A few years ago, after my grandma lost her courageous battle with cancer, my grandpa moved in with my family. As you might expect, it took him a while to get accustomed to the change. He was — not surprisingly — depressed and probably a little lonely, and so most days would pass with him just sitting quietly in one of the chairs around our house.

Chris Burke

The only times in those first few weeks that he perked up would be if a sporting event came on TV. Be it the Detroit Lions or a golf tournament, my grandpa would grab a seat alongside my dad and me and take in the broadcast.

On days when the Tigers played afternoon games he would get out his handheld radio — at least for a while — and listen to Ernie Harwell while looking out the window into our front yard. I always wondered what was going through his head when he did that. I imagine he was reminiscing on days gone by, maybe envisioning those afternoons from his childhood where he’d head to downtown Detroit to watch the Tigers.

As the years have gone by — and my grandpa has moved from East Detroit to Grand Rapids to my family’s house and now, finally, into a retirement community — it simply has become harder and harder for him to indulge in the sports he seems to love so much.

His sight began to worsen, and his hearing followed close suit. But still, whenever he could — for as long as he could — he’d sit and watch whatever sport was on, volume turned up so he’d be able to at least hear the game if he couldn’t see it.

And yet some of my favorite memories of my times with him came during those summer nights after he moved in with us in Grand Rapids.

Seven o’clock would roll around, the Tigers’ games would inevitably find their way onto our TV and Grandpa would sit and watch. And even though he wouldn’t be able to see where I was in the room, he would be the first to notice if the umpire had made a bad call in the game. I’d sit 10 feet from him and have to talk loudly so he could locate me, but if a pitch grazed the outside corner, he knew it.

I still haven’t figured out how that worked.

My guess is that it worked because — much like myself — the two things that my grandpa has always been able to count on are his family and sports. And so sports have become part of his lifestyle, part of his personality.

A humble Italian man who grew up working to support his family, Grandpa doesn’t open up about much. But, every once in a while, I’ve been able to get him to share some of his sports memories.

In bits and pieces, I’ve heard him talk about watching Willie Mays play or cheering on the Lions when they were (gasp!) good enough to challenge for the NFL title year after year.

There aren’t that many people out there who remember when that was the case.

And I think some of the happiest moments he’s had are probably when he’s gotten to combine those loves of sports and family — times like when he and my grandma would go watch me play hockey at Joe Louis Arena or when he saw me make a game-winning free throw during eighth grade basketball in Grand Rapids.

I know those are the times that have meant the most to me.

Today, my grandpa — Joseph Angelosanto — turns 94.

There have been more athletic people born in the last 94 years, and it’s those people who dominate the sports pages — names like Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron and Jim Brown and so on.

But it’s the people like Grandpa that make sports what they really are.

Athletes always say that their sports are nothing without the fans.

Well, Grandpa’s one of the greatest fans I know. So, on his birthday, I’d just like to take a moment to stop cheering the sports stars that he and I both love so much and salute him.

Because you can take away a man’s sight and his hearing, and even his ability to move around on his own, but you can’t ever take the love of sports out of him.

Ninety-four great years, and here’s hoping for 94 more, Grandpa.

Maybe by that time, the Lions and Tigers will be good again.

 

Chris Burke can be reached at chrisbur@umich.edu.

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