Mad Dog Was Here

For the last in my four-part series reminiscing about my time at Canisius High School, I will begin with the football season. Entrenched as the starting nose tackle on the varsity team- the only time I began a season at the same position as the previous year, I was able to reach my full potential. While I was not good at rushing the passer, I became a solid run-stuffer- holding my ground, shedding blocks or splitting the center and guard, and making sure tackles. Indeed, I had such a nose for the ball-carrier that I entered the last game of the season tied for the team lead in tackles with our middle linebacker, Jim Bruce, which was practically unheard of for a nose tackle. Not surprisingly, Jim edged me out in that last game, but still it was a heckuva achievement to finish a close second. Also I was healthier than my junior season- my shoulders were not in near constant pain- so I was able to play freer and more nasty. One game against Williamsville South, I had a personal high 11 tackles. The next day my calculus teacher, Mr. Jim "Crazy Legs" Kamien, was so impressed by the ferocity I showed on the field, which contrasted strikingly with my very quiet and studious demeanor in the classroom, that he called me "Mad Dog" and the nickname stuck for the rest of my senior year.

The highlight of that season came once again at Rich Stadium. This time we played St. Francis. Just like the previous year, our defense played an outstanding game, but the difference was that the offense scored some points and we won 13-3. My personal best moment came during that game when I broke free on a pass rush and nailed Frannies' QB Chris Polian. If the name sounds familiar, Chris is one of then-Bills general manager Bill Polian's sons. Years later, Chris Polian would follow his father to the Indianapolis Colts and serve in various management positions, reaching a career pinnacle by helping his father build the Peyton Manning-led team that won Super Bowl XLI following the 2006 season. He has spent the past three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars working under fellow St. Francis alumnus and Jags general manager David Caldwell.

At the end of the season, I was rewarded for my impressive play by being named to the 1st Team All-Catholic defensive line, and along with my outstanding grades, was voted to the Western New York All-Academic Football Team. Due to the latter designation, I was invited to the WNY High School Football Awards Dinner, where I received a jacket festooned with a football-shaped patch that stated "Academic All W.N.Y. '88" over my heart and my first name in cursive writing on the right chest, and a certificate handed to me by none other than Bill Polian. Some time later, during a school assembly held in the gym/auditorium, then-Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso, who was delivering a speech most likely about avoiding drugs and alcohol and the importance of continuing our education, asked me to join him in front of the entire student body to acknowledge my achievement of being selected to the All-Academic Team, which also came with a $1,000 scholarship from the Bills towards my college costs. Standing in front of the entire school with some of my classmates chanting "Mad Dog! Mad Dog!" was such a proud moment that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.

Also at our team's end-of-the-season awards banquet in the school cafeteria, head coach Dave Butler was thrilled to hand me a trophy for Best Defensive Lineman. He stated that he could not believe how I had grown as a player and person the past four years, that I was clearly the most improved player on the team. He told a story about my meager freshman season when, not only did I hardly ever step on the field, but I was so quiet and averse to drawing attention to myself, that he literally asked me to report to him at the start of every practice and say, "I'm here coach." At some point late in the season or shortly after the season, I saw Coach Butler in one of the pews of my parish, Blessed Sacrament Church, while I was performing my duties as an altar boy (it was my sixth and final year in that role). At the end of mass, as the procession was making its way up the center aisle, I made eye contact with Coach Butler and said, "I'm here Coach." All the players and their parents roared their approval, and Coach Butler expressed his amaze-ment how the same timid and quiet kid could grow into an All-League player and a top scholar to boot.

My senior year, I was on the varsity bowling league again- when my scores were relayed during the morning announcements, they were greeted with chants of "Mad Dog!"- and due to all my success on the grid iron, the lanes and in my studies, I was named to the National Honor Society, the National Spanish Honor Society and Mu Alpha Theta (a math honor society). In stark contrast to my freshman year when I walked the hallways with my head down, intimidated by upperclassman, I was so confident- I had become quite popular among my classmates, and everyone else was now younger than me- that I could then stride easily with my head held high as others looked up to me. My circle of close friends also expanded as two other seniors- Dale and Bryan- joined Todd, Carm and I as a group. I quickly became best friends with Bryan because unlike the others, the two of us shared the same taste in music- a love of classic rock and hard rock like Van Halen, Iron Maiden, AC/DC etc.- and we were much more athletic. Much of our senior year- as well as our freshman year of college as Bryan attended nearby Niagara U.- we got together to shoot hoops, play one-on-one hockey with each of us taking turns as shooter and goaltender, and especially the summer of 1989, we played a lot of golf. It was unfortunate that we didn't become friends until our senior year because we were so similar and had a great companionship.

I can't say that I had a favorite teacher my senior year, but certainly one does stand out- Fr. McIntyre- not necessarily for his teaching abilities or my personal relationship with him, but the class that he taught: Honors English. First, only the top 20 or so students in the class were eligible to take his course, so it was prestigious. Second, the highlight of the course was a spring trip to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. Only the students in Honors English were rewarded for our hard work with this exclusive trek.

We all piled into two vans for the two hour or so trip into the small town in south-western Ontario between Toronto and Detroit. We attended two plays- a matinee performance of Richard III followed by an evening rendition of Murder in the Cathedral. Looking back all these years later, the plays were a blur, but there were two moments that stand out. In between the performances, the students were allowed to roam the town's main street and eat wherever they wanted. For some reason a group of about ten of us stopped in a pharmacy and one of our classmates- a brilliant but odd student I will not identify- bought a package of over-the-counter cold medicine containing codeine, a drug formula not allowed without a prescription in the U.S., and downed a few pills, so he was flying pretty high during dinner. Then during the evening performance, shortly after the lights went down and all was dark except for the stage as the actors began the show, I suddenly had to sneeze- one of those violent, out-of-nowhere eruptions that you just can't stop. My wholly unintended disruption caused an even bigger scene as several of my classmates laughed, inducing a torrent of "sssshhhhhssss!" from the audience. It was so ironic because I was quite possibly the least likely student in our class to want to draw attention to himself, but I just couldn't help it.

