You don’t have to make it to the NFL or the NBA to share the universal truth of team sports. Moments and teammates stay frozen in time.
I can’t say for sure if I’ve seen my friend Dave any time in the last 49 years. Probably once or twice in the 1970s or 1980s. I was a year ahead of him in high school and went off to Holy Cross in 1971. He went to UMass a year later and became an eighth-grade science teacher in New Hampshire.
We were not super close. We never kept up. But in speaking with other ex-teammates through the years, I was able to keep tabs on him. I knew that he had a couple of daughters, retired, and lost his wife a few years ago.
Scanning the Globe obituaries last week, I saw that Dave’s 93-year-old mom had died. In that moment, a lot of memories from the old days washed over me and it made me want to attend her funeral services.
It was an easy 40-minute drive on a Saturday morning. It was an opportunity to pay respects to a wonderful woman who was a devout den mother and Little League mom, ever a presence at our baseball and basketball games. I’d no doubt get to see Dave for maybe the second or third time in the last 40 or 50 years.
Back in high school, he was the talented boy from central casting. Tall. Handsome. Smart. Athletically gifted. The kind of guy we are predisposed to hate when we are young. Insecure adolescence is rich with jealousy.
But Dave was humble and unassuming. He never rubbed his gifts in our faces. He never thought of himself as a big deal, so it was easy to get along with him.
When we were teenagers in 1970, Dave and I had adjacent lockers in the underbelly of Groton High School. From November through June — basketball, then baseball — we dressed side by side, then went upstairs or outside to practice. Pulling on stinky socks and sweats every day, one of us would say, “Hey, I don’t mind you standing at your locker,’’ then segue into a stupid, crude joke.
It was sophomoric high school humor — an inside joke for a club with two members. Anyone who has been on a team knows what I am talking about. We thought we were hilarious, but we were just typical high school kids who cared about the next game more than anything else of the moment.
Dave was a starter. I was a backup, just happy to be on the varsity. The Groton High Crusaders were never state champions or anything like that, but we won more than we lost and kept ourselves near the top of the Wachusett League in Central Massachusetts.
My most vivid memory of Dave was from December 1970 when I was a senior and he was a junior and he bailed me out of an embarrassing moment. It was in the closing seconds of an early-season game before a packed house at the Littleton gym. I was riding the bench when our star center turned his ankle as he was fouled. We had to take a timeout to tend to him and that meant he could not take his own free throws. Coach had to select somebody from the bench to take the two shots.
That was me. Free throws were the best part of my game. I could make 24 of 25 in practice. I just couldn’t do much of anything else.
So coach sent me to the line for a pair. Tie game. Seconds left.
Naturally, I choked. The first one rattled in and out. That rattled me. The second one barely drew iron.
Humiliating. I would crush Marcus Smart if he did this today.
But on that night, I was saved. Ever athletic, natural, and clutch, Dave wound up with the ball in his hands and shot it through the hoop as the buzzer sounded.
Forty-nine years later, on a cold Saturday morning in the back of a 200-year old Congregational Church, I was chatting with a first-grade classmate (from 1959!) when a tall, lean, sixtysomething man approached and said, “Hey, I don’t mind you standing at your locker, but . . . ”
No one has said those words to me in 50 years.
It could only be Dave.
I told him how much we all loved his mom. I asked him if he remembered the night he bailed me out in Littleton. He was hazy on the details of my choking, but remembered scoring the winning bucket.
There is nothing wildly remarkable about any of this. These small, lifelong memories are being made every day in every gym and rink across America.
I sat with another old teammate in one of the back rows of the Congregational Church for Dave’s mom’s service on Saturday. When it was over, there was a reception in the church basement and I had a chance to meet Dave’s two daughters and tell them what their dad was like in high school.
The everlasting gift of high school team sports is not always quantified in touchdowns, home runs, and free throws made (or missed). Ultimately, it’s the relationships you build and the memories you make. Small moments last a lifetime, and 50 years after something happens, you find yourself getting all choked up all over again.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.