If you have read any of my blogs, you know that telling a story is usually the topic of the blog. Since I’ve been around a while and I have a pretty good memory of the past, its fun to relive some of those sports moments with the readers. My wife just tells me I have a big mouth. I think she’s probably right.
Last Saturday, we had a special day for Mary Collins. Mary played basketball at Northwest from 1991-95. She grew up in the Jefferson school district and her kids will all attend school there. Her husband, Dan, is a respected high school football coach at Stanberry. This summer, Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer. She began a web site called “Mary’s Fight.” Saturday was “Mary’s Fight Night,” where she was the honorary coach and the events of the day honored Mary. It was fun to do something nice for a former Bearcat.
During March Madness 52 years ago, a basketball team did something very nice for me and my family. I doubt if a single member of the Clatonia High School boys’ basketball team will remember a simple gesture that had a profound affect on me all these years later. I don’t know about you, but memories of your seventh year of life are a little limited. There were four major events from my 7-year-old childhood that are forever stamped in my memories. That summer my brother, Roger, who is 16 months younger than me, and my parents jumped in our 1955 Ford and took off for Disneyland. That was very exciting for Roger and me. Disneyland in California had only been open for two years. It was every Midwestern kid’s dream to visit the world Walt Disney had invented. Not to mention the fact I was a card-carrying member of the Mickey Mouse Club. I had my membership card, my mouse ears, and a huge crush on Annette Funicello, the best looking of all the Mouseketeers.
It was a long three weeks of travel for my parents, with two of the biggest brats Clatonia, Neb., had to offer whining in the backseat of the car. However, our arrival at Disneyland made it all worthwhile. We were two of only four kids from Clatonia to have personally visited Disneyland. This would make for a fantastic grade when my second-grade teacher asked us to write about we did over the summer. Unlike Chevy Chase’s “Family Vacation” where Wally World was closed after a long, eventful trip, Disneyland was open and ready to take our money.
At some point during the fall of my seventh year of life, I found out Roger and I would have a new, baby brother (or worst-case scenario, a sister). The stork still delivers babies in the mind of 7-year-olds, so it really didn’t hit me why Mom was gaining so much weight. I just knew that sometime in the spring, we would be visited by a new family member. If you count back the months, this origin of this new family member occurred while we were on our three-week quest of Disneyland. I can’t imagine when my parents were alone long enough to sneak in a little personal fun, but here were the results.
The third major event was the Clatonia basketball team. The year before, they had been ranked No. 1 all season, only to lose in district finals on a fluke four-point play with two seconds remaining. My uncle, Gene Else, coached that team. He was a community guy and well respected. However, after that tough loss, Uncle Gene temporarily left coaching and a new coach was hired. All the key players returned and expectations were very high again. As in the previous season, the Clatonia boy’s team of 1957-1958 was ranked No. 1 all year. Their only local rival, Homesville High School, gave the Cardinals of Clatonia a couple of scares, but they headed into districts undefeated and were the heavy favorite to play in the state tournament. My family and I never missed a game, home or on the road. My attention span for a 7-year-old must have been pretty good. The only plays I missed were the few times teams played us close. I couldn’t stand to watch the close endings, so I would excuse myself to the bathroom. I’ve thought about doing that at times during my coaching career. Sure enough, Clatonia zoomed through postseason play and qualified for the state tournament. What could be better for a 7-year-old? I was about to get a new brother that didn’t get on my nerves as much as Roger and Clatonia was about to become the Class D state champions.
Then on the first Friday in March, the fourth and most significant event of my seventh year of life occurred – my mom died. About a week earlier, she had gone to the hospital. I assumed it was to have a baby. However, parents don’t always tell 7-year-olds the exact truth. The baby was to be born, but it would be still-born, having died in the womb. During the week, complications set in. I had no idea of the drama being played out in a Lincoln, Neb., hospital. As I found out much later in life, the dead baby’s blood had leaked into my mom’s system, causing massive infection. Her organs began to shut down one by one. My brother and I were totally unaware of the seriousness of our mother’s illness. We never missed a day of school. We spent our nights at my grandparents, who really spoiled us more than usual. I can remember very clearly being visited by the school principal as I was struggling to put on my five-buckle overshoes as school let out on Friday. He asked how my mom was doing and I told him fine, she would be home soon.
My grandparents from my mom’s side picked us up from school that Friday. It looked like a quiet weekend before the start of all the excitement of the state tournament. That was soon to change. First came a phone call from my dad that things looked grim. My grandparents were urged to get to the hospital as fast as possible. My great uncle and aunt came over to watch Roger and me. That was unusual. They had never babysat us before and never did again. Before my grandparents could leave, the second call came. My mom had died. It was pretty hard for Roger and me to process. I remember Roger asking me where Mom had gone. Being the older, smarter boy, I informed her she went to Heaven. Roger wanted to know when we could go visit her. With the great wisdom that comes from the advanced age of seven, I told him I wasn’t sure, but I bet it wouldn’t be too long. My grandparents never missed church and Sunday was no exception. It seemed very strange to have my mom’s name mention for funeral services on Monday. I am ashamed to say that the events of that weekend and the funeral on Monday were not very traumatic. Almost all of the attention was on Roger and me. Relatives I hardly knew stopped by to play with us. My classmate’s parents volunteered to watch us. We had a great time as the family prepared to bury our mother.
The attention on us continued throughout the week. Roger and I were back at school on Tuesday as the town got ready for the state tournament. A big banner was stretched across Main Street. We called it Main Street, but who knew since the town didn’t have street signs. The state tournament began on Friday. Our first round opponent was Herman High School. They were a very good team from east-central Nebraska. Dad took us to the game, but we felt like the center of attention. Everyone said hello to us and everyone asked it we wanted to sit by them. I took a 1911 silver dollar one of my dad’s army buddies had given me on our Disney trip. He lived in California and we had stopped by to see him. Every time Herman had the ball, I squeezed the coin on the “tails” side. When we had the ball, I rubbed the “heads” side furiously.
My superstition work paid off. It was a close game, but the Cardinals pulled it off. That meant a Saturday match-up with undefeated Red Willow High School. Red Willow was a town in west central Nebraska. There was very little information out about any of our state tournament opponents. It felt like we were playing Duke University. It was back to the silver dollars for a second straight day. I shouldn’t have worried. We led from the start and never trailed. The state championship now belonged to little Clatonia. However, first there had to be a victory dinner. I will never forget that meal. It was held at Lee’s Chicken, a restaurant famous for their fried chicken. They even had a person playing the organ as patrons ate their chicken, made, of course, from a secret formula. We sat near the main table as all the athletes and coaches gave speeches and basked in the glory of an undefeated season.
After it was over, the school and the 1958 boys’ state championship team did something that is still significant to me all these years later. As we got in our car, Dad came carrying the state championship trophy. Out of all the people in Clatonia, we were allowed to transport this valuable piece of hardware home. It also created a minor fight as to who would get the rights to hold the trophy in the car. Since I was the oldest, it was compromised that I would hold the trophy until we hit the Cortland city limits. That was approximately halfway home. Then my brother would have the crown jewel of the year’s accomplishment passed to his lap. I prayed Roger would fall asleep and I would be allowed to carry it the whole 30 miles home. No such luck.
That’s not exactly the end of the story, but I think I spent enough time on the life of a 7-year-old kid. I will tell you that exactly 25 years later something similar happened. Clatonia had consolidated with the Wilber school district. At 33 years old, I was now the head girls’ coach. Thanks to some great players, a few related very closely to players from 1958 boys’ team, I was able to carry a state championship trophy home again. One big difference – I didn’t have to share time with my brother.