A TALE OF TWO HOYAS
Nov. 18, 2005
By PATRICK J. McARDLE
Heralded high school athlete is recruited to attend Georgetown, goes on to storybook college athletic career, wins national title and first team All-America recognition, is drafted by New York franchise, makes immediate impact in professional ranks as rookie-of-the-year and then as league all-star. Sound familiar? It should, because it is the story of two former Hoya athletes.
Patrick Aloysius Ewing (C'85) and Alfred Charles Blozis (C'42) at a cursory glance are rather diverse individuals. Ewing studied arts, Blozis studied sciences; Ewing played basketball, Blozis' sports were track and football; Ewing is still in his prime, Blozis lost his life in World War II 50 years ago.
Yet there are some compelling parallels here. In the lives of each of these two well-known Hoyas are meaningful examples of strength and grace, of growth and learning, of modesty and respect, and of courage and perseverance.
The most prominent sports columnist of his day, the late Arthur Daley of the New York Times, once wrote of Blozis: "He was the most magnificent physical specimen that these eyes have ever seen. He was a breathtaking sight ... and one of the finest athletes ever to compete in the college show." At 6'6", 245 lbs., his imposing stature, especially for an athlete, was exceedingly rare in 1942.
His fellow Hoyas called him Big Bertha, a nickname he earned for opening truck-size holes in opposing lines with his size, strength and speed. In track and field, he was the dominant collegian in the country in weight-throwing events. Blozis set and broke his own world records in the shot put and would have been the odds-on favorite for this event in the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games had they not been precluded by World War II.
Invited to play in the college all-star football game after graduation, Blozis began to pal around with then-Virginia star and future Redskin Bill Dudley. One day at practice, Blozis coaxed Dudley into betting all the hot-shot quarterbacks that they couldn't throw the football farther than Blozis could. The passers took the bait, and he out-threw each one of them. Blozis wasn't finished, though. He took all the winnings and had Dudley bet all takers on the squad that he could throw the ball 90 yards. Of course no one, not even Dudley, knew that this oversized lineman was a world record holder in the shot put. Practice came to a halt as Dudley arranged 4-to-1 odds for Blozis. Then the Hoya all-star stood in the end zone and let loose with a throw that went 93 yards on the fly.
In 1941, United Press International honored the three outstanding male athletes of the prior 12 months. The awardees were: Ben Hogan, golf immortal; Joe Louis, legendary heavyweight prizefighter; and Al Blozis, son of Georgetown.
Equally gifted, Patrick Ewing is a superstar by today's standards. Head basketball coach John Thompson once described his star player as "the period that ends all sentences." Standing 7 ft. tall and 240 lbs., he was labeled by the press as the "Hoya Destroya." He led his team to three Big East basketball championships and three NCAA finals. He was the MVP of the Final Four in the Hoyas' 1984 NCAA championship year and is the all-time leading rebounder and shot-blocker in Georgetown history. In finishing his college career, he was selected the National Player of the Year and the first pick in the 1985 NBA draft by the New York Knicks. Ewing won his first Olympic gold medal while still an undergraduate and his second as a member of the famed Dream Team in Barcelona in 1992. Last year, he surpassed former star guard Walt Frazier to become the all-time leading scorer in Knicks history.
Ewing and Blozis both played large roles in the two most dramatic and electrifying contests in the 125-year history Hoya sports. In 1940, two of the top football teams in the nation met before a standing room-only crowd at Fenway Park in a game termed by sportswriter Grantland Rice as one of the most exciting ever played. Blozis and his teammates saw the Hoyas' 23-game unbeaten streak halted in a heartbreaking finish against Boston College, 19-18 (on an intentional time-killing safety by Eagle quarterback Charlie O'Rourke). Forty-one years later in New Orleans, Ewing led the Hoya charge against the favored North Carolina Tar Heels in an NCAA championship basketball game that remains among the most-watched and most-talked-about in the history of college basketball. This time, another stunning ending saw Georgetown fall just short of an NCAA championship by the score of 63-62 (on a last minute jump shot by a North Carolina freshman named Michael Jordan).
