GEORGE Young goes to his grave today, but the moment that keeps coming back is eight years ago, and the death of a fellow named Denny Wisner, and the telephone ringing in the kitchen and it was George and his wife, Lovey, calling from a distance of 200 miles and three decades.
"I didn't know you followed Baltimore anymore," I said.
The two of them got so upset at that. "Baltimore," they said, "is our home."
George had been running the New York Giants for years by then, and taking them to championships, but never mind. He'd helped the Baltimore Colts win a Super Bowl, and the Miami Dolphins, too. But Baltimore was their state of mind.
So they wanted to know what had happened to Wisner, a sweet guy who'd died unexpectedly from a stomach infection. Wisner had quarterbacked for George at City College deep in the past, the early 1960s. For George, the past never went away.
"That's the George Young that people don't know about," Lovey Young was saying Sunday night, the night after George died at 71, back in his hometown. "Baltimore, yeah. That's all that mattered. He came back for funerals; he kept up with everybody. He was still calling old high school players' parents. He'd make these crazy trips where he'd rent a car and visit people he knew 40 years ago to make sure they were all right. I'd say, `Why can't they come to you?' He'd say, `Oh, no.' He'd search people out."
That's not the side that George Young showed the world. He had that high-pitched voice that seemed perpetually on the edge of annoyance, and that big sumo-wrestler body. In the old neighborhood, Preston and Ensor streets off lower Greenmount Avenue, George's father had a bar and his mother's family had a bakery. His friend Bob Blatchley used to say that George was born between the bread and the beer - though he laid off enough bread to lose 150 pounds the last few years, and he avoided alcohol all his life.
Ex-vice squad cop George "Puddin'" Barry, who grew up in the same neighborhood, once said, "We'd hire George just to stand on the corner with us. 'Cause who was gonna give us trouble then?"
By the time he got to New York, it wasn't street-corner tough guys who bugged him, but the giant egos of the modern athlete.
"How do you handle a guy like Lawrence Taylor?" I asked him one night last summer. Taylor was the Giants Hall of Fame linebacker with a Hall of Shame off-field history.
"I find out their weaknesses," Young said.
"Lawrence Taylor had a weakness?" I asked.
"He was terrified," said Young, "of his wife."
When George coached at his alma mater, Calvert Hall, and then at City College, he always held his ballplayers up to higher standards than anybody else. Every autumn at City, he'd begin his first team meeting by declaring, "If you don't want to sacrifice each and every day between now and Thanksgiving, leave the room. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor dark of night will keep us from practicing every day."
But you say that, and it misses the greater picture. At City, he understood the chemistry of his teams: a collection of tough kids from every corner of town, some of them lacking family guidance, all of them bursting with adolescent killer instinct, and all imagining eternal football glory.
Young disabused them of that notion real fast. He made sure he saw all players' report cards, even before their parents did. He made sure they wore coats and ties on game days. He taught discipline in ways unthinkable today.
Picture this: November 1962, Kirk Field. In the final couple of minutes between City and Douglass, they're tied 8-8, and City's driving for a game-breaker. The afternoon's raw and rainy, and everyone's cloaked in mud. I'm covering the game for City's student paper, The Collegian. In the closing moments, I wander near Young and hear him call across the field to Tom Duley, the star halfback.
"Duley, Duley," he cries.
Tom doesn't hear him. The rain is spilling, and the mud is everywhere. I'm delighted to be standing here, because I imagine Young's going to call in some secret play for the victory.
Tom finally hears him, and turns around.
Young yells, "Your shirt's not tucked in."
Discipline. It was Duley who ran that famous kickoff back, Thanksgiving Day at Memorial Stadium. With 22 seconds before the half, he goes 85 yards and City beats Poly. Years later, I asked Duley what he was thinking as he crossed the goal line.
"I could hear the crowd," he said, "and I turned and saw everybody running at me. I didn't know what to do. Mr. Young wouldn't allow any hot-dogging. So I dropped the ball and walked back to the bench."
Young's goal was to make citizens out of ballplayers. Some of them, they weren't even his kids. He helped guys from other high schools get into college. Or helped them when they reached the pros.
Jean Fugett played for Cardinal Gibbons High, then went to Amherst, then found himself drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. One night a while back, he was in town, remembering how Young helped him.