I don’t know what went through Ed Petersen’s mind, watching me climb his way up the Bluford High School gymnasium bleachers on the all-but-empty visitors’ side of the gym.
On the floor below, the junior varsity game had just started, cheerleaders with raised pom-poms leading a cheer.
Ed occupied an entire section of seats by himself, leaning back, his arms stretched out on the behind bleacher. His pose remained me a bit of the marooned man on the tiny island, like in the cartoons, a sad sack for sure but not ragged looking. At that time I was a tall lanky eighth grader, my shirt tail never staying tucked in, my well-worn Converse gym shoes having a few holes in them where they were beginning to separate at the toes. I was kind-hearted and curious, a collector of rocks and a reader of encyclopedias. In short, book smart. Thankfully, I had a brother less than a year older than me, so I knew how to fight. Most important for me at that time, I dreamed of playing high school basketball for the Bluford Trojans.
Ed looked up as I sat beside him and introduced myself, his eyes narrowing a bit as I got into his space. When he told me his name was Ed Petersen I asked him how his last name was spelled.
“Ah, Scandinavian no doubt,” I said.
He laughed so hard, he lost his breath.
Friendships are one of life’s most subtle mysteries. You can’t plan one. They just happen. Then and there, as the Bluford Trojans battled a Mills Prairie team, a deep friendship began to form, one that would revolve around high school basketball.
I attended the smallest grade school in Jefferson County Illinois, Farrington. There were eight in my graduating class and we fed into Bluford High School. A Farrington kid had little hope of breaking into a basketball team lineup there. The Bluford grade school players had a monopoly, being drawn from a larger population and playing together in grade school, evolving into a cohesive unit before they ever walked through the doors of the Bluford High School gym. This reality was made shockingly apparent to me in the flesh when Farrington went up against a Bluford grade school squad during my eighth grade year in our little cracker-box gym.
We Farrington Eagles watched with our mouths open while the Bluford team pumped in shot after warm-up shot from all angles without missing, the net swooshing and dancing during the entire performance. Coach Stewart was as dazzled as we were. “Can you believe some of them are seventh graders,” he said in our first huddle. Not exactly a vote of confidence for us Farrington Eagles.
Only the tiny size of the Farrington gym, throwing off their fast-break rhythm, kept the Bluford players from beating us to smithereens. I got far fewer than my usual number of points but blocked several shots under the basket. I saw by the surprised looks on their faces that this was something the Bluford guys were not used to.
Dad was pretty grim after the game, not even saying anything about my blocking several shots. I knew why. He saw what I saw: the guys I’d be in competition with if I went out for basketball at Bluford High School.
There was one positive exception to the rough year. In the tournament at the end of the season, made up of the sixteen grade schools in the county, a newspaper article emphasized that I had scored twenty-five of our team’s forty points. We lost by only ten to the eventual runners-up in the tournament, Rome Grade School.
It was the first time I saw my name listed in a sport page box score or spoken of in a sports narrative, and it brought unexpected elation. I was also surprised and excited when Dad, before I could do so, cut the item out of the paper and put it on his nightstand for safekeeping.
While I and the Farrington Eagles were struggling and winning but a single game, Opdyke, another rural Jefferson County grade school, went through their season with just a single loss and a trip to district play. On that team was Ed Petersen. Teammate Terry Sledge, who opted go to Mt. Vernon High School, where he started for a Rams team that went to the state finals in 1969, remembered Ed as a key factor on the Opdyke grade school squad. “Without his ball handling ability, we would not have been very good. He was very unselfish. And he could jump!”
Ed was one of a few Opdyke kids who came to Bluford High School the year I started, outsiders like the Farrington kids. Being an outsider and playing Bluford High School basketball were the two items Ed and I talked about that night we first met, once Ed quit laughing about what I considered an astute observation regarding his possible Swedish heritage.
Ed’s common sense really struck me in that first meeting, that and a bit of melancholy, a combination that had some kick to it. We both understood that as outsiders we stood little chance of getting much basketball playing time. We would likely be bench riders, gathering splinters. But I was more optimistic in the conversation. Ed shrugged his shoulders, unconvinced. We forged a pact anyway, pledging to watch the other’s back, to help one another whenever we could, especially when it came to basketball.
