The following first ran on BSD on Father’s day, 2013.
By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Senior Writer
As a sports fan, it is more likely than not that you have a story about how sports, and your father, affected your life.
This is mine.
Without a doubt, I owe my love of sports to my father. He introduced me to the world of sports at an early age, but not in the way that most think of when you think of the traditional father and son sports dynamic.
I never played catch with my dad. We never went for a skate together, never tossed a football around or played a game of HORSE in the driveway.
My dad was born in 1920 in Dorchester and as a young child, he contracted polio. As a kid, his friends in the neighborhood would pull him in a small red wagon, so he could get around.
Despite his physical limitations, he had a passion for sports that I am sure was a large part of what drove him to fight his affliction and became something – in retrospect – that surely formed who he was as a father, and how he influenced us kids growing up.
He may not have been able to score a goal, throw a touchdown pass or turn a double play, but there are few people I have met in life who knew the games as well as him. However, for as much knowledge he had for the games he watched, he possessed a passion for the game of life that would be on display for those who knew and loved him for all his days.
It is a well-worn cliché in sports to say that someone has “the heart of a champion.” I can tell you as a witness first hand, no athlete that ever played any sport had a bigger drive to succeed, or more courage to do what others said couldn’t be done, than my dad.
I am the last of six kids, five boys, and a girl. When I was born my mother was 44, and my father was 48. I can remember as if it were yesterday, being a young kid in elementary school and having my parents attend my parent/teacher conferences, only to be mistaken for my grandparents.
I have often said that my existence can be credited to a couple of extra highballs with dinner at the old Tip Top restaurant on Main St. in Brockton, which was my mom and dad’s Saturday night date spot.
If you stop to think about it, there aren’t many among us who have kids in their late teens or early twenties, that would be looking forward to adding to their soon to be an emptying nest, other than the late/great Tony Randall, and perhaps my big brother Bobby.
I guess it is safe to say that you pretty much have to have a screw loose (insert inappropriate punch line here) or perhaps an extra screwdriver or two, to have your sixth child approaching the age of 50.
My father was still pretty mobile when I was young. Even then, however, one of my chores as a child was to help my father up the two small steps into our single-level ranch on Lynn Road, in the Brookfield section of Brockton. When he returned home nightly from his job as a CPA for a trucking company located in Dorchester, I would be called to duty. He would exit the car by pushing down on the seat with both hands, locking his brace as he stood. He would then walk toward the door with his cane in his right hand, and my elbow in his left.
In a neighborhood that constantly had some pickup game going in one sport or another, I always knew that when I saw his big Dodge station wagon coming down Jon Drive, I had to take a break from the action and lend him my arm. A minute or two was all it took, and soon enough, I would return to whatever game we were playing, and be back at it with my buddies.
Growing up, all of my brothers were pretty good athletes, and I physically learned the games I played from them. This was mostly because my mother would make them take me with them when they played sports in the neighborhood. Being six years younger than my next closest brother in age, this was not always a welcome addition for them.
I swear I learned to catch because I had to. My brothers didn’t throw things to me; they threw things at me.
However, when it comes to watching sports, there is no one – to this day – that I watched more sports with than my father.
The earliest memory I have of my dad, and sports is when all of us kids would gather with him on my parents’ bed, and watch Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins on a little black-and-white TV. I was 4 or 5 years old, and it was more about the event to me than hockey.
As my brothers and sister got older and were home less and less, it would often be me and my father who would watch the games with each other. We watched a lot of different sports together, but there is one game I cannot listen to or watch without thinking about my dad.
When I was a little kid, maybe 5 or 6, we had a swing set in the corner of our little Campanelli yard. Every weekend during the spring and summer – when the weather allowed – my dad would sit in the backyard in a one of those fold up aluminum lawn chairs, in a white tee-shirt with a Bud tall can in one hand, and a cigarette in another.
I can still see it now – and can’t help but smile when I remember it – his comb-over hairdo barely keeping his scalp from burning under the sun, as the smoke billowed around his ever-increasing bald spot.
The memory isn’t complete without a Red Sox game being broadcast over the radio. I would be swinging away in the corner of the yard without a care in the world, as my dad would conduct a running dialogue with the radio. As I tried to swing higher with each pump of my legs and arms, I often wondered why he would say, “cheese and crackers” every time things went south – as they always seemed to do those days – for the Sox.
Baseball is one of the few sports that at times can actually be better on the radio than on TV. Anyone who has ever picked up a bat and ball and played baseball can see the game play out in their minds because the sounds are so familiar. The crack of the bat, the roar of the crowd, the sound of the peanut vendor hawking his wares in the distance, is so unique to the sport, that you only have to experience it once in person at the ballpark, in order to picture it in your mind’s eye when you hear it on the radio.
Eventually, he graduated to a 13-inch black and white TV which – under the best conditions with perfect reception, which was only possible by adding aluminum foil to the rabbit ears – was impossible to see through the glare from the sun. Nevertheless, there he would sit every chance he could in the backyard with his cigarette and beer, his bald spot burning from the sun, watching the Red Sox or the 1970’s staple NBC Game of the Week with Joe Garagiola and Tony Kubek, as I relentlessly called to him to make him watch some new dive I had made up off the ladder of our pool.
