Publication: Lawrence Journal-World
Title: “The kicker who didn’t know he was a kicker”
Date of publication: Oct. 10, 2009
By Dugan Arnett
The placekicker was talking about tackling.
This was Tuesday, an overcast afternoon, inside the Kansas University football complex. It was a rather odd scene, truth be told, this waif of a young man — at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Jacob Branstetter is built like a very sturdy computer programmer — discussing big hits and wrapping up and the joy he derives from carrying out such acts.
At the same time, it is a subject in which the fourth-year junior, thanks to his violent and perpetual habit of darting downfield after kickoffs to hurl himself at opposing return men (“He’s like a little heat-seeking missile,” marvels teammate Justin Thornton), has become greatly adept.
In 2008, for instance, his first season as the team’s starting kicker, Branstetter finished with seven tackles, one more than defensive end John Larson — a part-time starter — and two more than one of this year’s surprises at the position, Jeff Wheeler. The list of players who’ve been on the wrong end of a Branstetter hit, meanwhile, is impressive. Jeremy Maclin, the former Missouri All-American and current Philadelphia Eagles receiver, has felt his pain. Same for flashy and talkative former Kansas State return man Deon Murphy.
Not surprisingly, this penchant for physicality has turned Branstetter into a bit of a novelty around Lawrence. Fans love him. A kicker who plays like a linebacker? That ranks right up there with the quarterback who runs around pumping his fist and thrusting his hips. His coach — when he’s not imploring the player to play with some semblance of restraint — seems pretty tickled, too.
“What was it, ‘Underdog’ — ‘Here I am to save the day?” Mark Mangino joked the other day of his kicker’s considerable bravado.
About the only person who doesn’t seem to find anything exceptional about the whole thing, in fact, is Branstetter. Ask him about his physical nature, he shrugs. Ask him about the fire with which he plays, another shrug. That’s how he’s always played, he’ll say. Fast and furious, emotional, heart right out there on his sleeve.
“Some people say, ‘Don’t show your emotions, don’t cry, don’t yell, don’t scream, don’t get excited,’” he says. “That’s not me.”
And it is about this time that it occurs to you that maybe — like a poodle that grows to believe it’s a rottweiler because it has never had any reason to believe otherwise — nobody has ever bothered to tell Jacob Branstetter that his job is merely to kick footballs.
• • •
No, sir. Not Gerald Branstetter. As his son racked up tackle after tackle during Kansas’ run to an 8-5 record and Insight Bowl victory a year ago, Gerald didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. This was the same way the kid always played, as far as he was concerned.
Gerald hadn’t played organized sports growing up — he was always a bit undersized — but he’d cut his teeth during neighborhood sandlot games, playing tackle football with no pads, suffering a broken jaw on one occasion, coming to cherish toughness and grit and the propensity to play with a certain amount of fire in the belly.
And early on, he’d made sure those blue-collar virtues had been fused into his youngest son, who never did hesitate to throw his tiny frame — perpetually speckled with bumps, bruises, scabs, scars — around the fields and courts and neighborhoods of Lawton, Okla.
Here’s young Jacob walking his bike home from the park, the front wheel bent and twisted so badly he can’t ride it — which is what happens when you and your buddies, inspired by the recent viewing of a Disney Channel movie, build a dirt ramp and then take turns propelling yourselves off of it.
Here’s Jacob tearing around the base path of his Little League field, a gruesome bump bulging from his head. Earlier that day, he’d suffered another bicycle mishap, landing head-first onto the pavement. But he hadn’t felt much like missing his baseball game on account of something so minor, and so he hadn’t. At one point, he throws up on the field.
Now here’s Jacob returning punts for MacArthur (Okla.) High — not because he’s particularly quick or shifty (“Catch the ball, get a couple yards and get down was basically my job,” Branstetter says now) — but because coaches have realized he’s the only player cold-blooded enough to hang onto the football while a troop of corn-fed Oklahoma boys swarms him.
Yeah, physical well-being doesn’t seem to rank too high on his list of personal priorities. Jump first, look for Band-Aids later.
