My friends and I in New York didn't call him "Gunner," as the character who is modeled after Ted Steeg is known in my novel Going All The Way. He was known to us as "The Horse" — a nickname that meant someone who was strong, the one you could count on, the one who could carry the load and never complain.
He died a few weeks ago, leaving a big hole in my life, and the lives of the many friends he leaves here and in New York, where he had his own film company that produced business films for corporations like IBM and prize-winning documentaries (including one on his alma mater, Wabash College, where he'd gone on a football scholarship.) He grew up here where he starred as fullback on the 1948 Shortridge football team that won the City Championship, and he was voted "Uglyman," most popular guy in his class.
I had "covered" him in my role as sportswriter for The Shortridge Daily Echo (I remember standing in the end zone to watch him leap across the Southport line for a touchdown) but I'd never met him till Christmas vacation of my senior year at Columbia. Our Shortridge history teacher, Dorothy Peterson, called me to say Ted was back from Korea and planned to go to Columbia grad school on the G.I. Bill; she suggested we get together.
We met at the Red Key, sitting at the end of the bar, near the jukebox, where we drank beer and talked and I said he was welcome to stay on the floor of my basement apartment when he got to New York. On a freezing night in February he showed up at my door with a knapsack and a suitcase, and our legend began.
Every good friendship has its own "legend," or story, and Ted "The Horse" inspired a make-believe legend in the form of a novel, set in Indianapolis in the summer of '54. Even now, "wise guys" here will tell you, as one did recently with a knowing nudge to a friend, "Going All The Way is non-fiction."
I don't try to explain any more that except for that meeting at the Red Key, I never knew Ted until he came to New York, nor did I know anyone who had a beard in Indianapolis in 1954, as "Gunner" did in the novel (a man with a beard back then would've been kicked out of town, not just the Meridian Hills swimming pool).
What carried the novel was the real-life character of the character I called "Gunner." No one in New York knew him as a football star, yet people were drawn to him because of his interest in their lives and problems, and his own enjoyment of every moment. He didn't just sing in the shower, he sang when he got out of the shower.
He was the only person I knew in New York who was not, and had never been (nor would ever be) in psychoanalysis, therapy or any sort of self-improvement program. He didn't need "self-help;" he was self-help. He believed in the old values I often scorned and we teased each other and laughed about. "Pull yourself up by the bootstraps!" was his answer to any dilemma, and he lived by that.
In his late forties he was hit with rheumatoid arthritis, which ended his days as the oldest winning pitcher and basketball starter for the local teams of Woodstock, New York, where he owned a house. There were times he needed help to put on a coat, but no matter how painful it got he never complained. He had no religious faith, nor did he understand why others needed it. Whatever you believed he respected, repeating the phrase that we and our friends quoted, from our hero Frank Sinatra, who believed in "Whatever gets you through the night."
After Ted arrived in New York, we graduated from my basement to a one-bedroom apartment with three other guys, living on cornmeal mush for breakfast and spaghetti for dinner, along with ninety-nine cent bottles of Chianti. We went to after-hours clubs in Harlem listening to jazz and nursing drinks, coming out blinking and reeling into the dawn.
Moving up (but never "uptown") The Horse and I shared an apartment in Greenwich Village till he married at the end of the decade and moved to a better place with a working fireplace a few blocks away. I can't count the belly-laughing times I spent there, playing all-night games of Scrabble and Monopoly with Horse and his wife and friends, sending out for Chinese food at midnight.
That apartment was my home whenever I went to New York, from the time I left the city in '63 until last May when I stayed with The Horse for what I rightly feared would be one last time. He'd been mostly in hospitals for a year, but insisted on being in his own place instead of any "assisted living." He'd never taken "assistance" of any kind, and even in the agonizing breakdowns of his body at the end he never complained.
We built a fire and sent out for Chinese food, and played the hits of the 'forties, sang "Camp Chank-tun-un-gi" songs, and recited poems we knew from the days when everyone knew poems — Auden and Yeats and especially Housman — though we avoided "To An Athlete, Living Long," or "With rue my heart is laden/for golden friends I had..."
When the movie of Going All The Way premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Ben Affleck answered questions from the audience about his fine portrayal of the character "Gunner."
"The director had this guy who the character was modeled on come to Indianapolis before we started shooting," Affleck said, "and we got to hang around for a week. I was able to copy his gestures, his attitude, and I could see he was this terrific guy."
That was "Gunner," a.k.a. "The Horse," aka Ted Steeg. As "Gunner" would have said in Going All The Way, "It's fucking hard to say goodbye."
Dan Wakefield wrote the novel Going All The Way and the script for the movie.
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