As he got older, these opportunities lessened.
For those who have never been exposed to it, polio is a brutal and relentless thing. It slowly attacks its victim, taking the already weakened muscle and further destroying it. It never relents; it never gives up. It just constantly remains on the attack.
Despite several surgeries to his right thigh to transplant muscle tissue from his left leg to his right (as a result of so many surgeries, he had a wound that would not heal on his right thigh a majority of his later years), his condition continued to worsen.
By the time I was a freshman in high school, my father was forced to retire when his company relocated from Dorchester to the north shore of Boston. Despite the move, it was probably inevitable that he would have had to retire soon anyway, due to his – for lack of a better term –“unique” method of driving.
On account of his disease, my Dad had to wear a heavy metal and leather brace on his right leg, that started at his thigh and ended connected to the heel of his shoe. In order to accelerate or stop while driving, he would grab the brace with his right hand by a metal part on the knee-joint, and press down to accelerate. If he needed to stop, he had to do the opposite; lift up, place his foot on the brake, and push down with his hand to stop.
While I have played a lot of sports, and been around a lot of talented people, I am not sure that any of them could do what he did just to commute to work on a daily basis. In retrospect, my disabled dad was quite an athlete.
However, I’m not sure that the DMV necessarily would look fondly on his talent today.
His retirement and lessened mobility coincided with my growing into a real baseball fan. When I was a kid, I would spend every second I could in the summer trying to find a game to play. And while I watched plenty of baseball those days, I would rather swing the bat, or shag fly balls, then sit by my dad’s side and watch the game of the week on a Saturday afternoon, although I often did.
As a teenager, I took more interest in watching as well as playing. As I moved up to play on a full diamond, I began to pay more attention to the nuances of the game as the instruction from my coaches increased.
The coaches I played for growing up helped me learn how to play the game. However, there is no doubt the time I spent watching baseball with my dad, taught me how to think the game.
One of the things about my father was; he had his opinions, and he wasn’t afraid to share them. He had a distinct dislike for Yaz. I am pretty sure it was because he replaced his all-time favorite player, Ted Williams, in left field.
I remember during the days of the 13-inch black and white TV in the backyard, how he would point at the screen of the TV during a Yaz at-bat and say, “Do you see that line going from the plate to second base? That is from him always grounding into double plays.”
Of course, I never saw the line, but more times than not when he said it Yaz would inevitably ground into another double play.
By listening to him watch the game, I began to learn what playing good baseball was all about. Doing the little things, such as moving a runner along, or making a productive out. Whether it was going in hard to second base to break up a double play, or going from first to third on a ball hit to right field, it was about the little things.
It was hard to know it then, but looking back it is pretty easy to see why he valued those who did the little things right. He knew from experience just how much the little things mattered on a daily basis, much more than most.
He couldn’t get around unless he did the little things. He couldn’t function like most of us can – and take for granted – if he didn’t do the little things. He wouldn’t have been able to live the life he wanted to live if he didn’t learn to grind out the little things.
My dad never directly said anything to me about his illness. It was who he was, and he accepted it. He learned to fight through it, and fight he did.
There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish that I had enough sense at the time to realize just what he fought through, and how much character and courage it took for him just to get out of bed each day. I am not sure I can say if faced with the same situation, I wouldn’t have simply succumbed to the odds and quit.
My dad – to his credit – did many things in his life. One thing he never did is quit.
I am sorry to say that at the time I was too busy being a self-centered teenager. He was my dad, and I thought nothing of the cane, or running home to give him my arm. It was part of him, so it was part of me. Sadly, sometimes in life, we can’t see the forest for the trees.
As my Dad’s health slowly began to decline shortly after he retired, he still fiercely fought against the disease. He went through multiple rehab exercises that I know frustrated him greatly. Despite his best efforts, he eventually was confined to a wheelchair, and could no longer drive. It wasn’t long until he needed help getting in and out of bed.
At one time or another, all of us kids assisted my Dad in and out of bed, but as I was the youngest and still lived at home, I did my fair share.
While we shared a relationship when it came to sports – NESN had first come into existence in 1984, and I think that was the first time we agreed on something that we must have in our home since I was an adolescent – my relationship with him became strained, largely because I was smarter than he could ever have dreamed of being, and I was blind to the example he set just by rising each day to live his life, in spite of what his illness was stripping him of.
My best and worst memories of baseball with my dad came in 1986. I was 19 years old and – as I said – we didn’t always see eye to eye. I was a self-entitled punk, that had put off going to college because the traditional rules in life were meant for losers, and I was hell-bent on writing my own set.
Looking back now it must have been infuriating for him – a guy who had to fight for everything he ever had or did in life – to see me who at the time, seemingly had the world at his feet, but was intent on doing all I could to kick it away.
