It was my privilege to be able to attend the National Football Foundation annual awards banquet last week in New York. Dad was honored for his Outstanding Contribution to Amateur Football, along with other award recipients including Robert Mulcahy, Rogers Redding, Joe Starkey, Bill Cosby, and Tom Brokaw. Also on stage were the scholar athletes for 2010 and the incoming inductees to the Hall of Fame. Dad would have been proud to be a part of this impressive group. As our family representative, Rob attended to the details of the banquet and was on stage for the award. Lori and I joined the WAC table to watch the festivities.
Rob, Lori, and I arrived on Monday at the Waldorf Astoria. After we checked into the hotel, we headed out to do some walking around and sightseeing. It was an unusually cold week in NYC and we were feeling it. We headed toward Rockefeller Center to see the big tree, and then went off to Times Square to see the lights. For Rob, the last time he was in NYC was when we visited there as a family in 1969. I kept looking back to make sure we didn’t lose him, like last time. We visited Times Square then headed to the Empire State Building and took the elevator to the top. It was cold and clear, so the lights of the city were really beautiful – almost like Christmas lights twinkling. I insisted on a cab back to the hotel (cold, cold, cold) and the concierge helped us pick out a place for dinner. We walked the short distance to the restaurant and had a great meal.
The next day, we got up and did more sightseeing. We took the subway to the stop nearest the World Trade Center. I was incredibly moved by the visit – I remember going to the WTC in the late 80s to go to the top and it’s still hard to believe it’s gone. The thing that struck me as most poignant was St Paul’s church directly across the street. They have created a very personal memorial to the rescue workers and lives affected by the tragedy. It’s one of the oldest buildings in NYC – George Washington had his own pew there – and it was unscathed in the disaster. There is a true feeling of grace within the church and the mementoes and dedications are from the heart. It reminds you that this happened not to a city or a nation, but to people. That touched me. Also incredibly amazing is seeing the rebirth of the Freedom Tower. It is already about 45 stories tall. It will be a touchstone marking the spot and helping us to remember. The many construction workers (who, true to form, were milling around, taking a break, smoking, whatever) are helping to create the future anchor for a city left without one for the past 10 years.
Rob and Lori went off to see the harbor and the Statue of Liberty; I took the subway uptown to do a little holiday shopping. We met back at the hotel to begin getting ready for the evening. Rob looked dashing in his tuxedo. Lori and I were on our own for the reception as Rob was obliged to pose for pictures and mingle with the honorees. Tough duty!
The banquet itself had over 1,500 people in attendance – the ballroom floor at the Waldorf was completely full, tables were on the mezzanine level and the third level as well. There were even people seated outside the ballroom, watching the presentations on a big screen as the organizers had oversold the event and had to find places for people elsewhere. The entire place was draped with school banners, which made for a colorful backdrop. It was all very impressive and a little overwhelming. I was really glad Rob was the one up on stage. In a sea of black ties, there was only one woman – Marie Tillman, the widow of Pat Tillman. I would have felt a bit out of place.
Dad was recognized twice: once during the year in review as they shared those who had passed away in 2010, and then during the official award presentation. The slide show was made up of images that Rob had provided, showing dad over the years along with a narration about his life and career. The text for that can be found here: http://www.footballfoundation.org/news.php?id=2230 I held it together, but struggled at the end. It was a wonderful tribute to dad and I was happy I was there to see it.
They honored both Tom Brokaw and Bill Cosby almost immediately after dad. Their ties to football aren’t quite as long or deep, but they are great representatives for the sport. Both were eloquent speakers – Tom Brokaw pointed out that he was a second string quarterback at the high school level and that when he called the guy who had been the first string player, he wanted Tom to be sure to point out that he hadn’t been given any kind of award for his efforts, and he was a better player. Bill Cosby talked about the difference football made to him and the help he’d gotten from his coaches to stay on track at Temple.
After that presentation, I snuck down the stairs to go to the ladies room. As I left the ballroom, I ran in to Dr. Cosby, who was leaving. I told him I’d enjoyed his speech and mentioned that my dad was also one of the award recipients. He had been holding my hand and he pulled me in for a hug and said, “We’re part of the same class now, aren’t we? “ Dad would have enjoyed that.
As usual, dad was with me in many small ways through the whole trip. On the flight there, I was across the aisle from an older gentleman and his wife. I was working on the NY Times crossword puzzle from Sunday, and he asked me how I was doing with it. I noticed he was doing the Monday NYT puzzle. We talked about crosswords and how we liked to do them in ink. Later in the flight, he tapped me on the shoulder and handed me his puzzle. He said “I’m stuck. You finish it.” I filled in the remaining blanks and gave it back to him, as I’d done with dad many times over the years. As we were landing, he told me that he had been a high school history teacher and football coach for many years in New Jersey. I told him what I was on my way to do and he was amazed – as a coach, he understood the importance of the event. The similarities to dad were strong, and I enjoyed being in his company for a few hours.
I felt dad around me as I remembered our family trip to New York so many years ago. That trip was the first high rise hotel I’d ever stayed at – a Holiday Inn that was more than 2 stories tall was unheard of. We got to order room service and had really expensive hamburgers, which I thought at the time was crazy extravagant, but in reality was probably the easier and cheaper plan for a family of seven in that big city. I also remember Jan getting pinched on the fanny by some local letch. Then there was the whole losing Robin thing that scarred me for life around crowds and revolving doors. Good times.
One thing that hit me while there as we visited the WTC: New York lost its landmark when the towers fell 10 years ago. They have had to live without them as their beacon to help them find their way around. We’ve lost our Big Guy and I feel just about as directionless without him. We have to recreate our own landmarks and find our way in a world that doesn’t have him there to make all the plans and schedules. It felt very bittersweet to be at this event. We are closing out the last year of dad’s life and both Rob and I shared the same feeling – we didn’t want the evening to end, because when it did, the last thing we were doing for dad came to a close. That made it feel like things were really final. I’m not sure I was ready for those feelings, but there they are and times goes on. We are all learning to adapt in our own way.
I hope this gives you all some of the feeling of being there – I really wanted to share the experience with everyone. Here’s to the Big Guy and another great milestone in his life well lived.