Purple Reign 1: Chapter 12 “A Festivus For the Rest of us”

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“Didn’t we have some great times?”

Legendary Baltimore sportswriter John Steadman, who saw every professional football game played in Baltimore from 1950 through 2000

There is no way for me to disguise my feelings about the week between Christmas and the New Year’s Eve matchup between the Ravens and the Broncos.

Holidays are emotional enough for all of us, but I couldn’t help but allow my mind to wander back to the last time I had seen a professional football game in Baltimore on Christmas Eve during that seemingly meaningless Sunday victory over the Jets.

It had been 23 years to the day when my Dad and I took the No. 23 bus from Eastpoint, in East Baltimore’s community of Dundalk, transferred to the No. 22, just across the city line in Highlandtown, and arrived at Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street with our seats in the lower reserved of Section 7, right on the 35-yard line. On that Christmas Eve, I remember a memorable AFC playoff game, a double-overtime contest with the Oakland Raiders that the beloved Baltimore Colts lost, 37-31. Via the timeless nature of NFL Films and the constant replays over the ensuing years, it became known simply as “Ghost To The Post,” a reference to tight end Dave Casper and his touchdown reception from quarterback Ken Stabler to seal the Raiders victory.

I remember more from that day than I probably should, more because of what happened after the game than what happened during it.

It was bad enough the Colts lost and my Dad was kind of peeved to begin with, but because of the length of the game, our holiday plans were delayed by several hours. When my Dad and I finally caught a late holiday bus back to the house (neither of my parents ever drove), it was long past the dinner hour that Mom and the relatives had prepared for. Needless to say, the ham was a little dry and cold by the time we arrived around 8 p.m. that night. The mood was even chillier.

It’s sort of funny now to look back on how much my world revolved around sports when I was a kid, but in a different way than now. It was all so innocent. It was so much fun. It mattered so much.

And, when I entered PSI Net Stadium for my first Christmas Eve game in Baltimore in 23 years, it all came flooding back. My Dad died in 1992 and wouldn’t be attending that final regular season game or any of the future playoff games, but my son, Barry, would be.

When I made my usual arrival in the press box, about an hour before kickoff, I bumped innocuously into John Eisenberg, a former colleague of mine at The Sun.

It had been no secret in the media circle of Baltimore that longtime columnist and Eisenberg co-worker John Steadman had been ill. Steadman had battled cancer on and off for nearly two years. Some weeks he looked perfectly fit. Others, he looked gaunt and pail, frail from the side effects of the chemotherapy treatment.

It became even more disconcerting when the news spread that John had missed the Chargers-Ravens game two weeks earlier. It was the first time he had missed a Baltimore professional football game, home or away, in 719 contests spanning more than half a century. So whispers were everywhere than he was not doing well.

Perhaps I should tell you a little about my relationship with John Steadman.

Hear John Steadman and Nestor discuss the history of the Super Bowl and some Baltimore football lore at Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego in January 1998 HERE:

Growing up in East Baltimore, Steadman’s work was unavoidable if you cared about sports. I grew up reading John’s work every afternoon in The News American, and truth be told, all I ever wanted to be when I grew up was John Steadman.

I got my start in journalism in February 1984 in the sports department of The News American as a 15-year old desk clerk and intern. I got coffee. I answered phones. I ran for pizza. I typed in the most trivial of agate type and sports results. But, mostly, I got to hang out with real sportswriters and talk sports!

My Dad was so proud of me. Most nights when I came back from work, my Dad would ask me if I had talked to John Steadman. Of course, I took every opportunity I could, praying that somehow some of his greatness and grandeur might someday rub off on me. Maybe one day I will have traveled the world, seen all the big games and been respected for my work, I thought.

Not only did I get to know John, he actually took me under his wing and grew to like me. By the time The News American went out of business in May 1986, I had already found a full-time job at The Baltimore Evening Sun and, low and behold, Steadman was joining me again as a colleague.

We shared some of the greatest times together. He loved my enthusiasm for football, specifically my passion for the Houston Oilers, and I loved hearing his old war stories about old players and old characters in Baltimore’s sports community. He loved to needle me about my love of rock music.

Steady, as anyone who knew him and loved him called him behind his back – to his face it was always just John – gave me two nicknames that made sense only to him: Se˜nor (based on my Venezuelan roots) and Hard Metal (his kooky, misplaced verbiage for heavy metal music).

One time, I came to work only to see the words “Hard” and “Metal” clipped out of newsprint in two different fonts and references, stuck over my name on our community mailbox in the office. Because of Steady, I was no longer “Aparicio” to my co-workers. I was “Hard Metal” until I left the paper in January 1992.