Another major memory of my senior year at CHS was Gambit. For those who may be reading this but don't know about Gambit- it is Canisius' biggest annual fundraiser, a rather swanky dinner and auction held in the school's gym/auditorium. Many alumni and the movers-and-shakers of the Buffalo area, particularly the wealthy elite with much money to donate, attend the big shindig. Many CHS students, their parents, and faculty volunteer to staff the party with various roles to serve. All four years I went there my father bartended and my mom, who had been treasurer of the Cathedral School Parents Guild for several years, worked in finance. As an underclassman, I performed a rather unenviable task of cleaning off trays and plates in the cafeteria after dinner. But my senior year was different- I was able to land one of the dozen or so valet spots- a plum job because not only did students get the glorious opportunity to drive and park cars as the attendees pulled up to the blue entrance doors, but along with the waiters, valets got tips. All the valets were giddy, since we were still new to the thrill of driving, and we all anticipated with great excitement what type of car we'd get to park. I could not drive a stick shift, so there were some fancy cars I had to pass up, but I did get to drive a new Peugeot. I was happy with that, although somewhat jealous that other students got to drive off in BMWs, Mercedes, Corvettes- one guy even got a really sweet Jaguar that was owned by a hotshot, well-known lawyer. Oh the perks of being a senior!

Unlike my junior prom, my senior prom was completely forgettable. I did not have a girlfriend- indeed, I still felt traumatized and distrustful of girls following the abrupt rejection by Angela the previous summer. Thus, my friend Bryan set me up with a girl he knew. The three of us went out on a "get-to-know-you" date at a bowling center. I asked her that night if she would go to the prom with me and she said yes. However, that night was largely a disaster from my viewpoint. Bryan, Dale and I split the cost of a limo and the six of us including our dates rode to the prom together, and then after the dance, Bryan had a party at his parents brand new house in Amherst that was still under construction- it was fully enclosed and had electricity and running water, but there was some interior work left to be done and there were no appliances or furniture. We set up beforehand with card tables and folding chairs and coolers full of drinks. The six of us were joined by Todd, Carm and their dates as well. We listened to music on a boombox and drank some alcoholic beverages- nothing crazy, nobody drank til they puked or did anything irresponsible. However, late in the proceedings, Bryan and his girlfriend went upstairs and Dale and his girlfriend went out to the limo to make out (at least) but I felt so alone because my date was extremely aloof the whole night- she barely danced at the prom, she really did not want to be with me at the party. I was both envious of Bryan and Dale for having an actual relationship with their dates and dejected over my date's complete ambivalence towards me. I was even angry, wondering why the hell did she say yes to coming with me to the prom? In retrospect, I would have been better off just staying at home that night, watching TV or listening to music, than wasting money on prom tickets, corsage and limo, and saving myself the tremendous aggravation of being ignored by my date. That experience only increased my distrust of the opposite sex.

Lastly, there was graduation. I was glad I finished 2nd in my class because that meant I did not have to write and read a speech in front of all the faculty, students, and their family members, which would have terrified me. However, I did receive two awards: perfect attendance (I never missed a day throughout my four years) and I made it thru my entire CHS career without ever getting detention (or in Canisius' parlance- units of JUG, which stands for Justice Under God) one of the very few who was so well-behaved to earn that distinction. I still have a picture of me walking down the aisle of the school auditorium in my white dinner jacket, dress shirt and black bowtie at the start of that ceremony. I look so young and innocent, full of life and potential, about to head off to college and the start of adulthood, brimming with confidence because Canisius had prepared me so well for the academic rigors of higher education. It is such a huge disparity from what I would become nine years later- a medical school graduate who struggled mightily with the incredible stress and sleep deprivation of clinical training, who suffered from severe anxiety and depression while pursuing my noble dream of becoming a physician, then stepped to the very precipice of suicide when I discovered that my dream would not be fulfilled. I was named "Most Likely to Become a Doctor" in my senior yearbook. I may have partially fulfilled that prophecy by earning my medical degree, but medical residency proved to be a traumatizing experience I just could not overcome and it has permanently scarred me. However, that is a whole other story, one that I document in detail in my book The Lost Son: A Rock 'n' Roll Road to Redemption. My hope was that its publication would be a life-changer, a springboard to a new destiny and ambition- that of a best-selling author and public health/youth advocate- but so far sales and attention garnered by my work have been so devastatingly below target that my book's launch has followed a path more like the Space Shuttle Challenger rather than Apollo 11. I have submitted my work to Publishers Weekly for a review and submitted a copy to the 2017 Book Expo America, the largest book convention in the country, which will be held June 1st-4th in New York City. Hopefully my work will receive a boost there and lead to a path of discovery for the audience it richly deserves, otherwise my senior year of high school (and senior year of college) will forever stand as the best year(s) of my life.

#CanisiusHighSchool #football #MadDog #RichStadium #BillPolian #BuffaloBills #SuperBowlXXXVI #AllCatholic #WNYAllAcademicFootballTeam #MarkKelso #VanHalen #IronMaiden #ACDC #StratfordShakespeareFestival #Gambit #seniorprom #TheLostSon #2017BookExpoAmerica

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© 2017 by Peter McNeela.