St. Patrick’s Day and Basketballs

In honor of the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day a TBT column that ran in the Joplin Globe on March 17, 2002.

St. Patrick’s Day is one of my favorite holidays.

But it’s hard to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day without thinking about Monsignor Keogan bouncing a basketball off of somebody’s head.

Keogan was the pastor of St. Xavier’s Catholic Church in Junction City, Kansas and by extension the superintendent of St. Xavier’s Catholic school which I attended.

Every year on St. Patrick’s Day Keogan would call the whole school to a special assembly. He would tell a few jokes that most of us had heard many, many times, sing an Irish song or two and then, depending on his mood, give us the rest of the day off from school. Which was cool as far as we were concerned but, looking back, I’m wondering if Keogan bothered to tell our teachers or parents that he was planning on cutting us loose.

He was kind of unpredictable.

When I was attending St. Xavier’s Keogan, who was an Irish immigrant (Go figure, an Irish priest. What are the odds?), was probably in his 60s.

But even at that age he loved soccer and never missed a chance to show us “lads”-which, I think, is Irish for “punks”-the proper way to kick a soccer ball. Of course, since we didn’t have any soccer balls Keogan had to settle for whatever he could get his feet on. Which in most cases meant the schools limited supply of Wilson basketballs.

Every year Keogan would drop by the first day of high school, junior high and sixth-grade basketball practice to give each team a rambling pep talk that touched on such diverse topics as St. Joseph, Bob Cousy and boiled potatoes.

I think.

Keogan was kind of hard to understand. Think Casey Stengel with a thick Irish accent.

Keogan would always end his pep talk by calling for a basketball and then asking a volunteer, normally some new kid, to run to the other end of the basketball court.

Keogan would then kick the basketball at roughly the speed of light and bounce it off the unsuspecting volunteer.

I remember when Keogan stopped by my sixth-grade basketball practice. Gerald Butler, in a misguided effort to curry favor during his next confession, agreed to be the volunteer.

Butler ran to the other end of the court and Keogan, who seemed remarkably spry that day, stepped forward and kicked the holy water out of the ball which managed to hit Butler in the head so hard that his glasses flew off his head and landed in the top row of the bleachers.

After making sure that Last Rites weren’t needed, Keogan laughed and said something that sounded like “Gaad bless ya. Ya little punk” and ambled on to the next practice.

Butler, by the way, wasn’t hurt too badly. He did miss a few days of school and, later, developed a strange habit of occasionally laughing out of context.

But other than that, he was fine.

Keogan also liked to drop by the locker room before our sporting events to lead the team in prayer.

For example, before our football games, Keogan would lead us in “The Lord’s Prayer” and then after a solemn “Amen” would yell “Now go out there and slaughter them”.

It was kind of a mixed message.

Speaking of Butler’s kicking mishap, at least once a year a nun would get tattooed in the head by a stray kickball. This was always an accident because no one that I knew-not even Jimmy Becker-had the guts to take on a nun.

It was some kind of mortal sin, I think.

In those days nuns still wore habits. The habits weren’t like those big, jumbo 747 things that Sally Field wore in the “Flying Nun”. They were more like the outfit the nun in “The Blues Brothers” wore.

Whenever a nun would get hit in the head by a kickball the top of her habit would bounce one way and her head would bounce the other way. It looked kind of like a really slow-moving tennis match.

But no matter how funny the nun with her rotating head and habit looked, every kid on the playground knew better than to laugh.

Laughing at a nun who has just gotten hit in the head by a kickball is always a mortal sin.

So, instead, what you heard was 50 or 60 fifth-and sixth-graders all trying to stifle their laughter.

It sounded like frogs with hiccups.

So, tonight, in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I will pop in our well-worn copy of “The Quiet Man” open a Guinness and toast Monsignor Keogan.

I’ll also take a moment to wonder what ever happened to Gerald Butler. And if he’s still laughing out of context.