A week before former Bangor High School football coach Gerry Hodge lost his battle with cancer, Steve Vanidestine visited him.
“Gerry said to me ‘This will be the last time I see you. I love you. Do me a favor. Tell the team to win one for the old coach this fall,” said Vanidestine, the athletic director at Bangor High School who formerly played for Hodge and coached under him.
For anyone who knew Hodge, this comes as no surprise.
Hodge, who died last week at age 86, grew up in a loving family without much money.
He aspired to play for Bangor High School and made the most of that opportunity. He went on to play center at the University of Maine, enlisting in the service so he could receive the GI Bill, which paid for his college education.
He wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise. There weren’t athletic scholarships back then.
After four highly-successful years at Mexico High School (30-4-2), he said he received his “dream job” of coaching at Bangor High School.
Three state Class A championships and a 116-50-6 record in 18 years tells you a lot about his coaching ability.
For those of us who played for him, we can tell you he was intense and old school. He was enthusiastic, a motivator, and stressed the fundamentals and playing the game with passion.
In my three years, we won only nine games, but, under his leadership, we always played hard, and our opponents knew they were in a game.
Despite the fact we were never in playoff contention, he still coached every game like it was a playoff game, and he expected us to play that way.
We were well-prepared, we knew the other team’s tendencies, he coached until the final whistle, and he demanded that we played hard until the final whistle.
He was fiery when he needed to be, whether it was trying to motivate his players or let the officials know they may have missed a call.
He also fought for his players.
When you play on losing teams, you have to learn to deal with adversity. He taught us how to handle it by just focusing on the next game and not dwelling on the past.
Football may be the best sport when it comes to learning life lessons.
And Hodge taught life lessons. That is why so many of his former players visited him during his two-year battle with cancer, coming from all across the country.
Football practices are grueling and repetitious. They aren’t fun, especially if you aren’t winning. You are often dealing with a nagging injury.
But when you saw the passion Hodge had for the sport, it was infectious. You wanted to do everything you could to give him a win.
Hodge always cared about his players. He never jeopardized a player by playing him if he was injured.
No one wanted to win more than Hodge, but he also knew his players had their whole lives ahead of them. And he cared for his players long after they played for him.
I had a wonderful visit with him several months ago. We recalled the “old days,” and he remembered them vividly, although I kidded him that it would probably be better for his health if he forgot those years.
Forty years ago, Hodge’s life changed dramatically when he married Maureen Doyle.
Former player Bill Green of WCSH-WLBZ TV’s Bill Green’s Maine recalled how happy she made him and how everyone would considers themselves lucky to have a marriage such as theirs.
Their relationship was touching and genuine. They were not only deeply in love, they also were best friends who competed like crazy on the golf course.
Two months ago, he said he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he had if it wasn’t for her.
They had to deal with the loss of their son, Adam, at age 8 because of leukemia. Instead of damaging their marriage, it drew them even closer.
It has been a difficult year for the Bangor High School football family.
Along with Hodge, one of his long-time assistants, former Bangor High principal Norris Nickerson, also died a little over two months ago.
Nickerson was an exceptional line coach, and the pair of them complimented each other very well. They helped transform Bangor High into a perennial football power.
Under his hard-nosed demeanor, Nickerson, like Hodge, had a heart of gold and was a compassionate man who taught you a lot about the game and yourself. He also cared deeply about his players.
I feel blessed to have played for Hodge, Nickerson and also the late Ron Geagan.
The wins may have been few, but the life lessons are ones I still apply. I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything.
Editor’s note: BDN sportswriter Larry Mahoney played football at Bangor High School for Gerry Hodge from 1969 to 1971.