Pain on Friday nights, Saturdays, and Sundays

My friend Paul Crane took his “slow goodbye”,  just a few years after I left Mobile, Alabama.  That doesn’t mean that I am at all cushioned against feeling very sad about his diagnosis with CTE, nor that the memories I have about him are any less sweet.  He felt the rapid effects of his deterioration after I knew him, but his goodbye proved to be not as slow as one would expect.  And I discovered he was gone. 

His CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy} diagnosis doesn’t help him now,  but the hope is maybe it’ll help those people who come along after him with the size, gift, and desire to play football at the level that he did.    Certainly knowing Paul proved a help to the Ray Perkins’ family as Ray left them behind much in the same way, with the same diagnosis.  For both of them, diagnosis was only exact after their death.   CTE as we have come to realize is an “All American” story which especially touches me because I had grown to love my neighbor Paul my almost every evening dog-walking pal for a  dozen years. 

Paul and I walked dogs together in the darks and and dawns of Mobile Alabama.  We lived in the designated historical district of that old town known as the “Dauphin Neighborhood.”  His home:  a long, low, extended classic in the “creole cottage” style.  Mine: a tall “Sears Roebuck.”  Both featured:  Live Oaks, Spanish moss, warm nights, historical five flag crests on our houses, porches and  columns.   

He had a little white dog which was the opposite of my big black and white one.  When I heard of Paul’s death a few months ago, I wrote to his wife Heikle:  “Of course I miss you.  And of course you miss Paul.  What we share now are memories of dogs, laughter, a neighborhood, and blues.  That story about a big guy walking his dog around the block.”  A walk which had eventually turned into him pushing his dog around in a baby stroller, simply because he knew Oliver would get tired, and he believed the dog would miss going around the block.    So I hold a fond, ironic, memory of his six foot two presence and a little spoiled white scruffy dog. 

Paul was a gentle lug of a fella.  Dipping into his past, he was a University of Alabama football captain, an “All American” his senior year in one of the famed Coach Bear Bryant’s national championship teams.  He later was on the Joe Namath led Jets team  which won the Super Bowl in 1969.   He played for the Jets for all 7 years of his pro-football career.  In Alabama, where football is a religion, Paul was one of its famous sons.  At Tuscaloosa he was regularly trotted out and recognized on significant football Saturdays.  Mobile was home to the Senior Bowl where his play got him drafted as a free agent, and later saw his porch getting visited by a bevy of football greats who would come each spring to scout or comment during that bowl weekend.  Oh, I’ve followed football players my whole life long, but he was the only Super Bowl winner I have known up-close and personally.  An incidental story his bright-eyed wife Hlkle told me during one hurricane season was that she and Paul were coming out of a Home Depot into the parking lot when there were two men struggling to load a generator into their pick up truck. Paul gently said, “here fellas let me help you with that,” and proceeded to pick it up by himself and toss it into their truck.  It was for her a current reminder and long later replay of Paul’s  awesome strength. “He’s still got it”, she said with a smile.

To turn to the time we shared together, certainly we didn’t have backgrounds or politics in common.  I a classic university theatre professor; he a classic ex-jock.    We did eventually discover we were the same age and were each of us stereotypes in our own chosen ways.    Now Paul had the look of a professional athlete who’d been “ridden hard and put away wet.”  That is to say he limped a little, and mostly walked slow because he’d earned the right to do so.  Of course we also had our current dogs, and they were more than enough to see us through.  People who walk dogs recognize each other at a distance, or maybe their dogs do. We never arranged to walk at a specific times, though we often did.   I would easily recognize the tall silhouette of Paul, and we’d meet half-way down our block to walk together as if by agreement. Remember please, as do I years later, how the primary note about him is that he was filled with laughter, and warm greetings. How gentle an ex-linebacker he proved to be.  “Hey, Professor!”  He had one of those swell, slow, educated, Alabama accents, which grow on you.  Not a working class vocabulary or thick accent, but one of the gentle honeyed ones. He would acknowledge every once in a while that I was Yankee, but he also didn’t really care.  After all he played for the JETS. 

