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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Little did I know, I was in a meeting with a future President

It was the winter of 1984, in the middle of the awards season, where there is one chipped beef or roasted chicken dinner after another.

I just happened to be attending one of those awesome dinners at the then-Sheraton Hasbrouck Heights (believe it is now a Hilton). I don't remember who the dinner was for or the occasion of the dinner, but a host of sports celebrities were slated to be at this dinner. A friend secured a ticket for me.

Let's see, a free dinner with open bar and a sports theme to boot _ and celebrities all around. It seemed like a win-win for me. At that point, I was just in the infant stages of my career, working for the Morristown Daily Record the first time around.

I was just going to go, have a few, eat like I always did and maybe mingle a little.

In a corner of the room stood Passaic High School's superstar running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who was a Parade All-American at Passaic, who spent the prior three years terrorizing northern New Jersey opponents who could not find a way to stop the human wrecking ball. Heyward became a local legend, leading the Indians to two straight state championships. He was 5-foot-11 and 275 pounds, so he was huge, bigger than most linemen.

"Ironhead" was given the nickname as a kid because when he was 12, someone tried to break a pool cue over Heyward's head, but he didn't flinch and the cue didn't break. Legend also had it that the nickname was because he also had a size 8 3/4 head and it was impossible to find a helmet to fit him. Not only was he a man among boys physically, but he was also extremely quick and deft on his feet, so he remained a tailback throughout high school with his 5-foot-9, 175-pound older brother Nate as the fullback.

It made Heyward one of the most highly recruited backs in the nation and the University of Pittsburgh won the recruiting war to secure the services of "Ironhead."

Heyward, who died tragically of a brain tumor during Memorial Day weekend of 2006 at the age of 39, was one of the celebrities being honored at this dinner at the Sheraton.

I had written two stories about Heyward already, which was a rarity for stories appearing in a Morris County newspaper about a Passaic County high school kid. I was able to spend a November afternoon with Ironhead, Nate and their high school coach, the lovable Ray McCrann, who unfortunately also passed away last summer.

So Heyward was familiar with me at the time of this dinner. I had greeted Ironhead that night, then stepped aside as another of the honorees made his way into the ballroom.

Donald Trump was the rogue owner of the New Jersey Generals of the old USFL and gained notoriety by being the owner who signed two straight Heisman Trophy winners in Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie. Trump was determined to make the Generals significant enough that they would eventually become a franchise in the NFL. He was poised to make a big splash with his franchise at all cost. Trump had a team that played in the Meadowlands in the spring and had superstars in Walker and Flutie.

Trump made his way through the room when he was introduced to Heyward. I stood about two feet away from the meeting when I was stunned with what took place.

I clearly heard Trump utter these words to Ironhead.

"I've heard a lot about you and I want you to join the Generals," Trump said. "I want you to sign now."

Trump then offered Heyward more than $1 million to sign with the Generals for four years. Ironhead had yet to graduate from Passaic High, but Trump was set to throw a lot of money his way. No high school player had ever made the leap from high school to pro football. Sure, there were a ton of basketball legends and of course, baseball players get drafted out of high school all the time. But football?

Football players need the years to fine tune physically and naturally mature. But most football players weren't built or made like Ironhead. If any high school kid could make the leap, it would be him.

I clearly heard the interaction between the two. Trump told the kid to "have your agent call me and we'll set everything up."

To with, Ironhead said to McCrann, "Do I have an agent?"

I immediately sprinted to a pay phone and called my sports editor and guru Rob Tanenbaum with what I heard. He then told me to get Heyward to talk about it and I had a story. So Heyward admitted that Trump offered him a contract. Bingo! We had a story.

I personally didn't want to step on the toes of Abbott Koloff, the great writer and reporter for the Bergen Record who helped to break the Bridgegate scandal for the Bergen Record, who covered the Generals for the Morristown Daily Record at the time. Koloff did a phenomenal job as a sportswriter, especially covering football and had his finger on the pulse of the Generals. Tanenbaum said that he would take care of Abbott and that I should work on the story about Heyward getting offered a pro contract.

That's what I did, working closely with Tanenbaum about the story of Trump actually offering a high school football player a contract.

