Jansen says.  “For me, the Sullivan Award is one of the most special awards out there.  It’s recognition as the top amateur athlete in the United States, and it covers all sports.  I remember winning it – I was sitting next to Tiger Woods, he was nominated that year.  Tiger was still in college and competing as an amateur golfer.  It was right before he turned pro.  Charlie Ward was also there, as well as several others.  It’s just a great award to look back on, and again, it’s rarely pointed out.  Whenever I’m introduced, the lead-in is always about the gold medal, and the Sullivan Award is rarely mentioned.  But for me, winning that award was very cool.  When somebody wins the Heisman Trophy, they are part of that pantheon forever.  People know all about the Heisman and who the winners are, but most don’t know about the Sullivan Award winner.  Eric Heiden and Bonnie Blair are both Sullivan Award winners.  Having three speed skaters win the award is pretty cool.”

The gold medal allowed Jansen to walk away on top.  While Lillehammer is by far the biggest line item on his résumé, the two-time world champion dominated his sport in a way that often gets overlooked.

 

Forever Golden: Forget the slips and the fourth place finishes. Dan Jansen, Olympic champion.

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“The Olympics are huge, but the World Championships and the World Cup are as big as you can get,” Jansen says.  “I won 46 World Cup races and seven overall titles.  If you’re a skier and you had those numbers it would be a pretty big deal, but our sport, at least in this country, isn’t recognized as much. But that’s not really why we do what we do.  We do it because we love the sport.  We want to keep getting better, and trying to go faster.  When you win it’s great.  When you come up short you’re looking forward to the next race.  I loved every minute of it, and I would do it all over again.”

Jansen also knows that speed skating doesn’t carry the same cachet as other Winter Olympic sports, such as figure skating, ice hockey and alpine skiing.

“Speed skaters go into it knowing that they may never become rich or famous.  I’m not saying that we don’t dream and we don’t have these grand illusions when we’re starting out, but we understand the realities of the sport that we’ve chosen.  There are plenty of famous figure skaters, people like Michelle Kwan, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Scott Hamilton and Brian Boitano.  The sport is much more high profile.  Speed skaters fly under the radar, but that was fine with me.  I was happy to compete, and I didn’t go into it looking for fame or celebrity.  I think those things found me because of the way my story played out.”

Even after all of these years, people still remember what Jansen went through, how he persevered, and how he came out whole on the other side.  What’s clear is that he didn’t need that gold medal to validate his career, at least not to the person who matters most.  Yet Dan Jansen understands its significance.

“I guess the reason my story is still known has a lot to do with the tough parts that I went through.  Had I won in the first Olympics, or the second Olympics, who knows?  Who knows if I would still be asked to speak and share my story?  Had my story been different, had the results been different, you may not have even wanted to interview me.  Would I have been considered a failure if I’d slipped in that last 1000 at Lillehammer and finished my career without an Olympic medal?  Fortunately, I was able to win gold and get that monkey off of my back, so to speak.  Life is strange in those ways and I don’t really have the answers for why, but it’s not something that I take for granted.  I’m very thankful for being remembered, so when I speak I try to convey good, positive messages about the lessons that I’ve learned.  I try my best to share those things and speak from the heart.  I feel like a lot of good came from my career, and I’ve tried to enjoy all of the moments along the way.  So as cliché as it sounds, for me it has truly been about the journey and not the end result.”

~  ~  ~

Dan Jansen continues to love his sport.  Today, he is a speed skating commentator for NBC.  In 2014, he was in Sochi, Russia, to take part in his ninth Winter Olympics – four as a competitor, five as a TV analyst – and it’s clear that he still has a passion for the Games.

 

Golden duo Dan Jansen & Apolo Ohno working the Olympic Trials for NBC.

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“I love working as a commentator for the Olympic Games,” he says.  “It’s one of my favorite things to do now.  It’s not as easy as people think, I will be the first to tell you that.  There is a lot of research that goes into it, and a lot of getting to know and understand television and how all of that works, but I love doing it.  I love staying involved in the sport and following along with who’s doing what, so I look forward to covering speed skating at the Olympics.  I’ve also been working all of the World Cup and World Championship events in between Olympics, so that helps keep me on top of things.  It’s a great time and a huge learning experience.  Like I’ve said, it’s not quite as easy as everybody might think.”

Staying connected to his sport means that Jansen has seen the changes since he became the first skater to break the 36-second barrier in the 500.

“You really can’t compare the speed skaters of today with the athletes who competed when I skated,” Jansen says.  “The single biggest reason is because of the skates.  The skates are so much different today, and they’ve dramatically changed the sport.  The skates in use today now have hinged blades, so that when you push off, you’re getting to the end of your push with your toe, which is a significant advantage over the technology that we used.  My skates were all one piece, which meant that the heel had to come up off the ice, but the skates of today work like a cross country ski.  There’s a hinge, so when you push off with the toe the blade stays on the ice.  It’s a dramatic advantage.  Modern skaters are getting much more push with each stride, so much so that it’s making a second-and-a-half per lap difference compared to the skates that we used.  It’s really outrageous to think about.

“When I retired, my world record in the 500-meters was 35.76.  And now there’s a guy named Pavel Kulizhnikov, who just broke 34 seconds for the first time – 34 flat in November, 2015, which is more than a second-and-a-half faster than my fastest time, and then 33.98 in Salt Lake City five days later.  He later tested positive for having meldonium in  his system, but his ban was lifted after the International Skating Union lifted when they determined the concentration of meldonium was below the threshold.  Coincidentally, meldonium is the same drug that Maria Sharapova was tested positive for, and she was banned from tennis for more than a year.  I believe there’s something like 60 athletes that have now tested positive for that drug.”

~  ~  ~

Time flies nearly as fast as Dan Jansen once did around the track.  It seems like yesterday when Jansen skated that memorable victory lap around the track in Hamar Olympic Hall that day.  Jane is a young woman now.  In the blink of an eye she went from the baby in all those victory lap photos to a student at Clemson University, majoring in education, her future as bright and as filled with potential as her famous father.  Jansen’s youngest daughter, Olivia, has also grown into a young woman with hopes and dreams of her own.  Watching his daughters grow up, and being there for them, is Jansen’s priority now.  He lives a quiet life in Mooresville, North Carolina, where he works in real estate, plays golf with his wife (well-known golf pro Karen Palacios-Jensen), and enjoys taking his boat out on Lake Norman.  He’s also started working with a NASCAR team to provide its drivers with mental and physical training, offering them a competitive advantage in a sport every bit as competitive as speed skating.

“I don’t want to mention any names at this point,” he says, “but working with NASCAR drivers is a lot of fun.  Hopefully it will continue to grow.”

All this, and he never forgets.

Jansen’s charity is involved in myriad of causes – helping individuals and families affected by leukemia and related cancers, supporting youth sports programs, and assisting high school seniors in the pursuit of higher education – all in memory of his sister.

 

Dan Jansen speaking to the American golfers traveling to Rio for the 2016 Summer Games.

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“We started the foundation in 1995, the year after I won the gold medal,” Jansen says.  “I just wanted to do something to give back, and to do it in Jane’s memory.  We started helping the families of the victims, because when Jane was sick we had to travel back and forth as a family, and the expenses can pile up quickly.  My mom and dad basically lived in Seattle for a year when Jane was sick, and it was a great financial burden on the family, so we try to help families to be able to travel, to be able to be with their siblings and their children during those difficult times.  The foundation helps to pay for their travel and for their room and board.

“We recently helped a family by paying their mortgage for a couple of months.  Their child was very sick and going through expensive treatments, and they had no other way to do meet their monthly mortgage obligation.  It’s the little things like that, that people don’t always think about.  Most people think in terms of finding a cure, and that’s where they think they should put their money, but that’s not what the focus of my foundation is all about.  Were not a huge charity.  A cure for cancer hasn’t been found yet, so we’re going to help the people who are still in the unfortunate position of fighting it.  It’s a very rewarding and fulfilling cause, so to be able to help with those sorts of things has been great.”

It turns out Jansen was right all along.  He didn’t need a gold medal to make a difference in the lives of others.  Had he slipped during his last race in Lillehammer, the only difference would have been the way people chose to view his legacy.  For Dan Jansen, his life would have been no less fulfilling.

“First and foremost, always do good things for people,” he says.  “Make a positive difference in the lives of others.  Those are the things that have true meaning.  Stardom and celebrity have a short shelf life, and those things don’t really matter in the big scheme of things.  If you can help someone who is going through tough times, then you’ve done something far more meaningful with your life.  Those are the things that matter most.”

Jim Kelly – Kelly Tough

By:  Michael D. McClellan  |  The story ends a world apart from where it begins, so let’s address the Super Bowl-sized elephant in the room:  Jim Kelly wants no part of Buffalo.  Too damn cold.  Too damn small.  The Bills are a fringe franchise based in economically-depressed Western New York, a region that hardly seems a premiere destination for a marquee quarterback with a linebacker’s mentality and trace amounts of Hollywood coursing through his veins.  The team produces exactly one true superstar since its inaugural AFL season in 1960, and  those O.J. Simpson-led Bills, which played its games in crumbling War Memorial Stadium before escaping to Rich Stadium in 1973, range from plain awful to barely relevant.  Buffalo makes the playoffs one time before injuries rob The Juice of his speed and prompt a trade to San Francisco, where Simpson plays one last season on bad knees and retires.  There is a brief uptick in the early 80s with a pair of playoff appearances under head coach Chuck Knox, but the team sags again, and rumors of franchise relocation begin to swirl.  So, ahead of the 1983 NFL Draft, the University of Miami star makes it clear through his agent that Buffalo, which possesses two first round picks, can do everyone a favor by choosing someone else.

The Bills select Notre Dame tight end Tony Hunter with its first pick, Number 12 overall, and then ignore Kelly’s warnings and call his name two picks later.  Publicly, Kelly says all of the right things.  Privately, he’s devastated.  He watches John Elway go Number 1 and then threaten to play pro baseball for the New York Yankees rather than sign with the Baltimore Colts, who blink and trade him to the Denver Broncos a week later.  Kelly is no dummy.  He knows that playing in Buffalo is even worse than playing in Baltimore, but he doesn’t have a potential baseball career to wield as leverage.  And because the Bills own his draft rights, it’s Buffalo or bust if he wants to become an NFL star.

 

Jim Kelly was the first in a string of great quarterbacks to play at the University of Miami. Here he hands off to Chris Hobbs (33) during the Peach Bowl on Jan. 3, 1981. Kelly was voted Most Valuable Player on offense for his play in Miami's 20-10 victory over Virginia Tech. (Photo: AP Photo)

Jim Kelly was the first in a string of great quarterbacks to play at the University of Miami. Here he hands off to Chris Hobbs (33) during the Peach Bowl on Jan. 3, 1981. Kelly was voted Most Valuable Player on offense for his play in Miami’s 20-10 victory over Virginia Tech. (Photo: AP Photo)

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Just as he’s coming to grips with the reality of suiting up for a dreadful team in a dreadful city, the Bills gift-wrap an escape plan that even Kelly himself has a hard time believing.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Kelly says today of the embarrassing gaffe that allows him to bolt to the USFL, an upstart league competing directly with the NFL for unsigned talent.  “I didn’t want to play in Buffalo, so when I was drafted by the Bills I had tears in my eyes.  The next thing you know, I’m on the phone with Bruce, talking about the possibility of playing in the USFL.”

 

“I didn’t want to play in Buffalo, so when I was drafted by the Bills I had tears in my eyes.  The next thing you know, I’m on the phone with Bruce, talking about the possibility of playing in the USFL.” – Jim Kelly

 

That Kelly would flee Buffalo is a gut punch to the city, the team, and its fans; that the Bills would drive the getaway car is almost too much to bear.  The story goes like this:  Kelly is visiting the Bills’ headquarters to take part in contract negotiations when a team secretary fields a call from Bruce Allen, the general manager of the rival United States Football League’s Chicago Blitz.  Allen explains that he desperately needs to speak to Kelly’s agent.  It’s urgent.  Can’t wait.  The secretary unwittingly puts him through, and Allen wastes little time making his pitch:  Tell your client to play QB in the USFL, and not only will he make more money than he can in the NFL, he can play for any team you like.  The choice of cities is his.

That’s all it takes for Kelly to break off negotiations with the Bills and sign with the USFL’s Houston Gamblers, where he can play in the comfort of the climate-controlled Houston Astrodome.  Facing reporters following the signing, an upbeat Kelly is cruelly blunt in assessing his decision:  “Would you rather be in Houston or Buffalo?”

 

University of Miami quarterback Jim Kelly is all smiles at his press conference June 10, 1983 after signing a multi-year contract with the new USFL franchise, the Houston Gamblers. (Photo: AP photo / F. Carter Smith)

University of Miami quarterback Jim Kelly is all smiles at his press conference June 10, 1983 after signing a multi-year contract with the new USFL franchise, the Houston Gamblers. (Photo: AP photo / F. Carter Smith)

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There are plenty of pissed off people in Western New York, but the backlash is relatively tame by today’s standards.  There isn’t the hate and vitriol associated with the modern day decisions made by title-hungry NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but there are no smartphones to propagate Kelly’s decision in real time, and no social media to fan the flames of discontent.

Little does anyone realize that this is only a detour, a temporary separation that will only serve to galvanize the bond between star and city.

Turns out Jim Kelly and Buffalo are meant for each other after all.

It just takes a while for Kelly to fall in love.

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

It’s easy to get hung up on those four Super Bowl losses, to fixate on all of the pain and torment that goes with failing in front of billions.  Wide right.  Thurman Thomas losing his helmet moments before Buffalo’s first possession of Super Bowl XVI.  Getting blown out one year, and then getting rolled in the second half a year later by the same team, road kill on the way to fulfilling an inglorious destiny.  Anybody can poke fun at this Shakespearian run of futility and tell you how bad you suck.  It’s easy to sit there and critique the losses when your legacy isn’t on the line, when the only skin in the game is the twenty bucks you’ve forked over for the pizza, when you have neither the talent nor the smarts to play one of the most complex, physically demanding sports in the world.  Instead of appreciating the immense achievement of your team reaching the Super Bowl, you sit on your couch and curse the TV, the profanity-laced tirade fueled by all the beer you’ve consumed on this Super Bowl Sunday, an average of three cans per hour since the moment you opened your eyes and pulled your favorite Bills jersey over your sizeable gut, the very act of which leaves you struggling to catch your breath.  Insults flow like water pouring over Niagara Falls:  Choke artists.  Laughingstocks.  Bums.  Losers.  It all comes spewing out in disgust, as you disavow the very team that had just come through so dramatically for you in the AFC Championship Game.

It’s easy to discount the Herculean feat achieved by those Jim Kelly-led Buffalo Bills.  We ridicule them for climbing the mountain four consecutive years only to come up one game short, and yet we say nothing about the one-and-done Super Bowl teams that get beaten and then disappear, never to be heard from again.  Who remembers the 2002 Oakland Raiders, the team pole-axed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII?  That Raiders team quickly lost its mojo, going 4-12 the next season before spending a decade wallowing in the muck.  Ask anyone who has played in the National Football League how hard it is to grind through a 16 game season and then win in the playoffs, where the intensity goes up exponentially and the pressure is amplified by some unquantifiable factor.  The lucky ones will tell you how difficult it is to pull off once, but for some reason we diss the Bills, even though those Buffalo teams were 58-19 over that four year span.  They won big with home field during the playoffs, and they manufactured narrow escapes as wildcard underdogs, grinding out postseason games in hostile, ear-splitting environments like Pittsburgh and Denver.  In 1990, they dismantled the Oakland Raiders, 51-3, to reach their first Super Bowl; two years later, trailing the Houston Oilers 35-3, they completed the biggest comeback in NFL playoff history, winning 41-38 in overtime to keep its championship hopes alive.

 

Andre Reed celebrates a touchdown against the Houston Oilers in a wildcard game played on January 3, 1993. It featured the Bills recovering from a 32-point deficit to win in overtime, 41–38, and it remains the largest comeback in NFL history.

Andre Reed celebrates a touchdown against the Houston Oilers in a wildcard game played on January 3, 1993. It featured the Bills recovering from a 32-point deficit to win in overtime, 41–38, and it remains the largest comeback in NFL history.

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It’s easy to forget that no other team has ever gone to four consecutive Super Bowls.  Miami went to three in a row in the early 1970s, winning two, but that’s before the league adds two more games to the regular season schedule, and before it expands from 26 to 28 teams.  Pittsburgh would go to four Super Bowls in six seasons, winning all four, and San Francisco would later win five Lombardi Trophies over a thirteen season span.  No one argues this greatness, nor should they; but in terms of sheer grit and resilience, these Buffalo Bills teams bounced back from crushing defeat not once, not twice, but three times.

“We never gave up,” Kelly says proudly.  “When we lost that first Super Bowl to the Giants, we could have gone into the next season in a funk.  But we came back and played even better.  Resilience is the hallmark of those teams.  We kept battling.”

 

“We never gave up.  When we lost that first Super Bowl to the Giants, we could have gone into the next season in a funk.  But we came back and played even better.  Resilience is the hallmark of those teams.  We kept battling.”- Jim Kelly

 

It’s easy to forget how beautifully crafted these Bills teams were, constructed by General Manager Bill Polian to win on all three sides of the ball, its roster dotted with future hall of fame players like Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, James Lofton, and Bruce Smith.  And perhaps therein lies the rub; the Bills defense, while good, will never be confused with Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain or Dallas’ Doomsday Defense.  It features Smith alongside a solid group of defenders, but it can’t stand up to the Cowboys’ mammoth offensive line and Emmitt Smith’s relentless pounding in Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII.  Nor can it keep Bill Parcells’ ground game from chewing up huge swaths of clock in that first Super Bowl appearance, relegating Kelly and that vaunted K-Gun offense to spectators for much of the game.

Kelly, for his part, will have none of it.  He’ll tell you that those Buffalo Bills teams were as close as any NFL team ever assembled, and that they won and lost as a unit.  No excuses.  He’ll point to the bond that has endured far longer than the disappointment and humiliation of failing famously, and he’ll proudly tell you about a brotherhood that has helped him overcome the death of his young son and two bouts with cancer.

Turns out that those losses, however big they seem to us at the time, are never going to define these Buffalo Bills, especially Jim Kelly.  The moments that matter aren’t the ones with billions watching, but the ones when you’re wiped out from the 35 grueling radiation treatments for squamous cell carcinoma, along with three ravenous chemotherapy treatments to fight the cancer that has taken hold of your upper jaw, cheekbone and nasal cavity.

 

Jim Kelly's positive attitude has played a big part in beating cancer not once, but twice.

Jim Kelly’s positive attitude has played a big part in beating cancer not once, but twice.

.

Kelly knows.

Arguably the toughest quarterback to ever play football, he has been to hell and back and understands what’s really important, things he refers to as the four Fs – faith, family, friends, and fans.  Losing four Super Bowls is a bitter pill to swallow, and Kelly is the first person to tell you how much it hurts, but it’s nothing compared to undergoing surgery to remove your jaw and most of your teeth.  It’s in those moments when true character is revealed, when something called ‘Kelly Tough’ becomes more than a corny catchphrase uttered at corporate speaking engagements and charity golf events.

Turns out those bitter defeats are more footnote than focal point, more detour than destination, more line item than legacy.

Turns out Jim Kelly’s story is far bigger than the game of football.

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

Kelly’s 11-year NFL career is in the rearview mirror, and his future stretches out in front of him like a sheet of ice on Lake Erie in January.  He has a beautiful wife, and the first of two beautiful daughters.  Canton and its Pro Football Hall of Fame beckon in the near future.  There is no shortage of business opportunities, there’s plenty of money in the bank, and he’ll never again have to pay for dinner in Western New York.  Even better, Jill is pregnant with their second child, and on Valentine’s Day 1997 she gives birth to Hunter James Kelly, the baby boy that Jim’s been dreaming about.

Pause.

If those Super Bowl losses prove anything, it’s that storybook endings are often just that – works of fiction, unicorns nestled snugly in the pages of a children’s fantasy.  Kelly yearns for a son.  And while God blesses him with the birth of that son on his 37th birthday, Hunter is born with something called Krabbe disease, a genetic disorder that affects the central and peripheral nervous systems.  Cruelly, those affected by Krabbe typically appear healthy until onset, and Hunter seemingly enters the world as healthy as any other baby born on this day.

 

Jim Kelly shares a moment with his son, Hunter, during Kelly's Wall of Fame Induction Ceremony on November 18, 2001.

Jim Kelly shares a moment with his son, Hunter, during Kelly’s Wall of Fame Induction Ceremony on November 18, 2001.

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“Four months into his life, we had no idea that there was anything wrong with our son,” Kelly says.  “But by then we could tell.  That began the battle.  We never knew what it was, not until Hunter was tested.  So that’s the focus of our foundation, Hunter’s Hope.  We want to make sure that states test for the maximum amount of treatable diseases possible.  When Hunter was born, the State of New York was only testing for 11 treatable diseases – today, we are closing in on fifty.  But there is still so much work to do.  So many states are still testing for 20 or fewer diseases, while others are testing for sixty.  The goal of Hunter’s Hope Foundation is for all states to test for as many treatable diseases as possible.”

Hunter’s diagnosis changes everything.

“I dreamed about coaching my son in football,” Kelly says. “Hunter would wear No. 12, and his cousin Chad [Kelly] would wear 83 [Andre Reed’s number].  That’s the way it was supposed to play out.  The script was written.”

Krabbe disease flips the script.  Exceedingly rare, Krabbe is so obscure that, until recently, many medical journals failed to even list it among childhood disorders.  Most victims never see their first birthday; at one point, only one child had ever reached the age of four.  For Jim and Jill, the news is devastating.  But in truly Kelly fashion, they pour their energy into caring for their son, who, in turn, shows plenty of the fighting spirit that his father makes famous.

“I can’t think of a tougher person, or a more determined fighter, than Hunter,” Kelly says.  “The doctors were very open about his illness.  They said the probability of him living past that first year was extremely low.  But Hunter, more than any of us, was ‘Kelly Tough’.  He was going to defy the odds, and that’s exactly what he did.  One year became two.  Two became three.  Soon he was eight, nearly twice as old as the oldest child to live through this disease.  He kept fighting.  He kept proving everyone wrong.”

 

“The doctors were very open about his illness.  They said the probability of him living past that first year was extremely low.  But Hunter, more than any of us, was ‘Kelly Tough’.  He was going to defy the odds, and that’s exactly what he did.  One year became two.  Two became three.  Soon he was eight, nearly twice as old as the oldest child to live through this disease.  He kept fighting.  He kept proving everyone wrong.” – Jim Kelly

 

That the Kellys are able to provide round-the-clock care and constant nurturing helps, but Hunter more than does his part, fighting through the setbacks, the life-threatening complications from pneumonia, and the deteriorating neurological condition that ultimately claims his life.

“Hunter defied the odds, about 10-fold,” Kelly says proudly.  “He was my little soldier, my million-to-one lottery ticket.  He put so many big smiles on my face, there’s not enough paper to write about it.

“I’ve been asked about my battle with cancer, and it pales in comparison to what my son went through.  He was much tougher than I could ever imagine.  I believe we’ll be together again, that what he went through wasn’t the end, but the beginning.  I want to live many years more, but if that’s not God’s plan, it means I’ll get to see Hunter sooner than expected.”

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

On August 5, 2005, Hunter Kelly dies of complications from Krabbe disease.  His death is a shattering blow, one that affects Jim Kelly deeply, the first – and biggest – in a series of personal setbacks:  There’s the plane crash in the Bering Sea.  There’s a hernia to deal with.  There are scattered operations to offset years of NFL punishment.  There is the cancer that nearly claims his life.

Today, Kelly can’t feel the skin on the left half of his face.  He says his lip feels like it’s constantly on fire.  The pain is always there in varying degrees, omnipotent, impossible to escape.

“There have been times when I’ve wondered, ‘Why me?’” he says, “but that goes away quickly.  Who wants to hear about your problems?  I’d rather focus on trying to make someone else’s day brighter.”

Kelly is originally diagnosed with oral cancer in June, 2013.  He immediately undergoes surgery at Erie County Medical Center to remove his jaw.  Three weeks later he is fitted with the prosthetic jaw and false teeth.  His doctors tell him the procedure has eradicated the cancer.  Turns out they’re wrong; several short months later, Kelly begins to suffer from horrible headaches, and the pain is unlike anything he’s ever experienced.

“Pain has been part of my life,” he says. “I don’t complain about it much, but I should have known something was wrong because the headaches were so bad.  When you grow up in a house with six boys you can’t show your pain, because if you do, they’ll just dish out more of the same.”

~  ~  ~

Rewind.

