Tuesday, February 08, 2011


His name was Paul R. but everyone called him Pablo.

Fat guy back in high school. A great guy. Quickest wit you ever saw. One-liner comebacks that rivaled Rickles. He was a junior when I was a sophomore. His brother Ken and I were really good buddies. Drinking buddies, pot smoking buddies, girl chasing buddies. And Pablo quite often, along with his own friends, would join Ken, myself, and our other buds on weekends. At any given time there were 3 or 4 carloads of us idiots making the rounds. We ripped it up famously. The town of Downers Grove, IL will never be the same because of us. The Omega 24 Hour Restaurant on Ogden Ave. briefly considered naming a menu item after us, or so I've been told.

And we all played football. Not like the song and dance jocks in Glee, but more like the normally toasted jocks in Dazed and Confused. Very much like those guys in fact. Makes sense I guess, now that I think about it. Same time frame, mid 70s.

When Pablo was a senior and I was a junior, our varsity team made it to the Final 4 in our state playoffs (Class 4A, based on school size. Big schools are 8A) But that was later.

When I was a sophomore, and Pablo was a junior, we played on different teams. He played on the varsity (jrs & srs for our foreign readers) and I played on the sophomore team.

My sophomore team went undefeated that year, 1975, but Pablo's varsity team was bad. And they had a coach named, well I'll just call him Ziggy (his nickname.)

Ziggy was a fucking nutcase.

Picture the Paul Gleason character in Breakfast Club. Now, add steroids and 60 lbs along with a military background. The man hated to lose, and I mean hated. He was also an English teacher, but this psycho lived and breathed football. His practices were run like drill sessions. Stopwatches. Running from one place to another, full speed. If you had to go to the bathroom, you RAN off the field, or you paid for it later.

Everything was sir.

"What was the snap count!?!?"

"Two, sir!"

"And what did you go on?!?!"

"One, sir!"

"That's an extra ladder for you!"

A ladder consists of 75 guys lining up on the goal line, all in a 3 point stance, and on the toot of Ziggy's whistle, we'd sprint to the 10 yard line and stop. Turn around. Back a 3 point. Another toot. And sprint back to the goal line. Stop. Turn around. 3 point stance. Motionless. Don't you dare jump before the whistle or we're starting this motherfucker over. Toot! You'd run to the 20. Stop. Turn around. Stance. Wait. Whistle. Sprint to the goal line. Stop. 3 point. Toot! To the 30...and so on until you got to the 50, and then you either hit the showers, or...if Ziggy felt like you needed the exercise, he'd run you back to the 40, the 30, the 20, the 10.

It's an amazing sound when 75 guys in football gear are at a dead sprint, and then slam on the breaks and spin round. It's loud. You can feel the ground under you tremble a bit. A human stampede. And then, total silence. Waiting, waiting, waiting....toot.

The first kind of ladder is known as a "half-ladder." Just to the 50, and call it a day. The second kind is known, of course, as a "full-ladder." Full ladders are a killer after a 2 hour football practice, especially one run by Ziggy. Half-ladders are no picnic either. Doesn't sound that tough until you've run one.

Ziggy loved ladders. Ziggy also loved my older brother, the football star. That was when I was a freshman. Ziggy had his eye on me even then. He knew I could kick the shit out a ball, but he wanted me to play. So did I. Whatever.

The first week of my sophomore year, Ziggy had my team join his team for a week of double-session practices. Pre-season stuff. Let the little guys get a taste of what comes next when they're varsity athletes. And that whole week, Ziggy dogged my ass. Right up in my grill. "You better believe I'm watching you!! Can't you jump in and out of that tire any faster than that??? Move it move it move it!"

I decided then and there that I would never play for Ziggy. He was a sadistic son-of-a-bitch.

Midway through that season, after a Monday practice, I sat on the back stairs by the AD's office and watched Ziggy torture people. Varsity athletes.

They'd lost to lowly St. Francis of Wheaton, and they were going to pay. When I sat down to watch the torture, Ziggy was on his first half-ladder. He didn't stop there. He didn't put them through a full-ladder either. He ran, for the first I ever saw it, a full 100 yard ladder. By the time they were done with their last 90 yard sprint, even the fastest guys were unable to sprint. You just can't. Your legs refuse to obey commands at a certain point.

When they hit the goal line, Ziggy told them to line up again. Not fast enough. This time, I want your all! And he ran a second hundred yard ladder.

Sitting on those stairs watching was a regular thing for me. I watched Pablo, and Ice, and Schrods, and Augie. They were my friends.

By the time they were halfway through Ziggy's 2nd full field ladder, people started dropping.

Dropping dropping. Barely conscious, on all fours, puking.

Pablo made it all the way through two full field ladders. And, he made it to the showers in the locker room next door to ours. And that's when he collapsed.

Flopping around of the floor of the shower like a carp on the beach. Convulsions. People screaming, people running around frantic. AD came sprinting into the shower, fully clothed of course, and immediately grabbed Pablo's tongue.

"Call an ambulance!" snapped Ronnie B.

I stood outside that shower next to my friend Ken, Pablo's little brother, and watched in absolute fucking horror.

