George Vecsey


We meet every few months at Foley’s pub in Manhattan. My friends have new hips and new knees and one of them has a new shoulder – “diving for a loose ball in practice,” Lew Freifeld explains. That was half a century ago.

I can see my old friends from little Hofstra College – back when they had their original joints. I can see Ted Jackson making that great first step to the basket. I can see Jerry Rosenthal taking a pitch over the eye – and making all-conference shortstop the next season.

I was the student publicist, calling in the results to the papers. These days I admire my friends even more because they have lived up to the title that I came to scorn as a sports columnist – “student-athletes.”

They were the real thing, and they have done well in their careers – writers, businessmen, teachers, one endodontist, one major-league baseball player.

One reason they succeeded was that Hofstra made athletes pass the same courses as everybody else, or flunk off the team. The school did provide an academic counselor, Mary Villegas Condon, the wife of Jim Condon, football captain and ex-Marine.

“When I was a freshman, Mary told us to go to the library and study whenever we had free time,” Jerry Rosenthal recalls.

They learned and they played. Stephen Dunn was a shooting guard known as “Radar” – young and shy. He remembers a road trip, listening to Sam Toperoff, an older player with opinions, talking about “Moby-Dick.” That conversation drew him in. Words mattered. Ideas mattered. Dunn is now a Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet who lives in Western Maryland and comes back for an occasional lunch.

Some of us had kept in touch sporadically but seven or eight years ago Toperoff, a writer, and Curt Block, a point guard and later an executive at NBC, set up a small lunch and then the group expanded to over a dozen. (Our football contemporaries have their own circle; we ache for them since Hofstra jettisoned its team in 2009.)

urt Block, the late John McGowan and Donald Laux on the left side of the table toast Bob Larsen. George Vecsey is on right, with head turned to the right. Photo courtesy: George Vecsey

We meet when we can, although Toperoff has moved to France. (We call ourselves “Sons of Sam.”) We tell stories about Jack Smith, the baseball coach, and Howdy Myers, the great football and lacrosse coach, and Dick Sullivan, the beloved freshman coach, and Butch Van Breda Kolff, the basketball coach with the booming voice and shrill whistle and wicked sarcasm. Sui generis.

Just before my freshman year, Butch spotted me in the gym, in a 2-on-2 game with some varsity players. I still had my pathetic dreams of being a walk-on. Ha! For the next four years, whenever he spotted me on campus, Butch would mimic my clumsy moves and boom out the nickname he had bestowed: Grantland. I knew my place.

Every time we get together, Stanley Einbender, captain and rebounder at 6-3, now an endodontist, tells about his last game in that great season of 1959-60, when they were not chosen for a post-season tournament even with a 23-1 record. Late in the game, Stanley tried to dunk – forbidden by Butch — but the ball bounced off the back rim, all the way to center court. “I didn’t even wait for Butch to whistle; I just went right to the bench,” Stanley says. I love that story, every time.

Brant Alyea, a star forward and outfielder, has come back a few times, telling how Ted Williams instructed him to swing at his first pitch in the major leagues, and how he hammered a home run off Rudy May, and how Williams went nuts on the bench. Brant lasted five yearsin the majors and has great stories. (His roommate in Hawaii one year was Bo Belinsky, the playboy pitcher.)

From left, former Hofstra players Curt Block (point guard), Ted Jackson (forward), Lew Freifeld (point guard) and Whitey Jakubauskas (forward). Photo courtesy: George Vecsey

Our guys don’t live in the past. Donald Laux, once a leaping forward, still coaches girls’ basketball and helps run a food pantry at his parish. The snowbirds vanish in the winter: Dennis D’Oca, smooth lefty who led the nation with a 9-0 record one year, now a long-time insurance executive at CBS; Whitey Jakubauskas, a burly rebounder who parlayed his basketball contacts into a career in the new computer industry; Lew Freifeld, once an all-city guard who had a long career in the business end of television; Bob Diaz, the team manager, later a teacher and referee. Ted Jackson, high-scoring forward and retired parole hearing officer, is often on a cruise. Jerry Rosenthal (who played with Rico Carty and Bill Robinson in the Braves’ farm system) has wandered all over the world. We’ve had cameo visits from Richie Goldstein, guard and businessman, Bob Stowers, leaping forward and teacher, and John Canzanella, relief pitcher, banker, teacher, writer. (John McGowan, forward and engineer, dragged himself to our lunches until his considerable heart gave out.)

One time we invited a few players from Wagner, including lanky Bob Larsen, who hit the long jumper at the buzzer in mid-season for our only loss in 1959-60. We all laughed as Larsen recalled how one of our guys later called it a lucky chuck.

We talk about politics and movies and other sports. We love it when Kathy the waitress orders Curt Block to eat healthy. We don’t make a lot of noise, but one time some tourists from Idaho enjoyed observing old teammates getting together. Shaun Clancy, the proprietor of Foley’s, on W. 33rd St., schmoozes about baseball in his lush brogue.

The players are sad that Richie Swartz, he of the long arms and uncanny smarts, doesn’t make it in from west Jersey. Stephen Dunn has written a poem “The Two Richies,” about the Good Richie (Goldstein) who fed him the ball and the Bad Richie (Swartz) who took Dunn’s starting job. In later years, Butch would regale the guys with shop talk about the great players he had coached in his wanderings, and he would always add: “And Richie.”

Butch’s ridicule made me feel like one of them; I often sat at the “training table” in the cafeteria, with the unaffiliated athletes. But that little commuter college – now a university — was not only about sports. I had great teachers and advisors. Hofstra had a sensational drama department: Francis Ford Coppola and Lainie Kazan were my classmates. I moped after my co-editor on the yearbook, Marianne Graham, and somehow we got married right after my graduation, and still are. Talk about lucky last-second shots.

Working with the teams instilled a lifelong respect for those student-athletes at Hofstra, who had to be double smart, studying when their joints ached. Our occasional lunches at Foley’s celebrate one of the great loyalties of my life.

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