Once, during a game late in his freshman football season, he suffered a broken collarbone that, according to the family doctor, would force him to miss the first month and a half of the upcoming basketball season.
“He said (it would be) six weeks,” Branstetter says. “And I said, ‘Nah, I’ll be there in four.’”
Two and a half weeks later, he was shooting baskets.
The unfortunate part about the collarbone injury, though, was that it meant he’d have to switch from his safety position to kicker and punter if he wanted to continue playing football. He elected to kick, and that was a bummer, because nothing takes the air out of a guy’s sails like having to watch football’s beautiful chaos from the sidelines, limited to a once- or twice-quarterly appearance for a kickoff or punt.
Still, it didn’t take long for him to develop a talent in his new venture. In his sophomore year, he replaced the team’s injured starter and helped MacArthur advance to the 5A state championship game. He committed himself to his new craft, whetting his appetite for contact on the few occasions when, during fake punt situations, he was allowed to tuck the ball, lower his shoulder and battle for a first down.
But even as he developed into arguably the best kicker in school history — when MacArthur special-teams coach Mike Moore flips open the school’s record book a few years later while speaking with a reporter, he has a hard time finding a kicking or punting record Branstetter doesn’t hold — he longed to be out there playing safety or receiver.
“If we’d have ever said, ‘Hey, we need you to run out there and play strong safety,’ his eyes would have gotten big as saucers,” Moore says.
Following a prep career in which he connected on 17 of 22 field goals and 142 of 144 PATs, Branstetter signed with Air Force. The next year went like this: After a few weeks at the Academy, he realized it wasn’t for him, left school, headed back to Lawton, went to work at a local sporting-good store, got promoted to manager, exchanged e-mails with KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen between shifts, accepted an offer to walk-on at Kansas in 2007, sat out a year, suffered through an eligibility mix-up that threatened to sideline him for the 2008 season, and then, a week into the season, finally found himself as the starting placekicker for the Kansas University football team.
He’s been cracking skulls ever since.
• • •
Kansas senior defensive back Justin Thornton was watching ESPN the other day. Some NFL highlight show. Keyshawn Johnson was hosting, he thinks. Anyway, at one point he saw something that — given the level of tenacity he has come to expect out of his own team’s kicker — made him shake his head in disgust.
“One of the return men broke a kick, and one of the punters didn't even come close to making a tackle,” says Thornton, the Jayhawks’ third-leading tackler this season. “I was like, ‘Man, if Branstetter was out there, he would’ve laid the wood to that guy.’”
This is the way the team’s defenders talk about their placekicker. Cold-blooded, they call him. Toughest kicker in the Big 12, for their money. On the sidelines, after Kansas touchdowns, they make a point to gather and watch as the Jayhawks prepare to kick off.
A Branstetter kickoff is kind of a happening.
When prompted, they can roll through Branstetter’s Greatest Hits with relative ease — although, due to sheer volume (he’s up to nine career tackles after four games this season), the process of selecting a favorite can get tricky.
There was the Missouri game last year, when he twice corralled and once upended the eventual first-round NFL Draft pick Maclin to save a would-be touchdown.
Then there was the Crib Controversy of 2008. In one of last season’s most memorable moments, Murphy, the Kansas State returner, vowed to “take one to the crib” in the days leading up to his team’s meeting with the Jayhawks.
Well, these words got back to Branstetter, who was not particularly amused, and so it was no real surprise that, by the time Kansas had wrapped up a 52-21 victory over the Wildcats a few days later, Murphy had a total of zero kick return yards, and Branstetter had finished with a career-high three tackles.
“He’s had so many, but I’d probably say the Missouri game last year, when he flipped Jeremy Maclin,” says KU punt returner/defensive back Daymond Patterson.
Then, without a hint of humor or irony, Patterson adds this about the Jayhawks’ starting placekicker: “Branstetter, he’s one of the more sure tacklers on the team.”
• • •
The problem is that his genes betrayed him.
If it weren’t for the cruel realities of Branstetter’s physical makeup — despite a steady diet of protein shakes and creatine, he struggled to put on weight in high school and is resigned to the fact that he’ll probably never reach 200 pounds — he’d be playing safety or receiver or some other position in which he could get his uniform dirty on a regular basis.
