Johns Hopkins senior quarterback Zach DiIonno has heard the message so many times from his head coach. Enjoy the moment. Live for the present. Do everything as if it's the last time you're going to do it.
For four years, DiIonno and the rest of the Blue Jays seniors have listened to and played hard for Jim Margraff. Day by day over the past 16 seasons, the former star quarterback at Hopkins has transformed the program at his alma mater and become its most successful coach.
The Blue Jays (7-1, 4-1) are on the edge of a milestone achievement. They have clinched a share of the Centennial Conference championship for the fourth straight season. They might have to beat state rival McDaniel on Nov. 12 to win their first league title outright and gain their first berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs by virtue of an automatic bid.
To DiIonno, the Margraff philosophy goes deeper this fall, means more than the 35-6 record produced thus far by the senior class, the best record of any class in school history. The Margraff advice has carried added weight ever since he called that team meeting last March and shocked his players with the news in that matter-of-fact way of his.
It was time for Margraff to address a medical condition he had been tracking for nearly 15 years, a condition that would prove fatal if left alone. It was time for doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital to perform open-heart surgery on Margraff to correct a congenital defect in his aorta, a problem his doctors believe suddenly took the life of Margraff's father in June 1984, at age 48.
"We're all sitting in the locker room like `What the?' and [Margraff] is talking about it like it's an everyday issue, don't worry about it, we're going to take care of it," DiIonno said. "[Before the announcement] there wasn't any kind of faltering in his approach, his attitude or his intensity. We didn't see it coming at all."
Margraff, who will turn 46 in April, has never been comfortable talking about himself. Compliment him on his 101-56-3 record at Hopkins, and he redirects the praise to his assistants and all of those talented recruits, the future surgeons, engineers and businessmen who have poured their extracurricular passion into football.
The list of graduates who played for Margraff includes Mike House (class of 1994), who is now a chief resident in surgery at Hopkins. During Margraff's procedure on March 11, House performed heart surgery in an adjacent room, and finished in time to observe part of his old coach's procedure.
After missing much of spring football, Margraff had a follow-up operation in June that required a weeklong hospital stay, yet was back on the field for the start of fall practice on Aug. 13. He battled some fatigue early on, but has not skipped a day of work this season.
Margraff had a faulty valve replaced with a mechanical valve at the root of his aorta. The new valve ensures that blood will be pumped properly, while eliminating the threat of fluid leaking into the left ventricle - the main pumping chamber of the heart - which ultimately leads to an aortic rupture and heart failure. This is the slow, silent killer that took the life of actor John Ritter more than two years ago.
"Some people look at this as a real tough thing to take. I look at it as a positive. It's a gift," said Margraff.
"It was a blessing to find this. There's no symptoms, no pain. You're not lethargic. There's been some heart disease in my family. We isolated what we believed the problem was. I'm at a place where I've got access to the best doctors in the world at the best hospital in the world."
"Jim must have watched that surgery [performed] online 40 times. And he still asked me, `Am I crazy letting someone crack my chest open?"' said Alice Margraff, Jim's wife and the mother of their three children - Megan, 10, James, 8, and Will, 5. Alice, who, like Jim, is a member of the Hopkins Athletics Hall of Fame, starred in field hockey, lacrosse and squash and is now a guidance counselor at McDonogh School.
"College counseling seemed like life and death sometimes. This puts a lot of things in perspective."
Margraff's love of the game took him to brief, assistant coaching jobs in the 1980s before Hopkins came looking for someone to revive its program in 1990. He said he's never pursued another job.
The all-time leader at Hopkins for touchdown passes, pass attempts, completions and yardage, Margraff has won at Homewood with wide-open offenses and more conservative attacks, depending on his personnel. And he has won more lately by recruiting student-athletes with more size, speed and talent to go with their high grade point averages.
"Hopkins football was probably at the bottom of the barrel when he took over the program," said House, who advised his coach for years about his condition.
This year's team starts with defense and poise. The Blue Jays have allowed an average of 8.1 points - third-best in Division III - and have won three games by a field goal or less. They erased a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit on the road on Oct. 22 to edge Muhlenberg, 13-10. That cleared the path to a possible conference title.
Just as he did the night Hopkins beat Gettysburg, 14-0, to record his 100th victory, the night Margraff fidgeted on the field as his milestone was announced over the public address system, the best head coach in school history refused to get wrapped up too much in his achievements.
"If you start looking at other things, you don't accomplish what needs to be accomplished in the short run," Margraff said. "You've got to play well and win. Be in a position in the fourth quarter to enjoy it. We never talk about those numbers. It's about the next game, the next win and enjoying the journey." firstname.lastname@example.org