I was saddened to hear of the passing of Rush Limbaugh.
I didn’t necessarily know him as Rush Limbaugh the radio personality. I knew him as Rush Limbaugh the deep snapper.
I worked in Kansas City back in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. We had a bunch of young guys in the market back then, and we’d get together for touch football games every Thursday afternoon in the fall and softball games every Saturday morning in the spring.
Rush was the assistant marketing director for the Kansas City Royals at the time. He was not a great athlete but was a regular for both sports each week. He played third base in softball – a position you didn’t have to move around much – and he’d snap and block in touch football.
If it was five degrees on a Thursday afternoon in December and only four guys showed up to play football, Limbaugh would always be one of them. His paycheck came from baseball but he loved football. And he loved the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Every week he’d show up wearing an authentic Steelers jersey with the name “Limbaugh” emblazoned across the back. He had both the home black and road white jerseys. He also wore a pair of neon yellow sweatpants, the touch-football version of Mike Webster.
In his final game in 1983 – he was driving to Sacramento the next day to resume his radio career – our quarterback, Denny Matthews, unchained him from his snapping and blocking duties. He told Rush to count to three and then head for the left corner of the end zone. Ten seconds later, Limbaugh caught a touchdown pass.
When he got back to the huddle, he proudly proclaimed to his long-time pal Matthews, “Denny, that’s the first touchdown pass I’ve ever caught.”
It was a nice going-away present. I doubt he ever wore his Steelers' jersey again.
Limbaugh was one of several future luminaries who would show up either for football or softball back then.
Matthews is the 50-year radio voice of the Kansas City Royals, now in the broadcasters’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Wayne Larrivee and Kevin Harlan also played. Larrivee is now the radio voice of the Green Bay Packers and Harlan the voice of everything – a two-time National Sportscaster of the Year who has broadcast 11 Super Bowls and four Final Fours.
Bill Hancock and Steve Hatchell played. They worked for the Big Eight back then. Now Hancock is the executive director of the College Football Playoff and Hatchell the president and CEO of the National Football Foundation, which oversees the College Football Hall of Fame. Hatchell may have been the only Thursday afternoon regular better at deep-snapping than Limbaugh.
The late Craig Sager played. He’s been inducted into the National Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame for his courtside work as an NBA reporter for TNT. Craig Thompson also played. He’s now the commissioner of the Mountain West Conference.
Former Kansas City Royals George Brett, Jamie Quirk and Darrell Porter all popped in occasionally to play football. Quirk was headed to Notre Dame to play quarterback before the Royals drafted and signed him to play baseball out of high school. Sam Lacey, a 6-10 center with the NBA Kansas City Kings, stopped by once to play. Thursday-afternoon football had never seen a red-zone target the likes of Lacey.
We were short a player one Thursday afternoon and former Kings’ assistant coach Frank Hamblen lived down the street. So we coaxed him into playing and play he did – middle linebacker with a tumbler of scotch in his hand. He pulled a hamstring that afternoon and was on the training table that night before a Kings' game. He never lived that down. But he did go on to win seven NBA championship rings as an assistant coach with the Bulls and Lakers. He’s now in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
John Filo would occasionally show up for softball. He was a photographer with the Associated Press back then. As a college student he won a Pulitzer prize for his Kent State photo. John Hendel brought a big left-handed stick to Saturday softball. He went on to become the executive editor of United Press International in Washington D.C. Tom Shatel also played. He's now the lead sports columnist for the Omaha World Herald.
But none of us loved the sports and camaraderie as much as Limbaugh. Knowing Rush, I’m not sure those five Marconi Awards meant as much to him as that one touchdown catch.