October 30, 2014

Medina
Intermittent clouds
44°F

Masters: Heart of the Bucks

Albert Grindle

The Gazette

For an unusually humble man who could run like a deer, broad jump nearly 22 feet and trample defenders with the fury of a freight train, Tom Masters’ life has consistently revolved around helping others and loving nature.

Growing up on a farm on the corner of Spieth and Columbia roads in York Township — the back half of the land owned by oil millionare Wellesley Wellington Vandeveer later was used to build Buckeye High School — cultivated Masters’ personality.  Though his passion for athletics never wavered, Masters is best known for his mind as a world-renown cardiovascular researcher who patented a solution that extended the life of donor heart nearly six-fold.

He retired — or, as he lovingly calls it, “rewired” — in 2009 as director of cardiovascular research at Carolinas Healthcare System in Charlotte and is now living out a longtime dream as owner of Thistledown Mountain Getaway Bed and Breakfast in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. He teaches two of his favorite hobbies, woodturning and staining glass, at the facility he and wife Sara built from the ground up.

Through it all, Masters never forgot where he came from. He attends nearly every Buckeye class of 1961 reunion, reminiscing about the good ol’ days with childhood friends like Bill Kramer and Tim Steingass, among many others. Often, the conversations turn to sports, and often those conversations involve Masters.

A high-scoring fullback, capable basketball player and two-time state champion in track and field, Masters was one of the many stars during what could be called one of the first golden eras in Medina County in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It’s hard for him to believe he is mentioned in the same breath as Wadsworth’s Bob Lyren, Medina’s Jim Wells and Lodi’s Dick Anderson, Bill Heffelfinger and Bob Packard.

This isn’t just popular opinion. It will become reality when Masters is inducted into the Medina County Sports Hall of Fame during Thursday evening ceremonies at The Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth.

“When you’re in sports, more than anything else, there are things you never forget,” he said. “I think that’s a very important thing in sports. When you participate and you win and you’re recognized for your accomplishments, that’s something you’ll never forget.”

Ahead of his time

Thomas Nelson Masters was born Aug. 20, 1943 as one of Paul and Eleanor’s five children. Paul was the manager of Vandeveer’s 375-acre farm, and Tom’s early life was a microcosm of farmers’ children across the country. He tended to Vandeveer’s race horses, raised black angus cows, sheep, hogs and chicken and baled hay to such an extent he developed old-man strength that later became a valuable tool on the football field.

Farming was a time-consuming lifestyle for Masters, but he always found room for sports, though near-sightedness forced him to wear glasses whenever he competed.

From the beginning, it was evident Masters could do it all. He played first base and pitched for Medina’s Babe Ruth League all-star team that placed in the state tournament, and later earned an invitation to try out for the Cincinnati Reds. He was a gazelle with the football in his hands and set a school record for points in a season. He could outrun anyone in nearly any event on the track, though his true love was the long jump.  The latter two sports earned him a scholarship to Eastern Illinois.

Kramer played alongside Masters every step of the way. He is thoroughly convinced Masters should have been in the hall of fame years ago, but is thrilled beyond belief it is finally happening.

“Tom was of the mind of, ‘Hey, I just do the best I can and whatever happens, happens,’” Kramer said. “With him, what happened happened to be pretty phenomenal.”

Masters always knew when it was time for football. Practice nearly always began around his birthday. What he didn’t know was how good the Bucks were going to be in 1960.

Under the direction of coach John Murphy, Buckeye was coming off consecutive 3-5-1 seasons. T-formation running backs Craig Stone, Steve Dina and Masters later made up three legs of the state-qualifying half-mile relay, so there was speed to burn. The line of Jim Devine, Tim Steingass, George Gunkleman, Bob Steingass and Paul Gaydos was full of country-strong farmboys who were in excellent physical condition. Nearly every player competed both ways because back then Buckeye’s average graduating class was around 60.

The catch was how it all came together. In the end, the Bucks rode the bruising 6-foot-2, 175-pound Masters to an undefeated season, though his best-known play came in their only tie.

