Coach De Dreams of Vegas

August 14, 2016


As someone who writes for fun as time permits, I composed this piece about my experiences as a high school football player in Delavan, Wisconsin in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  Putting this story into a Word document was quite cathartic as it allowed me to capture my thoughts and experiences after many years of internalization and reflection.  This was written around 2003, during a time I was commuting on the train most days between Princeton Junction, New Jersey and New York City.  The uninterrupted time on the train was welcome as I hammered out this tale as well as others.

For the past 13 or so years, this story has been saved on my flash drive.  I’d read it from time-to-time, but never thought about releasing it for others to read until today, when I learned that George DeFrancesco had passed away.

George (or Coach De as I knew him) was a positive influence on me, as you will learn from this story.  I wish I’d found a way to get this story to him while he was alive, but I always thought there’d be time for that.

Coach De, if you’re reading this from the next dimension, let me now say this: thanks.  I hope you were able to bring your guitar with you.

– Annapolis, MD
August 14, 2016


Under the searing Wisconsin summer sun, I reach the front of the line for the Maiden Drill.  I pull my facemask and check my helmet strap and size up the towering Tim Druschella in front of me.  He’s about my weight, 215 or so, but at 6’4”, Tim has four inches on me.  Plus, he is a senior with a year as a varsity starter under his belt, and he has a nasty mean streak.  My adrenalin kicks in as I face my first contact in a varsity practice.  Five steps beyond Dru is another senior, the relatively feeble Bret Hart.  At 165 pounds, he’s not a worry.  Beyond Bret is a tackling dummy.

In the Maiden Drill, the objective is for the defensive player (me) to fight through the blocks of each opponent and to tackle the dummy.  Theoretically, the drill stops when the dummy falls or the coach blows his whistle because the defensive player is stopped.  I glance at Coach DeFrancesco and know that the whistle won’t be used today.  Now is his chance to see how the juniors like me fare against the seniors.

“On ‘go’ boys.” DeFrancesco says with a sadistic gleam in his eyes.  I get into a four-point stance across from Dru.  Our eyes connect, he sneers.


Helmets and shoulder pads collide, I shoot my hands into Dru’s chest, attempting to gain control of his upper body.  His leverage and length catch me off-balance and I stumble to the left and fall.  Dru pile drives on top of me, with ‘ooohs and ahhs’ resonating from the other linemen.  I struggle to my feet and Dru mows me over before I can get all the way up.  He’s on top of me, and my anger rises.  Three more times I try to rise and get leveled.  The laughter and jeers from the other players rises and I sense that DeFrancesco is waiting for me to do something.  I begin to get up for the fifth time and anticipate Dru’s tactic.  I bait him into charging, and I grasp the back of his helmet with my left hand as he brings it on.  I drive his head into the turf and stomp on his back as I rise over him.  The jeering stops instantly at the witness of my illegal tactic.  I leave Dru prone and charge in a furious full tilt into Bret.  He is expecting me to be easier man to block after seeing Dru take me apart, but I simply launch him five yards onto the tackling dummy where he lies stunned at the hit.

The whistle blows and I turn to face coach and players with a heaving chest, rage and anger surging through my sweat-drenched body.  “FUCKER!” I yell at Dru everyone else within earshot.  I fully expect Dru to come at me, but instead I receive a sidelong glare and I know another dogfight is in our future.

Coach De glides by as I head to the back of the drill line and whispers through his black, shaggy moustache, “I thought he had you there for a minute, kiddo.”  I’m left with De’s chuckle.  Through the fog of my rage, I realize I’ve earned a small amount of his respect…a respect that would remain for the rest of the season.

And I learn varsity lesson number 1: you are expected to play mean because that’s what De likes.  I don’t forget it.


The sun beats down on the sixty or so guys trying to make the team.  Early August in Wisconsin is brutally hot and sticky.  We are encouraged to drink water and gobble salt pills during two-a-days when we sweat through our t-shirts, pads, jerseys and pants.  The bigger guys sometimes drop ten pounds in water weight a day and gulp it back at night in order to be hydrated the next morning.  We vomit, sweat, drink and there is no shade – only the late season corn beyond the grounds of the school.  A player or two quits after every practice, and I desperately want to do so myself, but cannot since the jock thing is part of my persona.

Consequently, I flail my way through practices, just trying to get through the work.  I put out about 60% of full effort and I find that my fitness is lacking compared to the smaller guys.  The sessions drag on and on, and I can’t stand not knowing when we’ll be done.  If I knew when the drills were to end, I think I could budget my energy better and turn up my intensity a notch when I need to.

Instead, I muddle along, relying on my natural strength and size to get through it.  I want to be a star but find my will flagging as I struggle to catch my breath.


Several days later, we line up in another two-on-one drill.  Again, I’m the defensive guy going against a blocker.  The third man is a running back who I’m supposed to tackle.

I’m across from junior Barry Butters and senior Kevin Flood, two of the best athletes on the team.  Both are strong, fast running backs who can play ball.  Kevin was all-conference in the previous season, 1979, and will undoubtedly be selected again.  Barry might even be better.

However, I’m bigger than both of them and Barry knows he’ll have a task in blocking me.  We face-off in our stances and charge off the ball at the sound of the coach’s whistle.  I partially shed Barry’s block and shoot my body out low as Kevin streaks by.   Kevin’s legs are like pistons, and he’s moving at full speed.  I have a millisecond to tackle him.

BAM!  My head snaps back and my jaw snaps against my mouth guard.  My eyes cross as I slam to the ground, and my vision blurs.  I push myself up and stagger to the rear of the next line, where I drop my helmet and fall to my knees.  My head spins with pain as I try to shake off the hit like a punch-drunk boxer.  One of Kevin’s pumping knees caught me square on the chin during the tackle.  Failing to wrap my arms, he got past me.

“You’ve got to do better than that, Murph.  Those little backs are showing you up.”

Through the painful high-pitched whine blaring in my head, I glare back at Coach Sharfenburg.  He’s an asshole, as well as the head coach.

It’s likely that I’ve experienced a concussion, but I go back to practice, muddling along a bit less energetically than even before.


Two-a-days end and the season begins.  Our team is the 6th ranked high school team in the state based on the stellar talent of Kevin Flood, quarterback Dan Logterman, and our deep stock of large, talented linemen.  Our best player is Brad Grabow, a junior who started at both tight end and defensive end on varsity as a sophomore.  Brad is 6’6” and weighs in at a lean 215, but no one on the team comes close to his ability.  He catches every ball thrown his way, and is a vicious tackler and pass rusher.  We all expect he’ll be recruited by a division 1 college after this season.

I can’t crack the starting lineup, even though I’d been co-captain of the junior varsity team the year before.  But as the early weeks of practice pass, I find myself gradually improving.  I don’t think I’m too far behind the big, talented and mean seniors on our team.

The offensive line is impressive.  Mike Tesch anchors the left side at 6’2”, 275 pounds, and forms one of the best high school tackle / guard combinations I can think of with Pooh Smiley.  The center is albino Tom Polzin, who is long, lean and freaky strong.  The other guard is a diminutive water bug named Walt Turner.  Walt has a lot of scrap and speed, but not a lot of size.  Rather than blowing guys out of the hole, he pesters them.  Dru and his bad attitude are on the right tackle, and he fears no one.

On offense, I back up Dru on the right side and Pooh’s younger brother, Paul, backs-up Tesch at left.  On defense, I’m in the rotation as a backup tackle as well.  I’d love to get a chance to play center as I did as a sophomore, but for some reason De doesn’t want me to play there.  I don’t argue.

One of our first non-conference games is against Oregon (near Madison), and they’re ranked #4 in the state. The papers claim that this is the best early game of the season, and the winner could well find themselves in the state championship game.

Oregon is led by a behemoth tackle named Chester Nelson.  Chester is 6’6” and 270 pounds.  Before the season began, he had accepted a full-ride scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The papers extol his on-field dominance at length, and it’s hard not to get intimidated.  During the days leading up to the game, I wonder if I’ll get any playing time in against him.  My stomach churns with nerves, though it’s not even a given that I’ll get in the game.

At last, game day arrives.  We are bussed to Oregon where we meet our foe under the Friday night lights.  The game is close and low scoring, with bruising hits coming from both sides.  I anxiously watch from the sideline, but don’t get a call to go into the game during the first half.

Finally, De calls my name late in the third quarter.  I strap on my hat, take my instructions from De, and run to the huddle.  “Dru, take a break.”  The exhausted DT shakes his head and jogs off the field.

We’re on defense, and Oregon is about to drive into our half of the field.  “Clean pants!” comments one of the Oregon players as the break their huddle.  All eleven on their side glance my way, and know they’ll be testing the backup.  Chester saunters up to the line, and my heart pounds in my chest.  In the defensive alignment we’ve called, I’ll line up directly across from him.  He seems 20% larger than Dru to me, but not as dense as Tesch.  No doubt, he’s big and I’m scared.  I do not want to fail.

“Get low and drive, get low and drive…” I say to myself.  I’ve got to get off the ball quicker than Chester and make sure that I hold my ground.  I don’t have to make the tackle…all I have to do is take up space and prevent him from pushing me out of the play.  As we get down in our stances, I am nearly hyperventilating.

The ball snaps and I fire with all I have into Chester’s upper body.  I see the guard down-block and feel Chester trying to push me to the right out of the hole.  Quickly, I burrow my left shoulder in his chest and shove him back with my left arm.  Much to my surprise, this stops him.  The ball carrier is headed straight toward me, expecting an enormous hole to pass through.  Instead, he meets me.  I drop him in his tracks with a solid form tackle at waist level.  No gain.

The entire play seems to happen in slow motion.  Chester seems amazingly soft, and I guess that’s because I’m so used to getting pummeled by Pooh, Grabow, Tesch, Dru and a bunch of other farm-boys during practice every day. And, the tackle was a piece of cake.  A small cheer arises from our bench, but the stands are relatively quiet at what is perceived as an ordinary, no-gain running play.

The P.A. system clicks on, and there’s a pause as the game announcer tries to find my name on the roster.  “….number 73…Pat Murphy…on the tackle…no gain.”

The next play is a virtual replay of the first, and I make the tackle again.  It’s fourth down, and I trot off the field.  It’s the last I’ll play tonight, and we lose by a close score.  Our hopes for maintaining our high state ranking are dashed, and it deflates everyone on the team, especially the seniors.

“…Pat Murphy, again.  No gain.  Fourth down.”


