Knowing the Score - Part III
By John Porentas
In Part I of this series I described how I met Mary Ann, Lyal Clark's wife. That had to be done to let you know how I came to know about Lyal Clark, and how I came into possession of some the details already written, but there is so much more to that story.
At first all of my interactions with her were the result of chance encounters at the assisted living facility where she lived, but as we got to know one another she would sometime wave me into her room to talk sports as I passed her door heading down to see my own mother.
I would always go into her room with the intention of staying just a few minutes, but would invariably spend 30 minutes to an hour listening to her stories and answering questions about the current Buckeyes.
The first time I met Mary Ann I noticed that she was wearing a lot of makeup on one side of her face. I didn't say anything about it or ask her about it, but it didn't take long for her to tell me that she had cancer and that it was affecting her face and nose. She never asked for any sympathy over that fact, nor did I ever hear her complain, save that it had prevented her from participating in the reunions of the OSU football teams Lyal had coached. She was a regular attendee at all the reunion functions of those teams and loved attending them to reconnect with the players and coaches, but the cancer was unsightly so she stopped attending.
When I visited her in her room I would see very little real memorabilia of those years, but prominent on the table next to her chair were prescriptions lined up in a row. I knew these were powerful medicines that could have unpleasant side effects. What was remarkable was that aside from the fact that she missed attending the reunions, she never, ever, ever complained. To the contrary, visiting her was an endless recitation about how wonderful her life was, how grateful she was for all the good things she had done and all the wonderful people she had met. It was like the cancer did not exist, only wonderful memories that made her smile, and then made me smile as she shared them.
Our regular visits and talks continued until last summer when I was told that she would be gone for between one or two weeks. She had gone to the James Cancer Center to undergo radiation therapy. I was instantly worried about her, but she returned about two weeks later and had nothing but good things to say about the experience. She never talked once of the experience of undergoing the therapy, which could not have been pleasant. Instead she could only talk about how wonderful the people at the James had been, and how she got to ring a bell when her treatment was complete. I was awed at her good cheer in the face of an awful situation.
One Last Go-Round
When she returned we resumed our sports talks, and at first I was elated to see that the cancer that was afflicting her face was much, much smaller and much, much less visible. It made me happy for her, because though she never said it, I knew she was self conscious of it. As the weeks went by however, I noticed that she had stopped walking her laps and she was losing weight. Then one night she told me. She was dying and her death was imminent.
The cancer was not as visible, but it was spreading to her brain. I was crushed. She was not. To the contrary, she continued to only speak of how wonderful her life had been, how wonderful her memories were, and how lucky she was. I marveled at her strength as she stared her imminent demise squarely in the eye and simply smiled. "I have great memories, and I'm not going to be sad," she told me. "When it is time to die, I am going to say Hallelujah, and I'm just going to go."
The Hallelujah Moment
Mary Ann was sure she would not see another football season, but when the season began this fall, she was still among us. She followed the team as best she could, but the cancer was taking an awful toll on her. There were times when her vision was affected and she could not see, so she couldn't watch the games on television. Instead, she counted on me to tell her what had happened, and I did that as best I could. As the season wore on, she became weaker and more frail. She was unable to eat, and at times could not hear, but whenever I stopped in, she was full of questions about the Buckeyes, and full of comments about how good her life had been. I felt very small in the room with this small woman with the big heart. She seemed the bravest soul I had ever met, looking at her own demise while remaining a ray of sunshine despite the inevitable end she faced.
In October the Buckeyes were still undefeated, but Mary Ann was losing her fight. On bad days the cancer affected her brain and she could not speak, only utter letters of the alphabet as she attempted to communicate. Other days she was lucid and could communicate, and on those days I always spent time with her, and on those days we both laughed and smiled and talked sports of all manner.
The bad days got closer and closer together and the good days farther apart, and I stopped dropping in at random. By then there was a full-time hospice worker staying with her, and I would enquire about her through the worker. We began a nightly ritual wherein I would stop at a fruit stand and buy sweet corn, then take it to the facility and cook it for Mary Ann's hospice worker and other members of the staff. When she was lucid Mary Ann would ask if I had corn that night, and I always did, and she always smiled when I told her so.
About four weeks ago that hospice worker came looking for me as I visited my own mother. Mary Ann was having a good day she said, and she was asking for me because she wanted to show me something.
She could barely see, but somehow she knew when I entered the room, and she smiled. "I have something I want to show you," she said and held out a thin arm that she barely had the strength to extend. On her wrist was a gold charm bracelet with seven charms. She said that she never kept that bracelet in her room, but had asked her daughter to bring it.
