One of the worst things about growing older – it rates right up there with God calling your hair home one by one and understand the meaning of one moment on the lips and life on the hips – is when your friends and heroes pass away. Now that I’m past 60, there are more frequent departures of friends and heroes and it hurts a little bit more, perhaps because it’s like a piece of my life is gone for good.
A little piece of my past departed this earth a couple of days ago when Dick Kirk breathed his last. Older Gators will remember him as the guy whose 42-yard touchdown run against Alabama on October 13, 1963 gave the Gators a 10-6 win over Joe Namath and the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide. Dick played two ways that day but when two-platoon football was brought back in 1964, he moved to the defensive backfield where his reputation as a tough guy who would decleat you was well-earned. Gene Ellenson, Florida’s defensive coordinator during the 1960s, called Dick Kirk “a glue guy. You win games with guys like that who are all about the team and will do whatever it takes to win a game.”
It was long after he played for the Gators that Dick Kirk and I became friends. It was a casual acquaintance for years but at the 2005 Silver Sixties reunion at Crystal River we bonded as friends. The Silver Sixties is the association of players from the 1960s who played for Coach Ray Graves. They meet every year for Father’s Day weekend and remember good times and celebrate the enduring friendships from that era when the sleeping giant that was Florida football began to awake.
At the 2005 Silver Sixties, Dick and I spent a good part of the afternoon hanging around the pool bar at the Plantation Inn Resort. For me, this was like a slice of heaven because I was able to sit in and listen while Gators like Steve Spurrier, Allen Trammel, Tommy Shannon, Larry Smith, Richard Trapp and John Reaves told stories about Florida football. There were some great stories, but the one I remember the best was Tommy Shannon recalling October 13, 1963 when he told Dick Kirk in the huddle, “You’re gonna get the ball and you’re going to score a touchdown.” Forty-two yards later Dick Kirk was in the end zone and the capacity crowd of 44,000 at Denny Stadium sat in stunned silence.
Dick’s recollection was of Namath. “He came over to our bus before we left and told us what a great game we had played and how we deserved to win that game,” Kirk said. “I always thought that was so classy. I always admired Joe after that.”
That evening, the players honored Coach and Opal Graves. It was already a very emotionally charged room when a recording of Coach Ellenson reading his poem about the players of that era was played over the PA system. One by one Coach Ellenson called out his boys by name and number and all of them were moved, but the night became special when #33, Tommy Durrance, was called.
At the time, Tommy Durrance had less than a month to live. He had a neurological disease that had gradually taken away his ability to communicate or do even the basics of life. He hadn’t been able to speak in at least a year and it had been weeks since he recognized someone other than his close circle of family and best friends Andy Cheney and his wife Susan. This was his last Silver Sixties and he was seated at a table in the back of the room with family and closest friends.
Something stirred in Touchdown Tommy that moment he heard Coach Ellenson’s voice. He rose out of his chair without any help, grinned and raised his finger to signal #1. Everyone in the room was astounded. They knew Tommy’s condition and this was a sign of life no one could have imagined.
Tears began to flow and within seconds there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. Tough guys sobbed and Dick Kirk, the guy who was as tough as any Gator of that era, buried his face on my shoulder and cried until there were no more tears to cry.
A few minutes later when the festivities were over and most of the tears were dried, Coach Graves walked over to Touchdown Tommy, put his hands on Durrance’s very frail shoulders, and told him how much he loved and appreciated him. Tommy Durrance stared blankly into space for several moments but as if a light came on, there was a twinkle in his eye and for a moment, he was the old Tommy Durrance one more time. He smiled and then shook Coach Graves’ hand. The moment lasted for only a few seconds and then the darkness descended on TD’s eyes again. Coach Graves was visibly moved.
Dick Kirk and I were perhaps 10 feet away, watching in amazement. Once again Dick lost it and cried, again until there were no more tears.
