Monday, February 20, 2012

DANDY JAN

In the early 80's, when I lived in Las Vegas, I was watching the NFL's opening week highlights on TV.  At the end of a New York Jets segment, the camera focused on a celebratory fan running down the Shea Stadium aisle.  In the close-up, I saw it was my friend, Jan Soodak.

My move west in 1979, acted as a natural end to the ties I had with my community (the Canarsie section of Brooklyn) and friends. But fate lured me back home for eleven months in 1984.  That's when my wife Sue and I moved in with my parents, (while waiting for my New Jersey casino license to be approved).

Canarsie changed a lot during my five-year absence. Far worse, everyone else I was friendly with had also fled the old neighborhood.

When summer rolled around, I tried to revive an old past time by getting a lime rickey with friends after playing stickball, at Goody's Luncheonette.  The big difference that day was, I didn't play stickball and I had my limeade alone. But to my happy surprise, on my way out, Jan Soodak was coming in for a newspaper.
WAY BACK WHEN, NON-ALCOHOL VERSIONS OF A LIME RICKEY (OR LIMEADE) WERE POPULAR AT NEW YORK CITY SODA FOUNTAINS.  I'M SURE THEY'RE STILL AVAILABLE...IF YOU HAVE THE PATIENCE TO FIND THEM.

My chance meeting with Jan turned out to be a long, pleasant reminiscence of our past.  Unfortunately, he also told me about strange health symptoms that months earlier, forced him to cancel his much awaited try-out with a professional soccer team. Despite his disappointment, Jan remained upbeat as he bravely told me his dire news. Soon there after, he said he needed a transplant to survive. 

A couple of years after I moved to South Jersey, I learned that the transplant never came...and Jan died.

During the early stages of that conversation in front of the luncheonette, we touched on a lot of topics that all involved playing sports.  We agreed that we first met, (I was ten and he was eleven),  when my block challenged his gang, in street hockey.  Over the next twelve years, at different times before I left the area, we were teammates or adversaries, in countless basketball and softball pick-up games.

In organized sports, we became Golden Eagle teammates, on the John Wilson Junior High softball team.  For two years, we were rivals in Canarsie's PAL Roller Hockey League.  At Brooklyn College, Jan and I teamed-up again in the first of my back-to-back intramural floor hockey championships.  More interestingly, in the spring of 1970, we walked to our first Canarsie High School football try-out together.  Later, we became teammates on our school's first JV team and later on the varsity.

On the varsity, Jan (a senior quarterback) and I, (a junior guard) were second-stringers on a potent offensive juggernaut. That meant that we got a fair amount of late game playing time, in blow-outs.  We even scored a few touchdowns that year.  One memory in our 50-12 win over Wingate was Jan calling a quarterback sneak.  When I exaggerated my stance away from the center, Jan said out loud, (in addition to his signals for the rest of the team), "You better know what the f**k you're doing."  When I plowed my man into the defender next to him, Jan easily got the first down.

While we strolled down Memory Lane outside Goody's, we focused on our (shared)greatest moment.  The greatness happened after the JV, (Canarsie Junior Chiefs), lost our first three games.
OCTOBER - 1970,  (above) PRIOR TO OUR 8-6 LOSS AT HOME, IN SEAVIEW PARK, TO THE PIRATES OF TOTTENVILLE (STATEN ISLAND).  THIS IS THE ONLY JV PHOTO OF JAN (#17) AND ME (#72) TOGETHER.    (PLEASE NOTE: A NEPHEW OF JAN RECENTLY COMMENTED ON MY MAY 3, 2010 BLOG CALLED, "PATRICK CLARK;  #61 IN YOUR PROGRAM AND #1 IN OUR HEART,"  BY SAYING...HE NOW OWNS HIS UNCLE'S,  #17 JV JERSEY).

In those first three losses, we mustered only two touchdowns, (both scores came on defense).
BEFORE OUR SEASON STARTED, I HAD NICKNAMED JAN, "DANDY JAN," AS A TAKE-OFF OF ALL-PRO NFLer AND FELLOW #17 WEARER, "DANDY" DON MEREDITH.

