Death of a Giant. Here's Why Gino “The Giant” Marchetti of the old Baltimore Colts is One of the Most Important Men In #NFL History

By Jack Gilden

Long before Ray Lewis came on the scene Baltimore had claimed one of its own as the greatest defensive player in history. That man was the defensive end, Gino Marchetti. When I was writing my book, “Collision of Wills (2018, University of Nebraska Press)” about the Baltimore Colts of the 1960s, I never met Marchetti; I called him over and over to request an interview but he never called me back. Nevertheless, he plays one of the most important roles in my story and, indeed, he is one of the most important men in modern football history.

Marchetti’s career as a player is unassailable. A defensive end, they called him the “Giant” though he was the same size as a typical outside linebacker is in today’s game. He was extraordinarily fast and agile for his build and could “sack" the quarterback at will years before that term existed in football and even before the league compiled sacks as an official statistic. Even so, one year the Colts coaches added up the number of times Gino tackled the quarterback and the number was 43. Today 12 sacks in a season will make any kid rich.

Marchetti was captain of the teams that won back to back championships for Baltimore in 1958 and ’59. He broke his leg in the famous overtime game. He stopped Frank Gifford and Vince Lombardi’s offense half a yard short from a key first down that would have allowed the Giants to run out the clock in regulation. That turned the ball over to Johnny Unitas's capable hands and the rest is well-known history.

Marchetti was important for more than just his playing ability. He altered the game itself and played a key part in shaping its future.

In 1963 Gino, close to Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom, showed he could be ruthless in the board room. 

He recommended that head coach Weeb Ewbank be fired from his post and that Don Shula be hired to replace him. Rosenbloom barely remembered Shula even though the granite-jawed young man played for the Colts himself for four seasons calling all of the team’s defensive signals.

“You mean that guy who played here that wasn’t very good?” Rosenbloom asked Marchetti.

“That’s the one,” Gino said. Rosenbloom complied and the dominoes fell into place for the modern game to be invented.

Shula came to Baltimore and quickly turned the franchise around. Baltimore went from a .500 club, which it had been ever since the ’59 championship game, to become the winningest franchise in football. Shula’s Colts had a higher winning percentage than Lombardi’s Packers.

Johnny Unitas, whose career had been foundering during those same three seasons as he threw more interceptions than touchdown passes, turned around under Shula’s tutelage and returned to form. In 1963 he halved his interceptions from the year before. In 1964 Johnny U was league MVP and took the Colts all the way to the Championship Game.

Shula would eventually become the winningest coach in league history and one of its longest-ever tenured.

As for Weeb, because Marchetti backstabbed him in Baltimore, he was free to go to New York and turn the AFL’s Jets into the same kind of well-balanced crusher he had made the Colts. Among Weeb’s many accomplishments in New York were rebranding the franchise and drafting and developing Joe Namath. The Jets were easily the worst team in professional football when he got there, but within six years they were the best. He eclipsed hall of fame coaches and owners in the AFL, including Syd Gilman, Al Davis, and Hank Stram to become the first and only coach to ever win titles in the AFL and NFL.

When Weeb’s Jets beat Shula’s Colts in the third Super Bowl pro football was reborn as a bigger attraction with more fans and a more rabid interest by Americans than any other game.

Marchetti also embodied some of the worst aspects of the game. The Colts were being beaten badly in the waning moments of the 1964 Championship Game, 27-0, when Browns quarterback Frank Ryan threw into the end zone one last time.

Marchetti was enraged.

After that play some recounted that Gino had walked into the Browns huddle and told Ryan, “I’m going to get you for this.”

Ryan disputed to me that Marchetti had actually said that. But the very next week, in the Pro Bowl in Los Angeles, Gino “the Giant” burst through the offensive line, grabbed Ryan and tossed him to the ground so hard he knocked the quarterback out cold and severely dislocated his shoulder.

Did Gino do it on purpose?

“Marchetti chicken-winged him,” Gary Collins, Ryan’s teammate, said later.

When Ryan came to in the locker room the doctors were gluing his arm to his chest to stabilize his injury. The next day they couldn’t even operate on him because the glue was holding so fast that the skin had to be lacerated to separate the appendage from the trunk. Ryan spent the next several months in a full body cast and his arm never completely healed. Back then nobody even cared about the concussion.

Gino, it seems, was a man who could wreck or build depending on his whim.

The Angel In Our House

When we first got our beautiful boxer, Angel, she was already a fully formed five-year-old who had been through the wringer a little bit.  In the four months before she came to us she had lived with three other families, each one under the assumption that the arrangement would be permanent.

