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My Kind of Town
Steve Wulf
December 27, 1993
The author discovers that you can go home again when he revisits haunts in Norwich, N.Y.
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December 27, 1993

My Kind Of Town

The author discovers that you can go home again when he revisits haunts in Norwich, N.Y.

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A Norwich Pharmacal chemist by profession, the cherubic Schwan moonlighted by doing The Evening Sun's high school football and basketball predictions and covering the bigger games of the week. He still does both, although now he's an executive with Procter & Gamble. Actually, he's about to retire because he prefers staying in Norwich to moving to Cincinnati.

He fills me in on the Norwich eleven, which really is an eleven since almost every starter goes both ways. Even the team's solid, no-nonsense coach, John Pluta, doubles as a history teacher. The quarterback, Chris Maynard, is a natural leader with a good arm, and his best receiver is Charlie Wightman, a cornerback on defense, in addition to being the kicker, the punter and the return man on punts and kicks. The heart of the team is fullback/linebacker Jason James. Since they're on the field almost all the time, the players are a little tired after 10 games, all of which they have won. "One of their best players, tight end Pete Burton, hurt his knee and is saving himself for the basketball season," says Schwan. "Still, I picked them to win this game."

We ask about each other's families, and it's good to hear that Elaine and the three girls are doing well. In 1972 the Schwans were my family. I had more than a few dinners at their home, and every Sunday evening I would come by to pick up Tom's copy for the newspaper, watch an hour or so of a game and eat popcorn. That's where I witnessed the Immaculate Reception of Franco Harris. Then it would be back to the baby-blue cinder-block building on Hale Street that still houses The Evening Sun. The daylight hours of Sunday were spent calling around to the area coaches for the details and quotes about their Friday and Saturday games, and Sunday nights were devoted to writing the umpteen game stories about New Berlin and South New Berlin, Mount I Upton and Otselic Valley, Sherburne-Earlville and Bainbridge-Guilford, Afton and Greene, Oxford and Norwich. I usually didn't get out of the baby-blue box until 2 or 3 a.m.

Schwan reminds me of the time I quoted myself in a People's Softball League game story. It's true; I still have the clipping. The team I played second or third base for, Rowe's O's, had beaten the Nads (don't ask) 29-5 even though I, the leadoff hitter, had gone 0-8 before singling in my last at bat. My shameless quote was, "I went through a two-game batting slump in one night. But I think that I, more than anyone, was responsible for keeping the score down." I tell Tom that if I had a prouder journalistic moment in Norwich, it was the time I was doing the police blotter and reported the theft of a 14-pound ham from in front of Taranto's butcher shop in the early morning hours. "Police," I wrote, "are now on the lookout for a large purchase of mustard."

Game time approaches, and the Purple Tornado gets set to receive. Actually, the nickname would fit better on Chittenango, which is the home of L. Frank Baum, who was the author of a book that hinges on a tornado, namely, The Wizard of Oz. And the Bears is the best they could come up with?

Hundreds of purple rooters dominate the stands, and similarly, Norwich dominates Chittenango in the first quarter. But a field goal is blocked, and after Jason James scores from the one, the two-point-conversion attempt fails, so Norwich leads by just 6-0 when the quarter ends.

It is a great pleasure just walking the sidelines again. That's how Schwan and I covered games back then, and even though there was a light rain falling and a press box beckoning, that's how we covered this game. Besides, there are a few familiar faces on the Norwich side. Frank Speziale, The Evening Sun's ebullient photographer, is patrolling the game with his trusty Hasselblad—"the Mercedes of cameras," he always said. Tim Ryan, whose flattery got me to Rome, is taking shots for the high school's booster club. And counseling the defensive backs is none other than Norm Kaufman.

I never knew a coach as dedicated and sincere as Norm. He was a little out to lunch sometimes, like during the '72 season when he decided to let the players run their own practices and call their own plays. But the year after he was fired, Kaufman went down to neighboring Oxford as a volunteer line coach, just because he missed it. When I congratulated him on a job well done in '93, he said, in his familiar raspy voice, "Ah, Mickey Mouse could have coached these kids."

Norm and I just happened to catch the Purple Tornado at a bad time in the early '70s. How bad? After a few years of scores like 70-6 and 70-0, the Southern Tier Athletic Conference tried to throw Norwich out of the league. The school board had to take the league into court to win reinstatement. So when Norwich began beating up on its conference rivals on the court and on the field a few years ago, it was sweet revenge.

Before I got there Norwich High had a fairly rich sports history. Why, the 1937 football team was unbeaten, untied and unscored upon. That's the team that inspired Perry Brown, a Norwich sportswriter who actually had a school named after him, to coin the nickname Purple Tornado. You may not have heard of the legendary Toots Mirabito or the fabulous Stig Biviano, but I did. each and every Friday night at the Grille. I leek, the townspeople were still stinging over the treatment Ed Ackley, the great running back on the 1954 team, had gotten from Ben Schwartzwalder at Syracuse University. Imagine Ed having to play behind that kid from Long Island, what's his name, yeah, Jimmy Brown.

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