By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE — And there I was, in the VIP Room at Presidential Caterers, acting like a 12-year-old kid in the presence of Dick Vermeil.
The guest speaker for the 17th Annual Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame banquet was holding court with many willing sycophants, and I was among the jesters hanging on every word and hoping my laugh track was synched up with the guy talk that strayed into activities that are against the law in Gordonville: Hunting, golfing and feeling sorrowful if Penn State chokes away a game.
I never got Vermeil alone – except briefly by the cheese and crackers to tell him that John Pergine gives his regards – but I had ample opportunities to let him know I was no ersatz Eagles fan.
And I refrained from saying two words that may have sent him on an infamous tirade and out the door.
Those words: Mike Michel.
Who? Sigh, let’s go through the past darkly.
While the Eagles steadily improved through the 1970s, particularly with Vermeil’s arrival, their kicking game remained atrocious.
Until it was solidified by drafting a kicker (Tony Franklin) and a punter (Max Runager) after the 1978 season, one which saw Vermeil guide the Birds to the playoffs for the first time since their championship season of 1960, it was a litany of no-leg names: Kickers like Happy Feller (no lie), Horst Muhlmann (as awful as his name) and Ove Johansson (made a 69-yarder in college and couldn’t make a 69-footer in the pros) and punters like Spike Jones (the band leader would have been an upgrade) and Rick Engles.
After Engles proved no better than Jones, Michel was brought off the street corner halfway through the 1978 season to take his place.
He had been a draft pick of the Dolphins, and punters aren’t drafted that often, so there was anticipation in the air when Michel dropped back for his first punt at the Vet.
I don’t mean shank.
I mean whiff.
He did something we were beyond as young teens in the schoolyard. He missed the ball altogether.
At that point, you could even boo – or look for Santa Claus to accost with snowballs or beer bottles. We just laughed as Michel averaged 3 yards on his first three punts.
He became mediocre enough as a punter to ride out the season, but Vermeil made the fateful choice to have Michel – an OK college kicker at Stanford — also serve as a placekicker when Nick Mick-Mayer was injured.
In the playoffs against Atlanta, the Eagles built a 13-0 lead – despite a missed extra-point and field goal by Michel that would have made it 17-0 – and fell behind, 14-13, before Ron Jaworski drove them into field goal range (and some guy named Oren Middelbrook almost made a diving one-handed catch for a touchdown). With time running out, Michel missed a 34-yarder that would have made everyone’s Christmas merry (the game was played on Christmas Eve).
Not asking Vermeil about Michel was not the first time I chose discretion over valor, and it put me in mind of my handful of chances with Sen. Arlen Specter, as it just so happened that two days after the banquet, Nov. 22, was the 55th anniversary of the assassination of then-President John F. Kennedy Jr. in Dealey Plaza in Dallas.
In a past lifetime, in the more isolated atmosphere of editorial board meetings, I had more than one chance to go a few rounds with the late – and occasionally great – Specter.
We talked current events, and he decried gridlock inside the beltway and gerrymandering, but we kept the past buried.
Here in Gordonville, it was only fitting that a turkey shoot on Nov. 22, 1963 took place on Turkey Day 55 years later.
While we only display Festivus poles in public, it is taught in our schools that the assassination remains unsolved.
The official story – one that Specter, then an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia with wide-eyed ambitions, helped sell for the Warren Report — is that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone by hitting JFK with pinpoint accuracy with two shots after missing the car with the first.
Instead of Mike Michel, I could have gone with “single bullet.”
The problem with the theory was that one of the two connecting bullets zigzagged up and down and in and out and all around in order to do all the damage it did – all while emerging in nearly pristine condition on a stretcher at the hospital.
With witnesses hearing shots fired from other directions, including the grassy knoll that would have provided ideal cover for a gunman to fire the kill shot, there had to be an explanation to tie it all up in a neat little bow.
And as the years passed, and in spite of a multiplicity of theories that get shut down, the damage to the truth was permanent.
Specter was able to carve a solid career for himself as a politician – Philadelphia DA from 1966-74 and US Senator from 1981-2011 — and was one of the few Republicans, which he was for most of his career, I voted for on a regular basis.
But he still lost points for being a willing participant in this trail gone as a cold as the current president’s heart.
Football coaches, like Vermeil, can learn as they go about saving a roster spot and hoping to get by with a punter as a placekicker, as he never treated the kicking game as an afterthought again.
There appears to be no such contrition from Specter, who passed away in the fall of 2012.
If I had questioned him on it, my only satisfaction would be to have a story to tell while in my rocking chair.
While Specter would have reverted to the form that made him captain of the Yale Law School debating team, I would have reverted to the form that made me an oft-penalized captain of my street hockey team.
But that wouldn’t have made him right, or me wrong.
It would just make me part of the 61 percent of Americans, as compared to 33 percent, who believe “others were involved” in the assassination.
The explanation from those who don’t want us to believe it in a conspiracy is that we can’t handle the truth, with that truth being that a loser and loner like Oswald could kill such a powerful and wonderful man.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m not even living in that galaxy, let alone zip code.
If a total dingbat can become president – witness Exhibit A on the news every day – it is more than conceivable that a doofus like Oswald could kill the president in a time when security was a lot more lackadaisical.
The problem is that the evidence, despite the efforts of the likes of Specter, is as shaky as a kick off the foot of Mike Michel.
This column originally ran in The Times Herald on Dec. 2