Hempfield to rename stadium, honor Abraham
The Hempfield Area High School football program wasn't always going through a tough time, like it has been doing the past six years.
When Bill Abraham was the school's coach, the Spartans had one of the top programs in the WPIAL.
"The strength in the WPIAL was in the east during the 1960s and early '70s," Abraham said. "Monessen, Jeannette, Latrobe and Kiski all won WPIAL titles. We had a couple teams that lost one game, and back then you couldn't play for the title if you had a loss. We'd beat each other."
The Hempfield Area School District will honor Abraham prior to tonight's game against Penn-Trafford when they rededicate the current stadium and name it Coach William "Bill" Abraham Field at Spartan Stadium. The ceremony, which begins at 7 p.m., will be part of homecoming festivities, and Abraham will serve as the grand marshal of the homecoming.
"I'm very honored and thankful that the school board is doing this for me," Abraham said. "I'm delighted for all the work that former players and alumni did to get this done."
One thing Abraham insisted was that Spartan Stadium remained the name of the facility.
Abraham, 75, who also served as the school's athletic director for 28 years, compiled a 143-56-6 record during two coaching stints (1956-71, 1977-82). Between 1958 and 1971, the Spartans had three undefeated teams and four teams with one loss. The 1966 team played for the WPIAL Class AA title, losing to Mt. Lebanon.
He was a 1945 graduate of Jeannette High School. He attended Auburn and Pitt.
He began his high school coaching career in 1951 at Wilmerding, where his squad went 9-1. From 1952-55, Abraham coached at Ford City and Steubenville, Ohio, where he compiled a 24-13-3 mark. He finished his career by coaching kickers at Pitt in 1983.
He's truly loved by many of his former players.
"Playing for Coach Abraham was the best experience of my life," said Dave Wolinsky, a 1979 graduate who played defensive end. "He was a father figure, a friend and one of the neatest men I ever met. The things he taught me about life can't be replaced.
"He could be mean and firm, and then he'd put his arm around you and make it feel better. The thing I'll always remember about him was when he showed up at my mom's funeral. He was just there."
Wolinsky, who lives in Bloomsburg, was part of Abraham's 1978 squad that stopped No. 1-ranked Penn Hills' 35-game winning streak. Wolinsky blocked a punt to set up a touchdown in the Spartans' 17-14 victory at Penn Hills.
"That was a great victory," Abraham said. "But there were many. That Penn Hills team featured Bill Fralic and Tom Flynn. But we were able to move the ball on them, and that team believed they could win. We found a way to win."
His first year back in 1977, the Spartans had the best defensive record in the school's history, giving up only 36 points in 10 games and shutting out six teams.
John Wolicki, assistant principal at Hempfield, was one of the many individuals instrumental in getting the district to honor Abraham. Wolicki played on the 1966 team.
"This is the right time to do it," Wolicki said. "He's such a great person. He had a reputation of being a tough guy. He was a motivator and he knew how to get the most out of you."
Wolicki said Abraham went the extra mile for him. Wolicki had an eye injury, and a local doctor told him he was going to lose it.
"If it wouldn't have been for coach, I probably would have lost it," Wolicki said. "He took me to another doctor in Pittsburgh and he was able to save it."
"John and Kenny Nye were the only returning lettermen on the 1966 team," Abraham said. "We were coming off back-to-back 9-1 seasons. But that team got better every week."
Ed Behanna, who lives in Chillicothe, Ohio, was a center and linebacker on Abraham's first team. Abraham called Behanna, a 1959 graduate, and Ellis Pherson, both linebackers, the best hitters he coached.
"When they hit you, they hurt you," Abraham said. "They did it naturally."
Behanna said he is happy that the school is finally honoring Abraham.
"I feel so good for him," he said. "He is so deserving because what he did for people at the school and he doesn't ask for much is return.
"He made me grow as a player and brought the best of my talent out. I was a fullback in junior high, but coach looked at me and said, 'You're a center and linebacker.' Then he taught me how to play the positions."
Behanna went on to play college football at Purdue. He was one of the more than 119 players who were awarded athletic scholarships to colleges and universities.
"Coach gave me a chance and made me a pretty good football player," Wolinsky said. "I told my son, Todd, that I wish he had the opportunity to play for Coach Abraham."
Players and coaches, and students from Abraham's first class at Wilmerding, will meet with the coach at 6:30 p.m. in the school's cafeteria. Then, they will join him on the field for the ceremony.