Mike Bass inducted into the Commanders Ring of Fame, with the help of a fan

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From 1980 to 2016, childhood friends Barry Kemelhor and Matthew Maury attended nearly every Washington NFL home game together. More often than not, on those Sunday afternoons, one would spot the names of franchise greats on signs surrounding RFK Stadium and later FedEx Field and comment on the absence of cornerback Mike Bass.

“We’d see Brig Owens, Pat Fischer and Ken Houston up there, and we’d think, ‘Mike has to be a part of this,’ Maury said recently, referring to the other members of the greatest secondary in franchise history.” Almost every game we made an aside that Mike should be up there as well.”

At halftime of Sunday’s season opener in Landover, Bass became the latest inductee into Washington’s Ring of Fame, his name and number 41 unveiled on the 400-level facade to the right of the grateful space his former trainer, George Allen. At a pre-game ceremony in the main hall, Bass gave a speech in which he thanked Kemelhor for his efforts to make this honor possible.

Washington Ring of Fame inductee Mike Bass took Vince Lombardi’s chance

Kemelhor and Bass had reunited for the first time in 51 years moments earlier. They weren’t lifelong friends or even acquaintances, just two people brought together by a handwritten note from a young, uninhibited fan and a surprising dinner invitation from a football pro, bound by a memory – even if is faded over the years – of a lifetime.

“You must have pinched yourself”

On December 13, 1971, Kemelhor and Maury, graduates of Walt Whitman High School in 1970, got together with a few other former classmates at Maury’s house in Bethesda to watch Washington play on “Monday Night Football.” With a win over the Rams at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” could clinch Washington’s first playoff spot in 26 years.

At some point that evening, Kemelhor and Maury learned that Bass’s wife, Rosita, was watching the game at a nearby house. It was exciting and unexpected information for the two sophomores, as Bass, who signed with Washington in 1969 and was in the middle of a career year, was their favorite player.

“When we became big Redskins fans in the ’60s, it was all about offense, but we couldn’t stop anyone,” Maury said. “[Vince] Lombardi comes in, our defense is improving and we notice there’s this guy playing cornerback we’ve never heard of. We fell in love with Mike because he was this unassuming guy that nobody paid attention to.

With Washington leading the Rams 24-10 at halftime, Kemelhor scribbled a note to Bass on a piece of paper. He told Bass he was his favorite player and may have included one of the defensive stats he’s dutifully tracked this season on how few touchdowns the former Michigan standout allowed. Kemelhor signed the note with his address and phone number, ran him down the street to deliver it to Rosita, and returned to watch the second half.

Bass’ third-quarter interception of Rams quarterback Roman Gabriel – his seventh in Washington’s last 10 games – set up a touchdown reception from Roy Jefferson that extended the visitors’ lead to 31-10 . Washington held on to win, 38-24.

Kemelhor and Maury flew into Dulles Airport before dawn on Tuesday morning, hoping to catch a glimpse of their playoff heroes as they returned from the West Coast. The excitement of that night was overwhelmed a few days later when the phone at Kemelhor’s parents’ house rang. The voice on the other end belonged to Bass.

“He said, ‘I loved your post, I really enjoyed it,'” Kemelhor, 70, recalled. “Then he said he would like me and my friends to come to his house for dinner because he would like to meet us and thank us in person.”

Kemelhor called Maury with the incredible news.

Shortly after Washington was knocked out of the playoffs with a divisional loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Maury and Kemelhor found themselves accompanying Bass on a trip to Waxie Maxie’s record store so he could do some late Christmas shopping before dinner. When they returned to Bass’s in Silver Spring, they played football in the front yard and shared a spaghetti dinner prepared by Rosita.

“The star cornerback was covering me, Kemelhor, who had a poster of Bass in his dorm at Johns Hopkins, said. “You must have pinched yourself.”

“It was all surreal,” Maury said.

Bass helped Washington to his first Super Bowl appearance the following season and earned second-team all-pro honors in 1974. A neck injury prompted him to retire at age 31 during training camp in 1976.

Kemelhor and Maury sometimes reminisced about their visit with Bass, but they would not have further contact with him until 2020. House linked at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Kemelhor began reaching out to former comrades from class and colleagues with whom he had lost contact. On a whim, he also decided to research Bass, found his website, and emailed him.

