SPORT

Big Stuke

They call Annis Stukus the Loquacious Lithuanian. He’s been talking, writing and playing top-drawer football for 12 seasons

JIM COLEMAN October 1 1946
SPORT

Big Stuke

They call Annis Stukus the Loquacious Lithuanian. He’s been talking, writing and playing top-drawer football for 12 seasons

JIM COLEMAN October 1 1946

Big Stuke

SPORT

They call Annis Stukus the Loquacious Lithuanian. He’s been talking, writing and playing top-drawer football for 12 seasons

JIM COLEMAN

WHEN the current rugby football season got under way, a large character decked in the verdant habiliments of the Toronto Indians surveyed the situation momentarily from midfield, leered pleasantly at the opposition, shouted hoarse words of encouragement to his teammates and then sent the opening kickoff spinning down the field for 55 yards. The ball travelled accurately, end over end, and settled in the arms of a nervous halfback. Then a horde of green-sweatered tacklers swarmed over the halfback and he disappeared.

The officials sorted out the arms and legs and restored a semblance of order. The last to be untangled was the large character, who reached out

for a handful of soft mud, rubbed it over his chin thoughtfully, and regarded the carnage with obvious satisfaction.

When the large character creaked to his feet there was an opportunity to have a good look at him. His nose obviously had been sculptured by someone who ordinarily designed scenic railways. His large hands dangled from his sleeves, and he walked like a fugitive from the orthopaedic wards. As he shambled back to his position the goodnatured taunts of the cash customers drifted through the ear flaps of his helmet.

“Ya bum!” they screamed. “Back to the Old Folks’ Home, ya bum! Why don’t you give the ball back to the kids, ya bum?”

All of which was sweet music to the ears of Annis Stukus, the senior member of The Three Stupendous Stuki who have been making football headlines in Canada for the past 12 years.

Annis Stukus is irked only mildly by football fanatics who insist that he played football in the era of Knute Rockne, Walter Camp, Jim Thorpe, Ted Coy and Pudge Heffelfinger.

Only once did he become righteously indignant in the face of these references to his vast age. That was in 1941, when Bob Cosgrove, one of the best linemen ever to play in this country, sauntered into the Balmy Beach dressing room just before a preseason practice. “I’ve heard everything, chortled Cosgrove. “An old dame asked me today if Annis Stukus and his two sons are going to play football for us this year.”

Annis at that time was 27, and his “two sons to whom the charming old lady referred were his younger brothers, Bill (25) and Frank (23).

In point of actual service, “Big Stuke” is antedated by many robust gentlemen who still are active in the game, but his craggy visage, his glib tongue and his prodigious feats on the field have become so familiar to football customers that they regard him as a chatty, vigorous old man who should have been retired years ago. Actually, at the age of 32, he is playing only his 12th season in senior football, and he has made more “farewell appearances” than that celebrated operatic singer, Adelina Patti. His bones have been fractured so often that he is the despair of his loved one and his employers, who anticipate that, almost any day, they will be gazing at him sadly as he lies stretched out in a nice casket.

Football’s Handy Man

ANNIS doesn’t pretend to be the most proficient of The Stuki, but his seniority entitles him to be their spokesman. For that matter, it s almost impossible to interrupt the flow of oratory when he chooses to declaim on football, and he is known in the craft as The Loquacious Lithuanian. Such an astute critic as Lew Hayman, who has coached teams to four senior Dominion championships since 1933, has said that Brother Bill is the best quarterback within his recollection, and the two elder Stuki insist that Brother Frank is the best line plunger ever to come down the pike. The fact remains that Brother Annis is the colorful handy man who can play any position and who, in addition, can out-talk any three officials and the opposing team.

Unfortunately, most of the remarks for which he has become famous on the playing fields of Canada are rather difficult to translate into the language of a family magazine, but perhaps one of the better off-field stories would help you visualize the man.

The scene was a small bistro in Hull, Que., a few hours after Big Stuke and the Toronto Argonauts had mopped a large field with the Ottawa Roughriders. The bistro was full of the usual customers, grouped over tables. The Argos had a big one to themselves.

At the door a Salvation Army girl appeared, selling the War Cry. She walked to the first table, got the brush-off. Stukus noticed this. She walked to another, again

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failed to do business. Stuke rose to his feet, walked over to her, and took the armful of papers from her. “Come with me,” he said.

He walked back to the table the girl had tackled first. The two men there were absorbed in their conversation. Annis dropped a heavy hand on one’s shoulder.

“You want to buy a War Cry, don’t you, bub?” he asked, menacingly.

The man looked up, recoiled, then reached for his pocket. Half a dollar was the smallest change he had.

“Aha,” said Mr. Stukus. “Help for the cause.” He gave it to the girl.

The rest of the circuit was about the same. Annis refused to make change, and made no attempt to hide his contempt for anyone who paid less than a quarter. In five minutes he was back among the Argos, swapping blocks and tackles, and the Salvation Army girl was still thanking him from the door as she went out, her tambourine full of money and her arms empty of papers.

