October 29, 2013 | Posted in:General
It’s been a couple months since Ray Smith passed away, the steel jawed hardnosed football and wrestling coach at my alma mater Schurz High School in Chicago. Ray was a block of granite, carved out of stuff that comes from hard work and discipline and dedication, words that used to really mean something not just a cliché’ bantered about. At his memorial I ran into a few of my former Bulldog teammates and we reminisced about the man and swapped war stories about our time at the 2nd largest high school in the city. After a time a “Reunion for Ray” was planned with the word going out that former players, managers and family would gather to watch a Bears game, drink some suds and reconnect. The date was set and then moved so that our head coach Frank Preo could make it to the reunion and since while it turned out the Bears had a bye week the timing was perfect.
I got there early was greeted by three amigos- Izzy, Keith and Bear. These guys were a couple years younger than me in school, but we share the common bond of purple and gold so age matters not. I played semi-pro with two of them- Keith was our quarterback and holds the distinction of the only human to end up in the ER to have a barb removed from his toe after trying to kick a dead catfish through the uprights on the practice field. Bear Kowalski was an all-state lineman for the vaunted Schurz Bulldogs (not an easy thing to accomplish for a Public League player) and we also put on the tools of ignorance and played semi-pro together for a few years.
It was good to see them.
The room began to fill up with familiar faces and less than familiar names, but one handshake or hug brought it all back. We were scattered playing cards from different years at school-but the common denominator were the two Kings- Preo and Smith, the guys that beat us into the ground, lifted us up and pushed us further than we thought we could go. Then coaches showed up, guys that worked at Schurz over the years, a few I taught with, a few I had as a teacher but all of us now on equal footing brought together to remember Ray. The word “coach” is a universal term-bestowed on anyone that has made the attempt to instruct fledgling players on whatever form a sport takes from badminton to baseball and from fencing to football. Once a coach- always a coach…so after 35 years it’s still hard for me to call Frank Preo by his first name…I supposed it would be like Green Bay Packer legend Jerry Kramer trying to call Lombardi “Vince”…It’s “Coach.”
Pictures of days gone by, gridiron glory when we were young, athletic, healthy and whole. Before careers, and deadlines, before demands and worry lines, there we all were with our battle gear on and shoulder to shoulder in victory and defeat. The din of the room rose as it filled up with more and more gladiators and the stories got bigger and the laughter got louder. Ray’s wife and two sons were there bathing in the energy and as the room got smaller, we all got bigger, stood a little taller as we reconnected with the part ourselves that formed on the football field and the wrestling mat, hundreds of hours of practice and repetition of hand to hand combat and a million other moments so many seasons ago.
The snapshots are fresh in my mind from the reunion, Coach Preo’s daughter snuck up behind me and whispered “Want a piece of gum?” something I had not heard since 1977 when part of my pre-game ritual was to have her give me sticks of gum until I had a mouthful. Bear’s battered and broken purple helmet with the bent gold facemask with stickers all over the back of it- gold stars for offensive awards and the skull and crossbones for the defensive awards sitting on a table. Watching guys reconnect after decades, a few still able to somehow fit into their high school jersey’s, Coach Preo floating through the room with a huge grin on his face. Ray’s wife Joan kissing his picture with tears rolling down her cheeks…
At one point I just stood off to the side to take it all in and looked at the gathering put in place by one man who pushed us all together in a room , reminding us that it never really was just about football. It’s been said that hindsight is 20/20- that one of the gifts of the passage of time is that events become clearer the further away we get from them and what we are left with is often the essentials of the moments we experience, the gold nuggets dug out of the dirt that often clouds our minds. For a few hours life was once again very clear, it felt good to be 18 again if only for a little while.