East Brady is a quiet river town, 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.  Jim Kelly’s father works in the steel mills as a machinist.  He comes home for lunch around the same time Jim comes home from school, and the two of them throw the football in the backyard.  When he isn’t passing with his father, a young Jim Kelly is throwing footballs through a tire, or working on his punting and kicking.  The passion pays off; Kelly becomes a schoolboy legend long before he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 44 touchdowns during his career at East Brady High School.  He also stars on the basketball team, leading his team to the state semifinals with an average of 23 points and 20 rebounds per game.  The three-sport standout later joins Johnny Unitas, George Blanda, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Dan Marino as part of the area’s legendary NFL quarterbacks.

“I am so proud to be from East Brady,” says Kelly of the town situated on the Allegheny River.  “For a small-town country boy to make it, and to be able to share all I’ve accomplished with my hometown buds and my high school coach, it’s been a dream come true.”

The Kelly boys are a close knit group, rambunctious, and always trying to out-do the other.

“What stands out the most is growing up in a family with six boys,” he says with a laugh.  “All six of us played football, but we pretty much played all of the sports – football, basketball, baseball.  And in our small community of about 800, we were always competing with everyone.  It didn’t matter if it was a game of Wiffle ball at the park, or pitching nickels against the curb, or playing tackle football in the backyard.  We were blessed to have a lot of kids in my hometown that liked to compete.  It was a competitive environment, and we all wanted to win.”

Kelly wears No. 12 on his football uniform at East Brady.  He doesn’t wear it for Namath, who led the New York Jets to an upset of the Baltimore Colts during Super Bowl III when Jim Kelly is only 8 years old.  Instead, he wears it in honor of four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“When I was young, I wanted to be Terry Bradshaw,” Kelly says quickly.  “I came from a small school.  I had 25 guys on my football team, and there were only sixty kids in my graduating class.  Terry Bradshaw was my idol – in our town, we were all Steelers fans.  I really wasn’t aware of Western Pennsylvania’s quarterback legacy at that point.  I don’t think Dan Marino was aware, either – we were in the same draft class – and I’m not even sure that Joe Namath would’ve thought anything about it.  As I got older, and I was able to look back at all of the great quarterbacks that came from Western Pennsylvania, I certainly became aware.  It’s great to be part of that legacy.”

Kelly is named all-state as a senior.  East Brady, which consolidated with another school more than twenty years ago, retires his number.

“I considered myself a football player,” Kelly says of his time at East Brady.  “I played quarterback, but I was also the punter and the kicker.  I played linebacker, too.  My senior year I ended up playing safety because my coach knew how much I loved to hit.  He didn’t want me in the middle of everything, so I think he tried to protect me by switching me to safety.  I didn’t understand it at the time, but looking back now I can see that he had my future in mind, and he saw the potential that I had to play quarterback.”

 

“I considered myself a football player.  I played quarterback, but I was also the punter and the kicker.  I played linebacker, too.  My senior year I ended up playing safety because my coach knew how much I loved to hit.  He didn’t want me in the middle of everything, so I think he tried to protect me by switching me to safety.  I didn’t understand it at the time, but looking back now I can see that he had my future in mind, and he saw the potential that I had to play quarterback.” – Jim Kelly

 

Kelly remains close to his high school coach, Terry Henry.

“Being able to surround myself with good, quality people was so important to my success,” Kelly says.  “Terry Henry is still my best friend today.  I’ve taken him to 28 of the last thirty Super Bowls with my five brothers, which is pretty cool.  East Brady was just a great place to grow up and play football.  Everybody in that town, I’d say 85 percent of the people in the town were at our games, so it was exciting.  When we played some of our rivals, it was three deep on the sidelines at times.”

East Brady will always be home.  Kelly makes it back once a year, and the town serves as a constant reminder of his roots – and the source of ‘Kelly Tough’.

 

East Brady will always be home to Jim Kelly. A sign on the edge of town honors its favorite son.

East Brady will always be home to Jim Kelly. A sign on the edge of town honors its favorite son.

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“I think it’s the work ethic that our parents instilled in us,” says Kelly of what made the difference in reaching the NFL.  “The mentality was I wanted to be the best, not just in football or basketball, but I wanted to make my mom and dad proud, and make my brothers proud.  Back then, dealing with pain and injury was a big part of that.  ‘Kelly Tough’ at that point in my life meant being physically strong, being able to bounce back from injury, being able to bounce back from something that someone else might not.  But later, when I developed cancer, I realized that ‘Kelly Tough’ is more than just the physical part.  There’s the mental part.  Being mentally tough is probably just as important, if not more important.”

Kelly, like a lot of high school players in Western Pennsylvania, dreams of playing his college football for legendary coach Joe Paterno.  He wants to be a Nittany Lion.  But, like hoisting a Super Bowl trophy, a future in Happy Valley isn’t in the cards.

“I went to Coach Paterno’s football camp during the summers before my junior and senior years of high school,” Kelly says.  “I had my heart set on playing at Penn State.  But then Coach Paterno called me, and he told me that he’d already signed two all-state quarterbacks, and that he didn’t have a spot for me on the team as a quarterback.  He did offer me a full ride as a linebacker.  I appreciated the scholarship offer, but I wanted to go somewhere and play quarterback. That’s how I ended up going to the University of Miami.”

Lou Saban – ironically, the former head coach of the Buffalo Bills – is the Hurricanes’ head coach, and he’s in need of quarterback.  He convinces Kelly that UM is the program for him, and Kelly finds himself attracted not only by the coach’s pitch, but by the warm weather and big city life.

 

Howard Schnellenberger promised a national championship, and delivered; unfortunately, the title arrived the year after Jim Kelly's graduation.

Howard Schnellenberger promised a national championship, and delivered; unfortunately, the title arrived the year after Jim Kelly’s graduation.

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Kelly:  “It started out great.  Coach Saban said that they were incorporating a pro-style offense, which would play to my strengths and help to prepare me for the NFL, but, unfortunately, Saban changed his mind and decided to run the veer.  They had Ottis Anderson in the backfield, who would later end up being named MVP of Super Bowl XXV, which was our loss to the New York Giants.  The veer suited his strengths.  I wasn’t an option quarterback, as everybody knows, so my college career got off to a rocky start.  I began to doubt whether I’d made the right choice.  I was blessed when Howard Schnellenberger became the head coach during my redshirt freshman year, and former NFL quarterback Earl Morrall volunteered to be the team’s quarterback coach.  They installed the pro-style offense that Saban had promised, and that changed everything for me.  So, all of those great things that could have happened, ended up happening after all.”

Kelly’s arrival begins a run of quarterback greats at Miami, where he passes for a career 5,228 yards from 1979-’82.  Bernie Kosar follows him a year later, winning Miami’s first national championship in 1983, fulfilling Schnellenberger’s ambitious 5-year plan.

“It was a great ride with Coach Schnellenberger,” Kelly says.  “That first season I was mostly on the bench, until we played Penn State in the eighth game.  It was on the road, Penn State was nationally ranked, and they were huge favorites.  Coach Schnellenberger approaches me right after pregame warm-ups and tells me that he needs to talk to me.  He pulls me aside and says, ‘I feel that you deserve this opportunity to start, so you’re starting today.’  I was stunned.  All I could do was look at him and go, ‘What?’  And then I immediately went into the bathroom and threw up [laughs].  I was in there for 15-to-20 minutes, because I was so nervous.  Coach still jokes about it today.  Whenever he’s asked about it, he’ll tell you exactly what was running through his mind:  ‘What in the hell is wrong with this kid?’  That was how I got my first college start.  We wind up beating them 26-10, which was considered a big upset.  And it didn’t get any easier from three – I went on to start against Alabama, Notre Dame, and Florida.  Welcome to big time NCAA football!”

For the record, Kelly completes 18 of his 31 attempts for 278 yards and three touchdowns in that 26-10 victory, a game in which the Nittany Lions are 40-point favorites.  It puts the Hurricanes and its hot young quarterback on the map.

And just when it looks like Kelly is about to take the college game by storm, adversity strikes.

“I entered my senior season on a high,” Kelly says.  “I’m a preseason nominee for the Heisman Trophy, along with guys like John Elway, Dan Marino, and Herschel Walker.  But then, in the third game of the season, I blow out my shoulder.  It was a severe separation, and the doctors told me that I would never play football again.  I remember coming out of surgery, and the doctor saying that he hoped I’d been studying in school.  When I asked why, he told me that my shoulder was so bad that they had to insert three metal rods in my right arm, and that it was unlikely that I’d ever get my range of motion back.  It was devastating news, but I didn’t dwell on the negative for long.  I relied on the ‘Kelly Tough’ that I learned from my father and my brothers, and I was determined to never give up, no matter what.  I knew the doctor was looking out for my best interest, and he didn’t want me to get my hopes up, but I didn’t want anybody telling me that I couldn’t do something, not if I was determined to put my heart, my soul, and my willpower into the rehabilitation.  I knew that if I trusted it, anything was possible.  And that’s what I did.  I worked extremely hard to rehab my shoulder and prove to everybody that I could still throw.  That’s how I ended up being drafted by the Buffalo Bills with the fourteenth pick in the first round of the ’83 NFL Draft.”

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

Buffalo’s starting quarterback, Joe Ferguson, is at the tail end of his career, and the struggling Bills desperately need a quarterback for the future.  The ’83 NFL Draft is loaded with them, headlined by guys named Elway and Marino.  With an offer of $2.1 million over four years on the table – a substantial offer for that era, even for a small market team like the Bills – a reluctant Jim Kelly finds himself in Buffalo, finalizing contract language with his inner circle.

And then, The Call.

“I was absolutely blown away by what Bruce had to say,” Kelly recalls.  “The Bills were offering me very good money, and I’d resigned myself to playing on a bad team in a bad weather city.  But he is telling me all of this stuff, and it was impossible not to change direction.”

The fledgling USFL is so desperate to sign stars like Kelly that Allen – the son of former NFL head coach George Allen – agrees to give up his rights to Kelly, allowing him to choose his team.

“At the time, it really wasn’t a hard decision to make,” he says, then adding, “but thankfully it was a temporary detour and not a final destination.  I eventually ended up in Buffalo, at the right time, and I think that it worked out for everyone involved.  My heart and soul is right here in this city.  With this team.  It just took some time for things to work out.  Thankfully, it did.”

It doesn’t seem that way at the time.  Kelly, in team president Patrick McGroder’s office when the call comes, is ready to sign the most lucrative rookie contract in franchise history to that point.

The Call changed all of that.

“I would have been foolish not to listen,” Kelly says with a smile. “To be honest, I was very, very, very close to signing with the Buffalo Bills.  Then the call comes in, and Bruce says to my agent, ‘Tell Jim, do not sign anything; we’ve got a deal he cannot refuse.’  I’m often asked who the secretary was that put Bruce through to us, but I don’t know who it was, to be honest with you.  To this day it’s a mystery to me.  I do know that there were a lot of people who were really ticked off.”

 

“I was very, very, very close to signing with the Buffalo Bills.  Then the call comes in, and Bruce says to my agent, ‘Tell Jim, do not sign anything; we’ve got a deal he cannot refuse.’  I’m often asked who the secretary was that put Bruce through to us, but I don’t know who it was, to be honest with you.  To this day it’s a mystery to me.  I do know that there were a lot of people who were really ticked off.” – Jim Kelly

 

The choice of cities alone is enough to get Kelly’s attention:  Warm weather Florida cities like Tampa Bay and Jacksonville look especially inviting, given Kelly’s time spent at the University of Miami.  Houston is another intriguing destination, even though that franchise won’t start playing until the 1984 season – which means sitting out the 1983 campaign.  Kelly has his answer after meeting with Gamblers owner Jerry Argovitz – in the form of a deal for $3.5 million over five years, with $1 million in guaranteed money up front.

Contract negotiations with the Bills, on hold since The Call, are suddenly a mute point.

Jim Kelly is taking his talents to Space City.

~  ~  ~

Decades before his mud-slinging, accusation-flinging, insult-bringing presidential campaign, a young Donald Trump is trying to shake the high holy shit out of professional football.  He’s just 37 years old – a wildly successful businessman with a prickly personality, flyaway sandy hair, and a trophy first wife named Ivana.  He’s just built a 68-story glass tower in the middle of Manhattan and, to make sure people notice, he puts his name on it.  In bronze.  He soon opens his first Atlantic City casino, slapping his name on that, too.  He’s all ego all the time, even back then, with an insatiable appetite for winning, regardless the cost.

 

A young Donald Trump, with USFL superstar Herschel Walker. Trump would gamble on moving the USFL regular season schedule from spring to fall. The league would fold before a fall game is played.

A young Donald Trump, with USFL superstar Herschel Walker. Trump would gamble on moving the USFL regular season schedule from spring to fall. The league would fold before a fall game is played.

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So, in 1983 he buys a professional football team, joining a confederacy of other rich rogues who’ve just completed their first season of something called the United States Football League.  Their audacious business plan:  Compete with the NFL – the sport’s one true, grim superpower, whom USFL owners mock as the No Fun League – but not directly against it.  The twelve-team USFL plays its games in the spring, encourages excessive end zone celebrations (the NFL penalizes them), and allows both replay challenges and two-point conversions after touchdowns (the NFL doesn’t permit either at this point).  Games are televised on ABC, and also on an upstart cable channel called ESPN.

Trump’s new team, the New Jersey Generals (purchased from J. Walter Duncan, an Oklahoma oil tycoon), has the league’s biggest and most bankable player on its roster – Heisman Trophy-winning running back Herschel Walker – but it largely underperforms in its first season under Duncan’s watch.  In Trump’s first year, the Generals’ record jumps from 6-12 to 14-4, before New Jersey is knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.  Walker, in the midst of a three-year, $5 million contract, is soon joined by Trump signees Brian Sipe (the 1980 NFL MVP) and Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie.  Trump even goes after New York Giants All-pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor, signing him to a futures contract and forcing the Giants to up the ante to retain his services.

Meanwhile, second year quarterback Dan Marino is busy tearing up the National Football League.  In 1984 Marino puts together a season for the ages, leading the Miami Dolphins to the AFC championship and becoming the first passer to top 5,000 yards in one season, a feat not equaled for nearly a quarter century.  Marino also throws a record 48 touchdown passes season, setting a record that will stand for twenty years, until a guy named Peyton Manning breaks it.

Kelly is doing big things, too.  In his first professional season, he guides the expansion Houston Gamblers to first place in their division with a 13-5 record, capturing both the USFL’s Rookie of the Year and MVP awards.  He also completes 370 passes for 5,219 yards, the highest yardage total in pro football history until 2011, while also throwing 44 touchdowns.  Both are USFL records that are never broken.

“Going to the USFL for two years was a decision that didn’t sit well with people in Buffalo,” Kelly concedes, “but I think it ended up better preparing me to play in the NFL.  Playing for the Houston Gamblers is probably where I learned to really throw the football, as far as reading defenses is concerned.  I didn’t really have a long career in college because I didn’t start until so late in my freshman year, and then blowing out my shoulder early in my senior year.  So, I really only played about two-and-a-half in college.  Those two years in the USFL, throwing the ball 40 to 50 times a game, that definitely prepared me for Buffalo.”

While Kelly is busy slinging the ball around in Houston, the Bills are busy being…well…horrible.  The team posts back-to-back 2-14 seasons following The Call, while trotting out a forgettable procession of passers, including the aging Ferguson, followed by guys like Joe Dufek, Matt Kofler, Vince Ferragamo and Bruce Mathison.  As fun as Kelly and the Gamblers are to watch, Buffalo’s collection of QBs are equally hard on the eyes; together they combined for 6,583 yards passing yards, to go along with 27 touchdowns and 61 interceptions over that forgettable two-year span.

“I kept up with the Bills during this period,” Kelly says.  “They were bad, no question about it.  I rooted for them to turn it around and become a championship-caliber team, but I just didn’t think that I’d be able to play a part in it.”

Kelly might never have been involved at all, had it not been for a series of fortunate events that deliver the Bills from its nuclear winter.  First, the Bills own the top pick in the 1985 NFL Draft.  They used it on Virginia Tech defensive end Bruce Smith, who, during his career with the Bills, is elected to 11 Pro Bowls, nine NFL All-Pro Teams, and two NFL All-Decade Teams (1980s and 1990s).  In Smith, the team has its defensive anchor.  Wide receiver Andre Reed, who becomes Kelly’s favorite target and joins him in the hall of fame, is added in the fourth round.

 

The Bills draft Virginia Tech DE Bruce Smith with the first pick in the 1985 NFL Draft. Smith goes on to become the league's all-time sack leader, and the greatest defensive player in Bills history.

The Bills draft Virginia Tech DE Bruce Smith with the first pick in the 1985 NFL Draft. Smith goes on to become the league’s all-time sack leader, and the greatest defensive player in Bills history.

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Then, in the fall of ’85, Trump happens.

“Donald wanted the USFL to compete directly against the NFL,” Kelly says with a laugh.  “So he started making a lot of noise about how our league should play its games in the fall, at the same time the NFL was playing its games.  There were a lot of opinions about that, but Donald kept pushing the other owners to go for it.  He had a clear vision for how the league would topple the NFL.  It turned out to be the other way around.”

 

“Donald wanted the USFL to compete directly against the NFL.  So he started making a lot of noise about how our league should play its games in the fall, at the same time the NFL was playing its games.  There were a lot of opinions about that, but Donald kept pushing the other owners to go for it.  He had a clear vision for how the league would topple the NFL.  It turned out to be the other way around.” – Jim Kelly

 

The USFL, already on shaky ground and bleeding red ink to the tune of $200 million, finds itself going all in when Trump out-debates and out-maneuvers the other owners, who vote 12-2 to move to a fall schedule.  They also proceed with a $1.7 billion anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, claiming that it has monopolistic a chokehold on national TV rights.  It’s high risk, with huge upside potential; the owners hope the suit voids the NFL’s rich TV contracts, or forces a merger, or provides a game-changing payday that puts the league on equal footing with the NFL.

So instead of playing football in the spring of 1986, the USFL lands in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.  When a judge rules in favor of the USFL at trial, but awards the league just $1 in damages – a figure that is immediately increased to $3, because damages in anti-trust cases are tripled – the league has no other choice but to fold.  And just like that, the players under contract with USFL teams – including Jim Kelly – are suddenly looking for work.

“We all saw it coming, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it,” he says.  “The whole league went down the drain when that ruling came out.”

Per NFL rules, the Bills retain Kelly’s negotiating rights.  He still isn’t thrilled with the idea of playing in a cold weather city, but at this point he knows that it’s Buffalo or bust.  He isn’t exactly sure what kind of reception awaits him in Western New York, but he knows that the Bills organization is eager to start talking contract.

 

Jim Kelly plays his first game as a Buffalo Bill on Sept. 7, 1986, against the New York Jets.

Jim Kelly plays his first game as a Buffalo Bill on Sept. 7, 1986, against the New York Jets.

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“It was amazing,” Kelly says.  “Here I am, coming back to the team that I’d left standing at the altar, not really knowing how people were going to accept me, and unsure as to how this whole thing was going to work out.  They had Bruce Smith, they had Andre Reed – both thanks to Bill Polian, who is one of the greatest general managers ever, but the team was still a long way from competing for a championship.  There was an energy here, that much I did know.  They were excited because they did need a winner here, and they needed to start somewhere.”

Polian, who has already spent two seasons with the Bills’ organization, is promoted to GM in ’86.  He immediately goes to work on a deal for Kelly’s services, which, at $8 million over five years, is then the richest contract in NFL history.  If Kelly has any trepidation over his return to the city he’d spurned, all of that is put to rest on August 18, 1986, when Kelly is shuttled into Buffalo on owner Ralph Wilson’s private jet.  Hordes of fans and reporters greet him at the airport.  His limo ride to the downtown Hilton is an event unto itself, as fans line the overpasses to cheer and wave homemade banners.  Cars pull over and honk their horns as the escorted motorcade drove past.

“It was a day I’ll never forget,” Kelly says, smiling.  “I didn’t know what to expect – I’d made those comments publicly about not wanting to play here, about not wanting to be a Buffalo Bill, and I’d walked out on the team and headed off to the USFL.  But it was incredible.  I never thought I’d get that kind of reception – the crowd at the airport, coming down the thruway with all of the banners, and the people lined up on the overpasses waving at me as we drove by…it was very clear that the fans here loved their team, and that they were starving for a winner.”

With Smith, Reed and Kelly onboard, the pieces are slowly starting to coalesce.  Linebacker Darryl Talley, an ’83 pick out of West Virginia, is starting to blossom.  Center Kent Hull joins Kelly from the USFL, and the pair will play 11 seasons together, a span in which Hull starts 169 of 170 games and becomes a three-time Pro Bowl selection.  Tackle Will Wolford, a 1986 first-round pick, becomes a key contributor.  Then, nine games into the 1986 season, Polian fires head coach Hank Bullough and replaces him with Marv Levy.

“That first season was rough, because we didn’t win a lot of games,” Kelly recalls.  “We were 2-7 when Hank was fired, and we finished the season 4-12.  But one of the brightest moments in Buffalo Bills history is when Bill Polian named Marv Levy head coach.  Bill was putting the pieces together on the field, and doing a masterful job in bringing in the players that we needed to build that championship-caliber, and then hiring Marv was the icing on the cake.  Marv was the perfect coach to lead us.”

Polian continues bringing in talent.  Linebacker Shane Conlan and cornerback Nate Odomes are drafted in 1987.  Steve Tasker – who is signed the same week that Levy is hired – begins to carve out an All-Pro identity on special teams.  Linebacker Cornelius Bennett is obtained from the Colts in a blockbuster trade that also includes Los Angeles Rams running back Eric Dickerson, and Bills running back Greg Bell.

“We were getting better,” says Kelly.  “We won seven games, and we were in the playoff hunt until late in the season.  Everyone could feel it, from ownership at the top, to right on down to the field.  We knew were going to make some noise in ’88.”

The biggest noise comes on draft day.  The Bills don’t have a first round pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, but Polian is able to nab future hall of fame running back Thurman Thomas midway through the second round.

 

When Bill Polian nabs Thurman Thomas with the 40th pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills have their workhorse. Thomas would go on to become the 1991 NFL Most Valuable Player.

When Bill Polian nabs Thurman Thomas with the 40th pick in the 1988 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills have their workhorse. Thomas would go on to become the 1991 NFL Most Valuable Player.

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“Thurman was a home run,” Kelly says quickly.  “The knee injury he suffered in college is what caused his draft stock to drop, and teams were afraid to pull the trigger on him in the first round.  Otherwise, he would have been a sure-fire first round pick.  So when he fell to us, Bill Polian didn’t let him get away.”

Polian selects Thomas for a very good reason; the Bills need a feature running back, a ball carrier who can grind out tough yards and keep the chains moving.  When Polian drafts Ronnie Harmon in ’86, it’s with the intention of him taking on that role.  But Harmon’s talent doesn’t translate into that of an every down back, and Polian’s search continues.

“Thurman Thomas was our go-to guy, someone who could get those tough yards between the tackles, who could bounce outside, who could catch the ball out of the backfield.  He was Mr. Versatility.  He’s also someone I consider one of my closest friends, someone who has been there for me through a lot of rough times, including my battle with cancer.  That’s what made those Bills teams so special.  We were professionals but we were like family in so many ways, and we developed friendships that will last a lifetime.”

 

“Thurman Thomas was our go-to guy, someone who could get those tough yards between the tackles, who could bounce outside, who could catch the ball out of the backfield.  He was Mr. Versatility.  I consider him one of my closest friends, someone who has been there for me through a lot of rough times, including my battle with cancer.  That’s what made those Bills teams so special.  We were professionals but we were like family in so many ways, and we developed friendships that will last a lifetime.” – Jim Kelly

 

Thomas lands in Polian’s lap because of that knee injury, which scares off teams until the Bills can select him with the 40th pick overall.  With Kelly under center and Thomas in the backfield, Buffalo finishes 12-4, winning the first of the six AFC East titles and advancing to the AFC Championship Game, where they lose in Cincinnati, 21-10.

“We were disappointed to lose that game, obviously,” he says, “but we knew we had something special going on with this team.”

Buffalo’s momentum and team chemistry nearly unravel the following season, when offensive lineman Howard Ballard whiffs on a defender and Kelly is knocked out of a Week 5 game in Indianapolis.  The next day, Kelly publicly rips Ballard, creating a storm of controversy that dogs the Bills for the rest of the season.

The press has a field day.  Both the New York Times and the LA Times seize on the turmoil, and just like that, the Bickering Bills are born.  Kelly & Co. are good enough to win the AFC East despite the public infighting, although the distractions play a big part in their 9-7 regular season record.  They are then knocked out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Browns.  The game is a 34-30  shootout, and it sets the tone for the next season.

“Ted had the plan that day,” Kelly says with a smile.

 

The Bills arrive in full form in a 34-30 playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns. Offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda unveils the K-Gun offense, which propels the Bills to the next four Super Bowls.

