Tag Archives: Glenn Sample

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.

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Sid’s better half

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.