This inability to transform himself into a more menacing figure, though, hasn’t kept him from trying anyway.
“He put on about 15 pounds in the offseason,” Mangino says. “Now he’s really cocky.”
Indeed, Branstetter possesses a certain innate self-confidence not typically seen in specialists. When Kansas coaches elected to attempt a fourth-down conversion against UTEP last month instead of sending Branstetter out for what would have been around a 50-yard field goal, for instance, he was visibly distraught on the sideline.
“Oh, he was mad,” says older brother Jared, who, along with the rest of the Branstetter clan, attends every Kansas game, home and away. “If it was his choice, he’d be out there on the field every play, whether it’s back there throwing the ball or catching the ball or (whatever).”
Instead, he uses his limited on-field time (he’s also 3-of-5 on field goals this season) to take out his aggression on those players with the gall to try to return one of his kicks for a significant gain.
And this, really, is the charm of Jacob Branstetter: that a player whose position is based almost solely on discipline and precision and restraint, is a guy who plays with more emotion than anyone on the field. A daredevil. A wildman. The Renegade Kicker from Lawton.
Each time he darts downfield, legs churning, full-speed ahead, he’s risking disaster. Forget injury. Forget the damage that one blind-side block could do. Without the kicker staying back to act as a safety valve, the likelihood of an opposing player returning a kick for a touchdown — one of the sport’s most momentum-swinging feats — grows significantly.
Improbably, Mangino has been lenient with his ball-of-fury kicker up to this point — “I’ve quit telling him,” the coach says, exasperated, “but I hope he doesn’t get hurt doing it, because we’re really thin at that position” — though that understanding figures to end the first time a returner gets past Branstetter and finds himself with a clear path to paydirt. Especially considering the team’s margin for error over the next two months — with games against ranked opponents Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Missouri — will be minuscule.
For his part, Branstetter seems to understand the risk of his tight-rope walk. It’s something he has clearly considered before. While there is a certain pride associated with kicking off — a certain power that comes with rendering a talented return man obsolete — there is also a responsibility that comes with the job.
It’s just that, well, he can’t really help himself.
This was the message he was attempting to relay Tuesday, in a meeting room in the team’s football complex.
“We’ve got to sometimes take those chances,” Branstetter said. “... I’m sure (quarterback Todd Reesing) will throw a ball sometimes maybe coach Mangino wishes he wouldn’t have thrown. But if he throws it and we score a 50-yard touchdown, he ain’t gonna say nothing to him about it — nobody’s going to say anything, because Todd’s a great athlete, and he’s a gunslinger. He makes plays like that. And I have that same mentality when I go in to tackle people. I understand maybe if I miss, he might go for a touchdown ... ”
And here, the kicker pauses briefly, breaking into a devil-may-care grin.
“But I haven’t missed yet.”
Publication: Lawrence Journal-World
Title: “Good to the last stop”
Date of publication: Sept. 27, 2009
By Dugan Arnett
Mark Mangino was standing behind a podium Saturday, and he was talking about his defense, and he was doing this in a rather un-Mangino-like fashion.
He was using words like “phenomenal” and “stellar,” and this was a bit odd, because, well, these are not the kinds of words Kansas University’s eighth-year football coach typically chooses to use in describing any aspect of his football team. They are not, for instance, “work in progress” or “unfinished product” — popular Mangino phrases that hint at some sort of untapped potential or ongoing struggle toward proficiency.
The kindly adjectives seemed applicable enough, however, following a performance in which the team’s defense — with the usually dependable offense unable to convert late — overcame a slow start to register four straight fourth-quarter stands and help the Jayhawks hold on for a 35-28 victory Saturday over the previously unbeaten Golden Eagles.
“They just stayed with it and stayed with it and got beat on plays, but never got discouraged, never got down, had faith in themselves and their coaches,” Mangino said. “And it turned out they played a phenomenal fourth quarter.”
Nowhere was this more evident than on the Golden Eagles’ final drive.
