Jan. 7, 2012: Tonight as I write this, my father lies in a Baltimore-area hospital bed, paralyzed on one side, blood pooling in his urine. Not that he was ever scared by a little blood. As a high school football coach, he would spend halftimes shouting at his players the refrain he borrowed from 17th century English poet John Dryden: “Fight on, my merry men/ I’m a little wounded, but I am not slain/ Let me lay down and bleed a while/ Then I’ll rise and fight again.”
For more than two years now, he’s been living in a nursing home, numb on his right side since a stroke. I wonder what Dryden would make of the way things turned out for Dad, who was once one of the most promising college football players of his era.
I’m a Chicago guy, having been here almost 20 years and raised my own family. But Dad came from South Philly—the hardscrabble heart of “Rocky” country before Sylvester Stallone made it such. To understand the man, you need to know first that his parents were not practicing Catholics—almost unheard of for South Philly Italians at the time—but reputedly ran the local numbers game. My dad’s earliest memories involve sitting on his father’s lap at poker games, cigar smoke enveloping his face. Thus initiated, my dad developed a love for gambling that he would never shake.
But he also grew up hearing stories of his great uncle Joe Grim, the original Italian Stallion, a freakish lunkhead of a boxer who compiled a career record of zero wins and 63 losses, but who became famous because no one could knock him out—not even future heavyweight champ Jack Johnson, the Galveston Giant, who emerged from the ring with Grim flummoxed and fatigued after unleashing enough fury to kill an elephant. News accounts of the day have Johnson in his corner muttering, “That guy ain’t human.”
During his autopsy, Joe Grim was found to have a skull twice the thickness of a normal man. My wife says it runs in the family.
My dad, too, used his head in ways not necessarily recommended by your family physician. At South Philadelphia High School, he played halfback in the 1945 city championship against West Catholic before more than 50,000 people. Dad scored a touchdown on a 37-yard screen pass as “Southern” tallied three times in the final 7:40 to overcome a 13-0 deficit. The highlight reel ran in theaters across the nation, and even today some in Philadelphia will tell you that the “Bobby Socks Bowl” is the greatest high school game in the city’s history.
From there Dad went to West Chester State, a small teacher’s college outside Philly, and became Pennsylvania’s leading college scorer while still a freshman. They called him “Crazy Horse” because, even without a facemask, he liked to run head first, using his face to clear a path. At just under six feet and weighing about 180 pounds, Dad pounded through linebackers with the build and brute force of a greasy Italian fist. He graduated in three years, and was invited to try out for the New York Giants as a running back. He made the cut.
Here’s where the stars began to cross. Dad turned down the roster spot, for while he was fearless on the football field, the prospect of raising a family on a pro player’s meager salary was more than he could tackle. Had he taken the chance, he would’ve likely played under an offensive coach named Vince Lombardi, and perhaps even seen action in the 1958 NFL Championship Game against the Baltimore Colts, considered by many the greatest football game ever played.
Dad did wind up in Baltimore, though, as a coach of Calvert Hall College prep, a Catholic high school. In six seasons he captured a state title, and produced at least one high school All American: my brother Joe, who went on to Penn State as a linebacker and defensive tackle. But for reasons no one in my family could fathom, Dad left football in 1973. The reason? To sell steamed crabs door to door from big, boxy vending trucks. My dad rechristened himself “Captain Joe,” even though he knew nothing about how to cook, let alone steam a crab. His business partner knew plenty about how to cook the books, though. It did not end well.
Dad tells me that at about that time he turned down the head coaching job at Florida State—yes, that Florida State—before Bobby Bowden came on in 1976. “Bobby Bowden owes his job to me,” Dad told me recently, though with no apparent resentment. Dad is a gambler, and knows that he made most of his own bad luck. True story: He’d check into casino hotels using his great uncle’s real surname, “Giannone.” I mean, what did he expect, borrowing the last name of a pugilist who went 0-63? I won’t get into what it was like to grow up a gambler’s son; I’ve spilled enough of that blood on the therapist’s couch.
Dad remained a sports fan. “Brian’s Song” was required viewing when I grew up, and Dad considered George Halas one of the game’s towering figures. Dick Butkus and Mike Ditka played the kind of bare-knuckled ball he loved, and when Coach Ditka took home Super Bowl XX by a score of 46-10, Dad loved how he played the entire game with intensity and ferocity, as though the Bears were behind by 36 points. Laid-back Lovie Smith could use some of that fire, if you ask Crazy Horse.
Yet much to my dismay as a kid, Dad stayed on the sidelines of the game he knew and loved. After Calvert Hall, he occasionally fielded offers to coach high school ball—always turning them down. Meanwhile, after New Jersey legalized casino gambling in 1976, our family trips to Atlantic City became frequent. While Mom, my younger brother, and I enjoyed the sunshine and the beach, Dad for the most part holed up in baccarat or blackjack pits devoid of daylight or clocks to track time.
The warrior was at an Atlantic City casino a few years ago when the stroke hit. He took a cab all the way back to Maryland rather than visit a local hospital, unaware of what was happening to him. As Dad described it to me, he went numb and could barely walk; I cannot imagine how terrified he must’ve felt. It was a $300 cab fare back to Maryland, I’m told, and one last long, wild, broken-field run for Crazy Horse Carlozo.
Even if Dad bounces back, he won’t walk again. In my bad moments—maudlin or cliche, take your pick—I imagine Dad as a ripped, svelte athlete in his 20s, “before life beat him down,” to borrow from Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams.”
And in my better moments, I keep in mind that my father, who so often defined life in terms of “losers” and “winners,” carried the ball a lot further than a lot of men. All three of his sons turned out fine, and we love him. And while I should call my dad every few days, he always calls me first. He offers encouragement and advice. For my birthday, he sent me a $20 bill in the mail.
So here’s to you, Dad. I love you, and cheer you from the sidelines: “Fight on, my merry men/ I’m a little wounded, but I am not slain/ Let me lay down and bleed a while/ Then I’ll rise and fight again.”
Postscript: Joe Carlozo Sr. turned 84 on March 10. He befuddled his doctors two months ago when his health took a sudden turn for the better, allowing him to return to his Baltimore-area nursing home. He remains paralyzed on his right side, and his moments of incoherence induced by painkillers have become more frequent. Still he’s alive, and I suppose if the Grim Reaper were to take a cue from Jack Johnson, he’d be stooped in the corner of the boxing ring called Life shaking his head, surveying my father in disbelief: “That guy ain’t human.”
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LOU CARLOZO, a former Chicago Tribune staff writer and columnist, and managing editor with AOL.com, is a personal finance correspondent for Reuters Wealth. His only claim to gridiron greatness involved brief blazes of glory in grammar school as a top field goal kicker in paper football.