I wrote something similar to this article last year -which never saw publication and may still be floating somewhere in cyberspace – right after spending the morning of the first day of the year in my recliner in front of the television waiting for our Marching Lancers to appear in the Rose Bowl Parade. The networks glutoness 19 minute homage to Madison Avenue effectively stole that joy from us, however, but as my eyes were assaulted by one insultingly mindless ad after another, my mind thought of other things and memories of years gone bye came flooding back to me. For also on that New Years Day, at 1:00 PM, John Mortimer’s Millennium Mile was to be run down Mammoth Rd., and a half hour after that, Head Coach Dan Mullen’s Mississippi State football team was appearing in a prestigious Bowl Game on national TV. I don’t know if John and Dan ever met. I don’t think so. While they both grew up in Londonderry, there is a four year age difference between them, Dan being a little older. When John entered Londonderry High, Dan was already entering his second year of college out in Pennsylvania. Dan played football at Trinity High in Manchester while John eventually gave up all sports except Cross-Country. Dan was selected as Class L Player of the Year as the quarterback at Trinity in 1989 and took his team to the championship in 1990. John was selected twice, I believe, as Runner of the Year in the State, and started the Lancers on an unprecedented streak of Championships that dominated the 90′s. While life has led them on different paths to success, there was a time, during their years of 11, 12, and 13 when their efforts in the Fall saw them wearing the red shirts of the Redskins flag football team. And I was lucky enough to be their coach.
I began coaching youth sports in 1982, so 2012 begins my 31st year coaching Londonderry kids. This Londonderry Middle School Basketball team I have now is my 85th team which I have been involved with, mostly as the head coach, or only coach. None of it was planned, the coaching I mean, yet 30 years have gone bye, almost half my life, and I am blessed with a thousand wonderful memories of hundreds of terrific players. And so many of those memories go back to the Redskins of the Londonderry Flag Football Association.
In 1982 when my oldest son turned six we signed him up for gopher baseball with LAFA and instructional football with LFFA. I never had any intention of coaching kids. While I had a flexible work schedule which would allow me too, I had an awful lot going on back in those days. But with that age group, a dad could just walk on the field and help out, which I did. The following year, with the coaches moving up, I sort of inherited the head coach slot. It was all very easy. Basically, the coaches just picked the player up and deposited him where he was supposed to be and instructed him NOT to dig a hole in the grass.
In ’84 things changed. I now had two boys playing on separate teams and I was part of one of 5 men who were running the flag program taking over from Dr. Oscar Greene who had run it the past few years. The 8 year old leagues actually kept score, and coaches were now trying to win. I had a farm team in baseball and the Eagles in LFFA and a rec basketball team, and I tried very hard to make learning the sport more important than winning the game. This was tough because as a kid all that ever mattered to me was winning. I would run into a wall to win a game. And had!
Things changed again in 1985. Back then, LAFA’s Major League had boys 10-12, though very few 10′s moved up. The boys not on the Major League roster played in the Minors where boys 9-12 played, with very few 9 year olds coming out of the farm league. My oldest was now 9 and we moved up to the Minors where I took over the Royals team. Things got really competitive now. We were given our rosters and told to contact the league VP if we had anyone who we felt did not belong in the league, like a nine or ten year old who could not compete and might get hurt. After my first practice I called VP Dan Dudley, who I did not know at the time, and told him I thought I had two players who I felt did not belong in the Minors. He thought maybe I should give them another practice or two before sending them down to the Farm league. I said no, you don’t understand. I don’t know what your talent level is in the majors, but I have two guys who are way too good for the talent the rest of this team has. He agreed to take the two 11 year old boys and place them on Major League teams. One of those boys, Kevin Koblenzer, became a solid Varsity pitcher just a few years later. I believe I was the only coach to send players up. We won the championship that year as Bryan Bailey pitched a great game in the finals to win 2-1. I had a bunch of 9 year olds on that team, including Mortimer. It was our first real test with pressure as a team, and it would serve us well in the future as we moved up thru the ranks.
