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By Dom Angiello


Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
--Vince Lombardi

Run by Jesuit priests and novices in black cassocks, Fordham Prep was such an imposingly male place that the change of the head man’s title in the sixties from Principal to Headmaster, seemed appropriate—as if the place were embedded in a Dickens novel. Once inside Hughes Hall, the cube of dark stone and ivy which the Prep occupied at Fordham University, we students rarely saw a female again until we left the Rose Hill campus after class. The two gray women in the building worked out of sight in the terra incognita of the principal’s office.

On that first day in late summer 1954, I stood among the other new freshmen on the north side of Hughes Hall, excited and anxiety ridden. All my new classmates were Catholic, many of them Irish-American, and a smaller percentage Italian-American like me. A few of the boys were engaged in conversations with people they already knew, some from elementary school or CYO (Catholic Youth Organization). Others were in the process of discovering webs of tenuous relation through geography, blood and history.

I was eager to fit in with the other boys as I never had at PS 95. And to stand out among them. But I had never been a popular boy, never aggressive enough to be a natural in a crowd, too proud to be submissive, too introspective and thin-skinned to trade insults with other boys. Would I feel that I belonged here?

After orientation we had individual advising sessions. As I sat opposite Father Hennessey, my student advisor, I found the office claustrophobic. It was higher than it was wide, the far wall occupied mostly by a single tall window. Father was a mild man, a bland-looking Jesuit with sparse red hair and rimless eyeglasses.

“Mr. An-gi-ello, is it?”

“Yes, father.”

“I see you went to public school.”

“Yes, father.”

“I’m sure you must have taken religious instruction. Where was that?”

“At Visitation, father.”

“Oh, yes. Van Cortland Park South. Sunday school?”

“Yes, father. And released time instruction.”

“You made your first communion there and confirmation, Mr. Angiello?”

“Yes, father.”

“Good. I would encourage you to join one of our religious societies. You might be interested in the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” Father Hennessey said. Devotion to the Virgin Mary was particularly urged by those celibate men, and sublimation of that spiritual ideal of womanhood was easier to achieve in those environs so empty of actual females. Father added, “I happen to be the moderator of the Knights of the Blessed Sacrament. We go to Mass and receive communion every Friday at 8:00 a.m. You needn’t make any formal declaration. When you attend, I give you a card for late admission to class so that you can go to the Keating Hall cafeteria for breakfast—since you would have been fasting.”

“I see, father. Yes, that’s very interesting.” Later I learned that the chance to go to breakfast and miss the first half hour of class, ironically, religion class, was considered one of the most important spiritual benefits of the Society. Therefore, the cards distributed to the KBS members were worth the price of a pack of cigarettes if you could get your hands on one. In fact, I knew of one clever Knight who had a modest racket in these cards.

“I know that you are accustomed to doing well in school, but I must caution you. Our standards are quite high here at the Prep, and you will be at a disadvantage since you attended a public elementary school. You will have a lot of catching up to do.”

“I have heard that PS 95 is one of the best of the public schools, father.”

“Unfortunately all the public schools lag behind the Catholic grammar schools in the pace of their curricula.” he said. “I would recommend that you spend at least three hours on homework and study every night.”

Advisors urged all incoming students to pursue a variety of extracurricular activities in addition to the religious ones: the debate team, the dramatic society and the Ramkin, the school newspaper. These pursuits won the attention of many, but sports seemed to be especially favored, especially by my fellow students, and were most enthusiastically embraced by them, so participation in some sport presented itself as a way to accomplish my goal of fitting in. I fantasized that perhaps in this new setting, without the cards of cronyism stacked against me, I would turn out to be an excellent athlete and surprise even myself.

Football’s combination of strategy, skill, teamwork and violence made it the most ardently supported sport at the Prep, as it still is at most high schools. Its violence and the risk of serious injury were a large measure of its appeal to us as teenage boys. Playing football, we could prove we were men. The school wrapped players in pads and helmets and sent them to bang into each other on the football field in the hope that their testosterone would be dissipated enough to subdue their hunger for intimate contact which it deemed worse. Being a member of the football team was a ticket to immediate recognition. Being good at the sport was a guarantee of acceptance and even admiration. So, even though I was afraid of getting hurt and had almost none of the qualities specific to success in football, I reported to Coach Joe Ososki my first fall at the Prep to try out, eager to be accepted but not sure I wanted to pay the price.

