During this particular season, my dad was playing for Trolley Tavern, one of the five different semipro teams in the area. Dad played semipro football for 23 years including one year with the Bengals long before they joined the NFL. On this night, Trolley was ahead of the Comets by three points, late in the fourth quarter. Since none of the roster's plumbers, bartenders, or bankers could kick, a field goal was not considered a threat. Come to think of it, I'm not sure if the "field goal" had been invented yet. Anyway, Dad kicked off to the other team, fought off a block, and got blindsided really hard by some big burly-ass player. Dad's teammate, Shorty Goings, heard the bone crack and could see the pain in Dad's face as he pulled himself from the ground. "Damn it, Pete," screamed Shorty. "Your goddamn leg is broke. Take yourself out of the game!" "It's just a scrape for chrissakes," said Dad. "I'm fine." Shorty knew better than to argue because Dad wasn't about to sacrifice a year of Cincinnati's bragging rights over something as trivial as a broken leg. I ran into the huddle with the water bucket and offered the ladle to my dad, who just waved me off. As team captain, he never drank water until the other players had a chance to drink their fill. Then I looked up, expecting to hear a balls-to-the-wall pep talk. But all eyes were glued on Big Pete, who was very calm. But that was my dad — a man of strong presence.
He had a square jawline and piercing steel gray eyes. When he spoke, people listened.
He looked at his teammates and said: "I don't intend to lose on the last play of the game. So let's put on a big rush and stick somebody!" As they broke huddle, each Trolley player tapped Shorty on his special leather helmet, which was designed to protect the metal plate in his head — the result of shrapnel wounds Shorty got during the war. I laughed my ass off at that good-luck ritual, then raced off the field, where I watched Dad from the sidelines. It was cold as hell and Dad's breath looked like smoke in the night air — an image I can remember just like it was yesterday. The Comet's quarterback stood behind center and barked out the signals: "Blue 22, blue 22!" The wide receivers were lined up for what is now called a "Hail Mary." But Dad must've sensed a sneak play because he screamed, "Red Dog" to his teammates, which meant the linebackers were supposed to blitz. Sure enough, instead of the drop-back pass, the quarterback gave a pump-fake and then handed off to his fullback on the draw play. But the middle was all clogged up because Dad played his hunch correctly. He got knocked down while fighting off a blocker, but Dad crawled over, wrapped his arms around the fullback's legs and joined in on the game-winning tackle. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, a dozen other fans and I stormed the field in celebration. My dad had just won the big game and the Schultes' Fish House keg of beer that went with it. Dad limped toward the sideline, removed his helmet with his bloody hands, then looked into my eyes and gave me a smile — one of the biggest thrills of my life.
Forty-two years later, I was looking down into the eyes of my own 6-year-old son Tyler. But instead of celebrating a victory, I was trying to explain why I was going away. No, this was not just another spring training in Florida or 3-week stint on the West Coast to play the Giants, Dodgers, and Padres.