But it never was.

Her first family, good friends of mine going on 30 years, were gentle and loving owners who raised her from a pup.  They loved her, but when professional opportunity required that they move to an apartment near New York, they determined that it was best that they give her up. 

Her second owners were young professionals, too busy and unfettered for the responsibility of caring for a dog.  And, finally, her last owner before she came to us was a hard-working man with a pick-up truck who adored her. But he and his young daughter were both allergic to her fur, and she couldn't stay.

And so it was that around about the time of the last Hanukkah, a note out of the blue came to my email box: "Would you be interested in taking my dog?"  A picture was attached.

I fell in love with her right there.  

She was an adorable purebred boxer, my friend assured me, bought directly from a breeder. Somehow she managed to be both petite and huge, small for her breed but with a big, chunky head and powerful chest.   

Her body was the color of an Italian violin, rich mahogany with subtle black tiger striping. She was accented all over in white, including a snowflake on the crown of her head and long extensions from the tips of her big feet all the way up her legs.  This gave the effect that she was wearing elegant ladies evening gloves tugged onto the sinewy arms and massive paws of a prizefighter.

Angel's domestic turmoil mirrored our own.  A divorce had left the kids and me to soldier on without an adult female presence in our home.  There was still a lot of love there, but a sense of loss too.  And, since my wife left, the place didn't smell nearly as good as it used to.

On the last night of Hanukkah, I packed the kids in the car and told them we were going to pick up a surprise.   We pulled into the parking lot of a 7-11 just off the beltway and took possession of Angel.

Having been through so many families in so short a time, Angel tentatively and mournfully jumped into our car.  Perhaps seeking some understanding in the one most like herself she immediately wet-kissed my 8-year old daughter and curled her fat frame in my little girl's lap.

When we got home the kids were thrilled, of course, but Angel was less enthusiastic.  We took her for a long walk on the leash and she obligingly posed for pictures with us, which we immediately posted on Facebook.

But when we arrived back at the house it didn't take long for us to see how disoriented and displeased she was.    We sat down in our living room while she explored our house a little.  Finally, she walked up to the ottoman where I was sitting and stuck her nose in mine and began to angrily bark and growl in my face.  This went on for hours.

Not knowing what to do, I called her most recent owner. He was both sympathetic and amused.  After swearing she was gentle as a lamb with his family, he listened to Angel snarling in the background and offered up some humor:  "Maybe she's anti-Semitic?" he said.

With help like that, and after a week of non-stop barking, I considered giving her away.  The kids, who already loved her despite the racket, were beside themselves.  So I determined to make the marriage last and made the ultimate male sacrifice:  I got us relationship counseling.   

At a friend's suggestion I called the cream of dog trainers, Joy Freedman, who taught me how to go Alpha on Angel and in about an hour our problems were permanently solved.

What we were left with was an incredibly loving member of the family (if anything, a little too loving). At night, she demanded to get into bed with me.  At first I resisted her overtures, even buying her an expensive dog bed of her own. But within a week she was spooning me all night long and complaining about the length of my toenails.

Her relationship with the children was less complicated.  She was unerringly maternal, greeting them lavishly when they returned to the home, bathing them in sloppy kisses, and obligingly providing them a warm and breathing pillow to lay their heads on while they watched television or played cards.  When they fell or cried or fought, she was always there to kiss and wag them back to good humor. She would walk them to school and then refuse to leave until she saw them disappear safely into the building doors.

Even Angel wasn't perfect, of course. 

For one thing, she displayed an abusive bigotry for squirrels and sparrows. On the other hand, she had a Will Rogers approach to people.  We were certain that if any murderers arrived on the scene she would unlock the front door, welcome them in, and point out the cutlery.

She probably came by her affinity for criminals honestly since she was a little bit of a crook herself, although most of her crimes were mere misdemeanors.  She would grab a shoe and run around the house with it.  Or she would stick her whole head in the sink (ours is always filled with dirty dishes) until she emerged with a spoon, knife or a ladle -- which to her was the Holy Grail.

She also committed a felony or two.  She would make daring raids on the pantry, even going to her hinds so she could shoplift off the coveted top shelf.  In this way she gorged herself on whole boxes of Oreos and Chips Ahoy! 

She eventually made the commitment to eat healthy and downed an entire box of uncooked Cream of Wheat.    Trust me when I tell you that you don't even want to know how I discovered the evidence of that one.

