GRAY: Remembering No. 31 always

When Nicholas Pontiff delivered the eulogy at his brother Wally's funeral mass in the summer of 2002 and closed with "Number 31…always", it was the defining moment that broke the hurting hearts of those who crowded the chapel to mourn the untimely loss of one of LSU fans' favorite athletes.

It was one of those rare instants when a few words capture an event… an emotion…a collective sentiment of people who come together to share memories.  It was the moment that immortalized his big brother forever.

 

Always. 

 

It's impossible to watch LSU Baseball in this final stretch of the season without thinking about the impact of Wally Pontiff, Jr. and his family on LSU Baseball. 

 

I met Wally just as I met hundreds of other students over the years I worked at LSU. But I got to know him when Skip Bertman had an idea for a promotion: All-American softball pitcher Britni Sneed pitching to Wally at halftime of a basketball game. After talking to Wally and Britni, it seemed like it would be a good-natured competition between two talented athletes who respected each other. But when I heard that Bertman's assistants had Wally over at Alex Box taking batting practice against a softball pitcher, I knew the baseball staff was taking this battle of the sexes very seriously.   

 

Having seen Sneed strike out virtually everyone, I realized there was a real chance Wally might not get in hit in the PMAC. I asked Coach Bertman if he was sure this promotion was a good idea and he said, "You see, Wally is the kind of kid who can strike out…and not hate himself. He's going to do his best, but he's going to be OK no matter how it turns out because he knows who he is." 

 

Wally struck out that night, but in the process allowed the spotlight to shine on Britni.  Wally congratulated her, joked with fans and stole our hearts with his confidence and winning smile. 

 

Wally, Sr. once asked his son why he didn't run for student government and he answered, "Dad, I'm a quiet leader." 

 

His Dad explains, "That's how Wally played the game. At 19, people would ask him for advice. He was at peace in his heart, so when he spoke, people listened. He believed everybody had a purpose in life and told kids, ‘Be a dreamer…stay away from the dream busters.'" 

 

His uncle produced the bumper stickers that read "Number 31….always" as a way of keeping Wally's dreams alive. They're distributed free to fans and souvenir shops throughout the state. I never go a week without seeing one somewhere. 

 

The Wally Pontiff Foundation hosts a golf tournament and baseball game each year to benefit handicapped children, youth recreation facilities and Catholic charities – causes dear to Wally and his family. The Foundation has hosted two baseball games -- the first being Coach Dan Canevari's Southeastern Lions' game against Coach Smoke Laval's Tigers, played at Zephyr Field – and the second LSU vs. Rice at the Box. In 2006, LSU will again play Rice and in 2007, the Wally Pontiff, Jr. Baseball Classic will feature LSU, Tulane, UNO and a team to be named, with an autograph session for kids, homerun derby and fireworks show planned.

 

Wally, Sr. and Terry Pontiff continue to be a part of the LSU family with daughter Haley graduating from LSU and entering graduate school and son Nicholas a red-shirt on the LSU Baseball team.

 

The Pontiff family is reviewing a book about Wally that will be published in 2006. "We had no idea the impact Wally made on people," his Dad explained. "We didn't know all these stories. It's been very difficult to read the book."  But the outpouring of love and the determination of friends and fans to remember Number 31 have been a comfort to this devoutly Catholic family. "We lost a son, but we gained a community," Wally, Sr. told me. 

 

Most sons are destined to carry their father's name through life. For Wally, Sr. many people respond because he carries his son's name. The whole story is told on the face of the father when you ask to talk about the son. He glances down, you see the slight smile of remembering and in a quiet voice he says, "It would be an honor."

 

One beneficiary of the Wally Pontiff Foundation is Camp Summer Tribe, held at Fountainbleau State Park in Mandeville for handicapped children, to provide the kids with a camp experience and the parents a break. The Pontiffs chose it because Wally served as a counselor and told his Dad he would support it when he made it big. 

 

I believe Wally is smiling down on his family, teammates, friends and all the fans who gather at Alex Box Stadium to support the team he loved… at peace knowing just how big he made it in our hearts. 

 

Wally actually wanted Number 13 when he came to LSU, but it wasn't available, so like a true baseball player, he just flipped the numbers. 

 

Little did he know, we would remember Number 31….always. 

 

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Rannah Gray is a featured columnist in Tiger Rag Magazine. She can be reached by e-mail at Rannah@cox.net.


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