Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Cancer Catches an Old Friend--and Teammate

The word came yesterday from email and from Facebook: Virgil Rowe is gone. A Hiram High School classmate posted the calling hours; another classmate alerted us to the obituary in the Kent-Ravenna Record-Courier. Here's a link to that obituary. I hadn't seen Virgil at the Hiram Schools reunion in July this year. I did ask a few folks. No one seemed to know anything--except they'd heard he wasn't doing too well.  I had seen him the year before and could detect in his face the battle he and cancer were waging.  I'd posted about it (see below), noting that cancer had no idea what it was in for--a war with Virgil Rowe, one of the most joyously competitive athletes I've ever known. It seems that cancer has won--but it could not have been fairly. No way.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Virgil Rowe, 1961
I saw Virgil Rowe at our school reunion yesterday--saw him there last year, too, though before that I had not seen him in decades.  Virgil graduated from Hiram High School in 1961; I, 1962.  We played together on the Hiram Huskies basketball team in 1960-1961, and he was our best player--by far.  One of the best in the county that year.

Only about 5' 7", Virgil was a dervish on the floor: diving for loose balls, dribbling easily around his taller opponents, weaving through defenses as if they weren't there, firing up long jumpers that are today's three-pointers (no such animal in our era), stealing the ball so easily that sometimes the victim looked at Virgil with disbelief.  Well, looked at Virgil's back with disbelief, for, post theft, Virgil would streak for our hoop, lay it in, race back, ready for defense a second after he scored.

And Virgil could jump.  He could touch the rim (never saw him dunk, but I wouldn't have been surprised) and often won jump balls, even when pitted against the opposing center.  I know the laws of physics contradict me, but Virgil got in the air more quickly--and stayed there longer--than Newton would have believed.  How did he block so many shots?  Get so many rebounds?  And win so many jump balls?

Virgil is #10; I'm #24
Let me tell you a story ... and if I've told it before, tough.  Read it again ...  My junior year I was the other guard in the Huskies' backcourt, and one night we were in a very close game with Southington.  A few seconds remained, and we were behind by a point.  And then Virgil worked one of his miracles: he knocked a ball loose from a careless dribbler, dived for it, tying up a much taller Southington player who'd also dived.  Time out.  In the huddle, the coach told us what to do.  And on the way back out to the center circle, Virgil told me what to do.  "I can take this guy," he said.  "Soon as the ball goes up, you take off."

The ball went up; I took off.

Virgil easily out jumped the other guy, slapped the ball down court, where I caught it, full stride, no Southington player near me.  Laid it up ... and ...


Virgil was the first one down the court to embrace me, and I hope I realized then--though I surely didn't--that he had just given me a gift as close to timeless as mortality allows--a memory.

We didn't win many games that year.  Virgil just couldn't do it all alone, and he pretty much had to.  The other teams knew they could let him get his 20 or 30 and they'd still beat us.  And most of them did.

In our last game that year--the Portage County Tournament--we were hopelessly behind with only a few moments left, and the coach took Virgil out, letting him enjoy the applause from the fans he'd entertained so thoroughly that year.  Before he left the floor, he came over to me, hugged me, and whispered, "It's your team now."

I wish I could have done better the next year, but we won even fewer games.  Not until I graduated did the Huskies finally send out teams that others were worried about.  But in 1964 it was all over: Hiram consolidated.  And the Huskies were no more.

Virgil and I didn't hang out.  He was among the students who rode the early schoolbus to Hiram from Streetsboro, and I rarely saw him socially.  We were in different worlds.  I was Harry High School in those days--in the plays, the band, the chorus, the newspaper.  Virgil lived for basketball--though he was on the baseball team, as well.

And one day we nearly battled--an event that would have ended in about twelve seconds: Virgil was far stronger and more athletic than I and could have dispatched me with ease.  (Did you ever see Bambi Meets Godzilla?  YouTube it--Bambi Meets Godzilla).  Here's what happened: Virgil's girlfriend dumped him.  And he was crushed.  He loved that girl, no question.  And he did not go gentle into that good night.

And I--stupid, clueless, ungrateful I--made a move on her.  Virgil heard about it.  And the word rocketed around the school: Dyer's dead!

I avoided him for as long as I could (wouldn't you avoid Certain Death?).  But he found me--alone!--in the lower hall.  And I began to wonder, in all seriousness, about the Afterlife.

Virgil asked me why I'd done what I'd done.  And I started talking.  And talking and talking.  (If words kept coming out of me, I figured, then I was still alive.)  And by the end of my gallows speech, we both had tears in our eyes, were hugging, vowing fidelity, each to the other.  I lived to babble another day.  (Later, I saw Don Long, one of his friends, in the hall.  He asked what happened.  I told him.  He said, "I woulda beat the shit out of you anyway."  And he could have.)  Anyway, that experience--words saving my life--may have been the first glimmer of awareness that maybe I should be an English major.

And now Virgil has a far fiercer opponent than I.  Cancer has been at him for three years.  It was in remission last year, and he told me he was still playing ball in some adult league somewhere.  Still loving it--and, at last, getting to fire up three-pointers.  I told him he never met a shot he didn't like--and he laughed.  And agreed.

But his old enemy is back.  Virgil--tears in his eyes--told me he was going in for a CAT scan this week.  He was hoping for good news.  I told him to let his doctor know that he'd better have good news for Virgil, or I was going down to the hospital to kick some major ass.  Virgil laughed, knowing the great unlikelihood of that threat.

The Huskies' backcourt from 60-61
15 July 2012
We posed for a picture together.  And Virgil whispered to me that he loved me.  I tried to reply in kind, but tears defeated words.

I didn't really notice until I looked at the picture later that he was giving the thumbs-up sign.  That's Virgil Rowe.  He knows that if Death is not careful he will strip the ball from him and be halfway toward the basket before the Reaper is even aware what's happened.  And when Virgil lays that ball softly in and races back on defense, he'll be smiling.  Right in Death's foolish face.

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