SIDNEY UNDERWOOD - "Dead Eye Dick" Overcome The Odds

(04/12/2017)

By Sidney Underwood July 2016

After reading the story of the HUMAN FLY climbing the stone tower of the old Calhoun County High School, I remembered something altogether different occurring in that same time period.

I was in junior high and in the 7th or 8th grade at the old High School. This would have been 1955 or 1956. I remember that Principal Roy J. Stump always spoke to us in homeroom each morning via microphone speaker before we went to our first period class. I think I was in Donald McCartney’s homeroom that year.

Mr. Stump reminded us that we would be having an assembly at 10:00 AM to recognize new inductees into the National Honor Society and among other planned activities, we would have a special visitor. That was all he told us, so we wondered who this mystery person was and what he or she was going to say to us as we traveled on to our first period classes.

When first period ended we started opening lockers and dumping our books. I can still remember that familiar hallway sound of lockers being shut accompanied by voices and laughter from that long ago time. In a festive mood, we made our way out of the high school through the hallways toward the cafeteria and entered the back nentrance of our “new” gym that had been built in 1953.

When I traveled those hallways during the time I was in school, I always remembered the football and basketball photos on the walls. Those old photos were like friends from the past and I never failed to look at them as I passed by.

I often wondered what had happened to those athletes of the 1930’s and early 1940’s and if they were still alive in my present time of 1956.

I didn’t realize then that that those young men who looked so serious and determined were only 20 to 25 years older than me, but at the time, they seemed absolutely ancient. Looking closely, I would see coach Hamrick and his football players in their antique looking uniforms with leather helmets.

The basketball photos were unique too, as each player wore knee pads. That seemed so cool to me. One day I was surprised to see Loyd Vaughn in a team picture as an assistant coach. I knew he was very much alive and well and was now part of the school’s administration. Mr. Vaughn had played basketball at the University of Tennessee and was skilled in shooting “Set Shots” which he had often demonstrated for us.

Looking at the old basketball pictures, I remembered stories about the old high school gym that was destroyed before my time when the school burned in 1942.

That gym had been located near the old boiler room and extended outward to the burned out section of the building that had never been rebuilt. I have been told that the players had to be careful or they would inadvertently step over the base line out of bound because the floor was so narrow.

Also, high arching shots were often deflected by the low ceiling beams. It was basically a half court gym with over lapping floor lines. The uniqueness of that “Band Box” gym was a great advantage for the home team as visiting players had difficulty adjusting to its dimensions.

When we were seated on the bleachers in the gym, Mr. Stump stepped to the podium. I remember sitting with other members of our junior high basketball team that included Don Burch, Ray Evans, Chuck Kirby, Bill Umstead, Arthur Yost and others.

We thought we were pretty cool guys as we had recently won the class basketball tournament defeating the seniors. Seated on the side next to the new addition that housed the FFA and shop classes, we were a lively bunch full of restless energy and happy because classes were suspended.

Someone in our group had just said something funny and we were all having a fine old time. Suddenly Mr. Stump looked in our direction and we knew instantly to stop the chattering and shut up. A hush enveloped the gym as all eyes were directed toward him.

Mr. Stump made some opening remarks about achievement in school and in life. He repeated the oft heard words we knew by heart about our actions being a reflection on the school and that we should conduct ourselves accordingly.

At that moment it seemed he was looking directly at me or someone in my group. He also said that hard work would be rewarded and that was the reason we were assembled today. Soon, he turned the program over to Mrs. Kathryn Holliday who was a teacher and sponsor for the National Honor Society.

She made some remarks and then, one by one, the new inductees were presented to us and given a certificate as they walked across the stage. I think candles were lit for each of the new members as part of the initiation rite. This story happened a long time ago and I am sorry that I do not remember names of those being honored.

Other items on the agenda that day are long forgotten, but I do remember the final event before we broke for lunch. Mr. Stump introduced the mystery guest as having overcome incredible odds to achieve success in life.

Suddenly a really thin man of about 40 walked out onto the gym floor. He was wearing sneakers, gym shorts and a tee shirt and was carrying a basketball under his arm. He appeared to be about 6 ft. tall and might have weighed 130 lbs. He resembled a string bean, really puny looking, almost skeletal.

I remember he walked down our side of the gym and stopped midway to address us. His first name was Richard and he spoke in a rather low voice that forced us to lean forward to hear his words. He really had our attention except for some dummy on the top row behind us who was talking loudly to a friend. We all turned and told that student to shut up. Whoever it was started to make a smart reply until Don Burch stood up and looked at him. Problem solved.

