Time waits for no one, not even Pete Brennan the strappingly handsome second-banana on the undefeated 1957 UNC national championship team.
Brennan has been a folk hero in North Carolina since the shot of his life saved the NCAA semifinals against Michigan State, allowing the Tar Heels to go on and whip Kansas the next night to complete what is still the most cherished sports story in the history of a state that has had so many.
But today, the shot of his life for Brennan is what he calls a “miracle drug” named Lupron, which he is taking to slow down and contain the prostate cancer that has spread to a nearby bone mass. Brennan, 6-7 and 220 pounds in his playing days, is in tough shape at UNC Hospitals as he also fights to recover from severe Diverticulitis that has caused leakage and requires heavy-duty antibiotics.
Brennan has been back in Chapel Hill for the last few years after having some major ups and downs in business and his personal life. He stays in touch with other surviving members of the Carolina dream team, particularly All-Everything forward Lennie Rosenbluth who also settled here after losing his first wife and getting married again to the former Diane Stabler.
The young Brennan was a tough guy, a former Marine who still looked roughish and invincible into his 50s and 60s. He never flaunted it, but when asked loved to talk about taking that rebound off a missed Michigan State free throw and driving the length of the court to tie the game as the horn sounded. The Tar Heels won in triple overtime and survived three more extra periods 24 hours later to beat Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in Kansas City.
He was one of Frank McGuire’s “Four Catholics” recruited from New York City to join Rosenbluth and turn a good team into a great one. Chapel Hill did not have a Catholic church at the time, so Mass was held every Sunday in a building on campus because that’s what McGuire had promised the parents of Brennan, Bob Cunningham, Tommy Kearns and Joe Quigg. Eventually, McGuire and Billy Carmichael Jr. (the other prominent Catholic in town) raised the money to build St. Thomas More.
Brennan, 75, loved shuffling into WCHL to do “Pete’s Picks” on the local pre-game show, and his winning percentage of around 85 might have been even higher had he used his head over his heart on the rare occasion when the Tar Heels were not favored to win. But he could never pick against the team that, in his mind, was always undefeated.
When Chapelboro launched a special section called “Drive to a Championship,” Brennan and Rosenbluth contributed a Wednesday column that traced their magical season and paralleled it to the 2012 Tar Heels who were also a favorite to win it all. Unlike the 1957 team, which kept its five starters healthy, injuries killed Carolina’s chances at the end.
Brennan could not work on the final installment of the series, which described how the ’57 Heels lost Rosenbluth to fouls late in regulation but still somehow held off Chamberlain and the Jayhawks to win, 54-53. That’s when Pete’s friends started worrying about him because he never missed a radio show or deadline. Calls to Brennan went to voicemail, which said his message box was full. Even Rosenbluth could not reach him.
Too sick to leave his apartment and too proud to call for help, Brennan stayed home for nearly two months except for doctor appointments. They were treating his painful stomach ache but also diagnosed the prostate cancer. It seemed like a death sentence for Brennan until his type of cancer matched up with those that had responded well to a shot of Lupron every three months. So Brennan could actually leave the hospital next week to rehab and try to regain some of the 40 pounds he has lost.
Last week, he had about 30 visitors to his hospital room – Rosenbluth, Quigg and his wife Carol, his four daughters who live from Atlanta to up-state New York and some of the people who love the big guy. “I never knew I had so many friends,” Brennan said this week between long naps.
His doctor concurred that if they can get the Diverticulitis under control so the punctures in his stomach can heal, Pete has a chance to keep playing.
“A priest I know came by to see me,” Brennan said, his blue eyes still twinkling, “and asked me if I wanted him to give me Last Rites.
“I told him, not yet. I’m not ready.”