| || |
The Last Home Game; "My First Million" Part 7
October 22, 2010 - Charlie Landis
Home Against State College
One of the big aspects of high school and college football is how quickly the fortunes of teams can change. The turnover of players is high and great teams in any one year can be defined by a player or two who quickly graduate leaving a roster of average players to experience the pain of revenge. Just two years earlier, State College came to town with the great Matt Suhey and handily beat us. Now they were in town as a 5-5 team that appeared on film to be fortunate at that. Once again, the sun was shining on win number five. It was our last game of the year, senior night and the Millionaire faithful were coming to a game in November that mattered with their Juke Box Money and high expectations.
Things must have been chirpy at Textron that week too. Dad spent the week inquiring about our chances on a win, our mindset, what the films were telling us. Several of our dads worked at Textron, or AVCO as it was known then, and as such provided their sons with the bonafides of not being lazy. My dad was among those guys in the parade of American-made pick-up trucks that left at 3:30 for the local bars or football fields to collect their kids and deliver them to the dinner table. In my case, my dad spent the season giving rides home to as many kids who needed them to the degree of violating a 21st century law of having them in the back unsecured without a seatbelt, a mouthpiece or riding helmet. Imagine the peril.
But this last week, the week of November 7th, was dark for much of practice including the surreal last night of zippies at the stadium. Tim lined us up and within minutes had us running full field zippies spread completely across the field. So there we were, under the lights without Zimmerman, spread so thin that it was easy to feel alone. It was certainly quiet with only the ends of our chin straps smacking up against our helmets and the sound of Tim blowing his whistle. If it wasn’t for Parlante and his lane violations, we could have run the entire time that way. Steve appropriately used the last night to record another round of his patented satirical faux encouragement almost as well as Will Ferrell of Saturday Night Live fame might have. It was hilarious. Then he was gone, reminding us that you come into this world by yourself, and you go out by yourself. But Tim had done his job during the week, we were ready.
There was the matter of the game. This wasn’t just any game. It was the last game and in my two previous years it meant that it was parent’s night. As we saw in the Steelton game that meant the players would run to meet their parents and walk to a spot while the rest of the players were introduced with their parents. It didn’t happen that way for us. Someone had forgotten to tell Tim that some people were proud of us. Instead we were herded in the end zone like the orphans we were to him and asked to trot to the fifty yard line.
It was just too disconcerting for me at the time. I felt bad for my mom and I failed to get my head into the game until their second drive, and even then only when they were in their goal line offense. Coach Mayer called one of my favorite defenses and their coach suckered me on a trap play for an easy TD. But that was it for them until the fourth quarter. For three quarters, we shut them down. Our offense scored a TD and made the two-point conversion to go up 8-7.
I must say, from the perspective of a seventeen year old linebacker whose team had shut them down, that one point lead felt entirely like 5-4-2. Then I was humbled by the game like I hadn’t been since eighth grade. In my twentieth game for the Cherry & White I was part of a play that still astounds me after seeing it again after all these years. Apparently, there were a bunch of good coaches with average teams in 1977 and State College was one of them. The guy knew enough to call the play, and the stars aligned just enough for him to win.
It had been a long time in the game since they had threatened let alone scored. Our offense was coming back with a nice mix of the running and passing, and the clock was winding down. It felt like our game. So they called a flanker screen or something similar where their quarterback would take a drop of a few steps and pitch the ball to the flanker who was one-on-one with our cornerback. With a lot of luck, he might break a tackle and wait for Victor or Al to make the tackle. But they hadn’t counted on a linebacker to read the play and pursue to make a hit on the receiver.
Again they went on a long snap count with plenty of time for us to figure it all out. I did. And that is where fate turned against the new mighty Millionaires. At the snap I started to run right at the receiver while reading the headlines in my mind on the way. But just like a scene in Back to the Future, the page went blank and I lost my pursuit angle. By the time I arrived at the spot where we could have been 5-4-2, I was flailing my arms trying to reorient and make the hit. Wasn’t going to happen. Nope, he was gone and as fate had it, I landed on my stomach with a perfect view for what seemed a lifetime watching this kid run the length of the field. Enough time to ask myself twice, where is Victor Wise? No seriously, where is Victor Wise? All season long, our secondary kept the game in front of them. But at that exact moment, one of our team’s best defenders missed a tackle that he would make 95 out of 100 times, and some guy outran Victor Wise to the end zone. Are you kidding me? It is still hard for me to imagine that kid defying the odds on that play.
