Should College Football Players Be Paid? Since When Do We Pay “Real” Students?

Just when I begin to question whether fact IS stranger than fiction, something like the recent news from the University of North Carolina comes along to verify my belief that “you just cannot make this stuff up!” The New York Times reported on October 22 that an investigation has concluded that athletes at U.N.C., including football players, had been receiving course grades (A’s and B’s) and credits for classes that were non-existent – imaginary entities whose primary intent was to keep marginal students and “student”-athletes academically eligible.

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Nudging this revelation even further into the realm of “unbelievable” is the allegation that this has been going on at U.N.C. for years. To quote the Times article, “…between 1993 and 2011, two employees in the university’s African and Afro-American studies department presided over what was a “shadow curriculum” designed to help struggling students – many of them Tar Heels athletes – stay afloat.”

Although the existence of these “shadow” classes and their bogus course credits had been public knowledge for three years, it has only recently come to light that members of athletic teams benefitted “disproportionately.” I’ll bet!

It is always interesting – no, fascinating – to watch large organizations whose hand has been caught in the cookie-jar avow that the larger management of that entity “just did not know” what was taking place. Penn State University was yet another tower of academia that recently claimed to be largely oblivious to the sexual abuse scandal that threatened the university and…especially, its beloved football program.

Sometimes I just want to shout-out, “What kind of butterballs do you take us (the public) for?” If upper management is truly unaware of major transgressions taking place within their organization, then they are only slightly less culpable than if they knew and did nothing about it. At some level of responsibility, ignorance is equivalent to incompetence, and incompetence of that kind is grounds for dismissal.

 There Are Things Worse than Tar On the Heel!

By not watching where they stepped, it seems that the Tar Heels have put their foot into something more disgusting and smelly than mere tar. On the one hand, I feel badly for the vast majority of students, faculty, and administration at U.N.C. who will undeservedly suffer from a tarnished reputation, as a result. On the other hand, the old saying that “we have met the enemy and he is us” implies that perpetrators of unscrupulous conduct are often aided and abetted by complacent colleagues who remained too silent for too long.

Sports, and football in particular, are an effective way for a college or university to promote their public image and to encourage alumni donations…and that is a shame. It says a lot about our human frailties, particularly when we come to suspect that some student-athletes we see on Saturday afternoon are only half of what their name implies, yet we proceed to brush reality aside and continue to relish the deception.

How About a “Freedom of Information”
Mandate on Colleges and Universities?

Here is what I propose: During those slick NCAA campus promotional pieces televised for each school during college football and basketball half-times, how about making it mandatory to reveal graduation rates over the last five years for the combined team members of the sport being televised? In addition, schools should be required to list the academic majors by category of all participants over those five years (graduates and non-graduates, alike) so viewers can come to their own conclusions regarding the integrity of each school and their athletic programs.

For audiences who care, such a mandate should readily identify the hypocrites of college sports, those institutions which have no compunctions while abandoning academics for the sake of major sports glory… and revenue.

The University of California at Berkeley basks in a long-standing reputation for academic excellence, yet its football (51 per-cent) and basketball (46 per-cent) graduation rates rank last in the Pac-12 athletic conference. Even these sad graduation rates can be claimed only after climbing several points from those of the previous year. Supposedly, admission requirements to Cal are very stringent?

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I love college football when it is played with genuine student-athletes and not so much when it is not. It is reasonable to concede a slightly lower high school GPA for entering students who also offer special talents honed on the athletic field. The same is true for students who bring with them special achievements in the arts. However, graduation rates at the 50% level for athletes imply an academic “pass” in the school’s admission office. The awarding of courtesy grades and credits in phantom college courses, as appears to be the case for some athletes and non-athletes at U.N.C., falls into an even more egregious category, it seems to me.

