Monday, September 26, 2016

Godspeed, You Handsome Devil

“This is not some apron-wearing mother you're speaking with - I know all about your Valhalla of decadence and I shouldn't have let him go. He's not ready for your world of compromised values and diminished brain cells that you throw away like confetti. Am I speaking to you clearly? If you break his spirit, harm him in any way, keep him from his chosen profession, which is law - something you may not value, but I do - you will meet the voice on the other end of this telephone and it will not be pretty. Do we understand each other? I didn't ask for this role, but I'll play it. Now go do your best. Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid. Goethe said that. It's not too late for you to become a person of substance, Russell.” - Frances McDormand to Billy Crudup in "Almost Famous"

Suzanne Zywicki is the second of five sisters.

In order, it's Ellen, Suzanne, Carol and then the identical twins, Nancy and Patty. They grew up in the house next door to TigerBlog, back in Manalapan.

Suzanne is a year older than TigerBlog. She went from Manalapan to Princeton, where she was a high jumper for Peter Farrell on the women's track and field team.

TigerBlog hadn't seen Suzanne in decades before Saturday night, when she was one of several hundred people who turned out to honor Farrell, who retired at the end of the 2015-16 academic year after 39 years - 117 seasons - coaching Princeton in women's cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field.

Suzanne and TigerBlog weren't the only two Manalapan High School alums at the event. Robby Andrews, the volunteer assistant men's cross country coach at Princeton, was also there for Peter.

Robby, of course, ran the 1,500 in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, and he was the subject - victim? - of a questionable call that DQd him after the semifinal round. Had he reached the final, he would have had a real shot at a medal.

Suzanne wanted to meet Robby, so TigerBlog introduced them. They talked about where they lived in Manalapan - Robby grew up on the other side of Route 9 - and track and field, especially the Millrose Games.

This was all during the cocktail hour portion of the evening. 

TigerBlog recognized Suzanne immediately, even after all these years. He also recognized many of the other faces of the alums during his time here, even if he couldn't come up with most of the names that matched. It was like all of the old media guides had come to life, with all of the head shots in them suddenly walking, talking and reminiscing.

There were also colleagues - current and former - and friends and relatives. Even Hank Towns, the former equipment manager, was there.

They came from everywhere and anywhere, from the 1970s through the current athletes. They drove in. They flew in. They came from this country and other countries.

Heck, they even came from before Peter ever coached at Princeton, back to when he coached at Christ the King High School in Queens, before he came to Princeton as its first full-time women's track and field coach.

Why were they there? Because they love the guy, that's why. 

By now, Peter's resume is familiar to you. He and men's coach Fred Samara started at Princeton on the same day, Sept. 1, 1977. When the women’s cross country team won the Heptagonal championship a year ago, it gave Peter 27 Heps championships. In his time at Princeton, there were 117 Heps championships won in women’s cross country and track and field, and Peter Farrell’s teams won more than 20 percent of them.

Peter also coached 55 All-Americas and 182 Ivy League champions. He led the program to the Ivy League Triple Crown - winning all three Heps championships in one academic year - in both 1980-81 and 2010-11 and is the only Ivy women's coach ever to achieve this feat even once.

He always was so much more than as a coach, though. TigerBlog has known him for more than a quarter-century, and he has seen first-hand the dynamic that existed between him and many of the athletes in the room last night.

They respect him. They are humored by him. They were challenged by him.

They love him.

And that's why they were there.

It was a night of a reunions, and different from Reunions in that it wasn't primarily major years represented. Instead, as Peter said, there were former freshmen back with their captains.

There was a video. There were speeches, of course. One athlete from each decade. Two longtime former rival coaches, Mark Young of Yale and Lou Duesing of Cornell. It became something of a roast.

Sue Shea O'Connell spoke too. She is a Villanova grad, Class of 1982. And Christ the King, Class of 1978, where her coach was a young Peter Farrell. And why did she and so many of her high school teammates decide to run track in the first place?

"Because," she said, "Peter was soooooooo hot."

At one point, TigerBlog began to wonder why Peter started coaching women in the first place, and the answer was actually given to him a few seconds later by one of the speakers. It was to see if women could have the same experience from the sport that Peter and his brothers did. TigerBlog never thought of that.

Then it was Peter's turn to speak.

TigerBlog was all the way in the back of a packed room, but Peter's 30-minute talk wasn't much different than all the other ones TB has heard him give when it was just the two of them in TB's office for all these years.

Peter is the kind of person you can listen to talk for a long time, because what he's saying is so profound and how he's saying it is so entertaining. He didn't disappoint Saturday night.

He started out by saying that he had lost his notes, or someone had taken them, but it didn't matter, because every word on those notes had already been said over and over. So then, he said, he would rehash what had been said, only this time from the coach's perspective.

And so he did, asking different groups to stand up. He recognized basically everyone all over again, commenting on them from his point of view. He mentioned the pioneers of women's track and field at Princeton. He mentioned the first recruited athletes - classes that included Suzanne Zywicki. He talked about the modern era. He talked about the next generation of Princeton women's track and field coaches - Michelle Eisenreich, Brad Hunt and Reuben Jones - and the support that he knows they can count on from those in the room going forward.

More than anything else, he talked about his family, his two daughters, Virginia, who graduated from Princeton in 2013, and Susan, who is a senior now. Have you picked a thesis topic yet, Peter asked her. He said that they were good kids, the kind who never embarrassed him, even if he constantly embarrassed them.

And then there's his wife Shane, who also recently retired from Princeton. You're going to have a great retirement, Peter promised her.

Lastly, he said that for him, it wasn't about all the winning - which is something you can say when you've won as much as he has. It was about helping his athletes, either to get into Princeton, or to get through Princeton, or to give them something - the track and field program - to help them on a daily basis with the rigors of Princeton. If he'd done that, he said, then he was happy.

Of course he did that. For 39 years.

An emotional Peter ended his speech with these words: "It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to."

A funny Sue Shea O'Connell ended her part by saying "Godspeed, you handsome devil." That was pretty good.


He's going to end where he started today, in the movie "Almost Famous." TigerBlog and Peter have talked about that movie as much as they have any other, and the quote TB started with today is Peter's favorite.

TigerBlog has heard Peter recite it a bunch of times. Peter says it better than Frances McDormand, and she was nominated for an Academy Award for the movie.

Whenever TigerBlog thinks of Peter Farrell, he'll think of those words.

That's Peter in a nutshell. Don't try to BS me, he's saying. Be a person of substance.

Now go do your best. Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.

For 39 years, he was the mighty force, coming to the aid of the hundreds who were there for him Saturday night.

When Peter was finished, TigerBlog turned and walked out the door on the far side. He never said goodbye to Peter; the line would be way too long.

At some point soon, Peter will come by. He'll talk about the next great movie he wants TB to see, or the next great live performance he heard on E Street Radio.

He'll do what he always does, which is to start to say something funny, walk away, pause, and throw the punchline out there. By the time it reaches TB, Peter will be around the corner and on his way.

Gone, in the moment, but never to be forgotten. Not by TigerBlog. Not by Princeton.

And definitely not by all of the women who were there for his big night, all of the women who were so proud to call him their coach - just as TigerBlog is proud to call him his friend.

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