It has not always been a smooth road with Angel (the kids say, 'Sometimes she's Angel, and sometimes she's devil'), she's cost us huge vet bills and eats fancy food and messes up the house and adds to the air pollution already ably provided by yours truly.

But none of that equals what she has brought to the family. I suspect that she is conjuring a magical childhood for the kids, filled with affection and humor, petting and kissing. We're learning responsibility, not as a chore, but with every walk and feeding as an act of devotion for someone who means the world to you.

Someday , many decades from now, those lessons will hopefully lead to two hard workers who are attentive spouses and vigilant parents.  And the good memories will flood and flicker in their minds, crowding out all the disappointments and difficulties, so that all that's left are images of a loving dad, a happy little house, and the magic dog who glued it all together.

Swish and me.

Back in the day a greasy old filling station on Route 213 was kind of like Chestertown’s Ellis Island. There was a Trailways stop there that offered a couple of visitors every day their entrance into the ancient place. That’s where I disembarked and walked into the town for the first time in my life. It was 1983 and I was 18. As I strolled around the place before a scheduled admissions appointment at Washington College, I was oblivious to the incredible eighteenth-century federal architecture. And the languid pace and rhythms of the town, a source of charm to so many others, only struck me as evidence of insignificance. When I failed to find any statues, plaques or notations of historical residents or events, I concluded that it was a 300-year old chronic condition. This complete lack of bustle or civic ambition suited me since I expected to spend the next four years here engaged in serious study. (The serious study of brunettes, blondes, and redheads.)

In addition to my “studies,” I took a job at the office of college relations the summer between my junior and senior years. I was hired to write press releases and other materials relating to our membership in the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference. It should have been a mostly forgettable experience except that in my zeal to spice up our prose for a league publication I referred to several rivals as “pansies.” This description skulked past both my bosses and the editors at the conference office, but seemed to gyrate lasciviously under the outraged noses of the insulted schools’ administrators.

Instantly, the offended parties struck back with censure and epithets aimed at both Washington College and me. The school, seeing its reputation sink with every single word I pecked out on its behalf, decided it was time to give me a new assignment. I was taken off public relations and told instead to write a feature story for the alumni magazine about Bill “Swish” Nicholson, the best athlete in school history. The assignment, I was told, should last the rest of the summer. That wasn’t an estimate, but a rather forceful demand.

I approached the project with mild interest. Swish Nicholson was an old outfielder who prowled the verdant lawns of the National League in the era of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. I was a lover of baseball and an enthusiastic reader of its history since a boyhood worshipping Brooks Robinson. My obsession with the game grew as I did, so that by the time I entered high school my father wondered out loud how I was failing “Introduction to Typing” (among other classes) and yet somehow knew the current batting averages of every utility infielder on the Yankees and Red Sox (two teams I detested). “When I was in school,” he thundered, “the kids went outside during typing class and smoked dope. And they still got a ‘C’!”

Despite my interest in baseball, I had never even heard of Swish. Therefore my twenty-year-old brain instantly dismissed him as a “Chestertown celebrity,” a big leaguer, maybe, but long forgotten. In 1986 he was nothing more than an aging farmer and a hunter, isolated and obscure. If he was a big fish it was only in relation to the puny guppies plopping around the Chester puddle.

Even the shoddy research of which I was capable quickly revealed that I was a moron. (Why was I the last to know?) Swish Nicholson was a big star in his day, as big as the National League had to offer. Spending almost his entire career with the Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies, he played a pivotal role in two historic pennant races. In 1945 he helped the Cubs achieve their last World Series appearance in the twentieth century. And in 1950 he was one of Philadelphia’s famous “Whiz Kids,” a group of upstarts that unexpectedly grabbed the National League pennant.

Nicholson’s individual accomplishments were more than impressive. He led the National League in home runs and runs batted in in 1943, and then again in 1944, achieving two thirds of a Triple Crown in two straight years. Of all the great and fearsome sluggers to ever play the game, very few had ever done that.

On July 23, 1944, against the New York Giants, he hit four consecutive home runs. When he came up with a chance to make it five in a row, the bases were loaded. But Giants manager, Mel Ott, had seen enough. He simply surrendered and ordered his pitcher to intentionally walk Nicholson. Giving a player a free pass with the bases loaded is one of the rarest occurrences in baseball. Though there is some dispute about this, it is believed Nicholson was just the third batter in history to be accorded this extreme show of respect. It wouldn’t happen again for another 54 years, when Arizona waved the white flag at Barry Bonds, who may or may not have been enjoying a better career through chemistry.

