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Great Moments: A Gift of Champions

| By Bill Livingston | From Ernest Hemingway, Jul/Aug 99

Oh, it is most certainly a cigar store and nothing more. You have to believe that, or none of it makes sense. You have to see how ordinary it is to understand the extraordinary thing that happened there. You have to meet the firemen and the salesmen and the sports fans who frequent the store to understand the love and kindness of what they did.

Racks and racks of cigars bask in the glow from the overhead lamps in Dad's Smoke Shop on the west side of Cleveland. Hondurans, Dominicans and Costa Ricans line the cases that stretch along both walls of the small store, a division of Cousin's Cigar Co.

Kevin O'Keefe's personal favorite is an Arturo Fuente Double Chateau Maduro. On Thursday night, when the store stays open till 8 o'clock, which is about the time O'Keefe and his friends drift in to replenish the necessities for their card game, the ceiling fan is virtually powerless against the clouds of smoke.

Chris Mahall, one of Kevin's friends, fires up a Costa Rican Bahia Gold, and then Kevin's oldest buddy, George Harouvis, takes the double guillotine cigar cutter by the cash register and snips the end of a Honduran Hoyo de Monterrey.

George and Kevin played football together in grade school, then were rivals in Cleveland's western suburbs and later in the Big Ten, where George played for Northwestern and Kevin for Michigan State. All of these guys have a history, but theirs is the longest of all.

"It's Floyd's barber shop on 'The Andy Griffith Show,' except they sell cigars instead of haircuts," says Seamus Sweeney, one of the regulars at Dad's. "Everybody knows everybody. When Chris Joyce [the manager] gets overwhelmed at a busy time, the guys help him out by showing the customers the stock."

Chris Mahall is doing that right now.

They are just regular guys, household names in their own households--well, except for John Thompson. You've seen Thompson, a huge man, behind a rubber dog mask, waving a dog bone and cheering the Cleveland Browns on. He is the "Big Dawg" of the team's "Dawg Pound," and now that Cleveland has a National Football League team again, he'll be there, a presence too damn big to miss.

What makes Dad's different from a thousand other cigar stores is that, if you spend enough time there, you can get a look at something very special. Last Christmas, the regulars gave their pal O'Keefe the rarest thing in the world to him. If it wasn't the gift of the magi, it was as close as anyone gets in these times.

Nobody even remembers who found out what had happened to O'Keefe at Michigan State, or when. If you ask Seamus, he'll point to another guy, and that guy will point to another guy, and pretty soon everybody is making like weather vanes with a storm front moving in.

When current Michigan State head coach Nick Saban was an assistant at the school in the mid-1980s, he recruited O'Keefe. Kevin was one of the top offensive linemen in northeast Ohio, but in his junior year of high school he had to battle a much more challenging opponent than any defensive player. Just before the 1984 track season--he threw the discus and shot put--he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. He underwent radiation therapy. Doctors also removed his appendix and spleen.

O'Keefe returned to the gridiron that fall, and the college scouts weren't far behind.

"He was a big-time recruit," recalls George Perles, the Spartans' head coach in 1985, when O'Keefe chose Michigan State over Ohio State, Miami of Florida, and Maryland. "I thought there was no doubt he could play in the pros."

After what he had gone through, O'Keefe wasn't scared of third-and-long. After redshirting his first season he lettered in 1986, but he didn't make it to the NFL after that. A hospital bed was his next destination.

Before the 1987 season, O'Keefe's war with cancer flared again. What timing. It was the greatest season Michigan State had had since the days of Bubba Smith and Hugh Duffy Daugherty. It was the season of Andre Rison, Percy Snow and Lorenzo White, who was fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. It was the season in which the Spartans won the Rose Bowl.

Kevin O'Keefe watched the Spartans' 20-17 Rose Bowl victory over Southern Cal from his home in the Cleveland suburbs.

The most scary "c-word" besides cancer is chemotherapy. O'Keefe would vomit for hours after his treatments in a Lansing, Michigan, hospital.

"It was tough to see him that way," Saban recalls. "But he never felt sorry for himself. Instead, he was grateful for all the good things he had. It's hard to be unhappy when you're grateful."

After the season, Michigan State players received Rose Bowl rings, while O'Keefe was given a watch. Because he hadn't been with the team that year, "I never thought I deserved a ring or a watch," O'Keefe says.

"Kevin isn't the type to ask for anything," says John Thompson. "He was happy with the watch."

His buddies weren't, however. Without O'Keefe's knowledge, they wrote letters and made phone calls to Michigan State. An abashed Perles admitted his oversight on behalf of the university, and two days before last Christmas, the conspirators struck. They told O'Keefe they were all meeting at a restaurant in Cleveland's Flats for a smoker thrown by the cigar store.

Instead, letters from Perles and Saban and a Michigan State Rose Bowl ring just like his teammates got in the '80s were waiting for him. O'Keefe fought back tears when his mother, Elaine, presented it to him. "Don't make a big deal out of me," he said that night. "Other people have just as many problems. A lot of people lost a lot more than I did to this disease."

He said that he would put the ring "next to my humidor, on the mantle, in a place of honor."

Instead, the ring rests on Kevin O'Keefe's finger. He holds it up so the diamond chips flash in the light. "I wear it all the time," he says. "These guys won't let me take it off."

Bill Livingston is a sports columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.