The young are permanently in a state resembling intoxication; for youth is sweet and they are growing.
This is an article from the Nov. 21, 1983 issue
A lot of the revelers were still in their togas, but Todd Becker had taken his off and was back in street clothes. As he hung by his hands from a third-story window of Brackenridge Hall at the University of Pittsburgh, he seemed fearless. Yet it was fear that had driven him out the window in the first place. Certainly he was intoxicated. The coroner's report would later determine the alcohol level in Becker's blood to be about 0.15%, 50% more than the accepted medical definition of drunkenness while driving.
It was Dec. 15, 1982, and the Pitt football team, with a 9-2 record and ranked No. 6 in the nation, was scheduled to leave for the Cotton Bowl the next day. Becker was a sophomore backup linebacker for the Panthers, a special teams demon who, says Coach Foge Fazio, "always just leveled his man." The occasion was a toga party, the kind of bacchanalian hoedown that Aristotle himself must have witnessed occasionally and which was immortalized for modern youth in Animal House. Because it was the last day of fall finals, the affair had a letting-off-steam air about it. "Just great friends and great times," recalls Pitt senior Defensive Tackle Bill Maas, who with his roommate. Dave Puzzuoli, now a member of the Cleveland Browns, threw the bash in their sixth-floor Brackenridge suite.
Dorm parties had been banned during finals, but the spirit of this one was in keeping with the campus mood. "The streets and bars around school were crowded with students out having a good time," says Christina Clinton, editor of The Pitt News, the student newspaper, which had already printed its last issue of the year. "I was out drinking, too." In all probability, nothing unusual would have happened at the party had dorm officials and campus police not arrived after midnight to check on a fire alarm that had gone off. "Somebody's always pulling a fire alarm," says Maas. But Becker was scared. He'd been barred from all Pitt dormitories for two years for squirting a fire extinguisher in his freshman dorm, and he knew that he'd be in trouble if school officials saw him now. He might well be suspended from the team, which would mean that his dream of playing in the Cotton Bowl would go unrealized.
"I told him, 'Listen, just go sit in my room and close the door and wait for everybody to come back,' " recalls Maas.
But Becker, who had sneaked into the dorm through a third-floor window in a friend's room, went back down to the third floor to try to get out the same way he'd come in. He banged on the friend's door but got no answer. A woman student across the hall heard the racket and, because she knew Becker, let him in to her room.
Becker went to her window, opened it and started to climb out. Both the woman and a male friend of Becker's—not a student—who had accompanied him to the party yelled that it was too far to jump. The window across the hall through which Becker had entered the dorm was almost at ground level, but because of Pittsburgh's hilly terrain this one was 35 feet above a cement walkway. Becker's friend grabbed his wrist, but Becker, who was now hanging by both hands, looked down and said he could make it. He pushed away from the window and dropped into the night.
"Todd was a happy-go-lucky kid," says Maas, who insists, like others at the party, that Becker didn't seem drunk. "And really, any of us might have done it. It's something that we would laugh about later."
"He had no fear," says Fazio. "I'm sure he thought. This is easy for me. I can do this. I'll jump down and be practicing tomorrow.' "
He might have been, had he landed on his feet. Instead, he hit a protruding air conditioner, spun in midair and landed on the pavement headfirst, suffering fatal brain damage. He died a short time later in the trauma center of Presbyterian-University Hospital. Fazio received a call at his home and rushed to the hospital, where he found a number of Panther football players and other students praying. He stared at Becker's body. "He had on one of his old game jerseys," says Fazio. "He had those big arms, and he just looked so alive."
From the hospital Fazio went to his office, where he met Athletic Director Ed Bozik. A former Air Force colonel, Bozik was stunned. "I've sent men into combat, and some of those men haven't come back," he says. "But this death was so...unnecessary."
Perhaps this incident should be forgotten, written off as an aberration, an inexplicable college tragedy. But in its poignance it points to something deeper, something in youth itself. It also points to something in the fabric of big-time college football and to something in the atmosphere at Pitt, a school that boasts 93 years of proud football tradition, nine national championships and 57 All-Americas. Pitt is little different from the Oklahomas and Michigans, except that it resides in an NFL city where football is seen almost as a birthright of its citizens. And this matters.
