Pete and his Big Book. We all had sport coats like that in the day!
I only recently discovered that Pete Gent had passed away this past fall at a very young 69. I wrote a little about this on Facebook, but want to share a story. We were linked by high school basketball, our teams rated 1 and 2 in Class C in Michigan for the 1959-60 season. (We were rated number one) But Pete’s Bangor Vikings won the state championship and he moved on to play basketball at Michigan State. I graduated the next year and went south to get a degree in journalism, and also, I hoped, to play basketball. I went to see Forddy Anderson (varsity) and Bruce Fossum(freshman) coaches. In those days you got only three years of elligibility and had to play freshman ball. Very different than now. Coach Anderson knew about our team, but not so much me. (Why would he?) But he invited me to work out with his players over the summer. The main player was Dave Fahs, who would captain the team in upcoming season. Dave was from Indiana. I played every day, upstairs in the heat of Jenison Fieldhouse. I more than held my own. Come fall I continued to work out with Dave and others, and a week or so before tryouts (I want to say it was September) for the frosh squad I blew out my ankle. Bad blowout. I couldn’t use it again with any strength until winter term, when I took track for one of my HPR classes. Jim Gibbard, the assistant track coach taught the track and field class and one day in the high jump I jumped 6-3 or something in that range. Coach and he pulled me aside and asked me where I’d come from and what experience I had, and told him I’d graduated from Rudyard and we’d had track only one year and I had won the district and UP championships and jumped 5-11 3/4. in the district finals in Newberry (which was above the Class C record at the time). By the time class ended I had jumped 6-5 1/2, the highest I would ever soar. Coach Gibbard introduced me to head coach Fran Deitrich and toward end of winter term they offered me a books and tuition scholarship for spring term. Spring came and I took part in one meet in Ann Arbor and soon thereafter came down with mononucleosis, which put me time in hospital for several days, and washed me out for anything physical for the remainder of the school year. I saw Coach Anderson that spring, and he urged me to come back in the summer to play basketball and I told him I would if I could. But then I got a job with the USFS in Idaho and went west to spray actidione on white pine trees, and fight fires. I never really thought about basketball again. That fall as a sophomore I began getting into my actual beginning journalism and related Communciations classes and there I met Pete, who was majoring in Communications – Advertising (as I remember it). We hit it off. He was smart, a good student, funny, cynical, and quick thinking. We became if not close friends, pals and whenever we saw each other on campus we’d go get a pop or something and shoot the breeze. We both laughed about never getting the chance to meet in high school. Pete graduated from MSU in 1964, got a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys, and then a contract. He played five years. Football wasn’t so surprising: he’d been an all-state quarterback in high school.
Push ahead: It is now 1967 or so, I’m a navigator on a KC-135 in SAC, and the NFL pre-season is under way and my crew and I are told to take a KC-135 down to Carswell AFB in Ft. Worth Texas for some sort of manufacturer alteration. I suggested to the boys that we go to the Dallas Green Bay pre-season game, and told them I’d call my old pal and see if we could get tickets. I managed to get Pete’s home and talked to his wife, who told me Coach Landry made the team stay in a hotel the night before home games. Undeterred, I suggested we go down to the Cotton Bowl, where the game would be played and I would try to make contact with Pete. As fate would have it, the player locker rooms were on either side of the tunnel leading out to the field, and very close to the player gate. I looked over and Pete was hanging over a Dutch door bullshitting with various people and I got his attention, and next thing I knew we were in the lockerroom, where he gave me a player pass. He was grinning like a Cheshire cat and wanted to know all about my job. He tried to find more passes, but couldn’t,and told me to go across to the Green Bay lockerroom and see Herb Adderly, another MSU man to see what Herbie might scare up. Well, I got almost to Herb’s locker, wearing my Dallasplayer pass, but a stentorian voice yelled something along the lines of, “Get that asshole out of my lockerroom,” and I quickly found myself unceremoniously back in the tunnel. I went and told the boys no luck, then went to Pete’s door and waited for the team to come out and after they ran onto the field, I walked out to the Dallas sideline, where I spent the entire game. My squadron mates back at K.I.Sawyer AFB saw me on the sidelines during the TV broadcast and started cracking up. “How did Hump get onto the field?” (The Hump was my nickname in the squadron.) By the time I finished my tour in the USAF in 1970, Pete had finished five years with the Cowboys and was out of football. I ended up with The Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo. Later Pete returned to his hometown of Bangor, MI, 25 miles west of me. He wrote the hugely successful North Dallas Forty and a string of other good stories, but we never met again, and I always regretted not driving over there and popping in on him. Two small high school guys, one a great jock, the other a mediocre one, but both of us became novelists. What are the chances?
I know football beat hell out of his body and that he was in pain for years, but I never expected him to go at 69. Rest in peace, pal. Of all the sports memories I might have had, the one that stands out is Pete, stealing a ball in a game and charging down the middle of the court. He was six-four, 200 pounds, but he could JUMP, and he took his last step on the free throw line, elevated and literally soared, descending to pound the ball through for a stuff that brought the crowd to it’s feet. You see, we Michigan Staters like winning, but we even more like players who give an honest, maximum, no-holds-barred, nothing-held-back performance every time they go on the court or field. Pete Gent was the prototype. And a smart guy to boot. He graduated with honors. Me? A solid C. Sad to lose him and ironic because Bubba Smith, another campus pal passed away a few years back and I didn’t know about that until later either. It’s getting to be that time of life when death has to be factored in.