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Despite the presence of Victory and Champion, Norwich's sports teams provided precious few of either. In fact, when I left, the football team had just completed its second consecutive winless season. The year before, Norwich had decided to enter the Southern Tier Athletic Conference, made up of much larger schools in and around Binghamton, and the results were disastrous. That first 0-9 season cost Norm Kaufman, a decent man and a good coach, his job. His replacement, Chuck Drankoski, who was just out of college, fled the scene a week before the team's first game in what turned out to be another 0-9 season. The basketball and baseball teams were O.K. but nothing to write home about.
So it came as something of a surprise when I found out last year that the Norwich basketball team was something to write home about. Indeed, Peter Carry, the executive editor of Sports Illustrated, who was raised in North Norwich, was corresponding with his boyhood chum and my onetime YMCA basketball bud, Norwich City Court Judge Howard Sullivan, about the Purple Tornado. We cheered vicariously, 200 miles away, as Norwich wended its way through the various elimination tournaments. On March 27 the Purple defeated Buffalo's St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute 75-69 in Glens Falls to win the state Class B championship and finish its season 29-0. Sullivan informed us that there was an impromptu parade that Saturday night, as honking cars and cheering people lined Route 12 for miles to cheer the team on its way home to Norwich High, where another throng awaited it.
That was the good news. The bad news was that the team had become a rallying point for a populace in the middle of a depression. In the last year 1,200 people had lost their jobs in Chenango County, most of them in Norwich. Procter & Gamble, which had acquired Norwich Pharmacal 11 years earlier, was laying people off and moving part of its operations to Cincinnati; Norwich Shoe had closed; Champion was downsizing; the Victory warehouse was hollow. It sounded like Bedford Falls had become Potterville.
"You don't happen to have a powder-blue '68 Chevy Malibu, do you?" Thankfully, the Avis agent in Manhattan didn't call for security. She just handed me the keys to a burgundy '94 Chevrolet Corsica. I was off to retrace my routes, namely 8, 23, 12 and 12B, on my way to cover a Norwich football game, at the stale Class B quarterfinal up north in Rome.
A few weeks before, Sidney, New York, from The Larry King Show had followed up his mysterious phone call with a letter. He was Ken Paden, a onetime stringer for The Evening Sun who now published a weekly newspaper out of Sidney, just over the southeastern border of Chenango County. He thought there was a good story to be found in Norwich, where "the high school teams are about the only things left to cheer about." He even suggested a hook: "A return to Norwich prompted by a phone call to The Larry King Show." Good idea. But to sweeten the pot, Paden resorted to shameless flattery, mentioning that his pressroom foreman, Tim Ryan, used to work for The Evening Sun, and "he says you were a damn-good third baseman on the company softball team." Tim's faulty memory aside, that put the idea over the top.
On the way to Rome my memories of driving the roads of central New York came back. It's funny, but even after 20 years, I anticipated the turns as if I had driven them yesterday. Alone with the curves came other memories. There was the day in August 1972 when Tom McMahon, the publisher of The Evening Sun, hired me fresh out of Hamilton College to cover sports, which mainly consisted of the 12 high school teams in the area. He apologized for paying me $95 a week.
I also remembered my first story for the paper. It was about some girl marksman, and as was my habit in college, I wrote the story in longhand. When my editor, Barry Abisch, saw me transcribing the story to the typewriter that morning, he came over to me and said something sage, like, "Oh my god, what are you doing?" He then informed me that I had better learn to write on the typewriter, pronto. It was the first of many lessons he taught me.
I was a hopeless greenhorn. And for a 22-year-old, an insufferable ass. I had this weekly column called "Just for Starters" in which I pontificated on anything having to do with sports, including the 1973 Associated Press Major League All-Star team. It pains me to admit this, but I actually wrote these words: "But, my friends, heed me." Aarrgh. I took particular exception to the choice of the San Francisco Giants' Chris Speier at shortstop. "I don't like Chris Speier," I opined. "I like Don Kessinger, Larry Bowa, Bud Harrelson, Mark Belanger, Ed Brinkman, Roger Metzger, Dal Maxvill, Bert Campaneris, Fred Patek and Danny Thompson. But I don't like Chris Speier. I don't know why, either." Fortunately for me, San Francisco was outside The Evening Sun's circulation area.
"Longtime, no see."
Hello, Schwannie. We're on the sideline of Rome Free Academy's football field an hour before kickoff of the quarterfinal game between the Purple Tornado and the Chittenango Bears. Tom Schwan has changed a lot less than I have in 20 years.