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Saturday, November 10, 2012

The misquote that almost ended my career

'Twas the third month of covering high school football in my first fall at the Ocean County Observer and the assignments, let's just say, were sometimes good (I got to see Brick High School three times) and sometimes bad (I saw Manchester enough to want to commit myself to therapy they were so bad).

In other words, I couldn't complain, even if the assignments sent me far away from Ocean County at times (East Brunswick, Edison, Rumson, Manalapan, West Long Branch, Holmdel). And if it wasn't to those exotic places up north from where I resided, it was to the southern end of Ocean County I would go ... Exit 58 on the Garden State Parkway, aka Tuckerton.

And so on Saturday, November 10, 1984, that's exactly where my boss sent me to cover my next football game. It was nearing the end of the season. As a matter of fact, it was the next-to-last game of the year with only the "traditional" Thanksgiving Day games left. Pinelands Regional High aka the school located off of Exit 58 on the GSP, seemed like a trip to upper Monmouth County or lower Middlesex County. You just kept driving and driving until you finally got to your destination.

I left just after 11:30 in the morning to head to the Parkway, down to Exit 58, then onto Route 539 and  Nugentown Road until getting to Pinelands Regional High School. The first thing that struck me in the first-ever visit I made to the school was that the parking lot was pretty big -- and the school looked pretty new, opened for business in 1981 for the first time. But then I looked in the distance ... the football field seemed like an eternal walk away.

But it was there and once I got to the gate and showed my press pass and got a program (oh how I miss going to high school football games and collecting a program with a copy of both teams' rosters in them), I made my way to the Pinelands side of the field, up into the stands and toward a pretty spacious and open press box. It was not being occupied by any adults on this sunny afternoon.

Yes, this space was run by the students, one was doing the scoreboard, one was doing the public address system. Now I don't know if the principal or athletic director Dick Lawrence had this in mind, but the kids who were doing the work were very efficient. And the P.A. kid, whose name I never asked but he was certainly friendly enough and maybe a year or two younger than I was, was helpful. And he was good at his craft.

Pinelands, dressed in mostly green and some gold, came out onto the field with head coach Bob Gillece. At the other end was Manchester in their light blue uniforms. By now, this was about the third time I had seen the Hawks play football for first-year coach Tom Faulkner and by now, I was pretty convinced they might not win another game this year as they came in with a 1-6 record, one win less than Pinelands at 2-5.

If two teams were ever meant to be on the same football field with one another, it would be these two. In the case of Manchester, the Hawks' biggest problem was scoring, plain and simple. For four stright games, they had been shut out. If they had a free pass to go to the end zone, they still wouldn't find it. It was that bad.

And the two teams were moving the ball with neither team having any luck against the other. Then Pinelands got the break it needed when a Phil Patricco punt was short and the Wildcats started at the Hawks' 30. A procedure call pushed them back to the 35, but from there, it was a 13-yard Lester Peschko run, followed by a 9-yard bootleg by quarterback Todd Lawrence, the athletic director's son, for a first down at the 13, then two plays later, Lawrence hit receiver Pat Anthony with a bullet right between the numbers. Zing! Right in there. And just like that, Pinelands had a 6-0 lead. But Patricco blocked the extra-point kick.

This would prove to be pretty important in the end, though with the inept offense the Hawks were running for nearly half a season, a 6-0 lead seemed safe for the Wildcats.

I can never forget the efficiency of how well the two younger kids were running the scoreboard and the PA while chatting with friends who would come in and out of the press box. Compared to them, the timekeeper and my almost 18-year-old self had to be over the hill. But it was an enjoyable time.

At the end of three quarters, a 6-0 lead still seemed safe to the Wildcat fans. The makeup of this Manchester team was very young. Quarterback Tony Lubischer was only a raw sophomore, but you can see good things taking place with him.

For now, though, the Hawks were not going anywhere. The Wildcats' defense stiffened each and every time. And it was becoming frustrating to watch the Hawks' offense sputter time and time again. It got so bad that I was wondering if they were going to score another point this season.

