THIS IS a column about a column I never got to write.
A few weeks ago, I got a call saying John Vitale was sick, cancer had him in its grasp. The words did not go with the man. Vitale was this huge, hulking guy, always had been, even as a kid, they had to starve him before youth league football games just to get him to make the weight limit. His dad would be waiting in the car with four sandwiches after the scale-tipping.
“You make weight?”
He grew into a beefy, 280-pound offensive lineman, strong enough to lift a refrigerator and nutty enough to eat everything in it. He became a consensus All-America at Michigan, started three years at center, captained the 1988 season Rose Bowl team — and once showed up with a U-M helmet shaved into the side of his head.
Quarterbacks felt safe behind him (ask Jim Harbaugh). Running backs used him as a shield (ask Jamie Morris). And while there are legendary stories about Vitale’s toughness — his knuckles were always a pulpy, bloody mess — perhaps the toughest thing he ever did was stand toe-to-toe with Bo Schembechler, his grizzled coach.
“You gonna work us today, Chief?” Vitale would ask.
“I’m gonna kick your butt,” Schembechler would say.
“Good,” Vitale would answer.
Good? Well, this is the kind of guy we’re talking about. Or part of the guy. He was also as funny and loving as he was tough. This was a guy who once put cooking oil above a doorjamb, hoping it would spill on a teammate’s head — only to end up covered in the oil himself.
But this was also a guy who, when college ball was over, and some of his buddies got the big money in the NFL, eventually found himself back where he’d grown up, working at a youth center. He was everything there, from carpenter to counselor. On occasion, he would bring troubled kids to his mother and father’s home, give them meals, play with them for hours.
“A gentle giant,” they said of him Wednesday.
They said it at his funeral.
A difficult battle with cancer
You see, I never got to do the column I intended about Vitale. I had plans to interview him, talk about his battle with cancer, but I had this one other assignment, overseas, and I figured, John’s a bear, he’ll hang on, I’ll do it in a week, as soon as I come back.
You don’t always get a week. Not with cancer, which chops down even redwoods in the human forest. It first hit Vitale at the unforgivable age of 29. Ependymoma. The spinal cord. He had a tumor removed. Did the chemo. For a while, they thought maybe it’s gone, maybe it’s gone….
Is it ever gone? The cancer came back in 1999. Vitale had several surgeries and all kinds of treatments. At one point, when the chemotherapy wasn’t working, they put a shunt in his head and fed the chemical straight to his brain.
For several months, Vitale could barely get up. He managed to do so once, last October — to bury his mother, who died of cancer.
Then, this year, for a short time, a light seemed to shine. Although there were terrible side effects — headaches that could crack a safe — the ultra-chemo seemed to work. Maybe it’s gone, maybe it’s gone….
Is it ever gone? In March, Vitale went for a test. The cancer was all over his spinal cord and brain. He was a dead man.
His father broke the news.
“Well,” Vitale sighed, “this sucks.”
Those were the first and only negative words anyone heard him say. His father looked at him, helplessly. He remembered how John would sign Christmas cards “from your No. 1 son….”
Now his No. 1 son, this big tough kid, was dying in front of him. These were the only words he could muster:
“Son …it is an honor to be your father.”
A touching, All-America farewell
On Wednesday morning, in the standing-room-only reverence of St. Jude Catholic Church in Detroit, the rest of John Vitale’s world shared the honor he had been to them. Former teammates, whose thick necks pushed at their suit lapels. Crew-cut coaches, who bit their lips to fight back tears. His wife, Lynn, his brother and sisters, his nieces and nephews, his co-workers.
The priest spoke of John’s religious devotion, how he locked up the church every night and regularly attended mass. He also mentioned how John would sometimes say, “Father, I have a tee time, could you make the sermon short today?”
Others spoke of John’s football, of his stints in the World and Arena leagues, of his love for pasta, of his endless nicknames, including “Red Tape,” given by best friend Mike Gormely, because John had to do things his way, which was often, well, convoluted.
His father noted that three new babies recently were born in the extended Vitale family. “I guess that’s about right,” he said, “three babies to replace one big guy.”
People chuckled. And they cried.
There has been talk this week about the “tragedy” of Grant Hill leaving Detroit to play basketball somewhere else. Those kinds of departures do not matter. The departure of big-old, kid-loving, head-shaving, bloody-knuckled John Vitale — who left this earth after just 34 years — that matters. And it leaves us this lesson:
You can never take one moment of life for granted. I regret the column I never got to write. I regret the good-bye I never got to say even more.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations to the John Vitale Charitable Fund can be made through Wolverine Human Services at 313-824-4400 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays.