Philip A. Farruggio -- World News Trust
April 30, 2015
The skinny-legged wide receiver with 4.7 speed* (fast for a white guy in 1970) was running like "a thief from a grocery store" down the sidelines.
It was a late morning in October. The royal blue cloudless sky complemented the sunny brilliance of this "Indian Summer" day. Such a contrast to the pale, dirt-brown city grass field and the fire engine red of his uniform. His hands cradled the pigskin tucked close to his body.
The only sound he could hear was the wind whistling through his sweaty helmet. The poorly formed yard markers, chalked white like some giant checkerboard, passed below him rhythmically. In the distance, an empty end zone. His heart and mind raced along with his legs.
To ponder back at one's youth, like leafing through pages of a history book -- so many trapped memories escape. 1970 was one of the 'key years" in my life as a college student residing in Brooklyn, New York., "3rd largest city" of the whole US of A.
An air of uneasiness dominated, as this thing called Vietnam was sucking both our energy and our spirit. Friends and acquaintances from my Ave. U neighborhood would disappear, then suddenly reappear in their military dress uniforms, and then vanish once again -- some never to return alive.
Tommy Lombardi, whose (once) effervescent crossing guard mom greeted us each after Mass -- gone forever. Vinnie Putchko, Polish immigrant son of an Ocean Ave. building superintendent -- killed on some nondescript hill. (A few years later, I watched the kid brother, wearing Vinnie's old army jacket, drop acid and drop out).
Many of the "lucky" vets, who made it home in one piece, escaped through a needle or a bottle, mumbling incoherently in the schoolyard. From our campus at Brooklyn College we protested "Kent State," a catalyst for nationwide dissent against the insanity of Vietnam. Watching on the tube as kids like us were being shot down by, well, kids like us, motivated many to finally get involved.
We acted! A giant mass of energy flowing in one direction, we physically chased the military recruiters off campus, and shut down the university with a strike.
Through this melee of hawks vs. doves, my only retreat to sanity was on the football field. 1970 was the first time since 1956 that Brooklyn College fielded a football team. After the years of Allie Sherman, BC's last great pigskin hero (later to become head coach of the New York football Giants), someone at C.U.N.Y. (City University of New York) figured our school was fated more for the "egghead" and less for the "jock." Yet, by 1970 we had secured the helmets and the tackling sled along with a six-game schedule -- no easy task.
Hats off to one Alex Scamaradella aka "Scam," a hulking, confident freshman on a mission. "We're gonna have a football team here within two years," Alex boasted to me the very first time we met in late 1968. "How", I asked?
I had been nagging the assistant AD (athletic director) Dave Meagher, just weeks earlier and he assured me, "It'll take years to get on another school's schedule -- you'll never see it happen while you're here, Farruggio!"
"No way Jose," as I sadly put it to Scam during our first conversation. I was so sure it wouldn't happen that I began writing to division 2A colleges in hopes of transferring -- I needed to play, and quickly. Alex just shrugged his very wide shoulder span (exhibiting a head too small for that body mass) and smirked "We'll do it."
Well, with the help of Dave Cohen, Steve Salerno, Mike Blum, Robbie Beiner and a handful of other diehards, we hit the campus and secured the thousands of signatures necessary, and we got our team. If only Vietnam could end as easily.
Now where was I? Oh right, running down the sidelines carrying my "loaf of Italian bread" with but the whistling wind and a bouncy vision of the desolate end zone to accompany me. We were playing Stony Brook -- actually the S.U.N.Y at Stony Brook, a Long Island team, so no love lost between us. The game was at Lafayette H.S. field, since we had no home field; rather, the Phys Ed hierarchy would not let us use the Brooklyn College field.
As stated earlier, it was another "global warming" October day, and Frank MaCahill, our head coach, benched me for some minor infraction. We were lucky to attract perhaps 30 or 40 fans, and they being mostly the friends and relatives of both teams.
It was early in the 2nd quarter, and I was still under Frank's disciplinary benching. Our offense seemed nonexistent, and our fearless leader, QB Chuck Padolsky, was having a poor first half. Scam and the rest of the offensive line were not giving him much time, and Chuck seemed to be struggling.
Gazing at Chuck, once again being helped to his feet after taking another terrible hit, my mind raced back to late August. We were at our first official football camp, in the Catskills at the Hotel Echo, a second-rate summer getaway for those who couldn't afford the more elegant Concord, Browns and Neville. We bunked two or four in a room, I forget, and whatever else, the camp idea worked -- it did bring us closer together.
