My Grandpa. My Hero.
In the past couple of weeks, I've seen the growing results of aging, the compassion and love a family has for one another, and the importance of time. The cycle of life can be a tough concept to wrap ones’ head around, and when it hits close to home, it's an even tougher thing to grasp.
In a dimly lit floor of the hospital, my grandfather was told at 95 that his heart would soon stop working. At his age, there was no surgery that he qualified for to fix this issue — it's simply old age. My grandmother, my dad and I listened intensely as the nurses explained what would come next for our beloved football-star. In that moment, we all felt an empty pit in our stomachs that we knew wasn't going away anytime soon. Our eyes watered and became red, but my grandpa sat there content. His pale, baby blue eyes staring at us with a glow on his face from the afternoon sun. After hearing the news, my grandma walked over and held his face in her hands as she softly kissed him on the lips holding back tears. My dad then tightly grasped onto my grandfather's hand and helped clarify exactly what the doctors were saying. My grandpa took a second to comprehend, and then looked at us with those big blue eyes of his and said, "this isn't a bad thing, this is a good thing." It took me a while to finally digest and understand why my grandpa was so okay with passing away — it was because he lived one hell of a life!
My grandpa was the kind of man everyone grew up wanting to be. Born in August of 1919 on his Ukrainian family’s wheat farm in Saskatchewan, Canada, he was the oldest of four siblings. After leaving Canada for Detroit he became an athletic superstar in his hometown of Hamtramck. He played almost every sport—basketball, baseball, track —but his true passion was football and oh did he show it on the gridiron. He decided to tryout for the football team because he said he had nothing else to do after class. Turns out he was a natural and caught the eye of a couple coaches and was later asked to join the Hamtramck High School Cosmos at 15 years-old, playing as an offensive and defensive lineman. In no-time he became a town favorite as the Cosmos went undefeated for three years in a row, only once losing a game to Fordson. He was named All-City Tackle in 1935-36 and was also voted the most athletic male of his senior class. He still remembers the 80-yard touchdown he made against Miller when he intercepted the ball and became the first tackle in the history of the school to score a touchdown. He still tells the story like it was yesterday. It became obvious that athleticism ran in the Kostiuk boys' veins because my grandpa's brother, Bill, was later drafted by the Cincinnati Reds baseball team and played football with my grandpa later in his career.
After high school, my grandpa followed his high school coach Hal Shields to Detroit Tech for another four astonishing years on the field. He was named Little All-American in 1939 and captain of his college team in 1940, before being drafted by the Cleveland Rams in 1941.During the season he injured his knee and went to go play for the Jersey City Giants as a first-string guard. One sport scribe said “Kostiuk has the best pair of legs I have ever seen.” He was drafted again, but this time it was for the army during World War II. During that time he played as a tackle for the intimidating and undefeated Army Greensboro Hawks and was selected for the North Carolina All-State Service team and Mid-Atlantic All Service team. They liked to call him "Iron Mike." He wasn’t done being one of the NFL’s frontiersmen, and was also drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1945 and then the Buffalo Bills in 1946. He played a few games with the Detroit All-stars as a first-string tackle and then the undeafeted Detroit Tars, an independent professional football team.
He was part of the era where teams traveled by train, helmets didn’t have face-masks, and players were paid by the game. He even played pinochle and drank beer with Detroit Red Wings goalie Terry Sawchuk (pictured) and winger Gordie Howe at the Ukrainian Democratic Club in Hamtramck.
His last seasons was in 1947 with the Paterson New Jersey Panthers. He already met my grandma by then and married her within six months in fear that someone might steal her away from him. On their honeymoon they had to fly back to Paterson because my grandpa was a first-stringer, so my grandma came along for the ride. During the game, my grandpa broke his nose. Not much of a romantic honeymoon for the newly-weds, but somehow they managed to be married for almost 68 incredible years. He played the rest of the season and had his nose fixed when he came back home. But soon after, another life was calling —marriage, three kids and three decades of service as a firefighter putting out fires and saving lives. But time continued to tick and after multiple knee surgeries he slowly lost his ability to walk and my grandparents were forced to move out of their home of over 25-years to an independent senior living apartment. It was a hard transition, but in the end, it was the best for both of them.
