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A Soccer Elegy for My Friend Tom

About ten minutes before our first AC St. Louis Fanatic podcast last night, I received a phone call from an old friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years or so, about another old friend I hadn’t seen in years either.  My friend, Thomas Patrick Lorkowski, born on St. Patrick’s Day, 1956, had died of cancer.  Well, the show must go on,  so Dave Trotter and I did the podcast, which we’d been wanting to do for months but hadn’t happened for a multitude of reasons.  A few hours afterwards, it really hit me that my friend had died.  This article is a little about soccer, and a little about Tom and the lives we lived and the people who raised us, growing up in the 1960s, in a city where playing soccer as a Catholic kid was the most natural thing in the world.

Tom and I went to St, Catherine’s of Alexandria elementary school in North St. Louis County, hard along the Mississippi River.  We had two school sports, baseball in the spring and summer and soccer in the fall, from Labor Day to Thanksgiving.  Tom was strong and slower than any mule that ever lived, while I was scrawny and scared that heading a soccer ball would break my glasses.  Him fullback, me right halfback.  We played together from about the ages of nine to thirteen years old, and neither of us were very good.                                                                                                                          

The late Bob Walsh coached us.  A lanky Irishman, he somehow found time in between work and a houseful of children to coach his oldest son Donnie and his classmates.  Practices were Tuesdays and Thursdays,  warm-ups, followed by passing drills, heading, and then 3 on 2 drills with 3 forwards coming from the midfield line against two defenders and a goalie.  Following that was running….20 laps around the big field at Bellefontaine Park on Tuesdays, 10 on Thursdays.  Late in the season, when daylight was scarce, we ran our own practices until the adults could get to the park after work.  We would all meet and walk a mile or so cross the railroad tracks, cut through a cemetery and arrive at the field.  As early winter dusk arrived, Mr. Walsh and a few  other adults would make sure we got our running in, even if it took him awhile to realize that some of us ducked behind a clump of evergreens at one corner of the field and skipped a few laps.  Tom did.  Not me.  Couldn’t be a bad example. I was an elected co-captain, along with Donnie. Since I was an ordinary player at best, the only reason I could figure that I got elected too was because I  yelled a lot.  (Year later, my Mom confirmed that I did yell a lot, but more because of needing help as the opponent attackers were getting by me.  I rememberd it as team spirit.  Thanks, Mom).  Then we were divided up, about eight or nine of us each in a station wagon, and driven home. 

On one practice day, there was an early season snow, and instead of kicking the ball around, we divided into two teams and had an immense snowball fight.  Once the adults arrived, we united and pummeled them with snowballs.  (Payback for having to run so many laps, sweet).  Of course, the three of them banded together and fought us back.  Fair is fair. Another time, Harry Keough, the coach of St. Louis University when they dominated college soccer (and he coached while working full-time for the Post Office), found the time to travel across town to watch us practice.  Several of the NASL St. Louis Stars came by once too.  They were Poles and Yugoslavians — we communicated by kicking the ball.       

Saturdays were game days.  I hated early games because I would miss my favorite cartoon, Underdog.  We played other CYC teams, Catholic schools in North County.  Gawd I loved to play Our Lady of Loretto, rich kids (at least relatively) in big houses, with cool red uniforms.   Tom’s Mom, Marie, would be standing on the sidelines yelling “C’mon Tommy,” my Mom, Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Walsh with Kool-Aid or hot chocolate, would all be there.  Several times the weather was so cold we wore thermal long johns underneath our black and white uniforms.  Once, a season’s end playoff game kept being delayed because of bad weather.  After a few postponements, we kids were allowed to vote whether we wanted to play as we arrived at the extremely muddy field.  Being the pragmatist, I voted no, worried that the deep mud and pools of water would slow our high powered, five forward offense.  But I was outvoted. We won 1-0 on a goal by Bobby Schneider in a game where the waterlogged soccerball never traveled more than ten yards from a kick, and my Dad drove me home, took me to the basement, and hosed me off while still in my uniform and spikes. 

We played St. Louis style soccer.  It probably didn’t have that label then, but that’s what it was.  Blue collar.  Lunch pail.  Few of us had ANY skills, but we could run and elbow and bump shoulders and hips.  Tom lacked speed, but if you an attacker got near him with the ball, the guy was flat on his butt. I just yelled when they got by me.  Mr. Walsh had so much free time raising a platoon of children with his wife, Rose, coaching year round, being involved with Scouts, and of course earning a living, that he would write a little article each week about our games for the weekly Baden News-Press or Community News.  He sometimes said I played very well.  He was a good liar.

Tom and I didn’t stick with playing team sports much behind the age of 13 or so.  I quit to become another Jimi Hendrix or George Harrison (that didn’t work either).  Tom just didn’t like adults telling him what to do.  We went to different high schools, me to Rosary High, a soccer powerhouse that in the 1970s contributed players like Dan Counce, Greg Makowski, Pete Collico and Don Ebert to the NASL and, later, the Steamers.  Tom went to Prep North, a seminary preparatory school.  I never could figure out why, because Tom always liked girls, and better yet, they always liked him, but maybe his Mom thought it would be good for her independent-minded son.  My last soccer related memory of Tom was standing on the sidelines as spectators, watching Rosary, with 1400 students, take on Prep North, with 100 or less, in a district soccer playoff.  Rosary won, not by much.  Rumor had it that Tom’s older cousin Rich was going to play for the NASL Dallas Tornado.  (Sure enough, I just looked it up and he was on the 1975 Tornado’s roster).  My St. Catherine’s  co-captain Donnie played for some good Riverview High School teams, coached by the renowned Gene Baker, who is 10th nationwide in high school soccer coaching wins.  Baker later crossed the river to coach at Granite City High, where a young Jeff Cooper came under his influence.

