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January 20, 1989


He was sitting against a wall at the entrance to the bar, alternately swigging from a bottle of wine and peering intently inside through the open door.

From where I stood at the bus stop a few feet away, I had the same view he did of the blotchy swash of colors from the barroom's TV set. The Fiesta Bowl was on, and Notre Dame had scored again on a goal-line pass to go up by 21 with three minutes to play. Another year had passed and another national championship was theirs.

"Good game," the old man said when he saw me looking at him. "They've always been the best." He stood up and deliberately adjusted the sleeves of his fraying overcoat, then tamped back the few strands of white hair at his temples. One of his shoes was covered with cloth and wrapped with cord, and a torn pocket on his coat hung like a limp flag.

"You know, I used to play the game once upon a time," he said. He was beside me now, stooped slightly, an old man with the ravages of sun and cold weather in his face and guarded but lively eyes which looked as if they had corralled the memories of a lot of living.

I figured him to be well into his eighties, at the very least, maybe older. I'd rarely seen anyone that old living on the streets, and I was surprised by this old guy's evident spryness. Something about him hinted of either a formidable natural constitution or a vigor which had been somehow engendered by adversity.

The old man uttered a quick laugh. "You wouldn't know it to look at me, but I was strong as an ox once. Six-two, 175 pounds. I could outrun anyone; kicked, threw, never got hurt, played in every game--except one, but I'll get to that." He took a long drink and then deftly capped the bottle as he was sliding it into his pocket. Despite his toothless, stubbly appearance, there was meticulous smoothness about the old man, a grizzled, spindly sureness which allowed for no wasted motion.

"Yeah, I was a piece of work, as they say. Legs like telegraph poles, these long arms--my mother saw me pitch in a baseball game once and said my windup made her think of the windmills back in the old country. But football was my sport, and the college game was everything then. The swells, the wise guys, they all came out to see us in those days. We took trains everywhere, played on the east coast, drew the huge crowds; it was jake, I'll tellya." The old man laughed again. "But that was a long time ago. Before your time, young man, the days of single-wing football and the beginnings of the forward pass. And I was the best there was at it, better than anyone."

The old man's voice trailed off and suddenly he turned somber. "People loved what I did out there. And I liked the cheering and gave them more. To the news guys and the people in the stands, I could do no wrong." The old man took out his bottle and rhytmically tapped it against his other palm, as if to punctuate what he would say next. "But they didn't know the half-of-it. Oh, a few did--knew all about the drinking, the gambling, the women, the brawling. I did it all. But nothing tarnished the image. It was as if the show I put on on the field each Saturday afternoon was enough to make me invulnerable."

I started to say something but the old man cut me off. He leaned close to me and then looked away. "And you know what? I enjoyed it. For the longest time I liked pulling the wool over their eyes. If that's what they wanted, I'd give it to them. I stopped going to classes, started spending my time with the wise guys in town, gambling and drinking big. I was on top and nothing could bring me down. The sportswriters in those days coined a term to describe me: 'triple threat.' And they didn't realize how right they were. I lived a number of lives simultaneously, and if nobody was the wiser for it, that was their problem."


The old man shook his head and laughed self-deprecatingly. "It went on that way for years, and then it started to fall apart." He took another drink and sighed. "I got in deep with the gamblers. Real deep. Lost a few bets and tried to play my way out, kept pushing for the one big night. One bookie told me he'd never seen anyone dig that deep a hole before. But what the hell: I had the gift, the touch. My luck would turn, I knew it just as surely as I knew that no one in America could bring me down in the open-field..One day I happened upon something--never mind what it was--a good scheme, and I was led to believe the fix was in. I went to the hangers-on, the small-time mugs around town who were always looking for a quick score. They led me to the people I went to work on. I charmed them out of it, did what I did best. They dipped into their life's savings, some of them, turned paychecks over to me, a couple sold their cars, an old woman took out a loan. And when I took a bath on that, one everyone wanted a piece of me. I had no place to turn. I was scared to death, afraid for my life. My drinking got worse, and I went into a long tailspin and got sick. I was too sick to go to practice--and when I saw my teammates become concerned--I began formulating a plan."

