by Michael Brody
Don Dorkowski let us know he had passed up his chance at the pros to coach
our high school football team. we showed our appreciation for his sacrifice
by going 1-13 over two seasons. He must have hated us. We were terrified of
Dorkowski was 5'10" and 240 pounds, a bullnecked, crew-cut tyrant who had
been a starter both ways, at fullback and linebacker, for Los Angeles State.
He should have gone straight onto an NFL suicide squad.
The Polytechnic School was an elite academic prep school in Pasadena
across the street from Cal Tech. The best athlete in the class of '66 was an
easygoing tennis star and surf bum. Members of the football team regularly
showed up for the games red-eyed from studying for Latin exams. Really.
We were the laughingstock of a league that was itself a joke, a league of
schools so small that none had enough bodies to play football with the 11-man
teams. What we played was six-man tackle football, a game that got as much
respect as coed volleyball, and deserved less.
With a center, two ends, a quarterback and two halfbacks, the game was
handed over to small, elusive passers and ballcarriers. Because blockers and
tacklers were spread so sparsely about the field, hitting anyone required
speed and technique, skills that could not be learned from ramming blocking
sleds or tackling dummies.
But what Dorkowski trained us for was his game: between the tackles. He
ran us until we dropped. In 100 degree-plus heat and September smog we ran
100-yard crabbing drills on all fours, knees off the ground, butts in the
air, driven on by fear of our coach. There were no drinking fountains or
water buckets at those two-a-days. On the verge of collapse we would be
allowed to suck for a few moments on damp towels.
For all this, we remained hopelessly slow and inept. As the losses
mounted-- 42-22, 51-18, 48-0--so did Dorkowski's rage. On Mondays we had to
sit through the film of the previous Friday's disaster. Dorkowski took the
place of a soundtrack: "I'm going to run this again, Hahn. Five times,
Hahn. and if you don't make that tackle by the fifth try, you're going to
run laps all afternoon."
Afterward the coach would suit up in his old college uniform and use us
for tackling dummies, probably as a means to vent his frustration for the
dropped passes and missed tackles. He could only have been hitting us at
quarter speed; at full throttle he would have broken us in half. Dorkowski
once chased our best player, a halfback, all over the field for managing to
evade him in a tackling drill.
Our games, like our practices, were nightmares. There even was a forfeit
among our 13 losses. We were losing by our usual four or five touchdowns
when angry parents stormed the field and mobbed the referee for throwing two
of our pitiful handful of players out of the game. Another time we were
invited to the homecoming dance of the school that had just humiliated us.
We reciprocated by spending the evening sneering at the elaborate beehive
hairdos the victors' girlfriends were still wearing.
Fans were scarce. The students and parents who came out to watch us
barely outnumbered the cheerleaders. Then, after two years and a lone, lucky
win out of 14 games, Dorkowski was gone.
Our new coach was a soft-spoken gymnast with a knack for teaching
adolescents how to avoid tripping over their own feet. Power and quickness
had begun to catch up with gangly bodies. Though we began the year with only
nine players, we suddenly started winning. We finished second among high
schools in the league.
We really became hitters; we were still soft Pasadena prep school kids.
But winning mellowed memories of Dorkowski's punishment drills. And one of
the coach's favorite goats, who went on to become an international yacht
racer, found himself years later in the grip of a terrifying South Pacific
storm, realizing how much the coach had taught him about pushing himself to
Twenty years after we--and the school--had lost touch with Dorkowski, two
members of the old team ran into him at a tailgate party outside the Rose
Bowl. The grizzled tyrant who had terrorized us as 15 year-olds had somehow
become a great guy--rough tongued and funny, the life of the party, scarcely
older than ourselves and in a lot better shape. He had become a swell guy to
have a few beers with and reminisce with about the bad old days.
It turned out he had taken his shot the pros after all. After years of
coaching 11-man high school ball, Dorkowski had put on zebra stripes and
become a top-ranked Pac-10 official. In 1986, when UCLA rolled over Iowa in
the Rose Bowl, he was on the crew.
A few months later, he was picked up by the NFL as a field judge. Today
he's out there making pass interference calls in the end zone in the teeth of
outraged linebackers. They better not argue those calls. They could find
themselves running laps all afternoon.
The number on Dorkowski's uniform shirt is 113. One and 13. It's
engraved on us, too.
(Free-lance writer Michael Brody was a Polytechnic School Panther