A few days after the story appeared on the front page of the Daily Record, I got a phone call at home. On the other end of the phone was someone professing to be "John Baron of the New Jersey Generals."

The man saying he was Baron said that Mr. Trump wanted to meet with me and talk about the story, that Mr. Trump wanted to give his side of the story.

I've now learned that the man who said he was Baron is now believed to be Trump himself.

Baron (ironically the name of Trump's youngest son) said that Trump wanted me to meet him at Trump Tower at 9:30 a.m. on a Monday morning.

"And you better not be late, because Mr. Trump doesn't like people who are late," the voice said.

It was a stretch for me to get to midtown Manhattan on time, because I'm the one who is going to be late for my own funeral. I'm late for everything. But I figured I'd agree to the meeting with Trump.

I got to Trump Tower around 9 a.m. (I left Jersey City like at 6:30 a.m.) and sat in the lobby for a half hour, just amazed with all the glitz and brass and glass and lighting. At 9:25 a.m., a security guard said Mr. Trump would then see me.

I went into this gigantic room alone. There was a desk at one end of the room and pictures all around, but the furniture was clear across the other side of the room, which had more collective space than my own home. Just the one room.

Trump walks in and says, "Don't get up." I never moved. I don't think I was moving. He then offered me a drink. I said I was fine. He said, "Here, have some scotch."

He poured a lot of scotch into a giant brandy snifter glass. "You better drink this, because I don't drink," he said. I then said, "Mr. Trump, it's 9:30 in the morning!" And he said. "You're a sportswriter. Don't sportswriters drink all day long? Drink it. You'll feel better."

Like an idiot, I sipped the scotch at 9:30 in the morning. It didn't sit well with the Cap'n Crunch I ate a few hours earlier.

Trump then proceeded to tell me that he read my story, "although I don't usually read the papers, but I read your story. It was interesting."

Trump then said to me that he actually offered Heyward a "future" contract, meaning one that he could sign when he was done with college. It wasn't a contract to be signed in high school. It was a future contract, but that the Generals would be glad to have a homegrown talent like Heyward on the team to play in the shadows of where he grew up.

I swear I heard nothing of "future" contract. Nor did Ironhead. He was led to believe that Trump wanted him to sign right there, right out of the halls of Passaic High. We will never know now, because Ironhead is unfortunately gone and we all know where Trump is now.

The meeting with Trump lasted about 20 minutes. He allowed me to quote him about different topics about the Generals, about the USFL, about the Meadowlands and about Ironhead Heyward. I had enough certainly for another story.

That was 34 years ago. I never could have dreamed that I could now say that I met that morning with the 45th President of the United States. How many people can say that the President of the United States offered them Johnny Walker Black for breakfast?

It happened. I kid you not.

Personally, I still can't believe Donald Trump is our President. I'm still in a state of shock over it _ and it has nothing to do with that fateful meeting in Trump Tower.

But among the incredible tales that I've encountered and endured over my career, this one ranks right up there.

After watching Duke unravel down the stretch last night, I truly believe that Coach K came to the realization that this team was not going to be good (or good enough in Duke standards) and he had the surgery now to avoid being there to watch his team disintegrate. Just my thoughts. And one thing is for sure: Jeff Capel now has no prayer of being the head coach of the Blue Devils whenever Coach K retires...

I am now the biggest fan of the Atlanta Falcons. Go Matty Ice and Julio Jones and coach Dan Quinn, the Morristown native and brother of my friend John, the legendary New Jersey high school coach. But let's face facts. I'd root for the Putin All-Stars in the Rooskie Bowl if they were playing the New England Cheatalots. That team can't fail enough for my liking...

Here's to John Dunne and the Peacocks of St. Peter's University, who have put themselves right in the hunt of the regular season MAAC title with their sixth win in the last seven games, a huge win over Rider last night. Dunne has done a phenomenal job with this group, considering the adversity that the Peacocks have faced recently. Ridiculously, the MAAC schedule had them play five games over the last 10 days. These are college kids. How can they study, practice and play? Anyway, Dunne is doing perhaps his best coaching job of his 11 years as the head coach at Harvard on the Boulevard....

I promise more blogs this year than last.....I give you my word.


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