Before ever arriving at Georgetown, both Ewing and Blozis had already gotten an education on the streets. Eleven years old and newly arrived in Boston from his native Jamaica, Ewing was so tall and unfamiliar with American life that he was not only teased by the older kids hut also ignored at pick-up games at the local hoop courts. "Everyone looked at me like [I was] some kind of freak," he recalls. "The older guys taunted me. They told me I would never be anything. They said I would never learn the game." But he did learn, and quickly. Within three years, he became the center of a high school dynasty that lost only one game in four years.
The most widely sought-after prep senior in the country, Ewing narrowed his list of college choices to Georgetown and Boston College. But the inclusion of the Boston school, his coach later acknowledged, was simply a hometown courtesy. Once while attending a Boston basketball game, he was given a standing ovation as Boston College students, eager to see Ewing in an Eagle uniform, chanted his name. Later, when announcing his college choice at a press conference in Boston, he recounts: "As soon as I said I was going to Georgetown, half the room got up and walked out."
As a gangly youth at Dickinson High School in Jersey City, NJ, Blozis, son of a 300-lb. Lithuanian immigrant laborer, towered over his schoolmates. "I had to go by a park on the way home," he was once quoted as saying, "and that's where the high school track team worked out. I was a big kid then and these track kids were very cocky. Every afternoon when I'd walk by, they'd give me the razz berry. They'd dare me to come over and put the shot. I got kind of sick of the same thing every day so I went over one afternoon and beat the best they could do." It wasn't long before young Blozis found himself on the varsity track team.
After he won the New Jersey state shot put championship, Blozis began to draw the attention of the college football coaches. Dickinson High had just a few years earlier provided a couple of linemen to Fordham University, where they teamed with Vince Lombardi as part of the famed Seven Blocks of Granite. But for Blozis, the choice came down to Georgetown and Notre Dame. He ended up choosing the Hilltop because of the opportunity to live and study in the nation's capital.
As the list of accolades grew in Ewing's and Blozis' respective years at Georgetown, their modesty seemed to grow along with it. People used to blame Coach Thompson for me not talking to the press," recalls Ewing, "but that was just me. Sometimes Coach Thompson begged me to do it, but I wouldn't. I did some interviews, just not all of them. I didn't want the attention. And I didn't want my teammates to feel they weren't part of things. And I had to go to school. I had a social life. I had other things."
Ewing remains unfazed by his fame, courteous, but intensely private. According to one broadcaster, "He has really done the impossible. You never read about him." Well, almost never. Sports Illustrated ran a piece on Ewing a year ago, but relied entirely on third-person interviews. One New York Post sportswriter quoted in the story observed: "Oh man, Patrick doesn't let anybody in. Even if you get him, you don't get much. But you know what? I like him anyway. Like every time he leaves the locker room, even if I haven't even talked to him that night, he comes over and makes it a point to shake my hand."
Blozis was careful as well not to allow the press to detract from his teammates. "He was so unassuming you wouldn't notice him," his coach once said, "(He] never sought publicity, but when the photographers came around, he was always the one they wanted and I think some of the other players were a little envious of him." Yet Blozis' record-breaking feats kept him in constant demand. He was featured in Life, Parade, and The Washington Post magazines.
"There was always something lonely about him," wrote Vince Flaherty of the Washington Times-Herald in 1945. "He didn't talk much -- never spoke about his athletic triumphs. Whenever I wrote something about him, even when everybody in America was writing about him, he always caught me aside and thanked me, as if I had performed some terrific favor."