By the time I arrived at Nicholson’s farm, I had completed my background research. Viewing photos in an old, school file of both the man and the ballplayer it was hard to ignore that he was a pretty nice looking guy in his prime – tall, solidly built, and thick of hair. When he smiled he was all flashing teeth and dimples. In those days of elaborate haberdashery, he sported crisp suits, snappy fedoras, and wingtips shined to glassy perfection. He didn’t look so much like a baseball hero as he did a Hollywood director’s conception of one.

And it was a good thing that he looked like a hero. After his two historic seasons in ’43 and ’44, his career seriously declined. He went from leading the league with 33 homers to managing just 13 in 1945. The next season, at the prime age of 32, he would hit only eight. This was a mystery I intended to explore with him.

Nicholson’s farm sat along the Langford Creek. His well-maintained home was simple but attractive. The front porch featured a couple of old hunting dogs, drowsing in the early evening. As I approached the house these brutes lifted their heads indolently, pushed up on their paws, and wagged their forlorn tails.

I rapped on the screen door a couple of times and Swish appeared. He was no longer the 205-pound ballplayer who retired in 1953. He was 73 now, trim but sinewy, and probably still a pretty tough customer. The thick, perfect brown hair I saw in his playing-day photos was gone--all gone. I myself had an exceedingly beautiful head of brown hair at that time, and I remember thinking: “If it could happen to him….” But I stopped myself since the notion was preposterous, paranoid and, if possible, too tragic to contemplate.

Swish extended his hand to shake and welcomed me into his home. We sat down in his living room and after exchanging stiff pleasantries I commenced the interview. My first question was calculated to be easy. “How did you get the name Swish?”

“Well, I had a habit,” he said. “I would slowly swing my bat across the plate while I was waiting for the pitcher to deliver. I was a pretty big fella and I swung a pretty big stick, so in Brooklyn, they started chanting, “Swissshhh” every time I swung the bat. Eventually, everybody called me that.”

As we talked baseball the many obstacles of formality, familiarity, and age faded until we were just two guys discussing a game we both loved. Eventually, the conversation took on a warmth I hadn’t expected and he started volunteering stories that weren’t even on my list. In one of them, Nicholson plays a key role in a tale that later became celebrated in American literature and film.

“I played ball with a first baseman named Eddie Waitkus,” he said. “We were roommates. One day I was in the hotel and Eddie was out when a call came from a girl. She said her name was Burns and that she had grown up with Eddie in Boston. She was staying at our hotel and said that she would like him to stop by so they could catch up. When I gave him the message, he said that he didn’t remember her but that the name sounded familiar since it was Irish and typical of the Boston area. He called her back and went up to see her. When he entered her room she had a gun and shot him. She had been following him around. I guess she was in love with him. But they had never met.”

That awful event became the basis for Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, a dark novel about an mysteriously gifted ballplayer who, in a moment of moral repose, is shot by a beautiful stranger and robbed of his grand potential. In the early 1980s this story was memorably adapted for film by Barry Levinson.

There were mysteries to Nicholson, too. When I asked him why his skills diminished in the prime of his career, he candidly confessed a great fear.

“In 1945 I should have had my best season. The Cubs won the pennant and I was going to the World Series. But I wasn’t myself. Something was working on me.”

Nicholson didn’t know what that something was, but he had an idea. He was losing strength and feeling generally unwell and his imagination was running away with him. He had convinced himself that he was being ravaged by cancer. Fearing a confirmation he suffered in silence and refused to be seen by a doctor. Finally, and probably at the insistence of the ball club, he was examined, but misdiagnosed. “Nothing wrong but that you smoke and drink too much,” the doctor told him.

Nicholson knew that wasn’t true, but he let the matter drop.

After a lackluster performance in the World Series, the one in which the Cubs were supposedly cursed by an irate farmer and a billy goat, his career sputtered for several more seasons, reviving then dropping. By 1949 his best days were permanently behind him and so were the Cubs. The former star attraction was unceremoniously traded to Philadelphia.

The Phillies were assembling enough good young talent to seriously contend for the National League flag. Nicholson could have provided valuable veteran leadership to a club like that, but he could barely contribute. He was feeling worse and worse and losing weight at an alarming rate. Finally, on Labor Day, he collapsed. The Sporting News called it “a near fatal attack.”

Nicholson disputed the severity of his condition but admitted that he was taken to the hospital where he was finally diagnosed properly. The ailment that robbed him of so many more potentially great seasons was not cancer; it was diabetes, a treatable condition. “A few people in my mother’s family had it,” he said. “Why didn’t I think of it?”

