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Coach Popeye

In the fall of 1979, when I was hired as a teacher and dorm master at Trinity-Pawling School, then an all-boys boarding school for grades 9-12 and postgraduates, I was appointed to be the head coach of the Freshman football team.

Miles Hubbard, Trinity-Pawling’s legendary athletic director and Varsity basketball coach, informed me that my two assistant coaches were going to be Bob Emerson, a fellow first year teacher at the school and Mr. Carl Ray, a Pawling, NY native and former Trinity-Pawling student who went on to be an All-American center at Dartmouth College in the 1930s.

The practice field for the Freshmen football team was the school’s old Varsity field across Route 22 on the opposite side of the campus on the hill. Having played versus TP on this very field in 1972 when I was a senior at Canterbury School, one of my first recollections when I crossed Route 22 and set foot on the field for the first day of practice was a play that has haunted me my entire life.

As one of the starting safeties, I had a chance early in the 0-0 game, to stuff a 4th and goal off-tackle run, where I had outside contain on the play. The good news was that I was able to funnel the play inside, but the bad news was I could only get to the running back in time to make an unsuccessful arm tackle. Our inside linebacker had been blocked, thus I was the only player able to make the tackle. A tackle that my childhood idol, Larry Wilson, would have made 100 out of 100 times.

While viewing the instant replay of my dreams, I have seen myself over and over storm the edge and tackle the running back short of the goal line. If only...

Then I made matters worse by incurring the wrath of Chris Doyle, my head coach, when after the touchdown, as I was crossing the sidelines, I threw down my helmet in disgust so hard that the ear cushions came flying out. Coach Doyle got in my face and told me that if I ever did that again, I would never play another snap. I have never blamed him for that. Yet, of course, in my dreams, Coach Doyle was hugging me on the sidelines instead.

So, just as I was painfully reminiscing about my missed tackle on the goal line in 1972, I saw a car pull up behind the goal posts and out walked one of the great godsends of my coaching career, Mr. Carl P. Ray. He was clad in a TP baseball hat, TP football jacket, khaki pants and an old pair of cleats.

Carl Ray was the kind of man’s man who left your hand tingling after he shook it. He had soft and yet searing blue eyes. There was a kind of gentle ferocity about him. When I asked him what areas of the team he would like to command, he said, “I am happy to do whatever you want.”

When I asked him about being an All-American center at Dartmouth, he immediately dropped his eyes and said, “I’ll tell you about it over an ice cold beer some day, but right now let’s just give these kids the kind of experience they will never forget.”

It wasn’t until the team banquet at the end of the season that Carl and his lovely wife Ruth hosted at their wonderful home a couple of rustic miles down the road, that I saw a newspaper caricature of Carl back in his Dartmouth days —- they called him “Popeye” because of his prodigious arms and relentless, indefatigable spirit.

By the end of the season, Carl had managed to form a sacred bond with not only Bob Emerson and me, but with every freshman on the team. “Football is all about the relationships, Walter,” he said to me on numerous occasions. He liked to add, “It’s a game for tough guys, but tough guys aren’t always born tough guys, the vast majority of them are molded by the football experience, their coaches and most of all, their teammates.”

“It’s a process,” Carl said.

No coach I have have worked with cared more passionately about the so-called “little guys” on the team. You know, the classic underdogs whom some would automatically think had no business whatsoever ever setting foot on a football field. At TP, every student was required to play a sport in the fall. That, or be a water boy. The choice was football, soccer or cross country.

One of the no-brainer decisions I made was putting Carl in change of the offensive and defensive lines. To this day, I have never seen anything like it. He would sub players in and out like they were hockey lines or pinch hitters in baseball. To this day, I can vividly picture Carl greeting a player he had just subbed in for and asking him, “So, what did you see? Was there a man in your gap? What was your priority? Did you handle it, or can you do better?”

Out of respect and utter affinity for Coach Ray, his linemen always said, “I can do better.”

Coach Ray was not just a master of teaching techniques —- he was master of teaching his players an everlasting kind of love and respect for the game —- the kind of love and respect for the game that kicks back in every time you turn on a game and every time you drive by a football field.

There was one underdog on the team named Timmy whom Coach Ray took a particular interest in. Timmy was a tall, gangly defensive end, who was 150 pounds soaking wet. Timmy had spurted up to 6’1” so fast that he could barely run without his arms and legs going sideways.

Coach Ray always said to Timmy and all of the players, “You keep working hard on your techniques and you will have your day in the sun. I guarantee it. It’s the way this game works.”

Every day in practice, Coach Ray kept showing Timmy how to leverage the offensive tackle in order so swim around him to the QB. And every time Timmy was in the game, Coach Ray, as he did for virtually all of the players, was exhorting Timmy from the sidelines.

“Come on, Timmy!” Coach Ray would cry.

Well, wouldn’t you know, in the last game of the season, with the game on the line, with Coach Ray hollering his name from the sideline, Timmy leveraged the offensive tackle, swam around him and delivered the game sealing sack of the QB.

The look on Timmy’s face when he dove into Coach Ray’s arms on the sidelines was the look of sheer accomplishment that all coaches and players dream of.

It is because of Coach Ray that my nightmare of a missed tackle on that field across Route 22 was replaced by the fondest memories of a legendary man generating the most earnest and enthusiastic efforts from the players, all of which, in the end, brought the brightest of smiles to their faces.

Carl Ray was in the twilight of his life in 1979. After graduating from Dartmouth and serving for many years as a lieutenant commander in the United States Naval Reserve (where he was a literal Popeye!), he started on the ground floor fixing typewriters at the Underwood Typewriter Company based in New York City. After 25 years, Carl wound up retiring from Underwood as their executive vice president.

One of the most endearing and memorable moments of my life was sipping on the post-season beer that Carl had promised me. He had summoned me out to his back yard and there was that good old November nip in the air.

“I am going to miss these kids,” he said. “Coming back to the football field this year was like an odyssey for me. Thank you so much for having me aboard.”

“Thank you for grabbing the wheel, Carl,” I said. “You are a rookie coach’s dream come true.”

“That’s complete nonsense, Walter,” he smiled. “Now let’s get in there are serve up a nice dinner.”

Nice dinner? Carl and Ruth served up beef tenderloin au jus, with homemade mashed potatoes, candied yams and green beans amandine. After dinner, Ruth wheeled in a large white cake. She must have gone through 10 tubes of brown icing for creating the giant football, with white laces, that she painted on the top of it.

“Men,” Carl said while peering into the eyes of the players, “make sure that you each get a piece of that football in your slice. That’s an order, y’hear me?”

“YESSIR!” they thundered.

I felt compelled to share this story with you today, because after watching the Cardinals’ Flight Plan this morning and getting so pumped up by the leadership of the J.J. Watt and Budda Baker, I immediately thought of Carl Ray —- because the overwhelming sense I am getting from the Cardinals’ commanders—-they appear to understand that “Football is all about the relationships.”

Because, after all, in the end, every player deserves a piece of the football.

RIP Mr. Carl P. Ray of Pawling, New York, 1914-1986.

Some of the information in this article was gleaned from Carl’s obituary in the New York Times on February 24, 1986: