Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Two men, one school, one gymnasium

      Since it opened in 1956, tucked into the west end of the school grounds in west Shreveport, the building simply has been known as the Fair Park High School gymnasium.
      That will change on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 12, when it is dedicated and becomes known as the "Clem Henderson/Ron Preston Gymnasium."
       It is a terrific honor and appropriate for two men -- so different and yet so alike -- who were such leaders at the old school on Greenwood Road.
Coach Henderson, at the 1963 state
championship celebration (photo from
The Shreveport Times)
      Clem Henderson was old-school, a 1930s teenager in Jennings, La., an early 1940s and late 1940s college student/athlete at Louisiana Tech, with a U.S. Marine stint in between that put him in the middle of World War II. He grew up in a segregated world, but near the end of his school administrative career dealt with an integrated Fair Park.
      Ronald Preston attended all-black schools in Shreveport and then Grambling State University and did his coaching in the more modern era. And one of his biggest boosters in the first decade of the 2000s was Clem Henderson.
      Here is one major accomplishment they have in common: They coached Fair Park basketball teams (Henderson -- 1963; Preston -- 2006) that put state championship trophies in the trophy case in the gym's foyer.
      It's much more than that. They each were at the school for more than 20 years (29 for Henderson, 22 for Preston), and coached a variety of sports. But even after they retired, they remained interested and involved. They loved their kids and the people at the school ... and they were role models.
Coach Ron Preston watching his Fair
Park Indians (photo from
The Shreveport Times)
      Thanks to the Caddo Parish School Board for approving the request for the name change. And thanks to Cathy Ridley Bonds (Class of '66), director of the FPHS Alumni Association, who submitted the nomination letter to the school board and provided it to us to borrow information for this piece.
      I learned of the gym dedication plans from old friend Dick Hicks, one of the star athletes (basketball starter, best pitcher in the state in baseball) in the Class of '65, which had its 50-year reunion in Shreveport this past weekend. Dick put me in touch with Cathy.
      I was around for the last 15 years of Coach Henderson's time at Fair Park; my connection was as a student/manager-statistician at another high school,   then as a sportswriter. I liked hanging around that FP gym.
      I saw his basketball teams play, up close, and the man took a liking to me and especially to my Dad because Clem Henderson, like Dad, experienced World War II -- in much different fashion.
     Because before he was Coach Clem, he was U.S. Marine Pvt. Clem, who was on Iwo Jima when U.S. forces, in a brutal battle, took over that island between Japan and the Philippine Islands, and the iconic flag-raising photo was taken. So he knew war and he could sense what Dad had been through in the concentration camps half a world away.
      Through the years at Fair Park and long afterward, knowing that Dad was quite the sports fan, they had a bond. In their later years, they were part of the coffee-club gatherings of former coaches and administrators and one old Dutchman on Friday mornings at the Southfield Grille.
       So that's a personal reflection on Coach Henderson, who let a manager from another school sit on the Fair Park bench during the 1964 Class AAA state championship game (it was not as good a result as the year before).
       I was like thousands of others -- Clem Henderson was a hero to me.
       I've always enjoyed the history of schools, seeing their locations, the campus and the facilities. That's at any level, from college to elementary.
       But I am very partial to the schools in Shreveport and -- forgive me, Woodlawn friends -- especially the two old-line public schools, Byrd (opened in 1926) and Fair Park (opened in 1928).
Since 1928 on Greenwood Road in Shreveport:
Fair Park High School
       I always thought, still think, their settings were majestic on two major roads in Shreveport -- Byrd on Line Avenue, Fair Park on Greenwood Road.
      If you were going to the Louisiana State Fairgrounds, or the State Fair, you could hardly miss Fair Park sitting there across the street, with its magnificent steeple. When you went in the main entrance, there was the distinctive Indian logo in the lobby.
      In our younger days, in the 1950s, '60s and into the '70s, we all knew so many people who had gone to school there, or to Byrd. We had so many friends from those places.
       I think of Fair Park and its great traditions. The one I liked best: the Big Indian, a student mascot dressed in full regalia, who at games (and pep rallies, I suppose) did the "Go Big Indians" dance as the school band played a Florida State-like chanting number.
      There was Round the Reservation week, before the annual game with Byrd -- on Thanksgiving Day, through the 1962 season -- when teepees were set up all over the Fair Park school grounds and there was Beat Byrd Day. 
      A couple of football traditions: For games at State Fair Stadium, the team simply walked from the school (the dressing room was on the lower level of the gym) and always was on the stadium's east side (the side closest to Fair Park). Normally that was the visitors' side, but not when teams played Fair Park.
      Another tradition for years: Student sections from the winner of the Byrd-Fair Park football game going to basketball matchups and chanting "Same Way Turkey Day" at the losing side.
      Fair Park had the Sequoyah (yearbook) and Pow Wow (school paper) and a Mardi Gras Gala and, through the early 1960s, an Honor Legion marching squad for girls (predecessor to a more conventional pep squad).
      There was a crack ROTC Rifle unit, and here's something else I liked: sharp-looking uniforms in every sport. The school colors (black, gold) mixed with white made for a neat combination.  
      About the gymnasiums: Many people in Shreveport-Bossier are aware of this -- the Byrd and Fair Park gyms were identical structures, same design, same interiors, dressing rooms and classrooms on a floor below the gym floor. If I remember correctly, the Caddo Parish School Board saved money this way, and the buildings opened the same year.
       Before that, high school basketball had been played in junior high gyms -- Fair Park at Lakeshore, Byrd at Broadmoor. And before that, I believe there was a basketball gym on the Fairgrounds.
       The Byrd and Fair Park gyms each seated about 2,200. When rivalries were hot and basketball thrived in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at times those gyms were packed full.
     Don't mean to slight anyone or criticize, but in terms of naming the Fair Park gym for Coach Henderson, I paraphrase Shreveport sportswriting legend Jerry Byrd's question concerning another situation: What took them so long?
       I was told that there was an earlier effort to have this approved, but it did not materialize. Don't know why, and it doesn't matter now. But I suppose after Caddo Parish football stadiums were named at Captain Shreve (Lee Hedges Stadium) and Northwood (Jerry Burton Stadium), the precedent was set.
       Wish this had happened before Coach Henderson's passing (on March 9 this year) at the ripe age of 92. He'd been out of coaching for 50 years, away from FP in an official capacity for 38.
        But I know his family -- widow Dr. Martha, sons Clem Jr., Charles and Dr. Jim -- appreciates the honor now. So do their many friends.
        (Next: Two success stories)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Finding a new home in a new country: No easy road

