WINSLOW, Maine — Joseph Hopkins didn’t have to look far to find subject matter when tasked by his English teacher last year to write an essay on an inspirational figure in his life.
The Winslow High School football standout selected one of his coaches, longtime Black Raiders defensive coordinator Jim Poulin, whom he saw not only as a mentor but also as a survivor.
“It’s incredible what he goes through to be out here with us,” said Hopkins.
Poulin appreciates the kind thoughts, but he doesn’t see himself as an inspirational presence as he continues to coach despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1995 and confined to a wheelchair since 2002.
“I’m a blessed man. I really am,” said the 63-year-old Poulin, who has coached football and other sports at his alma mater since 1974. “If you want to feel sorry for someone, feel sorry for children and teenagers who are not able to do things the ‘normal’ teenagers are able to do.”
Poulin, head coach Mike Siviski and the rest of the Black Raiders will converge on Portland’s Fitzpatrick Stadium on Saturday afternoon as 10-1 Winslow faces 10-1 Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft for the Class C state championship.
Poulin will be coaching just like he has since taking over the school’s freshman program in 1974. Only his mode of transportation on the field — a golf cart driven by Poulin’s football coach at Winslow back in the mid- and late 1960s, Wally LaFountain — will be different.
“I’m just another human being doing the best he can,” he said after a practice this week. “I have a challenge, which is very noticeable, but I don’t feel like today I’m going to continue to push forward in football because I’m an inspiration. I do it because I love being there. It’s fun. I never even think of it in any other way.”
Others certainly do.
“Coach Poulin puts everything he has into this,” said senior defensive back Adam Pelletier. “We realize that, so we do the best we can for him. We want to win for him.”
A proud Black Raider heritage
Poulin grew up during the 1950s and 1960s in Winslow, then a proud mill town whose skyline was dominated by smokestacks from the paper mill just a few hundred yards from the goalposts on the high school football field.
His dad, Gerry, was an insurance salesman and proud supporter of all things involving Winslow sports — so much so that after his death the football field at the school was named in his memory.
Sports were a prominent part of his son’s upbringing, from the time 9-year-old Jim turned double plays with Siviski in Little League baseball to his turn at Winslow High School, where he played baseball, basketball and was a tight end and defensive back in football during the mid- and late-1960s.
“We had winning seasons every year,” said Poulin with a smile on his face.
After marrying his high school sweetheart and graduating from Thomas College in Waterville with a degree in business education, Poulin had no real interest in teaching and coaching anywhere but back in his hometown.
That dream came true in 1973 when he landed a job as a business teacher at the the high school. A year later, he began coaching freshman football and junior varsity boys basketball.
“They didn’t have any coaching jobs my first year,” said Poulin. “If there had been a Winslow High School tiddlywinks team, I’d have coached it, but it was good there wasn’t anything open because I was able to get my feet under me academically.”
Jim and Diane Poulin went on to enjoy a comfortable life in their hometown, highlighted by raising their daughters Jenny and Heather.
Poulin stayed active athletically, running in the 1980 Maine Coast Marathon from Kennebunk to Biddeford Pool as well as in numerous shorter road races. He played in local softball and men’s basketball leagues and climbed Mount Katahdin in 1985 with LaFountain and participants in the Maine-Nebraska wrestling exchange program his former football coach had founded.
Poulin also remained heavily involved in coaching, branching out through the years to include varsity stints in boys basketball, girls basketball and track and field, as well as subvarsity softball and football, from where he joined Siviski’s varsity staff after 13 years as the freshman coach and became the Black Raiders’ defensive coordinator during the early 1990s.
“Mike’s been real good to me,” said Poulin. “He’s given me the opportunity to have a lot of say when, in fact, if I’m not doing my job it’s his head that’s on the chopping block, so I’m very fortunate that Mike trusts me enough to say go ahead and do this or do that. I’m very happy to have been coaching with Mike.”
Jim and Diane Poulin were spending a few days in Old Orchard Beach during the April school vacation in 1990 when he came down with what he describes as “the worst flu I ever had.”
Only this time, he never fully recovered.
“I never regained my stamina, and my energy level just kept going down,” said Poulin. “I kept thinking it might be my age and maybe I wasn’t in good shape, so I pushed myself harder and exercised more.
“Being the rocket scientist I am, I kept doing this all on my own for five years,” he said. “Then in the August before we started school in 1995 I said I’m really going to go at it hard exercising and if I didn’t feel any better at the end of the month, I’d contact my doctor.”
As he tried to exercise his way back to good health, Poulin also researched possible causes for his lethargy.