Following a stalled Kansas series and subsequent punt, Southern Miss. took over on its own 33-yard line with 1:53 remaining and a chance — with a score and two-point conversion — to return to Hattiesburg, Miss., with a signature victory and 4-0 start.
For Kansas, this wasn’t exactly a gimme situation. Even without running back Tory Harrison, who left the game in the first quarter with an undisclosed injury, the Golden Eagles had rolled up 363 yards and 28 points through three quarters, at times exposing a Kansas pass defense that had spent the season’s first three weeks beating up on clearly overmatched opponents.
When it mattered most, however, the Jayhawks clamped down.
Southern Mississippi’s first two plays resulted in just three yards. A third-down sack by defensive end Jake Laptad — the Jayhawks’ only sack of the game — set up a fourth-and-15 situation, meanwhile, and USM quarterback Austin Davis’ next pass fell harmlessly incomplete to propel the Jayhawks to their own 4-0 start for only the second time since 1995.
“You talk about needing every guy on the team for all four quarters to win the game, and that’s what today was,” said KU quarterback Todd Reesing, who completed 30 of 41 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns and surpassed former Texas standout Vince Young for seventh on the Big 12’s all-time total-offense list. “It took everybody out there playing hard from the first snap to the last snap to win the game, and the defense came up huge at the end.”
While it was the team’s final stand that ultimately secured victory, however, it was the defense’s collection of fourth-quarter work that provoked Mangino’s liberal use of complimentary adjectives.
Kansas’ young defensive unit hung tough on all four of its fourth-quarter appearances, giving up just 32 yards of total offense in the final 15 minutes while not allowing Southern Miss. to advance pass its own 43-yard line.
On their first drive of the quarter, trailing 35-28, the Golden Eagles worked their way to their own 43 before KU defensive back and former Free State standout Ryan Murphy intercepted a pass from USM’s Davis.
Murphy came up big again on the Golden Eagles’ next possession, wrapping up USM running back Leroy Banks after a one-yard gain on third-and-three to force a punt.
And on the Golden Eagles’ next series, Kansas forced three consecutive incomplete passes before Southern Miss. punted for the final time.
“When you get down to the end of the game, you’ve got to have guts,” said Laptad, who has been in on a sack in each of the team’s first four games. “You’ve got to stop them ... and each player needs to play like they’re the (guy) that needs to make the play.”
Still, Saturday’s game was far from perfect. Kansas’ running game, which entered the weekend ranked second in the conference and piled up 92 first-half yards Saturday, managed just 10 yards in the second half. The Jayhawks turned the ball over nearly as many times (two) as they had in their previous three games combined (three), while it’s worth mentioning, too, that the team’s defense began to truly click only late in the game, when, in addition to Harrison, fellow USM standouts Darion Fletcher and receiver DeAndre Brown also were forced to the sideline, dealing with bumps and bruises of their own.
Given all that, however, there was a certain sense of satisfaction in the aftermath of Saturday’s victory.
The team had entered the season with four non-conference games on its schedule, after all, and had found a way to win each of them — something that can’t be said for many of the nation’s top teams so far this young season.
“There are a lot of people out there that are getting upset, all over the nation,” Reesing said. “They’ve got some high rankings, and they’re not holding true to them. So I think a win, at this point in college football, is as high as it gets.”
And minor issues aside, Mangino appears to be heading into his team’s bye week pleased with the current state of affairs — particularly, a defense that had undergone its first true test of the season and emerged unscathed.
“I thought we took a big step today in becoming a mature defense,” Mangino said. “We have some work to do, but I think it was a big step.”
Publication: Poynter Online
Title: “Polka ‘til they drop”
Date of publication: June 19, 2006
By Dugan Arnett
Near the entrance to the Polish American Society building in St. Petersburg, Fla., just to the right of the glass encasement that doubles as a gift shop and just in front of the first aid kit and the emergency oxygen tank, is a sign. It is small and white, and painted in red letters above the image of a small, hen-like bird is: "Dance at your own risk."
