Eventually, all of our childhoods take a hit. Maybe not the memories, but the links we carry with us for so many years are suddenly gone. The house you grew up in doesn’t look the same anymore. The vacant lot where you used to play is now a department store. Your school closed.
For men of a certain age, many of the memories of our childhood were connected by the dots that sports provided. There were only three — football, basketball and baseball. Those were the three seasons, no matter what the calendar said. And we had identifiable athletes attached to each sport. Almost always, they were players on our favorite teams.
I’ve always thought that calling them our heroes is going a little too far. None of them stormed the beach at Normandy or found a cure for polio. They didn’t walk on the moon and they may have never even helped a little old lady across the street.
But these were our guys. In any group of childhood friends, nobody had the same three guys, yet everybody knew who everybody else’s guys were. We respected that. To this day, I can still identify my friends with their guy in a particular sport.
The last of my guys died Sunday. Quite honestly, so did a piece of my childhood.
My guys were Bobby Murcer (Yankees), John Havlicek (Celtics) and Bart Starr (Packers). Never met any of them and only saw two of them in person at a distance in various roles (there’s a story in there about one of them).
All hit the tape at the same time. I couldn’t honestly say I liked one more than the other two. And yet two of them have died within the last month.
I loved Bart Starr because my mother loved Bart Starr. I think she loved Bart Starr for two reasons — (1) obviously, his name and (2) my dad was a Dallas fan and it was her way of sticking it to him whenever he started popping off about the Cowboys. My first clear memory of being captivated by an NFL game was Starr sneaking over the goal for a touchdown in the Ice Bowl. The next week, my mother took me to the big downtown department store and bought me a Green Bay sweater and that proudly wore to school the next day.
I wanted to be Bart Starr.
In the pre-George Steinbrenner days, I was a New York Yankees fan and if you are wondering why I wasn’t a Mickey Mantle fan, it’s because I knew the handwriting was on the wall for The Mick. So I latched on to the second-best thing — the next Mickey Mantle. I would cut out any newspaper clippings about Murcer and tape them to my bedroom door. I still remember my excitement when he hit four home runs during a doubleheader in 1970.
I wanted to be Bobby Murcer.
When I grew up, my favorite number was 17 and for one reason and one reason only — that’s what John Havlicek wore. Playing one-and-none in the driveway and broadcasting my own games, it was always “Havlicek scores!” whenever I’d make a basket. I was saddened to find out I couldn’t be #17 on my grade school basketball team because only digits 1 through 5 were allowed.
I wanted to be John Havlicek.
In 1972, I learned over the top of the visitors dugout at Arlington Stadium before a Yankees-Texas Rangers game to try to get Murcer’s autograph. There he was standing in the runway leading from the clubhouse, smoking a cigarette. To say I was crushed would be a gigantic understatement. (Eventually I got his autograph, but not on this night.) In Murcer’s biography, it mentions that he was a long-time tobacco user before a family member got cancer and he became an anti-tobacco advocate.
Which makes it even sadder that Murcer, who later became an accomplished broadcaster, battled brain cancer for two years before he died in 2008. He was 62.
Havlicek was everything everyone could want in a basketball star. He played the game the right way and nobody could stop him as he ran opponents all of the court. It seemed like he would never get old as a basketball player or even in life. Yet Parkinson’s Disease caught him on April 25. He was 79, which doesn’t seem possible.
Starr, who may be the most underrated quarterback in NFL history, went on to coach the Packers after he finished playing. I remember seeing him in press conferences after games and just wanting to tell him how much I admired him as a player and as a human being. The last few years were not kind to him, however. There were a couple of Packer reunion celebrations that he attended and it was hard to watch.
Bart Starr is gone now. So is my sweater. So are my newspaper clippings. So is the basketball goal in my childhood driveway.
The dots aren’t connected anymore.