Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.-- Phillip Brooks
The best friends I have today as a grown man are the same best friends I had as an 11-year-old boy. The miles that separate us now were virtually non-existent in the small southern town where we lived. We were inseparable. We played sports together, rode bikes together, dammed creeks together, gigged frogs together, and built forts together. Our houses were on the same street so it was a life of comings and goings. No boundaries. No questions. Rosemont Drive was not Easy Street for us. It was Freedom Street. That is until the summer of 1963. That’s when we first heard the news.
Life went on in the summer of 1963. The dance lessons were miserable. They were embarrassing, awkward and quite humiliating. Each one of us only diminished our own pain by laughing at the other. And of course I kept my eye on the Holy Grail. The white dinner jacket, the new pants, the real, not clip on, rep tie.
Madeline’s Dance Recital of the Summer of 1963 finally arrived. My friends hated it. I kind of liked it. My mother said I looked like James Bond. I knew I didn’t, but it made me feel good anyway. I had to hold Nancy Roger’s hand and had to spend an evening holding her in my arms as we danced. That was painful. I had to see her on my paper route the next day and in the hallway at school in another week. But the prize was worth it. If it meant having to give up my dinner jacket and pants and real rep tie, I would have gone through even more intense pain. Heck, I might have even kissed her.
Our own Matthew King shot this compelling photograph of our storefront window on his iPhone.
Very few tangible items from my childhood have made it this far into my adulthood. Three have survived. Three Christmas toys. A small cast iron policeman on a motorcycle, a New York Yankees bobblehead, and a football autographed by the 1958 Washington Redskins. The football is my most treasured. It is today a mere remnant of the physical beauty it once gloriously held, but it’s the inner beauty that shines eternal to me.
The year was 1958, and we were living in Washington D.C., and it was two days before Christmas. Our church was celebrating a father and son Christmas banquet. The guest of honor was the Redskins running back, Dick James. Now to a 6 year old in Washington, D.C. in 1958, Dick James was a hero. The small 5’ 9” football star was just about the only thing shining for the Redskins that year. When the team would come on the field at Griffith Stadium, the fans would boo their home team. But they never booed Dick James. He was a star, bright and full of hope. He was small and tough—a doer not a talker.
But on this cold December night, he was a talker. And my father, my older brother, Steve, and I walked into the church with excitement. The excitement grew when we heard that two autographed footballs would be given away that night. My father bought two raffle tickets, giving one to me and one to my older brother. I felt I held in my hands potentially the very key to the gates of heaven. I remember asking my father, “Do you think I will win it?” Now, why he said what he said I still don’t know, but he bent down and looked me straight in the eye, and said, “You are going to win that football.” I was elated. I was overwhelmed. I was one step from the pearly gates, but reality interrupted my bliss. The stark reality of life, called Steve. Upon hearing my father’s prediction, my brother quickly, in his clever and conniving way, coerced me out of my ticket. He now held the key to heaven. I held his old ticket to nowhere. To loserville. We had our chicken dinner. Dick James pumped us up. Now it was time for the football giveaway. My brother looked at me with a sneering grin. I started the evening with “what if.” It quickly elevated to “it will,” and just as quickly like a dive bomb, it turned into “no way.” But somehow I still had hope.
The first name was called. It was some kid I didn’t know. He ran up to the stage, accepted his football, and held it high above his head like a championship trophy. The crowd cheered. My heart sank, and my brother still sneered in his complete confidence. I remember wanting to hurl my half-eaten drumstick at him. The second number was called. I didn’t hear it. I heard the clapping and the cheering, but I was numb. Almost like in slow motion, I looked at my brother. It looked as if he had eaten something that had made him sick. A huge slice of humble pie. No, the entire pie. His face revealed his loss. He had not received the winning ticket after all. My father leaned over me, and once again looked me straight in the eyes, and said, “Son, what are you waiting for? Go up there and get your football.” I had won after all. My father told me I would win and even my older brother’s “switcheroo” on the tickets could not impede my destiny.
Since 1958, the football has followed me everywhere. It is like a precious, sacred artifact carefully wrapped and held high by traveling nomadic tribes that carefully displayed it upon arrival at each destination.
In 2004, the football finally left my possession. In a very tough time in the life a of person I loved, I decided they should have the football. On Christmas day, I gave it to my older brother, Steve. He laughed. And then he wept. This past Christmas, he gave it back to me. This past September, he suddenly passed away.
Today, when I look at my football, worn and tattered, I don’t think so much about Dick James or the 1958 Washington Redskins.
I only think of my brother. I am confident where he is now. I am confident he won the ultimate winning ticket. And that makes me smile. Go long Steve! Go eternally long.
Do you have your favorite Christmas toy? Tell us about it. Leave a comment.