By Thomas Hauser
In the past, I’ve recounted the memories of fighters who spoke fondly of their greatest moment in a sport other than boxing. The recollections of some notable non-combatants follow:
SETH ABRAHAM: I went to the University of Toledo on a baseball scholarship and was a member of Sigma Alpha Mu. If you were on a varsity team, you couldn’t play fraternity ball in that sport. But in my sophomore year [1965-1966], I had back-to-back monster games in football and basketball against Alpha Epsilon Pi, which was our most hated rival.
The football game was first. It was a big event; very physical two-hand touch, six men on a side, referred to on campus as “The Blood Bowl.” Both fraternities were predominantly Jewish, and people came to watch the Jews bash each other’s brains in. In the second half, I intercepted a pass and ran it back for a touchdown and returned a punt for another touchdown. We won; and that night while most of my fraternity brothers were celebrating by getting drunk, I had a memorable assignation with a young woman I was dating at the time. Then she dumped me and started seeing an Alpha Epsilon Pi guy.
Fast-forward to Winter Homecoming and the Jews are at it again, only this time it’s basketball. Sigma Alpha Mu plays Alpha Epsilon Pi on center court in the university field house. I was the fifth best player on our starting team. Normally, my role was passing; but in warm-ups that day, I was hitting everything. Our coach was a basketball player named Bob Aston, who was first-team all-conference but wasn’t allowed to play basketball in the fraternity league because of his varsity status.
When the warm-ups were over, Bob said to me, “I saw what you were doing. Let’s see what you have in the game.” He designed the first offensive play for me. I got the ball; shot it; nothing but net. Next possession; my teammates get the ball to me again; I shoot it; swish. Now I’m constantly getting the ball and scoring. We won in a rout. And when the game was over, the woman who had dumped me for the Alpha Epsilon Pi guy came over and said, “Obviously, I made a bad choice.” That was more than forty years ago and the memory of it still warms my heart.
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JIM LAMPLEY: The year is 1960. I’m eleven years old, playing in the twelve-and-under Little League in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Virtually all of the teams are named for local churches or tiny outlying communities. I’m the starting pitcher for the Presbyterian team, which is the league doormat. We can’t score at all and lose all sixteen of our games that year. I look good in the batter’s box; I have great form; and I can’t hit a thing.
First great moment; we’re playing Etowah. Their pitcher is Buddy Lydecker, who’s twelve years old and looks like he’s seventeen. Two years earlier, Buddy was the pitcher for my first Little League at bat and hit me in the stomach with a fastball. It’s hard to get hit in the stomach with a fastball, but I‘d managed to do it by turning into an inside pitch. Etowah is the best team in the league. They’ll go through the entire season undefeated. There are two outs in the sixth inning, which was the regulation length for league games. Buddy is one out away from pitching a no-hitter, and I’m at the plate. I drop a bunt down the third-base line and beat it out for my first hit of the year. Sweet revenge.
Second great moment; it’s now the last game of the season. This one is against the Methodists. Because of the natural rivalry between Presbyterians and Methodists, it’s our biggest game of the year. Waddy Stokes is on the mound for Methodist. His real name is Roddy; but when his sister was young, she couldn’t pronounce Roddy. Hence Waddy. Once again, we’re losing with two outs in the sixth inning. Once again, I’m at bat. And once again, we’re facing the embarrassment of being no-hit. Waddy had a curveball, which I never would have been able to put my bat on, but he made the mistake of throwing me a fastball. I bunted it down the third-base line and made it to first. Those were my only two hits that year. Thank God for tiny victories.
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DAN GOOSSEN: My brothers and I used to play roller hockey on the street in front of our house with the rest of the family and a few friends. Our garage looked like a locker room with all the sticks, skates, shin-guards, and two big goals. The games got pretty rough. We took it seriously. Once the puck dropped, we weren’t brothers anymore.
One day, a carload of guys drove by, saw us playing, and challenged us to a game. We met them later that day at Van Nuys High School, where there was a big field. You could tell by the way they warmed up that they were good. They even had uniforms.
We knew that our only chance to win was to play like the Hanson Brothers in that movie, Slap Shot, so that’s what we did. Three minutes into the game, my brother Joe won a face-off and got the puck to my nephew, Jimmy Buffo, who skated in and scored. The guys on the other team were upset because my brother Tom had checked one of them into a chain-link fence to clear the way for Jimmy. And they didn’t like the way we were celebrating the goal. So there was a big brawl that ended with a few of their guys lying on the ground. That was the end of the game, which meant that we won 1-0. I broke my hand during the brawl, but I knocked one of their guys down so that was satisfying too.
