He Might Have Been A Sports Legend

08/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

July 20, 1969, I sat with my assumed betrothed Mary, in her living room, watching the Moon landing with her parents. My heart arrested, I could barely breath, as Eagle counted down to touchdown at Tranquility Base. My adolescence began with the assassination of the President in whose imagination this expedition was fired into a reality. It closed with the realization of this dream for his country.

As I prepare to attend the 40th reunion of my high school class, Memorial of Tulsa, Oklahoma, my first reunion ever, I think back along the lines of fate that were drawn in those dramatic days. The Vietnam War had gone sour in the length and cost of it. MLK had raised the flag of social justice on our horizon. The bloom of the Beatles had given way to a cynical self indulgence. Grace Slick had replaced Annette Funicello as my celebrity heart throb.

That decade for me, between JFK and the Moon landing, began with baseball and Pat Calahan. My brand newly built jr. high had not formed a baseball team. Me and my best friend, Turner, were keen to play some ball, so we joined a team from another school. Free agency at age 11. In a time before T-ball and everybody gets a trophy for showing up, you actually had to make the team. Loving baseball, we did.

Calahan was the star, pitcher and coaches protege. The first words he ever said to me was a faux apology while were doing jumping jacks. He looked over at me, grinned, and said "sorry about the smell [of my pits]". He was a fine pitcher. They started me and Turner in the outfield. Turner in left and me in right. Ah, right field, where you have nothing better to do than think about what's happening in your bladder. Guess they didn't notice my well worn short stop's glove, no matter, we wanted to play ball.

Eventually I moved up to center field. One game I threw four guys out at home plate from shallow center. Calahan began to notice me. Seems I had an arm.

Calahan was, and assumed he was, larger than any life most others could ever have lived. He could pitch, quarterback, score with girls, towel pop, snot sling, jock snap and out tease/torture anybody in my personal experience. To a woman, almost, girls he liked complained of his teasing them to the point of near fatal embarrassment. He never actually exacted a fatality.

Calahan pulled me close. We worked out, explored the prospects of sports, and played at athletic stardom. We played on a one game short of championship football team in the fall of '65. The lightest team in the city, we had two ex-pro Canadian football players as coaches, Fred Haynee and Joe Hammond, Cherokees both. They taught us stuff that kids should not know. The real, honest, hard things about victory and defeat, blood, lost skin, tendons and toil, not phony glory and some melodrama of duty. "Mercy" Fred would say if we did not give what he knew we had, exactly. We had a pro offense and a pro defense, and the respect of our coaches that we could play like pros, with some work. They took it up, not one notch but ten. We won and won and won. And it all ended in a pitiful instant when one of them brought a single beer to a practice. Some dweeb told, the keepers of our family values fired them, and the magic died.

I quit. Others quit. The next batch of automaton coaches were surpassed already by their students. There was nothing they could teach, but drilled on in a vacuum of assumed authority. Pretenders. Calahan stayed and tried to realize his dream. But his frustration expressed itself one night on the team bus. He mooned a passing car. Not a Michael Vick infraction, a kid infraction, but the hard asses, the same ones that fired the real coaches, threw him off his path to glory.

Maybe he could have been a Namath or a Marino, a Ryan or Rivera, the world will never know as his prospects were terminated for an exuberance. Such were those days. He died a few years ago, like so many of that football team of 1965, never to see another day of our future unfold. But unfold it does. It unfolds captive of our abilities, and seeming captive to an arch conservatism that will brook no deviation from the self informed mean. As coach Fred would say, "Mercy".

On this anniversary of our Lunar achievement and the graduation of my class of 1969, I wonder if there is any greater truth than achievement, any more immutable thing than the ephemeral moment of a winning touchdown. We went to the Moon in 1969. Could we do it again? Can we win a war as abstract as was the Vietnam War? Will there ever be another band as thrilling as the Beatles? Can we, even with a Black President, transcend a legacy of anger based in nothing but a long lost grievance by the south? I think not. Not unless we learn to let the Pat Calahans and the Freds and Joes thrive, a bit outside the box. Of course Annette and Grace transcend all of this.