From the cold and bitter, withering shores of Cape Cod in winter, Antonio Cinelli, a Sicilian farrier, who in his spare time occasionally applied injudicious might for the local mafioso, washed up upon the shores of the New World pursuing a whole new cosmos for himself. Furthermore, he sought asylum for his part in the inadvertent murder of a soldier of a competing gang, a violent act whose eruptions, and accrued infractions, he could not elude if he remained in Italy. Training his hands to work with leather rather than iron, he settled in a room above a cobbler’s shop whose owner pitied him. Life in America suited the man, who was still in his late twenties. According to family lore, it was there he met and married his future wife, Rea Repollo, also Sicilian, that founded a family that later grew into a thriving tribe on the northern bank of the Charles River. Here, family lore grows thin, but Antonio’s descendants eventually took over the cobbler’s factory, where it remains today in their hands. Men of the Cinelli family were mustered into the army as foot soldiers for the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the two World Wars, the Korean conflict, and the Vietnam Policing Action, losing not an inconsiderable number of scions of the family seed.
Emerging from that morass of immigration and assimilation, of crazed Catholic piety and gainful employment, years of war and peace, was Antonio’s namesake, Anthony Cinelli. One day in the early fall, Tony found himself in the middle of Harvard Square, amongst fellow freshman and other undergraduates waiting for the first day of classes to begin. He was the first Cinelli ever to attend college. Being a vice-president in a footwear factory was not in his future.
Cerebral by nature, he excelled at St. Francis Academy, where he was a National Merit Scholar and class valedictorian. No less did he distinguish himself as a natural born athlete, lettering in three sports, basketball, football, and track in high school. Placing third in the one hundred yard dash at the state tournament, he was even more praised (and pined for by the high school girls for his curling dark locks and hawk-like profile) in football, playing both sides of the ball – safety on the defensive squad, and halfback on the offense side. As lithe as a startled deer, he was just as quick in cutting direction in mid-stride. He accumulated a record number of running yards for St. Francis by the time he hung up his shoulder pads. As a safety, a defensive back blessed with a Sicilian’s implacable love of violence, he was feared by his opponents for his brutal hits on anyone running the ball. None that he tackled in the open field forgot the impact.
By din of his hard work, he was accepted into Harvard College on a need-based scholarship. From the beginning of football practice, he was singled out to play first string safety on defense. Enjoying the ecstatic rush of adrenaline and testosterone of a ferocious tackle, he made a name for himself in the Ivy League football teams.
It was during one of the practice games as a senior he hit Henry Hyde Simmons, who had just caught a pass on a crossing pattern, that he dislodged the football while knocking the wind out of the boy and cracking a few ribs. As he ran back to the sideline the offensive coach came out. “What do you think you’re doing?” he growled.
“Playing football!” Tony retorted.
“Do you have any idea how much money old man Simmons donates to the college each year?”
“Fuck if I care!”
“I’m putting Kramer in.” His coach’s face was crimson as the jerseys of the other players.
Tony said nothing. Back on the half-deserted bench he sat down. Shortly after catching his breath, he stripped: first the cleated football shoes, wrapped in athletic tape, followed by his jersey and shoulder pads, his pants and even his jock strap. Completing the dance of the seven veils, to the hoot and hollering of his teammates, he ran one lap around the deserted stadium and rugby pitch. In the locker room, he took out another jock strap, gym shorts and a T-shirt, as he chose to return to the field, not to play football, but rather rugby.
Jogging over to where the rugby players waged their match, he called out to one of them, “Can anyone play?”
“Anyone who wants to bleed.” Blood dribbled down his right nostril.
“I don’t bleed that easily.”
“Oh, you will.”
It was the beginning of a passion for Tony, and it remained the only sport he played in college, except for track, where he gained laurels amongst the Ivy League squads for his not-infrequent wins in the one hundred and two hundred yard dashes at inter-league meets. Despite his love of rugby, he missed the human contact, the pure physicality of football; he loved the idea of doling out corporal punishment on the field of play.
He applied the requisite time and attention to his pre-med undergraduate studies, only to abandon them because the insipid manner that his fellow premed students pursued their studies as if intense, inchoate beings in search of a savior. He dropped out of his pre-med track at Harvard, thinking that he best go to law or business school when he graduated. Still his fellow schoolmates reminded him of callow, but arrogant, army conscripts, with no mind of their own. For the rest of the time he kept his grades up, his worst subject, ironically, being Italian, for he spoke the language of his forbearers with a Sicilian intonation.
Graduating cum laude, he was accepted into the law program at Columbia University that fall. Before law school began, he received a startling call from an NFL scout for the New York Jets. After introducing himself, the scout inquired of Tony, “how would you like to come to a tryout to play in the defensive backfield for the Jets?”
Confirming he was a scout, he said, “Can you come to New York, not this Saturday but the next, a tryout for the team. I ain’t lying, kid.” He gave him the specific time and location of the tryout. “If you don’t believe me, you can dial the following number and the front office will verify that I’m a scout for the team. Any further questions?”
Tony told him no, but like believing a professor assuring the class a certain subject was not going to be on the finals, he studied that subject first, and he called the New York Jets office. Indeed, the man was a scout and the Jets were inviting walk-on tryouts two weeks hence.
When Tony showed up at the tryout he discovered he was one of a hundred and twenty souls about his age participating in the sporting audition held in a local high school’s track and football stadium. There, anyone working for the Jets seemed to be holding a clipboard with a stopwatch tethered by a lanyard around their neck. Tony, tall at six feet and an inch, felt dwarfed by the others there to compete with him. In the first time trial, the forty yard dash, he ran the second fastest race. He proceeded through an endless set of drills, varying from tackling a vinyl dummy to jogging five miles on the asphalt track circumscribing the football pitch. After the three hour ordeal was completed, a representative of the Jets told him only that he’d be hearing form them in two weeks’ time.
He called the law school and they agreed to put his acceptance on hold while he followed the athlete’s trajectory, one that could be as brief as watching a subatomic particle in a cloud chamber.
The call came. The Jets were willing to sign him to a rookie contract. In him they saw potential as a safety. The Jets, perennial losers in the NFL, especially in pass defense, were trying to rebuild the team. By pure scale, professional football compared to the college variety was like comparing the Alps to the Himalayas – the players were bigger and faster – the hits came harder. The first game of the season the first string safety went down with a torn ACL. By the fourth game of the season, the second-sting safety took a punishing awkward hit. He was taken out for the season with a herniated disc. In came Tony, as the third string free safety. He played the rest of the season at the position, producing a solid, if not stellar year as safety, as the Jets went five and eleven.
In the offseason, while training on his bike, riding on the outskirts of the city, the black-haired, black-eyed son of Sicily he shattered his right hip when struck by a drunk driver.
His athletic career was over.
By Joseph Dylan