The old man motioned me out of the wind and into the covered entryway of the bar. In the late afternoon gloom, streams of people began to congregate in line in front of a shelter down the street. "Of course, my coach and teammates never knew," the old man continued. "I was always able to keep that part of my life secret from them, although a few might have suspected. They knew I was a hellraiser, but the other stuff they knew nothing about. They were just like the fans: Even if they found out, it wouldn't have mattered. They all looked up to me, a few damn near worshipped me, and because of that I realized they would be perfect for what I had concluded I had to do next. I spent the next three days fleecing marks in poolrooms, paid off one mob guy I owed, and made a deal with him: The kind of sting only the pros or the desperate attempt. At first, he backed off. 'You're crazy,' he said. 'You'll never get away with that.' But I kept after him, played-up his cut of the payoff, and he finally agreed. He asked me how I'd gotten myself into this fix, and I told him. He listened and said: 'So, along with everything else, you screwed with the futures of a lot of decent, hardworking people who had very little to begin with.' I nodded and he glared at me and said: 'You know what happens to you if you don't hold up your end of this?' I did. He would find me. And when he did..."


"For one very important reason we needed 30 days before we could complete it," the old man went on, "so we set it up for the following month." He was shivering slightly in the gathering darkness, and his eyes narrowed warily as he surveyed the Tenderloin streets beyond. "It meant missing my last college game, like I mentioned to you before; that was part of the plan, an important part of laying the groundwork. There were a lot of tricky details to be dealt with, but the wise guys handled those; all I had to do was play-act, but I was good at that, always had been. I set the scene up beautifully, I must say. I knew that eventually the authorities might be brought in; cops, medical people, insurance company gumshoes--especially the insurance guys, they were our main worry. Most important, my coach and teammates would be my witnesses; I had to make it look good. And I did--put on a show at the end which was better than anything I ever did on the field. To make a long story short, we pulled it off. Everyone got their money back, and I was off the hook."

I was scrutinizing the old man now, intrigued a bit by this bizarre monologue, and a few questions seemed in order. What was the plan, and what finally happened? I asked politely. The old man studied me for a split second and then lowered his gaze and stared past me. "You know, watching those players celebrating on TV today took me back, reminded me of a lot of things. Not that I've ever really forgotten about it--I live with it every day--but it hit me worse than ever for some reason, and I've never really talked about it before. I lived with a bunch of guys for four years and never wondered about their lives outside of the huddle. It was always my name in the headlines, never theirs, and I just assumed that's the way it was supposed to be. I ran through the holes they endlessly opened for me, always on the way to somewhere else, alone. And in the end I used them, put something over on them the way I did everyone else. Used the--it's funny, you'd think a team would be the next closest thing to family there is, wouldn't you?--and they never knew they were the props which helped win the biggest game of all for me, the one that helped me save my own skin. 'The plan,' you ask? Let's just say it was my intention that my coach and teammates would be the last people to ever see me. And when the time came, they would believe what they finally saw, believe it because it was just another facet of this storybook creature they'd helped create out of their own needs, and that moment would be as dramatic as any time they ever watched me break into the clear and take it all the way in."


With that cryptic reply he shambled off quickly down the street. For a brief instant I thought to call him back, but he had made it plain his baffling spiel was over. I watched him join the line of people waiting in front of the shelter; if nothing else, I had at least indulged a lonely, destitute old man and his chaotic fantasies on a cold winter afternoon. All around me now, the human flotsam of the 1980s snaked in a long disheveled thread the length of the block. I watched the line grow and remembered the unyielding expression on Ronald Reagan's face the week before when he stated that the homeless chose to live on the streets.

I searched the far end of the street for a sign of my bus, half-listening to the post-game wrap-up from inside the bar. The announcer was comparing this Notre Dame squad with the legendary teams of Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy.

I saw my bus in the distance and walked out to the curb. The line of homeless had begun to move rapidly and I could see people entering the shelter. I looked for the old man and spotted him near the middle of the line. All of a sudden a man came out of the shelter and the line halted. He waved his hands back and forth over his head; he was turning away the others for lack of room.

The crowd trudged off in various directions, bowed under layers of grimy blankets and ragged backpacks, benumbed faces staring straight ahead, a new breed of nomads destined to endlessly wander the urban maze. As my bus pulled up I glimpsed the old man a couple of blocks away, moving slowly across an intersection. Our conversation coursed disjointedly through my mind as I watched him recede from view, and then it hit me just as I was about to board. I whirled and began running down the street after him, trotted three more blocks, then began checking the doorways on the side streets. I retraced my steps and stood for a couple of minutes on the corner where I thought I'd last seen him. The holiday streets were deserted, bathed in pure silence. Nothing moved. I looked out over the quiet city and marveled at what a perfect night George Gipp had chosen to again make it appear he had departed this earth.

Copyright John Hutchison 1989

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