The call came out of nowhere. More specifically....
"Sidney, New York. You're on with Larry King."
"Larry, I have a question for Steve Wulf. Does he keep in touch with anyone from Norwich?"
"I know the Purple Tornado won the state basketball championship last year," I said.
"Then you'll be interested to know the football team might win the state championship this year."
Before I had a chance to find out more about the team or the caller, and before a large chunk of the radio audience started station-surfing, Larry cut us off. This—The Larry King Show, Oct. 15, 1993—was supposed to be an hour on the upcoming World Series, after all. There were precious few people out there who knew or cared what Sidney, New York, and I were talking about.
What we were talking about was my first love.
Exactly 20 years before, I had left Norwich, N.Y. (pop. 8,800), in my powder-blue '68 Chevy Malibu to continue my way in the world of journalism. After 15 months as a—no—the sportswriter for The Evening Sun (circulation 5,500), it was time to move on to my second job. I didn't have much in the way of worldly possessions, not on the wages the paper paid me. But that short time in that small town provided me with a decade of memories and a megalopolis of friendships. I drove out of Chenango County with remembrances of the Purple Tornado and the Bluebird, Tom Schwan and Tom McMahon and Tom Rowe, the People's Softball League and noontime basketball games at the Y, Rocky Nuzzolese and Norm Kaufman, the long wintry nights when I had to write 12 separate basketball stories and the glorious fall afternoons covering eight-man football in South New Berlin. I would particularly miss that block of North Broad Street in Norwich where, walking south, you could find food and talk at the Bluebird, drink and talk at the Norwich Grille, the New York City papers and talk at the Smoke Shop and, upon turning the corner, the magnificence of the Chenango County courthouse.
You know the town Bedford Falls in It's a Wonderful Life? That was Norwich as I remembered it, a place from a simpler, warmer time, a place where being a neighbor meant something. (For me, it also meant having to share a party line with four other homes.) Not many outsiders knew where Norwich was. Norwich, Connecticut, they would ask, or Norwich, Vermont? No, Norwich, New York, 35 miles northeast of Binghamton, 45 miles southwest of Utica, smack-dab in the middle of the state, or, in other words, nowhere. That was part of its charm, actually. Norwich was a secret place, like Shangri-la.
When I left, the town was thriving. Chenango County had a remarkable panoply of industries: Norwich Pharmacal, makers of Pepto-Bismol and Unguentine; Norwich Mills, makers of Champion sporting attire; Norwich Shoe; GLA, makers of precision instruments for the space program; Victory Supermarkets, with headquarters in Norwich; and the Borden Company down in Bainbridge, hometown of the inventor of condensed milk, Gail Borden.
Despite the presence of Victory and Champion, Norwich's sports teams provided precious few of either. In fact, when I left, the football team had just completed its second consecutive winless season. The year before, Norwich had decided to enter the Southern Tier Athletic Conference, made up of much larger schools in and around Binghamton, and the results were disastrous. That first 0-9 season cost Norm Kaufman, a decent man and a good coach, his job. His replacement, Chuck Drankoski, who was just out of college, fled the scene a week before the team's first game in what turned out to be another 0-9 season. The basketball and baseball teams were O.K. but nothing to write home about.
So it came as something of a surprise when I found out last year that the Norwich basketball team was something to write home about. Indeed, Peter Carry, the executive editor of Sports Illustrated, who was raised in North Norwich, was corresponding with his boyhood chum and my onetime YMCA basketball bud, Norwich City Court Judge Howard Sullivan, about the Purple Tornado. We cheered vicariously, 200 miles away, as Norwich wended its way through the various elimination tournaments. On March 27 the Purple defeated Buffalo's St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute 75-69 in Glens Falls to win the state Class B championship and finish its season 29-0. Sullivan informed us that there was an impromptu parade that Saturday night, as honking cars and cheering people lined Route 12 for miles to cheer the team on its way home to Norwich High, where another throng awaited it.