This might be taken as a subtle attempt by the elder population that frequents the club to poke fun at themselves, except for this: Two men have dropped dead while dancing here. Numerous others have broken bones. Not long ago, a woman fell and broke her hip, wasn't able to recover, and died a few months later.
In these cases, members of the club, which last year celebrated its 55th year of existence, will grieve and deliver Polish dishes and make comforting phone calls. But when Sunday comes, they head right back to the Polish American Society.
The polka, you see, must go on.
Says Gerry Milinowicz, a member of the society's board of directors and a staple of the club since the early '60s, "I tell people, I tell them, 'When I'm 100 and I'm dancing the polka and I drop dead, don't revive me. Because I died happy.'"
In all likelihood, the Polish American Society will not exist 20 years from now. Too many of its members are well into their 80s and 90s. Too few are younger than 60. Adele Cizneiwicz, the club's vice president and, at 87, its longest-standing member, estimates that the average age of members is 70.
But while they can still dance, they do. On Sunday afternoons, vodka glasses empty, accordions burst to life, and high heels punish the large, polished dance floor. There are swing dances and folk dances, waltzes and polkas.
And in between the dances, there are stories. There are stories of love and stories of loneliness. Stories of hope and stories of hurt. There are war stories and funny stories and embarrassing stories and drinking stories.
And then, of course, there are the dancing stories.
* * *
Every so often, a few of the society's members have a contest. They plop down on the red vinyl seats scattered throughout the club's low-slung building, located on Beach Drive Southeast, and compete to see who has been with the club the longest. "Fifteen years," someone will say. Another might yell "21!" A select few will bellow a number in the 30s.
Adele Cisniewicz doesn't speak up until the end.
Then she lays down her trump card. "Forty-nine years," she says. And she smiles to herself.
Since Adele joined the club in 1957, she has watched it evolve through the economic boom of the '70s, which allowed a generation of Polish-Americans from the north to retire in Florida and pushed the club's membership past the 700 mark, to now, when death and a lack of interest from second and third-generation Poles have sent membership plummeting to right around 200.
Adele danced her first polka in 1922, when she was four, at the urging of her grandfather. In college, she and five friends started their own all-girl polka band — The Polka Chips — piling into a Ford station wagon on weekends and weaving through towns in Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. Their venues weren't ritzy — they played in barns mostly — but boy, would those barns fill up quickly.
"When they found out that six girls were coming to town, that got them out there pretty quick," Adele says. The band made $30 a night on average, splitting it six ways.
When Adele moved to St. Petersburg from Cleveland with her husband in 1957, it took less than two weeks to find the Polish American Society.
"That was back when there was just a dirt road out front," she says proudly.
Over the years, she has held six of the organization's seven officer positions, from president to treasurer, and currently works as both the club's vice president and recording secretary. She is considered the ultimate authority in matters involving club history, from the best dancers to the name of that young Italian couple that used to frequent the dance hall. Oftentimes, rookie members (which is to say, those who have been around only 20 or 30 years) say things like, "I'm not sure, but let me ask Adele. She would know." And almost always, she does.
Adele lives alone now, in a comfortable apartment on 58th Avenue North. There is crystal ware in the living room, authentic Polish costumes in the closet and perogi in the freezer. Her husband passed away in 1980, after years of battling various medical problems. Sometimes, she says, it gets lonely. Used to be, Edward, her close friend, would keep her company, but he passed away in 1999. Died from too much polka, Adele suspects. He had been scheduled to have surgery for an aneurism on a Monday. The day before, he insisted on going dancing.
"We're not going dancing tonight," Adele told him.
"Oh, yes, we are!" he responded.
So they went and they danced and Edward grinned, even though Adele could see in his eyes that he was struggling. The next day, after a nine-hour surgery, he suffered a stroke. Nine days later he was dead.
"He had to dance the polka," says Adele, shrugging. "Just one more time."
* * *
On Sunday afternoons, Arthur Bluj, 63, pulls on his fiery red blazer, slicks back his hair - which is only now starting to show signs of gray - and makes the short drive to St. Petersburg's Polish American Society building for three hours of polka. Or, more precisely, for three hours of polka with beautiful women.
