Ronnie Knox, Rest in Peace

A few weeks ago (May 21) while I was out, my teenage daughter took a phone message for me from someone who started off the message by saying “This is probably not going to make sense to you.” Since I hadn’t been expecting a call, and since my daughter had known nothing beforehand about the subject of the call, her account of the conversation was at first puzzling to me, and I wondered if it involved some strange kind of scam. But then the words “passed away” and “team” (or some other sports-related word) and the notion that I had inquired about someone came through, and I knew what it had to be about.

When last I wrote about Ronnie Knox, the gifted quarterback whose reference to the pleasures of reading Proust had so intrigued me some fifty years ago, I noted that a college teammate of his, Jim Hanifan—later an NFL player and coach—had mentioned in his book that Ronnie had died homeless. Since I had not found anything else referring to Ronnie’s end or how he had spent the decades of his post-football life, I thought contacting Hanifan might be my best shot at learning more. I learned that Hanifan was now part of the St. Louis Ram’s radio broadcast team. Through the radio station’s website I submitted an email query, asking the unknown recipient to please contact Hanifan for me, both to confirm that Ronnie was dead and to see if he could provide any more information. For anyone just stumbling in on this, I refer you to prior posts here and here to catch up on my interest in Ronnie Knox.

About a month had elapsed between my initial inquiry and the phone call. The person that had called and talked to my daughter was Jim Stassi, the director of the Rams’ broadcasts. Stassi had left his phone number, and I called him the next day. What a nice guy! He was apologetic for not having gotten around to calling sooner. Anyway, he had talked to “Coach Hanifan” and could attest that Ronnie Knox had indeed died. He also mentioned that a San Francisco Chronicle writer named Ira Miller had written a piece about Ronnie at the time. I thought he said Ronnie had died in 1986 or so, but I may have misunderstood him.

Now I had to consider that the “few years ago” in Hanifan’s book from 2003 might be closer to twenty years. I went back and checked online for California death notices that far back and came across the definitive (birth date is Ronnie’s) answer: Ronald Knox, born in Illinois on February 14, 1935, died in San Francisco on May 4, 1992.

Unfortunately the online archives of the Chronicle only go back to 1995, so I will have to track down a physical (or microfiche) copy of the paper in a library to see the Miller piece that Stassi mentioned. I did find online, however, in the archives of the Los Angeles Times an article from July 17, 1988, when Ronnie Knox was 53. I paid $3.95 to get the full text of this article, which was a treasure trove of information on Ronnie (including the years after football), his stepfather, and other family members. The writer, Bob Oates, or an assistant, had interviewed both Ronnie and his notorious stepfather Harvey. Without quoting too extensively from the article, I will pass on some of the information that was completely new to me, and which helps fill in the missing years and casts a different light on some of the earlier strange goings on.

About Ronnie’s appearance, the author mainly affirms that he hasn’t changed all that much since a much earlier description was made in the LA Times:

To Times writer Cecil Smith 34 years ago, Ronnie was “a big, rangy kid, handsome, with tousled brown hair and hazel eyes, an easy, relaxed manner and a great deal of physical charm.” And most of that still goes. Ronnie’s weight and hair are almost unchanged today, although, like many old quarterbacks, he is noticeably round-shouldered.

Ronnie had evidently led a bohemian existence from the time he quit football until the interview thirty years later, and presumably continued to do so until his death. Hanifan had called him “homeless” when he died, but from the Times article it sounds as though he had been pretty close to that much of the time. At the time of the interview, he was moving out of a “one-room apartment” he’d been in only a week. I said his life was that of a “bohemian” rather than a poor transient because he evidently felt he was devoting his life to literature. However, if belonging to an artistic community is required for bohemian status, then he may not qualify.

Basically he seems to have been a drifter who wrote poems, tried various jobs (including coaching eight-man football for a Baptist school and working in the kitchen of a San Francisco harbor boat), and went through a number of career false starts. The article speaks of his longing to go to sea, but not of his having done so. Neither comradeship nor romantic attachments are mentioned, so one gets the picture of a solitary vagabond, which may not be accurate. I think of the phone call from Ronnie that Hanifan didn’t take because of a meeting he was in. Ronnie’s summary of the past thirty years: “Like James Fenimore Cooper’s noble savage, I’ve been away.”