That was the good news. The bad news was that the team had become a rallying point for a populace in the middle of a depression. In the last year 1,200 people had lost their jobs in Chenango County, most of them in Norwich. Procter & Gamble, which had acquired Norwich Pharmacal 11 years earlier, was laying people off and moving part of its operations to Cincinnati; Norwich Shoe had closed; Champion was downsizing; the Victory warehouse was hollow. It sounded like Bedford Falls had become Potterville.
"You don't happen to have a powder-blue '68 Chevy Malibu, do you?" Thankfully, the Avis agent in Manhattan didn't call for security. She just handed me the keys to a burgundy '94 Chevrolet Corsica. I was off to retrace my routes, namely 8, 23, 12 and 12B, on my way to cover a Norwich football game, at the stale Class B quarterfinal up north in Rome.
A few weeks before, Sidney, New York, from The Larry King Show had followed up his mysterious phone call with a letter. He was Ken Paden, a onetime stringer for The Evening Sun who now published a weekly newspaper out of Sidney, just over the southeastern border of Chenango County. He thought there was a good story to be found in Norwich, where "the high school teams are about the only things left to cheer about." He even suggested a hook: "A return to Norwich prompted by a phone call to The Larry King Show." Good idea. But to sweeten the pot, Paden resorted to shameless flattery, mentioning that his pressroom foreman, Tim Ryan, used to work for The Evening Sun, and "he says you were a damn-good third baseman on the company softball team." Tim's faulty memory aside, that put the idea over the top.
On the way to Rome my memories of driving the roads of central New York came back. It's funny, but even after 20 years, I anticipated the turns as if I had driven them yesterday. Alone with the curves came other memories. There was the day in August 1972 when Tom McMahon, the publisher of The Evening Sun, hired me fresh out of Hamilton College to cover sports, which mainly consisted of the 12 high school teams in the area. He apologized for paying me $95 a week.
I also remembered my first story for the paper. It was about some girl marksman, and as was my habit in college, I wrote the story in longhand. When my editor, Barry Abisch, saw me transcribing the story to the typewriter that morning, he came over to me and said something sage, like, "Oh my god, what are you doing?" He then informed me that I had better learn to write on the typewriter, pronto. It was the first of many lessons he taught me.
I was a hopeless greenhorn. And for a 22-year-old, an insufferable ass. I had this weekly column called "Just for Starters" in which I pontificated on anything having to do with sports, including the 1973 Associated Press Major League All-Star team. It pains me to admit this, but I actually wrote these words: "But, my friends, heed me." Aarrgh. I took particular exception to the choice of the San Francisco Giants' Chris Speier at shortstop. "I don't like Chris Speier," I opined. "I like Don Kessinger, Larry Bowa, Bud Harrelson, Mark Belanger, Ed Brinkman, Roger Metzger, Dal Maxvill, Bert Campaneris, Fred Patek and Danny Thompson. But I don't like Chris Speier. I don't know why, either." Fortunately for me, San Francisco was outside The Evening Sun's circulation area.
"Longtime, no see."
Hello, Schwannie. We're on the sideline of Rome Free Academy's football field an hour before kickoff of the quarterfinal game between the Purple Tornado and the Chittenango Bears. Tom Schwan has changed a lot less than I have in 20 years.
A Norwich Pharmacal chemist by profession, the cherubic Schwan moonlighted by doing The Evening Sun's high school football and basketball predictions and covering the bigger games of the week. He still does both, although now he's an executive with Procter & Gamble. Actually, he's about to retire because he prefers staying in Norwich to moving to Cincinnati.
He fills me in on the Norwich eleven, which really is an eleven since almost every starter goes both ways. Even the team's solid, no-nonsense coach, John Pluta, doubles as a history teacher. The quarterback, Chris Maynard, is a natural leader with a good arm, and his best receiver is Charlie Wightman, a cornerback on defense, in addition to being the kicker, the punter and the return man on punts and kicks. The heart of the team is fullback/linebacker Jason James. Since they're on the field almost all the time, the players are a little tired after 10 games, all of which they have won. "One of their best players, tight end Pete Burton, hurt his knee and is saving himself for the basketball season," says Schwan. "Still, I picked them to win this game."