"So much is expected of Pitt athletes," says Sports Information Director Jim O'Brien, who was born and raised in Pittsburgh and graduated from the school in 1964. "They aren't compared with other college players; they're compared with the Steelers. When a Pitt team plays a game, it's not just representing the university; it is representing the city of Pittsburgh, the City of Champions. Everything at this school is done under a magnifying glass."
Fazio shakes his head as he ponders Becker's fatal plunge. "There were so many events building up," he says. "So many things were bringing him closer to that window."
A lot of it had to do with pressure. Much of that was on Fazio himself. As a first-year coach Fazio, a former Pitt linebacker (class of '60) from nearby Coraopolis, was taking over a program that was so successful—the Panthers have more wins (71, including bowls) over the last seven years than any other Division I school—that he seemed more a cosmetic addition than a true leader. Pitt was most everybody's 1982 preseason pick for No. 1. It seemed that all the big-hearted, fun-loving, local-boy-makes-good Fazio had to do was roll out the ball, and the talent brought in by former Coach Jackie Sherrill could whip the Steelers themselves. Indeed, three Pitt players, Dan Marino. Tim Lewis and Jimbo Covert, were selected in the first round of this year's NFL draft, and six others were picked in later rounds.
Just winning wasn't enough, however. People wanted routs, annihilations. "We were seven and oh and getting ripped," says Fazio. "We beat Syracuse 14-0, and everybody said, 'What's wrong with the offense?' " Unlike most major football schools, Pitt is situated in a major media market, and thus the team comes under the scrutiny of a sophisticated press. From the start, Fazio's players felt the heat from the media. "Even training camp was like the Democratic National Convention," says Fazio. "Maybe I should have kept it looser. I don't know. But we did not play loose."
"The press was so hostile that I always felt it was us against the world," recalls Joyce Aschenbrenner, the football sports information director at Pitt last year and now the SID at UNLV. "I remember a column in a newspaper that referred to the 'well-oiled Pitt publicity machine.' I cut that out and put it in my wallet because it was so funny. People had no idea what we were going through. We were just hanging on for dear life."
In the beginning, Fazio stayed up in his observation tower, a la Bear Bryant, and surveyed his team darkly. Shortly before the start of preseason practice he learned that his wife. Norma, had cancer. "They operated on her on picture day," says Fazio. "I remember that." Norma was in and out of Presbyterian Hospital for more than a month, and suddenly her husband's world became very small. "We live three blocks from this office," says Fazio, leaning over his desk at the stadium and pointing out the window. "And the hospital's right across the street. To be honest, I was so busy with football and getting our two kids off to school and going over there that I don't know what I thought."
Fazio does know that the pressure on his players was "unbelievable." Money brought on part of it. As is the case at most big schools, Pitt's football program more or less subsidizes the university's entire athletic department. The team had better generate a given amount of TV and bowl-game income by season's end, or all hell can break loose. "What it means is that this is big business," says Bozik, "and that some 18- or 19-year-old is going to drop or catch a pass that will cost or make you a million dollars."
Also, for many of the players, getting drafted by the pros was a constant concern. Becker had plenty of time to make his mark, but he wasn't starting, and that frightened him. The ghosts of Panther stars past measured him daily. Just inside the Pitt locker room door, Tony Dorsett's Heisman Trophy glints dully. The retired lockers of Dorsett, Marino and Hugh Green, sealed over with Plexiglas and marked with metal plaques, remain in place and speak silently, almost mystically, of greatness. Becker's deepest fear focused on a bottling plant near his hometown in Fitchburg, Mass. "He always said he'd end up back at the plant if he didn't make it to the pros," said teammate Chris Warman the day after Becker died.
Then there were the fans. In Pittsburgh they're tough and knowledgeable and spoiled by years of Steeler and Panther success. "They think nothing of booing a player who's not a pro, not even a man yet," says John Pelusi, the center on Pitt's 1976 national championship team and now a local financial consultant. The fans got on All-America quarterback Marino so mercilessly for having a subpar senior season that even Joe Paterno, coach of archrival Penn State, was moved to tell a Pittsburgh reporter in early December, "I think we got to get rid of that junk."
