Don Dorkowski let us know he had passed up his chance at the pros to coach our high school football team. We showed our appreciation for his sacrifice by going 1-13 over two seasons. He must have hated us. We were terrified of him.
Dorkowski was 5'10" and 240 pounds, a bullnecked, crew-cut tyrant who had been a starter both ways, at fullback and linebacker, for Los Angeles State. He should have gone straight onto an NFL suicide squad.
The Polytechnic School was an elite academic prep school in Pasadena across the street from Cal Tech. The best athlete in the class of '66 was an easygoing tennis star and surf bum. Members of the football team regularly showed up for games red-eyed from studying for Latin exams. Really.
We were the laughingstock of a league that was itself a joke, a league of schools so small that none had enough bodies to play football with 11-man teams. What we played was six-man tackle football, a game that got as much respect as coed volleyball, and deserved less.
With a center, two ends, a quarterback and two halfbacks, the game was handed over to small, elusive passers and ballcarriers. Because blockers and tacklers were spread so sparsely about the field, hitting anyone required speed and technique, skills that could not be learned from ramming blocking sleds or tackling dummies.
But what Dorkowski trained us for was his game: between the tackles. He ran us until we dropped. In 100c-plus heat and September smog we ran 100-yard crabbing drills on all fours, knees off the ground, butts in the air, driven on by fear of our coach. There were no drinking fountains or water buckets at those two-a-days. On the verge of collapse we would be allowed to suck for a few moments on damp towels.
For all this, we remained hopelessly slow and inept. As the losses mounted—42-22, 51-18, 48-0—so did Dorkowski's rage. On Mondays we had to sit through the film of the previous Friday's disaster. Dorkowski took the place of a soundtrack: "I'm going to run this again, Hahn. Five times, Hahn. And if you don't make that tackle by the fifth try, you're going to run laps all afternoon."
Afterward the coach would suit up in his old college uniform and use us for tackling dummies, probably as a means to vent his frustration for the dropped passes and missed tackles. He could only have been hitting us at quarter speed; at full throttle he would have broken us in half. Dorkowski once chased our best player, a halfback, all over the field for managing to evade him in a tackling drill.
Our games, like our practices, were nightmares. There even was a forfeit among our 13 losses. We were losing by our usual four or five touchdowns when angry parents stormed the field and mobbed the referee for throwing two of our pitiful handful of players out of the game. Another time we were invited to the homecoming dance of the school that had just humiliated us. We reciprocated by spending the evening sneering at the elaborate beehive hairdos the victors' girlfriends were still wearing.
Fans were scarce. The students and parents who came out to watch us barely outnumbered the cheerleaders. Then, after two years and a lone, lucky win out of 14 games, Dorkowski was gone.