"Everybody knows how you play is who you are … "
Dateline: The 50-yard line
He was as wide as he was tall.
Sized 4X north to south, east to west.
Tiny feet sitting at the bottom of tree trunks, tiny hands hanging off of massive limbs.
A fire hydrant under a backward baseball cap.
And his name is Stumpy.
Garry "Stumpy" Howell.
Nose Tackle, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1992.
At the time he stood maybe six feet tall, weighed 300 pounds.
A bulldog in cleats.
Stumpy was my friend back when I covered the Steelers in 1992 and 1993 for WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh.
He was a free agent walk-on whose first game as a pro was on Monday Night Football versus the rival Cincinnati Bengals. He was sent in after the first quarter and immediately started chasing the Bengals quarterback all over the place.
Stumpy played in the NFL maybe three years, a couple years in the World Football league and the Arena League, and now, according to Google, lives somewhere in Iowa with his wife and two children.
When I covered the Pittsburgh Steelers back then, it was Bill Cowher's first year as head coach, Dan Rooney let me move his desk all around his office so we could get the right interview shot, spent a day with ex-head coach, Chuck Noll at the Pro Football Hall of Fame for a story about his induction, shot a TV pilot with Jack Lambert, stood next to the Super Bowl trophies talking with Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier and Rod Woodson.
I don't remember what the team record was back in 1992 and 1993, didn't care when I was there, don't care now.
Have no idea how talented the team was.
Don't remember any of the games.
But this I remember … the passion.
The passion to play … the passion for the play … each and every play. It started with Cowher and cascaded all the way down.
All the way down to my friend, Stumpy.
I know how players are voted into the Hall of Fame, I know Hall of Fame players and coaches, and I know this, on the ballot there is no box to check labeled … passion.
If there was … Stumpy would be in. Garry Howe's bronze bust should be in that hall … if I was running it, there would be a "Passion Wing."
Dead center in that wing would be Garry Howe.
Stumpy honored the field of play every time he stepped onto it. In his core, he could never take a play off.
There was no halfway in Stump, once you flipped the switch it was all out, all the time.
I'm sure most fans today in Pittsburgh have no idea who I'm talking about, and why of all the Steelers greats, I would write about Stumpy.
But the old-timers do … the season ticket holders who sat in the seats of Three Rivers do, because for Stumpy, they cheered.
The working class stiffs in the stands cheered for the working class stiff on the field of play. Stumpy brought his lunch box to each and every play, as did those in the crowd who brown bagged it every day.
And for that reason I will say this of Stumpy, simple words, but for me they are the most complex description I can offer about an athlete: He came to play.
Stumpy was a ballplayer.
Stumpy had passion for the play.
And the other day, I once again met someone who has passion for the play.
A Division 1 Head Football Coach.
Passion for the play … of the University at Buffalo Bulls.
Passion for the play … of the fishing line.
We talked football … and fishing. And from that I know this, Stumpy would have loved to play for this guy.
And for Jeff Quinn, Stumpy would have been, his next Bull in.
" … take me to the old playground
where the old ones rule, and the young ones do their time … "
The University at Buffalo, or SUNY/Buffalo, whatever they call it, is my alma mater. When I went there we just called it UB … so UB it shall remain for this story.
I'm a huge fan of the Media Studies department at whatever the university now calls itself, but that pretty much is about it. I have never been to any kind of UB sporting event there in my life.
I am not a booster, I don't even know how to become a booster. The university sends me stuff in the mail, I just toss it. Dudes in the UB mailroom, if there is a budget crunch on campus you can save some bread on stamps, stop sending me stuff.
When Coach Quinn told me to meet him at the football stadium, I had to GPS where that was.
Here's a behind-the-scene glimpse of the exact first words I said to the Division 1 football coach as we stood on his field of play at about the 50-yard line:
"Hey coach, I brought you some BAIT."
And when I handed him the plastic bag filled with plastic bait, here's the look I got … one of a Division 1 football coach watching one of his players high step it into the end zone.
In a bowl game.
In a bowl game with a big fancy trophy.
My exhaustive research of Coach Quinn showed me this … NOTHING. I didn't even Google the dude. I have no idea what his record is, no idea if he is an offense guy, or a defense guy.
But this I knew … the dude has Passion.
Passion for football.
Passion for fishing
Passion for the play … of life.
"db, anyone who knows me knows this about me … the 5 Fs of my life … faith, family, football, fishing & fun."
Quinn said he hit the jackpot in Buffalo.
I'm in his office as he is telling me this, sitting to my right is his wife, Shannon, who also loves to fish, and straight ahead of me texting someone from his phone, his son, Ryan, who also told me about his love of fishing. Kyle, his other son, was doing something in China at the moment and not there, but I was told, "he loves fishing too."
I have no doubt.
Coach Quinn is a Buffalo guy, except he happened to be born in Chicago, which is just a Buffalo with thicker pizza and traffic.
