The year 1974 was the best of times, and the worst of times.
I finished high school that year in May. The sports that year in which I was involved, began with baseball and ended with track. The teams I was on lost only one game in that year. We lost the state final in basketball to Hutchinson. I loved my teammates and it was a magical time. I went on the allowed official recruiting visits for football and signed to play for Kansas State.
I wanted to be a veterinarian since I was in grade school, and Kansas State was my only option as a Kansas resident. I knew the football team was a weak sister in the Big 8, but losing was not something I had much experience with. I believed that with Steve Grogan back as a senior quarterback, and a strong recruiting class headed up by linebacker, Gary Spani, we were destined to win.
Turned out I knew nothing of sports at the college level. We lost some very close games in ‘74. Got blown out in others. We ended the season at 4 and 7. Our last road game was in Lincoln, Nebraska. By that time, I was a starter at left guard. Our team had been decimated by injuries in the offensive line and now I was playing as a backup.
Late in the third quarter of a close game, I suffered a major injury. Our running back was tripped up going behind my block and landed on my left leg. It tore all the ligaments of my left ankle and sprained my knee. I was finished for the year, and the injuries were a new adventure in pain.
After many X-rays and doctor visits, it was suggested I stay in Manhattan until Christmas Eve. I needed twice-daily therapy at the hospital. During that time, both the athletic director and the coaching staff were fired. I found myself alone at the athletic dorm after school was out. When they gave me the OK to head home, I went straight to the kennel that was boarding my dog, “Kelly.”
As I wrote in an earlier piece, the coaches knew they were moving on and stopped paying the boarding bill, something they promised they would do until May 1975.
With me being unable to walk, I had not been over in six weeks. They considered her abandoned, and found her a new home. It was a tough blow, and a hard way to start the holiday, but you couldn’t blame them. I just hoped she got a good home.
I made it home to Kansas City just after dark. I pulled up to my house and couldn’t believe what I saw. Nothing. No lights. No decorations. Absolutely nothing. That was a great shock.
My father and all his brothers had served in the military. My dad during WWII. My uncles in Korea, and the time leading up to Vietnam. They all had been overseas during the holidays at least once, and being home made them extra special.
My dad made most of our decorations by hand. Nativity scenes, Santa and his reindeer and lights galore. When we put up the tree — always real, not fake — he spent hours putting on the tinsel one strand at a time. It was his tradition. He always spoke of those times away, and reminded us of those who gave all for our freedom. Something had to be wrong.
I got my bag and hobbled into the house. It was dark except for a small light in the living room. My grandmother was sitting at our small table, staring out the window, sipping on a cup of coffee. My grandmother had lived with us for some time as my grandfather had died years earlier. Of course, I asked where everyone was. She gave me the sad news.
Since I had left in August, my parents were separated. My father had his own apartment. My mom still lived in the house, but went with friends somewhere and she didn’t know what day she might be back. My brother was staying with friends. My sister was gone also, she knew not where. She asked where “Kelly” was? That added to the sadness of the moment. This Christmas was going to be just her and I.
I went outside, sat down on the step to the front porch to process all this news. Two things happened: 1) I promised God I would never do to my family what my father and mother did to theirs. 2) The neighbors cat walked up. The oldest of two Siamese. I took care of his cats whenever they were on vacation. Which was a lot. I was someone they knew and liked. He rubbed up and down my leg and I gave him a good long scratch on the head. Then he sat on my lap and purred.
It was cathartic, and made some things instantly clear. You can’t control other people’s actions, but you can your own. I chose not to be sad on Christmas; there was lots to be thankful for. I went back in the house and yelled for my grandma to get her coat. She was stuck in the house as she never had a driver’s license and never learned to drive. I said we were going out to get a tree.
It was hard to find a lot open on Christmas Eve, but we did. Our tree would have made Charlie Brown’s look like the one in Time Square. But we set it up and decorated it. She fried up some pork chops, made her special gravy and we watched some Christmas Eve special. Our time together was memorable.
I don’t remember much else of that holiday. I had to go back to Manhattan to continue rehab. I’ve always been a cat guy since then. They are more aloof and less personal than a dog, but they seem to know when you need a rub on your bad leg. When to jump in your lap and purr, and when to leave you alone.
That cat saved Christmas for my grandmother and me.
If you find yourself in a similar situation this holiday, don’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself. Get some sad tree to decorate, and go to the shelter and adopt a cat. It will be life-changing for both of you.