Sunday, February 1, 2009
Expected: Today, the Arizona Cardinals or the Pittsburgh Steelers will be crowned Super Bowl Champions – football’s ultimate prize. To recognize this achievement, the winning team members will receive championship rings.
Doubt: Is it possible to connect a football championship ring with its rightful owner after more than 31 years?
Trials: Bernie Tiger, www.serenitysjourney.com, was mentioned in my October 2007 blog. We attended high school together in NJ and reconnected in 2004 after crossing paths at our respective child’s middle school orientation. Bernie’s son and my eldest daughter are in the same class at our Massachusetts regional middle / high school, attended by students from three abutting towns. Our meeting is Providence.
It’s hard to avoid Bernie. He was the tallest person in the auditorium, and he looked somewhat familiar despite adding a few requisite pounds. A few days later, I saw him at a Blockbuster Video store. We stared at each other. I nodded, and said to myself: “man, this guy looks like Bernie Tiger”, but figured it was just a striking resemblance; Bernie’s being in the area was too improbable. Plus, I side stepped my daughters’ mortification and subsequent wrath by not greeting Bernie, his son and friends.
After Blockbuster, I returned to my office and received an email from Bernie. He wrote he saw me at the orientation and at Blockbuster, then did a web search and saw it was, in fact, me. He reintroduced himself and asked if I’d remembered him from Madison. Of course I’d remembered him. Several things stand out about Bernie. First, as mentioned, he is big. Second, he is talented. We were in the same freshman drafting class. Every week Bernie’s work was posted on the board with Mr. Tourell’s coveted “Excellent” comment.
Third, we are football teammates, positioned next to each other in our 1977 Championship Team Photo. We had a unique team incident. I cracked my helmet (a helmet once belonging to Bobby Monica, our Head Coach’s middle son and a Madison Athletic Legend) down the middle against Summit, NJ during this 1977 sophomore year and needed Bernie's helmet. Bernie, and eventual All State linebacker John Dagon, were the only players with helmets big enough to fit my great pumpkin. John played special teams, and was needed on the field. Bernie had less football experience and was eager to let me wear his helmet.
Fourth, Bernie and I were raised by a terminally ill parent and lost this young parent to cancer. We also share transition challenges caused by our respective parent’s quick remarriages. Bernie's dad had colon cancer and died when Bernie was fifteen. Bernie's mom remarried and moved Bernie, his sister, and his brother to Pennsylvania. Thanks to the move, Bernie did not graduate with our Madison High class. He sort of disappeared. We never knew what happened to him.
As soon as he moved, Bernie and his stepfather butted heads. He threw Bernie out in the dead of winter. Bernie slept in the snow for three nights, looking for work during the day. He found and lived at a Salvation Army for six months. He was homeless.
Transcendence: Despite these significant odds, Bernie survived, and then thrived. He stuck with his passion, music. He played bass guitar in a band. He got a job. He earned his GED. He had the spiritual and emotional tools needed to self protect. He looked around, saw others succeeding, and realized there was no difference between them and him. He knew he could compete in the race. He started testing himself, to see how he could improve himself. Success proved he was good. He belonged. He met his eventual wife. He got a better job. He and his wife had a son and committed to doing it right. He was relocated to the Massachusetts town next to mine. Bernie and I meet for breakfast or lunch, or to workout, about every two weeks.
On January 19, 2009, I received a Facebook message from another high school teammate, Bob Irving, who is two years older than Bernie and me. Irvs is an amazing person. He is full of heart and inspiration. He’s always been this way, and especially since battling back from cancer, diagnosed in 1980. We reconnected at the Ted Monica Field Dedication in September 2007. Coach Monica is a NJ football coaching legend. Our playing field is named for him. Irvs and I trade emails and messages.
After responding to Irvs recent note, I noticed Bobby Monica, who is two years older than Irvs, listed as a friend on Irvs’ Facebook contact list. I also noticed Mark Monica, www.impactpads.com, listed on Bobby’s friends list.
Mark and I are Madison classmates. As quarterback, he led us to our third consecutive, undefeated, NJ State Championship title during our 1979 senior year, admirably replacing graduated Steve O’Donnell, who was then playing for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. Mark and I grew up together. We were in kindergarten together, and shared most elementary school classes and friends.
The 1979 season was significant for me because my mom succumbed to her eight year battle with melanoma a few days before our state championship playoff game. She was buried the day before. Mark, John Dagon, Pete O’Donnell, and I were senior football captains. The love, teamwork, and leadership I experienced during this season fostered my resiliency and prompted me to pursue my career.
I mentioned my lunch with Bernie Tiger to Mark. He wrote back immediately, stating he was helping his dad and mom organize his dad’s football belongings a few months earlier and came across a wrapped ring box with “Tiger”, #79 – Bernie’s number, and 10 ½ - Bernie’s ring size, on the sleeve under the wrapping. Mark was not sure what he did with the ring. He remembered Bernie as a good guy, but never knew what happened to him.
I wrote Mark it'd be great to surprise Bernie. Mark wrote back: “Pak-nye, I FOUND BERNIE TIGER'S RING. The foam inside the box has seen better days, but the ring itself is pristine. Can you imagine giving this thing to him 32 years later? Call me at the office tomorrow, toll-free 866.393.1400 please. Talk to you later.”
Mark followed this up with: “Ring went out today via FedEx Next Day Air. You should have it tomorrow morning by 10:30AM. I sent it Priority so the chance of it getting lost is decreased (never know with these guys). Good luck!”
This past Thursday, January 29, 2008, I surprised Bernie Tiger with his 1977 Madison, NJ High School Football State Championship Ring, at, ironically, a restaurant named “How on Earth” in Mattapoisett, MA, more than 31 years after, and four states away from, the original awards ceremony, thanks to a series of championship – football, telecom, and friendship - rings. It fit. I claim Bernie almost passed out, at least got teary. Bernie refutes this.
When I called Bernie later to see if he'd shown the ring to his son, who questioned Bernie's claims about being on an undefeated state championship team because Bernie had no ring or proof, Bernie stated: "it's his ring now!"
Post Script: As I was leaving “How on Earth”, I returned a call from Bobby Irving. His daughter had lost his 1977 Madison High State Championship Ring, and he was calling to see if I had mine (I do) and if he could get some pictures. He’d met a woman from Josten’s who stated she could make a duplicate with ease from photos. Bernie is making the jpeg copies of his ring to make Irvs’ new ring.