        Once upon a time, I was an immigrant. So were my father, mother and younger sister.
         I can tell you: It is no easy road going from a country you love, the only home you've ever known, to a foreign land far, far away with no guarantees of a happier life. But for us, it was a fairy-tale story.
When I see scenes of Syrian refugees in Europe (photo
from Getty Images, ...
         When I've watched the news the past few weeks and seen the reports of the tide of thousands fleeing persecution and war in their homeland and heading for -- they hope -- safer territory, and a new life, I am a little more empathetic than many American citizens.
        And when I hear the words "the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II," that resonate with me. When I see the reports of hunger and despair and violence, I find it difficult to watch.
        Please, please do not mistake this. Our lives -- the Van Thyn family that came from The Netherlands to the United States in January 1956 -- were so blessed. It all worked. Not perfectly, but darned near it.
... I also remember this  -- survivors freed from the Bergen-
Belsen concentration camp (U.S. Holocaust Museum photo)
       We did not run from persecution or hard times. We came here because my parents wanted to; we weren't forced.
        Our journey was planned for us; there were people waiting to guide us at almost every step. What uncertainty there was, my parents, Elsa and I kind of figured out what came next.
        But "the worst humanitarian crises in Europe since World War II" has me thinking of my parents.
        We weren't refugees when we came to the U.S., but my parents were refugees once.
         Once Nazi Germany took over The Netherlands in May 1940, they were among the hundreds of thousands, millions, who were harassed and persecuted in the next five years. And then having somehow survived the Holocaust, they went on uncertain paths to return "home," whatever was left of home. At that point, they were among those wandering through the European countryside.
        That is my point of identification with today's crisis. Sorry, I can't help it.
        When I see the masses of people walking the roads of Europe, going days without much to eat, eagerly accepting food handouts, sleeping very little, at times sleeping on the side of roads or in fields, boarding the trains heading to God-knows-where, I see Rose and Louis doing just that.
        I see their original family members forced onto those trains, at gunpoint, going to the camps, going -- unknowingly -- to their deaths.
        I see the photos of the long lines of Jewish people outside those trains, many not long from the gas chambers. 
        My parents were in those lines, but over the next couple of years they went from prisoners to survivors. I suppose, once the Nazis abandoned them and their fellow prisoners, they became refugees, or maybe the term is migrants. I'm not sure, and I don't think it matters. What I am sure of is they were lost.
        Gas chambers aren't the threat now, but these people fleeing Syria and other countries are escaping civil wars and bombs and persecution -- and looking for "home."
         Don't know how you feel about immigration -- about the Hispanics, the Muslims, the Middle East natives moving into foreign territory -- but we know the whole world is dealing with transition.
         I know there is much resentment in my old country, The Netherlands, about the influx of people from the Muslim world. Many Dutch nationals are demanding much stricter immigration policies and tighter borders.
         That sounds familiar. We hear every day about the 11 or 12 million "illegal" immigrants in our country; it's at the top of the list of issues for some of the Presidential candidates. 
         Solving that problem isn't as easy as simply building a giant thousand-miles-long wall, as one I-have-all-the-answers so-called candidate suggests (and has he asked the Mexicans if they are willing to pay for that wall?).
         The powers-that-be in Washington, D.C. -- and I use "powers" loosely -- haven't solved the border problem in 25 years. Heck, yeah, we all want tighter control, more careful vetting. Neither political party has found the answers or committed the money and the manpower, or hit on a compromise that works.
         Amnesty for some -- carefully vetted -- sounds good to me. Amnesty for no one, as the junior Senator from Texas and others insist on, that's not practical.
         When I hear that those illegals will be treated in "humanitarian" fashion as they're sent away, I'm thinking that those people are not going to just volunteer to leave. Maybe they'll have to pushed or threatened, and that might -- might -- lead to violence.
         Our history tells us we didn't treat the Indians or the African-Americans in a "humanitarian" manner. Violence, unfortunately, has been a constant in our world -- and we're a civilized country. 
         So when I see the violence erupting in Hungary or Serbia as the borders there close to the masses roaming through Europe, I think it's not much different than what we see here.
         Of course, there are some murderers and rapists and bad guys coming in here, and in the European crisis, too. Again, history tells us that's going to happen, no matter what the safeguards are.
          So we have 9/11, we have the Boston Marathon explosions -- foreign terrorists. The security, the walls ... not enough. But many of our worst ordeals recently -- police shootings, police being shot, shootings at schools or in movie theaters, in churches, on military bases, federal buildings blow up -- are American-made.
          The great majority of those fleeing Syria and the Middle East to Europe, and those making their way from Mexico and Central America to our country, are looking for better lives. Many of the Syrians are middle-class people, with enough money to pay the "smugglers" providing their way north and west. Refugees, with means.
What I find remarkable now, in the European crisis, is that Germany -- of all countries -- is willing to take in 800,000 refugees and give them a chance at a new life. Maybe Germany owes this to the world, after its inhumane actions of the 1910s and 1930s-early 1940s. It is Germany asking for help from other countries in making room  for the refugees.
          I wonder what my parents would say now about the Germans' initiative. Would there be forgiveness?
         The U.S., where many would extradite those 11 or 12 million "illegals" as soon as they could, is willing to take in 10,000 Syrians through immigration. I saw Sunday that the presumptive Democratic nominee for President -- I think you know who she is -- suggests we make it 65,000 and enlist the United Nations to step in more boldly and quickly to help find solutions world-wide.
         I know this: Solutions for immigration problems (legal, illegal) require empathy. I did not see much of that last week in the Republican presidential debate.
          Even legal immigration is difficult. I have a friend in the Atlanta area whose wife, an attorney, runs an immigration practice and he says "the stories and the unlikelihood of success [for immigrants] are disheartening."
         But, I say this from personal experience as I remember the people who helped the Van Thyns all those years ago, thank you to those trying to help the immigrants.
          Look, I'm a lot more knowledgeable about matters in athletics than immigration, but I know this: When I see the reports of the European crisis, and I see those families, the faces of those children -- the ones for whom their parents are seeking better lives -- it affects me.
         Because a long time ago, we were those children. The conditions and the journey were much easier for us, but I know the adjustment is a life-changer.
         When I hear people say that the United States of America is no longer a great country, I strongly disagree. It's better than any other place.
          And maybe Germany will be a better place for those refugees. When I see those children heading into Western Europe, I can't help but root for them.
          Maybe in their new country, some will become social workers or, if they're lucky, sportswriters.
          Bless them all. I hope they end up healthy and safe -- and with a future.