Pitt has no athletic dorms and few special rules for athletes. Nothing insulates the players from the commotion around them. The campus consists of a number of high-rises near Forbes Avenue at the eastern end of the city, just below the Hill District's ghetto. Bars, night spots and liquor stores dot the area, and drinking is almost de rigueur for students. In fact, there's a bar less than a hundred yards from where Becker fell. The urban setting is both the beauty and the blemish of the school. "It takes a special kind of kid to go to Pitt," says Aschenbrenner. "It's not Happy Valley U., with a quaint little campus. But it's always exciting. Just stand on Forbes Avenue for 45 minutes and see how many fire trucks and police cars go by."
O'Brien recalls that when he was a freshman at Pitt in 1960, a Panther football player was stabbed in a city bar. O'Brien also remembers celebrating his 21st birthday, the first day he could legally drink, in a tavern where he and his pals had already been drinking for two years. "You're not in an incubator at Pitt," says O'Brien. "This school prepares you for the real world." Last year, perhaps, Pitt's football players could have used a buffer zone, an area where they could have rested and been debriefed before leaving their world up on the hill at Pitt Stadium and entering the one below.
By late November, dissension had begun to plague the team. Pitt had lost two of its last three games and everyone was dumbfounded. Lewis, who's now with the Green Bay Packers, publicly blasted some of his teammates for not giving their all. Eventually, Associate Athletic Director Dean Billick called a press conference just so Lewis and others could explain their statements. But the biggest problem was so natural it defied resolution. The players felt rootless—"There was always the question, 'Whose team is it, Sherrill's or Fazio's?' " says Bozik—and they were unable to rally as a group. They were simply too young. Senior Wide Receiver Dwight Collins claims that pressure isn't a problem for him now that he's married. The commitment, says Collins, gives him "discipline and order." But he quickly adds, "Other guys may not have it."
Order is not a natural gift of youth, particularly not of young football players. In this context order doesn't mean the drive to work or the willingness to make sacrifices for a larger goal; football players have that to an extreme. What is meant is the order one obtains from having priorities set, from being at peace, from knowing the difference between a violent game and a society that frowns on violence, from knowing, as Bozik says, "when to turn it on and when to turn it off."
Becker was still learning when to turn it on and off. The Panthers' 1982 media guide says the 6'2", 214-pounder's favorite pastime was lifting weights. "He was such a good football player," says his father, Al, a trucker. "He was a killer." But the same aggressiveness that delighted every coach Becker ever had was a problem off the field.
On his left calf Becker bore a tattoo of a grinning Sylvester the Cat hanging Tweety bird by the neck with a piece of rope. It was a violent tattoo, and Becker sometimes seemed violent himself. "He sort of scared you at first, because you couldn't tell what he was going to do," says John Caito, a junior defensive back who was a friend of Becker's from Massachusetts. "But he wasn't a brute. He cared for the people around him. And he loved kids. But he was kind of...wild. I remember my dad saying to me, 'You can only cross that white line so many times.' And I'd think, 'Todd's crossing it again. What's going to happen to him? Something is.' "
Bozik has often thought about the dilemma of youthful exuberance, in both sport and war. "Football training is very much analogous to military training," he says. "In both cases young men are trained to do things they instinctively would not do. This has to condition your psyche, but the question is, can you convert that training and use its positive elements in normal life? In the military we have what we call 'war lovers,' the ones who can't turn it off. But everyone is constantly trained to act like gentlemen when not in a battle situation.
"Basically, I believe in the Aristotelian philosophy of striking a median, a balance. Any characteristic taken to an extreme becomes a vice. After all, getting into trouble, doing stupid things—that's not really the province of football players. It's traditional for young people to get into trouble."
But football players tend to be wilder than other students. At Pitt this is particularly true of defensive players. In a primitive way Panther defenders have always seemed to represent those Pittsburghers who would love just once to strike out from their dreary jobs—or joblessness—and tear into the big guys. "People here love to see Pittsburgh teams beat the hell out of teams from prettier places," says O'Brien.