The season passes along, and we lose several games that we shouldn’t.  The coaches are frustrated with the team’s lack of dedication, especially on the part of the seniors.  We muddle as a team through our last practice before our homecoming game.

During our post-practice chalkboard session, Sharfenburg screams, “If any one of you – and I mean ANY one of you – are late for our pre-game meeting tomorrow, you will not suit up and you will not play.  Do you hear me?  Huh?  Be back here no later than 6:00 p.m. tomorrow night.”

It’s hard to miss the message.

The school day passes slowly on Friday.  Like always, I suffer from incredible nerves, and can’t focus in my classes.  Whenever I think about the game — regardless of the opponent — I get a rush of adrenaline.  I visualize making plays during algebra as well as during my other classes.  At last, it’s 3:15 and the bell rings.

I rush home to eat an early dinner so I can be back in the locker room by 5:30.  There’s no way I want to be late for the pre-game session after Sharf’s demand the day before.  I gobble whatever my Mother has cooked for me, drink a half-a-gallon of milk, grab the keys to the beater Buick my sister and I share, and run for the door.

“Bye, Mom!”

“Oh, you’re leaving?  OK, good luck, honey!  Daddy and I will see you at the game!”

“OK!  See you later!”

At sixteen, I haven’t yet come to grips with the concept of eating too much.  The tuna casserole and milk slosh around my nervous stomach as I sprint for the Buick.  I arrive at school just as all of the other players are filing in.  Some of the guys are already in uniform, playing catch in the lot outside the locker room.  I grab my uniform off of the rack and quickly get dressed.  I check my look in the mirror, and frown at my number, 73.  Sharf assigned it to me without asking.  I’d really wanted the number 50 as I’d had the year before, or at least to pick my own number if 50 wasn’t available.  The number 73 seems weak to me – it’s not a number that any of the pro’s I admire wear.

The coaches call our pregame meeting just after six, and we file onto the benches in front of the locker room chalkboard.  Roll call begins, passing alphabetically by last name.


No answer.

“Where the hell is Dru?” shouts Sharf.  We all look around; no one has seen him.

Suddenly, the locker room door flies open, and in saunters the big guy wearing jeans and a golf shirt.

“God damnit, Dru, you were supposed to be here at six!  What the hell is your problem?”

Dru’s eyes get wide, and he shrugs.  It’s a moment of truth.  Sharf’s face reddens from his neck up through his crew cut as he realizes he’s forced to withhold one of his best players from the homecoming game.  The locker room is dead quiet as we wonder if he’ll back off from his commitment of the day before.  My palms sweat, knowing that I would get the start.

Turning to De, Sharf barks, “Who the hell backs up Druschella?”

De looks directly at me with a wan smile.  “Murphy.”

Sharf releases a heavy sigh and an eye roll.  De likes me; Sharf does not.  Since I’d never even tried to score with one of Sharf’s daughters, I have no idea why he dislikes me.  I’ve barely ever spoken to the man.

“OK, Murphy.  You’re in.”  The team bursts into murmurs and side discussions before Sharf quiets us to berate us for our poor attitude.  I hear little of it as my head buzzes with adrenalin, though I pay close attention as we finally review our game plan.

Paul Smiley gets the start in Dru’s place at defensive tackle.  He’s really a carbon copy of Dru, just a year younger.  In fact, many of us think Paul’s skills are better than Dru’s.  There’s no concern on the team about this change – only about my ability to handle the right side of the offensive line.

As we leave for the field, ‘Tons-a-fun’ Tesch pulls me aside.  “Don’t fuck up.”

I resent the comment.  Tesch is big, fat but very athletic.  However, I think I’m just as good a player as he is, especially since De had indicated as much.

“Don’t worry,” I snap and pull away.


The announcer bellows my name and I sprint onto the field as one of the offensive starters.  The crowd cheers, and I hear someone yell, “Where’s Druschella?”  The public will never know what happened in the locker room.

We’re playing Walworth Bigfoot, one of the middle-of-the-pack teams in our conference.  We typically beat them like a drum, and tonight is no different.

The first play of the game is called to my side, and Walt and I crack a hole for Flood who bulls for seven yards.  We do it again for five more, and then try the other side of the line successfully as well.  We score a touchdown on our first drive, and the route is on.

Bigfoot’s defensive line can’t keep us with us.  I pummel their DT and linebacker’s.  It seems like a JV game compared to the guys I practice against every day.  We cruise into halftime with a nice lead.

After the break, speedster Ray Aponte is inserted for Flood.  He doesn’t have Kevin’s ability to run through people, but he is by far the fastest guy on our team.  ’28 tackle sweep’ is called, and it is the first time in the game that I’m required to pull outside and run.  My responsibility is to clear the cornerback for Ray.

I pull out in a wide, loopy arc toward the unsuspecting cornerback; I hear Ray steaming up fast behind me.  While I haven’t yet touched the cornerback, I effectively shield him from Ray, and our runner breaks into the clear for a twenty-five yard gain.  I flatten the CB well after Ray passes us.  It’s laughable.  We call the play again and break off another chunk of yardage.  Again, Ray is faster to the spot than I am, but it doesn’t matter.

Ray is an unbelievable hothead, and he berates me in the huddle, “You are fucking SLOW!  Do you know how long it’s taking you to get out there?”  I don’t answer because Loggy is about ready to call the next play.  For a guy who just gained more than 35 yards on two plays running behind me, he has balls to bitch about my blocking.  I’d like to pummel his stupid ass.

The next play is called to the left side.  My job is to down-block on the defensive tackle while Walt slides out to pester a linebacker.  Should be a piece of cake.

At the snap of the ball my target, the Bigfoot DT, slants toward the center.  It registers instantly with me that they’ve called a slant / stunt, and I now have to pick up a linebacker or the end, whomever I see first.

I turn to the right just in time to see their end diving at my lower body.  I try to get out of the way, but he slams into my leg, and I feel a quick sharp pain in my right knee.  It’s almost as if he’s trying to block me rather than get past me.

Instead of losing my feet, I hop forward and try to figure out how bad I’m hurt.  I hobble quickly back to the huddle, and flex my knee once I get there.  It might be bruised, but nothing serious.  I feel a tap on my back, “Get outta here, Murph.”  It’s Hobie Madison, the senior who is our third string tackle.  I can’t believe it.

I run to the sideline, and Sharf asks how bad it is.  “I’m OK!!” I say.  Sharf directs me to Doc Smiley — Pooh and Paul’s dad — who is a local physician who volunteers for sideline duty during games.

Doc flexes my knee and tests the lateral movement.  I feel a little bruise, but no real pain.  The knee is perfectly stable.

“You’ve got a sprained medial collateral ligament, son.”  Doc tells me.

“But it doesn’t hurt!”

“I know, it may not now, but you can’t take any chances with it.”

So my game ends.  In my naivety, I take Doc’s word rather than protesting further with him and the coaches.  In the end, Sharf categorizes me as both a soft player and injury prone.

Hobie Madison tears it up.  He leads Ray on “28 tackle sweep” for a ton more yards.  The cornerback sees it coming, but Hobie is on him so quickly, there’s no way he can make the tackle.  Hobie is fast and tough and I envy the fact that he’s in the game performing well.  I spend the rest of the season backing him up as he takes my second-string spot.  My knee is fine.


So, I work my ass off in practice to get more than a third string spot on offense, spending my time on the “T-Team.”  The “T-Team” is the group of back-ups who practice as our next opponent against our starters.

I do battle against Dru on both offense and defense.  We have come to hate each other.  On offense, I’m called upon to frequently block one of our speedy starting outside linebackers, Mike Mullen.  He and I go at it furiously, and I never lose.  Mike just can’t figure out how to beat me.  Tesch and I clash, and I use as much speed as I can muster to get around his immense girth.  I make his ass sweat.  I rarely catch Pooh, and he pounds on me when I do.  I can’t figure out how to beat him.  Grabow throws me around like a rag-doll, but he does that to everyone.  It’s unbelievable how strong he is.  On defense, I chase Loggy all over the field.  He’s very quick and deceptive, and often leaves me tackling air.

And so it goes.  I make the starters work, and I work to improve myself.  The more the season progresses, the more De encourages me to be aggressive and mean.  I do it.  We all do it.  The gap between the seniors and the juniors gradually closes.  I earn more time in games at defensive tackle, which requires a grittier, tougher approach to the game than offensive tackle.  De whispers technique to me, and I soak it up.  By the end of the season, I completely forget about playing offense, and only want to be a whirling dervish on defense.

Unfortunately, we end the season with a disappointing 5-4 record.  It’s almost as if the seniors had a sense of entitlement, and expected our opponents to roll over for us.  The early loss to Oregon tested our resolve, but we never pulled together to reach our potential.

After the final game, I’m dressing in the locker room when Sharf and a freshman team coach, Ed Lauzanne, approach.

Smiling at me for the first time ever, Sharf says, “We’ll need you in top shape for next year, Murphy!  Are you ready to work?”

“You bet!” I reply.  Lauzanne becomes animated.  He’s a former college track star and a weight room fanatic.

“I can see you now, Murph!  You’ll hit the weights and come back as a 250-pound animal!! GRRR!!!”

Unwittingly, I scoff and shake my head.  There’s no way I want to get up to 250 pounds.  I appreciate the attention of the coaches, but suddenly see that my body language has turned them off.  Sharf reddens, rolls his eyes and walks away.  Lauzanne follows; after all Sharf is his boss.  I’m thankful that De is my position coach and mentor.  If I stay close with him, I have a chance to do well and to be all-conference in my senior year, and I don’t think I’ll have to weigh 250 pounds to achieve that.


During the spring of the next year, it is announced that Coach DeFrancesco will be leaving our school.  He’s been an art teacher and coach here for years, and is now going to follow his dream of being a professional guitar player in Las Vegas.  His divorce is final, and he has taken up with one of our English teachers, much to everyone’s surprise.  But they were a pair of free spirits; a match made in heaven, I guess.  Something tells me that they have a great life ahead of them.

De also coaches the weight-men on our track team, where Tesch and I are the number 1 and 2 shot put and discus throwers.  I get a fair amount of one-on-one time with De, and our relationship grows.  He’s creative, liberal and speaks his opinion on just about every subject.  He takes shit from no one.

At a track team party at the end of the school year, De pulls me aside.  “You’re going to light it up next season, kiddo.  Keep up the weight work, and kick some ass.”  I say that I will, and De gives me a squeeze on the shoulder.  And with that, my mentor is off to find fame and fortune on the Vegas strip with Ms. Miller the English teacher at his side.