Friday, September 11, 2015

A little football player for the ages

Jesuit's Tony Papa: Unstoppable high-school running back
(photo from
       Tony Papa was a legendary football player, even when he was in elementary school.
       He was the kind of player you could root for, a little, compact guy with powerful legs who could run like heck. Few could keep up with him; those who did found him difficult to tackle. He was obviously a good athlete, from early on, and his determination made him something special.
       Before he even played a high school game and went on to play college football, he was a star.
       He was the star of Shreveport's recreational grade-school football leagues in the late 1950s and early 1960s -- the ones with weight limits (75 pounds, 90, 105, 120, etc.)
       He was a huge star in high school, too, a two-time All-State running back for Shreveport Jesuit, good enough in 1965 to be recruited by LSU and North Louisiana state schools and by Texas A&M, which is where he went as a freshman.
       A little guy -- only 5-foot-6 and 165 pounds in high school, five pounds heavier when he was a college junior. But a little guy with dynamite.
       And there he was Wednesday morning in Arlington, Texas, one of the pallbearers at the funeral of his high school coach, C.O. Brocato.
       I don't mean to slight any of the other pallbearers, but for me, it was  sentimental -- despite the occasion -- to see Tony Papa again. It's been decades. I certainly remember the sensational athlete, and the personable, friendly young man.
       He's not young anymore, of course. He's 67 now, a father of three and grandfather of seven, married for 45 years to the beautiful Carla -- and, yeah, he has less hair and some of it is even gray, and he's had heart bypass surgery.
       But he still looks young to me; he lacks the wrinkles many of us have; and, well, I'm thinking he could still run for 100 yards in a game, or 200, if someone would block for him.
       He's at his playing weight, too -- 172 ... but "my legs are shot." Football is a distant memory, but a great one.
       Making "greatest" selections is subjective, but if you list the "greatest" Jesuit players or the "greatest" running backs in North Louisiana of that era, Tony Papa is at or near the top of those lists.
       He is in two Halls of Fame for his football career -- at Loyola College Prep (the former St. John's and Jesuit) and at Northwestern State University, where he played two seasons after transferring from Texas A&M after a year.
       Also without slighting all the very talented football players Coach Brocato had at the school on Jordan Street from 1958 to 1968, I think they would agree that Tony Papa was the magic name when you talk 1960s Jesuit football.      
       I didn't need a reminder to recall Tony's career, but saw one on the obituary for Coach Brocato published in Shreveport -- a Shreveport Journal story from the 1964 season opener in which Jesuit upset Bossier 26-7 and the players gave Coach a victory ride on their shoulders.  The subhead, above the story headline: "Tony Papa gains 204 yards."
       It was his junior season, his breakout game. But his emergence wasn't a surprise. We all knew who Tony Papa was. Question was, could he do in high school -- because he was so little -- what he had done in kids' football?
Tony Papa: sixth-grade phenom
       Another reminder: Looking for photos to go with this piece, I went to the Internet and then to Jerry Byrd's book, Football Country, from 1981. On the back, there is a collage of players and coaches, and one of the photos is of a very young Tony running the ball.
       The caption for that photo: Tony Papa (14), running for 250 yards in 10 carries in 1959 sixth grade championship game, later broke city high school rushing record.
        You read that correctly: 250 yards in 10 carries.
        The Journal, in those days, had stories on SPAR (recreation) football. The Shreveport Times didn't, but SPAR athletics director Marvin "Hoot" Gibson -- a memorable character for us 1950s-60s kids -- wrote about Tony often in his "Recreation Ramblings" column in the Sunday Times sports sections.
        My joke: Tony was Peter Papa's son, and Hoot's adopted son.
        Tony the kid was only warming up playing on varsity as a Jesuit sophomore (1963 football season), but that Bossier game in 1964 was an answer to how good he could be in high school.
        The next week he ran for 244 yards. Then 133, 157, 183 and 137; he had at least 20 carries each game, 30 one game. Jesuit was 5-0-1 (a 6-6 tie with West Monroe) heading to defending Class AA state champion Minden in Week 7.
        It was a rival game and not long after kickoff, Papa was watching a long punt return after he had fielded the kick and handed off the ball on a criss-cross maneuver. He was far away, trailing the play, when out of nowhere a Minden player hit him low, wiped out his left knee, wrecked it -- and his season.
        Tony's knee needed surgery. He was on his way to a super season (1,058 yards rushing in six games (7.2 yards per carry, 176.3 yards per game). Done.
        The Minden game was a 20-20 tie. After Tony had surgery, Jesuit didn't win again -- losing by 3, and by 2, and playing a third tie that season to finish the regular season. A team that was a probable district champion was an also-ran.
         And because the Jesuit faithful felt the play in Minden was a cheap, "dirty" hit, the Flyers-Tide rivalry went from intense to off-the-charts.
        The knee rehab was difficult, but with his coach's encouragement ("he visited with me every day," Tony recalled) and that of his teammates, Papa was better than ever in 1965, his senior season, and with a much stronger supporting cast.
