I am a momma’s boy and proud of it.
Willie Punzal, my dear Mom, was my inspiration to pursue a career in journalism and become a sports writer. She was incredibly passionate about sports — the Sports Section was the first part of the paper she read every day and she watched pro and college games all the time on TV. She passed that passion on to me.
And I am eternally grateful.
Mom passed away on Sunday; on Father’s Day, of all days. She was 86.
She will always be my sports hero. Like a player-coach, she took on a dual role in my life, As a single parent, she felt it necessary to take on some of the responsibilities that were, back in the 1960s, traditionally handled by a father. Among those bonding activities was taking me to ballgames.
I know it wasn’t an easy thing for her to do; she was tired from working an 8-to-5 job at the phone company and money was tight. But I never heard her complain about it. To her, this as an obligation and a priority, making sure I experienced the same joys in life as the boys who had sports-loving dads.
Again, I’m eternally grateful.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in Southern California in the 60s and 70s. L.A. had a NFL team back then, and Mom and her friend, John Kordich, took me to several L.A. Rams games at the Coliseum. When the game was over, they’d walk me to the tunnel to get autographs of the players as they were coming out of the locker room — players like the Fearsome Foursome of Merlin Olsen, Deacon Jones, Rosie Grier and Lamar Lundy.
We made the drive from our house in Harbor City to L.A. in mom’s Ford Falcon to see the Dodgers and Angels play at Chavez Ravine. We saw Sandy Koufax pitch a shutout against the Chicago Cubs.
We celebrated their World Series Championships in 1965, ’81 and ’88 and suffered through the defeats against the Orioles (1966), A’s (1974) and Yankees (’77 and ’78)
Mom actually was more of an Angels fan because she went back to the early days of the team, when it played at Wrigley Field in downtown L.A.
One year, she and I went to an Angels spring training game in Palm Springs, where the team used to train before the start of the season.
When I was around 12, I remember her buying a loaf of Weber’s Bread because it had a registration form to become a member of the Junior Angels Club, which entitled you to receive tickets to a couple of games at Anaheim Stadium. She drove me and my best friend, Brant Lee, to the games.
She was delighted when the Angels won the World Series in 2002.
If she couldn’t take me to a ballgame, I listened to Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett call the Dodgers games, or Don Wells and Buddy Blattner do the Angels play-by-play on a transistor radio. I don’t know how many late summer nights Mom came into my room to turn off the radio because I had fallen asleep.
Of all the sports, basketball was my favorite as a kid. Mom knew I loved watching the Lakers when they were on TV, so she made it point to take me to see them play in person. We first started going to games when they played at the L.A. Sports Arena. Those were the days of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. Later, we went to games at the Fabulous Forum.
We enjoyed following UCLA basketball — Mom shares the same birthday as the legendary John Wooden, Oct. 14. After the Bruins won the 1970 title against Jacksonville, we drove to the L.A. Airport to welcome the team home.
Mom wasn’t big on ice hockey, but I was. I found it to be a fascinating game, so fast and physical. The Kings weren’t around in the mid-1960s, but there was a pro hockey team called the Los Angeles Blades. They played in the Western Hockey League. Mom took me to see a couple of games at the L.A. Sports Arena. One Christmas, Santa Claus (Mom) got me a table-top hockey game, where you used levers to move the players forward and backward (left to right for the goalies) and twisted a knob to pass or shoot the carom-sized puck.
Even though she wasn’t a big fan of hockey, Mom still read about the Kings. Before she passed, they won their first Stanley Cup in their 45-year history.
That title completed a list of major championships for the L.A. teams she followed: Dodgers, Angels, Lakers, Kings, USC football, UCLA basketball.
However, there is one championship that stands above them all, because she was a part of it. Her granddaughter, Jessica, was the starting goalkeeper on the College of Saint Rose women’s soccer team that won the NCAA Division 2 women’s national championship this past December. Jessica was named to the all-tournament team and she was singled out for her play by a New York state senator during a special presentation at the State House in Albany, N.Y., where the school is located. Mom got to watch the proceedings on my computer. She was very proud.
As you can see, sports play a huge part in our family. If you didn’t know what season it was, my mom would pull you aside and lecture you.
My wife, Sheila, got that lecture.
Relatives and friends marveled at her sports knowledge.
Mom’s passion for sports rubbed off on me. I was 15 when started writing sports articles about my high school for a local weekly newspaper. I’d type the stories at the kitchen table and Mom would read them over and drive me to the newspaper office, where I slipped the copy under the door. The paper came out on Thursdays, and I couldn’t wait to show her the story with my byline.
For a lot of sports fans, she was the dream of a mom.
I’m so thankful she’s my Mom.