I’m not a jock —if by that we mean a muscled guy who watches every Superbowl and never misses a World Series game. People like that can throw a forward pass, sink a set shot from center court, hit a golf ball straight and remember the statistics on Tom Brady and Enos Slaughter. In grammar school, when we chose sides for basketball or touch football, I was the last guy chosen. In high school at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, I was cut from the swimming team. I was slow. In the 1962 basketball game between the students and faculty at McQuaid High School in Rochester, where I was teaching, one of my Jesuit teammates advised me, when they finally put me into the game, that if I ever got the ball, I should get rid of it quickly. Somehow the ball bounced into my hands, and I threw it right away to the first adult I saw on the court. It was the ref.
My father, a World War I hero and journalist, was determined that my brother Dave and I would be able to “take care of ourselves.” So beginning when we were 3, he put us on horseback, taught us to swim in the ocean and to paddle a canoe. He knelt down to be our size and had us put on the boxing gloves and fight him. Life Lesson No. 1: Don’t let anyone push you around. Our parents sent us to a summer camp with 35 horses, tennis and fencing lessons, boxing, campfires and a Saturday morning ritual where the whole camp soaped up and bathed in the lake.
At St. Joe’s I went out for crew. Every day the eight of us would run the mile or so from the Prep down to the Schuylkill River, row up and down under the great bridges, then run a few extra miles before jogging home. At 17 I was in the best shape of my life. That summer I went to Alaska to work on the railroad but was fired after two weeks for being too young.
That year I began to understand what it means to be at home in one’s body. By competitive standards, unlike Dave, I was not an athlete; but I swam better than most people I knew, and when I got out of the army and joined the Jesuits, I began to take running seriously. It was a double grace: running alone helped me pray; running with a companion formed friendships that endure today.
At McQuaid I hung around track practice and, at 30, trained enough to run a mile in seven minutes. But my breakthrough came when college students, whom I had challenged to read more books, challenged me to push myself physically. When I was dean at Rockhurst College in Kansas City, a student signed me up for a half-marathon.
At Holy Cross, where I was also dean, a student in the residence where I was prefect tackled me in the hall, pinned me down and ordered me to run in the New York Marathon with him. So we did it. I had heard there were two kinds of people in the world: those who had run a marathon and those who had not. I ran four more in Boston and Jersey City.
One night 12 years ago I woke up with a sharp pain in my arm and chest. Two discs were impinging on my spinal cord. Within days I was on the operating table. I miss running terribly. I take hourlong walks every morning from America House to Times Square or Central Park; and when young men and women go running by, I ache. I swim a few minutes almost daily and take long bike rides along the Hudson River on warm weekends.
If I had my wish, every student in a Jesuit school would have to learn to swim 100 yards and be able to run a mile in 10 minutes. That way fewer young people would drown or suffer the damage that comes with being overweight. And all would know the joy of diving into an ocean wave or a long run along the beach.