Big Stuke is a living example of the triumph of will power over matter. Whereas Bill and Frank are natural athletes, Annis admits with engaging frankness that he was equipped with two left feet when he embarked upon his sportive career. He was oversized, he was awkward and he was scarcely as fast as a jack rabbit. He learned football the hard way, at the expense of numerous abrasions, contusions and no little heartburn.

His task was complicated by the fact that his father had some strange congenital opposition to football as a pastime. Stukus Senior had been something of a strong man in his native Lithuania, and, in fact, he was held in considerable awe by his neighbors. But he couldn’t see any future for 24 young men who padded and helmeted themselves and then butted each other into unconsciousness over a small inflated pigskin.

Accordingly, Big Stuke learned his football under circumstances of deep secrecy. He begged, borrowed and bought a battered set of equipment,

which he kept hidden in a friend’s house. The energy which he concentrated into those stolen hours made him a perfectionist in many phases of the game.

By the time that he reached Central Technical School he was acknowledged to be one of the outstanding young kickers in Toronto, and even then his forensic gifts had developed to such an extent that high-school umpires regarded him with a jaundiced eye.

Father Comes to See

All went well until one afternoon when Central Tech took the field to engage in an important game. As Annis was fondling the ball, just prior to the kickoff, he saw a strangely familiar figure on the sidelines. Annis’ heart looped the loop and he dropped the ball as he started for the side of the field. The familiar figure was Father Stukus—and Father Stukus was brandishing his fist in indignant fashion which boded no good for his errant son. That afternoon Annis ran as if his male parent was pursuing him on every play, and when the final whistle blew he kept on running right out of the park.

It was after dusk when Big Stuke pulled up under a lamp standard and regarded the bleak future. He cadged an evening paper from a newsboy of his acquaintance and gazed idly at the front page. A small headline hit him in the eye. The small headline read:

STUKUS STARS FOR CENTRALS

Muttering a few prayerful words he folded the paper and started out purposefully for his home. As he reached the front steps he broke into a trot and | when hé passed his father on the front | landing he was logging approximately ! 20 knots. He thrust the paper into the hands of his irate male parent and j yelped: “Look, pop! I got my name in | the papers.” He didn’t pause to await j reactions but displayed a neat bit of broken-field running to reach his own room without further interruptions.

Half an hour later, when he ventured downstairs, he discovered Father Stukus still regarding the front page

j of the newspaper and wearing a smug smile.

Annis sauntered to the telephone, dialed a number and confidently addressed someone at the other end of the line. “Come on over tomorrow night,” he said, “we’re going to hold the football meeting at my house.”

Annis, who had started his competitive career as a passer and kicker, graduated to the Argo seniors in 1935, and Coach Lew Hayman was momentarily aghast as he regarded the huge, shambling youth who confronted him.

“What do you play?” asked Hayman, as he recovered his customary poise with an effort.

“Anything,” flatly replied Big Stuke, who at that early stage had discovered that there’s no point in hiding your talents if you wish to play 60 minutes every game. And Big Stuke WOULD like to play 60 minutes of every game. He’d sooner play football than eat.

Too Many Quarterbacks

Hayman, who is a shrewd assayer of human material, promptly wrote down Big Stuke as a prospective quarterback. The situation was complicated the next year when Brother Bill, who then was known as Little Stuke (only 175 pounds to Annis’ 195), also reported for the Argonaut training sessions.

“What do you play?” asked Hayman.

“Anything,” cracked Little Stuke, who, actually, was a shy sort of fellow, hut he had been coached carefully by his older brother and mentor.

“Well, you’re another quarterback,” said Hayman, who by this time was beginning to wonder how many extroverts had been developed in the Stukus family. He was somewhat mollified two seasons later when Brother Frank reported to the team and admitted that he thought he would make a good halfback.

The emergence of Little Stuke in 1936 caused a minor crisis in the career ! of his older brother. Annis reasoned j accurately that since the Argos were equipped with two quarterbacks he couldn’t expect to be in action for more than 30 minutes of each game.

Accordingly he startled the coaching staff by offering himself as an alternative candidate for outside wing. In addition, he offered himself as a candidate for snapback, inside or middle wing and halfback. After that, when any man on the field was injured, Big Stuke would start warming up on the sidelines and casting overt glances at the coach, hoping that he would be hurled into the breach. In this manner Annis managed to play approximately 40 minutes of each game, a circumstance which filled him with great happiness.

Hayman also was looking for a placement kicker. Along with other astute coaches, he believes the field goal represents the “easiest three points in football.” No sooner had he mentioned that he was looking for a placement kicker than Big Stuke was out on the field, hooting the ball over the crossbar with a show of concentration and zeal which indicated that no other candidate need apply for the joh. He got it.

Due to his proficiency at placement kicking, he has led the scoring in his league four times in the past II years. Last season he headed the list for the whole of eastern Canada, though he didn’t score a single touchdown. All his 44 points came from field goals, conversions and singles.

