The attacks stung. Kerouac was famous when he died at 47—his obituary was headlined in
The New York Times
—but he was miserable. His friends still wonder, as they did then, if Kerouac was ever as happy as he was on the football field.
Sam Samaras runs the liquor store where Kerouac was a regular during his last years in Lowell. But the two men go back further than that, back to the Saturday mornings in the mid-1930s, when Samaras would take his gang of Greek buddies across the river and challenge Kerouac and his French-Canadian pals to a football game. Kerouac's team was so strong they ran ads in the Sun challenging all comers.
"Man, it was rough," says Samaras, sitting on a case of beer in the back room of his store and recalling those sandlot Saturdays. "Nobody had helmets. A couple of guys had jerseys, that's all. This was a time when the toughest guy ruled, you know what I mean?
"But the thing about Kerouac is he wasn't a fighter; he wasn't belligerent. Still, he could take a blow. No matter how hard you hit him, he'd get up and congratulate you.
"And fast? He was dangerous. You had to hit him early, because once he got out of the backfield he was gone. Couldn't catch him. One time—this wasn't in a game against us—he scored nine touchdowns. Nine touchdowns. I think he wrote about that in one of his books."
Kerouac did, in Vanity of Duluoz:
"...we won 60-0, after missing 3 points after. I thought from that morning on, I would be scoring touchdowns like that all my life and never be touched or tackled...."
Samaras is 68. Many of the boys he mentions who played in those pickup games are now dead. But across town, in archives at the University of Lowell, some of their voices are preserved on tape among the 300 hours of interviews recorded in the 1970s by a writer named Gerald Nicosia, whose book Memory Babe is considered the best of the many biographies of Kerouac. On those tapes some of Kerouac's closest boyhood friends—men named G.J. Apostolos, Scotty Beaulieu and Skippy Roberge—focus on what sports meant to Kerouac. And to all of them. Like the Sun stories on microfilm, the voices are scattered snippets, fragmented echoes of the past.
"He was good at everything," says one voice.
"Strong as a goddam bull," says another.