Lessons for Life
A scary man, brotherhood, and lessons for life…
It was a hot day in August, 1984.
Emerson High School’s varsity football team, the mighty Cavos, had just won a state champion the prior fall.
As “8th graders”, my now freshman football teammates and I, watched as the Cavos defeated the now legendary Coach Greg Toal of Don Bosco, as he coached Saddle Brook on a cold day in December.
The seniors on that team were our larger than life heroes that walked our same hall ways at Emerson High.
Now, we were standing on their field.
There was a problem though.
We were supposed to stink.
That’s what all the older kids told us.
We were too small and just not good.
The golden era of Emerson football would die in our hands.
We were all pretty nervous that first day. We had heard that the freshman football coaches, Dennis Slezak and Bob Carcich, were very tough, if not insane.
Coach Carcich went on to become a legendary Bergen County head baseball coach at Emerson.
This story, though, is about his crazy partner in crime, maybe literally, Coach Dennis Slezak.
Immediately, I was never more frightened of anyone than I was of Coach Slezak. He was a large man, probably 6’1, 220 pounds, and he had a ferocious intensity the poured out of every part of him.
He yelled, screamed, told you what you were doing wrong, and he told us “once you cross the white lines, you have no friends who are lined up against you.”
And, he meant it.
He wanted us to punish and terrorize our opponents. He wanted us to physically beat them, which for now at practice, was each other, into submission.
Walking into practice, I thought I was pretty tough kid and a good athlete.
Taking the two mile walk home from practice, I felt like I had stepped into a frightening world in which I didn’t belong.
That night, I told my parents I wanted to quit football. I told them that Coach Slezak was mean and crazy and that I never wanted to play for him.
My mom and dad told me it was okay to quit. My step father convinced me to go back and give it a little time.
I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that practices were something out of what you might expect for the youth of Sparta in the movie 300.
The physical violence was incredible. We hit, and hit and hit and hit and then, we hit more.
Coach Slezak demanded more ferocity, more aggression, more pride, more intensity, and then, even more and more and more.
When Coach Slezak didn’t get it, he would borrow a helmet and you would have to go up against him.
He had no pads, we were fully suited up, but it was something out of a nightmare to have to go up against him.
He challenged us. He belittled us. He screamed at us, and he broke us down completely for weeks.
Somehow though, I, and my brothers in this process, kept coming back for more.
Somehow, we liked it.
In the early stages, we didn’t like Coach Slezak though. He seemed like a very unnecessary evil in this process to many of us.
He was a scary, disconnected tyrant, who seemed to enjoy torturing us.
Then, one day, after practice, we were in the locker room. Coach Slezak walked in. We all did what we normally did and avoided eye contact with him.
Then, Coach Slezak stopped, and he offered us pretzels.
I will never forget that moment. It was the first act of kindness, or even mild softness or caring that I could perceive in him, and It was directed towards us.
He then talked to us like a normal human being for a couple of minutes.
Somehow, it clicked, he cared about us.
The next day at practice was as ferocious as ever. Our relationship with him though, began to change.
He showed more of these moments of caring.
He was still scary, but I remember feeling that I trusted him and that he should be followed.
Our first football scrimmage was against Park Ridge, a local rival that had moved out of our league.
Thirty minutes after the scrimmage began, it was over.
Park Ridge was considerably bigger than us, but in a half hour, we had hurt and knocked out so many of their players that the scrimmage was called off by their coach.
I do not recall them having one play for positive yardage against our defense.
The insanity never let up in practice.
We would line up twenty yards apart from one another, one person with the ball and the other on defense. Coach Slezak would be screaming at both players and challenging them to win the battle of score or don’t score by crossing the cone at full speed.
The collisions were epic. Kids got hurt. A concussion, broken bones, and certainly tons of bruising were the results, but we loved it.
In our first game, we sprinted into the locker room at half time up 20-0. We thought we, a bunch of crazy fourteen year olds, thought we were world conquerors.
Coach Slezak stormed into the locker room and ripped us for all the things we were doing wrong.
We were stunned.
BUT, he had us all completely bought in to him, and more importantly, to each other and ourselves.
After that first game, we had a day off. I decided to go out with friends and ride a go-kart.
Not surprisingly, I crashed into a brick wall and broke my knee cap. My freshman football season was over.
I was beyond devastated.
The next day I went to our second game, on crutches. Coach Slezak was so angry at me, he was cursing and screaming about me to the other players and wouldn’t even speak to or look at me.
Why? He was angry, because I was stupid and hurt myself and the team.
We won that game 55-0.
Things rolled pretty well from there for Coach Selzak’s young Cavos.
Our last game of that season would be against Emerson’s ferocious arch rival, the hated Cresskill Cougars.
As the weeks passed, Cresskill destroyed everyone. They were enormous. Their starting running back was two hundred pound
Their smallest starter was bigger than our largest starters.
With some help which is a different story for another day, Coach Slezak put in an entirely new defense to stop Cresskill and their beast of a running back.
BUT, how do you stop a two hundred pound kid, when we had a starting corner back who was 95 pounds?
What happens when they run around that end?
Coach Slezak had us past asking such “realistic” questions.
The physics of this problem never even entered our minds.
As the weeks passed and what was to be a league championship game with Cresskill approached, I shocked the doctors with the fact that my knee had healed and five days before the game I was allowed to start physical therapy.
I told Coach Slezak I wanted in.
Well, actually, I politely asked him.
He looked at me and said, “Suit up for practice and we’ll see.”
I had not had a day of physical therapy and had not run for two months, and I didn’t care.
I was going to play in this game.
We, the tiny Cavos that were supposed to be nothing, were following in the foot steps of the State Champs of 1984.