Buckeye opened the season against Brunswick, which was on the verge of its population boom and had a much larger pool of players to pick from. The Blue Devils took an 8-0 lead into halftime and grabbed key momentum when a Masters TD run was nullified because of penalty.

The Bucks finally caught a break when they blocked a quick punt and recovered in the end zone. Quarterback Kramer called for a fullback sweep on the two-point conversion, and Masters was in trouble from the start. Two defenders hit him 5 yards from paydirt, but they didn’t bring him down.

Finally, Masters’ muscular legs couldn’t hold them any longer. He fell to the dirt in the end zone. The score was tied, and Masters had the clear-cut play of the game.

“He just wouldn’t be denied. He kept going,” Kramer said. “That sticks out in my mind more so than any of the really great runs he made. That was really the greatest. It was just incredible.”

It also was only the beginning.

Over the final eight games, Buckeye averaged 45.8 points. The Bucks outscored Inland Conference opponents 276-6 and ended the season with the county’s top three scorers. Masters led the way with 112 as Buckeye’s final points-per-game average of 41.5 was a county record at the time.

When asked to provide a specific memory, Masters didn’t point to the two-point conversion against Brunswick or any other of his highlight-reel touchdown runs. He instead launched into a story about how the team purposely was dead silent during warmups, only to erupt in rhythmic, intimidating chants before the opening kickoff.

He also remembered his only slight concussion and the interaction with Murphy.

“I was there on the field and got up and I didn’t know where I was for a second,” he with a chuckle. “Then I saw these white jerseys going this way, so I just followed them. Coach Murphy asked if I was OK and I said, ‘Aren’t we on the wrong side of the field?’ and he told me to sit down.

“We went down for the touchdown and he said, ‘Do you think you can get the extra point?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and ran it in. I came back out and he said, ‘Do you remember that?’ and I said, ‘Remember what?’ He asked, ‘Getting the extra point?’ I asked, ‘Well, did I get it?’ and he sent me back to the bench.”

While Masters also played basketball — he was the leading scorer for a .500 team — his favorite sport was also his best.

At that time, Buckeye didn’t have a track. The school instead had a gentlemen’s agreement to use what is now Medina Memorial Stadium. It was there Masters learned to fine tune his technique in the long jump with the help of the Medina coaching staff, as well as Murphy, who was Masters’ coach in all three sports.

Heading into the spring of ’61, Masters already held the Medina County League Meet record at 19 feet, 3 inches. It was a competitive distance, though nowhere near what was needed to compete for a state title.

But his hard work paid dividends.

At the MCL Meet, Masters cleared 20 feet. He then broke the Baldwin Wallace Class A District record by soaring 21-9½ — a distance that would lead the county today — while also running legs of the state-qualifying mile and half-mile relays.

Even then, a state title at historic Ohio Stadium wasn’t in his mind. On a cold and windy Saturday, however, he made history.

In the mile relay, Masters built on leads set by Brunswick transfer Bill Bracken and 11th-hour substitute Bob Steingass, who filled in after Boyd McCourt pulled a muscle. Stone then took home the title as the Bucks finished in 3:33.1.

Two hours later, the spotlight was on Masters alone.

Masters finished second in the qualifying round of the long jump, clearing 20-2½. In the finals against five others, Masters pushed the ante to 20-8½. It was never matched, giving Buckeye its first state champion.

“I never did think I could win because throughout the state there were all these good guys,” he said. “But I can remember the day just like it was today. It was a cool day, very cold and rainy. You’d warm up inside and you’d run out and jump.”

With Masters having a piece of two titles, Buckeye finished third in the team standings. It would have been first if not for an illegal handoff between Stone and Masters that was outside the allowed zone in the half-mile relay. To this day, Masters is convinced if it was clean, he, Stone, Dina and Frank Farkas would have won it all.

Despite the disappointment, Masters remembers the positive over the negative. It’s a theme that has been consistent his entire life.