Two-a-days start again in August, 1980 and I arrive at 230 pounds.  Mostly because of track, I have been lifting weights consistently and am now able to bench-press 275 pounds.  Even more impressive, I did a dead-lift of 525 pounds and a squat of 515 pounds.  From a weight-room standpoint, I’m for sure one the top three strongest guys on the team.  Like the previous season, I’m not as fit as the smaller guys, but I’m strong as hell and know that I’ll get my wind in time.

Ed Lauzanne takes De’s place as the line coach, and he’s been tracking my progress in the weight room.  I don’t have the relationship with Lauzanne that I had with De, but we seem to get along well enough.  He’s spotted for me on quite a few lifts and has been pretty encouraging.

We get through the early non-contact practices, and at last the pads go on.  Lauzanne lines us up for the Maiden Drill, and a cheer goes up from us seniors.  It’s time to test the juniors, and for us seniors to give some payback for the hell we went through last year.  By the end of the previous season, the Maiden Drill had become a team favorite.  Under De, it was a free-for-all, with punches flying, facemasks pulled, along with most any other kind of marginally legal tactic.  The Maiden Drill had become a test of our manhood, and I’d become quite good at it.

I draw two juniors in my first go-round.  Jake Schlicker and Rich Davis stand across from me, and my adrenalin flows.  I’d been looking forward to teeing-off in The Drill since the end of last season, and now I have a couple of newbies to put through the ringer.

We get down in our stances, and I’m across from Jake.  He’s maybe 180 pounds, but has a good reputation for technique and quickness.  It won’t matter.  I’m going to dust him.

Lauzanne blows the whistle and I crash into Jake.  I get my hands under his shoulder pads and drive him back.  Jake fights back, and I get a hand under his facemask and push him back into Davis by leveraging his chin.  During my junior year, I learned that “where the head goes, so goes the body.”  Lauzanne blows his whistle, stopping the drill.

“Whoa, whoa whoa!  What’s going on here?”  The seniors look at each other; we don’t know what’s wrong.  “Murphy, you can’t do that.”

“What?” I ask.

Lauzanne lays out his rules for a sanitized version of the Maiden Drill.  We seniors protest, but to no avail.  It’s clear that Lauzanne’s idea of line play will be centered around speed and technique.  He won’t encourage fighting and meanness the way De did.  I’m disappointed.  My technique is good, but I may not be the fastest lineman on the team.  I wonder what this means for me.


The two-a-days continue, and a reporter and a photographer arrive from the Janesville Gazette.  Janesville is the ‘big town’ about 20 miles to the west of us, and they publish an annual high school football special each fall.  The special features pictures of the best players on each of the area’s teams, and prognostication of how each team will do.

Sharf leads the reporter around the practice field, chatting amiably.  As they pass by the various drills, Sharf sends certain players over to the photographer for a headshot.  All of the best players are photographed, and I see Sharf sending a number of juniors and some marginal seniors as well.

My heart pounds, and I’m eager to be one of the guys featured in the newspaper.  It’s my turn!  Within the next week or so, my face will appear in the Janesville Gazette along with quotes from the coach on how good I am and how well our team will do!  After toiling on the freshman team, then on JV and last year under the seniors, it’s thrilling to know my turn for recognition has arrived!

The reporter and Sharf stop to observe the drill I’m in.  All of us turn up the intensity, like kids showing off to company visiting the house.  Sharf sends four or five from our group over the photographer.  He looks directly at me, but looks right through me.  The coach and reporter move on.

I am devastated — absolutely crushed, and I feel like crying.


I become deeply depressed.  I toss and turn at night as I see my senior season slipping through my fingers, along with my delicate teenager’s self-image.

The practices continue, and it appears as though I’m only a second-stringer.  I try to nail down the center position, but Lauzanne is enamored with Jake.  Paul Smiley nails down the left offensive tackle spot, and another senior, J.C. Love, gets slotted on the right side.  J.C. is enormous at 6’7”, 220 and it seems as though his coordination has finally caught up with his size. He’s playing OK.  Even though he’s a lot taller than me, I’m sure I can kick his ass.

I try also to build upon my development during the previous season as a defensive tackle.  I enter training camp believing that I will start at one of the DT spots along with Smiley.  Paul does take one spot, but Rich Davis takes the other.  Lauzanne likes Rich’s speed, and he’s not too much smaller than me.  I am distraught at this turn of events, and my depression deepens.  At night, I nearly cry at the injustice of it all.  What have I done to get pushed aside like this?  I don’t know what to do, and I find myself becoming very isolated and alone.

We do our drills, and I go through the motions.  Other guys banter and joke between turns, excited to be playing football.  But I am quiet.  I question what each drill repetition will accomplish — will doing well in the monkey roll drill or the pulling drill get me into the starting line-up?  Subconsciously, I tend to think not.  I try to impress the men by being aggressive and mean, but my bed had been made the year before with Sharf.  I now have zero support from the coaching staff since De is gone.

Subconsciously, I also know that their decisions are not entirely without merit.  I hate the uncertainty of not knowing when practice or a drill will end, and I budget my effort just to get through.  As a result, there are times that I end up looking lazy and unenergetic.  I’d much prefer it if the coaches provided an outline of what we’re to do each day, but it doesn’t even occur to me ask for that.  As a seventeen year-old, I assume the coaches have all the answers as they are grown men.  I naively believe adults have it all figured out.

I withdraw into my funk, and accept my role as a backup.  It affects my whole life.


We begin the 1980 season, and I watch with resentment as Rich Davis does everything the coaches want him to do.  Sharf and Lauzanne have really taken the big redhead under their wing, but I still manage to get quite a bit of playing time rotating with Rich and Paul on defense.  I’m in the games for several series at a time, so I manage to get into the flow.

For our third game of the season, we travel to Wilmot, who will be our last non-conference opponent.  From what our scouting reports and the newspapers tell us, Wilmot has a pretty good team and they look a lot like us on paper; plenty of strapping linemen, a good QB and quick running backs.

A left guard named Chuck Menke anchors their offensive line.  From what I know, Chuck won the 185-pound wrestling weight class in Wilmot’s conference last year.  He plays football at around 200 pounds, and has a reputation as a solid technician with a lot of scrap and strength.  I’m sure I’ll knock heads with him at some point.

Early in the game, I get the call to spell Paul.  It’s still late summer, so the coaches try to keep the rotations moving and the water flowing in an effort to keep us fresh.

The huddle’s break, and I find myself lining up against Chuck.  My stomach flutters, but not to the degree it did when I faced-off against Chester Nelson the year before.  I’ve slowly been translating my depression and resentment into anger and energy on the field.  I am ready to do battle.

I find the scouting reports to be accurate.  Chuck is strong and fights me tooth and nail.  His hands and feet are quick, and we bang on each other with all we can bring.  While I’m not in on too many tackles, I feel I’m giving Chuck all he can handle and that I’m disrupting their blocking schemes.  Sooner or later, I tell myself, I’ll make a play.

Smiley rotates in for Davis.  Star middle linebacker and running back Barry Butters grabs Paul and I by the jerseys in the huddle.  He screams his instructions, intensity blazing at what is a second down and long situation.

“SMILEY – YOU RUSH THE QB!!  MURPHY – YOU HANG BACK AND COVER THE SCREEN!!”  Spit and sweat fly; we’re warriors in the trenches.

Paul and I comply.  The sides line up and the ball snaps.  I bull three steps into Chuck, and then rapidly pull back, head on a swivel as I try to sniff out a screen pass.  I make eye contact with Chuck who seems to wonder what I’m doing.  It’s a straight pass play, and it’s incomplete.

It’s third and long, and we know for sure that they’ll pass again.  Barry instructs us to rush our asses off, and our adrenaline levels pop.  I get down in my three-point stance, head-to-head with Chuck.  Our eyes meet again, both of us pictures of intensity.  I know we will leave nothing in reserve on this play.  “Be quick, be quick, be quick…” I tell myself; I have to shed him fast and get into the backfield.

“HUT!”  I see the ball move out of the corner of my left eye, which triggers a Pavlovian response as I explode out of my stance into my opponent.  I get my left hand into Chuck’s chest and my right hand on his shoulder.  Chuck is uncharacteristically slow to get his feet in position, and I exploit my brief leverage advantage.  I drag his jersey down with my left hand, and explode my right hand through his body to push him over.  Instantly, I am across the line of scrimmage into the Wilmot backfield, closing in on the quarterback.  A blur catches my eye to the left, and I see a wide receiver looping toward the QB.  It’s a reverse.

“REVERSE!!!  REVERSE!!!”  I shout, mouth-guard and saliva flying out of my mouth. I cut to the right to get a pursuit angle on the receiver who has now taken a hand-off from the QB.  As fast as I can run, I do.  I am two steps behind him and closing.  A few more steps, and he’s mine!  We tear fast toward the sideline, every stride diminishing the receiver’s ability to turn the corner.

I lunge with my right hand, and slap it down on the receiver’s shoulder and – BAM! – my legs are cut out from under me and searing pain screams up my right leg.  I spin as I fall, my last vision is seeing Barry Butters wipe out the runner for a loss.

I lay on my back and scream, black sky above me, bright lights in my peripheral vision.  I scream again, my right ankle is a complete mess.  Chuck rises and looks at me briefly before returning to his huddle.  He cut-blocked me from behind which is a legal move within four yards of the line of scrimmage.  There’s no emotion in his eyes.  He just did his job.  I writhe in pain, and I can’t get up.

Play is stopped and Lauzanne and Coach Bronson attend to me.  One of them asks if it’s my knee again – the one I never really hurt.  “It’s my ankle…oh God, it hurts so fucking bad!!”

The coaches manage to get me to a sitting position, and from there they lift me to my feet and help me off the field.  My ankle is wrapped in ice and elevated on the bench, and the rest of the team keeps their distance as though injuries are contagious.  The ice doesn’t seem to help, and I can feel my skin stretch with the swelling.

We win the game, and the teams shake hands.  I’m stuck on the bench, but Chuck finds his way to me.  “Hey, good game man.  Are you OK?”

“Yeah, I guess, but my ankle seems pretty fucked-up.”

“I’m sorry that happened.”

“You were doing your job.  I would have done the same thing to you.”

We shake hands.  Chuck turns and leaves me alone on the bench.  The next time I see his face, it’s in the newspaper as a first team guard on his all-conference team.  He’s good, and so am I.

