When Curtis Williams was a 17-year-old University of Akron linebacker at a crossroads of manhood and independence, Jim Corrigall literally and figuratively showed him the way.
Williams arrived at UA in 1986 from Cincinnati Princeton High School, and Corrigall was hired out of N.C. State to coach linebackers by Zips coach Gerry Faust in 1987.
“He has this ability to see the gift in you, to make you aware and promote you to pull it out. It’s the most uncanny thing in the world,” Williams said. “I can’t begin to tell you the number of times that he’s assisted me. He was very hands-on. He’ll start walking you to class. You’re in class, he’ll pop up and he’ll be sitting over there in the corner. He’ll invite you to his house for dinner.
“He’s helped me when I was unable to help myself. He was my coach at a very critical time."
Williams, 51, the first full-time employee of Minority Behavioral Health Group in Akron, went on to earn his Masters in social work from UA and is now completing his PhD in psychology. He said he wouldn’t be where he is without Corrigall.
Corrigall, 73, a Canadian Football League Hall of Fame defensive lineman and a longtime coach, including a stint at his alma mater, Kent State, from 1994-97, now takes medication for depression and is experiencing tremors that his family and specialists at the Cleveland Clinic suspect are symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. (CTE).
But the resident of Cuyahoga Falls will not let the threat of the degenerative brain disease stop him from impacting young men’s lives — he currently helps with the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School freshman football team.
That doesn’t surprise Williams, who still keeps in touch with Corrigall.
“Coach Corrigall loves football. He believes football is a conduit that will assist people in their personal development,” Williams said by phone on Wednesday. “If he can be around football and around kids, he believes it can be the tool to bring the best out of people. You learn hard work, you learn that nothing’s for free, you learn how to commit yourself.
“I don’t ever see Coach Corrigall stopping unless they make him. They probably would have to cut off some feet and a hand for him to do that.”
Williams recalled when Faust wanted to kick him off the team and Corrigall accompanied Williams to the meeting.
“Before we walked in, he told me to tell him how I feel versus being afraid of being kicked off the team,” Williams said of Corrigall. “I kept my scholarship.”
After Corrigall was fired at Kent State, posting an 8-35 record in four seasons, he became a volunteer coach at Mount Union in 1998. Then-coach Larry Kehres, still the school’s director of athletics, said Corrigall’s arrival was perfect timing for Mount Union, which that year won its fourth of 11 NCAA Division III national titles in 27 seasons under Kehres.
“In meeting Jim Corrigall, after five minutes you just want the guy to be around. He’s so alive and got so much positive spirit and energy,” Kehres said by phone on Wednesday. “He could have not liked me. You know how big he is, he could have kicked my fanny. He had a wonderful attitude. I just love Jim Corrigall.”
Kehres said Corrigall had a great connection with Jason Hall, a two-time All-American linebacker who was a leader on three of Mount Union’s national championship teams.
“Jason Hall [was] kind of like Jim — a big, rambunctious type, energy out the kazoo,” Kehres said. “If I ever had an overachieving team, that was it. [Corrigall] was a perfect match for my group of guys at the right time. He brought new energy and life. I probably couldn’t describe 15 plays from ’98, but I have 15 great memories of Jim Corrigall from that year.”
Corrigall went on to assist at Ravenna, St. Vincent-St. Mary and Archbishop Hoban high schools, but Kehres said they are still telling stories about Corrigall in Alliance. One of Kehres' favorites is how Corrigall would schmooze the waitress for the biggest piece of coconut cream or apple pie in the dessert case when the staff went out to dinner together on Monday nights. Kehres said the assistants would say, "'Watch Corrigall get his pie.'"
Kehres said Corrigall sometimes calls to recommend a player his son Vince, now Mount Union coach, might be interested in, but there is no football jargon in the conversation.
“Tunnel vision about people is a better way to put it,” Larry Kehres said of Corrigall’s best attribute. “He’ll call me and tell me about a kid, but what he’s going to tell me is something about the kid’s life, what the kid’s done.”
That’s what Dan Boarman, the former Copley and St. Vincent-St. Mary football coach now retired after 42 seasons, appreciates about Corrigall. They first met during Corrigall’s college recruiting days; Boarman later coached Corrigall’s son Jim Jr. at St. V-M.
“That’s when I really got to know him and I loved him to pieces because of the way he deals with kids and the way he’s honest, he’s forthright,” Boarman said by phone on Tuesday. “Kids like structure, kids like authority, but he does it with love and kindness. I think the kids trust him enough to know whatever he’s saying and whatever he’s telling them to do, it’s for their own good. Not everybody has that ability to do that.”
Faust has been close to Corrigall and his family since he hired Corrigall. In 1990, Corrigall left UA to become assistant athletics director at Kent State.
“If every coach was like Coach Corrigall as a person and the ethics and God-loving and caring for people and always looking out to help someone ... that’s what Corrigall’s about,” Faust said by phone Tuesday.
“To me that’s the most important thing, being able to relate to the young men you’re working with. I always told coaches when I spoke at clinics, ‘The wins on the scoreboard keep your job, but the wins in the hearts of the young men you coach, they become winners for life, are the real wins.’ That’s his philosophy.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.