We ask about each other's families, and it's good to hear that Elaine and the three girls are doing well. In 1972 the Schwans were my family. I had more than a few dinners at their home, and every Sunday evening I would come by to pick up Tom's copy for the newspaper, watch an hour or so of a game and eat popcorn. That's where I witnessed the Immaculate Reception of Franco Harris. Then it would be back to the baby-blue cinder-block building on Hale Street that still houses The Evening Sun. The daylight hours of Sunday were spent calling around to the area coaches for the details and quotes about their Friday and Saturday games, and Sunday nights were devoted to writing the umpteen game stories about New Berlin and South New Berlin, Mount I Upton and Otselic Valley, Sherburne-Earlville and Bainbridge-Guilford, Afton and Greene, Oxford and Norwich. I usually didn't get out of the baby-blue box until 2 or 3 a.m.
Schwan reminds me of the time I quoted myself in a People's Softball League game story. It's true; I still have the clipping. The team I played second or third base for, Rowe's O's, had beaten the Nads (don't ask) 29-5 even though I, the leadoff hitter, had gone 0-8 before singling in my last at bat. My shameless quote was, "I went through a two-game batting slump in one night. But I think that I, more than anyone, was responsible for keeping the score down." I tell Tom that if I had a prouder journalistic moment in Norwich, it was the time I was doing the police blotter and reported the theft of a 14-pound ham from in front of Taranto's butcher shop in the early morning hours. "Police," I wrote, "are now on the lookout for a large purchase of mustard."
Game time approaches, and the Purple Tornado gets set to receive. Actually, the nickname would fit better on Chittenango, which is the home of L. Frank Baum, who was the author of a book that hinges on a tornado, namely, The Wizard of Oz. And the Bears is the best they could come up with?
Hundreds of purple rooters dominate the stands, and similarly, Norwich dominates Chittenango in the first quarter. But a field goal is blocked, and after Jason James scores from the one, the two-point-conversion attempt fails, so Norwich leads by just 6-0 when the quarter ends.
It is a great pleasure just walking the sidelines again. That's how Schwan and I covered games back then, and even though there was a light rain falling and a press box beckoning, that's how we covered this game. Besides, there are a few familiar faces on the Norwich side. Frank Speziale, The Evening Sun's ebullient photographer, is patrolling the game with his trusty Hasselblad—"the Mercedes of cameras," he always said. Tim Ryan, whose flattery got me to Rome, is taking shots for the high school's booster club. And counseling the defensive backs is none other than Norm Kaufman.
I never knew a coach as dedicated and sincere as Norm. He was a little out to lunch sometimes, like during the '72 season when he decided to let the players run their own practices and call their own plays. But the year after he was fired, Kaufman went down to neighboring Oxford as a volunteer line coach, just because he missed it. When I congratulated him on a job well done in '93, he said, in his familiar raspy voice, "Ah, Mickey Mouse could have coached these kids."
Norm and I just happened to catch the Purple Tornado at a bad time in the early '70s. How bad? After a few years of scores like 70-6 and 70-0, the Southern Tier Athletic Conference tried to throw Norwich out of the league. The school board had to take the league into court to win reinstatement. So when Norwich began beating up on its conference rivals on the court and on the field a few years ago, it was sweet revenge.
Before I got there Norwich High had a fairly rich sports history. Why, the 1937 football team was unbeaten, untied and unscored upon. That's the team that inspired Perry Brown, a Norwich sportswriter who actually had a school named after him, to coin the nickname Purple Tornado. You may not have heard of the legendary Toots Mirabito or the fabulous Stig Biviano, but I did. each and every Friday night at the Grille. I leek, the townspeople were still stinging over the treatment Ed Ackley, the great running back on the 1954 team, had gotten from Ben Schwartzwalder at Syracuse University. Imagine Ed having to play behind that kid from Long Island, what's his name, yeah, Jimmy Brown.
