December 2, 2016

Original Spartans

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Longtime Holy Spirit team doctors Fred Dalzell (left) and John Baker at the Thanksgiving game, November 24, 2016.

Dr. John Baker and Dr. Fred Dalzell worked the sidelines of Holy Spirit High School football games for parts of five decades.

The prominent South Jersey orthopedic surgeon John Baker likes to talk about the time he met the eminent South Jersey high school football coach Ed Byrnes to talk about becoming the team doctor for the Holy Spirit Spartans.

In New Jersey, state law requires high school football teams to have medical staff on-hand in case of injury. At most schools, this is a paid position, but Holy Spirit in the late 1970s was running its program on a shoestring, and Coach Byrnes was looking for volunteers.

Baker was a young doctor, recently transplanted to South Jersey from St. Louis, where he’d attended medical school and where he’d mentored under Bob “Doc” Bauman, the longtime trainer of the St. Louis Cardinals. A few months earlier, he’d been sitting in Stan Musial’s box seats during baseball games. Now he was living in Ventnor, had young kids, and was being asked to give up his Saturday afternoons.

“You know we’d really appreciate it if you could be the team doctor,” Baker remembers Byrnsie’s saying. “We’d love to have you.” Etc. And he responded with a compromise offer.

“I’ll tell you what, I’ll be there for the home games,” he remembers saying. “But I don’t think I’ll go to any of the away games.”

If Byrnsie was disappointed, he didn’t show it. Ok, the coach said, that’s great, and Baker got up to leave.

The coach stopped him.

“Oh, by the way,” he said, and looked at the doctor. “Once you put the gold helmet on, you’ll never take it off.”

Baker and Dr. Fred Dalzell have worked the sidelines of Holy Spirit games for parts of five decades. Together, they’ve seen six different coaching staffs, dynasties and rebuilding years, thousands of kids. Football season in South Jersey starts in the dog-days of summer and ends as winter sets in. Baker and Dalzell have stood on the sidelines in nor’easters and in the remnants of hurricanes, during sweltering August scrimmages and frozen December playoff games. They’ve travelled from Cumberland to Cape May, Bridgeton to Bergen County as kind of modern-day country doctors to a community of Holy Spirit football players.

Unlike Baker, Dalzell is an indigenous figure, who played an array of sports at Holy Spirit in the 1960s, accumulating more varsity letters than you’d think possible at a four-year high school. A former quarterback, who is sometimes known to suggest plays to the Spirit coaching staff, he played on the 1968 Holy Spirit team that beat Atlantic City High School for the first time since 1935. As a freshman, he scored a touchdown in the Spirit-Atlantic High game, when the coach, Stan Marczyk, who mostly ran the single-wing, elected to bring him in as quarterback. “It was still probably my biggest thrill in sports,” he says. They used to get 10,000 fans in Convention Hall the night before Thanksgiving.

He went on to play at Princeton, where he set the single-game completions record as a quarterback, a record that stood until Bob Holly threw for 501 yards against the great 1981 Yale team that featured Jim Dalzell, Fred’s brother. “The one year I was rooting for Princeton to lose to Yale, this quarterback from Princeton has this unbelievable game, breaks my completion record, and ruins Jim’s undefeated season,” Dalzell says.

Dalzell started at Holy Spirit in 1983, a few years after Baker. From their position on the team, the doctors got some insights into the game that players and coaches themselves may have missed. In 1986, Holy Spirit traveled an hour to Millville to lose to their rival 28-0 in the rain. When Spirit had the ball, there was one Millville defender—who shall remain nameless, because technically Baker didn’t tell me his name—who was in the Spirit backfield more than the Spirit running backs. The next week, the Millville player ended up in Baker’s office with a broken ankle.

“You had the most unbelievable game against Spirit,” Baker told him. “It’s like you were possessed.” Yeah, the Millville kid said. Two Holy Spirit players had been hitting on his girlfriend on the Margate beaches all summer, and he saw his opportunity for retaliation.

“I realized that, in high school football, a girl can make a big difference.”

When Baker moved to South Jersey he found the locals weren’t up to the latest standards in sports medicine. Coaches still denied players water during practice and trainers administered salt tablets to treat cramps. He decided to use his Jesuit education to enlighten the athletic masses and held a series of five symposia at the Bacharach Institute, recruiting fellow doctors and trainers and inviting coaches from the high school and youth football leagues.

Being the “absolute idiot that I am” he says, he decided to give his keynote lecture on the “physiology of fatigue” but technical discussions of mitochondria and adenosine triphosphate did not light a fire under the collective asses of the South Jersey football community, many of whom slept in their seats.