The Bills arrive in full form in a 34-30 playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns. Offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda unveils the K-Gun offense, which propels the Bills to the next four Super Bowls.

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Ted is offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda, who unveils a dangerous no-huddle offense against the Browns.  Kelly thrives in it, throwing for 404 yards while largely calling his own plays, and Cleveland struggles to keep up with the tempo.  If Ronnie Harmon doesn’t drop an easy, go-ahead touchdown pass in the waning seconds, the Bills win that game.  Instead, they return to Buffalo convinced that they’ve found their identity.

Buffalo wins nine of its first 11 games to start the 1990 regular season, finishing with a 13-3 record and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.  The offense racks up 44 points in a first round win over bitter rival Miami, and then goes off for 51 points against Oakland in the AFC Championship Game.  Kelly’s stat line in those two playoff games:  A crisp 639 yards and five touchdown passes.  And just like that, the Buffalo Bills are Super Bowl bound.

“There were only sixty kids in my graduating class at East Brady,” Kelly says.  “There were 28 players on my football team.  To be able to make it to the NFL, and to be able to perform like that in the playoffs, it was an incredible experience.  I couldn’t believe it.  We were going to play in Super Bowl XXV.  I was the quarterback of the Buffalo Bills, going up against the New York Giants, and all of those dreams that I had as a little boy in my backyard were coming true.”

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

Jim Kelly’s career is over.  It’s August 3, 2002, and the crowning moment in a storybook football career has arrived.  He’s in Canton, and he’s about to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Marv Levy is right there beside him, his presenter on this day, and it’s easy to see that Kelly’s love for his former coach is as strong as the water raging over Niagara Falls.  It’s also easy to understand why; Levy was as much a father figure to his players as coach, an even-keeled, thoughtful man with a degree in English history from Harvard University and a down home, folksy manner that endeared him to his players.  He was firm but fair, loving in many ways, humble in victory and gracious in defeat – never more so than in the moments following those four bitter Super Bowl defeats.

 

Jim Kelly and Marv Levy pose with Kelly's hall of fame bust.

Jim Kelly and Marv Levy pose with Kelly’s hall of fame bust on August 3, 2002.

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“Marv is the greatest teacher I’ve ever been around,” Bill Polian says in the days leading up to his own induction ceremony, of which Levy will also be the presenter. “And I dare say he’s on par with [former UCLA basketball coach] John Wooden in terms of how he gets his message across and how he does it.  I don’t think there’s ever been a better one that I’ve ever met or heard of.  His grasp of the game and how he wants the team to play is communicated clearly, concisely and inspirationally.”

Kelly could have chosen anyone to present him, and there are plenty of options – his father, his high school coach, Howard Schnellenberger – but Levy is the only person he truly considers.  When Levy steps to the podium, the sea of Bills fans who’ve made the trek to Canton roar.

“You know, in order to win in the NFL you’ve got to have ability and sometimes you gotta have some luck, too,” Levy says, addressing the sun-drenched crowd. “Well, Jim Kelly had ability and much more.  I was the one who had the luck because from the very first day I became coach of the Buffalo Bills I was keenly aware of what a special player, and what a special person Jim Kelly was. How lucky can a guy get?”

Kelly’s acceptance speech is from the heart, and filled with the appreciation of a man who has never forgotten where he came from.  He thanks his family, his childhood friends, his coaches, Bills owner Ralph Wilson, Bill Polian, and his Bills teammates.  It’s then that he turns his attention to those sitting in the front row – his wife, Jill, their young daughters Erin and Camryn, and their five year-old son, Hunter.

 

Bills fans go crazy for Jim Kelly during his hall of fame induction on August 3, 2002.

Bills fans go crazy for Jim Kelly during his hall of fame induction on August 3, 2002.

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“Since the day I was selected, I prayed to God that my son would be here with me today,” Kelly says. “God has granted me that blessing.  It has been written throughout my career that toughness is my trademark.  Well, the toughest person I’ve ever met in my life is my hero, my soldier, my son, Hunter.  I love you, buddy.  Thank you, Canton, thank you Buffalo and God bless.”

~  ~  ~

Rewind.

It’s 1991, and Buffalo’s most eligible bachelor is not only one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet, he’s also a major playboy, his huge house in the affluent Hillsboro neighborhood of Orchard Park often filled with loud music, inebriated partiers, and an assortment of beautiful women.  Jill Waggoner is one of those beauties on this night, and barely 21 when a friend scores an invite to Kelly’s crib.  She catches the quarterback’s eyes immediately.  There’s clearly a spark between them, and while they spend plenty of time talking on this night, Jill cautiously rejects his advances.  She also leaves without giving him a phone number, forcing Kelly to start chasing leads.  Kelly is undeterred; eventually, he finds out where she works, and soon they start dating.

 

im Kelly and his new bride, the former Jill Waggoner, share a toast in the back of a limousine after their wedding May 18, 1996, at St. Christopher's Roman Catholic Church in the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda. (Photo: AP photo / Bill Sikes)

im Kelly and his new bride, the former Jill Waggoner, share a toast in the back of a limousine after their wedding May 18, 1996, at St. Christopher’s Roman Catholic Church in the Buffalo suburb of Tonawanda. (Photo: AP photo / Bill Sikes)

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If it seems like something straight out of a fairy tale – the handsome prince marries the beautiful maiden, and they live happily ever after – then you’ve come to the wrong place.  Jim and Jill do marry after a long courtship, with Jill giving birth to Erin Marie Kelly in early ’95.  The marriage takes place a year later.  They are young and on top of the world, but struggling in ways that gave Jill pause.  She later recounts their problems in a book, Without a Word, with Jim’s lack of attention being one warning sign, and the discovery of some disturbing mementos from his wild, bachelor days being another.  He is hardly home that first year, between the football, fishing, hunting, golf, and speaking engagements, which only ratchets up the tension.

With this as a backdrop, Jill becomes pregnant again.  Hunter is born on Jim’s 37th birthday – February 14, 1997.  Four months later, the words ‘Krabbe disease’ are soon etched in both of their minds.

 

Jim and Jill Kelly pose with son Hunter on February 10, 2004.

Jim and Jill Kelly pose with son Hunter on February 10, 2004.

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Despite the devastating news, the Kellys do what the Kellys do best – they turn ‘Kelly Tough’ into a way of caring for their young son.

Hunter’s illness is draining on many levels, and the strain of always having to be there for him chips away at the marriage.  It doesn’t get any easier when Camryn is born two years later, but it’s during this time that Jill gives her life to Christ.  It prove to be a pivotal decision, one that not only rescues their relationship, but sustains them through the tough times ahead – none darker than Friday, August 5th, 2005, when Hunter dies from respiratory failure.

“It was the worst day of my life.  I was met by a couple doctors at the hospital who said ‘We’re sorry, your son is gone,’” Kelly recalls.  “It was devastating.  And although I didn’t have the opportunity to say ‘bye’ to him, but I got to spend many minutes with him, after, by myself, talking to him.  Jill and I didn’t say much to each other on the way home, and that’s when our relationship really hit rock bottom.  Jill sought God.  I went further away.”

In 2009, with the weight of the world on his shoulders, Jim Kelly finally comes clean.  He confesses to his wife that he’s not been faithful to her during their marriage, and he also turns over his life to Christ.

“I was empty.  I was living a lie.  I wanted to be the father I always should have been, one who could walk through my front door and my girls could look at their daddy with respect,” he says.  “I knew I was losing a lot of that and as a father, you need to accept that responsibility for your kids.  And I wanted to make sure that I will see Hunter again, hopefully later than sooner; I was losing all that.  I was losing a woman who took care of my son, raising two kids, and I knew I needed to change my life, and thank God I did.”

~  ~  ~

Rewind.

The Bills enter Super Bowl XXV red hot, and yeah, history shows that the unstoppable, no-huddle, K-Gun offense – named after Kelly, no less – was stopped cold, bottled up by a New York Giants defense and its bold, young defensive coordinator, a guy named Bill Belichick.  It won’t be the last time we hear from Belichick, or the last time he tastes Super Bowl glory – just ask a guy named Tom Brady.  The Persian Gulf War is about to go full effect, Whitney Houston kills it with her goose bump rendition of the National Anthem, and Jim Kelly’s lifelong dream is suddenly, improbably coming true.

“I was the quarterback with two minutes to go, leading my team down the field in the Super Bowl,” Kelly says with a smile.  His voice trails off, and then:  “As we all know, we did not win.  But I played in the biggest game on the biggest stage.  I got to battle with my teammates.  I got to play for a coach I love.  I  got to put it all on the line for the people of Buffalo.  It was special to be able to compete, to struggle, to try to put your team in a position to win.  Those are the things that take me all the way back to East Brady, and I wouldn’t have been in that game if I hadn’t been from there.  That’s what made it all possible – the work ethic that my father instilled in me, and the impact made on me by my high school football coach.”

Kelly and the Buffalo offense, which romps over Oakland in the AFC Championship Game, finds itself throttled at every turn, unable to sustain drives, unable to control the tempo – and yet, improbably, they somehow find themselves in position to win the game.

Trailing 20-19 late in the fourth quarter, the Bills force a Giants punt, and take possession of the football at their own 10 with 2:16 left to play.  Thurman Thomas breaks off a big 22-yard run on third-and-1, and Kelly, not known as a runner, scrambles three times for 18 yards.  With no timeouts left, Thomas rips off an 11-yard run to the Giants 29.  The Bills hustle to the line of scrimmage, where Kelly spikes the ball, stopping the clock with eight seconds remaining.

We all know what happens next.

Scott Norwood.

Wide right.

 

Scott Norwood misses the 47-yard field goal attempt that would have won Super Bowl XXV. The Bills would appear in - and lose - the next three Super Bowls.

Scott Norwood misses the 47-yard field goal attempt that would have won Super Bowl XXV. The Bills would appear in – and lose – the next three Super Bowls.

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People rag on Norwood for missing that kick, but they have no idea what it’s like to kick a football 47 yards and hope it splits the uprights, much less trying to do so with a Super Bowl championship on the line and the whole goddamn world watching.  How many times do professional golfers – the best in the world at their chosen profession – stand over those dreaded four foot putts, only to watch their balls rim out?  This isn’t a four foot putt.  This is a 47-yard field goal attempt with a Lombardi Trophy on the line.  Today, people forget that Norwood was an excellent kicker.  But Norwood isn’t a robot, and, with Kelly and his Bills teammates holding hands on the sidelines, he tries his level best to win the game and make the dreams of everyone in Western New York come true.

“We lost as a team, it wasn’t on Scott.  It hurt to lose that game, just as it did to lose the next three Super Bowls, but I choose to think about my 11 years in a Buffalo Bills uniform,” Kelly says, reflecting on his hall of fame career.  “I don’t think about four games.  If you want to sit in your rocking chair when you get old and spend all of your time thinking about what could have been, then you’re crazy.  I think about the great things that happened, the friends I had and the fun times I had.  I was just happy to do what we did.”

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

Marv Levy addresses his team, knowing that his words will have far-reaching implications.  The world does not stop with the loss.  There will be another season to be played, and they are too talented and to resilient to give up.

Levy’s words – mourn the loss, and then pick yourselves up and compete – resonate.  The Bills go 13-3 for the second season in a row, crushing the Chiefs 34-17 in the Divisional Playoffs, and then winning a 10-7 gut check over John Elway and the Denver Broncos.  And just like that, the Bills are heading back to the Super Bowl.

Unfortunately, Joe Gibbs’ Washington Redskins come to play, and it looks as if the Bills do not.  Thomas, who had been so scintillating during the regular season, winning both the Offensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, misses the first series because he can’t find his helmet.  It sets the tone.  Kelly throws four interceptions, and the Bills lose 37-24, in a game that isn’t nearly as close as the final score indicates.

 

Kelly remembers very little from Super Bowl XXVI, a game in which he suffered a concussion and committed four turnovers.

Kelly remembers very little from Super Bowl XXVI, a game in which he suffered a concussion and committed four turnovers.

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For Kelly, the loss is painful in more ways than one.  Concussed, he finishes the game 28-of-58 passing for 275 yards, with two touchdowns (both of which come in the fourth quarter) and those four picks.  He still has no recollection of that entire fourth quarter, and, in a scary admission, says that he even went to the wrong hotel after the game.

“Maybe I should have gotten smacked upside the head earlier in the game,” he says with a laugh.  “I probably would have played better, because I think I threw two touchdowns with the concussion.  I’m like almost every other player who reaches the NFL.  If a concussion takes 10, 15 years off my life, it is what it is.  I played the game because I loved it.  I knew that there were consequences, probably at the end, probably not as much as I know about it now, but I tell you what, I wouldn’t change one thing.  I loved the game of football.  It’s brought me what I have today.”

~  ~  ~

Repeat.

Another trip to the postseason, another Super Bowl loss – this time to Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, et. al., in a 52-17 blowout most notable for Don Beebe’s rundown of Leon Lett, preventing a fumble return for a touchdown.  The Cowboy offensive line is massive, and Dallas can’t be stopped.

Cruelly, the game starts on a positive note for the Bills, until Kelly throws an interception and loses a fumble, both of which lead to Dallas touchdowns.  Then, in the second quarter, Kelly is knocked from the game with a knee injury, and the game goes downhill from there.  The nine Buffalo turnovers are a Super Bowl record.  Time, it seems, has caught up with these resilient Bills.

 

~  ~  ~

Repeat.

The Bills are back.

Improbably.  Unprecedentedly.

Yes, the Bills are back in the Super Bowl.  But so is Dallas.

The fourth and final trip is a rematch with the Cowboys, and the Bills play a courageous and gritty first half before the wheels fall off, with Thomas fumbling twice and Kelly throwing a costly interception.  The 30-13 loss is the last stand for these Bills on the big stage, but a battered and bruised Kelly refuses concede defeat.

“It’s frustrating, it really is,” he says during the post-game interview.  “The Cowboys have a hell of a defense.  Take your hats off to them.  I have a few years left. Don’t count me out yet.  We weren’t the better team today.  Our goal is the same.  We’ll do it until we get it right.”

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

Ralph Wilson, the Buffalo Bills’ beloved owner, passes away on March 25, 2014.  He’s 95 at the time of his death, and the loss is felt throughout Western New York.  Players and coaches from all eras of Bills football are filled with sadness.  The loss is especially tough on Kelly, who had grown close to the Wilson family through the years.

“Ralph Wilson was an owner that we all loved,” Kelly says.  “He would talk to us; he would come down to the sidelines during practice and talk to us like he was our father.  He would question us on different things not related to football, things about our lives and things that were going one in our lives.  He really cared about the players that played for him.  He was a very smart, bright individual.  He was so loyal to the people around him – his coaches, his players, and teams’ fans.  He had one of those open-door policies.  If you ever needed to talk to him, or if you ever felt you needed to say something, he was right there.  I loved the man dearly.  I love the whole family.  As a matter of fact, I was just with Mrs. Wilson two days ago – we were in Cancun, Mexico, celebrating Thurman Thomas’s fiftieth birthday.  Ralph was special.  He was like a father to be honest with you, and I will always think of him like that.  My dad always received a Christmas card from him, and he always received a big chocolate football at Christmas time.  Ralph was one of those guys that was just like us, and we just loved him to death.”

It’s ironic that these Bickering Bills grow close through all of the heartache on the field, forging relationships to last a lifetime.

“There’s no doubt that during our playing days we were as close to family as you could possibly get,” Kelly says without hesitation.  “There was nobody out there that had guys that won and lost and took it hard, but also partied hard.  We had fun.  We enjoyed ourselves.  People always say, ‘Oh, you had too much fun,’ but when you win, you have fun.  Yeah, we didn’t win at the end, but we knew when we hit the field, whether it was practice or a game, that we were 100% mentally prepared and we were ready to play.  You win some, you lose some, and unfortunately we didn’t win any at the end of the year, but with those guys, I always had confidence that they were going to come to the game ready to play – and not one time did they ever surprise me and not show up ready to play.

 

Kelly and the Bills would lose to the Dallas Cowboys in consecutive Super Bowl (shown here in Super Bowl XXVII), ending a record run of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

Kelly and the Bills would lose to the Dallas Cowboys in consecutive Super Bowl (shown here in Super Bowl XXVII), ending a record run of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

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“We have the type of guys that, away from the football field, have remained very close.  As a matter of fact, several of us ex-players and our wives went to Napa Valley before the Super Bowl, and we had a great time together.  My golf tournament is coming up in June, and I’d say about 15 or 20 of them are going to be there.  No matter what the situation is, we are very, very close – guys like Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Darrell Talley, Cornelius Bennett, Steve Tasker, Will Woolford, Chris Moore.  I could go on and on, because we are like one, big, happy family.  And when we get together it’s not all serious – and in that way it feels like times have never changed.  I will put it this way; if you cannot take a joke, if you cannot get picked on every once in a while, you don’t need to get around us, because we love to mess with each other.”

~  ~  ~

Rewind.

Kelly is on a 2000 bear hunting trip in Alaska – he loves to hunt almost as much as he loves playing football – when the single-prop plane he is flying in goes down in the Bering Sea.  The plane loses engine power shortly after departing the beach at Cold Bay, where Kelly and his brother Pat are hunting bears. Upside down, he kicks out the window out and swims for shore in 39-degree water, and then thaws himself with a Bunsen burner.

“We lost total power of the plane, and that’s when the pilot turned to me and said, ‘Jim, brace yourself, we’re going down,’” Kelly says, describing how the pilot, Jerry Jacques, put the plane down in the tidal zone, damaging the propeller.  “I pretty much saw everything flash in front of me…I thought I was a goner.”

Kelly survives, but comes back from the ordeal 23 pounds lighter.

~  ~  ~

Pause.

Kelly, on his relationship with God:  “I know that I’m ten times the man I ever was before – a lot better husband, a lot better father, and a lot better person,” he says.  “When I decided to become a Christian and decided to change my life and quit screwing up, it was like, ‘Wow, why didn’t I do this before?’  There was no hiding anything from that point on.  I just felt so much better, not only about myself, but my future, and my family.  It was an awesome transformation, and it didn’t take me long to realize that God had been the answer all along.  I just needed to give myself over to him.”

~  ~  ~

Fast forward.

Four agonizing months have passed since that day when Kelly received the last of those 35 radiation treatments.  The cancer on this day – thank God – is nowhere to be found.  Only the light remains.

“I’ve been through a lot in my life,” he concedes, “and it’s been a rollercoaster ride.  People think that just because you’re famous athlete, or that because you’re a hall of famer, that you’re immune to what life throws at ordinary people.  They put you on a pedestal, but the thing is, we are just like everybody else.  We all go through tough times.  It’s what you do about it that’s what counts.  It’s the attitude that you have that counts.  When I was in the hospital, I learned a valuable lesson that I like to share with others, and that is to always surround yourself with good, quality people.  For me, that is my family – my beautiful wife, my two daughters, my five brothers, my friends.  Not one time did they ever walk into my hospital room with a frown on their faces.  They walked in with an attitude that changed my life – by their presence, by what they said and how they acted when they were around me.  For everyone out there that has problems – whether it’s the elderly, or whether it’s your own kids, or whether it’s your parents or grandparents – my advice is to ask a simple question:  ‘What can I do to make someone’s day better?’  It doesn’t have to be a big thing.  What you say to them, the attitude that you have around them, those little things make all of the difference in the world.”

 

im Kelly, center, looks after his son Hunter, while waiting with his daughter Camryn, right, and wife Jill, left, before having his number retired at Ralph Wilson stadium in Orchard Park on Nov. 18, 2001. (Photo: AP photo / Mike Groll)

im Kelly, center, looks after his son Hunter, while waiting with his daughter Camryn, right, and wife Jill, left, before having his number retired at Ralph Wilson stadium in Orchard Park on Nov. 18, 2001. (Photo: AP photo / Mike Groll)

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Kelly pauses, as if changing the play at the line of scrimmage.

“A positive mental attitude is such a strong weapon when battling your problems.  A couple of things along those lines:  People approach me daily and tell me what an inspiration I have been to them, but in all honesty, it’s the other way around.  When I was at my absolute worst, it was the thoughts and prayers of those I didn’t even know that made a difference – all of the cards, the well wishes, the phone calls, the emails…it all motivated me to continue to fight.  It also changed the way I think, and I came up with a phrase so that I can share it with others:  ‘Make a difference today for someone who is fighting for their tomorrow.

“People also ask me for my philosophy on life, and I tell them that I live by the four Fs:  My faith is number one.  Family is number two.  My friends are number three, and my fans are number four.  Those are the things that I always hold close to my heart.  I became a different person when I gave my life to Christ, and my faith has carried me through some of the darkest days of my life.  The camaraderie that I have with my friends, the ability to keep everything light, just to laugh and joke with them, you can’t overstate how much of a difference that makes.  And the fans, I can’t put into words what they mean – all of the letters, complete strangers offering me their love and support, it just blows me away.

“Looking back now, it all just makes sense and I understand why the good Lord put me in this position.  I struggled through those four Super Bowl losses.  I went through neck surgery, and then back surgery.  I lost my son to a horrible illness.  I survived cancer twice.  But God has a plan, and I realized that through my son, Hunter, I can make a difference.

 

“Looking back now, it all just makes sense and I understand why the good Lord put me in this position.  I struggled through those four Super Bowl losses.  I went through neck surgery, and then back surgery.  I lost my son to a horrible illness.  I survived cancer twice.  But God has a plan, and I realized that through my son, Hunter, I can make a difference.” – Jim Kelly

 

“With Hunter’s Hope, we’re focusing on making sure that the states test for the maximum amount of treatable diseases.  Thousands of babies die every single year in this country because they are born in the wrong state.  Don’t take this the wrong way; I totally understand why we send billions of dollars overseas to other countries, but why don’t we save some of that money for something that’s such a no brainer right here in our own country?  Let’s give our own kids a chance right here, in the United States of America, to be able to dream, and set goals, and be able to raise families like I was able to do.”

~  ~  ~

Replay.

August 2, 2014.

Jim Kelly is back in Canton, this time to celebrate the induction of his favorite receiver, Andre Reed. Through the years, sixty-seven of the 663 passes that Reed caught from Kelly were touchdowns, but it’s today’s pass that means more than all of the others combined; at the conclusion of Reed’s hall of fame acceptance speech, his quarterback, the greatest and most beloved Buffalo Bill of them all, joins him on stage, and connects one last time as the overflow crowd – Bills fans, mostly – erupt with delight.

 

Jim Kelly and Andre Reed connect for one last pass, after Reed's Hall of Fame speech.

Jim Kelly and Andre Reed connect for one last pass, after Reed’s Hall of Fame speech.

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“I was known for my toughness going across the middle, making that catch, breaking tackles, but the toughest individual I’ve ever met in my life is Jim Kelly, No. 12,” Reed says.  “You’re the reason why I’m standing here today. Every time I looked into your eyes in the huddle, I knew we could get it done, I knew we had a chance to win.  Leadership beyond reasonable doubt, and those around you gravitated toward your leadership and what you said.  You taught us not to quit.  You know what we used to say, 12 plus 83 always equals six.”

That Kelly can even make the trip to Canton is a miracle – his battle with cancer has left him ravaged, and 51 pounds lighter than at the start of radiation and chemo.  Like Reed, he is dressed in his gold hall of fame jacket.  Reed turns his back to the crowd at the podium, and catches that final pass before sharing a long, emotional hug.  Kelly’s promise – to be there for Reed’s induction – is fulfilled.  It’s almost more than the former star receiver can bear.

“When I saw him today, I almost broke down and cried,” Reed remarks a day earlier, after the annual hall of fame luncheon.  “This man has been through so much in his life, he’s had to battle in so many different things, the toughest individual I’ve ever seen, and he was upbeat, smiling.  Three months ago we didn’t even know if he was going to be here in Canton.  My heart beat a bit faster when I saw him because of all that.”

For Kelly, being back in Canton, this time free from the clutches of cancer, is pure catharsis.

“How do I find the words to say anything about you?” Reed asks during his acceptance speech.  “Your belief in me that I could get the job done anytime will resonate with me for the rest of my life.  Jim, you have endured a lot in your life, the loss of a son, and most recently your battle with cancer.  You’re an inspiration to all those you touch.  I’m honored to call you my teammate, my friend, and my family member, and now a fellow Hall of Famer.  I love you, man.”

“I love you too,” Kelly says, tearfully.

Four Super Bowl losses?

Wide right?

There are far more important things in life.

