Sunday, September 21, 2014
On March 31, 1980, WBA Heavyweight Champion John Tate was on his way to winning his first title defense when his opponent, Mike “Hercules” Weaver, landed a massive left hook to Tate’s head and sent the young fighter crashing face forward to the canvas.
It was a stunning upset, something that just wasn’t supposed to happen. Weaver was considered a journeyman, even though he had given Larry Holmes a rough time in a losing bid to win the WBC belt.
I was watching the fight at home with my father on that March night and my dad let out this roar when Tate tumbled limply to the mat.
“Whoa!” my dad shouted.
We watched as Tate’s handlers rushed into the ring, turned the fallen fighter over and tried to revive him. He looked like a corpse. They gave him oxygen and when Tate finally did stand up, the sportscaster said four men were needed to help him out of the ring.
“Shocking…” my father said.
But things were about to get a lot more shocking in our house.
My mother, Gloria, who had been sick all that week, walked out of the bathroom, weakly called out to my father, “Jim,” and then fainted.
I must’ve been close to her because I remember grabbing her to keep her from falling to the floor. Her eyes were closed, she wasn’t moving, and in that moment I thought my mother had actually died.
“Come back!” I shouted at her. “Come back!”
My father came alongside of me, grabbed my mom and gently eased her to the floor.
“Shut that off!” he yelled, nodding to the TV.
I ran over to the TV, where Tate was still stretched out on the mat, and clicked it off. My dad was talking to my mother, gently shaking her, and trying to get her to speak.
And then there was a terrible moment, when she wasn’t responding, and my father pleaded with her to stay with us.
“Glo!” he said desperately.
It was just one syllable, but I’ll never forget the terror in my father’s voice as he held my mother in his arms.
Say A Prayer
I’d never seen my father like this before. He had fought in World War II; he had seen men killed on the battlefield. He wasn’t afraid of anything.
But I saw that he was a husband, terrified that he was about to lose his wife of 30 years. We have a tendency to think that our parents’ lives began when we were born, but, of course, they’ve got a whole history together that we know nothing about.
My father's plea seemed to work because my mother opened her eyes then and he leaned over and kissed her.
I dialed 911 for the first time in my life and started screaming at the operator as she kept asking all these goddamn questions.
“Will you just send the ambulance?”
Yes, that’s just what I needed to hear with my mother on the kitchen floor softly saying “God help me,” the same words my grandmother had said years before on the night she died.
The ambulance showed up and I rode down to Lutheran Medical Center with my mother, while my dad followed us in his car. I talked to my mother on the way the hospital.
“Pray to St. Martin,” I said, invoking my grandmother’s favorite saint.
And then I leaned on her and sobbed uncontrollably. I heard the ambulance attendant sigh as I wept. This was the first time in my life that I had ever realized my parents could die.
I sat in the waiting room while the attendants took my mother into the ER. The fights were showing on the hospital’s TV and I saw that Sugar Ray Leonard had knocked out Dave “Boy” Green with a devastating left hook of his own.
Leonard later called it "the hardest single punch I ever threw.”
There was a replay of Green hitting the deck and I suddenly wasn’t a boxing fan anymore. Now I was sickened by the thought of people bashing each other in the head while a crowd roared its approval.
Even Angelo Dundee, Leonard’s trainer, took his lumps that night. While he was walking to the post-fight press conference, someone punched him in the face and knocked him down.
Meanwhile I was begging God to spare my mother’s life. My hair had just started thinning back then and while I had been very upset about it, I told God to take every single hair on my head if it meant keeping my mother alive.
I had done a lot of talking about moving to California and escaping Brooklyn, which wasn’t the cool place to be in those days, and I told the Almighty that I’d stay right here for the rest of my life if that’s what He wanted. Just please help my mother.
I’d cry, recover slightly, and then start crying all over again. My sister came down to the hospital with her boyfriend and gasped “oh, no!” when she saw the look on my face, convinced my mother had died.
We waited and waited until one of the doctors said my mother was out of danger and we could go home. She stayed in the hospital for about week before she was able to come home.
It turned out that my father had a religious experience as well on that night, as he started going to mass after my mother’s recovery.
John Tate was never the same after the Weaver fight. He became a cocaine addict, served time in prison, and was seen panhandling on the streets of Knoxville, TN.
On April 9, 1998, Tate suffered a stroke while driving his pick-up truck, crashed into a utility pole, and died from his injuries.
Years later we’d have a lot of close calls with my mother, racing to one hospital or another as her health deteriorated, and she finally left this world on July 16, 2002.
But at least on that night our prayers were answered.