Tony Centore was a maker of men. I will never forget what I learned from him, like the hundreds of other men he made.
“Jeepers, Michael! You just gonna let him push you around like that!”
It was past 6:00pm, four hours or so into a high school football practice gathering darkness to the cold and damp that had already overtaken it. I was tired, soggy, and sad in my helmet and pads, waiting for the whistle that told us it was time to go home.
I’d held up pretty well that day, until about 20 minutes earlier when I’d heard the whistle I thought would set us free, followed by the two words Johnston players most hated so late in those days. “Goal line!” Coach Centore said, the signal that not only was practice not over, but that we were going to stand off against one another — offense to defense — to fight for the most hallowed patch of dirt on that tired and dusty field, between the 5 yard line and the end zone.
OK, I thought. I’m a starter, I know the drill. I’ll just go through the motions down here, and it won’t be long before we’re heading up the rocky, dirt path to the locker room, for a quick shower before my Dad comes to pick me up.
We ran a dive over the opposite tackle, and I looked at the sophomore across from me to signal no heroics would be required on our end. I hit him where I needed to, right shoulder with my head between him and the play. He pulled me forward and pushed around me to the outside, late to the play but deeper in the backfield than the rest of the defensive line.
A string of whistles from coach. No risk of mis-interpretation on my part.
“Jeepers, Michael! Do you care about this game?” He was yelling at me, from below. Chest to belly, his hat brim bent against my facemask, his clipboard in one arm, ready to strike. “Do you think we’ll just SHOW UP, and they’re going to lie down for us on our own field? Well I have news for you, my friend. They are NOT going to lie down. They’re going to come down here and HUMILIATE us at our own place, because apparently they want it more than we do.” He took a step back. “But you’re tired, I guess, so forget about everybody else.”
Another whistle. “OK, run it again! Like you MEAN IT this time!”
I was enraged. I got low and popped the sophomore off the line, extending my right arm to push him back over his cleats. As I did I swung left to chase a linebacker trying to cross the line of scrimmage, getting into a scuffle as he grabbed my shoulder pads and tried to take me to the ground. As our exchange heated up, words flew, then pushing on both sides, and as we grabbed uniforms the whistle came again.
“OK, OK. That’s what it’s going to take to win on Friday night. Every position, every play. You need to EXECUTE! This game comes down to who wants it most, gentlemen, to who is willing to work harder for it. And it only counts when it’s hard. Now get in there and shower up, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
What does it mean to be a man, especially in a time when so much masculinity seems toxic in our culture? I tell my sons it means doing what is necessary to take responsibility for the well being of others, and one of the men who taught me that lesson died this week, after a lifetime of teaching it to hundreds just like me.
In countless anecdotes like mine, seared into the memories of full-grown adults like myself, Coach Centore taught us how to push our limits, how to harness the best in ourselves in service to something greater than ourselves. He showed us the value of common cause with our brothers; of pushing ourselves past what we thought were our limits to help the team succeed. He taught us that working hard enough to get the results we wanted meant working harder than any reasonable, self-interested person would want to, and that — in the end — winning with and for people you loved made it all worthwhile.
Over decades, in nylon shorts from the dog-days of August through the bitter cold Novembers, Coach Centore taught these lessons well. He taught them in the hot sun and in the driving rain, in the dust and in the mud, with little more than a whistle, an iron will, and the commitment to be great. He taught them through the example of his own tireless preparation, of countless hours alone in the darkness with that flickering projector, and on countless afternoons with us and our dedicated coaches. He was the hammer and the anvil, shaping us from the kids we were into the people we would become, pushing each of us in ways that propelled us forward long after the pushing had stopped. In the end his record, while impressive, was hardly the point. His legacy is a thousand men, a thousand fathers, and the families they raise, and the jobs they do, and the communities they serve, all a little better for the time they spent with him.
Thank you, Coach. We know you loved us. We love you too, and we will never forget.