When I first decided to write a book about Sid Gillman, I knew he was what my grandma Essie would call “a character.” When you’re writing a biography, that kind of unique personality is essential. Sure, Gillman was one of the most innovators in pro football history, but you can’t spend 300 pages solely discussing the fact he’s the only person that resides in the pro and college football halls of fame or the intricacies of his vertical offense or why the 1959 season with the L.A. Rams went so badly awry.
He can be a football wizard, but in order to possibly write a compelling biography, he can’t be boring.
No, he has to be the first coach to room his white players with his black players, he has to be the first pro football coach to spring a team-wide steroids ring, he has to be a bastard, he has to be a sweetheart, he has to be a family man who spends most of his time watching football film. He has to be a contradiction and an enigma. He has to be the kind of guy who can inspire hatred and love and wonder and annoyance in the same conversation with the same person.
For better and for worse, he’s got to be a character who can carry a book.
And it helps if he has the kind of wife like Esther.
I never met Sid, who died in 2003, but I almost had the chance to meet Esther.
In doing research and interviews for my first book, Bearcats Rising, I spent some time with a charming former University of Cincinnati football player and a city of Cincinnati icon named Glenn Sample. Since Sample played for Gillman in the early 1950s and because he loved the Gillman clan, he kept in touch with Esther, even 60 years after they first met. Sample told me that they exchanged Christmas cards – actually, the same goes for former UC player Nick Shundich, who actually lent me a few of those holiday mementos while I researched this book – and while I interviewed Sample about Sid (long before I thought about writing a book about him), he told me he would send me Esther’s address.
The plan for me was to write Esther a letter and ask if I could interview her about her husband. For a woman in her late 90s, she was still remarkably sharp, and her oldest daughter, Lyle, later told me that Esther could have told me enough to fill an entire book because she was still so vibrant.
But, from what I recall, I procrastinated. Interviewing Esther was not really essential to Bearcats Rising, and I never pressed Sample to get me the address. Thing is, when you’re thinking about interviewing a 97-year-old woman, it’s best not to put it off until next week. But Esther didn’t die. Sample did. And with him went the chance to touch base with Esther.
After a few starts and stops, I started researching Sid Gillman in the summer of 2010, and I was dismayed to discover that Esther had died in February of that yea and was buried on Super Bowl Sunday.
Even though she loved sports before she met Sid in high school, she wasn’t into football (though she was a big Red Grange fan). Nope, this was a girl who loved attending hockey games and listening to Jack Dempsey fights on the radio (she sobbed after he lost to Gene Tunney). Sid eventually turned her into a football junkie, and after they were married*, she spent many evenings eating her dessert in the garage while watching game film with her husband.
*The two spent their 1935 honeymoon in Chicago so he could observe a college all-star game at Soldier Field. It rained during the game, and though she used a newspaper as a de facto umbrella, her powder blue wedding dress got soaked.** She also lost her purse that day. Doesn’t get much more romantic than that, am I right, ladies?
**Why she was wearing her wedding dress to a football game, I don’t really know.
She learned football from Sid, but following Sid around and bearing his children weren’t the totality of her life. Esther also loved fashion and going out on the town to mingle with strangers and friends. She loved meeting people, learning about them, making them feel comfortable in her presence. One of her daughters called her another Jackie Kennedy. She was a housewife, but only in the loosest sense of the word.
“This has been my career,” Esther said in 1996. “These are my people. At first, you have to understand. There has to be love to begin with. And understanding. Sid made it very easy for us to love football. He brought it to the family, but he didn’t force us. He made it so interesting for us by bringing film home and teaching us this play and that play. … I loved doing it. It’s an old-fashioned phrase, but I think we were a happy family, and I think that contributes to his success. The man can’t do it alone and the woman can’t do it alone. I didn’t do it because I was supposed to do it. You do it because that is the way to do it.”
One of my most favorite discoveries in my research was finding her recipe for what Sid’s Cincinnati players called Jewish Spaghetti (“It was the hottest stuff in town,” Shundich said). Starting when the two lived in Granville, Ohio, Esther took it upon herself to host Sid’s college players for huge spaghetti dinners. It fostered a sense of family, and it gave the Gillman’s a good excuse to use their window screens as pasta strainers (hopefully, Esther sterilized them beforehand). Anyway, I discovered her recipe for the spaghetti sauce in one of the multitude of newspaper articles that had been written about Mrs. Sid Gillman, and I gleefully put it in the book. It’s irrelevant to the larger story, but that tiny detail has made me happy ever since.
Esther was gorgeous when she was young, and she grew up to be a very handsome woman. In some ways, I fell in love with her during my research and writing, and I talked to a number of people who felt the same way.
“She was an angel,” said Dan Pastorini, who played quarterback for Sid in Houston and had an, um, somewhat love-hate relationship with him. “She was the soft hand in that whole deal. She knew everybody’s name. She knew every player and every player’s girlfriend. She was like the den mother. To put up with that guy for that many years, she had to grow wings.”
Damn, I wish I could have met her. Her kids were great to speak with, but getting to Esther would have been akin to interviewing Sid (mostly because she would have been a better interview than Sid). I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance. And I’m sorry I didn’t follow up with Sample.
Because even though Esther was basically a football wife and mother, she was exceptionally versatile and interesting. She was, at her very core, a character who could carry a book.