One for the Old Man
My dad with Archie Griffin the night he learned he'd won his Second Heisman
Today marks five years since my father’s passing. I think he’d be pissed at me for writing the opioid entry a few weeks back, so I thought it fitting to recall some parts of his life story that he liked to share and was proud of.
Dad’s foster mother liked music so, at her direction, he learned how to play the French horn. By his own admission, he played poorly, barely well enough to participate in his high school band. At band practice one afternoon, he saw some kids on another field playing a game.
“What are they throwing around?” he asked a friend.
“That’s a football,” the friend answered, wondering how far back in the sticks my father must have lived to never have seen one.
Dad thought the game looked a lot more fun than playing the French horn, so he joined the team and eventually earned a starting position at end. This was in the era where almost everyone played both offense and defense, in leather helmets and without face masks. My father excelled on defense, where his quickness made up for his lack of size.
Also while in high school, dad heard of a place called “college” where he could take some classes that would get him a better job. Raised in little more than a shack along one of the creeks that emptied into the Ohio River, my father dreamed of one day being able to build himself a brick house. So he lied about his age to get a job sweeping up in a foundry, then drove spikes on the railroad and worked other odd jobs to save up some money.
After graduating from high school in 1950, my father hitched a ride on a coal truck up to Kent State University, where he enrolled. He joined the Army ROTC and decided to major in Architecture, perhaps so he could figure out how to build that brick house he wanted. The following spring, he decided to try out for football, eliciting snickers when he told the coaches he wanted to play end. At 5’10” and 180 pounds, he was a couple inches shorter and thirty to forty pounds lighter than most of the other linemen.
So they put my father in against the first-team offense who ran a sweep to his side. Sliding through and bouncing off of would-be blockers, he busted up the play for a loss. The offense then ran the same play, and again my father tackled the runner for a loss. Kent State’s head coach, Trevor Rees, stopped practice to lecture his offense.
“Now we’re going to run this play until we get it right!” he shouted. Then he pointed at my father and added, “Because this guy’s not that good.”
The offense ran the play four of five more times with the same result, after which Coach Rees pulled my father aside and offered him a spot on the team. As best I understand, Dad was given a partial athletic scholarship (I’m not even sure MAC schools offered full ones in those days), which was enough to allow him to continue pursuing his degree. During his senior year, my father was voted team captain, an honor which he cherished his entire life. That year he also met an underclassmen linebacker from East Liverpool, Ohio, who, similarly undersized, didn’t seem like he’d have much of a future in football.
After a strong senior year, my father received a telegram from the San Francisco 49ers, inviting him to California for a try-out. But given his ROTC obligations, Uncle Sam had first dibs, and he was sent over to Germany to serve with the Army Corps of Engineers. A few years later, after his discharge, Dad received another telegram, this time from the Pittsburgh Steelers, asking him to try out with them. He called up one of his former coaches, Don McCafferty, who was still an assistant at Kent State.
“There’s no way you’ll play end. You’ll probably have to move to safety,” Coach McCafferty informed my father, before admonishing, “and they’ll knock the hell out of you.”
Thus ended my father’s football career and began his professional one as an architect. He settled in Columbus, buying a house made of stucco and stone rather than brick. A few years after his phone call with my dad, however, Don McCafferty was hired by the Baltimore Colts as an assistant coach. McCafferty was later elevated to Offensive Coordinator and then Head Coach, leading the Baltimore Colts to a victory in Super Bowl V.
My father remained a supporter of Kent State sports and came to know some of the school’s athletes from the Columbus area, including a football player named Daryle Griffin. My parents became friends with the Griffins, whose younger sons, Archie, Ray, and Duncan, went on to play football at Ohio State. I have a vague recollection of my first Ohio State game, sitting next to my father, who was sitting next to Mr. Griffin. I recall the seats being pretty darn good, which allowed me to follow number 45 as he marched down the field with the Buckeyes.
At the end of Archie’s senior year, he accompanied my father to Bellaire’s football banquet, where he graciously spoke to the players and their parents. Driving back from the banquet, my father pulled over so that Archie could call his coach, Woody Hayes, who revealed that he'd won his second Heisman Trophy. As Dad just happened to be there, was the first to offer Archie a congratulatory handshake.
Several years later, at a banquet held during my college graduation weekend, that freshman linebacker from Kent State would come up and shake hands with my father.
“I remember you,” the thin, bespectacled man said smiling. “You were our team captain.”
Lou Holtz, whose daughter was in my graduating class, had recently brought Notre Dame its first national championship in more than a decade. My father beamed with pride. His football career had allowed him to work and become friends with some amazing people: a national champion, a Super Bowl champion, and the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner. I’m pretty sure he never regretted giving up the French horn.