~  ~  ~

“The Pro football Hall of Fame is something that I never dreamt about,” Kelly says, reflecting on his own induction.  “I always looked up to guys like Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, and Merlin Olson.  These are guys that I put on a pedestal, and I never thought that I would turn out to be one of them.  For me, the day that I was inducted was one of the greatest moments in my life.  From the moment I learned that I had been selected, I prayed every single night that if it was God’s blessing, that Hunter would be there with me on the day that I was inducted.  My prayers were answered.  He was there for me, and it’s just one of the most awesome feelings that I’ve ever had.  He never ran out on the football field, or heard the cheers of 80,000 football fans, but I’ll tell you what – I know that he’s up there in heaven, and he’s hearing the cheers from thousands of thousands of families who have been impacted positively through the Hunter’s Hope Foundation.  He knows that their babies are getting a chance to dream like his daddy was able to dream as a little boy, because of what he went through and the difference that we are making through our foundation. I know I’m going to see him again one day, and when I do, I’m going to give him a hug and throw him a pass and do all of the things we couldn’t do while he was living here, on this earth.”

~  ~  ~

Regardless of what happens next, Jim Kelly is ready for the next chapter of his life to play out.  He’s asked daily about those Super Bowl defeats, something that he knows he’ll never be able to shake, a legacy that’s become his own personal scarlet letter.  Deep down it still hurts, but he knows there are far more important things to worry about.

Life is fragile.  The cancer could return tomorrow.

“Even though we went to those for super Bowls and lost, it was the resiliency that we had, the never-say-die attitude that we brought to the game each and every year,” he says.  “Yeah, we didn’t win, but I’ll tell you what, the more that time passes, and the more we are removed from those football games, the more love I have for what we went through as a team.  We kept fighting and we had fun winning, and even though we didn’t win at the end, we never gave up.  We came back the following year, worked harder than we ever have, and we kept doing it.  Unfortunately, it just wasn’t in our cards to win.  So what?  We were men.  We went out there and gave it our all, and we weren’t afraid to put it on the line with the whole world watching.  I’m just damned proud that I was a Buffalo Bill.”

Bill Rodgers – Street Cred

By:  Michael D. McClellan | We ran because he ran.

Bill Rodgers embarked on his iconic running career with neither the curious fanfare nor the quaint spontaneity of the cinematic character Forest Gump, but make no mistake, Rodgers’ cult of personality had the same gravitational pull, conjuring legions of road racers, unbidden, out of the invisible fabric of the universe.  We saw Rodgers win the Boston Marathon, or we read about his exploits in Sports Illustrated, and we got up off the couch and gave it try.  Just do it, he seemed to be saying to us subliminally, years before Nike built a billion-dollar marketing campaign around the catchphrase, and we did.

Rodgers showed us the way.  More than simply popularizing distance running, he helped to usher in an exotic collection of endurance sports; ultramarathons, triathlons, and even something called the World Marathon Challenge, which is – no misprint here – seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.  None of these existed in 1975, when Rodgers set the American record and won his first Boston Marathon with a time of 2:09:55.  Adult exercise ran the gamut from bowling to bicycling, but marathons?  The only ones doing that were the fringe athletes – an underground, counterculture movement whose sport didn’t stand a chance of catching on with the general public.  Kooks.  Rodgers came along and changed all of that.  He started running and he never stopped, forcing us to reconsider not only the limits of human endurance, but the way we looked at those who punished themselves for pleasure.  Before Bill Rodgers, who would have sought out distance running as part of a healthy lifestyle?  Who would have thought it remotely cool?  Certainly there were a few of us at the time, but Rodgers was the one who brought the marathon to the masses; he was Andy Warhol in running shoes, commercializing his sport while turning it into pop art, presenting us with something that we could all try.

That Rodgers could single-handedly lift the marathon’s Q Score is remarkable, given that the sport is the track and field equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield, overshadowed through the decades by the glamour events on the biggest stages – namely, the 100 meter and 200 meter dashes.  Whether it’s Jesse Owens humiliating Adolph Hitler on German soil, or Michael Johnson winning Olympic gold in front thousands of screaming American fans, the sprints are all we really care about.  The anticipation builds and builds, the gun fires, and we have our answer in a matter of seconds.  Who wants to wait hours for a runner to cross the finish line?

 

Jamaica's Usain Bolt reacts to his win in the men's 100-meter final during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 - something Bill Rodgers would never do. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

Jamaica’s Usain Bolt reacts to his win in the men’s 100-meter final during the athletics in the Olympic Stadium at the 2012 Summer Olympics, London, Sunday, Aug. 5, 2012 – something Bill Rodgers would never do. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

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Rag on them all you want, marathoners like Rodgers are the perfect counterpoints to sprinters like Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt, and the other genetic freaks who lord over track and field like heavyweight champions, Mike Tysons in cleats.  Everything about sprinters – the explosive starts, speeds approaching that of a hungry cheetah running down its prey – is the stuff of pure fantasy, gifts bestowed by the gods on a precious few.  We marvel at their acceleration, at their otherworldly physiques, and understand that we can never be them.  Bill Rodgers is different.  Where Bolt is a Pixar-generated superhero, right down to the post-race lightning bolt pose, Rodgers is everyman.  He’s the dude we can all relate to – the guy who goes to the mall and buys himself a pair of running shoes, stretches a couple of times in front of the living room TV, and then pushes open the screen door and starts logging miles.  Bolt is hounded by paparazzo wherever he goes.  Rodgers is lucky if anyone recognizes him at all.  What Bolt does on the track takes our breath.  What Rodgers does on the road takes what we all have – absolute mule headedness, and an almost sadistic desire to punish ourselves in the harshest weather.

Hell, Rodgers even eats pre-race pasta and then drinks beer after he’s done!

Frank Shorter may have been the trigger man in the 1970s running boom, his gold medal in the ’72 Munich Olympics setting off a fitness frenzy, but it was Rodgers driving the getaway car, taking the marathon to unprecedented heights and transforming it from carnival act in the eyes of many, to a legit recreational sport enjoyed by millions.  Shorter got our attention.  Rodgers got us involved.  While Shorter had by far the superior Olympic career, winning gold in Munich and then taking silver four years later in Montreal, Rodgers’ success in the premiere marathons – Boston and New York – stamped him in our collective psyche as the face of distance running.  Onetime rivals, the two men have formed a lifelong friendship that continues to this day.

“Frank Shorter was definitely a rival at the time, my main adversary,” Rodgers says, “but I didn’t dislike him.  I had no reason to.  It’s just a footrace, a sport, so you just have to tip your hat to the other guy if you happen to get beat.  You just run your best and then you move on.”

 

“Frank Shorter was definitely a rival at the time, my main adversary, but I didn’t dislike him.  I had no reason to.  It’s just a footrace, a sport, so you just have to tip your hat to the other guy if you happen to get beat.  You just run your best and then you move on.” – Bill Rodgers

 

The two men were different in many ways.  While Shorter carried himself with a regal air of an Olympic champion, always keeping us at arm’s length, Rodgers was the guy next door that loaned you the wrench to fix your toilet.  We admired Shorter but we loved Rodgers, the reluctant marathoner who came to the sport when his Triumph 650 motorcycle was stolen, forcing him to get around Boston on his own two feet.  Rodgers did things his way, an unpretentious superstar who was as equally accommodating with an autograph as he was with a photo op.  He smoked.  He hung out in bars.  During his heyday, Rodgers could often be found behind the counter at his now defunct Faneuil Hall running store.  After most every Boston Marathon, he would retire to his brother’s office in the back of the store, a passel of runners crammed into the small room with him, the group drinking expensive Scotch and telling stories and toasting the race just run.  How many celebrity athletes do that?

Rodgers was a household name with the amusing nickname – Boston Billy – and yet, as big as he became, he was never consumed with his own celebrity.  He was one of us, and that was good enough.  We could relate to his dorky side, the Bill-Gates-meets-Napoleon-Dynamite vibe that only added to his charm.  In fairness, part the dorkiness had to do with the era in which he ran; back then, runners dealt with shorts that chafed, T-shirts that hung wet and heavy, and long underwear that kept them warm during winter runs but looked like, well, underwear.  During the winter months he’d wear a toboggan that looked three sizes too big for his head.  In the spring he’d win the Boston Marathon and they would slip that god-awful wreath on his head, the look more goofy-geek than celebrated champion.  Idiosyncrasies that only further endeared him to us.

 

He was an Average Joe, just like us - and a 4-time winner in both the Boston and New York City marathons

He was an Average Joe, just like us – and a 4-time winner in both the Boston and New York City marathons

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“They didn’t have the good gear back in the ‘70s,” Rodgers says, protesting with a laugh.  “There was no Gore-Tex clothing, or any of the other materials they have today.  It was a different world back then.  That stuff hadn’t been invented yet.”

Yes, Rodgers did things his way, his influence rippling across time and going well beyond running’s borders.  Some might consider it a stretch to trace the lineage of today’s alternative sports back to Rodgers and the marathon, but it’s worth pumping the brakes and giving it a look see before totally dissing the notion.  What does someone like Shaun White have in common with Bill Rodgers?  What does landing something called the ‘frontside heelflip 540 body varial’ – a.k.a., The Armadillo – have to do with Rodgers racing Shorter on the Cape, circa 1976, sunlight drizzling through foliage twitching with the breeze?  And why does it even matter?  I’ll tell you why:  If Rodgers didn’t open the door through which the pioneers in other unconventional sports passed, he at least held it long enough for them to glimpse the future, snowboarders and base jumpers and extreme runners alike, weirdo athletes who are now not only considered mainstream, but who are celebrities in their own right.  Rodgers made the uncool cool.  He dared us to expand our pallets, to look at fringe sports the way we look at our go-to sports.

How did it happen?  How does someone so unassuming – so seemingly ordinary – rise up and change the world?  Born on December 23, 1947, Rodgers got a running start on the sport that would later come to define him, spending plenty of time outdoors and, like other kids of the day, staying plenty active in his neighborhood and at school.

 

BOOM! Frank Shorter wins Olympic gold in the 1972 Olympic Games, setting off a running frenzy.

BOOM! Frank Shorter wins Olympic gold in the 1972 Olympic Games, setting off a running frenzy.

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“I grew up in Newington, Connecticut,” Rodgers says, “which is just a few miles southwest of Hartford.  I became a runner partly as the result of a parks and recreation program in Newington.  We’d play games and such during the summers, which kept the kids very active, and we also used to run around the elementary school when we were younger.  It was a very ordinary childhood.  I liked hanging out with my friends.  We all rode our bikes.  We were in the Boy Scouts.  We hunted a little, we fished a little.  We would walk long distances to go to a nice fishing pond, things like that.  I think that that really helped me as a runner later on.

“I remember President Kennedy talking about physical fitness when I was a sophomore at Newington High School, which was back in 1963 and right around the same time that I ran the mile in my gym class. I was the fastest kid in the school, so when they started running cross country a few weeks later I joined the team, along with my brother, Charlie, and my best friend, Jason.

“We were coached by a fellow who went to Boston University, Frank O’Rourke, and we had a lot of fun.  A lot of people don’t realize that cross country is a team sport, but it’s actually one of America’s biggest team sports, high school and collegiate, with about half a million young people running.  So, that’s how I got my start.  Back then, we would run 1.2 miles.  Today, all of the high school runners run 5K.”

The image of Rodgers, the pellucid teenager, running aimlessly through the Connecticut woods, carries a certain nostalgia, like a Norman Rockwell painting of a bygone era.  As a boy, he chased butterflies with a homemade net in a field behind his house, mounting them on a board and studiously recording his collection in a notebook.  He could rattle off the kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species of his winged Lepidoptera as if he’d spent his entire childhood chilling with Charles Darwin.  It was quintessential Bill Rodgers; happy-go-lucky, a little on the nerdy side, and always on the move.

“When I was in high school, I liked music like all young people,” Rodgers says, mixing in some street cred to counter his inner-geek.  “It was the ‘60s, so I was a fan of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones.  I did all of the things kids my age did in those days, but it was running that kept me busy the most.  Our track was in a grass field – it’s almost kind of ridiculous, but that’s what we had back then.  Coach O’Rourke would put limestone down to mark the lanes for the track, which wasn’t even a regulation 400 meter track.  It was more like 300 meters, and odd distance, but we didn’t care.  We just had fun with our running.”

While Rodgers’ love of running was fact, his commitment to training, at least in the early days, was pure fiction.  In high school he made a decent effort, but there was no hint that he had what it took – the drive, the desire, the work ethic – to become an elite distance runner like Shorter or Alberto Salazar, another rival who trained with a maniacal focus even at a young age.  Rodgers ran, but he also made time to enjoy his social life at Newington High.

“O’Rourke’s program wasn’t designed to churn out college track and field stars or world class runners, it was a place where we could run and compete,” Rodgers says.  “It was challenging, but because we didn’t run too much, or work too hard, we didn’t have a lot of injuries.  I think that helped me later on, when I became much more serious about distance running.  I truly enjoyed it.  I think if you have fun with a sport, then I think you’re more apt to stick with it longer term.  And I believe that you’ve got to explore sports, because everyone has a sport that suits them – their personality and their body type.  I found running.  It suited me.  I tried other sports as a kid, like hockey and football, but I was 5’8” tall and 128 pounds.  Football and me had a little bit of a tough time.”

~  ~  ~

Amby Burfoot grew up in Groton, Connecticut, and played a pivotal role in driving the Bill Rodgers narrative.  Burfoot, it turns out, won the Boston Marathon in 1968 while a senior at Wesleyan University, where he and Rodgers were roommates.  The win was a significant achievement, but it occurred during the pre-Shorter, pre-Rodgers, pre-running-boom era, and at a time when the race itself was barely covered by the media.  Even Rodgers himself seemed to take the news in stride, complimentary of Burfoot’s accomplishment but hardly overwhelmed by what had just transpired.

 

The 1967 Wesleyan Cross Country Team - Bill Rodgers is second from the left, front row, dark glasses.

The 1967 Wesleyan Cross Country Team – Bill Rodgers is second from the left, front row, dark glasses.  Amby Burfoot is on the far right.

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“I met Amby at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut,” Rodgers says.  “It’s an old college, a wonderful college, and an institution that’s very challenging academically.  I think I majored in running while I was there [laughs].  That was definitely the case after I bumped into this fellow named Amby Burfoot.  Amby was a high school champion runner in Connecticut.  His dream was to win the Boston Marathon – which he did, in 1968.  It was definitely a big deal, but I don’t know that I fully appreciated his win at the time.  Ironically, the last American to win Boston before him was his high school cross country coach and English teacher, Johnny Kelly.  And interestingly enough, Johnny Kelly was a two-time Olympian.”

Rodgers and Burfoot were teammates on Wesleyan’s cross-country team.  The two men were polar opposites – Burfoot a neat freak who wanted everything neatly in its place, Rodgers the king of clutter – but their personalities clicked from the start.

“Amby was a great roommate and one of my best friends.  He was also a very unusual guy.  He would listen to music from the Broadway play Man of La Mancha – I’m sure you know the lyrics to that great song, The Impossible Dream.  How fitting a song for him, because he went out there and won the Boston Marathon.  All these years later, I still remember how excited Amby was to win it, and how happy I was for him.”

 

“Amby was a great roommate and one of my best friends.  He was also a very unusual guy.  He would listen to music from the Broadway play Man of La Mancha – I’m sure you know the lyrics to that great song, The Impossible Dream.  How fitting a song for him, because he went out there and won the Boston Marathon.  All these years later, I still remember how excited Amby was to win it, and how happy I was for him.” – Bill Rodgers

 

The two men were different in other ways.  At Wesleyan, Burfoot seemed to take his running much more seriously than Rodgers, who liked to hang out in the bars and discos on the weekends.  It wasn’t that Rodgers was a heavy partier – he barely drank alcohol – it was just that he had a hard time focusing on any one thing for very long and, well, college nightlife came with plenty of obvious distractions.  That he would grow bored quickly and move on to something else, leaving a trail of unresolved loose ends in his wake, was just another one of those qualities that endeared him to us later on; Bill being Bill, scatterbrained but well-intentioned, the average Joe we could all relate to in some way.

Another difference:  Burfoot’s Boston win was barely a blip on the radar, and hardly welcomed with the rock star applause that Rodgers received when he won in ’75.

“Boston has always been a big sports town,” Rodgers says.  “The Celtics were winning all of those titles in the ‘60s, and fans have always been crazy about the Red Sox.  The Boston Marathon just wasn’t as big back then as was when I won it a few years later, and nothing at all like it is today.  When I moved to Boston I watched a lot of hockey – I enjoyed watching the Bruins play, because I was really impressed with Bobby Orr.  I later met Bobby…he’s a terrific person, and what a terrific athlete.”

It’s hard to imagine Rodgers as a hockey nut, but then again why not?

“I think I enjoyed hockey so much because, when I was a kid in Newington, we used to play hockey out in the swamp.  We were always looking for any patch of open ice because we loved to skate.  For us, it was part of the whole outdoor lifestyle that we were living as young kids.  I’ll never forget those days.  That’s where I got hooked on walking and running in the fields.  We even hunted a little bit, but not for long – I became an ex-hunter after I shot a little rabbit.  That’s when I thought:  Now what?  I had no idea what I was going to do with it.

“I shot a duck one time, thinking that my grandmother would cook it for me.  But when I took it to her she could only say, ‘No, no, no!’  So my hunting career ended very abruptly, and I felt very bad about it – I didn’t like killing an animal for nothing.  So that was it for me.”

~  ~  ~

Wrap your head around this:  The winner of four Boston Marathons and four New York Marathons, and the man who set the American marathon record in the process – the very face of the running craze that swept across the country like an Oklahoma brushfire – Bill Rodgers exited college and entered the workforce as a chain-smoking ex-runner with zero interest in competing in marathons.  Come again?  The man who would ultimately grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, who would blow the roof off the running boom, hanging out in Boston bars and smoking two packs of Winstons a day?

“I quit running partway through my senior year at Wesleyan,” Rodgers says.  “I missed it almost as soon as I stepped away – I wasn’t part of the team anymore – but I didn’t look back.  I quit mainly because there was so much going on in Vietnam, and I didn’t support our government’s decision to get involved in the Vietnam War.  Overwhelmed by the possibility of going to Vietnam, I became a conscientious objector, and I went to work in a Boston hospital. I worked there for two years.”

 

“I quit running partway through my senior year at Wesleyan.  I missed it almost as soon as I stepped away – I wasn’t part of the team anymore – but I didn’t look back.  I quit mainly because there was so much going on in Vietnam, and I didn’t support our government’s decision to get involved in the Vietnam War.  Overwhelmed by the possibility of going to Vietnam, I became a conscientious objector, and I went to work in a Boston hospital. I worked there for two years.” – Bill Rodgers

 

It’s hard to imagine an elite athlete in his early twenties so far from the pinnacle of his sport, but here was Rodgers, out of shape and smoking, his sleep habits erratic, his food choices bordering on the absurd and loaded with fat – we’re talking pizza topped with mayonnaise…pizza topped with mayonnaise! – and yet, here he was, about to change the world as we know it.  The turning point, as it turns out, came when Rodgers exited a bar only to learn that his trusty Triumph – the most significant asset he owned – had been stolen.

 

Bill Rodgers loads up on one of his favorite dishes - pizza topped with mayonnaise

Bill Rodgers loads up on one of his favorite dishes – pizza topped with mayonnaise

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“When my motorcycle was stolen, I was devastated,” he says.  “It cost me $1,000, which I borrowed from my roommate.  It was my transportation to work, and it’s all I owned in the world.  Just like that, I had nothing left.”

Forced to start walking, Rodgers suddenly found himself reconnecting with the sport he’d spurned in college.

“I started running a little bit,” he says.  “I joined the Boston YMCA, which is how I got back into the sport.  It was a process.  First I ran on their indoor track and then started running outdoors, and before long that old feeling came back.  What helped drive me was I’d reached the bottom – I was broke, and I really didn’t have a lot of options.  As fate would have it, I lived close to the Boston Marathon finish line back then, so I made my way there for a couple of the races in the early ‘70s.  I had no idea how incredibly exciting the Boston Marathon was; Amby had won it, but there was no television coverage.  Seeing it firsthand motivated me.”

Rodgers joined the Greater Boston Track Club, kicked his smoking habit, and started running over 100 miles per week.

“I became much more serious about running than I had been in college,” Rodgers says.  “I experienced a little bit of success in racing in New England.  I ran a 30k race in February, 1973, and I came in third place behind Amby Burfoot, who won.  I qualified for the Boston Marathon with my time from that race.”

That race was the Silver Lake Dodge 30K Road Race, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.  Rodgers showed up at the starting line that day in tattered khakis and a rag of a shirt, looking more like a homeless person than a distance runner on the cusp, an eccentricity that even caught Burfoot by surprise.  An hour and forty-three seconds later, Rodgers had qualified for Boston.  In street clothes.

Bro.

Are you serious?

“Amby ran a great race that day,” Rodgers says.  “I stayed with him for a while, but I faded a little at the end.  Still, I was pleased with the way I ran.”

The Boston Marathon beckoned.  Unfortunately for him, it didn’t go the way he’d envisioned it going in his mind.

“I tried my first Boston Marathon almost on a whim, which isn’t unusual because everyone in the Boston area tries it at least once.  It was hot and humid on race day.  I don’t know if I didn’t drink enough, but I had tremendous cramps.  My first Boston Marathon was a complete failure, because I didn’t even finish – I dropped out at the top of Heartbreak Hill.  I remember making it 21 miles, and then I could see where I lived, so I gave up and walked home.”

 

“I tried my first Boston Marathon almost on a whim, which isn’t unusual because everyone in the Boston area tries it at least once.  It was hot and humid on race day.  I don’t know if I didn’t drink enough, but I had tremendous cramps.  My first Boston Marathon was a complete failure, because I didn’t even finish – I dropped out at the top of Heartbreak Hill.  I remember making it 21 miles, and then I could see where I lived, so I gave up and walked home.” – Bill Rodgers

 

Despite wilting in the humid conditions, there was something different about this new, improved Bill Rodgers.  He was still the same happy guy, but he was now much more focused.

“I quit running for two months following that first Boston Marathon, but then I eventually started back again.  The big difference this time around was me joining the Greater Boston Track Club.  Everything in this sport is about your teammates – if you have teammates who believe in you, and who think you can do it, then pretty soon you are doing it.  So that really helped me focus and improve.  The club was coached by coach Billy Squires, who, I think, is still America’s greatest marathon coach ever.  There were a lot of top runners on the team, terrific runners like Alberto Salazar, Greg Meyer, Randy Thomas, and Buddy Hodge, and we all pushed each other and encouraged each other.  We were all former collegians who were used to being on a team, and that was the key.  You can go it on your own, but you get more from running and you’re more liable to stay involved if you feel you are part of a team.”

A year later, Rodgers finished the 1974 Boston Marathon in fourteenth place, with a time of 2:19:34.  He was laser focused, with body and mind fully equipped to deal with pushing himself the full 26 miles, 385 yards.

“I believe it’s good to let your body adjust to different distances gradually, because the body will always respond positively to stress, as long as the stress isn’t too much.  Runners know this today, because of all of the science.  Coaches know it, too.  But that wasn’t always the case – the marathon is a very old event, going back to the 1896 Olympic Games, in Athens, Greece.  It has become a very popular event over the last 30 years or so, ever since Frank Shorter won Olympic gold in Munich, Germany.  That’s when the running boom began.  Americans became more active, and a larger number of people started running marathons.  The science quickly caught up with the sport, in everything from nutrition to supplements to training techniques like the Galloway Method, named after Jeff Galloway.  The Galloway Method is a proven approach to build up for all races, no matter what the distance, but it is especially helpful in preparing for a marathon.”

They say the third time’s the charm, and for Bill Rodgers the old adage proved prophetic.  In the best shape of his life, mentally focused, and with a phenomenal showing in the World Cross-Country Championships under his belt, Rodgers entered the 1975 Boston Marathon eager to prove his worth as an elite marathoner.

 

Bill Rodgers crosses the finish line first in the 1975 Boston Marathon, the first of four such races he would win.

Bill Rodgers crosses the finish line first in the 1975 Boston Marathon, the first of four such races he would win.

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“I was much more confident,” he says.  “It was a process that I had to go through.  I dropped out due to the heat in 1973, and the next year I finished in fourteenth place.  I ran in fourth place for about 20 miles that year, so I was competitive and had a shot at winning.  Until then, I didn’t think the marathon was a good event for me, but I learned about staying hydrated while racing and how to maintain the proper pacing.  In 1975, I knew I was fit after my third place in the World Cross-Country Championships, which was two months earlier.  I just didn’t know how that would translate when I ran the Boston Marathon.

“It was a beautiful day, around 45 degrees, with a nice tailwind.  Early on I was running with Canada’s Jerome Drayton, a good runner who later that year set the Canadian record at Fukuoka, Japan.  We got into a duel and I heard someone yell, ‘Go Canada!’ I thought, ‘Wait a minute – this is my town.’  Around eight miles I pulled away, and I ran on my own the rest of the way.”

And just like that, Bill Rodgers joined his pal Amby Burfoot in an exclusive club:  Boston Marathon champion.

“Winning on my third try was special,” he says.  “My brother Charlie was there, Amby was there, my old high school friends and teammates were there, Billy Squires…they really motivated me.”

