Liam Day was a young boy when he first started wearing glasses. The athletes he fell in love with were the ones who wore glasses too.
Growing up, my brothers and I never used the front door to our American foursquare, which my parents bought the year before I was born. The neighborhood hasn’t changed all that much in the more than 40 years they’ve lived there. One of the Walsh children continues to live in the house his parents owned, as does one of the Spillanes two houses down. Tony’s, the pizza joint on the corner, is still there, as is the Dunkin’ Donuts.
My father was a teacher and my mother a nurse. Mr. Walsh worked for the T, as Boston’s public transportation system is colloquially known, and Mr. Spillane owned a gas station on Centre Street. Though I never considered myself working class, if we were to define the neighborhood in which I grew up, that would probably be the most accurate description to use.
In this world, I was something of a freak, I guess. By the time I was four I could name all of the Presidents in order from Washington to Ford. The older kids in the neighborhood treated this display of rote memorization as a parlor trick, to be trotted out to impress new acquaintances. “Hey, look what Liam can do.”
I loved to read, probably more than anything. In fourth grade I read the Bible cover to cover for our school’s read-a-thon, and tried to argue with the nuns that I should win the prize for top reader because each book of the Bible should be counted separately when adding up my total.
To top it off, I was rail thin and would remain so until college. I was so skinny, in fact, that my freshman year at the all boys’ Catholic high school I attended the biology teacher had me take off my shirt and stand in front of the class so that he could point out the upper skeleton.
The only thing that saved me from complete nerdom in the eyes of the neighborhood kids and my classmates was the fact that I was a pretty good basketball player. From the Saturday morning league up at St. Theresa’s to the CYO traveling team to my high school freshman, JV, and varsity teams, I was usually one of the two or three best players. So my predilection for using big words and listening to the West Side Story soundtrack on the team bus became matters of friendly teasing rather than outright bullying.
That as a family we didn’t use the front door was not so much a matter of law as of custom. We weren’t forbidden from using it; we just didn’t, and neither did anyone else, except, that is, for Christmas Eve.
Every Christmas Eve my parents held (and still hold) an open house for friends and family. My father’s coaching buddies would be the first to arrive, then the innumerable aunts, uncles, and cousins. Finally, when we were older, old enough that our friends could drive, they’d show up late night, after their own family obligations had been met, and joke about how adult they felt now they could use our front door, even if only for that night of the year.
It was at one of these open houses that my cousin Tom, when I was maybe five or six, noticed there was something wrong with my right eye. It looked like it drooped slightly. He pointed it out to my mother, who, of course, brought me to the eye doctor shortly after the new year. I was wearing what could charitably be called Coke-bottle glasses within a month.
I don’t remember how I compensated for my sight problems before getting glasses, but I assume I must have. Because I was embarrassed by them, I would continue to try and compensate without them as much as I could until I was old enough that my parents let me get contact lenses.
I could not, however, compensate without them on the basketball floor, where peripheral vision is paramount. I tried using rubber head bands to help secure my glasses when I played. Then I tried goggles. No matter the solution, I remained embarrassed.
As seemingly disparate as they are, the athletes I fell in love with when six or seven make sense. Though I grew up in Boston, I cheered for the Celtics’ hated rivals in basketball and the scourge of the Patriots’ existence in football because the Lakers’ great center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, wore goggles and the Dolphins’ quarterback, Bob Griese, wore glasses.
In baseball, though I rooted for the Red Sox and loved to imitate Dwight Evans’ stance in the batter’s box and Dennis Eckersley’s high-kick, side-arm pitching motion, I fell in love with a rather obscure first baseman for the Seattle Mariners, who, having just entered MLB as an expansion team in 1977, were truly terrible. Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Griese, Bruce Bochte also wore glasses.
But it wasn’t just the glasses; it was the intelligence they evinced, even if I couldn’t necessarily articulate it at the time. I too wanted to be a great athlete, but wondered whether I could while still being smart. So much of the athletic world then seemed to me antithetical to intelligence. One of the enduring dialectical oppositions has always been the man of action vs. the man of thought. I wanted to be both and saw in these three athletes role models for how I could be.
