BY official count there were 2,009 shotgun wizards wearing wide-peaked caps ganged up at Vandalia, during the last week of August. They somehow managed to break into bits more than a million black, pancake-shaped birds with yellow domes, known as clay pigeons. It all added up to trap-shooting's Grand American Handicap Tournament, a real dilly of a shoot, the biggest yet held.
Out of those 2,009 earnest competitors there was one sighting in for stakes a lot more important than just the cool cash involved ($4,800 in prizes and bets that went to the winner). This special one was a 13-year-old shooter named Johnny Lilly, from a town in central Michigan called Stanton.
A NAME WITH A REPUTATION
September 12, 1954
To get the pitch on what was chasing around in Johnny's mind that August afternoon, you've first got to know about his father and grandfather.
Johnny's father is Ned Lilly. In the trapshooting world, that compares with the name Ted Williams in baseball. Ned Lilly is still rated among the five greatest trapshooters in the world. And Johnny's grandfather, Dr. I.S. Lilly, already made the family name mean quite a lot before Ned ever came along. Between Johnny's father and grandfather, the name Lilly has a reputation in Vandalia.
But this is '54 and time marches on. Now, it's Johnny's turn. It's the first time he's ever been in this high-pressure national hassle. Nor has he had too much experience other places either.
He broke 97 at the Wisconsin State shoot this past summer, became Michigan State Junior Champ by breaking 94 and won the Central Zone Championship with 91. All this moved him up from Class D to Class B (his father is Class AA, 96 average, shooting from a 25-yard handicap, otherwise known as "the back yard").
Now he's sitting in a canvas-back chair under the canopy outside his grandfather's trailer. Sitting around Johnny are his father, his grandfather, his older cousin and a family friend.
Johnny leans back in the chair. "What squad's up now?" he asks.
"I don't know, Johnny, but it's not near 222 yet," his father says.
Johnny's grandfather speaks up. "Forgot to tell you, Johnny—they want you to stop by the Ad Building some time and pick up that silver bowl you won yesterday."
Johnny nods, gets up and heads toward the Ad Building. Yesterday, in the Preliminary Tournament, Johnny won the silver bowl plus about $774 by breaking a phenomenal 99 birds out of the 100 possibles. The only reason he didn't top the whole field was because Vernon Thornborrow from Hamilton, Ont. broke an incredible 100 out of 100 to walk off with $5,000.
Now Johnny finds himself a celebrity. Photographers besiege him. When he finally gets back to his grandfather's trailer, there's still another photographer waiting—this one from a magazine called SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
He gets that shot out of the way, but he can't sit still long. He goes over to the ammo store and buys his four packages of shells. Back at the trailer he says, "I heard over there somebody already broke 99. Some kid." His father shrugs.
THE BIRDS FLY
Inside the trailer, Johnny pins a protective pad under his polo shirt on the right shoulder where the recoil hits. He puts on his shooting jacket, slings the strap of his ammo case over his shoulder and walks out, gun in hand. When he reaches the line on Trap 6, West, his father is sitting on the bench behind the shooting platform. Johnny draws the No. 5 spot. The man in No. 1 slot asks if everyone is ready, then he calls for his bird. Four birds later another Lilly takes over for the family in the Grand American.
Johnny stands there, wearing his Milwaukee Braves' cap and his rolled-up dungarees. He brings his gun shoulder-high with the crisp precision of a line-duty Marine. He yells "Pull!" in a voice that's a high-pitched contrast to the rest.
Out of the trap skims the bird. Johnny's gun remains silent for a brief second, or maybe two, and then it speaks. The bird seems to dissolve in the air, the way it only does when it's been nailed dead to center.
Johnny hugs the gun under his arm, spits on his hands (above), then rubs them on the backsides of his dungarees. He finishes his first five shots without a miss and, according to custom, heads across the shooting platform to No. 1 while the others move down a notch.
It isn't until his 28th shot that Johnny finally misses one. He winds up with a highly respectable 91, but eight misses over the final winner, 14-year-old Nick Egan from Flushing, N.Y.
They head back to the trailer. It's easy to see he's giving himself a bad time. It's no comfort to know that the champ who beat him only broke 88 in his first Grand American.
But Johnny's father is contented. "With seasoning, he'll be the best shot that ever came along in this family," says he. "He showed me that today."
The name of Lilly would seem to be safe at Vandalia for a good many years.