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Sunday Morning Quarterback: A Personal Tribute to My Dad

Last night, after UCLA lost to Washington, I also lost my dad to prostate cancer.

My dad, watching some football as we tailgated on October 3, 2015.

If you logged on this morning, looking for me to dissect last night’s Washington game like I normally do every Sunday morning, you’re going to be disappointed.

This morning, I’m leaving the toys in the toybox, to borrow a phrase from LA broadcasting legend Steve Edwards.

Today, there are more important things than winning or losing last night’s football game.

You see, just as we were getting back to the car in Lot 2 last night, I got the phone call I knew was coming for quite some time.

My dad had been battling prostate cancer for quite a while.

In his case, it was detected late. In fact, it was so late that it was already in Stage IV. When it’s detected early enough, prostate cancer is a very curable disease, but, when it isn’t detected early enough, it’s not.

From an early age, my dad and I bonded over sports, like so many other fathers and sons across this great country of ours. I think my earliest sports memory with my dad was him teaching me or, more accurately, trying to teach me how to hit with a whiffle ball and bat at the apartment we lived in at the time in Paterson, NJ. I can’t tell you how well I did or didn’t do if only because I was still pretty young and it would be a while before I’d ever play hardball in my first Little League game.

Eventually, we moved from Paterson to Clifton when my parents bought their first home.

I was a pretty lucky kid. My dad was always there when a dad should be there, at least that’s how I remember it. He helped coach a lot of my Little League teams growing up. For a long time in our house, it wasn’t Spring until we managed to break one of the basement windows from an errant throw of a baseball as we played catch in the backyard, much to my mom’s dismay.

I played Little League and, later, Babe Ruth all the way up until high school. Not all of my games were played after my dad would be off work, but I can’t tell you how many times he would come straight to the field after work because I was playing a game.

As I got older, my friends and I acquired a love of football. We’d play tackle in a local park without any adult supervision. You know, the kind of situation that is hard to imagine today. It seemed like each kid had a different favorite team. My friend John loved the Steelers while my other friend Ken was a Raider fan. As for me, I loved the Dallas Cowboys and, especially Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach.

As for my dad, he hated the Cowboys. I think that was because he like to root for the underdogs more than anything.

I forget exactly when, but, at some point, my dad taught me how to find out what hotels NFL teams were staying at when they came to play the New York Football Giants, or sometimes, the Jets. Then, when I figured it out, he’d take me on Sunday to each team’s hotel to get autographs from all the players.

This was usually as close as we’d get to going to an actual game because, unlike LA’s football teams, the Giants’ games were always sold out. If you weren’t a Giants season ticketholder, you weren’t able to buy a ticket to a Giants’ game except from someone who was selling their tickets. It wasn’t uncommon for a Giants season ticketholder to bequeath his Giants’ tickets to someone in their will. This may not still be the case, but it was the case in the late 70s and early 80s BEFORE the Parcells era when the Giants finally got good.

Well, things changed on December 19th, 1981.

On that day, my Dallas Cowboys were in town to play the G-Men. I determined where the Cowboys were staying like I usually did and me and my dad went out that Sunday morning just planning to get autographs like we usually did.

I can’t tell you the full circumstances because I was just ten at the time, but what I do know is that my dad managed to find somebody hanging around the hotel lobby with a pair of tickets that they were looking to sell. I don’t know how much he paid for those tickets, but I do know that this was the day he took me to just my second NFL game and the first time I got to see my beloved Cowboys play.

My first game was actually a few years earlier when one of my Little League coaches invited us to join him, his sons and a bunch of other people I don’t remember to see the Jets play the Cleveland Browns at Shea Stadium in Queens, NY. That was my first tailgating experience. I remember parking for Jets games at Shea was crazy and we ended up parking off the side of the road under an overpass near Shea.

But, that Cowboys-Giants game was more special because I got to see my team.

It was freezing cold that December afternoon and the fact that we were sitting in the upper deck of Giants Stadium didn’t help matters because it was pretty windy and it made it feel even colder. The Giants scored first that day with a third quarter touchdown, but the Cowboys took the lead with a fourth quarter touchdown and a field goal by Rafael Septien. After missing 21-yard and 27-yard attempts in the first quarter, Giants kicker Joe Danelo, the father of Southern Cal placekicker Mario Danelo who fell to his death off a cliff near his family’s home in January 2007, connected to tie the game late and send it into overtime.