We might not have shared the same views on life at the time, but we still had baseball.
I remember the night Roger Clemens struck out 20 Seattle Mariners at a rainy, cold Fenway Park, in late April of that season. While the rest of the Boston sports fans were watching the Celtics and Atlanta Hawks playing a playoff game at the Garden, I sat with my dad watching history.
It was the start of a roller-coaster ride that found me by his side at the highest of highs, and lowest of lows, that baseball season.
Fast-forward to game 5 of the ALCS against the California Angels. As Dave Henderson stepped to the plate with two outs and one on to face Angels’ closer, Donnie Moore, my mother had just served dinner. I was sitting in the living room in the chair that used to be my father’s, and my dad was sitting in his wheelchair watching the game with me.
I remember when Moore got two strikes on Henderson, the camera shot to the Angels’ dugout showing Reggie Jackson – who my dad loathed probably because he had seen him win so much with the Yankees – as he was removing his cap to get ready to celebrate with his teammates on the field.
Even though I know it was not physically possible at the time, I swear to god that when Henderson hit that home run, I saw my father lift from his chair.
What a feeling! Whatever differences we had was lost in the moment, and the euphoric feeling that we felt was instantaneous and exhilarating. It is a memory that to this day raises the hairs on the back of my neck.
I had never seen my father so happy about a baseball game, or over anything else for that matter. It was as if at that moment, the chains of his illness that now had him tightly in its grip, were removed momentarily, and he was free to celebrate without their weight upon him.
I can still see him now thrusting his fist in the air and shouting over and over, “That little bugger! That little bugger!”, his smile as wide as I ever saw.
A couple of weeks later, when the Sox seemed poised to win their first World Series since 1918 in game six in New York against the Mets, I began the night watching the game with some friends in a garage drinking beer. After the top of the 8th inning, I told my friends that I had to go if the Red Sox were going to actually have a chance to win the World Series, I was going to watch it with my dad.
I got home just as the top half of the 10th inning had ended, and the Sox took the lead. I can’t remember what I said, because after all, I had spent the previous eight innings drinking beer with my friends, but I do remember he was beaming.
After they recorded the first out of the bottom of the 10th, the phone rang, it was my cousin David, who was a favorite of my dad. I remember hearing him practically screaming through the phone as they recorded the second out of the inning saying, “Uncle Bob can you believe it?? They are going to win the World Series!”
We all know what happened next. A couple hits, a wild pitch, etc. I don’t remember when the call ended I just know it did. When the ball rolled through Buckner’s legs and the baseball world crashed down around us, neither one of us said a word. I walked out the door and went back to my buddy’s garage to drink it away.
My dad’s health continued to worsen due to what we didn’t know at the time was a series of minor strokes that began to affect his ability to perform even the simplest of tasks by himself. He began to need constant care on a daily basis.
There is no doubt I am the sports fan I am because of my dad. However, just watching him live his life, he taught me so much more. He fought his whole life against a disease that he knew would eventually win. In a time when physical disabilities were looked upon as a liability, he fought his way to a degree from Bentley College and became an accountant.
When his own mother told him he would never marry, he went on to meet the sweetest woman I have ever known, Marjorie Donadini, and together they fought to raise a family of six.
And even as the disease had clearly taken the upper hand, he continued to fight, because the only alternative was to quit.
That to him was unacceptable.
I was there the day the EMTs came to take my dad to the nursing home. He was crying. He knew he would never get to come home again.
That god-forsaken disease that had robbed him of his ability to walk, had now progressed to the point that he needed 24-hour care he could only get in a nursing home. Polio – which he had fought to a standstill for most of his life – had now taken his home.
Despite this, he continued to fight. The strokes – which we had come to find out, were due to what is called post-polio syndrome – continued, and eventually, they rendered my dad unresponsive. The doctors were struck by his will to live; they thought after all he had been through, the strokes would have taken his life already.
He spent the better part of the last two years of his life in a vegetative state. Late in 1997, we found out that the feeding tube he had inserted had caused a massive ulcer, which resulted in massive bleeding, and had to be removed.
After a family meeting at the hospital, his feeding tube was removed, and we were told he had a day or two at best to live.
The last time I saw my dad was four days later on my way home from work, and not surprisingly; he was still fighting. I kissed him on his forehead and went home to eat dinner. As I walked through the door, the phone rang, it was my mother calling to say my dad had passed away.
He finally had to stop fighting.
This past January marked 15 years since my dad died. Every year since – on a warm summer day -I grab a six-pack of beer (Bud tall cans, of course) and head to the Pine Hill Cemetery in West Bridgewater, to listen to a Red Sox game with him.
The sounds of the game haven’t changed, and the warmth of the sun on my skin still feels the same. And, you know; it never fails that when I close my eyes for a moment, I am suddenly that 6-year-old kid on the backyard swing without a care in the world, listening to a ballgame with my dad.
Happy Father’s Day, dad. Summer is almost here, and we will catch a game soon.
Follow on Twitter @KevinMFlanagan. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.