Recently college and professional football player Jack Zilly passed away. His passing brought to mind a tale that involved 3 of the most honored sportscasters of the 20th century, each a member of the Sportscasters Hall of Fame. Zilly though not a legend of sport had a part in inspiring one most famous lines in the history of sports.
When I heard this story some years ago, I thought the names seemed so unusual that they might have been made up, but with the passing of Mr. Zilly, I see that they were perfectly true. The moment in question occurred in a 1946 football game played by Notre Dame. That year Notre Dame would go on to win a national championship. Two of their best players were wide receiver Zilly and college football Hall of Fame halfback, Emil “Red” Sitko. Both men were heroic figures, not for their football deeds, but as each had returned from service in WWII to play college football. Zilly had interupted his college career, and Sitko had postponed his.
This particular game was being broadcast to the public by another Hall of Famer, sportscaster Bill Stern. Stern was a wonderful talent, but made some very famous mistakes along the way. In this game he relayed as to how Zilly had taken the ball and made a great 80 yard run slashing through opposing would be tacklers, only to lateral the ball to Emil Sitko close to the goal line, with Emil then scoring the touchdown. Zilly’s extraordinary generosity seemed almost beyond comprehension, and it was.
In this time before television, the game was presented to the public on radio. Stern described Zilly’s incredible run in glorious terms, only to agonizingly realize, he had misidentified the runner. Suddenly as the runner crossed the five yard line, Stern yelled out, “Zilly’s just thrown a lateral to Sitko!” Without the benefit of television viewers, it was some time before Stern’s subterfuge was uncovered. But, there’s more.
The next year in 1947 another very fine sportscaster made a much more embarrassing, and apparent error. The great Clem McCarthy called the wrong horse as the winner at the Preakness. Late in the race, a standing room only crowd of patrons occupying a platform had partially obscured McCarthy’s view, as two horses ridden by jockeys wearing similar silks exchanged positions in the stretch. Despite his own error of the year before, Stern kidded McCarthy for years about that, a situation that caused another very talented member of the profession, Ted Husing, to harbor some animosity toward Stern. In 1949 when Stern and Husing were both working for the same radio station, and Stern had been given the assignment of calling races from Belmont Park, Stern asked Husing, who was more experienced in calling horse races, if he had any advice. Husing tersely replied, “I can’t help you, Bill. There’s no way to lateral a horse.”
Mr. Zilly also was involved in another somewhat unique event, being drafted into the NFL by a team in one city, but beginning his career in another, though he never actually left his first team. The situation reminds me in a way of the story of my grandfather Reuben. He told me that he was born in Austria and later emigrated to this country from Poland. When I asked him when he moved to Poland, he told me, “Oh, I never moved, the countries just moved around me. I lived in the same town all of my life before coming to America.” Well in the case of Zilly, he was drafted by the Cleveland Rams, but by the time he would report for duty the team had moved two thousand miles west and settled in L. A., though that too was not very permanent.