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"There's the Bunker Hill Elementary School, the first school I went to," he said as the car cruised the area last winter. "And this is Hood's the dairy, where my grandmother worked for 26 years. We used to play touch football on this little 10-foot-wide patch of grass between the dairy and the street. If you could catch a down-and-out pass on that field you were a serious player. And that's Eden Street Park across the street. See those three kids on the bench? That was me 12 years ago. Here's the place, Decatur Street, under the highway, where I got hit in the head with a bat. Me and this kid were hitting rocks, and as I bent down he cut loose with his home run swing and it caught me in the forehead. I didn't go down. I went to one knee. I had a lump this big. I walked home. Nobody was there; I went to bed."
"Howie was always bigger than everybody else," says his cousin Michael Mullan, a brewer for Anheuser-Busch, "but he wasn't tough. When you're that big and you ain't tough you've got a problem. Everyone wants a piece of a big guy. Kids would pick on him. I used to have to force him to fight. He'd be crying; he wouldn't do it. I gave him a choice—fight them or get smacked by me. After a while people left him alone."
Those memories haunt Howie Long to this day. The bitterness never leaves. "My cousin talks about throwing me into the street at seven or eight years old to defend myself," he says. "Can you imagine what that's like? What seven-year-old kid wants to fight?"
At home there was no one to turn to. The Long family lived with his grandmother and Uncle Mike at 7 Albion Place, but his father, Howie Long Sr., was pulling long hours loading milk for Hood's Dairy, and his mother was bedridden most of the time, suffering from periodic attacks of epilepsy. Howie's four uncles, the Mullan brothers, had their own kids to worry about. There was only his grandmother. Ma, to feed him and clothe him. She knew what it was like to grow up alone. She was an orphan who finally had been rescued from a Catholic children's home in Yonkers, N.Y. by her aunt, Nellie O'Neill of Charlestown. She married Michael Mullan from Londonderry in 1925. He died of cancer in 1955. "He'd been a major in the IRA," Long says. "He lived next to the police station, and they tell stories about how he used to pass information along by a series of smoke signals from the chimney."
When Howie was nine, the Longs moved out of his grandmother's home to a house at 170 Bunker Hill St. "From that minute on, everything went downhill," Long says. "No one ever cooked in our house." He remembers sneaking over to 7 Albion Place, where his grandmother or his aunt Edie would feed him. Two years after the move his parents separated; a year after that they were divorced.
The memories remain, always dark, always haunting. He says that on the day the divorce went through, his mother "kind of went crazy" and went after his sister. He broke up the fight. After the separation he remembers his mother dragging him through the neighborhood at night, trying to find his father, hoping to catch him with another woman.
When the Raiders played in the Super Bowl in Tampa, the Boston Herald found Long's mother in Port Richey, Fla. She had remarried and retired. They took a picture of her with rosary beads in one hand and a picture of Howie in the other. "Mother's pride..." the caption read.
"A reporter from that paper called me up," Long says, "and asked me if I would get on a conference call with my mother. They wanted to do a This Is Your Life kind of thing. I told him, 'Don't you ever call me again.' "
After the divorce, the court had awarded custody of Howie, then 12, to his mother. "That was just their ruling, but nobody fought for custody. No one wanted the responsibility," he says. "Eventually I wound up back at my uncle Mike's house. I felt like the orphan everybody took in. Do you know what it's like to be 12 years old and not wanted?
"I would have liked to have lived with my dad, but when they got divorced he was working as a day laborer, sleeping in his car at night. Then he lived in a rooming house in City Square. He'd had a terrible life. He'd spent 13 years in an orphanage in Salem. Once we drove by it, an awful-looking place with barbed wire outside. As a kid I remember my father waking up at night in a cold sweat, ready to defend himself."