        It was one of Jesuit's best teams ever. Papa wasn't as productive as before, but still set the city rushing record (1,274 yards, 8.3 per carry). Plus, he was a standout defensive back.
        That Flyers team lost only once -- 6-0 late in the regular season to a Fair Park team that made the Class AAA state semifinals. But the Flyers' state championship hopes in Class AA ended with a semifinal "loss" -- on first downs (15-13), the tiebreaker then -- after a 19-19 tie at Morgan City.
        Papa was recruited by LSU ("a great thrill, everyone wanted to play for LSU," he recalled) and in fact, signed the Southeastern Conference letter-of-intent with the Tigers about the same time Terry Bradshaw did. (No national letter-of-intent then; players could sign with various conferences).
        Neither Papa nor Bradshaw wound up at LSU.
        An official visit to LSU, and the players' attitude about their coaching staff, caused concern and, besides, Jesuit quarterback Gary Kaposta was heading for Texas A&M and badgering Tony to join him there. 
        Gene Stallings was the Aggies' coach and Papa thought he was a compelling speaker -- and recruiter.
         "He said, 'LSU has got a lot of Tony Papas,' " Tony said, imitating Stallings' slow drawl. " 'We ain't got any Tony Papas.' "
         But soon A&M did, and he played for the freshman team in 1966 (freshmen didn't play varsity ball in Division I then).
         However, by the spring of 1967, A&M wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to transfer closer to home and contacted George Doherty, the assistant coach from Louisiana Tech who had recruited him in his Jesuit days. But Doherty had just been passed over for the Tech head coaching job after Joe Aillet retired, and was headed to Northwestern State as an assistant.
          He told Papa that and offered him a scholarship to NSU. After a day's deliberation, Tony accepted.
          But he didn't, couldn't, tell his father. He finished the semester at A&M, came home for the summer, and on the day he was to leave for fall football finally mustered the courage to tell his father he was going to Natchitoches, not College Station. Peter Papa wasn't happy, insisted he go back to A&M, but Tony -- an obedient son -- this time told his father -- shakily -- that he was going to make his own decision. And did so.
          Peter Papa eventually became a Demons' fan.
          After sitting out the 1967 season as a transfer, Tony was in the NSU backfield in 1968 and 1969. He wasn't the impact player he had been in high school, but good enough for Hall of Fame honors there.
          And so he played against Louisiana Tech in those seasons, and here is a story that Tech fans will appreciate.
          The 1968 State Fair Game was a classic, won by Tech 42-39 on Bradshaw's 82-yard touchdown bomb to Ken Liberto that began with 25 seconds remaining and ended at 0:13. Those who witnessed it can't forget it.
          A few seconds earlier, Tony Papa thought he had run for the first down that would have clinched a 39-35 Northwestern State victory. But an unusual penalty call against the Demons wiped it out. Fullback Richard Ware was called for "aiding the runner." 
          "The play was a power I, two backs leading and I was the 'I' back," Papa recalled. "I was carrying the ball behind Richard. Richard was flagged for aiding the runner No. 38. [But] No. 38 was in front of me, not behind, and the film proved it."
          NSU then failed to convert on 3rd-and-6, had to punt, and Tony said, "You know the rest of the story."
          We sure do. And us Tech people are thankful for the missed call.
           Tony Papa didn't only excel at football. He was an All-State baseball player, too, for Jesuit as a senior, after starting at shortstop as a freshman and then as the only sophomore on the Flyers' state championship team in 1964. Plus, he played four years of American Legion summer ball, including two city/Fourth District championship teams for Cobbs Barbecue.
     Like I said before, a sensational athlete.
     His football career ended with a spring-training concussion in 1970 and Peter Papa's advice: "You've had a great career, you're not going to play at the next level, so don't take a chance. Finish school and stay healthy."
     "My Dad was a wise man; that was the right decision," Tony reflected. 
     While NSU coach Glenn Gossett didn't want him to quit playing ("he was as nice as could be about everything," Tony said), he became a non-athlete, a regular student -- and then a graduate. And, he married Carla.
        He returned to Jesuit in the fall of 1971 as a coach on a Tony-dominated coaching staff (Sardisco head coach; Papa, Rinaudo and Catanese as new assistants).
        After a couple of years, he left coaching to help his father run the family grocery business for five years, then moved gradually into insurance sales -- and he's still at it.
        In his 1981 book, Jerry Byrd picked Papa as one of the all-time running backs in North Louisiana high school football.
        "Papa was the most explosive high school runner I've ever seen," Byrd wrote. "He would've easily broken the state record for rushing yardage in a season if a knee injury hadn't ended his [junior] season after five games. He never completely regained his quickness after surgery, although he was good enough to repeat as an All-Stater the following year. He was also a super defensive back."
           It has been 3 1/2 decades since then and that area has had many outstanding running backs. But I'd say few were as exciting, as dynamic, as Jesuit's little No. 24 in 1964-65.
           That tough little kid could run.     
              (Photos from Shreveport Journal/Football Country and SB Metro Leader -- the NSU Independence Bowl luncheon, 2014)


