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THE PEP TALK
A Football Story about THE BUSINESS OF WINNING
By KEVIN ELKO ROBERT L. SHOOK Thomas Nelson
Copyright © 2008
Dr. Kevin Elko and Robert L. Shook
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Meeting in the Diner
The town of Lincoln, Ohio, was no longer the boomtown it had been in the early 1950s, back when steel was king. Peaking at 23,500 in 1954 (the year before the River Steel Corporation shut down), Lincoln's population had fallen below the 18,000 mark by the early '70s. Nothing ever replaced the high-paying jobs earned in the steel mill. Those who remained had to settle for lower-paying employment; you could say that they got "McDonalded."
There was also a time in the '50s when Lincoln High's beloved Lions were a football dynasty. For proof you can check out the glass showcase in the hall of the school's main entrance. There, proudly exhibited for posterity, are Lincoln's '50, '52, and '53 state championship trophies; these polished bronze relics serve as a reminder to the community's young people of its proud heritage. Each autumn, old-timers can be seen huddling at local joints and taverns, reminiscing about the good old days-when steel was king and the Lions reigned supreme.
Times have since been lean in Lincoln. The mill permanently closed its doors, and the mighty Lions' roar is but an echo-not one win in twenty-four straight outings. Friday night's game on November 7, 1975, was unlikely to be any different. It was the school's last game of the season, and coming to town were the Jacktown Giants, a formidable foe heavily favored to win their forty-second consecutive game. It seemed inevitable that Jacktown would win another state championship, making it a record four straight. Ranked the nation's third best high school football team by Sports Illustrated, Jacktown had outscored opponents by a margin of 37 points a game. Ohio sportscasters were touting this year's squad as the state's all-time greatest team. Their final regular season opponent, Lincoln, had scored only five touchdowns during its pitiful 0-7 season.
Having been hung in effigy after the previous week's humiliating 28-0 loss to longtime rival Middleburg (1-6), Coach Jack Morris fully understood that his coaching job was on the line. It mattered little that in his early coaching years he had twice taken the team to the state regionals. Nor, for that matter, did anyone give a hoot that he had been the school's two-time all-state running back in the early 1950s. He'd had such promise then ...
Jack Morris had been a second-team All-Big Ten halfback during his junior year at Ohio State. As a senior, a knee injury during a scrimmage abruptly ended his playing career just one week before the start of the season. While Morris stoically accepted his fate as "part of the game," the folks in Lincoln viewed his abrupt departure from the sport as nothing short of a tragedy. After all, Fred Jones, the Lincoln Gazette's whiz sports reporter, had touted Lincoln's favorite son for All-American honors and an early pick in the NFL draft.
Now in his fourteenth season as head coach, Jack remembered the days when he was the most popular man in Lincoln-back when he first coached the team and was still recognized as a glorified gridiron god. Back then, Morris could have run for mayor and been a shoo-in. But he had opted for a bigger job. He knew that in small-town Ohio, the townsfolk's highest regard went to the winning head coach. Over the years, he had learned just how important the winning part of that title was.
It was 6:15 on Thursday morning, approximately thirty-six hours before the Lincoln-Jacktown game. Jack Morris sat alone in a booth at Abe's Lincoln Diner, reading the Lincoln Gazette. Now forty-three, Jack looked very much like a small-town high school football coach. He wore a blue and white nylon jacket that had a large golden lion emblazoned on the back with the words "Lincoln Lions" running through it. His matching cap flaunted the same emblem. On the front upper left side of his jacket, small gold letters identified him as "head coach," a title that should carry with it the status of "The Man." However, on this particular morning, Coach Morris had no strut to his walk. A twenty-four-game losing streak doesn't exactly generate confidence, particularly when you're coaching the worst team in your school's history, and tomorrow night you'll be facing arguably the best Ohio high school football team ever assembled.
