In a better time than this, Denny Wisner was the All-American kid. He played quarterback for City College long ago or the day before yesterday, I forget which, because they tend to run together at moments like this. He was talented, and the girls all loved him, and such a life should last forever.
But now, the impossible news arrives from his son, and from telephone calls from his old teammates, that he's died of a stomach infection down in Florida, a place where nobody could have known what it used to be like to be young, to be playing quarterback for Baltimore City College, and to be named Denny Wisner.
"Oh, he was a wonderful guy," Dutch Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County councilman who was a lineman on those City teams, was remembering last week, when the news about Wisner, 49, arrived. "All those aggressive guys on that City team, all those guys from different backgrounds, and Denny had the perfect personality to lead everybody."
"I'm just sitting here looking at the team picture now," said Tom Duley, the all-city running back on those City teams. "It's tough, it really is. Denny was a great guy, and a great quarterback, and he never let any of his success go to his head."
"Nah, there was never a big head with Denny," said Andy Tamberino, who owns Andy's Carry-Out, on Highland Avenue. Tamberino was a lineman on those teams. "He was an easygoing guy with great ability, and he had the height of his life in 1962."
Only it wasn't supposed to end the way it did, not back then and certainly not now. He was having too good a time. He was the top quarterback of his time in this city, and there was talk of college ball and then who knew what else, and always, Denny seemed utterly delighted to have found himself in the midst of his very own legend.
In front of me now are his old scrapbooks, dropped off by his son George. There are pages of newspaper clippings inside, with photos of Denny throwing over the middle, stories about Denny living at the top of the world: hitting 11 of 13 passes to beat St. John's of Washington, one of the top teams in the country; hitting 6 out of his last 7 passes, scoring a touchdown and throwing for two more, and intercepting two passes to lead City past Poly before 24,000 at Memorial Stadium.
He'd been discovered playing sandlot ball by George Young, the City coach back then who later went on to lead the New York Giants. Young asked him to try out for City's varsity. Wisner thought he wasn't good enough. He was wrong. He threw the football with grace and accuracy, and he knew how to keep his head when things got rough.
"This kid," Young said after one victory, "has ice water in his veins."
But he had delight in his soul. Sitting in class, or walking the school's halls, voice always lilting and upbeat, he always seemed thrilled to be going through this unexpected success.
One night a few years back, he remembered, "It was a fantasy. It doesn't seem real, even now. It's like I was in somebody else's body. Playing before all those people at Memorial Stadium, reading the newspaper stories with my name in them. I used to get phone calls at night from girls I'd never even met before."
All those years later, his voice was still filled with wonder. But the dream life went away pretty quickly. He went to college on a
football scholarship but got hurt and found himself considered damaged goods.
He moved around the country a little, doing a variety of jobs. Got married, had a couple of kids, three grandchildren. Over the summer, he called from Orlando, Fla., sounding upbeat, voice still lilting, offering to help an old teammate who'd fallen on some bad luck.
"What about you?" I asked. "How's your life?"
"Oh," he said, clearly as an afterthought, "I've had a few of the old football injuries act up. Had to have some hip surgery. I'm in bed right now."
But he brushed right past that, and started talking about a mail-order clothing business he'd started, and what hopes he had for it.
"What do you mean, you're in bed?" I asked. "You gonna be up soon?"
"Well," he said softly, "I don't think I'm gonna be able to walk again."
"You mean, crutches?"
"No," he said, "I'll be happy if I can get into a wheelchair someday. But it's not looking too good."
It seemed too impossible. The mind went back three decades and more, back to Kirk Field, back to Memorial Stadium, back to the football field at City: Wisner in the pocket; Wisner finding Duley, or Alex Gabbin, or Julian Bachur over the middle; Wisner sitting in class every day, voice lilting, not quite believing all the fun he was having.
And even now, with his body in open rebellion, there was no sense of self-pity about him. His voice was still high-pitched, optimistic, his words still full of dreams.
In high school, we imagine the good times never running out. Denny Wisner had a marvelous time back there, and he shared it with everybody around him. It's good to remember him with his chin up through the tough times that followed, but it's a killer that the good times ran out so soon.