Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Remembering Paul

The late Paul Donley earned an athletic scholarship to Concordia College. No thanks to me.
Paul was built for football. Tall, rangy and with some bulk, he was just the thing for the trenches at Jake Christianson stadium in Moorhead. Basketball, not so much. His big brother, Bill, earned a football scholarship too. Bill had distinguished himself in high school, not only on the gridiron, but by ruling the outdoor rink. He played hockey outdoors at Concordia too.
None of that for Paul. He came in from the cold immediately after high school football season was over.
That’s where I got to know Paul, playing basketball for the mighty Alexandria Cardinals. Paul was the red forward, I was black. We scrimmaged daily, grunting, sweating, pushing and shoving each other. Paul was a senior, I was a junior.
Paul was a natural educator with a permanent spot on the second string. He made it clear immediately what he was there for. He had no aspirations to take my place on the starting team, he just wanted to stay warm and make me better. And teach he did. Each afternoon he would take on the personna of the weekend foe, pretending (sometimes comically so) to be whomever I would face that weekend. “Here’s Lyle McIver,” he would say, trying to emulate Lyle’s move to the baseline, or, “I’m Bob Peterson.” No one asked him to help out the coach. He just did it.
We were going hard at it, five-on-five, one day when Paul spotted something unusual out of the corner of his eye.
“Goose” he panted subversively under his breath, using the nickname he had invented and encouraged everyone to use. “There’s a recruiter down on the other end, he’s scouting me for Concordia.” Then he conspired, “When we get under that basket, and if I get the ball, give me a shot. Let me have an unobstructed jumper.”
I agreed to the ruse, of course, wondering how his dubious jump shot could possibly help get him a football scholarship, but oh well. Meanwhile, he was probably already dreaming of making an impressive, unimpeded jump shot right in front of his recruiter, swish, nothing but net.
Unfortunately, the coach blew his whistle, and we started a different drill, now staying under the same basket, with Paul’s group on permanent offense while we worked on something or other on defense. Time passed. 
Our plan would soon go very much awry. 
Eventually, Big Paul was passed the ball in a perfect position for a jump shot attempt. He gathered himself, almost in slow motion, trusting now to so easily take a classic 60’s jump shot, releasing the ball from his fingertips in a confident moment of grace.
The ball ricocheted hard off the concrete wall, slapped to the side in a solid, humiliating shot block. 
I was still in the air when I realized what I had done. To my horror, my mentor, my friend, had thought the conspiracy was still on, regardless. I did not. The result was a mashup of miscommunication, raw instinct, and habit. No wonder his jumper had been so easily blocked.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I said lamely to my crushed teammate. “I don’t know what happened. I thought we were going to wait to get to the other end of the court where your friend is standing! It was the wrong basket! Sorry!” 
“That was really low,” he said sadly, shaking his head at his pupil, who stood ashamed and misunderstood. Paul spoke with little emotion. He didn’t have to.
We”ll never know if the recruiter actually saw that disaster. We do know that Paul got his scholarship anyway, got his degree, then went on to distinguish himself as a gifted educator.
Paul suffered about a dozen heart attacks before one finally took him last month. His obituary impressively tells of his lifelong association with education throughout the state, concluding that Paul will be remembered for his commitment to education, his unwavering devotion to his family, and his life-long friendships. 
Sadly, he got no help from me.

1 comment:

rjerdee said...

Barbara, Paul's big sister was my friend at First Lutheran. She had a heart condition and died early in their family's life. It was a great grief for me.