As I’ve written before on The Good Men Project, aside from being one of the greatest players in the history of basketball, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a man of principle, a man intensely interested in the world around him, an impulse that I suspect led him to do everything from convert to Islam shortly after entering the NBA to offer his analysis of HBO’s Girls in Huffington Post, a seemingly incongruous act until one thinks about who Kareem is. Of course he watches Girls because to do so might help him understand a generation and lifestyle that aren’t his and, as human beings on this planet, isn’t that part of our responsibility, to try and understand people who are not like us?
If you were to compare Bob Griese’s numbers to today’s quarterbacks, you would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that he was just a mediocre player. Statistically speaking, he would probably fall somewhere in the middle of the pack of the quarterbacks currently plying their trade in the NFL. But that is to ignore how much the game has changed in the more than 30 years since Griese retired.
I admired Griese not just because, with his glasses, he looked smart, but because he was smart. In college, aside from playing on Purdue’s baseball, basketball, and football teams, and quarterbacking, punting, and kicking for the football team, he earned the Big Ten Medal of Honor for excellence in both academics and athletics.
In the NFL, he led the league in touchdown passes only once, but he was accurate, didn’t make many mistakes, and led a ball-control offense that was perfectly designed to appeal to a kid who himself wasn’t very gifted athletically, but understood how to play basketball, was an accurate shooter, and very rarely made a mistake. I liked to believe that I played basketball the way Bob Griese played football.
Bruce Bochte will never make baseball’s Hall of Fame. 1979 was the only year he ever had 100 RBI. It was also his single highest season for home runs, with 16. Yes, he had three other seasons in which he hit .300 and his career batting average is a respectable .282, but those numbers don’t exactly scream Cooperstown.
Still, there was something about Bruce Bochte that I loved. There was his stance, his smooth left-handed swing. So that I could pretend to be him in our backyard baseball games, I taught myself how to bat left-handed and, as with Dewey, began imitating his batting stance. I didn’t learn about his interests outside baseball until much later, and they only deepened my affection for him.
In 1983, at the age of 33, what might still be considered a player’s prime, Bochte sat out the entire MLB season. He was not injured. He just made the decision not to play. It is suspected that his reason for not playing was to protest the rising salaries of MLB players. He believed money was ruining the game.
Today, Bochte works as Executive Director of the Center for the Story of the Universe, an organization dedicated to the study and dissemination of cosmology within an ecological framework. He has also served in the past on the board of directors of the Bay Institute, which is dedicated to restoring and protecting the San Francisco Bay watershed.
Love is a many splendored thing, isn’t it? It can start with physical attraction and, then, as we get to know our partners, deepen into something that goes far beyond the physical. I was attracted to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Griese, and Bruce Bochte because, though even when black and seven-feet tall, I felt they looked like me. Then, as I got to know them, my attraction blossomed into genuine affection. They weren’t skin deep. The glasses weren’t there just because their eyesight required correction. The glasses were a signifier, an outward symbol of engagement in both thought and action.
As I grew older, more confident in myself, my rooting interests changed. Bob Griese retired and I began to cheer for the hometown Patriots. The Celtics drafted Larry Bird and, for a glorious decade, the rivalry between the team in green and Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers dominated the NBA. Bochte retired from baseball after only 12 seasons, never again reaching the same level of success he achieved in 1979.
But, as with all first loves, my love for Abdul-Jabbar, Griese, and Bochte shaped me, shaped my future athletic loves—Mark Price, Steve Kerr, Shane Battier, Tom Brady, Tony Gwynn, Greg Maddux, Roger Federer, all of whom are or were defined in some way by their cerebral approaches to the games they played.
Now that I’m past 40, I don’t feel the same level of attachment to players and teams I once did. I believe this to be part of a natural maturation process, though I suspect it might also have to do with being childless. Passing on the love of one’s favorite player or team to one’s children is a way to keep that love as passionate as it was when you yourself were a boy.
Still, I can never forget what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bob Griese, and Bruce Bochte did for me when I was young. It may sound silly, but the adjustment to wearing glasses was difficult, all-consuming. It set me apart as different, opened me up to the taunts of friends and classmates. It was bad enough I was smart; now I was four-eyed. Those three men showed me that nerds could be athletes too. For that I loved them and, on this Valentine’s Day weekend, I just want to tell them that.