I was a junior in high school when the 1986 school year started. It was a good summer, played a lot of ball with my high-school teammates, went to a few concerts, a few Yankee and Mets games and just plain fucked around the rest of the time. I worked a shitty part-time job at a pizza place to make a few bucks but that was the extent of my productivity that summer. Life in East Rutherford, NJ at the time was similar to every other north Jersey town. IROC's, Bon Jovi everywhere, girls dressed like they were trying out to be in the next Whitesnake video and "guido's" gold-chained down and slicked up willy, cruised the streets looking for girls to pick up or to be in a fight. I had friends in all those categories so I was open to all the stuff going on around me. I played ball for my high school, Becton Regional, which a few years before was known as East Rutherford High, where for years the loud-mouthed legend, Dick Vitale, honed his coaching wares. That being said, the basketball program was held in high regard and we had put together a pretty tight squad from the time I transferred in my sophmore year. Our team was led by a 6' 9", 240 lb monster, Dan Hillman, who had scouts salivating over him. Unfortunately for him, his grades kept him from moving on to one of the big academic U's and it was a shame because he could have been rough in the college game. He wound up taking a scholarship to a Division 3 program, never to be heard from again. My own high school to college shot is a story for another time.
Well, school started, classes were attended, life was going on as normal as could be. In early September, my father went to his general practitioner for a routine check-up and was startled to learn that he had a growth in his neck that needed to be checked out at his doctor's request immediately for fear of a serious medical condition working on my father without his knowledge. After having a biopsy, and waiting a week for the results, I attended my dad's follow-up appointment with him and my mother (myself being an only child, our family unit was tight) to hear what the ailment, if any, might be. After a few tense moments of waiting for the doctor to enter, we were blindsided by the news that my father had stage 4A Hodgkin's Disease (one step before terminal) and if not acted upon with extreme urgency, could be a life-ending scenario for my dad within weeks. Now, to know my dad was to know a no-nonsense, no-bullshit individual who was one of ten children who was raised in the Duncan Projects in Jersey City, NJ in the 50's and 60's where he lived with the only white family in a predominantly black housing unit. He was loved by the people in his building because my dad never saw color, just the goodness in people and at that time in our history, those type of feelings between the races were rare. And that's being generous. Most of my aunt's and uncle's who lived there with him weren't as open-minded as my dad so they never get along with the neighbors. One of my favorite stories from my father, was a time he was on a date with my mom before they were married, were out picking up a pizza to take back to my grandmother's house (where my mom was living) and while walking home and passing a pool hall, were verbally assaulted and physical accosted by about 8 drunk Italians who knew my mom from the neighborhood and wanted to know why she was with "that nigger lover". Well, my dad fought hard but was out manned and once the pool hall manager separated everyone, my mother and father made their way to my grandmother's to regroup. My father borrowed my grandmother's car, returned to his apartment in the projects and proceeded to return to the pool hall with about 25 of his buddies from the projects and totally destroyed the pool hall and whoever was unlucky to be there. There was some jail time for my dad's people, but out of respect to my father, those guys took the rap and claimed my father had nothing to do with it. My dad said he was forever grateful to those guys for what they had done for him and would always let anyone know who would listen how great they were for it.
My dad was a full-time truck driver, working 16 hour days, and was a fiercely intense worker and family man. Although my dad stood about 5' 5", he had the heart and stature of someone twice that size. My dad was built like Baron Davis, squat, thick and powerful. To hear that my dad could be lost to cancer while he showed no signs of weakness or illness was mind-boggling. My family was shell-shocked. For days, it seemed like our home was more like a funeral home than a families home. It was a bad time. The new school basketball season was to begin in a few weeks. My dad began his chemotherapy treatments, twice a week, and by no fault of his own had to take a leave of absence from his driving job until his therapy was over and was well enough to get back in a rig. My dad seemed to be losing his mind at that point. Being home was a necessity at that point, but being stagnant was not in his make-up. He needed something to do. And little did he know, he would find it in one of his favorite things to do, watching the New York Giants.
