Collecting Splinters by Bob Sharpe

Collecting Splinters by Bob Sharpe

I don’t remember many of the details of seeing my first high school football game. I suspect it was a bright Saturday afternoon at the Coaldale High School field and George Welsh was leading the Tigers on to victory. Even more memorable was my first night game at Lansford High Stadium. Tom Sabol and I walked up from Coaldale along Philip Street toward the community swimming pool. It was dark and chilly, but ahead I could see the glow from the stadium lights. Walking into the stadium felt like walking into another world. The sights, sounds, and smells in that cold night air had me speechless. The clacking of cleats on the concrete, the cheerleaders, majorettes, the school band playing the fight song, the smell of popcorn and hot chocolate, and the cheering of hundreds of fans as the team came out from behind the bleachers. I was hooked; high school football was where I had to be in a few years.

It was mid August 1960 and I was preparing for my first year at Marian High. As most of you know, back then Marian was in three different towns; freshmen in Tamaqua; sophomores in Lansford; and juniors & seniors in Coaldale. While the first day of class was still weeks away, the first day of football practice was upon me and I dutifully reported to the auditorium at St. Mary’s in Coaldale for our first meeting. We all knew about the legendary coach, “Wink” Gallagher and of course he was there along with his new assistant coach; fresh out of college and ready for his first teaching assignment at Marian. He was also ready to show about 100 teenagers that making the team wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. That was the first day I heard the name “Jack Malarkey”.

We rummaged through a pile of old smelly shoulder, hip, and knee pads, along with uniforms that looked like they came from the Coaldale Big Greens back in the 1910’s. Rule #1: upper classmen get first pick of everything. At least I got a helmet that had a face guard, even though they were still using leather back then. From the auditorium we walked down two blocks to the field behind the community pool, where I spent many years playing in Little and Church Leagues.

The morning was already hot and humid, but we all started with a few laps around the quarter mile track and followed up with several rounds of calisthenics. Within the first hour, several guys were showing the effects of being out of shape, but Wink and Jack were relentless with keeping the tempo going. The morning session ended about noon, and so did a handful of candidates. A pile of sweaty uniforms formed on the auditorium stage where we had our lockers. One hour later it was back to the field for the afternoon session and drills on the fundamentals of the game. In other words, time to crack some pads!

The sound of my alarm clock next morning, and the difficulty getting my body to respond to my brain, showed me that the glamour of being a football hero was going to involve a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. That day there were even more uniforms added to the pile as the ranks started to dwindle. We felt like buzzards, but it was time to see if any of the items in the pile were better than what we had. We also found out that complaining about our various ailments was landing on deaf ears. Wink’s usual comment about aches and pains was “put your name on a holy card and I’ll pray for you”. It was time to strap on the gear (still damp from the previous day) and make the ‘Long March’ back to the practice field. That day Jack Malarkey found a little diversion from the usual circuit of the track. Near the northeast corner of the field was a trail through the trees which led up to the back entrance to the pool, and another trail that led back down to the track. The total circuit was about 300 feet, but the uphill half was brutal. Jack directed traffic up that hill and back down again with the gusto of a Marine drill sergeant. We were all referred to as “ladies” and Jack delighted in sneaking up behind us to look for stragglers or guys trying to hide behind the trees. That was usually met with a request to do two or three more laps.

Days grew into weeks and the ranks continued to shrink, but at least I was still there and our first game of the season was almost at hand. Wink Gallagher’s philosophy was that anybody who could survive the practice deserved to dress for the game. Getting that game uniform for the first time was like getting the Congressional Medal of Honor. The uniform was one from an earlier time for the Colts, but at least it was blue and gold and I got to run out onto the field with all the sights, sounds, and smells that I remembered as a kid. This is where my splinter collection began. Freshmen weren’t expected to get much playing time and I remained true to this axiom for the season. I found a comfortable spot on the bench and there I stayed for the remaining games.

The summer leading up to sophomore year was going to be different. This time a few of us decided to do some pre-practice workouts, so that first day of the real thing wouldn’t take our bodies by surprise. I even did a few laps per day on “Malarkey’s Hill”. Practice started again in mid August and as expected we watched the squad shrink in numbers as the days went by. Jack came into true form in his second season also and became more assertive in his expectations for the team. One very tragic thing that happened in the first week occurred as groups of us took turns at 50 yard wind sprints. A teammate and close friend that I went through grade school with collapsed next to me as we finished a sprint. He was taken to the hospital and pronounced dead on arrival. For most of us it was the first time we witnessed death up close and to a peer. Nonetheless the season was a week away and this time I actually got a current Marian uniform, just like the big guys. Even with the “real” uniform I still continued my collection of splinters as we traveled from Hazleton to Lansdale. Oh, I did get in a few games, but that was usually when there was 30 points or better separating the teams and less than 5 minutes on the clock.