 

“Winning on my third try was special.  My brother Charlie was there, Amby was there, my old high school friends and teammates were there, Billy Squires…they really motivated me.” – Bill Rodgers

 

Rodgers set the American marathon record in Boston that year, with a 2:09:55 time, and then finished third in the Fukuoka Marathon, with a time of 2:11:26.  Track & Field News ranked Rodgers as the #1 marathoner in the world, and he was also a finalist for the prestigious James E Sullivan Award, given to the top amateur athlete in the United States.  Rodgers, it seemed, had materialized from nowhere to become the face of a running explosion.

“It was just so much fun,” he says, “because it was the running boom, and you feel like you’re doing something to change the world.  There just weren’t that many Americans running marathons in 1975 in 1976, about 30,000, total.  Today, a half million people run in a marathon every year.  There was a feeling of euphoria in 1975, a feeling that something was happening.  It was like that Bob Dylan song, Ballad of a Thin Man – you know the lyrics:  Because something is happening here.  But you don’t know what it is.  Do you, Mister Jones?  Well, we knew what it was.  It was the kind of freedom that this sport gives you, and it was all about a new way to look at health and fitness.

“It opened a lot of doors for me – after I won Boston, I was able to represent the United States in the way that I had hoped to really do it.  I was able to travel around the world as an athlete, and also as an unofficial representative of our country.  I ended up winning a significant marathon on five different continents.  Only a few of us have done that – Frank Shorter and Ron Tabb of Oregon come to mind.”

~  ~  ~

By the time the 1976 Olympics rolled around, Bill Rodgers was a household name.  He’d won Boston, and the public was fascinated with his story.  He ran strong in the Olympic Trials, finishing second with a time of 2:11:58, and he went to Montreal as a favorite to win the gold medal.  Never mind that rival Frank Short would be there as well.  Rodgers was the hottest marathoner on the planet, and many expected him to prove it on a world stage.

 

Frank Shorter, Finland's Lasse Viren, and Bill Rodgers in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Marathon. Shorter would win silver; Rodgers would finish a disappointing 40th.

Frank Shorter (39), Finland’s Lasse Viren (23), and Bill Rodgers (1) in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Marathon. Shorter would win silver; Rodgers would finish a disappointing 40th.

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“It was an honor to represent the United States in an Olympic sport,” he says.  “That meant a lot to me. I think it’s an important way to break down barriers, because the Olympic Games is about community.  It doesn’t matter where you come from, your race, your religion, your financial situation, or anything else.  This is an event where everybody gets along.  Politics don’t exist.  It’s about coming together, putting differences aside for two weeks, and competing against the best in the world.”

Unfortunately for Bill Rodgers, the ’76 Olympics didn’t go according to script.  There had been talk of a gold-silver finish for Rodgers and Shorter, a storyline which might have topped Shorter’s winning run four years earlier in Munich.  Shorter held up his end of the bargain, winning silver.  Rodgers?  He flamed out, finishing 40th.  It was a bitter end to his Olympic dream, but, in true Rodgers fashion, the good times are what he remembers most.

“It was incredible,” he says quickly.  “Today we have the IAAF World Championships, which includes track and field.  It’s actually the third largest sporting event in the world, after the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, but it wasn’t around back when I was competing in the marathon.  All we had were the Olympics, which happens once every four years, and all of that preparation came down to one race on one day.

“Going in, I knew I could race with Frank.  He only beat me by seven seconds in the Olympic Trials, so I was very confident I could make that up, but I fell apart.  It was extremely disappointing.  Still, it was very special just to be there, at the Olympic Stadium, with my teammates and all of those other great athletes from around the world.  It was something that I’ll never forget.”

The opening ceremonies were held at Stade Olympique – also known as Olympic Stadium, or more fondly as ‘The Big O’, with 73,000 in attendance and a half billion watching on television.  It was unlike anything Rodgers had ever experienced.

“I was awestruck in many ways,” he says.  “You’ve got all kinds of different people together to celebrate the opening of the Games – I remember seeing a seven-foot Russian woman basketball player walking beside a gymnast who wasn’t even five-feet tall.  The event itself was beautiful, exciting, and so full of possibility, but then the whole Olympic experience was like that.  Barriers fell; you might be talking to someone who doesn’t know your language very well, and yet they want to trade you for your American T-shirt or your American pins.  There was this incredible camaraderie.  I got to meet some very interesting people.  One of my roommates was Ed Mendoza – he was from Phoenix, and ran in the 10K – and another was a marathon race walker named Ron Laird, who had competed in four Olympic Games.  Both men are now in the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame.

“I met the Olympic gold medalist in the discus – Mac Wilkins – right after he’d won the gold medal.  I got to know some of the other elite athletes from around the world, like marathoner Jeff Foster from New Zealand. I met Lasse Virén from Finland, one of the greatest distance runners of all time, which was a huge thrill.  He was the only man to win gold medals in the 5K and 10K in consecutive Olympics.  In Montreal, he ran in the marathon and took fifth place there – eighteen hours after finishing his gold medal run in the 5K.  How special is that?  He was following in the footsteps of the Flying Finn – Paavo Nurmi, way back in the 1920s.  Finland has always had great track and field athletes.”

Rodgers pauses to reflect on the race itself.

“It was so frustrating then, when I fell apart,” he says at last.  “I finished the race, but it was tricky.  I had terrible cramps through my hamstrings and calves; I had to walk some, and I had to struggle in to the finish, but that’s what can happen in a marathon sometimes.  Sometimes I have to remind myself of how special it was just to be there, because once you’ve made an Olympic team you are an Olympian forever.  Americans love the Olympic Games because it represents excellence and it represents patriotism.  There were some people who didn’t think that I was patriotic because of my stance against the Vietnam War, but I am intensely that way, intensely patriotic.  Running in the Olympics gave me a chance to express that.”

~  ~  ~

Rodgers was eager to put the disappointment in Montreal behind him.  He also wanted to cement his reputation as one of the greatest marathoners of the day.  Both of these goals would be achieved a few short months later in New York City, where race officials were looking to close the gap on the historic Boston Marathon, and enticing headline runners like Rodgers and Shorter to join the field was a key piece of the strategy.

 

Bill Rodgers wins the first five-borough New York City Marathon

Bill Rodgers wins the first five-borough New York City Marathon

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“Three weeks after Montreal I was at the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod,” Rodgers says.  “So was Frank Shorter.  Fred Lebow, the race director for the New York City Marathon, met with us there and pitched the concept of us running in the ‘new’ York City Marathon – a race that would take place in the five boroughs of New York City.  Until then, the race had been run exclusively in Central Park.  We both agreed to run, which helped Fred promote the event to a wider audience.  In Frank and I, he had two of the top marathoners – one of them an Olympic multi-medalist – and he could also promote our rivalry.  It really helped to generate interest in the race.  For me, the thought of running in New York was music to my ears because it gave me a chance to have my own Olympic race all over again.  Frank had taken silver and Don Cardon finished fourth in Montreal, so that was a great success for our team, but I was very disappointed in myself because I didn’t do so well.  Here was a chance to do better.

“The weather was cool with low humidity – the kind of day that every marathon runner wants.  It was pure fun as we got to run over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge.  I pulled away from Frank around the fourteen mile mark – I like making my move just past the halfway point of marathons, unlike the great Japanese runner Toshiheko Seko, who liked to wait and wait before nailing everyone at the end with a kick.  To win was so exciting.  I ran a strong race and thought I had a chance to break my American marathon record, but I didn’t know the course so I ended up missing the record by fourteen seconds.  To win it was incredible.  It was a great course, and the people of New York came out and they really supported us, you could sense that they really knew what we were doing.  They were really pushing us, and I was going for it.  It felt great to win after performing so poorly in Montreal.”

Thanks in large part to Rodgers and Shorter, the New York City Marathon has become arguably the premiere marathon in the world.

“It was so cool to run through the streets of New York,” he says.  “There were only 2,000 of us back in 1976, but today there are 50,000 people running the New York City Marathon.  I like to think that I played a small part in that growth.  Fred Lebow, and later Mary Wittenberg and George Hirsch from the New York Road Runners, they really built that race step-by-step, block by block, and now it’s one of the great marathons in the world.”

 

“It was so cool to run through the streets of New York. There were only 2,000 of us back in 1976, but today there are 50,000 people running the New York City Marathon.  I like to think that I played a small part in that growth.  Fred Lebow, and later Mary Wittenberg and George Hirsch from the New York Road Runners, they really built that race step-by-step, block by block, and now it’s one of the great marathons in the world.” – Bill Rodgers

 

In 1977, Rodgers won the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon, making him the only runner ever to hold the championship of all three major marathons at the same time.  He was again ranked as the top marathoner in the world by Track & Field News.  He trained hard, at times running as much as 122 miles per week, mixing in interval training, an indoor race here and there, and numerous 20+ mile runs.  But the mega-mileage backfired, as Rodgers went into the ’77 Boston Marathon on tired legs and recorded a disappointing DNF.  He made the necessary adjustments over the summer, recovering in time to test himself in a grueling double; defending his title in New York in early November, and then going after that Fukuoka title four short weeks later.

“As defending champion, I wanted to go back to New York,” Rodgers says.  “I was treated great, I enjoyed the course, and being the defending champ meant a lot to me.  My race strategy was pretty straightforward.  By the time Garry Bjorkland and I came off of the Queensboro Bridge, the two of us had blown the race open – it was just us.  I was trying to defend my title and Garry was going for the win.  We forced the pace going down First Avenue.  I pulled away and Garry faded badly, eventually getting passed by Jerome Drayton of Canada, who ended up second.  I ran alone and won by the race by just over two minutes.  Winning Fukuoka was icing on the cake, but running two marathons in the span of a month was very difficult.  Today, there is more thought put into how races are scheduled.”

Although Rodgers had become a star, he hadn’t become rich off his celebrity.  While today’s New York Marathon winner gets a six-figure check, things were still quite different when Rodgers was in his prime.  Prize money and corporate sponsorship were still in their infancy.

“It was a different world back then,” he says with a laugh.  “The best races would have a television, or maybe a bike as a prize.  I remember winning a 10-speed bike at a race.  Once I won a jar of honey.  Another time I won a rocking chair.  And on another occasion I won a table.  We would always look at the available merchandise before the race, as the winner got his pick.  We were doing the same things as runners like Clarence Demar and Johnny Kelley back in the day, because when it came to prizes and prize money, our sport hadn’t changed in all of those years.

“It was a financial struggle at times.  There was no money in our sport – we had amateur status, which meant we couldn’t win prize money.  It was frustrating, because we were working so hard and the sport itself was rising in popularity because of the work that we were putting in.”

 

“It was a financial struggle at times.  There was no money in our sport – we had amateur status, which meant we couldn’t win prize money.  It was frustrating, because we were working so hard and the sport itself was rising in popularity because of the work that we were putting in.” – Bill Rodgers

 

Rodgers pauses, the dark cloud that had formed in his head passing almost as quickly as it had come.

“I have a funny story about the New York Marathon,” he says quickly.  “One time I took all of the back roads when I drove down from Boston, in order to save money and avoid paying tolls.  Well, I guess I parked in the wrong place, and after I won I learned that my car was gone and had been towed.  I didn’t have any money to get it back, so Fred Lebow had to ‘pass the hat’ to get my car out of the towing company’s lot!”

~  ~  ~

While Rodgers’ competitors knew his talent and fans clamored to rub elbows with him, Rodgers himself seemed oblivious to all the fuss.  It was as if there were two Bills – the ruthless, focused Bill between the start and finish lines, and the friendly, laid-back Bill who posed for pictures and loved talking to complete strangers.  The former Bill had ascended to the top of a grueling sport; the latter Bill won us over, coaxing us to following him like a distance-running Pied Piper.

Stories about Rodgers were almost mythic – he won the 1975 Boston Marathon in a shirt he found in a dumpster, while drinking water from a shampoo bottle – and we couldn’t get enough.  He was also the most dominant marathoner in the world, a runner at the height of his powers who would win a mind-boggling 27 of 30 races he entered in 1978.  Rodgers uses another sporting analogy to describe this period in his life.

“I felt like I was a surfer riding waves,” he says, smiling.  In that moment, it’s easy to imagine laid-back Bill hanging out on a California beach, sand between his toes, his hair bleached by the sun.  “I had a consistency and a strength that gave me confidence to get on the next wave and ride it to the finish line.  Frank Shorter and I talked about it recently, and his dominance felt the same way to him.  So it worked for a while for both of us.  When you get up on the wave you just keep doing the things that got you there, and you do your best to try to stay on top of it.”

When he toed the starting line in the spring of ’78, Rodgers dominance felt less like a surfer riding a wave and more like a cross between Mike Tyson and Michael Phelps, the Boston Marathon outcome all but determined.  He would finish with a time of 2:10:13, winning the race for the second time.

“That year I had a lead but Jeff Wells almost caught me at the end,” Rodgers recalls.  “Jeff and I had competed for the United States at the World Cross Country Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, and he beat me there.  I hadn’t done a lot of anaerobic work, but I had plenty of endurance and I knew the Boston course better than Jeff.  I think I may have underestimated Jeff, and not because he wasn’t a great runner, but because Frank Shorter was in the field and running his first Boston Marathon.  Frank and I ran neck and neck for a while, but I was eventually able to separate.  At the 16-mile mark, there was a group of us who usually made a move to thin out the pack – Esa Tikkanen from Finland, Jack Fultz, Randy Thomas, and myself.  We made our move on the long downhill after Wellesley, which was around 15 to 16 miles.  We were all running well that day, but Jeff stayed with us.  Jeff made a tremendous move in the last couple miles, and if there were another 50 yards in the race I think he would have caught me.  It was very nerve-wracking over that last half mile.  Running toward the finish I kept turning around and Jeff was gaining like a train – good thing it wasn’t 26.3 miles!”

 

Bill Rodgers Wins a 4th New York Marathon in a Row October 29, 1979 X 23815 credit: Heinz Kluetmeier - staff

Bill Rodgers Wins a 4th New York Marathon in a Row
October 29, 1979
X 23815
credit: Heinz Kluetmeier – staff

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On October 29, 1979, Rodgers won the New York City Marathon for a fourth time.  It was his seventh marathon win in a row, a run of dominance that landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

“It was great fun,” Rodgers says of the SI cover.  “I won New York the day before, and I’m walking through the airport on my way home and there it was, in the magazine rack.  I had to do a double take – there I was, on the cover of Sports Illustrated!  I couldn’t believe it.

 

“It was great fun.  I won New York the day before, and I’m walking through the airport on my way home and there it was, in the magazine rack.  I had to do a double take – there I was, on the cover of Sports Illustrated!  I couldn’t believe it.” – Bill Rodgers

 

“I still like going to New York and watching the runners come in.  I was there last year, and I hope to return this year.  You make so many friends in this sport which, in my opinion, is the most powerful thing about running.  There’s an excitement that comes with competing in racing, which is why we’re there, but you also develop this amazing friendships.  And if you have a rival like Frank Shorter, you shake hands at the end of the race and the friendship remains long after the rivalry ends.”

If you believe in such things, Rodgers would fall victim to the famed Sports Illustrated cover jinx, finishing sixth in the Fukuoka Marathon a month later.  Regardless, he closed out the decade as arguably the greatest marathon runner of his generation.  By then, a new generation of challengers had begun to emerge.

“Japan’s Toshiheko Seko came to Boston in ’79 and was one of the favorites to win,” Rodgers says.  “He had beaten me the previous December at Fukuoka, which is Japan’s greatest marathon with 60 years of history, but I was coming off a bout of the flu in Fukuoka and wasn’t at my best.  Coming into Boston I was much stronger; I’d set a world record in the 25K on a track in February of that year.  I felt good going into Boston.  Garry Bjorkland and Tom Fleming were ahead of me through the early part of the race, which goes through Framingham, Natick and Wellesley.  I was so focused on Bjorkland and Fleming that I forgot about Seko, who ended up beside me as we went up the first hill.  We passed Bjorkland, who said, ‘Bill, go for 2:08.’  I got away from Seko again because he didn’t know the course.  Going up Heartbreak Hill I pulled away – I don’t think he was prepared for the hills.  I broke the course record and American record in 2:09:27.”

 

Bill Rodgers

Bill Rodgers, alone at the top.

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Winning New York later that year would be no easy task, as the three-time defending champ found himself having to come from behind to win.

“The gun seemed to go off early and I got behind a lot of people,” he recalls.  “Kirk Pfeffer was a 2:10 guy and took off fast.  I had a bad start in traffic, and had to pass people to maneuver my way back to the front of the pack.  It took me a while to catch the runners in front of me.  Kirk maintained his lead until I finally caught him in Central Park, at around the 23-mile mark.  I could see him up ahead of me for quite a while – it nerve-wracking because he was such a fast marathon runner, but I loved the Central Park hills.  Even though I didn’t use my usual strategy of making a move coming off the Queensboro Bridge, it was gratifying to win in a different way.  Thankfully I had conserved enough energy to make that final push at the end.  I was running strong by the time we entered Central Park.”

~  ~  ~

Rodgers’ dream of an Olympic mulligan was dashed with the US decision to skip the 1980 Games in Moscow.  He was fresh off a Boston Marathon three-peat, and still the a force to be reckoned with.  The win in Boston was his fourth overall, equaling his title haul in New York.

“Physically I was in pretty good shape, though not quite as good as in 1979,” Rodgers says.  “I was getting ready for the Olympic Trials marathon, but due to the U.S. Olympic boycott I entered Boston at the last minute.  Kirk Pfeffer stayed with me through Wellesley, but at the halfway point I kicked it into a different gear and I was on my own, just like in my first Boston victory.  I think a big key was that I’d trained in Florida and had done a lot of warm weather training.  It really worked out well in Boston, because the temperatures got up around 75 or 80 degrees, so I think I was better prepared for the conditions.  That was the year that Jacqueline Gareau wasn’t recognized as women’s winner until a week later, due to an imposter who cheated.”

The imposter was Rosie Ruiz, who, it turns out, didn’t run the entire Boston Marathon course.  Celebrated at first, Ruiz’s story began to unravel almost as soon as she crossed the finish line.  Rodgers noticed that Ruiz could not recall many things that most runners know by heart, such as intervals and splits.  Others noticed that Ruiz was not winded or coated in sweat.  Still others remarked that her thighs were much flabbier and fatter than would be expected for a world-class runner.  Perhaps most damning of all, no one could recall seeing her on the course.  With pressure mounting, Ruiz later released stress-test results showing her resting heart rate as 76; most female marathoners have a resting heart rate in the 50s or lower.  She was stripped of her title eight days later, and Gareau was declared the winner.

“It was a black eye for our sport,” Rodgers says, his tone growing more serious.  “There’s no place for cheating, whether that’s someone using performance enhancing drugs or someone defrauding the integrity of the sport by lying.”

 

“It was a black eye for our sport. There’s no place for cheating, whether that’s someone using performance enhancing drugs or someone defrauding the integrity of the sport by lying.” – Bill Rodgers

 

The 1980 Olympics represented Rodgers’ best and last chance at Olympic gold, but Cold War politics wouldn’t allow the dream to become reality.  It’s something Rodgers has long since accepted, but part of him still wishes there had been no boycott.

“I ran so terribly in Montreal, finishing fortieth out of 65 runners,” he says.  “I think I would’ve done much better in Moscow – it would be hard to do worse [laughs].  We’ll never know.  I understood why the boycott was held, which was President Carter’s condemnation of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.  It was based on very complicated and tricky stuff.  The Soviets wanted certain individuals in power, and the US wanted the Soviets to end the occupation.  In the end, I don’t think boycotts work.  In 1984, the Los Angeles Olympic Games were boycotted by many Eastern Bloc countries and allies – it was basically the Soviet Union’s response to our boycott in 1980.  In 1976, the African nations boycotted Montreal.  The only ones it hurts, I think, are the athletes who are denied the opportunity to participate and realize the dream of competing for their countries.  In the end, I think it’s better to resolve differences in different ways, because the Olympics is such a great place for young people to express themselves.  For me, running a marathon in Moscow would have been a unique experience.  I competed in the US Olympic Trials in 1984, and I came in eighth.  Not winning a medal for my country is the biggest disappointment of my running career.”

Rodgers pauses, and then the fan in him takes over.

“If you ever have the chance to go to the Olympic Games, anywhere in the world, I would highly recommend it.  I was in Los Angeles and saw Joan Benoit Samuelson take her gold, and when I saw her come through that Stadium – wow – it knocks you back, it’s just incredible.  And then there’s the 100,000 people who stood up and cheered.  It was so powerful.  I wish I had been able to experience that.”

Rodgers string of New York City Marathon wins came to an end in 1980, when Alberto Salazar set a course record with a time of 2:09:41.  Rodgers finished a respectable fifth, but the young Salazar signaled a changing of the guard at the top of the pecking order.  Rodgers was very familiar with his new, younger rival.

“Alberto Salazar was ten years younger than me,” Rodgers says.  “He was born in Cuba, and he came to the United States when he was just a young kid, after his dad had a falling out with Mr. Castro.  Alberto still has strong feelings about that.  He’s a super, super nice guy.  I think he’s our country’s best marathon coaches, perhaps our best distance running coach.  He’s done so much for the US, and he still coaches for the Nike team.

“When I first met Alberto, he was just seventeen.  He joined the Greater Boston Track Club, courtesy of a mutual friend.  His nickname was ‘Rookie’ because he was just a kid.  He was actually one of the best high school runners in the country, so he was recruited heavily and ended up going to school at the University of Oregon.  Every year he’d come back home to see his family, and every year we’d see each other at the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod.  Falmouth is one of our country’s great road races, and historically the top runners would meet in the summer and race –Frank Shorter, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Greta Weiss, Shalane Flanagan, Ben True, all of the big names have been there over the years.  And then, along comes young Alberto.”

 

Alberto Salazar collapses after winning the '82 Boston Marathon against Dick Beardsley. It would later become known as 'The Duel in the Sun'.

Alberto Salazar collapses after winning the ’82 Boston Marathon against Dick Beardsley. It would later become known as ‘The Duel in the Sun’.

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Salazar’s pain tolerance was legendary; in 1982, he won his first and only Boston Marathon after his famous ‘Duel in the Sun’ with Dick Beardsley.  Salazar outsprinted Beardsley and collapsed, completely spent.  He was then rushed to a hospital emergency room, where he was given six liters of water intravenously.  Amazingly – or horrifyingly, depending on how you look at it – Salazar did not drink anything during the race.

“I believe that ’82 race was one of the best Boston Marathons ever run,” he says, “because both of them ran 2:08 in that heat.  I thought before the race that Alberto would win easily – I wasn’t in the kind of shape to keep up with him, and I didn’t think anyone else in the field could, either.  In 1981, I had beaten Dick Beardsley in Houston, and then again in Stockholm.  He had run a 2:09 at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, but no one would have picked Dick Beardsley to challenge mighty Alberto in the 1982 Boston Marathon.  The book Duel in the Sun recaps that race beautifully.”

Surprised by the way the race played out, Rodgers was hardly surprised by Salazar’s reckless abandon.

“I would see Alberto at Falmouth there every summer, and every summer he would push me more and more,” Rodgers says.  “I won Falmouth three times, but one year we were locked in a brutal dual in the heat.  He finally fell back, and I later learned that he finished the race and then collapsed.  They had to put him in a tub of ice water.  His body had overheated so much that it was starting to shut down – he’s Catholic, and it was so bad that they gave him his last rights.  I remember Alberto finally pulling out of it and telling his dad that no one was willing to push themselves as hard as he was.  That actually turned out to be his greatest strength and also his greatest weakness.  Alberto had a wonderful career, but it could have been even longer if he hadn’t pushed himself so hard.  He was a terrific athlete, and a great teammate.  We’re still friends to this day.”

As the ‘80s unfurled, there were plenty of changes afoot in the world of marathon running.  The next generation of runners were eating better, training better, and dropping times at a rapid clip. All of this coincided with something that had long been missing from the sport:  Prize money.

“After the Olympic boycott in 1980, we as a running community really had nothing left,” Rodgers says.  “So, in 1981, we formed an association of road racing athletes with the support of Nike, who put up the first prize money.  It was a game changer – he had the first road race event with prize money in America in about 80 years.  The event was in Portland, Oregon.  Greg Meyer of the United States, the 1983 Boston Marathon champion, won that race.

