A Concussion, Bad Decision, and Baseball

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As Long Beach Jordan's Varsity quarterback during the Poly game, I suffered a concussion on an unusual play. I faked the ball to two-hundred and twenty pound halfback, Dick Merrit, and handed it to fullback, Hal Steuber. He ran through the left side of the line when a fast linebacker, Alonzo Irvin, at 6 feet 2 inches and two hundred and fifteen pounds, CIF high hurdle champion, stole the ball! Irvin sprinted toward the sideline directly at me with the ball in his right hand where I was completing a fake end run. Lunging toward him with lowered head and feet churning, my helmet drilled him hard at his belt. He timed the collision to smash my helmet with his right knee just when my head dropped for the tackle. THWACK! My brain went blank into a dark dizzying spiral. Unconscious from the impact of the collision, my body collapsed and fell to the ground. Later I learned my tackle had sent him into the air and he fell hard to the ground. Two players dragged my limp one hundred and sixty-five pound frame to the sidelines. A worried assistant coach began asking questions. Groggy and garbled answers came from my mouth as I wandered in and out of bewilderment until I slowly regained consciousness. “My name is Dan Lavery. Today is Friday. We’re playing Poly. Put me back in.”

“Lie down and relax. You’re through for today,” said Coach Park. “Here’s the name and address of a neurologist you must see for tests after the game.” We tied Poly 19-19 as Skip Lawrence replaced me and helped the team win. Afterwards the neurologist concluded I had a concussion with no permanent damage.

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Later in the season we beat Lakewood 33-12 in our best offensive game. Their quarterback punted a low line-drive I caught on our thirty-five yard line. Our left defensive back, Walt Rapold, ran forward to block and dove into two players with his elbows outstretched. After following Walt, I cut sharply to the right and turned on my speed. Someone blocked their left end to the ground. Running as fast as possible I swung around him, but their tall and fast quarterback was bearing down on me so I ran wide to the right and turned up the field. As we raced he took aim for me. About twenty yards separated us when I accelerated with all my might. As we approached, the crowd sensed I had a chance to out-run him, and started a mighty roar. That motivated me to give it all I had. My final burst of speed allowed me to dash past him. The crowd exploded in aloud crescendo as I raced into the end zone for a sixty-five yard TD. My teammates embraced me while the crowd roared.

“Who made that touchdown?” asked Coach Park.

“That was Lavery,” someone shouted.

“I haven’t seen anyone run that fast since Benny,” said Coach Park. He came up to me, “I didn’t know you were that fast, he said.” At a loss for words, a smile lit up my face.

“Coach Park wanted you to consider moving to halfback because of your run back in the Lakewood game,” Coach Crutchfield said at the next practice.

“I’m a quarterback,” automatically came out of my mouth. He looked away and shook his head. Too immature to realize an opportunity, I let a chance for me to show my running skill as a halfback slip by. What if I had said, “I’ll do anything to help the team?” Hindsight often is 20/20.

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Coach Crutchfield had a crew cut under his baseball cap and a wonderful sense of humor he used whenever he felt we needed to loosen up with laughter. A football and baseball player at USC, he flew jets during military service and coached Jordan backs in football.  At 5’ 9” and two hundred and twenty pounds, huge muscular arms, thick neck, stocky legs well-defined calf muscles that bulged when he walked, his thighs looked like they belonged to a bull. You had to love baseball with all your heart to succeed on his team. After watching me hit a homerun into a palm tree in practice he elevated me to first-string right fielder.

The next day pitching in practice he gave an expert lesson in the art of hitting.  “Dan, you can get all the power you need without lunging at the ball. Take your stance.” I walked to the batter’s box and stood balanced with my feet three inches apart waiting for the pitch to start my stride. “Move your left foot toward me keeping your weight mostly on your back foot.” That opened my stance about one foot. “Keep extending until I say stop.” Opening until I couldn’t move any further was awkward, but balanced in a spread stance. “Give me a strong swing.” I tried to swing hard but was too extended. “Shift your weight to 2/3 on your back foot and crouch down. As you begin your next swing, shift your weight to the front foot.”

His solution gave me as much power in my swing as ever. “When you recognize the pitch as a fast ball you continue the weight shift to stroke the ball where it is pitched. When you see the ball is spinning it’s a curve or other off-speed pitch. Slow down and move your bat through the strike zone with a level swing. Try to hit the ball up the middle or to right center. If the ball drops low and away, adjust to meet it and send it over the second basemen’s head.” He pitched a fast ball I stroked over the left field fence as far as I had ever hit a ball. “Fine. You have eliminated your lunge and have plenty of power.” Crutch was right.

