Tribute to tradition
Former Hempfield football coach Bill Abraham doesn't cut the wide swath he once did while pacing the Spartans' sideline.
At 78, he is using a cane, and age has taken its toll.
One look into his eyes, however, and it's easy to recognize the fiery competitor that guided Hempfield during its greatest gridiron era.
"Those were the glory days for Hempfield, and I'm hoping and praying that they come back soon," Abraham said. "Good football teams have an effect on the student body and, if the team is good, then the student body seems to be wrapped up in it, and you don't have as many problems."
On Friday, when Hempfield opens its home football schedule with a non-conference game against Shaler, the current team will officially play on Coach William Abraham Field at Spartans Stadium for the first time.
"I was really overwhelmed," Abraham said. "I was really thankful and grateful to a lot of people that did a lot of work to make this happen."
During his lengthy tenure with Hempfield, Abraham set a standard that none has been able to match in the 25 seasons since his departure. He coached the team from 1956-71 and again from 1977-82, compiling a 140-64-6 record that included three undefeated seasons, four one-loss campaigns and an 18-14 loss to Mt. Lebanon in the 1966 WPIAL Class AAA championship game.
He is the only person to coach the Pennsylvania Big 33 all-star team four times, and he was inducted in the Pennsylvania Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1995.
"He had a dynasty that made him one of the grandest coaches in Westmoreland County," Hempfield assistant principal John Wolicki said. "More important than wins and losses are the alumni that are very successful in all walks of life and say, 'I am what I am because of coach,' and he had a very strong commitment and support from those people."
Wolicki, who played on the 1966 team that was undefeated and untied before that postseason loss to Mt. Lebanon, was one of the driving forces behind having the field renamed. He is also in the process of compiling information about the Abraham era at Hempfield
"His place is among the top high school coaches in the country," Wolicki said. "Everywhere he goes, the big-name coaches like Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, they part the waves to come to him, and he doesn't have to go to them."
Abraham was a four-time letter-winner at Pitt from 1946-49 and led the team in rushing his freshman year with 71 carries for 295 yards. In his last two seasons, the Panthers finished 6-3 and capped those campaigns with shutout wins over rival Penn State.
Abraham had opportunities to coach at the collegiate level. He turned down assistant coaching offers from Navy and Purdue. He applied to his alma mater but didn't get the Pitt head coaching job. Instead of the bright lights of the NCAA, he remained at Hempfield until he retired after the 1982 season.
"I think it was because I had so much success here," Abraham said. "When I first got into coaching, I said I was going to go as far as I could go and take the step into college and then the pros, but when I got here and we built the program and started to win a lot of games, everything was just working perfectly."
To commemorate the stadium's new name, a 100-pound plaque donated by one of his former players was mounted on the wall just inside the main gate.
"We just got the plaque put up, and I just thought it would be timely to bring Coach up here and show him the plaque," Wolicki said.
Still, having a plaque on the wall is one thing, but what remains a fantasy for Abraham is taking the Spartans out of the locker room and onto the field one more time.
"That would be the greatest thing in the world, even though I've been out of football for 20 years," Abraham said. "I don't know what the reaction of the kids would be ... and I think I could do it again, but maybe it's just in the mind."
And the hearts of the Hempfield faithful.
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