 

“After the Olympic boycott in 1980, we as a running community really had nothing left.  So, in 1981, we formed an association of road racing athletes with the support of Nike, who put up the first prize money.  It was a game changer – he had the first road race event with prize money in America in about 80 years.  The event was in Portland, Oregon.  Greg Meyer of the United States, the 1983 Boston Marathon champion, won that race.” – Bill Rodgers

 

“It was a big gamble, because we were going against not only our federation’s leadership, but the Olympic leadership.  In the end, everyone agreed that it was time for change.  The leaders realized that we could build the sport by having more money come into it, and not only in the marathons, but in all Olympic sports.  With more money came more exposure and more visibility, and more media coverage, and with it more popularity.  But for a while there was a lot of criticism – people, particularly in Boston, did not want to change.  The longtime organizers of the Boston Marathon didn’t want to give prize money.  The problem was, the other big races, like the London Marathon, were giving away prize money.  Even the Pittsburgh Marathon was giving away prize money.  So Boston, after several years, finally did change, and John Hancock, the big Boston insurer and financial services company, stepped forward and put up the first purse at the Boston Marathon.”

Rodgers’ last real shot at Boston glory was in 1986, where he finished fourth to Australia’s Robert de Castella.  Within a few short years the floodgates would open and wave of runners from Kenya and Ethiopia would begin to dominate.

“That was the year the Boston Marathon awarded prize money for the first time, so many more of the top marathon runners from around the world came, including the eventual winner, Rob de Castella. Everyone knew about the ‘Man from Down Under.’  In 1981 he had run 2:08:18 at Fukuoka and had won the Commonwealth Games Marathon by beating Juma Ikangaa.  Juma was from Tanzania and a crowd favorite in Boston, partly because he finished second three years in a row during the late ‘80s.

“Rob de Castella was an iconic figure in the sport, like Alberto Salazar, and he was trying to become the best in the world.  He proved he was the best in Boston that year by running away from the field and setting a new course record.  I was very happy to finish fourth, and very proud of my effort.  I was 37 years old, almost 38, and it was becoming harder to stay with the new wave of runners.  After so many years of top racing your mind begins to have trouble with training and racing hard.  It’s something that all runners go through at some point.”

 

“Rob de Castella was an iconic figure in the sport, like Alberto Salazar, and he was trying to become the best in the world.  He proved he was the best in Boston that year by running away from the field and setting a new course record.  I was very happy to finish fourth, and very proud of my effort.  I was 37 years old, almost 38, and it was becoming harder to stay with the new wave of runners.  After so many years of top racing your mind begins to have trouble with training and racing hard.  It’s something that all runners go through at some point.” – Bill Rodgers

 

Rodgers is still in love with the Boston Marathon.  In 1976, Asics paid him $3,000 to wear their shoes, a small fortune to a man who once lost everything when his motorcycle was stolen.  Gradually, he was able to start earning money from his life on the road.  He opened a running store in 1977, started a clothing line, and in a small way, cashed in his celebrity as a runner.  Without question, prize money changed the sport, and while he wasn’t able to fully benefit from it in his prime, he’s happy that Boston has kept pace.

“Dave McGillivray, the race director of the Boston Athletic Association, has transformed the Boston Marathon into such a strong event.  Now, when you go to the start line, there’s medical care as well as medical care along the course, in case you get blisters or you overheat or get injured.  You can get a ride to the finish line if you’re injured.  You have portable toilets at the start line and all along the course.  The crowds are bigger than ever, the media coverage is better than ever, it’s even more of an international field that when I ran.  They’ve managed to keep all of the traditions, but they’ve also helped guide the race into the twenty-first century.”

~ ~ ~

Fame is fleeting, and Rodgers appreciates this certainty perhaps as much as anyone.  He understands that his time as the world’s most dominant marathoner has long since passed, and he remains appreciative of those who still remember him at the height of his powers.  And he’s learned that he can still have fun running at an advanced age.

“When people come up to me and want me to sign an autograph, I’m always happy to oblige.  When I go to marathons around the world people still recognize me and have nice things to say.  It’s different for marathoners, because we’re not as well-known as athletes in other sports.  The same is true of most Olympic athletes – for every Michael Phelps there are a hundred who compete once on the world stage and then disappear.  It’s not like baseball or football or basketball, or other sports that are widely shown on television.  You can’t get cocky in this sport.  You have to appreciate the fans who recognize you.

“In my late 30s, when I started to slip from being a top marathoner, that stung.  But on the other hand, as I’ve gotten slower, I’ve learned to accept it.  It’s a whole new perspective. You have to re-calibrate your goals, but it’s not the end of the world.  It’s actually a chance to create a whole new set of goals.

 

On the run - Rodgers may run slower these days, but he's always on the go.

On the run – Rodgers may run slower these days, but he’s always on the go.

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“It’s always important, but even more when you’re aging, to have the support of your running group. We need our training partners, because we’ve all got ailments and there’s less tread on the tires.  I remember this one guy running in a race beside me who said, ‘I just had a hip replacement.’  Wow.  There are these life things that happen to older runners that wouldn’t happen to younger runners.  It’s the reality of aging, and it’s fascinating how people overcome that.”

Like a passionate affair that has cooled with the passage of time, Rodgers and running make the perfect married couple; while the emotion may not burn as brightly as before, the love is stronger than ever, forged from the heat of those punishing Boston Marathons.

“When you look at the aging process, most athletes leave their sport at a very young age,” he says.  “Running is different.  You can run at any age.  It doesn’t have to be a marathon – there are plenty of a 5K races out there.  Still, getting older has been a unique experience – and it can certainly be humbling at times.  I recently ran a half-marathon in Nashville, Tennessee, and was beaten soundly by a guy who was just a few months younger than me.  I was kind of angry, because he whipped me pretty good.  But after I had time to think about it, I realized that, on the other hand, I ran my best time in a number of years.  So, in the end, you just do your best.  That’s all you can do.  I walked away admiring him.  He ran one heck of a race.”

Rodgers never tires of running, and never tires of talking about running.  His life is a steady stream of conversations with complete strangers, many of whom have either ran in marathons with him or who have been lucky enough to have met him, ever-so-briefly, at one of the umpteen races he’s ran over the years.  He’s always kind and cordial, almost affable to a fault – until you realize that he really does care, even if he has no recollection of those brief encounters.

“I enjoy meeting people as much as running the race itself,” he says.  “There are so many great stories, which is why running is an incredible sport.  And the people who are involved today – it has totally redefined our definition of the modern athlete.  Just look at the Paralympics.  Look at the athletes who are out there running on one leg.  I was running the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon five or six years ago, and I look up and see this guy ahead of me.  He’s got one leg, and he’s running on one of those curved blades.  I just had to wonder – how is this guy beating me – because I’m still a pretty good runner, even at this age.  It forced me to reevaluate.  And do you know what I read about that guy later? He was riding a motorcycle when someone ran a light and smashed into him.  When he came to, he begged the doctors not to amputate his leg.  The doctors had no choice.  So shortly after the surgery he saw the Ironman Triathlon on TV, and it motivated him to get up and run”.

Diet is another concession to the aging process.

“Through the years I’ve always been a big junk food eater, but that was just a sign of the times.  When we were traveling from race to race, we’d go back to a hotel afterwards and our celebration was getting a big bowl of nuts or chips with cheese.  We didn’t think about nutrition like the professional runners today.  Frank Shorter and I were a little bit closer to the earlier Boston Marathon winners, the Johnny Kelleys and Clarence Demars, than to runners of the present day who are so focused on all aspects of fitness, including nutrition.  With that said, my diet is a little healthier than in years past.  I still like my cookies and my pecan pie.  And I still eat treats here and there, because you have to celebrate life.  You can’t have too austere a diet.”

 

“Through the years I’ve always been a big junk food eater, but that was just a sign of the times.  When we were traveling from race to race, we’d go back to a hotel afterwards and our celebration was getting a big bowl of nuts or chips with cheese.  We didn’t think about nutrition like the professional runners today.  Frank Shorter and I were a little bit closer to the earlier Boston Marathon winners, the Johnny Kelleys and Clarence Demars, than to runners of the present day who are so focused on all aspects of fitness, including nutrition.  With that said, my diet is a little healthier than in years past.  I still like my cookies and my pecan pie.  And I still eat treats here and there, because you have to celebrate life.  You can’t have too austere a diet.” – Bill Rodgers

 

For someone who has logged so many miles, Rodgers has remained relatively injury-free.  There’s been a ding here and there, some worse than others, he’s emerged on the other end no worse for the wear.

“Some of it is genetics, and some of it is luck,” he says quickly.  “Mary Decker Slaney is someone who’s had a tremendous amount of bad luck.  She was an amazing talent; as a 13-year-old kid she was a phenom.  They called here ‘Little Mary Decker’, and to this day she remains one of our greatest talents, and certainly one of the greatest female track and field athletes we’ve ever had.  She was a world champion in the 3,000 and the 5,000, but she pushed herself too hard on the track.  The problem with the track is the intensity of those turns.  She put in so much training on the track – endless miles – and when you’re training and racing at that level it can be pretty tricky.  She produced terrific records, that’s for sure, but she’s had nearly thirty surgeries on her legs”.

Above all else, Rodgers has remembered to have fun.  Sure, running was considered bizzaro by the populace at large when he ran his first Boston Marathon – truckers even threw beer cans at runners’ heads – but the stories he can tell are priceless.  Laser-focused between the start and finish lines, Rodgers has taken great care to enjoy the ride.

“I remember going to the Stockholm Marathon with Dick Beardsley,” he says with a smile.  “And there at the race were two former heavyweight boxing champions, American Floyd Patterson and Swede Ingemar Johansson.  The two men had been big rivals in the ring, fighting three times for the heavyweight championship, and yet Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson became good friends who flew across the Atlantic to visit each other every year.  So, they ran the marathon together – the same marathon that Dick and I were running.  Hundreds of thousands of Swedish people were waiting for them to finish, and these are big people so it took them a long time.  But they were cheered every step of the way.  That’s what I love about running, and those are the stories that I’ll remember most.  The energy, excitement, and the stories.  I still go to marathons today, and I love to be at the finish line, whether that’s in Boston, or New York City, or Oklahoma City.  You can see the effort of the runners involved, and you can see how hard they try.  In Oklahoma City, you see them running in memory of somebody who died in the terrible bombing.  It’s just incredible.  I always say that it’s more than just a sport.  It is a sport – it’s a very competitive sport – but it’s got those stories that you can’t find anywhere else.”

~  ~  ~

Today, Bill Rodgers is the elder statesman of distance running.  He still runs, though not quite as far or as fast as before, and he dispenses funny stories and sage advice in equal doses.  He’s written an autobiography, Marathon Man, and he’s survived a battle with prostate cancer.  He’s made money, though not as much as you might suspect, and he’s lost it, too:  In 1987, his running apparel company, Rodgers & Co., was forced into bankruptcy to cover $1.3 million in debt (reduced from $3.5 million just two years before).  His house, which had been used as collateral, was foreclosed upon.  The Bank of Boston put locks on the doors, and the house was eventually sold.  Rodgers simply smiled through the adversity, moved into an apartment…and started running again.  In 2012, the Bill Rodgers Running Center shuttered its doors, another link to the running boom broken.  But before you start to feel sorry for Bill Rodgers, he’s quick to remind you that he’s survived it all, and that while much of this race called life is behind him, he’s hopeful for plenty of good miles ahead.

 

Rodgers stopped long enough to pen his autobiography.

Rodgers stopped long enough to pen his autobiography.

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“In life and in running, I think it’s extremely important to have a good, positive mental attitude,” he says, smiling.  “I think it’s a very important tool to have in your tool belt.  Everyone gets some dings along the way.  Everyone loses something or someone.  Both can be challenging, but most of us also have great experiences to draw strength from.  Running is a great sport in that regard, because it can teach you so much about life if you let it.  It’s something you can do no matter what your age.  You can get stronger and fitter, and you can see improvements almost immediately.  I would always say to folks who are reading this, don’t let anything stop you.  Go to your local running store, or your local athletics store – Fleet Feet, or Dick’s Sporting Goods, or wherever – and try on several pairs of running shoes.  Then get out there and try some walking and running.  We were meant to move; when you move you feel better, you eat better, you sleep better…life is better.  I think we’re seeing the American people really desire to keep their health more today than ever before.  Running and walking can be a big part of that.”

Rodgers knows a thing or two about toughness.  When the doctors delivered the news about the dreaded C-word, he responded by going out and running a 10K.  In 2003, his right tibia snapped during an eight-mile training run; Rodgers simply had a seat on the ground and stuck out a thumb and hitchhiked back to his vehicle.

“I don’t think I’m tougher than anyone else,” he says, “and I’m probably not as tough as a lot of people. I think I was lucky that I was able to have good coaches, and good training partners, which helped me to compete with a lot of different runners.  Actually, I dropped out of eight marathons in my career, so I had some races where I wasn’t so tough.  Sometimes you’ve got to drop out.  If your health is on the line you’ve got to be smart about it.  In 1983, I was running in the Beijing International Marathon, and I was in the lead with one other guy chasing me.  I couldn’t hang on – I got dehydrated and I had to drop out with one mile to go.  American Ron Tabb went on to win.  That was a race that I really wanted, because China is such a big country, but it didn’t go my way.  I had to play it smart and take care of my health.”

In 2000, Rodgers received his sports’ highest honor – induction into the USA Track &Field Hall of Fame.  He was taken aback by the announcement, but he shouldn’t have been surprised; that kind of stuff happens when you dominate distance running for a decade.

“That was great fun, and what an honor,” he recalls.  “The United States has a rich track and field history, with so many celebrated athletes.  Sprinters like Jesse Owens, Allyson Felix, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson…and distance runners like Craig Virgin, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Lynn Jennings.  The list goes on and on.  To even be mentioned in the same breath with these people is still a shock.”

~  ~  ~

Shock…and disbelief.

Everything changed on April 15, 2013, when two pressure cooker bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston Street.  Three people were killed, and 264 others were injured.  For Rodgers, as well as most everyone else, it was racing’s darkest day.

“When I initially heard about the bombing, I wasn’t at the finish line,” Rodgers says.  “I was at home, having just finished a run with my girlfriend.  We were about to turn on the TV and watch the marathon when I started to get phone calls from neighbors.  That’s how I received word that a bomb that went off at the Boston Marathon.  I was in complete disbelief.  I just kept saying the same thing to myself:  This can’t be.  Why would there be a bomb at the Boston Marathon?  But then I saw the TV footage and I could see spots on the ground that looked like wet spots, and I immediately knew that it was blood.  You can’t help but think terrorism.  Sadly, I was right.

 

In this April 18, 2013 photo, memorials for Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu, and Krystle Campbell, killed in the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, stand among other artifacts at a makeshift memorial in Copley Square in Boston. Thousands of items from the original memorial are going on display at the Boston Public Library in April 2014 to mark the anniversary of the attacks. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In this April 18, 2013 photo, memorials for Martin Richard, Lingzi Lu, and Krystle Campbell, killed in the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, stand among other artifacts at a makeshift memorial in Copley Square in Boston. Thousands of items from the original memorial are going on display at the Boston Public Library in April 2014 to mark the anniversary of the attacks. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

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“What happened hurt so many people, but I think the terrorists lost badly.  In the end, you only make enemies when you do things like that, and I think the people of Boston – and the people across the US and the world for that matter – united after this cowardly act of terrorism.  That’s what happened when one of my buddies, Keith Moore, reached out to me after the bombing.  He’d ran the marathon like he’s done so many times in the past.  He called me, and he asked if I would present his Boston Marathon medal to someone who had been wounded in the attack.  So I went to the hospital and I presented it to her.  Sometimes you feel helpless, like there’s nothing you can do, but we can all do something to make a difference, no matter how small.”

~  ~  ~

Bill Rodgers soldiers on, evangelizing the sport that made him famous, this while making time to appreciate the little things at the end of a storied career – things like chatting up fellow runners wherever he goes, reminiscing about the good old days with Frank Shorter, and having a post-race laugh with complete strangers over a glass of Scotch.  In some ways nothing has changed; he’s still that kid with the butterfly net, running through the field, drenched with sweat, the summer sun gluing that wavy mop of hair to his head.  In other ways everything has changed; the Boston Billy phenomenon, with all the theater and passion that would attend it, has long since slipped away, the nation no longer needing him to serve as front man for the running revolution.  We got this, we seem to say.  Thank you for getting us up off the couch, but we can take it from here.

 

Veteran marathon runner Bill Rodgers gestures after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles in Boston, Monday, April 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Veteran marathon runner Bill Rodgers gestures after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles in Boston, Monday, April 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

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Rodgers still competes, his goals neither as lofty nor as well-chronicled as before, his pace relatively pedestrian, his race results mostly middle of the pack.  Time catches us all.  His face is a little softer now, and that infectious grin is framed, parenthetically, with the deep lines of time.  Still, he’s very much the same Average Joe that we all fell in love with.  He runs, content, not because his likeness has long since been chiseled into the Mt. Rushmore of distance running, but because he’s still able to do the thing that he loves most.

“Running has always been important, but it’s more important to stick with your family and your friends,” he adds without hesitation.  “You have make the important things a priority.  It’s tricky sometimes.  You can get caught up in life, or business, or sports, or politics, or whatever, and if you’re not careful you can lose sight of what’s really important.  Family and friends are the most important thing.  Everything else – running included – is icing on the cake.”

And just like that, Bill Rodgers – the chain-smoking, pizza-and-mayo everyman who took up running after his motorcycle was stolen, and then proceeded to conquer the world – is off for a little road work, his next half-marathon two weeks away.

It’s all part of the Boston Billy Mythology.

It’s been one hell of a run.

Bob Cousy – Flashpoint

By:  Michael D. McClellan | “Before Elvis, there was nothing,” John Lennon once observed, this in reference to all those popular singers who crooned so statically and politely in front of rigid dance bands in the style of Perry Como.  The white ones did, anyway.  But Elvis was different – he grew up in Memphis, drawn to the blues and hooked on the black artists of the day.  So when he took the stage and pumped his legs, everything changed:  Pop music, staid and formulaic to that point, was suddenly freed from its well-mannered straightjacket, opening the door for acts like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Eminem to come barreling through.  Elvis was a flashpoint.  His appearance transformed the music industry from something relatively benign to something inherently dangerous, injecting it with color, lacing it with sexuality, and unleashing a torrent of emotion that had been bottled up in us for decades.  With Elvis came a new breed of idol, one far more potent than any film star had ever been, namely, the rebellious, modern, sexy, young rock star, a species seemingly from a different planet to the family entertainers who’d preceded him.

NBA basketball was on a parallel track with pre-Elvis pop in the early 1950s, the game played below the rim, set shots all the rage.  It was a nearly all-white league, played for nearly all-while crowds in mostly dank, smoke-filled gyms, the teams owned by cigar-wielding hockey men desperate to put butts in seats.  The product on the court was medieval by today’s standards.  Bruisers clogged the lanes, while coaches, in the absence of a shot clock, often resorted to stall tactics in order to protect a lead.  Gamblers hung around the action like flies, giving the game an unsavory feel, which was fine for the hardcore fans who shouted obscenities from the cheap seats and cheered loudest when the pushing and shoving erupted into bare knuckle fistfights.  College basketball was more popular than the NBA in those days.  Boxing and golf, too.  The NBA was viewed by many as on par with pro wrestling,  the circus, rodeo, and other events that came into arenas in the dark of the night and disappeared almost as quickly.

Bob Cousy came along and changed all of that.  He’d been a college star at Holy Cross, a consensus first team All-American, and a contributor as a freshman on the Crusaders’ 1947 national championship team.  He also spent plenty of time on the bench, and not because he didn’t have the requisite skillset to play against college basketball’s elite; his coach, growing increasingly agitated with Cousy’s behind-the-back passes and penchant for flair over fundamentals, decided to play lesser point guards who could be counted on to execute the game plan.  But try as he might, the coach, Alvin “Doggie” Julian, found it impossible to keep Cousy off the floor.  The product of Manhattan’s East End ghetto was simply too talented, his gifts to great to ignore.  By his senior season Cousy was a household name, leading Holy Cross to 26 straight wins and a #4 national ranking, with his basketball wizardry earning him a well-deserved nickname: Houdini of the Hardwood.

Drafted third overall in 1950 by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks before landing in Boston when his name was literally drawn out of a hat – much to the chagrin of the team’s iconic head coach, Red Auerbach – Cousy immediately brought sizzle and showmanship to the pro game.  He was AND1 basketball in a league full of stiffs, a hoops equivalent of Elvis whose arrival on the scene polarized everyone who paid to watch him play.  There was no middle ground when it came to Bob Cousy:  You were either a hater, dismissing him as a shameless self-promoter with a Harlem Globetrotters’ game, or you saw something totally different, someone not unlike Reese Witherspoon’s character in the movie Pleasantville – a ball handling magician whose game jolted the drab world of 1950s professional basketball with brilliant splashes of color.

 

One of the NBA's 50 greatest players of all-time, Bob Cousy appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

One of the NBA’s 50 greatest players of all-time, Bob Cousy appeared on the January 16, 1961 cover of Sports Illustrated.

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Today, the criticism leveled at Cousy during those early years is downright laughable.  It’s also ironic, given that Cousy not only became one of the league’s biggest stars, but remains in the conversation as one of the greatest point guards to ever dribble a basketball.  More importantly, he served as a gateway through which a generation of high definition, cloud-connected celebrity athletes would ultimately flow.  Consider the lineage:  Without Cousy, one could argue that there could have been no Pistol Pete Maravich, no Magic Johnson, no Steph Curry.

Bob Cousy had to happen.

And with each wraparound pass, with each behind-the-back dribble, Cousy pushed the game out of the Dark Ages and toward the global, multi-billion dollar business it is today.

~ ~ ~

The prevailing mythos – that Bob Cousy saved a league teetering on extinction – is all dandy fine, but there’s more to the story than grandiose hyperbole and overused narratives.  The story doesn’t begin at Holy Cross, or with the Boston Celtics, where he won six NBA Championships and helped spark the game’s first basketball dynasty.  It begins instead in a tenement block on East 83rd Street in Manhattan, a full year before the stock market crash that wiped out $10 billion worth of wealth and plunged the United States headlong into the Great Depression.

Dirt poor, his parents were French immigrants who came to this country in search of the American Dream, and urban legend has it that Cousy was conceived on a boat bound for New York.  Cousy does not dispute this.  His father drove a taxi for a living and didn’t talk much, while his mother more than made up for the silence with her loquacious personality.  She was also a high-strung woman, and prone to emotional outbursts, so it’s of little surprise that friction was the overriding constant between the two – with a young Bob Cousy often caught in the crossfire, an uncomfortable spectator with a front row seat to their unhealthy dysfunction.  It didn’t help that his father had been conscripted into the German army as a young man and had fought for Germany in World War I, or that the Cousy’s settled in the German enclave known as Yorkville, where Julie Cousy’s hatred for the German people occasionally bubbled to the surface.  Old grudges die hard – a Kraut was a Kraut, whether it was a soldier fighting on the battlefield in the south of France or a neighbor passing her on a New York side street.  That’s just how Cousy’s mother rolled.  The derogatory comments, heated arguments and petty sniping had a lasting impact on Cousy, as did the unrelenting poverty that dominated the hardscrabble years following Wall Street’s collapse.  Outwardly, he was stoic like his father.  Inwardly, his emotions churned and swayed much like his mother’s.  The constant specter of conflict, combined with life in the grimy apartment in the Yorkville ghetto, fueled Cousy’s dreams of escape – to a better life, a more tolerant life, a life free from the tension that permeated much of his childhood.

“I grew up in the heart of the Depression.  We lived in Yorkville, which is located on the East End of Manhattan,” Cousy reflects.  “It’s farther east than Hell’s Kitchen, and back then it was the kind of place where the roaches and cockroaches were big enough to carry away small children.  My family was poor.  My father drove a cab for a living, but we felt normal because everybody else was in the same boat.  We just didn’t realize how difficult our situation actually was, and I think that was the case with most of the children growing up on the East End during that era.  We were all the same.  We were happy.  We hung out on the streets, played stickball, and did all of the same things as other kids of the day.  Race wasn’t an issue.  My family was French, but Yorkville was a melting pot of races and cultures.  There were African American families, Jewish families, you name it.  And for the most part we all got along.

“My parents were always arguing – their personalities were very different.  My father would hardly say two words, while my mother was very strong-willed, very demonstrative.  She wore her emotions on her sleeve, so sometimes things escalated to the point that arguments would break out.  I can’t say that it was normal, but at the same time I guess normal is all relative.  To them, that was just how they interacted.  It was accepted behavior.”

 

“My parents were always arguing – their personalities were very different.  My father would hardly say two words, while my mother was very strong-willed, very demonstrative.  She wore her emotions on her sleeve, so sometimes things escalated to the point that arguments would break out.  I can’t say that it was normal, but at the same time I guess normal is all relative.  To them, that was just how they interacted.  It was accepted behavior.” – Bob Cousy

 

The Cousys only spoke French at home, and young Robert was five before he started learning English.  The apartment, which had no running water, was a sauna during those broiling New York summers and an icebox in the dead of winter, when the gray skies mirrored the hopelessness of the day.  He was 12 when the family moved to Queens, renting a small house on 112th Avenue that seemed a world away from the gritty East End.  Until then, basketball had barely been a blip on the radar.  Like most New York kids, Cousy had been consumed with the national pastime, and those stickball games were what fueled his imagination and consumed much of his free time.  Never mind that basketball was beginning to take over as the city’s favorite rec sport, or that college hoops was the hot new thing at Madison Square Garden.  With Babe Ruth and three Major League teams calling New York home, baseball was the undisputed king of Gotham.

