SI Vault: Wonderkid Chris Drury a Little League hero and hockey champ
In honor of Chris Drury’s induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, we present this story feature story which originally appeared in the December 25, 1989 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
On an autumn evening in Trumbull, Conn., Marcia Drury asked her son if he would like to run some errands with her. Chris, a cherubic 13-year-old, demurred, saying he had too much homework. “O.K.,” said his mother. “Just don't leave the house.”
She left—whereupon, of course, Chris did, too, running off to lollygag with his buddies in the neighborhood. When Marcia returned home unexpectedly early, she was fuming. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “He snuck out on me.”
When the wayward—and hopelessly contrite—boy reappeared, his mother had a few thousand words of reprimand for him. She concluded by saying, “Christopher, you are supposed to be an example to the youth of America.”
Said Chris, “Oh, Mom, I’m just a kid.”
She agreed. “You’re right,” said Marcia. “You were a nuisance before all this, and you’re still a nuisance.” The confrontation dissolved into laughter and hugs.
Perhaps never before in the history of puerile sport has one boy reached two such lofty athletic heights in such rapid succession. Earlier this year, Chris was the star of his Greater Bridgeport(Conn.) Youth Hockey team, which finished 64-2-1 and won the U.S. Amateur American Hockey Championship in Chicago on April 2, thereby proving itself to be the best Pee Wee team (12- and 13-year-olds) among some 2,000 such teams in the country. One hundred forty-six days later, Chris was whooping it up in Williamsport, Pa., having pitched and hit his Trumbull team to the Little League World Championship. If there were a Sports Kid of the Year award, Chris would win it hands down.
Besides being the most accomplished young athlete in Trumbull, a well-groomed town of 33,000 people 55 miles northeast of New York City, Chris is also an altar boy at St. Catherine's of Siena and a B student at St. Catherine's School. Healthy body, healthy mind. Not surprisingly, the busiest boy in Connecticut has been operating on a hectic schedule. During one short stretch earlier this fall, he had a Thursday night hockey practice from 9:30 to 10:30; he attended a banquet honoring the Little League team on Friday, which kept him out until nearly midnight; he went to the Cornell-Yale football game in New Haven on Saturday afternoon and scored the winning goal for his hockey team in a 3–2 triumph over Darien that night; he helped rake leaves at home on Sunday morning; and he played in another hockey game that night, this one a 3–3 tie in nearby Milford.
What do we have here, some kind of superboy? “I just think of me as myself,” says Chris. “That's about it.”
Such modesty derives in part from the fact that he’s not the only successful athlete in the family. One brother, Ted, 18, is a Harvard freshman who was selected by the Calgary Flames in the second round of last spring’s NHL draft. Another, Jimmy, 16, a 10th-grader at the Gunnery School in Washington, Conn., is also a first-rate hockey player. Says Chris’s Little League batting instructor, Bob Zullo, “Chris comes from a family that accepts the fact that they are able to do things of quality—but that they are not the only ones who can do them.”
Says Chris, “Time will tell what happens to me. As long as I do the best I can with what I am doing, that will be good enough. I've had two good big brothers and two good parents (he also has an 11-year-old sister, Katie), and we have all been blessed with what we have.”
In the face of all this wholesomeness, it’s cheering to discover that Chris’s room at home is a certified disaster area. Clothes and trophies and baseballs and hockey gear and junk and stuff are everywhere. When asked how he even gets into his room, Chris looks dumbfounded and says, “I just walk in and sit down.” With that he plods through the mess with the same determination one might use in a bamboo jungle, sits down on his bed and looks triumphant: “See?”
But upon leaving, Chris, who’s a roly-poly 5' 2", 126 pounds, trips over some sneakers buried next to a hockey stick that’s protruding from the clutter. That causes him to stumble into the open dresser drawer with the underwear hanging out. He steps into the hall, carefully closes the door behind him and says, “I think Mom likes it better when she can’t see it.”
Many of us, in our childhood dreams, were forever hitting the ball or slapping the puck that won the game as the crowd cheered. For most of us, though, the fantasies ended when the first curveball was thrown our way or when we discovered that hockey meant a lot of skating backward. For Chris, such dreams have been surpassed by reality.
