I have some great sports memories. They don’t define my life but they are intertwined with moments or events that I value. I watch sports, but as I get older, it occupies an increasingly smaller part of my life. Sports is too much a business; even amateur sports have that corporate vibe to it. I don’t really participate in sports anymore, no more backyard football, but being active is important as I age.
I thought back over my life, what were the sports-related memories, whether I was watching or participating, and what I remember about those events. There were many games I attended or sports personalities I’ve met through the years, some stand the test of time, others not. It was exciting to watch teams win championships, but those aren’t really my valued memories. I have collected a lot of sports memorabilia in my life. I’ve traveled to watch many events, stood in line for hours to meet someone or get a ball signed. All of that is great, but not everything endures as key moments or memories.
I’ve whittled all of it down to ten of my memories, in no particular order.
Meeting Wilt Chamberlain – The Big Dipper is a legend where I grew up. Wilt rarely came back to Lawrence, KS after he left for the Harlem Globetrotters. In 1998, Wilt returned to KU to have his jersey retired. It was a big weekend for the basketball program and I wanted to meet Wilt so we camped out at the basketball office where he was meeting with Coach Roy Williams prior to having a news conference. He was nice enough to talk with us afterward, something I never thought would happen. Sadly, he died less than two years later.
Meeting Walter Payton – ‘Sweetness’ defined class and character. No one worked harder than Payton, his heart made him the biggest, toughest, fastest, hardest hitting player on the field. After he retired, he made a lot of public appearances and he came to Topeka, KS for an event. We lined up to meet him. At some point in the wait we were told his plane was late, two hours late, but we stayed and waited. He was very kind and gave everyone time to say hello and say a few words. You felt like he was focused on meeting you. Several years later he died, he was so young. I remember that time, not the Hall of Famer, the fine man that he was. A tremendous athlete, an even better man.
Watching KU beat KSU in football – In recent years, a KU football victory over in-state rival KSU, has been rare. October 9, 2004, KSU came to town in a night game under the lights. In a hard-fought game where the lead went back and forth, KU won 31-28. KU Running back John Randle scored two touchdowns, while DB/WR Charles Gordon had an interception and long punt return. What impressed me about this game was the effort against a better team, and KSU was better, not by far, but just enough. On this night, the better motivated team was victorious.
Chiefs Training Camp – Traveling to Wisconsin to watch the Kansas City Chiefs train, and being up close with the coaches and players, is something that doesn’t happen now. Camps are high security and there is only limited interaction with the players. Back then, you could talk with the all the players as they walked from the dormitory to the classrooms. Rookies and free agents often came out to talk with fans. Head Coach Dick Vermeil, rode his bicycle around camp, by himself with no body guards. This was a different time.
Chiefs Alumni Weekend – Every year, the Chiefs invited former players back to help celebrate one of their own being inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame. They stayed at a downtown hotel and you could meet and talk with them in the bar or lounging in the lobby. I met up with them several different years but the best time was when former Head Coach Hank Stram camped out in the lobby to talk with a few of us. He was relaxed and funny, telling great stories, and appreciative that people remembered him.
KU Basketball 100 Year Reunion – In March 1998, KU celebrated the 100 years of their basketball program with a grand weekend of activities. Former players and coaches returned to Lawrence and we were fortunate to meet many of them including Dean Smith, who went on to great success as head coach at North Carolina. Coach Roy Williams opened the practice to the public and at one point, he gave a disapproving eye to Coach Smith, who was sitting in the upper level talking loudly.
Municipal Stadium – The old stadium was the home of the Kansas City A’s for many years, then the Kansas City Chiefs when they moved from Dallas in 1964 and then the Kansas City Royals when they began in 1969. As a kid, I got to see a number of games beginning with the A’s in the mid 1960’s, and then with Chiefs and Royals in the early 1970’s before they moved to Sport Complex. Municipal Stadium was old and worn, and the sight lines were sometimes obscured by posts, but the ambiance of the stadium is seared in my memory. The smell of the peanuts, the grass field, the Chiefs band, the character of that old stadium. Arrowhead and The K are fine stadiums, but my fondest memories are of that old stadium.
I never pretended to be an athlete but I have a few sports memories of my own.
Tennis – In my younger days, playing tennis with friends was my sport. I never had a very good serve but I moved well and had a strong two-handed backhand. I could put a wicked topspin on it. Tennis kept me in shape and I spent hours hitting the ball against a practice wall. Being a slight kid, I could compensate by being agile and perfecting my shots and footwork. I made up for being small by being slow. Playing well gave me confidence.
Backyard Football – In junior high, we had many backyard football games with the neighborhood kids. It seemed like we played every night. Wayne and I were a lethal touchdown combination. We spent hours running routes and passing the football. Those games were great fun and some of the best memories I have with my friend Wayne. I taught myself to kick like a soccer player which in 1972 was pretty unconventional. What that experience taught me was with the right support, you can accomplish more than you ever realized.
Track – I can’t say that I enjoyed running, I never enjoyed it; but the feeling of accomplishment and hard work meant something to me. Asthma limited my endurance but I fought through it as best I could. It was years later before I was able to get treated for it, and it only bothered me with I ran, so the family doctor had no clue. The understanding of sports and asthma had a long way to go. I took running very seriously, and saved my part-time work money to buy Adidas track shoes. I didn’t run track in high school but I enjoyed running competitively with the track guys during gym class. They were surprised that this nobody kid could keep up with them during the mile run. They were better, but I held my own.
Bonus. Number eleven.
Gymnastics – Beginning in junior high, a group of us spent hours on the school playground learning and practicing moves on the high bar. This was many years before school district lawyers insisted than any hazardous play equipment be removed. The high bar are pretty dangerous, hard earth if you fell off, and often we did. No one broke their necks or arms, which is a big surprise thinking back on it. It was thrilling to learning something new. Practice, practice, practice. The reward was achieving something very difficult. The icing on the cake was in gym class, where we were to practice some very basic move on the rings, parallel bars or high bar, I could whip out one of the playground routines, and then quietly slip back in line. And then watch the surprised reaction, particularly by the gym teacher, who had you categorized as some soft, uncoordinated adolescent. Surprise, surprise.