Last February, Puzzuoli, who played defensive tackle for the Panthers, and Dennis Atiyeh, a linebacker, got into a fight with eight Pittsburgh police officers outside a bar. Puzzuoli and Atiyeh were beaten so badly that, according to Aschenbrenner, who took photos at the police station, Puzzuoli's "underwear was covered with blood," and both players were cut and bleeding from dog bites. The police took a beating, too; seven of the eight were injured. One has testified that he started to go for his gun because Atiyeh "threatened to kill me with my own nightstick," and that Atiyeh "seemed to be highly intoxicated." Many questions remain unanswered about the brouhaha, but a number of people think the players were the victims of police "overreaction."
Fazio was the defensive coordinator at Pitt before getting the head position, and he thinks the Panthers' current defensive zeal started when Green enrolled in 1977. A three-time All-America defensive end now with Tampa Bay, Green brought a spirited abandon not only to games but to practices as well. "Hugh's enthusiasm spread." says Fazio. "At times, practices were hilarious." At other times, they were like wars. A couple of Pitt players who hunted during off-days began to give bear screams during practice. At night they'd lean out their dorm windows and scream "Aaargh!" into the city. Then they did it in games. The Panther defense, ranked among the Top 5 in the country each of the last four years, terrified opponents. "Todd picked it up," says Fazio. "He fit in. He loved to hit."
Through the years several Pitt gridiron stars, including Paul Martha, Mike Ditka and Dorsett, have gotten into ugly scrapes either with the law or with university officials. Fazio himself says he's lucky to have made it out of high school without ending up "dead or incarcerated." Pelusi got into a street fight while at Pitt and was arrested along with two teammates. After a 4½-day trial, the three were cleared of all charges.
Today, at 28, Pelusi is a successful businessman. The club he's sitting in at Oxford Centre in downtown Pittsburgh is part of the $100 million building his firm financed. Pelusi looks back on the incident as an unfortunate but perhaps necessary stepping-stone to adulthood. "Look around," he says, gesturing at the sedate luncheon crowd. "These are some of the city's biggest business people, and I bet not one isn't embarrassed by something he did in the past."
The problem, of course, is surviving the growth process. "People expect Pitt football players to be big shots not only on the field, but off it," says Clinton of The Pitt News. "They have to be the biggest partyers, the biggest drinkers, the wild ones. And they're only human." Maas, an All-America and certain first-round NFL pick next spring, has started to realize this. "You'll be doing great in games for a couple of weeks," he says, "and then all of a sudden you'll take a hard one to the chin and you stop and think, 'I'm not immortal.' "
That such news should have to be learned at all is almost ludicrous. But the myopia of youth may well be a vital characteristic, a trait that helps keep our species on its toes, that keeps us striving against great and even foolish odds. If nothing else, it's one reason the Army drafts 18-year-olds and not contented middle-aged executives.
In October 1982 David Packer, a freshman wide receiver at the University of Rhode Island, apparently fell from a fourth-floor window of a campus dorm and suffered such severe brain trauma that he was not expected to live. He did. however, and though he'll probably never play football again, he may be able to re-enroll at Rhode Island next fall. No one, not even Packer, who has a 20-minute memory gap leading up to the accident, knows exactly what happened. He was probably just carrying out a crazy prank.
Last Friday at 4:15 a.m., Andrew Radcliff, the starting goalkeeper for the Hofstra University soccer team, was critically injured when he fell five stories from a dormitory window. Radcliff landed on his head and suffered multiple skull fractures as well as broken arms and legs and internal injuries. Radcliff had been drinking beer when he and a friend went to the room to visit two female students. Radcliff was sitting on the window ledge, lost his balance and fell.
What disturbs Rod Crafts, Rhode Island's dean of student life, is the way students invariably react to tragedies like Packer's and Radcliff's. "It's one of my duties to counsel close friends of victims," says Crafts. "And the common thread is always there: College students do not see themselves as vulnerable. They often say, 'I thought death was for my grandparents, not for me.' "
But for Becker's parents, death is something that can happen to the young. "I think about him every day, all the time," says Al Becker. "He was my dream. Now I can hardly watch football at all."
