Dying to play football

The sound and fury of the death of Richard Park

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a preview of a much larger story on the death of Richard Park, who passed away in 1962 as a result of complications that surfaced during a football practice at Tyrone. The full story is nearing completion, and will be ready for publication in October)

This is a story about how things can go wrong in the blink of an eye. It’s a story about how innocence can turn to tragedy, and how optimism can turn to darkness all while the wheels of life keep turning.It’s a story of different times, different cultures, and a bygone way of drawing the best from young athletes.

It’s a story of those not being the one dead turning to their affairs.

Above all, it’s the story of a poor player who had his hour upon the stage and then was heard no more.

“It was a very sad time. It was a time that was hard on everybody who was involved,” said John Shoenwolf, who was a young assistant on the Tyrone Area High School football team in 1961.

As a second-year coach Shoenwolf probably wasn’t prepared for the events of August 18, 1961, but is anyone ever prepared to watch a 16-year old boy collapse on the brink of death at a football practice?

Is anyone ever ready to hear that a teammate, a classmate, woke up one morning and rolled out of bed for a grueling day of practice, and never returned to sleep in that bad again?

That is the beginning of the story of Richard Lee Park, who as a junior on the Tyrone football team almost 60 years ago fell ill at a practice after a morning session of conditioning and never recovered.

Park died 10 days later at Mercy Hospital in Altoona. His death certificate explained it in antiseptic terms: peritonitis, which was brought on due to anemia, which was brought on as a result of nephritis. The layman’s translation reveals a little more, though it doesn’t tell the entire story – Park’s kidneys had failed him, leading to a series of further complications.

While explaining how Park, a seemingly healthy young man, came to his end on the eve of his junior year in high school, the diagnosis does little to reveal why.

What is true is that no one could have foreseen what was going to happen to Park. He had passed a physical and was cleared to participate in the rigors of a varsity football season.

However, there are questions that remain decades after Park’s untimely demise: how great a role did a single football practice play in the teenager’s death? Was the tragedy something that was preventable? Should Park have been playing football at all, particularly the brand of football that was being played in the early 1960s?

BACKDROP

Sports in the 1950s and 60s was a different world when compared to today. As was the science of sports medicine and sports performance. As was the dividing line between affairs public and private.

All of those factors converge in the story of Rickard Park.

Visually, the game on the high school level in 1961 would have born some similarities with the game in 2018. Players wore helmets with facemasks. They strapped on shoulder pads and padded pants. There were kickoffs and extra-points. Players tackled and blocked.

Beyond that, the game has evolved dramatically. In 2018 the trend is toward open offenses that spread the field and force favorable matchups for athletic skill players. The process involves no small amount of decision-making and reacting on the fly from the players on the field. It’s exciting, and, much like the game being played in college and the NFL, it requires a quarterback who can create and connect. One of its most pleasing qualities is the promise of the big play. Any missed read by the defense or the right audible from a signal caller that has become more and more in tune with defensive schemes thanks to vast amounts of information available on the internet and your team is picking up 50 or 60 yards in just one play.

That was not the look of gridiron in the 1960s, when teams were still operating under the philosophy of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust. Formations were tight. Often running backs lined up close enough to the line of scrimmage to count the hairs on the legs of their linemen. While every good team begins with a strong offensive line, in those days the trenches were more than a metaphor. The battle was won there in a man’s game being played by boys, and that was how it was approached from the standpoint of preparation.

This was as true in Tyrone as it was at almost every high school football practice in America.

“They worked us really hard,” recalled Tom Miller, the team’s star quarterback in 1961 who later went on to play at Colorado State University before returning to coach the Golden Eagles during two terms in the 1980s and 90s. “We did our conditioning before practice even started. The coaches said once we got that out of the way everything else was easy.”

Leading it all was a man who didn’t completely look the part of a rugged World War II generation football coach, Ron Corrigan. He was in his second season as the team’s head coach, and he had done a solid job during his first season of revitalizing a program that was on a downswing when he arrived. One year before Corrigan took over the team finished 2-7-1 under John Chuckran, just slightly better than the 2-8 record Tyrone posted in 1958.

But in 1960 Corrigan took a junior-heavy team and went 4-6, creating a bit of hope and excitement for what could be in 1961.

Corrigan was organized and meticulous – the brains of the operation, according to those who played for him and worked under him.

“He had a great football mind,” explained Shoenwolf. “He was very much an organizer down to the T. He believed in being efficient. How well you executed was the big thing to him. The kids gravitated to that, and it all seemed to mesh that year.”

“You would look at him and you thought he was a professor, not a football coach,” Miller said. “He was about 6-foot-2 and he wore glasses. His theory was the team that ran the most plays usually wins. So we were in and out of the huddle in seconds. By the end of the third quarter, other teams couldn’t run with us.”

