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I Did It My Way
A Remarkable Journey to the Hall of Fame
By Bud Grant, Jim Bruton
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2013 Bud Grant and Jim Bruton
All rights reserved.
I almost missed out on coaching the Minnesota Vikings to four Super Bowls. I may never have played sports at the University of Minnesota, been a member of the Minneapolis Lakers or the Philadelphia Eagles, or played and coached with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. I'm only here because of a change of luck, according to my dad.
"Kid," he told me one day, "your mother and I were planning to get married and we had saved $200 for the wedding. I took the money and went gambling with it and lost all but five dollars. Fortunately for you, my luck changed. Had it gone the other way, you might not be here!" Over the years, I have thought about that more than once.
I was born in Superior, Wisconsin, which sits at the western edge of Lake Superior in the northwestern part of the state. Today, the city population is approximately 27,000, about 10,000 less than when I lived there as a boy.
Superior is bordered by two bays — Saint Louis Bay and Superior Bay — and sits within the two rivers — the Nemadji and the Saint Louis. Its neighboring city across the bay is Duluth, Minnesota. The two cities form what is called the Twin Ports and share a harbor, one of the most important on all of the Great Lakes.
Growing up in Superior, our home was down in the low end of the city. Duluth was up above us to the northwest and, of course, in Minnesota. I used to look up the hill at the city of Duluth, thinking, That's where the rich people live. We were what I called the "grubby people" of the area; they were the more fortunate. They lived above us, up there on the hill in Duluth.
My ancestors came from Scotland. There is still a Grant clan there. My mother was a Kielley, which is Irish, so basically I am Scotch Irish, although my mother's mother was a Swede, so there is some Swedish blood in there, too.
The name Grant goes back to the Spanish Armada, and somewhere in there is a little Spanish, too. We didn't keep any records to verify the claims, but I did find out some of our family came from Scotland across Nova Scotia in through Canada. Some journeyed through Wisconsin at Sioux Saint Marie, Ontario.
My dad was born and raised on an Indian reservation in northern Wisconsin called Odanah, which raises the question of whether I have any Indian blood in me. My uncle always called me a "blue-eyed Indian." My heritage never has been very clear to me, but I do remember that my family always had a lot of Indian friends, mostly Dad's. They came to our house from Odanah on a bus or train and visited us often in Superior.
When we lived on 6th Street, I remember they would come and sit on the back steps. My mother would open the door in the morning, and there they were. They never knocked on the door; they just sat there. Sometimes it would scare my mother half to death.
I was never quite sure exactly why they came, but they would always stay to say hello to Dad. To my mind, it seemed as if they came all that distance to get one of two things: either an egg sandwich or a quarter. If my dad was home, they would visit with him, but if he wasn't home, they would be gone — eggs or a quarter, and then off they went. I can remember them sitting on those steps just as clear as if it were this morning.
It's funny how the memory works. Some things of the past just vanish and are lost forever, and others never fade. The geography of Superior remains instilled in my memory after all these years. There was a 1st Street, a 2nd Street, and a 3rd Street, and as Superior grew, the streets grew. Third Street was the main route from the lake, and that's where the town of Superior really began. Beyond that, toward the water, were the wharfs on 1st and 2nd Streets. In order to move uptown, you had to move up in the street numbers, from 1st to 2nd to 3rd and so on.
I was too young to now remember when my family lived on 3rd Street, but I know where our house was located because I used to run that part of town as a kid. We moved to 6th Street when I was in the first grade. We were more fortunate than many of the other people in town because of my dad's job — he was a fireman. It was during the Depression, and although he never made a lot of money, it was enough for us to live on. He worked hard and had a good reputation around town. I really looked up to him.
My dad was about 5'10", athletic, and took pride in his physical appearance. He used to throw out his chest and take deep breaths. "Do this. It's good for you," he would say. He had an easy way about him that everyone liked. He was also very good at remembering people's names and knew everyone in town. He had a real presence about him and was well liked. When my dad walked into a room, everyone noticed. There was just something about him that stood out. He had a wonderful personality.
When he got to be captain at the fire department he got a uniform, and he was very proud of it because he came from nothing. He liked the status that the uniform carried, and he wore it everywhere. He would go to games, and of course he always got in free with that uniform.
