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Reflections Of A North Country Girl At Heart

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an occasional column contributed by Ogdensburg native Marguerite (Peg) Cordwell Brown about her memories of growing up in St. Lawrence County. Peg, daughter of Vivian and Benjamin Cordwell, worked as a reporter for The Journal while she was a college student in the 1960s, and currently lives in Rhode Island where she is the director of development for Button Hole Golf Course and Learning Center, Providence. She hopes her column will serve as a reminder of a kinder, gentler time in the north country.

800 Franklin Street—Football

Author’s note: Perhaps I should have said this at the beginning of this series which I have subtitled, 800 Franklin Street. The Franklin Street address was the first house purchased by my parents in 1953. In the years prior, we lived in Veterans’ Housing in Canton while Dad was on the GI Bill and then in apartments on Lincoln Avenue (across from the Pepsi bottling plant) and New York Avenue. We lived at 800 Franklin until my senior year in college. I have only been able to visit Ogdensburg for a few weeks at a time over the past 49 years, but with my 50th Class Reunion approaching, and senility setting in, I wanted to share some reflections of my home town. The names have NOT been changed to protect the innocent, and I take full responsibility for errors in memory.

There was no Faith Hill. There were no costume malfunctions during Super Bowl half time. Actually, there was no Super Bowl or NFL as we know it today. In fact, there was no ESPN, Sports Channel, Monday Night Football, Sunday Night Football, instant replays—very few color TVs and no remote controls! If you wanted to watch more than one game at a time, you needed to set up multiple television sets—which Dad and his coaching friends had been known to do during playoff season.

And there were no Friday night lights. OFA’s games were played on Saturday afternoons, in the oval surrounded by the track behind George Hall Junior High. Cement stairs served as bleachers on one side of the field—where you could get the best view of the cheerleaders in their ankle-length skirts, white round collared shirts and string bow ties—not a sequin or spandex outfit in sight. There was no spandex on the field either, including those tight white pants that we now take for granted. The team was outfitted in heavy canvas pants, laced up flies, heavy leather shoulder pads, and helmets that would not pass the concussion test today. While there was a rather primitive weight room, there were no strength and conditioning machines and routines. The Nautilus equipment philosophy of training with resistance was just emerging. I remember Coach Bill Plimpton (later principal) and Dad holding the first resistance piece of equipment in our basement which was no more than a piece of rope and an adjustable curling bar. OFA’s main rival in those days was Massena, a team that supposedly had better fields and equipment—at least that was the excuse we used when we lost.

We had our Tom Bradys in those days—Mike St. Andrews whose favorite receiver was Jim Blake was the combination that could make us swoon. And the boys had their heroes as well. The NY Giants provided more than one role model. Bob LaRock, better known as “Huff,” wore number 70 in honor of his hero, the great linebacker Sam Huff. Some of the role models did disappoint however. I don’t think the team every quite recovered from discovering that the NY Giant defensive end, Andy Robustelli, number 81, did needlepoint for relaxation, and I know I never got over seeing YA Tittle remove his helmet to reveal an entirely bald head!

Some of the team had some interesting diets to get into shape. Van LaVigne, for example, had the best diet plan I’ve ever known—and I’ve tried them all. He would alternate between eating virtually nothing on one day, and having a vanilla blizzard from Dairy Queen on the next day—all to get in shape for the season.

I don’t think any of the team actually thought they’d play pro ball. But we did have at least one OFA player who revolutionized place kicking in high school, college and the pros. Peter Gogolak and his brother emigrated from Hungary to Ogdensburg, bringing with them their soccer skills—what Europeans refer to as football. Since soccer was not a sport played in the North Country, Coach Plimpton and Dad were completely unprepared for what they were witnessing. Pete kicked bare-foot, striking the ball with his instep instead of his toe. His 41 yard field goal during Cornell’s 1961 season was the first by a soccer style kicker. He went on to play for both the Bills and the Giants and in 2010 was inducted into the Giants’ Ring of Honor.

My personal earliest memories of football are not true memories at all, but rather stories that have been shared with me by my parents. Dad, like many of his generation, fought in WWII and then returned to college on the GI Bill. While Dad was getting his Bachelor’s and Master’s at St. Lawrence, he also worked as trainer for the SLU football team. According to family legend, I often ran through the locker room and sat on the bench with the players. You’d think I’d at least remember the locker room scenes!

My later involvement with football happened as a result of a prank Dad wanted to play on his best friend, Mr. James Seymour (later principal), who had his classroom next to Dad’s. Mr. Seymour was coaching the Junior Varsity team at the time, and (remember these were the days before Title IX and girls’ interscholastic sports) he said there was nothing written that would prevent me and one of my friends from showing up at football sign-up day. Caught up in the joke, Ann Armstrong (make that Theda Ann) and I showed up. Mr. Seymour was not to be outdone. During a scrimmage with Dad’s varsity team, he brought us to the equipment shed, suited us up, complete with shoulder pads and helmets, and had us sit incognito on the bench. Not to be outdone, he put us in for a play—me at center. We got as far as hut 1, hut 2 and, just as I was about the snap the ball, he called time. Lucky us.

Sports dominated my youth. When Dad received his first teaching contract in 1952, he was paid $2,700 for teaching and an extra $500 for “coaching athletics.” Coaching in those days included everything from lining and raking the fields, to occasionally washing the uniforms and anything else that was needed to put a team on the field. It also involved wives who often cooked for the team, kept score and didn’t complain about irregular meals and no family time. Coaches also weren’t specialists. Coaching meant any and all sports and all positions. Although baseball was Dad’s first love, he coached every sport, ending his long tenure coaching girls’ basketball.

This year, with thanks to OFA coaches and administrators, the family will once again sponsor the Annual Ben Cordwell Holiday Basketball Tournament for Girls—number 13.

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