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Worcester County’s Famous Athletes

by Ellen O’Connor

Bob Cousy

It is not often that people build a statue to honor a living person. Carving someone’s image out of bronze usually comes long after the subject is no longer among us. But Bob Cousy holds that unique honor, among many other honors he has accumulated throughout his stellar basketball career.

“It should have happened after I ‘d gone to that big basketball court in the sky,” he joked, talking about the monument the College of the Holy Cross unveiled in his honor in June of 2008, a seven-foot likeness that stands in front of the Hart Center. A friend of his could not make the ceremony, but Cousy arranged a trip for his friend several months later. He hid in the car as long as he could, but his friend wanted to take a picture of the two Cousys together. As luck would have it, a couple of people happened by. They looked at the statue, looked at the living Cousy, and back again several times.

“After over 50 or 60 years in the so-called public domain, you would think I would be able to just shake that off,” said Cousy, a self-described shy man who is simply not comfortable with undue attention. “But how often do you become a statue when you are still around?”

While Cousy jokes about the statue being a bit premature, he described his alma mater’s decision to honor him as “one of the most meaningful things that has happened to me. I am mostly pleased for my family ~ my dear bride of 58 years and my two daughters. ”

When he won his many championships with the Boston Celtics during the late 1950s and ’60s, his two daughters were really too young to realize the import of just what their father had been a part of, and the legacy he was creating. “This is something we can share as a family and, in a sense, that has more significance than a championship.”

Cousy and the teams he played on at Holy Cross had their share of wins, too.During Cousy’s tenure, the team won the 1947 NCAA tournament and finished second in the NIT his senior year. Of course, Cousy went on to a special fame in the NBA, joining the Boston Celtics and winning six titles, five of them in a row. In the course of his time in the NBA,

Cousy revolutionized the game with his dribbling skills, his behind-the-back, no-look passes and his shooting ~ not to mention his legendary competitive fire, which was well-chronicled in the book Killer Instinct.

“I think in terms of my professional career, the most memorable experience was the first time we won the championship,” said Cousy. “It was in my seventh season and the longer you work to reach a goal, the more satisfying it becomes when you finally achieve it.”

Cousy, originally from New York City, moved to Worcester when he played for the Celts. He enjoyed commuting home to Worcester, in part because it gave him a chance to decompress from the stress of the games. He never left.

While he retired from the NBA decades ago, he has always followed his former team, either as an announcer or a fan, and has always kept active. He can’t play tennis anymore due to a hip replacement, but he still golfs.

And, like many golfers for whom the sport is nearly an obsession, he is frequently out on the links, as he says, “Trying to put that white ball in that little hole.”

Rich Gedman

The kid who grew up in Worcester’s Green Island neighborhood, delivering newspapers, hanging out at Crompton Park in the summer, riding his bike everywhere, and playing baseball at just about every field in the city ended up playing ball in the crown jewel of baseball stadiums. The import of being a major leaguer, a Boston Red Sock, and playing at Fenway Park is not lost on Rich Gedman, a baseball and Worcester guy through and through.

Gedman, a two-time All-Star catcher who played big league ball from 1980 to 1992, was on one of the duck boats when the 2004 Red Sox finally did what 86 previous teams had heartbreakingly failed to do ~ win the World Series. It was a parade he will never forget.

“I was so happy for the team and especially for the guys on the field,” said Gedman. But it was the fans who brought it all into sharper focus for him.

“There were so many smiles on so many faces,” he said. He and other former players were jammed onto one of the many boats that slowly cut a joyous path through a city that was positively giddy with happiness. Gedman had always been fully aware that being a local kid playing for the Boston Red Sox was a dream come true, but on that day, when he saw the tens of thousands of fans cheering, clapping, smiling and shedding tears of joy, he knew what it meant for the generations of fans who had lived and died with the team since 1918.

“It dawned on me just how special it was to wear a Red Sox uniform,” said Gedman, who wore his for 11 years.

