Monday, September 21, 2009

For Sal

Today is the final full day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. The autumnal equinox is upon us. Autumnal equinox is - I must confess - one of my favorite turns of phrase. I just love the way it rolls off of the tongue. It would make a great thoroughbred racehorse name - or if that twit Gwyneth Paltrow and that wannabe rock and roller she's married to (it remains one of life's great mysteries to me how Coldplay has ever sold a record to anyone not related to a member of the band by blood or marriage) decide to renew their procreative activities, it is a name perhaps they would assign to their offspring. Regardless, it is a phrase that is not only cool-sounding but it is significant for it signals the official cessation of summer and reminds us that autumn is now much closer than around the corner.

The changing of seasons is an effective way in which to mark time. We have effective measurements for tracking time following the lines of seasonal demarcation on the calendar - although admittedly they seem to be far from perfect. Here, it gets damned cold weeks before the Winter Solstice marks winter's official arrival only a few days before Christmas. And the world shifts into "summer mode" at or about Memorial Day, which is several weeks prior to the Summer Solstice. Nevertheless, these little 90-day mini-years are an effective way to track time's passage.

And pass it does. I had forgotten, I am ashamed to say, until I saw something about it on the CU Athletic Department web site on Saturday that Wednesday of this week shall mark the 20th anniversary of the death of Sal Aunese.

Aunese was the starting quarterback on the football team during my final two seasons in Boulder. He was a fairly successful college player, leading the Buffs to 7-4 and 8-3 records in his two years as the starter. His time in Boulder was pockmarked. As a freshman he was what used to be called a "Prop 48" casualty, which meant that he did not qualify academically and was not permitted to play. Aunese was Samoan, a distinction lost on some liquored-up dorm dweller who when Aunese was a freshman leaned out of a dorm window late one night - saw Aunese and another Samoan player walking back to their dorm - and decided to hurl "the N word" at them. Sadly, the kid who shouted it had never learned the William Kenny, Sr. 1st Lesson of the Playground. Having written a check with his mouth that his hands could not cover, he suffered a fairly severe beating at the hands of the two extremely upset Samoans. Aunese and his teammate Oakland Salavea were both charged with assault.

By the fall of 1987, Aunese had become the starter on the football team - a position he held for that season and the 1988 season. He would have been the favorite, presumably, to start during the 1989 season (his senior year) although with the emergence of Darian Hagan, who quarterbacked the Buffs to back-to-back National Championship Game appearances following the '89 and '90 seasons, whether Aunese would have started as a senior is a forever to be left unanswered question. He never got the opportunity.

My roommate Alex and I had both stayed in Boulder during Spring Break '89, our senior year, because neither of us had enough money to make it home. Truth be told, neither of us had enough money to make it to Superior. It was while we were chilling in the quietest, emptiest college town in America that the story broke about Aunese and his cancer. The announcement that he had inoperable stomach cancer was made on March 20, 1989. He had apparently not been feeling well for a week or two and given his lethargy he was sent down to Denver to the CU Health Sciences Center for a check-up. If I remember correctly the doctor used either a softball or a grapefruit as his frame of reference describing the tumor's size. Aunese apparently had a tremendous pain threshold as he only complained of any discomfort shortly before the tumor was discovered.

Sal Aunese never played a down for the Buffs following the 1988 season. Given that it was to be my final Spring Game - and I suspected sadly that it would be his as well - I made a point of walking up the hill to Folsom Field in April 1989 to watch that year's contest. Aunese did not play of course. His teammates though gathered around him at game's end and presented him with a gift. They gave him one of the big over sized chairs that the coaches used for meetings and to watch film. When they lifted him up in it over their shoulders and carried him around the field, I do not think there was a dry eye in the joint.

During the four years I was at CU, I encountered Aunese only one time. I worked at Abo's on the Hill, a by-the-slice take-out pizza joint that catered to the bar crowd by staying open until 2:00a.m. or slightly thereafter on Friday nights and Saturday nights. In 1988, the Buffs started the season 4-0 and on an absolutely gorgeous early October Saturday played host to Barry Sanders and the OSU Cowboys. OSU simply crushed us by - if memory serves - at least three touchdowns. Neither Aunese nor anyone on the offense played particularly well in defeat.

I worked at Abo's that night. And shortly after we had thrown out whatever food we had not sold and had finished cleaning the place up, I heard a tap on the back door. There, standing by himself in the alley was Aunese. I opened the door and when he asked if we had any pizza left I told him we did not. He shook his head side-to-side and said, "Story of the day for me. My timing has been off all day." I remember saying to him to cheer up and hang in there for there was always another Saturday. He smiled weakly, thanked me and walked on up the alley.

Had I known how precious few Saturdays he had left I might have tried to rustle him up some food. But he was young and strong and talented and I thought he had a lifetime of game days ahead of him. It turned out that from that night forward he had only six.

Sal Aunese was not a perfect person by any stretch of the imagination or unit of measurement. This year his son T.C. McCartney is on the roster at LSU. T.C.'s mom is Kristy McCartney, who was a CU student and was the daughter of Aunese's head coach, Bill McCartney. T.C. was born into scandal he did not ask for, being the out-of-wedlock son of the coach's daughter and the starting quarterback. And he did not ask for the added burden of losing his father only five months after he was born. Yet, by all accounts he has - to date - more than weathered the storm.

Twenty years ago this Wednesday Sal Aunese died. He was a flawed man, although whether he was more so or less so than me I know not. I know that for all of his flaws and for all of his warts, he was loved by the folks who knew him the best. Twenty-one is too damned young to die. But die he did although he did not go gentle into that good night.


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