Learning the score

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Last updated: 11/21/2012 4:50 AM
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OSU Athletics
Knowing the Score - Part I
By John Porentas

"What's the score?"

I've heard that question more times than I can possibly count during my lifetime of sports involvement. It never seemed like an odd question until a night in January, 2011.

I don't know the exact date, but I do know that it was shortly after I had moved my elderly mother to Columbus from Toledo. After all her angst over that move I was doing all I could to make her feel comfortable and at home, including visiting her nightly.

Mom never had the slightest interest in sports most of her life, but in the last five years she had developed a passion for basketball, specifically OSU men's and women's basketball. We were watching a game on TV that night with the door to her room open. We were also creating a bit of ruckus as the game ebbed and flowed. That's when I heard a strong and clear voice from out in the hall ask the question.

"What's the score?"

I looked up to see a woman who looked like she might be 90-years old standing outside the door. Later I would learn that she was actually 96. She stood there very erect and upright and looked remarkably trim, fit and strong for her age. Her hands were fixed firmly on a walker for support as so many residents of that facility used to avoid a fall when they walked. I looked at her and was speechless, because it just seemed so improbable that this woman was actually interested in the score of the game. Politely, she repeated the question.

"What's the score?"

I told her the Buckeyes were behind. She wrinkled her nose and scowled just bit, and took a hand off the walker. She swung the tightly-balled fist attached to her age-spotted arm in a frustrated sort of way, then re-gripped the walker and disappeared down the hall. How odd, I thought, and forgot about it.

Ten minutes later, she appeared outside the room again, and once again asked.

"What's the score?"

The Buckeyes had rallied and the game was tied. I told her, and once again the hand came off the walker, but this time she pumped her fist like a three-point shooter who had just canned one from the corner. Then off she went down the hall again.

The scene repeated itself again, and then again, and that's when I realized that this lady wasn't really coming down to ask questions, she was doing laps around the facility. It just so happened that she passed our open door on every lap, so she stopped to ask the score. I could see the delight in her wrinkled face grow on each stop as I reported the lengthening Buckeye lead on the scoreboard. Later she told me that 12 trips around the facility was one mile and she did that every night. I know she stopped at least half a dozen times that night to ask the score.

Asking my own questions

The game ended, and she appeared outside the room again. I didn't wait for her to ask this time, but instead went out into the hall and told her that the Buckeyes had won. Her next question was "How did Sullinger do?"

I was stunned. This old biddy knew the players? I don't remember how many Sully had, but I do remember that he had a good night, because I remember how she smiled when I told her he was the high scorer.

My curiosity was running wild. What was the source of this woman's interest in the game? I asked her just that, and she explained to me that her husband had been a coach. I assumed he had coached at a high school and asked her if that were true. She politely replied that no, he had coached in college, and that he had coached at Ohio State.

Now I was really curious. Who could this be, I wondered, so I asked if he had coached basketball? No, she said, he had coached football, but both her husband and she were interested in all sports, so she was very interested in the basketball game.

I knew this was not the spouse of an ex-head coach, so I asked her if he had been an assistant. Yes, she replied, he had coached the defensive line.

I could not wait to find out which head coach he had worked for at OSU and asked her that question. "Well, we came here to work for Wes Fesler," she said, "then he worked for Woody Hayes."

I learned that night that her name was Mary Ann and that she had been married to a man named Lyal Clark who was indeed a coach at OSU. Later I learned that Lyal was from a small town in Nebraska, and she had grown up in Western Maryland. They met while Lyal was a star athlete at Western Maryland College, and to say that their meeting was chance would be a gross understatement.

"Her father died at a young age, in his 40s," Jenny Spangler, the daughter of Lyal and Mary Ann Clark told me recently.

"My grandmother had to take in a border to help with expenses. This was back in the 30s. My father had a scholarship and was at Western Maryland and he happened to be the border, and that's how they met."

The two met, but it wasn't an instant romance. Lyal was engaged to a girl back home, one MariBelle Fisher to be exact, so the two kept their distance at first. Somehow however (the details remain vague), that all changed, and Lyal finally asked Mary Ann out on a date. From that moment on, there was no doubt how this would end up.

"I knew the first time we went out that I would never date another man" Mary Ann told me one day several months after the night we first met.

This was truly a love affair of storybook proportions. They were married and lived a life immersed in the world of sports. Lyal had an extremely successful career as a college athlete and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1929. He also launched his coaching career in 1929 as the line coach at Baltimore University. Later he served as line coach at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Western Maryland, and Delaware before being named as Head Coach at Delaware in 1935 where he served in that capacity for three years.

In 1936 he got his big break in the coaching profession when he accompanied his friend and college coach Dick Harlow to Harvard where Harlow had been named head coach. He served there until 1946 except for a 33-month hitch in the U. S. Navy when World War II broke out.

In 1946 he joined the staff of OSU All-American Wes Fesler who was then the head coach at Pittsburgh. Fesler was named Head Coach at OSU in 1947, and Clark accompanied Fesler to Columbus. Fesler was fired in 1951 and moved on to Minnesota. Clark accompanied him to Minneapolis, but returned to Columbus in 1954 when Woody Hayes rehired him to coach the defensive line. OSU's championship teams of 1954-55-57 and 1961 were known for their rugged defensive lines, a trait attributed to Clark's work.