While Corrigan handled the X’s and O’s from a cerebral standpoint, it was Shoenwolf who provided the grit, with a fiery approach that endeared him to his players as much as they were drawn to Corrigan.

“Shoenwolf was the leader,” said Dick Hoyne, a junior lineman in 1961 who later went on to play for Kent State University. “He was the one who kept everyone fired up. If you did something wrong, he was going to tell you about it. I remember one time in practice I made a mistake on defense defending an option play. The quarterback made the fake and I tackled the guy he faked it to. Shoenwolf picked me up and threw me on the ground and said, ‘That’s the way you’re supposed to do it!’ But I didn’t even think anything of it. He was right. They helped me a lot for when I went on to play later in college.”

For Miller, there was a bond between players and coaches that was quite real.

“It was all blood and guts with the coaching staff. We loved and admired those guys,” he said.

Tempo, intensity, and discipline were emphasized on the practice field, as was toughness.

Hydration was not. In some ways that reflected the limited medical knowledge coaches were working with at the time – early marathon runners were encouraged not to drink fluids during their races, with James E. Sullivan, head of the AAU, proclaiming in 1909 that “some prominent runners do, but it is not beneficial.” In other ways, it was a challenge to a player’s manhood. To make it through practice or a game without being distracted by water breaks was a sign of toughness.

The world then was still four years away from the creation of Gatorade, and few in the sports field truly understood the importance of replenishing fluids lost during intense exercise. Drinking too much or at all during practices and even games was taboo.

“They told us it was bad for us, that it would make you get cramps,” recalled Hoyne. “They thought it would make you sick. They just didn’t know then what we know now about hydration.”

“In those days we got zero water,” said Miller. “During games there was no water on the sidelines.”

AUGUST 1961

In Tyrone in August, 1961, Corrigan was preparing to open camp with 43 boys on the roster and three-a-day practices scheduled for 9:30 a.m., 2:30 p.m., and 7 p.m.

There were no portents of dire things to come. August 18 was not intensely hot for mid-August, reaching a high of 79 degrees. There were no thunder clouds on the horizon.

It was, in all respects, your average day, and Park was your average teenager growing up in the early 1960s. He lived in Grazierville, the only child of George and Theda (Chilcoat) Park.

Known by his friends as Dick, he was quiet, shy, and hardworking. A tribute to him in the Daily Herald praised him as “one of the best, most reliable newspaper boys the Daily Herald has ever been privileged to employ.”

It went on the describe him as a “friendly youngster,” “well thought of by everyone he came in contact with,” who was an above average student known for working hard at his studies.

Stuart Naylor, who was a junior fullback and kicker and 1961, said Park had a passion for go-carts, which he built along with his father.

“They had just put two engines on a cart they had built,” he remembered. “Dick was very proud of it. He was always doing stuff with his dad.  It was all he talked about when I talked to him. Go-carts, go-carts and more go-carts.”

Naylor said Park was someone who “kept to himself.”

“He mostly did things with his dad. It wasn’t until I was talking to him about football that I got to know what he did outside of school.”

Park also loved to fish, but more than anything he wanted to play football.

A letter to the editor published in the Daily Herald in November of 1961, in the days leading up to a showdown between Tyrone and Lock Haven, made that much clear. It was signed by Mr. and Mrs. John Park of Bellefonte, relatives and one-time Tyrone residents who maintained a strong relationship with their hometown and still attended Tyrone football games. The couple had hosted Richard at their home that summer.

The couple said that Richard was “very much in hopes of playing in our town as he was here this past summer for a weekend and said he would like to upset Lock Haven.”

There’s a bit of mystery in why Park, a big youngster by the standards of the day, hadn’t played until his junior season. One neighbor from Grazierville said his mother was against it.

“He was a pretty big kid, so I talked football up to him every time I had a chance,” Naylor said.

If playing football for Tyrone was Park’s dream, it was a dream not unlike that of Moonlight Graham, the doctor in the 1989 baseball film Field of Dreams, whose only wish was to have batted one time in the big leagues.

Graham got his wish on Ray Kinsella’s magical field, where legendary players emerged from the great beyond, but the fulfillment was short-lived. After driving in a run on a sacrifice fly one day, the next he was ousted from the game for eternity after crossing over from one world to the next in order to save a young girl’s life.

The scene can be viewed as a metaphor for how quickly life can change based on our own choices, so therefore decisions should come with conviction – choose your path and believe in it. Above all, have no regrets.

Were there regrets on the part of Park as he malingered for 10 days in two different hospitals? Were there regrets from the father with whom he had such a strong bond, or from the mother who may have never wanted to see her son put on a football uniform?

That much we may never know, but what we do know is that Park’s career as a Tyrone Golden Eagle lasted just one practice.

2 comments

  1. Didn’t know Dick well, but shared homeroom double desk. He was a soft spoken Gentle Giant that made an impression on a shy small town girl.

    Like

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