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Lions and Tigers and “Bears” and Bones–the Paul Vichroski story

October 22, 2009

TCNJ offensive line coach Paul Vichroski during one of the team's Week Four practice sessions

TCNJ offensive line coach Paul Vichroski during one of the team's Week Four practice sessions

Hang up the phone.

You needn’t call in a shrink—the Lions’ peculiar post-game ritual, appropriately nicknamed “gorillas,” isn’t a token residual of identity crisis. And, no, even in a sports world ridden with perforated corners, primed for abuse by the athletes all too eager to cut them, the ensuing chest-pounding that accompanies its piercing battle cry falls plenty short of grounds to screen the team’s urine for PEDs.

But should the program rebound after last week’s let-down loss on the road at William Paterson University, topping the first-place Red Hawks of Montclair State University, stick around for a while. A win would offer a chance to see what causes all the confusion. Look harder, at the heart of this swaying mob of student-athletes, and you just might catch a glimpse of who.

Or, you could simply ask. And he’d oblige—simply.

“I’m just plain, old Coach Bones.”

Based on his modest description, the ringleader of this jubilant, though admittedly juvenile ceremonial rite of victory sells himself short. Both he and his tradition—eagerly anticipated by players and coaches each and every time the Lions seize victory on the gridiron—have withstood the tests of time and tumult in the collegiate coaching carousel.

Swing by the facility during the week, however, and you’ll find the same Paul Vichroski pacing back and forth in Lions’ Stadium, not quite as loose as the one seen monkeying around after wins. Now is the time for work, not play, prompting his incessant barking of precise expectations to all of the team’s players—not limited to his offensive linemen.

A stickler for excellence with a microscopic fixation on detail, Vichroski prowls the outskirts of team’s least glorious endeavors, generally fostering its most halfhearted efforts: agility drills, dynamic stretch warm-ups, and reps during special teams’ segments. Receivers are scolded for lazy, hanging arms while standing on the line-of-scrimmage, their hands not where they’d be during a street fight. Dare to partake in a conditioning drill without vigor, or worse, perfect form, and players are reprimanded on the spot—until they get it right.

Every last morsel of enjoyment in his life he earned by rolling up his sleeves. Mediocrity, or worse, apathy to any of facet of his beloved game, simply won’t be tolerated, not even toward its most tedious formalities—the kind of stuff that would curl Allen Iverson’s snarling lip of disgust.

Coach Bones, poised to correct Lions' TE James Yates for letting his arms dangle at his side--far from their appropriate locked and cocked position, like during a "street fight"

Coach Bones, poised to correct Lions' TE James Yates for letting his arms dangle at his side--far from their appropriate locked and cocked position, like during a "street fight"

Each and every practice.

“I hope when I’m that age I have anywhere near that energy,” defensive end Craig Meyer said, now in his fourth year with the program—and Bones’ intensity. “But, you have to respect him for what he knows about the game.”

But Vichroski’s high standards have purpose, well-aware of the daily discipline necessary to compete at the college level. A two-sport letterman during his days at TCNJ, he thrived in any athletic medium that let him throw something—the bigger the better.

In addition to prowess in the shot, javelin and discus throws, the Trenton-native also excelled as a two-way starter on the line for then-Lions’ head man, Bob Salois. Launching iron rods long before the helmets worn by his oft-abused adversaries were constructed with iron masks, Vichroski doesn’t downplay the prominent role that football played in such a delicate time in any young man’s life.

“Tremendously,” he said of its impact, wiping away his stern countenance—a quintessential scowl of a college football coach/drill sergeant, Coach Bones’ warmer side subbing in.

“I never thought I’d be a college boy, a student. I had ambitions of going at one time or another and maybe playing some football. It all came true and I figured I’d take advantage of it.”

Understandably  so, considering he’d all but decided to continue a mildly binding commitment—to the United States Military.

In the few quiet years sandwiched between conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, Vichroski stood where many men his age did, staring at the growing pile of draft notices in his family’s mailbox. Fresh out of high school, he was overcome by indecision, torn between the United States Navy and the Marine Corps. Again, just like any 18-year old would, he asked his father for guidance.

“My father told me, Well, you’ve gotta pick one,” he said, reminiscing about the conversation from a half century earlier. Carefully scrutinizing the advantages and shortcomings of each—both with his father and by himself—Vichroski sought an alternative method.

“He had recommended the Navy, but I liked the Marines at the time. So I flipped a coin.”

Heads for marines, tails for navy. After a brief flight, Vichroski peered across his kitchen table to see which faced upwards. And at the drop of a dime (technically a quarter), he was a midshipman.

Now admitting a retrospective preference for the U. S. Coast Guard, Vichroski invested his next four years to service at sea—two active, followed by another two of inactive duty. When he could, during his vessel’s periodic stops along the Gulf Coast, Vichroski sought out a much-needed fix, from the 1960s highest quality pushers.