As the stadium empties, I am left alone on the bench.  Paul and senior Dan Meyer figure out I can’t get to the bus myself, and they lift me off the bench and carry me.  A sea of fans departing the stadium part for us as we amble along like a three-headed monster.  “What happened to him?”  “Is he alright?” they ask as we go along.  Paul and Dan grunt as they strain to carry me, and I grimace with the pain of moving.  At last, I am settled into the back of the equipment van where a bed of sweat-soaked uniforms is made for me and another injured player, Greg Jones.

Jonesey and I ride along in the night, joking about girls and school, ankles elevated, ice packs on.

When we arrive back at our school, my Dad meets me in the small training room by the coach’s office. I’m propped up on the training table awaiting one of the men to take a look.

“How do you feel, Pat?” Dad asks.

“Not too good.  This really hurts.”  With that, Lauzanne arrives to make his diagnosis.  Peeling back the ice pack, he whistles at the purple, grapefruit sized swollen protrusion on the side of my right ankle.

“Oh, we’ve got a little sprain here,” he says, eyes widening at the sight.  I’m instructed to keep it iced and elevated for 48 hours, and then to use a heating pad after that.  Concern crosses Dad’s face as he looks on.  As a good high school and semi-pro player in his youth, Dad knows pain.  His teeth were kicked in during a game in the 50’s before anyone wore a facemask.

A half an hour later, we’re home, and I am under the doting care of my Mother who for once in her life doesn’t know what to do.  Mom and Dad help me get situated in bed, and we retire as a family.


For two weeks after my injury, I don’t practice.  Gradually, I give up my crutches and get back to an awkward walk.  I keep my ankle taped 24 hours a day to improve its stability, and I watch the action from the sidelines each afternoon.  Practice is incredibly boring to watch, and no one seems to care if I wander away for a while.  I spend time in the locker room playing dodge ball with a couple of other injured guys.  We sift through all of the old jerseys and helmets in the equipment closet, and one guy walks off with a couple of keepsakes.  I don’t steal, and am uncomfortable seeing others do it.  After that, I stay on the sidelines.

During the next weeks, I get back into the pads and back on the field.  I can play a bit, and try to prove that I’m game-worthy.  I twist my ankle on occasion, which sets me back.  I even end up back on crutches from time-to-time.  However, I get some playing time in the DT rotation, but not as much as I did prior to getting hurt.


As in the past, I try to contribute where I can.  During one practice, I fill in at center during a drill that works the left side of the offensive line only.  The drill is meant teach new plays to our players, and is to be completed at “half fast” or “half assed” as we say.

Junior Tim Little lines up across from me on defense.  I snap the ball and fall into him slowly.  Tim slams by me and into the backfield to disrupt the play.  “This is a half assed drill, Little.  What are you doing?” I yell at him after the play.  Tim has no reply, and pulls the same shit on the next play.  I am enraged – the coaches don’t correct him

“God damnit, Little, what the fuck are you doing?”

“Just play ball, Murph,” Little sneers.  This is the first year Tim has played football, and he has no respect for me.  I consider him to be a big farm kid with little in the way of skills, knowledge or talent.

“Oh, we’ll play ball, asshole.” I spit as I tighten my chinstrap.

The entire team senses something is up.  Other drills stop as our guys and coaches turn to watch the next play.

“C’mon fucker!” I scream at him as I approach the line.  I want to rip his head off.

We get in our stances and I snap the ball on the count.  Tim and I slam into each other as hard as we can, banging, punching, pushing.  The whistle blows, and Tim has gone nowhere except backwards.

On the next play, we do it again.  I win.

On the next play, we slam but Tim gets ahead of me a bit, and begins to fly past me.  I undercut him at the knees and he topples to the turf.  I rise quickly and punch him in the helmet several times, “Don’t fuck with me, asshole!  You want to go again, fuck-face?  C’mon!  Bring it!”

I turn to the team, and see Sharf staring at me with appalled disbelief, as though he’d just witnessed a horrific crime.  Grabow smiles slightly for the first time all season.  Brad’s a violent bastard, and liked what he saw.  Bronson passes, “See what happens when you get a little mad? You’re unstoppable.”

It doesn’t matter.  I’m still hurt and second-string at best.


Our team is successful.  We lose three and win seven, which sets us up for the conference championship game against Waterford, a team we’d beaten in a close game earlier in the season.  I play early in the championship game, but come out after tweaking my ankle.  I manage to get back in later, but not for long.  I can’t move too well, and don’t contribute much.

Ironically, Tim Little causes a fumble, which we return to win the game.  As a team, we are elated.  We back-slap, hug and cheer on our sideline when Grabow announces, “Let’s lift Sharf!!”

Along with a bunch of other guys, I run over to the unsuspecting coach and hoist him onto our shoulders.  I’m directly under his left side when it occurs to me that I have no admiration or respect for the man whatsoever.  I pass the coach onto another player in the gang, and amble back to find my helmet.  Emotion hits me as I realize that my life as a football player is more than likely over.  It’s probable that I’ll never play another game.

Near the bus, Coach Bronson draws near to congratulate me.  He was my coach as a sophomore, and I like him.  “Good job, Murph.  We had a great season.”

Tears fill my eyes, as I look back at him.  “I fucked up so bad…” I stammer between heaves.  Bronson looks at me with dismay, pats my head and walks away.  I gain my composure before anyone else sees me crying like a baby.  On the bus back home, I dwell in my depression as the others hoot and holler at the win.  I am not part of this team, I think.  I’m a fuck-up and I didn’t contribute to this win or to the team’s success.


Time passes, and I wear my lettermen’s jacket with pride.  The conference championship medal dangles from the letter itself.  Paul, Barry and a number of other guys make all-conference, and Grabow makes all-state second team as well.  The recruiters swarm on him, and he accepts a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Whenever the topic of our football season arises, I am quick to defend my lack of contribution with a variety of excuses.  “Man, you should have seen how that guy chop-blocked me.”  “Sharfenburg is a dick.”  Few people take the time to listen, and I sense no one is really interested in hearing my excuses.

I think about going out for the team in college, but my confidence isn’t too high and I dread the amount of work practice would be at the next level.  I still fantasize about being a star, but I don’t think it’s meant to be.


So now, twenty-three years later, it’s been an interesting exercise to reflect upon my bittersweet experiences as a football player.  I was a man-child among man-children, with a rapidly maturing body but a much less mature mind.  For better or worse, these were formative experiences that in part created who I am today and I have carried both the confidence and emotional scars from my teen years into my adult life.

Like everyone, my teen years were a time when I began to encounter many new opportunities, circumstances and problems.  As my young children enter this stage of their lives, I’ll be watching closely to see how things are going for them.  If I can lend support and guidance (assuming they’ll listen to me), I will.  However, like all of us, they’ll have to figure some things out on their own.

I became pretty upset and depressed over my playing status, and I didn’t know quite how to deal with it.  I never asked my coaches what was expected of me or what I could do to improve and contribute.  That was a mistake, but one I didn’t realize I was making at the time.  Sometimes when you’re a teenager, you assume adults see things exactly the way you do.  I was stunned to find that Sharf didn’t see me as a star or even a starter.  Perhaps if I had sat down with him to discuss his expectations as well as my strengths and weaknesses, I could have made changes to get myself into a better position.  Maybe then he would have told me that I needed to show a better practice effort to win a starting job.

Now as an adult, I’ve finally figured out that all of us face difficult circumstances and problems.  Through repetition, I’ve become better at managing them.  And, all of us have new opportunities in life, though we don’t always recognize them.  Ultimately, we are free to be whoever we wish to be, and we are defined by the decisions we make everyday.

Instead, I formed somewhat of a ‘victim mentality’ to make excuses for my status.  “I could have played after I got hit in the knee, but the coaches wouldn’t let me.”  “Lauzanne didn’t like me, so I didn’t start.  It would have been a different story if De were still around.”  “Sharf is a jerk.  He liked midgets more than big guys.”  Not many people want to listen to conversations like that.

Nevertheless, I have found my experiences as a football player to be somewhat metaphoric for many things in life.  Team players succeed.

In my work life, I have evolved into the consummate team player; an individual willing to sacrifice so that the team may succeed.  I consider myself to be less flashy but more diligent and attentive to the details than many of my co-workers – a lineman of the corporate world, so to speak.

I’ve had success and reward, due mainly to the fact that I am tenacious and willing to fight and work hard for what I achieve.  My tenacity and toughness developed on the football field, and has served me well in life.  I’ve been programmed to compete from an early age, and I consider that to be important as well.

Like in football, a few things in business come easy for me and many things do not.  However, the things I do well, I do very well, and I get through the hard stuff by working at it.  No one denies my effectiveness.

As a Father, I do my best to mentor, coach and advise our three children.  Where would I have been if not for Coach De as a junior and Coach Bronson as a sophomore?  My interactions with them were valuable, and I grew in confidence and ability because of their influence.  While Fatherhood isn’t exactly the same as coaching, I want our kids to have a “life coach” in me.  If I’m able to help them grow into loving, capable, energetic individuals, well, that’s as much as one can ask for in life.

As my confidence ebbed at the end of my football career, I carried that into my life.  As a result, I became an individual who requires plenty of positive reinforcement from superiors in order to keep my confidence high.  Beginning with my interactions with Sharf, I have had a number of issues with negative authority figures over the years.  Thankfully, there have been enough positive figures in my life to outweigh the bad.

The depression that began for me during adolescents also carried into my adult life.  It took years for me to manage it, and I have my wife Melanie to thank for being my guide in that respect.  I’m very blessed to have a friend and partner like her to talk with and to share my life with.  If not for Melanie, I’m quite sure I’d be sinking thousands into therapy right about now.


Dan Meyer and Greg Jones have remained close friends since high school, and we’ll reminisce about the glory days on the rare occasion that we’re together.  They’re great guys who’ve gotten through their lives by being tenacious and tough, too.

Grabow started at outside linebacker during his sophomore and junior seasons with the Badgers.  In his senior year, he got beat out by a speedy underclassmen.  I know how that feels.  Brad now owns an insurance agency back in our hometown, and I hear he still plays baseball on the local men’s amateur team.

Barry Butters is a teacher and head football coach in a neighboring town.  He married his high school sweetheart, and had led exactly the life he wanted to.  It’s nice to see.

I got to know Chuck Menke fairly well in college; he and I attended the same school.  Chuck majored in engineering, and went about his studies as tenaciously as he played ball.  We talked once or twice about the game we played against each other, and it was interesting to get his perspective.  He had a commemorative all-conference plague on his dorm room desk showing him in uniform, down on one knee.

As for Dru, Tesch, Paul & Pooh Smiley and all of the others, I don’t know what became of them.  On occasion, I wonder what their perspectives are on their football experience and if it had an impact later in their lives.  I’m sure it did.


