This whole thing started with the O. J. Simpson story, with all the talk about the downfall of a sports hero. We could not help but take a collective pause . . . and ponder: How exactly do we come up with our heroes? How do we keep one? Or is that possible?
I kept wondering about my own childhood sports hero, Bert Jones, star quarterback of the Baltimore Colts, and a friend. What was it about Bert that made him such a big deal? What if I spent some time with him now? Would it still be possible to think of my childhood sports hero as a hero? Would the powerful memories of my years as a ball boy with the Colts be reinforced or would time and age chip away at them, creating something of a void?
I want to know. Might even need to know.
I want Bert to throw me the football again, and I want to throw it back, just like we used to do, over and over, before a game or practice. Helping him loosen up was always such a thrill, the laces of the football burning my hands because he threw so hard and with such a tight spiral. Maybe having a catch with him now will help me to understand more about then.
I also want Bert to take me fishing. He has always been such a dedicated outdoorsman. He has invited me several times, but I have never been fishing, with or without him. Maybe some time together on a quiet pond, learning something new from Bert now, will help me understand what exactly I might have been learning from him then.
And so here I am, a free-lance writer visiting Ruston, La., 35 miles south of Arkansas, midway between Texas and Mississippi, population 20,000, a hearty collection of folks enjoying the rolling hills, growing the best peaches in the world, studying and partying at Louisiana Tech.
This is where Bert was born and raised, where he has lived since the day he stopped throwing footballs, where I find him behind his desk at his lumber mill. Bert is speaking into a headset connected to his telephone, selling lumber. Bert Jones, selling lumber?
He and one of his brothers, Bill, own and operate Mid-States Wood Preservers, buying, treating, manufacturing, selling and shipping wood. Fifteen years ago, when Bert was still playing football and Bill was practicing law, they took a watermelon patch, hauled in some heavy machinery and started stacking wood. Now they employ about 50 locals, and the 18-wheelers keep kicking up dirt as they come and go.
Bert is 42 years old. He does a few television gigs here and there, a celebrity appearance now and then, when asked, but he has no interest in parlaying his football past to pay his bills now. No, the new Bert is taking care of his wife and four children by manufacturing and selling lumber.
But wait. The old Bert is not gone altogether. That red Swiss
Army knife. That leather case holding it on his belt. Those same old baggy shorts, just like the shorts he used to wear to and from practice each and every day during summer training camps at Goucher College in Towson.
One of my jobs before practice was collecting valuables and locking them up. Most players would turn in wallets, watches, dorm keys. Bert would just tuck that knife and its case into those baggy khakis, fold them up and turn in the whole thing. His valuables. Something about seeing them again, something to do with familiarity, I guess, is reassuring now. Maybe, just maybe, he is still the Bert Jones I knew, even though he is on the phone, selling lumber.
And then, thank goodness, I hear the clincher: "Right hee-uh." Bert has finally located a missing purchase order under some papers on his desk. He is employing the same country cadence he has been using all these years. "Right hee-uh." As in right here. As in pay attention, something important is about to happen.
That old country cadence is carrying me back to Goucher. Back before the shoulder injuries. Before the falling out with Robert Irsay, owner of the Colts. Before Bert demanded a trade and was shipped off to the Los Angeles Rams following the 1981 season.
"Right hee-uh," Bert is calling out, gathering the offense. "Right hee-uh." I see him kneeling in the huddle now, guard Robert Pratt leaning over him on his left, running back Lydell Mitchell on his right, tight end Raymond Chester facing him, and Bert is in absolute command. "Red right 72 whirl. On two."
Roger Carr, the wide receiver, will run a curl pattern, turning in at 20 yards. Bert will make sure the football meets him there. And the Colts, my Colts, will again be marching down the field.
We met the summer of 1974. Bert was preparing for his second season with the Colts. I was a sports-loving 11-year-old from New York, attending tennis camp at the McDonogh School, and was excited to learn it was also the summer home of the Colts (they moved to Goucher the next year). The football practice fields at McDonogh were right next to the tennis courts.