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Jauron, ever the humble hero, returns to his hometown

SWAMPSCOTT, Mass. – He was the head coach of the Buffalo Bills and the Chicago Bears. He played for eight seasons in the NFL and led the National Football Conference in punt-return average. He held a Yale rushing record for more than a quarter-century. But around here, Dick Jauron is remembered for getting an “A” from the toughest son-of-a-buck who ever taught 11th-grade American history in this town.

Oh, yes, and he’s remembered, too, for that play against the Clippers of Newburyport High in November 1967. That’s when Dickie Jauron, as he was known then, caught the ball with three seconds left in the first half and, conscious that he was landing on the one-yard-line rather than in the end zone, signaled for a time-out as he was falling to the turf. Drop into the Dunkin’ Donuts in Vinnin Square and there’s a good chance Frank DeFelice, one of Jauron’s coaches, and a clutch of other locals like Lloyd Benson and Andy Rose, who played on that Big Blue team with him, are still talking about it. It happened, after all, only 47 years ago.

Lots of small towns have heroes, and this one does, too – Walter Brennan was from here, and Leslie Stahl – but there never was a hero in this little community, built around a pearl of an Atlantic Ocean harbor and surrounded by historic Salem and Marblehead, quite like Dick Jauron.

Ask anyone who has been here a while – and almost everyone has been here a while – and you’ll hear the same thing: Jauron was more than the greatest athlete who ever walked along Humphrey Street, where little Blocksidge Field was situated, or trudged up that big hill to Bay View Avenue, where he lived, and not only because that catch four decades ago helped his undefeated team beat the undefeated team from Newburyport, 28-27 – a score everyone here still remembers, too.

Because he also was one of the best students who ever learned the quadratic equation in Mary White’s math class or agonized over “Othello” in Dotte Winer’s English class – a shy boy remembered, in Mr. Benson’s words, as “the definition of grace as a young man, even at age 12.”

So it set the talk stirring – actually it set it boiling, along with the pasta – at the Paradise Café down across from the railroad station, and also over at the Swampscott Club, when word seeped out that Jauron was coming home, and not just for a visit, but probably for good.

He wasn’t running away; on the contrary, he’s still a big catch in the NFL, where he’s regarded as a gifted protégé of Dick LeBeau, the fabled Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator, and where only two seasons ago Jauron was the Cleveland Browns’ defensive coordinator.

“He’s a great coach – and man – and he’d be hired in a heartbeat,” said Todd Haley, offensive coordinator for the Steelers and one of Jauron’s assistant coaches in Chicago.

No, the reason the car with Ohio plates sits in the driveway two doors from my mother’s is that Jauron’s wife is very ill. He’s not saying this, or anything about it, but everyone knows it. Somehow you just know these kinds of things in towns like this. “I didn’t plan on retiring, and I don’t know what will happen next,” Jauron said, “but I know I couldn’t work last year, and I know I can’t work right now.”

His return simply continued a townwide conversation that has been going on since his teams went 25-2 in his three high school years and he set a Massachusetts scoring record.

“He exemplified excellence and balance in everything he did,” said W. Carl Kester, a teammate who holds an endowed chair at Harvard Business School. “He didn’t leave old friends behind. That’s what set him apart from others who have had success.” He stood apart from the start, and his academic record made him a shimmery prize for college coaches.

“Everybody wanted him, because his grades stood out,” recalled Jake Crouthamel, who recruited him for Dartmouth. Kenneth P. O’Donnell, Harvard’s 1948 football captain and a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, tried to lure him to Cambridge. Luckily for Yale coach Carmen Cozza, he was invited to be the speaker at the Swampscott football banquet. That may not have been a coincidence, but it certainly was consequential.

Sometime in the autumn of 1967, Stan Bondelevich was driving through town, and the football coach saw his halfback about to help Rosalind Stone, a fifth-grade teacher, paint the trim on her house. Bondelevich screeched to a halt; the notion of Jauron on a ladder was terrifying. Bondelevich would not even let his star practice very much during the week. “If we’re going to lose the franchise,” he would say, “it’s not going to happen on a Wednesday.” The next time Bondelevich drove past the Stone house, the teacher was on top of the ladder – but Jauron was on the lawn, holding it steady.

So while this is a column about a man, it really is about athletics and the role it plays in our culture, and whom we regard as heroes, and how the razzmatazz of big-time sports, television contracts and ballplayers who hardly go to class is out of control.

So if you’re looking for heroes, consider a 64-year-old man whom the Associated Press named as its NFL Coach of the Year in 2001, but who still refers to his old high school basketball coach as “Mr. Lynch”; whom that coach, Dick Lynch, this month described as “the humblest person I’ve ever known”; whom Charlie Kimball, who taught that bear of a U.S. history class in 1968, still recalls as “the finest student-athlete I ever knew, the epitome of a son I’d like to have”; who just the other day told Mrs. Winer, the English teacher, that his fondest memory of high school wasn’t being on a team but being in the Drama Club; and who moved back home and put aside his career to take care of his wife.

Our town had that kind of hero. Maybe yours did, too.