Toward the end of the second overtime period, several players seemed on the verge of drowning. Mouths slack, eyes slitted in nearly total exhaustion, they would summon up short bursts of swimming energy, then sink back into the water like whipped sailfish. When the game ended, a few, gasping and floating, lacked the strength to climb out of the pool. It was a full five minutes before all the players were on their feet and the congratulatory and conciliatory slapping of wet rumps began.
The scene was the indoor pool at the New York Athletic Club, and the game was water polo. At stake was the Senior AAU Indoor Championship and, as in many past years, the contestants were the Illinois Athletic Club and the New York AC. Their rivalry goes back to the turn of the century, but no game was ever harder fought than the one they played Saturday night. Long scratches and welts laced and mottled the bodies of the 14 players, and oldtimers at pool-side were reminded of water polo's bloody past.
There are, of course, no rules which can convert water polo into anything less than an aquatic battle royal, and the reason is simple: the referee, stationed at poolside, can see only what is happening above the water. Thus one player may be seen shaking hands and shouting compliments to an adversary while, beneath the frothy surface, he is kneeing the same opponent mercilessly. This situation has its corollary in the player to whom absolutely nothing is happening. He contorts his face into a horrible grimace. The referee assumes that some dastardly deed is going on beneath and calls a foul on the other team. Water polo is full of nuances.
Saturday's game was played under the so-called "international" rules, which totally supplanted the old wide-open rules in the late 1930s. The object was to make a faster game of water polo by keeping more of the action on the surface and preventing players from attempting to drown their opponents except when' absolutely necessary. On Saturday night a strict observance of the rules was often absolutely necessary.
The history of the Illinois-New York game has been written in blood. In the 1911 match four players were carried unconscious from the pool, a spectator smacked New York Captain Joe Ruddy Sr. in the jaw and for his trouble received a similar blow right back. A riot began, police were called, and Mrs. Ruddy and Anna Held, in the audience, fainted. So, in effect, did the AAU, which promptly dropped the game from its list of accepted sports.
The American authorities softened enough to reinstate the sport in 1914, and the classic championship rivalry was born when Illinois won its first title that same year. They had collected three more by 1922, when New York took home its first gold medal. In all, Illinois has been national chamion 24 times and New York eight. Six other clubs have divided the eleven remaining championships.
Before the game the New Yorkers plotted their halting-English strategy (only one of their seven starters is a native American; two are Hungarian, two Swiss, one Dutch and one German). "Whatever you do," counseled Hungarian-born Ervin Veg, "don't lose your patient!" Said a German-accented voice: "And remember, we are going to stay in there and the game win!" And, but for a freak play, New York would the game have won.
Two minutes after the action began Illinois had hit on two goals, both by Don Good, who without touching the bottom of the pool, which is illegal, can pop himself waist-high out of the water and fire blistering goals with either hand. Good's first shot rattled off the goal post and caromed into the 10-foot-wide goal; his second rattled off the face of burly New York Goalie Andre Grosjean, a Swiss who can imprecate in three languages and who, on this occasion, did.
The pattern of the game became immediately clear. Illinois had the faster and stronger swimmers; New York had the veterans. With an Illinois player out for fouling, the New Yorkers scored a goal on a pass from Werner Seher (German) to Max Wirz (Swiss), who was planted squarely in front of Illinois Goalie Frank Connor (American). Wirz porpoised into the air and slapped the ball into the goal in one continuous motion. Sixteen seconds later New York tied it at 2-2 when Hungarian-born Steve Molnar fired in a straight bullet from 20 feet out. Goalie Connor, a mathematics professor by trade, never had a mathematical chance.
The game crunched on, and a mighty drama began in front of the New York goal. Stationed there was Illinois' "holeman," stolid Sam Kooistra, one of the very best water poloists in the world and forward on the U.S. water polo team in the 1956 Olympics. Illinois players would pass the ball to Kooistra (much as guards pass the ball to the pivot man in basketball), and Sam would then attempt to turn and whip it into the goalmouth. But he was inhibited in this by the hero of the night, a bird-legged veteran named Don Tierney, a 1948 U.S. Olympic goalie who at 30 is now a pharmaceutical executive. Every time the ball came to Kooistra, Tierney was metamorphosed into a whirling machine that seemed all knees and elbows. He made red dents up and down the broad torso of Kooistra and virtually swamped Kooistra's vaunted fast hands. The powerful Kooistra still managed to score four goals, at least two of them while Tierney was riding him like a surfboard. Even so, the total was low for Kooistra. Had it not been for Tierney's inspired work, Illinois and Kooistra would have iced the game in the first half. As it happened, the Mid-westerners led only 7-6 at half time.