Dom Fusci always will own a prominent place in the University of South Carolina’s athletic lore -- first as a player, then as an ambassador and perhaps foremost as a “character” who never lost his love for his alma mater.
He came from Brooklyn, N.Y., to join the Gamecocks in the 1940s, made All-Southern Conference as a lineman in 1943 and, like so many others at the time, headed to serve in World War II. He returned to school in 1946 and tried pro football before settling in his adopted hometown.
His death Wednesday night at age 89 leaves a giant void, but Dom Fusci would say to save the tears, and no doubt he already has begun sharing his endless supply of tales with St. Peter.
Fusci had a story for every occasion and merriment followed in his wake. Often, he would be the butt of the joke, and he laughed louder than anyone.
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“I was in the Navy on a PT boat out of Okinawa in 1945 and got this letter from the Redskins telling me they had drafted me,” Fusci would say. “I took the letter to my commanding officer and told him, ‘I’m needed in Washington. Cut the orders.’ He said the Navy should have notified him, then asked for the letter. He took one look and told to get my butt back on that boat.”
Fusci rejected the Redskins offer -- $175 to sign -- after the war and returned to the Gamecocks for his senior season. That decision led to some of his greatest tales.
“In one game, he was called for a personal foul,” Don Barton, one of the foremost historians on USC athletics, remembered Thursday. “Dom picked up the flag and moved it 15 yards down the field. The referee did not notice and marked the penalty from where Dom left the flag, so the Gamecocks did not lose any yardage.
“Another time, he caught a pass and since he played tackle, the official flagged him for being an illegal receiver. Dom said, ‘No, no, I lined up at end on that play. Didn’t you see me?’ Dom won the argument.”
World War II depleted rosters and players came and went repeatedly. In the 1943 Carolina-Clemson game, a substitute came into the USC huddle and Fusci asked, “What position do you play?” The newcomer said, “Right tackle.” Fusci said, “I do, too. Why didn’t you say so?” The newcomer replied, “I was afraid you might get mad.”
Fusci hustled off the field to avoid a penalty and ended up on the Clemson sidelines. Tigers coach Frank Howard demanded, “What are you doing here?” Fusci had to circle the field to return to the Carolina bench and stopped at an end zone concession stand for a hot dog and soft drink. Naturally, the concessionaire wanted payment, but Fusci, leaving with his “lunch,” said. “Sorry, these pants don’t have pockets.”
Fusci showed his gift for gab at the Columbia Touchdown Club’s jamboree in January 1961. Officials planned a “This Is Your Life” roast for Fusci, but Fusci stole the show with his response.
He also officiated football, basketball and baseball and once found himself umpiring at Fort Jackson in a game that featured several major league players who were in the service. Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell was pitching and players included Willie Mays, Faye Throneberry and Haywood Sullivan.
Mizell grumbled about some ball-strike calls and wanted to know why Fusci was being paid.
“I told him, there’s Haywood Sullivan; he’s worth $75,000,” Fusci would say. “Throneberry . . . he’s worth $35,000 a year. And you, you’re worth $100,000. What do you expect from a lousy $25-a-game umpire?”
Fusci, who enjoyed a successful sales career with RCA distributor Southern Radio Corp., has been inducted into the USC and State of South Carolina athletic halls of fame, but perhaps his favorite memory is a 1963 letter. He had grown up in the same neighborhood with Frank McGuire’s family, and Pat, the coach’s first wife, wrote in her Christmas note that her husband wanted to get back into coaching.
Whether his call to the late Marvin Bass, then USC’s director of athletics, to share the information on the coach’s availability or another scenario led to McGuire’s coming to USC, Fusci liked the result.
In talking during a reunion of former USC basketball players, he said, “McGuire’s coming changed everything in Carolina athletics. Don’t ever forget that.”
Likewise, don’t forget Dom Fusci, one of the good guys to pass this way.