by Greg Nichols
Chapter 1: In the Shadow of Paul Brown
From a distance, the corrugated overhang outside the hotel lobby looked like the folds of a paper fan, or like the charted performance of a volatile stock. On the lip of the overhang, yellow cursive letters formed the word Kutsher’s. Coach Chuck Klausing and his wife, Joann, were tired after their nine- hour drive from Western Pennsylvania, but the excitement of arriving at the Catskills resort revived them.
“Gee whiz, it’s something!” Joann remarked, taking in the grounds.
“I’ll say,” Klausing said, stretching his legs and twisting to loosen up his compact, muscular frame.
He had done all the driving, and it left him stiff and tunnel- sighted. The two stood a moment while the sun and the fresh air played on their faces. Before heading inside, Joann wrapped her arms around her husband and hugged him.
When they pushed through the glass doors, the pair found the lobby buzzing with activity. Middle- aged men in charcoal or chocolate slacks talked in loose circles. Other men sat in the hotel’s modern, pastel lounge chairs, gesticulating and discoursing in brassy tones. With excesses of charisma or sternness, each man seemed to command the three or four feet in front of him. The passing impression was of a convention of off – duty police officers, or of a lively wake packed with career politicians. These were men of power and deep humor, and they had gathered in the lobby under the mantle of mutual respect.
It was coach Chuck Klausing’s second trip to the famous coaches’ clinic at Kutsher’s Country Club. Every June, the swanky resort in Monticello, New York, became the center of the sporting universe. A major symposium attracted the best basketball and football coaching talent from around the nation. Sports Illustrated covered the event, and college teams on the lookout for new staff often trolled the hallways for prospects. For four days, big winners like Pennsylvania State University football coach Rip Engle and the University of California, Berkeley, basketball coach Pete Newell would preach success to packed auditoriums of trophy- case aspirants. For up- and- comers, head and assistant coaches at all levels, the speakers were prophets. Men who had driven all night from the Farm Belt, the Rust Belt, and the Bible Belt would be scribbling nuggets of wisdom in the margins of their programs. In off hours, the coaches would find comfort in the relaxed bullshitting congenital to their breed. It was sleepaway camp for the whistle- blowing set. Even with his wife on his arm—“vacation” had a different meaning when you were married to a coach— Klausing felt right at home.
After checking in, coach Chuck Klausing and Joann followed a bellhop to the elevator. In the room, their feet sank into carpeting a mile deep.
Joann turned to her husband. “This will do just fine,” she said, smiling.
A picture window, which the bellhop revealed for them behind heavy curtains, overlooked the golf course and acres of trees. Farther back sat the purple humps of the Catskills. Immediately below them, a huge swimming pool reflected the sky. Guests, some of them well burned by the June sun, lounged on deck chairs beside the pool. Coach Chuck Klausing thought he might swim later that afternoon, and Joann couldn’t wait to start her tan. They had five children at home, the youngest less than a year old; Joann couldn’t remember the last time she had stopped to enjoy the sun. After tipping the bellboy, they unpacked quickly. There was only a brief window for them to enjoy each other’s company. Joann knew that her husband, despite his noblest efforts, would soon be irretrievably drawn into weighty conversations about football and coaching.
At thirty- four, coach Chuck Klausing had a chance to make history. He had led the Tigers of Braddock, Pennsylvania, an iconic steel town on the banks of the Monongahela River, to five straight undefeated seasons. On the eve of a sixth season, Braddock High was primed to pass the national high school record of fifty- two consecutive games without a loss— a record set seventeen years earlier by Massillon Washington High School in Ohio. Massillon’s name was legend, and its former coach, Paul Brown, a football god. Coach Chuck Klausing’s Tigers had already racked up forty- six straight games without losing. Their only blemish had come in a 1954 regional championship game, which had ended in a tie. Braddock had eight regular season games on its schedule in 1959. Klausing and his boys would need to win the first seven of them to take the crown.
Later that evening, the revitalized couple walked to the dining room at Kutsher’s Country Club. Large and softly lit, it had nearly filled up. More than six hundred attendees had registered for the clinic. Klausing scanned the faces to see if he recognized anyone. He doubted anyone would recognize him. He was the only high school coach on the program. If a few of the attendees knew him by reputation, they wouldn’t know his face. Not yet, anyway. The coming season could change that. After consulting a seating chart, the pair walked to their table. As they approached, Klausing immediately recognized one of the men already seated. He ought to have. Red Auerbach, head coach of the Boston Celtics, had won his second NBA title one month earlier. Concealing his excitement, coach Chuck Klausing whisked Joann over and pulled out a chair for her, strategically choosing one two spaces from Auerbach. Then, bidding his tablemates hello, he took a seat next to the Celtics coach.
“Good evening,” he said, hardly able to believe his luck.
Joann settled in for a long dinner. She knew she had already lost her husband for the weekend.
GREG NICHOLS is an author and journalist that has followed his penchant for place-based reporting from the barrios of South America to the steel towns of Western Pennsylvania. His article on Braddock for Pittsburgh Quarterly won the 2012 Golden Quill Awards for Best History/Culture Feature and Best Sports Feature. Nichols holds a B.A. in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles, California. His latest book is Striking Gridiron.