Friday, August 30, 2013

BOOK: Chapter 1, Section 1 - The Pursuit of Greatness - In the beginning

Draft: Please feel free to send any story to me for inclusion in the book at I could use your help to make the book the best it could be.
Legendary Lycoming Football Head Coach Frank Girardi 

BOOK: Chapter 1,  Section 1 - The Pursuit of Greatness - In the beginning

“Do not despise the bottom rungs in the ascent to greatness.”
- Publilius Syrus

~ ~ ~ ~

It was a cold, windy December day with the recent snow storm brushing patches of it’s vengeance into the grass at David Person Field. From the press box, the field looked like an iceskating rink sprinkled with patches of dirty green grass between sections of ice and snow. The chalk lines were faded and barely visible. The players showed every sign that an important Division III playoff game was about to be decided. The clock was in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter. The Bridgewater Eagles had the upper hand in the game so far, but the momentum was building as Lycoming College desperately executed its final drive of the game. The Warriors, behind 13-9 had one more shot to pull out a miracle win. Everyone knew they could do it since it was something they have managed to pulled off on several occasions over the years.

I remember the final play of the game as if it were yesterday. I have pictured it many times in my mind over the years. There he was, the veteran senior quarterback Phil Mann taking the snap over center and rolling to his left. In the end zone was wide receiver Tim Brown, an able replacement for All-American Ricky Lannetti. Brown was tightly covered by the defensive secondary, but he had great position on the Bridgewater safety. Phil, seeing Tim cut to the inside in the Eagle's end-zone, threw a tight spiral 17 yards right on target. The ball twisted and turned cutting through the crisp air like a bullet. It was the Warriors’ last hope for victory.

I was never more cranked up on a play than this play unfolding before my very eyes. At the last moment at a chance for greatness, the ball was tipped into the air by the Bridgewater safety. The pigskin flipped, wobbled and floated to the frozen surface of the end zone. For me, that ball seemed to be in super slow motion as it twisted, floated and settled down, bouncing on the ground just inches from a miracle catch. I remember it rocking back and forth as it settled to the between some grass. Finally, it laid lifeless on the ground. :The Warriors’ football hopes for a third National Championship game were dashed for good.

~ ~ ~ ~

Fast forward to December 4, 2007. The Warrior football season had just come to a close. A press conference was scheduled by Lycoming College. Head Coach Frank Girardi was to be the main speaker. Everyone who poured into Lamade gym knew this was the official end to a Lycoming Football Legacy. Girardi announced his retirement. After 36 years as head coach, Frank was going to call it an end to a fantastic ride.

As I watched Frank speak at the press conference, a dozen thoughts flashed through my mind. I wondered what life experiences built the character of this man and had such a positive influence on Lycoming Football. How did he consistently draw talented players year after year? Was it the principles his mother molded into him that influenced his life preparing him to become the master teacher. How was  he so able to pass on what really mattered in life? Was it the ruggedness of his father that gave him the perseverance to succeed under dire circumstances? Was it the tragedy thrust upon him, the death of a star player before a playoff game, the house that burned down on game day or the crushing defeat snatched from victory that gave him the fortitude to overcome adversity? Could it be that luck played a role in his success? And who along the way helped him in shaping his football passion and supported that passion?

There is so much to know about Frank Girardi and the numerous stories that surround him. There are so many accounts about his influential life that changed the direction the Lycoming football program and the life of the people involved. But, the complete picture goes far beyond that. I wanted to know much more and hear from him and the people who knew him. The biggest story here, is the lessons that can be learned about life itself. I always thought someone had to get this story into print. Someone had to paint the Girardi picture on canvas, brush stroke after brush stroke, the bright colors, the dark shadows, the whites, the blacks, the blues and golds. What a dramatic picture it would be with the brilliant contrasts of life, the composition sparkling for others to see. The heartaches, the lessons and the joys of life in plain view for all to absorb.

Some of you may not even know about Coach Girardi or about Lycoming College football. But once you have finished the book, you will have a deeper understanding of the meaning of life as seen from the sidelines of a life. The story is presented with all the scares and mistakes, celebrations and joys, and with all of the ups and down. Hopefully, in the end, you will be inspired to commit yourself to the pursuit of greatness in all you do in your life.

I met with Frank a number of times writing this book. On our first meeting, after some small talk, I finally got into the interview process. He was telling me stories about his father and mother, an area of his life I was very interested in. Frank’s dad was an immigrant from Italy. But what many do not realize, he was actually an United States citizen when he came over. The details of that little know fact will be fully explained later. To understand Frank, I knew I had to really dig into his heritage. Finding out all I could about his father and mother would be a key to knowing Frank and his character. So, I focused my questions on Frank’s parents, starting with his father.

