Back in the 1920s, when polling was just becoming a business, a publisher noticed that, according to polls, the best-selling books were about Lincoln and doctors and dogs. So this venturesome publisher rushed into print with a book entitled “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.”
It was a resounding flop!
I’ve noticed, though, that stories of deprived children finally getting to meet their sport heroes are usually well-received. Let’s see if my real-life story enjoys that good fortune, even though it was over a half-century ago and my deprivation was that I had reached the age of 13 and – unlike all the other boys –I had never seen a college football game! High school football games were like having lunch with the sister of the woman you love. And there was no pro football yet worthy of the name.
The other boys’ fathers owned businesses, and it was easy and joyful for them to have an early lunch and drive from Greensboro, N.C., where we lived, to Chapel Hill or Raleigh or Durham to watch Carolina, N.C. State or Duke play home games. My father was a traveling salesman and needed those precious weekends to rest. Every girl without a date on Saturday night knows how it felt to be alone on Saturday afternoon when all the other boys had traveled an hour or so away to see some of the best football in the land.
One Saturday morning, my father said to me, “Barry, happy days are here at last for you! Today you’re going to see your first college football game.”
“Daddy,” I said, “have you gone mad? It’s already after 12, and we’re nowhere near ready to go to Raleigh or Durham …” He cut me off. “Barry, there’s a college game today right here in Greensboro. And we’ve got plenty of time.”
And, sure enough, two black colleges, Maryland’s Morgan State and North Carolina’s A&T (Agricultural and Technical), were playing right there in Greensboro. Segregation was the law at that time, so we had to sit in the stadium’s “white” section. No pain there. The white section was on the 50-yard line. When black fans ventured to a game between two white teams their seats were behind the end zone!
The score was 18-0 in favor of the visitors, Morgan State. There had been no touchdowns and therefore no extra points. There were no safeties and no placekicks for field goals. How, then, could the score possibly be 18-0?
I’ve stumped NFL players with that question. No touchdowns, no extra points, no safeties and no placekicks for field goals. Nonetheless, the score was 18-0! How so? It’s a naughty trick question. Notice I didn’t say “No field goals.” I said no placekicks for field goals! A placekick calls for the center to snap the ball to the man who holds the ball upright on the turf for the kicker. Completely overlooked these days is the drop kick, which calls for the center to snap the ball directly to the kicker who – by himself – drops the ball and, the instant it touches the ground, kicks it toward the uprights. Not everybody in pro football has ever even heard of the drop kick, but Morgan State had a wizard of a drop kicker named Gus Gaines. Gaines was so proficient at the drop kick that Morgan State never punted on last down when they were in A&T territory. Instead they would let Gus try for a drop kick, and he made good on six out of eight attempts. And that’s 18-0!
Fast forward now 30 years. I didn’t know that Gus had gone on to be an All-American at North Carolina College and then a distinguished coach at Fayetteville State. He then moved back to New York (where he was born) and had a terrific career with the drug-fighting agencies of New York state.
I was doing a talk show on WOR Radio in NYC, and the subject one night turned to football. I told the saga of Gus Gaines and his incredible one-man field goals. The next day my secretary told me there was a Mr. Gaines on the line who wanted to talk to me. I didn’t make the connection. “Find out who he is and why he’s calling so I can talk to him intelligently,” I told her.
She quickly returned and said, “Mr. Gaines said you were talking about him on the radio last night.” I grabbed the phone like a wild ape. “Gus!” I shouted. “Barry,” he smiled back. We bonded within five seconds and became friends for life. Imagine turning on the radio and hearing a stranger extol an athletic feat you pulled off 30 years ago!
He had a clear memory of that 1943 game in Greensboro, and for me it was a never-expected chance to revere a sports figure who inspired me.
I never had the heart to ask him, “Gus, can you imagine what your life would have been like if only you’d been born 25 years later? A tall, good-looking black man who kicked field goals all by himself, thereby giving the field goal attempt one more man to block!” He would have been a sensation, a spectacle, a marvel, arguably the richest player in the National Football League.
Gus Gaines didn’t need any of that. Any football player who can drop kick for six out of eight field goals and enrapture the heart and mind of a teenager for the rest of his life has unique bragging rights forever.
One-man field goals! Gus Gaines (an honorary Southerner) had earned the right to think of Paul Revere as “that Yankee who had to go ride for help”!