And I was believing that I had a 6-0 game to write about when I got back to Toms River. Pinelands got the ball back with just under seven minutes left and got a couple of first downs. They got the ball into Manchester territory, but were slowed down ... again. They were faced with a fourth and 2 at the Manchester 42. This may have been the time to bring the punter in to pin the sputtering Hawks deep.

But Gillece was feeling lucky. He called a timeout and then sent Lawrence back to the huddle to give his teammates the play. They went up to the line.

Remember, they needed two yards, not one.

As Lawrence got the handoff, I'm thinking, "He's not going to make it." Something inside of me said he was going to come up short in this instance. Sure as anything, Lawrence hands off to running back Dave Cilantro, a sophomore, to get the yards. There's no push from the Wildcats offensive line. Cilantro gets taken down and I look across the field at the yard marker. Then I look back at the ball on the field. The chain gang gets called upon. I knew he was short. Sure as the marker got put down with the ball fairly tucked behind the yard marker half a yard short my beliefs became true.

They should've punted the ball away! What was the coach thinking?!

The young dudes up with me in the press box were as equally stunned. Even if the punter punts the ball into the end zone, Manchester is still taking the ball from its 20. The Hawks had nine first downs up until this point, but they couldn't sustain a drive all afternoon. Now giving them the ball at their own 41 felt like encouragement.

Except Lubischer had thrown an incomplete pass and two runs totaled minus-2 yards. It was now fourth and 12 from their own 39 and the time was ticking down to under three minutes left. Everyone at the field knew the play was going to be a pass. So as Lubischer dropped back again to find his target, he looked one way, then another. He found receiver John Arvanitis and hit him perfectly. By the time the Wildcats put him to the turf, the Hawks had a first down at the Pinelands 43 after an 18-yard pass play.

Momentum was slowly building. But Manchester still needed to score a touchdown, and the end zone was feeling like a trip to the other side of the planet. Lubischer and Arvanitis combined for 14 yards on runs for yet another first down at the Pinelands 29. The Hawks were smelling the end zone. However, they got in their own way again with a 5-yard illegal motion call.

So with just under two minutes left, the Hawks looked in a bind. Then they called for a pass play. Lubischer dropped back and had a decent rush come after him. Just as Pinelands defenders reached him, he let his pass go in the direction of tight end Joe Romans. Romans was being covered well by defensive back Adam Boneski. Boneski got a hand on the ball and deflected it.

The deflection, though, popped up into the air. As if a Hollywood script writer needed a scenario falling into his or her lap, Romans grabbed the ball out of the air and scampered the rest of the way for the tying touchdown with 1:43 left in the game.

Now there was this little thing left called the extra-point kick. John Kerns, who obviously had not done much kicking between goal posts the past four weeks, was summoned to do the honor. But as if he didn't miss a beat, he nailed his kick and the ball went through to make it 7-6.

There was elation heard from the other side of the field from the Hawks fans. It was as if a month's worth of frustration had been let loose with one touchdown and extra-point kick. I soaked it in, but after a bit of time, was wondering why I didn't see anyone get ready to kick off for the Hawks. My eyes became afixed to the Manchester sideline. Down on the ground was Kerns. He was holding his arm.

"What is a kicker doing holding his arm?" I thought to myself. Nonetheless, he had to be taken off the field on a stretcher. In a season in which not a whole lot went right for the Hawks, even when something did go right, it had bad circumstances tagged along with it.

Now I had a question to ask Faulkner after the game. I saved it in the back of my head. There was still 103 seconds left to tick off and Pinelands had enough time to do what Manchester just did. They got the ball at their own 23 and moved up the field, picking up three first downs. They had the ball in Manchester territory inside their 40, but time was running out. They got to the 35, however on fourth down, Lawrence's 16th and final pass attempt came up short with 18 seconds left to play.