“We came to school before the kids did for teachers’ workshops, and I spent my free time in the library starting to scour through different things,” he said. “I looked up cancer and some other things, and then I came to MS and you could have substituted my name in there for how I felt.”
Poulin soon was referred to a neurologist, who ordered several tests to determine what the coach already knew.
“As soon as the results came back, the neurologist said you have MS,” said Poulin. “I wasn’t real happy, but it wasn’t a real shock. He called me on a Friday night, and I remember because we were playing Belfast in football the next day. He said you were right, you have MS, and we’ll start our meetings together in December.
“I went to the game the next day. and Belfast didn’t help because they beat us. It was a rough 24 hours.”
Poulin’s specific diagnosis was primary progressive multiple sclerosis, a slow, steady version of what the Mayo Clinic defines as “a potentially debilitating disease in which your body’s immune system eats away at the protective sheath that covers your nerves. This interferes with the communication between your brain and the rest of your body. Ultimately, this may result in deterioration of the nerves themselves, a process that’s not reversible.”
There is no cure for MS, but Poulin continues to undergo treatments to address its symptoms and slow its impact.
“Chronic progressive is the worst type of MS, with that it’s a steep downgrade,” said Poulin. “With primary progressive, my road is tilted but it’s not as steep. It’s happening in slow motion.”
During the early stages of his battle with the disease, Poulin’s balance deteriorated.
“I remember going to the hospital in 2002,” he said. “I went into the hospital walking kind of stiff, and when I came out of the hospital, I was in a chair and I’ve been here ever since. I have not walked since then.”
More recently his ability to use his hands has diminished.
“I’m right-handed, but I do everything left-handed now because my right side is affected more than my left side, so I had to adapt,” he said. “Eating soup was the hardest thing, but I’ve got that down pat.”
Keeping a positive outlook
Poulin continued teaching at Winslow High School for another decade until retiring in 2005.
“It got to the point that I was exhausted by 10 o’clock in the morning and had to dig down just to finish the school day, so in February of that year my wife and I talked and made a decision,” he said. “But I told them I didn’t want to give up everything, I didn’t want to give up my coaching.”
And he hasn’t, as Poulin continues to serve as an assistant coach in both football and basketball.
Nor, he says, has he ever felt sorry for himself.
“I never went through a depression, I never felt down,” he said. “You have to look on the bright side because otherwise you’re going to end up feeling negative and talking negative, and when there are so many other things going on well in your life, you can’t just dwell on some things that are challenging you.
And while Jim and Diane Poulin find great happiness these days spending time with their two grandchildren — and a third on the way just before Thanksgiving — his enduring relationships with Winslow High School student-athletes also have proven therapeutic.
“I don’t have many bad days, I really don’t,” he said. “Roughly from the second week in August right straight through basketball season to February vacation, I’m involved in sports at the school…..it’s fun ,and I have a chance to get out and get around.”
Siviski, for one, has seen that the feeling is mutual.
“Jimmy’s an inspiration for a lot of the kids, not only coaching but when he was a teacher at the school, too,” he said. “The kids write about people who have influenced them on their college applications, and Jimmy’s name comes up a lot.”
Of sacrifice and success
The shared passion for football among the players and coaches at Winslow has led the Black Raiders to their first appearance in a state championship game since 2006.
That means a lot to Poulin, who when asked about his alma mater’s football history will point to the 10 state championships won by the Black Raiders since the Maine Principals Association began sanctioning the sport in 1950.
Then he’ll recite the years Winslow has brought home the gold: 1958, 1960, 1973, 1976, 1982, 1986, 1992, 1993, 2000 and 2001 — as well as titles won by the school in 1933 and 1934 during the pre-MPA football days.
While the players are cognizant of that heritage, they’re also aware of the unique commitment made by Poulin to help sustain that level of success.
“Sometimes you can start feeling bad for yourselves,” said Hopkins. “When it’s double sessions, you might think, ‘Wow this really sucks, I’m tired, and I won’t get to bed until late.’ Then you take a look at coach Poulin and what he faces every day and it makes your outlook completely different.”
Poulin said his ultimate coaching reward relates only partly to the bottom line on the scoreboard, no matter the stakes of the game.
“It’s not playing for the state championship that’s the feeling of accomplishment for me, but it’s seeing your kids doing things that at the beginning of the year they felt were almost impossible for them to do,” he said.
“If we win Saturday, we win; if we don’t, we don’t. Life will go on, and I think the sun will rise Sunday morning regardless of who wins the game. And playing down at Fitzpatrick Stadium this Saturday will be nice, but more than that, it gives me the opportunity to be with my kids for another week.”