For me, the summer of ’77 was in many ways not much different than that of the nine or ten summers that preceded it. As reliable as homemade ice cream or fireworks on the Fourth of July, my summer ritual of playing baseball in the SSJBA was a comfortable thread woven throughout my childhood.
But while the summer of ’77 and the baseball that went with it carried a reliable and familiar feel, it also delivered a handful of small transitions, as the certainties of youth were slowly unearthed, foreshadowing an impending and unavoidable adulthood.
We were now in high school, and the rosters for our age group were dwindling. The really good players were playing in leagues filled with college-bound talent, while many of the other guys had by this time lost interest and were spending their summers cultivating other pursuits.
The result of this smaller talent pool was that I landed in unfamiliar territory, and ended up becoming teammates with guys that before I’d only played against—guys from rival high schools like Ruskin and Hickman Mills. I had been familiar with many of their names—John Galloway, Richard Hinton, George Fizer, Mike Newman, Jeff Leiding—and maybe even recognized a face or two, but now they were teammates and I found them, surprisingly, to be much more likeable than in previous years when we had worn different colors.
I have not thought about many, if any, of those names in over thirty years. The last name on my list—Jeff Leiding—came to mind last week when I learned that he had died of a heart attack. He was 52, a year younger than me.
Few memories have survived from that summer team in 1977. We had a pretty good team, and I learned that teammates and alliances can be forged from among unfamiliar and previously hostile tribes.
That could’ve been that. And those names, including Jeff Leiding’s, would have been but footnotes from my childhood had not high school football brought us back together just fourteen months after the conclusion of that baseball season.
In September, 1978 my Grandview Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in Kansas City. Right behind us at No. 2 were the Hickman Mills Cougars, and we met September 15—the third game of the season—to determine the bragging rights not only for south KC, but for the entire metropolitan area.
Hickman Mills was led by my old little league baseball teammate, Jeff Leiding. Leiding, a junior linebacker and fullback that year, was already one of the most highly touted high school players in the state. He would eventually go on to be an All-American at Texas. I watched him on the Bob Hope special. He was an imposing figure, topping out at 6’3” and 230 pounds.
The game was a highly anticipated and much publicized contest. It drew a standing room crowd at Grandview’s stadium, and was covered extensively in the Kansas City media. All week our preparations took on a new dimension as we tried to fathom the significance of the game that awaited us Friday night.
I played tight end for Grandview’s wishbone offense. We were not known for our passing game. I think I had four TDs on ten receptions that season. As the wishbone dictates, ours was a running offense, and it highlighted the talents of QB Rusty Hill, FB Andy Gibler, and RBs Angelo Malone and David Haynes. Haynes would rush for over 2,000 yards that season and later attend Arkansas. Hill would join him as a Razorback while Gibler would go on to be a tight end at Mizzou and Malone a running back at Northwest Missouri State. So there was a significant amount of talent on both sides of the ball.
Hickman Mills beat Grandview that night 14-7. It was a stinging defeat, the sort of loss that feels like the death of a loved one.
There is a lot that could be said about that game. I could write about injuries and sicknesses and miscues and what might-have-been. These would simply be excuses, the sorts of things that should have been put to rest three decades ago.
What remains from that game for me is not the bitter gall of defeat, but the wonder of sport itself and the kinship that is established among teammates and opponents alike.
As a tight end in the wishbone offense, I was given the unenviable task of attempting to neutralize Jeff Leiding in his role as linebacker that September night. It was an assignment that I did not take lightly, and it was an assignment I would have gladly traded for a seat on the sidelines. After the loss, I don’t remember thinking that I did well or poorly against Leiding. I’m sure he made his share of tackles. The game seemed to hinge on a turnover or two and our offense sputtering in general (probably because of Leiding and the rest of their defense). After a loss like that you just hurt, and don’t over analyze your own personal performance.
The following Monday morning I was dreading reviewing the Hickman Mills game film. It was a painful experience, like watching a video of your dog dying. When concluded, Coach Bob Tavernaro said that he would like to acknowledge one player who the coaching staff thought, after reviewing the game film, did an exceptional job against the Cougars. As I looked around, wondering, who they thought did a good job in this train-wreck of a game, Coach called my name.
This was a forgotten memory for me, one which by-and-large had laid dormant until I heard of Leiding’s death. I don’t share it to pat myself on the back. I was a mediocre football player by anyone’s standards.
I share this memory because I think it represents the best there is about sports. Whether teammates or opponents, (or in the case of Leiding who had been both), there is this kinship, this bond, that transcends culture, that transcends class, that transcends ethnicity, that even transcends whether or not a guy is personally likeable.
There is this sort of duty we all have to make one another better. To encourage one another to rise to the occasion. There is a code of honor that dictates we respect an opponent by giving him our very best. I marvel that although it has been over 30 years since I’ve played competitive sports, I still speak of these duties in the present tense.
Jeff Leiding and many others in that game in1978 went to much larger and more prestigious stages than we were on that night. I’d like to think that a little bit of each of us went with them. Hopefully we were all better because of the investment from teammates and opponents alike. I know that night, Jeff Leiding made me a better blocking tight end than I ever dared believe I could be. I hope in some small way I made him a little bit better as well.
In Coach Bob Tavernaro’s pre-game charge he told us—the assembled Grandview Bulldogs—that whatever happened that night on that field we would remember for the rest of our lives. This was a true statement.
Despite the accuracy of Coach Tavernaro’s words, time and Providence have framed them, forged them, and shown me two things. The first is that although that game and its memories are forever etched upon me, that which was once important is not Ultimate. The wound that laid raw on the morning of September 16, 1978, the wound that we thought would haunt us to our graves, has healed, and has been placed in its proper perspective along with all the other meaningful but temporal pursuits of youth.
The second thing I’ve been shown is that while all those that played in that game will certainly remember its results for the rest of their lives, the length of days of those lives will not be the same. Some of those lives—like the life of Jeff Leiding, and the lives of my teammates Bill Burgess and Rusty Hill—from my earthly, mortal, perspective, ended much too soon.