- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

Mike Martz is on leave from the St. Louis Rams while he deals with a bacterial infection in his heart. No one knows when he’ll return to coaching. On Saturday, the football coach at Southern Illinois, Jerry Kill, suffered a seizure during a 61-35 loss to Illinois State and had to be hospitalized. He endured a similar episode in 2001.

Then there was Sunday’s unique “reunion” of Redskins coach Joe Gibbs and Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil, who hadn’t faced off in 23 years. The reason for this coachus interruptus? They both took lengthy sabbaticals — Vermeil from 1983 to ‘97, Gibbs from ‘93 to 2004 — to recover from the ravages of their vocation.

We’re constantly being reminded these days what a brutal business football coaching is, what a toll it takes on body and mind. Even though coaches have assistants numbering well into the teens these days, the job, it seems, has never been more overwhelming.

But is that really the case, or have we all just been Oprah-fied? After all, more than 75 years ago, newspapers were filled with stories about a football coach who, at age 41, suddenly found himself in a wheelchair due to an attack of phlebitis and a blood clot in one of his legs. Clearly, the pressures of his profession were beginning to wear Knute Rockne down.

The morning of a game against Navy — a game he didn’t attend — the Notre Dame coach phoned the team hotel and talked individually to his players. “He sent the boys turning from the telephone, one by one, blinking tears out of their eyes,” sportswriter Westbrook Pegler recounted. Later in the season, just before the Fighting Irish were to take the field against Carnegie Tech, Rockne was wheeled into the locker room for a surprise visit. His pep talk was uncharacteristically succinct: “I didn’t come down here with this bad leg to see you lose. Get out there.”

Both times, the Irish won one for Knute.

“Rockne returned home [from Pittsburgh] exhausted,” Murray Sperber writes in “Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football.” “The same personality trait that drove [him] to produce the best possible team made it impossible for him to ease up. By the end of the 1920s, he had become the new prototype for the coaching profession. The casual head men like Judge Wally Steffen [of Carnegie Tech] were increasingly obsolete, and the Rockne model of insatiable perfectionism would soon predominate, emulated by but burdening many future coaches, including at Notre Dame, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian.”

The stress and strain of football coaching was being felt well before Rockne, though. We know this because of a diary kept by Harvard’s Bill Reid in 1905. Reid’s account of that season is so anxiety-filled, it reads like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up.”

• Oct. 12 — “I have had so little sleep the last two or three nights due to nervous worry that I found myself good for nothing this morning.”

• Oct. 31 — “I am badly over[worked], I know, and while I struggle against it as hard as I can, I have not got enough vitality left to struggle sufficiently.”

• Nov. 8 — “I had luncheon today with Dr. Nichols and talked over the whole situation with him. I told him that I was about all in and asked him if there was not some tonic he could give me. He said he did not know of any that would be beneficial. … I thereupon tried to grit my teeth.”

It got so bad in early November that the school’s athletic advisor loaned Reid his car and told him to go away for a few days with his wife. Two weeks later, the coach wrote in his diary of playing checkers with a couple of friends and drinking “various concoctions. I learned after the season that [one of the friends] had put one or two sleeping powders in my drinks, with Dr. Nichols’ permission.”

The most revealing entry, however, might be the one on Oct. 25. “It seems that today is my birthday,” Reid says wearily, “and that I am getting to be quite an old man. … I feel about 50. The worry has taken it out of me so.”

He was 27.

All this angst over an 8-2-1 season — deemed tragic because of losses to Yale and Penn. Reid coached just one more year at Harvard, turned out a 10-1 team, then returned to his previous job as assistant headmaster of a prep school. Good news for Mike Martz and Jerry Kill, though: The experience apparently inflicted no lasting damage on him. The coach who felt “about 50” on his 27th birthday lived to be 97.

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