A Father’s Day reminiscence

There’s one main reason I’m a sportswriter
– I grew up listening to stories about my father’s athletic
exploits and wanting to be like him.
Wait a minute, you’re probably thinking, wouldn’t an
athletically talented dad prompt his progeny
– especially one with the exact same name – to similar sporting
feats? Ordinarily, perhaps.
There’s one main reason I’m a sportswriter – I grew up listening to stories about my father’s athletic exploits and wanting to be like him.

Wait a minute, you’re probably thinking, wouldn’t an athletically talented dad prompt his progeny – especially one with the exact same name – to similar sporting feats? Ordinarily, perhaps. But, in my case, it turns out that it was the exercise of getting my dad to tell me bits and pieces of his glory days in sports that made the biggest impression on me. Sure, I wanted to be a big sports star myself, just like Dad. What kid doesn’t? But it became obvious to me very early on that any talent I had lay in relating stories rather than creating them.

So, in honor of Father’s Day, here’s the tale of my dad’s brief moments in the faint spotlight of fame.

The eldest of three sons, Dad grew up on a ranch near a tiny hamlet in eastern Colorado called Cheyenne Wells. In the mid-1950’s, he found time between the exhaustive demands of ranch chores and the classroom to compete in sports for little Cheyenne Wells High, which drew all of 100 students in those days. While he also starred in football and track, where he set school records in the 100-yard dash (10.5 seconds) and the 220-yard dash (22.5), his passion was found in the cramped gyms, low ceilings and hardwood floors of the Arkansas Valley League. His passion was basketball and in 1954 he was one of the best players in the entire state of Colorado.

As a gawky, 6-foot-3 freshman, Dad was so awkward in his attempts to play the game that his coach assigned him to hours of jumping rope in an effort to teach him coordination. But by his senior year, Dad had packed plenty of muscle onto his 175-pound frame and he could stand under the basket, jump up and dunk with both hands.

Playing center for the Tigers at 6-3, Dad was one of a veteran starting five that had made it all the way to the state finals before losing the year before. Coached by Harry Wise, a Native American who had spent time as a pitcher in the Cleveland Indians organization, Cheyenne Wells rolled over opponents, playing a fast-break brand of ball that wouldn’t come into vogue until decades later. The Tigers averaged an unheard-of 89.9 points per game while playing in hostile gyms, some of which were little more than old World War II-style Army quonset huts, with ceilings so close to the top of the backboard that players were forced to take most of the arc off their shots. Often, the fans sat or stood so close to the out-of-bounds lines that players would brush up against them as they ran down the court.

Cheyenne Wells suffered its only loss that year to league rival Eads by a mere two points in overtime. Though he would score 50 points in a game later that season, Dad said that loss was the most memorable game of his high school career.

But the Tigers would get their revenge, beating Eads in both the league finals and the district finals, the latter victory advancing Dad’s team to the state finals.

And, Cheyenne Wells kept winning, all the way to the state championship game before hordes of fans at Denver’s City Auditorium. The Tigers’ opponent was Fort Lupton, a considerably larger school that had beaten them in the previous year’s state finale and featured a pair of 6-7 twins in the McNeely brothers.

While he certainly had help from his teammates, it was Dad who had the primary task of shutting down the twin towers. And, he did, holding both of them to single digits scoring as the Tigers took the state title.

All five Tiger starters, including Dad, made the all-State first team that season. And their sixth man made the second team.

Cheyenne Wells, with my uncles Dan and Dean, would go on to win the state title the following year, too. And Dad would go on to play against such legendary NBA stars as George Mikan (in a Denver city league) and Elgin Baylor (in the Army), as well as Watsonville’s Ken Sears (in a local city league). Mikan, the NBA’s first big man, offered Dad what he considered the ultimate compliment, that he played pretty good for a smaller man.

But the championship season of 1954 would always stand out in his memory, when he and a few of his teammates from a small town in eastern Colorado won it all.

In 1994, Dad and I flew to Colorado for a reunion of that team, which was recognized during a ceremony at Colorado State University at the state high school basketball finals. When the guys from that team got together it was as if they’d never been separated, though some of them hadn’t seen each other in decades. Once again, they were a team.

I had the chance to meet and talk to all those guys I’d heard so much about over the years. It was one of the highlights of my sportswriting career.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad. And thanks for sharing your memories with me over the years, and trying to convey the simple joy and camaraderie that comes with athletic accomplishment. I’ve been trying to tell the story right ever since.

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