Today, there is discussion in some quarters about colleges and universities taking undue advantage of their athletes because of the vast sums of money flowing into the institutions. One could make a case for that claim. On the other hand, the star athletes who attract big bucks for their school are rewarded handsomely at graduation (or after athletic eligibility expires) as they are welcomed into the NFL or the NBA with multi-million dollar contracts. In addition, first-team athletes playing big-time college football and basketball inevitably receive full-ride scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars. For true student-athletes, that represents real value; for the rest, it’s merely free room and board while training for their professional sports careers. While some major league baseball teams, like the World Champion San Francisco Giants, have their own farm system in which to develop new, young players, colleges and universities unfortunately constitute the lone, de-facto farm system for professional football and basketball – a very cozy arrangement for all involved. A significant portion of today’s expensive college football tickets already goes to subsidize the training of future professional athletes. The very notion of pay-for-play in college sports as recompense for a system gone-bad is as cock-eyed as the behaviors which brought college sports to its present dilemma in the first place vis-à-vis the questionable “student”-athlete.

 Too Much Money in Sports – Professional and College

There was a time, not that long ago, when college football was fun to watch from inside the stadium. There were no television cameras present to slow the tempo of the contest with interminable commercials back then. Today, most major college football games are routinely televised…follow the money. The result: Long, drawn-out games and game-times which completely cater to the television networks. The message to loyal fans who miss the traditional, sun-drenched Saturday afternoon games: Deal with it or get lost! Back then, real student-athletes participated, parking was free, and tickets were available and affordable even for a young family. That was then, and this is now, and these things no longer hold true.

All of this makes me sad. Making me even sadder are the lengths to which some eminent colleges and universities will go to promote and profit from big-time college sports. Saddest of all are those schools which will even compromise their academic integrity in order to play the game.

A Tour of Levi’s Stadium: The 49er’s New $1.2 Billion NFL Football Palace

My wife presented me with a most unusual birthday present this past August: A guided tour of Levi’s Stadium, the brand new football home to the fabled San Francisco 49ers NFL franchise. Linda learned of this stadium tour from a fellow volunteer at the local Sunnyvale Historical Museum who had recently taken it. My wife’s senior colleague does not invoke the image of a rabid football fan, so Linda was surprised at her friend’s rave reviews of the stadium and the tour.

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Yesterday, we saw for ourselves why this newest crown-jewel of National Football League stadiums can so excite even casual visitors. Yes, it is a beautiful stadium complex, constructed with an eye to environmental considerations and fan enjoyment. Unique to such stadiums is the fact that fully two-thirds of its 68,500 seats (all of which have been “sold”) are located in the “lower bowl,” closer to the playing field.

As the photos show, everything is spit and polish…except for the natural grass turf which posed a problem on opening day, surrendering large divots to the player’s football cleats. The grass problem is slowly yielding to the extensive efforts and expenditures being applied. Artificial turf has been ruled out as unsatisfactory. The stadium and practice facilities are located down the peninsula from San Francisco – in Santa Clara, California…in the heart of the world’s tech center, “Silicon Valley.” Nevertheless, the team is still known as the San Francisco 49ers.

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The luxury amenities in the form of “suites” which lease for hundreds of thousands of dollars and the large “club” areas meant for socializing, eating, and drinking (and occasional game-viewing) are quite spectacular and posh.

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The construction, appointments, and attention to detail of this entire facility is simply mind-boggling. This is a first-class facility, one fit for the wealthiest of Silicon Valley entrepreneur sport-fans, but, alas, not for the bulk of the valley’s residents. Going to a game, here, will cost big-bucks. I have more to say on that, later.

The most impressive aspect of the entire complex was not the stadium itself, but the 49ers football museum it contains. I was impressed by the larger facility, for sure, but I was absolutely blown-away by the beautiful tribute paid to 49er football history. The museum with its attention to detail, fabulous visual displays, and wealth of information reminded me of a gentler time back in 1957, a time when a seventeen year old high-school kid (me) and his dad could afford to attend a 49ers game at old Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

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It was my first significant sporting event…of any kind – in any venue, and it was a good one! My dad and I attended the pivotal 1957 game with the Baltimore Colts. I saw the fabled “million dollar backfield” of the 49ers: Quarterback Y.A. Tittle, halfback Hugh McElhenny, and running backs Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson. Across the line of scrimmage, I saw some now-legendary players from the Colts as well: Quarterback Johnny Unitas – one of the best ever – and his great wide-receiver, Lenny Moore. What can I say? These folks are all in the NFL Hall of Fame. McElhenny, in particular, was a sight to behold carrying the football and is generally regarded as the greatest open-field runner in the history of the game. Once he got underway with a step or two and any openings ahead, good luck even laying a hand on him let alone slowing him down.

