When I was a little kid, I learned about the game of football from my father, Loren Donley. Among my earliest memories are watching NFL games with him on a black and white TV with rabbit ears in Point Pleasant, New Jersey in the mid-1960s. We watched the Green Bay Packers beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL championship game on January 1, 1967. Then, two weeks later, we watched the Packers win the AFL-NFL World Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs. This was before that game became known as the Super Bowl.
I also watched The Ohio State University Buckeyes on Saturdays with my dad. He taught me about Coach Woody Hayes and what it meant to be a Buckeye like he was. This is something that kind of gets into your veins and doesn’t ever come out. Even though I graduated from Rutgers and have lived in Detroit for almost 40 years now—and attended my share of games at the Big House in Ann Arbor—I will always be a Scarlet and Gray Buckeye.
However, there was nothing like the thrill of going with my dad to the Point Boro high school football games on Saturdays as a little kid. Although I didn’t really understand all the rules, I knew when I heard the Panther marching band play “Hail to the Varsity” the Boro had scored another touchdown. As I recall, this happened seven or eight times a game every week in the 1960s.
By the time I was eight years old I was wearing the Black and Gold in my home town. I still recall the smell of those warm autumn afternoons during football season and what it felt like to drive home with my dad after another Point Boro win.
Like all the kids in my neighborhood, I was proud to be associated with a high school football program that went three complete seasons in a row without losing a single game. And, also like them, I was disappointed when the Panthers lost to Manasquan in 1970 and ended their winning streak at 34-0. We learned that being “undefeated,” like everything else in life, must eventually come to an end.
Naturally, when I was old enough, I wanted to play competitive tackle football. I wanted to put on shoulder pads, pants, cleats and a helmet more than anything, so I practiced as much as I could. I played touch football in the street in front of my house with the other kids from the neighborhood. My dad would throw the ball with me and the other boys in the back yard. I wanted to be a running back like Cleveland’s #32 Jim Brown or the Packer’s #23 Travis Williams. Most of all, I dreamt of one day carrying the ball for the Panthers.
In the summer of 1971, at age eleven—between the fifth and sixth grades—I tried out for the Point Pleasant Golden Elks Pop Warner Pee Wee football team. The program had two squads: 10-12 year old Pee Wees and 12-14 year old Midgets. The Golden Elks included kids from Point Beach and Point Boro and, since the number of players trying out exceeded the number of available spaces, the coaches had to make cuts.
Playing football as a youngster teaches you many things. For one, you get to figure out how tough you are and see quickly if you really have what it takes to play the game. Sure, you need athletic skills like speed, quickness and vision. You also need ball skills like throwing and catching a spiral. If you have size and strength, these are a big plus. But more than any of these other things, if you have heart and can handle the contact, you can compete. This is a quality that you cannot fake. You don’t get to make excuses; you can either take and make the hits or you can’t, period.
Anyway, on the final day of Pee Wee tryouts, my name was not called among those who made the Golden Elks team and I was completely crushed. It was a long drive home that evening in mid-July from the Point Beach Antrim School practice field, staring out the car window with tears running down my cheeks.
My dad understood my disappointment, especially since his parents did not let him play football when he was a kid growing up in Ohio. Just like many parents today, my grandparents were worried that my dad might get hurt. They didn’t want him to end up like his older brother Dale who broke his arm so badly playing high school football that he could no longer straighten it out … for the rest of his life.
‘71 Panthers manager
So, my dad—who was the vocal music teacher at Point Boro High School—had a conversation with Panther head football coach Al Saner about my situation. Somehow, between the two of them, they hatched this idea that I should be a manager (a.k.a. water boy) for the Panther varsity squad in the upcoming season.
Well, that’s how I ended up, from early August to late October 1971, with Coach Saner and his staff—Mr. Spincola, Mr. Gilmore, Mr. Vancardo, Mr. Russell, Mr. Anderson and Mr. Leibfried—and became part of another Panther championship season. For me, this turned out to be an opportunity of a lifetime.
I remember those three months like they took place yesterday. I learned so many things—mostly to do with football that I can talk about and some other life stuff that I can’t really bring up because, well, they’re not PG—that have stayed with me to this day. It all took place in the team meetings, at the preseason scrimmages, in the locker room and equipment room and during the home and away games, including the bus rides to and from the other schools and especially on the practice field at Memorial School known as the Dust Bowl.
The players I remember most were the ’71 Panther seniors (front row, left to right in the team photo above): Butch Gordon (33), Ron Stone (46), Michael Swigon (32), Paul Ridge (86), Ken Stahlin (44), Jim Williams (14), Rich Leibfried (18), Tony DiVanno (95), Frank Bomenblit (61), Craig Bessinger (51), Geoff Lee (94) and Tom Chadwick (64). While there were many other players on the team that I got to know, these guys really took a liking to me.