“I’m sure you won’t remember it,” Kemelhor began, “but it was one of the most memorable days of our young lives.”

He then described the “Monday Night Football” game, his note, and his surprise when Bass called him to invite him and Maury to dinner. As was the case in 1971, Kemelhor did not expect an answer. Twenty minutes later, the phone rang. It was Bass.

“I don’t know if he was just being polite, but he said, ‘Oh yeah, I remember you came,'” Kemelhor said. “I don’t know how he would do it, but that’s how we reconnected after 49 years. It was like history repeating itself.”

Bass, 77, said he sometimes had trouble remembering where he parked his car on a trip to the grocery store, but he felt lucky to have most of his faculties and that his early retirement may have been a blessing in disguise. He doesn’t remember any details of his dinner with Kemelhor, and he wasn’t in the habit of inviting strangers to his home, but confirmed that Rosita always made killer spaghetti.

With Bass’s blessing, Kemelhor made it his personal mission to get Bass’s name into the Washington Ring of Fame. Bass had been named to Washington’s “70 Greatest” team in 2002, but the Ring of Fame was a more exclusive club. Bass told Kemelhor the honor would be the “crowning crown” of his NFL career.

“My mother taught me that self-praise is not a recommendation,” Bass said. “I strongly believe that, and I probably never would have approached the team to consider me. It just wasn’t my way of doing things, but Barry, he took the lead and was persistent.

In between planning her Whitman promotion’s 50th reunion during the pandemic, Kemelhor has been advocating for Bass. He compiled a list of Bass’ career accomplishments, including never missing a game in his seven seasons at DC, 30 interceptions, three return touchdowns and Washington’s first scoring in a Super Bowl. He provided advice on creating a one-hour, highlight-laden DVD celebrating Bass’ career and sent a copy to Commanders Senior Vice President Julie Donaldson in February 2021.

Kemelhor wrote emails to the Washington front office, including Donaldson, director of alumni relations Tim Hightower, senior adviser Doug Williams and team president Jason Wright, and spoke to Hightower and Williams at telephone. He kept Bass updated on his progress, slow as it is with the team amid his rebranding.

“It came as a big surprise”

Maury wasn’t surprised by his friend’s persistence because he had seen him before, such as when they helped induct former Whitman basketball star Gary Browne into the Hall of Fame. school athletics in 2010.

“It’s Barry,” Maury said. “He’s thinking, ‘Well, maybe I can find Mike, and maybe if he’s receptive, we can get him into the Ring of Fame. This is just one example of how one person can make a difference.

Ahead of Bass’s birthday in March, Kemelhor emailed Williams again asking if the team had considered honoring him. Hightower responded two days later to say the team was “finalizing some plans towards that end for the upcoming season with Mike in mind.”

Following the death of good friend and former Bass teammate Brig Owens at 79 in June, Kemelhor wrote to COs again and kindly noted that Bass was not getting any younger.

In July, Bass received a call from Wright, Hightower and Williams, who were unavailable for this story, informing him that he would be inducted into the Ring of Fame in the team’s home opener. .

“It was a major surprise,” said Bass, who called Kemelhor with the news.

On Sunday, Kemelhor and his wife, Karen, drove Maury to FedEx Field, their first game together since giving up their season tickets. They met Bass in the main hall, and after Kemelhor introduced himself, 51 years after their only other encounter, Bass kissed him.

“I owe Barry a lot,” said Bass, who had more than two dozen friends and family in attendance. “A lot of this was started by him. He had been a fan of mine for over 40 years and he really believed in me. He was the one who allowed the team to stand up and take notice.

“Seeing his happiness and the happiness of his family was very rewarding,” said Kemelhor, who along with Maury had 35 commemorative t-shirts made for the occasion and watched the game from the suite the team arranged. for Bass. Fittingly, an interception by an unheralded defensive back helped seal Washington’s victory.

As a testament to his character, Bass used part of his speech at the pregame ceremony to advocate for the induction of two of his former teammates, Jerry Smith and Larry Brown, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. .

“I was never the type of player who sought recognition, but sometimes you get rewarded for not being recognized,” Bass said. “You are rewarded for your consistency and hard work. If you want to be successful, let someone else talk about you.

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