The diner was a popular breakfast spot for local businessmen, frequented by lawyers, accountants, judges, and other Lincoln notables. At certain tables you would find the same occupants at the same time every day of the workweek, some even on Saturdays. Although there were no reserved tables, the regular customers knew who sat where: A group of insurance salesmen occupied the second booth from the front door. The fourth booth belonged to the bankers, the fifth to the chamber of commerce, and so on. Some of the customers had been eating at Abe's with the same group of friends for decades, joining in the "breakfast with the boys" ritual of thousands of small towns across America. Conversations ranged from local weather conditions and politics to high school football. Abe Horowitz, the owner of the establishment, was a self-proclaimed sports addict, with years of sports paraphernalia adorning the cedar-paneled walls.
"Up a little early this morning, huh, Coach?" Beatrice, a matronly waitress, asked.
"Wanted to beat the crowd," he answered. "Frankly, with tomorrow night's Jacktown game, I'm not in the mood to hear a bunch of old-timers tell me how to coach our boys."
"The way those men get on your case," Beatrice said, "I'm surprised you even come in here every morning."
"It's the coffee, Beatrice. Besides, I usually don't let them get to me. But this morning, I figured it wouldn't hurt to get here half an hour before they do."
An energetic man dressed in a dark suit walked into the diner. In his late thirties, he was a stranger to Lincoln. Few young men wore suits in this workingman's town (the older men who did acquired the habit in the '50s), and Jack Morris knew those who did. But it was not only the suit that tagged this man a stranger in town. He also wore a late 1960s tweed snap-brim grey and black fedora, complete with a red feather in the hatband. Such a hat was bound to get attention. In Lincoln, baseball caps were the norm.
The man could have sat anywhere. At the counter, a booth, or a table. Jack Morris was the only customer in the place. But instead, the stranger walked directly to the booth where Morris sipped on his hot coffee.
"Good morning, Coach Morris, the name is Christopher," the man beamed, extending his hand and following through with a hearty handshake. "I'm a traveling man passing through your fine burg. I happen to be a big high school football fan, and I know, come Friday night, you are up against a tough adversary. I'd like to help your team in tomorrow's game against Jacktown. Mind if I join you for a cup of coffee?"
"It's a free country, and I'm not going anywhere until I finish my coffee," Morris sighed, "so pull up a seat, and take a load off the ground."
The stranger sat down. He didn't bother to take off his hat. Of course, Morris didn't notice it at the time, and why should he? He always wore his cap in the diner.
After the two men exchanged pleasantries, Morris asked, "You're not from around here, are you, Mr. Christopher? If I were to guess, I'd have to say you come from the East."
"Yes, sir," the stranger answered. "Born and raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Live outside Philadelphia today."
"The City of Brotherly Love," Morris said.
"Right again, my friend. But Bethlehem, now there's an interesting place. It's a steel town much like Lincoln once was. At one time Bethlehem made claim to the world's largest steel works. However, and much more interesting in some circles, we're better known for producing great athletes. Bethlehem is in Lehigh Valley, a real hotbed for breeding big-time sports stars. Hundreds of them over the years. NFL Football Hall of Fame member Chuck Bednarik is a favorite son. And so are baseball's pitching legend Curt Simmons; racecar driver Mario Andretti; and heavyweight boxer Larry Holmes. Each and every one of those fine athletes hails from the Lehigh Valley."
"I'm familiar with the area's reputation," Morris acknowledged. "I read about it now and then in my sports magazines."
"You were quite a star in your youth," Mr. Christopher added. "I saw you play against Michigan in the Big Shoe. I felt like crying when I first learned about your knee injury. Now about the game tomorrow ..."
"You did say something about giving us help, didn't you?" Morris interrupted. "You really think you can help us? We've been playing some pretty pitiful football."
"You heard me right."
"What exactly do you have in mind, Mr. Christopher?"
"A pep talk."
"A pep talk?"
"That's right. I'd like to give a twenty-five-minute pep talk to the team following this afternoon's practice," Mr. Christopher said. "I've given my share of pep talks to many high school and college football players, Coach. I might add that I once gave a talk to the Philadelphia Eagles and another time to the Cleveland Browns. The teams I've addressed have done quite well. Although I can't guarantee a winner every time, at the very least, I can promise you that I'll give your boys a good solid message that will work for them on and off the field. Yes, sir, it will be something that will serve them well over the years ahead."
