Sunday, August 20th, 2017

The Stark Playbook

So what’s it like to set records in two different states for points scored in a basketball game (60 and 78 respectively)?

Or taking both your hoops and football careers to college?

Or getting drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers to play quarterback long before a guy named Bradshaw?

How about being told, like Roger Staubach, that job would still be waiting for you after having to fulfill a four-year military obligation, only to turn it down to become an assistant football coach at Syracuse?

Ever wonder what it might be like to have coached Ernie Davis, Calvin Hill, Tommy Lee Jones, Brian Dowling, or alongside legendary Syracuse football coach, Ben Schwartzwalder after having played for him?

How about leading an offense back from a 16-point deficit with 42 seconds left the time Harvard “beat” Yale 29-29 in the famous battle of undefeated Ivy League teams—one chronicled in a book and 2008 movie?

Or being named to (so far) three Halls of Fame? Or leading the University of Rochester to a school record 12-straight victories? Or helping lead the 1959 SU football team to a national championship? Or deciding to hang-up the headset in 1983 because you felt you had accomplished all the goals a former athlete and coach could attain?

Or rub elbows at movie premieres like “The Express” with Dennis Quaid, or attend countless reunions with ex-players and coaches while enjoying the privilege of calling Jim Boeheim “Jimmy,” while jokingly telling SU football coach Dino Babers his no-huddle offense needs to “speed-up.”

An article like this doesn’t do Pat Stark, nor his wife of 63 years, Cathy, justice.

The couple need a book.

Yes, the COUPLE.

In fact, their story is the model for the American Dream. Not even a novel could compare to the life this pair has shared.

If you ever ask Mr. Stark what the secret to his success is, he simply points across the kitchen table.

“Right there,” he notes with a smile.

Anyone who wants to see what “happily ever after” truly looks like should stop by the Stark residence in Walworth.

So how did the bride and groom going on seven decades meet?

“He picked me up,” Cathy simply says with a laugh.

Six months later, the Starks were married. Of course, weddings are expensive, and pro athletes didn’t make the kind of money they do today. When asked how the couple met, Mrs. Stark casually slips in the fact that her husband was drafted to play quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers like someone might mention they had worked-out that morning.

Wait. What now?

Yes. Pat was drafted twice in 1954—both to by late Pittsburgh Steelers owner, Art Rooney, and by the US Army.

“MISTER Rooney,” Mr. Stark emphasizes with reverence as if he were talking about President Eisenhower.

“Cathy and I were engaged and I signed with the Steelers for $8500, with a thousand dollar signing bonus,” he recalls. “So I called the Steelers to see if I could get a $300 advance for the wedding.

“The business manager asked me, ‘does Mr. Rooney know you’re getting married?’ I said, ‘no, I don’t think so.’ The gentleman said, ‘wait a minute.’

Suddenly, a booming voice came across the phone line.

“’Pat! Art Rooney! You’re getting married! We’re gonna send you a thousand dollar check as a wedding gift from the Pittsburgh Steelers!’”

“That was a lot of money back then,” Mrs. Stark adds. “This was 1954.”

After fulfilling his military obligation, his old Syracuse coach, Mr. Schwartzwalder, got on the horn and convinced the young quarterback–still in the prime of his young adulthood–to trade his leather helmet for a coaches’ whistle in exchange for getting his masters degree for free.

The Steelers were fine with the decision and gave the young couple their blessing. Meanwhile, the blessings didn’t stop there, as coach Schwartzwalder, who was Pat’s biggest fan, continued to give his budding quarterbacks coach recommendations for any job he wanted, which landed him as the offensive coordinator at both Rhode Island and Harvard (where his grandson is now an assistant baseball coach), before becoming the head coach of the Yellowjackets at the U of R.

In fact, Mr. Stark says Ben often “beat him to the punch” before he could even call his old coach for a reference.

“Ben was always one step ahead of everybody,” coach Stark remembers with a smile. And those steps helped lead the Starks on a seven-decade journey, a fruitful one leading them to Rochester before settling in Walworth.

Mrs. Stark uses one word to describe a charmed life of marriage of multiple stops, two children, five grandkids, and hundreds of players and friends:

“Blessed. We are really blessed.”

As anyone knows, coaching can lead to a nomadic lifestyle and long hours apart, which can be trying for any couple. So what did Mrs. Stark do while her husband worked long hours on the field, followed by nights watching film, weekend roadtrips and long recruiting trips?

“I kept busy,” she says like it was no big deal. “I was a den mother, a team mother, volunteered with the Brownies.”

The key to the couple’s success?

“I don’t know,” says Mrs. Stark, before pausing. She then adds, “I can’t remember,” before the couple burst into laughter in their kitchen. And after 63 years, who could blame her? But her sense of humor has to be one key ingredient.

The rest? Coach Stark thinks back over the playbook of life he’s accumulated over 87 years while Cathy boasts that she is younger than her husband—at 83.

“Perseverance,” he says before carefully choosing his next word.

“Passion,” he adds before waiting a few more seconds.

“And being opportunistic. You have to really, really take advantage of opportunities that come your way.”

Mrs. Stark’s memory suddenly returns to her, as she adds advice from her own playbook.

“I personally feel if you’re happy in a job, and you’re making $5 an hour, you’re better off than making $40 an hour and being miserable every day,” she notes.

That outlook has rubbed-off on countless players they’ve mentored over four schools that continue to come back and visit, or pay homage at annual reunions and banquets.

It’s not about the Halls of Fame, or the awards, or the wins and losses to the Starks. It’s about the lives they’ve touched, and as they will tell you, the lives who have touched them.

They’ve both shared their success as a team, both giving one hundred percent and enjoying every moment of it together.

Despite the accomplishments they’ve shared, their relationship is the biggest.  May everyone find and enjoy a Hall-of-Fame partnership like Mr. and Mrs. Stark.