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The Sporting Life - Life's a Gamble Excerpt

28/11/2017 by Mike Sexton
Book Excerpts

The mark of a top player is not how much he wins when he is winning, but how he handles his losses.

~ Bobby Baldwin

In my young years, it seemed that Danny Robison was as much of an influence on me as were my brother and my parents. Not only was Danny a fast talker and a gambler extraordinaire, he was a great athlete. He was the number-one man as a sophomore on the Fairmont High School golf team that won the Ohio High School State Championship, and upon graduation received a golf scholarship to Ohio University.

His dad Rex, a very good golfer himself, wanted Danny and his brother Jimmy to be pro golfers and paid them a salary to hit golf balls. He also put a cement basketball court in their backyard. It was a half court that took up the whole backyard and was a popular hangout for wagering.

In addition to being a golf standout, Danny was also the starting point guard on a basketball team that went to the regional finals of the state championship. There, they lost to Dayton Belmont, which was one of the best (if not the best) high school teams in Ohio history. Belmont averaged 83 points a game (with no three-point shot) and conceded only 55 points per game to their opponents. They beat the number two team in the state (Canton McKinley) 80–56 and won the state championship game against Cleveland East 89–60.

On that Belmont team were two guys who became college All-Americans – Don May and Bill Hosket. It was the first time in Ohio history that two players from the same team were first team all-Ohio. May went to the University of Dayton and Hosket went to Ohio State. Incredibly, both led their teams to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Final Four. Dayton went in 1967 (finishing runner-up) and Ohio State in 1968. Dayton also won the National Invitation Tournament in ’68 with May winning the Most Valuable Player award.

In the NCAA Final Four, both lost to John Wooden’s UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) Bruins, led by the great Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the number-one scorer in National Basketball Association history. The high scorer in that high school regional championship game, however, was not the future collegiate All-Americans, it was Fairmont’s Danny Robison.

Danny was good at everything: golf, basketball, bowling, ping-pong, baseball, gin rummy, poker, you name it. And, of course, he was gambling on everything possible and was kind enough to allow those of us in the neighborhood to gamble with him. Under Danny’s indoctrination, I too liked to bet on anything and everything.

Junior High Entrepreneurs

My mom might have appreciated that the experience I got playing against Danny was priceless. (Going broke is educational.) Early in life, I learned to equate gambling with business, as you will see in this story.

When Tom and I went to Van Buren Junior High School in Kettering, OH, we needed to hustle up some extra money. So, while in the ninth grade, we ran a mini-casino in the boys’ restroom a couple days a week before class. We brought in a roulette wheel from a game called Tripoli and set up another area for cards and dice. We also pitched coins to the wall.

Our little enterprise was doing pretty well until our assistant principal, Mr. Bridgeman, who was in charge of discipline, made an announcement over the morning public address system: “There has been a report of a gambling ring going on in the boys’ restroom. Do you know how bad this looks for Van Buren Junior High School?” With his voice rising, he continued, “This will immediately cease or there will be serious consequences! Those responsible better listen up.”

Well, we continued running our little gambling parlor but took extra precautions. We paid one kid a dollar every morning to be our lookout. If we were raided and the lookout gave the signal, we had a plan in place. All the players were assigned specific positions to take care of, and they quickly picked up any gaming equipment and money, and then raced for the urinals or stalls to look innocent.

One morning the janitor snuck up on us, burst through the door, and caught us. (The genius lookout said he was looking for teachers.) He herded all of us down to Mr. Bridgeman’s office and, boy, was he hot! His neck bulged and his face turned beet red as he read us the riot act. He screamed, “Do you know how bad this makes our school look?” He continued to rant and rave and seemed ready to beat us all with his legendary paddle. (In case you’re thinking paddling = “lawsuit”, forget about it. Our mother told us, “If you get a paddling at school, don’t tell me about it. If you do, you’ll get another one when you get home.”)

Standing between Tom and me was the biggest hood in the school. He was listening to Mr. Bridgeman’s tirade, and all of a sudden, burst out laughing. Mr. Bridgeman glared at him, stepped toward him, and yelled, “You think this is funny?” And the hood snarled back and said, “Well, maybe I do.”