Trying to size up the stranger, Morris stared at Mr. Christopher in wonderment. Was this man for real or some kind of a nut case?
"Don't you agree, my friend," Mr. Christopher continued, "that's what coaching young people is truly all about? Giving them something that will stay with them after their football days are long gone."
"You won't get an argument from me, Mr. Christopher. However, the long term is sometimes overlooked in football towns in this neck of the woods. Winning is all that matters to the good citizens of Lincoln. They take football very seriously and very personally in this town. It's a matter of pride. In a way, it's how the community has come to define itself. Traditionally, a winning football team was part of who we were in Lincoln. The winning attitude went well beyond the football field. It's deeply engrained in the community's culture. People around here used to believe that if you lived in Lincoln, good fortune came your way because we were people who knew how to win. Now, with the steel mill shut down, jobs have become as scarce as hen's teeth and those to be had don't pay much.
"'At least we got our great football tradition,' people would say," Morris added. "But now, it's become a losing football tradition. Lincoln is no longer about winning. I'm afraid we look at ourselves as losers-the combination of the poor economy and a poor performance on the football field has dealt this town a double whammy."
"Yes, my friend, I know all about Lincoln's glory days," Mr. Christopher said. "Just outside the valley there'd be clouds of smoke in the horizon above Lincoln, and it was a sign that times were good. It was telling you: 'Welcome to Lincoln. Everyone is working and business is booming.' But once the sky turned crystal clean, it's as if it were saying, 'Stay away. Business stinks and everyone here is in a bad mood.'"
Glancing at his watch, Morris said, "Let's get back to the main subject. Now, you said you had a pep talk that would help us whip Jacktown?"
"Coach, I never promise a win," Mr. Christopher said. "I just don't do that. But I can promise you that I will make a positive difference in the lives of your players. I suggest we just concentrate on the players, and let's not worry about the townsfolk. Let's focus on what we can do for those fine young boys on your squad. I know I can tell them some wonderful things that will work in their favor. Guidance that goes far beyond the football field. And who knows, we might just win. Didn't David slay Goliath?"
"You know, Mr. Christopher, I don't know why, but something inside me tells me you might do my boys some good."
"I promise you that I will, and I am a man of my word, Coach. What time do you want me today?"
"Let's say 5:30," Morris answered, a little reluctantly. "Yeah, be at the locker room at 5:30, Mr. Christopher."
* * *
The afternoon practice was uneventful. The players went through the motions without much enthusiasm. Although it remained unspoken, everyone knew that it was only a matter of how much the Giants would run up the score. There was no thought about winning the game; instead, everyone was thinking about how the team could "stay in the game" and save face. It seemed they agreed with Bill Franklin, a local Lincoln Gazette sportswriter who wrote, "A close game, say, losing by a margin of three touchdowns or less, will be considered a moral victory for the Lions."
"My old man says that when he played for Lincoln, they always whipped Jacktown," one player muttered in the locker room.
"Yeah, and ever since it has been payback time for Jacktown, because every time we're up against them they kick our butts from here to next Sunday."
An oversized lineman raised the conversation to another level. "Who here is dreading tomorrow's game as much as I am?" he shouted from a standing position on the bench, shaking his entire body to portray "the willies" they were all feeling.
"Knock it off, you guys. Here comes the coach."
Coach Morris walked in with the stranger and stood in the locker room facing the players. "Good practice, guys. Now, before you head home I want you to gather over here because I've got a special guest today who's going to say a few words to you about tomorrow's game. This is Mr. Christopher, a man who has spoken to high school and college teams all over the Midwest. He was even brought in once to speak to the Cleveland Browns. Now while he speaks, I don't want anyone opening his big mouth." He said as he eyed the red-faced linebacker. "I want you to show our guest the same respect that I expect you to show me."
Excerpted from THE PEP TALK by KEVIN ELKO ROBERT L. SHOOK Copyright © 2008 by Dr. Kevin Elko and Robert L. Shook. Excerpted by permission.
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