“I could have taken a fire hose and I wouldn’t have woken up some of those coaches,” he says.

Switching gears, he held stretching seminars, taping seminars (football trainers love a good taped ankle), stretching seminars, injury recognition, injury prevention seminars. He told them to throw out the salt pills and hydrate their players generously.

At Spirit, Byrnsie put up a vertical pipe with holes punched into it—a water station that spouted water for the duration of practice (at least during warm-weather practices), and “at any time, an athlete could go over and drink” Baker says (more or less true, I can affirm). Spirit did lots of stretching. The linemen did aerobic conditioning, just like the skill players, but the linemen didn’t compete with the skill players. They ran on the cinder track in sneakers rather than in their cleats.

“He did all the things I asked him to do,” Baker said of Coach Byrnes. “And we had a winning team. And that convinced me I needed to put more time in. So I did. I went to the away games and been going since.”

Together Baker and Dalzell have seen Spirit win seven state championships. Maybe more than anyone else, they’ve been in a unique position to witness the history of this South Jersey football program. Ask them who was the best quarterback in Spirit history, and you can have an involved discussion on the relative merits of Albie Mallen versus Leo Hamlett versus Eddie Byrnes (the late coach’s son). Joe Callahan, curiously, won’t figure as highly into that discussion as you might think. Callahan, after an understated career at Spirit, went on to Division II Wesley College where he threw for 510 yards in his first college game. He threw for 499 this pre-season with the Green Bay Packers.

“You never would have predicted that in high school. He wasn’t utilized that much,” Baker said. Callahan won a state title but the offense he oversaw was run-oriented.

A conversation about the best lineman yields a shorter answer. “Marczyk,” Baker says, meaning Pete, who was an All-American for Spirit in 1991 and went on to play for Penn State.

“He would hit guys across from him, the linebacker, and then he’d be laying on top of the safety when the referee was blowing his whistle. He had no quit, no quit in him.”

Pete Marczyk’s currently a teacher in Atlantic City.

The worst game-time weather in nearly forty years?

“Bader Field” Baker says, of the old Atlantic City field adjacent to the airport, notorious for being one of the windier spots on the Eastern seaboard.

“Any game at Bader Field.”

In the early 80s, Spirit shared Bader Field with Atlantic High when one of the Spartans’ linemen-punters—large gentlemen who could really kick—boomed a ball high into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, it was also into the prevailing wind above Bader Field. When the ball reached its apogee, it seemed to reverse direction and begin traveling back toward the punter, who now found himself in position to field his own kick.

“Fair catch it!” Baker yelled. “Fair catch it!”

This was sometime circa 1981 and exact identity of the punter remains mysterious but probably it was Phil Santa Maria or Rich Kurtz (probably it happened once to each of them), both big linemen and punters.

“I think Santa Maria may have caught it,” Kurtzy said last week. “I let it bounce, and I downed it, because I didn’t know if I could catch it or not.”

Kurtzy was a very good punter, and conscientious.

“Nobody remembers the 77-yard punt I had against Bridgeton,” he says, in his own defense. “They just forget about that.”

“Compare them two punts: minus-seven and seventy-seven, it’s a 35-yard average, which is pretty good in high school.”

At Bader Field the wind gaveth and the wind tooketh away.

Ask Baker and Dalzell about the best team in school history and you’re likely to get a pause. It’s like asking them to pick a favorite child. But there are a few contenders, the most obvious being the undefeated 1988 team that was expected to win every game (they were 10-1 as juniors the year before) and did. But there’s also the unheralded 1990 team that ground its way to an 11-0 season (then the winningest in school history) beating Holy Cross twice in the same year by a combined total of nine points. That melded into the ’91 team that won 22 straight before falling, in enormously depressing fashion, to that same Holy Cross squad (more or less) in overtime in the state championship game. The 2007 squad under Bill Walsh finished 12-0 and won a state title in North Jersey, as did Charlie Roman’s 2010 squad.

With some reluctance, Baker and Dalzell say the ’88 team was probably the most fun to be around (the sun has never shined so brightly on Absecon as it did that fall). Dalzell says he jokes that the ’88 team was the second best team (the best being his own ’68 team). But the 2010 season, capped by a series of performances by Joe Sarnese, comes close.

“That whole playoff run,” Dalzell says, “if you wrote a movie about it, people would say it’s too unbelievable.”

