Category Archives: Bearcats Rising

A cute story about Don Zimmer

With the death of Don Zimmer on Wednesday, here’s a short piece about Cincinnati natives/legends Glenn Sample and Zimmer — who apparently used to ride around on a horse during his youth — from my first book, Bearcats Rising:

(From the beginning of the chapter):

Glenn Sample was usually the first to arrive. He’d pull into the parking lot at McDonald’s around 9 a.m. most every Wednesday, enter the eatery, stride to the counter, throw a smile at a cashier here and an employee mopping the floor there, and order his coffee.

Then, he’d sit down, sip his java and wait for his friends – the members of his extended UC family – to arrive.

They’d straggle in, order their own shots of morning caffeine and begin telling the stories they’d described in the same way for the past 60 years. Every week, at this McDonald’s just off Interstate 75, the old-timers would come together. They’d Mc-rib each other, laugh at the stories they’d heard a million times, discuss what so-and-so was up to these days. Every Wednesday, it was like this.

One sunny day in September 2008, Sample, like usual, arrived early, grabbed his coffee and sat at a booth by the side entrance. Soon, Ray Penno joined him. Bill Williams walked through the door, and Dean Giacometti sauntered in as well. The weekly meeting had commenced. The caffeine entered their bloodstreams, and the stories began to flow. They started with one of their favorites.

Instantly, they returned to the day, sixty years earlier, of the Walnut Hills-Western Hills football game when the two teams battled for the city championship of the Public High School League. Sample and Don Zimmer – who went on to big success in professional baseball – were playing for Western Hills, and Giacometti, who had played at UC from 1939-41 before entering World War II, had taken a job as an assistant coach at Walnut Hills.

Walnut Hills had never won the city title, but with less than a minute to play, Giacometti’s team held a 7-6 lead on the water-logged field. Zimmer, the Western Hills quarterback, faced a fourth and 11 from the Walnut Hills 20-yard line. All night long, Walnut Hills had contained Zimmer in Western Hills’ single-wing offense, and Zimmer needed a miracle to gut out this victory. On the final play of the game, with the center Sample leading the way and blocking every Walnut Hills defender in sight, Zimmer escaped traffic, went around the end of the line and raced for the end zone.

He didn’t make it, falling three yards short of the goal-line. And six decades later, Giacometti’s frustration with what happened next still is evident.

“Zimmer goes down on the 3-yard line and his knees hit the ground,” Giacometti said. “But you know Zimmer. He never stops, and he gets in the end zone.”

The officials signaled touchdown, and in doing so, denied Walnut Hills the championship. To this day, Giacometti swears Zimmer’s knee was on the ground, the play was over and that Walnut Hills should have won the game. Sample corrects him: Zimmer’s hand was down, not his knee. Big difference. Giacometti’s counter: he has a video tape of the play, which proves Zimmer had been tackled and that Walnut Hills had been robbed.

Curiously, Giacometti never remembered to bring the video for these weekly McDonald’s meetings.

“Every time I saw him, I’d ask Zimmer, ‘Don, did your knee go down?’” Sample said. “We played our games at Norwood High School, and there was water in the low spots. Going into that end zone, there was a big gully and a lot of water. Last time I talked to Zimmer, I said, ‘Dean Giacometti has been after me all these years. Did your knee hit?’ He said, ‘I might have gone down and my knee might have hit one of those puddles of water, but I didn’t touch the ground.’”

Giacometti smiled. He sensed that one day the truth would be unveiled, and if he’s waited sixty years, he can wait a little while longer.

And with that, the old-timers were onto another story from long times gone.

(From the end of the chapter):

Those former players remained true to each other, as well. They kept in touch with each other, they considered themselves brothers and, every Wednesday at 9 a.m., a group of them met at a local McDonald’s to rehash the past sixty years.

Until, that is, the day in November 2008 when Sample – who had just returned home from a speaking engagement in Dayton – died of a heart attack at his home. Although he was 77 years old, it was a shock. He was in such great shape and in such great spirits that his death left his colleagues in disbelief.

A few weeks later, UC held a memorial service for him at Fifth Third Arena. Hundreds of people gathered inside and watched as pictures of Sample’s life flashed across the scoreboard. One of him and his grandkids at the Grand Ole Opry, one of him and Pete Rose, one of him with Lana Turner, one of him and his classmates with Clark Gable. His distraught son, Jeff, played a musical tribute, and more than a dozen of his colleagues and former players offered their eulogies.

