Football coach, Louis Phillip “Lou” Merlano, in the late 1950s was already a surviving, decorated member of the famous “Screaming Eagles” 101st Airborne Division. His group had made a significant difference in Operation Market Garden and at the Battle of the Bulge in WW II. Merlano learned how to play hurt and win—he survived the infamous D-Day invasion and after the war returned home with three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star pinned to his chest.
But which of us kids knew that then? We were just an average bunch of pre-teens wanting to play football for a diocese grade school in Levittown, Pennsylvania.
To tell you the truth, at first we played scared. But we left that fear on the practice field after Coach Merlano made us do “Blood Pit” so many times that we had no fear left by game time. Fear was a forgotten puddle of lung-emptying grunts, bloody gashes and hot, sweaty tears after Blood Pit rendered it into submission on dusty, no-name gridirons devoid of fans. Only the watchful eyes of Merlano and his coaches paid much attention to us in those dark hours of a tackling drill that was de rigueur in those years.
Merlano taught football-playing skills to groups of kids, knowing they would grow into young men and, later, fathers of their own children. His drills, as harsh as some of them were to experience, showed us how to win at life; how to succeed despite obstacles that one day would try our souls. He trained us to play the only way that he knew how to survive: “with 100% abandonment.”
“You must run, hit, catch balls and score touchdowns with 100% unreserved, unrestrained enthusiasm.” To which he added from time to time, “You hit the other guy with 100% abandonment, and he gets the recoil, you don’t.”
Blood Pit was a deceptively simple, yet vicious tackling drill mechanism. Half of the team lined up to the coach’s right in front of, and perpendicular to, where he stood. The other half lined up to his left. An assistant coach stood opposite to the head coach. At the head coach’s whistle, the assistant coach threw a football to a player closest to him at the end of one of the two lines. The player who caught the ball was required to step (run) two to three steps to the middle of his end of the box formed by the two lines and the two coaches, and then turn and run toward the middle of the box. The player at the opposite end of the opposing line stepped (ran) two to three steps to the middle, turned and ran straight at the runner coming his way, cradling the football. The result was an intentional collision. Sidestepping was not an option for either player. Loud, pad-on-pad crashes and rubber mouth-guard squeals resounded with each hit as the other players watched and waited for their moment.
100% abandonment applied to Blood Pit, or you got hurt.
Amazingly, the mayhem could feel good when executed properly. Both tackled runner and his tackler, who had driven his shoulder pad into the runner’s midsection and then lifted and dropped him to the ground, returned to the end of the opposite line and shook off any residual butterflies and stars before they went again. Whoever hit better and faster … the recoil went forward into the other guy’s body.
Blood Pit, however, was a teaching method, which meant, of course, that inexperienced players often collided badly. Midsections became knees that jarred the helmets and heads of would-be tacklers. Leading with the head instead of getting it out of the way created painful impacts and injured or knocked-out players. Smelling salts, the coaches’ preferred remedy of choice back then, brought a player back to reality in a hurry—unfortunately, too often in time for a concussed player to run another round of Blood Pit in the same practice session. We wouldn’t understand the physical consequences for decades.
The result? Some players departed the game as casualties. Others in uniform learned quickly to tackle well, if only to avoid the pain and suffering of a prolonged learning curve. All players discovered how to tolerate pain—the better ones began to hit without reservations. Their craft—to adeptly stop opponents from gaining additional yardage and, at times, to make them cough up the pigskin—required the patience of Job, considering the coach’s admonitions to “Never leave your feet too early,” and “keep your feet on the ground and keep them moving—drive through the guy.”
As Merlano’s players we knew the incredible uplift and liberation of football once we mastered its ignominious collisions. We could savor the satisfaction that came from striking an oncoming locomotive (a fullback) at full speed, stopping it and then lifting and dropping it right off its tracks. Superman’s elation at stopping speeding freight trains had to be similar.
For a well-executed tackle, the balm of words of praise from Merlano’s lips dissolved any lingering soreness. In the end, though, not Blood Pit but 100% abandonment dissipated our fears, corrected our sophomoric bravado and flat-lined our faults on the field and off. Merlano’s valuable lessons carried over to challenges found on the playing fields of living.
In games we played before cheering throngs, we annihilated most opposing teams no matter how big or fast they were. We hit hard, tackled hard and won our battles much in the same manner as Merlano and the Allied forces did against the Germans entrenched on Normandy’s beaches: with strategy, courage and 100% abandonment. We never asked how it was for the other guys—we already knew—and we relished every second of every 60-minute game on the gridiron.
At the high-school level most of us continued to play together on the same team. Under Coach Dick Bedesem, who compiled a 94-46-6 record in 13 seasons at Bishop Egan and won five Catholic League championships and three Philadelphia city titles, we earned a reputation as a perennial powerhouse football club. The school had the trophies to show for it; we had our memories, and Lou Merlano quietly shared our pride and accomplishments both on and off the field.
The take-away? If one would be a champion, football and living are best played with 100% abandonment.
© 2012 by Ronald Joseph Kule. All Rights Reserved.