Ososki had been one of the Seven Blocks of Granite, a famed group of linemen from the football heyday of Fordham University back in the forties. He was not at all a big man, so he must have been a very determined one to have shared the turf and the notoriety of that group. From behind the old oak desk in his stuffy locker room office, he looked up slowly from a clipboard as I stood in front of him. The coach had no reputation for sadism, but he was intimidating as the gatekeeper at a portal that led inevitably to very public pain. His office itself seemed threatening, assaulting the senses with the smells of wintergreen, sweat and stale pipe tobacco. Coach Ososki’s face looked as if it were crafted of leather, and his straight black hair was neatly parted at the side and slicked back. He was taciturn, his unlit pipe a permanent part of his face.

I was already almost six feet tall but only 120 pounds.

“Ever play football, son?” he asked, his face noncommittal, his eyes appraising.

“No, sir.”

The boys—men it seemed to me—who were veterans of the team, banged lockers shut and passed by the open door of their coach’s office, their cleats clattering against the concrete floor and their deep voices raised in bravado. The assistant coach poked his head in, bushy eyebrows raised in a silent question, and Mr. Ososki said, “Set out the blocking sleds. No contact until next week.” Then he turned his attention back to me. I hadn’t found the sights, sounds and smells of the place encouraging.

“How much do you weigh, son?”

“A hundred eighteen pounds, sir.”

After only a few moments of rumination, the coach said, “Why don’t you try the track team, son.”

I didn’t object. When Coach Ososki turned me down, I was grateful to have sidestepped my fear without the shame of refusing to face it. But being rejected by the football team also dashed any hope that I would catch a touchdown pass in a championship game or elude tacklers to make a game-deciding first down. Little honor was attached to being on the track team. Anyone who lacked the size, toughness and athletic skill required for one of the other sports was condemned to be a runner. My mind told me that Coach Ososki was right, but my heart yearned for a demonstration that I could be heroic, and being consigned to the track team was a symbol of my mediocrity.

Disappointed, but still determined to at least avoid the anonymity I felt at PS 95, I went to Mr. Fox, the track coach, the same afternoon. Coach Fox’s hair had gone steely gray during his years of receiving the annual swarms of football rejects. He had the air of a person who was overexposed to relays of needy adolescents, who measured his mortality in four year laps. He glanced through steel wire-rimmed eyeglasses with eyes that shone with a blue distance. He asked only my name, telling me where to fish shorts, a shirt and a sweat suit out of large boxes of used gear. His manner was that of a person carrying out a rote task with the listlessness that such activity can impose, but I felt as if he were annoyed at being sent yet another football reject to lengthen his already long list of also rans.

One began track as a novice, a runner who has not won his first medal. In novice events we virginal runners competed against each other for the opportunity to score. Winning that first medal was called breaking ones’ novice. Almost every runner was guaranteed a medal eventually simply because, over time, the faster runners won their medals and were no longer eligible for novice events, and the older novices were so much more developed physically than the newcomers. One thing was obvious: I wasn’t very fast; I was disappointingly average. My novice medal wouldn’t come easy.

Track practices were tedious, painful affairs consisting of running, running and more running. The difference in this respect from football was that our pain wasn’t caused by anyone else; we inflicted it on ourselves to the degree that our tolerance for it allowed and our desire to achieve glory and avoid humiliation dictated. Every weekday afternoon, we would be out in all sorts of weather, always pushing to improve our personal times at various distances. Painfully gasping for air was a daily routine. Although on rare occasions my legs would feel like pistons in a smoothly running engine, more often they would feel heavy and sluggish, doggedly unresponsive. Whether I was running as fast as I could was always a nagging question, one I could never resolve, even when I was exhausted at the end of a run.

Our year started with cross-country. In the late summer and fall, we exited the back gate of Fordham, crossed Southern Boulevard and pounded up and down the hilly landscape of the Bronx Botanical Gardens, where even the sluggish Bronx River, strewn with algae-covered rocks and the liquefied detritus of the borough, on a bad day, seemed like a commentary on the tedium of our exercise. Or we ran across the field that bordered Broadway in Van Cortland Park; then bunched in groups, we issued through the bottleneck that started us up into the hills, that strung us out, gasping, strides broken by the irregular ravines of erosion, rocks and pebbles allied with gravity and inertia to resist our progress, to pull us backward as if on ball bearings. After the brief respite of a gentle grade, up another hill we would scramble and then across the pedestrian bridge that spanned the Saw Mill River Parkway. Up then we would clamber in a long—too long—counterclockwise circle. When we were all but spent, we started down out of the hills, our exhaustion depriving us of the relief of the downhill. We pounded back across that same bridge and plunged down a steep hill covered with two-inch gravel that made the footing treacherous. If I wasn’t fast, at least I had endurance and the gift of a strong stomach, so I never puked my guts out—as we used to say back then—on the long flat stretch to the finish, as many others did.

