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Mort Zachter: How Zach Wilson can heal America

(Jeff Haynes | AP Images for Panini) BYU quarterback Zach Wilson holds a New York Jets jersey with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being selected second overall by the team in the first round of the NFL football draft, Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Cleveland.

In 2019, after living in New York or New Jersey for six decades, I moved to Utah. In the balancing act of life, my love of the outdoors out-weighted my distaste for partisan politics.

Yet, Utah has surprised me. In last year’s Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders — not Joe Biden — won Utah. And Mitt Romney was the only Republican senator to vote to convict President Trump in his impeachment trials.

So, last week, when my beloved — but long suffering — New York Jets drafted Brigham Young University’s Zach Wilson with the second pick of the NFL draft, I was hopeful. Not just for the Jets, but for the United States of America, because I appreciate first-hand how sharing a common bond through sports can bind politically disparate people together.

In 2006, I traveled to Petersburg, Indiana, the home town of Gil Hodges, the subject of a biography I was writing. Hodges, an all-star first baseman with the Brooklyn Dodgers, as well as the manager of 1969 World Series winning New York “Miracle” Mets, had been enormously popular in Indiana and New York.

In Petersburg, I met Randy Harris, the town’s former mayor who was also an admirer of Hodges. After meeting Randy, a staunch Republican who had a photo of himself and Richard Nixon on his office wall, we went to dinner. In the course of our conversation, he asked for my take on right to life, the right to bear arms, and the sanctity of marriage between a man and woman.

I let him know, politely, but firmly, that we didn’t agree on much — if anything — politically. But he respected my right to my opinions and I respected his. After that discussion, we rarely, if ever, talked politics. Instead, we focused on our love of baseball, our children and what it was like to grow up in our respective home towns, mine with 8 million residents, his with a few thousand.

That week, Randy took time out from his job to join me in visiting the Petersburg residents who knew Hodges. A popular figure in town, Randy understood that, with him present, my interviewees would be more trusting and, therefore, more forthcoming.

Randy was even thoughtful enough to ask me if I would still be in town on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, and if I wanted a ride to Evansville, the nearest city that had a synagogue. When my week in Indiana was over, a bond had formed between us.

Over the years, we’ve kept in touch: the occasional phone call, email or exchange of family photos. The last time Randy and I spoke, he said his daughter had been in a vocal competition and sang from “Fiddler on the Roof.” He emailed me the video. I watched it amazed, not only at his daughter’s talent, but that years after we first met, despite the chasm that separates our political views, our friendship still had legs.

Perhaps the same can one day be said for alliances formed between football fans in Utah and New York after their paths cross in Times Square, Zion National Park or Allegiant Stadium, at a Raiders-Jets game.

And in the spirit of Father Herbert Redmond who, during one of Hodges’ batting slumps, asked his Brooklyn congregation to “Go home, keep the Commandments — and say a prayer for Gil Hodges,” let’s pray, or if you don’t pray, hope, that Zach Wilson is the second coming of Joe Namath.

Mort Zachter

Mort Zachter, Ivins, is the author of “Dough: A Memoir” which won the AWP Prize in nonfiction, “Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life,” and “Red Holzman: The Life and Times of a Hall of Fame Basketball Coach.” His essay, “The Boy Who Didn’t Like Money” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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