Tribute to a coach
He always seemed a little upset.
Maybe it was. Maybe she wasn’t.
Whatever was going on inside him commanded respect. Fear, it seems, trumps all other motivators…and I think it’s fair to say we were all a bit intimidated by coach Gerard Leone.
For example, even today, even after his recent death from cancer at the age of 72, I am reluctant to call him “Jerry”, as he once warned us never to do after our football careers ended. That’s because I’ve seen him rage before… and I don’t fully trust the line between life and death as something that can effectively contain him.
Coach Leone was the most successful high school coach from Franklin, Massachusetts. At least it was as far as I know. I don’t know of any other FHS coach who can boast a 32-game winning streak. He went impressively long in an extremely competitive high school football league. Historically long, in fact, at the time, he set a Massachusetts collegiate record. One of the Attleboros, either Red Rocketeers or Blue Bombardiers, eventually broke it, I believe.
He left FHS for a time after the streak, but returned to win an in-state Super Bowl for Franklin in 1983, proving he hadn’t lost his touch. Too bad they didn’t have those Super Bowls when we played.
The guy was tough and didn’t act. He grew up in the Whiskey Point section of Brookline…not in a quiet Massachusetts suburb somewhere. I remember walking up to him one fall day after one of his math classes. We were in an empty classroom, and he was dressed in a jacket and tie, looking perfectly civilized. Having no idea what he was about to do, I proceeded to ask him for the day off under the mistaken belief that having a baseball-sized boil on my knee qualified me to miss practice. Unfortunately, he saw this as another lame excuse and blew up. “You can’t afford to miss practice today,” he informed me in his ominous “I’m disturbed” tone, “but if you do, go ahead and skip the rest of the season too.”
It was a real turning point for me.
There didn’t seem to be any good reason to stay on the team. Practice was hard enough, but now here was the coach, literally asking me to quit…something that would have been too easy to do that day. They were treating me unfairly. That was clear. The guy had to be crazy. That’s what he thought, at least.
Fortunately for me, I went ahead and practiced that day. I did not quit. I wasn’t “all in” for a week or so, but I didn’t quit.
That third year (1968) was difficult for us and for the country. First Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, then Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June; there were race riots and anti-war protests; The number of KIAs, WIAs, MIAs and POWs from Vietnam continued to increase; and, perhaps as another (albeit lesser) dark foreshadowing, one of America’s most beloved sports heroes, Mickey Mantle, played the final season of it. The atmosphere of the nation was dark and doubtful.
We lost every game except the last two in that lousy year; we tied the penultimate contest and then beat neighboring King Philip in a Thanksgiving thriller to mercifully stay out of the basement.
I remember being injured for much of the season (a sprained ankle that hid a fracture) and going from one miserable loss to another. But none of us gave up. And Coach Leone didn’t spoil us either. He didn’t say, “It’s not about whether you win or lose, but how you play.” He would never have said such nonsense. He just made us realize that if we really wanted to win, we were going to have to I want it much more Y work much harder than everyone else, a lesson that turns out to apply to all of life’s important goals.
And he wouldn’t let us go after him just because we were down. I think it was during that rough season in 1968 when, near the end of practice, during sprints, I saw something blurry out of the corner of my eye. I turned around: it looked like Bigfoot was flying through the air with an MX missile. Actually, it was Coach Leone running down the field, taking down a heavy lineman who was in the middle of a sprint, a much larger teammate than he must have thought he could get away with running those sprints unless of the maximum speed. It was a beautiful tackle, he had to admit.
To me, it was signature Coach Leone material.
In any case, the incident only helped motivate us to work harder. Next season, with that 1968 character build behind us, we pick up where we left off. The year seemed more hopeful: man landed on the moon in July, and I was lucky enough to be chosen one of the captains, which validated my decision not to quit. As usual, Coach Leone’s practices were legendary: some players decided not to continue.
We navigate through the first game with Case (I still don’t know where that place is). Unfortunately the next game, Ipswich, was one that should never have been scheduled. At least this early in the season. As good as we were, and we were good, Ipswich was much better at the time. I can still see his star galloping away from me.
Someone said they saw Coach Leone crying afterwards. I don’t know.
I know that the practice that followed that devastating loss was “memorable.” Pure savagery. Gladiator training school stuff. The coaches were not happy. I remember the poor helmet-framed face of my good friend, Mike Gilmore, just before I planted my booties directly on him (on his facemask, actually). But he survived. We all survive. And no one called the ACLU.
Or the ASPCA.
The rest of the season could have been written in Hollywood. We just didn’t lose again. A week later, we faced a tough team from North Attleboro and our character was tested again…this time we rose to the occasion. We rallied two goal-line positions on our way to an 8-0 victory and, five wins later, to the Thanksgiving Day championship rematch between Franklin and King Philip, both undefeated, the two worst teams of the year. previous. representing the first seven wins in that historic 32-game winning streak, as well as the first of those three consecutive championships.
We got the ball rolling.
In fact, I saw Coach Leone smiling that victorious Thanksgiving. Several times, in fact.
It had this creepy punch of knowing whether or not you were “giving 100 percent.” She just wouldn’t settle for less, often using the Three Stooges expression, belly punch, to describe a mediocre effort. As the great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden said, “Do not confuse activity with achievement” — something Coach Leone wholeheartedly believed.
And the coach could mentalize us. He at least he could psych me up before a game. I remember being in an altered state on Saturday mornings before we played (that’s right… we played on Saturdays, not Friday nights). It was intense. I didn’t speak or do anything but stare out the door waiting for my ride to school to show up. I had my favorite psych songs, of course, but there were no walkmans or ipods to listen to them. Just albums.
Still, I didn’t need music to motivate me.
He wasn’t one for excessive praise either, and that was fine. People get praise for very little these days. By today’s standards, almost everyone deserves to be a hero. But a nod from mother could feel like a million bucks. And he had a good (if not sneaky) sense of humor. I remember, after football season, competing in the quarter mile on track and accidentally causing the runner in front of me to lose his rhythm. Now, traditionally, athletics is a sport without contact or violence. In this case, though, my roller derby version of the quarter mile just smashed the coach: I remember how much he laughed.
He wasn’t perfect. None of us can claim that. And he and Scott Hayden have had to deal with a monstrous tragedy after Scott’s life-changing spinal cord injury on the football field. Scott still stands up to him heroically. But the thing is, when Coach Leone is remembered, it will probably be for the great contributions he has made in the lives of hundreds of guys.
I’m sure I’m a much better man for not leaving his football team that fall day in that empty Franklin High classroom in 1968. Sometimes I wonder. Certainly, quitting smoking would have been easy to do that day…but what would I have done to myself later in life? “Coach made me tougher,” Mike Gilmore admitted after he told him about his passing. “He gave me confidence.”
Coach Leone’s brand of no-excuses competition made everyone on his teams tougher and better prepared for life. I can’t imagine facing life any other way.
Yeah, I think it’s safe to say we were all a little intimidated by Coach Leone…but more importantly, we loved the man and wouldn’t have wanted him any other way.