One of the scariest moments of my life was watching my dad get carried out of a building during a fire. It was one of the biggest fires ever to occur in town, at the Hotel Superior in the center of town. It was a spectacular fire that ended up burning the hotel to the ground. The fire started in the afternoon, and I remember spending the entire night on the roof of the building across the street watching it burn. I never will forget it; it was one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen.
It was difficult for the firefighters to get any water to the building because the smoke was so horrific. Dad led the team of firemen who went into the building and was overcome with smoke inhalation. He was very fortunate to come around quickly and turned out to be all right. In fact, he eventually returned to fight the fire.
The whole episode was horrible for me to watch. I will never forget seeing my dad carried out of that building, the fire blazing around him. I cannot begin to express what I was feeling at the time. To see him in danger was devastating.
My father was my hero, but personality-wise, I took more after my mother. She had two brothers about my size, but she was only about 5'5" or so. She came from a poor family and had a very difficult life growing up. Sometimes when she talked about her past, she would cry because things had been so tough for her. But she never complained. She was a very good mother, and I knew she always worried about me. She always wanted the best for me, and I never doubted her love.
I didn't date any girls in high school, and I suspect my mother thought I might be gay. I mean, I never dated. I never brought any girls home and never went out. I didn't have a car and spent most of my time playing sports, in the woods, or at the pool hall with my friends. Those were my priorities at the time. There were dances, but I never learned how to dance. My mother was always concerned about that. "Aren't you going to the dance?" she would ask. "Don't you want to see any of the girls? What about the mixer, aren't you going? Why not?" This concerned her, but it was never a concern to me. I had other things to do.
Once a girl gave me a scarf as a Christmas gift. It was about 10 days before Christmas, and obviously the girl wanted a present in return. "What are you going to get her?" my mother asked. I can still hear the question. "I'm not going to get her anything," I told her. "What do you mean? That's a nice scarf, and you have to get her something," she told me. I said, "Mom, if I get her a present, she will think we are going together or something like that. So because I'm not interested, I'm not going to do it."
Well, my mother went out and bought a present for the girl from me. It's what mothers do, and she was a good mother.
I had two brothers, Jim and Jack, both of them quite a bit younger than me. When I was in high school, they were in grade school. Jim liked the outdoors but was not very athletic. Jack was much younger, so we didn't spend much time together as children.
When our family was able to move up from 3rd Street to 6th Street, that put us about six blocks from the lake. It was a little better area of town. There were railroad tracks near our house that went down to the lake, and I spent a lot of time playing on and around them. The track beds were filled with crushed rocks. I loved to throw rocks and I threw them at everything. I threw at telephone poles, I threw at cans, I threw at bottles in the water, I threw at trees and signs. I bet I spent half of my youth throwing rocks. I walked up and down those tracks thousands of times throwing rocks at anything and everything I could.
As I think back, it is likely the reason I could seemingly throw a baseball forever and never get a sore arm. I built my arm up as a kid throwing rocks. I would carry certain ones, good throwing rocks, in my pocket, so I was always prepared. I made games out of it. I used to toss a can out on a pond nearby and throw and throw at that can, and see how many times I could hit it. Or maybe I would be throwing at a telephone pole and I wouldn't go home until I had hit that pole 10 times in a row. No supper for me until I had hit it 10 times. I threw for accuracy but also for fun. There's no doubt it was a major factor in my later success as a pitcher.
Moving to 6th Street was a big move up in status for our family. Although I suppose we were never really considered poor, the fact was that we really didn't have anything much to speak of. Then again, everybody else we knew was that way too. It seemed that no one really had any of the extras, but we all got along. We had good friends and good neighbors.
As I got older, the Great Depression came — everyone was poor then. When my dad got paid, he didn't get money or a check to cash; he got paid in what was called "script." The city didn't have any money back then, so he and others would take the script, which was basically an IOU, and some of the stores in town would let you buy what you needed with the script. Eventually, the city would come up with the money for my dad and he would pay his bill. The problem was, a lot of the stores didn't take script, so that often made things difficult. But we got by, as did most of the people we knew.
Even though there was always food on the table, I vividly recall a hungry feeling. Maybe it was just being an adolescent, but I was always looking around for extra food. I'd look for anything that might have been left over from meals, things like that. If I could find something, I would eat it. Generally, though, there was never anything left over, so most of my years growing up, I was hungry. My stomach always felt empty.
I had a lot of great experiences growing up, for a kid who never had much to speak of. But then again, I never knew anyone who had much of anything back then. I can recall at the beginning of each week my mother counted out the food on the table. She would have one, two, three, four potatoes and all the carrots and other food all laid out, everything we would eat for the week. When it was gone it was gone. We always ate carefully and never had many leftovers.
