Recently my dad showed me a plaque he had been awarded from his alma mater. He graduated from a well-respected University in the Midwest after WWII. It was where he met my mom.
He is 90 now.
The honorific award was for his participation in the University’s “Hall of Fame” football team of 1948, on which, as I had been informed many times by my mom growing up, he was a highly acclaimed running back. Other than probably winning a lot of games, it was not clear why that particular team was inducted into a Hall of Fame
or how many other teams shared a similar honor.
“Beats me,” said my dad when I asked him.
Because he was showing me the plaque not to highlight an achievement or as a remembrance of the past, but because after almost 70 years since graduating college, he had just received it in the mail.
“I guess it took them awhile to find me,” he laughed, putting the plaque back in a drawer.
Which was the story I was relaying to my son and daughter when we passed by a new, state-of-the-art athletic center on a tour of the very same University. As rising high school seniors, they are both looking at colleges this summer. And the school attended by their grandparents so long ago is on their list.
The campus tour guide, a perky college sophomore, proudly pointed out the gleaming new facility as we passed by. And it occurred to me that if there was an award for a “Hall of Fame” football team, perhaps there really was a Hall of Fame located at the University. And maybe it resided within this new facility.
I asked our tour guide if there was a Football Hall of Fame.
She had no idea. However, she did know the year the University was founded and how many books were in the library.
“Let’s see if we can find your grandfather,” I declared with purpose after the tour was over. I had a mystery to solve and a family loop to close.
Several confused inquiries later we managed to find a senior facility director who verified that there was indeed a new Hall of Fame devoted to athletics. It was created when the complex was built two years ago.
Which explained why my father had only just received his award.
She met us holding a key on a lanyard and led us down a wide passage way past a swimming pool and great open expanses of workout equipment. She stopped by a door with bold, proud lettering above. Hall of Fame the letters spelled.
“We keep it locked during the summer,” she explained twisting the key into the lock and pushing open the big solid door.
Inside was a long room devoted solely to the recognition of student athletes. One entire wall was adorned with portraits of individuals who had gained prominence in their unique athletic events, if only since the 1990s.
But just as we entered the room, on our left, hung the Hall of Fame team recognitions we were searching for. It was clearly a special designation; there were only a few. And the very first in line was a large framed team photo identified simply as The 1948 Football Team.
Under the photo was the team roster and a scripted exclamation that the Hall of Fame award is the highest athletic honor that the University can bestow. We read that the winning 1948 team, led by the legendary coach Weeb Ewbank, broke several single-season records, including most yards rushing, a record which still stands today.
I knew my dad, as fullback, probably played a significant part in setting that team rushing record. And now, here was a prominent and historic record of his collegiate achievement right in front of us.
“He was number 23” I told my kids excitedly as they closed in on the photo to see their grandfather so long ago as a young athlete. They crowded together in front of the glass-protected photo from 1948 and remained for awhile before speaking.
“Number 23?” asked my son.
“There is no 23,” added my daughter.
“Let me see,” I said barging in. There was no 23 in the photo. No one that even looked like my dad.
I quickly scanned the identifications below the photo. Front Row from left, Middle Row from left, Top Row from left . . .
And then I saw his name at the very end of the roster. In the row marked Not pictured.
I guess life’s circles don’t always close neatly. In that moment I wanted nothing more than for my children to see their grandfather preserved in history; a tangible if serendipitous bridge to the past. But I guess among his athletic contributions to the “Hall of Fame” football team of 1948, making the team photo was not one of them.
My dad laughed when we told him later about his conspicuous absence from posterity. I guess he wasn’t as disappointed as we were to be glorified as Not Pictured in the Hall of Fame.
“I was in class that day,” he explained.
“Besides,” he winked, “I have a plaque”.