Squaremont: Toasting an Old Friend

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Bill Swank outside the Buena Vista Garden Apartments on Cowley Way in 1955 with East Clairemont in the distance.
Have you ever received a St. Patrick’s Day greeting card wishing you the luck of the Irish? Grinning Leprechauns, rainbows, four-leaf clovers and a pot of gold…

Historically, the luck of the Irish meant bad luck. The Irish are known for blarney, tragedy and drinking.

The Kelly green blood that coursed through the veins of former San Diego Chargers offensive lineman Walter Francis Sweeney was high-octane. He identified himself as CIA: Catholic Irish Alcoholic.

Walt’s father was killed by a drunk driver when he was two. His mother, Mary Ann McCormick Sweeney, cleaned the homes of rich people in Cohasset, Massachusetts to feed her family. A shy and sensitive boy, Sweeney was terrorized and embarrassed by the antics of his older hooligan brothers. Then, like his brothers, he grew up to become a gifted athlete with an inherited taste for John Barleycorn.

Because the legal drinking age in New York was 18, the New England native accepted a football scholarship to Syracuse University. In 1963, All-American Sweeney arrived in San Diego as the Chargers #1 draft pick. His nickname was “Suds” and the fans loved him.

Walter was tall, handsome and humble without pretense, but he also had a short fuse. Football Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen said, “If I had to play against Sweeney every week, I’d rather sell used cars.”

I helped Walt complete his brutally forthright autobiography, Off Guard, which was published in 2012. It is a tragic tale of alcohol, substance abuse and pain. The Chargers were involved in the NFL’s first drug scandal. In the words of sportswriter Jerry Magee, “Walt Sweeney did football and he did drugs, both with abandon. For anyone interested in how football and drugs can relate, here it is. Sweeney has done life, and not always won.”

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While making arrangements for a signing at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla, proprietor Dennis Wills noticed two neighborhood kids sitting on the curb outside his store. They were waiting to be picked up for Pop Warner football practice.

Dennis invited the pair inside to meet the former professional football player. They walked in and nonchalantly said, “Hi, Walt.”

He replied, “Oh, hi boys.”

How could they possibly know Walt Sweeney? The 10-year-old answered immediately. “We met him in a bar.”

Huh?

The boys’ stepmother was a barmaid at Peter D’s, a popular watering hole on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard where Walt was a regular. Over the years, a lot of people knew Walt from the local bar scene.

As a young player, the Irishman’s ambition was to have his picture on display in every bar in San Diego. As a broken-down old-timer, his ambition was to sell his book in every San Diego bar.

In mid-January 2013, Sweeney was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and he died suddenly the day before Super Bowl XLVII. We were going to watch the game at his apartment, but Walt was already gone.

I had planned to raise a glass (or two) in memory of my old friend at Peter D’s and Dan Diego’s on St. Patrick’s Day. Instead, my wife and I will be in Arizona visiting some old friends. I’ve known these guys for over 60 years. We were teammates back in Farmington, Minnesota. One is of Luxembourg ancestry and the other is, like Walt, a Mick. Both are currently undergoing radiation and chemo for cancer. We won’t be drinking any beer.

For those of us over 70, we realize when these things happen to our friends that our names are on the waiting list.

My advice: Never miss the opportunity to be with your old friends, even if you can’t drink beer.

My toast: May your glass be ever full. May the roof over your head be always strong and I hope Walt made it to heaven half an hour before the Devil knew he was dead.

My prayer on St. Patrick’s Day is for my friends’ recovery.

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