My dad had a story. He was a sportswriter and sports announcer in St. Louis for more than 50 years, so of course he had lots of stories. Scoops, exclusives, stuff that had everybody talking. He was recognized wherever he went, and men always wanted to talk to him about the Cardinals, or the Blues, or Missouri U. (Fathers of our friends occasionally tried to wheedle Dad’s opinion about point spreads and favorites out of us, too, but that’s another topic.)
But he had one supreme story. In the 1950s, he started to receive letters from a priest at the Missouri State Prison in Jefferson City. The priest coached the prison boxing team, and he had a boxer who was really good. Not just a street fighter, but somebody with potential, somebody who could make a living as a boxer.
When I cast this story as a movie, Dad is played by Jackie Gleason, whom he resembled, and the priest, by Spencer Tracy.
Dad wasn’t interested. Boxing was still a big deal in the 50s, but he had no desire to drive all the way to Jeff City from St. Louis to see a boxer who, despite what the priest thought, had no chance at a pro boxing career. The priest was persistent, though. Didn’t matter that the prisoner was already in his late 20s, didn’t matter that he had no boxing training, except what the priest had given him. This guy was the real deal.
My father was a devout Catholic. He didn’t have it in him to be rude enough to make the priest go away. Finally he found a way out. The prisoner was scheduled to box in an amateur boxing tournament. A guy Dad knew, a boxing trainer named Monroe, was going to the tournament. Dad asked Monroe to do him a favor. Look at the prisoner, watch his match, so Dad could write the priest, let him down gently, tell him that an objective professional didn’t think the guy had a chance. To cast Monroe, we have to mix movie eras; he’s played by Morgan Freeman.
The newspaper office was huge, a full floor in a large building, filled with desks, noisy with teletype machines and typewriters in those days before computers. Offices ringed the floor on three sides; elevators were on the fourth side. My Dad’s office was on the far side of the floor, as far as possible from the elevators. His newspaper came out in the morning, which meant he worked very late at night.
The night of the boxing tournament, Dad was sitting at a desk on the floor, just outside his office, late, sometime after midnight. Elevator doors opened, and Monroe walked out, stopped dead when he saw my father. At the top of his lungs he shouted, “I knew there was a reason I stayed friends with you!”
The fighter was Sonny Liston – Sonny Liston who knocked out Floyd Patterson, who famously lost to Cassius Clay before he was Muhammad Ali, who appeared dressed as Santa Claus on the cover of Esquire. That Sonny Liston.
Sonny got his parole, got his chance at boxing, with Monroe in his corner, for awhile. Not long – Liston’s career was quickly consumed by the underworld figures who ran boxing.
That was all in the future, that night when Monroe danced into my father’s office. What I think about is how Monroe must have felt, when he saw that fighter in the ring, expecting nothing. He must have thought, my ship has come in, I’ve hit the number, I’ve won the jackpot. After all the years working with fighters, all the palookas and tomato cans, all the long days and disappointments, the kids with no talent, the boys who wouldn’t work, the ones he lost to the streets, to overprotective mothers, to harsh financial reality, the miracle happened. That night, it must have all seemed worth it, the gold ring within reach, the dream coming true. No matter what happened later, no matter how bitter his disappointment must have been, he had that – that moment when he could see the future, a future where he was a contender. Where he was somebody.