Junior year was going to be my time to shine. Once again I made sure I was ready for first day of practice. Jack Malarkey, by now, owned that damn hill and usually positioned himself at the top of the hill at a telephone pole we had to circle. He tried new variations; like having us run up the hill backwards. That usually resulted in a pileup along the trail, since we couldn’t see what lay ahead. But there he stood, whistle around his neck, shouting “You ladies couldn’t beat the Little Sisters of the Poor”! The season began, but for me things didn’t seem to be working out as planned. By now most of my fellow juniors had starting jobs, or at least a lot of playing time. Even several sophomores were seeing a lot more action that I was. My first reaction was anger. I’ve put in more time that a lot of these guys, so why am I still collecting splinters? Of course, this is not a question you bring to Wink Gallagher or Jack Malarkey. It’s a question you ask yourself and finally realize that it’s simply a fact that Wink plays the 11 best men he has available. I was still not one of those 11. As the season ended, so did my thoughts of being carried off the field in triumph for some game winning play.

So along comes late summer 1963, and the call for Marian football tryouts. This summer was not spent working out on my own to prepare for the season. I had a driver’s license and the occasional use of the family car. I had discovered the opposite sex and realized that I didn’t need to be a football hero to get a date. I suppose it was just out of habit that I again reported for practice and although my body was ready for Wink, Jack, and the ‘Hill”, my mind was off in a different world. At least I thought my body was ready for those first two weeks. On an August morning that was exceptionally hot and humid, I was working on at least the fifth trip up Jack’s Hill when I got to the top and stopped at the telephone pole. Fifty feet in front of me were several young ladies I knew well from school. They were in their swim suits, sunning themselves just down the rear steps of the community pool, listening to the radio, and having some nice cool drinks. They waved to me and beckoned for me to come over and join them. I felt like a guy in the desert for a week with no provisions, who suddenly comes upon an oasis of rest, refreshment, and women. I just stood there motionless and asked myself why in God’s name I had this hot, sweaty, stinking gear on me when the alternative lay before me? I only need to tell them I’d be back in a half hour; walk back to the school; dump the gear into the usual quitter’s pile; shower; and be back in time to watch the rest of the team getting chewed out by Jack.

My fantasy came to an abrupt halt when Jack came up behind me; saw what I was looking at; and probably read my mind because he suggested that maybe I should join them rather than do another three laps for “doggin’ it”. I mumbled a few things about Jack under my breath which cannot be repeated here, but said nothing. I made the turn at the pole and when down for another circuit. The rest of the morning was spent with my mind weighing the pros and cons of this decision. Another season of collecting splinters, or the realization that my best fit in the sport of football is in the stands with a girl by my side and a bag of popcorn. The big question for me was who was I letting down by quitting? The team’s success was not going to be determined by my being there. The guys I shared a locker room with for three years would understand that quitting made sense. My parents, or at least my mother, would be thrilled. She wanted me to quit ever since my buddy died on the field two years earlier. The rest of my classmates would think the lesser of me. I think they saw me as a pretty decent person, whether or not I was on the team.

Finally it dawned on me that the only person is didn’t want to face after quitting was the person I saw in the mirror every morning and every night. This is the person who would be asking me why I couldn’t see it through, and he would ask me this each day for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, there were no new teams to play this season, so my collection of splinters wouldn’t be expanded with new benches to warm. Again, I spent most of the games in the usual spot, although I thought I could expand my duties for my last year and also guard the water bucket. The season ended and I was there to get my letter sweater along with the other seniors. I appreciated the fact that Wink gave all of us the same sweater, with two stripes, whether you played every game for four years, or only had a bunch of splinters to show for your time.

About a year ago I had a great phone conversation with Jack Malarkey. I called him to ask about a relative of ours. Yes, I didn’t know it then, but Jack and I are distantly related. I’m glad now that what I mumbled about him 45 years ago wasn’t about his ancestry. We talked about those days with great memories of a simpler time. Jack told me that Marian football was doing well that season and I related much of this story to him and told him that for all the years that have passed, every time I was faced with a difficult decision to make concerning whether I should see something through or call it quits, I thought about him and said, “At age seventeen I survived Jack Malarkey and that damn hill, so can this problem I’m facing now be any worse?”

Thank you again, Jack Malarkey. You are truly a great teacher and an inspiration to all.