"This Kerouac was all-Massachusetts State in high school," Little told the Spectator, the university's newspaper, in the spring of 1941, "and he's shown great promise here at Columbia. He's short, but husky and very fast."
This was a story of they could under-stand back in lowell, the kind of all-American glory that hits home in a blue-collar town built on the vertues of hard work and hope. But the next year, Kerouac inexplicably forsook it all. In his second season at Columbia, he quit football, quit college altogether. The stream of novels that were to follow did little to explain that act to the folks back home.
"Here we are," Chiungos says, pulling up to the empty football stadium at the east end of town. These are the same bleachers that were filled with 14,000 fans 51 years ago, when Chiungos anchored the offensive line, and Kerouac was the fastest man on the state's second-ranked team. He, too, avoided Kerouac at the end. The dingy saloons, the embarrassing stumbling and foul-mouthed boisterousness that marked Kerouac's final days—Chiungos steered clear of all that. "He was a little disappointed because I never wanted to see him those last years," says Chiungos. "But the places he was going, that just wasn't my style, and I really didn't want to see Jack like that."
Chiungos is 67, the same age Kerouac would be. Twenty years have passed since Kerouac collapsed in a bungalow in Florida on an October morning, his stomach hemorrhaging after he had drunk a can of Falstaff beer while watching The Galloping Gourmet on television. He died the next morning in a St. Petersburg hospital. Chiungos stands up for the schoolmate he once blocked for. "A lot of people remember the end," says Chiungos, "but not many remember the beginning."
He was publicized as a great "climax runner" in the newspapers. Instantly he had hundreds of friends, students and teachers alike, and he hardly knew what to do about it all. In the company of his fellow teammates he soon learned the knack of limping and swaggering through the halls of the school in all the glory of a famous hero.
—The Town and the City
The Town and the City was Kerouac's first book, published in 1950, seven years before On the Road. In it, Kerouac tells the story of a boy growing up in a gloomy New England town, playing ball on the sandlots, starring in school, dreaming of becoming a college athlete and seeing that dream briefly come true before it falls down around him in the early years of World War II. He is left aimless and empty, at the side of a highway headed west.
The first chapters of the author's life story are the same. They can be seen in rough outline in ghostly fragments of The Lowell Sun. These are stored on microfilm in the basement of the downtown public library—the library where Kerouac went when he played hooky from high school and read the works of William Shakespeare. On the half-century-old pages of the Sun's sports sections, Kerouac is a boy again.
Here he is, in the summer of 1937, a 15-year-old pitcher for the Pawtucketville junior league baseball team. The team is dead last, 1-8. The box score shows Kerouac was shelled in an 8-4 loss, yielding five hits and four walks in the first two innings. He did better at the plate, batting cleanup, getting two of Pawtucketville's four hits. In the group photo, Kerouac, wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and jeans (the league had no uniforms), looks sullen.
That October, he is listed as one of the two youngest players on Lowell High's varsity football roster. At 5'8", 155 pounds, he is also one of the smallest. It takes the Sun a few tries to get the new kid's name right: "Leo Kerouac turned in some real nice football yesterday afternoon and may see some action in the Lowell high backfield against Manchester," says one piece. "Leo Kerouac seems to be well on the way to becoming an excellent ball carrier," says another. And there he is, as Jack, later that season, "knifing" for a four-yard score in a B-squad game.
Then it is 1938, and Kerouac makes headlines as a starter on what promises to be one of the strongest teams in Lowell's history. After the season opener, the Sun columnist chooses to highlight the halfback: "Young Kerouac has the legs and the style. He looks like a football player."