Every once in a while on specific occasions known only to him, I’d see that he was wearing his Super Bowl ring.  Maybe it was occasioned by an old team mate visiting, or he was going to lunch with an N.F.L coach.  I specifically asked him to wear it once when my father-in-law was in town.  (There’s nothing subtle, by the way, about a Super Bowl ring). No, as his hand was approximately the size of my thigh.  Outside linebackers may have been usually bigger, but he had the size which made mine seem small. He also had a small room in the back of his house,  which was stuffed with vaunted pictures on the wall, tattered scrapbooks, signed game footballs, and dusty helmets.  A version of a “man cave,” and a collection of N.Y. JET and ALABAMA history and pictures  which he had collected from those celebrated teams. None of this felt or sounded at all like braggadocio, but more like earned and swell memories.

Since Alabama football is nearly a state religion, he was well known in Mobile.  On drive-time sports radio, I’d hear his recognizable voice and accent called upon for yet another noon interview or commentary about some important college or professional game.   Though football had brought Paul fame and fortune, it didn’t hold center stage in our conversations.  Nope.  Just the events of the day,  occasional invitations to go fishing or maybe a suggestion that we meet for a run to go over to the “boats.”  (What Alabamians call off-shore gambling in nearby Mississippi). 

Over the course of our friendship, I gradually also learned about why he was sometimes sad.  He had lost his only treasured son, Paul Junior, who was around his same size.  Young Paul followed in his dad’s footsteps and starred in high school football.  Of course it was almost required of him.  But he also rebelled against athleticism shortly after high school by disappearing into the world of street-drugs.  Paul Senior took his son to various rehab clinics, and nursed him along without lasting success.  Paul Junior, sadly, became an overdose in a New Orleans apartment.  Paul didn’t often talk with me about his son, but he and Hilke carried that loss with wounded hearts.  Those multiple rehab places in the dust were just another of Paul’s burdens while walking. He played through the pain, but it wasn’t ever easy.  I would hear him say from time to time, “I never thought or knew the danger of what my son got up to, just down that block.”

But to return to a measure of his sweetness. After I stepped out from teaching to take a month long pilgrimage called the Camino Santiago, he made a point of walking with my wife Melissa many nights.  She later told me that he seldom missed.   Again, not by arrangement, but he picked up on the schedule she and our dog was on.   He’d ask what she’d heard from me about my progress across Spain, but she knew he was really out  on our neighborhood streets at dark of night to watch over her.  He never mentioned it, but she knew it to be true.  And hearing about her conversations later, it sounded typical of him.  Walking next to Paul on a dark night would be guaranteed to make anyone feel safe.  She appreciated his presence.  In retrospect, I guess this is a dog-walking story.  Certainly it is an ironic one, too.  Much of what made Paul “special” was due to playing the tough physical game of football, and it ended costing him his brain and his life.  Certainly his heart attributed much of his current life to that very tough game.  While I still have joy in watching Saturday or Sunday football games, I catch myself often to find it impossible to stay with a game after a tough hit or tackle.  He told me once that Paul Junior had bounced off a tackle, and he had told him, “You’re going to have hit harder.  The good ones, all do. The good ones are harder to knock down.”  Old fashioned coaching I guess, but an ironic statement in retrospect. His wife was quoted in a N.Y. TIMES article I’m appending to this note, that he was never sorry about his total commitment to the game. Though I understand the inherent problem this poses for the sport of football itself, I’m still so very sorry that we lost him.  I question all the time, if football is worth such pain and loss.

Crane was a standout college player for Paul “Bear” Bryant’s consensus national title Tide teams in 1964-65. He centered for Namath and was named SEC Lineman of the Year on the ’64 team, after Namath was selected by the Jets in the ’65 AFL Draft, Crane served as Alabama’s captain and received All-America first-team recognition as a senior.

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