The era has faded, but the cheers still echo

January 07, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

TOM DULEY must have wondered about it a million times as he nursed the last drink of the evening and explained to one more stranger that, yes, he really was that Tom Duley, the guy who ran back the most famous schoolboy kickoff in some vanished ballpark in some distant lifetime.

It's all gone now, and Duley must have wondered: Did it really happen back there the way I think it did? Were there really crowds calling his name, and newspaper headlines, and unlimited horizons for him and for Denny Wisner and Bob Baldwin, and for Fred Brooks and Bert Hopkins, too?

They all played championship football together a lifetime ago, or the day before yesterday, depending on your perspective. They were all-stars for George Young at City College, imagining glory days yet to come. And all are prematurely gone now.

Duley slipped away a little over a week ago, taken by cancer at 57. Baldwin, the bruising fullback who later played a year for the Colts, went the same way several months back, and Denny Wisner, the marvelous quarterback, has been gone almost nine years now. That's three-quarters of a championship backfield.

And Brooks and Hopkins, who threw so many blocks protecting those guys, are gone, too, and so is Young -- he died in 2001 -- who coached them to that long-ago undefeated season and those stunning victories over Poly at vanished Memorial Stadium.

Did it really happen back there the way everybody remembered? Time blurs memory. For a moment, Duley was king of the world, and then he wasn't. For a moment, his name was in headlines, and then it wasn't. Until the end, he held on to the old clippings, and the photos in the yearbook. But four decades after the fact and far from the frenzied crowds, so much was gone.

So a bunch of us drove out to Bel Air over the weekend -- including Ed Novak and Mel Filler, two of George Young's old assistants, and Duley's teammate Andy Tamberino -- for a memorial service for Duley and for an era that seemed wrapped around his football exploits and, in particular, one legendary run.

It was Thanksgiving Day of 1960, two weeks after John Kennedy's election. On 33rd Street, and in front of TV sets carrying the game, crowds gathered to watch the nation's second-oldest football rivalry, City against Poly.

Nobody thought City had a chance. They had won only two games all year, while Poly had lost only two. City hadn't beaten Poly in 10 years. And now, it looked as if City would lose again. With 22 seconds left in the first half, Poly led by four points. As Duley stood on his 10-yard line to take the Poly kickoff, a referee told him, "Keep your head up, son."

"I will," said Duley.

He remembered the details. For the next 42 years, he could still see them in his head: the ball bouncing twice, and the four Poly guys hitting him simultaneously as he reached the 25, knocking him straight up.

There was no place for Duley to fall, and so he ran. And people remembered the run, 85 yards of it, for the rest of their lives, and they talked about it forever because it defined an era, and then Tom Duley finally reached the end zone and heard the sound of all those people calling his name. "Duley, Duley, Duley." And to everybody's utter astonishment, inspired City upset Poly for the first time in a decade, 30-26.

It was supposed to stay like that, but it didn't. It never does, though a teen-age kid can never know this while it's happening. A year later, Duley scored 16 touchdowns in the great championship season when he and Baldwin were running over everybody and Wisner was passing the ball like crazy. Half of Duley's touchdowns that year, 1961, went for 50 yards or more.

Years later, we sat in a bar in Harford County, and I asked Duley how he had gotten home from Memorial Stadium after the famous kickoff runback. I imagined him riding in a convertible, waving to cheering throngs. But he remembered taking an MTA bus home.

When he reached his stop on Harford Road, he spotted the day's final Evening Sun edition, and a front-page headline: "City Upsets Poly; Duley Electrifies Crowd of 18,000."

"I still have it," he said that day. "When I took it home, my mom said, `Look at this. It took my son to knock John Kennedy off the front page.'"

At the memorial service last week, Tom's sister Barbara remembered him walking in the door that day.

"He floated in," she said. "There was this aura about him. He was this high off the ground."

"He didn't talk much about his football exploits," said his son, Tom Jr., who wore his dad's old football jersey to the memorial.

After high school, Duley went to Clemson on a football scholarship but left after a few years. Married Pat, his high school sweetheart. They had 15 years together, and a couple of kids. They stayed friends, and Pat was with him at the end.

In between, there was a series of jobs, none terribly successful. Tom's second wife, Liz, died in her sleep eight months ago, a day or so after Tom's cancer was diagnosed.

He never imagined it would end like this. Who does? He was a kid once, and the crowds called out his name, and he thought it would never go away. Inside Duley's head -- and inside a generation's -- it never did. It was the run of a lifetime.

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