He threw another pitch that started to drop on me. I stopped my shift of weight and hit the ball in right field between the outfielders. “You have learned to adjust to pitches that have bothered you. With practice you’ll see a great improvement and are a different hitter who can attack anything.” My new stance and his approach gave me confidence.

I started in center field for one of the best varsity baseball teams in the City. The cheerleaders, including Bob and Mel, showed up for the Alumni game. Coach, will you let me pitch the Alumni game?”I asked coach Crutch.

“All right for the Alumni game, but I need you in centerfield for the season,” he said. Ron Fairly was in the lineup. He had set many records at Jordan but we won that game, and he didn’t get a hit in four at bats. Coach never pitched me again disappointing me but I loved centerfield and was in many game challenging situations from that crucial position. Against Poly, we led 4-3 for the City Championship on a smoggy day. Willie Brown, who later became a Hall of Fame safety for the Oakland Raiders, hit clean-up for Poly. In the last inning with two out, Willie came up with men on base. He slugged a ball deep into center field, which sailed so high in the smog my eyes could not find it. Running as fast as possible to a spot the ball should drop based on the sound it made off the bat, I fortunately saw a white sphere suddenly fall out of a murky sky and snared it in my glove to end the game four hundred feet from home. Only I knew how lucky that was.

We played in the CIF tournament at Blair Stadium in Long Beach against a great team, but lost 7-4. Their pitcher, a tall muscular right-hander, thought he could quick pitch me as I came to bat my third time. Starting to get into my stance with my bat loose, he uncorked a fastball right down the middle. Probably because of my relaxed posture, I slammed the pitch on the sweet spot with a fluid swing. The ball took off on a streak way over the center fielder’s head for my second hit that day, a triple that bounced off the four hundred foot wall marker. Lucky to lead the team in triples, bat over.300, and make many good plays on defense, I gave my all in my favorite sport.

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For my senior book report in English Composition, I chose The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come by John Bunyan (1678). He wrote his Christian allegory as a Protestant from jail for his outspoken Puritan beliefs that conflicted with Anglicanism. My thirty minute speech followed Bunyan’s protagonist, Christian, on a spiritual journey avoiding temptation and worldly sins. He eventually arrived at heaven by practicing Bunyan’s uncompromising convictions.

“Your passion for your subject came through. Have you given a thought to becoming a minister?” said my teacher after giving me an “A”

“I have, but my Dad wants me to obtain an appointment to Annapolis.”

***

In Senior Problems, we took a Kuder Interest Test to help us learn what careers might best suit our personality. Mrs. Poultney informed me the ministry, social work, law, military, and criminology were high on my list. She required us to interview professionals to assist us in considering a career. I interviewed a minister and a criminologist since I had my father to discuss a military life.

After interviewing an Episcopal minister I thought to myself how different he appeared from the one at Mom’s Church who held food drives for the poor. He never wrote a sermon because they were prepared by their order of service and had minimal outreach to the community. My interview with a criminologist impressed me far more, and piqued my interest. He loved his work and demonstrated his career benefitted society: it solved crimes, promoted justice, helped victims, and provided counseling to criminals. My research paper included interviews with leaders in each field, but left me undecided for my career choice.

When the time for college applications came, I applied for Duke, USNA, Dartmouth, and Stanford. By-passing study courses for the SAT because of my high grades, I was disappointed my scores were too low for the Naval Academy, but were sufficient for an NROTC Scholarship just below 600. I chose Duke because it was located between Washington, D.C. and Miami where my families lived, had a beautiful campus, their baseball team won the NCAA championship, and my orthodontist in Japan, an alumnus, had suggested it. “Why would you choose a segregated school for college?”my trigonometry teacher asked.

“I didn’t know Duke was segregated. Their literature said they were interested in students from every state and had many foreign exchange students.”

“You should have found out about Duke. Like many southern universities, it has discriminatory admission practices, but they do have high academic standards.”

Jordan High had no Blacks but a number of Asians and foreign students. Why would Mr. Edmunds teach at such a school if that was so terrible? I thought it reflected the neighborhood where the student lived. We had contact with Blacks in sports, at church, and when they performed music in our auditorium. There wasn’t a discriminatory bone in my body after living in Japan and Coronado. Duke would challenge me to improve myself but some doubts had been planted and I wasn’t even that sure about the NROTC when my dream was to become a professional baseball player and possibly a minister. Was I unprepared or was that par for the course for a high school student?

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