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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Fourth and One
…and Other Life’s lessons
J. C. Tilton
There is a Chinese proverb which states that a child is a book in which everyone writes a page. This article is about a man who has written many pages in many books. As a teacher, a coach, a father, a husband, and a friend. A teacher not only in X’s and Y’s; or as a coach in X’s and O’s; but he went beyond that and was a teacher and coach on life. He touched many as could be seen from the number of those of us that attended his service this past week. He spanned several generations as evidenced by those who attended - from young men in letterman’s jackets, to old grey hairs (no hairs!?) like myself who came to pay their respects. As I sat there I thought back in time.

I first met Mr. Delong in his math class as a skinny 7th grader. At the time, he was very intimidating. To wake up the class, he had a yard stick he would crack against his desk to get everyone’s attention. Once he was earnestly trying to make a point that we weren’t getting and he smashed his chalk into pieces on the chalkboard. And his voice, that booming voice, I heard it many times over the years in the classroom, on the football field, and even as an adult. This was back when paddling was allowed in school and I don’t think he ever had to paddle anyone as the voice was enough to keep even the most unruly in line.

He had his gruff side, but as we got older we learned the other side of Mr. Delong. In the classroom we would occasionally leave the text book and talk about other things. He would pass along his wisdom and experience. Seemed to always have a story to share. Same with sports. Tough on the field, but approachable and willing to share off the field.

He was part of the success of many teams. He coached the linemen and helped give North football it’s only 10-0 season and several championships. He coached several athletes that attained all-state honors. I remember being part of the track team that won a district track championship, even though we had no track to practice on! Later when the district split up and he went home to South, he continued his success there. Finally after he retired, instead of sitting home, he continued to coach and work as a substitute teacher. He really loved working with youth and didn’t miss a beat.

And it seems like everyone who was a student of his has their Mr. Delong story. Even the pastor at the Memorial Service, Jim Hazelwood, told how he took him under his wing and helped make a football player out of him. A student, Nancy Moberly(Moore), told me how when she was pregnant in high school and some shunned her, that instead he was compassionate and helped her get thru a difficult time in her life.

Bryan Statzer, a captain of the undefeated North football team, liked him as a coach, but thought that he did even better in the classroom. “I thought the world of Mr. Delong. He was someone that you could relate to; someone that you could connect to personally. You could talk to him and we have continued to stay in touch over the years.” Mark Shepard, a colonel in the army and professor at West Point stated, “I would not be what I am today if it weren’t for Mr. Delong. “

My memory is this - every football team practices scenarios. And the ultimate scenario is 4th and one on the goal line with seconds to go in the fourth quarter. So when we got to the end of practice and we were lined up to go one more time. He would admonish us that when it’s fourth and one is when you reach inside yourself and find that something extra. It’s when you steel your nerve and think thru the other guy. It’s a physical toughness and a mental toughness. And several times over the years it’s been fourth and one in my life. And I hear that voice shout out “It’s fourth and one and we’re running to your side - what are you going to do!” It has helped give me the resolve to do what needs to be done.

With all the work that he did with school, did he slack with his family? The answer is no according to his sons, Mike and Jason. “He was always there for us. From helping change diapers for his grandchildren or helping us skin a deer when we were teenagers - he looked over us. We weren’t the best athletes in school, but he was there for our games. He knew what his priorities were, nothing came in front of god and family. We would not be what we are today if it weren’t for him.” Both sons knew that their father was popular and along with their mother, Charlotte, were amazed at the outpouring of support from the community. “There must have well over a thousand people at the Tuesday service, we had no idea that so many would show up.”

And there are some humorous stories as well. My senior year the linemen had a bad game on Friday. So Monday we lined up at the blocking sled and Coach Delong admonished us that we needed to sustain our blocks and drive until the whistle. We lined up at the sled, he gave the cadence and we flew out of our stances and popped the sled. And we drove it, and drove it - first 10 yards, then 20, 30 - around the 40 yard line 2 guys dropped off, the rest kept driving and finally we too fell from exhaustion after driving about 2/3rd of the field. We turned around to find out that Coach had dropped his whistle in the grass when he went to blow it, couldn’t find it, and was running behind us down the field yelling whoa! We were too tired laugh, too tired to do anything but roll over and lay down in the grass.

So I sat in the filled room and listened to the Memorial service and I took a look around. My mind refocused from the past and came back to the present. I thought to myself we worry about the finances on Wall Street and the economy. But here is true wealth. Here in this room are the people that have been enriched by one mans life. This is the treasure that can’t be measured in bank accounts and balance sheets. As long as we have people ready to pick up the baton and carry it like Mr. Delong did our future is not in doubt.

Leaving the world a better place - a lesson for all of us.

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