The biggest hands I ever shook are also tied to one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever met.
My childhood was a different place from today. Parents shooed their children out the door, telling them to not come back except to eat. Kids treated their bikes like chariots, carrying them on explorations. And professional athletes earned modest salaries, many of them holding second jobs or taking in roommates to share the expenses.
And in the world of my childhood, a nondescript middle-class neighborhood located in an equally non-descript middle-western city lived a lineman for the local professional football team. Cul-de-sacs were as common as dandelions in our community, each providing a gentle service of reminding you to continue your journey elsewhere. And one day at the end of one such street was a giant of a man shooting basketballs towards the backboard installed above his garage.
Charlie, as we got to know him, was an offensive lineman for the local professional football team. With legs the thickness of tree trunks, his massive hands grasped a basketball like most would a grapefruit. And from his face, from where a Sampson-like beard grew, came a powerful, yet gentle, voice.
I’m not sure how our pickup games began. He could’ve waved us over one day or a friend told us to stop by. But at an impressionable age, my friends and I began playing afterschool pickup games with our new neighbor.
Charlie was a titan of a man by any physical measure. What I now recognize, as a parent and adult, he was also a giant of a man on the inside – positively influencing our lives during a critical point of our youth.
Back then, professional athletes were not celebrities. Interestingly, Charlie, who was a second-round draft choice and would play offensive tackle for a decade in the NFL, barely attracted the attention of his neighbors. And similarly, to us kids, he was just Charlie.
What I remember of those afternoons were the grounded discussions we’d share between games. He’d ask about what was going on in our lives, listen, and warmly nod his head. Being a man of faith, he’d also answer questions we might have about life and God. His hand in our lives at the time was as steady as the legs we’d bounce off trying to sneak an inside layup.
We also learned his life was difficult and filled with pain.
“Every Sunday is like being in a car wreck,” he once said to us. On Mondays, he’d move differently – the weight of the previous day’s game still physically taxing his body.
But he always smiled, shared laughs, and demonstrated to us how to be men. Respect others, be kind, work hard, and never forget our place in the universe, he’d say.
I do not have Charlie’s autograph. As a matter of fact, it never occurred to us to ask. And I guess, in the end, this demonstrates Charlie’s lessons successfully took hold in each of us.