Sunday, January 25, 2009


Dateline: January 24, 2009


One recent Saturday night the TV network broadcast the Adam Sandler/Chris Rock remake of the early 1970’s movie, “The Longest Yard.” In the original movie, Burt Reynolds starred as the washed-up quarterback who led Palm Beach police on a merry car chase and wound up serving time at a fictional Florida prison based on my alma mater, “The Rock,” AKA Raiford and Union C.I. The Florida prison people must have still had a bad taste in their mouths at how they were portrayed in “Cool Hand Luke,” with Paul Newman in the starring role, a few years before since they wouldn’t cooperate with Burt Reynolds’ movie production. Instead, Jimmy Carter gave them permission to film at the equally infamous Reidsville, Georgia, prison made over to appear to be in Florida.

That was then. The 21st century remake, cleaned up and more politically correct than the raw original, was situated at a ragged, corrupt federal prison in West Texas, sort of a Judge Roy Bean meets Mad Max. It had its moments, though, and a few flashes of humor channeled from the classic original.

If you’ve never spent Saturday night in a tiny, crowded TV room packed with prisoners watching a movie on a very small screen with a malfunctioning speaker, take my word for it that its an experience. Elbow-to-elbow with murderers, robbers, rapists, kidnappers, dope dealers, and crackheads is not my idea of an optimum evening, but after over thirty years in prison, what choice did I have? I’d seen the original at least 35 years before at a theater in Tampa. In my wildest dreams, I’d never have imagined that in the next century I’d be watching its remake in prison.

This is reality: most men in prison are homosexuals. I looked around at the men seated on the cold steel benches beside, in front, and in back of me, and realized that a Cuban and I were the only non-gays in the audience. Some prisoners are more overtly gay than others, though, and the front bench was filled with “sissies,” effeminate men with shaved eyebrows, chests, and legs, wearing homemade makeup and tight shorts, giggling in falsetto voices, going into hysterics when the movie “cheerleaders” appeared on the screen, encouraging the prison footballers. The muscle-bound testosterone prisoners who played the “man roles” as well as the outnumbered “straights” laughed equally hard.

Sitting there comparing the old with the new, I couldn’t help but flash back close to twenty-six years before when I was at Raiford and my brush with Burt Reynolds, “The Longest Yard,” the Tampa Bay Bandits football team, and owner, John Bassett.

Tom McEwen was the “Tampa Tribune’s” iconic sports editor. His daughter, Ginny, and I were King High School classmates in the 1960’s, and I bagged his groceries when he shopped most every Friday evening at the Kwik Chek grocery in Temple Terrace. I read his column, “The Morning After,” religiously.

Perhaps you’ll remember the USFL, the upstart football league that challenged the NFL for about three seasons in the early 1980’s. John Bassett, the Canadian millionaire, father of teen tennis star, Carling Bassett, and the man who helped singer, Gordon Lightfoot, get his start, became the majority owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits. Burt Reynolds, in his prime and height of popularity, bought a minority interest and became the public face of the Bandits.

Tom McEwen interviewed Burt for “The Morning After,” and asked him questions about the Tampa Bay Bandits and the role he would play. Burt told him that since he was so closely associated with his hit movie, “The Longest Yard,” that the team’s first football game might be against a prison team. That prompted me to write him a letter, in care of Tom McEwen.

I challenged Burt and the Tampa Bay Bandits to a football game against a team of prisoners at Raiford, the real “bandits.” I did it as a joke, not expecting anything to come of it. Little did I know.

A week later they summoned me to see my classification officer, Mr. Hicks. He told me that Mike Flanagan, a “St. Pete Times” reporter, had requested a telephone interview. Would I agree to it? I had no idea what it was about. He told me it had something to do with Burt Reynolds. Okay.

The reporter called from John Bassett’s office. Tom McEwen had forwarded my letter to him, and he called a friendly reporter. Mr. Flanagan wanted to ask me some questions about my challenge for an article. Fine. John Bassett wanted to talk to me, too. I didn’t talk to many millionaire team owners in my diminished circumstances, despite some early associations with the fledgling Tampa Bay Bucs in 1976, so what did I have to lose?

