Wednesday, December 7, 2016
The very "different" player of the year photo
By the time I was 22, I was feeling my oats in this business they called print journalism.
Four years into it and I already felt like my creative juices were flowing at long last. The fall of '88 sports season had wrapped up. I had my normal two sports to put together for Ocean County Observer All-County teams. There was gymnastics and there was field hockey.
Field hockey was the one sport in which my boss would always do the same layout each year -- he'd dedicate most of the front page to sprinkling mug shots of players on the side going vertically with their names and schools under them and have one "feature" shot that would go right at the top in the middle of the layout as our "player of the year."
I liked it, actually. And I began to put together the All-County team for this past year with numerous young ladies who would represent Ocean County on the 13-girl squad first team. The four really good teams that year were Point Pleasant Boro, Central Regional, Toms River East and Toms River North. North had most of the players on the All-County team -- and they had the one young lady who was, in my opinion, the player of the year. Now, keep in mind, we didn't designate a player of the year back in those days at the paper, but if we highlighted them and led off the All-County story (a looooong drawn out story, too) with them, the feeling was that the reader pretty much understood what I was driving at -- she's the best player that season.
In that fall of 1988, I knew exactly who our player of the year was in the county -- it was North's senior veteran goalkeeper, Linda Kurtyka, who the year before was the goalie of the Mariners' NJSIAA Group IV state championship. Thing was, this 1988 North team had so many different personalities on it -- from the quiet Katie Vignevic and Christy Emmert to the outgoing Marie DeFrancesco and Lori Garrabrant -- it was easy to know them individually. And they were really good as players, which made it easy to cover them.
But North couldn't go far that year without Kurtyka, the fast-thinking, fast-moving goalkeeper with the amazing reflexes. She was deserving of the "honor," even if we didn't officially hand one out. North's defense in 1988 was good, but not quite as good as the state championship team the year before. And she bailed her teammates out often, especially in the postseason.
Still, though, she had to deal with the bitter loss in the NJSIAA South Jersey Group IV title game against Shawnee when she lost out on a 50-50 ball with 18 seconds left in regulation time that the Shawnee player got to first and flicked behind Kurtyka and into the net, sending the game into overtime and eventually penalty one-on-ones in which a backup Shawnee goalie swatted everything away in a 2-1 victory on North's field. For a long time, I had a picture of one of the officials, who did many a North game as well as other field hockey games in Ocean County, trying to console a teary-eyed Kurtyka, who was beaten on two goals in the one-on-ones.
The loss was heartbreaking considering the winner of that game was most likely going on to win the state Group IV title, which Shawnee ended up doing.
So assembling the All-County team was fairly easy that year. But I wanted to do something completely different from the regular "action" shot that I'd get on the phone with the young lady or her coach and tell them to get their uniform, equipment and hockey stick and just meet our photographer at the field for a picture session.
I had seen other newspapers -- including our rival Asbury Park Press -- do some fancy feature shots for their All-County or all-area teams. If they could do them, why couldn't we? Just because we were still in the dark era with black and white pages and photography should never impede on your creativity.
I wanted to do something different with Linda. Why? You just have to know the person to understand what you want to do. When I first met Linda Kurtyka, she was a freshman on the North girls soccer team that her head coach, Jean Konyhas, told me would be special. I didn't truly get to know her, though, until her sophomore year. It was a game at Shelter Cove Park, home of Toms River East's girls soccer team. North, behind the midfield play of Kurtyka, beat East on that spring Saturday in 1987, and would take the A South championship that year, ending East's run of outright A South championships at three straight years. As I was leaving the parking lot at the park, I see Linda walking by. My eyes caught hers and there I saw it for the first time -- the smile that melted the entire town of Toms River.
Twenty-year-old guys like me didn't care that Linda Kurtyka was 16 ... a smile like that does wonders.
For the next year and a half, I got to know her ... and even do sparring verbal "jabs" on the phone to sometimes break her out of that shy state she was in. I pretty much knew her and her mom and dad, Claudia and Kurt. They were all great.