Eventually, Danelo hit the game-winning field goal as the Giants won 13-10 and made the playoffs for the first time in 18 years. I didn’t care. My Cowboys had lost.

As the Giants got better, my dad and I started making an annual trip to Giants’ Training Camp, which, in those days, was held on the campus of Pace University in Westchester County, NY. We’d always go on the day the team broke camp because it was easy to get autographs from the players as they were packing up their cars to head back to their homes as the regular season got underway.

Now, many of you have seen a lot of the photos I’ve taken for Bruins Nation. I can trace my love for sports photography back to those trips to training camp. My dad had one of those Kodak Disc cameras that were really popular in the eighties and I’d get some of the disc film the camera used and I’d try taking photos of the Giants players in action. The only problem was that the viewfinder on those cameras was at a little different angle than what you were actually shooting because the lens was off to the side. Considering I was just a kid and that I was shooting through a fence, most of my pictures were good shots of the fence while only a few were good shots of the players.

I sure am glad that my photography skills and equipment have gotten much better since then.

The most memorable trip to Giants Training Camp happened one year when my dad and I found ourselves at the dorm where the Giants’ defense lived during camp. Not only did I get to meet Giants legends like Harry Carson and George Martin, but I also got meet the Giants linebacker who changed the game of football — Lawrence Taylor.

LT was cool and fun. That day, as he packed up his car, he decided to take out his golf clubs because the dorm was on top of a hill. So, LT just starts teeing up a few golf balls and randomly sending them into the air to some random part of the Pace campus, never to be seen again. Knowing what I now know about Taylor, I don’t know if he was on drugs that day or if he was just being crazy. Regardless, he entertained my dad and I that day and it was something only we enjoyed because we were the only people around besides LT. Somewhere back in NJ, I think there’s still pictures from that day which can corroborate this story.

As I moved on to high school, I played organized football for the first time. It wasn’t easy, but I enjoyed it. As always, my dad was there. I don’t think he missed a single game in four years.

But, the coolest high school football story about me and my dad has very little to do with football.

I went out for football my freshman year and we had really just started practices for the coming season when on the night of August 29, 1985, I got a phone call from my cousin Linda. Earlier that summer, Linda and I had both been trying hard to get our hands on tickets for the hottest concert of the summer — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

I don’t really know how, but, somehow, Linda had gotten tickets for the show that was scheduled the next night, August 30th. She had some extra tickets and wanted to know if me and my younger brother Brian wanted to go, or could go. After checking with my parents, we told her yes. I seem to remember something about having to take my brother with us, but I may be wrong about that.

There was only one problem. My uncle Walter, my dad’s older brother, was driving Linda and a friend of hers and they wanted us to tailgate before the concert. But the concert was on a Friday and my freshman football practice wouldn’t be done in time for me to join them tailgating.

So, Brian went with Linda, her friend and Uncle Walter while my dad picked me up from school after practice, gave me my ticket and dropped me off at Giants Stadium. This is the point at which all hell sort of broke loose.

Earlier in the day, there had been some bad weather in Northern New Jersey, which kept the crew from getting things set up so that the show could go on. Alas, the show got postponed until Sunday, September 1st. The good news was that we’d still be able to see the show. My first of many, many Springsteen concerts would have to wait.

The bad news was that I’m at Giants Stadium with my ticket and no way to find my brother, cousin or uncle. After all, cell phones were still a thing of the future. I was going to have to call my dad to come pick me up, but I quickly realized that he wasn’t going to be able to pick me up any time soon.

This was a Friday night concert at the end of the summer. A lot of people had gotten there early with the intentions of tailgating. So, the parking lots were full.

Thanks again to my dad, I knew exactly what to do.

By 1985, the Jets were playing their preseason games at Giants Stadium because the Mets had priority at Shea Stadium during the NFL preseason. Our next door neighbor happened to work for Hess Oil, whose owner Leon Hess happened to own the Jets. As a result, our neighbor frequently hooked us up with preseason Jets tickets.

After those games, my dad would take me to the players entrance at Giants Stadium for, you guessed it, autographs. One time, the father of Jets legendary defensive end Joe Klecko went as far as to scold his son. Mr. Klecko told his massively-sized son to make sure he signed autographs for all the kids who had gathered around while the younger Klecko was talking to friends and family after the game. “You sign for them. They are paying your salary,” Mr. Klecko said. And his son did. My dad always got a kick out of this story.