Arthur loves women. All kinds, really, but especially ones of the beautiful variety.
If you were ever to meet Arthur, he would probably tell you about his three girlfriends. He might also tell you of the numerical system he has developed for his female companions, perhaps as a way to keep them straight. Girlfriend No. 1 he tends to leave at home on most occasions. Girlfriend No. 2 has been known to join him for a Sunday afternoon polka, but she's currently in Chicago, trying to sell her house. (It is important to note here that, if No. 2 is able to sell her home for a large sum of money, Arthur is prepared to move her to the No. 1 spot.) Girlfriend No. 3 is always bugging him to go swimming with her, which may or may not explain why she's No. 3. For the most part, Arthur, a widower, doesn't bring his girlfriends dancing with him. This way, he has more freedom to work the room. As Arthur puts it, "I dance with four or five girls here. I make them real happy."
In an effort to make them happy, there are certain dance moves that Arthur has worked hard to perfect.
"Me, I like to spin 'em out," he says, pretending to twirl a woman in front him. "When I spin 'em out, I tell them, 'I can enjoy more of you this way.' (With this, his eyes scan an imaginary partner from top to bottom.) They like that."
Luckily, Arthur is also more than willing to offer first aid assistance at any point. "I tell the girls, 'If you get dizzy when you're dancing, you let me know, because I'll lay down on the floor with you and give you artificial resuscitation.' They like that."
Arthur was married for many years. But his wife, Vivien, passed away two years ago. ("She's an angel now," he says). He had spent three years courting her, taking her to the Saturday night polka dances at a church in New York. And oh, did she love to dance. Now, Arthur fills the void with bingo and bowling and church dinners and whatever else he can find to do. Usually he does it with women and polka.
Make no mistake, he wishes it were Vivien out there with him on Sunday afternoons, twirling and jerking, moving and shaking like they did all those years ago. But it's not, and so he makes do.
And the other women, see, they like that.
* * *
BILL AND POLKA PAT:
Polka Pat: "Lenny Gomulka was playing the night Bill and I met. I walked in and he asked to buy me a drink. He asked to buy me a drink, and then he asked me to dance. And I wouldn't date him, because he was from the north. He was living in New York at the time. I didn't want to be a 'Florida Fling.' So I would only see him at the club, and we would dance and whatnot. But he tried. Oh, would he try."
Bill: "I tried and I won, didn't I?"
Polka Pat: "He would call, but I wouldn't answer. I screened his calls. He was planning on moving down here, so I said, 'When you move, then I'll date you.' And he said he was planning on moving down here, so I started dating him."
Bill: "I moved down here so she would marry me."
Polka Pat: "But he didn't know I was going to marry him!"
(A little background: Pat Caldwell is originally from Cleveland but moved to Tampa, Fla., in 1989. She worked four years as a DJ for WMNF-FM 88.5, a St. Petersburg radio station that plays polka music from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sundays, and three more on PBS's "Let's Polka TV." Bill Hadersbeck is a retired civil engineer who moved here from New York in 2000 to court Pat. Before he moved, he used to come for the winters.)
Polka Pat: "He was very open when he was asking me out."
Bill: "I tried every line in the book."
Polka Pat: "He asked to buy me a drink, and we had a couple of dances. And at the end of the night, I was getting a little nervous because he was wanting my phone number and everything, and so I left when he went to the bathroom. And he didn't like that very well. I saw him the next time I came to the dance and he was here. He came over and he said —"
Bill: "Don't you ever do that again!"
Polka Pat: "Don't you ever do that again! That's what he said! He would always call me, but I would never call him. But I had to start respecting the persistence. He was so persistent with the phone calls. He was so honest. Just a gentleman all the way. He did things the right way."
Bill: "And I was still in New York at this point, and along came her birthday, and I flew down and surprised her with a birthday party right here. Right here in the club!"
Polka Pat: "Right here! He bought me a birthday cake, and everybody celebrated with us. And he's been doing that every year since, too. Every birthday, he has a big cake, and he celebrates it. Then we went to Disney World. And that was our first actual weekend together. We met my daughters while we were there, we had dinner, and everything just went right. He kind of melted my heart. I had already melted his, I guess. I was single for so long. ...
