Watching the Titans with grandpa, 96

By Gannon Pacioni / VN News Editor 

His heavy shuffle grows louder as he walks down the hall toward the kitchen.

His slippers slide on the smooth wood floor, sounding like sand on wet feet on a summer day.

As he turns the hallway corner, his 5’4” frame is reflected along the floor.

You see his hands shake side to side, fighting the tremors of his Parkinson’s.

Approaching the kitchen, his shadow starts to disappear from head to toe.

Out of the dark, like a single spotlight at sea in the midst of a dense fog, his pearl-white hair, combed perfectly to the right side, becomes visible.

He watches each step carefully, and you can see his soft, aged skin on the top of his head. It holds the natural light from the hallway window.

He looks up as if a blindfold has been removed.

“Gannon, my boy, what the hell do we have to eat around here?” he asks.

This is my time machine – my 96-year-old grandfather, Lou Pacioni – a representation of what once was and what now is.

In a world in which time travel doesn’t exist, a memory has the power to transport us. It can evolve itself into a story, which in turn can create a vivid connection between past and present.

Just so happens, we had that opportunity Saturday as we sat and shared a bag of popcorn at Oakland University’s O’Rena during the Detroit Mercy men’s basketball game.

Excited to see Antoine Davis potentially break Steph Curry’s three-point record (he would fall one short), we both stared ahead as if we were alone in the stadium.

We weren’t. Actually, we were sitting in the first row behind OU’s pep crew.

The band created an ambience that took him back 80 years to 1939 at the University of Detroit.

“I was an 18-year-old, a senior at Holy Redeemer High School on the west side,” my grandfather said. “I was being recruited to play football at the University of Detroit. I never did want to play football there because it was so close to home, but coach Chuck Beer really wanted me.”

As his story continued, his tone changed.

I knew it was only a matter of time before the word “but” would come from his lips again.

“But before I could even make my decision, I was drafted into the war.”

My grandfather doesn’t speak much of the war, so the story accelerated as he skipped forward several years – over his time in Japan with the Navy – to the fall of 1945.

“We had just gotten back from the war, and I had decided to play fall football under coach Beer,” he said.

He paused for a moment as Antoine Davis, the Titans’ young star, shot a set of free throws.

“Keep in mind, U of D was just under the top teams in the nation at the time, so we weren’t just some random football program,” he said.

As he surveyed the sea of people at O’Rena, he brought his hand to his chin, visiting a memory that could only be explained if you were there.

“You see, Gannon, we didn’t watch TV or listen to the radio. No one had jobs so all we did was play ball, all day. We got good, and everyone knew we were good, so they wanted us. But after being away at war, things weren’t the same.”

He looked down slowly then back up.

He turned and we caught each other’s eyes.

I expected the story to continue, with his usual glowing detail.

Instead, he said, “These kids can’t shoot. OU’s big men are destroying us. Maybe I need to throw back on my striped jersey at half time and throw some calls their way.”

He smiled.

I chuckled.

Life has a funny way of making you believe while you’re invested in something that it is all that exists.

Through investing everything in just one facet of life, you risk the chance for devastation through failure.

For my grandfather, I knew the story was about to change – not due of his lack of attention to detail. Rather, because of “failure” through injury.

He injured his knees playing football, and his “career” ended before it started.

But such “failure” can open a door to new beginnings.

For my grandfather, that new beginning was education. After earning several degrees, he taught and became a principal in Detroit, Flint and Pontiac.

Much of the time, he also refereed full time to make ends meet. Sometimes, three games in a day.

The loud buzzer of the scoreboard sounded, beginning halftime and bringing me back to reality from what felt to be a 15-minute daydream.

“When we used to referee the big championship games at Calihan Hall, it was important to make the right calls,” he said.

He paused.

“U of D was a powerhouse for many years, which would bring out a lot of scouts and coaches,” he said. “As a ref you were under a spotlight. Your career depended on these games, where good calls insured you more big games. I liked it because it gave me the same pressure and excellence needed in sports.”

His gentle words painted a quaint picture. I felt as if I were in a movie – the sounds of the stadium dull, the world still.

By then, Oakland had gained a 24-point lead.

“Ok, I’ve seen enough,” he said. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

He stood, and I held his jacket behind him.

He pulled his long-sleeve Detroit Mercy shirt into his palms, so it wouldn’t get lost in the transition.