Turn, turn, turn
Sep 28, 2018 04:37PM
● By Steven Hoffman
Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?
Ecclesiastes 3:18, King James Version of the Bible
It is Indian Summer in Newark as I write this.
Soon, the last bombastic heat stroke will sweep through this region, then mercifully surrender itself. It even has a sound, heard best on the University of Delaware Mall, when all of those dreamy millennials stomp on the crispness of fallen leaves, in a place where academia and nature collide.
Autumn is the slow burn into Winter before the shutdown occurs and our hibernation begins, when we make our annual tumble into the season of sweaters that announce both alma maters and designers, and inhale the still far-off scent that warns of Winter's arrival. For several Saturdays, some will renew their acquaintance with University of Delaware football, and a few observant souls will admire how the ancient stadium seems wrapped up in an enveloping canvas of orange and red that is splashed about the hills and woods that encircle it.
For ten consecutive seasons beginning in 1991 and ending in 2000, I enjoyed the view, because I rented four seats in Section J at Delaware Stadium, as a season ticket holder for University of Delaware football. Every game brought a new set of occupants who sat beside me – friends, family, but most often a small assemblage of tailgate colleagues, crammed side-by-side with both the bluebloods and the blue collared, all of whom, no matter their calling or luck in life, pledged allegiance to a program that was steeped in tradition and success.
If there is anything I learned about Delaware football fans in those ten seasons, it was that with success come expectations, and with expectations come standards that must be achieved, and when those standards are not met, the order of everything collides upon itself.
For ten seasons, I learned that whenever that order was interrupted, whether by a fumble or an interception or by an interpretation of play calling, the direction of the fans' ire – their finger-pointing blame – was directed solely at a diminutive plug of a senior citizen who stood on the sidelines across the field, whose mouth appeared to be twisted into a permanent scowl, and whose his eyes were barely visible beneath the brim of a blue baseball cap.
In the 36 seasons Harold R. “Tubby” Raymond was the head coach of the University of Delaware football team, he molded his teams into a Division I-AA powerhouse. He inherited an offensive scheme called the Wing-T from his predecessors and sharpened its schematics until it was nearly impossible to penetrate. He accumulated a record of 300-119-3 and won three national titles, six Atlantic 10 conference championships, four Boardwalk Bowls and 14 Lambert Cups. Under his guidance, dozens of his former players later played in the National Football League, including a few All-Pro quarterbacks. For years, coaches with bigger resumes than his consulted him, hungry to learn from the master.
On Saturday afternoons in the fall, however, I learned that absolutely none of these accolades mattered, because for 36 seasons, Raymond coached in a “What have you done for me lately?” lions den of unreachable expectations. After Joe Biden, Raymond was Delaware's second-most famous citizen but he was also its number one Kewpie doll.
“TURN THE PAGE, TUBBY.”
“YOU'RE MISSING A GREAT GAME, TUBBY.”
“YOU'RE LOSING THIS ONE, TUBBY.”
“THE GAME HAS PASSED YOU BY, TUBBY.”
“GET OUT OF FOOTBALL, TUBBY.”
From my seat across the field, I would listen to the relentless venom that would pour down on him like sheets of rain, and wonder what the perpetual juggle between massive success and unbearable criticism felt like. Whether or not it had been his life's dream to live like this, or whether he was simply chosen for the position, was Raymond's secret.
From my seat across the field, I saw first-hand what this life had done to him. It was there, in the guise of a man in the arena who folded up into himself along the sidelines, where the mysteries and truths of his journey lay. Would they ever become known? Maybe someday, but not now. It's fourth-and-one on the Lehigh 20-yard line and the Blue Hens are down by four with two minutes to play. A decision must be made.
Someday eventually came.
* * * *
In September 2010, nine years after he had coached his last game, I sat with Raymond at his home for two three-hour sessions, for what became a 3,000-word profile entitled “The Clothier's Son,” that appeared in the Fall edition of Newark Life.
It began with a phone call to the coach. He had moved to nearby Landenberg years ago, and lived less than a mile from my home. I told him that I would like to write a profile of him for the magazine.
