Photo Credit: New York Times, 2013

The Man on Aisle Seven

A Tribute to George Sauer Jr.

Part 1

“Wind-driven fight blows in my marrow,

Light narrows and clouds invite.

Bent by long shadows, longer time,

An old man dances in my heart —

His broken brain rattles mine.”

George Sauer, 1994

The middle-aged man lived alone in a small apartment in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He had no family in the area. He had apparently chosen the city at random. He slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of his apartment because of an old back injury. He worked at the local Sunshine Food Stores stacking shelves by day. After work and in his free time, he wrote.

He called the back room at the Sunshine Store “Paradise.” Until you got to know him, the man who helped stock the grocery store shelves kept such a low profile that not many people knew anything about him. He was a slightly imposing figure, standing six feet, two inches tall and weighing about 185, but otherwise he looked mostly like a college English professor. The few people who took the effort to get to know him soon learned that, despite his chosen occupation, he was one of the most intelligent and interesting people they had ever met. He was well-read and could carry on an informed conversation on almost any subject. They wondered why he was living in Sioux Falls and working in a grocery store in an hourly position, not because they looked down on the job, but because he seemed an odd-fit for it.

Little did anyone know that 26 years before, he had caught eight passes for 133 yards and set up his team’s only touchdown in Super Bowl III. He should’ve been the MVP, but it didn’t matter to him. He would walk away from the game only two years later at the age of 27, one of the best receivers in the NFL and leaving a multi-million dollar contract (in today’s dollars) on the table. And now, over a quarter century later, he had found some measure of peace and contentment stocking the shelves at the grocery store and writing in his free time.

He was born on November 10, 1943, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. His father was a lifelong football player, coach, and administrator. The father had played for the Green Bay Packers from 1935 to 1937, and been a member of the Packers’ NFL championship in 1936. The father would go on to coach college football at New Hampshire, Kansas, Navy, and Baylor. Growing up, the son had been an outstanding student, with a wide array of interests.

Those who knew him say as a boy, he was a poet at heart. His father was a football man. As so often happens, the father would win the inevitable clash of wills that was bound to ignite when a child shows talent and interest in other areas. The father would win because the son preferred peace to confrontation, wanted to make his father proud, and in any event, the son really had no other choice, being on the much weaker end of the power balance before reaching full adulthood. This is part of how it happens. And in practice it’s a very subtle thing.

Like so many young boys in these situations, George Sauer Jr. just happened to be very good at playing a sport that he did not really enjoy. This is actually very common; after all, when you think about it, people can be very good at something although they don’t particularly like or enjoy it. Consider it. How many people are better-suited to do something else, something they are more naturally-suited to doing, that they would enjoy much more, that they did not do, because of familial or societal pressures? How many dreams are delayed, put off, or never attempted? How many avocations are delayed? How many careers are never taken up? How many possibilities are simply forfeited? How many desires are never followed, all in the name of going along to get along?

In the inception — in the very earliest of days — this is how it happens. This is how boys like George Sauer, my former teammates, and me, are created. It doesn’t take much, and the seeds are firmly planted, the heading is set.

Parents, if you care and seek wisdom, pay attention now. Because this is how it happens. The irony is, there is in many cases nothing malicious in it, although the effect can consume many years of the child’s life.

The father (and perhaps, the mother too) was a very good athlete; hence a high likelihood that he and/or she passes those genes on to the son.

So what does the father do? He starts tossing a football or baseball to the son when the son is maybe two years old, shortly after he has learned to stand. Or whatever the thing may be. Basketball, hockey puck, name it.

And the son — who can barely walk and can’t even speak yet — can catch the ball. How is this possible? Well, because the father gets excited, and the two-year-old senses this, and it goes from there. The two-year-old learns how to get praise very early on.

And then the son can throw the ball. And then, the son can kick and punt the ball. Or hit the baseball, or whatever the thing may be, etc., and so forth.

Parents, pay heed now.

I know the father does this because my father did it with me, and I confess that I did it with my sons. I didn’t realize I was doing this at the time. At the time when you are a young father, it just seems like the normal thing to do.

This is not an indictment of fathers — including me — it’s just a recitation of objective facts. In my case, I never tossed a football around with them for reasons that I have much written about before, but my oldest son would eventually become a very good baseball player, even better than I was at the same age. But unlike George Sauer and me, my oldest son mustered up the moral courage to walk in one day during his junior year of high school and inform me he was burned out on baseball and didn’t want to play anymore. And I was proud of him for being stronger than I was at the same age. He finished high school running track and field, and enjoyed it much more than he had ever enjoyed baseball.

But in the inception, the parent soon observes that the son is pretty good at the thing, whatever it may be, because after all, again, he is the parent’s son.

And then one day, the son looks around and learns that he’s being praised for being able to throw that ball, or catch that ball, or kick that ball. He is getting lots of affirmation for being the kid who is really good at, for example, throwing or catching the ball; or hitting the baseball. And the affirmation is not just coming from his parents; it starts flowing in from neighbors, other parents, teachers, coaches, and other kids.

And all of this gets very deeply embedded in the son at a very early age. Pretty soon, if you are the son, you don’t even think about whether you like it or not; you just do it, because it has almost become your entire identity. It is how you gain personal value.

People like you because you’re good at throwing around the ball. The pretty girls in school like you. Other parents like you. And at a very young age the sport takes over your life. And there’s really no thought or discussion about you doing anything else.

And that’s how it happens. That’s how it happened to me, and it’s probably how it happened to my father. And it’s how it happened to George Sauer.

George Sauer really had no choice in the trajectory his life would take for its first 27 years, because he was offered a football scholarship to the University of Texas on the day he was born. Imagine that for a minute. His father, George Sr., had played for the Texas Longhorns’ coach, Dana X. Bible, at the University of Nebraska in the early ’30s. After three seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Sauer Sr. went on to a long and successful career in coaching and scouting, including seven years with the New York Titans/Jets as their general manager in 1962 and as the director of player personnel from 1963–1968.

George Sauer Jr. would later observe, “We had about 13 trees in our backyard when I was a kid in Waco, Texas. My dad would throw the ball to me close to the trees and I’d bounce off of them after I caught it. I remember my father telling my mother one time, ‘With his hands he should be an end.’”

Not surprisingly, the younger Sauer was a standout football player at Waco High School. His school would win a share of the Texas District 13 AAAA Championship in 1960. Although he was recruited by several schools, he never really had any choice of where he was going to attend. Like so many other decisions up to that point, and like so many others, that decision — as noted — had already been made for him.

When Sauer finally decided to go to Texas in 1961, his mother showed him the letter they received from Bible all those years before. “As for George Jr.,” it read, “don’t worry. I’ve got a uniform reserved for him here in 1961.”

Sauer would later note, “It was as though some unseen force was driving me from behind to do those things.” I can identify with this sentiment, because this same unseen force influenced the first 22 years of my own life. “The memory of that letter has stayed with me because I think it was important in my eventual retirement,” Sauer would later observe.

But before abruptly leaving it all behind, George Sauer would leave his own unique and indelible mark on the game that never fulfilled him and that he never really enjoyed. He would eventually follow it up with one of the first indictments of the game ever to come from one its insiders.

To be continued.

Glen Hines is the author of the Anthology Trilogy of books — Document, Cloudbreak, and Crossroads — and the recently released Cathedrals in the Twilight, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.