During the football season of 1985, I took over the LFFA league. My 9 year old was on the Eagles and my 7 year old on the Broncos and I was coaching both teams. Saturdays were spent at South School from 8 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. Before the season began I had an open coaching spot on the Redskins of the 11, 12 and 13 year old division. I asked a good friend of mine, who I played football with on the fields of Everett when I was a kid, if he would be interested in coaching the team. He jumped at the chance. I drafted for him on draft night and with the first pick in the draft because of their winless 1984 season, I picked John Sutliffe, a 12 year old who was the best player at the try-outs. The roster for the Redskins consisted of 4 13 year olds, 3 11 year olds and 6 twelve year olds, if memory serves. I believe four of those players eventually became Captains on the Lancer Varsity football team with Coach Sawyer. Sutliffe went on to play at Pinkerton. Bill Breen went on to become an Army Ranger. And Dan Mullen eventually went on to be Tim Tebows quarterback coach at Florida and Offensive Coordinator with Urban Meyer and two National Championships before taking over at Mississippi State. But that was all in the future.
On the day after the draft, with first practices, my friend called and said he had just changed jobs and would be unable to take the team. I went to practice that night, left my Eagles and Broncos with assistant coach Jack Mortimer and went to give the Redskins the news that I would have to find them a new coach. They were very upset. As I ran them thru a practice, Dan Mullen came up to me, tears in his eyes, and said he could not bear going through another season like the previous year where the team had not won a game. That moment changed everything for me. Up until that moment, it was “tuck in your shirt, stop digging the ground, pay attention, don’t worry you’ll catch it next time, did everyone have fun?, whose glove is this?, etc., etc.” Now I had a kid in front of me who this stuff really mattered to. A kid like I was. I smiled at him and told him not to worry. That we were going to have one heck of a great year. I decided to coach the Redskins right then and there. I was on the practice field every night with two teams each night. Some times I would go from shouting and screaming at the Redskins over to the 6 and 7 year old Broncos where I would still be shouting and the assistant would say Coach!, then I would have to get all these scared little faces into a scrum and do some silly stuff to get them laughing. It was all very Jekyl and Hyde. But it was all so much fun. I was very fortunate to have people around to help out. Jack Mortimer did so much. I could leave the Redskins with Dan and he would run a big chunk of practice as the QB. Dan’s dad helped out. I had a pretty good bunch of coaches and four mom’s, Marie Greene, Lois Boettcher, June Mortimer and Mary Perkins who just did so much for me and the league. Back then the league was 14 teams and around 200 players. Eleven players on the field, helmets, contact and no weight restrictions. Many of the players who made the Lancers successful in the 80′s and nineties came out of this program.
That ’85 season ended with the Redskins at 5-1 and co-champions, I believe with Doug DeCosta’s Cowboys. Every player on that team gave everything they had every practice and game. Mullen insisted on that. Personally, I enjoyed it immensely. Twenty years later, 2006, I am coaching the Londonderry Middle School boys basketball team. My first year back. We are winless halfway through the year. We are sitting in the bleachers and I tell them a story about this 13 year old kid who, with tears in his eyes, wanted to win so very badly, and how, through hard work and perseverance he was now on the verge of a National Football Championship. I told them that if they watched the game that night that they would hear the name Dan Mullen and they would see him up in the booth, and they would hear that he was from Manchester. I told them he was from Londonderry, just like them, that as a kid same age as them, he had dreams and ambitions, too. That he had taken adversity and turned it around. I had sent an e-mail to the Florida website care of Dan. I had no idea if he would get it. I told him about our season. Amazingly, he got the e-mail. And despite all the hoopla surrounding his life at the time, Dan took a few minutes of precious time to send a message to someone he hadn’t seen in 15 years, thanking me for the time spent with him, and telling my team not to get discouraged, to play hard all the time and that with each level of competition more work is required. We won a couple of games that year. We never gave up, despite being a second team playing other schools first teams. Most of the players were 7th graders, with Troy Mansfield the only 8th grader. They are now Seniors and many of them are Varsity basketball players. I have had the opportunity over the last few years to watch them and read about them during their careers at LHS. Football, basketball, X-country, baseball, lacrosse. Some years, like this one, there has been much adversity, but through it all they have never given up. Never taken it easy. Never given an inch without a fight. When I look at them now I see winners. I think one particular Redskin player from a generation ago would also approve.
Mullen’s team defeated Wake Forest last night. The people in Mississippi love this guy. It is amazing. But understandable. I don’t know where his path will lead – maybe Penn State – but he will be successful wherever it may be. He is a joy to watch. Running up the sidelines. Shouting and pointing. Making changes on the fly. And sometimes smiling, smiling!, even during close games.
I coached the Redskins for 7 years. Maybe a dozen players or more became Captains of the Lancer football team. More were selected All-State. Three became Players of the Year. As time goes on I will share some of their stories with those of you who are interested.
A Londonderry Resident, Bob Napolitano is extremely active in Londonderry Sports. Bob even published a sports news paper he hand delivered to homes in the 1990′s.