This team was a strange one indeed for 1970 America. We were almost exactly a 50-50-split black and white. In Brooklyn, New York, 30 years ago, blacks and whites simply did not share the same neighborhoods (duh, what's new?). We lived apart. We socialized apart.
Once, during fall registration, I met this cute black girl on campus. We hit it off, and before you knew it, we were making out and holding hands, ever so discretely, by the obscure campus flower garden. She then asked if I would assist her with registration. I did, and she made the terrible decision to hold my hand, in full view of hundreds of students.
The catcalls we both received, as well as the threats from some black students, were astounding and forever hurtful. To add insult to injury, when some of my white teammates heard of the incident, their only query was, "Was she wild in bed?" The only insight offered came from a few of my black teammates, who wondered if I could finally comprehend how a black man must feel when walking hand in hand with a white woman.
Back to Chuck and the infamous "Phipps incident" at the Hotel Echo. We were into our fourth or fifith day of the one-week camp, having just completed a rather lengthy morning workout, orchestrated by coach Mike Hipscher. Hip, as everyone called him, was a recent Vietnam vet and full of vim, vigor and passion.
One new player was Phipps, a 6'2" guy from Brooklyn’s basketball team whose desire to play "D" (defense) was predicated on being able to hit people hard without getting arrested. Phipps was a rough and tough dude who had joined the squad late into our spring session. No one seemed to really know him well, since Phipps did not "hang" with college people -- the "hood" was his domain.
For some inexplicable, Phipps just did not like me at all. So much so, that once in the locker room after a spring practice, Phipps challenged me to a fight. If it wasn't for Bobby Pace and Mike Titus, two of my black teammates, I would have been "toasted" -- the dude was scary and downright mean!
That was then, and this was NOW, a sweaty August day on a relic of a 1940's school bus at some rundown softball field. After our long and exhausting workout, Frank and his coaches opted for Hip's car, leaving the rest of us to deal with the overcrowded bus.
I was seated next to Robbie Beiner, my fellow wide receiver and backup QB. Phipps, up to this juncture, had seemingly forgotten about the springtime locker room showdown. Suddenly he just stood up and stomped towards me. "Hey punk, think you're some faggot superstar with your white shoes and shit!? Right now punk, you and me, let's have it out!"
With that he took his helmet and flung it in my direction! Beiner and I ducked as it bounced off a window and onto someone's lap. The team, feeling zapped from the sweltering August humidity, rustled some muffled sounds of protest. "Shut the hell up, all of youse -- dis is between me and him! Dis is personal!!"
With that he continued towards me up the tight, narrow aisle. A few guys stood up attempting to calm him down and diffuse the anger, but Phipps just pushed by them like a tiger through a wheat field. As he approached Robbie, my last buffer of protection, suddenly a voice, really a shout, came from the front of the bus." Hey Phipps, sit the HELL down now! You hear me, NOW!!"
It was Chuck, our team captain, all 5'7" of him, built like some brick shit house and standing there with only the large "S" missing from his chest. Phipps, startled more than anything else, turned away from me and spun around to face Chuck. As our captain moved towards him, he shouted "Dis is MY team and if anyone wantsta fight, dey fight ME first! You got that!?"
Phipps did nothing. He looked at Chuck, then glanced around, and froze. "Now do us all a favor, Phipps, and just sit the hell down -- EVERYBODY sit the hell down and shutta hell up!" Silence! Just like that. Chuck immediately moved to the top of my Christmas card list as Phipps found a seat, mumbling to himself.
Then, as if straight out of a Woody Allen or Mel Brooks film, our team manager jumped onto the bus. "OK guys, mail call! Yup, some of you guys actually got mail. Let's see, OK we only got two letters. And guess what, they’re both to the same guy. Let's see, we got this one, addressed 'To My Darling Quarterback' and this one 'To My fabulous Captain.'"
And with that, everybody, even Phipps, just cracked up -- a team was finally beginning to take shape. We returned to the hotel, and things seemed to ease up.
Joy has no boundaries when unlocked from our memories. The rest of that fateful week upstate was just one pleasant vignette after another.
Like sitting in Lee "Psycho" Greenberg's Firebird behind the main hotel building, sharing a doobie while listening to Closer To Home by Grand Funk Railroad.
Or talking to some old Bronx guy in the hotel lobby who advises me (in 1970, mind you) to "put all your money in cable TV -- its gonna be the thing of the future!"
Or phoning my new girlfriend Louise back in Brooklyn (collect of course), and telling her how much I cannot "wait to..." well, you get the picture.
Finally, joining in with Mike Blum on that old dilapidated school bus, as he leads us in choruses of "B is for the B in Brooklyn College... R is for the R in Brooklyn College...”