* * *
GARY SHAW: I started bowling when I was seven years old. By the time I got to high school, I was pretty good; maybe a 190 average. I bowled a lot in Jersey City and was on a team that was sponsored by Pepsi Cola. One time, we were in a tournament in North Bergen. I knew I was in a groove early. It felt like I couldn’t do anything wrong. Just lay the ball down, and it would go in the pocket.
Six frames, six strikes. I started getting a bit nervous.
Seventh frame; another strike.
Eighth frame; everybody in the place started gathering around our lane to watch me. Strike.
Ninth frame. Strike
Now the crowd looked like the gallery watching Tiger Woods at Augusta. I could hardly hold the ball. Strike.
Two away from a perfect game.
It was like an out of body experience. One more strike and I’d have a perfect game. I’m superstitious, so I was trying to remember everything I’d done that day. How I’d picked the ball up each time; whether or not I’d wiped it with a rag.
Then I choked. I released the ball and there was a loud thud as the ball hit the floor; nothing like the smooth delivery I’d had before. It wasn’t pretty. I left five pins standing, and never came close to rolling a perfect game again.
* * *
AL BERNSTEIN: It was in Babe Ruth baseball when I was seventeen years old. I was the starting catcher on the Archer Manor all-star team, which was a league on the southwest side of Chicago. We were playing in the state all-star tournament and had won our first game. I was the number-three hitter in the line-up and I was in a slump. This was our second tournament game. The score was tied 4-to-4. I was scheduled to lead off in the bottom of the eleventh inning, and the coach wanted to pinch hit for me. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. Then one of my teammates talked him out of it, and I went up to the plate.
As a rule, I was a line-drive hitter; a lot of singles and doubles, not much power. And here, I was aware of the fact that I hadn’t been hitting well and wasn’t the guy the coach wanted at bat. All I wanted to do was make contact.
First pitch; the pitcher hung a curve. I swung. And somehow, I got under the ball just enough. It was a perfect home run stroke. I’d never hit a ball that far before. It went over the left-fielder’s head, over the fence, out onto the expressway.
I’ve had more important moments as an athlete. But that was the one that gave me the most joy. How many guys have actually hit a walk-off home run in an all-star tournament game? And as I was rounding third base, the coach just stared at the ground. He wouldn’t look at me.
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LOU DiBELLA: When I was in law school [at Harvard], two teams dominated intramural basketball. One of them was a group of guys who’d been jocks in college and were a self-contained clique. Their team was called the Armadillos.
I was on a rag-tag team called The Lurking Funk. Our best player was a guy named Bob Dozier, who’d been good in high school but had ballooned up to 300 pounds. The rest of the guys on our team had never really been basketball players. I was tall and had a big ass, so I was useful as a rebounder; that’s about all.
We squeaked into the playoffs and wound up playing the Armadillos in the first round. Dozier had his worst game of the year. Everything he threw up missed by a mile. But somehow, I had the greatest game of my life. The chances of me hitting six or seven shots in a row were negligible; particularly if someone was guarding me. But that day, every shot I took went in.
For the first time, I understood what it felt like to be in a zone. Then another guy on our team, George Seeberger, who was half the size of a midget, got into a rhythm. It was like a bad kids movie; the jocks against the nerds. The lead see-sawed back and forth the entire second half. Finally, with twenty seconds left in the game, we got the ball, down by one point. One more shot; if we make it, we win and heaven and earth turn upside down.
I’d love to tell you I hit the final shot, but I didn’t. Dozier got the ball. He’d been frustrated all afternoon, put up one last shot, and missed that one too. We lost by a point. I was heartbroken, but I felt good about what we’d done. We gave those guys hell and it was the greatest game of basketball I ever played.
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JERRY IZENBERG: When I was ten years old, my father bought me a baseball glove. It was a Chanukah gift, which mixed the religion of the old country with the new religion in my life, which was baseball. He took me to a sporting goods store in Newark called Davega’s to pick out the glove. Then we got home and went outside to play catch, even though it was December with huge snowflakes whipping around in the wind.
I remember throwing the ball back and forth. The snowflakes got bigger and the wind blew harder. My father reached back and threw the ball high into the air. I had to squint up through the snowflakes to see it. Then the ball started falling; I reached up; it landed smack in my glove. And in that moment, I felt as close to my father as I would ever feel in my life.
Thomas Hauser’s email address is email@example.com. His most recent collection of boxing columns ("The Boxing Scene") has been published by Temple University Press.