Learning from the Masters – and from the Love of My Life

On December 19, 2018, the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston presented me with the John Baronian Award for Lifetime Contribution to Football. The following is my acceptance speech.

All of the great religions of the world teach their faithful some version of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Okay, so now that we’ve got that one down, what else should we do? What’s the next step?

I’d like to tell you about a few people in my sports life who took that next step. Because if there’s anything I’ve done to merit this honor, I did it in part because I learned from them.

Eddie Miller, my first boss at Boston College. He hired me as a student assistant in his sports information office 50 years ago. That began a string of my service to BC athletics that continues to today. It was Eddie who first showed me how to deal with people in the real world, especially the world of sports.

Eddie’s successor, Reid Oslin was both a colleague in the office and later a pro to be emulated. He rose to the challenge as BC’s major sports grew more and more successful. Reid was the one who asked me if I’d like to fill in for a year as public address announcer for football, after Professor Malcolm McLoud retired. Reid also gave me the chance to be co-author of a history of BC hockey.

Bill Flynn

Their boss was athletic director Bill Flynn. He combined class and dignity with a fierce competitiveness and desire for fair play. His office door was always open and he answered his own phone. He was one of the Founding Fathers of the Big East and Hockey East. Bill was so well respected that he was the first man ever to be president of the NCAA who was not himself a college president.

Then there was the man who first received this award, back in 1999. Jack Grinold of Northeastern University. I worked with him on many projects and events down through the years. He was the second person ever hired by the Boston Patriots. But for 50 years he was Mr. Northeastern. He was also Mr. Beanpot, Mr. New England Hockey Writers and Mr. New England Football Writers. Jack was so dedicated to football that they named the Eastern Massachusetts Chapter of the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame for him.

Each of these gentlemen was intensely loyal to his own school and his teams. But they knew as well that it was bigger than that. It was the game itself, the athletes who played the game, the sportsmanship and the glory of the game, that really mattered. Each left his own corner of the world a much better place than it was when he arrived.

Jack Grinold

That’s the next step, beyond the Golden Rule. Make your part of the world a better place. They all took it. I was fortunate to know them and to learn from them.

But I also had family to inspire me. Let me tell you about my grandfather George Brown and my uncle Walter Brown.

From 1905, when George was appointed athletic director of the BAA, until 1964, when Walter passed away after a heart attack at age 59, these two gentlemen did more to influence and shape sports in Boston than just about anyone else. They were men for all seasons. While they weren’t known for what they did in football, I think they should be.

George ran the Boston Arena and the Boston Garden. He coached or officiated track with the American delegation at every Olympics from 1908 to 1936. He brought hockey to Boston University, American hockey to the Olympic games, Sonja Henie and world-class women’s figure skating to America, and the starting line of the Marathon to the town of Hopkinton. His statue, The Starter, is on Hopkinton Common.

George Brown at 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, where he was a finish line judge.

But George was first a track guy. And it was in track – probably at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, that he met a man who would later be a Canton Bulldogs teammate of five founding members of the Gridiron Club. The man’s name was Jim Thorpe. They became fast friends.

Thorpe was a student at the Carlisle Indian School when won the gold medal in both the pentathlon and decathlon at Stockholm.

On the medal stand at the closing ceremonies, King Gustav V of Sweden said to him, “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.” To which Jim replied “Thanks, King.”

Jim Thorpe played many other sports including football. He also competed in ballroom dancing. In 1912 he was the National Collegiate champion.

But I digress. About a month after the Stockholm Olympics, Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indians football coach, were guests of my grandparents at the family farm in Hopkinton. They were also guests of honor at a parade in Milford, the next town over. I’m told that somewhere in the family archives is a picture of Thorpe riding one of the Brown family’s horses. I’ve never seen it, but I’m sure it exists.

These three gentlemen had other encounters, on the football field.