Thursday, September 10, 2015

'Most interesting man ... most interesting life'

         Cosimo O. Brocato -- C.O., to the world, Coach to many of us -- was, as I've heard it said and seen it written, funeralized Wednesday morning.
         As I sat in the chapel at St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas, before and during the Mass of Christian Burial, I thought of Coach and of the Jesuit High School Flyers of Shreveport -- the 1960s Flyers.
         Because while he has been remembered for years and especially since his death (after bladder cancer) on Sept. 1 as the super NFL talent scout for 40-plus years, those of us from Shreveport, those of us from the 1960s glory days, knew him as a legendary coach.
         Legendary isn't enough. He was a giant to us, even those from across town.
         While not many people in that chapel Wednesday morning, other than his family, knew much about the high school coaching phase of his life, there were at least five of his former St. John's/Jesuit players -- among his pallbearers -- who knew what I knew.
         So the stories I heard Wednesday, in the reception after the funeral service, were about how tough, how demanding, C.O. Brocato was as a coach at Jesuit  in the 1960s. I've been hearing those stories for years.
         And one of his star players, Tony Papa -- a name that all Jesuit fans and most Shreveport and North Louisiana football fans from those days will remember -- was one of the story tellers.
A Shreveport Journal photo: The Jesuit Flyers give their coach
a victory ride after the 1964 season-opening upset of Bossier.
          The photo display in the lobby of the church was a snapshot of Coach's life -- as a kid, with family and friends, as a high school football player on the very practice field where he later would coach, as a star running back-linebacker-placekicker at Baylor University (where he helped the 1951 team play -- and lose a close game -- to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl), as a young coach of various sports, in those 1960s golden days at Jesuit, and dozens of shots of him conducting tryouts/drills at NFL Pro Days and workouts.
         He had hair in those high school and Baylor days; then he went bald during the Jesuit coaching days -- hence the ever-present hats -- and then, on and off, he had hair again. Don't think I would have asked him about this subject, though.
          I thought it was significant that his funeral service was held only a little more than a long touchdown pass away from Maverick Stadium on the University of Texas-Arlington campus because there in the mid-1970s is where his coaching career ended.
           He had been a brilliant state championship coach at Jesuit, taking a program that had never had any success in the school's long history and building it from an 0-10 season before he returned as coach and winning five district championships in 11 years -- the last four in a row, all unbeaten in district.
           Twice his teams played for state titles, losing the first time and then winning 34-33 against Lake Charles in 1967 -- definitely one of the greatest high school games I've seen in 50-plus years -- to cap a 13-0 season. And, in my opinion -- and I know Tony Papa agrees -- his 1965 team (Papa's senior season) might have been the best of the Flyers' teams, eliminated on first downs after a tie game with Morgan City in the semifinals.
          His college coaching career, as a defensive coordinator at Northern Arizona and then UTA, was only so-so, but it had its good moments. And when he left coaching in the mid-1970s -- UTA was on its way to shutting down its program -- he turned to the NFL.
           He scouted talent, scouted and evaluated college players, working for a combine for a few years, but for almost four decades for the Houston Oilers-turned-Tennessee Titans. He was honored often in recent years by that organization for his work, and the team named its draft room for him.
            Thanks to Charean Williams, the superb NFL/Cowboys writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram who wrote several nice stories about him over the years and did the first Bible reading at Wednesday's service, Coach Brocato three times was on the Pro Football Hall of Fame nomination list.
           As hard-driving as he was as a coach, he also was a taskmaster as a scout. Several stories have detailed that and I had to laugh Wednesday when someone recalled Coach's work.
            "The other scouts all looked to him; they didn't get started until he arrived [at a workout]," he said. "He was their leader. I told the kids working out, 'He's a nice guy, but do what he says. You don't want to mess with him." 
