His only happiness in life now, in a way, considering the hissing old radiators in old cockroach hotel rooms of New England in the winter, was that I make good and justify him anyway.
—Jack Kerouac, Vanity of Dulouz
“My father wanted me to go to Boston College, because his employers…were promising him a promotion if he could persuade me to go there,” writes Jack Kerouac in his fictionalized memoir Vanity of Duluoz. “They also hinted he’d be fired if I went to any other college.”
At Boston College, scandal plagued three decades of athletic success at the end of the 20th century. As a Boston street anthropologist once quipped, “Monday through Friday, Boston College wants to be Harvard, but on weekends they want to be Alabama.”
In the 1970s, Goodfellas mafia-squealer Henry Hill orchestrated a point-shaving scheme darkening the hardwood success of the Dr. Tom Davis era, which included Elite 8 and Sweet 16 appearances. Academic malfeasance accusations dogged the Eagles’ basketball program in 1984 and a gambling probe found betting among Boston College football players in the mid-1990s.
However, BC athletics played their ugliest hand over a two-year period during the tail end of the Great Depression when avenging the recruiting loss of a high school fullback.
While courting running back Jack Kerouac, new Boston College head coach Frank Leahy, who one year later led an undefeated Eagles’ team to the Sugar Bowl, issued his recruit’s father an alarming imperative.
“Get Jack to Boston College at all costs,” read the postcard Boston College sent to Leo Kerouac at Sullivan Brothers Printing, his jobsite in Lowell.
That Kerouac starred in a recruiting narrative in the first place fascinates when considering the Beat writer’s role on the Lowell High football team.
Throughout his junior season, Kerouac broke long runs in practice yet played sparingly in games. Even after Kerouac repeatedly corrected him of his graduating year, Lowell High Head Coach Tom Keady, believing the junior fullback a sophomore, insisted he was “saving him for junior year.”
“When the fifth game came, I didn’t start that either, but was allowed to play one quarter of it during which I scored three touchdowns, one called back, against Keith Academy, which we won 43-0,” writes Kerouac.
Perhaps this player and coach relationship foreshadowed the later dynamic between writer and publisher, where editors demanded five rewrites before Kerouac finally published On the Road. In this case, the coach simply hated Kerouac’s father.
The disdain the Lowell townsman held for Leo Kerouac, an outspoken French-Canadian toiling as linotype operator, made the most talented football player in Lowell a benchwarmer. Already unsuccessful as a wrestling and boxing promoter around Merrimack Valley, Leo prayed for the world to embrace his son more than it had welcomed him. Rarely cultivating meaningful human relationships, Leo tarnished his surname with failure and defended it with a brash tongue. He believed football the family’s last shot at redemption.
“Typical of Stinktown on the Merrimack,” Kerouac recalls his father saying.
The boy playing ahead of Kerouac enjoyed college recruitment from Norwich (and a more popular papa). Coach Keady found nothing odd about his talent evaluation or the cries coming from the stands regarding Kerouac.
“We want Kerouac, We want Kerouac!” shouted armies of Greek and French-Canadian teenagers in the Lowell High bleachers. That Keady remained loyal to the screw-job puzzles when considering the background of Coach Leahy from Boston College.
Winning two national titles while playing offensive line for Knute Rockne at Notre Dame, and later four more while coaching the Fighting Irish, Leahy understood which players built strong programs.
However, bamboozling Kerouac strengthened his chances of attending Boston College. Maintaining a reserve role throughout his senior season made evaluating Kerouac difficult for rival schools. Moreover, Boston College simply waited on Kerouac for two years.
At Sullivan Brothers, the board of trustees bled Boston College. So their interest in Jack for once favored Leo at work. With rumors of promotions lingering at Sullivan Brothers, Leo hardly suspected panic when receiving a bluntly written postcard at work encouraging Jack’s matriculation at BC. After all, Coach Leahy recently sat comfortably in his living room.
“But I went to Columbia because I wanted to dig New York and become a big journalist in the big city beat,” wrote Kerouac. Shortly after Jack pledged Columbia, Sullivan Brothers fired Leo. Although likely doomed much earlier, Leo Kerouac never really recovered after leaving Lowell. Traveling between places like New Haven and Queens while searching for work, he died in 1946 of stomach cancer.
Boldly interpreting “No” as “maybe,” Boston College worked Kerouac out just before leaving for his postgraduate year at Horace Mann. Even while Kerouac readied himself for Columbia at prep school, Boston College felt they had Kerouac’s recruitment wired.
Knowing which Armenian-American playwright Kerouac fawned over, Leahy drove to Times Square and attended a William Saroyan play with Jack even as a Columbia assistant coach secretly watched from the back rows.
For a teenaged Kerouac, a Saroyan play trumped pool parties with coeds-of-the-evening or envelopes of cash. But the ploy actually strengthened Columbia, or more accurately, New York’s hold over Kerouac. Nor did it help that Boston College had Kerouac’s dad fired.
Kerouac rhetorically asked, “What on earth was I expected to learn from Newton Heights or South Bend, Indiana on Saturday Nights”? .
After a year of writing term papers for classmates and refining prerequisites at Horace Mann, Kerouac took the field at Columbia in 1940.
Columbia football bore resemblance to high school, the freshmen staff playing Kerouac infrequently. Head coach Lou Little threatened to reassign Kerouac to the offensive line because of his stout legs.
“In fact one of the boys was small, slow and weak…. Yet, they start him instead of me and later on I talk to him and discover he’s the son of the police chief of Scranton,” writes Kerouac.
After breaking his leg returning a punt 90 yards in the opening freshman game, Kerouac quit football, and later school. Arriving for a second chance the next fall, Kerouac never memorized coach Little’s playbook and never left the doghouse, either. He quit the team before the season opener.
“You could have been a great football player, but nobody wanted to give you a chance,” cried Leo Kerouac.
During World War II, college rosters decimated. Cheating for players became alarmingly pervasive and fielding full teams daunting for coaches. After Kerouac toured with the merchant marine, Little extended him a third invitation, promising his dad a job like the one held at Sullivan Brothers.
“My father’s coming next week see if you can get him that job in Hackensack,” wrote Kerouac. Leo Kerouac never got the job Lou Little promised. “Come on home, these wops are just cheating you and me both,” cried Leo.
Declaring ego-driven motives and the partiality of coaches unjust, Kerouac divorced football a third and final time.
“The hell with these bigshot gangster football coaches, go after being an American writer, tell the truth, don’t be pushed around by them or anybody else or any of their goons,” daydreamed Kerouac.
Exchanging shoulder pads for a typewriter, Jack Kerouac conquered a world far bigger than sports.
Follow Sean Flynn on Twitter @coachsflynn