Saying my father was a Giant fan was an understatement. He had loved them from when he was a boy and now that we had lived in the same town that the Giants played in, made his love for them surreal. (I myself, made the choice to be a Dolphin fan as a kid, and I was always an outcast to my friends who loved the Giants and the Jets. I did love the Giants too, because my dad did. The whole father/son hero thing.) Our home was just over 2 miles from the stadium and from most of the windows in my high school, the Meadowlands complex was clearly visible. It was about week 3 or 4 into the 1986 NFL season, and the Giants had gotten off to a nice start. Sunday's were one of the things that kept my dad going through his chemo treatments and the games took on new meaning as we were not sure how many more of them my father would get to see. My dad decided that as a way to keep his mind off his treatments he was going to prepare a hand-drawn picture each week and try to get it to one of the security guards at Giants Stadium to see if they could post it on a bulletin board in the locker room. Normally, I would have goofed on my dad for such a thought, but hey, if it made him feel better, so be it.Week 5 was the first time my dad had a picture drawn and ready to go (he wasn't to bad of an artist, btw) and he was planning to go down to the stadium on Thursday to try and get the picture to the team. He struck up a friendship with one of the security guys who sympathized with my dad's health story and he promised that he would get the picture into someones hands before gameday.
My dad prepared a picture for week 6 and did the same thing he done the previous week. He went down to the stadium, by the players entrance, and was going to hand off the picture to the security guy again. It was that day when things changed dramatically. As he stood talking to the security guard, my dad said he heard a voice from behind him asking "hey, is that the guy with the picture?" My dad turned around and was shocked (I think his exact words were, "I couldn't fuckin' believe it") to see Lawrence Taylor standing right behind him, asking him the question directly. LT was my dad's favorite player and like a little kid, he said he was pretty much speechless. The security guard said to LT that this was the guy and he handed him the week 6 picture. LT was late for the team meeting that day and ran off with the picture and turned to my dad and said "I'll be waiting on next week's". It was like a Mean Joe Greene/Coke commercial moment for my dad. He came home that afternoon and was giddy like a little boy who just got the toy he wanted most at Christmas. This was exactly what he needed. A purpose. Something to do. And to do it for his favorite football and at the request of his favorite player, well, he was on Cloud Nine. It was the first time I saw my dad smile since his diagnosis.
The next couple of weeks had more and more of the Giants becoming friendly to my dad. They all knew him as the "picture guy" and like lots of athletes, they started to become superstitious of making sure the new picture was showing up in their locker room. It probably helped that they started to gel as a team and looked like a true favorite in the NFC. The only game the Giants lost the rest of the season was a late October game against Seattle and coincidentally, it was the only week of the season my dad didn't do a picture because he caught a bought of double pneumonia that had him hospitalized for 10 days.
There was one positive that came out of my dad's pneumonia situation. Giants DE George Martin visited my father in the hospital, prayed with him and gave my dad another bit of hope in his recovery. George was one of the classiest people I had ever met and he remained close to my dad by phone for years after his retirement from the league. George made us feel comforted and said that we had a "family" with his if we so desired. Pure class. The other player who became attached to my dad was Mark Bavaro. Mark was a sweetheart. So soft spoken, so genuine and down to earth like no other player I met from that team. Mark would give my dad a hug each time he would see him at the stadium and would always ask about my mom and I. He also made my dad's ultimate dream come true. In the break before the Super Bowl week, my dad was now down at the stadium almost every day. Bavaro came out from a late-afternoon practice with his gym bag in one hand and an envelope in the other. He had a Super Bowl ticket for my dad and cash for a plane ticket. My dad cried like a baby and thanked Mark repeatedly. Mark said he wanted him to be there and he made my dad promise him he would not do anything strenuous until the day of the game so he'd have energy to cheer them on. What a good, good guy. A great paison. And a fantastic player. My dad sat among the Bavaro family at the Rose Bowl that day and he said they too, made him feel like family for those several hours they shared together.
