Monday, November 15, 2021

All Fired Up (Pat Benatar)

When fall comes in Western Pennsylvania, it means one thing, football season. In the rest of the country, football is a sport but in Steeler Nation it is a religion. The South Hills, my particular area, known as “The Quarterback Cradle,” produced some of the greatest stars the gridiron ever saw such as Joe Montana, just to name one of many. Behind ever great player is a great coach, and often that coach comes with a great big personality. Case in point, our very own John Ezekiel Matthias.

For years, I saw Matthias’s antics up close and in person as my brother Wendell played for him throughout high school. My mom cursed Matthias as Wendell slaved, training his body to get faster and stronger only to be continually banished to the hell of JV on Saturday mornings and then promoted to the purgatory of Varsity special teams his junior year. As revenge, my mom put Matthias’s picture in her ice cube tray in an attempt to freeze his soul to make him a more compassionate human being. Things changed Wendell’s senior year when he was finally awarded a much deserved starting spot on the defensive line. Happy he finally had the chance to prove himself under the spotlight, Wendell became one of Matthias’s best players that season, shattering strength, speed and tackling records.

Wendell shined in the classroom, too. His top notch academics and athletic prowess earned him a spot at Brown University as a chemistry major, but also on their Brown Bears football squad. The local paper did a story on the future Ivy League athlete. Coach Matthias was quoted as saying, “The kid is an example of a role model that never gives up. Always worked hard in that weight room. He was real smart but I thought he wouldn’t amount to much a player. I’m just as surprised as you are that this is happening.” My mother was thrilled. NOT!

You see, our district got Matthias by accident. Before Matthias, Coach Stoltz had been our town’s long time head coach and long time embarrassment. Stoltz, who’s signatures were his beer belly and his clipboard, gave an interview to a local news outlet where he said several questionable things about Jewish people. After getting a letter from the Anti-Defamation League, the district was forced to publish a public apology in not only that news outlet but every one in the area. In addition to being a bigot, Stoltz was an asshole who bullied players, favored the kids of booster officers going as far as to take bribes from said parents so their kids could start, dating several mothers of players at a time and bragging when these women got into fights over him. While this was all terrible, the racism, sexism, anti-semitism and xenophobia was not what did him in with the administration, but the fact we were one of the lowest ranked teams in the conference. After a no win season, the school board decided it was time to put Stoltz and his outdated opinions out of a job.

Many of the active booster parents, happy with the nepotism despite the team’s poor record, hoped one of Stoltz’s lackies would succeed him as head coach. Candidates included such classics as Coach DiCarlo: Super Catholic who had his photo taken with Mother Theresa and mentioned it in every conversation ever, Coach Marian: Remedial math teacher who waxed nostalgic about the days when public school teachers could beat their students and of course Coach Link: Loveable cigar chewing gambling addict who spent time either dodging a bookie, any one of his three ex-wives or any of the strippers he was currently dating. The school board was between a rock and a hard place, they wanted fresh blood but there was none to be had. So they resigned themselves with the fact this was the best they could hope for.

Then a dark horse entered the race. Hailing from small town West Virginia, Coach Matthias arrived at the interview in a loud pick up truck. Stepping out in a suit and tie, Matthias pitched himself to the schoolboard in his trademark back country twang, “I aint the handsomest man or the smartest man, but I will work hard and get these boys to win! Let’s get fired up!”

Fired up they were because Matthias was hired on the spot. Matthias immediately got to work, cleaning house and replacing the old staff with his former players. (The running joke became that Wendell and the players started a West Virginia to English dictionary to understand what their coaches were saying to them). The days of booster nepotism went too, as Matthias started the players he felt earned it by hard work and talent. When parents protested, he told them how he felt of their offspring, favorable or not. When Matthias heard of players not doing homework or behaving badly in class, an epidemic that had gone unchecked in the days of Stoltz, he made them run laps until they puked. Needless to say, academic eligibility and behavior were no longer a problem. Suit and tie became required wardrobe to school on game days as well as for travel to away games and off season camps. Skeptics soon became believers when our town had it’s first winning season in about a decade. Together, as a community, we adopted Matthias and his battle cry, “LET’S GET FIRED UP!”

Always high octane, Coach Matthias was prone to superstition, especially during football season when we were playing Clairsville, our most bitter rival in the conference. One brisk October day, on the week of the game that determined which teams advanced to the first round of the playoffs, the door to my gym class burst open. Standing there, as if he crawled out of Army of Darkness with something cradled in his hand, Coach Matthias declared, “CLAIRSVILLE DID THIS! THEY WILL HAVE BLOOD ON THEIR HANDS FOR KILLING OUR BELOVED MASCOT!”

As our teacher Mrs. Mason turned down our aerobic dance music that served as a strange soundtrack to see what the fuss was about, several of the female students shrieked. Glancing towards Coach Matthias, I saw he was holding the carcass of a dead black hawk! Coach stood, undaunted that the corpse of our school mascot was crawling with bugs. Mrs. Mason, the tall beautiful, universally liked former swimming star who had several records in our school’s pool that had yet to be broken said, “Coach, while I realize you are upset this is extremely unsanitary. You should really consider washing your hands!”

