Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Speech Given at the North Schuylkill High School 2010 Football Banquet, January 9, 2011

I am honored and humbled to speak before this esteemed audience; the players, coaches, cheerleaders, parents, relatives and friends of the 2010 North Schuylkill Spartans football team. So, first and foremost, let’s give it up for these lads and ladies.

In addition, I have to be honest, it is also a little strange to both be speaking here this afternoon, as well as living here, back in Schuylkill Co. for the first time since 1982 when I graduated from Cardinal Brennan High School and left for East Carolina University. The path for me as a football player, a coach and fan of the game has really has come full circle.

Technically, I didn’t start out as a Spartan, but by the proximity of geography and the bonds of friendship, I really might as well be. As Robyn mentioned in my introduction, I grew up in Frackville, 319 N. Center St., a stone’s throw from the Little League field at the top of town, in a trailer—it is still there. Then as I started my freshman year in 1978, we moved to Cresswell Gardens, a stone’s throw from North Schuylkill  High School. I played my first football game at Memorial Field in Frackville, and I played my last high school football game at North Schuylkill High School’s field, which CB used as our home field back during my days.

During those days, I also played basketball in your gym, snuck under the fence on Sunday’s to play tackle football on your field, I swam in your pool, and attended plays and productions in your auditorium. I even kissed a few of your girls at NS dances in the dark corners of the cafeteria. In between, I roamed coal region roads and the streets of Frackville, Ashland, Girardville, Ringtown, and the likes in cars filled with both Spartans and Chargers, and an occasional Blue Devil or Golden Bear sprinkled in for good measure.  We are all the sons and daughters of Coal Cracker culture, north of the mountain style. So now, after having the honor and pleasure to work at practice and on the sidelines with these incredible coaches and players, I guess I can say I truly am a Spartan. For this, I am truly thankful.

Though some things have changed since I left the “Skook” in 1982, other things did not. The first time I looked at the 2010 NS roster, I had to laugh. I might as well have been reading names on a NS or CB roster from the early 80’s. I saw names like Houser, McGrath, Kaufman, Grove, Gownley, Gallagher, Flail, Pavalko, Dean, Hutnick, Yagielinski, Noon, Green, Hughes… you get the idea. It was like I was in a time machine.

The story of how I came from the stands as a fan and casual observer, to a “volunteer part time coach/consultant” for the Spartans, and now as your speaker on this occasion is a testament to the undying and relentless love and passion for football in the coal region tradition.

I've  known Rick and Glenn Geist a long time. As soon as I moved back to Pa., Glenn started working on me. “Big Al, you gonna coach with us or what?” If you haven’t figured it out, it is very difficult to tell a Geist “no”, as that’s not a part of their vocabulary. Each time he asked, I’d tell him the same thing. “I would love to, but I work out of Harrisburg, I travel the state, and I never know where I’ll be in Pa. when the day ends.” In addition, my kids still lived in NC, and I knew I would be spending weekends out of state and in the Carolinas. I didn’t want to make a commitment I couldn’t follow through on, and I didn’t want to make promises I couldn’t keep. That aside, Glenn and I spent a good part of the spring and summer talking about the upcoming season; he kept telling me how great these guys were, and what the Spartans were going to do on offense and defense. Of course, he kept asking me to coach, and I kept giving him the same answer. Finally, 3 games into the season, on the Sunday prior to the Haven game, he wore me down. We were sitting out on his back porch like we often did, talking about football.

“Big Al, I really need your help and I could use an extra set of eyes. Why don’t you try to come out to practice once a week on offense days? Come on, do it for me.” I pointed out to him that the offense was averaging 46 points a game and the defense had yet to give up a score, and that NS really didn’t need me. “We need to get better” was his reply. “Come on, do it for me, you’ll love these kids.” He just wouldn’t take “no”, so finally, I said “yes”.

I showed up for offensive practice that Wednesday, and he was right. I loved these kids. They were tough, hardworking, respectful, fun, and passionate about football. It had been over 10 years since I had coached, and now, I was back in the thick of it. About 30 seconds after I met these guys, I was hooked.

For those of us who have had the honor to play the game, we know down deep that football is the greatest team sport ever invented. The lessons learned from our collective football experiences shape us into the men we become. We are a man’s man, and women love us. It’s a fact.

So, what are the lessons I’ve learned? Honestly, they are so multiple, vast, and comprehensive, that I can’t even begin to do them all justice in a 15 minute speech here this afternoon, and the Eagles are on at 4:30. However, I think I have just enough time to share a few bedrocks of my football foundation. We’ll call them the “Big Lessons”. As you travel through life, you’ll fill in the missing pieces yourself, and you will work out your own perspective. But for now, listen up, and learn from mine.