And it was over. Manchester had survived, ending a 243-minute streak of not scoring in a 7-6 win. All was good on the other side of the field. The Hawks players were happy, even more so they were happy that the guy who was doubting they would score another point this season was there to report about it. They were reservoirs of information on each and every bit about the three hours that had just elapsed on that Pinelands field. They couldn't shut up. It was exhilerating.

But I still had to ask Faulkner, a man in his mid-to-late 50s, what happened to his kicker after he kicked the extra point through. And here's what I thought I heard:

"In the excitement of what happened, I grabbed him to embrace him and accidentally broke his arm."

I never even questioned what I thought I heard form Faulkner because he was in a slightly melancholy mood, even after victory. So I grabbed what I had and headed back to Toms River to write the game story up. Wrote it up, including that quote done in an indirect manner, and got the story done in just over an hour. By 8 p.m., my boss told me to go home. I still had things to do, but he was adamant -- "You're done ... go home!'

OK, I'm not arguing. By the time I rolled back home, I walk in and hear, "Sur-priiiiiiiiiiise!" Apparently, my mother had planned a surprise 18th birthday party for me three days before my actual birthday and some of my friends were there. I liked the gesture even though I was never a huge fan of surprise parties and still am not to this day.

The next day, I had to head to Asbury Park to cover the Jersey Shore Marathon on what was a dreary, gloomy, yucky, rainy Sunday. Wrote my story when I got in and left to go home.

Now it is Monday, November 12. I had gone to school that afternoon at Ocean County College, came home, and then by 6:30 p.m., went into work at the Observer, like I normally did.

I go in and immediately, I'm getting funny looks from my co-workers.

"You may have a problem," I can still hear fellow writer Chris Christopher tell me.

"Oh? What problem?"

"Did the coach really break the kid's arm?"

"That's what he said to me." I wasn't blinking at that moment.

Then, the assistant sports editor, a guy I had no love for practically from the day I met him four months earlier, asks me what happened and tags a sarcastic, "Were you over at the concession stand getting a hot dog?" for which I defiantly answered, "No!" ("No, asshole!" was not quite in my vocabulary at this particular time.) I explained for the third time in that half hour what happened. By this point, he says I should call the coach up and get a clarification as to what happened and that I should write a correction.

Now all I'm thinking is that this might be the last day of my sportswriting career just 127 days into it. How can I be so stupid?! I've already brought shame to the profession, to my co-workers and to the family name. I am certainly not making it out of this building without turning in whatever it was I had possession of that night.

So I called up coach Faulkner and he answered the phone. We started chatting.

"Did I really misquote you, sir?"

"I think you did."

"My apologies. I didn't mean any harm. I thought I heard you say you had accidentally broken your kicker's arm."

What he explained made a heck of a lot more sense than what I both heard and wrote.

"When he came off the field, he was hugged by his teammates and somewhere in the pile, they accidentally broke his arm," he said.

"Wow," was what I answered back on the phone. "Sounds like a freaky thing."

"Yeah," coach Faulkner said back. "I've been coaching a long time and never seen anything like that before."

Here the coach was supposed to enjoy what was his team's second triumph of the year, and I made it miserable. But all the while, he never raised his voice to me, he never berated me or denegrated what I wrote. He said his peace, explained what happened and when I apologized for the confusion, it was as if nothing happened.

That man made me feel better after I certainly hit that low point in my very young career. I wrote the correction and it appeared in the paper the next day. All was well again. I got to cover Manchester's last football game at home against Monsignor Donovan on Thanksgiving Day. It was a Donovan win. Manchester finished the year at 2-7. Right after the season, Faulkner, who at one time was the head football coach in the 1970s at Jackson Memorial High School, stepped down, never to be a head coach again. I never again saw or heard from him.

A man named Bob Hunt took over the next year and the Hawks improved as they gained more experience as a team.

To this day, I don't take any quote for granted. If there is something that even sounds remotely odd, I ask the person just so I make sure I heard what he or she said.

Because regardless of whether the team won or not, no one wants to feel terrible about something you wrote -- especially when you're wrongfully misquoted.

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