 

Cousy, who grew up in a New York ghetto, would later return to play his hometown Knicks.

Cousy, who grew up in a New York ghetto, would later return to play his hometown Knicks.

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Cousy’s interests changed with the move to Queens, as he found himself hanging around nearby O’Connell Park, which was his first introduction to the dog-eat-dog world of inner city hoops.  The rules of the concrete jungle were simple: Win and stay in, lose and sit out – a Darwinian lesson that played itself out over and over again on those long, hot summer days of his youth.  Back then, like today, New York playground basketball was a proving ground, a feral zone where players built their reputations – street cred, as it would later come to be called in places like Harlem’s legendary Rucker Park.  Except that back then you built your reputation on selflessness – passing, cutting, and finding the open man.  Cousy liked watching the older kids play, how they worked together to find a good shot for an open teammate.

Funny thing is, Cousy’s immersion into the game that changed his life almost never happened.

“From the minute he got to the United States in 1928, my father had two jobs, worked eighteen hours a day, and died penniless,” Cousy says.  “It took him twelve years to save five hundred bucks to get us out of that terrible ghetto on the East River.  It was a great move for our family in general and for me in particular, because it led me to the game that changed my life.  I was thirteen when I really started to play basketball, which was kind of old even way back then.  But once I started playing, I was hooked.  I gave up baseball, except for the occasional stickball games in the neighborhood, and I found myself spending more and more time at O’Connell Playground, or over at P.S. 36’s schoolyard.”

It was at O’Connell that Cousy met Morty Arkin, the playground director who would show him the fundamentals.  Cousy was twelve at the time, introverted, skinny, and smallish for his age.  He soaked up Arkin’s advice, working hard to execute the various drills that he was shown.

“Morty showed me the basics,” Cousy says.  “He worked with the kids who came around the playground and who showed an interest in the game of basketball.  I was just another skinny kid hanging around the courts.  He couldn’t have seen the potential in me then, but I think he could tell how much I liked basketball, and how determined I was to improve my skills.”

Cousy continued to develop.  He tried out for the team as a ninth grader at Andrew Jackson, the gleaming new high school on Francis Lewis Boulevard, but he was cut on the first day without hardly a look.  Not surprising, considering the odds:  The basketball powerhouse boasted 5,000 students, with a whopping 250 boys competing for a spot on Lew Grummond’s roster.  Grummond had coached Andrew Jackson to the coveted city championship a season earlier, and that team had been loaded with an embarrassment of riches – size, speed, and depth.  Grummond could afford to be picky.  He was old school to the bone, and if you played for Grummond you did things his way, no questions asked.  Cousy dreamed about earning a roster spot and getting a chance to show Grummond he could handle the coach’s demanding ways.  Instead, he was devastated when he didn’t make the team.

“Maybe it was a case of youthful overconfidence, or just plain ignorance” he says, “but I was getting better, and I knew what kind of player I was becoming.  I just wanted a chance to show what I could do.  But there were so many other kids trying out – bigger, stronger, older, and more experienced.  Looking back now I didn’t have a realistic chance of making the team, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that at the time.”

 

“Maybe it was a case of youthful overconfidence, or just plain ignorance, but I was getting better, and I knew what kind of player I was becoming.  I just wanted a chance to show what I could do.  But there were so many other kids trying out – bigger, stronger, older, and more experienced.  Looking back now I didn’t have a realistic chance of making the team, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that at the time.” – Bob Cousy

 

What seemed like the end of the world would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as someone introduced Cousy to a local league sponsored by the Long Island Press.  It wasn’t high school hoops, but it was competitive basketball in a structured environment, and it allowed him to test his skills against better players in actual game situations.

“I remember the first ‘organized’ game I ever played in,” Cousy says.  “It was in the Long Island Press League. I played for a team called the St. Albans Lindens.  We won the game going away, and I was the high scorer with fourteen points. I wasn’t expected to do much – I wasn’t a very good shooter, and most of my points came on fast break drives to the basket – but in terms of a competitive nature, most good athletes will respond to the moment, even if you are only fourteen and playing in your first real game.  I had that working in my favor.”

The league helped showcase young Cousy’s gifts.  It also helped build his confidence, which softened the blow of being cut again when he tried out as a sophomore – again without much more than a cursory look from Grummond.  That was the beauty of finding the Press League; not making the high school team hurt less because he knew he had an outlet, a place where he could grow his game even without being a part of the Andrew Jackson program.

“It gave me an identity” he says.  “I was shy and backward, but I didn’t feel any of that when I was playing basketball.  I felt comfortable in my own skin.”

As chance would have it, the Andrew Jackson gym doubled as a rec league at night, and some of Cousy’s games were played there.  Grummond, who also ran the rec league program at the school, happened to be working the same night Cousy was on the floor, and he was immediately struck by the skinny kid’s ball handling.

“He was impressed with the way I could dribble with both hands,” Cousy says now.  “When I was thirteen, I feel from a tree and broke my right arm.  It forced me to become ambidextrous.  Grummond couldn’t tell if I were right or left handed, and after the game he asked me if I wanted a shot at playing junior varsity – that was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned, so he didn’t have to ask twice.  I made the team but I didn’t set the world on fire.  Still, being noticed was a great source of motivation.  I took the opportunity very seriously and looked at it as my big break.”

 

From ghetto to greatness; Bob Cousy would hone his game on New York playgrounds before legitimizing the NBA as an All-Star guard for the Boston Celtics.

From ghetto to greatness; Bob Cousy would hone his game on New York playgrounds before legitimizing the NBA as an All-Star guard for the Boston Celtics.

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Cousy played the rest of the season with the jayvee.  He was still raw, but it was hard to ignore his gifts – the long arms, large hands, and preternatural peripheral vision allowed him to see more of the court than most anyone else.  He also played loose, and he wasn’t shy about his penchant for making the difficult pass look easy.  Cousy was slowly shedding the cocoon, and well on his way to becoming a baller of the highest order.

“I was improving daily,” he says.  “I was holding my own against players who were bigger and who had been playing the game longer than me.  There was validation in that.”

Cousy finished the season oozing confidence, convinced that he’d be a starter when he returned for his junior year, but a failing grade in one of his classes kept him off the court.  Forced to sit out the first semester, Cousy accepted his punishment and then quickly made up for lost time, producing a 28-point opus in his first game with the varsity that not only put Grummond’s earlier snubs in stark relief, but also served as a harbinger of things to come.  The performance even made a splash in the Long Island Press sports section.

“I don’t know if the papers made a big deal out of it or not,” he says, “because the coverage really didn’t mean anything to me.  It was a different place and time.  There was no Internet.  I was just happy to be on the team.  I got up the next day and went to school like everyone else.  Being written up wasn’t anything that I dwelled on.”

 

“I don’t know if the papers made a big deal out of it or not, because the coverage really didn’t mean anything to me.  It was a different place and time.  There was no Internet.  I was just happy to be on the team.  I got up the next day and went to school like everyone else.  Being written up wasn’t anything that I dwelled on.” – Bob Cousy

 

Andrew Jackson went on to win the highly competitive Queens division, a feat it duplicated during Cousy’s senior year.  Suddenly, the slick ball handler with the running one-hander found that the attention came whether he wanted it or not; in just a year and a half, Cousy had gone from relative obscurity to the most talked-about basketball phenom in New York, finishing his high school career with 28 points in his final game, and with it, securing the city’s coveted scoring championship.

“I was coming into my own by that point,” he says.  “I was playing the game confidently, and for the first time it really sank in – basketball was going to be my path to a college education.  There were moments when I thought college was out of reach – we weren’t rich – but at the same time I knew I had to have a goal.  So, early on I approached the game with an eye on something bigger than just getting to go to the park and play basketball.  By my senior season I knew the dream was going to come true.”

~ ~ ~

As you might expect, Bob Cousy had options.

Turns out he just didn’t have as many as one might think.

A generation of aspiring basketball players laced up their Chuck Taylors and pretended to be the Celtics’ incomparable All-Star, whose pedal-to-the-metal style fueled Boston’s vaunted fast-break, and whose no-look, behind-the-back passes rescued the NBA from life support.  Ferraris should corner like Cousy.  And yet, coming out of high school, Cousy didn’t find himself buried under an avalanche of recruiting letters.  He was just another averaged-sized point guard trying to make a name for himself.  He lacked the Bunyonesque size of the Minneapolis Lakers’ George Mikan, and he didn’t go on scoring binges like the NBA’s other star of the day, Dolph Schayes.  He was good, but good point guards were a dime a dozen back then, just like today.

Al McClellan was one of the few who wanted Cousy.  The Boston College coached tried hard to sell his school to the Andrew Jackson graduate, offering a full scholarship, but Cousy balked at the thought of commuting to a college with no dorms.  Holy Cross, on the other hand, had student housing.  It was also Catholic school, which pleased his family, and Doggie Julian promised Cousy a chance to contribute right away.  That was enough to make up his mind.

“I had two college offers,” Cousy says, smiling.  “I visited Boston College first, because Al McClellan had shown the most interest.  When I got there we walked around the campus and I said, ‘Coach, where’s the gym?’, and he basically said that it was still on the drawing board.  It was the same story with the dorms – BC was a day-hop school at the time, and he explained that I would have to live with a family off the grounds.  I was very shy and socially awkward at that point in my life, and I wasn’t thrilled at the thought of living with another family.  So I crossed BC off the list – I shook his hand, got back on the train, and moved on to Plan B.

“Holy Cross recruited me lightly.  Doggie didn’t know anything about me, but Ken Haggerty, the captain of the 1945 team, had played at my high school.  Haggerty said to Julian, ‘Dog, there’s a hot-shot guard at my old high school, and I think he’d be a great fit on the team.  You should send him a letter and offer him a scholarship.’  You have to remember, it was a much different time in the 1940s.  There was no ESPN, and sports weren’t what they are today.  A lot of times players were recruited word-of-mouth.  There was no film to study.  It was very nepotistic in that respect.  That’s how I ended up getting the letter from Doggie.”

Cousy was a known commodity in New York, and he could have gone to St. Johns or any of the other local schools, but he wanted to get away from home.  Holy Cross had shuttered its basketball program during World War II, and the school had hired Julian to bring it back to life.  He needed players.  So Cousy embraced Plan B, signed his letter of intent, and headed off to Worcester.

Doggie had a basketball background,” Cousy says, “so they offered him $500 bucks to be the head coach and jumpstart the program.  He was in his second year there when I arrived.  It was a surreal experience because it all came together so quickly – we held practices in a barn, of all places, and yet we were able to go on a roll and win the NCAA championship.  It was a fairytale story in many respects.  I still remember the thrill of riding down Main Street in the victory parade.”

That 1946-47 Holy Cross team was a true Cinderella story, but let’s pump the brakes long enough to interject a little perspective:  The NIT was the premiere college tournament back then, not the NCAAs.  There was no March Madness, and the champion didn’t have to win six games over three weeks to claim the title.  Eight teams were invited, and the event was held over one long weekend at Madison Square Garden.  However, Cousy is right about the other thing:  Holy Cross winning the NCAAs was a seminal moment in terms of generating basketball interest in New England.  The Crusaders played a number of its ‘home’ games at the Boston Garden, which helped generate buzz, and sellouts became the norm by Cousy’s senior season.

Worcester isn’t far from Boston,” he says.  “Forty miles.  Before we arrived on the scene, sports fans in New England only followed the Red Sox and the Bruins.  Holy Cross winning the championship changed that.  I mean, basketball wasn’t even played in some high schools at the time.  There was no interest whatsoever.  Zero.  That all changed after we won, because basketball became extremely popular in New England from that point forward.”

 

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, NOV. 11-12 -- FILE -- Holy Cross basketball player Bob Cousy (17) is airborne near an unidentified defender, in this 1950 photo. Fearless, flashy and unflappable, New York's point guards have served as the gold standard of floor generals since before World War II. (AP Photo/File) Original Filename: GETTING_.JPG

ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS, NOV. 11-12 — FILE — Holy Cross basketball player Bob Cousy (17) is airborne near an unidentified defender, in this 1950 photo. Fearless, flashy and unflappable, New York’s point guards have served as the gold standard of floor generals since before World War II. (AP Photo/File) Original Filename: GETTING_.JPG

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That first year at Holy Cross was a mixed bag for Cousy, who, while socially awkward, wasn’t lacking confidence on the basketball court.  Freshmen were allowed to play varsity ball during the war years, and Cousy fully expected to be a major part of the rotation from the get-go.  Instead, he and his freshmen teammates were part of the second unit, entering the games to give the starters a rest and then heading back to the bench after a few minutes of court time.  Still, it was hard to argue with Julian’s methods:  The Crusaders started slowly, going 4-3 over its first seven games, before winning twenty games in a row and entering the NCAA tournament on a roll.  Julian let his team play with creativity, favoring improv and spontaneity over structure and set plays.

“We were very structured in terms of when the platoon would come into the game,” Cousy says.  “With nine and a half minutes gone in the first half, Bobby Curran would get up and start taking off his sweats.  He was the captain, 6’5”, an ex-Marine, as tough as they come.  When he stood up, that would be the signal to the other four of us. We’d go into the scorer’s table together and check in as a unit.  We were that close to the starters in talent.  Doggie found the platoon system simpler than dealing with 11 egos for playing time.”

Peaking at the right time, the Crusaders were one of eight teams invited to the 1947 NCAA Tournament.  And just like that, Cousy was playing for a championship in his own backyard.

“We had a bunch of New York and New Jersey kids,” he says quickly.  “So it was a really big deal for us to be playing in the Garden.  In those days, playing there was the epitome of every high school and college kid’s dream – it didn’t matter if you were from the city, or you played in the country, everyone who played basketball wanted to play basketball at Madison Square Garden.  So, when we heard that we were in the tournament, and that it was going to be played entirely at the Garden, that’s all we could think about.  It was a very exciting time for us.”

 

“We had a bunch of New York and New Jersey kids. So it was a really big deal for us to be playing in the Garden.  In those days, playing there was the epitome of every high school and college kid’s dream – it didn’t matter if you were from the city, or you played in the country, everyone who played basketball wanted to play basketball at Madison Square Garden.  So, when we heard that we were in the tournament, and that it was going to be played entirely at the Garden, that’s all we could think about.  It was a very exciting time for us.” – Bob Cousy

Holy Cross beat Navy, CCNY, and Oklahoma to win the championship – the title game played in front of 18,445 fans in the smoky haze.  The Crusaders were the toast of New England.  However, all wasn’t as it should have been in Camelot; a fissure had developed between Julian and Cousy during the season, to the point that the two men barely spoke, and, by the time the tournament rolled around, Cousy’s playing time had been dramatically reduced.  Rumors spread from bars to barbershops that Julian was annoyed with Cousy’s streetball game and his propensity to showboat.

 

Bob Cousy

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“The issue really wasn’t about showboating,” he says quickly.  “There was tension, and there were differences of opinion.  I came late to a practice before a game against Loyola during my sophomore year, and there was an emotional exchange between player and coach.  It wasn’t that big a deal.  It was more newspaper talk than anything else.”

Regardless, Cousy considered transferring to St. John’s, but the coach at the time, Joe Lapchick, convinced him to stick it out.  Cousy opted to accept Lapchick’s advice, even though he felt he hadn’t played enough as a freshman – especially during the tournament, which had annoyed him greatly.  The uneasy truce lasted until the aforementioned emotional exchange, the result of Cousy arriving late to practice two days before that big game against Loyola in the Boston Arena.  Julian refused to start Cousy, planting him on the pine until there were only 30 seconds left in the first half, and then ignoring him completely in the second half.

With five minutes left in the game and Loyola up by seven, the chants started.

WE WANT COUSY!  WE WANT COUSY!

Julian didn’t budge at first, but finally relented, inserting Cousy into the game without looking in his direction.  He responded by hitting six of seven shots, as the Crusaders rallied for the win.

And just like that, the Wizard of Worcester was born.

The rest, as they say is history.

“Transferring to St. John’s was the best decision I never made,” Cousy says with a laugh.  “There were times when I questioned my decision, and there were times when I wanted to be somewhere else.  But I’m glad I stayed at Holy Cross and was able to be a part of something truly special.  I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

~ ~ ~

Now, about that hat.

How does a consensus first-team All-American go from being a potential number one selection in the 1950 NBA Draft to being the short straw drawn by a team whose coach didn’t want him in the first place?  Cousy should never had landed in Boston, not with team’s new head coach, Arnold ‘Red’ Auerbach, refusing to select the Holy Cross star first overall.  Hired to fix the woeful Celtics – owners of the worst record in the league the year before – Auerbach made it clear he was on the prowl for size, not sleight of hand.  Never mind that Cousy was local and dripping with star power, or that his presence on the roster would be sure to sell tickets.

“We need a big man,” Auerbach growled at the time, famously dismissing a reporter’s question about the prospect of seeing Cousy in Celtic green.  “Little men are a dime a dozen.  I’m supposed to win, not go after local yokels.”

 

“We need a big man,” Auerbach growled at the time, famously dismissing a reporter’s question about the prospect of seeing Cousy in Celtic green.  “Little men are a dime a dozen.  I’m supposed to win, not go after local yokels.”

 

And just like that, the phrase ‘local yokels’ became part of the New England lexicon, while Auerbach, a Washington, D.C. native, found himself immediately at odds with the Boston press, who painted him as a brash outsider with an ego as big as Boston itself.  Auerbach, true to his word, drafted 6’11” Chuck Share of Bowling Green.  Cousy was selected by the Tri-Cities Blackhawks two picks later, but this is where the story takes a turn.  Blackhawks owner Bob Kerner wanted Cousy, but Cousy had no interest in playing for Tri-Cities.  Instead, he felt he could make more money starting a driving school in Worcester, where his hero status would make just about any business venture a success.  Kerner, frustrated at his inability to sign Cousy to a contract, traded his rights to the Chicago Stags, but the team promptly folded.

 

Cousy in action as a member of the Boston Celtics. Cooz would win 6 NBA titles and one NBA MVP Award (1957)

Cousy in action as a member of the Boston Celtics. Cooz would win 6 NBA titles and one NBA MVP Award (1957)

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“It’s a story I get asked about all the time,” Cousy says with a laugh.  “I had just gotten married.  Frank Oftring, a good friend and teammate at Holy Cross, went together with me to open up a gas station in Worcester.  The problem was, we didn’t know much about fixing cars, so it ended up only being a place to fill up [laughs].  So that’s when we decided to start a driving school.  That summer we had three cars going around the clock.  We had visions of franchising, that’s how good the business was at the time.

“So here I am teaching ladies to drive while I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen with the NBA, and I really wasn’t giving a pro basketball career much thought.  And then somebody calls me and says, ‘Congratulations, you’re the number one pick of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.’  And my response was something like, ‘I was a pretty good student, but I must have been sound asleep in geography class.  What the hell is a Tri-Cities Blackhawk?’

 

“So here I am teaching ladies to drive while I’m waiting to see what’s going to happen with the NBA, and I really wasn’t giving a pro basketball career much thought.  And then somebody calls me and says, ‘Congratulations, you’re the number one pick of the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.’  And my response was something like, ‘I was a pretty good student, but I must have been sound asleep in geography class.  What the hell is a Tri-Cities Blackhawk?’” – Bob Cousy

 

“I met with the team owner, Mr. Kerner, but he wasn’t able to give me the $10,000 salary I needed.  So I flew home and continued to teach ladies to drive.  It wasn’t long before I learned that I’d been traded to the Chicago Stags.  I said, ‘Beautiful, that sounds better than Tri-Cities, but I’m not going to play in Chicago either.’

“And that’s where the hat story comes in.  When they disbursed the Chicago Stags, there were three guys left to be traded, and they put the three names in a hat:  Andy Phillip, Max Zaslofsky and myself.  There were three teams that hadn’t picked – Philadelphia, New York and Boston.  Walter went to New York where they were drawing the names, and Arnold said to him, ‘I don’t care what you do, just bring home anyone but Cousy.’”

Cooz and Red - together despite Auerbach's 'local yokel' diss of Cousy in the press.

Cooz and Red – together despite Auerbach’s ‘local yokel’ diss of Cousy in the press.

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Arnold, of course, was Red Auerbach.  Walter was Walter Brown, the beloved owner of the Celtics.  Cousy didn’t know it then, but fate was about to change their lives – and the fortunes of struggling franchise – forever.

“When it came Walter’s turn, mine was the only name left in the hat after the other two picks.  So I went to Boston and met with Walter.  I remember sitting in the men’s room because there were people in his office.  He said, ‘What do you need, Cooz?’  I said, ‘Mr. Brown, I need $10,000.’  And he said, ‘Well, I can’t do that.  How about nine?’  And I said, ‘Fine.’  That was the negotiation – no agent, no holdout, just a short conversation between player and owner.  And just like that, I was a member of the Boston Celtics.”

~ ~ ~

The franchise is worth north of a billion dollars today, but the Boston Celtics in the early days were barely relevant, emerging from the NBA’s primordial ooze only after the arrival of Bob Cousy.  The team, founded in 1946, couldn’t win games, couldn’t draw fans, and couldn’t get a foothold in the hearts of New Englanders, even with Holy Cross’s national championship taking basketball to a fever pitch.  Desperate to gain traction, Walter Brown lured Doggie Julian to Boston to become its head coach in 1948, hoping to recreate the magic he had manufactured in Worcester, but Julian would only last two seasons on the bench.

Brown had plenty of reasons to be concerned.  On the court, the Celtics sucked.  The team didn’t have a marquee player who could help sell tickets, so Brown took a financial bath in those early days.  Respect?  The Celtics were the Rodney Dangerfield of the Boston sports scene – hell, they had to play their first ever home opener in the Boston Arena because Gene Autry’s rodeo had set up shop in the Boston Garden – and about the only thing going for it was the signature parquet floor, which was made from leftover scraps of wood, this due to the shortage of wood caused by World War II.

The Celtics weren’t the only teams hurting.  The league was populated with franchises in weak markets – Rochester, Fort Wayne, and Syracuse to name a few – and more than a handful of teams lasted only a season.  The Cleveland Rebels?  The Anderson Packers?  The Indianapolis Jets?  The Waterloo Hawks?  All of them one and done.  The NBA needed a star to legitimize itself.  Mikan and Schayes were close approximations, but neither had the cult of personality to lift the league to higher ground.

It needed a player with charisma.

It needed a Bob Cousy.

Cousy’s arrival in Boston generated buzz, and many wondered how he would coalesce with the fiery new head coach.  It may have been a shotgun marriage arranged by the luck of the draw, yet the two men quickly warmed to each other, this despite Auerbach’s much-ballyhooed public diss of the Holy Cross star.

“I read the papers like everyone else,” Cousy says, “but there were no hard feelings.  The ‘local yokel’ comment didn’t affect me one way or another.  Arnold did what anyone in that position would do – he drafted Charlie Share, who had the height and the size that the Celtics needed underneath the basket.”

With Cousy onboard and Auerbach calling the shots, the Celtics posted its first winning season in franchise history.  It was a huge step for the franchise, who finally had the engine to spark the offense.  With Cousy at the controls, the Celtics scored six more points per game than the season before; more importantly, attendance at the Boston Garden increased from 110,552 to 197,888.

“Attendance was up, but there were a lot of lean years even after I became a Celtic,” Cousy says.  “There were times when Walter didn’t have the money to pay the players, but he always made things right.  There was a time when Celtic players accepted IOUs from Walter Brown instead of the agreed upon playoff shares.”

Rather than a distraction, Brown’s struggles helped to galvanize the team.

“We had a strong relationship with Walter Brown, and felt that he was the best owner in the league.  He had invested his life savings into the Boston Celtics, so a little sacrifice on our part was no big deal.  Hell, we all felt we were getting overpaid anyway.

 

“We had a strong relationship with Walter Brown, and felt that he was the best owner in the league.  He had invested his life savings into the Boston Celtics, so a little sacrifice on our part was no big deal.  Hell, we all felt we were getting overpaid anyway.” – Bob Cousy

 

“There was a time when Walter approached Ed Macauley and myself about the team’s financial situation.  He said that he was going to take out another mortgage out on his house, just to get the Celtics through a rough patch, and that he thought things were going to ease up in the fall.  It said a lot about his commitment to the team.  Guys were getting good wages, so there wasn’t a lot of negative discussion about the IOUs.  It was more of a hardship on Walter than it was on us.  We decided to give him a break and it worked out well for everyone.”