1.  Football teaches you about life…plain and simple. You learn how to deal with adversity, pain, joy, and love. It pushes you mentally and physically to do things you never thought you could do, and it teaches you to play nicely with others. You learn respect—both how to earn it and how to give it; you learn about citizenship, in that you wear your school’s name proudly across your chest and that what you both say and do, on and off the gridiron, is a reflection of your school, your town, and your family. Football teaches you discipline—how to both control and unleash yourself, as well as when to do it and when not to; it is a continual quest to find that “Zen Zone” that allows you to perform in concert with your teammates like a well oiled bulldozer. Perhaps the biggest life lesson I’ve learn from football is that it teaches you how to persevere.

Perseverance, noun: steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.  In short, never give up, never quit.

That means when you get knocked down, laid out, or smacked in the mouth, you get yourself back up again, pull your head together, and get ready for another play. Next time, you deliver the blow. Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. Act accordingly in both cases.  

2. Football teaches you about toughness. Of course, you come from the Coal Regions, so you get a double dose of tough. If you come from here, and you go out in the world, you’re ready for just about anything. And, if you play Coal Region football, that makes you even tougher, as far as I’m concerned. This is a tough place with tough people and tough football fans with high expectations. That being said, you train your body to take a beating, you train your mind to be sharp, and you gather strength from your teammates during those moments when times are tough. When it is hot and you are hurting, when your body is so sore and your legs so tired you feel like you’ve been run over by a truck, when the million distractions of life outside football cloud your focus, it becomes very easy to not do your best, or in some cases to quit. That is weak, and there is no room for weakness in this game. Not only does the game teach you toughness, but your daily interaction with your teammates, coaches, and the people who support you help instill this virtue as well. At North Schuylkill High School, if you take time to look around, you will not have to look far to see that you are surrounded by toughness. My advice to you is to open your eyes and ears, and pay attention to the lessons on toughness that exist in your life on a daily basis.

As a matter of fact there are 3 men in this room today who have, and continue to teach me life-long lessons about toughness. The first is Joe Halko. You all know Joe and what a great friend he is to Spartan athletics.

In the spring of 1983 at East Carolina, after a redshirt fall where I took my beatings on the scout team, I prepared myself to participate in my first spring football practice and compete for a position on the depth chart. In the first practice, on the first play, in the first live full contact drill, I blew knee out on a 1 on 1 drive block. I found out later that my patellar tendon, the tendon that holds the knee cap in place, decided to let go, and my knee cap shot out to the left side of my knee and was dislodged.

I was scheduled for surgery, and I spent almost 2 months in a straight cast from my ankle to the top of my hip. 1 week before I was to return home for the summer, the Doc cut my cast off to reveal a sagging lump of flesh that used to be my right leg. The muscles had atrophied, and my leg resembled a gelatinous blob that reminded me of blubber.

“Well,” the Doc said as I stared in shocked disbelief at what was left of my leg, “if you want to play football again, you need to make the right leg look like the left leg. Good luck with the physical therapy…have a nice summer.” I have to admit, I thought I was a pretty tough guy, but that day I cried.

So, I went home for the summer, and the first thing I did was go see Joe Halko. He agreed to work me out, 3 times a week, at 7:30 in the morning, before his office even opened. Over the next few months, there were at least a 1000 times that I just wanted to quit, give up, and make the pain end. Rehabbing that knee and leg was one of the toughest things I had ever done up to that point of my life, and it was a good thing I had one of the toughest guys I know to work me through it. While I worked my leg and knee, Joe would yell at me, get in my face, call me names like “girly boy”, and taunt me with phrases like, “I didn’t know you were from Chendo” and reduce me to a blubbering idiot, 3 times a week, all before 8 a.m. I would just barely walk out of his office, dripping with sweat, beet red, limping like a peg-leg pirate, with Joe behind me, still taunting me, “You coming back on Wednesday, or you just going to quit wussy-boy?” This relentless abuse carried on for 3 months.  In the end, it did take all three months, but I returned to camp in the beginning of August and passed my physical. If it hadn’t been for Joe and his relentless drive and toughness, I don’t know that I would have ever made it back.  Thank you, Joe Halko.

The next man who continues to teach me toughness is Assistant Coach Glenn Geist.  He was already a Spartan legend by the time we became friends and teammates at East Carolina University. I have to be honest, it felt good to have a coal region guy who had my back, and I his, a long way from home down in Dixie. One thing I’ve learned about Glen is that he is a man of action, not talk, and during our time together at ECU, I witnessed many feats of toughness—many of which I can’t repeat in this room, but two in particular  loom large in my memory, even today.

Early on, Glenn developed a deep love for the food at the training table, especially lunch. When he discovered that he could order as many double cheeseburgers as he could eat, it was game on. One day, in the winter of 1984, I sat with him at lunch and watched in amazement as he took down a record 15 double cheeseburgers. He wasn’t looking for attention; he was just spending quality time with his comfort food. It is tough to impress college football players, but a buzz spread across the room as he made return trip after return trip to the grill. Finally, as he finished the 15th double cheeseburger and leaned back into his chair, the room erupted in wild cheers. I might add that he had a piece of pie for dessert.

The other incident also had its start at the training table. For some time Glenn had been listening to Marcus Colerain, one of our teammates, talk about what a great wrestler he was and how dominate wrestling was in South Carolina. Colerain frequently bragged that he was the SC heavy weight state runner up for two years in a row.

