Losing the Franchise
Coach Doc Counsilman tapped his foot impatiently on the asphalt of the cul-de-sac outside of Royer Pool in Bloomington, Indiana. He was standing next to one of the two remaining I.U. station wagons with the motors running, looking up at the sky at the dark, swirling clouds above closing in. His wife, Marge, was seated in the passenger side of the front seat, quietly waiting. Three freshmen, John Kinsella, Mike Stamm, and Pat O’Connor, and I, now a sophomore, were standing around the other white station wagon, shivering in the cold and rapidly falling temperature, waiting for Doc’s instructions.
In early March, the weather in Bloomington is unpredictable, but anyone could see that a storm was moving in quickly. Doc didn’t get nervous very often, but I could see the concerned look on his face. We had a long drive ahead of us to Columbus, Ohio for the Big 10 Swimming Championships. Even without a blizzard moving in, having a bunch of young swimmers driving these fleet vehicles was not exactly safe. We were already 20 minutes late for departure.
“Where the hell is Duncan?”, Doc asked, glancing down at his watch,
Duncan Scott, another freshman, was perpetually late and today was no exception.
“You guys go ahead and get going”, Doc said, motioning us into the other station wagon. “I will wait for him and will probably beat you there, anyway.”
Doc’s reputation for driving fast was legendary. We didn’t doubt what he said.
Mike Stamm took the first turn at driving and jumped in behind the wheel. Kinsella grabbed the front passenger seat, while O’Connor and I got in the back. Before long, we were on the highway heading north toward Indianapolis. Don McLean singing Bye-bye Miss American Pie was blasting on the radio. Stamm and Kinsella were rocking back and forth in the front seat, singing along to the hit song, while the white wagon swerved from one side of the lane to the other.
By the time we reached I-70 going east, the snow was coming down heavily. For the first time, Mike grabbed the wheel with both hands and slowed down to about 60 mph. It was hard to see much more than 100 yards ahead of us. I reached down to make sure my seat belt was tightened.
Once we crossed the Ohio state line, the storm had become a full-blown blizzard. The visibility was now measurable in feet, not yards. We had slowed down to about 30 mph and I was feeling very nervous at that speed. Stamm took his eyes off the road for just a split second to observe the blinking red light on the dashboard.
“S#*t!” he exclaimed rather loudly. “We are almost out of gas. We’ve got to pull over at the next gas station.”
We crawled off the highway at the next off-ramp, where a gas sign was posted near the exit. When we came to the stop sign at the end of the off-ramp, there was no gas station. We looked both ways and couldn’t see any sign of one, so we took a chance and turned right.
It seemed like we crept along for five miles down a little two-lane road in the middle of a full-blown blizzard, somewhere in rural Ohio, until we finally came upon a gas station. The lights inside the station were on.
“Thank God,” Stamm said, breathing a sigh of relief. “They are open.”
He pulled in slowly next to one of the pumps and the man inside the office jumped out of his chair and came out to fill our tank. Self-service stations had not yet been invented. He was dressed in a big winter coat with one of those hunting-style hats on with the insulated flaps pulled down over his ears. While he filled the tank, we all went into the bathroom.
O’Connor and I were the first ones out of the bathroom and went back outside. Pat took the wheel and I sat in the front passenger seat. I had a little more confidence in Pat’s driving ability than I did with Stamm, so felt safe enough to sit in front, even in a blizzard.
After paying for the gas with the I.U. credit card, Mike and John came back to the car. Stamm jumped in the back, but John knocked on the window of the front passenger seat, where I was now buckled in.
“Hey,” Kinsella said. “I was sitting in the front. You took my seat.”
Even though John had won the James E. Sullivan Award as America’s best amateur athlete just one year before in 1970 and he was Doc’s number one recruit, he was still a freshman. I was a sophomore. Seniority had its place.
I reached up with my left hand and pushed the lock knob down on the passenger door and motioned with my thumb. “Get in the back,” I told him.
“F#@k you!” he screamed. “I had that seat.”
O’Connor now had the motor running and looked over at the two of us.
“Let’s teach him a lesson,” Pat said. With that he pulled out of the station and made a right turn back toward the highway, leaving John at the station in the blizzard with the gas station attendant.
Pat drove about a mile down the road, then made a U-turn and said. “OK. Let’s go back and pick him up now. Hopefully, he’ll get in the back seat.”
When we pulled back into the gas station, no more than ten minutes had passed since we had left. There was no sign of Kinsella. We walked back into the office where the gas station attendant was watching some program on a small black and white television. His gloves and hat with ear muffs were still on.
“Have you seen our friend?” I asked. “The guy we left here?”
He looked up from the TV, seemingly annoyed. “He started walking back toward the highway after you guys left him.”
I ran back out to the station wagon, jumped in and told Pat and Mike that John was walking in the blizzard back toward the highway. One could scarcely see 20 feet ahead. Pat pulled out of the station as quickly as he could without sliding around too much and started driving north, very slowly. While they looked on one side of the road, I searched on the other. We crawled all of the way back to the highway but found no sign of John.
“There is no way he could have made it back to the highway on foot,” Pat said. “He must still be back at the station. I bet he is laughing at us right now.”
We drove back to the station as quickly as we could, yet he was not there. The attendant confirmed that he left on foot.
We scoured both sides of the road again. There was no trace of John.
“Holy s%#t,” Pat said, with the clear sound of trepidation in his voice. “We just lost the Sullivan award winner. Doc is going to kill us.”
With no other real option, Pat reluctantly pulled back onto I-70 heading east. There were two lanes on the highway, but it didn’t matter. We couldn’t see any lane markers. The highway was covered in snow, with more coming down by the minute. Pat just managed to stay in the middle of the highway trying to avoid a collision with anything.
After what seemed like an hour driving perhaps at 20 mph, we spotted a figure standing in the middle of the highway, covered in snow. He had a long stocking cap on and held his thumb out trying to wave a ride. When we got to about 20 feet of him, we could see it was John. His face was a sheet of ice.
“Gary, hop in the back seat!” Pat screamed. He pulled up along John and stopped the car in the middle of the highway, summoning him to get in the front seat.
John jumped in front, miraculously before someone slammed into us from behind.
For the next 2 hours on that long ride to Columbus, not a single word was uttered by any of us. We had no idea how John had gotten there. We were just glad he was alive, but it was deathly silent in the car all the way to Columbus.