The Fab Four of Fitness and Football

This is the third in my blog series Heroes in Health.  The first two in this series (linked below) examined two recent heroes who have helped me and others on our path to health. https://weightlossleadership.com/2018/06/10/heroes-of-health-series-episode-2-corey-the-cycling-king/ https://weightlossleadership.com/2018/05/13/heroes-in-health-episode-1-mother-of-weight-loss-and-a-freestyle-life/

On this one I reach back almost 40 years to examine the lessons learned from four men who were then as they are now on the cutting edge of fitness and health: the four football coaches of Northern Burlington Regional High School in the late seventies – Coaches Charlie Pirrello, Hank Kearns, Carmen Pastore, and Gary Smith.  Beyond football, these four men taught me more than fitness.  They taught me and others how to be men, to put team before self, and to judge on merit not title, race, or creed.

Coach Charlie Pirrello, the head coach of the fab four is a legend in NJ High School Football.  The 2018 inductee to the NJ Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame he has led 7 teams to the State Championship in his 50 years of coaching.  The first of these was led by my 1981 class that won on the last play of the game.  Unfortunately, I had moved to Texas after my Junior season and missed it.  But I still felt part of the team and loved seeing my quarterback (I was a Center), Chris Warrington throwing the winning pass! 

Hank the Tank Kearns, the Defensive Coordinator and JV Coach, was equally a big influence in my life.  His nickname Tank was an understatement; he was more like the Hulk.  I still remember when the linebackers were not deploying correct tackling form, he jumped in there without pads and flattened the running back!  Hank is still a fitness inspiration to me.  I follow he, Coach Pirrello and Pastore on Facebook and Hank is either biking or doing some other fitness activity. 

Carmen Pastore was the Offensive Coordinator. A former college football quarterback Coach Pastore helped orchestrate our vaunted Veer Option Offense that first came into vogue in 1975.  It was cutting edge then as it is now. 

Last was Coach Smith who taught the backs.  My brother’s coach, I remember him for his humor.  One day I went up to look at the depth chart.  Instead of seeing Donnie and Gary Grier the names on the list where Abnormal and Normal Grier.  He gave me the nickname Abnormal because of my intensity, the fact that I was on the line, and the way I yelled at the top of my lungs “Huddle” when gathering the team.  I wore that name like a badge of honor since I was a gruff lineman and linebacker while my brother was a defensive and offensive back.

The Fab Four are great coaches and leaders of men for these four and many other reasons:

  1. Constantly striving for excellence through learning and adapting.   The coaches of NBC were constantly looking for new ways and techniques to get better.  I looked forward to each summer training sessions when the coaches would return with the latest fitness techniques.  Two I remember distinctly are the Total Fatigue Weightlifting Circuit and interval running with proper technique.  Total Fatigue included completing a circuit of weightlifting that went from largest muscles (legs) to smallest muscles (triceps).  I still do the regime today since it has become one of the key approaches to gain muscle mass and endurance.  Back then it was new.  They also emphasized negative training (2 seconds up and at least 4 seconds down).  Next was interval training where we first practiced our running form (I still attempt to run like Hank the Tank taught me to this day) before completing sprint intervals.  One last thing that sticks in my mind is there willingness to adapt when something did not work. One year our football camp included three a days and we really worked hard – overly hard.  The coaches realized that we worked out too much resulting in a few injuries.  The next year they adapted when they added a rest period in Coach Pastore’s pool which resulted in a better record. 
  2.  Inspiration is as important as perspiration.  Each year the coaches made a playbook that we needed to memorize from cover to cover and guard with our lives.  The secret sauce of the playbook was not just the cutting-edge plays from the Veer Option, it also contained fitness and nutrition tips and life lessons.  I wish I still had that playbook because the quotes were so inspiring.  But you can get a good feel for them by reading Coach Pirrello’s Twitter feed.  Here is one recent one.  “I am your coach. When you get discouraged, I will encourage you. When you come up short, I want to help you come up big next time. And I will never give up on you even if you give up on yourself.” Charlie Pirrello.  He never gave up on us and today I still draw inspiration from these four great men. 
  3. Judge each man by his merit.  The late Seventies and early Eighties was a difficult time to coach.  The drug culture was in vogue.  In addition, there was sometimes difficulties in race relations.  NBC had one of the most diverse teams in the state having McGuire Air Force base in our school.  Also because of McGuire Air Force Base, we had new people coming into team each year.  I remember distinctly the day Willie Drewery joined my class in my Sophomore year.  Unknown to the program at the time, he was welcomed in with open arms and became a linchpin. He later went on to a Professional Career.   The coaches never differentiated on race, creed or color. All that matter was your football ability and the content of your character.  One way they enforced this is making the team hold hands in the huddle and by teaming up weight training partners from different races and cultures.  Lastly, our pre-game ritual included listening to equal doses of Bruce Springsteen and Chic that had a big hit at that time.  In this way, we avoided the fighting that went on in some of our rival schools.
  4. Care for Each Player.  The coaches spent time with each player if they gave a 100% and strove to be a team player.  My brother was a football talent, playing Varsity his sophomore year.  I was less of a talent playing second team Varsity and first team JV.  Even so the coaches never neglected me and worked with me to make me the best player I could be.  ,They also were always there for you.  I still have the note from Coach Pirrello to my new football coach when I had to leave for Texas for my Senior Year.   I still choke up reading it and the care Coach P gave.  I was never going to break Franco Harris’s Freshman Rushing record like my brother, but he and his coaching staff still treated me with the same respect and care.  To this day, one of my greatest awards is winning MVP for the Junior Varsity team my Junior Year.  To me, winning that award for NBC was the highlight of my high school athletic career and one of the highlights of my life. 