Take the baseball triumph. After Chris and his 14 teammates won in Williamsport, Donald Trump flew them home in one of his planes (Chris called his mother during the flight). Limousines picked them up at 5:30 a.m. to take them to New York City for an appearance on Good Morning America. They went to FAO Schwarz, the Manhattan toy store, and to lunch at Mickey Mantle's restaurant, where they met the boss. Soon thereafter, the boys were summoned to the White House to visit with President Bush and offer their smiling faces for numerous photo opportunities. (While leaving the White House grounds, Chris was tossing pieces of tree bark when he spotted a rattrap at the White House foundation. Taking a pitcher’s aim, he threw a piece of bark and set off the trap. “Hey,” he said, laughing, “rats live here.”)
The young champions attended the first two games of the World Series in Oakland, and Chris threw out the first ball in Game 2. They have been guests of the Yankees, Mets and Red Sox. They have had VIP tours of FBI headquarters and the halls of Congress. They've been to Radio City Music Hall and to NBA games, and they have each received five jackets, plus plaques and pictures and proclamations. The team was in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. The praise and the attaboys have been nearly unceasing. Too much for 12-year-olds?
“Naw,” says Chris. “It’s perfect.”
If the boys of Trumbull have been honored in excess, it may be because their victory was so unexpected. Such an unlikely band of five-foot heroes is easy to adore. Back on April 25, when another Little League season dawned in Trumbull, the biggest dream anybody had was to win the town championship. When it came time to put together Trumbull’s two All-Star teams to compete in the Little League playoffs, no one was asking directions to Williamsport. But on that one wonderful day in August, over six innings, little Trumbull was better than Taiwan and all the rest of the world.
The coach was Tom Galla, owner of a local insurance company and a one-time catcher at Marietta (Ohio) College. Galla shakes his head when he thinks back on what his Little Leaguers accomplished. “These are 15 kids with better than average ability who managed to accomplish something they shouldn’t have been able to,” he says. “How could you expect that the Number One team in the world would come from Trumbull, Connecticut? You couldn’t. If I’d had 15 kids as good as Chris and you’d asked me if we could win it all, I’d have said, ‘No, of course not.’”
“All I want out of this,” says Marcia, “is for Chris to keep having a lot of happy memories—and keep being a kid.” She reflects the concerns shared by other mothers and fathers of the Trumbull champs, as well as by the coach. Says Galla, “I don’t expect all this to ruin Chris. But I’m afraid it may ruin some of the others.”
In different ways, people have tried to keep the boys humble. At the banquet, attended by some 500 people, local radio personality Tim Quinn addressed the team and said, “Would we all be here if you had lost? Well, no. So what you guys have done is screw up another Friday night for us.”
Ask Marcia her immediate concern for Chris, and she says, “Getting him out of eighth grade. Beyond that, important as all this is, it’s not as important as we think it is. It’s just another step in fulfilling his life’s goals, whatever they turn out to be.”
Chris’s father, John, agrees. “Remember, all we are talking about here is winning one game,” he says. “If it has given him a boost, that’s terrific. But if he hadn’t won, that would have been fine,too.”
The underlying fear here is obvious: What if this turns out to be life’s finest hour for Chris and the others? John, who has given the question plenty of thought, says, “If this is the high point in Chris’s life, then one of the keys will be how well he deals with the frustration of that. Still, if the hockey and the baseball are his life’s highlights, they wouldn’t be bad highlights, would they? As long as he learns to deal with them gracefully.”
Says Marcia, “I don’t think Chris thinks this will be the highlight of his life.” She knows her son. Chris wrinkles his nose in disdain at any suggestion that he might find himself at age 40 standing at a party talking about his Little League exploits back in ’89. “Really, I plan on doing a lot more,” he says.
According to Anne Petersen, dean of Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development, difficulties can arise when something like the Trumbull triumph “becomes the highlight of the parents’ lives. That puts too much emphasis on the achievement, and the child gets to thinking, I’ve done it all. What more is there? Now is the time for parents to be teaching broader meanings of life.”
If the parents of the players needed a forewarning of such a syndrome, they got it after the team’s one playoff loss, to Bridgeport Park City, during the double-elimination district tournament. A swimming party for the players and parents had been planned for after the game. The party went on as scheduled, but as Galla recalls, “The boys sulked for about 10 minutes and then went on and had a wonderful time. The parents sulked all night.”