Dean Giacometti rose from his seat, walked to the microphone, and not surprisingly, told the story about Don Zimmer and the Walnut Hills-Western Hills city championship football game that had been decided by Zimmer’s supposed touchdown. He repeated that he just couldn’t believe Zimmer had scored legitimately. After all these years, didn’t Zimmer have something to confess?

“Well, maybe I slid into the end zone,” Zimmer said. Then, he came clean with the truth. “Coach, we were lucky,” Zimmer admitted. “You had a bad call.” Giacometti, smiling, sat down with a satisfied look on his face. He had known all along, and finally, he had been vindicated. Sample would have laughed hardest at that.

Advertisements

Farewell, Don McMillan

(L-R): Dustin Grutza, Don McMillan, Josh Katzowitz

I called the number one Sunday morning – on Jan. 11, 2009 to be exact – and the 87-year-old man who lived in Cleves, Ohio, answered the phone with a pleasant hello.

We proceeded to talk non-stop for the next two hours. I hadn’t planned to be on the phone with him that long – I figured an hour, tops – but he was such a good storyteller, had so many interesting memories to recount, that he took up most of the rest of my day.

His wife, Patricia, was by his side the entire time, and every once in a while, she’d whisper to him to remind him of something from days long gone. At one point, she actually took the phone away from him and started answering my questions herself.

She was Patty – a red-headed Irish girl – and she was the love of Don McMillan’s life. It was obvious then on the phone. It was obvious a few months later when I met Don and Patty face to face at the opening kickoff/book signing for Bearcats Rising – my first tome.

When my publisher and I were trying to figure out who we should invite to be guests at my first book signing – who would sign books along with me – we wanted to go with a current player (Dustin Grutza) and we wanted an older guy, a guy who had been around the program a very long time and who had a long-reaching perspective. Since I had such a great conversation with Don, we asked him if he could make it. He said he’d be glad to attend.

I was honored to have him there with me, and he obviously was proud to be there as well, answering my queries during the free-for-all discussion between the audience and the three of us that led into the actually signing.

Don was a guy who had much to say.

He had served in WWII on the aircraft carrier San Jacinto, and he worked underneath the runway in the catapult, which basically shot the airplanes off the ship and into the sky.

“I can remember when they told me I was going to be a catapult aboard the carrier,” McMillan said, “and I asked, ‘Would you please tell me what the hell a catapult is.’”

Many years later, he would meet George H.W. Bush – one of the fighter pilots on the San Jacinto – and when the two saw each other, Bush asked, “You shot me off, didn’t you?”

The San Jacinto was a magnet for Japanese kamikazes. Time and time again, the crew would see enemy pilots attempt to destroy the flight deck by crashing their planes into the ship, but they never finished the mission. But those guys got close. Close enough to where, one day, McMillan found a severed finger on the catapult track. Another day, he looked inside the gun mount and saw a lifeless Japanese body who looked ready to jump out and continue the fight.

Said McMillan: “There was a catwalk all the way around the flight deck, and when you stand on it, you’re shoulder high to the level of the flight deck. When all that commotion is going on, you want to jump over the side of the boat, for crying out loud. That’s the last resort. You don’t want to do it. But you don’t get used to it, no matter how many times they came after you. When we started hitting the Philippines, that’s when they started coming. That was their last hurrah. They knew they were going to lose the war.”

After the war ended, McMillan, a 24-year-old freshman, played quarterback at the University of Cincinnati. More than 60 years later, he told me his best tales and gave me so much help for my first book. He told a fantastic story, and from what I’ve gathered, he was a fantastic man.

Today, one of his old teammates told me McMillan died last month at the age of 89. He left behind Patty and a wonderful, full life – he was a former high school football coach in Northern Kentucky who impacted many, many young lives – which he shared with his greatest love. When I heard the news, I went to the copy of Bearcats Rising I keep on my bookshelf, the one where I gathered signatures of all the former UC players who signed with me at various appearances, to look at what Don wrote.

Dear Josh, What a great pleasure it was to be with you and Dustin. You made an old man feel young again. God Bless, Don McMillan

Don, thank you, my friend. The pleasure was all mine.