Just after Labor Day in 1965, I and the seven other Farrington kids, now high school freshmen, rode a school bus for more than an hour, taking in the vague but nauseating smell of gas fumes as the bus picked up students on the way to the village of Bluford. The high school building was a large forbidding structure built by Works Progress Administration workers, a building I had rarely been in and certainly did not know my way around. To a Farrington kid, used to our quaint rural area where everyone knew one another and was likely related, Bluford seemed like a big city of strangers. In fact, the town contained only seven hundred or so people, but it boasted an Illinois Central railroad yard with a roundhouse at the edge of town. Other commercial and social activities in the town revolved around two grocery stores, two little restaurants, three car repair garages, several churches, a funeral home, and a bank.
The Bluford kids were, in fact, friendly and curious, and the two groups quickly blended, several of the Bluford girls asking me to stand back-to-back with them in the hallways by the third week of school to see how much taller I was. I think the girls liked the physical contact, giggling as they wiggled next to me. It was not girls, however, but basketball that caught my attention and concerns.
Once high school started that fall, Ed and I hung around together, biding our time before the junior varsity tryout and practices. A group of fourteen boys went out. The majority were Bluford boys, including five sophomores that we freshmen had to contend with. After several practices that included “killer” sprints, fourteen became twelve. Then ten. I told Ed the ones of us left would make the team, “You know, ten players for two full teams to scrimmage against each other.” Ed laughed and said I was a genius, but it sounded to me he meant just the opposite. Then he explained that even though those of us left had made the team, the first five, maybe the first six best players would see most of the playing time and the rest would ride the bench. Then the next year would bring a new crop of freshmen competing for starting spots among the remaining sophomores, adding to the pressure. “There are no guarantees.”
Varsity got the gym first in practice. Because I was a freshman and did not have a car, I’d go on one of the after school buses with Ed to his house to kill an hour or so goofing around before Mr. Petersen took us to the junior varsity practice. Dad would come from his job in Mt. Vernon and pick me up after practice.
Mostly we sat around while Ed’s mom fixed us sandwiches and brought us something to drink. Occasionally, we were lured outside by the still lingering warmth, listening to the last of the cicadas—their incessant calls now dulled by cooler weather—tromping through once deep green foliage, now in the melancholy process of turning brown, rust, red, and gold.
Sometimes there were unexpected consequences to these jaunts.
Just south of Ed’s house was a low bluff above a creek that was all but dry in a late summer drought. I scrambled/slid on my butt down the rocky embankment until the stream bed stopped me like the end of an abrupt elevator ride. At my feet were a few small pools of still, dingy water and everywhere else rocks of all kinds in deep graveled piles.
When I got back up to the top of the bluff, Ed was waiting, crouching down in the shade, looking impatient and shaking his head like I was some kind of idiot.
“We’re going to be late for practice.”
I held up a rock threaded with several long pieces of ancient crinoid stems, pointed it in his direction, a real collector’s piece.
“It’s got fossils in it,” I said.
“You’re covered in dirt and mud,” Ed said.
He came closer and I thought he was going to ask to see my discovery. Instead he looked down at my shoes “You can’t practice on the gym floor wearing those things.”
I looked down at my gym shoes, each one encased in a ball of drying mud.
I still have the fossil.
On the last week of September, Coach Don Colwell dragged a net full of basketballs into the middle of the gym floor and dumped them out. We began shooting around, casually at first and then from different stations. A week later the coach divided us into two teams and we began scrimmaging. Ed was 5-9, a left handed guard who handled the ball well, had a smooth shot, and played fierce defense. I was not a good ball handler and something of a streak shooter, either off or on. I made up for my defects with my height and bulk, filling up the middle, blocking shots, and grabbing rebounds. Ed and I were both surprised when we found ourselves among the starting five. Three Bluford freshman players started as well, and another Bluford freshman rotated in for Ed from time to time. It was an all-freshmen show.
We had a great junior varsity season, bonding together and playing seamless basketball, even winning a game against the Wayne City junior varsity team for a change. There were a few exceptions to our successes. The one I remember best was a big strong Sesser Red Devils junior varsity team of mostly sophomores and juniors, sons of coal miners. They banged us around pretty good and beat us by a few points. But that was a rare occasion in an otherwise glorious season.
