By DON McCORMACK - firstname.lastname@example.org
The young men and, in the case of Alesha Zappitella of Conneaut, women, who will take to the mat one final time as high school wrestlers tonight at Lakeside Gymnasium were pretty much still in diapers when the Star Beacon-Mike Scully Senior Classic began.
It’s difficult to fathom that the event, named in honor of the beloved late Star Beacon sports writer, Mike Scully, will blow out the candles in celebration of its 15th birthday tonight.
I can’t really believe it’s been 15 years since Mike died from lymphoma at age 52 on Aug. 25, 1998.
The Senior Classic, the first of its kind for wrestling when it began March 19, 1999 at the since-torn-down Ball Gymnasium, remains the only newspaper-sponsored all-star match in the region and it’s been going strong ever since.
Mike championed the sport of wrestling. In truth, the sport sort of mirrored “The Skull,” the name which he became known as across Northeast Ohio. While Mike’s efforts were not nearly appreciated enough during his 12-year tenure as a sports writer here, he was truly loved by the wrestling community because like Mike, wrestling did not receive nearly the publicity — nor the crowds — as did basketball.
So Mike wrapped his arms around the sport... and the wrestlers, their families and friends and the coaches across the area embraced him in return.
For years, Mike and another longtime colleague, the late Karl Pearson, had talked about starting a wrestling all-star match to go along with our popular Star Beacon Senior Classic basketball games.
Unfortunately, it took The Skull’s passing for it to become a reality, just shy of seventh months after his death.
Tough go of it
The Skull was a big man with an even bigger heart.
He understood the plight of the downtrodden because, in truth, he was one of them.
But he was the kind of person who truly exemplified the absolute triumph of the human spirit.
If there was anyone who was thrown more than his share of tough breaks and couldn’t be blamed for not having much to laugh or even smile about, it was Mike.
Reluctantly, he shared some of the stories about his struggles as a youngster, when he battled rejection and ridicule for not being able to actually participate in the athletic activities that meant to much to him.
His parents were infirm for much of Mike’s life, but he did the best he could to provide care for them before he himself even finished high school, working two and sometimes three jobs after his school day ended.
He was mugged one late night/early morning after work on the streets of his beloved South Jersey and the injuries were so severe he literally had to learn to walk again.
When he arrived here in Northeast Ohio, first as editor of the Conneaut News-Herald, he lost sight in one eye and the other was failing fast.
The eye issues took the ability to be independent from Mike, making him reliant on the help of others to get around, even to and from work here at the Star Beacon.
Know what, though?
It was never an issue because despite his myriad of medical issues that meant transporting him from place to place extremely difficult, The Skull was never without a ride.
Everyone wanted to help the guy.
That continued for more than a decade before his health finally forced him into retirement in late 1997. However, that twist in life allowed The Skull to return home to his roots.
When it was learned cancer came calling not long after he went home, Mike never flinched, using his heart of a champion to not only fight with all the might he could muster, but to keep writing — which he did for me here at the Star Beacon until the time of his death — and to laugh... at himself.
When the awful chemotherapy treatments took all of his hair, Mike — who like most of us ink-stained wretches, wasn’t exactly a rose — to quip to me, “This is the first time I’ve ever resembled Mr. Clean!”
Mike’s dear friend, Bryant Heisinger, said The Skull was laughing and joking the last time the old pals saw each other, even with Mike stuck in a hospital bed. The fact Mike was laughing at himself to the very end came as no surprise to those of us who knew and, yes, loved, the guy.
With his eye issues not allowing him to drive a car, Mike still found a way to get behind a wheel, though it was on a golf cart. While he couldn’t see well enough to play, he like to hit the links with us just... well, just because. One time at Geneva-on-the-Lake, I was riding with him and the tee box was elevated a couple hundred feet above the green on a short par-3. After mangling my tee shot, I hopped in the passenger seat and Mike hit the gas.
It took only a few seconds before I realized I was in for the ride of my life, which I saw flash in front of me as it hit me that Mike didn’t see that the cart path went left of the tee box and down a path.
Instead, Mike drove us straight... over the cliff.
While my Irish half came blurting out — as in, “OH, (CRAPPPPPPPP)!” — Mike knew something was wrong, though he couldn’t see, and while keeping one giant paw on the wheel, he grabbed what seemed like my entire shirt and bellowed, “Hold on, Don!”
When our joyride came to an end at the bottom of the cliff, and after checking to make sure we, and our chariot, were still in one piece, we looked at each other and burst into laughter.
“If we were cats, we’d have no (flippin’) lives left, Don!” he said through a cat-that-swallowed-the-canary smile.
That’s one of probably a thousand stories about the decade-plus I spent with Mike here at the Star Beacon.
As was the case with my dear friend and colleague Karl Pearson in Kickoff ’11, Mike’s final byline appeared in our high school football edition.
Nine days after his death, on Sept. 3, 1998, Mike’s story on an underappreciated group of guys — offensive linemen — appeared in Kickoff ’98. It was an appropriate final act in a life spent caring about others more than himself.
Tonight, his brainstorm, named appropriately in his honor, turns 15.
And while I still can’t believe “The Scully Match” has been around that long already, it’s difficult for me to comprehend it’s been 15 years since his passing. Less than a month later, I lost my mother.
And, yes, I realize I haven’t been the same since, further weakened and lessened as a person with the losses of Karl in Aug. 21, 2011 and my dear friend, Joe Pete, on Jan. 26, 2012
When we lose people who play such huge parts in not only our own existences, but also the well being of our community, it seems we spend the rest of our lives trying to find a salve to heal the wounds.
Tonight at beautiful Lakeside Gymnasium, we’ll apply another dab.
Those who had the pleasure of knowing Mike Scully will never forget him. He truly was a larger-than-life character filled with character. If you’ve read this far, perhaps those who never had the pleasure have an idea what the name that goes with tonight’s celebration of sport means.
And you can bet, The Skull will be looking down tonight, with a twinkle in his now-healthy eyes and an appreciative smile on his face.
McCormack is the sports editor of the Star Beacon. Reach him at email@example.com.