Exactly right

Check out this blog post from one of my favorite writers, Esquire’s Chris Jones.

These three grafs pretty much sums up what Jones is talking about when he’s discussing book-writing:

I get a lot of e-mails, and the great majority of them have something to do with writing and how to do it for a living. Strangely — or at least it seems strange to me — a lot of people seem to think they can write a book. Nobody thinks they could start plumbing a house tomorrow; nobody thinks they could sit down first thing in the morning and spay a cat. And yet a lot of people think they can write books. “They’re just words,” someone once said to me.

There’s a story up here, probably more legend than truth. The famed novelist Margaret Atwood was apparently at a party, talking to a brain surgeon. He told her that he was going to write a novel when he retired. “Oh, that’s funny,” Atwood said. “I was thinking of doing brain surgery.”

Book-writing is a mean business. They’re just words, but they’re 100,000 words assembled in some beautiful and logical order to tell a story that keeps a reader plugging along from beginning to end.

I don’t get offended when people say things like that to me – hell, maybe these people can write a book – but to me, it’s not about saying you’re thinking about doing it. It’s about actually putting fingers to keyboard. Bearcats Rising took me about a year to write. I put my soul through the wringer for the final product. I fried my brain so hard on it that I haven’t read the book since it came out in Aug. 2009 (I might never read it at all). But sure, go ahead and write yourself a book. I’d be happy to copy-edit it.

You know, I guess I am offended a little bit.

This is what my time is worth

Got a text tonight from a colleague, and he told me to switch on the local PBS station immediately. A copy of Bearcats Rising was up for auction – an auction run by UC – and the opening bid was for $9. Greg Harrell and Brad Wurthman gave it the hard sell. Said it was a literary masterpiece. Said I was a whale of a writer. They talked about my shoe collection. They talked about my beard. They talked about how awesome I am.*

*The first four statements they made about me and my book are definitely true. I might have made up that final part of the paragraph.

The auction lasted for 2 minutes, and though I listened hard for a ringing phone, I never heard anything. It started at $9 and ended at $9. Took me a year and a half to write. Couldn’t get a $10 bid.

Tough business, eh?

Censorship

Saw one of my sources for Bearcats Rising the other day at a UC basketball game. He was one of my more colorful (and, thus, one of my favorite) interviews – my favorite quote that I used by him was the ever-popular, “What a clusterfuck.” And I made sure to include in the book that he actually lowered his voice when telling the best stories because he didn’t want his kids to overhear his college exploits.

He told me he really enjoyed the final product, but he also said that – partially because of quotes like the one above that he gave me – he couldn’t let his 10-year old son read the book quite yet. I laughed, and after I said goodbye, I thought to myself, “Is that a good thing? Or should I be worried that I’m losing a small piece of my readership because I didn’t censor the tawdriest of quotes?” I’ve actually heard from a few people – my wife, for one – who thought my book had too many curse words in it (all of which, I should point out, were contained by quotation marks).

But I don’t feel bad about it. That’s what the people said. That’s how college football players talk. That’s how college football coaches speak to their players (Brian Kelly to UC quarterback Ben Mauk after giving him the starting job before the 2007 season: “Now don’t fuck it up.”). That’s real life.

If 10-year-olds can’t read the book right now, so be it. But I’ll add this: I read Ball Four and The Bronx Zoo when I was young. I saw the Breakfast Club when it came out in movie theaters in the mid-1980s. I curse around my parents now, and they laugh.

None of that made me a lesser man. None of it f—-d me up.

Bearcats Rising signing news

So, you want to hang out and pick up a signed copy of Bearcats Rising in the process? You have yet another chance. This Thursday, 6 p.m., Barnes & Noble, Newport on the Levee with former Bearcats and current Bengals punter Kevin Huber and former Bearcats/Bengals/Patriots DB Artrell Hawkins.

Come on out. It’ll be good times.

This should be cool

Bearcats Rising signing, Colerain, LaRosa’s Pizzeria, Kerry Coombs. With Lonnie Wheeler and John Baskin, who collaborated on Cincinnati Schoolboy Legends. Coombs will sign both books.

Seriously, what could be better? Thursday, Nov. 5, 7-9 p.m.

Come out and meet Coombs in his element. Here. Should be a good time.