During his autonomy of the Southeastern Conference among college football’s elite, Paul “Bear” Bryant organized the University of Alabama’s preseason training camp in the New Orleans area, a frequent port of call of Vichroski’s vessel. An aspiring coach himself, he rushed the gates of the practice facility, giddily like a teenage girl on Black Friday, salivating at the discounted opportunity to obtain priceless knowledge from one of the game’s most storied personas—then and now.

When he arrived, he stood staring through gaps in the chain-link fencing, hoping to catch a glimpse of the otherwise fabled Crimson Tide. And based on its unforgettable first-impression, the experience lived up to the hype.

“Man these guys were good,” his waning memory permits him to recollect. “Quickness, speed—unbelievable. What did I know, I was just a guy in the Navy, but when you see these guys, man. Just amazing.”

It didn’t present an intimate student-teacher experience (though, he recalls, “I shook his hand once), but Vichroski insists much of the world of knowledge he’s gradually accumulated was absorbed on those dusty Creole practice fields.

“He was a hell of a football coach,” citing his first-hand account of a legend in his prime. “I really admired how he got so much out of his guys. He respected his opponent, and he always expected a lot from the kids he had.”

Players await eagerly to erupt during Bones' post-game ritual, here seen following TCNJ's Week 3 win over FDU-Florham

Players await eagerly to erupt during Bones' post-game ritual, here seen following TCNJ's Week 3 win over FDU-Florham

But that wasn’t all his experience garnered. Turning to leave, overly satiated from a gluttonous feast of football food for thought, Vichroski’s return to whatever his commanding officers had in store for the next few thousand hours of his life would have to wait. A synchronized bellowing howl grabbed hold of Vichroski’s attention.

And it hasn’t yet let go.

He incrementally pieced together what had seemed like an ancient tribal ritual—alien to outsiders, a irrevocable facet of culture to its practitioners.

Characterized first, by the rapt sway of a pendulum of bodies, ticking harmoniously as one, players allowed their seething aggression from two hours-worth of hard-labor in Louisiana heat and humidity to boil.

Entranced faces housing wide-eyed glared toward Bryant, their silverback, in anxious advent of the first notion of a signal. Following a tantalizingly long three-count, they unleashed what must’ve seemed like hell to anyone within a few hundred yards of the facility.

“Well you know what a gorilla is, don’t you?” I did, but I egged him on with the slightest indication of doubt regarding where he was going with it. “You always see these documentaries with gorillas in them. And when one defeats his foe, his enemy, he shows his pride by pounding his chest with his troop, feeling like a million dollars.”

Perfectly capable of inciting a deluge of infants’ tears, coinciding with a heart-palpitating startling of their mothers (and fathers), Vichroski smiled.

“When I first saw it I said, I like that,” he said. “From that moment I knew that if I ever got into coaching, I wanted to show that to my team.”

And he would, in time. But fate had its prerequisites.

Vichroski returned home, the aromatic scent of his first tour’s finale lingering just six months away. After he’d requested a brief leave on account of nostalgia, Vichroski made one of his life’s most pivotal road trips—a casual stop at his high school.

There he reunited with his former head coach—who complimented his University of Pennsylvania education with accolades as three-time All-American linebacker—Bob Perigini. As it so often does during those reunions, the conversation shifted toward the future. Investing years of his life in the United States military, service was all Vichroski knew. And, in his mind, it was the lone glimmer of clarity at this juncture in his life.

Paul Vichroski never thought he'd get the opportunity to attend college--let alone establish himself as the longest tenured assistant at TCNJ

Paul Vichroski never thought he'd get the opportunity to attend college--let alone establish himself as the longest tenured assistant at TCNJ

Even if a return to the military didn’t make perfect sense, Vichroski thought he knew what was least likely.

“I wasn’t the brightest star in the sky,” he said, referring to his lackluster academic career. “I struggled as a student.”

Indifferent to a waning amour propre, Perigini’s indelible relationship with one of his players prompted his automated response. He offered to contact his Alma mater, hoping to wedge Vichroski’s lanky 6’3 frame into the oft-impenetrable fortress of an Ivy League edification.

Unsuccessful, but not futile. Gears now churning in pursuit of a degree, Vichroski’s life drifted toward the path of on an alternative battle plan—divergent from the service.

Failed attempts at Albright College among others followed. Perigini enacted a last-ditch effort to propelling his former player to academia.

After a series of collaborative efforts, Perigini arranged a spot for Vichroski at an upcoming entrance examination to, as it was called at the time, Trenton State College.

“I couldn’t have told you the last time I’d read a book,” he said of his preemptive nervousness entering the test. “I was hoping God was looking upon my poor soul and said, Hey, I’ll let you in.”

More likely influenced by untapped intellectual resources—and the dependency of the U.S. Postal Service—than divine intervention, Vichroski stood at the mailbox once more. No longer mortified, like he and with thousands of adolescents reluctantly reeled into combat had to have been, he delicately peeled apart the glue from the envelope’s backside. In it contained exclusive admission to the exclusive future—until then, exclusive to his dreams.

