St. Paul's Tullai finds poetry in man in motion

JOHN EISENBERG

September 14, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

He was on sabbatical last winter from his job as a history teacher and football coach at St. Paul's School, out in Illinois studying Lincoln, and he found himself looking back at the choices he'd made in his life.

"For the first time in my life really," Mitch Tullai was saying yesterday, "I was asking myself if it would have been better for my family if I'd been a dentist or something."

He was sitting behind a desk in his small office lined with books and portraits of politicians, a trim, tanned, vigorous man of 62. The head coach at St. Paul's for 39 years now, since the start of Eisenhower's presidency. He smiled at his story.

"It didn't take me long to tell myself I'd done the right thing," he said. "Perhaps I would've made more money doing something else, but I've just loved this. Teaching is wonderful. And there's just no substitute for the football."

It's funny. The poets write about the beauty of baseball, about the symmetry and timelessness and yearly renewal of life. They don't write about football. They disparage football.

But there are people out there who feel the renewal in September, not April. People whose pulses quicken because temperatures cool and leaves drop and weekends mean football games. People who look at a rough sport and see the beauty. People like Mitch Tullai.

"The whole process just energizes me," he said. "We start practicing in August every year, and the thought of a whole season ahead, putting together a team, is just exhilarating. There's no feeling like it."

His love is no different than that of those engaged to baseball, an elemental appreciation. His joy comes in watching, say, a perfect block, the lineman's form impeccable, eyes up, base wide, contact held. Or maybe a defender bringing down a runner VTC with a swift, firm, elegant tackle.

"Or designing a play and teaching it to the kids in practice," he said, "and then seeing it work on the field during a game. The satisfaction I get from something like that is tremendous.

"It's a wonderful game, I do believe that. A great strategic challenge as a coach. And one of the last bastions of challenge for these kids. Maybe that sounds high and mighty, but they do get to know themselves a little. Say a blocker comes at him and he's all alone. What's he going to do?"

Perhaps it's not politically correct to so be in love with football today, but it's a lifelong feeling for Tullai and he doesn't begin to apologize. Besides, he is no autocrat. He is the chairman of the history department at one of the city's best private schools, his perspective intact.

He coaches at the lowest level of the high school game, with 30 or 35 players on his team, maybe half of them real contributors. But his delight in doing the right things is no less than Joe Gibbs'.

He scouts opponents, studies films, devises game plans with his two assistants. And then on game days he calls the plays, studying defenses and looking for holes to exploit.

"There's nothing like game days," he said. "You wake up a little more excited, move a little faster. Then for two hours during the game you're in this cocoon. I still get nervous before games. I do."

It's an old habit, impossible to break. There are some around here who still remember him as a star two-way player at Western Maryland, a halfback/safety talented enough to make the Blue-Gray All-Star Game, where he teamed with a lineman from Bucknell named George Young.

He was much too small for the pros, though, and after a year as an assistant coach at a New Jersey high school, he got the job at St. Paul's, as coach and athletic director. He has also coached some basketball, and for years was a top lacrosse official.

Football is his game, though. He has a 185-123 record in 39 years, missing exactly two games, and has won conference championships his last two seasons. He will tell you he loves to win, that there's no shame in feeling badly after a loss, that losses stick with him for a couple of days.

What mostly sticks with him, though, is the game itself. The sight of a kid who has learned to block, or catch a punt, or play pass defense. A misdirection play fooling the defense, as drawn by his hand. His team running crisp, simple plays.

"Sheer, total satisfaction," he said. "The truth is I couldn't have picked a better profession. It never occurred to me until this year, really, that 39 years is a long, long time to be coaching football. That must tell you something. That I enjoy it, right?"

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