As Chuck is coming off the field, ever so gingerly, Robbie Beiner and I are standing together on the sidelines, our longish hair flopping around our sweaty brows, observing the action. Frank had already ordered me to "Stay the hell out of my way... I'll get ya in when I decide, not when you decide, Farruggio!"
Our offense punts after another disastrous "three and out" series. As our defense trots onto the field, Frank turns in our direction and shouts those immortal words: "Beiner and Farruggio, start getting loose." No need, as we already had our catch 15 minutes ago -- but to pacify Frank we once again begin throwing to one another.
Our "D," which had held Stony Brook in check up to this point, is getting tired -- a usual occurrence when the "O" (offense) simply cannot move the ball. Stony Brook is now mounting a long drive and it looks as if they'll soon break this scoreless tie.
Then, as luck (or fate) would have it, we intercept a deep pass, but our safety lands knee first, on our own one-yard line. Robbie and I shoot a glance over to Frank who offers, "Just don't do anything foolish Beiner" while staring at me -- then sighs and returns to his game book.
Trotting onto the field at around "high Robbie now rotates his head my way. "Some shit hah? Whataya figure we do to get outta this hole?" My answer, I believe delivered as we cross our own 30, surprises but does not startle him.
Beiner is made of tougher stuff than most guys I know. He lost his father as a child, and his Mom raised him and his little brother Bernie all by herself, an anomaly in the 1950's. I met her once, eight months earlier when, after my old man and I had a real battle royal, I needed somewhere to crash. I called Robbie, he asked his Mom, and she said "OK."
Robby was a daring kid, more so than me in many respects. Since high school, he played winter tackle football every morning on the beach without equipment. Many times he invited me down, and many times I refused. "I'm too pretty to get my beautiful beak broken!" (Who could foresee that Clarence Davis, our biggest, baddest defensive tackle, would perform that service our very first practice at the hotel Echo).
We are now gliding across our 20-yard line. I quickly spring my plan on Beiner, "Listen, the whole damn world is looking for a running play on 1st down. Screw that! Let's come out throwing!" Robbie agrees. "But what pass do I call?" I smirk and wait as we trot passed the Stony Brook defense.
"Audible it -- if my guy lines up outside of me, call the quick slant. If he's inside or even with me, call the quick out. Just tell the guys you'll call it on the line." Beiner sighs, gives a Cheshire cat grin and says "Its gonna work -- or we're both ******!"
Some of the guys in our huddle, mostly the lineman, are somewhat insulted by Beiner's (my) call. "Are you serious?” questions Alex. Offensive linemen are proud people, thinking it’s their duty to get us out of this hole by using all their strength and courage to push the other team backwards.
Dave Cohen chimes in with "Yeah, come on, let’s run the ball and get some breathing room before we pass." Big Steve Salerno just sucks in his mouthpiece and grins, the only vote of confidence we receive. So much for offensive linemen --great guys with guts and fortitude, but occasional tunnel vision.
Quickly I come to Beiner's (my) defense. "Hey, the quarterback just gave us the play -- lets do it and get outta this **** mess!" Beiner looks up from his kneeling position and slowly, almost sophomorically, repeats the call. "All ya gotta do is give me two seconds, that's it. Two seconds and we get outta this ****!"
We clap in unison, break the huddle, and I begin to do my "mantra." This routine, which no one, I mean no one on the team ever knew about, was formulated the first time I heard the song The Magic Bus by The Who.
I was walking on campus one Spring day carrying my portable Panasonic radio, the one with the handle that I used to dangle from my taxicab window (fleet cabs in those days did not have radios). It was when Daltry and Townsend sang " I want it, I want it, I want it" that got to me.
It had this Zen like quality, this intensity of purpose that I later juxtaposed into my pass catching routine. Each time I knew a pass play was called my way; I would repeat those words over and over in my mind as I approached the line of scrimmage. Nothing, nobody, could ever stop me from catching that ball!
Its interesting, as an offensive player, when you break the huddle from deep in your own end zone. An ominous feeling penetrates your inner being as you approach the line of scrimmage. Not fun. One mistake, any mistake, and you're screwed!
I trot to my position at left split end -- goodness how nice and cushiony the grass feels way down here (why not, its hardly ever assaulted by tons of cleats). The cornerback, no more than 18 and smirking like some punk kid, starts checking me out.
Does he know that I know that he cannot stop me? My ego, already swelled from all the catches I made our first two games, wants some respect. It demands that two defenders focus on me, offering me the respect that I have earned.
