Harry Agganis (File Photo)
Entertainment, Lifestyle, Opinion, Sports

Agganis: The man, the myth, the legend

We who enjoy sports are blessed to live in an age where everything is immediately filmed and saved for posterity.

We can punch a few numbers and letters to access YouTube highlight clips of Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders. We contemplate how much skill it must take for someone to be able to climb a wall in center field to make a catch while also bulling his way through a line of behemoth football players. And we take note that Michael Jordan -- deemed by many to be the best athlete of the 20th century -- barely survived Double-A baseball.

Tonight, we celebrate the legacy of a man who could pretty much do it all, and on an elite level, long before the likes of Jackson and Sanders were even born. The 57th Agganis football game, featuring local senior athletes from high schools throughout the area, will kick off at 7 p.m. at Manning Field.

(In the event the came is called due to rain, it'll be played Friday at 7, also at Manning. The call will be made by 3 p.m., with announcements both on itemlive.com and the Agganis Foundation website.)

All you have to know about Harry Agganis is that when he graduated from Boston University, he chose to play for the Boston Red Sox when baseball was not even his best sport.

In high school and in college, Harry Agganis was a football player. He filled the 10,000-capacity Manning Bowl whenever Lynn Classical played there.

Agganis was "The Golden Greek," the athlete who rose above all others of his era and in this area. On that, there is near unanimity.  

But there's very little film or video as evidence of his greatness. And what has survived has that grainy, stilted quality that you often see whenever there's an image of Babe Ruth running the bases after hitting a home run.

But there is enough archival footage of him to be able to determine that Agganis had the tools to make it in the NFL. Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns thought so. That's who Agganis turned down so he could stay close to home and play baseball for the Red Sox.

There's a popular expression that often describes athletes who are head-and-shoulders above their peers: men playing with boys. One of my cousins, significantly older than me, knew some of Agganis' contemporaries and he told me that's exactly they said about him.

Some of his teammates from those old Classical football, guys such as Dick Dooley, say the same thing.

People knew, even when Agganis was in junior high, that he was special. It was probably the same as Stan Bondelevitch recognizing Dick Jauron's talents, or Billy Wise pegging Tony Thurman and Tim Frager (who stole the show as a ninth grader in the Classical-English football game in 1982 while still at Breed) as special.

There's probably no way of knowing  whether Agganis ever had what I call "jock-itis," or when -- if he did -- he grew out of it. But if he did, it was only a slight case. Having been around sports long enough, I can say unequivocally that it is virtually impossible not to come down with it in some form if you're a standout athlete. Adults kowtow to you, even when you're still in elementary school. Wherever you go, you are royalty. You could solve the human genome project singlehandedly by the time you're in the 10th grade, and you'd still be behind the football star in the food chain. And for a talent of Harry Agganis, that went double.

Yet there is no evidence that I know of that would suggest Agganis was unbearably conceited. Rather, most people who know say it was quite the opposite -- that he was a good guy who did his best to keep it all in perspective. That probably had a lot to do with being the youngest of seven children, four of them brothers. There's nothing like having four big brothers to let you know exactly where you stand in the pecking order!

But I'm sure it had plenty to do, too, with the values he learned from being part of an close immigrant family and a tight-knit community.

He may not have been the best student, but, again, evidence suggests he took his academics seriously -- enough so that he managed to graduate from BU on time even after signing with the Red Sox.

Sadly, this seemingly indestructible, ever-youthful kid, who survived high school and college football and who solved Major League pitching and was hitting .315 and starting at first base for the Red Sox, could not overcome the frailties of his own body. He developed a viral infection in June of 1955 and was hospitalized. He tried to come back too soon and landed back in the hospital. And 63 years ago yesterday, a blood clot traveled to his lungs and he died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. He was only 26.

His death stunned everyone. People who knew him only by his exploits were devastated to the point of tears. His funeral was massive -- still among the largest ever in Lynn.

The mixture of athleticism and academics he demonstrated while he was alive prompted Lynn attorney Charles Demakis to ask The Item and the Red Sox to start a scholarship foundation in his name.

That foundation is going strong today, with Demakis' son, attorney Thomas C. Demakis, as its chairman. It has awarded $1,955,000 in scholarships to 964 scholar-athletes since its inception, including 19 more that were announced Sunday at the ceremony that marked the beginning of what has come to be known as Agganis Week.

The week concludes tonight with the football game, which began as the only fundraiser for the foundation, and is still, for all intents and purposes, the main way to raise money for the scholarships.

If you enjoyed last fall's fabulous football season -- especially in Lynn -- there will be 17 players from the four schools -- Classical, English, Tech and St. Mary's -- that went an aggregate 42-6. It'll be your last chance to see them.

More Stories In Sports