Commentary: Sometimes ball games matter

So your favorite college hoops team lost, your bracket's busted, and it's the end of the world. Once again, a ball game has broken your heart.

Sometimes playing ball really does seem as if it can change your whole life.

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Nicola and George Falco (back row, from left) in an old family photograph.

My grandfather Nicola (or Nick, as he was known) was born in Brazil in the late 1800s and grew up in a small town in the middle of the jungle. After one too many encounters with the local snakes, his mother was ready to leave, and his father, Giuseppe, seeking a chance for a better life for his family and more opportunities, contrived to take the family to America.

My great-grandfather could afford passage only for himself and the oldest son at first. Once they were established with jobs and a place to live, they saved up to bring the others over two by two, working their way down to my great-grandmother and the two youngest, who were too young to travel alone.

However, Giuseppe skipped over my grandfather, then about 14, and his older brother Giovanni (John), 15, so they could stay and care for their mother and the younger children. Soon they were left behind, alone.

When my great-grandfather had saved enough, these boys, too, took the trip, a long sea voyage that ended at Ellis Island, where the other reason to delay my grandfather's passage became apparent. Nick had lost an eye as a boy, whether to cancer or a fight, the story varies. For this reason, he was rejected for admission to the United States, while his brother was not. Giovanni, however, went with Nick to be sent back.

Here the story is family lore:

The ship they were on soon sank, and they were rescued by the Canadian Coast Guard and taken to Montreal, just north of the border. Far from home, far from their family, and with no English or French, they could not communicate. Somehow - I'm told via the parish priest - word got to the family, then living in Camden, and the oldest brother took a train as far north in New York as he could to try to reach them.

Meanwhile, my grandfather and his brother were being kept in a building very close to the border. They were sometimes allowed outside to get fresh air, and one day they began to play ball. They played catch, as two boys will, throwing the ball a little farther away each time, the arc of the ball flying above the ground against a blue July sky, until eventually their game crossed the border itself.

An errant throw sent them chasing after the ball, which rolled into distant bushes, and before anyone knew what had happened, the two teenaged boys had disappeared. They were soon reunited with their brother and taken to Camden to join the family.

So, yes, sometimes playing ball is life-changing, with risks and consequences beyond the moment, as for my grandfather and his brother. And sometimes, as with your bracket, it's just a game.

Noel Falco Dolan is a writer in West Chester.

noeledolan@gmail.com