Toast to a coach
On the day after Thanksgiving, the cat and I stepped out on the front porch to greet a cold Georgia morning. She was looking for wildlife – squirrels, birds, chipmunks, moles. I was marveling that yesterday it was 65 degrees, and this morning 32.
It was on a morning like this, but sunnier, that a football team gathered 45 years ago in a high school gym in Barrington, Rhode Island. It was Thanksgiving morning, and we were preparing to play our arch-rival, Bristol, in the traditional season-ending game.
I was a sophomore, a part-time player on offense, full-time on defense. But I had injured my back and was leaning against the beige tile wall in street clothes with three other injured players. The rest of the team sat on the floor in their gold, blue and white jerseys and white pants.
In their midst stood Frank Murgo, a compact man with walnut-colored skin, pale green eyes and a receding hairline. Coach Murgo was a physical education teacher at one of the town’s two junior highs during school hours. When I was in eighth grade, Coach Murgo came to class one day in kelly green pants with a gold stripe down the side.
"Hey, Coach," I said, "those pants glow in the dark?"
I ran laps around the weedy, rock-strewn field between the school and the library that afternoon, and it wasn’t until I got to high school that I realized the error of my ways.
Coach Murgo was a legend, a man for whom every other season was time to be marked until football began again. When he was younger, the story went, Coach Murgo suffered a concussion playing semi-pro football, so he suited up anyway and played under an assumed name.
Soft, suburban kids won state championships and had winning seasons consistently because this blue-collar son of Italian immigrants knew how to turn them into gritty, passionate football players who would rather die than disappoint him.
On that Thanksgiving morning as he spoke to the team you could feel the passion rise up from his shoetops and pour out over everyone in the gym. Whether you were a gangly, 15-year-old sophomore or a cocky, 17-year-old senior, you felt his fervor in every cell of your body. You knew there was nothing more important than the moments you were living and about to live, and you wanted nothing more.
Suddenly he turned and pointed at the four of us, the wounded players in street clothes. In a voice quivering with emotion, he reminded the team that those kids had worked as they had, but were unable to play in the biggest game of the year.
Players hunched their shoulders and squinted at the floor, hiding their faces. I turned away so no one would see my tears.
"Don’t let them down," he said. "Don’t let yourself down." And he concluded with something he said often, words that have never grown old even after all these years: "Don’t leave any regrets on the football field."
We won that day, and I know he was happy. But I think what mattered most to Coach Murgo was that you held nothing back…that you gave your best. He could live with losing if we’d done our best and lost. But it would grieve him deeply if we underachieved.
My family moved away that summer and I played for other coaches over the years, but no one who moved me the way Coach Murgo did. I can’t say I’ve lived my life as wisely or as passionately as he, and I have some regrets. But I suspect the true measure of happiness lies in how well we recover from them.
As I write this, I am listening, by coincidence, to "Autumn" from Vivaldi’s "Four Seasons." A friend of mine, an opera conductor, says the stock criticism of Vivaldi is that he wrote the same symphony 500 times. Even I know that Vivaldi is a cliché – classical music for the unwashed – and yet I hear in those strings the same fire I heard in hair-raising solos by Santana, Hendrix and Young.
It’s the same passion I heard in that gymnasium 45 years ago, and have searched for ever since. I think I’ve got a bead on it now, and yesterday, when the turkey and dressing were on the table and the toasts were made, I privately lifted my glass to a man who gave a dumb 15-year-old some words to live by.
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