I recall playing touch football on a neighborhood street in San Mateo with some friends when I was in grade school – we did that a lot. That particular day, another boy from their neighborhood had joined our small group – he went by the name, “Whitey.” I never forgot that guy: It was impossible to “catch” that kid – he was so quick and elusive – on the run or from a dead start. Standing face-to-face, he would head-fake, juke, and take off with the ball leaving even the quickest of us in the dust! On the run, you could not anticipate what his next move would be; you merely blinked and, suddenly, he was… “gone.” Through the years, whenever I bemusedly recalled that afternoon of frustration playing against that kid, I could understand how Hugh McElhenny’s opponents at the University of Washington and, later, in the NFL must have felt.

That day of the 49ers/Colts game, October 8, 1957, John Brodie, the rookie All-American quarterback from Stanford University won the game in the last seconds after replacing veteran Y.A. Tittle who was injured late in the game. The winning touchdown pass from Brodie to Hugh McElhenny in the end-zone gave the 49ers an exciting 17 to 13 win and kept their playoff hopes alive. The thundering crowd reaction to that play was the first of many that I would hear in the years to come while following major college football at Stanford Stadium.

Fifty-seven years later, I could still play that touchdown back in my mind’s eye like a film replay; it happened in our corner of the end-zone. I was thrilled yesterday to see a film-clip of that very play featured in the museum displays – a virtual duplicate of the 57 year old “highlight film” embedded in my memory. Even the actual game ball that was presented to John Brodie that day was on display! Fabulous memories, those are. Seeing that film-clip was like meeting a very old friend, once again, whose persona and likeness one never, ever forgot.

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Entering the 49ers football museum, one is immediately greeted by the “million dollar backfield” of the nineteen-fifties era 49ers, sculpted in life-size figures and painted in silver. In fact, the dark-walled, spotlighted room is populated by a ghostly, apparition-like phalanx of players who are members of the 49er Hall of Fame. Many of these greats are also honored in the NFL Hall of Fame located in Canton, Ohio. Such a display could easily have looked cheesy; not this one! I was extremely impressed by the fine finish and detail of the many posed figures. Every aspect of the players and their uniforms was perfectly executed. After a first, cursory look, I checked the sculpted faces of these figures – the acid test! I was very impressed that I could easily recognize those players most familiar to me, a tremendous tribute to the exhibit and the folks who created it.

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Here is the fabled “million dollar backfield.” From left to right, Hugh McElhenny (halfback), Joe Perry (fullback), Y.A. Tittle (quarterback), and John Henry Johnson (halfback). These four comprise the only complete backfield ever to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

A fellow senior on our stadium tour commented that, in the off-season, Y.A. Tittle – star quarterback – was their milkman in the nearby community of Los Altos! That recollection highlights the wide gulf between salaries paid star players then and those of today. Those old-timers had all the motivation in the world to play their hearts out every single minute of every game…and they did. There were no “instant football millionaires” back then. Hugh McElhenny received $7,000 for his rookie season in 1952!

A famous 49er moment portrayed among these life-size figures is “The Catch,” capturing the instant which finally lurched the Niners past the Dallas Cowboys and propelled them to their first Super Bowl win in 1982 under legendary coach, Bill Walsh. The winning fourth-down touchdown pass at the end of the game was from Hall-of-Famer Joe Montana to receiver Dwight Clark. Given the Niners’ seemingly perpetual domination by the Dallas Cowboys, this was one of the greatest of 49er moments.

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Joe Perry, the Niner’s great Hall of Fame running back never had a contract with owner Tony Morabito back in the fifties – just a verbal agreement and a handshake. Oh, don’t get me started! What a beautiful time – when a man’s word was sealed with a handshake and so different from the big bucks, the miles of legal red-tape and the pages of fine print which dominate big-money sports and all other aspects of today’s society. I took particular note of that exhibit.