"I've been fishing, been in a fishing boat since I was a baby. My babysitter was the Rock River in Wisconsin."
Shannon grew up fishing on Kentucky Lake … the two of them have been fishing together as a married couple for 24 years now.
"When the University flew me in here to meet with the President of the University, we couldn't tell anyone, had to keep it a secret that I took the job until the school announced it, but after signing back at the hotel room we had a map of the area, and when I opened it we both looked at it, and I turned to Shannon and said … 'look at this … we just hit the jackpot."
I'm thinking I missed something, "Hit the jackpot? Huh … why? …"
"Because of all the blue we saw on the map … all the WATER around here … we hit the fishing jackpot."
" … take me to the old playground … "
"This is the greatest place we have ever lived."
That's not me talking, and who may or may not agree with that statement, that's Coach Quinn … Shannon sitting next to me is shaking her head up and down so much I can see it in my peripheral vision.
Make no mistake, Jeff Quinn came here to coach football, "There are only 120 people on the planet who do what I do, the opportunity to be a head football coach at this level was one you do not pass up."
When he speaks of football he becomes animated, fired up, passionate. I told him I'm glad I'm not sitting close to his desk or he would be spitting excited talk spit all over me.
Throughout the UB football complex he has all sorts of Lombardi-Like sayings, words on the wall designed to instill passion in the young men within the walls.
This is a Stumpy kind of place.
I have no idea how good, or bad the UB Bulls are as a team, but I know this, if you come here and you don't bring passion with you, you will be the First Bull Out.
Now I have been around A LOT of football head coaches … and you know … I like some … most seemed to be a caricature of what a head coach should be, sort of a GI Joe action figure with a whistle around their neck.
You get tired of the brimstone after awhile.
You never get tired of the fire though.
This coach dude has the same fire for fishing as he does for football. And that's what I love about the guy … passion for the play … of the line.
"When we first got married we lived in a mobile home, not a lot of money back then, but I had this boat, not worth a lot to anyone but me, so I didn't want it outside … and …you know … I brought it into the living room."
Shannon next to me laughs and says, "I told him he could do it only if we could at least use it as a TV stand … so we put our TV on top of a cardboard box inside the boat we had in our living room."
The coach has his head in his hands as the story is being told, and as I'm about to ask him a question, his son Ryan starts laughing, so I ask Ryan if he had heard that story before …
"Oh yeah … but I'll go one better … he just bought a new boat but he can't get out much during the season, so last night the two of us just went out into the garage and JUST SAT IN THE BOAT and talked about fishing … "
Admit it, you've got to love that. That's passion. You probably do it too, you just don't get busted about it in front of a writer guy.
Quinn's office is adorned with fishing photos.
As the coach lifts his head up off his desk he says, "db … fishing is my mental health break … I'll go one better than that … the first fish I ever had taxidermied cost more to hang on the wall then the couch it hung over."
" … where some play from dreams … "
I love my hometown, Buffalo, love it mainly from a distance, but love it nonetheless. I'm from there, not there, there.
Buffalo is a working stiff town. Working stiffs of many collar colors. A town of neighbors, American Flags, churches, Jim Kelly posters, long necks and shot glasses.
If you come to my hometown, and you give it your all, if you give it the best try you can, you can stay.
If you come to my hometown as some sort of laid back surfing dude … stay home. If you wear your polo shirt with the collar up … stay where you are, you won't do well here.
Bring your passion, not your gripes.
"When I go out and recruit kids to come here, I tell them, if you are into hunting or fishing, especially fishing, you need to come here, it is one of the greatest fisheries I have ever been around."
Coach says that sitting in front of a bookcase filled with photos of him and his catch.
"Fishing and football are much the same for me, I visualize each and every play as I do each and every bite and catch. There is this thing called the White Moment, when you can see everything perfectly, time slows down, and you know the play you called is going to work, you are in the moment, and you are just standing there watching the ball drop into the receiver's hands in the end zone …."
Coach is not looking at me, or his family. Coach is once again standing on the sidelines, is once again sitting in his boat in his garage.
" … and the same thing holds true for fishing. I can feel it, have felt it both in game conditions and when out on the water … you just know what it is you need to cast and where to cast it … and you do … and bang … you get this hog on the other end of the line … "
And he drifts off, silent, watching the TD, watching the hog going in the live well.
Passion for the Play, honor for the game.
As I walked back to my 4Runner I had to cross the UB football field.
I was careful not to step on the Bull stitched on the field of play. Respect for the game and those who play it with respect.
But as I walked through the empty stadium, I could hear the cheers, hear the shouts of joy, hear the passion from the stands, and I didn't need to turn around to know of why the stadium sang.
Next Bull In had just taken to the field.
And the spirit of Stumpy, has come to play.
" … and the rest just play for pride."
The Old Playground