It was roughly 50 years ago, and I was anointed with a new nickname. The Cherry Hills Bruins of the Young America League Football organization had just given us a new coach. Right away I discovered that he wasn’t very good with names. He “assigned” names obviously based on “the looks” of his new recruits. Hence, monikers he could remember. Apparently, showing up on my bike with a baseball cap and sunglasses awarded me the name “Hollywood”…add to that two guys on the team with red hair – one he named “Red” – while he referred to the other as – “Red.” The tall lanky guy who played wide receiver he named “Ichabod” while the biggest guy on the team was designated “Monster.” There were others whose names shall go unstated because they were rather colorful or named after a body part with “head” on the end of it. If a parent came to watch a practice session a whole lotta guys became “Knucklehead”. One guy took an errant kick-off between the legs and so he became “Numb Nuts.” Even though the names didn’t reflect how we were referred to elsewhere in life, we all seemed to know who he was referring to – especially when it required improvement in our execution.
The coach I’m referring to was “Whitey” a starving young artist with 2 kids at the time and a beat-up ’53 Chevy that ‘magically’ responded to a kick in the rear bumper to offer up the ‘ball bag and blocking dummies’. Whitey was a piece of work. He had been a running back for the Cincinnati Bearcats – and he LOVED football. What’s more – we soon learned that he LOVED US TOO! He always kept in touch over the 50 years that passed since we met on that football field, and he always had a penchant for telling stories about your ‘great plays’ or anecdotes about the goofy stuff you did. You always felt important around him. He wanted to know if you were ‘making your mark’ – leaving things better than how you found them. When I turned 20 years old he actually made me think about what kind of legacy I was leaving. None of this “live for the day” stuff for him – he made us want to make a difference.
On the field, he was gruff, gnarly, had a loud raspy voice, and used language that quite well have had me retiring early from football had my mother known. He would beat us with the ball bag if we cracked wise – or called him “Flower girl” – and – he was FUN. There was no pretense with Whitey. He’d stop practice sometimes for no good reason, just to huddle up tell jokes and share a good laugh. The jokes often stretched the imaginations of the 12-13 year old audience he held court for. I liked him immediately and realized he “knew” the game and he “knew” kids. We were going to learn a lot – about football, about life, about girls, about art, politics – and other stuff I never even dreamed I’d care about – until I met him.
He did things differently from get-go. As a little league coach he had us in two-a-days as the summer waned and fall crept upon us. We did time trials, strength and agility drills, things I’d later discover were part of the NFL Scouting Combine – only it hadn’t been invented yet. I liked it because it gave me a chance to show off the fact I was fast, quick and could throw the ball farther than anyone on the team – I just knew he’d use me in the backfield as a Quarterback or a Halfback. I’d get plenty of touches on the ball. Having already played a couple of years in pee-wee ball I was used to those positions. Even though we were 0-12 on those teams, it was still fun and I always felt like a “star.”
That is, until I didn’t. A couple of days later he called me over after practice – sat me down one-on-one and asked me if I’d consider changing positions. He said he wanted to put me on the line as a pulling guard. I readily admit I didn’t know what a “pulling guard” was – but it didn’t sound good. I whined to him, “YOU WANT ME TO BE A DUMB LINEMAN??????” He said that wasn’t quite what he had in mind – but he knew that I liked to knock people down – and boy did we need players to knock people down. I didn’t even hear that part because I was so preoccupied wiping the tears streaming down my face so nobody would see me crying. He asked me to ‘just’ think about it. We’d discuss it at the next practice.
I was destroyed – disgraced beyond words. For a brief moment I had the crazed thought of riding my bike into traffic just so I could just “disappear” in dramatic fashion and save myself from any future embarrassment. That night I figured I had to quit football altogether. That was the only way out. There was only one problem…I didn’t have anything else to do after school, and besides, what would I do on Saturday mornings when all my buddies were getting creamed on game day? I was totally humiliated. I was as low as I could get. As I got older I realized “that” feeling – humiliation – was indeed relative and I “really could” feel worse. Hooh boy! It was perhaps my worst personal disaster since dropping not one – but two – half gallons of milk on the kitchen floor a year earlier.
