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Vinnie Michaels' passing from a football injury in 1955 was traumatic, especially for his family

Updated: May 9, 2023


Vinnie Michaels

Thanks: Photo provided by Earl Sease, retired educator at Portage


... “when bad things happen to good people”


Some events are etched into your psyche. Such was the case with my sister on a fall day 68 years ago, when I was just eight-years-old.


On November 7, 1955, I was a third grader but was home sick. I remember my sister, Patsy (Pat), coming to the door of my bedroom, sobbing uncontrollably.


She said, succinctly but with passion, “Hughie, Vinnie died.”


Pat was a junior at Lilly-Washington High School, and she was referring to a very close family friend, Vinnie Michaels of Portage, who had passed away from injuries suffered in a football game for Portage High School.


His passing shocked the entire Portage community, as well as the entirety of Cambria County. Losing a child because of football was a traumatic, devastating event, and the community mourned for the family.


The second child of Francis and Josephine Michaels in a family that grew to 13 children, Vinnie was an outstanding athlete and student. His personality was laid-back but infectious, according to those who remember him.


The passing devastated his parents and his brothers and sisters. Grief is such a traumatic human emotion, and it was for the Michaels family.


The Michaels family suffered


Vinnie passed away on Nov. 7 and was buried four days later after a mass at St. Joseph’s Church. The church was packed, and prayers and love seemed to be the only reprieve from the sorrow and grief that encompassed those in attendance.


His was the kind of death that Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote about in his gut- wrenching narrativein the best-seller, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”


Vinnie was one of those good people, and why such tragedies take place is a topic that Kushner wrestled with in his tome about death and grief. He concluded, or at least I interpreted it this way,


God created nature and let it take its course.


Most often, we have no control over some aspects in life, regardless of how difficult they may be.


In essence, this was not part of God’s will or his plan. Kushner wrote that God allowed nature to act in a wrathful way as a result of the Garden of Eden, when the symbolic apple changed human existence.


That enigma can be a difficult part of life to understand, making so many ask these questions.

  • Why are some children born with disabilities?

  • Why are some people born with high IQs, others not as high, while others have little native intelligence?

  • Why are some people born to wealth, others to poverty?

  • Why do some children die in child birth?

  • Why do accidents occur and destroy good people?

We will never know those answers, he said, but we we have to learn to live with grief, both short and long-term.

That was the sad part of Vinnie’s passing. The grief was devastating.

Friendship

My parents will good friends with France and Jo Michaels, and so we visited them often. My dad realized how hard Vinnie’s passing was for Francis, but he once told me years later that fathers react in a much different way from mothers. Mothers often take such events in a very personal, deeply emotional way.


The irony for my dad was how intense his grief was when he lost his elder daughter, Pat, in 1983, at the age of 43.

He said that he did not know if Jo would survive. She did and was a fighter, but a special part of her never seemed to be the same.

Vinnie had just turned 16, and he had a bright future ahead of him. The story was that the football coaches at many colleges were already looking at Vinnie, an outstanding running back. As a top student, those at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point had already inquired about him.

So, the Michaels', devout Catholics, had to experience what the Jewish rabbi had to years later.


A different kind of grief


I wrote this on my blog a few years ago,


Kushner and his wife were the parents of a young boy whom they loved with all their hearts. However, when he was 3, he was diagnosed with Progeria, which is a disease in which people age ten times faster than a normal person. He died when he was 14, though he looked like he was in his 70s. At that time, his father was the pastor of Boston Temple Israel of Natick. That led Kushner to question God.


Kushner asked himself why God should punish him after all he had done to give solace to others. He had given so much to others, offering them directions as to what God wanted them to do with their lives. He was leading people to God, yet God appeared to punish him.

Kushner continued to ask “Why me, God,” until he finally read enough and prayed about it.


That led him to write down his thoughts. He realized that giving Aaron such a horrible disease was not God’s will. Instead, God created nature and let it take its course.


We cannot determine why, but life must go on for everyone.


My sister was the same age as Vinnie, and they had been friends since childhood.


She continued to cry that entire day. It was a sad time.


A large family


Vinnie had 12 siblings: Tom, Jean, Emmett, Joan, Susan, Leona, Ray, Walter, Vivian, Marian, Richard, and Charles.


After Vinnie’s passing, Jo insisted that none of the boys would ever play football — but she then relented. Emmett and Ray played for Portage and then at Villanova University. I am not certain if she ever attended any of their games. Her grief and fear was that intense, and only those who go through such a loss can understand such trauma of losing a child in such a manner.


Kushner


The rabbi I alluded to above had to go through grief for another reason, and he blamed himself for his son’s death.


I wrote this on my blog a few years ago,


When a person is killed in a hurricane or an accident, it is because of nature, over which we have little control.


Hugh Brady Conrad, blog


We will never know why such tragedies such as that of Vinnie occur. However, Francis and Josephine Michaels were very religious people with a strong foundation in God.


Francis told me at one point late in his life about how he as a young man had prepared for a life as a priest. He eventually decided that it was not for him, but he never deviated from those Catholic beliefs, as difficult as they were.


The Michaels' never lost their faith, but it was certainly challenged, just as Rabbi Kushner’s was.


The tackle was not “dirty”


As I wrote a few years ago, Vinnie was injured because of a ruptured spleen. He was hit by a player for East Conemaugh High School in a game at Portage Stadium.


The player who hit him later became a college and professional competitor. His name was Moses Gray, and he passed away in February at the age of 85. His obituary in The Indianapolis Star called him a “Gentle Giant.”


However, some people claimed that the hit on Vinnie by the big lineman was a “dirty play.” My friend Art Martynuska, disagreed. Art coached football on the high school and college levels and played the game for decades; he attended the game and saw the stop, he said to me before his passing in 2006. He told me that it was a hard hit, but was not dirty at all. He said that he just hit him in the wrong place as the spleen is not protected by any equipment.


Moses had to live with that


Even though the hit was not a nasty or intentional act, imagine living your life knowing that a player whom you tackled had passed away from those injuries.


It had to be difficult for a young 17-year-old back in the 50s.


Gray later played at the University of Indiana and for the New York Titans in the old AFL. He then worked at General Motors and was noted for his work with the community,


Gray joined General Motors in 1962, soon after his two-year AFL career concluded. He eventually attained the role as general superintendent of manufacturing plants before retiring in 1992. He worked and resided in Indianapolis most of his adult life.


The civic-minded Gray gained acclaim for his work toward acquiring families for adoptable Black children, as the Moses William Gray Award was initiated in 1986.


Gray had affiliations with the Wilma Rudolph Foundation; 100 Black Men of America, Inc., serving as national secretary; State Council on Adoptable Children, serving as president; Black Adoption Committee; and served as inaugural president of the Indiana Association for Rights of Children (1974).


He’s been recognized as B’nai B’rith Man of the Year (1974), General Motors Award for Excellence in Community Service (1978), national Chivas Regal Entrepreneur Award (1990) and the National Black Police Officers Community Service Award (2015).


Mike Mastovich, “Gentle Giant,” Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, February 10, 2023


Aftermath


For the Michaels', the next few years were difficult.


However, if Francis and Josephine were to look today at the extended families of those other 12 children, with so many beautiful grand children and great-grandchildren, they would certainly be proud.


The pain of losing Vinnie was difficult, but the family survived.



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