For me, as a young boy growing up, he is the stuff of legends, his story one that stands the test of time. An American gridiron star, he shines at both quarterback and running back. He punts the ball vast distances and returns kicks as well. Nearly a century after the fact, he remains Notre Dame’s all-time leader in several offensive categories.
Still, immortality only comes to George Gipp with his untimely passing at the age of 24. Struck down by a serious throat infection and then pneumonia, on his death bed he utters words of inspiration to his coach, Knute Rockne.
“I’ve got to go, Rock” he says. “It’s all right. I’m not afraid.” Then he implores “some time, Rock, when the team is up against it, when things are wrong and the breaks are beating the boys, ask them to go in there with all they’ve got and win just one for the Gipper.”
Rockne waits eight years to draw on Gipp’s entreaty. The result, in 1928, is a 12-6 victory over then archrival Army, a powerful team and undefeated at the time. Given little chance to win, the Fighting Irish play with tremendous verve, spirit, and skill, on the way to springing a significant upset.
Nonetheless, now an adult, I believe that athletic success is, for the most part, based on work ethic, sound planning, preparation, physical fitness, development of fundamentals and attitude. That motivational speeches, those which might leave an athlete tingling before an important game, are, in the end, only words. With slogans, sheer emotion and sense of occasion just that, nebulous concepts which should not necessarily affect performance.
However, every so often, there comes a series of events that fly in the face of reason, when an individual’s sheer example, character and accomplishments combine as a powerful, stimulating force.
November 16, 2019. The University of Victoria is in mourning. Eli Pasquale, a basketball superstar, and the greatest athlete in the history of the institution, is gone. Gone far too soon, victim of an aggressive cancer at the age of 59. A huge audience packs the McKinnon Gym, home base in his sterling career, for a memorial service. Hundreds more watch online. Tributes pour in from all across the globe.
Pasquale’s achievements are staggering. Five Canadian university titles in succession, from 1980 to 1984. Winner of numerous individual and Hall of Fame awards. A two time Olympian, he represents Canada for over a decade, plays professionally with great distinction in Europe and South America.
I have the chance to first play with, then coach Eli over three collegiate seasons. Or perhaps more accurately, watch him, in practice and from my position on the bench. A simply wonderful human being, he becomes a close friend. Resolute, fiercely competitive, committed to excellence, honest and loyal. Impossibly fit and capable, highly respected, a leader. He develops into the consummate point guard. He can defend, handle the ball, pass, score. And, as with all elite players, he understands the rhythms of the game.
Without question, in today’s era, Eli would play in the NBA. For, as impressive as the many Canadians now established in that league may be, measured against my memories of him, they don't compare. I know what I see, and what I saw all those years ago.
The current Victoria team attends the memorial. While the players certainly have heard of Eli, most do not really know him. And so I hope they are listening intently to the various messages delivered during the service. After all, the Vikes must shift gears straight afterwards in order to complete a weekend series vs Alberta. The visiting Golden Bears, ranked #3 in the country, run roughshod the night before, bullying us from start to finish en route to a twenty point trouncing. We are indeed up against it, the gap between the two sides stark.
Once again a member of the Vikes coaching staff, I arrive at my courtside seat just before tipoff. And it is then that I truly feel it. An invisible, hovering presence.
The game unfolds. I can only assume, in the wake of the memorial, that others also detect Pasquale’s aura. Our team is unrecognizable from the previous night. Individually and collectively the players perform at a higher level than ever before. Physical, ferocious, committed and tenacious. A 31-19 halftime lead is no more than we deserve.
Inevitably, momentum shifts in the third quarter. The Bears claw back, reducing the deficit to four points. But I am not concerned. I glance up at the end wall, at the glass case housing Eli's retired #13 jersey. Can now almost sense him on the court with us, calm and collected, directing the action, the star attraction. Our players knowing it and therefore confident, perhaps the opposition knowing it also.
Appropriately, we pull away in the final ten minutes, regain a comfortable double digit cushion. Thoroughly frustrated by a brick wall defence and vicious rebounding, Alberta loses its cool. We secure an important and warranted victory against a very highly regarded opponent.
I leave the floor and return to the locker room. Emotions are running high. Eyes sparkle, even if several exhausted players slump in their chairs. They have given everything.
A key contributor to countless impressive Victoria performances in his time, I know Eli will also enjoy this one.
On cue, deep in the recesses of my mind, I hear his voice. Gipper like, he tells me “I don't know where I'll be when it happens, Hydes. But I'll know about it, and I'll be happy."