On almost every college campus—whether far above Cayuga's waters or, as in the case of the University of Southern California, under a smog bank in downtown Los Angeles—there is at least one club, dormitory or fraternity loaded to the attic with athletes. The Bear Bryant Hilton at Alabama. Cannon Club at Princeton. Phi Delt at Penn State. Some point it out to visitors as a shrine ("And over there, that's where O. J. Hanratty lives"). Others sneer at it as "the place where we keep the animals." But everywhere, admired or maligned, this institution is always known as The Jock House.
However many genuine, ex-, would-be or pseudo athletes there are, a few nonjocks are invariably allowed to join, too. After all, somebody has to organize the winter formal.
So it happened in the late 1950s that I was a member of one of the nation's most musclebound fraternities, the Kappa Alpha chapter at USC. KA had Jon Arnett, an All-America halfback and broad jumper; Al Geiberger, the Trojans' first All-America golfer; Marlin and Mike McKeever, twin All-America linemen and shotputters; Chuck Bittick, American record holder in the backstroke; and Ernie Zampese, whose 38-yard touchdown run clinched the 1956 victory over Notre Dame. Plus lots of others. There were schools that would have traded their entire athletic departments just for the jocks in our house.
KA, like most of the other fraternities, was located a little north of the campus on West 28th St. It was a stretch of two long blocks, lined by palm trees and named, in a fit of originality, Fraternity Row. Ours was a new building, but most of the houses were the tottering remains of old mansions, unloaded by the original wealthy owners when the neighborhood started to crumble. Next door to us, in probably the worst dump on the whole block, were the Alpha Rho Chis, who were all architecture majors.
There were sororities, too, on the Row, mixed in haphazardly among the fraternities, and just crammed full of good-looking coeds with Pasadena-San Marino debutante backgrounds and rich daddies. It was a very convenient place for an athlete to meet an heiress at least and maybe even marry one—like Ron Miller, a football player on the 1951-1953 teams, who wed Walt Disney's daughter, Diane. At Disney's death a tally showed the Millers owned 43,977 shares of Walt Disney Productions. Diane was a Theta, where traditionally the most glamorous and probably the richest girls pledged.
Then we were all young and snappy. What a feeling it was just to walk back from morning classes to lunch on the Row, dressed in the Joe College uniform of the day: polished-cotton khaki pants with a buckle in the back, vertical-striped Ivy League sports shirt and loafers. Or, for variety, Bermuda shorts with low-cut tennies and sweat socks. Or if you were really cool, a tattered maroon PROPERTY OF USC ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT sweat shirt, much preferred over lettermen's sweaters. If you weren't a jock and wanted to live dangerously, you could maybe sneak a property shirt from the bottom drawer of our 6'3", 231-pound tackle, George Belotti, who in turn had swiped it from the equipment cage in the gym.
We would swagger up the Row and ogle the phalanxes of tender sorority girls pedaling by on their bikes, holding onto the handlebars with one hand and trying to keep their skirts down with the other. Then we would arrive at the big modernistic facade with the bronze Greek letters KA in one corner and turn in there, the house of Charley Paddock, the fastest man alive of the 1920s, and Olympic sprinter Frank Wykoff of the '30s and the hulking Pucci brothers, one of whom went on to fame and glory as Frank Sinatra's bodyguard.
Not that everything or everyone was glorious. There were 50 or 60 guys living in the house with only one subscription to the
Los Angeles Times
. Talk about hardship! I remember that if I decided to skip my 8 o'clock class and sleep in, by the time I got downstairs for breakfast there would be at least five of the brothers huddled over the sports section, studying it intently as if—by amazing luck—they had got hold of an advance copy of the final exam in Business Ethics. By the time a late riser got it, there were maple-syrup stains on the pictures and dried egg yolk on the baseball standings.
Also there was the danger of getting an inferiority complex. On one wall of our chapter room we had a gallery of varsity letter-winners, everything from an Olympic high jumper to a third-string fullback, going back to the days when USC was a lonely outpost in the middle of the mustard fields. Student-body presidents and Phi Beta Kappas passed on and were forgotten, but if a 98-pound weakling earned a letter holding extra points, up on the wall went his photograph, enshrined for posterity.
We had in the house a short pudgy Irishman named Harrigan who dreamed of being on that wall. He was nominally on the water polo team, and he probably was a fair swimmer, but compared to most of his teammates he couldn't swim his way out of the bathtub. He was also losing his reddish-blond hair and had a secret potion to rub into his scalp two or three times a day. There was a daily conspiracy to discover where he had the bottle hidden and switch liquids. No telling how much vodka, sea water, vinegar and gin Harrigan applied in an attempt to stave off baldness.