With that, Mr. Bridgeman clenched his fists and in a karate-type move punched both fists into the kid’s chest. The poor kid literally flew back past us and hit the wall with a thud. After that, Mr. Bridgeman said, “All right, all of you out of here… now!” So Tom and I scurried out with everyone else, even though we were the ringleaders. The hood that mouthed off saved us. This ended our little casino adventure in the junior high boys’ room, but it sure was good while it lasted.

Tumbling into College

After my sophomore year, the population of Kettering had grown so much that two high schools were needed. Our high school, Fairmont High School, was separated into two schools – Fairmont East and Fairmont West. I lived in the section designated for Fairmont East, the new school. But because the administration didn’t want to take the seniors out of their old school environment, the new school (Fairmont East) would only have juniors and sophomores in it that first year. The would-be seniors would stay where they were (Fairmont West).

So, as a junior, it was like being in the senior class. I essentially had two senior years, which was actually a very cool thing. But without a senior class, our school lacked the experience they needed to excel at the major sports.

Our football team was average, our basketball team really struggled, but we did have a pretty good track team. I played on the golf team (which anyone reading this book who has played with me will find hard to believe) and we weren’t very good. But, we did have an entertaining quality about us – we could all juggle! Luckily, because of my brother Tom and me (we were in the same grade because my mother had held Tom back in eighth grade), we had a phenomenal high school gymnastics team. We would have won the Ohio High School State Championship our junior year, but sadly Tom broke his ankle dismounting from the high bar during practice two weeks before the state meet. But in our senior year, we were undefeated and won the state championship. To win a state championship before you even had a graduating class at your high school was considered pretty big stuff. The Monday after the state meet, they had a special assembly in the school auditorium with the entire student body and all the local politicians there to honor our team. That was special.

Our school had tremendous school spirit. Students supported all sports, and that included our gymnastics team. Because our team was so good and so many students wanted to go to the state championship meet in Columbus, held at Ohio State, Fairmont East chartered four buses so students could go to watch the meet. I’m very confident that this has never been done before or since by any school in Ohio – certainly not for gymnastics.

Tumbling Our Life Away

So, how did Tom and I get into gymnastics? Well, when we were 8 and 9 years old, a friend of ours belonged to the Dayton YMCA, and he took us there as his guest one day. We absolutely loved it and wanted to join the “Y”. Luckily, our mom recognized our passion for the “Y” and signed us up.

Every Saturday morning they had relay races, swimming, and sports of all kinds. It was like paradise to us. Much of our youth was spent there.

We never missed going on Saturday mornings, and soon discovered that on Tuesday and Thursday nights they had a tumbling class. Tom and I joined it. Before long, we were pretty good tumblers. They put us on the “Y”’s tumbling team and we would do exhibitions all over town. We tumbled first, then started bouncing on the trampoline, and then graduated to gymnastic apparatus. Fortunately for us, when we later got to high school, our high school had a gymnastics program.

To illustrate just how the “Y”’s programs influenced our lives, my brother Tom liked to tell this story:

Back in the early 1960s, Mike and I used to do a lot of tumbling shows for the Dayton YMCA. But sometimes, just for fun, we would walk down stairs on our hands in unique locations, such as stores in downtown Dayton, or kick up to a handstand riding the escalator, while one of us would hang a hat on the other’s foot to watch the reaction of people going the other way on the opposite escalator.

We might kick up to a handstand in front of an elevator and say “excuse me” as we walked into it on our hands, to the surprise of customers who were getting off. We might do a tumbling show on the courthouse lawn downtown, or do front and back flips off the huge cannon in front of the courthouse as buses went by.

One Saturday afternoon we were returning a trampolette [a smaller, portable version of a trampoline] we had borrowed from the “Y”. We were riding on the city bus with a few other kids when one of them offered Mike a challenge. He said, “Sexton, I’ll bet you a dollar you don’t have the nerve to go to the main floor of Rike’s Department Store [the largest store in Dayton] and do a front flip off the trampolette.” Mike immediately laughed and said, “You’ve got a bet.” [Life’s a gamble, but this was a sure thing.] Our whole group followed Mike into the department store as he set up the trampolette. He cleared everyone back, then took off running to do a high, front somersault off the trampolette. There was a huge crowd shopping that day and they broke into applause. So, Mike did it again. Then we all joined in and started doing our tricks with Mike.

