Steel city tough.
Steubenville, Ohio, my home town, is a unique city in the Upper Ohio Valley that embodies all of the grit and hardhat mentality of a classic steel metropolis.
With Pittsburgh, PA, only a 40-minute drive to the east and the hills of West Virginia rolled up along the opposite bank of the Ohio River, the 'Ville is a true American breeding ground for steelhands, linebackers, and patriots who have never forgotten the Alamo and Bostogne.
My grandpa, Gabriel ("Gabe"), lived by the credo, "Home, Work, Church," and those words still ring in my ear. Most of the other people in the 'Ville added sports to the list. True idolators of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, they lived for the crisp Sunday afternoon war at Pitt Stadium, waged both on the field and up in the stands, with no holds barred and no prisoners taken.
Grandpa was the father figure in our family. He had come over from Italy as a teenager and lived in Follansbee, WV, before crossing the Ohio River and settling in Steubenville. He was a glass factory worker for much of his young life and right up until his death at age 84, Grandpa Gabe was climbing 20-foot ladders and lifting sledge hammers, crowbars, cinder blocks, steel fences, and shovels of coal for the furnace.
Stern, stubborn, and downright mean at times, he was a card-carrying advocate of tough love. I never realized how much I loved him or the powerful impact he had on my life until the last few years of his life. I miss him and think about him every day.
THE HARD WAY
It was in this setting that I grew up, got beat up at times, and learned that you have to earn respect every day in your life. And it was the weight-lifting sessions in the cellars, garages, and run-down "gyms" of the 'Ville that become the genesis of my passion for the strength game.
There never was anything fancy about it, no Hammer or Nautilus machines. There were no machines at all, nor anything that could be considered conventional equipment.
Much of what we used was made in the mills (illegally), and we were never sure of the correct weight of anything. If it was "bigger," we assumed it was heavier. We were always flirting with disaster, especially with our squats, bench presses, and standing military presses.
We never heard of the principle of "Function dictates design." Our battlecry was "Keep using it until it breaks."
With floor space at a premium, we used an abundance of overhead or hanging devices that we bolted or nailed to the walls. Steel bars of varying sizes, shapes, weights, and angles were easily obtained. Hence, the preponderance of chin, dip, and isometric gizmos. Isos were a big deal in the '60s.
Seldom was the word "health" ever heard. We lifted for other reasons - to be stronger, bigger, and have "the look." The thought of health benefits never crossed our minds. Some guys actually smoked cigarettes and drank beer while they lifted.
Most of what we did was based on hearsay. Whatever we read in the muscle magazines and everything we saw the older guys "up on the hill" doing, we attacked with blind faith or, occasionally, with sheer stupidity.
Most of our workouts were Neanderthal versions of high-intensity training, with a variety of "who-can-do-the-most-reps" contests (heavily wagered on) going on all the time.
Those were good days. Life may not have always been beautiful, but we worked through the hard times. Lifting was the one thing we did, if for no other reason than to let off steam.
Most of us dabbled in one sport or another. Steubenville - the entire Valley, for that matter - was deeply addicted to high school sports.
As in most steel towns, football was king. Weight-training and football always enjoyed a royal marriage, and the coaches in the Valley never bought into the mythology that weight-lifting causes the loss of flexibility, athleticism, and speed.
They wanted strong, kick-butt football players, and they believed that weight-training was the way to grow them.
Steubenville never had to prove its toughness. It remains one of the few communities left in the world that have more playing fields than parking lots, and the fields are in constant use.
When we couldn't find an empty field, we would either challenge the winners of the current match, or set up shop on the median strip of Route 7. It was long enough - about 60 miles - but only about 30 yards wide. Things could become interesting when you got knocked out of bounds and had to dodge the oncoming traffic.
Naturally, the Ohio Highway Patrol wasn't fond of our little scrimmages and they would stop to make us aware of that fact. Undaunted and foolish, we would hide in the high grass along the river until they were out of sight and then tee the ball up again.
ST. PETER AT THE GATE
Heading into the sixth grade at St. Peter's Elementary School, I decided to give organized, "full metal jacket" football a try. When I reported to the locker room, a coach took one look at me, stuck a bucket and some towels into my face, and gave me some tips on how to become a good water boy. I told him I'd rather be a good football player.
I knew how much I was going to like football the first time I drove my shoulder pads under an opponent's chin and knocked him on his back. My helmet did three revolutions around my head.
The reaction of the players and coaches to that hit remains etched in my memory. I ended up starting at nose tackle - all 105 pounds of me.
My first desire to train with weights was actually stimulated by an article on the Minnesota Vikings' fullback, Bill Brown. Bill was a large, unrelenting runner and blocker with a propensity for charging the line of scrimmage - with or without the football.
Bill attributed his power and durability to weight-training. That was all I needed to know. Weight-training became a passion for me at Catholic Central H.S. in the late '60s. I weighed a buck eighty-five as a senior guard/linebacker and was honored to be named defensive player of the year and most valuable player.
Over the summer, I put on 25 pounds the good old-fashioned way - bloodletting strength workouts and a ton of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
THE AKRON ADVENTURE
I was now ready to "walk on" at the U. of Akron. My only hope for making the team was to impress the coaching staff as a hitter. Actually, it was the only natural ability I possessed. As a scout-team player, I zeroed in on all the stars as often as I could, throwing everything I had at them.
That upset some of the people, but I wasn't overly concerned about hurt feelings. I understood that if something good didn't happen to me, it would be back to the blast furnace as a cinder-snapper in Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel. That had been my summer job in 1970 - the one my grandpa insisted that I keep.