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There are more pictures to show, so I leave you with this: Levi’s is an amazing monument to the popularity of NFL football, today. The logistics and the talent required to conceive, build, manage, and operate this stadium truly boggle the mind. While the image of legions of excited, expectant fans filling the stadium seats on game day is easy to conjure-up in the mind’s eye, the behind-the-scenes requisite flow of money which changes hands with every game played at Levi’s is truly incomprehensible. It is sobering to ponder the vast army of people required to support the several dozen supremely talented athletes who display their skills weekly…and the huge sums of money involved in the enterprise. Perhaps it has now grown beyond reasonable bounds.

The first few games this year revealed severe traffic problems to and mainly from the stadium after the games. That is undoubtedly being improved via “logistics learning curves,” yet it is clear to me that because of the hassle and the expense involved in attending games, Linda and I will be watching 49er games mostly from the comfort and convenience of our family-room television set.

Finally, my hat is off to all involved for their role in presenting the history of 49er’s football in the world-class museum that Levi’s stadium offers the public. Yes, world-class I say, and I have seen more than a few of those in my lifetime. If you have the good fortune to visit Levi’s on tour or on game day and you are even vaguely interested in football, plan to spend close to two hours in the museum! I loved the sporting memories and the reminders the museum contains of a simpler society, a simpler life, and a simpler game – food for thought.

 Just A Few More Photos:

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John Brodie’s 1957 game ball: San Francisco 17, Baltimore 13

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 Twenty yards and a cloud of dust: Old Kezar Stadium

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 Linda and life-size Leo “The Lion” Nomellini on her left

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The “imposter” Joe Montana, #16: That’s Linda having
fun at one of the museum’s interactive exhibits!

Grandpa, Baseball, and Physics

Last Wednesday, I was taking care of my two grandsons, Matthew and Luke, while daughter Ginny enjoyed a much-needed respite at our local Peets coffee house. Life has been very busy for her and husband Scott who has been back on the east coast for several days. Peets is her favorite place to sip tea, meditate and work on her blog and books-in-progress. She desperately needed a short break from the kids to just unwind and have some quiet time to write. When Ginny asked if I could watch the boys for a while, I said, “Sure.” I love spending time with my grandsons…and my two granddaughters whom we do not get to see as often because of distance. The two boys are really great kids, but they do keep Mom hopping when Dad is not available to share the load.

Matthew will be entering the second grade this fall and loves sports – especially soccer, football, and baseball – and he is very good at all of them! Luke is going into Kindergarten and, being two years younger, is not yet the accomplished athlete that Matthew is.

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While Matthew and I played baseball catch in the backyard, Luke got busy with a plastic “fat bat”, a “whiffle” ball, and a T-ball hitting post. He is now beginning to hit that stationary ball much better off the “T.” Matthew, as usual, was pleading for greater challenges in the form of high fly balls and, characteristically, was making a lot of circus “near-catches.” I say “near-catches” because the tennis ball we were using with our baseball gloves, would often pop out of the hollow of his glove after he made some pro-style moves to even get his glove on the ball! We were using a tennis ball because we could not find my baseball.

A Teachable Moment is at Hand!
Why Tennis Balls and Baseball Gloves Don’t Work

I, too, was having trouble holding on to the tennis ball; it all too often popped out of my glove, even in routine catches! I thought briefly about why we were having so much trouble catching the ball. Here was a teachable moment, an opportunity to explain to Matthew why a tennis ball is considerably more difficult to catch than a regulation hardball as used in baseball. One might initially think it would be the other way-around, but no. Newtonian physics, as gifted to us by Sir Isaac Newton in 1687, can supply the reasons why catching a tennis ball is more challenging.

