In 1950, 100 years after his forebears had emigrated from Bohemia in Eastern Europe to an eponymously named village on Long Island, newly arrived Martin Szabados tried out for the Sayville High football team.
That same year, George Mihaly’s family arrived from war ravaged Yugoslavia. He played baseball and basketball at Sayville.
Back then, Long Island was a string of suburbs, running one-hundred-and-twenty sleepy miles from Queens to Montauk, nothing like today’s ever-growing metropolis.
I was in the same class as Martin and George. Sixty-six-years later, I well remember their devotion to team play. They were determined to become a part of America and athletics was the door they’d enter to make that happen.
I recall Martin, a small guard on the football team, meticulously studying his play book, learning who to block on every play, seldom speaking what little English he knew in favor of just getting the job done. During practice, a teammate accused Martin of blocking the wrong man. Martin shot back, “I know my plays!” The coach stopped the practice, called over the two players and admonished the boy for mistakenly accusing Martin, saying “He knows his blocking assignments better than all of you.”
George was a crafty left-handed pitcher on the diamond, a studious kid whose father wanted him to assimilate into American culture. Dressed in shirt and tie, George would get on the school bus every morning carrying his school bag, the antithesis of all us James Dean wannabes more concerned with our combs and cigarettes.
George loved basketball, too. Seldom seeing game action, he was the first kid out to practice and the last to leave. However, his lot was to guard future All-American and NBA player 6’7″, 225 pound Bill Thieben. In daily scrimmages, George would drop from exhaustion rather than quit. Practice over, he would shower, get on the bus, and start studying.
We won the conference basketball championship that year with Bill setting a Long Island scoring record. George contributed to that title as much as any of us.
The world may have been a different place in the ’50s, taking its first tentative post-war steps. Since then, world events have too often made us wary of the foreign.
The times dictate we must be careful in protecting what all of us have built in America, but it mustn’t preclude our welcoming those who will enrich us even further with their presence, as Martin and George once did.
Those many years ago, Martin and George allowed me to witness something I’ll never forget. Given a fair chance, they made it, showing me how vital both teamwork and sacrifice are to success.
And so, to the many Martins and Georges out there pursuing the American Dream, I say, “Go for it. Be prepared, step up to the plate and swing for the fences!”