Old athletes and their rusting trophies

This is a story about old athletes, their rusting trophies, and the increasing awareness of their impermanence.

It is about the wisdom of Isaiah: “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall…but the word of our God stands forever.”

It’s about one of my favorite hymns–”The Old Rugged Cross”–sung at the Baptist Church on Daggy Street, where I attended when growing up. In fact, I sang a solo of it to the congregation when I was bout 10 or so. I had a broken-nose, nasally, twangy howl of a singing voice, once described as what a dog sounds like when you step on its tail. At the time, I did not fully know what the song’s line “And I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, till my trophies at last I lay down” meant. Lay down trophies…where and why? But I still belted it out. I mean, howled it out.

It is a story about Drue Johnson, a guy I attempted to guard during the Paris Holiday Tournament of 1964, their team’s star. Tuscola won in overtime, 66-62, claiming the trophy largely because of my defensive heroics. I held Drue to 40 points, a new tournament record for the most points scored in a game, which, when you think about it, means I set a new defensive record for giving up the most points in the history of the tournament. So, like I got that going for me.

Drue was not only a great basketball player, but an even better golfer, attending the University of Arizona on a golf scholarship. His bona fides include being the runner-up in the 1967 and 1969 NCCA tournament to determine college’s best golfer (he was beat in 67 by Hale Irwin). He became a professional, winning several tournaments and playing in the 1975 US Open at Medinah (practice round with Jack Nicklaus).

But back in 1964, during a stretch of three tough games, Tuscola beat three undefeated teams to win the trophy. In game one, we beat talented St. Anne 71-40. In game two we beat Chicago Argo, a school of 2,000 students, from Chicago, featuring a 6’9” center and a forward who was the leading scorer in the Chicago area, 62-61.

Coach Bob Arnold credited John Lasseter’s defensive efforts off the bench and John “Butch” Dietrich who drained “three 25 footers” when we were down 12 points. The game was won on an inbound pass when the late Rick “Hoot” Gibson “dunked the winning basket.”

In the championship game against Paris–who had beaten Morton and Tinley Park to reach the finals–Coach Arnold credited Mark Bright who hit our last two shots, including the key shot to force overtime, then one more in overtime. He also praised the defensive effort of Dietrich and Warrior captain, Lonnie “Nick” VonLanken. Drue told me “that %#& VonLanken snuck in from behind and stole the ball from me in overtime, and scored to take a lead.” Don Fortney, our top gun leading scorer, then drained the final basket to seal the deal. “Nick”– a defensive demon, arguably the best defensive player in TCHS history–had the fastest hands east of the Mississippi.

At the time, it was the biggest trophy we’d ever seen. Drue tells me it was a big one because Paris was convinced they’d win. But we brought it home, had all the players’ name engraved, then proudly displayed it in our school’s trophy case. Where it stayed for many years.

Time passed. It got shifted around and down and back, until grade school principal, Bill Englehardt–who was on that team and whose name appears on the trophy–rescued it from the trash bin and put it on his desk. When he retired, the trophy’s protector was gone. The trophy disappeared, like so many other older trophies. Then, one day it surfaced, with many other old trophies, and placed in the library with the principal at the time asking people to come get them–like some cook at a lumber camp announcing the pancakes were ready. My neighbor, Randy Bergeson, raced out and claimed this trophy and gave it to me for Christmas. I kept it in the house until Beck convinced me it was time to lay my trophies down, out in the garage somewhere–”just get them off the dining room table”.

The basketball had been broken off, and that’s why the above photo shows my right hand trying to hold it in place. Parts are starting to turn green and brown, the plating of the pot metal wearing thin, wearing off. The trophy, in other words, is dying.

And Drue and I don’t feel so good ourselves. During our golf round, we got around to talking health issues. Drue just had a knee replacement and was still traveling that rocky rehab/pain highway. Also said his back was hurting him. I told him I’d already had one back surgery and my blood-thirsty, cut-happy orthopedic surgeon wants to do a double-fusion on my lower back. Wanted to do it three years ago, but I’ve held Doc off, telling him the fusion would adversely affect my golf swing. Doc replied “What?

I told Drue that the vertebra would eventually fuse themselves over time, so what’s the hurry? Drue said he’d do the same thing in my place, then laced one down the middle about 260 yards. We agreed that it would be a great day when our spines totally fused, our height dropping 3 inches, and us not being able to hit a ball longer than a cat’s tail.

It had been over 50 years since I’d seen Drue. A mutual friend in Paris, Bob Colvin, arranged our golf round. I drug the trophy up to Stone Creek where we played, after cleaning it up as best I could. I wanted to show Drue the fruits of my record-shattering defensive performance in guarding him, you know, cop-an-attitude on him like: “40 points! 40 points! Wow. Is that the best you got? Really? REALLY? Slacker!!!”

After the round, on the way home, I thought about the fact it was nearing the time to let it go, to lay it down, let it be what it is: two physical objects–me and the trophy–subject to the corrosive forces of gravity, friction, moisture and Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics…temporal things that do not and can not endure eternally.

But then I’m reminded of that great line from Christianity’s great thinker, St. Augustine of Hippo, who allegedly beseeched God: Lord, please make me chaste….but not quite yet.

I hear you Auggie. Likewise, I am increasingly willing to lay my trophies down. But not quite yet. At least not until the spine fuses. Not as long as I can make a full turn in my swing. OK, a half turn.

mike carroll