"We got married right here, right in the club. Feb. 17, 2001. Five years it's been now. And we had a beautiful wedding here at the club. We sure danced."
* * *
Steve Mitzewich has round, puffy cheeks, large-rimmed glasses, and a New York accent thicker than hippopotamus skin. He has a full head of white hair, done up in an Elvis-like comb-over, a smile that's been known to make women swoon, and a bumper sticker on his Saturn that reads "I Love Polka."
He is also, as it happens, one of the Polish American Society's most talented dancers. Steve can dance almost any type of polka, and there are a lot of different types of polkas, he explains. His favorite type of polka, however, is the "Tick Tock." His signature move involves him dropping repeatedly into a crouch, so that his butt nearly touches the floor. Down and up. Down and up. This does not seem to tire Steve out.
“Don't ask me how I do it," he says, "Don't ask me how I get down anymore."
Steve is 79, but he has decided that it sounds better to say, "In five months, I'll be 80." So that's what he says.
Steve has been polka-dancing since he was a child living on New York's East Side. These days, he and wife Renie often go dancing three nights a week — Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This is how he got so good, he says — all the practice. This is also how he and Renie were able to win the Senior Citizen Polka Contest at the 1988 Strawberry Festival in Plant City, Fla. In front of 7,000 people, no less.
Then, more recently, his health began to go south.
"So far I got nine angioplasties, three hernia operations, a prostate problem, arthritis and diabetes." He lists these simply, like one might list the types of power tools kept in his garage.
Mostly, Steve doesn't have time for health problems. When he was hospitalized in 1990 after a heart attack, he had a single question for the doctor: "Doc, am I going to be able to dance?"
Yes, the doctor answered, but not without a lengthy recovery period. So Steve did what any loyal member of the Polish American Society would do. He showed up to the club the very next Sunday, took a seat on the edge of the dance floor and tapped his foot to the music. For four weeks he did this. Then one Sunday he tried a slow dance. The next week he did the same thing. The week after, he tried a faster dance.
"Three months later, I was doing the full polka! Right back at it!"
"That's what you've got to do," he adds. "You can't sit around and worry about it. No way!"
Publication: Lawrence Journal-World
Title: “There goes the neighborhood!”
Date of publication: Feb. 26, 2009
Section: Web (Blog)
By Dugan Arnett
Not long ago, I moved into Bill Self's neighborhood.
It’s a nice neighborhood. Lots of big, green lawns and leafy trees and long, winding driveways with fancy cars parked in them. I thought about finding a place a little cheaper, a little more low-key, but then I said to myself, “Dugan, you're making literally hundreds of dollars a year; I think you can afford to splurge every now and then!” So I did, and now me and Bill Self are neighbors.
As you can imagine, living on the same street as one of the most well-known college basketball coaches in the country has its perks. For one thing, we have the same mailman. For another, it’s nice living next to someone I can relate to — which is to say, someone who knows what it’s like to be a champion.
Since famous people like to stick together, I figure it’s only a matter of time before Bill and I get to know each other pretty well. Who knows exactly how our neighborship will begin? Maybe he’ll lend me his power saw one day; maybe I’ll buy Girl Scout cookies from his kids. Or maybe it’ll be one of those old-fashioned neighborly meetings. I'll be buried underneath the hood of my car some Saturday afternoon, grease on my shirt and sweat on my brow, trying like a madman to fix my busted alternator. Bill, having taken a break from mowing his lawn to wander over, will introduce himself and offer to take a quick look at the problem.
He’ll disappear under the hood for a minute or two, fiddle with a couple gadgets, and then emerge, smiling and shaking his head.
“What?” I'll ask. “What is it?”
He'll chuckle, pat me on the back, and say, “Duganator...” — that's what he'll call me — “it ain't the alternator that crapped out on you ... It's the carburetor!”
And darn if he won't be right!