Paul "Chooch" Coppa, a Fighting Crusader teammate of mine, walked on with me. We rented a room at the YMCA daily rate, as we weren't sure whether our collegiate career would last four years or four days.
As it turned out, I earned both a starting position at offensive guard and a full athletic scholarship in the spring of my freshman year. Chooch earned his scholarship and starting position at offensive center shortly thereafter. Mission accomplished.
Weight-training played a big role in my career as a college player. I was the smallest guy on the offensive line at 212 pounds, but I was also one of the few who lifted on a regular basis.
It was a tremendous help. Even in those days (1970-73), we were competing against 250-270 pound defensive linemen - and, remember, this was "college-division football." There were no Division lA, 1AA, etc., classifications at that time. You were either big time or no time.
Upon graduating from the U of A, I was fortunate to land a high school teaching and coaching job at United Local School in Hanoverton, OH. Reno Saccoccia, another CCHS Fighting Crusader and Akron Zip, was responsible for getting me the job. He would also become my brother-in-law several years later when I married his beautiful sister, Marianne.
Reno is the quintessential Steubenville native - thick-skinned, tough, straightforward. He is currently the head football coach and athletic director at Steubenville H.S. and is one of the winningest coaches in state history.
He has taught me a lot about football, life, and dealing with adversity, and I'm still learning from him.
After one year at United, I returned to Steubenville Catholic Central H.S. as an assistant coach in football, wrestling, and track. Since I was the "Phys Ed" guy, I also became the strength coach.
Steubenville lives for high school football. People start talking about the next game as soon as the one they've just watched is over. In the cold of winter, they argue about it in the coffee shops. In the heat of early summer, they make predictions over the suds in the local pub.
The stadiums in the Valley are jam-packed on Friday and Saturday nights, regardless of who is playing. With the smoke stacks billowing in the background of the concrete and steel arenas, you can watch and hear some of the hardest-hitting high school football in the land.
On a frigid evening in late fall, 10,000 of the most vocal and partisan fans in the world will overflow Harding Stadium for the annual confrontation between the Blue and Gold of Central Catholic and the Red and Black of Steubenville H.S.
It is one of the oldest and most intense high school rivalries in football. And though the kids have played Little League together, competed against one another in junior high, freshman, and junior varsity competition, and sometimes even live next door to one another, the sound of their hitting will shake down the thunder from the frozen sky.
I played in two of those games and coached in eight others, and I can vividly recall the colors, sights, and sounds of every one of them.
My eight years at CCHS proved to be a great learning experience. I learned how to deal with every critical situation in the teenager's tumultuous years - from pimples, to family problems, to boyfriend/girlfriend crises, to SAT tests, to preparing for the city-championship game.
It's a tough duty and I have the utmost respect and admiration for high school teachers and coaches - and I've been fortunate to have worked with some of the best.
It was tough leaving good guys like my coach, Rich Wilinski, and my staff buddy, Gregg Bahen, a tough ex-Marine who lifted with me frequently, including the morning of my wedding day! He became the head coach several years later and celebrated by winning the state championship.
But after eight years of giving back to my high school and high school football I realized that it was time to move on with my life and my career. Ohio State University was offering a graduate assistant program in strength and conditioning and I decided to give it a shot - to get my master's degree and work at the collegiate level.
It was 1984 and the Buckeyes had a superlative team. They enjoyed working at football, and I enjoyed working with them. Somehow I managed to complete 52 quarter hours of course work, train the football team, serve an internship at nearby Dublin H.S., and average four or five hours of sleep. Marianne, the total team player, worked full-time to pay the rent and put food on the table.
In 1985, master's degree in hand, I applied for the strength coaching position at The University of Toledo. I would become the first full-time strength coach in the Mid American Conference.
I would spend nine years at Toledo and work for three outstanding head football coaches. For four of those years, we operated out of an 800-square foot weight room located in the east tower of the Glass Bowl Stadium.
The room had very little equipment, cracked walls and ceilings (whose plaster and paint peelings occasionally fell on the players' heads while they were lifting), and was overrun with chipmunks and field mice.
When the stadium was renovated as part of a new football complex, I found myself the guardian of a magnificent 3,500-square foot weight room replete with $25,000 worth of new equipment. Toledo won a share of the MAC title in 1990 under Nick Saban and went on to become the winningest MAC team of the '90s.
ENTER SPARTAN PRIDE
After winning the MAC championship in 1990, Nick Saban left Toledo to become the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, where he developed the NFL's stingiest defense. Four years later he accepted the head coaching job at Michigan State. That's when he called me up and gave me the offer I couldn't refuse.
I now have the greatest job in the world, at least in my mind. We recently moved into a 9,000-square foot weight room and have purchased nearly a quarter of a million dollars worth of new equipment over the past three years.
I consider myself very fortunate to be doing what I want to do in the way I feel it should be done.
The great thing about being a strength and conditioning coach at the collegiate level is that you get to see the kids nearly every day, but it's not just the workouts that makes the job so special. It's the influence you can have on the more important areas of their lives.
To all the young coaches who read these lines, I'd like to offer several helpful suggestions:
Words to the Wise
1. Develop a true love for what you do.
2. Develop a true love for the kids you coach.
3. Always remember that these kids need and want discipline and structure, even though they won't always admit it.
4. Learn, learn some more, and always realize that there's always something more to learn.
5. Be willing to pay your dues - be a "grunt" for a while - as it is the only way you can appreciate the importance of this profession.
6. Whenever you start feeling overworked:, underpaid and burned out, take some time off and see whether it makes a difference. If it doesn't look for some ether kind of work.
And always remember: There are a million qualified tough, caring guys out there dying to work hard for a good cause - helping youngsters become better athletes and better people.