“You want to what?” Raymond asked. His voice seemed as if it was rubbed along pavement, a gravel pitch accented with an upward squeal, a sound carved into his larynx from decades of coaching.
“I said I would like to know if you would be interested in sitting down with me, for a profile interview. For a magazine.”
“You're kidding,” Raymond said.
I insisted that I was not.
“Because I think that it would be interesting to learn more about who you are, and what led you to the life you've had.”
“...Interesting? To who?”
“Well...for all of those people who never got to know you as a person, who only knew you as a coach,” I said. “This would be an opportunity for you to share a part of you that I believe remained...hidden for so long.”
“Who said it was hidden?” he asked. “You?”
“I haven't coached in years.”
“Share? What do I have to share...?”
There was a pause that felt like it was a week long on the other end of the phone.
“...Can you be here next Wednesday morning?” he asked.
I knocked on his door at precisely 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and the first thing I saw standing in the doorway were his eyes. They were two gray stones, and I was determined to change their color.
* * * *
Nearly everything about Harold R. Raymond's life, I learned in his study on the second floor of the beautiful home he shared with his wife Diane, was traced to the State of Michigan. He spoke about growing up in Flint City, and recalled the names of old coaches he admired and played for at Flint Northern High School as a two-way offensive guard and middle linebacker. It was not without irony that a man who grew up in Flint City would reel off names that sounded as if they were carved from rock. Fritz Crisler. Bennie Oosterbann. Tom Harmon. He spoke about learning the famous Wing T offense from former Delaware head coach David Nelson, and using his left hand as a blackboard, punched the formation's principles into it with his right hand.
I had spoken with a few of his former players for the profile – K.C. Keeler, Scott Brunner, Billy Vergantino and Raymond's son, David – and every story they shared with me gave a picture of a man who was singularly possessed by a need to succeed. Keeler talked about the time when Raymond hurled a can of orange soda at a film screen, enraged that Keeler had missed a tackle. Brunner recalled when Raymond screamed at him for taking a short breather against a goal post during a Summer practice.
“My father wanted to be feared,” said David Raymond, a kicker on the 1979 Division II national championship team, told me “He did a great job of developing the personality he wanted people to believe, that of a tough coach who was aloof. If a player needed a pat on the back, he knew enough to go to a coach for it, not my father.”
For three hours, I heard how the successful life of Tubby Raymond began, how it was sustained and how, in twilight, it was protected. Our conversation sounded like it was scratched down in a playbook, or shown in game-film rewinds. Behind Raymond, I saw into another room that was filled with easels and half-done paintings, a life in art that I had heard about for years. I wanted to get there, to talk about the easels and the colors and the brushes and the portraits I saw ten feet away, but Raymond kept throwing body blocks at any attempts I made to know about anything other than football.
I left Raymond's home at 1 p.m. on that Wednesday with the feeling that I still knew nothing about my subject, and I believed that it was the subject's intention to do so. Everything about what I had come to find was protected by a wall of granite. I had come in the hopes of a revelation and instead received a tutorial. I was positioned as the right tackle in a Wing-T formation, held the line for three hours, and gained nothing. Two days later, I called Raymond again.
“Coach, I was wondering if we could schedule another interview,” I said over the phone.
“What for? You didn't get enough the first time?”
“I think I just want to hear more. There's so much more about your life that I would like to talk about.”
“About what? I've told you everything.”
“I'd like to hear about your art. I'd like to know about your childhood in Flint. Your family.”
Again, a lengthy silence.
“...Come over tomorrow morning.”
* * * *
It was my conversation with former UD quarterback Bill Vergantino that confirmed the side of Tubby Raymond that I wished to find.
In 1989, Susan, Raymond's first wife, as diagnosed with a stage four brain tumor, after an MRI diagnosed a malignant growth in her brain. She was told by doctors that she had eight months to live, and during that time, Raymond's attention turned away from football and to doctor's visits and tests and further diagnosis. He had surrendered the team to his assistant Ted Kempski, but still attended practices and games.
Vergantino, then a sophomore, hitched a ride to practice with Raymond one day. It was a short drive, but it gave Raymond enough time to tell his player about the fact that his wife was very ill.
