Johnny, Uncle John, and Conner at Grampy Gal's 90th Birthday, October 2006
I will always love and remember you Uncle John. I will miss your laugh and your hugs. You were a great man, uncle, father, husband and son. You were taken too soon from us and there is never a good reason why. Watch over us in Heaven with Grammy, Leah and my Grammy Marshall. Love you always.
Fri Jun 15, 2007, 01:00 AM EDT
Key West, Florida. Yes, why not?
Howie Nickerson kept telling his friend John Melchiorri he'd take him there. Maybe they both knew it was a pipe-dream. Maybe not. It seemed to be working though.
One night, Nickerson was talking on the phone to John's wife, Robin. Nickerson heard his friend say in the background "I'm not going to die. Howie's taking me to Key West."
The goal became more modest. They just wanted to get John home, so he could die surrounded by familiarity, not antiseptic white uniforms and walls. That didn't happen, either. The great John Melchiorri took his last breath at UMass Medical Center in Worcester Sunday night, cancer winning the last end game. He was 50.
1975. The Natick High football team was reeling from the sudden death of legendary head coach Dan Bennett. Then the Redmen had to open the season against mighty Brockton. If Vegas took lines on high school games, Natick vs. Brockton wouldn't have made the cut. The Boxers, and by three touchdowns or more, was the pervading notion.
There was a moment of silence for Bennett before the game. Was it the memory of the coach that inspired Natick's shocking 21-14 upset? Once the Bay State League season started, would Natick be a team that could sustain the emotional high of the Brockton game?
The Redmen lost only once that year, 8-6 to Milton, made it to the Super Bowl for the first time and croaked Reading, 26-14. The MVP of the team was halfback John Melchiorri. When spring came, Melchiorri, a dynamic center fielder, was the MVP again. So it only made sense that he was the Class of 1975's Athlete of the Year.
"He was a great player," says Bob Ghilani, Natick's assistant baseball coach then. "He made more great catches that haven't been duplicated. He was the best center fielder we've had, no question. I can still see him turning his back to the plate and going and getting it. He caught everything."
Warren Prim, the quarterback of the Super Bowl team, loves telling this baseball story. The head coach was John Carroll. "He told me once he thought I'd be his first .400 hitter," says Prim. "Guess who was?" Needless to say, Melchiorri hit .404 that year.
Melchiorri packed about 155 pounds, at the most. But was he tough? "He never gave an inch," says Ghilani. "I remember the Framingham North football game when John was sick, throwing up. I told him I didn't think he should play. He said, 'Don't worry. I'm playing.' He scored two or three touchdowns."
"He was the best athlete I ever played with," says Prim. "John had speed, quickness, agility. He could throw the option pass. He wasn't the tallest or the biggest, but he could stick 'em with the best of them."
John could juke, but he'd just as soon take on an opponent head-on. Tough.
Off the field, there was a different Melchiorri. "I never heard him badmouth anybody," says Prim. "He always had a smile."
That's pretty much the way he stayed. "He never had a big head about how good he was," says Nickerson.
He was modest even though Mike Lavezzo, Melchiorri's friend since Little League, says "John was Doug Flutie before Doug Flutie!" Not a bad complement right there.
John just wasn't comfortable bringing up the glory days. "He'd say, 'You know Robin, that was a long, long time ago.' "
They met at a '50s dance club in Bellingham. Both were divorced.
"He looked at me from across the room, and that was it," says Robin. "He was so handsome."
Ever agile and light on his feet, John loved to dance. She did too, and they danced.
"The first thing I told him was that I had three beautiful girls," says Robin. He'd seen her there before. "He told me, 'You looked lost.' " Well, maybe a divorced woman with three daughters needed to be found. But not by just anybody.
Oh, Robin tried. "I'd gone out with all these stupid jerks," she says. "John hadn't been out much."
Robin and John began seeing each other. The spark was real. She liked the way he constantly talked about family, and his son. "John was a caretaker," she says. "He took care of everyone."
Then it was he who needed the caring. And Robin was there, every step of the way. "We never did anything apart," says Robin. "It was me and John. We always held hands. We were together for nine years, married for seven."
Robin was a runner. That would be another nice thing to do with John. So they ran. Then John started having stomach pains. "He was a strong man," says Robin, not one to complain.
One day they ran and the pain was just too much. "He just stopped," says Robin. "He couldn't do it."
Let's see a doctor, said Robin, an ICU nurse at Milford hospital. He thought maybe the pain would go away. She insisted he go to the doctor. It was colon cancer, the tumor as big as a tennis ball. They removed it. That was last October. In March, the cancer was back and marching through his body.
It's been a sad and poignant week for Robin. John died Sunday. Tuesday little Johnny, the one child they had together, graduated from kindergarten. Robin was there, of course, but then drove to John Everett's in Natick to make funeral arrangements. Wednesday was the wake. Yesterday the burial. Then on with life, the period of adjustment without her man.
Mike Montgomery was one of John's best friends, a football teammate at Natick High. "John's mental toughness was phenomenal," says Montgomery. "He'd run over kids, and he wasn't big at all. He'd get knocked out of the game and a couple of plays later he'd be back in there.
"When we needed something we turned to John. He was very shifty, like Barry Sanders. If you caught up to him, he'd just put his shoulder into the guy. What I remember is people saying 'Go, Johnny, go!' He was the heart and soul of the team."
Melchiorri led the team in rushing in his junior and senior years. He caught 20 passes his last year, and scored one-third of Natick's points. He played defensive back, only coming off the field on kickoffs.
"John was the go-to guy," says Dan Donahue, who played in the backfield with Melchiorri. "Great speed, great moves. He had a sense of where to go."
Reading High knew all about Melchiorri when the Super Bowl came around. They focused on him. The Natick coaches figured that would be the case. Someone else in the backfield might have to step up.
"But they didn't share that with me," says Donahue. "Maybe they thought I'd be too nervous. I fumbled on the first play. But they kept giving me the ball."
Donahue scored three touchdowns. The decoy just smiled.
The emptiness will never subside. Robin already knows that. She is free-spirited by nature, resilent like Johnny was, and that will steel her. Family and friends will help too.
She reflects on eyballing the most handsome guy in the world, across a crowded 50's dance floor. She knew right away, instinctively, as women often do. They danced the night away, a bunch of nights, their hearts rekindled, the loneliness dissipating, the need to look for companionship, and more, fading.
"We had a great life," she says.
Not quite 10 years. Still, a great life.
(Lenny Megliola is a Daily News columnist. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org)