That moment is how I want to remember my friend. When I was just a kid who sold Cokes at Florida Field before the game and through the first quarter, then watched the rest from wherever I could find an empty seat, Dick Kirk was a hero and a tough guy. On that night in Crystal River, he was just a friend who wasn’t afraid to let the tears flow for someone he loved.
Getting old is not for sissies. It gets tougher every year when another friend or another hero passes away. Those memories that we treasure and will continue to treasure become stilettos to the heart.
From the moment they lost their first game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament to Arkansas, the Gators gathered themselves and played with incredible focus as they survived four elimination games to win the championship. After dropping a 1-0 heartbreaker to Virginia Monday night, the Gators find themselves with their backs against the wall again and while it’s a bigger stage than the one in Hoover where the Gators won the SEC, the circumstances are the same. To win a championship the Gators have to win five games row starting tonight when they face Miami a second time.
Although the Gators put a 15-3 hosing on Miami back on Saturday, the Canes hit the ball well and that continued Monday when they knocked off Arkansas in an elimination game. The Gators were held to two hits by Virginia starter Brandon Waddell and closer Josh Sborz, who spent the evening painting the corners with knee-high sliders that UF could only beat into the ground. It will take more than two hits if the Gators hope to stay alive and earn a rematch with Virginia.
The Gators will go with freshman righty Alex Faedo (5-1, 3.36 ERA) while Miami will counter with junior righty Enrique Sosa (7-4, 4.07 ERA). When the Gators took two out of three from Miami back in February, Sosa took a 2-1 loss in game three when he held UF to seven hits over six innings. Faedo gave up two hits in 1-1/3 innings of scoreless relief against Miami in Florida’s 4-3 win in game one.
Back when the golfer formerly known as Tiger Woods was at his best, no one would have dared ask if he thought he could win a tournament. Of course, he thought he could. He was Tiger. He won everything in those days.
Armed with a game that no longer resembles the golfer who dominated the sport for 10 years, Eldrick Woods gets asked the question these days. Tuesday, a reporter asked why he thinks he can win the US Open at the lengthy and very difficult Chambers Bay course in Washington.
Woods answered, “I’ve got three of these” as in three US Open Championships in the past, the last one in 2008 at Torrey Pines, a course he used to own when he was indeed Tiger.
It’s good to have confidence. Right now that might be the only thing Eldrick Woods has going for him. By switching coaches several times, he has micromanaged his swing so many times that it’s a wonder he ever has a clue where the ball is going when it leaves the clubface. At Chambers Bay, he’s going to be playing a 7600 yard course that not only is the longest on the tour this year but is unforgiving if you aren’t in the fairway. A course like that requires a long and accurate driver, something Woods seems to lack these days.
The driver is only part of the problem. Those once steely nerves that seemed oblivious to pressure when he regularly saved par with a long putt or rammed home a birdie at a moment that sucked the life out of any challengers have departed. Woods is almost 40 now, about the same age that Arnold Palmer stopped making putts and close to the same age when Sam Snead claimed he got a case of “the yips.” You have to wonder if Woods suffers from a similar malady.
Confidence is a good thing, but if Eldrick Woods is going to become Tiger again, he better find the fairways with his driver and stick some putts.
In a 2002 Golf Digest interview, the late, great Sam Snead (then 89 years old) was asked if he could have beaten Tiger Woods. At the time, Woods was in his third year of total domination and looked like a golfer who was going to break all the records. Snead’s reply:
“Hell, yes! In my prime I could do anything with a golf ball I wanted. No man scared me on the golf course.”
Do the Gators have enough pitching to win three games to get out of their bracket and then win two in the championship series?
One of the more entertaining bands of the past 15 years is Austin, Texas-based Mingo Fishtrap, which has produced six albums and earned a rather strong following on the southern club circuit. The band is fronted by Roger Blevins Jr. whose dad plays bass. It’s a seven-piece band that has some very cool horn arrangements. Today’s music is their live performance at Bear Creek Music Festival outside Live Oak back in November.