Pablo lived. Spent a week at Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers (right near Omega.) Dehydration, exhaustion, shock, fucked up blood sugar, the works.

Calls from outraged parents. Calls for Ziggy's ass. It was, without a doubt, the biggest story that school had seen,...maybe ever. If it had happened today, those Benedictines would be paying out a lot of money to Pablo's parents. Millions.

Instead, they allowed Ziggy to finish the season, and the school year. He was a very hated man in those halls. His practices became a breeze for the last half of the season. He knew he'd gone too far. I don't think he ran another half-ladder the rest of the year. They quietly eased him out the door that summer, and he took a similar job over at Hinsdale South.

To this day, the mere mention of his name causes anger in some people who remember. Me for instance. I hated that guy as much as I've hated anyone in my life. That dude was evil.

This past summer, I was helping my sister run the annual alumni golf outing at Cog Hill and who do I see walking up with a big smile on his face, but Pablo. I don't think I'd seen him since 1980. He's a gynecologist now. That makes sense. He was always a big fan of that area of study, even in high school.

And we were sitting under the big tent by 18, where the BMW honchos party when the PGA comes to town. Just shooting the breeze, catching up on old times. Ken's fine. Married, got 4 kids, tell him I said hello and blah blah blah...

You guessed it.


Fucker walked right up to our table and reached to shake our hands. He's older now, as are we. 35 years older. He's an old man. Gray hair, no more rippling muscles, the fiery insane look in his eyes gone.it was all I could do to not stand up and kick him right in the balls.

And then, Pablo shook Ziggy's hand. It was one of those handshakes you almost have to witness. Hard to describe, and hard to believe so much can be said without words. And then, so as to not seem petty, I shook Ziggy's hand too.

After Ziggy walked away, I sensed that Pablo sensed my anger. He shrugged.

"Can't carry shit around with you forever Michael. Life is just too short."


Penal-Colony said...

Good yarn, Michael, and so true. My sentiments exactly.

I coached junior rugby in my school and practiced the first cardinal rule of coaching -- respect the boys. I never raised my voice once. We lost only one game that entire season. It turned out the major motivation for those boys, as I discovered by receiving a surprise award, was to do their coach proud. I was proud, and very humbled.

Ziggy sounded like a right prick, another 'Great Santini'.

Michael said...

My sophomore coaches were legendary at that school John. Tim White and Bob Szorc. Legendary in part because they almost never lost a game, but moreso because we loved playing for them. They made playing football fun. Probably why they practically never lost. Like your rugby squad, the team wanted to win for them as well as for ourselves.

John Zigmond was the exact opposite, and the Santini thing is perfect. Exactly. People feared him.

I look back on it now and realize he was a man, scaring the shit out of kids. Maybe not children, but certainly not adults yet either. My brother John idolized him, which caused much tension between us, as John knew I hated his idol.

In the end, Zigmond was shown the door and the relief felt by our teams was absolutely palpable. Suddenly we were looking forward to the next season, knowing he was gone. That next year we went to the Final 4. Zigmond never would have taken us that far.

Keifus said...

Pablo sounds like a hell of a guy, and Coach Ziggy a world-class prick. I'm glad you included the epilogue. For some people, certain sorts of assholes, growning old is almost a fitting punishment. It's as though life can take all the life out of them, and what's harsher than powerlessness to a guy like that?

Michael said...

It was great to see Pablo again,what a guy. Gynecologist. It's still funny. Picture a young Ralph Kramden, only picture him as the biggest hound you ever saw. He did pretty well back in the day too. Living proof that humor is the best babe magnet there is.

Zig? He should have stayed home. Tried working the room, but those who remembered him wanted nothing to do with him. Redemption? I don't know, but Pablo let him off easy. Not sure if I could have done that.

Keifus said...

I feel like I've known guys like that, and not sure if it's exactly true, or if just good writing.

So the old man not withered and clueless, as I misread, eh? Fuck 'im.

Michael said...

I guess Zig was about 35 back then Keifus (me 16 Pablo 17.) Jet black hair, constantly furrowed brow, ramrod posture,absolutely intense ...military is the only way I can describe it. Like a fucking drill-sergeant. Terrifying. He knew he scared the shit out of people, and you could tell he liked knowing it too, the sadistic fucker. A consummate bully.

35 years later, gray hair, the fire gone, no more tough guy. A 70ish year old man who, while perhaps not withered, had certainly lost that terrifying presence. Not exactly clueless, ...more like pitiful. The aged bully. I could almost sense remorse. He knew he was hated, and I think he came to Cog Hill that day to take his punishment. Nobody punished him. Nobody tongue-lashed him (I wanted to.), and I think that might have been the best punishment. An asshole like that wants to think he left a mark on us, maybe scars. When Pabs shook his hand, it was one of those perfect moments. He'd have been justified in taking him out in the parking lot and kicking his ass. Instead, high road. Dignified gentlemanly exchange. Almost like,...you didn't beat me pal, but it's nice to know you've been beating yourself up for all these years.

While maybe not as psycho as the young John Zigmond, I think a lot of people know or knew some version of him.

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