When we had three losses under our belt, Jan a true leader, blamed our team's offensive, offensive performance on himself.  He told me, "Don't compare me with Meredith, I'm more like Harry Theofiledes."
ANOTHER #17, QB HARRY THEOFILEDES HAD SUCH A SHORT NFL CAREER THAT THIS IS THE ONLY INTERNET PHOTO I COULD FIND.  IN 1968, HE APPEARED IN FIVE GAMES FOR THE WASHINGTON REDSKINS.  HE THREW 20 PASSES, COMPLETED 11, FOR 211 YARDS WITH TWO TOUCHDOWNS.  HE NEVER STEPPED ON THE FIELD AGAIN BUT WAS ON THE NEW YORK JETS ROSTER FOR A SHORT WHILE.

The Canarsie Junior Chiefs fourth JV game was against Lincoln High.  We were told that the Junior Honest Abes were better than the teams we already lost to.  Plus, they had a monstrous, one-man wrecking crew linebacker named Sanford. A player from our varsity described Sanford as so tough that he chewed on nails and spit out nickels.  Maybe he was trying to motivate us when he added, "They better have an ambulance parked on the field because it'll be like a man playing against you babies." Speaking strictly for myself, I felt like the game was already lost.
CONTEMPORARY LINCOLN FIELD.  LOCATED IN CONEY ISLAND, THE SCHOOL WAS BUILT IN 1929.  SOME OF ITS FAMOUS ALUMS INCLUDE; MARV ALBERT, NIEL DIAMOND, JOHN FORSYTHE, LOUIS GOSSET Jr. LEONA HELMSLEY, HARVEY KEITEL, HERBIE MANN, ARTHUR MILLER AND NIEL SEDAKA. 

The game was played at noon, on a grim Sunday, in mid-October.  During our pre-game drills, I was awestruck watching the Adonis-like Sanford strut through his warm-ups. Soon I noticed many of my cohorts who hadn't been swayed by his reputation, were suddenly just as psyched-out as me when they saw this bearded fifteen year-old giant's aura of invincibility.

Our varsity head coach coached the JV too.  However, he had other obligations that day and turned the reigns over to his second in command, running backs coach Stu Yaker.

Coach Yaker gathered us in the dingy visitors locker room for his final pep-talk. Maybe he was too new at it or perhaps I was so intimidated that I let myself get distracted.  I scanned the room's rusty, decayed and broken lockers.  Next to a leaky pipe, I saw paint peeling off the ceiling.  My gaze finally fixed on the cracked, opaque window and how the grayness of the day filtered through the little hexagon-shaped safety wires in the glass.

To make matters worse, our best athlete didn't show up.  We were about to "storm" onto the field when H. Minis (#83), (our fastest player...who at six-foot-three, could jump high enough to dunk a basketball), sashayed in.  Coach Y. was not pleased by his tardiness and lack of urgency.  He hastily organized a player's only meeting for the purpose of deciding if Minis should play or not. 

In the impromptu private meeting, one of the captains, (swayed by the idea of more playing time for his less talented cronies), demanded that Minis not only be kept off the field but to be permanently kicked off the team. 

Minis and I had been childhood friends.  Even though peer group and social pressures caused us to grow apart, I still appreciated the strong bond we shared in elementary school. Additionally, Minis was experiencing personal problems.  I never understood the specifics but, I knew he had a real job that got him excused from several practices.

Due to my allegiance to Minis, I didn't need a push to vote in favor of letting him play. However Jan Soodak took control, rebutted the captain's selfish motives and championed Minis' cause.  In a short speech, he eliminated the politics and bullshit and rallied the locker room (by a narrow margin), to allow Minis to play.
IN 2002, TO HELP HONOR HIS GRAMMA'S 72nd BIRTHDAY, MY SON ANDREW POSED IN THE SAME JV JERSEY I WAS WEARING WITH JAN, (see picture above).  ALSO, MY BOY IS HOLDING MY SENIOR JERSEY IN HIS LEFT HAND AND MY JUNIOR YEAR'S, IN HIS RIGHT. 
We charged out onto Lincoln Field and found the bleachers empty. JV games attracted few spectators, no cheerleaders and no band.  A handful of family, friends and curiosity seekers made-up the twenty-plus witnesses that rimmed the side lines.  To prove the insignificance of these games even the officials were unpaid volunteers in street clothes and the scoreboard was not used.

The game seemed like an instant replay of our previous three losses.  Our defense gave a worthy effort but our offense remained stymied. In the waning moments, we clung to the consolation of having muddled through without an embarrassing slaughter.

