LEWISTON – David Pless, Ethan Waldman and Chris Murtagh need a collective nickname, something that sets them apart. Something like the Three Tenors, which they are not. Or the Three Amigos, which is true, but not exactly right. The Three Throwers is too prosaic.
“I call them the Three All-Americans,” said Al Fereshetian, the Bates College track coach. You can’t top that.
Pless is the new NCAA Division III indoor champion in the shot put. Waldman placed sixth at the national meet in that event. Murtagh was sixth in the 35-pound weight throw. That qualifies them as All-Americans.
Their story could end right here. Throwers are about as anonymous as tuba players in a symphony orchestra. Away from their small circles, they rarely hear the applause that’s for them alone when their performances reach new heights. Musicians or athletes, there is a grace to their work that isn’t appreciated. The oompahs and grunts notwithstanding.
The Three All-Americans have a back story that begins in sorrow. Joe Woodhead, the legendary throwing coach at Bates and football coach of five state championship teams at Lisbon High before that, died in October from a heart attack at age 76. The start of the indoor track season was about to begin. With a combination of bluster, compassion and technical insight, his coaching produced 44 All-Americans.
Count Pless, Waldman and Murtagh as three more. Woodhead was no longer in their ears. He was in their heads and hearts. Daily, in Bates’ Merrill Gymnasium, they worked out in the throwing area that bears his name. They walked past an easel that displayed his photos and a few of his favorite observations. “Tighten up those turns. You got one foot in Lewiston and the other in Aroostook County.” And, “Throw far. If not, I’m gonna reach down your throat and pull out your heart.”
“He cared about the athlete,” said Pless, a sophomore from Georgia. “If you respected him, you got the respect back. I could feel him (at the national meet in Columbus, Ohio, nearly two weeks ago.) When I stood in the (shot put) circle, he was the wind beneath my feet.”
Murtagh, a senior from Rowley, Mass., has a photo of Woodhead on his bureau. “You could see the football coach in him. Gruff. But he had a warm edge. He was a heart-warming big bear.”
Woodhead was a big man. He had gained weight in later years and may have been close to 300 pounds, says Murtagh, who might know. Murtagh rescued his coach from possible further injury last winter during a meet at MIT. After looking left and right, Woodhead started to cross the track when the lead runners in the 400-meter dash rounded the turn and were suddenly on him. Woodhead couldn’t get off the track in time.
Woodhead went down in the collision. His femur was broken. He couldn’t get back to his feet and another group of runners was coming. Murtagh understood the situation and ran to his coach. “He was more embarrassed than he was in pain. I put both arms under him and lifted. I don’t know how I carried him off the track.” It was an effort others in the Bates family now call heroic. Murtagh stands about 6 feet and weighs 210 pounds.
Woodhead pushed his recovery to return for last year’s outdoor season, even if it meant coaching from his truck. This winter, Murtagh dedicated his season to Woodhead in ways the rest of us may not understand. In their own way, so did Pless and Waldman. Each motivated and supported the other. Three distinct personalities melded. Pless, the introspective philosophy and history major, Waldman, a mature free-spirit from Southern California and health and society major who was in only his second year of throwing the shot. Murtagh is the engaging co-captain majoring in politics. They were Coach Joe’s boys.
“All three are scholar-athletes,” said Fereshetian. “They don’t compromise academically, they don’t compromise athletically.” At the NCAA Division III meet, it is customary for coaches to present the All-American plaques to their athletes. Fereshetian usually hands that honor to his assistant coaches who work with the runners and jumpers and throwers. Woodhead must have been on his mind when Fereshetian presented the hardware to Pless — a converted baseball player — Waldman and Murtagh.
In less than three months, the three can have encore performances at the outdoor national meet, although their definition of encore sounds different. If they throw farther than before but don’t make All-Americans because others threw farther, they will have succeeded.
Joe Woodhead would understand.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: