The blue hour approaches, true twilight. The spastic scoreboard clock at Hart Field is running out on another season of football – five, maybe six minutes remain – and Gonzaga Prep has just broken a tie against Lewis and Clark with a quarterback sneak. Now Ron Long, in his 37th and – he says – final year of coaching the Bullpups freshmen, rolls the dice.
“Two-point team!” he hollers.
But here the 14-year-old factor strikes. So giddy are Long’s charges that one of them forgets to join his unit for the conversion attempt. A timeout must be burned. Any element of surprise is gone. The embarrassed player endures his scolding and is just as quickly built back up.
“No pouting,” Long says to him. “You’re going to do something special, right?”
Chinstraps are rebuckled and as the PAT team runs back on the field, Long turns to Bob Nedved, who has shared the sideline with him for 23 years, and laughs with a shake of the head.
“Why am I quitting?” he says. “I love this.”
There is never a shortage of coaches at Gonzaga Prep – especially in the grandstands. But from now on there will be.
It was 1972 when Ron Long returned to his alma mater to teach history and coach freshmen football. His only recollection of the first game was that it was tied at the end of regulation play and that the Bullpups won whatever there was in the way of a tiebreaker. The score and the opponent have been consigned to a shrug, along with the trivial math like won-lost records and how many players he’s handed a set of hip pads to in August and a Tootsie Pop after the last game.
“These (Tootsie Rolls) don’t even have a bar code,” Nedved accused Long in jest last week, after the purported finale. “He bought these in 1972 and we’re just using the last of them tonight.”
Of course, there was no such long-range planning. Maybe the last thing Long expected was to still be handing out suckers 37 autumns later.
“But kids are addictive,” Long said.
So are teachers.
The freshmen at Prep only get Long’s urgings, corrections and pet expressions – their favorite involves something disgusting on toast – for a year. But even his latest group of players, young as they are, can grasp institutional gravitas when they see it.
“He’s very logical and methodical,” said quarterback Conner Johnson. “What you see most is that he doesn’t just care about what kind of players we become, but what kind of people we are.”
It is so much Long’s mission that it becomes something of an amusement among the players. The repeated harangue from their coach is that they’re to conduct themselves as young gentlemen. So what did the Bullpups chant on the bus back to school after the game at Hart Field?
“Young gentlemen! Young gentlemen!”
But this is Long’s special gift. He couldn’t have been more gratified when one of the referees at the LC game, Bryan Raschka, told him it was “the best game I’ve had all year and your kids are very well behaved.” But he seems just as pleased that his message is also a target of their gentle humor – to know that there is fun to be had in every lesson.
Likewise, as he calls plays and issues encouragements, Long tries to embody the focus and discipline any coach demands on the sidelines. But he can’t help but laugh a little when told that more than a few of his scrubs kept sneaking waves at the knot of freshmen girls lurking at the fence behind them.
“They’re 14,” he said. “That’s who they are.”
About 23 years ago he found out who they really are – when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
Though he has refused to let himself be defined by the disease, his mobility, stamina and dignity have been tested since. His companion on the football field is not a clipboard but a spiral cane. The walk to the team bus after the game always feels twice as long as the walk from it before and there are days when, he said, “I just don’t have it.” Usually those are the first days of practice in the heat of August, which exacerbates the symptoms of MS.
“Every year, I tell the kids about it because I want them to know,” Long said. “I tell them there are times you’re going to see me limping around. I want them to know I have this disease and this is what it is – but I also tell them I will never ask them to do anything for me, and I’ve never had to.
“But if I’m moving around and I’m looking for a chair, I’ll find one. That’s how they are. That’s part of why I’ve continued to coach. I like being around them. They either keep you young or drive you up a wall – and they’ve kept me young.”
Which is not to say he hasn’t threatened to stop coaching before.
“I have an older sister who’s about 30 now and he was considering retiring when she was at Prep,” said Joe Engle, an offensive lineman.
This time it seems more likely to stick. Now 61, he will teach for at least one more year beyond this “to give myself some latitude” – perhaps to see if he can make it through a fall without the din that caroms off the walls of a locker room filled with 50 freshmen boys. More to the point is whether Prep can make it through without Ron Long.
Do they still make guys whose notion of service is so well defined that they’ll coach freshmen football for 37 years?
“The coach at my old school has been there for 40,” Engle said. “If you like it, why not?
“He hasn’t slowed down. He does a great job because he holds us to a high standard in everything – football, grades, sportsmanship. I think we all rally around him because of that.”
Spoken like a young gentleman.