We trailed 16-2 when we got the ball back on our own thirty-five yard line with a minute and a half left in the game.  The attitude in the huddle lacked intensity as Jan called for a screen pass left.  I ran parallel to the line of scrimmage and knocked a defender on his back as DRJ (#7), caught the ball behind me and cut up field.  DRJ wove through the enemy secondary before being tracked down by Sanford, sixty-one yards later, (by far our longest gain...ever).

Jan immediately realized that with just one big play our entire season of futility was over. His resolve took a 180 degree turn and this confidence boost radiated through all of us.  He called a simple running play.  The line fired-out, our halfback N. Bitetto (#9), ran through a gap and into Sanford's arms, but he squirted free, twisted and lunged into the end zone.  That touchdown, our first EVER on offense, made the score 16-8. 

That one score was enough of a moral victory to have us all run off the field with our head's held high, as if we accomplished something.  But quarterback Soodak and flanker CHSCHIEF, (#85), kept everyone's emotions focused.  They helped us understand that we were still fighting an uphill, yet winnable battle.

In lieu of kicking a one-point, "extra-point," a team can "go for two points" by running one normal play, from the two-yard.  Since we didn't have a place kicker, we would have had to go for a two-point conversion under any circumstance.  Incredibly, we succeeded.

The score was 16-10 as Coach Yaker gathered us during a time-out.  After a ton of rah-rah stuff, his exact quote was, "Does anyone know what an onside kick is?" 

An onside kick is a specific type of kick-off.  It is designed to avoid giving possession of the ball back to the enemy.  Usually, this desperate ploy is used by a losing team near the end of a game. The rule is, after a kick-off travels at least ten yards, it is a free ball...and whoever recovers the ball, (similar to a fumble), gains possession.

Due to limited funding, our JV only practiced once a week.  So this rarely used tactic was never rehearsed by us.  C. Avitto, (#8), responded to Coach Yaker's question like an inspired kid answering a question in school.  He enthusiastically raised his hand and his exact quote was, "I do coach!  And I CAN do it!"
ON FEBRUARY 7, 2010, IN SUPER BOWL XLIV, NEW ORLEANS SAINTS COACH SEAN PAYTON, SHOCKED THE INDIANAPOLIS COLTS AND THE FOOTBALL WORLD BY OPENING THE SECOND HALF WITH AN ONSIDE KICK.  HIS STRATEGIC GENIUS, (THE FIRST ONSIDE KICK PRIOR TO THE FOURTH QUARTER IN SUPER BOWL HISTORY),  CHANGED THE MOMENTUM OF THE GAME AND LED TO AN IMPRESSIVE AND PROBABLE WIN.

Onside kicks, especially from an inexperienced player, tend to be soft taps into, "no man's land." The result looks like a demolition derby as eleven players from each team crash together, in a frenzied attempt to recover the ball.  That's what I was expecting as I watched from the near side bench.

I was directly behind Avitto as he took a diagonal path to the ball.  To my surprise, the kick was a classic, skip, skip, pop-up.  Along the far side line H. Minis jumped, snatched the ball and raced, untouched for a game tying touchdown.  BUT NO!  The volunteer referee correctly disallowed the kicking team (us) from advancing an onside kick.  But we were awarded possession of the ball, forty-five yards from more paydirt.

Jan, the eternal optimist, didn't think a total comeback win was abstract or implausible.  But his Harry Theofiledes opinion of himself centered on his awareness that he did not have a howitzer for a throwing arm.  So by being a realist about his shortcomings, instead of trying to throw an expected bomb into the teeth of a prevent defense, Jan confidently called another screen pass to DRJ.  We didn't get the same rich success as the previous sixty-one yarder but we got down to Lincoln's twenty-five yard line.

Jan called our last time-out.  While we were in our huddle, the referee said, "Boys, I'm letting you and Lincoln know, this will be the last play of the game."  Jan was left with no other choice but to go for broke.  By NFL standards, the twenty-five yard line is almost close.  But to "Dandy" Jan, twenty-five yards was the high end of his throwing distance range. So, in the era before the phrase, "Hail Mary," came into popularity, all he could do was give the ball, the old heave-ho...and pray.

The offensive line gave Jan plenty of time.  When the pass was released, I disengaged my defender and watched the ball's high arcing, wobbly flight and lame duck descent.  In the right side of the end zone, all I saw was a school of white-shirted, ball-hawking piranhas, waiting to feast on the apparent interception.  Then suddenly from out of nowhere, like a single, dark blue, killer whale at the Sea World show, Minis leaped between the waves of defensive backs.  He reached over their greedy out-stretched hands and snared ball like a tasty fish-food treat...TOUCHDOWN !