Sharf retired and Bronson became head coach.  I heard the football team floundered for years as many of the best athletes went out for soccer instead.  Sharf is probably in his 70’s now, and I harbor no resentment toward him at all.  What’s the use?  I’m sure he’s a fine guy, really.  As a teenager, you’re just too young to figure that out.

From time-to-time, I wonder how things worked out for De and Ms. Miller.  One of these days, I should go to Vegas and look for his show.  I can see him in a crushed velvet suit in one of those off-the-strip casinos where the decor hasn’t been updated in forty years.  I bet he’s having a blast.


My six year-old son has taken to wearing my high school football jersey to bed most nights.  By now, he’s worn the shirt far more than I ever did.  I love the way it drapes down to his ankles, and he has to struggle to get his hands out of the sleeves, which hang past his wrists.

I would very much like for my children to be involved in athletics, as long as they enjoy what they’re doing and are committed to give it a good effort.  I won’t be living vicariously through my son’s football exploits, should they choose to play the game.  I’d just prefer that our kids be physically active and fit.

In the meantime, I tune into the Green Bay Packers games whenever I can.  My adrenalin flows each Sunday before kick-off, which Melanie finds funny and a bit strange.  My Dad and I exchange a half a dozen phone calls during each game to discuss strategy, bitch, rejoice, etc.  My kids have gotten to know some of the players on sight; “Bubba Franks, he’s really big!  He’s number 88!”

And yes, even at 40, I still fantasize about making a big play from time-to-time.  Hey, you never know.  The Packers might need me someday.

Tuesday Morning: A Journal of my Experiences on 9/11 and since

September 10, 2011

I rise slowly and don my running shoes and shorts and head outside in to the cool air of the late summer morning. It is 4:45 a.m., and the darkness of night has not yet lifted. As usual, my run begins slowly, the first step being the most difficult. While it is cooler than I like (my preference is to run in warm, humid air) I begin to sweat after the first half mile as my body and mind warm to the idea of exercise. After the first mile, I am engaged.

There’s a section of road in my neighborhood that is shrouded by trees on both sides. In this stretch, there are no streetlights or homes, and I feel isolated, free and a little frightened. My senses are acute to sounds and sights in the darkness and I run on, pushing myself, sweat now dripping down my face.

The trees create a v-shaped wedge in the sky over the road where the limbs end, and this morning the stars and moon are particularly vibrant. I gaze upwards as I run, relishing the brightness of the sky, trying to find Orion’s belt. I recall a time when I was perhaps four or five years old, walking at night to the corner drugstore with my Father. My small hand in his, together we were in awe of the brilliant night sky. “Dad, look at the stars! There must be billions of them!” I exclaimed. I don’t really remember my Dad’s reply, but I believe that as we shared the spectacle, both of us felt insignificant, isolated and perhaps a little frightened. On that night so many years ago, I shared love with my Dad.

Running, I continue to take in the sky and my memories. I raise my arms skyward, and say a small prayer to God, to bless my family. I am one insignificant spec in the universe, just a minor cog in the great machine of the cosmos. I am content with my role, insignificant in the great scheme, but significant to my wife and especially my children. I thank God in my prayer, for putting me exactly where I am meant to be. Fear enters my mind for a moment as I consider the many things that can happen to my family that I cannot control, but it is my faith in God that enables me to believe that I will do my best to control the circumstances that I can. I am at peace with that knowledge.

Making the turn at the top of the road, I become attuned to the day ahead. My night of sleep was restless. In a few hours, I will be engaged in a conference call with the group president of my company, my boss and another corporate exec to discuss the contract renewal for one of my major pieces of business. Renewing the contract will ensure my employment for another few years, but there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the account within my company. Today’s call is my chance to plea my case, and to gain the senior level support I need to get the deal done. I mentally review my strategy and presentation as I finish the final mile. Preparing for this call had been my top business priority for four weeks, all my effort culminating in decisions that will be made in a brief few minutes. I gut-check my confidence level, and am satisfied that my preparation will pay off.

Shaving, showering, my mind focuses on what I know so well already. I anticipate the questions that will be asked, and recite the answers to myself. I mentally reassess and replay until I am dressed and heading to the train. I catch the 6:35 a.m. Amtrak Clocker to New York City.

The streets are crowded already as I begin my cross-town walk at 7:30. “Hello Boss! Where have you been?” exclaims my fruit-stand guy in his deep Middle Eastern accent as I approach his booth on 37th Street and 5th Avenue. Rahman and I have become friends over the years.

“Too many trips!” I say, “How you doin’?”

“Oh, boss, good good.” He smiles, and moves quickly to dispense my usual order.

Two navel oranges are exchanged for a buck, and I’m off to Food Merchants on 40th to get a small oatmeal and a large coffee. I tell the Hispanic guy at the counter to make the oatmeal plain, but he adds raisins out of habit since I have asked him to do so many times before. I don’t bother to correct him. It’s kind of nice to know that he recognizes me in the sea of humanity that passes by his counter every day. I’ve been a regular customer of the fruit stand and Food Merchant’s for five years, but don’t know much if anything abut the people who serve me. One of these days, I’ll ask, I say to myself.

For the second time this morning, sweat is dripping down my face as I enter my office. Like many others in New York, I am hard-wired to move fast, and the two-mile walk across town reheats me after my run. E-mail is checked, spreadsheets reviewed and food is eaten before my boss calls at 8:30. “You ready?”

I check my shirt to make sure it’s dried. “Yep, I’ll be right there.” I gather my materials for the call and go to his office.

Mark is of Armenian descent, and looks like an olive-skinned Wayne Newton. Couldn’t ask for a better guy to work with. He knows what the call means to me, and knows I’m prepared to compelling. I take a deep breath as he dials.

The words flow from me effortlessly, and the answers to questions are returned like gentle lobs in a junior league tennis match. The executives know I’ve done my homework, and seem to support my position. I am instructed to move forward on the contract with a few modifications with the strategy that need to be cleared by our finance people and our lawyers. I breathe a sigh of relief, which is interrupted by the shrill ring of Mark’s cell phone.

Mark peers at the Nokia screen to see who is calling, and frowns as he answers. He steps out of the office to talk to whoever it is. I continue the wrap-up with the execs on the speakerphone. Mark reenters, and his words take my breath away.

“Hey, did you guys hear that two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center?”

The execs on the other end of the phone are in Chicago and don’t seem to register the information, and I peer out the window on my right, but can only see the Empire State Building silhouetted against the blue sky. We quickly end my segment of the call, and I leave Mark’s office to so he can de-brief with the higher-ups.

Moving to a south facing office down the hall, I see thick black smoke pouring into the sky. From our location in midtown, we are about three miles from Wall Street, but it is clear that something bad is happening. I rush to my desk through what is now a vaguely empty office. It hasn’t registered with me that a lot of people have left. My voicemail light is on, and I pick-up a message from my Mother. She’s left the same worried message on my cell phone. I try to surf the web for information while dialing my wife. All circuits are busy. I try and retry my home and my Mom and Dad from both my cell phone and my landline. At last, I get a ring at my parent’s house.

“Please call Melanie and let her know I’m OK.” I instruct my Mom. She tells me what’s happening, and my breath is taken away for the second time as I pull up a .jpeg on The picture shows one flaming tower, and a jetliner yards away from the second tower. “OK, Mom, this looks bad. I love you, and I’ll do my best to get out of here. I’ll call you when I can. Please get a hold of Melanie.”

Peering back into Mark’s office, I whisper and point south, “There’s smoke!” He’s still on the speakerphone and can’t hear what I’ve said. He’s deep into the discussion, so I leave. I recall that we have a videoconference room on the floor above, and there I find most of my co-workers. CNN has live video feeds from downtown. I gasp again as an image of a burning Pentagon building is flashed upon the screen. We are seriously under attack. Cecilia waves me to the seat next to her, and I see the tears running down her cheek.

“Oh my God…what’s going to happen next?” I shake my head, and don’t know what to tell her. I absorb the rapid-fire details from CNN. So far, as many as eight planes are unaccounted for. Three have crashed, and another may be down in Philadelphia – or is it Pittsburgh? I pucker at both ends. I live 45 miles from Philly. CNN loops back to images of smoking WTC towers.

I huddle with several co-workers back downstairs. What are you going to do? Where are you going to go? The bridges and tunnels are closed. What about a hotel? You can stay at my place. When do you want to leave? In a while. I’m not going anywhere. I’m leaving now. What if they bomb the UN? Grand Central? Empire State? We gotta get outta here.

Numb, I return to my desk. Garrett says, “One of the towers just collapsed.” My breath leaves again. Tom says, “Let’s get the hell out of here. Come up to my place.” I agree, leaving without being able to tell my wife where I’m going.

Five of us take the fire stairs down 13 floors to the lobby, carting our computer bags and other belongings. A few in my group carry luggage since they were either heading out or returning from business trips.

On the street, Tom and I look at midtown, our midtown, like it is now a minefield. We decide on a course up 3rd Avenue to avoid getting too close to Grand Central or the UN Plaza. Around 50th Street, we snake over to 2nd Avenue where the foot traffic is lighter, though there are thousands of people walking, but very few cars relative to a normal day.

It is irresistible to look southward at the now white smoke pouring from the carnage downtown. My group is solemn and the quiet within the foot traffic is unnatural, only occasionally broken by the harsh wail of a passing emergency vehicle. We speak from time-to-time, but no one really knows what to say. I recall a Life magazine picture of Vietnamese fleeing a battle area during the conflict, and suddenly it occurs to me that we too are fleeing a battle. My mind churns with uncertainty and fear, tempered thankfully by logic. Keep moving — get to higher ground, I tell myself.

I am full into my third sweat of the day as we stop at the 59th Street Bridge to watch literally thousands of people making the trek from Manhattan to Queens. A sea of heads and shoulders bob across the span.

Tom and I make eye contact at the sound of a jet overhead. Our last information told us that four hijacked planes were still unaccounted for. The sound grows and fades, and we cannot see a plane. I sigh, realizing that it was probably an F-16.

We are at war for the first time in our homeland, and I am in the middle of it.

And again, my cell phone cannot connect. Assess the circumstances, keep moving, stay cool, panic will not help, deal with what is in front of you. The five of us pick up our computer cases and bags, continuing to march the remaining thirty blocks.

We stop at a grocery store on 2nd Avenue to get a bottle of water for each of us. Huddling outside the store, we somehow sense that we are getting away from the danger since we’re in the 60’s street-wise. I notice a bank of payphones nearby. Remember those? We used to use them all the time before everyone aged 15 and older got a cell phone.

