By Christopher Cudworth
I’ve had a long athletic career thanks to a family of four brothers who all played sports. The eldest was a driven player of soccer, basketball, baseball and track and field. In the 1960s as a freshman in high school he ran a 4:40 mile. You still don’t see many young track stars going that fast at 14 years old.
My next eldest brother has had the more artful career in sports. He was a masterful goalie in soccer back east in Pennsylvania, played basketball and baseball and actually wound up running cross country and track at the little school in the corn where our family moved going into his senior year in high school. That sucked because he was poised to star on the teams back east and starting over at a new school is never easy. They didn’t even have soccer or baseball because the athletic director wanted his track teams to excel. Talk about harsh fate.
My youngest brother grew to be bigger than all of us. At 6’6″ with a vertical leap of 36″ he helped lead a talented basketball team to Super Sectionals his junior year. But not before he was urged to go out for cross country as a freshman. That was painful as he was growing so fast his knees could not take all that running. Still it built character and he earned All State Honorable Mention as a basketball player and went on to a scholarship at a Division I school.
My sports career began and baseball with a team sponsored by a union back in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We won the prestigious Lancaster New Era tournament and I pitched four innings to close out a win in the second game.
When we moved out to Illinois there was still summer baseball to be played but no soccer in fall or baseball in spring at the high school. And despite winning the local Punt Pass and Kick and advancing to regionals with a good arm for football and a decent kicking leg, my father wisely discouraged me from enrolling in football. He likely saved my life.
Growing up with such a sports-oriented family was fun. We spent entire afternoons playing wiffleball and Glo-Ball as we adopted a brand of rubbery plastic balls to play home run derby. Those Glo-Balls were even used in massive neighborhood pickup games with 18 players, gloves and everything.
The Cudworth boys drove a lot of games of all types. Constantly on the run, we’d round up kids to play soccer or baseball or basketball. There was a sweet hoops court just two yards away at the home of a friend where we’d play for hours at a time. The guy who lived there was an average basketball player, but he went on to run a 4:04 mile for Penn State. I can recall his training runs in the company of a barking hound dog. They’d take off across the golf course for 5-10 miles with the dog barking the whole way. You could hear the noise of that dog off in the woods a mile away.
As a family we were fiercely competitive all the time. Many of our games resulted in angry fights over who won, but that was part of the process of forging the competitive resolve necessary to play team sports in the world at large.
When we couldn’t get outdoors we played indoor sports such as table tennis for hours at a time. This was not sandpaper paddles or cheesy implements. We bought good paddles and Halex table tennis balls and really played. My brothers won city and school table tennis tournaments and I wound up in the finals at Luther College against an athlete who became a Hall of Famer in tennis.
Our father was a latent athlete who never got to play many sports growing up. His mother died from complications related to breast cancer when he was seven years old and his aunts and uncle thought it better for him to work on the farm than to mess around with all that sports stuff. It was the Depression and the 1930s anyway.
So he had an urgent and somewhat vicarious interest in our success. Often he’d stand on the sidelines watching his anxious sons on the pitching mound and holler “Stay Loose!” which was well-intended but often had the precise opposite effect. He could be a hard man sometimes, prone to angry outbursts when we failed him in some perceived way. So relaxing at his command was not exactly instinctual.
Much of our sporting interest I am now convinced was our way of pulsing away the energy of our father’s forceful personality. It was our escape in some ways to a world where play meant everything. The fact of the matter is that not everything in sports transfers to the sober world of business and survival. There is a certain fantasy to sports. My brothers and I all prioritized and planned our respective careers around the idea that sports might somehow advance our prospects in the world. It did earn my younger brother a full college education and I attended a school a bit better than my average grades in high school thanks to my running. So it wasn’t all fantasy.
On the other end of the spectrum we were all interested in the arts as well. My eldest brother taught English for 30 years. My next eldest brother majored in art and created amazing sculptures out of paper that looked like metal. They sold for thousands of dollars. I majored in Art and English and have sold 1500 paintings and published more than 5000 articles in print and online. My youngest brother is a painter and outdoorsman.
