Winnetka Way: Mike Leonard

Gazette Article by: Mike Leonard
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 1994

Winnetka Way articles are written by guest columnists who have been asked to share their memories of an aspect of Winnetka that they remember fondly. Winnetka Way articles debuted in 1994 and continue to the present.

The smell of burning leaves drifted through the air as we charged out onto the football field on that cool, clear autumn morning almost 35 years ago. (Actually, I can’t remember if the leaves were burning or even if it were cool and clear on that Saturday, but what the heck, I needed a good opening sentence.)

Anyway, there we were, the Sacred Heart varsity football team, the mighty Red and White, set to wage holy war with the blue and white of Glenview’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The scene of the battle, naturally, was Skokie Playfield.

Skokie Playfield, that hallowed recreational site formed out of what once was a giant bog. Acquired in sections by the Winnetka Park District starting in 1913, the playfield opened officially in 1916 with a few baseball diamonds and a 9-hole golf course. In the 1930’s, the golf course was expanded to 18 holes and then, in 1961, a par-three layout was added. The A.C. Nielsen Tennis Complex was completed in 1964, and eight years later the indoor skating rink opened its doors.

But it’s the main football field, running parallel to Hibbard Road, that is the real focus of my essay. The field where former NFL players Mike Pyle, Chuck Mercein and Nick Rassas learned to play. The field where I learned to burp.

Excuse me. I know that doesn’t sound like a very sophisticated accomplishment, but to a goofball boy in the 50’s, the ability to burp on command was a prerequisite skill. Everyone I knew could do it. Some were even able to belch out entire sentences. Yes, in the late 50’s, I was a goofball boy, but with an asterisk. I couldn’t burp a peep. That is, until the memorable day in 1960 when I was tackled by one of OLPH’s beefiest players.

The moment is seared into my memory. His helmet caught me square in the stomach, knocking the wind clean out of my 94-pound body. As I writhed on the ground, surrounded by concerned coaches and players, I gulped for a breath and felt a queer, clicking sensation in the back of my throat. Someone asked if I were OK, and when I tried to gasp out a word of acknowledgment, the air rushed out of my mouth in one… long… loud… burp.

Everyone stared in stunned silence. Then I burped again. And again. Soon the players and coaches were roaring with laughter, and I was up on my feet bounding happily back to the huddle.

Well, thirtysome years have passed since that day, and like many others who drive by the fields, I sometimes find my mind wandering back to the glory of my youth. Thankfully, this is the one past triumph that I’ve learned to politely suppress.

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