I pump in my home number and company credit card information, and at last hear the ring of my home phone. I do not care that the earpiece is covered with scum of an unknown origin. I only want to talk to my wife and kids.


“Hi, it’s me.”

“Oh my God, where are you?”

I explain that we’re heading north to Tom’s apartment and outline my tentative plans to stay in the city. Relief washes over me (if relief can actually do that) with the sound of Melanie’s voice. I tear up and have a hard time speaking. “God, it’s horrible, hon.” I manage to state the obvious. We don’t know what more there is to say, so I tell Melanie that I’ll call her when I get to Tom’s or whenever I can.

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Bob takes the phone and gets through to his wife on my credit card. I imagine his conversation goes much as mine did.

Sweat stains streak my shirt as we at last reach Tom’s apartment. He and Bunny (that’s really her name, by the way) live in a one bedroom flat with their two young boys. They’ve been looking for a house in Connecticut or Long Island for a while, and are waiting to find just the right place. I suspect they’ll wait a little longer now.

Tom asks me to run to the grocery store with him so we can stock up on food. Though I feel like sitting, I agree to go. The usual heavy traffic in a Manhattan grocery store is trebled by the tragedy. People fear the worst, and stock up on cases of bottled water and staples to carry them for days if not weeks. Eerily, those in the store are quiet, and shopping goes on in a civil and relatively organized fashion. Tom and I stand in the express checkout line for those buying 15 items or fewer. Ahead of us in line is a woman with two overstuffed grocery carts – a violation that would usually draw the severe vocal wrath of Manhattan shoppers, but today is met with mild jokes. Nobody wants to be confrontational now. Our perspectives and behavior have already changed.

Outside the store, an elderly woman of European descent (I think, from her poor English) makes eye contact with me and begins a conversation. She seems to be scolding me for America’s arrogance, but I’m not really certain. I am tempted to tell her to fuck off, but can’t rationalize the logic of arguing with a little old lady who can’t understand me.

Instead I say, “This is a sad, sad day.”

She rambles on, thinking that I’m agreeing with her. I simply tell her to be safe and walk away.

Tom and I return to the apartment, and I am intrigued by the ergonomics of his home. In the bedroom, cribs for each of the boys flank a queen bed. Kids toys are stacked and stored neatly everywhere, and every square inch is well used. We laugh about it, and Tom says he won’t know what to do with more space when they move.

Bunny has the TV tuned to CNN, and we watch. The validity of new information seems questionable as we hear various accounts from a never-ending stream of ‘experts.’ All we seem to really know is that Osama bin Laden is behind it. Looking back, I don’t recall whether that was stated by any news organization, or whether those in my group and the New York population at large simply assumed it to be the case.

My shirt is dry again, and I realize I’m starving. I suggest lunch at a restaurant, and we debate the location. It is surreal to be discussing lunch spots, I realize.

Close to Tom’s apartment is a burger place called Jackson Hole. The only problem is that it’s not in Wyoming. Upper East Side Yuppies pack in to the Hole and every other restaurant in the area. Restaurant managers scramble to accommodate the unanticipated crowds. Outdoor cafes fill up first and it looks like a great summer Saturday afternoon in the city, except that it’s not.

We get a table and join the crowd, all of whom are watching CNN on the TV over the bar. Burgers and cokes arrive. We all wanted to have a beer, but agreed that we couldn’t if we had a chance to give blood later in the day.

As we watch, Mike and I begin to speculate on the death toll downtown. Are there 25,000 people in each tower, or 25,000 people total in both buildings? Mike guesses that somewhere between 10,000 to 15,000 people have died. I believe the number is lower – more like 5,000 to 7,000, since there was an hour or so to evacuate after the planes hit. I figure that a lot of people were still on their way to work when the planes hit, so the buildings weren’t full.

We watch the tape of the collapses. Tom, who has an engineering degree, figures that there were controlled explosions in the building that caused them to fall straight down. I agree; it looks just like a planned demolition.

After lunch, we return to Tom’s and learn that some trains are remarkably moving out of Penn Station and through the 100-plus year old tunnels back to New Jersey. Bob and I agree to give it a go, since we both live in the Garden State. We walk past a hospital on the way to the station, and push through a crowd of people to see if we can give blood. My type is AB negative, among the rarest types. Blood banks love to see me.

I tell this to one of the hospital workers. She says, “We’ve only taken in a few injured so far.” She tells me that they have banked far more blood than they can use already. Speaking with her, I realize that there are few survivors.

Bob and I step away, stunned by the revelation.

Somehow, in spite of the limited vehicle traffic, we manage to catch a cab. I can’t believe our luck. Having run four miles before work, and having walked another five in the city, it’s nice to get a ride. The driver hunts and pecks his way across Manhattan wherever streets are open.

Penn Station is crowded as though it were a holiday weekend. Every train is delayed. A man standing near me is covered in ash and soot, and his business suit is torn. Dried blood is caked to his face from a laceration on his forehead. We make eye contact, and I shake his hand. Quietly, I say “God bless us.” He nods, “Thanks.” Our commuting professional lives are juxtaposed with war.

Bob and I manage to catch a Northeast Corridor train after waiting for a half an hour, and are fortunate to get seats on a standing-room only train.

The car is very quiet in spite of the crowd. Bob and I begin to talk business, maybe because it’s a distraction. He asks if I’d consider working with him to start a brokerage business. I shake my head, and tell him I couldn’t take the lack of security, especially now. Bob sees my point, and realizes that risk has taken on a new meaning in the past eight hours.

Our train rambles through the tunnel under the Hudson River, and shoots out of the tube into New Jersey. En masse, heads turn to the left to look at the smoldering downtown skyline. I mourn with my fellow passengers, tears forming in my eyes. I cannot remember a sadder time.

Finally, I make it home. It is 6:30 and my kids noisily greet me, shouting “Daddy!!” like it is a normal day. They rush to me and hug my legs with so much enthusiasm that I almost fall over. Melanie and I embrace for as long as the kids will allow us to. She pours glasses of wine, and then another. My mind still races.

After the kids go to bed, I step outside in the darkness and gaze again at the brilliance of the sky. I push my trembling hands through my hair, and exhale. Why? What did we ever do to deserve this? I pray again.

I am back where my day began, under the night sky. I recall little from my conference call; it’s meaning has diminished. I recall my early morning prayer, and how thankful I was for my family, my role. Now more than ever, I realize two things. It is the people you care for in life that are important. And there are many things that can’t be controlled. I will do my best to control those circumstances that I can.


It is late Thursday night, September 13th, when a loud explosion awakens me. I shoot straight out of bed and run to the window, finally realizing that a thunderstorm is moving through. I go back to bed, but my heart is pounding and I do not sleep.


On the front page of the New York Times is a photograph of a hand-addressed letter the Senator Tom Daschle. The letter contained anthrax spores, as have numerous other letters that were sent to politicians, television journalists and a tabloid newspaper publisher. As it turns out, some of the letters passed through the large postal facility that serves my community, thus infecting several local postal employees. Our daily mail delivery slows to just one or two pieces a day, and no mail on occasion. Several weeks pass, and we begin receiving mail that has been irradiated to kill any anthrax spores. Many letters arrive in plastic pouches that are printed with a letter from a US Postal Service executive to explain what procedure was used to decontaminate the mail. We carry on in as normal a fashion as we can, despite constant reminders from our mailbox and the news media that our personal security is not a given.


Three months have passed, and the news media and the White House indicate that we are catching up with Osama Bin Laden. I’m not wild about the fact that we’re at war and that the Middle East has exploded with violence.

I see my fellow metro area residents returning to normal, as I intervene in a shoving match between two men on the train one morning. Three months ago, we were much more considerate of each other, temporarily it seems. It pisses me off that our newly found compassion is beginning to fade. But what the hell, we have to move on. That’s human nature.

Will our society gain a greater character from September 11th, or will the meaning of the experience fade like memories of a popular TV show or a Super Bowl?


It is January 11th, and the shock has faded. We talk about September 11th at work, but nobody tells tales about a friend or neighbor or cousin who died or narrowly escaped death anymore. We’re past the point of being shocked or amazed any further. We have grieved, and we bear physical and psychological scares, but we move on. We survive. It’s been happening since the dawn of man.

As it turns out, I am extraordinarily fortunate. Despite the fact that I live in the Metro area and work in New York City, I didn’t know anyone who died personally. All of my family, friends and acquaintances survived unscathed. About 40 people from my town perished, including another man with my name, Patrick Murphy. I saw his name on the memorial at our church, and I prayed for his family. For me, the terror was in not knowing what was happening, or what would happen next. For many other people I know, the terror was much deeper and will never go away.

I consider it to be no minor miracle that only 3,191 people perished on September 11th. Had the planes hit an hour or two later, or had they hit lower floors thus trapping the people above, or had flight 93 crashed into a populated area…the death toll would have been far greater.

Prior to September 11th, most people like me were concerned about very ordinary things…. our personal health and the health of our loved ones. Our 401(k) accounts. Saving for college and retirement. We did our best to keep the lawn looking nice. People like me lived to work, or worked to live. I vote for the latter.

After September 11th, our nation embraced a new ‘fear set’ if you will. Like people in the early days of the Cold War who constructed bomb shelters in their back yards, it is no longer irrational to worry about a major terrorist event. Hardware stores sell out of plastic sheeting and duct tape as people prepare for a chemical or biological attack. Grocery stores sell out of bottled water. September 11th has been a wake-up call of the most painful kind.

Will this be the beginning of a reign of terrorism in the United States, or was this an isolated incident the likes of which will be prevented through better intelligence and security in the future? Will these events encourage our federal leaders to take a more compassionate and humanitarian stance in foreign relations? Will our military endeavors backfire and create even greater animosity towards the US? I realize that we are entering an extremely dangerous time in history. Our actions now will create the world in which my children will live as well as any number of generations beyond them.

So we go on. My wife and I have further resolved to control the things that we can, and to not fret over the things we can’t control. We’ll do our best to teach our children to love and to be compassionate, and we will cherish our companionship every day that we have it. We are just minor cogs in the great machine of the cosmos, and we are content with the roles we play. We may be insignificant in the great scheme, but significant to each other, our children, family and friends. We thank God for putting us exactly where we are meant to be.


September 10th, 2011. The eve of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America. My classmates back in Wisconsin are celebrating our 30th high school reunion today at our town’s annual Corn Fest. I feel a small tinge of regret at not being there, but our life is in Maryland now, where we moved in 2006.

