One step at a time, in solemn synchrony, the casket team carried the coffin up the grassy hill on Tuesday at Arlington National Cemetery. Harry Ostro, the beloved Brooklyn high school football coach who launched
working-class ragamuffins into manhood, would have appreciated the teamwork involved in his burial with full military honors.
Ostro, whose burial required a now-customary four-month delay, died in April at 100. He wasn’t supposed to reach his 30th birthday; he’d taken shrapnel in his brain at the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, where he’d been a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne. His survival was iffy — to everyone but him.
He underwent numerous brain surgeries and lived the rest of his life with a metal plate in his head. But that didn’t get in the way of coaching the Lafayette High School football team to undefeated — and unprecedented —
seasons in the 1950s.
He was known for his punishing “fundamentals” — demanding scores of push-ups (his Army nickname was “Push-up”) and laps around the school’s beat-up field. Routines were everything to Ostro. He would surely have admired the crisp formations of the escort platoon, followed by a handful of mourners — including four old players, walking slowly in the heat behind their coach’s horse-drawn casket.
“One more lap for Harry,” one of them said with a chuckle, having spent his teenage years running them.
Ostro would have liked the band (Lafayette didn’t have one, in his day), and the alignment of the firing party, standing ready with its rifles.
He surely would have liked the way, once his casket was lowered to the ground, the flag covering it was folded inch by inch in a well-drilled regimen of trim and focused young men.
The taut triangle was presented on bended knee to Ostro’s youngest son, Darel, 60. Most of those gathered behind him knew Ostro simply as “Coach.” They were in their 70s and 80s, from New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Bethesda, come to bid farewell to the man who was tight-lipped about his heroic World War II service but who shouted from the rooftops what it took to win — in life, as well as football. Ostro’s formula was simple: fitness, discipline and an undefeated spirit.
“We played on a sandlot in back of the high school. It was just dirt,” said Richard Kaufman, 81. Their helmets were scarred, the uniforms had more experience on the field than the boys inside them. Equipment was scarce. The players didn’t hit bags and training sleds; they hit each other.
“But Coach would always tell us, it didn’t matter what kind of equipment you had,” said the compactly built man with a head of gray hair. “It mattered what you had. You had to have it inside.”
I grew up hearing stories about Coach Ostro. Richard Kaufman is my father, and he was captain of Lafayette’s team in 1951, when Ostro’s players were considered the best in New York. He gave them more than gridiron pride. At a time when a tiny percentage of high school graduates got university degrees, in a community of Italian and Jewish immigrants with meager means, most of Ostro’s players went to college. He’d arrange interviews with college representatives, help the kids get scholarships.
Among his players was Sam DeLuca — who played for the National Football League’s New York Jets in the 1960s with Joe Namath — and Al Goldstein of the Oakland Raiders. As Lafayette’s gym teacher, he instructed future Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax and future New York Mets owner Fred Wilpon. Another of his players, John Sprizzo, became a federal judge. My dad was the general counsel of the U.S. Joint Economic Committee.
Ostro “was like a backup father,” said Larry Merchant, 84, the former HBO boxing analyst and sportswriter who was one of Ostro’s star players. He’s also my uncle, my father’s older brother. After Lafayette, he went to the University of Oklahoma, where he played under Bud Wilkinson, the soon-to-be-famous coach. Wilkinson was developing a new formation on the field, called a “split-T,” where the linemen would split off from each other rather than stand toe to toe while protecting the quarterback. After he graduated, Uncle Larry brought the plays back to Ostro and served as his backfield coach. Ostro implemented the split-T, which emphasized speed instead of power, and the other schools couldn’t keep up.
“He had the ability to adapt, just like on the battlefield,” said Uncle Larry. “The old system was so deeply embedded, but gradually he made changes, and he had Lafayette years ahead of the competition.”
Or as Ostro might put it: You do whatever it takes to win. His favorite saying: “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”
At the start of every season, Ostro would give the team a taste of his style. There was little gear in the gym besides ropes, which hung from the ceiling, knotted to create handholds and footholds for the kids. But Ostro “went up hand over hand, not using his feet,” recalled Harry “Pat” Sirkus, 81. “He had enormous upper-body strength. Then he’d drop to the mats below, screaming ‘Geronimo!’ ”
He marveled at Ostro’s longevity. “You think it’s easy getting to your 80s?” he asked as we followed the casket.
“It’s easier to get into your 80s than to get out of them,” said my dad. Well, they might very well last as long as their coach. They’re still trim and lively. Dad still does his Ostro-inspired push-ups. Every day.
Ostro had other rules too. You never cut practice. You didn’t smoke. And you didn’t get too close to the cheerleaders.
The last one was observed in the breach.
“We couldn’t take our eyes off the players, and they couldn’t take their eyes off us,” said former cheerleader Harriet Lippman, 78, who now goes by Lee Hutt. She is petite and pretty, with a perky nose and blond bob; she came from South Hadley, Mass., for the burial of the man whose look of disapproval she hasn’t forgotten. Still, she was devoted to him, and to the team, and came to most of the team’s reunions over the years.
So did Coach Ostro. And he kept up his training.
“Two years ago I asked him, ‘Do you still do push-ups, Coach?’ ” recalled Uncle Larry. “He said, ‘My doctor doesn’t want me to, but I still do ’em.’ ”