“It was the first time I had ever seen another side of him,” Vergantino told me. “Until then, I had looked at Coach as always just about football, but in that short ride to the practice facility, he spoke to me as a man. Coach probably doesn't even remember that car ride,” Vergantino added. “I'll remember it for the rest of my life.”
Sue Raymond died on April 17, 1990. She was 50 years old.
Raymond remembered the car ride with Vergantino. On my second visit to his home, in fact, Raymond remembered everything. Whatever fortress he had put up during our first meeting – whether by accident or with intention – had been politely removed, and all of the Xs and Os had been erased on the imaginary blackboards in the room.
It is said that the fear they saw in their parents eyes never quite leaves the children of the Great Depression. Instead, it lingers like a near presence that's just a bad decision away. It magnifies each wonderful moment in life as a fleeting, teetering speck of time, soon to be replaced again by the great albatross. It is the unimaginable reality that everything they have worked their whole lives for, at any moment it chooses, vanish from their hands.
His father Russell came of age in 1920s Michigan, with dreams of becoming an architect, but no amount of kindness and genteel Puritanism could hold back the swelling waves of two world wars and a depression. He raised his family on a salary earned as an automobile assembly line worker in Detroit, and then as a door-to-door insurance salesman. The home he had purchased went into foreclosure, and he moved his family into his parent's home in Bay City. His children Jane and Harold did not have a bedroom.
The young Harold wanted a new baseball glove, but he also needed a new pair of pants. Both cost ninety-nine cents. His parents told him that he could have one, but not both. He chose the baseball glove.
“You see, that's exactly...I have always been terrified of failure, because if you fail, there's no place for you to go,” Raymond said. “So I committed myself to success. I kept feeling that if we lost, I wouldn't make as many friends as I'd like if we won all the time
“It all goes back to the little kid in Flint City, Michigan, who didn't have anything.”
The faces of the portraits in the next room then welcomed us from every easel – current UD football players, dignitaries and friends. The person that I come to understand said that Raymond he first began painting when he was 12, when he attended workshops at the Flint Institute of the Arts. Each class cost thirty cents.
Raymond stared deeply into one of his paintings. “I would love to make one great painting someday,” he said, “one that my wife would look at and say, 'That's wonderful.'”
To this day, I do not know if he ever made that painting.
* * * *
Harold R. “Tubby” Raymond died on Dec. 8, 2017 after a short illness, at the age of 92.
In January, a memorial service was held for him at the Bob Carpenter Center that drew over 1,000 attendees, that ranged from University of Delaware football fans to Vice President Joe Biden to former NFL players to former players who only managed to reach the second string.
“My dad was my father. He's your father,” David Raymond told the audience. “My dad was my coach. He was your coach. My dad was my family's hero. He loved this place. And he loved each and every one of you. He is here today. He'll always be.”
Throughout the service, Raymond was called “a leader of men,” “a legend,” and “the common denominator” that connected several generations of Blue Hen players he coached.
“It is an honor to be referred to as one of Tubby's players,” said Biden, who played on the 1961 freshman team that Raymond coached. “There's not many things in life where merely by being identified with a man or a woman, you gain prestige. I mean that sincerely. Think about it, those of you who played for Tubby.
“I was one of Tubby's guys. It matters.”
During the ceremony, Philadelphia-based guitarist Camille Peruto sang “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” a song written by Pete Seeger and later made famous by The Byrds. Seeger's lyrics are taken almost verbatim from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
A time to build up, a time to break
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together
It was one of Raymond's favorite songs.
From 2002 to 2012, K.C. Keeler, now the head football coach at Sam Houston State, served as Raymond's heir apparent. While at UD, he coached the Blue Hens to a Division I-AA College Football Championship in 2003, and an appearance in the championship game the following year. On his former office wall at UD was a framed photograph of Keeler and Raymond, taken on the evening of Keeler's first game as UD head coach.
Keeler stared at the photograph from his desk.
“Tubby Raymond was more than a football coach,” he told me. “He has lived this amazing life. The old saying goes, 'Never follow a legend,' but I took that as a challenge. The truth is, he made it all possible for me.
“He made a lot of things possible for a lot of young men. He gave us all a chance to shine.”