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40 Years of People, Games and Moments. Rick Wilson Reflects

  • He pushed the lever and the wheelchair started off bearing the broken body leaving me and perhaps Roxy Campanella as well to marvel at the vaulting human spirit imprisoned yet free in the noble wreckage of the athlete in the dazzling palace of the man.”

                                                                Roger Kahn on Roy Campanella in `The Boys of Summer

I have never forgotten the sentence. I was stunned when I first read Roger Kahn’s final thought concerning Roy Campanella in his baseball masterpiece, `The Boys of Summer’ 40 years ago. It still grabs my heart and mind today.

Campanella, a three-time MVP catcher and part of the heart and soul of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s, had become permanently paralyzed in a car accident in 1958. Kahn’s description is soaring elegance, writing as good as it gets. It touches you. There are words you just read and move on. Then there are words that dance off the paper and make you tingle like holding hands for the first time. Without asking, the mind’s memory vault absorbs it all to treasure.

My wife and I spent several hours recently trying to retrieve the exact quote since I have long lost the book. Why? Because it is that gold standard of writing that helped draw me into the sports writing profession. When LCS leader Tim Gaffney, suggested we tell our sports writing journey, it was the first element of this long, ongoing trip that came to my mind.

To write like that. To project and capture the kind of image Kahn did with such perfection. To make people feel and see through the written word. Ahh, there are few Roger Kahn’s, but the inspiration is always there. At least it has been with me.   

In the movie Eddie and the Cruisers when pushed on why he would he asked a limited musician to be part of his band, Eddie responds, “Words and music” with crossed fingers. Frank Ridgeway (Tom Berenger) wrote the words and Eddie knew you couldn’t have one without the other.

Sports are about games and people not necessarily in that order but of the same essence. You need both.  Stats will always be part of the venue. They tell their own story but not the whole story and not even the best part of the story.

It’s about the moment and the people behind the moments. And making those stories breathe and come to life. Machines can now give you all the stats you want but there is no soul to make you laugh, cry become enraged, force you to question, appreciate well beyond a boatload of sterile stats. I always wanted stories to make you feel.

The chronological part of this 40-year plus sports writing life is easy enough to relay. It started with a small-town newspaper, The Thomaston Express. thanks to Ruth Guillette Fields who offered me a job for about $5 a week to send in results of the local softball leagues.  It lasted and became all-encompassing 32-year love until the paper closed in 2013.

Along the way, I got to know good friend and future golf partner John Torsiello who needed some help with the Litchfield Country Times.  John would stop at Thomaston Center School where I was teaching and pick-up hand-written stories on a weekly basis.

At this time in the early 1980s, I started doing a weekly column with the Waterbury Republican called `Around the Towns’ which I phoned in to a great guy, P.J. Conway, every Friday at noon. It was a round-up type column and another chance to write. It paid nothing but to be honest the whole profession never paid much.

Brian Sullivan, the eccentric and wonderful sports editor of the Torrington Register Citizen saw my stories in the Litchfield Country Times and asked me to start working for him at the Register Citizen. In 1989 that turned into a full-time job.

Then in 1999 the move came to the Waterbury Republican where more than two decades of roaming the area sports scene kept my gas tank empty but my adrenalin on permanent pump, my passion roaring and my heart full.

About a dozen years ago, Tim Gaffney and I were talking about an alternative to newspapers. We saw the future and it didn’t include us. So, the idea of a web site came up. It has been his baby since the beginning and a home for both of us with the magazine, web site, radio show and some time on local cable. Not to mention a lifelong friendship included in the deal.

Interspersed over the four decades has been Celtics coverage at the Civic Center, some New York Giants coverage, the Travelers Golf Tournament, UConn basketball and work with some Pub Links Golf Magazine stories. There was a declined offer to work for the Boston Globe and covering the NCAA Women’s Final Four in 2015 in Tampa. And a chance to do a radio broadcast with Tim Gaffney at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at Disney World (thank-you Mike Colangelo).

Crossing paths with the likes of Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson, Bill Parcells, Jim Calhoun, Geno (he only needs one name), Pat Summit, Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Ernie Els, Johnny Most, Bob Backlund, Dick Vitale, Rico Petrocelli , Tom Heinsohn and so many others has brightened up more than one day night.

But those have been the extra perks along the way. The center piece has always been community journalism and those games and people and moments. The producers never have done it for the big paycheck. They have day jobs away from courts and fields. They teach, do homework, go home to families, go to proms, work part-time jobs. Most never play past high school, some get to the college level, virtually no one to the pro level.  

It is not a labor; it is a love. They make friends, experience the highest of highs and lows while create experiences and memories that last for a lifetime, always with at the least a cozy little efficiency apartment in the back of the mind.

And they take families, schools, and those who try to bring it all to life along with them. They create those moments. Games, people and moments.  Ahh, those wonderful, painful, heart stopping, tragic, ecstatic moments.

