The Purdue Boilermakers just won a football bowl game.
I try not to think about the fact that he took me to my first football game. Northwestern. It’s the first Purdue memory I have, but this isn’t supposed to be a sports story.
It’s been less than a week.
William R. Naylor was an apprentice and a student. He was a mechanic. He became a soldier in Korea. After, he became a husband. Then a student again with the GI bill.
Then a teacher.
A master’s student taking night classes while working during the day.
He was a professor at Purdue during the semester and an electrician in the summer. A Photographer. A camper. A road-trip enthusiast. A Boilermaker.
When he retired from Purdue, it was as a Professor Emeritus in the Electrical Engineering Technology department.
He was a grandfather. My grandfather.
His face would get so livid talking about the women’s basketball team. He didn’t understand what Coach Versyp was doing. He didn’t like Morgan Burke. He was a member of the John Purdue Club for as long as I can remember. My Grandmother and him always had season tickets to the women’s games. Good seats. They’re all good seats, I imagine.
And then he didn’t. He was too frustrated. Getting to the games and going up and down the steps became too much.
The first night in Korea, my grandfather was put on guard duty. As he patrolled the edge of camp, a Korean approached him. My grandfather told the man to not move any further. The man just smiled and kept walking. My grandfather raised his scope. The smile vanished. The man’s steps stopped. He got the point
My grandfather never had to pull the trigger, but it was enough to know that kind of work wasn’t for him. The next day, he went up to the man in charge of all the trucks moving in and out of camp and asked him if he needed a mechanic. The guy said no, but he needed a driver.
My grandfather told him he could drive anything the guy had. So, he did.
My grandfather was always a stern man. His proudest teaching accomplishment was that he’d never had a kid injure himself in a class. He taught middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students. He taught for over forty years. Not a single kid slipped out from under his measured thumb for one moment of carelessness. He wouldn’t allow it.
I was in my early 20’s then and my life was starting to make sense again. Standing in my mother’s hallway. My grandparents were about to leave. My mother had walked out the door first. He paused and looked back at me.
“It’s good to see you happy, Casey.”
He says this to a kid who felt alone in the world, as if no one saw him. I had felt invisible and cliché and misunderstood by the world around me. All I wanted was to be understood. That day, I was feeling happy – I don’t remember why. It wasn’t so much that he saw that I was happy. It was that by recognizing this, he recognized the other part. The anger. The confusion. The sadness.
He smiled and looked at me in a way that to this day still gives me chills. Those careful eyes, who watched countless kids, had seen all of my struggles. They saw me. When he called to ask me for help with his computer or a limb in the yard or a project with the garden, it wasn’t because he needed my help. It’s because he wanted to make sure I was okay.
No one ever got hurt under his watch.
My grandfather made it through Korea without a drink or smoke. Instead, he’d take the U.S. provided smokes and alcohol down to another outfit that had more supplies. He’d trade the cigarettes and beer for parts they needed for his trucks.
He could fix anything.
This isn’t a sports story.
But I remember playing catch with him in the front yard. It was incredible. He had this ridiculous looking glove. Instead of a web to catch the ball, he had what appeared to be five over-cooked twinkies tied together with leather.
He was left-handed.
The only time we bowled he beat me. He refused a rematch.
In those moments, it never felt like I was missing a father.
He could fix anything.
The man survived a war, but at the end, he couldn’t get through a conversation. Alzheimer’s had rooted itself in him. Dementia wiped out the rest. He was the smartest person I had ever known. A pillar of our family. The foundation. Everything he did was for his family.
Now he’s dead.
I watched Purdue win a meaningless bowl game from a bar last night. My grandfather made it through a war without a drink, I can’t make it through a quarter. But in my search for a narrative to this story, I think that’s kind of the point. Sports, particularly college sports, is more than competition. Purdue is in my blood. Rooting for my players to run faster and score more points is me also rooting for the next generation of astronauts to make it to the moon. It’s me wanting the best for my town, my city, my college, and all the intricate tangles that get tied up together. Rooting for a win is me rooting for something to make my grandmother smile at a time when her smiles are precious jewels.
But I can’t get there.
What I’m really thinking about is the last moment I saw recognition on my grandfather’s face.
I held my sister’s four-year old son in my arms. His tiny fingers curled around a Transformers toy. My grandfather looked up at Odyn as we told him to tell Great-Grandpa goodbye.
Then, unprompted, “I love you, Great-Grandpa.”
This isn’t a sports story.