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Ode to a Blocking Back

June 07, 2004
June 07, 2004

Table of Contents
June 7, 2004

Sports Illustratd Bonus Section: Golf Plus
Baseball
  • Even great hitters aren't immune to horrific slumps. How does a player like Derek Jeter suddenly lose his way at the plate--and how does he find his way back?

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Ode to a Blocking Back

In his defense, when my father dropped his pants in the bar of a
Minnesota country club last Friday night, it was during a
discussion of the respective benefits of boxers and briefs, which
he illustrated by showing off his preference for an ingenious
innovation called "boxer-briefs." These are, as the five
strangers at the next table now know, tighty-whiteys that extend
to mid-thigh.

This is an article from the June 7, 2004 issue Original Layout

But then my father is an unpredictable man, prone to impulse, as
on the night in 1965 when he was seized (at the end of a long and
gin-fueled business dinner in Detroit) by a sudden desire to go,
for the first time in his life, downhill skiing. Egged on by
fellow tape salesmen, he found a suburban slope, had a lift
ticket stapled to his topcoat and burned holes through his kid
gloves upon grabbing the rope tow, which promptly--given the
splayed position of his rented skis--jerked him into a snow
fence, dislodging his fedora. "Let me ask you something," said
the ski shop's night manager, when my father returned the two ski
poles, which were bent at right angles. "Do you always ski in a
suit and tie?"

The answer is yes, for my father is a great indoorsman. He and my
mother, the wind beneath his wingtips, worked hard for our
Midwestern comforts, which included an aluminum house and a
wood-paneled station wagon, so that they really did have, while
raising five children in the 1970s, two problems peculiar to
suburbia: a rusting house and a car with termites.

Last summer, when my father chauffeured me to Hazeltine National
Golf Club in suburban Minneapolis to watch the world championship
of amputee golf, he obliviously, and illegally, drove onto the
grounds of the tony club using an access road reserved for
maintenance trucks. Nevertheless, he forged ahead in search of
parking, driving the length of Hazeltine's cart path, past
several miles of manicured fairway, periodically pausing to
give--with an impatient wave of his hand--mortified golfers the
right-of-way.

As we rolled past the 1st tee, you could actually hear monocles
falling into soup tureens throughout the mahoganied clubhouse at
Hazeltine, which hosted the 2002 PGA Championship. "You can only
get away with this in one of two vehicles," said my father, his
car stereo tuned to Lite-FM. "A broken-down pickup truck or a
Cadillac." And Dad has indulged, in retirement, a single
extravagance: his pimped-out, champagne-colored Cadillac DeVille.
It has, as he frequently notes, the turning radius (and gas
mileage) of a Panzer tank.

My father, too, is built like a Panzer, but only from the waist
up. He has comical bird legs, as thin and smooth as Nicole
Kidman's, the hair worn away by four decades of knee-high black
socks. Taken as a whole, he looks like one of those square houses
on stilts that you sometimes see in coastal areas prone to
flooding.

But those legs served him well as a blocking back in college,
first for the 1952 Big Ten co-champion Purdue Boilermakers and
later, after he transferred to Tennessee, for the great Johnny
Majors. My father always taught his children--even my sister,
Amy--that "short, choppy steps" are the key to blocking, the key
to opening holes. And I've come to realize, with each passing
year, that they are also the key to life.

Today, golf is his primary athletic pursuit. In the winter he
lives on the 17th fairway of a south Florida condo complex very
much like the Del Boca Vista depicted on Seinfeld. Among his
regular playing partners are Bernie Flowers (Purdue All-America
who went on to catch passes from Unitas with the Colts) and
former Notre Dame football coach Gerry Faust. On the driving
range my father once blasted a ball directly perpendicular to his
body, so that it ricocheted off the metal stall divider and
rocketed back at him, nearly striking him in the nuts, a blow
that would have killed him instantly. Try keeping a straight face
while delivering that eulogy.

He still spends his summers in suburban Minneapolis, where he
enjoys idling away evenings watching the Twins on TV. This ardor
briefly cooled last winter when the team traded his favorite
player, catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who makes the sign of the cross
before every at bat. One of the two TV stations that carried the
Twins had no qualms about showing the gesture, but the other
channel would always abruptly cut away--as part of a blatant,
anti-Catholic conspiracy, to hear my father tell it.

He taught his children always to crush a man's hand when shaking
it (he calls his own vice-grip the Knuckle Floater), the proper
way to tie a necktie (in advance of a job interview or a night of
Alpine skiing) and how to smuggle, into any ballpark in America,
a one-pound sack of cut-rate peanuts convincingly concealed in
your pants. (Hint: It helps to wear boxer-briefs.)

Every Sunday he puts fresh flowers on my mother's grave, while
Canada geese crane their necks at him from behind a nearby tree.
The moment he drives away, they eat the flowers, a Fare-for-Fowl
food program going strong in its 13th year.

In a closet of his small condo, he has stashed several hundred
issues of SI, each with a colorful thumb tab indexing every
article I've ever written, a ritual he evidently performs every
Thursday, when his magazine arrives. And so I thought I'd say to
him on this Thursday--June 3, 2004--Thanks, Dad: I have noticed.
And happy 70th birthday.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY
My father always said that "short, choppy steps" are the key to
opening holes and, I now realize, to life.