Hoping to boost morale and maybe a win by The University of Michigan over arch-rival Ohio State University last year, on November 19, 2008 I posted this essay about my father-in-law, former UM football player and coach Hank Fonde. Didn’t do any good. We lost to Ohio State. The 2009 season has been even more depressing. The coach, Richard Rodriguez, seems clueless.
Hank Fonde died last May 3, but if he were alive and of sound mind, I’m sure he’d have one thing to say about the current UM football malaise: “Poor coaching.” Well, it certainly can’t hurt to post my Hank Fonde essay again. Maybe a miracle will happen. Incidentally, I’ll be in Michigan Stadium watching the game on Saturday, November 21.
By Joel Thurtell
The 80-year-old old guy with the shock of white hair wore a fading maize and blue University of Michigan t-shirt.
But this was not just any Michigan fan. Nor was it just any UM t-shirt.
The younger woman, maybe in her fifties, quite evidently from Ohio, didn’t know either of these things. And neither of us knew something this old man was about to reveal to us, a story I would not piece together for several years, even though I’d known this onetime Michigan football star and coach for more than three decades.
I ought to — I’ve been married to his oldest daughter since 1974.
The conversation — if you can call it that — took place near the dock at J & G Marina on McGregor Bay in Ontario, a few miles by water from an island where this old man and his family had a summer cottage bought in the mid-1960s, when he was a UM football coach, second-in-command under another well-known Michigan player and coach, Bump Elliott.
The Ohio woman spotted the yellow t-shirt with the UM logo and some script she didn’t understand. The shirt was a gift from UM to Hank and those 1948 team-mates still living at the time Michigan won the Rose Bowl game on January 1, 1998. The shirt commemorated two Rose Bowl victories and two National championships 50 years apart.
Hank was a member of that New Year’s Day 1948 UM team that blew the University of Southern California away. The score was Michigan 49, USC 0. Playing halfback, Hank threw a pass that made one of those TDs.
The Ohio woman didn’t know this. All she knew was that this old man was wearing a t-shirt belonging to the enemy, the hated University of Michigan. She was an Ohio State fan. An easily perturbed Ohio State fan (aren’t they all?). Had she stopped to learn who this old man was, she might have heard an interesting story. But the ending of that story would have perturbed her even more.
My sons and I watched the Ohio woman, unforgettable because she came on so angry, so full of bile, so hostile to an old man who had said nothing to offend her.
Hank could not respond round for round with this woman’s incessant, nasty volleys. Hank hadAlzheimer’s Disease. His memory had long been gone for the people, places, things and events that once were dear to him. I wonder sometimes if all that knock-about football play with the flimsy leather helmets might have contributed to his memory loss.
But I have my memory for who Hank was and I could have told her some phenomenal things about him. Most of it has nothing to do with football. Why, it was Hank who took me fishing in McGregor Bay and trolled us over the best bass and pike fishing spots. It was Hank who coached me to filet a bass, pike or any fish with surgical accuracy. It was Hank who helped me with the summer-long project of replacing the porch roof on our first house in Plymouth. I can hear him still: “Measure twice, cut once, measure twice, cut once!”
Hank loved language. Read “Sayings of Hank Fonde” and I think you will agree — he was a poet.
But of course, football was an almost undying love — even with the Alzheimer’s he could correctly call a play.
Football. He was a high school star in his home town of Knoxville, where his team once stood four other teams in succession, playing fresh teams a quarter apiece. Hank played something called “scatback,” and helped Knoxville knock off all four teams.
Then there was the memorable movie somebody put together from that 1948 Rose Bowl game footage. “Seven Touchdowns in January.” On the screen you can see a small but agile halfback — Hank — scooting around Southern Cal players and lofting the football to a Michigan man, who made a touchdown.
For 10 years in the 1950s, Hank was head football coach at Ann Arbor High School, from 1949-58. In his first eight years, his team lost one game. His overall record was 69 wins, six losses and four ties. Four of the losses occurred his last year, when he and his players knew he was leaving to coach at UM. From 1959-68, Hank coached at UM under Bump Elliott where the win-loss record was nothing to brag about, though this year it was surpassed, if that is the word. But still, Hank coached a Michigan team that won the Jan. 1, 1965 Rose Bowl game against Oregon State, 34-7.
Turns out there was more to learn about Hank and Michigan football, things I didn’t know.
But here was this Ohio woman coming on with her nasty, Michigan-bashing comments, taunting an old man who under normal circumstances couldn’t remember the beginning of a sentence he’s trying so hard, with such frustration, to conclude.
Yet the Ohio woman wore on, making her crude remarks, getting no response from the old man in the maize and blue t-shirt.
Despite the Alzheimer’s, somehow Hank understood the gist of what the Ohio woman was saying.
As she paused for breath, Hank at last found words.
Amazingly, he put together a sentence rooted in a core memory, a recollection that even the brutal Alzheimer’s could not erase.
“I beat Ohio State!”
It was amazing to hear him utter a complete sentence, and to do it with such sternness, such authority.
The Ohio woman looked at Hank as if she finally understood that this old man was demented.
I have to admit, his comment puzzled me.
The Ohio woman went silent.
I thought about it: “I beat Ohio State!”
What could Hank have meant?
The Ohio woman drifted away, maybe looking for someone elderly with a green Michigan State shirt to haze.
Several years later, I was visiting Hank’s son, my brother-in-law, Mark Fonde. Mark has one of the footballs Hank was given after games when he made crucial plays.
This particular football, faded, worn and deflated, had painted on it, “Michigan 7, Ohio 3.”
What was the significance of that? I asked Mark.
Mark told me the story. It was 1945, the last game of the season, and Michigan was, as usual, facing arch-rival Ohio State.
Ohio scored a field goal for 3 points early in the game. The score stayed 0-3 until the last quarter.
In that fourth quarter, Hank took the ball and barreled into the end zone. He was clobbered by Ohio State tacklers and knocked back onto the playing field. He was literally knocked out, too, only regaining consciousness in the locker room when somebody handed him a football.
He’d made the winning touchdown for Michigan. The game had ended, 7-3.
Last summer, I mentioned this to my older son, Adam. He reminded me of what granddad said to the Ohio woman.
Finally, I understand what Hank meant.
If she could only know: How many people can say with absolute accuracy what Hank told that Ohio woman?
“I beat Ohio State!”
Drop me a line at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com