From the sports editor: Waller lived role of a hero

Ben Sirman said he couldn’t have been standing more than a couple feet away from Ron Waller at the time.

Waller, the Laurel High football superstar, was lined up in punt formation, almost at the very back of the end zone.

And Sirman was just a kid who, like the rest of the people in Laurel, had come out to watch the Bulldogs take on mighty Wicomico, Md. High that night.

“I could hear him breathing and see him sweating,” Sirman said with a chuckle. “I stood two feet away from him.”

What happened next is the stuff of legend.

Waller daringly called a fake punt. Not only did he get the first down, but he ran 109 yards for a touchdown that sparked Laurel to an upset win.

While he’ll never forget the moment, which took place in about 1950, Sirman had misplaced the memories of some of the details of that play over the last seven decades.

But Waller described the play to him — again — when the two men talked just a week ago.

“He knew that I was there in the end zone,” said Sirman. “Apparently we hadn’t moved the ball too well. … He said, some of the linemen said, ‘Why a fake punt?’ He said, ‘(Because) we’re not doing anything else.’

“He said, ‘Fake punt to the right.’ He ran it and he got about 40 or 50 yards on that. But it was called back (by a penalty) at the line of scrimmage. So he had to do it a second time. I didn’t remember that until he told me that this week.

“And then he says, ‘Fake punt to the left,’” said Sirman. “This time he took it all the way.”
Sirman didn’t know it, but it was the last time he’d hear Waller tell the story.

A few days later, he got the news that Waller had died.

Unlike so much of his early years, when he always seemed to be in the spotlight, Waller passed away quietly in his home near Seaford last Sunday. He was 85.

Sirman, who went on to coach at Bridgeville and Seaford, may have known Ron Waller as well as anyone throughout his life.

Sirman was just a sixth-grader when Waller became a high school star. But, in those days, all the grades were in the same building at Laurel.

“He was my hero,” said Sirman, “and then he became my friend.”

After watching more than half a century of high school running backs in Delaware, Sirman still thinks Waller was the best there ever was.

Without question, Waller’s numbers were astounding: 213 points in eight games in one season and 464 points in a 22-game career. And the Bulldogs won 19 of those 22 games.

“We were disappointed if Ronnie Waller didn’t have four touchdowns by halftime,” said Sirman.

In the days before most people downstate owned a TV, and could be more enthralled with college and pro athletes, Waller qualified as a genuine local hero.

But Waller proved he was more than just a small-town wonder when he was an important player and an All-American kick returner on the University of Maryland’s national championship teams in 1951 and ‘53.

And he proved it again when he starred as an NFL rookie running back/kick returner for the Los Angeles Rams in 1955. (“Of course we all expected it,” Sirman quipped.)

Unfortunately for Waller, injuries sliced his pro career down to just four seasons, the last one in 1960. That didn’t diminish his legend around Laurel, however.

One of Sirman’s proudest moments came in 1967 when he was coaching at Bridgeville. His team was playing Delmar in the big Thanskgiving Day game.

Both squads were undefeated. Maybe just as importantly to Sirman, the Wildcats’ star, Burt Culver, had a chance to break Waller’s scoring record.

“Most of my pep talk that week was, ‘We’re going to stop Burt Culver,’” said Sirman. “‘Even if we don’t win the game, we’re going to stop Burt Culver.’ They were heavy favorites and he (Culver) had scored nearly 200 points by this time in the season.

“Ron knew what I said to the kids and he was there at the game.”

Sure enough, Bridgeville pulled off a 20-19 upset and Culver didn’t score a point.

“For Ron Waller to come up and hug me after the game was one of the highlights of my coaching career,” said Sirman.

After spending part of his post-football life in California, Waller eventually returned to Delaware to live out his life.

Like with a lot of athletes, there was a price to pay for the glory years, though.

Waller underwent a number of operations over the years, particularly on his back. At some point, he had a plate put in his back that later became infected.

But, even in his last years, Ron Waller was still a living legend in Sirman’s eyes. Waller was always happy to sign a photo or a photo for a fan.

“He wasn’t arrogant,” said Sirman. “He loved to tell stories about his time in the pros and how it was back then.

“He was Ronnie Waller and he was a hero. He accepted the role and he played it well.”

Football schedules changing

It’s still 2018, but most of the Henlopen Conference teams have already set their football schedules.

Since this is the start of a new two-year cycle — and Milford is moving up to the Henlopen North — there’s some interesting new non-conference matchups.

Dover High starts the season with games against Hodgson, Salesianum and Northeast, Md. The Senators, who are also slated to play just three home games, haven’t played Sallies since 2016.

Caesar Rodney’s non-conference dates are with Appoquinimink, Caravel and Middletown. The Riders haven’t faced Middletown since ‘16.

And Smyrna, which played only nine games this past season, now has a 10-game slate with contests against Middletown, Chester, Pa. and Salesianum.

A turning point

Joe Purzycki’s brief but memorable football coaching career at Delaware State in the early 1980s ended up being worthy of a book.

Part of the reason that Purzycki and Mike Gastineau were able to write ‘Mr. Townsend and the Polish Prince’ wasn’t just that a white man was coaching an historically-black college program.

It was that Purzycki also took the Hornets from a 2-9 record in 1981 to 8-2 in ‘84.
Purzycki, though, says he almost didn’t get to complete that turnaround. In 1982, DelState lost a big game to Central State on homecoming.

The Hornets were just 3-6 with two games left and Northeastern coming to Dover.

Purzycki said athletic director Nelson Townsend told him that he didn’t know if he could bring him back for another season if DelState didn’t win one of the two remaining games.

“The pressure was immense on him,” said Purzycki. “Before the Northeastern game, my tenure as a coach was in jeopardy. We go out and beat Northeastern and, even though we lose to Liberty, we play them really competitively.

“Then everybody at the end of the season celebrated because we had 20 starters coming back. We knew that ‘83 was going to be our breakout year.”

Indeed, the Hornets finished 7-3-1 in 1983 followed by 8-2 in 1984. James Madison — which was stunned by DelState in ‘83 — hired Purzycki after the season.

Purzycki knows the whole story might have had a much different ending if the Hornets lost to Northeastern in ‘82.

“The issue was, ‘Why are you giving a white football coach an opportunity when our black coaches don’t get those opportunities at predominantly white schools?’” said Purzycki. “That was legit.

“But for that white coach to come in and go 2-9 and 3-8, then it would have been like, ‘If you brought this guy in to turn this around, we get it. But for him to come in and not be able to turn it around was trouble.’”

Reach sports editor Andy Walter at walter@newszap.com

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