The reporter relayed John Bassett’s response that Burt was only kidding when he said he wanted the Bandits to play a prison team. Bassett didn’t want his players to get hurt before their season ever began. The reporter asked if I had a reply to that. I told him, “If Burt’s scared, just say he’s scared.” A series of guffaws from the other end erupted from the speakerphone.

We had a good time. John Bassett was a good sport, and he liked my sense of humor. We hit it off like old friends reunited. Even though he didn’t want to play our prison football team, he did promise to bring the Bandits, Burt, and some cheerleaders to Raiford for a visit and get together. A publicity stunt, but that was fine, too.

The visit was coming together until the last minute, when the prison people abruptly denied it. Perhaps those “Cool Hand Luke” hard feelings were still near the surface. Perhaps it was a failure to communicate. I don’t know. You never get a straight answer from those folks.

John Bassett had befriended me, taken me under his wing, so to speak, and accepted my collect phone calls. He sent “Bandits” banners and collectibles, which the prison allowed me to get in and pass around. The immediate success of the Bandits, Coach Steve Spurrier, and quarterback John Reaves from Tampa, compared to the inept Bucs, made them a prison favorite. I had told John about my case after he asked if I was willing to talk about it, which I was, and he volunteered to help me. I had no money, no lawyer, and no prospects beyond a life sentence for a murder I hadn’t committed, so his appearance in my life and desire to help me, all because of a joking letter, seemed like divine intervention. Then he fell ill.

He wrote me about it before it got too bad. We talked about it on the phone. I organized prisoner prayer groups to ask God to spare him, but the malignant brain tumor showed no mercy.

The last letter I got was from his manager who regretted to inform me that my friend was near the end and wouldn’t last much longer. But he wanted me to know that John had valued our friendship, that I’d brought him joy, and the get-well card that we’d all signed was in his hospital room. A week later, the “Tampa Tribune” reported that John Bassett was dead at 46, a life cut short. I said prayers for his family and his soul and grieved for a lost friend.

I am 59 years old now. Burt must be at least 70. But there he was, on the TV, taking the ball from Adam Sandler and running for a touchdown. Run, Burt, run! We applauded him.

I couldn’t tell any of those men in the TV room about all that past. They wouldn’t understand. Most of them weren’t even born when Burt played his original role and was seduced by Bernadette Peters in the warden’s office. Bernadette who? Nevermind. Burt’s still running, and so am I.


1 comment:

Vox Populi said...

It's way more than amazing how many people have fallen ill as they go to help those involved in this coverup. I say this with the knowledge that many doctors in tampa have worked with these scum to falsely and/or vindictively diagnose folks. Then they kill them with the chemo. Oddly enough, of all the folks I tell this to I feel sure that you will GET it.
Because it is not a theory but based in fact and threats made to myuself and directed at my family.
The mob doesn't come with guns and knives and hitmen(sometimes) anymore. They come with pest control and 'doctors'. The 'chemo' is what kills you. Medical school is selective for a reason. It's so that the newly minted doctors will be 'connected' or owe favors for their education.
This is why my grandfather was very particular what doctors and dentists his family visited. WHY did he keep this a secret? I know why. Because it sounds far-fetched.
It's not.
If someone can threaten you with contracting breast cancer obviously they believe they can make it happen.
I witnessed a substance used on my mailbox that caused temporary (at touch) symptoms of what some might believe to be a heart attack approaching. I'm an athlete so just stayed calm and thought. I know my health is good despite their best efforts. Not long after the 'temporary signs of a heart attack' diminished completely.
What they hope to accomplish with this toxin is a visit to the emergency room or a ride in an ambulance from which the target never emerges.
I can't believe you've made it this long. They must be very confident in their ability to keep you under wraps. I think Mr. Bassett was taken out.
Much of what you say has a familiar context to me.
Thank you for posting this.
Please understand that when I relate events I do so because of personal experience which is absolutely NEW to me so not my imagination but an attempt at property theft and also seems to dovetail tightly with your situation seeing the commonality of the players and the places.