Someone in the broader NFL business recently told me that he appreciates it when I tweet or write or talk about my parents (both of whom have been dead for more than 20 years), because it reminds him to spend time with his own father while he can.
As many of you who have lost one or both parents know, it sparks a fundamental change in your existence. They never truly leave you; instead, you experience them in a different way. You think about them. You wonder what they would think of whatever it is that’s going on in your life, what advice they would give you. Whether you would listen to it. Sometimes, they visit you in your dreams.
I’m thinking about my dad right now because he was born 100 years ago today. As the family legend goes, his parents named him Armando. Somehow (and unrelated to the typical Ellis Island bastardization of Italian names) that later became Herman. His friends called him Butch, apparently because the alternative was Herman.
He was a gambler. That was his thing. His passion. His vocation. Unfortunately, it happened at a time when gambling officially was frowned upon. I definitely think of him every time I see a sports book commercial, or when I now witness the ever-growing betting content served up by the NFL itself.
He operated out of a bar, and he showed up for work every day without exception. It was a dive. And it was glorious. I can still remember everything about how it looked, how it smelled. How it felt. A world of grown-up men. Cigarettes and beer. The lone cigar in the corner with the cloud that commandeered the entire room. Eyes gazing through thick glasses at the racing forms or the football betting sheets.
Oh, the football betting sheets. Every week, Butch stuck in the mailbox a stack of envelopes addressed to a who’s-who of local businesspeople. Doctors. Lawyers. Judges. Elected officials. All of them getting the full slate of college and NFL football games, with the betting line and the over-under. Most eventually called him to make their bets before kickoff. (Whenever someone tried to make a bet after kickoff, my vocabulary would expand by a word or two.)
He hated the Steelers, because we lived in Steelers country and everyone bet on the Steelers no matter the line. (Typically, they covered.) Also, he loved the Cowboys. Because the people in Steelers country usually bet against the Cowboys no matter the line. (Typically, they covered.)
It was all out in the open. The cops, either because they got an envelope of their own with something other than a betting sheet inside (I have no idea if that happened) or because they didn’t care, never did a thing. (Until they eventually did, but that’s a story for another day.) I remember seeing a cop in my dad’s bar. As I waited for the handcuffs to inevitably come out, they just stood there talking and laughing.
I resolved years ago any feelings of shame or whatever that flow from knowing that my dad brought home the bacon through technically illegal activities. The bacon still needed to be brought home, and he did the best he could to provide for the family. My mother, in turn, did the best she could to siphon enough cash away from him to ensure that the family was provided for.
We were probably a lot closer to having things implode than I ever realized. The biggest risk arrived every Wednesday and Sunday night, when my dad worked a floating craps game. He’d get home after two in the morning, and it became as normal to me as the clock on the wall or chairs in the dining room. It also became normal to gauge every Monday and Thursday morning the mood in the house; that was the only way to know whether he’d had a good night or a bad night working, and inevitably playing, the table.
I still have his croupier stick. It’s old and faded and worn and flexible and fragile, and it’s an important tangible connection to him. It hangs over the humidor in my barn. I’ll pick it up tonight, hold it. Relish it. I’ll envision one of the many nights he used it, experiencing euphoria or despair or something in between as the dice tumbled and eventually came to rest.
I’d give anything to talk to him for five minutes about the way the dice have tumbled and come to rest for me, how what I now do is gradually becoming closer and closer to what he did. I don’t gamble, never will. But gambling drives interest in our various products, and that dynamic will only grow as more and more states legalize and legitimize betting on sports.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. He’d probably be mortified that I’m spilling so many family secrets on such a public platform. He’d get over that, I think. Ultimately, he’d be proud that I found a way to channel his work ethic and his interests into something that couldn’t have even been envisioned when was simply doing whatever he had to do to make ends meet.