• Footbal

    I first became interested in football as a spectator sport when I was 8 or 9. The local papers were full of the exploits of a high school phenom with the impossible name, John Olszewski. There were several other true standouts on the St. Anthony’s High of Long Beach, California team, but Johnny O got the limelight as a nearly unstoppable fullback. To this day, people who knew him as a high school athlete pronounce his name as he and his family did. Osheski, instead of the more proper Polish Osheffski.
    The team played and practiced on a home field 10 or 12 miles away from the school but only blocks from my home in what we then referred to as Lakewood Village. I used to walk to the Clark Avenue Stadium and hang around the sidelines dreaming of being noticed and maybe invited to act as water boy.
    That never came about, but one warm afternoon I had gone to watch practice and bought a popsicle on the way from the ice cream truck that used to jingle through Lakewood’s streets. I was sucking away at the double-sticked icy goodie and watching the team scrimmage. At the end of one play, a perspiring Johnny O jogged over to me, patted my head, bent down and bit off nearly all of one half of my double popsicle before returning to the huddle. I was proud as punch and regaled my school friends with the incident for weeks after.
    In Olszewski’s senior year, the Saints went all the way to the California Interscholastic Federation championship game against Santa Barbara High. The team was undefeated and the star fullback was averaging slightly better than 10 yards per carry. I went with my whole family to watch the contest at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
    We all knew Johnny O had a bad knee that had cost him some playing time earlier in his high school career. He reinjured the knee on the first play from scrimmage and did not play the rest of the day. I think it was in the second half that he hobbled onto the field wearing his knee brace to spread encouragement to his teammates. The referee called a penalty for “coaching from the sidelines” which brought forth a chorus of boos. The game ended in a tie, and St. Anthony’s was crowned CIF champions on the basis of having made more first downs.
    The entire backfield of that team went on to the University of California at Berkeley, but only John and quarterback Bill “B.I.” Mais became starters for the Golden Bears. John excelled from his sophomore year on, before freshman were allowed to play varsity sports. B.I. took over as starting quarterback his senior year. Olszewski’s bad knee remained a weak point through his years at Cal.
    I vividly remember watching a Cal-USC game on television. The USC team’s offense was spearheaded by running back Frank Gifford. At one point, an SC player, Pat Canamella, #42, tackled Olszewski. After the whistle blew, Canamella got to his feet still holding on to Olszewski’s leg and twisting it in an obvious attempt to reinjure that knee. He was successful. For the rest of the game, the Cal fans kept up the cheer “Back to the zoo with 42.”
    Johnny O did not play again for two weeks and Cal missed out on the Rose Bowl. I’ve watched hundreds of college and professional football games since that time, but I have never seen such a flagrant attempt to injure a player.
    Olszewski recovered and enjoyed a long and successful professional career first with the Chicago Cardinals and later the Washington Redskins. He was the only NFL player to wear
    the number zero.
    His performances were not limited to the gridiron. In high school he also played varsity basketball and held school records in the high jump and long jump (then referred to as broad jump.) He participated in high school drama productions in which his grace and athleticism were seen in ballet performances, though he never had any formal training as a dancer. He also swam with Esther Williams in the movie Neptune’s Daughter.
    For many years after retirement from football, he was the head lifeguard of his hometown of Long Beach, California. His nephews include pro football player Manu Tuiasosopo. Manu’s son Marques was a
    defensive lineman for the Seahawks and 49ers, and his brother Zach was a fullback for the Philadelphia Eagles. Their youngest brother Matt played professional baseball, and sister Leslie played volleyball for
    Washington U. and was selected for the U.S. National Team.
    I never spoke to him, though I often saw him life guarding or riding in the cruise boat assigned to the lifeguards. The scar on one knee was visible, but even in his 60’s he appeared in shape to suit up and play football. John died in 2008. It was Alzheimer’s disease that permanently took him “out of the game.”
    Since those times I have taught a winner of Olympic medals and ballplayers who have had careers in the NBA and major league baseball. Johnny O never made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Were he in his prime, he might not even make a team of today’s bigger, stronger, faster athletes. I have followed the careers of people like super-athlete, super-patriot Pat Tillman, who gave up a pro football career to serve his country and fell to friendly fire in Afghanistan. But it’s different when you are 8 to 10 years old. No one will supplant my boyhood hero, the godlike guy who patted me on the head and took that huge bite out of my popsicle.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on January 30, 2009

    Topics: Uncategorized

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