After we concluded our interview we ambled toward the front door laughing and chatting. On a table near the front of the house, he had prepared a treat for me. Before I got there he had laid out artifacts from his big league career for me to examine -- bats and gloves and baseballs. He let me hold these great and dated tools.

It occurred to me while I gripped one of his old Louisville Sluggers, an instrument far too big for me, that I must have appeared like a little boy. Nicholson looked at me, and his mood changed.  He lost the lightness of his bearing and became very serious. 

Suddenly he started to tell me the story of how he had lost one of his two sons. “He had long hair and he came here very late one night and asked me for some money,” he said. “When I wouldn’t give it to him he took off for Florida, hitchhiking. He got hit by a truck on the way down there.”

I got the impression that his son had been lost to him sometime before then. I didn't know what to say, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“You know, I don’t tell very many people about that,” he said. “Please come back here anytime you like.”

But the next time I saw Swish, about a month later, it wasn't at his home, it was at the Kent County Hospital. He was laid up. Word of my story had gotten around the Eastern Shore, and several newspapers sought my permission to republish it. One of them, the Easton Star Democrat, made it the cover article for its weekly magazine, Currents. When I walked into Swish’s hospital room, I had a few copies fresh off the press under my arm.

Nicholson wasn’t feeling well, but he was extremely pleased to see me. He introduced me to his roommate, another elderly man who was an old friend of his. I showed them the magazine and they sat up in their beds while I read. I looked up occasionally to see their bristling gray cheeks and their rapt attention.

My piece was essentially a defense of Bill Nicholson’s career. It was about a man who started with incredible talent and who ascended to the highest heights in his profession. It explained the mystery of his sudden demise on his own terms, with complete sympathy for his point-of-view. There was no analysis or criticism of how his fear had truncated his great career.  When I finished reading my piece, neither man spoke for a while. I looked at Nicholson and I could plainly see him awash in the pleasure of it. Finally, he commented on my writing style which, in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way, led the two old men to spew some outrageous epithets about a newspaperman they both knew and despised.

Gathering himself together before I left, Nicholson cheerfully told me: “You should become a professional writer.” I said thanks, but after listening to those two work over the profession I had no idea if that was a compliment.

Ultimately the piece was published in the college alumni publication, reprinted in two Eastern Shore newspapers, and sought by two different national sports magazines – Baseball Digest and a startup called Sports Heritage. I sold it to the latter for the princely sum of $500, and then promptly blew it all on a preposterous 1978 Chrysler Cordoba. The signature feature of that old rust box was a roof of raw steel. According to the guy who sold me the car, the vinyl had been peeled away by a gang of monkeys at a New Jersey wildlife preserve. It must've been true because who would make up that story?

In the process of enlarging my piece about Nicholson for Sports Heritage I tried to contact a few of his former teammates. The only one I reached was the most famous one, Richie Ashburn. I tracked him down on the road where he was working as a broadcast announcer for the Philadelphia Phillies, his old team. Ashburn had been a centerfielder in the golden era of that position, in the years of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snyder. Though not as well known as that trio of star New Yorkers, Ashburn was a career .308 batter who set several major league records with his glove. At the time of our conversation, he was a few years short of being elected to the Hall of Fame. Ashburn played side by side with Nicholson, a right fielder, so I asked him how well Swish handled his glove. I stupidly assumed that Nicholson, a big man, was competent though unspectacular.  So I asked Ashburn if Nicholson compared to Gary Roenicke, a Baltimore player of my era. He took offense to my correlating the two, and sternly rebuked me. “Nicholson was an outstanding fielder," Ashburn said. "He wasn’t at all average like the player you mentioned.”

Then he asked me a question: “Why are you calling to ask about Bill? He’s okay, isn’t he?”

The desperation in the question was sad in its own way. No one would have feared a reporter inquiring about the career of Williams or DiMaggio. Or even Ashburn. Because I was calling to ask about a long forgotten player, because I was calling about Bill Nicholson, Ashburn assumed I was preparing an obituary.

In fact, with a little perspective, I came to realize that the opposite was true. Instead of sculpting Swish's death mask, I was affording him new real estate in the sun, a chance to have his sultry days reexamined and contextualized for contemporary consideration.