The thing was, I wasn't sure how or which direction I wanted to go in with this feature picture. Different ideas rolled through my head, but knowing Linda, I wasn't sure they were going to go swimmingly with her. Then I remembered a picture I had seen earlier in 1988. It was a poster of Oakland Athletics sluggers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, dressed up like Jake and Elwood Blues from Blues Brothers fame with oversized baseball bats, embracing their "Bash Brothers" persona. At first, I thought, "I don't know about this." But the more I looked at it, the more I began seeing Linda in that suit and tie hiding behind those pretty brown eyes with a pair of shades.
I smiled. I knew this was going to work.
I called Linda up to tell her she was going to be the feature shot for the All-County team -- and to wish her a happy birthday since I had not seen her after the loss to Shawnee. That game was on November 11, 1988, she turned 18 just nine days later.
Next, I told her my plan for the picture and though I can hear some hesitation at the other end, I can feel her warming up to it to the point that she liked it. Done deal! In some cases, I had to win her trust.
It's now Monday, December 5, 1988. I knew she was going to find a suit (she had a father and two brothers after all), a dress shirt, a tie and shoes for the occasion. The only thing she didn't have for the picture was a hat. This is where I have to go and do the work.
All day on that Monday, I called around to various stores in Ocean County that might have a Stetson hat. Must have tried over half a dozen. None of them had what I was looking for ... none!
So much for Ocean County helping an Ocean County guy. My next option was stores in Southern Monmouth County. I tried one store there. They didn't have what I was looking for. Finally, I hit paydirt with a dress store that sadly no longer exists. It was Wilkins in downtown Manasquan. They finally had the hat I was seeking. Told them I'd be there sometime after 6:30 p.m. They were open until 8, so I had time.
On my drive from my Toms River house to Manasquan, I made a stop over in the Silverton section where the neighborhood newspaper store and Quik-Chek were located. I parked near the pet store where my family purchased food and other stuff over the years there. As I get out of the car, I see two people I know -- one is Marie DeFrancesco and the other is Heather McVeigh, close friends and North seniors. I'm getting out of the car on this cold night in the upper 40s as the sun begins to set and say, "Hi" to them and congratulate Marie on making All-County and that she has a mug shot she needs to take at the paper this week and to be there. Once I have that conversation, I walk into Quik-Chek to get some gum and a drink and I'm on my way out to my car and heading to Manasquan.
By now as I approach the car, I see Heather and Marie again, except this time, I see Marie outside and Heather inside and Heather has Marie locked out of the car.
"Umm, is everything OK, Marie?"
"Yeah, yeah. She's being difficult. She's going to let me in."
"OK, have a good one."
I turn on my car and just as I'm ready to pull the car into reverse, I can hear Marie angrily going, "Let me in!" Then a moment later ... she spits on the windshield. For a moment, I cringe watching this, but then I start laughing when as soon as that spit landed on the windshield, Heather, whose father, Bill, I knew for years as a Toms River High School East teacher, then as head girls basketball coach, flicks the windshield wipers on to wipe it away.
I'm pretty sure Heather allowed her buddy back in the car and that they got along rather well after that. But it's just one of those silly, stupid things you still have sitting there in your head generations later, knowing these two were going to be mothers someday. Oh, those kooky kids that graduated from the Class of '89!
So I go on my way down Hooper Avenue until it turns into Route 549 for where I jump onto Route 70 in Brick, for which I will take into Monmouth County until I can find my way toward downtown Manasquan. I had been to Manasquan High School a couple of times, but never to downtown Manasquan. Nightfall had come completely and I was parking in a diagonal spot facing the bank of shops on one side of Main Street. I honesty didn't know how many stores I had to walk around until I found it, but it turns out it was only three stores down. Great luck on my part.
I walk inside, introduce myself as that guy who asked about the Stetson hat and one of the ladies working the store went to the back. When she got back, she had this big box for which inside was the hat in question. I opened the box, took it out of its holding place and put it on my head. I looked at myself in the mirror of this beautiful hat and I said, "That's what I'm looking for!"