A few days before the big football game against Chittenango, the star of the Norwich basketball team, Bob Lazor, announced that he was going to attend Syracuse the next year, unaware that he might be tempting Ed Ackley's fate. But Lazor, by all accounts, is the real deal. The 6'9" son of a P&G executive, Lazor has a nice touch from the outside and is often compared to Christian Laettner. In the Class B championship game last March, he scored 19 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter to help Norwich erase a 15-point deficit against St. Joseph's. But the victory wasn't Lazor's alone. He was part of an extraordinary junior class of athletes that the townspeople had been following for quite some time—Wightman, James, Maynard, Burton et al. "We've known for years how special these kids are," says basketball coach Mark Abbott. Consequently, as time went on, and more and more jobs were lost, the town put a larger emotional investment in the kids.
"In our last few games," says Abbott, "we'd get 4,000 people traveling 3½ hours to West Point and three hours to Glens Falls. When we finally went ahead in that last game, our fans gave us so much energy that I knew we had the game won. And they stayed with us all the way home. It was eerie, just like that scene in the movie Hoosiers."
Will the '93 football team go down in Norwich history, as well? If it does, it will have to survive the loss of 250-pound senior lineman Matt Ryan, who went down with an ankle injury early in the second quarter. The offense can't put the ball in the end zone, despite several fine catches by Wightman, and the defense finally breaks down with 1:57 left in the half. Chittenango's extra point is good, and the Bears (how about the Scarecrows or the Munchkins?) lead 7-6 at halftime.
"You show up, and they start losing again."
It's my old skipper, Tom Rowe. When I played for Rowe's O's, Tom was selling men's clothing at Winan's on Broad Street. After I left Norwich, The Evening Sun went through sports editors as if they were, well, old newspapers, until 1980 when it hired Tom Rowe. He has been there ever since, Good manager, good man. Good sports editor, too, even though he did spend the first half in the press box.
We compare notes on those marathon Sunday and Tuesday nights. Because of Title IX, he has many more game stories to write than I did. He tells me that Charlie Wightman is the son of Charlie Wightman who used to play with us in the People's Softball League. I ask him about several of our Softball contemporaries, including first baseman Chuck Bessett, who is a Norwich policeman. "This is going to make you feel old," says Tom, "but Chuck is retiring next month as the Sidney police chief."
The PSL was a lighter, counterculture version of the more conservative Chenango Valley Softball League. The CVSL had teams sponsored by many of the major industries in town, and the quality of play was far superior to the PSL's. Norwich Shoe, in particular, had a great team because of its fireballing fireplug of a pitcher, Rocky Nuzzolese. Nobody knocked the Rock. I can still see him flicking the ball against his thigh, sending another unseen strike past the batter.
Norwich softball was big, all right. And good. One day in the late 70s, the King—Eddie Feigner—and his Court came to town, and Willie Brunton of Norwich Shoe shut them out for five innings. The final score was 3-2, Norwich Shoe. The King never came back.
I knew that the PSL had died some time ago, but Tom informs me that the CVSL is also no more. Say it ain't so, Rowe. "It's like a metaphor for the town," he says. "No more industry. No more softball. The diehards play down in Sidney now, but it's just not the same. And neither is Norwich. The corporations and holding companies came in and gutted the businesses that started here. Gone are the days when the president of a company and the janitor were friends because they played on the football team together.
"But at least we've got these teams. You haven't jinxed us, have you?"
The second half starts, and Jason James takes me off the hook. Running the ball right up the Chittenango gut, he powers two drives, scoring both touchdowns and a two-point conversion. Chittenango's Rusty Dean appears to be headed for a 65-yard touchdown run, but Wightman catches him from behind at the five and forces a fumble that Norwich recovers in the end zone for a touchback. The third quarter ends with Norwich ahead 20-7, and there are more than a few smiles on the sideline.
One man is still too intent on the game to be smiling. Howie Sullivan told me about him. "The life's blood of the team," the judge called him.
He is Mickey James, Jason's father and a volunteer line and strength coach for the Purple Tornado. By day he is a telephone installer for GTE, but his evenings are spent at practices or games or the school's weight room. The grandson of Greek immigrants, Mickey was a three-sport star at Norwich High School, but he now walks with a limp, the result of a conveyor belt accident at Norwich Pharmacal.