And, indeed, he experienced one last revival. With a surge of interest in his career by the town and his friends, a testimonial dinner was held for him at Washington College. The proceeds were used to erect a handsome statue of him in Chestertown. I attended that dinner and when I arrived, I immediately sought him out to say hello. But I was taken aback by his appearance. Swish was thin and enfeebled, no longer himself  But he was happy to see me and we exchanged pleasantries.

Several former major league players and coaches attended this evening of a thousand corny stories. The best one, the only one I remember, was from an old teammate who recalled a plane trip with Swish and the team.

“We were bouncing around and we were afraid the plane was going to go down," the old ballplayer said. "So we turned to Bill, our leader and a real veteran, and we said, ‘Bill, do something.’ Well, he calmly removed his hat and passed it around and instructed all of the players to put money in it. Finally, one of us had the courage to ask him what in the hell he was doing. ‘We’re all gonna die,’ Swish said, ‘so I figured we ought do something religious.’”

With yet another baseball season in motion, I recently dug out my old article about Swish Nicholson and reread it. I was shocked at how mawkish and poorly written I found it. I was embarrassed to see it. 

When I wrote my first piece about Nicholson in 1986 I was 21, precisely the same age he was when he began his baseball career. As I write these words, I am the same age he was when he quit the game. Much is made of how ballplayers “retire” while they are still young, but I think the best of them hang it up not in their youth, but rather in the first flickering almost imperceptible days of old age.

I’m married now and the father of two. My own career has flashed great promise and suffered humiliating and inexplicable defeats. I have returned to Chestertown many times since I was graduated from Washington College in 1987. One of those trips was to attend Swish’s funeral, which was held in a rustic church just a mile or two down the road from his farm. When I go back to Chestertown these days, I always stop downtown to look at him in bronze. If a visitor came today and wandered around, like I did so many years ago, he would finally have a plaque to read. But thinking it over I would say the Chestertown to which I first came was a far better place.

In those days, Bill Nicholson really lived there.

Want to get rich quick? Be a teacher.

We hear so many negative things from the classroom these days, everything from banned books to guns to video-addicted kids, it's hard to imagine that anything positive happens in the places where the young are supposed to learn. 

I'm almost 53 and that was the point of view I had when I began teaching for the first time in my life last fall.

After years as a businessman I was in the throes of writing my first book.  The financial privation inherent in that decision (it can take years to write a single book, usually with no up-front money for an unheralded, first-time author) necessitated that I take on other work for income.  To help ease the burden, however slightly, I accepted a position as an adjunct professor teaching freshman composition at the Community College of Baltimore County (#CCBC). 

The pay was so low it was practically a volunteer position.

Entering the classroom for the first time I had plenty of reason to feel apprehensive.  There was, of course, a wide age gap between the kids and me, and I worried that they wouldn't be able to relate to a diminutive, balding man who looked like he was hours from the undertaker. 

That situation was only exacerbated by a cultural gap. Except for one student, I was the only white person in the room. 

Most of the class was comprised of African-Americans, many of whom grew up in or around Baltimore City, with a few Latinas, a couple of Asians, and a brilliant young black woman from the nation of Cameroon who was serving in American armed forces.

I soon discovered an extraordinary group of people in the students. Most were struggling to pay for school and held jobs that were 20 or more hours per week. Few owned their own cars, so their education began with learning the hard realities of complex bus schedules and what it feels like to wait for public transportation in the rain and cold.

Unlike the common misperception of entitled post-millennial students, many of my kids were in school hoping to gain enough career skills to work hard for the rest of their lives. Their aspirations included backbreaking careers such as nursing, lawn care, and the military.

We had our dreamers, too.  One extraordinarily bright young man wanted to be a poet and a song lyricist; so he wrote all of his papers in verse.  Another had his sites set on going to film school and writing and directing movies.  A third left a secure job as a letter carrier because he wanted to pursue a career as a veterinarian of exotic animals like snakes and lizards.

Few of the kids came to the class with acceptable writing skills.  Most admitted that they didn't freely read books, newspapers or magazines, and that they came from homes where those items were scarce.   Many of the kids spoke in a thick, "black-vernacular" style English that hindered their grammar and lessened their chances for long-term academic success.

After reading their first, short homework papers I despaired.  I was certain that I had made a disastrous choice in becoming a teacher.  I could immediately see that the stakes were very high for the kids and I doubted that with my meager skills as an educator that I was up to the task of getting any of them where they needed to go.

But then something interesting happened. Many of the kids engaged with me on a level I hadn't expected.  They read the assigned material every week and arrived at class eager to participate in our discussions. 

Our first unit highlighted the differences in black and white culture in the United States, contrasting Standard English with so-called black-vernacular. Naturally, many of our discussions centered around race.

Unfortunately, our class began just weeks after the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer, so those discussions had the potential to be heated or even ugly.  I braced myself for the possibility of regrettable ideas or language being thrown around the classroom.

Instead, I found something I didn't expect.  The students weren't at all bigoted like many of the adults we had recently seen on the news hurling insults and blunt instruments at each other. 

I found the young African-Americans were particularly broad-minded.  A couple of years earlier their city was burning in race riots sparked by police brutality accusations.  Some of the kids were from Baltimore city, went to city high schools, and grew up on disadvantaged circumstances.  They heard the ugly rhetoric directed at them, and saw the dissatisfaction in elders from their own community. 

But none of them, not one, was a hater.  All of them denounced violence and expressed a belief in the good and bad in all people and races.  While there was a general wish for justice, the class discussions were far from one-sided.  The controversy surrounding the NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick especially sparked spirited debate.  Some of my black students saw him as a hero, taking financial hits for a bigger cause.  But others saw him as unpatriotic, throwing away a lucrative career to demean the country.

As for me, a man who has basically lived in a segregated world since I left high school, I became the most eager student in the class.  The kids taught me how beautiful, how open, how forgiving, young minds could be. 

I was overwhelmed by their decency.

By the end of the class I felt that every student's writing and critical thinking abilities had improved dramatically.  But no one learned more than I did.

I worked a job for very little pay and discovered how enriching it was to give away everything I knew about writing.  I found that investing myself in the success of others was more meaningful to me than any success I had enjoyed as an aggressive businessman. 

I wasn't teaching kids how to write so much as I was teaching them how to be civilized.  I was showing them how to find their voices, how to make strong arguments on paper, how to back up their opinions with hard facts, and how to consider ideas opposite to their own.  I felt like I was curing them from an ignominious disease.  I felt like I was throwing them a lifeline out of the swirling currents of ignorance and anonymity, the very things that were then (and now) swallowing their country.

I admit that I walked into the classroom hoping to make a small paycheck.  But I walked out the richest man in the world.

Where Are Our Statesmen?

Is America so awash in troubles today that it is impossible for political leaders and citizens to work together to resolve the nation's problems?

Most of the intelligent and educated people I encounter seem to think so.  I see people I know on both sides of the political aisle exhibiting contempt for people exactly like themselves who just happen to view the world a little differently, or belong to the other political party.

It almost seems that Democrat and Republican have become rival sports teams with fans who cheer them on and hatefully boo the opponents.

But are our problems more inscrutable than those faced by past American generations, or are we merely less capable of dealing with them?  Obviously there is nothing as difficult in American society today as slavery, impending civil war, or Nazis overrunning Europe. Yet our ancestors had the intelligence and strength of character to face and defeat those problems (and many other terrifying ones) without losing their grip on who and what they were.

In that light the current partisanship seems to be merely a crutch for a generation that grew up too coddled to read and too lazy to think.  It seems as though we live in a country where the citizens  no longer know how to use their own government properly.

American citizens no longer debate, they scream.  They no longer read the news -- they post it.  And it's often fake. As a result fewer people seek out points of view opposed to their own. And the algorithms of an evil social media only aid them in avoiding a more complete and complex understanding of the world.

Indolence, ignorance and intolerance all seem to go hand in hand in a society whose only eloquence is in expressing its rage.

Many American institutions that have been considered sacrosanct for two centuries are now looked upon as passé.  Presidential elections, decided in the same way since George Washington's time are now called into question as illegitimate.  The right to assemble peaceably has been perverted by goons who arrive with any manner of weapons from blunt instruments to bombs, not to mention cars used to plunge into crowds and kill indiscriminately.   

All of those things are less powerful than simple words, of course, yet free speech is fast becoming a charming relic of the past.  In the last several years, speakers on college campuses have been met with virulent opposition, verbal harassment and, in many cases, violence.  On one campus, a student attempting to take photos of a demonstration for news purposes was stymied by a professor who called for "muscle" to remove him.  That scene was captured on video.

Our Bill of Rights, the centerpiece of American exceptionalism and the high-water mark for personal power and liberty in human history, is under assault. 

Americans are on the warpath against public art. The censors who were once obsessed with sex on the canvas now aim their erasures at negative history. 

Anti-Hispanic, anti-Arab, anti-black and -- the old stand by -- anti-Semitism have all surfaced recently with a political justification by their purveyors. 

Are there any American statesmen left, competent people who care more for the nation than any faction, party, or point of view? 