Richard Lerner, professor of child and adolescent development at Penn State, takes a positive view of Trumbull's victory. “These kids have learned at an early age how to achieve,” he says. “Chris has learned the value of teamwork and that he can rely on his peers and on adults. These lessons should help him get over nonathletic hurdles in life.”
Ken Paul, father of another of the team’s stars, pitcher Andy Paul, says, “Keep this in perspective. What happened is that in the final two games, Andy and Chris pitched the games of their lives, back to back. It was like it was scripted. But my concern for Andy was that he was scared, and that as a little boy, he’d break down and we’d be talking about therapy for the next 30 years.”
John had a similar concern: “When I knew Chris would be going to Williamsport, I thought, I damn well better be there to support him in case he gets shelled.”
In the semifinals in Williamsport, against San Pedro, Calif., three of the first six batters Andy faced hit home runs. Then, relying almost entirely on a “dart” pitch assistant coach Eddie Wheeler had taught Andy and Chris for the postseason—it’s an overhand drop ball that Wheeler says puts none of the stress of a curveball on a young arm—San Pedro got only one more hit in Trumbull’s 6–3 victory. Similarly Chris, who in the championship game had two hits, drove in two runs and scored a third, got into a jam in the fifth inning, when Taiwan loaded the bases with one out. Relying on the dart pitch, he allowed just one run in the inning and went on to win 5–2. Never did he lose his composure. Says his father, “Chris has never been in a situation where the competition overwhelmed him.”
For that he can thank his two brothers, whom Galla describes as “tough kids and great athletes. So Chris was forced to be tough—and great.” When he was seven, Chris played on a local hockey team that won an international tournament in Toronto. His current hockey coach, Skip Sather, says, “Chris always thinks he’s going to win. He always thinks things are going to work out right.”
It remains to be seen if Chris has superior athletic ability. His hockey coach in last year's championship season, Paul Struble, gives a careful appraisal. “I’d say Chris has the talent to play in high school and probably in college,” he says. “Then, we’ll see.”
Indeed, to project any 13-year-old into the NHL or into major league baseball is folly. No wonder his dad, when asked about Chris’s athletic future, says, “He may not have one. That doesn't matter. We stress academics around our house. A lot of water has to go over the dam.” Marcia is on the same page: “I don’t want him to go someplace on his athletic ability where he can’t handle it academically.”
Some in Trumbull aren’t worried about Chris’s ability to handle anything. Says Zullo, “Whenever you’d talk to Chris and make a suggestion, he’d say, ‘Thank you.’ Then he’d go do it. He’s a striver. He knows he didn’t win these championships by himself. Best of all, behind that nice little smile is a nice little mind. I don’t think he’s going to have any trouble overcoming this period in his life.”
Still, Chris has set high standards for himself. Over the 16 playoff games leading to the title, he had 29 hits in 55 at bats for a smoking .527 average (teammate Ken Martin led Trumbull with a .588). In pitching 41-2/3 innings, his ERA was 2.33. When he wasn’t on the mound, he played catcher. Says Martin, “It’s too bad Chris can’t catch himself. He’s so heads-up.” In truth, as a pitcher, Chris, who moves up to Babe Ruth league next summer, relied primarily on junk, wile and guile. Any baseball future lies in his catching and hitting.
That is, unless his future lies not on the diamond but in the rink. This winter he is playing hockey in an age group one step higher than his age calls for, and he’s getting banged around pretty good by older kids not eager for the whippersnapper to make his reputation off them. “I’ve got to get a lot better,” says Chris. “I mean, a lot.”
Marcia watches this tougher competition with glee. “He’ll learn the hard knocks of life again,” she says. “He’s getting pushed out of the way. He’ll strike out. All this does more than anything to get him back to normal.”
Ah, but not too fast, please. After all, Mom, he’s just a kid.
Sitting at the dining room table one evening recently, Chris was asked whether he ultimately wants to play hockey or baseball. He shrugged and explained, quite properly, that he had no idea. However, when talk turned to the remarkable year that he had enjoyed, he got a faraway look in his eyes and said, “I wish we could do it all over again.”