A bigger crowd gathered and the applause got louder. All of a sudden a store employee showed up and said, “What the hell do you kids think you’re doing?” Mike, who has always had a quick mind as well as a quick wit, immediately spoke up: “We were hired to do a show today for the sporting goods department. They asked us to do two shows today because they have a sale going on this weekend. I’m surprised you haven’t heard about it.” The employee replied, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know that. Well, you’re all doing a great job… carry on.” With that, we did a few more tricks for the delighted audience, scooped up our trampolette, and went on our way. It was another fun time, back in the day!

We were always doing somersaults somewhere. One way Tom and I earned money was when we were in a restaurant with Danny and he would give us 50 cents each to do a back flip off the table. He loved watching us do that and we loved getting his money!

Flipping Our Way Through College

Our high school gymnastic team won every meet (by a wide margin) our senior year. In our high school’s state championship meet, my brother Tom won three event gold medals plus the Best All-Around Award. Every college in the country with a gymnastics team was trying to recruit him. Most wanted me as a throw-in. We took numerous recruiting trips, and every school offered Tom a full scholarship and me a half scholarship – with the exception of Ohio State, which, I’m sure in order to lure Tom, offered both of us a full ride.

Tom didn’t want to go to Ohio State, though, as they weren’t too good in gymnastics at that time. (They have since become one of the top programs in the country.) He wanted to go to a school that was in the hunt annually to win the NCAA title. He decided to go to Oklahoma (a new program at the time). I went to Ohio State because that’s the only school that offered me a full scholarship (four-year tuition, room and board, books, laundry money, the works).

I remember calling the Ohio State coach, Joe Hewlett. I said, “Coach, I’m sorry that Tom decided to go to Oklahoma, but you offered me a full scholarship, too. Do I still get it?” And he said, “Yes. I offered you one and you get it if you want it.” Yes! I got a full scholarship to Ohio State because of my brother – and he didn’t even go there. As close as Tom and I have always been, I went to a separate college (Ohio State) since it was the only way I could get a full scholarship as well.

Tom had a great career at Oklahoma. He became the first All-American gymnast ever at Oklahoma. I won the high score award every year at Ohio State and the Most Valuable Gymnast award in my senior year. College worked out well for both of us. One thing is for sure – I will always love the Buckeyes!

As for college experiences, one of the greatest lessons ever for me came the first day I walked on to the Ohio State campus. After unloading my stuff in my dorm room at Park Hall, I went downstairs to the rec room. As I was walking around and looking at the ping-pong tables, a guy came up to me and said, “Do you play ping-pong?”

I said, “Yes, I play ping-pong” and he continued, “There’s a guy who’s supposed to be real good and he’s looking for a game tonight at 7 pm. Would you play him?” I said, “Sure.” (FYI, I thought I was a great ping-pong player. I never lost at the “Y” and was my high school’s intra-mural ping-pong champion.)

I went down to the rec room just before 7 pm and, to my surprise, the place was packed. The guy I met earlier in the day then blurted out, “There’s the guy who’s gonna play him.” All eyes turned to me.

A guy in shorts carrying a gym bag walked over to me and said “Hi”. I said “Hello” and he unzipped his gym bag and in it I saw about 20 ping-pong paddles. I thought, Hmmm. I could be in trouble here. He pulled one out where the face of the paddle was smaller than the handle. (Take your thumb and forefinger and form a circle with them and then open it about a half an inch. That’s how big the face of his paddle was!) I walked over to the wall and got my paddle off the rack.

Perhaps sensing my embarrassment, he said, “You don’t mind if I warm up with this paddle, do you?” I said, “No, I don’t mind.” Within 20 seconds of volleying, I could see I was in big trouble. The crowd knew it, too, as I heard their murmuring. He didn’t change paddles after warm-ups and beat me 21–4 and 21–6 – with a miniature paddle that you could hardly see the face on! I was so embarrassed. The funny thing is, I thought I was so good at ping-pong. And just like that, ‘bam’, I got a real wake-up call. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I discovered, “You’re not in Kansas any more.”

I think I learned more in that rec room on my first day on campus than in my next four years at college. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten – when you think you’re good at something, there’s always someone else who’s better – and in this case, a lot better. It turns out this kid was the third ranked table tennis player in the US and was on a tennis scholarship to Ohio State. He played the world champion from China at halftime of one of the basketball games – and almost beat him!

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