I was born in Binghamton, N.Y. in 1937. My father and his two brothers had emigrated to America from the tiny Italian village of San Giovanni about 20 years earlier. They split up when they got here and bought train tickets to wherever their money would take them, because they couldn't believe that any one town would be large enough to have three jobs available. My father's ticket took him to the small town of Endicott, 10 miles from Binghamton in upstate New York. His brothers ended up in Pennsylvania.
I had a normal childhood, except perhaps for having a ringside seat at the largest gangland bust in history. When your name is Luciano, and you're living in a community of 15,000 Italians, there's no such thing as a gangster. The Mafia was considered a local fraternal organization. There were perhaps 50 families in Endicott thought to be "connected," and they were among the most respected people in town.
Two of my closest friends were Joe and Pete Barbara. Their father, Big Joe, owned the local soft-drink bottling plant and was one of the wealthiest men in town. They lived in a big, lovely house, with stables and a pool, in the nearby village of Apalachin, and most weekends I would go up there to get thrown off horses with them.
But one Friday night in 1957 Joe called me and told me not to come up that weekend because his father was having company. When I opened the newspaper Sunday morning, I learned that his company had included just about every crime boss in the country. Later I found out that the Barbaras' telephones had been tapped and all of my conversations with Joe and Pete had been recorded. The FBI knew which girl in my class I had a crush on. They interviewed me a number of times in the next few years, but all I could honestly tell them was that I kept falling off horses.
My uncle, Nick DiNunzio, had gone through Syracuse University on a football scholarship and was assistant coach of the Endicott High School football team. Being bigger and taller than most of the other kids, I was a decent basketball player and a very good football player. There was never any question in my mind where I wanted to go to college. Uncle Nick had been a quarterback at Syracuse; I wanted to go to Syracuse. The day Coach Ben Schwartzwalder offered me a scholarship was one of the happiest days of my life. (I was two years behind Jimmy Brown and three years ahead of Ernie Davis, so you can say it was Brown, Luciano and Davis at Syracuse, but you have to say it fast.)
The Colts drafted me in 1959, then traded me to the Lions before the season started, but injuries kept me on the bench. Detroit sent me to Minnesota, and in 1962, I finally ended my playing career with the Buffalo Bills in the AFL.
An injury that keeps you out of football for one year is an accident. An injury that keeps you out a second season is a shame. An injury that keeps you out the third year is a message. It was a difficult time. Not only did I have to deal with the end of my dream, I had to find a means of making a living. In 1963 I called Spike Briggs, who owned the Tigers and had a part of the Lions, and asked him for a job on the Lions' coaching staff. He promised to try to find something for me. Briggs called back in the fall of the year and said, "How'd you like to be general manager of the Tigers' minor league team in Lakeland, Florida?"
"Great," I said. "Sounds terrific. What do I do?"
A few days after I arrived in Florida, I learned baseball school was about to start in Daytona Beach. Hey, I thought, this is perfect. I'll take a general manager's course and when the season starts I'll be ready. I soon found the baseball school was the Al Somers Umpire School, which had nothing to do with general managers.
Right from the beginning I loved umpiring. We were out in the sun all day and got to yell as loud as we wanted, and the instructors kept telling us that we were virtually dictators on the field, that whatever we said was the rule, that the players and managers had to listen to us and respect our decisions. That sounded pretty good to me.