Since nearly everyone on the team had a nickname, on the first day of summer practice they gave me one too: they started calling me “Harry.” This was because my last name was very similar to that of Harry Donnelly, the former Point Boro offensive coach who had left the district after the previous season. I’m not certain who gave me that name, but it stuck. They would say, “Hey Harry, go get me the ball bag” or “Harry, I need a mouthpiece” or “Harry, can you fix my chin strap?”
In addition to being at their side for every practice and running water bottles out to the field during game time-outs, I carried equipment kits, I fixed helmets and shoulder pads, I moved blocking and tackling dummies and other practice equipment and I made sure the water hose was running and available on the practice field (when they were allowed to drink from it).
Most of the senior backs and receivers had their own locker room up front next to coaches locker room. Although Coach Saner didn’t want me hanging around there—mainly because he thought I might hear some stuff that wasn’t meant for the ears of an eleven-year-old kid—I’d go in there anyway and listen to the conversations taking place.
Sometimes there were rivalries like when Ron Stone and Paul Ridge debated who had more receiving TDs on the season. Other times, they talked about injuries like the time QB Rich Leibfried got knocked out with a rib injury in the dog-fight-of-a-game against Wall Township. And, of course, they also talked about their high school sweethearts.
Other times they would tell jokes. I remember a couple of these—although I can’t say who told them or how they went exactly—other than to recall that one was about a lady football player who got knocked out during a game and the other had to do with a field inspection of British Commandos.
Anyway, when summer practice began, the first team meetings took place in the gym. The players all sat in one section of bleachers as the coaches introduced themselves. There was a chalk board where things were sketched out and gone over in detail.
When he took attendance, Coach Saner sometimes had a hard time with last names, especially those of the new JV players, and there were some laughs when he botched them up pretty good. While there were quite a few funny moments here and there, those meetings were dead serious, all about football and all about getting ready for the ‘71 season.
Three yards and a cloud of dust
There were also squad meetings in different classrooms in the high school to teach the offensive and defensive schemes and plays. Anyone familiar with those early Point Boro football teams knows that Coach Saner had a preference for the run game. My dad referred to it as “three yards and a cloud of dust.” The offense was not complicated and was based on grind-it-out strength and power strategy. Coach Saner was not a big fan of passing the ball and he was known to say, “When you throw the football, only three things can happen and two of them are bad.”
On most plays, the Panthers used the I-Formation with a wing back off the tight end and with one wide receiver on the opposite side of the power. The playbook consisted mostly of running off-tackle or between the guard and tackle with the fullback as a lead blocker. The QB would hand the ball off to the half-back who followed the fullback through the hole.
On the ’71 team, the fullback blocking responsibility was assigned to Ken Stahlin. He was probably the fiercest football player I had ever seen. I remember seeing him regularly take out linebackers left and right to clear the path for halfback Mike Swigon. Plus, when he got the chance to carry the ball, he did not try to go around would-be tacklers. Wham!
Anyway, the Point Boro offense also had the occasional pitch to the halfback from the Wing-T. In those days, there was no shotgun, and the QB was always under center. On very rare occasions, the wing back would take an inside reverse hand-off with a pulling guard making a trap block or the wide receiver would come around on a reverse. This wide receiver reverse worked very well for the ’71 Panthers with Ron Stone taking the ball and sprinting down the sideline like lightning. Wow!
On every play, the QB Rich Leibfried always faked a bootleg after the handoff and, every once in a while, he would fake the handoff to the half back and bootleg around the right or left edge, usually for a long gain, since no one was expecting it. This could be tried once or twice per game because the defense always adjusted and started looking for it.
As I mentioned, football is a very hard game. The practices in those days were nothing short of agonizing, especially for the linemen. I remember how, after what seemed like hours of blocking drills in the Dust Bowl over by the trees next to Memorial School, the white practice uniforms of the linemen would be covered from top to bottom in dirt, blood and mud.
Those line drills were run by Coach Vincent Spincola. I think you could say Coach Spincola was a Jersey Shore Italian, but not the fake kind that was later made popular by reality TV. No, he was a real New Jersey Italian with a noticeable North Jersey accent and a vocabulary to go with it. He had slicked back dark hair with an M-shaped receding hairline. He smoked and his voice was really gruff and harsh.
Coach Spincola had this laugh that could be very embarrassing for a player who might be the object of his humor. He would drop his jaw wide open and a little bit to the side and release a deep and massive “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha” from his diaphragm, kind of like the way Ray Liotta laughs in the movie “Good Fellas.”
