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The transition from nerd to co-captain

  • Seventeen-year-old tackle Bruce Frassinelli strikes a pose during Summit Hill High's football season in 1956.
    Seventeen-year-old tackle Bruce Frassinelli strikes a pose during Summit Hill High's football season in 1956.
Published February 28. 2015 09:00AM

Football saved my life.

At a time when many parents are evaluating whether the health risks of playing football are worth the societal rewards, I reflect on the fateful decision I made 60 years ago to go out for football in my junior year of high school.

I have my band director, Tom Cadden, to thank for making this happen. I put enormous pressure on Cadden to rescind his rule that those who played in the high school band could not be part of the football team, too.

Cadden's logic was that you can't be on the field as a football player and in the stands as a trumpet player at the same time. Back then, in Summit Hill High School, there were just about 130 students in grades 10 through 12, so there was no such thing as separate marching and concert bands.

I had wanted to go out for football in my freshman year, as many of my non-band member friends had done. Football was a strong tradition in our family. Both of my brothers were captains of their respective teams in '42 and '47. My brother, Charlie known as "Bombo" was a bruising fullback who was the backbone of the Hillers' team.

I remember vividly the screaming headline over the box score of the McAdoo game, which Summit Hill won thanks to my brother's touchdown "Too Much Bombo."

My father was an avid football fan and was more than disappointed when I opted for the band over football in ninth and tenth grades. Although he never said so, he secretly wanted me to uphold the family pigskin legacy. When my brothers played, he left the running of our family grocery store to my mother for three to four hours, and he walked the sidelines showing support and pride for my brothers' heroics.

Between my sophomore and junior years, band director Cadden relented and allowed those who wanted to play football to join up with the band for the spring concert season.

My elation at being able to play was tempered by our 0-9 season my junior year. Despite my not having played until my junior year, I became the starting inside tackle for our single-wing formation team. I was big for my age more than 200 pounds, which, back then, was about 30 pounds more than the average lineman. In those days, most players played both ways offense and defense. I made my share of tackles, but it took me a while to get the hang of the intricacies of the game.

I guess now is as good a time as any to explain the first sentence of this column "football saved my life." Prior to going out for football, I was viewed as an odd-ball, a 1950s version of the nerdiest of nerds. I was an outrageous attention-seeker, pretended I was married with children whom I would visit periodically at some secret location "in the sky." There was more odd stuff like that, but you get the picture.

Despite this, I was relatively popular. I was elected class president in my sophomore year, although I had no illusions about this selection. Two of the most popular guys in the class chose not to run, and two of the most popular girls wanted to be secretary and treasurer.

In football, I found that giving myself for the good of the team paid off in success and enormous self-satisfaction. My coach always stressed that well-worn saying, "There is no 'I' in 'Team.'" I found this old bromide to be at the heart of my metamorphosis, to be more concerned about others than about myself.

As an upperclassman, I found myself mentoring the younger players, even though they were rookies just as I was. Through this cathartic process, I found that satisfaction came in helping and teaching others and to forget the silliness associated with my quest to make everything all about me.

Just before the start of our senior year, team members voted for co-captains. To no one's surprise, our star quarterback, Will Derby, was one of the selectees. To my utter shock, I was chosen as the other.

I ran home after practice the day the results were announced to tell my father. "Can you believe it, Pop? All three of your boys became captains of their football teams." Not one to show much emotion, my Italian immigrant father cracked a smile and merely said, "Bene" ("Good"). Ten minutes later, I heard him tell a family friend with unbridled pride that I had become co-captain of the team.

Our team went 4-5 my senior year. I led the team in tackles, recovered four fumbles, and I kicked the game-winning extra point in a 7-6 nail-biter against Jim Thorpe. More important, though, I took my role as co-team leader very seriously. My football experience turned around my life and prepared me for a professional career of leadership and collaboration, first as a newspaper editor, then general manager and, finally, as publisher. Football also formed the bedrock of my passion for community service.

Football taught me teamwork, patience, understanding and problem-solving. Yes, of course, victory was important, but the many side benefits of football were incalculable in giving me the underpinning tools that would serve me so well for the next 60 years and counting.

(Bruce Frassinelli, a 1957 graduate of Summit Hill High School, lives in Schnecksville and is an adjunct instructor at Lehigh Carbon Community College.)

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