A baseball is easier to corral in a baseball glove than a lighter tennis ball for two primary reasons. First, the hardball has a greater mass (mass is a measure of the amount of atomic material present in an object…and related to its weight) than does a tennis ball. Even so, a tennis ball dropped from a tall platform has almost the same velocity profile in fall as does a heavier baseball. If we neglect the small effects of air resistance, they both will fall exactly side-by-side despite the difference in their masses, and consequently, their weights. Give Galileo Galilei credit for that revelation – early in the seventeenth century!

The mathematical product (multiplication) of a body’s mass and velocity yields a quantity called “momentum” in physics. Two falling bodies with the same physical shape and size (like a tennis ball and a baseball) will make depressions in a sand-pit which reflect their individual momentum at impact. If the two velocities are equal at impact, a deeper impression in the sand will be made by the more massive of the two, due to its greater momentum (and kinetic energy, too).

Substituting a leather baseball glove for the sand-pit, the heavier baseball will burrow more deeply into the leather “pocket” of the glove than will the tennis ball. If the baseball’s trajectory is slightly misaligned with the center of the glove’s pocket as the ball enters the glove (the fielder’s fault!), it soon reshapes the pocket as it burrows deeply in – and it stays put. A tennis ball will not burrow deeply; in a similar circumstance, it tends to quickly “ricochet’ off the side of the pocket without significantly burrowing in. That gives the fielder little time to react and squeeze the glove around the ball, thus capturing it. A tennis ball is elastic, or “springy,” and that, in conjunction with its lighter mass, enables it to rebound quickly off the glove before the fielder can react and “squeeze” it. The elasticity of a tennis ball constitutes the second reason that catching a tennis ball presents a special challenge.

I explained this to Matthew, and, bright boy that he is, he seemed to understand at a certain level. I long ago deduced that he is a natural athlete, one of those youngsters who instinctively understand body mechanics in sport, almost without coaching. At quite an early age, he was “whacking” whiffle balls off the “T” post with great power and relatively little instruction from me or anyone else. This also held true for the much greater challenge presented by balls which were pitched to him. He is very quick on his feet and with his feet. When Linda and I play soccer with the boys, it is now almost impossible to contain Matthew once he begins to take the ball down the field toward the goal. As a former track man in high school, I can still run at seventy-three years of age, but I am rapidly becoming no match for my seven and a-half year-old grandson.

Natural athletes come with a seemingly built-in physics “primer” which operates at a sub-conscious level, allowing them to more easily do the things they do. Physics principles are at the heart of all high-performance endeavors – especially sports, and even music! There are many sport clinics today which utilize complex technology to visually display and analyze body mechanics for athletes – even weekend duffers who are attempting to improve their golf swing. In addition to other gifts like foot-speed, natural athletes have the ability to visualize their body mechanics without cameras and to sub-consciously employ sound physics principles in their technique and in their performances.

 Fun for Grandpa Who Loves Sports and Physics!

I love the chance to inject physics into sport, for the edification of my grandchildren. The combination of sport, body mechanics/coaching, and physics is a fascinating trio of disciplines which, when mastered, combine to make champions and prodigies of the lucky few.

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As for me, I have had to methodically learn much of what I have done in sports and music the usual way – through hard work! Much effort, experimentation, and analysis was required on my part to discover “the correct/best way.” Such learning experiences and the resulting insights have proven to be quite satisfying in their own right over the years – as compensation for the struggles.

With my grandsons and my older granddaughters, I relish the opportunity to witness, first-hand, life’s learning processes whereby some people must work hard for their accomplishments while others can go farther and more quickly in the challenging disciplines of sport, music, and academics. The grandkids are truly a blessing in so many ways. If they do not turn out to be champions, prodigies, or geniuses, I will love them none the less. It is the journey well-traveled, not the ultimate destination that really matters in life.

Charles Darwin, known for his scientific curiosity and intellect, was, in addition to a great scientist, a devoted father and grandfather – a great family man. I recall reading the stories of how he loved observing his offspring and their development, much as he loved observing nature in general. They were to him, not some scientific experiment to be recorded in his notebooks; rather, they were a precious window on life’s processes and human nature which afforded him a most wonderful, satisfying, and entertaining view. I get that.

