Published on: 10th July, 2008
by Scott Mandel
BENSONHURST, N.Y. — More than two hundred former football players, mostly in their late 70s, returned to their Brooklyn roots this past Saturday to honor legendary coach Harry Ostro, from the equally legendary school, Lafayette High School. They gathered in the same auditorium in which they had assembled as fresh-faced teenagers during the post-World War II years to extol the virtues of the now 93-year-old Ostro.
The auditorium of Lafayette looked like it hadn’t changed a bit since the school opened, with its original wooden chairs, now creaky, and its ornate, 1930s art-deco architecture, in dire need of a fresh coat of paint and working light bulbs.
But on Saturday, weathered players came from all over the country to see and celebrate the man they simply call, “The Coach.”
“He was a rugged, tough, barrel-chested guy who used all the football clichés,” Larry Merchant, HBO Boxing analyst and the fullback on Ostro’s 1947 team said. “Coach taught a lot of teenagers how to become adults.”
Lafayette’s football program had never experienced success, having won only one game from 1942 to 1946. Losing seasons had become expected for fans of the boys who wore Lafayette’s bright red uniforms.
That is, until The Coach showed up in 1947.
At his initial practice as head coach, Ostro set the tone. A former paratrooper, he climbed to the top of the ropes hanging from the gymnasium ceiling, estimated at 25 feet high. The young players were dumbfounded, not knowing what to make of this new coach.
“Coach climbed up there to the very top of the rope, his head against the ceiling,” said Hal Seidenberg, the star running back. “Then, he just free-falled all the way down to the gym floor while screaming, “Go, go Geronimo!”
“We were pretty sure he was nuts,” said Seidenberg, who became the team’s first All-City player and later, an All-American at Cornell.
Ostro wanted to let his players know they could accomplish anything they set their mind to, though nobody else ever volunteered to do that rope trick again.
The ’47 team went undefeated and won the city championship, the first of many championship teams coached by Ostro.
On this day, though, Ostro sat sleepily in the first row of the auditorium, occasionally shaking his head at some of the stories his players told.
Vince Gargano, the left tackle on Ostro’s first team, went on to star at South Carolina before returning to Brooklyn to coach Lincoln High School for 18 years.
“Our team doctor, Doc Sherman never had much to do during Coach Ostro’s time at Lafayette,” said Gargano. “That’s because the coach had a simple rule for us. We were not allowed to get injured.”
That brought a smile to Ostro’s face, and a wag of his finger at Gargano.
Ostro was heavily decorated for his leadership and heroism with the 101st Airborne, a division that paratrooped into Germany and Holland towards the end of the World War II. He had also been a star athlete at Brooklyn’s Boys High School and in college at New York University, excelling in football and gymnastics.
Mets owner Fred Wilpon, a former baseball player at Lafayette in 1954 who pitched on the same team as Sandy Koufax, recalls Ostro as a leader without equal.
“I observed him very closely when I was a student at Lafayette and I’ve gotten to know him very well through the years,” Wilpon said. “This was a charismatic, strong, determined leader of men in the Armed Forces and a leader in the way he molded high school kids into men while preparing them for battle on the football field.”
While Ostro sat in the audience with eyes closed, it sometimes appeared he might actually be asleep. It was certainly difficult to imagine the nonagenarian as a great World War II leader or as an intimidating football coach. That is, until he was finally called up to the stage to share his thoughts.
He stood up without assistance, walking to the stage with an energy he had not demonstrated all day. As he began speaking, the room was at once shifted back sixty years in time.
“I’ve enjoyed listening to all the things said about me today but the truth is, all credit for any success I had goes to the players,” he said in a booming voice. “You’re the ones who played the game. I was just lucky enough to observe you from the sideline.”
“You and your teammates were in the arena, with the dirt, the dust, the thousands of pushups you did. You learned how to strive for victory but also experienced the agony of defeat, which gave you the grit and determination to go out and fight again. It’s very difficult to defeat someone who has learned how to get off the mat again and again.”
The smiles among his old players made their affection for the coach obvious.
“I know that you people who played for me are going into your senior years,” Ostro continued.”If you ever receive a medical report that isn’t so good, I want you to say, ‘Nuts,’ as General McAuliffe told us in the 101st Airborne when we were pinned-in by the Germans at Bastone, Belgium. You are not quitters, you’re fighters and you will win.”
The speech sounded a lot like one of Ostro’s legendary halftime speeches.
“I never forget a phrase I learned in my latin class at Boys High School,” he boomed into the microphone. “Nils Desperandum. Never Despair! Never Despair!”
There was a standing ovation and even a tear or two from the eyes of many of the tough, old birds who became men under the tutelage of The Coach.