We were happily shocked to tie the score at 16-16.  Lincoln was stunned!  But Jan knew there was still work to be done.  He huddled us together for the two-point conversion and swiftly called a quarterback sneak.  We charged up to the ball...our rivals were back on their heels.  Off a rarely used quick count, the Canarsie Junior Chiefs all surged forward. 

I was tangled in a heap of bodies as I heard the final whistle.  In the surreal next three seconds, I was disoriented as I tried to free myself from the mass of humanity.  The first thing I saw when I was freed from the pile-up, was the referee's hands and fingers pointing, straight up.  I saw the hulking figure of Sanford which had obliterated Jan's #17 jersey stand up.  That's when I pieced together the significance of Dandy Jan's torso, straddling the goal line.

To this day, I'm not certain whether I got more satisfaction over the unlikely finish to our first win, 18-16...or how upset Sanford was and seeing other Lincoln players actually cry.

Jan was the first friend of mine that died.   It's too bad that during our last conversation in front of Goody's, I forgot to tell him that I saw him on the TV highlights...it would have brightened that part of our chat.  But I'm glad we got to rehash our first organized football victory...because I like telling that story and by telling it, it helps keep my dandy memories of Jan alive. 

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I never heard of a lime rickey or limeade. But thanks for the excellent blog. Your clarity made it easy to follow the excitement of the football parts. But the true nature of your story is of sensitivity and friendship. And that came through loud and clear. I will visit your web-page again. --- Yvonne Kirby Kissimmee FL

Anonymous said...

Bittersweet but beautiful. Wasn't my brother and I on that championship floor hockey team with Ivan and Ronnie? --- TICKLEMEERIC

Anonymous said...

I was getting shuffled between the vassity and JV that year. I remember the next week beating Madison 48-6. And I know I didn't play with the JV against Tottenville. But I'm glad you remember so much of the Lincoln game. --- DRJ #7

Anonymous said...

From that big win at Lincoln, I remember the N. Bitetto #9 TD the most. I also know that H. Minis #83 was in the doghouse after the team photographer Stu Milstein panned the crowd at the varsity's Tilden game and caught him smoking. When we were on the varsity, Soodak was horsing around before the New Utrecht game and hit his head on a pole in the South Shore rotunda...and was hurt enough that he couldn't play. --- CHSCHIEF #85

Anonymous said...

I thought the funniest part was when you said, your block on the screen pass sprung the big gain. When I was in 8th grade, I returned a kickoff for a touchdown and all the other ten guys told me that if it wasn't for their blocking, I wouldn't have gotten anywhere. Great memories. Thanks! --- JoeMac

Anonymous said...

Dude, in football, getting tangled up under a pile of guys and not knowing what happened on the play...I haven't thought of that in a million years. --- G-Man the Devils Fan

Anonymous said...

I lived in Vegas too and I can relate to the feeling of being cut-off from the mainstream. So it must have been way cool to see your friend on the NFL highlights. Too bad the gravity of the conversation side-tracked you from telling him...we all need our ten minutes of fame...or in that case, even ten seconds of fame would have been important --- THE DONALD

Anonymous said...

I only wish my memories of playing football were as good as yours. Won only one game my senior year and I got kicked off before the season ended. Thats right- I got kicked off a team that won only one game! Now you know why I never offer any of my athletic exploits when talking in the break room with you! The Donald

Anonymous said...

Just read, "DANDY JAN." Brings back great memories of that Lincoln game. Sadly, I heard about Jan passing away from other players. He was a terrific kid. Thanks for sharing. Coach Stew Yaker.

L M said...

Found Jan's name in the NCAA D3 record books and decided to research him to see where he ended up. Sorry to hear that his dreams were cut short. For anyone who is interested Jan set several goalkeeping records that arn't even close to being broken, and will live long after him. It reminds me that while we all die, our memory can live forever if we give this life our all.

http://fs.ncaa.org/Docs/stats/m_soccer_RB/2012/Div3.pdf

Anonymous said...

Steve,thanks for sharing the information on Jan,after high school, we lost contact.so sad when i heard of his untimely passing.we played many sports together and shared so many good times as Chiefs.he also had a wonderful family. --- LaCugna #44

Anonymous said...

Thomas Cerami - Steve, I remember Jan very well.Great competitor and greater guy. Thanks, Tom #5