            He was direct and plain-spoken and, well, he could be coarse. There were those who -- frankly -- despised him. But as several people recalled last week, away from football he could be charming and talkative, and he was a sharp dresser with -- as several Jesuit grads remembered -- the most polished shoes in town. 
            Father Luke Robertson, who conducted Wednesday's service, recalled his recent visit at Coach Brocato's home nearby the stadium and church -- he lived in Arlington with his wife Lucy (who died in 2010) since 1972 -- and that Coach was his usual story-telling self.
           Father Robertson summed it up nicely: "He was the most interesting man who led the most interesting life."
           I don't know that the Jesuit football Flyers of the late 1950s and 1960s would use "interesting" to describe their coach. Tyrannical might be better.
           As the headline on Jimmy Watson's story in The Shreveport Times last week said, "Brocato's Jesuit players loved, feared him."
           Here's Art Adams' recollection (from that story): "He would get right over you and knocked the crap out of you, and no one thought anything of it in those days. We all went two ways, so he would run you to death to get you ready."
           Think Tony Papa, his star player of 1964 and 1965, had any sway?
           "I was a team captain [in 1965], with Joe Looney, and we're in practice on one of those hot August days, and we're all dying, all thirsty," Tony recalled Wednesday. "Joe says, 'Tony, go ask him if we can take a water break.' So I get up my courage and go up to him and say, 'Coach, some of the guys want to take a break.'
           "He blows the whistle and calls the team together and says, 'Tony says you guys need a break. Who needs a break? How many of you? Raise your hands.' "
           As he relates this, Papa shrinks down in his chair to show the players' reaction. No one raised their hand.  
           "He then tells us to take a lap around the field, and then we go back to scrimmaging."
           Because I was at a school across town, my exposure to Coach Brocato was limited to watching him guide (and berate) his team's players when we played them in two games, a jamboree and in a couple of preseason scrimmages. I could tell it was a little rougher than our coaches, who could be pretty demanding (but not like that).
           I also was around Coach when he umpired high school and American Legion baseball, and he was a diligent and fair umpire. Suffice to say, no one gave him much trouble.
           Papa recalled another classic Brocato incident.
           We (Woodlawn) had routed Jesuit (it was either 45-0 or 37-0, 1962 or 1963) and when the Flyers' bus got back to the school, Coach Brocato asked the players: "Who drove their cars to school today?"
           Papa said, "We didn't know exactly what he meant, but a few guys finally raised their hands. Then Coach said, 'Bring those cars around to the practice field and turn on the lights.'
        "So then we practiced for about an hour."
        As I spoke to Becky Brocato, Coach and Lucy's daughter, on Wednesday, a tall, elderly gray-haired man came to tell her goodbye. He was holding a 1952 Orange Bowl program and he thanked her for presenting it to him.
        He introduced himself as Gale Galloway and said he had been C.O.'s teammate on the 1951 Baylor team, a starting center and linebacker. C.O. played running back and, as Galloway put it, "came in at linebacker when we really needed him."
        When I got home, I looked for information on that Baylor team, coached by George Sauer, a longtime college coach and then Baylor athletic director and father of a future New York Jets' Super Bowl hero wide receiver.
        Here is what the Baylor football guide told me: Galloway is a former chairman of the Baylor board of regents, past president of the Baylor "B" Association and the Baylor Alumni Association, and president-CEO of GLG Energy, an oil production company.
        Not knowing all that, I asked him if he could have foreseen Coach Brocato's career.
        "I knew that whatever C.O. was going to do, and I didn't know that it was going to be in football," he said, "that he would be a success. I knew he would do it well, and he would do it right."
        The football world was fortunate that the game was Coach Brocato's life's work.
        He is being buried this morning in Shreveport, and I'm sure Jesuit (once St. John's, now Loyola College Prep) will be well-represented. We all know they are burying a legend.
         (Next: Tony Papa, also a legend)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Ready for football ... except for those coaches

