By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Sawyer McElhatton)
Bishop Ireton was down 30-0 to rival Paul VI near halftime Saturday afternoon when a group of men began gathering behind the Cardinals bench.
Wearing Ireton jerseys — with names like Behan, Knight and Prokop — they hugged, shook hands and laughed. They marveled at the shape of Fannon Field’s synthetic surface, recalling the mud, grass and rocks from when they played.
Instead of footballs, many were stooped over chasing toddlers. And while many hadn’t talked in years, they effortlessly eased back into conversations as if they were at high school football practice two decades earlier.
Now in their mid- to late-30s, the men belonged to one or both of the consecutive Ireton championship teams of 1992 and ’93. The celebrated squads featured the explosive Wing T offense and boasted a head coach who still does his best to deflect any credit.
Still, the former players surrounding Chip Armstrong talked about how their head coach taught them not only to win, but also how to do well in life after football.
“One of Coach Armstrong’s great quotes is: ‘The way you practice is the way you play,’” said Wes Kaupinen, who was a sophomore running back on the ’93 team. “There are no miracles on game day. What’s behind that quote is no matter what you’re doing, you come every day with an intensity and a focus on performing.”
Armstrong’s first year in ’91 saw Ireton go 5-5. And things started slowly the following year. The team’s 1-2 record gave no indication that their season would end with a state title.
But players recalled a mid-year, pregame locker room speech by Ross Dessert, a captain and starting fullback. He talked about “Cardinal Pride” and the importance of making your mark while you can. And the pep talk fueled the team’s decisive win over Paul VI and carried over through the rest of the ’92 season.
The consensus behind the sidelines Saturday was that the ’92 and ’93 teams were the best in school history. Yet that wasn’t what was most important looking back all these years later.
“I owe everything to this school,” said Lenny Scarola, known among teammates as Ireton’s version of NFL great Dick Butkus. “I met my wife here. We’ve got kids. I’m still friends with these guys today.
“I can’t believe the time flies so fast. I got an email saying it’s been 20 years, and I just couldn’t believe it.”
While Scarola is now a successful entrepreneur with a home improvement business, former teammates talked about him as an intense linebacker who — at the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship at Byrd Stadium in ’93 — shut down Paul VI star Jamie Stafford.
The teammates came from as far away as Seattle for the reunion. Several enlisted in the military, including Rick Capta, Marty Weeks and Bill Gallagher, a two-way starter at tight end and defensive end who later became a Navy Seal. Others went to top-ranked colleges and did well in the business world.
“Coach took a bunch of kids who had no real physical talent or speed and turned them into a winning team,” said Chris Colbert, the star quarterback on both teams. “Nobody was particularly big or strong or fast, but it all just seemed to work. We just clicked.”
Under Armstrong, the team adopted the Wing T offense, which uses multiple running backs and the quarterback to employ lots of fakes and misdirection. To execute the strategy, you need a solid offensive line.
And like any good quarterback, Colbert is quick to praise his line. Players also credited assistant coach Dick Combs for helping them implement the offense.
Allan Kaupinen, vice president of the nonprofit Alexandria Sportsman’s Club, watched the ’93 season unfold from the sidelines during practices and games because his son, Wes Kaupinen, was on the team.
“I’m really close to my kids, and to this day, Wes talks about the coach,” Allan Kaupinen said. “Coaches, beyond mothers and fathers, are often the biggest influence in a young person’s life.”
Armstrong looks the part. He’s solidly built and tall, exuding authority. But he’s also humble. Talking about his accomplishments as a coach doesn’t come easy.
For as much as he thoroughly enjoyed catching up with his old players, he was hardly eager to take any credit for their accomplishments on or off the field.
“It’s been a very humbling experience,” Armstrong said. “I’ve been a coach for 30 years, and this was a great group of kids with great parents. I don’t remember one time where a kid was talking back to me or to any of the coaches, not once.
“I was younger back then, maybe a little more enthusiastic. It was just such a fun time. And I think that sometimes gets lost. It’s the ability to have fun, that’s what it’s all about.”
Just then, Ireton scored a late touchdown. While the Cardinals lost 44-21, the former players on the sidelines erupted.
“Look at this!” one yelled. “What a run! What a run!”
Indeed, for the Cardinals of the early 1990s, what a run it was.