Before my great-grandfather enlisted in the United States Navy during World War II; before he took up professional boxing to pass the time; before he married the Swedish girl from the barn dance outside of town; and before he raised a son of his own, he was a high school student who devoted all of his time to football and baseball. He was good, too: the local newspaper published article after article detailing the First Ward Falcons’ wins, highlighting Thomas’ plays and tryouts for the coveted quarterback position. As Dunkirk’s sports columnist reported on November 20, 1939, he was “nothing short of sensational.”
Thomas was known in the local papers as Tommy “Bug” Kuznicki–this was the late 1930s, and I can’t imagine him with a nickname, let alone a nickname like “Tommy” or “Bug.” To me, my great-grandfather was a kind man and a loving father, but he was also an imposing and larger-than-life figure. Where did the nicknames come from? Kuznicki is a Polish surname that can be loosely translated to “bug” in English. My great-grandfather’s team had a winning streak in 1939, and the players gave each other nicknames; naturally, Tommy Kuznicki became “Bug,” and I guess it stuck.
In one baseball game in 1938, Tommy was singled out for stealing five bases, including home, and he alternated between the pitcher and first baseman positions each game. “Tommy Kuznicki was the outstanding star at bat by clouting for the circuit and then following this with a lusty triple into deep left field.” And later, “Another interesting feature of the game was the base stealing of Tommy Kuznicki, who along with his three hits, stole five bases including home.” When the season ended that year, my great-grandfather formed “The Kuznicki Nine” baseball team with his older brothers, and they played their Tofil cousins and the employees of other restaurants and bars in town.
In 1939, Tommy joined the First Ward Falcons’ football team, and he devoted the entire season to impressing his coaches and vying for the next year’s first string quarterback position. My great-grandfather was good at baseball, but he excelled in football: “The visitors were given a scare on the kick-off following the touchdown as Tommy Kuznicki took the kick and started wide to the left. Tommy started down the sidelines and out-ran three would-be tacklers and…had but three men to pass when he reached the visitors 40. Tommy cut in and raced the rest of the remaining 15 yards without one hand touching him on the entire run.” Touchdown, Falcons.
That next year, my great-grandfather became the team’s quarterback, and it was his dream to secure a spot on a college team. He was kicked off the football team and expelled from school, though, after he was caught selling his parents’ moonshine around town one evening. Tommy dropped the nicknames, joined the Navy, married a local girl and started boxing with his Navy friends in Pearl Harbor. While he never played professionally, he did continue to form baseball teams with his brothers and cousins, and he imparted his love of football onto his son and granddaughters. Sadly, I didn’t inherit the sports gene, but my cousins are pretty good at soccer–maybe all of the talent went to them.