For some, catching up with a childhood hero means getting backstage to meet your favorite rock star. Or meeting the person whose swing you tried to emulate when you stepped up to the plate in little league. For my father, it was the batting stance of Stan Musial that drew him to “the Man.”
Personally, I would have enjoyed chatting with Dolphins quarterback David Woodley, asking him about the Super Bowl he lost to the Redskins. Those were the days when I first started watching every Dolphins game. Unfortunately, that won’t happen in this life, as Woodley died at age 44 of kidney and liver failure.
Hanging out with A.J. Duhe at a Jim Kelly event years ago was almost as good. Duhe had the game of his life against the Jets in that AFC Championship game in the mud, circa 1982, picking off Jets quarterback Richard Todd three times in the second half. He signed several items for me that day.
My brother Dan idolized New England Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan, writing to him when he was a kid and even naming his dog after him. When we found out Grogan was coming into town for a charity golf tournament, we jumped at the opportunity. I’m always up for an autograph road trip, so we gathered up my father, a neighborhood buddy and our kids and set off for the hour-plus trip to Penn Yan, N.Y., former home of Patriots running back Tony Collins.
Collins has been one of the few guys with hometown roots that I haven’t met or captured his signature. He played for nine years for the Pats, a single game for my Fins (actually two plays: both 15-yard kick returns), and three years in the Arena Football League. He was bringing in a bunch of old NFL players to raise money “for the kids!” which we would hear a million times that night as they auctioned off jerseys, autographs and memorabilia for … the kids, specifically disadvantaged kids.
We used to head down this way twice a year for a health fair that used to bring in a former athlete to sign autographs, but that event ended years ago. We gathered some great autographs at the sparsely attended small-town free signing over the years, including Yankees great Whitey Ford and Bears character William “The Fridge” Perry. I remember the giant man limping into the gymnasium with the assistance of a cane, a broken down man in his early 40s.
The “Celebrity Social”
Once again, the autograph community had no idea about this event. I only heard about it two days prior and not much gets by me that involves autographs, even if I am a 40-year-old kid perpetually stuck at age 15.
The “Celebrity Social” event was held at the Penn Yan Moose Club, which meant two things: Locals and cheap drinks. I was not disappointed other than the fact that the headliner, Doug Flutie, would not be there until the tournament on Sunday due to family reasons. Shoot.
The last time I stood in line for Flutie, a tough autograph, it was at the height of the Flutie Flakes Buffalo Bills hype. I remember waiting hours in a home improvement store and walking out with an unsigned box of the popular cereal. Flutie signed for more than four hours that day and tried to get all the kids. He isn’t a big fan of signing autographs – he’d rather be at the Ralph playing flag football with his childhood buddies after a Bills game (which he did, much to the dismay of management). But we would have cleaned up had Flutie been there because there weren’t many fans to sour Flutie’s mood. I must have had 10 items with me that would have looked good with a Flutie signature. Oh well, not to be.
However, Grogan was there, and my brother was decked out in his authentic No. 14 jersey, finally getting the chance to meet his childhood idol. We all bucked up and bought him an authentic throwback helmet to get signed for the event. Grogan is probably one of the best signers through the mail, and as expected, his in-person signature is dead-on compared to his through-the-mail signature.
Grogan is considered one of the best running quarterbacks of all time, playing all 16 of his gritty seasons with the Patriots, many times playing through injuries. His record of 12 rushing touchdowns in one season was just broken last year by Cam Newton (who rushed for 13).
Also present was Irving Fryar, another guy who doesn’t sign through the mail and is generally regarded as a tough autograph. I needed him for my 1985 Topps set. Fryar is now a pastor of the church he founded and just earned his doctorate in Philosophy and Theology. He led the opening prayer after shouting down the Moose club regulars to show a little respect.
The Washington Redskins were represented by Reggie Branch, who was sporting his 1987 Super Bowl ring. He even took it off and let the kids try it on for size. He’s a mountain of a man and looks like he would have no problem running up the gut today. Unfortunately, I had nothing for him to sign. Branch is cousins with Tony Collins, so there was a connection to the event.
Collins’ foundation auctioned off some very nice items, and the NFL alumni signed hundreds of autographs, mostly for our table. We even took a big Talbot family picture with Grogan front and center. I wish we could have made the trek up the next morning to get some Flutie autographs. Next year, we are definitely getting a foursome together for the golf tournament.
Those wishing to drop Tony a line or donate to his foundation can find his website here: www.tonycollinsfoundation.com.