Remembering Namath, and to Protect the Plate, on the Occasion of Mom’s Passing

Mike Prisuta reflects on life lessons (and sports instruction) received from his late mother, Margaret Prisuta.

Embed from Getty Images

During what turned out to be the last conversation I’ll ever have with my mother, Margaret Prisuta, we ended up chatting for a few moments about Robert Morris hockey, as we invariably did during the college hockey season.

Mom had attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, not RMU, and she wasn’t a big fan of hockey in general. She hated the fighting at the NHL level, and, “the way they run each other into the wall, it’s too violent.” But since her youngest son was the color analyst on the RMU radio broadcasts, she always made a point of asking how the Colonials were doing.

When it came to what she always perceived to be the more traditional sports — football, baseball and basketball — my mother was much more passionate.

Super Bowl III was pretty revealing along those lines.

My mom, an Aliquippa High School grad, was rooting for the Jets because Joe Namath was from Beaver County. Beaver Falls, to be specific.

My dad, also an Aliquippa High School grad, was rooting for the Colts because Johnny Unitas was the All-American, shining example of what a pro quarterback should be, the polar opposite of that long-haired hippie Namath. It didn’t matter that Unitas wasn’t even starting for Baltimore at that juncture. The buzz cut and the black high tops were more than enough.

My parents’ interaction throughout that game left a lasting impression on a 7-year-old: This football stuff could get heated and intense, I learned.

That’s what happens, apparently, when a business/typing/shorthand/gym teacher marries a history/typing teacher who is also a junior high baseball/basketball coach.

My dad was the basketball coach.

My mom only thought she was, to the degree that decades later she felt compelled to provide some unsolicited coaching tips during halftime of one of her grandson’s junior high games in Sierra Vista, Ariz. She wanted to have a specific chat with a kid named Donnie Veal about the importance of elbow placement and following through on free throws — much to Donnie Veal’s befuddlement and her grandson’s embarrassment.

Donnie Veal would go on to pitch in the big leagues for the Pirates, White Sox and Braves, so, in retrospect, he was a pretty accomplished athlete.

My mom didn’t know that at the time. She just knew he was doing it wrong at the foul line.

In September of 2014, four months north of her 91st birthday, mom was in attendance at the resumption of the Johns Hopkins-Muhlenberg football rivalry. It would also prove to be representative of who mom was — and how invested she became in whatever game was being played. One of her granddaughters had married a guy whose brother happened to be the offensive coordinator at Hopkins, and my mom had been invited to Allentown for the big game as an honored guest.

A couple of Hopkins runs up the middle went nowhere.

“They need to stop running that play,” my mom announced, convinced that those in the stands around her really needed to hear her opinion on the subject.

It didn’t matter that the people surrounding her were the Hopkins offensive coordinator’s family members. “Call ’em like you see ’em,’” was always my mom’s philosophy in such situations.

She never worried much about who that might offend.

Her youngest son had gotten a taste of that in a long-ago-but-still-not-forgotten little league game. I got called out with two down and the bases loaded on a 3-2 pitch that was clearly outside.

The guy who called me out was my father. On occasion, when the ump was either late in arriving or never made it, dad would be asked to fill in due to his status in the community as a junior high baseball/basketball coach.

Dad always valued being aggressive in the batter’s box much more than he did knowing the strike zone. In this instance, he obviously wanted his son to learn a hard lesson about the value of driving the ball over taking a walk with ducks on the pond.

I wasn’t buying it at the time (like many of the lessons my parents tried to teach me, I eventually came around).

I sought my mom out for a little sympathy in the aftermath, still convinced I’d been robbed, that the pitch had been outside.

“It was,” she momentarily agreed, “but it was close enough that you should have protected the plate.”

“Protect the plate” has been with me ever since, on and off the field.

We reminisced about that and about 1,000 other such stories as a family last Saturday after the funeral.

The conclusion I eventually reached was if you love sports, there’s probably a pretty good reason.

If you’re lucky, it’s because your dad had a lot to do with that.

If you’re really lucky, it’s because your mom did, too.


Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section