One last thing to say.  Charlie was not only my coach.  He was more importantly my World History teacher and one of the best teachers I ever had.  He was just as inspirational and engaging in class as he was on the field. 

40 years is a long time and a blink of the eye.  Whatever the years, the fab four still shape the man I am today!

Christmas in Jersey

Today I am going to take a break from my typical weight loss blog because I am feeling nostalgic about Christmas and Jersey. I got in the mood by watching Springsteen on Broadway. Hearing about his hometown in Freehold made me think of my hometown in Crosswicks. Mine closer to Philly; his closer to New York; but, Jersey all the same!

Crosswicks, NJ Community House
Christmas at the Community House

(As a side note. How do you know you love your wife? When she convinces you to turn off Springsteen on Broadway to watch Secret Santa on Wheel of Fortune! Giving up your home state hero for Pat and Vana is surely a sign of love. )

Relegated to my study, I got a beer; put on my best Springsteen; and decided to write about Christmas and Jersey. Here are four of my favorite Christmas memories from my childhood in Crosswicks, New Jersey! Like the Saturday Live skit from the other week, featured here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4WvwX18oMR4 , Christmas memories are better upon reflection and a glass of wine (and some Springsteen).

  1. The Community House Tree. Crosswicks is a historical town where much history happened. Indeed, George Washington launched his famous Christmas time raids on Trenton and crossing the Delaware from his headquarters at the Quaker Community House in Crosswicks. This history is all fine and good but my favorite memory is from personal history. Each Christmas, the citizens of Crosswicks would light up a large Christmas tree on the grounds of the Community House and sing Christmas songs and drink hot apple cider. For that day, the rivalry between the Black Sox and Red Sox baseball teams would be buried by the tree near the baseball field with voices of joy!
  2. Hoping the club doesn’t come to your house first! My Dad worked as a Steelworker and Union Vice President at DeLaval. His friends from work and their families formed a group simply called the Club. The Club would make the rounds to each family’s house on Christmas. We mostly loved playing with all the kids. Except of course, if you were the first house on the tour. Being the first house on the tour was dreaded because it was when all the kids were really wound up and wanted to play with your new Christmas toys. Wound up kids on Christmas equals broken toys. One sad Christmas, we were the first on the tour. We were excited about our new Evil Knievel motorcycle and track. You would pump the motorcycle with air and it would fly off the track. It was our most prized toy until Jimmy and Kimmey got a hold of it. They pumped it so full of air that Evil and the motorcycle broke after flying a record 10 feet in the air. Much like the real Evil could not jump Snake River canyon, our toy could not make it 10 minutes with the kids from the Club!
  3. Granpop’s Christmas train. My Grandpop grew up in the depression, so he was careful with his money. One of his best cost saving ventures was to buy Ribbon Candy after Christmas at quarter price and put it out the next year! He may have saved his pennies when buying candy, but not when taking care of his grandkids. One Christmas, we woke up and were brought downstairs to see a fully decorated Lionel train set in the cellar. The excitement of us kids was reflected in the joy of my Grandpop’s face as he passed on his love to a new generation.
  4. Rudolph’s Nose and Dad catching Santa. One of the difficult things each Christmas was keeping my brother David from waking up
    from all his excitement at 2 AM . Me and my brother Gary had a ploy to keep David in the room we shared. Still do not know to this day why it worked and fooled him every year. My Dad used to put plastic on our windows during the Winter to keep in the warmth. Besides keeping out the cold, the plastic also fuzzed up the red light on the radio tower about a mile way enough so we could trick David. Each time when he woke up in the night and said “Is it Christmas, yet? Let’s wake up Dad and Mom! “, Gary and I would point to the red light and say that Rudolph was still flying. Even with that trick we could only contain him until 5 AM. Then we had to wake Mom and Dad. Dad in order to delay us while he was getting his Polaroid camera would say “Santa is still down here” and make some rustling sounds to keep us at bay. Oh how we sat on pins and needles until he gave us the all clear signal.