Enroute to 1936 Olympics on deck of SS Manhattan. Center, in white sweater is marathoner Johnny Kelley. To Kelley’s left are Jesse Owens and George Brown.

George Brown also happened to be one of the best college football officials of his day. I know that from reading the newspaper articles that followed his death in 1937. But I also know if from the flyleaf of the family bible.

In that flyleaf are the names of all the colleges whose games my grandfather officiated. They included: nine years of BC-Holy Cross; also Dartmouth-Princeton, Harvard-Yale, Bates-Bowdoin, Amherst-Williams.  Yes, he was on the crew in all of the best games. Including the bitterest rivalry of all: West Point and the Carlisle Indians.

The teams played football twice – in 1905 and in 1912.  The first one was only 29 years after another encounter between Army and the Indians, at a place called Little Big Horn. The second one was just 21 years after a massacre at a place called Wounded Knee. Thorpe played in the 1912 game at West Point.  Here’s what Pop Warner said to his team before the game:

“Your fathers and grandfathers are the ones who fought their fathers and grandfathers. Remember it was their fathers and grandfathers who killed your fathers and grandfathers. Remember it was their fathers and grandfathers who destroyed your way of life. Remember Wounded Knee. These men playing against you today are soldiers. You are the Long Knives. You are Indians. Tonight, we will know if you are warriors.”

Can you imagine what it must have been like for my grandfather, to officiate at those games?

And in case you’re wondering, the Indians kept their win streak alive. They romped over Army 27-6. Thorpe ran wild.  Dwight Eisenhower played halfback for Army. He blew out a knee when he and a teammate tried to gang-tackle Thorpe and injure him. Thorpe faked them out, they crashed together, and that was the end of Dwight Eisenhower’s football career.

George’s son, my uncle Walter, was in my humble opinion the greatest of all American sportsmen. Some here will remember him as the Boston Celtics owner who hired Red Auerbach, picked Bob Cousy’s name out of a hat, brought in Bill Russell and started a dynasty. He also broke the color line in professional basketball by defying his fellow owners and drafting Chuck Cooper in 1950. When they pointed out Cooper’s skin color at the draft, he said “I don’t care if he’s striped, plaid, or polka dot. Boston drafts Chuck Cooper.”

Others will remember Walter for his hockey – coaching the first American World champion in 1933, the Olympic bronze medalists in 1936, and as president of USA Hockey in 1960, year of the first Olympic gold. But he almost brought the National Football League to Boston too.

Walter Brown

It was in the late 1950s. There were no Patriots then. Our team was by default, the New York Giants. They were on TV every single Sunday.  Remember Charlie Conerly, Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote, and Chris Schenkel?

But there were serious negotiations to change that. Walter and Tom Yawkey teamed up to buy the Washington Redskins from George Preston Marshall and bring them back to Boston.  They were going to be co-owners, the team would play in Fenway Park, and Frank Leahy – late of Notre Dame by way of Boston College, was going to be the coach.

Unfortunately, the deal didn’t happen. Marshall held onto the ‘Skins. But can you imagine how different things would be now, in the world of Boston football, if Tom and Walter had pulled it off? And they almost did.

My final family sports idol was my dad. He too was an official, and he loved it. He also introduced me to Boston College football and to public address announcing.

He took me to my first BC game ever. At Fenway Park. November 24, 1956. BC 52, Brandeis 0. I remember nothing about the game – but I was mesmerized in pre-game warmups. By the Brandeis punter. He could kick that ball so high.

Dad also did public address announcing for Watertown High football. He took me to a game once and sat me on his lap. And he let me count into the mic – one, two, three. It was Watertown against Rindge Tech.  I don’t remember that game either, but I do remember staring at the game program. The Coca Cola ad in the centerfold, where they had the lineups, had a picture of a cheerleader with the brightest red lips and biggest smile I ever saw.

That’s where my public address career started. It’s probably also where I developed my lifelong fondness for cheerleaders and majorettes.