In the winter, we ran indoor; at least, we called the season indoor. Actually, in the field on the south side of the Fordham University gym, we put together outdoors a banked wood track intended for use indoors. A hundred-sixty yards to the lap, eleven laps to the mile, the banked track seemed all turns. We used it even in the dead cold of winter, wearing cotton sweat suits and often stripping down to shorts and tee shirts after shoveling snow off the track. In the spring, the longer spikes on our running shoes made a satisfying crunching sound with each stride on the long, liberating straightaways of the quarter-mile cinder track.

Mr. Fox decided that my race for the purpose of breaking my novice would be the individual mile, and so I ran the novice mile in meet after meet. Practice for this often consisted of in-and-out quarters; that is, running a quarter almost flat out, followed by jogging a quarter. We repeated this sequence six or eight times. The sprinted quarters felt much too long after the first couple, and the jogged quarters much too short. Finishing each jogged quarter, we ambled hesitantly up to the crudely scored starting line on the cinder track, which marked the beginning of another portion of pain, the start of another sprinted quarter.

Getting one’s time under five minutes in the novice mile was usually enough to get a medal. My time began to approach that mark in the spring of my sophomore year.

In April 1956, at the track on the Fordham campus, I crouched on the starting line in a crowd of twelve novices. My heart was pounding with excitement as I awaited the report of the starter’s gun. It popped and we started in a pack of jostling elbows and knees. Several runners broke in front ahead of me. My own start was poor, as usual, but I kept the front-runners in sight as I ran in the middle of the pack. The challenge here was to gauge whether the leaders were setting a pace I could maintain for four laps. If they were going out too fast and I tried to keep up, I would wear myself out prematurely—die, as we used to say—and have no kick to make the final dash to the finish line. On the other hand, if I didn’t go out fast enough, I would fall so far behind that no kick that I had left could make up the lost time. This judgment was complicated by not really knowing what my legs would take on a particular day or exactly how fast we were going.

As we rounded the first turn, I could see that I was in the sixth position. I was pushing myself just a little, propelled mostly by the adrenaline rush of the start. Along the back straightaway, a guy from Mt. St. Michael passed me. I tried to keep up, but he was going too fast. Someone else, a short guy from All Hallows, overtook me and stayed on my shoulder for a while, but I picked up my pace just enough so that he couldn’t pass, and he fell behind on the turn. On the second backstretch, I began to gain slowly on two runners ahead of me but the front-runners, in a little pack, were holding their lead. As I came up on the pair just ahead, the second one pulled out from behind the other and into my path. I felt his spikes cut into my thigh and looked down without stopping. I could see blood flowing down my leg, but I wasn’t in pain and continued to run. We held these positions as we passed the half mile mark. My friend, Frank Donnelly, ran along on the infield for twenty yards or so and shouted my half mile split: “2:25, Angie! Go, go, you can catch ’em. Go, Angie!”

My breath was coming fast, but I wasn’t gasping. I didn’t feel anything in my legs, but I couldn’t make them move any faster. They just kept pulling in the ground in front of me and laying it down behind. Coming off the far turn I passed one of the former leaders who had begun to fall behind. He tried to hold me off, but I could see that he didn’t have much left and passed him easily. Running through the three-quarter mark, my concentration had become intense and the fatigue of running that distance almost as fast as I could for a quarter mile was beginning to wear me down. My legs felt heavy. I never saw or heard Frank, but he told me later he was shouting practically in my ear. The last backstretch in a mile was a weary time when determination was as important as conditioning. Now fatigue was making a strong bid to take over. My legs had an independent mind, which was telling them that slowing down was the only way the pain could be subdued. But I kept pressing. It was the part of the race in which I had to work much harder just to keep the same pace. Fortunately, the runner ahead of me had the same problem. I came up to his shoulder, running close, letting him feel me there. He couldn’t hold me off. Then the challenge was to keep up that pace so he couldn’t reclaim his lead on me. On the far turn, the Mt. St. Michael runner was ahead and showing signs of his fatigue in the exaggerated motions of his arms and shoulders. I put all my effort into coming up on him and then, after running neck and neck with him, I edged out a lead, brushing his forearm as I passed him, and I saw Frank waving me on from the finish line forty yards ahead. With my legs almost quitting, I passed one of the former leaders, who had nothing left and crossed the finish line in third with a time of 4:54.