Ecstatic, Vichroski immediately accepted his invitation, “especially since the government was paying for it.” Had the military not opened its checkbook, his parents’ financial standing likely wouldn’t have supported it.

His father, Frank, “worked his backside off” as the building manager of an apartment complex that fostered Paul’s childhood. His mother, Stella, pulled double-duty to support the family.

As Frank’s part-time assistant, she scrubbed the floors, tinkered with dubious intricacies of her husband’s plumbing and electricity systems, and spackled the cracks in whatever job a mere 24 hours left unaddressed. As his full-time housewife, she scrubbed dishes, tinkered with the dubious intricacies of raising her husband’s children, and slipped on the apron of a bona fide Super Mom from dawn till dusk.

Conceived through his parents’ diligence, incubated by his coach’s persistence, and birthed following his own unshaken resilience, Vichroski’s education materialized into a college diploma in—of all areas of study—industrial arts.

“It was the easiest way I thought I could get into the school,” he said later, explaining the decision’s Darwinist rationale.

Recognized for his adequate success in the classroom, Vichroski’s prolific gridiron accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed either.

His eligibility exhausted, Vichroski’s football career still flickered. After another casual visit to the portal of his life’s expeditions, he found another two letters in Vichroski mailbox—addressed from prominent personalities in football history as the one he last encountered.

In 1963, during the fledgling stages of the AFL’s rival pro football league, open tryouts were a commonality among the infantile franchises. Hosted by fabled greats in Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry, Vichroski received invites to auditions with the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys.

The Packers had filled their roster before his gridiron interview, but Vichroski’s offer was still on the table for what would later become America’s team. Fighting with the vigor that toppled the intellectual obstacles of his college experience, Vichroski dueled with All-Pro guard Jim Ray Smith and College Football Hall of Fame linebacker Lee Roy Jordan.

He didn’t make the roster, which was alright with him. His Super Bowl waited for him back home.

His return as Trenton’s prodigious son berthed his long-awaited coaching career, one that’s lasted, uncharacteristically, about as long. Over the past 34 years, he’s seen it all. Head coaches have come and gone since the beginning of his tenure, along with about every offensive philosophy imaginable. On par with his unconditional sentiment toward all his players, Vichroski never favored one scheme over the next.

“We went through every offense there was. I, Power-I, Wishbone, Wing-T, you name it. I liked them all, because each had its own innovative approach. I learned a lot.”

He had his opportunities to claw up the rungs of the ladder, but he wasn’t fazed by the glitz and glam of “big time” coaching jobs. “I’d rather just stay here, with these players and with [TCNJ head] Coach [Eric] Hamilton,” he said. “He’s treated me well and I’ll always appreciate it.”

Hamilton reciprocates the feeling—though it wasn’t his initial impression.

“This big guy, just out of the navy, local legend and player at the College and you’re scared to death because he was such an imposing figure,” he said, recollecting his first glimpse of the ominous Trenton State football legend while waiting for his physical entering his freshman year.

“But, you come to find out that you just met the nicest guy in the world.”

Of all the hall of fame-caliber coaches helping craft his football knowledge, and those of the future that have allowed his career to flourish, he claims the fabric that’s fostered his career isn’t found in any sports almanac—probably not even the phone book.

Married to his wife, Barbara, for “a pretty long time,” Vichroski insists that the tenderness waiting upon his every return from practices and games, sometimes later than she’d like, is what’s made it all possible. And he’s grateful for it.

“I still love her today as much as the first day I met her. Football wives deserve the world, because they go through a lotta hell. And anyone will tell you that’s not an easy thing,” noting her dichotomy—like his own mother’s—raising his three children, now all “in their 30s.”

Uninterested in the results of “popularity contests” he’d likely win (says he “doesn’t care about all that”), there’s no doubting his legacy—a book that, literally, he hasn’t gotten to writing.

“When I leave this game I’m going to write a book,” he says. “I’m going to go off into the woods and write a book. However long it takes, that’s what I’m gonna do—fish and write.”

Bones' gorillas in full force, again after the Lions' 67-point trouncing against FDU-Florham

Bones' gorillas in full force, again after the Lions' 67-point trouncing against FDU-Florham

Not forgetting, of course, “Bear’s” gorillas.

By his own account, he’s made it. He persevered in the navy, survived in college, and thrived on the gridiron. He can’t remember most of the players’ names he’s coached, though he’d “never forget a face.”

But the cat that’s got his tongue, leaving him unable to articulate the mountainous quake that shakes his rock-solid core of emotion is what everyone he’s encountered means to him—a collage of players, seasons, stories and struggles, each a profound entity both individually and as a collective portrait of his impact on the midsection of the Garden State.

“I can’t express it,” he said, struggling to piece his years of experiences into verse.

“It’s just in here,” he continued, lightly tapping his chest with a closed fist…

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