Editor’s note: One in a series profiling the 2012 Maine Sports Hall of Fame inductees.
ORONO, Maine — Walter Abbott’s career at the University of Maine nearly ended before it began.
The Rumford native reported to campus in 1954 and arrived at Memorial Gym to pick up his football gear. He was greeted in the equipment room by two tattooed Korean War veterans, who also were freshmen.
“I was a farm boy and a baby and I said to myself, ‘Get out of here, what are you doing in this place?’” said Abbott, who was intimidated by the situation.
On his way out, intent on giving up football, Abbott walked past the office of UMaine assistant coach Sam Sezak, who recognized him.
“Are you Abbott from Rumford?” Sezak asked the former Stephens High School three-sport standout.
“I’m Abbott, yes, sir,” he replied.
“I’m coach Sezak, I’m looking forward to working with you,” the coach said.
Surprised and flattered, Abbott fibbed when asked if he had picked up his gear. Sezak led him back to the equipment room, and the two freshman “gorillas.”
“He said, ‘Excuse me, men, this guy’s going to be a great player at Maine. He’s a special person to us, so take good care of him,’” Abbott recalled.
“People don’t understand, a few small words can go a long way to shaping a life,” Abbott said.
Abbott spent most of the next 55 years at the University of Maine — four years as a player, seven as an assistant coach and nine as the Black Bears head man.
He made sure to pass along the power of positive reinforcement during a half-century educating students on the field, in the classroom and in the outdoors.
Abbott will be honored for his coaching contributions May 20 when he is inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame at the Bangor Civic Center.
The 37th MSHOF class also includes Phillip Coulombe, Emily Ellis, Ed Guiski, Matt Hancock, Dennis Libbey, Howard Vandersea and Dana Wilson.
“It’s a nice honor and I’m very appreciative,” Abbott said.
Abbott played at UMaine under Harold Westerman from 1954-57, then helped Sezak coach the freshman squad in the fall of 1958.
“It was a nice family atmosphere and they taught us a lot,” Abbott said of his coaches, including Westerman, Jim Butterfield and Jack Butterfield.
He spent the 1959 season working with Lawrence High football coach Dick McGee.
“You talk about someone who’s been a mentor to coaches and to help people,” Abbott said of McGee, who was among several influential coaches Abbott encountered.
In 1960, Abbott joined Westerman’s UMaine staff. He served as an assistant until 1967, when he was named the head coach. Abbott’s teams compiled a 27-53 overall record, earning a share of the Yankee Conference title in 1974.
“There wasn’t a scholarship dollar that was ever spent, not one penny,” he pointed out. “We had wonderful kids who were so loyal to the program and loyal to each other.”
Jack Cosgrove, UMaine’s head coach since 1993, played two seasons under Abbott, his longtime mentor and friend. The confidence Abbott showed in a young quarterback from Massachusetts inspired Cosgrove.
“Walt gave me an opportunity to come here and get a degree and play college football,” Cosgrove said.
“Walt had a big-picture look at things,” he added. “It wasn’t just about playing football. It was about getting your degree and growing from boys to men. I learned a lot from him about how to deal with students and student-athletes.”
Abbott values the guidance of his high school coaches, including Ralph Parmigiane, Ray Baum and John Dickson. He and Parmigiane still talk and play golf — 59 years later.
Abbott said the joy of coaching is to “be able to help them get a philosophy on life and get a focus as to where they should be heading.”