Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Fennville Legends

Last Round With Tuffy

Chris Ballard, Sports Illustrated, July 6, 2009


They say old athletes cling to their youth, but maybe it's the other way around. How else to explain the story of Rubin (Tuffy) Jordan?

You probably don't know his name, but if you're from southwest Michigan you may be familiar with his son, Richie. He's the one they still talk about in the bars and pool halls, the short kid with the flattop who could do anything with a ball. As a senior for Fennville High in 1964--65, Richie set a state record with 5,132 career rushing yards, averaged 44.4 points in basketball and hit .550 as an outfielder. He went on to play two sports for Michigan State and signed as a free agent with the Pirates before a shoulder injury ended his career. He's one of only two Michigan athletes in the National High School Sports Hall of Fame.

Richie was remarkable, but he'll be the first to tell you he couldn't compare with his dad. Barely 5'7", Tuffy could climb stairs on his palms and, as the story goes, once hopped five miles on one leg to win a nickel bet. He bowled an 824 series, and when Eddie Feigner, the famed softball pitcher of the King and his Court, came through town, Tuffy was the only player to get a hit off him He might have made a hell of a major league shortstop—that is, if he hadn't started working at 12 and then spent five years as an antiartillery gunman in Europe during World War II. For the better part of a year he lived in a foxhole. There's a reason he had the nickname.

Tuffy got restless if he wasn't working—he owned a dime store in Fennville—so he played golf and beat all comers in arm wrestling. "He made everything look easy," says Bill Barron, a high school teammate of Richie's. "He was the kind of guy who thought anything was possible."

Funny, because that's what Tuffy always told his son. "There was never anything more important to him than me," says Richie. "But he was never one to brag on me, like some fathers do. He taught me to be proud of myself but always respect the people you play against." When Richie moved to Sarasota, Fla., taking a job in education (he's now a special-ed teacher), the two men continued to talk almost every day. Once, when Tuffy didn't like the sound of Richie's voice—he was laid up with a bad fever—the father hung up the phone and caught the next flight to Florida. "When I woke up he was in my house, sitting there," says Richie. "He just stayed with me, watching Yankees games together, until I got better. That's how he was."

The thing about men like Tuffy: They aren't supposed to get old and need help, so it always comes as a surprise when they do. On May 1 doctors told 86-year-old Tuffy he had cancer of the bladder, liver and colon. There was nothing they could do; the disease was eating through him by the day. When Richie heard the news, he drove straight through to Michigan and found his father weak and disoriented. Barron suggested they should get Tuffy out for one last round of golf.

Three weeks later, under clear skies, the trio arrived at the nine-hole Winding Creek course in Holland, Mich. The 1st hole was an ordeal, to say the least. Richie had to carry his father to the tee box, an arm looped under his rib cage as if he were a wounded comrade, then stand in front of Tuffy while Barron stood in back, a pair of human safety nets. The old man drew back his driver—the one with the oversized head he was so proud to have bought on sale for $29—and looped it through the zone. The ball stayed true. It always did. "I don't know what's wrong with you guys," Tuffy was fond of saying. "You just gotta hit it on the fairway."

More than once, as they made their way around the course, Tuffy toppled backward on a swing, into the waiting arms of Barron. Eventually, Richie took to carrying him on his back, like an oversized toddler. What's more, Tuffy had forgotten his glasses and could barely see the holes. But damn if he wasn't going to finish.

Finally, two hours later, there they stood: looking up at the par-3 140-yard 9th, which has an elevated green behind two sand traps. Barron drove first, sending his shot high and to the right. Then Richie put one toward the back of the green. Finally it was Tuffy's turn. Richie tried to focus on the hole, and the cloudless sky, and the expanse of green—anything not to get emotional thinking about the moment. In two weeks' time he would carry his father into a hospice bed. Four days after that Tuffy would die in his sleep, and three days later military rifles would echo at his funeral. The following weekend, while watching David Duval's surge at the U.S. Open, Richie would excitedly pick up the phone to call Tuffy—"Dad always loved the underdog," he says—before slowly setting it down.

Tuffy drew back the club and smacked a high fade, the effort sending him off balance once again. The golfball landed above the traps and rolled, juiced on topspin, before disappearing from the men's sight. Tuffy turned to his son and smiled. "Now there's the way you hit the ball," he said.

And he sure was right about that. For when the men climbed to the peak of the green, they saw only two balls. With what turned out to be the last swing of his life, Tuffy Jordan had made a hole in one.

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