Persevering through adversity brought great athletic success to both Blozis and Ewing, but it was a characteristic that would mark each of their lives in other ways. Upon graduation, Blozis attempted to enlist in the service. The branches of the armed forces, one by one, turned him down because of his size. But Blozis refused to give up. After two seasons playing professional football for the New York Giants, he obtained a size waiver and reported for duty. Then, like many well-known athletes and personalities of the day, Blozis was disappointingly assigned to Special Services, the recreation branch of the military. But military sports were not how PFC Blozis intended to spend the remainder of the war. He found a way into the infantry, earned his lieutenant bars and along the way smashed the Army grenade-throwing record with a toss of more than 94 yards (35 yards was considered respectable).
Just before shipping out to the European theatre, Blozis delighted his fans and Giant teammates one last time when he returned to the Polo Grounds, slipped back into his old uniform and helped his team clinch the Eastern Division title. One month later, on a mountainside in France, several of his men were missing in a fierce snowstorm. A scouting party was needed to look for them and Lt. Blozis assigned himself to the job. He never returned. At age 26, Al Blozis, the Georgetown giant, was dead.
Ewing's shining moment also involved a painful reminder of mortality He was a junior at Georgetown when he called home and learned that his mother had died. She had been his first role model, working extra hours to secure a better life for her children in this country. "It was very, very hard," relates Ewing. "I wanted to quit school. I went home, but my family sent me back." He might easily have given up the taunting chants, the slurs against his intelligence, and the objects thrown at him and his teammates and left Georgetown for the lucrative life of the NBA. But he forged on. By his own account, the proudest and happiest moment in his life came a year-and-a-half later when he fulfilled an earlier promise to his mother to graduate.
Ewing is still looking ahead. Alonzo Mourning (C'92), Georgetown's All-American center and Ewing's summertime basketball companion says his NBA rival is "always playing, always working on his game. You know that turnaround jumper he has that's so automatic now? Well, I remember when it wasn't. That shot is the result of who knows how many hours of hard work that Patrick put in after he turned pro, after he had the big contract. That's the kind of thing that makes people around here respect him so much."
The two most accomplished athletes in Georgetown's history are also among the best role models. "Georgetown aspires to excellence in athletic performance. I hope that is evident from time-to-time in the play of our teams," says Frank Rienzo, director of athletics at Georgetown for the past 23 years. "But more importantly, in the Jesuit tradition, we believe that virtue finds expression through service to others. And one of the ways we provide service to others is by exhibiting our talents as part of something larger than ourselves. For more than 10 percent of our undergraduates at Georgetown, this something larger is intercollegiate athletics.
"We believe that the lasting value of athletics is that they foster the personal growth and development of the individual." Rienzo adds. "Al Blozis and Patrick Ewing exemplify those values and serve as model student-athletes for the thousands who have followed them."
Coach Thompson's postscript upon Ewing's graduation remains as apt today and is equally true for Blozis:" ... [They] will never leave Georgetown. You don't forget people like that." Each summer, Ewing returns to McDonough Gym with fellow alumni and NBA stars Alonzo Mourning (C'92) and Dikembe Mutombo (SLL'91). They play against each other, support each other, and work with several of the younger Georgetown players, helping to continue the Hoya legacy of exceptionally talented centers. "This wouldn't have happened without Patrick" John Thompson says. "He's the one who would call on the road and ask, `Coach, how's [Alon]Zo doing? You want me to give him a call?' One of the things that is sometimes missed about Patrick is his enthusiasm for others' performances."
Following graduation in 1942, Blozis sent a letter to the undergraduate Dean of Men, Rev. Richard Law, S.J.: "May I come down to Georgetown before I leave. I would like to see some of my very dear friends and especially you, Father. If only I had four more years to go. With the education you get at Georgetown, I would be tops in all [areas] ... I want to thank you, the faculty and boys for their kindness."
Fifty years ago, Alfred Blozis was listed as Missing In Action by the United States War Department, just two months prior to the end of the war in Europe. A simple white cross marks his grave in St. Avold, France.
Patrick Ewing is the all-star starting center of the New York Knicks professional basketball team.