I often wonder if the terrorists have won. The United States has spent trillions on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bin Laden is dead at last, but our economy is in disastrous shape and millions are unemployed or under-employed. Perhaps this was Al Qaeda’s goal all along…bait us into a hugely expensive war that would have a lasting, generational effect on every man, woman and child in our country. It pisses me off.

My Dad once told my daughter, “…ALL wars are stupid…” He couldn’t have been more right. Yes, we have to fight for what we believe in sometimes. But there has been a lot of aggressive stupidity on the part of our nation’s leaders over the last 10 years.

We are hanging on. Melanie and I do our best to help our children grow and develop, and we are blessed with a great family. We thank God for that every day, and we relish our time and experiences together. Though times are challenging, our family is closer than ever. And that has always been the most important thing.

I wrestle with where we will be as a family in another 10 years. The kids will likely be off and on their own by then (or, maybe not). So much will be happening, and we will control what we can control, and do our best to not fret about the things we cannot control.

Sound familiar?

One Man’s Very Biased Perspective of the Big 10 Conference

November 20, 2010

I write this with full admission that I am biased as well as middle-aged.  I graduated from heaven (aka University of Wisconsin-Madison) in 1985, and I have found that my perspectives of the other institutions of higher learning within the conference has changed very little over these many years.  However, the conference has grown since I left it all those years ago!  Who knew that a school as venerable as Penn State would want to rub elbows with the likes of us?  They were the Kings of Football along with Notre Dame back in the day, and Nebraska was right there, too!

So let’s get on with the critique, OK?  I must further admit that my perspectives are too often shaped by athletics rather than academics.  To that, all I can say is that “I’m American” and that’s just the way ESPN has programmed me to think.  If you don’t like that, well, move to Canada.

In approximate alphabetical order, here we go…

University of Illinois

At Champaign-Urbana!  Wow!!  Sounds like a place where people have really great cocktails in the city, doesn’t it?  Funny thing, though.  I’ve been to Champaign-Urbana, and it’s really in the middle of a cornfield.  Totally not what you’d expect from the name, right?  However, I was there once for the Big 10 Rugby Tournament in the early 80’s (I’m sure you read about that or saw it on TV), and you know what?  We had a pretty good time.  Those Flatland kids sure could party in spite of the fact that the drinking age was 21 and getting into bars was a challenge.  The Police force there was also quite nice during that 2am traffic stop, and I think my police record has now been cleared in the State of Illinois.  Most memorable were the brick buildings.  I don’t know why, but I remember several of them.

Indiana University

Now this is the toughest school to get a read on since I’ve never been there.  But, I do know something about Indiana.  There’s an Interstate highway running through it (I-65) that does not have a single curve for more than 2,900 miles.  Amazing.  IU is renowned for its prowess in basketball and my mental image of the school is that everyone looks just like Bobby Knight, Gene Hackman or Steve Alford.  Or maybe Keith Smart.  That’s it…that’s all I’ve got on Indiana.  I’m sure it’s great, though.

University of Iowa

The thing about people from Iowa is that they will walk right into your house to use the bathroom without even asking.  How do I know this?  I once lived in a house adjacent to Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI and we often converted our small lawn into a parking lot on football Saturdays.  When Iowa was visiting in ’83, we made the huge mistake of renting parking spaces to these Iowa people who seemed to assume that their fee covered the use of the plumbing facilities.  Man, was I pissed off about that.  While I’ve never been to the University of Iowa personally, I have traversed across the state in a car borrowed from the University of Wisconsin for a funeral.  I can tell you that UW does not like it when you leave empty beer cans in their cars.

University of Michigan

Ah, perhaps the most arrogant university in the Big 10, if not the nation.  I’ve been to Ann Arbor many times, and it is quite clear that their alumni, students, fans and followers are all vaccinated against fecal stench syndrome.  Their shit simply does not stink.  Apparently, UM has quite an academic reputation since that fact is hammered home by anyone I meet who has ever paid tuition to attend the place.  Several years ago, I met a fairly overweight woman in her late 30’s at a cocktail party.  She was wearing a Michigan tee-shirt and was quite condescending in the fact that her school was better than mine.  I was too drunk to really defend all that, but I managed to blurt out, “your shit doesn’t stink, does it?”  She replied, “Of course not.  I’ve been vaccinated.”  I had to hand it to her.  That would be pretty cool.  I’ve also been to the ‘BIG HOUSE” where they play football in Ann Arbor.  Not a smelly fart at all among the home crowd.  Amazing.

Michigan State University

MSU and East Lansing will always hold a special place in my heart for the simple fact that the school admitted and subsequently graduated my very talented yet very emotional sister from it School of Veterinary Medicine.  Kathleen has a  personality that is part Kim Jong-Il and part Dian Fossey (of  ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ fame). She’s a handful.  Aside from that, I was under the impression for many years that it was always 40 degrees and sleeting in East Lansing.  But one day, I visited in May (for Kathleen’s graduation) and the sun was out.  The campus was beautiful.  And all was right with the world.

University of Minnesota

Now this is the school that has a rivalry with Wisconsin in football where the prize is Paul Bunyan’s Ax.  Whenever I see that ax on TV, I always think, “Man, is that small!”  I mean come on.  It’s only about 8 feet long.  Seems like a terribly small ax for a man whose fall during a bar fight left and impression in the ground that later formed Lake Michigan.  So I’m not sure what all the fuss is about that little ax.  It’s more like a toothpick for a guy like Paul.  The other thing about University of Minnesota is that its students never breathe fresh air or see the light of day from September to June.  Seriously.  The entire campus is comprised of buildings that are connected by tubes and tunnels like some kind of  Habitrail for humans.  Keep in mind that Minnesota receives 19 feet of snow a month during the winter, so this arrangement is necessary.  Also, all the women at Minnesota are Swedish-descended nymphomaniacs.

University of Nebraska

Not officially part of the Big 10 yet, but we are all looking at them like the foster child that will soon be moving in.  Football and corn.  Corn and football.  Ahman Green.  That’s all I got.

Northwestern University

“One of these things is not like the others…one of these things does not belong!”  Ah, Sesame Street.  I’m a connoisseur.  Northwestern is in Evanston, IL which is partly populated by leafy rich people and partly populated by street gangs.  There is no corn in Evanston, which is its most distinguishing factor from all other universities in the Big 10.  Northwestern has been locked into the Big 10 simply because it’s located smack in the geographic middle of the conference.  If Northwestern had its druthers, it would be Notre Dame.  However, we all know Notre Dame ain’t what it used to be,  so Northwestern is actually better off.  Plus, Northwestern has far fewer Catholics.  Takes the pressure off, doesn’t it?  I played in a rugby tournament at Northwestern once, and our team went to someone’s house where we were served brie.  I didn’t know you were supposed to eat the outside part of the cheese, too.

Ohio State University

Yes, I’ve left off the “THE” in front of this school’s name.  It just doesn’t make sense.  What, was there some other school out there saying “We’re THE OTHER Ohio State University?”  No.  So using “THE” is just silly.  But that describes OSU, doesn’t it?  A bunch of goofballs all stoned on buckeye ganja, if you ask me.  I’ve been to Columbus which is in The Ohio.  Pretty nice town, actually.  The campus was empty when I was there which makes me wonder if OSU football is really a product of some movie studio in Hollywood.  Or, perhaps everyone was in Vegas gambling with Art Schilchter.  I’m dating myself now.  Sorry.

Pennsylvania State University

Penn State is situated in the way-rural town of State College, PA which should not be confused with College Station in Texas.  It takes at least 6 hours to get to Penn State, even if  you live in State College.  The university is further situated on the top of a gigantic, tree covered mountain where the main predators are the Lions who say “NIT!”  Joe Paterno moved to State College from some place like the Bronx in 1908, and has not been able to find his way out ever since.  The Penn State colors are blue and white and the school has no logo.  They’re working on that, though.

Purdue University

Purdue is so rural, they don’t even have a post office.  How do I know this?  I dated a girl from the Chicago area in between high school and college.  This girl was quite nice to look at and very, very sophisticated compared to me.  She left after the summer was over to attend Purdue.  I wrote many, many letters to her (though I believe I spelled the word ‘rote’ back in those days), and she apparently never received any of them.  Hard to believe that the US Postal Service had overlooked such a large and formidable institution such as Purdue.  At one point, I drove down an exceedingly long, straight stretch of I-65 to visit this girl, but our meeting had to be very covert.  She said something about station wagons not being allowed near her dorm.  I think she married a spy and is now living in Russia.  But you didn’t hear that from me.

University of Wisconsin

Back in “the day,” we Badgers just didn’t give two hoots about football because we were too busy partying our brains out in every conceivable fashion.  I’m not saying this to brag…it’s true.  The craziest people in the Big 10 go to Wisconsin, and that’s quite a statement since I think everyone in the Big 10 is crazy.  But for me, Madison was heaven.  Don’t we all feel that way about our alma mater?  We should.  College is a special time.  Learning in the classroom.  Learning about ourselves.  Learning how to thaw out the frozen horn in a ’72 Pinto.  UW has changed over the years with its success in sports, however, students there are still prone to contract a debilitating case of MLS:  Madison Liberal Syndrome.  For me, MLS manifested itself in the growth of a huge Irish Afro and a propensity to hitchhike.  Though no one is ever cured of MLS, we can be in a perpetual state of recovery.  Those who don’t recover either go on to a life on the streets, or they become lawyers.  Regardless of the huge personal growth I experienced at UW, I regret not taking full advantage of the university academically (meaning, I should have gone to class).  What a school!  What more I could have learned!  On, Wisconsin! On, Big 10!

How GM Lost Me and My Generation

May 26, 2009

The American love affair with the automobile is a deeply emotional and fickle deal as we all know.  In part, cars define who we are, or more to the point – who we want people to think we are.  Who hasn’t gazed at the gleaming Mercedes S-Class lingering in the adjacent lane during rush hour traffic and thought, “Wow…that’s some car.  That guy must be a lawyer / CEO / NBA star!”  Conversely, who hasn’t glanced at the Kia nameplate on the car buzzing past us and wondered when the rear quarter panels were going to fly off?

 In truth, when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of solid, reliable transportation, there’s little separating that Kia from the Mercedes.  If well cared for, each vehicle will run wonderfully and will move you safely to and fro for years to come.   Sure, the Merc might have an extra toy or two to play with, but in the end, they’re the same.

