'He's a coach, not a cop' Mentor: Officer Jeff Boller, who coaches football part time at an Essex high school, is known for coaching "by his action, not by yelling."

November 02, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

For Anthony Lawston, surviving Baltimore County's tough Eastside means achieving academic excellence, catching lots of footballs and trusting a cop named Jeff Boller.

Lawston, a sophomore at Eastern Technical High School in Essex, is one of the school's 20 varsity players who have learned patience, self-discipline and a novel way to win with Boller -- an Essex precinct officer, assistant coach and former college all-star linebacker.

"He coaches by his action, not by yelling," said Lawston, an honors student who was fourth among high school receivers in )) Maryland his freshman year and among the leaders this season.

"Where I grew up, police officers were always locking somebody but on the field, he's just a very good coach committed to all of us," Lawston said. "He doesn't know it, but I learn a lot of the intangibles from him."

Football at Eastern once was bleak. Last year, the players had no weight room and usually were dwarfed by stronger opponents. The majority of the squad had to play offense and defense. They won one game the entire season.

This year, the team has a well-stocked conditioning room, could wind up 7-3 and most of the seniors are going to college or into the military. They carry a 5-3 record into today's contest against Randallstown -- with most of the players still playing offense and defense because of the small squad.

Another player who appreciates Boller's style and guidance is Larry Jaski, who carries a 4.0 grade average, works at a part-time job after practice and completes his homework long after midnight.

"Last year, when we went 1-9, we learned a lot how to deal with adversity," said Jaski, who wants to be a Marine Corps officer.

"Coach Boller and the other coaches didn't destroy or embarrass us when mistakes were made," Jaski said. "When you do anything you select in life, you have to be all business, you have to be intense, and that's Coach Boller. To me, he's a coach, not a cop."

Eastern Principal Robert Kemmery says Boller "sends the right message. He shows up, he's excellent at what he does, he cares. He understands the bad side on the streets where he works, so it's critical to have role models like him."

In eastern Baltimore County, officials face difficult educational challenges. Truancy and illiteracy rates are high. Student turnover is a serious problem in elementary and middle schools. And the area has the county's lowest per capita income and highest crime rate.

Boller, who played football at Towson State University, is joined on the Eastern coaching staff by another county officer, Sgt. Scott McElfish of the Woodlawn precinct, a former Frostburg State University quarterback. They are paid assistant coaches who work with the team in their off-duty hours.

For the soft-spoken Boller, coaching the past two seasons has restored his faith in young adults. What he saw constantly in heavy crime areas such as Riverdale Village and Villages of Tall Trees "had me believing we were running out of kids who care about their future."

Head coach Nick Arminio, who first saw police officers working as assistant football coaches while teaching in New Jersey, calls them a key ingredient in the team's turnaround.

"Jeff and Scott bring so much to the team," said Arminio. "They have college-level playing experience and are quiet leaders who do everything from teaching technique to driving the kids home at night. Their commitment speaks volumes."

Both officers work the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. That allows them to sleep, go to court, tend to their families and show up for practice at 3 each afternoon.

"There are days when we just don't sleep," said Boller, a father of two daughters, 3 and 11.

He grew up in Middle River and admits to "fighting for what I believed in. I never gave up, even against the bullies. I guess playing sports at a young age kept me from turning the wrong way, doing the wrong things."

Gordy Combs, Towson State University's football coach, remembers Boller reporting as a freshman "rough around the edges. The first week in practice he got into a fight and I threw him off the field.

"But by his senior year there had been tremendous growth. He was my defensive signal caller, left a very skilled player and he's in the university's hall of fame."

The demand on Boller's time sometimes strains his family life but his wife, Vikki, said "he knows the girls and I are his foundation, we're always there for him. The social worth of what he does, that he always wants to make a difference, touches me. He's inspired a lot of kids to go to school, stay in school, has shown them hope.

"If he reaches one kid a season, that's more than most people will do their entire lives."

Pub Date: 11/02/96

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