Friday, November 26, 2021

Blown Up & Stuffed: Football memories

Varsity Football Memories & Lessons, taught by a true Adirondack coaching legend

saranac lake football

Saranac Lake High School. Varsity practice field – July, ’78:

“Hey MONK!  Get over here!”

I shot my best friend Chris a quizzical look. (Yes! THAT Chris, SLHS track star of Olympic Outlaws fame).

“Does Coach Raymond mean ME?!”  Chris shrugged and nodded.

“Looks that way.  Better hustle over find out.”  My first ever football practice. Already I was “Monk.”

coach raymond

Coach Raymond ‘In Action” , photo courtesy of 1981 SLHS Yearbook

I had never played football.  In my house there were two seasons: Fishing & Hunting.  So, while other kids played football, I was out in the woods with my dad.

Enter John Raymond-AKA: “Coach”.  Coach Raymond was a presence. Stocky, square jawed, gruff voice, a stern no nonsense gaze.  I’m pretty sure if you Googled “High School Football Coach”- his face would appear.

Coach Raymond was a gym teacher then.  I think he was born with a clipboard under one arm and a whistle around his neck. He was never without either.

He collared me on the track circle the previous spring.  I could never make the baseball team, but it turned out I was a half decent miler running track with Chris.

“Hey MAHNRO-!  Why don’t you play football? Practice starts in a month.  Get your physical.  Be there.  Don’t forget your cup.”

It wasn’t a request.  I’d been given a command. Chris encouraged me to follow it.

So, there I was on the practice field. I took Chris’s advice again and sprinted over.  Coach blew his whistle and barked;

“All right men!  Hustle Over here.  Gather round and take a knee.”  My Saranac Lake Redskins football career had started.

Coach walked up and pounded my shoulder from behind.

“Men- This here is “Monk”.  He doesn’t know if the ball is blown up or stuffed.”

That was it.  Official.  From thenceforth I was “Monk”.

monk

“Monk”

Turns out Coach once had a college teammate with the last name Monroe.  That guy’s nickname was ‘Monk”, so Coach gave me that name too.  I considered it a badge of honor.  Wore it proudly.  In some circles I still do.

Coach and his staff quickly got things going. Chris was a tackle.  He took his place on the line.  Coach handed me a big pad and my first blocking assignment.

“Here Monk. Hold this.”

“When the quarterback says “Hutt”, you go charging in there as hard as you can and try to knock him on his butt with that pad.”  I nodded.  This was gonna be fun!

The whistle blew.  Ty, our quarterback, said “Hutt- Hutt-Hutt!”

I bolted through the line just like Coach said.  I had Ty in my sights…

WABAM!!!   Something resembling a small Mack Truck blindsided me from the left. I flew five feet, landed in a heap.  I heard some snickers.  Saw a few stars too.

The whistle blew again.  I looked up.  Our team Captain, Dave, was standing over me.

Coach Raymond hollered.

“Hey Monk- What on God’s Earth are you doing on the ground?  I told you to get the Quarterback!  Now get up off your ass! Quit messin’ around!”

He blew his whistle.  “Okay Men, line up.  Let’s do it again!”

Dave scoffed, reached down and pulled me up with a paw.

“Welcome to Varsity……..Monk.”

My introduction to the “D” block, the Team Captain, and Saranac Lake Redskins Varsity Football, all on my first play.

We had about 43 guys on that team.  Coach Raymond made sure every man had a job.  We were expected to know it.  No excuses.  No slack.

Every player had a position on both sides of the ball.  Coach made mine simple.  “End”.

Turns out Ends do mostly the same stuff no matter which team has the ball.  There were only two differences that I could see.  On offense I could catch passes if Ty threw me the ball- (which was never).  On defense I could tackle the guy with the ball. I liked defense better.

I studied the plays. Coach handed them out at practice on mimeographed pages.  Coach put every man on special teams too.  I was on Kickoff and Punt return, which turned out to be pretty much like “End”.  If the ball came my way- catch it (which once again, was never), but mostly I just blocked.  But besides these assignments, my primary positions were practice squad and left bench.

football

Fall, 1980, Saranac Lake Redskins Varsity Football Team Photo.
(Courtesy of 1981 SLHS Yearbook)

I discovered that I liked football.  By contrast, Chris loved it.  He’d been playing quite awhile.  His passion for the game drove him. He helped me learn plays. I had several other friends on the team who helped too.

In practice, on defense, Kyle called the plays.  He would say a bunch of stuff and always end with “Mike wide left” or “Mike wide right”.  Then we all clapped in unison and said “Break.”

This went on for awhile during practice as I learned the plays.  One thing puzzled me…11 men in the huddle… there was Kyle, who called the plays, Jim, Dave, Teddy, Chris, Jonathan, another Dave, Ty, Billy, sometimes “Bomber” or “Dupe”, and me- “Monk”.

