The Weight of the Shoe

November 21st 2005

I was taking Oscar for a walk a couple of murky mornings ago and was awed by him yet again. I watched that old man scurry into random bushes, eat some tree bark, chase a couple of birds and bark at any brick wall he saw. Watching that historical monument move I thought, that old dog still has it, then I thought, you know what, I’m not doing too bad myself. I spent the morning reading the sporting news from across the country and everyone was talking about Larry Johnson. Now I’m not one to put glad rags on myself but after hearing all of my colleagues suddenly talking about what a whippersnapper Larry Johnson is kind of pissed me off because I was on this trolley long ago. As I watched the Kansas City Chiefs-Dallas Texans game this past weekend and watched Larry Johnson’s effortless success I was reminded of a not so recent visit to Kansas City.

The year was 1968 and I was sitting in a hotel bar in Kansas City near Arrowhead Stadium. I was covering the Chiefs-Raiders game that day; the Chiefs handled the Raiders 24-10 but eventually would be destroyed 41-6 by that same Raider team in the playoffs. I was sitting at the bar yucking it up with Tom Road, the bartender and college football handicapping expert. I always visited Tom Road when I was in Kansas City to get a gambling report on the Big Eight. He told me the Kansas Jayhawks were going to win the Big Eight that season. I told him he was twisted. I trusted Tom Road even though we never communicated that well and he was right. I cleaned up on those floor flushers all season as they shared a piece of the Big Eight Championship with Oklahoma.

Bellied up to the bar with my scotch I began to hopelessly flirt with a woman sitting on the other side of the bar. I kept raising my eyebrows at her, comically, and every once in a while the red-haired beauty would laugh. Tom Road kept thinking I was going to say something every time I raised my eyebrows. He’d walk over and say “what,” and I’d be like “what?” Then a real big smile crossed the ladies face and I thought my alluring eyes had finally gotten through to her when a gigantic hand nearly turned my shoulder into ruins. I turned quickly; ready to take the dewdropper down at his legs but the hand just pushed me back into the bar and sat me up straight.

“No need to get excited Scoop; it’s just an old friend.”

Indeed it was an old friend, Bobby Bell, Chief linebacker and All-American for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. I told Bobby that was one hell of a game. Just then a bunch of lollygaggers came strolling in making all sorts of noise, ordering shots of whiskey. One of the fellows had a horseshoe stuck in the loop of his pants normally reserved for a hammer. I asked Tom Road who they were, Tom Road leaned in close and narrowed his eyes, I narrowed mine right back.

“Those boys are in town for the horse shoe championships.”

His eyes became serious; I stared down Tom Road, my eyes barely open.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” I asked him. He said he didn’t know, he guessed.

“You might as well leave that bottle here, Tom Road.” I says.

He slapped the bottle down and I poured a round for Bobby and I.

“You see the kid in the torn up cowboy hat, he’s the best horseshoe thrower in the world.” Bobby told me.

“Yeah, is that a sport, Bell?”

“Yep.”

I looked at the man and the baby face below his tattered cowboy hat.

“What’s that whippersnapper’s name?”

“Dan Kuchcinski. He was on Johnny Carson last Spring.”

“I’ll be damned, Carson, that calls for another round, don’t you think Bobby?”

Bobby nodded then his deep voice filled the room.

“Kuchcinski, come here a second.” Kuchcinski slid up to us and asked“Howdy?”

“I’m Bobby Bell and this is my friend Scoop Miller. So you were on Johnny Carson?”

“Yep.”

“What did you do?”

“I pitched a couple shoes at Mr. Carson’s head, dead ringers, just below his chin.”

“No kidding.”

I asked him where he was from, he says, “Erie, Pa.

I was staring at this northern cowboy’s eyes and he looked like a madman. This is when things took an unfortunate turn when Bell goaded the northern irrational cowboy.

“I’ll give you a hundred bucks to throw a shoe at Scoop’s head.” My eyes got huge and my mouth opened even wider than it already is. I looked the bizarre cowboy in the eyes and generally feared for my handsome face. Next thing I know we’re piled in the back of a pick up truck and I have no idea what’s going on. Tom Road let me take the bottle.

We show up at a horseshoe pit and I said “you’re going to risk this handsome face” Bell quickly replied “I’ll give you a hundred dollars too, Scoop.” I was on my knees faster than a referee raising his arms when the ball crosses the goal line.

Forty feet away, Kuchcinski was armed with a horseshoe pointed at my head. He told me to put my hands on the end of the stake, and then put my chin on my hands. I looked into his eyes one last time; he looked like a lunatic. Bell was laughing the entire time and I could hear those evil cackles as the shoe left Kuchcinski’s hand. I held my breath. Dead ringer.

I asked Kuchcinski what his secret was and he said,

“Scoop, you have to let the weight of the shoe work for ya.”

“Whats?”

“You have to let the weight of the shoe work for you, when it leaves your hand, the weight is what takes over, pace, weight and height.”

My first pitch broke someone’s windshield. I haven’t pitched a horseshoe since 1968 and really hadn’t thought about it until I watched Larry Johnson scurrying around and through the Texans; a bowling ball loose in a gymnasium where a world record domino set up is taking place; his big body hovering over those quick feet as he moves forward naturally; an effortless and taut scoring machine. The Kansas City coaching staff is in this secret and their letting the weight of the shoe work for them right now.

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