Sarnese was a standout safety and receiver when his dad died, at age 53, just as the team was entering the playoffs. That was Sunday. On Friday, the team played Bishop Ahr in the first round. On a kickoff early in the game Sarnese knocked the return man out of bounds into the Bishop Ahr sidlines, though those word don’t do justice to the tackle, which was as hard a hit as Dalzell or Baker say they’ve ever seen.

“The game was over,” Baker said. “You can quote me on that. Game over.” Spirit won 42-0.

In the semis, with the game tied going down to the wire, Sarnese caught the winning touchdown by jumping over a Pope John XXIII defender with 23 seconds left. Spirit won 34-27.

In the finals, Spirit beat North Jersey powerhouse St. Joe’s of Montvale after Sarnese ran a kickoff back 81 yards for what proved to be the winning touchdown.

With 2:44 seconds left, the Montvale offense got going at last and came back to score the touchdown that should have tied the game, but on the ensuing extra-point, Sarnese came off the corner like a missile. He didn’t block the kick, but he may have shaken up the kicker, who’d been perfect all year. At any rate, the kick sailed wide left, reportedly, Spirit won 14-13.

In a game sometime c. 1987 the doctors had their most dramatic moment when a Spirit defensive player—Mark Nelson—one of the best defensive players in South Jersey and famous (to me anyway) for having one of the flattest flat-top haircuts on a team pretty full of good flat-tops (I was a waterboy) picked up a fumble and ran it back for a touchdown, possibly a decisive touchdown, in a rivalry game. A “scoop and score” situation, as Dalzell called it.

“Next thing you know, they’re calling for a doctor in the stands,” Dalzell says.

Nelson’s father, Dick Nelson, was apparently having a heart attack.

The doctors abandoned the sidelines and plunged into the crowd. Baker says, he “beat Fred by ten yards.” And they found Nelson on the stadium bench, “bluer than your shirt” in Baker’s words. No pulse.

“Bam, I hit him in the chest,” Baker says.

Still no pulse. They start doing cardiac massage and giving him a few breaths. Cops and other emergency personnel start to collect, and among them is Steve Gregory, an anesthetist Baker and Dalzell work with on a regular basis. He happens to have an ambu bag in his car, retrieves it, attaches it, and they continue trying to revive Nelson.

Minutes go by. Ten. Fifteen. And at last the ambulance arrives.

In Baker’s telling, the paramedic announces, “I’ll take over.”

“Do you mind if I suggest we intubate this gentleman,” Baker remembers saying. Because his stomach’s full of air. He could come awake, vomit and aspirate. “All good medicine,” he maintains to this day.

“I’m in charge,” the paramedic says.

“Ok,” Baker says, diplomatically, “but would you mind…”

“Remove him,” the paramedic tells the cop, meaning Baker.

But the cop’s a Spirit alum.

“I’ll never forget this,” Baker says, “The cop says, ‘No effing way.’”

The medics get EKG leads on Dick Nelson. They show he has no functional heartbeat. Sans tube, they shock him. Two or three times. “Which I agree with,” Baker says.

And he comes back to a normal heart rhythm and starts to wake up.

“Thank god, he does not vomit.”

And they put him in the car and take him to Mainland Hospital.

After the game, Mark and the doctors go to the hospital and find Mr. Nelson sitting up in bed reading a newspaper.

“Who won?” they remember him saying.

The doctors say the kids kept playing. The crowd, focused on the drama in the stands, disregarded the action on the field, which continued, and the game was finished in silence.

“Everybody knew what was going on. I pounded on his chest for fifteen minutes.

“I didn’t break any ribs, thank god,” Baker says.

And the Nelsons invited the doctors to the house in Absecon for Christmas.

Last week Mark Nelson said, in a message via Facebook, “I owe Dr. Baker and Dr. Dalzell the world for saving my father and keeping him in our lives for more than a decade.”

Baker retired officially in 2013.

“That was so hard,” he said, remembering Byrnsie’s warning about the gold helmet from years before. “But I did it.”

He lasted 14 months he said, then went back to practicing medicine, though not to the sidelines, but he still fills-in sometimes. This fall when Dalzell was in Italy, Baker worked the St. Joe’s game (an overtime victory for the Spartans).

Dalzell will be on the sidelines Saturday when Spirit faces Mater Dei in Union with another chance at a state championship. There’s a chance it will be his last, as every player knows, and he’s mulling retirement, he said. He was number 34 in high school, and this will be his thirty-fourth season. There’s something poetic maybe in going out now. Also, he’s got grandkids.

“I loved being there,” Baker says of his time. “It was being part of something way bigger than me. Way bigger. And it was really good. I really enjoyed it. I got more out of it than I ever gave. Believe me.”