Les Miles: His team needs to be better
 than he was at drinking coffee Monday.
(photo from The Advocate in Baton Rouge)
      Ready for college football? I am ... and I'm not.
     That's right, I'm declaring coaches off-limits. Don't want to see them interviewed -- before the game, at the half, after the game. Don't want to hear their bull.
     Oh, I might make an exception for the LSU coach because you never know what's coming there -- what bizarre take on a game or what twisted expression. We know this after Monday: He's not likely to be doing coffee commercials; he won't be the new "Mr. Coffee."
     I'm ready for the games, love the competition, love the bands and the atmosphere (but not some of the crowd behavior and, yes, LSU is guilty there.)
     But this is the view from someone pretty far removed from the college-football scene, from someone adverse to travel, and with plenty of years to form his opinions. Maybe I'm a minority of one, but I now have a jaundiced view of college football head coaches.
      I think they are among the most egocentric, self-centered, self-serving,  myopic, secretive, paranoid, controlling, grossly overpaid people in this country. Arrogant dictators. Tyrants.

      Sorry, I'm sick of them ... and we haven't kicked off yet.
     They might as well be politicians (but, of course, they generally make a helluva lot more money than politicians.)
      My suggestion is that if we are having leaks in the State Department or the National Security Agency or the Central Intelligence Agency, put a college football head coach in charge of those places. 
      Because no secret would ever get out then. Have to give son-in-law credit for this line: "If a coach had been in charge, Edward Snowden would never have happened."
      OK, so Nick Saban in charge of the State Department; Gary Patterson as Secretary of Defense; Steve Spurrier heading the CIA; and we can assign Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, Brian Kelly, Tommy Tuberfine, etc., wherever we need them. Can't trust Bobby "Crash" Petrino anywhere; can't trust someone named Dabo. Art Briles -- what did he know and when did he know it?

      Where to place Jim Harbaugh? It'll be have to be a weird hideaway where he can keep wearing his pleated khakis every day.
       Oh, darn, I forgot Butch Jones, who moved near the top of the "paranoia" list a couple of weeks ago.
       I am borrowing from a WBIR-TV (Knoxville) news release about the three-page policy sheet University of Tennessee athletic department people handed out to the media recently:
        "... It defines all the policies and procedures that must be followed by all members of the media. ... Failure to comply with the media policy could result in media members losing their passes and access to the team.
        The gist is: " ...  A new rule that says all injuries or players that are not dressed in practice gear during the open practice cannot be reported on. That means a reporter cannot share the information if they see a player not practicing."
       You don't think Jones is behind that, do you?
       So, if you -- media member -- don't do what we want, we won't let you in our press box, or our practice. You are banned. Freedom of speech? Not here.
        Paranoia central. Butch Jones, head of the Secret Service.
        Coaches don't want to talk about injuries, or strategy, or say anything that could give their opponents any kind of information, or edge. It is pretty standard now in the college game: The head coach is the only "voice" of the program.
       And do you think those guys are going to say anything controversial, anything to give opponents "bulletin board material?"  Assistant coaches are not allowed to speak to the media; except in some cases (but not all) after games. (This, where Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is concerned, might be good; he can't put his foot in Alabama's mouth).
       Player interviews are limited, and must be cleared through sports information departments. Some weeks -- TCU coach Patterson, as an example close to home -- there are NO player interviews. Don't want distractions.