Richard (last name forgotten) resumed talking to us. He explained that he had been sickly as a child unable to play outside with other children. His parents had not expected him to survive to adulthood due to severe asthma and other related respiratory problems.

As a result he had spent most of his teenage years indoors alone. He said that he envied so much the boys in his high school who were able to play basketball and run and jump and be healthy. He said there was a local gym near his home in a suburban area of Pittsburgh and although he could not be a team member, he was allowed to shoot hoops by himself any time he wanted to do so.

Richard said that he started spending all his free time after school standing off to the side shooting solitary hoops hour after hour.

At dinnertime he would walk a short distance home, eat, do his homework and go to bed. He said that he continued this routine throughout his junior and high school years. Over time his arm strength improved and he became more accurate in shooting hoops. Local players and coaches started noticing his skill, but due to weak lungs he could not run up and down the floor.

He said that he had been approached one time to join a local traveling team similar to the Globe Trotters to entertain the audiences at halftime, but had declined.

He told us that he understood that he would never be a complete basketball player, but took satisfaction in knowing he could shoot reliably from long range. He said he earned a lot of spending money playing HORSE with other kids on local playgrounds. It soon reached the point where no one would challenge him because he had taken most of their lunch money!

He stepped away from us to the edge of the gym floor near what now would be the three point line. He called for a volunteer to return the ball to him and someone scrambled off the bleachers onto the floor and stood near the wall behind the basket.

We watched as he poised in a half crouch with the ball held high in his right hand with left hand in support.

Like a statue, he was un-moving for several seconds and everyone in the gym held their breadth in anticipation. When he did shoot the ball, his form looked like a jump shot, but his feet never left the floor although he did extend onto his toes. His first shot hit the rim and rolled around and out. His second shot made the exact same rolling motion and spun out. I heard someone behind me say, “This guy is a fraud!” His third shot was nothing but net. He took two steps to his right and shot again. Nothing but net, again.

Now we were impressed. This guy was no fraud. He went completely around the floor two steps at a time from the three point line never missing a shot shooting as fast as the ball could be returned to him.

Sometimes it would rattle in, sometimes nothing but net. This guy just didn’t miss and was really dialed in!

It was spontaneous, we all started cheering him on. We watched him stop on the other side and talk to the students sitting there for a short time. He was such a showman.

He poised with the ball again across from us and the gym became quiet as before. Suddenly he launched his first shot and the process was repeated. He made every shot coming back toward us firing the ball with that same fluid motion using his small hands and thin arms really lighting up the place.

Now we were all standing, stomping and cheering so loudly the walls of the gym seemed to be vibrating. He seemed to feed off our energy shooting at a faster pace.

I remember the kid who volunteered to return the ball was really sweating trying to keep up. Near our baseline, Richard made a final shot that rattled in. Someone whispered that he had just made 25 baskets in a row!

We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.

He turned and walked to mid court. We had no idea what would happen next. With a big grin on his face and never taking his eyes off us, he shot the ball from mid court using all his strength. Amazingly the ball hit the rim and did that funny roll and spun out. Even with that missed trick shot, we clapped and whistled because that had to be a near impossible shot and he had almost made it.

Richard walked over to us and said that he always finished his exhibition with that “No Look Shot.”

He said that he actually had made that shot a few times. He looked around at us students and explained that we looked just like the other high school students he had spoken to over the years. We had the same hopes and fears. He said that our future was in our own hands to make of it whatever we chose.

As he continued to talk to us about life and work and goal setting, I realized that this man was a motivational speaker trying to impress upon us the fact that we could overcome obstacles in our life just as he had. He was not an impressive person to look at, but the shooting exhibition and his words of wisdom were most impressive that day.

I don’t remember if we paid anything when we entered the gym or if the school paid his fee, but it was an exhibition that I will never forget.

As we were filing out of the gym and heading across the hall to get in line for the cafeteria, I remember overhearing someone say, “That guy was a regular Dead Eye Dick!”

Everyone who heard that remark laughed, but I realized it was only an accurate assessment of the man’s basketball shooting ability. He was so much more than that.

For 30 minutes he had held the rapt attention of 300 teenagers and that shooting exhibition had been the vehicle used to impart words of wisdom that I still remember after 60 years. Dead Eye Dick, indeed.


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