A New Day
Well sure enough – against all hope – the next practice he asked me again….to which I replied “I’ll try it for two weeks – but if I don’t like it I want my old position back!” He said, “Alright Hollywood!! Way to go! You’re my TEAM guy.” (He always used ‘possessives’ when talking about us – “my guys” – he made us feel like we ‘belonged’ to him and in retrospect, we did.) He then proceeded to pass out a new playbook, tell us we had until the next day to memorize the new plays and terminology – and – that we were gonna win some ball games. Everybody cheered – but I was skeptical. The side note worth mentioning here – is that I ended up playing football for almost 8 years after that….for no less than 6 coaches teaching several systems. A couple years back I went to the “NFL Coaches Academy” as I was coaching my own teams – and wanted to use the systems and techniques USA Football is promoting throughout the sport to enhance the caliber of play nationwide. As it turned out, the blocking schemes I learned and perfected at 12 years of age (cross blocks, traps, pulling in either direction, stunting defenses, ‘called’ option assignments, and multiple sets) were more sophisticated than anything I was exposed to afterward.
It wasn’t always that refined…sometimes it was just plain silly. We did trick plays and fun plays like the “shitty left or right”….where on the snap EVERYONE would run to the left or right….just to see what might happen. We even scored once on that play. Fact is, I really learned the game…and did I get to “knock people down”? – you bet. We became a machine. We were good. We started winning. We kept on winning. We stayed together the next year too – now representing our school with pep clubs and a regular “following” of fans attending our games. I never had so much fun! WE were ALL stars!
Things came to a head with our stiffest competition late in the season our second year together. We were playing a team we had never beat. The closest score in any of our games against this team was 48 – zip….and we were the zip. These guys were huge – they were tough – they had a coach who had to be the nastiest personality I’d ever seen. Now-a-days this guy would never make it in little league…if they hadn’t won everything in sight he might have been drummed out of coaching – even back then.
It turned out to be a killer game. We scored first – and we all thought their coach was going to have a heart attack. He was screaming and yelling and chewing his guys out…it was bad. Things got chippy. They scored and took the lead. With time running out on our own 8 yard-line, Whitey called a sweep right – which had me pulling around the right side and “Scotty” running the ball following the interference. I usually took out the defensive end on this play…but there was no end there so I turned up-field. Here came the linebacker so I took him out… he ended up tripping the safety who was closing fast. I’m at the bottom of a pile of bodies with dirt blowing into my face from all the heavy breathing and somebody trying to break my leg, but I can still hear everybody going nuts on the sidelines. Scotty scores. All I can hear now is this piercing raspy voice of Whitey cutting through the craziness – “Way to go! Hollywood.” For a moment I thought – but why? I didn’t score the touchdown – why would he?…..And in that moment I learned the true meaning of TEAMWORK. That was the gift of a lifetime and I am forever grateful….for everything that coach gave to me….lessons, technique, the challenge to ‘get things right’, pride in a job well-done, confidence, praise, joy, laughter, love….It was then – and as I write this now – trulyPriceless!
Fritz White died a couple of months ago – at 80 years of age. He was a man’s man….an award winning artist, sculptor, husband, father, grandfather, benefactor, friend, mentor, comedian, singer, historian of Native-American tribes, cowboys and culture, the westward expansion, literature, conservative causes, a supporter of his community, hometown and Cowboy Artists of America bretheren. More than that he was my friend and teacher – a great man. A COACH who changed my life and a mentor whose lessons I’ll never forget!
One of Fritz White’s most celebrated sculptures is a 26′ tall statue that crowns the Florida State University Seminole Stadium – called “Unconquered.” A photo archive of White’s available work can be found at Fritz White’s website.
From the Editor: Every athlete that reads Podium Sports Journal will have at least one inspirational coach they feel deeply connected with and feel tremendous gratitude for. Podium would love to pay tribute to your coach too. It is through the recognition of champions such as these that we appreciate the ideas, values, methods and stories we can share with our readers. Send us your tribute and let us all win through your experience…Keep their legacy alive and thriving by sharing their story and the lessons learned through their inspiration. Send your story to: [email protected]