Tragedy befell the Argonauts in 1937 on the eve of their Dominion Final against the hard-hitting Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The previous Saturday, in a game against Sarnia Imperials, Big Stuke had been rash enough to throw

an open block on the late Ormond Beach, the Kansas Giant. Beach was made of solid granite and, regretfully, the stretcher-bearers gathered the remains of Stukus in a basket and carted him to the hospital.

It didn’t take long for the croakers to diagnose the extent of Stuke’s injuries. The knobs on his spine had been sheared and he could look forward to months of walking around in a plaster of Paris jacket. “Beach couldn’t have done a better job on him if he had hit him with a 16-pound sledge hammer,” said the doctor as he gave his final instructions to the nursing staff.

The grief of the Argonaut supporters echoed throughout the land. The newspapers published pictures of Stukus on his bed of pain, twiddling the dials of the radio over which he would hear the broadcast of the Dominion championship game.

Hayman, who, like all good coaches, has a trace of ham in his soul, seized upon the opportunity to make one of the most heart-wringing speeches of his career. He gathered his team in the dressing room just before the kickoff and, with his eyes moist and his voice thick with emotion, he implored his hired assassins to “go out and win this one for old Stuke.”

They won the game, 4-3, with a field goal kicked by Earl Selkirk. Everyone (except the Western supporters) was very happy, and the newspapers obligingly printed stories telling how Stukus, practically on his deathbed, had instructed Selkirk how to overcome the treacherous crosswinds and bumpy terrain of University of Toronto Stadium.

Annis kicked and bucked for the Argos for seven years, then jumped in 1942 to the Toronto Indians. In 1943 he switched again—to Balmy Beach.

Next season found him doing a 17month stretch in the Navy, which made the badly battered Big Stuke a deck and rifle instructor. But he didn’t miss any football. He played in the service league for H.M.C.S. York Bulldogs, who won the Ontario service title and the Canadian Navy championship. In winning the Navy title they trounced the Donnaconas, from Montreal, who later were able to claim the Canadian rugby championship by beating Hamilton Tigers in the playoffs.

When Brother Meets Brother

Little Stuke was in the Air Force, and there he was quarterback for the Hurricanes, who won the Canadian championship in 1942. Hurricanes lost only one game that year—to the Indians, who had Big Stuke as quarterback and Frank in the baekfieid. To make it worse Annis scored the whole 15 points the Indians made against his brother’s team.

Frank spent nine months in the Army, then was discharged because of a lifelong trick knee. With the war over, all the Stuki returned to the rejuvenated Indians.

It wasn’t until after the 1937 season that The Stuki discovered that football players actually received money for enjoying themselves on the field.

They were shocked, stunned and bewildered. The Argonauts, realizing what sensitive souls The Stuki were, had declined to let them know that possibly other boys on the club might have received a small batch of green stuff, passed to them behind a darkened door. They were wounded additionally when someone tipped them off that even the girl softball players in the city were receiving more pay than the majority of the Argonauts. The situation called for a family council of war.

Next year Annls, as the senior member of the triumvirate, got around

to asking the Argonauts for $500 for his services. He says now that the executive was deeply hurt by this show of professionalism.

“I would have asked them for dough before,” says Big Stuke, “but I was afraid that they wouldn’t let me play football. What would I have done if they wouldn’t let me play football?”

The Stuki have sharpened up considerably since those days. Last season they were largely instrumental in the formation of the Toronto Indians as the first co-operative football team in Canada. They paid all their expenses for the year’s operations and then divided the profits of $3,000 among the players. The profits weren’t large, but they feel that it was a step in the right direction, and this year they anticipate slicing a very large melon.

“If we didn’t do anything else, we forced the other eastern teams to pay decent salaries to their players,” says Annis.

The Playing Reporter

Big Stuke’s athletic career has been complicated, to some extent, by the fact that at the age of 16 he recklessly decided to become a newspaperman with the Toronto Star. It is an axiom that a good athlete needs plenty of sleep, and there is another axiom to the effect that a good newspaperman never sleeps. Big Stuke had difficulty in reconciling these two philosophies. He was assigned to the police beat and on Friday nights, when he should have been resting for the next day’s football game, he would be counting the stab wounds in some victim’s body at the morgue or peering mournfully into a

ravine while the police searched for the corpus delicti in some murder case.

Then some genius hit upon the idea of converting him into a sports reporter and assigning him to write the stories of the football games in which he played.

It is easy to imagine the violent form of criticism which his literary efforts occasioned in his rivals. “So,” would say an opposition lineman, kicking Stukus painfully in the jaw the following Saturday, “you didn’t think I was showing much drive last Saturday, eh?”

And numerous rough fellows made a practice of crashing Stukus heavily to the turf, massaging his nose with their knees, and then suggesting playfully: “Let’s see how that looks in the paper!”

Nonetheless the members of Canada’s foremost football family are made of very sturdy stuff and little things like that didn’t worry them. The combined list of the fractures which they have sustained reads like the compilation of casualties after a major disaster, but they’ve out there again this year, prepared to die for the dear old Indians.