Finding my Father

On May 18, 2013, my dad was elected into Roxbury High School’s inaugural Athletics Hall of Fame. I accepted this incredible honor on his behalf. 

On behalf of my Dad and my entire family, I reluctantly accept this great honor. I’ll explain that ‘reluctantly’ in a moment but first I have a question: How many of you have seen ‘Remember the Titans?’

Show of hands.  If you have, you may remember the little blonde girl in the stands cheering on the Titans and her dad, the coach. I was that little girl – the coach’s daughter. My dad and Gael’s football had a big impact on my life.

At 12 months old, I loudly clapped after the organ played a hymn during my Christening, which I was told disrupted the sanctity of the entire ceremony. Embarrassed, my mom explained to her friends that I didn’t know the difference between the Roxbury band and an organist. When I saw my first play at 4, I cried at the intermission until my mom told me that it was “half-time,” a concept I was much more familiar with. When I was 7, I remember an all-important conversation with my dad when I asked, “What exactly is a Gael?”

Elusive

One of my favorite writers, Norman McLean, said, “It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us.” When I learned that my father would be inducted in the Roxbury Athletics Hall of Fame, I couldn’t have been more proud, but I also realized I knew very little about his days as a player. Never one to live in the glory days of the past, my Dad never mentioned his accomplishments. I think I even remember my brother and me kicking around his 1,000 point basketball in the yard until my mom came out and said, “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”

When I read the newspaper clipping that detailed some of his achievements, I thought, “Who is this man?” 

So I went on a quest to find the Roxbury star athlete who had eluded me, and better understand this foundational part of his early life, which helped him to become the man he is and the Dad that Michael and I know and love.

I made some phone calls. First I called Gary Irwin, who helped to make this special night happen, to tell him Michael and I would come and speak on behalf of my parents who unfortunately couldn’t get back from Florida to be here.  He said he had to rewrite my Dad’s bio because it didn’t highlight enough of his achievements. “That’s your Dad,” he said, “incredibly talented and way too modest.”

Strong

Next I called my Aunt Judy, my Dad’s middle sister, renowned for her memory.

“Aunt Judy,” I asked, “tell me about my Dad when he was in high school. How much did sports mean to him?”

“Sports was everything to Bobby,” she said. “When our father died, your dad was only 6 years old. He was raised by three women – your Nana, your Aunt Joan and me. We lived in Kenvil, which was a working class town. At that time, no one from Kenvil had broken into Roxbury athletics.”

I was beginning to learn where my dad — Bobby — got his toughness.

She remembered the family going to see their first football game. My dad was 10, and Roxbury was playing Dover.  There were thousands of people in the stands; Roxbury won, 14 to 12, and my Dad’s life was changed forever. He fell in love with football that day, and for the next eight years committed himself to being the best Roxbury athlete he could be. Playing quarterback for Roxbury that day was Bill Tardive. His family would take my Dad under their wing and Bill — known to me as Uncle Bill — would become a lifelong friend.

The Natural

My next call was to Frank Darling, one of my Dad’s teammates, a quiet, soft-spoken man who played receiver.

“Bobby Morgan was some player, boy,” Frank told me. “He was a natural. He did it all, Cindy. And he was a guy with a lot of achievements.” Frank and my Dad were close through high school. He remembers their pre-game ritual of eating tuna fish sandwiches at my Nana’s house. He also remembers a line from a newspaper story about the team that ended up serving as their tagline.  “Bobby Morgan always threaded the needle, and the needle was Frank Darling.”

One rainy Saturday afternoon, Aunt Judy remembers the local newspaper calling the house to get her mom’s reaction to my dad having broken the Morris County record for throwing the javelin.  She was baffled.

When my Dad got home, she asked him, “Where were you after school? Did you throw the javelin in a track meet?” He sheepishly responded, “Yeah. I did. Baseball got rained out so they asked me to come to the track meet. How did you find out? I didn’t really want anyone to know.”