The constant through these years was his devotion to literature, both the reading and writing of it. Over the years Ronnie wrote many poems, and had had the manuscript of a novel called Masquerade (on the theme of life is but a dream), which he considered his masterpiece, stolen along with hundreds of his poems in a suitcase from outside a motel in Galveston. Obviously he was not storing everything on a hard drive or remote server in those days.

Harvey, the stepfather, who, according to the article, had gained and lost several fortunes in his up-and-down life as a promoter of things like real estate developments, in addition to the careers of his children, said he always helped Ronnie when he could and alluded to Ronnie’s “emotional problems.” There’s no way to know exactly what that meant. Had there been serious mental breakdowns? There was no mention of drugs or alcohol. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Ronnie was incapable of living a normal life with a regular job. Ronnie seems to have been given to expressions that don’t make obvious sense both in his speech and poetry. For example the article quotes him as saying, “The trick is to stay fluid without turning into H2O.”

Ronnie had been married for four years to a “Viennese artist,” but the divorce had come in 1964. No children were mentioned. Ronnie’s sister, Patricia, who was referred to as a millionaire in the article, lived in Florida. His mother was said to be dying of cancer at the time of the article. Ronnie also had a half-brother I hadn’t heard of before.

I recently came across online a Pageant magazine from July 1956 that featured Pat Knox (then twenty-three) in her starlet phase. She had a good figure, I’ll say that. There’s a family shot of all the Knoxes, including Ronnie’s and Pat’s baby half-brother. The magazine was for sale on eBay. The fifties were a strange time, and looking through a Pageant magazine is a good way to be reminded of that. Perhaps only the fifties could have given rise to the sixties. Is it just that those were the decades of my youth, or have the subsequent decades really been blander, despite their own momentous events? Decades of my youth, I’d guess.

The LA Times article gave a little information about Ronnie’s actual father Dr. Raoul Landry, who was a professor of nuclear physics, of all things. Interestingly, a Google search turned up a man of that same name as having been a senior on the 1925 football squad at Southwestern Louisiana. There’s no way to tell if it is Ronnie’s father, but the age fits. From the LA Times article one gets the feeling that Harvey Knox may have stolen the prof’s wife, but I guess the couple could have been separated already when Harvey met Marjorie Landry, whom he first spotted making machine guns in an aircraft factory. In any case they married the same day the divorce went through.

Ronnie was seven at the time of his mother’s remarriage, and it must have been quite jarring to change his last name at that age, never mind to suddenly have a new father. I don’t want to engage too much in uninformed psychological analysis, but I can’t help noticing that this was perhaps the first of many abrupt changes in Ronnie’s life. Harvey set about teaching young Ronnie how to play football right away, initially against Ronnie’s desire. But, according to Harvey, the boy’s extraordinary natural talent, even at seven, was dramatically revealed in a way befitting the start of a legend.

In addition to saying something about what Ronnie had been up to since he quit football, the article also challenged my previous understanding of the early Ronnie Knox story, i.e., what went on back in Ronnie’s high school and college days. The article flatly states as fact that Ronnie was always the one calling the shots about his numerous moves from team to team and school to school, sometimes even going against the good advice of Harvey. This is contrary to everything else that I’ve read, and it’s hard to accept that all the contemporary accounts would have been so wrong.

OK, that’s what I wrote. Since then, and at the last minute (before posting), so to speak, I found online the original Harvey Knox article in the September 6, 1954 Sports Illustrated issue called Why Ronnie Knox Quit California. Although I looked for it a couple of months ago and couldn’t find it, it now turns up in the SI Vault. Lo and behold, there is the same account of Ronnie’s making the decisions about high school and college transfers due to dissatisfaction with his coaches. So if Harvey was stretching the truth, it started a long time ago.

