A day to pray and remember

March 30, 1995|By BILL TANTON

The problems of the money-is-everything people in baseball seem inconsequential compared to the truly upsetting news about a couple of all-time favorites.

One of those is Diane Aikens, the coach of Loyola College's nationally ranked women's lacrosse team, who underwent surgery today to remove a brain tumor.

Aikens, who as Diane Geppi was a star goalie at Loyola only a decade ago, is one of the most upbeat persons I've ever known.

It's hard to believe that this dynamic woman, mother of four and an assistant athletic director at the college, has been struck with this at the age of 32.

Still, her attitude is so positive that one of her co-workers says she has "brought the rest of us up."

"There must be a few prayers being said for Diane," I told Loyola athletic director Joe Boylan.

"More than a few," he said.

Aikens could make a full recovery, of course, but for the other favorite, Steve Stonebreaker, there is no such hope. The former Baltimore Colts linebacker is dead at 56 of an apparent suicide.

Stonebreaker was one of the most colorful personalities ever to play here. He was also one of the warmest.

Like Aikens, Stonebreaker was a high energy type who genuinely connected with people. Two minutes after you met him, you felt you had known him all your life.

When he came to the Colts from the Minnesota Vikings in 1964, Stonebreaker moved his wife, Carol, and their children from Detroit to a house on Margate Road in Lutherville.

On moving day he ran out of patience waiting for the movers, so he rented the biggest truck he could find and phoned Larry Vargo, who had played football with him at the University of Detroit.

"You and I are going to move us to Baltimore," he told Vargo.

The two men loaded the truck, drove it all night, and unloaded it at the new house in the morning.

"You must have been exhausted," I said to Stonebreaker, "going like that for 24 hours straight."

"I wasn't tired," he said, "but drinking coffee all night and driving a truck down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that thing starts bouncing and it gets to your kidneys. I had to stop every half-hour."

That season, the Vikings came to play the Colts at Memorial Stadium and Stonebreaker -- what a name for a football player! -- tackled Minnesota's Tommy Mason 10 yards out of bounds.

After the game, the Minnesota press came in the Colts locker room and asked him why he had done such a dirty thing to his old Vikings roommate.

"I just got carried away in the heat of battle," Stoney said apologetically. "Tommy is a great guy, a great football player and I have all the respect in the world for him."

The Minnesota writers jotted that down and ran off.

"That's what I say to the Minnesota writers," Stonebreaker said. "For the Baltimore writers, I say, 'The hell with Tommy Mason.' "

Stonebreaker left here and went to the New Orleans Saints in the expansion draft in 1967. Harry Hulmes, onetime Colts general manager, now assistant GM with the Giants, spent a decade with the Saints and got to know Stonebreaker well.

"Stoney was a hero in New Orleans," Hulmes said yesterday. "He had hero stuff in him.

"He never felt out of place with anybody. One hot September Sunday evening in Lutherville we'd been playing basketball and my mother was down from Baltimore visiting us.

"We sat down to dinner and Stoney came walking in our front door covered with sweat and wearing nothing but shorts and sneakers. He said, 'What are we eating?' He sat down next to my mother and ate with us. In no time at all my mother loved him."

Jim Miller, now executive vice president of the Saints, said Stonebreaker's death was page one news in the New Orleans paper and the lead story on the TV nightly news.

"Stoney was regarded as the original Saint," Miller said. "He came here with the franchise. He's still remembered for The Brawl."

That first year the Saints played in New York and a Giants player went after a New Orleans player and Stonebreaker told the guy he was going to get him after the game -- and after the game a hellacious brawl broke out.

Commissioner Pete Rozelle fined Stonebreaker $300 for starting and a group of New Orleans businessmen took up a collection to pay it. Rozelle wouldn't allow that, but from that moment Stonebreaker remained a favorite in New Orleans.

"Stoney was that way to the end," said Miller, "just a big, fun-loving, boisterous restaurateur."

Stonebreaker's Restaurant in Metairie, La., has "the best ribs in New Orleans," said Miller. The place, he said, is always packed.

Stonebreaker's son, Michael, was an All-America linebacker for Notre Dame a few years ago. When the Irish played Notre Dame here, Steve came to Baltimore for the game. I've never seen a prouder father.

The son played a few games last year for the Saints, but was not asked back this year. When the father was found dead, the son was on his way to Europe to play in the World Football League.

Nobody seems to know why Stonebreaker would take his life. With a successful restaurant, he did not seem to have financial problems.

But Stonebreaker had a bout with cancer eight years ago and some speculate that the sickness may have come back and prompted his suicide. Others say Steve never got over his wife's leaving him many years ago to marry a New Orleans detective. She and her new husband have been in Los Angeles for years.

"It's such a shock when one of these upbeat guys takes his life," said Ernie Accorsi, who spent most of his career in Baltimore and is now a Giants assistant GM. "Ron Luciano [former major-league umpire] was the same way. Who would have expected these guys to do this?"

Not me.

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