       Then there are interviews that are allowed ... as long as an SID person "monitors" the questions.
       Freshmen are off-limits for interviews, period. Thank Saban for that one, I believe. Freshmen can't talk for themselves; they don't know what to say. They first must pass Media Manners 101.
       But then along comes a freshman as sensational as Johnny Football Manziel, and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin had to relent and let him talk to the media late in his Heisman Trophy season. Wow. No telling what Manziel was going to say. If I remember right, he was fairly humble ... for a change.
       Give me the days when dressing rooms were open, when interviews were easy, when you could talk to anyone you wanted. Maybe the fan attention and media attention, and the "distractions" are so plentiful these days that players and the program need to be protected and insulated.
        I think it takes some fun out of it, and it's a bit too much paranoia. But what do I know?
        I have been on this rant previously, and Saban and Patterson were my main targets. I find them insufferable to listen to when they talk about their football teams. Nothing is ever good enough; they always are "motivating" their team in the media, as if media or fans want to hear that.
        If challenged, if they get a question they don't like, their answers can be condescending or have a sharp edge. I find them uncomfortable to watch.
        It's obvious to me, and probably others, that these coaches don't relish the end-of-the-half interviews; they can't wait to get away from the reporters. Some coaches -- Saban, Patterson, Petrino, Spurrier quickly come to mind -- are going to find something their team needs to do better. Some coaches -- Miles, Bret Bielema, Gus Malzahn, Meyer -- will take an upbeat view.
        To me, it's a waste of time. I'm not watching. Time for a restroom break.
        I should remind you that there was a time in life when I revered coaches. Still have a lot of respect for what they do. That's especially true at the high school level, where coaches can play a huge role in kids' lives.
        And don't get me wrong. These college coaches have a gigantic task -- in football, dealing with 125 prospective players, and handling all the other aspects of the job -- assistant coaches, staff, boosters, recruiting, academics, etc. That's why they make millions at the major programs, and even nice sums at mid-major programs.
        So it's easy for me to be critical, from my seat in the living room or at the computer. I'm not in their seat.
        I don't watch much about college football in the off-season or between games. I did stumble across the SEC coaches' roundtable discussions a few weeks ago, and when they are talking football (or life) in general, you can see why some people -- their worshipping fan base -- are smitten. They actually have personalities, not the same as the intense focus on their teams.
        Saban and Patterson do smile ... I think.

        These high-salary coaches are more generous and more giving than most people, and accessible when they want to be. They take care of the people that help them, and there is much to be admired about them. But the other side, the football side ...
        Before, when I wrote about Saban's dour football personality, a media friend commented that he is among the most professional people he'd dealt with in the business. My only time around Saban was a post-Cotton Bowl media conference when his LSU team lost ... and he was, as he usually is after those rare losses, humbled.
        But when he gets on his soapbox, I find it hard to take. Before the start of fall practice, he lectured -- I can't think of another to put it -- the media about the biography written about him recently, saying it wasn't an accurate look at him and he resented the book because only he knows the truth about himself.
         Such as "... I'm not going to be the coach at Alabama." How true was that?
         That's maybe the worst example of him not exactly dealing honestly with the media. How many other twisted untruths/half-truths has he uttered through the years?

          Patterson lecturing/complaining about the lack of media respect for TCU, threatening writers' jobs. Spurrier -- twice, some 20 years apart -- absolutely refusing to do media conferences until a certain writer he was unhappy with left the room. He is well-known for feuds with writers; he can be petulant, peevish and he's never humble.
          Paranoia rules.
          My media friends say Miles is as cooperative as almost any major-college head football coach can be. But we also know there are times when he won't reveal what's really going on with his team.

         When I get to be commissioner of college football, there will be changes made -- severe recruiting restrictions, no more one-year "graduate" transfers, no paying or (for gosh's sakes) fining players, much reduced staffing ... but, first, totally open media policies.
         So I will watch more college football early in the season than my spouse -- who is anti-football, college or NFL, and steering me that way -- would like. I will watch games without the sound, and I will record multiple games and watch because I want to see the SEC teams and the teams LSU is going to play, and I'll watch them late at night.
         Repeat: I love the competition, love great athletes (don't love their antics).
         But announcers such as Brent what's-his-name or the talk-a-thon pre/postgame shows? Nope. Coaches' interviews or coaches' shows? No, thank you. I'll leave that for you.