Time went on.  Although we weren’t on organized teams, we still played football and soccer and baseball and street hockey against other nerds, hippie wanna-bees and guys who just weren’t good enough for their high school teams.  We also played table top hockey, made-up baseball games with dice, poker and hoops, and boxed.  Tom would roll up a copy of Mad magazine and sneak it into school.  One day he came in wearing a sling and a cast on his arm, gaining great sympathy from all the girls and excuses from homework from the nuns.  He grinned at me a few minutes and tapped on the cast, which was fake.  We watched the Three Stooges, Beverly Hillbillies and Hogan’s Heroes, later Monty Python.  Tom dropped off the church envelope for 11:00 am Mass and was over in my basement by 11:05 on Sundays to watch Harley Race, Dick the Bruiser and the Briscoe Brothers on Wrestling at the Chase.  We night-fished on the Mississippi River, traded carp for beers, shot pool and played allday wiffleball tournaments.  You could always tell when Tom was home because you could hear Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull or Jimi Hendrix blasting so loud he couldn’t hear the knock on the door.  We knew all the words to most Hank Williams’ songs and idolized Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin Wolf.

I lost touch with Tom and so many others over the last 20 years or so.  I recall watching the 1989 World Series together, the Earthquake Series, where the Giants and Oakland A’s, managed by a smart, young guy named Tony La Russa, clashed.  Tom called around 9:00pm a few weeks later on a Saturday night.  My wife and I had three children under five years old, I’d worked a full day, and was already asleep and exhausted.  No, I said rather impatiently, I didn’t want to go out running around.  A rare moment of maturity for me at the time, but the downside was I never saw Tom again.  No hard feelings,we just kinda drifted apart, as so many folks do.

Tom is dead now.  He died of cancer and I feel so bad that he must have suffered greatly.  He had tropical fish and snakes and Tinker his dog, and once had a crow in his big trash can in his room that he was trying to heal from a broken wing.  He loved the outdoors, was street smart and independent, engaged several times but never married as far as I know.  He just rambled along, enjoying people and life.   Tom loved the St. Louis Blues, good food and laughter, and no matter who you were or how crazy or smart or mentally challenged you were, if you were there, you rolled with Tom in his big Chevy Impala, stereo cranked, headed off to shoot pool or spend the night along the banks of  Mississippi.  I went to my first rock concert with Tom — Procol Harum, Head, Hands and Feet and a new band called REO Speedwagon.    We saw Springsteen before he made the cover of Time and Newsweek and saw Bob Dylan and the Band.  There was always fun, and sometimes adventure.

Life goes on.  May 22, 2010 is a big day for me.  Tom’s memorial Mass.  One of my son’s is getting married.  And, of course, that Granite City kid Jeff Cooper’s AC St. Louis boys take on FC Tampa Bay in a NASL contest game at AB Soccer Park.  I’ll have to miss the game, but I’ll be there in spirit.  So will Tom, drinking a cold one and cheering our local boys on.

Shout out to those old St. Catherine’s boys from 40 years ago:  Jackie Hughes, Donnie Walsh, Bobby Mantia, Danny Brice, Bobby Schneider,Tom Dorsey, Bob Wolk, Bobby Stroerr, Kevin Seeger, Tom Lorkowski and others I can’t remember at the moment.  And friends of Tom’s from high school and beyond:  Mike Scott, Big Ray, Mike Wolf, Skidney, Tim Murray, Gumbo, Greg Latham, Stuce, Juan, Daav, Joe, Squawky, Cliff, Monster, Al, Dave Williams, John B, and so many others; and the neighborhood characters that made our lives so fun:  Uncle Cholly, Sam the Monkey Man, Porky, Yogi, Silent George the Wrestler, Sister Mary Louis, Grandpa, and to all the girls and women Tom loved and loved him back.  And especially to Marie, Tom’s fantastic Mother who was always there for her son and his pals,  and survives him.


7 Responses

  1. wow, Gerry. Just….wow. That was a touching one, sad but great. I’m sorry for your loss, at least you have your memories and a wedding to help lift your spirits. Hope AC can pull off a victory for you. We’ll miss you at the game.

  2. That’s one heck of a eulogy you just wrote.

    I think it’s safe to say we all have a Tom in our lives; that friend that time & “real life” (family, job, mortgage) seem to take away from us.

    I think it’s time to email some of the ones in my life…

  3. Thanks for the kind words guys, and I’m trying to do the same thing, Kevin — getting in contact with some lost friends.

  4. My condolences, sir. By the sound of it he was a good man and I can only assume he’d be proud to have a friend like you.

    I’ll have you both in my thoughts come Saturday.


  5. Gerry, Great post about life, memories along the way and growing up in North STL. Thanks for the great tribute. Happy to read it.

  6. That’s really fine Gerry. A very poignant article. I knew and loved Tom too. When I ‘d heard that he’d died my mind was flooded with memories that I hadn’t thought about in many years.

    Just the week before he passed I had download ‘Ten Years After – Live’ which, believe it or not, I’d never owned. Anyway, I was driving around listening to it and remembering how he used to play it full blast when he was in the shower and he couldn’t hear you at the door. Then days later Sidney sent the e-mail. It really threw me.

  7. I just read this article for like the 5th time and again, it has me in tears. This story resonates with any person who grew up a Catholic in and around St. Louis who was lucky to have the youthful experience of playing soccer.

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