In fact we all love nature. But we were also competitive in our birdwatching. With one set of binoculars we’d head out together on May mornings to count more than 20 species of warblers in the trees. Then we’d sneak away with binoculars again the next few mornings to pick up species not seen on our group venture. That’s how we rolled. Everything was a competition.
So by the time I was a freshman entering high school the idea of competing in cross country was not a daunting prospect. I ran varsity that first year and led the team in points as a sophomore. Then we moved to a nearby town and I led that team to its first ever District championship. The coach once said “He’s not afraid to compete with anyone.” But that was not precisely true.
I wasn’t a supreme talent. When a newspaper called me a “junior sensation” because I’d won a string of meets the timing could not have been worse. The very next meet was a race against a runner from a nearby town who was a full minute faster than me at three miles. We stood together on the line and he snarled, “Junior sensation my ass…” and he proceeded to bury me on the course.
But I was used to that kind of treatment because of my brothers, who put me in my place many times before that. I loved to compete but also respected that sooner or later you’ll run into someone stronger and faster than you. Even the most indomitable athletes meet their match sooner or later.
So the pecking order has its purpose. It’s been said that our siblings raise us more than our parents. That certainly held true to a great extent with me and my brothers.
What I really miss being largely far apart from them is the humor we shared about all of that. Our careers in sports brought many good memories and also a number of laughs. In one Saturday pickup game at a local gym one of my brothers was on the same team. We were fit and running the court pretty well when a turning point came in the game. I knew it was important to win a possession to hold the court and went sprinting for a loose ball. Tapping it with one hand away from an opponent, I desperately tried to keep from falling. That meant running a huge circle with my body angled at 30 degrees while still running. Coming out of the curve I headed up court to get the ball on a pass and make a layup. My brother stood laughing and branded that play ‘Doing the Dolphin.’
It’s been truly rare that we all got to play basketball together. Our ages and locations have simply been too spread out to manage all that. But one afternoon we were shooting around a school court when some younger men rolled up with a ball and challenged us. “Want to play for the court?” they asked. There was more than a hint of assumption they would kick our ass.
And you just don’t do that to the Cudworth boys. We can all shoot the eyes out of the basket and our youngest brother was still smashing home towering dunks at the time. We looked old by some standards but we played 10 or 15 years younger. And we buried those punks. Totally. By the time it was 9-1 and we were playing to 15 one of them finally muttered. “Holy crap.”
O Brothers, Where Art Thou? The years have piled on like a game of football in the back yard when someone grabs the ball and everyone sets loose to tackle them. Everything’s a jumble when you go down. Arms and legs and hot breath and people laughing at how massively crunched you really got with that last tackle. Then you all disassemble and someone else takes the ball and starts running.
We all still keep active. My eldest brother cycles in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania. My next eldest still plays table tennis and once in a while executes a few fencing moves because he became pretty good at that for a while. My younger brother played basketball until his ankles told him to stop. All that height and jumping ability takes a toll over the years. But none of us has turned out to be a slob.
That’s life in a nutshell. And it proves that sports really do matter. It’s not just a fantasy after all. The seams. The throws. The perfect arc of a Sunday golf shot or a spinning basketball softly passing through the net. And the call of a brother or father saying, “Wanna play catch?”
I recall a day when my oldest brother and I were walking through a local woods about a mile from our house. We’d been birdwatching and needed to get home for dinner so we headed out across a stubble corn field as a shortcut. He turned to me and asked, “Are you in shape?”
I’d just finished the first season of college cross country and was home for break so I replied, “Yeah, I think I’m still in shape.”
“Then let’s race,” he told me.
We took off through the corn. Sharp stalks tore at my shins as my brother pulled ahead. He was 6′ 3″ and strong, but he sure could run. And run he did. I was left gasping and mincing through the corn as he triumphantly sprinted ahead. It was a lesson to be learned. Even when you think you’re something special, maybe you’re not.
That’s the tarsnake of it all, and the ultimate lesson learned from a lifetime of sports in a family of athletes. Even when you think you’re great, you’re gonna get your ass kicked now and then.