The class nodded in agreement at her attempt of sanity in this insane situation. However, Mrs. Mason’s best efforts were an epic fail as Coach said, “I aint gonna wash my hands of the blood of our slain mascot! Clairsville is goin’ down! This is MURDER!”

Mrs. Mason got a FML look across her face as she struggled to maintain her diplomatic smile. Colleen O’Grady, a red head who attended regular meetings of the anime club said, “Coach, I think you should look at all the facts before you accuse Clairsville of murder. In AP Bio, our teacher was saying sick animals die in nature all the time. The hawk could have very well died of natural causes.”

What Colleen said was probably correct and was extremely well meaning, but she didn’t know Coach Matthias which meant she didn’t know when to shut up. Coach Mattias said, “THAT IS BIBLICAL BLASPHOMY RED! ONE MORE WORD AND YOU’RE ON THE CLIMBER!” The climber-an exercise machine in the weight room-was Coach’s favorite form of punishment. He would make offenders go for an indeterminate amount of time depending on the infraction but also his mood.

Justin Gurrecca, a skater boy who had a very visible crush on Colleen said, “Coach, it’s just a game. It’s not about winning but about having fun, right?”

Coach screamed, “Wrong answer, boy! Are you STUPID?! TO THE CLIMBER WITH THE BOTH OF YOU!”

Colleen, who had never gotten a detention let alone a tardy ever, began to cry. Justin glanced at Mrs. Mason for help. Coach continued to hold the dead black hawk undaunted. Mrs. Mason said, “Okay, no one is going to the climber because we still have 15 minutes left of my class. And you know what the principal would say about sending someone who’s not on the football team to the climber. You agree, right Coach Matthias?”

Coach seldom listened to anyone, but Mrs. Mason’s father and husband were his hunting buddies and she was his wife’s best friend. Coach knew if he went any further it would be a very unpleasant evening at home. It was common knowledge Mrs. Matthias wore the pants once Coach stepped foot off the field. Grudgingly, he nodded in agreement. However, he was not ready to give up just yet, “Brucker, you’re smart. What do you make of this! What is the cause of death of this animal?!”

Seeing the desperate glance from Mrs. Mason and knowing the balance of the situation rested on my shoulders I approached Coach Matthias and the dead black hawk, “Coach, while my findings are inconclusive without a complete autopsy, I feel based on the evidence, timing and motive that the hawk was murdered by Clairsville.”

Coach nodded, “See Brucker, I knew I wasn’t crazy. Tell Wendell hello from me when you talk to him.”

“Will do,” I said heading back to my spot as Mrs. Mason flashed me a thumbs up sign.

Coach jogged out the door, dead bird in hand but none in the bush, “SEE, I KNEW IT! WE'RE GONNA MAKE CLAIRSVILLE PAY TOMORROW NIGHT! NOW LET’S GET FIRED UP!”

Mrs. Mason attempting to restore order said, “Alright everyone, this has been an exciting class but now it’s time for our cool down.” That night, I relayed the story during Wendell’s evening phone call to the family from his dorm room. Via speaker phone Wendell said, “Wow, guess it’s good to know some things don’t change. I’m just glad he wasn’t trying to keep it in the locker room to surprise the team with like he did the dead rat.”

We all made the silent agreement to move on because some stories are best left untold. My mom said, “I will admit it took a while, but I love Coach. He’s right, Clairsville murdered that hawk. I know it!”

My dad said, “Come on, Grace. That’s just crazy. I’m sure the animal died of natural causes, or maybe one of his assistant coaches shot it by accident.”

Wendell said, “Could be. Coach Douglas always told us because he had a farm as a kid, when there was nothing in the refrigerator he sometimes killed dinner.” Coach Douglas, one of Matthias’s assistants, taught English at the middle school down the hill. The irony was he was barely literate himself.

Skipper, my impish 13 year old sister who was regarded as a young Sheldon before there was such a show said, “While his enthusiasm is to be admired, Coach Matthias could have come in contact with bacteria that could not only caused severe neurological issues that led to impaired cognitive function but ultimately killed him. The Blackhawk was in a state of rigor which means the post death pathogens were present.”

My dad said, “I don’t think that’s an issue. Cognitive function is limited for Coach Matthias as it is.”

My mom said, “But April is the hero for giving the right answer. Props for that.”

I said, “Nah, the hero is Mrs. Mason. She kept two people off the climber. She deserves a metal.”

That Friday, Coach and his squad battled Clairsville on one of the coldest, rainiest October nights in Western Pennsylvania history. Going into triple death overtime, our mud caked boys beat Clairsville by a surprise touchdown earning them a spot in the playoffs. That Monday, as Coach did his victory lap in our gym class he said, “That black hawk wasn’t murdered. Just like Jesus, he died for our sins but granted us salvation with that final touchdown and gave us a victory!” We just nodded and agreed. No one likes the climber, right?

Coach went on to have the Blackhawk, who spent the weekend in his deep freeze, stuffed and mounted in his office. Until his retirement, he was the winningest coach in school history and one of the most respected in the conference.

I had forgotten about Coach and this story until years later, I was trying to clear up some writers block while drinking my coffee on my back porch. Out of no where, I saw a Blackhawk fly overhead and squawk loudly in my direction. He was saying, “GET FIRED UP!” So in I went to write…….

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