‘Rewired’

Through the connections of his uncle, Masters was invited to show off his fastball and knuckle-curve for the Reds. He respectfully declined with the intent of going to medical school.

The problem was how to pay for it. The Masters family didn’t have a lot of money, and partial athletic/academic offers from Baldwin Wallace and Western Reserve weren’t enough despite his honors diploma. So Murphy put in a flyer to his alma mater, Eastern Illinois. Much to Masters’ surprise, the school responded with a near-full scholarship for him to compete in football and track and field.

With tuition reduced to $50 a quarter, he couldn’t refuse.

Masters was a member of the football and track programs under Eastern Illinois coach Maynard “Pat” O’Brien for two years. He then left them to focus on schoolwork with the blessings of the legendary O’Brien, who gave Masters the biggest thrill of his life when he thanked him for all his hard work at the track and field banquet.

Masters graduated with a major in zoology and minors in German and chemistry. He was accepted academically but denied a scholarship into medical school at the University of Molloy, but wasn’t deterred.

A blind-luck day changed everything.

“It’s really funny how serendipity things happen in life,” he said. “I went to visit a friend of mine who was applying to Loyola University in Chicago and went along with him. The guy who was interviewing him said, ‘Come on in,’ and it was an interview for both of us. Two weeks later, I got an absolutely full scholarship to go to Loyola, and my friend didn’t even get it.”

Five years later, Masters had a doctorate in physiology. Shortly thereafter, he accepted a position in the research department at Carolinas Healthcare System in Charlotte. It fit him perfectly, and he worked his way up the ladder.

Along the way, Masters extensively studied the heart, with a special emphasis on transplants. The culmination of his career came in the 1990s, when he developed a method of extending the life of a donor heart from 4 hours to nearly 24.

It gave not only CHS worldwide attention, but Masters as well.

“It was very pleasing to be able to go to various meetings and talk to your peers and they actually use (your ideas) in their practice,” he said. “That’s very rewarding. That’s the reason I got into medical research. I was interested in how the heart functioned, but when you have pathological questions that pop up, being able to solve these and help people survive means the world.”

When Masters “rewired,” he had no intentions of slowing down. In his words, he wasn’t going to be the retiree who sat around and waited to die.

So he got to living — his way.

During his time at CHS, Masters quietly began buying parcels of his father-in-law’s Christmas tree farm on Big Yellow Mountain, eventually owning 20 acres but not exactly knowing what to do with them besides enjoy nature.

Then Masters took his children to a summer camp, where they learned crafts and milked cows, among other things. Masters and wife Sara decided it was a brilliant idea for their land: A nature retreat with activities not for children, but adults.

So in 2007, they began construction on a high point of the property that delivers stunning miles-long views in every direction. Four years later, the Thistledown Mountain Getaway Bed and Breakfast opened, featuring a beautiful wooden lodge with seven bedrooms and three large decks. Guests receive complementary breakfasts cooked by the Masters family, and activities include a campfire circle, meditation garden, oil painting, woodturning and glass staining classes taught by Tom Masters.

The facility instantly became a labor of joy for the Masters. They moved there permanently during construction.

“We’re up here on a mountain and you can see for miles around,” Tom said. “It’s just a gorgeous place.

“Every time I get up in the morning, it’s always different — different clouds, different winds, different colors. To me, it’s a little piece of heaven. I really, really love it.”

A lifetime of work and accomplishments allowed Masters to live his dreams.

Though he now lives 500 miles away, he always reminds himself Buckeye was where they all started.

“It was a very excellent time in my life,” he said. “You think back and you interact with the kids of your class. I was class president for four years and I think, ‘How did they ever elect me as president? What leadership abilities did I have that they saw that I never ever recognized whatsoever?’ To have them (as classmates), it was a pleasing, complimentary thing when I think about it now. What a great group of people.”

Contact Albert Grindle at (330) 721-4043 or agrindle@medina-gazette.com.