Anyway, those linemen drills were probably the most grueling and violent thing I had ever witnessed. Coach Spincola was relentless. He saw his job as making a lineman tough or making him cry. Let’s just say it probably wouldn’t be considered politically correct today the way he coached those boys back then. On the other hand, he coached some of the greatest offensive and defensive lines to ever play Jersey Shore high school football.
I found myself staying over there with the linemen quite a bit because that’s where I was needed the most in terms of busted equipment and first aid gear. Plus, I got to learn some new words hanging around Coach Spincola. For example, I found out what “gonads” were. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it turns out this is a completely legitimate biological term. Coach Spincola illustrated the concept by placing his hands in a “V” shape in front of his groin area and explaining that this is where a lineman is supposed to put his face when properly making a block or a tackle.
During those drills, Coach Spincola had this cadence he would call out that is something I will never forget. I am sure that those players will never forget it either. Coach Spincola used it to signal the linemen that it was time to come off the ball and make contact with each other in the drills. It was a two-word, rapid-fire thing with no space in between.
You might normally think of it as “hut one, hut two,” but instead with Coach Spincola it went something like this: “hail, hail.” Come to think of it, I’m not really sure if he was saying “hail” or “hell.” Either way, it was absolutely terrifying because immediately after this verbal command, all you could hear was the crashing of helmets and shoulder pads and some grunting noises.
Coach Spincola was extremely hard on those players. I heard him say many things during those sessions that I really can’t repeat. However, I also know in my heart and believe to this day that he really loved those boys like they were his own sons. He was always the first to congratulate them when they got their job done on the field during the games. In those situations, you were “perfecto” in Coach Spincola’s eyes. That is, of course, as long as you weren’t out there crouching around on your hands and knees at the line of scrimmage like you were “picking up quarters.”
One day—after the linemen had carved a pit on their side of the Dust Bowl from the one-on-ones, two-on-ones and three-on-twos for what seemed like hours—Coach Spincola gave these guys a breather. This break consisted of being allowed to remove their hats (he always referred to helmets as “hats”) and take one knee. Then, after a whistle blow from Coach Saner on the other side of the Dust Bowl, I remember how everyone looked up and saw the offensive backs and receivers come jogging by to take a lap. Seeing not even a single grass stain on their pristine practice uniforms, Coach Spincola shook his head and said, “There go the white knights!”
Although I was eleven and the Boro players looked like men to me, they were teenage boys who were often pushed to physical and emotional extremes during those practice sessions. Back then, there was no such thing as “hydration” and the manager staff didn’t have any Gatorade. Water was a luxury and a reward. If a player even asked for a drink before the approved water breaks as a group—usually from the end of a sprinkler hose—they were considered weak or worse.
In 1971, there was also no such thing as what we know today as an athletic trainer. If a player was hurt during practice, it was the job of the manager staff to provide instant ice-packs, tape, gauze, butterfly band-aids or whatever. We also had ammonia capsules to wake players up after they had their “bell rung,” we had salt tablets for guys who were suffering from dehydration. We had Atomic Balm for bruises and contusions. Meanwhile, we prepared ice baths and hot tubs in the locker room for players to soak in, especially after the games.
I saw enough blood, black and blue wounds, cuts and gashes for a lifetime during those few months. I witnessed more broken noses, shoulder and neck injuries, gouges that required stitches, severe bruises and limb joint and finger dislocations than I care to remember. I can still hear Coach Saner hollering out “manager” in a loud Tarzan-kind-of-way when one of the players needed attention from the staff. To the best of my ability, I was always right on it.
The first scrimmage of the season was held on one of the practice fields at the high school. I think it was on a Saturday. The players from Point Boro and the other team—I can’t remember who it was—wore their practice uniforms with no numbers on them. One side always wore colored bibs so you could tell which players were on what team.
One thing that really sticks out in my mind from that hot summer day, was the first offensive series by the Panthers. I was standing on the sideline with the coaches and the play was a handoff up the middle to Mike Swigon. He made it past the linebackers and broke to the outside along the sideline where I was standing and came running past me with a defender on his tail.
I saw the look on Swigon’s face up close and the look on the defenders face too. I could hear both of them breathing heavily out of their mouths and noses. There was this cloud of dust being kicked up behind them as they ran down the sideline. Swigon beat that other guy all the way to the end zone and everyone on the Panther sideline was really thrilled.
It was in that one moment, all at once, that I understood for the first time what football was really about; I realized that the players were basically fighting—like their life depended on it—with every ounce of energy and determination in their souls. To be a football player, you had to give everything you had on every play and this is what it took to be a winner.
