Bruised and tired after another intense football practice, Mike Mealey walked off the field at the University of Maine. He was lost in his thoughts when he felt a hand on his shoulder pads and a voice in his ear.
“Nice job today.”
Mealey looked up and into the eyes of John Wolfgram. It was the fall of 1970, Mealey was a college freshman, and Wolfgram was a graduate assistant and coaching the freshmen linemen.
“He was this regal authority figure you could relate to. He was geninue to you. You wanted to hustle your (butt) off for him,” said Mealey. “Ha, listen to me. It’s been 40 years and I haven’t forgotten what he said to me that day.”
The young college football player needed to hear those three words. That Wolfgram understood was an early indication of how he has picked up young egos and appealed to their sense of teamwork and their competitive natures while he taught them the game.
He has nine years of state championship football memories. He first raised expectations at Madison High, then at Gardiner and South Portland, and now Cheverus. He has delivered state titles at each school.
He is 64 years old and the fires still burn inside. Many of the men he first coached against are gone from the sidelines. Mealey is not one.
The two men will stand on opposing sides today when Lawrence High plays Cheverus for the Class A state title at Fitzpatrick Stadium. Mealey was lured out of retirement this summer by head coach John Hersom to be the Lawrence line coach, a position he held for many seasons under Pete Cooper and later, Scott Walker.
“When I look across the field (at Wolfgram) I see a mentor. I see an attention-to-detail, no-stone-unturned coach. I see a fierce competitor. He’s my buddy but he won’t be when we play the game. He’ll be my buddy again afterward.”
Mealey’s next birthday will be his 60th. He’s had two hip replacements, has arthritis and has taken breaks from coaching. He looks at Wolfgram and marvels how he has stayed on top of his game virtually without letup.
So does Kevin Cooper, whose Bonny Eagle teams have won several state titles.
“I think what he is doing is unbelievable. His record of longevity and success has to be unprecedented. I know he’s not staying around for the money. I think he has an intense drive in coaching the game at a high level, great pride in a job done well.”
“When you have great passion for the game like John has, there’s nothing like the feeling of being on the sideline,” said Pete Cooper, who stepped away from head coaching after his Lawrence team lost to a Wolfgram-coached South Portland team in 1996. “I’ve got a feeling someone taught him the love of the game. I think John’s goal now is to pass that love on for as long as he can.”
Cooper returned to football a year or two later when Kevin Cooper asked his father to join him on the Bonny Eagle staff. At first Pete Cooper begged off, saying he was retired. Now he thanks his son for bringing him back.
“When this game of football gets in your blood, for some it’s there for the rest of your life. I think John feels the same way. It takes a toll. A guy in John’s spot is expected week in and week out to pull a rabbit out of the hat. You’ve got to be able to get away (from the pressure) to recharge.
“I’ve been married 46 years and I love my wife today as much as I did when I asked her to marry me. The support of your family is so important.”
Wolfgram and his wife, Adin, have been married for more than 40 years. After last Saturday’s win over Thornton Academy for the Western Maine title, she and a son and daughters-in-law and grandchildren were on the field waiting for Wolfgram to finish interviews.
His life is in balance. Slow down? Step away? He’s not finished doing what he does so well.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: