He came to this country in the trunk of a car, in the middle of the night, sneaking across the border, whispering, “Are we there yet?” When they popped the latch, the first thing he saw was snow, everywhere. Where he came from, it did not snow.
“So this is America,” he told himself.
He spent the next few weeks looking for a wife. He knew he couldn’t stay here without citizenship, so he went to Greek parties, he met everyone’s sister and cousin, but no one wanted to marry him, because he had no work. Back in Greece, he’d owned a bakery. But he traded it for a plane ticket to North America. The whole bakery? For a plane ticket?
“I was 20 years old,” he says now, in his thick accent. “What do I know?”
One night he met a young woman whom he recognized from work in the old country. Must be fate, he figured. They were married three weeks later. Not long after, they had a child.
This is the story of the American Dream, handed off like a football from father to son. Tommy Peristeris — his real first name is Athanasios — came to this continent with $100 in his pocket. He lived in a rented room and ate milk and bread every day for a month. He offered to work for free just to get in the door. Finally, a Coney Island restaurant hired him: $1.50 per hour.
He worked seven days a week. And in time, with help, he opened a restaurant of his own, in Greektown. It served pastitsio and mousaka and stuffed grape leaves and lamb chops. Tommy kept it open until 4 or 5 in the morning. Didn’t matter. If there was one more person who wanted a meal, he stuck around. The restaurant was The Parthenon, named after the temple in Athens, where Tommy had gone to live, after his father punished him for losing a flock of sheep.
‘The sheep story’ again
Paul Peristeris — his real first name is Apostolos — has heard “the sheep story” his whole life. When he was a little boy in Dearborn, kicking a soccer ball with his father, he heard it. When he was a teenager, kicking a football in high school, he heard it.
“Dad was told to take the flock of sheep into the mountains and deliver it to another town. Late at night, he thought he heard a bear. He got scared and ran away. When he came home, his father said, ‘Where are the sheep?’ My dad said, ‘I left them in the mountains.’ His father said, ‘You better go back and get them.’ But they were gone. His father was really mad.”
Tommy, only 13, left home after that. He would tell Paul that story to show him that all problems are relative. So you can understand why, when it came time to choose a college, Paul Peristeris turned down scholarships at smaller schools to try to make his dream, to be a punter at Michigan.
He walked on. And he waited.
Freshman year, no action. Sophomore year, no action. Junior year, no action. He was sweating through practices, coming home with a sore leg, giving up four or five hours a day, and still he wasn’t playing. He called his father, thinking about quitting. His father reminded him of the bread and milk nights when he came to this country, when he didn’t know how to make a phone call.
“Now, looka me,” he said. “I got my own business.”
So the kid persisted. And last year, during the Illinois game, coach Lloyd Carr finally turned to Paul and said, “Next one, you kick.”
It was late in the game. Michigan was far ahead. Paul ran out, his heart in his throat, and took the snap. On TV, the announcers didn’t even notice the punting change, so they just said, “Nate DeLong tries for the coffin corner.”
Several hundred miles away, Tommy Peristeris popped out of his chair and yelled at the TV set. That wasn’t Nate DeLong, he said. DeLong kicked with his left foot. This kid was kicking right. “That’s my boy!”
The ball was snapped, Paul’s kick sailed high and true, and another immigrant’s son had made good in America.
The scholarship has arrived
Today, the young Peristeris is Michigan’s starting punter. Several coaches have called him the most improved player on the team. He is a fifth-year senior, and this is his last semester at Michigan — before he heads to law school — but the university is finally picking up the tab. Peristeris, an Academic All-America, was given a football scholarship late last year.
“I called my father at the restaurant after Coach told me,” Paul says.
What did he say?
“He said he knew I could do it.”
Tommy goes to all the games now. He was in Colorado when Paul hit a 56-yarder and Michigan won. “I was so happy, I go to nightclub, don’t come home till 5 in morning,” Tommy says.
In all the years Paul was trying to make it, Tommy entertained famous coaches at his New Parthenon and Big Daddy’s Parthenon restaurants — including some of the Michigan staff. He thought about asking, “Can you help my son?” But he didn’t think it was right.
Instead, the kid helped himself. It is the tale of the immigrant tapestry, from Ellis Island in the 1800s to a marriage between two Greek strangers who are still married today, 26 years later.
“Only in America,” Tommy says. His son just smiles. He has promised to buy his teammates dinner after the season, and he knows a pretty good place.