He always seemed just a bit ticked off.
Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t.
Whatever was going on inside him, he commanded respect. Fear, it seems, trumps all the other motivators…and I think it’s fair to say that we were all just a bit intimidated by Coach Gerard Leone.
For one example, even today, even after his recent passing from cancer at the age of 72, I’m reluctant to call him “Jerry” as he once warned us never to do after our football careers were over. That’s because I’ve seen him furious before…and don’t totally trust the line between life and death as being anything that could effectively restrain him.
Coach Leone was Franklin, Massachusetts’ most successful high school coach. At least he was to the best of my knowledge. I don’t know of any other FHS coach who could boast a 32 game winning streak. It was impressively long in an extremely competitive high school football league. Historically long, in fact — at the time, it set a Massachusetts’ schoolboy record. One of the Attleboros — either the Red Rocketeers or Blue Bombardiers — eventually broke it, I think.
He left FHS a while after the streak, but returned to win an in-state Super Bowl for Franklin in 1983, showing that he hadn’t lost his touch. Too bad they didn’t have those Super Bowls when we played.
The guy was tough, and it was no act. He grew up in the Whiskey Point section of Brookline…not some sleepy Massachusetts suburb somewhere. I remember approaching him one fall day after one of the math classes he taught. We were in an empty classroom, and he was dressed in a coat and tie, looking perfectly civilized. Not having any inkling of what I was about to do, I proceeded to ask him for the day off under the mistaken belief that having a softball-sized boil on my knee qualified me to skip practice. Unfortunately he saw this as just another lame excuse and blew up. “You can’t afford to skip practice today,” he informed me in his ominous “I’m perturbed” 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 rough enough as it was but now here was the coach literally inviting me to quit…something that would have been all too easy to do that day. I was getting treated unfairly. That much was clear. The guy had to be nuts. That’s what I thought, at least.
Fortunately for me, I went ahead and practiced that day. I didn’t quit. I wasn’t “all in” for a week or so, but I didn’t quit.
That junior year (1968) was a rough one for us — and the country. First Martin Luther King was assassinated in April then Robert Kennedy was murdered in June; there were race riots and war protests; Vietnam’s number of KIAs, WIAs, MIAs and POWs kept mounting; and, maybe as another dark omen (albeit of lesser magnitude), one of America’s most beloved sports heroes ever, Mickey Mantle, played his final season. The nation’s atmosphere was dark and doubtful.
We lost every game except the last two that dismal year; we tied the next to the last contest then beat neighboring King Philip in a Thanksgiving Day thriller to stay mercifully out of the cellar.
I remember being injured much of the season (a sprained ankle that masked a fracture) and slogging from one miserable loss to another. But none of us quit. And Coach Leone didn’t baby us, either. He didn’t say, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” He would never have uttered such nonsense. He just made us realize that if we really wanted to win, we were going to have to want it a lot more and work a whole lot harder than the other guys — a lesson that, as it turns out, happens to apply to every important goal in life.
And he wouldn’t let us dog it just because we were down and out. I think it was during that tough 1968 season when, near the end of a practice, during sprints, I caught a blur out of the corner of my eye. I turned: It looked like bigfoot getting blown up by an MX missile. Actually it was Coach Leone blasting across the field, tackling a lumbering lineman who was halfway through a sprint, a teammate much bigger than he was who must have thought he could get away with running those sprints at less than top speed. It was a beautiful tackle, I had to admit.
To me, it was trademark Coach Leone stuff.
At any rate, the incident only helped motivate us to work harder. The next season, with that 1968 character-building behind us, we picked up where we left off. The year looked more hopeful — man landed on the moon in July — and I was lucky enough to be elected one of the captains, validating my decision not to quit. As usual, Coach Leone’s practices were legendary — some players decided not to go on.
We cruised 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 that early in the season. As good as we were — and we were good — Ipswich was that much better at that moment in time. I can still see their star back galloping away from me.
Someone said they saw Coach Leone crying afterward. I don’t know.
I do know that the practice following 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 planting my cleats squarely into it (into his facemask, actually). But he survived. We all survived. And no one called the ACLU.
Or the ASPCA.
The rest of the season could have been scripted in Hollywood. We simply didn’t lose again. A week later, we faced a tough North Attleboro team and our character was again tested…this time we were up to it. We mustered two goal-line stands on our way to an 8-0 win and — five wins later — to the championship Thanksgiving Day re-match between Franklin and King Philip, both of us undefeated, the previous year’s two worst teams, accounting for the first seven victories in that historic 32 game winning streak as well as the first of those three consecutive championships.
We got the ball rolling.
I actually saw Coach Leone smiling that victorious Thanksgiving day. Several times, in fact.
He had this spooky knack of knowing whether or not you were “giving 100 percent.” He simply wouldn’t settle for less, often using the Three Stooges’ expression, belly-bumping, to describe a mediocre effort. As the great UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, famously put it, “Don’t confuse activity for accomplishment” — something Coach Leone wholeheartedly believed.
And Coach could get us psyched up. At least he could get me psyched 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 wouldn’t talk or do anything but stare out the door waiting for my ride to the school to show up. I had my favorite psych songs, of course, but there were no Walkmans or Ipods around to play them. Just albums.
Even so, I didn’t need music to get motivated.
He wasn’t one for excessive praise, either, and that was just fine. People get praised for too little these days. According to today’s standards, just about everyone deserves to be a hero. But a mere nod of his head could feel like a million bucks. And he had a good (if not somewhat concealed) sense of humor. I remember, after football season, competing in the quarter mile in track and accidentally bumping the runner ahead of me off his pace. Now, traditionally, track and field is a non-contact, non-violent sport. In this instance, however, my roller-derby version of the quarter mile just busted Coach up: I remember how hard he laughed.
He wasn’t perfect. None of us can lay claim to 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 heroically deals with it. But the thing is, when Coach Leone is remembered, it will probably be for the great contributions he’s made to the lives of hundreds of guys.
I’m certain I’m a far better man for not quitting his football team on that fall day in that empty Franklin High classroom in 1968. I wonder about it sometimes. Certainly quitting would have been easy to do that day…but what would it have done to me later in life? “Coach made me tougher,” Mike Gilmore admitted after I told him of his passing. “He gave me confidence.”
Coach Leone’s brand of no-excuse competition made all the members of 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 that we were all just a bit intimidated by Coach Leone…but, more importantly, we loved the man and wouldn’t have wanted him any other way.