Dad was proud of my role on the junior varsity team, but sometimes my old Farrington ways broke through. During one game where we had a huge lead and were on defense, I came up from underneath the goal area to the forecourt and was able to knock away a bad pass, surprisingly stealing the ball at mid court, pushing the ball down the floor like a slow-moving freight train trying to pick up speed, bringing my dad and the Bluford fans to their feet as I approached our goal for an easy layup.
I missed the shot.
The next morning the basketball players were in the gym before school started, practicing on free throws in street clothes. Ed Petersen came up to me and begged me to re-create the layup steal, trying to hand me the basketball and telling me I could redeem myself by making the shot this time. His jolly demeanor told me he just wanted to see me make a fool of myself again.
The other players, especially the older varsity ones, laughed and pushed me to the spot where the whole thing started. Several people were in the bleachers, including a few teachers. Everyone grew quiet while the event was reenacted.
Ed Petersen, in slow motion, pretended to throw a bad pass, and I came up again and knocked the ball toward the other basket, pretty much in the same trajectory as the night before. This time, when I went up for the lay-in, I rose toward the basket in perfect form. As I turned my head and watched the ball fall through the goal, I heard an awful tearing sound and felt a sudden blast of air on my inside thighs.
I had completely ripped out my pants.
A new coach, Joe Brockett, was hired at Bluford just as Ed and I started our sophomore year, and all bets were off. I hung around with my fellow sophomores during the first conditioning practices, all of us taking in the smell of liniment and sucking in air as we pushed our complacent summer bodies into shape. One out-of-shape player slipped on a spot on the gym floor where heavy drops of perspiration made the floor slick, and we all laughed nervously. We agreed it looked all but impossible for any of us sophomores to break the seniors’ hold on any varsity starting positions. That none of us sophomores would likely make the starting varsity squad was fine with me. I gave what Ed called “a long lecture,” pointing out to Ed how I hated confrontation and looked forward to playing with my fellow classmates again, repeating the success of the year before on the junior varsity level and waiting until next year for our time in the spotlight. Ed told me I had been reading too many encyclopedias and not to worry.
It was one of the last practices before our first game, and we still hadn’t been told who would start, which was making everyone restless and grumpy. I went up hard for a rebound in a heated scrimmage game and then landed on the floor, holding the ball in a viselike grip high over my head, three senior players lying flat at my feet. Coach Brockett blew his whistle and then shook his head in disbelief. At the end of practice, when Brockett announced the starting junior varsity players, Ed’s name was called but not mine. I was devastated, hardly able to think. Then I heard my name called for one of the starting five varsity team positions. I was scared to death.
It took me several games to earn the respect of the seniors who I played with that first half of the season. They sure didn’t like me knocking out one of their classmates from starting. Eventually, I found my place, and was even the top scorer for four games. I ended up experiencing my happiest basketball season, feeling no pressure and just having fun starting varsity and being a part of the team. It did not matter to me that we won only a single game in the regular season. Unfortunately, I lost track of Ed Petersen’s situation.
I never knew the full story. I suspect with me out of the picture, some of the Bluford sophomore players saw Ed as knocking one of their guys out of more playing time and started giving him a hard time. Ed quit the team toward the end of the season, and did not go out the next year. These many years later, I wish I had been paying more attention, guarding his back.
I worked hard in the hay fields that next summer, began a weight lifting program, and started going into Mt. Vernon to play against some of the Mt. Vernon high school team members in the Mt. Vernon gym. I built a tough guy facade to disguise my book smart ways.
When my junior year rolled around, I was in the best shape of my life, ready for basketball. Ed Petersen and I still hung out together through the school day, but basketball practices and the games left us with less time to talk. Also, I had secretly and completely fallen in love, so secretly in fact, I had yet to tell the girl in question. No rational thinking on my part seemed to help me understand a whit of what was happening with that situation.
The varsity was mostly juniors now, my class, and two super good sophomores. We had a new coach too, Roger Yates, who turned out to be top notch. Bluford was undefeated going into the sixteen team Wayne City Holiday tournament, and I was the second leading scorer for the Trojans, a half a percentage point behind the leader’s average. We lost a semi-final game in the Wayne City tourney, a contest we should have won. Bluford ended up with the third place trophy and an 11-1 record.
