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Mike D'Orso
October 23, 1989
Before going on the road, Jack Kerouac was a gridiron star
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October 23, 1989

Saturday's Hero: A Beat

Before going on the road, Jack Kerouac was a gridiron star

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So when the sun of October slopes in late afternoon, the children scurry home from school, make footballs out of stuffed socks, they leap and dash in the powerful winds and scream with delight. Fires are burning everywhere, the air is sharp and lyrical with the smell of smoke. There are great steaming suppers to be eaten in the kitchens of home as the raw October gloom gathers outside, and something flares far off.
The Town and the City

Gloom is gathering as Duke Chiungos wheels his Lincoln through Lowell, Mass. The Merrimack River, choppy in the brisk morning breeze, looks as wicked as the gray clouds tumbling in from the east. Chiungos glances down at the roiling water and then up at the rolling sky. He turns toward Edward D. Cawley Memorial Field. Halfway there, he slows.

"See that?" he says, nodding at an empty lot surrounded by the downtown's dreary redbrick buildings. A century ago they housed the mills that made this small New England city a giant among the nation's industrial centers. But now the dark buildings are only monuments to the past, some transformed into museums and restaurants, others abandoned. On the lot where a factory once stood, there is a ring of polished granite blocks and some benches. A small sign hanging from a railing reads JACK KEROUAC COMMEMORATIVE PARK.

Kerouac—the man whose reckless living and prose captured the essence of the Beat Generation, the writer whose books mirrored the manic urgency of Eisenhower-era wanderers and became bibles to the searchers of the '60s. Excerpts from his books—Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, The Town and the City, Vanity of Duluoz, Lonesome Traveler and, of course, On the Road, the novel that vaulted Kerouac from obscurity to fame—are chiseled into the granite blocks on this lot. The benches are empty.

"Plenty of people in this town didn't want that park," says Chiungos, a commercial realtor, as he stops at a traffic light and looks at the lot. "They say Jack was nothing but a drunk. But then a lot of people around here just don't have it in their heads that he's a celebrity, recognized all over the world."

The light changes, and Chiungos eases into the town's midmorning traffic, talking about Kerouac—not the man who was crowned king of the Beats, but the boy Chiungos and his buddies called Zagg because of his moves in the backfield. It might surprise the drifters who still stuff copies of On the Road into their backpacks as they set out to find America, but football shaped Kerouac's life, cut him loose from Lowell and launched him into literary legend.

The boy who walked the mile and a half home with Chiungos from Lowell High's practices on fall afternoons 51 years ago was not a world-renowned author, nor was he a drunk shunned by the city where he was born and would be buried. Before he met Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs; before his cross-country jaunts in drive-away Chevys and empty boxcars; before the jazz, the dope, the manic prose and finally the fame; before he became tormented by the success he sought and drank himself to death; before all that, Kerouac was, purely and simply, a football star.

He was a big enough star to draw college scouts to look at him. Frank Leahy, the Boston College coach at the time, watched Kerouac run for the winning touchdown in the 1938 Lowell-Lawrence Thanksgiving Day game, and then was invited over to the Kerouac home for the holiday meal. Later, Leahy put his public-relations man, a young guy named Billy Sullivan, on the case. Sullivan's uncles owned the Lowell printshop where Leo Kerouac, Jack's father, worked.

But the younger Kerouac turned his back on Boston College to become an Ivy Leaguer, a halfback for Columbia. Leahy moved on to Notre Dame. Sullivan went on to become a pro football mogul, founder of the New England Patriots. The elder Kerouac was fired after his son announced he was heading for school in New York City.

In the fall of 1939 the dispatches from New York began arriving in Lowell describing the hometown hero's exploits. First he played at Horace Mann prep school, to which Columbia sent him for a year of seasoning. The next fall he joined the Columbia freshman team. The Lions' varsity coach, Lou Little, hailed his new halfback as a future star, comparing Kerouac to Columbia legend Sid Luckman, who graduated in 1939.

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