Eventually, I would sneak out of class to get down to the stadium with my dad on Thursdays or Fridays to see the guys and wish them luck in their next games and by the end of the season, seeing these guys weekly was like being around a group of giant (pardon the pun) older brother's. Whether it was getting in one of their cars to show them where the local 7-11 was or taking one of their cars to Burger King to pick up food for 7 or 8 guys (hey, I had a driving permit), or throwing a ball around for a few minutes before they took off for the evening, they made me feel like I was at their level. I think part of it came from the fact that most of the guys knew me as the kid who's father was sick, but I think the other reason they took a liking to my dad and I was because we didn't act like starfuckers. Never asked for an autograph (although we got plenty of stuff from them without asking), never asked for a photo even though they were willing (and eventually on the last week of the regular season we got pics with all the guys.) It was just a nice introduction into the world of the sport elite. Very cool. And with the exception of 3 or 4 guys (who won't be named here) every other player was classy, fun-loving and easy to get along with. 20 years has sure changed the modern athlete. The only player on that team who was similar to the modern-day player, was also it's highest-profile and greatest talent. Lawrence Taylor was just different. And not in a bad way.
After LT's initial contact with my dad and his picture, we came to find out that LT was always the funniest guy to deal with. Whether it was him being at practices late and having to scale a 20 foot perimeter fence to join the team (Bill Parcells mandated that the fence couldn't be opened for ANYONE that was late to practice). LT always said that he felt "Coach" put that rule in just for him. Another time LT was running in to try and get into practice before the gate closed, duffel bag wide open and his Rolex tumbled to the ground. My dad quickly grabbed it, called out to LT, and when LT looked back and saw the watch, he ran back to where my dad was like he was chasing down a back and said to my dad, "hey little buddy, I'm glad it was you and not someone else out here". He always called my dad "little buddy" and I always thought it was funny because to see them stand next to one another, it was like seeing Shaq standing next to J-Will. Funny. Other times LT would have papers fly out of his car and paystubs, bills and various other things could be seen floating aroung the Meadowlands parking lots on those fall and winter days.
Once the playoffs rolled around, the excitement for the team was at a fever pitch in the NY/NJ area and we were at ground zero. It was surreal. Giants stuff was everywhere. Every store, gas station, street sign and most of the houses in the area had flags, homemade signs, etc hanging from them. It was unbelievable. Right before Christmas, LT asked my dad if our family wanted to come to his home for a New Years Eve party. He said it would be crazy and said we needed to be there. It was another stepping stone in my dad's recovery. What a night it turned out to be. It was freezing cold, snowing and travelling to LT's mansion in Upper Saddle River,NJ was treacherous. Once we got there, we parked about 1000 feet from his house and froze our asses of as we made our way to the door. There was probably 100 cars on his little cul-de-sac and all of them were high-dollar vehicles. We knocked on the huge oak door and much to our surprise, LT answered the door. Wearing slacks and a dress shirt with no shoes, he greeted us like we were family. Before I could get my jacket off, Lawrence said "hey CJ, can you do something for me.?" I of course said sure. He said, "can you shovel my walkway for me, I'd do it myself but I got all my people in here." He then put a $100 bill in my jacket pocket and said "please". I tried to give him his money back, but he wouldn't hear it. He then pulled my dad aside and said "do you know any womens?(not a misspelling on my part) I got all kinds of single men in there and no womens. The cold is keepin' them at home."
Music was blasting, there was a magician, a chef preparing food, white-gloved servers, athletes everywhere. I had sensory overload. In the middle of his living room was a makeshift dance floor. Name a NY sports guy from that period and he might have been there. That night, I met NY Jet Freeman McNeal, Darryl Strawberry, a very young Patrick Ewing, Mookie Wilson and so many other guys that night I can't remember. By the time midnight rolled around there was probably 300 people in his house. It was wild. It was the greatest New Years for me for two reasons, the fact that as a sixteen year old I was in this unbelievable environment and a sports fan's fantasy and two, that my dad had made it to a new year. The transition from fear and worry to belief and happiness seemed to stem from that night.