Abby Hurlbert standing at the foul line in the Class S girl’s championship game at Mohegan Sun in 2014. Time frozen, her world, Thomaston’s world and St. Paul’s world on freeze frame in front of thousands. Down by three points with .2 seconds left in overtime. I turned to Republican columnist Joe Palladino and said, “No way she’s making all three.” Sorry Abby. I should’ve known.  She canned all three.  The Falcons tried freezing her after two makes with a timeout.  Yeah, like trying to get a baby to eat strained peas. Didn’t work. Thomaston wins in double OT.  Hurlbert went from being the loneliest person in the world her town hanging on to every breath to a town legend that day.

Shepaug Valley baseball coach Dave Werkhoven looking at an empty desk in AP Biology class on an April 9 morning in 2003 wondering where Tyler Horrigan was. Ty was dead. His car had hit black ice on the way to school. The desk would forever be empty along with a lot of hearts. The Spartans dyed their hair blonde; they won the BL title and dedicated it to Ty. But the empty desk, always a haunting moment.

Christine Wallace, a 6-foot-3 center, taking a pass from Beth Finn and hitting a baseline jumper to win a state title to give Northwestern Regional a 29-28 win over Ellington and the Class M girls’ state title in 1989. Finn was the Highlanders’ best player and one of the best ever in the Berkshire League. Wallace had hardly caught a pass all day. Two great plays, one great moment. Wallace put on her championship jacket the other day for her kids. You never forget.

Torrington nearly lost its first boys state championship in more than 50 years because too many moons were out in the back of the bus after a semifinal win causing suspensions for a quarter in the championship game in the end the sun shone as the Raiders took down NVL rival Holy Cross, bringing joy to a town that had waited so long.

Tri-State League baseball legend Dave Post calling me one early morning to tell me the love of his life, Lucy, had died. The tears flowed and you knew part of him had died too. Lucy had shared his journey with him. There was no Postie without Lucy and he knew it. And he hurt the kind of hurt only love can bring.

The power of sports to turn on a community. The Thomaston High girls went on probably a never to be duplicated journey that included state championships in basketball, field hockey and softball with pretty much the same group of athletes. They were given parades, had Tony’s Coffee Shop name coffees after them and had people on Main Street cheering them. As Abby Hurlbert, Morgan Sanson and Gabrielle Hurlbert said, “This town takes my breath away.” And the players took the town’s breath away in return. Awesome.

Seymour pitcher Danielle Liska pitching back-to-back perfect games for a softball state title. Simply awesome, always perfect.

Torrington High’s Chris Samele walking on the basketball court with his prosthetic leg a year after a tragic accident had killed a friend, 16-year-old Shawn Collins, severely injured Dawn Storrs and forced the amputation of part of his leg. It was the power of the human spirit at its apex.

The master of moments, Morgan Sanson who scored the winning goal for a state field hockey title, was the winning pitcher for a state softball title, scored the game-tying basket to send a state title basketball game into overtime and Thomaston to an eventual title and was the leading scorer in a state title basketball game. Oh, and hit a two-out, two-strike home run in the bottom of the seventh inning in a state semifinal game and then got the winning hit two innings later. And was the winning pitcher. Mind-boggling.  

Sharing state tournament games with my son Jonathan.

Forty plus years produced a lot of moments that never leave you – the good, the bad, the tragic, the uplifting – a kaleidoscope of life.

And there have always been the people that leave indelible Impressions.

The unbridled passion of Gregg Hunt, the steady excellence of Fred Williams, the never-ending generosity of Billy Neller, the pioneering spirit of Bev Lowden, the tenacity of Eileen Crompton, the perseverance of Win Cheske, the almost perfection of Jack Hunt and Tom Brockett, the guidance of Gaitan Rodriguez.

The perfection of Danielle Liska, the fastball of Ali Dubois, the friendship of Pete Wallace, the kindness of Tim Gaffney, the gentlemanly touch of Tony Turina, the wit of Owen Canfield, the hoops love of Angelica Ariola, the guts of Amy Matthews, the shot of Tracy Stolle.

The feet of Timmy Donovan, the passion of Dave Post, the honest touch of Ed Gadomski, the organization of Mike Gamari, the friendliness of the Holy Cross family, the brilliance of Art Nunes, the perseverance of Keith Borkowski.

The newspaper excellence of Gerry DeSimas and Mat Pepin, the friendship of Mike Barger, the welcoming style of George Tirado and entertainment of Reggie O’Brien, the enraged elegance of Ed Generali and tenacity of Frank Lombardo.  The drive of Bob McMahon, and excellence of Christine Gamari.

The friendship of Joe Palladino and Lori Riley, the whistling abilities of Charlie Harbough and Billie O’Donnell, the teaching of A.J. Bunel and photography of Jim Shannon.  The swift feet of Jackie Nicholas and helping hand of Mike McKenna.

The list is endless and so many not mentioned here. Forty years is a lot of good people.

Sports writing covers it all. There is another side not dwelled on here. It comes with the territory. Parents not happy that their youngins’ didn’t get enough coverage. Those not pleased with what was written. Many don’t understand what we do (p.s. we don’t write headlines). Games not covered.

In the mid-1980s I lost out on a job I thought I deserved. However, it moved me into the sports writing profession full time.  Without that `bad break’ I would have never met so many of the people I crossed paths with, never have seen so many of the games that made a mark and never have witnessed those powerful moments.

Games and people and moments and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.  Sometimes just a job, but all the time a love.

 More stories by Rick Wilson.

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