Hands on my hips, my chest heaving and pulling painful volumes of air like a rasp across my larynx, I continued to walk up the track so my legs wouldn’t stiffen up. When relief finally began to seep into my chest and legs, I turned back and saw Frank approaching me with a big smile. I hadn’t run a great race. I hadn’t won. But I was no longer a novice. I had the medal—and the wound—to prove it. Frank congratulated me and headed off to warm up for his own heat. I continued to walk off the fatigue in my legs, directing my path to where Coach Fox was making some notations.

Usually, the set of his mouth expressed a businesslike attitude and could be stern, but it could—once or twice a season—betray him with a smile that went beyond his occasional sardonic grimace to a brief beam of genuine warmth. As I ambled through his line of sight, he raised his chin slightly and ducked it in my direction—acknowledgment enough. I hadn’t earned a smile yet.

Meanwhile, I had been doing the recommended three hours of homework every night and in that same year, achieved a perfect score on a Latin provincial exam and won the gold medal for the highest average in the Academic Program. Having proved I could compete academically at this level, I relaxed and jogged toward graduation, still two years away.

But I didn’t let down in my running. At the start of my junior year, I began to develop in surprising spurts. My relentless determination and maturing stamina made me a good cross-country man. Also, although I was no sprinter, my particular combination of speed, endurance and ability to withstand self-inflicted pain was well suited to the half-mile and mile.

Although I had broken my novice in the mile, the two-mile relay was Coach Fox’s featured team, each of the four members running a half-mile leg. As my half-mile times in practice began to improve that fall, dropping, from week to week, below 2:20 to 2:15 and finally were approaching 2:10, the coach began to consider putting me on the two-mile relay in place of one of the seniors. Only one of them, Tom Carroll, who was the fastest schoolboy half-miler in the world that year, consistently ran in the mid 1:50s. Another, Greg Rinn, steadily ran just under 2:00. The other two ranged from 2:04 to 2:10.

At practice, one usually teamed up with a congenial partner. My friend Frank Donnelly had been my favorite practice mate for over two years, working alongside me all that time. Now this became impossible as I pushed the pace in practice and made the seniors earn their right to stay on the two-mile relay. As each barrier presented itself, I worked away at it, day after day, stride after stride, breath after gasping breath. From time to time, I would hear from my practice mates, “Quit busting balls, Angie.” When I hit 2:07, the coach announced to the team that the fourth spot on the two-mile relay was up for grabs, that whoever had the lowest time in the practices during the next week would be the fourth man on the relay team in the meet on the following Saturday. I hit 2:06 Just behind Denny Berberich’s 2:04 and made the team. “O.K., Angie,” Coach Fox said with a penetrating look and no smile, “You’re the fourth man on the two mile relay. I want you to get a good night’s rest before the meet. Be there at ten to start warming up. Tomorrow take an easy workout—and practice some stick passes with Berberich.”

My newfound ability elated me and being part of a team—not just the whole track team but an elite group of four that won medals in every meet—was a new experience. Here, at last, I felt accepted and recognized. Around the school I was Angie, a junior who had made it onto the championship two-mile relay. When I broke two minutes in my senior year, my fellow students read my name in The Ramkin, the school newspaper, and greeted me on the steps of Hughes Hall. The two-mile relay on which I ran, won the city championship in a record time which was to stand for nineteen years, and a distance medley on which I participated won a special high school event at the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden that year.

I enjoyed this success, but my competitiveness tempered my satisfaction. Few of our schoolmates ever came to see a track meet, but practically the whole school turned out for a football game and yelled themselves hoarse. There was, after all, a hierarchy in high school sports determined by masculine values. A runner could set a world record and never have the notoriety of our quarterbacks, Bruce Bott or Dick LaFond. They were warriors, we were, at best, speedsters.

Also, my sense of belonging only went so far. A track team wasn’t a team in the same sense that a football team was. It was broken down, for the most part, into many different relay teams, whose performances were independent of each other. Even an individual relay team was not a highly coordinated unit such as is found in other sports. Once the stick was passed from one runner to another, the briefest of contacts, the first became a spectator who could do no more for his teammate than cheer.

Nonetheless, I had the satisfaction of winning track scholarships to William and Mary and to Fordham as well as an offer of appointment to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. And I had more than once earned that rarest trophy for a Prep runner, a congratulatory smile from Coach Fox, and with it his highest encomium:

“Nice race, Angie.”