I was a high school football reporter

Published 6:00 am Sunday, September 17, 2017

By Terry Haller

When they taught school, Catholic priests tried to be like Spencer Tracy or Pat O’Brien. If they were parish priests, Bing Crosby was the star they emulated.

Father Frank, being the athletic director at our high school, went for Spencer Tracy. And he was good at it. He looked like Tracy and even talked like him. He was doing Father Flanagan from the movie, “Boys Town.”

Email newsletter signup

“You’re a real swell writer, Terry,” he says one day.

“Am I?” I ask. I don’t know where he gets that. I never get high marks in English Composition.

“We need someone who can write like you to cover our football games,” he tells me. “You’d get to travel with the team.”

I can’t say no. I only just turned 14, and it’s my second week in high school. But I figured maybe this meant time off from school. They were all Friday-night games, and all of them out of town. The bus would have to leave mid-afternoon.

“Okay,” I tell him. I’m about to mention that I’ve never been to a football game, but he’s already got everyone reciting the “Our Father,” which gets the class underway.

I’m living in Kitchener, Ontario. I don’t know anything about football. This is a hockey town, home to the famous Boston Bruins “Kraut Line.” In my neighborhood, the 200-block of Lydia Street, nobody plays football. We don’t even get to watch it, as television has not yet come to Kitchener.

The bus arrives in front of the gym building and we all pile in. We’re going to Toronto to play St. Michael’s. I’m sitting up front when someone calls from the back.

“Hey, kid. D’ya play poker?”

“Yeah. A little bit,” I shout.

“Get back here,” the voice tells me.

They have their equipment trunk in the aisle. They’re using it for a table. Three guys are waiting for me, sitting around the trunk. They’re all seniors, and they’ve let their beards grow so they look tough and can intimidate St. Mike’s. In Ontario, in those days, high school goes to Grade 13, so these guys were probably 18 or 19 years old.

“You’re sure you can play?” one guy asks, smirking.

My dad played a lot poker at the Knights of Columbus Hall. He told me about the game and, best of all, showed me how to shuffle cards like a pro. I’ve been practicing the shuffle since canasta got popular in our neighborhood. Canasta is played with two decks. And my dad’s shuffle is a great way to shuffle two decks at one time. But it looks even sharper with just one deck.

It works like this: You break the deck in two and zip each half together at the top of the cards, using your thumbs. Then, instead of pushing them all together, you bend both halves away from you and release them in a cascade into your waiting fingers. It’s impressive if done right, and I know how to do it right,

“Shuffle them, kid,” one of the jocks commands. I see them glancing at one another.

I use my dad’s shuffle. The cards are new, so it works beautifully.

“Whoa!” they all cry, leaning way back from the trunk.

I don’t clean up. The ante is only a penny, and you can’t raise by more than two cents. I walk away ten-cents ahead.

St. Mike’s has its own stadium. Probably seats four thousand. I’m sitting with the team when a priest I don’t know approaches me.

“You the team’s reporter?” he asks. “You’re supposed to be up in the press box.”

I’m feeling like I’m in the big time. I go up to the top of the stands, and then up a wooden staircase, and they sit me down at the window.

“Didn’t you bring a typewriter? Been to Toronto before?” an older kid asks. Like all Toronto kids, he has a snotty accent.

During the game, he keeps asking me who made that play, who’s punting, stuff like that. I just make up answers. I don’t know the names of many of the players, and I can’t see them well enough anyway. (I’d be well along in college before they told me I was shortsighted.)

“That was Kopecky. Oh, that was Alessandrini. I think that was Kolotyuik,” I’d say, not really knowing. We have a lot of non-Anglo-Saxon students. Our school was in the center of town, amid the tire and shoe factories. Immigrants from war-torn Europe had fled to Kitchener and found good jobs in those factories. Their sons attend my school. The Toronto boys couldn’t spell those names and gave up asking.

On Monday, Father Frank has the nine o’clock Religion class. He comes over to me.

“Did you get your game report to the Record?” he asks. The Record is our town’s daily newspaper. “That’s your job. Run it over now. You can skip Religion class – God will understand.”

I’m directed to the newsroom. It’s just like those crime-reporter movies. Bunches of guys at typewriters, all wearing fedoras. I find the head sports reporter.

“Just tell me about the game,” he says.

“Well, St. Mike’s had the ball most of the time, but St. Jerome’s managed to score the winning touchdown in the last quarter. Kopecky and Alessandrini were strong along the line,” I’m telling him, and he’s typing it all down. I’m making it all up.

Finally, he says thanks and I go back to school.

The Record prints my story that evening. Then, the next morning, the Toronto Globe & Mail carries it. It’s exactly like I said it, word for word.  And at the top it says: Special from The Canadian Press. It went out on a newswire all across Canada.