As athlete-student, Roche made grade

John Steadman

March 24, 1993|By John Steadman

It was more than another induction ceremony, the kin colleges and universities stage when they are turning back the pages to mark a bygone athletic era. From the graduating class of 1947 at Loyola College came Sid Roche, a humble man of extraordinary physical gifts. A strong man, durable and with quiet resolve.

Between Loyola High School and Loyola College -- the Jesuit connection in Baltimore -- he had in 1943 taken a temporary detour to Temple University, where as a freshman he was the starting fullback on the varsity football team. Backing up the line against VMI, he was blocked from the blind side and his right knee was so seriously damaged he never played again.

He came home to concentrate on basketball and baseball and Loyola and Roche, at the time, became a perfect fit. With Roche was Jim Lacy, who led the way as Loyola offered a style of basketball that gave it a sectional dominance and even a degree of national attention.

Now, Loyola College has decided Roche's achievements merit inclusion in its athletic hall of fame. Roche, in offering his acceptance remarks, played it light and whimsical. He obviously cherished the moment but it wasn't an occasion for putting on the brag -- as if he ever could.

In a self-deprecating way, he announced, "In my day, I considered myself an athlete/student rather than a student/athlete. The reason I was going to school was to play intercollegiate athletics. I majored in basketball with a minor in baseball."

He looked at a former teammate in the audience, the Rev. Aloysius "Wish" Galvin, S.J., now at Georgetown Prep, and remembered that in the world of academia his onetime classmate "on a scale of 4.0 was at least a 5.5." Then he credited Father Galvin with helping him study for exams and the encouragement he provided at test-crisis time.

As a point of authenticity, Roche was far from the exaggerated dullard he made himself out to be. In 1951 he joined the FBI and performed 25 years as an agent, working every conceivable area of investigation, including highly sensitive espionage assignments.

As a pitcher, he was signed by the Philadelphia Phils and spent three months in their farm system. Then, in 1948, while at spring training in Sumter, S.C., he tried to throw too hard before he was in adequate shape and his arm went dead. A once-awesome fastball was gone.

There was a suspicion when Roche was pitching that he never opened up with full velocity because, deep within himself, he worried his lack of control might injure a batter. To a direct question, there's no denial from him.

"I once hit a player for the Martin Bombers, as he tried to bunt, and it upset me a lot," he answered.

That was the Roche most of his friends knew, never self-centered but concerned over the welfare of others.

What values could he say have come from sports? "First off, they teach you to cope with life and the hard knocks," Roche said. "Lefty Reitz, our coach at Loyola, taught us to win graciously and lose with dignity. Lefty and Ed Hargaden, when I was at Loyola High, gave me the fundamentals of the games. They were great coaches."

As he accepted the highest athletic honor Loyola College bestows, Roche explained how the selection committee requested his resume four years ago when it discovered the school had been negligent in maintaining records. Then the copy was misplaced and, once more, he was asked to "do it over and send it in again."

"I guarantee you if they had lost the second copy, I would have kept making it out for as many times as they wanted," he said. "But by then, Jim Lacy would have been the second-leading basketball scorer in Loyola history."

Seated nearby listening was Lacy, who enjoyed every word of the presentation his friend was delivering. Sid, turning serious, introduced the widows of Reitz and Edgar Gilbert, a high school and college pal when they attended both Loyolas. Others may have forgotten the roles they had played in his life but that's not the way of Sid Roche.

Lacy was asked if Roche, powerfully built and strong enough to tip over a building, had ever been unusually excited or annoyed. "No, never," he replied. "The same all the time, a quietly intense competitor who never thought of himself."

God obviously endowed a tenderness and a tolerance that enabled Roche to become the exemplary athlete/citizen he is.

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