WILKES-BARRE — We’ve all had people like this in our lives — people who may have scared the hell out of us one minute and made us laugh uncontrollably the next minute. And these same people, as it turns out, may have taught us more than we ever could have imagined.
There have been several of these people in my life. Today, I will talk about one — the iconic, multi-talented John “Snoggy” Mergo.
Coach Mergo — that’s how we always referred to him — coached football, basketball and baseball at Plymouth High School and won titles in all three sports.
He also taught health, and he gave some of the best tests any kid has ever taken.
These stories have been told and re-told thousands of times, and I am certain they are all true because I was in Coach Mergo’s health class when he administered the tests.
“How many bones in the heart?” he would ask. “True or false?”
Ok, next question.
“You all heard the question, now what’s the answer?” he asked. “Now, it’s not A and it’s not B and if you put down D, that means you’re dumb and don’t know.”
OK Coach, uhhh, C?
And there were so many times, especially when the weather was bright and sunny, that Coach would say to me, “Hey Boylee, check the hallway and see if the big boss is out there.” I would get up from my desk, open the door and peek out, looking up and down the hallway.
“No Coach, nobody out there,” I would say.
Coach Mergo would then tell us to be quiet as he opened the door, telling us to follow him outside where we would play softball for a half hour or so.
This was my kind of health class.
I played sports for Coach Mergo. My best memories are in basketball. This was when Coach Mergo was nearing retirement, and he was no longer head varsity coach. He coached our eighth grade team to a league title. Without exaggeration, it was an experience like that depicted in the movie “Hoosiers.”
In the title game, we were down by a couple of points at halftime, mainly because the other team’s star player had something like 25 points.
Deep in the bowels of the old Plymouth Armory on Girard Avenue, Coach Mergo gave a rousing halftime speech. He looked at me and told me that I had to do something to stop the guy wearing No. 35 from scoring.
“Boylee, I want you to stick with him. I want to know what kind of underwear he’s got on,” he told me, waving his left hand that had but one finger left after a mining accident years earlier. Of course, Coach Mergo had many versions of how he lost the fingers — one being he was wrestling alligators in Florida. Anyway, we all had been victims of that left hand more than once.
For the life of me, I didn’t know how to take that underwear comment. But I did figure out that I had better guard No. 35 pretty close, or Coach Mergo was not going to be happy. Whatever it was, it worked, and we won the game and the title. After the game, Coach Mergo never asked me for the name of the kid’s underwear, which I didn’t know anyway.
When you played for Coach Mergo, you never, ever said you were tired. If you did, you heard this story: “I got tired once,” Coach would say. “I swam halfway across Harveys Lake, but I got tired, so I swam back.”
I remember the first time I heard him tell that. I sat there dumbfounded. It took me a while before I got it, and then I laughed for 10 minutes. My pals and I still tell that story every time we get together, and we still laugh every time.
Coach Mergo was wise beyond his years. He knew how to handle kids and people. He never took himself or life too seriously. In everything Coach Mergo did, there was a lesson to be learned. All you had to do was pay attention.
We all know now that Coach Mergo taught us how to be good students, good athletes, good human beings. He taught us to respect our elders, but to enjoy them as well. He showed us that teachers can be fun, even when they are teaching us lessons that were never printed in text books.
Coach Mergo was proud to be a teacher and prouder yet to be a coach. He loved what he did and he loved the kids he taught so well.
That’s why people like Coach Mergo will live forever.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle, or email at [email protected]