As it turned out, that was the high point of the year for me and for the team. Just say I was lovelorn then heart broken. Meanwhile, we had one more game over our Christmas break, an easy game with a not so good Ashley team, or so we thought. There would also be another surprise, a happy one.
The game with Ashley in early January 1968 may have been the most surreal game a Bluford team ever played. The small Ashley gym sat next to a set of menacing railroad tracks and across the street from two dimly lit taverns. Depressing spits of blowing snow greeted the Bluford players, pelting at our eyes as we climbed off the Bluford team bus.
As we got ready in the visitors’ dressing room, which doubled as a cluttered weight room, Coach Yates stuck his head in the door and announced that Ed Donoho was sick and wouldn’t be playing. We already knew that ball-hawking Rod Stover had injured his back and wouldn’t be playing the rest of the season. Another player who dressed for varsity was also sick, but Ashley was so weak, we knew we’d have no problems. We figured Coach Yates would begin telling us what the game plan would be without Donoho when, without explanation, the coach ducked back out into the gym.
Coach Yates came back to the locker room with Ed Petersen in tow. “Petersen’s coming back to play. Someone find him a uniform,” Coach said. Yates walked back out again to make sure Petersen’s name got put in the scorebook.
Ed just shrugged as we all stared at him and said, “Coach drug me out of the stands.”
The student manager fished out one of the missing player’s outfits and handed it to Ed. The uniform was a bad fit on Ed’s slender frame.
We came out on the floor and saw the smallest Bluford fan crowd of the entire year. Since it was such a nasty night and everyone knew we would win, I supposed many of them had decided not to make the long trip. We played our normal game, except someone had placed an invisible lid on the basket we were shooting at, and the Ashley players could not miss. Everything seemed to be in slow motion, as if we were playing underwater.
By the beginning of the fourth quarter, we were an unbelievable thirty points behind. It should have been the other way around. As we broke from the huddle to go into the final quarter, Coach Yates suddenly got this strange smile on his face, as if he’d received a vision, and said, “This will be the most incredible comeback ever.”
The torrid shooting of the Ashley boys grew cold, we clamped down on defense, and Ed Petersen, baggy uniform and all, had the best game of his life. If we had had just a few more seconds, we would have won.
Ed played the rest of the season. He did well, scoring, bringing the ball down court, and being the key to victory in a couple of games. When the dust settled, we had won twenty-one games, an amazing turnaround from the one game win the year before. We upset a powerful Sesser team in the first game of the regional, and took the Little Egyptian conference title for the first time in over a decade and the District tournament as well. Most of all, Ed and I were as thick as thieves again, helping each other out and laughing at all the nutty things we saw happening at games and in the politics of high school. At the end of the school year, Ed wrote a heartfelt narrative in my yearbook, a note I recently reread after all these years.
I have enjoyed going to school with you more than you will ever know. You have helped me with all my problems these last three years (girls!) You have also made me very proud just being one of your best friends. I am looking forward to next year. We will be big boys then. Good luck Randy, and take care of yourself. Your little buddy, Ed Petersen. (Scandinavian no doubt)
Ed did not go out for the team our senior year. One of the original Bluford starting players from our freshmen squad who had moved away, came back and threw the possible starting lineup into a dither. Ed, the melancholy realist, decided he’d had enough of that in his life. Still, we hung around together at and after school, riding around in cars, talking about girls we liked, about our future plans. All things seemed possible, at least to me. To prove the latter point to Ed, I talked him into running for class president, which he did and won.
Once in college in Indiana, I began to lose track of my friend. I stayed in Indiana, got married, got a teaching job. News about Ed’s life faded away and then disappeared. Someone contacted me last year with the news of Ed’s passing. I felt some shame having not kept in touch with him.
This January, Ed Petersen will be inducted into the Bluford/Webber Sports Hall of Fame, along with his other teammates from the 21-7 year, the famous turnaround season of 1967-1968. And I will be there, telling Ed’s story, and of his Scandinavian heritage, no doubt.