Cousy and the lithe, 6’8” Macauley – who was nicknamed ‘Easy Ed’ for his playing style, and who was one of Brown’s favorites – gave the Celtics an instant boost on the offensive end, where the team ranked third in the league.  Defensively, however, the Celtics ranked next to last.  It would be a recurring theme over the next several seasons, as Boston’s undersized frontline found itself unable to compete with the bigger teams in the league.  Still, the Celtics had turned an important corner – they now had a future hall-of-fame coach on the sidelines, and a future all-time great directing the offense.  Cousy made the NBA All-Star Game as a rookie, as much a tribute to his star power as his playmaking ability, and, for the first time, the league had the handsome, charismatic face it had been sorely lacking – a Tom Brady in high-tops.

“Not even close,” Cousy says, laughing.  “Tom Brady is a from another planet, I think.  I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and the league was ready for someone who brought a little showmanship to the game.”

Over the next several seasons Auerbach complemented Cousy with players like Bill Sharman (1951) and Frank Ramsey (1954), and the team continued to improve.  The Celtics also ranked first in attendance.  And even though the Celtics started to turn a small profit, the ever-loyal Auerbach kept a close watch on Walter Brown’s balance sheet.

 

The undisputed first great point guard, Cousy remains the only guard in NBA history to be named First-Team All-NBA in 10 straight seasons.

The undisputed first great point guard, Cousy remains the only guard in NBA history to be named First-Team All-NBA in 10 straight seasons.

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“As I’m sure you heard, Arnold could be a bit of a pain in the ass,” Cousy says with a laugh.  “There were times when four of us would jump in a cab together – you had to go three or four to a cab back then – and if you had a rookie in the group, you’d try to get him to ride with you.  Then, when the cab got to the hotel, the minute the cab driver stopped, all of us would pile out.  We’d pop the trunk, grab our bags, and sprint away.  We’d leave the rookie to pay for the taxi because Arnold was such a pain in the tail when it came to expenses. He’d always give you a hard time about it.  Those cab drivers must have thought we were out of our minds – four adults in a cab, he gets us to our destination and we all run away like banshees, leaving one poor guy there left to pay.  It was better to stick the rookie with the expense because Arnold was so difficult to get reimbursements back.”

Eventually, the Celtics started flying to away games.  It wasn’t the luxurious, private jet transport that players enjoy today, complete amble leg room, but it was an improvement over those grueling bus rides the team took during the early years.

“We didn’t have any near-death experiences,” Cousy says, recalling those first team flights.  “The Douglas DC-3s were the safest planes made at the time.  Our trainer had a weak stomach – he’d fill up one of those burp bags just walking up the steps to the damn plane [laughs].  The turbulence getting to altitude would make him sick.  The choppy air in the winter would make him sick.  We used to strap him in a seat and play gin rummy.  While he threw up, we’d win his money playing cards.”

 

“We didn’t have any near-death experiences.  The Douglas DC-3s were the safest planes made at the time.  Our trainer had a weak stomach – he’d fill up one of those burp bags just walking up the steps to the damn plane [laughs].  The turbulence getting to altitude would make him sick.  The choppy air in the winter would make him sick.  We used to strap him in a seat and play gin rummy.  While he threw up, we’d win his money playing cards.” – Bob Cousy

 

Another big difference between then and now:  Teams today play a small number of exhibition games in state-of-the-art facilities, while teams in the 1950s often went on preseason barnstorming tours, playing the same team night after night.

“It was barnstorming in the purest sense of the word,” Cousy says.  “We played every night.  Sometimes we’d stay overnight after a game, but we’d usually drive on to our next destination.  We spent a lot of time in Maine.  Indiana gets credit for having the most rabid basketball fans in the union, but Maine is a very, very active basketball state.  Back then every small town had a gym, and if it seated more than 2,000, then we’d be interested in playing in it.  We’d travel with the same team and play them every night – it might be the Minneapolis Lakers one year, and the Rochester Royals the next.  When you play 17 games against the same team, by the end of the trip you could always count on short tempers and fights breaking out.  It was a lot of fun as a young man, but I can’t imagine going through something like that today.  It was a requirement of the times.”

Red Auerbach was a notoriously bad driver, and players did their best to avoid riding with him during those barnstorming tours.  He had a lead foot, and he drove angry.  But Cousy and Auerbach had quickly warmed to one another during that first season.  They were both from New York – Auerbach the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Cousy bubbling up from that East End ghetto – and, in many ways, they were kindred spirits.  Cousy was one of the few who could get away with calling him ‘Arnold’, and he was one of the few who ever dared to have a little fun at his coach’s expense.

“I think I played one of the best practical jokes anyone has ever played on Arnold,” Cousy says.  “We used to call him ‘Mario Andretti’ because he drove so damned fast – the stories of Arnold speeding all over New England to get to exhibition games are legendary.  I learned about it firsthand because I drove with him that first year and he scared the hell out of me.  No one wanted to ride with Arnold.  He’d drive 75-to-80 miles per hour on those narrow back roads of Maine, barely missing guardrails, scaring the devil out of whoever was in the car with him.  It got to the point where I was the only one brave enough – or foolish enough, take your pick – to ride shotgun on those trips.

 

 

Few could get away with calling the legendary coach by his first name. Bob Cousy was one of them. He would refer to Auerbach as 'Arnold' throughout their lifelong friendship.

Few could get away with calling the legendary coach by his first name. Bob Cousy was one of them. He would refer to Auerbach as ‘Arnold’ throughout their lifelong friendship.

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“On one occasion the team was on its way to Bangor for an exhibition.  As usual, Arnold was behind the wheel and determined to get there first.  A bunch of us piled into another car and left early.  We were on the road a while when nature called, so we pulled over on the side of the road and headed for one of those Maine potato fields.  In the distance we could see a car approaching – it was cloud of dust, really – and we knew that it could only be Arnold.  He pulled over and screamed, ‘What the hell are you guys doing?’  I told him that we’d ran out of gas, and everyone played along.  Arnold cursed some more before jumping back in his car and racing off in a cloud of dust.  We gave him a few minutes and then followed him to a one-pump station where he was getting gas.  We went by that station blowing our horn and screaming, the car going full throttle.  The expression on his face said it all; Arnold knew he’d been taken, and he had a pretty good idea who was behind it [laughs].”

Even today, Cousy still refers to his late, great coach as Arnold.  Not many could get away with being so personal.

“His wife Dorothy called him ‘Arnold’ – who, by the way, was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Cousy says.  “I can’t remember exactly when I started calling him that, but I always felt comfortable doing so.  We went overseas together on a number of occasions so maybe that helped.  We socialized on those trips, ate a lot of greasy food, got to know each other better.  The first trip was in 1955, when we went to Landsberg, Germany and conducted a basketball clinic for the U.S. servicemen stationed there.  There were always trips like that.  A few years later we toured Turkey, Denmark, Belgium, France, Austria.  We went to Yugoslavia as part of an NBA All-Star team the year after I retired.  At some point I must have grown comfortable enough to call him ‘Arnold’.  But you’re right; I was definitely in the minority when it came to addressing him that way.”

It’s worth mentioning that, in 1954, Cousy began to organize something called the NBPA, which would later morph into the first player’s union in any professional sport.  What was it that spurred his interest in taking this landmark step?

“Twenty-one straight exhibition games,” he says, laughing.  “Another reason was our desire to have adequate player representation.  There were a lot of changes taking place during that time, and we wanted to have a seat at the table.  We also wanted to form the player’s association without fear of reprisal, so I met with Walter and expressed our motives to him.  I didn’t want Walter to look at this as a negative reflection on the way he ran his franchise, because he was far and away the best owner in the league.  It was the league as a whole that we were concerned about.  I was president of the NBPA until 1958, at which point Tommy [Heinsohn] took over as player rep.  He hired Lawrence Fleisher as the union’s General Counsel, which was a major step.

“After getting Walter’s blessing, I began by contacting an established player from each team.  Letters were sent out to Andy Phillip of Fort Wayne, Dolph Schayes of Syracuse, Don Sunderlage of Milwaukee, Paul Arzin of Philadelphia, Carl Braun of New York, Bob Davies of Rochester, Paul Hoffman Baltimore, and Jim Pollard of Minneapolis.  Everyone but Phillip responded positively, but Fort Wayne’s owner also owned a machine works plant and was staunch anti-union.  So I understood.  From there I went to Commissioner Podoloff with a list of concerns, which I presented to him at the 1955 NBA All-Star Game.”

One of the items on Cousy’s initial list of concerns was the abolition of something called the ‘whispering fine’.

“The whispering fine was a $15 fine that referees could impose on players during games,” he says.  “It was a ridiculous fine.  But my biggest win was getting the meal money bumped from $5 to $7.  Getting that concession made me a hero [laughs].”

~ ~ ~

Cousy’s game – and his popularity – continued to grow throughout the 1950s.  By the 1952-53 season he was a First-Team All-NBA selection and firmly in control of the Celtics’ fastbreak attack, flipping passes from almost every angle imaginable, this on his way to the first of eight consecutive assist titles, a remarkable feat in the pre-shot clock era.  Cooz was the biggest star in the league.  Elvis, as it turned out, hadn’t left the building.  Elvis had arrived.

While Cousy’s game was clearly transforming the NBA, change didn’t happen overnight.  There were still plenty of hatchet men in the league, and fights were still commonplace, especially between rivals.  Today most people think of the Los Angeles Lakers as the Celtics’ bitter rival.  Back then, it wasn’t the Lakers that got the Celtics’ dander up.  It was the Syracuse Nationals.

 

Bob Cousy quickly became the face of the NBA during the 1950s.

Bob Cousy quickly became the face of the NBA during the 1950s.

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“There were riots in just about every game we played with Syracuse,” Cousy says.  “That seemed to be the case with most of the teams based in the smaller towns – the fans were more rabid, and they literally wanted to kill the opposition.  The state police had to be called because there were problems in every damned game that we played.  You don’t see those kinds of things today.  There aren’t any broken noses or black eyes, which happened quite often when I played.  Back then there were fights from the start of those exhibitions right through to the championship.  Today a couple of guys shove each other, they get tossed and fined.”

The Celtics were improving season-by-season, but they were still a team with flaws.  Their wide-open play scored points and won games during the regular season, but the team continued to struggle on the defensive end, a weakness that routinely led to playoff disappointment.

All of that changed prior to the 1956-57 season, when Auerbach traded Macauley and the rights Cliff Hagan for the right to draft Bill Russell.

“Bill Russell was the one who came along and revolutionized basketball,” Cousy says.  “He changed the patterns of play both for individuals and for teams.  First and foremost, Bill Russell was a team man.  The one who made us go.  Without him we wouldn’t have won a single championship.”

 

“Bill Russell was the one who came along and revolutionized basketball.  He changed the patterns of play both for individuals and for teams.  First and foremost, Bill Russell was a team man.  The one who made us go.  Without him we wouldn’t have won a single championship.” – Bob Cousy

 

Russell, who arrived with hall-of-fame forward Tom Heinsohn, gave the Celtics a rim protector never before seen in the NBA.  It was the perfect one-two punch.  Russell’s shot blocking changed everything.  The Celtics won the 1957 NBA championship, and a dynasty was born.

Cooz was the absolute offensive master,” Heinsohn told the Boston Herald in 1983.  “What Russell was on defense, that’s what Cousy was on offense – a magician.  Once that ball reached his hands, the rest of us just took off, never bothering to look back.  We didn’t have to.  He’d find us.  When you got into a position to score, the ball would be there.”

 

The Celtics’ first championship season was also one of Cousy’s finest as a player.  He again led the league in assists, and finished in the top ten in scoring – all while capturing both the NBA MVP and NBA All-Star Game MVP awards.

“It was a dream season,” Cousy says proudly.  “It was the culmination of everything I’d ever worked for as a professional basketball player.  The MVP award was very satisfying in terms of personal accomplishments, but the championship was the most important thing of all.  I had endured six years of frustration so I think winning it all meant more to me than most of the others on the team.”

With Russell triggering the fastbreak and Cousy punching the throttle, the Celtics rolled through the regular season.  The playoffs presented the team with its first real challenge; Boston, in its first trip to the NBA Finals, defeated the St. Louis Hawks in seven games to win that first crown, needing double-overtime in the final game to walk away victorious.  Cousy, perhaps more than anyone, credits the Russell trade for making it all possible.

 

With Bill Russell protecting the rim, Cousy and the Celtics launched the greatest championship run in NBA history.

With Bill Russell protecting the rim, Cousy and the Celtics launched the greatest championship run in NBA history.

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“As much as we liked Ed we weren’t going to lose a lot of sleep over that trade,” he says.  “Before the trade we were a decent offensive team – we could shoot, we could dribble, and we could score – but we couldn’t play championship defense or rebound the basketball.  Those were the major problems that plagued us in the years before Russell joined the Boston Celtics, and the main reasons we couldn’t win a title.  Players like Loscy [Jim Loscutoff] and Heinsohn added a hell of a lot of power to the team, but we would have been lucky to win one championship without Russell.  He was the most dominant defensive player in the history of the game, although we didn’t know that at the time.  We just didn’t realize that we were getting a player of that stature, but it didn’t take us long to figure out what we had.”

The Hawks got even the following season, taking advantage of a Russell ankle injury – an ironic twist, if ever there was one – to give Macauley his only NBA title.  Boston then reeled off an unprecedented eight consecutive championships, finishing its dynastic run with eleven titles in a thirteen year span.  Along the way Auerbach continued to add to its cache of hall-of-fame talent, drafting players such as Satch Sanders, KC Jones, Sam Jones and John Havlicek to keep hanging banners from the Boston Garden rafters.

“It was a truly unique situation for all of us,” Cousy says.  “I retired following the 1963 season, which was our fifth consecutive championship, and sixth overall at the time.  Winning was even more special because Walter and Arnold cultivated a family atmosphere.  We all looked out for one another.”

Having each other’s back started on the basketball court; Jim Loscutoff is widely regarded as the team’s first great enforcer, and today ‘LOSCY’ hangs from the rafters in his honor.  Serving as on court bodyguard was a role he inherited from raw-boned Bob Brannum, who arrived during the 1951-52 season, Cousy’s second in Boston.

Bob Brannum was my bodyguard on the court,” he says.  “Bob was 6’6” and built like a bulldog.  Teams learned quickly not to pick on the skinny, 5’11” kid from Holy Cross [laughs].  It was a great luxury to have Bob on the team, and to have him playing the role of protector.  It definitely made my job a lot easier.  Bob retired, and Loscy took over from there.”

 

Bob Brannum was my bodyguard on the court.  “Bob was 6’6” and built like a bulldog.  Teams learned quickly not to pick on the skinny, 5’11” kid from Holy Cross [laughs].  It was a great luxury to have Bob on the team, and to have him playing the role of protector.  It definitely made my job a lot easier.  Bob retired, and Loscy took over from there.” – Bob Cousy

 

But having each other’s back extended far beyond the geometric confines of the famed parquet floor.  The Celtics were the first team to draft an African-American player, the first to start five black players in an NBA game, and the first to have an African-American head coach.  Auerbach didn’t care if his players were black, white, or yellow, he only cared about coaching players who could help him win championships.

Drafting Chuck Cooper raised eyebrows when Auerbach drafted him in 1950, but Cousy and the rest of his white teammates accepted the Duquesne star as one of their own.  Cousy vividly remembers the time when, early in his career, the Celtics were scheduled to play a game in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Cooper, as it turned out, was denied a hotel room on the basis of his color.  There was no question what Cousy would do next, and Auerbach fully supported it.

“We got out of town,” Cousy says emphatically.  “Cooper was my road roommate, and also happened to be the first African American player drafted by an NBA team.  He was an All-American at Duquesne University.

“Chuck was bright and sensitive.  I’m sure the racial stuff bothered him much more than he ever let on, and on this trip I couldn’t believe that he was going to be forced to sleep in another hotel, apart from his teammates, just because of his color.  So I said, ‘Hey Arnold, there’s an overnight train going out of town to Syracuse.  We can catch that and then make a connection back to Boston.’  Arnold didn’t have a problem with that.  He understood the situation, and he let us take the train back home.

“We were standing together at the station, waiting on our train to arrive, and we both decided to hit the bathroom.  We were confronted by two signs:  One said, ‘colored’ and the other said ‘white’.  It was a traumatic moment for me.  I didn’t know what to say to Chuck, because there were no words that could make racism go away.  Tears came to my eyes.  At that moment I was ashamed to be white.”

Sadly, racism and Boston went hand-in-hand back then, so the treatment of blacks was hardly better back there.  How bad was it?  Bill Russell was racially blackballed by Boston sportswriters, and once had has house broken into and his bed shat on.  Tommy Heinsohn would later remark:  “All I know is the guy won two NCAA championships, 50-some college games in a row, the Olympics, then he came to Boston and won 11 championships in 13 years, and they named a fucking tunnel after Ted Williams.”

 

Tommy Heinsohn would later remark:  “All I know is the guy won two NCAA championships, 50-some college games in a row, the Olympics, then he came to Boston and won 11 championships in 13 years, and they named a fucking tunnel after Ted Williams.”

 

“Bill is a very complex person,” Cousy says.  “If you’ve done your homework you know that the racial situation of the times played a very big part in shaping Bill into who he is.  He suffered from racism and discrimination in ways that so many people will never understand.  It was very difficult to be an African American at that time, and being a famous athlete only complicated the situation.  On the one hand you were adored for all of your athletic achievements, and on the other you weren’t allowed to play golf at the local country club.

“Bill suffered racial hatred that was almost unimaginable.  There was an episode where someone defecated in his bed.  He was denied a hotel room in St. Louis during his college days at USF and had to sleep in his car.  I shared his pain as much as possible, but there was only so much I could understand and identify with.  You never truly grasp it unless you actually experience that type of hatred firsthand.

“People have been killing because of racial differences since the time of Adam and Eve, but in this country racism has been primarily aimed at African Americans.  Bill was a hero in Boston, but that sentiment wasn’t necessarily shared by everyone.  But for us, the Celtics were a cocoon.  We were insulated from all that.  Bill felt one way about his Celtics family, but that didn’t translate to the rest of the city.  White people in Boston didn’t get that, and there was a lot of suspicion and mistrust.  But then, these same people didn’t endure the same experiences that shaped Bill Russell.”

~ ~ ~

Bob Cousy wasn’t known for his stats, although he could certainly put them up.  On February 27, 1959, Cousy set an NBA record by dishing out 28 assists against the Minneapolis Lakers.  Two months later he recorded 19 assists against the same Lakers during the NBA Finals.  Big numbers, given the era.

“The first game was a meaningless Sunday afternoon contest,” he says.  “We ran up and down the court  and set records.  It was a lot different in the playoffs because the intensity level was so much higher.  The championship was at stake, so both teams were playing their best basketball on both ends of the court.  So staying out there and accumulating 19 assists meant a whole lot more to me than the 28 that I had a couple of months earlier.”

Cousy retired following the 1963 season, walking away with six titles, 13 All-Star Game appearances, ten consecutive All-NBA First Team selections, two NBA All-Star Game MVP awards, and one NBA MVP award.  Quite a portfolio for a shy, skinny kid from New York’s East End ghetto.

 

1963, Boston, Massachusetts, USA --- Original caption: Bob Cousy, of the Boston Celtics, breaks down crying as he speaks to an estimated 15,000 fans who jammed the Boston Garden March 17th to bid farewell to "The King" of basketball. Cousy closed out his 13th and final regular season career win an emotional hour-long ceremony. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

1963, Boston, Massachusetts, USA — Original caption: Bob Cousy, of the Boston Celtics, breaks down crying as he speaks to an estimated 15,000 fans who jammed the Boston Garden March 17th to bid farewell to “The King” of basketball. Cousy closed out his 13th and final regular season career win an emotional hour-long ceremony. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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“I was very fortunate,” he says quietly.  “I had a lot of help along the way, a lot of lucky breaks.  I got to play with some of the greatest players of my era, and one of the greatest of all-time, in Bill Russell.  I played for Arnold.  I played for the best owner in the world.  And I think I retired at the right time.  Physically, I could still play at a high level.  But psychologically, I was spent.  The toll of playing at such a high level all of the time, of trying to be the best and stay at the top, eventually wore me down.  I was ready to retire.  I was ready to spend time with my family and make up for a lot of time that I missed because I was traveling with the team.”

On March 17, 1963, Cousy stood in front of a microphone on the Boston Garden parquet and said goodbye.  The sellout crowd, which had cheered so loudly for him over his thirteen year career, watched in pin-drop silence as their hero read from a handwritten note, weeping softly in between the sentences, the words barely audible but their sentiment felt by everyone jammed into the Garden on this day.

And then, when nothing would come, four words rang out…

“We love ya, Cooz!”

We would later learn that the words came from Joe Dillon, a city water worker and rabid Celtics fan.  The sellout crowd exploded with heartfelt energy, and “The Boston Tear Party”, as it would come to be known, reminded us all that Bob Cousy was about more than stats, more than awards, and more than championships.  He was the reason we even cared about NBA basketball in the first place – the splash of color on an otherwise drab canvas, the first in a line of sensational playmakers who gave us a reason to plunk down our hard-earned money and go to the game.  Cousy transformed the NBA into what it wanted to be about all along – individual expression, soaring artistry, and showmanship nonpareil  – and, perhaps as importantly, saving it from itself, freeing it from the rigor mortis that claimed no less than a dozen franchises and threatened to take down the rest of an unsteady league.

The game, far different before the arrival of Bob Cousy, would never be the same again.

~ ~ ~

All great stories are love stories, and she was the love of his life.

Cousy met Marie Ritterbusch in high school, and married her six months after graduating from Holy Cross.  He spent his wedding night playing point guard for the Boston Celtics.  A few days later he was gone, having left for a two-week road trip.  It was just how things were back then.  Missie, as she was known, was there at Cousy’s basketball beginnings and there through 63 years of marriage.  Together they raised two beautiful girls, Maria and Ticia.  It wasn’t until he retired that he was able to connect with his wife the way had wanted all along.

“I was young, and my priorities were way off kilter,” Cousy says, without hesitation.  “I couldn’t see the forest for the trees – I thought that putting a ball in a hole was the most important thing in the world.  But looking back, I realize I missed out on a lot.  Moments you can’t recover.  I should have participated more in the lives of my family.  But my girls were in loving hands, and I had the most beautiful wife in the world.”

 

Roles reversed: Missie, pictured left bringing a drink to her injured husband in 1957, was cared for by Cousy for the past decade as her condition worsened.

Roles reversed: Missie, pictured left bringing a drink to her injured husband in 1957, was cared for by Cousy for more than a decade as her condition worsened.

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While Cousy may not have been around Missie as much as he would have liked, the second act of their marriage brought them close and kept them there, the years filled with holding hands, laughing, and doing the little things that make such a big difference in a relationship.

“Most couples meet and experience a flash of intensity right at the very start,” he says.  “But I was on the road so much, and there were so many demands for my time.  Our romantic period really began years later.  But from that point on, we did everything together and we were rarely ever apart.  We were as in love as a couple could be.  I can honestly say that we held hands for the last twenty years.”

 

“Most couples meet and experience a flash of intensity right at the very start.  But I was on the road so much, and there were so many demands for my time.  Our romantic period really began years later.  But from that point on, we did everything together and we were rarely ever apart.  We were as in love as a couple could be.  I can honestly say that we held hands for the last twenty years.” – Bob Cousy

 

Later, years after the six championships, after being named one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history, Cousy delivered his greatest assist.  With Missie slipping into the cruel grip of dementia, he created a world in which she could live with dignity, and provided her with the comforting sense that nothing was changing, even as the disease slowly swallowed her whole.

“It was never work, never a bother,” he says, pausing to gather himself.  “I know that she would have done the very same for me.  Every day I told her that I loved her.  And later, when she couldn’t say it, I still knew that she still loved me.”

Gardening was one of Missie’s favorite activities.  Cousy planted artificial red flowers in her garden, and the sight of them delighted her.  Their winter home in Florida became both a refuge and a prison, especially as the disease advanced and the Cousys were unable to go out socially, but he made sure that her station wagon was always in the driveway when they arrived, and that Missie believed that she had driven it there herself.  He would clean the house and cook the meals, and then he would let her think it was her who was keeping up with the housework.  His days and nights were filled with taking care of the love in his life – giving her medicine, helping her from room to room, and doing whatever he could to make her world feel normal.

Funny thing, perspective.  The fame, the adulation, and the records are all insignificant when it comes to the game of life, and Bob Cousy gets this as much as anybody who has ever achieved greatness.  He knows he’s a very lucky man, and blessed to have been a part of some very special teams.  He has his own statue on the Holy Cross campus.  Presidents have paid him homage.  But none of it would have mattered without Missie.

“Do your best when no one is looking,” Cousy says, when asked if he has a favorite piece of life advice for others.  “That was always Missie’s motto.  If you do that one thing, then you can be successful in anything that you put your mind to.”