When you spend the better part of a lifetime covering sports, you see more than your share of heroic performances on the football field, basketball court and baseball diamond.
But nobody ever inspired me more than the little guy back in the office who couldn’t walk without crutches.
Turns out, I was far from alone. That was clear from the crowd and the conversation Tuesday night at Mark C. Tilghman Funeral Home in Maple Shade, where many of us gathered to say goodbye to Rick Ventura.
Mr. Ventura had half the legs and twice the heart of the average man. He died of cancer at age 69, after a full and rich life more worthy of applause than any dazzling touchdown run, buzzer-beating basket or walk-off home run.
He did love those walk-off home runs, though. He loved everything about baseball and sports in general.
He devoted countless hours and — being an old-school scrivener — gallons of ink and reams of paper to chronicling the work of South Jersey athletes as a longtime member of the Courier-Post sports department.
Born with a disability after complications in the womb with a twin sister who didn’t survive, Mr. Ventura couldn’t play organized sports. He still was the consummate sportsman.
He participated in pickup games in his Maple Shade neighborhood in the 1950s, including tackle football. And it was his mischievous actions in sandlot baseball games in middle school that came, fittingly enough, to define his uncompromising approach to life.
Many former co-workers as well as family and friends gathered in the funeral home, sharing stories about Mr. Ventura’s lifelong devotion to sports, remembering his work as an agate clerk, statistics maven and unparalleled keeper of wrestling records for the newspaper.
He was the beloved manager of Merchantville High’s 1965 state-championship basketball team. He was a baseball junkie who could talk about the sport for hours. For years, he was a nightly presence in the Veterans Stadium press box at Phillies games in the company of late Courier-Post sports editor Bob Kenney, the team’s official scorer.
Mr. Ventura spent years as the venerated baseball commissioner of the Tri-County League. He is a member of the South Jersey Wrestling Hall of Fame and the South Jersey Baseball Hall of Fame.
Former colleagues still marvel at his fastidiousness in recording every bout of every wrestling match by hand in a big notepad and at his unflappable cool in the nightly near-panic of approaching deadline.
Even more, we shook our heads in wonder at his devotion to the thankless job, his stoic tenacity in braving those eight, steep, ice-covered steps in front of his home in metal crutches on cold winter nights rather than miss a shift at work.
Like most truly strong men, Mr. Ventura was a gentle soul. If he ever had a bad word to say about anyone, I never heard it.
We stood in a semi-circle and recalled how his work ethic, professionalism and good nature came to symbolize those long-ago nights in that building in Cherry Hill, when it was tough to find a seat in the sports department, when six phones were ringing in cacophonous unison.
On the screen in the corner was a slide show of photos of Mr. Ventura as a youngster — hair neatly parted and slicked back, classic 1950s-style — on the beach, at holidays, in school. The perpetual smile on his face was a reminder that what nature denied him in physical capability, it doubled down on in generosity of spirit.
Mr. Ventura amazed his own family. As his mom, Marge, told former co-worker Jeff Wolfe a few years ago, “When he was born, we wondered if he would live a day. Then we wondered if he would live a week. Then we wondered if he would live a month. And now he’s 65.”
Perhaps the most telling story about Mr. Ventura came from childhood friend Wayne Griffith in response to current Courier-Post sports editor Tom McGurk’s poignant post about Mr. Ventura’s passing.
Griffith recalled pickup baseball games at lunch break in junior high, when Mr. Ventura would come to the plate, balancing bat and crutches, and the boys would yell “Ricky gets first” in deference to his condition. But Mr. Ventura, being a competitor and true baseball guy, would sometimes steal second, too.
That’s how I think of him now, clear of this mortal coil and free at last from physical limitations: legs churning, baseball cap flying off his head, spikes high and smile wide as he slides into second.
And those of us lucky enough to have known him all yelling, “Safe.”