A Postscript: Speaking of baseball and natural athletes, there was none better than the great Willie Mays who played his major league baseball in the early years for the New York Giants. I think Willie knew all he needed to know about the physics of baseball without ever taking a physics course – he was born with an instinctive knowledge of the subject along with other major gifts.

I will never forget my personal memory of, undoubtedly, the greatest outfield catch in the history of baseball. A claim like that in sports almost always invites rebuttals and accounts of something even better. This is one of those rare instances where there really is no dispute. The play was especially notable because it occurred in a World Series game and very well may have determined that series outcome. The fact that the series was nationally televised and the game was played in New York only added to the drama.

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“The Catch” occurred on September 29, 1954, during game one of the 1954 World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants. The scene: the old Polo Grounds in New York, the Giants’ home park, with its cavernous outfield. With the score tied 2-2 in the top of the 8th inning and men on first and second base with no outs, Cleveland had a marvelous opportunity. Cleveland slugger Vic Wertz was at the plate. Wertz crushed his fourth pitch to deep center field where Willie Mays was playing rather close-up to the infield. Mays wheeled around, and calling on his great foot-speed sprinted straight out to the 420 foot mark in the cavernous Polo Grounds stadium. As the ball neared the grass at the tail end of its towering trajectory, Mays, still on a dead run directly toward the center field bleachers, stretched out his glove and caught the ball as it came directly over the back of his head. How he could even have seen where the ball was as it passed over his head is a mystery exceeded only by the miracle of such natural ability. Most would agree, there was probably no one else playing ball at the time (and likely, since) who could have made that catch on that big stage. The instant Mays had captured the ball in his glove by literally outrunning it, he stopped, wheeled around and made a great throw to the infield to keep the runner at second from scoring after tagging the base. The side was subsequently retired with no runs scored, and the Giants went on to win the game and sweep the series.

On that sunny September day in 1954 I was a freshman at San Mateo High School, leaving my algebra class and heading to my next class. Someone had a radio nearby, and I had the privilege of hearing that catch “live,” and I do consider it a privilege! I was quite a Cleveland fan at that time, and I was bitterly disappointed at that moment. When Wertz connected and the announcer shouted, “There’s a long drive waaay back in center field….waaay baack…,” I thought Cleveland had this game in the bag. That was just before Willie Mays made a statement that is still heard today. What a ballplayer – probably the greatest ever! What a memory!

Two Teachers: People Who Touch Our Lives in Ways Big and Small

Last month I was scanning the obituary pages of the San Jose Mercury News, our local paper. This is a new habit for me, albeit only an occasional one. My wife has long made it a point to regularly check the obit pages; I never did…until the last few years. I have come to understand the rationale: There are so many abbreviated life-stories on display. I always check the birthdate of the deceased, but only after looking at the picture first, when present. When the birthdate is in the 1920’s or the early 1930’s, I feel a sense of reassurance (I was born in 1940) that I still have some living left – at least statistically. But I focus more on the faces in the pictures; it is often easy to identify those who presumably led happy, productive lives by studying the images, especially when the deceased is portrayed both in the bloom of youth and the later years when life has left its imprint. The written obit, of course, fills-in the blanks, typically revealing lives well-lived, but not exceptional stories. Once in a while there are major surprises like the kindly old face looking out from the page who, as a strapping young man, flew 20 B-17 bombing missions over Nazi Germany in World War Two. The obituary pages provided me with one of those surprises of which I speak just last month.

Two People – Both Teachers – Whose Recent Passing
 Re-kindled Good Memories for Me

Two former teachers of mine passed away recently. The second of the two touched my life, but briefly. I was casually scanning the obituaries last month when I encountered a rather poorly reproduced black and white picture of an attractive middle-aged woman. (The color version and the younger picture used here are from the website obituary). The write-up which followed related that this woman was, for twenty-seven years, a dance instructor at San Jose State College, located just south of here. I looked intently at the picture and thought, “No, it can’t be,” but it was.

