Sports can certainly have a way of bringing people together, not just while participating in a given sport but even when years and miles have separated them.
I will preface this story by writing that there is no bragging or building anyone up over “the way we used to be,” “how good we used to be” or anything like that, it’s only about connections through sports.
Let me set the stage with the fact that, in August of 1973, I had just been honorably discharged from four years of active duty in the Navy, fresh off a six-month Mediterranean “cruise.” I was enrolled as a sophomore at Plymouth State College (now University), with credits transferred from the University of New Hampshire, and was trying to secure a spot on the varsity football team.
I did make it and played varsity sparingly that first year but was a starting defensive and speciality player for the next two years.
I had some great coaches and played with many good football players, of whom some remained friends right up until the present time.
One of the guys I played defense with was Nick Vailas, while on the offensive side of the ball was a running back by the name of Mike Gittleson.
Neither of these guys was necessarily a close social friend, with football being the main connection.
Mike had just gotten out of the Navy recently, too. Our other connection was when he blocked me during a drill that resulted in a severe contusion of my knee my senior year and kept me sidelined for a couple of games.
My brother, Keith, a hard hitter on defense, took Mike down on a tackle that resulted in Mike being injured (and that wasn’t retaliation for my injury either).
A few years back, Nick and I were talking at a homecoming football game, and I found out he was headed to his buffalo farm in Errol after the game.
One of my nephews worked for him taking care of things on the farm and at the Damm Estate.
In June of 2019, I received an invitation from Nick to attend a Plymouth State University event called “Constructing the Future-Strength and Conditioning at PSU,” to inform people and garner support about and for a new state-of-the-art strength and conditioning facility, as well as classrooms and laboratories related to fitness, physiology, anatomy, kinesiology, exercise science and so forth at the university.
John Scheinman, a PSU man involved in administrative/alumni/fundraising events, also communicated with me.
Melinda and I accepted the invitation and headed down to see what was happening.
While there, we privileged to meet up with Nick Vailas, Mike Gittleson, as well as
Bill Stumpf (and his wife), a fraternity brother and was an All American football player at PSC during my era; John Clark, former coach, athletic director and friend at Plymouth; Paul Hogan, former classmate, coach at New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord; and Gerd Lutter, former PSC coach and professor.
Art Burgouis, a professor of mine, was there, too, but he skipped out before I could catch up with him.
We met in what used to be the indoor track and tennis complex, which will now house the strength and conditioning facility.
I have spoken to Coach Lutter on the phone once since 1976, but never had the opportunity to visit with him personally, so to see him there and reconnect with him was special to say the least.
In the spring on 1974, I was playing lacrosse for the college, but ran and won three speed races at an indoor intramural track meet, right where this event took place in June.
Coach was PSC’s track coach and convinced me (and easily convinced lacrosse Coach Ted Kolva to allow me) to run for him, which I did for three years.
I think we won the New England Small College Athletic Conference Track and Field Championship three years in a row, as we had an awesome group of track and field athletes. My events were the 100, 220, 440 and 440X4 relay (back when it was all in yards).
Coach Lutter had a huge impact on my life, not only athletically but as a man, a person and a coach. He was so full of knowledge and love for his athletes and the sport of track and field. I owe him a lot, in terms of my growth and coaching style and techniques while coaching various sports in the North Country over my career.
Mike Gittleson was also there, and I have not seen him or spoken with him since 1976.
He graduated from Plymouth and went on to earn his master’s degree, plus, at Michigan, and eventually became Tom Brady’s strength and conditioning coach there. Tom actually gave Mike one of his pickup trucks for being so instrumental in helping him become who he is today.
Mike did share some personal and interesting stories relating to the Patriot’s long-time quarterback.
Nick Vailas and Mike were and are a huge part of the why, how, when and where of this massive project that will give PSU one of the most up-to-date, extensive and state-of-the-art facilities in the state of New Hampshire.
Nick, always humble, had a short speech, and had some time to visit with us. He has also been instrumental in helping to raise large sums of money to fund this facility, and has the present PSU weight training facility named after him due to his personal and financial support of it.
When I was there in the 1970s we had one universal weight machine with five stations, and that was it. Some different now!
John Scheinman spent part of his career at Keene State College and St. Joseph College in Maine and has close connections with local boys, Bryan Desilets at Keene, John Guerin at St. Joe’s and Ryan Richards at Plymouth.
Paul Hogan has coached basketball at New Hampshire Technical Institute for many years, and was there when my three sons played in the North/South Basketball tournaments held there and was heavily recruiting Ethan as a basketball player and student back in the mid-2000’s.
He has always spoken highly of the Berlin area athletes, and has been impressed with recent Berlin High School graduate Jon Demers as an athlete and a student presently enrolled there.
Bill Stumpf, of Nashua married a Berlin girl, so he definitely has some close connections up here, too, and as I mentioned, he and I have stayed connected, along with some other fraternity/football buddies.
Yes, it is a small world, and in the world of sports, the connections I made 43-46 years ago, have come full circle, and it was with great appreciation and satisfaction that I got to meet up again with these men, and relive the days of yore, when we were certainly faster, stronger, quicker, smarter and much more talented than now.
But that’s not the key here. The key is relationships established on the field, on the track, in the classroom, can be re-established in a moment if the circumstances present themselves like they did this past June in Plymouth.
It is with a heavy heart that I mention the untimely passing of Roland Leclerc last week.
We first connected through (can you believe it?) sports, when his son Derek was on my junior high basketball team and later when Derek played high school ball with my two older sons, Dan and Luke.
We were there throughout the highs and lows of the basketball seasons, when Berlin High School lost by 3 points to Hanover in the Class I finals, when Derek scored his 1,000th high school point and everything in between.
There was never a time since then, when I would see Roland at the gas station or on the street, where we didn’t reminisce about those special times related to sports.
Roland was a good man, with many positive attributes stated in his obituary that I admired and appreciated.
Melinda and my heartfelt sympathies go out to Diane, Stacie, Derek and the rest of the family.