Fifty years, in this era of me-first and want-it-yesterday, constitutes an eternity no matter what you’re doing.

Researching the cure for cancer. Saving for retirement. Keeping a family intact. Simply working.

All require a level of commitment and concentration that only a minority of the population can comprehend.

I would have mentioned coaching, if not for the utter absurdity of the suggestion. There’s still a chance in hell that somebody would tackle one of those other endeavors and beat the odds. But certainly no sucker starting a career today would live to tell about carrying a dry-erase marker or wearing a whistle in 2060.

Times and sports have changed, and not completely for the better. That’s what makes it infinitely sadder every time we lose an institution such as Joe Woodhead.

Woodhead, 76, died unexpectedly Monday, leaving his stamp on thousands of bodies, minds, lives and careers.


In researching the man’s life and times, I hoped to unearth enough heartfelt anecdotes, one-line epitaphs and pearls of second-hand wisdom to wave a tribute story. Instead, I reaped enough material for a book.

Never have I written about a local sports personality who engendered such universal love and respect in the young people who blocked, tackled or threw heavy metal under his tutelage.

Oh, there have been beloved coaches and teachers who treated others’ children with a care befitting their own. Heroes, all. But nothing rivaling the outpouring of laughter, tears and reverence I witnessed in Woodhead’s memory.

Some of it is a product of that longevity. No, my first word wasn’t a typo. That was 50, as in five-oh-my-goodness.

Woodhead stuck around so long in sports and education that he essentially enjoyed two separate careers, each worthy of a hall of fame on its own merits.

He taught physical education and coached football, wrestling and track and field at Lisbon High School. In 27 years as leader of the Greyhounds’ football program, Woodhead guided them to five state championships.


Despite his look as the gruff, barrel-chested, full-bellied football coach from central casting, Woodhead never lost track of his priorities as an educator. He understood that the real trophies in high school athletics took the form of lives molded, goals set, attitudes changed.

The legacy from Chapter One of Woodhead’s career is embodied in the current Lisbon athletic department, where more coaches than not either played for him or learned as one of his assistants.

Credit the community, too. The combined tenure of Lisbon’s varsity coaches trumps that of any other school in our coverage area. It’s a school whose parents and fans generally get it, allowing coaches to coach and players to play and learn.

Woodhead’s former players noted that nobody bristled when the coach raised his voice or grabbed one of them by the collar to reinforce a point.

That brand of tolerance and support is in short supply these days. That’s why coaching vacancies are rampant and why the pool of applicants to fill them is more shallow than ever.

Could a man with Woodhead’s personality begin a career today, last 27 years and be so beloved at the end of it? The question is worth asking, because the answer speaks volumes about what we value.


Woodhead was born at the right time. And he put in his time. Nobody would have begrudged him a whit had he done the math, cashed his retirement checks and rested on the laurels of a job well done.

Instead, he reinvented himself and wrote Chapter Two, devoting another quarter-century to the track and field program at Bates College.

The commitment was year-round, indoor and outdoor, as Woodhead conveyed his knowledge and love of competition to athletes young enough to be his grandchildren. Great-grandchildren, eventually.

This was no in-and-out, bare-minimum, pick-up-the-stipend gig. Woodhead’s work ethic wouldn’t allow such nonsense. He spent hours dissecting film, able to pick up nuances in a hammer or weight thrower’s technique that most other coaches’ naked eyes couldn’t see.

As for his office hours, well, this is Bates, where academics come first and the rigorous class schedule and odd hours don’t discriminate. Whether a pupil needed Woodhead to watch his or her workout at noon or 7 p.m., he was there.

The relationship between Woodhead and his athletes paid phenomenal dividends in the pit. Six national championships. Forty-four All-America distinctions.


But again, the lessons that carried beyond the walls of Merrill Gymnasium were greater still, with a much longer shelf life.

I had the privilege of listening to an attorney, a priest and an aspiring Olympian eulogize Woodhead on Tuesday. Each ascribed to him a greater impact on their personal lives than upon their fleeting athletic careers.

Last time I checked, that was the reason interscholastic sports exist.

The world has changed. So have the games people play. With that in mind, it is with certainty and sadness that I declare there never will be another coach like Joe Woodhead.

But if you have a connection to Lisbon High School or Bates College, you already knew that.

Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is [email protected]

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