"At Least He Could Talk A Good Game"
This excerpt looks at Joe Tait's years as a student athlete and the experiences that led him to hang up his helmet and get behind a microphone.
At Least He Could Talk a Good Game
Here's the good news.
Joe Tait scored a touchdown.
Joe was rarely on the field, at least not when the verdict was in doubt.
"I got into a game when the score was 32-6," Joe said. "We had the lead and had been chasing the quarterback all over the field. On this one play, the kid went back to pass and threw a pass . . . it was really a desperation heave down the field."
Meanwhile, Joe had been knocked down, and just as he was getting up . . . well . . . here came the ball . . .
"I HAD to catch it," said Joe. "It was almost self-defense."
Joe paused, then added, "I could have dropped it. I thought about dropping it."
But the ball was somehow in his hands.
Suddenly, Joe heard his coach yell, "Run, Tait, RUN!"
"If ever there is a contradiction in terms, it's Joe Tait and the word . . . run," said Joe, laughing.
He caught the ball on his own 35-yard line, and huffed and puffed and wheezed and staggered and stumbled and rumbled . . . and somehow, stayed on his feet.
And somehow, no one caught him.
"You know when they say that someone was closing in for the kill?" said Joe. "I got to about the 15-yard line, looked back and it was like everybody on both teams was closing in on me . . . for the kill. The guy with the best shot at me was the quarterback. I guess the indignity of throwing an interception to me in a blowout inspired him to chase me. But then he took one look at my blood-red face and my tongue hanging out . . . and he laughed . . . and fell down. I mean, he just went down . . . and I staggered into the end zone."
This was in junior high football.
It's not exactly like Irwin Shaw's classic short story, "The 80-Yard Run," which actually took place in a practice. But the general truth lingers . . . so many of us who love sports have so few good athletic memories.
Most of Joe's football memories are like this one from junior high.
"I loved the game, I really did," Joe said. "But the coach was always on my butt because I didn't have the eye of the tiger. I just didn't enjoy hitting people, which is not a good trait for a defensive lineman. We were scrimmaging Elgin High, and the offensive tackle came up to the line of scrimmage and said, 'They're coming right at you.'"
Joe was confused for a moment, especially when the tackle didn't block him – rather, he stepped out of the way.
"Here came the fullback," said Joe. "And it was . . . BAM! He ran right into me. I was hanging on his legs for dear life and eventually brought him down. I came off the field, spitting dirt. I had grass in my helmet. I was a mess. The coach slapped me on the butt and said, 'Now that's what I expect on EVERY play, so get back in there.'"
Joe returned to the line, and the same tackle said the same thing, "It's going to happen again."
And the same thing happened . . . somehow, Joe brought the guy down.
"The coach again slapped me on the butt and said, 'Now you're playing football,'" recalled Joe.
Back to the line again . . . and the offensive tackle looked at Joe and said, "One more time."
"The guy with the ball hit me as hard as I ever had been hit in my life," Joe said. "I thought I was dead."
Another football story, this one from grade school. This one has to do with his mother and a clothesline. Joe was the defensive tackle. His belt on his football pants broke. As he went down in his football stance, he had one hand on the ground, another holding up his pants.
"After the play, we were in the huddle," said Joe. "My mother came on to the field, right into the defensive huddle. She had a clothesline and tied it around my pants to hold them up."
In the fifth grade, Joe was the biggest kid on the team at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds. When quarterback Eddie Mitchell dropped back to pass, he complained he couldn't see down the field because Joe was so big, he blocked his view.
"My parents thought there was something wrong with me because I grew so much, so fast," he said. "I had a doctor giving me shots to try to control my pituitary gland."
Joe said he played football through much of high school until his senior year.
"That's when I hurt my knee," he said. "The doctor told my mother that he could stabilize the knee and avoid major surgery."
Joe said his mother and the doctor went into another room, but he heard his mother say, "Doctor, fix him so he can walk, but don't fix him so he can play football again."
And that was the end of his football career.
"I was on our school's slow-pitch softball team," said Joe. "The bases were loaded. The score was tied. It was the last inning. The pitcher was wild and had walked some guys."
Before Joe stepped into the batter's box, the coach told him, "If you swing at one pitch, even one, I'll take you right out of the game. Just stand there and let him hit you."
Remember, this was SLOW-PITCH softball.
But the pitch did indeed hit Joe. And the winning run scored.
"That was in the fifth grade," he said.
Not long after Joe announced his retirement, he received a package from a childhood friend named Bill Nicholson. It was a baseball jersey. On the front were the words: OAK AVENUE OWLS. On the back, it was TAIT . . . with his number 9. Joe looked at it and thought about when there were four neighborhood teams . . . the Owls, the Yellow Jackets, the Pirates and Giants.
"It was a Wiffle-ball league," he said. "The ball was really just a rolled-up ball of tape. We played in the backyard and had the whole field laid out."
It was a league without coaches, without umpires, without adults. It was just kids playing ball . . . in the backyard.
Pure as it can be when it comes to sports.