Once the season started, I looked forward to the pregame talks from Coach Saner. Sometimes, he wouldn’t let me in the locker room because the speech he was about to make was meant for the team only. To my memory, Coach Saner had this way of addressing and connecting with the players at the deepest level.
His talks were always genuine and straight to the point. He would start off quietly and slowly and his intensity would build. He would periodically pause to let things sink in. And, on occasion, when you thought he might be finished—sometimes he even turned away like he was getting ready to walk out of the locker room—when, all of a sudden, he’d swing around and start right back up again.
Even though Coach Saner earned a reputation for malapropisms and mixed metaphors, he always made a connection between football and life in general. His speeches were exceptionally inspirational and he got the players—and anyone else around there who heard him—fired up to the point where they would go out on the field and give everything they had regardless of who the opponent was.
Coach Saner was genuine and did not have a pretentious bone in his body. Somehow—even though you knew how important it was to him that the team win the game—you also knew that Coach Saner always had the bigger picture of life beyond football in mind during his talks.
I also remember several speeches given by team captains in the locker room before the games and at halftime. In one instance, I recall Craig Bessinger’s talk before a home game (I believe it was the Manasquan game). He was unable to play due to a neck injury and he talked to his teammates about how important it was to him that they fight to the last. This was a game that he had been preparing for all season and he wasn’t able to participate. This was very emotional and inspirational; I learned first-hand about what it takes to be a leader in the face of challenges and disappointments.
During the home games, one of the Point Boro ambulance squads was always on hand in the event of a major injury that required hospital attention. We also always had the presence of Dr. Duwlett who would examine players after an injury with a peculiar kind of dispassion. His evaluations would almost always end with an agreement that the injured player was OK to go back into the game. There was no “concussion protocol” in those days and players regularly returned to the field even though they more than likely shouldn’t have.
I remember the first game of the ‘71 season. It was a home game against Keansburg and it was a very hot day. There were a couple of kids around my age who showed up in the locker room that Saturday morning expecting to jump in front of me as water boys because they had done it before. However, Coach Saner knew that I had been there since day one of summer practice and he made sure I was first in line. It was a real thrill for me to walk out behind the team onto the field and hear the band playing and crowd cheering. Point Boro won that game 60-0.
The second game of the season against Central Regional was a different story. The Class D Panthers were routed by the Class C Golden Eagles by a score of 36-0. This was a shock and the team had to bounce back. The Boro won the subsequent three games 50-0 (Keyport), 60-8 (Point Beach) and 16-15 (Marlboro).
The biggest game of the season was, of course, against Manasquan. This was the opportunity for Point Boro to avenge the loss from the previous season that ended the Panthers 34-game winning streak. It was time for pay-back and the Panthers came out ready to play. However—due to some lousy calls on the field, in my opinion—we came up short and lost the game 14-12. The Boro finished out the season with three more wins against Wall (8-6), Tom’s River North (18-7) and Jackson (30-16) and were the undisputed Shore Class D champions with a record of 7-0 in the conference.
When the 1971 football season came to an end, as the weather got colder as fall turned to winter, I became a 12 year-old and moved on to the other things that kids in middle school do. I started spending time with my friends riding bikes, playing with HO cars and chasing after the beautiful young ladies in the sixth grade with my heart in my hand.
The next summer I tried out again for the Golden Elks Pee Wee squad. I made the team this time. I became a running back and got to wear #32 just like Jim Brown. I played one more season as a Golden Elks Midget the next year and, shortly thereafter, my football days also came to an end. Eventually, when I got to high school, I did get to wear the Black and Gold … as a member of the Panther marching band.
As I look back today on those months from August to October 1971, I realize now that my time with the Point Boro Panthers really turned out to be something of a coming of age experience for me. I have my father and Coach Al Saner to thank for making it possible.
Also, as I think back upon the experience, I realize that the summer of ’71 was something of a turning point in the world beyond high school football and the Dust Bowl in Point Pleasant. As the 1970s rolled on, somehow, it seemed like things started turning upside down everywhere and it was becoming clear that life would never go back to the way it was in the 1960s.
While football continued to be an important part of my relationship with my father over the decades, especially as my own boys played the game, I can’t help think that the lessons I learned during those few months in 1971 actually helped to prepared me for some of the harsh realities of life that I would face later on. Among these are: the necessity of hard work to achieve success, the importance of nurturing your natural gifts and talents, the life-long desire for self-improvement, the ability to always get back up when you are knocked down and the ultimate significance of being a team player. Hail, hail my friends!