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At that time, she was Mrs. Smith, my social dance class instructor at the college in my freshman or sophomore year – way back in 1958 /59. As an engineering major at San Jose State, I fortunately enrolled in Mrs. Smith’s class to 1: Learn to dance well (came in handy), and 2: To meet some coeds. It all worked according to plan! I had a chance to meet young women (noticeably absent in engineering and math classes in those days!) and to dance with them. It was such a great class experience that I made it a point to enroll in social dance class every term after transferring to Stanford University for my junior year. In one of those classes, I met a girl who I dated on a regular basis during my last year at Stanford. It sounds funny to speak of “dating” in this day and age; it was a whole other world back then!

I recall Mrs. Smith (her married name at the time) as a vibrant, personable, and attractive young woman with the grace, figure, and long-legs of a dancer – which she truly was. She had red hair and a freckled complexion…and she had style.

 The obituary noted that she died in a Utah nursing facility at the age of 80.

I was enrolled in her dance class for only one or two terms, but stumbling upon her obituary in the paper by chance really set me back on my heels. She was a fine dance instructor whose teaching and personality made that class period one of my many happy experiences at San Jose State.

I tried to visualize her at eighty years of age and in a nursing home; it was difficult when viewed in the light of my memory of her as a young woman. The situation crystallized the reality we all ultimately face; I am no stranger to the thought of our mortality, but the particular chance experience of recalling Mrs. Smith after so many years and in such a contrasting light did shake me a bit, causing me to stop and seriously reflect.

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I went to my den shelves and pulled out one of the many notebooks from my considerable stash of college materials I have saved for lo, these many years. It was a social dance class spiral notebook which I compiled during the course. I tried to apply some humor in the form of brief quips to the “footstep pattern sequences” which I had diagrammed for the various dances such as the foxtrot, tango, waltz, etc. At the front of the book, I made references to the then-famous dance instructor, Arthur Murray, by writing with tongue-in-cheek, “My deepest thanks to Arthur Murray without whose assistance, I could never have written this book.” Just above that on the front page, Mrs. Smith assigned me a course grade of A- and, in red ink, wrote,

“My deepest thanks to Al Kubitz without whom (& people of similar ilk) teaching could become quite ordinary.” That meant a lot to me at the time.

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A few years back, I tried to cull-out some of the many memorabilia I had saved from my college years. I paused as I held that little notebook over the trash can…and decided to hold on to it. I am so glad that I did.

Carl “Berny” Wagner: San Mateo High School and Track
A Person and Coach Who Changed Young Lives

San Mateo High School’s senior class of 1958 sat through countless lessons during the four years spent inside that venerable, old brick building which dated from 1924. We learned history, we learned to diagram sentences, we learned some Spanish, French, and German, and we learned about angles and triangles in geometry. As important as those classroom lessons were to our futures, the most valuable lessons I took away were those that I learned on the athletic fields. I wrote at length about those athletic experiences in my blog post of February 2, 2014, Life-Lessons Learned from Playing Sports. What I have to say about our track and field coach, Berny Wagner, in this post will have much more clarity if you have read that piece on sports (available in the blog archives).

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Berny Wagner, just  as I remember him at San Mateo High – 1957

I sadly noted Berny’s obituary last year in The Stanford Magazine, Stanford University’s alumni magazine. Beside the many insights he provided me personally as I worked to become a proficient hurdler on his varsity track teams, the lasting lesson I learned from Berny was the importance of class and excellence in athletics and in life. Those of us young lads who were fortunate enough to come under Berny’s tutelage learned, first hand, how to be a “winner” in athletics. Yes, he taught us how to compete successfully – to win – but he also taught us how to compete fairly with grace, dignity, and class.

Coach Wagner was infallible when it came to highlighting those personal and athletic traits which distinguish winners from “losers.”

As a runner on Berny’s track team, you learned to NEVER slow down three or four yards from the finish line of a race no matter how exhausted you felt – even in a distance event and even though the victory  is clearly yours. You always ran through the tape at the finish line. In the short, quick sprints, you had better not be seen showboating, breasting the tape at the finish with hands held high overhead in a “victory salute.” Coach emphasized that only a fool would relinquish a victory in a close finish by not leaning hard into the tape and thereby gaining precious inches which could have been the winning margin.