Obviously, Harvey wasn’t telling Ronnie to quit football altogether or to bounce around from job to job in California, Mexico, Texas, Maine, and Europe in the following decades. So it may well be true that Ronnie was the one making the dramatic moves all along and that Harvey just took the heat and enjoyed the limelight. Based on the affection Jim Hanifan expressed for Ronnie, I can’t see Ronnie as the prima donna type, yet he does come across in Harvey’s accounts, at least, as extremely critical of his coaches, and with reason.

An interesting fact reported in the article was that, when the American Football League was being formed in 1960, Ronnie, then twenty-five, was offered a contract to be the first quarterback for the San Diego Chargers at any salary he wanted to name, but he told them he was through with football. Charger coach Sid Gillman, who tells of spending six weeks trying to track Ronnie down to make him an offer, finally finding him in a “dump at the beach,” is quoted as saying Ronnie was the John Elway of his day, unbelievably talented at running and passing.

Despite the disdain he expressed for football (“for animals”) when he quit playing the game for good back in 1959, Ronnie seems to have maintained an interest in it, especially for the strategic aspects of the game. The article says he was willing to call Bill Walsh the outstanding coach of the time. Ronnie’s own coaching of the Faith Baptist team is praised by the pastor.

Dr. Roland Rasmussen of Canoga Park’s Faith Baptist Church and Schools has been his most faithful employer, bringing him in three times—in ’72, ’77 and again this summer—to coach his eight-man football teams.

Knox never stays long—he learned a different way in high school—but as a football man, he has made a strong impression on Rasmussen, a pastor who discusses football with the efficiency of an expert.

“We got acquainted through his mother when she was a member (of Faith Baptist) in 1970,” Rasmussen said. “Ronnie relates beautifully to athletes—he gets the most out of each one—and he has a brilliant football mind. I think he could be an offensive coordinator anywhere.”

So the mysterious “lost years” of Ronnie Knox’s life (the major part of his life, in fact) have been filled in somewhat, if vaguely, in my mind. Inevitably, the Golden Boy mystique has been largely effaced by all those thoroughly unglamourous years of what seems to have approximated aimless bumming around writing incoherent poems (based on my reading of the one—the only published one?—that concluded the article).

Yet I can still remember when, as a kid in Texas, I first heard of Ronnie, when he was maybe the best football player in the country, and both our lives since then were all potential and unknown. What does that young Golden Boy have to do with the rather pathetic fifty-seven-year-old drifter that died in San Francisco? Well, what does that Texas kid that looked up to Ronnie as a hero have to do with the white-bearded fellow at the computer keyboard writing these words?

Although it seems a bit ridiculous to me now, there was a time in my life when I thought I might become a writer (as in novels, not a blog) also. I just never wrote anything. I did go through a phase of occasionally writing “poems” (mainly on napkins in bars, as I recall), though I never quite deluded myself into thinking I was a poet. Poems had the advantage of being short. Ronnie just kept on living his dream. Was he crazier than I or a poorer judge of his own talent than I was of mine, or was he just more serious, determined, and steadfast?

My life has also had a few periods of uncertain direction (see for example my posts Don’t Gamble, Hire a Physicist and The Perfect Italian Woman), but always with a PhD in physics to help out on the employment front and then to make “regular life” too comfortable and, at times, too interesting to forgo, without even mentioning the rewards and demands of family life, which Ronnie missed out on. And there were those periods where political activity took precedence in my life, which doesn’t seem ever to have been the case for Ronnie. Still, I can see more similarities in our lives than I would have guessed. I wish I could have run into the guy at some point. Imagine what it would have been like for me to have realized that the athletic fellow scribbling in the bar in Austin or the cafe in Berkeley was the real one-and-only Ronnie Knox!

Now I know with certainty that Ronnie died sixteen years ago. How should we think of him: eccentric or mentally ill? If he was crazy it was the sort of craziness that afflicts saints or crackpots who cause no direct harm to others. Was this obsession with literature a curse? He didn’t view it that way. He was in it for the long haul, and there is something admirable about Ronnie’s continuing to write poems all those years without encouragement, while still viewing it as his true calling. Literature was something he could stay connected to when his life was otherwise without mooring. He compared himself to a “noble savage,” and I will keep that interpretation in my mind as I recall the words of Jim Hanifan: “I thought the world of him, and it hurts to see him gone.”

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