EUREKA, Calif. — At first, starting forward Issac Gildea couldn't settle on a name for the new guy on his College of the Redwoods basketball squad--the scrappy, hard-bodied little recruit with the shoulder tattoos and the receding hairline.
"In the beginning I was calling him Frank but it just didn't feel right," the 20-year-old recalled. "So I just started saying Dad."
At the normally out-of-shape age of 41, Frank Gildea plays on the same community college basketball team as his second-oldest son. The two are believed to be the only father-son duo ever to play the sport side by side at the collegiate level, U.S. college athletic officials say.
For Frank Gildea--who played starting forward for College of the Redwoods during the 1981 season but left school before using up his basketball eligibility--racing up and down the court alongside young Issac is more than just a matter of "Does the old man still have it?"
It's a unique opportunity to continue a father-son togetherness that began a generation ago when a young dad decided to stay athletically competitive with his growing family of four children.
So this year the elder Gildea left his post as the team's assistant coach and re-enrolled as a student at the school, using his remaining year of eligibility to once again take a spot on the player's roster. As a substitute, he averages five minutes a game, occasionally playing alongside Issac, the team's leading scorer.
"Just to be on the same court with Issac, to have that time together, is very special to Frank," said his wife, Linda. "Because he knows it could be the last time before his middle son leaves home. And so for Frank, every game is precious. He's holding on to the moment for as long as we can."
Frank Gildea is a quiet man who works two jobs--as a high school gym teacher and a fireworks distributor--to support his family of six. He prefers to express himself through his basketball playing.
But sometimes the rare opportunity to play alongside his son overwhelms him. "It's great just to have the ability to maybe be an inspiration to him and others," he said. "Maybe some other dad will take his son out in the driveway to play ball because of what Issac and I are doing."
The father-son story has captured the imagination of the community, which has turned out in force to watch the team play. It doesn't hurt that the Corsairs are having their best season in nearly a quarter of a century.
Nowadays, more than 1,000 people pack into the little gym where the Corsairs play their home games--quite a turnaround from two years ago, when only 10 or 20 die-hards would bother to show up.
On Saturday, the team beat rival Lassen College in double overtime to earn a share of the conference title for the first time since Richard Nixon was president--turning away more than 300 disappointed fans from their packed home gym. This weekend, the Corsairs will play in the state's junior college postseason tournament.
All around this picturesque, woodsy campus, located 300 miles north of San Francisco, fans have found their own name for the strong-willed substitute who's older than the referees and whose on-court hustle often shows up players less than half his age.
They call him "Papa G."
When Frank Gildea checks into a game, the "Go Papa G!!" placards rise and the foot stomping rumbles like indoor thunder. At times, the 6-foot, 170-pound Frank spells his taller son. The two have developed an on-court greeting: They high-five and often slip in a little hug. The fans go wild.
So far, Frank hasn't heard any razzing from opposing players. No teenage taunting. No nicknames like "Gramps" or "Old School." And so what if he only averages 2 points a game, compared to his son's 22?
Papa G, the fans say, still has game. Frank Gildea beat out several younger players to make the squad and continues to compete with teammates for playing time.
"When the old man checks in, you're not afraid he's gonna let you down," said student Casper Vandermei, the leader of a court-side zoo of vociferous fans who cheer for Frank the moment he hits the hardwood.
"He's not just a mascot. The old boy can play. And at age 41, he can still dunk the ball. Can you imagine that?"
Frank Gildea can. He's a gym rat who can still bench press 300 pounds while carrying just 3% body fat--a man whose looks are still so youthful that it's hard to distinguish him at a distance from the other players.
"Just because you're 41 doesn't mean you have to fit into some mold," Frank said. "I'm not over the hill. When I got to the top of that rise, I looked out and saw a long plateau. And I haven't come down yet."
Growing up in Azusa, Gildea was a natural athlete who after two years in community college earned a football scholarship in 1979 to play defensive back and punter at Kansas State University, an NCAA Division I school. After a knee injury ended his football career during the first season, Gildea--already a husband and father--moved back West, this time to Northern California.