Gedman now wears the uniform of the Worcester Tornadoes, a Can-Am team that plays its games at Hanover Insurance Park at Fitton Field at Holy Cross. He has been the team’s manager for the past five years, continuing the baseball life that began when he was a kid playing Little League and running up and down the steps of his neighborhood’s three-deckers, delivering the newspaper and getting a pretty good work-out in the process.

“That’s how I got the legs for catching,” he joked.

Gedman was always willing to play catcher ~ for Little League, Babe Ruth, and Legion ball. He had the build for catcher, but it also was a way to get on the field and play. Even with his time as catcher coming up through the ranks, it was “a big, big adjustment” becoming a major league catcher, he said.

He must have adjusted OK ~ in addition to being a two-time All Star, he won Sporting News’ AL Rookie of the Year. He also played in the 1986 World Series and caught Roger Clemens ‘ 20-strike-out performance against the Seattle Mariners the same year.

Gedman looks back on his career with a sense of wonderment. He knows there are plenty of other players out there who never made it and yet he did ~ and he got to play for the hometown team.

“How the hell does this kid get to the major leagues?” he asked, pondering how a neighborhood guy from the cold Northeast who spent his summers at Crompton ended up at Fenway. “I couldn’t run, I had a good arm and I could swing the bat a little bit and I did know how to catch,” he said, doing a brief inventory of his skills.

He now spends time trying to instill in others his love for the game ~ and bigger life lessons.

He has held numerous camps and clinics for kids over the years, trying to share with them the beauty of the sport of baseball, to help them have fun with it, and to impart some perspective on winning: you can’t lose if you don’t give up.

It is a lesson his parents, particularly his father, instilled in him. His dad would ask him how he did when he returned from a game. “If we had lost 6-5 and I had gone 0-for-3 with three punch-outs, he would say, ‘That’s OK. You’ll do better next time.'”

It really isn’t about winning, according to Gedman, it’s about doing your best each time you take the field and never giving up.

Rick Silverman

Teen-aged Rick Silverman was a skinny kid with no discernible muscles, the kind of kid who had no chance at all of growing up to be a formidable competitor in bodybuilding. But that is just where little Rick Silverman ended up ~ lifting weights, packing muscle onto his lean six-foot plus frame, and competing and winning in the sport.

“I started lifting weights when I was in medical school. I was 21 years old at that point,” said Silverman, who is a plastic surgeon with offices in Brighton and Newton. Silverman completed some of his surgical training at UMass Hospital and, in 1993, received a faculty appointment to the medical school. After the UMass merger with Memorial Hospital, Silverman moved his practice east. He remains on the faculty at UMass, and is very involved with the Worcester-based C.H.A.N.G.E., which provides surgical care to the underserved population in Ecuador.

He got into lifting with some medical school classmates. They all had decided to give it a try. “They lasted two weeks and I’m still doing it,” he laughed.

Silverman had been active prior to getting bit by the weightlifting bug. He ran, swam, rowed and cross-country skied. Lifting weights helped him put on a bit of weight ~ something he has always struggled to do ~ and made him feel healthier. “I felt I was more able to do the things that I enjoyed doing. It was a multitude of things that kept me motivated [to lift].” While living here, Silverman joined the Catalina Gym in Shrewsbury. He got to know Jim Broderick and Nancy Andrews, both of whom are involved in the promotion of local, drug-free (no steroid) bodybuilding. They encouraged Silverman to compete.

At the 1996 Colonial Classic, Silverman’s first competition, he excelled. “I did better than I ever would have anticipated,” he recalled. He took third place behind two experienced and competitive body builders in the drug-free arena and he took first as best poser ~ beating Charlie Moss, who entered 30 or 40 contests a year. “I was beside myself that I had beaten him.”

