Coach Harry Kummer would have approved. Watching Patriots Coach Bill Belichick answer reporters' questions, after his lucky team salvaged a win against the Baltimore Ravens Monday, reminded me of Coach Kummer, who disdained all non-football players. Had our team been successful enough to enjoy press conferences, he would have disdained the press, as Coach Belichick regularly does. Also, in step with Belichick, neither did Kummer smile.
The first head football coach I remember was not Kummer. He was a balding, compact, nimble fellow who had probably been a halfback or a tailback when he played in college. In high school, he taught math. His name escapes me at the moment.
He designed the plays that, as I remember, were complicated and clever. Lots of pulling and trapping and men in motion. Mostly, he worked with the quarterback and the receivers, and he liked to time the wind sprints. He always carried a clipboard, a whistle, and a stopwatch.
Everything else - defense, blocking, tackling, kickoffs, and returns - was Kummer's responsibility. Coach Kummer was the assistant coach and the soul of the team. What he liked were sled work and live scrimmages.
The blocking and tackling sleds were like those round, aluminum disks kids use for sliding downhill when it snows, only bigger. Set on top of the disk were two or five or seven spring-loaded, cushioned targets. The players were expected to run up to the sled, slam their shoulders into the targets, and push the sled up the field. It had to go far and straight. Coach Kummer stood on the sled, holding on to the target's supports, bending so that his mouth was next to the ears of the straining players, and yelling at us.
"You want to quit, don't you?" he might say. "You don't want to drive this sled. You're a weeny. You're loafing. I am disgusted with you." We did not want Coach Kummer to be disgusted with us, though I don't know why. He did not carry a whistle, a stopwatch, or a clipboard. We were glad he was not armed in any way.
He liked to demonstrate the art of delivering a forearm, which he believed should lift its victim off the turf and deprive him briefly of the capacity for respiration. The coach especially liked to demonstrate this with a player whose attitude was, as he might have said, punk.
Harry Kummer was a middle-aged behemoth, a history teacher and a former professional football player whose career had been brief and brutal. Injuries had benched him. He liked to have as many football players as he could get in his history classes, because he believed football was a metaphor for life - past, present, future. He knew that being in command of his boys for a couple of hours each day on the practice field was not sufficient to guarantee that they would absorb the transfusion of his passion for football and for the sacrifice he believed it, and life, required. He wanted them seated in the desks in front of him as he described the titanic clashes that were, to him, the battle by battle milestones of human history. He wanted them near him in the cafeteria at lunch and walking alongside in the corridors between classes. He tutored the players who struggled academically, and he supervised detention for any of his players who got athwart school rules. It was a very unpleasant experience.
He made us wear coats and ties when we traveled, and we always carried our helmets.
"You're football players," he would say, defying any objection to the inconclusiveness of his logic. "That's what you are. Football players carry their helmets." He liked those helmets scraped and gouged and smeared with blood or with the paint from some opponent's helmet. He liked linemen better than backs, and he liked defensive linemen, especially vicious tacklers, better than anyone.
Harry Kummer was about six foot three, maybe two hundred eighty pounds, a barrel of a man with a round head, a stiff crewcut, and a rolling hall-filling walk. He had one snug sport jacket he wore every day. He didn't look like a teacher or a minister or an insurance salesman. He looked like a pulling guard or a center, which was what he had been and remained.
Before each game, after the head coach had finished outlining our lineup and game plan, Coach Kummer gathered the players around him in the locker room. He did not care about the X's and O's. For him the game was really about the heart with which we played it. To get us in the mood, to get us mad, he had us slap our faces. He beat on his own battle-scarred mug until tears traveled the long bulging trail over and down his cheeks. What he was after was every sanguinary neutrino of commitment from every member of his squad.
Coach Kummer was not everyone's cup of tea. The face slapping was a joke for some of us. We often questioned the coach's emotional stability and that of the guys who fell contentedly in with that weekly looniness. And despite all that he did, all that he drew from himself to lend to us, we weren't that good at football. We lost more games than we won.
It is impossible to define what Harry Kummer achieved in the four years he coached us. It was not a division championship, that's for sure. But while it is impossible to remember the names of the school committee members who hired him, or the name of the head coach who was his boss, or the names of many of the teachers (some excellent at their jobs) we learned from during those years, Coach Kummer is as clear in my memory as an autumn Saturday afternoon.