During the early 20th century, many young Italian families were ready to set sail on an adventure of a lifetime to a new country. Life in Italy was dreadful as war and rumors of war had ruined any economic opportunity they might have enjoyed. There must be a better life in America many thought, a chance to start all over, work hard and save up money. This was the pattern of many Italian immigrants heading to America. They were 75% male with a goal of finding work, saving all the money they could, and eventually heading back to the homeland. Italian immigrants were known to be very hard workers, blue collar workers and settled into trade jobs in America. Most came through Ellis Island, the clearing house for immigrants to this country.

Frank told me his father was actually born in New Haven, Connecticut on March 2, 1911. Apparently, his grandparents migrated to the United States and really hated it here. They missed the old country and so after one year in America, they boarded a ship and set sail back to Italy. Frank’s dad however, was a US citizen since he was born in Connecticut.

Girardi’s father later had a desire to come back to America and start a whole new life of adventure and opportunity. “My dad came over from Italy,” Frank said. “He come over to America by boat and he came by himself. I think he was 18 years old. At that time they had sponsors paying for the cost of travel. You had to agree to work for a certain length of time for your sponsor once in America. And the person who helped bring my dad to Williamsport was Mr. Tadio, who owned the Columbia Hotel down on Front Street,” Frank said.  Can you imagine yourself crossing the Atlantic ocean by boat in 1929? And at 18 years of age.

“What was his first name?” I asked.

“His name was Gennaro.” Frank said. “We called him Gerry. He came over to the Columbia Hotel and he worked there and of course he met my mother and they got married and we lived on Front Street. Now Front Street was where Via Villa is today. So if you would go from the jail (on third street) three blocks heading south toward the river, that was Front Street which ran parallel to the river. That area where Wegmans is today was known as ‘Little Italy’ because it was primarily all Italians. That is where I grew up. That is where I developed values,” Frank said.

Frank talked about how things really were in Little Italy. He explained what he called “the family thing” and what it meant for those living there.

“Everybody knew everyone else,” he said. “It was ok for a father of another family to get after you. Maybe you were doing something wrong. Maybe you didn’t get home in time at night. They (the neighbors) would say, ‘get home.’ It was that type of a thing. And I think for years, it was a great time to grow up.”

“Sure, we may have been poor, but we didn’t know that.” Frank explained. “That is just how it was and it was really a tight knit community back then. And I think that is where you develop your values and because of the way your parents were.”

Frank really believed he learned so much from his parents that shaped his outlook on life. “And as I look back, it was a heck of a great time to grow up,” Frank explained.

“I remember that we had street lights down there, and when the street lights came on, you knew that was the signal to go home. If you were there, usually your father would come out of the house and whistle. And not only him, it would be all the other fathers in the neighborhood. But it was safe, it was safe. That whole neighborhood was safe, people looking out for each other,” he said.

I perked up on the words, “people looking out for each other.”

I wanted to dig a little deeper with Frank, so I asked him, “What was the earliest you can remember running around on Front Street?” He thought for a moment and said, “Oh boy. I can remember having my leg broken when I was about 5 years old. We were out playing on the ice. It got slippery on the sidewalk because of the ice. We were hitting people and knocking them down just like kids and I got hit and fell. I managed to break my leg.”

Frank continued, “The (Susquehanna) river was always a place that we were told, ‘don’t you dare go into that river. Now, did I ever do that, Yes!” Frank smiled at me. “I was like any young kid. But the river was like from here to where the lights are over there (about 75 yards). And you have to remember, there were no dikes at that time. And of course in the summertime, that is where we swam. We used to swim a little bit further upstream toward Hepburn Street, because the water was a little bit clearer there and it was a nice spot. There was always someone there with you. You were not allowed to go there by yourself. Now did we ever do it by ourselves, absolutely! We were just like any young kids. We would sneak up there, take our clothes off and jump in. We would finally get out, put our clothes on and go back home. It was a really neat, neat time,” Frank explained. You could see in Girardi’s face how much pleasure those memory brought. This neat time in his life made him proud of his roots and he was thoroughly happy just reminiscing about those days.

So rich or poor, young kids do not recognize the difference I thought. They just enjoy their surroundings. In an age without cell phones, video games and computers, the thing to do was to gather with others. Gathering was always outside, winter or summer and the safety of “Little Italy” was a perfect place to have fun and stretch the boundaries and build trust. It was here that Frank developed the foundation for his values. People looking out for each other, respecting each other and taking chances some times. Yes, “Little Italy” was a positive influence on Coach Girardi.