In the beginning the Beckers, who have two other sons, were excited about Todd going to Pitt. "We were the proudest people in Fitchburg," says Al. "Nobody around here ever goes to a big school." But like the parents of any heavily recruited athlete, they knew their child would face disappointments if things didn't work out.
"My wife was just mentioning that it could've had a large effect on Todd that he wasn't first team, that he could've been hurt inside," says Al. "From 10th grade on he never sat on the bench. His senior year at Fitchburg High he broke the school record for tackles and led the team in rushing. I drive a trailer truck, and I'm unfamiliar with college life, but did they have to ban him from the dorms for two years? He didn't do anything malicious. He was a tough kid, but he had feelings. Maybe they punished him because he wasn't a starter."
"I'm glad he went to Pitt, because he wanted to," says Todd's mother, Virginia. "But now I'm just filled with what-ifs." One of those is what if Todd had gone to UCLA, which had recruited him but wanted him to spend two years at a California junior college before joining the Bruins. But as Al says, "My wife's never been out there." Besides, Al continues, his driving experience made it "nothing for us to drive to Pittsburgh and see all Todd's games."
The Pitt team delayed its trip to the Cotton Bowl for a day to attend a memorial service on campus for Todd. Fazio, Bozik, part-time Assistant Coach Jim Miceli and several players, including Maas, Puzzuoli and Caito, later flew from Dallas to Fitchburg for the funeral. In the game against SMU, the Panthers wore patches on their jerseys bearing Becker's number, 38. The school flew his parents to Dallas and promised their youngest son, Jason, now 14 and a 170-pound linebacker at Fitchburg High, a scholarship to Pitt.
Virginia is ambivalent about the offer. "The athletic department was very good to us," she says. "But the school itself never sent us one line of condolence. It's almost as though my son wasn't even a student. I wonder if anybody is even thinking about him there."
Fazio is—all the time. Indeed, Fazio has changed not only because of Becker's death but also because of everything he and his team went through last season. He has come down out of his tower to get closer to his players, and he has tried to institute new codes of discipline. Players can no longer wear caps at the training table. They can't put their helmets on the ground during practice. They must wear coats and ties to both home and away games. Further, at the start of the year Fazio hired 38-year-old Carmen Grosso, a former Green Beret who saw action in Vietnam, to serve as a combination tight end coach and low-key disciplinarian.
Fazio knows there's a paradox in such measures. As he told the Pittsburgh Press last August, "We don't want them to be the best-behaved, best-dressed, most clean-shaven—and be the worst football players." Fazio still exhorts his defensive players to be "wild and reckless and fearless" afield. He still laughs at their antics, and he screams at them when they mess up. Most of all, he just wants them to make it through this tough period in their lives performing their best, unscathed.
"Todd's death had a sobering effect," says Fazio. "I learned that you have to keep things in the proper perspective. You're trying to mold these kids, but you also know you can't change their personalities. You hope that they learn to do things the right way, that they learn to walk away from the bad things...." Fazio, who openly marvels that he, the son of immigrants, is now the football coach at this proud school, pauses. On his office wall is a 2½' x 3' photo of the '63 Panther team, which went 9-1, losing only to Navy. Fazio didn't play on that squad, and he didn't coach it. The picture is there because he likes what the team accomplished after its victories. Of the 61 players on the roster, 57 graduated and 34 went on to obtain advanced degrees, to become doctors, dentists, engineers, lawyers, coaches, teachers, businessmen—successes. The boys grew up.
Fazio thinks once more of Becker. He looks at his desk top. "You can't go half speed in football, or you'll get hurt," he says. His voice then drifts off and he shakes his head. "If only I'd been there that night...."
"The imagination of a boy is healthy," wrote John Keats, who died of tuberculosis at 26, partly because he didn't believe the disease would kill him. "and the mature imagination of a man is healthy; but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thicksighted." It's a pity Todd Becker didn't make it past that ferment of the soul, into adulthood.