There are many among us who feel it’s Christmas season. Not me. It’s football season.
Yep, the ol’ pigskin is spiraling across the nation as the college football playoffs and bowl games no longer are distant dots on the horizon. And the NFL is a kaleidoscope of thrills and spills as it careens toward its playoffs culminating in the Super Bowl.
Football has played an important role in my life. I covered the Philadelphia Eagles and the NFL for many years as a sportswriter. Then I quarterbacked the “Can You Beat Zeke?” contest for many years in the Reading Eagle, a gig that took me to Hawaii seven times for Pro Bowls.
But football hasn’t always been kind to me. In fact, it was pure hell on earth for me in 1965. I played for Central Catholic High School and it was an experience akin to Napoleon’s decimated army straggling home from the Russian front.
Indeed, it may have been worse.
Vince Shemanski was our coach. He served 35 years as a teacher and administrator at Central. He also was the school’s head football coach for 11 years, beginning in 1965. He enjoyed much success as his Cardinals were disciplined and aggressive on the football field.
Of course, like many things, it took time for Vince’s success to take root at Central. His Cards were a combined 3-27-1 after his first five seasons, years spent competing against much bigger schools in the Tri-County League.
“My heart goes out to those teams,” Vince, who died in 2009, once said of his early squads. “We had 20-some kids and they played against tremendous odds. They took everything I gave them – I was quite demanding – and they tackled hard and hit hard. They left nothing on the field. There weren’t many victories but, boy, did we play.”
And, boy, did Vince yell and scream and rant and rave. I know. I was there. When Vince appeared on the Central scene in 1965, I was a junior offensive and defensive end. As a receiver, I was slow with bad hands. As a blocker, I was a skinny, 6-2, 155-pounder with terrible technique. As a tackler, I was basically a pacifist.
Which might give you an indication of why we were so bad and why Vince vented so vehemently.
“I’d pull their facemasks, hit them on the helmet so hard I’d hurt my hand,” he said years after 1965 was a distant dot on the rearview mirror. “I’d get animated, involved in every play. If they committed a mental mistake, I’d jump up and down and holler. But the kids would understand because if they did something good, I praised them. And when I said it, I meant it.”
I don’t remember being praised by Vince. Granted, I don’t remember doing something good, either. As I said, I wasn’t exactly Hall of Famer Jerry Rice as a receiver or Hall of Famer Reggie White as a pass rusher.
But I do remember playing through that 1965 season was like slogging through a holocaust. We simply were overwhelmed. We literally were under siege. On every snap enemy hordes figuratively cascaded over the rampart and through the palace door.
Our opponents were so much more athletic than us that it made us feel like interlopers in a trapeze act. And they were so much bigger that it made us think they were transplanted from a Mr. Universe muscle factory.
That season was more stressful than suddenly finding a hand grenade – with the pin pulled – in your lap.
No wonder Vince coached with the intensity of a clenched fist. It was as if he bathed in caffeine. With his team a carcass to be picked over each autumn weekend, he was a howling mess – erupting in emotion that was rumbling, throaty thunder. Loud and profane, his tongue dripped lava.
He was trying to inspire us. We did play hard. But it was messy. We played like drowning men clutching at razor blades. We were much worse than woebegone. We stood on the brink of chaotic destruction on every opening kickoff.
Vince’s short-fused impatience and intolerance were understandable. With his bellowing, our sideline rarely was a safe haven from the fury and ferocity on the field.
I remember when we played Wilson at West Lawn. Man, it was like the Christians vs. the lions. Guess who the Christians were? OK, we were playing for a Catholic school. But did we have to be martyrs, too?
I’ve grown to realize that Vince’s unrelenting sheets of sound served as a not-so-velvet bond of emotional Teflon that held our floundering team together. We were smitten by hard times, but his commanding presence forged us into gritty survivors.
Football may or may not be a metaphor for life. But playing for Vince Shemanski put some steel into our spines.
Thanks, Vince. I trust it’s serene up there in heaven. But I can’t imagine it being quiet. Not with your robust vocal cords.
Mike Zielinski, a resident of Berks County, is a columnist, novelist, playwright and screenwriter.
Source: Berkshire mont