So, my dad and I would ALWAYS go hang out by the player’s entrance to Giants Stadium after each Jets preseason game we went to.

Knowing this, it probably is not a shocker when I tell you that on the night of that postponed Springsteen concert, without a way to get home yet, I did what my dad and I always did. I went to the player’s entrance to Giants Stadium, except this time I was hoping to meet Bruce and, of course, get his autograph.

I watched as the NJ State Troopers tried to get the camper that Bruce was in out of Giants Stadium soon after the postponement was announced. They had no luck because all the tailgaters were trying to get out of the parking lot, too. So, they backed the camper in to Giants Stadium and waited...and waited...and waited. Finally, after the parking lots cleared, they brought the camper out again and, even though, there was just a small crowd still waiting near the player’s entrance, Bruce didn’t stop to sign any autographs that night. But, two nights later, he rocked!

With Bruce officially leaving the building, I turned my attention to getting home. I found a pay phone. (Remember: no cells phones.) I called my dad collect and when he got on the phone, he was pissed and wanted to know where the hell I’d been because my uncle had dropped my brother off home hours ago.

Of course, I offered the answer that seemed perfectly logical in my mind. I said how the parking lots were impossible to deal with as everyone left and, so, I’d been hanging out over by the player’s entrance, just like we’d do after Jets preseason games.

I don’t remember if he was still mad or what, but, to this day, I remember how upset he was about not knowing where I was all while I was doing what he had taught me to do at Giants Stadium.

After I left NJ to attend UCLA, we’d always talk about both UCLA football and, occasionally, Bruin basketball. In my time as a student, he wasn’t ever able to come to a Bruin football game at the Rose Bowl, but we did manage to go see the Bruins play Florida State in the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden one year after my friend Mike Lanier, who passed away recently, hooked us up with tickets.

My dad always said he wanted to see the Rose Parade. He always enjoyed watching it from home every year. I wasn’t sucessful at getting him to come out to finally see the parade in person, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying on my part.

But, he did finally get to come out to his one and only football game at the Rose Bowl almost three years ago to this day. That day, we tailgated with our usual crew and had a good time despite the fact that the Bruins lost that game to the Arizona State Sun Devils. My dad got to experience a typical Bruins home game, which included tailgating and, of course, my famous tri-tip. It was especially amusing when he tried to claim that he came up with it instead of me. After the game that night, we walked around to the front of the Rose Bowl, just so he could have his picture taken in front of the Rose Bowl’s lighted sign. We also drove the Rose Parade route through Pasadena. So, while he never got to see the parade in person, he could at least say that he’d been to the parade route.

I know he really enjoyed the tri-tip that day because when I went to see him this August, he wanted to know if I was going to make him tri-tip for his birthday. Well, I wasn’t able to smoke a tri-tip in Jersey because tri-tip is a cut of beef nearly impossible to find there. But, I did get all the ingredients for my tri-tip rub and grilled up some steaks with it, which he loved.

Since that game a few years ago, he had lost most of his hearing and, despite having a Cochlear implant, it became difficult to speak with him on the phone because he couldn’t really hear what was being said to him.

So, we’d end up texting instead.

Like so many of you, he, too, read Bruins Nation pretty frequently. I think it was mostly to read what I write on these pages. I know he did because, sometimes, he’d text me to tell me that I missed something that needed to be edited or he’d ask me about something that was going on which I had written about recently.

He was also like a lot of you, in that, he never signed up so he could comment on anything.

Over the years, I knew he fit in perfectly with so many of you because he’d tell me his honest assessment the same way I do with each of you everyday, even if that assessment would usually come after a Bruin loss. “UCLA stinks!” he would say in his thick New Jersey accent. Frequently, I’d agree with him. Though, sometimes, we’d disagree and argue about it.

I guess that kind of takes us full circle here, because, after a game like the Bruins played last night, he’d probably text me to tell me how bad UCLA looked in the game.

But, Dad, they looked better than they have all season last night against Washington and Dorian Thompson-Robinson played his best game yet....

Rest in peace, Dad.

George Piechowski
August 31, 1946-October 6, 2018

My dad after the UCLA game versus ASU on October 3, 2015

Go Bruins.