Walter Mencken 9 a.m., Oct. 1
- Community Blog
Remembering the Coach on Montezuma Mesa
I go to way too many funerals and memorial services nowadays. It's that time of life. I spend a lot of time visiting former teachers and parents of friends and such in hospitals and care facilities too. It isn't fun, but I hope someday, when that time comes for me, Whoever's Up There will give me a break and remember my consideration for those who once guided me in my youth.
Until his memorial service this month, I never knew much about Don Coryell. Hearing about the upcoming service through SDSU's Alumni Association though, I knew I had to be there. Almost always blessed by both the Parking Fairy and the gods of Good Seating, I fired up the motorcycle on the day of the event and rode the mile and a half or so to the edge of the campus, getting a good spot next to an old Sportster. Then a few blocks walk to Viejas Arena, where I went right in and plopped myself down as if it were my own living room. It was an unobstructed seat in the center, high up and directly in front of the projection screen. SDSU's a familiar place.
There was something special about even the background music as people milled around waiting for the service to start. First, a haunting instrumental of "Over the Rainbow", then of "America the Beautiful." The lines "Crown thy good with brotherhood," and "God mend thine every flaw," get to me every time. When the coach was starting out at San Diego State, I was learning to sing those songs in grade school and have loved them both ever since. Certainly, this was the place to be today.
The tribute by family members was unforgettable, full of stuff about Coryell that I'd never known but that didn't surprise me to hear. He'd been a paratrooper in WWII, after winter operations training in Colorado where he was asked to stay on for a time as an instructor after graduation. As his son eloquently described, it was then that he found his calling as a leader of men. He had spent time at Fort Ord in the '50s, coaching service football at the place where I later took army training in the mid-'70s. He had coached for a time at another college in his native Oregon before coming to San Diego State in 1961. State's team had sucked the year before, but everywhere Coryell went he produced winners--immediately--with seemingly any group of players he was given to work with.
Some of the eulogies went on a bit long; by the time Joe Gibbs stopped talking I was having a comical fantasy of Coryell descending impatiently from the Great Beyond and removing him testily from the podium. Just a little of Fred Dryer's endless Bill Cosbyesque anecdote about a car ride from the airport with the coach would have sufficed. But Dan Fouts, as usual, was right on target, regretting that he hadn't been around to experience the coach's first legendary career with the Aztecs.
It occured to me then that there was a part of the coach's life I had known of first-hand that the Chargers' star quarterback under Coryell could only read about and hear stories of later. Fouts was drafted by the Chargers at the end of the 1972 season, during Coryell's last year with the Aztecs and my senior year of high school. I remember the little blurb about him in the Sports section of the Evening Tribune. He was a third round pick, I believe, and was described as "spindly legged." Apparently there was some doubt as to whether he was sturdy enough for the NFL. There was little to suggest that Dan Fouts was viewed as the Chargers' quarterback of the future.
The Chargers had sucked that year. Harland Svare seemed a personable fellow, an excellent general manager with the good sense to draft Fouts, but not much of a head coach. I was about to move away from San Diego for the better part of two decades, and the Chargers weren't something I was particularly proud of talking about when people found that I was from there. In the army, it was often noted that I came from "the city of the losing teams."
Sometimes in early adulthood I'd remember wistfully growing up in San Diego, when we kids thought adults knew everything and stories always had happy endings. Never a big follower of sports, I would nonetheless have to be completely incognizant not to have heard of Don Coryell, head coach of the San Diego State Aztecs. The early '60s Chargers were a pretty good team too, and in baseball the minor league Padres seemed to wallop all comers. But it was the Aztecs who in my youth truly appeared invincible. Football is just a game, but it added something positive to my childhood experiences to know that there was a facility just a mile or so from my neighborhood that produced champions.
It was observed during the service that everyone there probably had a meaningful story in their life about Don Coryell. Mine came in December 1979, when I returned from Germany during military service after three years without seeing San Diego or even the United States. Aside from occasionally trying to participate a bit in the conversation when the topic came up, I hadn't followed NFL football during that time, having found the Chargers a chronic embarrassment. I might have been told once or twice that Don Coryell was the Chargers' coach now, but it didn't stick in the mind.
The night after flying from Frankfurt to San Francisco, I watched a Charger game at my brother's house there. He was excited to tell me about their successful new coach, and as I watched the TV the gestures and the face--though a bit older now--were familiar. The man who'd worked miracles on Montezuma Mesa had brought my old hometown team back from the dead!
The Chargers made it to the first round of the playoffs that year, which meant I got to watch another game in San Diego just before Christmas a week later. The enthusiasm and the enjoyment my friends got from telling me what I'd missed during my long absence, the emergence of Dan Fouts as a great quarterback and the return of Don Coryell to San Diego, was unforgettable. Football is just a game, and the Chargers didn't win that one anyway, but at that moment in my life it contributed to cherished memories among friends.
For some reason, the first thing I did after the memorial service--after checking in on my 89 year old dad, anyway--was look at a website an acquaintance maintains that has a nice collection of photos of President Kennedy's visit to San Diego State in June 1963. There's one that includes the father of a good friend of mine, who used to be chair of the Education Department at State, sitting on the stage not far from JFK. My favorite, though, is a photo of the president's helicopter lifting off in a cloud of dust from Aztec Bowl, less than a hundred yards from the site of present-day Viejas Arena. Aztec Bowl was Don Coryell's domain then and I'm sure he was there on that day in June 1963, perhaps irritated at the president for blowing dust all over his nice football field.
It had been mentioned during the service, but really only ocurred to me then, that we were paying tribute to Don Coryell on the very ground where his teams always won and made our city proud. It was also the site of my high school's night games, and of our class's graduation ceremony 37 years ago.
It's our world now. The kids of the '60s are long grown up, even approaching retirement. Those who fought WWII, those who raised us, those we admired and looked up to, now largely depend on us and are gradually fading away. Though certainly I no longer believe that adults can be infallible heroes, I wonder at times if we're worthy. And thinking about that can leave me with a very lonely feeling.