Humble

When my Dad had 30 points to go to break the 1,000 point mark in basketball, he had been on a hot streak, so Nana, Aunt Joan, and Aunt Judy all went to the game hoping he would do it that night. Unbeknownst to my Nana, the cheerleaders had bought her a corsage and were ready with a special ceremony once the record had been broken. He only scored 28 points that night, and they had to pop the flowers in the refrigerator until the next game two nights later when he accomplished the goal. I asked my Aunt Judy if she remembers my Dad being frustrated that he was just two points shy. She said, “No way. He just felt badly about the flowers!”

Aunt Judy described her brother as humble and self motivated. He hung a tire in the back yard and tossed footballs and baseballs though it every night after practice. He always gave credit where credit was due. He didn’t love the spotlight; he preferred no fuss.

“Bobby was sensitive and had a big heart, but he didn’t easily show it to the world,” she told me. ‘Instead, they saw his toughness.”

I spoke with my Dad a few weeks ago, reassured him that he deserved this recognition, and asked him what he wanted me to say on his behalf. He said, “Be sure to thank the committee. Tell them I appreciate this special honor. With the exception of my time at Syracuse and the army, I spent my entire life in Roxbury. So this means so much.” He continued, “Please congratulate the other honorees,” and he went on to brag about each of your accomplishments.

Be sure to mention Jim Fiorello. He was my close friend and mentor for many years.” And with a laugh he joked, “Tell him that I can still probably benchpress more than he can.”

Proud

He got serious for a moment, and talked about his pride in growing up in Kenvil. Before his time, no one from Kenvil or any other town outside of Succasunna played Roxbury athletics. He was an outsider and had to work that much harder to break in. Hailing from Wharton, Coach Schiffner, another outsider, gave him a shot to play. He got lucky, he said. Once he broke through, many others would follow, including several of the other honorees this evening.

Not many of us knew Bob Morgan as a player. We know him as a teacher, coach, friend and Dad. I asked him if he was a different man when playing each of those roles. He paused and answered, “Nah. Who I am is who I am.” Dad’s motto was simple: work hard, lift weights, be dedicated and smart, don’t make mistakes and put your best effort out there. That’s what he was taught and that is what he hoped to pass along.

The Teacher

Who I am today is very much a reflection of my Dad, and all that he taught me. He instilled in me a passion for competition, taught me to be tough and how to “handle” the pressure of winning and losing gracefully. He made me believe I could achieve anything I wanted as long as I dedicated myself to it fully. He showed me how to think strategically and how to bring out the best performance in others, which would serve both Michael and me well in our chosen professions. I owe so much to my Dad. I feel honored that through this experience of accepting this award I have come to know him a little more deeply, and I hope you have too.

Just a couple of nights ago after he had a couple of beers, I asked him if he ever thought about the old days. He reluctantly admitted, “On Sunday mornings in the summer, I illegally hit golf balls on the old Roosevelt Field, where I played football, and I feel home.” I have little doubt that on those hazy summer mornings, he can still feel the roar of the crowds, see the great players that came before him who shaped his life and those who would follow, wearing the Blue and Gold and upholding the legacy of Roxbury Gael’s athletics of which he was so proud to be a part.

Jason Drake - June 17, 2013 - 2:50 pm

Hey Cindy,

This is an amazing piece. I grew up hearing my dad and his brothers tell stories about your dad’s athletic accomplishments! It was great to be reminded of those stories themselves, as well as the story-telling sessions that helped me bond with my dad and my uncles. My mind is simply aswirl with memories right now.

Thank you so much for sharing this!

All best,
Jason

Daniel Stone - August 24, 2013 - 7:52 am

I could not begin to approach your eloquence in this comment, Cindy, so just to say how beautifully you write, but more important, how beautifully generous and heartfelt is this tribute to your dad. I had no idea what a special and impressive person he is!

Kevin Spitzer - February 21, 2014 - 7:49 am

Cindy,

Your father was the first football coach I ever had at Roxbury, along with Dick Pfiefer. Every Roxbury Football player who had the priveledge of being coached by Bob Morgan has nothing but great things to say about him. We all love him – to the man. He inspired all of us, everyday we put on the helmet and pads. He was a constant motivator – he knew the right buttons to push and when to push them. Curl-Pitch was his signature play – he would laugh like Hank Stramm when that play went. Every time my teammates and I speak of our days at Roxbury High we speak of him. Please give him my regards – let him know we are always thinking of him.

Kevin Spitzer

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