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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Book Review: "Fading Echoes" by Mike Sielski

Mike Sielski is a young sports columnist for the Bucks County Courier Times (I'd suggest that the trio of Reuben Frank, Randall Miller and Sielski are as good if not better than any trio the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News have to offer.) He's also very good and insightful, and a major example of his ability is in the book Fading Echoes, about two former high school football stars, Bryan Buckley of Central Bucks West and Colby Umbrell of Central Bucks East. Both were outstanding players and captains of their teams in 1998, both played college football, and both went into the military.

They went to the same middle school in the Central Bucks School District, one of the ten largest in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The school district is in the Philadelphia suburbs; about half a century ago I think it would have been fair to categorize the area as mostly farm country (the population boom meant the construction of many developments in the four-county area surrounding Philadelphia, Bucks among those counties). At the time they were in middle school, they had a choice of which high school they could attend -- East (which is in Buckingham, Pennsylvania) or West (which, unlike East, has its own football stadium; East played its home games at West's stadium).

For certain aspiring football players, the choice would have been a no-brainer. At the time, West was perhaps the premier high school football program in the state and found itself nationally ranked in USA Today's polls. Mike Pettine, Sr. was the head coach, and he would retire with multiple state championships and a career record that was mind-boggling -- well over 300 wins and less than 50 losses. (For the cognoscenti, Pettine is the father of Mike Pettine, the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets). East, on the other hand, lacked the same football tradition. But Colby Umbrell decided easily to follow a tradition -- he went to East because his father, Mark, had played there. Bryan Buckley headed to West.

The book would have been easier and more Hollywood-like to write had Buckley and Umbrell been buddies since kindergarten and then decided to go in different directions after middle school, like twins separated at birth. They knew each other in middle school but were in different groups. Both turned out to be outstanding high school football players -- "program kids", not necessarily the superstars, but the leaders, those who enforced discipline among their own ranks, and those who led by their determination and level of effort.

Buckley's West team won state championships his junior and senior year (and, for good measure, the year after he graduated from West). He went to prep school in Massachusetts for a post-graduate year, hated it (in part because he believed that the coach who recruited him had misled him and his father into believing that he'd get enough carries as a running back to impress college coaches; instead, he found himself in an offense that threw the ball 90% of the time). He ended up at UMass under heralded coach Mark Whipple, had his moments in the football program (first as a linebacker and then as a fullback), but all the while was thinking about what challenges he wanted out of life. After 9/11, he solidified his thinking. He wanted to join the military. (To do so, he ended up transferring to Villanova University to enroll in their Naval ROTC program and didn't play football again).

Umbrell's East team didn't come close to West's success. With future Penn Stater and NFL defensive back Bryan Scott, East got off to a good start in Umbrell's and Scott's senior season (Scott was perhaps the premier running back in the state). But then Umbrell tore his anterior cruciate ligament, thereby putting the two-way lineman on the bench (Buckley was also a linebacker and a ferocious hitter at that; he was in a rotation of running backs but saw his playing time at running back diminish as the season went on). It's hard to say that East would have made it to the state playoffs had Umbrell not gotten hurt, but without him and then with him playing injured, they didn't have a chance.

Buckley wasn't the best student, but neither was Umbrell, although the latter had more natural ability as evidenced by his test scores. Umbrell has hoped to play football for West Point, but once he hurt his knee his chances to draw the attention of college scouts and scholarship money diminished. So he, too, went off to prep school, to Wyoming Seminary in northeastern Pennsylvania, where he could show college scouts that he could play and get more serious about tapping into his potential as a student. After his post-graduate year at "Sem", he ended up going to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, an elite academic school whose claim to fame in NCAA athletics is its top drawer Division I men's lacrosse team (he passed on Division I-AA Lehigh).

Umbrell's career was shortened by a combination of injuries and the fact that Hopkins was enjoying one of its best football teams at the time he was there (and the defensive tackles ahead of him were good). That combination meant very little playing time by the time he was a junior, and he left the team somewhere around that time, also to focus on life after college. During that time, he, too, decided he wanted to join the military.

Both became officers, and both looked for the hardest challenges that they could attempt en route to leading platoons in Iraq. Buckley became a Marine; Umbrell was in the Army, an Army Ranger. Their personalities were different -- Buckley the more serious type, Umbrell more the prankster, but both excelled in preparing themselves and their men for whatever the insurgents and al-Qaeda had to offer.

One came home; the other did not.

Sielski does a great job in telling the story of how two leaders on their high school football teams in towns with strong values and outstanding parental support made their way to helping lead other young men in combat. Regardless of whether you supported the war or not (and Sielski does reference Quaker protesters of the war in nearby Doylestown in the book), this book gives you a glimpse into America's backbone and soul, as to how the lights on weekend nights illuminate a stage for even greater roles and opportunities for boys like Bryan Buckley and Colby Umbrell, how coaches like Larry Greene and Mike Pettine, Sr. play a role in shaping these young men, and how many others encourage and coach our boys into trying to achieve something more.

Buy this book.


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