"You could hear him scraping away. He called it the Black Beauty. You couldn't even get swings from him. We all had to put up with this, but we believed in it, too. This was the way to do it. Finally, it was time. We went to Marchbank Park...."
"A pickup game."
"And on the first pitch, John swung, and connected, and split the Black Beauty in two! I can still see the look on his face. I thought it was the funniest thing."
"I wanted to cry," cries Robinson.
"He was completely destroyed," exults Madden, whose reaction seems to contain both affection and savagery. Those were the essential ingredients, of course, that made them football players.
They attended different high schools. Madden went to Jefferson, where he played football and baseball. Robinson attended Serra, in San Mateo, where he played end and was named All-Northern California. Robinson then went to Oregon, where he was coached by Len Casanova, white-haired, correct and paternal. Casanova is still all of that, and lovingly abusive. "Robbie's high school coach, Jess Freitas, told me, 'John can catch the pass,' " says Casanova. "And he could. But he was too slow to get open."
Yet Casanova, praise heaven, saw to the welfare of his young men without regard to their talent. "He simply shaped how I feel about people," says Robinson. "The relationship of football coach to athlete can put the coach in a position of dealing with people when they're at their absolute lowest." Case in point: Robinson during his sophomore year, with two broken ribs. "He came in and said, 'Coach, I'm going to quit school and become a priest,' " says Casanova. "I'd never had anyone say that before."
Casanova rose to the occasion. "He called his wife," says Robinson, "and told her he was sending me to their home, just to sit and relax, have lunch, reflect and not quit. And that's what I did. I was embarrassed. I showed up at practice and did the smart thing. I kept my mouth shut and never mentioned it again. But the lesson and his influence were there forever—a balance between authority and concern." He pauses, his gaze unfocusing. "Lord, I'd have set back the priesthood a hundred years."
Madden, too, started out at Oregon. But, strangely, he felt he didn't fit in, and he left after his freshman year. "That was the first time I was ever aware that I didn't have any money," he says now. "My roommate in the Sigma Chi house had a closet full of clothes, and I didn't have any. Robbie adjusted. I couldn't. It was easy for me to understand people who didn't have any money, but not the ones who did. Hell, I still hate to be presentable. But Robinson likes it."
This Madden says as an accusation. "And he likes culture and fine restaurants. I don't want culture. I don't want any clothes. I don't want to go to great restaurants." He concludes with what seems a cry of the heart: "Everyone doesn't have to be the same!"