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 him.
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 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 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 100c-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 never 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 the limit.
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 at 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 from 1962 to '65.