That Jersey feeling in the air hovers at the edge not only of an election, but something even deeper, something more elemental, where the rules never waver, where the double talkers never dominate, on a planet otherwise known as indoor track season, and amid politicians promising and failing to deliver and the ranting and self-promoting and universal underhandedness, you remember your coach.
If you’re like me, maybe you had that guy, that person who in another life might just as easily have been a sarge in the union army who saves the company from getting trapped behind lines, or the mess hall bulldog who keeps the chow line moving and the troops fed on the frontlines and is the first man in a Jeep driving across no man’s land.
That was the guy that I grew up with, the indomitable coach who would put his finger in your chest and drive you back against a wall if you offered anything less than total commitment. If you showed cowardice or attachment to your own comfort or self-interest over the welfare of the team, if you paid attention to the little whining, self-pitying voice within, you would suddenly find him bellowing in your face. If you failed to grasp the concept of character as the foundation of sport, you might wake up one day and be without a team. This was that guy with the yellow loose-leaf paper, writing down times and rearranging lineups for races, teaching history classes, drawing the x’s and o’s of Sherman taking Kennesaw by day, then drilling you after school, then jumping up to the wheel of the bus and barreling north on the Parkway to the Turnpike and over the bridge into Manhattan or to the Bronx for those meets like it was the siege of Atlanta.
In all weather, he juggled that most elusive quality at the core of every great high school coach: an uncompromising dedication to winning – and a deep, unerring dedication to the young athletes he served. His exacting ability to strike that balance is the very alchemy of integrity that inspires kids to become teammates and teammates to win championships.
In all these years since, I have wondered on occasion where men like Bill Bruno have gone in our selfish and self-serving and in many ways timid and cowardly age, but on those better days I suspect a few of them are still out there. Still, amid the sense of a massive cultural and societal cave-in, a few moments stand out for me, and they stand in relief to our ongoing fascination with personality and theatricality as a substitute for character.
This was a guy, Bruno, who never stopped working, who built a team the way some other man might construct a fortress on wheels.
I remember him organizing a tournament in which the senior captains took on the roles of team leaders. He came up with the names, which he shared with the lads: Carroll’s Cruisers. Ruane’s Rangers. Gilson’s Greyhounds. I was on Ruane’s Rangers, which would have been my preference, for Ruane was our high hurdling hero and the guy I looked up to, who called me his protege, which made Bruno scoff. He didn’t like monikers that rewarded people before they put some numbers on the board.
“Rangers!” Ruane bellowed, and we all gathered around him, and despite his big brotherly vote of confidence, Ruane had learned from Bruno and was likewise unsparing and unforgiving and solely focused on getting our times down. Along with Bruno, he worked us into the ground – this was freshman year – and we thought we were no good, because Bruno said so – he told us all the time how “horrendous” we were – how he reveled in that word – and enforced – with the repetition of drills total discipline: 200s and 400s in the round barn, then hurdle exercises in the sprint barn. He was not pleased with our progress, and when we participated in our first meet at West Point, we were stunned when we almost effortlessly annihilated the rest of the freshman competition.
We thought we were “horrendous.” I still remember looking at that Gold Medal in awe up there on the Hudson River. “It’s the worst one you’ll win,” and Matt Rusher, an older kid, referring to the less than precise lines in the figure of a runner on the rectangular medallion, and the lack of accompanying detail.
Bruno was driving the bus back to Jersey.
How had we won?
It was still a mystery.
Then there was that other time when some members of the team whined at a meet because two guys from another school were winning every event and at one point coach ordering the entire team onto the bus and slammed the door so it was just us and him. He mocked us privileged Catholic school boys for having the audacity to complain. We were getting three square meals a day. We had every advantage. How dare we make excuses.
There was another time, too, in the sprint barn when we weren’t practicing very hard and Bruno got frustrated and called us to order. It was that moment when he pointed to the chalk drawing of a heart with his and a girl’s initials in it on the wall in the barn where we trained, telling us, “I ran on this same track. I was a student-athlete at this school, like you. This is tradition. This is your school, and my school. You’re not just part of one another when you put on that blue uniform, you’re part of everyone who went here, who was part of this. Don’t ever disgrace your school by failing to give it less than your best.”
That was Bruno.
And it was Bruno when was some kids from Staten Island showed up bragging about how they were going to school us, and us country boys all stood around not saying anything and Billy B. walked over and told them, with an attitude, “You’re not in Staten Island anymore,” before we ran the poor guys into the ground. There was that moment at Manhattan College where I had already run my event and went back to the track and he grabbed me and said he needed me for a relay team and I told him I’d love to help but I just ate and there was that finger again, driving me back and the voice, intolerant of anyone who would consider not making a sacrifice for the team, and I was out there running and we won. It was Bruno at the armory where the homeless men slept in beds on the interior of the track where we ran on wooden boards and anyone who said anything about those old guys needed to think twice about what it must have felt like not to have a home and to be out on the streets.