Well, I see Wheel of Fortune is finally done! I am going to get back to the real Boss and hear more tales of Jersey from the master. I hoped you enjoyed these!

The Lessons I Leaned When Running Away

When I was 16, I made the rash decision to run away.  I was distressed that I was moving away from my home in New Jersey and losing my friends.  It was understandable in some respects.  I was half way through my junior year and was tied to my school and in particular my first girlfriend.  I thought the world was ending but really it was only beginning.

I remember the day as it is almost yesterday.  My Dad was a bit steamed after my Grandpop, Uncle, Aunt and cousins came over to wish us off.  As to be expected, everyone was sad to see us leave and a lot of tears were shed.  I remember my Dad saying something to the effect that he could not take another person crying (my Mom’s family was Irish and as the stereotype goes a bit emotional).  I just got upset and belligerent after hearing that.  I told him “Well, I am half my Mom’s side and I am not crying and promised to take off.”  He half dismissed it but I did not.  At that moment, I decided to run away.

My great idea was I would run as fast as I could the 5 or 6 miles to Yardville to my Uncle Johnny’s house and hide out in the woods.  Then when my family left for Texas heartbroken, I would have my cousin bring me food while I lived out in the woods behind their house (I said the idea was rash!).  Just to show what crazy things teen age love can do, I decided then and there to take off.  I ran with all my might and with the stuffed toy Dog (Little Rascal) my girlfriend gave me.  I set off to Yardville to hide out in the woods.

Back then I could run fast.  I ran out of Crosswicks out past Ocker’s Barrel where my Dad worked when on strike (which you see below).  I got 4 and a half miles and was just about to turn off the main street to my Uncle Johnnie’s house when my Dad in the car caught up to me.

Ocker's Barrel
Ocker’s Barrel as I ran past

I do not know how he knew where I was going.  I will never forget it.  He told me that he was sorry and that I and all of my Mom’s side were tough.  He then explained that we needed to move to Texas to make a better life.  Part of the steel mill was moving down South and as a result he was not reelected as union Vice President.  He got an offer in Texas for his work and we needed to move to make a new life.  He then hugged me and I got in the car.

My brothers and my sister (although she was a bit young) can attest that I was not a happy camper on the way to Texas.  I sat sullen and made sure that I never took a turn in the middle seat.  My brothers adjusted better.  Each chance I could I would either write or try and call my girlfriend.  Let’s just say I was not a happy camper.

But I should have been!  Texas turned out to be a great place to complete my High School years.  And we literally were still in Jersey (not New Jersey but Jersey Village, outside of Houston)!  I learned four valuable lessons on my attempted run away and capture:

  1. I was self-absorbed. Yes, I lived 16+ years in New Jersey but my Mom had lived 38!  She was leaving the family and friends she grew up with for the family she nurtured and loved.  I still remember my Granpop’s hands shaking and my Mom tearing up on the day we left. My Dad, although a Texan by birth, was also leaving behind more. He had lived in New Jersey for 20 years and was now had ties as deep there than in his native state.  Known as Big D, he was leaving his friends, co-workers and the community where he was the coach of the Red Sox, the Cubmaster of Pack 55, and institution at NBC wresting matches and football games.
  2. Moving to a new place meant new friends. After a few months adapting (boy the football coaches had fun with me and my brother’s accents!), I met new friends, dated new girls and created lasting relationships that still endure.
  3. I learned a lesson that I covet as a Father. Sometimes when you are providing for your family you have to make a hard decision.  My Dad would have liked nothing more than to stay in New Jersey where he built so many bonds.  But the steel mills were moving South (and later off shore).
  4. The last lesson from him is the power of apology.  I should have apologized to him not the other way around! I will never forget when he caught up to me in the car and took me home.  It takes a big man to apologize to angst filled son!