This was going to be the greatest day of all of our lives, I was going to play.
I didn’t know that we had no chance to win. None of us did.
The Cresskill freshman team of 1984 had been undefeated in every football game they ever played. They had been playing since 3rd grade. So, they were working on their 7th consecutive undefeated season as a team.
We didn’t have youth football in Emerson. That’s what Coach Slezak inherited.
Cresskill was 50 something and “0” coming into freshman year, and we had never played an organized football game.
They had a two hundred pound running back. We had a 95 pound corner back to go with our 125-145 pound line backers.
As I stepped onto the practice field, I was thrilled. It was freezing, but the energy was electric, and no one noticed or cared about the cold.
As soon as warm ups were over, Coach Slezak called me out to line up in a full speed tackling drill.
I was a little in shock, but I shouldn’t have been.
This was Coach Slezak.
He gave me three chances.
I was ready to crush the guy lined up against me.
“I have no friends once we cross the white lines!”, I was screaming in my head.
On the first play, I got crushed.
On the second play I got crushed.
On the third play I got crushed.
I had missed two months of warrior training and my leg had atrophied.
My strength, speed and explosiveness were not there. Not at all.
Coach Slezak just looked at me and said, “No.”
I looked at him and saw such love, sadness and compassion for a second, then he was back to getting “us” ready for a war with Cresskill.
I cried as I walked alone back to the locker room. In the locker room, I sobbed, not believing I was going to miss this.
On a freezing Saturday morning in late November, 1984, “we” destroyed Cresskill. They never crossed our side of the 50 yard line.
Our 95 pound corner back, “stuck” their giant running back twice and made him fumble.
Overall, our ferocious swarming defense forced Cresskill to fumble five times.
We were everywhere, and they had no answers.
If you watched any one play in that game, you would know who wanted it more.
I watched all of this back on crutches, screaming and urging on my newly formed family that Coach Slezak had built.
No feeling I had ever had up to that point in my life matched the feeling of beating Cresskill that day.
AND, I wasn’t even playing.
Yesterday, two months shy of thirty years after that fateful Saturday that brought us, and more importantly Emerson, the Freshman league championship, I got a text that Coach Slezak and his wife, who was also a wonderful woman and our high school class advisor, were moving to South Carolina.
My Emerson brother Tom, one of our freshman captains, had put together an impromptu dinner at a local bar and grill.
I was exhausted from a crazy week between work and my kids’ practices and games, plus it was back to school night.
BUT, there was no way I would miss seeing the guys and Coach Slezak.
I owed this man so much.
Ten of us were able to make it.
Whenever we are together, it always feels like the best of family, plus something else.
When we gather, we know we did something amazing, unique and special together.
And, we know we did it with great sacrifice and complete commitment of and to ourselves and one another.
That is something very rare and very special.
We had very successful high school sports careers at Emerson and continued the proud legacy we were supposed to drop.
We left Emerson as champions senior year after Coach Slezak was gone, having been asked to leave the year after our Cresskill victory because a parent complained about him yelling at practice, Coach Slezak told the parent where to go.
Everyone always thinks they were the end of an era and that it all changed after them. That’s a part of getting older.
I do think though we were truly the end of an era at Emerson and that everything did change after us and Coach Slezak and his mentality.
Parents became more protective. Coaches lost power. Safety became a bigger concern.
In certain situations, and maybe overall, that was great and necessary.
Sports coaches were often abusive and dangerous for the sake of just being those things.
What was lost in the process though, were the Coach Slezak’s of the world.
He could never exist today. We joked that today, he would be put in jail for what he did to us.
Maybe though, that’s a little bit of what is wrong with the world today.
He cared, and he loved us. In today’s world of me first, that is not easy to find in coaches anymore.
Often, coaches are all about what can you do for me, Coach Slezak was about doing for, and giving to, us.
I only played football for five weeks of my life for Coach Slezak.
I have been blessed to have achieved a lot in my sports and professional career.
I have been blessed to have many great and critical mentors in my life that helped me get there.
Coach Slezak was one of the indispensable ones.
I truly believe I would not have achieved much of what I have achieved in my life without him.
When I’ve wanted to quit, but haven’t, I’ve often thought about that first day of football freshman year and how scared I was.
I often think of what would have happened to my life if I did run away that first day.
I know the people there last night, my Emerson family of brothers, and many of those who couldn’t make it last night, feel exactly the same way.
Tom bought Coach Slezak a football last night, and we all signed it and gave it to him.
He told us he has our freshmen team picture in his “man cave” at home.
On my space on the football, I wrote:
Coach, you changed all of our lives for the better. I tell everyone about you and how you made us a family and men. We love you and thank you with all our hearts.
Coach Slezak told us he loved us and you knew he meant it. He is a man’s man, and a true man’s man can tell other men he loves them.
Coach taught us how to compete, find the greatness inside of us, be an unstoppable team, deal with adversity, make our way in the world, and believe when all things look impossible.
It’s hard to think of much greater value you can bring to the lives of fourteen year old boys trying to become young men.
Last night, I told Coach I love my life, but I would give a lot to do that year again, injury, heart break and all.
I was very emotional as I drove home.
I thought that the world would be a much greater place if everyone had a Coach Slezak when they were fourteen and parents who wuold let them have a Coach Slezak.
A lot of coaches can act tough and act like they cared. Coach Slezak was tough and he cared like there was no tomorrow.
Coach Slezak was, and is, the real deal.
As we talked last night, we all noted how much the world has changed and that none of us from our team had a child playing football.
Coach Slezak thought that was probably a good thing because football is so dangerous.
Maybe, but I’m not so sure.
Thank you Coach Slezak.
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