Through it all Mary Ann was at her husband's side. Their daughter Jenny was born while they were at Harvard.

Lyal and Mary Ann Clark; circa 1954
Photo courtesy of Jenny Spangler
Lyal and Mary Ann Clark

The Connection

Early in my friendship with Mary Ann I told her that I had spent a good number of years covering OSU sports. I remember how delighted she was to hear that. The facility in which she was living housed mostly women so there was really no one with whom she could talk sports.

At first I would run into her at random times when she did her nightly one mile walk around the facility and I was there to visit my own mother. Whenever we happened to meet, she wanted to talk sports. More specifically, she wanted to talk Ohio State sports. How was Thad Matta's leg? What did I think of the way the Tressel situation was handled? Did I like Urban Meyer? Would that boy be able to move from tight end to tackle?

She wanted to know it all, and to the best of my ability I told her. The most improbable friendship of my entire lifetime was taking shape, and it was taking shape around a mutual interest in sports. She was two generations my elder, but we seemed to have so much in common, and the time spent with her was always interesting. I would tell her what was happening with the Buckeyes, though I couldn't add too much to her knowledge because she read the sports page daily and watched every sports news show she could.

She followed all things Buckeye sports related, and in the summer when I walked past her room it was a sure thing that I would hear the sound of the Reds game that she was watching on television. That sometime also included some well-phrased expletives if things weren't going just quite right for the Reds.

Getting to know her and Lyal

I never met Lyal Clark, he died a good number of years ago, but her descriptions of her life with him made me feel like I knew him. She talked of how well he treated her, and though they never had much money, how he always provided well for her, but most of all she talked about his experiences as a coach and the people they had met.

Like it was nothing special of note, she once told me that "Lyal had coached those Kennedy boys when they were at Harvard, but they weren't very good. They mostly just stood on the sidelines, but they loved the game and loved being around the team." When she said it it actually took me a moment to realize she meant THE Kennedys because she didn't say it with any sense of awe or to impress me. It was just something that had happened, and she loved telling me stories about her life in sports with Lyal. She told me that in the summers they would often return to Maryland to visit family, but Lyal would drift off to the Baltimore Colts training camp because "They had a good quarterback and we became friends with him. His name was Johnny Unitas."

Lyal's coaching career was interrupted by World War II, and the back story to his service for his country is anything but average. By the time the war broke out Lyal was too old to enter the military, but that is where we get our first inkling of what this man was about...really about.

There was a war to be fought and injustice to be undone, and Lyal Clark was not going to be left out of that fight.

"He was coaching at Harvard at the time when he decided he was going into the military and he had to get an age waiver to go in. He was in his late-30s," his daughter Jenny Spangler said recently.

Clark jumped through all the government hoops and finally got the waiver. He was accepted by the Navy and during his service rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander.

His acceptance into the service was a moment of joy and happiness for Clark, and though those around him were pleased for him, they all would miss him. Mary Ann talked about how she worried about him, but also knew he was doing what he had to do. That's just the kind of man he was.

Mary Ann wasn't the only one who missed Clark. By then he had established himself a key figure on the Harvard coaching staff that was producing winning seasons, and more importantly, more than their share of wins over Yale. Still, when Clark entered the service, he got the full support of his football colleagues at Harvard.

A going away party was held for Clark, and at it was read a poem composed by unnamed members of the Harvard football staff. It gives a glimpse into another time, an era gone by, but more importantly it gives a strong indication of how that group thought of Clark. The poem was preserved by Mary Ann, and one day she shared with me her original copy of it. His daughter has kindly sent us a copy for reproduction here. It reads as follows:

Written "to Clarkie" by his Harvard buddies as he was leaving Harvard to go into the Navy.

This world of ours is sure a mess
The Devil's rung the Bell;
His Henchmen Working East and West
Are Shooting it to Hell

With Schiclegruber's madmen
Making Europe one big feast;
And Japan and Hirohito
Blasting Freedom from the East

Our Uncle Sam made ready;
he wouldn't let it pass
and before he's through, the Axis
Will be flat upon its Ass

If the reason for this party
could be carried overseas,
we are sure't would bring the Nazis
and the Japs right to their knees

For Football news has traveled far,
Without a censored part;
And all our enemies we're sure,
Will know this man named Clark

And the Lines the enemy has crushed
Since first they crossed the Rhein
Will seem inconsequential
When they hit that HARVARD LINE!

(A little something to remember us by)

From the whole Gang

Harvard actually suspended its football program during the war years, but following the war it was resumed, and Clark was welcomed back to the Harvard football program with open arms.

OSU coaches I thought I knew a lot about OSU history, including the eras I couldn't actually remember, but had to admit that I knew very, very little about Lyal Clark. In part two of this series, we're going to delve into the why of that reality, into just how important he was to OSU football in his era, and his unknown legacy at OSU and football in general. We're also going to tell you which one he is in the picture.

Part II.

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