A second competition that year at the Pioneer Valley Bodybuilding Championship brought a first place in the Masters division, a first in Men’s Open Tall, and the title of Overall Champion. Silverman competed again a few weeks later in the New England Championships. “I had no intention of competing, but Jimmy [Broderick] convinced me to do it.” It was not under the best of circumstances ~ Silverman was on call the night before and had been up most of the night reattaching someone’s thumb.

“I placed fifth in my class, which was respectable.” Silverman has successfully competed many times during the years, including placing third at the 2003 Mr. Universe competition.

Of course, getting ready to compete as a bodybuilder means more than just hitting the gym. It means dieting. Competitors need to reduce their body fat so that they look “cut” when the event rolls around. That means a serious reduction of carbohydrates and fat.

“You don’t want to lose more than two pounds a week,” advised Silverman, meaning that competitors should begin their diets far enough in advance of competition to lose the weight correctly.

While he has to diet for competition, when he is just working out to stay fit and strong, he needs to supplement his diet to gain weight. It is a problem he has dealt with his whole life ~ and one that many people would love to have.

Silverman, who has not competed since 2005, has remained active in the sport. He frequently judges competitions and has written numerous articles about bodybuilding, including his own competition experiences and the use and abuse of steroids in the sport. He’s the author of “Muscle over Myth,” a booklet that was put together as a “give-away” to customers and clients by SportPharma, the supplement company that sponsored him during his early years of competitive bodybuilding. And Silverman, who is referred to as “the Internet guru of bodybuilding,” was on the cutting edge of computer technology: back in 1996, when the Internet was in its infancy, he was already posting articles for public consumption.

“I was the first plastic surgeon on the Internet,” he laughed. Many of his articles appear in Bodybuilding.com.

Silverman may compete again, but the time demands are difficult to meet, particularly considering the nature of his profession.

“It can be so disruptive of your life,” he said. Yet, the skinny kid with no muscles loves what he does in the gym. “To have success in athletics has been a real positive for me.”

Coralie O’Connor

Worcester’s own Coralie O’Connor, who swam in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, never liked swimming competitively, at least at the beginning of her career.

1952 Olympics in Helsinki

“I hated it,” said O’Connor, a retired physical education teacher in the Worcester public schools. “I got so nervous competing.”

Swimming competitively was the idea of her mother, who would enter her daughter in one race or another pretty much every weekend during the racing season. Her daughter, who had an unquestionable knack in the water, kept telling her mother, “Don’t enter me. I’m not going to race.”

But her mother did and O’Connor, despite her threat, kept racing. And she kept getting better, catching the eye of those who knew how to recognize true swimming talent. She was a natural at the backstroke and that became her specialty. One of those knowledgeable people was Carrington Noel, who would sneak O’Connor into the Worcester Boys’ Club so she could train at their pool. Noel would offer her advice on her backstroke and help with her training, but, as a girl, O’Connor was not supposed to be there.

Every once in a while she got caught. She would be asked to leave and Noel, one of her mentors, more than likely “got reamed out after I left,” recalled O’Connor.

O’Connor eventually swam in races all over the country and beyond, but her first races were here in Worcester at Coes Pond, Bell Pond, and Indian Lake. Workers would place docks 50 meters apart and the swimmers would take it from there. As she started winning, she entered more state and national races, eventually qualifying for the Olympic team in 100-meter backstroke “by the skin of her teeth.”

Traveling to Finland was the first time she had been out of the country. She was 18 years old and it was, as they say, a different time. “The girls were not allowed in public without a chaperone,” O’Connor recalls. At an unscheduled stop in Ireland, the female athletes were not allowed to leave the airport as they waited for a new plane because there was no one to watch over them. “I didn’t think it was quite fair.”

Still, the Olympics were a thrill for her. She and her teammates got to sightsee a bit, to meet British royalty even, shaking hands with Prince Philip, the husband of the Queen of England who was there to cheer on the British athletes. And they got to experience summer in Finland, when there are only two hours or so of darkness.

She did not medal at the Olympics, failing to qualify for the final.

“I just never did well in the heats,” she said, explaining that her nerves sometimes got the best of her in the early rounds. She was always better in the later races.