On that day, leaving the newspaper on a voluntary buyout at the age of 23, Steady was the only one who pulled me aside and told me that he was proud of me. He said that I was doing the right thing. That life had great things in store for me and that I wouldn’t find them at 501 North Calvert Street in The Sunpapers building.

John Steadman believed in me before I ever believed in myself.

And he never stopped being my friend, my fan and one of my few true supporters through good times and bad.

HEAR NESTOR AND JOHN HAVE A LONG FORM CHAT ABOUT THEIR WORK TOGETHER AT THE NEWS AMERICAN AND THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN FROM THE BARN IN 1997 HERE:

I had seen John during the Dallas game, just a little more than a month earlier, and to be honest, he had battled the cancer so hard and courageously, that when I heard he missed the game, I thought he’d be so angry he’d bounce back for the playoffs with new vigor.

I suppose when it comes to ill friends, I’m more cowardly than I care to admit. I knew John and his resolve and his deep pride, and I figured if he was sick he wouldn’t want me or anyone else to know or bother. That’s just the way he was. Instead of simply calling John or his wife Mary Lee, I went to my media sources that day and sought information from Eisenberg.

“He’s not well,” Eisenberg told me. “I saw him yesterday and he’s in a hospice.”

Choked up, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear anymore.

“Should I go see him?” I asked Eisenberg. “Was he OK with you stopping by to see him?”

“He’d be happy to see you, I’m sure,” Eisenberg said. “He was alert and talkative. But he doesn’t have much longer. If you want to see him alive, you should go as soon as you can.”

The next day was Christmas. It was going to be a very busy week with playoff preparation, pep rallies, radio shows and Trent Dilfer was slated to appear at The Barn on Tuesday night.

I asked around the press box to some others who had seen Steady, and they too, told me time was precious. Former Colt Stan White and Ravens Vice President of Public Relations Kevin Byrne told me to think long and hard about the regret I’d have if I didn’t see him.

So I began my Christmas morning and my “Festivus” week, at the bedside of my idol, who was clearly going to die.

It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, to have a last chat with a man I’d known for 15 years, adored and had such a deep respect for. He was, in no small part, responsible for who I was – what I’d become as a person and as a man who makes his living reporting on sporting events – and had been long before I knew him or called him my friend.

How do you say “goodbye” like that? What can you say?

Even when my Dad passed away, it happened so quickly, to a stroke, and I never saw his eyes open for the last time. I didn’t get to have a “final” conversation with him. I’m not sure that if I had it to do over again that I would have really wanted to say “goodbye.”

But here I was arriving at 10 a.m. on Christmas morning at John’s bedside, trying to act like everything was going to be alright. Like it was just another conversation, like the hundreds we had enjoyed before.

“Senor,” he chimed out to me, upon seeing my face. “What are you doing here? God, it’s great to see you!”

Wow, I thought, he doesn’t look very good, but he’s in fine spirit.

After composing myself a bit, I sat there for two hours, along with his wife, brother, sister-in-law and a family friend, and had a wonderful conversation about the old times. Old football stories. Notre Dame history. The Colts and their legacy. How the Orioles were going to do this year. Even the Ravens, who John wasn’t so fond of at first, but learned to accept and appreciate. John knew the Ravens were headed to the playoffs and that I was excited about the prospects of a potential Super Bowl for Baltimore.

He contributed to more than 90 percent of what we talked about, throwing out some fun thoughts and we shared some laughs. A few times, you could see the side effects of the medication, as John was forgetful or a tad-bit disoriented. But for the most part, it was a wonderfully memorable morning.

It was what the spirit of Christmas was all about: friendship, old stories, laughter and good cheer.

Then it came time to leave.

I had just spent the previous day at a football game thinking of my Dad’s death, and my own mortality as well, and now I was about to leave the deathbed of my professional hero and I had to say a final goodbye.

I touched his hand, told him I loved him, saw the final sparkle in his eyes, exchanged a last smile and said “goodbye.”

It was the first time in my life I had ever had that opportunity – to bid a dear friend farewell in life’s final passage – and it was without question the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

HEAR JOHN STEADMAN JOIN NESTOR FOR THE FINAL TIME VIA PHONE ON THE BUDWEISER SPORTS FORUM:

For me on that Christmas Day, there were a lot of other things to ponder much more important than football or winning and losing.

The following evening, Dilfer, as promised, came to The Barn to stoke the fires of playoff football in Baltimore.