Bowled over by Christmas

For the family of a college football coach, a white Christmas was an ominous sign. It meant we were home for the holidays after a losing season, not at a bowl game in some sunny clime. A white Christmas often came with a pink slip for Dad and the entire coaching staff from the athletic department, which meant we’d all be moving again soon. One of my dad’s coaching mantras was “Get with the program, you big turkey!” But I was not a cooperative team member when it came to moving.

By the sixth grade, I’d been to two bowl games and four schools.

That year, 1973, we didn’t have Christmas in our new Pittsburgh home. We had Christmas at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Ariz. My father’s football team (that year, the University of Pittsburgh Panthers) would face Arizona State, and my parents couldn’t have been happier. They loved to be on the road with the team for Christmas. Plus, a bowl-game berth also meant a bonus (one month’s salary, win or lose), which was everything to a college football coach with four kids making $18,000.

A trip out of Pittsburgh and away from St. Teresa’s school sounded OK to me too. St. Teresa’s was not the easiest new school to be the new kid. Each Wednesday, for instance, Sister Matilda, the math and religion teacher, would march us up the hill from the school building to St. Teresa’s church to sing at a funeral. The students didn’t mind because we got to skip math, but we certainly never would have questioned this use of school time anyway. That was just what sixth-graders did at St. Teresa’s -- we sang at funerals.

Sister Matilda called tone-deaf kids “wedges” and warned them to remain soundless: “You’re a wedge! Only pretend you’re singing.” If we sang well, Sister Matilda said nothing. But if we were off-key, after the casket was wheeled out she’d snarl, “You were flat! You were all flat! Bunch of jag-offs!”

I’d never heard the word “jag-off” until we moved to Pittsburgh. Sister Matilda used it as both a noun and a verb, as in “Quit jagging off, you bunch of jag-offs!”

The students at St. Teresa’s were even tougher than the nuns. The toughest of all drank Rolling Rock beer and smoked cigarettes behind the cinder piles on the edge of the blacktop playground. They preferred the Steelers over the Panthers. And if they thought you were ugly (and they did) they told you so.

I was ugly that year -- the tallest in the class, octagon glasses, shaggy haircut. Dark days. My nicknames included Moose, Wilt the Stilt, Dogface and Skyscraper. So I was glad to be released from these jag-offs to go to the Fiesta Bowl.

My brother, Casey, on the other hand, was worried about the number of presents we’d receive by celebrating Christmas in Arizona. He also was the one who counted the presents under the tree every year to make sure all gifts added up fair and square among the four siblings. (He is now a financial planner in Chicago.)

I took a long bath before the trip, and shaved my legs and arms to scrape some of my ugliness away. Then, sometime in the middle of the night, I started vomiting, and I threw up nonstop until it was time to catch the flight to Arizona. My mother stayed up with me, gently assuring me I’d be fine, and before sunrise she handed me a wastebasket. With steely determination in her voice, she said: “You listen to me. The taxi is here. You are getting on that plane. Do you want to miss the Fiesta Bowl?”

I carried the wastebasket onto the plane, and a stewardess (they were stewardesses in 1973) found me a row of seats to stretch out on, and I slept in a blue sailor dress with gold buttons. (We dressed up on planes in 1973 too, in team colors.) When I woke, Mom was staring at my shaved arms, cut and nicked. She whispered, “What did you do?”

I whispered back, “I didn’t want hairy arms for the Fiesta Bowl.”

When we got off the plane, a warm gust of Arizona wind greeted us. I was shaky, but the flu was waning. At the hotel, Christmas lights hung on a tree in the lobby along with a banner that said, “Welcome Pitt Panthers!” A loop of Christmas music played, and everybody received little Fiesta Bowl pins.

My brothers raced to find the other coaches’ sons, and I believe that was the bowl trip they learned the joy of water balloons and balconies, which became a tradition -- unfortunately for passersby underneath -- for years to come. I only hoped that my own portable Christmas tradition -- watching “The House Without a Christmas Tree,” starring Jason Robards -- would be on TV in the hotel.

Pitt fell 28-7 to Arizona State in ’73, which was disappointing, but bowl games remained my parents’ favorite way to spend the holiday. At two Sun Bowls, the coaching staff and their wives went across the border to Ciudad Juarez to dance to mariachi music and eat spicy food, which my father handled by swigging Kaopectate between bites.

During the Sun Bowl of 1971, all the coaches’ families were invited to watch Lee Trevino play golf. I didn’t know who Lee Trevino was, and watching golf was boring, so I let the crowd drift ahead to the green. Nobody paid any attention. I noticed how beautiful a golf course could be without golfers. The sky was a silvery blue, so I lay down on the 17th hole and made grass angels and stared at the sky. Back home (Iowa State that year), the earth was heavy with snow, but I was floating on a Sun Bowl cloud.

Later, my dad hauled me aside at the clubhouse and said, “What the hell were you thinking laying down in the middle of the fairway, you big turkey? Get with the program!”

But the best bowl trip was surely the one to New Orleans when Pitt beat Georgia in the 1977 Sugar Bowl and won the national championship. Yet that win came with a move too: A month later, we were on our way to Knoxville to join the Tennessee Volunteers.

I never really got with the program of being a football coach’s daughter. Every move I’d refuse to get in the car, crying at the curb “I’m not leaving my friends again!” To which my father always responded, “Cut the crap! Get your royal hind end in the back seat now!”

But the day of the Sugar Bowl, I got to watch my pretty mother cheer ecstatically along with the other coaches’ wives. And I saw my dad’s face after that win, radiant with pure joy. And that was one of the greatest Christmas presents a coach’s kid could ever get.

Kerry Madden’s biography of Harper Lee for teens will be published in the spring of 2009 by Viking.