In Praise of ‘The Jock’

During my junior and senior years at Harvard, I had the pleasure of living above the room of Benazir Bhutto, the future Prime Minister of Pakistan, whose father held that same title while we were in college. She was a good friend who, as a result of socializing with the dozen or so hockey players who resided in Eliot House, became a big fan of college hockey.

One afternoon, I received a call from Ms. Bhutto, asking if I could get her a hockey puck. It seems that she wanted to bake a birthday cake for Jay Riley, a classmate and eldest son of former West Point coach Jack Riley.

“What does a puck have to do with a birthday cake?” I asked.

“Well, I thought it would be funny if I hid the puck between the two layers of the cake,” she explained. “When he goes to cut into the cake, he’ll obviously have some trouble with it.”

“I’ll bring one back from practice,” I offered, not sure if this was a good idea or not.

Later that night, I received another phone call from Benazir. She was in the Eliot House kitchen and she was frantic.

“Joey, Joey, I can’t get the cover off. I’ve been trying for a half hour. I’ve used two knives. I just can’t get it off,” she said.

“Whoa. What cover? There’s no cover on a puck,” I explained. “Wait there. I’ll be right down.”

I entered the Eliot House kitchen, puzzled as to what I would find. It looked like a crime scene. One knife on the table. A smaller one on the floor. A disfigured hockey puck lying in a pile of flour. CSI: Cambridge.

“What are you doing? Nothing has to come off of the puck,” I said. “Believe me. It’s small enough as it is.”

She had seen the textured side of the puck and thought it was something to be removed. The poor disk was all chopped up. We both enjoyed a good laugh over it all.

I think of Benazir Bhutto often, particularly when reunions roll around. The puck story isn’t really what I think about. Or all that has happened to her and her country in the 30 years since we graduated in 1973. I think of having to run into all these wildly successful people and reconcile my chosen path with theirs. I was, in 1973, and remain today, a jock.

This is never more apparent than every five years when these damn reunions take place. That gnawing sense of discomfort began recently when I got a flyer in the mail about a 30th reunion cookout. Then I turned on the Sunday morning talk shows and in rapid fire succession, on three different channels, saw three classmates holding court with the Tim Russerts of the world. William Kristol. Evan Thomas. E.J. Kahn, Jr. Even when I found a football game, there was another classmate on Fox, James Brown.

This phenomenon peaked in 1988 when we celebrated our 15th reunion. I actually thought my entry in the reunion book was pretty damn impressive: “Work as ECAC Hockey Executive Director, goalie coach for the Boston Bruins….”

Then I read: “Benazir Bhutto: led bloodless overthrow of Pakistani military dictator…”

I’m worried about Reggie Lemelin’s five-hole. She is saving her country.

So now my 30th Reunion beckons. I think of past events. Invariably, I find myself at some stuffy cocktail event, walking up to a group of classmates who are trying to solve the Palestinian question when they see me coming.

“Joe, what about those Bruins?” they’ll ask. “Don’t you think they should have signed Guerin?”

Wait until he starts figuring out batting averages and earned run averages. I’m sure I did well in math from figuring out my goals against average from an early age. I mean, those were some pretty big numbers.

I make some small talk and then walk away, usually ending up at a buffet table, finishing the shrimp. Why do they assume I care about the Bruins? Why couldn’t I give my two cents about the West Bank and Gaza?

If you think I am over-reacting, let me relate a story that captures the essence of my dilemma. It is about eleven or twelve years ago. George Bush the elder is in the White House. My friend Benazir Bhutto, then the Prime Minister of Pakistan, is visiting Washington D.C. to make an appeal to Congress for some foreign assistance. As part of her itinerary, there is a black tie affair hosted by Vice President and Mrs. Dan Quayle. I finagle an invitation.

I rent a tux, take the shuttle to Washington, attend the dinner. This is an “A List” affair. Katherine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, was there. So was infamous D.C. mayor Marion Barry. All-Star journalists. Senators. Lobbyists. They were all there.

