Close friendship, football helping Springdale's Wagner battle Alzheimer's
Chuck Wagner and Don “Pappy” Boulton sat side by side on a weight bench under an orange-and-black sign in the Wagner-Boulton Strength Room at Springdale High School.
The soon-to-be octogenarians could be Western Pennsylvania's prep football version of “ Grumpy Old Men,” if only they would stop smiling.
Boulton takes delight that Wagner will turn 80 on Nov. 28, while Boulton's birthday isn't until Feb. 2. Wagner runs his hand over his combed white hair, a subtle shot at his bald buddy.
In a friendship spanning seven decades, they have gone from teammates to rival coaches to 13 years together as head coach and defensive coordinator before their joint retirement in 2011.
That didn't last long. They returned to coaching last year on opposite sides of a rivalry. This summer, they have been reunited as assistant coaches at Springdale.
The strength of their friendship never has meant more, as Wagner needs Boulton in the worst way.
A 2012 inductee into the WPIAL Hall of Fame who has 270 career victories, Wagner has been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. A type of dementia in which memory-loss symptoms develop slowly, it is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States.
Wagner has given so much of his life to the game, having coached a combined 48 years at four high schools. Now he's asking a return favor from football — and his lifelong friend — to keep his mind sharp against a disease that threatens to erase his memory.
Once again, Wagner will rely upon his favorite slogan: Hang in there tough.
“That really got me fired up,” Wagner said of the diagnosis. “I said, ‘I'm going to beat this thing.' My wife (Dee) has been spectacular. Dee and Pappy talk on the phone every day.
“Pappy has been major league in regards to hanging in there for me, to help me battle this Alzheimer's thing.”
‘A great influence'
Boulton and Wagner, who like to say they grew up “below the tracks” in Oakmont, have a lifetime of memories together. They have been inseparable, as much for their cutthroat competitiveness as their brother-like bond.
As kids, they would play football games of one on one, Boulton centering the ball to Wagner and then tackling him. Friends were forced to put them on the same team in pickup games just so they wouldn't kill each other.
They describe themselves as teenage hellions who found direction through football under the guidance of their coach at Oakmont, the late Elmer Gross, who also battled Alzheimer's.
“He was such a great influence on us. He was tough but gentle, if that makes sense,” Boulton said. “He took an interest in us, not only as players but people. He taught us that the kid comes first, not just as a player but as a person. When you get to know a person that way, you can be more of an influence in directing them.
“It's how can I help, not how can I hinder.”
In an ill-advised attempt to gain an extra season of eligibility at Oakmont, they threw their books over the Hulton Bridge and purposely flunked their senior years. That forced them to spend the next year at Kiski School in Saltsburg, where they were roommates who earned their tuition by playing football and serving as dorm monitors.
Boulton and Wagner were named captains for the following season, but Boulton left school to work at the Edgewater steel mill when his father fell ill. He enrolled at Louisville the next spring and convinced Wagner to join him but left for the Air Force before Wagner enrolled.
They wouldn't share the same field again until they started coaching high school football.
Wagner returned to Oakmont, serving as an assistant to Gross and then succeeding him. Boulton coached at East Deer and West Deer, which later merged to form Deer Lakes.
Their competitive fire still burned, but the friendship prevailed. When Wagner's team marched to the 5-yard line on the first drive against Boulton's defense in a scrimmage, the coach defiantly jumped into a three-point stance, wearing only a whistle, and took a spot on the defensive line to stop it from scoring.
Out of respect, Wagner backed up his team to the 20-yard line.
They recalled these stories, taking turns telling them while teasing each other.
“I think the good Lord has really blessed us,” Boulton said. “Not many people have what we have, what we've gone through together and what we have today. If I was somebody else, I'd envy it.”
‘Kind of a miracle'
It was at Springdale that Wagner and Boulton built one of the WPIAL's worst programs into a powerhouse, using the philosophy of their old Oakmont coach.
The Dynamos were on the verge of breaking the WPIAL record for consecutive losses when Wagner took over in 1993. He helped them snap the streak at 35 games, one short of the record.
“We did kind of a miracle type of thing to get them off that losing streak,” Wagner said. “They hadn't been to the playoffs since 1973.”
Boulton joined Wagner's staff as defensive coordinator six years later, and the duo helped Springdale snap the playoff drought in 2002. The following year, the Dynamos won the WPIAL Class A championship. They made the playoffs every year thereafter, and Wagner and Boulton decided to retire in November 2011.
After a year away from football, both got the itch to return. Boulton went back to Springdale, but Wagner joined the Riverview staff of Todd Massack, one of his former players and Gross' grandson.
“I felt after what Mr. Gross had done for us,” Wagner said, “it would only be right to help him out.”
Boulton gained bragging rights when Springdale beat Riverview, 28-0, but both teams missed the playoffs. And Boulton and Wagner missed coaching together, so Wagner accepted Springdale coach Dave Leasure's offer this past spring to return as an assistant.
“To me, it will always be Chuck Wagner's program, no matter what I do,” Leasure said. “He and Pappy built the thing. Seeing those two together again is wonderful because the stories they tell are unbelievable.
“This isn't a pity type of thing. They really bring something to the program. Just because they're closing in on 80 doesn't mean they have to stop. Everyone on the staff loves them, and the kids think the world of those guys. They'd do anything for them. When they talk, you see 60 eyes on them. They want to listen to everything they say.”
Springdale senior halfback Adam Lock, who played for Wagner and Boulton as a freshman, said their presence reinforces the discipline that Leasure is trying to instill.
“It is interesting because they know and have seen so many different things in their careers that it's unique what you can learn from them,” said Lock, a team captain. “It's great seeing them interact because they've been good friends for so long. They want to make you a better player and better person. Coach Wagner always stresses that no matter how good you are, you can always be better.”
Wagner and Boulton are grateful to Leasure for bringing them back, knowing how rare it is for a coach to invite the men he replaced to join his coaching staff.
“It's beautiful. It's like a dream come true,” Boulton said. “We started together, in a sense. Now it's very natural that we're going to finish our careers together.”