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Outside the Stripes

A celebration of my mentor

Ben Austro reflects on learning about the game of football from his dad.



October 10, 1976, will always stand out in my mind. It was the opening of Giants Stadium and the start of a long run of bonding experiences with my dad, Ben Sr. We walked out of the passageway of the upper deck for the first time, we lurched back, feeling we nearly walked off a cliff. We ascended the stairs looking for Row 31 in Section 315 and soon realized there was no Row 32. We had the top row.

To many, these four nosebleed seats would seem to be a curse. But from there, we saw a different perspective on the game, not one that we could get from television. With binoculars and the voices of Jim Gordon and Dick Lynch on our portable radio, we were able to pick up who the players were, but eventually I was mostly able to identify them without. We essentially watched half the games of the season from the “all-22” view and weren’t disappointed. From that lofty perch, Dad was able to give me a foundation for the rules of the game which lead to me writing to the NFL to request a copy of their rulebook in 1987. In time, the student was teaching the master about so many of the intricacies of the game.

We never left a game before its conclusion, no matter how cold nor rain nor snow, and there were some lean years of frustration where I aggravatingly picked and peeled at the large vinyl 5 on the wall behind us for our section number. I got about 10 percent of that ripped off, which was patched with blue paint the next season. And then the team’s fortunes slowly began to turn.

We made so many memories in those seats, but in particular, I remember trying to find every bit of paper we could find to throw into the swirling wind at the 1986 NFC Championship Game as the longstanding title game drought was over. Outside the stadium, Dad looked back and pointed out that we could still see paper flying almost an hour after the game. But the game we would remember the most was not at the stadium, but from Dad’s hospital bed.

Dad had a heart attack at the age of 50. We watched the 1990 NFC Championship a few days later, and it was not a game for someone being treated for a cardiac condition. It was such a trademark Giants defensive battle with more excitement than my dad’s heart should have been subjected to. We watched as Matt Bahr connected on the fifth field goal for the Giants. Dad pumped his clenched fist once as we remained in stunned silence, broken by Pat Summerall’s voice booming from the TV, “There will be no threepeat,” and the score flashing on the screen to confirm the result.

We weren’t officiating watchers at the time, although we were obviously entertained by the colorful announcements of referee Ben Dreith. But Dad had a fondness for Jerry Markbreit — the referee of that championship game and the Giants Super Bowl XXI victory — as one of the finest referees there was. He would also point out, “Notice he says ‘Timeout, Dallas’ or ‘Timeout, Philadelphia,’ but it’s always ‘Timeout, Giants’.” Although it was obviously because there were two teams identified as New York, Dad saw it as affirming that the team was not in New York, but in his native New Jersey.

He convinced me to be with friends for the Super Bowl as he was discharged that week. When the kick sailed wide right, I called him immediately.

Approaching retirement and receiving another announcement of rising ticket prices, Dad opted to pass on renewing his season tickets in 1999. No longer would we park in “his” spot — right next to the light pole marked “J5” out by the swamps of cattails, the pole offering us a buffer to tailgate slightly outside of our space — marked with a homemade flag as we enjoyed his pregame meal cooked on a camping stove (which we often reheated after the game waiting for traffic to disperse). No longer would we scrawl out a fanatic message in white shoe polish on the back window — one of which made the column of Dave Klein in the Newark Star-Ledger when he noticed Dad’s car sporting the message Doug Kotar for president in the early 1970s. And our bond over the game of football changed its dynamic.

Dad would tell me how he learned much more about the game from our discussions. When I wrote my book, I told him I was bringing him a free copy. “Don’t do that,” he told me. “I’m buying the book, and you’re going to sign that one.” I will never forget how proud he was that day.

He would eventually lose interest in the NFL, beginning with celebrations that he felt were too excessive and not like the game he grew up with. Although we wouldn’t talk about the games anymore, we still bonded over football, as I told him some interesting plays or results or shared recollections we had of years of games we watched. He was always interested in talking about football, but never came back around to watching it. I would tell him about some of the exclusives that Football Zebras would report on and the officials we would interview. Even though disconnected from football, he still told me how he was amazed by the people I was able to talk to, especially Markbreit.