From there, Bill and I will pretty much become best friends. I’ll feed his dog when he’s out of town on road trips. He’ll grab my mail for me when I’m on vacation. We’ll join the Neighborhood Watch and organize the annual block party and try to out-do each other every winter in the neighborhood Christmas lights competition. We’ll exchange lawn-care tips and have backyard cookouts, and on Sundays in the fall, we’ll hang out in his den all day, watching football in our pajama pants and eating takeout Chinese.
(Because I know you’re wondering: Yes, we’ll probably have a secret handshake. No, I won’t tell you what it is.)
A lot of nights, Bill and I will stay up tapping away on PlayStation controllers until our thumbs hurt. We'll play all kinds of games, but mostly we'll play NCAA College Basketball 2K10 — Bill’s favorite. He'll be Kansas and I'll be Florida, and boy-oh-boy will we have some epic battles! Sometimes his wife will call, worried half to death because its 3 in the morning and she hasn’t heard from her husband all day. But Bill won't answer because it's 68-68 with two minutes to go in the second half and NO WAY is he leaving before this one's over.
A few hours and a few empty Red Bull cans later, we'll call it a night, and — upon stumbling outside and realizing the sun is already beginning to rise — we'll decide that the only way to start the day off right is to go get ourselves some McDonald's breakfast burritos. Bill's treat.
Sometimes, yeah, we'll get into a little mischief around the neighborhood. Toss a few eggs at Miss Anderson's house on Halloween. Rearrange Mr. Peterson’s mechanical reindeer decorations so it looks like they’re mating. We'll go T.P.ing together, of course, and Bill will be impressed to learn that in high school, a group of friends and I successfully T.P.ed the waterfront mansion of Kansas City celebrity car dealer Ray Adams. He'll be even more impressed to learn that we did this via raft with more than 500 rolls of toilet paper — in the most illustrious T.P.ing job ever carried out in the greater metropolitan area (more about this in a future post).
When we're feeling especially ornery, we'll prank-call opposing coaches at 4 in the morning.
“Hi Coach, this is Blake Griffin,” Bill will say, disguising his voice after dialing up Oklahoma’s Jeff Capel. “I'm just calling to let you know that I'm quitting the team. Yep. I'm done with basketball. I'm thinking about getting involved with ballet dancing. Like, I want to do ballet performances. Recitals and stuff. So don't expect me at the game tomorrow. And don't try to call me again ever. Bye.”
Boy, will we have a laugh over that one! Then we'll chest bump and watch “How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days” on TBS.
It won't all be fun and games, though. Like any good neighbors, we’ll be there for each other during the tough times. Sometimes, after especially tough losses, Bill will call me up in the middle of the night. “Hey Duganator,” he'll say, solemnly. “Sorry to call so late, but I'm having trouble sleeping. You got a few minutes?” And no matter what time it is, I'll put my hand over the receiver, turn to whichever girl happens to be over that night, and say, “Listen babe, I’ve got to take off. I've got some important stuff to take care of.” Then I'll return to the phone and say, “I’m on my way, Bill.”
The best times, however, will come on those lazy summer evenings on the back porch, grilling burgers in our flip-flops and swimming trunks, drinking beer out of koozies, talking about the good old days when players still cared about fundamentals and you could get a haircut for under $30.
These will be the nights when we can both unwind a little, take a timeout from the stresses of everyday life, and reflect on how successful and famous we both are.
One such night, as we sit lounging in lawn chairs, nursing a couple Michelob Ultras — the drink of champions — our moods will turn contemplative. We'll sit silently, peacefully, watching as the drama of our neighborhood plays out in front of us: Steve from across the street weed-whacking the bushes, old Miss Stephenson working in her garden, the crazy Kowalski kids trying to fry ants with a magnifying glass.
And before long, as the cicadas begin to chirp and the last traces of sunlight start to dip down past the horizon, Bill will turn to me and say, “You know what, Duganator? You're the best neighbor a guy could ask for.”
For a moment, I won’t respond. I’ll sit there silently, taking in the serene stillness of a Midwest summer night.
Then I'll take a swig of my beer, swat a mosquito from my neck, and say, quietly, “I know I am, Bill. I know I am.”