My dad went through another 5 months of chemo and by the end of the following summer, my dad had been issued a clean bill of health and his cancer was in remission. My dad had fought with all his worth and he made it through. Lawrence had us out to his house a few times during the spring months for barbecues and was the one player who stayed in contact with my dad religiously, usually once a month by phone. By the time the next season rolled around, my dad, with his new outlook on life from his recovery, wanted to do the same thing for the guys that season too. He wanted to do pictures again and because he was only back to work with limited hours, he still wanted to make his weekly visits to see the guys. It was the strike shortened season and although the first four games were played by the "scab" players, our faith in the team never wavered. The season didn't hold the promise that the last one did and although the team still had huge confidence it wasn't translating to the field. Another New Year came, another LT party was set, we were invited again and although the party was still top-class, the group of people was smaller, the star sightings fewer, I guess the fickle state of fans carried over to house guests too.
The next year held Lt's 30 day suspension for cocaine use and that year and the following year were frustrating to the fans and to LT. My dad was invited to attend a dinner with him in 1989 that LT was the host of for cancer survivors. My dad told me that during the limo ride to the event, LT was visibly upset at how he was being portrayed in the media and felt he was losing his stance as the "best" player in the league. I would have loved to have been in the car for that conversation. LT also had a strange way about him when it came to interaction, too. He would call my dad on a Saturday morning to ask him if he wanted to shoot a round of golf, or hit Atlantic City for a weekend for gambling. My dad went a couple of times, but never wanted to overdo it because of a) my mom wasn't feeling him leaving for a weekend with a notorious ladies man and b) didn't want LT to think he was a user. My dad had stories from a couple of the trips he went on, but out of respect to all parties, it won't be repeated here. I don't think Dennis Rodman had anything on LT in the partying department.
In the spring of 1990, my parents took a trip to sunny FLA and decided that they wanted to by a townhouse in the West Palm Beach area and make the move there to get my dad out of the cold winters in NJ. They planned the move for July and in a flash, my family and I were gone. Gone from our family spread throughout Jersey, gone from our past and gone from the guys who we became attached to who wore Giant blue. The following season showed the team back on track and from afar, we were still cheering our hearts out. LT kept in contact with my dad. It always made a huge impact on my dad hearing from LT every couple of months and although my dad had LT's number, he never wanted to impose on LT by calling him just to say hi. That 1990 season saw the Giants wind up back in the big-game against the hated Buffalo Bills. (Well hated by me as a Fins fan).
When the Giants beat the Bills in Super Bowl XXV, we were thrilled. We celebrated like every other blue-blooded Giant fan, but we kind of felt like we were on the outside looking in on this title compared to the last as we weren't there to experience the joy of it first-hand. The Giants haven't relieved that glory in quite some time. Betweeen the Dolphins and the Giants, it's been a long time since there's been much to cheer about for me as a football fan.
As an aside to this story, years passed, LT still contacted my dad every now and again, usually around Christmas, and although my dad passed 2 years ago (after another bout of Hodgkin's and irreparable damage to his heart, due to complications from the high-powered drugs that were used in his treatments) those years and memories were great times and a fascinating look into the live's of athletes, sometimes looked upon with fervor, other times scrutinized unfairly and even at other times, looked upon as role models when they don't want the assignment. From one person's point of view, the class and compassion that was shown to my family and I by these "heroic" figures will always be looked back upon with tremendous respect and stood to be spoken about in these times when the "classless" athlete seems to be the the only ones who receive coverage in the current sports climate. As my dad always said "Go Big Blue". We miss you. And there's still a skinny 16 year old who will never forget the strength you gave a kid's father who got hope from you when all hope seemed lost. Thank you.