Who was “Mike”?  There was no Mike in our huddle, that I knew of, but his name got called every play.  I finally asked Chris.  Turned out that “Mike” was the Free Safety- so Kyle was “Mike”.  Sometimes Ty was “Mike” too.  Not me.  I was just plain “Monk”.

Coach Raymond challenged us.  He was hard.  He expected us to win.  But he cared about us too.  He taught us dedication, responsibility, what it meant to be a team.

None of us had first names.  We were either a nickname, or our last.  No exceptions.  Never both.

We were small physically, compared to other teams.  Especially Tupper Lake- “The Lumber Jacks”.  Any one of their players made two of us. It seemed like they all had beards.

Chris might have weighed 160.  He was about average sized.  He played right tackle.  We may have had a couple of players over 200, but that’s about it. I might have been a buck forty, with pads.

No matter, Coach Raymond & his staff showed us how get the most out of each other, and ourselves.  We were big on the field.  Our lack of size didn’t matter.  We used hard work, dedication, and team work to win games.  And win games we did!

cheerleaders

SLHS Homecoming pep rally. Fall, 1980.
I’m not quite sure what lesson Coach Raymond was trying to teach us with this one!
“Monk” is 3rd from L.
I’ll leave everyone else anonymous.

The Northern Athletic Conference had ten teams my junior year.  Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Malone, OFA, Canton, Potsdam, Gouverneur, St. Lawrence, Carthage and Massena.

On Thursday nights the whole team ate popcorn while we sat and watched game film on black & white projector wheels in Judge Plumadore’s basement.

On Saturday’s, before home games, we blasted music in the locker room on vintage ’70’s vinyl.  Then we’d walk in single file from The High School to the field.

Our Nation’s Flag- Our Nation’s Anthem. The High School Band.  Cheerleaders and cheering fans. The Announcer’s booth.  Concessions stands.

Fall Saturdays in Saranac Lake.  Hot Chocolate, Hot Dogs, and Redskins Football was the menu.

Coach Raymond’s son Mark was water boy.  When time out got called, without fail, he hustled water to the huddle.  He was about seven. I heard later on he became a Coach himself. I’m not surprised. He probably knew more football then than most guys on the field.

Carthage joined our league just that year.  We travelled there to play.  We got off the bus and headed for the locker room.  The Carthage boys looked just like Tupper!  Beef with beards!  The Carthage players stood and jeered as our team took the field.

“Hey! What did you guys bring- your JV team!”

Chris and I both heard that jab.  I can still see the smirk he gave me.

We won the toss. They kicked off.

I liked being on the kickoff return team.  It made me feel like a starter.

“Cates” caught the ball.  I threw a block.  My man fell down. Cates was super fast.  My block was all he needed.

TOUCHDOWN!  In about 3 seconds flat our “JV” team had scored.  We won that game 22-8 (I looked it up).  We went 7-2 that year.  Tupper & Massena beat us.

I played again my Senior year.  My role was about the same.  I did play some defensive back.  Then later on someone got hurt. I started twice at Defensive End, even made a couple tackles.

On special teams, I returned two kickoffs!  I didn’t score, or make big plays. I did gain yards, and didn’t fumble.  So, there’s my claim to fame.

Chris still started.  He played tackle, went both ways.  He was forever trying to convince Coach Raymond to work some “Tackle Eligible” play into our offensive scheme, so he could catch a pass.  That never happened. But we did go 8-1, conquering Tupper, but not Massena.

Something else big happened for Chris that year.  He won the coveted “Red Letter” award. Most dedicated player. They gave it to him at our banquet.  I know it meant a lot to him- He’s still one of my best friends.  Whenever high school sports comes up, he takes every chance he gets to remind me of his “Red Letter” status.

I was satisfied with my Varsity football Letter and Pin.  I still have them in my closet, hanging on my Redskins jacket.  Next to my Varsity baseball!  I finally made that team too!  My senior year.  I think playing football helped.

There are still times, in Saranac Lake, when I hear someone yell, “Hey Monk!”  I turn and smile, knowing it’s one of my Redskins teammates.

I may not have known if the ball was blown up or stuffed.  Sometimes I still don’t.  But Coach Raymond taught us all a lot about football, and a whole lot more about life.

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Richard Monroe

Lifelong NYS resident. Raised in Saranac Lake. Cornell graduate(ROTC). Army veteran, Airborne/Ranger qualified, 10th Mtn Div, stints in Honduras and with JTF VI. 3rd degree Black Belt; 3x cancer survivor; published writer with several featured stories in Adirondack Life Magazine. Residing in Watertown NY with wife Robin & our 3 adult children. Loving Life. Living in the Day I am in. Follow my adventures at https://adirondackoutlaw.com/




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