Finally, one night at dinner, Glenn had enough. When Marcus finished talking, he quietly challenged Colerain to a wrestling match. “When?” Marcus asked.  “Now, up in the lobby of the dorm” was Glenn’s reply. Word travels quickly, and at the time, we all lived in the same dorm. Soon, there was a procession from the training table to the dorm, the furniture in the lobby was moved, and the room was quickly packed with about 75 guys.

The match began, and Glenn Geist from Germantown Pa, wiped the lobby up with Marcus Colerain, two time SC state heavyweight runner up. After pinning Colerain, Glenn told him. “That’s why you were runner up…”

I am sure it is no surprise that the third "tough guy" in this room is Coach Rick Geist. He was already a legend, even way up in Frackville, back in 6th, 7th and 8th grade when the Trojans played Ashland. His legend loomed large and we were all afraid of him. He was a man-child then; he was a wrecking ball in high school and a defensive monster.  We would eye each other cautiously at parties when our paths crossed, and I have to be honest…he scared me.  I had heard lots of stories, and I knew he was tough.

In June, of 1982 Rick and I were teammates on the Schuylkill County Senior All Star Football Team. That year, for the first time, we would be playing against the Berks County All Star team.

Rick suggested we ride together and car pool for the practices down at Schuylkill Haven High School. I really didn’t want to be in a car with him alone, but I was too scared to tell him no.  He drove first, and we shared a quite ride down for our first practice, the Monday after graduation. It was hot, we were in full gear, and practice was hard. We got back into his car for the ride home had some quiet conversation about the other players from other schools on the team.  I’d ask him, what did you think of Jones, or Miller, or Smith, as I went down the roster, and his stock answer was “He Sucks”.  As far as Rick was concerned, there was no one tougher than him. This is something he still believes today, and something he believes about his players. I can’t argue with him.

3.  That last lesson that football teaches, I believe, is about the supreme value, comradeship—love of your fellow man, your brothers. Football is not war, but in my experiences it is the closest thing to it, minus the bullets flying and the shells exploding, and the war metaphor is one that is often applied to the game of football. Through shared suffering and jubilation, a bond is built among teammates, an esprit de corp, if you will, that lasts a life time. In true team settings, you do your job and you do it correctly, not just for yourself, but for the man next to you, for your buddy, for your brother.

I am reminded of a scene from the HBO Mini-Series, Band of Brothers, produced by Steven Speilberg and Tom Hanks. The series follows “Easy” Company of 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, part of the 82nd Airborne, from their drop behind the German lines in Normandy on D Day in June, 1944, and then across Europe and into Germany as WWII comes to a close in May of 1945. 

In the final episode, at the end of the war, a German General formally surrenders to the 506th and then asks for permission to address his troops one last time. It is ironic to me that the title for this epic American story, comes from a speech by a German General, but his words ring true, and I think apply here today. As the officer speaks, an American soldier who speaks German translates for Major Winters, the CO of the 506th:

“Men, it has been a tough war and a long war. We have fought bravely and valiantly for our country. You are a special group. We found in one another a bond that exists only in combat and among brothers. We have shared fox holes and we held each other in dire moments. We have seen death and suffered together. I am proud to have served with each of you. You deserve long happy lives in peace.”

It has been my experiences that the bond of comradeship forged during our football experiences has lasted a lifetime, and will never cease, even at death.

So, Spartans, hopefully, you will find these lessons from football hold true, and you will forge your own as you go through your life. Just remember to keep your eyes and ears open, and always be a humble student of the game.

In closing, I’d like to finish with some words of wisdom, my friend, Bob Kempsey. On Monday, November 22, 2010, I was on my way home from work in Harrisburg. It was a very emotional day as we had lost to N. Lehigh 48 hours earlier in the playoffs to finish 11-1. In addition, it was also my daughter’s 9th birthday, and it was the first time I was not with her to celebrate. I was an emotional wreck, and not ready to go home or to stop playing football. Sad and depressed, I stopped by Bob’s house at the bottom of the mountain in Gordon. We talked about the game a little bit, and then he said something that hit home and helped—even if just a little bit—to put things into perspective for me.

He said, “You know, I was a little upset with some of the people in the crowd at the end of the game. They were booing and jeering, complaining about the game, and bitching about what you all did wrong, and you know, it kind of ticked me off. These people quickly forget how much love and joy this team has brought to this area over the last few years. They made Friday nights fun, and they brought a lot of happiness and love to a place that doesn’t always breed love or happiness. People should be giving these guys a lot more love.”

Spartans, on behalf of all the “Skooks” north of the mountain, I’d like to personally thank you for the love. Your feats and accomplishments both on and off the field have made my life a better one, and I am a wiser and stronger man for the experiences I have shared with you. Always remember the lessons the game of football has given you, and never forget that you are obligated to give something back to the game. If you do that, that game lives on for future generations. Thanks for love, Lads…