No such luck -- so I stand erect, the Lance Alworth of Brooklyn College (says me) as my teammates all assume their standard three-point stance. Since the play will be my way, I must make sure I am not too close to Salerno, our left tackle, or likewise too near to the sideline. Beiner is gonna need room to hit me once he studies the wiseass cornerback.
I pose, like some eagle with my hands on hips, as I check out the kid. He has made his decision, his fateful choice, by positioning himself to my right, inside of me. I swivel my head towards Beiner, so as to better hear his audible -- making sure he sees what I see from his angle. He does, the signal delivered in code for the quick out.
I then do something odd. I go down into a three-point stance. Why? Instinctively I realize that I'll get better traction to make that sharp right angle cut to the sideline from a three-pointer. (If Beiner had called a quick slant, I would have stayed erect -- no trouble to just "one step it" and angle in.)
Now I strain to force my hardly used neck muscles to hold the head erect, as Beiner goes through his count. The 18-year-old assumes his position, the standard pose of a defensive back: one foot forward, ready to back pedal in any direction.
I suddenly realize just how hot it has become. Perspiration from my long hair drips down passed my eyes and nose -- I can taste the salt as it finds its way to my mouthpiece. Nerves plus heat do equal "sweat city."
When you are running for your life down a sideline, vacant but for the desolate cold concrete stands that accompany you on your journey, crazy thoughts enter your mind. Thoughts about football, and how far you are going, what a record this could be, or the score, your team, the few fans -- none of that.
Christine Nasser. Visions of Christine Nasser are spinning through my mind at this moment. Within four or five hours after the game I will be taking my first plane flight ever to visit 18-year-old Chris Nasser in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
We had first met back in July in Virginia Beach, Virginia. My cousin Michael and I had spent the summer there, working at odd jobs to supplement our apartment rental. Chris arrived with her girlfriend and an older sister on a one-week vacation.
We met on the beach, hit it off, kept in touch, and now I was invited to spend a weekend with her family. If you had known Chris and how those green eyes merged with her jet black hair, perhaps you too would be thinking of her four or five hours, or four or five weeks, before a visit.
She was gorgeous! (Her old man was a different story, however. Upon gazing at me after I arrived, he stood, this squat 5'5" stocky Lebanese man, with a garden hose in his hand, washing his brand new 1970 white Caddie, with fins bigger than his arms, and stated "Why don't ya get a haircut?").
Fate can be a gambler, shooting out the dice as it does. The 18-year-old cornerback had just taken his shot, shook the shaker and rolled out the dice -- and lost! He went "for the gusto" via a glorious interception on our six yard line.
Alas, Beiner threw a perfect pass and the kid blew it. I reached out, caught the little piglet in full stride, did another "plant and cut" up the sidelines, and was off to the races.
Breathing now becomes the music of motion, reaching a crescendo as I motored deeper into Stony Brook territory. Around their 20 or 30 yard line, we became a "duet," myself and the free safety. He had obviously chosen an angle to run me down and introduced his heavy breathing melody into the mix.
That's what this adventurous play had come down to, him and me. As his breathing merged with my own, I sensed his presence ever so near, around their 10-yard line. My legs then went into some sort of overdrive and I did a kind of hop step, feeling his extended arms near my ankles -- he missed!
I did what I always did upon reaching the "promised land": Simply bouncing the crazy shaped leather into the turf and trotting back to my team.
Some of my guys, the ones not too affected by this midday oppressive heat, joined me in the Stony Brook end zone. Others, with our proud "D" leading the way, mobbed the field like Paris during liberation. "99 yards, 99 **** yards!" shouts someone as they lifted me up like some conquering hero.
It goes without saying that we easily, from that point on, dominated the game, earning our first victory. Phipps, who was in street clothes (due to some disciplinary action), even slapped me five and hugged me as well -- we all did it!
"The Brooklyn College 1970 football team tied the record for the longest touchdown pass in history -- 99 yards," was how our press release would read . Few, if any news services picked up on it -- we were a considered a Club Football Team, with no scholarships, officially not even part of the NCAA. Thus, the record meant, as my Jewish friends would say, "Drek!”
So what?! I became a hero to some diehards, took a shower, caught a plane and "got the girl."
Ah, if only Jim Croce's lyrics would come alive, and time could be kept in a bottle, to be sipped whenever and wherever one pleased. Alas, this moment is now relegated to but a warm memory of youth, a paragraph of a time that has escaped from this older and still proud history book. Brooklyn in the 1970s.
I wonder what happened to some of the guys back then or if they remember those football times at Brooklyn College, including that eventful day. 99 yards... we did it -- amazing!
* Editor's note: capable of running 40 yards in 4.7 seconds.
April 30, 2015