Is there even one?

The irony of all this, of course, is that despite these cracks and fissures the United States appears stronger than ever.  Still flush in post-World War II power, "the last Super Power" has become an atomic fortress virtually impregnable from outside attack. Nobody, no foreign power, can kill us or eradicate our way of life. 

But there's nothing to prevent us from committing suicide.

 

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Dying to Learn

There is no problem in the world that doesn't also have a solution.  When people wanted to travel by air they worked so hard at it they were soon on the moon.  They wanted to end a war, and they conceived of and built an atomic bomb.  We had a need for greater and faster access to information and now people basically walk around with thousands of warehouses of human wisdom right in their pockets.

So why then is it impossible to solve the uniquely American problem of gun proliferation and gun-related deaths, especially in schools?

Maybe the problem is the 2nd amendment from our sacred Bill of Rights?  It protects our right to "bear arms," yet so many progressives disdainfully regard it as a shibboleth.   Perhaps the issue is an ignorant, fresh-water state electorate who, as it was once said, 'cling to their guns and religion?'  Or maybe it's the NRA because it so successfully preys on our venal politicians?

I believe that in this coarsening culture the problem is with the people, the citizens, all of them.  If I could I would indict them for a number of felonies. 

For one thing, American voters elect amateurs.  In recent years they have elevated businesspeople, a professional wrestler, comedy writers, community organizers, reality show hosts, and politicians' wives to important positions.  Those choices have clearly degraded American democracy. 

While the rise of laypeople might suggest that we have become a less political country, it's obvious we have become far more political.  So many of us now tend to see every problem and its potential solution through the lens of political affiliation which is, of course, to the detriment of nuanced thought. 

The education of the country has plummeted.  Daily newspapers and periodicals were the textbooks of self-rule but they have been replaced by the comic books of social media.

We need serious ideas posited in the most civilized fashion to figure out how to keep our children from being mowed down like gangsters on St. Valentines Day.  Instead what we usually see is our 'friends,' telling each other off in the most indecent language imaginable. 

Although such 'dialogue' was once considered democratic and egalitarian, it has devolved into didactic parties lecturing each other before deploying the F-bomb and departing company.  With proper rage vented, everyone moves on from the topic until the cycle repeats.

Why is it so hard to prevent kids at school from getting shot? Is it because the right to bear arms is supposedly embedded in the Bill of Rights?  The right to free speech is in the Bill of Rights, too, but it's hard to imagine that if filthy movies (protected free speech) were suddenly being projected onto school-house screens that there wouldn't immediately be a bipartisan effort to prevent it.  Everybody from preachers to postmasters would be on the case, and the practice would end immediately.

What we are seeing in our blood spattered schools today -- children with decades of life and infinite promise ahead of them lying dead in puddles of their own blood -- is far more obscene, indecent, and profane than even the most hardcore pornography. 

Yet there is little substantive debate or cooperation about the renewable mass slaughter of the kids.

So what is the solution?

A change in paradigm is required to end this cancer-like problem.  It requires people to stop spouting political platitudes and instead band together to discover all the possible avenues of change.  Certainly common ground can be found in ending the phenomenon of our own kids being executed.

Voters have to take their jobs more seriously, of course.  We need to recognize statecraft is a job like any other that requires talent, skill and experience.  Citizens also need to demand and use (and pay for) better news sources.  Americans also need to stop watching reality TV long enough read a few books.  We need to rediscover the ability to discuss issues in a civilized manner.

Americans need better access to mental health care that is supported by insurance.  We need lawyers who are creative enough to devise new strategies for attacking the gun industry and its lobbyists and associations and make them pay for their liabilities.  The clergy of every persuasion needs to band together and utilize their moral position to demand concessions from the political class.  And of course we need secure schools since we no longer live in an idealized past.

It is also worth asking as a society if we truly love and value our children? 

A few years ago little boys were being raped in the football locker room of Penn State University and the most famous coach in the country and his academic overseers turned the other way.  After some perfunctory sanctions the school was quickly back on the gridiron as though nothing had happened.  More recently it was discovered that talented young female athletes in Michigan were also being sexually assaulted -- and ignored.

You better believe that if American wallets were as vulnerable and abused as American children that we would stop at nothing to get at the perpetrators.

We all know that the gun violence needs to be stopped, we just need to understand that it can be stopped.   It's up to us to have the energy, the attention span, the creativity, and the resolve. 

Because they're our kids.

We can nurture and protect them, or we can just sit back and watch them die.

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