Midway through the affair, I decide to approach the head table. Suddenly, fear grips me. What do you say to a head of state? Do you extend your hand? Will they even let me get near the table? I’ve come this far. I make my move.

Five steps from the table, so far, so good. I haven’t been tackled by someone talking into his lapel. Two steps to go and a new panic attack. What if she doesn’t recognize me? One step away. She sees me and there is an instant look of recognition.

She stands up and extends her hand to me.

“Joey, how wonderful of you to come. Let me introduce you to the Vice President.”

Vice President Quayle gets up from his seat. As we start to shake hands, my good friend says, “Mr. Vice President, this is Joe Bertagna. He was the goalie in ‘Love Story.'”

The Prime Minister of Pakistan, whom I have known for 20 years, introduces me to the Vice President of the United States and this is all she can think of saying? “He was the goalie in ‘Love Story’.”

Benazir Bhutto led the nation of Pakistan, and made cakes for Joe Bertagna.

Benazir Bhutto led the nation of Pakistan, and made cakes for Joe Bertagna.

All right. I’m 51 years old. I understand. I should have come to terms with this by now. But wait. It’s getting worse. Now I have kids. What if they too become the jock in the class? Do I want them to have to deal with this at their reunions?

It has started already. My six-year old, who discovered baseball and the Red Sox this summer, brought a homework assignment into the house two weeks ago. It read: “Name four areas in which you want to improve this year.”

He wrote, “Throwing,” “Hiting (sic),” and “Runing (sic).” As he wrestled with the fourth subject, I offered, “How about ‘Spelling?'” He shot me a look. I didn’t want him to hit upon “Sliding,” and have his teacher think he was just, well, a jock.

The next week, the assignment directed him to find four things in the house that began with the letter “M.” He responded with, “Montreal, Minesota (sic), Marlins,” before I interceded. I knew that it was only a matter of time before he stumbled into, “Milwaukee.”

“How about ‘Mom’,” I said. “Or ‘Milk.'”

He opted for “Mom,” and went off to play with his younger brother.

What’s the matter with me? What’s wrong with using sports to do your homework? What’s wrong with being a jock? Especially if you can be a smart jock? When I think about it, I have to admit that part of the reason he reads so well at a young age is all the time he spends reading the backs of baseball cards and the Red Sox yearbook and all kinds of other sports books lying around the house. Wait until he starts figuring out batting averages and earned run averages. I’m sure I did well in math from figuring out my goals against average from an early age. I mean, those were some pretty big numbers.

I have come to terms with this now. No, really. The gifts under this year’s Christmas tree for my 2, 4, and 6-year olds included baseball cards, a table hockey game, a football with a tee, and a child’s book (“Level 3 Reader”) on Great Shortstops. If the kids turn out to be jocks, as long as they are polite, educated, productive jocks, I will have done my job.

You may have heard about the book, “The Game of Life,” which came out a couple of years ago and whose authors are currently the darlings of Ivy and NESCAC academicians. The book basically sucker punches athletics on campuses of highest education. Too many spots go to athletes. The athlete alumni don’t give back as much as believed. Athletics doesn’t create future leaders. They debunk these “myths,” as they are called, with an impressive array of statistics they have assembled. Of course their statistics don’t really reflect what many of us have observed firsthand in our own lifetimes.

Most of the people I know who played college athletics readily give back to their schools in any way they can. A significant number of these former athletes are leaders in all kinds of fields. And many of them will tell you that their ability to act under duress, manage their time efficiently, set and reach goals, and work well with others all stem from their interscholastic and intercollegiate athletic experiences. To us, the conclusions of “The Game of Life” and its authors couldn’t be farther from the truth.

So my wife and I, a NESCAC alumna and Ivy League alumnus, will happily raise our little jocks, with the hope that they not only get to enjoy what we had, but that they also apply the lessons from those experiences in adulthood.

Joe Bertagna is the Executive Director of the American Hockey Coaches Association and the Commissioner of the Hockey East Association. He was the goalie in “Love Story.”


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