It cost me $34 with tax. Yeah, it was expensive then, but hell, I liked it so much that this hat was going to not only help in the photo, but was going to be in my possession for as long as I wanted it. After all, I bought it, I wore it! I got it home, put it on my bed and headed to work that night.
The picture was slated for Wednesday, December 7. I got the box with the hat in it, put it in my car and made the trip to nearby Toms River North. I had called Linda the previous night to confirm we were still going on with the picture. She said yes and that I'd meet her in the North trainer's room of Dan "Doc" Czarniewski.
I arrived about a half hour after school had let out on that day and inside were a couple of student-athletes getting ankles taken care of by Doc. I'd known Doc for quite sometime since I also knew his brother Rob, a longtime soccer coach at Toms River East. There sitting on a table waiting for myself and our photographer, Tom Spader, to arrive was Linda. She was dressed up for the occasion in a suit that was twice her 5-foot-6 size and a tie that looked like it took work to get on.
And as I go toward her, my eyes caught something below eye level that was moving. I looked down.
It was a dog ... it was Doc's dog, a beautiful, brown-haired, large creature that was just sitting on the floor behaving. The dog was going to be a part of the photo as well, suggested to me by Linda, who had some thoughts of her own in this particular picture.
We were going all out. I told Linda that we were to meet Mr. Spader over by the North field hockey field where the goals were still up. We took the walk through the parking lot and toward the field. Thankfully, not a whole lot of people were staring or even outside wondering what was going on.
Minutes later, Tom arrived. The photo shoot itself took about three to five minutes, but in the end, he snapped off two pictures that worked brilliantly. The first was of her wearing the sunglasses on. But for the sake of the All-County team and showing faces, we ultimately ran the picture of her in the outfit without the sunglasses, posing alongside the post with the dog on a leash as her protector.
I wish we had run the picture of her with the sunglasses because it fit perfectly to the whole Blues Brothers theme that I had in mind. But in many cases, you never think everything out perfectly.
Once the pictures were snapped, Linda asked our photographer if she could get the negatives for the picture for which he said he would.
The All-County field hockey story came out on Sunday, December 11, 1988, and there was that picture of Linda Kurtyka dressed up like a Blues Brother in front of the cage and the dog facing away from the camera. By the way, the picture with the sunglasses on has the dog facing the camera completely.
Too bad you have to show faces for these type of stories. But one thing did stand out in both stories -- that Linda Kurtyka smile.
The next Wednesday, Linda told me she had to be at Toms River East for some sort of event, so I told her I was taking my sister somewhere with me and that I'd meet her over at the school with the negatives. I parked next to her car and she got out. And nonchalantly, I kiddingly struck up a conversation line that would indicate we'd known each other for years.
"Hey there! I got your birthday gift right here," I started. "Here are the negatives. Thanks for the good time!"
Whether I caught her off guard I don't know, but she snapped right back, "Oh, you wish!"
Three months later on Friday, March 17, 1989, I was invited back to the Kurtyka household to do an in-depth, long interview with her as part of a feature story I wrote on her and her soccer and field hockey years at North. (I did the same thing exactly three weeks later in interviewing another talented Class of '89 senior in Central Regional High School softball standout Kelly McGowan.) I spent two good hours with her as she was preparing for her final season at Toms River North before heading to North Carolina State and play for the Wolfpack on scholarship.
In those four years, I got to watch someone grow from a shy girl with a pretty smile to this beautiful, talented and mature young lady ... and yeah, the same smile.
When I looked back on this particular "feature" picture years later, there were so many young ladies, especially in that particular Class of 1989, I could have used to do this particular Blues Brother-style picture.
But no one had that "thing" more than Linda Kurtyka did.
Why? She had style. She had that smile. And she was bad-ass, but mature enough to keep it on a playing field. If she put her mind to it, I believed Linda Kurtyka could succeed in whatever she wanted to do. And she's doing that and being creative in her line of work in Southern California these days.
Of all the young ladies I ever covered in my 30-plus year career, Linda Kurtyka will always be my favorite.
She made it easy for a 22-year-old journalist with creative juices to allow an idea or two to happen.
Oh, and I still have the hat all these years later.