"More Thoughts On Small Schools"



More Thoughts On Small Schools 


By Dr. Ken


I was reminded of the potential pitfalls that football in the 1960’s brought and certainly with greater frequency at the small college level. Lyle Alzado was a very aggressive football player at Lawrence High School though not an excellent or highly skilled player. Because I had been forced to switch high schools and leave Long Beach Public Schools, I faced the predicament of living a bit more than ten miles from Lawrence High School and often had to hitchhike in order to navigate that distance. “Hitching” was a rather common and acceptable form of transporting oneself from place to place in what was a much safer time and society, especially for young people though today it is almost unheard of and admittedly dangerous. When summer arrived and others were surfing, lounging on the shore, or perhaps had a relatively cushy job working in one of the delis near the beach, I commuted to Manhattan in the still-dark hours of the morning. After a day of arduous physical labor at the side of my father, usually serving as the iron workers’ crew mule, jack hammer operator, and rivet man (yes, they were still using rivets on high rise beam projects into the 1960’s), I would face the evenings by dragging myself to illegal summer football practice. One of the reasons that football in the south for example, is superior to eastern high school football, is the implementation of spring practice and summer football leagues. Until recently, it was illegal to have organized or coach-supervised summer football practice on Long Island. Coaches worked around that in blatantly obvious ways and when I coached at Malverne High School, I carried on the time honored tradition. I would leave footballs and written instructions for the captains who would supervise players-only practices three or four evenings per week and admittedly, while serving as Director Of Summer Recreation, I would find myself busy with tasks that took me close to the practice field or track area at a time that coincided with the boys entry to the field. At Lawrence, summer sessions were held under the auspices of the captains and seniors at what was then a vocational trades school in the neighborhood, with footballs and instructions left under the fire escape stairs of the building. Numerous times, one of the coaches would coincidentally be sitting in his car, just outside the chain link fence surrounding the rutted, rocky field.

Almost 20 years after the author’s departure the Lawrence HS Golden Tornadoes go through practice

 My evening travel-by-thumb sojourn would place me at the corner of two major intersections at a Mobil Gas Station. Coincidentally, this was the station where I spent most of my sophomore year pumping gas and sprinting outside into the snow, sleet, or howling winds to check tire pressure and oil gauge levels as this was the era of the gas “service station” and service was in fact expected and provided. Alzado would be waiting and would then pedal the remaining half mile or so to practice with me perched atop the handlebars of his bicycle. Two years behind me, I justified the arrangement with the reminder that as skinny as he was, at perhaps 6’1” and 160 pounds, he needed to “build leg muscles.” Being absolutely dedicated to becoming better, he bought into it. At one time or another, all of us also worked for the local sanitation carrier, with the temporary summer employees jogging or sprinting behind the garbage truck, hauling the heavy pails, and watching the older fellows sit in the cab of the truck smoking cigars and reading the newspaper. Lyle of course had to take it a step further, doing all of his sanitation chores while wearing ankle weights to make the running that much more difficult. By the time of his high school graduation, Lyle had grown to 6’2” or so, but was still on the thin side at approximately 185 pounds. He was muscular, athletic, and tough as leather but still lacking in many skills. As one of his teammates once described Lyle’s on the field duties, “Coach (Jack) Martilotta told him to get the quarterback and that’s all he did.” Whatever he lacked in understanding the nuances of any scheme or in utilizing proper technique, he made up for with unbridled mayhem.

Alzado and Paul Smith on Broncos’ bench

A lack of football sophistication combined with an indifferent academic record and a number of arrests left him with little more than an opportunity to literally try out at New Mexico State which for a New York area youth was like traveling to outer space. At the twelfth hour, the scholarship offer was pulled and with college camps on the verge of opening, Coach Martilotta who always went all out for his guys and had more than a few national contacts, reached out and arranged for Lyle to undertake what amounted to another try out, this one at Kilgore Junior College in what we derisively referred to as “darkest Texas.” Undersized for a defensive linemen or linebacker but certainly as fast as anyone on the Aggies squad, Lyle was given a shot at both running back and receiver but having little offensive experience and what could charitably be described as poor hands, he was quickly dismissed from the staff’s plans. Feeling as if he were dropped into another reality and with a limited prospect of fitting in with what seemed to be an all-Texas raised squad, he saw little reason to stay. Lyle did note one major positive. “They had this girls’ drill team,” referring to the world famous Kilgore College Rangerettes, “and these girls were great looking.”  He told me that he packed up all of his belongings that conveniently if sadly fit into the one suitcase he had traveled with, and started to hitchhike home. “I only got part of the way and had to call Coach Martilotta” who somehow got him onto a bus for New York City.

Arriving in the area “what had to be forty hours later,” Lyle went directly to the high school. True to form, Coach Martilotta had Lyle shower, provided a new school sweat suit, put all of his clothing into the commercial washer used for the football uniforms, and sent him down to the cafeteria to get his first meal in two days. He immediately started to work the phones and by the time Lyle’s clothing had dried and he was changing out of his Lawrence Golden Tornado sweat suit, Coach’s car was whisking him back to Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Station and he was on the way to South Dakota.

The black and gold clad Greyhouds of Yankton College were a small college powerhouse during Lyle Alzado’s stay, sending both Lyle and RB Les Goodman to the NFL

 As Lyle told me, “It had to be another forty hours or more on the bus and I ate the sandwiches I took from school within the first few hours but I was thinking, ‘this is great, wow, its beautiful’ when we pulled up in front of the college. It was green, nice looking girls walking up the sidewalk, this was for me.” As he was getting off the bus the driver stopped him and asked, “Where are you going?” When Lyle responded, “I’m going to the college, I’m going here” the driver laughed and said, “Oh no, you’re going to Yankton College. This is South Dakota State. We’re not even close yet and Yankton’s not even close to looking like this place.” One of the best lines I’ve had given to me was Lyle’s comment that “The driver was right. It was more hours on the bus and when we pulled up to Yankton, it looked exactly like a prison, it was terrible. Of course when Yankton went bankrupt and closed its doors for the last time in December of 1984, it proved me right. It became a Federal Prison Camp!”

Lyle became one of the few college football players who put on over thirty pounds of body weight during the season. While most players watch the scale plummet and lose body fat, muscle tissue, and often become relatively dehydrated through the rigors of their first year of collegiate football, a combination of relentless weight training and perhaps for the first time in many years, being able to eat three meals each day, pushed his muscular weight upwards. This eventually led to a successful fifteen year NFL career, one of only four Yankton College players to have made it in the league and considering his inauspicious entry to collegiate football, a greater accomplishment for this small college player than first appears.

Continued next month…