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That Night a Mouth Roared and a Light Went Out


Like many others that fateful night 37 years ago, Dec. 8, 1980, I learned of John Lennon’s death from Howard Cosell. Yeah, that Howard Cosell. It was Monday night, the Patriots were in Miami, and, in 1980, Howard was still presiding — in his inimitably pedantic, overly dramatic fashion — over Monday Night Football, what in the pre-cable era was the week’s premier sports broadcasting event. Howard was respectful of the news, as respectful as his bombastic persona would allow: He treated it as he would a punt returner who has broken clear of the pack with only the kicker to beat. See that bizarre media moment, preserved for all time, here. ESPN would later weigh in with a meta-media doc, here.

My dad and I always watched MNF and we were stunned, naturally. It was legitimately stunning news delivered by a most unlikely source, in a peculiar context. The Pats’ left-footed, English place kicker — John Smith (from Leafield, Oxfordshire) — was lining up a field goal attempt when Cosell abruptly altered the narrative. The only thing that would’ve made it more bizarre? If Smith had hailed from Blackburn, Lancashire.

We called my mother into the room. She was the founding and still chief Beatles lover in our family, and John was clearly her favorite. She was 41 in 1980, essentially the same age as John Lennon. She had latched onto them from the start; indeed, my dad had teased her for digging a band whose enthusiasts were, at that stage, mainly 13- and 14-year-old girls. But my mom possesses a keen musical sensibility and her early support for their chops were more than justified in the years to come… She teared up listening to Cosell bloviate then left the room.

Not sure why, but the holiday period tends to include a lot of Beatles content on PBS. Just last week I saw that Ron Howard’s “Eight Days a Week” was featured, along with something called “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution”, as part of a fundraiser. All these years later, the Beatles are considered subject matter for the whole family, apparently. If you should get the chance, make time this month to watch the superb documentary “LENNONYC”, about his post-Beatles years in New York City (I saw it on PBS, but today you can catch it online, here). It was an eventful decade that followed hard on the band’s break-up, in 1970. For Lennon it featured a gaggle of outsized characters and spanned a remarkable procession of music-making, protesting, drug-taking, deportation-resisting, legal wrangling, breaking up, getting back together, child-rearing and, ultimately, growing up. That was the message one took away at film’s close: Here was a guy who had finally shed the latent adolescence of rock stardom and become a man, in his own right, only to be killed by a psychopath at the exact moment that maturity was to be revealed — his gorgeous new album, “Double Fantasy”, was released on Nov. 17, 1980). I don’t know that it gets much sadder than that.

Irene, Gloria and the Wesleyan Sports Hall of Fame

Irene, Gloria and the Wesleyan Sports Hall of Fame

Events conspired these past few weeks to recall one of the great moments in my sporting life and, in my humble view, one of the singular sporting episodes in the long, largely inconsequential sporting history of Wesleyan University.

The first prompt was Hurricane Irene. What stood out for me, as Irene blew through our small Maine town in late August, was the difference 25 odd years can make. When the lights went out here, I responded by reading and taking multiple naps. When Hurricane Gloria swept north in the fall of 1985, the eye of the storm tracking along the Connecticut River Valley, the reaction was quite different. News of the approaching storm and blanket class-cancellations catapulted the student body into immediate and decisive action: En masse we hit the liquor store and lined up the necessary narcotics, were they not already on hand. The storm would prove an irresistible opportunity to do crazy-ass things, like eat mushrooms and play pick-up football in spectacular winds.

The other recollective catalyst was the letter I received this week from my alma mater inviting me to a dinner honoring 2011 inductees into the Wesleyan Sports Hall of Fame. This invitation comes annually, along with calls for nominations. I notice that, among others, the entire 1980 Cardinal Field Hockey Team will take its place among the hallowed in Middletown on Nov. 5.

Perhaps you see where I’m going with this… In posting this blog item, I’d like to formally nominate for induction, in 2012, the 1985 Pick-up Football Team representing 8 Warren Street.

Thanks to the World Wide Web, there have been several tongue-in-cheek HOF nomination ideas floated by various WesKids over the years — like the time I sailed yet another free kick over the crossbar my sophomore year against Babson, and team captain John Nathan (who wanted the free kick for himself) sarcastically upbraided me as we ran back on defense: “Too many bong hits, Bluto?” Or the time the varsity golf team participated in the NESCAC Championships at Middlebury and, following a killer party I had located for us on campus, Pat Dudley projectile vomited out the passenger-side window of the Wesleyan Athletics van into the cold, unsparing Vermont night, whereupon he passed out, only to be revived the next morning in time to stumble onto the first tee, successfully drive the ball in play, and walk down the 1st fairway into a blizzard. Poor Pat. At one stage he turned back forlornly to those of us assembled on the tee behind him — he and his ghost-like pallor disappearing into that freak storm like an old time baseball player into a field of corn stalks.

These are indeed hall-of-fame-worthy accomplishments, but they are mere moments. Running the wishbone while shrooming on a muddy track in hurricane-force winds AND leading a ragtag group of soon-to-graduate liberal arts misfits to victory is another matter entirely. In the interest of supporting the nomination more credibly, allow me to paint the scene more fully:

Wesleyan is, to be clear, situated just 25 miles north of Long Island Sound, so the storm was quite strong when it arrived and, indeed, the glory of Gloria kicked in about the time the winds picked up. With Patty Smith’s “Horses” blaring from some student house nearby, I remember standing on the soccer practice fields looking back down Warren Street, where dozens of students milled about with/in their cups. Others spread their arms wide so as to better catch the hurricane-force winds, while still more took advantage of an organically muddy slip ‘n slide that had been fashioned on a long, sloping embankment across the street from the old hockey ring parking lot.

We had arrived at the practice fields, just beyond said hockey rink (now a monolithic, state-of-the-art sports complex), to throw the football around. We ended up playing a game of 5 v. 5 football (tackle, naturally) against the guys from across the street. Who were they? Chi Psi brothers, mainly. Basketball and hockey players who liked to stroll around shirtless in their yard smoking cigars and playing bocce. In other words, a high jock quotient and formidable opponents.

We played all offensive possessions in the same direction, downwind, enabling each QB to throw the most splendid 60 yard bombs with mere flicks of the wrist. It was a spirited, fun affair — as only a game of tackle football in a hurricane under the influence of psychotropic drugs can be. But the game got appreciably more interesting when the boys from 8 Warren St. decided to run…  the wishbone.

Yes, the triple-option wishbone, with yours truly doing his very best Jamiel Holloway imitation. And you know what? Barry Switzer would have been damned proud. We thumped them from there on out. If you don’t put the ball on the ground, the wishbone is basically indefensible — even with a soccer player at QB, under stormy skies whose cloud formations appeared to breathe (and bore an uncanny resemblance to the cover art from the R.E.M. album, Murmur).

Gloria at Wesleyan has since been officially memorialized among students of my vintage, on account of our shared experiences that day, but also on account of a singular image — of a student car utterly crushed by a tree felled during the storm. This photograph was played big in The Argus, where I was an editor, and subsequently in our yearbook. But I say it’s time to broaden the Wes legend that was Gloria 1985, and what better way than inducting me and my housemates into the Wesleyan Athletics Hall of Fame? All together now, with feeling:

G… L… O… R… Aye-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay — G-L-O-R-I-A.