 However, amidst that massive five-inch expanse between our ears, image is everything and all the auto marketers of the world have us wrapped around their little fingers when we enter the showroom for our next new life-changing purchase.  All, that is, except for General Motors.

 As a young lad, I had a pre-arranged marriage with GM.  It was my destiny to drive a topped-out Chevy, a nicely equipped Buick or the second-to-the-highest-end Oldsmobile in each season of my life.  I was primed and programmed to follow the Chevrolet > Pontiac > Buick > Oldsmobile > and possibly even a Cadillac progression.  It was unlikely that anything could derail this plan since it was one that had been well choreographed by my Dad along with the MBA’s in the towers in Detroit.

 Sure, Dad had that dalliance for a few years with AMC, but that was because we lived outside of Milwaukee and AMC was one of his clients.  I mean, it was a bit risqué when Dad rolled into the driveway one evening with a Javelin on loan from the factory.  All the men from the neighboring houses stopped on by to check it out.  Dad had brought something naughty home.  It was like having Bridget Bardot over for dinner.  For me, the Javelin experience launched a spurt of testosterone that had me shaving by age 10.  The next day, Dad returned with his Ambassador sedan and its ill-fitting switches and dials, boxy lines and wood veneer paneled body.  All was back to normal, and we ate Mom’s meatloaf in contentment.

 As AMC fizzled and the company was ultimately swallowed by Chrysler, Dad became free to play the field and again and it wasn’t long before his eyes turned to that tried and true old friend, GM.  This time though, Dad’s career success enabled him to shun Chevrolet and to climb the aspirational GM brand chain by signing on the dotted line for a brand new shit brown Buick Century.  We’d had the brochures in the house for months.  Every night, Dad and I would sit together.  He’d read the evening newspaper, and I would finger through the well worn pages of the brochure, fantasizing about interior and exterior color combinations and hub cap options.  I could never rationalize the value and appearance of a vinyl roof, and neither could Dad.  Together, we agreed that shit brown with a tan cloth interior was the way to go.  It was 1975 and I was 12.

 Weeks and days ticked by, and I was impatient for the car to arrive.  One day, Dad and the Century rolled in and I was euphoric.  The new car smell.  The fit.  The finish.  All so much better than that last Ambassador that Dad drove around!  The Century was the real deal, and we as a family had arrived. 

 Most fascinating to me was this thing on the Century called Cruise Control.  Cruise Control enabled the drive to set the car at a desired speed, thus allowing him to relax and focus on the steering and navigating required on America’s Interstate system while enjoying smoke or maybe a chat on his CB radio.  Cruise Control was a mystery to me…what happened when you wanted to stop?  What happened when you wanted to go again?  Could the car possibly steer itself, too?  I knew virtually all the functions of a car at age 12, but Cruise Control seemed straight out of ‘Lost in Space’ to me.  I peppered Dad with endless questions, and he patiently answered every one until I understood just how the Cruise system worked, and what every button and switch on the turn-signal lever did to make it function.  Fascinating.  Revolutionary!  Driving would never be the same, and Dad would be much better off for it.  10-4, good buddy.

 A few years later, the shit brown Century had logged more than 50,000 miles and it was clearly time for a trade-in.  Dad landed another winner with a loaded silver Century, this time with a maroon interior.  It was a really nice complement to the silver Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser wagon Dad had bought for Mom a year earlier.  We were a rising family and our success was marked by the cars we drove.  I took my driving test in the Custom Cruiser, and passed with flying colors.  Not too long thereafter, I spun the wagon around on an icy road while out driving with a bunch of buddies on a Friday night.  We narrowly missed landing in a ditch, and I swore to never drive so aggressively again. 

 The Custom Cruiser was a special car.  Like one of Dad’s old Ambassadors, the wagon had faux-wood panels on its exterior.  However, the Olds’ paneling was far more realistic than that on the AMC.  It was pure class.  I made out with a girl for the first time in that Oldsmobile, and I’m pretty sure that Sue was as much enthralled by the car’s leather-like upholstery and AM/FM stereo as she was with me.   How could she resist a GM and a GM man?  We necked to ‘Against the Wind’ by Bob Seeger who was, appropriately, from Detroit.

 But not all was well within the realm of my automobile consumption programming.  As Prince William and Prince Harry have occasionally strayed as members of the Royal Family, I too, began to find flaws in my Royal Family…the GM Family.

 With each new Buick or Oldsmobile that Dad brought home, I would run to soak in the new car smell, and to inspect each detail and feature.  In time, though, what I found was disappointing.  On each new model, I found that the speedometer and gauges were exactly the same as in the last model.  The radio and climate control knobs and levers were the same.  The switches and button on the turn signal lever that served to operate the once-novel Cruise Control system were the same, too.  And now that I was driving, I was perpetually irritated with Cruise system’s ability to work consistently.  It seemed that all that ever changed from one model to the next was a crease or two in the sheet metal and maybe a few color options.  Essentially, Dad bought the same car five times in a row, and I was getting really, really bored.

 One day, I stopped by a Pontiac dealer to pick up a friend who worked there as a helper.  I had a few minutes to kill, so I spent my time checking out the new models in the showroom.  I was clearly too young to be a buyer, so the salesmen left me alone.  What I saw was shocking.  The instruments in each Pontiac were, yes, exactly the same as in Dad’s latest Buick / Oldsmobile!  I realized in that moment that, beyond body design, all GM cars – whether they be entry-level Chevy’s or CEO-level Cadillac’s – were basically identical.

 And by identical, I mean…boring.

And by boring, I mean…not compelling at all.

And by not compelling at all, I mean…dang, GM, you got trouble.

And that, my friends, is where GM lost me.

And that, my friends, is where GM lost my generation.

 For the better part of 30 years or even longer, GM rested on its laurels and lost its mojo.

 Oh, I tried to hold up my end of the bargain.  As a new college grad with a brand-new job, I desperately wanted to make my mark in the world.  What better way to show my blossoming prosperity than by buying an entry-level Buick?  I could see myself, adorned in my new Jos. A. Bank pinstripe suit and tie, snug behind the wheel of a silver Regal sedan with maroon crushed velvet seats.  I was just like Dad, but with a bit of acne and a much smaller bank balance.

 So on a rainy night in Baltimore, I asked a young co-worker of mine to go with me to the local Buick dealer to see just what kind of a deal we could land.  We entered the lot and found a line of Regals (Regi?  What’s the plural of Regal, anyway?), including a silver with maroon interior beauty.  My heart leapt!  This was the moment I had been waiting for – no – that I had been bred and groomed for!  Though tainted, my destiny was on the verge of fulfillment.

 The sticker price on the Regal was something like $16,000…way out of my price range.  Steve and I wandered into the showroom in search of a salesman.  My palms were sweaty, and my heart pounded.  I knew car prices were flexible, but how could I negotiate exactly the deal I wanted the way Dad always seemed to?  The middle-aged manager eyeballed us across the showroom floor which was drowned in buzzing florescent lights.  He looked over to another middle-aged guy and gave a small nod.  This would be our salesman.  I’ll refer to him as Fats Callaghan. 

 Fats begrudgingly extracted his large butt from his chair, sauntered across the floor and greeted us.  I’m sure the florescent lights accentuated the circles under Fats’ eyes, but I recall thinking that he was potentially the most unhealthy person I’d ever seen.  Soon, Steve and I were seated in a cubicle with Fats to begin working on what seemed to me to be like the Treaty of Versailles.

 I fired the first salvo, “Fats, I really like that silver Regal out there.  I’ve spoken to a number of people who know about these things, and I’m pretty sure that you can give me a price that’s 20% less than the sticker price.  I’ll go $13,000.”

 Fats folded his hand across his expansive belly and stained tie, leaned back in his chair and said, “No.”

 And that was the end of it.  Steve and I left the dealership is his cool Honda Prelude with a two-liter engine and five-speed transmission.  My courtship with GM was brief and unrewarding.  I had gone to the alter that was my destiny, but the bride wasn’t just coy, she was cold.  And boring.  And not compelling at all.

 Sure, anyone can have a shitty experience with a car dealer.  That’s not a uniquely GM issue.  I’d bet that most people over the age of 35 have had a bad experience.  It wasn’t until the Internet came along and car buying moved online that the playing field began to level for the car-buying public.  But GM didn’t make it easy for someone as programmed as me to buy.  I really wanted that car, and they didn’t welcome me into the family!  I was ready to take my rightful place as a GM man!  I was ready to put my foot on the first rung of the GM aspirational marketing ladder!  Instead, I bought a Toyota Corolla hatchback.  It was 1987.

 In the 22 years that have since passed since that days, I have always yearned to buy a compelling and interesting American made car.  Ford has had a number of really nice models over the years such as the Taurus and the Explorer.  Their cars are solid, occasionally interesting but largely unremarkable.  Chrysler has had the best American car designs over the years, at least in my opinion.  My wife and I owned a Chrysler minivan which was a good but not terribly reliable vehicle for us.  And then there’s GM.

 Unfortunately, my perception of GM’s brands has only eroded as the years have gone by.  Chevy?  Unremarkable, tinny and cheap.  Pontiac?  Plastic looking body work and design that tries to hard.  The car of choice for young suburban administrative assistants.  Buick?  Welcome to the Hertz fleet.  Oldsmobile?  Isn’t that a Buick?  Cadillac?  Grandpa’s are cool, too.  And Hummer?  Don’t even get me started.    Saturn?  A fantastic concept that fell into the classic GM trap:  all their cars looked exactly the same for too long (though I wouldn’t mind having a Saturn Sky).

 Like Ford, GM has stayed afloat (at least until the economy when kaput) as a result of their robust truck and SUV sales.  But that’s not me.  I’m a sedan guy.  I need a businessman’s car for hauling clients out to lunch and golf bags out to the club.  I can’t tell an F150 from an Escalade.  Today, I drive a Toyota Avalon.  You know what that is, don’t you?  The modern iteration of the Olds 98.  Seriously.  But it’s not boring…it really is a compelling car!

 So the chips are down for GM.  They’ve got one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.  They’re strapped with staggering labor costs and retiree benefit commitments not to mention a boring product line.  So what can GM do to regain me and my generation?

 For some in my generation, the answer is “make an even cooler SUV.”  That won’t work for me, though.  I’m not into gas guzzling behemoths.

 What I want now is what is right for me, my family and our world.  I want a reliable, interesting and roomy car that gets 50 or more miles per gallon and I want it at a price of no more than $25,000.  Faux wood paneling would be nice, too, but not essential (OK, just kidding!).

It can be done, and it should be done.  Chances are, it will be done pretty soon.

But can it be done by GM?