The backyard Wiffle-ball league once had a championship game. Joe asked his father to be the umpire.
"He called me out on strikes to end the game," Joe said.
Then he told the story of how he had to umpire his daughter's softball game. The real umpires didn't show. The coaches pressed Joe into duty.
"I was just there to watch the game, and they put me in," he said. "In the last inning, my daughter Karen came up with the winning run on base. I called her out on strikes, and she turned around and said, 'You only did that because your father did it to you!'"
So did the man who'd eventually be enshrined in the media wing of the Basketball Hall of Fame ever play basketball?
"I was on a high school team called the freshman/sophomore reserves," he said. "We played Saturday mornings at 9:30. The custodian used to leave the key by the door so we could let ourselves in. He didn't even want to watch us play."
Joe said there were 11 players. They played 5-on-5, meaning one guy was left out.
"That was me," he said. "I was uncoordinated, but then again, I also was slow. I had nothing to commend me to basketball. While they played, I'd go over to the next court and practice. Sometimes, I'd stand at half-court and shoot a long hook shot. Once in a while, it went in. Now, I'd win a million bucks if I did that at halftime of an NBA game."
Joe said that one day, the coach said, "I saw what you were doing over there. If you ever get into a game and try one of those, you'll never play again."
Joe thought, "So what? He's never put me in the game."
But the day came.
"We were losing, 74-28," he said. "The coach said, 'Tait, get in there.' I went in for Jerry Stroud. I sort of gravitated to the center circle, and the ball rolled to me. I picked it up. I heard the coach screaming. I didn't care. I heaved my hook shot and headed straight to the bench – never dreaming what would happen."
"It really was nothing but net," he said. "It really was from half-court. And the coach did take me out. And I never did play again. That was in my sophomore year at Elgin High."
Notice the details . . . Joe remembered the score. He remembered the player whom he replaced on the court. He could close his eyes and see a play from 60 years ago, the ball rolling his way, him picking it up and letting go with the hook shot that he had practiced for hours.
And the SWISH.
Joe admits to recalling very few details from Cavs games of the last 20 years . . . but he could remember that game. Just as he could name all four teams from his Wiffle-ball league . . . he also could remember the name of the quarterback who complained that he was "too big" to see around, and the name of the fullback who ran him over.
The best games Joe played were in his imagination.
"I had this baseball game with a spinner – Jim Prentice Baseball," said Joe. "I used to sit in my bedroom with that game and make up lineups, keep stats and announce the game as it was being played. I did lots of play-by-play. I also made up one-man football games to play by myself in the backyard, and I'd announce those. I had my own set of rules. If you stepped on a certain leaf-you were tackled. Sounds ridiculous now, especially as I was doing play-by-play of my own games."
Joe's father was worried about his son.
"My dad thought my doing play-by-play of my imaginary games was a sign that I was unbalanced," said Joe. "He sent me to a child psychologist at a place called Mooseheart, which was a home for orphans run by the Moose club. They also had a child psychology department. My father paid to have me examined. They talked to me twice."
"My father would never tell me what the psychologist said," said Joe. "But my mother finally did: 'The psychologist told your father that your only problem was that you obviously have a vivid imagination, and it centers on sports. There is nothing wrong with your son at all.'"
Joe was in high school when that happened.
"My father backed off after that," he said.
Joe doesn't talk much about the impact of all this. Consider that sports had to be frustrating for him. He was the kid bigger than anyone else, yet he couldn't really play. He had to know that other more physically gifted kids wished they had his size. His coaches didn't understand his lack of fire on the football field. His father had no interest in comprehending why his son would spend hours in his room, playing a baseball game and announcing it.
In fact, as Joe said, "My father thought I was a little deranged."
He laughed as he said it, but it had to hurt a gawky teenager who longed to please his dad, his coaches, his teammates – but found it so hard to do so. Joe was creating his own world, an escape from the harsh reality of some unmerciful coaches, an unfeeling father and a world of athletics that he so loved – but where he didn't quite fit.
"When I was in high school, a friend and I would go to watch the Elgin baseball team in the Tri-State semipro league," said Joe. "There weren't many people in the bleachers, but we'd go into the far corner-as far away as we could get from anyone else. Then we'd do a play-by-play. On the way home, we'd critique each other. It was at a place called Wing Park."
"It was frustrating not to be good at any sport," said Joe. "I loved sports. I'd have loved to have had the talent to play them well. When I blew out my knee, I didn't quit the football team. I became the manager for the football and basketball teams in high school. I did the same at Monmouth College until I started broadcasting the games. First sportswriting and then sports broadcasting gave me the outlet that I never would have had as a player. Broadcasting became something that I knew I could do well, and that was important to me."
Excerpted from the book "Joe Tait: It's Been a Real Ball" (c) 2011 by Joe Tait and Terry Pluto. All rights reserved. This text may not be reproduced in any form or manner without written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers. The book is available at the Cavs Team Shop at The Q. For more information, call the publisher at 1-800-915-3609 or visit their web site: grayco.com