We won every meet.
Not every race, but every meet.
He simply spread around too many trained athletes.
We had maybe one or two stars. The rest was depth.
The totality of it was coaching: the will of one indefatigable man, who actually cared, who saw the line between winning and losing and dragged and willed and rammed everyone in his his charge onto the winning team.
The day that he left our school, the school he graduated from, to go work in Asbury Park, the town he came from, where his dad had been the coach, we finished practice and he called us all around and told us he had a new job and he was done. I heard a helpless sob coming from some kid, and when I looked over, this kid, Danny, was being propped up onto the shoulders of two other guys. I didn’t show any emotion right then, but that night I went in the backyard and just cried my eyes out. It felt like life was over, and all these years later, I can still feel the loss. His impact was so immense, our will was forged out of his drive, his humor, his love, his tenacious sense of discipline.
Could any of us actually keep going?
And all these years later, the country feels crippled. It feels like it couldn’t run in a race if it tried, without bragging or cheating or moving the lines to change the game or finding an ulterior, ugly motive to just the pure joy of competing.
“You like hurdles, Pizarro?”
His question to me after I handed him my permission slip.
I wanted to.
I had been a failure as a cross-country runner, and I wasn’t very fast, so I figured maybe the high hurdles would enable me to get a shot at something. I couldn’t do anything else.
I wasn’t very good.
Next to the question about the events in which I intended to try to compete, I wrote only “HH.” High hurdles. Maybe I picked hurdles because I knew he was the sprinting and hurdling coach and I figured he was the only coach to whom I felt I could relate. Or maybe I just knew I couldn’t do anything else. But when he was done with me, an unathletic kid scared of winning, scared of everything, in fact, I was coached to two state championships. Without him it never would have happened, and without him I would never have had those wins early, which made the rest of the obstacles in life, even most of the ones I stumbled over or crashed into, bearable and recoverable, and even gave me wins I could compare to those first ones, and from the beginning know that I had a guy in my corner who believed in me, who believed in us, the team.
Why did it occur to me now to think of Bill Bruno?
I always think of him, but especially in the wayward moments, or the lost hours, or the times when the little weak voice tries to submit.
I don’t know where we’re going, or whether the stagnation and corruption of our home state will ever, candidly, prove surmountable, and honestly our status doesn’t look good, but that little spark of hope remains because I knew Billy Bruno, whose political affiliation I didn’t know then or now, a coach who really didn’t have to care, or who didn’t have to treat every damn dual meet with St Joe’s Metuchen like it was the Superbowl, or who didn’t have to drive those kids around on buses and swing into McDonald’s when the brats started bellowing “Hamburger,” and didn’t have to get in my face and impart and impose the passion and integrity and guts he had, and didn’t have to ensure that we finished as number one, an achievement then against which to compare all others future, but he did.
As we stagger with nine days left to the decision day of another election, in the name of who we are out there, or could be beyond the partisan lameness of our worst selves, try to come together; transcend the littleness and ugliness of our politics, rise above and be that ragged approximation of the guy Bill Bruno was and is, that proud Italian-American from Jersey, coached by his father to care, pushing his finger in collective resistant chests, daring the next generation to be more and daring mere mortals with no special abilities, to be great – to be a team. “Never forget where you come from,” he told me last week in a phone conversation, back at work as assistant director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) after open heart surgery, which nearly killed him, and working with schools to develop procedures to protect student athletes while giving them a sports season in the midst of COVID-19.
“Safety first, that’s our premise, that’s the philosophy,” he said, as he eyes the fall season and anticipates the coming winter sports season.
“We’re looking at more of a regional approach to soccer sectional championships,” he excitedly told InsiderNJ. “We want to get those kids some playing time.”
The virus-impaired season has gone well – as well as it could – but winter sports will pose more challenges as COVID cases spike. They’re looking at everything, Bruno said; including polar bear meets, limited capacity bubble sports, and small-scale indoor meets. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed for winter track,” Coach – ever the optimist – said. “Of course, it will affect wrestling and bowling.”
He acknowledged the difficulty a lot of kids have now because they cannot compete in an unhindered, pre-COVD-19 way. “If I didn’t have sports in high school, I don’t know what I would have done,” said Bruno. “I’m very sensitive to the fact that sports as we know it has been taken from them very suddenly. Mental health is as crucial as physical health, and our society as a whole is fighting to give them every opportunity.”
“Never forget where you come from.”
His spoken words made me look at the fine print of the association that my beloved coach now works for in the face of COVID-19 and all the perils it entails, coming off his own health scare and back in the damn saddle, in the service of “education-based interscholastic athletics, which support academic achievement, good citizenship, and fair and equitable opportunities.”
In the midst of madness, out of the most sacred depths of memory, it read like a winner’s exhortation of a way forward.