This year, he watched the Daytona 500 from his favorite recliner with duct tape repairing the upholstery of the footrest. He was sharp as ever, identifying the drivers and following intently throughout. After the race ended and his friends left, he fell asleep in that chair that night and never woke up.

I was planning to call him that Monday, but a call at 12:05 p.m. which displayed “Dad” had me thinking he beat me to it. The nurse on the other end told me otherwise.

We both knew and accepted his terminal path after he opted to stop ineffective chemotherapy treatments and declined a “hail Mary” drug therapy. But there always seemed to be more time. There is so much more football to talk about. There are pictures from my trip to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to share during my visit later this month. And there are so many goodbyes yet to be said.

The last time we discussed football, I was talking to him on a Monday night, and I was intending on joining the game later. Noticing a flurry of notifications on my phone, I turned on the game only to see the grim scene of attendants taking care of Damar Hamlin. As he also turned the channel on his TV, our final football moment coincidentally had us talking about the humanity of the situation and about life and death.

The Kansas City Chiefs will begin the 2023 season on September 7, against an opponent that is currently unknown. What I do know is that, no matter what happens in that game, it will be the first time that I won’t be able to share what I saw with my mentor, my dad, and my biggest fan.

Ben Austro Sr. (1940-2023)

Ben Austro, 82, passed away peacefully in his favorite chair in his living room on February 20, 2023. For several years he held off leukemia and bravely faced and accepted its terminal course.

He was born September 2, 1940, to Boleslaw (“Benjamin”) and Apolonia (“Pauline”) Austro in Jersey City, N.J., and raised in Cranford, N.J. His father was a Polish immigrant and his mother a first-generation Polish-American.

He joined the U.S. Navy out of high school and was stationed at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington state, and served on the aircraft carrier the USS Midway. He spoke about the Asian destinations he was able to see and his operations on the flight deck and occasionally in the air on his tour of duty. A peacetime enlistment, he was honorably discharged after the start of the Vietnam War.

After the Navy, Ben worked as a repairman at the National Cash Register Corporation, NCR. He worked mostly in the field during the day, evolving from mechanical parts to computerized point-of-sale equipment. He turned down offers for a shop or desk job, and worked for NCR for over 40 years, retiring from the only job he ever had as an adult.

He raised his two sons, Ben Jr. and James, in Rockaway, N.J., with his first wife, Lynn. He married his second wife, Maureen, in 1988, and they lived in Netcong and Stanhope, N.J., before moving in 2001 to Indian Mountain Lakes in Albrightsville, Pa., upon his retirement.

Ben was an excellent handyman, and was always working on projects. With veterans grants he earned, he took a correspondence class and built the TV that sat in the basement family room he finished with wood panels salvaged from an old barn. The sound of his radial arm saw and the smell of freshly cut boards were frequently emanating from his workshop.

Around 1980 he took up his signature craft. Over the next 40 years he would produce more than a hundred wood carvings, mostly of birds, carefully etched out of nondescript blocks of wood and meticulously detailed with a wood-burning tool. He rarely painted any of his works, opting to have the natural look of the wood. His most prized work was an egret he made out of a piece of kauri wood from prehistoric trees that were preserved in New Zealand bogs for over 50,000 years.

Every year he planted beautiful gardens that always seemed to have the brightest blooms and the most bountiful harvests. He also enjoyed vacationing on Long Beach Island, and made many lasting memories with his dad and sons fishing and crabbing on Barnegat Bay.

He faced his imminent death by saying, “The one thing I can’t wrap my head around is that there is a day when there is no tomorrow.” There is a tomorrow, but the world does so with a profound emptiness without him.

In lieu of flowers, please consider making a donation in his memory to Battlefields to Ballfields, a charity that helps veterans transition into civilian life through sports officiating. There will be a private remembrance at a future date as his ashes will be interred at the family plot at Stanhope Union Cemetery in New Jersey.

Ben Austro is the editor and founder of Football Zebras and the author of So You Think You Know Football?: The Armchair Ref's Guide to the Official Rules (on sale now)

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