She explained to me that this was the bracelet that memorialized the highlights of her sports memories with Lyal, and that before she died, she wanted to share it with me. On it was a charm which proclaimed Lyal to be the Athlete of the Year at Western Maryland College in 1929. She was very proud of that. There were also three charms for victories in the Harvard vs. Yale game that Lyal had earned as a coach, and three pairs of gold pants that he earned as an assistant coach for the Buckeyes. All three of the gold pants were from national championship years. She insisted that I take it off her wrist and hold it, and I did, then snapped a quick pic with my cell phone camera. I am not sure I ever felt much sadder in my entire life, but I treasure that moment and will do so as long as I live.
The Final Score
October 29, I visited my mother, and as I walked past Mary Ann's room I could hear her voice, but the room was dark. She was in obvious pain and torment, and it wrenched my heart to hear her suffer so. The next day, I learned that she had died that night while I was there in the building.
I spent the next day a conflicted person. The selfish part of me was going to miss her dearly, but another larger part of me was glad her suffering was over. In my heart of hearts I will always know that she shouted Hallelujah when death came for her. I know that because she told me she would, and she never lied to me.
My memory of her goes back to that first day, when she asked me the score of that basketball game. I now know that score really wasn't important. It was then, but not now, hell, I don't even know who the Buckeyes were playing, but there is something I do know for sure.
If not for that game, and that question she asked me, I would have never met her, and that is the wisdom she gave me, even though I have not realized it until just now.
Mary Ann taught me that the score of the game is important at the moment, but in the end there is much more to it, that the real value of sports is its ability to bring people together and create lifelong memories. Without sports she would not have met her beloved Lyal and shared a life with him. Without sports I would never have met her, never learned of Lyal Clark, and never learned the life lesson she taught me. Without sports 100,000 people would not congregate in a stadium and for a few hours have one common purpose despite whatever differences they had when they entered and would have when they left. Without sports the bonds of teammates and coaches would not exist, and lifelong friendships would not be made and the memories that go with them.
Mary Ann watched every Ohio State football game she could right up to the end. I never watched a game with her because I was at them covering the Buckeyes, but one of the caregivers at the assisted living facility described her game watching like this.
"She normally sat back in her chair, but when the Buckeyes were on she was leaning forward and sitting up on the edge of the chair. She would have the volume up really loud, and she would be reacting to everything that happened. It was almost like the game was going on her room, not in the stadium."
In the process of writing this article I spoke to her daughter Jenny and have quoted her several times. At the time I spoke to her the article was about 75 per cent written and I knew the form it would take, and for the most part what you have read is exactly as I planned from the start. The only significant additions were the remarks from Dick LeBeau. Imagine then how shocked I was when her daughter told me the following about the last football game OSU played while Mary Ann was alive..
"She died two days after the Purdue game. She died on the 29th of October," said Jenny Spangler.
"The funny thing was, that Saturday of the Purdue game, when she was mostly just lying there in her bed snoring, spelling, she would have these times of clarity, and she would say to the nurse,
'What's the score?'"
I can now say that for having known her, I have a better idea of what the score really is.
Mary Ann was 98 at the time of her death and was laid to rest in Columbus. She got here with a boy from Nebraska who had an enormous impact on OSU football. During that time she too, a girl from Western Maryland, became Buckeye through and through.
"She was buried in her OSU sweater," said her daughter.
"Bill Ridder who graduated from Ohio State in 1965 and was on the football team, Bill and his wife came to calling hours and Bill brought a
Buckeye to put in the casket. After the calling hours were over they opened the casket and put the Buckeye in her hands, so she's a Buckeye for all time."
Of that there can be no doubt.
Post Script: When I first met Mary Ann I asked around a bit at the OSU football program as to whether anyone knew of Lyal Clark. There was just one person currently associated with the football program, Larry Romanoff, who remembered him but there was no trace of Clark anywhere in the WHAC.
Romanoff brought Clark to the attention of Jim Tressel. Later, Romanoff asked me if Clark had ever served in the military. That's when Mary Ann told me the wonderful story about his military service which was included in this article. I reported that to Romanoff, and forgot about it.
This fall I attended a press conference at the WHAC and found that Tressel had had Clark's name added to the wall saluting former Buckeyes who had served in the military. I want to thank both Larry Romanoff and Jim Tressel for making that happen.
The only other persons I spoke to who remembered Clark were Earle Bruce and Jack Park.
Bruce remembered him as a great football coach who had everyone's respect.
Park said that he never met him, but that he had emceed several of the reunions of OSU's national championship teams in the 50s when Clark had been a coach. He remembered Mary Ann attending those reunions, and remembered that everyone's memory of Clark was that he was the only one who ever stood up to Woody. He respected Woody, but took no crap from him, and was the only one who got away with that.
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