And about that public address announcing job I had at BC?  It wasn’t a job. It was a vocation.  I couldn’t wait for the season to start and to get to the stadium on game day. It was a privilege to be there – to be a unique part of football at the college that had been so good to me.

For BC football, I was the one constant for 42 years. Nine head coaches. The best of times and the worst of times.

Alumni could always come back and be sure they’d hear that same old Boston accent.  Many of them told me just that, over the years…it was good to know that some things didn’t change, they said.

When I started, that night we beat Texas in 1976, I made sure to carry on the tradition set by Professor McLoud.  He was a stickler, that man. He read the rule book. And it said, about the points after touchdown, that the team would get one or two points “if the try is successful.” And so it was, for sixty years at Alumni Stadium, Boston College’s signature announcement: “The kick is good. Try Successful.”

My only regret was that those 42 years were not 51 years. I wanted to surpass the all-time leader, the gold standard in public address announcing: Bob Sheppard. He did it for 50 years for the New York Giants. And 57 for the Yankees, but that’s baseball.

I always tried to do it Bob’s way. He insisted on the Three C’s: A public address announcer must be clear, concise, correct. Not cute, colorful, or comic. That’s the way to do it. Cheerleaders belong on the field, not in the p.a. booth.

I wanted to make my school’s team – and of course myself – the all-time champions in football public address longevity. That didn’t happen. But 42 years isn’t so bad. It did surpass the 40 years of the gentleman who did it at Harvard. And any time I can help my school beat fair Harvard in anything, I done good.

So there’s where my sporting career came from. I had colleagues for emulation and family for inspiration. They all took that next step, after the Golden Rule. They made the world a better place for their having been there.

And so did the one more person I must mention. I would not be standing here – I don’t know where I’d be standing or even if I’d be standing, without her.

That’s my dear wife Mary Ellen. We’ve been together for 48 years and married for 43. She was the most beloved first grade teacher in the history of the Milton public schools. She’s the mother of my three children. It’s good for me that opposites attract, because she brought an unlimited well of wisdom and a bedrock of common sense to our life together.

But those vast stores of wisdom and common sense pale in comparison to Mary Ellen’s courage. For over four years now, she has been fighting that pernicious, horrible foe, Alzheimer’s Disease. That battle continues, every day.

Mary Ellen is here, along with six of her 13 siblings and a gathering of our dear friends. And the only thing that means more to me tonight than this wonderful award is her presence.

Mary Ellen, my dearest darling. If anyone deserves an award for lifetime achievement, it’s not I. It’s you.

To the Gridiron Club, thank you for deeming me a worthy recipient of the John Baronian Award. I promise to do my best to live up to the standards set by Mr. Baronian, by Jack Grinold, and the others.

To the players, coaches, and officials who are also honored tonight, my congratulations.

And to you all, ladies and gentlemen, for being here with us, for supporting your friends and family members, and for helping the Gridiron Club in its mission as Keepers of the Flame, thank you.

4 Responses to “Learning from the Masters – and from the Love of My Life”

  1. creativegramma Says:

    Very well written and interesting Tom. I bet the audience enjoyed it.

  2. Patrick J. Daly Says:

    Well, there are acceptance speeches and there are acceptance speeches. Yours, Tom, was a memorable one indeed. I only wish I had been there to offer you congratulations in person. What memories!

    The BC 3 – Eddie, Reid & Bill, and the tales of your illustrious grandfather and uncle. What a proud lineage!

    And yes, I would have loved to have been present for that 1912 Army/Carlisle matchup.

    And now I know why you always said “Try Successful” after all those PAT’s at Alumni Stadium. Nice to clear that up after 42 years!

    Congrats again for being recognized with such a meaningful award. Richly deserved.

    And kudos for the tribute to Mary Ellen, a true lifetime achiever herself.

    What a magnificent evening that must have been. Best to you and yours during this Christmas Season and in 2019.

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