I will never forget one of his pet peeves as a track coach and a specific illustration of his insistence on competing with class. One spring day early in the season, as the entire track team was assembled for a brief meeting on the infield grass, Coach Wagner made clear that he never wanted to see any of his athletes competing in track spikes wearing argyle street socks as opposed to athletic “sweat socks” (or no socks). Coach did not need to tell me that…but there are always a few who just don’t get it, so he made that quite clear to us all. I distinctly recall him saying, “If you don’t care enough about your sport and your event to show up at a meet properly equipped, you have no business being out there in the first place!” Amen. He and I were totally on the same page in all such things. Sure enough, I saw them out there during our track meets, kids from the other teams competing in spikes and gaily-colored street socks; those competitors rarely placed well in their events, and they looked ridiculous next to Berny’s boys.

Coaching track and cross-country, even at the high school level, was not a sideline duty for Berny; it was the major part of his role on the faculty. He was a dedicated and intelligent student of the sport of track and field and held B.A. and M.A. degrees in education from Stanford University. His coaching career began at the high school level and took him to a ten-year stint as head track and cross-country coach at Oregon State University; it was there that he developed the gold-medal winner in the high jump at the 1968 Olympics, Dick Fosbury. Fosbury had perfected the then-unique-to-him high jumping style famously known as “the Fosbury Flop” and revolutionized the high jump event using it. It has long been the universally-used technique. Later in his career, Coach Wagner coached two Olympic squads and settled into executive positions within the governing bodies of track and field in the U.S.A.

Berny’s multiple talents were evident even to us young lads on his 1958 championship track and field varsity team at San Mateo High School. He had great goals and plans for his young athletes, and he executed them with precision and discipline. He ran a great program. Everyone knew the practice plan for each day’s workouts and each event. There was no uncertainty, no confusion. Observing some of the league’s other coaches in action, we sensed how fortunate we were at San Mateo. Time would amply validate our good fortune as Coach Wagner went on to bigger and better things. His greatest coaching thrills were yet to come.

Coach Wagner and my indebtedness to him had been on my mind for many, many years after graduation. I knew of his later successes, but had not seen him since high school. I was not even sure how to locate him in June of 2011 when I finally decided to make an all-out effort to thank him for all he did for us boys. It was not so easy locating him; I wrote letters and made phone calls. Finally, I learned that he had suffered a very severe stroke several years prior, was partially immobilized, and was in an assisted-living facility in Corvallis, Oregon. I sent him the following letter: 

Dear Coach Wagner,                                                    June 17, 2011

 Do you recall your championship San Mateo High School track team of 1958? This is your senior high hurdler (and lows, too) from that team, Al Kubitz. So many years have passed, yet I remember vividly those days at San Mateo High, particularly my experiences on the track team and the great good fortune I had to be coached by you. You were the most influential of all my teachers – I felt it then, and the years since have amply verified it.

 You were the perfect mentor for us young guys; you were respected for your coaching competence and organized approach and well-liked for your obvious dedication to us student athletes. The lessons I learned in the process of striving for and achieving my goals in track and through our association have guided me throughout my life. I wanted you to know that!

 I am enclosing some pictures that I hope will bring back pleasant memories. A few are from my scrapbook and 1958 yearbook. In addition, I am sending you an excerpt written some time back as part of my unfinished memoirs. It is an account of my experiences with track and why they meant so much to me. I thought you might find some of it interesting; at any rate, please be sure to read the last two pages.

 After San Mateo, I graduated from Stanford University in 1963 in electrical engineering; I retired from that great career in 2001. Linda and I have two daughters and four grandchildren. I am hoping that one of my two young grandsons will have long legs and a knack for hurdling – who knows?

 I learned … that you have been battling some medical challenges the past few years. I wish you all the best in that regard and want to thank you again for all you have done for so many of us who had the great good fortune to cross paths with you through sports.

I followed up that letter with a phone call so that I could thank him and wish him well “in-person.” I am so glad that I did that when I did. There exist many similar, personal testimonials to Coach Wagner: He truly left his mark while training boys to be men.