Mickey was one of the coaches of the Pop Warner team. He stayed a youth coach, and when Jason and his age group came along, Mickey just followed them up the ladder. Said Judge Sullivan, "He instilled in those kids not just a work ethic but a sportsmanship ethic. He's a truly remarkable man, a Eucharistic minister in the Catholic Church, married to a Jehovah's Witness, which must make for some interesting religious discussions. But he's family all the way, and he's made all those kids one big family."
Mickey will later tell me, "Do you really want to know when I thought Jason's class was blessed? It was when they were three years old. I'm not kidding. The way they played, the way they bonded to each other. Jason, Charlie Wightman, Chris Maynard, Pete Burton, all of them were hanging out together at three." Bob Lazor was something of an outsider—he didn't get to Norwich until he was four.
The Purple Tornado may be all Norwich has for now. One of Mickey James's daughters, Kelly, a former honorable mention All-America basketball player at Hartwick College in Oneonta, can't find a teaching job in the area, so she's stacking newspapers at The Evening Sun. Unemployment in the county has risen from 6.1% 20 years ago to 8.6% today.
But it's also possible that these kids are Norwich's hope for the future. As Mickey will tell me, "The industries in this town were founded by men who weren't afraid of competition, who weren't afraid of failure. Just like these kids. Maybe enough of them will stick around to make a difference." And as Howie Sullivan said, "Norwich has a way of holding on to you."
Chittenango scores a quick touchdown and an extra point to make the score 20-14 early in the fourth quarter. With six minutes to play, Norwich has the ball deep in Bear (Tin Men? Flying Monkey?) territory. But on fourth-and-four from the 19, Chittenango turns back James and takes over on its 17.
From then on it's almost too painful to watch, almost too tempting to run out onto the field and help. Chittenango marches downfield on the exhausted Purple, opening holes for Rusty Dean. With 1:05 left, the Bears (Lions? Totos?) are at the Norwich 16 when Dean runs up the middle for 13 yards. With 50 seconds left he busts over the goal line to tie the score at 20-20. The Bears' kicker barely made his last extra-point attempt, so maybe...no; it's good, Chittenango 21, Norwich 20. The Purple Tornado tries four more plays, but the clock runs out with the ball at the Norwich 45.
On the field the Norwich players wander around, dazed and sobbing. Jason James, who rushed for 120 yards and 20 points, tells a bunch of his teammates, "I love you guys." Chris Maynard tells a reporter for a Binghamton paper, "I'm proud, proud of myself and this team. I'm not ashamed of anything. We played our hearts out."
That they did. Pluta gathers the players in the middle of the field and tells them to keep their heads up, that they had a great season and that they have nothing to be ashamed of.
Later I asked Pluta what the football team's bus ride back to Norwich had been like, and he said, "They were crying at first, but they kept their heads up the whole way, and they began talking about all the good things that had happened to them. To tell you the truth, I was never prouder of them than I was that night."
For the first time in 20 years, I wake up in Chenango County. I am not in the rural delivery #2 shack I lived in back then but rather the Howard Johnson Motel on North Broad. Nothing but the Bluebird will do for breakfast, but it is a Bluebird of sadness on this Sunday morning after the loss to Chittenango. The patrons are replaying the game in excruciating detail, almost enough to ruin a splendid breakfast. I walk by the Grille, which is shuttered temporarily, awaiting new owners, and then I walk into the Smoke Shop. A man buying the Binghamton paper tells the cashier, "Leave the sports section out. I don't feel like reading it today."
But then I turn the corner and see the sunlight reflected off the gold dome of the Chenango County courthouse. At the top of the dome is the familiar gold figure of Lady Justice, sword in one hand, scales in the other. If there is any justice in the world, those scales will once again tip back to prosperity. Maybe that class the stars have shined upon will take a shine to Norwich. Maybe those kids who have already learned how to handle success and disappointment will turn their community's fortunes around.
In the meantime, it's still Bedford Falls. It's still a wonderful life.