She would go to the store and buy just enough to get by. We would get one piece of corn and half of this and half of this and half that. And we rarely had any meat. Later on, at training tables, I got all the meat I could ever want. I rarely eat meat anymore for that reason.
I was always happy, but there were certainly things I just did without. Money never seemed to be a major problem, and it was not something I dwelled upon, but the fact was I never had any. I would try to earn money whenever I got the opportunity, because I never got any money from my parents. Whenever I went anywhere I would walk in the street rather than on the sidewalk because I had a better chance of finding some change.
There was a little corner store in town near where we lived, and I would go there with, if I was lucky, a nickel to spend. I must have been about seven at the time, and I recall being excited about having that nickel. But I would never spend all of it. I would go to the store and spend a long time figuring out how to part with three cents. I always wanted to come home with two pennies' change in my pocket. I remember saving the money even more vividly than the joy of getting that candy.
Later on, I remember it was a big deal when a Bridgeman's Ice Cream Parlor was built in Superior. I love ice cream. After basketball practice I would walk by Bridgeman's and stop for ice cream. Then again, it wasn't just for ice cream; the girls who worked there were from my high school. I would get a malted milk worth a quarter for a nickel and drink that malted milk while I walked home. That was a big thing. I can remember going into the store and first looking around all the seats and on the floor for any loose change.
My dad never had any money either, so it was a huge deal to me whenever I had anything to spend. I guess that's why I was so careful with it: I never knew when I was going to have any money again. I never had anything like an allowance. Any money I had I earned from doing something for someone. On rare occasions, my grandfather would give me a small amount of money. Once in a while, he might give me a quarter, which was huge for me.
Looking back on my childhood, it's hard to determine for sure whether those things I experienced as a kid impacted my life, but I think they did. For example, growing up we lived in very small two-bedroom houses, and we never had enough space. I grew up sleeping on a couch in the main room of the house all through high school. When I got married, it was very important to me that each of my kids had their own room, because I never had one of my own.
As a kid, we had to make our own entertainment. I remember getting a BB gun when I was around 10 and spending a tremendous amount of time sneaking up on squirrels, pigeons, and rabbits. I would crawl through the weeds, hunting with my gun. A fellow that lived behind us had a chicken coop, so there were a lot of sparrows around all the time, and I would shoot sparrows. Also nearby was a neighbor with a two-story barn that housed pigeons. Sometimes I would sit there for hours waiting for those pigeons.
I also made slingshots. Someone told me once that the best slingshots were made from willow branches. So every time I walked by a willow I would look for the perfect slingshot branch. If I found one, I would make sure to cut it out. With the branch in hand, I would then find an old inner tube from a tire and cut the rubber to attach to it. And I have to say, even to this day, if I see an old shoe, I look at the tongue and think, Now that would be a great pouch for a slingshot.
All those rocks I used to keep in my back pocket were perfect ammunition for my slingshot. I got pretty good at using it. Then, when I got the gun, I thought I was a big-game hunter. I went out hunting every chance I could.
That was basically my recreation, except for baseball.
We kids did play a lot of neighborhood baseball. It was the only sport where we could find a place to play. There were no basketball courts in town, and football was not as popular as it is today, so we played baseball. A lot of it was just playing catch, though at times we would play "pepper" — hitting the ball back and forth to one another — if we could find some sort of backstop to keep the ball in play.
One day, when we were playing ball in the streets, the ball rolled into a storm sewer. We were pretty sure we could get it out by raising this huge manhole cover. Well, the cover fell on my finger. I can't begin to explain how much it hurt. My finger was squashed under that cover, and we couldn't lift it again. So I sat there with my finger mangled and hollered at my friend to go get someone to help. It hurt like crazy. I didn't know if it was smashed or broken or what. Luckily, a car came by and a man stopped and lifted the cover.
There was a hospital nearby and the man took me there and the doctors put a little tape on it. They didn't even take an X-ray. They just told me it was likely broken, so they put a couple of Popsicle sticks on my finger to splint it, and that was it. I was shocked. It hurt so bad I thought they would have to cut it off. But I survived. It was a part of being a kid, I guess.
Excerpted from I Did It My Way by Bud Grant, Jim Bruton. Copyright © 2013 Bud Grant and Jim Bruton. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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