Nineteen teams had registered for the first annual “Past, Present and Future” flag-football tournament and fundraiser for longtime Holy Spirit High School football coach Bill Walsh Saturday—213 players, according to the organizers. It was an unseasonably cold May morning, though the wind (excessive) was pretty standard for May in South Jersey. The fundraiser was held to raise money to cover medical expenses and general life expenses for Walsh, who was recently diagnosed with ALS.
There were teams of current Holy Spirit players and former Holy Spirit players. The Pleasantville Greyhounds fielded a team. A team from St. Joe’s included the Horne brothers, Salaam and A’Laam. Andy Applegate, the longtime Spirit announcer, did the P.A. work. Games were played across four fields. The tournament was double-elimination. Twenty-four referees were required to officiate. They donated their time. At one point, eleven of them were standing beneath a Petrosh-supplied tent, next to a Petrosh-supplied bouncy castle. I’d never seen so many referees in one spot before. “It looks like a Halloween party,” someone said.
The officiating crews were assembled by George McClain, who grew up with Walshy in Margate and is the assignor for the Atlantic Chapter of the New Jersey Football Officials Association. “I just gave Walshy a hug. He started crying. I’ll tell you what: I’m moved by it,” he said.
McClain has been refereeing games for 26 years. He’s done 21 championship games, by his own count.
“How long do you expect to be here today?” someone asked.
“We’ll find out.”
In early April, Walshy went public with his diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. His speech is affected. If anything else is, you wouldn’t know it to look at the coach. On Saturday, he bounced around the perimeter of Ed Byrnes stadium in Absecon, attending to various diplomatic duties. He introduced current players to recent alums, recent alums to not-so-recent alums, not-so-recent alums to long-ago legends. He pointed out Josh Popper and Dan Mastromatteo, standing together on the sidelines of one game. Mastromatteo recently graduated from UNC. He made a big tackle in a bowl game, someone said.
Richie Kurtz, who coached with Walshy in the 90s, was standing against the fence. He came by to say hi before going off to coach a women’s flag-football game.
“He began the name ‘Cartoon Head,’” Walshy said of Kurtzy, referring to the nickname Walshy got in the 90s, due to his telegenic melon.
“Not that his head is that big,” Kurtzy said. “His body is small in proportion.”
Walshy said Popper played one year at Spirit, then started four years at Rowan before ending up in an NFL training camp or two. On Saturday, he was on team “Peanut Deez” trying not to decapitate anyone.
“Pretty impressive players here,” someone said.
“They don’t look like when we played.”
“Bigger, stronger, faster,” someone said.
Over by the scoreboard, a team called the O.G.’s, comprising players from the late 90s, was warming up. Among them was Michael Finnerty, whose father, Frank, coached Walshy in the early 80s. Walshy then coached Finn the Younger when he was a player. Finn the Younger then came back and coached with Walshy after he (Finn the Younger) got out of college. It was less confusing in person.
A few yards away, Finn the Elder, was talking about the Waggle, the celebrated pass play off the Delaware Wing-T offense. “One hell of a play,” the Finn said. “It puts so much pressure on the cornerback.”
Finn had been an assistant coach in 1983 when the Spartans played Notre Dame of Trenton in the state finals. Notre Dame was highly ranked, beating up on everyone, Finn said. The Spartans lost in the final seconds when their running back slipped in the mud down by the goal line.
“This could be a great fund raiser for the future for ALS,” he said. “Every team’s got some really talented kids playing for them.”
“Two minutes left in that game. You old people start warming up,” someone said.
The idea for the tournament came from Joe Farrow, who was essentially taken in by the Walshes when he was in eighth grade and went on to captain the ’04 team. Farrow said he spent 16 hours a day on the phone with various far-flung knuckleheads to bring the event together. “I knew Bill Walsh for 17 years,” Farrow said in a speech pre-kickoff. “Raised me like his own son. The one thing he always taught me, When adversity hits you, you gotta compete. You gotta fight it, and conquer it
“Therefore, Bill Walsh, you are not alone. We’re going to fight this thing together—excuse my language—and beat the piss out of this thing. Let’s play games.
“Applegate, announce the first three teams.”
Walshy played quarterback and linebacker in high school, though probably not at the same time, Spirit being a famously two-platoon system in the 1980s. At least one defensive coach, Bill Sprouse (this reporter’s father) wanted Walshy to play LB, but at some point the offensive side must have won that debate (they usually did). Walshy then went on to Trenton State as a player before coming back to coach at Spirit in the 90s. He became head coach in 2003 then stepped down ahead of the 2008 season. In 2015, when A.J. Russo got the head coaching job, he came back as an assistant.
Russo, looking on from the bleachers, said Walshy was the first guy he called when he got the head coaching job. He was only looking for pointers, he said, but after a twenty-minute conversation, a job offer was extended.
Walshy is set to coordinate the defense and has been running offseason workouts since December, when, a week after losing the state championship game on a trick play to Mater Dei whose wide-receiver Eddie Lewis (Rutgers-bound) took a hook-and-ladder 50 yards on the last play of the game, the Spartans got back in the weight room. Russo said after the players finish, Walshy puts on a 40lb weight vest and walks up and down the bleachers for 25 minutes. “He’s been here every day.”
Sometime deep in the afternoon, team Mob Deep was declared winner after they beat Farrow’s team, Kill Beez, in the finals. “Our age kicked in,” Farrow said. “Seven games don’t feel so good in your 30s.” He said Walshy is still exhorting him to improve his technique via text message.
On June 18, friends of Walshy are holding another fundraiser (it’s Walshy’s 50th birthday) at the Laguna Bar & Grill in Brigantine, from 1p.m. to 6p.m. Tickets are $25.