At the age of 95, he was named the oldest living former player for both the Cleveland Rams and the Detroit Lions. As of July 2015, he was the NFL's 5th-oldest living former player. He was featured in the Detroit Free Press on the sport's front page and was interviewed by Guy Gordon for Local 4 Detroit.
As his body continues to wither away and the days start to mold together, his humor and memory stays with him. He can still recall going to visit his childhood farm in Canada as clear as day. He misses breakfast with his buddies in the dining hall, but still enjoyes the fun family visits, and of course his daily dose of "medicine" (a shot of Jack Daniels). He continues to receive hospice care in the comfort of his own home with the nurses coming and going to help comfort him, change his clothing, and bath him. It isn't easy. Some days he tells God that he is ready to go. Some days he isn't. By the end we all knew it was time. But the more we look back on his life, the more we realize how full it was with dignity and honor, not without sorrows, but with a fulfilling meaning that few experiences could ever come close to. My grandpa’s life was nothing short of extraordinary. He was the orignal gentleman.
We continue to spend a lot of the time reminiscing about familiar memories and watching home videos of our favorite holidays. We pull out photo albums from the 30s and numerous scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings from my grandpa's famous football days. My grandpa always inspired me, but after reading through all the scrapbooks, I found he was practically a celebrity of his time and inspired more than just me.
One day I came across a photo of my grandpa when he was 19 and it hit me right in the gut. We don't really think about our grandparents or parents as teenagers or even little kids. We forget that they were once our age as well. They ran around in the hot summer sun until the streetlights came on and were rebellious to their parents once or twice. These months have made me realize just how fast time goes by and just how important it is to savor it. I'm slowly learning that aging is not just about our bodies deteriorating, it's about the growth and wisdom that comes with time.
My grandpa was lucky. He was able to be there when all three of his children got married and couldn't be more blessed. He watched his three grandchildren grow up and couldn't be prouder. He grew old with his soulmate for almost 68 years and still can't seem to get enough of her. He lived the longest out of all his siblings and most, if not all of his football teammates. He was a football all-star that the girls use to chase around Hamtramck. He ran into burning buildings to save families in order to put dinner on the table for his own family. Even though his sun may be setting, God blessed him with a life he can be proud of and thankful for.
Soon you come to learn that life is a series of pulls back and forth, a tension of opposites. Most of us try to live somewhere in the middle, almost like a wrestling match. And in the end, love wins. Love will always win. I witnessed that family is so much more then people you are related to. It's knowing that your family is not just here to love you, but to watch out for you. Nothing else will give you that. Not money. Not fame. Not work. I've witnessed how important it is to love, as well as to be loved. I found it's okay to sometimes let yourself have a good cry, but it's most important to concentrate on the good things still in your life - family, great memories, and the future ahead.
As my grandpa grows more and more tired each day, I've come to terms with it and decided that death is as natural as life. It's part of the deal we made. It's heartbreaking that the body can't last as long as the love between two people. But it's also kind of beautiful that love transcends beyond time. All we can do is experience it while it's here and while it lasts. Till the last day, I continue to come over and sit on his bed and discuss his incredible life and share stories from the past. His eyes have seen so many places and his heart has felt so many things for one lifetime. The nurse still tells us that he is the strongest and sweetest patient she has ever had the pleasure of taking care of and called him a fighter. Our fighter. No man could ever measure up to the number of memorable and honorable things my grandpa did in one lifetime. His shoes are simply too big to fill. In the end, I slowly realize that the one thing I was never ready for, was saying one last good-bye.
It’s okay, you can go now Grandpa. We won’t forget you. You are unforgettable. You are loved.