http://ad.doubleclick.net/clk;276390040;103714799;h The National Football League is promoting a “share your story” with an opportunity to win a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII and they are engaging various celebrities to reflect on childhood memories. When I saw a promotional picture of young kids in uniform of my era, it really stirred memories. Nothing but good memories. So I went into my archives and found this piece. After I left the Washington Redskins in 2005 and prior to joining Drexel University’s Sport Management Program, I began writing about my life and how football has been absolutely intrinsic.
I haven’t posted on here in quite some time. I now am out of coaching and working in the representation of NFL athletes. It is rewarding work as I help prepare young men for the riggers of the combine, draft, and their transition into professional football. We have been successful in this initial season with three players selected in the top 95 and two other free agents making their respective squads with one working his way into a starting position.
Here is the beginning of the seven chapters or so that I have written. Don’t know if I’ll ever really write it all down. We use to joke as coaches about writing a book but no one would ever believe the realities of the experiences. If some feed back is positive perhaps I’ll post more but this is my base truth. This is why I could never dream of really doing anything but being on a football field. When I worked with Mike Hollway at Marietta College in the early 1980’s he spoke of, “not being singular in purpose” and that is why I’ve ventured into some of the avenues I have but at the end of the day we all have a definition and “coach” is what I will always inherently be. Hope you enjoy this snippet.
PART I: It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do…
Chapter 1 FULTON PARK
My dad pulled our white ‘64 Ford Falcon on the grass next to small boulders that were evenly spaced parallel to the street, used as a barrier to keep vehicles off the outfield of the baseball diamond in Fulton Park. I couldn’t wait to jump out of the car as my legs stuck to the red vinyl seats. It was a typically hot, muggy, late summer New England day in Waterbury, Connecticut and football season was approaching.
From across the street I could see my hero’s emerging from the shadows of the pine trees. I could hear the clattering of the steel tipped nylon cleats as they came off the grass having walked up the hill from Wilby High School and crossed the street to reach the practice field. Groups of two, three, five all wearing black mostly high top leather Riddell football shoes with white laces, practice football pants that were once white and now had a worn beige look to them, and white cotton tee shirts, no dryfit back then. In their hands that beautiful white MacGregor helmet with the protruding ear area, only single and double bar white nylon face masks, and a single green stripe down the middle with their practice jersey’s jammed inside and used to carry their floppy hockey like shoulder pads.
Pulling up and parking behind us was a convertible Cadillac. The long, heavy driver’s side door swings open and out steps a round imposing figure. It’s Fred O’Brien the head coach and my dad’s best friend. Fred and my dad could pass as brothers. Both are bald, my dad was 5-11 and probably around 225 at that time and Fred was 5-10 and I’d say 250 pounds. They are young, strong, and confident and are having the time of their lives coaching football. My dad handled the offense and Fred the defense. They trusted each other and the passion they had for what they were doing was evident. They had mapped out practice the night before between playing hands of pinochle with my mom Hilda and Fred’s wife Barbara.
The entire squad has now arrived and is gathered under the shade of the trees that border the intersecting streets and are located in the deepest of straight away centerfield of the baseball diamond. The infield is skinned and dry and has the look of a miniature patch of desert. Behind the beaten and battered backstop is a hill with a path that gradually climbs from the third base line up and around the plate and declines as it wraps around to the first base line. There are tennis courts behind the path on the first base side. It is an idyllic setting in my mind for this is where the Wilby Wildcats hold their practices in the outfield, an open green space that is the most important patch of grass that I will ever know.
Coach O’Brien and my dad Coach Jim Kelly, simultaneously blow their whistles hanging from shoestrings around their necks. They too have on football pants, white socks, black Riddell ripple soled shoes, gray tee shirts, and green caps and have the look of excitement and anticipation on their faces as the pea rattles in its chamber. The team dons their helmets and begins to jog from centerfield toward the left field pole onto the path that inclines up and around the backstop, down the slope toward the right field pole and into precise exercise lines in what is normally right field but is now anointed as a practice football field. The captains stand with their backs to where the second baseman would be located and the rest of the team is in eight rows of about six to a row. The captains lead a variety of stretches and calisthenics that were typical of the times. Neck roles, bridges, push-ups, sit-ups, up/downs, windmill toe touches, trunk twisters, forward and backward arm rotations would lead into wind sprints by each line of a 20 yard burst, to bear crawls of 50 to 100 yards, and who could forget the infamous duck walk for the same distance. Forget water at the end of these drills. Water was for the weak. Sissie’s needed water. Take a salt tablet and move on to the next set of drills.
I was taught to stay out of the way but I would push the limits as far as I could. I would take off and run with the team around the field being passed by young men two and three times my size. I’m six years old and the pounding sound on the dry ground, the dust in my face, that distinct odor of a pubescent football player’s sweat, and the sense of team sends a jolt through me as nothing else did. This is where I belong. I would mimic the exercises as best I could at the back of the line. While the players conditioned, I would bounce over to the rusty two-man sled and stand on the back like my dad would be doing in a matter of moments exhorting on two young men to drive with their legs, keep their pad level down, head up, and push that thing around until you thought you were going to drop but you didn’t dare.
Next came “bull in the ring” where a single player would be in the center of a circle of players keeping his feet moving and head on a swivel, as the coach would then call out the number of a another player making up the circle to sprint out toward the player in the middle and deliver a blow, forcing the “bull” in the middle to quickly react to this immediate threat in a hitters position and deliver a blow himself or get knocked on his ass. If the ‘bull” remained on his feet another player would be called from the circle in rapid succession, one right after another until an alternate “bull’ was chosen. Once these two young coaches were satisfied that toughness was being instilled, onto the “Oklahoma Drill” they went. A ball carrier, quarterback to hand off, an offensive lineman to open the hole against an interior defender, and then an end to block a defensive back. All are aligned in a row bordered by blocking dummies to appoint a confined running lane. These drills were exciting, violent, team building, and man producing. I loved it.
The scrimmage phase of practice demonstrated the importance of paying attention to detail. If a running back was too anxious to get to the exchange in a draw scheme, my dad would hold the back of his pants and then let him go when the timing was proper to teach patience. If the steps of an end to arc release with the proper removal of surface area from the defender attempting to disrupt the release was proving difficult, time would be taken to demonstrate and teach the footwork, perhaps even staying at the end of practice and mapping out the steps in the dry dirt of the infield so that the player could visualize the exact arc needed. Nothing was left to chance. Specifics were to be taught. Repetition was the key. You didn’t have to do a lot, just do the things you do have correctly and never, ever quit.