I have been fortunate in my life to have collected a fairly large and eclectic posse of characters I'm privileged to call my friends. The Skipper, Country Al, Tito, Johnny Boy, Tailspin Tommy, Battlin' Buzz , Nasty Ned, Cool Rick, Bobby T and my old buddy Willie the Moff to mention a few. Last year I was lucky enough to add another, Sam Jankovich.
This past weekend I set the cruise control at 90 and hauled Sam from his home in Hayden Lake, Idaho to Billings, Montana for his induction into the Montana Football Hall of Fame. He's in his 80's now and recently gave up driving. I was honored to be his chauffeur for a couple of days just to be a part of all the hoopla surrounding such an event. This wasn't Sam's first hall induction; he is already enshrined in several as the result of an outstanding career as a player, coach, university athletic director and a memorable stint as the general manager of the New England Patriots, but this one meant the most to him.
I was introduced to Sam by his longtime friend and neighbor, Melissa Moss, who, along with Sam's beloved Margaret, a true saint, made the Hall of Fame journey. It was an unforgettable experience. Sam is a man of strong opinions who chooses not to keep them bottled up. He also appreciates anyone who is inclined to lob a little rhubarb in his direction.
Sam: "You drive like crap. I ought to push you out at the next gas station."
Me: " When you come out of the men's room there'll be a smoking patch of rubber where this vehicle used to be!"
|Margaret, Sam and wheel man at Muzzy's|
Then we laugh and move on to the next insult. I love the guy! On the way Margaret (who'd heard it all before), Melissa and I were treated to tales from his days as athletic director at Washington State during the late 70's through early 80's in addition to stories of his seven year run as A.D. at the University of Miami where he won national titles in 1983, '87 and '89. His two seasons as chief executive officer of the New England Patriots were anything but fun both fraught with turmoil as the team transitioned from the ownership of Victor Kiam to Robert Kraft. According to Sam it was the least enjoyable time of his football life. He later concluded his career as president and general manager of the Las Vegas Gladiators of the Arena Football League.
Sam's hometown of Butte marked the halfway point in our 500 mile journey to Billings and the Hall induction. For a couple of months he had been reverently speaking of the wonders of something called the "wop chop"available only at the semi-legendary Muzzy's Freeway, a rustic joint just off the 90 freeway in Butte, run by an old pal of Sam's. Admittedly this gut bomb consisting of a battered slab of deep fried pork served on a bun with onion, pickle and yellow mustard lived up to Sam's superlatives. I liked it well enough to buy one of Muzzy's extra large T-shirts and am already contemplating a return for more greasy goodness. I'll save the heart attack for later.
We arrived in Billings in time for the Friday night reception and cocktail party featuring many former and current Hall of Fame inductees, including Kansas City Chief's great, Jan Stenerud. Many had been coached by Sam and were excited to see him. On Saturday it was off to check out the Burger Dive in downtown Billings which was a recent winner of the Food Network's best burger contest featured on their "Man vs. Food" show. The burgers, we all agreed, were most likely the best we'd ever had. Bring on the crash cart and alert the by-pass team.
|Margaret and Melissa at the Burger Dive|
There were many media representatives, including a unit from ESPN, and all wanted their time with Sam. It made for a long day for a man in his ninth decade and he powered through it all like a champ.
|One more interview|
We began our return trip to Idaho on Sunday with another stop in Butte to see Sam's great grandson baptized in the Serbian Orthodox church he has loved all his life. On Monday, before heading out, we stopped at the Metals Sports Bar to have breakfast with Ray Ueland the owner and another longtime friend of Sam's. Ray had arranged a Sunday night gathering at the Butte Civic Center for Sam that was attended by many former players from his coaching days. I snapped a picture of the plaque honoring him at that venue and remarked how much he looked like the late Danny Thomas in his heyday and wondered aloud why he now looks like Fred Mertz.
Sam: "I wish you were still on the radio so I could turn you off!"
Me: "Shut up and get in the car Fred."
On the road home we all agreed that the weekend had been a wonderful success, with Sam still marveling at all the kind words and accolades he collected from many he had mentored over a long career.
The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it. Sam Jankovich has accomplished that with class and humility. His is a life well lived and I am proud and grateful to call him friend.
Sam: "Shut up and drive radio boy."