They make the two point conversion and take the lead 15-8.
But football is a team game, and our offense drove the field for another touchdown. Our guys played their guts out in the second half, again as they had in the first seven games but this time our defense had allowed the other guy back in the game. The score was 15-14 and we went for two. They made the play and our two point conversion failed. It was just sickening. A few minutes later, I made my last tackle for the Millionaires and Zimmerman roared my name. What had been a thrill for two years was a reminder for those who were paying attention how the game was lost.
Football is played in the moment and only in the moment by its very nature. In high school and college, the average player finds the field for about two years. In the pros, its demands consume your physical talents if not durability to the point where the average career is in the range of the term of a U.S. president or senator. The sport yields such a high level of excellence that there is no appreciation for a senior circuit or leagues for average young players. The game when it matters is played in a very short, fleeting period in a young man’s life that compacts all the elements required for success in a fraction of the time granted for businessmen and tradesmen to become excellent. The focus on what it takes to succeed simply delays the conversation about what it meant for the fifty years after we are done playing. It’s why we bore our uninitiated friends with our stories, why we sit alone watching old DVDs and why we watch Tom Jackson of ESPN each Sunday explain the games he watched.
Football is also a game of results. It is not about the process or feelings, it is about results. All the participants from the players to the coaches to the trainers are all judged by the results, even if a school or program has higher purposes. The credibility of a program at a school such as Penn State where success is coupled with opportunity is at least partially due to the success of the team on the field. For us, after losing for so long, a winning record was the only way the team would be seen as a winner. So even though it was plain to anyone who watched us all season that Tim was going to return the school to its glory days and perhaps beyond, we needed win number five to bring us all the way back from 0-9. Against State College we came within microns of officially doing that but in the end, we walked off the field that night short of the objective.
Saying Good-bye to Tim and Other Weirdness
At that point in the season, I was down to one last opportunity to embarrass myself to my coach. I made the most of it and only his sense of grace years later allowed me to make amends. After the game I chose to walk back to the locker along the edge of the tennis courts that sit on a terrace at the base of the parking lots and above the practice fields. This corridor is over a hundred yards long and was marched in silence prior to the games. It was the best opportunity I had each game to mentally focus on the game plan and visualize what Coach Mayer had in mind for me and the defense. So I decided to walk back that way for the first time ever to prepare for my final time in the locker room. Never thinking what I was going to say to Tim, I was focused on my teammates, our equipment manager Paul “Mitch” Mitchley and to Rick Runner, the perfect assistant trainer, when I gave my uniform back to hook #1.
So of course, the first conversation I was meant to have in the quiet locker room was with Tim. It was a ridiculous performance in adult behavior but given I was a teenager I am forgiven. He walked up and did something I had not seen other than at my expense. He smiled. He congratulated me on a fine senior season. He thanked me for my effort. He thanked me for leading the defense. I mean where did all this come from? Of course had I had my wits about me, I would have thanked him for his decision to come to Williamsport and make the changes required to teach a town and team how to win on the football field. But I didn’t. I was just flooded with emotion wanting to apologize for blowing the tackle on the flanker screen and for holding against Hazleton. It is the habit of the loser to overstate his shortcomings and remain blind to his strengths. We just stood in silence awkwardly until he walked away after a few minutes in what must have been just another weird moment in his new town. A few years later just prior to the Gary Brown and Greg Walker teams, I visited the weight room and ran into him. We sat on a bench and finally shared the mutual appreciation that was due in 1977.
The understated nature of Tim’s retirement struck me as strange. Williamsport sits poised to experience an economic upturn that will certainly surpass the boom times of the past. Future coaches will have access to resources Tim could have only imagined. There well could be several coaches who either by record or legend surpass Tim and if they earn it, I am all for recognizing them. But their possible achievements will not diminish Tim’s tangible results.