O’Connor must have gotten over the butterflies by the time the Pan-American Games rolled around in 1955 in Mexico City. She took a silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke and a gold in the medley relay.

When she stopped swimming competitively, she coached the Worcester Swim Club for more than 30 years. Today, she does water aerobics to keep fit.

Her Olympic experience is still with her, years later.

“I was thrilled,” she said. “I can’t really describe what it meant to me.”

Central Massachusetts’ Legacy of Athletes

Central Massachusetts has produced many athletes who have had success on both the professional and amateur stages ~ so many, in fact, that it would be impossible to include all of them in this article. However, here are just a few of the many exceptional athletes who have made us proud over the years.

Howie Long, the well-known NFL commentator with the crew-cut and square jaw, was a football star at Milford High School. Long played for the Oakland Raiders, back when the Raiders were actually good and really did follow Al Davis’ mantra of “Just win, Baby.” Long was an integral part of a Raiders team that won the Super Bowl in 1984. The Somerville native was a defensive end for the Raiders. Long accumulated a multitude of sacks during his career, which began in 1981 and ended in 1993. He made the Pro Bowl eight times, was an All-Pro three times, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame ~ both the NFL’s and Milford High’s.

If you don’t remember Long as a defensive end, he is fairly ubiquitous on television. He is currently a football analyst on FOX . He has been in a multitude of commercials over the years, probably the most notable being the Radio Shack ads he did years ago with Teri Hatcher. Today, he is mostly pushing Chevy trucks. He also looks like he can still play.

On the amateur side of things, we have Richard “Butch” Johnson, a Worcester native who has competed in archery, both nationally and internationally. Johnson, who makes his home in Woodstock, CT, has been a regular at the Olympics ~ he has competed in six different games. In 1995, he helped the U.S. team win a gold medal in Atlanta, which he cites as his high-water competition mark. In the 2000 Sydney games, the U.S. team took a bronze. Johnson was also a part of the U.S. team at the Beijing, Athens, and Barcelona games.

Continuing in the amateur vein, we have another Olympic athlete who hails from this area. Alice Bridges Roche, who graduated from Uxbridge High School, learned to swim at the Whitin Community Center pool in Whitinsville. She competed in the 1936 games in Berlin, the games over which Adolf Hitler presided.

Roche, who was not expected to medal, nonetheless took home a bronze in the 100-meter backstroke. She now makes her home in Carlisle, PA.

Finally, there is Mark Fidrych, a Worcester son who made it to the major leagues and captivated a nation in the process. Fidrych was a pitcher like no other. He was tall, he had long, curly, floppy hair, he talked to himself on the mound, he rearranged the dirt on the mound when it was not to his liking, he got pumped when he got somebody out. In short, he was a unique breath of fresh air who could really bring it. He arrived in the big leagues in 1976 and he pretty much took the place by storm. In his first major league game he threw a seven inning no-hitter. He got the victory, 2-1, giving up only two hits.

Dubbed “The Bird” by one of his teammates because of his resemblance to the Sesame Street character, Fidrych went on that 1976 season to record a 2.34 ERA, to win 19 games, and to pitch 24 complete games. Needless to say, he won the AL Rookie of the Year award and finished second in the Cy Young voting. And,oh yeah, he made the All-Star team. Not bad for a rookie. It was not long before everyone who followed baseball knew about “The Bird” and wanted to watch him pitch. In a word, the kid was a sensation.

Fidrych’s time in the big leagues was far too short. He tore his rotator cuff in 1977, an injury that was not diagnosed until years later ~ after he had left the game. “The Bird” was never the same pitcher and he retired at the age of 29. The early retirement did not faze him, however. He settled quite nicely into life as just plain Fidrych, the guy with the Northborough farm.

His time here with us was also far too short. This April, he died while working under a dump truck at his home. His clothes had become entangled in the machinery of the truck, suffocating him. He was 54 and will be missed.

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