Sing Sing, known formally as the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, in Ossining, N.Y., wouldn't be everybody's choice of a place to watch the World Series on TV—or anything else, I suppose. In one respect, though, I considered myself lucky to be there in October 1960, the year Pittsburgh Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the seventh game to beat the New York Yankees 10-9. Off in the distance the Hudson River flowed through the color-splashed countryside, but directly below the third-floor windows of the recreation building lay a distinctly un-picturesque landscape: a tidy brick fortress that housed the electric chair and those unfortunates who were awaiting a date with oblivion. Whenever I looked out over this miniature bastille, I reexamined my circumstances.
O.K., I thought, so I'm on the first leg of a three-to-five, and when I finish the three-to-five, I will still owe Minnesota, my home state, a few years on a parole violation. And St. Paul is interested in discussing a liquor-store holdup in their city. After that, though, assuming no other skeletons pop out of the woodwork, I'll be clear. Ten years tops, I figured. My crow's-nest sightline to the death house cheered me up, made me realize what a real pickle was.
What instigated this peek into my woolly past was the 1987 NFL players' strike and listening to people grumble about pampered athletes obsessed with money. My buddy, who earns six bucks an hour in a factory, said, "It's greed, man. There ain't enough love for the game." Any mention of love of football transports my mind back to those not-so-golden days when I found myself, once again, up the proverbial creek. Blurry faces from 25 years ago come into focus, men whose fortunes zigged when they should have zagged.
I was a wild one. At 25, I was no rookie to striped sunbeams. Most of the previous eight years had been spent in a variety of lockups—reform schools, prisons, work farms, city and county jails. After five months in the Tombs (the Manhattan House of Detention in New York City), Sing Sing seemed like The Plaza hotel. To be able to see the sky, to say nothing of the panoramic Hudson, was a luxury. Of New York State's five maximum-security prisons for men at the time, Sing Sing was considered "sweet time" by the old heads whose lives had been donated piecemeal to the New York correctional system.
A month after Mazeroski's dramatic homer, however, a group of us were shackled together, herded into a corrections department bus and driven 40 miles northward to the outskirts of a hamlet named Stormville, a one-industry village whose existence relied on servicing the felons inside Green Haven Prison. Our new home was a "modern" facility—flat, square, symmetrical, with only a small slice of rolling hillside peeking out from above the gun towers spaced across the 30-foot walls.
My first day out on the yard was a Saturday—game day at Green Haven during football season. The players resembled a grown-up version of the Little Rascals, a ragtag mob with padding stuffed lumpily beneath their state-issued clothes. The football itself was the only recognizable piece of official gear.
The entire yard was, at most, 250 by 250 feet. The playing area was reduced by a six-foot-wide sidewalk at the perimeter. On the sidewalk were wooden picnic tables where inmates played cards or plotted the big score. The sidewalk served as a goal line at each end of the playing field, leaving a very narrow and cluttered end zone. Abutting the picnic-table-filled sidewalk on all four sides were walls. Thus, scoring a touchdown on anything other than a short plunge was hazardous. At Green Haven, "hitting a brick wall" was not a figure of speech.
The field was hard-packed dirt embedded with sharp stones. As much as I enjoyed football, I Vowed on that first day in the yard that I would never mutilate my body on that slab of bedrock.
If I learned anything in my years behind bars, it's the adaptability of humans, how quickly the outlandish becomes normal. Within six months I had grown accustomed to watching TV, schmoozing and playing chess out in the yard in near-zero weather. Shivering became as routine as spending 16 hours a day in a nine-by four-foot cell. By the next autumn my vow never to play football was forgotten. The rocky terrain hadn't grown more genial, but it had become familiar over the summer as I accumulated scrapes on my belly and backside while sliding into base during ball games.
Teammates acquainted me with innovative methods of crafting protective football gear. Shoulder, thigh and hip pads were made out of pieces of cardboard tied together with string or shoelaces. Helmets were fashioned out of glued-together fabrics overlaid with whatever hardening agent could be pilfered from one of the shops—plaster, lacquer, paint, varnish. The plaster-coated helmets, in particular, were effective for short-yardage plunges, but their bowling-ball weight required strong neck muscles and steel vertebrae. Most of the guys wore a smattering of protective gear—just a helmet or light padding over their knees and elbows. Understand, this was not flag football or touch; this was all-out tackle pursued with the intensity of trench warfare.