For starters, Tim did not appear with an entourage. Today, there are CEOs of major corporations who are known as turn-around artists and they are hired to reverse the fortunes of losing organizations. These guys usually have one or two wing men who actually execute the plans of the CEO. These CEOs whine like school boys if they don’t have their wing men to do the hard work. Tim had no such support and was asked to inherit the existing coaching staff. So unlike the corporate leaders of today he was asked to build a winning coalition starting with one believer. He did more with less talent and resources in 1977 than what might be expected for a new hire today.
So how did he do and how does that first season fit the legacy? I heard during this process of putting pen to paper that Tim declined any elaborate retirement ceremonies. I am not surprised by his request, but it does seem to me to be too much of an understatement that my home town apparently honors this coach with a plaque the size of plaques used to mount antlers of white tail deer harvested by the hundreds each year. I am heartened to hear that this token of gratitude came from some of his colleagues in the sport around town and if my town learns again the magnitude of his accomplishments after several generations of future coaches, then I will be happy to contribute to a grander gesture. This plaque records 165 wins, 93 losses and 3 ties. His winning percentage rounds to 64% with or without the inclusion of our season. So statistically, we did not matter to Tim. From the perspective of the highest benchmark of excellence in his field, this winning percentage is approximately ten percent less than the current Penn State coach.
I look at the 44 quarters we played for additional insight into his performance. I count six quarters all season where Tim was outcoached by the other guy; the first two against Carlisle and all four against Steelton. That means for 38 of the 44 quarters our new coach met at least the minimum requirement of putting us in the best position to win the game for a percentage of 86.3% In 1977, this was a grade of high B or B+.
From the perspective of 1977, our season must have been a cascade of weirdness. First, we accounted for 2.4% of his wins, 5.4% of his losses and 67% of ties. It strikes me that Tim probably never wanted another tie in his career after 1977. It was also a touch strange that we were his only team who played eleven games and required only five wins to have a winning season. I am curious how many other of Tim’s teams won five games after us. In 1978, they started the season 5-0 contrasting with the difficulty we had just experienced the year before. Wins must have come easier in subsequent years and always served as a reminder of how far he had come.
We did not win the way Tim preferred to win. In 1979, I went to the away Lock Haven game to see how Tim’s first three-year class would perform. They won that night in a way that we could have never won. All the same kids I had tackled in 1977 were playing a completely different game than we played. The score reflected about half of the beating Lock Haven took that night. There were no big plays, at least as compared to ours a few years earlier, and the game was never really in doubt. Every one of our games had big plays and seven of the eleven games were in doubt when the ref threw the ball up. Looking back, there were over a dozen big plays by over a dozen players that factored into our games. Not that Tim minded the big plays, especially if they were clearly in his favor, it was just that we never gave him the sense of familiarity that a grind-it-out offense did.
The other thing that was just plain weird was how we interacted with our coach. There were very few times when our interaction rose above a herd of cows lifting their heads as a farmer drives by on a tractor. If it wasn’t for Coach Mayer and Coach Olsen, the entire season could have been choreographed to Tim’s whistle. The awkward relationship between us and our first year coach does not diminish Tim’s achievements. He was a very good coach who was great for Williamsport football in a town that may not have deserved a man of his caliber.
In the end, it was an honor to play for Coach Tim Montgomery. Obviously it is an honor that does not compare to a Purple Heart and similar achievements, but the reality is he taught us for the first time what it took to be successful. Corporations today spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to teach adults all the same things Coach Tim taught us. Now, someone attempts to captivate me in an air-conditioned classroom by pointing to a slide with the words commitment, focus, attention to details, organization, resilience, and pride. Then, we baked belly-up in the Pennsylvania sun answering his question “what kind of players are you going to be in the fourth quarter?” under our breath. We knew exactly what he meant at the moment and had no idea he meant it for a lifetime.
No comments posted for this article.
Post a Comment
Robbie Williams (OT) Handfuls of defensive linemen drove down from the stadium on the hill grateful they had to face him only once.